Sunday, October 31, 2010

Movie Update 4: Halloween Netflix Marathon

Since it's Halloween, and Sunday, and I have nothing to do all day, I decided to spend it watching some horror comedies on Netflix Instant and write about it live. I don't think any of the first three films are supposed to be very scary, but hopefully they'll have some fun with horror themes. The last one isn't really a comedy, but something of a cult classic that should hopefully provide some campy laughs. Finally I'll wrap things up with the premiere episode of AMC's adaptation of The Walking Dead. I'll start some time soon.

First film:

Beetlejuice, directed by Tim Burton

I'm not the biggest Burton fan, but maybe I'm just not seeing the right movies. I remember being frightened by what little I saw of this as a kid. We'll see how true that remains.

Start time: 12:15 -  I did watch a bit of the cartoon as a kid. Hated it. Let's hope this works out better. I like this music along with the overhead shot of town. It became more obviously a model as it went on, until the gag at the end with the spider. Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis as the happy couple. I'm sure this will last forever.

12:20 - What kind of person pitches a house to people when the owners don't want to move? Wow, that vacation went bad pretty quick. Always watch for dogs in the road, folks. And now we're in poorly-composited nightmare land. How long does it take them to realize they're dead? Not too long, apparently. They don't seem too bothered though.

12:28 - The kid's mom from Home Alone and the pedophile principal from Ferris Bueller's Day Off as the couple moving in to the newly empty house. Daughter played by Winona Ryder. Weird, this slick guy whose role I don't really understand is played by Jerry's landlord from Seinfeld. First real gross moment as Davis tries to haunt the new owners, but they can't see her. Some pretty funny sight gags. They can't be seen, but they can still manipulate the environment and be sensed.

12:35 - I'm eating right now so commentary might be sparse. So if they can't leave the house, what happens if the living make the house bigger? They're probably wondering the same thing. Hey, Winona can see them. This could be interesting. I enjoy the way Beetlejuice is trying to contact them.

12:46 - I've always enjoyed the idea that the afterlife has the same bureaucratic procedure and red tape as the DMV or something. Some really enjoyable set design in this otherworld-place.

12:54 - Robert Goulet. God rest his soul.

1:00 - Man, they're taking their time really getting Beetlejuice into the mix. And right on queue, they summon him halfway into the movie. Wow, this is a fun performance. I didn't know Michael Keaton had it in him. Well, I kinda did. Those are some big shrimp. This is a great possession scene. Aaaaand the shrimp pay off. But uh oh, it didn't have the proper effect. The family is excited by having ghosts in the house, not terrified. What a weird universe this movie takes place in.

1:15 - But now it's Beetlejuice's turn. A freaky looking, violent snake is a bit more effective. Zombie football team is kinda funny. And now Lydia is suicidal for some reason.

1:25 - Isn't it kinda cheating at charades to summon the actual objects you're referring to? Ah well.

1:29 - I don't get it. There can't be proof among the living of an afterlife, but these characters have all already seen it. What is the limit on exposure before it's actually a problem?

1:40 - Is it just me, or is it rude to try to stop Beetlejuice after agreeing to a deal that he holds up his end of? Eh. Pretty fun movie, even if the plot was kind of all over the place.

Second film:

Bubba Ho-tep, directed by Don Coscarelli

I love me some Bruce Campbell, and the concept of an old Elvis Presley and a black guy claiming to be JFK taking on a mummy sounds like it could be a hell of a lot of fun.

Start time: 1:55 - We start with an enjoyable defining of terms and old news story about mummies being discovered. It then cuts to the rest home Elvis is staying in in Texas.  Heh. If Campbell's opening narration is any indication, this is going to be a vulgar movie. Far from thinking of mummies, his biggest concerns are his sickly roommate and the growth on his penis.

2:04 -  We spend a few minutes with a woman before she's bitten by a scarab beetle. She kills it, but then a mummy appears before her. Elvis sees her disappear from the hallway, but doesn't much care.

2:12 - This film actually seems like it has something interesting to say about aging and death. His now dead roommate's daughter didn't care to come visit him, and no one cares to listen to his claims of being the real Elvis. Funny flashback scene showing him switching places with an impersonator. Even his entourage couldn't tell. Another flashback shows how he broke his hip and had to stop impersonating himself.

2:22 - Another scarab attacks Elvis. He kills it in a pretty over-the-top way and then wanders into the room of his friend JFK, who's passed out on the ground. It seems like the mummy attacked him, but John thinks it was Lyndon Johnson coming to finish him off.

2:35 - Elvis and John agree to track down whatever is causing trouble in the home. They find some hieroglyphic bathroom graffiti, and they're on to something. Meanwhile they're some crap going on that the staff seems pretty oblivious to.

2:42 - Our heroes are piecing together the mystery over coffee and candy bars. The mummy continues to wreak havoc. Finally it comes face to face with the King. Elvis gets a vision of the monster's past and then it walks right by him. Another resident dies, but at least the mummy didn't eat his soul and crap out the residue.

2:53 - Elvis tracks the mummy with his walker to a river, and finds a bus license plate, remembering such a vehicle going over the nearby bridge in his vision.

3:00 - The good guys learn more about the mummy's origin, and then make a plan to go after it. Elvis continues to wonder about what future he has left. He resolves to take care of the situation We're then treated to one of the best determined-team-walking-down-a-hall shots I've ever seen.

3:08 - And the showdown begins. Elvis loses sight of the monster and it sneaks up behind him. He notices in time and the scuffle really starts. Elvis puts down the walker and busts out some moves. The mummy wanders off and disappears again. It ambushes Jack, but Elvis comes to the rescue on a wheelchair and lights him up. It's too late for Jack, though. Elvis' incantation doesn't work, so it's time for plan B. It involves more fire. He's wounded but victorious.

3:22 - Weird movie. I enjoyed Campbell's performance, but the whole thing was kind of oddly understated and muted for a horror/comedy mash-up about an old Elvis Presley fighting an Egyptian mummy. It definitely felt like the small, independent production it was. Not bad, though.

Third film:

Little Shop of Horrors, directed by Frank Oz

I don't really know much about this one. It was directed by Yoda, it's a musical, and Rick Moranis and Steve Martin are in it. Here's hoping it's fun.

Start time: 3:40 -  The movie opens with some campy narration and a trio of women in matching outfits singing about not much in particular, introducing Rick Moranis as Seymour, an assistant in a plant shop. A radio broadcast sets it in the early 60s. One of Chuck's aunts from Pushing Daisies plays Audrey who also works at the shop.

3:50 - The second song, about living in a rough part of town, ends. After a day with no business, the owner of the shop wants to shut it down, but Rick shows him a new hybrid plant he's been working on. He goes into another song about how he got the plant during a recent unexpected eclipse, and it starts bringing in a ton of customers. I love this movie's tone. It's delightful.

3:57 - Another song as Seymour is left at the shop to try to fix the plant, which has gotten weak. He somehow decides it would be a good idea to give it some of his blood. Overnight it grows dramatically. He goes on a radio show to talk about it. Not only does it drink blood, it likes lady's bottoms. Hey, John Candy as the radio host.

4:05 - Wow, this movie's kinda dark. Audrey's singing a song about how she wishes she deserved Seymour and how her boyfriend abuses her. Wait a second, this is the second song than I've seen Family Guy reference before. I guess they like it.

4:10 - Transitional song and the plant is huge now. God, this couple is too adorable for words. I laughed out loud at the cut to Steve Martin on a motorcycle. Apparently he's a badass dentist. I'll accept it. Holy crap that inside-the-mouth shot was fantastic. He huffs nitrous oxide too. This film is delightful.

