"That's a nice-a donut."

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Red Eye (2005)

Red Eye is horror director Wes Craven's best movie in nearly a decade, since the first Scream - and only a few small things keep it from being better than that. Some people may be hesitant to see the movie, given that is sure to be grouped and compared with Flightplan. Both movies were released in 2005 (with Flightplan coming out a few months sooner) and both have women in the lead role, with both experiencing traumatic events on an airplane. For what ever reason, the movie studios seem to have the (obviously coincidental ...*cough*) habit of releasing very similar movies in short time frames - one that leaps immediately to mind is Armageddon and Deep Impact in 1998. Both titles are solid movies, but Red Eye surpasses it.

In the movie, Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams) is a successful manager at a hotel in Miami; a hotel in which the deputy Secretary of Homeland Security is going to be arriving at for a stay the following morning. Lisa is away on a trip is and is traveling back home on a red eye plane flight. At the airport she hits it off with a charming man named Jackson (Cillian Murphy), and is then pleasantly surprised when they both end up with seats next to one another. Her comfort and delight immediately turn to sheer terror though when Jackson tells her the truth. His comrades are closely watching her father (Brian Cox) and if she doesn't use her power at the hotel to change the room assignment of the Secretary, then her father will die. A cat and mouse game ensues, with Lisa trying to keep her wits and keep her father alive, and Jackson ruthlessly bent on finishing the job.

McAdams is completely in control when she is on screen. Sure she is yet another actress with a pretty face, but she is very good with emotions; without a single word you can immediately tell (and believe) what her feelings are at any moment. If she wasn't already, she is undoubtedly well on her way to becoming one of Hollywood's leading actresses. If she chooses the right scripts correctly in the near future, it is quite possible that the search for the Next Julia will finally be over. And her costar isn't too shabby either. Murphy excels at being psychotic. But with this and his role as Scarecrow in Batman Begins, I only hope he doesn't begin to get typecast in these roles, because he's is a fine actor all-around.

Still, you are left to wonder why Craven did certain things. He spends plenty of time - particularly in the beginning - doting on the quirks, and often rude and obnoxious behaviors and complaints of guests and passengers towards people in customer service. Some of it is amusing; we can all relate to experiences with irate customers. But these are mostly caricatures with lines that delivered in ham-baked ways. What point does this serve other than perhaps to break up any tension and provide us some temporarily relief? It almost makes you wonder if it is solely done to pad the already short running time. And the movie flails around a bit in the final act, keeping it from making the leap from a good to a very good thriller.

Though as with most short movies (the credits on this begin prior to the 80 minute mark), Red Eye makes pretty good use of almost every moment. There is nary a dull spot, and the action is pretty fun and intense - though most of us will not be surprised by the outcome. It is generally a very gripping entry into the thriller genre, and obviously on the short list of top movies featuring scary airplane antics.

The Verdict: B-.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Worth Winning (1989)

The plot for Worth Winning is pretty much as ultra-farcical and unserious as you can possibly get in a movie that isn't a straight-up satire. It starts out innocent enough though. Basically, local news weatherman Taylor Worth (Mark Harmon) is the textbook ladies' man; he has a nice glamorous job with a good income, he is good looking, he is kind and generous, and generally an all-around great guy. He just can't commit and never stays in a romantic relationship for more than two months. Then it joins the list of clownish 80s movies: as a way to teach him a lesson (for his own good), Taylor's friend Ned (Mark Blum) bets him that he can't get engaged to three different women in the next three months. The stakes are pretty high - Ned's wife's original Picasso for Taylor's fishing cabin - and Ned even gets to choose the three women.

One is a drop-dead blonde (Maria Holvoe), another is an arty pianist who is skeptical of men (Madeleine Stowe), and the third is married (Leslie Ann Warren). From here on out, the movie is as absurd and as zany - and unbelievable - as it can be. And once we've learned the identities of the three women (victims), it doesn't take a psychic to see that the general plot outline is pretty well choreographed - you won't be very surprised by how things turn out. The finale is one cliche after another.

But there are some fun and interesting aspects that separate Worth Winning from other screwball efforts. As with a few other films from that era, including Ferris Bueller's Day Off, it makes liberal use of breaking the fourth wall, and speaking to the audience. This leads to some funny quips from Taylor like "after she agrees to marry me, I'm going to keep dating her" he tells the audience, with a straight face. There are also plenty of good one-liners in the conversations between characters like when he shouts "no goddammit, it mean's I'm impotent!" in a crowded restaurant.

