Thursday, September 30, 2010

Slaughter's Big Rip-Off

It's time again to play my favorite 1970s movie game, "Is it Blaxploitation?"  I had never heard of Slaughter's Big Rip-Off before I watched it, so it took me a while to answer that question.  The title sequence featured several freeze frames of inconsequential importance; that's not great filmmaking, but not necessarily Blaxploitation.  The soundtrack features funky beats and horns, courtesy of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown; that's awesome and the funk element does lend itself to "urban" 70s, looking good.  Pimps and hos are featured prominently, supplying plot points and gratuitous nudity; now we're getting into Blaxploitation country!  The main character is a bad-ass black man who takes no guff from any man and the villains are primarily rich white men; DING DING DING!!!  We have a winnah!  Blaxploitation it is!

The movie begins with Slaughter (football legend Jim Brown) at a picnic, having a good time with some friends and (presumably) family.  The good times end when a propeller plane fires a machine gun at the picnic, killing several innocent people.  The plane leaves unscathed, but Slaughter knows that they were gunning for him.  How does he know?  Maybe it's a leftover plot thread from the previous entry in this series, Slaughter.  Or maybe Slaughter just knows stuff because he's Jim Effin' Brown.  Don't worry your pretty little head; it's never explained.  Slaughter obviously has to take the law into his own hands, so he packs his pistol and starts busting heads, looking for an answer.  He gets some grief from a straight-arrow cop (played by Brock Peters), but they eventually come to an understanding; if Slaughter helps the cop get a secret list of policemen taking bribes, then Slaughter can do things his way, unhindered.  And by "unhindered," I of course mean "by shooting people in the face."

Meanwhile, we meet the evil mastermind behind Slaughter's problems.  When I saw his name pop up in the credits, I assumed that there must be another person with his name, but no, Ed McMahon is the villain of this film.  Sadly, he does not laugh or tell anyone they are correct, sir.  He hired a guy to kill Slaughter, and was surprised when the airplane-based hit didn't work.  McMahon had the assassin killed by another killer; he died by inner tube.  There are other minor villains, too.  Since Slaughter is a stand-up dude, he obviously has no respect for pimps and drug dealers.  But the pimp in this movie (Dick Anthony Williams) was pretty awesome; he gave his hos a lecture that consists of him asking over and over again "Do you bitches unnerstaaan?"  And his fashion sense cannot be understated. 

Obviously, this is a dumb movie with little to no plot, beyond the understanding that Slaughter kicks major ass.  Gordon Douglas' directing isn't terrible, but Jim Brown is no Oscar winner; still, he's a more viable double threat than his fellow actor/athletes Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal.  Brown's emotional range is about as wide as his shoulders --- not bad for shoulders, but still lacking for drama.  Still, this isn't a movie you watch to appreciate the craftsmanship.  This is a low-level action movie that keeps the action coming.  It's funny to hear Ed McMahon talking tough, and there are a lot of lines that probably sounded awesome at the time, but are now firmly set in the realm of awesomely bad.  As far as Blaxploitation goes, this is actually a pretty solid movie.  It's not boring, certainly, and Brown is certainly credible as the guy you don't want to mess with.  Maybe that's why the plot is practically nonexistent; the writer didn't want to mess with Brown, so they filmed without a story.  Again, that's not a huge problem for a movie like this.  If the lines were a touch funnier or Slaughter did one or two more ridiculous things, I would give the film major props.  It is entirely possible that this is a film that can grow on you with multiple viewings (there were a lot of amusing lines), but for now I'll say it's only decent.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Odd Couple

Films adapted from plays can have difficulties during the creative process.  Unlike adaptations of literature, comic books, comic strips, or legends, plays usually do not suffer from an oversimplification or over-condensation of material; plays typically run about as long as feature films do.  You can usually spot a former play by the sharp dialogue, the absence of complicated action sequences, and the large number of scenes that feature only one or two characters.  Some of my favorite films have been adapted from plays (I love me some Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), but I recognize that some things that work on the stage do not work on film.  For instance, on stage, it is necessary to make broad gestures and speak loudly so the audience can hear and see what is happening; with the intimacy of movie cameras, films can be much more intimate and subtle.  Sometimes, the screenplays for these adaptations take that subtlety into account.  Sometimes, they don't.

The Odd Couple begins with Felix Ungar (Jack Lemmon) renting a room at a sleazy hotel.  He planned to commit suicide by jumping out of his hotel room window because his wife has left him.  It is not Felix's day, though; his window was jammed and he threw his back out, trying to open it.  He even failed to drink the pain away afterward, hurting his neck when downing a shot of liquor.  Felix then hobbled toward a bridge to contemplate suicide again.  I would like to take the time to point out that this is, in fact, a comedy (ranking #17 in AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs list) that opens with physical humor and the foibles of a suicidal person.  I'm not judging (yet), but I thought I'd throw that idea out there.

Meanwhile, Felix is missed by his buddies at their weekly poker game.  Felix is never late, so the group (including classic character actors John Fiedler and Herb Edelman) is mildly bewildered by his tardiness.  That bewilderment turns to pronounced concern when the host, Oscar  Madison (Walter Matthau), gets a call from his ex-wife, telling him the news of the Ungar's breakup.  Oscar and the boys immediately worry that Felix will attempt suicide; I guess his friends knew him well.  Before anyone can take action, Felix arrives at Oscar's for the poker game.  He eventually breaks down and tells them his troubles, and Oscar decides to offer Felix a room in his eight bedroom (***mouth agape***) New York City apartment (***jaw now on the floor, completely detached from face***) to stay in until he can overcome his suicidal tendencies.  You would think that two poker buddies would get along just fine in an apartment that size; even if somebody's annoying, you can just take up residence in the Northern wing.  Apparently, though, there is a small hitch.  Oscar is a slovenly person, while Felix is an obsessively tidy person.  What kind of crazy hijinks will these kids get into?  Well, if you're not guffawing at the mere thought of such an unlikely pair living together...well, tough --- that's where all of the humor in this movie stems from.

The Odd Couple is a notable comedy or many reasons.  It was nominated for two Oscars (one for writing, the other for editing), which is extremely rare for comedies.  It helps that the screenplay was written by Neil Simon, who wrote the Tony Award-winning play.  Walter Matthau starred in the play as well as the movie; this was his first comedic role in a film.  This was also the first collaboration between Matthau and Jack Lemmon, one of the most famous pairs in film history.  Even without the AFI ranking, this is generally regarded as a comedy classic.

I just wish I liked it more.  I appreciate a lot of the things this film does well, though.  The acting is well-suited for the script.  Matthau is very entertaining and Lemmon plays his part well; together, their banter is a great example of timing and chemistry.  The supporting cast is universally solid or better; I particularly liked Monica Evans and Carole Shelley as the feather-brained Pigeon sisters.  The direction must be pretty good from habitual stage director George Saks; if it wasn't good, then I doubt that Lemmon and Matthau would have worked so well together.

If all that is good, what could I possibly have a problem with?  I'm not sure.  I think it's the script.  I'm pretty familiar with Neil Simon's plays; he writes bickering friends like no other playwright, so this is obviously one of his seminal works.  I just don't like a lot of what he wrote here.  I find Felix's character utterly obnoxious.  I understand that is the point, but this isn't like other movies with buffoonish characters --- I have an active dislike for Felix Ungar.  I think Lemmon played the part perfectly for the way it is written, but his performance comes across as less subtle than a Jerry Lewis comedy and hammier than Christmas dinner.  For the first two-thirds of the movie, I not only completely sympathized with Oscar's character, but I was rooting for another suicide attempt.  I guess my problem is that the script is so one-sided.  You're rooting for Oscar, despite all the good things that Felix does because Felix's character is really, really annoying.  If that was evened out, so that Oscar's slovenly ways could be shown as truly disgusting instead of just messy, I think Felix's character would seem like less of a cartoon character.

Part of my problem might be overexposure.  While this is the first time I watched this film, it has spawned a sequel, two television shows, one animated show, and a female version of the play, all while the original play has been produced and reproduced several times over.  The idea of the tidy Felix and Oscar the slob has become omnipresent in our culture to the point that if you say that a pair is an "odd couple," thoughts immediately jump to these characters.  Then again, maybe I didn't really like this movie because my thoughts on humor are a little odd.

