Monthly Archives: August 2013

Hot Fuzz (2007)

Hot Fuzz #1

by Steve Habrat

In 2004, director Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost wowed genre audiences everywhere with their fantastic rom-zom-com debut Shaun of the Dead. In 2005, Wright and Pegg had brief cameos in George A. Romero’s 2005 comeback Land of the Dead and in the spring of 2007, Wright, Pegg, and Frost contributed the wonderfully spot-on fake trailer Don’t to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse, the severely underrated double-feature ode to sleaze pictures of the 70s and 80s. Their hot streak continued just a few short weeks later with the release of the cop-slasher hybrid Hot Fuzz, a zippy, bloody, gory, and flat-out hilarious adrenaline rush that found the guys returning to the big screen in a colossal way. Riffing on Point Break, Bad Boys II, and almost every other action movie that Michael Bay has ever made, Wright and his double-trouble duo then drive this flashing police car straight into the whodunit slasher genre with guns blazing. Brimming with winks and nods to everything they love, Wright once again smartly tells a highly original story that turns Hot Fuzz into a modern day action masterpiece. It also has the world’s funniest swan and a gunfight to end all gunfights, so that is also a plus too.

Nicholas Angel (played by Simon Pegg) is the best police office in London. He is so good at his job that he is starting to make the other officers on the police force look bad. One day, Nicholas is called into a meeting with Chief Inspector Kenneth (played by Bill Nighy), who explains that Nicholas is going to be transferred to the rural town of Sanford, a picturesque community that is devoid of crime. Upon his arrival, Nicholas meets Inspector Frank Butterman (played by Jim Broadbent) and his simple-minded son Danny Butterman (played by Nick Forst). Frank partners up the overachieving Nicholas up with the lackadaisical Danny and sends the duo out to patrol the quiet streets. Everything seems to be going okay until a series of brutal accidents sends a shockwave through the town residents. Convinced that there is more to these accidents than meets the eye, Nicholas and Danny launch an investigation that brings them face to face with a hooded killer. With prominent members of the community dropping like flies, Nicholas and Danny race to put an end to the hooded figure’s killing spree, but the closer they get to catching the murderer, the more secrets that are revealed about the seemingly peaceful town of Sanford.

Bigger and badder than Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz has studied the action manual very hard and it knows what we have come to expect. The aesthetic is sleek and shiny, with even the smallest moments spiffed up to make our eyes pop. Early on, Nicholas arrests a handful of underage teens sipping suds in Sanford’s pub and as Nicholas books them at the station, Wright cuts quickly, pulling off several flashy camera tricks and even speeding up or slowing down the action for maximum effect. It’s absolutely hilarious and a very clever nod to Michael Bay and his insistence on stylizing every little detail. When the action goes boom, we get the typical slow motion shot of the heroes walking away from the fiery destruction in the background. The climax finds Wright including everything from police chases to gritty gun battles, all the way to a final mano-y-mano that ends in a sight gag that is simultaneously horrific and hilarious. Once again, Wright manages to carefully balance out the action side of the story with the whodunit/slasher aspect. The murder mystery is fun and it does make for a few good jump moments that will keep you on your toes. In a way, you are left crossing your fingers that the guys might reunite down the line for a straight up slasher movie. I have a feeling that it might be another home run from Wright.

Hot Fuzz #2

As if the flashy action and the slasher plotline weren’t enough for one motion picture, Wright pumps in a heartwarming buddy-cop subplot. A good majority of the fun comes from watching Pegg and Frost interact with each other, mostly because they are such polar opposites. In Shaun of the Dead, they were on the same dazed wavelength but in Hot Fuzz, they are like oil in water. Pegg excels at the supercop role, never missing a moment to turn his by-the-books Nicholas into a Buzz Killington. He drags the buzzed youth down to the station even though the local-yokels argue that allowing the boys to have a few brews in a local pub keeps them from causing trouble in the streets. When he reluctantly agrees to hang out with Danny outside of work, he refuses a beer and orders a simple cranberry juice. He bottles up his anger when he is sent to round up a runaway swan, one of the film’s funniest running jokes and he sighs through boredom as Danny invites him to his house to watch Bad Boys II and Point Break. On the other hand, Frost’s Danny is sweet and simple, a guy who really could care less about his day job and would much rather be at home getting lost in a fantasy world of exploding cars, gunfire, and mayhem. You practically cheer for him when he gets the chance to pick up some firepower and join Nicholas on the streets for a good old-fashion shootout and you’ll be doubled over laughing when he gets to act out his favorite scene from Point Break.

