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"That's a nice-a donut."

Thursday, September 29, 2005


Inside Deep Throat (2005)

Back in the early 1970s a cultural phenomenon swept across the country. I'm not talking about the growing anti-war movement or disco music or feminism or anything else of that ilk. I'm referring to porn. With the release of Deep Throat in 1972, adult films were thrust closer to the mainstream of society and an entire industry was reborn and revitalized. Inside Deep Throat, from directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, chronicles how the illicit movie became a smash hit after its initial release in a Times Square, New York theater, followed by fights to keep it out of theaters and its impact on the people associated with it, and how it affected an entire industry.

The movie combines archived footage with new interviews and narration by Dennis Hopper (and, on that note, how in the world can a documentary possibly be successful without voiceover narration by either Hopper, Morgan Freeman, or Keith David?). Some of those interviewed include the films stars and creators, entertainment bigshots like Hugh Hefner, John Waters, and Wes Craven, as well as a host of former adult film performers and directors, plus a number of writers such as Norman Mailer and other experts. In addition, some law-talking folk like Alan Dershowitz and U.S. attorney Larry Parrish (more on that in a moment) are also given ample screen time. One of the more humorous interviews is with the location manager on the movie, a crazy old man who, for some inexplicable reason, is on a vendetta against the film and compares everything in it to feces (but not in such a polite manner).

The documentary uses the widely bandied-about claim that Deep Throat is the most profitable film of all time - given that it was made for only about $20,000 - with a total gross of $600 million dollars. Unfortunately, no further study or mention is made of the dubious nature of that claim. The fact of the matter is, the movie was heavily financed and distributed by members of the Italian mafia. It is quite probable that it was used to launder money from other sources and that the actual grosses will forever be a mystery.

Somewhat ironically, the success of the movie ended up being its undoing as a wave of Nixonian censorship and nationwide crackdowns on pornography eventually sent a vast number of people to court on criminal obscenity charges, including lead actor Harry Reems, director Gerard Damiano, and various people on the distribution and theatrical end of the business. Larry Parrish, the prosecutor in the case, claims he's not a eunuch. Though I see no reasonable evidence to believe him. But to the movie's credit, it tends to treat all the subjects with their due respect and doesn't really take sides in the battle.

At the same time that porn was under fire again in the 1980s, with congressional investigations and a burgeoning feministic movement, porn helped to spur the growth of home video rentals. Draconian laws and persecution brought many associated with the movie down, but yet the popularity and "porn chic" factor surrounding the film helped to take the industry further into the mainstream anyway (along with an "artistic" decline). By the end, Bailey and Barbato seem to lament that despite all this, the laws remain unchanged.

I enjoyed some of the rare footage, such as celebrities at Deep Throat screenings, and even a portion of an old adult educational film ("Hi, I'm Troy McClure..."). The surprise beauty tip was also welcome. I also appreciated the insights and the openness of the nudity and sexuality, but ultimately Inside Deep Throat just feels like a bigger budget version of a television special on the History or Biography channels. At one point it devolves into another episode of VH1's "I Love the 70s." Things are played a bit too broadly by the end, as it goes off in too many directions, trying to focus on a little of everything. The movie is enjoyable enough while it lasts, but rather forgettable when it's over.

The Verdict: B-.

Sunday, September 25, 2005


Flightplan (2005)

After an absence from cinema for over three years, other than a brief cameo in last year's A Very Long Engagement, Jodie Foster is back in the airplane thriller Flightplan. Foster is Kyle Pratt, a woman who is still grieving after her husband jumped off a tall building just a couple days before. Along with her six-year old daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston), she is taking the body from Germany back home to the United States to be buried. After falling asleep on the flight, she realizes that Julia is missing. Frantically she searches the plane, but encounters resistance when nobody - neither any of the passengers nor the flight crew - remembers the girl even being there. She isn't even on the passenger manifest! An air marshal, Carson (Peter Sarsgaard), steps in to calm things down and soon enough Kyle is pegged as a security risk. Logic would suggest that she is either making things up or is mentally unstable, after all, she had imagined being with her dead husband just one night before. But she keeps pushing, determined to learn the truth even if it means being arrested.

Flightplan is a movie with a great premise; it easily calls to mind Alfred Hitchcock's early British classic The Lady Vanishes in which a young woman is stumped when the kind old lady she meets on a train disappears and no other passengers remember her even being there. It also has elements that call to mind an eerie television show like The Twilight Zone or, for a more recent and better comparison, Lost. Wherein, for every question that is seemingly answered, another 3 to 5 questions are born.

It is a complex puzzle that will likely either leave you impressed and dazzled or have your head spinning. The movie is tense and fast-paced, as it should be. The set design is top notch, as the deluxe jumbo airliner becomes a key character in the story. And Sarsgaard is great as always, showing some impressive range here, while Foster is solid and makes you wonder why she doesn't take on more roles with her talent. But novice director Robert Schwentke has created a film that is rather cold and distant in the first two-thirds of the picture. I didn't care as much as I was probably supposed to about whether or not the daughter is found. Things eventually take a wild turn, in a move that will likely create strong reactions one way or the other. Overall, this is a decent movie, but more of the popcorn-variety than anything else. I was mildly disappointed in it. It will be interesting to see how the movie fares with subsequent viewings.

The Verdict: B-.


Crash (2005)

"It's the sense of touch. In any real city you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In LA nobody touches you. We're always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something."

Paul Haggis, the Oscar-nominated scribe behind Million Dollar Baby, made his major feature directorial debut (other than a movie from 1993 that nobody has ever heard of) with Crash, an uncompromising work on racial tensions and problems in modern-day America. The setting is Los Angeles, and the plot takes place over about a two day period in which we find many of the characters interact and their lives intermingle and come together in unforeseen ways. For instance, the district attorney (Brandan Fraser) and his wife (Sandra Bullock) are carjacked by a pair of bright but troubled youths. Later that evening they have a locksmith (Michael Pena) change the locks on their home to provide a feeling of more security. That same locksmith does a job for an Iranian convenience store owner but that doesn't secure the door better and the store is robbed that night.

There are several other interesting tales, including a young police officer (Ryan Philippe) dealing with his bigoted partner (Matt Dillon), who in turn has harassed a successful black couple (Terrance Howard and Thandie Newton) on their way home from an awards show. Also, a police detective (Don Cheadle) must deal with his partner (Jennifer Esposito) who he is also dating and later investigates a possible killing. Not to mention a couple of car accidents that occur.

Things get turned upside down eventually as characters that were vicious before become human, and some that were more likeable show their bad side. Nearly all of them have their own racial prejudices, some of which are more serious and up front, while others have more subtle biases. Most of them either receive their comeuppance or atone for themselves in some way. The ensemble cast is very good, with no weak performances in the bunch. Matt Dillon, Terrance Howard, and Ludacris (as one of the carjackers) should be especially singled out. The all-star cast is so large though, that even Tony Danza appears. (What's next, Steve Guttenberg?)

The story moves briskly along, and even though the subject matter is very serious, it is never uninteresting and even includes some light humor to break up the tension at various points. The raw and unflinching manner in which each little vignette is told sort of slows the viewer from being able to really ponder any of the deep and profound comments that Haggis making on society at large.

The movie makes many small, but clever observations about race in America. Sometimes it's just the small things, like when Cheadle's detective says to his partner: "Oh, come on. I would have said a Mexican, but I don't think it would have pissed her off so much!" The problem is, her dad is from El Salvador and her mom from Puerto Rico; sort of along the lines of someone calling an Asian person (no matter what nationality) "Chinese." Some may find it too forthcoming, but for those people it may just mean that the themes hit too close to home.

The one thing generally holding Crash back from being really great is that it aims a little too far and wide at times. It results in a few of the situations being hackneyed and rather unbelievable. But if you think about it, so is racism. And what about the voiceover by the police detective at the beginning of the movie? Is it some deep metaphor or explanation for racial problems, or is it just some nonsense babble that only gives a feeling of really saying anything? I don't really know, perhaps a little bit of both. Haggis provides no answers or cure for the problem, or any of its many underlying causes. But, either way, I look forward to seeing what he has to say next.

