Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Big Dysfunctional 2009 Movie Roundup

My efforts to compile a year-end list were a failure. I decided to look over some numbers. Of the 10 biggest pictures this year, I would only consider seeing 3: Up, Avater, Potter 6 1/2. Of those 3, only one was a must for me (Up). And I still missed all of them.

Even more oddly, through one problem or another, missed most of the movies I really looked forward to this year: Let the Right One In, District 9, Inglorious Basterds, The End of the Line, Drag Me to Hell, Food Inc., Moon, The Brothers Bloom... Bad luck or coordination really sabotaged my movie-going this year. I was in a movie theater less than 20 times for all of 2009. But there are still many things to say, so let's sort out what we do have, ok?

Best New Release (that I actually saw) Coraline. Neil Gaiman's brilliant writing is paired with excellent effects work for a thoroughly-enjoyable fairy tale full of laughter and tension. [this happened before with Mirrormask, but Coraline was better] See my review.

Best Out-of-the-Blue Release Cooking History. It's been ages since I've seen a picture with an actual thesis. This movie features interviews with cooks from various European armies (e.g., Russia, Bosnia, Hungary, France). Among the topics: questions of pride in helping the war effort, guilt over Old World colonialism, moral blindspots, and racism/nationalism. Filmed with more than a bit of humor and style, it was very thought-provoking. Also, the big theater at the Museum of Natural History looks like a place to watch opera. I was lucky to have seen this.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

"The Lives of Others": A German peeping tom who isn't perverse.

"The Lives of Others," released in 2006, stole the best foreign film award from "Pan's Labyrinth." Actually, "stole" is wrong - it was "given" the award over "PL," because the Academy isn't nearly as hip as they try to seem.

This Summer, Ben Kingsley will listen to you screwing. "TLOO" is an excellent film. It's acted perfectly, featuring compelling characters, moments, and dialogue; it's beautifully shot, and has a real dearth of flaws. Nothing in this great human drama is diminished because it's in German, that unprettiest of languages. It just wasn't so amazing or so new that it beat Guillermo Del Toro's contribution to "perfect cinema;" nor was "TLoO" a more thoughtful film. I digress.

"The Lives of Others" is about the final spell in the Cold War, and it takes place in the hyper-absurd town of East Germany. An exemplary member of the Stasi is assigned to spy on an artistic couple - only because a superior wants the wife. Having bugged the place, he listens to the struggles, thoughts, and emotions of two people in love. Before long, this meticulous government stooge is captivated by what filters through his headset.

This fine picture is well worth watching. Many films center on one emotion, in relationships and life, as if one feeling predominates a whole experience. Yet here, there is truly effective humor - subtitles or not - even though laughter is hardly the flick's defining sentiment. A serious relationship, and the cascade of feelings involved, is handled deftly. Impressively, it approaches several serious topics without being ham-fisted, shrill, or excessively judgmental.

My favorite aspect is the apparent(?) lead: Wiesler, the Stasi spook. He's sort of a German Ben Kingsley, and he approaches this role with a commitment to being contained. This character, then, neatly matches the themes and style of "TLOO." Like the DDR, he's listening where he shouldn't - but he has compassion.

Monday, December 7, 2009

"The Killer" - John Woo at his height

Oh, John Woo... Western audiences just don't get it. Sure, "Broken Arrow" and "Face/Off" have their fans (myself among them), but most never heard of "Once a Thief," "Hard Boiled," or "A Better Tomorrow." Like Jackie Chan and Jet Li after him, the West didn't know what to do with JW. Hollywood only knew his huge rep, and his strong box office results. Thus, the US got "Hard Target," "Paycheck," "Windtalkers," and "MI:2:the annoying nonsense."

We're talking about an auteur on par with anybody you can name - even if Woo is just an action director. He was reduced to some pricey movies marketed as "Cruise's/Cage's/Affleck's next hit," or (sigh) "Jean Claude's Van Damme's next hit." None of these financial/critical flops were hailed as "John Woo's next film." Watch this, and you'll know who the real star was.

In the end, the Hollywood big-wigs had no more sense than auto-exec fools who just kept manufacturing SUVs. Those dummies fired factory workers when an over-exposed product couldn't keep over-performing with consumers. Likewise, Hollywood gets good people to work on bad projects, then lays the blame on the wrong factors...

So let us look at "The Killer," and a foreign master at the peak of his powers. John Woo was a man operating in the UK's Hong Kong, in the versatile and competitive HK film market. This unique field allowed many artists to flourish and focus on some of the cinematic basics that can largely die a quiet death within the American film industry.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

"Color of Night" - Yeah Bruce Willis made a skinemax flick

This 1994 theater release was missed by many, panned by the rest. To my great fortune, cable showed me what I'd likely pass up. This is silly and insane and so much fun! The trailer is here, but no embed, so please enjoy this scene:

Cinema's best one-cam two-shot ever. But Bruce is a dull date.

Bruce Willis plays Bill Capa, a New York City shrink ("Hi, Bill!"). His last patient, severely messed-up, jumps out his office window mid-session. He'd just confronted her problems directly, if a little too strongly; as Bill stares down at her body, the blood pooling on the street around her becomes grey.