As with many farces, the acting (and script) straddle a very thin line between good and bad. Harmon is solid in the main part, though you can't help but wonder if it could have been better with a bigger name. He plays the suave gentleman well, and can switch to the lyin' and cheatin' good-for-nothing pig when the need arises, though always with a hint of sorrow. The role itself is pure George Clooney (think: Ocean's 11), who would be perfect as Taylor if this were made today. But I digress ...the rest of the cast is pretty tame and hit or miss. In all, it is charming and entertaining for what it is; just too predictable for a concept so absurd.

The Verdict: C.

Monday, January 23, 2006

The Constant Gardener (2005)

Director Fernando Meirelles, the creative mind behind the Brazilian sensation City of God, went in a very different direction for his followup piece. For starters, The Constant Gardener is (primarily) an English-language film. And instead of a provocative drama about the gang culture in Rio de Janiero, we get a politically relevant movie about a man bent on solving his wife's gruesome murder, coupled with the threatening greed and potential destruction brought about by big businesses.

Almost right from the beginning of the movie British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), in Kenya as part of the British High Command, learns some very bad news from his good friend Sandy (Danny Huston). He tells Justin that his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) may have been killed and, oh yeah, she might also have been having an affair. Undeterred by the rumors, and dissatisfied with the official investigation of her death, he presses on and begins his own private queries. As he digs deeper into the mess, he learns that the situation was more complicated than he could imagine and that a shady government-business conspiracy might be at work.

The relationship between Justin and Tessa is told in flashback, parallel to the present time and his ongoing investigation. Some of the briefer flashbacks, as well as a love scene, are very awkwardly shot; strangely evoking the sense of a photo shoot. This is likely done to give the connection between photos and memories, but the effect doesn't work right and are a little too frequent.

The story is fairly intriguing and challenging, but by the middle of the second act it has morphed into another typical adult drama thriller. Once you know who the bad guys really are it is no longer a matter of who or what, but simply when (and maybe how). Further, there is a very minor subtext in which Justin likes to work in the garden, tending to his collection of plants. It seems to give him comfort from his tense, diplomatic life there. But that aspect is virtually ignored later on.

The cast in general is pretty solid. Weisz, though mostly limited to the first part of the film, is decent. She is very effective and believable with regards to her being an idealistic humanitarian. Probably the best scene in the movie is when Justin and Tessa are in the car together and they spot a mother and her child who are on a long walk to a hospital much farther away. Tessa, in her sincerity and without a trace of selfishness, tries to convince Justin to pick them up and drive them there. On the other hand, Fiennes, who is normally a very good actor, is okay but doesn't feel completely right in the role. He doesn't exhibit nearly enough emotion or internal turmoil for a man going through so much.

Still, this is an important story. Meirelles is at his best here when he is remarking on the seemingly interdependent relationship between government and large corporations. It is quite easy to build empathy with an audience when you are railing against menacing pharmaceutical companies. And an (implicit) skewering of Tony Blair early in the film is good for some laughs. Some elements of the movie are very reminiscent of a mixture of Conspiracy Theory and The Fugitive. Overall, The Constant Gardener is a fairly compelling movie, but nothing you haven't seen before.

The Verdict: B.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The 40 Year-Old Virgin (2005)

The basic story of The 40 Year-Old Virgin, from director and co-writer Judd Apatow, could easily be described as a more vulgar and grown-up version of the first American Pie movie. That description could very well have been a hindrance, and even death-knell, to the quality of the movie. But with a talented creative crew, including star (and fellow co-writer) Steve Carell, it not only works well but the result is one of the very best comedies of the year.

And the basic story is about as simple as you can get. In short, Andy Stitzer (Carell) is a 40 year-old virgin. And things seem pretty hopeless for him too: he works at an electronics store, he not only rides his bicycle every where, but doesn't even own a car and, among other things, he has a massive (albeit impressive) collection of toys and figurines. Still in their original packaging, of course. One day Andy's coworkers (played by Paul Rudd, Romany Malco, and Seth Rogen) discover his dark, shameful secret and make it their mission to get him laid. After some partying and shenanigans, he soon meets a promising single mom (Catherine Keener) who owns her own small business. Things go very smoothly between them, but that pesky issue of sex might be getting in the way, much to the chagrin of Andy and his pals.

