Thursday, June 26, 2014

Con Air

"Make a move and the bunny gets it!"

It's a rare thing to encounter a film that seems fully aware of how ridiculous it is and therefore revel in it. Con Air is one such film, and I can't help but love it for it. The film has such an array of colorful characters played by such notable actors as Nicholas Cage, John Malkovich, John Cusack, and Steve Buscemi. 

The plot of the film focuses of recent parolee Cameron Poe (played by Nicholas Cage), who was jailed after accidentally killing a guy in a bar fight. He's hitching a ride home to meet up with his wife and daughter. He winds up on a prison plane full of some of the most dangerous criminals ever, including Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom (played by John Malkovich), Diamond Dog (played by Ving Rhames) and Garland Greene (played by Steve Buscemi), a serial killer so notorious even most of the other inmates are afraid of him. Except Cyrus, of course, who tells Greene he loves "his work." 

In no time, said criminals have managed to hijack the plane and it's up to Cameron, along with US Marshall Vince Larkin (played by John Cusack) to retake control of the plane. The film drives two towards two major showdowns, one at an largely abandoned airfield in the desert, where Cyrus and Co. intend to meet up with another plan to take them to a non-extradition treaty country to live out their days. The second is a spectacular emergency landing on the Las Vegas strip. Other moments of absurdity include a classic sports car accidentally becoming airborne before crashing through an Air Traffic Control tower and Malkovich threatening to shoot a plush bunny Cage got for his daughter as a gift (see above).

Con Air is another in a line of 90's action movies where it is clear the guy playing the villain, or guys in this case, are having the most fun. Malkovich in particular is clearly having a ball playing Cyrus, who at one point cheerfully points out his last Psych evaluation showed he was insane. While everyone has their moments, including Cage even though he's saddled with boy scout good guy role, it is clear Malkovich is the one that is going to steal the show, relishing the opportunity to play a character so over the top. 

What I've always liked about this movie is it's tongue in cheek sensibility. It knows it's a ridiculous movie that you're not supposed to take seriously and revels in this fact. It includes such oddball throwaway scenes as all the convicts dancing on the plane to "Sweet Home Alabama", but goes further to have Buscemi's character point out the irony that a bunch of idiots are dancing on an airplane to a song made famous by a band that died in a plane crash. What other movie would include something like this but one that exists in the hyper kinetic world of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, in one of his last true action movie extravaganzas before he permanently sailed off to PG-13 family film land. It's a shame though, because a part of me misses movies like these. 

Monday, June 23, 2014


I can't believe it has been 25 years since Tim Burton's Batman was first released. I still remember the anticipation that summer and it delivered so well, this film has more or less shaped the character's cinematic presence from then on. Even the Christopher Nolan films, especially Batman Begins, can be traced back here.

Tim Burton does a great job creating a memorable outing for the Caped Crusader, taking a chance with casting Michael Keaton in the title role. Initially fans were seriously upset, writing thousands of letters of complaint to Warner Bros, but the bet paid off. On the other hand, Jack Nicholson as The Joker was a sure thing. Backing them up was Kim Basinger as photographer Vicky Vale and Robert Wuhl as reporter Alexander Knox, two characters I always liked but seem to have disappeared from the subsequent films.

I've always loved that this film is content to throw it's audience right into the action, not burdening itself with telling a straight out origin story from the beginning. They trust the audience to have enough knowledge of the character to get what's going on. And if you don't, the film fills you in with the key points as it goes along. Keaton helps with this, creating both Batman and Bruce Wayne as two characters you would not necessarily think were the same person, no small task. The film does however tackle the origins of The Joker, telling the creation of everyone's favorite psychotic clown, with Nicholson hitting just the right note of humor and insanity.

The film is infused with a fantastic film noir sensibility, mixing both contemporary and 1930's sensibilities to create a unique and memorable vision of Gotham City. The film strikes a nice balance, embracing the darker elements of the comics while still keeping some humor to keep the whole film from getting too dark (case in point: Batman Returns). 

