Tuesday, August 14, 2012

(Don't) Stay Out of the Faculty Lounge...


Directed by Robert RodriguezWritten by Kevin Williamson

Starring Elijah Wood, Josh Hartnett, Famke Janssen, Clea DuVall, Usher, Jon Stewart

Did you ever think that your teachers in high school were aliens? Yeah, me neither. Apparently some did, though and that’s the conceit of this 1998 extraterrestrial extravaganza. What if they really were aliens, body snatchers style, taking over the town one drone at a time? Of course because you’re just a teen, no one believes you. It’s up to this misfit Breakfast Club to save the school and the world.

Since the inception of his career, Robert Rodriguez has proven himself to not only be the epitome of DIY filmmaking, but also being a very open collaborator. He’s the kind of writer/director that would be comfortable scrapping his idea for a better one and making a movie as a team effort. Following his successful partnership with Quentin Tarantino a year earlier on From Dusk Till Dawn, Rodriguez collaborated with Kevin Williamson during the height of his popularity.

For those unaware, Kevin Williamson was responsible for the mid-nineties wave of post modern horror having penned Scream, Scream 2, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and eventually creating the massively popular television show, Dawson’s Creek (I’m so glad Joey and Pacey ended up together, they were so cute).  Rodriguez, being the team player he is thought, “hell yeah, let’s make this alien invasion high school movie.” I’m paraphrasing, of course.

Collecting an insanely nerd and 90s friendly cast (Elijah Wood, Jon Stewart, Josh Hartnett, Robert Patrick, etc.), The Faculty is a very classically paced homage to Invasion of the Body Snatchers filtered through the self-aware lens of the era’s horror movies. At the time it was still cool to have characters comment on their predicaments with similar pop culture references. There’s even a loving rip off of The Thing’s wire in the blood scene.

By the beginning of the second act, the geeky school photographer, the new girl, the emo punk girl, the jock, and the cool, older drug dealer are on a mission to stop the school’s faculty from infesting the entire town at the homecoming game. How do they plan to do this? Well, with drugs of course.

What The Faulty lacks in originality, it makes up with pure charisma, character, and fun. The hero shifts characters multiple times throughout the story and even though these actors are portraying caricatures in an extraordinary situation, you never question their commitment or validity. The care that they give transcends the final product beyond being a rehash of horror tropes.

Rodriguez deftly handles all the characters and doesn’t make it too obvious whom will eventually save the day. There are enough hero moments to go around and there’s a point where we aren’t sure who will make it to the end. As always, his camera work benefits from him also being an editor. There is no wasted time or space on the screen, making The Faculty as easily digestible as a bucket of popcorn.

The creature effects are a touch lazy in scenes, especially the use of CGI (pretty great for only a $15 million budget, though). But, when the movie commits to a full prosthetic monster baddie, it’s completely beautiful. The fully revealed monster at the end of this is one of my favorites, especially the balletic transformation from monster to human underwater. You’ll know the scene when you see it.

The Faculty is a fun movie that elevates itself from schlock brethren with wit, skill, and a stellar cast. Is it Laurence of Arabia good? No. But, when it comes to Rated R, high school alien invasion movies, it’s by far a favorite.

Currently available on Netflix streaming, The Faculty is a fun treat on a weekend afternoon.

Side note: One of the better (or worst) aspects of most 90s movies were their soundtracks, bloated with “hits” and covers from popular artists of the moment. For optimal marketability, they would cram tracks in every quiet moment in the movie. A-mazing. Enjoy this embarrassing little vid. 

Friday, August 10, 2012



Directed by: Willard Huyck

Written by: Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz

Staring: Lea Thompson, Tim Robbins, Terry Jones, Chip Zien

Before Iron Man changed comic book movies, before Marvel Studios existed, and before the synergistic acquisition of Marvel by Disney, there was a comic-to-film adaptation that changed the world. It defied the odds, logic, and was fostered into existence by George “Star Wars” Lucas himself.

