Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Presumed Innocent

Based on the Scott Turow novel of the same name, Presumed Innocent was a bit of a novelty when it was released in 1990.  It is a legal drama that was released mid-summer, amongst all the explosions and blockbusters in movies like Total Recall, Robocop 2, Die Hard 2, and Another 48 Hours.  To say that summer was a little light on intelligent movies is an understatement.  Nevertheless, this quiet drama held its own and became a hit in its own right.  This is also one of the biggest movies at the time to take an interest in forensic science; while I think we have all been CSI-ed to death by now, it was a pretty risky move at the time.  Out of the context of an unusually testosterone-fueled summer and after forensic knowledge has become somewhat commonplace, though, can Presumed Innocent stand the test of time?

Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi), a county prosecutor, has been raped and murdered.  Her boss, Raymond Horgan (Brian Dennehy), is in the midst of the fight of his professional career as he tries to hold his position through the upcoming election; Horgan can't allow the murder of one of his people go unsolved and still win the election.  Knowing this, Horgan puts his best man, Rusty Sabich (Harrison Ford) on the case.  Rusty reluctantly takes it.  He had a secret affair with Carolyn that ended only a few months earlier; he's made it up to his wife, Barbara (Bonnie Bedelia), since then, but she's not too happy with Carolyn being on her husband's mind, dead or not.  As the evidence trickles in, it becomes apparent that the state should have a pretty good case against whoever they accuse --- they have semen in the victim and a glass with fingerprints found at the scene of the crime --- but the crime scene has an unnatural, staged feel to it.  The police become convinced that the perpetrator must have some knowledge of crime scene investigations and did their best to cover their tracks.  Who would have such knowledge?  A police officer, a private detective, or a prosecutor that had a romantic relationship with the victim, perhaps?

What makes Presumed Innocent work is its approach.  Many times, legal dramas take disinterested main characters and have them defend someone against a case that is overwhelmingly against them; surprise, surprise, they tend to beat the rap and every third of fourth one of these movies reveals that the defendant was actually a bad person.  This movie skips the intermediate character, and that makes it a lot more interesting.  You don't know whether or not Rusty Sabich has committed the murder in question, so seeing him assemble a defense makes the situation much more immediate.  This isn't a moral tale, either, so Rusty's guilt is almost beside the point.  This is a movie where circumstantial evidence damned a man and how he fought back against that very frightening situation.  After all, is there anything more frightening (in the legal system) than being found guilty of something you didn't do?

Harrison Ford turns in a typically understated and accomplished performance in the lead role.  Since his character must be believable as either an innocent or guilty man, he had the difficult task of playing a character that must be likable, but not too likable.  When in doubt, Ford tries to sound tired, and it's effective.  The rest of the cast was suitable for this drama, but I wouldn't say that any of their performances were particularly noteworthy.  Brian Dennehy comes across as a total bastard in the courtroom, but aside from that, the main supporting cast members (Raul Julia and Bonnie Bedelia) are solid, if unimpressive.  The movie also has a number of recognizable actors in small supporting roles.  Veteran actors Paul Winfield, John Spencer, and Joe Grifasi all take on simple roles of law and order.  There are also two child actors of note in the film.  You might recognize the abused child in the film, Joseph Mazzello, as the annoying kid from Jurassic Park.  Here, you get to hear Harrison Ford slowly repeat the phrase "Mommy hurt my head" several times in reference to him.  Jesse Bradford plays Rusty's son and, for some unfathomable reason, has pennant for both the Packers and Vikings up on his bedroom walls; as a Bears fan, I began hoping Rusty was guilty after I noticed that. 
That was, like, months ago.  Live in the now, jerks.
I liked Alan J. Pakula's work as the director and co-writer of the screenplay.  He kept the technical jargon to a bare minimum, making this a story that was less about the facts as it was the perception of them.  That was a good choice, especially at the time, because scientific terminology can cause a serious case of audience eye-glazing.  I thought he handled the actors well; there is no furniture-biting courtroom scene, the legal addresses were not overly dramatic --- this is a drama that feels surprisingly realistic.  The story requires a few sex scenes, which Pakula provides, but they're not terribly explicit, which also keeps the focus on the drama.

If Presumed Innocent was a ship, it would have nothing but smooth sailing.  That can be good, or that can be boring.  While this is a pretty effective drama, it is one that very quiet and realistic (read: a little dull).  There are no standout characters, the dialogue isn't very memorable, and the camerawork is conventional.  This is a well-made movie, but it depends on you being fascinated by the story.  If, like me, you are able to quickly deduce the basics of the crime, the film loses some of its luster.  I'm not blaming the film for that; as time has passed, the average American has gained familiarity with this sort of evidence and the ways it can be manipulated.  I can appreciate the movie as being pretty good in a number of different ways, but when all is said and done, police procedurals have dulled the effect of this story, making it feel older than a drama this well-made should.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Thing (1982)

My first experience with John Carpenter was Ghosts of Mars, which is pretty terrible.  When I left the theater after the movie, I remember wondering aloud why someone would want to put their name above the title of something so obviously bad.  In the intervening years, I have seen many other Carpenter movies, and now know that the man is capable of directing some truly great films and some truly unfortunate ones.  With that understanding and wisdom, I approached John Carpenter's The Thing for the first time.

It is winter in Antarctica, 1982.  Because you need to know what season it is to justify snow in Antarctica.  The American research station down there is taken by surprise when they hear gunfire and a helicopter approaching; it is a chopper from the Swedish research station, and they appear to be trying to shoot a dog.  The dog, being fairly smart, decides to run to the American camp for cover; the Swedes, who managed to miss the dog several times over several miles, despite having a sniper rifle, accidentally crash their helicopter.  Before the Americans can react, a surviving Swede leaves the wreckage of the chopper, tries to shoot the dog, and instead shoots an American in the leg.  That's enough for the Americans to put the Swede down.
Not only are the Swedes crap shots, but their winter clothing choices are very suspect.  Is it ever warm enough for bikinis in Sweden?

So...why were the Swedes trying to murder a dog?  Helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) and another researcher, Copper (Richard Dysart) fly to the Swedish research center to find out.  What do they find?  Dead people and signs of attack.  They also find some evidence that the Swedes had found something buried within some very old ice, as well as a mostly burned and at least partially human corpse.  So...what does any of this have to do with a Thing?
Aunt Petunia's favorite nephew wants answers or royalty checks, Carpenter!

Well, it seems that the Swedes dug up a frozen alien that can assimilate any animal and then assume its form.  For instance, it can (more or less) eat/absorb a person and then walk around looking like that person.  So, if you know there's a Thing in your group, you don't know who to trust.  It's not limited to just people, though.  In fact, there will soon be proof that it can disguise itself as a dog...

The Thing is an adaptation of the famous science fiction story Who Goes There? by legendary sci-fi editor John W. Campbell.  It is also sometimes credited as a remake of sci-fi movie classic The Thing From Another World, but the two are pretty significantly different; let's just say they take their inspiration from the same source and adapt it to their needs. 

All right, let's get the obvious stupidness out the way early.  In a movie where you don't know who to trust, the smart thing to do is to stay together as much as possible.  This is a sci-fi movie with more than a little bit of horror thrown into the mix, so it's safe to say that the characters are not that smart.  To be fair, the alien enters their group before they have any knowledge of its abilities, and they do make some efforts to stay in groups, but there are several occasions when the characters go off on their own anyway.  That is, by far, the weakest part of this story, so you might as well know that now.  If you can't get past that, I understand.  However, if you are willing to look past that obvious bit of horror movie idiocy, I think you'll really like this movie.

