Tuesday, April 5, 2016

A CHAT WITH J.J. ABRAMS


Star Wars: The Force Awakens arrives in stores on Blu-ray and DVD today, so to commemorate its home video release, I thought it would be fitting to post the full transcript of the interview I conducted with the film's director, J.J. Abrams, on December 1, 2015, seventeen days before the film opened in theaters. A shorter version of this Q&A appeared on the TIME For Kids web site. Enjoy!


GLENN GREENBERG:
I used to write the Star Trek comic books for Marvel when they had the license.

Star Trek: Untold Voyages #1 (May 1998), by Glenn Greenberg, Mike Collins, and Keith Williams

J.J. ABRAMS:
No way! Oh my God. Now that’s a starter! So we’ve both been there, then.

Director J.J. Abrams (center) with the cast of Star Trek (2009)

GREENBERG:
Absolutely! You initially turned down the offer to direct The Force Awakens. One question changed your mind: “Who is Luke Skywalker?” Without giving anything away about the movie, in your mind, who is Luke Skywalker?

ABRAMS:
Luke Skywalker represents a righteous defender of justice and an incredibly powerful figure. And I can imagine for someone who has never seen anything like that before, who doesn’t have anyone to fill in the blanks of what has happened before, he’s a kind of mythic figure. And what got me excited about that question, and Kathy Kennedy, the producer, raised it, was the very idea that there would be young people in this world for whom the history of Star Wars would be like a story from another age. And I just realized that’s kind of the feel of what this movie needs. This is going to be about discovery, and about these new young characters realizing that they live in the “Star Wars universe.”

GREENBERG:
Was the idea always to pick up the story a generation later? Was there ever any consideration of not skipping a generation and picking up where Return of the Jedi left off, even it meant having to recast Luke?

ABRAMS:
The idea was, mostly because this amount of time had gone by, and these actors are still here, it was always the discussion that we would say it is now nearly 40 years after [the original] Star Wars. And so it was never, for this film, a discussion to recast. I know that there are other movies that they’re working on, I’ve heard of a [Han Solo] origin story, and I know that that, of course, would require [recasting].

GREENBERG:
Of course! Who is your favorite Star Wars character and why? Do you have a favorite from the original movies, or the more recent ones?

ABRAMS:
Obviously, the power and coolness of Darth Vader—he’s my favorite bad guy, maybe ever. But I always felt a connection to Luke because of his “everymaness.” . . .  As much as Han is probably my favorite character now, as a kid, he was someone to love and adore, but I never felt I could be Han. You’d always want to hang out with Han, but I felt more connected to Luke because he was so much more the ordinary kid. But now . . .  Han is the character who holds a real fascination for me.

Abrams on the set of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, directing you know who

GREENBERG:
You first saw Star Wars when you were 11.

ABRAMS:
Yes.

GREENBERG:
What is it that first appealed to you about it, what made you connect to it in a way that, as you’ve said, you didn’t connect to Star Trek?

ABRAMS:
The thing that I connected to most about Star Wars, I think, was the comedy, the sense of humor that the movie had. It was constantly funny, and in a kind of sophisticated way too. It was about character, it had a huge heart . . . Its sweetness, and care with the characters, felt profoundly important in those [original] movies. And I think the look of the movie—when I was 11 years old, no movies looked like that before. And this was a movie that wasn’t a family film like they had existed before. This was far bigger, far funnier, far more epic in scale and scope, far more inventive in design, far more believable in its narrative and the world it was creating, it just sort of did everything. It had better music. It had better visual effects. It did everything brilliantly. As a result, the feeling that I was left with was amazement, and a sense that anything was possible. And that to me was the most profound impact.

GREENBERG:
George Lucas has said that when he was developing Star Wars, he was inspired by myths, fairy tales, and heroic fiction. Did you draw upon the same influences and sources when you were developing this film?

ABRAMS:
It’s funny, there was a serialized (multi-part) film series called Flash Gordon that was a huge influence on George Lucas . . . He wanted to do Flash Gordon and couldn’t get the rights. And of course, in coming up with a story [for Star Wars], he, as a great filmmaker, had all of his influences, including [movie director Akira] Kurosawa and certainly, in terms of storytelling, [mythology expert] Joseph Campbell. … I did try to broaden my horizons as much as possible and watch and read as much as I could—not just to remember or be inspired by great filmmakers, though it never hurts to watch [Kurosawa’s film] Seven Samurai . . . You know, Star Wars is a kind of crazy collision of a bunch of different styles. It’s fairy tale, it’s myth, it’s King Arthur, it’s a Western, it’s Flash Gordon, it’s a samurai story—it’s an amazing mélange of different genres. 

