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Monthly Archives: November 2012

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Ten Word or Less Review – Snow White and the Seven CGI Dwarves

Director Rupert Sanders may, I say may, be the next Ridley Scott.  There is no doubt in my mind that he’s capable of crafting some truly amazing imagery with the vast arsenal of Hollywood toys at his fingertips.  Snow White and The Huntsman can effortlessly stand up to any and all comers as one of the years most transcendent looking experiences put to film.  Between watching it and Life of Pi on the same day I had enough visual stimulation to last me for weeks.  Somewhere Guillermo Del Toro sits like a proud papa knowing that his meticulous influence on the appearances of genre films is in full effect.  But after the pride subsides the tears start to flow.  Because Snow White is also without question the single most boring movie experience mounted this year of our lord 2012.

All this resplendent visual opulence sits in service to a regurgitated fairy tale which has more business being a screensaver than an actual movie.  Sanders movie is doubly frustrating because it sits within striking distance of being magnificent.  With just a few nudges here and there it may have been something quite special, but it constantly takes the safe way out, backs down or otherwise becomes a narrative chore.  It never has the balls to outdo it’s big budget brothers and sisters in ways it seems aching to achieve.  A director with more clout, or maybe some Game of Thrones experience, probably could have gotten this thing to where it needed to be.

Its cast is relegated to walking through the overpowering scenery, being swallowed up by the high priced CGI processing power time and time again.  Give Kristen Stewart all the hell you want for being a tepid actress but few if any could hold their own with the screenplay at hand.  It’s a bland experience that I’m sure took the hands of many to make this remedial.  The much touted Charlize Theron steals what scenes she can but the movie forgets her half way through and she’s never as malignant as she needs to be.  Thor is in it.  He’s covered in mud the whole time and has an out of place Scottish accent.  Someone apparently told him they were making a historical epic.  With witches and fairies.  The inclusion of the dwarves feels sadly superfilous and their presentation is bizarre.  Basically seven experienced British actors (Bob Hoskins/Mark Frost/Ray Winstone/Ian McShane, etc.) have their noggins seamlessly sewn onto the bodies of little people playing the dwarves.  It’s a very accomplished but weird effect which serves no discernible purpose in the end.  I can see why little people got so pissed about this movie.  But I guess asking Peter Dinklage to save every piece of costume heavy high fantasy is asking a lot.

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Ten Word or Less Review – The 40-Year Old Virgin, in an iron lung

The Sessions, a delightful, amusing and touchingly sad movie experience, stars John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) as Mark O’Brien, a man unable to move his body since he contracted polio as a child.  Despite his inability to move he’s graduated college and become a poet.  What Mark hasn’t done at his unspecified but advanced age is had sex.  Tasked with writing a magazine article about the sex lives of the handicapped, Mark embarks on an odd journey to overcome his physical and mental issues about the oldest human need.  He first consults his priest (William H. Macy) looking for spiritual guidance, God’s gonna give him a go, and then makes an appointment through his therapist with a sex surrogate played by Helen Hunt.  Their goal?  Get Mark in a place where he’s confident enough and emotionally ready to be with a member of the opposite sex.  How to get there?  They have to practice having sex.

John Hawkes has been hanging around movie backgrounds for decades now.  Such glorious moments in his career include being shot in the face by George Clooney while on fire in From Dusk Till Dawn and being splattered by a passing semi-tractor trailer in Miami Vice.  Years of toiling for the actor finally paid off with an acclaimed, Oscar nominated turn in the indie hit Winters Bone and now Hawkes gets the privilege to carry this small drama.  Contorting his body into a frozen sculpture, Hawkes is completely convincing with his transformation into paralysis.  But Mark is more than a frozen body passing his time in an iron lung.  He’s deeply religious and much of his conflict about sex comes from his devout faith.  He’s also incredibly funny.  Hawkes gives Mark a witty, self-deprecating sense of humor which lightens the mood to no end.  While most actors reach for great depth through tears and motion, Hawkes achieves though facial gesture and a pure sense of empathy.

