Saturday, June 21, 2008


The Plot: Humanity was going about it's day just like any other when something suddenly began to happen. Along the eastern United States, beginning in Central Park, New York, people began killing themselves en masse. As they attempt to escape the areas affected by the threat of unknown origin, a science teacher (Mark Wahlberg), his wife (Zooey Deschanel), their friend (John Leguizamo), and his daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez) slowly begin to piece together who and/or what is to blame for the happening.

The Review: What say we begin with a brief history of writer/director/producer M. Night Shayamalan's career? I've never seen Praying with Anger or Wide Awake, but I would bet that if you asked any average movie-goer what Shayamalan's first movie was, they'd answer "duh, The Sixth Sense". Without a doubt, that is the film which put Mr. M. Night on the map. I saw this movie when it came out back in 1999 and was lucky enough not to have the now well known twist ending ruined for me beforehand. I thought that the film was just okay. I didn't catch up with 2002's Unbreakable until after it arrived on DVD, but thoroughly enjoyed it for being an original take on the superhero genre. Signs also passed me by until it's release on home video, but came highly recommended from a few friends. As it turns out, to this day I still don't like Signs because of it's "twist" ending, which I view as being less of a twist and more "right out of left field". The trailers for The Village piqued my interest and it turned out to be the second of Shayamalan's four straight thrillers that I really liked. Oddly enough, the two which I enjoyed (Unbreakable and The Village) seemed to be the same two that weren't very popular with the majority of viewers. Then came Lady In The Water, which, following the unpopular The Village, only served to further bury Shayamalan's career under an ever-thickening layer of critical disapproval. In other words, it sucked. Cut to 2008 and the impending release of The Happening. I love a good mystery, especially if there is a possibility that science fiction will play a role in it, so the trailers for The Happening immediately captured my imagination. Not to mention, if the trend of my liking every other Shayamalan movie were to continue, after Lady In The Water I was due for an enjoyable time at the movies. So, did The Happening deliver?

Not entirely.

This movie is essentially one big question, that question being "what is causing the happening?" I'll start by saying that I will not be spoiling the answer to that query. However, I will say that one of the main problems that this films detractors have with it is the big secret. I, on the other hand, have no problem whatsoever with the cause behind the events of The Happening. I thought that it was a very original concept (though coincidentally quite similar to one other movie that has come out in recent memory), and had that been the only aspect of the film that it's non-fans were concerned with, I would be calling everyone who didn't enjoy The Happening a bunch of pretentious doo-doo heads. It is true that the film's "culprit" is a bit of a tough pill to swallow, but in my opinion it's really no different from George Romero asking his audiences to believe that dead people can come back to life, or Wolfgang Petersen expecting viewers to believe that a single monkey could cure the plague unleashed in Outbreak. It's certainly no less believable than a former baseball player beating the shit out of glasses of water that were left lying around the house by his sister because she's got a weird personality quirk in order to kill the aliens who are trying to kidnap their brother who just so happens to have an illness which protects him from the poison gasses they can spew from their wrists all because Mel Gibson's dead wife's last words were "swing away" and he remembered them at the exact moment that his family was attacked in M. Night Shayamalan's own movie Signs. And let's remember that after The Sixth Sense, that's probably his most popular film (at least it is according to sites such as Rotten Tomatoes).

So to bring that topic to a close, no, I didn't think that the big revelation of The Happening was a disappointment. To me it brought back memories of the kinds of horror stories that you can read in the old EC and Warren comics from the 50's to the late 70's and early 80's. Those comics stretched the boundaries of believability to be sure, but it was all for the enjoyment of the reader. Replace "reader" with viewer and you've got the same situation with The Happening in my eyes. Does that mean that anyone who's not a fan of this film is a pretentious doo-doo head, then? No, it doesn't. As it turns out, there are plenty of other reasons for people to complain about The Happening that don't directly relate to the movie's core concept.

