Saturday, July 31, 2010

Io sono l'amore (I Am Love) (2009)

A friend described I Am Love to me thusly: "I liked it a lot, but I read about it first in the New York Times, and it's a very New York Timesy kind of movie." I couldn't agree more. Learning Italian and some Russian for the part, the ever-glamorous Tilda Swinton plays Emma Recchi, an impeccably put-together Russian married to a wealthy Italian businessman and mother to his three children.

Their relationship has been somewhat tepid and rehearsed for years, and she devotes much of her time to running the household, hosting lavish parties, and mentoring her grown children: Edoardo, Jr (Flavio Parenti), who recently was made co-manager of the family business and hopes to propose to his new girlfriend, Betta (Alba Rohrwacher), whose departure to art school in London has furthered her exploration of lesbian relationships, and Tancredi (Pippo Delbon), who doesn't really do much and as a character really seems like an afterthought. Edoardo, Jr introduces his mother to young chef Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), sparking within both a sudden lustful desire upon which Emma can't help but act.

Incorporating a range of decadent, colorful settings and some mouthwatering close-ups of fine foods, I Am Love is a lush film. It builds gradually, layering on strains of vibrant instrumental music and quick cuts detailing the everyday events of a wealthy Italian home. Eventually the lavish visuals culminate in an intense and intimate sex scene and a melodramatic and rainy (of course) funeral. Story-wise it is sort of a modern-day version of The Awakening, though the "modern" element is often forgotten in favor of antiquated gender roles and manners.

Swinton is, as usual, quite magnificent in the role of Emma, a woman whose history has all but been stamped out of her so that she can become the perfect trophy wife and mother, and whose passion has been relegated to gourmet meals and lanky dresses. Her re-assessment of herself and her position is slow and at times meandering, allowing for certain nuances and closely observed small moments. There are numerous secondary characters, most of whom seem extraneous and serve only to weigh her down or keep her from reaching fulfillment, but I loved the few scenes with Betta, her daughter. Her own blossoming of sexuality mirrors her mother's, and I would have been really interested if her tale had been expanded upon and told in a sort of parallel structure.

I Am Love is an undeniably beautiful film, both in visuals and sentiment. The captivating performance from Swinton and carefully-crafted cinematography will entice any discerning filmgoer, but the slow-moving story and strange blend of quiet, simple dialogue with a few over the top theatrical moments keep it from fully affecting me on a more emotional level. It's always wonderful to see such forthright depiction of female sexuality, but the old-fashioned interactions and choices in a contemporary setting seem misplaced. While a wealthy and repressed wife finding happiness with a younger, lower-class man is a major stride in earlier times, it seems somewhat lacking today, amidst the range of lifestyles women can have that don't involve men taking care of them. On the other hand, the film can serve to remind us that such backwards notions about women still exist, and if you want to see that story played out expertly, certainly see I Am Love.



Friday, July 30, 2010

Movie Sketch Project #1

Here we go, unveiling the Movie Sketch Project (such clever titling, I know), the new thing in which every week I make a piece of art that connects to a movie I saw that week. Yeah. I'm starting it off with a still from The Girl Who Played With Fire, depicting Lisbeth in possible zombie make-up. Here you will see some of my trademarks as an artist- the lack of motivation to ever do a good job on hair or clothing, no background, and other general signs of laziness. Otherwise I think it looks good, especially since I haven't drawn more realistically for a while. So go, click ahead to see it if you must. I'd recommend full-viewing it.

Also: if by some unexpected reason you ever like something I drew well enough to pay small amounts of dollars for it, please let me know, and I can start selling things through etsy.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

Cube (1997)

You might recall Caitlin recommending this on our sci-fi episode of Some Cast It Hot, which certainly propelled my viewing, so thanks Caitlin! An impressive low-budget debut from writer/director Vincenzo Natali (most recently of Splice fame), Cube throws a group of people with little in common and no connection to one another in an unfathomably large structure filled with multi-colored cube-shaped (heh!) rooms. Each room is potentially laid with lethal, gruesome traps, and there is no sustenance or water provided.

Quentin (Maurice Dean Wint) immediately takes charge as a level-headed cop, but he's often challenged by conspiracy theorist nurse Holloway (Nicky Guadagni). They find use for college student Leaven's (Nicole De Boer) math skills as they attempt to navigate themselves to any kind of exit while avoiding deadly traps. Eventually the questions of "Why are we here? What links us together? What have we done?" are abandoned in favor of sheer survival instincts, and everyone gradually becomes more and more... testy.

With a few well-placed colored walls and a great concept, Natali crafts an intriguing and smart sci-fi thriller that forgoes effects-driven fanfare to delve into the darker side of human nature arising from fear, isolation, and desperation. The evolution of the characters throughout their trek is fascinating and unexpected, as their situation brings out the worst and best of everyone. The performances are pretty good, with Maurice De Wint wholly devoting himself to a multi-layered personality and Nicky Guadagni serving as a nice foil to his testosteroney (but sensible) leadership in the earlier scenes. David Hewlett as the jaded, guilt-ridden office drone Worth was the standout for me, putting in a charismatic and thoughtful performance. Nicole De Boer is a little weak and flat, but I liked her glasses and it's cool when a lady can do math.

The lack of anything super science-fictiony really suits Cube well. Natali places his trust almost solely on the strength of his characters and the compelling mystery surrounding their placement in the cube, and leaving many questions unanswered or unasked just increases the film's ability to captivate. The dialogue can be a little heavy-handed or melodramatic at times, and most of the film is conversation, but the few breaks of sinister metallic traps and surprise violent outbursts keep it interesting. Visually, the minimalist approach and almost alien/Tron-like sets serve to constantly remind us of the overall enigma of the proceedings, but the multiple fade-out montages are a bit silly. While it certainly isn't perfect, Cube is a truly intriguing and imaginative film that generally rises above its low-budget trappings with intelligence and style.


PS This is SPOILERY so don't say I didn't warn you, but here is something about the movie I found unfortunate: Why did the black guy have to end up the villain? In the beginning, I was like, hey cool here's an in-charge black person who is keeping things sensible for all these wimpy white guys. It seems fairly rare for non-white actors to have major heroic roles in Western science-fiction films, so I was pleased at the change. But then of course it turns out he's a vicious dude with anger problems and a murderous streak, and he's going to chase down all the white heroes. Damn. Character-wise it's a good twist, definitely, and I'm assuming no one was cast according to race, it's just too bad it worked out that way.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Stingray Sam at 366 Weird Movies

Hey dudes, so you might have noticed that I started contributing some reviews to the excellent 366 Weird Movies, one of my favorite film sites. They're gradually compiling a list of 366 of the best weird movies, one for each day of the year (and an extra for leap year). It's a really cool project, and I'm so excited to be a part of it. So far most of my reviews are sort of lengthened and edited versions of posts I've already had on this site, so there's little cause for fanfare, but today my review of Cory McAbee's wonderful serial Stingray Sam is up. I never wrote about it for Film Forager since it's an hour long and not technically a movie, but it's totally rad and I'd love if you went over there and gave it a read!

