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Tim Grierson on Being a Reformed Horror-Movie Wimp

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It’s Halloween time, which means you’ve probably seen plenty of those “Scariest Movies of All Time” lists pop up on the web. Looking at the movie titles on those countdowns, you probably remember the first time you saw them, maybe as a kid during a sleepover with a friend when you were probably too young to handle it. Or maybe it was in a packed theater with your buddies, all soaking in the scares together. Not me. I’ve seen most of the top horror movies, but only as an adult. You see, I was a scaredy-cat as a kid.

For a lot of red-blooded American boys (and girls), seeing horror movies is a rite of passage: They’re another way to prove that you’re tough and cool and not some baby. I never went through that phase as an adolescent — I guess I was just a sensitive kid, and the idea of watching slasher movies and being exposed to tense situations in a dark theater just wasn’t all that appealing. (I also didn’t ride roller coasters. Yeah, I was that kid.) Other young people had a natural curiosity about experiencing terrifying things — I just never did. In fact, I didn’t see my first horror movie until I was 16, and even then it wasn’t my choice. It was a double date, and I tried hard to convince everybody else that we should check out “Dead Again,” the well-reviewed Kenneth Branagh thriller. I got outvoted, and off to “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare” I went. I hated it — not because it was scary but because it was terrible. I was pretty convinced that my lifelong aversion to horror movies had been well-founded.

But I knew that wasn’t going to be the end of it. I was going off to film school, and if I really wanted to have a career in the movies, eventually I’d have to start watching horror flicks. Much to my relief, once I started watching them in classes … well, I can’t say I became an instant fan, but I did start to develop an appreciation for them. Growing up as a budding film enthusiast, I tended to prefer dramas and other “serious” movies, deciding that they were somehow “superior” to comedies or action blockbusters or horror films. (Looking back, I realize that the 15-year-old version of myself had the same prejudiced mindset as your typical Oscar voter.) But in film school, I began to understand how horror movies often reflected (or capitalized on) the real horrors of their times. How “Night of the Living Dead” spoke to the paranoia and confusion of the Cold War/Vietnam era. How David Cronenberg’s remake of “The Fly” could be seen as a parable about the fear of AIDS. But perhaps most importantly of all, I came to recognize that, done well, horror movies were as “meaningful” as any other type of film, whether it be the psychological horror of “Rosemary’s Baby” or the haunted-house suspense of “The Innocents.” These revelations ought to have been obvious, but for me they weren’t.

Not that I suddenly became a horror fanatic: Those movies had their place, sure, but I didn’t rush out to see the latest installment of this or that horror franchise. But even if I wasn’t all that passionate about those kinds of movies, I wasn’t done with them. When I started reviewing movies, I’d work for outlets that would assign me the films that other people didn’t want, which was understandable since I was the low guy on the totem pole. And so I ended up at a ton of horror screenings. Most of them were bad — I’ve blocked out the titles — but the weird thing was, I usually had a pretty good time watching them. Partly, this was because I was just starting out as a critic — since this was the job I’d wanted since I was a boy, each assignment was incredibly exciting — but, also, I started to gain an appreciation for how hard it is to make a good horror movie. Not unlike comedies, which are constantly trying to elicit laughs, horror films are working to get a visceral reaction out of you. If you’re just sitting there passively watching the screen, the movie’s not working. I realized how much pressure that was on a filmmaker, and so I found myself weirdly intrigued seeing how the director went about trying to freak me out.

But another major component, I must admit, is that I still carried around with me that feeling of what it was like to be a scared little kid — a sensitive boy who was afraid that horror movies would be too rough for me. If you talk to psychologists, they’ll tell you that one of the reasons why people love horror movies is because they get to experience the sensation of being terrified in a safe environment. You shriek or sweat or feel your heart pound, but you don’t have to worry about dying — when it’s over, you go home without a scratch on you. (Same thing with roller coasters: We put ourselves in harrowing circumstances without the anxiety of real consequences.) When I was young, there must have been a part of me that wasn’t convinced I’d escape unscathed. I think I was afraid of what being scared would feel like and what it would say about me — that I wasn’t tough or cool or manly enough. And yet, here I was as an adult, reviewing horror movies — and I never died once.

