I haven't seen Death Sentence yet, but I'd wager a linden that it's your best bet for this Labor Day weekend. The trailer gets a solid A+, and I like everything that director James Wan and actor Kevin Bacon have had to say about it. The story is an adaptation of a Brian Garfield novel. He's the same guy that wrote "Death Wish", and if you didn't know, the story of this one closely hews the plot found in that old Charlie Bronson relic. A father watches as his son's throat gets slit with a machete. Cue: Slushy drop on the linoleum floor. "Splash!" The killer gets off due to a loophole in the judicial system. Kevin Bacon, playing a baldheaded badass, hunts down his son's killer. Kills him. And, in doing so, gets his whole family marked for death. How could that not be good? I'm actually relieved that they didn't screen it for us critics. I would much rather watch this bad, banging mother trucker of a shoot-em-up at the Mission: Tiki Drive-In. Can you imagine it? A bottle of Bushmills in one hand, my girl in the other, and glorious Bacon waxing poetically across my windshield. If that doesn't say the end of summer, I don't know what else will.
I did get a chance to see the other two big films that are opening this weekend. Halloween and Balls of Fury certainly have some things to offer a few filmgoers, but most people are going to be disappointed on both counts. I personally loved Balls of Fury. Though, I have read nothing but negative praise about it (especially on the Internet). People simply don't like this movie, and I'm not sure why. I think it steams from a certain hatred of Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon. These guys, improvisational wizards on TV with Viva Variety and Reno 911!, have been doing incredibly well on the script circuit. If you didn't know, they also wrote the very successful Disney film The Pacifier. It, too, was panned by the Internet shit-talkers. Then came a long a little monster hit by the name of Night at the Museum. This sucker made bank, and garnered these guys a healthy paycheck in the screenwriting after-life. They're even banging out a sequel as we speak.For some reason, the talk backers dismissed this gargantuan moneymaker too, calling it names and putting "kick me" signs on its back. I never really understood why. Maybe its because I saw Night at the Museum drunk, at the drive-in. I thought it was incredibly fun. I enjoyed its breezy attitude. It reminded me of past films like Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Big Trouble in Little China. It was a diversion. A tasty little truffle. And people (at least on the internet) seemed to hate it. I think, because, here, again, were a couple of guys having a lot of fun with what they were doing. That seems to make the basement dwellers really mad. They hate to see filmmakers having fun. Look at Bryan Singer's Superman Returns. He obviously didn't experience any joy on that set, and it shows on screen. Subsequently, the critical community has been overtly kind to him in light of that atrocity. Hmm?
Now come Ben and Thomas, Garant directing this time, with one of the freest experiences of the summer. After hearing some of the things I'd heard, I dreaded having to sit through Balls of Fury because I wanted to like it. I'm a huge ping-pong fanatic, and I find the game incredibly fascinating to watch. To my amazement, they were able to bring the sport to the screen in glorious fashion. They treat it like the "real" sport it is. And that might be the problem.
Movie PicturePeople hear ping-pong and laugh. The majority of theater attendees don't take the sport seriously. They think it's a goof, and that they are getting a spoof film with Balls of Fury. Oh, but this is no spoof film. It has a solid structure, and rides the line closely between reality and fanaticism. It is a "real" sports film that has comedic elements. I don't think people were expecting that. The through-line is treated like a kung-fu action flick, only they've replaced fists and kicks with loops and lobs. It moves spryly across the screen, never drowning in its excesses. The jokes come at a pretty steady rate, but they are all based squarely in the realm of this world and never cross that certain line of stupidity, which plagues most films of this nature.
Every single ping-pong match is a marvel to watch, most of it done practically. If you strain, you can almost notice a couple of CGI'd balls here or there. But those are rare, as every actor on screen had to go through extensive ping-pong training. The performers are spot on, as well. Dan Fogler, fresh from his stint on Broadway, brings an electrifying comedic presence that is entirely new and special. He has a dynamic persona, and illuminates the screen each time he steps onto it. I don't remember seeing this kind of wattage since Eddie Murphy first lit up the screen in 48 Hours. His partner in crime is George Lopez, a comedian I have never liked. When I heard that he was a main part of this film, I wanted to abandon it. But, surprisingly, he steals the show here with a bravado performance that would have fallen to the wayside had it been any other actor in the role.
