Saturday, January 26, 2008

WIBW @ The Movies: RAMBO

The Plot: Many years after his last documented conflict, John Rambo is living peacefully and simply in Thailand. After a great deal of convincing, he agrees to escort a small group of Christian aid workers across the border into the hot zone that is Burma via his boat. Not long after their arrival, the village that the group has come to help is attacked by the Burmese army and Rambo is called upon to lead a gang of mercenaries into the region to rescue the missing American civilians.

The Review: While I enjoy and appreciate the original three Rambo films for what they are (relatively mindless eighties action movies), they have never graced my list of favorite action films. This, the fourth installment of the confusingly titled Rambo/First Blood franchise, continues the tradition of being about mindless action, but adds a great production value, a cast of competent actors, and a lot more realism than we've seen in the series up to this point to the mix.

With the possible exception of First Blood, Rambo is a massive step up in the plot department. This feels a bit odd to say though, considering that there is very little substance to the story in this film. The plot of Rambo is literally as simple as "some people are taken hostage and Rambo and co. have to get them back". There are certainly statements being made in this film about the state of affairs in Burma and what it means to have compassion or contempt for your fellow man, but these things don't play too large of a role in the story line. Rambo knows it's place in the modern film landscape and doesn't try to over-step it's bounds by becoming too complicated for it's own good like so many action films try to do these days. It is short, simple, and to the point. And speaking of short, though IMDb claims that Rambo is ninety three minutes long, I'm (almost) positive that it is in fact shorter than an hour and a half. Either that or my cell phone's clock is broken.

I dare say that the one major flaw in Rambo is also one of it's greatest strengths. I am of course speaking of the violence. Not since the horrifically realistic opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan have I seen brutally eye-opening violence of such severity in a movie. If you think Stephen Spielberg's beaches of Normandy scene was gory and gut-wrenchingly horrendous though, you haven't seen anything until you've watched Rambo. As big of a fan of horror and action movies as I am, it takes a lot to wow me in the violence/gore department, but I found myself with my mouth agape at several points throughout Rambo. The violence and shocking imagery in the action scenes of this film simply cannot be described. You have to see it to believe it. As I said, this aspect of the movie is both it's greatest flaw and it's greatest strength. There were some people who walked out of the theater immediately following the scene in which the Burmese army attacked and ravaged the small village that the aid workers were attempting to help, proving that the reality of the situation is just too much for some to stomach. Then again, had the violence been toned down or avoided in any way a lot of Rambo's validity would have gone right out the window and it would have become just as dismissible as the previous installments of the series.

At 61 years old, Sylvester Stallone hasn't played the character of John Rambo for just under two whole decades, but take my word for it when I say that he's still got it. His character felt just as capable of causing massive amounts of carnage as he always has, and any shortcomings which he may show in Rambo are completely understandable based upon the age of the character, not just the age of the actor portraying him. Not only did Stallone bring the character of Rambo back with perfection however, he also wrote and directed the film expertly. The men playing the mercenaries accompanying Rambo on his rescue mission were over the top in every way that you would expect characters like theirs to be, but were also likable and all well cast. Julie Benz and Paul Schulze's characters were also stereotypical in ways that served to advance the plot and character development of the film. The Burmese soldiers served their purpose well, which was simply to make the audience hate them to the point that they were rooting for them to die. As much of a surprise as it is for me to say it, for what it was, Rambo was probably about as perfect a film as it could have been.

The Verdict: The action of Rambo is stunning in both the sense that it is shocking and incredible to watch. The film doesn't try to be overly deep or intelligent and has the piece of mind to remain short and to the point, which is what any movie of this caliber should do. It has an impact and is both well made and fun to watch. Rambo isn't Shakespeare, but it's a damn good movie.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Random Rapid Fire Reviews - Nov./Dec. '07

Futurama: Bender's Big Score
For fans of Futurama who have been waiting eagerly for it's return, the wait is over and it was more than worth it. Bender's Big Score continues the series' trend of mixing gut-busting humor with slick visuals and mind-bending science fiction concepts as though the show never left. The whole cast is back and they've all picked up right where they left off without a hitch. A new species of aliens have "spammed" Earth and are in the process of taking over the entire planet while, through a series of flashbacks and time travel sequences, the story of a new character named Lars is revealed.

The Science of Sleep
Director Michel Gondry, master of the infusion of modern and retro special effects, tells a story which is, in tone, not all that far removed from his previous film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. A young man named Stephane falls in love with a girl named Stephanie who lives across the hall in his mother's building. His desires may be strong, but his will is weak, leading to a series of uncomfortable and morally ambiguous encounters between Stephane and the girl of his dreams...which is a literal term in this case. Stephane's dreams begin to mix with reality until not even the surreal visual effects seem to be able to help the audience to determine when the main character is awake or asleep. The story of The Science of Sleep is touching, but also often too confusing to allow the emotions of the viewer to let their guard down long enough to sympathize with the characters. My favorite aspects of the film were it's (rightfully) dreamlike visuals, but as was the case with Eternal Sunshine, they weren't enough to completely win me over.

The Wrong Man
Henry Fonda plays a musician named Christopher Balestrero who lived an average life with his beautiful wife and two sons until one day he made the mistake of looking like a criminal. As the title of this 1956 Alfred Hitchcock film suggests, Balestrero is accused of committing a crime that he had nothing to do with. After being run through the local prison and court systems, Balestrero and his wife are driven to the brink of madness by a situation that they aren't responsible for, but which they can't seem to extricate themselves from. The Wrong Man's story is incredibly interesting, especially due to the fact that it is based very closely on true events, but two things it never manages to be are exciting or suspenseful. This film plays more like a police procedural than a mystery and often focuses too much on the steps of the process of arresting someone and trying them than it does on finding the true culprit. The wrong man also manages to be so depressing in it's hopelessness that even when things sounded as though they may turn out okay, I still felt uncontrollably despondent.

Dirty Harry
Nowadays you can throw a rock in the "action" aisle of a Blockbuster or Hollywood Video and you will inevitably hit a film about a cop who breaks all the rules to catch a bad guy and argues incessantly with the chief of police. This has become a stereotype so long-lasting and frequently occurring that it seems as though it was never an original idea. Well, it was when Dirty Harry was released in 1971. The title character of this movie played by Clint Eastwood was the first real onscreen cop to disobey the system in a big way to do what's right and face the consequences for it. When a maniac seems to be performing random acts of violence around San Francisco and demanding payoffs, Inspector Harry Callahan and his new partner are the only ones willing to step forward and do what is necessary to diffuse the situation. By today's standards this film is nothing special, but taken in the context that it was the first of it's kind, Dirty Harry is an exceptional achievement in the action genre that any fan of Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, or Bad Boys should take the time to check out.

Magnum Force
The first of four sequels to the classic action movie Dirty Harry, Magnum Force comes close to the level of quality that the previous installment of the franchise achieved, but inevitably falls a bit short. I mentioned in my review of Dirty Harry that it was the first of it's kind and a film that countless others had copied from. Somehow, only two years after the release of the original, Magnum Force manages to feel as though it is just another in a long line of copycat films. Scenes such as the one in which Clint Eastwood as Harry stops some hijackers from making off with a plane from the San Francisco International Airport feel ridiculous and not very well thought out. The premise of the movie is original and interesting though, as a group of new recruits to the force are acting as judge, jury, and executioner and must be stopped by Harry, a fellow cop. My biggest complaint about Magnum Force is that it felt a bit anti-climactic at the end of the chase scene with the remaining loose cannon motorcycle cops, but the chases leading up to this sequence were enough to make up for the short-changed action.