So in a poetically cruel turn, the psychologist now has a distinct mental problem - he no longer sees the color red. Under such obvious strain, what's a faithless therapist do? He can run off to LA.

Doc Capa bails, flies out to see his best friend, Bob Moore (Scott Bakula). This isn't running away, tho: Bob's also a shrink, and he knows Bill well enough to get through to him. Moore's also gotten quite successful, so hopefully his positivity will rub off, right?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ingmar Bergman's "The Hour of the Wolf" (about damn time)

[8/12/14 Update: I used to use quotation marks around film titles, and it'll take a long while for me to correct them all. I just fixed the horrible spacing problems in this review and the now-dead video links, but that's all for now...]

Ingmar Bergman's "The Hour of the Wolf" is an uncontested classic. Writing a simple review is impossible. Since I have no desire to be repetitious (or a bore), I give you a brief review, then something like a stripped-down essay.

This movie is about a woman whose husband disappeared. She doesn't claim to know what's become of him. She only recounts the story of what happened to them. You have to be in the right frame of mind for this slow, talky-yet-quiet, and rather absurdist piece. These points aside, I was impressed as almost every minute of the flick is terribly eerie. It looks gorgeous, and has a lot to say (figuratively).

A frighteningly-young Max Von Sydow is the great painter Johan, an artist of some reknown. He takes his pregnant wife out to a small house on a remote island for some solitude and a chance to refresh themselves. He will paint, she will care for him, and they will love each other.

But their stay is not very relaxing. Before the story even begins, some of the locals have been a problem - Johan punched one of them. And his observations of them sound odd, as if Johan were insane or surrounded by unnatural creatures. The movie follows the couple as they grow acquainted with their neighbors, as the artist's personality collapses, and as the couple becomes fractured. As I said, you'll need patience and the right frame of mind to enjoy this, yet its creepiness is quite effective. It's also very human, but in a disturbing way.

Just watch that trailer - this is an absurdist freak-fest. To be honest, it's a bad trailer; between the voiceover's bad monotone and the painful tuneless sound playing throughout, I wouldn't watch this movie. Maybe this was the effect Bergman was going for...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

“Haute Tension” (aka “High Tension”) – France gives us something close to Torture-Porn

“High Tension” (2003) was on my radar for a long time. This French horror flick was so universally praised that I was destined to watch it. I can understand fully why it received so much acclaim. Sadly, it brought me no joy.

The plot: a French girl drives with her best friend, bound for her parent's idyllic country home; then everything goes to hell (figuratively).

What does this movie promise? Heavy bouts of ultra-violence, atmosphere, great direction, and a fairly decent premise. It delivers on all these things – particularly the ultra-violence, if that’s what you’re looking for. Parts of this film are very well done; many other important aspects, however, stink.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Legal Video Guide, aka Hulu versus Cable's Free On Demand versus Everything Else

Trying to keep from pirating tv shows and movies can seem daunting. Worst of all, it's time-consuming - most of us want what we want right now, don't we?

In fact, the many options out there these days make it all relatively simple and do-able. Living with an internet connection and the basic tier of cable service is actually pretty easy. I will go through at least 6 legal ways to "watch your stories" through digital providers, so this will be a segregated entry. My review of an Ingmar Bergman flick will have to wait til next week.

Hulu is a great way to watch tv. It's easy to use, and has a huge selection of shows and movies. It also has a great array of features, like continuous play and embed. You can even email a link that points to a clip whose timing you select yourself.

For movies, Hulu is much better when your computer connects to a larger screen. Their site will force you to watch 3-5 commercials per tv episode and more or less for certain films. Not as much fun, but it's still free, right?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

On Piratical Behavior, and Movies That Don't Speak Good Ol' American English

I made sure to view "Ponyo" before it reached the US. A July '08 film in Japan, it reached the States in Aug '09. I even watched it on a 15" monitor, and that bites. Why did U see it like that? In two words: Japanese language.

Every Hayao Miyazaki pic to see an American theatrical release was altered by Disney to bear an English-speaking cast. Discussing "Ponyo" yet again feels unsatisfying, and I'm sorry if it's repetitive. But it highlights my points perfectly...

I love watching foreign films and enjoy reading subtitles. I find it natural, seldom distracting. And, especially for movies that are "less than great," I think the original language and audio make a big difference. If it's not a great work, that extra bit of nuance may help it receive a fair judgment from the viewer.

A decent film can stand as a decent film when you get the added context of subtitles, language differences, and the like. They don't need any changes, nor do great foreign films. Odd Russian, Indian, or Italian sayings are much easier to take when you hear someone say it and then read it on the screen; you know it's something foreign, so you accept it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"Coraline" - what "Ponyo" should've been

My review of "Ponyo" was pretty clear: I was disappointed, but understood that a great artist like Hayao Miyazaki merits leeway. HM made a pure kid's movie with little story, development, or stakes. My guess is he made a movie for really young children... "Coraline," however, was also released this year, and also billed as a kid's film. It has everything that "Ponyo" lacked.