4:19 - The plant starts talking. And singing. And demanding fresh blood. This is about the point where I'd run away. Nice puppetry, though. Seymour agrees to kill Audrey's dentist boyfriend so the plant can have his blood. Win-win, right? What the hell, Bill Murray as a masochist who visits the dentist for fun? Awesome.

4:29 - Well that was pretty fantastic. But now Martin wants to take his frustrations out on Seymour's mouth. If this movie wasn't so funny it might be terrifying. Seymour doesn't have to shoot him, because he dies of an overdose on gas.

4:35 - Seymour chops him up and feeds him to the plant. I'd say the movie had taken a dark turn if it wasn't jumping between goofy and horrific every five minutes.

4:43 - Seymour makes his move on Audrey, but things aren't happy for long, as his boss confronts him about seeing him chop up the body. He helps feed him to the plant, and now he's really getting in deep. And now we have a spoken word song. Pretty cool stuff. I don't believe growing an unusual plant would get a man this famous though.

4:49 - Seymour's not really thinking too clearly here. If he really only cares about Audrey, he could just cut bait, let the plant starve, and put it behind him. But I guess he needs money to take her out of Skid Row. And the plant needs feedin', which means more murder. He offers to just get it some meat from the butcher's shop. I don't think that will be acceptable, though.

4:55 - The planet lures Audrey over and has her in its clutches. Seymour saves her, but Jim Belushi interrupts their singing. He has a business proposition, but Seymour refuses and goes to confront the monstrous plant. The plant sings about how great he is, and pulls the building down around him, burying Seymour.

5:05 - He's not dead though, and he electrocutes the creature from outer space (did I mention it's from outer space?) until it explodes. Things end happily for the protagonists, but not without a hint of trouble ahead. Ah, Christopher Guest played the first guy to notice the plant in the window. I should see some of his movies. That was a lot of fun - easily my favorite movie of the day. Just the right mix of goofy and mildly disturbing.

Fourth film:

Them!, directed by Gordon Douglas

It's a movie about people getting attacked by giant ants from 1954. This is going to be fun, right? It's probably going to be fun.

Start time: 5:20 - Interesting choice with a color title for a black and white movie. Let's see what a genuine attempt to be scary looks like 56 years later. Some police find a kid wandering around the desert by herself. She seems a little bothered by something. She manages to fall asleep before they come across an abandoned car and trailer. There was some sort of disturbance inside the trailer earlier. I wonder if it was somehow related to giant ants. They figure the girl came from this place, but still don't know who she is.

5:32 - They find an empty store that's also been ransacked. Just what the heck is going on here? I bet they're wondering. They find the body of the store's owner. "Dragged and thrown". Amazing how they can tell that. There was sugar at both scenes. I wonder what kind of culprit they must be looking for at this point. I mean, no way giant ants looking for sugar has crossed their minds, right? They hear a strange whistling noise for the second time. Left alone, the second cop only gets off a couple shots before he's killed off screen.

5:37 - The first cop speculates that an escaped lunatic could have done it, but the chief ain't buying it. No money taken, just sugar. The crack shot store owner's gun broken after he managed four shots. Just what in tarnation is going on here? An FBI agent is brought in to help.

5:42 - They fly in an expert to look at a footprint they found, and he brought his babe of a daughter for some reason. I bet she can scream pretty loud. The old guy uses formic acid (which the shop owner was loaded with) to restore the little girl's voice, and all she can do is scream about "them".

5:48 - The whistling starts again as they look for prints during a sand storm. A gigantic ant looms over the daughter. Yep, she can shriek pretty good. Pretty good practical effects for the 50s. They shoot of its antennae to hinder it and then fill it full of lead. The old doctor reveals his hypothesis, that area ants were mutated by the fallout from a nuclear weapons test in the area nine years earlier. I don't think that's how radiation works but whatever. They go looking for a nest.

5:54 - Hey there's some classic radio communication humor. The Daughter Pat spots the nest and takes some pictures. An ant poses for the camera around some human remains. The doctor reveals his plan to assault the nest with heat to keep the ants inside and then kill them with cyanide. They use bazookas to hit it with phosphorous for the heat. They then bravely and probably idiotically enter to make sure the ants are dead. Pat goes in too to do some science-type stuff.

6:04 - As they go through the tunnels, they realize not all the ants are dead as some burst through a wall. They hit them with bullets and fire, a deadly combination. This movie's actually pretty cool so far. A bit silly but not terribly dated considering. They find an egg chamber, and oddly, it seems the ants don't go through a larval phase before adulthood. Pat commands the men to burn everything, and burn everything they do. Unfortunately, the doctor doesn't think that was the only nest, and has some pretty doom and gloom ideas about what this new ant mutation could mean.

6:10 - The doctor shows a home movie illustrating his theories to some Very Important Men. He finishes by laying out his doomsday timeline of one year if the queens aren't found and destroyed.

6:16 - The good guys find an institutionalized man who claims to have seen some giant ants in Texas. *18 minute food break* Psh. Right after I call them good guys, they keep a sane man locked up to keep his story quiet. Eh, greater good I guess.

6:39 - Man, these ants are everywhere. As is the Wilhelm Scream. They manage to attack a boat at sea, for no real reason that I can surmise. I don't really understand why the original cop is still on the case. Special detail, I guess. Not exactly his jurisdiction.

6:47 - I don't really understand what's going on. They're investigating the disappearance of a couple kids after their father was killed by ants in LA. Kind of small potatoes right now, fellas. The trail manages to lead them to a possible location for some of the monsters. In fact, they may have stumbled upon the mother lode. Subplot justified!

6:56 - After keeping quiet to avoid a panic, the military breaks the silence to inform the citizens what's happening and cause a panic. The mission is to destroy the ants once and for all and save those two kids I guess. They're probably dead. The search begins anyway. They're a lot better equipped this time. Unfortunately, it's a potential hostage situation. Because there's really good reasons why an entire colony of giant ants wouldn't have eaten a couple little kids yet.

7:02 - The cop hears something, and is courageously/stupidly going through a connecting shaft in the tunnel system on his own. He finds the kids, but the whistling is back. There are ants, and he can't fry them without risking the children. The cavalry storms in to back him up as he saves them. He's crushed to death before help arrives, but they manage to fend off an attack. Man, they're really hitting that Wilhelm button hard. A cave-in traps the FBI agent in alone with the ants. He fends them off long enough for the troops to break through, and they find the queens. Picard would not have approved of this barbecue. And there's your abrupt old-movie ending. Really not bad. Decent old fashioned science fiction horror. I could squeeze in another movie before Boardwalk Empire if I really wanted to, but I think that's enough for now. I'll be back to talk about the first episode of that new zombie show.

Final feature:

The Walking Dead - "Days Gone By", directed by Frank Darabont

If there's one network I'd trust to faithfully and succcessfully adapt such a good and unflinching comic book besides HBO, it's AMC. Really looking forward to seeing what they did.

10:32 - That was a really effective opening segment. Tease a bit of zombie action, introduce the Rick/Shane relationship, show his accident, introduce him to the world of the dead, and then have him meet the first survivors. Just a pitch-perfect half hour.

10:44 - A bit more zombie apocalypse drama before a light moment right before the break. I'm impressed not only by the amount of gravitas they're giving to a story about dead people rising to eat flesh, but by the fact that it's working. AMC teased yet another show that looks potentially interesting - The Killing. Apparently it's based on a Danish miniseries.

11:00 - This is seriously good looking for a cable TV show. No way this was filmed on the same budget as Ruibcon. Must be some studio backing it. Or maybe not, what do I know. Darabont's gotta have some pull being at the helm. Some of the stuff he added for this episode is as effective as just about any moment from the comic itself.