Hawkes is admirably backed by AWOL movie star Helen Hunt.  The one time marquee actress quickly slipped away into obscurity at century’s turn and has only acted occasionally over the past 12 years.  Approaching 50, Hunt effortlessly embraces a difficult part which requires an enormous amount of nudity on her behalf.  Way to go Helen.  Bashfulness is for scardy cat actresses afraid of seeing theirs boobs on the internet.  Also appearing to remind us how easily he can win over a viewer is William H. Macy as Mark’s priest.  He listens to Mark’s moral quagmires, begrudgingly at first, then with the most amusing look of forelorness.  It’s a small role to be sure but a testament to the ability of a great actor to instill great depth into small moments.

In a sea of award season hoopla, bombastic ad campaigns for ‘important movies’ and billions of dollars being spent on ginormous event flicks, a small achievement like The Sessions is easy to slip away unnoticed but it shouldn’t be skipped.  After you watch James Bond globe trot effortlessly, all while driving a motorcycle onto a train which then crashes into everything and explodes your eyeballs, consider the small tale of a virgin who can’t move.

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No Blade of Grass (1970) – This movie is pretty damn weird.  Think The Walking Dead without zombies and cast with British actors.  Wait.  The Walking Dead is cast with British actors.  Never mind.  So this virus begins killing all the wheat on the planet which leads to global collapse but the British keep on drinking tea, eating rare meat and thinking God and Queen will save their asses.  When it’s clear God and Queen are totally useless we watch a London family take off for the hills of Scotland where an Uncle will supposedly take them in on his unaffected farm.  As soon as they leave the city they’re in Mad Max territory.  Biker gangs, rapist, once good folk doing awful things to survive.  Where does all this leather come from so quickly?

Director Cornel Wilde has a bold, unflinching concept to work with but his effort here makes him look like a hack.  His movie Naked Prey from just a few years before seemed to indicate otherwise.  Every scene that strikes a tone of genuine shock or skill is bookeneded by weird moments which can only be described as tone deaf in its Britishness.  A mother and daughter are raped at the hands of a passing motorcycle gang who then kill their attackers.  Afterwards the event is merely mentioned in passing embarrassment, as if it was some kind of social faux paux made at a dinner party.  I guess it’s a British thing.  “Sorry about that rape business dear, keep calm and carry on.”  Wilde lathers on heavy-handed moments of eco-preaching, constantly cutting away to moments of toxic sludge pouring into rivers or industrial stacks billowing black smoke into the atmosphere.  The graceless and blunt editing, as well as some bizarre moments of foreshadowing  help nothing at all.  His intentions are good but his methods are as subtle as a fork in the eye.  Impossible not to watch but impossible to like.  Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the non-staged child birth scene.  Ugh.

 

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Danger: Diabolik (1968) – This movie is almost as weird as the one above.  This time it’s a 1960’s Italian comic book movie.  Diabolik is a piece of cult goofiness which shares the same rarefied air as its over worshiped cousin, Barbarella.  Stylistically it’s an Italian answer to the swinging 60’s incarnation of Batman.  Who asked Italy to do such a thing.  So who is Diabolik (John Phillip Law)?  Imagine if Robin Hood dressed like a ninja but instead of stealing from the rich to give to the poor he keeps his plunder because it turns on his girlfriend.  Why does Diabolik steal $10 million?  So he and his babe can have a shag on it.  Take that Woody and Demi.  He also lives in a really psychedelic underground liar with secret entrances, a car elevator and a giant rotating bed.

This could have been a lot of fun, and for a few scattered moments it is, but the filmmakers relish the fact that Diabolik the character is a dick.  We’re supposed to root for him of course because he’s an anti-authority figure who laughs in the face of the system which control the rest of the world.  He constantly mocks those who wish to stop him and gets away with anything and everything he wants.  At one point he pretty much snaps his fingers and blows up every tax establishment in the country.  But Diabolik is nothing more than a jerk who steals things and shags his gal pal.  He’s more Alain Delon than Austin Powers.  Though Austin Powers and Diabolik would surely have attended the same parties.  I guess that flew with the hip kids back in the day but now it just seems shallow and pretentious.  Despite the overall lackluster nature of it you can see this movie popping up all over pop culture.  The Wachowski kids clearly loved this thing.  I’m pretty sure the stoicism of The Matrix was born here.  The Beastie Boys video for Body Movin’ is basically made up of footage from this movie.  And Mission: Impossible III hijacks some of Diabolik’s clever gags for stealing stuff.  Sitting here thinking on it it seems more fun now than it was when we all watched it.  Weird.

