Tuesday, September 6, 2016


Now that it's September and summer is officially over, I thought I'd devote some time and space to catching up on some of the films I saw this summer but have not yet blogged about. I've kept a running set of notes on what else I've seen and I'm going to try and get as many of them in here as possible. Bear with me.

For the record, I did not see a single film at Austin's Paramount Theatre this summer. This is, I believe, the third year in a row that I have not attended a screening of any kind at the Paramount (or Stateside either, for that matter). Nothing against the Paramount at all. In fact, I did some paid writing work for the theater this summer, contributing a dozen sets of  notes for various films. But it's just become too much of a hassle to come home from work, eat a fast, early dinner, drive all the way into downtown Austin, pay to park, watch one film (gone are the days when I could make it through a double bill), drive home and go to bed. In addition, most of the films I've either already seen or I own on DVD or Blu-Ray so there's very little incentive for me to go out to see something that I can easily and comfortably watch at home.

Same for first run films. Last year, I only went to the movies a total of four times. I saw AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, SPY, MISTER HOLMES and A WALK IN THE WOODS (the last three in the company of my lovely wife). This year? One time and that was for GHOSTBUSTERS with friends from out-of-town. It wouldn't surprise me at all if that's the only new film I see in a theater this year as I have no plans to see anything else that's scheduled to be released this year.

Back in June, we made the switch to Directv and as part of the deal, we got all of the premium movie channels (all HBO, Cinemax, Starz, etc.) for free for three months. I quickly maxed out my DVR with films from a variety of these channels (especially StarzEncore Westerns) along with fare from the always reliable TCM. In short, I have enough new and classic films recorded and saved to last me for quite a while, to say nothing of my collection of DVDs and Blu-Rays. So, going out to the movies? Not for me anymore.

But I have certainly been watching films at home and lots of them. Here's a rundown on what I saw this summer (in the order of year of release). I'll try to keep this brief but no promises.

I saw BLAZING SADDLES when it was first released in 1974. I was a senior in high school. I thought it was one of the funniest movies I'd ever seen. I still do. I don't know how many times I've seen it since but it never fails to make me laugh. Judy and I watched it together one night this summer. She had never seen it. Before I hit "play" on the remote, I told her "Prepare to be offended." She was but she also laughed uproariously. The brilliance of the screenplay by Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, Andrew Bergman, Norman Steinberg and Al Uger, is that it quickly makes out the racist rednecks who casually drop the "N" bomb at the beginning of the film to be complete idiots and morons. The funniest bit to me, the scene that always makes me laugh the loudest is when the bad guys line up to go through the fake toll booth out in the middle of the desert. "We're gonna have to send somebody back for a shitload of dimes!"

Ah, the '70s and '80s, the Golden Age of Slasher Horror Films, many of which were linked to holidays or other special days of the year. There was BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974), HALLOWEEN (1978), FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980), MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981) and PROM NIGHT (1980), among many others. HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY launched film franchises that are still going today while there were other "special day" themed horror films that came and went. Like BLOODY BIRTHDAY. The premise is a thin one. One night in 1970, two boys and a girl are born at a Southern California hospital during a solar eclipse. Ten years later, the three become killers for no really good reason other than that they were all born at the same time during an eclipse. The body count is a high one (including an ahead-of-it's-time school classroom shooting in which one of the boys guns down his teacher). One neighborhood boy and his older sister tumble to what's going on and confront the killer kids in the climax. Of course, they're far more capable than any of the adults depicted in the film including Jose Ferrer (the only name actor in the cast) as the doctor who attended the unusual births. He has very little screen time and looks like he wishes he had a better agent during his handful of scenes. 

AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007) pairs Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe star in director Ridley Scott's meticulously crafted, based-on-a-true-story crime film set in the 1970s. Washington is Frank Lucas, a Harlem drug kingpin who is ferrying in highly potent heroin from Vietnam and selling it cheap on the streets of New York City. Crowe is ultra straight arrow narcotics detective Richie Roberts who heads up a task force to arrest and convict Lucas. Lucas is totally corrupt but a decent family man while Roberts is clean as a whistle and cannot be bought but his marriage is coming apart at the seams. Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian take their time to tell the story using parallel lines of action over the course of several years before Roberts finally makes his move on Lucas during a well-staged shootout sequence. Washington and Crowe finally appear together in interrogation scenes at the end of the movie and it's a treat to watch these two pros play off of each other. AMERICAN GANGSTER ranks as one of the best crime films I've seen in quite some time. 

DC Comics does a much better job with their animated films series than their live action movies have thus far at accurately capturing the look and feel of classic comic stories and series. Take for instance BATMAN: YEAR ONE (2011), which manages to vividly bring to life Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's 1987 mini-series in a mere 64 minutes. The film is largely faithful to the comics (they can't include everything) and does a great job of depicting Bruce Wayne as a novice, street-level crime fighter who gets better the more time he spends on the job and on the mean streets of Gotham City. The look of the film matches the visuals by Miller and Mazzucchelli and the voice casting is superb with Bryan Cranston as Lt. James Gordan and Ben McKenzie as Bruce Wayne. This is a gritty, adult oriented animated film that perfectly captures the look and feel of the source material. And by the way, if you've never read Miller and Mazzucchelli's BATMAN: YEAR ONE 4-issue mini-series, you really should check it out. It's readily available in a trade paperback format. Read the book then check out this movie. They're both terrific.
 Now we go from one Batman to another. DRACULA UNTOLD (2014), is the untold (as the title says) origin story of Dracula, the most famous vampire in history. He began his bloody career as Vlad the Impaler, a ruthless king who ruled his Transylvanian kingdom with an iron fist, impaling his enemies on enormous wooden stakes for all to see. But Vlad loves his subjects and his family and he will do anything to protect them both. Which means becoming a vampire when the Turks threaten his domain. The deal is supposed to be only temporary with Vlad supposedly able to revert to human form before a deadline is up. He fails of course and becomes Dracula for all time.

DRACULA UNTOLD is more Robert E. Howard's Dracula than Bran Stoker's. There are impressive battle sequences between Vlad's armies and the Turks that look like they could have sprung from the pulp pages of a Howard story. Trouble is, with a PG-13 rating, they're far too bloodless and less visceral than they should be to truly convey the brutality and savagery of the time. Also, instead of turning into a single bat, here Dracula instantly explodes into a mass of fluttering, shrieking flying animals and just as instantly turns back into a human. The film looks great. The locations are spot on, the cinematography is dark and moody and the CGI effects are solid. Not a great film but I've certainly seen worse Dracula/vampire movies.

My buddy Kelly Greene and I watched DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014) and thoroughly enjoyed it. This sequel to 2011's RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (which I also liked), picks up a few years after the end of that film. Intelligent apes have established an outpost in the forests north of San Francisco. A small band of humans living in the ruins of San  Francisco have discovered a dormant hydro-electric power generator and dam near the apes' habitat. The humans desperately need to get the generator up and running in order to send power to the city. Thus begins a back and forth struggle for diplomacy and mutual understanding. Can the apes and humans co-exist? It looks like an uneasy peace is possible until, of course, things go wrong.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is a triumph of CGI effects. You watch this film and wonder where the real world ends and the imaginary begins. It's seamlessly executed and worthy of the Oscar nomination it received for Best Visual Effects. A third installment, WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is due to be released next summer. This new version of the durable POTA franchise is well conceived and executed and I have high hopes for the next installment in this compelling series.

More to come. Stay tuned.

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