Monday, September 8, 2014

Grease (1978)

Grease (1978)
Starring: John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Stockard Channing, Jeff Conaway, Barry Pearl, Michael Tucci, Kelly Ward, Didi Conn
Directed by: Randal Kleiser
Tagline: Grease is the word.
Running Time: 110 Minutes

Quick summary (from IMDB): Good girl Sandy and greaser Danny fell in love over the summer. But when they unexpectedly discover they’re now in the same high school, will they be able to rekindle their romance?

The entire time my wife and I were watching Grease, I couldn’t get the scene from Not Another Teen Movie when Josh Radnor (pre-Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother) turns to a girl at the prom and says "It's funny, isn't it? You would never suspect that everyone from this school is a professional dancer." The line starts around the 31 second mark. It also unfortunately features Good Charlotte covering "I Want Candy", easily the worst part of NATM. 

Musicals are, by their very nature, completely ridiculous, and Grease just might be the most ridiculous musical of all. I know you’re supposed to accept the singing and the dancing as part of the storytelling, but anytime I watch a live action musical, I can’t help but think about just how bizarre it would be for people to break out into song with choreographed dance routines to express how they were feeling or to give some back story or context to every situation. It would make things a little more interesting at times, but it would also be completely annoying.

Grease’s ridiculousness is further cemented by the fact that the majority of the main cast were well outside of high school age when playing teenagers. While some were within spitting distance – Lorenzo Lamas (Renegade) was 19, everyone else was a full on adult. John Travolta was relatively close at 23, but Tim Conaway (26), Olivia Newton-John (28) and Stockard Channing (33!), had no real business pretending to be 16 and 17 year-olds. I’d like to think that Hollywood has moved on from that, but nearly 20 years later, Calista Flockhart (then 31) was playing a 17 year old in The Birdcage, and more recently, Emma Stone (then 2x?) was playing teenaged Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spiderman.

I probably shouldn’t be too hard on Grease. For its time and place, it was (probably) top notch. And as much as I don’t like musicals, I didn’t hate Grease. I probably had more fun making fun of it than I did actually enjoying the movie, but I don’t fee like I wasted my hour and fifty minutes on it.

I did find it a little weird that I knew so many of the songs and characters without ever having seen the movie before. That’s how well known and important Grease was to popular culture and the movie musical scene: people who hate musicals (or at least claim to) still know “Summer Lovin’”, “Greased Lightning”, “Hopelessly Devoted To You” and “You’re The One That I Want”. Granted, I only knew "Summer Lovin'" because The Vandals did a (mock) version of it on their 1990 album Fear of a Punk Planet, with Moon Zappa singing the Olivia Newton-John part. 

And for everything else that John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John have done with their respective careers, both before and afterwards, they will both best be remembered as Danny Zucco and Sandy. And that’s probably something neither of them thought back in 1978 when they signed on to be in Grease.

3.5 out of 5 stars


Sunday, August 31, 2014

Side Effects (2013)

Side Effects (2013)
Rated R
Starring: Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Tagline: This is your insanity on drugs. 
Running time: 106 Minutes

Quick summary (from IMDB): A young woman’s world unravels when a drug prescribed by her psychiatrist has unexpected side effects.

Side Effects has been sitting in my Netflix Instant Queue for several months now. I initially added it because I sometimes like Steven Soderbergh and the cast looked pretty strong. But every time I came across it running through my queue, I skipped over it. It just always seemed like it was a little too heavy for my mood at the time, so I’d watch something else instead. And when my wife and I were looking for something to watch together, she never really gave it any consideration, even after I told her that it starred Channing Tatum and Rooney Mara. It wasn’t until she was looking for suggestions for movies to watch on IMDB, and stumbled across it after reading about You’re Next. I don’t really see how the two are connected; they aren’t really similar in style, tone or genre and don’t share any actors and were written and directed by different people. You’re Next was a pretty brutal horror movie while Side Effects was more of a psychological thriller. I guess both were twisty in nature, but other than that there was nothing that would have led me to Side Effects from You’re Next.

