Archive for April, 2014

X-Men The Last Stand (2006)

Director: Brett Ratner

Starring Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, Anna Paquin, Kelsey Grammer, James Marsden, Rebecca Romijn, Shawn Ashmore, Aaron Stanford, Vinnie Jones, Ellen Page, Ben Foster

Movie trailers are deceptive little buggers. Among the greatest films of all-time there are those which have, as part of their advertising arsenal, some of the most terrible trailers. Trying not to fall asleep during the interminable trailer for “Casablanca” is nearly impossible, yet that movie is one of the greatest love stories ever told. Then, you have trailers like the one for “X-Men: The Last Stand”…

Based solely on those two minutes and thirty seconds, this looked like a sequel worthy of bearing the “X-Men” name, and potentially a fantastic closing chapter (as if they really were going to stop after just three movies). So… What the hell happened?! The writer(s) for this film had the most popular storyline in the history of the X-Men comic handed to them on a silver platter, courtesy of a setup provided by “X2.” As originally told in 1980, it’s a pretty basic premise, with Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) having made a gesture of self-sacrifice so that her friends might live on to fight another day, only to herself be reborn as the entity known as the Phoenix. She then becomes drunk on power, a threat to all life everywhere. Like Superman, the Phoenix could destroy the universe just by listening too hard. The only thing keeping her grounded is Jean’s personal relationships with Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Cyclops (James Marsden) and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart). In one “What If?” scenario published separate from the original “Dark Phoenix Saga,” the Phoenix kills Jean’s friends, saving Cyclops for last. Upon realizing she has killed the love of her life, the distraught Jean reacts by destroying the Earth. She cannot face living in a world without him in it. I don’t know who among the production crew is responsible for the garbled mess that is “X-Men: The Last Stand,” but I don’t feel at all smug when I say I understand these characters far better than they do. I’ll wager that most anyone else who counts themselves as an “X-Men” fan could say the same.

As “X-Men: The Last Stand” begins, I see that the movie is wasting no time whatsoever in botching this whole thing completely. In a flashback to when Xavier and Magneto (Ian McKellen) were still working side by side and actively seeking out other mutants together, they visit the home of Jean Grey’s parents. Jean is described as a Class 5 mutant, meaning that she’s an exceptionally gifted and powerful mutant. We also have the introduction of Warren Worthington, III, aka “Angel” (Ben Foster), referred to as such because of his angelic wings which give him the power of flight. This is all before the opening credits and, while Warren’s father figures prominently in this movie, if you think that Angel himself has any major contributions to make, you’d be sorely mistaken.

It’s Warren Jr. who has the important role to play. His own fear of mutants, and guilt in fathering one, has led Warren Worthington, Jr. to devise a method by which the mutant gene can be “cured” like a disease. From its beginnings, “X-Men” has always been a reflection of the persecution of those whom the uneducated perceive as “different.” Only the names have changed. In the 1960’s, it was the Civil Rights Movement of the African-American community, and the resistance to the end of segregation, which the comic was addressing. Nowadays, the metaphor could extend to the LGBT community’s fight for the right to be counted as equals, their struggle to be who they are and love whom they choose without constant scrutiny. From that perspective, the “Cure” storyline… an invention of the early 2000’s… could be seen as being like “praying the gay away.” That might have made for a good enough movie all by itself. So why the need to squeeze that story together with one which isn’t even remotely compatible?

Now, get this: Cyclops was the leader of the team all along. It wasn’t Jean Grey, Storm or, as one might have suspected, Wolverine. Still grieving, the X-Men’s captain returns to the site of Jean’s death at Alkali Lake, only to find her very much alive. His joy is short-lived, however, because Jean KILLS HIM. You know, that one act that would cause her so much emotional turmoil that she burns the world to a cinder? In “X-Men: The Last Stand,” Jean directs her anguish toward only a handful of fragile items in a single room. Oh, wait, it gets better. Xavier tells Wolverine that, when he first met Jean, upon witnessing how unpredictable her abilities were, he has from then on been placing mental blocks in her head to keep those powers in check. Doing so, he says, created a dual personality. Yes, folks, the Phoenix in this movie is no supernatural or alien entity. That stuff in “X2” about her powers becoming enhanced/out of control? This movie wants you to forget all that. Turns out it was just the breaking down of Xavier’s mental blocks. How exactly was the Professor, as powerful a mutant as he is, supposed to have been maintaining these walls while asleep, otherwise rendered unconscious, or (as in “X2”) under the influence of a mind-controlling mutant, hmm?

