Thursday, December 25, 2014

Retro Reviews: The Alien Quadrilogy

Having recently rewatched the uneven though worthy prequel Prometheus, I found myself wanting to go back and watch the movies that started it all. Here are my reviews of the series:

Alien (1979)

Director: Ridley Scott

What does one say about Alien? It's all but flawless, really.

I'm not going to bother avoiding spoilers because, hey, it's been 35 years. Alien is the absolute gold standard of science fiction/horror. Other movies in this blended genre might be scarier, and some others might be smarter, but no others get the balance of all elements working in perfect harmony like the original.

The story of Ellen Ripley and her doomed crew is a marvel. The first act of the movie may seem slow. It does, in fact, have an almost 2001: A Space Odyssey pacing, during which we viewers are meant to drink in the scenes and effects. And they completely hold up, even these three-and-a-half decades later. The languid pace of life for the crew of the Nostromo, beginning with their premature emergence from their cryo-sleep pods, gives ample time for us to acclimate to the eerie quiet of deep space. This ensures that when things start to go suddenly and horribly wrong, the impact is magnified immensely.

True to the very best horror movies, Ridley Scott applied the slow reveal approach for much of the film. Yes, there are moments of punctuation. The face-hugger. The chest-puncher. The revelation that Ash is an android. These moments (especially the chest-puncher) have become iconic scenes. The reason is that they are blended so exceptionally well with the gradual crescendo of uncertainty and terror.

More than any other film in the series, the supporting
characters are so well-rounded that each loss has impact.
For me, one of the underrated aspects of the movie is just how natural the crew is. Thanks to understated scripting and phenomenal acting, each and every crew member feels like a real person (except Ash, for obvious reasons). Getting actors like Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, and Ian Holm clearly paid off, as they all make us feel sympathy for their plight as humans. They are funny, caring, hard-working people who did nothing to deserve the fate in store for them.

The ultimate master stroke of the film may just have been having a strong female character as the survivor. Even before the xenomorph is brought onto the Nostromo, Ripley perseveres through the entire ordeal, some of which involves making very tough calls about who should live or die (it can be easy to forget that, had the rest of the crew followed her stern orders, disaster would have been completely averted). She clearly shows herself to be tough, capable, and willing to grit her teeth and fight like hell.

I can't see how this movie will ever get old. Other films have tried to recreate the formula, and many more will continue to do so. But I can't see how any will ever succeed in topping it.

As the poster suggests, the immediate
sequel forewent suspense for action.
It worked brilliantly.
Aliens (1986)

Director: James Cameron

Oh, James Cameron. What happened to you?

That might be a tad harsh, but I couldn't help think this as I watched Aliens, which, along with The Terminator, make for two of the greatest science-fiction action movies of all time. Exactly how the man responsible for these two incredible movies could also give us the gag-worthy Titanic and the rather obvious and relatively ham-fisted Avatar is beyond me.

Whatever the reason, Aliens is above reproach.

I don't know that there is another sequel in film history that maintains the first film's continuity so well, while being so very different in tone and arguably just as excellent. This is no mean feat when you have to stack up to Alien.

In what may be one of the gutsiest and most ingenious sequel maneuvers ever, James Cameron decided to take a masterpiece of slowly-built tension and horror and pull it right into the thick of muscled-up, high-octane 1980s action blockbuster territory. Instead of slow, steady panning shots that convey the solitude and isolation of space, Aliens gives us kinetic, wild action and a steady diet of classic tough guy one-liners. And oh yeah, a woman is still the toughest character in the room - a room that's filled with marines.

The space marines are brilliant, thanks greatly to some excellent dialogue and a phenomenal cast, including stand-out James Cameron regulars Michael Biehn and Bill Paxton. Having a small platoon of deadly soldiers (a co-ed platoon, by the way) now charging into a colony set up on the same planet where Ripley's crew discovered the horrific alien is a great set up. Once the creatures start to emerge and attack, en masse, you get action movie gold. The shoot-outs are fun enough, but the dialogue enhances the entertainment factor beyond words. Thanks to some decent scripting, excellent ad libbing by the likes of Bill Paxton and others, and phenomenal acting, the interplay between the marines and Ripley between the intense action scenes is what sets the film apart. And not just from its formidable predecessor, but also nearly every other action film.

The deeper story of Ripley also adds great depth to the Alien storyline. Ellen Ripley is one of the greatest action characters in movie history. And I personally think she is the greatest female action character in history, in every way. Not unlike John McClain in the Die Hard series, she is not some unrealistically superhuman machine of death and destruction. She is a seemingly normal, blue collar person who finds herself in horrible circumstances. These circumstances bring out the exceptionally heroic qualities that lie within her. As with Alien, the sequel doesn't overly emphasize Ripley's gender. Aside from a very brief, possibly flirtatious glance between her and Hicks, sexual tension is blessedly left out of the movie. This is a pitfall that painfully few action films avoid.

Although the end of the movie might drag just the tiniest bit, with Ripley's return to the lower reaches, followed by a second showdown with the queen xenomorph, the action remains solid. By the end, the sense of relief and closure is more than satisfying.

Say what you will about James Cameron and his films in the past 20 years. Aliens is a masterpiece, and it will continue to remain so for many, many more decades to come.

If you think that "3 Times..." tagline
is cheesy, then you have some idea
of what you're in for. 
Alien3 (1992)

Note: I watched the extended, special edition "Assembly Cut" of the movie, which features several marked differences from the theatrical release. "Director" David Fincher had no input into this revised version of the film, so one can debate which one is the "true" version.

Director: David Fincher

Oh, how the mighty fell. Sadly, the potential far outstripped the end result in this third film of the series. Director David Fincher long ago disassociated himself from this movie, and it's not hard to see why.

Alien3 is, while not a complete mess, a very messy movie. In reading up on its production, I came to learn that this was due to poor planning by the producers and a lot of studio interference. The result was a film which Fincher was not even willing to call his own, and it's not difficult to see why.

The basic story idea is not a bad one. Ripley ends up on a penal colony planet, where an all-male crew of two dozen lethal felons are serving out their sentences as steel workers. The setting is not unlike that of Aliens, with a dark, dreary city in which a threat can stalk and kill the denizens. However, the transition from Aliens is insulting. The escape ship containing Ripley, Newt, and Hicks crashes, with Newt and Hicks being killed. What?! Two of the great characters in the mythology are wiped out without a scrap of drama? And there is no clear reason as to why. How cool would it have been to have Hicks and Newt with Ripley on the penal colony? But no, the entire notion was either not considered or jettisoned inexplicably. James Cameron and everyone involved with Aliens must have been livid. But the show goes on...

Ripley and several of the convicts who become her  de facto
allies in the fight against yet another xenomorph. The cast
is actually great, but the script was often beneath their
considerable skills.
The remainder of the story is what you might expect, and it is more akin to the first film than the second. A single xenomorph has made it onto the planet, via Ripley's escape shuttle. Of course, it starts to go on a rampage and begins slaughtering inmates. As with the first films, though, the movie tries to elevate the story above simple horror and suspense. Here, again, the ingredients were in place for this idea to work. There are several interesting and strong characters among the inmates, including an intense born-again Christian preacher, a condescending warden, and more than a few unpredictable psychopaths. And the actors are fantastic. With a half-decent script and pacing, the movie could have been excellent. Alas, the script was mostly bland, and the movie drags in several places. There are a handful of memorable scenes between Sigourney Weaver, Charles Dutton, Charles Dance, and several others, but they are far too few.

The alien itself is another near-miss. Having incubated in an ox (or a dog, in the theatrical release), it is a quadriped that seems faster than the incarnations in the first films. A major problem, though, is that the appearance of the thing seems to change from scene to scene. Sometimes it seems more humanoid, especially when it is clearly being acted by a human in a special effects body suit. Other times, it looks much longer, leaner, and bovine or lupine. In these latter takes, the representation is the prodcut of CGI that simply does not hold up by today's standards.