I can't speak for anyone else when I say this, and based on what I've been reading around the web I certainly don't speak for very many people on this subject, but I thought that the acting in The Happening was overall very good. I've been hearing a lot of negative comments about Mark Wahlberg's performance, but I quite liked him in this role. What I didn't necessarily like so much were some of the lines and/or scenes that he was working with. A lot of the dialogue in The Happening felt very forced and out of place, but I thought that Wahlberg did the best he could with what he had and did an great job of giving the audience a main character that they could get behind and root for. On the other end of the spectrum, I couldn't stand Zooey Deschanel's character. She plays Wahlberg's wife, and almost every time she opened her mouth I wondered why Mark's character hadn't divorced her yet. She was whiny, annoying, and a generally unlikable person. This says something for Deschanel as it is impressive that she could create a character that had such an effect on me, but I was generally just pissed off every time she opened her mouth. One specific thing about her character that bugged the crap out of me was that she had problems showing her emotions to others, but more than once she openly talked to people about her fear of showing her emotions, which seemed to contradict the fact that she was supposedly so unable or unwilling to express how she was feeling. John Leguizamo has impressed me a few times over the course of his career, but tends to just be a rather meaningless addition to any cast. Here, I actually liked him quite a bit and felt that he brought something to the table. The last of the four main characters in The Happening is a young actress named Ashlyn Sanchez who plays Leguizamo's daughter. It's not hard for child characters to annoy me in movies, and I was often annoyed by this little girl. She did serve her purpose though, and since she was sharing most of her scenes with Zooey Deschanel's character, most of my hatred was usually aimed squarely at her instead of her young co-star.

So I liked some of the acting, though not all of it, and I enjoyed the basic concept of the film. Does that mean that my feelings on The Happening are positive overall? Absolutely not, and I'll tell you why. The acting and directing here range from passable to above average, but most of this movie's hang-ups come from the script. As I've already stated, I liked the basic premise, but the story was far from solid. The decisions of the characters often felt as though they were only trying to further the plot. That is, of course, how you make a movie work, but those decisions have to feel natural enough that they don't call attention to themselves. Too often things just seemed to fall into place or work out a little too perfectly, not necessarily for the characters, but for the filmmakers. For example, after some of our survivors reach a small house in the middle of a field the owner gives them one single piece of information about the house. Five minutes later, that single piece of information turns out to play a major part in the story. It just felt as though Shayamalan was force-feeding me things to make his movie work. The same fault comes into play multiple times as the characters begin to discover the big secret behind the events occurring around them. As I've said, the premise of The Happening is a bit out there, but instead of coming up with smooth, interesting ways for the characters to begin to put the pieces of the proverbial puzzle together, they instead simply happen to run into a strange fellow who has a theory about what's going on which just happens to be exactly what is in fact going on. Again, I felt as though M. Nigh was just throwing answers at me instead of weaving them into the plot.

Then there's the suspense. Or should I say lack of suspense. Large chunks of the population are being forced to kill themselves by some unseen force and I was hardly affected by it. Admittedly, I was pretty enthralled when some construction workers began throwing themselves from the roof of a work-site, but aside from that moment and perhaps one or two others, this "thriller" didn't do a whole lot to thrill me. The atmosphere just wasn't there. When I think about what this movie should have made me feel like, titles such as Alien, The Mist, and John Carpenter's The Thing come to mind. Instead The Happening felt a bit more like the film Tremors. There's nothing wrong with that movie, and in fact I love Tremors, but it's pretty light-hearted for a movie about giant killer worms. In the same way, The Happening is a bit too light-hearted for a movie about everyone suddenly turning suicidal and stabbing themselves in the neck with big needles. Tremors totally worked because it was meant to be an action/comedy/sci-fi romp, but The Happening is supposed to be a dread-inducing disaster movie. At least that's what the trailers led me to believe. But then, by definition trailers are meant to make the film in question look good. The trailer for The Happening succeeded. The movie itself didn't.

The Verdict: So many great things could have been done with the concept behind The Happening, but M. Night Shayamalan either didn't bother to explore those possibilities or just didn't do them justice. Mark Wahlberg tries his best to save the weak script he's been provided, but ultimately fails to do so. A few cheap scares aside, this film fails to earn the R rating that it was boasted as being the first Shayamalan film to receive. I liked the idea behind this film, but for this reviewer, a repeat viewing of The Happening won't be happening anytime soon (pun most definitely intended).

