October has arrived, and with it, the season of deepest reverence for horrorphiles the world over.
As much as I count myself among their bloodthirsty ranks, the best part of the Halloween season for me is the heightened interest in horror films it stimulates within traditionally non-horror-centric audiences. It is the one time during the year when everyone, no matter their usual cinematic proclivities, rushes to the horror section of the video store to snatch up as many classic titles as possible.
Well luckily for all of us, Netflix’s Watch Instantly service has made it even easier for us to access these horror classics, as you have a plethora of scary movies at your fingertips. To that end we hope you’ll consider giving recent Netflix WI addition Child’s Play a spin as October 31st looms ever closer.
Who Made It: Child’s Play was co-written and directed by Tom Holland. Holland is a hero to guys like me. His other big directorial effort was the spectacular 80s vampire romp Fright Night, which I would also highly recommend adding to your Halloween playlist. Holland also wrote two of my favorite unsung horror titles: The Beast Within and Psycho II.
Who’s In It: The two most recognizable faces in Child’s Play are Brad Dourif and Chris Sarandon. Dourif, who plays Charles Lee Ray at the beginning of the film and subsequently voices the sadistic doll Chucky, is a prolific character actor who is most recently recognizable for his turn as Grima Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, as well as Doc Cochran on HBO’s Deadwood and Sheriff Brackett in Rob Zombie’s atrocious Halloween reboots. Sarandon, who plays the police officer hot on Ray’s doll-sized heels, is actually one of the stars of the original Fright Night, playing Jerry Dandrige, one of cinema’s sexiest, most evil vampires.
What It’s About: Child’s Play is the happy story of notorious serial killer Charles Lee Ray, alias The Lakeshore Strangler, whose murderous crime spree comes to a violent end when he is gunned down in a Chicago toy store. Just before he dies, he uses ancient dark magic to transfer his soul into a Good Guy doll. The doll ends up in the hands of six-year-old Andy Barclay who had desperately wanted a Good Guy for his birthday. Shortly after receiving the doll however, people around Andy begin to die horribly. The police begin to suspect young Andy may be psychologically disturbed, but Andy maintains that his plastic buddy Chucky is to blame.
Why You Should Watch It:
While Chucky may be as much a pop culture boogeyman as Freddy, Michael Myers, or Jason, Child’s Play is a franchise that does not enjoy the same level of cult adoration as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, or Friday the 13th. In fact, and in the interest of full disclosure, as much as I am a rabid horror fan, today marked the very first time I had seen Child’s Play. But the first film in this series is a fantastic example of supernatural horror that, for a good portion of its run time, relies on atmosphere and shared universal fears rather than explicit violence or jump scares.
I think we can all agree that dolls are freaking scary. Their life-like appearance despite being inanimate always engenders lingering doubts in our subconscious that they are in fact lifeless. Child’s Play feeds this universal mistrust of dolls by not only making the doll a vessel of pure evil, but also withholding shots of Chucky moving beyond his capacities as a toy for much of the movie. We know the doll is killing people, but it takes quite a while before we actually see him do so.
The movie plays off of that feeling you get when laying eyes on a particularly creepy doll and wondering what mischief it gets into when you aren’t looking. It also toys with the idea that maybe Andy really is the killer; even having him dress in the same Good Guy attire as Chucky through much of the movie. Child’s Play is a creepy, suspenseful ride that operates just as well as a mystery story as it does a campy horror film.
Among the best aspects of Child’s Play are its special effects. There is not a single computer-generated effect in the whole film. The task of bringing Chucky to life is accomplished through a series of unique camera angles, child actors in costume, and masterful practical effects. Seeing the myriad ways the filmmakers were able to breath life into the plastic antagonist is what makes the film so remarkable and allows it to stand the test of time. Particularly impressive is the ending sequence in which a pint-sized stuntman executes a full body burn and animatronics are subsequently used to create a charred, nearly extinct Chucky. It gives me chills just thinking about it.
Netflix is streaming Child’s Play in high-definition, which will only shed a brighter spotlight on the film’s stellar effects and provide clearer imagery for your inevitable nightmares.