11:12 - It looks like we've caught up with the events of the cold open. Finally the first scene with the full cast, minus Rick. I'm not sure how I feel about Sarah from Prison Break playing Lori. There's nothing wrong with her, just a lot of memories of a show that wasn't very good. There's a reason they used the shot of Rick riding a horse with Atlanta in ths distance in all the teasers - it's pretty outstanding.

11:25 - While trying to check the World Series score, FOX advertised The Chicago Code, a new cop show. Eh. Created by Shawn Ryan. Yeah, I'll probably watch it. They picked a great way to end the first episode, conveying the hopelessness of the situation while still hinting that maybe all isn't lost. Off to a great start. Checking out the trade paperback again, they only covered about the first two issues of the comic in that hour and a half. I'm sure they'll pick up the pace a bit going forward, but they're clearly aiming to keep this on air for a long time. At this rate, it will be seventeen more episodes before they're even caught up with where I am, less than halfway through the current existing run. Well, I hope you had as fun a Halloween as I did. Good night!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Modern Times

Modern Times is kind of an unusual case, because it isn't exactly a silent movie. It's more just quiet - there is dialogue, but it's very sparse and specific. People are generally only heard talking on the radio, or through a recording. Chaplin's voice is actually heard, but it's singing nonsense after he forgets the lyrics to a song in a funny scene near the end. So it's clear that the movie is the way it is out of a creative decision and not limited technology - it came out in 1936 after all. I enjoyed it more than The Gold Rush, but not as much as City Lights. There's just less of a real story to it, as it feels like a series of loosely connected scenes rather than a fully fleshed out film. Chaplin plays a version of the Tramp again, except this time he's a lowly factory worker rather than just a bum. He meets a beautiful girl who reciprocates his interest, but she's out on the street after her father's death and in trouble for stealing.

So they struggle to find a way to live together, Chaplin in and out of jail and trying out various odd jobs that don't go so well. There are some pretty funny set pieces, like an automated feeding machine at the factory and one of his trademark he-doesn't-realize-how-close-to-danger-he-is bits involving roller skates and a multi-level department store. There's even some subject matter that I really wouldn't have expected for the time; a bit where he unwittingly ingests some cocaine at lunch in jail. So it's a pretty funny movie, but it's also thin otherwise. I'm not the biggest fan of the sentiment and pathos that Chaplin heaps on sometimes, but it sort of helps fill out a story when he does it, and the fact that it's mostly lacking here makes it seem a bit empty. Just like it's out of character for a Chaplin film or something. It's not that every movie he makes needs to have the same tone, I just felt like it left a hole that he didn't fill with anything. Still a good movie of the era, though.

Friday, October 29, 2010

MI-5 - Season 1

Well this is cool - a spy show that doesn't totally glamorize the profession. I guess you can leave it to the English to do that. If James Bond's MI6 is the globe-trotting foreign intelligence agency like the CIA, then I guess MI5 is the equivalent of the FBI, focused on rooting out operations on British soil. The stakes on the missions are often somewhat low, with some aspect of the intelligence community at stake rather than the world, and the spies aren't superheroes. They live secretive lives outside the job, and sometimes they get killed brutally and unceremoniously. It's a lot different than the standard depiction in the media of this kind of work, and I like it for that.

This show is actually called Spooks in its native Britain, and I kind of like that more than the slightly generic-sounding MI-5. It sets the correct expectations for what the series is. The headquarters aren't terribly high tech beyond a few computers, and the cast is relatively small. It's not about the operations of a whole intelligence force, it's a few people in the spy game. I know Matthew MacFayden from Pillars of the Earth, as the monk in charge of getting the cathedral built. Here he has a mid-level position at the agency, and has to worry about protecting his girlfriend and her daughter from the truth about him. There's a couple younger spooks below him and a couple older ones above him. They deal with things like possible IRA bombing threats and white supremacists trying to start riots on British soil. There's only six episodes in this first season, but they do a good job of establishing the setting for a show that's still running today, with each episode on its own telling an interesting and often quite tense story. The office politics and domestic stuff is surprisingly interesting as well, and I'm definitely looking forward to seeing a lot more.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

City Lights

As the second full length Charlie Chaplin movie I've seen, I found City Lights to be significantly more effective than The Gold Rush. Humor-wise they're about on the same playing field, but there's more to film than a few laughs, and overall City Lights had a much more interesting and emotionally effective story. The Gold Rush had scenes that were as cringe-worthy as anything in modern sitcoms that weren't even going for laughs, while City Lights fortunately sticks to good old-fashioned sentiment. Being a silent comedy, there's going to be a lot of scenes that repeat gags and probably go on a lot longer than they have to, while only barely serving to continue the plot. Obviously the standards for this sort of thing are different if a movie is 80 years old, and it's funny enough to be sure, making me laugh out loud more often than a lot of today's comedy.

The story itself really does elevate it above other silent comedies though. The Tramp meets a poor blind woman who sells flowers, and falls fairly instantly in love with her. Meanwhile a rich man who only recognizes and befriends him when he's drunk (I've never heard of this particular phenomenon before) helps the girl mistake him for being rich himself. He tries to help her as best as he can before his infamous tendency to be ridiculously unfortunate and put upon society forces him to leave for a while before a remarkably touching reunion at the end. It's not perfect, but as far as telling a nice story with no dialogue or narration, it does a very nice job. Certainly a classic of the form.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Shield - Season 7

The Shield is quite easily one of the most tightly and heavily plotted shows I've ever seen. There's hardly a moment to breathe ever, as someone is always in trouble, there's always a problem to take care of, and always a case to solve. I'm not sure if it would be different if it was on a premium channel and had a bit more leniency with running time. I'd be interested in seeing what they would have tried, because they got away with a hell of a lot for a cable show. I would guess the pacing would stay the same though, it feels like a deliberate choice by creator Shawn Ryan and his writers. This style is both an asset and detriment to the show, in my opinion. The action is almost always tense and exciting, with a pit forming in your gut as you wait for what's next, just knowing it's not going to be good. But this also leads to some contrivances in the plot, overly convenient plot turns and logical leaps so that it can all keep humming along, and it's just a bit too outlandish sometimes to really put itself in that highest echelon of best shows ever for me.

That method of storytelling did help with one aspect though - bringing the story to an end. A lot of my favorite series have had endings that were controversial at best or unsatisfying at worst, whether because they didn't have the opportunity to end properly or the way they worked didn't allow for tidy conclusions. But The Shield's final season and final episode in particular are the best of the series, and bring its various character arcs and plot threads to perfect and usually devastating ends. I really can't say anything about the specifics, because you just need to see it if you care at all. It might have been just a bit more effective if parts didn't feel ripped from the headlines, but it was still an incredibly successful way to finish this story. Long ago when I was talking about season one, I was impressed by the way they balanced Vick's good and bad sides, making you consider whether his crimes were justified by his busts. By the end of the final episode, that question is answered definitively, and the final moments of the show end his story in the only way they could have. What a series.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Breakfast Club

I've enjoyed John Hughes' work from the 80s and very early 90s, but this is the first I've actually seen from the whole teenager thing that really made him famous. And it still mostly works, despite it being 25 years later and me being several years removed from high school. Hughes wrote a lot of crap after he stopped directing, but the man remembered what being young was like. The premise of The Breakfast Club is a bit of a stretch, but he still captures the situation better than most filmmakers ever seem to. It might have affected me more if I was the right age, though I suspect I still would have been wary of its overly idealistic idea of what's really in the hearts of kids everywhere.