Nowadays, I still review some horror movies, and my colleagues are always a bit surprised when I’m not dreading going. Most adults I know in general — and critics in particular — hate horror movies. They find them immature, tedious, badly made and predictable — and, for the most part, they’re right. But there are times when there’s a good horror movie, like the recent “Sinister” or the “Paranormal Activity” series, and it gives you an experience that’s like nothing else at the movies: You genuinely and unreservedly get scared. Everybody else, who grew up watching horror movies, has probably become a little blase about that sensation now that they’re older. Me, I feel like I’m making up for lost time.

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As the Spoof Turns

15 Hilarious Soap Opera Parodies

Catch the classic sitcom Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures Television

The soap opera is the indestructible core of television fandom. We celebrate modern series like The Wire and Breaking Bad with their ongoing storylines, but soap operas have been tangling more plot threads than a quilt for decades. Which is why pop culture enjoys parodying them so much.

Check out some of the funniest soap opera parodies below, and be sure to catch Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

1. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

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Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was a cult hit soap parody from the mind of Norman Lear that poked daily fun at the genre with epic twists and WTF moments. The first season culminated in a perfect satire of ratings stunts, with Mary being both confined to a psychiatric facility and chosen to be part of a Nielsen ratings family.


2. IKEA Heights

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IKEA Heights proves that the soap opera is alive and well, even if it has to be filmed undercover at a ready-to-assemble furniture store totally unaware of what’s happening. This unique webseries brought the classic formula to a new medium. Even IKEA saw the funny side — but has asked that future filmmakers apply through proper channels.


3. Fresno

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When you’re parodying ’80s nighttime soaps like Dallas and Dynasty , everything about your show has to equally sumptuous. The 1986 CBS miniseries Fresno delivered with a high-powered cast (Carol Burnett, Teri Garr and more in haute couture clothes!) locked in the struggle for the survival of a raisin cartel.


4. Soap

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Soap was the nighttime response to daytime soap operas: a primetime skewering of everything both silly and satisfying about the source material. Plots including demonic possession and alien abduction made it a cult favorite, and necessitated the first televised “viewer discretion” disclaimer. It also broke ground for featuring one of the first gay characters on television in the form of Billy Crystal’s Jodie Dallas. Revisit (or discover for the first time) this classic sitcom every Saturday morning on IFC.


5. Too Many Cooks

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Possibly the most perfect viral video ever made, Too Many Cooks distilled almost every style of television in a single intro sequence. The soap opera elements are maybe the most hilarious, with more characters and sudden shocking twists in an intro than most TV scribes manage in an entire season.


6. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

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Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace was more mockery than any one medium could handle. The endless complications of Darkplace Hospital are presented as an ongoing horror soap opera with behind-the-scenes anecdotes from writer, director, star, and self-described “dreamweaver visionary” Garth Marenghi and astoundingly incompetent actor/producer Dean Learner.


7. “Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive,” MadTV

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Soap opera connoisseurs know that the most melodramatic plots are found in Korea. MADtv‘s parody Tae Do  (translation: Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive) features the struggles of mild-mannered characters with far more feelings than their souls, or subtitles, could ever cope with.


8. Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks, the twisted parody of small town soaps like Peyton Place whose own creator repeatedly insists is not a parody, has endured through pop culture since it changed television forever when it debuted in 1990. The show even had it’s own soap within in a soap called…


9. “Invitation to Love,” Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks didn’t just parody soap operas — it parodied itself parodying soap operas with the in-universe show Invitation to Love. That’s more layers of deceit and drama than most televised love triangles.


