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.

No comments: