Friday, July 29, 2011

Take Me Home Tonight

I would like to point out that none of the characters in Take Me Home Tonight actually ever wear any of the costumes shown in this movie poster.  That's not a big deal, by any means, but it's a telling detail.  I'm not a big fan of movies that arbitrarily take place in the past, just because the filmmakers want to poke fun at out of date fashion or ideas.  It's a cheap, lazy storytelling convention that lends itself to a lot of predictable moments.  I wonder if there's going to be someone with a Flock of Seagulls haircut or a Frankie Goes to Hollywood reference?  There is?!?  Shock and awe: that is what I feel right now.

Take Me Home Tonight doesn't have to take place in the 80s, but it does.  Matt (Topher Grace), his twin sister, Wendy (Anna Faris), and Dan's lifelong best friend, Barry (Dan Fogler) are all at a crossroads in their lives.  Matt graduated from MIT, but has spent the summer working at Suncoast Video in the mall (I remember those!  I got my Sonny Chiba 10-pack there!) because he has no idea what he wants to do, and he doesn't want to be a failure.  Movie characters: they're just like real people!
Suck it up, Matt.  We've all been that guy, arms down in the crowd.
Wendy has been dating Matt's antithesis, Kyle (Chris Pratt), for years, and they are finally preparing to move in together; Wendy might have been accepted by Cambridge's master's program, though, which wouldn't fit Kyle's vision for their life.  Barry didn't go to college and became a car salesman instead.  On the day that Barry gets fired, Kyle proposes to Wendy, and Matt is given the opportunity to hit on the high school crush that he never had the guts to approach back in the day.  What, your life events don't precisely coincide with those of your friends and family?  Suck it, loser!  The bulk of the film focuses on Matt's attempts to get Tori's (Teresa Palmer) phone number, with a little time spent on Barry catching up on his missed college years and Wendy realizing how annoying Kyle is.  How does Matt impress his dream girl?  By lying to her, of course.  Believe it or not, that lie puts him in several tough situations, with somewhat humorous consequences.
"My name...?  Henry.  Henry...Suncoast-Video."

This is not a movie that will surprise you. It hits all the basic 80's touchstones that you expect (cocaine, break dancing, soulless capitalism, Dexy's Midnight Runners, etc.) and the characters are all pretty stock.  You mean that the main character and his best friend aren't the cool kids?  And the main character has trouble talking to girls?  What kind of world do we live in?!?  Yes, the movie is pretty predictable.  Yes, the characters are fairly shallow.  If you're willing to accept that --- and I totally understand if you are not --- there is a surprisingly entertaining movie buried underneath all the gimmicky, cliched crap.
A movie with high school friends having pivotal conversations in a car?  How avant garde!

Let's plow through the acting first.  Topher Grace is as awkward and goofy as ever, and he doesn't really change anything up here.  I don't know why he seems to feel most comfortable with characters set in easily identifiable decades, but whatever, it's his career.  Seriously, though, somebody should introduce him to Woody Allen and give him some challenging roles.  Anna Faris, despite being the second biggest name in the cast, has a relatively small role in the film.  I'm not a fan of most of her work, but she was fine as a not-funny character.  Dan Fogler, who I assumed I would be annoyed with in this movie, was surprisingly funny at times.  He didn't do anything too unpredictable or unusual, but he committed to all the stupidest parts in this movie and did his best to make them seem (somewhat) plausible.  Honestly, I was shocked to find myself laughing at some of his bits; I like to think that is a major compliment to him.  Teresa Palmer had a lot less to work with, since a large part of her role was to be an object of desire, but she wasn't annoying and handled the dramatic moments fairly well.

The supporting cast was largely just caricatures, but what else do you expect with a movie that aligns itself so strongly to a decade?  Chris Pratt was a great douchebag character, as usual.   Michael Biehn was a welcome surprise as Matt's semi-unsympathetic father, even if his inclusion in an 80's-themed movie was kind of a gimmick.  Michelle Trachtenberg was underused as an oversexed goth chick, but I'm not really sure if she's talented or not, so maybe she was used enough.  Comedian Demetri Martin was okay as a jerk paraplegic, but it wasn't the raucous bit role that the script clearly intended it to be.  Similarly, Michael Ian Black and Bob Odenkirk contributed almost nothing in their supporting roles.  On the bright side, aging supermodel and former Mrs. Stallone, Angie Everhart, has a topless and creepy sex scene with Dan Fogler. 
Because this is plausible.

Director Michael Dowse isn't particularly well-known for his subtle or thoughtful films.  In fact, this is his highest-profile movie to date, so I guess he's not particularly well-known for anything.  I wasn't impressed by Dowse.  His camera work is pretty standard.  If he has a good rapport with the actors, it wasn't apparent, since several comedic actors (with varying degrees of talent) were not very funny in this movie.  The thing that bugged me most about Dowse's direction is how lopsided this movie is.  The first half-hour is bad.  If you can get past the initial thirty minutes of trite plotting, lame jokes, and poor comic timing, the rest of the movie is kind of cute.  But having that obstacle --- one that will understandably stop many viewers --- is proof of how poorly this film was directed.
"Damn!  Sick burn!"