10. “As The Stomach Turns,” The Carol Burnett Show

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The Carol Burnett Show poked fun at soaps with this enduring take on As The World Turns. In a case of life imitating art, one story involving demonic possession would go on to happen for “real” on Days of Our Lives.


11. Days of our Lives (Friends Edition)

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Still airing today, Days of Our Lives is one of the most famous soap operas of all time. They’re also excellent sports, as they allowed Friends star Joey Tribbiani to star as Dr Drake Ramoray, the only doctor to date his own stalker (while pretending to be his own evil twin). And then return after a brain-transplant.

And let’s not forget the greatest soap opera parody line ever written: “Come on Joey, you’re going up against a guy who survived his own cremation!”


12. Acorn Antiques

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First appearing on the BBC sketch comedy series Victoria Wood As Seen on TV, Acorn Antiques combines almost every low-budget soap opera trope into one amazing whole. The staff of a small town antique store suffer a disproportional number of amnesiac love-triangles, while entire storylines suddenly appear and disappear without warning or resolution. Acorn Antiques was so popular, it went on to become a hit West End musical.


13. “Point Place,” That 70s Show

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In a memorable That ’70s Show episode, an unemployed Red is reduced to watching soaps all day. He becomes obsessed despite the usual Red common-sense objections (like complaining that it’s impossible to fall in love with someone in a coma). His dreams render his own life as Point Place, a melodramatic nightmare where Kitty leaves him because he’s unemployed. (Click here to see all airings of That ’70s Show on IFC.)


14. The Spoils of Babylon

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Bursting from the minds of Will Ferrell and creators Andrew Steele and Matt Piedmont, The Spoils of Babylon was a spectacular parody of soap operas and epic mini-series like The Thorn Birds. Taking the parody even further, Ferrell himself played Eric Jonrosh, the author of the book on which the series was based. Jonrosh returned in The Spoils Before Dying, a jazzy murder mystery with its own share of soapy twists and turns.

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15. All My Children Finale, SNL

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SNL‘s final celebration of one of the biggest soaps of all time is interrupted by a relentless series of revelations from stage managers, lighting designers, make-up artists, and more. All of whom seem to have been married to or murdered by (or both) each other.

Tim Grierson on the Indie Gem “Take This Waltz”

Take This Waltz

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A few years ago, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (of which I’m a member) bestowed its annual New Generation award to Sarah Polley. It might have seemed like an odd pick: Polley had been an actress of some acclaim since the 1990s, compelling in everything from “The Sweet Hereafter” to “Go” to the “Dawn of the Dead” remake. But the prize was given to her for her new career, that as the director of “Away From Her,” the elegant 2007 romantic drama starring Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent that was based on Alice Munro’s short story about an aging couple coping with one partner’s encroaching Alzheimer’s. Polley had proved herself an extremely gifted presence in front of the camera — what a pleasant surprise that she was just as capable behind it.

The worry about giving out a New Generation award is whether the recipient will be able to live up to his or her early promise. Thankfully, in the case of Polley, her second film as a director, “Take This Waltz,” is just as rewarding. You may have missed it during the heat of summer movie season, but it will be arriving on DVD on Tuesday. It’s definitely worth seeking out.

“Take This Waltz” is a romantic drama like “Away From Her,” but this time around she’s focusing on characters closer to her own age. And she’s not adapting another writer’s work this time — “Take This Waltz” is an original screenplay, one that concerns a romantic triangle in which there are no clear good guys or bad guys. Polley offers no simple solutions for either her characters or the audience.

The movie stars Michelle Williams as Margot, a young woman living in Toronto who approaches her 30th birthday with some trepidation. Yes, she’s married to a loving, sweet guy named Lou (Seth Rogen), but their adorable life together doesn’t leave her fully fulfilled — a fact we pick up on when the movie opens and she’s flirting with an artist named Daniel (Luke Kirby) while out of town on a quick trip. It seems like a passing sensation, nothing more, but she quickly discovers that she and Daniel live on the same block. She shouldn’t hang out with him once she gets home, but, well, she likes the guy’s company.