Stingray Sam Review at 366 Weird Movies!


The Invisible Man (1933)

I'm severely deficient in my classic horror experience (no Frankenstein or Dracula or The Mummy or anything!), and the inclusion of the original The Invisible Man on the sci-fi list encouraged me to at least hop on this one for now. Based on the book by HG Wells, the film stars Claude Rains as Dr Jack Griffin, a scientist whose experiments with the drug "monocane" has rendered his body completely invisible. Wrapped in bandages, he escapes to a small, rural town hoping to find the antidote in peace, but the townspeople's curiosity uncovers his secret and he attacks in a transparent rage.

Meanwhile, his boss Dr Cranley (Henry Travers), co-worker Dr Kemp (William Harrigan), and girlfriend Flora (Gloria Stuart) worry that Jack's gone missing. When Cranley discovers he's been working with monocane in his lab, he fears for his psychological stability as the drug is known for causing terrible violence and anger in animal subjects. Turns out, Jack's become rather unhinged, and will manipulate with his newfound powers anyone he finds useful in his drive to find a cure.

I haven't read the book, or seen any other of the many versions/sequels, so most of my knowledge came from a few iconic scenes and images of the Invisible Man taking off his bandages. The effects are really quite impressive, and I was almost completely sold on the concept despite a few clumsy prop movements. Rains is so dignified and emotive in his performance, he really creates a believable, memorable character out of a man whose face is completely covered in bandages and sunglasses for most of the film. I liked Harrigan as the cowardly Kemp, too, but most of the other characters are forgettable. The only two women are completely useless, with inn mistress Una O'Connor belting out one of the most annoyingly piercing, prolonged screams I've ever heard, and love interest Gloria Stuart just floating about in shapeless dresses looking vaguely concerned. Eh, it was the 30's, I guess.

The story is interesting, bemoaning the dangers of too much science and the overconfidence of man against nature, et cetera, but it's pegged as a horror story when it isn't scary at all. Jack's alleged murderous madness and terrible powers aren't felt acutely, just mentioned in dire tones and inferred by the secondary characters. Had the script focused more on the science-fiction elements, it would be more successful as a story instead of struggling as a horror movie. I will say, though, that the score by Heinz Roemheld is decidedly eerie and tinged the proceedings with a creepy atmosphere. The Invisible Man primarily rides on the strengths of its talented lead actor and impressive special effects, with a mediocre narrative and under-used supporting cast. But at 71 minutes, it's so short that it's worth it for anyone to see at least once.



Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Special Announcement: Movie Sketch Project

They will look better than this, this is very oldHey guys, so I'm eliminating my short-lived and infrequently updated poll segment (I know it will be sorely missed, so few blogs have movie polls!) but I'm not very good at thinking up questions and I've thought of something better to replace it. For those interested, the last poll concerning fake movies within movies saw (to my surprise) Son of Rambow winning with "Other" and Tropic Thunder in second place. I feel very sheepish for forgetting the Grindhouse trailers, so let's not talk about it.

Moving on.

So here's thing thing: I like to make art sometimes, that's cool I guess. But without art classes to spur me on I've been falling out of the habit and I don't want that to happen. I've decided to do a new project that will combine my mutual love of art and movies, and put it on the internet so I'll be motivated to actually do it. Basically I'm going to try and do a sketch every week relating to a movie I saw that week, and I'll post it here, probably every Friday (or whatever day I feel like). I'm sure sometimes I won't get around to it, and sometimes I'll end up drawing a non-movie thing. But overall I think this is a good idea for me personally, and I'm just going to hoist it onto you all (you're welcome).

If you're not into art or think my drawing sucks, that's totally cool and probably likely, but if you dig it or just have something to say, I'd appreciate any feedback you have when I start posting images.

Ok. Good talk, team. Over and out.


Flickan som lekte med elden (The Girl Who Played with Fire) (2009)

The second installment in the increasingly-popular book series from Stieg Larsson, The Girl Who Played with Fire continues the dark, mystery-driven tale of ex-con hacker Lisbeth Salandar (Noomi Rapace) and investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist). Returning to Stockholm from a sunbathed stint at an island resort, Lisbeth quickly discovers she's been framed for murder.

The corpses in question are a couple who'd been researching a Southeast Asian sex-trafficking ring patronized by several influential Swedish men. One of them worked for Blomkvist's Millenium magazine, killed right before he would have published the names of several of the operation's powerful customers. Mikael instantly recognizes that Lisbeth isn't the murderer and searches through the sex ring's known names to find the truth, while she learns some surprising details about her absent family members.

While the first film was both an intriguing character study and intricate mystery- and primarily dealt with these themes separately- the sequel brings a new mystery that's much more personal for the characters and also much more action-packed. Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of further developing and showcasing the strengths of Lisbeth and Mikael. They spend 99% of the film apart, and she spends most of it alone and silent, so much of the narrative is Lisbeth running around trying to steal information from those involved in her frame-up, and Mikael running around trying to find Lisbeth through her sometime-lover Miriam and boxing partner Paolo (an actual real-life boxer). Meanwhile there are various gruff-faced henchmen set on taking them all out to protect the secrecy of their sex-trafficking ring. There really isn't much time for meaningful conversation or attention to character.

That being said, The Girl Who Played With Fire does work quite well as an intriguing mystery/thriller with its fast pace and menacing new villains. Lisbeth has plenty of chances to be badass and in control, which are the main qualities we all like about her, plus she goes undercover a few times with a hideous blonde wig! Exciting. As Mikael tries to track her down as well as find the real killer, he learns some shocking facts about her past and the life-altering incident that was only hinted in the first film. It was great to be given more insight into her history and personality, but I think the film missed an opportunity to have Lisbeth really respond to it. Mikael gains the information himself, and she is later confronted with an aspect of it (trying not to be spoilery, sorry), but it's never actually discussed.

I feel like I'm really bad-mouthing this film, but I thought it was quite good. I loved the action, mystery, and new characters, and was happy as long as Noomi Rapace was given a chance to shine as Lisbeth. It's a more straightforward kind of story than the first, and while enjoyable as a thriller, it misses some opportunities to focus more on its characters (poor Mikael basically becomes an information dump). Had this been a movie by itself without its more complex, nuanced first installment, I probably would have been wholly satisfied, but I couldn't help looking back to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo while watching its sequel. I assume the book handles things better.


Original art for this film (available on etsy)

Further Reading:
Dark of the Matinee review
The Flick Chick review


Monday, July 26, 2010

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

I can't even estimate how long this has been on my "to-watch" list, and it took a quiet night in alone and frivolous mood to finally get to it. A Fish Called Wanda concerns a seemingly simple bank heist that launches into a series of cons and double-crossings when the lead robber is arrested. There's a complex set of shifting loyalties, wacky schemes, and attempted murders, all of which lead to hilarious results.

