Thursday, June 28, 2007

Episode 45 - "Yippie-Kai-Yay Motherfucker!"

Die Hard - John McClane (Bruce Willis) has been a New York cop for eleven years. A few months ago his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) was offered a job that she couldn't turn down working at the Nakatomi building in Los Angeles, California. After months of arguing over the phone, John has decided to visit Holly and his son and daughter in Los Angeles for Christmas. Arriving late on Christmas eve, John is met at the airport by a limousine which takes him to Nakatomi Plaza where there is a party taking place on the 30th floor to celebrate the holidays and a large deal closed by the company that morning. Not long after John's arrival at the party, a group of approximately twelve terrorists led by the evil Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) arrive at the building, which is vacant aside from the members of the party upstairs and the single security guard in the lobby. As the terrorists seize the employees of the Nakatomi building and begin working to crack a rather secure safe filled with six hundred and forty million dollars in negotiable bearer bonds, McClane slips away to one of the building's upper levels undetected. Barefoot, in a strange building, and armed only with a pistol and his wits, John must bring an end to the attack on the building and possibly save his marriage in the process. Fortunately, McClane manages to get the attention of a desk-jockey cop by the name of Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) who is on his way home for the night. Unfortunately, the terrorists know that John is in the building and it's only a matter of time before they either catch him or realize that his wife is among their hostages. If you look up "action star" in the dictionary, you will see a picture of John McClane. The original Die Hard is easily the best action movie ever committed to film. It is the movie from which all others in the action genre since it's release have taken their cues, and there are several good reasons for that. Let's begin with the star. Bruce Willis made a name for himself with this movie. There are numerous action stars out there who look like they could fend off swarms of bad guys, but none of them are as human as Willis' John McClane, which is what really sets Die Hard apart from other movies of this genre. McClane will often come out of an incredibly dangerous situation laughing and/or cracking jokes. He bleeds like a normal human being, he curses like a normal human being, and his reactions to incredible situations are those of a normal human being. The stereotype is that every man would like to be an action star, and perhaps the draw behind McClane is the fact that anyone can relate to him. This is mainly due to Bruce's portrayal of the character, but some of the credit must also go to the director who first gave us the adventures of John McClane: John McTiernan. McTiernan is a master of chocking his films full of action while simultaneously loading the cast full of character. While your average director will merely have background characters in a scene, seemingly everyone in a John McTiernan film has a life of their own and comes off as a believable human being. It is his attention to detail and reality in the midst of an unbelievable situation that allows his movies to be so enjoyable. Assisting McClane in Die Hard are Reginald VelJohnson in the defining feature film role of his career as officer Al Powell and De'voreaux White as Argyle the cab driver. Opposing him is Alan Rickman as criminal mastermind Hans Gruber. People will argue that Die Hard is far from Rickman's best performance, but for me it is the role that I think of when I hear his name. He was the epitome of evil and to this day his portrayal of Hans Gruber stands among few other performances at the zenith of silver screen villainy. Almost playing another character in the movie is the musical score as composed by Michael Kamen. Kamen took the songs "Ode To Joy" and "Let It Snow" and transformed them into a foreboding soundtrack that is immediately recognizable and perhaps one of the most memorable of just about any film to date. The action in Die Hard is second to none. There are films these days that are flashier than Die Hard, but few can come close to the originality and brutal nature of the fight scenes in this film. Again though, a lot of the appeal of these scenes lies in the hands of Bruce Willis' John McClane. Not to mention, the filmmakers didn't skimp on the fake blood. The way that Die Hard uses comedy is also a plus. The fumbling of the LAPD and FBI in attempting to diffuse the terrorist situation is spectacular and sets this film apart from most of it's competition. The stunts are impressive, the set pieces are like nothing that came before them, and the sheer ingenuity of the events taking place earn Die Hard all the accolades that a classic film deserves. In a word, Die Hard is perfect.

Die Hard 2: Die Harder - John McClane, now a member of the LAPD after transferring from New York to be with his family in the wake of the attack on Nakatomi Plaza, is at the airport where he plans to meet his wife when her plane lands. It is almost Christmas once again and things are about to heat up. Approximately half an hour before Holly's plane is scheduled to land, a group of terrorists set up a menagerie of computer equipment in a nearby abandoned church and seize control of all of the airport's functions. Turning off the landing strip lights and cutting off communications from the control tower, all of the planes scheduled to land at Dulles International Airport are forced to circle in the air, unable to land. The terrorists, led by former United States military Colonel Stuart (William Sadler), have agreed to return control of the airport's functions to the control tower as soon as their demands are met. What they want is to have a political prisoner by the name of General Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero) released into their custody once he makes his scheduled landing at the airport, at which time they will all enter a secured airplane and take off to a destination of their choosing. As McClane begins to figure all of this out, he attempts to warn the chief of air operations, Trudeau (Fred Dalton Thompson), and the head of airport security, Captain Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz). When they won't listen to him, McClane must take matters into his own hands. With his wife's life hanging in the balance, it's only a matter of time before the aircraft circling the airport begin to run out of fuel, so it's a race against time for John to stop Colonel Stuart and his men and regain control of airport operations. Die Hard 2 is very similar to it's predecessor, which surprisingly becomes it's major downfall. The plot and script for Die Harder are solid, the direction (this time by Renny Harlin) is decent, and the acting is overall pretty good, but this film is just too damn much like the first Die Hard. It's as though Renny Harlin was afraid to make the film too different from the previous film, so he tried to make it as close as possible to it. There are way too many instances in which characters (usually McClane himself) make mention of the fact that the events taking place are very similar to those that took place at Nakatomi Plaza. This is really my biggest complaint about the film. The action and humor of the original carries over fairly well into Harlin's addition to the series, as do a few of the supporting characters. Reginald VelJohnson has a brief cameo, returning as LAPD officer Al Powell, and William Atherton appears once more as Richard "Dick" Thornburg, the self-centered reporter. The villains in Die Harder aren't quite as fleshed out as their Die Hard counterparts, but they do their jobs well enough. The concept of McClane being trapped in one locale is a little less relevant in this installment, though there is a very prominent feeling that he is alone in his quest for justice as the staff of the airport are generally unwilling to cooperate with him. The action in Die Hard 2 is arguably more over the top than in the last film. We are not only treated to a snowmobile chase, but also a fist fight on the wing of a moving airplane. There are explosions abound and plenty of catch phrases (most cornier than those found in the original) to be found in Die Hard 2: Die Harder, but it doesn't manage to reach the same level of greatness that John McTiernan's film achieved.

Die Hard With A Vengeance - For the first time in John McClane's career he isn't in the wrong place at the wrong time. This time he doesn't happen across hunts him down with a vengeance. After a department store in McClane's on again, off again hometown of New York is destroyed by a bomb, a madman referring to himself as Simon (Jeremy Irons) calls up the NYPD asking for John. He states that he will reveal the location of the rest of the bombs he's planted, but only to our hero, who just so happens to be recovering from a rough night of drinking. Nevertheless, McClane is scrounged up and sent off to do whatever Simon says in order to save innocent lives. His first task? To strip down to his underwear and...well...if you haven't seen the movie you'll want to find out what he does for yourself. It's a doozy. Anyway, McClane has a run-in with a local shop owner named Zeus (Samuel L. Jackson), who helps him escape from certain death and then accompanies him back to the safety of the police station. Calling back, Simon informs them that because Zeus interfered with John's last task, he must now accompany him in searching for the rest of the bombs. What follows is an action-packed game of cat and mouse as Simon orders McClane and Zeus to embark on missions all over New York City to disarm a series of bombs. However, John quickly begins to suspect that there is something more to these attacks than just terrorist bombings, and wouldn't you know it? He's right. While the entire staff of the NYPD searches for a bomb which Simon claims is located in one of the numerous schools within the city, McClane and Zeus track down Simon and his terrorist lackeys, all the while attempting to figure out what they're really up to. Perhaps the more interesting question, though, is why Simon is so interested in John McClane. All hail the triumphant return of Die Hard veteran director John McTiernan. Re-teaming with Bruce Willis for this third installment of the Die Hard series, McTiernan delivers another groundbreaking action film with his own personal style of character-driven excitement. There are a few notable differences between Die Hard With A Vengeance and it's two predecessors. First, John McClane has a sidekick this time around in Samuel L. Jackson's Zeus. Second, the story has McClane traversing an entire city as opposed to being confined in a small area such as a high-rise building or an airport. The reason for these dramatic changes is that the script for Die Hard With A Vengeance was originally meant to be the script for Lethal Weapon 3. Obviously some changes were made to successfully substitute Willis' McClane for Mel Gibson's Riggs and Sam Jackson's Zeus for Danny Glover's Murtaugh, but it isn't too hard to imagine this film being a part of the other long-running series. Speaking of Bruce and Sam, their chemistry on screen in With A Vengeance is spectacular. The two of them play perfectly off of each other throughout the entire film. In fact, though I'll probably be crucified for suggesting this, I personally believe that this is the best performance that I've seen from Samuel L. Jackson thus far. He embodies the role of Zeus perfectly. Also a great casting choice for this film was Jeremy Irons. He continues the evil terrorist tradition of the Die Hard series extremely well and steals the show anytime he's on screen. Once again Michael Kamen delivers an incredible score for Die Hard With A Vengeance just as he did with Die Hard. This time he transforms the song "When Johnny Came Marching Home" into the dark, foreboding theme of the villains. This is another worthy and memorable selection of music. My only real complaint about Die Hard With A Vengeance is that the ending trails off a bit. There is a point near the end of the film when McClane and Zeus separate for a short while, and right around the time that they meet back up again, the plot gets a bit weak. It's as though some scenes were cut short or not filmed due to time constraints. The film moves at a great pace and then suddenly speeds up at the end. Also, the climax takes place at a different time than the rest of the film and under different circumstances, which is always something that I hate in movies. It makes the very ending feel like an afterthought. It's still an exciting ending, but perhaps the weakest part of the movie. Despite this complaint, Die Hard With A Vengeance manages to be better than Die Hard 2: Die Harder in my book, and is a more than worthy addition to the franchise.