The Verdict: B+.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005


Oldboy (2003)

Originally released in director Chan-wook Park's native South Korea in late 2003, Oldboy was a fairly big smash on the international and film festival circuits for nearly a year and a half before finally making its way to U.S. screens earlier this year. The much anticipated film is a ferocious, and sometimes unsettling, psychological mystery/thriller about revenge and lives lost in the wake. It begs to demonstrate the sage observation, "laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone."

Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi) is abducted for no apparent reason and without any explanation. He is imprisoned in a small room and drugged, tortured, hypnotized, and generally isolated from the rest of the world - not necessarily in that order. He has no idea how long he would be there, and even wonders if it would be better if he did or did not know. In the midst of this, he learns that his family has been murdered and that he is wanted for the crime. Eventually, out of the blue, he is released and is even provided with new clothes and money. Of course there are many questions to be asked and many emotions running through him, but his main intent is to find out why he was taken prisoner and to enact revenge on his captors. Along the way he meets Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), a friendly waitress who helps him out. The problem is that his tormentor may have even worse things in mind.

The movie isn't for the squeamish. For instance, Oh Dae-su eats a rather large live octopus. And there a couple brief dental scenes that are so vicious they make the one in The Marathon Man look Disney-fied by comparison. Eventually though, we learn that sometimes the most powerful weapon isn't a gun or a sharp blade, but rather the ability to know the unknowable truth and to wield the emotions of another man in the palm of your hands. Oh Dae-su now lives a life filled with sorrow, misery, and regret. It is pitiful when he asks, "Even though I am no better than a beast, don't I too have the right to live?"

The third act of the movie is very powerful, but with a plot that becomes too elaborate and overwhelms. Some things just don't make sense, other things are pointless, and really the whole purpose for his imprisonment ends up being quite unjust and reeks of pretentiousness. By the end, I didn't care one way or the other what happened to Oh Dae-su or whether he finds his answers or gets his revenge. Oldboy has good intentions, and I can appreciate certain aspects of the filmmaking, but it just didn't work for me overall.

The Verdict: C+.

Monday, September 12, 2005


The Sting (1973)

Things aren't quite what they used to be. Like when movie tickets used to cost a shiny nickel. And when our grandparents used to walk to school. Five miles. In the snow. Uphill. Both ways. And now, movie tickets cost seven dollars just for the matinee shows, and school kids take the school bus even if they live right across the street from their school. And, accordingly, they don't quite make movies like they used to.

Nowadays a movie is unlikely to be released if it doesn't star the latest hot, drunk, anorexic actress and an interchangeable, fast-talking, quipster of an actor in some generic tale that must be fast-paced (a shot must not, under any circumstances, last longer than one second), high on concept and low on substance. A car chase - or at the very least, a no-holds-barred fisticuffs - is generally essential. And don't forget the recycled pop music and the token minority character.

Enter: The Sting. Director George Roy Hill's classic tale about a pair of likeable confidence men aiming for the big score in post-Depression Chicago, calls to mind a bygone era without sentiment or sap, but with a knowing nod towards the past and a glimmer of hope for the future. From the very beginning, when the cast of characters is revealed on screen before the opening scene we know that this movie is different. If you spend too much time analyzing it, you will notice a few logical issues and that, really, it's not a very deep movie - there isn't much character development and doesn't provide any hidden or complex symbolism or meaning. It's really quite light-hearted in general, and best of all... it's fun. The near-perfect camaraderie between Paul Newman and Robert Redford hits lightning in a bottle again, arguably surpassing their collaboration (along with Hill) from four years before in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

To reduce the movie into a short plot summary doesn't quite do anybody any justice. Suffice to say, Johnny Hooker (Redford) is a young con being mentored by a wise old man named Luther (RobertEarl Jones). They team up for a fairly successful score, but unfortunately the mark is affiliated with a very powerful man named Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). Lonnegan metes out revenge, and tragedy strikes, so Hooker heads off to Chicago and meets up with Henry Gondorff (Newman). The down-on-their-luck pair conspire to complete the ultimate heist and payback. This is among the first movies that featured a relatively big twist, before the big! surprise! craze hit in the late 1990s after The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense, among others.

