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Dawn of the Dead (2004)
The 1978 version of George Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" was an extremely gruesome film about zombies invading a shopping mall. This of course was the sequel to Romero's 1968 B&W cult classic "Night of the Living Dead". Both movies were very good in a series that would eventually end with the final film of the series, 1985's "Day of the Dead", which couldn't equal the first two films. Then in 1990 came the awful remake of "Night of the Living Dead", a movie so bad because it was almost the exact same movie as the original (except that it was in color). Now the second movie in the zombie series has been remade, and was a surprise! I actually liked this new version better than the original 1978 film.
The 2004 version of "Dawn of the Dead" pretty much has the same plotline as the earlier movie (zombies roam the countryside, and several survivors barricade themselves in a shopping mall), but unlike the "Night of the Living Dead" remake, this one isn't exactly the same as the 1978 version. This newer version is different. Here are three comparisons between the two films. 1) The zombies in the 1978 film moved slow; in the 2004 film they move faster. 2) Only four survivors barricaded themselves in the shopping mall in the original movie; there are more than four people who become trapped in the mall in the remake. 3) The human villains in the original were a motorcycle gang; the human villains in the remake are the shopping mall's security guards. I could go on and on about this all day, but let's move on to the other aspects of the film.
This new version has better actors than the original. The original movie had pretty much unknown actors in the principal roles, but the remake has a couple of familiar faces. Sarah Polley, who started out as a child actor in Terry Gilliam's 1989 fantasy "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" and then grew up in movies like 1999's "GO", is excellent as a young nurse who helps fight off the flesh-eating zombies. Ving Rhames is equally good as a cop also trying to fight for survival. Jake Weber ("U-571"), Mekhi Phifer (TV's ER), Kevin Zegers (the "Air Bud" films) and Matt Frewer ("Honey, I Shrunk the Kids") round out the exceptional cast. Zack Snyder directs from a screenplay by James Gunn, and Snyder made a movie remake that's better than the original (which is rare in the movie industry). There's plenty of gore, action, laughs, and good performances (not necessarily by everybody; there are a few supporting characters that I could have done without). If there was one thing that I disliked about the remake of "Dawn of the Dead", it is the final credits sequence, which I thought was kind of ridiculous. And not to mention incompetently put together, which made it very distracting. But aside from that minor quibble, this is for the most part a terrific remake. And yes, it's very gruesome.
2004's "Dawn of the Dead" rocks!
****1/2 (out of four)
Freddy vs. Jason (2003)
Just what both franchises needed...
I'm a big fan of both the early "Friday the 13th" and "A Nightmare on Elm Street" movies. But both series' started wearing out their welcome with the repeated sequels that followed. So after 10 "Friday the 13th" movies and 7 "Nightmare on Elm Street" films, somebody decided that it would be a good idea to put the killer from the "Friday the 13th" series (Jason Voorhees) up against the killer from the "Nightmare on Elm Street" series (Freddy Krueger). This idea apparently went on for years, but nobody came up with a decent script that anyone liked. That was until a few years ago when a couple of screenwriters wrote a draft that executives at New Line Cinema (the studio that owns both franchises) really liked. So New Line gave the go-ahead, the movie was made, and the final result was "Freddy Vs. Jason".
This is what both franchises really need. Both the latter "Friday the 13th" films and the "Nightmare on Elm Street" movies failed to ignite the box office. You'd figure that after the poor box office performances of the last movies in both series' (which was "Wes Craven's A New Nightmare" from 1994 and "Jason X" from 2002), both franchises needed a big boost. They got that boost thanks to "Freddy Vs. Jason", and deservedly so. This is a very entertaining horror movie that's at times very gory, and at other times very exciting. Plus, it was a big hit at the box office.