While the Phoenix’s story largely ends up taking a backseat to the “Mutant Cure,” both lead to a big showdown at Alcatraz Island. It’s there that Magneto intends to wage his war, choosing that site because that’s where the mutant known as Leech, a kid who renders all mutants powerless as long as they remain within close proximity to him, is being kept. He’s the lab rat that the U.S. Government is using to produce their Mutant Gene suppressant. It’s quite a knockdown, drag out fight, but I can’t help noticing that most of the participants on Magneto’s side are unfamiliar figures who were given quite a lot of screen time during the course of the film. Don’t even bother wondering who any of these people are. The movie is never going to tell you. It doesn’t matter anyway, because they’ll all be dead by the end of the battle.

It would seem fruitless at this point to make any observations about the acting in this film, having pretty much beaten to death the poor quality of the story itself, but I’ll go for it. The one bright spot comes from Ian McKellen, who has never been more Magneto-like. There is good in Erik Lensherr, but it is overwhelmed by his hatred. He who experienced the cruelty of the Nazis, Magneto does not see that his own superiority complex when it comes to Mutants vs. Humans is no better than that of the Third Reich. His undying respect for Charles Xavier, despite their opposing views, is his one saving grace. “X-Men: The Last Stand” was the first place I ever saw actress Ellen Page. Mostly known for quirky roles in independent films, she’s more subdued as Kitty Pryde. Sadly, many of those who made the first two “X-Men” films so enjoyable are not allowed to contribute much at all this time. Anna Paquin, Rebecca Romijn, and Patrick Stewart are all sorely needed at key points late in the film, but circumstances dictate that they be absent. Famke Janssen, who impressed me in “X2,” is criminally misused in “X-Men: The Last Stand.” Jean was better off dying at the bottom of Alkali Lake. That’s where all copies of this movie should be, too.

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X2 (2003)

Director: Bryan Singer

Starring: Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Anna Paquin, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Brian Cox, Alan Cumming

Oh, look at that! Halle Berry’s face is just as big as Hugh Jackman’s on the theatrical poster for “X2”! Isn’t that adorable? Well, of course, she had just won an Oscar for “Monster’s Ball,” so the marketing team had to take advantage of her popularity and all. Yeah, whatever… “X2: X-Men United” makes some of the same errors in judgment as its predecessor, but fortunately fewer of them. I like to think of that as evolution. From that perspective, “X2” clearly helped the franchise evolve from the growing pains of its first try, providing a stronger story with stronger characters, all while casting a sense of hope for the future. It even provides an easy set-up for the third movie, one which followers of the “X-Men” comic would instantly recognize. How that wildly popular storyline would be handled was anyone’s guess back in 2003, but first we had this chapter in the movie saga with which to marvel at our heart’s content.

Picking up some time after the events of “X-Men,” which saw Magneto (Ian McKellen) defeated and placed in a plastic prison cell, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has arrived at Alkaki Lake in Canada, hoping to find the missing pieces to the puzzle that is his memory. Unfortunately, he finds nothing there. Meanwhile, back in the States, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) has been experiencing changes in her telepathic abilities ever since the climactic battle on Liberty Island from the previous film. It seems that Magneto’s machine, which had been intended to induce mutation in normal humans, has caused this surge in Jean’s powers. But Jean’s dilemma will have to be put on hold, thanks to a mutant attack on the White House. Enter William Stryker (Brian Cox), who with the Presidents permission intends to lead a raid on the X-Mansion. Stryker’s intentions are hardly patriotic. He wants the technology known as Cerebro, which Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) uses to locate mutants, for the purpose of waging war against those whom society deems “different” and “dangerous.”

One of the strengths of “X2” is that it makes sure you’ll care about all of its mutant characters, even the ones that don’t have any spoken dialogue or only show up for a brief amount of time. Viewers are introduced to several new faces who will seem familiar to anyone knowledgeable about the comics. The big strong lad who can turn his skin to metal to deflect enemy attack is called Colossus. Serving under Stryker against her will is the deadly silent Yuriko (Kelly Hu). But the clear standout among the new characters is Pyro (Aaron Stanford), who has the power to manipulate (albeit not to create) fire.

As before, Halle Berry remains the single truly problematic main cast member, but at least this time she’s speaking with her own voice instead of a broken African accent. Still doesn’t prevent bad delivery at times, though other times she’s simply given badly written dialogue. James Marsden is still weak as Cyclops, but he gets a reprieve in “X2” because he spends most of it either off-screen or under Stryker’s control. Alan Cumming, who reportedly hated playing his character because of the extensive makeup required, is actually kind of annoying as Nightcrawler. The character’s Catholic faith is not the reason for this, however the script’s requirement that he recite several of the most overused passages from the Bible is a contributing factor. The rest is made up by a one-note performance from an actor who clearly demonstrates his disinterest in being here. A pity… I’m usually a Nightcrawler fan.

On the flip side, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen can make anything worth watching, but the ones to watch “X2” for are Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen and Rebecca Romijn. Like Stewart and McKellen, Jackman commands attention, and he’s also great at making you believe he is the character he plays. I can’t say with absolute certainty that he was the one and only choice to play Wolverine, but he has always projected a visible understanding of the essence of who the man otherwise known as Logan is. It’s unfortunate that the strongest aspect of “X-Men,” the friendship between Wolverine and Rogue (Anna Paquin) is largely set aside this time, but Wolverine’s got other things… and other women (namely Jean)… on his mind. Rebecca Romijn, who three years earlier seemed like an odd choice to play the shape-shifter Mystique in “X-Men,” made the role her own in 2003’s “X2.” The movie does have a certain sense of humor to it, and the spunky, bad girl Mystique gets the majority of those laughs.

If you were to take a poll amongst the X-Men, they would all agree that Jean Grey is the heart of the team. Cyclops and Wolverine most especially would make that claim, biased opinion or not. Famke Janssen was good enough in the role the first time around, but she excels in “X2.” The greatest scene in the movie… and in the entire “X-Men” film franchise… is hers. Jean, above all others, is the most heroic character of this piece. One can’t help but think of the most famous scene from another sci-fi film, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” when she steps off the X-Men’s jet to contain a flood created by the crumbling dam at Alkali Lake, buying the team the time it needs to escape. To further the “Wrath of Khan” comparison, Janssen repeats Patrick Stewart’s opening monologue from the first film, just as Leonard Nimoy had recited the famous “Space, the final frontier…” monologue that had until that time always been spoken by William Shatner.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’ve been spoiled by the quality of the superhero movies released since 2008. “X2” is no “Dark Knight,” and it doesn’t excite me as much as it did a decade ago, but there is no question that it is far and away the best of the first three “X-Men” movies. Certainly, the fantastic finish helps out a lot in that regard, but really, it was a team effort that made this one as good as it is. I have two favorite storylines from the “X-Men” comic… and I think it’s fair to say there are many fans who can say the same… The “Dark Phoenix” saga, and the “Days of Future Past” two-parter. It’s only logical that both would find their way onto the big screen, one in 2006, and the other coming in just a few short weeks in May 2014. Botching those storylines would anger fans around the world. Getting them right would earn critical praise, and could inspire continued interest in the film franchise. Unlike Wolverine, this film franchise is not indestructible, so what’s it going to be? Evolution, or extinction?

Sharknado (2013)

Director: Anthony C. Ferrante

Starring: Tara Reid, Ian Ziering, John Heard, Cassie Scerbo, Jaason Simmons, Chuck Hittenger, Aubrey Peeples

Boy, the SyFy Channel has put out some whoppers, haven’t they? If you see a movie airing on that TV channel, the odds are that it will be some made-for-TV, low budget piece of crap that you really needn’t bother wasting one moment with. It was for that very reason that, when the media frenzy surrounding “Sharknado” erupted in 2013, I stayed out of the storm’s path and let it blow on by. Lately, though, I couldn’t help but be curious as to what it could be, other than the hilarious title, that was attracting viewers the same way the disastrous “Snakes on a Plane” had. I had also been sampling a lot of creature features as of late, such as “Piranha” (1978), “Humanoids from the Deep” (1980) and “Barracuda” (1978). Stay the hell away from that last one! With a premise like the one belonging to “Sharknado,” you have to know that it was made to be stupid. Ultimately, I figured, “Okay. I’ll bite.”

A hurricane is blowing in to destroy Los Angeles. The entire city is about to be flooded, though not just with water, but with sharks (which the hurricane picked up on its way in) too! Completely at random, we follow bar owner Fin Sheperd (Ian Ziering), barmaid Nova (Cassie Scerbo), and a handful of others who take it upon themselves to stop this calamitous tidal wave of carnivorous fish. Lots of carnage ensues, and all logic is completely cast aside. Really, the action reaches video game levels at times. The main crux of the story is that Fin wants to make sure that his family is safe from the sharks’ onslaught. The catch is that he’s separated/divorced from his wife, and at least one of his kids feels abandoned by him. Eventually, it becomes all about marking time until the threat is contained in the most “out there” way imaginable.

Ian Ziering, of “Beverly Hills, 90210” fame, is an odd choice for an action hero, but what the hell. And, look! Tara Reid’s in this movie… for some reason. She plays Fin’s vacuous, estranged wife. I really don’t know what she’s doing here at all. The whole subplot with the family feels like padding to allow the film a running time of just under an hour and a half. That probably means that it’s exactly what it seems. I know the movie was intended to be funny but, honestly, the funniest thing about “Sharknado” is the casting of someone who is merely seven years younger than Tara Reid in the role of her son. Don’t think I need to explain why that feels weird. We even get a largely unnecessary backstory for Nova… because simply being a scantily-clad, shotgun-wielding barmaid wasn’t good enough.

I suppose what I’m getting at here is that “Sharknado” knows it’s just a dumb B-movie but, rather than simply relish in that fact, it overcomplicates things by actually trying to form a plot. Usually, that would be something to celebrate, but when you cast non-entities in semi-important roles like the family members of the main character… you know, the ones he’s the most motivated to keep safe… it really keeps you from giving a crap whether they live or die. I know full well how to turn my brain off to enjoy a movie, but I don’t need roadblocks in the path leading me to that satisfaction. A sequel is in the works, to be set in New York City (duh! what else?) and Ian Ziering and Tara Reid are both returning. I would laugh, but I think that’s what they would want me to do, so I’ll contain my amusement.

X-Men (2000)

Director: Bryan Singer

Starring: Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Anna Paquin, Bruce Davison, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Ray Park

There is such a thing as becoming too beholden to a work of fiction, I suppose. You see sci-fi fans doing it all the time. Some call themselves “Trekkers.” Whatever their interest, these sci-fi fans all have one thing in common: the meticulous (and somewhat unhealthy) dissection of all that is wrong with a television episode or film. This is called nitpicking. So it was with “X-Men” when it finally hit the big screen in July of 2000, after what seemed like an endless wait to have one of the most popular comic books of all time turned into a motion picture. Some looked up at the screen in awe. Others gazed in disbelief, seeing what resembled their heroes, only not quite “…and here are the reasons why.” As an eighteen-year old just out of high school, I found myself somewhere in-between. I’m still in that uncomfortable middle ground now, leaning on the side of nitpicking. A fan of both the comics (mainly those of the late 70’s/early 80’s) and of the 1990’s cartoon series, I was grateful to finally have a live action movie to go along with the package, however I did take issue with one particular line of dialogue which pokes fun at a certain character’s traditional tight yellow costume. “X-Men” is far from perfect, but objecting to something so insignificant as this is pretty silly in the long run. If one were to be truly critical of the film, a better place to start would either be in the story or in the casting/characterization. I choose the latter.

