Saturday, February 27, 2010

Deadfall (1993)

Comically bad, DTV-quality noir about a conman who gets in over his head (how bleeding original), made noteworthy for a psychotic, wheezing performance from Nicolas Cage as a (literal) heavy. Michael Biehn, disappointing a fan of his work, plays a young man who serves under the tutelage of his father, conman James Coburn, and watches him die in a con gone wrong. He finds Curly's identical twin brother (just kidding...bout the Curly part), who is a bigger shot than his brodre, and who has Cage's hulking wildebeest in his employ. The retardedly corny and unneccessary narration, the over-produced noir visuals, and the distant, barely there performances are all completely cemented in the cliches of the genre, but the film only becomes truly grotesquely garish and over-the-top when Cage is on screen. Even in relation to his most wacky performances, he is a true freak, mumbling his lines and swinging his body around like director Chris Coppola called him up 5 minutes before each scene and said, "Yo, cuz, do some lines, come around and bug out for a while, my movie needs some energy." It works like gangbusters; the film becomes unpredictable, hilariously nasty, and almost charming during the stretch of the film where he is a central figure. But alas, he gets taken out, and we are back to pointless, depressing cameos, lifeless flirting and sex scenes, and a painfully obvious con-man plot.

Slightly Recommended for fans of campy noirs and Nicolas Cage's tendency to act like a methed out freak on a leash. This is on par with any of Cages most nutty turns; he makes his Vampire's Kiss character look as restrained as Olivier in some of these scenes.

Shrink (2009)

Tepid, disappointing drama about a depressive pothead shrink that fails in sustaining interest in the main plot and deviates all too often to cliched indie melodrama. Kevin Spacey, as the titular shrink, is actually quite good as he apathetically cruises L.A., joint permanently in hand, kinda sorta looking for a connection or a validation of his own mortality. However, that premise is what Hollywood execs (and close-minded assholes) refer to as "thin," so the film is padded with side characters and plots that, for the most part, have nothing to do with the central character who, contrary to the title, has very little to do with what the film is about. Aside from the adolescent who draws Spacey out of his shell (played by Akeelah from Akeelah and the Bee), there is his aspiring screenwriter nephew, his movie starlet patient, her asshole agent, a rock star client of his, and the rock stars brand new blonde fuck buddy. These characters suck the film dry with their repetitive, vapid L.A. bullshit, and contribute nothing in terms of pathos or interest whatsoever, justifying Spacey's initial (but soon forgotten) apathy towards them. Their performances are all very superficial and typical, not amounting to anything more than the quality of a serialized network TV show. And next to the professionalism of Spacey, and his apparant commitment to this project and his performance, it really is just a shame at how half-assed and half-cocked (yup, both sides) the film turned out.

Skip it, save for those who just NEED to see Spacey smoke weed for an hour and a half. Personally, I'd rather go to the Grand Vic or wherever Spacey chills these days and blaze it up with him in real life for the duration of the film, but I guess for some, this is a healthier substitute.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Secret Honor (1984)

Wonderful, fascinating one-man-show with Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon as he confesses the motivations behind his political career, Watergate, and Vietnam. Robert Altman directs this bold, audacious project, which far surpasses films such as Oliver Stone's Nixon and Frost/Nixon in terms of intelligence, realism, and depth. Philip Baker Hall gives one of the best performances of his career with his uncanny portrayal of the former president; at times, the resemblance between the two is shocking. Beyond the typical shaggy dog vocal inclinations, he nails Nixon's behavioral and speech mannerisms, ranting and raving with stops, starts, and stutters that reveal his wounds caused by the wrong words constructing the wrong sentences to the wrong people. He waxes nostalgia, only to be repeatedly reminded of his flaws and missteps, as he drinks himself into a deep drunken stupor. He begins defends himself as a lawyer in an imagined trial, where he maintains that the trial that he was pardoned from would have alleviated much of the disdain he received from the American people. He puts the blame of his aggressive political stances on a Committee of 100, a group that influenced him in his youth to enter politics, and who allegedly used him to instate such proposed acts as a third term in '76; he claims that he, himself, created the Watergate scandal to avoid a more thorough investigation of his relationship with the Committee and their treasonous crimes. More than anything, and more than any other filmed material I have seen (including the real Frost/Nixon interviews), this film truly shows the humanity behind the almost universally hated figure; his emotional and mental scars at the hands of his upbringing haunted him for his whole life, and he, like everyone else, was a slave to his predispositions, and also his confusions and contradictions. If I have one complaint, is that the material can, at points, be a tad dry, but Hall's performance, along with the provocative material, keep the film fascinating for its running time all the way up to its strong, emotional ending.

Highly Recommended to those interested in the story of Richard Nixon, and fans of Philip Baker Hall or Robert Altman. This is a good non-biased portrait of the legendary man, and a very interesting character, performance, and theater piece at the same time.

