Sunday, February 22, 2015

2015 Oscar Predictions

A few people have been asking me what my predictions are for the Oscars this year. I haven't seen all the nominated films (not even close!) so my answers will be biased towards the ones I have seen. So, with that in mind, here are my picks...

Best Picture: 

American Sniper
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

Who will win: Boyhood

Boyhood is a movie that captures the experience of growing up perhaps better than any other film I have ever seen. It is a fantastic, one of a kind experience that is beautifully acted and well directed. It should win and I think it will.

Best Director:

Alejandro Inarritu for Birdman
Richard Linklater for Boyhood
Bennett Miller for Foxcatcher
Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel
Morten Tyldum for The Imitation Game

Who will win: Richard Linklater

Richard Linklater has been a filmmaker I have admired for a long time now. He crafts such great films and Boyhood, a film he shot over the course of 12 years, just may be his masterpiece. 

Best Actor:

Steve Carell for Foxcatcher
Bradley Cooper for American Sniper
Benedict Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game
Michael Keaton for Birdman
Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything

Who will win: Eddie Redmayne

This is such a tough category to call this year since everyone was so good, but it really comes down to either Keaton or Redmayne. Both gave amazing performances but I think Redmayne has the slight edge because he really captured Stephen Hawking to an uncanny degree and because the Academy loves their biopics. But I could be wrong and it could go to Michael Keaton just as easily. It's just too close to call.

Best Actress:

Marion Cotillard for Two Days, One Night
Felicity Jones for The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore for Still Alice
Rosamund Pike for Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon for Wild

Who will win: Julianne Moore

She seems to be the odds on favorite in this category. I haven't seen Still Alice yet, so I can't comment further. For an upset, I'd love to see Rosamund Pike win for her performance in Gone Girl which just blew me away.

Best Supporting Actor:

Robert Duvall for The Judge
Ethan Hawke for Boyhood
Edward Norton for Birdman
Mark Ruffalo for Foxcatcher
J.K Simmons for Whiplash

Who will win: J.K Simmons 

It's pretty much a sure thing that J.K Simmons will win for his role as a highly demanding, verbally abusive music instructor. It's an intense, incredible perfomance from a very talented actor and well deserved.

Best Supporting Actress:

Patricia Arquette for Boyhood
Laura Dern for Wild
Keira Knightley for The Imitation Game
Emma Stone for Birdman
Meryl Streep for Into the Woods

Who will win: Patricia Arquette

This one is also a sure thing. All the performances in the film were top notch, but Arquette's performance as a single mother trying to raise two kids fantastic, earnest and moving performance. The fact that she did it consistently over the course of twelve years makes it even more impressive to me. 

Best Original Screenplay:

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Who will win: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Since it most likely won't win Best Picture or Best Director, I'd love to see Wes Anderson pick up an Oscar for the Screenplay at least. I've been a big fan of his ever since I first saw Rushmore way back in 1998 and Grand Budapest may be his best one yet. Told with a unique style and wit, I found this film to be thoroughly amusing and original from beginning to end.

Best Adapted Screenplay

American Sniper
The Imitation Game
Inherent Vice
The Theory of Everything

Who will win: The Imitation Game

Like Best Original Screenplay, this too will wind up being a bit of a consolation prize. Still, it's a deserved award as it presents the life of Alan Turing from his work cracking the Enigma code and helping win World War II to his later life being persecuted for being a homosexual is balanced and told very well with the basis being the screenplay the film is based on.

Best Animated Feature:

Big Hero 6
The Boxtrolls
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Song of the Sea
The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Who will win: How to Train Your Dragon 2

I would love to see Big Hero 6 win, but it's pretty much guaranteed it will be How to Train Your Dragon 2. The Lego Movie really should be the winner here and why it was never even nominated will forever irritate me. 

Best Cinematography:

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Mr. Turner

Who will win: Birdman

Any other year, The Grand Budapest Hotel would have nabbed this one, but I think it's going to go to Birdman this year as it should. 

Best Film Editing: 

American Sniper
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game

Who will win: Boyhood

Crafting what amounts to twelve years of story told in a largely episodic nature is no enviable task. The fact that Boyhood flows so easily from one scene to the next is all the more impressive. This is the one that should win, no question about it.

Best Production Design:

The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Into the Woods
Mr. Turner

Who will win: The Grand Budapest Hotel

The films of Wes Anderson have a unique look and style all their own and the candy colored confection that is The Grand Budapest Hotel ranks right up there with the best of them. While the others are worthy nominees, I think this one will win because it just brings us something we've never quite seen before. 