The film opens in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1944. A young boy is being separated from his mother by German soldiers. In desperation, he reaches out his hand, and a nearby gate seemingly starts twisting and bending all on its own. The boy is Erik Lehnsherr, and he will grow up to become Magneto (Ian McKellen), a mutant with the power to control all metallic objects. Flash forward to the present day. At her parents’ home in Mississippi, a young girl named Marie (Anna Paquin) is spending some very innocent time with a boy in her room. However, when they move to kiss one another, the boy suddenly slips into a coma. Marie has the power to drain the life force out of anyone she touches, and she gives herself the nickname “Rogue.” Afraid of hurting anyone else, Rogue leaves home and runs away to Canada. There, she meets a man who fights in cages for cash and is referred to as “Wolverine” (Hugh Jackman). His real name is Logan, and he has a secret, too. Wolverine has quick-healing abilities, as well as an indestructible metal skeleton. You can bet the latter will work against him in any confrontations with Magneto. Wolverine also has no clear memories of his past, only bits and fragments.

The longstanding friendship/rivalry between Magneto and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is rooted in their opposing views towards human/mutant relations. Xavier, a mutant with telepathic abilities, believes in a world where the two sides can co-exist. Magneto, who has lived his whole life in a world of intolerance, feels that the only solution to the problem is to turn everyone into a mutant. Magneto needs Rogue to absorb his power and control the machine he has built, and he acts rather coldly about the fact that doing this would kill her. To prevent this from happening, Xavier assembles his team of X-Men, which (with the addition of Wolverine) includes Storm (Halle Berry), Cyclops (James Marsden) and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) as members.

“X-Men” is one title that will likely remain out of Marvel Studios’ reach, staying within Fox’s firm grasp for as long as they keep pumping out sequel after sequel. Hugh Jackman as Wolverine is spot-on, as is the love triangle between him, Jean Grey and Cyclops. I also like the bond formed between Wolverine and Rogue, something that never existed in the comic. Maybe my favorite thing about this movie, actually. Professor Xavier and Magneto, if not perfect, are also represented well by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Where the characterization goes horribly wrong is with Cyclops and (especially) Storm. Although the tension between Cyclops and Wolverine is correct, Cyclops himself comes off as weak when he should be the commanding voice of the team. He was only their leader, for crying out loud! Not so, here. Wolverine, who was the popular supporting character in the comics, is the de facto leader in the film series… so get used to it, Fox says. As for Storm, aside from her being able to control the weather, everything else about her is wrong. In this movie especially, Berry’s attempt at an African accent is downright painful. I think she knew this as well, which is why that disappears in the sequels. Halle Berry was simply the wrong fit for her character. Yet, by May 2014, she will have appeared as Storm four times! I can’t watch her battle with Toad (Ray Park) without riffing on it “Mystery Science Theater”-style. To this day, I still hear the song “Rock You Like a Hurricane” during this awkward, amateurish fight scene.

I am in some ways thankful that I never followed the comic books of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk or their collective adventures as The Avengers. I was able to go into each movie with a clean slate, with no nits to pick. But I doubt I would find very much to object about those movies whether or not I had read the source material. It’s also true that “X-Men,” even with its faults, is still a very fun action-packed extravaganza. It was also partially responsible for helping to make the comic book film a genre that audiences would flock to see and big name actors would sign on to appear in, as it is today. With immensely popular storylines at the ready, the franchise still has limitless potential. It just won’t be achieved with yellow spandex.

The Abyss (1989)

Director: James Cameron

Starring: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn

Because relations between the United States and Russia are as strained as they’ve been since the end of the Cold War, now may be as appropriate a time as any to look back at this underappreciated science fiction film, which got lost in the sea of box office blockbusters in the summer of 1989. That’s right… there was a time when James Cameron wasn’t the “king of the world.” Right at the tail end of the decades-long game of chicken being played between the United States and what was then known as the Soviet Union, Cameron committed to celluloid the message that everyone hoped the two nations would hear loud and clear: “Calm down before you ruin this world for everyone!” The end result is not only a great movie, but also a hint of things to come in the career of its director.

