Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 Year-End Movie Review Round-Up

And so we come to the end of another year, the second for which there's been a Net-flixation and I've been, publicly, Half a Film Student. How did the year shape up? How did it compare to '09? Will I avoid referring to the horrible flood of snow that's made my city a big grey/white disaster?

Well, I went to the theaters a bit more, actually. Inception, all 3 "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" movies, several midnite flix... I was out at the movies a lot more in 2010. Still, the variety was lower, and I took a chance less often - in other words, I went in knowing whether the pic was horrible or not, and I didn't see anything painful in the theaters this year.

Of course, this means I was a happier reviewer, in general. That's just the way it goes.  I did miss some flicks, though: Black Swan is at the top of the list - though I can still catch it in theaters, I know that it may never happen. I get a little better about seeing movies, but still can't find the time to catch everything I want to; hardly a huge problem...

Still, there were unexpected catastrophes and such, and you can read about them below. Please enjoy my little 2010 Movie Round-Up, which is far less "wordy" than the '09 entry.

Best New Release (that I actually saw) - Inception. I knew this picture was great before I even saw it. Even avoiding spoilers, the rep was simply amazing, and I knew Nolan could live up to it. "Inception" didn't disappoint in any way.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

My Holiday Movie: "Jaws 4"

It made a perfect Christmas pick - not only is it something I'd otherwise avoid, but the film is set at Christmas-time, and holiday celebrations pepper the whole 90 mins. Yes, my holiday review choice is the infamous 1987 bomb, "Jaws 4: The Revenge."

If the shark were a hammerhead, would the title be "JTWS?"

At least director Joseph Sargent can say he made something memorable. "Jaws 4" opens on a nighttime town in the distance, shot from just over water. Dipping below the surface, we track through pylons and other "underwater stuff." Finally, the camera rests on the menacing teeth and eye of a fish.

The fish is actually frying on a pan and we're in the Christmas-time kitchen of the Brody home. Roy Scheider's Marty may not have returned for this film (death by heart attack), but his family is feeling jolly in their house on Amity Island. Ellen and Sean Brody, her youngest boy, run to take a phone call from Michael, the eldest son, and his own kids.

I have to say that the acting and the dialogue are the only things right in the first 12 minutes. Even some of the camerawork is rough, and the sound isn't handled well. Maybe that's the real tension in Jaws 4: waiting to see how it's going to go horribly wrong is the actual shark.

It's surprising, then, because acting and dialogue are usually the clearest weak spots in any bad film. Yet someone put together a pretty good cast for this sequel: Mario van Peebles (yay!) is Jake, a Bahamian friend of her surviving son. 80's fans will recognize Michael Brody (Lance Guest) as the guy from The Last Starfighter.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

What's to come: the flip-side of the end of the year

I have one planned review left for this year. I may write more, but I already wonder how a mere Half a Film Student can improve Net-flixation for 2011. I will also make a Year in Review/End of Year post, but I have to talk about the past a little before I reveal what's in store for the future. I hope the info isn't annoying.

Overall, I've averaged 1 post per week. Depending on what's going on, I can easily post twice (even 3-4 times) in one week, but August, September, and October still saw delays of 10 to 17 days. Injuries, crises, new jobs... These things happen, but I know I can do better.

Anyway, once per week was fair enough when every post was an in-depth review or a lengthy article - it's not simply a matter of effort, but of time for a little research and the like. But I wanted to use different formats, and I've introduced occasional news, youtube highlights, etc. With so many more options, it's far easier to weigh in quickly and often.

In fact, shorter reviews are going to become a regular thing again. I started "Movie Review Quickies" as 4-9 sentences on films that don't "need" deep reviews. Just a bigger version of the "Already in Theaters" page in newspapers + a trailer...

Saturday, December 18, 2010

My Week with Hulu Plus, and Why Netflix Still Wins

There's really nothing special about it, and I barely used it; sadly, that's pretty much the review. In brief: Hulu Plus' selection isn't impressive; you still watch ads; and it's not cheap enough. In this economy, you can find a better use for your $8/month.

A little bit ago, when I was bored out of my mind, I realized that Hulu Plus offers a one week trial. I posted about "Hulu Plus" before, and consider the whole idea (paid-free tv) a "little big deal." So I decided to kill an hour with the expanded options from the trial. I only had to fill out one online form to solve one boring night.

There was a lot of confusion and frustration at the start. Articles and announcements stated that whole seasons of many shows would be available, but that wasn't what I got. So I began by looking for a cure to boredom, and wound up doing research for this article. That too, is a review in itself: I went looking for fun, and it became an academic exercise because I wasn't overwhelmed by cool videos to watch.

For example, Hulu Plus doesn't offer you every season of "House" (not for streaming on Netflix, btw); I thought they would. The service just offers all the episodes shown during the current season. Well, what if I've heard this season is nothing worth tuning in for? If I'd been hoping to watch the first season and see how House got so popular, I would've been pretty disappointed.

So, right out of the gate, I found an issue that really made me stop at the question: "why should I pay Hulu $8 for something when I would already get most of what I want for free?" But there's more...

Saturday, December 11, 2010

"Jane, stop this crazy thing!" Movie Review Quickies, VI

At a better pace, Net-flixation is practically giving it all away at the end of the year! Take that, 2010! I have 7 quick movie reviews to help keep you warm in this first frigid week of December: Anaconda, Die Hard 2, The Goonies, Indecent Proposal, The Fifth Element, Man on the Moon, and Spiderman 2. Live it, love it, want it.

Modest, shallow, semi-ok-considering-it's-a-crappy-b-movie creature feature from 1997. Lopez is making a documentary in the Amazon, and a hunter hijacks the film crew. He's hunting a snake so large it shouldn't be able to move. That's actually the story...

Back then, Lopez still seemed like she wanted to be a real actress. I can't berate Jon Voight's performance much, but I'll say that he thinks he's giving himself more "latino-ness" by making his mouth look like a piranha. No, seriously.

The fx are decent, but sometimes bad. It doesn't look awful, and the story shows some actual effort. The results just aren't worth watching…

Die Hard 2
Pretty… Decent? It's Christmas, so John McClane is trying to rescue his wife, who is again caught up in a crime of super-villain proportions. The viewer gets something worse than part 1, though definitely better than parts 3 & 4.

If you limited your viewing to movies that you really "should" see, you could skip this. I'd recommend it for the big screen, as Bruce Willis is firmly in "decent summer action blockbuster" territory and it's still a lot of fun. The chases and fights are well-done. The airplanes-in-danger angle, naturally, might play even worse today than it did at the time. Also, there are odd attempts to stick to the "formula" of the original. They even bring out a cameo from Bruce's platonic soul-mate, Al Powell.

Please don't ever forget: aside from guns, jokes, and the lead's indestructible determination, the consistent theme of the "Die Hard" movies is watching "the people who are really in charge" fail to handle a crisis that a good-hearted, regular joe can tackle. That is, if a "regular joe" could survive jumping from a speeding snowmobile as it explodes.

However, no matter how many times he improbably cheats death, Willis (young Willis!) is great; it's sorta sad to say, but he's an easy character to watch. The film is very smart for acknowledging that John McClane would become famous after his televised heroism. Great line from a villain: John McClane. I read about you in People Magazine. You seemed a bit out of your league on Nightline, I thought.