Best Costume Design:

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Inherent Vice
Into the Woods
Mr. Turner

Who will win: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Much for the same reasons as stated above, I think this one will win for Best Costume Design simply because it is something new, interesting and memorable that we have not seen before.

Best Original Score:

The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Mr. Turner
The Theory of Everything

Who will win: Interstellar

I'm going against the predictions on this one because I really feel composer Hans Zimmer reinvented himself with this score that uses unconventional instruments for crafting the film score including, among others, a church pipe organ. It's used to fantastic effect in a film that all around really knocked my socks off.

Best Visual Effects:

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 
Guardians of the Galaxy
X-Men: Days of Future Past

Who will win: Interstellar

The visual effects of this film is another in a long list of things that really impressed me about this film. Not only are the effects astounding and convincing, they're beautiful.

Best Makeup & Hairstyling

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Guardians of the Galaxy

Who will win: The Grand Budapest Hotel

The fact that they managed to make Tilda Swinton look so convincingly like a much older woman while still looking recognizably like Tilda Swinton is an accomplishment in itself.

And there are my picks for the 2015 Oscars. Will I be right? There's only one way to find out...

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service

After a month of pretty poor cinema offerings, along comes the first genuinely entertaining film of 2015, Kingsman: The Secret Service. A sleek, stylish, hyperactive, violent and frequently very funny throwback to the heyday of the James Bond films when they didn't take themselves quite so seriously. 

The film stars Colin Firth as Harry Hart, a senior agent with a secret agency called the Kingsman. As the film begins, his life is saved by another agent, who dies in the process. He calls on the fallen agent's wife and young son, promising a favor to them if it is ever needed in reward for the agent's valor and service. Seventeen years later, Eggsy (played by Taron Egerton), the young son all grown up calls in that favor when he gets arrested for car theft. To his surprise, it works when he is let go and meets Harry. 

Harry sees a lot of potential in the kid, despite his rough past that includes car theft, drugs and assorted other criminal elements. He offers the boy the chance to become a candidate to join the Kingsman agency. Eggsy enthusiastically accepts but finds many there consider him unlikely to succeed, with many of the other candidates looking down on him for his lower class background. Much to their surprise though, Eggsy perseveres and  surpasses the others, surviving far longer than any anticipated, except perhaps Harry.

Meanwhile, billionaire Valentine (played by Samuel L. Jackson) is cooking up a scheme to throw the world in to chaos in an effort to cull the human population down in size significantly, convinced that the human population is killing the planet. At his side is Gazelle (played by Sofia Boutella), a double amputee with prosthetic legs with long, sharp blades that come out when she kicks. 

As training comes to end, Valentine's threat becomes more and more real as Valentine has gotten all the world leaders as well as many other government agencies and influential people on board to his scheme. Not knowing who they can trust, it falls to Harry, Eggsy, another recruit Roxy (played by Sophie Cookson), and the Kingsman equivalent of Q codenamed Merlin (played by Mark Strong) to defeat Valentine and save the world. 

Kingsman: The Secret Service is a fantastic piece of action entertainment with it's tongue firmly planted in it's cheek. It is a hyperviolent throwback to the classic Bond movies. It has Colin Firth playing against type as the suave secret agent. It's such a surprise to see Firth, who made a career playing romantic lead roles, breakout into a huge fight, taking on several people at once. It's a revelation and could refresh his career much like Taken did for Liam Neeson. Samuel L Jackson clearly having a ball as the Bond villain type, speaking with a lisp, who can't stand the sight of blood. Gazelle is a badass woman in the vein of classic Bond henchmen such as Oddjob or Jaws.  Mark Strong is great a Merlin and it's nice to see him playing someone other than the villain for a change. 

I have now seen this film twice in two weeks and both times I had an absolute ball. The film is a fantastic throwback to the old spy movies, when they didn't take themselves quite so seriously. It's a wild ride with plenty of humor (even though some of it may be a bit risque to some) and thrills makes it a whole lot of outrageous fun. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

John Hughes Week: Pretty in Pink

And then there was Pretty in Pink. This film marks the third and last collaboration between Writer/Producer John Hughes and star Molly Ringwald in a film directed by frequent Hughes collaborator Howard Deutch. 

Andie (played by Molly Ringwald) is a girl from the wrong side of tracks living with her out of work father (played by Harry Dean Stanton). Her best friend is Duckie (played by Jon Cryer), who carries a torch for her and she pretends not to notice because she doesn't feel the same way. She works at the local record store managed by Iona (played by Annie Potts), a woman going through some sort of identity crisis since she is rocking an entirely different look everytime we see her.