It goes something like this: Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is an American living in London and dating diamond thief George (Tom Georgeson), with the intention of leaving him after the big heist for idiotic weapons expert Otto (Kevin Kline), who poses as her brother. After George is arrested, Wanda and Otto discover that he's hidden the diamonds and so they embark on a complicated quest to find their location and make a South American getaway. They set their sights on their stammering, animal-loving cohort Ken (Michael Palin)- the only person George completely trusts- and his uptight lawyer Archie (John Cleese, who also co-wrote).

The incredible strengths of its cast are central to its success. Anchored by an adorable Michael Palin, easily-ruffled Kevin Kline, and progressively goofier John Cleese, the film is really a showcase for the talents of Jamie Lee Curtis. Her character is the smartest and most likely to betray anyone around her, and she is the catalyst for most of the narrative's action. Curtis is sleek, sexy, and effortlessly funny as Wanda, and her interactions with Kline and Cleese are priceless. Everyone involved puts in appropriately over the top performances that propel the story's slight mania.

With a quick pace and hilarious, unpredictable script, A Fish Called Wanda makes up for losing its initial heist/con artist set up and moving into unexpectedly seductive/legal/fish-eating territory. The fast dialogue and constant uncertainty about anyone's motivations keep the film as utterly absorbing as it is funny, then the filmmakers up the ante with the addition of guns, lingerie, and botched homicides. There are some great digs at American and British culture, and a few ridiculous sight gags that I loved. Basically: this is a Really Good Movie.



Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010)

Yeah so I was psyched for this movie, whatever. I love magic and Jay Baruchel, so what? Inspired by the titular segment in Fantasia, The Sorcerer's Apprentice envisions a modern-day disciple of Merlin named Balthazar (Nicolas Cage) living in New York City and searching tirelessly for the great wizard's destined successor. He meets Dave (Jay Baruchel) when he's 10 years old and upon discovering that he's The One, traumatizes the poor kid with an explosive battle against Horvath (Alfred Molina), a follower of the evil Morgana who seeks to release the great sorceress from Balthazar's magical mini-prison, where he trapped her centuries ago.

Dave grows up to be a reserved physics genius harboring a crush for former classmate Becky (Teresa "Possibly Kristen Stewart With Blond Hair" Palmer), and is grudgingly reunited with Balthazar and encouraged to tap into his magical potential so he can ultimately defeat Morgana if and when she escapes, hoping to foil her plan to raise a zombie army. Along the way they fend off Horvath and several more of her powerful followers, including a British would-be David Blaine (Toby Kebbell).

One of the tendencies from my youth to which I continue to cling is a predilection for epic fantasy stories that revolve around youths destined for greatness and climax in magical battles. I'm not talking about Tolkien, but the likes of Edward Eager, Terry Brooks, Tamora Pierce, TA Barron, Gail Carson Levine, and Debra Doyle/James D Macdonald. Movies like The Sorcerer's Apprentice can still spark that part of me, but I rarely appreciate them the way I would have as a kid. Oh well, I still have my copies of The Scions of Shannara, Ella Enchanted, and The Lost Years of Merlin on my bookshelf, which I do revisit from time to time.

Decades-old fantasy lit geekery aside, this movie is very hit and miss. Jay Baruchel is excellent, rocking the awkward charm and sarcastic humor, doing his best to save the film from a lackluster script and surprisingly bland performance from co-star Cage. Alfred Molina relishes his turn as the villainous Horvath, sneering like a pro and eloquently dismissing everyone he meets. Toby Kebbell is unexpectedly enjoyable as the gothed up magician Drake Stone, but sadly his screen time is limited. Teresa Palmer is pretty boring as Becky The Love Interest, but it's not really her fault that her character is so underwritten.

The effects are pretty cool and I dug the many magic battles between Cage and Morgana's followers, even if the final scene was underwhelming. The plot itself is unevenly paced, speeding up certain developmental moments and taking its time with less important matters (the first flashback? SO unnecessary). The over-arching story sticks to archetypal norms, never offensively bad but just keeping things mediocre and predictable. The strength of its more committed cast members and my love for all things magic-related kept me watching, but I was never fully into it. Ah, to be a less-discerning child once again...


PS Anyone seeing this for Monica Bellucci, it isn't worth it. She's in one scene and there's barely any cleavage in her Medieval Times dress. Just watch Shoot Em Up instead.

PPS I always feel sorry for Morgana. This movie is totally perpetuating the anti-powerful-women stereotype. Notice there was never any consideration that Merlin's successor might be a lady? Hmmph.

Further Reading:
Movie Mobsters review
Not Just Movies review


Friday, July 23, 2010

Some Cast It Hot: Episode 2

Alright! Our second episode of Some Cast It Hot is here, featuring a roundtable discussion of Moon and cerebral sci-fi films, along with movies we'd recently watched, what it's like to hear responses from filmmakers, and the lack of ladies in animated films. I'm joined by Allison from Nerdvampire, Caitlin from 1,416 and Counting, and Sasha from The Final Girl Project. We've switched servers so make sure you update your subscriptions. It isn't available directly from the itunes store yet but if you go to the podomatic page you can subscribe through itunes there.

Please give it a listen and let us know what you think! Leave a comment on any of our blogs or email us at somecastithot(at)

This episode includes:
What we last watched- Sex and the City, Space is the Place, Never Sleep Again, Superstonic Sound: The Rebel Dread
Review of Moon
Cerebral sci-fi recommendations- The Navigator, Timecrimes, Cube, Logan's Run
Tangential discussion about animated films and other things- Toy Story 3, Cars, Sita Sings the Blues, Monsters vs. Aliens, Fear of Clowns


Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore (1997)

My love for female-centric indie movies has led me to the most obscure one yet: Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore, a low, low, low-budget exploration of sex and coming of age. Written, directed, produced, and shot by Sarah Jacobson, the film examines a circle of coworkers at a Midwest art house theater from the perspective of Jane (Lisa Gerstein), a high school senior perpetually confused and intrigued by the possibilities of sex.

At the story's opening she loses her virginity to a jerk on their first date, hates it, and proceeds to grill her more experienced coworkers about their first times. She navigates the realms of masturbation, cunnilingus, pushy theatergoers, and final exams, aided along the way by her friends, punk rock shows, movie references, and alcohol. Throughout the film Jacobson splices in parodies of stereotypical movie sex scenes.

"Low budget" barely describes the feel of this movie. It's fuzzy (I watched the VHS transfer, and I'm pretty sure it was never put on DVD), poorly lit, awkwardly plotted, and sometimes badly acted, all with choppy sound quality. Despite its limitations, Mary Jane cuts to the heart of so many teenage experiences with honest dialogue and unflinching depictions of sex. I wish I had seen this movie when I was a pre-teen, as it certainly discusses these issues in a more truthful and open way than my middle school or Catholic high school health teachers did. The acting is hit-and-miss, but the realistic dialogue elevates the performances and makes the characters more believable. The interview style utilized for many of Jane's conversations heightens the realism to some documentary-like shots.