As usual, John prioritizes better than "the brass" - they're not as hostile and incompetent as before, but we're supposed to trust McClane's judgment above all. His instincts about the crime and the criminals are spot on, and hours ahead of "every who's really in charge."

Problems that never plagued the first "DH," pop up though. The roles are colorful, but even the enemies aren't as engaging as before. That's a minor nitpick, and it's not an acting issue. Yet there isn't as much character material in general... Holly's still in danger, but the hero isn't dealing with wounded pride or a broken marriage. The absence only matters because nothing is brought in to replace it.

Also, the pictures' sensibilities are nastier now. While "Die Hard" featured lots of cursing, the language generally worked for the setting, characters, and humor; it's completely forgivable because it's usually so funny. Here, we get to see John Amos say, "We're here to j### off that c### s###er until he tries to take off." Um, #1 - eww; #2 - don't use "off" 2x in 1 sentence! Nor do those words help establish Amos' Major Grant well enough to make up for a clumsy, ugly line like that.

Also, though I know I'll have a blast describing the gay subtext between Sgt. Al Powell and John in the first film, what's featured here is just weird: lots of military guys who seem to have a sadistic relationship with each other. I think showing male onscreen nudity to match female onscreen nudity is fair, but we also get regular baddie William Sadler as Colonel Stuart. The evil Colonel is introduced with a full-body rear shot; he's watching tv, doing naked thai chi. They never do anything with all this darkly-sexual subtext - given all the guns, no one should want them to...

Not a minor nitpick: "DH2" is a far dumber effort than the original. The biggest problem with the bad guys' plan is that it depends on a super-blizzard. Without it, the planes aren't dependent on Dulles Airport; 2 hours of fuel is more than enough to reach other major airfields. Also, the planes could easily overcome the communication problems - like with the phone that we see Holly McClane repeatedly use to call her husband.

The end, where Bruce wisecracks, punches, and shouts his way to victory, boils down to lighting a flow of jet fuel to blow up "an evil plane" and create a landing path. It's a pretty sad statement that the Capitol's biggest airport couldn't think up such a simple fix…

The Goonies
A bunch of social misfits, senselessly called "Goonies" by their peers, get involved with gangsters and a local pirate legend.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Movie Review Quickies, Part V

This time around, I'm sticking to movies made in my lifetime. The NYC weather was sorta schizo for the last seven weeks, and Winter's coming. It makes sense to take comfort from movies I know pretty well... Along with some format changes (trailers are now at the end), I give you a little selection of short, long, and mid-sized reviews that cover Signs, Last Man Standing, Eraser, Single White Female, In & Out, Johnny Dangerously, and Starship Troopers.

In the end, I think audiences felt let down that Signs wasn't a gutsy and shocking creature feature; or maybe they hated a quiet alien invasion where the heroes only save their two kids. Somehow, Signs is a controversial movie; I guess everyone agrees that it looks good, but director M. Night Shyamalan's appeal was already losing momentum... It's true that the man famous for his "twists" featured a game-changing moment that many found laughable, but the film's actual quality is more... complicated than that.

Story: Aliens come to earth and everything goes dark and screwy, although most of the roles act like they're on Xanax. We follow the lives of a troubled Pennsylvania farming family as things get: odd, a little spooky, then weird, then scary, then scarier, then incredibly worrying, then scary, then really quietly weird for a while until it gets first scary, then terrifying, and so on; throughout, there are little pauses that are informative, endearing, dull, odd, and so on.

If you're willing to ignore some issues - my frequent dislike of Joaquin Phoenix, a "twist" that threatens to overwhelm the story - you'll be surprised at how well the movie can handle the build and release of tension. The invasion itself is nifty, and I like the way the characters find out about the aliens, who are really creepy. I jumped from at least one scare in this picture, so maybe I feel a need to be as kind as possible to MNS?

Unfortunately, a lot of the facts surrounding the aliens are really sketchy/dumb - there's a general rule that everything artistic works better when it's shown, not told. That goes triple here, so I guess that's no compliment to the writing or script. I have to point out that Joaquin is very stiff here; it's as if the pic is suggesting he has an official "problem." The pace truly is slow, but it envelops the narrative so well that it mostly works.

I can't blame the masses that despise and mock this odd take on a War of the Worlds scenario, in spite of its cool (but simple) score, and the general originality of its setting and progression. But I wonder at the reactions, and whether people really didn't notice the thing that I liked, even if it might seem corny: that the "twist" was in a defeated man who questions life, then suddenly gets answers at the time that he really needs them most. There's also the weird subtext that the ETs are after our kiddies, since they're mostly seen with/near kids. I couldn't suggest "Signs without a heavy warning, but it can/could be an entertaining movie.

Last Man Standing
A depressingly incomplete hyper-action extravaganza. The skilled Walter Hill directs his "1930 Prohibition Texas" version of Yojimbo. Bruce Willis is John Smith, a mysterious badass (go figure). It's "Bruce as Bruce" here, so he looks cool even though he seems annoyed or weary at anything, right up to tying his shoes.

As the film starts, John drives into a small town that only has: (a) two rival gangs and (b) one neutral bar/inn. His bad luck seems to be the result of being on the run, but he feels he can't just leave. Smith is also so damn good at what he does that he easily wows the locals, who look to use him to win their little mob war. Just like in Kurosawa's classic, one master-level warrior bumbles into a pair of villains in stalemate, then decides to wipe out both of them.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Leslie Nielsen has passed away, aka "Why couldn't you take David Spade instead?"

Since we're not in heaven, it's the fun and funny guys who die first, leaving we the living with a bunch of jerks. Leslie Nielsen, known best to me as Lt. Frank Dreben (or even Enrico Palazzo), died this past weekend. I hope that he really pigged out this Thanksgiving, and passed on with a delicious and huge meal under his belt.
I come here to praise Leslie Nielsen, not to bury him. Sadly, I have a daytime job, so there's a limit to how long I can write about this actor who will be deeply missed. I won't give Leslie sub-standard coverage or writing, but I haven't the time, so I leave it to my (professional) colleagues in film review: try this link, this other link, and this third one. Those writers have time to/are paid to cover these sorts of things, and probably none of them woke up and got to work at 5 this morning.

I will have more to say about the man later - and I will do it well. Let me say for now that Leslie Nielsen was a fine working actor who was freakishly gifted at comedy. I've caught him in random episodes of Columbo, Police Squad, and Creepshow, but I'll always remember him for Airplane! and the Naked Gun pictures. I know next to nothing about Nielsen's personal life, but I respect him enough that I'll watch more of his work - starting with Forbidden Planet - before the year is out.

In the end, one of the most impressive things about Leslie is that his appeal stayed so strong for so many years - and the success of movies like "The Naked Gun 2 & 1/2" and "Scary Movie 3" meant that this seriously un-young man had a big number of fans in age groups far younger than you would expect. He may have been typecast in comedy, but Leslie's career must've seemed a little blessed because he was so good in movies that were so well-known, his popularity never died out. Certainly not in the 1980's and after, anyway.

Leslie, I am so sorry that you're gone. I will always remember how funny you were, and how up for anything you were. I will try to keep this memory alive by hunting down a video clip of you appearing on MTV with Ed Lover. You did the Ed Lover Dance with him, on the beach, and it was bloody hysterical.