As far the supporting players go, Broadbent is a riot as the merry Sanford Police Inspector who pairs up Nicholas and Danny. Bill Nighy is perfectly dry as the Chief Inspector who ships Nicholas off to dead end and Timothy Dalton gives a suave performance as Simon Skinner, a supermarket manager who seems awfully suspicious. Interestingly enough, Cate Blanchett turns up as Janine, Nicholas’s girlfriend in a HAZMAT suit and director Peter Jackson stops by for an appearance as the Santa Claus that attacks Nicholas in the opening credits. If there were anything to nitpick in Hot Fuzz, it would probably have to be the length of the film. With so much happening within the plot, the film does run a bit too long and the climax starts to feel a bit like overkill even if Wright is desperately trying to cram in as many action movie staples as he can. Overall, it is clear that Wright, Pegg, Frost, and nearly every other actor or actress in Hot Fuzz is having a ball and their good time does rub off on the viewer. Wright and Pegg’s screenplay never misses a beat and the laughs blast at the viewer like bullets. You may never be able to look at a swan the same way again.

Grade: A-

Hot Fuzz is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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TRAILER THURSDAY!

Here’s the picture that grabs the screen and shakes it! Here is the trailer for the 1965 sci-fi B-movie Monster a-Go Go, directed by Bill Rebane.

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Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Shaun of the Dead #1

by Steve Habrat

Before the summer of 2003, the zombie genre had largely remained dead and buried. There was a sluggish 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead here and the final Italian effort Dellamorte Dellamore there, but the zombies seemed content to rest six feet under. In 2002, we caught a glimpse of the undead in the futuristic action-thriller Resident Evil, a film that was unexpectedly fun despite the fact that it was based around a video game and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. In 2003, zombies—or should I say INFECTED people—came back in a big way. Danny Boyle’s grim indie 28 Days Later re-ignited interest in the apocalyptic subgenre and the craze grew ever stronger with the spring 2004 release of the Dawn of the Dead remake. With the zombie craze re-established, the fall of 2004 saw the release of British director Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, a written-in-blood loveletter to George A. Romero’s Dead trilogy, some of the early Italian releases like Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, and, yes, Boyle’s gritty reimagining of the genre. Down-to-earth, warm, hilarious, and tense in all the right places, Shaun of the Dead is without question one of the strongest modern zombie movies and it ranks up there as one of the best undead films ever made. Oh, and it also happens to be a romantic comedy, which means your girlfriend might like it too.

Shaun of the Dead introduces us to Shaun (played by Simon Pegg), whose life seems to be stuck in a rut. He works a dead end job as an electronics salesman at Foree Electric, he loathes his stepfather, Phillip (played by Bill Nighy), he constantly quarrels with his roommate, Pete (played by Peter Serafinowicz), over their lazy best friend Ed, who shacks up on their couch and refuses to get a job, and he wants to spend every night sipping pints in a local pub called the Winchester. To make things worse, Shaun is loosing his girlfriend, Liz (played by Kate Ashfield), who wishes that Shaun would do more with his life. After Shaun forgets to book a table at a fancy restaurant for their anniversary, Liz decides to call it quits with Shaun because he just can’t seem to grow up and take on responsibility. Devastated, Shaun and Ed retreat to the Winchester to drown their sorrows in a couple pints and shots, but the next day, the two awake to discover that mankind has been wiped out and the cannibalistic undead roam the streets. Hungover and terrified, Shaun and Ed begin devising a plot to round up Liz, her roommates, David (played by Dylan Moran) and Dianne (played by Lucy Davis), and Shaun’s mother, Barbara (played by Penelope Wilton), in an attempt to show Liz that he is a responsible adult. The plan is to hold up in the Winchester until the whole thing blows over, but as they begin their trek to the pub, they realize that the situation outside is a lot more dangerous than they had anticipated.

The early scenes of Shaun of the Dead are absolutely hilarious and brimming with social commentary. The opening credits find ordinary citizens shuffling through their daily lives with a blank stare frozen on their faces, rooted in monotonous routines. Even Shaun is stuck in a mundane ritual as he shuffles out of bed like a zombie, throws on his work clothes, and sulks obliviously down to the local market where he picks up sodas and ice cream to munch on while he plays video games with Ed. Funny enough, Ed is the one that reminds Shaun that he can’t jump into a game because he has to go to work. Shaun is so blind to his surroundings that when the zombie apocalypse does finally hit, he has absolutely no idea that it is happening until Ed calmly tells him that there’s a girl in their garden. From here on out, the film falls back on the blind leading the blind. Shaun and Ed are clueless over how to deal with the situation they find themselves in. They think that throwing records like Frisbees at the zombies that have stumbled into their back yard (the movie’s best and funniest sequence) is a good idea and they hilariously believe that they will be able to shack up in a pub and sip pints while the undead pound away outside. These early scenes show that Pegg and Wright, who penned the script, both fully understand that Romero’s Dead trilogy had a lot more on its mind that just blood and guts.

