Saturday, October 4, 2008

Netflix Rapid Fire Reviews - March '08

The Legend of Drunken Master
The Legend of Drunken Master doesn't have the same classic feel as the original Drunken Master, but it certainly delivers on the action the same way that it's predecessor did. I was blown away by Jackie Chan's raw physical ability in Drunken Master, but rather than sticking to straight fisticuffs as with that film, Legend moves further into the environmental interaction which Chan became famous for later in his career. The sheer ingenuity of the final fight scene, which involves Jackie performing stunts on real life hot coals, is worth the price of a rental alone.

Alien Nation
The effects look cheesy and the commentary on racism is forced, but Alien Nation has an original enough concept behind it that I found myself really enjoying this film. I wasn't a big fan of some of the hokey characteristics of the movie's alien race, but they weren't so corny as to be completely unbelievable. At it's heart, Alien Nation is more of an 80's crime drama/action flick than a sci-fi extravaganza, which is probably why it works. If you've ever seen a Lethal Weapon film you should be able to handle the dynamic between James Caan and his extraterrestrial counterpart easily enough without letting all of the slime and wacky make-up ruin the experience for you.

Hustle & Flow
Generally I'm not a big fan of Terrence Howard, nor am I a big rap aficionado, but after seeing director Craig Brewer's subsequent film Black Snake Moan and loving every moment of it I felt compelled to check out Hustle & Flow. This movie is sappy, unrealistic, and over the top in just about every single way, but I have to admit that it's a fun watch. In my opinion Terrence Howard gives the best performance of his career herein, and there are a few good performances from the likes of D.J. Qualls and Taryn Manning as well. I am living proof that you don't have to have a deep appreciation for rap music to enjoy this movie, just as you don't have to truly love the blues to have a blast watching Black Snake Moan, so my recommendation is that you give Hustle & Flow a chance the next time you can't decide what you want to rent.

Enemy Mine
Similar to Alien Nation, Enemy Mine is about a human and an alien being who have to learn to get along. In Alien Nation these characters are partners on a futuristic police force, but here they must rely on one another to survive after they find themselves stranded on the unforgiving surface of a seemingly barren planet. The visual effects on display here have fallen victim in many instances to the time which has elapsed since it's release, but there are a few practical effects which should please any fan of 80's sci-fi or horror films. There are points during this film's running time when I got lost in the relationship between the human and the alien, which is a testament to the acting abilities of Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett Jr., but for the most part I'm compelled to categorize this movie as cheese.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
I'm sure that I've mentioned in a previous review or two that I'm not the biggest fan of documentaries, but every now and then I see one which really speaks to me. One such film is The King Of Kong. Honestly, there just aren't enough documentaries out there about topics which I'm really interested in (or at least that's how it seems to me). The King Of Kong, however, tells the story of an everyman (Steve Wiebe) who decides to take a stab at making a name for himself by obtaining the high score in the classic arcade game Donkey Kong. As we all know, every hero needs a nemesis, and that's where Billy Mitchell comes in. Mitchell is a truly detestable human being despite his wrath being limited to something as seemingly unsubstantial as an old video game, but if Wiebe's plight isn't enough to keep your eyes glued to the screen during The King of King, then Mitchell's treachery and deception will surely do the trick.

Raging Bull
When I was younger and I tried to watch Raging Bull, my disinterest in boxing (and all sports in general, really) made quick work of my attention span. After finally discovering the genius that is Martin Scorcese's directing, Robert DeNiro's acting (circa the 70's, 80's and early 90's), and the combination of the two many years later, I felt compelled to give this film another chance. What a difference a few years makes. Jake La Motta's particular story still doesn't particularly hold any real interest for me, but when Scorcese gets his hands on the right story he just has a way of turning it into film gold. Boxing fans will surely find much more to connect with here than I did, but I find it hard to imagine anyone who's given Raging Bull a chance not realizing the incredible talent at display both in front of and behind the camera that was used to shoot it.

