Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My top 10 non-2014 movies of 2014

Just under the wire for the end of the year, here's my annual list of my favorite movies I saw for the first time this year that were initially released in previous years. (Some comments reproduced from Letterboxd.)

1. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Ronald Neame, 1969) I watched this movie on an old tube TV in what was almost certainly the wrong aspect ratio, while I was visiting my grandmother over the summer (it was one of a random assortment of DVDs she had gotten from the library) -- and yet it completely captivated and surprised me the entire time. It's a brilliant inversion of the typical inspirational teacher drama, with a young (and lovely) Maggie Smith as a history teacher at a girls' school in Britain on the eve of World War II. At first she seems like the typical iconoclast who connects with students over the objections of the stuffy administrators, but soon it becomes clear that her influence is toxic and even deadly. The movie is impressively frank and forward-thinking about sex, not afraid to take dark turns, and incredibly well-acted. It was easily the most welcome surprise of my movie-watching this year.

2. The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957) After seeing Unbroken, I have an even greater appreciation for this classic World War II epic about prisoners of war being forced by the Japanese army to help build a bridge in Thailand. Not only is the movie's sheer scope amazing (the final sequence, for which the filmmakers blew up an actual bridge, is one of the best in movie history), but the characters are also incredibly well-drawn, with Alec Guinness, William Holden and Sessue Hayakawa giving great, multi-layered performances. The movie is long but consistently engrossing, with a sense of tragic inevitability as it reaches its end. I can only imagine how immersive it would be to see on a big screen.

3. King of the Hill (Steven Soderbergh, 1993) I'm glad I managed to watch this before it left Netflix streaming (with literally a minute left), because it's easily one of Soderbergh's best, and possibly the most heartfelt, emotionally affecting movie he ever made. Jesse Bradford (who has gone on to a mostly undistinguished career) is wonderful as resourceful teen Aaron, who is forced to fend for himself thanks to a combination of irresponsible and/or sick parents, poverty and callous authority figures. The cast is filled with future famous faces, including Adrien Brody, Katherine Heigl, Lauryn Hill and Amber Benson, all of whom give strong performances. Soderbergh realizes the Depression-era setting masterfully, and his screenplay finds the perfect balance between nostalgia and disillusionment.

4. Ain't Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery, 2013) "The best Terrence Malick movie of 2013," I called this on Letterboxd a few months after seeing Malick's To the Wonder, which I did not care for. But I wouldn't want to reduce Lowery to a simple Malick imitator; although he also uses hushed narration (in the form of letters sent from one character to another) and idyllic nature shots, he's more plot-focused than Malick, and offers up more concrete character detail. Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara and Ben Foster are all excellent, giving the movie's central tragic love triangle a sense of real stakes, without one obvious correct path. Lowery builds up emotions that are real and honest, tied to a suspenseful, thrilling narrative, and that's more than Malick has been able to do for a while now.

5. Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) I'm grateful for this year's 75th-anniversary theatrical re-release, because otherwise I probably would have kept putting off seeing this movie (it takes dedication to set aside four hours for a single movie). It's quite the theatrical experience, too, complete with overture and intermission, and I think seeing it with an enthusiastic audience helped me to get swept up in the epic story. The flaws (mainly in the whitewashed portrait of slavery and Southern life and the gender politics) are obvious, but as an embodiment of old Hollywood grandeur, it's pretty spectacular. And Vivien Leigh is amazing. I was kind of blown away by the depth and complexity of Scarlett O'Hara, especially given how sexist and limited the movie's view of women can be.

6. A Life Less Ordinary (Danny Boyle, 1997) This has to be due for a reassessment, right? I remember it getting mostly negative reviews when it was released, and in general I think it's dismissed as one of Boyle's lesser films. Sure, it's a bit of a mess, but it's a delightful mess, with winning performances from Cameron Diaz and Ewan McGregor and an invigorating anything-goes mentality. The one lovely mid-film musical number makes me think it would probably work like gangbusters as a stage musical.

7. Easter Parade (Charles Walters, 1948) In past years, the TCM Festival has been responsible for a number of top picks on this list, and while I didn't make any amazing discoveries there this year, I did catch up with some enjoyable classics and obscurities, including this beloved Judy Garland/Fred Astaire musical. It's a strong mix of plot-driven and revue-style musical, with an infectious sense of joy and a typically spectacular performance from Garland, who is absolutely magical. I still haven't seen a lot of classic musicals, but whenever I see Garland onscreen, I want to see more.