Shaun of the Dead #2

While there are plenty of smarts to be found in the depiction of daily life, which clearly Pegg and Wright detest, the film also gets by on some witty references to other zombie movies. Early on we get a nod to Lucio Fulci, Ken Foree, who was the star of Romero’s 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead, a sly nod to the 1984 cosmic zombie movie Night of the Comet, a hilarious spin on the “we’re coming to get you, Barbara” line from Night of the Living Dead, and charming use of Goblin’s score from Dawn of the Dead. There is also a blink-and-you-miss-it tribute to Boyle’s 28 Days Later near the end of the film. While Wright and Pegg are eager to pay tribute to the zombie movie greats, they create a unique offering to the genre. The film is also a hilarious slacker-stoner comedy and a touching romantic comedy that finds us rooting for the romance to rekindle between Liz and Shaun. By the end of the film, Wright has scrubbed away most of the laughs in favor for the typical gut munching and closed-off claustrophobia that made horror fans fall in love with the zombie genre in the first place. The final sequence has powerful emotional blows, a quick visual gag to break the tension, and then a final siege that finds our heroes realistically trying to work their way around a firearm. The scene is all the better because we truly want every single one of these characters to make it out alive, but when the zombies start trying to claw their way in, our stomach twists into knots and we know that won’t happen.

The characters of Shaun of the Dead are all brilliantly written and beautifully played by a handful of very talented British actors. Pegg is a revelation as Shaun, who still gets a belly laugh out of a good fart joke. He shares several touching moments with the stoner Ed, who seems to have grown roots to the couch and super glued an XBOX controller to his fingertips. Ashfield is sweet and tightly wound as Liz, who thinks that there is a lot more out there for her than simply wasting away at the Winchester. Moran is a geeky puke as David, who pines for Liz even though she sees him as just a friend, and Davis tries to be mediator as Dianne. Nighy is stern discipline as Phillip, Shaun’s no-nonsense stepfather who is given one of the most dramatic scenes of the movie. Serafinowicz is wildly unlikable as Pete, Shaun’s fed-up flat mate and Wilton is naïve as Shaun’s lovable mother Barbara. Amazingly, Wright gets us to like even the most detestable characters and he almost drives us to tears when the cannibals seeking human flesh bite a few of them. Overall, Shaun of the Dead dares to take on quite a bit and it could have been crushed under the heavy load it attempts to lift. It is bound and determined to take on several different genres at once and it does it with shocking ease. It is an inventive, poignant, hilarious, and creepy zombie movie that has even earned praise from the zombie godfather himself, George A. Romero. You’ll want to watch this movie again and again.

Grade: A-

Shaun of the Dead is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

TRAILER TUESDAY!

It’s a fantastic ray-gun rampage! Check out a trailer for the 1959 sci-fi drive-in flick Teenagers from Outer Space, directed by Tom Graeff.

teenagers-from-outer-space

Blue Jasmine (2013)

Blue Jasmine #1

by Steve Habrat

Since 2007’s unremarkable crime drama Cassandra’s Dream and 2008’s sultry love triangle Vicky Christina Barcelona, Woody Allen has reverted back to making cutesier dramedies like Whatever Works, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, the superb Midnight in Paris, and To Rome with Love. Now well into his seventies, Allen continues to make one movie a year to keep busy. In 2012, he snagged an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his work on the enchanting Midnight in Paris, a win that you’d think he would have ended his career on, but he continues to push forward. I’ll be honest, I really worried that Midnight in Paris might be the last great film of Allen’s career, but I’m so pleased to say that the persistent writer-director blindsided me with Blue Jasmine, a stinging art-house portrait of a woman who had everything and ended up with nothing. With most of the comedy dropped, Allen builds to a climax that is sure to freeze you in your seat for a solid few minutes. Blue Jasmine is already a sobering slap, but it is made all the more captivating by a devastating Cate Blanchett, who will certainly have her name in the Best Actress category at the Oscars.

Blue Jasmine begins with Jasmine (played by Cate Blanchett) arriving in San Francisco in the wake of a nasty divorce and a financial scandal that led to her wealthy husband, Hal (played by Alec Baldwin), committing suicide. Broke, angry, and alone, Jasmine shacks up with her blue-collar sister, Ginger (played by Sally Hawkins), with whom she shares a rocky relationship. In the past, Hal let Ginger and her ex-husband, Augie (played by Andrew Dice Clay), in on a faulty investment deal that left the couple broke. As Jasmine tries to compose herself and restart her life, she meets a wealthy California Congressman Dwight Westlake (played by Peter Sarsgaard) at a party. The two quickly fall in love and plan to marry, but Jasmine’s dark past comes back to haunt her. Meanwhile, Ginger, who is set to marry the big-hearted grease monkey Chili (played by Bobby Cannavale), strikes up a romance with seemingly nice-guy Al (played by Louis C.K.), who has a secret of his own.