If you can get past the awful, Take Me Home Tonight has some surprisingly good parts.  Topher Grace has a few moments of sincerity that hint at dramatic potential he hasn't come close to realizing yet.  Dan Fogler, while fat and obnoxious, works well off the joke; I didn't usually laugh at what he said, but I liked his reactions to things.  I thought that the main plot, while very predictable, was well-acted and believable.  And there is one joke about the LAPD that I really, really liked.  I should also point out that the 80's pop culture references are not nearly as frequent as I assumed they would be.  Is that enough to recommend this movie?  Maybe, maybe not.  If you, like me, hate romantic comedies, this is a fairly pain-free (after the first third of the movie) option. 

...and here is the decently amusing music video of a terrible cover of an 80's song I don't like, featuring the cast of Take Me Home Tonight.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


You never can tell which Nicolas Cage is going to show up in his movies.  Will it be the Academy Award-winning actor?  Usually not.  Will it be the dead-eyed action hero?  You've got a decent chance of that, but Vegas odds are always on Nicolas Cage, the ridiculous over-actor.  When you combine those odds with the chances of a post-Batman and Robin Joel Schumacher directing a good movie, you get 8MM.  Of course, Cage and Schumacher could have theoretically teamed up for an over-the-top action romp, full of ridiculous explosions and tough guy dialogue; it wouldn't have been very good, but it would have been watchable.  Instead, this is a movie about snuff films, which are by definition not full of hilarity.
Yeah, that's how I react to Nicolas Cage movies, too.

Tom Welles (Nicolas Cage) is a private detective that specializes in seedy cases in which his photos and research frequently end up as evidence in divorce proceedings.  I bet his wife loves his job.  One day, he gets a call to visit a new widow.  Her late husband left her a vast fortune, but she found something odd in his safe: an 8MM film that depicted a rape culminating in what appears to be murder.  The widow wants Welles to find out whether the murder was real or staged, no matter the cost.  After assuring her that snuff films are just an urban legend, Welles agrees to take the case, expecting to uncover a privately-financed movie with some fancy special effects.  What he finds does not support that theory.  Welles does some boring grunt work and manages to stumble across a missing persons photo that resembles the girl from the movie.  As odds-defying as that it, Welles manages to track down her family, discover evidence in her bedroom that neither her family nor the police found, and learn that she went to Hollywood.  As earth-shaking as that concept may be --- a runaway girl who starred in a porn film went to California?  Gasp! --- Welles quickly realized that he did not know how to dig any deeper into this case without help.  Enter Max California (Joaquin Phoenix).
...and he works in a porn shop?  Chick magnet!
Max is a failed musician and belly shirt aficionado who works the counter in a dingy sex shop.  Welles hires Max to help him enter the pornography underworld and the two begin to piece together who could have made a snuff film and who would have acted in it.  Hint: if you see a recognizable actor being questioned by Nicolas Cage in this movie, he's probably involved in the snuff film.
I'd be sweating bullets, too, if this was the best role I could get.

The acting in 8MM is definitely not for fans of subtlety.  Nicolas Cage spends a lot of time grimacing and looking tired.  I don't blame him.  His character had to watch hours and hours of low-budget weird porn before he found enough clues to track down the killers.  Joaquin Phoenix was a little better, but that's just by comparison, and his character's costumes were pretty ridiculous.  I'm not saying that people in California don't wear baggy leather pants every day with their proto-Ed Hardy T-shirts, but there isn't a scene in this movie where I don't want to smack Phoenix just on general principles.  James Gandolfini was fine as a low-life porn producer and Peter Stormare was his typically slimy self as a high-end low-life porn producer, but this is a film that relied heavily on Cage and Phoenix.
Creepy: a new fragrance by Peter Stormare
There are a few other actors in small roles, but none of them have any great impact on the quality of the film.  Anthony Heald is unsympathetic (surprise, surprise), Catherine Keener is kind of bitchy, Norman Reedus is a loser with a bad haircut, and Chris Bauer wears a gimp outfit.  It is worth noting that Bauer's character, The Machine, has occasionally popped up in the sports world.  San Francisco Giants closer --- and professional sports' most entertaining personality, since the retirement of Shaquille O'Neal --- Brian Wilson is apparently a fan.  You can spot Chris "The Machine" Bauer's likeness at around the 4:20 mark.

So...that's kind of weird.  Anyway...

There's really not much that goes right with 8MM.  Director Joel Schumacher placed himself in a tough spot.  The obvious trapping that comes with making a movie about snuff films is that the movie winds up being as exploitative as the snuff films themselves.  I will give Schumacher credit for not falling into that trap.  However, to avoid seeming exploitative, I think 8MM loses its teeth. 