The story was interesting and the performances were solid and any movie that features homicidal somnambulism (spoiler alert?) is okay in my book, but I felt that Side Effects was a little bit too overcomplicated. As the plot was unfolding and things were getting deeper and deeper, I found myself wondering what the point of it all was. It seemed bizarre that someone would be focusing so intently on Jude Law’s character and go through such lengths to get him involved and it didn’t really make much sense. It eventually starts to make sense as the twists are unraveled, but it took so many different things to happen to get to the ending that it was a little convoluted.

About halfway through the movie, my wife pointed out that the title, Side Effects, had multiple meanings. I felt so dumb for not recognizing it, but in addition to the medical side effects of the drug Law’s character prescribed to Mara, there were also side effects that affected every other aspect of their lives. I really should have picked up on that sooner or at least been able to figure it out. Had she not said anything, I’d have probably never put it together.

The movie was intriguing and there were definitely several interesting twists and reveals as the movie went along, but I probably could have done with a fewer, or at least a little more rationale behind the characters actions, like something tying Law more directly to Mara than a random doctor assigned to her in the emergency room. It was all too random and open to chance for such an elaborate and intricate plan. But then Soderbergh does have some prior experience with elaborate and intricate plans (see Ocean’s 11 through 13).

3 out of 5 stars


Friday, August 29, 2014

You're Next (2011)

You’re Next (2011)
Rated R
Starring: Sharni Vinson, Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen
Directed by: Adam Wingard
Tagline: Did you remember to lock your door?
Running time: 95 Minutes

Quick summary (from IMDB): When the Davison family comes under attack during their wedding anniversary getaway, the gang of mysterious killers soon learns that one of the victims harbors a secret talent for fighting back.

My wife and I have had several issues with Netflix recently, mainly in that we can never agree on a movie we want to watch. We spend so much time scrolling through the same categories, looking at the same movies over and over again. It’s either a movie we’ve already seen or something one of us doesn’t want to see. Neither of us likes the way the Netflix app is organized, or it’s suggestions for movies to watch. Just looking at the “Because You Watched…” suggestions, there are usually fifteen to twenty options, and we’ve (or at least I’ve) already seen most of them. Why does Netflix suggest something I’ve already rated? If I wanted to re-watch Big Trouble in Little China again, I’d already have done it. I don’t need Netflix suggesting it to me to watch again.

There have been probably less than a handful of times when Netflix has suggested something we both actually wanted to see, and even then, it took a little bit of work on our part to find it. I had prepared myself for the ordeal of trying to find a movie when I fired up Netflix last weekend. As soon as I logged in and selected my profile, I was greeted with the following image:

As my wife walked in to sit down, she asked “Why is that bear staring at me?” So I read her the description from Netflix:
When shy Erin joins her new boyfriend at a family reunion to commemorate his parents’ anniversary, the tense gathering is horrifically interrupted by a gang of masked invaders who brutalize the celebrants…until someone starts fighting back.

And that sounded right up our alley.

I have no idea what possessed Netflix to suggest You’re Next, but I am glad that it did. After having watched The Purge a few days before, I was in the mood for more home invasion horror movies, and this fit the bill perfectly. Looking at the IMDB, I didn’t see a single name that I recognized, and I was kind of relieved. When I watch a horror movie with an actor I recognize or a really big named celebrity, it makes it a little harder to get into. But with a cast of unknowns (to me, anyways), I was free to really get into You’re Next without distraction.

Much like The Purge and The Strangers, You’re Next utilized my favorite horror movie trope: the silent observer the characters can’t see but the audience knows is there. You’re Next had at least two really cool versions of this: a reflection of one of the masked people in a kitchen window while a character stood in the kitchen and an arm sticking out from under the bed another character had just lied down on. I love and hate the unsettling feeling I get when I see one of these scenes and it’s the closest I come to actually being scared watching a horror movie.

It was refreshing to go into a horror movie with no preconceived notions of what to expect or what was going to happen. Before watching The Purge, I already knew the plot and knew what was going to happen, for the most part. With You’re Next, I had no idea what to expect and was actually surprised by a few of the twists I didn’t really see coming.