Based upon Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Blue Jasmine initially comes on like a typical Allen film. Blanchett’s character is presented as a nervy and neurotic mess looking for any ear that will listen to her spew her tragic life story. She flies first-class even though she doesn’t have a penny to her name and she constantly reminds her modest sister that Uncle Sam took everything from her, even her precious furs. When she lays eyes on where she will be staying, she fights back vomiting and musters the thinnest compliment imaginable. When her angst becomes too overwhelming, she rushes for a bottle of vodka, pops a Xanax, and starts mumbling to herself about her lavish past with a philandering millionaire who showered her with expensive gifts to blind her to his unfaithfulness. She makes the viewer cringe as she scoffs at Chili, who she views as a loose cannon deadbeat who will never be able to provide for Ginger, even though Chili desperately tries to be as warm to Jasmine as he can. At times, you almost get the sense that Allen is concealing the really brutal stuff behind a romantic comedy/midlife crisis mask, but we are never entirely sure how vicious this is going to get. Even though she is highly unlikeable and about as self-absorbed and pretentious as you can get, we still oddly root for Jasmine to get her life back together and find love. It’s hard to find a scene in Blue Jasmine that doesn’t have Jasmine herself a red-faced, withering mess fighting off the creepy advancements of a dentist and Chili’s buddies and throwing a pity party.

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The true power of Blue Jasmine rests on the slender shoulders of Cate Blanchett, who gives the performance of her career as the equally pathetic and detestable Jasmine. Watching her try to go from swanky socialite to receptionist with absolutely no skills to get by is gripping every step of the way. You hate her when Allen flashes back and shows her blowing off the beaming Ginger and Augie as they pop by New York for a visit and you stand behind her hope as she lingers by the telephone waiting for the dashing Dwight to call her up. There is something admirable in her attempt to finish school and learn how to use a computer, but this drive is done in by the shallow possibly of returning to the life of luxury with Dwight. Hawkins gives a big-hearted performance as Ginger, Jasmine’s sister who is constantly being berated by Jasmine over her job, living conditions, and choice of men. You really have to pat Ginger on the back for her kindness, especially when it is revealed that Jasmine barely acknowledged her existence when she was living high in New York. Bobby Cannavale is a delight as Chili, Ginger’s rough-around-the-edges fiancé who tries to kid with Jasmine, but always ends up in a war of words with the fallen queen. Louis C.K. turns up as a lovable stereo installer who just can’t seem to get enough of the bubbly Ginger. Peter Sarsgaard’s Dwight is a nice upper-class gentleman with big dreams, but even his soft personality isn’t immune to the lies that Jasmine is spinning. Explicit comedian Andrew Dice Clay gives a dramatic performance as Ginger’s ruined ex-husband, Augie, who fell into some money and was then taken for a ride by Hal. Recent Allen regular Alec Baldwin gives a soft-spoken performance as the crooked philistine businessman Hal who is seen running around on Jasmine mostly in flashbacks.

With such a serious story, Allen tries to lighten the mood early on with some of his trademark dry wit. But by the last fifteen minutes of Blue Jasmine, he drops any attempt to cushion his blows and dishes out a one-two punch that sends Jasmine to the brink of madness. I must say, Allen unleashes a series of plot twists that catapult Blue Jasmine to the forefront of Allen’s massive body of work. I was left speechless, paralyzed, and most of all, I was thrilled to see Allen shrewdly serve up an ice-cold plate of reality to a character that just kept trying to turn a blind eye to it. Allen is ever careful in the way he allows these prickly twists to reveal themselves, a testament to his skills as a writer. Overall, in years past, Allen has said that he loathes reality and that he prefers the fantasy realm. With Blue Jasmine, Allen seems to have hardened and embraced the idea that there are some seriously crushing realities in the world and they can have some serious consequences. Blue Jasmine is a masterpiece from a man in the twilight of his career and one of the best films I have seen in 2013 so far.