Shaw, probably most famous as the cavalier shark hunter Quint in Jaws, is exceptional as the big kahuna. I was shocked to discover that he received no awards acclaim for his role. He is especially good at speech intonations and creating emotion and change of pace in his voice, making me think that he would have been a great animation voice actor in today's world. A high-stakes poker scene between Gondorff and Lonnegan is first-rate in almost every aspect: the timing, the camera movements, the acting, and especially the tension.

I also love the touch that title cards, separating the movie into pieces, bring. With titles like "The Players," "The Hook," and so forth, it calls to mind a dramatic play. And in fact, perhaps the best compliment that can be given to a film is that it would have worked perfectly as a silent picture. The great theme music that accompanies the journey is akin to a live orchestra that may have played during a silent film. A version of Joplin's piano rag, "The Entertainer," easily helped the film win the award for best original song score or adaptation.

Sure, it isn't exactly a recent film; the Academy-award winning best picture is over 30 years old and dates before the MTV era. But it calls to mind a simpler time when going to the movie didn't break the bank, when going to school was an adventure. And when originality and storytelling bested formulaic, packaged tripe. No, they don't make movies like The Sting anymore.

The Verdict: A.

Thursday, September 08, 2005


Layer Cake (2005)

Even in the world of organized crime (or disorganized as the case may be), there is a pecking order. Just like how an entry-level employee in an organization reports to a low-level supervisor, who in turn reports to someone in middle management, who reports to someone even higher, there are rules and hierarchies in the criminal world. The ethics of it all even extend to competing factions where respect, and revenge for a lack of it, is common. The different levels of the system, including all the low-level thugs, the middlemen, the rogue characters, and the big bosses, are put forth in Layer Cake, from Michael Vaughn in his directorial debut.

Daniel Craig plays a nameless middle-aged man who bluntly states that he is not a gangster, but rather a businessman whose commodity just happens to be cocaine. But he has had enough of that lifestyle and wants to retire; after all he even has a legitimate side job. There is a catch though - Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham), the powerful head boss, has an assignment for him. Two, actually: he must find the missing daughter of an associate, and he must find a buyer for a very large stash of ecstasy. He takes the job of course, but must maneuver through the eventual web of deceit, lies, and death. His eyes are on completing the job but his mind is on staying alive.

Layer Cake tries to be a smart, complex story, but ends up getting rather bogged down in all the small twists and double crosses. And still, even though it is a relatively fast paced movie, I couldn't help but feel that it was kind of dull at times - been there, done that. The style is slick, but perhaps tries to be too hip for its own good. Why do so many movies about crime try to overload us with twists and turns? Just tell us a good story.

That being said, the movie presents some interesting dichotomies between the ruthless, evil criminal mindset of these characters and the human, emotional, sometimes fragile side of the profession. Much of the film's premise (along the lines of the "aging cop who is one week away from retirement, but suddenly gets involved in a difficult case" genre) is actually quite old and somewhat overused. But Craig breathes life into what could have been an unremarkable role and creates a tough, but genuine, and quite flawed man. However I wish that his colleagues and underlings could have been more developed. Note that Sienna Miller (now best known for Jude Law and the nanny scandal) pops in as a potential love interest for the main character in a side story that becomes rather crucial.

By the time the closing credits began to roll, I was generally satisfied with Layer Cake but not completely nourished. As with all too many films it seems, there was more promise and potential than was actually delivered. Don't misread me; this is a good movie. But it's rather disappointing when the best part of a movie is the opening sequence, which included an opening voiceover that I found mildly reminiscent of that in Trainspotting. And as for the nameless man? Well, as he states, "if you knew my name, you'd be as clever as me." Think about that.

The Verdict: B.

Monday, September 05, 2005


Parts: The Clonus Horror (1979)

In Parts: The Clonus Horror, America is a magical, happy place that masses of people aspire to be able to go to. It is a place where dreams can come true, and in a small community in the middle of anywhere people leap at the opportunity and hope that they will soon be qualified and accepted into America. It is a strange, unusual place where many of the people wear what look to be earrings and each person has a distant and unfettered air about them. But we soon learn that this small community is living in a secure encampment and that, well, they already are in America. In fact they are located within sight of the greater Los Angeles region.