I mentioned that the first two-thirds of the movie were painful for me to watch; I have to admit that I enjoyed the last third.  Starting from approximately the confrontation in Oscar's bedroom (the "F.U." line is fantastic), I really got into the movie.  I liked when the two men were ripping into each other.  I liked the scene with the Pigeon sisters even more, because it highlighted the differences between the two men much better than the obvious gags and overacting from earlier in the film did.  This movie even manages to have a touching ending, which is beyond rare in comedies.  So, despite digging itself into a deep hole, The Odd Couple came back and I actually enjoyed the last bit very much.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Death Wish II

While there are notable exceptions (Terminator 2 and The Color of Money come to mind), it is usually a bad sign when a sequel to a successful movie is made many years after the original.  In case you missed the surprisingly good Death Wish, here's a recap: Paul Kersey's wife and daughter were raped and his wife murdered by some home invading street thugs, led by Jeff Goldblum.  With no leads, the police case looks thin and Kersey needs an outlet for his rage, which he finds by murdering random street thugs.  Now, the tag line for this movie seems to stray a bit from this idea: "When murder and rape invade your home, and the cops can't stop it...This man will.  His way."  That almost makes Kersey seem like a killer-for-hire, out to offer his services to the many crime victims that the police are unable to help (or help but are unable to help satisfactorily).  That seems like a pretty big thematic leap from the original film, but I'll give this the benefit of the doubt, since the original was pretty good and both Charles Bronson and director Michael Winner return to the series.

It has been eight years since the events of Death Wish, and Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) seems to have moved past the death of his wife in that film.  He now has a young girlfriend (his real-life wife Jill Ireland) and they decide to take Kersey's daughter, Carol (Robin Sherwood), out for a walk in the park; Carol has begun to speak again, after years of near-catatonia following the rape and the presumed divorce from her husband (at least, he's not mentioned in this movie at all).  The park is filled with elderly people, mothers with their children, and women hanging out with their female friends.  This makes Kersey the only logical target for a street gang to pickpocket.  Street gangs (and, really, all bad dudes) love a challenge, you know.  Kersey realizes what has happened and the gang scatters; Kersey picks one and chases his into an alley, beats him up, but doesn't find his wallet.  Kersey returns to his daughter and girlfriend and continues their day out.  The street gang's natural response to such a challenge is to use Kersey's ID to locate his home and break in.  They take turns raping Kersey's maid until he comes home with his daughter.  Then, Kersey is knocked unconscious, his maid is murdered, and Carol is kidnapped.  The gang later takes Carol to an abandoned warehouse, where she is raped until she escapes long enough to jump out a window and impale herself on a fence.  I know what you're thinking...enough comedy, where's the action?  Well, the police try to help Kersey, but he lies to them, claiming that he cannot identify his attackers.  That is when he begins to stalk the streets at night, armed, looking for the men who ruined his life...again.  He's pretty good at finding them, too, since the movie is only 88 minutes long.  The question remains, though...will Kessler's love of murdering low-rent criminals get in the way of his love of his girlfriend?  Yes, yes it will.

As you can probably guess from all the rape and death, Death Wish II is a great date movie, the type that makes you look meaningfully in your lover's eyes and say, "I would murder so many people for you, if you only let me."  If that line doesn't work for you on Valentine's Day, then you'll never seal the deal.

On that note, it's probably for the best that we shift gears and talk about the casting and direction.  This is a Charles Bronson vehicle, so you can be assured that there will be at least one virtuoso performance here, and by "virtuoso performance," I of course mean "Easter Island statue impression."  The rest of the sympathetic actors are just as bad as Charlie.  Jill Ireland and Robin Sherwood put forth the absolute minimum amount of effort required to qualify as acting and the literally dozens of supporting cast members deliver two, maybe three lines, and then are never seen again.  You know the acting is bad when a career television actor like Vincent Gardenia provides one of the few glimpses of a professional acting performance.  The street thugs in the movie don't necessarily act well, but they are certainly the most entertaining aspect of the film.  C'mon, who doesn't love the idea of Laurence Fishburne in some truly fantastic 80s sunglasses?  Kevyn Major Howard sports a fantastic skullet and adds some much-needed high-pitched laughter and belly shirts to the mix.  And when I'm praising an actor's haircut, you can tell I've run out of nice things to say about the movie.  Michael Winner apparently chose not to do much when directing this movie.  I would give up early, too, if I had to direct Charles Bronson after 1975.  On the bright side, the movie is pretty short and it is rare for more than ten minutes to pass without some sort of violence, so I guess Winner's legacy in this film breaks even.

This is not a movie that is difficult to predict.  Bronson is wronged, Bronson chooses to not involve the police, and Bronson kills those that wronged him.  What is unusual about the movie is just how stupid it is on so many levels.  Jimmy Page recorded the score to the movie, but the only time you can tell that a guitar god is involved is during the opening credit sequence. Call me crazy, but if I had Jimmy Page score my film, you would know it; at the very least, I would include the opening thrashes of "Good Times, Bad Times" whenever Kessler kills somebody.  That reminds me...Kessler is not gunning for just any criminal in this movie (which is what makes Death Wish so compelling), he is hunting for five specific punks in Los Angeles.  That might sound difficult, but Kessler (or the screenwriter) makes it look easy.  What also makes it easy is the fact that Kessler isn't limiting himself to killing those thugs; he kills five other street urchins because they interfered with his hunt.  What was up with that street gang, anyway?  I get the vintage 80s clothes and jive talkin', but after Kessler has killed two of the five gang members, the rest are still hanging out in dark, secluded areas and dancing with each other while listening to a boombox.  Oh, and Laurence Fishburne, here's a tip: boomboxes do not protect your face from bullets.  In the scene where that happens, Kessler decides to ambush the gang members in the middle of an arms deal.  Apparently, the best time to attack your enemy is when they have access to a few dozen fully automatic weapons.  Vincent Gardenia's character is then mowed down by the gang members and his final words on this earth were "Get the bastards for me."  Really?  Not "I can't believe you got me shot, Bronson," or "This is why vigilantism is illegal"?  How about "This is why the police call for back-up"?  He is a much more forgiving man than I.

That's really my main problem with this movie.  I fully support most dumb action movies where the hero takes the law into his own hands, but you need to see how "the system" isn't working in order to justify the character's actions.  Charles Bronson purposefully misleads the police, forcing them into ineffectiveness.  I'm okay with that choice, too, but when a police officer dies because Bronson stupidly attacks the gang during their arms deal, that cop shouldn't be endorsing Bronson's crusade.  I think that scene encapsulates this movie best because it shows how amateurish and dangerous Bronson is, but he is encouraged to keep killing more.  Had that scene ended with some sort of accusation of Bronson, or at least some emotional impact, then the movie could have been mediocre.  As it stands, though, it is depressing and insultingly idiotic in a way that gratuitous violence cannot fix.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Terminator Salvation

I love the Terminator series.  Until I experienced the rapture that comes with repeated viewings of Road House and Purple Rain, Terminator 2: Judgment Day was my most viewed movie as a teenager.  I can even point out the single bullet that, had it not been dropped, would have ended the movie twenty minutes earlier.  While the first two Terminator movies are obviously classics, I'm even okay with the far inferior Terminator 3: Wanton Destruction of Property.  It's not great, but it could have been much, much worse.  As the fourth movie in the franchise, Terminator Salvation sits in an unenviable spot where it wants to recapture the fans that were turned off by the last film while relaunching the series by setting it in the Terminator future.  That is a tough trick to pull off.

How successful is this film?  Well, on paper it might work.  Christian Bale signed up to play the main role of John Connor and the supporting cast was partially filled out with Sam Worthington, Anton Yelchin, and Helena Bonham Carter.  Not bad, right?  I liked the notion of taking the series into the post-apocalyptic future instead of retreading the "to save the future, John Connor must live" plot from the last three films.  Also, Arnold Schwarzenegger's sagging man boobs should have no reason to show up, since he was busy governing California at the time of filming.  I love me some vintage Ahnuld, but the man stopped making good movies in 1994.  Oh, and this movie doesn't feature time travel, which automatically makes it slightly less ridiculous than any of the other films.  All in all, this movie was theoretically promising.

And then it starts to fall apart when you take a closer look.  Counting Bale, the pivotal character of John Connor has been played by four different actors in four movies and one TV show.  That implies that there is no true vision for the character, so despite him being a recurring role his character's presence does not indicate any particular level of quality.  The director ended up being McG, which is the most obnoxious Hollywood name in recent memory.  Oh, and he committed the cinematic sins of directing the Charlie's Angels movies.  The rest of the supporting cast consists of Bryce Dallas Howard (I don't care if she's prettier than her dad, she's not very talented!), Moon Bloodgood (whose acting is nowhere near as awesome as her name), Common (who still hasn't convinced me that he can act), and Michael Ironside (whose name should have belonged to a general or linebacker, not a B-movie actor).  And this movie was rated PG-13, not R, like the rest of the franchise.  Add all that to the fact that the script went through several rewrites, and this thing starts to sound like it will utterly suck.