8. Employees' Entrance (Roy Del Ruth, 1933) This campy pre-Code melodrama (another TCM Fest viewing) is basically Sexual Harassment: The Movie, but it's completely entertaining, with Warren William as the world's most ruthless department store manager preying on Loretta Young's vulnerable young employee. Loads of sexual innuendo, some gay subtext, and plenty of hilarious nastiness from start to finish.

9. Cutie and the Boxer (Zachary Heinzerling, 2013) I have very little patience for the social-issue advocacy that dominates documentaries these days, so I'm always happy to see acclaim and attention for a movie like this, a lovely and moving personal story about people who've lived fascinating lives. Both temperamental artist Ushio Shinohara and his endlessly patient wife Noriko are complicated, talented people who can't be reduced to simple talking-head interviews, and Heinzerling takes in the range of their daily experiences with insight but without judgement.

10. Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell, 1997) It's sad that we're at a point where it's a relief to see both Johnny Depp and Al Pacino playing normal human beings in a movie. They both do solid work here, in a crime drama that may be derivative of better movies but still packs a punch thanks to the slow-burning tragedy that is the relationship between the two main characters.

Honorable mention: Best Worst Movie (Michael Stephenson, 2009); Concussion (Stacie Passon, 2013); Curse of Chucky (Don Mancini, 2013); I Never Sang for My Father (Gilbert Cates, 1970)

Previous lists:

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

'Mozart in the Jungle'

Classical musicians seem like the least likely suspects for an edgy, adult-oriented dramedy, and the pilot for Amazon's Mozart in the Jungle tries way too hard to convince the audience that oboists and cellists and conductors get up to just as much debauchery as rock musicians or actors or athletes. Instead of trusting the audience to be interested in a look into this little-seen world, the show piles on the sexual innuendo, drinking and back-stabbing, and while it's mildly entertaining, it ends up short-changing the show's main unique quality (that it's about classical musicians).

Gael Garcia Bernal gets top billing as a bad-boy conductor (who's been on the cover of Rolling Stone!) brought in to shake up the stagnant New York symphony orchestra, but his character is pretty cartoonish so far. More appealing is the actual main character, a young up-and-coming oboist named Hailey (Lola Kirke, sister of Girls' Jemima Kirke), who gets a shot at a spot in the orchestra thanks to a time-honored cliche (playing beautifully when she doesn't realize an important person is listening). Kirke is charismatic and down-to-earth, and Hailey seems like a person worth watching over multiple episodes. Saffron Burrows is fun as the man-eating cougar of a cellist, but she's every bit as cartoonish as Bernal's Rodrigo.

Co-created by Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, Mozart in the Jungle should exude more New York sophistication and wit, but instead it mostly feels like Amazon's attempt to play catch-up with the likes of Entourage or House of Lies. I've only seen the pilot, so maybe the rest of the season ends up being more character-driven and less self-consciously salacious, but the first episode doesn't really have me eager to find out.

Season 1 premieres on Amazon Prime today. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Dinosaur 13' (2014)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

The first and final thirds of Todd Douglas Miller's documentary Dinosaur 13 are pretty riveting (if incredibly one-sided), which almost makes up for the way the middle third gets bogged down in the kind of tedious legal minutiae that would barely pass muster in a Dateline segment. Although there are people who argue otherwise, Miller makes a strong case in the first part of the film that paleontologist brothers Pete and Neal Larson suffered a gross injustice when the U.S. government seized a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton that they had unearthed in South Dakota in 1990. The Larsons come across as simple, hard-working businessmen who love paleontology and are geekily excited by their discovery. Pete Larson's wife even expresses something akin to jealousy when describing how "Sue," as they named the T. rex, was the real great love of his life.

Miller lays the pathos on thick, but he does it well, and it's hard not to feel outraged (along with all the citizens of the Larsons' small South Dakota town, whose protests are seen in archival video) when the government swoops in, taking advantage of the questionable legal status of the land where the skeleton was found, and takes the Larsons' find away from them. But the movie then shifts to the long legal case against the Larsons and their associates, which was less about Sue and more about an alleged pattern of misrepresentation and potential thievery in the business of finding and selling fossils. Although Miller does interview an IRS investigator who was part of the case against the Larsons, every other person in the movie is horrified at these trumped-up charges against the good-hearted brothers, and the relentless bolstering of their case paradoxically ends up making it sound suspect. Also, the detailed account of the testimony and lengthy trial on nearly 150 fraud-related charges is boring and only tangentially related to the fascinating story of Sue (who remained in federal custody for years while the Larsons were investigated and tried).