After a United States submarine is sunk following a collision with an unidentified object, accusations are being thrown back and forth between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Any hope of a détente appears lost when more “accidents” follow on both sides. In-between this action, a group of deep sea oil drillers are recruited to save the world… er, I mean locate the submarine. Sorry about that, Michael Bay. Led by Virgil “Bud” Brigman (Ed Harris), the team is not entrusted to do this job alone. Enter a Navy SEAL unit, led by Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn), accompanied by Bud’s estranged wife, Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who designed the drilling platform and therefore knows as much about it as anyone. Early on, the SEALs are warned about the fact that a percentage of those who travel as deep into the water as they are going simply cannot handle it, and the stress causes them to go a bit mental. Lt. Coffey insists, rather forcefully, that his men have all passed their required physical tests before making this voyage. Right about that time, Coffey notices his own hand starting to shake…

Together, the two groups find the missing sub, and much more. Coffey and his group proceed with “phase two” of their mission, which involves the recovery of one of the dozens of nuclear weapons in the sub’s arsenal. The drill team find something they can’t really explain. One of them sees what he perceives as an angel and, believing that this means he is near death, the poor guy slips into a coma. The others discover what these creatures really are and what their agenda is, but only after a couple of power failures that coincide with their arrival.

As most of the nearly three hours of “The Abyss” take place deep under water, there is plenty of room for claustrophobia (and, yes, that pun was intended). I think there can be no greater example of this than the scene in which Bud and Lindsey are trapped in one of their mini-subs, its power shorted out and a sizeable leak having been sprung. With time running short, the two have only one option remaining. One of them will have to let themselves drown while the other puts on diving gear and heads back to the rig with them in tow. The thought is that the deep hypothermia will allow the drowning victim to be revived after a few minutes times. It’s just a truly terrifying scene, but brilliantly executed, and easily the one thing I remember most about this movie.

One of my favorite actors from the 1980’s is Michael Biehn. He’s one of those actors who has the ability to make you like his characters no matter how virtuous or reprehensible they may be. Of course, the one character he’ll be remembered for most is Kyle Reese from “The Terminator.” Lt. Coffey is no hero, but I don’t really see him as a villain either, in spite of all the shady moves he makes. He’s been tremendously affected by his environment, and as such is not really behaving like himself. At least, that’s what I choose to believe, and that’s due to Biehn’s irresistible charm. But it seems that, outside of the James Cameron oeuvre, Biehn was never able to parlay that charm into a steady career. He did make a brief return with his part in “Planet Terror,” Robert Rodriguez’s half of the 2007 double feature known as “Grindhouse,” but I’ll save more detailed thoughts on that for a later time.

With the knowledge of where the career of James Cameron would travel from this point, one can look at “The Abyss” and see elements of each subsequent film (with the exception of 1994’s “True Lies”). Famous for his use of CGI, Cameron first puts it to good use here. This movie, ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “Titanic” and “Avatar” each would provide breakthroughs in how best to use this technology in filmmaking. You have the strong female role, which Cameron put to good use in “Aliens” and would do so again with “Terminator 2.” Long before he would go in search of the Titanic’s wreckage, Cameron would first show off his love of underwater sequences (and the finding of lost treasures) here. Even the CGI responsible for creating the shape-shifting qualities of the villainous T-1000 from “Terminator 2” would get a trial run in “The Abyss.” It may not have had the gusto to outdo “Batman” or “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” at the box office, the film’s final message may come off a bit heavy-handed, and the whole thing might seem like a movie which Steven Spielberg could easily have directed, but “The Abyss” is just as relevant, and just as good a movie as any of James Cameron’s other works.