So five students from various walks of life at a school are forced to come in on Saturday for detention, and while at first they butt heads over their differences, they bond over their common animosity against the principal in charge of their punishment, and all become friends before the day is over. The movie is at its best though when it acknowledges the truth - when Monday comes, the odds that they'd still be friendly with each other under the pressure of their social circles are slim at best. It's a rough moment, especially for the more outcast characters who don't see why it has to be that way. I don't really buy that they'd become that close after a few hours together, but that scene does a lot to save it.

Performance-wise, the kids and the principal do a pretty good job. Judd Nelson's character is more or the less the lead even if he doesn't get top billing, and his work is uneven if still effective. He seems to be trying just a bit too hard to be different, although a lot of it is just the best he can do with the imperfect script. The rest of the kids stand out less, and Emilio Estevez was the only one to really have a noticeable career after the 80s, though Molly Ringwald was quite famous for a while. Paul Gleason's principal was somewhat ridiculous in how much of a dick he is to an obviously troubled student, but there's a bit more to the character than it might seem at first, and his overly macho tirades are pretty funny. He's not the focus though. It's a movie about the kids, and while I didn't think it was great, it's still a part of pop culture canon. Plus that 80s soundtrack is something. Glad I saw it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Metalocalpyse - Season 3

Metalocalypse's third season definitely felt like a creative shift away from the first two. All of the old characters are still there and there's the same formula from episode to episode: the members of Dethklok are idiots, the Tribunal plots a scheme against them based on what's going on, but they'll probably manage to play a big gig somewhere anyway. But after a couple experiments with it last time, every episode is a half hour now, leading to a different pacing to everything. There's half the number of episodes at double the length, so more time is provided for individual story ideas to breathe and develop the comedy, and there is less of a need for a wave of random violence to resolve everything quickly right at the end. It's still basically the same show, but if you would be disappointed in a drop in the body count and a larger variety of styles in the original music (as in, not all death metal), then you're just going to have to deal with it.

I kind of liked the shift, though. It just seemed like a funnier show without them having to rush through the plots at lightning speed, and just let the band be amusing jackasses for a while before blowing everything up. Not every story was the best, and even if there was some good humor I'm honestly tired of stuff like Rockso the Rock and Roll Clown. Pretty much all the main characters got their own dedicated episode, and it allowed for a reasonable amount of character exploration in a show you might not expect that from, especially after seeing its first two seasons. Apparently a lot of the changes were probably attributable to the departure of one of the two main creative people behind it (he still does his voices, though). It still seems more or less on track for its original vision of an absurd, over the top storyline involving an insanely popular metal band, even if they haven't done enough to develop it in the last four years. Whatever, it's a cartoon.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


If nothing else, Jaws deserves credit for creating the summer blockbuster, a kind of film that maybe isn't always as good as it could be but which has become increasingly important to the movie industry. And while many such blockbusters are derided by critics, Jaws itself is certainly a fine piece of filmmaking by Steven Spielberg. There's nothing too complex at work here (it's also cited for the rise of "high concept" stories that don't take a lot of explanation), it's a mix of horror and adventure elements as a gigantic shark terrorizes the shores of an island town that relies on summer tourism to stay afloat and gets pursued by a ragtag crew of men from different walks of life. This was back when PG films were allowed to be scary and bloody, and there's some nicely gruesome and occasionally frightening scenes setting up the danger before the more interesting second half, which after a certain point takes place entirely in the middle of the ocean.

To me the highlight of the movie is the performances of the three main characters. Roy Scheider is the chief of police on the island, and is wracked with guilt after town officials prevent him from closing the beaches after the first attack and more people get killed. Richard Dreyfuss is an oceanographer from a rich family convinced that the town doesn't know what it's doing. And Robert Shaw is an old grizzled war veteran and sea captain convinced of his own ability to stop the shark. The supporting cast is just less interesting, and once they finally leave shore to kill the beast, the film really starts to shine. Their personalities clash and an odd sort of camaraderie forms as they slowly realize the true size and danger of their target. The film is infamous for how poorly the mechanical sharks they had worked and how Spielberg had to basically work around it the whole time to great effect, and it's funny how things like screw-ups in filming could even save characters from death. But the scenes of the three guys trying to bring the shark in are still incredibly exciting and tense 35 years later, all the way up to the dubious but thrilling conclusion. A simple movie elevated by the creativity of those behind the camera and the great character work by those in front of it.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

If nothing else, Rockstar Leeds should be commended for bringing the Grand Theft Auto experience to handheld systems while keeping the spirit totally intact. The regular gameplay translates in a playable fashion, and the new elements they introduce with the touch screen are actually some of the best ideas the series has had in a while. Holding down a couple buttons to blast everyone in sight isn't as interesting as a real combat system, but there's actually more variety in the mission design than there was in Grand Theft Auto IV, and the story seemed to last the right amount of time before wrapping up in the right over-the-top kind of way.

I think what makes the game work is that the touch stuff actually sells the whole being a criminal aspect of the series. You don't just jump in a car and watch a quick animation of Huang hotwiring it, you do so yourself with one of a number of methods based on how advanced the vehicle is. Bashing a lock or planting an explosive requires your active input. You can make your own molotov cocktails and manually turn over a stalling engine. It just adds to the verisimilitude of being a thug in Liberty City despite the extreme overhead camera angle. The driving is surprisingly decent, it's a bit easy to collide with stuff that you didn't see coming until too late, but the cars handle well enough to make your way around without too much trouble.

So you're Huang, and you arrive in Liberty in unceremonious fashion, left for dead and robbed of a valuable heirloom you were meant to deliver. What follows is standard GTA mission structure as you do the bidding of various scum around the city trying to track down who betrayed you. Liberty is recreated pretty accurately from its depiction in IV, with no shared characters but a recognizable layout and gang infrastructure. Those gangs are as important as they've ever been in this series, because they're key to the biggest addition to the gameplay - drug dealing. I'm surprised there was never any controversy around a game for this system providing a fleshed out mechanic for buying and selling coke, heroin, and other narcotics for profit. You will occasionally have to bring some drugs to a meet to continue the story or receive some as a reward, but you can spend all day tracking down leads and flipping goods if you want to. It's a surprisingly enjoyable distraction from the story, in addition to old standbys like rampages and checkpoint races.

The story doesn't really do anything the series hasn't before, but the writing is actually pretty good, to the point and often humorous, often breaking the fourth wall which is a new thing for them. One of the issues with Rockstar's open world games is that they often get too far from the main plot thread at a certain point, having you work for seemingly random people who hardly have anything to do with what the protagonist would actually care about. They do a good job of avoiding that here, tending to bounce you back and forth between the same superiors through the whole story, and even the more tangential characters have a reason to be talking to Huang. Obviously the tightness of the story is helped out by it being an acceptable for a GTA game's plot to only last six hours if it's on a portable system, but it still felt like a worthwhile experience. Not everything translates perfectly to the platform, but it really did work better than I expected, and deserved the Grand Theft Auto name.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Godfather: Part III

The Godfather: Part III probably shouldn't have been made. It's really not a bad movie at all; it has a decent cast and a few worthwhile moments. It also provided pop culture with one of its favorite lines about being brought back to something you thought you were done with. But all that probably wasn't worth putting a dent on the near-perfect reputation of the first two films. Francis Ford Coppola himself calls Part III an epilogue rather than the end of the story, and it's so distant from them that it hardly seems related in some ways. If I didn't know better I might have guessed that someone else directed it, and Al Pacino changed so much between the 70s and 90s that he might as well be a different dude.