Their relationship, which is actually just a friendship, serves as the heart of “Take This Waltz,” and Polley never fully suggests what Margot should do: dump her husband or tell Daniel that nothing can happen between them. The movie quite confidently resides in an ambiguous middle ground, which shifts the emphasis toward Margot rather than the two men in her life. As Polley makes clear, Margot isn’t really choosing between Lou and Daniel: She’s picking between different futures, different mindsets, different paths to follow. In other words, Margot is really trying to figure out who she’s supposed to be, and “Take This Waltz” can be achingly poignant in its portrayal of this bright but lost young woman.

This isn’t to say that “Take This Waltz” is flawless. In their attempts to show Margot’s confusion, Polley and Williams sometimes risk turning the character into a self-absorbed, overly cutesy pushover. And the film sometimes meanders. But those defects have a way of becoming strengths, giving the story a relatable messiness that’s in keeping with the characters’ unfinished, hesitant lives. And Williams’s co-stars are great. Kirby steals the movie and has received the lion’s share of the praise, giving Daniel a sensual, sensitive magnetism that’s hard to resist, but Rogen’s role is in some ways trickier. He’s stuck playing the nice-guy husband, but he and Polley make him a fully developed character, alternately loving and irritating in a way that those closest to us can be.

Perhaps it’s impossible to transcend the clichés of the romantic-triangle storyline, but you have to give Polley credit for the sincerity and insights she brings to a seemingly familiar scenario. It’s a sign of this film’s smarts that even at the end I wasn’t entirely sure if Margot had made the right decision — I feel pretty positive Polley isn’t, either. Like few movies, “Take This Waltz” understands that not many people find that one perfect soul mate — instead, it’s a question of making certain compromises to find happiness. If you’re not careful, this movie can break your heart. And after seeing it, you may have a hard time hearing the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” without getting a little melancholy.

Tim Grierson on the Frustrations of Being a Kevin James Fan

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This past weekend, the comedy “Here Comes the Boom” was a critical and commercial disappointment, receiving generally dismissive reviews and ending up a lowly No. 5 at the box office. The poor notices weren’t a surprise, but the poor grosses were. “Here Comes the Boom” is the latest vehicle for Kevin James, who in the last few years has established himself as an emerging star. Lovable and sweet where other comics are hip or crass, James has carved out a niche for himself as a likable everyman. I’ve enjoyed him in just about everything he’s done on film and in television. Unfortunately, I’ve almost never enjoyed the projects themselves.

James grew up in Long Island and first made his name as a standup, making observational humor that often poked fun at his own foibles. His persona was that of a well-meaning doofus, an image that was enhanced by his plus-size figure and soft features. This regular-guy demeanor soon translated into a recurring role on his friend Ray Romano’s sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond.” And from there, James got his own show, “The King of Queens,” which transplanted his “Raymond” character Doug Heffernan into its own universe.

Though the show ran for nine seasons, “The King of Queens” was never much of a critical favorite. (It received exactly one Emmy nomination, for James for Outstanding Lead Actor.) And while it was certainly a formulaic sitcom — even casting Jerry Stiller, who had been part of the “Seinfeld” juggernaut, as James’s Frank Constanza-like father-in-law — it was boosted by its star’s utter naturalness as a working-class delivery driver. At a time when so-called “blue-collar comedy” in the form of Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy was playing into cultural stereotypes and parading its redneck bona fides, Doug didn’t seem to have a political agenda: He was just a nice guy who loved football and got annoyed by the same things we all do.

And while “The King of Queens” definitely followed the formula of pairing an average-looking comic with an impossibly beautiful wife, James’s show shook things up a little by having Doug’s wife (Leah Remini) not be the calm, rational one who had to put up with her husband’s crazy schemes. Instead, she was often the ambitious, irritable one that he had to calm down, creating a good-cop dynamic that James would continue to exploit when he transitioned into film.