There's an excellent soundtrack, some cool punk rock characters, and a surprise appearance from Jello Biafra, lending the film a grungy mid-90's subculture vibe that I always love. Jacobson imbues her characters with details and quirks that keep it interesting, even though the plot is somewhat scattered and sparse. Mary Jane has its flaws, but I was charmed by its DIY aesthetic and straightforward storytelling. It rides the line between drama and comedy quite well, and its depictions of and conversations about sex are refreshingly blunt and relatable. This is the kind of movie young people should be watching for positive ideas about sexuality- boys and girls alike. Tragically, Jacobson passed away in 2004 and this will remain her only feature.



Thursday, July 22, 2010

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

I love being home and taking advantage of all the movie channels my parents get- I caught parts of Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Mannequin 2: On the Move, The Frisco Kid, and Reality Bites. Good times all around, but no reviews since I didn't see them in full. On the last day of my visit I took time to re-watch Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which I hadn't seen for many a year. The fabulous Amy Heckerling's directorial debut and Cameron Crowe's first screenplay (adapted from his own nonfiction book), the film is a somewhat uneven fusion of coming-of-age drama and wacky 80's teen comedy with early appearances from a lot of soon-to-be-famous actors.

Set around a group of students who work at the local mall, the story primarily concerns Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a freshman experimenting with sex and dating for the first time, and her brother Brad (Judge Reinhold), a senior whose supervising position at a burger place makes him overconfident and hastens his plan to break up with his long-time girlfriend (Amanda Wyss) so he can have a swinging final year. Their exploits tie into those of Linda (Phoebe Cates), Stacy's best friend who only goes for older men, Rat (Brian Backer), a shy theater employee with the hots for Stacy, Mike (Robert Romanus), a big-talking scalper, and of course Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn), a pothead surfer who inadvertently terrorizes his history teacher (Ray Walston).

I remembered Fast Times as a rollickin' feelgood teen comedy with lots of sex and rock and roll. Its most iconic scenes involve Spicoli goofing off or Pheobe Cates disrobing in slow-motion, so I doubt I'm alone in this. For the most part it is a comedy, though not especially wacky- its humor lies in the remarkably misled utterances of its know-it-alls and the adorably awkward moments into which their bad advice leads the less-confident characters. Spicoli's scenes are, of course, in a world of their own and offer some excellent sound-bites of a young Sean Penn with surfer-bro affectations and a frequent case of the munchies.

The cast is huge, offering a variety of over the top characters but avoiding most high school movie stereotypes. Reinhold is too goofy to justify his popular status, but I think that's part of the joke (and he does rock the pirate costume), and while Rat is mentioned to be a nerd, he's portrayed as a pretty average guy who just happens to get good grades. He doesn't even wear glasses. If you want to see Jennifer Jason Leigh and Phoebe Cates topless, then this sure is the movie for you (as long as you don't mind cuts of a dude's butt in the first case and Judge Reinhold masturbating in the latter). I really enjoyed Cates' understated comedic role as the supposedly experienced Linda, who may or may not be a pathological liar in her attempts to seem mature but is undeniably sexy either way.

What throws Fast Times off for me is that it treads into very serious territory in the third act, in a very sudden way, and it just doesn't fit the overall tone. I think Crowe and Heckerling sought to provide an honest and bold representation of high school life with comedic elements- like a raunchier John Hughes before John Hughes was even a thing- but it isn't executed well enough and the dramatic moments feel forced. Seeing that it's the first effort from both, I'll forgive them. It's still an enjoyable film, with some memorable characters and a bit of a who's-who of the next decade's big actors (there are even small appearances from Eric Stoltz, Forest Whitaker, and Nicolas Cage- as Nicolas Coppola).



Special Announcement: The Film Enigma

Oh yeah, Family Double Dare is where it's at
Hello friends, so everybody's favorite Kurosawa freak Univarn has started up a really cool movie trivia game show called The Film Enigma. I took part in the first episode along with the clever Mad Hatter, and both of us are forced to think on our feet and try not to suddenly inexplicably forget everything we ever knew about movies (this may or may not happen to me). Give it a listen and let Uni know what you think!


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Inception (2010)

Disclaimer: This review has three segments (separated by images) for those who haven't seen it. The first part is a general summary, the second is a spoiler-free response, and the third will be spoiler-heavy. Alright.

Oh my god it's here! And it's now irrelevant to talk about since it's been like four days already! Oh well. The overly-anticipated, insanely secretive thriller Inception, from that guy you've maybe heard of, Christopher Nolan, is a daunting effort in psychological dream-scapes and hypothetical science-fiction. Hard-headed thief Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) practices his trade in the realm of dreams, using special technology to infiltrate the sleeping mind and steal information.

His former target Saito (Ken Watanabe), a powerful Japanese business executive, hires him to perform "inception"- the act of implanting an idea in a person's head to facilitate a specific outcome. Cobb rounds up a team complete with a forger (Tom Hardy), chemist (Dileep Rao), dreamer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and brand-new architect (Ellen Page) to complete the job, with the promise that Saito will use his connections to clear Cobb's name of a frame-up murder charge so he can see his children again. Marion Cotillard and Cillian Murphy show up, too, but I'll leave you to find out in what context.

With its high-concept premise, imposing visuals, and incredibly good-looking multi-national cast, Inception is an impressive and thought-provoking addition to the primarily lackluster movie offerings of 2010. It's quite long (and could have stood to lose 15 minutes or so), but the fast-moving plot and complex twists and turns were enough to wholly engage me for the entire running time. I'm still not wholly won over by Leonardo DiCaprio as a dynamic leading man, but I liked him quite a bit here even though he furrows his brow too much. All in all it's a fascinating, action-packed thriller with an intricate story and great performances. It's not as ambiguous or confusing as the marketing would have you think, providing more exposition than I expected and saving the ambiguity for the ending, where it should be.

For the most part, Inception draws from common archetypes and plot devices but wraps them up in a multi-layered (in more ways than one, heh heh) narrative with inventive sci-fi elements. There's a man with a haunted past, a "one-last-job", a rounding-up-the-team montage, and a crazy housewife. The addition of instantly-likable characters and high-stakes pacing increases its storytelling success, and the weird, complicated narrative structure makes it all the more intriguing. Enjoying the multiple plot layers and trippy material, I almost lamented the large amount of exposition and surprising realism-based visuals.

Let's talk about the cast: Leo is good, but less interesting than any other character. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is so. incredibly. attractive. Especially in a three-piece suit and zero gravity (swoon). Ellen Page is excellent as always, and I'm so glad to see her in a role that didn't single out her youth. Marion Cotillard is well-dressed and sort of terrifying in a captivating way. Tom Hardy is goofy and British, and I'm suddenly looking forward to the Mad Max reboot a lot more. Ken Watanabe started off in control and potentially badass but loses it quickly when he's injured. Pout. Dileep Rao charms in a sadly limited role, just like he did in Drag Me to Hell. Cillian Murphy... awww.