Seargent's 3 (1962)

Meandering, mediocre Rat Pack western made tolerable only through the professionalism of director John Sturges and the sheer watchability of the Pack. The plot is nonexistent for most of the film, and just involves western cliches until the last half hour, where an imminent "Indian" invasion takes top priority. The production is obviously, more so than even Robin and the 7 Hoods, an excuse to get the crew on screen, and in that sense, it works; Frank is the stalwart leader, Dino is the amiable drunken badass, Peter Lawford is the stubborn educated type, and Joey Bishop is the comic doofus. Only Sammy Davis, Jr. gets shafted, with his shuckin' n' jivin' antics offending from his first minute on screen. The racism of the piece extends to its treatment of the Native Americans, which is stereotypical of American westerns of the time; it was two years before A Fistful of Dollars would make all these movies look like the racist pieces of shit that they were. However, aside from the racism, John Sturges does a surprisingly strong job with the material given, and creates a mythic backdrop for the Pack that extends beyond obvious sets and props. Some of the shots were among the most impressive of any of the Rat Pack films, and, at select moments, reached the epic scope of the infinitely superior Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. But alas, the movie does not create the levels of tension, humor, or drama to warrant a wholehearted recommendation, and without the effortless charm of the Chairman and his boys, the film would be a true bore.

Slightly Recommended to diehard Rat Pack and John Sturges fans. I wasn't expecting much, and I got what I expected; definitely inferior to Ocean's 11, if not also Robin and the 7 Hoods.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Shutter Island (2010)

Really nifty, haunting tale that zigzags wonderfully until its original plot, involving two U.S. Marshals' search for a missing mental patient, becomes lost in the shuffle. Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo play the two marshals, who trek to Shutter Island, a high-security island habitat for murderous and violent criminals, in search of a missing woman who allegedly killed her children. Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow run the establishment, which requires the marshals to sacrifice their guns and, arguably, their freedom during the duration of their investigation. DiCaprio's reasons for being there are sheisty, as is his mental state, which is exacerbated by the surroundings of the island. All of this is pretense, and the movie takes its pulpy plot and juices the pulp out of it until it has reached Twilight Zone-level proportions of provocative parable. It is a joy to stare at Scorcese's German expressionism-influenced frames, looking at the fringes for some validation of what is real and what is imagined. The casting is brilliant, with recognizable faces peppering the film with very showy, big performances; Kingsley and Jackie Earle Haley, as a particularly mangled patient, are note-perfect in their sideshow roles. DiCaprio turns in a strong performance, second only to his in The Departed, but the nature of the character requires a great deal of introspection and internal conflict, so for the most part, we are left out of his interior character, but are still quite intrigued. Ruffalo is also typically likable, and Michelle Williams dominates her flashbacks as DiCaprio's departed wife. The dialogue is appropriately stylized and kitchy, and the pacing of the film, opening with the two leads' approach to the island, is perfect.

Highly Recommended to fans of Scorcese (all 8 of you out there), haunting cerebral thillers, and madhouse freakshows a la Freaks. This is a love it or hate it film, and I must say, I adore this side of Scorcese far more than his Departed/Gangs of New York side. This is more akin to Taxi Driver, and I'm very glad he found it in him to create a perfect portrait of insanity once more.

The Daytrippers (1996)

Surprisingly human, well-acted comedy about a woman who's suspicious of her husband's fidelity, and unwittingly assigns her family to help clarify the situation. Hope Davis plays the woman, a loyal and loving wife who finds a love note, presumably written to her husband, Stanley Tucci, and, while not making any assumptions, takes it to her mother, played by Anne Meara, who treats it as a call to arms. She gets the whole family, including her daughter and son-in-law (Parker Posey and Liev Schreiber), into a car and heads to the city from NJ to tail Tucci until he slips up. The problems that ensue are typically more dramatic and real than one would expect, with the relationships between the family members feeling very inexplicably strained and genuine. Meara, Jerry Stiller's wife and partner-in-crime, nearly steals the film with her overbearing, self-righteous mother, who has enslaved her children with her care and cannot see her fault in their problems. Davis, Posey, Schreiber, and Tucci, along with Campbell Scott as a playboy after both sisters, are all top-notch here, particularly Schreiber, who makes his elitist, aristocracy-supporting gen-xer more than the cliched faux-intellectual many other actors would portray. The relationships are complicated and nuanced, and allowed to get ugly and unlike director Greg Mattola's other works, Adventureland and Superbad.

Recommended for fans of '90s indie comedies, the cast, or Greg Mattola, as this is his strongest and most human work. Great for late night or romantic viewings.

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)

Hilarious, if somewhat obvious comedy about 3 40ish guys, and one of their nephews, as they travel back in time to their mid-80's prime via, you guessed it, a Hot Tub Time Machine. My expectation was that the 80's setting would be the primary source of humor, given the obvious anachronisms and culture shifts since then, but the 80's jokes are mostly comprised of time-appropriate references and obvious fashion jokes. John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, and Clark Duke play the 4 leads, and their interplay ends up being the draw of the film, more so than the absurdity of the plot and situations. Corddry, in particular, really surprised me with his tragi-comic performance as the guy who really felt at home in the '80s, and was never able to live up to his hedonist heights as a teenager. I can already tell Clark Duke will be pigeonholed as the next Jonah Hill, due to his hipster frame (both body and specs hehe), but I find his humor much more interesting and realistic; he does not seem like he's trying too hard to make us laugh, but at the same time, understands the humor of his character and demeanor and utilizes it well. Craig Robinson and Cusack are dependably g, but I have rarely been disappointed, so I was not surprised. Collette Wolfe, of The Foot Fist Way and Observe and Report, deserves a mention for her sexed-up 80s blonde, who happens to be the young version of Clark Duke's mom, much to his chagrin.

