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.

The whole picture is beautifully filmed (Hill is good), but the violence is stylized to a level that qualifies as fetish. It works decently enough, especially if you want to see Willis playing one of his most hard-boiled leads. And especially if you want to see Willis doing an American version of a Hong Kong flick; some villains are completely vile, there's a freakishly beautiful girl in danger (Alexandra "sigh" Powers), and several scenes of harsh beatings.

Still, the dialogue could have used some work, and the roles definitely needed to be expanded. None of the non-violent elements here are used particularly well, and it makes this action pic feel too dull when it's quiet. LMS is just fairly empty, and the way the plots advance leaves no surprise. I hope no one wants to watch "righteous gunplay karma" so badly that they don't demand a good and interesting story, too.

Bonus points, though, for getting David Patrick Kelley to be one of the mob bosses. He's done great baddies in The Crow, 48 Hours, and The Warriors. Hill also directed those last two pictures, so I guess Hill knew: when you need someone to ooze malice and look a little creepy/evil, DPK always delivers in spades.

Catastrophically disappointing 1996 action film. Vanessa Williams plays a woman enrolled in the witness protection program. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the US Marshall assigned to protect her from improbably super-powerful dangers. Nothing in this movie works. The tone is dull, despite the manic set-pieces - the plot is hyper-caffeinated, but also took some cold medicine.

The dialogue is either cliched or badly-written or both. When Arnie preps his new ward on a meeting at the zoo, he advises her that it has "six exits. Six ways out." Thanks for the tip, pal... Little of the frantic action works as well as intended. The film fails to give us a reason to believe in Arnie, or his moniker "Eraser" - it relies on you to have already seen AS in action pics...

Similarly, the villain - a well-known actor who clearly enjoys this chance to ham it up - is not well-developed; his motive is really cheap and cliched. Lots of pix have survived these sorts of issues, however... What's worse, though, the problems faced by the two leads are absurd: bad guys have, for some reason, goggles that harmlessly "x-ray" walls 200 feet away; also, guns that shoot 1000 times harder than a bullet. This level of ridiculous advantage/weaponry doesn't work for a non-sci-fi/action movie about protecting a federal witness.

Two scenes in particular stand out because they're awful CGI recreations of famous live stunts - arnie fights crocodiles (no seriously) and dives out of a plane. Both stunts were tackled by Moore-era James Bond, and looked perfect on film; the obvious fakeness of the effects here is a solid reflection on the whole picture.

Single White Female
More movies should have two female leads. This great 1992 character study mixes in some "erotic thriller" tropes. This movie is suspenseful, and a good enough ride that I'm reviewing it briefly.

Allison (Bridget Fonda) is a well-off city girl. Yet, Allie clearly has some issues because she actually requires companionship after dumping her fiance (Steven Weber); he sleeps with his ex-wife, he's kicked out of the flat. Enter the improbably sweet Heddy (super-actress Jennifer Jason Leigh), who's looking for a place in the big city. Everything's fine, yet something feels off and we notice that Heddy starts buying the same clothes as her roomie. Soon they have the same haircut. It's at these times that you have to look at your life and wonder, "Have I fallen into an erotic thriller?"

This movie is sort of a non-romantic equivalent to "Fatal Attraction." The performances here are much better, however, as is the plot. Leigh, as always, pulls you into every scene. She and Fonda really work well together, but I hate to say it: people should feel for JJL the same way many feel for Christopher Walken in anything. The sexy stuff is kinda minimal, maybe more suggestive - there's definitely something erotic going on here, but it's "1992 drama/suspense" erotic, not "Basic Instinct" erotic. I could probably give this movie its own entry...

Always maintaining effective tension, the picture works today. It helps, for once, that the number of crazy people only seems to go up... If you want a thriller, you can't be disappointed by "SWF." Unless you want it to be about two dudes.

In & Out
I hate, hate, hate this movie. Kevin Kline plays a great high school teacher. He's positive, an engaged do-gooder who's bright in his mannerisms. When a former student receives an Oscar and claims KK was a gay role model, choas ensues; and he's about to get married to sweetie Joan Cusack!

Many people like this movie a lot, but I don't hold it against them much; to them, this was a light-hearted Frank Oz comedy. To me, however, "I&O" was an incredibly insulting picture: basically, everyone says that Kevin Kline must be gay because he likes Barbara Streisand, musicals, and uses his hands a lot when he talks. KK insists that's not the case, but everyone keeps repeating rumor as the media "follows the story" to their small town. Tom Selleck's secretly-gay reporter insists on it so strongly, he just kisses Kline right on the mouth, and slowly the school teacher realizes it's all been a lie.