In general I really enjoyed Inception- its thrilling story and impeccably dressed characters reeled me in easily, and I loved the surreal atmosphere, doom-laden music, and inventive dream-world quirks. The biggest drawback is the severe lack of character development for anyone who isn't Leonardo DiCaprio. I was much more interested in how Ellen Page was adjusting to this new world, and how Tom Hardy's disguises worked, and how Marion Cotillard became involved in the dream-exploration game, and anything about Joseph Gordon-Levitt. DiCaprio's trauma is affecting, but too much time is devoted to it. However, I've justified this situation by choosing to believe the "it was all a dream" theory, which would suggest that the other characters (well perhaps with the exception of Page) are projections of DiCaprio's subconscious and would only need to serve certain specific functions.

Inception is stylish, engaging, imaginative, and thought-provoking, and while it doesn't live up to the kind of super-weird hype it's been generating, it still serves as a wildly exciting and intelligent summer blockbuster.


PS And yes, everyone should watch Paprika.

Further Reading:
366 Weird Movies review
Cut the Crap review
M Carter at the Movies review
The Rest is Cream Cheese review


Monday, July 19, 2010

Equus (1977)

Some works really are meant to be kept on stage, as evidenced by Sidney Lumet's adaptation of Peter Shaffer's psychiatric drama Equus. Psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Richard Burton) receives a strange case when he's assigned Alan Strang (Peter Firth), a 17-year-old boy who blinded six horses. Dysart conducts sessions with Alan, and finds evasive conversations with his mother (Joan Plowright), father (Colin Blakely), and boss (Harry Andrews), frequently breaking into overdramatic monologues directed at the audience. Alan's fascination with horses is slowly drawn out of him, revealing a strange, religious obsession that seeps into his day-to-day life and triggers sexual confusion and violent outbursts.

With a weird and unpredictable story that gets darker by the minute, Equus is certainly memorable. The uptight conservative Britishness of it all makes for a gradual, surprisingly tense build-up to the truth behind Alan's crime. The solid performances from Burton and Firth ground the film with passion and intensity, especially on the part of Firth. Unfortunately, at 24 he is not visually believable as a conflicted teen, worsened by the fact that Alan's actions and dialogue are often infantile anyway. He's really committed to the role, though, and by the end I was sold. I really liked that Firth portrayed Alan at several different ages, wholly embodying the character.

A few years ago I saw the stage version starring Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths and really enjoyed it for their strong performances and the sparse, stylized staging. The somber and sometimes rambling script is intriguing and impactful on stage, but feels forced onscreen with its fourth wall-breaking theatrics and long, verbose monologues. The play was very aware of itself, not seeking to create any great illusions, and that worked quite well with the nature of the script. Lumet added a level of iconographic aesthetics and direct shooting style that doesn't quite fit, especially for the final scene. Schaffer adapted his script for the screen himself, and I guess he couldn't edit himself well enough to adjust the more theatrical monologues and conversations for a more realistic medium.

Equus is still a unique and captivating story with a great cast (loved seeing a youngish Joan Plowright as Mrs Strang!), it just works better as a stage play. I have to give it points for the large amount of full-frontal male nudity, though, which was groundbreaking for the time.


PS Yes, yes I've seen Daniel Radcliffe close-up (from the third row!) and hella naked.


Sunday, July 18, 2010

Rain Man (1988)

It's weird, when I went through my Dustin Hoffman phase in high school, I saw a bunch of his less important movies and have continued to miss out on his major roles. Among them was Rain Man, which doubled as one of the many, many, many Tom Cruise movies I've never seen, so really I was overcoming two hurdles at once. Good for me. Inspired in character by the savant Kim Peek, the film thrusts asshole Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) into an unplanned road trip with his long-lost autistic brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman).

The cash-strapped businessman Charlie is left out of the will of his recently-deceased, withholding father, and discovers the money is entrusted to an autistic older brother he never knew about, having been contained in an institution for decades. He effectively kidnaps Raymond and drags him across the country to fight for custody and reclaim his inheritance. Along the way Charlie is forced to adjust his selfish attitude while learning about his brother's specific needs and habits, and Raymond finds himself outside his restricted comfort zone for a very extended period of time. Eventually Charlie puts Raymond's incredible memory and mathematical skills to use in Las Vegas.

Too much of this movie is Tom Cruise being an unsympathetic dick, and I think that's probably its biggest flaw. Charlie is selfish, money-obsessed, overconfident, and often cruel. I could see from the beginning that he would learn about sharing or something by the end because of his new responsibility and relationship with Raymond, but he is so awful for the most of the film that I didn't even want him to learn a lesson. I didn't care if he became a better person. It's not entirely Cruise's fault (although his seemingly natural smugness doesn't really help), but stems from the evolution of the script and its treatment of the character. There are some sweet, endearing moments shared between Charlie and Raymond, and I'm not de-legitimizing their relationship, I just didn't feel that Charlie was believably redeemable.

Rain Man is all about Dustin Hoffman, anyway, who earns his Oscar with a closely-studied performance replete with tics, anxiety attacks, compulsive movements, and memorable conversational habits. He's likable and sympathetic without betraying his avoidant nature or dislike of physical contact, and I'm glad there wasn't some attempt to "make him better" or something by the end. Apparently Hoffman spent a lot of time with autistic men and women (including Kim Peek) for research, and he portrayal never resorts to caricature. And he gets in some good jokes.

Story-wise, it's interesting and well-paced, with close attention to the gradual development of the brothers' relationship. I love the road movie format, which sets itself up for fun characters to meet along the way as well as gorgeous shots of the Midwest and Southwest countryside. The subplot of Charlie's relationship with girlfriend Susanna (Valeria Golino) is under-written and unnecessary, only serving to make me care even less about Charlie as a character and yell at the screen for her to just break up with him already since she seemed sort of sensible. With the intricacies of his experiences and history with Raymond, a half-assed romance is not needed.

Rain Man is a pretty good movie, but doesn't really scream "Best Picture Winner" to me. Then again, most movies that are nominated don't.



Friday, July 16, 2010

Nobody Wants Your Film (2005)

Well my comrade is easily enticed by obscure movies featuring Sam Rockwell and Peter Dinklage, so with little other background knowledge we checked out Nobody Wants Your Film, a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of Alexandre Rockwell's 13 Moons. Filmmaker Peter Judson follows cast and crew members around as they work, interviews the main players in his car, and captures alternate views of scenes in the film. Emails sent between the director, writer, and distribution companies appear throughout, alluding to the filmmakers' difficulty getting distribution while on the festival circuit.

To be honest, I don't have a lot to say about this film (shocker, right?). It's overly stylized in its filming style, constantly shifting to high contrast, altered color, or slow motion effects with little apparent reason. The interviews aren't very insightful or informative, often comprised of conversational in-jokes or references, and there's almost no descriptive hints as to who's onscreen or what's being discussed. Really, I'm pretty sure this movie was made for the people in it and anyone involved in 13 Moons, and so it doesn't do much for any other audience. It isn't any kind of scintillating exposé of how independent films find or don't find distribution, nor is it a telling behind-the-scenes examination of the making of an indie film. It's just a bunch of nameless people hanging out, often talking about movies or acting. And for the most part it's really boring.