Live Free Or Die Hard - After the events of 9/11, a computer mastermind working for the United States government by the name of Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) insists that our the country's security isn't up to snuff and is promptly dismissed from duty. In search of revenge, Gabriel embarks upon a terrorist strike on the United States of America that is known among the hacker community as a "fire sale". It got this name based on the phrase "everything must go", which refers to the attack's method of stripping the country of it's money, communications, and resources, rendering it devoid of essentially all computer-run technology. In order to do this, Thomas first tricked a series of small-time computer hackers around the country to write different algorithms and lines of code for him under the guise of an innocent company that wants to test it's security system. After obtaining the code from each of these unknowing individuals, Gabriel has them all marked for death. Meanwhile, Gabriel has used his newly obtained information to hack into the FBI's computer system. Their response is to send police officers to pick up any known hackers that could have achieved such a security breach. It just so happens that John McClane is sent to round up one of the hackers involved by the name of Matt Farrell (Justin Long). Before John is able to take Farrell into custody, however, Gabriel's hitmen arrive to kill him, which clues McClane in to the fact that something bigger is going on than a simple FBI security breach. By the time McClane delivers Farrell to Washington, all of the other hackers who participated in Gabriel's scheme have been killed and the first stages of the fire sale have begun. The country is experiencing mass hysteria as Gabriel's men come after Farrell again. McClane manages to repeatedly save Matt's life as the two of them rush to locate Thomas Gabriel and his men before they manage to send the United States back to the stone age. Things become personal, however, when Gabriel kidnaps McClane's now teenage daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Live Free Or Die Hard had me worried. First of all, it's called Live Free Or Die Hard; a name that I'm still not too fond of. Second, it is directed by Len Wiseman, who has only previously directed Underworld, which I saw and hated, and Underworld: Evolution, which I've heard is even worse than the original. This did not bode well for the newest installment of the Die Hard series. Add to that that it has been thirteen years since the last time Bruce Willis set foot in the role of John McClane, and I think that I had a right to be nervous. Thankfully though, I can safely say that Live Free Or Die Hard was not a terrible movie. The original Die Hard is still the best in my book, followed by With A Vengeance and Die Hard 2: Die Harder, and as of this moment I still haven't decided whether this film belongs in front of or behind Die Hard 2 on the list. It isn't the best of the series, but it may not be the worst either. The scale of this film is massive in comparison to the previous three. This time around the safety of all of North America is in the hands of John McClane. Bruce doesn't disappoint, though. Live Free Or Die Hard is rated PG-13, whereas all of the others have been rated R, so there is less cursing and a lot less blood than in the other installments. These factors don't really worsen the experience much though, as there is still tons of action, a good bit of comedy, and a decent supply of violence. It can be argued that none of the Die Hard movies are very close to reality, but Live Free takes things one step further and makes some of the events of the film a bit over the top, even for this franchise. For example, there is a scene in which an F-53 aircraft chases McClane around shooting missiles at him. It's pretty ridiculous, but in the context of the film it doesn't seem so bad. The worst part of the movie is definitely the character of Warlock as played by director Kevin Smith. Don't ask me why Smith was given this role, because his idea of being convincing in any given scene is just raising his voice because if you're yelling you must be serious, right? The scenes involving Smith still had that standard Die Hard humor to them, but they were made weaker by Kevin's poor acting ability. Another problem that I had with the film regards a few of Timothy Olyphant's henchmen. One is a short, skinny, asian, martial arts expert chick who actually gives McClane a run for his money. When you see the fight scene involving her you will realize why I have a problem with it. The first half of the fight is quite good, but the second half just goes off the deep end and comes off as laughable and entirely unbelievable (even for an action movie). Another henchman I was not pleased with was the "jumpy" guy. There is a character who can apparently run on walls and leaps around like Spiderman. He was a very two dimensional character that felt out of place to me. Justin Long managed to be just silly enough on screen to be funny but remain within the confines of reasonable. I was afraid he'd kind of turn into a goofy, unbelievable sidekick, but he reeled himself in rather well. Timothy Olyphant was a perfect choice for Thomas Gabriel, but personally I didn't think that he was given enough to do. Essentially he just types away at computers and tells people what to do all the time. I'm not sure what else he could have occupied his time with, but I'd have liked to see a bit more of him. And speaking of typing away on computers, this film is one of the worst examples of one of my movie-related pet peeves that I've ever seen. It's a movie about computers and not a single character uses a mouse in the entire movie! But I digress... If Kevin Smith was the worst part of Live Free Or Die Hard, Mary Winstead was the second worst. I'll put it this way: just because her father is a badass, does not mean that a teenaged girl must be a badass. I'll leave it at that and simply say that I hated the character of John McClane's daughter. All in all, Live Free Or Die Hard is one of the best "technological terrorist" films that I've seen and managed not to stray too far from the rest of the series. As I said before, it's not the best, but it'll do.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Episode 44

Breach - Inspired by real events, Breach tells the story of a young FBI employee named Eric O'Niell (Ryan Phillippe) whose aim is to become a full-fledged agent. One day he finds himself pulled from is current assignment and is brought into a meeting with Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) who gives him a new set of instructions. Eric will now be going undercover within the FBI as the personal clerk of Agent Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). Burroughs informs O'Niell that Hanssen has been engaging in activities on the internet that could embarrass the agency and that he is to make detailed notes about Hanssen's day to day activities. O'Niell, being the observant young man that he is, quickly realizes that there is something Agent Burroughs hasn't told him and confronts her about it, which is when he is let in on the real meaning of his new job. Hanssen is a spy who has been selling American secrets to the Russians for over a decade. O'Niell's profiling of Hanssen is meant to assist the FBI in catching him in the act of making an information drop so that they may prosecute him to the full extent of the law. However, as the agency gets closer to catching Hanssen in the act, he becomes more suspicious of O'Niell, and the safety of he and his family hangs in the balance. This is another film that I had little interest in seeing. The main drawback was that it looked like a slow, dull film. After seeing it I can confirm that the plot of Breach moves pretty slowly, but it manages to be just interesting enough to be worthwhile. As with most true stories, if the filmmakers want to stay true to the subject material, they can't go too wild about altering the events of the film. There are some instances in which this isn't necessarily true, as with the film Catch Me If You Can, which allows for plenty of indulgences in the script. With a story as serious and well-documented as that of Breach, though, there isn't a whole lot of leeway to add action or comedy to the story. This is a drawback to some films, but I will say that director Billy Ray managed to keep the events of the film moving at a decent pace by not bogging the plot down with any unnecessary details or side stories. In addition to the directing, the acting in a film as reserved and dramatic as this becomes even more important to making it watch-able. In this case, roping in Phillippe, Linney, and especially Chris Cooper as the main characters really paid off. I'm a big fan of Ryan Phillippe's work, so his presence made things run pretty smoothly for me. Linney is also a favorite of mine as she is not only nice to look at, but manages to pull off incredibly strong female roles which not many actresses are suited for. She always dominates whatever scene she's in and, while not necessarily typecast, tends to show up in roles that allow for her to play a powerful, in control character. Chris Cooper is really the one who steals the show here, though. The entirety of this project revolved around getting someone in the role of Robert Hanssen who the audience would at the same time despise and feel sorry for. Take a mere glance into Cooper's eyes in any scene in this movie, especially near the climax of the film, and you will see that he was the perfect choice. Rounding out the cast is Dennis Haysbert as the man in charge of the FBI's operation to bring down Hanssen. Overall I didn't find Breach to be one of the more impressive films that I've seen, but perhaps one of the more engrossing. This is probably because as I watched the story unfold I knew that what I was seeing actually took place.