If this isn't a movie that is meant to shock you, then what is it?  A ludicrously tangled mystery?  An expose on pornography's seedy underbelly?  An argument for the banality of evil?  You could choose any of those, but none make this a satisfying movie.  The mystery is too easily untangled, possibly because the mystery focused on "Who made this snuff film?" instead of "Why was this snuff film made?"  The dark side of porn is a potentially disturbing focus, but 8MM just has Cage wander through a couple creepy basement VHS flea markets; nothing is really said or done about anything but this one particular snuff film.  Perhaps sensing that this movie is neither shocking nor captivating, Schumacher changes the tone of the film, transforming Cage from an investigator to an avenger in the final act.  It is here that the bad guys explain themselves, and that explanation --- which is meant to be chilling --- is simply underwhelming.
Less sensual than it looks.

Personally, I can't think of a story that involved snuff films that I would have enjoyed.  Maybe that's just me, though.  I assumed that 8MM would try to be disturbing and maybe take a stand on the issue (murder is bad, perhaps?).  It doesn't.  It's a detective story where the audience is only allowed to see snippets of what Nic Cage is reacting to; that means that Cage's acting needs to convey our disgust for us, and he turns in a very melodramatic performance that undermines that notion.  I'm not saying that I need to see the damn titular movie --- not seeing a prized object can work wonders, as in The Maltese Falcon and Pulp Fiction.  The script and the acting weren't anywhere near where they needed to be to pull that off, though.  Hell, Cage's character lost his private detective credibility in the beginning of the film, when he hides his smoking habit from his wife by spraying air freshener, just like a fifteen year-old.  Hint: change your clothes and hide your ashtrays, too, dumbass.  If he can't do that convincingly, how is the audience supposed to buy into anything else he does in this film?

This movie just plain sucks.  There is nothing quite like a film that is trying to be edgy and watching it fail.  I would have enjoyed laughing at 8MM, but it is a joyless train wreck that is at least thirty minutes too long.  Nicolas Cage does a poor job acting, which is not terribly surprising, and he appears to have no fun doing it.  His character is stupid and without charm.  The script is surprisingly dull and the supporting cast is mostly unmemorable.  This is a surprisingly bad movie with a surprisingly bad story, and I went in with low expectations.  The only redeeming quality this film has --- aside from a surprising second life in sports interviews --- is that it was too draining and incompetent to earn my hatred.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

What a difference a couple of decades makes!  When I was growing up in the 80s, the concept of a super-hero movie just didn't make sense to me; I actually refused to see Tim Burton's Batman in the theater because the only Batman I knew was Adam West, and I didn't want to see that on the big screen --- of course, that was long before I discovered the joys of shark repellant.  The 90s didn't help matters much, with Batman and Robin, the Dolph Lungren Punisher, and all the douchebags in my age group that dressed up as The Crow every damn year for Halloween.  Perhaps the least impressive super-hero movie of the time was the never-released-in-American-theaters and filmed-in-Yugoslavia Captain America.
Two words: rubber ears.
So, when it was announced that Captain America would get another chance at a movie as Marvel Studios builds up to The Avengers in 2012, I was a little nervous.  Sure, I liked the last few Marvel Studios movies --- Iron Man 2, Thor, and X-Men: First Class --- but a patriotically-themed super-hero movie could easily get hokey.  Oh, and I wasn't too impressed with director Joe Johnston's last movie, either.  Can Captain America: The First Avenger beat the odds and be yet another fun and successful comic book movie in the summer of 2011?

World War II is in full swing, and every able-bodied American man is joining the armed forces.  Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is not able-bodied --- he's been deemed 4F and is the personification of the old Charles Atlas ads --- but he keeps reapplying for the Army in the hopes that he will allowed to squeak through and risk his life, like all the other men.  After all, if every man he knows, including his buddy Bucky (Sebastian Stan), has the right to go to war, why can't he?  This perseverance catches the attention of Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who selects Rogers for an experiment.  He is allowed to train with some elite soldiers for the right to receive a highly experimental treatment and (possibly) become a new breed of soldier.  Through his positive attitude, bravery, intelligence, and perseverance, Steve Rogers was selected for the experiment, which took a man that looked like this:
...and turned him into a heaping bowl of hunk:
Judging from that scientist's gaze, Rogers grew more than muscles.

While the experiment was a success, Erskine was assassinated by a sneaky Nazi, taking his secret super-soldier formula to the grave.  I wouldn't have thought that a government-funded program would allow one person to keep all the secrets exclusively in his noggin, but origin stories are funny like that, sometimes.  Seeing that he is the only result from a very expensive military program, Rogers is not allowed to fight in the war; instead, he is forced to put on a gaudy costume and promote war bonds as Captain America. 
Captain America: sellout
That can only last so long, of course, since there is a war going on and there are bad guys to fight.  And I'm not talking about your average, run-of-the-mill evil Nazis, either; the bad guys in this movie want to destroy everything and create a new world order.
Is this the future?
Obviously, that can't be allowed to happen.  Despite the strength of the Allied Forces, it is ultimately up to Captain America and his new Army buddies to save the world from destruction at the hands of the nefarious Red Skull (Hugo Weaving).  Why only them?  Apparently, saving the world is a lower priority than you might think.

