"That's a nice-a donut."

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Zombie a.k.a. Zombi 2 (1979)

For some reason, Italian director Lucio Fulci's Zombie is often overlooked when people think of the zombie genre of films. Interestingly it was billed as Zombi 2, a sort of unofficial sequel to Romero's classic Dawn of the Dead (which was released in Italy and elsewhere as Zombi). But perhaps in an ironic twist, that title is part of the reason that it remains overlooked - it is overshadowed by the de facto genre standard. But by any reasonable evaluation, it is a fine film that most any fan of the undead should be quite impressed with.

It is interesting that it is was billed as a "sequel" to Dawn, especially since if anything the plot of the film is much more reminiscent of a prequel in terms of continuity or plot. The story opens in New York harbor, where a couple patrolmen find an abandoned boat. They investigate but are attacked by a gruesome cannibalistic creature on board. The owner of the boat is missing though, and his daughter Ann Bowles (Tisa Farrow) starts an investigation to find him, teaming up with a reporter named Peter West (Ian McCulloch). Their hunt takes them to the blue waters of the Caribbean. There they meet Brian (Al Cliver) and Susan (Auretta Gay) and the quartet make their way to a small island. There Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson) is trying to work on a cure for a strange (and deadly) voodoo-inspired plague that brings the dead back to life.

Fulci bides his time before unleashing the full extent of the zombies, with just a couple brief scares near the beginning to tide us over. The plot is rather paper-thin overall, including only the sketchiest of details on many things, such as how Peter West obtained the info on Ann's dad's possible whereabouts, or how in the world voodoo is influencing or creating the zombies in any way. There are some unusual moments in the first half that are a bit atypical for a zombie flick, such as topless scuba diving, or a scene straight out of Jaws.

Once the action really picks up though, it is full-on macabre mayhem, with plenty of gore and blood and guts. There are some other very cool pieces that aren't usually seen in zombie movies. I especially liked the aspect that even those dead for hundreds of years could turn undead, and particularly an ancient zombie army that arises from the cemetery in a tropical forest. There are some great makeup effects, which results in a nice variety of creatures - especially the old ones who arise from the ground (and likely don't even have any brains or organs left).

The acting isn't much, but good enough for what is needed. Overall, Zombie is a darn fun film. It's a real headscratcher as to why it doesn't garner more respect from mainstream film audiences (who have readily accepted Dawn of the Dead and more recent zombiefests).

The Verdict: B+.

The Brown Bunny (2003)

You might recognize The Brown Bunny because of its, well, less than stellar reception at the Cannes Film Festival a couple years ago. The movie was also lambasted for a raunchy (and very realistic) oral sex scene. It is definitely a good example of the maxim "there is no such thing as bad publicity." For if not for creator Vincent Gallo's infamous festival showdown with film critic Roger Ebert, you almost certainly would have never heard of the movie (and I sure as heck wouldn't be reviewing it right now).

Gallo also stars as Bud Clay, a motorcycle racer. Much of the film is actual a road trip, as Bud makes his way from somewhere in New Hampshire to his next race all the way out in California. Along the way, in addition to the pretentious stretches of silence and nothingness, Bud pathetically interacts with a few women and longingly thinks about his girl Daisy (Chloe Sevigny), who he may or may not be dating anymore. In fact, he is a complete loser with women, making some inexplicable choices. At one point he picks up a woman at a store and begs her to come to California with him. She agrees for some reason, they stop at her place to get some things, and he dumbfoundingly drives off while she's inside. Eventually Bud makes it to California and has his fling with Daisy in a hotel room. The end.

The movie becomes a little intense over the last ten minutes, but by that point you are so bored and with so little care for the main character, that it doesn't really matter what the heck happens. This is preceded by long periods of dead silences, brokered only by occasional music or other cars passing by. They are weighty silences, perhaps to be sentimental, and certainly as an attempt to be artistic, but end up being just plain boring. There is very little in the way of substance.

And most of the shots that Gallo frames are quite head-scratching too. Much of the road portion of the movie takes place behind his shoulder, even going so far as to show dirt and grime on the windshield. Other shots show only portions of his face, and numerous shots are blurry - giving sort of a gritty 70s vibe, but for no discernible reason. The movie has since been recut and significantly shortened since the Cannes showing (and the aforementioned Roger Ebert has even given the new look a mildly positive review). I can't even imagine how bad and excruciating the original version must have been. It's not terrible, but it's far from good - the road trip ultimately ends up turning into a road to nowhere.

The Verdict: D+.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Firewall (2006)

Harrison Ford has built his career on playing heroic, identifiable, and very memorable characters. Of course topping that list are Han Solo and Indiana Jones, but there are plenty of other fine roles such as John Book (Witness), Deckard (Blade Runner), Jack Ryan (Patriot Games), Dr. Richard Kimble (The Fugitive), and President Marshall (Air Force One), among others. Jack Stanfield from Firewall is not one of them. In fact, director Richard Loncraine's movie may very well be the weakest picture Ford has been in.

Stanfield is the head of security at a bank, where he designed an elaborate and very secure computer system. After work one night, as he gets into his car to go home, he is attacked by Bill Cox (Paul Bettany). At the same time, some of Cox' associates have ambushed Jack's family at home and are holding them hostage. Their intent is obvious from the start (though, strangely, it takes Jack longer to figure it out): they want to use Jack's expertise to steal money from the bank. With his family's life (and his) at stake, he goes along with it. There appears to be no way out of it though, as Cox and his henchmen have bugged him and are watching and listening to his every move at the bank. Once he transfers money into Cox' offshore accounts, him and his family will be home-free, right?

Firewall is pretty ho-hum formulaic action. It pulls various pieces from scores of other more successful films, and the result is that not much you haven't seen before, in one form or another. Sure, there are a few fun moments, and some of the thrills work alright but pretty much everything is highly predictable.

The family, including Virginia Madsen as Jack's wife Beth, is mostly ignored. There is nothing in the way of character development and even surprisingly little as far as creating sappy moments with the kids or building drama for the sake of tension. Carly Schroeder, who was so promising in Mean Creek is thoroughly wasted as daughter Sarah. And Ford, while still a formidable screen presence with occasional flashes of his old stuff, mostly just seems to go through the motions. His charisma, which used to ooze out of him, is just about all gone. I'm not entirely sure what all that means as far as his future in cinema. If nothing else, his place in history is obviously assured, but he seems to be trapped in roles that are shill, thin attempts at reviving his glory days. At some point he will have to step out of the spotlight and accept more of the mature roles that older actors tend to gravitate to (think stuff like Paul Newman in The Color of Money). As much as I'd love to see a fourth Indiana Jones movie, I'm also afraid of what I might see.

The Verdict: C-.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Towering Inferno (1974)

After flying high with Airport and, a couple years later, The Poseidon Adventure, the era of disaster films in the 1970s arguably reached its peak with The Towering Inferno. Officially the head director on the film was John Guillermin, but the man behind the curtain was producer and co-director Irwin Allen - the master of the disaster epic. Most noteworthy is the all-star cast that is second to very few; mega stars at the time Steve McQueen and Paul Newman are the headliners but a number of screen legends and other very familiar faces include William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Richard Chamberlain, and Robert Wagner. The movie is also notable for the historic pairing of two major studios, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros., who were both developing very similar projects - The Tower and The Glass Inferno - and had the incredible foresight and wisdom to team up and combine them into one picture.

The setup for the story is that a new 135-story office building is having its gala opening and a big party is planned with many dignitaries expected to attend. The day of the opening, while the last-minute finishing touches are being performed, building architect Doug Roberts (Newman) learns that his electrical wiring specifications may not have been properly followed. He meets with construction head James Duncan (Holden), but they agree to discuss the problem more fully the next day, after the ceremony. That becomes a grave mistake, though, as several separate small fires soon break out around the building. As the party goes on upstairs, the fires quickly spread. Fire Chief Michael O'Hallorhan (McQueen) and an army of fire fighters arrive on the scene, but find that they can do precious little to control the blazes. With some 300 guests trapped on the very top floor, Roberts and the chief work together for some daring rescue attempts. After a while it becomes obvious that some people will die (and of course some will survive), but the suspense is strong enough that you can never be sure that even the stars will make it out unscathed.

Allen and Guillermin don't waste much time on setting the tone or building character in the beginning, as the action begins to really heat up about half an hour in and after that is one intense sequence after another. Though unlike some other blockbusters, the little time that it does spend on filler and loosely developing the characters works - the emotional payoffs later on are just right. Of course plenty of it exists only on a movie plane, as some of it is too 70s-style hokey or just unbelievable with moments of "movie logic." It is also interesting in that it doesn't include much of what has become a staple for the disaster genre nowadays; there are very few crowd shots, and even after the climax there are very few.

Even with the impressive casting, the acting is not the main attraction, but most of it is still pretty good. McQueen and Newman especially do a commendable job. Though if you though O.J. Simpson was a poor actor in the Naked Gun series, his work here may be even worse. But overall The Towering Inferno does very little wrong in the way of creating a genuinely terrifying disaster on film, perfectly capturing the essence and variety of emotional responses that many people would go through if every faced with a similar situation.

The Verdict: B+.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Cars (2006)

I'll get the "bad" news out of the way first: Cars has the weakest story out of any of the seven Pixar Animation Studio films to date. It's true. Don't be alarmed though because, thankfully, most everything is relative to something else. And in this case, Cars has to compete with the extraordinarily strong cannon of quality products from Pixar. That's not to say that the movie isn't good (it is), or that isn't for people of all ages (it is), or that director and Pixar head John Lasseter is losing his touch (he isn't ...yet). In fact, I could have just as easily led off with: "Cars is the best animated movie since 2004's The Incredibles." It's true.

The story itself is fairly straightforward. Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is a hot rookie racecar driver in the Piston Cup series. He is very arrogant and cocky, and doesn't have much in the way of street smarts, which costs him dearly as he loses his chance at winning the cup in the final race. Instead, a wacky three-way tie ensues, and a special three-car tiebreaker race is scheduled for the following week. On route to the big race, Lightning inadvertently gets lost and ends up in small town Radiator Springs where he causes trouble. He is sentenced by cantakerous, dodgy old Doc (a Doctor of Internal Combustion, naturally played by Paul Newman) to rebuild the town's road that he destroyed before he will be allowed to leave. With his dreams of getting a big sponsorship deal in jeopardy, Lightning works hard to finish in time. But, he makes a number of friends including a redneck tow truck named Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and a sexy Porsche and motel owner named Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt). And with that, he learns some valuable life lessons along the way.

Lasseter made a bold move in deciding to put the cars' eyes in the windshields, as opposed to simply using the headlights as is typically done with animated cars. But the move pays off, as it helps give more character and originality to each car. Most of the cars' personalities are representations of what we might expect of the humans who would drive them. So, the old 1960s VW Bus (George Carlin) not only talks and acts like a stoned hippie but also has a "goatee" via a license plate in the front.

But perhaps the funniest moments in Cars are those involving a very original take on cows and the high-cultured pastime of cow-tipping. Plenty of the little details are also great too, such as how insects in this world are actually miniature VW Beetles. As is generally the case with its storytelling, Pixar is also far ahead of its competitors with regards to creating cutting edge visual animations. This is particularly noticeable in many of the backgrounds, landscapes, and small intricate details that we see - many of these could easily pass for lifelike.

Another strength that the company seems to have over its other animated brethren, is that it takes better advantage of the voice actors and doesn't simply use them to market the movie. Pixar has not been shy about hiring talented and recognizable actors to voice many of its leading parts. But while it often backfires or doesn't work for others - just having a name actor doesn't guarantee that they will do a good job (*coughWillSmithcough*) - somehow with alumni such as Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Kevin Spacey, Billy Crystal, and now Newman, Wilson, and even Larry the Cable Guy, these voices aren't just names but original, careful, and well-crafted roles.

Certainly a few of the characters in Cars aren't too much more than riffs on some basic stereotypes (especially with Mater). And most adults will probably be able to generally predict the ending; but it's getting to that point where the real fun lies. The heart-warming story and the voice characterizations and the exquisite details in the artwork and animation quickly make you forget that the story is really just a variation of something we've seen a number of times before. This should get a very warm reaction from most people - kids, parents, and others - but I have a feeling that the many nuances will help it to become even better over time. And don't forget to stay through the end credits too.

The Verdict: A-.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Black Christmas (1974)

Some nine years before director Bob Clark fashioned what is arguably the prototypical and ideal family Christmas movie, he actually created another important Christmas film. Black Christmas isn't remotely anything like A Christmas Story, however. Instead of being a rather wholesome family story that most everyone can relate to in one way or another, it is a gritty, violent and bloody horror movie. In fact, the groundbreaking movie bears little resemblance to a holiday movie other than its pre-Christmastime setting.

The setting is a small college; a group of sorority sisters at their house are gathering for a holiday reception prior to their break. But the fun and good times are interrupted when one of them disappears. Around the same time, the women (including Margot Kidder and Olivia Hussey) also begin receiving very strange unwanted phone calls - some just obscene and others strange and rather terrifying. After the opening party the movie alternates betweens scenes of fright inside the house, and trying to look for the missing friend and getting help outside. Clark smartly chooses to hide the identity of the killer for much of the film; the madman is only shown in shadows as well as a radical first-person viewpoint. Eventually it becomes quite obvious who the killer is, which could have had a dulling effect on the remainder of the movie, but instead we empathize with Jess (Hussey) and the real tension is with her. When will she find out, how soon will she find out, and will she even make it out alive?

There is some silliness early on in the film. Such as how the house mom is a lush who has hidden stashes of liquor throughout the house, or a Santa Claus who isn't quite family friendly in front of some kids, or the drunken lout (Kidder) who makes a fool of herself one evening. And the police department seems to made up by a staff of what might generously be called incompetence, though familiar face John Saxon provide relatable and very likeable police lieutenant.

But the movie never needed to be a very character driven story. It is probably most notable for the phone calls and the subsequent infamous reveal to the main character. But it also about its chilly atmosphere, and the finale is stunning in its simplicity and its truly scary climax. For whatever reason, it isn't given its due as other 70s horror classics. And, in fact, many people credit Halloween (which wouldn't arrive for four more years) as the standard bearer of slasher films. It's true, Halloween is better - but many horror pictures owe even more to Black Christmas.

The Verdict: B+.


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