Shrooms (2007)

Director: Paddy Breathnach

Starring: Lindsey Haun, Jack Huston, Max Kasch, Maya Hazen, Alice Greczyn, Robert Hoffman

Honestly, I don’t know why I keep doing this to myself. I’ve seen this kind of horror movie so many times that I’ve lost count, yet still I come back for more. The good ones are like a fine, angus beef steak dinner; you wish there was more to it, and you’re sad when it’s over. The bad ones are like tripping out, only to have it go horribly wrong; you knew damn well what you were getting yourself into when you popped it in, and you have no one else to blame but yourself for making that decision. “Shrooms” wants so badly to be a steak dinner, thinking itself clever, only to present its audience with a whole lot of “a trained monkey could write this crap!”

Five college friends go out into the middle of nowhere to trip out on mushrooms… because, you know, they couldn’t find anything to munch anywhere near civilization. To really get away from it all, they decide to give up their cell phones and hide them in the glove compartment of their SUV… because it’d be really funny to have an emergency and not be able to call anyone. The invention of the cell phone has admittedly dealt a serious blow to the horror genre. These movies tend to rely on their characters being unable to call anyone for help. Once the friends get where they are going, they tell scary campfire stories, and make sure to point out the differences between the good kind of mushroom and the bad kind… and, of course, the main character eats one of the bad mushrooms. She wins the Idiot of the Week Award! But Tara (Lindsey Haun) doesn’t die. She just convulses and has visions of the near future involving the deaths of her friends. Wait, WHAT?!

If you think you’ve got a handle on where this is going, the odds are you’re probably right. The movie throws in a subplot involving survivors of some earlier tragedy years ago, but it’s mostly just for show. The main focus of the story stays on the five friends and their paranoia after consuming the fungi (the other four, besides Tara, eat the good kind). Meanwhile, Tara innocently wails and screams and flails about… and does all of these things a lot. She keeps seeing a Grim Reaper-type of character whenever there’s about to be death and, for reasons which you’ll figure out LONG before Tara does, so do her friends.

The way this whole movie plays out, I have to wonder if it wasn’t intended as some weird anti-drug PSA type of thing. I would like to believe that’s not the case, but then so many 1980’s horror movies (not to mention other genres) pulled exactly that same card. That isn’t the biggest problem for “Shrooms.” Beyond the silly, abbreviated title, you have to sneer at movies that require their characters to act stupid in order for the plot to move along. I say this despite being a fan of several 1980’s slasher franchises. They get a pass for nostalgia’s sake, among other things.  On the subject of gore, “Shrooms” to its credit behaves more like slasher films of the 1970’s like “Black Christmas” and “Halloween,” in that on-screen blood is minimalized… at least until the climax. That’s when you discover what’s “really” going on, but as I’ve suggested, anyone paying attention will have picked up on it long before they admit it. The total lack of suspense kills this one before it’s had the chance to get going. I, myself, was yelling the identity of the killer at the screen during the first act.

I really don’t know why American horror has sunk so low. Rehashing old ideas seems to be all that we are good for. Save the reminiscence for the films which actually belong to their time periods. Is it so hard to think beyond conventional storytelling tactics? The French and the Japanese both have a firm grasp on “thinking outside the box.” Technically, “Shrooms” isn’t a horrible movie on its own. It’s just not all that good, it’s too predictable and it’s not the greatest way to spend just shy of 90 minutes of your time. Maybe if one were to try watching it while stoned, that would make a difference… Nah, not worth it.

The Buddy Holly Story (1978)

Director: Steve Rash

Starring: Gary Busey, Don Stroud, Charles Martin Smith, Conrad Janis, Paul Mooney

Too many of the giants of rock n’ roll have left this world in a premature and tragic way, at far too young an age and just when we’d gotten familiar with them. A lot of the time some kind of drugs were involved, but others did not have control over their own fate when they departed this life. However they died, this often becomes the one thing about them that the general public talks about most. February 3, 1959 will forever be known as “The Day the Music Died.” This was the day when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson, died in a plane crash in Iowa. Holly in particular had such an important role to play in the history of rock n’ roll that the method of his demise, while horrible, is not the final word on his life and career.