When I heard that John Cusack was going to star in a '80s nostalgia piece involving a ski resort, I had hoped for a more provocative, more retrospective look at the differences between then and today; what would Lane Meyer be like 20 years later? But the fish-out-of-water plot remains too derivative and obvious to allow for any insight to seep through. What we do get are excellently devised gags and undeniably electric chemistry that make the energy and hilarity of the film more than satisfactory. I had just hoped for a script with a little more balls and a little less corniness and contrivance than this, but I can settle for one where the friends interrupt one of their own mid-coitus, then allow him to finish to maintain the space-time continuum.

Highly Recommended for fans of the cast, goofy studio comedies, and '80s movies a la Better Off Dead. This was funnier than I expected, but not as ingenius as that first teaser made it seem...which I'll embed, just because it alone had me completely jonesed for this movie.

The Hot Tub Time Machine - Red Band Trailer
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Tyson (2008)

Thoroughly captivating, uniquely humorous doc about former Heavyweight champion "Iron" Mike Tyson. The entirety of James Toback's portrait of the man is contained within Tyson's luxurious home as he spends the running time reminiscing about his career, his love life, and his spirituality. I thought that the film would be patronizing, given Tyson's larger than life stage persona and less-than-flattering fall from grace before he retired. However, Toback once again surprises me with his outsider's respect, and gives Mike a fair shake; he does not make Mike out to be a role model of any sort, but he allows us to understand the trajectory of his story, beginning with the root of his hyper-aggressive fighting style (he has weak lungs, and his fear of running out of breath forced him to end the fights as early as possible). The greatest compliment I can give the documentary is that I did not feel manipulated as Mike defended his more controversial actions (such as his rape conviction), but rather like I was being given a glimpse at the other side of the story that the media en masse had very little interest in. Toback really reveals the sensationalist nature of the modern media culture, and how they jump on and exacerbate any moderately striking event until their response outweighs the instigating action. Tyson was demonized by many, and it took him a long time to regain his sense of self-worth as a result, but if the doc is any indication, he is smarter, and more comfortable than he was at the beginning of his journey, and his values and priorities exist completely out of the realm of boxing, women, or substance abuse.

Highly Recommended for fans of Tyson's persona, well made one-on-one documentaries, and boxing. The humor in this piece is strong enough to warrant giving it a chance even if you're not sure if it's your bag; archived quotes include the classic gem, "I want your heart, I wanna eat your children, praise be to Allah!"

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

Humorous, multi-layered concoction by legendary Luis Bunuel involving the dining and living habits of several Bourgeois Frenchies. The central joke of the piece, which I won't ruin here, involves dreams, trips to dine, and the superfluous and interchangable nature of the working class in relation to the middle; the faces of servants, chambermaids, waiters, and even priests seem to blend together into a general subservient mass. Fernando Rey plays the central Bourgeois pig, an ambassador to a Central American country who uses his position to smuggle cocaine, which he reaps huge profits off of as he promotes values and moralism to his dinner companions. He is funny, but the dream-like nature of the narrative only allows him to be that, amusing, rather than well-drawn or deep, unlike his character in Bunuel's That Obscure Object of Desire, which was a tragic victim of his own mortal follies. Much of the movie is pointed satire, and it is successful, but it is only that; Bunuel's obvious hatred for the stereotypes and chariactures he is representing keeps anything of emotional resonance from occurring, as the characters are all lifeless, all-consuming drones. Still, much of what is on display is relevent in any classist society, and the satire truly does breach national and temporal barriers to make it truly relevant, even today. Bunuel's eye for imagery was in full effect, and the scenes here have a haunting, stylized quality that elevates the film, on a superficial level, from boring domestic drama.

Recommended for fans of Bunuel, French and Spanish surrealism, or satires of middle-class life. I am not currently well-scholared in Bunuel's work, having seen only this, Un Chien Andalou, and the aforementioned Obscure Object of Desire, but of the three, this is the weakest, and most superficial.

American Movie (1999)

Funny, if overrated doc following a filthy hick, Mark Borschardt, and his portly ex-druggie buddy, Mike Schank, as they try to film and release a dogshit horror movie in order to fund a more serious and ambitious drama. The humor, and cult appeal, of the film reside in the idiosyncrasies and naivete of the two main characters, who are, ostensibly, complete white trash, aside from their resolve and ambition to get a coherent film in the can. They are likable guys, to be sure, but the film does seem to condescend and patronize them, as if the documentary about the film has more merit than the film itself. Alas, the invisible hand of the documentarian is my big peeve with most docs, that seem to have cinematic equivalents of topic and concluding sentences that simply aren't organic to the content. The movie within the film is not goofy enough to make the whole thing a tragedy, or a giant fiasco; we are told that the film exceeded its initial sales projections, and that the filmmakers did film Northwestern, the dream project of Borschardts. But alas, there is nothing on display here that goes beyond mere humor and tentative emotional investment in the dreams of these brave, if misguided self-made filmmakers.

