As we leave behind the studio dumping ground that is the month of February and move away from the Oscars, we're starting to see the first promising titles of the new year. Granted, if you're not into cheesy horror flicks, then my working definition of "promising" may differ from yours. But no matter what your tastes are, the fact remains that movies should start getting better now, or at least more interesting. And yes, I'm finally psyched for the opening of "Watchmen" next week. Took me a while, but I got there.
"Friday the 13th"
*** 1/2 (out of four)
2009, Marcus Nispel, U.S., R
I was a tad less concerned about this project than I usually am when it comes to remakes, simply because with a decent budget and at least a of grain of something resembling creative talent, it's pretty hard to mess up a "Friday the 13th" flick. The series has seen its share of low points over 11 films (chapters 5, 8 and 9 actually are "bad" movies, I think, even by franchise standards), but for the most part these movies operate as a tried and true formula. This "reimagining" - which substitutes masked killer Jason Vorhees for his mother, who was the killer in the first film 29 years ago - is no exception, but the formula has been tweaked just enough for this installment to qualify as fresh and somewhat original. Take the first post-credits sequence, in which we're introduced to a group of five teens who are rummaging around the site of the former Camp Crystal Lake, having sex and looking for a cache of naturally growing weed. Inevitably, Jason shows up to institute his own brand of puritanical morality, and the extended 20-minute scene - which culminates with the "Friday the 13th" title card flashing up on the screen before we come across another group of annoying teens ripe for slashing - is the greatest thing to ever come out of the series. (Unless you count Crispin Glover's dance scene from part 6, of course.) The movie is dark and gritty, for the most part, and is far more violent than any of its predecessors. However, director Marcus Nispel (2003's "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" remake), aided by original producer Sean S. Cunningham, wisely holds onto the idea that, above all else, these films are supposed to be fun. So he injects enough comic relief to ensure that the film doesn't get bogged down by its own grisly nature, and even has the decency to make sure that the comic relief is actually funny. It may not be your particular cup o' tea, but established fans will absolutely not be disappointed.
2008, David Gordon Green, U.S., R
Okay, I think I somewhat missed the boat on this one the first time around. Upon initial viewing, I took it for an unusually playful but overlong bit of fluff that successfully mixed and warped action/comedy genre conventions. Yet watching the film twice more on DVD, I was struck by exactly how consistently funny and high-concept this piece really is. Just think of it as the representation of what a group of movie-buff stoners might create if they got together and decided they wanted to make an action film starring themselves, complete with every action-movie cliché you've ever encountered. It's a clever concept, but it's the small bits that make it special: the stand-alone opening scene, which uses Bill Hader and an Army testing facility to show the origins of marijuana's criminalization; the first scene between eventual BFFs Dale Denton (Seth Rogen) and his drug dealer, Saul (James Franco, in a sublimely goofy role that should have earned him an Oscar nod), as Dale unsuccessfully tries to stick to business; the family dinner - headed by an irate Ed Begley, Jr., as the father of Dale's teenage girlfriend - that descends into a shoot-out involving hit men. The film is full of these "throwaway" scenes that perhaps go on longer than they need to, but not necessarily longer than they should. It's a distinction that took me a bit to realize, but I'm glad I did, as there is now no doubt in my mind that "Pineapple Express" is among the best action comedies/buddy flicks/drug culture films I've ever seen.
"Reign of Fire"
2002, Rob Bowman, U.S., R
Fact: Christian Bale can kick your butt. I don't care who you are; the recently released audio clip of the intimidating Welshman verbally destroying a disruptive director of photography on the set of "Terminator: Salvation" should be enough to convince you that you simply do not mess with the Bale. So what better time to immerse yourself in the pain and talent of one of our better A-list action stars? He's done worse (and better) than "Reign of Fire," which pits his brave and noble Brit against hordes of rampaging dragons that have decimated the world. Seems like a fair fight to me, but he's lucky enough to have the help of an American militiaman (Matthew McConaughey, ripped as all hell) who has come up with a way to defeat the dragons once and for all. The action and special effects are top-notch, making this perhaps our only genuinely impressive and entertaining dragon movie.
1989, Ivan Reitman, U.S., PG
A couple weeks ago, I wrote on the original "Ghostbusters" and how it embodies a lost spirit of impassioned commercial filmmaking. It was technically flawless and thematically provocative (the film's more bold, racially confrontational elements only recently dawned on me, unfortunately), and it will never, ever get old. This sequel came five years later, and although it boasts the same director and writers (Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis, who also star), everything that made the original so great and memorable is missing here. The movie is much brighter than the first, both in tone and physical lighting, and the effect is funky and disorienting. Gone is the racially charged satire, replaced by the message that we should all try to get along better. (I realize and appreciate the fact that the movie was made in New York City post-Bernie Goetz and is concerned with very real social problems, but seriously - come on.) Even the plot, involving an underground river of slime whose power will allow the return of an ancient Carpathian warlord, pales in comparison. Like I said before, I'm looking forward to the upcoming third installment with breath that is bated, but have these guys really still got what it takes? I have my doubts.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.