The movie is hilarious at times. Some of those moments play off of Andy's goofiness and near-complete lack of any self-awareness. For instance, how several women - including an attractive bookstore employee - seem very interested in Andy, yet he seems to have no idea. Or how some of the songs on the soundtrack are just right for their respective scenes. Other moments are purely slapstick, such as a scene where Andy tries to figure out how to put on a condom with ...embarrassing consequences. And, yes, the chest waxing scene is just as painful - and just as knee-slapping - as it has been made out to be.

For the most part, the supporting cast is just window dressing - foils for Andy. They are all decent in their roles, but simply there to gradually move the story along. Any of Andy's coworkers could have been cut, without any real loss. On the other hand, Keener is nearly perfect as the single mom that Andy is dating. She provides plenty of humor when needed, has just the right does of chemistry with Carell, and she just seems to be what anybody else in Andy's situation might hope for. Memo to Hollywood: get your heads out of the sand and start casting Catherine Keener more frequently. She's good.

Her leading man is pretty good though as well. Really, Carell is a natural at this. His timing is on-the-spot and he even has a gift for physical comedy. He deserves to have a long career in film ahead of him. The one main weakness of The 40 Year-Old Virgin, though, is that it is just too long for a comedy. They easily could have cut it down some, or even cut out a subplot or two entirely, and it would have been just as funny and effective. But it's certainly not enough to ruin the movie.

The Verdict: B+.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Serenity (2005)

In the short-lived sci-fi television series Firefly, a crew of independent renegades (including a pair that were highly wanted by the law), led by the veteran of an intergalactic civil war, sailed through space on a beat-up old spaceship moving from place to place and job to job. Few jobs were turned down, even if they were illegal and, well let's face it: most of them involved stealing things for other people. The series was sometimes described as a "space western" and it made sense, as the band of misfits lived from day to day on the edges of the known system, just trying to stay alive and to make peace with themselves. It was a fun show, and certainly had a lot of potential to live on for a long time. But, for various reasons, Firefly was unemotionally axed by Fox after little more than half a season. But with the help of creator Joss Whedon and a loyal group of cult followers, known as the Browncoats, the crew of the spaceship Serenity was reborn in a feature-length motion picture.

Serenity picks up sometime after the last events in Firefly; crew leader Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and the others are getting more and more desperate. Jobs are getting scarcer and the manhunt for young doctor Simon (Sean Maher) and his very special sister River (Summer Glau) continues to get more intense. Now a dangerous assassin (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is on their trail, not to mention those pesky Reavers - wild murderous humans who for some reason, rape and cannibalize their victims. As we go on a wild, fast-paced adventure on the edges of space, the misfits of Serenity learn some startling revelations, while trying to fight for their lives.

...There are two main questions that need to be asked with a movie such as this: how well does it translate to the "big screen," and how well does it succeed in introducing new viewers to this universe? In short, does the movie stand on its own terms?

The answer to the first question is an unabashed "yes." The story is epic in scope, filled with intense action and unexpected tragedy, but still retains much of the wit and fast comic-like retorts and sweet insults that helped to make Firefly such a cult sensation in the first place. Throw away all the small little tales that were told in the TV series, because Serenity had only big ambitions. When the life of pretty much every character in the story is at stake, and you are on the edge of your seat for much of the second half, it is safe to say that the credentials are very much big screen-worthy. Perhaps the only thing that one might quibble about in this area is on the quality of the special effects - it is a space movie, after all. Like the show, a good portion of the movie takes place on the ship, and things there look quite good indeed. In space though, you never really get a sense of the vastness of the universe all around. Space shots are fairly quick and specific, never lingering. Of course, the plot didn't require any massive explosions or space battles, or planets blowing up. Things look (and sound) good, but it is clear that the budget wasn't on the level of, say, Star Wars.

As for how friendly Serenity may be to new viewers, that will be a very subjective issue. As someone who has seen Firefly (though as a relative newcomer), it seems that for the most part, it is a pretty straightforward story. It is very exciting; with nary a dull moment, and the dialogue and action should probably appeal to most people. Of course, it would have been very tedious to start completely anew, so the backstories and things we learned in Firefly are not all repeated. For instance, we know that River has special powers, but new Serenity recruits may not fully grasp how volatile and dangerous that she really is.