The Untouchables
The Untouchables is a classic re-telling of how the FBI brought down Al Capone from the point of view of the man responsible for discovering the loophole which inevitably led to his imprisonment. There are memorable performances everywhere you look in this film from Sean Connery to Andy Garcia and from Kevin Costner to Robert DeNiro as Capone himself. My one real complaint with this film is that what it has in star power it lacks in suspense. Sure, there are exceptions such as the incredibly directed and edited sequence on the stairs of the train station, but during many scenes which I felt should have been the most impacting of the entire movie it was as though poor decisions were made which kept the goings on from reaching the emotional level that they could (or in my opinion should) have. The prime example of this is the scene in which the feds pull a sting operation on the Canadian border. There are people chasing and shooting at one another, but the music doesn't match the tension at all and completely neuters the scene's suspense. Tension aside, there is a good narrative going on in The Untouchables with some entertaining acting, but I'm not convinced that this film should be held quite as high as some people (such as my father) seem to.

Sometimes it's hard to pin down exactly what will make an individual laugh and what won't. The Farrelly brothers' film There's Something About Mary still makes me laugh my ass off to this day. Their previous effort Kingpin just doesn't do it for me though, and I'm not quite sure that I understand why. Bill Murray gives a funny performance and Woody Harrelson and Randy Quaid make a good enough comedic pair, but for whatever reason I didn't find myself particularly drawn to this story of an Amish bowling savant and his money-grubbing manager. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I've seen one too many road comedies or that the brand of gross-out humor employed in Kingpin has grown old to me. Or maybe this film just isn't that funny. I didn't hate this film, but I didn't love it either. Kind of indecisive for a movie review, I know, but what can I say? Comedy is a fickle mistress.

Bullitt is known for one thing and one thing alone: it's car chase. So how is said chase? Pretty darn good actually. It's no Death Proof, but considering that it was filmed in 1968 I was very impressed by what the filmmakers were able to achieve. True, they did slip up and leave shots of five hubcaps falling off of the same car, but I'm willing to forgive that flaw because it has honestly become one of the most well known facts about the film and it's pretty fun to try counting them yourself as they eject themselves from the wheels of Steve McQueen's enemies' Dodge Charger. What about the rest of the movie, though? I dare say that if it weren't for the chase scene which I've already covered, Bullitt wouldn't be nearly the household name that it is. McQueen is as good as he ever was, but there are much more compelling crime dramas out there in my opinion. Maybe not ones from the same year, but nonetheless, overall I found Bullitt to be rather middle of the road.

Meatball Machine
I heard the title of this film, saw that it was a Japanese horror flick, and expected an outrageous and enjoyable viewing experience. What I got was certainly outrageous, but not really enjoyable in the least. The plot involves some sort of little creatures which attach themselves to people like parasites and a small group of individuals who track them down and kill them. I know that the plot must be more intricate than that, but I was honestly lost or simply uninterested during most of the dialogue scenes which presumably explained what was actually happening. I've never been one to turn my nose up at low budget practical visual effects, but the costumes and effects in Meatball Machine are more laughable than they are noteworthy. Sure, some of the character designs look neat, but as soon as those characters begin to move around, their prosthetics (which for the most part are meant to look like metal) begin flapping around in the breeze. As with a good portion of the Japanese films, manga, and anime that I've seen, Meatball Machine ends with a showdown between two super-powered individuals. Unlike most of the Japanese movies, manga, and anime that I've seen, this sequence was so poorly shot and achieved that I find it impossible to think of anything good to say about it. Simply put, Ifound next to nothing to like about Meatball Machine.

Shallow Hal
As with many of the Farrelly brothers' films, Shallow Hal's core premise sounds like a simple, perhaps stereotyped one. A man is a bit of a dick until something mystical or otherwise unexplainable happens to him which causes him to change his way of life in sometimes humorous ways. Also as with many of the Farrelly brothers' movies, while that run of the mill premise serves to draw in audiences, it is the surprisingly emotional story and multi-dimensional characters which keep the audience around after the dirty jokes have worn out their welcome. In the specific case of Shallow Hal, Jack Black's character is a male chauvinist whose perception is changed so that whenever he looks at an unattractive woman he sees a gorgeous one and vice-a-versa. As I mentioned at the top of this review, the premise here is rather dull, but when Jack Black and Gwyneth Paltrow's characters take over and the toilet humor takes a back seat, the plot thrives rather than becoming boring or humorless. From talking to my peers I'm finding more and more that I'm one of the only people who views some of the Farrelly films such as this one and Stuck On You in this light, but for whatever reason I came away appreciating Shallow Hal's story in addition to being entertained by it's comedy.