Andie catches the eye of Blaine (played by Andrew McCarthy), who hails from the affluent side of town. The two go out and seem to hot if off, despite the best efforts of Blaine's snobby, slimeball friend, Steff (played by James Spader). Steff doesn't want Blaine to date her because he knows Andie sees through him even if Blaine doesn't. Andie and Blaine try to make a go if it despite the friction they receive from Blaine's friends and from a very hurt Duckie, but can they make it work?

Pretty in Pink is one of the more serious efforts from John Hughes, creating real characters with real problems and the actors rise to the challenge. There is still humor in the film, but it's more grounded than some of Hughes' other films bringing it more in line with The Breakfast Club than Ferris Bueller or Sixteen Candles. Ringwald is fantastic as Andie, creating a fully fleshed out character who is much of the time more of an adult than her sad-sack father. Jon Cryer damn near steals the show as Duckie, one of the more colorful characters to populate a teen film and in lesser hands could have been annoying. His most famous scene is a dancing lip sync he does through the record store to Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" that remains an impressive, show stopping treat. Andrew McCarthy rounds out the trio as the charming, if somewhat insecure, Blaine. I also have to give special mention to Annie Potts as Iona, Andie's boss at the Record shop she works at. She provides much of the humor of the film and is a real original character. Every time we see her, she's trying out a new look until finally she finds the right one at the end. At the same time, she's a great friend to Andie offering advice when she can.

Over the years, this film has sparked some serious debate over who Andie should have chosen in the end. The film had two endings, one where Andie ended up with Duckie and one where she ended up with Blaine. There is an entire group of people who insist that she should have ended up with Duckie, as it was originally scripted while others concede she was better of with Blaine. I begrudgingly concede she was right to pick Blaine, but then again, I'm biased. I kinda was like Duckie in High School (although not as adventurous fashion-wise) and my best friend was a girl who even today I see a lot of in the character of Andie, maybe even more now than it was then, like some sort of bizarro self-fulfilling prophecy. I love her with all my heart, but it's a platonic sister I never had kind of love and that's what I see between Duckie and Andie. Duckie may just be too confused to see it at that point in time, but I think when it came down to it he would've figured it out in the end.    

Nonetheless, Pretty in Pink has a worthy place in the pantheon of Hughes films, anchored by fantastically drawn characters and great performances and is a film that continues to live on with it's many fans, who I count myself among (probably because I related to it so much). People continue to look back on it with a great deal of fondness even today, including Cryer himself, who this past fall dressed up as Duckie for Halloween on his sitcom, Two and a Half Men, to much meta infused laughs.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

John Hughes Week: Planes, Trains and Automobiles

When I said before I felt a pang of guilt admitting that Ferris Bueller's Day Off was my favorite John Hughes film, this was the other film I thought of. With two stars giving arguably the best performances of their careers, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is Hughes at his best, moving effortlessly from hysterically funny to genuinely heartwarming with ease.

Neal Page (played by Steve Martin) is an Chicago advertising executive in New York for a business trip a few days before Thanksgiving. His attempt to get home in time for the holiday is hampered at every turn by disaster. Along the way he keeps being thrown together with another traveler, Del Griffith (played by John Candy), a shower curtain ring salesman. 

Neal can't seem to catch a break on this trip from hell as first his flight is delayed then diverted to Kansas due to a blizzard in Chicago. Soon, Neal and Del partner up with one quest in mind, get back to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving Dinner. They work their way from train, bus and rental car as they try in vain to get home any way possible. 

The key to the film is the mix of two alternate personalities, the high strung Neal and laid back Del, and watch the two play off each other. Then you cast two dynamite actors to play the roles. This is perfectly demonstrated in a scene in the hotel room the two are forced to share when Neal snaps and rants to Del about all the things he does that annoys him. Hughes cuts from Neal to Del and you can clearly see Del is hurt. Del only wants to make new friend, but has gone too far. But, then they go a step further as Del stands up for himself to Neal before heading back to bed. Neal, feeling terrible, joins him. The film then wisely goes for a hearty laugh as the two men awake the following morning to find themselves spooning one another.