The movie didn't feel like a waste of time, as it does bring some closure to the tale of Ellen Ripley and her repeated confrontations with the vicious xenomorph species. But it is one that is bound to disappoint those who see the greatness in the first two films. My wife, not a tremendous sci-fi fan, enjoyed the first two films quite a lot. I think she did the smart thing by declining my invitation to watch this third, far weaker installment.

Alien Resurrection (1997)

Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet

The mediocrity continues. It even gets a bit mediocre-er

Putting the DVD into my player, my expectations were tempered, given how uneven Alien3 was. And then, lo and behold, I see the writer credit for Alien: Resurrection - Joss Whedon. Being a big fan of his short-lived series Firefly and his more recent films like The Avengers and The Cabin in the Woods, my hopes rose.

Sadly, these hopes were dashed not long into the movie.

On doing some research, Whedon has gone on record to explain how he thinks that everything that could have been done wrong with his script was done wrong. It's not hard to see what he means.

Due to some serious misunderstandings of Joss Whedon's
script, we get plenty of odd and incongruous scenes like this
one. No, it doesn't make much more sense even when
you watch the entire movie.
There are some seeds of an interesting story here, but the execution was pretty awful. Taking place 200 years after Ripley's altruistic suicide in Alien3, the heroine of the series is resurrected (imagine that) in order for scientists to get a hold of the xenomorph queen that was incubating in her. Nevermind the wretched science behind all of this (how can Ripley's DNA allow them to clone a parasite residing inside of her?), this overarching element is just a rehash of much of Aliens and Alien3.

The new elements had promise, but were severely diluted. A group of space pirates (no, they weren't headed by Robert Urich and Angelica Huston, unfortunately) boards the floating science lab on which Ripley has been revived. One of their crew, Cole, seeks to kill Ripley, having learned that this clone is actually a hybrid human-xenomorph: it looks like Ellen Ripley and has her memories, but it is extremely strong and fast, without much empathy for humans.

And so we have space pirates, misguided scientists, and a Ripley clone rushing around a spaceship trying to evade a pod of homicidal aliens. Some of the set-ups and sequences could have been rather cool, if handled with any sort of deftness. They weren't. What you get is a poorly-paced, unexciting mish-mash of movement, gunfire, yelling, and xenomorph goop.

A very lame ending to what started as a fantastic pair of movies. A real shame, this.

And Beyond?

I was actually considering watching the Aliens Versus Predator movies, just to get full closure. But given how poor the latter two Alien movies were, and the fact that reviews of the "AVP" movies are rather tragic, I've decided to save those four hours of my life.

This is still a series that should have life. Though Ridley Scott says that it will not contain any xenomorphs, Prometheus 2 is slated to hit theaters in 2016. These prequel films aside, one would think that there are enough creative writers and competent directors who could join and produce a new movie that fits better within the original canon. I can only hope.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Before I Die #525: The English Patient (1996)

Director: Daniel Minghella

Masterfully constructed and beautifully shot, The English Patient nonetheless fell a bit flat for me. This is not unlike the director's later effort, The Talented Mr. Ripley, which I watched not long before this one.

The movie is, as you would expect, a true epic. Set before and during World War II, it follows the story of Count Lazlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) and his love affair with Katherine Clifton (Kristen Scott Thomas). The way that their story is introduced and gradually revealed is brilliant, but I found the intended emotional impact lacking.

The movie opens with Lazlo and Katherine getting shot down by Germans in North Africa, with Lazlo being severely burned while lying next to Katherine's dead body. His body is found and transported to an Allied field hospital, where he is taken under the care of Hana (Juliette Binoche), a nurse with the terrible fortune of constantly falling in love with good men who get killed in the war. Hana decides to put Lazlo up in a bombed-out building and tend to him. From this, the movie uses flashbacks to fill us in on exactly how Lazlo came to be in such a sorry state.

Jumping back several years before the outbreak of the war, we see that Lazlo was an archaeologist who had been combing northern Africa for certain cave paintings. He is joined by Katherine and her husband, and he soon develops a deep and almost painful passion for Katherine. This is where the problems begin for me as a viewer. It was never fully clear to me why Lazlo and Katherine fall for each other. Lazlo is a taciturn, condescending man, with little to recommend him to any woman (aside from his dashing good looks, but Katherine seems to be above such superficiality). Katherine is a lively adventurer with an easy smile and quick wit. Sure, Lazlo is a moody romantic, which some would find attractive, but his actions don't often speak of admirable qualities. Given that the story of these two comprises much of the movie, it left me wanting a little more substance to their romance.

The story of Hana and her lovers, most notably the siekh
mine-sweeper Kip, contain the heart that the main story of
Lazlo and Katherine was lacking, in my view.
The more "modern" story of Hana is more interesting, though. Hana's relationships with the various men whom she loves and loses have real impact, since it is far easier to see what attracts her to the more grounded, truly heroic soldiers around her. When contrasted with Lazlo, these soldiers evoke far more empathy through Hana's loss of them, while Lazlo's loss of Katherine loses its emotional potency. This lack takes something away from the story.

The other elements of the film are difficult to criticize. Beautifully shot and edited, it is not surprising that the film raked in tons of awards back in 1996. The cinematography and acting justifiably invite comparisons to Lawrence of Arabia. The expanding and contracting scope of the personal wars within a greater, global war is conveyed wonderfully, so fans of large-scale, epic love stories are sure to be pleased.

The English Patient looks and often feels great. There are, however, just a few pieces of true heart that were missing for me to completely love it. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

New Release! The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (2014)

Have no fear! This review contains no spoilers!

Director: Francis Lawrence

This is certainly not a series that, on my own, I would have sought out. However, when the book series had reached the level of popularity that couldn't be ignored, I caved and read the first book, The Hunger Games. It was decent enough, for a young adult novel that relies mostly on borrowed ideas melded together in a plot-driven action tale. I began the second book, Catching Fire, but grew bored rather quickly and gave up.

I saw the first film, which I thought was entertaining enough, and rather true to the source novel. The second film was a little more of a chore to watch, taking nearly an hour to get past a dull emotional slog that only fans of the books could probably find engaging. Still, it was decent enough that I was OK with the prospect of joining some family members to take in the recent installment of the films: Mockingjay, Part 1.

If you've read any of the accusations leveled towards the movie that it is a blatant money grab, I can't completely disagree with them. One can argue that this two-hour-and-twenty minute movie really had only about an hour of solid material in it. While it does move the plot forward, it does so intermittently, with a lot of bland, emotionally drab filler in between.

Without giving anything away, the heroine of the series, Katniss Everdeen, has survived the rigors of her second Hunger Games, as chronicled in Catching Fire. However, she is now embroiled in a nation-wide revolution to overthrow the seemingly invincible aristocracy based in the Capitol. While there are some action sequences in the movie, illustrating the revolution's military movements, much of the movie focuses on Katiss's involvement in a large-scale propaganda war. These media-driven machinations play out through television screens, which I found watered down most of the emotional impact they might otherwise have.

Sorry, but no amount of future chic clothing or icy glares can
add  the gravity that this film was trying so desperately to
convey to us viewers.
A much larger problem is the development of Katniss's character. For someone who made her name with a completely selfless act of altruistic sacrifice by taking her sister's place in the Hunger Games two years prior, she becomes annoyingly self-absorbed. Sure, she's had some horrible things happen to her, but she starts to act and behave in ways that don't conform at all with who she was or what she was about as this series began. Change is one thing, but what Katniss becomes smacks a little too much of weak writing in the name of contrived drama. It felt as if the writers, whether it was novelist Suzanne Collins or the movie's script writers, were trying to appeal to teen readers' base egoism. It's also probably just simple misfortune for everyone involved that Jennifer Lawrence has, since first bringing Katniss to life a few years ago, outgrown this role in every way. At this stage, she's far too strong an actress to be playing an inexplicably whining teen.

