Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Year 3, Day 285 - 10/12/11 - Movie #998

BEFORE: From a tricky Devil to an angry God - and as I approach the end of the chain, let's discuss the end of the world, shall we?

The ubiquitous J.T. Walsh from "Needful Things" was also in "Sling Blade" with Lucas Black (last seen in "Friday Night Lights"), who appears tonight, all growed up.

THE PLOT: A group of strangers fight for the welfare of humanity.

AFTER: This starts out like a premise from "Twilight Zone" - a group of strangers in a remote roadside diner just before Christmas, who suddenly lose TV, radio, phone - all contact with the outside world.

Hmm, Dec. 24, a desert setting, and a very pregnant unwed mother? It starts to seem sort of biblically familiar. But when a couple of plagues and the angel/demons show up, the diner's patrons start to realize that the chapter at the other end of the New Testament might be more relevant.

Then a rogue angel shows up, and makes some of the same salient points about religion that I discussed yesterday. Good news is, God exists. Bad news is, he's kind of pissed off. Ready to scrap this whole humanity experiment and start over. Well, we gave it a good run, but I guess we just disappointed God in the end (or, did he disappoint us?).

Either way, it's up to a few stragglers to defend the diner and allow the child to be born, because apparently history repeats itself. This means the film mostly deteriorates into a shoot-em-up, and I kind of wish it had stuck to the philosophical stuff.

NITPICK POINT: If God really lost his faith in humanity, and felt there was no point in saving the world, why even allow the possibility of a savior being born? Isn't God, like, infallible or something? So how can there be a defect in his wise and wonderful plan? For that matter, why create angels (or humans) that disobey His rules? Damn, it's like I'm back in Sunday school again, asking tricky questions.

Also starring Paul Bettany (last seen in "The Tourist"), Dennis Quaid (last seen in "Suspect"), Kate Walsh (last seen in "Kicking & Screaming"), Charles S. Dutton (last seen in "A Time to Kill"), Tyrese Gibson, and Kevin Durand (last seen as the Blob in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine").

RATING: 6 out of 10 highway maps

SPOOK-O-METER: 8 out of 10, some really creepy demonic characters in this one.

PROGRAMMING NOTE: I've got to suspend the project for another few days, since New York Comic-Con starts tomorrow, and I've got to be up bright and early to load a van. I maybe working long hours at the convention, and I'll be pretty tired, so the easiest thing is to finish the chain by watching the last two movies early next week. Now I'm sorry that I took that week off in September, since I apparently miscalculated the number of days I'd have before Comic-Con.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Needful Things

Year 3, Day 284 - 10/11/11 - Movie #997

BEFORE: I watched a whole bunch of Stephen King-based films last year, but this one came into my possession after October was over. A character carries over (Hmm, who could it be?) and we go from Christopher Plummer to Amanda Plummer, father to daughter. Have they ever acted in a film together? Well, if not, then Christopher was in "Twelve Monkeys" with Bruce Willis, who was in "Die Hard" with Bonnie Bedelia (last seen in "Presumed Innocent"), another of tonight's stars.

THE PLOT: Leland Gaunt comes to a pleasant little New England town, and opens a store.

AFTER: Yes, a nice little country store, run by a man who seems to know exactly what you want to buy, and what you're willing to do in return for it. Plus he seems to keep the thermostat turned up very high in his store, wonder what's up with that?

I like the notion that it doesn't take much to plunge a small town into chaos, the mysterious stranger sets just a few small things in motion, playing upon people's petty feuds and typical grievances, and things spiral out of control quite artfully. So everyone is living pretty close to the edge, and they just need a little push. Seems about right.

I'm kind of reminded of that guy a few years ago who started with a paper-clip, and made an internet trade for a pen, then traded the pen for a doorknob, traded that for a Coleman stove, and kept trading up until he got himself a house. The Stranger works with something akin to the same principle here - set a little chaos in motion, and eventually the souls will come. Except he does it with about the same bluntness that Tony Soprano's crew used to take over that sporting goods store.

It makes sense that the Devil (come on, you knew it was the Devil, right?) would thrive on chaos and pettiness - it was probably too obvious to have people sign those soul-binding contracts. Why go to so much trouble with those legal documents, when this is so much easier, and probably a lot more fun? Does it surprise anyone that the Devil is a sadistic bastard? Yes, in addition to being pure evil, he's also not very nice. Seems about right.

Oh, but he LOOKS nice. He's a kind old man, an innocent shopkeeper. What, did you think he'd look like a twisted demon with horns and a tail, holding a pitchfork? That's so 12th century. He's going to wear a nice suit, drive a bitchin' car (vanity is a sin, after all) and act like your best damn friend. Again, makes perfect sense.