Because today is an awful, unfortunate day, Irvin Kershner has also died. Yes, the man who directed "The Empire Strikes Back" has gone from this world, leaving George Lucas even more reason to continue keeping his head up his own backside. The man who out-classed Lucas in his own work is now gone. I guess there's nowhere left for George to look and realize that he no longer produces work of real quality (beyond fx, of course). Ainticool has a great writeup on him here.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Netflix changes the game - but doesn't blow the doors off

Somebody jumped all over the "video buffet" market created by Hulu Plus: Netflix will offer streaming-only service for $7.99. Basic (1 DVD) service goes up by $1, to $8.99. Everything else rises another $3-8. It all starts January 1.

You can read about it here, here, and here. See the email Netflix sent me below.

It could be a pretty big move, but I don't think it's controversial. For many, the financial change is so small that they'll barely notice. Also, Netflix has dramatically increased its streaming lineup through deals made with Fox and other studios. Even before this announcement, the rental giant provided an instant online dose of Archer, The Girl Who Played With Fire, Full Metal Jacket, Iron Man, 30 Rock, Buffy, Veronica Mars, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, The Jerk… The list goes on.

Hulu's move to offer full seasons of tv created this situation. Hulu's price is now $8, which is the same as Netflix will charge for streaming-only service. In fact, they have so many of the same shows, I feel silly having access to both (even free Hulu). Netflix offers every season of Futurama, for example, but only the first season of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse. Hulu offers both seasons of the show, but won't give you Hackers, or Blue Velvet, or Delicatessen. I guess the choice comes down to whether you have constant internet access, and how much you're willing to pay to watch videos.

When all's said and done, if you're looking to ditch cable or satellite bills, $9 is pretty cheap for 20,000+ movies and tv shows. But I hope everyone tries the free route, at least for a week; today, most shows are on their network's website the day after they air... I'm happy with a deal that still gives me one DVD at a time. Aw, hell, this is probably why Netflix offered me 2 months' free service in exchange for a 45-minute q&a session...

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Two classic fan-made movies that I overlooked.

If you want, you can just scroll down to the two videos and watch them. You will be happy you did so. If you care about more than the pretty pictures, however, I'll set these up for you quickly...

Cast yourself back to 2003. I know, it's not exactly ages ago. Super-hero movies were not a trend then, because 1997's "Batman & Robin" was one of the most awful things ever put into movie-theaters. It's so painful that it's sometimes entertaining, but it's still an experiment in masochism.

Yet Hollywood loves profits, so it "took a chance" on mediocre franchise offerings like "X-Men" in 2000, as well as "Spider-man" in 2002. Neither movie was particularly good - they were ok, they were "meh." The financial success of each, however, ushered in a new era of comic-inspired pictures.

This wasn't a total success, mind you. X2 was a runaway hit in July 2003, but Ang Lee's "Hulk" came out two months earlier, and it was an amazing disappointment. Nothing was a guarantee, even with a decent cast, a great director, and hundreds of millions in the budget...

Many were still wondering when Warner Bros. would get back in the game; they were the ones who gave us Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne and Christopher Reeves as a mild-mannered alien, after all. People who cared about comics (this did not include me) wanted to see a revival of the Superman and Batman films - even though both franchises had collapsed under the weight of internal stupidity and poor film-making...

And then lots of people found out who Sandy Collora is. A creature designer who had worked with Stan Winston, Rick Baker, and others, Sandy used $30,000 to make a short film to showcase his talents. The designer-turned-director released "Batman: Dead End" at that year's Comic Con, and the feedback was overwhelming positive; "600,000 downloads in the first week" positive. Before twitter.

Enough introduction. Click below to watch what Kevin Smith called "possibly the truest, best Batman movie ever made."

Harsh.  "Dead end" indeed.

Impressive, right? Amazing, right? Keep in mind that Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins" didn't come out until 2005. And that Collora did this with no studio funding, for less than the cost of a mid-sized sedan (with the options package). This isn't just an advertisement for one guy's talents, this is a creative feat that almost makes up for every Martin Lawrence trailer I've sat through...

Fortunately, "Batman: Dead End" had copyright notices that swore the film was made "for fun" and not for profit. These disclaimers, and the widespread popularity of the short film, probably protected Sandy from the legal version of an angry orgy.

Monday, November 15, 2010

"The Dark Knight" - director Nolan strikes again

Their turn on "So You Think You Can Dance" was provocative, but brief.

Batman gets close to reaching his goal of stopping Gotham's crime problem. Once he does this, he can hand the reins off to trustworthy authorities who will help restore the city. Meanwhile, everyone feels the pressure from collapsing mob empires, as well as a new villain who's bent on destruction at all costs. What's left to say about this critical and commercial megahit?

Putting it simply, it's a fantastic action film. Everything about the movie is an enjoyable pleasure for a movie-goer, whether you like big fight scenes, snappy dialogue in a fleshed-out world, or a visceral story that is as psychological as it physical. I can't really argue if people say it's the better picture, but I still prefer "Batman Begins" because the pace was more even and the emotional tone affected me more deeply.  It's like comparing an "A++" to an "A+."

The action is great, the actors are fine. "The Dark Knight" has a fun and emotional tale with brilliant visuals to stun you all the while. Scenes effectively use near-dark lighting, IMAX footage gives a stunning depth to the scenery, the city-scape is magnificent, and the fx are smooth. Heath Ledger's part is a thoughtful and entertaining masterpiece. Your jaw drops at the poor (dead at 28) guy's transformation, and the exceptional writing that backs him. It's wonderful.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Movie Review Quickies, Part IV - Halloween Edition

My late Halloween entry skims through Suspiria, Scream, Final Destination, Halloween, From Beyond, and Saw... It's a last little grasp at the holiday - and, for the next spell, scary movies. I actually don't watch horror often, outside of the rare mood or the great Pagan holiday. But I think a good scare-fest is a truly beautiful creation. Many of us have been terrified in real life, and I think we'd agree that it's better to be afraid of something on a screen. And you can still find roles and exciting sequences that are every bit as impressive, inventive, or character-heavy as any drama or comedy... I chose a small stable of solid pictures.

This film does not contain stupid voiceovers or repeating the word "Suspiria."

This Dario Argento classic is on Netflix Instant Viewing, a surprise since the rest of their genre selection is mostly junk. I feel sad that "Suspiria" just doesn't feel as great as when I was 19, or even 23.

Story: A pretty young American is entering into a famous European ballet academy... On the same stormy night that a furious double-murder leaves a mess in 4 rooms of a local apartment building. I guess in order to survive, the new student better stay on her toes (...Sorry) The pic is still beautiful, still fun, with skilled and inventive use of camera-work and color…

It hasn't lost much over the years, at least insofar as the violence remains jarring, cruel. The ideas are neat and the visuals are fine, so it's an easy film to like. Nice appearance by a young Udo Kier, too. The biggest victims of age here are the flaws in story and dialogue, which seem greater and more problematic now. Large bits of exposition (aka infodumps) are awkward, tho I guess it makes sense that the narrative is a bit like a fever dream. At least it's a pretty, entertaining fever dream, full of black magic…

If you haven't seen this yet, DON'T watch the trailer. See the movie first.

Things get bloody in a small California town full of good-looking people. Like every secluded spot, personal feuds and problems lurk beneath the pretty, quiet exterior. Soon, no one knows when or if violence is going to break out. Or even why. I would normally do this flick as a full review, and I still might...

