Thursday, July 22, 2010

Blue Velvet

David Lynch is a difficult director to watch.  His movies are intentionally obtuse and his use of imagery and symbols over plot and characters is alienating for many viewers and attractive for many critics.  Blue Velvet is one of Lynch's more linear stories, which makes this one of his more accessible films for the general public.  Of course, that's just by comparison.  This is still a weird ass film.  If I had to sum up the story in one sentence, I would say that Blue Velvet is like a Leave It to Beaver episode that woke up from a nightmare, only to find itself being raped.

The story begins with Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) coming home from college to help with his family's business, while his father recovers from a stroke.  While wandering around the idyllic Lumberton townscape, Jeffrey finds a severed human ear.  He takes the ear to Detective Williams (George Dickerson), who assures Jeffrey that he'll handle the case.  Jeffrey is an annoying little busybody that clearly doesn't have enough to do like, oh I don't know, running his father's business, so he stops by Detective Williams' home to ask about the ear.  In the process, he is reintroduced to Williams' daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern).  Sandy and Jeffrey step out for a malted milkshake (or something equally wholesome) and swap information on the ear.  Sandy is a dirty eavesdropper and her father discusses a surprising amount of his work at home, so she dishes that there is a nightclub singer that is a person of interest.  The singer is Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and Jeffrey decides to sneak into her apartment and investigate her.  While he is searching her apartment for some clue that may connect to the ear, she comes home; Jeffrey narrowly avoids detection by hiding in a closet.  It doesn't work for long, though; Dorothy discovers him, keeps him at knife point and... performs fellatio?  Well, that's an unexpected reaction.  The couple are interrupted by a knock at the door.  Dorothy hides Jeffrey in the closet once more and lets Frank (Dennis Hopper) in.  Frank is rude, vulgar and abusive, both physically and verbally.  He huffs some unnamed drug (identified as amyl nitrate by Hopper in later interviews), smacks Dorothy around a little, and dry humps her until he's finished.  As a side note, watching that scene allowed me to check two items off my bucket list.  I'm not saying what, though.  This scene causes Jeffrey to sympathize with Dorothy and he delves deeper into her nightmare of a life, filled with Frank and his associates, but still spending time in the TV Land-ish Lumberton proper enough to fall in love with Sandy.  It's dangerous to explore the seedy underbelly of any town, though, a lesson Frank will soon teach Jeffrey.

This film is sometimes described as a neo-noir, but I disagree.  While there are similarities to the noir genre (tough guys and dames without real emotions, a mystery to solve, etc.), they only really exist within the seedy underworld of Lumberton.  In many ways, this film is about duality and how deceiving appearances can be.  On the one hand, yes, this is a noir when Frank and Dorothy show up, but it is a surreal visit to the sunny neighborhoods of 1950s television when the story focuses on Jeffrey and Sandy.  Obviously, the differences between Jeffrey and Frank are shown in sharp contrast when Jeffrey and Dorothy become lovers as are the differences between Dorothy and Sandy.  Lynch does a good job showing the importance of digging beyond the surface in the opening scene, as the camera zooms past Jeffrey's father having a stroke in the middle of their perfect neighborhood and into the grass, until all we see are bugs busy in the dirt.

I don't like categorizing Blue Velvet as a noir because I feel it is better described as surreal.  The sunny Lumberton portion of the film is almost deliriously ideal, visually bright and clean.  The characters in these scenes speak and act as if they are in a classic TV sitcom, spouting trite garbage and throwing around cliches like it's their job.  The despair of the seedy Lumberton is just as bizarre.  While I'm sure that sadomasochism and unusual sexual practices happen everywhere, but Frank's experiences put even the nastiest celebutant to shame.  There is absolutely nothing in this movie that rings true.

Well, almost nothing.  Isabella Rossellini's performance is eye-opening, and not just because she gets nekked.  Her character is very complex and has the most easily understood motives out of anyone in the film.  Rossellini does a great job handling what would have been simply an erotic role for most actresses and transformed it into a study on power, pleasure, pain and fear.  It's shocking to me that she was not nominated for at least a supporting actress award at either the Oscars or the Golden Globes.

Dennis Hopper's performance is not nearly as honest as Rossellini's, but it's just as captivating.  As Frank, Hopper plays his most frightening role.  This is at least partially because he is inexplicable and unpredictable.  Is he going to cry while watching Dean Stockwell lip-sync to Roy Orbison, or is he going to start breaking furniture with the same stimulus?  At times, Hopper's acting is so beyond the realm of plausibility that it becomes funny, but he quickly snaps back into exuding danger the next moment.

Lynch's work is equally fluid.  The film's cinematography is wonderful.  Lynch has a gift for finding great visuals and exploiting them.  He is at the top of his game here.  His direction of actors, on the other hand, is typically alien.  I am familiar with many actors in this movie, as well as the casts in other Lynch films; in every movie, it feels like he is deliberately directing his cast to act poorly.  If there is an unnatural pause or a way to make a clever line not funny, that is the take that makes the film's final cut.  If this type of acting was limited to certain members of the cast, I could conclude that Lynch is making a point about those characters, or their place in society or whatever.  But he does it with everyone.  Lynch wrote this movie, as well, so his intentions can be found by watching the camera work, seeing the acting, and hearing the dialogue.  But it's all still very confusing.  This film doesn't work as a satire of the 1950s American ideal if the "real world" that Frank rules is equally surreal.  So...does that make this a movie about naivety?  About the need to hold on to the comforting while experiencing the discomforting?  If that's the case, then why all the surreality?  To be honest, I don't care because thinking about David Lynch's intentions is just frustrating for me.

That frustration happens whether or not I am focusing on what the director intended, though.  The acting is, for the most part, painful to watch.  When Hopper and Rossellini are on screen, that pain turns into discomfort.  That's not a huge upside.  The supporting characters have absolutely no depth or humanity to them at all, and simply exist to provide momentary distractions for the cast.  Perhaps if one side of the story was told differently, this movie would be more appealing to me.  If the mystery aspect held any suspense whatsoever or had any importance, for instance, I might have invested more of myself to this film.  Instead, I am left disliking the movie, but admiring two performances and the camera work.  I guess that kind of balances things out pretty evenly.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Breaker Breaker!

If there is one lesson to be learned from Breaker! Breaker!, it is that trends come and go, but the CB radio craze will never die.  If there is a second lesson to be learned from Breaker! Breaker!, it is that Chuck Norris' beard is his source of awesomeness.  He's clean-shaven in this movie.  That's not a good sign.

J.D. (Chuck Norris) is a successful truck driver, living the glamorous life of diners, arm wrestling, and the joys of CB radio.  His little brother, Billy, is just starting out as a trucker and is going to be on his own for the first time.  On the road, Billy talks to some folks on the CB that give him some tips on how to avoid the local police.  Billy thanks them and takes the route they give him.  In a gross misuse of CB etiquette, Billy's "friends" were really the police of a small town.  The town bases its livelihood (as far as I can tell) on pulling over truckers, fining them, and stealing their goods.  No wonder it's such a booming shanty town!  Now, fleecing truckers is one thing, but this town goes too far when it messes with J.D.'s little brother!  After a few days of not hearing from Billy, J.D. figures out where he must have gotten derailed (the town is a known trucker problem) and goes to the town.  Everyone is pretty indifferent to him, except for the local mentally handicapped guy.  J.D. eventually finds the town leader, Judge Trimmings (George Murdock), who is a jerk.  For some reason, the town hides Billy and pretends to be civil to J.D.  That only goes so far, of course, before the townsfolk try to arrest J.D. on some inane charges, which means that J.D. has to karate kick the entire town's population.  As things take a turn for the deadly, J.D. calls on his ace in the hole: other truckers.  With the help of five or six semi trucks, J.D. is ready to tear the town down to the ground.

As bad as this movie sounds, trust that I have spiced it up a bit for you.  This is the worst movie I have seen from the 1970s to date.  If you want proof, fine.  A fight scene ends with a freeze frame of a horse jumping out of its pen.  You would think context would make that significant, but you would be wrong.

Pop quiz, hot shot...let's say that you are a bad guy, given the task to kill Chuck Norris.  He's already been stabbed in the leg and has bled all over town.  You get the drop on him and kick him around, knocking him into some hay on the ground.  Do you:
  • A) Finish him off now, taking his scalp to wear in future battles 
  • B) Make sure that kicking Chuck in the stomach knocked him out 
  • C) Leave Chuck alone, wander into a horse pen for no particular reason, and start drinking Wild Turkey out of the bottle.  
Now guess which answer is right in the Breaker! Breaker! universe.  The entire fight scene is in slow-motion, too!  The entire scene!