The Constant Gardener - Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a low-level British diplomat, made one of the most spontaneous decisions of his life when he asked an activist named Tessa (Rachel Weisz) out on a date. Not long afterward they were married and as time went on Justin began to feel more and more distanced from his wife. Tessa, devoted more to any cause that could help people than to her own husband, was in Africa with a doctor and friend named Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé) attempting to give aid to AIDS victims when she uncovered what she believed to be a conspiracy involving a large pharmaceutical company. After she begins snooping around, Justin learns that his wife has been raped and murdered. In the wake of a seemingly non-existant investigation, and ignoring the advice of friends and relatives, Justin decides to look into the matter on his own. In a quest that will span three continents, Justin learns more about the pharmaceutical company which Tessa had been pursuing and discovers a strange link between it and his own employers. As numerous people search for the thorn in their collective backside that is Justin Quayle, he draws closer and closer to discovering the circumstances surrounding his wife's death. The Constant Gardener, based upon a book by John le Carré, is yet another film that I hadn't fully intended to see. Having now watched it, I feel as though I would have been just as well passing it up. The Constant Gardener is a highly acclaimed film, but for what reason I am not quite sure. The direction wasn't bad, but neither was it inspired. It seemed as though the director was more concerned with making Africa appear hot than with showing the viewer the emotions of the characters. As far as the actors are concerned, Ralph Fiennes put in a decent performance, but the character of Justin Quayle was horribly uninteresting. Not only that, but I found it hard to believe that he would be capable of reacting the way he did in many situations. He is portrayed early on as a particularly dull, reserved character, but suddenly becomes a globe trotting adventurer after his wife's death. I'm not going to discount the fact that he was sparked into action by this event, but I still wasn't convinced that the character would have been capable of the things he achieved in the film. In the case of Rachel Weisz, I thought this was a terribly weak performance. She overacted just about every scene she was in and just felt generally miscast. Overall I found The Constant Gardener to be an uninteresting, boring film. This could have been remedied by a more surprising/stunning realization somewhere along the way, but when the mystery behind Tessa's death was finally revealed I was unimpressed. This is not my kind of movie, but perhaps if you like to have something on the television while you sleep, it will turn out to be yours.

Dark Blue - In South Central Los Angeles in 1992, two hoodlums steal a safe from a convenience store and murder four people in the process. Assigned to the case are LAPD SIS (Special Investigation Squad) officer Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell) and newcomer Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman). Eldon is a racist, sexist, seasoned veteran who knows the ropes (perhaps a little too well). Keough, partnered up with Perry, is the new guy to whom Eldon is passing on all of his bad habits such as bribery and the use of excessive force. Just coming off of an investigation after shooting a suspect, Eldon is willing to go to any lengths to bring down two local perps, whether or not they are the ones who actually committed the robbery. Meanwhile, in the wake of the Rodney King beating, Assistant Chief Arthur Holland (Ving Rhames) is threatening to take down Perry and all of the other cops like him who are almost no better than the criminals they bring into the station. Perhaps the only man in the department with the courage to stand up to the SIS, Holland has convinced fellow officer Beth Williamson (Michael Michelle) to enter into a relationship with Perry's partner Keough in order to obtain the evidence he needs to take Eldon down in his attempt to become the first African American police chief in the history of Los Angeles. In the wake of the death of yet another suspect at the hands of Perry and on the verge of Holland's final move to grab for the rank of chief, the four white police officers responsible for beating Rodney King are acquitted and the Rodney King Riots begin with Perry and Keough in the center of the fray looking for the real perpetrators of the armed robbery a few days prior. Dark Blue earns it's title by being a very dark, brooding film. It explores the depths of human insensitivity and anger while not once apologizing for itself. Kurt Russell's character in this film is one whom I love to hate. On one hand, it's Kurt Russell, who I adore onscreen, and on the other hand his character is an absolutely despicable person. I've got to hand it to Russell; he was incredible in this role. I'm used to him playing the hero or at least the anti-hero, but in Dark Blue he's as evil as you can get without having a secret lair inside an active volcano. He's a racist, a sexist, a corrupt cop, and just a downright bastard, yet there are moments during which you truly feel bad for him. In every situation he gets himself into his own messes, but Russell still forces you to care about him, if just a little bit. Scott Speedman is dwarfed next to Kurt. He does a decent job of pulling off the rookie cop, but being Russell's partner, they're almost always onscreen together. This results in Speedman being out-shined by Kurt at every turn. I could see someone like Ryan Phillippe or Leonardo DiCaprio handling this character more efficiently considering that I've seen both of them in similar roles. Ving Rhames was decent in Dark Blue, but his character felt a bit stale. I never got a real feeling of motivation out of him aside from just "that's what the script says". This is just another example of an instance in which I think better casting would have solved the problem. An interesting thing about Dark Blue is that while the Rodney King Riots are indeed an important part of the story, the film doesn't revolve around them. I very much enjoyed the way that news casts or small conversations about the riots were interwoven throughout the plot that hinted at what was to come. It allowed the riots to remain relevant while not overshadowing the purpose of the movie, which was the arc of Perry and Keough's characters. Everything taken into account, Dark Blue is a movie deserving of more praise than it gets, but is also not for everyone. You have to enjoy a good evil character arc to truly appreciate Dark Blue.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Episode 43

The Sentinel - Pete Garrison (Michael Douglas) is a longtime secret service agent who became a legend in the field after saving the life of former United States President Ronald Reagan. Currently he is in charge of the personal safety of President Ballantine (David Rasche). Unbeknownst to everyone else though, he is also currently involved in an affair with the first lady, Sarah Ballantine (Kim Basinger). Days before President Ballantine is scheduled to make an important public appearance, one of Pete's friends and co-workers is shot on his doorstep while returning home from work. Attempting to uncover the perpetrator of this crime, Pete consults his personal informant who tells him that he has reason to believe that there is a traitor among the ranks of the secret service. When he informs the rest of the organization about this claim, David Breckinridge (Kiefer Sutherland), with whom Pete has a troubled past, and newcomer Jill Marin (Eva Longoria) are put in charge of the search for the mole. Taking a mandatory polygraph test in an attempt to locate the traitor, Pete's results are compromised by the fact that he is having an affair with the president's wife, which he lies about. Based on these test results, Breckinridge believes that Garrison is the traitor, at which point Pete must go rogue and attempt to run from the secret service while simultaneously trying to find the real mole in the agency. Will he be able to find the traitor in time to save the president, or will he be tracked down and caught by his own people? I'll say it right off the bat: The Sentinel is a sub-par movie at best. It takes the plot of The Fugitive and combines it with the premise of In the Line of Fire. Unfortunately, both of these movies are better than The Sentinel. Michael Douglas puts in a solid, but not outstanding performance in this film, which is more than I can say for the majority of the rest of the cast. Kiefer Sutherland plays a role in The Sentinel that is not unlike the role of Jack Bauer which he plays on the television show 24, but for some reason it just didn't seem like his heart was in it. He came off bland, uninspired, and uninteresting in this film. As far as his partner Eva Longoria is concerned, she does nothing in this film other than look pretty, which she admittedly does well. So essentially what we have is an interesting character being chased by completely dull characters. This does not make for a very exciting ride. In reviewing the events of the film, all I can really say is that The Fugitive did it better. It's the same situation, just not as good. I'm not really sure how else to put it. In addition to the overall weak acting, the direction of this film was cookie-cutter and boring. The entire movie felt as though no one involved really cared all that much about it and just couldn't wait to get it over with and move on with their careers. The Sentinel isn't necessarily a bad movie, but it is something that's almost worse: forgettable.

Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny - The Pick of Destiny tells the story of a young boy named Jack Black who loved rock music more than anything in the world. One day he ran away from home to escape his parents, who didn't approve of his choice in music. By the time he'd become an adult, JB had made his way to Venice Beach, California with nothing but a guitar on his back. This is where he met fellow rock enthusiast Kyle Gass. KG lied to JB, convincing him that he was a famous rock guitarist and offering to teach him the ways of rock. When JB discovered the truth about KG he was heartbroken and was about to leave when the two of them discovered that they had something more in common than a love for rock music. They each had a tattoo on their asses. Jack's read "Tenac", while Kyle's read "ious D". From that moment on they would come to be known as Tenacious D. They formed a two man rock group and played to an underwhelmed audience on the open mic night at a local club. Vowing to become better rockers and return to the club, they ventured to a music store where an employee (played by Ben Stiller) told them about a guitar pick called the Pick of Destiny, which made all who used it become a rock legend. Discovering that the pick was now located in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame some 300 miles away, they borrow their friend's car and are on their way to retrieve it. What follows are the whacked-out adventures of a couple of metal-headed stoners on the open road in search of fame, fortune, and a guitar pick forged from the horns of Satan (Dave Grohl of the band Foo Fighters) himself. By now everyone has heard of Tenacious D. Unfortunately for Jack Black and Kyle Gass, by now a number of people have grown tired of them as well. There are a few major problems with The Pick of Destiny. Problem Number 1 - If you've ever seen Tenacious D's short-lived HBO series, then you have already seen 75% of the jokes that are in this film. The show had basically the same premise of the movie, which is that there are two losers who think they're great musicians when in fact they are far from it. This concept proved not to be enough to keep people interested past six episodes of a television show, but they still decided to make a movie with the same premise. Problem Number 2 - Kyle Gass couldn't act his way out of a paper bag. I'm sorry, but when you've got a movie with two main characters and only one of them is remotely good at acting (and some people would argue that even this is not the case), you're in for some trouble. Jack Black relies on his ability to make people laugh just by acting like the same idiot he's acted like for the past decade to portray his role in this film. It's not the best performance in history, but even it put's Kyle's attempts to shame. Problem Number 3 - Tenacious D's first album, comprised mostly of songs which they wrote for their television show, is absolutely hilarious. I personally enjoy every track on the album. Then what they did, as I mentioned before, is to make a movie based around the same concepts from the show, which really only survived on the great songs it had, but then proceeded to come up with all new music for the film. Now, I've been dying for some new Tenacious D tunes for quite some time, but as it turns out, almost all of the new music that they crafted for the film is garbage, or at best not as good as the original music. What The Pick of Destiny ended up being was just another stoner comedy, but one which, for all intents and purposes, we've already mostly seen before. The best moments of the film are far and away the short cameo appearances of Ben Stiller as a music store employee and Tim Robbins as a dirty old man who wants the Pick of Destiny for himself. There are dick and fart jokes abound in The Pick of Destiny, but not much else.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Movie Trends That Annoy The $#!&$%@ Out Of Me

pet peeve
n. Informal
1.) A particular and often continual annoyance
2.) Something about which one frequently complains; a particular personal vexation.