Mockingjay, Part 1 may ultimately fit better within the larger scale of the entire series, once the final film comes out next year. For now, though, it is easily the weakest of the series, and it is one that only people familiar with the series should bother seeing. First-time viewers who have neither read the books nor seen the first two film adaptations will likely be left wondering what the fuss is about.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

New Release: Interstellar (2014)

Have no fear - there are no spoilers in this review.

Director: Christopher Nolan

It's certainly not a bad movie, but it's one that leaves a few things to be desired.

Christopher Nolan has always loved multi-tiered stories. Whether he's layering experience with memory as in Memento, layering illusion and showmanship with personal desires as in The Prestige, layering heroism and villainy with their own social constructs as in the Dark Knight trilogy, or any of his other movies, his films always operate on a few levels. Interstellar in no different. Unlike his best films, though, this one tries to add at least one stratum too many.

The story is mostly that of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former test pilot and engineer who is living on a future earth that is slowly dying of a massive and growing blight, a la the Dust Bowl of the 1930s Midwest U.S. This one, though, is on a global scale. In a last-ditch effort to escape the seeming fate of humanity slowly choking to death on its home planet, Cooper is enlisted for a mission through a wormhole next to Saturn, beyond which he hopes to find a habitable alternative planet. Once through the hole, though, things do not go exactly as planned, forcing Cooper and his fellow astronauts to make several extremely difficult decisions that weigh their own beliefs and hopes with those of all humanity.

Many of the themes in the movie are worthy of speculation and make for some solid food for thought. The place of exploration in our society, especially when balanced against far more immediate problems, is one that people have always struggled with. In Interstellar, this makes for a legitimate source of conflict, especially as the success of Cooper's mission is far from guaranteed. Then of course, are the tremendous sacrifices that the boldest explorers must make, and not just to life and limb. When Cooper and his crew near a planet where time is distorted by gravity, they must also consider how their aging will be slowed immensely, leaving everything and everyone they know to age far more quickly while they explore. The film does a very nice job of making these theoretical consequences of space exploration more tangible and impacting on the characters.

I'm no astrophysicist, but much of the science behind the film seems solid; at least, as far as the physical rigors and obstacles which need to be overcome are concerned. These days, there have been so many excellent documentary series done on such topics that we laypeople can have a pretty good idea of what things are like for astronauts, and Nolan seems to have done all of his homework. It helps that the visuals are extremely well done, and several scenes and sequences do an excellent job of capturing the vastness and majesty of the cosmos.

The relationship between Murph and her father is actually
endearing for the first part of the film, but grows a bit stale
as things progress. It eventually comprises what I found to
be one of the biggest weaknesses of the tale.
Where the movie goes astray is with the "human" layer of the tale. Filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky made thoughtful, insightful, artistic statements about humanity's probable destiny in space and the collective psyche of our species. Without giving away anything, I can say that I felt Nolan's attempt to weave human emotion into the story was a tad forced, with extremely shaky support. This thin tether is meant to be the link between Cooper deep in space and his daughter, Murph, back on Earth. The connection works at certain points in the movie, but is often either baffling or lacking the desired emotional effect.

Another problem I have with the film is the casting and acting. While Matthew McConaughey has proven himself to be a legitimately excellent actor in recent years, I was annoyed by the constantly hushed drone that he chose to speak in through nearly the whole movie. A tad more baffling was Nolan's choice to cast Anne Hathaway as the fellow astronaut/astrophysicist Brand. She's not terrible, but I found her lacking some of the grit, confidence, and stoicism that I associate with such professionals. I wonder if we're not starting to see Nolan fall in love with some of his own casting choices; what else would make him recast "Catwoman" in such a way? There are a few other casting choices that made me scratch my head, but I don't want to give away too much.

So the movie is a decent one, but I would have to put it towards the bottom of the Christopher Nolan catalog, especially when weighed against its huge ambition and massive budget. Nolan has never, in my view, made a "bad" movie. He has, however, made a few that smack of a bit of pretension and fall a bit short of his lofty goals. Interstellar is one of these. I would recommend that nearly anyone watch it once, but I would caution against expecting a masterpiece. Ultimately, the film just made me want to re-watch Europa Report at the earliest possible chance.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

New(ish) Releases: Snowpiercer (2014) & Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Director: Bong, Joon-ho

Sometimes, we could all use a flashy, violent allegory for the world's social ills. Snowpiercer gives it to us.

With a narrative and technique that can border on acid-trippy at times, Snowpiercer provides a fast-moving and creative commentary on class divisions. Playing the part of "the world" is a massive train, known in fact as "The World Train," which is perpetually transporting the few hundred remaining humans around an Earth which has been plunged into an unlivable Ice Age by a botched attempt to cure global warming.

This, of course, is a pretty big jump to make, as far as suspension of disbelief is concerned. But the explanation is satisfying enough, if not exactly the best science you'll find in science fiction. Once you can accept that, then the film grows more interesting as the plot builds. The primary story follows Curtis, a man who is old enough to remember life before the train, and who is relegated to the back section of it - the section designated for the lowest rung of train society. In th"the foot," as it's called, the people are treated as little better than herd animals, where they are fed only gelatinous protein bars and forced to suffer regular abuse.

Curtis and a handful of others from the rear mount a revolt towards the front of the train, in an attempt to find better treatment, as well as some children who have been taken from the rear. As the revolutionaries grit out their struggle forwards, the successive trains become both more luxurious and more horrifying and bizarre.

This is one of the earliest obstacles that Curtis and his rebels
encounter on their revolution towards the front of the train.
Things only get wilder and more insane as they go.
These basic concepts make for a solid framework, but it's a framework that could easily have been mishandled and resulted in a far weaker film. Not so, thanks to director Joon-ho Bong and the other writers. While there are certainly some elements that are strange merely for strangeness' sake, most of the oddities or seeming non-sequiters do represent grander ideas. These make for some curious food for thought, and many of the outlandish questions that we viewers may ask ourselves are, in fact, answered by movie's end.

The cast is excellent, featuring U.S. and British A-listers such as John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris and even Chris Evans (far better known as Captain America). The non-English speaking actors are just as good, with an especially great turn by Kang-ho Song. There's a great balance between manic caricature and appropriate gravity, which seems tough for so stylish a picture.

Snowpiercer is nothing if not gutsy. It might not surprise astute viewers as much as it thinks it should, but any lack of surprise from attempted plot twists are made up for by the execution of the tale. It tries a lot of things, and though some of them fall a bit short of the mark, most of them fly true and are sure to entertain.

You won't see most movie vampires doing this.
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Director: Jim Jarmusch

From the modern purveyor of cinematic cool, we get a very "Jarmusch" vampire movie. I even hesitate to use the director's name as an adjective, given that his style is not easy to pin down, except that his films are all very confident, more than a little off-beat, and always take an interesting approach to well-worn cinematic story conventions. Only Lovers Left Alive keeps this tradition well alive. With the undead.

You will most likely not enjoy this film if you are a fan of the following: Anne Rice vampire tales, The Twilight Saga, or any vampire stories that rely on the gothic romantic, bloodier, more carnal aspects of the mythical creatures of the night. Only Lovers assumes that you are aware of the basic mythology of vampires, and it narrows its focus to two of their kind - Eve and Adam, who may, as their names imply, be literally thousands of years old. The two are married, and yet they live thousands of miles apart, Eve in Morocco and Adam in Detroit. When Eve receives a call from her husband, she senses that he is going through one of his periodic and deep bout of melancholy over the human race, and she heads over the Atlantic (on red-eye flights, of course) to see him.