When J.D.'s trucker buddies come rolling into town, all the townspeople look to the sky, like they've never heard trucks before.  What follows is some of the stupidest cinema I have ever seen.  The semi trucks drive through the town, down the streets, and don't hit anything.  They're not even going fast.  The townspeople, on the other hand, are running for their lives, diving out of the trucks' paths, and generally giving the impression that the entire town confuses semi trucks with some sort of volcano-related apocalypse.  Thank goodness the trucks eventually decide to drive through some buildings, which are apparently no match for the semi truck cabs.  This may just be my general lack of knowledge about truckers, but don't a lot of truckers lease their rigs?  Wouldn't driving through several buildings get them in trouble, or at least hurt their insurance premiums?  Oh, wait...>karate kick to the chest< ...never mind.

I will give this film and its director, Don Hulette, credit where it's due.  This is the only movie I have ever seen (or even heard of) where a mentally retarded character dies by a gunshot wound.  I believe his last words are "I'm so mad at you."  After seeing this movie, I know how this handicapped man feels.

This movie is a failure on almost every level.  It is a trucker movie that has about sixty minutes without any trucks.  It is a movie about people who drive that does not have a single good chase scene.  In fact, a conversion van is able to outrace and outmaneuver police cars in this movie.  The acting is so bad that I can tell that this is a sub-par performance from Chuck Norris.  The characters are all taken from stereotypes about hick towns.  The town has a fantastically high man-to-woman ratio, which gives the film some probably unintentional homosexual/Deliverance undertones.

On the other hand, this is a trucker movie that featured arm wrestling, ten years before Over the Top.  I guess that means that I, and all Over the Top fans, owe Breaker! Breaker! a debt of gratitude.  Not much of one, but a debt just the same.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


I enjoy horror movies, but I am more than willing to admit that most of them are pretty bad.  The horror genre usually doesn't have much more to offer than some unique ways to kill teenagers, but every so often, I get surprised.  Candyman was one of those times.  This film distances itself from its horror brethren in some very basic ways.  There are no teen-aged main characters, for starters.  Instead of creating a fictional city or town, this movie takes place in Chicago, primarily in the Cabrini-Green housing projects, which are scary enough on their own.  The main character in this movie is played by an Oscar nominee (not for this role), which is one of the few, if not the only, time that has happened in a horror movie.  Oh, and it doesn't completely suck.

Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) is a graduate student researching urban legends for her thesis.  She polls freshmen for any legends they know and notes that most legends have many versions.  While researching, she comes across the Candyman legend.  Like Bloody Mary, if you say his name five times in front of the mirror, he allegedly appears and murders you.  Helen doesn't think much about the legend at first, and she and her friend Bernadette jokingly say his name in the mirror five times.  Nothing happens.  Big surprise.  Later, she meets a maid at the university who claims that the Candyman story is true.  This intrigues Helen, because being able to trace a legend back to its real-world counterpart would be a scoop for her thesis.  The maid claims that the Candyman murdered someone in the Cabrini-Green projects, which leads to Helen finding some newspaper articles about a hook-related murder.  She has some theories on the crime that would help explain some of the more supernatural elements of the story, like Candyman appearing near the mirror, she just needs some hard evidence.  Helen researches the story on location in the projects, but she does not come much closer to the truth.

That's when he appears.  While Candyman (Tony Todd) doesn't look like a nice guy, he doesn't have the gross disfigurement that most iconic horror villains possess.  He does have a hook in the disgusting stump where his hand should be, which I suppose makes up for his otherwise normal appearance.  Candyman is upset by Helen's research, as she is helping convince others that he does not exist.  Candyman urges her to become his victim (which is a little awkward), but she resists, so he decides to prove himself to her.  Helen blacks out and awakens in the Cabrini-Green apartment of the nicest resident she interviewed during her research; Helen is covered in blood, notices that the apartment's dog has been decapitated, and the resident's infant is missing.  Beside herself with grief, the resident attacks Helen, who is forced to protect herself with a butcher knife.  Not surprisingly, this escapade lands her in jail, but her husband (Xander Berkeley) bails her out.

Bad move.  Candyman begins appearing more and more frequently, but only to Helen.  He has the baby hidden somewhere and will kill it if Helen does not give herself to him, to join him and strengthen his legend.  As the movie continues, Candyman keeps killing and Helen keeps getting blamed for those crimes.  Despite being wanted for murder, Helen realizes that she is the baby's only hope of survival and decides to do whatever it takes to save it.

That might not sound too good, but there's a lot to like in this move and there are some aspects that I genuinely appreciate.  I like Candyman's desire to seduce Helen into becoming his victim.  He could have killed her at any time, but he wanted to make her, the urban legend debunker, part of his urban legend.  That's actually a pretty cool motivation.  I like Candyman's voice; the production team treated his dialogue as voice over, so when he spoke, it felt like an omnipotent narrator was speaking.  That was a nice touch that definitely added to the creepiness of the character.  I also liked the scenes where Candyman handled/was made of bees.  I'm not a huge fan of bugs crawling all over characters, but bugs that sting are definitely scary.  I don't usually squirm while watching movies, but that made me wiggle a bit.

I think this was a pretty smart slasher flick, too.  It went out of its way to avoid a lot of slasher cliches; all the people that died were truly innocent, not promiscuous, drunken teens on a drug binge.  If this film had been edited just a little bit better, there would even be a question as to whether Candyman existed or not.  He's only on screen without Helen for about fifteen seconds; everything else happens with Helen present.  If those fifteen seconds had been cut, then there we could make a valid point that Helen could be responsible for everything and Candyman was either her going crazy or something that possessed her.  That angle would have improved this movie's IQ enough to be a classic.

Unfortunately, that is not this film's only shoulda-coulda-woulda.  Despite all the unique and smart things in this movie, a lot of careless mistakes are made:
  • Ted Raimi has a cameo as a "bad boy"
  • Helen walks into a public men's restroom outside Cabrini-Green.  That's a whole horror premise by itself.
  • Trevor, Helen's husband, is a professor married to a graduate student in his own department.  He cheats on her with one of his students.  And he's paid enough to have a gigantic apartment on Chicago's North side with a view of downtown?  How does that happen?
  • Helen's Chicago apartment does not have a deadbolt or latch.  Now that's fiction.
A lot of horror movies get people to overlook the overall crappiness of the film by going all-out for the climax.  Not so much here.  I thought the climax was pretty ineffective, but it did set up a pretty good ending.  That's a trade-off I'm willing to make, and just one of the many choices that director Bernard Rose makes that work well.  Most of the budget went toward special effects instead of actors and script, so the casting choices are pretty solid (Tony Todd is a creepy man), even if their acting isn't great (Xander Berkeley, I'm looking at you).  Is this a masterpiece?  No, it's too stupid for that.  It is a good horror movie that is also a pretty decent movie in its own rights. 

Monday, July 19, 2010


Christopher Nolan obviously has a fascination with the notion of reality.  In Memento, he focused on how our memories shape us and how we shape our memories.  In The Prestige, he looked at the power of illusion.  Now, with Inception, Nolan ditches the pretenses and goes for broke; this film delves into the world of dreams.

In this story, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a corporate spy with a unique modus operandi: he enters dreams with his intended victims and steal their ideas right out of their minds, a process called extraction.  Inception is the flip side of that coin; instead of stealing an idea, you plant one.  Just as it is far easier to destroy than to create, it is far more difficult to perform inception than extraction.  Indeed, Cobb's partner, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and others insist that inception is absolutely impossible.  However, after botching a job, their intended victim, Saito (Ken Watanabe), makes them an offer they can't refuse.  If they successfully perform inception and convince his corporate rival's heir, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), to dismantle his father's massive corporation, Saito will pay everyone handsomely and give Cobb access to the only thing he truly wants --- his family.

There's more to it than that --- a lot more --- but I can't simplify it and still do the story justice.  I can, however, marvel at the unique story elements.  This is a very intelligent story that has been thought through from start to finish.  To pull off the inception, Cobb and his crew design several elaborate dreamscapes and they layer the dreams one inside of another inside of another.  So, they all go to sleep and go into the shared dreamscape, and then they go to sleep in that dream and then go to sleep in the next dream to reach that third layer.  Does that sound complicated?  Well, wait.  Each layer of dream has a different concept of time.  In the first layer, five minutes of real-world time equals an hour of dream time.  In the second layer, that becomes ten hours, in the third, a hundred.  What makes that notion interesting is the fact that the dreamers have some level of awareness with the level above them; like someone that has water dripping on them might dream of drowning, these characters are affected by what is happening around their sleeping bodies.  There is an extended sequence where a car is falling, for instance, and the next dream layer has everyone floating in mid-air because their bodies are all asleep in the falling car in the dream layer above.  What only takes a few seconds (a falling car) feels like several minutes to those dreamers.  That opens up a lot of layered storytelling possibilities and introduces some tricky timing, and Christopher Nolan did a great job making each layer work.