The heart of the film is with how Del and Neal are written as characters. Del is a lovable, empathetic man who only wants to help. Neal on the other hand wants to be self reliant, trying several times to separate from Del until before finally accepting that their fates are intertwined for better or worse. Neal grows a lot over the course of the film, from a high strung, immaculate and closed off individual, becoming more open and perhaps not relaxed given the high stress situations, but more willing to go with the flow. The two start off their journey as complete strangers but finish it as friends. The heart of the film is the journey of these two mismatched strangers, with both big laughs and real poignancy behind it.

There are several memorable comedic moments in the film. There's the scene when Neal unloading all his frustrations on an obnoxious rental car clerk (played by Edie McClurg), who kept him waiting in line while she explains to her family on the phone about mini marshmallows for the Ambrosia. Neal had been left in a rental car parking lot only to discover his rental car had been stolen and had to walk back to the airport across not only a freeway but also a runway and he's had enough. He unloads a spectacular verbal tirade that includes every possible use of the F-word to punctuate his anger in a scene that is the sole reason the film has an R rating. There's also a near crash between Del and Neal's car with two semi's that ends with it revealing Neal left imprints in the dash with his fingers from gripping to so tight and Del bent the steering wheel. 

For me though, it's the poignant moments that ring true and stick with me the most. The aforementioned moment in the hotel room the first night which parallels nicely with the night they spend in a hotel on the last leg of their journey, sharing late night drinks and snack chips joking over their incinerated rental car and wondering if a mini bottle of tequila would pair well with Doritos ("Probably not," replies Del). Neal quips that he feels like he's at Summer camp, showing how much their friendship has grown in such a short amount of time. 

Both Steve Martin and John Candy over the years stated this was their favorite film of the ones they had done and it is easy to see why. The film moves at a breezy hour and a half as the two characters deal with one calamity after another only wanting to get home. In the process, they create two characters that are easy to love. It's one of my all time favorite films of Writer/Director John Hughes and one I watch at least once a year, usually around Thanksgiving. I know I'm not the only one either. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

John Hughes Week: Ferris Bueller's Day Off

It's so hard for me to decide which of John Hughes' films is my favorite. I'm tempted to say it is Ferris Bueller's Day Off, but then I feel a pang of guilt when I think of others that I have the same level of affection for. But at the same time I have to concede in the end it is indeed my favorite, based solely on the fact that it is the one I've seen the most to the point I still have the entire movie memorized. It's not hard to see why as this is easily one of the most effortlessly charming comedies I have ever seen.

Ferris Bueller (played by Matthew Broderick) decides one spring morning that he can't possibly handle school and decides to play sick. He parents easily fall for his shtick, but his sister Jeannie (played by Jennifer Grey) doesn't buy it for a second. After his parents and sister depart for work and school respectively, Ferris sets about recruiting his best friend Cameron (played by Alan Ruck) to help him get Sloane (played by Mia Sara) out of school. In the process they borrow (without permission) Cameron's dad's priceless Ferrari. They con the Assistant Principal, Edward Rooney (played by Jeffrey Jones), into dismissing her from class and the three head off to downtown Chicago for some fun. 

Meanwhile, both Rooney and Jeannie suspect Ferris isn't really sick and independent of each other are determined to prove that they are right. The antics of these two, especially the series of misfortunes visited upon Rooney as he sneaks around the exterior and interior of the Bueller house makes an amusing contrast to the amazing day Ferris, Cameron and Sloane are having. And of course, when these two characters meet, it leads to one of the funniest confrontations I've ever seen as Jeannie mistakes Rooney for an intruder, kicks him in the face three times and then hightails it upstairs before he's even hit the floor.

The emotional backbone of the film though is with the character of Cameron. When we first see him on screen, he's lying in bed, convinced he's sick. His house is very dark and feels very cold. His parents are non-existent with an absent mother and a father who clearly loves his classic cars more than his family. There is a very potent scene that illustrates this when the three friends visit the Chicago Museum of Art and Cameron stares transfixed on one painting. The camera cuts between Cameron and one kid in the painting each time cutting closer and closer to the kid's face and at the same time showing less and less detail. This is a clever use of visual imagery to show how Cameron is feeling, that the closer you look, the less he feels there is to him. The antics Ferris gets up to over the course of the day are clearly meant to try to cheer up Cameron a little, show him a good time and maybe improve his confidence a little. 

John Hughes crafted a certified comedy classic here that delivers in a large part because he has the perfect star in Matthew Broderick, who embodies Ferris with so much charm and wit. This is important because the character of Ferris frequently breaks the forth wall to address the audience throughout the film. It's a technique that can either work well or fail spectacularly, but it works here quite well. Alan Ruck and Mia Sara do great as Cameron and Sloane as well and you buy in easily that these three are close friends. Jeffrey Jones makes the perfect smary foil for Ferris as Rooney, with his dingbat, White-Out sniffing secretary Grace (played perfectly by Edie McClurg) as the perfect sidekick. 

I've always loved this movie ever since I first saw it as a young kid. While I was never as daring as Ferris was driving off to the city for a day of adventure, I did cut class a time or two. Whether or not my parents really fell for it is another question since they had seen the film too, that's another question. But in the end, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, is probably Hughes' best film. It's certainly one of his funniest, warmest and most consistently entertaining ones. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

John Hughes Week: Weird Science

I think the reason I have always enjoyed Weird Science is because it really is, well, weird. I don't think I have seen another movie that has so freely embraced the idea of anything can happen. I really mean it when I say that too. John Hughes wrote and directed this film and takes an excursion directly into full fledged fantasy. 

The film focuses on two teenage boys, Gary (played by Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt (played by Ilan Mitchell-Smith). They two are spending the weekend at Wyatt's house while his parents are out of town and are being chaperoned by Wyatt's obnoxious older brother, Chet (played by Bill Paxton). Both painfully single, they clearly are close friends and spend a lot of time together. There's a certain dynamic between the two that reminded me a lot of friendships I've had in the past. 

One night, Gary proposes the idea of creating a girl simulation on Wyatt's computer. Their work on this escalates quickly as they are hacking into other computers to access more processing power until going into full on ceremony including candles, a Barbie doll and ceremonial bras worn on their heads. Their work conjures up their idea of a dream girl who they name Lisa (played by Kelly LeBrock). She is a magical being who acts as a sort of fairy godmother to the two boys to try and build their self confidence, while helping them gain a couple girlfriends in the process. 

When I look over the films of John Hughes, either his adult oriented fare or his teen driven films, this one has always stood out to me as a bit of an odd duck. It really is an oddball film, but in a completely charming way. The film skirts the risque at times with Lisa being seen as the ideal woman by Gary and Wyatt, but Hughes keeps it sweet and innocent because both boys are almost completely incapable of talking to a girl. Once they have one, they have no idea what to do with her. However, Lisa is forever a step ahead of the two helping them to grow and appear cooler to their other classmates achieved mainly by throwing a massive house party that may just rival the one from Sixteen Candles, but only because it is invaded by a mutant biker gang. 

While Hughes' previous film The Breakfast Club dealt with the realities of growing up, this one is content to revel in the fantasies of the teenage male. Over the course of one weekend, Gary and Wyatt gain some self respect, some cool points, learn how to talk to girls, drive a couple sports cars, make peace with a couple bullies that torment them (played by Robert Downey Jr and Robert Rusler) and dish out some comeuppance to their obnoxious brother. What teenage boy wouldn't love that? 

I've always loved Weird Science. It's such an off the wall film that never feels burdened with explaining where Lisa comes from or how she got her powers. She just is and insists that Gary and Wyatt created her. It plays fast and loose with the rules of it's universe, content with a mantra of anything can and will happen, which makes for plenty of amusing surprises. While some aspects of the film are a bit dated (Wyatt's computer being a big one), it's still a thoroughly charming and very funny film if you're willing to go with it and maybe not think about it too hard.

There have been persistent rumors that Universal wants to remake the film which is something that I hope never happens. The film has a certain charm to it that I doubt could ever really be re-captured and as such I really hope they leave it alone. Of course, I have the same hopes for all of Hughes' films.  

John Hughes Week: Sixteen Candles

I've always had a soft spot for the film Sixteen Candles. It was the directorial debut of John Hughes, telling the story of a sixteen year old girl whose entire family forgets her sixteenth birthday. Unlike the more dramatic and honest The Breakfast Club, this film is a screwball comedy that is just straight up fun, but with a lot of heart to it as well.

Samantha Baker (played by Molly Ringwald) awakes on her sixteenth birthday, which also happens to be the eve of her sister Ginny's wedding, to discover that her entire family has completely forgotten her birthday. She is shocked even both sets of her Grandparents have forgotten as well as everyone is focused on Bridezilla Ginny (played by Blanche Baker). 