Pet peeves. Everyone has them. Little things which we find annoying that not everyone has a problem with. Some people will go berserk if they find a hair in their food while others simply remove the interloping pilus and continue their meal. If you misuse a word in conversation there are those who ignore it and those who feel an uncontrollable urge to correct you.

Something else that almost everyone has in common is that they watch movies from time to time. I know I do. And as long as there have been opinionated bastards like myself watching movies, we've had pet peeves associated with them. Things that make us grind our teeth or shake our heads when we see them simply because we've indeed seen them one too many times.

Considering the amount of movies that I watch, it's impossible for me to avoid taking notice of some recurring themes, plot devices, etc. in films. Some of these things that I notice are minor annoyances and others absolutely drive me up a wall. Some are blatant complaints that are shared en mass by movie-goers, and others are nit-picky little things that cause me to secretly curse the actors and directors responsible for them in my head. What follows, for your reading pleasure as well as to satisfy my never ending need to bitch and blather on about films, is a list (in no particular order) of things that bug me in movies.

Feel free to leave your thoughts about my observations or list off a few of your own gripes about the cinematic experience in the comments section of this post.


1.) Criminals and the multiple personalities who loved them.
Lets start with a few broad topics and then move on to the more obscure ones. Fight Club came out back in 1999 and knocked people on their asses with the whole multiple personality angle to a film mystery. "What a great way to trick the audience when they find out that the guy who they thought was the hero is actually the villain as well!" Fight Club wasn't the first film to tackle multiple personality disorder in this way, but it's widely regarded as the best example of the subject matter. Since the success of that film so many have been made with the same general premise that "multiple personality film" is practically on the verge of becoming a new genre all to itself. It's gotten to the point that a movie will lose all validity for me as soon as I find out that the hero is the villain, whether or not they themselves were aware of it. A perfect example of this is The Number 23. The concept of that movie was cool enough on it's own, but then toward the end of the movie the filmmakers felt it necessary to throw the old "it was me all along" bone at us. A good film involving multiple personality disorder is Primal Fear, because it tackles the concept in a different way than most. For my money though, films like Twisted are just cheap grabs at thrills with weak attempts at tricking the audience.

2.) It's scarier when there's a kid in it.
It all started with The Ring. It was an effective horror film and was rather original at the time, so leave it to Hollywood to drive it into the ground. Next we got The Grudge, The Ring 2, The Grudge 2, Dark Water, and others. Horror movies revolving around little kids. Again, The Ring wasn't the first film to do this. The Village of the Damned, The Excorcist, The Omen, and The Sixth Sense all came along before the "creepy Asian kid" trend began, but these days it's hard to turn around without seeing one of them. We've also got a remake of The Omen and a new film that looks a lot like it called Joshua as well. Then there are films like Godsend and 1408 which are also about either dead, demonic, or just plain evil little children. Not all of these are bad movies, but I for one am getting tired of films about scary little kids. Lets try making a scary movie with an adult or a monster again. What do you say?

3.) How old did you say you were again?
While we're on the topic of children in movies, it drives me batty when a kid in a film acts wise and or mature beyond their years. We're talking young kids like Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense here. In fact, that's a great example of what I'm talking about. If a little kid saw a freaky-ass ghost in real life (well, obviously this wouldn't happen, but kids have wild imaginations) he would piss his pants as he ran screaming for the hills and would probably go insane. In The Sixth Sense, Osment's character is, on average, a calm, composed individual who acts like a conservative adult most of the time. Another example of this that I've seen recently is in the trailer for the new John Cusack film 1408. There is a scene during which Cusack is visiting his dying daughter in the hospital and he's all broken up when she comes out with this little pearl of wisdom: "Daddy, everyone dies." Bullshit. I've never met a child that young who was more mature than me, which wouldn't be hard because I'm pretty childish, so whenever I see something like this on screen, the film in question loses any sense of seriousness/believability.

4.) That would be really cool if I could tell what was happening OR there's a pause button for a reason, I suppose.
"Toad is a pretty dumb character, but he's about to fight the X-Men, so that should be great. Here it comes...wait...what...what happened?" Fast cuts and shaky camera shots in action scenes. This is essentially the filmmakers' way of saying "we didn't have the means to make the action look cool, so we just shot a bunch of close-ups of things happening quickly and edited them together really fast." I hate it when this occurs in movies. I want to actually be able to see the action because chances are if it's a movie with action scenes, that's what I'm watching it for. I always feel cheated when a circumstance arrives on screen when something wicked is about to go down and then it isn't given the proper display that it deserves. I'm not saying that every movie should have Matrix-esque slowmo sequences all the time (because those are honestly becoming a bit played out as well), but just pulling the camera back and letting some of the action take place in normal speed would be fine in many cases.

5.) Oh, I remember her. Didn't she run around and giggle a lot?
A character in a movie has lost his wife. He sits on the edge of his bed and fondly remembers her. Then suddenly we are transported into a dream-like sequence in which our hero's dearly departed is running from the camera through a field, occasionally turning back to smile lovingly and giggle at us. When did this image become the go-to way to express that someone is missed? Was I not told that every man has to pick a nice sunny day and say to their wife/girlfriend, "Hey, why don't you let me chase you through some wheat for a while in case you ever die in a lab accident and I need to use your memory as an inspiration to take down some evil corporation?" It seems crazy that this still happens in movies so frequently because it is horribly overdone. Even a film as recent as The Fountain has a scene like this. And while I'm on the subject, scenes in which people watch home movies of their lost loved ones are pretty annoying as well. Lots of futuristic movies such as Minority Report, Paycheck, and Strange Days are guilty of this because it gives the special effects guys a chance to play with futuristic media players, etc. onscreen. This isn't as bad, however, as the fond memory scenario.

6.) Stop! Go back...there. Can you enhance that?
Oh, the enhance button. Does the government really possess such a magically futuristic computer that it can zoom in and enhance any image, no matter how blurry or small it may be? It sure seems that way because I can't tell you how many times I've seen them do it in movies. This doesn't seem like a big deal, but after you've seen it done so many times it begins to seem a bit ridiculous. And it's always the same. There's a computer program that doesn't resemble any other program in existence with little boxes and random windows that all appear from seemingly nowhere and which serve no purpose. Then the person operating the machine just taps a few keys and you've got a crystal clear view of that spot of dirt on the shoe of the guy in the corner of the bank security footage that suggests he must have also been at the reservoir earlier that day when the informant was killed. This topic, of course, leads pretty well into my next one...

7.) A mouse? What's that?
This is one of my all time favorites. Ever seen a movie with a computer hacker in it? Hell, it doesn't even have to be a computer hacker, perhaps just someone who's computer savvy. I would say that if you really pay attention you will find that 90% of people in movies who use computers never touch a mouse. Every single action they perform on the computer is done with the keyboard. This is presumably because the tapping of keys is more interesting than the quiet click of a mouse button, but come many computer programs don't require the use of a mouse? An argument could be made that with the TAB and arrow keys on the keyboard you could navigate through most anything on a computer, but who the hell does that? Computer hackers in movies, that's who. The next time you watch a movie like The Italian Job with a stereotypical computer hacker guy like Seth Green's character, make sure to marvel at how they never ever ever use a mouse. This bugs the hell out of me because who doesn't use a mouse?! And speaking of computer hackers, they're really good at making last minute saves, aren't they? The phrases "I'm almost in..." and "I just need thirty more seconds to crack this..." come to mind.

8.) Look at this guy's landlord won't even let me hang up pictures with thumbtacks...
These days if your movie has a crazy person in it they usually have to do one of three things: Number one, fill notebook upon notebook with crazy drawings and gibberish. Number two, gather up tons of photographs, scribble all over them, and scratch the eyes/faces off of people. Number three (and this is my personal favorite), cover the walls of their room/apartment with the same phrase written over and over again in a variety of different sizes and fonts. I didn't realize that this was a required practice to be considered crazy. I recently watched both the original and remake versions of The Manchurian Candidate and found it strange that in the 60's you could be crazy without exhibiting such destructive behavior. I guess that the general public is just a bit more desensitized to crazy people these days so that in movies like The Number 23 it's necessary to go that extra mile to get across that someone is nuts by having them turn their living quarters into a piece of modern art.