Along these lines, one problem with the move to film is that in the television series, some episodes might have focused a little more on some characters than another. It is a often much slower building relationship with a TV series - for instance, one character (such as Sherpherd Book) might only be gradually developed and is never really a key focus, but another (such as the ships pilot, Wash) might have the occasional episode where they are a central figure and are given more insights and screen time. With the movie, you don't have the luxury of taking time to wait for characterization or to build empathy for the players - it's all got to be natural and to happen at a fairly brisk pace in order for everything to be over within 2 hours. As such, one casualty is that a few people from Serenity are pushed to the background - mechanic Kaylee is just a pretty face with the occasional line, Wash is barely used, and the alluring Inara never has a chance to shine either.

By the end, I imagine that most people will like the movie. Pretty much everyone who enjoyed Firefly will like Serenity. Of those who haven't seen Firefly, I could understand some of them not liking this. For some, the dialogue (and other oddities like how people curse in Chinese) might just be too different, or perhaps they felt they missed too many small details without benefit of the show. To those who haven't seen this, if you are looking for flashy sci-fi with lightsabers and strange new creatures, then you've come to the wrong place. But if you want well-told dramatic action, with plenty of strange people, then this should be right up your alley. In the meantime, feel free to peruse any of the hundreds of Firefly and Serenity fansites that have been created. Now, pardon me, while I go sign the petition asking for a sequel.

The Verdict: B+.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Mysterious Skin (2005)

Director Gregg Araki, who previously helmed such wild and stunning takes on teenagedom and young adulthood in The Doom Generation and Totally F***cked Up, again tackles the demands of youth in Mysterious Skin, a very intimate and personal vision of childhood gone wrong.

The story focuses on two seemingly very different teenagers at the start of their adult lives in the middle of Kansas. Before we get to that though, Araki takes us back to revisit several formative moments in the lives of Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Brian (Brady Corbet). Neil has a wild, drunken mother (Elisabeth Shue) and was abused as a young child by his Little League coach. But even at that time and at that early age, he believes that he was a little different (read: gay). As he grew older he began to get more reckless and self-destructive. Meanwhile, Brian was a weird little kid and would get nosebleeds all the time. A strange UFO/alien experience coupled with a mysterious experience in a cellar sends him on a downward spiral. Years later in the present time, Neil is sort of off in his own little universe and works as a man-whore; Brian is on the search for the truth about his alien abduction as a child. Their paths cross, and the pair must come to terms with their childhood demons if they want to have any hope of a normal life.

With any character study such as this, the acting is of paramount importance and, for the most part, doesn't disappoint. Levitt completely embodies his role as Neil, and makes it seems as if it was his own life. His is clearly the showier role. When someone describes Neil to another they tell that that whereas normal people have a heart Neil "has a bottomless black hole. And if you don't watch out, you can fall in and get lost forever." And you believe it. Levitt, who is probably most recognizable from a role in the lost comedy series Third Rock from the Sun, clearly gives a breakthrough performance. The supporting roles were all ably filled as well. Corbet, on the other hand, while perhaps given more of a blank slate character, never rises to the occasion. It's not terrible, but he never sucked me in and gave me reason to really care if he found the truth.

Though it is very dramatic and solemn at times and the lives and events that are portrayed could be quite sad, Mysterious Skin smartly fuses healthy doses of everyday humor and even some biting laugh-out-loud humor. One such scene is where Brian and multi-time alien abductee Avalyn (the crazy eccentric Chloe from "24", Mary Lynn Rajskub) are discussing their UFO abductions and how the aliens will use tracking devices on their victims. Brian mentions his nosebleeds and Avalyn, ever the believer, coolly responds "the old up-the-nose trick - so the scar can't be seen." There is also plenty of playful banter and drunken moments between Neil and his punkish friend Eric (Jeff Licon).

But this isn't a comedy. It is a sometimes devastating story of crushed dreams and (at least) one emotionally and physically wrenching scene. Araki dares to ask the question of whether one event (or at least a chain of related events) from childhood can actually affect a person that much. And with the heavy use of close-ups on people's faces, he dares us to not only look closer at these characters, but to even look closer at our own selves. There is a glimmer of hope by the end. But perhaps not enough. Mysterious Skin is generally a fine, well-paced movie, and Araki should be proud. I just don't want to look anymore.