While this is more of a psychological thriller than anything else, Inception has its share of solid action sequences.  There is a surprising amount of gunfire in the movie and a lot of full-contact driving sequences.  These are nice, but that should come as no surprise from the director of The Dark Knight.  The movie's uniqueness is shown primarily in a great scene where Joseph Gordon-Levitt fights in a hallway with no consistent gravity.  It's not a particularly flashy scene, and Gordon-Levitt doesn't come across as ridiculously bad-ass or anything, but it's a wonderful illustration of the possibilities available in the dream worlds.

Something that surprised me about this film was the emotional content.  Clever ideas and good action are nothing particularly new to Nolan because his movies are all about the plot.  Honestly, I don't think I've seen an incredible acting performance in his movies, aside from the notable exception of Heath Ledger.  That diligence to the story usually sacrifices any true emotional attachment.  Here, though, we are given two distinct and satisfying stories with heart.  On the one hand, we have Robert Fischer, who felt like a disappointment to his empire-building father (Pete Postlethwaite).  By the film's end, though, there is a genuine moment between the two; the fact that the moment was completely engineered by Cobb and his crew doesn't negate the scene's emotion.  On the other hand, we have Cobb.  He has been dealing with intense loss and guilt for a while, to a degree that is affecting (and infecting) his work.  When he finally confronts the manifestation of his guilt, there are a few minutes that acknowledge the importance and limitations of dreams, and these moments are the core of the story.  If that scene had felt forced or flat, the whole movie would have seemed like a clever piece of filmmaking, but not an important work.  And this is undoubtedly an important film.

What is odd in a movie filled with oddness is the absence of any truly charismatic character.  Leonardo DiCaprio does a very good job as Cobb, willing to risk his sanity and that of his friends just to see his family again.  The character is smart, but flawed, and DiCaprio (who I think is a good actor that is smart enough to work with great directors) gives his best performance in recent memory.  He is the heart and brains of the story and he deserves recognition for how well he carried this film.  Of course, his performance would have been wasted without someone of equal talent in his scenes.  Marion Cotillard turns in a varied and emotional performance, alternately cooing with love or screaming with hate.  DiCaprio's performance required someone to react to him, and Cotillard played her part well.  Her performance is somewhat hampered by the limitations placed on her character, but she still was able to convey a lot of emotion.

The rest of the cast is good, but their characters are not as integral to the plot as DiCaprio's or Cotillard's.  Cillian Murphy has the next most emotionally complicated role, and he does it well.  Resentment is often a trait that makes characters unsympathetic, but he is able to show that emotion and still come across as someone in need.  Ellen Page acts as the story's point-of-view character, the character least familiar with the dreamscape.  Her scenes are primarily used to show off the possibilities of dreams, and her character acts as Cobb's conscience.  It's not a terribly complex role for Page, but her character still seems well developed.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns in another subtle performance as the matter-of-fact member of Cobb's team, but he shows personality in a few brief scenes that help change him from just another character into someone you're rooting for.  Tom Hardy is appealing as the rogue of the group as well.  The rest of the cast has more limited roles, either because of screen time, or because of their character's role.  Still, Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Tom Berenger and Lukas Haas all add something to their roles that make them feel more substantial than they are.

This film was written and directed by Christopher Nolan.  I've already mentioned how clever the story is, but it's worth mentioning again.  This is a smart screenplay that has heart and some humor.  Most importantly, though, this is a unique story.  You can argue that it shares some similarities with Dark City or The Matrix because it plays with the notion of reality, but Inception is a lot deeper than that and is better in almost every way than any movie with a similar conceit.  The acting is full of competent performances, but it is noteworthy that this is the first time Nolan has been able to capture this much honest emotion on film.  The cinematography is good for the most part, with a few truly exceptional scenes that show the potential of the plot.  I think this is Nolan's best work to date.

The one thing it lacks is an extraordinary character.  I find it odd that a movie with so many bigger-than-life moments has characters that are all essentially normal.  Well, except for the entering people's dreams thing.  I can see the importance of having DiCaprio, Cotillard, and Page as regular folks, but I think an opportunity was missed by having Hardy do the same.  Hardy was somewhat sarcastic, but I think his character would have been a little more appealing if he had been a little more of...I don't know...maybe a lovable bastard; he was only a few steps away from the guy you like to hang out with, but wouldn't trust alone with your sister, but those few steps can make a big difference for supporting characters.

That is just me nit-picking, though.  This is a visually interesting, intellectually fascinating movie with good direction and acting.  It has a good ending, too, but it's better seen than read.  I expected to enjoy this movie because I like so many of the people involved, but this turned out to be the best new release I have seen in a few years.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

I assume that, when Disney head Michael Eisner says his prayers before bedtime every night, he ends with "...and God bless Johnny Depp."  This movie should have been a huge, $150 million flop, but Depp's bizarre performance fueled it to ridiculous box office numbers and two sequels (so far).  It's based on an amusement park ride, a genre of movie that is barely existent for a reason; nobody wants to see Tilt-a-Whirl: The Movie.  Beyond all probability and expectations, though, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was an unqualified success, grossing over $650 million worldwide.  But was it any good?

Despite the title, the Black Pearl had no curse.  The subtitle should have been PotC: Montezuma's Revenge, but I can see some negative connotations with that.  They could have at least used PotC: Screw You, Aztec Gold!  Whatever.  The main story of this film is unusual, because it doesn't necessarily require these particular lead characters.  I'll explain.  The main plot is about the crew of the pirate ship, the Black Pearl.  These men discovered a famous cache of Aztec gold, but learned too late that the gold was cursed; after they spent it, they lived as supernatural creatures, unable to feel pain or joy, only hunger.  The only way to remove the curse is to gather all their spent gold from around the globe and return it to its resting place, with the blood of everyone that took the gold.  Unfortunately, pirates aren't very trustworthy, so one of the crew mailed his son a gold piece (just before the others killed him), so the crew could never know peace.  And that's just back story!  The movie hasn't even started yet! 

The son, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) grows up to be a blacksmith in Port Royal, Jamaica.  As a child, he thought he lost the cursed gold piece, but it was actually found by his dream woman, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley).  I don't know why she held on to the piece for over a decade, but she did.  On the day she rediscovers the gold piece, she manages to fall in the ocean.  Clumsy wench.  Upon hitting the water, a pulse is sent out across the seas; apparently, the gold calls to the cursed pirates.  Unaware of this, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), who has no ship or crew, rescues Elizabeth from drowning.  As a show of thanks on behalf of the Port Royal navy, Sparrow is arrested for piracy by Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport).  Well, he is eventually arrested by Norrington.  In the meantime, Sparrow meets Turner, and they have a swordfight where the audience realizes that Will Turner is a boring person: "...and I practice [swordplay]...three hours a if I meet a pirate...I can kill him!"  Will, that is a huge investment of time for a relatively unlikely goal.  Of course, he did meet a pirate, so I guess it was all worthwhile.  While Sparrow is in jail, Port Royal gets attacked by marauding pirates, who are after Elizabeth's gold piece.  Thinking that they mean to use her as a ransom object (her dad is the Governor of Port Royal), Elizabeth lies and tells the pirates that her last name is Turner.  Well, they're looking for a Turner with the gold piece to remove the curse, so they take her with them.  From there, Will frees Sparrow to rescue Elizabeth, they recruit their own crew of crazy pirates, and try to avoid being caught by Commodore Norrington or killed by the crew of the Black Pearl.

You see?  With that back story in place, it doesn't really matter who else is in the movie, as long as the Black Pearl's men find the last gold piece.  Yes, Will Turner's blood is needed to remove the curse, but Elizabeth and Jack Sparrow could have easily been somewhere else and the pirates would have still gone after Turner and the gold.  In my mind, that is the A plot, with Jack Sparrow's attempts to regain ownership of the Pearl as the B plot and Will and Elizabeth's love story as the C plot.  You wouldn't think it, but that's just how it is.

That unconventional plot structure combines with a novel genre mashing to make this a pretty unique film.  Pirate films have been pretty terrible for the last, oh, 70 years or so.  I can only think of one good movie in my lifetime with a pirate in it (The Princess Bride), and there was little to no piracy in that film.  To salvage that, the screenwriters (and there were a lot, so I'm not sure who came up with this idea) decided to make this a supernatural pirate movie.  Sure, you throw in a few skeletal undead pirates, and the whole movie starts to come together.  Honestly, the traditional "pirate" scenes, particularly the sword fighting scenes, are among the film's more ridiculous moments and are not particularly exciting.  Still, the use of humor and the good character work bolster the supernatural pirate premise enough to overcome those shortcomings.