Recommended for fans of humorous documentaries or shitty horror filmmaking. I must say if I do revisit this film, it is for Schank's wonderful, impossible-to-make-up personality which is far more infectious, if more understated, than Borschardt's.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Powder (1995)

Corny, melodramatic turd about a telekinetic albino teenager that changes the lives of several small-town Texas folk. Sean Patrick Flanery (yes, Connor MacManus) plays the titular Powder, nicknamed such for his chalk-white skin, who has an undefinable relationship with electricity due to his mother being struck by lightning on the night of his birth. He is discovered after the grandparents that raised him die, and is taken in by sympathetic shrink Mary Steenburgen and ornery sheriff Lance Henriksen, both as wasted as an anorexic's dinner. He enrolls in high school, providing us with some terribly cliched mid-90's outcast teen drama. It is there where he meets the only person who understands him, a physics teacher played by Jeff Goldblum, who is the only actor not on autopilot; some of his line-readings were so humorous, it made it worse just to be reminded how tepid the movie that surrounded him was. Bullying, crying, and special-effect reaction shots persist, and the movie ends on a pathetic note with several main characters crying in a field. The real tragedy of the film is Flanery's performance. There is little in his demeanor or speech to suggest the vanity of a cover boy that he, ostensibly, was at the time. However, he remains a very good-looking, and physically comfortable lad, and no amount of white make-up, visible inner turmoil, or sympathetic gestures can hide that. He is trapped by a script that relegates him to a cliched, Rain Man-esque savant, but he is not able to immerse himself fully enough to the role for us to want to dredge through the snow to get to the cabin. Perhaps the film would've played better with a more freaky, unknown actor in the lead, but who knows; as is, Goldblum's the best actor of the bunch.

Skip it, save for Sean Patrick Flanery fans who wanna see the guy look like a Stranger from Dark City. Personally, I'd take Boondock 2 again, even with his fucked up face.

Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense (1984)

Tremendously and successfully ambitious concert film that is fun and exciting for the duration of the running time. David Byrne received a credit for conceiving the staging of the concert, which is quite entertaining. As opposed to opening with a large number with the full band, he opens with only himself and a boombox, playing "Psycho Killer" with full impact sans the backup. From then on, as each song progresses, another member of the band appears onstage; it is a truly original presentation that keeps the momentum building for a good amount of the film. David Byrne's stage persona is wonderfully idiosyncratic, filled with twitches, quirks, and risks that play as simultaneously comic and appropriate to the music. The musical performances themselves are out of this world for Talking Heads fans; the rearrangements of many of the songs are far larger, and more fully realized than the original studio cuts. Jonathan Demme's direction is surprisingly low-key, providing long, unbroken takes of Byrne and the crew doing their thing instead of opting for then-chic MTV style cutting. Even though I adored most of the film, I did feel it was a little long; I would've cut one or two of the final numbers to ensure the Heads didn't outstay their welcome. But nonetheless, I was so entranced by the energy of the show that I watched the two deleted numbers on the Blu-Ray immediately after the film's conclusion.

Highly Recommended for fans of the Talking Heads, new wave, or well-made concert films. This is actually one awesome show that I don't regret not being able to have gone to; I feel like I got the idea, and it was great.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Boiling Point (1990)

Uncharacteristically subpar effort from "Beat" Takeshi Kitano about a young baseball player who gets involved with the yakuza after a minor incident with an obnoxious thug. The baseball element ends up being a burden; there is countless footage of the sport with little rhyme or reason, save for a fetishistic adoration for the game itself. The main plot is pretty threadbare, typical for Kitano. However, the lead character is fairly nondescript and dumb, and some of the key supporting characters are nothing to write home about. The film truly picks up when Kitano himself enters the scene as an off-the-rails, rebellious gangster. One of his early appearances, involving his use of multiple bottles to make a point to an uncooperative hood, is easily the most lively moment up to that point, and kicks off the lengthy chunk of the film that is tolerable merely for Kitano's screen presence and his keen, deadpan handling of his own material. Nonetheless, he is not the central character, and his extreme antics, when not the focus of the story, do not have quite the same effect as his star vehicles. The framing, staging, and production design are all top-notch, but in service of a relatively tepid story that does not hit any emotional notes.

Slightly Recommended for fans of Beat Takeshi and off-kilter yakuza films. As far as Takeshi films go, I'd start with Violent Cop, Fireworks, or Brother first.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

He Was A Quiet Man (2007)

Provacative, pitch-black DTV comedy about a repressed office worker and his unsatiable craving to massacre his workplace, bolstered by a fantastically nebbish Christian Slater in the lead. He spends his cubicle-dwelling days planning the demise of those who berate and trivialize him every day, staring at his revolver while assigning a bullet for each person. He's just about to carry out his actions when another lowly office employee takes the initiative and plugs a roomful of people, and when Slater realizes his office crush took a slug in the back, he "saves the day" and offs the other nutjob, looking like a hero. He gets a promotion, newfound respect, and the companionship of a wounded office worker who feels in his debt. But his psychotic tendencies, manifested by fish that he hallucinates feeding him orders, live on to cause him stress and alienation, building towards a breaking point Slater knows is coming and cannot avoid. The hopelessness of Slater's character, and the actor's willingness to make the character a completely unromantic nutcase (unlike some of his previous characters) make this film worth watching. When he begins his rags to riches story, and the love story element seems to seep in uninvited, the film could easily become a cliched, trite indie mess, but you know that Slater's character is still quite off his rocker, and could ruin it all in a heartbeat. His sweaty, high-strung to the point of paralysis performance, along with a wonderfully smarmy one by William H. Macy as his new, higher-up boss, keep the film from settling in to long and making you comfortable; you know this guy well enough to know he's capable of terrible things, and it'll be an uphill struggle to see him get to a neutral zone in his life where he can be content with what he has.