I see buttons for eyes and think this relationship will end badly
Our eponymous hero is a smart and willful teen. Her parents are totally absorbed in her father's writing career. Moving to a new town finds Coraline bored and creeped out by her new digs. But the house has a secret room (of course) that leads to a parallel world - one in which everything is slightly wrong. She meets duplicates of her parents, and they recognize her as their child. They're nearly the same, save that these parents dote on Coraline - and their eyes are buttons. For all the kindness and attention she receives, this new world doesn't seem like a nice place to live...

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"Kiltro" - damn, this rocks

“Kiltro” is a low-budget, spanish-language kung-fu film, and I haven't felt this good after a martial arts flick since "Drunken Master II." Why? Because the premise works, the characters convey everything they have to (while still surprising the audience), and the action is flawless.

Obsessed with getting the male equivalent of "Run Lola Run" hair

Years ago, some buzz on aicn put a Chilean writer/director, Ernesto Díaz Espinoza, on my mind. Apparently, Ernesto knows how to tell (and show) a great story. All his films star his friend, charismatic martial artist Marko Zaror. Like so many directors before him, one actor is his muse… The information was so promising that I waited three years til it became available in the U.S.

The story is both inspired and tried-and-true. In short, a rough but good guy does everything he can for a girl that doesn't want him. A common enemy forces him to deal with her, his own flaws, and a superior opponent.

Friday, September 25, 2009

"Room of Death" - yes, a solid French thriller

Two weeks ago my mac died, and I lost all my saved reviews. That's right, the scream you may have heard was "the sound of ultimate suffering."

The moment's over; let's begin anew. "Room of Death" is a French thriller from 2007. It's also one of the best surprises I've had in a while. Basic cable includes access to some on-demand channels, including "free movies on demand." A quick imdb search showed mixed reviews for this pic, but the praise was convincing. I'm glad that I read between the lines, as I may have passed this over.

The film begins distressingly, with child abduction and trauma - a sepia-toned girl is trapped in a sepia-toned room, and finds that her mother killed herself in the tub. For some time, this scene has no apparent connection to the plots, which jump back and forth between several characters...

Two pals deface a building, then get into a BMW. It's first clear that they're mad at a former employer, then even clearer that Friend A is a worthless prick who gets others in trouble. Friend A, taking B's keys, drives B's BMW at 100MPH with the headlights off. I'm already hoping B is an early casualty.

After swerving to avoid a train, they strike a hooded man. The corpse creates a lot of problem for these hard-up chums - especially when they realize that the man carried a satchel with millions of Euros. They argue, then hide the body.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

"Fear of a Black Hat" will stitch you up

But it helps if you can recognize 80's/90's rap and hip hop. I missed "CB4," but this movie has to be better. How can I say that? "FoaBH" is a hidden gem among 90's comedy, and it's brilliantly acted and scripted. Is "CB4" better than great?...

Well, the numbers aren't always perfect, but "Fear" has 84% freshness on Rotten Tomatoes. "CB4" has a 55% approval rating. I'm with RT on this one, obviously.

1994's "Fear of a Black Hat" is, basically, "Spinal Tap" for a rap group. A female filmmaker documents the long and varied career of NWH (Niggaz With Hats), a rising rap trio. It's exciting because Tasty Taste, Ice Cold, and Tone Def are fun guys confronted by the perils of the rap world - violence, confusion, censors. Throughout the pic, we shift between the filmmaker's questions and fly-on-the-wall scenes, as well as music videos.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

For the record, "Blade" 2 & 3 sucked

I wouldn't write this, but it came up recently. I have a backlog of quality films to discuss (Bergman, Bertolucci, Godard), so the distraction is almost annoying. I may have an affinity for horror, but it's generally unimportant. I only liked the first "Blade" so much because the writer, David S. Goyer, did an amazing job. I knew that such writing - for any genre (even teen romance) - would produce a movie you simply had to see. It only fails if you are averse to violent action pics or scary myths like vampires. But the second and third movies wasted my time. I wish I could un-watch them. I don't say that often. At least "Tango & Cash" was fun. Goyer wrote "Batman Begins" and "TDK," as well as the brilliant-but-troubled "Dark City." Perhaps he shouldn't confine himself to two genres, but clearly the man is very talented. To make any fantasy story (e.g., fairy tale, superhero) work, you have a hard task in making a world that viewers can "accept" for 90+ minutes.

Yet Goyer consistently accomplishes this. Then he goes a step beyond, intelligently carving out credible and interesting characters with emotional arcs and good dialogue. He makes the things they do entertaining, he makes the plot work, and he makes his audience invest in the roles. Even before filming, c'est magnifique!

So it's troubling to know that he also scripted the "Blade" sequels - the writing in each is a cataclysmic flaw. By which I mean "explosively bad." I can muster no certain explanation for their problems. My best guess is that perhaps other people - directors, producers, actors, etc - influenced the final product. Then again, DG may have just "choked." Or maybe he said everything he had to in the original work.

Regardless, parts 2 and 3 are badly-written. #2 has banal dialogue, the same "capture the hero" subplot from the first, and characters that seem lifted from other movies. Also, hideous lines and dumb moments: I was laughing minutes before the climax in "Blade 2" - the annoying/boring eastern european villain was running from one room to another, repeatedly screaming "Faaaather!" while tearing apart a series of doors. 'nuff said? I hope so.

"Blade 3" featured another fairly-bland cast. The main villain has such a non-presence it seems intentional - or the actor was anesthetized. If the former is true, it might be an interesting choice. But since the actor isn't bad, Goyer seems a likely culprit - and he also directed "Blade 3." We get even more pointless bombast than in #2. Example: a woman who hunts vampires while listening to her Ipod. Ugh!

Neither sequel was engaging or particularly believable. Both showed little flourishes of good writing or nice ideas amidst a general failure of plotting and scripting. Nor did I care about the people on the screen. All this, despite the first film's success and the higher budgets of the later movies.

I've always felt that "Blade" was good because it was so low-key (apart from the action, naturally). It was dark and moody, balanced by a nice variety of good jokes. I appreciated its originality, sense of atmosphere, and dead-on writing. These things were largely missing from the two follow-up efforts.

Again, it's hard to pinpoint where things went wrong. It's very hard since the principals, Goyer and Guillermo Del Toro (director of Blade 2), aren't prone to hack work. Nor do they stumble in the face of big-budget productions. In fact, the director with the worst track record (Stephen "LXG" Norrington) released the best film (the first).

In the end, I can only say that the first part of the franchise was a fun, nifty story with fantastic action, while both sequels had good action but no story. To quote a big line from the climax of part 1: "Some mot*********'s always gotta ice-skate uphill."

Sunday, August 30, 2009

"Mute Witness" - Lookin' for a good thriller?

Billy, a mute make-up artist, is with an American movie crew in Moscow. One night, she's locked inside the studio they've rented. She soon finds a small, active film set, and blushes: they're filming porn! Yet Billy sees horror in an actress' eyes as her co-star plays rough, then draws a knife. Billy's sure that she saw a real murder, and that she's in danger - she can't scream, but she can still make noise.

Long ago, I'd jump on any excuse to visit the Angelika, an arthouse theater in the Village. The trailers for this movie seemed exciting and tense, playing nicely with the sound design. So began my happy little relationship with this small-budget piece. What a pleasant surprise!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"The Center of the World" Review

Trailers for "The Center of the World" promised a compelling film from director Wayne Wang ("The Joy Luck Club"). It's about an odd, alluring encounter between two people, played by Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Parker : a nice techie convinces a complicated, beautiful stripper to be his paid date for an event in vegas.

Are they truly drawn to each other, despite her no-sex rule and his awkwardness? What do we make of a woman whose in-the-mirror pep-talks sound like phone sex dialogue? Or a guy naive enough to foster romance with cash? Will fantasy turn into reality? In the end, "tCotW" failed its promise.

After "tJLC," neither Wayne Wang's skills nor choices were in doubt. It's surprising, then, how often he's helmed poorly-received films. To my surprise, I remember very little of "tJLC," but recall being impressed by "Smoke." Its impromptu followup, "Blue in the Face," was ill-advised, but it was an artistic "fancy." Those tend to be great or awful.

Friday, August 21, 2009

"Ponyo" Review - For once, Hayao Miyazaki stumbles

I love every thing I've seen from Hayao Miyazaki. So I'm sad to say that his latest film, "Ponyo," was disappointing. In short, it was made for young children, and my enjoyment of Studio Ghibli's effort was killed by expectations and age.

"Ponyo" begins underwater. We see an astounding array of sea life, tended by a man who must have magical powers. One little creature with a fish body and a sorta-human face is a bit too inquisitive. It sneaks out and is dragged off by a current, drawn to the beach. It's cute as all get-out.

A young boy living by a cliff sees it when it's gotten in trouble and saves it. After this, strange things begin to happen - the growing creature makes home life entertaining, but the waters outside seem troubled. Childlike wonder and roaring tides follow. Also, insane weather phenomena.

Were I young enough to like it, my wholelife would be ahead of me 

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Indiana Jones - my accidental essay on the series

Oh, Indiana Jones. "Raiders" is movie magic. I tested an idea & on the series, then wrote out my thoughts. It got out of hand, and led to this massive post. I don't blame you for skipping around, but you'll find my theory in the last 3 paragraphs.

In the Beginning, there was a handsome man with a bullwhip, and it was good.
"Raiders of the Lost Ark" is the perfect action film, the only Indy pic to receive near-unanimous praise on release. Charismatic actors play their parts perfectly, the action is exceptional. It also has some of the tightest dialogue and characterization I've ever seen. As such, it beats its own inspiration: old B movies and 30's/40's serials that kids saw at matinees. Imagine going to the theater 15 times to get one story!

