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.

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