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Netflix Rapid Fire Reviews - February '08

Child's Play
While I have always loved horror movies, I tend to be more of a fan of monsters ripping people to shreds than weirdoes with knives chasing after cheerleaders, which is why I never bothered with the Chucky films before. I figured that it was about time I finally see this film though, since it's one of the classics of the genre, and much to my surprise I came away loving it. Perhaps this is because Chucky is as much a monster as he is a psycho with a knife, but I think it's mainly because the movie's plot was so original and the special effects were so well done. I've always been a huge fan of practical effects in movies, and considering that Howard Berger, one of the best modern special effects and make-up guys in Hollywood worked on this film, it's no wonder that Child's Play was so visually pleasing. However, gore and explosions do not a great movie make (though they do help), and what surprised me the most about this movie was the story. Sure it had some cheesy dialogue and revolves around a ludicrous concept, but the filmmakers managed to walk an incredibly thin line between humor and horror so well that everything worked perfectly in my opinion. I finally see what all the fans of this film have known since the eighties, and let me tell you, it feels good.

Jackie Chan's First Strike
I've said it before and I'll say it again: Jackie Chan movies are only as good as their fight scenes. So how are the fight scenes in Jackie Chan's First Strike? Pretty damn good. The main one that comes to mind takes place in a large hall of some sort with a balcony that looks as though it's being prepared for some sort of party or gathering. The most notable portion of this fight involves Jackie fending off a horde of bad guys with staffs by wielding a regular, garden variety aluminum ladder. If you've seen this action sequence before, you've surely never forgotten it. As far as fight scene props are concerned, the ladder in this sequence is absolutely one of the most inventive and entertaining objects that Chan (or any other action star, I would wager) has ever used in an onscreen battle. The only word I can think of to describe this fight scene is "breathtaking". The other action sequence that immediately comes to mind when I think about First Strike is the climactic underwater battle. I've seen my share of similar sequences, most of which are slow and boring, but with the inclusion of sharks, Jackie's patented brand of comedy, and some ingenuitive choreography to the equation, the submerged tussle between Chan and some tough guys in a water tank at an aquarium is easily the most exciting and entertaining underwater fight I have ever witnessed. The only thing that First Strike is really missing, as is the case with many of Jackie Chan's films, is a worthwhile story, but if you're a fan of the Chan you should know well enough by now that the plot isn't the reason why these types of films are worth watching.

Who doesn't love the movie Office Space? My guess is that the only people who don't are those who have never seen it. Then again, who hasn't seen that movie? It plays at least once a day on Comedy Central, it seems. Why do I bring up Office Space? Because ever since I first saw and fell in love with that film years ago I've been eagerly awaiting a follow-up feature from writer/director Mike Judge. Skip to the year 2006. A little movie called Idiocracy soars so far enough below the radar that I'm not even sure it ever had a theatrical release, because the first time I heard about it was when I saw a copy of the DVD sitting on a shelf in Blockbuster. Admittedly, despite my appreciation of Judge's Office Space, when I read the plot synopsis of Idiocracy, I was a bit turned off. An average Joe (played by Luke Wilson) is cryogenically frozen and wakes up in the future to find that he is now the smartest person alive because society has been dumbed down by laziness, fast food, and cable TV to the point that even one of the least intelligent people in modern day is a genius by comparison. I was skeptical to say the least, and as it turns out, my initial reaction was almost spot on. Idiocracy was fairly idiotic. Yes, there were some funny moments and original concepts, but all in all I just wasn't interested in jokes about the president being a gangster and TV shows dedicated to people getting hit in the balls. The film's core was an intelligent idea, but it was surrounded by so many MAD TV-style jokes that I found myself rolling my eyes rather than rolling on the floor with laughter. Idiocracy isn't the worst film I've ever seen, but Office Space it is not.

Though it is shortened to simply "Supercop" in America, the full title of this film is actually "Police Story 4: Supercop". Honestly though, the name change doesn't bother me much because this films doesn't really feel like much of a sequel to the first two Police Story films to me. Sure, it's got Jackie playing Inspector Chan and Maggie Cheung as his hapless girlfriend May, but the action and tone of this film feels a little less serious than it's predecessors if that makes any sense. Think about how the original Die Hard featured some pretty off the wall action sequences, but when Live Free Or Die Hard came out it took the action to a whole new level of un-believability. Well, to me the same thing has happened here. This by no means means that Supercop is a bad movie, just that it feels different from the Police Story franchise to me. The easiest difference between this film and the first two Police Story films is of course the addition of Michelle Yeoh to the cast as Inspector Yang. Her character marks the first instance in which Inspector Chan has had a partner or sidekick, but Yeoh fits into the mix fairly well. Her character's super-serious nature only adds to the humor which Chan's films already tend to have, and she handles herself extremely well in the midst of the action that we've all come to expect from a Jackie Chan film. As for the plot, Yeoh's Inspector Yang teams up with Inspector Chan to help bring down a drug lord, who at some point during the plot takes May captive. The highlights of the action here are the (literally) explosive battle at the drug lord's hideout in the jungle and the climactic set piece atop a moving train.