The plot of "Freddy Vs. Jason" is pretty simple. It starts off with both Freddy and Jason up to their usual antics, but this time climaxes with the two killers facing off against each other. The question everybody asked was "who's gonna win?" For me it was a fun ride getting there. Director Ronny Yu ("Bride of Chucky") keeps the action going so that it never gets boring. I was pretty much into this movie from start to finish. If there was one thing it didn't care much about "Freddy Vs. Jason" is the acting from the young stars. While there are good young actors here (Monica Keena, Jason Ritter, Kelly Rowland, etc.), there's really nothing special about their performances. They're performances weren't real bad in this movie, but they'll be better in future roles (Ritter, son of the late John Ritter, already has a role on a critically-acclaimed TV series, the recent Emmy-nominated CBS drama series "Joan of Arcadia"). But if there is a good performance here, it comes from Robert Englund, better than ever in reprising the role that he originated in 1984 as Freddy Krueger.
So if you're a fan of either "Friday the 13th" or "Nightmare on Elm Street" like I am, or even if you're a major horror movie fan, then you're bound to like "Freddy Vs. Jason". It's great, gruesome fun!
**** (out of five)
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
For once, here's a sequel that actually tops the original. "Spider-Man 2" is not only better than the first movie from 2002, it's one of the best movie sequels ever made. It features dynamite acting, writing, directing, and special effects. What more could you ask for?
One of the strongest aspects of "Spider-man 2" on why it works so amazingly well is the story. This is an extremely well written movie, and what director Sam Raimi puts up on the screen is the best superhero movie since the original "Batman". Plus, he gets great acting from his stars, from Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man/Peter Parker to Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson to Alfred Molina as Dr. Octavius. Everyone puts on a show of absolute greatness, and it's great fun to watch. Oh, and lets not forget about the special effects and action scenes. They're top notch.
"Spider-Man 2" is a must-see!
***** (out of five)
Very good superhero movie
"Spider-Man" is an exceptional superhero movie that's good fun. As far as superhero movies go, it's not as good as "Batman" and the first two "Superman" films, but it falls right behind them.
"Spider-Man" is based on the Marvel comic books about nerdy teenager Peter Parker, who gets bitten by a mutated spider and then slowly turns into the crime fighting hero of the title. The movie's special effects run hot and cold throughout, and the story could have used a little tightening. But still there's much to enjoy here. The action scenes are exciting and held my interest. Tobey Maguire is very good as Spider-Man/Peter Parker, and he gets terrific support from a very good cast. Director Sam Raimi has come a long way since directing "The Evil Dead", and I think he'll be a major directing force to reckon with in years to come. "Spider-man 2" is proof of that.
**** (out of four)
20th Anniversary Review
Exactly 20 years ago today "Gremlins" opened in theaters across the U.S. It went on to be one of the biggest smash hits not only of the summer of 1984, but of the entire year. And in my opinion, it deserved to be a hit. I remember seeing this movie at a movie theater with some friends of mine right after it opened 20 years ago, and I said afterwards, "this is going to be a huge hit". And it was.
"Gremlins" is a story that plays like a darker version of Steven Spielberg's "E.T." Which is funny, because it was Spielberg himself who had the vision of "Gremlins" becoming a movie. Spielberg, along with his then collaborators Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy (the trio founded the production company Amblin Entertainment), served as executive producers of the film. Spielberg got a then up-and-coming screenwriter named Chris Columbus to write the script (Columbus would go on to become the director of the first two "Harry Potter" movies as well as the first two "Home Alone" pictures), and Roger Corman protege Joe Dante to direct the picture (Dante directed 1978's "Piranha", a witty spoof of Spielberg's first smash hit "Jaws", and a segment of Spielberg's "Twilight Zone: The Movie" a year earlier). What they created was a movie that was great fun from start to finish.
"Gremlins" is about a young man who receives a very unusual Christmas gift from his inventor father. He gets a little friendly creature called a Mogwai, which is as cute as a button. But there's a twist. There are three rules that must be followed in caring for the Mogwai: Rule #1 - Keep them away from light; Rule #2 - Don't get them wet; and Rule #3 - Don't feed them after midnight. When the rules get broken, all hell breaks loose as mean-spirited little monsters turn everything upside down. "Gremlins" then turns into a super-duper special effects picture, with the creatures created exceptionally by Chris Walas (Oscar winner for the makeup job on the 1986 remake of "The Fly"). These monsters are scary to be sure, but also very funny with some of the antics they provide.