Queue up Child's Play!
I’ve always been an unabashed fan of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson a magnetic screen presence whose charm and charisma more than make up for his shortcomings as an actor. That said even I’m finding it harder to defend his choices of roles over the past few years including his most recent turn in the family comedy The Tooth Fairy. Striving to produce quality family-friendly entertainment is certainly a commendable goal Rock but could you do us a favor and throw in the occasional R-rated (or at least PG-13) action flick every once in a while? Please?
The plot of The Tooth Fairy is standard kids-movie stuff: Johnson plays a gruff self-centered minor-league hockey player who after crushing the dreams of a few wide-eyed youngsters is sentenced to two weeks of community service as a tooth fairy. Handed wings a magic wand invisibility spray and other standard fairy accoutrements he’s sent to various children’s houses where he must brave all matter of domestic hazards to fulfill his tooth fairy obligations.
The Rock is usually the best part of otherwise underwhelming movies like this but he actually stumbles out of the gate in The Tooth Fairy overdosing on cheese and ham in an awkward first act. What ultimately makes the movie work is British comic Stephen Merchant recognizable to some as the hapless agent of Ricky Gervais’ chronically underemployed actor in HBO’s Extras who plays The Rock’s beleaguered fairy case worker. With his thin frame and his subtle sharp wit he provides the perfect foil for The Rock’s oversized personality creating just enough of a comedic spark to make The Tooth Fairy a relatively enjoyable if altogether unspectacular experience for both the kids and their babysitters.
When infamous outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) gets captured in late 19th century Arizona the plan is to transport him to a train en route to Yuma prison(leaving at 3:10 of course). But in the 1800s bringing someone to justice is as arduous as it sounds especially since horses are the only mode of transportation and their carriages the only place to house a prisoner. Across “town ” rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is struggling mightily to support his wife (Gretchen Mol) and kids (Logan Lerman and Benjamin Petry) following a drought and needs to build a well for his family. So when he receives a nominal financial offer to help transport the notorious felon he jumps at it dutifully and desperately. While on the trail that leads to the train station no amount of physical or verbal threat is too much for Wade to break free of with ease. But when it comes to the law-abiding rancher for whom Wade has a certain respect his escape becomes much more complicated than getting out of handcuffs. 3:10 to Yuma’s pairing of Batman and Cinderella Man is perfect in concept and execution and watching the two stars is more than a sight to behold—it is transfixing like watching any two longtime professionals make something difficult look easy. It’s the first of two such powerhouse pairings for Crowe this fall—he co-stars with Denzel Washington in November’s American Gangster—and if this small sample size is any indication big-name costars bring out the best in him. Crowe evokes the kind of real humanistic villain that could only exist in a Western and by playing Wade with equal parts amiability and evil the Oscar winner turns in what is probably his most purely charismatic performance to date. Bale’s character on the other hand—and per usual—is loath to crack a smile a quality the actor has mastered. The Yoda of dialect Welsh-born Bale also has no difficulty switching over to Ol’ West speak but it’s the way he conveys the rancher’s stoicism and will that makes him even more credible. Among the supporting turns Ben Foster (Alpha Dog) stands out as a cranked-up trigger-happy member of Wade’s gang and stalwart Peter Fonda is perfectly cast as a tough ‘n’ gruff bounty hunter. When director James Mangold turned Johnny Cash’s life story into Walk the Line it was the romantic version of a much darker tale. For 3:10 to Yuma a remake of the beloved 1957 Glenn Ford-starrer Mangold gives the Western the same treatment. In attempting to reel in today’s action-happy audience Mangold waters down the drama and speeds up the pace. Minor tweaks for this modern update equal a bit of a departure from true Western style with the dialogue for example as snappy as one of today’s action comedies. But it’s all in good fun. The Old West looks completely authentic and the unforgettable ending is perhaps made possible by the director’s innocuous first two acts. Even so his efforts and those of the screenwriters (Derek Haas Michael Brandt and Halstead Wells who wrote the original) aren’t enough to perform CPR on the Western—not that it’s fair to rest the fate of entire dying genre in their hands.