Galaxy Quest
I'm not a fan of Star Trek by any means, but I'm a big enough science fiction geek that enough of it's mythos have rubbed off on me to allow to fully understand and appreciate the satire provided by this film. Then again, as thick as it lays on the Trekkie stereotypes I'm sure that just about anyone can make the connection. What's rather astonishing is that while essentially serving as one huge wink and a nod to the Star Trek franchise, Galaxy Quest actually manages to become a perfectly worthy franchise of it's own. The characters are likable, the humor doesn't require a great knowledge of Trek lore to be funny, the effects hold up in a sort of "you know that we know that you know it's supposed to look kind of fake" sort of way, and the story actually provides a few good thrills. Galaxy Quest will surely never outshine an actual noteworthy sci-fi tale, but it's close enough to being one itself that it's worth noting. I'd recommend Galaxy Quest to anyone who's into comedies, but especially to nerds like myself who are into comedies. Then of course there are the Tim Allen fans (you know who you are...).

Sleepy Hollow
There are Tim Burton lovers and there are Tim Burton haters. I'm a Tim Burton lover. I don't necessarily like all of his films (Batman, The Corpse Bride, etc.), but for the most part I enjoy being whisked away into the fantasy worlds he creates. While many of Burton's films have the same gothic style, it is one which is original to his work and one which I appreciate. That reasoning goes a long way toward explaining why I like Sleepy Hollow. You've got a quirky Johnny Depp character, an attractive, dark love interest (Christina Ricci), a murder mystery, and lots of blood. I'm not entirely familiar with the original version of the tale of the headless horseman, but I'm fairly certain that Burton took quite a few liberties with the story for his film, which is fine by me. The mystery, while not profound by any means, kept me guessing, and all of the slightly off kilter characters had me sporting a wicked grin all along.

Midnight Cowboy
I went into Midnight Cowboy having essentially no clue what it was about. Really, I only added it to my Netflix queue because I recognized the name as being one which people bring up a lot as being a classic. Going in I didn't even realize that this was the film from which the line "I'm walkin' here!" originated. Needless to say, I was rather surprised to discover that Midnight Cowboy is about a small town guy (Jon Voight) who moves to New York City to become a male prostitute. Along the way he meets a lovable lowlife named Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), with whom he proceeds to live in poverty. For all of the biting social commentary that Midnight Cowboy must have packed when it was released in the late 60's, I've got to say that my ignorant Generation X mind wasn't terribly affected by it. Whenever I watch considerably older films about New York City I tend to feel somewhat disconnected from the story because it's not a depiction of the New York that I'm familiar with. The city isn't a complete shit-hole like it used to be and it takes the right story done by the right director to make me feel at home there while I'm watching a film. Something like Taxi Driver ensnared me with it's characters and situations enough that I had no problems tagging along for the ride, but Midnight Cowboy regrettably didn't garner the same effect. I felt disconnected from the story and was often a bit bored, but from an outsider's point of view I can still see the validity of this film. It just wasn't necessarily for me.