Eventually the story returns to Sue, who was auctioned off at Sotheby's in highly dramatic fashion and ended up at a world-class museum in Chicago (which to me seems like a much more appropriate location for sharing with the public than the middle of nowhere in South Dakota). The Larsons are at least gracious in defeat (and poor Pete was clearly railroaded by the system when he was sentenced to two years in prison for impropriety related to customs declarations), but their story too often comes across as sour grapes. Miller based his movie on a book by Pete Larson and his wife, so there's no secret where the movie's sympathies lie. The story is fascinating enough not to need such blatant heartstring-tugging, though, and the movie only intermittently gets that across.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 West Street' (1962)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

A sort of alarmist melodrama about a respectable man who descends into vigilantism after being attacked by a group of teen hooligans, 13 West Street has a few things going for it, most notably an appealingly naturalistic performance from Rod Steiger as the world-weary police detective investigating the attacks, but is ultimately too stodgy and reactionary to make any meaningful social commentary or tell a gripping story about an ordinary man driven to the edge.

Star Alan Ladd is a big part of the problem, playing milquetoast aeronautics engineer Walter Sherill, who gets beaten up one night by sneering teenagers and then becomes increasingly frustrated with the police response. Ladd is just too stiff and stolid to really bring Walter's rage to life, although part of the problem may be that the movie simultaneously wants to endorse his disgust at teen delinquency and punish him for attempting to take the law into his own hands. The excessive moralizing gets in the way of creating a juicy thriller. Also, there is an inordinate amount of attention given to Walter's job (the entire opening scene involves a meeting about developing a new rocket, which made me wonder if I was about to watch a spy movie or a sci-fi story, since I hadn't bothered to look up the plot before starting the movie), without any payoff whatsoever.

But then there's Steiger as the jaded but well-intentioned detective who knows that investigations take time and footwork, and who, unlike most movie detectives, actually spends time working his other cases because Walter's is not the only one he has to investigate. He wears bow ties, always says "bye-bye" when leaving, and generally comes off like a real person amid all the hysteria about teenagers gone bad (the gang members turn out to be from upper-class families, which shocks Walter's wife, who assumed all delinquents were "underprivileged"). The rumpled sergeant seems as impatient with the movie itself as he is with Walter, and it's easy to sympathize with him on both accounts.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'That Certain Woman' (1937)

Writer-director Edmund Goulding packs an entire season's worth of soap opera storylines into his melodrama That Certain Woman, which starts as a strong showcase for Bette Davis as a whip-smart career woman, before devolving into a hand-wringing weepie. Davis plays Mary Donnell, the widow of a notorious gangster, who is trying to escape her shady past by working as the industrious assistant to respected lawyer Lloyd Rogers (Ian Hunter). As the movie begins, Mary is busy trying to keep her name out of the newspapers and romancing an immature playboy named Jack Merrick (Henry Fonda). Rogers, as her rather patronizing mentor (who's also obviously in love with her, despite being married), helps both of those situations along, and soon the movie is skipping ahead years at a time to chronicle the increasingly overwrought developments in Mary's life.

As Mary accumulates more emotional baggage, including a brief marriage to Jack and conflict with his stuffy father, a child born out of wedlock, and a scandal surrounding her (non-existent) affair with Rogers, she changes from a sharp, independent go-getter into a noble sufferer, and becomes much less interesting and entertaining for it. With its sudden time jumps, the movie is paced terribly, and its shifting focus makes it hard to get a handle on any of the characters. Fonda gives Jack a kind of puppy-dog earnestness, but he comes across as naive bordering on moronic when up against his devious father or confronted with the child he obviously fathered.