Another point for the film is Danny Elfman's incredible score, crafting a theme as memorable and iconic as the one John Williams crafted for Superman eleven years prior. On the other hand, the soundtrack contributions by Prince, well, there's a reason Shaun was perfectly fine with Ed chucking it at a zombie in Shaun of the Dead

Still, it's a minor quibble for a film that became a prototype for the modern comic book films to come, showing that a major action film can be done with style and wit and still come out on top as a massive blockbuster. It's a memorable outing for Batman that's well worth rediscovering.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Look Back at the Friday the 13th Series Part 1

Sometimes I wonder why I continue to be such a fan of the Friday the 13th films to this day. Anymore, I think it's more for nostalgia than anything. I watched them a lot in my early teens because that was when I was first becoming a horror film junkie. To the possible relief of my parents, I blossomed into a full on cinema junkie as I went along. But at that time, there was something about the Horror genre that just captured my imagination. Perhaps it was that I grew up in an incredibly benign Midwest middle class suburb where pretty much nothing ever happened and this allowed me a safe way to explore something dark and dangerous. 

I also related to these types of movies because I was a nerdy misfit in school and was able to relate to the "Final girl" in these films who was in many ways similar to me, whereas the kids I didn't get along with in school represented the ones who were brutally slaughtered in increasingly clever and gruesome ways, allowing a cathartic release in a way that didn't involve opening fire on my classmates. Because in the back of my mind I aligned myself with the clever ones who got away, who defeated the monster in the end. 

Of course, there was always a reputation that there was something forbidden about these films too when I was a kid. Violent, scary horror movies our folks wouldn't let us watch. So, getting to see them finally was a little bit naughty. Of course, in today's age where we have horrific violence all over broadcast television (I'm still in shock that "Hannibal" is on NBC with it's level of gruesome violence) makes these films look almost tame in comparison. Still, at least the first four films can get my pulse going all these years later, so there must still be something to them.

"Jason was my son and today is his birthday."

The original Friday the 13th was released in the summer of 1980. I use the term "original" loosely here, since everyone involved pretty much admitted to shamelessly ripping off John Carpenter's Halloween. Still, the film was competently made and a certainly struck a chord with viewers becoming a box office hit. 

The original film is very basic in his plotting. A group of camp counselors gather at Camp Crystal Lake to get it fixed up to open. Soon enough, they start getting picked off one by one by an unknown killer. Unlike Halloween, which featured very little gore, this one dishes out buckets of blood as each counselor is dispatched in increasingly creative ways, which would go on to being the series calling card over such things as suspense or characterization. One of the signature set pieces was Kevin Bacon's early demise with an arrow through the neck from under the bunk. It's a testament to Tom Savini's makeup wizardry and variations of it have been repeated a few times through the series.

The film is not perfect, with odd plot points such as an unlikely game of strip Monopoly to fill time between killings just never quite worked. Still, the overall whodunit feel to the film is a nice touch, with several red herrings. This has been diluted over the years as the ending has been thoroughly spoiled and is common knowledge that the killer is Pamela Voorhees (played by Betsy Palmer) who is determined to go to any lengths to ensure Camp Crystal Lake remains closed since her son drowned there 22 years prior. 

The film more or less sets up the formula that would be repeated over the remainder of the series. A group of teens or young adults in a secluded location picked off by a killer, usually Jason, until one or two remain for the final chase at the end. This one ends with a bit more novel ending, with final girl Alice (played by Adrienne King) decapitating Pamela with a machete. 

The film ends with Alice out in the middle of Crystal Lake in a canoe when Jason bursts out of the water and pulls her under. It's a shocking moment if you don't know it was coming. It is also one that inadvertently set up a seemingly unending series of sequels with Jason as the villain.

"I warned the others. They didn't listen. You're doomed. You're all doomed."

Friday the 13th Part 2 takes place at a Counselor training center on the same Crystal Lake. Because the ideal location for such a center would be where several camp counselors have already been horribly murdered. Makes perfect sense.

Don't get me wrong, in many ways I feel like Part 2 is a stronger film than the original. This is especially true with our final girl, Ginny Field (played by Amy Steel). She remains my favorite of the Friday the 13th heroines, keeping her head when facing off against the rampaging Jason, even going so far as almost managing to outsmart him.

The plot of the film picks up five years after the events of the first film as a new group of teens convene at the lake for Camp Counselor Training. The group is headed up by Paul (played by John Furey), with Ginny as his second in command. We're introduced to our cannon fodder, er, I mean our other counselors by way of archetype (the prankster, the horn dog, the sympathetic one, the token black guy (who actually lives!) etc.) setting up the formula that would be reused for the next couple films. 

It's not long before people start dropping dead by the hands of Jason, who it turns out did not drown after all and has been living as a crazed hermit in the woods. Of course, this doesn't make a lick of sense when you think about it but whatever. Several of the death scenes got severely cut by the MPAA, including the infamous double implalement of two characters in bed, but curiously there is a picture of the uncut scene on the back of several VHS cases for the film.