Grade: A

The World’s End (2013)

The World's End #1

by Steve Habrat

In 2004, America had the pleasure of being introduced to Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and director Edgar Wright, a trio of British funny guys who bowed at the cinematic alter of all things horror, action, science fiction, and exploitation. They burst into Hollywood with Shaun of the Dead, a warm and fuzzy romantic comedy…. with zombies. Shaun of the Dead was a surprise hit, even earning praise from the zombie godfather himself, George A. Romero. In the summer of 2007, Pegg, Frost, and Wright returned to theaters with Hot Fuzz, a razor-sharp marriage of the slasher genre and the buddy cop action genre that threatened to be even better than Shaun of the Dead. It was around this time that you started hearing that these films were part of a trilogy that Wright was calling his Cornetto trilogy. After another lengthy wait, the trio have finally brought their Cornetto trilogy to a close with The World’s End, a smashing nod to classic science fiction films from the 1950s all the way to the 1980s. Wright and his starring duo have already proven themselves as experts at mashing up multiple genres of film and The World’s End finds them once again at the top of their game. This midlife crisis comedy flows with laughs, blue blood, brilliant characters, superbly choreographed fistfights, heartfelt drama, and enough beer to have the most seasoned beer drinkers screaming uncle and running for the bathroom.

The World’s End introduces us to Gary King (played by Simon Pegg), a forty-year-old wash up that is stuck living in the past. In his youth, Gary and his four closest friends participated in a pub-crawl called the Golden Mile, which consisted of twelve pubs scattered throughout their hometown of Newton Haven. The boys were unable to finish the crawl, but Gary remembers it fondly as the greatest night of his life. After growing frustrated with rehab, Gary tracks down his four best friends—Andy (played by Nick Frost), Peter (played by Eddie Marsan), Oliver (played by Martin Freeman), and Steven (played by Paddy Considine)—in the hopes of convincing them to reattempt the Golden Mile and this time making it to The World’s End, the final bar in the crawl. Despite having moved on with their lives, the gang decides to join Gary in the pub-crawl. It doesn’t take long for the gang to start bumping into familiar faces from their youth, but it seems that their old friends don’t recognize them at all. After a bathroom scuffle with a group of freakishly strong and blank-faced teenagers, the group discovers that the citizens of Newton Haven have all been turned into robots. Confused, buzzed, and terrified, the group decides to continue on with their crawl in an attempt to blend in, but it doesn’t take long for the group to blow their cover. Teaming with Oliver’s beautiful sister, Sam (played by Rosamund Pike), and a handful of normal locals, the group begins a fight to remain human… and make it to The World’s End.

For those who aren’t cinema buffs or seasoned vets of the Cornetto trilogy, the main focus of these three films has been to pick a genre of film (horror, action, science fiction) that Wright, Pegg, and Frost adore and pay tribute to the classic films within that genre, all while tucking a heartfelt and relatable storyline inside the nods. After giving the viewer a chunk of time to get to know the characters, The World’s End sets its sights on the classic science fiction films from the Cold War/drive-in era all the way to the films like John Carpenter’s The Thing. When the robot-aliens finally make their presence known, the narrative of The World’s End begins to heavily borrow from Don Siegel’s 1956 sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Wright then sprinkles in hints of the 1978 remake, but these lean more towards the visual end. Genre fans should also be on the lookout for nods to The Day the Earth Stood Still and a scene-stealing ode to John Carpenter’s The Thing. Wright smartly understands that these classic films were heavy with politics and social commentary, and he converts these nods into a hilarious comment on modern day conformity. The best use of this commentary comes when the guys start the crawl and realize that the colorful bars that they use to frequent as boys have been scrubbed of their small-town individuality and converted into Starbuck-esque establishments. It’s a running gag that never gets old.

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The theme of conformity continues in the characters, especially Andy, Oliver, Peter, and Steven. These guys have tried desperately to distance themselves from their hard-partying days and embraced a happy family, a cozy desk job with a mound of benefits, expensive suits, and a fancy home in the suburbs. We sense their boredom early on and we roll our eyes when they tell the free-spirited Gary to grow up and get serious with his life. Pegg easily gives the strongest performance of his career as Gary, the ultimate party animal who just can’t say “no” to a cold pint and a bag of weed. I really don’t think I have seen Pegg throw himself into a role with this much enthusiasm before and I thought he was a ball of energy in the Star Trek films! Frost breaks away from playing the slouching slacker that he played in both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and takes the uptight route as Andy, who hasn’t had a drink in fifteen years and is flat out appalled by Gary’s loose-cannon behavior. Watching Andy and Gary try to rekindle their relationship is awkward, hilarious, and moving all at the same time. Marsan is another scene-stealer as the geeky Peter, who appears to be petrified of his own family and bottling up pain from being bullied. When he starts downing the brews and the shots, he is an absolute riot. Freeman’s Oliver is your usual businessman with a Bluetooth shoved in his ear and Considine is a fitness nut dating a younger girl. Pike is sweet and scrappy as Oliver’s sister, Sam, who is pursued by both Steven and Gary. Pierce Brosnan also makes a special appearance as Guy Sheppard, an old guidance counselor from the gang’s high school.