To Paul Rudnick, the writer: f--k you. F--k your family, your friends, and you pets - & anybody stupid enough to spend time with you of their own choice. Yes, of course, a man who displays publicly-recognized "gay behavior," like gesturing with his hands a lot, really is and must be and has no other choice but to be gay, even if he has no memories of desiring men and seems to honestly claim that he's not. Thanks, everybody... So much for living life on your own terms, marching to the beat of your own drum.

Don't be true to yourself - follow the stereotypes everyone thinks you fall into. "In & Out," for me, was an appalling, insulting addition to both comedy and the public's gradual acceptance of a mis-treated group.

Johnny Dangerously
Classic 1984 comedy spoofs 1930's gangster films. Michael Keaton plays the part from the title. Keep in mind that both Keaton and Tom Hanks were each in the manic-comic phase of their journeys through Hollywood. MK is charismatic and skilled, so the movie performs nicely enough. Johhny is a young #2 mobster who has dames, dough, and the respect of whole New York neighborhoods. But his kid brother (Griffin Dunne) is a spastic, naive DA who wants to end all organized crime. Of course, the two are heading toward an awful confrontation.

This movie is packed to the wall with jokes, and it works because many of them hit. Also, a lot of the lines are great and very repeatable. That's my best review of the movie - even if you didn't like it that much, you'll still love many lines... One mob boss possesses an impossible accent and constantly misspeaks curse-words. Joe Piscopo is a demented, threatening thug who claims handicapped parking because of mental problems. An old-timey toilet handle is used as a weapon. A gorgeous woman informs the hero that his last name is an adverb - and he considers that "intellectual"...

The other thing that greatly helps JD is the wide and skilled cast - Marilu Henner, Peter Boyle, Dom Deluise, Danny DeVito - they all do an exceptional job with the material. I don't know how well the humor has dated, but if you can stand by a slightly-weak story and some jokes that don't fire, you'll be entertained…

Starship Troopers
Mostly very bad. A big budget action film based on a classic Heinlein scifi story, Starship Troopers deals with a future earth drowned in 50's-era politics. After an alien attack destroys Buenos Aires, the planet is avenged by a bunch of space-traveling (photogenic) youngsters that include Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Neil Patrick Harris, and Dina Meyers.

The book had philosophical themes that touched on civic duty, political structure, the nature of war, and the right to vote. The picture is a just a special effects kill-fest with boobs and guns; since it's directed by horny Dutchman Paul Verhoeven, this is not a surprise. But this is an incredibly empty pic and doesn't make much sense - in fact, you wouldn't think that the director of "Starship Troopers" also delivered movies like "Robocop" or "The Fourth Man."

Human soldiers combat 5-foot tall "preying mantis" aliens! Seriously: star-traveling marines fight, not in metal suits or vehicles, but just like a WW II/'Nam-era infantry. The enemies faced by mankind are only interesting as wild animals or effects; but how do a bunch of bugs get into interstellar war? Everything that happens here, happens because the story says it happens, not because it makes any sense.

In the end, all the little touches of WWII propaganda, and even the anti-fascist fascism of the post-WWII era, don't elevate this movie into anything more than a dumb scifi-action flick with no message or themes or deep ideas. I laugh my ass of at Neil Patrick Harris boldly stating, with no irony, "We're going back to P." Heaven help me, was that line intentional?

If explosions are what you watch movies for, then enjoy both the senseless and cliched story, as well as the communal shower scene; it's a shame that Dina Meyer didn't get to showcase her acting abilities so much as she got to highlight her incredible breasts.

Alternatively, I could have written it like this:
I can't say it was badly-filmed, but the only real reason to like "Starship Troopers" is well-filmed violence and a subversive sense of humor that's sometimes genuinely funny. I also guess it has a certain nostalgia factor because it was one of the first blockbusters to have high quality CGI "space stuff." Yet nothing about this movie, from basic elements (i.e., combat style, the aliens) to the story, makes the least bit of sense. I know why it's a guilty pleasure for some, but I've always seen it as a fiercely-shallow effort. I won't accept a mindless version of "Aliens"-lite just because I'd love to see more like James Cameron's picture.

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