I dimly remember seeing "Raiders" in 1981, in the theater with my family. We went back 6 more times, and loved every minute. We never stood a chance - beautiful scenery, vivid characters, brilliant plot. My favorites: the fight by the plane; the mirror on the ship; "It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage;" Ford's face at Karen Allen's derisive, "see ya around, Indiana Jones."

Monday, August 3, 2009

"Zero Effect" Review - (insert ironic comment here)

"Zero Effect" is wonderful and funny. It's also an absurd take on a modern Sherlock Holmes - one who can barely carry a conversation or leave his home. I love this little movie so much I haven't seen it in nearly 10 years; the review was always in my heart. The movie begins with Bill Pullman's lead, singing awful folk songs.

Darryl Zero is an amazing detective - he solved an impenetrable government case by phone, in one hour. Yet between jobs, he's a neurotic and scared shut-in. Darryl never meets his clients; his assistant is a lawyer, a front-man. From the background, Zero pursues a case for a blackmailed businessman (Ryan O'Neal as Stark). What he finds is a mystery both simple and complex, a deep connection with another person, and a wake-up call.

There are so many reasons to believe that Jake Kasdan directed a gem in "ZE." The movie has brains, but isn't a show-off. It has passion, depth, and a willingness to proceed slowly. Its pacing and feel either echo the quiet fervor of love-making or an annoying day at the office. The intensity, whether in character or plot, is carefully underplayed. Even the abundant humor is kinda quiet - but it's some of the funniest dry humor ever filmed. And the indie-style soundtrack - far rarer in 1998 - is thoughtfully used. [but that Nick Cave song is totally over-played now]

Pullman gives his best performance as the wounded genius. He's solid at anything, especially comedy and functional neuroses. Impressively, his voice-overs work. As a part-time trainwreck, Darryl Zero is a fun and layered role complete with that old detectives' staple: "Sam Spade" monologues, memoir-style. They're a highlight, yet the savvy confidence heard in his voice contrasts starkly with the man we see - an idiot savant who's either smooth or broken. (Like Holmes, he's a part-time user)

Ben Stiller is a bittersweet blast, here. The megahit "There's Something About Mary" ushered him into mainstream films and blander comedies. Since, only "Tropic Thunder" measures up (I never saw "Tenunbaums"). As Steve Arlo, Darryl's assistant, he's firmly in Stiller's nice-but-dickish niche. Arlo and Zero act like brothers at times, but often exchange the role of elder sibling. Why? On the one hand, Steve is neither boss nor genius; on the other, Darryl has no common sense and can act autistic.

The small cast is very effective. As Gloria, I can't take my eyes off Kim Dickens ("Lost," "Deadwood,"? and "FNL"?); she's slender and raspy (could be typecast as a junkie), but gives off a great vibe. She could also give lessons on how to use one's eyes. As Stark, I'm sure Ryan O'Neal played the part exactly as intended; unfortunately, that means "unlikeable" and "forgettable."

"Zero Effect" is a nice pick for dates, a laugh with friends, a quiet night at home... It's the sort of movie that delightfully entertains most of the people I know. I'll post an update next time I watch it, in case my feelings change.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"Dead Snow" - Norwegian horror

I went to the theater (for a change) to see "Dead Snow," a much-anticipated horror/comedy. "Død snø," (cool Norwegian title, huh?) garnered great buzz last summer with a teaser trailer. It promised blood, a strong sense of humor... and zombie Nazis running wild on a mountain. See it below.

A strange synchronicity: last week, I began pining for my HK film days. The week before, a college pal liked my blurb on "DS." And it's only playing at the Cinema Village - the old home of those 90's film festivals. What followed was nostalgic and fun for us both.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"Battle Royale" is violence done right (like Hong Kong films).

I miss Hong Kong films. Much like a departed friend, memories pop into my head and I realize life's a bit emptier now. NYC's annual "HK Film Festival" was a must-see, and I want to cry as I recall Jackie Chan's work pre-1997. That HK spirit lives on in a Japanese flick, "Battle Royale." [sorry if that offends both the Chinese and Japanese]

Apparently, 2000's "Battle Royale" has some behind-the-scenes depth. Based on a 1999 novel, it spawned two manga series, and a sequel was filmed three years later. "BR" also has a cultish fanbase. The Flaming Lips used footage from "BR" throughout one tour. Tarantino cast one of the actresses as "Gogo Yubari" in "Kill Bill 1." Posters for the movie appeared in "Lost" and Shaun of the Dead." In "Juno," our heroine's room had a pin with the film's logo. I don't really give a damn about any of that.

The "Kill Bill" tracksuit in '00

In 2002, I hunted down a black market copy and was well-rewarded. Since my first glimpse of John Woo's "The Killer," I've seldom seen the type of balletic violence we're treated to here. As a better compliment, every aspect of this movie oozes quality. Like the best HK flicks, there's thoughtful dialogue, charismatic actors, and great characterization. This movie is more than a mere grotesque blood-fest.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The magnificent "Airplane!" - and why lots of modern comedy is no good.

Today, parody movies are in a lousy state. "Meet the Spartans" and "Scary/Superhero/Epic/Date Movie" are generally lame and unfunny. The blueprint for spoof films was established almost 30 years ago by Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker ("ZAZ").