The film depicts the transition of power from an aging Michael Corleone to his bastard nephew (who shouldn't actually exist according to the book) played by Andy Garcia, who takes on the same sort of role Michael had in the first film. Garcia's pretty good, but I think it's fair to say he's no young Pacino here. The rest of the original cast that bothered to show up does fine, and the new characters are okay too. Eli Wallach, best known as the Ugly part of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, plays an old mob boss seemingly near the end of his life (amazingly, Wallach himself is still alive twenty years later) but still with a bone to pick, and is the most significant addition besides Garcia. The most infamous though is Coppola's own daughter Sofia playing Michael's kid, and while she's gotten a lot of praise for her direction in the last decade, there's a reason she sticks behind the camera now if you know what I mean. She isn't take-your-breath-away awful in every scene she's in, but she's bad enough to drag the film down, especially the end, which went in a totally idiotic direction that it didn't earn or execute properly.

The whole plot sort of ties into a couple real-life scandals involving the Catholic church around 1980, and the stakes just seem less important and interesting than anything from the first two films, while trying to be controversial or something. The other conflicts with mob families are resolved too easily, leading to the Vatican being positioned in a weird antagonistic way. I don't mind sequels to silly comedies and action movies as much as some people, but with something like this, I honestly don't get the point. Like I said, it's not a properly bad film. But I would say you should watch the first two movies, read the book to fill in the blanks, and if you're interested in seeing how Coppola and Mario Puzo decided the story should end, check this out, but only if you're willing to accept that the greatness that came before simply won't be there.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

City of God

So City of God is a Brazilian film based on a book by someone who grew up in the slums of Cidade de Deus, a section of Rio de Janeiro and left the violence to become a writer. It's a chronicle of the (slightly) organized crime that still affects the area, specifically a period from the late 60s to early 80s. It's at its most simple a stylish and unrelenting crime drama, creatively filmed and resonant thanks to its authenticity. It wasn't actually shot in the location it depicts, but many of the actors actually came from that area and were even involved in the crime they're portrayed as committing. Alice Braga as the unwitting object of the protagonist's affection is the only person to appear that I recall seeing elsewhere, and she disappears partway through the story as it gets dragged deeper and deeper into the growing violence of the city. There's not a whole lot of pedigree here, but it's still a highly engaging watch for its two hours.

So Rocket wants to be a photographer, and interacts with local drug dealers to get pot. A kid from his neighborhood named Li'l Dice is a particularly violent person, and he grows up to take over most of the action in the slums. Eventually he gets into an all-out war with another gang after a conflict with a guy who's merely better with the ladies than he is. You get a feel for the futility and pointlessness of all this violence, and the way it perpetuates itself when even children have nothing better to do than become criminals roaming the streets. Rocket's story is ultimately a successful one, but he's one of the lucky few to escape the cycle of crime where he lives. I thought the film got a bit too one-note and harsh by the end, but for the most part it's a quickly paced and exciting tale with a lot of interesting touches, even if some of them weren't that original, like titles for all the different (and often only tangentially related) segments. I don't want to undersell how much I liked it though - as far as complex, interwoven crime dramas go, this is usually as good as they get.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mad Men - Season 4

Last season ended with a bold move forward by Don and his coworkers, bidding farewell to their British masters as they started fresh with a new company. It signaled a big change in the series' formula, and basically everyone thought it was great. This year ends with a similarly huge and unexpected event in the plot, but this time half the viewership liked it and the other half seemed to think it totally killed the show. I understand being completely thrown off by the scene in question, and get the multiple references to it even being dreamlike in how unbelievable it is. But doesn't it speak to the show's quality that we can be this shocked at the seeming stupidity of a character's decision? If they hadn't spent so much time these last four years and in this season in particular trying to show us who Don is without ever letting us really know, we wouldn't care nearly this much. And the fact is, it was all justified by what came before, with even some seemingly throwaway lines pointing towards this conclusion. And while some people might not think all publicity is good publicity, what do people remember more, the end of The Sopranos or The Wire? Just thinking about where season five is going to kick off is probably even more interesting a discussion point than the same question we had for season four.

Before the finale though, this season was simply outstanding. I might have mentioned that the season three finale was easily one of my favorites in the series, and practically this entire run of thirteen episodes seemed to be at or at least near that level of quality. I don't think it's just me continuing to become more invested in the characters. The dialogue was consistently snappy and it was the funniest season by far. Pete didn't get as much screen time, but the diminished role helped sympathize the character. Peggy and Roger were both consistently great this year. While some of the better episodes used historic events to frame their stories, they didn't need to rely on it this time, just letting the show exist in its time. Betty was also better in a slightly limited capacity, still kind of crazy, but that's put in context a bit, and she was helped by some really good stuff from Francis and especially Sally, who's really coming into her own. And they really explored Don in a fascinating way. After three years in an ugly marriage, seeing him on his own was intriguing, if only for how miserable he usually seemed. He sort of breaks down before building himself back up, and I'd call it a redemption arc if he actually seemed redeemed by the end. We'll see where season five finds him, but I doubt it's living in a dream world.

Monday, October 18, 2010


AMC's third stab at a regular series stumbled out of the gate a bit more than its multi-Emmy winning predecessors, but by the end of its inaugural (and hopefully not final) season, it proved that it deserved to be there. Part of the problem was that it had a bit of a creative identity crisis just as it was starting when the creator left after some differences with the showrunner they brought in to help out. The first couple episodes are of almost a completely different series from the rest of the season, intriguing and laced with potential but not of the actual quality of where they ended up going.

So basically, it's a show about a conspiracy, particularly one like in the movies from the 70s. James Badge Dale plays Will, a brilliant but eccentric analyst for API, a company that does intelligence work for the government. One day he discovers a pattern in several newspapers that gets him digging, and before long people around him start dying and he's being watched. It's well-handled but a bit typical, and the show doesn't really begin to shine until it refocuses on the people involved with the conspiracy rather than the conspiracy itself, and also the day to day workings of the think tank Will works for. That might sound a bit dry, but the writers do a great job of making you care about the cast and what they're trying to figure out.

For a while the conspiracy plot feels like a sideshow to the main thrust of the series, but the show does a great job of slowly tying the two threads together for a brilliantly done penultimate episode that brings it all to the forefront, after which the season finale feels more like an afterthought, even though it has a lot of the resolution for the main conspiracy stuff they've built up. Besides Dale's imperfect but interesting performance, Arliss Howard is the real highlight of the cast as Kale, a character who has rightly been compared to Ben from Lost because of his ability to never fully commit to being with or against the hero. You feel like you know a lot more about him by the end of the season, but for all we know it's just a giant magic act. There were a couple things I thought the show did wrong, especially a subplot all season long about the wife of one of the conspirators that never really meets its potential. But otherwise they really did a lot to earn the AMC pedigree, and I hope they get another year to make sense of everything that happened.

Update: No second season. Dang.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Raging Bull

I could sort of understand how Goodfellas didn't win for Best Picture. It was a very good movie, but for some reason I don't find it as transcendent as many others do. Raging Bull on the other hand... what more could Scorsese do? The black and white cinematography is probably the best I've ever seen. The way every single shot is framed seems to have a purpose and work exactly towards the movie's goals. The plot is pure, and the kind of thing the voters like - the true story of a brilliant boxer who is his own worst enemy thanks to some crippling insecurities and poorly made decisions. The cast is outstanding, particularly Robert De Niro in the role of a lifetime. He worked out into real fighting shape for the scenes as middleweight champion Jake LaMotta, and then gained sixty pounds to portray him in his later years. Add that physical sacrifice to the actual work he does in front of the camera, transforming himself into another person and dominating the screen while doing so - it's incredible. He rightly won the Oscar, but the performance would have meant little without the properly told story around it, and Scorsese went home empty handed for his efforts.