The cast is all male, which shouldn't be important, but I think it is.  How many survival-type movies throw in an unnecessary romantic interest?  And, since this was made in 1982, there is no hint of a homosexual romance, either, so there's no chance for any whiskey-soaked winter nights with Kurt Russell, fellas.  That gender casting allows this film to focus on the story with no subplots, which is nice.  "But what about Adrienne Barbeau?"  Okay, fine, the old school DOS-wannabe computer in the film is voiced by her, but I don't think that should count.  This movie focuses on suspense, which is exactly what you want when the question is "Who can you trust?"

The acting isn't fantastic, but it is definitely solid for a plot-driven movie.  Kurt Russell is pretty cool as the level-headed lead, and he comes across as believable as someone willing to do whatever it takes to solve this Thing problem.  This was only his second important non-Disney movie role at the time, so seeing him be such a tough guy was, at the time, an impressive stretch for Russell.  Wilford Brimley, who I don't normally care for (unless he's being a curmudgeon), was pretty awesome as the doctor who realizes the whole you-can't-trust-anyone problem early in the film and freaks the hell out.  Plus, you get to see some one knock him the eff out, and that was awesome.
He gets laid out in this movie.  Take that, diabetes!
This was Keith David's first credited film role (he was an extra in the Francis Ford Coppola-directed spinoff Disco Godfather), and I liked him.  David is a pretty solid supporting actor, even if he is often in mediocre movies, but this was a pretty impressive debut.  There are some other recognizable actors in the movie, like Donald Moffat, David Clennon, T.K. Carter (from Good Morning, Miss Bliss fame), and Richard Drysart, but they are mostly just adequate supporting cast members.

I really liked John Carpenter's direction with this film.  I love that he keeps the story taut, I like that none of the actors are too melodramatic (a hard task, when just about every character freaks out in a movie), and I really liked that he was able to step back and let other people handle certain tasks in the film.  Carpenter is kind of a one man film force, often directing, writing, and scoring his films, so it was nice to see him make an enjoyable collaborative movie.  The score is done by Ennio Morricone, and while it's no The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, it's still pretty good.  More importantly, it's not synthesizer-heavy for a change, like so many Carpenter scores.  The script was written by Bill Lancaster, the guy who did The Bad News Bears.  While that may not sound like a good fit for this movie, I thought he did a perfectly satisfactory job.  More importantly, that division of labor allowed Carpenter to spend more time working with the special effects (most of which were handled by The Howling and Star Wars veteran Rob Bottin), which made this movie so noteworthy.

Yes, the special effects in this movie are definitely the main attraction.  Why?  For starters, the dog monster.
These special effects all happen on-camera, which makes them extra awesome to watch.  Are they gross and slimy?  Absolutely.  Are they twisted and weird?  Most definitely.  Do they look good by today's standards?  Let me put it to you this way: The Thing is as good of an argument as you're going to find for good old-fashioned special effects and make-up.  It's that impressive.

The other thing I like about the movie is that it approaches the problem with logic.  Well, aside from letting people wander off on their own, it does.  There isn't an extended period of time where the audience knows what the problem is and the characters keep walking into traps.  The Thing is identified early and treated like the threat it is.  For me, that's the most important part of this movie.  I hate watching potentially good films waste my time with stupid characters.  When things like this show up, the cast of The Thing mans up and gets to killing.
That no-nonsense approach, combined with the amazing special effects and otherwise respectable filmmaking makes The Thing better than perhaps it should be.  And if you really want to, you can look at the film as an allegory between the East and the West during the Cold War.  I don't particularly care to approach it like that, but the subtext is certainly there.  And the ending is as perfect of a guy-movie ending as you're going to find; just about any other director would have copped out a little bit at the end, but Carpenter created a pretty great conclusion that stayed true to the logic of the characters, and that deserves respect.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Operation: Endgame

When I saw the cast for Operation: Endgame, I wondered how I could have not heard a peep about this movie.  Seriously, it has Rob Corddry, Ellen Barkin, Zach Galifianakis, Ving Rhames, Maggie Q, Adam Scott, Joe Anderson (from last year's awesome The Crazies), Odette Yustman (from the awful The Unborn), Brandon T. Jackson (from Tropic Thunder), Emilie de Ravin (from...um...Maxim magazine, maybe?), Tim Bagley, Michael Hitchcock, Bob Odenkirk, and Jeffrey Tambor.  Admittedly, the cast isn't exactly full of Oscar winners, but I recognized every single billed actor.  Somehow, the familiarity of the stars didn't gather enough interest to get this theatrically released, so straight-to-DVD it went.

The premise here is pretty simple ridiculously convoluted.  There is a government agency that is in charge of super-secret black ops, but the agency was so dangerous (um...JFK, anybody?) that they needed to be kept in check.  However, they also needed to remain clandestine and shadowy.  So, the agency was split into two forces, Alpha and Omega, and they spend most of their time out-super-spying the other team, essentially canceling each other out.  Every member of Alpha and Omega is a deadly assassin, but each has their own particular skill set.  Each member also hands over any weapons as they enter the office every day and they are only referred to by their Tarot card-related code-names.  And yes, these super-secret assassins all work out of the same cubicle-filled office.  The movie begins with Fool (Joe Anderson) coming in for his first day of work, and we experience all the weirdness with him.  It's not all fun and murder, though; the boss for the two teams, The Devil (Jeffrey Tambor), gets himself killed and a fail-safe self-destruction program is set off.  Alpha and Omega have about an hour and twenty minutes (or, the run time for the movie) to either escape the escape-proof office, or disable the bomb.  You would think that would lead to cooperation between the two groups, but instead, it leads to lots and lots of killing with non-traditional weapons.
Improbably sharp paper cutter, meet shockingly dead-eyed actress.

I'm not going to focus much on the acting in this movie, because there isn't really a whole lot of it.  The dialogue is surprisingly funny for a direct-to-DVD release, but other than that, everybody is in this movie until they get killed.  I am surprised that I actually enjoyed Rob Corddry in this movie; it's pretty much the same bit he always does, but a little less desperate and more vulgar this time.  Ellen Barkin was also surprisingly funny and shockingly good looking for a woman her age.  There were no other surprises in the mix, as far as the actors go.

The dialogue is the star of this movie.  Every character is impressively witty and most are creative with their cussing and sexual references.  Corddry and Barkin clearly had a great time saying so many awful things, but they had the lion's share of the good lines.  Many of the actors spoke three or four lines total before getting killed, so it was hard to actually like any of the characters.  That's kind of the point, though; these people are so evil that they supposedly have to kill a puppy to join the agency.  Even the less evil characters, like the guys observing all the action on closed-circuit video feeds (Tim Bagley and Michael Hitchcock), are hard to like; in their case, it's because they're just there as reactionary characters that say "Ooh, gross!" when someone gets killed.  Since every character is a deadly assassin, there are no innocents in this movie.  Since there are no innocents in the movie, it's a lot harder to pinpoint who to like.  In the end, you end up rooting for whoever you think is the funniest, and then they probably get killed.