They took genre pictures - disaster flicks, cop movies - and brought them to life with hysterical jokes that ranged from slapstick to social commentary. I can credit them with 3 of the funniest comedies ever made: the first two "Naked Gun" films and "Airplane!" I'm quite a hard-ass when it comes to modern comedies, and the brilliance of these three can show you why. [note: Even "Top Secret!" is hysterical, if flawed]

1980's "Airplane!" is a perfect take on airline disaster pictures. It largely spoofs the four "Airport" movies of the 70's, where tension was created via a health scare, bombers and/or bad flight conditions. Keep in mind the two staples of every old disaster pic: half the film dealt with the terror of faulty equipment, the rest focused on the difficult relationships between the people involved. It's all melodrama - while a skyscraper has combustibly-poor wiring or a boat completely capsizes, you see a couple's rocky marriage and/or an armed passenger in heroin withdrawal.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

"The Lost Boys" - So good, I'll keep it short(ish)

"Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never Die. It's fun to be a vampire." - poster tagline
Michael and his younger brother Sam are moving to Santa Carla (Santa Cruz by a different name). Their mother, Lucy, just got divorced and has decided they'll live in her dad's huge house for a while. The boys hate being uprooted, they're annoyed that they're moving to the sticks, and they're shocked that Grandpa doesn't have a TV. (That is totally bogus)

What they soon learn: in Santa Carla you won't die from boredom.You'll die from things that pluck you up into the sky and kill you as you run, or fight, or scream.

"Bummer, dudes," to say the least.

My love for "The Lost Boys" inspires brevity. I've seen it in a theater, and loved the whole ride; I always will. Hell, I want nothing more than to walk by those subway posters, then buy a ticket! My kingdom for an 80's time machine.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes" - an early success of "The Master of Suspense"

I love Alfred Hitchcock. The man was a genius, having worked in many positions prior to becoming a director. He knew the tools of his trade, like James Cameron today, and used them very well. Eventually, I had to see "The Lady Vanishes."

Hitch had a particular mind that is attentive to story, and an eye for excellent angles and camera work. He popularized "the MacGuffin" - the plot-propelling object that is all-important to the characters, but otherwise trivial (e.g., the golden suitcase in "Pulp Fiction"). As with many true artists, he had a variety of compelling motifs: mistaken or lost identity, falsely-accused characters, ice-cold blondes...

One of the advantages of Netflix is their deep selection of Hitchcock's works, available on dvd and streaming video. I wanted to see what Hitchcock made in his younger days, so I decided to rent one of his early films, "TLV." After an early rough patch, I was rewarded - it did not disappoint.

The set-up is harmless enough. It's 1938, and an idyllic Swiss town is laden with travelers. Guests are gathered at a hotel that is overloaded with visitors. Among them: a pair of English prats, an annoying and inconsiderate musician, a rich girl on a bachelorette vacation, and a pleasant (if tiresome) old governess.

The opening scenes simply establish the characters, then give us - as an afterthought - a chilling, but senseless, moment. Outside the old woman's room, a street musician is suddenly silenced. We only see a pair of gloved hands.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Why "Burn Notice" is the right show right now

"Burn Notice" is among the top cable shows. For part of its second season, its ratings beat "The Closer," the most-watched cable program; the finale drew 6.1 million viewers. It's also very popular with critics, who praise it for inventive plots, terrific acting, and great action.

I think it's smart, sexy, and fun. The premise is easily described: a spy is wrongly accused of betraying the USA, his assets are seized and he's confined to his hometown, Miami. Action ensues as he helps people in order to raise money and contacts to clear his name.

Yet "Burn Notice" borrows a bit from prior successful shows. A distinct "Mission: Impossible" (or maybe "The A Team") vibe shines through as a team of trained operatives work together, fooling bad guys every week. It also takes strongly from "MacGyver" - since both have protagonists who brilliantly improvise to solve problems, the comparison was probably expected.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

"Spider" - David Cronenberg's internal version of "The Fly"

Spider is the story of a man recently released from decades of institutionalization. We follow him as he stays in a halfway house - particularly, as he uses a journal to uncover and relive the incident that lead to his incarceration. Ralph Fiennes plays the eponymous lead (yes, Spider is his name). Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson turn out clever and skilled performances as his parents (and more, for Miranda).

What follows is depressing fun. Spider's release is unlikely, considering he's almost incapable of speech; he doesn't talk, he mutters. Enabling DVD "subtitles" proved fruitless - when he's extra-unintelligible, it's on purpose. Connecting to anyone, especially women, is nearly impossible. His name is very apt - he freezes at external stimuli, scuttles away, and (occasionally) strikes unseen.

Monday, June 15, 2009

"Batman Begins" is flawless - so for a comic book film, it's perfection.

For my money, this is the perfect super-hero movie. Only a few approach the quality of this film. From the outset, I had a special kind of anticipation for this film. I avoided all information about it - I even closed my eyes and hummed when a theater showed a preview for it.

