By Mike Shaeffer
Chappie, USA / Mexico, 2015
Directed by Neill Blomkamp
“People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” ― George Orwell
In his 2009 feature-film debut, South African director Neill Blomkamp gave us the science fiction gem that is District 9, a stirring, gritty, and visually stunning allegory for how apartheid divided his home country. Blomkamp’s most recent foray into the science fiction genre, CHAPPiE, reflects one of society’s growing fears—the fear of a police force that has been granted greater technology, power, and room for corruption. With victims’ names like Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, John Crawford, and Jordan Davis making the headlines this past year, movies like CHAPPiE provide not only some intense escapism, but also a chilling look at what the day after tomorrow could bring if technology and power is placed in the hands of a corrupt and desperate police force. Read More
By Ezra Stead
Beethoven, USA, 1992
Directed by Brian Levant
I should start this off by saying that I am not truly a dog hater. Like virtually any human being, I have been known to find dogs charming in small doses, but I would never want to live with one, so I can relate to George Newton (Charles Grodin), the hapless protagonist / antagonist of Beethoven. This would seem, at first glance, to be the ultimate dog lover’s movie, but it is arguably more enjoyable, and certainly more interesting on a subtextual level, to view it from the opposite perspective.
The film stacks the deck against we dog haters from the beginning, opening on an ominously rainy night outside the “Pet Supply” warehouse where evil Dr. Varnick (Dean Jones) conducts his nefarious experiments on innocent puppies. A prime example of this deck-stacking occurs later in the film, when it is revealed just what Dr. Varnick has in mind for poor Beethoven: a munitions manufacturer wants him to “test” a new type of exploding bullet, to see the impact it makes on “big skulls.” While it can be argued that animal testing is worthwhile because of the potential human benefits gained from it, even the most dyed-in-the-wool dog hater would find it difficult to defend the scientific expediency of shooting a dog right in the goddamn face. Read More
By Mike Shaeffer
Johnny Dangerously, USA, 1984
Directed by Amy Heckerling
“I’ve been fulfilling a lot of people’s prophecies about me; I’ve become a real scumbag.” –Danny Vermin (Joe Piscopo)
In 1984, director Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Clueless) gave us the comedy Johnny Dangerously, starring a dapper Michael Keaton, fresh off the success of Mr. Mom. Keaton’s performance in last year’s Birdman, which netted the Oscar for Best Picture, was one of his best. It was a delight revisiting his gangster persona to see just how well the actor and this gangster spoof have aged.
One of the first elements that establish this film as a gangster flick is the setting—the Lower East Side of New York City during the height of Prohibition. After a brief set-up introducing Keaton as our protagonist, we flash back to city streets filled with Studebakers, alleys ruled by an Irish mobster called Jocko Dundee, played with humor and charm by the late, great Peter Boyle (Young Frankenstein). Read More
By Mike Shaeffer
I was totin’ my pack along the icy frontier of Hoth, when along came a wild-eyed pistol waver a-ridin’ on his tauntaun. He said, “If you’ve heard of the Millennium Falcon, with me you can ride,” then he sliced open the tauntaun, and then I settled down inside.
He said he made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs. I told him that a parsec is not a unit of speed but a unit of distance equal to approximately three and a quarter light years, and then I looked right into his frostbit face and said, “Han, ol’ buddy… I’ve been everywhere, man.
“I’ve been everywhere, man. I’ve crossed the deserts bare, man. I’ve breathed the mountain air, man. Of travel I’ve had my share, man. I’ve been everywhere. Read More
By Mike Shaeffer
The Blues Brothers, USA, 1980
Directed by John Landis
“The crest and crowning of all good, life’s final star, is Brotherhood.” –Edwin Markham
First, let’s agree that most movie lovers would consider The Blues Brothers, foremost, a comedy. However, with the distinct and deliberate musical arrangement, the wide range of singing styles, and the infectious dancing performed throughout the ludicrous plot, we must also qualify this laugh-out-loud comedy as a musical.
The Blues Brothers doesn’t have the romantic tension and chemistry that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers delivered in classic Hollywood musicals like Top Hat; instead, you have the foul-mouthed banter of brothers Jake and Elwood shuffling and somersaulting their way into our hearts for the unapologetic antiheroes they are. This film doesn’t have all the long, unedited takes and top-notch choreography seen in musical masterpieces like Singin’ in the Rain, but I’ll be content to settle for Debbie Reynolds’ machine-gun toting daughter, Carrie Fisher, every bit as lovely and eternally scorned for being left at the altar by Jake. Read More
By Ezra Stead
Maps to the Stars, Canada / Germany / France / USA, 2014
Directed by David Cronenberg
If A Dangerous Method (the end of the Viggo Mortensen trilogy as I like to call it, the first two being A History of Violence and Eastern Promises) shows David Cronenberg at his most respectable, and Cosmopolis presents the Canadian director at his most unwatchable, his latest manages to avoid both of those traps. A sleazy, trashy, dark comedy about the amoral self-absorption of Hollywood, Maps to the Stars is gleefully disreputable and never less than entertaining. However, it lacks the narrative focus and thematic bite to rank among Cronenberg’s best films.
The most coherent and interesting thread to be found amongst the rather large, interconnected ensemble concerns an aging actress (Julianne Moore) angling for the part played by her now deceased mother in a remake of one of the latter’s classic films. She hires an assistant (Mia Wasikowska) who has been disfigured by burns in a house fire she herself started. The mentor-protégé relationship gradually sours to the point of a rather shocking conclusion, and an earlier scene in which the pair sing and dance in celebration of the tragic death of another actress’s small child is easily the funniest moment in the film. Read More
By Mike Shaeffer
The Babadook, Australia / Canada, 2014
Written and Directed by Jennifer Kent
“Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.”
― Emilie Buchwald
When marketing an independent film, producers want a trailer that will reel in any number of demographics. Their targeted audience may be those who love a good thriller, but the product is cross-marketed as a horror film or a psychological drama. Such is the case with the Australian outing The Babadook, released in the U.S. last November. While this film owes a bit to the horror genre, it works most effectively as an emotional thriller. Not only does it fit best within the thriller genre, it is most chilling when the ambiguities are cemented in the notion that this is not a supernatural haunting akin to The Amityville Horror; this is not some spin on the Necronomicon– the cursed book of flesh from Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead franchise. The Babadook is not a modern take on The Bad Seed, nor does this film involve cursed ground filled with angry spirits a la Poltergeist. The Babadook is a thriller that depicts the downward spiral of an increasingly unhinged single parent. The mother desperately loves her child, but she is overwhelmed, inept, and unable to combat the depression, fear, and anxiety she suffers after losing her husband and having to raise her boy alone. Read More