Where The World’s End hits a snag is in the final confrontation between the gang and the alien invaders that are hiding out in Newton Haven. Just before the two parties meet, there is a surprisingly emotional heart-to-heart between Gary and Andy that will have a good majority of viewers getting a bit misty-eyed. The dramatic moment is pierced by a drawn-out war of words with the alien force. Wright is slyly paying tribute to some of the lower-key climaxes of the sci-fi films from the 50s, where the all-American hero came face-to-face with the alien invaders and engaged in a heated discussion about the alien’s intentions. While it is smart on Wright’s end, it does throw the film’s momentum way off and it feels like we’ve hit a brick wall for a good ten minutes. Thankfully, Wright recovers with some seriously epic destruction that will get the heart pounding again. Overall, The World’s End may not be my personal favorite film of the Cornetto trilogy, but I still found myself getting wrapped up in the emotional sweep at the climax, laughing at the quick wit, hanging on the action sequences, and beaming over the love letter homages. This is one cocktail that may suffer from a bit of backwash near the end, but will still leave you with one hell of a buzz that is guaranteed to last for days.

Grade: B+ 

TRAILER THURSDAY!

It’s that time again! Check out a hilarious trailer for the 1968 science-fiction film The Green Slime, directed by Kinji Fukasaku.

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First Man Into Space (1959)

First Man Into Space #1

by Steve Habrat

On October 4th, 1957, the Soviet Union officially ignited the Space Race with the launch of the shiny satellite Sputnik 1. With Sputnik 1 orbiting the Earth and sending otherworldly transmissions, the United States and Russia began frantically trying to send the first human being up into the stars. While it would be just under four years before Yuri Gagarin would orbit Earth, that didn’t stop the science-fiction motion pictures from taking advantage of the headline-grabbing topic. One such sci-fi horror film that dealt directly with humans in space was director Robert Day’s 1959 film First Man Into Space, a small but chilling and bloody warning about mankind’s eagerness to fire themselves into the heavens. Made for a small sum, First Man Into Space doesn’t try to reach beyond its budget and it keeps its action fairly simple. It is essentially a moody monster movie, one that generates moderate suspense when its space vampire is kept largely in the dark. Comprised of strong performances, well-used stock footage, an eerie small town vibe, a gee-whiz cosmic opening, and underlying paranoia about what lies beyond the clouds, First Man Into Space is a first-rate B-movie that deserves the attention of genre fans everywhere. It’s just a shame that the last ten minutes commit the ultimate sin of showing the monster up close and personal.

First Man Into Space begins with hotshot Lieutenant Dan Prescott (played by Bill Edwards) piloting a Y-12 rocket into space while his uptight brother, Commander Charles “Chuck” Prescott (played by Marshall Thompson), monitors from a small space station in New Mexico. Dan’s determination to be the first man into space gets the best of him as he speeds towards the stars and it causes him to ignore orders from Chuck. After a close call and a wrecked rocket, Dan heads off to see his girlfriend, Tia Francesca (played by Marla Landi), without returning to base to report to his superiors. The exasperated Chuck tracks Dan down and threatens to prevent him from flying anymore missions if he doesn’t start following orders, but Dan simply laughs off Chuck’s threats. Some time later, Dan is back behind the controls of a Y-13 and speeding towards the unknown. Just as Dan is supposed to level off and begin his descent, he hits his emergency boosters and rockets into space. Dan quickly looses control of his rocket and he is sent into a cloud of meteorite dust. Dan manages to eject at the last second, but all contact with the ship is lost. Several days later, Chuck, who assumes that his brother is dead, is called out to a farm where a piece of the rocket has been found. Authorities gather up the wreckage and take it back to base where they discover a strange encrustation on the ship. Meanwhile, a horrifically deformed and wheezing creature has been prowling the countryside attacking people and sucking the blood from their veins.

The opening sequence of First Man Into Space is really something to behold. While the effects never get very extravagant and stock footage masks budget restraint, the scenes in which Dan flies into space will give you butterflies. Day keeps his camera trained on Dan’s face so we can see the excitement creeping through his eyes and his forming smile. There are a few moments where Day ventures outside the speeding rocket for a pulpy image but he keeps this adventure about as intimate as you can get. When Dan looses control of his ship the first time, the suspense is felt with Dan inside the cockpit as the Y-12 tumbles end over end, the Earth crashing into view for brief seconds only to be followed by a blur of stars. The second trip is just as breathtaking as Dan’s excitement and accomplishment completely overpowers him, but this excitement is short lived when the meteorite dust swallows up Dan’s rocket. You feel as though all the air has been sucked out of you. From here on out, First Man Into Space slowly simmers the terror as wreckage encrusted with a strange rock-like substance is found near cattle sucked dry of their blood. The suspense grows with scenes that find a silhouetted monster that looks like a zombified astronaut bursting from thick foliage, the shadow of a beastly creature inching down a blood bank hallway, and then a sudden broad daylight encounter between some terrified police officers and a sublime creature that rips and tears at its victims throats.