What I tried to do in working on this, and I wrote the script with Larry Kasdan, who wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, is find the master we were serving.  Which is to say, what is the story we’re telling? Who are the characters we care about? Why do we care about them? Why do we love them? What is their adventure that they go on? And approach it from what the story needed. As a director, I try to go with the right visual style for each scene . . . but there isn’t one influence that I can point to and say, “I was trying to do exactly what he or she did.”

GREENBERG:
Were there any specific qualities that you tried to recapture from the previous movies? A visual, a concept, a mood, or a theme?

ABRAMS:
Yes. For me, the mood was critical. Which was, a sense of authenticity. Those first movies, whether you’re out in the deserts of Tatooine or the snowy fields of Hoth, or the forest of Endor, you felt like you were in these real places. It was transportive, because you really knew this world, this landscape, is real. That was one thing. There was a very worn-out feeling in the early Star Wars movies, which I just loved. These were not stories of people in halls of power, these were stories about underdogs, about people who were the everyman, or in some cases, people thought they were nobody important. They were always desperate, and they were desperate for reasons that were entertaining and viscerally important. I wanted to make sure that this movie felt more like those kind of, sort of more Western approach to storytelling than stories of people who were in positions of power. And that was just a mood that was profoundly important for me when I saw those early films.

It also provided great contrast. The shiny black floors and the pill lights of the Empire, I remember, were in stark contrast to the dusty, dirty, cluttered worlds of our heroes. And I just feel like that to me was part of the fun of Star Wars, that these two things could co-exist; the kind of sleek, gleaming, terrifying power of the bad guys and then the kind of upstart, homespun, crappy underdog world of the people who you fell in love with.  Someone I work with said that Star Wars is a Western, that you’re going to have fundamental things in every story, and you need to embrace those things. [In a Western,] you’re going to have the saloon, you’re going to have the small town, you’re going to have the bad guy who’s going to be dressed in black, you’re probably going to have horses. There are just certain things, and when you’re doing Star Wars, okay, TIE fighters, X-wings, lightsabers—you know certain things have to be part of this world and the question is how to use [them].  

GREENBERG:
What new qualities would you say you were trying to bring, that could only come from you doing a Star Wars movie?   

ABRAMS:
I have no idea—I can’t look at myself from outside. It’s like asking someone what it was like growing up in that place—this was all I knew growing up, I can’t tell you what it was like compared to anything else. But I can say that working with Larry Kasdan on the script, it was a gift to work with him. There was a great continuum of what had come before, in a way that was priceless. That was really important. I think we both tried to bring what felt right to us.

Abrams on the set of The Force Awakens with his co-screenwriter, Lawrence Kasdan (right)

I wanted this movie to be for everyone. I just got in trouble with my daughter, who’s 16, and my wife, both of whom love Star Wars, because I had said I want this to not just be for boys and fathers, I want it to be mothers and daughters. They were like, “Thanks—we’ve loved Star Wars since we first saw it.” And I apologize to them and anyone else I offended by saying it. What I meant was, I know there are countless women and girls who love Star Wars. But I’m saying a lot of the selling of Star Wars has been primarily to boys. And even as recently as a couple of weeks ago, a major department store chain had the advertising for action figures from the new movie and they only had the male figures. And all I’m saying is, this movie is for everyone. And it was important for me not just to have females in both good-guy and bad-guy roles, but also to make sure the movie looks more like the world looks. 

When we cast Oscar Isaac, who is a Latino actor, it was not in the script that he looked a certain way, he was just the right actor. John Boyega—we didn’t know that [his character] would be any color, white or otherwise. We were just looking for a guy who was going to be great in the role. But I knew it was important that the movie be inclusive. And it’s important to me that people see themselves in this movie, in roles of drama, comedy, and hopefully great adventure.

GREENBERG:
It’s been 10 years since the last Star Wars movie was released. For some of my readers, they weren’t even born at that point. How do you think Star Wars speaks to kids today? Is it any different from the way it spoke to us, our generation, when it first came out?

ABRAMS:
I think the very first Star Wars was sort of gorgeous in its simplicity. It was a very simple story, and I think that’s profoundly important. Somehow kids today are born knowing about Star Wars. It’s almost like it’s ingrained in them at such a young age. In some cases it might be because they’ve seen games or the animated series or whatever. But I think kids sort of know about aspects of Star Wars somehow through osmosis. At the same time, we knew this would be the first Star Wars movie for many people. And not just kids in this country, but grown-ups in other countries where Star Wars had never been released before. And it was really important that this movie not rely on people’s knowledge and understanding of Star Wars for it to work. 