Performance-wise, most of the cast is playing it pretty simple.  Orlando Bloom actually has to play it simple, since he has trouble expressing more than mild confusion in any movie.  Still, he plays the straightforward swashbuckling role well enough and works even better as a straight man for Johnny Depp.  Keira Knightley gets to practice her sassmouth in this film, making her character surprisingly feminist, given the story's setting.  Geoffrey Rush is great as the evil Captain Barbossa; it's not a complex character, but Rush clearly has a blast in the role and that makes him fun to watch.  Also worth noting is Kevin McNally as Jack Sparrow's friend, Gibbs.  He's not fantastic, but he blends comedy and piracy well.  The rest of the cast is less impressive, but nobody is terrible.  Jonathan Pryce and Jack Davenport are fine as the primary supporting non-pirates.  Lee Arenberg started out as a pretty menacing figure in his first scene, but he and Mackenzie Crook quickly became the comedy relief for the pirate scenes.  Zoe Saldana has a bit role, but she's still moderately annoying as the film's only female boat captain.

With those actors and characters, this would still be a pleasant movie, but it is Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow that makes all the difference.  A bizarre combination of sleazy femininity, outright drunkenness, and Keith Richards mannerisms, Jack Sparrow was entirely created by Depp.  How he got that past Disney's people, I don't know.  While Depp is the lead actor in the film, he functions as a supporting character.   He doesn't really spark the action, but reacts to situations.  That keeps the character fresh and appealing throughout; too much Jack Sparrow can be overwhelming, as the sequels can attest to.  When I first saw this movie, I laughed at almost everything Depp did on screen.  He wasn't cracking jokes, but his character is very busy; he is constantly constantly changing his expression, touching things, and swaying in the wind. While I wouldn't say this is Depp's best performance, I believe it is certainly his most memorable character and, as such, his Oscar nomination for this role was well deserved.

Depp delivers almost all the best lines in the movie, which helps his character's appeal.  It really doesn't get any better or simpler than Sparrow's reaction to when Will accuses him of cheating in their sword fight: "Uh, pirate."  While there are a lot of clever lines ("Clearly, you've never been to Singapore" is another), there are some pretty terrible script moments, too.  I understand that Elizabeth is all gung-ho and anti-damsel-in-distress, but the scene where Keira Knightley is having trouble fitting into a corset because it's too tight...?  That's some mighty fine acting, because I'm pretty sure she is sixty pounds soaking wet.  And Keira gets saddled with a lot of bad dialogue, too.  Her worst line of dialogue is also her last: "[Will Turner]'s not a blacksmith...he's a pirate!"  And everyone shakes their head and smiles, because they realize that Elizabeth is a very stupid girl.

The Curse of the Black Pearl turned out to be a pretty fun movie.  Yes, it's too long and director Gore Verbinski spends too much time on the supporting cast, but it manages to make pirate movies entertaining again.  Johnny Depp deserves most of the credit for that, but Geoffrey Rush does a great job as Depp's counterpart.  The story would be stronger if there was more linking these characters than serendipity, but it doesn't require much suspension of disbelief (until the sequels).  No, it's certainly not a flawless film, but what more do you want from a movie based on an amusement park ride?

Saturday, July 17, 2010


After hearing all the fuss about "white-washing" the cast of The Last Airbender and Prince of Persia this summer, I have to look at Aladdin and chuckle.  I mean, is there a more Caucasian movie about Arabic characters?  It takes its story from a classic Middle Eastern folktale collection, One Thousand and One Nights, and the lead voice actor is...Steve from Full House?  I never realized how ethnic he was!

The movie begins with Jafar (Jonathan Freeman) and his wise-cracking parrot, Iago (Gilbert Gottfried), in the middle of the desert, persuading a thief to enter the Cave of Wonders.  The cave's entrance is shaped like a tiger's head, and it talks.  Would you willingly walk into a giant, talking stone tiger's mouth?  If so, you might be a dirty thief.  The cave eats the thief and tells Jafar that only a "diamond in the rough" can gain access to the cave's treasures.  That doesn't seem hard to find, does it?  And it's not.  With the help of a machine, Jafar is able to learn the identity of this "diamond:" Aladdin (Scott Weinger).  Jafar wants Aladdin because he wants more power and riches than his sorcerer/adviser-to-the-Sultan role can provide him; he wants the power of the magic lamp that lies inside the Cave of Wonders.

Aladdin is a "street rat" in the fictional Arabic city of Agrabah.  With his monkey, Abu, he steals what he needs to survive and spends the rest of his time running for his life while singing.  Here's a tip, folks: if you're trying to evade capture by the police, don't sing your plans to them.  I know, it's a very tempting and natural desire, but it's rarely the right move.  One day, Aladdin notices a pretty girl in the market and protects her from the police.  The two spend the rest of the day together, enjoying each others company and, in the Disney way, falling in love with a speed that would alarm any parent.  Alas, their time together is interrupted by palace guards, who Jafar has sent to capture Aladdin.  The guards and Aladdin are surprised when the girl reveals herself to be Princess Jasmine (Linda Larkin), but the guards still take Aladdin away.  Jasmine was slumming it in the city because she felt trapped by her palace life; at almost sixteen years old, Jasmine was practically an old maid by princess standards and her father was pressuring her to choose a husband.  Tired of being pressured, Jasmine snuck out of the castle and met her true love, Aladdin, only to have him taken to the very palace she had escaped from.  It's like ray-eee-ayne on your wedding day.  Seriously, it is.

Back in the desert, at the Cave of Wonders, Jafar tells Aladdin that he can have all the treasures of the cave if he gives Jafar a particular lamp first.  Aladdin is all about it, but his stupid monkey had to touch something that caused the cave to self destruct.  Luckily, a magic carpet helps Aladdin and Abu survive, but they're trapped.  But they have this lamp...and it looks so dirty...I wonder if anyone will want to clean it off, maybe by rubbing it...?  Well, look at that!  Rubbing the lamp gives you a genie that may or may not have the attention span of a coke-fueled squirrel.  So, now Aladdin has the lamp, he has a genie and three wishes.  His new buddy, Genie, would really like wish number three to be freedom from the lamp and his years of servitude, but the first priority is to win Jasmine's heart.  Unfortunately, in the palace, Jafar has found a new way to gain power.  He realizes that he would become Sultan if he married Jasmine.  Who will win her hand in marriage, the underhanded Jafar, or the stupid but earnest Aladdin?

This is, in my mind, the quintessential late-period Disney animated movie.  The animation is in the classic style, but with some digital coloring (mainly for the lava and the magic carpet) that really pops out of the screen.  The hero has a good heart, but is immature and a little stupid.  The heroine is strong-willed and feminist to a point, but really just wants to get married at a young age.  The villain is completely unsympathetic and ugly.  The supporting cast is lovable and goofy.  The songs became pop hits and the movie serves as their music videos.  While these broad storytelling devices make for a fairly predictable plot, it's still an animated Disney movie, which means it's pretty darn adorable.

Like most Disney movies of the time, the cast is primarily made of professional voice actors.  Scott Weiger does a good job as Aladdin, but he (and everyone else) is overshadowed by Robin Williams' manic performance as the Genie.  Williams is what makes this movie work; without him, it's a cute, but mediocre cartoon.  It shouldn't come as a surprise (if you're familiar with his work) that most of Williams' dialogue was ad-libbed; he apparently was given topics and suggestions and allowed to ramble on from there.  What is surprising is the fact that an animation studio would create more work for themselves by waiting on the voice actor before they drew the scenes.  I guess that's the sort of happy inconvenience you're willing to endure to work with a mad genius.  Or Mork.

While Williams raises this movie to great heights, the scenes without him should have been better.  I have no problem with Aladdin's early scenes; they establish his character and the "Street Rat" song was cute.  But what was with the Hammer pants?  I don't particularly like Jasmine at the beginning; she complains about not having choices, like she's being forced into an arranged marriage or something.  She's not.  She keeps having suitors introduced and scares them off.  That's her freedom of choice at work.  It's not that she doesn't want to get married at age sixteen, or that she wants to know her husband before they wed; she just doesn't like the guys she's met.  It's faux-feminism, and if a cartoon is going to feature strong-willed female leads, I would prefer if they grow a (proverbial) pair of balls and stand up for themselves instead of just being moderately picky over men.  By the way, the "pressure" to marry was completely null and void, since her dad can change the laws as it suits him (as the ending proves).  Way to negate her character development, dad.  I liked Jafar as the villain, but would have preferred if his character was more visually interesting, instead of a skinny bald dude with some ugly clothes.  His parrot, Iago, is something else entirely.  I will ignore any questions about Gilbert Gottfried's talent (nonexistent) or the origin of his voice (the seventh circle of Hell) and instead ask why it was necessary to add airplane noises to a scene where he pantomimed crashing and burning.  Aside from being kind of insulting (What?  I can't connect a bird falling, with his wings spread to a crash?), it just doesn't make sense for airplane noises to be in a movie set in the ninth century.  Who is to blame for all these oddities?  Co-directors and co-screenwriters John Muster and Ron Clements; of course, they're also responsible for convincing Williams to sign up and then giving him room to work, so they're not all bad.