9.) Are you going to drink that?
This is one that no one else seems to notice, but I see it a lot in movies. A character will enter a scene and either order a drink or be offered one. They will receive the drink and either take one sip of it, simply hold it for the duration of the scene, or set it down and forget about it. Then when the scene ends the character will exit the room/establishment, leaving a full glass behind. Again, not a big deal, but it drives me nuts! It's pretty played out to begin a scene with "Hi Tom, can I get you a drink?", but it wouldn't be so bad if Tom would at least drink some of it. He had to have the beverage, after all. If someone has a drink in their hand they are usually compelled subconsciously to take a few swigs even if they aren't thirsty. This is just one of those things that I have noticed in my many film-viewing experiences that I'm tired of seeing. I guess I just know that if I had a full glass like that I would have this nagging voice in my head telling me not to leave the whole damn thing un-drank. But maybe that's just me.

Last, but most definitely not least, we have the woo-hoo. If someone does something exciting in a movie, woo-hoo is the go-to expression with which to voice their excitement. Will Smith is fairly well known for pulling woo-hoos, as are many young actors in action-oriented roles. Of course if someone is happy about whatever is going on that's so exhilarating, I can see giving a woo-hoo. For example, the first time Tobey Maguire swings from his webs in Spiderman or when Will Smith takes off in the super-advanced alien spacecraft in Independence Day. What gets me, though, are some of the weird instances in which woo-hoos are present. My favorite example of this occurs in Fantastic Four. The Human Torch (Chris Evans) is snowboarding down a mountain, which is certainly reason for a woo-hoo or two, but he doesn't actually yell the offending exclamation until he suddenly and unexplainably bursts into flames. Who the fuck catches on fire and yells "woo-hoo"? I would think something like "AAAAAH!", "SHIT!", or "OUCH, WHY AM I ON FIRE?!" would be more appropriate in this situation. Once more, this is a pretty ridiculous complaint, but hey, they're pet peeves and as they say: "To each his own."

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Episode 42 - Alfred Hitchcock Presents

The Birds - Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), the beautiful daughter of a successful newspaper owner, happens to be in a bird shop at the same time as a handsome lawyer by the name of Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). When Mitch discovers that the store does not have any love birds in stock, which he hopes to buy a pair of for his younger sister's birthday, he leaves the store empty handed. Attracted to Mitch, Melanie goes out of her way to find a pair of lovebirds and buys them for him, however when she arrives at his apartment she discovers that he's gone to his mother's house for the weekend. Determined to give Mitch the birds, Melanie tracks his destination to a small coastal town called Bodega Bay and drives there with her gift in tow. After arriving, Miss Daniels rents a boat, drives it across the lake, leaves the birds at Mitch's mother's house, and makes a sneaky escape. However, Mitch sees her leave and drives along the road to meet her in town. Just before Melanie docks, however, a sea gull flies down and attacks her for no good reason. Then, before the townspeople know what to think, more and more bird attacks begin to occur. As chaos ensues, Mitch, Melanie, and Mitch's sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) take shelter in Mitch's mother's (Jessica Tandy) home. When broadcasts begin to come over the radio that the attacks are not limited to just Bodega Bay, the four of them begin to wonder if they'll survive the night. Everyone knows what to expect when going into a viewing of The Birds: bird attacks. That's what I was expecting as well, and that's what I got. However, the brutal pecking-out of eyeballs is not all that this film has to offer. This film is just as much (if not more) about the human characters than the birds themselves. In fact, the attacks don't even begin until almost halfway through the film. Director Alfred Hitchcock understood very well that in order to make the film's threat have an impact, he first had to make the audience care about the characters who were to be threatened. Much time in the beginning of the movie is spent letting us get to know Melanie Daniels and Mitch Brenner. Melanie is a playgirl who has led a privileged life and has had everything handed to her. Mitch, while also fairly well off, had to work hard to be able to afford his privileged lifestyle. The phrase "opposites attract" comes to mind. We are also introduced to an ex-girlfriend of Mitch's by the name of Annie Hayworth who is played by Suzanne Pleshette. Through her character we learn more about Mitch's controlling mother Lydia and the role which she plays in Mitch's life. By the time the feathers began to fly, I was so caught up in the lives of these characters that I had almost forgotten what movie I was watching. This is a testament to not only the abilities of the actors, but also of Hitchcock's ability to compose scenes involving long conversation that remain interesting and at all times continue to further the story. When the attacks finally do begin to occur, they are surprisingly impressive for such an old film. Hitchcock put off the filming of this movie for several years because he felt that the technology didn't yet exist to make the events believable, and the wait appears to have paid off. A style of green screening was used in The Birds that was newly invented and state of the art at the time, which went a long way in allowing Hitchcock to shoot in the studio (which was his preferred way to work) with the utmost believability that what you were seeing was occurring on location. Also of note is Hitchcock's well-documented love of matte paintings, a number of which appear in The Birds. The sound editing on this film was also state of the art at the time, and in my opinion is perhaps the aspect of the movie that had the most effect on the mood. The overwhelming sounds of squawking and flapping wings during the bird attack scenes were slightly disturbing to say the least. Moreso than the technical aspects of the way the film was shot, however, I was impressed with the genre-bending nature of The Birds. As I've noted, the beginning of the film is very character driven, not unlike a drama, but as we all know, The Birds is first and foremost a horror film. Yet I also had a strong feeling toward the end of the movie that it was leaning toward science fiction. My favorite parts of the film were the scenes in which a group of people are trapped inside a diner and discussing why the birds are attacking. There is a point when a bird expert in the film throws out a statistic describing how many more birds there are on Earth than humans, and explaining that if it ever came down to a battle between man and beast, man would be severely outnumbered. The mystery of the situation perfectly balances against the horror of the later scenes in the film because in addition to fear, confusion comes into play. The only part of the film that I was truly unsatisfied with is the very ending. After the climax, which at the time I wasn't even aware was the climax, the final few minutes of the film were a bit disappointing. I won't fault The Birds for not having an action-packed ending, but I really could have used just a bit more closure. Not necessarily closure to the situation, but at least to the characters. I won't say what the ending is, but I think you'll see my point if you watch the film, regardless of whether you agree with it or not.

Vertigo - San Francisco detective John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) was chasing a criminal across the city's rooftops with a fellow officer when he lost his footing and found himself hanging from a building's edge. The other policeman opted to let the criminal escape in order to help Ferguson, but fell to his death several stories below instead. From that day forth, Scottie Ferguson has had a fear of heights. He can begin to panic and lose his balance when he is no more than a few feet from the ground. Due to this condition, he quit the force. However he finds back on the job when a former college classmate asks him to trail his wife Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak). He claims that she is inhabited by a ghost that makes her disappear into the city during the day. Skeptical of this theory, Scottie takes on the task and begins following the beautiful Madeleine as she makes several odd stops around San Francisco before attempting suicide by jumping into the bay. Scottie dives in after her, bringing her back to health in his apartment. Eager to get to the bottom of her sleepwalking-like state, Ferguson attempts to make sense of the visions Madeleine has in her dreams. Will Scottie be able to solve the mystery before she causes herself more permanent harm, and what does all of this have to do with Scottie himself? I had always just assumed that Vertigo was about a guy with a fear of heights. However, just as I discovered that The Birds is about more than being attacked by wildlife, I found Vertigo to be about much more than just the affliction from which the film gets its title. Vertigo is the first movie to use a type of filming technique sometimes known as "contrazoom" or the "trombone shot". This method involves zooming out with the camera while tracking forward to match the zoom speed. What this technique achieves is the appearance that objects in the foreground remain in place while the background seems to stretch away from the viewer, creating a psychedelic visual trick. Hitchcock used this maneuver twice in the film to display James Stewart's character's fear of heights to the audience. At the time this technique cost a considerable mount of money to achieve, which accounts for it's limited use in Vertigo, but has become a rather standard part of modern Hollywood's repertoire. For the most part I found Vertigo to be a standard noir-ish detective story revolving around a damsel in distress playing hard to get. It isn't until the unexpected twist later on in the film that I really became interested in Vertigo. James Stewart's Scottie Ferguson goes through a character change that caught me by complete surprise, and the film quickly goes from standard mystery fare to a dark work of genius. I've never seen Stewart play the type of role that Ferguson eventually becomes, and his performance in the latter part of the movie was haunting and delightful. In a way, Kim Novak's Madeleine takes a turn in the opposite direction of Scottie at about the same time that he makes his transformation. She begins the film as the stereotypical mysterious woman but ends up being a much more sympathetic individual. Contrazoom aside, I'd have to say that the performances of Stewart and Novak are what really pulled this film together more than anything. I wouldn't say that Vertigo is my favorite of Alfred Hitchcock's films, but because of the direction that the story goes toward the ending it remains near the top of the list.