Richard (Tim Donnelly) is one of the residents of the community, who gradually becomes suspicious of his surroundings. He finds a foreign object but receives a lame explanation from the leaders about what it is, and the shady doctor (Dick Sargent, the second Darrin on Bewitched) only helps to fuel his wonder. Richard eventually learns the horrifying truth that he is a clone, leading to a wild chase and a threat on his life. What he doesn't know is that the people after him are more powerful than he could ever imagine, and have truly sinister uses in mind for him and his companions.

The Clonus Horror, though a low budget affair, has some original ideas and clearly set its sights on being a broad, sweeping entry into the science fiction pantheon. It attempts to preach about the ethics and morality of cloning, and tries to infuse a love story, but misses the mark on both by lapsing into a second-rate drama lacking any suspense, emotion or identity. The scripting is also sometimes lazy, as characters seemingly speak out their internal monologues, instead of the action or plot being visually evident. There are generally very low production values all around; in many places the pacing and structure felt like a typical late 1970s or early 80s television show like CHiPs or The A-Team, for example.

Of special note is that the recent Michael Bay film The Island has some strong similarities to the plot of this movie. In fact, the makers of Clonus have filed a lawsuit which seeks damages and attempts to block The Island from being released further. After all, in America it is better to stop the clones before it's too late.

The Verdict: C-.

Friday, September 02, 2005


Constantine (2005)

It had to happen sooner or later. With the glut of comic book-based movies in the last few years (since the successes of X-Men and Spider-man), you had to figure that sooner or later the studios would begin to run out of ideas for the more popular superhero books and would gravitate towards a few of the less mainstream characters. And with that we get Constantine, based on the DC Comics book Hellblazer from the Vertigo imprint.

John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) is a paranormal investigator who was born with a gift. He deals with the occult, demonology, and exorcisms, and is somehow able to see and understand supernatural beings. For instance, he believes that long ago God and the Devil made a bet concerning good and evil and now angels, demons, and half-breeds walk the Earth, with the balance between good and evil up for grabs. Now there has been an increase in supernatural activity recently, like Constantine excising a "soldier demon" out of a young girl.

Enter Angela (Rachel Weisz), a police detective who is grieving over the death of her twin sister Isabel. She jumped off the roof at a mental hospital in which she was a patient, in an apparent suicide, but Angela is convinced that she was somehow murdered since her sister would never do anything like that. Angela and Constantine team up to get to the bottom of the mystery and try to find their place in the order of things.

The movie is sure to draw the inevitable comparison to another little film starring Reeves, The Matrix. Both are effects-heavy films that take themselves too seriously, in out-of-this-world places where many things are not what they seem. Like The Matrix, Constantine also features quite a bit of existential babble ("God's a kid with an ant farm; he's not planning anything"), and both films also share the style of using greenish hues in a number of scenes (though I'm not sure what the color symbolizes or is intended to represent, other than just looking nice). Continuing with the comparison, Reeves turns in this usual performance. That is to say that is he is stone-faced, emotionless, and jaded. But in this role those traits mostly do him well, as a man who is unlike anyone else and knows things that so many others do not. The effects are small, but fancy, and the set designs are very interesting. Thou a few of the camera angles are quite odd.

But things get bogged down a bit in the final act. Whereas the movie up until then was intriguing by way of being rather mysterious and a fairly novel idea, some of the mystery was now gone and, well, the emperor didn't have as many clothes as it should have. As with Angela in the movie who is having trouble coming to terms with what may have happened to her sister, it takes a real leap of faith to get past some of the logic and plot devices. And a plotline about the Spear of Destiny (the weapon that killed Jesus, which has been found after being lost for many years) is downplayed and almost forgotten along the way. Ultimately the movie is more style than substance.

Constantine, from music video director turned first-time filmmaker Francis Lawrence, is not nearly as groundbreaking or simply as fun as The Matrix. But it manages to hold its own in the increasingly overloaded genre of comic book movies. What's next, a movie based on Howard the Duck? Never mind.

The Verdict: C.

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