Yes. I’m talking about Howard the Duck. A motion picture that would forever change how we perceive the world. Rosebud, shmose-bud. Howard had arrived to quack-fu kick us into the next millennium of filmmaking.

Okay, so maybe I went a little overboard with the hyperbole on that one. How else can I sell this spectacle past the title, though? Let’s start with a little bit of history.

Howard the Duck is a Marvel Comics character, created in 1973 by Steve Gerber and artist Val Mayerik. He is large anthropomorphic duck prone to cigars, tiny fedoras, and fits of rage (what’s the deal with duck characters having anger management issues). He’s trapped on our world doing nothing extraordinary other than living and surviving. In the early days, Howard’s adventures tended to fall into the vein of horror parodies (which is a concept that informed the subsequent, hardly family-friendly, movie). Later, Gerber brought forward the tone of Howard the Duck being a more existential book, noting wonderfully that, “life's most serious moments and most incredibly dumb moments are often distinguishable only by a momentary point of view.” Gerber brought a meta-textual and inquisitive nature to the book. This tone, however, was violently dismissed from the movie adaptation.

So, here you have an antihero who fights monsters and lines at the DMV with equal vigor and indignation. How do you inform that into a single movie narrative? Well, it’s arguable if writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz did with any kind of success. However, what transpired is a hidden gem of Hollywood cheesiness.

The movie was a favorite in my childhood and has maintained said status in adulthood, but for different reasons. When I was a five-year-old sitting in the cinema on opening weekend, I was just enamored with the high level plot. It’s a duck-man who fights giant monsters and plays the guitar. As I got older, the utter perverse nature of much of the plot was almost a revelation. This movie is not for kids featuring heavy innuendos, duck boobies, proportional condoms, and the implication of anthropomorphic bestiality (wait, is it bestiality if the animal-party can consent… anyway). Let’s dive in.

Howard is plucked from his living room, through the cosmos, and into our world due to the meddling of pesky scientists on earth. He’s dropped in the middle of Whatever-city America where he quickly befriends a down on her luck musician by the name of Beverly (Lea Thompson). Beverly is pretty open to Howard being an alien and is immediately flirtatious. Different strokes, right? She brings Howard to Phil (Academy Award winner, Tim Robbins in a tour de force performance) who is a junior scientist working at the local museum. He is the only person Bev can think to take Howard for answers. Hilarity, hijinks, and human-duck relations ensue until the plot kicks into high gear in act two.

You see, those pesky scientists from before think they might have opened a portal for other, much more threatening, beings from other dimensions to break through to our world. With Howard’s help (I’m not sure how), they can hopefully close this gap and send him back to his home. Things don’t go swimmingly and before we know it, Howard and the gang are forced to battle the Dark Overlord of Planet X (no shit).

Originally conceived as an animated movie, Lucas’ involvement precipitated the use of Industrial Light and Magic’s skills to create a live-action Howard. Like the Godzilla days of old, Howard is a man in a suit with an animatronic mouth, eyes and, expressions. Sometimes it’s a wonderful effect and sometimes it’s just not. Howard’s proportions often fluctuate. Depending on the suit’s limitations per scene, it can take you out of the film at times. But where ILM had inconsistent success with Howard, they delivered tenfold with the reveal of the movie’s big bad at the end. To this day, this is some of the most fluid and immersive stop-motion animation in a live-action film I have ever seen. The articulation is nearly flawless and genuinely frightening.

Tonally, Howard the Duck is all over the map, which almost strengthens the overall experience. Both broad and very specific, sometimes in the same scene, it can be difficult to follow. I’m not entirely sure who the intended audience for this movie was because they commit to neither fully. However, having seen the movie at two different times in my life, I’m of two minds about it. There were many things that flew over my head when I was younger. There are also cringe worthy moments that used to illicit cheering. Make of it what you will, but Howard the Duck’s greatest weakness may in fact be its saving grace.