But I do think that it speaks fundamentally still in the most important way, which is, it reminds you that we’re all connected in some way. It reminds you that you are capable of extraordinary things. It reminds you that the people who are going to be the most powerful connections in your life are out there to be found. And that you will find trust and loyalty and friendship in the most unlikely of places and situations. And for me as a kid, I would have liked to think that if things got desperate and intense, that I would run into some of the characters that I found in Star Wars, that I would become bonded to them, and that together we would have an extraordinary victory. And I’d like to think that kids today would want and need that message as much as I did.

GREENBERG:
I have a question from a 13-year-old girl in Queens, New York. (NOTE: I’m referring here to my daughter Maddie.She wants to know how it feels being the boss of the two biggest science-fiction franchises in movie history.    

ABRAMS:
I will tell her that I don’t feel like I’m the boss of any of these things. I feel like I am, if anything, the temporary guardian. The answer is, I feel honored to have been involved in Star Trek in any way, as I’m sure you do. And Star Wars, which was more meaningful to me as a kid growing up . . . it is still to this moment so surreal that I got to be involved in it at all. I feel very grateful to all the work that everyone’s done on this thing—and I hope more than anything that she likes the movie.

Friday, December 18, 2015

MOVIE REVIEW—STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS


First off, you can rest easy: J.J. Abrams has not screwed up two major science-fiction movie franchises. Abrams received plenty of well-deserved criticism for 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, and at the time, I noted—as did many other people—that he was probably far better suited for Star Wars. Still, there were detractors who dreaded the notion of Abrams taking on one of the most beloved film series of all time, and were prepared for the worst. Well, it turns out that we who thought Abrams was a good pick for the job were absolutely correct.

Abrams slips into the Star Wars universe with remarkable ease, presenting a continuation of the saga that feels like a natural outgrowth of what has come before. That shouldn’t come as a complete surprise, considering that he collaborated on the script with Lawrence Kasdan, co-writer of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. (Kasdan, of course, also wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Big Chill, and Body Heat, among other things—no lightweight there.)

Knowing that many people reading this do not want to know anything about the movie going in, I’ll just describe it this way:
It takes place about 30 years after Return of the Jedi. An organization called the First Order has risen from the ashes of the Empire, seeking to overthrow the New Republic and take over the galaxy. They face opposition from the Resistance, a group of warriors supported by the Republic. Both sides are trying to determine the whereabouts of a now-almost-mythical figure who played a key role in the rebellion against the Empire. One side wants this person dead, the other hopes to lure the living legend back into action.

As the conflict rages, new characters are drawn in, most notably Rey (Daisy Ridley), a lonely girl living as a scavenger on the desert planet Jakku, and Finn (John Boyega), a young stormtrooper for the First Order who starts to question whether he’s fighting for the right side. There is also Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a skilled Resistance pilot on a top-secret mission to acquire information of the utmost importance, accompanied by his one-0f-a-kind, amusingly clever droid BB-8, who resembles a beach ball with R2-D2’s domed head stuck on top. Naturally their paths will cross.

On the other side of the fence, the Nazi-like General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is allied with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a mysterious masked figure dressed entirely in black who is apparently trying to model himself after the long-departed Darth Vader. They both answer to the imposing Supreme Leader Snoke (a CGI character voiced by Andy Serkis), who seems to take some of his cues from Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine of the previous two trilogies.

The film would have been engaging enough with just these new faces. But the icing on the cake is the return of beloved characters from the first three movies, most notably Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). (What about Luke Skywalker? After all, Mark Hamill’s name is on the poster! Well, it’s not for me to say.) It is truly a kick to see the new characters interacting with the “classic” ones, and longtime fans should be quite pleased with the attention that is lavished on one particular member of the old guard.

The first act is terrific, skillfully setting up the new characters and the new status quo with minimal exposition. I particularly liked the fact that Abrams and Kasdan did away with the stiff, stilted, lifeless dialogue and the overly mannered performances that had become a hallmark of the series while under the guidance of George Lucas, starting with Jedi and really coming to the fore with the three prequels. Rey, Finn, and especially Poe are written as real people, who speak to and relate to one another as actual human beings. 