And what was with the narrator at the beginning?  Yes, I realize it's Robin Williams, but why is he in the movie at all?  When you set up a narrative bookend, it means that the main story is being told to the audience by a character (like in the original One Thousand and One Nights).  But...we never see the narrator again.  That's just sloppy, Disney.  Walt, somebody should get fired for that.  Right after you defrost.

I don't mind that sloppiness, though.  This is still a fun movie to watch, regardless of age.  The songs are mostly fun and even the pop ballad "A Whole New World" can be goofy with some audience participation.  Go on, whisper "don't you dare close your eyes" to the person next to you when watching this movie.  Hilarity ensues, I guarantee it.  It's a fun movie with some reasonably likable characters finding their way to a happy ending while passing on a few trite lessons for the kids.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Casino Royale (1967)

Sometimes, when I watch movies, there will be a sequence that makes me stop the picture, rewind and play it again.  This is done out disbelief, which can be either good or bad.  A sweet line of dialogue or an absolutely ridiculous stunt gets good disbelief.  Absolutely random or stupid things get the bad disbelief.  The entire running time for Casino Royale gets the bad kind.

While Casino Royale is based on Ian Fleming's first James Bond novel of the same name, don't confuse it with the 2006 version.  This is not an official Bond movie, but a British spoof of Bond and a bunch of other spy movies.  The film has five (!) directors, with each making their own vignette that is tied together at the very end.  John Huston, Val Guest, Ken Hughes, Joseph McGrath, and Robert Parrish all acted as director.  Each vignette has its own style and feel, and spoofs different things.  Likewise, the story is very segmented and disjointed.  It should be no surprise that the story is not the main focus for the film.  Instead, the emphasis seems to be on several small moments that, when they work, are extremely funny.

The story begins with an attempt to coax Sir James Bond (David Niven) out of retirement by his old boss, M (John Huston), a CIA guy (William Holden), someone from the KGB, and a French guy.  Predicting Bond's refusal, M arranged for the British government to bomb Bond's home and have it blamed on the evil international organization SMERSH.  The house crumbles,convincing Bond to come out of retirement, but sadly, M dies in the bombing.  Way to plan ahead, genius.  Bond's first act is to return M's body to his family in Scotland.  Sir James is a very prim and proper man who despises the seductive film versions that have had success in recent years; SMERSH seeks to discredit him by ruining his chaste image.  To do so, they replaced all of M's family with sexy SMERSH female agents, all intent on seducing Sir James.  Despite their best efforts, he resists their charms and wins over the operations leader (Deborah Kerr).  From there, Bond returns to England as the head of MI6.  He has his secretary, Miss Moneypenny (Barbara Bouchet) assign the code name "James Bond 007" to all remaining secret agents, in an attempt to confuse both SMERSH and the audience. 

I could go on in detail, but that's as clear as the plot ever gets, so it's probably not worth it.  There are only two other important story lines, in my opinion.  The first involves the recruitment of Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers) into a "James Bond 007" identity by fellow "James Bond," Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress).  Tremble-Bond's mission, like in the 2006 version, is to defeat the villainous Le Chiffe (Orson Welles) at cards.  The other story line involves Sir James Bond facing off against the head of SMERSH, who also happens to be his clumsy nephew, Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen).  Jimmy is very intimidated by his uncle, so he has trouble speaking in his presence, but if his evil plan succeeds, he won't have to.  All men over 4'6" will die, leaving Jimmy as the big man in the world for all women to adore.  The rest of the film has a smorgasbord of movie stars in bit parts and plot sequences that make little to no sense, leading up to a finale that involves cowboys, Indians, and Woody Allen hiccuping illustrated clouds of smoke and eventually exploding.

The supporting cast is very good, even if they only are given a few lines.  Aside from those already mentioned (who give the best performances), George Raft, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jacqueline Bisset, Anna Quale, Tracy Reed, Peter O'Toole, and Jack Gwillim all have bit parts.  The main acting, though, is not as good.  I realize that David Niven is as British as they come, so his humor is probably going to be very British (read: dry and peculiar, with a weakness for men wearing dresses).  This movie has a ton of slapstick in it, though, which doesn't match his style at all.  He seems uncomfortable throughout.  Peter Sellers is better, but at least half of his screen time is painfully awkward; the other half is pretty funny, though, which makes up for quite a bit.  It's Woody Allen that gets the most laughs with a great show of physical comedy near the end of the film.

The frustrating thing about this movie is that it should be far better than it is.  Seriously, who would have thought that a Peter Sellers/Woody Allen movie wouldn't be very funny?  The problems are myriad, but they boil down to a lack of vision.  Just because the movie is split into several sub-stories doesn't mean that the film as a whole has to suffer; Creepshow, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Grindhouse, and Kentucky Fried Movie are all choppy and mashed together, but their segments share a similar tone.  Casino Royale can't decide what type of comedy it is.  There's an entire sequence that appears to be a satire of contemporary German films, but then finishes with a Benny Hill-type ending.  Huh?  That's okay, Mr. Random Ending, Peter Sellers outdoes you by being physically missing from the final third of his scenes (he either quit or was fired, depending on who you ask).  David Niven's scenes work better as a whole, but they feel like they came out of a British sitcom.  They're cheap, cheeky, and pretty lame.  Basically, there are too many styles at work, and none compliment each other.  I will give director Val Guest credit for trying to tie these disparate strands of story together, but he never truly succeeds; he apparently realized this and turned down a "Supervising Director" credit after he saw the final cut of the film.  Disappointing movies don't come easily or quickly, it seems, and this mess takes over two hours to wind down.

Despite all the bad (two hours!), this movie is not without its charms.  As a James Bond aficionado, it's fun to see the series lampooned.  Personally, I thought David Niven's turn as a celibate Bond was clever, even if it wasn't very funny.  As I mentioned before, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen are entertaining, although Allen was criminally underused.  Many of the other scenes would have worked better if they were shorter, or if the vignettes were edited together as a united film.  But, for what it is, Casino Royale isn't terrible.  It's a product of its time, filled with clean-cut men, sexy women, surreal randomness, and painfully British humor.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Loud explosions, pyrotechnics, and bodies flying through the air come naturally to the modern war movie, even to the point that sheer devastation is no longer an effective selling point.  These movies need their own angle in order to avoid being seen as lame Saving Private Ryan copycats.  The hook for Windtalkers is the relatively unknown tale of the Navajo tribesmen that joined the army to act as code talkers in the Pacific side of World War II.  That actually sounds like an interesting premise; so many war movies go boom, while very few spend the time to think.  Sending and breaking codes sounds fairly cerebral, right?

Ooh...but John Woo directed this movie.  And he teamed up with Nicolas Cage as the lead actor and Christian Slater as an important supporting character.  So...the main character isn't Navajo, despite the hook for this movie being about the Navajo code talkers.  Great.  I will give credit where it's due; at least they didn't pull a Touch of Evil and give the lead actor an unconvincing ethnic makeover.  Well, if the story is not centering on a Navajo character, what is the story?

Joe Enders (Cage) begins the movie by holding his platoon's position on Guadalcanal at all costs, which means everyone died except him; he was injured, losing hearing in one ear, which also occasionally hurts his balance.  He recovers in a hospital, thanks in part to a nurse (Frances O'Connor) that is clearly attracted to him, despite the fact that he is played by Nic Cage in his "brooding" mode.  Enders gets a promotion and a new assignment as soon as he is well; his new assignment is to protect Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach), one of the new Navajo code talkers.  Ox Anderson (Slater) receives a similar assignment, protecting Charlie Whitehorse.  The Navajo language is an unwritten one and is almost incomprehensible, even within its own language family, which makes it especially hard for enemies to translate; these code talkers were bilingual Navajo that transmitted important messages without the risk of being understood by the enemy.  If the Japanese managed to ever understand the Navajo language, though, the American forces would be in trouble.  Therefore, both Enders and Anderson are told that they must protect the code at all costs; their code talkers must die before being taken captive by the enemy.

That's pretty much the story basics, but there's plenty of stock subplots.  You've got the predictable awkward assimilation into the unit by the Navajo.  They are seen as savages at first, but their impossibly calm demeanor and passivity earn the respect of their squadmates and their practices become more acceptable over time.  Of course, there's one guy (Noah Emmerich) in the squad that is racist; of course, his life is eventually saved by a Navajo.  There's the nervous soldier (Mark Ruffalo) and the guy with the cool weapon (Brian Van Holt).  There's the commanding officer (Peter Stormare) that needs things done, no matter the cost.  There's the inevitable split between the two parallel plot lines; you know either Anderson or Enders will eventually have to kill a Navajo to protect the code.  Who will it be, the nice Anderson, or the bad-ass Enders?