 

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Altered States (1980) – Now this movie is completely fucking weird.  Scratch that.  It’s batshit crazy.  Ken Russell, a filmmaker I’ve never followed, was known to make disturbing, nutzoid movies and States doesn’t disappoint.  I have no doubt David’s Lynch and Cronenberg love this and make their families watch it every Christmas.  Riddled with buggy montages, a mind bender story and a nerve racking film score, States stars William Hurt as a scientist working in the field of….something.  He basically believes that the all of human experience is locked away in our genetic code, a massive hard drive for our evolutionary memory.  Using sensory deprivation in cahoots with some whacked out, Mexican-Indian, spirit bending shrooms, Hurt’s scientist believes we can experience our primordial being while in a hypnotic state, then going so far as to believe we can actually physically manifest our earliest selves.  What’s all that mean?  Well, at one point Hurt takes some serious trippy dope, locks himself in a black box and emerges as a Pleistocene era humanoid who runs amok.  And it just gets weirder from there.

The physical effects on display here are uniquely impressive and while yes, States is goofy as all Hell on paper, it’s director and performers are completely convinced of its legitimacy as a story.  Russell channels into that place where only the truly cracked dare to go, unleashing phantasms of nightmarish imagery and religious symbolism as Hurt trips fantastic on his quest to know the origin of it all.  If you want to get an idea of what you’re in for simply do a google image search for ‘altered states movie’ and take a peek.  If that image of a 7 eyed goat doesn’t pull you in, nothing will.

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Ten Word or Less Review – Video games still make bad movies.

We could have gone to see Flight or Lincoln or The Sessions but since we were feeling frivolous, and the nerd community had bestowed the effort with much approval, wife and I choose to see Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph.  With a snazzy preview sporting a Talking Heads track, an assembling of many of video game history’s finest and an overall concept which looked fresh and well executed, it seemed like a safe bet for a well spent and amusing afternoon.  After just a few minutes I had that same feeling I did when I was a teenager and just returned from Babbage’s with a new game that wasn’t going to amount to anything.  It begins with all that anticipation quickly leaking away to be filled with depressed resignation that you’ve spent precious dollars on a product you’re not going to care about.

Wreck is no wreck but it’s no Toy Story or Roger Rabbit as more delirious enthusiast have boldly proclaimed.  Yes, Street Fighter II and Q-bert characters fill out the cast and lovable schlub/character actor/living God John C. Reilly gives a nice vocal effort as the title character, but Ralph the movie is a monumental CGI bore, no more distinguished or better than your typical Dreamworks flick or Ice Age movie.  Instead of doing anything genuinely clever with the freedom to use iconic video games and their mascots the makers of Ralph fall into the lazy referential cameo trap.  You’re supposed to revel in the fact that you see Sonic the Hedgehog and not dwell on the fact he doesn’t do anything.  Too much of Ralph works on this ‘spot the character in the background’ type mentality while the actual movie is little more than vaguely charming on occasion.  It’s a mostly dull, sometime annoying, and not nearly clever as it thinks it is cartoon flick which quickly blends away into the rest of the CGI movie heard.  Things are rendered even more irksome when the plot looks to branch away from the norm and embrace something a little more adventuresome, only to fold back on itself and resolve as these things always do.  Anyone looking to compare this to classic Pixar is locked into a mindset of wishful thinking.

Wreck-It Ralph isn’t special or fun.  An afternoon spent revisiting Earthworm Jim or Gunstar Heroes would have been more productive.  It’s just another example of the tired, depressing genre that is the CGI family movie.  I had high hopes and went in with the most optimistic of attitudes, but it was not to be.  As the movie withered away I was reminded of all those times Sonic drowned because I spent too much time underwater or my Mario didn’t time his jump right.  But unlike those times the filmmakers didn’t have another life to go back and try again.  Game over.

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Ten Word or Less Review: 23rd times the charm.