I do feel that the film drags a bit in the middle, meandering and drifting in between key plot points. However, some new and interesting characters are introduced during this section. In particular, there’s Maz Kanata, an amusing CGI creation voiced by Lupita Nyong’o, who I hope we’ll see again in the future. 

And yet, there’s an undeniable lack of real originality on display here, with numerous callbacks to moments and even plot threads from the original three movies. I won’t get into them here, you’ll see for yourself. Also, while I have not read every Star Wars novel published over the last 25 years, I’ve read enough to recognize concepts, plot points, character arcs, and even character types in The Force Awakens that have already been explored extensively in print. To be fair, with dozens upon dozens of Star Wars novels published since 1991, supposedly depicting what happened in the years following Return of the Jedi, it was inevitable for this movie to tread upon the same ground, at least partially. Still, I couldn’t help but feel as I was watching the film that I had seen some of this stuff played out already. But it’s also true that the vast majority of people going to see this movie have not read many—or any—of those now-decanonized novels, so it will all seem brand new and original to them.    

What the film lacks in true originality it makes up for in the performances. Abrams cast this movie brilliantly. This is a star-making turn for Daisy Ridley in particular. She gives one of the very best acting performances I’ve ever seen in a Star Wars movie, if not the best. She gets to do here what Natalie Portman was never allowed to do in the prequels—namely, portray a multi-dimensional, interesting, truly human character that audiences can really embrace. Ridley is energetic, captivating, and riveting—you can’t take your eyes off of her.


John Boyega is simply terrific. You sympathize with his character right away, and it doesn’t hurt that he gets some of the funniest moments. Boyega has a real flair for comedy, and his expressive face very effectively conveys the fear, anger, concern, and compassion that his character feels throughout the film.


As Poe Dameron, Oscar Isaac is filled with charm and charisma. It’s not a huge part, but it is an important one, and Isaac makes an indelible mark. 


BB-8 is a delight. Before seeing the film, I was worried that this droid character was going to be another lame attempt to appeal to the kiddies, like the Ewoks and Jar Jar Binks. Not so. BB-8 is very much to The Force Awakens what R2-D2 was to the original Star Wars. (R2 shows up in the new film too, of course.)      


As for Harrison Ford, who once seemed like he would never agree to appear in another Star Wars movie—all I’ll say is, he looks great and his performance here is notably better than it was in Return of the Jedi. Ford truly seems pleased to be back as Han Solo. The fact that the role is actually well-written this time helps a lot, it would seem. Make no mistake, this is not an extended cameo appearance. Ford is one of the main stars of the film, and his contributions are invaluable.


Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren does not have the stature or the imposing menace that Darth Vader had from the moment we first saw him in the original Star Wars. That may well be by design. I have a feeling that the goal is to build up his character over the next two movies, so that we can watch the progression and the challenges that he goes through as he develops into a major, truly fearsome menace.


The only character that I felt didn’t come off as well as I would have liked is See Threepio. Anthony Daniels, who has played the character in all seven films, has now given the droid a significantly higher-pitched, almost childlike voice that I found both inconsistent with past performances and a bit distracting.

Without a doubt, The Force Awakens is the offspring of the original trilogy—and only the original trilogy. I can’t think of one moment where the prequels are acknowledged in any way. And even then, the new film seems to embrace Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back far more than it does Return of the Jedi, at least in terms of tone, mood, and execution. Yes, there is humor and lightheartedness. There is a wide variety of alien beings on display. But there are no cutesy or ridiculous-looking creatures shoved in gratuitously just to sell toys to little kids. There are no sight gags with characters stepping into a pile of poop. There are no farts or burps. It doesn’t go for cheap laughs, or pander to the lowest common denominator (or the youngest members of the audience).

It is not a perfect film. I feel there are some plot problems. One of them is the fact that certain characters are shown to be highly skilled with a lightsaber, despite the fact that they have apparently never held one before. (True, Luke was a complete novice in Star Wars, yet was able to go toe-to-toe with Vader in Empire. But Luke had a huge block of time between those two films to teach himself saber-fighting, plus he received training from Yoda. There’s no such training or time for learning in the new film. So there!)

Out of the seven films, I would place The Force Awakens at #4, behind Empire, Star Wars, and, yes, Revenge of the Sith. Sorry, I liked that one a lot, and for me, it still holds up after repeated viewings. 

More than anything else, The Force Awakens is a strong foundation for future films. It does a good job setting up the rest of the new trilogy, and, much like The Empire Strikes Back, it ends with a number of balls still in the air, to keep audiences tantalized—and talking—for the next couple of years.


© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2015.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

A MONTH OF HALLOWEEN, PART 3

If you missed the first two installments of this monthlong series, they’re here and here. Now let’s dive into a more recent release…  

Maggie (2015)


This does not come close to being the scariest zombie film ever made, but it just may be the saddest. It’s a very atypical film for this genre, in that it eschews most of the horror elements in favor of focusing on the core relationship between a father and his teenage daughter, and the awful options left in front of them after the girl is bitten by one of the living dead.

Speaking of atypical, while Arnold Schwarzenegger is the star of the film, you could hardly call it “an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.” The qualities that made Schwarzenegger so indelible to our collective consciousness in films like Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator, Predator, and Total Recall, are completely absent here. For the first time in his career, he is playing a role that could easily have been filled by someone like Kevin Costner, Gary Sinise, or Matthew McConaughey. Schwarzenegger plays Wade Vogel, a strong, reserved farmer and loving family man in the American heartland, coping with the outbreak of a zombie plague that is slowly destroying society. Wade is married to Caroline, played by Joely Richardson. She’s his second wife—his first died a number of years ago. His eldest child, Maggie, played by Abigail Breslin, is the product of his first marriage. With Caroline, he has two young children, a boy and a girl.

The film begins with Maggie having already been bitten by a zombie. She’s run away to keep her family safe, and implored her father not to look for her. But Wade does it anyway, and insists on bringing her home. It’s important to note that the film rewrites the “zombie apocalypse rules” to a certain extent, in the sense once you’re bitten, it can take several weeks for you to succumb and join the ranks of the walking dead. It also seems to take a page from Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead, in that you have to die of a zombie bite to come back as a zombie. (This puts it in contrast with the George A. Romero movies and The Walking Dead comics and TV series, in which it’s established that no matter how you die, you’re coming back as a flesh-eating ghoul.)

Maggie’s homecoming puts a strain on the whole family. As her condition deteriorates, her stepmother Caroline becomes increasingly afraid of her, and worries about the safety of the other children in the house. Meanwhile, local law enforcement officers tasked with rounding up the infected and bringing them to quarantine—where they will be observed and eventually exterminated—keep coming around to implore Wade to turn Maggie over to them, for the sake of the rest of the community. Wade refuses, insisting that he will never let his daughter go to quarantine. But his options are extremely—and tragically—limited.


It’s not hyperbole to say that you’ve never seen Arnold Schwarzenegger like this before. He’s not the all-powerful, sure-to-come-out-on-top heroic figure here. There are no confident smirks or catchphrase one-liners in the vein of “I’ll be back” or “Consider it a divorce.” He is startlingly human and vulnerable in this role—just a regular man caught in devastating circumstances. He is not much different from any parent having to cope with the fact that their child has advanced cancer or AIDS. As Wade,  Schwarzenegger faces an unthinkable situation, the most horrible of all: The fact that he will outlive his child. 

Abigail Breslin, whose resume includes Little Miss Sunshine and Zombieland, turns in fine work here, particularly as Maggie’s condition worsens and she reconnects with old friends. Her scenes with Schwarzenegger are especially touching. They work very well together.


Maggie is a quiet, subtle, slowly paced film, but emotionally powerful, especially if you’re a parent. There’s a moment right near the end that still makes me tear up, just thinking about it.

If you’re a gorehound, look elsewhere. But if you want a different perspective on the zombie plague genre, one that focuses exclusively on the emotional toll such an outbreak takes on both the victims and their loved ones, Maggie is definitely worth checking out.    

© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2015.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

A MONTH OF HALLOWEEN, PART 2

Picking up where I left off last time, I continue my effort to review at least one horror movie per week. This week, the spotlight is on…  

Flight of the Living Dead: Outbreak on a Plane (2007)


The title pretty much spells out the whole thing. This is worthy of the channel now known as SyFy—which means it’s a total piece of crap. 

The central premise is intriguing enough, and in the hands of someone like a young George A. Romero, this would probably be a pretty decent movie. In fact, the recently launched TV series Fear the Walking Dead is doing a run of “mini episodes,” available online, that has the same basic premise: Passengers on an airplane are faced with the sudden spread of an apocalyptic zombie plague—in a very confined space. As critical as I have been of Fear, I’m fairly confident the people behind it will do a much better job with the concept than the crew responsible for this waste of time and effort.    