While not the first film to tackle the subject of cross-dressing (I believe that honor may go to Edward D. Wood Jr's "Glen or Glenda?"), Tootsie is probably the best of the lot. Struggling actor Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) discovers that if he dresses up as a woman he can get regular acting work which will serve to fund his and roommate Jeff's (Bill Murray) own projects, but he unwittingly becomes best friends with a female costar (Jessica Lange) whom he's also fallen for, creating a sticky situation to say the least. Obviously the film that inspired the more recent Mrs. Doubtfire, I think that Tootsie works better mainly because the man doing the cross-dressing is Dustin Hoffman, who is known as more of a dramatic actor than Robin Williams, whose claim to fame is comedy. Hoffman does take rather well to the comedic moments in this film though, and I found myself laughing much more than I expected to.

The Mist
Shortly after David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his son venture to a local grocery store to pick up a few things, they, as well as the rest of the occupants of the store, are trapped inside by a thick mist that has accumulated outside, and which seems to be the source of several varieties of horrifying, unearthly creatures. I have nothing but good things to say about this film. The screenplay and direction are incredible. Every single actor, including Jane's character's son (surprisingly for a child so young), gives an outstanding performance. The mood of The Mist is dark, disturbing, and foreboding, making for some truly memorable and effective scenes of horror when the creatures hidden in the gloom attack. The monsters themselves are all amazing to look at and have characteristics that made me, as a fan of science fiction and monster movies, smile uncontrollably with glee. For example, the word "tentacle" doesn't appear to leave much to the imagination, but the tentacle sequence toward the beginning of the movie is hair-raisingly horrifying and features the most original design for a squid-like body part that I've ever seen. In addition to the inhuman beings populating The Mist, Marcia Gay Harden plays a psychotic religious zealot who becomes the true villain of the film and did so in such a magnificent way that I get the feeling that whenever I see the actress' face in the future, I'll only be able to think of her as her despicable character in this movie. The visuals, acting, and directing aside, the pure concept of this film, which is based upon a story written by Stephen King, is just plain unnerving and creepy. Some of the best moments of The Mist come when the characters ask themselves the same questions that the audience is surely asking, such as "where did the mist come from?" and "how far does it reach?" After only one viewing I am positive that The Mist will become, much like Alien, Aliens, Predator, The Thing, and Tremors, a monster movie that I will watch repeatedly for the rest of my days.

Psycho (1960)
A beautiful female bank employee makes off with a sizable chunk of an investor's money to begin a new life with her boyfriend, but instead her life is ended in the most famous shower scene in cinema history. I'm sure that everyone is familiar with Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, so instead of explaining the film I'll just say what I thought of it. It's okay. As far as suspense goes I much prefer Hitchock's Rear Window and for achievements in filmmaking I would choose his film The Birds over this one, but for some reason Psycho gets all the fanfare. I assume that this is because of the odd subject matter of the film and the curious identity of it's killer, but as the passing of time generally seems to make younger audiences more and more accepting of the bizarre and unusual, Norman Bates' disorder/kink didn't really shock me all that much (not that I didn't already know what it was going into the movie). However, as underwhelmed as I was with Psycho's big climactic reveal, what really bugged me about the film was the fact that the viewer wasn't trusted to understand what they'd just seen. Instead there is a long, dull scene in which the plot is essentially laid out in front of us by a psychologist and some very forced-sounding dialogue. I understand that this portion of the film was there for the benefit of the audiences at the time of it's original release, but time hasn't been very kind to it. Psycho isn't a bad movie, I just don't think it's as perfect as so many film buffs seem to believe it to be.

Castle Freak
Having recently watched the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired horror movies The Re-Animator and From Beyond from director Stuart Gordon, I found myself eagerly anticipating the discovery of more similar films. Much to my delight, I came across a little movie called Castle Freak. Released direct to video in 1995, not many people have even heard of Castle Freak, but in my opinion it belongs right up there with the two aforementioned horror masterpieces. The story follows a family who has inherited a castle in a foreign land which happens to have a hideously deformed person stalking it's halls. The plot sounds both simple and dumb, but I guarantee that this movie is neither of those things. Castle Freak's budget is low, but it's quality is high. The hands-on make-up and effects are impressive to say the least, and the direction is nothing short of that of Stuart Gordon's previous achievements. Frequent Gordon collaborators Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton lead a small, but able cast of unknowns, and the film's title character is not to be missed. Fans of Stuart Gordon or horror movies in general should seek this out at all costs, or for about $5 on eBay like me.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Here's a good example of a strange incident that occurs with me every now and then. I watch a film that is widely regarded as a masterpiece and find myself struggling to figure out how or why I don't feel the same way as the majority. Richard Dreyfuss plays a man who has a "close encounter" with some alien beings and then finds himself compelled to travel to a landmark out in the wilderness, however as he figures this out he manages to screw his life up pretty well. I enjoyed the ending of close encounters when the humans are attempting to communicate with the aliens, but I found just about everything up until that point to be a bit of a boring mess. When I watched Close Encounters I got the feeling that there was once a very clear and precise plot progression, but then it seemed that somewhere in the editing room somebody started chopping bits out and reordering things. The film isn't hard to understand, I just felt that it could have been a lot more focused. For a movie about aliens it could have also been a bit less slow and drab. The effects still stand up pretty well and I enjoy the core concept of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but I honestly don't see why it's regarded as such a classic.

Lord of Illusions
The most recent of horror master Clive Barker's directorial efforts, Lord of Illusions follows a morose private detective played by Scott Bakula as he accidentally uncovers the sinister dealings of a demonic cult whose master is on the verge of returning from the grave to wreak havoc upon the Earth. The private dick's heart of gold compels him to assist a professional illusionist (Kevin J. O'Connor) and his wife (Famke Janssen) in putting a stop to the resurrection; a task which takes him on a tour of the mystical underground of Los Angeles. For fans of Barker's Hellraiser series I'm sure that Lord of Illusions is quite a treat, but I can't imagine that it has much of an audience past that demographic. This film is filled with the requisite amount of demonic violence and weird, pseudo-gothic horror that is par for the course when Clive Barker is involved, and it also has a somewhat interesting plot. I will admit that the film could have moved a little faster, but my guess is that Barker was trying to infuse a bit of noir thinking into the mix, what with the stereotypically sarcastic, down on his luck private detective and all. The highlight of Lord of Illusions for me were the visual effects, which is a bit of a shock for me to even type considering that this film includes one of the worst computer generated effects that I have ever seen in a motion picture. Taking into account the period in time when this movie came out, it is understandable that any CG involved would be fairly poorly executed, but even so, whoever was in charge of animating the weird, floaty, transforming triangle thing that attacks Scott Bakula in Swann's mansion should be ashamed of themselves. The visual effects that so impressed me came mostly during the climax of the film when the demonic cult leader grows strange globules from his skin and fuses his moronic followers into the floor of their hideout. Lord of Illusions is no masterpiece of filmmaking, but it certainly turned out better than I expected it to based on the DVD packaging.