She sulks off to school where she faces both a horn dog geek going by the name Farmer Ted (played by Anthony Michael Hall) and her crush Jake Ryan (played by Michael Schoeffling), who unbeknownst to her is crushing on her right back. In an effort to avoid both her family and the weird Chinese exchange student Long Duk Dong (played by Gedde Watanabe) staying with her grandparents, she decides to head off to the school dance. Forced to take Long Duk Dong with her, Samantha finds herself face to face with both Jake Ryan and Farmer Ted. Needless to say, neither encounter goes well, although Samantha and Ted have a nice chat after she flees his more misguided attempt to woo her. Realizing he has not shot, Ted more or less backs off and the two part as friends. Ted more or less even finds himself as an unlikey Cupid of sorts, bringing Jake and Samantha together through his encounters between the two. 

With a cast full of colorful characters and plenty of genuinely funny moments throughout makes for a memorable teen comedy. A significant portion of the film takes place at one of the most over the top house party ragers I've ever seen, thrown by Jake's spoiled brat of a girlfriend, Caroline (played by Haviland Morris) at Jake's Parent's house. The party itself seems to have all sorts there, including Ted, his two friends Bryce and Cliff (played by John Cusack and Darren Harris), Long Duk Dong and a girl he picked up at the dance. 

Some of the humor of the film may skirt political incorrectness at times, especially with the character of Long Duk Dong almost coming off as a racist caricature. But at the same time, the film almost seems to subvert that once Long gets to the party and finds his own place, becoming a wild party animal. The other part that some may cringe at a bit is Jake sending his drunken girlfriend home with Ted, in his father's Rolls Royce no less, with at least some insinuation that Ted took advantage of the situation. 

Still, despite the more dated aspects of the film, Sixteen Candles remains one of the more consistently funny teen comedies. It remains one of my favorites in part because it doesn't play it safe. It's fearless in the way it skirts controversy, before pulling back to end with the sweet and endearing. I've seen it countless times and it's always been one I've relied on to make me laugh.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

John Hughes Week: The Breakfast Club

It's hard to believe a film with such a simple set up, five teens stuck in Saturday detention, could have such a lasting impact. Developing five complex, rich characters, writer/director John Hughes captured something that remains incredibly relatable even for teens today. Celebrating it's 30th anniversary today, there is a certain timelessness to the film. 

At the start of a normal Midwestern Saturday, five teenagers meet in their High School library for day long detention. They consist of Andrew (played by Emilio Estevez), a Wrestling team jock, Claire (played by Molly Ringwald), a popular girl, Brian (played by Anthony Michael Hall), a science and math geek, Allison (played by Ally Sheedy), a school misfit, and Bender (played by Judd Nelson), a juvenile delinquent. They start the day with their defenses up and are very guarded towards one another, especially Bender who relishes antagonizing the others. Slowly, they lower their defenses and start talking to one another. They find that despite their different backgrounds, they have more in common than not. 

Watching over the five teens is Principal Richard Vernon (played by Paul Gleason) who thinks a stern hand will help these kids, but just comes off as another hostile force in their lives, especially for Bender as he reveals his home life is exceedingly abusive. Vernon thinks he's helping these kids even when deep down he admits he just doesn't understand them.

The reason why The Breakfast Club continues to persevere is because Hughes was able to tap into something honest. Any teen watching this film would be able to relate to one or more characters in the film. He also softens some of the harsher parts of the film with scenes of comedy that should clash with the dramatic moments but yet somehow doesn't. 

I first saw this film when I started high school all the way back in 1995 and related to it in a big way. It led me to seek out the other films of John Hughes, which I have come to love just as much as this one. The films he made had a lot of heart to them. Not saccharine sentimentality, but real heart and that's something that really endeared them to me. There could be moments of hysterical comedy intermingling with moments of heartrending drama and it flowed seamlessly from one to the other. 

When I heard John Hughes passed away on August 6th, 2009, I actually cried. There were two things that got me through High School: my friends and the films of John Hughes. He captured something that was relatable to me, reassuring even. I didn't feel so alone in the feelings I had growing up. I'm glad to see these films continue to live on for future generations to watch and enjoy as much as I do.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Picnic at Hanging Rock

"Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?"

I was first introduced to the film Picnic at Hanging Rock through my mother, who had found it on TV one day. As we watched it together, there was something about it that stuck with me for days after it. It has a certain haunting quality that one wouldn't expect from a film with such a benign title, but it took me a while to shake it. I've found it still has the same effect each time I've revisited it as well.

The premise is rather straight forward. A group of young women go on a picnic, along with one of their teachers Miss McCraw (played by Vivian Gray), to a natural geographic formation known as Hanging Rock on Feburary 14th, 1900. At the picnic, four of the girls, Miranda (played by Anne-Louise Lambert), Marion (played by Jane Vallis), Irma (played by Karen Robson) and Edith (played by Christine Schuler) start exploring Hanging Rock. They are observed by a young Englishman, Michael (played by Dominic Guard) and his valet Albert (played by John Jarratt) as the group ascends up the formation. Three of the girls, Miranda, Marion, and Irma, as well as Miss McCraw (who went up to collect them) vanish without a trace while Edith descends back down the formation, screaming. 