The interactions between Adam and Eve are hypnotic in many ways. Their supernatural powers are rarely displayed directly, and we are often left to marvel over their implied abilities. There are more than a few of the cliched references to famous historical people who the two have known over their millenia, but they are still amusing. What is most powerful is what they have seen and the perspectives that they have. Having observed human behavior for countless generations, the pair have alternating respect, anger, despair, and love for people. And one gets the sense that Jarmusch actually captured the attitudes of such creatures with incredible accuracy, and makes them endearing to boot. Adam is eminently musical, constantly composing and performing dark and alluring rock music to sooth himself. Eve consumes books at lightning speed, gaining an almost sexual satisfaction from drinking in the endless perspectives of humans. Undead they may be, but in most ways they do more living than people. And Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton (yes, her again) play every subtlety perfectly.

The title pair can make you envious of their wisdom and love
for each other, but just as sad for the sorrow at the human
condition which they have witnessed for so long.
While much of the movie is far slower than your typical vampire movie, with Eve and Adam lounging around Adam's dilapidated and remote Detroit home, there are moments of horror and action. Much of the dynamic energy is provided when Eve's "sister" arrives from California, bringing her hedonistic impishness along to spoil Adam and Eve's serene contemplation. Blood is let, arguments are had, and there is some vampire-on-vampire verbal abuse. These moments keep things lively enough, but I found myself just as relieved as Adam when the nuisance of his sister-in-law was banished.

Most definitely not your typical vampire movie, but certainly a great addition to the historical canon of such films. I'm sure plenty of horror film aficionados will despise the measured pace and meditative tone of the movie, but those who are willing to meet the characters halfway are bound to be rewarded.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: Lucky Number Slevin (2006); Gloria (1980); Point Blank (1967)

Lucky Number Slevin (2006)

Director: Paul McGuigan

A fun, stylish, rapid-fire gangster movie that carves out its own niche.

There are a ton of influences at work in Lucky Number Slevin, which can be a dangerous thing in the wrong hands. Fortunately, director Paul McGuigan juggles and balances them all impressively well. While the result may not be an all-time classic, it is still a tight, fun viewing experience.

Without giving too much away, the basic story set up is that a young man named Slevin arrives in New York City to stay with a friend named Nick Fisher. All too soon, Slevin is whisked away by men who think he is Fisher, and Slevin is quickly embroiled in a bizarre gang cold war between two powerful yet reclusive crime lords known as "The Boss" and "The Rabbi," performed with playful menace by Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley, respectively.

It might be easy to write this movie off as one of the countless Tarantino Pulp Fiction clones, but this would be a slight injuctice. While the nonlinear narrative and rapid-fire dialogue might suggest that earlier modern crime classic, Slevin is much more in the style of The Boondock Saints. It leaves behind the endless pop culture references and isn't nearly as gritty as a Tarantino picture, but is rather more visually polished and overtly fun. The script has more in common with film noir, with its staccato back-and-forth sarcasm.

Odd scenes like this one are the norm. Some are trying a
little too hard to be quirky, but others are effective enough.
Much of the amusement of the movie comes from the disorientation of the tale. The lead character, Slevin (Josh Hartnett), is often whisked around by and between oddball gangsters, a la Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest (which is openly referenced in Slevin). Slevin's wise-ass reactions to his surroundings and circumstances, along with their inevitable consequences, are often hilarious. And then there's the fun as the viewer of simply trying to piece together all of the seemingly disparate puzzle pieces, not unlike when one first watches The Usual Suspects. Of course, as is usually the case with such breakneck-paced films, the speed masks plot holes that are really only noticed when one has time to look back along the path. Still, it doesn't detract from the immediate experience, as the movie clearly doesn't take itself too seriously.

An interesting observation was how this movie might have the single longest "reveal" of any film I've ever seen. For the first 90 minutes or so, the story hustles along and teases a far more complex and sinister motive behind all of the actions. This motive is explained at the end but takes (no joke) twenty minutes to fully reveal all of the mysteries. This seems ridiculous because it is ridiculous, but the details are engaging enough to prevent boredom.

Gloria (1980)

Director: John Cassavetes

I'm not altogether sure why this movie gets so much acclaim. For my part, I just couldn't see it.

The movie tells the story of the eponymous Gloria, who finds herself protecting a 6-year old boy whose family has been murdered as part of a massive mafia hit. Gloria, though, is no ordinary neighbor. She happens to have been the mistress to the mafia overlord behind the massacre, although she has left that life behind her. As Gloria escorts and protects her charge, Phil, she wrestles with just how far she's willing to go to save him.

That basic premise is not a bad one at all, and it's one that was used in Luc Besson's 1994 film Leon: The Professional. To me, the latter film did a far better job of it, though. Gloria is a good idea completely mucked up by incoherent emotional tone, vague plot points, unimaginative mafia characters, and outright terrible acting and dialogue by child actor John Adames. This last one was the most intolerable for me, as Phil is in the vast majority of scenes, and it is his relationship with Gloria that is meant to be the lifeblood of the film. Alas, the script for Phil often comes off as unnatural, as if written by an adult with a point to make rather than as words of an actual child.

The setting is another bone of contention for me. Perhaps I simply wasn't in the right mood, but the film depicts the same New York City that we usually see in films from the late 70's - the grungy, grimy, scum-laden concrete jungle that seems to ooze depravity and hide menace around every corner. I'm not saying that this can't be effective, but it became tiresome and simply a chore to watch after about an hour.

I was expecting quite a bit more from this one, but hey, they can't all be winners.

Point Blank (1967)

Director: John Boorman

Not a bad movie, though not quite as strong as I was hoping for.

If you're like me, you pick up this movie because you want to see Lee Marvin (who I once saw referred to as "the toughest-looking son of a bitch who ever was born") wreck some serious shop. Well, you pretty much get that with Point Blank. The big drawback, though, is the aesthetic and settings within which he has to do it.

Marvin plays Walker (who, in classic tough guy fashion, adamantly never reveals his first name), who is out for revenge against a former friend who has double crossed him, shot him, and left him for dead in order to pay back a crime syndicate known as "The Organization." Well, Walker survives and comes back two years later to track down his betrayer between San Francisco and Los Angeles. He starts to target anyone who knows anything about his former friend, Reese (John Vernon), and he essentially kills his way up the criminal food chain to get to him.

Watching Walker go to work is fairly satisfying, though it's a story that's been done better in movies like Get Carter (the original 1971 version), A History of Violence, and others. Sure, the bad guys are scuzzy enough, but Walker doesn't ever have to display overly exceptional wits or physical prowess. He's smart enough to see various double-crosses before they get to him, but his skills are more often implied rather than actually displayed.

If you think these outfits are terrible, they're actually some
of the tamer ones that you'll see in the movie. And the
seediness of this still frame also indicates a pervasive tone.
What weakens the movie and has caused it to fade so much over the years are the look and feel of the film. Filmed in 1967, it hurls every groovy, mod-tastic piece of dated music and fashion that it can manage at you. There are hinky jazz clubs, a bombastic musical score and sound effects, and costumes that might as well smack you in the mouth. These may all have been chic and cool when the movie was released, but they were undoubtedly rather comical a mere decade later. Forty-five years later, they have become an obnoxious distraction.

It also didn't help that, aside from Lee Marvin playing Walker, there aren't any other compelling characters. Reese and everyone in the organization is a one-dimensional egoist who first tries to placate Walker before trying to stab him in the back. Even Angie Dickinson, who is pleasant enough to look at, plays a character who is arguably the work of a obliviously misogynistic mind. Perhaps thinking they were creating a woman of "depth," they have her swing between raging at Walker, punching and cursing him, and then jumping into bed with him. In between these weird bouts, she plays it cool as a cucumber, though we never have any clear idea how or why the transitions are made. What we're left with is a woman who can only be described as a traumatized schizoid. Either that or just poorly conceived and written.