The Aviator
I've reviewed two other Martin Scorcese films in recent memory and in both of those cases, as well as this one, I find it hard to think of things to write about them. The Aviator is an incredible movie. In fact, it is so masterfully made that I can't really think of anything to critique about it. Why did I give it four stars instead of five, then? I suppose that's because I didn't like it quite as much as the other Scorcese films I've seen lately, but the only reason for that is that I wasn't quite as interested in the subject matter as I was with those others. The Aviator tells a partial biography of the life of Howard Hughes, the infamous film director and aircraft designer. As with the majority of biopics, The Aviator begins by showing the rise of someone with an interesting and wonderful life before turning things one hundred and eighty degrees on us about two thirds of the way into the film. The emotional roller coaster ride that Scorcese takes the viewer on is nothing short of spectacular, and there are plenty of memorable characters to meet along the way. Leonardo DiCaprio is his usual incredible self, and he is joined by Cate Blanchett as Catherine Hepburn and Kate Beckinsale in the most impressive role I've ever seen her in as Ava gardner. So long as you like to sit back and enjoy a good dramatic story, you can't go wrong with Scorcese, and you certainly can't go wrong with The Aviator.

North By Northwest
Mistaken for a secret agent by some foreign spies, advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is forced to first run for his life and then track down the man who he's been confused with to clear his name. Never quite sure who to trust or when he's safe, Thornhill is drugged, chased, and betrayed as he struggles to get to the bottom of his severe case of mistaken identity. North By Northwest is full of imagery that I've seen referenced or spoofed numerous times, but which I never knew the true origins of. Namely the scene in the country when Cary Grant is attacked by a crop-dusting plane and another during the climax when he scrambles across the giant stone faces of Mount Rushmore while being chased by gunmen. The reason that I'd seen so many homages to these scenes are because Alfred Hitchcock's suspenseful masterpiece is one of the first and greatest spy thrillers ever made. The funny thing about that statement is that there isn't a single spy in the entire movie. Almost every single scene involves another plot twist or a shocking reveal, and the viewer never quite knows what to expect next. It's tough to critique the specific details of the plot without giving much away, so I won't even try to go into the methods that Grant's character uses to search for the truth. Regardless, rest assured that so long as you don't mind campy old movies, North By Northwest is a classic genre film in every sense and deserves to be seen by audiences of all ages and generations.

I Am Legend
I Am Legend is the third feature film to be based upon the novel of the same name by Richard Matheson; the other two being The Last Man On Earth and The Omega Man. In the near future a plague erupts which turns most of mankind into pale, cannibalistic creatures who cannot stand sunlight, but leaving a select few people unharmed. Robert Neville (Will Smith) is a scientist and survivor of the disaster who has been living alone with his dog in New York City ever since the plague hit, trying to find a cure. The most impressive thing about I Am Legend has got to be the location. Using CG, the filmmakers were able to create an abandoned, rundown cityscape much like that of Danny Boyle's zombie film 28 Days Later. Seeing New york as barren and decrepit as it appears in the film is stunning to look witness. Will Smith gives, in my opinion, the best performance of his career as Neville, which is no small task considering that for the majority of the movie he has nobody to interact with, yet he keeps things interesting and moving along smoothly. My only real complaint with the film is that the CG vampire/zombie characters look ridiculous. The CG that made such a gorgeous cityscape was apparently not up to the task of creating realistic cannibal people. The movements and general appearance of them are anything but impressive, which begs the question, "why did they use CG instead of casting real people and using make-up effects?"

Knockaround Guys
Matty Demaret (Barry Pepper) asks his father, a New York mob boss (Dennis Hopper), for a job in an attempt to earn his respect. Finally in charge of one of his father's illegal dealings due in part to the convincing power of Teddy Deserve (John Malkovich), Matty enlists the help of a friend named Johnny Marbles (Seth Green), who promptly screws up the job. Now Matty and Marbles, along with Taylor (Vin Diesel) and Chris (Andrew Davoli), have to clean up their mess before they foul things up even further. If you've never heard of Knockaround Guys before, don't be surprised. Watching the film, it felt to me as though the project was once a high priority for the studio behind it (hence some of the big names), but somewhere along the way was recognized as the sub-par film that it eventually turned out to be. With a few tweaks to the story, the acting, and the direction here and there, Knockaround Guys probably could have held it's own up against similar films like Snatch or The Usual Suspects, but in it's current state it is never bound to garner much acclaim. The film is almost worth the time it takes to watch it just because of the star power involved, but not even that does much to make the plain old average story worth sitting through. It's not great and it's not horrible, it's just Knockaround Guys.

The Devil's Rejects
"The Devil's Rejects" is the creepy Captain Spaulding's pet name for his family of grotesque, redneck murderers who are on the run from the law in this sequel to House of 1,000 Corpses. I never saw the previous installment of Director Rob Zombie's twisted horror franchise in it's entirety, so perhaps that's one of the reasons why I didn't enjoy The Devil's Rejects, but I'd wager that seeing it wouldn't do much to sway my opinion. If I had to choose one word to describe this film, it would be "worthless". I say this because I literally don't think that it has any worth. I got absolutely nothing out of it except for close to two hours of pointless violence, unwarranted raunchiness, and self-indulgent flashiness. I really couldn't tell you what Rob Zombie's goal in making this film was, but even more perplexing to me is that so many people saw and somehow seemed to enjoy it. I'm never one to shy away from disturbing imagery or violence in a film, but I need some reason to be watching it in order to feel that it's portrayal is validated, and I got no such thing from The Devil's Rejects. One thing that I can think of which might have made the film better is if Zombie had decided whether he wanted us to like or loathe the main characters. At some points they seem like the villains of the film while at other times it is as if the viewer is supposed to give a damn about them. For the final sequence, imagine the ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but instead of likable outlaws Butch and Sundance were sadists who raped and murdered everyone they came across. Steer clear of this film unless you're training to be a serial killer, and even then you should probably just avoid The Devil's Rejects and go for something a little more worthwhile like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Everything Is Illuminated
Elijah Wood plays Jonathan, a collector. What that means is that he collects things to preserve memories of his life and the lives of those around him. In an attempt to find out as much as possible about his grandfather, from whose life he's managed to collect next to nothing, Jonathan ventures from his home in America to Germany. It is there that he hopes to track down the Ukranian woman who helped his Jewish grandfather escape the Nazis during World War II. Everything Is Illuminated marks the directorial debut of actor Liev Schreiber and is based upon the book of the same name. It is an incredibly emotional story that I found to be told in a very remarkable way. Aiding Jonathan in his search are a young German raver named Alex and his grandfather. The language and customary barriers between Jonathan and his cohorts are at the same time very humorous and essential to the emotional progression of the plot. Due to an inability to properly communicate at many points throughout the movie, simple looks or facial expressions from Alex, his grandfather, and Jonathan translate complex silent exchanges between the characters. In fact, silence, or at least a lack of dialogue mixed with the perfect music for a given scene, is a very important part of Everything Is Illuminated and in this way it reminded me a lot of the works of Wes Anderson. Through the superb acting and excellent storytelling I found that I was able to be very moved by a story that I had no prior understanding of or attachment to. This is a very promising start to Liev Schreiber's directorial career.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Considering that musicals aren't really my thing, it's not hard to decipher that my reason for wanting to see Sweeney Todd was Tim Burton. While not one of my favorite directors, Burton has made some classic films and has a magnificent ability to craft fairy tale-esque movies that don't require the viewer to take them one hundred percent seriously. Such is the reason that Sweeney Todd succeeds in providing more than adequate entertainment despite it's peculiar narrative style. Based upon the stage play of the same name, this Sweeney Todd tells the story of a barber (Johnny Depp) who disappears after being wronged by a judge and his subordinates and returns somewhere in the vicinity of a decade later to take his revenge by slitting the throats of his enemies with a straight razor. Along the way, Todd and his new associate Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) discover that they can make a rather decent living by cooking his victims into meat pies and selling them to the unsuspecting townsfolk. An incredibly dark comedy, the horrors of Sweeney Todd are offset by the fact that most of the dialogue is sung along to some genuinely catchy tunes, which gives the goings-on a certain sense of innocence. There is a surprising amount of blood in Sweeney Todd, but not so much that any modern, desensitized youth shouldn't be able to stomach it, and if you can too you're in for a fun movie-going experience that should leave you humming a tune.