With a new Bond movie comes the slew of inevitable articles about who the Best Bond is and which movie is better than another and which one is the worst ever and blah, blah, blah, blah.  It’s all such a remarkably tired pain in the ass I’m not going there.  All I want to say is this.  The vast majority of James Bond efforts don’t hold much sway over me.  In my mind most of them are just the same cartoon over and over, running on a loop with a different guy playing a gun toting Bugs Bunny every once in a while.  Sure, there are varying degrees of quality among them, but only a few really distinguish themselves from the pack.  This time out, we can add Skyfall to the very short list of great James Bond movies.  And for Daniel Craig, it’s the second time he’s put himself on that short list of movies in just three efforts.

Skyfall throws us into the mix fast as Bond comes running into a room, people are dead and his counterpart is on deaths doorstep.  Skyfall is 30 seconds old and has already broken a small mold by putting Bond behind an 8 ball before we even know what the 8 ball is.  A computer hard drive has been ripped from a laptop.  On it is the real name of every British Agent in deep cover around the world.  Bond begins pursuit on foot of whoever’s taken the hard drive.  This becomes a car chase through the markets of Istanbul.  Then it becomes a motorcycle chase over rooftops.  Then it winds up on top of a train and eventually utilizes construction equipment, still while on the train.  The whole sequence is a dizzying example of the type of action sequence Bond can deliver best and then the whole thing climaxes with Bond being shot and thrown from a bridge.  Into a river he goes and falls down the rabbit hole of one of Bond’s best title sequences, a mesmerizing death trip played out to Adele’s stupendous theme song, the first great Bond tune in an age.  Out the other side of this comes Bond, a mostly broken alcoholic with bad reflexes and frayed nerves who wakes up one morning to find MI6 headquarters blown to pieces all over the news.  He heads back to work immediately but refuses to shave for another hour.  This ripping intro, spellbinding title sequence and subsequent setup sets the stage for the Bond crew to deliver one of the most fully formed and exquisite Bond efforts.

The stolen list of agents is no real innovation of action movie plotting but what Skyfall does with it is largely unexpected.  Skyfall eventually forgets the list and is really a character piece about Bond (Daniel Craig), M (Judi Dench) and bad nut Silva (Javier Bardem).  As Bond begins his hunt for the vague and elusive mastermind behind the theft and explosion Skyfall becomes less all out action flick and more intrigue laden thriller.  This Bond goes on to solidify the character and his counterparts as emotionally rounded, i.e. screwed up, people.  Sure, there are moments of outlandishness scattered into the mix, how can there not be, but never does Skyfall fall into the typical Brosnan/Moore model of pure action movie horseshit.  Craig avoids the Connery trap as well.  People love Connery for the invincible, eye winking, cocksmanship he represents, but a real person he never was or will be.  Craig’s Bond deepens with each effort and Skyfall puts his emotional state once again through the wringer.  His Bond lives in the same complex, fucked up world we all do.  Yes, he gets to drive awesome cars and seduce hot women, but the odds of either of those things surviving the story are slim.  They always have been in this series.  The difference is that when the cars are destroyed or the women killed, Craig’s Bond notices and cares.  Few Bonds have ever been much bothered by a dead chick in the sheets.

The rest of the cast is aces.  The movie takes a page from the old Third Man playbook by talking about it’s heavy for an hour before he actually descends into the movie, glorious, Wellesian monologue in hand.  With a blonde coif and effeminate mannerisms Bardem’s Silva becomes the first male bad guy to openly attempt to seduce Bond.  Welcome to the fabulous 21st century James.  Bardem’s Silva is a delightful construction of questionable sexuality and Joker-like terrorist.  Like Bond villains of the past Silva can destroy places and people on the slightest whim.  He even has that most silly of Bond villain cliches, a secret hidden base.  What differentiates him from the likes of Blofeld is that he doesn’t care about any of this and it isn’t his goal.  World domination and destruction is just plain boring in his eyes.  His is a highly personal vendetta, one that he will see to the end at any cost to others.  Continuing to play off Craig with great strength is Dame Judi Dench as M.  Her seventh outing with the franchise is one of her finest.  Over the years the writers have taken small steps to give this grand actress more to do in an oft superfluous part and their effort here is not wasted.  Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw and Naomi Harris all join the Bond team in parts which look to guarantee their continued attendance in future adventures.

Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) was like last Bond director, Marc Foster, seen as an unorthodox and questionable choice.  He’s not an action guy and much of his recent output (Revolutionary Road?) has left something to be desired.  But the doubts about his abilities to steer this 50 year old ship vanish very quickly.  He’s gone on record saying Skyfall is influenced a great deal by Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.  He’s not just whistling Dixie.  The movies are very much mirror images of one another in places.  Bardem’s Silva is a scenery devouring counter piece to Heath Ledger’s iconic Joker.  Both are vague, strange psychos whose mere appearance decrees something is very rotten.  Both movies share a plot point or two as well.  Skyfall shares Nolan’s  largely entertaining but grim aesthetic.  One thing Skyfall does better though is in the looks department.  Argue all you want about where it ranks in the grand scheme of Bond things, but there’s little argument to be made about this being the best looking Bond movie of all time.  Director Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins have built some sublime images into their story.  A high rise bound sequence involving lots of glass doors, reflective surfaces and neon imagery is topped only by a finale set at the Bond homestead, an oppressive Scottish property where any Hammer Horror film would feel right at home.

This is a fine Bond film, one of the finest of all.  I’ll let the more declarative among you haggle over where it belongs in the scheme of things.  With all it’s faculties so sharp one hopes that the producers can keep firing on this level.  But I must confess a sound sense of confusion and worry by its end though.  After three movies and massive amounts of effort to divorce Bond from the cliches which nearly strangled him from existence, we finish in a place where all those old cliches have been firmly put back in place.  Is this the filmmakers telling us things are going back to the status quo?  God, I hope not.  After rebuilding a better, bolder and ballsier Bond, to relegate him back to standard procedure adventures thwarting monomaniacal morons and banging babes because the story demands he must would be profoundly depressing.  Keep Bond violent, edgy and unpredictable.  If the next film has anything to do with a deadly satellite or some such nonsense, I’m going to be supremely pissed.

The Exorcist III (1990)- The mostly forgotten but underrated second sequel to the scariest movie ever is surprisingly decent.  It may not have little girls vomiting pea soup but how can you be that down on a movie which has dream sequence featuring Fabio and Patrick Ewing?  It shows a lot of signs of studio tinkering in its second half but there’s some genuine creepy in this movie.  The writing and direction from original Exorcist author William Peter Blatty isn’t bad either.  There’s a funny speech about a carp in a tub and I’m pretty sure an ill priest said ‘May the Schwartz be with you.”  George C. Scott shows that getting old and turning to horror movies for work doesn’t always have to be embarrassing.  Infinitely better than expected but one hopes that a restored version with a less haphazard finale materializes.  It’s probably a pretty great movie.

Children of the Corn (1984) – One of those mild and middling 80’s horror efforts which has half a dozen sequels no one has ever watched.  A bunch of holy rolling kids kill their parents under the guidance of a creepy little fuck who worships a corn lurking demon.  Liberal minded adults Linda Hamilton and Peter Horton ride through town and figure out these little bastards are in need of a severe whuppin’ and a college education.  They kill the evil demon in the corn and take all the kids to a blue state where they can get decent public education and apply for financial aid when its time to go to college.  Not very good but definitely contributes to the widely held belief that within every ginger kid is a creepy psycho waiting to get out.

Basic Instinct 2 (2006) –  14 years after Paul Verhoven flashed a spotlight between Sharon Stone’s legs, Stone and some misguided producers got the idea that the world wanted to look up her dress again. So Stone and company honor Verhoven’s perverse masterpiece by slapping together a sequel/retread so dull that even the steady stream of hard core sex is mind numbing.  Watching people hump in this movie would be like watching luggage screw, a dry, leathery rubbing sound is produced and little else.  Stone vamps around the screen in full on schlock mode, turning her once Machiavellian writer Catherine Tramell into a dick craving Cruella de Vil.  Juxtaposed against Stone’s ham sandwich performance is dry British dullard David Morrissey, doing his damnedest to be the dullest and dumbest human ever.  David Thewlis and Charlotte Rampling try to give the movie an air of British respectability in costarring roles but they don’t seem to realize or acknowledge they’re shuffling through the worst kind of Hollywood shit.  It’s easy to turn a blind eye when you’re being well paid.  The lesson here?  When the only person who wants to return for a sequel to a 14 year old murder and sex romp is the actress whose has since started to look like a tanned purse with legs, don’t make the movie.  This little nugget says it all.  In 1992 Basic Instinct made $117 million.  In 2006 Part 2 made less than $6 million.