The Verdict: B.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (or "that gay cowboy movie" as some have referred to it) is sort of an upside-down Western. In the pristine land of manly Marlboro Men of 1963 Wyoming, two young men - one a ranch hand who works odd jobs, the other a rodeo cowboy - somehow fall in love against all odds. And with this very forbidden act, the course of their lives is altered forever as they endure years of heartache, in exchange for short weeks of happiness.

Heath Ledger is Ennis Del Mar, the ranch hand, a quiet, inward mumbly man who, when he is riding a horse, driving his beat-up pickup truck, shooting moose, or just smoking and drinking, looks and sounds very much like your prototypical roughneck western man. Jake Gyllenhaal is Jack Twist, the rodeo cowboy, a brash and hopeful dreamer who fits the cowboy part, but could easily have been something else if he grew up somewhere different. They meet one summer on a job herding and guarding sheep on Brokeback Mountain. One thing leads to another, but they go their separate ways when the job ends. After a few years they finally see one another again, and begin to make a habit of it, though the only communication is through postcards in the mail. A key outcome for one of the characters is left up in the air - did something happen this way, or the other way? Leaving this destiny up to the viewer's imagination is something which the wild dreamer Jack Twist would certainly approve of.

The movie manages to be nostalgic, deeply tragic, and naively optimistic at the same time. The actors and film crew make it seem just as natural and basic as any old-fashioned love story - well, as natural as one where there is no harboring of deep secrets from other people, of course. We feel the pain of Ennis and Jack as they yearn for one another. Though at the same time, we also hurt for the girlfriends, wives, and family who are caught unknowingly in their path. And on that note, Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway both give very strong performances as Ennis and Jack's wives, respectively.

Some of the scenes in the second half of the film feel sort of scattershot or piecemeal. For example, not long after the fateful summer in the beginning, Ennis and his wife are seen spending time together. Then, in the next instant, there are two children - with no indication that any time had passed - so you are left to wonder if (a) some time had passed, or (b) if the children were there to begin with. Beyond this, the cavalier approach works as the second half is generally a collection of antidotes that eventually come together and form a clear picture of the relationships between these two star-crossed lovers.

Would it have been made if it were just about a man and a woman in 1963 Wyoming? Well, maybe, and of course it could still have been quite good. But it would have lost the true impact of the secretive and scandalous relationship. It's one thing to have people committing adultery and falling in love. It's something else entirely when the whole of society would be against it. And in the sacred Western? What would John Wayne think?

Given that homosexuality has been on the forefront of religious, political, and legal headlines in recent years, there may be a tendency to think that all of the hype surrounding the movie is simply feel-good left-wing guilt or pride. It's not. It's genuinely a very good movie and, to its credit, never even delves into any religious or political motives. What Ennis and Jake have is simply something very different, in a different era. Ang Lee, who was such a hot director years ago and peaked with 2000 multi-award winner Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon before falling hard with Hulk, is back. Without a doubt, he is in the upper echelon of directors of love stories and romances. The movie is sure to be a strong contender (and deservedly so) for a host of Oscar categories including picture, director, actor, supporting actress, cinematography, editing, costume design, adapted screenplay, and perhaps even original score.

The Verdict: A.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Downfall (2005)

In the years since World War II ended, and since his suicide death just prior to that, Adolph Hitler has become something larger than life. Not in a good way, of course, but rather as someone who quite simply epitomized the concept of Evil. A madman, a monster, a tyrant - you name it. There is even a well-known Internet guideline by which any person in a message board discussion who invokes the name Hitler or Nazis as a means of comparison automatically loses the argument. And, by tradition, the thread usually ends. Over that last 60 years there have been a countless number of WWII movies. Most of them were patriotic efforts about the American point of view, though a few gems such as Das Boot materialized the Axis side of things. There have even been a few that focused on Hitler, though certainly none are anywhere near the quality of director Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall.