My wife and I debated whether or not we should go ahead and watch this movie in August or hold it until our Horror Movie Month in October, but decided we’d rather go ahead and watch it now. That was the right decision. It would have been a fine inclusion in our month-long horror fest, but I’d have rather watched a new and exciting and potentially good movie now than try and find something else to watch in its place. And You’re Next was definitely better than any of the other movies we could have stumbled across and possibly agreed on watching at the time. It was interesting and original while still keeping several horror movie traditions in place. It was funny when it needed to be and there were several inventive uses of non-conventional weapons that I wouldn’t have expected namely piano wire.

All in all, You’re Next was a solid and entertaining horror movie and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a fun and original horror movie to watch on Netflix.

4 out of 5 stars


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Mighty Ducks (1992)

The Mighty Ducks (1992)
Rated PG
Starring: Emilio Estevez, Joshua Jackson, Joss Ackland, Lane Smith, Shaun Weiss, M.C. Gainey
Directed by: Stephen Herek
Tagline: He’s never coached. They’ve never won. Together they’ll learn everything about winning!
Running time: 100 Minutes

Quick summary (from IMDB): A self-centered lawyer is sentenced to community service coaching a rag tag youth hockey team.

I was way more excited than was probably warranted when I learned that both The Mighty Ducks and D2 were available to stream on Netflix at the beginning of August, but I have a special place in my heart for those movies. For starters, I was 8 years old when the first movie came out, had just begun to learn about and get into hockey and had only recently moved from the hockey wasteland that is Kentucky to Western Pennsylvania, which in 1991 and 1992 was a hockey lover’s dream. It was the perfect storm and I loved every bit of it.

My love of the Mighty Ducks and all things hockey never really inspired me to actually play hockey outside of our driveway, which I kind of regret. In our driveway, I was a lot like Goldberg, in that I was deathly afraid of slap shots. I loved every other part of playing goalie: the pads, the glove, the mask. But anytime my brother or the neighbor kids would wind up for a slapper, I’d be ducking or flinching or just leaving the net entirely. It probably didn’t help my confidence that my “pads” consisted of an oversized jacket under a hockey jersey, a baseball glove and some cheap leg pads. No one ever thought, or at least never tried, to tie me to the wooden goal posts of the goal our grandfather built for us. Had they done that, then much like Goldberg, I probably would have gotten a lot better as a goalie. Though I never wore my glasses when I was goalie because they didn’t fit under the mask, so I probably never would have gotten much better. Luckily the ball was bright pink or orange so I could at least kind of see it.

How crazy is it that a Disney movie directly led to a professional sports franchise? The entire existence of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks is due to a Disney movie starring Emilio Estevez. That is just completely bizarre. I can’t think of anything else like that ever happening in the NFL, NBA or MLB. Disney just created a team and it still exists, even as several other teams, including both of the teams that appeared in The Mighty Ducks, the Minnesota North Stars and the Hartford Whalers, have completely disappeared from the NHL.

Watching The Mighty Ducks as an adult brought back all those memories and daydreams I had of actually getting to play hockey and be awesome at it. Man, I wish I could go back and actually try to play organized hockey instead of just screwing around in our neighborhood. The closest I ever got was playing on an actual street hockey rink at a friend’s birthday party. I didn’t play goalie, but I did get to score a goal, and that was awesome.

As I watched the movie, I noticed another reason why I probably loved The Mighty Ducks as an eight-year-old: how many times these kids got to say “hell” and “damn”. In addition to playing hockey, goofing off and having fun, these kids got to (lightly) swear with impunity. As a kid, I longed for the ability to say all the things I was forbidden to say, and it seemed like these kids got to do whatever they wanted. I was jealous. Twenty-two years later it seems really tame that a PG movie has a couple of “hells” and “damns”, but in ’92, if felt like a pretty big deal that it was happening in a kids movie.