Looney Tunes: Back in Action revisits an age-old Tunes question: Why does the affable Bugs reap all the fame and glory while the egocentric Daffy gets shafted again and again? Our duck friend quite frankly has had it up to his skinny neck playing second fiddle to the carrot muncher. All Daffy wants is a little recognition from the studio but the brothers Warner (actual twin brothers as we come to find out) decide instead to let Daffy out of his contract on the advice of their no-nonsense VP of comedy Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman). Bugs however knows they're making a mistake. Even though Daff bears the brunt of the abuse Looney Tunes would fail without him and Bugs convinces the powers that be they need the nutty mallard. If the plot had only followed this thread--perhaps showing Daffy on the skids--then maybe the film wouldn't have spiraled into Looneyville. Unfortunately Daffy ends up hooking up with the hunky D.J. Drake (Brendan Fraser) a studio security guard who finds out that his famous movie star father Damian Drake (Timothy Dalton) is really a secret agent hunting for a mysterious diamond known as the Blue Monkey a supernatural gem that can turn the planet's population into monkeys. The evil head of the Acme Corporation Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin) wants the diamond for his own diabolical plans and he's kidnapped D.J.'s dad in an effort to get it. Now the gang has to get the diamond save D.J.'s dad and of course save the world.
It might be a little hard to act subtly around cartoon characters but these aren't your ordinary cutesy Mickey Mouse types. Bugs Daffy Porky Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn are pros at comic timing able to spar with the best of them throw out zingers without a second thought and slay you with a droll glance at the camera. It isn't really necessary for the human actors to match their madcap-ness; just reacting would have sufficed. Fraser comes off the best of the human bunch; since he's had practice (Monkeybone) he easily interacts with his animated co-stars and deftly handles the doubletakes and jabs at pop culture. Elfman on the other hand sputters and goes bug-eyed every time she encounters silliness. She looks uncomfortable doing the green screen thing especially when she's trying to look natural when peeling a distraught duck from around her waist. Martin's highly anticipated turn as Mr. Chairman turns out to be the biggest disappointment. The over-the-top character is reminiscent of Martin's hysterically funny Rupert the Monkeyboy in 1988's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels but Martin turns Mr. Chairman--an angry schoolboy with knee socks and matted-down hair who never grew up--into a caricature of ridiculous proportions and unlike Rupert who came in small hilarious doses Mr. Chairman gets very tiresome very quickly.
Back in Action's animation is well done more engaging and ambitious than its 1996 predecessor Space Jam in which the action mostly took place in Looney Tunes land; here animated characters go the Who Framed Roger Rabbit? route and Bugs Daffy and the rest coexist harmoniously with humans in the real world. But despite its aspirations Back in Action leaves out vital elements that made Space Jam appealing. While the earlier film stuck to a simple plot Back in Action guided by director Joe Dante (Small Soldiers The 'Burbs) tries too hard to keep things wild and wacky while incorporating elements of '60s heist pics and action-adventure scenes and in the process loses sight of the most important ingredient in any kids movie: the story. Tykes may have limited attention spans but if the story's good they will watch. Granted some individual bits are laugh-out-loud funny particularly the scene in the Warner Bros. commissary where a stuttering Porky Pig complains about being politically incorrect with Speedy Gonzales while an animated Shaggy and Scooby-Doo berate actor Matthew Lillard for playing Shaggy as such a bonehead in the live-action Scooby-Doo. These scenes prove that if any cartoon characters could pass themselves off as real celebrities in the entertainment industry the gang from Looney Tunes could but moments like these simply can't overcome a contrived plot and juvenile antics.