First Man Into Space #2

With its wonder and suspense firmly in place, Day can then focus on the handful of mature performances from his terrific cast. Science-fiction veteran Marshall Thompson (Fiend Without a Face, It! The Terror from Beyond Space) is First Man Into Space’s authoritative figure and it’s Sherlock Holmes as Chuck, the typical all-American hero hot on the trail of a bloodsucking monster. Thompson is controlled, obedient, and brave as he attempts to put the pieces of this intergalactic puzzle together before more bodies stack up. The rigidness of Thompson’s character is matched with the uncontrolled arrogance of Bill Edwards, who is fantastic as the ambitious hotshot pilot doomed to a terrible fate. Early on, while his bad boy persona may be slightly off-putting, his determination to become the first man in space is infectious and more than a little admirable. Near the end of the film, Edwards manages to mold his misshapen monster into a tragic casualty of disobedience. Marla Landi adds some Italian eye candy as Dan’s girlfriend, Tia, who becomes a pivotal player in the quest to find the humanity buried deep within the mangled Dan. Carl Jaffe becomes another key player as Dr. Paul von Essen, a friend to both Dan and Chuck who helps wrangle the rampaging Dan.

There may be some viewers who can’t warm to the slower pace of First Man Into Space, but if you’re someone who enjoys the slow build horror set in small town America, then this is just the ticket. Where First Man Into Space really hits a wall is in the last ten minutes, when Day basically sits down for a confessional with his monster. The make-up on the monster looks great in the night shots and it is especially unsettling in the darkened chase sequence the leads to the up-close encounter, but when shown in plain view, it just doesn’t have the effect that Day seems to think it does. Edwards and his ability to earn the viewer’s empathy saves the sequence, but you’ll still find yourself wishing that Day would have played with the sequence’s lightning scheme or something, anything to take the emphasis off the fact that Edwards is CLEARLY wearing a droopy Halloween mask that looks like it was stuck in a microwave for five minutes. Overall, First Man Into Space isn’t the fanciest science-fiction film out there, but it very well could be one of the creepiest and bloodiest that the Atomic Age has to offer. It is alive with the perseverance of an era that flew on the wings of scientific progression and it is closes in with a sense of paranoia, suggesting that these advancements may come with a sinister price.

Grade: B+

First Man Into Space is available on DVD. It can be found in the Criterion Collection’s Monsters and Madmen box set.

TRAILER TUESDAY!

Hey readers,

Bikini-clad babes! Astro-robots of death! Invaders from outer space! Hip-shaking rock n’ roll! It’s Trailer Tuesday at Anti-Film School and, boy, do I have a good one for you today. Check out the trailer for the 1965 sci-fi/horror film Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, directed by Robert Gaffney. And it’s all in Futurama!

Frankenstein_Meets_the_Space_Monster

The Butler (2013)

The Butler #2

by Steve Habrat

It isn’t uncommon for one or two Oscar hopefuls to sneak into movie theaters near the end of the summer, when the aliens have been battled back into space and the superheroes have hung up their capes until next May. It really is a nice change of pace considering that blockbuster fatigue does begin set in by early August. Recently, hype has been slowly building around Woody Allen’s new film Blue Jasmine, but for weeks now there has been plenty of talk about director Lee Daniels’ star-studded new picture The Butler, a film that is bound and determined to get some sort of recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Butler is certainly an absorbing drama that digs deeply into a wound on American history, a wound that still hasn’t quite healed up. Based upon the life of Eugene Allen, Daniels’ latest effort is bursting at the seams with performances from a roster of Hollywood who’s who, and one that is carried off into the clouds by the always-fantastic Forest Whitaker, who should probably start ordering a tux right now for Hollywood’s big night. While there is plenty of family melodrama and quiet personal anguish that pierces the heart, Daniels may have missed a shot at the Best Picture and Best Director category due to a few bungled sequences that resemble something you might see on a made-for-TV movie, not something you’d see in an Oscar hopeful.