In 1955, Charles Hardin Holley, the man who would come to be known as Buddy Holly (Gary Busey), was just a 19-year old kid from Lubbock, Texas. Together with Jesse Charles and Ray Bob Simmons (Don Stroud and Charles Martin Smith, playing characters based on Holly’s real-life bandmates J.I. Allison and Joe B. Mauldin), Holly forms his rock n’ roll band The Crickets. Very early on, Buddy expresses displeasure with the way the recording industry works, and insists that his band have full control over what kind of music they will play. It takes a little bit of arm-twisting, but producer Ross Turner (Conrad Janis) sees a gold mine with Buddy Holly and the Crickets, and he’s not about to let them just walk out the door. Through his business relationship with Turner, Holly meets his future wife, Maria Elena Santiago, who was working as Turner’s secretary at the time.

In the next four years, Buddy Holly and the Crickets churn out several hits (among them, “That’ll Be the Day” and “Everyday” are personal favorites), and in the process they manage to fool more than a few as to just what kind of men they really were. One of my favorite scenes has them booked to play at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. In an age before cable television, 24-hour news and the Internet, somebody forgot to inform the theater’s manager that Buddy and his band are all Caucasian boys, and as such would be the first to play at the Apollo. He initially declines to let them perform but as he had with the record producer, Buddy finds a way to change the man’s mind, arguing that the contract which the band signed technically said nothing about performing, merely to make a week-long “appearance.” Buddy knows that he can get his band on stage at the Apollo because the manager will find a certain financial irresponsibility in the prospect of paying them for doing nothing. They go on as scheduled, and actually manage to win over the all-African American crowd. In reality, it took a few shows for this to work, not just one. Doesn’t matter… It’s a great moment.

One watches “The Buddy Holly Story” always with the title character’s fate in the back of your mind. The love story between Buddy and Maria is particularly bittersweet because we know how it ends. We are at least spared a reenactment of the plane crash, as the movie ends with Holly’s final performance. I have long regarded Gary Busey as the American Sean Bean, a reference to how the English actor always seems to play characters that end up dying. I can’t think of a single movie I’ve seen featuring Busey where his character isn’t pushing up the daisies before the fade to black, at least not right off hand. “The Buddy Holly Story” almost qualifies, except for the text over his image at the end which reminds us of that which we need not be reminded. Mostly, I’ve seen him in villainous roles (which accounts for his filmography’s high death ratio), some comic relief roles and even one or two in law enforcement. Although he is never fully absorbed into the character… sometimes you believe him, while other times he seems like Busey dressed as Holly. I can find no other role which Gary Busey has played which is more unlike anything else he has done than that of Buddy Holly. Particularly impressive is the gutsy move of having him sing all of Holly’s songs, which Busey is able to handle quite well. It’s a shame the part didn’t win him any awards, although it does stand as the only film to earn him a Best Actor nomination for the Golden Globes, BAFTA, and the Oscars.

One of the fatal flaws of most biographical motion pictures is historical inaccuracy. Often you get a movie like “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story,” which makes the mistake of assuming its audience knows nothing about the title character and rearranges events in the timeline to suit its needs. “The Buddy Holly Story” also takes advantage of the truth for drama’s sake, but never in a especially egregious fashion. Even depicting his parents as unsupportive of his chosen career path shouldn’t be looked at as a major problem, considering that Lawrence and Ella Holley aren’t in the movie for very long.

We will never know what else Buddy Holly might have had in store for us all had he not died in that plane crash, but that doesn’t mean his spirit has not lived on in others. His four short years in the business do not mean that he can’t be counted among the most influential forces in rock n’ roll. Elvis Costello sounds eerily Holly-esque, and Paul McCartney himself has stated (and I quote): “If it wasn’t for the Crickets, there wouldn’t be any Beatles.” Countless other acts from that era can say that they received inspiration from hearing the music of Buddy Holly. Without him and Elvis Presley, it’s arguable that rock n’ roll would not exist, at least not as the entity we know. Comparitively speaking, “The Buddy Holly Story” has not remained as fresh in the minds of the public as other movies from 1978 (“Animal House,” “The Deer Hunter” and “Superman,” to name a few), nor even amidst the genre of music-related films. But if watching it gets someone from the generations born after 1959 interested in listening to Buddy Holly’s songs (as it should), that more than anything would be a testament to his legacy.