Based on the best-selling novel by Dennis Lehane Mystic River is full of characters wrought with heavy emotions--and burdens. Yet it is also a fairly simplistic murder mystery. Three 13-year old boys Jimmy Sean and Dave are playing on a street in a tough Boston neighborhood when two pedophiles pretending to be cops grab Dave and take him away. In that moment all three lives are irrevocably changed. Jimmy (Sean Penn) grew up as tough as his neighborhood doing time for robbery but finally settling into a comfortable family life with his wife Annabeth (Laura Linney). Sean (Kevin Bacon) went on to become a cop but his personal life is in a shambles and he is estranged from his wife. Dave (Tim Robbins) has never been able to face his demons despite being a loving father and husband to Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden). Now 25 years later tragedy brings them together once again. Jimmy's 19-year-old daughter is found murdered and while Sean is assigned to the case with his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) Jimmy seeks his own vigilante investigation with the local hoods--and Dave emerges as a prime suspect. As the mystery is unraveled all are pulled closer toward an abyss that will force them to face their true selves--and will mark them as irrevocably as the past itself has tainted their lives.
This is one of those dream scripts serious actors simply go gaga over--and the high-quality ensemble in Mystic River does their jobs superbly. To pinpoint the best performance of the bunch however is virtually impossible--and the Academy may have a tough time making the same distinction as there is surely going to be a nomination or two coming from this film. Penn as the emotionally charged Jimmy stands out a little ahead of the rest with his fury resonating throughout the film. Robbins' ultra-vulnerable Dave is also a remarkable study of a soul completely wounded by the horrors he has experienced. Linney and Harden too are excellent as the spouses; Linney as Annabeth is a strong defiant mother whose only impetus is to protect those she loves while Harden in contrast is meek and unsure as Celeste faced with the dilemma of showing faith and loyalty to her husband while at the same time being convinced he committed the murder. All the performances will quite literally blow your socks off.
With all its excellent acting Mystic River has the added benefit of being helmed by director Clint Eastwood who has enormous talent behind the camera. He likes his films to simmer; his Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Oscar-winning Unforgiven are two examples. Mystic River is beautifully put together with lingering shots of Boston neighborhoods and the people who live in them. He doesn't move the camera much keeps things steady but knows when to pull in or pull out as the drama escalates (an aerial shot of an anguished Jimmy being held back by several policeman after he discovers his daughter's body shakes you to the core). Still there are some problems with this slow-burn technique in that sometimes things should move along rather than stand still. Eastwood seems also to have had trouble finding the ending. After a pivotal powerful climactic scene with Jimmy and Sean discussing Dave's kidnapping 25 years ago and its effect on all their lives Eastwood tacks on a few more final scenes of the men tying up loose ends resolving feelings with each other and their wives--and then going to watch a parade. It's a minor point compared to the quality of the rest of the film but it still leaves things on an anti-climactic note.
HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm scored three out of five Directors Guild of America award nominations today for comedy, while The Sopranos and The West Wing each got two nods among dramatic series.
Additional nominations in the comedy category went to NBC's Will & Grace (four-time DGA winner James Burrows got his 19th career DGA nod); and Sex and the City.
In addition to NBC's The West Wing and The Sopranos, HBO's Six Feet Under got a nod in the dramatic series category.
The 55th annual Directors Guild of America Awards dinner, which will honor winners in TV and film categories, will be held March 1 at the Century Plaza Hotel & Spa.
Here is the full list of nominees:
Daniel Attias, "Back to the Garden" episode of HBO's Six Feet Under
Paris Barclay, "Debate Camp'' episode of NBC's The West Wing
Alex Graves, "Posse Comitatus'' epidode of NBC's The West Wing
John Patterson, "Whitecaps'' episode of HBO's The Sopranos
Tim Van Patten, "Whoever Did This'' episode of HBO's The Sopranos
James Burrows, "Marry Me a Little'' episode of NBC's Will & Grace
Larry Charles, "The Nanny From Hell'' episode of HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm
Bryan Gordon, "Special Section'' episode of HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm
Michael Patrick King, "Plus One Is the Loneliest Number'' episode of HBO's Sex and the City
David Steinberg, "Mary, Joseph & Larry'' episode of HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm
Marty Callner, Robin Williams Live on Broadway, HBO
Matthew Diamond, From Broadway: Fosse/Great Performances: Dance in America, PBS
Jerry Foley, Late Show with David Letterman #1876, CBS
Louis J. Horvitz, The 74th Annual Academy Awards, ABC
Glenn Weiss, The 56th Annual Tony Awards, CBS