There is a huge body count in this movie.  It's not just the less famous actors who die, either.  Every character is willing and able to kill any other character, so you might find yourself surprised at who dies when.  Unfortunately, you probably won't be surprised by the ones who die last.  This is a movie that wants to feel unpredictable, but once the movie is halfway through, you should have a pretty good idea on how it's going to end.  That's not necessarily a bad thing (in broad strokes, anyway), but it is if the movie is putting a lot of effort into being clever.

The movie's not bad, but it's nowhere near as awesome as its script thinks it is.  I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the first half of the movie, but it started getting formulaic and was pretty dull toward the end.  This movie worked a lot better with (most of) the characters alive than it did with them dead.  I like dick jokes as much as the next guy, but many of the characters used distinctly different types of sarcasm; the main ones left standing toward the end were basically telling the same jokes coming from different mouths.
Yeah, that's how I felt when the movie ended, too.

This was director Fuoad Mikati's first movie, and it's not a ad first effort.  He lets the actors do their thing --- I'm guessing that he didn't handle them much, since they all act about as well as ever --- and he keeps the pace moving.  Personally, I would have significantly cut down on Bagley and Hitchcock's screen time, but the movie wasn't even an hour and a half long, so it's not like they broke up the flow of the movie.  they were just annoying.  The special effects indicate that this was a pretty low-budget for what is essentially a funny action movie, so I think Mikati did a decent job with what he had to work with.

Having said that, I ended up not enjoying this movie.  It had potential and there were a decent amount of funny one-liners, but that's about all it had.  It misused most of the cast, killing several characters off early for shock value and not getting anything more than that.  The story throws a couple of twists in, but the plot is so convoluted and stupid that you never care why things are happening, as long as Corddry gets to insult Barkin's vagina again.  He does.  And she gives a rebuttal.  But that's only kind of funny.  The action takes up a lot of the film, but it's not all that amazing, probably because it is performed mainly by comedians.  Ugh, and Bagley and Hitchcock end up spending waaaaay too much time commenting on the fights they are watching; in an action movie, do you want to react to an awesome kill, or do you want some other, Rob Schneider-like character do it for you?  I would have called this a perfectly mediocre movie, but I really hated those two guys.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Long Good Friday

I do a lot of reading of lists and things like that to find interesting movies to watch.  I'm not always in the mood for a great movie (or even a good one), but it's nice to have a little insight into titles that I might otherwise ignore.  That's what brought me to the British Film Institute's 100 "Favourite" Brit flicks of the 20th century.  Many of the films I was familiar with, but The Long Good Friday was the first title (coming in at an impressive #21) that I had never even heard of.  So, with Easter right around the corner, I thought this an appropriate time for a viewing.

Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) is that oh-so-dangerous kind of gangster --- the type that is trying to finally go legit, and therefore has the most to lose.  He has an iron fist on London's organized crime and he has a finger in every dirty little pie (except drugs) in England's greatest city.  Harold has managed to keep the peace between the various criminal groups that he oversees for over a decade, and now (which is in 1979) he is on the cusp of two truly important moves.  He has visiting New York mobsters coming in to possibly give him financing that will allow him to buy up enough (decrepit) London dockyard land and influence enough votes to have London host the 1988 Olympics and build their Olympic town on his land.  The American mobsters get their dirty cash laundered, Harold has a legitimate source of income from the land deals, the city gets a boost of revenue, and all sorts of politicians and policemen get their palms greased.  Best of all, nobody gets killed because it's all mostly legal.  That's better than win-win, it's win-win-win-win-win.  There's just one problem.  On the Good Friday that the American mobsters come to visit, Harold's men start to die in spectacular ways.  His mother's driver is killed by a car bomb, his casino has a bomb in it, two of his best men are found dead; as the day goes on, the bodies and explosions keep piling up.  Who would dare, after a decade of peace, take on the proverbial King Kong of London's criminal underground?  Who could even think of it?  Harold has long since killed his rivals.  Whoever it is, Harold has no problem going to his most savage lengths to find the guilty party.  But what does he do when it is clear that savagery isn't enough?
It's hard to act like a tough thug when you're hanging by a meat hook.

While you might not know the names of the actors in this film, they are all pretty recognizable British actors.  Paul Freeman (Belloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark) has a small, but pivotal, role in the beginning of the movie.  P.H. Moriarty and Alan Ford (the villains from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, respectively) play some of Harold's thugs; Moriarty was pretty impressive as the knife-loving Razors.  Dexter Fletcher (another Lock, Stock alum) makes an early appearance as an ugly child.  Paul Barber (The Full Monty) gets his hands nailed to a floor to make him tell the truth.  Kevin McNally (Johnny's Depp's drunken buddy in all the Pirates movies) has a bit scene in a bar.  Most of these actors had pretty small roles in the film, but most of them have at least one memorable scene.  Heck, Pierce Brosnan, in his first film role, had a major supporting role as a very hairy-chested assassin. 
James Bond: the bathhouse years.

The film belongs to the lead actors, though.  Bob Hoskins is terrific as the street-level thug trying to be a gentleman, especially as that gentlemanly facade is slowly stripped away and we get to see just how brutal he is.  You don't see a whole lot of physically evocative performances from British films in general, but it was all but unheard of in the late-70s/early-80s; the best British films of the time tended to be epic and theatrically acted.  Seeing Hoskins gnashing his teeth together and seething with violence while wearing a fancy suit was a treat.  This is a performance that pre-dates --- and, in some ways, overshadows --- James Gandolfini's Sopranos role by over two decades.  But what sets this movie apart from other gangster movies, at least in the character department, comes from Helen Mirren's portrayal of Harold's girlfriend.  She could have played the typical gangster moll, but (at her insistence, I've heard) her character is smart, sophisticated, and is definitely the brains behind Harold's brawn.  Can you tell me the last time you saw a gangster movie where the lead female role was equal in power to the male lead?  I can't think of any, but you're welcome to try.  This is the youngest I've ever seen Mirren (she was in her mid-thirties at the time), so I was a little surprised to see her as, well...young and pretty.  While her part was definitely a supporting role, I thought her calm and collected smarts stole the scenes she was in.

I'm not too familiar with John Mackenzie's body of work as a director, but he obviously did a pretty good job with the actors here.  I love that the beginning of the film lays out some problems, but doesn't explain them until much later; this might be confusing at first, but I thought that showing what happened, but not hearing the dialogue in most of the scenes or knowing the context of the actions was an interesting (and ultimately rewarding) choice.  I wish I could say the same for some of Mackenzie's other choices.  Many scenes go on too long, adding little or nothing to the overall story and the score, while modern at the time, sounds positively archaic now.  I liked how he handled the actors and assembled the story, but I have to admit that the movie drags at times.

What sets this movie apart from your typical gangster movie is the problem it poses.  The police aren't getting in Harold's way, because he pays them not to.  Politicians aren't making a stink about it, because Harold pays them not to.  Harold's enemies aren't causing all these problems, because they're all dead.  As the enemy is slowly revealed, things start to make sense, especially once the motives for the attacks become apparent.  What I really liked about this movie was how it found an enemy that could take on mobsters and plausibly win.  The script was handled intelligently and it definitely spoke to some of the reality of 1970s Britain.
I will probably watch this again, and I might appreciate it a little more the next time around.  Even if I don't it's still pretty darn good.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Nowhere Boy

Okay, I admit it.  I am a huge Beatles fan.  Seriously, it's ridiculous.  Being a fairly eccentric indie rock fan, I sometimes get a little crap from my buddies when I list the Beatles as my favorite group, but what can I do?  They were just so good!  I have every album, know almost every song by heart, have read books about the band...I have a genuine overload of Beatle information.  In fact, I am such a fan that I cannot stand hearing others play their songs.  Call me a purist, but Beatles covers make me grind my teeth on a good day; on a bad day, I leave bodies in my wake.  Needless to say, I've avoided watching Across the Universe, if only for the health of my loved ones.  Nowhere Boy is a little different.  It chronicles a chapter in the early (pre-Beatles) life of John Lennon.  I'm not usually a fan of biopics, especially for historical figures I am familiar with, but this is an interesting concept.  Can a complete story be told about a boy that would soon become a superstar?