Rear Window - L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) is a photographer by trade. He has travelled to some of the most exotic and dangerous places on Earth, and it is when he is on jobs like these that he feels the most at home. It makes sense, then, that when he is injured while attempting to get a dynamic shot on the track of a car race, he loathes the idea of sitting at home with a broken leg. For several weeks Jeffries has sat in a wheelchair in his apartment with a restrictive cast on his leg and nothing to do with his time but observe the lives of his neighbors in the courtyard of his building which he can see out of his window. Over time he has gotten to know these people simply by watching them and becoming accustomed to their daily activities and relationships. Hence, Jeffries finds it odd when one of neighbors, a Mr. Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), begins acting strangely and his wife has seemingly disappeared. Suspecting foul play, Jeffries calls on the aid of a friend in the police department by the name of Thomas Doyle (Wendell Corey). With no proof that anything out of the ordinary has happened, Doyle passes Jeffries' suspicions off as the result of an overactive imagination. However, when Jeffries tells his theory to his girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) and nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), they take more of an interest in his story. The plot thickens as Jeffries, Lisa, and Stella take the investigation into their own hands, but none of them may be ready for what they find. Rear Window is an all around magnificent film. James Stewart is at the top of his game in this role. He spends the duration of the film in a wheelchair, but his devotion the cause of solving the mystery across the courtyard gives him enough character to work with that being essentially immobile was of no consequence. Kelly was also great in her portrayal of Jeffries' polar opposite who only wants to be with him. When she begins to take an interest in the goings-on at the apartment building, her face lights up the screen. She was like a kid in a candy store eagerly vying for her lover's affection by aiding his search for the truth. Raymond Burr, who for the majority of the film is just a small silhouette in a window, uses his body language to incredible success. He couldn't make much use of facial expressions, but was still able to express as many emotions as anyone else in the movie. Most incredible of all, though, was the direction of the film. Alfred Hitchcock really knocked it out of the park with Rear Window. The entire film takes place within Jeffries' apartment. The only time we see anything other than the inside of the room is when someone is looking out the window, and even then the shots are all from the point of view of someone sitting in the second floor of a building. If Hitchcock wanted to focus on something going on elsewhere in the building or in the courtyard, he did so by having one of the characters pick up a pair of binoculars or a camera with a telescopic lense and showed the events through their eyes. The camera never leaves the room, yet the setting never feels repetitive or stagnant. It is an incredible feat of moviemaking that he was able to achieve such a variety of shots and interesting scenarios all from this one vantage point. That is really the thing that makes this my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film of all time. It is so inventive and successful in it's ingenuity that I can't help but admire and adore it. All of these aspects of the film would mean nothing without a great concept and a script that properly conveys said concept, though, and Rear Window has just that. The plot keeps the viewer guessing right up until the very end whether or not a murder has actually been committed. Assisting the script along is James Stewart, who walks a thin line between obsessed and observant so that it is never quite clear whether we should believe his claims or not. Alfred Hitchcock is quoted as saying "there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it", and Rear Window puts this adage to use in a magnificent way. The suspense in this film builds to the point that the viewer can hardly bear it anymore. By the time the climax rolls around you will be so eager to find out the answer to the mystery that it will hardly matter what in fact the answer is anymore, as long as you know. In all aspects Rear Window is a great film, and a classic. If you haven't seen it, make a point to do so right away.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Episode 41

Apollo 13 - Apollo 13 tells the true story of a near-tragic space shuttle mission. Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) are three American astronauts scheduled to be the second crew to land on the moon in the year 1970. Two days prior to their launch, however, Mattingly is deemed unfit to accompany the mission due to the possibility that he may be infected with the measles. He is replaced, much to the entire crew's concern, by back-up pilot Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon). The launch goes according to plan until, on the third day of their trip, something goes wrong and there is an explosion aboard the shuttle. Acting with speed and professionalism, the staff of NASA's mission control in Houston, Texas led by Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) grasps at straws for ways to bring their men home safely. Over the next several days the world holds it's breath as the crew of the Apollo 13 struggle to survive their return to Earth, their dreams of making it to the moon shattered by a small malfunction in their otherwise state of the art space shuttle. Masterfully directed by Ron Howard, Apollo 13 tells a story about overcoming all odds which will stay with you for a lifetime. The majority of the film takes place in just three locales: the cramped Apollo 13 capsule, NASA's mission control center in Houston, Texas, and within the home of Jim Lovell and his family. The scenes within the Apollo 13 lunar module are incredibly impressive to this day. The film is now more than twelve years old, but the special effects are still seamless. This is partially due to the fact that many of the scenes of "weightlessness" inside the craft were actually filmed on an aircraft in mid flight that is designed to free-fall for brief periods, causing an anti-gravity effect within. This removed the need for wire work that would have undoubtedly been underwhelming. In addition, the outer space shots and in-flight shuttle shots are all top notch as well. What really sells the scenes within the ship, though, are the performances of Bacon, Paxton, and Hanks. Kevin Bacon's character is sort of the "odd man out" who has never worked with the other two before. He's the rookie of the group who no one completely trusts, but who earns everyone's respect. Bill Paxton plays a seasoned veteran who lets his nerves get the better of him and begins to worry the others as his health wanes. Paxton has a tendency to pull off very down to Earth roles particularly well and fits into his character in this film perfectly. Tom Hanks is kind of the fearless leader of the group. He's had the most experience out of the three of them and shows it by remaining the most level-headed of the bunch. When it all comes down to it, it is not the performance of one of these men, but all three that make the shuttle scenes so amazing and memorable. During the mission control scenes the main focus is obviously on Ed Harris' character and the way that he holds everything together while remaining the calm and collected one in the room. Despite this, many of the members of his staff get a considerable amount of screen time. This really translates the idea that the safety of the Apollo crew was held in the hands of an entire group of trained professionals. These scenes had a lot more character and credibility than they really had to, which was just one more great call on the part of Ron Howard and the film's writers. Finally, the scenes within the home of Jim Lovell's family really revolved around how his wife Marilyn (Kathleen Quinlan) dealt with the events of the mission as her husband's life hung in the balance. These were the least important moments in the overall story, but the film would have been missing some serious emotion without them. I honestly can't think of anything bad to say about Apollo 13, so (not that there are too many people out there who haven't seen it) I would highly recommend this film to anyone and everyone reading this.

Blood Diamond - According to, a blood diamond is "a diamond mined in a war zone and sold, usually clandestinely, in order to finance an insurgent, invading army's war efforts or for warlord-like activity". In this film Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a fisherman living in the midst of a civil war in Sierra Leone in 1999, wants nothing more than to be a good father and to watch his son grow up to be a doctor. His dreams are crushed, however, when rebels attack his village, taking his wife and children from him and shipping him off to work in the diamond mines. Later, while searching for diamonds under the watchful eyes of the rebels, Solomon discovers a large pink stone which is worth a pretty penny. While attempting to bury his treasure so that he may return and retrieve it later, one of his captors discovers what Solomon is up to. Before he can do anything about it though, the army attacks the mining operation and both Solomon and the rebel who found him out are arrested. While in prison, the rebel talks openly about the large diamond and is overheard by Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), who has been arrested for smuggling diamonds himself. After being released from prison, Danny helps Solomon get out as well and offers to help locate his family in exchange for his help in locating and procuring the pink diamond. Solomon agrees, and along with American journalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), they begin a dangerous journey across Africa to locate the diamond and Solomon's captive family. However, the completely different motives that each of them has are sure to only make their journey more difficult than it already is. Blood Diamond is an interesting movie. It focuses on a number of very small plots and goals set against a huge backdrop of war that encompasses an entire continent. In this way it is a bit like the film Saving Private Ryan. In that movie, the main characters travel across a great distance in the thick of World War II just to locate and save one seemingly unimportant man. In Blood Diamond, our three main characters risk life and limb as they struggle to pass through fire fights and dangerous jungles to find a single diamond and a few prisoners of war. What happens though, just as with Saving Private Ryan, is that by focusing on these few characters we witness the full scope of the situation going on in their surroundings while still getting a very personal story. As such, the people we follow through the film must be able to hold their own, and Leonardo, Djimon, and Jennifer do just that. Leonardo DiCaprio put in one of two incredible performances in 2006 in this film (the other being in The Departed). He has certainly managed to transcend past the pretty-boy that he began his career as and become a damn fine character actor. He's quickly joining the ranks of such actors as Edward Notron, Christian Bale, and even Christopher Walken, who, in my book are all capable of pulling off any character in any scenario that you could throw at them with an equally convincing performance. The more I see of DiCaprio, the more I become anxious to see him in more roles. Jennifer Connelly is a long time favorite actress of mine, based in part on her stunning beauty. She has a certain pin-up girl quality that earns her the term "Va-voom" in a way that Bettie Page once did. Aside from her looks, though, Connelly also has some of the best acting chops I've seen from a modern actress, and she has for some time. Djimon Hounsou is a name that I fear I will forever be unable to remember (much less pronounce), but I am a fan of his acting nonetheless. Never before have I seen him in such a large and deserving role as Solomon Vandy, and much to my delight, he did a wonderful job pulling it off. Blood Diamond is definitely not my favorite film of 2006. In fact, it may not even make the top ten, but it is a fine film and well worth a watch.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Episode 40 - The Manchurian Candidate: Old & New