Numerous searches are launched, but no trace of the girls or the teacher is found. The Headmistress Mrs. Appleyard finds herself with the unenviable task of keeping order among the remaining girls while dealing with the fact that several parents are removing their daughters from the school after hearing of the events at Hanging Rock. The loss of those tuition dollars may mean the school will not be able to remain open. The police question the people that were there, but there are no clues or leads to be found. The girls simply vanished.

Meanwhile, Michael has a growing obsession with finding out what happened to them and admits to having nightmares about them. He finally decides to return to Hanging Rock to search himself, accompanied by Albert. What Michael finds after spending the night there shakes him to his very core. 

What makes this film so compelling to me is that there is no real resolution to the story. We never get a straightforward explanation as to what happened to the girls. There are enough clues and hints sprinkled through the film for the audience to draw their own conclusions and let their own imaginations fill in the missing pieces. It's strongly implied that there is a supernatural cause behind it for sure, but what exactly is for the audience to decide. So, depending on how active one's imagination is, what you take from seeing it could be very different from someone else's. 

But the film is not so much about the solution to the mystery as how does one move on after encountering an event that they will likely never know the entire truth of. It focuses on each of the people who walked away from that event as well as the public itself. How do they process it? Who is to blame? The teachers? The headmistress? And how do they move on knowing only that they will never know? For me, that makes the film all the more intriguing than getting a concrete solution and also all the more haunting too. 

Picnic at Hanging Rock is available on an impressive Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection and also available to view on their channel on Hulu Plus.

Friday, February 13, 2015

A Look Back at the Friday the 13th Series, Part 2

I started taking a look back at a film series that I first saw back when I was a teenager in the mid-90's, the seemingly never ending Friday the 13th saga. Initially drawn to it largely because it was taboo, over time the flaws have become more apparent as I've grown, but I still enjoy at least some of the entries with more than a little nostalgia. And now, picking up where I left off with the first post , I continue my look back at the series. 

After The Final Chapter was another box office hit, producers decided to proceed with another outing. Unfortunately, the most clever thing about the film was the title: Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning. Easily the sleaziest entry in the series and populated by so many unsavory characters, you can't help but root for the killer most of the time.

This film catches up with Tommy Jarvis (played this time by John Shepherd because Corey Feldman moved on to brighter pastures with The Goonies, although he makes a brief cameo in the beginning) being transferred to a halfway house for troubled teens. It's not long before the teens start getting hacked to pieces (it's literally the same afternoon). But with Jason dead and apparently cremated, who's doing the killing? This one returns to the whodunit nature of the original film, keeping the audience wondering who inherited the Hockey mask.

The problem is the way the film is structured. With a whopping 22 victim body count, the entire film is structured not unlike a porno with characters are set up with a minimum of details and then the money shot, in this case they're brutally murdered. To it's credit, they're at least creative, with such unlikely implements as hedge clippers or fellating a road flare. 

Still, as I said before, this film seems so much sleazier than the others with a general mysoginistic feeling towards most of the female characters. I wasn't surprised when I found out the director Danny Steinman got his start directing porn. 

The film isn't all terrible though. John Shepard does well as Tommy, showing how tormented he is, suffering from intense Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There is also Reggie (played by Shavar Ross), a sassy young boy living at the Halfway house with his grandfather, the house cook. Reggie gives the film a nice dose of humor and is probably one of the only endearing characters in this mess. The last part of our final trio is Melanie Kinnaman as the Halfway House's Assistant director, Pam. She fills the role well as our typical final girl, and gives her a nice Mother lion aspect with Reggie as well when they are left to deal with Pseudo-Jason. 

It's not enough to redeem the film though and for me Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning is one of the lowest points in the series, with poor plotting, poorer direction, and too large a focus on the death sequences. Without characters we care about, the death scenes mean nothing and the film fails to be scary. When I rewatch the series, I usually skip over this one and proceed directly to the vastly superior Part VI

"So, what were you going to be when you grew up?

Just when the series looked to be running out of gas, along came Tom McLoughlin to save the day. He was hired to write and direct the sixth entry and given only one directive, Jason had to be resurrected. Creating an entertaining concoction of humor and horror, we got Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI. It's easily one of the best in the series and a personal favorite.