The stock characters range from one-dimensional to underdeveloped to thoroughly unlikable. The sets look cheap. The special effects aren’t fully convincing. And the tone is all over the place—the film can’t decide if it’s a comedy or a straight horror film. If it’s meant to be a comedy, it’s not funny. And if it’s meant to be a horror film, it’s not the slightest bit scary. In the end, it adds nothing to either genre. There’s not one original idea on display here. It was apparently a quickie made to cash in on all of the hype surrounding the film Snakes on a Plane, which came out around the same time and itself turned out to be not much of anything.

A bald zombie doing his best "Heath Ledger as the Joker" impression

The only people I recognized in the cast were Dale Midkiff (Pet Semetary), Richard Tyson (Kindergarten Cop, Two Moon Junction), and Raymond J. Barry (the terrific, recently concluded TV series Justified). 

Raymond J. Barry (center) is the only cast member whose career actually improved after this movie. 

Not that you need a “name cast” for a movie like this—you don’t. All you need are well developed, multi-dimensional characters that are played with nuance and realism. Which is exactly what you don’t get here. 

You probably weren’t thinking about watching this movie anyway, but on the slim chance that you were, my advice is: AVOID.

© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2015.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

A MONTH OF HALLOWEEN, PART 1

I tried this once before, back in 2012: To watch at least one horror movie per week and then write about it here. Because, as many of you know, Halloween is probably my favorite holiday. 

But things didn’t go quite as planned. Basically, a lot of stuff came up—including me attending the debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney at Hofstra University—and I ended up bailing out on my “Month of Halloween” idea after the first week. But now I’m giving it another try. Not nearly as ambitious as the annual one-movie-a-day project that my dear friend Steve Bunche once again has underway at his blog, but this should be fun nonetheless. And away we go…

Fright Night Part 2 (1988)



I loved the original Fright Night, which came out in 1985. It was a good mixture of horror and comedy with likable characters, strong performances, genuine subtext about sexual identity and the agonies of adolescence, and excellent special effects. Amidst the increasingly silly Freddy Krueger films and the seemingly endless stream of mind-numbing, soul-killing Friday the 13th movies, Fright Night stood out as sincere, smart, well-crafted, and downright fun. 

You could tell it was a labor of love for writer/director Tom Holland. He genuinely respected the horror genre and avoided portraying the characters as one-dimensional, perpetually horny imbeciles. He did a fine job utilizing the lesser known tenets of vampire lore (a vampire can’t enter someone’s home if not invited in by the owner; you have to have faith in the religious object that you’re using to protect yourself from one of the undead). And in the midst of it all, he paid affectionate tribute to the wonderfully cheesy horror-movie TV hosts, such as Zacherley, that many of us remember from our childhoods. 

Holland put together a very strong cast: Chris Sarandon had probably the best role of his career as centuries-old vampire Jerry Dandridge; William Ragsdale, who would go on to star in the FOX sitcom Herman’s Head and recently played a recurring character in the fantastic FX series Justified, made a strong impression as Charley Brewster, a teenager who discovers that a vampire has moved into the house next door; Amanda Bearse, best known for her role as Marcy on the long-running series Married… With Children, played Charley’s virginal girlfriend Amy, who finds herself targeted by Dandridge; Stephen Geoffreys, playing Charley’s oddball friend “Evil” Ed, was one of the biggest highlights of the film, providing lots of laughs and a real sense of pathos (in a shocking real-life twist, Geoffreys ended up performing in hardcore gay porn films in the 1990s); and Roddy McDowall, already an icon thanks to his memorable work in the Planet of the Apes franchise, attracted a whole new generation of fans with his absolutely wonderful performance as Peter Vincent, a washed-up actor reduced to hosting old horror movies on a local TV station. 

The film was a hit, and is remembered fondly by genre fans to this day—it was even remade recently with Colin Farrell in the Chris Sarandon role. (Though the remake did not fare nearly as well at the box office.) 

And then there’s Fright Night Part 2. It’s an underrated film, better than its reputation would suggest. It’s eminently watchable, competently made, and has strong production values. But it’s nowhere near as good as the original.

For one thing, it’s more of a retread than a sequel. Aside from bringing in Jerry Dandridge’s sister Regine (played by Julie Carmen) to get revenge on Charley for destroying her brother, this film basically replicates the plot of the original, with a few minor twists here and there. 

Julie Carmen as the night-stalking Regine

Ragsdale, returning as Charley, does get the opportunity to bring some maturity and added depth to the role. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about Roddy McDowall. He’s back as Peter Vincent, and he plays the part as effectively as ever, but he’s forced to just repeat himself. The script doesn’t develop his character any further than what we saw previously. We learn nothing new about him, he has no real story arc, and there’s no sense of resolution for his character at the end. 