A lot of people were skeptical when Chris Evans was cast in the iconic (and fairly humorless) lead role of Captain America.  Since nobody has ever seen Sunshine, where he has a dramatic role, the fear was that Evans would be his goofy, sarcastic self, a la Ryan Reynolds.  I am happy to say that Evans did a good job in the lead role.  He was brave, earnest, and loyal; he basically took all the heroic parts in a war movie and rolled them up into one character.  Hugo Weaving was suitably dastardly as Red Skull; I don't know if I would say that he out-eviled the Nazis in this movie, but he came close.  His character's grand scheme didn't make a ton of sense to me, but everyone agreed that he was insane, so I'll let that slide.  I wasn't the biggest fan of his red-faced makeup --- I would have gone for a bumpier, burn victim look --- but I thought they did a good job with the makeup that implied that his Hugo Weaving face was a mask.
Odd...why didn't Weaving have a romantic interest?
The rest of the supporting cast was fine, but those two set the standard.  Hayley Atwell was pretty good as Roger's rough-and-tumble love interest, Peggy Carter, and she was happily never a damsel in distress.  Tommy Lee Jones was very good as the tired, crotchety colonel in charge of the super soldier experiment.  I was surprisingly moved by a look he gave of utter despair toward the end of the film; maybe that's just his sad face, but you rarely see tough guy actors look that vulnerable.  Stanley Tucci did a good job making the selection of Rogers seem rational, which was a bigger hurdle than you might think.  Sebastian Stan was okay as Rogers' buddy, but I thought Dominic Cooper was surprisingly likable as genius industrialist Howard Stark.  There are some other recognizable actors in the movie --- Samuel L. Jackson, Toby Jones, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, and a few others --- but they played relatively small and generic parts, with the exception of Jones (an evil scientist) and Jackson (reprising his Nick Fury role).

Director Joe Johnston has a tendency of making movies set in the past, oftentimes romanticizing the idea of heroism, which actually makes him a pretty good fit for this film.  The goal of this movie was to make Captain America look cool and give him a grand enough task to make him a legend in this prequel to theMarvel super-hero movies that are set in modern times.
Hmm...that's a good start, but too subtle.
Johnston keeps a good pace throughout the film, wisely choosing to focus on pre-transformation Steve and a few choice, defining battles for Captain America, instead of bogging him down in a number of lesser battles.  I like a lot of choices he made here, especially the chaste romance between Cap and Peggy.
...although, the chaste bit might have been her doing.
Heroes that are squeaky-clean boy scouts can be tough to sympathize with or care about, because they're not terribly realistic.  Johnston chose to portray Captain America as less of a do-gooding patriot, instead focusing a lot of time and effort on Steve Rogers hating bullies.  I thought this movie handled all the typical war scenes well and had several moving this-is-a-war-movie-and-men-don't-cry-but-seriously-OMG-I'm-tearing-up-here moments.  I am generally a sucker for moments like those, but this movie was surprisingly good at them.

As much as I liked a lot of this movie, I had some small complaints.  First of all, this movie has a metric ton of CGI, especially with pre-transformation Steve Rogers.  While I think this was done pretty well, there were some moments where the head of Chris Evans didn't seem to fit the body, or where his height seemed inconsistent.  Not a huge deal, and it was impressive overall, but I still noticed it.  I also wasn't a huge fan of his costume.  It looked better than the 1990 movie version did, but I preferred this getup:
I realize that a super-hero with an established colorful costume needs to wear it at some point, but I just thought the blend of costume and practical clothing was a cool visual.  Perhaps my biggest gripe with Captain America: The First Avenger was its use of minor players.  This movie is filled to the brim with characters that are clearly meant to reference important characters in the comic character's history.  Unfortunately, since they are so many and time is so limited, these characters wind up being largely charmless.  Even Bucky, who plays an important role in the development of our hero, is not particularly likable.  They weren't bad actors or characters, they just never felt important.

But those are minor complaints.  This movie is filled with action that, while not terribly plausible, is very entertaining.  This film had heart and character, and it made Captain America look cool while fighting with a shield.  Oh, and the teaser trailer for The Avengers after the credits was a geeky thrill.

While I was researching pictures for this post, I stumbled across a brilliant blog, titled Hitler Getting Punched.  I like when a title explains everything I need to know about a website.  Check it out.

I also happened across this officially commissioned painted poster that was given to the cast and crew of the movie:
 I love retro movie posters.  The artist maintains his own blog about his comic art, called The Self-Absorbing Man.  Pretty cool stuff.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Bill Murray is one of the funniest actors in history, and his comedy seems effortless when he is at his best.  For my money, his best is in Stripes.  Why is that?  Maybe it's because he liked working with Ivan Reitman, his director in Meatballs, again.  Maybe he enjoyed the company and writing style of fellow Chicagoan and Second City alum Harold Ramis; this was their third film working together.  Maybe Murray was tired of playing supporting roles and was finally ready to be a leading man.  I don't really care why.  I'm just glad this movie was made.

Career slacker John Winger (Bill Murray) has lost his crappy job, his crappy car, and his too-attractive-for-him girlfriend in the matter of only a few hours.  With no real career options, his situation seems hopeless.  By chance, though, John and his buddy, Russell (Harold Ramis), see a commercial for the US Army on television.  Reasoning that the Army would get them into shape, give them a career path, and provide uniforms that seduce women on their own, the two sign up and are quickly sent off to basic training.  Why would Russell go with this whim?  Because his career teaching English to immigrants wasn't as exciting as he had hoped, I guess.
Harold Ramis: secret member of The Crystals
The reasons for their joining aren't terribly important (although, they do turn out to be poorly thought out).  What is important is that the two join a cast of misfits in basic training, and Winger goes out of his way to regularly irritate their drill sergeant, Sgt. Hulka (Warren Oates).  It turns out that Army training is hard and not terribly sympathetic to smart asses.  Who knew?

As I mentioned earlier, Bill Murray is on the top of his game here.  The chemistry between him and the rest of the cast is fantastic, particularly the banter between him and Harold Ramis.  Murray can sometimes seem a little bored in film roles when he is not allowed to be weird, but he clearly had a lot of freedom in this film.  I'm sure a lot of his lines were improvised, but his joke delivery here is great and the rest of the cast reacts perfectly.
Murray, about to give P.J. Soles the "Aunt Jemima" treatment
This was Harold Ramis' first substantial film role, but he did a good job playing the square to Murray's slacker.  Warren Oates was even better as their ornery drill sergeant.  He was basically playing the straight man to Murray, buy he also had a few little moments of his own.  My favorites include his reaction after being blown up and his involuntary chuckle after Winger refers to him as a "big toe."
This movie had a lot of up-and-comers in it, too.  Unfortunately, this was the last major film role for P.J. Soles; she wasn't a great actress here, but she played her part well enough (and didn't have to say "totally" for a change).  Sean Young had a small and fairly charisma-free performance as Russell's love interest, but how many interesting characters would have fallen for Harold Ramis?  This had to have been John Candy's big break; even though he had a small part in The Blues Brothers, he was really given a chance to shine in Stripes.  If nothing else, he deserves recognition for his Three Stooges homage during his mud wrestling scene.
So...the Stooges hurt women?
John Larroquette and Judge Reinhold also had early career appearances in this film (it was Reinhold's debut), and both were funnier here than in any other movie I can recall.  This is also one of career character actor John Diehl's biggest roles.  He did a good job as the hopelessly stupid recruit.  Bill Paxton and SCTV members Dave Thomas and Joe Flaherty have cameos in the movie; if you can't spot Paxton --- and it's pretty hard --- re-watch the mud wrestling scene. 

This is perhaps the pinnacle of director Ivan Reitman's decade-plus run of entertaining movies.  He has made movies with better stories and special effects, but there's a certain magic in Stripes that I can't imagine duplicating.  Reitman's talent as a comedy director is knowing how to work with comedians and then cut their performances into a cohesive plot.  He does that quite well here.  Perhaps his greatest achievement in Stripes was getting the use of Fort Knox to film the exterior army base scenes.  Would this movie have worked if there weren't real soldiers and tanks in the background?  Probably, but that authenticity made the antics of Winger seem all the more ridiculous.  Reitman also opted to include a couple of somewhat depressing dramatic scenes to balance the film out --- and they worked; the Hulka vs. Winger bathroom scene (the non-pornographic one) really makes a case for being a soldier.

Sure, the film loses some steam after basic training is completed.  What do you expect?  The drill routine during their graduation ceremony is all sorts of awesome; how can an Army movie follow that scene up?
HHHH-arrrmy training, SIR!
I'm not saying that the rest of the movie is bad, it's just nowhere near as amusing as the first hour.  The magazine cover cut-aways during the final scene are funny, but a little too similar to the end scenes of Animal House (which Ramis also co-wrote) for my tastes.  Essentially, my complains for Stripes can be boiled down to kind of imitating a successful comedy classic and a pacing a comedy.  Shocking allegations, I know, but I take controversial stances.

Stripes is a comedy classic showcasing a lot of young talent that would heavily influence the rest of the 1980s and it showcased Bill Murray having fun.  It doesn't get much better than this.

For fans of the movie that are curious about the Extended Cut, it doesn't provide much.  Aside from an awkward scene with a topless P.J. Soles, every cut scene deserved its place on the editing floor.  On a final note, I would like to point out just how far superior the primary movie poster (pictured at the top of this post) was to another poster that was made for the movie.  What, they thought that the main draw of the film was going to be the heavily armed RV?  Who approved this?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Alien Predators

Alien Predators is the first in series of reviews that I will call "From the Hobbit Hole."  Click on the link for more (or any) info on that bad idea.  Alien Predators is an...interesting movie, especially after I tried to Google it.  As you might have guessed, given the existence of the Alien Vs. Predator series, this D-grade movie isn't highly ranked on search engines.  However, I was able to discover a few interesting tidbits about this movie.  First and foremost, this movie was released in other countries; how that happened is beyond my comprehension.  The VHS copy I have looks like an English version of the above cover art, but the back cover points out that the VHS costs $79.95, with prices slightly higher in Canada.  Anyone who paid for this movie, whether it be Canadians, the producers, moviegoers, or my friend who probably paid a shiny nickel for it --- they all got ripped off.  The tag phrase for the film is "...There is no place to hide."  Why the ellipses?  Who is hiding?  What are places?  None of these questions will be answered in this movie.