Even though the special effect monsters steal the show, the acting by the human actors is very good too. Zach Galligan makes the most of his film debut as Billy Peltzer, the young hero who tries to stop the gremlins; Phoebe Cates is effective as his girlfriend; the late Hoyt Axton is a hoot as the inept inventor father (some of his crazy inventions are hilarious, especially when the inventions backfire into slapstick catastrophes); Frances Lee McCain is good as the mother and housewife (who has one big scene with the nasty critters); Polly Holliday is wickedly funny as Mrs. Deagle, the meanest woman in town; and Dante regular Dick Miller is a riot as Mr. Futterman, the nice man who's always complaining about hand-made products being made out of foreign parts. Judge Reinhold and Corey Feldman have small roles as Billy's bank co-worker and good friend, respectively, and look for a quick cameo by Spielberg himself.
"Gremlins" was such a big hit in 1984 that it got re-released back in theaters the following year before it made its debut on video. The movie grossed over $153 million at the box office (combining the original 1984 release and the 1985 re-release). And it stands alone as a great creature feature. "Gremlins" was also imitated many times shortly afterwards. Following in its footsteps came 1985's "Ghoulies", and 1986's "Troll" and "Critters". All these movies spawned sequels of their own, and none of them came close to capturing the greatness of "Gremlins" (although the original "Critters" came the closest; it was the only movie out of that bunch that I mildly enjoyed). Six years later came the "Gremlins" sequel "Gremlins 2: The New Batch". It wasn't as good as the original, but it's still a good movie sequel. I'll take "Gremlins 2" as well as the original "Gremlins" over "Ghoulies" or "Troll" anyday.
***** (out of five)
Poltergeist III (1988)
Awful second sequel
"Poltergeist III" is the third film in the series, and easily the worst. You won't find any scares this time around as Carol Anne Freeling (the ghosts' innocent target in the first two films) goes to Chicago to stay with relatives. Guess who follows her to Chicago?
Whereas the first two movies had good acting, "Poltergeist III" has bad acting from almost everyone. Everyone except young Heather O'Rourke, who sadly died four months before the film's release. Her presence here is the only good thing about it.
"Poltergeist III" also has bad writing and bad directing. And the special effects were very unimpressive. This was thankfully the last film of the series.
* (out of five)
So-so first sequel
"Poltergeist II: The Other Side" is a mostly average sequel to the superb 1982 horror movie about unfriendly ghosts terrorizing a suburban family. This movie is not real bad like most people say it is (I did like some of it), but it's not real good either.
"Poltergeist II" takes place in Arizona, which is where the Freeling family now resides. But no matter where you go you can't keep a nasty ghost down, and those pesky spirits are back to terrorize the family once again. Where the first film was scary with a great sense of humor, the second film comes off more funny than scary. Not a good sign for a horror film where you're expected to be scared. And there isn't much scares this time around. Plus, the special effects this time around aren't as effective as they were in the first film. Nevertheless, the effects received another Oscar nomination, which to me was surprising.
If there's anything to like about "Poltergeist II", it's the acting. JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O'Rourke, Oliver Robins, and Zelda Rubinstein are all back reprising their roles from the first film, with a few new faces add to the cast. The new cast members add some spark here. Will Sampson is very good as the Indian medicine man who also happens to be an exorcist, and comes in to help out the Freelings; Julian Beck makes a strong presence as the evil preacher who happens to be the leader of the ill-mannered ghosts (Beck was reportedly very ill when he made this, and it shows on the screen; he died right after filming completed); and the great veteran actress Geraldine Fitzgerald has a nice small part as Grandma Freeling. So to sum up this film: good acting, bad story, so-so effects, which makes for an average movie.