I recommend this film, especially if you are heading back to school this week. It will relieve some of that awful stress for two hours. (Ah, whom am I kidding? You'll probably hate it.)
On the other hand, Halloween will completely stress you out. Rob Zombie's remake is being called one of the worst films of all time (or at least of this year). I wouldn't go that far. While his film is completely unnecessary, and only partially executed with a steady hand, I still found enough about it to like. And I'd call it one of the six best Halloween films made to date.
Movie PictureThe problem rests in the opening half of the film. For thirty straight minutes, Zombie concocts an original, terrifying, thought provoking essay on the slasher genre that has never been seen before. He creates a brutal ten-year old killer, one that could have stood his own ground for ninety odd minutes had Rob given him the chance. The beginning of this film is not Halloween. It is something completely different; a voice on this generation's attitude towards violence. But then something weird happens...
This wholly unique character being played by the affable Daeg Faerch suddenly goes mute, and pretends to be Mike Myers for the last fifty-five minutes. You are left scratching your head, "Huh?" Zombie has done something that no other Halloween film has done up to this point. He has given this soulless killing machine that we've come to love a white-hot spark of life and empathy. We actually start to feel for the character. We get a sense of why he does such horrible things, and how being picked on by a Spy-Kid has led him to this life of ultra-violence.
The problem is, when the film switches gears and heads into the future world of Mike, we're seeing the original Carpenter version of the character. Not what Rob has sat and patiently crafted for the first half of the film. It creates a piece that is off in tone and narrative. We never get a sense of why this kid has gone mute. After being a little chatterbox for a good portion of the film, he loses his ability to speak and goes on a rampage. It's as if we are watching a Rob Zombie movie that has been spliced with a hack's version of a Carpenter remake.
The last two thirds of the film are almost a shot-for-shot redo of the original. It plays in the same colors, yet without any of the velocity that made the original so compelling. Rob Zombie has talked a lot in the last few weeks about what he has and hasn't kept in terms of the original. Well, the first film was metaphorically about abortion. Carpenter has said it himself, and it has been written about in plenty of "feminist theory as applied to cinema" textbooks. Michael is an unwanted fetus who resents his baby sister. That's why he keeps going back to that house in the original. It represents the womb. And Jamie Lee Curtis gouging him with a coat hanger is a metaphor for evacuating the beast from the womb.
Zombie smartly, if unknowingly, flips that concept around. Young Mike is loved and wanted by his mother. She cares a great deal for him. So Rob rightly loses the coat hanger scene in the climax of this film. Though we still see his character, and that of his sister, crawling back into this house from their childhood. Crawling back into the womb. But that structuring doesn't work here. Because this is a completely different Mike Myers. Or it's supposed to be. And that's the problem.
Rob abandons his creation of character and switches gears. He gives us the old Michael Myers when he should still be giving us an extension of the new. The second half of his movie relies too much on the old myth. It creates giant plot holes that are never filled. And it makes for an unpleasant theatrical experience. I enjoyed watching Myers walk around in his Captain Kirk mask, which is the main thrill of these films for me. But this one had potential to have a real storyline. It's a shame that Rob abandons that concept at the midway point.
Better luck next time. Its always hard recreating the classics.
So, go see Death Sentence and tell me if it's any good. I give Balls of Fury four out of five Tiny Joel Segal hearts. I give Rob Zombie's Halloween two and a half out of five Tiny Joel Segal hearts (because, hey, he only gave me half a movie).
Well, folks, that's it for this summer. I'll see you in a week or two for all those delicious, Oscar-baiting fall films headed our way! I know you can't wait for the latest scoop on Feast of Love.
Dont't forget to also check out: Halloween