Recommended for fans of black office comedies or Christian Slater. This one had nowhere to go but DTV; it is too dark, twitchy, and depressing for most audiences, even those for darker comedies a la Office Space. But hopefully the presence of stars Slater, Macy, and Elisha Cuthbert will keep this relatively watched in years to come.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Wolfman (2010)

Lame, uneventful turd of a monster movie despite a game, if underused cast, a hefty bounty of Gothic gore, and an absolutely kickass Rick Baker Wolfman design. The retarded plot is as follows: Benicio is Lawrence Talbot (I'm immediately calling bullshit...Talbot? He's clearly Puerto Rican), an Englishman who gained an American accent on the stage while becoming a popular actor (huh?), who returns home in search of his missing brother only to be bitten by the same presumed werewolf that offed brodre. The presuming transformation, emprisonment, escape, love, and fight scenes are all fairly rote, save a bit in a macabre sanitarium and some genuinely shocking and intense werewolf feasts that reminded me of the "Dinner is served" scene in From Dusk Till Dawn. The direction is all over the place, and the departure of original director Mark Romanek mere weeks before shooting is clearly evident, as paradoxes plague the movie's style like...a fucking plague. So much can't be said for the script, which is just...dead. The dialogue, characterizations, scenarios, and resolutions are all complete and utter dogshit, reeking of uninspired and uncreative people holding the pens (hint: probably not WGA members). But god, Rick Baker is really the fucking man; his wolfman design for Del Toro is easily his best work since Planet of the Apes. It's expressive, but that's not Benicio, that's a fucking monster, and a scary one to even look at. The film earned my respect every minute Baker's work was on display, but not much elsewhere.

Only for fans of Rick Baker and gory, expensive Gothic horror. Benicio, Anthony Hopkins, and Hugo Weaving have underwritten roles not worth witnessing; Emily Blunt is, as her name implies, dead weight. Kind of a pointless film.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Stone Cold (1991)

Blissfully ridiculous early-'90s action flick about a renegade cop (ahhhhh, yesssss) who goes deep undercover as an anarchist biker to prevent a political assassination. The cop is played by Brian Bosworth, a former Seattle Seahawks linebacker, is named "Joe Huff," and rocks both a pet iguana AND a blonde mullet; one of his adversaries refers to him as a "grown up Bam-Bam." As an actor, Bosworth has, typical for the era, very little charisma other than the body to convincingly pulverize baddies with, but the plot (and direction) nurture his wooden style very well. Lance Henriksen is a typically strong villain, William Forsythe makes a chew toy out of the scenery with his biker henchman, and Sam MacMurray is a surprisingly effective and likable comic relief. However, the highlight here is the goofy energy of it all; the spirited, action-heavy set-pieces, the caricatured supporting performances, and the one-liners are all brilliantly over-the-top, including my favorite line of the film, from Henriksen ("That reminds me of my daddy's last words: 'No, please, son, put that down, the gun's loaded!'"). It seems that the right people, and enough of them, were comfortable enough with the inevitable tone of this stupid film to, as Bosworth says in the film, "turn it on," and make it the most balls-to-the-wall, ludicrous scummy action film they possibly could, and it worked; the film is far more entertaining than more sincere entries in the action genre during this time, if only for its relentless pace, due to hilarious peaks of absurdity, and the willingness to abandon several extraneous mainstays of the genre, including a shoehorned love interest, a villain who kills his own cohorts on a whim, and politically correct action scenes where only villains, and not bystanders, die. The films this reminded me of most were the first 2 Death Wish sequels, despite the relatively hunkier, younger lead in this one; the drama is comically on-the-nose and mild, and the action is grotesquely over-the-top in ways only the most cynical and poisoned of Hollywood producers could endorse.

Highly Recommended for fans of over-the-top action cinema of the late-'80s/early-90's and Lance Henriksen's goofy villain roles a la Hard Target. This film is a blast for the right people, and for the wrong people, GO SEE AVATAR AGAIN hahahahaha.

P.S. My unfortunate disdain for Avatar will probably boil over once it stops being the number one highest grossing movie ever...Nolans, you can finish that Batman 3 script anytime now....

Monday, February 8, 2010

The House of the Devil (2009)

Excellent, deliberately-paced horror film about a shady babysitting job in the middle of the woods. Trailers give away too much of the plot, which involves a young female college student taking the mysterious job, despite her friend's insistence, to pay her rent. The film is, indeed, a horror film, but the suspense and tension are more ample than the gore; director Ti West knows that the knowledge of what could happen, or what might be happening, is far more terrifying than anything you actually see happen. There are long sequences where seemingly nothing of consequence happens, save for false starts and misconceptions. These sequences are made extremely tense through a deft professional touch by West, who I expect will never top this ambitious, personal piece. The acting is far superior to normal low-budget genre fare; special props must be given to The Reaper himself, Tom Noonan, who, even after nearly 30 years in horror films, can still, unlike, say, Udo Kier, register as mysterious and interesting. The set of the house is terrifying in its normality; we are aware of every piece of the frame that is out of place, and that attention to detail is unfortunately atypical of modern horror filmmakers. If I have one complaint, it is that West, as the editor, shows his cards a little too early, and makes several reveals obvious to us before our protagonist. But she catches up quickly, and the film pays off the suspense quite satisfactorily.