As with so many things, the truth lies somewhere in-between.  In the year 2018, the future is a great big pile of crap.  The sentient computer program, Skynet, has instigated a nuclear holocaust, leaving mankind on the brink of extinction.  The remaining humans are trying just to eke out survival or they are active in the human resistance.  John Connor (Christian Bale) is a member of the resistance movement; despite having some knowledge of the future from his mother and his time-traveling Terminator friends from previous movies, he is not one of the leaders of the movement.  But, apparently, he is the voice of "Human Resistance Radio," the presumably made-up-by-me title to his occasional radio pep talks to the remainders of humanity.  The resistance has just had two major breakthroughs:
  1. They have discovered Skynet's "kill list" of humans most in need of being murdered...John is #2, behind Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin)---John's father, who hasn't yet aged into Michael Biehn, gone back in time or slept with Linda Hamilton in The Terminator.
  2. They have discovered a radio frequency that disables Skynet's killer robots.  Oh, and Skynet also is planning to kill the leaders of the resistance in one week.  How nice of Skynet to squeeze the leaders of humanity in on that day...I thought they'd be booked!  
Anyway, the resistance leaders are planning to nuke Skynet's central base after using the new robot-disabling technology to turn off their defenses.  The only problem with that is that Skynet has been capturing humans to experiment on them in that same base.  Casualties of war happen every day, but not on John Connor's watch!  He heads to the base to break out the humans before Skynet gets bombed.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to Marcus (Sam Worthington), a man that is being executed in 2003.  The next thing he (or we) know, he awakes in 2018 with absolutely no idea what is going on.  He meets the young Kyle Reese and his fellow survivor, the nine year-old Star (Jadagrace Berry), and they get kidnapped by Skynet machines and taken to the Skynet central base for unknown reasons.  Marcus feels obligated to break his only friends out of the base, so he finds and teams up with a Human Resistance member, Blair (Moon Bloodgood), and is taken to the Resistance base.  Once there, the Resistance discovers a startling secret about Marcus that explains the fifteen-year gap in his memory.  With that reveal, many questions arise:
  • Is Marcus one of a kind, or is he a sign of things to come?
  • Can Marcus be trusted?
  • Can John Connor find Kyle Reese before the Resistance nukes Skynet's base?
  • Will Skynet win by being nuked and killing John's soon-to-be father and wiping John out of existence?
  • Will Skynet win by drawing John into their main base and killing him before the tide in the man vs. machine battle has turned in favor of man?
  • Will Edward Furlong, Nick Stahl, or Thomas Dekker (the other three actors who have played John Connor) show up and really confuse things for viewers?

Let's start with the good things first.  I will admit that, while watching this movie, I was entertained.  It is nowhere near as intelligent a film as the rest of the series, but it has its own charms.  I liked Anton Yelchin's performance; it was reminiscent of Michael Biehn's work in The Terminator, but not indebted to it.  The movie looked good, too.  It can be difficult to capture the dirtiness of a post-nuclear world, but I thought the sets looked great.  I thought the design work for the various Skynet machines was imaginative and pretty cool.  There were a lot of cool mini-tributes to the first couple movies sprinkled throughout; the best was definitely the inclusion of the Guns 'n' Roses song from Terminator 2.  There was a lot of action, too, enough to keep you from thinking about the movie's plot or logic.

That is where things start to sour for this film.  Despite avoiding some time travel problems by setting this in the future, including a young Kyle Reese has the same effect as sending a Terminator back in time to kill John or Sarah Connor; if the Terminators succeed, then the entire time line is disrupted and, I assume, everyone wakes up in a delicious swimming pool of vanilla pudding.  Or, we blink out of existence; until the time stream is totally disrupted and I can be proved wrong, I'm sticking with my theory.  That headache aside, there are a lot of little things that don't make sense in this movie.  How can so many machines that are specifically designed to kill people have such awful aim?  How is Marcus able to swim, considering his presumed body weight?  Why don't Terminators just crush John Connor's throat or punch through his face?  Whenever they get their robotic mitts on him, they just throw him across the room.  Why would sentient machines have a radio frequency for an Achilles' Heel?  When the final plan is revealed, why is it so ridiculously convoluted?  Seriously, when I heard the plan explained, I thought I was listening to Cobra Commander, or possibly underpants gnomes.  And yet, we are supposed to believe that a brilliant and devious supercomputer came up with this?  I am insulted by the filmmakers (probably fair) assessment of the average American's intelligence.  And what was the deal with Skynet targeting Kyle Reese?  In the first Terminator, the father of John Connor was unknown by Skynet, but here he is their number one acquisition priority.  Did John, the only living person who knows the identity of his father, blab his daddy's name?  I'll just mildly state that I doubt it.  But let's say that, yes, John Connor spilled the beans...when Skynet captures Kyle, why don't they just squish him into meat jelly?  It couldn't hurt their evil plans, right?

Despite all that stupidity, though, this isn't a bad movie.  Yes, McG is a pretty bad director in terms of cinematography, storytelling, and working with actors, but at least the movie never drags.  Most of the actors turn in uninspired performances, but not necessarily bad...although Christian Bale was uncharacteristically one-dimensional.  And Sam Worthington still has the range of a box of Triscuits.  If you look at this as a continuation/reboot of the ultra-successful Terminator franchise, this was definitely a disappointment.  On its own, though, the movie is a fun, dumb little flick.  As much as the logic-loving part of my mind might disagree, I give this movie

***EDITED ON 9/27/10 at 14:20 PM***
An excellent comment from nobulljive has forced me to amend my rating.  Yes, it is incredibly stupid for Skynet to have designed a base that conforms to human proportions.  With so many uniquely shaped pieces of machinery, there is absolutely no reason for a base for robots, by robots, to be designed like any modern-day processing plant.  And it is even stupider for the interface for the central Skynet computer to have screens or speakers for Helena Bonham Carter to speak through.  The central computer in Skynet should just have ports for any machine to link up and communicate through. 

Man, I can't believe I didn't think of that; I am now equally upset with myself and this movie.  These logical flaws in the story, on their own, wouldn't bother me too much.  I can forgive action/sci-fi movies for some stupidity.  On top of all the other issues I had with Salvation's plot, though, I cannot in good conscience recommend this film.

Friday, September 24, 2010


I don't know what my problem is.  Year after year, I see ads for the annual Pixar animated movie and, year after year, I am unimpressed by their ad campaigns.  I never get around to seeing the movies in theaters, despite universal acclaim and my own history of really liking their work.  And, year after year, when I watch their movies on DVD, I am overwhelmed with how stupid I was to put off seeing their movies.

Up is the story of Carl (Ed Asner), a widower that decides to fulfill his (and his late wife's) childhood dream of living in Paradise Falls, located in the remote jungles of South America.  It's kind of a silly idea, but Carl felt bad that, in all their time together, life always got in the way of that one goal of theirs.  Alone and childless, Carl has only one thing he wants to take with on his trip: the house he and his wife, Ellie, lived in.  As the movie poster indicates, that isn't as big of a problem as you might think, provided that you have a few hundred helium balloons coming out of your chimney.  Carl unwittingly picks up an unwanted hitchhiker at the start of his journey; Russell (Jordan Nagai) is in a club that is similar to the Boy Scouts, and he had wanted to earn his merit badge for helping an elderly person, so Carl sent him on a snipe hunt.  Apparently, being a jerk to kids sometimes backfires in children's movies, and Russell happened to be on the house porch when it lifted off the ground.  Together, they manage to land the house close to Paradise Falls, but the rest of their journey (the house is supposed to be right next to Paradise Falls) is the adventuring part of the story.  In it, they meet Dug, the talking dog, a rare giant bird that Russell names Kevin, and the film's surprise villain, voiced by Christopher Plummer.

I really enjoyed this movie.  Like almost all Pixar films, there is a very poignant emotional core to this story that makes a lot of people (me included) tear up.  Like Wall-E before it, Up has a definite sense of loss that gives the story a weight that very few animated films can match.  You remember how sad it was when E.T. or Bambi's mom died?  In a movie like Up, that's a good day.  Thankfully, the movie is able to move beyond that sadness toward a sense of renewed vigor.  By the story's end, you're not feeling sorry for Carl anymore, you're proud of him for changing.