Before I get any further, I should point out that even my VHS tape does not share the same title as the cover art.  This movie is alternately known as Alien Predators, Alien Predator (as my VHS copy proudly boasts), The Falling, and Mutant 2.  Even more confusingly, the promotional art has absolutely nothing in common.
So...Alien Predators take a road trip?  I'm confused.
Never happens in the movie.  Not even close.
Once again, Japan (or possibly China --- who am I kidding?  It's Japan!) has the best cover art.

With cover art that consistent, you can rest assured that this is a film of singular vision.  The premise involves two American guys and a girl road tripping through Spain.  One of the guys (Dennis Christopher) looks like he's trying to imitate Mike Dirnt, the other (Martin Hewitt) looks like a C-level version of the guy in Road House who "used to fuck guys like you in prison," and the girl in the baggy 80s outfits (Lynn-Holly Johnson) was actually a Bond girl earlier in her career.  The two guys are friends, but the girl is apparently hitching a ride with them; they helped pay her way, with the understanding that she would do the cooking and cleaning in their RV.  Well, she's "comically" terrible at those two things, and it's clear that both guys have other ideas for how she can contribute to their trip...wink, wink, nudge, nudge --- in specific orifices.  As they trek through a suspiciously deserted Spanish countryside, they meet zero Spaniards.
Not in this movie.  Sorry.
Instead, they meet some fellow travelers.  And by "travelers," I of course mean "an offensive Indian stereotype couple and the white child that they may have kidnapped."  That's the "A" plot, which has nothing to do with Aliens, Predators, or Alien Predators.  Or Falling.  Or mutants.  Or Mutants 2, even.

The "B" plot involves the failed Skylab space station that crashed to Earth in the late 70s.  Does this mean that the film is based in fact?  Um, I suppose that depends on your definition of "fact."  Skylab crashed in Australia, but the makers of Alien Predators apparently knows something we don't: a large chunk of it landed in Spain --- completely un-charred, mind you --- and apparently spawned an underground NASA labratory (in Spain?) that held super-secret experiments on something that survived from the Skylab crash.  Why Spain?  If NASA has dibs over the Spanish space program on space wreckage, why wouldn't they just gather the crap and take it to the US instead of building a lab on the crash site?  Don't worry, those questions aren't even brought up, much less answered.  Apparently, something went wrong at the Spanish NASA (SNASA?) lab, and this happened:
This is one potential side effect from being infected by the Alien Predator(s).  The other side effect is acting kind of creepy.  Like this lady's hair.
There is also a guy who wore a clown mask.  I didn't know that was a sign of alien infection, but sure, whatever.  Apparently, alien infection can also lead to driving a dirty pickup truck around town and trying to hit people with it.  So...bad hair, masks, and aggressive driving are all signs of alien infection.  Note that, please, and kill anyone showing those symptoms, for humanity's sake.  Naturally, the boring Americans wander into the infected zone, and hijinks ensue.

What an awful movie.  Sure, the cast is pretty terrible, but what do you expect when a second-rung Bond girl is the biggest name in the cast?  Oh, and if you think it might be worthwhile to watch this just to catch a naked Bond girl, don't waste your time.  This is a horror movie without horror or nudity; and it barely qualifies as a "movie."  The direction is just wretched.  Deran Sarafian took a fairly idiotic story and managed to make it almost incomprehensible through his direction.  "What's going on?" is a fair question at any given time in Alien Predators, and at some times it is the only thing you can say.  For instance, when two NASA guys opt to have an important conversation in their space suits, Sarafian opts to zoom in and cut back and forth on the actors' eyes --- although not necessarily on the actor that is supposed to be speaking at the moment.

Without a doubt my favorite "what is going on?" moment came when one of the characters had to drive through town to get something.  The other characters act worried, because there could be one, two, or maybe even three other people in this deserted town that have been infected by the Falling Alien Predator(s) Mutant 2.  But it's okay; this character is "Hollywood's number one driver."  Wait...what?  What?!?  I think this is supposed to imply that he is either a dune buggy racer in California or that he's a stunt driver, but this is the first time it (or California in general) is brought up in the story.  It's certainly not the last time, though; the "Hollywood's number one driver" phrase is mentioned at least three more times in the last fifteen minutes of the movie.