By 2005, he had already appeared in Adam Sandler’s “50 First Dates,” but it was in “Hitch” where he first showed his potential as a film actor. Perhaps importantly, he wasn’t the lead, instead playing the charming, understated second fiddle to Will Smith’s charismatic, cocky love doctor. By comparison, James was a mild-mannered executive trying to woo the gorgeous Amber Valletta. In real life, a guy as timid as James would never land such a beauty, but his innate sweetness made this proposition, at least in the fluffy world of romantic comedies, at least seem plausible. “Hitch” wasn’t much of a movie, but James was a charmer.

Afterward, James moved on to “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,” where he co-starred with Sandler. As on “The King of Queens,” he was the nice guy in contrast to Sandler’s homophobic, babe-hound character, playing a kind-hearted widower who just wants to take care of his two kids. Whether you thought “Chuck and Larry” was a groundbreaking commentary on gay relationships or just a crude Sandler comedy, James’s character’s undeniable decency gave the movie its emotional center.

With James now firmly entrenched in the Sandler camp, I was hoping he would be able to do better as a leading man than other Sandler pals like Rob Schneider and David Spade had fared. Unfortunately, his first starring role, 2009’s “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” was an utter abomination — the sort of juvenile, lowest-common-denominator misfire that movie studios dump in January that they just want off their slate. I assumed it would bomb and would hamper James’s career. Shows you how good my box-office prognostication skills are: “Paul Blart” was a huge hit, winning two straight weekends and ending up with more than $146 million. James co-wrote “Paul Blart,” but the “Die Hard”-in-a-mall premise didn’t do enough to emphasize his sweetness or his sneaky slightly-skewed-ordinary-guy essence. As someone who had been a fan of his for a while, I suppose I was happy for James’s success, but, seriously, the endless fat-guy jokes of “Paul Blart” didn’t make me optimistic about his future.

My attitude didn’t change with subsequent films. In “Grown Ups,” “The Dilemma,” and “Zookeeper,” it’s been more of the same, with James’s likable presence overshadowed by broader, louder costars or, in the case of “Zookeeper,” by talking animals voiced by the likes of Sandler, Cher and Sylvester Stallone. The reviews for “Zookeeper,” his second solo starring vehicle, were just as brutal as they were for “Paul Blart,” but the movie made about half as much money, perhaps a signal that audiences were tiring of James. I could understand: The modest charm of his earlier roles had calcified into a nice-guy shtick that wasn’t nearly as enjoyable when it was forced to shoulder the burden of miserable dreck all by itself.

That’s why I’m most disappointed with the lukewarm returns for “Here Comes the Boom.” While it’s not a film I’d recommend, it’s the first time James has been the leading man in a movie that clearly plays to his strengths. As with “Paul Blart” and “Zookeeper,” he co-wrote “Here Comes the Boom,” and he’s hit upon a timely premise. Scott Voss (James) was once a dedicated high school teacher who has grown complacent and lazy over time. But when an older teacher (Henry Winkler) whom he admires discovers that his music program is going to be cut due to budget restraints, Scott decides to become an MMA wrestler to win enough money to save the program.

James has always poked fun at his own beefiness, which has made his surprisingly graceful moves all the more delightful. (The highlight of “Hitch” is probably watching James dance.) “Here Comes the Boom” utilizes this juxtaposition to good effect as Scott convincingly goes toe-to-toe with professional MMA fighters: He’s big enough but also swift enough to play the part. And while the movie is a paint-by-numbers sports film, James knows how to be lovable without seeming needy or cloying about it. Like too many of the movies he’s associated with, though, “Here Comes the Boom” is only tolerable because of his presence, and you wonder if he’s not ambitious enough to do better or if he’s happy starring in mediocre Hollywood product. I still think the guy’s got potential — but sometimes I’m not sure if he sees that potential in himself.

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