Friday, October 29, 2010

"GI Joe" - I can't believe it wasn't complete garbage

The guy next to Punisher is gonna cut off his own arm!
I'm not saying it was good, but even mild compliments should have been impossible. My expectations were low. Then again, I love "Tango and Cash." Curse my need for variety.

"GI Joe:tRoC" is trashy, but well-made. It can be praised because it's a decent bad movie where it should've been a horrible, so-bad-it's-not-even-fun bad movie. Over the last 10 years or so, the big-budget re-imagined or resurrected franchise film is a virtually-guaranteed disaster: "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "Starsky & Hutch," "Shaft." The odds are 40:1 that these pix will even be "ok."

There's wisdom in saying that you shouldn't dismiss a movie you haven't seen. And it's true that you can't judge something without experiencing it - you literally don't know what you're talking about. I often see movie trailers and think to myself, "Robin Williams in yet another awful family comedy," or "can't this actress find a different plot?" or, "and so continues the death of the romantic comedy." Expectations - and your personal taste - can mean more than anything…

The words "GI Joe" guarantee exotic battle locations.  They're extreme!

I can't believe I'm writing this, but "GI Joe" actually did its job reasonably well. I'm not recommending the movie, really, but you won't feel let down if you're even willing to consider something called "GI Joe: the Rise of Cobra." It's still money that could've gone into creating jobs or feeding the hungry, but I never felt insulted. And I expected to feel as insulted as I was during "The Island" (I don't veto friends' picks often).

Monday, October 25, 2010

"Rescue Dawn" - I promised quality, not quantity, in this blog!

I've had an injury to deal with, and tons of work. But I'll have 1 a week for my 2-year anniversary, and I'll start my late push with a good movie. I won't say "Rescue Dawn" is mandatory - just that it's a rewarding character study set as a 'Nam POW film. Since that business is now out of the way, let's begin with the words I wanted to begin this review with (but didn't deserve to because I'm posting late):

As we join him, the last big moment in Dieter Dengler's life was spent sitting with his fellow pilots in the US . They watched a film on pilot procedures, laughing and making jokes while the footage covered "Downed in Enemy Lines" tactics. After their briefing, they flew off to attack enemy positions in Southeast Asia. Dieter's plane got crippled.

And so an awful experience plays out beautifully.

"Rescue Dawn" is very much like Vietnam films you've seen before. Yet the words "directed by Werner Herzog" mean you won't get a typical war story. The experienced and skilled artist's hand shows itself in some surreal moments, like Bale's brief aside while resting at a cave-pool. If you watch arthouse cinema, you know to either these scenes flow through you or to think about what they mean in the film. Herzog isn't heavy-handed about it, though, so you watch a fairly straight-forward and familiar picture.

But "RD" is much better than the average movie. In themes and in characters, it is strong - a pretty-looking picture expressing a lot about human virtue and weakness (both physical and mental), power, and the strength of the human spirit (not as corny as it sounds). As the credits rolled, I was shocked by how much Herzog stuck with POW/'nam film convention; I wasn't shocked by how well the effort turned out, nor the strength of its ideas.

Compassion, desperation, and determination are the dominant emotions here. Beauty flourishes and dies in front of you, many times; and so does ugliness. You get to see a lot of both in this picture.

Repeatedly, the values of a man like Dieter Dengler are contrasted - and deflated - by the practicalities of life. A proud American pilot, Dengler refuses to denounce his country; within minutes, we learn that he's soiled himself after being tied to the ground for a day... Your body just doesn't care about noble intentions. Sometimes, people stand together, helping the weakest in the group even though it slows everyone down.

The struggle within and among people remains a constant element, despite our hero's virtues. The POWs that the lead joins can dislike or begrudge each other. They can get pushed to the brink, but their little society enforces some professionalism. They common hope for freedom means that some survive their awful lot because of the companionship alone. And yet sometimes you're chained inches away from a man with severe, nightly, bowel troubles.

These issues are worse since captivity and cruelty tend to damage a person - Davies' typical nervous energy seems like full-blown crackhouse nut-jobery. Zahn often acts like he receives unearthly orders from a dog. When things are at their darkest, the protagonist talks to and interacts with visions of a dead friend. The surprise party (you'll understand) feels sad, yet pretty - and yet truly insane.

Though everything is top-rate, Christian Bale's stellar Dieter pulls you in. It's not just the actor's ability and charisma, it's in the character itself. Dieter Dengler is a model of virtue. He's also a perfect version of what kids dream of being - clever, athletic, upstanding, and heroic.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

What sleeps in "The Asphalt Jungle?" A concrete lion?

John Huston is one of those towering names in show-biz. Everyone knows he's a well-respected director, an influential figure with great skill. I had never seen his well-liked film noir. "The Asphalt Jungle," and I had been watching too much drama and foreign film. It seemed like a good choice for a rental. I generally liked it, but I really prefer Huston's other works.

In case you don't really know who this man is, here's a handful of the director's film contributions: The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Key Largo (1948), The African Queen (1951), and The Man Who Would Be King (1975). Also, if you've ever seen "Chinatown," you definitely know Huston's face, because he's Noah Cross, Faye Dunaway's over-bearing father. I'm leaving out a lot, but it's an impressive CV, right?

"The Asphalt Jungle," simply put, is a heist flick. A group of men plan out a great robbery, hoping to avoid double-crosses and the police. This picture has its feet firmly planted in the film noir style, which I usually avoid mentioning because it's often shorthand for "the girl did it." Not to worry, the cliches here are largely left for some characters. Although this movie is very much like pictures you've seen before (it probably inspired a lot of them), there are many little differences that you will appreciate. I just can't say that you'll like the work as a whole.

In this picture, "noir" is seen mostly in the corruption that dwells in the characters; also, everyone gets solid dialogue that gives life to the parts - even while they're providing exposition. When folks get nostalgic for "the classics," I wonder if they just miss days when most actors got juicy lines; I've seen many modern movies where the leads have sloppy dialogue, much less the supporting or minor roles…

I try to vary the style of my reviews, so I'm not going to jump into praise and criticism. This time around, I want to lay out the beginnings of the plot.

It Began with a Thug in the Dark

The picture opens on a crook slinking through the shadows of an unnamed Midwestern city. The setting doesn't really matter, as the criminals and police act exactly like their counterparts in New York or L.A. Our first character does everything he can to avoid attention, and a police car passes him without stopping. This is all for the best, since the cops are actually looking for him.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

"The Crow' is great and terrible

"The Crow" is a magnificently unfortunate film. That's my review, in seven words.

"The Crow" has a great premise, fantastic action, and director Alex Proyas' beautiful visual style. It looks pretty much perfect. It's just hard to enjoy this amazing picture if you actually think about it.

A pretty nifty response to a cop saying "Don't move or you're dead!"

Eric Draven is living the good life with his kick-ass girl, Shelly. They have an absurdly pretty downtown penthouse loft. They are such good and happy people that you don't hate them for their fortune; also, the loft is in downtown Detroit. They're wildly in love, and Eric has just proposed (she said "yes!").

Shelly's a bit of an activist, trying to organize a group complaint against their landlord (given the look of their place, this is where you can't suspend disbelief). Devil's Night - Detroit's real-life yearly October 30th crime & arson fest - is when that comes back to bite them. She becomes victim to their home invasion and sexual assault. Eric arrives after they've done a lot of damage. He's stabbed, shot, and thrown out the window. The punks set the place on fire. Shelly slips away after a day and a half in the hospital.