As a big fan of horror movies and a major comic book nerd, it only seems natural that I would eventually track down and watch Creepshow, a film comprised of short horror segments based upon the EC comic books of the 40's and 50's. As it turns out though, having seen the movie, I would have much rather spent the 2 hours of it's running time actually reading some of those old comics that Creepshow was an homage to as opposed to sitting through the film. I found moments of worth throughout Creepshow's five short segments, but overall felt that it failed to invoke the same feeling of delight and admiration while watching it that I tend to have when I look through the ratty old horror and sci-fi mags that I have at my disposal. The first segment (starring Ed Harris) was definitely the most dull of the lot in my opinion, and thus a rather poor way to begin the movie. The second segment, which stars writer Stephen King and feels more comical than horrific, was probably my favorite. The rest of the segments were just fairly forgettable (a statement proven by the fact that as I type this I'm having trouble remembering what they were even about). I like the idea of anthology films and I love the idea of paying homage to EC comics and their other pre-comic-code brethren, but in my opinion Stephen King and George Romero largely missed their mark with Creepshow.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
To read this review, click here.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
To read this review, click here.

The Omega Man
As I continue to make use of Netflix as a way to catch up on all of the classic films from the past that I've missed out on the joy of watching over the years, I would have undoubtedly gotten around to sitting down with a copy of The Omega Man eventually, but in all honesty, the recent release of I Am Legend (a remake of The Omega Man) bumped this film up a few notches on my list of cinematic priorities. Audiences seemed fairly divided by I Am Legend, but I find myself more personally conflicted in my feelings on The Omega Man. The core concept is classic material by this point considering that there are now three different adaptations of the original source material spanning more than 40 years of Hollywood's history. In a post-apocalyptic setting, one man (sometimes accompanied by a canine companion), be it Vincent Price, Charlton Heston, or most recently Will Smith, must make a stand against varying types of vampires, zombies, and or cult members to keep the human race from going completely extinct. As far as those villains are concerned, I think that The Omega Man has the weakest threat of the three cinematic versions of this story. The "bad guys" here are essentially albinos who can't go outside during the day and want to destroy all technology and live like the Amish. They're less threatening than the inhuman creatures of The Last Man On Earth or I Am Legend, and in my opinion that is The Omega Man's biggest downfall. I love all of the scenes of Heston's character trying to survive on his own and essentially going on with his life, but any conflicts he is involved in just seem silly based on the foes he's confronting. All in all, The Omega Man is a very watch-able film, but it's not without it's flaws. Unfortunately, while I enjoy all three films based on Richard Matheson's original novel I Am Legend, I don't honestly feel that any of them have done the concept the full level of justice that it so obviously deserves.

Body Snatchers (1993)
To read this review, click here.

The People vs. Larry Flynt
I'm not sure just how much of Milos Forman's film documenting the life of Hustler Magazine founder Larry Flynt is true and how much of it is fabricated to make the narrative more wild and entertaining, but I don't really care, because whatever combination of fact and fiction he used to tell his story is, it's perfect. I love a good "true story" movie; especially if it's about an extremely unique person such as Larry Flynt. Part of the fun of watching a movie like The People vs. Larry Flynt is being able to live vicariously through the lives of people who are much more interesting than you'll ever be. Watching Woody Harrelson throw an orange at a judge and knowing that it may have actually happened in the real life of the person he was depicting just made for a fun viewing experience. Speaking of Harrelson, while I've seen him in numerous films before, I don't think I've ever liked him as much as I did in The People vs. Larry Flynt. Not necessarily because I liked the person he was playing, but because this role required a lot of dedication from it's actor and I could totally see the work that Woody put into it. Edward Norton and Crispin Glover were welcome additions to the cast as they're both great character actors, and even Courtney Love was (I thought) exceptionally good in her role as Flynt's love interest. This movie could be a tough sell to some people depending on their views and ability to sympathize with an often unsympathetic individual, but for my money, watching The People vs. Larry Flynt is a great way to spend two hours and nine minutes of your time.