The actual boxing scenes don't take up a large amount of the film's time, but they're impeccably crafted by someone who was never really big into sports. The fight choreography is interesting and believable, and the myriad stylistic touches like the ring shrinking or growing based on LaMotta's psychology or the way everything goes wonky when he allows himself to get pummeled by Sugar Ray Robinson add a lot to it. Outside the ring the film is just as good, refusing to sugarcoat LaMotta's horrible treatment of his family and ignorance of correct social behavior but somehow making him sympathetic by doing so. He seems like a real person as much as anyone in a movie ever has, and along with everything else the movie is never an engrossing watch. You feel his frustration when he has to play along with the mob to get a title shot and his pure anger when he's imprisoned for something he didn't even think was a crime. Just as good as character studies get. Possibly my favorite Scorsese film I've yet seen.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Shantae: Risky's Revenge

I first heard of the Game Boy Color game Shantae from a video playthrough of it by a member of a message board I go to, and while I never played it personally, I wasn't alone in that respect (it's rare enough to go for over $150 used on Amazon), and I was still impressed by its charm and interesting game design. It was enough of a cult hit for the developer WayForward to work on a sequel, which they finally released for the DSi's download service last week. Risky's Revenge isn't quite as meaty as the first game, originally intended for multiple episodic releases, but it improves on its predecessor in almost every way.

I wouldn't usually call a handheld game gorgeous, but there are few other words that correctly describe the game's graphics. In recent years I've rediscovered an appreciation for 2D sprite art and animation that went dormant long ago when game consoles started pumping out 3D polygons, and the 16 bit-style visuals here are as impressive as they get. Bright, colorful, smoothly animated, it looks worlds better than the original while still retaining the style and charm it had in spades. It sounds nice too, with lots of tunes that strike a balance between nice orchestration and classic gaming sounds. The story is simple but enjoyable, peppered with funny characters and meta-humor that works more often than it doesn't.

The game itself is fun too. The Shantae style of gameplay is a bit of a hybrid, mixing Metroid-like exploration-friendly platforming with dungeons filled with enemies and puzzles that feel more like a side-scrolling The Legend of Zelda than anything else. I was disappointed that there were only two "real" dungeons in the game's quick five hour span, with other opportunities for such replaced with inferior alternatives; a tower with a time limit that requires you to battle your way through (combat not being the game's strong suit) and a tribute to classic scrolling shooters (interesting, but they don't end up doing enough with it). Still though, the standard flow of running, jumping, swatting enemies, transforming into animals, and searching every nook and cranny for special items to upgrade your equipment and skills is a lot of fun, and it all seems like the right amount of game for the price. Probably one of the few DSiWare items really worth seeking out.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Saving Private Ryan

This is one of those movies where it seems like everyone is in it. The main cast of soldiers trekking across France is full of guys you recognize even if you don't know your names. Hey, Tom Sizemore! And Vin Diesel! And Adam Goldberg! And Giovanni Ribisi! And Ed Burns! And Daniel from Lost! And it doesn't stop there. There are plenty of other small roles without a lot of prestige but still played by famous actors. It's Bryan Cranston with one arm! And Paul Giamatti! And Ted Danson! And Dennis Farina! And one of Nathan Fillion's first roles! It honestly gets fairly distracting when you're playing spot-the-guy in the middle of an epic, dramatic war movie, but that's one of the only flaws in an otherwise quite remarkable film.

The two most significant parts go to Tom Hanks as the leader of the unit sent after Private Ryan to bring him home after his three brothers are all killed in action, and Matt Damon as Ryan himself, the object of the film, although he only shows up for the last hour. It's funny, he was cast because he was basically unknown, but by the time the movie came out he was already a celebrity. Remember that distraction thing? I spent a fair amount of time thinking "So when is Matt Damon gonna show up?" But yeah, the film itself is a remarkable one. Just a great combination of drama, acting, cinematography, and editing. The film has a washed out look to it that someone sets the tone of a period war film without having to say anything. The production values are pretty outstanding; even when nothing is blowing up, the bombed out, rubble-filled city streets and rolling countrysides always look amazing and authentic. There are many scenes of the soldiers arguing about the mission, hazing the new guy, or just killing time that always have a natural feel to them, making you believe that these men have grown used to each other through so much time training and fighting together.

And of course there are the battles. The film is bookended by two sequences nearly half an hour in length, including the famous Normandy landing scene, filled with bullets, screaming, and severed limbs. The stark brutality of it might seem exploitative to some, but I thought there was power in the harsh, blunt way it was presented. War isn't pretty, and few sequences have captured it as well as that. Besides that and the climactic final battle, there are multiple other sequences, although they're relatively brief. They're still well filmed and choreographed, and throughout all of them the different soldiers get their chances to shine, although the unit's best marksman gets a lot of the best moments. As you might expect with a war movie things don't end well for everybody, and there's actually a scene where an earlier act of good will has negative consequences, which made me wonder for a bit what exactly the script was trying to say. Although in some ways the film romanticizes heroic sacrifice, it's still effective at conveying what it really does to people. One of Steven Spielberg's best films, and an effective jumping off point for the HBO miniseries that followed.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Shield - Season 6

Another season, another boatload of problems for Vick Mackey to sort through. At this point it's getting pretty difficult to talk about it without getting into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that the walls are closing in. The individual shock value cases from week to week are becoming part of the background more and more, as the other cops are reduced to minor soap opera antics as they continue to be marginalized. He needs to find out what happened to his friend, content with a replacement as he's getting pushed out of a job, and worry about retaliation for past wrongdoings. It's amazing that they consistently manage to keep the crap piled so high without it ever falling over; Mackey's always one wrong move away from getting caught or killed or worse, but he always finds a way out with his brain or good luck without it seeming like deus ex machina or something. Just impeccably crafted crime drama there.

There are issues with the rest of the cast though. Adding Julian to the strike team and promoting Claudette were good moves, giving them things to do that keep them around in the plot without reaching too hard. They also managed to keep the wife involved in more interesting ways than the whole nurse thing. But Dutch's rivalry with Billings just seems like small potatoes compared to any of the life-or-death stakes Mackey's involved with, and the continuing subplot with the problematic rookie was just irritating most of the time, though they finish the season there on a decent note. Danny's stuff isn't terrible either, and I have to commend them for finally making Aceveda useful again by the end of the season. There are only 13 episodes left, and based on how this last one ended, I can only imagine how messed up it's going to get.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


However you feel about what Roman Polanski did, it shouldn't affect your opinion of his work. This is actually the first film of his I've seen, but I was definitely impressed by it, although it might have been more the script and the acting than anything he was in charge of. It was still well-made though, a 70s film noir that definitely lives up to the sensibilities of both. A lot of the style, plot, and content could have easily existed in a film from the original noir movement, but while the setting is in the 40s, a lot of the details aren't. The content is a lot racier, with more violence, vulgarity, sexuality, and a rather infamous twist near the end that certainly would have been too much at the time.

A lot of that is just window dressing though, without which the movie would have still been good just on the strength of the story. A nefarious plot about misappropriated water sounds at first like it might have come from an episode of Captain Planet, but it's really an interesting case, and Jack Nicholson's investigation style makes the whole thing into quite the intriguing caper. There's something about his cynicism and world-weariness that makes him seem a bit more human than the average private dick, and just when he starts caring again the world can't help but beat him back down. Good supporting cast too, Faye Dunaway plays the whole femme fatale thing in a way you'd expect from the 70s, and John Huston shows directing isn't his only skill as her rich and enterprising father.