This is probably the best scene in the entire film.  My favorite moments were the two (!) times he lost the car trailing him by making a right turn, although the other characters seeing him give a thumbs up in the dark was pretty sweet, too.  This might be the most entertaining car chase that never gets above 35 mph ever.  And am I the only one who finds it odd that an Alien Predator-possessed person is spending his time, hanging out in a crappy car on the off chance that someone will drive or walk past?  Maybe I'm just thinking too hard.  Do you recognize the car crash sound effect?  I'm pretty sure it was used in every 80s cartoon.  Now, you might assume that I picked this clip to ridicule, but it is absolutely the most action-packed in the movie.

How bad is this movie?  It's pretty godawful.  Do you like horror movies?  Do you like movies with alien creatures?  Well, then this movie doesn't have much to offer you.  There are only two decent special effects, no horror, and we only get one good glimpse of the evil creature --- and it is defeated by using windshield wipers.  If, however, you enjoy movies with Lovecraftian'll still be sorely disappointed in Alien Predators.  I will admit that a lot of its incompetence made for funny moments for me, as a viewer, but this is just a really bad movie.
There were are some solid laughs possible to creative viewers and commentators, but you really have to work for them.  I'll give it a Lefty Gold rating of
As a bonus, here's the movie trailer!

Saturday, July 23, 2011


Ryan Reynolds in a coffin.  That's what Buried has to offer.  If that doesn't sound like your particular brand of horror, you might as well keep going.  If, however, that basic premise intrigues you, you may be pleasantly surprised.  Be warned, though.  If you're looking for Ryan Reynolds to be anywhere but a coffin in this movie, you will be sorely disappointed.

Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) wakes up with his mouth gagged and his hands bound in a coffin.  Holy fucking shit!  What now?  Well, the first step is to remove the gag so he can make incoherent noises; seriously, there is no dialogue for the first ten minutes, just panicked noises.  He manages to find his lighter, and his situation still sucks.
Crotch cam confirms: still in a damn coffin.
Eventually, Paul calms down enough to free his hands and take stock of his situation.  He has a lighter, some glow sticks, a cell phone (with the Arabic language setting), a flask with some booze, and some of his anti-anxiety pills (better help yourself to those).  Oh, yeah...and he's in a coffin that is underground.  SHIT!  Paul pieces together what happened to him --- his civilian truck convoy was attacked in Iraq and he was apparently taken hostage --- and spends quality time on the phone with the State Department, his kidnapper, and his wife's answering machine, but it's obvious that finding and rescuing Paul is going to, sweet Jeebus, he's going to die, isn't he?!?
Reynolds, getting the initial Green Lantern reviews from his agent.

I am not claustrophobic, but I'm also not someone who goes out of his way to trap himself in confined spaces.  That said, I have to admit that I love this premise for a horror movie.  The simplest premises are always the most terrifying to me; I am willing to chance encountering a hockey-masked killer or a dream demon with razor fingers, but a situation that could feasibly happen to me?  Okay, you have my attention.  Why do I consider being kidnapped and buried alive feasible?  I don't have to explain myself to the likes of you.

As far as the acting goes, this movie has Ryan Reynolds, and that's it.  You are probably used to his typical smart-ass style, because that's basically his range, but he tries to expand his skill set with this role.  Here, he's a smart-ass that has had the ever-living, ever-loving shit terrified out of him.  To be fair, there is one moment where Reynolds acts like a smart-ass (and it is funny), but that's all; he focuses his attention on acting frightened.  And boy, does he!  I've never videotaped the reactions of someone that I have buried alive, but I imagine that Reynolds pulled off a fairly realistic portrayal.  Sure, I would have sobbed and used more profanity than him, but we're different people and I respect that.  I would like this to be a sign of things to come for Reynolds, because I like the guy, but his "I'm sarcastic --- and look at these abs!" routine is starting to get stale.

"In brightest day, in darkest night..."

One of the more amazing things about Buried is that, despite taking place entirely in a coffin, director Rodrigo Cortes managed to make a visually stimulating film. He varied the light sources and camera angles enough to keep the cinematography from being boring, and that's no minor accomplishment with these limitations.  Seriously, this is one dude in a box for an hour and a half; keeping that visually fresh is a show of major talent.  Cortes also did a very good job with the tone of the film.  It begins with Reynolds waking up trapped, and the situation only gets more desperate as time goes on.  It looks like this film is giving Cortes, a little-known Spanish director, some buzz around Hollywood, because his next film, Red Lights, stars Robert De Niro; I am definitely looking forward to that one.

As much as I admire the technique and the style used to make this movie, I'm not sure how much I actually like it.  Will I watch it again?  I'm glad I saw it, but probably not.  Here's the thing: the pieces --- the premise, the acting, the tone, the beginning, the ending --- all worked for me, but I didn't actually enjoy this film.  It's not that this is a snuff film, or that it's too predictable, or anything like that.  It was simply missing that little extra "oomph" to make it awesome.  You might disagree, especially if you are claustrophobic.  But, since I am not, I will respectfully give this a "good, but not quite great" rating of

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Train

That's kind of odd...I have been keeping this movie blog for over a year now, reviewing every film I have watched, and The Train is the first war movie in all that time.  I guess I'll have to update my genre page.  This omission was not intentional, of course, but I think I understand why it happened.  War movies are kind of odd; they are about the characters, sure, but more likely than not, most of those characters will die.  War movies tend to be about big picture ideas, like the futility of war or the brotherhood of man, and I'm more of a story guy.  Maybe I need to give this genre another look in the near future, yes?  No?  Let's see how The Train goes first, before I start making commitments.