I have a deep contempt for the recent Hollywood focus on unneeded sequels and unwanted remakes (Starsky & Hutch? Land of the Lost??). But Christopher Nolan is among the most exciting directors in the last two decades, and Christian Bale is one of the best actors working today. So my weariness was abated (and I was sold) as soon as I knew three facts: Batman, Nolan, Bale. Without the last two, I wouldn't have been interested.

For the reboot of this doomed franchise, they chose "the origin story." In case you've never heard it: Bruce Wayne is a happy rich tyke, but his parents are mugged and murdered in front of him. He grows up learning martial arts (wise choice). He acquires the skills to terrorize the villainous.

At some point, he decides to become a vigilante who will protect his city from its vast number of criminals. His city is basically New York, operating under one of New York's most popular nicknames ("Gotham"). As he tries to protect his identity and his hometown, excitement ensues.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

My "Casshern" review - in a word, "ugh"

I just quickly skimmed the synopsis before I queued this, especially because I do not want to know everything about a movie before I watch it. Nice buzz, supposed to have great action, interesting story. I have watched plenty of anime, but I did not expect to see a steampunk-esque live-action anime film when I rented this.

The first fight scene gives you a horrible view of what happens: you cannot see the kicks and punches, which really sucks since they use the wire tricks and everything else. What's the point of employing all those fake effects if I can't see the first fight in the movie?

There are some beautiful shots and scenes. The plot, however, makes abysmally little sense. I know a tiny bit of japanese, and clearly there were moments where the translation was inaccurate or incomplete. Even more, there are a few moments in the film (a radio announcer speaking, especially) where there is no translation offered at all. Nor are there any subtitle options on the dvd.

Monday, June 8, 2009


I changed the name of this blog to reflect that most of these reviews will cover video rentals. I have a long list of films that I want to cover - movies I've seen before and want to praise or disparage. But I'm no one-trick pony, and I go to movie-theaters less often now.

It's much more fun to see a movie for the first time and share my thoughts on it. Also, I tend to see my favorites as seldom as possible, and my posting schedule shouldn't depend on that - some films, I don't even want to re-watch for a review.

Thus, the bulk of my writing will center on the third wave of my film education (college and pre-college being the other two). And this education will rely largely on Netflix. I came up with the title, and I thought the connection was a great coincidence.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

I wish I were Bogart, I'd love to love Bacall - "To Have and Have Not" Review

"You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow."
This classic line is just one highlight of the first film to co-star Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. They met on the set of this film, at 45 and 19 - two very different people who changed each other's lives. This was the only one of their joint films that I missed, and I used Netflix to finally catch up.

"To Have and Have Not" is Howard Hawks' excellent adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's novel. Rather than condensing the entire novel, Hawk's film focuses on one segment of the story, eliminating plot lines and characterization to create a concise, focused work. Set in 1940, Steve (Bogart) is a cynic with a soft spot, a man who hires his boat for recreational fishing off of Martinique. Local tensions are high because the French colony is run by the Vichy government (a Nazi-controlled regime).

Sunday, May 31, 2009

"Romeo Is Bleeding" - Oldman and Olin at their best

In my opinion, "Romeo is Bleeding" is both Gary Oldman's best movie and his best performance. His portrayal of an extremely corruptible New York cop is fascinating and magnificently-layered. Oldman's intensity as an actor is palpable without resorting to simply being loud.

The story: a traitorous cop is asked to tackle a job for the Russian mafia, and it brings him into the orbit of a mesmerizing woman (Lena Olin) with implacable and sultry survival skills.

The theme of this film is a story-telling classic: betrayal. The extent of betrayal here is almost unequaled; almost every person and ideal in the movie is stained by it. Duty, promises, allegiances - they're repeatedly marred by corruption and avarice. As his main traits, they're exemplified and thoughtfully-detailed in Oldman's lead role. He has real dreams and feelings, clearly loving his spouse - but he would fink on fellow cops and his wife for the smallest, or most transient, gains.

Friday, May 22, 2009

"Brick" - one of the best of the best

"Brick" is my favorite movie from 2006. I heard the Sundance buzz about this indie masterpiece on, and eagerly waited six months for its arthouse release. The hype did not hamper my enjoyment of this film - I have seldom been more impressed and entertained by a movie.

The flick is about a California high school student who is drawn into a dangerous mystery. Brendan's a smart loner, played brilliantly by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. A message in his locker directs him to a payphone. There he receives a frantic phone call from his ex-girlfriend (Emilie De Ravin from "LOST").

He can scarcely understand the words she says, but her tone screams "frantic and fearful." Brendan then tries to figure out what sort of trouble she's in, as he runs up against jocks, drug-heads, scandalously pretty girls, and thugs. But helping her - in the way either he or she wants - is going to be Herculean feat.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

"The Midnight Meat Train" Review "Choo! Choo! Gurgle, gurgle."

I rented "The Midnight Meat Train" (great title!) because it was taken from a Clive Barker anthology that my brothers owned (they read everything, including horror). I read part of the book as a child and liked some of Barker's creepy stories. Though I'm pretty tough on new horror flicks, I think this one did a good job.