The voice acting has some recognizable talent, but no huge names.  Ed Asner is a television icon, but he's getting old and has never been a huge name in film, but he does a great job playing the gruff old man that opens his heart again.  Not that this is a huge stretch for Asner, who played a younger version of this on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but it's been almost thirty years since he played that character, so I don't think it's type casting.  I generally like Christopher Plummer as a supporting actor, and he delivered as the aristocratic-sounding mad villain.  I was definitely surprised by how much I enjoyed Jordan Nagai as Russell, since I was annoyed by him in commercials.  He managed to portray all the innocence and excitement of childhood quite well, and if his face is half as emotive as his voice, he could become a talented actor.  Dug the dog was voiced by Bob Peterson, who was also co-director of the film and the voice of the mean dog, Alpha.  Peterson has been working with Pixar for many years now, but this is definitely his biggest voice contribution to date.  I loved his dog voices, at least in part because I think dogs are stupid and Dug's voice definitely supports my theory.

There's really not much more to add.  Director Pete Docter and co-director Bob Peterson did a great job telling a story that appeals to the child in everyone, but also handles some mature themes very well.  Is this a movie full of surprises?  Probably not, but it's well written and it hits all the right beats at the right times.  I don't know what it is about Pixar movies and their trailers, though.  How can something that seems so obnoxious in the trailer be so entertaining in the moment?  I guess I have to give credit to the filmmakers for making their humor very contextual and not just dumb catch phrases or random pop culture references.  Children's movies don't have to be this smart or emotional, but it's nice when a movie can appeal to all ages.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Night at the Museum: The Battle of the Smithsonian

Have you seen Night at the Museum?  In it, Ben Stiller plays a night watchman at a museum that contains the Golden Tablet of Akhmenrah, a magical ancient Egyptian artifact that somehow animates the displays at the museum, making them come to life at night.  That means that the stuffed Teddy Roosevelt, the dinosaur skeleton, the figures in miniature displays, etc.... all those exhibits become animated and come to life.  Are they people or things?  Let's just refer to them as exhibimations.  Hijinks ensued when the exhibimations did blah blah blah and everyone learned a valuable lesson.  And that lesson was, despite being alive only at night, the exhibimations are not, in fact, vampires.  Yet.  Is everybody caught up?  Too bad!

Time for the sequel!  After the events of Night at the Museum, Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) has moved on with his life, quitting his job as night watchman for the American Natural History Museum to become a wealthy and successful inventor/TV pitch man.  Just think of him as the ShamWow guy, minus the arrest record for hooker beating.  After several months of not visiting, Larry stops by the museum as it closes, only to find that it is really closing --- closing for renovations and upgrades; interactive holograms will replace many of the display pieces, with only a precious few staying behind.  Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais), the museum director, tells Larry that the old exhibits will be shipped to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, where they will probably sit unseen in their basement archives for years.  And then McPhee leaves Larry in the closed museum, free to walk about on his own.  An interesting choice, I suppose.  Larry plays catch up with his old museum buddies, but is told confidentially by Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) that, unbeknownst to most of the exhibimations, the Golden Tablet of Akhmenrah will be staying in the Natural History Museum, along with Teddy and Akhmenrah; tragically, this will be the final night the Smithsonian-bound exhibimations will enjoy their unnatural nocturnal lives!  You can never trust exhibimations, though.  Larry's nemesis from the first film, the monkey Dexter, stole the Tablet and it was packed away with the stuff going to the Smithsonian.  The Tablet was fun in the relatively small Natural History Museum, but the Smithsonian is the world's largest museum.  Chaos and even more hijinks are assured!

You would think that hijinks would be enough for the movie (it was for the first one, after all), but sequels like to turn everything up a few notches.  Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian gives Larry a villain to defeat: the kindly Akhmenrah's brother, Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria).  More warlike than his brother, Kahmunrah wants to use the Golden Tablet to open the Gate to the Underworld, where he will get an army that will conquer the world.  At least, during nighttime hours.  Will Larry defeat the evil voice actor, or will the third movie in the franchise be titled Night at the Museum: Surrender at Appomattox

Oftentimes, the success of a sequel depends on how much of its original cast returned.  In this way, Battle of the Smithsonian definitely succeeded.  Returning cast members include Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Ricky Gervais, Mizuo Peck, and Brad Garrett (as a voice).  At the Smithsonian, we meet a whole new cast of characters, including Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams), George Custer (Bill Hader), and Ivan the Terrible (Chrisopher Guest), along with Kahmunrah and a cast of dozens more.  Other noteworthy actors that pop up in bit parts include Jonah Hill, Eugene Levy (as a voice), the Jonas Brothers (as voices), Ed Helms, George Foreman, Craig Robinson, Clint Howard, Jay Baruchel, Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant.

The first Museum felt pretty busy, despite a cast that featured a lot of animals and cavemen; this one feels like it has ADD.  There are way too many recognizable actors playing way too many roles that get decent screen time, so none of the new characters (with the possible exception of Ameila Earhart) get developed at all.  Even Larry's motivation is hard to figure out this time around. Last time, Larry was trying to prove that he was not a loser to his son and ex-wife.  This time, his successful business makes him too busy for his son or a girlfriend.  He runs to the Smithsonian because the exhibimations are suddenly important to him again and because he knows the havoc they will wreak.  That's fine, but it doesn't have the emotional core that most family films strive for.

The acting in the movie was fine, if fairly basic.  Almost all of the characters were caricatures, so they're basically just a visual gag and maybe a few lines.  I'm not a Ben Stiller fan, but I didn't mind him in the first Museum; here, though, he comes across as cocky and not nearly as likable.   I don't understand why Hank Azaria can be cast in any ethnic role, but even if I was okay with him playing an Egyptian pharoh, I still wouldn't understand his lisp.  Really?  A lisp?  For that to work, you really have to put some effort in, like the forty or fifty jokes Monty Python did in Life of Brian.  This was just lazy.  Amy Adams is pretty, but her zany 1920s accent drove me nuts; if she didn't mention speakeasies, the jitterbug, dancing on a pole, or Calvin Coolidge, it's only because the lines got cut.  Adams is a likable actress, and her character was kind of appealing, but her voice was obnoxious.

Director Shawn Levy is not a terribly talented comedic director.  He does mostly family comedies, filled with lots of characters.  I get why he directed this, and he probably did a decent job with the script he was given.  The script was disappointing, though.  Written by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant (of Reno: 911! fame), this film was just sight gag after sight gag.  These two are not the most consistent of screenwriters (see Herbie: Fully Loaded.  Or don't.), but they have definitely done better work.  This attempt comes across as shallow and simple, without the warmth that made adults forgive their children for making them sit through it.  Visually, this is a pretty good movie.  There are even several almost funny jokes.  Given the talent in this movie, though, it was a big disappointment, even for a family movie.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Double Trouble (1992)

I just can't help myself sometimes.  Look at this movie poster; there is absolutely no chance that this is a decent movie.  The movie was clearly made to exploit the "hilarity" that comes from being twins, in the grand tradition of the Olsen twins and those obnoxious kids from Big Daddy.  But how can we tell these twins apart?  That's a good question, because audiences are really stupid.  Luckily, that is one question that the filmmakers took into account when making Double Trouble.  You see, one of the brothers dresses in suits (very common with obvious bodybuilders), while the other one wears torn jeans that a belly-baring men's sweatshirt?  It most certainly is.  Well, if nothing else, at least that will make this movie unique.

Meet David Jade (David Paul), a super cop.  Not a police officer or detective, a cop.  David is apparently working on burglaries when he and his partner make a sweet bust and catch a cat burglar in the act. But...the cat burglar looks just like David!  WHA HOPPENED?!?!?  Meet Peter Jade (Peter Paul), David's good-for-nothing brother.  At first, it looks like it's just a coincidence that Peter is even in this movie; this is a movie about a cop investigating burglaries, and David already caught Peter in the act, so it's on to the next crime, right?  Right.  And that next crime is international diamond smuggling.  Sadly, David's streetwise and sassy token black partner died on the job that week, so David is in need of help.  That's when Captain O'Brien (James "Scottie" Doohan from Star Trek) assigns David a new partner: his brother!  No way!  Yes way.  No WAY!  Yes WAY!  NO WAY!  YES WAY!  I'm sorry, that exchange was supposed to have quotation marks around it, since it was lifted directly from the film.  Yes way.  Will these two complete opposites be able to stop the smuggling of these diamonds, or will they kill each other first?  Yes, to the first question, sadly no to the second.