The time: World War II.  The place: Paris, France --- which is good, because WWII stories from Paris, Texas are a little tame.  German Colonel Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) has spent the last few years appreciating the vast collection of looted art that the Nazis had stolen from French museums and homes.  And by "appreciating," you should picture this: 
Knowing how totally awesome America and the Allied forces are, Von Waldheim knows that the Germans' days in France are numbered; with each day, the battle front gets closer and closer to France.  Desperate to save (and own) this priceless collection, Von Waldheim arranges to have all the art transported to Berlin.  The curator that had been allowed to maintain the collection until then (Suzanne Flon) contacts the French Resistance, looking for help; with the Allies so close to liberating Paris, the train with the art will only need to be delayed a few days, at most.  However, the Resistance is hesitant to risk their lives for art.  But it's more than just pictures, you see; this art --- every piece is the work of an acknowledged master --- represents French ideals, the soul of the French people, even.  A cranky and stubborn train driver, Papa Boule (Michael Simon), takes matters into his own hands and pulls an amateur trick to sabotage the train in the name of France's soul.  He is executed for his efforts.  That is enough to raise the ire of the French Resistance, led by Labiche (Burt Lancaster).  So, what began as a fight to save an abstract idea becomes much more personal.
If you say "Labiche" in a Chicago accent, it sounds like you're saying "Da Bears" in French.

Burt Lancaster was a pretty big deal in the golden age of Hollywood, but this is the first movie of his I have seen.  He's a commanding leading man, to be sure.  Strong, confident, and capable of aggression.  What he is not, by any stretch of the imagination, is French.  Aside from his glaring American accent in a film full of European voices, I really liked his performance.  Paul Scofield was pretty awesome, too.  He reminded me of Belloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark; his Nazi allegiance seemed to be a matter of convenience to get his hands on the greatest art collection the world has ever known.  But man, was he brutal --- I loved how dastardly clever he was, especially toward the end of the film.  You never see movies where a Nazi has the best monologue in the picture --- evil doesn't get to offer a counterpoint --- but Scofield stole the final scenes with a well-written and delivered speech.
"So once again, Dr. Jones, what was briefly yours is now mine."
The rest of the cast was full of character parts.  Jeanne Moreau plays a reluctant helper to Labiche, and Michael Simon plays a French caricature, with others playing more bit roles.

John Frankenheimer directed The Train, although he wasn't involved in pre-production.  The original director, Arthur Penn, was going to focus on why Burt Lancaster's character would risk his life for art, and Burt didn't like that.  He wanted a movie that would focus on the action-y parts of the story, like the various ways they would delay the train, so he had Penn fired and the script re-written.  However, that led to the production taking a lot longer than originally anticipated, so many actors had to leave to fulfill other acting commitments.  The script was frequently rewritten on the fly to accommodate these changes.  Many of the character deaths were added to the story for this reason.  Even an off-set knee injury to Lancaster was incorporated into the script.  With a production that hectic, it is amazing how well The Train turned out.

Frankenheimer's direction, while a last-minute choice, was very good.  He made use of a lot of long, unedited tracking shots, which are difficult to pull off because the action of dozens of characters must all be spot-on to look good.  I liked that the question of the art's esthetic value was brought up, but I really liked that the audience is never given an explicit explanation for Labiche's motives.  Then again, Frankenheimer was brought on to shoot some action scenes, and the action is pretty good for a movie made in 1964, especially one that is about stolen art.  The action scenes are very physical, even if they are kind of rudimentary by current standards; Lancaster did most (if not all) of his own stunts, and it really adds to the wear and tear on his character as the film progresses.  Fact: they actually blew up real train lines in France while shooting this movie --- that's just awesome.  This was one of the last action movies made in black-and-white, too, which is an interesting discussion point for a movie that purports the importance of paintings.  This is a better-than-average war movie for most of the film, but the final scenes between Labiche and Von Waldheim are what raise the picture into something unique and good.
THE image to take from this film.

So, The Train balances some artistic ideas with some gritty action.  That's reasonably cool, right?  Yeah, I guess so.  There's just something missing in this movie for me to truly love it.  I think it would have worked better with either the Germans or the French (or both) speaking their actual language; there were a few scenes where the language being spoken was a key plot point --- "but I don't know how to speak German!" --- but since everyone spoke English, the tension was undercut.  I would have liked to see Labiche question his quest at least once, after he got on the "save the art, screw the Nazis" path.  I liked that his motives were murky, but it was odd that he was so sure of himself.  I definitely enjoyed The Train, but the focus on action went a little too far; does this mean that I would have preferred Penn's directorial vision?  Not necessarily.  I think this movie is one Burt Lancaster monologue away from greatness, but what we have is still pretty good.