As the new crop of counselors are picked off one by one, we eventually find ourselves with only Paul and Ginny remaining with the remaining counselors either dead or away from the camp for a night of partying. What follows is great cat and mouse chase between Jason and Ginny throughout the camp. Ginny gives a good fight against him using everything at her disposal, including her wits. Finally, they wind up at Jason's shack in the woods for the final showdown. Here Ginny tries something incredibly bold, pretending to be Jason's resurrected mother. Surprisingly, it almost works, until she moves to strike, revealing his Mother's decapiated head on the shrine behind her. Still, with an assist from Paul, she is able to take down Jason, until the next sequel that is.

"No, you can't be alive!"

After Part 2 was an even bigger hit than the first film, it was quickly decided to make Friday the 13th Part 3. The filmmakers were looking for way to make this new entry stand out from the previous two. It was not long before shooting the film in 3D was suggested by Paramount studio heads, wanting to try out a new 3D system. The results would be one of the better shot genre 3D films made. Unfortunately, without the 3D effects, the film is a bit flat (no pun intended) with a cookie cutter plot repeating a lot of the last two films. 

Part 3 includes such an odd bunch of characters, I have trouble believing they are all friends. We have Chris (played by Dana Kimmel), our final girl for the film who was previously assaulted by Jason and survived. There is also shy Shelly (played by Larry Zerner), who plays pranks for attention, two stoners Chuck and Chili (played by David Katims and Rachel Howard) who seem like refugees from a Cheech and Chong film, Debbie and Andy (played by Tracie Savage and Jeffrey Rogers), Vera (played by Catherine Parks) and Chris' love interest Rick (played by Paul Kratka). They are all gathered at Chris' family cabin for a weekend of fun, unaware a masked maniac is on the loose. There is also a biker gang that Shelly and Vera run afoul of to add to the body count of people felled by Jason.

The main attraction of the film is the use of the 3D effect, with plenty of objects jutting out of the screen, starting with TV antennas, baseball bats, yoyos, and later on pitchforks, spearguns and a red hot fireplace poker. Unlike some films of the era, such as Jaws 3D, the film still works in the 2D format. The effect though is largely well executed and retains the reputation as one of the best shot 3D films ever. The film is also notable for being the first film to feature Jason in his iconic hockey mask, acquired from Shelly, which would be a series trademark from here on out.

Now, if only the plot wasn't so determined to go through the motions with Jason working his way through another group of young adults. The final chase between Chris and Jason is suitably thrilling though, ending with Chris planting an ax square in Jason's head. Originally, the thought was this would be the concluding chapter of a trilogy of films, but the producers decided on another film to finish the series on a high note (yeah, right).

"You son of a bitch! I'll give you something to remember us by."

As it turns out, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter is a bit of a misnomer, since it was followed by another six films. But at the time, it really was designed to be the last one and part of me wishes they had held to that because this is one helluva ride.

The Final Chapter picks up right where Part 3 leaves off, with emergency crews clearing the scene of carnage and collecting Jason where we left him in the barn. He's wheeled into the hospital morgue, where he is handled by a sleazy morgue attendant. Soon enough, Jason has come to once again and makes his way back to Camp Crystal Lake. 

Once back, he sets his sights on another house full of teenagers, including a young Crispin Glover who performs a dance so strange it has to be seen to be believed. There is also the neighboring house occupied by a single mother, Mrs. Jarvis (played by Joan Freeman) and her two children, Trish (played by Kimberly Beck) and Tommy (played by Corey Feldman). Also lurking about is Rob Dyer (played by E. Erich Anderson), who has come to Crystal Lake to avenge the death of his sister and put Jason down for good.

It was clear more effort was put into this entry since the plan was this would be the last one. They had a better cast of actors, who each have a fully fleshed out character rather than an archetype, so you feel a pang of sadness. They also brought back Tom Savini to do the special effects and his involvement also raises the bar over the previous sequels. 

The film in competently directed by Joseph Zito with a climax that to this day can still get my heart rate up. As the cast gets pared down to just Rob, Trish and Tommy, things start getting increasingly more and more intense. Originally designed as the final film in the series, the film pulls out all the stops to be the most memorable film, especially in the sense of Jason's eventual demise. Still, this one wound up being a bonafide box office smash as well, leading them to make yet another sequel...