Fortunately, the film is only 93 minutes long, and it's fairly streamlined. There are a few throwaway scenes, but not many. The story clicks along fine, with Walker moving from one punching bag to the next, doling out underworld justice. I've no need to watch it again, but it was fine one-shot viewing. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Before I Die # 524: Tetsuo: The Ironman (1989)

If this movie poster seems bleak, horrific,
and claustrophobic, then you've got some
inkling as to the tone of the feature.
Director: Shin'ya Tsukamoto

Whoa. If you plan to watch Tetsuo, then you had better be mentally prepared. It is one trippy, disturbing piece of work, which wears its influences right on its sleeve.

The story, at its most basic, is that a young businessman in Japan suddenly finds different parts of his body turning into machinery. The process is slow at first, but then rages in fits and starts, so that the man soon begins to look like a moving, humanoid sculpture assembled out of scrap yard leavings.

Now, take that idea and imagine that the tale is directed by David Lynch in his most Eraserhead state of mind. Add in several dashes of David Cronenberg's grisly transformation horrors like The Fly and Videodrome, and blend in the psychological torture element of guilt over accidental murder as seen in the harrowing film The Machinist. Put all of those uncomfortable movies together, and you get Tetsuo.

If you're unfamiliar with the movies cited, you just need to know that the movie is stunningly brutal. And yet, its merits are there, for those who care to get past the grainy black and white filming, shocking imagery, and the breakneck editing. The result is that one feels claustrophobic and completely pinned down by the relentless onslaught of the machinery and technology that literally consumes the main characters. And this is clearly what director Shin'ya Tsukamoto was aiming to accomplish. For that, it is easy to see why this film is lauded in many circles.

The movie is taxing to watch. No particular shot lasts for more than four or five seconds before it jumps to another frenetic image, many of which utilize some very well-done stop-motion animation or skewed framing or constricted perspective. Fortunately, I was in the right head space to keep up with it, and the movie is a mere 64 minutes long. Any more than that, and I don't know that my brain would have been able to maintain pace.

File this one under the label of "interesting, experimental films that are good to watch once." If you're looking for a graphic, deeply frightening and challenging visual experience, Tetsuo will satisfy the urge. Just know what you're in for.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

New Release: John Wick (2014)

Don't laugh just because it's Reeves.
He plays the hardcore title assassin far
better than you might expect.
Director: David Leitch & Chad Stahelski

A formula you may not realize works: Keanu Reeves + Action Revenge Story = Movie Gold.

I know, I know. That Keanu Reeves. It does actually make sense, if you think about it. One of the great knocks against Reeves has always been his laughably limited range. No matter what character he has been playing, he's never been able to shake his own valley dude monotone and dead black eyes. That's a problem when you're trying to play a Shakespeare character (which he did in Much Ado About Nothing) or a hopelessly romantic sycophant (which he did in Dangerous Liaisons). But if your playing a stone-cold killer who decides to start piling up the bodies, then it's a gift from the gods of cinema carnage, who must have smiled upon Reeves's casting as the title assassin.

And so John Wick gets it right. Taking a page from recent action movie successes like Taken and Dredd, John Wick never tries to out-think itself. It knows exactly what it is - an excuse to watch one mean motor scooter shoot and pummel a bunch of scuzzy gangsters.

The set up is just what it needs to be. Wick's wife has died, and he laments the loss of the woman who pulled him away from his previously bloody life as a mafia hitman (Unforgiven, anyone?). Wick is brought to tears when he receives a surprise delivery of an oh-so-adorable puppy, which was arranged by his wife before she died. The scene is schmaltzy, yes, but it is very effective. We get to see Wick as a guy who does, indeed, have a heart.

And then it all goes south. The pampered son of the local Russian mafia boss, not knowing who Wick is, decides to break into Wick's house, beat him up, kill his dog, and steal his car. When John Wick regains consciousness to see the dog, he loses it. And then the fun begins for us viewers. What follows is a carnival of death. And boy, is it entertaining.

From the fight choreographers to the cinematographers to
Keanu Reeves himself, the action sequences are brilliantly
executed (pun highly intended).
I'm not especially a fan of action movies, especially some of the latest successful ones. Movies in the Jason Bourne series and its imitators are dull to me, for they show little style and make no great impression as to the physical feats that are merely implied rather than explicitly shown. Well John Wick shows it all to you. Never once relying on slow motion or ultra close-up, guerrilla-style cinematography, the lethal ballet that Wick displays is captured splendidly with long, wide shots and sustained sequences without overly choppy cuts or edits. The result is an impact and intensity that few Western action flicks have ever delivered.

Another merit is the element of mythical fantasy in John Wick's world. There's a hotel that caters solely to assassins, and fictional gold coins that serve as the currency of the realm. These things heighten the awareness of us viewers that this story is, indeed, a fantasy, and the writers were clever in their admission of it.

Of course, if nearly non-stop brutality and gun play have zero interest for you, then you won't care how it's dressed up. And truthfully, it was just starting to become a ever-so-slightly tiresome to me as the film neared its conclusion. Blessedly and perhaps ironically, the filmmakers avoid overkill by keeping the movie short and tight. At an efficient 93 minutes, the movie wraps ups just as things threaten to grow stale. I walked out well satisfied and ready to watch the movie again soon.

Action movie junkies will surely love this film. Even those like me who aren't die-hard fans of the genre will likely enjoy it, as long as high body counts and some rather brutal film violence don't put them off too much.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Before I Die #523: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

Original Italian Title: L'ucello dalle piume di cristallo

Director: Dario Argento

It's a good movie, to be sure, but one that didn't quite live up to the cultist hype, in my view.

To be fair, my expectations were rather high, given how highly touted this film and director are by some cinephiles and film critics. Perhaps it is due to director Dario Argento's body of work and solid reputation as a solid suspense and horror filmmaker. I can't be sure, as this was the first of his films that I've ever seen. Therefore, I can only give my thoughts on this film based on its own merits, rather than where it fits into Argento's career arc.

The movie is often compared to several of Hitchcock's most famous suspense films, with good reason. There are Hitchcockian elements throughout the film - a bystander witnesses a brutal murder attempt (a la Rear Window), and he then gets wrapped up in a cat-and-mouse game with a psychopathic killer on the loose in Rome. There are plenty of well-executed moments of tension and fear, including a few pursuits through and around the winding streets of the ancient city.

Probably the most obvious strength of the movie is the visual technique. It's amazing to me just how many Italian filmmakers seem to have an innate knack for framing shots. Whenever I see a Da Sica, Leone, Fellini, or other Italian director's film, it's obvious that they have a portraitist's eye for composing a four-sided picture in the most beautiful manner. Dario Argento is another fine example. So many of the scenes are just enjoyable to drink in, thanks to a keen photographer's eye and some vibrant costumes and set designs.

Alas, the film wasn't what I would call a "masterpiece." There are some actions by the main characters that defy logic to a certain extent, and some of the dialogue is stilted and artificial (though I must admit that one line was hilarious - when a police inspector, without a trace of irony, asks for a suspect lineup with the line, "Bring in the perverts."). The acting was also a bit spotty, being what you would expect from a low-budget spaghetti Western. Somehow, I'm used to the amateurish acting in those more mythical Leone Westerns, but it seemed out of place in this more modern, realistic, urban setting.

One of many haunting, visceral, and masterfully framed shots
in the movie. The cinematography is an inarguable strength.
Those criticisms aside, I must confess that the movie did offer me something pleasantly unexpected - an interesting theme on human memory and psychology. In something one might ponder after reading or seeing Rashomon, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage finds its resolution to the mystery in a way that relies very heavily on the mental state of the witness - a mental state that can apply to many of us. It is this ultimate reveal that sets the movie apart from the great Hitchcock movies, though these latter may be superior in terms of coherence and overall execution.