Fans of Sam Rockwell: he's in it for about 3 minutes and it's not interesting. Fans of Peter Dinklage: He's engaging (as always) in his one interview, but again, nothing very interesting is said. Fans of Steve Buscemi: He never actually gets an interview, and most of his footage can be found in 13 Moons itself. Same goes for Peter Stormare and Karyn Parsons.

Even though it apparently isn't very good (which is quite possibly why "nobody wanted it"), I will say that this doc has piqued my interest in 13 Moons. The clips shown are just so weird that I can't possibly determine their context on my own, so I just might have to see the whole thing for myself.



Thursday, July 15, 2010

Predators (2010)

I don't know if this trend of making sequels to decades-old films is going to become a popular thing, but if Predators is any indication of their general quality, then I'm cool with it. A group of armed men and one woman wake up mid-air falling into a mysterious jungle. Upon landing, they eventually determine that it's an alien game preserve established for predator aliens to hunt. Lone wolf mercenary Royce (Adrien Brody) and aggressive soldier Isabelle (Alice Braga) fight for dominance while attempting to navigate the jungle and learn about their assailants. As they travel together, certain revelations about each individual add additional hurdles to their trial.

With engaging action scenes, a shitload of big guns, a swordfight, maulings, crazy Laurence Fishburne, explosions, and scattered tongue-in-cheek humor, Predators forges an engaging new installment in the series while appropriately referencing the original film. The characters are fairly interesting, and they don't die in the expected order (mostly)! I dug the Russian soldier Nikolai, hauling around that gargantuan gun with ease, and of course Danny Trejo is badass as anything even in his limited role. While many might not believe Brody as a hardened, seasoned killer, he manages to be gruff and cold enough to pull it off. His character and Alice Braga's Alice almost instantly launch themselves into a hard stare-y metaphorical dick-measuring contest, and I loved that their relationship veered away from cliche- they come into it as equals and remain that way throughout, without the requisite sexual tension in so many action movies.

Predators has a lot going for it, but falls a bit flat with the script. While it's interlaced with some honestly funny moments, it tends to take itself too seriously, making much of the dialogue sound over-dramatic and unintentionally silly. The mental leaps Adrien Brody keeps making to figure out their situation are weirdly unfounded yet always dead-on. The character reveal at the end- while a decent one- is contaminated by a warped shooting style that just serves to confuse, and the expansion of the Predator mythos by splitting them into two species is a cool idea but under-developed.

While certainly flawed, Predators manages to be a really fun, tense thriller with good characters and a solid connection to the original. It could use a script with more thoughtful writing and a lighter tone, but I'm pretty happy with it anyway.


Further Reading:
Brain Tremors review
Joel Crary review
Reel Whore review


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Speed (1994)

Last one from the Dennis Hopper series at the Brattle was Speed! My main not-so-guilty pleasure Keanu Reeves stars as LAPD explosives expert Jack Traven, who wins a personal grudge from bomb-happy terrorist Howard Payne (Hopper) after foiling his hostage plan. Payne sets up an impressively complex new plan to ensnare Jack when he puts a bomb on a city bus that will arm itself when it hits 50 mph, and then detonate if it goes below that speed.

Jack makes it to the bus after it's armed, and spends an adrenaline-infused afternoon receiving instructions from Payne, trying to coordinate with his fellow officers, and directing the impromptu bus driver Annie (Sandra Bullock), who is forced to take over when the official driver is accidentally shot. It's a mad race through urban streets, unfinished highways, and airport runways with Jack's partner/BFFL Harry (Jeff Daniels) working behind the scenes to discover Payne's true identity and figure out a way to disarm the bomb.

Aside from all that thrilling, driving, bomby stuff, Speed is really all about the characters. Say what you will about Keanu, but the man knows how to chew fake gum and sell some cheesy lines. His character is dedicated, personable, and totally awesome at surviving nearby explosions. In her breakout role, Bullock is adorable and funny, aptly controlling a huge bus on careening turns while screaming "Sorry!" every few minutes. Hopper is energetic and engaging, as usual, though his burnt hand sort of grossed me out. The supporting cast sports the delightfully grating Beth Grant, the goofy Alan Ruck, and the awesome Joe Morton.

The fact that the makers of Speed are able to extend the concept of "a bus has to drive fast!" into a two-hour long movie shows skill, but creating a compelling and thrilling action movie? That is actually pretty impressive. It's got some hokey dialogue and ridiculously over the top moments, but this film remains a fun, fast-paced flick with enjoyable characters and a cool villain. Also apparently this is a remake of a Japanese movie called Shinkansen Daibakuha from 1975, though it isn't credited as such. Hmm.


Further Reading:
Watched Instantly review


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Bitch Slap (2009)

In what I can only assume is an attempt to create a sexy grindhouse flick for our times, Rick Jacobson has assembled a team of attractively cleavaged women, a range of gruesome fights, weird CG backgrounds, and numerous references to 70's exploitation movies to produce Bitch Slap. Three foxy ladies- Hel (Erin Cummings), the level-headed leader, Camero (America Olivo), the criminal loose canon, and Trixie (Julia Voth), the naive, air-headed stripper- are driving around the desert with an asshole (Michael Hurst) tied up in their trunk. They seek a buried treasure and are forced to beat its location of him, while continuously bickering amongst themselves (women, am I right?). The search escalates into a series of brutal arguments and physical fights, complemented by nonlinear flashbacks to each woman's position before they teamed up.

The main story/action of Bitch Slap is basically a mash-up of Roger Corman's Swamp Women and Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! What makes it weird is the choppy backstory that adds up throughout the main plot line. Told backwards, it attempts to give motivations and grounding to each character, as well as expose everyone's many secrets, but in actuality it serves only to confuse and often bore. The poorly CG-ed greenscreen and ridiculous outfits are funny, but the actual scenes don't make any sense and are poorly written, laying on needless characters and disconcerting time jumps. The primary story in the desert is more intriguing and better plotted, and could have worked for most of the movie if the screenwriters had crafted it well enough to not require constant explanations of and ruminations on everyone's histories.

With a plethora of cleavage, torn clothing, sweat, lesbian makeouts, and girl-on-girl wrestling, this film certainly scores points for titillation. The ladies do their best to keep viewers' eyes up here, as Erin Cummings flips her gorgeous red hair and speaks with harsh intelligence and America Olivo emits palpable fury with every line. Despite her tight, shiny dress and showy dance moves, Julia Voth is just boring as Trixie, the airhead who may be more than she seems. For a good time, check out the surprising amount of Hercules/Xena cameos from the likes of Kevin Sorbo, Michael Hurst, and Lucy Lawless (writer/director Jacobson worked on both shows).