Who Am I?
Some Jackie Chan films are better than others. Some have good plots but lack the mind-boggling fights that others have in droves. Then there are those which have stories which are so bad that they make your head hurt, but enough balls to the wall action to make up for their less than perfect plots. Who Am I? is one of the latter. The story involves some sort of rock which can act as a devastating explosive, so of course there are some evil businessmen trying to get their hands on it. Jackie Chan comes to the rescue, but honestly can't do much to save the weak plot. What he brings to the table here instead of the dramatic performance required to save the story is the masterful choreography and pure, unbelievable physical skill which he is known for worldwide. There are a few tussles between Jackie and the bad guys throughout the film's running time, but it isn't until the final showdown on the roof of a skyscraper between Chan and two well dressed combatants that the action in Who Am I? really hits it's stride. As far as fight scenes in movies are concerned you have two categories: CG enhanced fights and old-school wireless, computer-less fights. While The Matrix or some comic book films may have the upper hand when it comes to the first category, in my opinion nothing beats the final fight scene in Who Am I? The choreography is amazing, the fighting itself looks real, and most amazingly, the interaction with the surrounding scenery is breathtaking. Chan and co. actually staged portions of the fight scene hanging off the side of a skyscraper! With no wires! Can Keanu Reeves do that? I think not. I gave Who Am I? a rating of 5 out of 5 stars, but in reality that rating belongs entirely to this final fight sequence. The rest of the movie is just riding on it's coat tails. Seriously, if you like action movies and you've never seen Who Am I?, then you don't really like action movies. No joke.

What's Eating Gilbert Grape?
As odd as it sounds, I've always wanted to see this film despite never really knowing quite what it was about. I've always thought that it looked interesting, but I never expected it to be quite as good as it turned out to be. What's Eating Gilbert Grape? is technically a touching drama, but I almost prefer to think of it as simply a slice of life film. It's one of those movies which has a lot going on to keep you interested, but isn't necessarily headed toward any particular conclusion that you could see coming. Does that make any sense? The story revolves around a young man named Gilbert Grape (duh) played by Johnny Depp who lives with his two sisters, mentally disabled brother (Leonardo DiCaprio), and extremely obese mother, essentially taking up the role of the man of the house in the absence of their deceased father. When a woman and her daughter (Juliette Lewis) are stranded in the area after their camper breaks down, Gilbert makes his first attempt in years to live a life away from his family with the new girl, but finds that his responsibilities and his personal desires clash a bit more violently than he may have expected. It's really hard to describe what it is about this movie that's so compelling, but suffice to say that within the seemingly unspectacular series of events over the course of the film lies a lot of emotion which I wasn't expecting. Though I may not have the correct words to explain why, I highly recommend What's Eating Gilbert Grape? to audiences of all interests.

Mr. Nice Guy
After obtaining video footage of a drug bust gone bad, a female reporter is on the run from some unsavory individuals. Fortunately for her, she runs into a famous Chinese chef played by Jackie Chan. Chan's character, despite being a kindly cook, always wanted to be a police officer and as such knows his way around a fight scene. Yet another ridiculous set-up for Jackie Chan to kick some ass and take some poorly pronounced names doesn't necessarily sound like much, but as I always say, if Jackie Chan is involved that's reason enough alone to give a movie a shot. Not the best and not the worst Chan movie around, Mr. Nice Guy is simply a fun flick to sit back and watch when you've got nothing better to do and feel like seeing some people getting the crap beaten out of them (and hey, who doesn't like to do that from time to time?). The highlight of this particular action-fest is a fight scene which takes place in a construction site and involves Jackie actually interacting with, and nearly having his limbs chopped off by, actual power tools such as circular saws.

The Cheyenne Social Club
After discovering via a letter that his brother has died, John (Jimmy Stewart) and his fellow cowboy Harley (Henry Fonda) head to the town of Cheyenne to take over the business which he's left them. Assuming based on the name "The Cheyenne Social Club" that the business is a saloon of some sort, John is understandably surprised to discover that the club is in fact a brothel. Taking offense to the idea of running such an establishment, John decides to convert the business into a hotel, which doesn't sit well with the members of the town, many of whom are regular customers of the Club. As you can surely imagine, this film being a western, there are a few bar fights and a shootout or two along the way, but The Cheyenne Social Club is primarily about the humor of the situation John and Harley find themselves in. While I tend to prefer a straight up spaghetti western to a comedic one, every now and then a good film like this one or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is just what the doctor ordered. Likable characters and some raunchy (for it's time) humor make The Cheyenne Social Club simply a fun time in front of your home entertainment system. Not to mention, the duo of Stewart and Fonda is not to be missed.

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