Mary's motivations as the movie progresses are sometimes a little hard to fathom, even given the strict moral code of the time period. She seems destined to give up everything in her life at the whims of capricious and/or paternalistic men, and the movie approves of her every decision. After sacrificing her son and her chance at a meaningful life, Mary ends up with a rushed happy ending at the very last moment, but it's just one more unconvincing turn in a movie full of them. Davis isn't as vibrant playing Mary the martyr as she is playing the brash woman at the start of the movie, but she fully engages with the emotions of every scene, absurd as they may be. It's a movie-star performance in search of a better movie.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Chucky Week: 'Curse of Chucky' (2013)

One of the reasons that the Chucky series is probably my favorite horror franchise (even though I like individual installments of other series more) is that the entire thing is the singular vision of Don Mancini. Even when the movies change protagonists, change tones or change budgets, Mancini keeps a consistent hand on the characters and the storytelling. That's sort of a blessing and a curse for Curse of Chucky, Mancini's second film as both writer and director. On the one hand, its shift in tone back to the straightforward horror of the first movie is mostly successful, with Mancini keeping it consistent with what happened in the more comedic previous two installments. On the other hand, the retcons and fan service in the movie's climax are a little strained, and while I appreciated that everything tied together, it sort of negated some of the effectiveness of the restrained scares in the early parts of the movie.

Although it's unlikely that anyone would come to this movie not having seen the previous entries in the series or at least having a familiarity with the general concept, Mancini still plays with the idea that maybe Chucky isn't actually a killer doll, and is just a reflection of a child's overactive imagination and the conflicts within her family. Chucky doesn't speak (except for his prerecorded Good Guys phrases) until halfway through the movie, and even then he keeps his words to a minimum until the last-act info-dump. The bulk of the movie is set in a single isolated creepy house, where Chucky (initially looking all cleaned up and new after his mangled appearance in the last two movies) shows up in a mysterious package.

Eventually Mancini reveals the (rather belabored) connection between Chucky and the house's inhabitants, but for most of the movie it doesn't really matter. There's a deadly presence in the house, and the squabbling family members have to figure out what's happening and how to survive. Fiona Dourif (daughter of Chucky voice actor Brad Dourif) is quite good as Nica, the wheelchair-bound heroine, and the supporting cast is decent as well. This is the only Chucky movie in which I have genuinely cared about the human protagonists, and the tension between Nica and her sister is convincing enough without having to connect back to Chucky's past.

Mancini also seems to have improved markedly as a director (or has recruited better collaborators), and Curse has the visual sophistication that Seed of Chucky lacked. Mancini effectively builds tension in the first half of the movie, when Chucky is a silent menace, and his shot compositions often recall classic horror (he also uses some of the same deep focus framing that Ronny Yu employed in Bride of Chucky). The house is a marvel of creepy set design, complete with a rickety elevator and a dusty attic.

So when Mancini dives full-on into the continuity porn at the end of the movie, it's a little disappointing. I'm not complaining about any of the individual elements -- it's great to see Brad Dourif back on screen for the first time since the original movie as Charles Lee Ray (in flashbacks), it's great to see Jennifer Tilly make a brief return as the in-the-flesh Tiffany (or, technically, Tiffany in Jennifer Tilly's body), and it's even nice to see the bland Alex Vincent do a cameo as Andy Barclay. But all of that stuff sort of feels like it comes from a different movie. The haunted-house horror of most of Curse doesn't quite fit with what comes later, even though it's fun to watch. Mancini is already promising another installment, and maybe next time he'll be able to find the perfect balance of horror, humor and self-awareness. I have every reason to believe he can do it.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Chucky Week: 'Seed of Chucky' (2004)

I thoroughly enjoyed Seed of Chucky when it was released in 2004, and I was happy to see Chucky creator Don Mancini finally get the chance to direct a movie in the series that's become essentially his life's work. But revisiting the movie a decade later, I wasn't nearly as entertained. The self-reflexive elements of the movie have not aged well, and while some of the humor is still effective (I was pretty impressed with Mancini's commitment to the dumb "Made in Japan" joke that recurs throughout the entire movie), a lot of it is pretty painful. Bride of Chucky manages to be campy while also functioning more or less as a coherent thriller about Chucky and Tiffany on a killing spree; Seed is a full-on comedy with minimal internal logic and a paper-thin story. If the jokes don't land, there's basically nothing else there.