The script is stuffed with great lines and clever stuff for Jack to do, and deserved its Oscar as much as any screenplay usually can. Hard to say why the ending is so great without explaining it, so I'll just say that the movie builds perfectly to a brutal crescendo that fits exactly what it should be based on everything that came before. Even characters that seemed made to disappear early in the film come back in appropriate roles for the conclusion. It's really just the pinnacle of well-constructed filmmaking.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Godfather

The Godfather is an interesting read, even if you've already seen the movies. It covers the same basic ground as the original film and the De Niro flashbacks from Part II, while filling in a ton of background detail that makes the story clearer and more fleshed out. Puzo and Coppola's screenplays weren't exactly lacking in content, but reading the actual novel was certainly a worthwhile companion experience to the films. Even if it invalidates parts of the third movie.

So the story follows the same basic structure as the first movie, and it's divided into nine "books", each a different section of the plot. The first one is easily the longest, but after that the characters drift apart a bit and the books tend to focus on one in particular. The biggest parts that were left out of the films are significant subplots involving Johnny Fontane and Lucy Mancini, the Frank Sinatra stand-in who needs the Godfather's help to save his career and the maid of honor that Sonny spends time with at his sister's wedding. These parts are more mundane than the crime and violence of the main plot, but really no less well written, and really bring a bit of humanity to the book.

Time is even spent giving backstories to characters whose only roles in the film were either to kill someone or get killed in a single scene without saying a word. It all adds up to making the world of the book seem bigger than in the films. I'm not saying one should necessarily replace the other, because the drama of seeing something on the screen can be greater than reading it on the page, and they remain some of the best made movies ever. They compliment each other well, and the movie really has everything you need to understand it, the book just gives it all a little more significance. It's also pretty easy to read, descriptive without being overly flowery, although the timeline did get a little muddled in a couple places. Still, the story was quite understandable, and it's a good one at that.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Bicycle Thief

Bicycle Thieves is a more accurate translation of this film's original Italian title, and it has been rereleased here that way. But I think The Bicycle Thief is actually a better title, absolute fact be damned. If you want one movie to sum up the Italian neorealism movement, this is probably it. It takes place in post-war Rome and depicts the hardships of making a living there, using real people instead of professional actors in most of the lead roles. It's supposed to be as harshly real as possible, and in that way it's mostly effective. I didn't love watching every minute of it, but there are enough scenes of genuine power and emotion to make it definitely worth sitting through some of the more mundane ones.

So Antonio is a simple laborer, who gets the opportunity of a new job putting up posters after he and his wife are able to sell their sheets to afford his bicycle back so he can transport himself. Unfortunately it gets stolen on his first day, and neither his employers nor the police can really help. So he sets off to look for it himself, accompanied by his young son. After not finding it where it would likely be chopped off and the parts sold, he grows increasingly more desperate trying to track down the man who stole it, interrupting church services and getting hounded by protective neighbors. You feel his frustration mount as he realizes how unlikely it is he'll ever get the bike back, but the movie really hits its hardest when the kid is involved. Seeing how happy he is just to get to eat some real food from a restaurant, and his sadness when his father is unable to guarantee the security of their future is heart wrenching. It all leads to the devastating final scene, which speaks volumes about the difficulty of the situation without having to say a word. Not easy to watch, but ultimately worth doing so.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Let Me In

Let Me In is a good movie. The problem is it's a remake of a great one. I don't have the poisonous hatred of remakes that a lot of film fans do, although I do sort of see it as a lack of creativity. Let Me In rarely steps outside the bounds set up by its Swedish counterpart, so what's its purpose for existing? Early box office returns suggest it's not going to end up making that much bigger of a dent in the American public than the original. If I saw it with fresh eyes, I might have been more impressed with it, but I was sort of comparing it to Let the Right One In the whole time, and I don't think most of the differences helped. Matt Reeves proved he can shoot a regular movie, and the cast was very good. Chloë Moretz and Kodi Smit-McPhee have already made impacts in other movies recently (which I need to see), and are pretty much a wash performance-wise with the original kids. Richard Jenkins is one of those great "that guy"s, and he's great as Abby's caretaker. Elias Koteas' character didn't make as much sense as the concerned citizen from the original (why does it seem like he's the only cop in the whole town?), but he does a fine job as well.

Directly comparing the two movies, I would describe a lot of the changes as just being less subtle. I mean, good on them for cutting the cat scene, but everything else is bigger and more directly explained for no real benefit to the story. They felt the need to outdo some of the hospital scenes with more elaborate special effects, and this is even more prevalent with Abby's attacks. It's not enough for her to suddenly pounce, she has to turn into a computer animated monster and get a scary looking face. The original had a nice period feel taking place in the early 80s, with enough clues to give you a sense of time, but the remake hits you over the head with it, creating a soundtrack out of the era's hits, and adding big cameos for an inappropriately placed Kiss shirt and Ronald Reagan. The latter ties into another thing, the sudden adding of a ton of religious stuff seemingly everywhere. It's pervasive and I don't really get it. And people just say and ask things they don't have to, making things more obvious than they need to be.

Visually, I wasn't nearly as impressed. The original was gorgeous, while the new one is merely pretty good looking. It definitely hits the "orange and teal" thing too hard, and that actually kind of hurts the attempt to bring you to the 80s, since it's just not what the world looked like. I will give credit to one big change though, Jenkins' method for getting blood is a lot more interesting than in the original. Neither idea is actually terribly smart, but in the remake it provides for a hell of a lot more tension in those sings as opposed to just creepiness, leading to a remarkable extended shot as impressive as any single take I've seen in a long time. Seriously exceptional moment of filmmaking. I honestly liked the movie, and don't think it's an insult to say it generally just doesn't stack up to its origin. It's a good vampire movie that thankfully doesn't glorify them like a lot of the other crap in theaters these days. I like what Reeves has done in the last few years, and hope his next project is just more original.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Let the Right One In

I saw this on Netflix Instant yesterday before I went to see the remake with my friends, because I wanted to be sure I saw the original first, undiluted by preexisting opinions. Of course seeing it first, especially so soon before going to the new one, might have adversely affected my opinion the other way instead, but in cases like this I think the original deserves the benefit of fresh eyes. And I'm glad, because it turned out to be my favorite vampire movie ever (honestly not that high of a standard previously) and one of my favorite films of any sort of the last decade. Though it has its share of disturbing imagery, it's not really horror, but the story of a boy named Oskar's coming of age as he becomes friends with the new neighbor girl named Eli, who happens to subsist on human blood. Some of the creepier scenes don't actually involve her, but her caretaker posing as her father, who tries to kill people and drain their blood so she isn't put at risk. Eventually though she has to do some killing herself, and these scenes are also effectively moody and borderline frightening.

But again, the movie is really about Oskar. His parents are divorced, and although clearly loving they occasionally show some less than stellar skills at the job. He has no real friends, and is regularly bullied, by one kid in particular. He seeks solace in a friendship with Eli, who pushes him away at first, but he slowly gets pulled into her world, almost inevitably. It's a really effective story, told very gradually, but generally well paced and never feeling slow despite the stately feel. It builds to an impressive and bloody finish before a poignant ending. The acting is generally good, especially the kids in the main roles, although I could have done without Oskar's constantly runny nose. There are a couple scenes that could have been cut and improved the movie, especially one with some particularly unfortunate CGI work, but overall it's a well shot movie, particularly focusing on the photography itself. It's an absolutely gorgeous film, using little more than the Swedish environment itself, and there's an endless supply of scenes improved with perfect framing and lighting. Not every movie can be filmed this way, but it just works extremely well with this story in particular. If you're going to see just one of these films, make it this one.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Third Man

This was a very good movie, but I understood why it's considered a legendary classic probably the least of all the movies with that description I've seen lately. The script is very good, with mystery, twists and turns, and tons of clever dialogue. The cinematography and direction are very good, bringing postwar Vienna to life and making innovative use of Dutch angles to sell the strangeness of the main character's situation coming to a foreign country to meet a friend, only to discover he's been killed. The acting is good, although having Orson Welles play a relatively small role might have actually hurt my overall perception of it. The general cast is completely fine, but when Welles comes on for basically one real scene, it overshadows everything else in the film. He gives a completely commanding performance while basically confined to a car on a Ferris wheel, and then is basically limited to running away from that point forward. After that, I was just disappointed he didn't have more to do.