This movie should have been so much better.  Obviously, the big problem is the story.  Why make a movie about the Navajo code talkers, if they are not the main characters?  I'm not crazy about Adam Beach as an actor, but using him as the POV character would have been much better.  Instead, we have a tortured white soldier to identify with.  Even better, it's Nicolas Cage in full-on inappropriate overacting mode.  Ignoring the poor choice of main character, this movie still has major problems.  Are you telling me that the Marines put two extremely valuable code talkers in the same squad, facing immediate danger?  There were only about two hundred of these guys in the war.  I'm pretty sure they would have been better suited for sending messages from wherever the local base was.  This movie barely even uses them for sending or receiving codes; they spend most of their time giving uncoded coordinates for air support.  That's really stupid.  What, are the Japanese (who are shown listening to the radio transmissions) going to hear their own coordinates and assume that whatever is coming their way is good?  Maybe the Americans are bringing them ice cream!  Stupid.  And how many Japanese die in this movie?  This is the Pacific war, where they were dug in and well-protected.  The Americans just run up the side of mountains, and yet I'd estimate that the dead Japanese outnumbered the dead American soldiers by a 4:1 ratio.  That is so far beyond stupid, it's insulting to stupid.

The acting is what you would expect from a John Woo movie.  It's barely there.  Nicolas Cage gets to make funny faces when he's in battle and sulk when he's not.  I'm sorry to say that he actually showed the most range in this movie.  Christian Slater, Peter Stormare, Mark Ruffalo, and Brian Van Holt were all one-dimensional caricatures of 1940s soldiers.  Noah Emmerich got to be the racist jerk that sees the error in his ways (well, he learns to accept one Navajo, anyway), but the character is so boring and predictable that you still don't care.  Adam Beach was a little better, but his character had no emotional arc, so there was nothing for him to do in this role.  Whose fault is all this?  Well, you can blame the writers, John Rice and Joe Batteer, because this story sucks, but I'm going to blame John Woo.  As the director and a producer on the film, he had ample opportunity to realize how crappy this script was and have it fixed.  He didn't, so the responsibility for this wreck belongs to him.

This movie doesn't even have the normal perks of a John Woo movie.  The action isn't good.  Woo is best known for his slow-motion, stylized action sequences, where impossible things happen and then explode.  Here, he tries to channel the destructive spirit of the Pacific war and fails.  The big battle scenes try to have a documentary feel to them (a la Saving Private Ryan), but the special effects in these scenes are far worse than any war movie released in 2002 should be.  Some of the smaller-scale battle sequences are fine, but it's not enough to make this movie watchable.

Let's see...bad story, bad acting, and bad action.  Yep.  This is a bad movie.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Catch 22

Mike Nichols is a gifted director with a flare for filming great dialogue, as best seen in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Closer.  Joseph Heller's Catch-22 is a novel that is brimming with witty dialogue, absurd logic, and has a complex tangle of plot threads.  If anyone could do justice to it on the big screen, Mike Nichols was the man.  At least, that would make sense.  But, as the titular catch in the book indicates, following logic doesn't necessarily get the results you want.

Catch-22 is the story of Yossarian (Alan Arkin), a bombardier in the US Air Force during World War II.  Yossarian comes to the conclusion that he does not want to be in the Air Force any more.  Why?  Because, when he flies his missions over Italy, people keep trying to kill him and eventually will succeed.  His commanding officer, Col. Cathcart (Martin Balsam), keeps raising the required number of flight missions for his men, eventually more than tripling the average number of flights the Air Force requires before rotating experienced pilots out for rest.  The only way out of the Air Force, then, is to die or be declared insane.  Unfortunately, the unit doctor can't help because the Air Force has established rules for determining sanity.  Since only a crazy person would want to keep flying dangerous missions, wanting to get out of the Air Force is sane, but you can't leave the Air Force unless you're insane, but if you're insane you will want to stay in the Air Force and keep flying dangerous missions, etc.  The official description for that circular logic is Catch-22.  The unspoken question is how anyone can escape that logic.

There's more to the movie than that, of course.  Military leaders are shown to be inept, corrupt, and stupid.  Bob Newhart plays Major Major Major Major, who doesn't know what to do as a Major, so he hides and avoids his duties at all times; when he's in the office, no one can see him --- they can only see him when he has left the office.  That's his catch.  Col. Cathcart not only keeps his pilots in the flight rotation far too long, but he and Major Danby (Richard Benjamin) are involved in selling military goods for profit.  Orson Welles makes a brief appearance as General Dreedle, who doesn't understand why he cannot have a subordinate shot for annoying him.

Yossarian's fellow soldiers are similarly bizarre.  Charles Grodin plays a very mild man who eventually fails to see the difference between killing in combat and murder, and isn't distressed by either.  Art Garfunkel embodies the stereotypical movie image of an American soldier: brave, honest, faithful, and very naive.  Martin Sheen's character seems pretty realistic, but the irrationality of war begins to affect him.  Jon Voight plays Milo, who works in the mess hall.  From there, Milo builds up a trading empire, swapping equipment (like parachutes) for better food or for art or money or whatever.  Milo is so effective that he and his superiors, Danby and Cathcart, end up allowing the Italians to bomb their base to make a profit.  All the while, Yossarian becomes more and more neurotic.  He tries to crazy his way out of the Air Force by walking around nude.  He tries to do do it by insulting his officers.  Nothing ever works, though.  In fact, the only man crazier than Yossarian is his buddy, Captain Orr, who has such a talent for getting shot down and splash landing in the ocean, that he claims to just be practicing.

That kind of sums up my feelings for this movie.  There's a lot going on, but nothing really works.  I liked a lot of the performances, especially Charles Grodin and Anthony Perkins (who plays a chaplain), but the movie never really gels.  The glaring problem is with the story.  I haven't read Heller's novel in years, so I'm not upset that they chose to significantly change the story (entire plot threads were dropped, characters swapped speeches, etc.).  I am upset that they chose to change the story so poorly.  Buck Henry (who also plays Lt. Col. Korn) is a talented writer, the creator of Get Smart and the screenwriter for The Graduate.  On paper, he seems like a good choice to simplify Heller's complex story, but the result is a disjointed mess.  The movie ends up breaking into three distinct parts.  The first part is goofy and randomly funny.  I liked that part.  The second part is serious and overwrought.  The third part is an out of left field ending.  I guess that could also be the story arc for The Graduate, too, but it's more disturbing here.  My problem is with the second arc.  I get it.  War is hell.  What I don't get is why it became so hellish after being absurd for the first 45 minutes of the movie.  It would have been much more effective if the crazy decisions made by characters in the first third of the movie directly lead to the serious events; that would have allowed us to see the two parts as connected and contrasting.  Instead, it seems fairly abrupt and random.

Mike Nichols shoulders a lot of the blame for the feel of this movie.  The sound is intentionally obscured at times, with characters having witty conversations while a jet engine obscures what they are saying.  That's just annoying, unless there's a punchline or some symbolism that is being hammered home.  There doesn't seem to be.  I liked Alan Arkin's performance, but I disagreed with the direction; if the whole point of the movie is that Yossarian is the sane guy, he should not act increasingly neurotic.  That's a pretty basic failure on both Nichols' and Arkin's part.  Both the book and the movie jump around in time, but the book does so in a cyclical fashion, elaborating on scenes with different perspectives.  Here, only one particularly sad scene gets replayed, but it happens over and over again.  Nichols' golden touch for dialogue remains strong as ever, with every character having several funny lines with impeccable timing, but that's only important in the funny first third of the film.  After that, we are left with some pretty soul-sucking stuff, and it doesn't have the impact that I'm sure Nichols intended.

This should have been a great movie.  It has the director, the screenwriter, the source material, and the actors needed to make a classic.  What resulted was far less than the sum of its parts.  It's not terrible, but it should be great.  The repetitious scene is a great illustration for what is wrong with the movie.  Perspective is key to this story, right?  What is logical to one person is illogical to the next.  Therefore, it would be both interesting and potentially funny to see the same scene from different characters' viewpoints.  Instead of using this cinematic tool to enlighten and amuse, though, Nichols chooses to club the audience with the notion of war being bad.  This movie is witty and fast-paced, but it's not enough.  Maybe Nichols and Henry should have taken a more literal inspiration from the source material and had the script follow a circular path.  I absolutely believe that Catch-22 can be made into a great film, but this definitely isn't it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

30 Days of Night

I've never been  a huge fan of vampire movies; the Anne Rice vamps are too mopey, the Twilight ones are too teen-friendly.  Even when Hollywood went back to basics with Bram Stoker's Dracula and got the incredible Gary Oldman to play the title role, it was underwhelming and bizarrely oversexed.  Even the Blade movies, which succeed as action flicks, fail by making vampires stupid rave kids.  Don't even get me started on the Underworld trilogy.  The vampire, as a cinema monster, has lost its effect.  It is no longer the stuff of horror, but a metaphor for undying love.