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) - During the Korean War, Sergeant First Class Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) saved his entire platoon from capture by the enemy, ensuring him a hero's welcome and the Congressional Medal of Honor upon his return home from the war. All but two of his fellow soldiers survived the attack, and they all have nothing but wonderful things to say about Raymond. However, although Major Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra) may say repeatedly how great of a man Shaw is, he can't help but feel that he doesn't really mean it. That's when the nightmares begin. Marco has recurring dreams in which his platoon has been captured by the enemy during the war and brainwashed. In these dreams he watches, unable to do anything to help, as Raymond Shaw strangles one of their fellow soldiers and shoots another in the head at the mere request of an evil Korean doctor. After discussing these dreams with his superiors, Ben is sent on leave. He travels to New York by train to see Raymond, which is where he meets a beautiful young woman by the name of Rose Chaney (Janet Leigh). Arriving in New York, Marco meets with Shaw only to find out that another of their former teammates from the war has sent Raymond a letter describing the exact dreams that Ben has been having. This raises enough suspicion for the military to back Ben in an investigation into the cause of these dreams. Before long Ben discovers that Raymond has been brainwashed to follow the instructions of anyone who who knows how to trigger the latent memory blocks in his mind. But will Ben be able to uncover what Raymond has been brainwashed into doing, and will it have anything to do with his stepfather Senator John Iselin's (James Gregory) candidacy for Vice President of the United States of America? I enjoyed the original version of The Manchurian Candidate quite a bit more than I thought I would, though perhaps my favorite thing about the movie was Frank Sinatra's performance. I always knew that Sinatra did some acting, but I never thought he was in any starring roles like this, nor did I expect him to be so good at it. The film itself is a bit slow, which is perhaps why Sinatra's performance stuck out to me so much. He really mixed things up when he was onscreen. He had great presence. Laurence Harvey was a bit less impressive as Raymond Shaw. He needed to portray some odd emotions as he was under mind control for a considerable portion of the film, but I was never truly convinced that he was going through any kind of inner struggle. He didn't deliver very well on the different emotions in my opinion, and horribly over-acted any scenes in which he was supposed to be happy (thank goodness there weren't many of them). Another highlight of the film is Angela Lansbury's portrayal of Raymond's controlling mother Eleanor. She absolutely oozed evil and was one of those characters that you love to hate. For an older film, I was surprised by some of the choices that director John Frankenheimer made. Although, I guess it's those kind of decisions that earned him a place among the ranks of some of the best directors in film history. Of particular interest are the dreams that Marco has which are actually repressed memories of what really happened to his platoon in Korea. It is explained that the Korean doctor who brainwashed the troops has hypnotized them into believing that they are waiting out a rain storm in the lobby of a hotel where some old women are attending a floral show. In reality, however, the men are seated in front of an audience of vile people from around the world so that the doctor may demonstrate how much control he has over the Americans. In these scenes, Frankenheimer cuts back and forth between shots of the soldiers surrounded by Koreans and shots of them sitting among a group of elderly women. The doctor himself changes from a woman to a man and alternates speaking on the topics of flowers and brainwashing techniques. It is a masterfully directed scene that dwarfs the version in the remake of the film. Not only is this scene visually interesting, but along with the climax of the movie it is a very powerful one. When Shaw is forced to kill his own men and neither he nor his victims realize what he's doing or try to resist it, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. It was one of the better moments I've experienced in an older film. Another instance of this film's ability to be emotionally engaging is the scene in which Raymond's sweetheart Jocelyn (Lelsie Parrish) and her father Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver) meet their end. This scene more than any other really gets across how evil the villains in this movie are.

The Manchurian Candidate (2004) - The remake of The Manchurian Candidate is fairly similar to the original as far as the story is concerned. Replace the Korean War with the Gulf War and you've essentially got the same premise. The major difference to the general plot comes at the film's climax, but I can't very well talk about that, so I'll run over a few of the other aspects of the film that were different instead. First off, since the Gulf War has nothing to do with Manchuria, the filmmakers invented a fake corporation called Manchurian Global to take the reigns as the ones responsible for all the brainwashing. This is far less interesting than the original concept of American soldiers being taken over by foreign enemies, but the red scare ended some time ago, so that concept isn't quite as marketable these days, I suppose. Denzel Washington takes the place of Frank Sinatra as Major Ben Marco in this version of the film. Personally I preferred Frank Sinatra in the role as he seemed more like a regular guy than Denzel, who tends to be a very stone-faced individual onscreen. I'm not saying he's a bad actor, just that I didn't care for him too much in this role. On the other hand, I very much preferred Liev Schreiber's performance as Sergeant Raymond Shaw over Laurence Harvey's. Liev handled a much wider array of emotions than Harvey brought to the screen, and was a much more sympathetic individual, which the character really should be because of his situation. As I thought that Denzel was worse than Sinatra and Liev was better than Harvey, I found Meryl Streep's portrayal of Raymond's mother Eleanor to be equally as skin-crawlingly devious as Angela Lansbury's. Both women had a simple job, which was to make you hate them, and they both carried the weight of the role equally well. Janet Leigh was replaced by Kimberly Elise as Ben's love interest and was one of the few people in the film whose character was completely different from the original version's. I won't say why, as it's a bit of a shock when you realize why. I honestly felt that Rose was an unnecessary character in the original Manchurian Candidate, so I like the fact that they gave her a bit more to do in the remake, but I'm not a big fan of her new role in the story. Jon Voight and Vera Farmiga replace John McGiver and Leslie Parrish as Thomas and Jocelyn Jordan in this version of the film, but I don't feel that they left as much of an impact as their predecessors did. For one thing, the point at which they shed their mortal coils was, while more visceral, not as disturbing as the original interpretation of the scene. Second, the previous film's version of Jocelyn had a much more important role in Raymond's life, so that when she died it really meant something for his character. The same can't really be said for the remake. Based on the fact that this iteration of The Manchurian Candidate was concocted more than forty years after the original, there are bound to be some updates to the plot and storytelling that allow it to appeal more to today's audiences. Overall I felt that a lot of the changes made were unnecessary. For example, in this film Ben Marco has a friend who just so happens to be a computer genius/conspiracy theorist. It's a good thing, too, because in this new interpretation of the film Marco discovers that he and Shaw both have small tracing devices hidden under their skin. Not necessary, but also not a big deal. The thing that really bothered me about this film was the stereotypical way that they dealt with one of the other soldiers from Shaw and Marco's platoon, played by Jeffrey Wright. His response to having bad dreams is to scrawl strange drawings and random wacky scribbled phrases across the walls of his apartment and cut the eyes out of photographs. Is it just me, or is this the only way Hollywood can think of to convey on film that people are mentally unstable these days? Maybe it's just me, but I'm getting tired of seeing stuff like that. These may seem like minor points, but there are only two major changes that I can think of between this film and it's predecessor. One is the climax which, as I mentioned, I won't be disclosing here. The other is the means by which Raymond Shaw's hypnotism is triggered. In the original version of the film, the phrase "Why don't you pass the time by playing a game of solitaire?" would put him in a zombie-like state as he grabbed the first deck of cards he could find and began playing. When he came across the queen of hearts in the game he would pause and await his instructions. This method is a bit peculiar, but much more interesting than the one in the remake, which merely required the character's name to be spoken out loud three times in a row. Aside from those two things, both versions of The Manchurian Candidate are fairly similar, which makes it hard to decide which I liked better. It's a close call, but I think that I'd have to go with the original based on the fact that I preferred the main character more. Both are certainly worth a watch, though.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Episode 39

Mr. Brooks - Earl Brooks (Kevin Costner) is a nice guy. In fact, he's man of the year. He has a loving wife (Marg Helgenberger) and daughter (Danielle Panabaker), a nice home, and is the founder of a successful box company. Unfortunately he also has a voice in his head that tells him to kill people. Earl refers to this voice as Marshall (William Hurt), and has successfully ignored it for the past two years. However, on the night that he is awarded Man of the Year by his local chamber of commerce, Marshall convinces Earl to kill once more. After arriving home from the ceremony, Earl makes an excuse for his wife and goes off to the home of two strangers, shooting each of them in the head. After the fact he notices that he's done so in a room with open curtains. He closes them quickly, but it's already too late. The next day a young man shows up at the box factory asking to speak with Mr. Brooks and brandishing an envelope containing photos of him at the scene of the murders. Earl immediately assumes that the man, who refers to himself as Mr. Smith (Dane Cook), wants to blackmail him for money. This is not the case. What Mr. Smith wants is for Earl to take him along for his next murder. He agrees to do so in exchange for all the copies of the incriminating photographs. Meanwhile, Detective Tracy Atwood (Demi Moore) finds herself in the middle of an investigation that has been cold for two years, adding to her growing list of problems. Not only is Atwood (a millionaire who does police work for the pleasure rather than the paycheck) in the middle of her second divorce, but a particularly threatening individual named Meeks (Matt Schulze) who she put away has escaped from prison and is out for blood. Particularly hers. Over several nights Mr. Brooks and Mr. Smith search for a victim worthy of Mr. Smith's first time, but Mr. Brooks' thoughts are elsewhere as his daughter has dropped out of school, moved home, and given her parents some troubling news. This situation is only made worse when the police show up at the Brooks residence asking for her. Finding the perfect target becomes the least of Earl Brooks' problems as he deals with his daughter, a man with evidence of his crimes, and a cop who won't rest until she ends his killing spree. Admittedly, the real reason that I wanted to see Mr. Brooks was to find out if comedian-turned-actor Dane Cook could pull off this type of role. To his credit, and my delight, he did just that. I've seen and heard so much of Cook's comedy material that sometimes it's impossible not to be reminded of him when his voice hits a certain note or two (especially when he screams/yells, which he often does in his comedy routine). However, outside of those instances, which someone unfamiliar with his comedy wouldn't even notice, he proved to me that he has what it takes to be a serious dramatic actor. This is not to say that his character was always serious, though. Next to Kevin Costner's role as a perfect killer, Cook's Mr. Smith was a bit of a bumbling fool at times, which really allowed him to make the transition from comedian to actor in this case. He was the comic relief of the film, but also had his fair share of serious and even tense moments. As far as Costner is concerned, I've seen very few of his films before, but I thought that he was cast perfectly in the title role of Mr. Brooks. The real golden moments in this movie are when he interacts with Dane Cook and his alternate personality played by William Hurt. Alone, the character of Mr. Brooks is a fairly boring one, but when he and Marshall are discussing their situation or laughing together, which is all supposed to take place inside of Brooks' head, both Hurt and Costner tear up the screen. Their chemistry was wonderful. The character that I really could have done without is Demi Moore's Detective Atwood. I was totally enthralled in every moment of the movie involving Mr. Brooks, Mr. Smith, and Marshall, but whenever Demi Moore was onscreen I was left wondering why she was even in the movie. In fact, the majority of the films downfalls are related to the fact that there were too many unnecessary side-stories going on. Yes, Atwood's divorce and Meeks' escape from prison factor into the plot, but they could have just as easily been cut completely from the movie and more screen time could have been given to the plot-line that everyone went to the theater to see in the first place: Mr. Brooks' plight. Demi Moore's character was simply one big walking stereotype. She's rich, but loves being a cop anyway (just like Will Smith in Bad Boys), she feels like she has something to prove because she's a woman on the force (just like Jodi Foster in The Silence of the Lambs), and she's obsessed with the case and risks being "put behind a desk" because of her wild actions (just like the main character in every cop movie ever). As I mentioned before, her character could have been completely written out of the film, and in my opinion she should have been. The other portion of the movie that I didn't like was the plot-line involving Mr. Brooks' daughter. I won't reveal anything about what exactly this story-line involves, but I could really have done without it. I honestly think the worst thing about Mr. Brooks is that it lacked focus. I'm generally tired of films in which people have multiple personalities because it's been done so many times before and has also more than likely been done better (a la Fight Club and/or Primal Fear), but Mr. Brooks gets away with it because it's not a mystery. Right from the get-go we know what's going on in Mr. Brooks' head, and it's less of a mystery than a "where is this going to take us?" situation. The film certainly has problems, but it's very deserving of at least one viewing. Because of it's flaws Mr. Brooks isn't something that I'm dying to see again, but I enjoyed it enough to recommend it.