It's not worth your time to nitpick the lack of acting or directing in this movie.  Director John Paragon has stayed away from directing, for the most part (although he did direct the Paul brothers in Twin Sitters, too, where the twins apparently baby sit another set of twins.  Genius!), so I think he learned his lesson after this.  The Paul brothers, also known as the Barbarian Brothers, are certainly not the most accomplished of actors.  I will give them credit where they're due; with their muscular physiques, they could have been in any number of bad action movies.  Instead, they opted to star in a bad action-comedy, which requires bad jokes and bad action.  It's twice the work, and that takes vision.  Or arrogance.  The recognizable actors in the cast (David Carradine, Lewis Arquette, Timothy Stack and Roddy McDowall) make the Pauls look absolutely amateurish by comparison, but against the rest of the film's supporting cast, they don't look half bad.

I would like to point out that Peter Jade's burglary equipment bears a shocking resemblance to Wolverine's Weapon X headgear.  I can't seem to find any stills of Jade from the movie, so you'll either have to take my word for it, or rent this VHS, because it never made the leap to DVD.  If you're still not sure whether you want to watch this, check out the trailer.  It's worth noting that the phrase "ready for the violence" accompanies a shot of David Paul punching a guy through a swing set.

Is this movie worth your time?  Definitely not, unless it's 3:30 AM and you're looking for something simple enough to follow when you're only half-awake.  The Paul brothers are not stuntmen, so their action scenes are usually less than impressive, and they are certainly not comedians, so their jokes fall flat more often than not.  But, when I was watching them awkwardly swing their barrel-shaped arms while chasing down bad guys, somehow not being hit by the bullets being fired at them (how do you miss these guys?), with their mullets flapping behind them, I couldn't help but smile a little bit.  The action is bad, the acting is bad, the jokes are bad, but the Pauls are actually kind of endearing.  I don't know how to explain it...I guess I equate their appeal to watching the Special Olympics --- you know that they're dealing with some sort of handicap and cannot compete on a professional level, but you root for them because they're clearly overcoming adversity.  That said, Special Olympians are an inspiration for us all, while the Paul brothers are just bad actors with a desire to share their muscles with the world.  That doesn't make up for this movie's numerous glaring flaws, but it's almost certainly better than New York Minute, and that alone has to be worth something.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009)

Foreign films can be difficult for some people to get into.  I sympathize.  The language barrier can impede the enjoyment of a lot of great films, unless you are able to read subtitles.  If you're moderately literate, then you have no excuse for your laziness.  The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the Swedish film adaptation of Steig Larsson's book, whose American title is the same as this movie's.  The Swedish title, Män som hatar kvinnor, translates into "Men Who Hate Women."  I guess we can learn two things about this movie from its two titles.  One: this probably isn't about a female martial artist.  **Sigh.**  Two: judging from the Swedish title, this will be a comic romp that will finally introduce Swedish comedy to the world at large.  Get ready for two hours of Swedish Fish jokes and Swedish Chef impressions!  Bork bork bork!

Actually, this is a murder mystery that, for the sake of the mystery, I will just give you the background on.  Recently disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is hired by Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) to investigate the forty year-old disappearance of his niece, Harriet.  She disappeared from her island home on a day that the only bridge into town was blocked for twelve hours with no one entering or leaving the island.  Her body was never found, and she was never seen again; her last few hours alive are documented through some photographs of a parade that day, but that is basically the only clues that exist.  Henrik suspects a member of his own family for the murder; they are all heirs to the vast Vanger Corporation fortune, but the murder was probably not for monetary reasons.  The Vanger family has many secrets, though, including the fact that three out of the four eldest Vangers were Nazis.  Why does Henrik suspect his own family?  Because, for his birthday, Harriet always gave him a framed pressed flower; for the last forty years, somebody has been sending him similar framed pressed flowers from all over the globe on his birthday.  Knowing how cold and bitter his relatives are, Henrik has concluded that one of them is the killer and is taunting him.

What does this have to do with a dragon tattoo?  Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) is a computer hacker that was hired by Vanger's people to check on Mikael before Henrik hired him.  Lisbeth believes that Mikael's recent disgrace was not his own doing, and thanks to her in-depth work, Henrik hires Mikael. Lisbeth is a little weird; she has the fashion sense of a Cure fan and the personality to match.  For whatever reason --- maybe she got a crush on Mikael when she was cyber-stalking him, I don't know --- she decides to hack into his computer and see what he's up to.  She discovers his files on Harriet's murder and decodes a clue.  Trying to be helpful but still Goth, she sends an anonymous email to Mikael with the clue; since he's a clever reporter, he finds a way to backtrack the email to her computer and asks her to help him with the case.  Together, they start to uncover details relating to not only Harriet's disappearance, but evidence pointing to the murders of several young local women over a forty year period.  Oh, and Lisbeth is the girl with the dragon tattoo, in case the word "Goth" didn't clue you in.

I haven't read the book this is based on yet, but I do have some experience with Swedish novels; in my experience, they tend to be pretty straightforward affairs, heavy on plot and relatively light on emotion and style.  That reliance on plot makes stories like this ideal for adapting to the big screen.  The director, Niels Arden Oplev, does a pretty good job telling the story, but I think I appreciated what he left out more than anything else.  This movie has some rape in it.  It's not an I Spit on Your Grave remake, by any means, but that doesn't change my attitude toward rape (for the record: I'm against it).  The rape scene is shot briefly and there is no real nudity, eroticism, or unnecessary grossness shown; it's an ugly act that the director knows the audience would rather see pass quickly, and he thankfully does so.

As far as the acting goes, I was pretty indifferent to Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace throughout the film.  I enjoyed the story, but felt that Nyqvust was particularly bland.  He wasn't awful, but he tended to work on just one level.  Rapace was better as the clearly disturbed Goth chick, but I have to admit that I was a little uncomfortable with her mannish features.  I don't require every female lead in the movies I watch to be supermodel quality, but Rapace has some veiny neck and shoulder muscles, and I was a little creeped out.

This movie was probably better than it should have been.  Apparently, the Swedish film company that made this (and the adaptations for the book's two sequels) assumed that Dragon Tattoo would be the only one of the trilogy to be released in theaters; its popularity allowed all three to hit Swedish theaters in the last year and a half.  That intent implies that these movies were made for relatively small amounts of money, which would explain some of the supporting actor quality.  I thought the cinematography was uninspired, too, because mysteries are always ripe for some cool camera shots that subtly indicate the murderer.  Still, I found the story interesting and the director kept the plot moving, which was appreciated.  This was the best "locked room" mystery I have encountered in quite some time, and I thought the small town full of suspects was a pleasant reminder of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple stories. This is one foreign film that I think could be improved with a Hollywood remake, so I'm kind of psyched to see the Daniel Craig version next year.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


When GoodFellas, a mobster story that spanned over thirty years, was released in 1990, Ray Liotta was 36 years old and his co-stars, Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci, were both 47.  When they first pop up in the movie, they are supposed to be in their early twenties (except DeNiro, who was supposed to be around thirty).  Sure, they aged somewhat throughout the film, but until you see DeNiro put on reading glasses in the last quarter of the movie, it's pretty insignificant stuff.  I point this out because most movies would take strides to make these actors look younger, a la Patrick Stewart in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Why doesn't director Martin Scorsese bother to disguise the age of his actors?  Probably for the same reason most viewers don't notice it: because this is a cool movie and, like the wise guys they portray, these actors can get away with murder as far as America's concerned.

This is the life story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), an Irish kid in New York whose life dream was to be a mobster.  At a young age, he began to run (often illegal) errands for the local mob boss, Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino).  As he grew older, he befriended the hot-tempered Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and the danger-loving Jimmy "The Gent" Conway (Robert DeNiro).  Together, they began hijacking trucks and lived life as young men with money often do; they drank all night, went to clubs, and enjoyed female companionship.  This continued for years, and was capped by Henry's courtship and marriage to a local girl, Karen (Lorraine Brocco).  This movie is clearly a love letter to the mobster lifestyle, with all its freedom, power and vices.  That much freedom, power and vice left unchecked will inevitably lead to a desire for more of each, though.  As Henry and his friends moved from up-and-comers in their mob family to essentially independent operators, their adventures are played for higher stakes.  Hijacking trucks with willing drivers gave way to multimillion dollar heists, organized by Jimmy.  Instead of sticking with low-risk enterprises like gambling, Henry started dealing drugs. And Tommy...well, his temper started to become the stuff of legend.  With higher stakes, the lifestyle became less friendly and more dangerous, less about the crew and more about survival.