And that's a steaming pile of crap.  Vampires should be scary.  They drink blood to live, ferchrissakes!  They are unnatural abominations that take joy in the pain they cause.  In 30 Days of Night, Hollywood finally got the vampire right.

Based on the comic book miniseries of the same name, this story takes place in Barrow, Alaska.  Barrow is so close to the Arctic Circle that the town has one month out of the year where the sun does not rise at all.  Hence the movie title.  Not surprisingly, many of the townsfolk leave for the month, because missing daylight can make people go a little crazy sometimes.  In fact, the town does not sell alcohol during that month to keep the troubles to a minimum.  A relative few remain behind, including the sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett), the surly town snowplow driver, Beau (Mark Boone Junior), and assorted townsfolk.  This year, Eben's estranged wife, Stella (Melissa George), also happens to get stuck in town after the annual exodus; a storm is heading toward Barrow, and she manages to wreck her car on the way to the last flight out of the area.  She's not the only visitor, either.  A strange, hoarse, dirty man (Ben Foster) appears on the first night, coincidentally the same night when all the town's cell phones have been stolen and burned,  and all the town's dogs have been killed.  This stranger is soon taken into custody by Eben and Stella for acting crazy in the town diner, but he just laughs at them, claiming that death is coming to Barrow.  The power goes out, so Eben and Stella investigate, only to find that the telecommunications/power center for the town has been sabotaged and the operator killed.

So far, the vampires haven't really been seen yet.  They are fast blurs in the shadows, and they are messy; you can tell where they have been because there's usually a headless corpse and a circle of blood-stained snow.  Then they attack, and you get your first look at them.  They speak a guttural foreign language, possibly an ancient one, so their dialogue has subtitles.  Their eyes are wide and entirely black.  They are pale, yes, but they are monstrous; their fingernails are claw-like, their noses elongated, and their teeth are all sharp.  These aren't the type of vampires that feed on you by leaving two fang marks behind, they tear out your whole throat.  There is no mistaking that these are vampires, and they have come to kill the residents of Barrow. 

Predictably, the human population in Barrow takes a swift nose dive after the vampires move in.  While there are two or three visually distinctive vamps, there is a clear leader, played by Danny Huston, that is commanding the rest.  Under his leadership, all communications have been lost, and all transportation has been disabled.  Still, a few survivors remain, including Eben and Stella.  They manage to sneak into a house that has a hidden attic, where they wait until they come up with a plan: the people of Barrow deliberately live there, so they know the cold like no others, and they can use that to their advantage and fight back.

As far as the acting goes, it's decent, with a couple of particularly awesome performances.  I found it noteworthy that I didn't dislike Josh Hartnett for a change.  Melissa George is okay, but not extraordinary.  This is probably the most heroic role I have seen Mark Boone Junior play; he usually is cast as a corrupt cop or a sleazeball.  Ben Foster once again takes a bit part and makes it memorable; you can argue that he overacts, but I love seeing him take boring roles and making them distinct characters.  Most of the vampires do little in the acting department, save tilt their heads and hiss.  Danny Huston, though, is terrifying.  He's basically the only vampire that speaks, and his makeup, combined with his inhuman mannerisms and his croaking voice, combine to make him the best vampire I can remember. 

I really liked the creative choices that director David Slade made with this film.  The first draft of the script was written by the comic's writer, Steve Niles; Slade made the choice to have his screenwriter from Hard Candy, Brian Nelson, do the rewrite.  Basically, they chose to make the script less over-the-top and more scary, and yet still remain basically true to the comic.  That is so smart, I wish they did this with all comic book movies: have a comic guy write the script that captures the feeling of the source comic books and have a screenwriter make changes so it works better on film.  It's a very simple concept that comic movies rarely follow.  And the vampire language?  That was totally a Slade/Nelson idea.  Visually, the film is surprisingly detail-oriented.  Beards grow with appropriate speed, chapped lips get worse over time, and the survivors look hungrier and dirtier as the film progresses.  The direction isn't flawless; the acting is only decent and the scenes where the survivors hide should have been claustrophobic.  Luckily, the sheer scariness of the vampires makes up for those not-quite-awesome attributes.

From a writing perspective, the story stays pretty true to the comic book.  There are some differences, but nothing major.  In fact, some of the changes are for the better, like the invention of the vampire language.  Still, the writing isn't great.  The plot is kind of predictable and there are some scenes that you just know will happen eventually, if you bother to think about it.  For instance, there has to be a scene where we get to see someone start to transform from human to vampire.  It's obvious, really, but the pace was brisk enough to keep me immersed in the moment, so I didn't think ahead.  That sort of pacing should be common in movies, but too often is overlooked, so I am grateful for its presence in this film.

The more I think about 30 Days of Night, the less impressed I am with it. I've seen it three or four times, and this happens every time I analyze it. It's not a bad movie, by any means. It just has a lot of things that aren't objectively great about it. But then I watch it again, and its awesomeness is renewed for me. There is something in this movie (probably scary vampires, if I had to guess) that satisfies me in a very basic way, and it is immune to any cliches or mediocre performances this film may contain. The important thing is that it has vampires, and they do not suck. And that makes me smile.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Maximum Overdrive

While orbiting around the Sun, minding its own business, the Earth passes through the tail of a comet.  I think we all know what happens next: inanimate objects come to life with homicidal tendencies.  Yes, lawnmowers, electric knives, power cords, and especially vehicles all take on a life of their own and begin to kill humans.  Like many great movies, this one takes a global disaster and personalizes it.  The film focuses on a group of people trapped by circling semi trucks at a North Carolina truck stop.  Can they escape without becoming road kill?

That is the basic story of Maximum Overdrive, directed by author Stephen King and based on his short story, Trucks.  If you think this movie sounds bad, trust that instinct.  It's pretty terrible.  In fact, this is the only directorial effort from Stephen King; he claims to have been coked out of his mind while making it, which might explain a few things.  While certainly not an Oscar contender, this is a surprising change of pace from most adaptations of King's work.  For one, it sounds stupid.  And it is.  Want proof?  AC/DC made the soundtrack.  But most of King's story premises are pretty dumb, when you think about them; he just plays up the suspense and seriousness to make them seem less ridiculous (Christine, Cujo, and The Running Man are all good examples of this).  This movie, though, is aware of how stupid it is and plays up its humor and campiness.  Is that a good choice?  Maybe not, but it could have been much worse.

Undoubtedly, this movie's biggest strength is Emilio Estevez as the hero, Bill.  Bill is an ex-convict (or ex-juvie kid or's really not important) that works as a cook for Bubba (Pat Hingle).  Estevez doesn't have much to work with, but he manages to not sound like a complete idiot when he someone says things like "Jesus is coming, and he's pissed!"  Despite quality lines like that, Estevez is clearly the most charismatic actor in the movie, which serves as a reminder that he was actually half-decent in the 80s.

The movie's story isn't very good (obviously), but it has a lot of kinda goofy stuff in it.  The first line of the movie is delivered by Stephen King himself: "Honeybun, this [ATM] machine just called me an asshole!"  Not terribly clever, but it sets the tone for the movie pretty well.  Bubba is a shady guy, forcing his staff of ex-cons to work unpaid hours by threatening to report violations to their parole officers.  Not surprisingly (well, not in this movie, anyway), Bubba illegally sells guns.  Not just any guns, but uzis, grenades, rocket launchers and the like.  As you might imagine, that turns out to be pretty convenient when fighting semis.  Also interesting is the newly married couple (including Yeardley Smith of The Simpsons, whose voice is grating at best here), who manage to have the only car in the world that is not trying to kill its owners.  Instead, they drive to the truck stop for safety; being surrounded by trucks is apparently better than just pulling over on the highway and hiding in the woods.  The best part of this movie is the clincher at the end.  SPOILER: It turns out that all this was caused by aliens, as the first stage in a massive invasion.  AND EMILIO ESTEVEZ FIGURED THAT OUT ON HIS OWN.  Of course!  Why didn't I think of that?  Luckily, the end credits tell us that Soviet lasers take care of the threat for us.  So, I guess this is an 80s movie that makes the USSR heroes.  How about that?

Is this movie good?  Not even close.  It does, however, embrace its own stupidity with enthusiasm.  Even common sense stuff, like "don't give the killer semis gasoline when they run out" is ignored and justified.  You need stupidity of the boldest kind to even think of that, but bold stupidity is what this movie has in spades.  It's not quite fun enough to be awesomely bad (and therefore, fun to watch), but it's close.  I don't blame those that enjoy this movie.  I just think they need to get out more.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Hotel Rwanda

I borrowed this DVD from a friend when the movie first came out, intent on watching Don Cheadle's acclaimed performance.  I never got around to it.  I always looked at the film as inevitably depressing, and I didn't know much about the Rwandan genocide of 1994, and I always feel sketchy if I let a movie educate me on world events.  In the intervening years, I've educated myself to a point where, when I saw the movie available On Demand through my cable, I finally felt I was ready to watch it.