John Lennon (Aaron Johnson) is living with his kinda stuck-up Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her fun-loving (AKA mostly drunk) husband, George (David Threlfall), when George suddenly dies.  At George's funeral, John notices Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), his mother in attendance.  That tragedy serves as a gateway to John's artistic birth.  He meets and befriends the mother that abandoned him, rebels against the only woman who raised him, and begins to dabble in the nascent art of rock and roll.  And that's it.  This is the story of John meeting Julia after being raised without her, and how that shaped him on his way to fame.

Like I mentioned before, I hate Beatles covers.  Thank goodness this movie focuses accurately on the songs that John sang and wrote in this time period.  Yes, there are some familiar songs for casual fans ("Maggie Mae," one of the worst tracks from Let It Be), but the rest of the soundtrack is either vintage 1950s rock or Beatles Anthology 1 early tracks.  I can live with that.  Actually, I really like the first generation of rock music, so this soundtrack is pretty hep by my standards.
Why is the kid from Love Actually teaching Buddy Holly the guitar?

But enough with the music.  What about the acting?  Aaron Johnson does a surprisingly good job of emulating John Lennon.  This isn't an impression, like in so many other biopics (Jamie Foxx, I'm looking at you), but a performance that clearly took a few cues from Lennon's habits and based a performance off them.  Johnson doesn't really look or sound all that much like Lennon, but I think that make shis performance seem more natural and less forced; besides, he totally captures the spirit of the man, from his oftentimes dick-ish behavior to the way he formed questions-that-aren't-really-questions.  Since this is the story of John Lennon, Johnson obviously carries the majority of the film's dramatic weight, but his supporting cast is pretty good.  Kristin Scott Thomas manages to convey guarded affection and traditional British properness.  Anne-Marie Duff was a little unsettling in her portrayal of Julia, indicating that she was both a free spirit and (probably) a manic-depressive; I am still a little weirded out by how sexually tempting she was shown to be around teenage boys, but I don't know enough facts to cry foul, so I'll just leave it at weird.  I thought David Morrissey did a good job as John's not-quite step-father; he managed to indicate concern for his family without being outright hostile with the young John.  I was particularly impressed by Thomas Sangster's performance as Paul McCartney; it's always nice to see a small but powerful role underplayed.

This is the first film directed by conceptual artist Sam Taylor-Wood, and she did a pretty good job.  I thought the actors were all handled well, with only a few moments leaning toward overacting (but at least they were the appropriate moments).  I loved how the soundtrack fit in with the film.  Aside from that, the movie was pretty standard, as far as direction and visuals go.  A lot of the credit for the movie should go to Matt Greenhalgh's tight script; he managed to include significant character development in both emotional and visual terms, which isn't always easily done.

Now, you might wonder how historically accurate Nowhere Boy is.  After all, it is a biopic, right?  The answer is...pretty accurate, which is damn good for a movie.  As far as I can tell, from my hours of reading as a teenager and the two minutes of internet research I conducted today, the only crime this film commits is by seriously condensing the timeline of the movie.  In real life, these events took place over seven years, but the film makes it feel like less than two years.  Still, the basic characters and their flaws are included, so I don't really mind.

There was some minor controversy surrounding this movie at its release, but it had nothing to do with the film itself.  Aaron Johnson and his director, Sam Taylor-Wood, got pregnant and engaged shortly after the movie finished filming.  What's the big deal?  He's 23 years younger than her, which is against the natural order of things (right, Jack Nicholson?).
When did Demi Moore dye her hair?
As for the movie itself, I actually liked it, despite my personal inclinations to hate anything Beatle-related that happened after 1970.  What does that mean for the average (non-Beatle-psycho) person?  This is an interesting drama with some good performances, and it provides some insight onto one of the 20th century's most famous people.  I won't argue that the story arc is totally satisfying, or that the movie is full of nuance or powerhouse performances, but I liked it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


My friends at NoBulljive suggested that I check Solarbabies out because it is really "...something."  That might not sound like a glowing recommendation to you, but I watch a lot of movies that are, at best, really...something...so, I thought I'd give this one a shot.

Wow.  Bad idea.  Kids, don't do as Donnie Don't does.
Catch a rerun instead of this movie, please.
In a post-apocalyptic future, what do you think the world will be like?  If you answered "a desert wasteland that is surprisingly roller skate friendly," then you hit the nail on the head.  Unfortunately, you hit it with your face.  Yes, the future is a dire time period and it is in need of some heroes.  I know what you're thinking..."We don't need another hero, we don't need to know the way home.  All we want is life beyond Thunderdome."  Well, what if I told you that in this desert-y future, orphans are kept in medium security prison-like facilities?  And the primary way for these orphans to rebel is to sneak out late at night and play each other in a game that is apparently a cross between lacrosse and roller skating?  And furthermore, what if I told you that a sentient, super-powered orb shows up and helps the kids escape their prison and topple the evil regime?  You would probably say that sounds like a terrible, terrible movie.  And you would be right.

Solarbabies (taken from the main characters' rollercrosse team name) is not exactly an acting tour de force.  Sure, it boasts Jason Patric in his first movie, but it also shows off some early work from Jami Gertz, Peter DeLouise, James LeGros, Lukas Haas and the apparently time-proof Adrian Pasdar.
What makes his hair even better is the fact that he plays a roller skating falconer.
There are some veterans in the cast to try and add legitimacy to this movie, but Richard Jordan isn't the sort of actor you want to headline your movie.  Unless, of course, your movie is about post-apocalyptic roller skating teens who befriend a glowing orb named Bohdai.  Charles Durning, on the other hand, is a much better actor, but his part is minuscule (and surprisingly sweaty).  Despite all that, the acting isn't too awful.  It is, by no stretch of the imagination, good.  It isn't as bad as the film premise might suggest, though.  They act poorly, but it is obvious that they have all memorized their lines and can deliver their ridiculous dialogue with a straight face.  I find it interesting that this movie was directed by Alan Johnson, who is most famous for providing choreography for Mel Brooks' movies; it's interesting because the man clearly was familiar with stupid comedy, but opted to make this film stupidly serious.
An actual publicity shot for Solarbabies, which wisely chooses to have nothing to do with the movie.
I don't want to waste my time analyzing this movie, but here's a list of things that I laughed at in the film:
  • Their roller skates have lights to help with skating in the dark.
  • When given the task of disabling a camera that will, at any moment, report that the Solarbabies are escaping their prison, one of them chooses to try and break the camera by hitting a rock at it, baseball-style.  That has to be a fairly unlikely path toward success.
  • Roller.  Skating.  Falconer.
  • There is apparently still hair dye after the apocalypse.
  • Roller skating is apparently very easy on dirt roads.
  • The police cars look like Darth Vader helmets on wheels.
  • Five good guys get captured by two bounty hunters, even after the hunters admit that they won't use lethal force.
  • Dogs have flashlights on their heads...to help track roller skates with flashlights on them, maybe?
  • Smokey Robinson provides the song for the credits, and it includes the name "Bodhai" frequently in the lyrics.
Leave it to a DeLouise to be happy about a bad movie.
Take one part Rollerball, two parts Mad Max, and thirty-six parts of suck, and you will get Solarbabies.  Now, you might be thinking that Solarbabies can't be as bad as the cabbage role at the Terra-Phelevo Penn, or the oatmeal at the Cook County slammer, but (in the immortal words of Matt "Guitar" Murphy) "they're all pretty bad."
That's half a star for Adrian Pasdar's hair, half a star for never relenting with the roller skate gimmick, and half a star for a post-apocalyptic rollercrosse team that instinctively knows the best team colors are found on the American flag, dammit!
You better think before you watch Solarbabies with Aretha.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