Monday, January 21, 2008

WIBW's Top 10 Most Suspenseful Cinematic Moments

Over at the movie news/review site Film Junk, the hosts of the Film Junk Podcast run down a weekly list of top fives. The lists change every week and can involve anything from favorite onscreen death scenes to favorite movie one-liners. Recently I sent in a number of suggestions for possible future top five lists to discuss on the podcast, one of which was "top 5 most suspenseful movie scenes". This week, on episode #152 of the podcast, hosts Sean, Jay, and Greg ran down their personal selections for this category, so I figured that I'd throw my hat into the ring as well. The following are my personal choices for The Top 10 Most Suspenseful Moments In Cinema:

10. Arachnophobia
I realize that naming this film is sort of silly considering that it's as much a comedy as it is a thriller, but spiders and I don't get along very well in real life, so certain parts of this movie manage to get under my skin. When Jeff Daniels is trapped in the dank basement of an old house that's overflowing with spiders and the biggest one of all is on a mission to do him deliberate physical harm, I get quite antsy. Having seen this again recently I think that the effects hold up rather well, so I still get pretty tense during the climax of the film.

9. King Kong
Peter Jackson's 2005 remake of the monster movie classic King Kong divided audiences with it's excessive running time and sometimes preposterous story elements, but I think that one thing almost everyone who saw it (including myself) would agree on is that it isn't a frightening film. Still, there is a scene which makes my heart jump into my throat with anticipation every time I see it. The scene in question takes place on Skull Island when the crew of Jack Black's ship are searching for Naomi Watts' character and end up in a cavern filled with swarms of over-sized bugs. King Kong may be rated PG-13, but in this scene Peter Jackson's R rated horror background surfaces as the music drops to a foreboding hum, the sound seems to be overcome with the clicking and buzzing of the massive insects, and one by one the crew members are overwhelmed by grotesque creepy crawlies. The worst, by far, is when one poor soul's head is engulfed in the gaping maw of a maggot-like creature twice his size. Disgusting.

8. Alien
There are plenty of intense moments in Ridley Scott's classic science fiction horror film to choose from when composing a list like this one, but for my money the most hair-raisingly suspenseful of all is when Tom Skerritt is hunting for the title creature in the air ducts. He's all alone in a confined space looking for a monster we know nothing about and which we've only just begun to see the destructive capabilities of, and then the tracking unit which shows the creature's location begins to malfunction. The music slowly drops out leaving behind only ambient noise and if only the scene weren't so enthralling, everyone would probably have seen the big scare coming, but of course nobody ever does, which is why it's so perfect.

7. Blood Simple
Look up the term "dark comedy" and you will inevitably find a reference to Fargo, the Coen Brothers' classic crime thriller. Several years before they made that film however, the brothers Coen committed a similar tale to film with significantly more "dark" than "comedy". The tension begins with a view through a sniper scope from across the street aimed toward a set of large windows leading into an apartment and Frances McDormand trying desperately to turn off the lights without stepping into the view of her attacker. Then things get worse when the shooter crosses the street and enters the studio apartment, inciting a rather brief, but intense and gleefully original game of cat and mouse. The first time I watched Blood Simple I couldn't help but laugh during this climactic scene because I needed some way to vent the pressure building up in my chest as I wondered what the hell the outcome would be.

6. John Carpenter's The Thing
The premise of this film alone is enough to earn it a place in this list, but the true height of the suspense in The Thing is the blood test sequence. An alien life-form capable of perfectly assimilating any living thing right down to their looks and speech patterns has replaced an unknown number of the twelve members of an antarctic research team cut off entirely from civilization for an unknown amount of time. The only way to find out who is human and who isn't is for a sample of each of the remaining crew members' blood to be tested. One by one, Kurt Russell places a hot piece of wire into each petri dish full of blood, and I would wager that nobody who has ever seen this movie was able to guess what the outcome would be.

5. The Fly
David Cronenberg's film is rather eerie for the entire ninety five minute running time, but the whole movie is essentially just one huge build-up to the last ten minutes or so when something truly horrifying finally happens. John Getz (the would be hero) is crippled, Geena Davis is helpless, and the Brudle Fly in his various forms is shambling around to some of the most overtly intense music of any movie I've ever seen. The perfect cap to the scene, as well as the movie in general, is that we get no wind down period. Cronenberg slaps the audience in the face with the first fast-paced action of the entire film and then ends it before you have a chance to process what's happened.

4. The Mist
The tension of this film begins to build right off the bat when about five or ten minutes into the story a cloud of mysterious mist floats into town, obscuring everything more than ten feet in front of the characters' faces. Next comes a series of scenes involving some of the most disturbing creatures ever committed to film as they terrorize a small group of people trapped in a grocery store. Things begin to mount further as a completely irrational and psychopathic religious woman played by Marcia Gay Harden begins turning the occupants of the store against one another. Finally, the tension begins to boil over when Harden orders her mindless followers to capture a young boy so that they may kill and sacrifice him to god in exchange for protection. Combine a completely despicable villain with a scene of pure hopelessness as a paltry group of rational individuals try to fend off a horde of blood thirsty nut-jobs and an elephant tranquilizer couldn't have calmed me down as I watched this scene for the first time.

3. Rear Window
I'm not sure which scene is more suspenseful, so I'll cheat and list two of them. The first is when Grace Kelly is trapped inside Raymond Burr's apartment when he the suspected murderer arrives to discover her intruding in his home. Meanwhile Jimmy Stewart desperately attempts to contact the police when the lights in Burr's windows across the courtyard suddenly go out. The second is the climax of the film when Burr is closing in on the wheelchair-ridden Stewart who tries to stall his attacker's approach by repeatedly blinding him with flash bulbs. They don't call Alfred Hitchcock the master of suspense for nothing.

2. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
The first time I ever saw this movie was last summer and though I'd heard a lot about it, I honestly had no idea what the outcome of the final showdown between Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach was going to be. Sergio Leone draws out the tension with close-ups of three sets of squinting eyes and hands hovering over holsters with intense music pplaying for an almost infuriatingly long amount of time before the three title characters finally draw their weapons and fire. I was almost literally on the edge of my seat at this point wondering who had been shot and who had done the shooting.

1. Saving Private Ryan
During the final conflict of Saving Private Ryan, Adam Goldberg is out of ammunition and ends up in a fight with a German wielding a knife while that cowardly bastard Jeremy Davies hides in the stairway, too afraid to do anything to help. No matter how many times I watch this scene my heart races like mad because I want Goldberg to come out victorious even though I know that he won't. The death of this nice, funny guy who you've grown to like over the course of the film goes on seemingly forever while the German taunts him like an adult holding a cookie just out of a starving child's reach. I fucking hate that scene.

Honorable Mentions:

- The car chase sequence in Quentin Tarantino's half of Grind House as Zoe Bell clings to the hood of a car driven by Tracie Thoms while the maniacal Kurt Russell repeatedly rams into them and tries to run their car off the road.