The movie takes place during the genocide, but thankfully is not a document of the killings.  Instead, it tells the tale of Paul (Don Cheadle), a manager for the finest hotel around.  Paul is very talented at using words to get what he wants; when that fails, bribery usually does the trick.  This serves him well as manager, allowing him to get his hands on high end cigars, liquor, and more.  These treats are not for him, but to gain favor with local politicians, international military leaders, and anyone else.  It's a good thing he is good at his job, because ethnic tensions in Rwanda reach their boiling point, with paramilitary groups of the Hutu ethnic majority gathering and executing any of the Tutsi minority they can find.  Paul is Hutu, but his wife (Sophie Okonedo) is Tutsi.  Seeing his neighborhood quickly becoming a war zone, Paul manages to sneak and bribe his family's way into the hotel.  There, he tries to keep things business-as-usual.  It doesn't really work.  First of all, a war was going on, just outside the hotel.  Secondly, it's the old any-port-in-a-storm rule.  The hotel quickly acts as a shelter for overflow from the United Nations camps, the Red Cross, and for war orphans.  Why don't the Hutu militias just attack the hotel?  Good question.  The answer seems to be because Paul maintains the image of a professional European hotel; it feels like another country, or at least an embassy.  That means that, if the locals attack, there could possibly be some retaliation from the Western world.  Seeing the importance of maintaining this image, Paul must keep the hotel running for appearances' sake, care for the refugees, and act as the support for his own family.  For a while, Paul has his hopes set on the United Nations sending in a peacekeeping force to stop the massacre, but that never happens.  The burden for saving the 1200+ refugees in his hotel ultimately falls on Paul's shoulders.

This is an important movie to watch.  Hearing the abstract numbers (about 800,000 dead in an area about the size of a New England state) doesn't really sink in.  Seeing people being shot in the streets is more effective.  Showing trucks drive over miles of road, clogged with dead bodies is better still.  This movie doesn't set out to over-horrify you, which is good.  This is an exhausting viewing experience, and I say that in the best way possible; at the time of this genocide, Americans were either upset over Kurt Cobain's suicide, or fascinated by OJ Simpson's car chase in a white Ford Bronco.  Sure, those are obviously important things, but I have no recollection of Rwanda from school or news at that time, and that embarrasses me.  Still, this could have easily become a testament to the horrific things humans do to each other, but director and co-writer Terry George wisely chose to avoid making this movie an unwatchable guilt trip.  Instead, we have these terrible things framing a true story of heroic humanitarianism.

I was surprised that this movie did not show off the director or cinematographer's skills more.  Usually, when directors make an "important" movie, they make sure to show their skills or make things a little artsy.  This movie is shot in a straightforward fashion, with no artistic embellishments.

The film clearly focuses on Cheadle's character, but there are several recognizable actors with supporting roles.  Nick Nolte plays a Canadian UN military forces member, and he delivers the best white-versus-black speech I have heard in a long while.  Joaquin Phoenix is a news cameraman that asks many questions about the Hutu and the Tutsi for the benefits of the viewers; since his character is essentially there for exposition, his role is less impressive.  Jean Reno makes a brief, uncredited cameo just for recognition purposes.  Cara Seymour is the Red Cross worker that helps Paul save refugees; she's not in the movie much, but I thought she did a pretty good job.  Sophie Okonedo plays Paul's wife, and it is a demanding performance; she basically spends the whole movie terrified.

As I mentioned earlier, though, the real acting burden belongs to Don Cheadle.  It's rare to see a movie about death and destruction where the hero is not a man of action.  There are several points where Cheadle's character reaches a breaking point, and you watch him crumble in private, only to put himself back together in front of others.  It's fairly common for a low-key drama to have a nuanced grieving performance given by the lead actor or actress; this movie is not low-key, but Cheadle is still able to channel that same sort of private, subtle performance here.  There are two great scenes in particular that show this off.  The first is when he tells his wife to kill herself and their kids if the hotel is invaded; this could have easily been overacted, but his control here made his loss of control later all the more effective.  The second scene is just Cheadle cleaning himself up after unwittingly stumbling upon thousands of fresh corpses.  Cheadle has always been pretty good, but this role really showed what he is capable of.

Despite Cheadle's performance, this isn't a movie I will ever watch over and over again.  That's probably not the point of this movie, I get that, but it should be a little better.  Joaquin Phoenix's character is a little too guilt-ridden and a little too clueless to not be offensive.  I understand that Americans don't know what Hutus and Tutsis are; I think a short prologue would have worked better than having a stupid American make obvious comments about how he can't tell the difference between the two groups (there's a racist joke there, but I'm passing it by).  I think it's funny that Nick Nolte's character expressed his guilt more creatively and accurately (basically, the West sees Africa as a crap pile) as a Canadian than Phoenix's American could.  I also would have enjoyed a little more time spent adding symbolism and the like to make this a little more technically interesting.  I'm not saying the movie needed a Schindler's List red jacket, but a few little touches would have been nice.  Other than that, though, this is an interesting subject with one excellent performance.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Bad News Bears

When I sat down recently to watch The Bad News Bears for the first time, I thought I knew what I was in for.  The premise is pretty familiar by now.  A somewhat unwilling coach, Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau), is pegged to manage a little league team.  He takes the job from a city council member because he needs money and because baseball is all he's ever been good at.  Buttermaker is a washed up minor league pitcher that now spends his time drinking beer and bourbon...sometimes in the same beer can.  The team is wretched beyond belief.  Not only do they have the smallest and weakest kids in the league, but they also have the only Mexican or black kids, too.  Gasp.  I would like to point out that it's nice to see ethnic kids not being stereotyped as awesome athletes, but the movie's not trying to be progressive.  Not surprisingly, the team (The Bears) lose their first few games horribly.  The team can't  do anything right and they call Buttermaker out for not caring.  Fair enough.

That gets him to care a little and he recruits a ringer, the daughter of an ex-girlfriend.  "Aww, she's a girl!"  Yes, and she's the team's best player.  Amanda (Tatum O'Neal) is a great pitcher, and the team becomes competitive quickly.  But, like all misfit teams, they need one more wild card to win.  Enter Kelly (Jackie Earle Haley), the local bad boy that also just happens to be the most gifted natural player around.  He's too naughty to play for any of the rich kids' teams, so he just hangs out and makes fun of them until Amanda convinces him to join The Bears.  From there, the team gets all the way to the championship, but they soon ask themselves the question: do they want to have fun, or do they want to win?

At the time, this movie was most notable for its innovative use of child profanity.  In one of the more memorable quotes, the team loudmouth characterizes his teammates as "a bunch of Jews, spics, niggers, pansies, and a booger-eating moron."  While that would be kind of offensive today, I imagine that it was more shocking 30+ years ago.  Even those that are turned off by the racist terms and the swearing should be able to see that they were used for comedic purposes.  I don't know if that makes it better, but at least it makes them intentionally funny.

The performances are alright, I guess, for a movie filled with child actors.  Most of the cast does only one thing at a time, so they aren't too bad.  I guess director Michael Ritchie knew enough about children to keep them doing what they are good at.  "You're nerdy?  Let's get you some glasses and you can act nervous.  You're a smart ass?  Let's get you some dialogue, etc., etc."  Unsurprisingly, Tatum O'Neal (who won her Oscar three years before) is very good; it is fun watching her trying to out-tough or out-indifferent Matthau, and she does a good job in her romantic scenes with Haley.  Jackie Earle Haley was a bit of surprise for me; I thought he was really good here, but his career didn't really take off for another thirty years.  Walter Matthau, of course, is the best part of this movie.  He's always entertaining, but especially so when he's playing a prickly character.  Here, he gets to play an alcoholic for laughs and still ends up on moral high ground.

There are a lot of parts in this movie that wouldn't be included nowadays.  I haven't seen the remake, but I'm pretty sure the scene where Buttermakerdrives a car full of kids around town (without seat belts) while obviously hammered isn't included.  The swearing isn't too bad really (and it reminds me of elementary school), but it's pretty rare to see a family movie have kids swearing, even for laughs.  Another thing that is commonplace in real life and present in this film, but is rare in movies: adults obviously lying to children and getting away with it.  That's probably not a bad thing, but I'm just saying...More importantly, though, this movie is not overly saccharine, something that just doesn't happen in modern movies for kids.

The premise of this film is pretty commonplace by now, but it was pretty fresh in 1976.  What I liked about this movie, more than any of its successors and sequels, is its honesty.  You can predict how most sports movies end within the first ten minutes you watch them.  This story doesn't just follow the team's narrative, but the player's emotional arcs as well.  This isn't a particularly deep movie, but it has a message and it has fun getting it across.