"That's a nice-a donut."

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

Continuing the trend of remaking every horror film ever made, from the classics to the more obscure genre pictures, is The Hills Have Eyes - a remake of one of horror legend Wes Craven's first films. Director Alexandre Aja (High Tension) had his eyes set on duplicating the prior success of another horror classic remake in Zach Snyder's Dawn of the Dead by infusing the modern update with more style, more blood and gore, and more fun.

The story begins as a typical American family on a road trip pulls into a gas station somewhere in the middle of New Mexico. The group includes dad Bob (Ted Levine) and mom Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan), daughter Lynn (Vinessa Shaw), her "liberal" husband Doug (Aaron Stanford) and their baby, younger daughter Brenda (Emilie de Ravin), son Bobby (Dan Byrd), and the dog. The creepy gas station attendant tips them about a short cut, but this has disastrous consequences. As it turns out, this secluded desert area was once used by the U.S. government for secret nuclear testing between 1945 and 1962 (which we are told at the very beginning) which resulted in a town full of grossly deformed and mutated humans. And, well, these creatures have a taste for other people. This soon results in a bloody massacre, and the remaining survivors must fight for their lives with little chance of being saved.

The lonely desert setting plays a vital element in the story, and Aja knows this. He stylishly highlights the barren landscape with its dirty tans, browns, yellows, and oranges coming directly into focus. The film effortlessly moves from one scene to another, and manages the directional shift about half way through very capably.

The acting obviously isn't the attraction of the movie, and it doesn't need to be. The actors mostly just need to scream, cry and shout a lot, and they do well enough at that. But there is of course the requisite stupidity by the characters; if there were a staircase in the middle of the desert, one of them would have undoubtedly gone up it. Another Hollywood trademark is that one of the demented mutants (i.e., a bad guy) is treated sympathetically.

One thing that does stretch credibility of the plot (though perhaps owing to their origins) is that several of the mutants, and at least one of the family members, have a remarkably high tolerance for pain and testing the human limits of physical suffering. Let's put it this way: they manage to make Die Hard's Karl (the main henchman of Hans Gruber) and his multiple comebacks appear to be a spineless wimp in comparison. Sure, it may add a tiny bit more suspense, but it just ends up being somewhat laughable. I also could have done without a short scene where an older, crippled mutant tries to explain why they are the way they are and that, basically, it's all everyone else's fault.

Other than that though, there are few laughs and many scares, with some of the violence being rather unsettling - especially true if you aren't typically a horror aficionado. And despite some of the small flaws or the fact that it is very violent at times (which is certainly a good thing to many horror fans), for the most part it succeeds and becomes a worthy edition to the growing resurgence in horror of the last few years.

The Verdict: B-.

Hostel (2006)

The makers of Hostel were wise to highlight the involvement of executive producer Quentin Tarantino by proudly stating "Quentin Tarantino presents" all over the promotional posters and other advertisements. It was wise from a business standpoint, of course, because the Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill director brought big name recognition and cachet to the project. But that's where his involvement appears to have ended; or at least anything good that came from it. Because the end result, from director Eli Roth, is a piddling sloppy mess.

It's hard to really know where to start in critiquing a movie like this, as so many pieces should have been changed, cut, added, or just done in a completely different manner. But the plot of the film starts off adequately enough, with plenty of room for promise. Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson) are two American college students backpacking their way through Europe, and Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson) is an Icelander who they have befriended along the way. They are using the economical route by taking trains and staying in hostels; it's really a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But it's not so much a life-changing worldly experience, as it is an excuse to party. A stranger on a train informs them of a hostel in Bratislava where they will find many beautiful, horny women. So they head there, and soon enough their nightmares begin.

I was very surprised by how much time is spent before any gore or life-threatening moments were shown. It is a long buildup of the guys just having fun, followed by us wondering, but not really caring too much about what happened to their Icelandic friend. But once it does happen, you wish it hadn't, as any semblance there was of a decent story completely disappears. In Roth's world, a groundbreaking character revelation is something like explaining that they need to get laid so they can have something to remember when one of them is in law school and one is writing a thesis.