I can’t wait to watch D2 here in the next few days. It probably won’t hold up quite as well as this first one did, but it’s still pretty entertaining. I am kind of glad that D3 isn’t available on Netflix, because that movie kind of sucks compared to the other two.

4 out of 5 stars


Monday, August 25, 2014

The Land Before Time (1988)

The Land Before Time (1988)
Rated G
Starring: Pat Hingle, Gabriel Damn, Judith Barsi
Directed by: Don Bluth
Tagline: A new adventure is born.
Running time: 69 Minutes

Quick summary (from IMDB): Five orphan dinosaurs travel the ruins of their world, while grieving the loss of their families and banding together to face the odds of survival.

For the majority of my childhood life, I carried around a stuffed Littlefoot. He was my rock and my security blanket. And then I hit puberty and he was shoved inside of a closet somewhere, lost for about at least a decade. Just before my wife and I were married in 2008, my mom intended to give my wife my Littlefoot for her wedding shower, but was unable to locate him. A year or two later, my Littlefoot was discovered, tucked away inside an unused suitcase. Not long after Littlefoot was returned to me, our dog got a hold of him and did a little damage, chewing up his right eye. This is what he looks like now: 

He’s had multiple surgeries, performed by both of my grandmothers, to reattach his right leg, had his eye socket sown shut, his neck is pretty severely bent and he is wearing a green scarf for some reason, but he is intact. He spent the better part of the past four years in another closet, almost forgotten again, but not quite.

Two weeks ago, my wife was out shopping with our daughter and came across the original The Land Before Time on DVD for $5, and couldn’t pass it up. I don’t blame her, especially since our VHS copy is unwatchable because nobody owns a VCR anymore. The kid was super excited to watch the movie, especially when we busted Littlefoot out and gave him to her. She immediately began calling him “Lillyput”, which is adorable, and she was demanding we watch Dinosaurs. But she’s two and The Land Before Time isn’t exactly attention grabbing, so she barely paid attention at all during the brisk 66 minute running time.

Watching this movie as an adult is kind of an eye-opening experience. There is very little about this movie that I would think a kid would be interested in aside from the dinosaurs. The mom dies early on, Littlefoot and his friends are terrorized by the monstrous and (still kind of) scary Sharptooth, and all of the dinosaurs are discriminatory and racist jerks. As a kid, I definitely only picked up on the scary Sharptooth parts of the movie and totally glossed over the racism and the sadness of the opening half of the movie.

After 20 plus years, the original Land Before Time doesn’t really hold up all that well. Littlefoot changes color from purple to brown and back several times throughout and the years haven’t been kind to the animation in general. I still have no idea why The Land Before Time spawned 12 (!?!) straight to video sequels and has been such a successful and long-running franchise. My memory of watching it and my attachment to my own Littlefoot will always place The Land Before Time as one of my favorite childhood movies and Littlefoot as my favorite toy, but as an adult, I think I need to revisit that.

Littlefoot is a total pushover, and the least interesting character in the entire movie. My wife’s favorite was Cera, and even though Cera is kind of a jerk, she’s also independent and stubborn. Ducky and Petrie were the funniest characters in the movie, and when I think of the movie, this is the first scene that comes to mind: (“I flied! I flied!””No, you falled”.) So in hindsight, I’d have to say either Petry or Ducky are my favorite character, but then I remember reading about the terrible tragedy that happened to Judith Barsi, he little girl who voiced Ducky before the movie was released in 1988 and that just makes me sad.

While the movie isn’t nearly as good as the kid in me remembers, I still have a soft spot for The Land Before Time and I probably always will. It’s kind of surreal but I love to watch my daughter run around the house carrying my Littlefoot by the neck. There is no reason for her to love this broken down twenty-six (!) year-old toy as much as she does. I don’t know if she’s more attached to it because it’s old, because it was mine or because it’s a dinosaur, but I love the fact that she carries him with her all over the house, feeds him Goldfish crackers and sleeps with him in her bed. And even though she barely acknowledged the movie at all, it was great to share something that was so important to me as a kid with her.

5 out of 5 stars