It is the final days and weeks before the fall of Berlin, and the city is in chaos. The Russians are edging closer and closer to the city, as evidenced by the artillery shells that rain down. Hitler (Bruno Ganz), his advisors and personal staff, military leaders, and other close confidantes huddle in a vast underground bunker. As the surreal reality that the end is near begins to sink in, everyone in the bunker goes about things in a wide variety of ways. Some try to save their skins by fleeing or trying to make deals with the Allies. Others profess their allegiance to the dictator and vow to stay until the end. Hitler, along with lover Eva Braun (Juliane Kohler), alternates between extreme paranoia, anger, sunken defeat, and optimism that the Motherland will prevail. Meanwhile two of his young secretaries, including stenographer Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), wonder what the heck they got themselves into. Eventually Hitler and Braun are dead and the rest of the bunker residents must contend with the inevitable collapse.

Downfall doesn't go so far as to make things appear sympathetic for Hitler and the Nazis, but is able to make them into real humans who faced real decisions and consequences. Yes, there is no question that they were awful, but, well, they have a story too. The movie only occasionally and briefly delves into the atrocities that the Nazi party inflicted upon Europe, but I suppose that was for the best. It's not a documentary about the evil, nor is it a portrait of how the Allies triumphed over evil; but rather it is a riveting study of what some people might have done when they had their backs to the wall.

Ganz is absolutely possessed as the monstrous Fuhrer, and it shows during the many mood swings from fiery conqueror to fallen man, as he gives on of the best acting performances of the year. He has the benefit of having so many years of parody, caricature, and demon-mongering of the man. This surely helped Ganz, as he is able to create his own vision without you having to second-guess every little thing he does (or doesn't do). I especially liked his little hand tics, and other gestures, in his portrayal of Hitler's Parkinsons'.

Some things in the movie are purely speculative, while other things were gathered from decades of study, and still other things were learned from Junge - who bookends the movie in real life interviews with her at later age. One flaw is that Downfall doesn't quite completely capture the guilt and youthful ignorance of her, and other "young followers" during that time. But, especially considering that ending is pretty well known, the story is as gripping as you can get on film. A scene in which a mother kills her children (with poisoned pills) - so that they don't have to live in a world without National Socialism - is literally stunning. And the art and set design are excellent; war-torn Berlin is alive, with fallen buildings, smoke, and rubble all over the place. Highly recommended.

The Verdict: A-.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Devil's Rejects (2005)

Who would have ever thought that hard rock musician Rob Zombie would eventually morph into a competent, very promising - and dare I say good - director? It sure didn't seem to be in the cards for him after his first feature film, House of 1000 Corpses, which was roundly critically derided. But with The Devil's Rejects, which is actually a sequel to it, he has crafted a well-made and worthy entry into the horror and thriller genre of film.

In the film, it is some months after the events in 1000 Corpses (though that is never explicitly stated). Police have closed in on the compound of a family of cold-blooded killers, and things start off with a shootout, some bloodshed, and you get the impression that it will end up something like what happened in Waco. But it doesn't, and most of the Firefly family escapes. Young Baby (Sherri Moon Zombie) and her brother Otis (Bill Moseley) make their way to a motel, where they are supposed to rendezvous with their father, an evil clown named Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig). Where most criminals on the run might try to stay below the radar and keep things quiet for a while, these folks are hellbent on having fun and causing more death. Meanwhile, a Texas Ranger (William Forsythe) is hot on their trail. He even has Mother Firefly locked up in a jail cell (she didn't escape with them), and with memories of his dead brother, he has his sights set on a grisly revenge.

Set against a nice beat of hard-rocking tunes from the Seventies, such as Lynryd Skynyrd's "Freebird" and "Midnight Rider" by the Allman Brothers, Rejects is clearly trying to emulate the age of horror from that decade. It's also very noticeable, in fact, that the movie is a direct descendant of Hooper's original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It even takes place in the same general setting as that classic: the vast dustbowl of Nowheresville, Texas. And just like TCM, The Devil's Rejects is like an orgasmatron of violence and bloodshed.

Zombie sort of turns the Chainsaw Massacre comparison on its head and inside out, though, since the protagonists are now diabolical monsters. But, yet, these monsters are the ones being chased. The hunters have become the hunted, so to speak. Unlike the relatively simpler story in TCM where average everyday schmos are the focus and they are running for their lives.