The film opens with Tommy Jarvis (played this time by Thom Matthews) driving one stormy night to the Crystal Lake cemetary with Horschack from "Welcome Back Kotter" because, really why not? (Ron Palillo, who actually plays Tommy's friend Hawes.) Tommy intends to dig up Jason and cremate him. However, when he see's Jason's body, he freaks out a grabs a broken wrought iron fence post and repeatedly stabs him with it. A bolt of lightning then hits the post and once again Jason is resurrected, more powerful than ever.

Trying to fix his mistake, Tommy tries to get the assistance of the local law enforcement, consisting of Sheriff Garris (played by David Kagan) and a couple nitwit deputies. Tommy also catches the eyes of Megan (played by Jennifer Cooke), the Sherrif's daughter and one of the counselors at the newly re-opened camp. She agrees to help Tommy despite her father's objections, thinking Tommy is dangerous and delusional. This also marks the only time in the series that the camp has been open with actual kids there. This is an appropriately cynical, sarcastic and quick witted crew of kids too, providing such self aware bon mots as the one quoted above.

While this outing has the same hack and slash mayhem as before, it's done with a certain amount of tongue in cheek humor, with one of the characters even staring right in the camera and saying, "Some folks have a strange idea of entertainment." Pre-dating Scream by a good decade, the liberal dose of meta humor sprinkled through out the film along with a dose of gothic horror helps set it apart from the ones that come before and after. With soundtrack contributions from Alice Cooper, Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI may just be the best of the bunch, as hard as that is to believe.

Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood introduces a new worthy adversary for Jason in the form of telekinetic teen Tina (played by Lar Park Lincoln) Originally, Paramount had started trying to get a Freddy vs. Jason film off the ground at the time but New Line, which owned the Freddy Krueger franchise, declined because they were doing just fine on their own thank you very much. Thus, a new approach was taken and Freddy was swapped out for a telekinetic teen. 

Tina, along with her mother Amanda (played by Susan Blu) and her unscrupulous psychiatrist Dr. Crews (Terry Kiser), returns to The newly re-christened Crystal Lake to deal with the guilt she has over accidentally killing her father, which we see in the opening scene of the film and then again in flashback literally five minutes later just in case we forgot. In record time, Tina has accidently resurrected Jason from the depths of Crystal Lake, although oddly not right where Tommy left him. At the end of Part VI, he was plunged to the depths of the lake in front of a summer camp, but now, he's on the lakefront between two cabins. Continuity be damned, I guess.

Aside from the inclusion of Tina's telekinetic powers and some seriously kick-ass makeup effects, it's business as usual with another large group of partying teens meet a sticky end. The film breaks away a bit when it's down to Tina and her new beau Nick (played by Kevin Spirtas) facing off against Jason. Using her telekinetic powers, she proves to be a formidable foe against the unstoppable killing machine. Still, the time it takes to get to this point is pretty dreadful, with plenty of bad acting and mostly annoying or detestable characters. After the fun of Part VI, it was clear the formula was showing it's wear with this one.

"You have to help us. There is a maniac trying to kill us!"
"Welcome to New York."

For the eighth installment of the series, the producers were trying to come up with yet another new spin on their veritable franchise. Enter writer/director Rob Hedden who suggested they take Jason out of Crystal Lake, giving us Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (although as it turns out, Jason Takes a Boat Trip or Jason Takes Vancouver Because That's All We Could Afford would have been more accurate.)

Jason Takes Manhattan once again plays fast and loose with the continuity as Crystal Lake seems to have developed an outlet to sea since it was last visited. This time around, the graduating class of Crystal Lake is taking a senior trip to Manhattan by cruise ship with Jason as a stowaway (guess he was getting tired of the camp scene too). Of course, this being a Friday the 13th film, it's not long until Jason is working his way through the passengers and crew. 

While the Cruise ship setting adds some novelty to the movie, it's still business as usual until the few survivors and Jason make their way to the Big Apple. Seeing Jason deal with the drug dealers, gang members, floods of toxic waste and Times Square add a little juice to the final quarter of the film. 

This marks the end of the 80's entries of this ongoing series. The first four, along with Part VI, were the best. None of them were anything that could be mistaken for art and don't stand up to much scrutiny but for a low rent vintage thrill ride, they're not bad. Of course, that could be the nostalgia talking, preventing me from being too critical. 

This retrospective will conclude with a look at the latest (but surely not the last) entries in this veritable franchise next month on Friday the 13th.