Highly Recommended to fans of '80s horror (soundtrack includes InXS and The Greg Kihn Band), or well-made suspense films; this has more in common with Hitchcock than one would infer from the title.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Spartacus (1960)

Terrific swords-and-sandals epic by Stanely Kubrick about a slave, played by Kirk Douglas, who stands up to the Roman Empire, headed by Sir Laurence Olivier. The central theme of overcoming human adversity and achieving self-worth in the face of enslavement is effective, but tacky; the 3 1/2 hour film would be crushed under the weight of its own self-righteousness, were it not for the deft, professional craft of Kubrick a true master of his craft. Through his camera, we do not view the action from the most obvious or traditional of methods, but instead are treated with odd angles, huge, mind-blowing use of the 70mm camera, and shockingly subversive and nuanced acting. The film earns its "epic" title without exploiting the money and production values involved, but rather by heightening tension and conflict to the largest levels possible. The attempts of Spartacus to lead his escaped slaves out of Rome are paralleled by Olivier's effort to gain a dictatorship over the Empire; they are both self-righteous and justified, but Spartacus's ideals are more practical and realistic than Olivier's bourgeois plans to take power over Rome. The decision to cast Olivier, rather than some hammy villain, does much to complicate matters, for his internal logic and reason seems to be thoroughly evident and fully fleshed out, making his scenes just as interesting and dramatic as Spartacus' expansive rebellion. His clearly erotic relationship with his slave, played by Tony Curtis (with his NY accent intact), wholly evoked through glances and line deliveries from Olivier, makes his hatred of Spartacus very real and human when Curtis runs away to join Spartacus' army. Douglas' performance is strong and stoic, even for him, but nothing revolutionary (no pun intended); while he, as exec producer, ran the show and this is, ostensibly, his, rather than Kubrick's, production, I still prefer his more risky, morally ambiguous turns, such as Billy Wilder's Ace in the Whole, to his impermeable nice guy image. The supporting cast is aces, with Curtis, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Herbert Lom, and, especially, Peter Ustinov making distinct impressions, despite their stock roles. Every performer seems to have subtext in their work, and this is, no doubt, due to Kubrick's input. The corniness level is, thankfully, at a minimum throughout, even during the melodramatic ending that justifies itself through emotion, rather than action. The script by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo is filled with wit and insight, without ever sacrificing the Ancient Rome environment.

Highly Recommended for fans of epic cinema, Stanley Kubrick, Kirk Douglas, or Laurence Olivier. I did not expect to be as enthralled by the 220 minute film as I was; Kubrick proves his everlasting steel grip of the balls of cinema once more.

The Source (1999)

Sweet documentary on the Beat generation and its lasting legacy. The focus is on the three most popular and seminal works of the movement, and their respective authors: On The Road by Jack Kerouac, "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg, and Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. Interviews with Ginsberg and Burroughs, along with archive footage of Kerouac, are prominent, but not the focus; the fast-paced cutting is meant to evoke the style of the period, more than any ruminations on the text. Director Chuck Workman keeps the images and ideas flowing in a Beat-like manner, making the energy, more than the information, the top priority. This works in making the documentary a fun, exciting experience, providing much more life and movement than most docs can muster. However, it trivializes the importance of most of the texts, with only the brief "Howl" being presented in its entirety, and analyzed accordingly. The authors, and their sensationalist lifestyles, take central interest here, as their homosexual exploits, their adventures abroad, and their post-Beat endeavors are extensively, and unnecessarily, detailed. There are readings of the three works by Johnny Depp, John Turturro, and Dennis Hopper, and of the three, only Depp seems tremendously bored and out of place; the connection that the latter two have with the material is tangible and evident in their spirited reading. The sequence on Neal Cassady, the inspiration or "muse" for much of the Beats, including a surprising amount of archive footage, is refreshing and enlightening; my girlfriend claims that the brief footage of the real Cassady is far more interesting than Tom Jane's entire interpretation of him in The Last Time I Committed Suicide. However, at the end, aside from several images or factoids I was not privy to, I did not feel like I had learned anything that the texts themselves did not teach me. That being said, this is a great way to introduce modern audiences to the Beat movement, and definitely captures the idealism and spirit of the movement without compromising too much of its inherent integrity and struggle.

Recommended for fans of Beat poetry and high-energy documentaries. I am not gaga about many docs, and this one did not blow me away, but I found myself calling "Bullshit!!" less times than expected.