Crime Story
Crime Story is somewhat of an enigma to me. The main star of the film is Jackie Chan, but there are hardly any fight scenes or stunts to be seen. There is a chase here and a quick tussle there, but overall this movie focuses way more on plot and drama than any of Chan's other films that I've seen. This is especially curious since this movie came out in 1993, well before Chan's more recent string of less-than-impressive films in which he can no longer pull off the stunt work that he used to be able to. I'm in no way opposed to a Jackie Chan vehicle with more plot than punches though, so I'm willing to accept the fact that this movie is rather dry in the action department, but the simple fact is that without all of the flips and kicks to keep the audience entertained while sitting through a Chan film, the story has to take over and do most of the heavy lifting, which it does not really do in this case. I admit, the quality of the acting was overall better in Crime Story than in most of Jackie's more adrenaline-driven films, but the plot was just as simple as any of those others. Chan is a cop who's trying to track down some kidnappers and discovers that there's a traitor in his midst. There were no real twists or turns to speak of either, which led to my feeling that the film dragged a bit too much between the very rare fight sequences. The climax in the burning building isn't bad, but if you're looking for excitement, try out some of the other films in Jackie Chan's library of kung-fu flicks.

This film was one of the biggest indie sensations of the 90's, which I've been well aware of for years, but it wasn't until I heard director Kevin Smith state on his podcast that it was the film that inspired him to make movies that I decided to track it down and watch it. The simplest way for me to describe my feelings on Slacker is to say that if I were Kevin Smith, I'd probably still be working at the Quik Stop because the only thing that this movie inspired me to do was hit the fast forward button, which I almost did multiple times while viewing it. I was with the film for the first fifteen minutes or so as I wondered where the movie was going and when the plot would kick in. As it turns out, the plot never kicks in (because there isn't one) and the movie goes nowhere. All Slacker is is a series of conversations between random people about random things. Person A talks to person B for five minutes, then person B leaves and goes to talk to person C, then person C leaves and goes to talk to person D, and so on and so forth up until about person X or Y. There was just nothing about this movie to keep me interested. I'm sure that there are several other people out there who, like Smith, see some artistic merit or deeper meaning to this film, but I'm just not one of them.

Quiz Show
A man who genuinely wants to give his best shot at being a winner on a popular television trivia game show is initially appalled at the idea of being allowed to cheat by the producers of the program, but eventually settles into a life full of lies and deceit, becoming the biggest bread winner ever to grace the small screen. The man in question soon learns that no good thing can last forever, however, when the studio executives decide that it's time for hie reign at the quiz show champion to end, which leads to the discovery by the media, and the public in general, that his entire run on the show was a scripted ruse. Based on true events that took place during the 1950's, Robert Redford's Quiz Show is entertaining, but not necessarily what I would call a solid film. The pace of the film dragged a bit for me at times, and I honestly felt that the running time (which is in excess of two hours) could have been trimmed a bit. The story being told is very interesting, perhaps even moreso if you're aware that the events taking place really (in some capacity at least) happened, but I could have done without a small amount of the movie's unnecessary exposition. If Quiz Show had chugged along at a bit more brisk of a pace, I feel as though I would have been able to enjoy it a bit more, but short of that critique, there's not much to complain about. The directing is solid, the plot (as I mentioned) is interesting and entertaining, and the acting is top-notch (particularly in the cases of both Ralph Fiennes and John Turturro).

The Lawnmower Man
I'm not sure if it was the peculiar title or the abnormal artwork on the front of the VHS/DVD packaging for The Lawnmower Man, but for some reason I've always wanted to see this movie. It certainly couldn't have been much else that drew me to it, because up until the moment that I pressed play on my DVD player I really had no clue what the hell this film was about. What is it about, then? A scientist (Pierce Brosnan) working with an unprecedented new virtual reality technology loses touch with his life and becomes too wrapped up in his work, experimenting on a simple-minded yard-worker (Jeff Fahey) in his free time. By the time the scientist realizes the consequences that could come from his work, his test subject has transformed from an unassuming simpleton into a megalomaniacal freak of nature. The main thing that one must remember when watching The Lawnmower Man in this day and age is that back when it was made, this film was employing the use of cutting edge visual effects. The visuals are fairly laughable and hard to take seriously nowadays, but if you can wipe the condescending grin off of your face long enough to become engrossed in the plot, The Lawnmower Man is actually a pretty decent science fiction/cyberpunk movie. There are some interesting high concepts at work which are constantly battling the cheesy acting and poor special effects, and unfortunately the acting and effects come out on top a bit more often than the intriguing concepts and story. Don't be fooled by your eyes though; there is some validity to what's going on onscreen.