A great scene, in any era of film-making.

So it's not exactly a laugh-a-minute thrill ride out of the gate. Have I mentioned how much I hate sexual assault?… There's only a few story-telling themes that could actually give this doomed pair a future: philosophy, religion, sci-fi/fantasy, and horror. It's sort of an absurd group, don't you think? Well, the story continues…

365 days later ('94 was a leap year), a large black bird lands on Eric's tombstone, tapping the marble with its beak. The poor stiff digs his way out - his wounds gone, he still wears the suit he was buried in. Getting back to the ruins of their home, he realizes he can see and feel memories when he touches people or objects like rings and guns. He also discovers that he's now incredibly fast, agile, and strong.

So he does what any other undead victim would do: he gears up, smearing his face with white makeup, and his eyes and mouth with Shelley's black lipstick. Then he goes to find and wreak bloody revenge on the murderers. Bloody and, when possible, "ironic" revenge.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

"Black Dynamite" - Netflix instant viewing to the rescue

2009's "Black Dynamite" looks and feels like a tailor-made sleeper hit. But as you watch it, you realize that creators must have planned on things like Internet buzz, the festival circuit, and quick dvd/video release. It doesn't take long to realize that "BD" is actually a tailor-made 21st Century fan favorite. Yet you won't complain because the movie does what it does well, amuses its audience in many ways, and never takes itself too seriously.

You can clearly see that this doesn't take itself too seriously.

Michael Jai White provides a solid and energetic lead. He works well as a capable ass-kicker whose quest to avenge his brother puts him on the trail of crime lords and wider societal corruption. MJW has more than martial arts skill. He has a lot of charisma and ability, and it's great to see him shine in this insane mix of "Shaft" (or "Superfly") and "Enter the Dragon." There's plenty of reasons why this guy should get lots of work, and I hope this movie's wide-spread critical success provides that...

BD, that rare 'Nam vet who believes he killed Chinese people.

His forceful, genteel-yet-explosive character is the smooth, proud Black Dynamite, a civic-minded martial arts genius and former government spook. Every woman wants him. Smart men treat him like an intelligent tiger. Anyone foolish enough to disrespect BD better pray for mercy - if they don't receive it, they'll get knocked out in a heartbeat. The movie sets the protagonist up for a lot of praise, from other parts and the audience. It's a toss-up as to whether he's supposed to be an anti-hero, but I suspect they only want him to be a 70's-style badass.

So many shows and films are being recycled - cop shows like "Starsky & Hutch" and "Hawaii Five-O," or cartoons like "GI Joe." It's actually a pleasant surprise to find a picture that neatly sticks to the attitude and style of its times. Ideally, "Black Dynamite" should be seen at a drive-in. Since that's fairly unlikely these days, you may have to settle for DVD or on-line streaming...It's actually a blessing that you can watch it so easily.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Art and The Audience

Hello, everyone! I'm adding this special birthday weekend/Labor Day edition of the blog with a mostly-healed eye and a new job that's taking up lots of time. [Note: so I needed a whole extra week for editing and finding pictures] This means that longer posts, like today's, can take a bit more time to finish and edit. Please enjoy, and know that I will have more new reviews up shortly. But I must warn you first: this post is freakishly long; I try to back my points up a lot and ultimately had to spend a great amount of time thinking about this just to justify how much time I spent thinking about this.

I have an artistic concern today, one brought about by the publicity for the "Lost" tv finale: do the desires of an audience undermine the quality of long-form stories in tv and film series? Other ways of looking at this question are: do tv series and film franchises have to get worse over the years? Is it necessary that ideas run out of steam, or is it a matter of poor execution or complacency? Do some story-tellers just promise more than they can give?

Wanna learn anything about this unearthly object? Tough - it's just a stupid plot device.

There are many variations on the relationship between an artist and the public, but it's an important dynamic, and I like to consider these topics. I tried to move further away from "Lost," so I could think about the issues rather than one silly show... My thought gave birth to still more questions, like: do demands for fan-gratification - through resolution and/or clarification - mean that repetition is the real problem? Is it worse nowadays, since more of the audience participates? What does this say about the dialogue between artist and spectator?

In looking at this problem, it made the most sense to confine myself to film and television. Although I might use some examples from literature, turning to books at the moment would simply complicate the discussion too much. It would also digress from what this site is about. In the end, film and tv are easier to discuss because of their popularity, their ease of access.

Throughout, I keep going back to the factors that affect audience and artist, sometimes repeatedly turning to the same issues. Sometimes I go to them repeatedly. I really hope this doesn't get too boring for anyone who reads this. At least no one could ever claim I didn't "write enough" over a two-week gap...

The Modern Age: Your Best Fans, Your Worst Enemies
As methods of story-telling, film and television series have a potentially unhealthy relationship with the internet's ability to generate high volumes of critique and criticism. At times, it's beneficial - the attention of devotees might be the sole cause for a show renewal or green-lighting a film.

It's true that complaining viewers might help steer a series from impending disaster. In the past, this merely happened through reduced ratings and letter-writing. The new forum of the internet provides a huge array of commentators, however. The problem is the same as before - some fans don't have good or selfless or thoughtful taste... Some are stingy and don't like thinking too hard, some are boring and focus on things that few notice, while others are so intelligent that everything seems moronic to them.

In any era, most people who voice their opinions, making an actual effort to address a complaint about some piece of art, have no training in artistic principles, and a small minority write more from idleness than interest. If a particular piece of art doesn't have to be "perfect" - if it can make bad choices, artistic or otherwise, over time - then there's a danger in listening to all those voices. In fact, there's a danger in listening to almost all of them.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Movie Review Quickies, Part III

This latest batch of quickies tries to offer a bit of variety - as much as possible without actually straining my still-healing eye. The line-up is: The Man With One Red Shoe, The Godfather 3, Frantic, The Edge, I Am Legend, One Fine Day, Ratatouille, and Transformers. Enjoy.

I think this is Art Deco. No wait, her hair is Art Nouveau!

The Man with One Red Shoe
A fun (but stupid) vehicle for a pre-guaranteed-success Tom Hanks. Two US Intelligence Execs are out to burn each other; the smarter one decides to pretend a random violinist (Hanks) is his top agent, just to distract the dumber one. Soon the dumber one's team is destroying his life, and he may die soon. Also, his best friend's wife is trying to sleep with him!

When I watch a movie like this, I really miss the energy of Hanks' early comedies. If you don't find it funny or charming, you'll probably hate it. If you do enjoy this film, you'll have to thank the impressive cast - Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning, Edward Hermann, Jim Belushi, Carrie Fisher, and Daryll Hannah - all do good work.

Some of the jokes may not work for you, but (probably) enough will… I feel foolish because I still haven't seen the French film this was based on.

When the end comes, it will come with hammy, poor acting, my son...

Godfather 3
A modest train-wreck of a movie. The famous Corleone family inches toward the late 90's, and Al Pacino CAN'T STAND IT ANYMORE, AND YOU NOTICE BECAUSE NOW HE YELLS INSTEAD OF ACTING. Funny, Michael was usually so quiet.