I'll be eager to see some more of Argento, as I've heard some enthusiasts say that they consider a few of his other films even better than this one. If they are, then I expect some very impressive things. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Retro Trio: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999); Dredd (2012); Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Director: Anthony Minghella

Solid adaptation of an excellent book, though one that takes a few licenses.

The story of Tom Ripley in 1950s U.S. and Europe is a complex and unique one. Ripley has trouble fitting in. Though a decent-looking man, he simply can't quite find his niche in life, despite being a modestly talented musician and an excellent mimic of people. One gets the sense that, for some reason, he is uncomfortable in his own skin.

By chance, Ripley runs into a wealthy industrialist in New York who thinks that Ripley is a university friend of his son, Dickie Greenleaf, who is spending his post-college years lazing on the southern coast of Italy and trying his hand at jazz music. The elder Greenleaf offers Ripley sea passage and a healthy stipend to go to Italy and convince Dickie to return to the U.S. and get involved in the family business. Ripley, with no other prospects, capitalizes on Greeneleaf's mistake of identity and takes his offer.

Once in Italy, Tom's far more disturbing qualities begin to emerge. He befriends and becomes quite taken by the handsome and charming Dickie (Jude Law). He very quickly admits his true purpose there, and the two start to spend a great deal of time together, much to the chagrin of Dickie's seeming love interest, Meredith (Gwyneth Paltrow). Tom begins to exhibit a strange but subtle fixation with Dickie so strong that he begins to mimic his movements and even wear his clothes. Dickie grows vaguely aware of Tom's oddity, but mostly coasts along with their companionship.

Damon dies extremely well playing Ripley, who is only at ease
when he is mimicking a life of someone else. Unfortunately for
Dickie and Meredith, his envy finds purchase with Dickie's
freewheeling and affluent lifestyle.
On a trip up to Rome together, the final blow arrives, both figuratively and literally. While out on a tiny rowboat off of a beach resort, Dickie begins to tell Tom just how boring he finds him and that he plans to marry Meredith. Tom completely cracks. He bludgeons Dickie to death with an oar and sinks the body in the Mediterranean. This is horrific enough, but Tom doesn't opt for the typical escape. Instead, he adopts Dickie's identity and spends several weeks living as Dickie Greenleaf, complete with his access to the Greenleaf trust fund. Tom then goes around Italy, marveling in "being" Dicke Greenleaf.

On the surface, this movie seems to be about simple greed. But a slightly closer inspection reveals far more disturbing elements at work within Tom Ripley. Tom is not only after Dickie's impressive financial freedom. He is after Dickie's very essence of living. Dickie lives a free, bohemian lifestyle that Tom has only been able to dream of. The reasons for Tom's reserve and discomfort with himself are open to wide speculation, including being a homosexual. But it even goes far beyond that. Tom is a pitiful character, but unlike most pitiful characters, he he lethally dangerous in his psychosis.

It's this enigma of Tom Ripley that adds an extra dimension to what is already a pretty strong story of intrigue, in which the suspense starts to rise at around the halfway point in the film, and then gradually crescendos right up to the somewhat open ending. Though Minghella took certain debatable liberties with Patricia Highsmith's original 1955 novel, it's a strong film that's worth watching, even for dedicated fans of the source material.

Dredd (2012)

Director: Pete Travis

This movie is just the tonic for someone who misses the simpler tone of 1980s tough guy action flicks but doesn't quite feel like watching the original Robocop for the 47th time.

Based on the long-running serial featured in the classic British comic magazine 2000 A.D., Dredd follows the title character, who is a "Judge" in a post-apocalyptic dystopia where humanity has been crunched into a handful of "megacities" in the world. The cities are teeming with crime, as people do all they can to merely survive in the grungy, dilapidated concrete jungle engulfing them. While most citizens are common and easy victims of the criminal predators in this environment, the Judges are their one form of protection, though a scant one. Judges are granted the position of being one-person judges, juries, and executioners, in the name of carrying out the strict laws and punishments needed to cling to any semblance of order.

In this particular film story, Judge Dredd, a judge whose legendary sternness is matched only by his martial prowess, takes a call on a triple homicide at a towering apartment complex in Megacity One. Accompanying him is the rookie Anderson, a mutant with powerful psychic abilities but with perhaps a touch too much compassion to be an effective judge. Dredd and Anderson get to the scene, and they soon become trapped in the complex by the drug lord who controls it, the vicious former prostitute known as Ma Ma. Ma Ma locks down the entire 200-floor complex and sics her entire army of thugs on the two judges, who must fight their way up the complex to get Ma Ma's penthouse before her followers do them in.

You might think the constant sour puss looks a bit silly, until
watch Dredd go to work. His weapon, known as a
"Lawgiver," is a simple concept that has extremely cool and
brutal applications.
The movie is violent, action-packed, and filled with the gallows humor that one finds in the best Paul Verhoeven movies. The impressive thing about these films is that there is always a cartoon violence that masks certain true emotions about right and wrong. We all know that in the real world, true villains are very rare, which is why we can't go stomping around, vigilante-style, blowing people away. But in the movies, the grey areas can be stripped away, leaving us with archetypes to pit against one another. This is, actually, a more difficult task than it may seem. These movies work best when there is an actual nastiness to the characters, especially the villains. In Verhoeven movies, as with Dredd, the evil characters don't just do bad things; they revel in them. They are sadists who are beyond redemption. This is the only way that it can be satisfying as a viewer to see them dealt with in such a brutal fashion as the judges mete out in Dredd. It's a dark fantasy in which we viewers can easily identify the social cancer and watch a surgeon cut it out. With a fully-automatic weapon.

The character Judge Dredd is an ultimate bad-ass. Played to grim perfection by Keith Urban, Dredd is a smoldering cauldron of determination. He's not an invulnerable superhero. He takes hits. He bleeds. He is even caught off guard once in a rare while. But his skill and will carry him through the dozens of maniacs who have him in their sites. He is exactly the kind of character that an action fan is looking for, and Megacity One is the perfect environment for him.

Dredd is plain old, visceral fun. It's flashy and extremely violent, but it certainly satisfies. I can only hope that a sequel garners interest, as there are plenty of fun yarns that could be told.

The movie poster is surely meant to
evoke the cover of Bob Dylan's
"Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" album
cover. The cat adds some levity.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Director: Joel Coen

Inside Llewyn Davis is likely to be rather divisive. This was true with the critics, to an extent. While being given overwhelmingly positive reviews upon its release, few critics were putting the film on the same level as other Coen Brothers "masterpieces" like No Country for Old Men or even Fargo. I myself was a tad conflicted both when I saw it in the theater and upon this second viewing.

The movie follows the title character mostly around Manhattan in 1961. Davis is a folk singer of considerable musical talent, though he is a mostly unlikable rake who manages to agitate nearly everyone around him with his condescension, sarcasm, and general irresponsibility. Between periodic performances at small venues for modest pay, he crashes on couches of fellow musicians, former friends, and even a few intellectuals who enjoy having a "folksinger friend" around from time to time.

The story doesn't have a clear, traditional arc. Llewyn flops on couches, plays music, and tries to scrape together enough cash to pay for an abortion (for a fellow musician's girlfriend whom he slept with). The most obvious struggle Davis deals with is just how long he continues to try and scrape out some form of subsistence, instead of getting a steady-paying but artistically vacant occupation. This aspect of the story does raise the larger question of what an artist is to do: suffer for his art, even after years of failure, or eventually give up the dream and settle into a "normal" job?