Fright Night Part 2 has some major handicaps. Tom Holland is nowhere to be found. Ditto Amanda Bearse and Stephen Geoffreys—their characters are mentioned but they’re both MIA without any explanation. Geoffreys’s absence is particularly disappointing, given the ending of the original film. (Apparently, he was asked to return but declined.) 

Ragsdale and McDowall welcome some new blood.  

With new writers (Tommy Lee Wallace, Tim Metcalfe, and Miguel Tejada-Flores) and a new director (Wallace), the film really only regurgitates what we’d already seen in the original film. It doesn’t delve any deeper. Regine is motivated solely by revenge and once that’s established, there’s absolutely no further development of her character—a sharp contrast to Sarandon’s Jerry, who was very multi-layered. Ultimately, Fright Night Part 2 proves to be a spectacularly unnecessary film. The original movie was a story that its writer/director very much wanted to tell, and he told it with a strong voice and vision. There is simply no compelling reason for the sequel to exist. It’s just product, produced by other people who were only able to follow what was done before, instead of truly innovate. 

And yet, the film has its virtues. There are some clever and witty bits here and there. Traci Lin, who’s absolutely beautiful, turns in a strong performance as Charley’s new girlfriend, Alex. 

Traci Lin, where are you now?

Julie Carmen is undeniably sexy, sultry, and menacing. Her posse of undead irregulars includes some colorful characters, including Brian Thompson (who played the shapeshifting alien bounty hunter in many episodes of The X-Files) as an insect-eating hulk and Jonathan Gries as a clumsy doofus who prefers to turn into a wolf instead of a bat. And the film marks the last screen appearance of actor Merritt Butrick, who died, apparently of AIDS, a short time after filming. Butrick, who made his screen debut in 1982 as Admiral James T. Kirk’s son Dr. David Marcus in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, plays Charley’s college buddy Richie, who unwittingly gets involved with Regine and her sinister crowd. 

The film barely got a theatrical release in 1989, so most people didn’t even know of its existence. (It gained something of a cult following once it came out on VHS.) It’s currently not available on DVD or Blu-ray, but it pops up every now and then on the premium-cable movie channels. It’s certainly worth checking out, especially if you liked the original. Just keep your expectations low and you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised.


© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2015.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

MOVIE REVIEW: AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON


Without a doubt, Avengers: Age of Ultron delivers on action, adventure, characterization, and wit. It’s probably a little less “new-user friendly” than its 2012 predecessor, which means key story points may end up confusing some in the audience who aren’t particularly acclimated to Marvel Comics-style storytelling. But once again, writer-director Joss Whedon does an impressive job balancing spectacle with small moments, delivering a movie that makes you care about all of the members of the dysfunctional superhero team—even the CGI ones.

Set a few years after The Avengers, we discover right off the bat that the team has gotten back together to take on the remnants of Hydra, the evil organization that had infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. and brought about its downfall in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier (which may well be the greatest superhero movie ever made—it’s certainly Marvel’s best thus far). Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is along for the ride to recover the Staff of Loki, which has fallen into the hands of Baron Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), Hydra’s current leader. Strucker is using the staff in his experiments to create super-powered humans he can control. Thus far, only two subjects have survived the experiments: “The Twins,” more formally known as Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, respectively). During the showdown with Hydra’s forces, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) gets a taste of Wanda’s mind-control powers and experiences a horrifying vision of the future, one that compels him to complete his secret project: Ultron, an Artificial Intelligence program that would protect Earth from otherworldly threats and perhaps even render the Avengers unnecessary. Working with fellow scientist Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Stark forges ahead, using an unorthodox power source that leads to the successful launch of Ultron . . . who immediately builds himself a towering, invulnerable robot body—with countless spares—and promptly decides that humanity has had its day and must be wiped out of existence. 


That’s about all I can tell you without getting into spoiler territory. Suffice to say there’s a lot going on in the film. Some might even say there’s too much going on. Certainly the plot is not as streamlined or as straightforward as that of the original Avengers movie. But there is a deepening of the characters that is wonderful to watch. Downey’s Stark is even more arrogant and self-righteous now. Ruffalo’s Banner has become so fearful of the destruction he can cause as the Hulk—and as seen briefly in the trailers, he’s absolutely right to be afraid—that he dismisses the notion of ever finding happiness, of ever falling in love again. 