Several characters don't feel right in this long picture - even when they're fine actors like Andy Garcia. Coppola's daughter never should have appeared in this (the audience openly jeered in unison at one point). At least it looks pretty... I can't tell if the director used too much or too little from the prior "G" films.

Still, there's an incredible adherence to "themes" - no, I'm sorry - THEMES in "G3." You get the feeling that someone can run out of ideas and just call it motif, though. The guy who loudly brays like a donkey (it gives me a chill) is the most annoying character in this film (and possibly film history?). This experience was such an amazing disappointment, I don't even know if I can judge it fairly.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Youtube, you are truly grand sometimes

This quickie update highlights a three fun movie-related videos available on youtube. Two are Star Wars parody clips, while the last is a choose-your-path New Zealand zombie short that is actually a pizza company advert. Sheer brilliance.

The first two clips are great. Both replace Darth Vader's well-known voice with that of Mr. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The result is pure comic genius. The best mashups are great examples of what can be done with modern tech, wit, and a good idea.

The last video is even more impressive. A New Zealand pizza chain inspired a video where NZ is over-run by zombies. Trapped on top of a container, and surrounded by the living dead, an attractive woman dials the best pizza place in the country. She hopes that the delivery boy will reach her in time, save her, and bring food.

As if the tone and filming weren't cool enough, it's actually a pick-your-path adventure! At the end of every clip, there's a choice to be made. Selecting one of two options will lead you to different videos where your decisions are played out before you (note, you must pick an option before the video counts down to zero). Why, oh why, are the New Zealanders so gifted at physical comedy and zombie flicks? I don't need an answer, but thank you!

Darth Schwarzenegger

Even better, Arnold Strikes Back (down as of 2/5/13 because of a stupid DMCA takedown notice)

And, best of all, Kiwi zombies + pizza + multiple path adventure

Friday, August 6, 2010

"The Illusionist" - that summer's OTHER magic film

You've noticed it: every so often, Hollywood sees the nearly-simultaneous release of two films with the same plot. "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact" were the two "meteor" movies one summer. One year saw a pair of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral pictures, "Wyatt Earp," and "Tombstone." Topics get popular, studios compete, or a new venture gets produced just as similar one ends filming. So these things happen, but 2006 saw a damn odd duo of all-star magician films, "The Prestige" and "The Illusionist." I saw the former in the theater; I only caught the latter in June. The upshot of my recent viewing: it's reasonably- or fairly-good, and very pretty.

I give you... Korean glowy balls!

Before I begin to lay this out, let me say that I will be taking a partial break from the site, a bit of a boring one. I've got an injured eye, and I shouldn't be looking at bright screens too often until I'm better. This means that new reviews - like "Inception" - will have to wait a spell. I'll flesh out and post reviews that I've already began, though. I hope to entertain, critique, and expound, no matter what. Enjoy, please.

"The Illusionist" stars Ed Norton, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell, and Paul Giamatti. Norton plays the titular role, the unflappable Eisenheim. But he's no man - he's a performer who stages CGI impossibilities that awe and confound 1890's Europe. When Eisenheim sets up shop in Vienna, he finds out his childhood sweetheart (Biel) is with the Crown Prince (Sewell). Eis-y renews the acquaintance and gets audiences to question all their beliefs, so the Prince sets his pet cop, Inspector Uhl (Giamatti), to hound the master Illusionist.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

An Education

Sometimes, simple is beautiful. So when I say that An Education is a simple film, don’t get me wrong. The setup, based on a true story adapted by famous novelist Nick Hornby, is straightforward, something out of a Police tune: a pretty 16-year-old (Jenny, played by Carey Mulligan) caught in a rainstorm gets offered a ride by a handsome older man (David, portrayed by Peter Sarsgaard). Behind the wheel of his sports car, David seems like a fantasy figure: witty, cultured, moneyed. Predictably, sparks fly.

Monday, July 26, 2010

"Splice" - Abysmal

"Splice" is two sci-fi/horror stories in one, really. In part, it's a modern-day Frankenstein tale about scientists whose ambitions run wild. Yet it's also a story about two lovers/co-workers and the emotional mess caused by parenthood. "Splice" was written and directed by Vincenzo Natali, who made the exceptional "Cube" in 1997. My expectations were quite high, especially given the cast. Those hopes were cruelly disemboweled by senseless emotional beats and plot developments that only occurred because the writers wanted them to occur.

Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley are attractive and vivid genetic scientists. They're employed by NERD, a company that rides their work to the cusp of the next big bio-tech revolution. In between being quirky and listening to good music, they hit on a bio-engineering breakthrough. But why create a pig that produces human insulin? That's boring. How about a cat-sized fleshy slug that makes proteins that might cure everything! Sounds like a solid way to mass-produce an Alzheimer's cure, right?

Damn close to an "Alien" poster, huh?

Wrong. Remember that these scientists have only just attained their amazing goal of making two monstrosities and getting them to wink at each other ("Fred" and "Ginger"). For some reason (the plot, apparently), they have no interest in studying their creation fully, or even very much at all. The pair tell their boss they immediately want to start splicing (we have title!) human DNA into a third slug-thing. I only took a few science courses in college, but this sounds like an improbable (and dangerous) leap ahead.

How bad was "Splice?" I'll give, right now, five signs of how bad it was - all of these are firsts for me here... (1) Since they took time and effort to make a professionally-crafted motion picture, I'll take the time and effort to explain how they failed gloriously, but deeply. (2) I'm breaking my own trend and will spoil the hell out of the film after the next 14 paragraphs, but I'll post a warning before I start. (3) I will not edit overuse of words like "stupid" and "dumb" and "stupidity," unless I remove whole sentences or clauses. (4) I'll only bother to put the titles for "Splice," "The Bride of Frankenstein" and "Cube" in quotation marks. Just this once, correct punctuation - on something I must write well - isn't worth the extra effort.

Finally, (5) I'll first provide an synopsis of my in-theater thoughts, hoping that you read the rest of the review anyway. Here it is:

Monday, July 19, 2010

Introduction, and Summer TV Roundup

Hi, I’m Derek. By trade, I’m a writer and editor, although I also have a law degree and license. I’ve written about baseball for Baseball Prospectus and on the Bombers Broadside annuals, and I’ve also written about baseball and whatever else strikes my fancy over at my web site, The Weblog that Derek Built. Thaddeus--my brother, and the proprietor of this site--has invited me to share my thoughts about cinema here, so I’m glad to join the Net-Flixation family.

And of course, since my invitation here is to write about movies, I’m going to start out with television reviews. It’s not my fault, really. One of my twin boys has been suffering a bit of insomnia, so I’ve been stuck rocking him back to sleep night after night. Needing something to keep me from getting bored to death--and not wanting to commit the time to watch a movie--I’ve gotten some quality (and sometimes not-so-quality) time with the new shows of the summer season. Here goes:

Monday, July 12, 2010

Behind the... Teeth: Alien Queen, "Aliens"

The larger-than-life female called The Alien Queen is so important to film. As a struggling working mom, she exposed the dangers faced by successful and ambitious women of the future. And yet few understand her. The public focuses on incredible fx and action scenes; she's the film version of Graendal's mother, at best. There's much more to this widely-recognized, but poorly-known, celebrity.

AQ looking fab at her 1st birthday party

Imposing, courteous, and strict, The Alien Queen ("AQ," or "Queenie" to pals) was known to those closest to her as a loyal friend and fiercely-protective mother. Always looking out for the colony, always comfortable with her unusual size, she had an easy rapport with her followers. Although most of them were her children, no one could claim that she didn't deserve her throne. It was hard to challenge, much less insult, someone who could pull you apart like cotton candy.

To outsiders, she might seem cold, even cruel. Humans believe she never smiled in her whole life. Speculators say that becoming a parent changed her. To unlock the truth about this figure, we need to look into her past.

Behind the Translucent Teeth
Always proud of her humble origins, AQ would boast that before becoming Queen, she was secreted onto a spaceship hull, just like all her siblings. Dormant for so long in her pod, she literally leapt at the chance for change. She yearned to be more than just a skittering spider-octopus thing with a tail. She wanted a shiny black carapace and a projecting set of inner jaws, and she was willing to kill for them. Considering the bleak environment she grew up in, this is hardly a surprise.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" : Cool...Wow...Nasty

Are the thoughts inspired by this expertly-made film. This intense Swedish thriller-mystery is amazing, riveting. It also has 3 scenes of sexual assault, the worst being 2 minutes long (or so it felt). How did I deflate such a sad and upsetting moment? I offered my friend a stick of gum.
Really left themselves open for a "boy & his dog" joke, didn't they?

The basic story: a reporter is asked to solve a 40-year-old murder by the victim's hyper-wealthy uncle; he takes the case. But the scenic route is sometimes better, isn't it?

As "TGwtDT" begins, it plunges headfirst into, of all the things, Civil Law. In Europe, losing a defamation suit can land you jail time. That's exactly what happens to Mikael Blomkvist, a reporter whose expose on a billionaire has just blown up in his face. Disproving fraud and weapons trafficking claims, a court hits Mikael with a big fine and 90 days jail time. Embarrassed by the discredited story, MB meets the magazine's other owner-reporters at the holiday office party; one proposes he take a leave of absence. On Christmas. Isn't there always one jerk like that in the room?

One last time, Bjorn - where did you hide my prunes?

Shortly after doing the right thing by his co-workers, Mikael is approached by Henrik Vanger. The Vangers are clearly supposed to be Sweden's version of the Rockefellers, Astors, or Kennedys. The wealthy old man asks our clever lead to find out what happened to his niece 40 years earlier; his favorite relation simply vanished one day, and her murder was never solved. The pitch is fairly easy: I'll make you rich no matter what, and you don't have anything better to do before you have to report to jail. The right offer at the right time wins.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Most Appropriate Independence Day Films

Since it's our anniversary, I figured I would highlight some quality movies that reflect the character of this country. By "character," I mean the positive aspirational sentiments of this nation and its people, so exclude "The Scarlet Letter" and "Missing" (the Jack Lemmon pic). By "quality," I mean fairly good movies, so "Independence Day: ID4" and "National Treasure" are out.

The Right Stuff
This is an exceptional movie. It's hard to find a flaw as the picture charts the creation of NASA and the space race. It follows the lives of pilots who became astronauts, scientists who both helped and struggled against them, and the government officials who brought them all together. Courage, patriotism, and ambition are writ large across the screen throughout.

But the movie isn't exactly jingoistic fluff. There's enough "bite" in some of the dialogue to express serious practical and human concerns - like LBJ being forced to wait outside the home of an astronaut's wife. Johnson is there for a state visit and publicity op, while she's just terrified that her beloved man will die horribly. Another brave astronaut is humiliated and demoralized when he learns he won't get a ticker-tape parade.

A beautiful fireworks display, too pretty to matter that it's in Sydney, Australia.

"Silverado," like "TRS," is a film with a broad cast and a hoard of themes. It moves fluidly back and forth between folks in the Wild West : a pair of free-spirited brothers (Kevin Costner and Scott Glenn) who lack any bad intentions despite the trouble they get into. A black rifleman's family is being crushed by a despotic cattle baron and a pimp. An honorable crook (Kevin Kline) finds he's almost always getting double-crossed or manipulated.

I'm impressed enough by the determination and hope inside these disparate men, all rough but good-hearted. And it's all the more appropriate since they have to work together and risk everything they value to stop rampant corruption and murder.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Not Quite Weekly Link Run Down Part 4, only some Remake Madness

Trading in "Film Futures" is a Possibility, But of course That Wouldn't Just Insulate Studios From Awful, Awful Choices
Disappointed that Tinseltown never got to officially capitalize on the mortgage scandal, proposals have been made to allow the purchase of "Film Futures." This would basically be a commodities market for movie studios. Can't see anything wrong with that? Well, hundreds of millions of dollars are funneled into pictures that are mostly (a) dumb fx orgies, and (b) riding the coattails of some earlier project. Some movie-makers don't even bother adding things like a coherent plot or decent dialogue - who needs to, with a lot of money on the screen and a big marketing push? I can only assume there'll be an even greater collapse in the minimalist quality incentives that exist for big pictures.

Director of "Brick" Made a Great Concert Film for The Mountain Goats, You Already Missed Your Chance to Watch it For Free
It was up on, but it's already gone. Rian Johnson, creator of "Brick" and "The Brothers Bloom" put out another top-notch effort. Thanks to aicn for the heads up!

Comcast Wants to Buy NBC-Universal. In Related News, Disney Offers to Buy Every Company in the World.
The headline says it all. My assessment is that this move brings America scandalously closer to just having one giant company that owns every other company. Still, we're out of the Bush-Cheney years, so maybe law-makers will remember that Capitalism justifies its existence partly on the fact of competition. You can't get much competition if the company with the most money gets to purchase whoever might put them out of business...

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"Penn & Teller Get Killed" - "obscure" slept with "absurd," had a baby

Don't ever go on tv and wish someone tried to kill you. Also, don't play "Spy vs Spy"-type pranks on your best friend and co-worker. These are the lessons derived from 1989's "Penn and Teller Get Killed."

"You can imagine the sequel thing is kind of a bitch." - Penn, at the end of the movie.
You have to be prepared for a movie like this; either prepared, or in the mood for anything. Why? Because it's a mix of so many film styles and types of comedy. "PaTGK" is a comedy through and through, almost like a Zucker brothers picture.

It's also a jet-black cup of coffee, a flick whose humor can get dark, bleak, mordant... Repeated scenes of the duo's preparation and business arrangements add realism, so you feel you got a peek at the lives of celebrity magicians. Yet this film also swerves into thriller and noir, even if it mostly mocks those genres. There's a lot going on, right?

For those who don't know - Penn Jillette is a funny, forceful, cynical, 6'6" mountain of magic. He projects, an expert at misdirection, timing, and sleight of hand. He also usually comes off as a jerk.

Perhaps he's that full of life, or perhaps he's compensating for his partner, Teller. The smaller half of the act is famously mute during their performances, so Penn has to talk for two. This funny and inventive pair tend to set Penn as the bombastic and ironic showman, while Teller does much of the actual work and is often in danger. It works.

At the start of this movie, the pair appear on a talk show. Penn discusses the tour, his one painted fingernail, and the world of magic... As is his wont, he gets strange: he babbles about celebrity death threats, and vocally wishes that someone would try to kill him. Much of what follows expresses how monumentally stupid he was then.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Dennis Hopper RIP

Hollywood suffers again with the loss of another skilled star, Dennis Hopper. It's only those closest to him who deserve sympathy; I'd feel slimy being too soggy over someone I never knew - over someone I "enjoyed" from a distance. But I always feel sad when a talented, hard-working, member of "Old Hollywood" finds out what comes after death.