This question is actually what makes the film interesting to me. If Llewyn were a "nice" guy, we wouldn't be very conflicted. We would certainly hope that he would succeed, as he is clearly talented. However, because he's a complete jerk, it's not so easy, despite the fact that his musicianship shows great quality. Would we, as music lovers, wish for a greater wealth of good popular music, even coming from a bad person, or should we hope that he fails at his one passion and skill, maybe to make him a better human being? It's not a comfortable question to answer. This is why, I feel, the movie did not make a tremendous impression on the popular viewing audience. Most people didn't come away with any distinctive, recognizable feeling about the title character.

As for me, I still like the movie. However, I do not consider it one of the Coen Brothers' best movies. (If you're curious, I have Miller's Crossing, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, Raising Arizona, and one or two others ahead of it). I would recommend this one to most people, though I would caution them no to expect to come away feeling all warm or fuzzy. Or maybe even knowing exactly what to feel. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Before I Die #522: The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Original Swedish Title: Korkarlen.

Director: Victor Sjostrom

A silent film that exhibits some impressive advancements for its day. Unfortunately, its day was 94 years ago.

Actually, The Phantom Carriage was a nice change of pace from the other silent films I've watched recently, in that it tells a ghost story in the vein of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, though with a much darker tone. It follows the story of David Holm, a vicious and miserable man who lives for little more than drinking and making other people's lives as unpleasant as his own. he has abused his wife to the point that she has left him, taking their two young daughters. This has sent Holm on a prideful quest for vengeance upon his wife. Along the way, the tuberculosis-stricken man constantly tries to infect others with both his physical disease and his venomous hatred for others.

He tracks his wife to a town where a Salvation Army nurse, Maria, tries to assist him, despite his brutal rebuffs. Maria persists, though, and she does manage to reunite Holm with his wife and children. But Holm is hardly a changed man, and he soon resumes his past abusive behavior. Even worse, Maria has contracted tuberculosis herself, and her health goes into a rapid decline.

Holm's wife eventually leaves him again, and he hits the streets as a hate-filled vagabond. On New Year's Eve, his tuberculosis finally kills him, but this is hardly the end. His soul awakes to find a spectral carriage waiting for him, but not to transport him to the afterlife. As the final person to die before the new year begins, Holm is destined to take the mantle of the coachman, reaping all the dead souls for the following year. The horror-stricken man goes into a panic, and he is forced to revisit all the suffering that he has visited upon others in his life, before he takes on his new posthumous task.

The movie is one of the better ones I've watched from the silent film era, though easily one of the grimmest in overall tone. No other films that I've seen from the time period dealt so readily with spousal abuse, degenerate behavior, and widespread death in the way that The Phantom Carriage did. And the acting, while still far less organic that modern performances, is noticeably more natural than many of its contemporaries, including other classic contemporary films like Broken Blossoms or Way Down East. There are several powerfully brief and subtle facial expressions by Holm that offer the hint of the tortured human beneath the prickly exterior. These more delicate suggestions of character are some of the most engaging in the movie.

While certainly a striking effect, the film gives us overly
long sequences featuring the ghastly coachman riding along
on the phantom carriage.
The movie did, though, require a fair amount of patience on my part. Many of scenes belabor their points a tad too long. This is also true of the special effect of the titular phantom carriage itself. The ghostly appearance of the coach, achieved with double exposure, was surely an impressive and haunting effect back in 1920. The problem is that the filmmakers were all too aware of this and milked it for far too long. There are a few overly long sequences of the carriage slowly moving along different landscapes for minute after minute. The visual ingenuity was probably amazing in its day, but nearly all viewers in the 21st century are likely to find it tiresome.

The Phantom Carriage is a good silent film, but it is still not one that I would recommend to anyone but fans of silent film. Viewers with no interest in films from this era are unlikely to have the wherewithal to sit through its 104 minutes, just to enjoy a handful of transcendent moments. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

New(ish) Release: Godzilla (2014)

Director: Gareth Edwards

Pretty fun giant monster movie, though probably not one that would win over any newcomers to the genre.

This newest take on the classic kaiju, or "big monster," prototype is a solid one. It incorporates many of the elements of the original tale, while giving it a narrative and aesthetic update. Working under the idea that such massive creatures as the gargantuan saurian had lived and thrived tens of millions of years ago, the movie depicts their resurrection through human misuse of nuclear weaponry. The film doesn't get too terribly technical about the science part of this science fiction, nor should it. That's not what we're paying for.

What we are paying for is what the film gives you, though you have to be patient, and I was completely alright with this. It has often amazed me how few writers and directors realize the efficacy of the "slow reveal" approach in monster movies. Even after such great "monster" films as Jaws, Predator, Alien, and a handful of others, too few filmmakers give their audience credit enough to make a few demands of them, even if the film doesn't show its entire hand within the first 15, 30, or even 60 minutes of a movie. Godzilla has the confidence in itself that it doesn't need to show the beast in full force for most of the movie, which makes the last third of the film much more powerful.

If you are at all curious about the story of the movie, there's no real need to worry much. It's nothing that will insult your intelligence, even if it's not exactly the most creative of science fiction. Again, though, one doesn't turn to a kaiju film for thought-provoking, speculative science fiction. One turns to these movies to see awesomely huge creatures stomping through large cities and slugging it out with each other. This 2014 version of Godzilla completely delivers on this, though the aforementioned patience needs to be exercised. Once it all begins, though, it's a blast. It helps tremendously that the cinematography and effects are so well done that the viewer gets all the sense of scope and scale that is required. I can recall at least three excellent sequences, but I'd rather not detail them and spoil the surprise for anyone wishing to see the movie for the first time.

There are a few of these very well-constructed, H.R. Geiger-esque
sets. Unfortunately for me, they are hard to appreciate on a
smaller TV screen, despite the sharpness of blu-ray.
My great regret about watching this movie was that I didn't see it on the big screen. I did watch it on blu-ray, on my 45" TV, which has a nice picture, but it just didn't do the movie complete justice. Many key scenes take place at night or in dark caves, and it was difficult to make out the details of some scenes. And of course, the sheer size of the monsters is lost on a smaller screen.

If you've never had any interest in giant monster movies, this one won't make you a believer. I'm not a tremendous fan of the genre, but my casual interest is such that I enjoyed this one, just as I enjoyed Pacific Rim well enough. These two recent kaiju flicks make for a strong, modern double feature.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: The Yakuza (1975); Bound (1996); Year of the Dragon (1985)

The Yakuza (1975)

Director: Sydney Pollack

This movie is awesome, and I can't believe I'd never heard of it before.

Starring a personal favorite of mine - Robert Mitchum - The Yakuza is measured, thoughtful, and masterfully executed. Mitchum plays Harry Kilmer, a former U.S. Army soldier who had spent years in post-World War II Japan during reconstruction. Two decades later, he is called upon by an old friend to pull his fat out of a fire that he has lit by getting on the wrong side of one of Japan's organized crime groups. Harry reluctantly returns to Japan, where he must reconnect with formerly close locals and attempt to negotiate on his friend's behalf. Of course, things go far from smoothly, and Harry is forced to navigate a complex web of allegiances and personal debts of honor.

I must admit that I was skeptical during the first five or so minutes of the film. The movie, filmed in eye-popping Technicolor and featuring a soundtrack fit for a cheesy TV cop drama, has a dated aesthetic in a lot of ways. Before long, though, these aspects are completely forgotten as the story and characters take over. Running deeply throughout the story is the concept of giri, or obligation to others. This concept of debt runs between many characters, and in different directions as the story progresses, and the film does a fantastic job of granting this theme all of the weight that it deserves. Robert Mitchum's stoically tough visage is the perfect one to transmit it all in a visual medium.