The Informers (2009)

Decent, hollow Bret Easton Ellis adaptation that finds L.A. denizens bumping around in the mid-'80s as AIDS, addiction, and general aloofness take their toll. Jon Foster is, arguably, the lead, whose jealousy over his friend and girlfriend's relationship is simmered by the fact that they are constantly in menage a trois. Billy Bob Thornton and Kim Basinger are his parents, who have just reconciled their marriage, primarily for image purposes, as they are both seeing younger people. Brad Renfro is the doorman in his apartment, whose uncle, Mickey Rourke, comes to town with a underage mistress and a kidnapping scheme. Chris Isaak is the father of one of Foster's friends who takes him on a drunken Hawaiian vacation to maybe get closer with his son or, more definitely, to get laid. There are other characters and subplots, the most interesting of which, involving Brandon Routh as a modern-day vampire (ripe with L.A. symbolism and metaphor), was cut prior to production. The slice-of-life structure, lifted directly from Ellis, is not carefully constructed enough, and just comes off as isolated incidents rather than a cohesive package. Each celebrity feels like they are walking in off of a different film (especially the shamefully underused Rourke), and the younger actors' seem to be distanced from the material, and almost seem to be making a hot-body filled Showgirls interpretation of the plot. The actors who fare the best are Amber Heard, whose AIDS-ridden nymphet has a apathetic, cool exterior to hide her increasingly unhealthy body and mind, and the late-underrated Brad Renfro, who gives his overweight doorman a sort of lonely dreamer quality that places him in context to the other, more wealthy players in the film, which the other stories fail to achieve. Overall, though, the script does not allow for much pathos and humanity in the superficial, distant landscape, and director Gregor Jordan is, unlike Ellis, only interested in depicting the action, not commenting on it.

Slightly Recommended for fans of coked-up 80s glam and Bret Easton Ellis. This is a casual viewing; any close attention and you will probably feel as time-wasteful as the dumbass Los Angelinos in the flick.

The Anderson Tapes (1971)

Fun, somewhat light-weight heist film directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Sean Connery and an impossibly young Christopher Walken. Connery is a crooked lawyer, fresh out of a decade in jail, who concocts a robbery of an apartment complex to coax some incriminating tapes out of Alan King and his mob. His squeeze is Dyan Cannon, who, as in her best work comes off as both a powerhouse, mega-wattage movie star (which I don't think she ever was) and a real, temperamental, volatile woman. The build-up to the heist comprises the first 45 minutes or so, as Connery finagles with the mob, makes amends with Cannon, and puts his team (including Walken and Martin Balsam) together. This section is, customary to Lumet, ripe with strong character work, lively dialogue, and perfect casting. While Walken is more of a physical presense here than a verbal one (this early performance is reminiscent of Walken the dancer than Bruce Dickinson), Connery, Balsam, Cannon, and Dick Anthony Williams (as another member of the gang) all turn in rich, evocative characterizations that truly had me invested in their fates. The heist itself is a huge setpiece, and takes a little too long to get the boiling point that the audience knows is inevitable, but is still very exciting and lively. That being said, it wraps up the whole plot, and makes all that came before it relate to this perfunctory, spectacular climax, disregarding any chance at something deeper or more socially or morally relevant. But alas, Lumet is a master at getting in and getting out without overstaying his welcome, and I suppose I can be grateful for the film being more breezy and entertaining than self-righteous and pretentious.

Recommended for fans of Lumet, Connery, or heist films, especially those from the 70s or the French New Wave; there are hints of Le Circle Rouge throughout, particularly the intricate, well-planned theft itself.

House of Flying Daggers (2004)

Lush, colorful Wuxia film, a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with a strong story, but somewhat contrived characterizations. Zhang Ziyi plays a blind courtesan in the China of old who is inadvertantly used by the police to discover the location of a rebel group, known as the Flying Daggers. The opening scenes are the most effective, where Ziyi shows the policemen the true extent of her grace in both dance (utilizing her wardrobe and levitated drums as a sort of free-form instrument) and martial arts. As the protaganist, a ladies man who does a Johnny Utah and actually falls for the lass he is using, Takeshi Kaneshiro is broad and boring; his drunken, loutish early scenes and clearly manipulative behavior with Ziyi make him not only pretty reprehensible, but, given what we learn, quite stupid, making him an unsympathetic, lame duck protagonist. Ziyi, who, as the object of affection, requires us to be quite enamored with her, is effective, but, due to the contrivances of the script and the lack of chemistry with her romantic lead, ends up coming off as hollow and inconsequential. The strongest of the performers is veteran Andy Lau, who, as in Infernal Affairs, treads that fine line between sympathy and adversity as Kaneshiro's superior, who trails him into the woods as Ziyi leads him to her presumed leaders. His is the most thankless, unjustified part, and he injects it with a haunted sympathy that makes his scenes the most provacative and deep. The other characters are at the mercy of the plot, which gets nice and complex once the second act wraps up, and the visuals, which definitely benefit from the care and attention that was obviously given to them.

The visuals are very well composed and constructed, but I found them, to my surprise, to get boring; once they are in the woods, they stay in the woods, and the bamboo/forest surroundings got tiresome after a while. At the end, the scenery gets more intense to reflect the characters mood, but it seemed very artificial and showy, rather than moody or powerful. The visuals fare best in the beginning, when the archetypes of the cops and robbers allow for much nuance and dynamics in the presentation of their respective environments. The color of the early brothel scenes does much to justify what comes after, and the intricate interior design of these scenes achieves a unique style that, unlike most of the film, does not evoke another film's imagery. However, for the majority of the running time, I found myself citing Crouching Tiger, Kurosawa's Dreams, and director Zhang Yimou's own Curse of the Golden Flower, and the characterizations did not register strongly enough to rate this higher than any of those superior films. However, the action scenes are more effective and plentiful than those in Crouching Tiger, and, albeit at the cost of the films contemplative, philosophical tone, achieve a sense of energy and excitement. These, along with the strength of the deceptively simple plot, make the film an entertaining, if shallow, endeavor.