A few years ago, Lucasfilm and Universal finally released Howard the Duck on DVD with a new transfer, documentaries, and interviews (which are sadly without Tim Robbins involvement). Of course, the creative blame marketing and studio confusion on the film’s eventual financial failure. Is it me, or has this been the go to complaint of cult films’ success (or lack their of)? “The studio just didn’t know what to do with us.” I’m sure it’s true in some instances, but not every time. Sometimes a movie just doesn’t hit the mark. Own it, man.

It’s not currently on Netflix streaming, but it’s not hard to find. I highly recommend checking this cheesy gem out. This movie really is something special. It’s a grand critical and financial failure as well as a stunning achievement in tone and special effects. Love it or hate it, you have to try it to find out.

If it were a safe bet, these types of pleasures wouldn’t make you feel very guilty. Where’s the fun in that? 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012



Directed by Joseph Kahn
Written by Joseph Kahn and Mark Palermo

Starring: Josh Hutcherson, Shanley Caswell, Dane Cook

I have no idea what I just watched… I also don’t think I hated it.

This review is going to require some soul searching. I’m not even sure I can describe what Detention is without sounding like a lunatic off his meds. There are practically seventeen plots in this film (blink and you might miss one), all contrived, all genre specific, and all done with tongue firmly imbedded in cheek. Does that mean it’s a satire? Umm, I think so…

I’m not entirely sure because even though it’s absolutely a satire, it’s earnestly put together with style and an ADD approach to pace. I don’t even know if that makes sense.

Let me start over...

Detention, written and directed by Joseph Kahn (co-written by Mark Palermo ), is the story of Riley and Clapton, two high school seniors on opposite ends of the social strata. Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson) is inexplicably the coolest kid at Grizzly Lake High School, sporting neon yellow aviator sunglasses and skateboarding in the halls. Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell) is a sometimes-suicidal, overalls-wearing, vegetarian feminist who is just looking for another cause to get behind. Already, our heroes are obvious amalgams of every teen movie stereotype. What’s oddly refreshing is that everyone behind and in front of the camera is aware and comments on it directly.

Alright, so there’s this movie within the movie about a deformed prom queen killer called Cinderhella. The sequel is about to come out and there’s this real killer who is knocking off the students of Grizzly Lake by wearing a Cinderhella mask. *coughcoughScreamcough* So that’s happening.

There’s also some students that are way too informed about 1992 pop culture which may or may not have to do with mind-swapping, time traveling bears, aliens, and wishing on shooting stars. Did I mention the kid with a TV for a hand and fly blood in his veins? Or the Patrick Swayze versus Steven Segal debacle? Oh, and Dane Cook is the principal. Ugh, my head hurts- but in a good way, like an ice cream headache.

Just as interesting as the movie is the story of its inception. Joseph Kahn, a prolific music video director in the early 2000s made quite the splash with his feature directorial debut, Torque (2004). Torque is the story of crotch-rocket daredevils doing things on bikes and there are bad guys and lots of quick cut editing. Universally panned, it was a financial failure and the butt of many jokes. Torque represented the end of that MTV era of film-making with whip-fast cameras and excessive CGI stuntmen (or did it, Fast & Furious Part 12!?)

After the epic failure of Torque (personally, it’s the kind of movie that is what it is and I don’t mind it), Kahn wasn’t particularly a hot commodity anymore. He stood by the film because he delivered what he wanted to, an over the top movie. People just didn’t get it (including the studio that promoted it). Facing the possibility of never getting the opportunity to make another movie, he decided to write/fund/produce/direct one himself. Because this new endeavor was a labor of love and may be a one-time thing, he threw reservations out the window and included every genre under the sun. What resulted is a high energy, schizophrenic, action packed, post-modern, science fiction, fever dream of a high school comedy called Detention.

Immediately upon it ending, I was taken aback and didn’t feel any affection for it. I think I liked it. Since that first viewing four days ago, I’ve revisited the movie three times (once just to watch the last half hour). I think I like it. I think I like it a lot. It’s so bad it’s good, but so good you don’t think it’s very good at first. But, it sticks with you. It’s like witnessing something with incredible speed. In the moment, your brain can barely process it. Upon reflection, your mind begins to fill in the gaps and flesh out the chain of events. Yeah… that probably sums it up the best.