The movie is paced just the way I love them - the slow burn that erupts into a tense explosion. Though the action is sparse and intermittent through the first half of the film, it gradually but inevitably expands in length and intensity, while never once seeming gratuitous. The final action sequence is, to be honest, one of the most badass two-man assaults that I've ever seen. My mouth was literally hanging open during the climactic moments.

Despite a few slower moments that are, admittedly, on the hokey side, I'll gladly watch this one again.

Bound (1996)

Directors: Andy and Lana Wachowski

Another very pleasant surprise. I couldn't help but be skeptical when seeing "Jennifer Tilly" paired with "The Wachowski Brothers." Little did I know what an entertaining neo-noir crime flick this was.

If this image strikes you as a bit of overkill, then you've got
the right idea. Still. the movie's plot and execution does the
notion of "femme
noir" more than adequate justice.
Bound tells the story of Corky (Gina Gershon), an ex-con who begins doing some contracting work on a swanky condo, and soon becomes romantically involved with the sultry mafia mistress who lives next door, Violet (Jennifer Tilly). Violet soon convinces Corky to help her rob her mafioso boyfriend, Cesar (Joe Pantoliano). Of course, their initially simple plan becomes ever-more complex as various things start to go awry.

I wasn't sold for the first 15 minutes or so. Gershon and Tilly oversell their parts a bit, and the dialogue tries too hard at times to be "hard-boiled." But once the heist begins, it's a great ride. Thanks to excellent pacing, solid acting by Pantoliano and the rest of the cast, and some great set design and cinematography, the tale carried me right through to the end. It certainly helped to have the novelty of making the two protagonists lesbian lovers, which is something I hadn't come across before.

I'd recommend this one, certainly. Just be patient for it to get going, and be sure that you're not put off by some standard mafia-type bloodletting.

Sure, Tracy Tzu has better hair than
Stanley White, but she also represents
most of what was wrong with this film.
Year of the Dragon (1985)

Director: Michael Cimino

Decent, but rather uneven.The movie follows New York cop Stanley White, a Vietnam veteran who is a fantastic cop with a mammoth ego and knack for pissing off everyone around him. White has taken it upon himself to single-handedly take down the local "Triad," or Chinese mafia in New York's Chinatown, where younger gang members have been enacting public executions on unprecedented scale.

As White attempts to navigate the labyrinth that is Chinese culture and relationships with authority figures, his actions make collateral damage of every single person around him, friend and foe alike. He is not unlike Clint Eastwood's iconic Harry Callahan, whose righteous indignation provides him enough justification for any action. White bulldozes through age-old traditions of NYC police and Chinese culture in order to reach his desired ends. It is this cannonball approach of White's that provides the real strength of the film.

But there are more than a few serious weaknesses. The most obvious is the acting, which can be spotty at best. Rourke is great, as usual, but the performance of the mononomic Ariane, who plays local TV news reporter Tracy Tzu, is weak. She struck me as someone given the role strictly for her stunning good looks, rather than acting ability (as confirmation, imdb has exactly zero other roles listed on her acting resume). It's not quite as bad as Sofia Coppolla's notorious performance in The Godfather III, but it's in the same league.

Two other major issues were the inconsistency with both the tone and pacing of the story. It starts really well, with a brutal slaying in the middle of the Chinese New Year parade. And there are some powerful scenes throughout the film. But any momentum of tension is often defused by ill-placed personal scenes, often between White and his wife. These and the awkward scenes between White and Tzu were stagnant to the flow of the film.

I am, quite frankly, surprised that this was considered one of the "great gangster movies" by the authors of the book that I'm working through. Thus far, this is the first one that I've found to be a tepid work that I would neither watch again nor recommend to others. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Before I Die #521: Get Carter (1971)

Director: Mike Hodges

Great gangster flick, based on a great book.

The basic story is that Jack Carter, a "fixer" for a London-based crime syndicate, has returned to his home town in the north of England. His brother has died in a way that makes Jack very suspicious. Jack quickly begins to start shaking bushes and soon has multiple criminals swirling around, most of whom wish to do him very serious harm. Jack, not a man easily dissuaded, pursues the mystery to its very end, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake.

How does one adequately describe this film, or even the book upon which it was adapted? The title character, Jack Carter, is not a nice man. He works for a sleazy and extremely powerful organized crime syndicate based in London. He kills people. He barely hesitates to exploit relatively innocent bystanders in the name of reaching his own goals. So why is it so compelling to follow him?

Jack Carter is, to me, a very dark, very English take on the classic noir protagonist of Hammett and Chandler. Jack is fully immersed in the murky waters of the English criminal underworld of the increasingly cynical post-mod era of the early 1970s. And while he's not the biggest fish in those waters, he is easily one of the deadliest. Like the classic noir "hero," he inhabits every scene, and we follow him through a complex maze of depravity and salaciousness that is frighteningly entrenched in Jack's entire world. But Jack is clearly right at home there, and his confidence is mesmerizing.

It is this confidence, along with his lethal capabilities and knack for the occasional snide one-liner, that carry us along. Don't be fooled, though. This is not Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. He's not even the more jaded Tom Reagan from Miller's Crossing. He is a villain, and there are really only two things that keep him from being too repulsive to be interesting. One is that, in this tale, his targets are even more villainous that he is. The other is that he does exhibit the tiniest shred of compassion for his niece (who may actually be his daughter) as he carries out his quest for revenge. Mostly, though, he is out to avenge his brother's death. A viewer gets the sense that Jack is killing his way through adversaries out of is own pride just as much as a sense of vengeance.

Jack and his trusted weapon - the shotgun that he and his
brother saved up their money to buy as boys. Jack and the
gun get more than a little payback.
So the character and story are strong enough, but they are far from the only worthy qualities of the movie. The direction is tight and focused, and the aesthetic is just as gritty as it ought to be. This is not to say that it has a "dark" or "cheap" look based on some misguided attempt to convey some form of reality. A surprising number of scenes take place in broad daylight, where Jack and his opponents' dastardly deeds can be witnessed openly. The editing and framing are wonderfully done, which makes the viewing experience extremely dynamic during the several action sequences. But nothing feels rushed in any way. The first half of the film features many slower, meditative shots when the camera lingers on Jack's face, or the faces of others who are reacting to Jack's words or actions. There is just as much power in these moments as when the bullets are flying and the bodies are falling.

Do I really need to say anything about Michael Caine? Perhaps you are only familiar with his more recent roles, and you may be wondering if he was as strong an actor in his younger days. If so, you can stop wondering. He's incredible. If you've only seen him in roles of genteel, pleasant, and stately chaps, then you will marvel at how well he plays the coolly brutal Jack Carter.

The main caveat for those who don't know the story should be clear. There is no "good guy" here. Get Carter is about a bad man doing bad things to even worse people. But it sure is entertaining, just as any expertly-presented story about a cool customer plying his trade should be entertaining.

...And What About the Book?

I suppose a touch of disclosure is in order here. The reason I read the source novel for this is that a close friend of mine is responsible for having it published for the first time in the U.S. in four decades. I had already planned to watch the film for some time, so its reintroduction onto U.S. bookstore shelves last month was rather fortuitous for me.

Originally titled Jack's Return Home in the U.K., the book is fantastic. And the movie's director, Mike Hodges, stays extremely true to the spirit of the story and the protagonist. As expected, certain artistic license was taken, but it was done respectfully and with amazing adeptness. It is that rare adaptation that does the source novel more than enough justice while utilizing the elements that make cinema a different art form. Author Ted Lewis used terse, sparse language in this narrative. Hodges took that great narrative and translated into a ripping good film story with great camerawork, editing, and a fantastic actor.

If you have any interest in comparing the book to the film, I highly recommend reading the novel first. It's a modest 200 pages, and they turn very quickly. You can order it from a ton of places, but here's the direct link through Syndicate Books.

Movie or book, you really can't go wrong if you're into hard-boiled crime fiction.