And he's played quite artfully here by Max Von Sydow (last seen in "Minority Report"), the same guy who played Jesus in "The Greatest Story Ever Told". From Father Merrin in "The Exorcist" to Emperor Ming in "Flash Gordon" - that's what you call RANGE, kids. He can play sinner or saint, and everything in between.

So far, this is my favorite Stephen King story, of the ones I've seen, anyway. I like what it says about human nature, though it's a stretch to think that the Devil is actively tempting people on such a concrete basis. As the priest in this film says, if you believe in God then you must believe in the Devil. The reverse is true, so if the Devil's walking around, it proves the existence of God, right? But what if John Lennon got it right - Imagine there's no hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine all the people, living for today. (and not beating the crap out of each other)

I was raised Catholic, and in my own New England hometown there were a number of other churches. But I knew my parents wouldn't bring me to the "wrong" church, so I had to be going to the right one, and all those other churches and temples were somehow less "right". See, that's the kind of stinking thinking that's got the world where it is, and it leads to people blowing up buildings and each other. Maybe all of the faiths are right, maybe NONE of them are right. Each person has the power to think for themselves, and reject dogma that doesn't make sense, or seems like a fairy story.

The Devil, if he exists, doesn't need to do jack squat, not when religious people argue over fine points of irrelevant moral codes. My god can beat up your god, when both religions preach non-violence? Ridiculous. End of rant.

You know what you never see in a spy film or a comic book? Someone about to take over the world in a calm, rational manner. The super-hero or super-agent would burst into the villain's lair, and after the villain details his plans (and they always detail their plans) to loan money to Greece, leverage the U.S.A.'s debt to China, etc. etc., the hero would be forced to say, "Hey, that could work! And it's all perfectly legal. Good luck with that, I'll just let myself out." Nope, you never see that.

Also starring Ed Harris (last seen in "The Right Stuff"), J.T. Walsh (last seen in "Miracle on 34th Street"), and Don Davis (last seen in "Omen IV").

RATING: 8 out of 10 parking tickets

SPOOK-O-METER: 6 out of 10. What's scarier than the Devil is how low humanity can go.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Year 3, Day 283 - 10/10/11 - Movie #996

BEFORE: From the freakshow to a traveling carnival, and another film from a director who I've met. I got Terry Gilliam's autograph at a book signing years ago, and my boss has had a few professional dealings with him since. I didn't have this film on my list of horror films, but after reading the plot summary, I found it might be just the film I need to fit here and bridge the topics.

Linking from "Freaked" is simple, since Randy Quaid was also in "Brokeback Mountain" with Heath Ledger (last seen in "A Knight's Tale").

THE PLOT: A traveling theater company gives its audience much more than they were expecting.

AFTER: As I approach the 1,000 film mark, I've been building a list of the films I've seen from the IMDB, so that I can get an overview on the ratings, and how my ratings compare to the public's average scores. It seems like I gave out a lot more 7's and 8's back in Year 1, and I'm not sure whether that's because my general outlook toward movies was more favorable, or since I had a larger list, I was able to select better films.

And this film puts me in a delicate spot, because I like Terry Gilliam, and he's made some of my favorite films - "Time Bandits", "Brazil" and "12 Monkeys" are all contenders for slots in my all-time Top 10. And much respect for his work in Monty Python, on the TV or the big-screen, it's all good.

Something started slipping, though, with "Adventures of Baron Munchausen", which was still a great film, but I started to get the sense that the fantasy elements were starting to overtake the narrative ones, and that the director might have started to lose a little perspective on what works and what doesn't - and then came that documentary "Lost in La Mancha" that showed him struggling with the concepts involved in trying to make a new version of "Don Quixote". So, I worried about, and avoided, films like "Tideland" (still on the list, though).

The fantasy sequences in "Brazil" were brilliant allegories, and were used to enhance the main storyline. In "Baron Munchausen", "Fisher King", and even "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", the fantasy/drug-induced sequences were gradually taking over more and more of each film - to the point where I'm not sure if the man can make a straight, narrative film anymore.

Which brings us to tonight's film - a large majority of which takes place in a fantasy world, which might be inside the mind of Dr. Parnassus, or it might be some cosmic limbo where people's fates get decided, or possibly both. The title character can't resist making wagers with Mr. Nick (the Devil), and the commerce they trade in is the souls of other people.

As near as I can tell, Parnassus's carnival transports them to this other world, where they are given some form of choice, and one choice brings them to hell, and the other..., well, that's where things get fuzzy. Parnassus's original bet with the devil was that he could get people to choose imagination and wonderment over darkness and evil, but is that still the choice? With such broad visual allegories in the fantasy world, I honestly couldn't tell which choice would lead to what.