(500) Days of Summer

(I Hate) This Title
Toward the beginning of (500) Days of Summer, the main character argues that this is not a love story.  I don't know how accurate that statement is.  This is kind of a romantic comedy for dudes, in the grand tradition of High Fidelity.  In other words, it's a romantic comedy that is happy to point out how just how it is not conforming to the formulas of the traditional rom-com.  And yet, when you watch it, you get the distinct feeling that this is a romantic comedy.  Because it really, really, really feels like one, until you get to the end.  The ending reminded me of a song by one of my favorite bands, Pulp.  Here's their awful music video, complete with the finest British fashion, circa 1996.

The story is told in a non-linear fashion, with a note at the beginning of each new scene, pointing out where the scene lines up in the 500 days of Tom's story.  The basics of the story are not particularly unconventional.  Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who has studied to be an architect but works writing greeting cards, is immediately smitten when he meets the new girl at work.  Her name is Summer (Zooey Deschanel), and the day they meet is Day 1.  Summer is pretty fun and outgoing, but she doesn't let people get emotionally close to her; in other words, she's an awesome acquaintance, but not much of a friend.  Plus, she claims to not want a boyfriend.  Pshaw!  Isn't this a kinda sorta romantic comedy?  There must be some semblance of romance, right?
I think she's explaining why she sounds a little like Kermit when she sings in She & Him.

The nonlinear story structure is what makes this feel like a romantic comedy.  If it was told in chronological order, it wouldn't be very funny.  Most of the humor comes from juxtaposing different days in the 500 day time line, making the scenes seem comically at odds.  Sure, there's some good dialogue within the scenes themselves, but I don't think this would qualify as either very "romantic" or "comedic" without this story structure.

The acting in this movie is never bad, but you might recognize some of the characters as fairly generic.  I enjoyed Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance; I thought he hit the nail on the head as the single guy who is trying to decode the mystery of woman, with varying degrees of success.  If absolutely nothing else, I have to admit that I liked his character's wardrobe; I'm pretty sure I own every album featured on his band T-shirts.  His character is very likable, and it's easy to identify with him, even if he does get a little whiny at times.  His only flaw seems to be selling himself short, which isn't exactly the sort of character flaw that adds complexity to a character.  Zooey Deschanel once again plays an eccentric and somewhat flighty object of desire.  If that sounds familiar, it's because she has played this type of character a few times, notably in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, and I can totally buy her as an object of desire, but I haven't seen her in a role that's demanded much from her yet.  The rest of the cast is full of small parts.  Clark Gregg plays Tom's surprisingly kind stuffed shirt of a boss.  Matthew Gray Gubler is the friend that has a stable relationship and contributes almost nothing to the story until he has a speech about true love.  Chloe Moretz was pretty amusing as Tom's little sister and confidant; once again, she plays a character mature beyond her years, and she does a pretty good job of it.  Geoffrey Arend is Tom's idiot friend; I'm okay with Arend's performance here, but I just wanted to point out that he is married to Christina Hendricks.  That makes no damn sense to me.
Arend, master of mind control?
I should also point out Minka Kelly's brief appearance at the end of the film.  She didn't have a chance to do much, since her character's job was to just look pretty and say five or six lines, but her character is important to the story.

This was director Marc Webb's first feature film, and it's a pretty good debut.  I'm not exactly sure what about this movie got him the job directing the 2012 Spider-Man reboot, but he certainly shows some signs of talent in this film.  Nonlinear stories can be tricky to pull off on film, and they can appear gimmicky.  I don't see any way around the gimmicky thing; this would have been a far less interesting story if it was told in chronological order.  However, I think Webb pulled off the storytelling quite well.  He used a lot of strong images, along with the indicators as to what day happened when, to help the audience understand where each chapter fell within the overall story.  His use of locations and costumes definitely made the story easier to follow.  I also thought that he did a good job handling the overall tone of the film.  It's kind of funny, but not at the expense of the story.  It's kind of sad, but the humor balances it out.  I really enjoyed Webb's homages to other film genres; there is a short musical scene, one that is reminiscent of Italian cinema,and a touch of noir.

There really are a lot of things to like in this movie.  It doesn't play by the typical rules that we have come to know and expect in our romantic movies.  The direction and storytelling are pretty fun.  I feel like I should have enjoyed this far more than I did, because so many of the pieces seem right up my alley. 

Unfortunately, I don't think that this film is nearly as different as the filmmakers would want you to believe.  There are a lot of similarities here to other movies, some of them are obviously intentionally self-aware (the romantic comedy story arc, the film style homages, etc.) and some of them surprisingly oblivious (Tom's rant against the greeting card industry is surprisingly close to something out of High Fidelity).  Right off the bat, the story claims to not be a love story, and then it promptly manipulates the chronology of the story to fit the established formula of a love story; I understand that the writers were being clever with that, but it definitely felt too self-satisfied for my tastes.  Even the title tries to do something different, with the parentheses around "500," and, for reasons I can't really justify, irks me.

On the other hand, the story is quirky, the acting is pretty good (particularly Gordon-Levitt, who I am liking more and more) and the direction was especially good for a (not) romantic comedy.  I definitely enjoyed watching the movie, but it didn't have enough emotional impact to overcome a lack of explosions or utter coolness. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

There are tons of science fiction movies about aliens, but Close Encounters of the Third Kind really changed the genre.  When I think of alien movies, I think of alien invasion movies because, let's face it, that's pretty much the only type of alien movie that gets made.  Sure, you might get a comedy like *batteries not included or Paul, but those are the exceptions to the rule.  Alien movies typically feature fearsome enemies, hell-bent on destroying mankind or, at the very least, Danny Glover.
Everyone is too old for that shit.
Close Encounters takes a different approach, and I found my love for the sci-fi genre refreshed by that approach, especially after some of the crappy post-apocalyptic flicks I've reviewed recently.  It's also a plus to watch just about any movie scored by John Williams.

I normally like to take the time to explain the plot a bit in my reviews, but I'm going to skip that step today.  I tried to summarize the movie, but I never really did it any justice.  That could certainly be interpreted as incompetence on my part, but I feel that this is a film that focuses on a sense of discovery and wonder.  Explaining the movie undermines it.  But, briefly, I can say this: a "close encounter" is an alien sighting.  The first kind are UFO sightings, the second kind leave behind physical evidence, and the third kind involve actually meeting aliens.  Average joe Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) has a close encounter of the first (and second) kind, and the largest part of this movie focuses on his struggles in the aftermath of his encounter.