What makes GoodFellas a great movie is its attitude.  The film opens with Ray Liotta's voice-over, famously claiming that "as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster."   That's pretty different from most film portrayals of mobsters, right?  Even in The Godfather, Michael never wanted in on the "family business."  Anyone can understand the allure of money and power, but even the most romanticized mob films show a horrible price to be paid for such indulgences.  That eventual comeuppance is inevitable for any big time gangster, but the attraction toward that danger is what sets this movie apart from its mob movie brethren.  We watch Henry Hill, Tommy DeVito, and Jimmy Conway do whatever they want to whoever they want for decades, just waiting for the hammer to eventually drop.  And when it does, there is no moment of repentance or remorse.  We just get Ray Liotta's voice-over again, telling us how ordinary civilian life, free from drugs, police, murder, and betrayal is basically for schmucks.  And we agree with him.

Interesting tidbit: GoodFellas drops about 300 F-bombs in its 145 minute run, averaging over 2 "fucks" per minute, the ninth most for any feature film. While cursing is certainly not a benchmark for quality cinema, that is an astonishing number.

The acting and directing in this movie is superb.  While Scorsese is not at his showiest here, he handles things well and oftentimes puts the camera in a position so that the viewer feels like more of a spectator, which just reconfirms the movie's fascination with the wise guy lifestyle.  As for the acting, Joe Pesci deservedly won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role.  He was loud, obnoxious, and occasionally frightening with his nonchalant attitude toward violence.  And yet, he managed to be kind of funny.  That's a tough balance to strike.  Ray Liotta is certainly more sympathetic in the lead role, but his character's purpose is to react to the mob lifestyle, so his solid performance pales in comparison to his co-lead actors.  Lorraine Brocco did a pretty good job in her supporting role, but I think she usually gets too little credit for her role in the movie; as Karen, she not only provides the "civilian" reactions to the wise guy life, but she shares the narrative.  Karen's role is often overlooked because this is such a guy movie, but the movie is told from her point of view, too, and Brocco's performance (particularly with her voice-overs) helps keep this movie from spinning into a caricature of mob life.  As far as the rest of the cast goes, they're serviceable.  Paul Sorvino is capable of some surprisingly imposing silences, but he's the highlight of the supporting cast.  Michael Imperioli and Samuel L. Jackson both make noteworthy cameos, though.

I enjoy this movie on a lot of levels, but it has never been one of my favorite Scorsese films.  Sure, it's pretty awesome, but it's soooooo looooooong!  It's not even super long at 146 minutes, but it feels about as long as The Return of the King.  Why?  I'm not sure.  Aside from using the camera to follow characters like they're celebrities, Scorsese's direction is pretty cut and dried.  The problem is certainly not the acting.  Both DeNiro and Pesci are fascinating to watch.  I think my problem with this film is the position it takes.  Not the moral position of celebrating an outlaw culture; that's pretty cool.  I'm talking about the point-of-view character.  While Henry is part of the action, he's never the most interesting character on the screen.  He's kind of like Smalls from The Sandlot, watching the greatness of Benny the Jet.  Lots of movies choose a voyeuristic POV character, but since this movie is (more or less) set up as a Henry Hill biopic, I think his character should be the most interesting cast member.  Would this movie work better from Jimmy or Tommy's point of view?  Not as the story stands, no.  I just think that, in a biopic-type movie, the main character's accomplishments should be the most dramatic and memorable ones; if you want to use a less memorable character to tell the story, fine, but use the movie to frame a more compact set of events.  As it stands, though, I see this a a major failure in the storytelling department.

Aside from my admittedly unusual personal problem with this movie, GoodFellas is an unabashed classic.  There has never been a film that depicted the life of a mobster so gloriously, and yet showed all the horror that comes with it.  For that, it deserves all the respect it has earned over the years.  Aside from The Godfather Part II, this might be the ultimate gangster movie.  It's not a masterpiece, though, with all due respect.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


It's a little unfair for the summer popcorn fodder of a previous generation's teenagers to be judged by an adult decades later.  But whoever said life was fair?

Gidget tells the story of Francie Lawrence (Sandra Dee) during the summer of her first "man hunt."  That's right, Francie and her friends are tired of normal thrills and are going to hunt the most dangerous game of all...MAN.  Actually, Francie's friends have all gone totally boy crazy and want to impress some older boys.  Francie is the same age as her friends, sixteen, but she has the body of a prepubescent boy; needless to say, she feels out of place among her friends and their curve-hugging, scandalously rib- (but certainly not navel-) exposing swimsuits.  No, Francie just wants to have fun.  When her friends fail to impress some local surfer boys --- probably because Francie doesn't know how to flirt, the dumb unslut --- Francie decides to take a swim, and ends up floundering in the water.  One of the local surfers, Moondoggie (James Darren), comes to her rescue.  He treats her like a dumb kid, so naturally she becomes immediately infatuated with him.  How can she not, with a name like "Moondoggie?"  From this point on, Francie starts becoming a surfer, because surfing is, like, the ultimate, you know?  The surfers treat her like a mascot, dubbing her Gidget (girl + midget = Gidget), but she sticks with it.  It could have been worse; if she had the man-hunting experience of her friends, she might have been dubbed Whordget.  As the summer goes on, she earns a little respect and begins to impact the lives of the surfers, from Moondoggie to the local king beach bum, Big Kahuna (Cliff Robertson), with her innocence and optimism.  But, and this is the big question, will Gidget win the love of Moondoggie, or will she have to go on a blind date with ***UGH*** her father's friend's son?  Only one thing's for sure: this movie was not meant to age well.

Gidget was never meant to be a great film.  It is an adaptation of a book and was just meant to appease teenagers in the summer of 1959, and it apparently did.  Gidget had two theatrical sequels, a television series and several television movies, scattered over the next twenty-five years.  What makes this movie so appealing?  It's definitely wholesome, aside from the implied penis hunting by Gidget's friends in the beginning of the movie.  The tone is along the lines of a Leave it to Beaver episode, but more hep.  And, if the screenwriters had thought of it, this movie probably would have included "hep" in its dialogue.

On the positive side, Gidget makes a few attempts to address "real" issues, and at the very least accepts that these problems are not cut and dried.  The appeal of the beach bum lifestyle is highlighted, but the solitary nature of such an existence is also pointed out. A child's decision to choose to follow their parent's footsteps or strike out on their own is also a major plot point, although not as well-developed as the beach bum thing.  The movie also takes a few stabs at 1950s teen sexuality, but that stuff is only a feint for a more traditional (and wholesome) love story.

On the negative side, this film is horribly dated.  The acting is on par with a high school drama production and Paul Wenkos' direction is an early hint toward his future as a television director.  The dialogue is Porky Pig-level hammy and there is almost no aspect of this movie that survived the feminism of the late 60s without looking archaic.  There are a lot of little moments that are so corny that they're funny, but that's not something I normally recommend a movie for.  Gidget's success also lead to the beach party subgenre of 1960s film.  That's not a good thing.

I won't lie and say that I enjoyed this movie, but I have to admit that it is harmless.  It has a little bit more depth than its contemporary teen flicks, and it could, theoretically, be successfully remade.  That might sound like a terrible idea, but if you punch up the dark sexual tension in the movie, update the dialogue and give the characters some real problems that they're escaping from, you have Point Break: The Teen Years on your hands.  I would probably ditch the name "Moondoggie," too.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Crazies (2010)

Let's face it: most Hollywood remakes fail to live up to the originals.  It's not always their fault; the films that get remade are oftentimes classics that are beloved by the general public.  Making an interesting remake and staying true enough to the original to please fans is a difficult tightrope to walk.  Well, if Hollywood insists on remaking a classic, it might as well be a cult classic.  The Crazies is a remake of the George A. Romero 1973 film of the same name.  Horror movie remakes usually irritate me, but there are two important differences between this remake and most others.  First, the original film is not very well known, so the new film's creators were probably not under a huge amount of pressure to keep the story exactly the same in the remake.  Second, and more importantly, George A. Romero was involved as a producer and was listed as a writer for coming up with the story.  That makes this a remake of a relatively unknown film that the orignal filmmaker was on board with.  Sounds promising.