If you're going to detail some Faustian wager, it might help to clue the audience in on exactly what the rules are, and how this crazy process works. Now I've got to go to the message boards and try to figure out just what was happening, and what it all means.

Gilliam, of course, was dealt a bad hand when Heath Ledger died before completing the film - so we'll never know how good the film could have been, if more scenes with Ledger would have made the whole deal more coherent. Other prominent actors famously stepped in to complete his scenes, and fortunately this was easily acceptable by stating that the character's appearance changes within the fantasy sequences, with the world's appearance being dictated by the imagination of the at-risk soul.

When you consider the fragility of life, imagine the heartless choices that a producer or director has to make, which are often dictated by money rather than human sensitivity. Do you shoot your film in sequence, or work the scheduling in such a way that all of an expensive (or high-risk) actor's scenes are together? Do you increase the chances of getting the film completed, but compromise the artistic process?

Still, that being said, I desperately wanted some more coherency from this film, to go with the stunning visuals. Way too much oblique allegory - what the heck does it all mean?

Also starring Christopher Plummer (last heard in "9"), Johnny Depp (last seen in "The Tourist"), Jude Law (last seen in "The Aviator"), Colin Farrell (last seen in "S.W.A.T."), Tom Waits (last seen in "The Cotton Club"), Verne Troyer (last seen in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas"), Andrew Garfield (last seen in "Lions for Lambs"), Lily Cole, with a cameo from Peter Stormare (last seen in "Bad Boys II").

RATING: 3 out of 10 gondolas

SPOOK-O-METER: 2 out of 10 - some creepy fantasy sequences, and a not-at-all-scary devil.

Sunday, October 9, 2011


Year 3, Day 282 - 10/9/11 - Movie #995

BEFORE: Two weeks ago, I knew exactly how I'd finish up the chain for the year, what my last 15 films were going to be. But sometimes watching a film sparks a connection to another film on the list, and I can't help but wonder if I should change the plan. Usually I've got a blank day or two in a month, so adding a film has little impact - but with the end in sight, if I add a film, I've got to delete another and push it into next year's plan. This is what happened after watching "Cirque du Freak", I was reminded that this film was on the list, though I had it in the "miscellaneous" category instead of horror. Back to back freakshows, I can't pass that up. And tomorrow's film is another last-minute addition, so I've got to cut two films from the final 7.

Linking's a snap, though, since Josh Hutcherson was in "Journey to the Center of the Earth" with Brendan Fraser, who was in "Furry Vengeance" with Brooke Shields.

THE PLOT: A vain actor, his best friend, and an activist end up at a mutant freak farm run by a weirdo scientist.

AFTER: Well, just like with a real freak show, you pays your money and you takes your chances. Now I'm regretting wasting one of the last slots of the year on this one.

The film is directed by Alex Winter, more famous as Bill S. Preston, Esquire from the "Bill & Ted" films. I met him a few times, for a few years he lived in the same NYC building as my boss, and so I'd occasionally share an elevator with him. He seemed like a nice enough guy, and it wasn't too hard to imagine that the elevator was a time-traveling phone booth, but I digress. Every New Yorker probably knows where a celebrity or two lives or hangs out, so maybe it's not that big a deal.

Unfortunately, it's tough to see just what he was trying to make of this film, it's almost got the tone of an "Airplane" or perhaps "Rocky Horror Picture Show", but what is it supposed to be a spoof of? Monster movies in general? Some of the designs are inventive, some seem to be tributes to the work of artist Basil Wolverton, but the humor is just strange, a lot of it seems to come out of left field, and a lot of it ends up missing the mark.

It's one of those films where I'm left scratching my head, wondering what the point was. Toxic chemicals are bad? Duh. Freaks are people, too? Nah, that doesn't seem right. Mostly this seems like it was designed to waste 80 minutes of people's time. Well, at least that's kind of short, it could have dragged on longer, I suppose. Geez, you know it's bad when the best thing I can say about a movie is that it was over pretty quickly.

Also starring William Sadler (last seen in "Kinsey, but more famous for playing the Grim Reaper in "Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey"), Michael Stoyanov (last seen in "The Dark Knight", but more famous for being the older brother on "Blossom"), Randy Quaid (last seen in "Christmas Vacation"), with cameos from Mr. T (last seen in "Rocky III"), Morgan Fairchild, Bobcat Goldthwait (last seen in "Blow"), Deep Roy, Calvert DeForest (better known as Larry "Bud" Melman), and yes, that's supposedly an uncredited Keanu Reeves (last seen in "The Day the Earth Stood Still") as the dog-faced boy.

RATING: 2 out of 10 macaroons

SPOOK-O-METER: 3 out of 10, only because toxic mutations are kinda gross.