The biggest problem with Seed is the introduction of the title character, the spawn of Chucky and Tiffany glimpsed at the very end of Bride. While Tiffany (and Jennifer Tilly) reinvigorated the franchise with her debut, Glen/Glenda (voiced by Billy Boyd) is mostly just a drain on the story, and his/her character arc is scattershot and belabored, especially compared to Tiffany's development in Bride. Poor Tiffany gets a much weaker arc in this movie, too, as she decides to give up killing now that she's a mother, and treats it as an addiction to be overcome. It's disappointing that Mancini dilutes her nastiness and then doesn't offer much in its place.

Even Chucky is a bit diluted here, as the movie focuses on Glen/Glenda, Chucky and Tiffany's gender-confused, cowardly child (the name, of course, is a play on the Ed Wood movie Glen or Glenda), who tracks down his parents and inadvertently revives them with a variation on the old soul-switching spell. Apparently not even pieces of the old dolls are necessary for revival now, since the Chucky and Tiffany of Seed are actually movie props for a film-within-the-film about the Chucky murders. That film stars Jennifer Tilly, who gets to appear in the flesh this time by playing herself, but, disappointingly, her performance as herself is not nearly as entertaining as her performance as Tiffany was in Bride.

Tilly is game for anything, but the meta storyline is so half-assed that it completely squanders her fearlessness. Seed seems like an obvious reaction to the Scream movies (especially Scream 2, with its characters dealing with a film-within-the-film about their lives), but it's also indebted to another Wes Craven project, 1994's New Nightmare, which managed to cleverly deconstruct its franchise via actors playing themselves and also work pretty effectively as a horror movie. Seed isn't actually interested in being scary, which is okay, but its hit-and-miss jokes aren't strong enough to compensate.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Chucky Week: 'Bride of Chucky' (1998)

If Child's Play 3 was evidence that Chucky creator Don Mancini was out of ideas, then Bride of Chucky finds him reinvigorated, with a new direction for the series and a new take on Chucky himself. Some fans were apparently annoyed at the overtly comedic tone of Bride, but for me it was the movie that really made me love the Chucky franchise. Before going back to the beginning for this project, I would have named Bride as my favorite Chucky movie, although now I think I prefer Child's Play 2, which has the strongest mix of humor, horror and visual style. Still, Bride is a lot of fun, and it introduces a great addition to the Chucky mythos in Jennifer Tilly's Tiffany.

It also jettisons poor Andy Barclay, which to me is a welcome change but was another thing that bothered some longtime fans. I found Andy to be an annoying wet blanket no matter which actor played him, so this movie's focus on the relationship between the Chucky and Tiffany dolls worked much better for me, since it meant that the human characters didn't have to carry the movie. Even so, Katherine Heigl and Nick Stabile as doomed teenage lovers Jade and Jesse are more compelling than Andy ever was, and their forbidden love is much more enjoyable to watch than the bland romance teenage Andy had in Child's Play 3.

But the movie really belongs to Jennifer Tilly as Tiffany. She's great as the overheated but ruthless sexpot in the first half hour when she's onscreen in the flesh, and she's also great as the voice of the Tiffany doll, who more fully embraces Chucky's homicidal worldview. Sure, Chucky's motivations for changing Tiffany into a doll in the first place are a little unclear, and sure, the entire plot hinges on an amulet that was never deemed important in the previous movies, but it's all just an excuse for silly one-liners and gruesome murders, anyway, so that didn't bother me too much.

It would be one more movie before Mancini finally got the chance to direct his own creation, but Hong Kong action director Ronny Yu does justice to Chucky, bringing some impressive visual flair to this chapter of the series. In addition to staging amusingly gruesome death scenes, Yu amps up the sense of dread and disorientation with a number of striking deep-focus shots, and he imbues the relationship between two animatronic dolls with genuine nastiness and intensity (aided by Tilly and, of course, Brad Dourif as Chucky).

Although there are plenty of winking references to other horror movies (especially in the opening shots of the police evidence locker that holds Chucky's remains, where accessories from other horror icons like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers are stored as well), Bride isn't a meta-horror film like Scream. It may be comedic, but it takes its own premise at face value, turning Chucky and Tiffany into antiheroes of a sort as they go on a killing spree that gets attributed to their hapless human hosts. Only at the very end does the movie return to the idea of Chucky (and now Tiffany, too) attempting to take over a human body, and it feels a little rote by this point. Mancini and the audience have figured out that Chucky is better off as a doll, and with his acceptance and embracing of Tiffany, it seems like maybe Chucky has, too.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Chucky Week: 'Child's Play 3' (1991)