It seems like most modern horror films (mid-90's to now) make all the same mistakes; "The Midnight Meat Train" is not one of those movies. Ultimately, my feelings about it are similar to what I felt for "Being John Malkovich" - a good movie that I really didn't like. Watching "MMT" was reasonably fun, and the many good qualities of the flick are obvious; I can recommend it, but don't want to see it again.

The story is simple: dedicated photographer (Bradley Cooper of "Alias," "The Wedding Crashers") walks the streets at night for his artistic project. He finds a pack of subway thugs robbing a woman and stops them. But the next day's newspaper says that she's a famous model, and never made it home. This somehow leads him to find a creepy, imposing man (Vinnie Jones), with whom he develops a "Rear Window" type of obsession. His fine girlfriend (Leslie Bibb) is worried. Horror ensues.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"Much Ado About Nothing" - one of my all-time favorites

For some time, Kenneth Branagh got the "golden calf" treatment. Men and women everywhere worshiped him as the greatest contribution to film in a decade. Many trumpeted him as the person who was single-handedly reviving Shakespeare for the 90s (and uneducated Americans).

Others adored his good looks. And many felt that he was the next Lawrence Olivier, for obvious reasons (great Shakespearean films, good looks, quality acting).

But like the American obsession with Australia in the 1980's, that star has faded. The man is undoubtedly skilled, but some folks confused remarkable talent with perfection, and KB is certainly not perfection. Why do I feel less impressed than before?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A spoiler-free review of "Three O'Clock High," an 80's classic

Ah, "Three O'Clock High" - one of the lesser-known 80's films out there. I haven't met many people who know this film, much less seen it. In fact, it flies so far under the radar, I'll do my best to reveal as little as possible. Normally I'd analyze a bit (or a lot), or discuss the specific moments in a movie that made me love or hate it. But this is a quality comedy, to be enjoyed with little foreknowledge...

The premise of "Three O'Clock High" is simple: Nice boy accidentally offends the new kid - the one with the "psychopath" rep - and an after-school fight is declared. The movie shows everything that occurs up to (and a little bit after) the 3PM bell that signals the end of the school day. Barring a miracle, that bell also signals the end for our nice boy.

I wish youtube clips didn't spoil the best scenes. Enjoy the trailer!

Or try a slightly longer version: A new kid, Buddy Revell, shows up at high school, one who - per the school's freakish rumor mill - is two steps shy of prison. Our protogonist, Jerry Mitchell, is told to interview and welcome him; Jerry's a shy kid - an under-sized, hypoglycemic, nice chap on the school paper. Our hero's awkward effort to make a decent introduction results in offense - it only took a pat on the shoulder! Buddy (they chose the perfect name) slams Jerry against a wall and gives this gem of a speech:
"You and me, we're gonna have a fight. Today. After school. Three o'clock. In the parking lot. You try and run, I'm gonna track you down. You go to a teacher, it's only gonna get worse. You sneak home, I'm gonna be under your bed."
And our Jerry - who'd never fight anybody - has to try to avoid certain doom.

This is the beginning... of the beginning

I should’ve done this years ago, but better late than never. My film reviews (and some tv), for all to read - or few to read, as it may turn out.

I view myself as half a film student… I hung out with them often at NYU - helping with projects, cribbing knowledge from them whenever I could, watching many of the films that they watched. Out of respect for the debt those folks incurred at Tisch School of the Arts (the one Kevin Smith dropped out of), their superior knowledge, and the hard work done by them, I can’t claim to be a real film student. Regardless, I’ve had a life-long love of film, and had many long, analytical, film discussions years before I went to college.

I often sit back and enjoy a movie for what it is, yet at other times am compelled to analyze the camera work, script, or acting. As a writer, the dialogue, character development, and plotting are key to me. Sometimes my critical ear is switched to “On” and simply can’t be shut off - characters doing something only because the plot requires it, bad ad-libs (at times, you can tell), and naked exposition can add a lot of turbulence to an otherwise decent film. For me, at least. On occasion, this makes enjoying a flick very difficult, but I try to judge a movie by fair standards - approaching Bergman and Bay films differently (if at all).

I should also note now that I’m not particularly biased against any genre. I watch documentaries, comedies, drama, “chick flicks,” action, old and new, foreign and domestic. I may see some types less often (e.g., documentaries, for some reason), but I’m not really prejudiced against them. Some genres, like horror and 80’s movies, hold a special place in my heart - this frequently means that I’m more demanding with them, not less. I like quality movies, and a fondness for horror doesn’t mean that I’m happy every time any horror pic gets released. It just means that I’m extra excited when I see an innovative, intelligent, effective, or well-executed horror film.

Most of these will be DVD reviews as I’m painfully behind on trips to the theater in ‘09… All comments, debates, critique and such are welcome. I hope this is fun for you to read - at the very least, it should provide some food for thought and lead you to a film you didn’t know about before. I do have a guest reviewer lined up, who may chime in from time to time - my old NYU pal, Ray Thornton; others may appear.