Equal parts sweaty, violent sexploitation flick and campy espionage parody, Bitch Slap should have been my new favorite thing, but the disconnect between the two segments was obtrusive due to poor writing. Compelling action scenes and badass women only partially make up for the scattered camerawork and lackluster plotting. It's got some good jokes, though, and an explosion or two.



Monday, July 12, 2010

Cyrus (2010)

I missed multiple screenings of this, mostly because I wasn't sure if I wanted to get into the Duplass brothers, but I heard so many good things about it and really need to get out of my stifling apartment (I'm pretty easy to persuade, turns out). Crawling out of their true mumblecore status by employing mainstream actors for the first time, these fraternal indie darlings have crafted a different kind of romantic comedy with Cyrus. The intriguingly craggy John C Reilly plays John, a shy, lonely freelance editor reeling from the news that his ex-wife Jamie (Catherine Keener) is getting re-married.

He grudgingly goes to party hosted by her friends, humoring her attempts to get him to socialize. There he meets Molly (Marisa Tomei), and finds an almost instant connection. After a few short days of perfect conversation and sex, John senses she's hiding something, and soon discovers her 21-year-old son Cyrus (Jonah Hill), a socially inexperienced musician still living at home. He has a very close relationship with his mother, and is unwilling to allow anyone to come between them, thus sparking a passive-aggressive war against John.

With their intimate hand-held camerawork, ultra-low-budget feel, and natural, conversational script, it's clear the Duplasses haven't gone far from their roots despite the addition of experienced actors. The dialogue is still largely improvised, and it's a credit to the cast's perseverance and creativity that it plays out with such realistic flow. The performances are wonderful, with Jonah Hill striving for slightly more dramatic credibility (and doing well!), John C Reilly in a believable self-mocking charm mode, and Catherine Keener just smiling that amazing smile and making me fall more in love. Marisa Tomei is too adorable in her unglamorous frizzy curls and earthy clothing, and I enjoyed her take on this smart, good-natured woman who just can't see the potential unhealthiness of how she raised her son. Also I loved Matt Walsh's small but hilarious role! Always good to see you, guy!

The story itself is interesting but too understated to be fully engaging- there are a lot of missed opportunities for more insightful or more comedic moments that just sort of peter out, though that tendency does serve to make the film even more realistic. Examining a unique but problematic three-way relationship with sweetness and intimacy, Cyrus is a welcome addition to the growing mumblecore depository. Much of its success stems from the clever, sensitive performances and improvisations of its actors, aptly merging indie sensibilities with mainstream experience.


Further Reading:
Black Sheep Reviews review
Frankly My Dear podcast review


Sunday, July 11, 2010

Mad Dog Morgan (1976)

This was supposed to screen at the Brattle Theatre for their Dennis Hopper series, but they weren't able to get a print or something so it was canceled. Undaunted, we got a copy of the dvd and spent an egregiously hot night in to enjoy and ponder the strangeness of Mad Dog Morgan. This infamous Australian exploitation flick stars Hopper as real-life folk hero Dan Morgan, an Irish-Australian thief who's toughened and embittered by a long stint in a gruesome prison.

Upon release he turns back to a life of crime after teaming up with an Aborigine (David Gulpili) who saves his life. Together they become pirate/Robin Hood figures, stealing from rich British people and sometimes helping out poor workers. As their raids continue, the county's police force increases its efforts to track him down and take him in- dead or alive.

Mad Dog Morgan is... very odd. The dvd was released by Troma, and man does it play like an actual Troma movie but with 70's elements. Hopper spends most of the film with a fake beard that gets more ridiculous as time passes, the effects are laden with pseudo gore, and the entire production is so noticeably low-budget it's a wonder they finished it. The script is very loose and contains little structure or actual narrative, opting to tell Morgan's story with short, unconnected scenes of various exploits or conversations. It sort of felt like the filmmakers had never actually seen a movie before, and weren't sure how to fit everything together.

While I was thrown off by its poorly-executed story and sub-par direction, it's hard not to be taken in by Hopper's performance: he's the true centerpiece of this movie. Spending the entire shoot drunk (allegedly to "get into character"), he is a rambling, ranting, trigger-happy anti-hero with an on-again, off-again Irish accent and wacky outbursts. He's almost definitely doing it with Billy (Gulpilli), and their relationship is sort of sweet. Don't expect to learn anything about any character though, this is basically just a showcase for Hopper's trademark craziness hyped up by some zany action scenes. For the most part it's a weird, fun time but it's bogged down by a weak script. An interesting and enjoyable film though, especially for fans of the actor or grindhouse flicks.



Saturday, July 10, 2010

Beautiful Losers (2008)

Exit Through the Gift Shop just wasn't enough- I want more street art documentaries filling up my life! Enter Beautiful Losers, a film from gallery owner Aaron Rose that focuses on a community of artists, skaters, taggers, and filmmakers coming to prominence in the early 1990's, and the sudden explosion of popularity affecting some of them. It starts off without much direction, but becomes more and more interesting as it progresses. Interviews include artists Shepard Fairey and Barry McGee, and filmmakers Harmony Korine and Mike Mills.

For my actual review of the film, check out my article at the Examiner! (please, it will earn me a few cents!)


Friday, July 9, 2010

Some Cast It Hot

Hello, friends, so I too have joined the ranks of movie podcasters recently. Joined by the excellent ladies of The Final Girl Project, Nerdvampire's Film Blog, and 1416 and Counting, we are making our voices heard and our superior opinions known with Some Cast It Hot. Check out our first episode, which is quite freeform and conversational as we discuss our movie and blogging histories, our hatred of Twilight and Keira Knightley, and all manner of delightful subjects to please your ears. Sometimes we even talk about things that aren't movies! Like, books and stuff!

We've developed a structure for future episodes, and have already recorded the second so we know it works! I'll keep you all updated, of course, since right now there's no set schedule (I'm imagining we might record about every 2 weeks). So please give it a listen (it's about 61 minutes) when you have the time, and leave us feedback either on this post or at Thanks in advance! We'll be responding to comments on air in our third episode!



This will soon be on a shirt I can wear*This post is part of the Juxtaposition Blogathon at Pussy Goes Grrr.*

The brainchild of this guy, Everything Explodes Weekend has been a yearly July 4th tradition since 2009, in which explosive action movies are viewed in honor of America. We also consumed beers and hard ciders, freeze pops, Pizza Hut, and many cheese doodles, to further honor our country. Besides explosions and short running times, there was a surprise theme of white dudes wearing dirty tank tops- a totally welcome addition, of course! Press on for short reviews of three rad films that will remind you why America is so great, and also so violent.

Die Hard: With a Vengeance (1995)
We kicked it off with the one we knew would be good, since Miles had seen it already. And it's good to get the longest out of the way. Everybody's favorite hard-nosed cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) is back but now he's hungover and teaming up with Samuel L Jackson for some shirt-muddying, bomb-riddled antics. Once again, a German terrorist (this time it's a bleached-blonde Jeremy Irons) is out to kill a bunch of Americans, and McClane's gotta stop it without losing his ability to crack wise. The script is filled with exciting chases, moments of extreme tension, and a good amount of explosions despite the characters' overall desire to stop the terrorist's attacks. It's a bit long, but really well-done, and I loved Jackson's character and his chemistry with Willis as frenemies. Plus, the lady couldn't talk, which is just the way we like it.