Recommended for fans of Wuxia cinema, Zhang Yimou, Zhang Ziyi, Andy Lau, or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In terms of Yimou, I'd reccomend Hero or Curse of the Golden Flower over this, but this is not a significantly lesser film than those, just a mildly lesser one.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Big White (2005)

Strong black comedy in the vein of Double Indemnity and Fargo involving Robin Williams as an Alaskan citizen trying to outsmart Giovanni Ribisi, an insurance agent, to collect his missing, and presumed dead, brother's life insurance. This one was DTV, and, while I understand the lack of popularity black comedies have with mass audiences, it is truly a shame, because there is a lot of energy and originality here. The humor is not wholly derived from the extremes of the macabre and the tediously normal, like Fargo, but rather from the desperation and alienation of the characters. While all of them are distinct characters, and register in their own way, they do not succumb to caricature; there is no hammy Frances Mcdormand sounding significantly more mannered and exaggerated than her costars. It helps that the cast is quite exceptional: aside from strong turns from the two leads, Holly Hunter (hilarious as Williams' Tourette's-ridden wife), Woody Harrelson, Alison Lohman, and Tim Blake Nelson all turn in very real, funny work here. However, the film never becomes a quirky ensemble comedy a la Big Trouble (which I actually like) or (god forbid) Drowning Mona, and maintains interest by taking its central plot seriously and making the stakes dramatically high without compromising the comedic tone of the movie.

Reccommended for fans of Fargo-esque black comedies, or Holly Hunter. This did not deserve the fate it got, but perhaps its off-kilter, high-tension style could only find its audience through dvd...and blogs like this.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Alone in the Dark (1982)

Disposable early-80's horror film featuring Jack Palance and Martin Landau as two evangelical mental patients who escape and embark on a vengeful murder spree to avenge their former doctor. The story revolves around their new doctor, a boring-as-wood bespectacled fop played by Dwight Schultz from the A-Team, who gets terrorized by the psychos once they suspect him, for whatever reason, of killing his predecessor. This stale fuck ruins the movie; like the worst horror films, the filmmakers think that the audience will be lost without a surrogate, and contrast the madness of the Oscar-winning nutjobs with D-grade domestic drama, and it repeatedly makes one lose interest. However, the film has enough tense and freaky scenes to keep one interested, but that is the films cheap ploy; this is an early New Line production, and they were known, back then, for their schlocky tendencies and their somewhat-exploitative energy, on display here in multiple gratuitous death and sex scenes. The main cast, no strangers to having to emote in B-movie dreck, holds up. Donald Pleasance plays another doctor of the nutbars, and he is as comfortable as ever playing a nonsense character in a nonsense movie. Palance and Landau are creepy, especially the latter as his evil psycho side is less familiar, and all the more unsettling with the notion that he could, at any moment, snap out of it, but doesn't. Every time he screams, belts out scripture, or murders somebody, it is startling and effective, and that attests to the underappreciated talents of Landau. But the supporting cast, the tepid direction (outside the horror stuff), and the dogshit script keep the film from being anything else than a decent diversion.

Slightly Recommended to hardcore fans of early 80's horror (a la New Line's early output). A casual viewing of this one would be best, as Dwight Schultze's bits really make one lose interest in between the cool death scenes.

Gentlemen Broncos (2009)

Cute, but unremarkable geek-hipster tale of a homeschooled wannabe sci-fi writer who has his ideas pillaged by both a student filmmaker and his idol, a sci-fi writer named Ronald Chevalier. Jared Hess definitely makes this more Napoleon Dynamite than Nacho Libre, focusing on the redundancy and repitition of these characters' lives and deriving comic value from their total lack of self-awareness. The films fatal flaw is his lack of desire to take things to the next level; there are no scenes a la Jack Black actually mastering his eagle powers at Nacho's climax. He seems far more fascinated with the universality of his characters as they deal with problems so banal that only we can recognize their stupidity. Which is a shame, because his cast seems game for much more than they are given. Michael Anganaro is actually an appropriate lead, emoting both familiar and idiosyncratic vibes throughout while retaining our sympathy. Jennifer Coolidge is hilarious as his mom, an overbearing, but generous woman whose delusions are almost as expansive as her failed nightware line. Hector Jiminez (from Nacho Libre) is funny, but tired; he does not figure out how to differ his character from Napoleon's Pedro or his own from Nacho Libre. But the actors that make this film more than just disposable hipster trash are Jemaine Clement (of Flight of the Conchords) and Sam Rockwell. Rockwell plays the protaganist of the story that the plot revolves around, and he injects his nonsense, archtype-derived role with a mad energy that makes his sequences highlights of the film. Jemaine Clement plays Chevalier as the epitome of stuck-up, with a brandy-tinged pretentious accent and line delivery that insinuates that he feels absolutely impervious to reality, logic, or ethics; for Flight fans, more of him would make the film much more worthwhile. However, as is, both him and Rockwell are merely momentary flashes of hilarity in a movie that does not earn it.

Slightly Recommended for fans of sci-fi novels, Jemaine Clement, and Jared Hess. This could have been a better movie if they had been more willing to escape the "trapped teen" storyline that grounds the film in cliche. Alas, I'll still see Hess's next film.