Although it was released only nine months after Child's Play 2, Child's Play 3 takes place eight years later, with Andy Barclay now 16 years old and shipped off to a military boarding school after drifting through various foster homes. It's a sort of jarring shift that's just one indication of this movie's paucity of ideas (to which series creator Don Mancini has admitted). Since Alex Vincent did not also age eight years in nine months, he was replaced as Andy by Justin Whalin, an older and slightly less annoying (but no more charismatic) actor. Making Andy into a teenager doesn't really do much to complicate his relationship with Chucky, and the movie hedges its bets by introducing a new kid to befriend Chucky, theoretically moving Andy forward as a character while preserving the same dynamic from the first two movies.

The movie opens in the same location where the previous one left off, the factory where the Good Guys dolls were made, starting back up after lying dormant for years. Of course the remnants of Chucky are still there, and of course his blood contaminates the materials being used to make Good Guys dolls, and Chucky is somehow reborn. After he kills the head of the toy company (you'd think they'd learn not to bother trying to make new dolls after their employees keep getting murdered) in a mildly amusing sequence involving toys as deadly weapons, Chucky has himself shipped to Andy's school, but he ends up in the possession of the cheerful, naive Tyler (Jeremy Sylvers) instead.

From there, Chucky makes his familiar play to transfer his soul into a new body, although thanks to a half-hearted loophole, he can now possess Tyler instead of Andy, so Andy becomes the protector figure that his mother and foster sister played in the previous movies. Chucky's threat is pretty weak here, and his kills are rather perfunctory. There isn't quite as much humor as in the second movie, but at this point Chucky isn't remotely scary, so he barely makes an impact. Mancini and director Jack Bender spend as much time focusing on the military school setting and the sadistic bully who torments Andy as they do on Chucky. That bully is a pretty stock military-school type, but at least he has some personality, which is more than can be said for Andy or his bland love interest.

The underwhelming finale takes place inside a carnival haunted house, which is somehow less exciting and inventive than the second movie's toy factory location. Given how unstoppable Chucky has been in the past, his death here is seriously anticlimactic (he doesn't even get the requisite horror-movie "I'm not really dead" moment before being finally dispatched). After rushing into this movie, Mancini and the producers waited until 1998 to bring Chucky back, and thankfully by that time they had a better idea of how to make him entertaining again.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Chucky Week: 'Child's Play 2' (1990)

By the second movie in the series, Chucky is already well on his way to becoming the beloved comedic figure he is today. Although Child's Play 2 is a direct follow-up to the first Child's Play, with Alex Vincent returning as hapless victim Andy Barclay, it doesn't have the option of replicating the first film's slow-burn approach, since viewers already know that Chucky is possessed and evil. The movie starts out with a wonderfully detailed sequence of the Chucky doll being reconstructed at the Play Pals toy factory, ostensibly as a PR move to counter the bad publicity surrounding the events of the first movie (when the doll, y'know, murdered some people), but of course really just as the movie's excuse to get Chucky fully functional again, the equivalent of Jason Voorhees rising from his grave for the latest time.

Naturally, Chucky responds to his resurrection by immediately killing the people who brought him back to life, and resuming his quest to possess poor Andy. Andy's now living with a foster family after his mother has been shipped off to the loony bin, which is the now-standard fate for protagonists in horror-movie sequels (also, producers didn't want to pay actress Catherine Hicks to return as Andy's mom). Also typical for horror sequels, everyone around Andy is trying to convince him that Chucky was nothing but a figment of his imagination, and that works really well until Chucky manages to sneak in the house and replace the harmless, non-possessed Good Guys doll already lying around.

Luckily this time Andy has an ally in his foster sister Kyle (Christine Elise), and they team up to take Chucky down. Chucky is a lot more mobile this time, killing people in more gruesome and inventive ways, and the finale takes place in the grotesque funhouse of the Play Pals factory, with plenty of opportunities for dangerous machinery to wreak havoc. Very little of it is scary, but it is a lot of fun, with the sense of morbid humor that the series would end up embracing. Chucky's menace may be waning, but his unique personality is just starting to come into focus.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Chucky Week: 'Child's Play' (1988)

At Halloweens past, I've written about the various entries in the Halloween and Hellraiser series (and I tackled Leprechaun around St. Patrick's Day), so this year I thought I'd take a look at the Chucky series, which marked 25 years last October with the release of the sixth movie, Curse of Chucky. I've always had a soft spot for Chucky, although I actually hadn't seen all the movies before starting this project. One of the highlights of my critical career is a random email I got from Chucky creator Don Mancini back in 2006, saying that he enjoyed reading my movie reviews in Las Vegas Weekly and was also a fan of this blog (which, as far as I know, continues to enjoy a minuscule readership). So if somehow Mancini is still reading, I hope I can do justice to his creation.