Ogden Marsh, Iowa, is about as metropolitan as it sounds.  It's a podunk town in the middle of a podunk state. 
Side note: I hate Iowa.  Nothing good is in Iowa, it's just empty space between wherever I am and where I might want to go.  If I could remove a state from the US map and fill the empty space with some sort of travel tube technology, a la The Jetsons, I would in a heartbeat.  A close second place in that competition goes to Indiana.  End side note.  
It looks peaceful enough and there are no signs of any trouble; even the local law, Sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant) and Deputy Russell Clank (Joe Anderson), are enjoying a high school baseball game when something strange happens.  Rory, a local resident, quietly walks onto the outfield, holding a shotgun.  Sheriff Dutton hurries out to talk to Rory, assuming that the man has had a relapse with his alcoholism.  Rory does not respond to Dutton's conversation, sporting a far-away look in his eyes and making no movement until he draws his gun on the Sheriff.  Dutton is faster on the draw, and shoots Rory dead.  Sheriff Dutton's wife, Judy (Radha Mitchell), is the town doctor; a local woman brought her husband by that day to be examined for having a far-off look and a failure to respond to others.  The day after Rory was killed, that man locked his wife and child in their home and burned them alive.  When emergency vehicles responded to the fire, they found him a safe distance away, with a far-off look, humming a song.

That's some weird stuff, man.  What's weirder is that the first man lived in the house furthest to the north, and the second man lived next door to him...and the guy who lives in the next house has been acting kind of funny.  When a pilot's body is found in the local swamp, Sheriff Dutton recalls the town liar claiming that he saw a plane crash in the area.  Dutton and Clark head to the swamp and discover a large cargo plane submerged in the water, which is also the water supply for Ogden Marsh.  And the water is supplied throughout the town, north to south.  Hmm.  You know, there have been no news stories about a plane crash or missing planes or pilots in the area...probably not a good sign for the citizens of Ogden Marsh.

Whoa, I'm psychic.  The next thing you know, dozens of troops and workers, armed and wearing hazmat suits, descend on the town.  They tell the townsfolk nothing, they just separate the town into a group that is running fevers and a group that is not.  The fevered folk (including Doctor Judy Dutton) are taken into a tented area, and the others (including Sheriff Dutton) are bused to a truck stop out of town, where they will presumably be regrouped and relocated.  I don't know what kind of a person you are, but Sheriff Dutton loves his wife enough to go back and help her escape treatment for what appears to be a virus that makes people homicidal.  That's love, people.  It's also stupid, but that's what love is sometimes.  Of course, what's the next step after saving Judy?  There are still troops trying to contain this whatever-it-is, and they are willing to use lethal force.  Where do they go?  Who do they trust?  And how do they know that they're not sick, too?  In order, the answers are somewhere else, their friends, and um.

This may start out as a bit of a mystery movie, but it quickly becomes one of survival.  Most survival movies involve a horrific accident or outbreak, like a plane crash or a zombie uprising; The Crazies is certainly more subtle than that, but that is part of this film's charm.  As a viewer, you know, because you saw the previews or looked at the movie poster, that something bad is going to happen, but there really isn't much of a reason for the townsfolk to.  This isn't one of those stupid horror movies where the lead actress has her late boyfriend's blood all over her clothes and is crying in the dark, "Is anybody there?" There isn't even a dam bursting of horror in this movie; the government intervenes before the infected start to attack the rest of the town en masse.

For that reason, this could also be seen as a political fairytale; the government that failed to act decisively with Katrina and the BP oil spill are able to contain an town-wide epidemic before anything truly horrific happens to draw attention to the town?  Man, I have seen some dark humor before, but this is just vicious!

The acting and directing in this movie are appropriate, but nothing spectacular.  Director Breck Eisner does a good job with the movie's pacing and manages to put together a pretty suspenseful film.  I thought the action sequences were good, too; I just got stitches in my hand from a knife cut, so when one of the characters gets a big knife thrust through his hand...well, that got to me.  Timothy Olyphant has played strong Sheriffs in the past, and he turns in another solid performance here.  His actions seem reasonable (except breaking his wife out of the quarantined area) and he is sympathetic.  He's not infallible, which leads him into some trouble, but I never felt that he was acting stupid, which is a huge plus in a movie like this.  Radha Mitchell was fine as his wife, but I'm tired of her playing a "woman on the brink" of something; seriously, I've seen her in Man On Fire, Finding Neverland, Silent Hill and now this.  Can't she play a happy person?  I liked Joe Anderson as the Deputy; it wasn't a complex role, but I thought he did a good job with what he had to work with.  Danielle Panabaker has a small role that requires her to scream and look moderately attractive.  That might not sound difficult, but that's because it's not.

I really enjoyed this movie.  Maybe I just wasn't expecting much, but I was definitely pleased with what I saw.  Any movie where you are fighting both an infected group and a government group can easily turn into a dumb action movie.  That wouldn't have been bad, either, but this just felt smarter than that.  There's a point where the Sheriff realizes that the local redneck hunting buddies are infected and chooses not to attack them.  That robs the audience of gratuitous violence (for a while --- it's a movie, so you know they'll be back), but that was definitely the smart thing to do in a live-or-die situation.  The movie is not flawless --- there is no need to begin the movie two days in the future, to show Ogden Marsh in flames, and then flash back for the rest of the film --- but there were a lot of nice touches.  I thought that the car wash and nursery scenes were two of the better horror scenes I've watched in a while.  The Crazies is not a movie that is trying to be inventive, it is just a well-crafted thriller with some horror elements.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Alone in the Dark

How might you know Alone in the Dark is going to be a bad movie before you watch it?  Well, perhaps you know that it is a film adaptation of a video game franchise.  Those always make for good movies, right?  Or maybe you noticed that Uwe Boll is the director.  Or perhaps you saw Tara Reid's name above the title.  All of these are good reasons not to watch this movie.  The only reason you should watch this is if you want to see just how bad it gets.  Here's a hint: pretty bad.

For those of you unfamiliar with the video game series, Alone in the Dark is a suspense/horror game.  Basically, you wander around creepy buildings, looking for clues as to what has made everything so creepy, until you encounter a monster.  At this point you can either mash your controller buttons frantically, hoping that your character will shoot the damn thing, and/or you can soil yourself.  That basic concept makes this series sound like a natural fit for the supernatural thriller movie sub-genre.  So, should we expect a lot of eerie sets and the kind of suspense that has you waiting and for something to happen, and nothing happens and nothing happens and nothing happens and then the music gets real loud and LOOK OUT there's nothing there?  Repeat three times, and on the fourth time, exchange the "nothing" for "a zombie frothing at the mouth."  Actually, that might not be a terrible movie.  Too bad that's not the direction the filmmakers took.

The film opens with a lengthy prologue, which is immediately followed by a reenactment of the lengthy prologue.  That prologue must be pretty important to the story, right?  Actually, no.  It feels like some poor soul watched an early cut of the movie and asked "What the hell was the beginning all about?"  Instead of taking this as a hint that the plot and script are pretty bad, they just had someone do a voice over summary of the first scene.  Brilliant save, Mr. Boll!  It then turns out that the prologue and the reenactment were just dreamed by Edward Carnby (Christian Slater), paranormal investigator.  So...his dreams have voice overs?  How very meta.  Carnby was asleep on an airplane, when he wakes with a start.  The child sitting next to him helpfully tells him that there's nothing to be afraid of in the dark.  Not that the airplane was dark.  When Carnby lands, he is then followed by a creepy dude, and they eventually fight.  The creepy bad guy clearly has super powers, because he can jump high, run fast, and punch through bricks.  Carnby also appears to have powers, because he can hold his own in the fight.  That's never explained, but at least it's shot in slow-motion.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to the assistant curator of a museum, Aline Cedrac (Tara Reid).  She doesn't speak, but instead acts intelligent by wearing glasses and writing on a clipboard.  Instead, an unusually well-informed security guard discusses how awesome she is to a delivery driver within earshot of her.  He also explains that the stuff being delivered is a bunch of Abkani artifacts.  The Abkani were a super-advanced culture that vanished 10,000 years ago, and their relics have been found in the most remote parts of the world.  You've probably heard of this not-at-all fictional siciety, so I won't bother you with any more information about them.  Neither will this film.

What does that have to do with anything?  Well, Carnby shows up at the museum with an artifact for Aline to check out.  The two are apparently lovers, but Carnby vanished for several months without contacting her.  Aww...but they seemed so right for each other!  Aline scans the artifact into her computer (How?), and it immediately builds a three-dimensional image of the artifact (No, before telling her that the artifact is definitely Abkani (What?!?  Now you're just messing with me!).  How did Carnby get his hands on this artifact?  In his exact words,
"I was in the Amazon for six weeks, tracking poachers across their transport lines and I fell in with a group of ex-Chilean military that were selling artifacts on the black market."  
Dude, if you don't want to tell me the truth, just say so.