The acting in this film is very solid all around, but Richard Dreyfuss's surprisingly understated performance is what drives the movie.  I'm not a big fan of Dreyfuss, mostly because of his string of hammy roles in the late 90s, but he's actually really, really good here.  He shows great comedic timing, but is able to balance that with some very good dramatic acting, as well.  My favorite example of this is in the scene where he scares himself after his UFO sighting; it isn't funny because of the words in the script, but because his performance is so natural that you laugh because you can imagine doing the exact same thing.  Melinda Dillon doesn't get the chance to showcase as much range as Dreyfuss, but she plays a very good mom character (as evidenced by A Christmas Story) and her panic is surprisingly raw at times.  I also liked Teri Garr as Roy Neary's wife; most films would make her a supportive character, someone who believes her husband's crazy alien theories when no one else will.  Instead, her character did the all-too-believable thing and refused to believe in Neary's X-Files-worthy tale.  What's most impressive, though, is that she doesn't come off as a villain.  Francois Tuffaut makes a rare acting appearance here (he is a famous French director) as the French scientist studying the uptick in UFO activity, and he's perfectly serviceable in his role.  He doesn't really have much of an emotional stake in the story, but I thought he did a decent job.  His interpreter, played by Bob Balaban, is more well known for his straight-faced comedic roles, but he apparently can play it straight, too.

Director Steven Spielberg made Close Encounters right after Jaws, and it really shows his versatility.  Sure, he could make a scary monster movie, but what can he do with a concept picture?  Quite a bit, it turns out.  A lot of the discussions on Close Encounters focus on the special effects, and for good reason.  The different ways Spielberg indicates the presence of aliens without actually showing them are all pretty impressive.  I'm not exactly sure why all electrical devices turn on around aliens, but they make for some very memorable scenes.  And yes, the alien ships look pretty cool, especially for a movie made in 1977.  Focusing on that stuff misses the point of the movie, though.  This is an unusual story.  It's presented as a kind of mystery --- exactly what did they see? --- but, as an audience, we assume that we know the answer (hint: it rhymes with "baliens").  And since we know the answer, there really isn't a sense of revelation in the film.  And yet, it is a compelling movie.  Maybe it is the way Spielberg assembled the film, splicing the big picture involving the French scientist and his discoveries within the narrative of Dreyfuss's character, that makes the movie work.  Maybe it was the way that that "big picture" came together; the scenes in India were pretty cool.  Or maybe it is just the simplicity of the story: aliens want to meet us.  I'm not exactly sure what Spielberg does that captures so much innocent wonder about the unknown, but it is definitely what makes this film so impressive.
"The unknown" is apparently mashed potatoes.

I have to note that I watched the original theatrical version.  There are three versions of the movie available (all of which are in the new Blu Ray package): the original theatrical version, the Special Edition, and the Collector's Edition.  The Special Edition re-edits the movie, removing some scenes and adding a new ending, where we get to see inside the spaceship.  The Collector's Edition includes some of the edits of the Special Edition, but cuts the spaceship interior shots, leaving it to your imagination.  The original theatrical version features Carl Weathers in a small part that was cut in the subsequent versions, as well as a few other scenes that don't really add much to the overall story.
An actual screen shot of Weathers in Close Encounters.  He was easy to miss, I know.

Obviously, I really like this movie, but I am not blind to its flaws.  Its pace can seem glacial if you are not in the right mood to sit and watch it.  The laser light show at the end probably should have Pink Floyd playing instead of John Williams's five-note theme.  I'm not quite sure why electrical devices turn on around our little visitors, but I'm downright confused as to why mailboxes rock back and forth in their presence.  And why is there so much goodwill toward these aliens?  They kidnap people.  They implant images in our brains that compel us into certain actions.  They force creepy, hillbilly-esque people to whistle "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain."  And there's no R. Lee Ermey-type character in this film that wants to blow the little green men back to (space) hell?  That seems very unlikely.  And what about Richard Dreyfuss's character?  His life was ruined by the effects of his encounter, and yet he is enamored with the aliens.  That just doesn't make sense.

See?  I can critique the movie, even if I have trouble summarizing it.  Even with those problems, I still think it is great.  Science fiction is the result of our fascination with the unknown, but the genre rarely conveys that wonder on the big screen.  It's really nice to see a movie that celebrates that joy without being manipulative.

Friday, April 15, 2011


There aren't a whole lot of movies where a child plays a bad-ass.  Aside from Kick-Ass, I can't think of anything off the top of my head.  I think it's safe to say that the child-as-a-killer motif in American movies is relatively novel, and that alone makes Hanna an intriguing movie.  Combine the bad-ass child idea with a fairly artsy director (Joe Wright, best known for Atonement and Pride and Prejudice), and you just know that you're in for something different with this film.  A bad-ass chick flick, perhaps?  Perhaps...

Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) lives alone with her father, Erik (Eric Bana), in a cabin in the woods, located just outside of the Arctic Circle.  To say that they don't get out much is a bit of an understatement.  Erik has taught Hanna a variety of survival skills, including hunting, trapping, tanning animal hides, and basically everything you would need to live like a 17th century fur trapper.
Hanna is just like him, but with a little less 'stache.
All of that makes sense for a child growing up outside of civilization.  Erik has also taught Hanna a variety of fighting techniques, including a few martial arts, gunplay, and knife fighting.  He even tests her at random; whenever she feels safe (gutting a deer, sleeping in bed, or other typical child activities), he will attack her with potentially lethal force --- and she can get the better of him, sometimes.  That is quite a bit less common for children of any background.  You see, Hanna and Erik don't live in the forest for kicks, there are people "out there" who want to capture or kill them both, and will never leave them be.  Erik knows the dangers awaiting Hanna, but knows that she will have to deal with it some day; all children need to grow up eventually.  To that end, Erik has a tracking beacon of some sort that, when turned on, will set off alarms at the CIA, and bring their enemies to them; he gives it to Hanna, to turn on whenever she feels ready.  And she does.

The rest of the movie has Erik and Hanna splitting up and being hunted across the world.  Hanna is initially captured (after killing a few CIA agents) and placed in a ridiculous spy movie underground prison (which she kills her way out of), from where she travels, weaponless and penniless, from Morocco to Germany.  Along the way, she encounters a lot of firsts.  She witnesses electricity for the first time, hears her first music, sees her first dancing, meets her first family, makes her first friend, and has a first kiss (whose ass she totally kicks).  Oh, and she beats the hell out of some bad guys that were sent to find her.  There is a lot more to life that what she grew up with, but she will never be able to enjoy it, as long as she's being hunted.

Hanna is definitely an action movie, but what makes it unique is the fact that it is aware of the "real world," the "action movie world," and a world of fairy tales.  While I would hesitate to call Hanna a full-on chick flick, this is definitely one of the more complex action movies you will see, and one that takes pleasure in a lot of unexpectedly cute moments.