Judge Dredd (1995)
Oh man oh man! Fresh off my new appreciation for Sylvester Stallone, and maintaining my adoration for ridiculous sci-fi, this movie made so much sense to finally watch. In a crumbling future city, Stallone and Diane Lane are "judges" assigned to establish a semblance of order among chaotic citizenry. When he's framed for murder, Dredd grudgingly teams up with hacker Rob Schneider to take down a corrupt ex-judge and his clone army. My goodness. This film is so wonderfully derivative or just plain generic, eliciting shouts of "What is this, Super Mario Bros?" or "What is this, Star Wars?", etc for the entire runtime. The performances are gloriously over the top, with Stallone's "I AM THE LAW!" bringing out the giggles every single time. It's a mess of a movie, and I'm sure it mutilated the comic, but boy howdy did I enjoy myself! Kooky characters, half-formed clones, futuristic motorcycles, and a lot of shouting: what more does a movie need?
As a movie: 1.5/5
As entertainment: 4/5

Hard Target (1993)
John Woo's first American movie (produced and sort of co-directed by Sam Raimi), this is also my first true Jean-Claude Van Damme film, since JCVD isn't among the action movies that made him famous. Lance Henriksen and Arnold Vosloo run a "Most Dangerous Game" agency out of New Orleans that charges millions to let rich guys hunt and kill homeless people, but they're up against a hard target when ex-military/now-homeless guy Chance (a magnificently mulleted Van Damme) becomes their next victim and turns the tables against them. It's a pretty fun time, with a number of well-placed high-kicks and atrocious acting, plus Wilford Brimley shows up as his super-Cajun uncle! I liked a lot of the action sequences, but the story was uneven and the main lady character totally useless and annoying. Mad amounts of explosions though!

UPDATE: Want a shirt with the above design?


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Super Mario Bros. (1993)

The Brattle Theatre has been running a series to honor Dennis Hopper, and to participate we chose to attend not Easy Rider, not The Trip, but the truly classic Super Mario Bros, which I remembered finding hilarious in middle school but my companion remembered more for ruining his favorite video game when he was 7. It centers on plumbers Mario (Bob Hoskins) and Luigi (John Leguizamo), who discover a portal under Manhattan to another dimension in which dinosaurs survived and evolved into a humanoid beings. They follow the kidnapped archaeologist Daisy (Samantha Mathis) to rescue her from the evil overlord King Koopa (Dennis Hopper), who plots to merge the dinosaur and human worlds so he can overtake the mammal population with his de-evolution device. This is actually a movie.

I like to think this film's development went a little like Super Mario World 2, in that it started out as its own original premise and then was adapted to fit the Mario universe: Just change character names and add a few Bob-ombs and you're set! It's so very far from the source material, fans of the game really have to sit back and forget about anything they expected. It's a weird mix of family-friendly hokey humor and darkly dystopic adult-themed sci-fi, giving the whole production a highly uneven, ungrounded effect. The story is extremely ridiculous, the effects are cheesy, the action is sort of boring, the dialogue is poorly written, and the performances are very over the top. This is just not a successful piece of filmmaking.

It is, however, very entertaining! I think at some point all of the actors were like "Fuck it, let's just do this" and as a result we've got John Leguizamo being an adorable idiot, Bob Hoskins dancing with fervor, Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson thwacking each other's heads, Fiona Shaw (Aunt Petunia!) hissing her way to the top, and of course, Dennis Hopper just GOING AT IT as he does. There's an array of inventive technologies, costumes, and sets toying with that specifically 90's idea of a cyberpunk society filled with neon lights, electric cars, and spiked hair. Everything is just so weird and often intentionally campy, it's hard not to laugh along with it.

Nothing makes any sense, but if you just go with it I think Super Mario Bros is an enjoyable, imaginative movie with a wacky Hopper performance ("Where's my pizza?") and shirtless John Leguizamo. Just... try not to think about it too much.

As a film: 2/5
As entertainment: 4/5


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Independence Day (1996)

Thanks, Coolidge After Midnite, for giving us what we all wanted for the July 4th holiday weekend. All I can really say is, "My name is Alex, and Independence Day makes me Proud To Be American," because this movie rocks. The film brings together several stories and characters to detail the events of a major alien invasion of Earth. President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) wakes up with the news that a massive ship has been detected near the moon and is sending out smaller, city-sized vessels to hover over urban centers of the world. Soon enough supergenius David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) picks up a code in their signal for a countdown, and tries to contact his ex-wife Constance (Margaret Colin), an adviser to the president.

Meanwhile, Marine pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith) is on the front lines of a battle with the ship over Los Angeles, as his girlfriend Jasmine (Vivica Fox) tries to meet up with him at the base amidst massive destruction and chaos. Also a group of kids accompany their drunken dad (Randy Quaid) with a group of mobile homes on the run across the desert. Everybody has to come together to fight these damned aliens!

Here's a movie I could watch several times in a row and still find things to enjoy. It's filled to the brim with likable characters, funny dialogue, interesting plot lines, and of course up to ONE THOUSAND explosions. The effects hold up really well, especially with the ship design and explosive mayhem (the aliens themselves are a little costumey). Fun fact: After seeing a behind-the-scenes preview on tv about this movie when I was a kid, I learned for the first time about using models in movies when they showed a 3-foot version of the White House blowing up. Thanks, Independence Day, for teaching me about basic movie technology.

The unexpected dream team of Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum put in the most memorable turns, riddled with character quirks and punchy one-liners, plus actual punching. Oddly enough it sort of takes a while for Smith to actually show up (the joke is that he slept through the initial appearance of the alien ship), and he doesn't have as much screen time as I remembered, which proves he leaves quite an impression as the overconfident, wise-cracking Captain Hiller. Goldblum is doing his best "stuttery mad genius" take, while adding a dose of environmentalism. I have to admit, I sort of have a thing for Bill Pullman (what? weird I know) and I've always loved his idealistic, compassionate President Whitmore. Plus, that speech! When he gave that speech the audience started clapping like crazy and chanting "USA! USA!" and it wasn't ironic- we honestly felt patriotic. Competent Lady Alert: Vivica A Fox is pretty cool here, despite her silly hairstyle.

Its main narrative weakness is the subplot focusing on Randy Quaid and his kids, because it has little bearing on the rest of the main story. However, Quaid is so darned likable and funny in the role it's really not that much of a drawback. Otherwise it's a well-plotted, fast-paced thriller with enough action, tension, humor, and heart to truly make use of its long running time. It's basically the perfect big summer blockbuster, and suits its nominal holiday exquisitely. It's held up well for 14 years, and I can only imagine it'll do the same years from now.