And make no mistake, Chucky belongs to Mancini, who is credited with the story and as one of three screenwriters on Child's Play, and who has been the sole screenwriter on all the sequels. (He's pretty much dedicated his entire career to Chucky, with virtually no other credits.) Although Chucky became a comedic figure as the series progressed (and that's probably what I find most entertaining about the character), Child's Play is a fairly straightforward late-'80s horror film, with direction from horror veteran Tom Holland (Fright Night) and a simple but effective setup. Brad Dourif, who along with Mancini has stuck with the series for its entire run, plays serial killer Charles Lee Ray, seen at the beginning of the movie getting cornered by police and launching into a voodoo ritual to transfer his spirit into someone else's body. Unfortunately the only "person" around is a cherubic Good Guys doll, and thus Charles Lee Ray becomes Chucky, the friendly homicidal doll.

Much of the movie's first half plays on the suspense of when Chucky's sinister nature will come out, as he sits silent and ominous, or oblivious tyke Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) plays and jokes around with him. Some of the creepiest material in the movie comes from Andy insisting to his mother Karen (Catherine Hicks) that Chucky has told him something, and his mother dismissing him as a delusional child. Being the only person who knows what's really going on is a horror-movie cliche, but Mancini and Holland handle it well here, first via Andy, and then via Karen, when she's attacked by Chucky.

That attack, the first scene in which Chucky comes alive and exhibits his now-familiar sarcastic-murderer persona, is genuinely freaky, although it and many other scary moments are undermined a bit by how terrible Hicks and Vincent are in their parts. Vincent in particular is almost completely affectless as Andy, making it hard to emotionally connect with his terror and helplessness. As for Chucky, his familiar persona is such an important part of the series' appeal that it's a little weird to go so long without it, but once he finally springs into action, it's clear he's going to be a memorable horror character for the ages. The combination of Dourif's voice acting, the doll's design and Mancini's creative vision all adds up to one of horror's greatest achievements. The movie that introduces him may be a bit ordinary, but Chucky is one of a kind.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The 13 Cold-Blooded Eagles' (1993)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13. 

I'm far from an expert on martial arts movies, but I feel fairly confident in saying that The 13 Cold-Blooded Eagles is not a stellar example of the genre. A remake of the 1978 Shaw Brothers movie The Avenging Eagle (which I haven't seen), Cold-Blooded is a sloppy exercise in wire-fu and overwrought storytelling, featuring the titular gang of roving fighters. They're all orphans raised by the man they call Foster Father (Shi-Kwan Yen), who claims to be sending them out to stop evildoers but is really using them for his own nefarious purposes. Motivations on both sides end up getting horribly convoluted, as some of the Eagles discover secrets about Foster Father and their own pasts, via long expository passages of dubious clarity.

To be fair, the DVD I got from Netflix had terrible, inconsistent subtitles, with numerous misspellings, typos and sentence fragments, so maybe the plot and the character arcs are clearer in the original Chinese (although I kind of doubt it). Either way, the real appeal of a movie like this is the fighting, but the action sequences are clumsy and awkward, with lackluster wire work and a poor sense of space. There's no feeling of weight or impact to the fighting, and the characters mostly use large swords that look like they're made out of plastic (and the sound effects make it seem like they're firing laser guns). Absent any reason to care about who wins or loses, impressive action is all the movie really has to offer, and it falls seriously short on that account.

As the Eagles get whittled down from 13 to one, the story ends up focusing on a lone Eagle fighting against Foster Father, but his emotional investment isn't any more compelling than that of his fallen comrades (two of whom have appeared to be the main characters at earlier points in the movie). The anticlimactic final battle leads to what looks like a great sacrifice, but based on the translation of the final line, it's not as serious as it seems to be. Either way, there's no sense of victory or defeat, just the abrupt close to a series of underwhelming fight sequences.