- A moment in The Descent when one of the female spelunkers is trapped in a tiny crevasse, unable to free herself and in a place where rescue is essentially impossible. I have no fear of confined spaces, but the idea of being in such a hopeless situation makes my skin crawl.

- The climax of The Silence of the Lambs when Jodie Foster is exploring the inside of a pitch black home while, unbeknownst to her, a murderer is lurking right behind her wearing a pair of night vision goggles.

- The torture scene at the end of Takashi Miike's Audition in which an obsessive and psychopathic young woman does a series of horrifying things to a man who is conscious, but paralyzed by a drug he has been injected with. As suspenseful and intense as this scene is though, the similar instances in Takashi Miike's episode of Masters of Horror titled Imprint are perhaps even worse.

Feel free to leave feedback on my choices or some selections of your own in the comments section of this post. Also, don't forget to stop by Film Junk and give their weekly podcast a listen.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


The Plot: Nicolas Cage reprises the role of treasure hunter Ben Gates, this time around in search of a "city of gold". When a man named Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) comes forward with a scrap of paper, reputedly from the diary of John Wilkes Booth, and claims that Gates' great grandfather had a hand in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the adventurer sets off on a course to prove these accusations false. In order to do so he must re-team with his father (Jon Voight), his computer hacking friend (Justin Bartha), and his ex (Diane Kruger), as well as his mother (Helen Mirren) to locate and prove the existence of a fortune in gold that is only rumored to exist.

The Review: I remember a time when Nicolas Cage could act with some degree of believability and grace, but those days were long gone even before the first National Treasure was released in 2004. Needless to say, Cage smarms up the screen with his token half-grins, mumbling, monotone line deliveries, and insincere character acting. Joining in alongside his soul-less performance is a cast of one dimensional characters who couldn't have acted out a more absurd and boring series of events if their lives depended on it:

- Justin Bartha once again plays the comic relief/computer hacker whose jokes could have been (and in fact most likely were) written by a four year old child.

- Diane Kruger's role is perhaps the most believable in the sense that she spends part of the movie trying to avoid Cage's character, but eventually slips into a predictable character arc as the girl who will fall back in love with the lead by the time all of the action is over.

- Ed Harris is the villain with a heart of gold who eventually sacrifices himself to save the heroes and make the scriptwriting process easier for whoever ends up with the unenviable job of penning the inevitable sequel to this piece of cash-grabbing garbage.

- Jon Voight is the previous generation's version of Nic Cage's character whose sole purpose in the film aside from offering emotional support to the cause seemed to be inducing a few laughs from the less intelligent members of the audience by pretending not to know how to receive pictures on a cell phone due to his age.

- Helen Mirren is a newcomer to this film who was obviously included to provide an easy out for the already established characters when they needed some hieroglyphics translated, and also served to make Jon Voight's character even more stereotypical with a "lost love" arc of his very own.

- Harvey Keitel's immense talent is wasted even more than Voight and Harris' in Book of Secrets as a character who was important in the previous film, but seemed to have absolutely no purpose this time around, begging the question, "What the hell did he even come back to reprise his role for?"

Throughout the course of National Treasure: Book of Secrets the viewer is forced to suspend their disbelief to the extent that even a fan of high-concept science fiction films such as myself was perplexed by how anyone could possibly accept the series of events being presented to them by director Jon Turteltaub, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and company. Every single member of the cast seems to have a background in street racing. The computer whiz character can hack into even the most complex and high-tech government security systems by linking a series of iPods, cell phones, and digital cameras together in a bathroom stall. Every single piece of art, furniture, and architecture ever built seems to have a hidden doorway, a secret compartment, or an ancient inscription written in a long dead language which can be deciphered by showing a cell phone camera photograph of it to a relative of one of the main characters. The contents of the film aside, the way that it mindlessly jumps from scene to scene left me wondering how many hours of footage was left on the cutting room floor which could have served to flesh Book of Secrets out into a film with a normal, believable pace.

I fully understand that the draw behind the National Treasure films for some people is their supposed connections to actual historical events, but when a movie expects me to believe that ancient Olmec tribes built a city made entirely of gold inside the site where Mount Rushmore was eventually erected and nobody but the President of the United States knows about it because of a top secret book that he has hidden in a trap door in the Library of Congress, it loses any connection with reality that it may have once possessed and becomes a colossal farce. National Treasure: Book of Secrets and it's predecessor are nothing more than watered down Indiana Jones films that try to seem cool and topical by tying into the "real" history of our country.

The Verdict: With acting so bad that it makes me want to punch myself in the brain just thinking about it, a story that an elementary school child wouldn't find the slightest bit believable, and thrills so cheap that Jon Turteltaub shouldn't be able to give them away, National Treasure: Book of Secrets is exactly the opposite of anything that I would ever recommend to anyone. For shame Jerry Bruckheimer. For shame.


The Plot: Filmed entirely as though shot with a personal handheld camera operated by a civilian, Cloverfield tells the story of a group of friends living in New York when the city is attacked by a giant monster. With little time to spare, this small group of individuals makes their way across the city on foot in an attempt to rescue one of their friends on the other side of town. Meanwhile, the government has taken to the streets in an attempt to stop the rampaging beast of unknown origin.

The Review: With the hype surrounding Cloverfield so high, I'm surprised that it was able to live up to the expectations held by the majority of those who have seen it, including myself. Everyone is familiar with "giant monster" movies such as Godzilla and King Kong, but what sets Cloverfield apart from all of those other films is it's focus, which falls on a group of people completely disconnected from the situation at hand. Usually the main characters of disaster films such as this are people integral to the diffusion of the situation such as scientists or army personnel, but such is not the case with Cloverfield, and that accounts for the majority of the success of the movie. All stereotypes surrounding the genre are thrown out the window in exchange for a very human portrayal of the events during a disaster. As such, the characters become the focus rather than the horrible events they are living through.

My main hesitation going into viewing Cloverfield was the fact that the entire film is portrayed as though filmed by an amateur with a common handheld camera. "Shaky cam" has become a bit of a stereotype in itself these days, often over-used by directors wishing to add intensity to their action scenes or to hide inconsistencies in them. Luckily, instead of dredging up memories of the spastic camera operation in films such as X-Men, the Bourne series, and Transformers, the point of view in Cloverfield serves only to draw the viewer further into the story than most movies can manage. Instead of lingering on long, smooth aerial shots of the film's antagonist destroying beloved landmarks, almost the entire film is shot from the street level, allowing the audience only a glimpse here or there of the monster as though they were really onsite, experiencing the situation for themselves. Also, the fact that the camera is at all times in the possession of the film's main characters keeps the focus squarely on them and their plight. Add to this that the camera operator whose commentary we are constantly privy to is the most likable character in the film (and perhaps the most likable character of any movie ever), and all of my worries about the success of the camera choices made by the filmmakers were for naught.

As a huge fan of monster movies, the biggest draw of Cloverfield for me was the creature responsible for the mayhem which ensues onscreen. Taking a cue from the original Alien, Cloverfield's filmmakers obviously agree with the notion that the less you see of something, the more frightening it is. Employing the camera tricks which I mentioned previously to keep the audience from seeing too much of the movie's monster too soon greatly upped the intensity and my interest in the film. By rarely giving viewers a clear look at what is attacking New York City, the mind is left to make it's own assumptions, which greatly increases the suspense of the film. Despite my extreme desire to know what it looked like, when we are finally given a clear shot of the creature toward the end of the film I couldn't help but think that the it might have worked even better had we never gotten even that good of a look at it. That's how powerful the mystery and suspense of Cloverfield are which, combined with the surprisingly great ability of the entire cast to come across as real people in a candid situation, makes for a viewing experience that I won't soon forget.

The Verdict: Science fiction is at it's most horrific when questions are raised to which there are not any logical or readily available answers, which is a concept that Cloverfield takes to heart. This film takes a genre with a history steeped in laughably bad films and puts a very unique twist on it that completely revitalizes the "giant monster" movie. For fans of monster movies, thrillers, action-packed extravaganzas, and disaster flicks, it doesn't get much better than Cloverfield.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

WIBW @ The Movies: JUNO

The Plot: When a modern high school girl named Juno (Ellen Page) discovers that she is pregnant after having sex for the first time, she can't bring herself to have an abortion, but also isn't ready to be a mother. Instead, she opts to give the baby to a couple named Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner). The film follows the events of the next nine months as Juno experiences the highs and lows of her pregnancy and looks toward her future.

The Review: My initial interest in Juno came from the involvement of both Jason Bateman and Michael Cera in the project. I've been following the careers of both actors since I caught up with the TV show Arrested Development on DVD and was anticipating the reunion of these two comedic geniuses. Unfortunately they didn't have any scenes together, but both Cera and Bateman brought their A games to this film. In fact, every single actor and actress in Juno was exceptional.

Jennifer Garner delivered a performance which actually impressed me for the first time in her career. It's as though she had some sort of real life connection to the role of the woman desperate to be a mother, but unable to have a child of her own. I've never seen her so convincing before. J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney were wonderful as Juno's parents. Both were incredibly likable while maintaining a very genuine feeling to their characters. Michael Cera was funny (seemingly without trying) in several scenes, but his ability to pull of the heavy dramatic moments in this film are what really stood out to me about his performance. He's officially proven to me that he can fit into genres other than comedy. Jason Bateman pulled off a primarily serious role in Juno much like Michael Cera, and managed to impress me as well with his range. Finally there is Ellen Page as the title character. Aside from her brief stint as Kitty Pride in X-Men: The Last Stand, Juno was my first time seeing Ellen Page in action. She did a fine job of carrying the film and was very believable as a high school girl dealing with such a heavy situation. The only real problems I had with her performance were some of the lines she had to deliver, but that's all due to the writing. Honestly, the entire primary cast was phenomenal.

Juno is the follow-up effort from director (and son of Ivan Reitman) Jason Reitman, who previously impressed me with his film Thank You For Smoking. The direction of the film was on par with the excellent acting, as was the indie music-laden score. The only real problems I had with Juno are due to the writing. For most of the film the dialogue is believable yet witty, however the first few scenes had me worried that I was in for an hour and a half of catch phrases. The conversation between Juno and the convenience store clerk at the beginning of the movie led me to believe that they were best friends as they bantered back and forth about the extremely personal subject of teen pregnancy, but the clerk never again appears in the film. This scene's dialogue felt very unnatural. Very similar to that instance, in the scene in which Juno first tells her best friend that she is pregnant over the phone, the fake, overly-hip dialogue was thick enough to walk on. Past these few moments the dialogue was much easier to stomach. The only other thing that bugged me about Juno was the way that the title character acted mature well beyond her age range at some points. These instances were essentially countered by a few scenes which drew Juno back into her place as a high school student, but some line deliveries felt really forced coming out of the mouth of a supposed sixteen year old.

The Verdict: The comedy and drama in Juno meshed together well, the story was overall believable and relatable for anyone who has ever endured a hardship, and there are several laughs for good measure. The quality of the acting in this film alone is reason enough to see it, but there's certainly more to it than that for (I assume) just about any audience.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Netflix Rapid Fire Reviews - December '07

Paris Je T'aime
A movie comprised of twenty short films by the likes of Joel and Ethan Coen, Wes Craven, Alfonso Cuaron, Vincenzo Natali, and Gus Van Sant sounds like something that should be right up my alley. Unfortunately, I found Paris Je T'aime to be less than stunning. I fully expected to come away from this film with a few set lists of which shorts I loved, which I only just liked, and which I didn't find at all enjoyable, but instead I walked away having not been particularly impressed by any of them. Sure, some were better than others, but all in all I found Paris Je T'aime to be a rather sub-par experience. Movies can be good and movies can be bad, but one of the worst things that a movie can be is forgettable.

C.H.U.D. (or Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers) is a classic example of eighties low-budget filmmaking. Rubber monster suits, bad acting, over-the-top scenarios, and heinous editing plague this movie, but unlike most films of this era and production value, C.H.U.D. actually has a fairly decent story. The general concept is that some greedy public servants have been storing toxic waste under the streets of New York City which has taken on the curious side effect of turning homeless people who reside in the sewers into angry, mutated freaks. The real problem with C.H.U.D. is a lack of focus. Scenes happen that have no real reason to and end up not effecting a single thing in the story. For example, there's a scene in which a woman is sprayed with blood that comes shooting out of her shower drain, but in the next scene she seems to have completely forgotten about it and just gone about her day. On the surface C.H.U.D. sounds quite dumb, and it may well be, but with the proper budget for some decent effects and a couple of worthwhile actors, this could have been a horror movie classic.

The Last Man On Earth
It has often been said that George Romero borrowed heavily from The Last Man On Earth while crafting his horror classic Night of the Living Dead, and having now seen both movies, I can back up that statement one hundred percent. The first film based upon the book which also inspired both The Omega Man and I Am Legend, The Last Man On Earth is considered by some to be the first zombie movie. While Vincent Price's character refers to the creatures in the film as vampires, they are actually more similar to their undead counterparts than any relative of Count Dracula's. Prince spends his nights hiding from the nocturnal monsters and goes outside during the day to gather supplies and kill his then-slumbering enemies. The film plods along a bit slowly and Price's acting is campy to say the least, but considering the time that it was made, The Last Man On Earth is a rather successful film. If nothing else, I didn't see the twist coming at all and I respect the filmmakers for going with such a dark ending.

Panic In Year Zero
Imagine if the stereotypical, middle american, corn-fed 1950's family (a la the Cleavers) were on a car trip to the mountains for the weekend when their hometown was attacked by nuclear bombs and you should have a good idea of what Panic In Year Zero is like. An average family is forced to resort to extreme measures to survive in the wake of a nuclear disaster as society crumbles around them. Simply put, this is one of the campiest films I have ever seen, and if it hadn't been included on the same disc as The Last Man On Earth when I rented it, I probably never would have watched it, much less heard of it. All taken into account, for all of the uber-cheesy moments and scenarios Panic In Year Zero provides, it was entertaining to see how people viewed nuclear war and it's effects at the time when it was made. A film like this could never be made these days, which makes it a completely unique viewing experience for anyone who was born well after it's release like myself.

Funny Games (1998)
A German family (mother, father, and son) retreat to their vacation home only to be attacked and tortured by a pair of young men who seemingly have no motive whatsoever to their actions. In the wake of recent films such as Saw, Hostel, and Touristas, many people have taken to using the phrase "torture porn" to describe this new genre of violent, shock-value driven movies. While Funny Games certainly fits within this label, it came out in 1998, well before the genre truly began to emerge as an ever-growing fad. The intensity of Funny Games doesn't come so much from blood and guts like those newer films, but more from the insanity of the situation at hand. The antagonists of the film don't seem to function like normal human beings and appear to have no remorse or weaknesses whatsoever, making them perhaps the most painfully evil villains I've ever seen in a movie. The film isn't magnificent, but if I had to pick it's biggest downfall, it would be that one of the characters breaks the fourth wall multiple times during the film, stepping outside of the boundaries of reality as set up over the course of the plot. These instances are distracting, confusing, and just plain unnecessary. If you're into "torture porn", track down a copy of the hard to come by Funny Games and delight to the suffering of your fellow man.

Silent Running
In the distant future, the Earth has become a wasteland where no plants or animals can possibly survive. In an attempt to preserve the planet's flora and fauna, several artificial forests are kept in large domes attached to a group of spaceships which are floating around the universe waiting for the day that Earth is deemed habitable again. With the project's budget growing thin, the decision is finally passed down to abandon the forests, blowing them up in space and returning their desperately needed ships to be used for another cause. Unable to accept this inevitability, a single astronaut defies his orders and kidnaps the last remaining forest, rocketing off into space unwilling to let Earth's legacy die. I absolutely love the concept of this film. It's only real drawback is that it was filmed in the early seventies, resulting in some extremely outdated visual effects and technology. As such, while I quite liked the film, this is a rare case in which I would actually like to see a remake. At the same time though, I know that if my wish were to come true, Silent Running would transform from a thoughtful, dramatic bit of science fiction into an action-packed interstellar chase scene.

Ray Liotta, Robert DeNiro, and Joe Pesci play mobsters in a film directed by Martin Scorcese. Need I say more? Just as was the case with Scorcese's film Casino, every single thing about Goodfellas is excellent, so I don't even know where to begin my review. Suffice to say that at two and a half hours, Goodfellas is a movie that you have to be in a certain mood to watch, but when you do it is a singularly fantastic experience. I've never been much of a fan of mobster movies, but Scorcese has obviously gotten the formula down to a science. This film is full of rich characters, memorable scenes, and amazing directing and editing, along with Scorcese's patented music cues, montages, and voice-overs. Ray Liotta tends to be hit or miss, but as Goodfellas undeniably proves, when he hits, he hits hard. Pesci and DeNiro are spot on as always, and the rest of the cast is filled with amazing talent, including a blink-and-you'll-miss-him cameo by Samuel L. Jackson. It doesn't get much better than this, folks.

The Brood
One of the earlier films in writer/director David Cronenberg's career, The Brood is obviously a stepping stone toward his later masterpieces, but it shows that at the time (the late 70's) he had some room for improvement. The Brood involves a high-concept that practically oozes the name Cronenberg. A new form of therapy called Psychoplasmics has been discovered by an eccentric doctor which allows troubled individuals to cure themselves by expelling their inner problems as physical manifestations. For one such woman who was abused as a child and hides strong inner turmoil, her mental pain is manifested in the form of demonic children whom she births in a truly shocking and horrifying manner (which is the highlight of the film when it is revealed). Her ex-husband must combat these demon children and the woman's possessive doctor to save their child from her misdirected wrath. The Brood suffers more in the writing department than anything, remaining just slow and confusing enough at times to make the viewer squirm on the edge of boredom. Things pick up dramatically at the end of the film though, leading to a truly memorable confrontation with the demon children and their sick mother. A true sci-fi/horror fan will appreciate the originality and disturbing nature of the film's concept, but I certainly wouldn't recommend The Brood to everyone.

Robot Jox
In the future, wars aren't fought on battle fields, they're fought on giant outdoor sports arenas. Battles aren't fought by armies of men, but instead by giant robotic battle suits piloted by Robot Jox. In this film we follow a famous robot pilot by the name of Achilles as he battles for his country against his arch rival Alexander. Robot Jox is by no means a masterpiece, but as a child of the pre-CG era of action and sci-fi movies, I couldn't help but smile with glee as director Stuart Gordon employed every hands-on special effect at his disposal to make the film's giant robots come alive onscreen. Miniatures, forced perspective, green screen, and stop motion animation were the driving forces behind my enjoyment of this film, but the laughable acting and it's overtly late eighties/early nineties qualities certainly helped. The average movie-goer most likely won't find anything remotely redeeming about Robot Jox, but watching it for me was one of those oh-so-sweet moments of "it's so bad, it's good."

High Plains Drifter
The plot description for High Plains Drifter on Netflix reads, "Amid shoot-outs and existentialism, a mysterious stranger is hired to protect a small town from outlaws. But his recipe for defense could be a deal with the devil..." Unfortunately I took this statement seriously and was very disappointed to find that there is nothing at all supernatural about the film. It's got Clint Eastwood in it though, so it can't be that bad, right? Well, it really can. Maybe I would feel differently if I hadn't had the misconception about the movie that I did going in, but either way this film starts out pretty good but quickly devolves into a long, boring drag right up until the silly ending. Clint Eastwood's acting was essentially spot on as usual, but the story was weak and the directing didn't really do anything for me either. Maybe I've been spoiled by Sergio Leone films and perhaps Clint Eastwood just hadn't grown much as a director before helming this movie, but any way you cut it, I was not a fan of High Plains Drifter.

Miller's Crossing
I've said it before and I'll say it again: the Coen Brothers are hit or miss for me. Some of their movies are among my favorites of all time and some of them I wouldn't watch again if someone paid me to (okay, well maybe in that case...). Miller's Crossing falls somewhere in between those two extremes, but slightly more on the side of the latter. There isn't a single bad performance to critique, the directing is interesting and snappy, and there are some truly brilliant moments in this film, but I still managed to be rather bored by it. Don't worry; I'm as perplexed by writing that statement as you undoubtedly are reading it. I suppose the only remaining culprit that could possibly have soured me on the film is the story, which I honestly don't even remember that well just a short time after watching it, so I guess that's what is to blame. As I said, there were some entertaining scenes and moments, but the plot threads that were supposed to hold it all together didn't really rope me in, I guess. I did have a blast watching Sam Raimi (director of The Evil Dead and Spiderman) get mowed down by a comical amount of tommy gun fire, though.

The Bride of Re-Animator
The original Re-Animator is a diamond in the rough among the hordes of cheesy B horror movies produced throughout the past three decades, so it pains me to say that this, it's first sequel, doesn't come close to carrying the torch. Taking over from the original film's director, Brian Yuzna and the writers of The Bride of Re-Animator essentially seem to have tried to re-make the first film for fear of upsetting fans by straying too far from the previous story. I have no idea if this is true, but this movie just seemed too damn similar to The Re-Animator. It also got a little too ridiculous for my taste. I understand that this may sound odd considering that we're talking about a movie in which a mad scientist brings dead people back to life, but when the decapitated head of the villain from the first film is brought back with bat wings sewn to the sides of his face and begins to fly around smacking into the main character, I stop giving a damn about what I'm watching. If possible the acting seems to have gotten worse since the first go-round as well. In all regards The Bride of Re-Animator is simply a shadow of the former glory that the first film brought to the series.

Beyond Re-Animator
Much like The Bride of Re-Animator, Beyond Re-Animator almost doesn't deserve to share the same name as the first film in this series, however I managed to enjoy it a little more than it's precursor. This time around Dr. Herbert West is placed in prison for the murder of a young woman by one of his undead subjects. Many years later a recent med school graduate is hired as the new staff doctor at the same prison and gets mixed up with Dr. West and his crazy experiments, which he's continued for years in secret within his jail cell. CG effects are introduced to the franchise with this film, but in such a way that they surprisingly manage to help the look of the film rather than hinder it. The real problem with this film is that it was filmed in Barcelona, Spain, which the filmmakers tried and miserably failed to pass off as the American midwest. Aside from the two main characters of the film, none of the cast could speak passable English, so the majority of the dialogue was horribly dubbed, making the movie more of a laughing stock than it already was. Even with the terrible dubbing, the semi-original story and new setting actually places this film slightly higher than The Bride of Re-Animator in my opinion, but not by much.

Psycho (1998)
I'm sure I'll get some shit for this one. As much as I'm sure that everyone is familiar with Alfred Hitchcock's classic suspense thriller Psycho, I have to imagine that everyone is equally aware of director Gus Van Sant's critically annihilated shot-for-shot remake. As the phrase "shot-for-shot" suggests, Van Sant's 1998 version of the film is more of a plagiarism than a remake as very little about it was actually "remade". Just as in the original Psycho, a bank employee makes off with an investor's money to begin a new life with her boyfriend, but goes missing shortly after checking into the Bates Motel. Multiple people forbade me from ever seeing this film, but my sheer curiosity as to how Vince Vaughn could even begin to attempt to pull off the role of a cross-dressing murderer drew me in and I found myself watching what I believe is one of the most unanimously hated movies of all time. What did I think of it, then? It wasn't all that bad. I think that the main thing that Gus Van Sant did wrong had nothing to do with how he shot the movie or who he cast in it, and everything to do with the fact that he tried to remake something which so many people viewed as a case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". The remake of Psycho could have been the best movie ever made, but the majority of people would still have hated it because it wasn't the original Hitchcock film. Fortunately for me, I don't hold the original Psycho in a particularly high regard among Hitchy's collection of screen gems, so I was able to look at Van Sant's version with an essentially clear palette. The directing suffered somewhat from Gus' insistence upon following so closely to Hitchcock's original, but was overall not bad. The soundtrack and story stayed essentially the same, which was fine by me, though I still had the same problems with the film's ending that I had with the original (namely the "here's where we explain the plot for all of the idiots who didn't get it" scene following the climax). As this was a remake, these problems with the film should have been fixed, but once again Van Sant was too busy trying to make a veritable duplicate of the 60's Psycho to dare to improve upon it at all. William H. Macy was as good as he ever is (which is great) and Viggo Mortensen and Julianne Moore were okay in their roles. Anne Heche was wasn't bad, but I would have preferred a different actress based on the idea that her character was supposed to be a beautiful young woman (burn!). And finally, Vince Vaughn? I thought he made a pretty good Norman Bates. His haircut alone was enough to scare me.

Police Story
Inspector Chan single-handedly arrests a high-powered drug lord, but due to a series of slight legalities, he manages to get off the hook. With the recently freed drug lord and his henchmen after him at every turn, Chan must now rescue his informant, save his relationship with his girlfriend, and find the proof he needs to put the criminal away for life, all while saving his own neck. Jackie Chan is famous for his incredible stunts and fight choreography, but of all of his films that I've seen, this one has the most amazing action of all. Sure the plot is kind of weak, but the fight scenes more than make up for the movie's poor writing. The main scene that comes to mind when I think of Police Story is the climactic hand-to-hand battle between Chan and a gang of henchmen in a shopping mall. For about seven straight minutes I couldn't close my jaw as it hung open in awe of the action taking place onscreen. In my youth I recall having a blast watching Jackie Chan's antics in poorly dubbed action movies, but seeing not only his physical, but dramatic and comedic performances in Police Story gave me an all new respect for the man.

Grave of the Fireflies
After their town is struck by a bombing during World War II a Japanese brother and sister are left orphaned and homeless. This film follows the unfortunate pair through the weeks and months following the loss of their home and family in an unforgiving, war-torn countryside. After watching Grave of the Fireflies, I have one question: "Why was this an animated movie?" It is my feeling that a story this tragic and horrifying could have been told better in live action. I won't deny that amazing strides have been made in depicting emotions in animation over the years, and I love animated films as much as the next guy (if not more), but in my opinion this was not a story that was meant to be told in 2D. The animation was rather solid, but during extreme moments of emotion I just wasn't feeling the grief and depression that the characters were supposed to be going through. Add to this that the voice acting was far from perfect in many places, and I just couldn't take Grave of the Fireflies seriously a lot of the time. It's hard for me to rate this film because it had as many good things going for it story-wise as it had bad things going for it aesthetically. Grave of the Fireflies is not necessarily a movie that I'd readily recommend to most people, but it tells a story that I won't soon forget.

Police Story 2
Despite his outstanding results at catching criminals, Inspector Chan's unorthodox methods have gotten him demoted to a traffic cop. However, with his former nemesis on the loose once again and some new criminals blowing up buildings around town, the force has asked him to take up his old position to help them once again bring justice to their district. Police Story 2 has it's moments, but the simple fact is that it's not on quite the same level as it's predecessor. There are some good, original, entertaining action scenes as is the case with any Jackie Chan film, but none of them seem to be on the same level as the first Police Story. The biggest letdown for me was the fact that the climax of the film wasn't as much of a hand-to-hand masterpiece as the previous film. There seemed to be more stunt set-ups and less balls-out combat. Also, the fact that the ending took place inside of a fireworks factory, which cries out over-the-top stereotype, cheapened the experience a bit for me. Police Story 2 is a decent sequel and certainly better than a lot of the action films out there, but following up the original Police Story is not quite a task that this film was up to.

Mad Max
Max Rockatansky is a member of a police force in the not-too-distant future of the Australian outback. He chases down biker gangs and brings tough justice to an unruly society until one such gang claims the life of his partner and he decides to quit the force. After trekking to a distant location, Max's wife and child are run down and killed by bikers, which sends him on a rampage that won't stop until he gets revenge. I couldn't site any specific references, but over the years it seems like Mad Max is one of those movies that people tend to talk about as a classic, groundbreaking film. To those people I say "bullshit!" Mad Max was a disastrous mess of a film. It's horribly shot and even more heinously edited. It's as though someone found a jumble of film reels in the garbage and tried to see what they could piece together out of them, and Mad Max is what they came up with. The plot doesn't really even begin until Max's wife and child are murdered, and that doesn't happen until about the last half hour of the film. Up until then the pacing was atrocious and tough to sit through. The ending is the only good part of the movie, but as it comes at the end rather than the beginning or the middle, I wouldn't be surprised if most people who sat down to watch the movie didn't make it far enough to see it. Mad Max earns points for taking place in a dystopic future, having some pretty cool car crashes, introducing the world at large to Mel Gibson, and for leading the way for an outstanding improvement of a sequel, but that's about it.

The Gate
A pair of young boys manage to accidentally open a gateway to hell in their backyard, unleashing various demons and other unsightly creatures upon their home. With no parents at home for the weekend, only our two pre-pubescent heroes and an older sister/babysitter are left with the responsibility of closing the gate and trapping the demons in hell. The plot sounds like a great movie for a bunch of kids to watch during a sleep over, and that's just about the only audience that I can imagine finding any enjoyment in this film. A few impressive visuals aside (namely a melting telephone and some good stop motion and camera tricks), I was not only bored watching The Gate, but a little embarrassed. After all, the kids in the movie decide that by reciting the lyrics of a rock album they can seal the gate and save the Earth, and it turns out that they're right (sorry to ruin the ending for any potential pre-teen interested parties out there). There were some incredibly eighties outfits, phrases, hair styles, songs, and scenarios in The Gate to keep me occupied during some scenes, but through most of the film I found myself simply trying to imagine how the child actor who played the main character grew up to be Stephen Dorff.