*** (out of five)
Steven Spielberg's ghost story
"Poltergeist" is Steven Spielberg's vision of a ghost story, and a great one at that. This is an outstanding movie in every way possible. It has terrific acting, a good story to tell, a nice sense of humor, and astonishing special effects. Plus when I first saw this film, it was pretty scary.
"Poltergeist" tells the story of a suburban family living in a small town in California who's home is abruptly invaded by supernatural forces who are anything but friendly, and proceed to terrorize the entire clan. This is a movie that plays like a roller-coaster ride, and once it gets going it never stops.
Tobe Hooper, who directed the original 1974 cult classic "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre", was picked by Spielberg to direct "Poltergeist". He does a fine job of creating scares and tension, even though rumors were floating around that writer/producer Spielberg actually stepped in and directed some of the film (Spielberg went on to say that Hooper was the director of "Poltergeist" even though Spielberg was very much involved with this film from start to finish). To me, it doesn't matter who directed it. This is still an excellent horror movie. Spielberg did a great job as writer/producer, and even if he had directed the whole movie it would still be as good. JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson are wonderful as the head of the Freeling family, with Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, and Heather O'Rourke equally good as their kids. The late Oscar-winning actress Beatrice Straight ("Network") scores points as a parapsycologist investigating the hauntings, and Zelda Rubinstein steals scenes as the mysterious clairvoyant brought in to "clean house". The acting is great, but it's the Oscar-nominated special effects that dominate. Wow! This horror film is a must-see!
***** (out of five)
Second of the series
"Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" is the second film of the popular series about the boy wizard. I didn't find this one to be as good as the first film ("Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"), but it's still a pretty decent movie.
This time out, Harry and friends begin their second year at Hogwarts, this time in a darker tone, as they encounter an evil presence that threatens the existence of the school. Just about everyone from the first movie is back, with a couple of new faces added to the mix. Kenneth Branagh and Miriam Margolyes are introduced as new professors, and Jason Issacs portrays the father of Draco Malfoy, Harry Potter's main nemesis. Everybody's terrific once again.
The elements here are just as good as they were in the first movie. Except I have one quibble about it: the 161 minute running time of the film. The first movie ran only ten minutes shorter than this one, but it felt faster. This second movie felt a little slow going at times, and I kind of wished that director Chris Columbus wouldn't have put so much of it into the finished project. I know Columbus was trying to be faithful to the book, but is it really necessary for a family movie like this to go on for as long as it does? It didn't have to. Nevertheless, this is still for the most part a fun film, and Harry Potter fans will like it anyway.
**** (out of five)
First of the series
"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" is the first film of the popular series about a boy wizard based on the books by J.K. Rowling. And in my opinion movie fantasies don't get any better than this. This is a terrific movie that has a lot going for it: great directing, wonderful storytelling, and fine acting. No wonder this series as already become a phenomenon.
This first adventure introduces us to Harry Potter, a young boy who discovers on his 11th birthday that he's a wizard, and goes on to fulfill his destiny at Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Fast-paced, funny, and wonderfully entertaining, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" never disappoints. Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Emma Watson (Hermione Grainger), and Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) will have long careers thanks to this series. And don't forget that veteran British cast (Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Richard Harris, Robbie Coltrane, etc.). Everybody's terrific, with my favorite performances coming from Watson and Coltrane.
Sure this is a long movie at 152 minutes, but to me it felt a little shorter than that, thanks to its fast pace. Director Chris Columbus ("Home Alone", "Mrs. Doubtfire") wanted to get every element of the book into the film, and therefore he succeeded. Not to mention the beautifully technical aspects of the movie, which received well deserved Oscar nominations for Original Score, Art Direction, and Costume Design (should have gotten another nod for Visual Effects). And what comes out of this movie is one very entertaining show. Kids all around the world love this film, and well they should. This is a family film that even adults can like. So just sit back and enjoy it! I sure did!
***** (out of five)