Planet of the Apes (1968)
Over the years I've always felt that I owed it to myself to see the original 1968 version of Planet of the Apes because it's such a classic, iconic, and well known film, but I honestly never had much interest in it. Part of the reason for my disinterest is probably that I (along with, I assume, everyone else of sound mind in the world) knew what the twist ending was already. Still, as I said, I felt obliged to see the film since it's a classic, and I honestly came away from it a bit surprised. Not by the twist ending of course, but by the fact that the movie was so damn enjoyable despite the fact that the climax had been spoiled for me years prior to my viewing it. The main misconception I'd had about this film, it turns out, is that it hinged on the final shot and the now famous line therein, but what I'd never realized until I actually saw the movie is that it has so much more worth throughout the entire running time than just those last sixty seconds or so which everyone knows about. The plot in general was much more interesting and gripping than I'd imagined it would be. A lot of very intriguing concepts involving the future of the Earth and communication between species are touched upon. The main conflict of the film isn't just apes versus humans either, but instead it focuses around a battle of logic over pride and tradition. In simple terms, Planet of the Apes was just a lot smarter than I expected it to be. We're not talking about Stephen Hawking here, but if you've always thought that Planet of the Apes was just about big monkeys whipping Charlton Heston and dragging him around on a leash, you (just like I did) have another thing coming. Also, the make-up effects looked a lot better than I expected them to for 1968, which accounts for an extra added thumbs up from me.

The Hudsucker Proxy
If you want to look at their catalogue of work in fairly broad strokes (and when I say "fairly" in this case, I mean "very"), the Coen brothers seem to enjoy making two specific types of films: crime dramas such as Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, Fargo, The Man Who Wasn't There, and No Country For Old Men, and crime comedies such as Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty, and The Ladykillers. Looking at this trend, there are only two Coen brothers movies which I don't really feel fit into either of those categories based on the simple fact that neither of them really center around crime as a focal point. Those films are Barton Fink, which is a straight-up (though rather heady) drama, and The Hudsucker Proxy, which I would simply call a comedy. The Hudsucker Proxy is also the only movie I can think of which cries out for me to describe it as "charming". There's just something so likable and innocent about this film. Perhaps it's the main character (played by Tim Robbins) who acts like a big kid with a positive outlook on everything despite the questionable environments he tends to occupy, or perhaps it's the fancy-free directorial style of the film which is obviously very well thought out and professional, but at the same time gives the events of the movie an air of fantasy, almost like a fairy tale for adults. The plot focuses around a small town man who, through a set of rather (unbeknownst to him) diabolical circumstances arranged by his boss (who is played by Paul Newman), ends up being set up to fail as the sudden head of a massive corporation, but who unexpectedly thrives in his position of power. There are a lot of very specific scenes, themes, and reasons that I could cite as to why I think that everyone can enjoy, and should see, The Hudsucker Proxy, but just suffice to say that it is an excellent film on every conceivable level.

Porko Rosso
From Hayao Miyazaki, the mind that gave us Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa, Howl's Moving Castle, and Spirited Away, comes the story of a 1930's fighter pilot with the head of a pig. That's right. After watching the spirits of his fellow pilots ascend to heaven after they were all killed in a particularly bloody air battle, Porko Rosso is cursed to have the head of a pig. This affliction may be embarrassing, but it doesn't stop him from being the best pilot in the skies. Porko continues taking odd jobs to keep himself in food, drink, and supplies with which to fix up his famed red plane, but when he's in need of some major work on his ride, he flies into unfriendly skies to acquire the aid of an old friend and a spunky young aircraft designer/mechanic. Of Miyazaki's other films, I've only seen Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa, and Spirited Away. I wasn't crazy about Spirited Away (although it looked spectacular), but I quite like the other two, and Porko Rosso stacks up right beside both of them as some of the best 2D animated films that I've seen in recent memory. The story is interesting and entertaining, there's a healthy dose of humor that hits it's mark every time, the characters are unique and lovable, the action is thrilling, and the animation is absolutely beautiful. The one aspect of Porko Rosso that I was a bit disappointed by was the voice acting. Most of the voices were fine, but I specifically had a problem with Michael Keaton's performance as Rosso himself. In general I really like Keaton as an actor, but he just sounded as though he didn't really give a damn about what he was recording to me in this case. It wouldn't be such a big deal, but since he was providing the voice of the films main character I was a little annoyed with his performance. Aside from that though, Rosso is a wholly enjoyable film that I can't wait to watch again and again.

Romance & Cigarettes
When I received a text message from a friend recommending that I watch a movie called Romance & Cigarettes based on the fact that at one point during the film Christopher Walken fights some police officers while in the midst of performing a choreographed musical number, there was absolutely no way that I could avoid immediately adding said film to my Netflix queue. Much to my delight, the sequence in question plays out just as I'd anticipated based on the summary given to me via text message, but as for the rest of the film, I most certainly cannot say that I expected just about anything else that occurred during it's running time. Written and directed by actor John Turturro, Romance & Cigarettes is indeed a musical. It's story involves a man named Nick Murder (James Gandolfini) whose marriage to his wife Kitty (Susan Sarandon) begins to fall apart when she discovers that he's been having an affair with a whimsical younger woman named Tula (Kate Winslet). Honestly, aside from the previously mentioned musical number starring Christopher Walken, I can't think of a whole lot about this movie to rave about. However, at the same time I know that it must have some other redeeming qualities because I did manage to enjoy myself while I was watching it. The plot may sound simple and stereotypical enough, but the addition of singing and dancing places this film into a whole different ball park from where I'd expect it to reside. I suppose that the best way I can sum up the experience of watching this movie for other interested parties out there is with the phrase "expect the unexpected".

Monday, June 16, 2008

No More Monsters

The news has just come out today that visual effects mastermind Stan Winston has died. We are officially one step closer to monster movies never being the same again. Aliens, Predator, The Terminator, T2, The Thing, and Jurassic Park are many of the movies whose effects blew my mind the first time around and still manage to do so with every repeat viewing. This man's special effects helped to shape my childhood imagination and gave me a love and respect for horror/sci-fi films that Hollywood has been trying it's damnedest to rob me of for years now. I shed a collective tear for the film industry.

Bye, Stan. This nerd's gonna miss you.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


The Plot: After a freak accident in his laboratory, Dr. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) has been changed. Whenever he becomes too angry or excited, he loses control over his body and transforms into a large, green monster known as the Hulk. On the run from the United States government who want to use the Hulk as a weapon, Bruce continually attempts to find a way to cure himself of his burden. General Ross (Willaim Hurt) may have gone too far, however, when he hired a mercenary named Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) to track down Banner. In the end, Blonsky may be more of a threat than the Hulk ever was.

The Review: Ever since I first saw director Ang Lee's take on the Hulk back in 2003 I've been a fan of that film. Sure it had it's problems, but I've enjoyed repeated viewings of it over the years since it's release. On the other hand, the majority of the movie-going community has vocally felt otherwise concerning Lee's film, which is why this time around Louis Leterrier, a director known for his high-intensity action films, was chosen to helm the green goliath's second feature film romp. A shorter running time, more eye candy, and less character development were the main ingredients used in Marvel's attempt to give audiences a tastier treat than Lee delivered five years prior. The question is: did they achieve their desired result?

In my opinion, not really.

To set the record straight right off the bat, I liked The Incredible Hulk. I thought that it was an enjoyable movie with a lot of good things going for it. Leterrier, Norton, and company improved upon a few of the flaws from Ang Lee's film, but simultaneously delivered a few of their own. First, lets look at the characters. Ever since Edward Norton was announced to be playing Bruce Banner in this film I was behind the choice one hundred percent, and after seeing the film I still feel this way. Norton wasn't a tough sell for me because in general he's one of my favorite actors, but beyond my devotion to him as a fan, I really think he took to this role well. He's meek enough to be believable as a scientist, but there's also enough going on behind his eyes to convince the audience that there's more to him than his non-threatening exterior. One of my few complaints about Lee's 2003 film was that genEric Bana (aka Eric Bland-a) seemed a bit too one dimensional and stiff. He never really convinced me that he was right to play the man who became a giant green powerhouse, which is not at all true in Norton's case.

As far as actresses are concerned, I'm a pretty big fan of Liv Tyler, but she didn't do much to impress me in The Incredible Hulk. I blame this fact moreso on the script she was working from than on her own lack of ability, though. In Lee's Hulk the character of Betty Ross (played then by Jennifer Connelly) was given a lot more to do than just be Banner's emotional crutch, which is why I was a bigger fan of her character in that film than in this one. Similarly, I felt that William Hurt's immense acting talent was fairly well wasted in Leterrier's Incredible Hulk. While General Thunderbolt Ross has never been a villain who the Hulk could literally fight one on one, he's Bruce Banner's true nemesis. As such, I wish that we would have gotten more from his character than just popping up onscreen to look like a dick every now and then. Honestly, Sam Elliot's portrayal of Ross in Ang Lee's movie never really got much of a chance to shine either, leading me to wonder why such an important character in the world of the Hulk is so frequently short-changed. Finally, we come to the true villain of The Incredible Hulk: Emil Blonsky aka the Abomination. Tim Roth was (not surprisingly) one of the best parts of this film. The transformation his character goes through during the movie (no pun intended) is rather extreme and the way his arc is told is often rushed to allow more focus on Banner, but Roth's sheer acting ability manages to make the viewer forget that what they're watching is so preposterous and sometimes poorly executed by the filmmakers. Simply put, he stole every scene he was in.

In the case of the live action Transformers movie from last year, I've heard some people say that they were disinterested in the action sequences because it's hard to invest your emotions in a bunch of huge CG characters beating the hell out of each other. I can agree with that sentiment, but in The Incredible Hulk this thought never crossed my mind. I cared enough about the Hulk and his adversary that I was with them the whole way even though their duel was a rather incredible sight to behold. Also, the CG and cinematography were clear and concise enough that I had no problem following the action. I even delighted to some of the more silly moments of action including a moment which I will only refer to as the "Hulk clap". My favorite action sequence of the movie though, has got to be the scene in which Blonsky, Ross, and a large group of soldiers confront Banner on a college campus. For one thing, it took place during the day so it made everything that much easier to take in in the unobscured broad daylight. I also really enjoyed the brief showdown with Blonsky and the "sound wave cannons" employed by the army in this sequence which I felt worked really well to evoke the phrase "comic book movie".

It's not all grins and admiration when it comes to my opinions on The Incredible Hulk, though. A specific part of the movie that sticks out in my mind as one of those moments when I sat in the movie asking myself "what the hell is going on here?!" came immediately following my aforementioned favorite action scene of the film. The Hulk has just protected Betty from a large explosion and is engulfed in flames. As I stated earlier, this scene took place clearly in broad daylight. However, immediately following the explosion that puts Betty in danger, it suddenly starts raining for no apparent reason. Well, that's not entirely true. The apparent reason is that the filmmakers wanted to get rid of those flames as quickly as possible and rather than coming up with a better solution for their problem they just opted to take control of the heavens and use them to their advantage. One of my pickier qualms with the movie is a scene in New York City involving a taxi cab and it's over the top driver. I assume that this scene was supposed to be funny, but the humor was lost on me. I much preferred humorous moments such as when Bruce and Betty are about to "do the deed" in a seedy hotel room. However picky my complaints about The Incredible Hulk may seem thus far, my biggest problem with the film was that it was in fact missing what I liked so much about Ang Lee's version: the character. The Incredible Hulk was meant as somewhat of a mindless action-packed romp with which the general movie-goer could wash the dramatic, plot-driven 2003 Hulk film taste out of their mouths. While it may have succeeded in doing just that, as a fan of Ang Lee's film, this one just felt like a step down to me.

The Verdict: The fight scenes are exciting and easy to follow, the CG is top-notch, and the story is easy to follow. The plot may be a bit too simple and rushed, and some of the characters could use a serious shot of character development, but The Incredible Hulk is a decent action movie. So long as what you're interested in is indeed an "action movie", Louis Leterrier's take on Marvel Comics' classic Jekyll and Hyde character shouldn't disappoint.