But it is an action movie, and a good one.  Director Joe Wright does a great job shooting the action sequences, especially for a first-time action director.  Instead of a lot of close-up shots that are edited together to the point of disorientation, Wright uses a lot of long shots, showing that the actors are the ones performing the action on-screen, which is especially important in convincing the audience that Hanna is actually formidable.  There are a lot of fight scenes that purposely aren't edited, so action buffs are treated to extended fight sequences that were filmed in continuous takes.  The most notable of these has Eric Bana going all "Hulk smash" on a group of CIA agents in a subway station, and it's pretty sweet.
"Hulk want push on swing!"
The acting is pretty good here, too, although the veteran cast played it pretty safe.  Saoirse Ronan was great as Hanna, balancing some very impressive action chops with believable innocence and confusion when she is out in the real world.  Her performance is the key of the film, and she does not disappoint, playing with a maturity beyond her 16 years.  Eric Bana was good as her protective/scary father, but he basically just played a tough guy that doesn't let his emotions out.  Not exactly the toughest role, but he pulls it off easily enough.  Cate Blanchett was okay as the film's villainous CIA operative, but I felt that she didn't seem ruthless enough, despite having several mean moments in the film.  Her southern accent bothered me, too, I'm not sure why.  There were a few other recognizable supporting cast members.  Tom Hollander was great as the evil German sent to track down Hanna; he was creepy and mean, but he also whistled and wore a yellow track suit, so it was an odd blend of absurd humor and creepiness.  Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng have small, broadly drawn character roles, but I thought Jessica Barden was pretty good as an annoying teenage girl that befriends Hanna.  I know, a teenage girl that hates her parents --- what a unique character!  Still, I thought she was appropriately snotty.

At the very least, Hanna is an entertaining action movie.  It's pretty awesome to see a slightly built teenage girl look like she is legitimately beating the crap out of tough-looking guys, even if some of them are wearing suspenders with their skinny jeans.  The story is pretty good, at least thematically.  There is a twist that isn't terribly surprising and probably should have been left out entirely, but it's played down, so I won't complain too much about it.  There is also a fairy tale theme throughout the film, and it may deepen your appreciation for the movie.  It didn't work for me, but you might like it.  Basically, this movie plays out like a Grimm fairy tale; Blanchett plays the evil queen/witch and Hanna is the innocent and good princess.  For most of the movie, this theme is pretty subtle, but when Blanchett walks out of a large fiberglass Big Bad Wolf head, the subtlety has been gone for about ten minutes.  I like it when directors and screenwriters try to add layers to movies, and I appreciate the effort here, but it just didn't click for me.
Silencers.  Just like in the fairy tales.
But don't let that stop you from seeing Hanna.  This is the type of action movie that only comes around every few years, and it's definitely worth seeing, if only to remind you how different action movies can be.  It has some humor, a good amount of emotion, some awesome fighting, and fairy tale stuff thrown in for good measure.  Plus, the soundtrack provided by the Chemical Brothers was pretty cool, too.  The closest film I can compare it to, in terms of how it made me feel, is The Professional.  And that's not a bad thing at all.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


When I think of spy movies, I'll be honest with you...spying isn't the first thing that comes to mind.  Instead, I imagine lots of action, witty banter, and beautiful (but dangerous) women.  Basically, I think of James Bond.  There are movies that actually deal with the whole spying part of being a spy, but they're relatively rare and usually pretty dramatic.  Hopscotch, aside from being a pretty horrible title for anything, especially a spy movie, is unusual because it is a spy movie about spies doing their spy stuff, but has almost no gunplay, little excitement, and isn't very dramatic.  In its defense, though, I don't think I want to see Walter Matthau as a James Bond-ish character.

Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) is one of the best field agents the CIA has in the Cold War.  He's not particularly daring or dangerous (he doesn't even carry a weapon), but he's smart and uses logic and his wits to win the day.  On a mission in Munich, Kendig manages to foil a microfilm exchange, preventing it from entering Communist East Berlin.  Since he's unarmed, how does he foil anything?  Well, this time, he waits for the exchange and photographs the entire act, intercepts the Soviet agent, Yaskov (Herbert Lom), and threatens to publish the photos and embarrass/expose Yaskov.  The Russian follows the logic and hands the film over, with no blood spilled.  When Kendig arrvives back in Washington, his loud-mouthed, bureaucratic boss, Myerson (Ned Beatty), blows a gasket.  How could Kendig not kill, or at least apprehend, Yaskov?  Kendig gives him the old "devil you know" argument (which, from my readings, seems to be about right for the Cold War in Europe), but Myerson will have none of it.  He takes Kendig out of the field and assigns him to file clerk duty, presumably for the rest of his career.

What a downer ending.  Oh, wait...we're only about ten minutes into the film.  Instead of going meekly into the filing world, Kendig opts to quit the CIA and publish his memoirs, airing out the dirty laundry of both the CIA and the KGB.  That would be dangerous under normal circumstances, but Kendig also decides to mail each chapter of the book, as he writes them, to all the major intelligence agencies in the world.  Myerson has two choices; he can either admit that Kendig has made a fool out of him, or have him killed.  He opts for the latter.  So, Kendig is just goofing around, publishing his book little by little and having fun outwitting his fellow spies, but their intentions are deadly serious.  There's only one way this can end, you know.
Because I know how the notion of Walter Matthau as a sexy spy gets you in the mood.

Hopscotch is based on the book of the same name by Brian Garfield, the author of Death Wish.  Apparently, this Garfield can offer variety.  Too bad the cat can't say the same.  I like the story just fine, but it's not quite of any particular genre.  It's not nearly serious enough to be a drama, but it's barely smirk-worthy, so it's not a comedy.  The plot could make a great thriller, but it's not thrilling at all.  What is this movie?  It's like a lighthearted version of Spy Game, or even Three Days of the Condor.  It's breezy in tone, but (almost) never silly or frivolous.  It's just an odd duck.
If Hopscotch was an animal, it would be a confusing one.
The acting in the film is fine, but most of the cast underperforms, due to the script.  I will admit that it was nice to see a fairly young-looking Sam Waterston in this movie; he plays Kendig's protege, who is tasked with outwitting his mentor.  He doesn't actually do a whole lot, but it was interesting seeing him outside of a Law and Order setting again.  Two-time Academy Award winner and current British politician (almost twenty straight years in Parliament!) Glenda Jackson plays Matthau's love interest and, as always, I find it hard to believe it when any actress feigns attraction to Matthau; I will admit that their romance, at the very least, is age-appropriate.  Jackson does a pretty good job parrying Matthau's wordplay, but she is capable of a lot more.  Ned Beatty does a good job being unlikable in this movie; he, too, can play much more interesting characters, but he plays the one note that he's given pretty well.  I thought Herbert Lom was the only supporting character that did an all-around good job; I've always liked the idea of enemy spies being friends, and I thought Lom pulled it off quite convincingly.

The success or failure of the movie, though, depends entirely on Walter Matthau.  The supporting actors didn't have much to work with.  Director Ronald Neame shows absolutely no intention of adding suspense or action to the film.  So, it's up to Walter.  And I was surprised at how appealing I found him.  This isn't a game-changing role for Matthau; he plays a smart guy, but his general attitude is about the same here as it is in so many of his movies.  His portrayal of Kendig isn't very funny, but he does convey a sense of mischief, and that was pretty endearing.  If I was going to judge the film on his character alone, I would say that this is a pretty enjoyable film.

Unfortunately, there is more to the movie than Matthau.  He prevents it from being a bad movie, but the screenplay itself is inadequate and I don't think it could have ever been good.  Still, Matthau is definitely likable throughout the movie, and the rest of the cast play their parts well.  It's not a great movie, it's not a bad movie, it's just...meaningless fluff.
And, for your enjoyment, here is Walter Matthau absolutely not being offensive.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning

Man, I haven't reviewed a horror movie in ages...it's nice to be back in the saddle!  After the hilariously titled Final Chapter, where the Friday the 13th franchise was supposed to end and where they killed the hell out of Jason Voorhies' face, the movie production company behind the series waited one entire year before putting out Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning.  That sure was some finality to the last movie, eh?  But with Jason Voorhies very, very dead, where can the story go?

Just in case you're unfamiliar with my favorite horror movie series, Friday the 13th is the story of Jason Voorhies (more or less).  He's a super-strong psychopath that lives around Camp Crystal Lake; his turn-ons are hockey masks, impalings, and blunt force trauma.  His turn-offs are getting large blades stuck in his noggin.  As I mentioned before, he was definitively killed in the fourth installment of the franchise by young Tommy Jarvis (Corey Feldman).

Five years after the events of The Final Chapter, Tommy Jarvis (John Shepherd) is a pretty messed-up kid.  He has made the rounds through a variety of mental institutes until his good behavior lands him at Pinehurst, which is a more of a halfway house than anything else.  Tommy's sister, who survived the last film, is never mentioned, but he still makes cool latex masks, so he has that going for him, which is nice.  He also hallucinates seeing Jason, which is less pleasant.  At Pinehurst, Tommy's first day is spiced up by the resident fat kid getting axe murdered by another patient for being annoying.  You might think the community would think twice about letting known mental patients wander around in their neighborhood, but apparently axe murdering doesn't cause that big of a stir.  After the fat kid dies, other people start disappearing, too.  First, it's a couple of 50s-style greasers, then a drifter, then two teens after they have some sexy time, and then some cokeheads...and this is all before anyone knows that there might be a problem.  Eventually, somebody actually sees the killer --- he's huge, muscular, wears coveralls and a hockey mask...it's Jason Voorhies!  AIEE!  But...why don't we ever see Tommy and Jason in the same scene?  Hmm...

A New Beginning often gets a bum rap from casual Friday fans, and it's pretty understandable.  Now, if you actually want to watch the fifth installment of a slasher franchise and be "surprised" by the story, I'll get this out of the way...SPOILER ALERT.  FOR THE REST OF THE REVIEW.  This Friday is notorious for being the one where Jason Voorhies isn't actually in the movie.  The killer turns out to be somebody else who is trying to...I don't know...frame Jason?  Whatever, it's not important.  That little twist has gotten some well deserved ire over the years, but if you walk into the movie knowing the twist, this is actually a pretty fun movie.

The acting and directing aren't exactly good, but they serve their purpose well enough.  This was writer/director Danny Steinmann's fourth and final film, although that fact has nothing to do with this film's reception.  For further info on Steinmann, check out a rare interview he gave to a fellow blogger here.  As the creative force behind this movie, Steinmann was famously given strict guidelines for the movie.  He had to turn Tommy Jarvis into Jason, and somebody had to die every at least every eight minutes.  With that in mind, I think this movie turned out pretty well.  It's not Shakespeare, or even High School Musical, or even but it is well aware of its status as a shitty slasher film and strives to be the best shitty slasher film it can be.  The cast is not particularly talented, but you kind of know that coming in to this movie.  Let's not talk about the quality of acting, and instead point out the few actors that went on to star in other things you may or may not have seen.  Come on, it'll be fun!  Normally, having professional actors in a movie is a given, but this was a first film (or first major film) for most of the cast, and few of them ever had better roles.  Mark Venturini and Miguel A. Nunez, Jr. went on to co-star in the also hilariously bad (and kind of awesome) Return of the Living Dead, but you might recognize Nunez from his most famously bad role:
Juwanna know how bad the acting is?
You might even recognize the mother redneck character as Carol Locatell, who got beat up by Pam Grier in Coffy.  Little Reggie (Shavar Ross) went on to be Weasel in Family Matters.  The cream of the crop is definitely the guy who played the doctor at Pinehurst, Richard Young; you don't know his name, but he was the guy with the fedora in the opening scene of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  I would also like to point out one actress who didn't go on to fame and fortune.  Debi Sue Voorhies is the super busty chick that has an extended nude scene before dying by garden shears to the face; not only is her honest to God last name really Voorhies, but she is the nudest and bustiest actress in the history of Friday the 13th, which is no small feat.  Jason Voorhies may never have actually been in this movie, but it's reassuring to know that I was watching a Voorhies anyway.
...and they didn't think to bring her back for the whole "By a Voorhies he was born, by a Voorhies he must die" bit in Jason Goes to Hell?  What a missed opportunity.
I'm not going to lie to you and say that this was a great film by any means, because it has its share of lameness.  The ending where Tommy is apparently adopting the Jason persona is kind of lame.  The whole reveal of who was actually posing as Jason throughout the movie was far, far worse (how did he bulk up when he dressed as Jason?), but pairing these scenes back-to-back was pretty hard to swallow.  Many of the deaths are unimaginative stabbings, but there are a lot of death scenes, so I'll cut them some slack.  The characters in the movie are all equally awful stereotypes, ranging from the mentally handicapped to greasers to someone who clearly snorted MTV for breakfast every morning.  I don't understand the presence or the accent of the redneck characters, but it doesn't matter, as long as they die, right?  The opening scene where Tommy dreams about stopping people from digging up Jason's remains was kind of lame, but it was nice to see Corey Feldman (on loan from The Goonies at the time), even if it was a stupid scene.  I also didn't like that they explicitly state that Jason's remains were cremated after the events in the last film; it's never mentioned again in this or any other movie, but it's weird to see just how serious they were to not have Jason in this series any more.

If this movie is so bad, why am I being so nice to it?  Because it delivers like no other bad horror movie can.  This film has the highest body count of any Friday the 13th, with a whopping twenty-two on-screen deaths.  Not all of them were great, but we get treated to a rare non-Voorhies-related killing when the mentally retarded guy gets hacked to death.  Besides, the killer belt and garden shear combo was pretty sweet.  And don't forget that Juwanna Man died in an outhouse.  That was awesome.  This film also has quite a bit of nudity, as it should, given its genre.  Is it gratuitous?  Absolutely.  What more can you ask for?
Why does Japan get all the cool movie posters?

Now, how does this fit in with the Friday the 13th series as a whole?  Not too well, actually.  After this movie, they abandoned the whole "not Jason" theme and brought him back as a zombie-ish thing; the rest of the series ignores this movie entirely.  This is the first time we see "Jason" outside of the Crystal Lake area.  It's not much of a legacy, but it's a start.  This is the second Friday with Tommy Jarvis, but he is far less likable this time around.  This is also the third consecutive movie where they kill off a fat person in a funny way.  This movie also stands out for having two mentally handicapped characters murdered; I thought killing a wheelchair-bound teen was hard core, but this movie doesn't mess around.  Oh, and if you've been following my effort at dating when these movies are supposed to take place, then you should agree that this film, made in 1985, is set in 1991.  And let me tell you, if anyone on set was taking that date into consideration, they did a shockingly poor job of predicting 90's fashion.  Does anyone care?  Of course not, it's ridiculous to track these things, but it does amuse me so.

If you approach A New Beginning from the perspective of a Friday fanatic, you're going to hate this movie for the cheap twist and Jason-free story.  Of course, if you're a true fan, the kills and nudity should balance that out.  As a film in its own right, it's not very good; it knows that, though, and does a good job entertaining despite obvious flaws.  This is, quite possibly, the stupidest Friday the 13th ever made --- and I know how daring that claim is.
However, being good and being fun to watch aren't always the same thing.  I was shocked at how much I enjoyed this ultra-violent and silly take on the Voorhies legend.  It earns a Lefty Gold rating of: