Monday, August 31, 2015

Wes Craven 1939 - 2015

Wes Craven; director, writer, producer, and actor…has passed away at 76. 

Wesley Earl Craven was born in Cleveland, Ohio and raised in a strict Baptist family. After earning degrees in English and Psychology, and a Masters in Philosophy and Writing, Craven taught as a humanities professor before taking his first job in the film industry as a sound editor. 

After leaving the academic world, he spent time as a pornographic film director. In 1972 he directed his first feature film, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, in which two teenage girls who are taken into the woods and tortured, shocked audiences into remembering his name forever. He would follow up with another shocker, THE HILLS HAVE EYES in 1977. 

From there, Craven collaborated with Sean S. Cunningham to create what would become one of the most iconic characters in not just the horror genre but in all of film, Freddy Krueger. Krueger, a mythical serial killer who used a glove armed with razors to kill teenagers in their dreams, would be the centerpiece for Craven’s A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET in 1984. The film was met with rave reviews and went on to make a significant impact in the horror genre, and would spawn a franchise consisting of sequels, a TV series, and an eventual crossover with another horror franchise, FRIDAY THE 13th. Just as Freddy Krueger’s name would become synonymous with nightmares, Craven’s would be associated with horror. 

His long list of notable directing credits would include SWAMP THING (1982), CHILLER (1985), THE HILLS HAVE EYES PART II (1985), THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988), and THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991). He would prove his diversity and his skill as a filmmaker in 1999 when he stepped out of the horror genre to direct the drama MUSIC OF THE HEART with Meryl Streep and Angela Bassett, which was nominated for an Oscar. 

In 1994, he deconstructed the genre he had revitalized with WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE, which poked fun at the Freddy Krueger franchise and famously looped back on itself by using the original cast members playing themselves. Craven starred as himself in a well-received concept of a movie-within-a-movie. Craven would take his sense of humor a step further when he launched a new horror franchise, SCREAM in 1996…which launched another iconic film character in the “ghostface”. With tongue firmly in cheek and plenty of love, Craven parodied the genre that he had created. SCREAM would spawn three sequels, with SCREAM 4 finishing as his last big-screen directing gig in 2011. 

He would be a good sport and appear as himself in films and TV shows over the years, including Kevin Smith’s JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK (2001). He created a five-issue comic book series called COMING OF RAGE in 2014, and served as a producer for the 2015 SCREAM TV series. He received the New York City Horror Film Festival Life Achievement Award in 2012. 


In the late 1980’s, this Blogger and his brother got in trouble with Mom when she found the Freddy Krueger glove we had created out of an old work glove and cardboard knives. She wasn’t a big fan of Freddy, but she recognized who the glove represented right away…and that speaks towards Wes Craven’s knack for using iconography to generate fear. From Freddy’s knives and hat to the whiteness of the SCREAM ghostface, Craven struck a chord with us all with just one glance. As a filmmaker, he created and un-created the horror genre and still made it seem like new. He understood what made a movie work and manipulated audiences like only a master could. He believed that fear wasn’t something to run from, but to plow into…and from that basis anything was possible. Wes Craven may be gone, but the nightmares will go on forever. 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Reel Facts & Opinions: Back to Middle-Earth

Author JRR Tolkien’s massive literary works involving the fantastical world of Middle-Earth, a realm packed tight with stories and adventures involving men, wizards, dwarves, elves, goblins, dragons, demons of the ancient world and little Hobbits, has seen an equally massive career in its adaptations to the big screen. So big, that it continues to make headlines long after the most recent film has faded to black. 

Director Peter Jackson’s adaptation of THE HOBBIT, which was beefed up into a trilogy of films by mining much of Tolkien’s expansive appendices’, will be returning to the big screen this October. The special extended editions, which includes more footage not seen in their original theatrical runs from 2012-2014 (but was included in the blu-ray and home releases), will play in 500 theatres on October 5th, 7th, and 13th, respectively. 

Jackson’s adaptation of THE HOBBIT was a box office success, even though it didn’t quite enjoy the critical success of his first Tolkien trilogy, THE LORD OF THE RINGS. It’s difficult to imagine people flocking to the gates to view expanded editions of films which were probably too long the first time around, but then again…this is Middle-Earth we’re talking about. Returning to that beloved world is always a treat, especially on the big-screen, and THE HOBBIT films did have their highlights with some stunning set-pieces and battles. Big-screen spectacle is what it thrives on. 

Speaking of battles, Jackson’s third film in THE HOBBIT trilogy, THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, will see its long-awaited home release of the expanded edition arrive in late November (which gives fans incentive to go see the expanded edition in theatres; they can beat the home-release by a month), and the interesting news here is that not only is this edition 20 minutes longer than the theatrical cut, but unlike the original version which was rated PG-13, this will be rated R for “some violence”. 

The R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is the first such rating for any of Jackson’s six Middle-Earth films. There had been word last year prior to the film’s release that the big end-battle had been cut down considerably (the running time was relatively short at 144 minutes), so it seems the bulk of the expanded cut would center around more killings and perhaps more bloodshed. How this will play out remains to be seen, but an R-rated Middle-Earth movie would certainly stand out among the somewhat kid-friendly films from THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS. 

Speaking of kid-friendly Middle-Earth films, Turner Classic Movies has announced that it will air Ralph Bakshi’s animated take of THE LORD OF THE RINGS (1978) on September 2nd. The film, which was met with mixed reaction from critics and fans, served as an influence for Peter Jackson before he set out to make his live-action movies.  

Watch this at your own risk. Bakshi’s film, which was originally supposed to be called Part 1, only covers the first book and-a-half of THE LORD OF THE RINGS before abruptly ending after 133 minutes. Since Part 2 was never made, we’re left with half a movie with no real ending. The film was notable for its use of rotoscoping, which was an animation technique where scenes were first shot live-action, and then traced onto animation cels; basically using a hybrid of traditional hand-drawn animation and live-action footage. It was considered innovative at the time, but today it just looks bizarre. This Blogger finds the film (and most of Bakshi’s work) to be unwatchable crap. At the very least it serves as a curiosity piece and a sense of completion for any fans who can’t get enough of Middle-Earth. 


THE HOBBIT expanded editions arrives in theatres October 5th, 7th, and 13th. The expanded edition of THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES will be released November 17th

Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 THE LORD OF THE RINGS airs on TCM September 2nd

Monday, August 24, 2015


At 79 years old, writer/director Woody Allen is showing no signs of slowing down. By cranking out seven movies over the past five years, he’s become the assembly-line of filmmakers; throwing in all of his trademark themes in new surroundings in an apparent rush to beef up his numbers before old age finally catches up to him. His newest work, IRRATIONAL MAN, has nearly all of Allen’s tricks and trademarks; all the good ones, bad ones, and all the ones in-between. 

Abe (Joaquin Phoenix), a burned-out alcoholic philosophy professor who leans on life-lessons over textbooks, begins a new position at a small school and promptly starts a relationship with Jill (Emma Stone), who is one of his students, along with an affair with his fellow teacher Rita (Parkey Posey). Unable to sustain either relationship due to his depression, Abe stumbles upon a solution with deadly consequences. 

Sometimes the best storytelling happens when characters are thrown in a situation together and are allowed to just react to each other. This type of writing has served writer/director Woody Allen very well over his 50 years in the film business, and in the early goings of IRRATIONAL MAN, the stage is set for an excellent character study. Both Abe and Jill are from opposite ends of life; one has been beaten down and lost all zeal for living, while the other is young and full of love and life. Abe’s background as a philosophy teacher allows the film to explore many themes through the eyes of the great philosophers of our time, and Allen uses his time wisely in having his characters explore each other and moving the story forward. 

Things take a wicked left-turn when Abe, who is desperate to find a solution to his misery, suddenly decides to commit a murder which snaps him out of his depression. The introduction of the idea comes way out of left-field and is enough to jar the viewer right out of the movie, and things never quite recover from it. The idea is outrageous, and once Abe pulls off the crime IRRATIONAL MAN becomes a whodunit-flick in reverse where Jill, Rita, and others, who don’t know Abe committed the crime, try to figure out who the killer is. As a crime story it doesn’t work because the audience already knows the answer to whodunit, and most of, if not all of the great character moments that were built up in the early goings gets left on the table. 

Woody Allen’s talent for writing sharp dialogue isn’t really on display here. Characters don’t show much wit and overall the movie is dull to listen to even after the crime is committed and everyone starts playing cat-and-mouse. The dullness seeps into everything else about the movie; the pacing, aesthetic, and unfortunately…the acting. 

The actors involved, all of whom are talented, don’t seem to know what they’re supposed to do with the material. Joaquin Phoenix, who is supposed to be playing a tortured soul, is a bit of a snooze to watch as Allen doesn’t seem know exactly where to direct him. Emma Stone is charming and looks great as always, and she plays off of Phoenix nicely…but it always seems like there should be more for her to work with. Parker Posey as the unhinged affair-having wife escapes with the least damage. 

The finale brings with it a fair amount of laughs from the theatre; not because it’s funny but because it’s ridiculous and flies in the face of the seriousness of the situation the film wants to convey. It’s a silly way to end a dull and bizarre movie, one that Allen will hopefully learn a few lessons from before he cranks out another. 


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Reel Facts & Opinions: Disney's New Princess

Last weekend, Disney made major headlines when they rolled out their future plans at their biennial expo known as D23. Perhaps lost amongst all the excitement over the news over Marvel, Pixar, and STAR WARS (read Reel Speak’s recap HERE), was the news concerning their upcoming 2016 animated musical film, MOANA. 

The film, slated for a November release, tells the story of a Pacific-Island princess who tries to complete her parents’ quest to find a fabled island which holds the secret to saving her people’s culture. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is set to play a Hawaiian demi-god, and the film will be directed by Disney veterans John Musker and Ron Clements (ALADDIN, THE LITTLE MERMAID). 

It sounds like the standard Disney fare we’ve been seeing for the past several decades; princess, quest, etc…but this time the House that the Mouse built is breaking down boundaries. In MOANA, (named after the title character) the princess is not only a non-white female protagonist, but according to the information released by Disney…is not a princess who falls in love. 

The role of a Disney princess, from SNOW WHITE to CINDERELLA to RAPUNZEL, have had a difficult time breaking out of the role of being an adorable girl who accidently does something to save the day, and falls in love with a handsome prince in the process. The type of female representation in Disney’s early films reflected founder Walt Disney’s personal feelings about family life, and it was so successful that the studio built a template which it reverted to for 75 years of films and other mass media storytelling. It may have worked very well and given generations of young girls something to look up to (although that has been debated as well), but in today’s age where there is a call for equal rights and for female heroes on the screen (read Reel Speak’s blogs on the issue HERE and HERE), it makes sense for Disney to get with the times. Adapt or die, as they say. 

The issue just doesn’t begin and end with female characters. In 2012 their Pixar production BRAVE, featured Pixar’s first female protagonist, and had the first female director for a Pixar flick (co-directed by Brenda Chapman). When the women on the screen aren’t portrayed as helpless, then perhaps the women in real-life won’t be either. Everyone loves a princess, and they shouldn’t go away forever, but a princess who can save the day…that’s even better. 


MOANA is set to arrive on November 23rd, 2016. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Reel Facts & Opinions: The Disney Rollout

This past weekend, all eyes of the cinema world turned towards the Mouse House, as Disney rolled out their impressive lineup of upcoming films and projects at their biennial exposition event known as D23. Disney wowed audiences and dominated social media for the weekend as they revealed footage from their upcoming Marvel super-flicks DR. STRANGE and CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, along with news and tidbits from their upcoming Pixar slate which includes this year’s THE GOOD DINOSAUR, along with FINDING DORY, TOY STORY 4, COCO, CARS 3, and THE INCREDIBLES II. Other cake-toppers included news from the fifth entry in the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise, along with ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS and the formal announcement of a STAR WARS theme park headed for Disneyland and Disneyworld. 

Even with such a flood of material to swim through, the most interesting news out of the expo concerned two of Disney’s prime properties; one of which is new to the company, the other an oldie but a goodie…


Footage was shown of Disney’s new live-action version of the Rudyard Kipling classic. This take, which is said to be a blending of the book and the 1967 animated version, stars the voice talents of Bill Murray (as Baloo the Bear), along with Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken, and Lupita Nyong’o (12 YEARS A SLAVE). The film will be taking advantage of the photo-realistic technology pioneered by James Cameron for AVATAR, and is slated for a 2016 release. 

This new version is being directed by Jon Favreau, whose directing credits have ranged from excellent (IRON MAN, CHEF), to just-ok (ELF) to ho-hum (COWBOYS AND ALIENS). Favreau is in good hands with Disney, who should have a very good grasp on the material by now after over 40 years of films, books, and TV adventures. The usage of the AVATAR tech promises an eye-popper, and Bill Murray as the Bear is a nice touch. 


No matter what Disney does these days, the conversation will always come back to their newly acquired mega-franchise, perhaps the biggest of them all…STAR WARS. The first big announcement concerning that beloved far, far away galaxy is that director Colin Trevorrow is set to direct STAR WARS EPISODE IX, which is set for a 2019 release. Trevorrow’s most recent directing credit is this year’s box office monster JURASSIC WORLD; which as of this weekend is the third highest-grossing film of all time in the both North American and the world…as well as the highest-grossing film of the 2010’s. 

Trevorrow’s success in JURASSIC WORLD cannot be measured on the box office numbers alone, no matter how impressive they are. The film was good but didn’t present much new, but that really isn’t Trevorrow’s fault; after all, when humans and dinosaurs get together there’s only one thing can happen. But JURASSIC WORLD, for as redundant as it was, was a great deal of fun with a lot of energy; by far it was never boring to watch…and that is an essential element to making a STAR WARS film. 


The last bit of STAR WARS news concerns the first stand-alone film, sub-titled ROGUE ONE. The film, which takes place before the events of STAR WARS EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE, is set for a 2016 release. The news revolved around the announcement of the full-cast, which includes Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Forest Whitaker, Alan Tudyk, and Forest Whitaker. A cast-photo was released: 

Observant fans may recognize those stone walls. The film is said to set up the events in EPISODE IV; specifically, the stealing of the Death Star plans. It is in essence a prequel, and this is the type of storytelling which tends to be met with a collective groan from certain factions of fans. An argument can be made there’s no fun in the telling of a story in which the ending is already known, but a better argument can be made that it is the journey that counts over the destination. 


Learn more about Disney’s D23 here