Bug - Agnes White (Ashley Judd) is a lonely woman. She lives alone in a motel and works at a bar for next to no money. Her ex-husband has been in prison for two years for committing armed robbery. She also has very few friends, which is about to change. One night after work, Agnes' friend R.C. (Lynn Collins) drops by her place with a man she's just met. Before long, R.C. opts to leave and go to a party, but her friend Peter Evans (Michael Shannon) decides to stay. Agnes offers Peter her sofa for the night since he has nowhere to go, and he gratefully accepts. The next morning Agnes' ex-husband Jerry Goss (Harry Connick Jr.) shows up at her home uninvited, taking her money and claiming that he'll be back in a few days after he takes care of some business. Afraid to be alone, Agnes invites Peter to stay for a while longer. Before long the two of them become intimate, which is right around the time that the bugs arrive. Agnes and Peter think that they're aphids, but they aren't really sure. It all begins with a few bites, but the bugs quickly infest the motel room. Tensions rise as R.C. claims that Agnes and Peter are merely imagining the bugs and that they don't actually exist. They aren't convinced, though, and begin to take desperate measures to rid themselves of their uninvited guests. Meanwhile, a man named Dr. Sweet (Brian F. O'Byrne) is searching for Peter, who refuses to tell Agnes anything about his past. As Jerry returns and even more bugs show up, Agnes and Peter's lives begin to spin out of control. Bug is a peculiar movie. When I first saw the trailer I was absolutely confused as to what the film was about. Really all I knew was that I really wanted to find out whether the film's bugs were real or just figments of the characters' imaginations. Bug was originally a stage play written by the same person responsible for the films script: Tracy Letts. The fact that the story was meant for a stage is fairly obvious as you watch the movie. There are only about four different locations over the course of the film, and about 95% of the screen time is spent in the main characters motel room. In addition to the small number of sets, there are also very few characters. I can only think of five people who play any sort of important role in the story, and three of them get the majority of the lines. As such, the quality of the acting becomes incredibly important in keeping the audience's interest. Bug is primarily centered around conversations between the characters of Peter and Agnes, so it's a damn good thing that the actors they chose knew what they were doing. Michael Shannon, who I've only previously seen in supporting roles in films such as 8 mile and Tigerland, was absolutely amazing as Peter Evans. By the end of the film his character has gone off the deep end, but he still manages to remain likable, somehow. Ashley Judd is another actor whose work I haven't had much experience with. However, in her case I also haven't enjoyed her performances in either of the films I'd previously seen her in (Twisted and Kiss The Girls). My feelings about her in Bug are the polar opposite of this, though. I thought that Judd was great in this film and really played well off of Shannon. The two of them had an incredible onscreen chemistry that really sells the incredible situations that they find themselves in. Also of note is Harry Connick Jr. who, once again, I wasn't terribly familiar with going into Bug. He perfectly completes the "love triangle" of Peter, Agnes, and Jerry, and perhaps makes Peter even more likable by being a complete asshole himself. The film was directed by William Friedkin, who was responsible for The Excorcist, but I would hardly call Bug a horror movie. I suppose it could be classified as a thriller. Based on the trailers I was expecting it to be either scary or grotesque, but it was really neither of those things. There is a rather disturbing scene involving the pulling of a tooth, but aside from that, Bug was much more tame than I expected it to be. In the end the film is really about the question of whether the bugs are real or just hallucinations and what the answer to that mystery will mean for the main characters. I find it very hard to think of a way to briefly describe what to expect from Bug, so I won't bother to try. It's definitely not a film for everyone, but you'll just have to watch it and decide for yourself if this one's for you.

The Crow - Top Dollar (Michael Wincott) is a vicious crime lord obsessed with power. Once a year he declares "Devil's Night" on Detroit, a night when his underlings commit rampant crimes including robbery, arson, rape, and murder. On one such night some of Top Dollar's henchmen murder an innocent guitarist named Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) and his fiancée Shelley Webster (Sofia Shinas), who never saw their demise coming. One year later Top Dollar still rules the streets of Detroit, but on the anniversary of his death, Eric Draven rises from his grave. Resurrected by a crow he now seeks vengeance on those who were responsible for his death. The crow links Eric to the living world, so as long as the bird remains alive so shall he. Physical harm to Draven himself is useless. Donning enough leather and belt buckles to make a hardcore biker blush and painting his face, Eric takes off into the night. His goal is to get revenge on Top Dollar and his cronies: T-Bird (David Patrick Kelly), Tin Tin (Laurence Mason), Funboy (Michael Massee), and Skank (Angel David). In the process, Draven crosses paths with Sergeant Albrecht (Ernie Hudson) of the Detroit police and a young girl named Sarah (Rochelle Davis) who touches his heart and motivates him even further to clean up the streets of the city. If you like eye shadow, rain, leather, darkness, unkempt black hair, and more rain, then The Crow is the movie for you. This film is known for being a staple of the "gothic" subculture just about as much as it is for being mocked by people who aren't a part of the "gothic" subculture, so I'll do my best not to make any more cracks about it. However if you've seen it before, then you know that's a pretty tall order. The Crow is by no means a great movie, no matter what your weird artistic cousin with the black fingernails and spiked dog collar says (shit, there I go again). It has it's moments of worth, though, so by all means, lets start off with those. Michael Wincott makes a great bad guy with that deep Crash Test Dummies-style voice of his. He looks like a fool in this movie, but he's at least a pretty creepy dude. The other particularly good thing that I can think of from this film is the gunfight in Top Dollar's headquarters. It's essentially about twenty guys with various small arms shooting at Draven, who manages to kick all their asses. As far as fight scenes go it's actually pretty good. This scene definitely sticks out from the rest of the film. The ensuing rooftop chase scene was also pretty nice looking. It had an interesting style to it, which leads me to my next point. The Crow gave me the same feeling that I get from most Tim Burton films. When watching his films I almost always get this subconscious feeling that the location the film is taking place in isn't real. I always refer to this feeling by saying that the films seem like they take place inside a snow globe. The best way I can think of to describe this is by referring to the model of the town that Alec Baldwin's character built in the attic in Beetlejuice. The movie opens with several aerial shots of different spots in the town, which feels fake, but then camera pulls back to reveal that it was just a model the whole time. Films like Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish, Batman, Batman Returns, Mars Attacks, and The Crow always make me feel like the camera is about to pull back at any moment and the whole thing is going to be revealed as a fake set or something. I dunno, maybe I'm nuts, but that's just the way I feel. I'm not saying that this is a good or bad thing, but I thought I'd mention it. Anyway, I can't say that the acting in The Crow is altogether very good, and the plot is notably weak. Some of the stylistic choices in the film bothered me as well, such as how it never stopped raining. I got sick of everything being wet very quickly. I also had a problem with how ridiculous the gang members were in the film. The Warriors manages to pull off the wacky hoodlums somehow, but The Crow's villains just seemed unrealistically stupid for the most part. Overall, as you can no doubt tell, I did not like The Crow. I would say that everyone should see it at least once since it is somewhat of a cult classic, but beyond that reasoning, The Crow doesn't hold much appeal for me.