The most amazing thing though, is that even the scares and the parts that should be frightening are very weak. Atmosphere and tension that you might expect from a horror film are missing. In their places are double and triple doses of gratuitous nudity (not necessarily a bad thing) and unspeakable gore (not a bad thing either) - but that's all it has going for it. Hostel fails to provide much suspense until the final moments in a semi-thrilling chase sequence that probably seemed thrilling only relative to everything that came before it. Any explanation or reasons for the mayhem are only provided sparingly, and when we do learn about it it's is more of an "eh" rather than "wow." To top things off, one death scene which I presume was intended to be sad and a very dramatic touch was instead rather unintentionally humorous.

When you add it all up, you have a total waste of time. There are several much better "horror" efforts from the last couple years such as Wolf Creek or High Tension. I'd love to see Tarantino eventually direct his own horror film; hopefully it is nothing like this one.

The Verdict: D+.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Fever Pitch (1997)

With the world's most popular sporting event, the World Cup, finishing up it's quadrennial run just recently it seemed only fitting to review a soccer movie (or, rather "football" as its known just about everywhere in the world besides the United States). It is a very popular sport indeed, with more countries participating in the Cup and its qualifying events than there are countries in the United Nations. It is so popular that players have been murdered for playing poorly, and fans have been murdered by hecklers after their team lost. And it just so happens that renowned author Nick Hornby wrote an autobiographical story about his lifelong love of football - and the woman that almost got in the way one year - in Fever Pitch. You might recognize the title as a recent romantic comedy, starring Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore, about a man who must choose between his love of the Boston Red Sox and his love of a woman. That was actually a remake of this British version, which was directed by David Evans.

Colin Firth stars as Paul Ashworth, a twenty (or maybe thirty) -something schoolteacher who loves Arsenal, an English Premier League team. But, despite the fact that they seem to be complete opposites, he begins to fall for Sarah (Ruth Gemmell), another teacher at his school. As their relationship develops, Arsenal is also making a run at a possible league championship, which inevitably causes some issues between them.

This is all intercut with some scenes from Paul's youth, related to his love of football. For instance, an early such scene shows Paul's dad taking him to his first football game - the look on his face as he first enters the stadium is priceless and is a great picture that shows childhood transcendence into the love of a sport. These scenes provide some good background and a nice parallel to the present (taking place in 1989), but they also sometimes break up the momentum from the main story.

Probably the biggest weakness of the film, and it is a big one to be sure, is that I never cared for Paul and Sarah as a couple. While some opposites may indeed attract, this pair just seemed too different with almost no chemistry between them. Individually though, Firth and Gemmell are world's better than their remake counterparts in Fallon and Barrymore. Though I suppose its hard to be any worse.

There are some other differences with the remake, which overall serve to make this a somewhat superior version. For one, it isn't as pushy or explicit about Paul's devotion to Arsenal as Fallon's character was to the Red Sox in the newer tale. And I think this is a good thing, as it allows for more subtlety and complexity in his love for the sport and his favorite team. I especially liked the way Paul and his friend interacted during the climactic final game, it was very true to life, especially how one of them was incredibly optimistic and the other was ready to throw in the towel from the very beginning. Finally, as with all of Hornby's adaptations that we've seen so far, the popular music soundtrack plays a key role, with several well-placed tunes that serve to enhance some scenes and provide an overall good time. It doesn't quite succeed as a romance as much as it should, but it still squeaks by with a win.

The Verdict: B-.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Superman Returns (2006)

Though last year's Batman Begins eventually was given its fair due as a solid, well-told and generally well-made comic book adventure, it did take a while for the box office and popular opinion to look good. After all, Joel Schumacher nearly single-handedly destroyed the Batman franchise with the poor Batman Forever and then the abysmal Batman and Robin, certainly on a short list of worst films ever. It was going to take a lot to get rid of the bad taste. And in trying to revamp the Superman movie franchise, DC Comic and Warner Bros. had a similar obstacle to overcome with Superman Returns: 1987's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Of course, to be fair, that 19 year gap is far more than the 8 years until Batman was revived. And, in reality, an ever bigger obstacle is that the concept of Superman just isn't as cool as it used to be. Director Bryan Singer jumped shipped from the proven and profitable X-Men series to try to inject new life into the character. It is a commendable effort, but the final result is that the film can't overcome a poor plot and a cast of characters that in no way lives up to the standards set by Christopher Reeve and company.

The setup for the story is that five years have passed (since Superman II) and Superman left Earth to return to his original home and see for himself the planetary remains of Krypton. He comes crashing back, and soon - as his alternate identity of Clark Kent (Brandon Routh) - gets his old job back as a newspaper reporter at the Daily Planet in Metropolis. It's not all good news though as he soon finds out that his longtime crush Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is engaged, has a kid, and even wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning essay on why the world no longer needs Superman. The Man of Steel quickly makes his triumphant return though, as he ends up saving a plane full of passengers in what, unfortunately, ends up being the film's best and most exciting scene. It is all down hill from there. Nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) returns and comes up with yet another plan to make himself rich, which potentially killing many innocent people in the process.

The main plot involving Luthor's dastardly plans is just plain moronic on several levels. Seriously, after an untold number of years trying to get this project off the ground, the best story the writing team can come up with is ...a glorified land grab? Heck, I would have preferred another lame scam to steal fractions of pennies (as done in Superman III).

One potentially interesting aspect of the story is related to Lois' kid, but is mostly pushed to the background and only really brought up at the end amidst a flurry of drawn-out endings. Singer has apparently let earlier success get to his head. The movie doesn't quite suffer from full-fledged Too-Many-Endings Syndrome, but clearly exhibits First Stage Peter Jackson Disorder. And despite the drawn out ending, at almost no point in the last act does anyone ask the requisite "hey, where's Clark?" to try to reflect the absurdity that he is always missing when Superman t is around. Perhaps a small point, but really one of many that quickly adds up.

The special effects are good of course - they better be for the immense budget that Warner Bros. put up - but other than flying around, stopping a few things from falling to the ground, and the ridiculous land masses popping out of the ocean, there aren't many "money shots" that you would expect from such a blockbuster. Lastly, the acting is nothing compared to the first Superman movies which, despite their occasional cheesiness, were fine films. Most importantly, Routh is okay I suppose, but he lacks any of the charm or charisma that Reeve brought to the character, and is even lifeless in a few scenes. Spacey is ultimately just as effective as Gene Hackman was as Luthor, though he isn't quite diabolically evil enough for my taste. But the weakest link is Bosworth, who is good at smiling and that's about it. Lane's relationship with Kent is wooden and practically nonexistent; though Superman's longing for her is almost creepy, acting no different than a criminal stalker might.

By the end, I felt relieved that it was over (finally) and disappointed on many levels. If a sequel is ever going to happen, I sincerely hope that it involves Doomsday, or at least something truly new and exciting - Lex Luthor just isn't cutting it anymore. I can't believe, after so many years of trying to get this made, that the result was so limp.

The Verdict: C-.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Great German director Werner Herzog has done some crazy stuff over the years. Other than eating his own shoe or proclaiming "it was not a significant bullet" after being shot, he has also taken us inside the mind of a crazy grizzly bear lover and taken us on an unforgettable "Hearts of Darkness"-like journey down a river. But perhaps the wackiest thing he ever did was to shoot Fitzcarraldo, a film that features men moving a big boat over a mountain and actually doing it without any special effects.

"It's only the dreamers who move mountains," Molly (Claudia Cardinale), Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald’s (Klaus Kinski) lover, says early on in the story set near the beginning of the 20th century. Fitzcarraldo is a man with a big dream and even bigger plans to achieve that dream. For his ultimate goal in life is to build an opera house by his home in the middle of the Peruvian jungles. There are a number of obstacles in his way though, with the first one being a lack of money. After a series of miscalculated and unsuccessful business ventures in order to raise revenue for his dream - such as an Andean train line through the mountains, and an ice company - he finally realizes that the big money seems to be in rubber. With financial assistance from Molly he buys a claim of a large area of forest, reputed to be filled with rubber trees, though also said to be near-impossible due to the geography of the land. With a relatively small, and perhaps unreliable crew of men, Fitzcarraldo sets sail.

Soon they are in hostile Indian ("bare-ass") territory. The natives turn out to be very friendly though and are amazed by the ship. With the help of the cook Huerequeque who speaks their language, Fitz suddenly has hundreds of men helping him, as they try to literally drag the boat over a mountain. It is an amazing story and, yet, you have to stop and remember: even if they accomplish this feat and start succeeding in the rubber business, they are still only a small part of the way there to bringing the opera to town.

Herzog paints a movie filled with stunning scenes and some beautifully composed shots. One of my favorites is when the ship is cruising up river into Indian land - loud noises and intimidating drumbeats can be heard throughout the dense forest, and as his crew is scared witless and armed with guns, Fitz calmly goes to the roof of the moving boat and sets up his phonograph player (which he always seems to have with him) and puts on his favorite: the voice of tenor Enrico Caruso. The sounds soon stop.

Herzog also wrote the script which provides some very sharp, relevant, witty dialogue such as "to Fitzcarraldo, the conquistador of the useless" one man proclaims after Fitz acknowledges several opera greats in a toast. Kinski, who had a famous love-hate relationship with Herzog, gives a fine performance. He manages to create a figure that is the eternal optimist, of which underneath lurks a mental state that may not be completely cool. We feel sorry for him when times go bad, and root for him all the way to the end. It is a story so simple and, ultimately, so audience-friendly (for the most part) that I can easily envision it being updated and remade as a Disney family film starring Dennis Quaid or Denzel Washington or possibly both. It is a real triumph, and easily the best film ever made about pulling a boat over a mountain.

The Verdict: A-.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Boondock Saints (1999)

The Boondock Saints is a movie that was made during the tail end of the mid and late 1990s wave of hip indie-minded crime films, such as Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, and Memento. Like many of those this was also a film with a relatively small budget aimed for a college-aged audience and prepped for plenty of violence and profanity, but of the fun and lightweight variety. But unlike those classics, director Troy Duffy's work fails miserably. It unwittingly manages to become a bore, even during scenes of what should be exciting and intense action. And it commits the ultimate movie sin: it is never fun or entertaining.

The story follows a pair of brothers from Boston, Massachusetts. One night, while having a good time in their local Irish pub, Connor (Sean Patrick Flanery) and Murphy (Norman Reedus) get in a fight and end up killing a couple guys who happen to be mobsters. Though an FBI agent (Willem Dafoe) is on the hunt for the perpetrators (them), the pair is held in fairly high esteem by many in the local media and from regular Joe's. But Connor and Murphy aren't done yet, as they have a spiritual awakening and come to believe that their mission is to start playing the role of vigilante enforcers against other bad men in the mafia.

The film makes allusions to Kitty Genovese, a famous murder victim who was attacked and killed near her home in New York in 1964 with much of her neighborhood watching. The witnesses figured that, well, somebody must have called the police. Connor and Murphy figure that they need to stop being bystanders like that, and to actually do something about the bad in the world.

Unfortunately, with a movie that has protagonists that are criminals, vigilantes, bad guys, heroes, or just general lowlifes (depending on how you view them), there needs to be a strong reason to care about them. Maybe they are good people at heart, or they are easy to identify with for one reason or another, or they have an intriguing past or interesting side story, or perhaps they are just very complex, unusual or memorable characters. With the Boondock Saints, you have none of these things. As much as they think they are, they aren't good, there is no character development to speak of so you can't identify with them or know anything about their past or their side life, and they really aren't all that interesting.

Much of the acting is B-level and quite over the top, including a very disappointing turn from Dafoe who is normally a very fine actor. Porn star Ron Jeremy is in here needlessly and the brother's acquaintance David Rocco is just plain annoying. The only real high points of the movie are Agent Smecker's gifted and detailed flashback accounts of what really happened at each crime scene. It's a good concept that, as with many films, doesn't pass muster upon execution. And in nowhere near the same league as the films it aspired to be.

The Verdict: D+.


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