The Butler begins in 1926, with a young Cecil Gaines witnessing his father (played by David Banner) being gunned down after speaking up about the harassment that his wife (played by Mariah Carey) has been enduring at the hands of the vile cotton plantation owner. The young Cecil, who has been learning how to work the cotton fields, is soon pulled from under the hot Georgia sun brought into the plantation household to learn how to act as a house servant. A few years later, Cecil (played by Forest Whitaker) leaves the plantation and ends up landing a job as a butler at the Hotel Excelsior in Washington D.C. After charming a handful of Washington bigwigs, Cecil is contacted by the White House about a job as a butler for the Eisenhower administration. Cecil accepts and quickly becomes a favorite among the White House staff as he silently observers multiple presidents—Dwight D. Eisenhower (played by Robin Williams), John F. Kennedy (played by James Mardsen), Lyndon B. Johnson (played by Liev Schreiber), Richard Nixon (played by John Cusask), and Ronald Reagan (played by Alan Rickman)—and the difficult decisions they are tasked with making. Meanwhile, Cecil’s home life begins to suffer as his wife, Gloria (played by Oprah Winfrey), develops a drinking problem and falls into the arms of another man (played by Terrence Howard), his oldest son, Louis (played by David Oyelowo), gets swept up by the Civil Rights Movement, and his youngest son, Charlie (played by Elijah Kelley), gets shipped off to Vietnam.

With so much history to cover, you fear that The Butler’s two hour and ten minute run time may not be quite enough to do it all justice, but Daniels handles a majority of it with ease. Sadly, there are a few years that are reduced to a quick-cut montage of fuzzy stock footage. Some of the more violent stretches are sanitized for a PG-13 audience but there are still a handful of images that manage to haunt (a pair of black men hanging battered and bloodied are a grim warning and the riots in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination are appropriately angry and raw). One of the most powerful stretches of The Butler is a sequence that finds Cecil preparing a ritzy White House dinner while his son and a handful of his friends march proudly into a diner and request service in the non-colored section. The sequence is superbly edited together and it effectively builds tension in the way it closes itself around the viewer, backing us into a corner as white-hot hate crashes all around. This particular sequence doesn’t mince words but there are a number of scenes that seem defanged. One of the softer moments comes when Cecil’s son Louis is bopping along happily on a bus with his Freedom Rider friends when their bus is suddenly cornered by an enraged group of KKK members. Rather than allowing the action to play out at normal speed, Daniels makes the perplexing decision to bring the violent encounter to a slow-motion halt in an awkward attempt to really underline the fact that these hate-spewing monsters are the very definition of evil. This moment, which should have you holding your breath, comes off like something you’d see in a History Channel documentary rather than a Hollywood movie. I suspect that at normal speed, this scene would have had both black and white viewers covering their mouths in horror.

The Butler

Carefully worked into this historical tour is a melodramatic portrait of a family that is on the verge of coming apart. Cecil is forced to quietly keep his composure as he brings tea right into the Oval Office and face individuals who are fully capable of doing something about the racial tensions ripping America to shreds. Watching Whitaker tackle this role is never short of amazing and the way he allows us to glimpse his heavy heart through his sad eyes is really something special. He’s a frustrated father, an absent husband, and warm face that greets school children with a plate of cookies as they arrive at the White House for a field trip tour. Winfrey, meanwhile, is a huge surprise as Cecil’s bored housewife, who turns to the bottle and another man to fill the empty gap in her life. Winfrey is absolutely on fire in a sequence in which she berates a fatigued Cecil as he tries to get some sleep. Then there is Oyelowo’s Louis, Cecil’s pissed off son who is sickened by the way his people are being treated. He starts out with small protests that earn him a night or two in jail (as well as a pot of hot coffee thrown in his face) only to graduate into the Black Panthers with a grimacing galpal that tells the conflicted young man that she is willing to kill for her people, a statement that forces Louis to look inward and find an alternative way to help African Americans earn equal rights. He’s equally as strong as Whitaker every step of the way.

As far as the rest of the all-star cast goes, they’re somewhat of a mixed bag. Williams is as good as ever in his few scenes as Eisenhower, Mardsen is grossly miscast as the charismatic Kennedy, Schreiber is a ball of energy as Johnson, Cusack is slouched defeat as Nixon, and Rickman is a showy and unbending Reagan. Jane Fonda turns up in a brief appearance as Nancy Reagan, who invites the popular Cecil to a White House dinner that he’d normally be serving. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz offer up strong supporting roles as two other butlers at the White House who become chummy with lovable old Cecil. David Banner’s small but affectionate role as Cecil’s father is impressive and Carey is completely wasted (and barely recognizable) as Cecil’s abused mother. Nelsan Ellis appears in a small role as Martin Luther King Jr., but his presence doesn’t seem to pack the wise wisdom that it so desperately wants. Daniels should have left him to the stock footage that he liberally uses as the film’s guiding track. Overall, The Butler is certainly a handsome film (don’t forget to take in the meticulous sets and period clothing) and one that sets out to encourage every single viewer—whether they are white, black, young, or old—to reflect on the topic of race in America. It certainly does spark a bit of reflection on the issue, but the film is just a bit too innocuous to really shake things up like it wants. However, The Butler is still an entertaining film that features a powerhouse performance from Whitaker.

Grade: B+