The movie isn't a brilliant textbook exercise in modern acting - though it's definitely not bad, especially Sherri Moon Zombie. And it won't serve as a classic vision of police work, or provide meaningful insights into the mind of crazed homicidal lunatics, or as a complex dramatic study in family relationships - though the Firefly family is very interesting. The biggest accomplishment is that you actually build an attachment to Baby and Otis and Capt. Spaulding. You root for them. You actually hope that this group of violent criminals will stay free and that the law enforcement will be reduced to nothing more than the bumbling fools on old TV shows like the Dukes of Hazzard.

It won't be for everyone's taste, but The Devil's Rejects is a good movie, especially for those who are fans of 70s-style horror. Count me in as a Zombie-convert. I eagerly await his next feature. And I would love to see him try something like a gritty police drama a la Seven. Note that on the unrated director's cut DVD, there is a fascinating documentary (even longer than the actual movie) that details the trials of getting the movie made. It was clearly a labor of love.

The Verdict: B.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Princess Mononoke (1997)

From director Hayao Miyazaki and the folks at Studio Ghibli is Princess Mononoke, another animated tale of fantasy adventure and fun. They have given us a lush, colorful world, filled with many strange creatures and other things that defy our imagination. One could quite easily spend hours admiring the handiwork.

In the story, the warrior Prince Ashitaka is hurt while saving his village from a big vicious boar. As it turns out, the boar was a demon and inflicted a cursed infection on the prince that will eventually kill him. Inside the boar was an iron ball, and Ashitaka leaves town on an adventure to ...find something. Possibly to learn the meaning behind the iron, or to perhaps find a cure. Along the way he meet many interesting characters, including a short strange man with a red nose (voiced by Billy Bob Thornton in the English-language version), and in the Great Forest he meets San (or Princess Mononoke), a young woman raised by wolves. Then he finds Irontown, an iron mining town run by the alluring - but evil - Lady Eboshi. The iron and accompanying greed by the town have wiped out much of the forest, making the boar god and Great Forest Spirit very angry. Ashitaka must walk a delicate line between siding with the human or the animals, while at the same time he must deal with his disease, which continues to grow.

Things are very "green" in this fantasy world - both visually and philosophically. The movie ultimately boils down to a simple battle of good versus evil, but the morality tale is cleverly masked in shades of grey in the deep, stirring adventure of Prince Ashitaka. The thing that really gives the movie depth is that it isn't just the forest and its animals that are fighting against the humans, but also different factions of humans are fighting against each other. I loved the subtle humor that erupted after Ashitaka shouted that he just wanted for the humans and the forest to live together in peace. "Just whose side is he on?" someone shot back.

Mononoke is hurt some by its relatively long running time (about 133 minutes). And, with the PG-13 rating, there is more violence than typically seen in a Miyazaki film. Such as someone's arms being shot off with an arrow, another head being severed off, and plenty of blood. The violence and gore isn't lingered on, and isn't really a distraction (well, at least for an adult), but the amount of it wasn't necessary. Even so, Miyazaki is clearly on another level in terms of creating and developing original ideas - particularly in the realm of animated films. I only wish that American audiences would be more receptive to his visions, instead of the regurgitated junk that continues to fly towards us in the CGI generation.

The Verdict: B+.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Fantastic Four (2005)

After the success of comic-based movies such as X-Men, Spider-man, and even Blade, Marvel Comics pushed forward and developed for the big screen their first superhero title from 1961, the Fantastic Four. Casting aside the stigma around the title wrought by the colossal bomb and unintentionally hilarious version - still never officially released - from 1994 wasn't going to be easy. Heck even Batman, one of the three biggest superheroes of them all, struggled to regroup its luster after one man (that would be Joel Schumacher) single-handedly ruined the original movie franchise. And that was even after Batman Begins was loudly acclaimed, as it only became a certified hit after significant word of mouth. So how was Fantastic Four - generally just a mid-level comic title these days - ever going to succeed? Well, it doesn't hurt that not a lot of people have actually seen the '94 version. Sometimes low expectations can go a long way.

Let's just get this right out of the way: this Fantastic Four has a paper-thin plot, which generally rambles on and only gives very vague details about anything specific. That often doesn't matter too much in a movie, but when you have four bozos who are supposed to advanced astrophysicists (or whatever the heck kind of scientists they are actually supposed to be) you naturally want to start asking some questions. Anyway, we have stereotypical socially inept scientist Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffold), his longtime partner and muscleman Ben Grimm (The Shield's Michael Chiklis), cover girl Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), and her brother Johnny (Chris Evans). There is also the diabolical Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), an adversary of Richards, who is financing an expedition into space to do something very unspecific. An even more unspecific radioactive "cosmic ray" hits them while in space and, back on Earth, the five all begin to notice unusual powers. Richards becomes the very elastic Mr. Fantastic and gains the ability to stretch any of his body parts. Ben becomes The Thing, a super strong man made of rock. Sue becomes Invisible Girl, who can become invisible, and also can create powerful force fields. And Johnny is the Human Torch, with the power to fly. Doom slowly turns metallic and also has lightning-like power.

Much of the story revolves around the characters coming to terms with their newfound powers. Surprisingly, for better or worse, there is actually very little fighting or intense action. The eventual showdown with Dr. Doom is relatively brief and doesn't occur until the very end. Perhaps because of this, and also because any dislike you are supposed to harbor for Doom is forced, the fight is a letdown. The deepest aspect of the story involves Thing and his determination to become human again (for some reason he is the only one who cannot switch back at any time). This part had the potential to be quite good, but ultimately just feels like a throwaway. For instance, Grimm's wife doesn't take it to well when she discovers what happened to him - then is never seen again in the film.

The movie is saved from being really bad by fairly liberal use of rather humorous one-liners and gags. The showboating Johnny Storm becomes the public face of the group and Evans attempts to steal every scene that he is in. He's over the top and it works. It's fun when he's hamming it up but, comic book or not, just makes me wonder even more what this surfer boy was doing in space?!

It's safe to say that Alba isn't going to win any acting awards in the immediate future - and neither is Gruffold, Chiklis, or Evans, for that matter - but they all seem to do the best they can with a poor script. And the special effects are good. I'm not sure about its potential as a franchise, but I can think of worse ways to spend a mindless and forgettable 100 minutes.

The Verdict: C-.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Dead Zone (1983)

The Dead Zone
was a very intriguing collaboration between the modern Master of Horror in the literary world, Stephen King, and the Baron of Blood, renowned Canadian director David Cronenberg. Based on the Stephen King novel, and actually one of the few books of his that I haven't read, this is yet another entry into the good idea, but bad implementation list in cinema.

Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a schoolteacher who is struck by tragedy one dark, gloomy night when his car strikes a tractor trailer and he ends up in a coma ...for several years. He miraculously awakens one day and soon discovers that he has a new strange and unusual psychic-like power to see people's futures (or flashbacks, in some cases), simply by touching them. The first time it happens, he senses that his nurse's home is on fire and her child is in danger. Eventually word of his "gift" begins to spread and he even starts helping out with an ongoing police murder investigation. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Sarah (Brooke Adams) from before the crash (who is now married with a kid) reenters his life. She is a campaign worker for a sleazy up-and-coming candidate running for the U.S. Senate (Martin Sheen) who happens to be on the fast track to the Presidency. The phrase "dead zone" has to do with "blank spots" that occur in Johnny's prophecies - in that he can potentially alter the future outcomes. And it is here where things take a decidedly fateful turn.

Though the movie is sometimes regarded and marketed as a "horror" film, it most definitely is not. It's actually one of those films that defies characterization into one neat-and-easy genre, though it is more of a dramatic study with flares of action-y thrills. The problem is that it isn't focused on the right things. The attraction and yearning that Johnny and Sarah have for one another is good and believable, but doesn't have much of a place or need anywhere. And too much time is spent in the wrong places on building characterization for Johnny. Show us more of his visions of people! These were easily the best parts of the movie. Walken hadn't yet hit his farcical overacting stage (where each performance is a parody of the previous one), but in fact seems to underact here. He seems to be sleepwalking through much of it and while his character certainly has issues, you never get a real sense of the misery and inner terror that he is living through.

Cronenberg broke into the business with television films and here the overall production values feels rather low, like it also could just as well have been a made-for-TV fare. In the end, The Dead Zone doesn't really feel like a Cronenberg film (not weird enough) or a King film (not scary enough... or at all, really). Things in this world are just too sterile and clinical. Still, the story is certainly an original and refreshing idea and is at least worth a look.

The Verdict: C.


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