I optimistically recommend Detention with the pessimism in mind that not everyone will take away from it what I did. I was able to appreciate the controlled chaos on screen where nothing was sacred. Not everyone’s brain is wired the same, which is fine. Movies are subjective… that’s why you’re reading a review.

My experience with Detention was a positive one, filled with surprise, and benefiting from repeat viewings and a rewind button. I can’t guarantee yours will be the same, but I do request you give this one a chance. I think it’s safe to say that you’ve seen all of this before- but you’ve never seen anything like this before. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

THE RAID: REDEMPTION - An Exercise in Non-Biased Film Review

The Raid: Redemption

Directed by Gareth Evans
Starring Iko Uwais, Ray Sahetapy, Joe Taslim

A great deal has been written about this movie on the inter-webs over the past year or so. It's a flick that wowed audiences at a number of film festivals and all over Indonesia (where it was made). Eventually making it's way to American screens (legitimately), The Raid was given a subtitle and limited release earlier this year. I got a chance to see it then and now on the eve of it's DVD/BluRay release (9/12/12), I feel like my brain has finally recovered enough to talk about it. Recover from what exactly? Well, let me explain…

The Raid punched the inside of my eyes. It was so feverishly visceral that my pulse was fluctuating during the course of actions scenes. This is something that had never happened to me before… or that I can recall. I assume this kind of excitement occurred when I was very, very young and less jaded as a movie goer. Hyperbole aside… this is the greatest hand-to-hand action movie I've ever seen. End quote.

I know we focus a lot on horror here at Midnight Cheese, but this movie is so steeped in many genre tropes that it's hard not to compare it to a great kung-fu or western film. Elements of both are subtly weaved in throughout the narrative.

Speaking of the narrative, The Raid: Redemption is a simple story but with elegant execution. A SWAT team raids a 30 story tenement building run by Tama (Ray Sahetapy), the biggest of bad guys. Tama not only lives there, but it's his base of operations, filled with the cities largest concentration of scum and villainy. They're protected by Tama as long as they are willing to defend him on occasion. When the SWAT team is discovered on the fifth floor, Tama activates the building with some weighty incentives. Very heavy opposition stands between our good guys and escaping alive. The real heart of the story lies in our hero police officer Rama (Iko Uwais), who has a motivation beyond justice that's keeping him alive. 

The fight choreography is some of the best I've ever seen in any flick. The hits are hard, fast, and gritty. There is a guttural style of fighting on display, using every element of their surroundings and any advantage. People are ruthlessly beaten and brutally killed, but it's never exploitative. You feel the desperation of these men and can't help but wince when a fist connects. One fight in particular between Mad Dog (Tama's most ruthless and unassuming bodyguard) and the SWAT captain, Jaka, is especially brutal and emotional. These men have only a few scenes of character building before the fight, but so much of their beings is expressed through the fight that it becomes one of the more emotional moments of the entire film. This is not just practiced choreography, these men are effectively fighting for everything they hold dear and you can feel it.

Its not just the action, but the extreme sense of tension that flows over you while the film escalates. It's so palpable that each little victory gets a biggest emotional release than any action set piece in all of Michael Bay's robot movies combined. 

I have gladly stepped over the line of talking a movie up too much, but I will take that risk. I feel confident enough about The Raid that any amount of praise will not diminish it's impact. This movie is immune to high compliments, because it simply delivers. 

Please, pick this up when you have the chance… and if you do so illegally, do something for me- When it blows you away (and it will), you have the obligation to spread the word and/or give these filmmakers your money. You will have that change on September 12th.

Now go forth, and spread the word. The word of The Raid.

For your eye-hole pleasure, I've included both the Red Band (ultra-violent) and the Domestic (more story-based) trailers for this little gem, in that order. Enjoy! Enjoy!