So, I guess the super-powered bad guy was after the artifact?  It's never explained, really, but not explaining that at least avoids explaining how the bad guy knew Carnby had the artifact to begin with.  Anyway, these weird kind of, sort of, sometimes invisible monsters that look like a blend of a dog, reptile and scorpion break into the museum and chase Carnby and Aline for a while.  Then a military group shows up, shoots the dogorpions, and the field leader, Burke (Stephen Dorff), belittles Carnby for being involved.  If that makes no sense to you, congratulations, you're sane.  Apparently, Carnby used to be part of this military group, but he quit for the exciting life of the paranormal investigator.  Burke hates him for that.  Or something else.  You never find out.  But he hates Carnby and refuses to accept his help.  Until he changes his mind.  And then more super-powered people show up and kill a bunch of soldiers.  And then Carnby, Aline, and Burke figure out where the dogorpions are coming from and go there to attack the source.  Will they succeed?  Or will they just suck?

Here are just a few ridiculous things about this movie:
  • The main characters are never actually alone in the dark.
  • All travel scenes are done with long shots of vehicles and voice over.  Cheap.
  • Christian Slater and Tara Reid have a sex scene, where she keeps her bra on.  I certainly don't want to see her mangled boobs again, but that's just weird.  It's not like she was cast for her acting ability, so the lack of nudity is absolutely befuddling.
  • How do they find the location of the dogorpion source?  By combining Abkani artifacts so that they make a tower, which somehow indicates a constellation, which helps pinpoint a geographic land mass, which appears to be the United States.  Pin and point!
  • An abandoned scientific lab has power, twenty-odd years after being abandoned.

This is just a mess.  Characters come and go, with no points of reference to indicate how close they are to danger.  The super-powered bad guys turn out to be sort of zombies, which somehow connects to the prologue, but not very well.  The special effects are cartoony, and even the lack of light on the set doesn't disguise it.  Characters change their personalities on a dime and randomly prioritize things.  Hey, Stephen Dorff, you've left dozens of your soldiers after they've died, but when time is a factor in the plot, you all of a sudden have to save an undoubtedly dead guy?  C'mon!  These obvious flaws are kind of funny, but the movie isn't any fun to watch.  I can like me some Lefty Gold when I find it, but this was just a draining experience.

This was a bad movie from start to finish.  And, when I say "start," I am referring to the start of pre-production.  It didn't stay true to the tone of the games and it doesn't feel like a horror movie.  The action sequences are boring and stupid.  The plot was unintentionally incomprehensible.  On paper, you would think that casting Tara Reid as the resident smart person in the movie would be the film's biggest mistake, but that pales in comparison to all the story problems.  I'm convinced that Uwe Boll doesn't understand the concept of storytelling.  In the unrated version (which I have not seen), Boll allegedly re-cut the film radically, virtually eliminating Reid from the final product.  Now, I'm not going to lie and say that Tara Reid is a fine actress, but her involvement was far from the worst thing about Alone in the Dark.  The fact that Boll would misunderstand his product's shortcomings that much makes me hope never to see another of his movies again.  I probably will, because they all look hilarious, but I should probably see this film as a lesson in how bad movies can be.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Wolfman (Unrated)

Hollywood and the American public have a short memory.  That's a good thing, since Hollywood loves to remake films.  Sometimes it works, like with Dawn of the Dead (2004), The Maltese Falcon (1941), or Batman (1989).  Sometimes it fails spectacularly, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) or Psycho (1998).  Most of the time, though, remakes fail to leave any mark on the public consciousness ("Jeff Daniels was in a King Kong remake?  The Dumb and Dumber guy?"), and usually deservedly so.  The Wolfman is a remake of the 1941 movie, The Wolf Man, which starred Lon Chaney Jr. in his signature role.  This time, the ill-fated Lawrence Talbot is played by Benicio del Toro.  Will his interpretation be the one that we remember, or will it fade into obscurity over time?

You know a character is going to be a fun-loving party dude when his first scene has him playing Hamlet on the stage, despite being at least ten years older than the character.  That is where we find Lawrence Talbot in 1891 London, just before he is informed of his brother's disappearance by Gwen (Emily Blunt), who is engaged to he missing brother.  His brother lived on their family estate with their father, so Lawrence boards a train for his home town of Blackmoor; on the train Lawrence encounters a stranger (Max von Sydow), who wants to give Lawrence a fine cane with a silver wolf's head for the handle.  Lawrence refuses the kind offer, only to jerk himself awake the next moment, alone in the compartment.  But look...!  The cane is where the man was sitting.  Or was he?  The mystery will remain forever unsolved, because this scene was apparently cut from the theatrical version and has no bearing on the core plot.  Thanks for showing up, Max. 

Lawrence arrives home and greets his estranged father, Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins), who is a weird guy.  Think latter day Ted Nugent meets that creepy, quiet guy who stares at people in the library.  The reason the two men are estranged has something to do with the suicide of Lawrence's mother (Christina Contes), although it's not clear exactly why.  Anyway, the missing Talbot brother has turned up dead, so Lawrence goes to the morgue and takes a look.  Apparently, his brother was delicious, because there's not much left of him.  Lawrence then returns to London to use this tragedy as fuel for his dramatic tendencies, the end.

"Hey, that's not how it goes!"  No kidding.  We all know that Lawrence is going to get bitten by a werewolf.  Just like all werewolf movies, there are going to be scenes where he is physically changing, but has no idea what's happening to him, and just like all werewolf movies, his werewolf self will attack some people, probably fatally.  That's the problem with remaking classic movies.  Even if the audience is not familiar with original film, they have been exposed to its plot elements in other films that were influenced by the original.  And since this is a serious film, you know just as certainly that the werewolf won't be playing basketball or singing along to "Werewolves of London." 

The Wolfman does a good job of staying true to the original material, for better or for worse.  Technically, this is a pretty good looking film.  The cinematography captures the creepy vibe that Gothic horror requires.  The action sequences are entertaining, filled with high-quality gore.  I don't know what this unrated version included that the theatrical did not, but I'm guessing it might involve some of the near-disembowelings.  The special effects, while good, sometimes feel out of place, though.  When Lawrence transforms into a werewolf, the transformation process looks like a character from Beowolf was transposed over Benicio del Toro.  Once he's fully transformed and in makeup, he looks great.  Unfortunately, having noticeable CGI in a movie set in the 1890s feels anachronistic.  That's not the only instance of that problem; the city of London looks fake at points, and the werewolves, when they run, appear surprisingly weightless.  Details like that add up quickly over two hours.

The acting and directing also have strong moments and weak ones.  Benicio del Toro is good in his werewolf persona, but his human self is awkward and uninteresting.  Anthony Hopkins does a good job with his nonverbal actions, coming across as someone who enjoys the thrill of the hunt, but I felt that he just mailed in the rest of his performance.  I'm pretty sure his explanation of his character would be "How about a jerk that is thinking about other things when you speak to him?"  Emily Blunt was fine, but she and del Toro never had the chemistry you need for a convincing love story.  That leaves Hugo Weaving, who played a Scotland Yard detective investigating the murders, as the only important part that was acted well.  You could (and should) blame director Joe Johnston for the film's acting problems, but he didn't do a bad job.  None of the acting (except maybe Hopkins) was bad, it was just very reserved.  I liked the way he told the story, even if I didn't particularly like the script.

I think the biggest obstacle to this film was setting it in Victorian England.  I understand that Gothic horror stories take place in the Victorian era, but it is a time very far removed from the present.  When the first wave of classic horror movies were made (Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man), they were set about fifty years in the past, instead the120 years that now separate the present from Victorian times.  I think that time difference makes it more difficult to identify with the characters.  The best movies that use this time period are the ones that use the notoriously repressed Victorian emotions and show the passions that lay beneath the calm exterior.  So, basically, romances.  Modern horror movies set in this time period don't have the luxury of convincing love stories, and that is one of the main reasons that Bram Stoker's Dracula was underwhelming and why Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was so painful to watch.  The Wolfman is filled with characters that are humorless and devoid of passion, and that makes this visually attractive movie less than stellar.

This film is not devoid of quality.  I thought the action was well done (except for the final battle --- that was lame) and I liked how bloody it was.  This movie definitely had promise, but it was handicapped by the filmmakers' desire to stay true to the original.  It ended up being pretty predictable (which I can deal with in remakes) and the characters were left emotionally undeveloped (which is never a good choice).  When you add it all up, you are left with yet another forgettable Hollywood remake.