Which is a bummer for Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), because she’s developed a real affection for the mild-mannered scientist—and she may now be the only person on Earth who can calm the big green guy down. Captain America (Chris Evans) is doing a fine job leading the team, but after discovering in The Winter Soldier that he couldn’t trust many of his colleagues in S.H.I.E.L.D., he fears that he’s living that experience all over again when he learns of Stark’s secret activities. 


Of all the Avengers, the one who probably gets the most attention is Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)—perhaps Whedon was trying to make it up to Renner for giving his character such a limited role in the original film. We are given a glimpse into Barton’s civilian life that surprised even this lifelong comic-book reader and former Marvel staffer.  

Other denizens of the Marvel Cinematic Universe show up in supporting roles, most notably Cobie Smulders as former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and current Avengers ally Maria Hill, Idris Elba as Heimdall and Stellan Skarsgard as Dr. Erik Selvig (both from the Thor movies), Don Cheadle as James Rhodes/War Machine (from the Iron Man movies), and Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/the Falcon (introduced in The Winter Soldier). Expect to see more—a lot more—of these last two.  

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen are fine additions to the cast. There’s nice chemistry between them, perhaps owing to the fact that they played husband and wife in last year’s Godzilla. As Pietro (whose codename, Quicksilver, is never uttered onscreen), Taylor-Johnson exudes much of the arrogance of his comic-book counterpart. Note that Evan Peters played the same character in last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, though it was a completely different interpretation—and, I must say, Peters’s version was more fun. But Whedon does something with Pietro that should raise plenty of eyebrows, among both longtime fans and the uninitiated. Olsen’s Wanda (codenamed the Scarlet Witch, also a name never used in the film) displays both menace and vulnerability. My only real quibble is that her powers are not fully explained, other than the fact that she can manipulate minds and move objects without touching them. But it seems there’s more to them than that. I did appreciate the fact that the siblings both speak with European accents, which is only appropriate, given their backstory. 



I also have to mention the Vision, played by Paul Bettany, who has voiced Tony Stark’s “Jarvis” AI program since the first Iron Man movie in 2008. Here, we finally get to see Bettany in the flesh (with a lot of CG assistance), as a highly advanced android developed by Ultron. The Vision doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but he’s used extremely well and I took an instant liking to him. It’s actually quite remarkable just how quickly and easily he fits in to the storyline and how well he meshes with the other characters. 

As for the title villain, James Spader, in a motion-capture and voice performance, delivers all of the creepiness, superiority, and contempt for others that you would expect and want from him. I’ve only read a handful of the many comic-book stories in which Ultron has appeared, and the character never made much of an impression on me, but the movie version is fun, and sometimes, quite funny. However, I think it would have worked better and would have been more dramatic if he had been a bit more of a blank slate at first—an AI program that observes humanity for a little while, that poses no threat and seems to be working exactly as intended, thus giving Stark and Banner an initial feeling of victory and success. But then, as a result of its observations and interactions with humans, Ultron would come to decide that we need to be exterminated. As presented in the film, Ultron comes to that conclusion right away, so there’s no real arc for the character. He’s a threat pretty much from moment one, and as such, he’s a bit too one-dimensional. As of now, Loki remains the top Marvel Movie Villain, and it doesn’t seem like that will be changing anytime soon.   

I must also note that Whedon goes out of his way to show the Avengers taking the time and making the effort to protect and rescue as many innocent bystanders as possible. I can’t help but think this is a sly little stab at Warner Brothers, who, in 2013’s Man of Steel, depicted Superman—Superman, of all characters—never once showing any concern for the people of Metropolis as he engages in a skyscraper-toppling battle with General Zod that surely killed thousands. Clearly, Whedon believes it’s important to have heroes who can truly inspire hope. Good on him.     

There’s a bit of an Empire Strikes Back feel to Age of Ultron, especially at the conclusion, where several plot threads are left unresolved and a new status quo is put in place. With the steady flow of Marvel movies coming over the next few years, featuring many of these characters and leading up to the third and fourth Avengers films, it won’t be too long of a wait to find out what happens next. Given Marvel’s track record thus far, it should continue to be a fun ride. Fun, and at times, as with The Winter Soldier, downright spectacular. Age of Ultron doesn’t quite surpass The Avengers, but it stands tall among the Marvel films and is a fitting end of one era and an intriguing start of a new one. Be sure to stick around during the end credits, during which you’ll get a brief tease of what’s to come.   


© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2015.