I usually ignore celebrity deaths, especially for film stars. The kind of media attention they get often has an obscene and selfish tone. The amount of coverage given also feels disrespectful to both the deceased and a world with terror, AIDS, starvation. I felt bad for Heath Ledger and his family, but I was exceptionally annoyed by the near-instant memorial DVD sales and "important breaking news" circus that occurred that day. The way it continued to dominate the media - what with wars, ethnic violence, over-fishing - was disgusting. Then I saw "fans" basically stalking his NYC flat, leaving flowers as if Marilyn Monroe had just committed suicide.

Dennis Hopper's 1965 photo of Jefferson Airplane

In that context, why should I write about Dennis Hopper? Well, I care. I care because Hopper did his job remarkably well for a long long time; because I smiled most every time he got on the screen. I care because he could bring 10 minutes of sunshine to a really bad movie, and because he showed no signs of slowing down. Even at 70+, I looked forward to his bright future, as I did with the much younger River Phoenix and Phil Hartman.

Dennis Hopper looked pretty good for a 74 year old; even in his 50's, you could see he was aging well. This is especially impressive given the extent of his drug abuse. His hair got silver more than grey, his eyes were still vividly blue. Whether his hair was slicked back, whether he wore a goatee - there was always something very approachable and relatable about him. His talents and skills made it so easy to buy whatever he was selling in any role he played.

And he always seemed like so much fun. He's featured on a Gorillaz song, on the album "Demon Days." Dennis Hopper was also a wide-ranging artist with work in poetry, sculpture, and painting. His photography has been well-received since the '60s. Long after he'd grown up, the kid from Dodge City, Kansas was hard to pin down. A regular supporter of the Republican party, he said he went with Obama when the GOP added Sarah Palin to their ticket. He was, to paraphrase his own words, "Republican, then Democrat, then Republican, then Democrat again." It all just demands my respect, and he's got it.

Hopper's photo of Paul Newman, 1964

He worked in just about every type of filmed story-telling that I can list. Mr. Hopper could pop up in awfully-executed junk like "Super Mario Bros.," "Space Truckers," and "Firestarter 2: Rekindled." You could also find him in superior B-level movies like "Red Rock West," "Basquiat," and "EdTV." Odder choices abound, like the racist lead in the surprising "Paris Trout," his self-parodic role in '80s brain drain "My Science Project," and his rampaging con in the misfire known as "Boiling Point."

Then, of course, you look at all the classics that Dennis is attached to: "Rebel Without a Cause" (his first film), "Giant," "True Grit," "Cool Hand Luke," "Apocalypse Now," "Rumble Fish." It's already quite impressive before noting that he co-wrote and directed "Easy Rider."

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Hi, I'm "Pookie," and I have a video-finding problem (pause).

Netflix's page for Caddyshack offers "More Like Caddyshack" : Bart Got a Room, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, Saint Ralph, Golfballs!, The Breakfast Club, The Jerk, Hairspray, Harold and Maude, Fletch, Fletch Lives, and Caddyshack 2.* It's in reverse order, but since these are the only 11 matches listed, I don't even need to analyze; the list speaks for itself. The systems that categorize movies (and recognize connections among them) don't work well enough, especially for a big business like Netflix. But they're not alone.

It's not as if Amazon is any better. Looking through a CV is awkward, since entering an artist's name won't yield pages by name; you only ever get a list of the artist's works. If you want to see everything Jung wrote, you type "Carl Jung" or a title of his and then click on the "Carl Jung" link. Using normal searches, it's the fastest way to see Amazon's catalog for one artist. This is way more complicated than it should be.

And I'd be bothered less if I hadn't looked at Amazon's page for "The Rolling Stones" mp3s. 2,666 hits sounds excessive, even assuming there are 8+ versions of "Satisfaction." Then look at the list sorted "by artist." You'll see there's many entries with random bands singing "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" and "Rolling of the Stones."

It might be a bit much to expect their computers to automatically include or exclude cover songs and cameo work, but can't Amazon just show me a list of mp3s by one British rock band, 1962-20xx? Can't they do that when I look up "Exile on Main St." and click on the link that lists "The Rolling Stones" as the album artist? Even this method produces bad results! You can only get this right by typing the band into a search, then selecting "Amazon's The Rolling Stones Store" from the list that comes up.

But that's not all. Getting an exact match quickly is hit-or-miss, unless you use advanced searches. You can type in a complete and accurate title for something obscure and 5 other unrelated products may appear topmost on the list, presumably because they rank higher and contain 2+ search terms. It makes sense for online retailers to include ranking in searches, but a direct title result should always take precedence.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

"Cold Prey" - More Scandinavian Terror

Netflix has given me the chance to indulge in foreign films of all sorts. While packing my queue with classic arthouse flicks by Bertolucci and Fellini, I decided to follow the solid buzz around this Norwegian movie. Watching too much of anything can become a problem, and so we come to "Cold Prey" (2006)...

An opening montage shows us a scared child with an odd birthmark on his face. He's running through snow, terrified. Suddenly, something jumps out at him. Newspapers show a photo of the child and his parents, exclaiming the tragedy of a missing kid. After the credits, we're introduced to one of the most standard scenes in horror: a group of young people in a car. They're promiscuous, they're adventurous, and most of them are photogenic. They're on a skiing holiday, and all the talk is about sex. There also a ton tension between the couple in the front.

Soon, our young people have decided to hit some slopes before they reach the resort. Someone injures their leg (horror films are built on leg injuries, aren't they?), and our crew decide to seek shelter at a nearby lodge. The place is abandoned (of course!) but no signs are posted, and they'll be safe for the night. Being marginally smart, they explore most of the resort. They find food, liquor, a burned room, and a glass case missing its axe. And, naturally, they ignore those last two points; they set themselves up with drinks and get on about their business without a care in the world. Tragedy ensues.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

And today, I ate crow twice: "Dead Reckoning" review

I couldn't resist a classic Humphrey Bogart film - particularly one with a good rep. I was in the mood, so "Dead Reckoning" jumped to the top of my queue, hard on the heels of a Bogey-and-Bacall-athon.

The film begins with a man on the street (Bogart's "Rip" Murdock). He's wounded and skulking about; avoiding the police, he tries to stay in the shadows. Soon, he enters a church, and finds a someone to speak to. This is Bogey's attempt to pass along what he knows, in case he dies soon. He explains how he came to this town, Gulf City...

Murdock and his wry voice served in World War II. He was wounded along with his friend, Johnny Drake (played by William Prince). The pair are suddenly taken from their European hospital and flown to New York City; they're rushed to Penn Station, with a police escort. Rip is uneasy, as he knows they must be involved in something big. Since Bogart had already cultivated the image of the reckless-but-crafty tough, it's fitting that Rip Murdock searches a superior officer's coat for information: Murdock is going to receive a silver star, and Johnny will get a Congressional Medal of Honor.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Another Day or Two

Will tell the tale. Hell, I may be able to make multiple posts in that time. Still, there's so much going on, I only have time to half-write some articles.
Nor would I like to do another remake/reboot/franchise-establishing link roundup.
So patience, please - it'll be soon. You can always comment or start a conversation here, if you want...