So yeah... I liked pretty much everything about the movie, and probably actually enjoyed it more than some other movies with similar reputations. I just don't quite see where this one's reputation came from. Plenty of brilliantly crafted movies have been forgotten through film history, so I don't get why this one was particularly remembered. I don't want to undersell the non-Welles cast members, really everyone in the movie is right for the part and pulls it off with style. There are good moments of humor, suspense, and excitement. The ending is harsh but appropriately so for the story to that point. But it's a very good film noir coming at the end of a decade filled with them. It deserves praise to be certain, especially for the stylistic elements it added to seemingly every director's repertoire. More than that though, I'm not so sure.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Die Hard with a Vengeance

With John McTiernan back in the director's chair, the series returns to its roots a bit, with a slightly more down to earth believability to John McClane's actions, as he's less about shooting everyone in sight and more concerned with figuring things out and gutting out a win. The scope of the movie itself is even bigger, as terror sweeps through all of New York City, but it has something from the first movie that the second didn't, that thing which made the first original and interesting in the first place. Anybody can make an action movie where things blow up and a foreign guy threatens people, it takes a little extra to make it as fun as this. In fact, it's pretty damn surprising that the guy who wrote the script (which wasn't originally going to be for a Die Hard movie) went on to make something as amazingly nonsensical as The Punisher. It's not the smartest thing in the world, but it's clever and funny and exciting enough to easily last through the two hours.

A lot of entertainment comes from the buddy picture quality of the story, an otherwise typical black/white dynamic when McClane gets shoved together through circumstance with an electrician from Harlem, but it's saved by the entertaining, antagonistic chemistry between Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. They're forced to team up and race around New York while solving riddles to try and prevent bombs from going off, being teased and tricked by an enjoyably evil Jeremy Irons. Eventually though they realize the bombs are just part of a much larger and more diabolical plot, and not just a simple vendetta. The two have to use all of their wits and get the crap kicked out of them just trying to keep the bad guys from winning. By the end you're as exhausted as they are, but it was worth it because it was just about as much fun as you can have seeing a movie without it really being a great one. McTiernan may be going to jail for some of the things he's done, but you can't take away that the guy knows how to make an action movie.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Sunset Boulevard

Billy Wilder can definitely shoot film noir. Double Indemnity is one of my favorites of the genre, and Sunset Boulevard was quite good too, especially for it's slightly different take on it. It's not about a hardened, streetwise detective solving a murder or something, it's just a down on his luck Hollywood writer who gets involved with an aging silent movie star trying to make a comeback in the world of talkies. As far as movies about the film industry itself go, it was one of the least annoyingly self massaging, although part of that might be I wasn't that familiar with the real people who made cameos (and Buster Keaton was too aged for me to recognize him on screen). But most of it is that it doesn't really sugarcoat Hollywood, in fact it makes some aspects of it seem pretty dire. Talented writers are forced to write schlock to get some money, and the second the public doesn't want you anymore you're pretty much done. It's a surprisingly effective backdrop for a story that begins with a body being discovered in a pool and then flashes back to show how we get there.

The movie mostly hinges on the performances of William Holden and Gloria Swanson. The former brings both a smarminess and a likability to the writer protagonist, and generally nails the noir narration, and the latter does very well as the aging actress, a role that was probably very close to home for her. A unique relationship develops between them as she basically forces him to become her companion with the promise that she'll pay him handsomely if he fixes up the screenplay for her comeback. Unfortunately for her ego, he ends up getting close to a younger woman while trying to get away from the mansion once in a while, and along with what's happening in her career, she becomes pretty mentally warped, heading towards an obvious breakdown. The ending is one of the most famous in cinema, and played brilliantly when it could have easily gone wrong. Just the right amount of creepy insanity. It was pretty much the last good thing Swanson did, but it was a hell of a way to go out.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

North by Northwest

So yeah, Hitchcock was pretty darn good at this directing thing. The other movies of his I've seen to this point have been mostly similar, dark and mostly reserved suspense thrillers. Northwest is different from those; a bit lighter in tone, more out in the open, and closer to the action end of the thriller spectrum. It's also quite funny, with most of the best one liners I've seen in one of his films. As far as just a good time at the movies goes, Northwest is one of the best examples from any time in the medium's history.

Cary Grant is pretty much a perfect choice for the lead role of Roger Thornhill. He's an ad executive who gets mistaken for a secret agent, and eventually falsely accused of murder and put on the run. At first he just wants things to return to normal, but eventually it gets personal when a woman gets involved. His performance brings a lot of humanity to the central plot, which could have gotten silly and out of control if someone wasn't there to ground it. You can buy Thornhill being caught up in all this because Grant makes you. The supporting cast is good too, although less recognizable.

It's pretty astounding how many classic set pieces they were able to cram into just a couple hours, and Hitchcock films them all beautifully. The airplane at the crossroads is obviously great, with the shot where Thornhill realizes what's going on perhaps my favorite by Hitchcock that I've seen. Though it's hard to surpass the cleverness of the way he manages to leave an art auction without getting grabbed by the bad guy's men. The climax is outstanding too, with just the right amount of tension, betrayal, humor, and excitement, although the quick resolution was honestly a bit jarring at first. Still, it works for the kind of movie they were trying to make, I guess. Not my favorite film of his, but definitely the most fun so far.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Shield - Season 5

If season 4 was intense, season 5 kicked that feeling into overdrive. A bumbling detective recurring character has taken over the captaincy of the station, but unlike previous years, the guy who commandeers his office is who Vick really has to worry about. Forest Whitaker guests all season long as Lieutenant Kavanaugh, a member of Internal Affairs who has it out for the strike team. It's an inspired performance, the best on the show, as he plays a man creepily obsessed with bringing down corrupt cops, willing to do a few uncouth things himself to get it done. He's provided the single greatest threat thus far to Vick's continued success, and he's just as scary when he loses as when he wins.

New subplots for the other cops to keep them busy. There's pregnancies and new, troublesome rookies to train and personal squabbles that get in the way of casework and yadda yadda. Claudette and Dutch's investigations are still generally interesting if a bit too focused on shock value still, but I really could do without a lot of the padding of all their personal crap. Luckily the end of the season puts Claudette in the position she should be, primed to face off against Vick. That's a conflict that has plenty left in the tank for the final two seasons. Also, the end of the arc for the strike team itself is pretty incredible, both in the sense of being a bit hard to believe and also an effectively shocking way to tie off a thread that was starting to get out of control. It's clearly going to lead to more conflict down the road, and probably a showdown as dramatic as anything in the last decade, just going on how the characters have been built over the course of years now. Definitely excited for the last 23 episodes.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Seventh Seal

Ingmar Bergman is considered one of the best and most influential filmmakers of the last century. But because his films are old and Swedish, I haven't seen any of them before. The Seventh Seal is probably his most acclaimed, featuring still-iconic imagery like a knight's chess match with Death and being a surprisingly good watch today, over fifty years after its release. I expected something perhaps a bit meandering and atmospheric, lingering on endless shots of landscapes or something, but it's really just a character driven spiritual drama at its core. The two main characters are the knight Antonius and his squire Jöns, the former played by Max von Sydow who's still a great screen presence today, although the latter might actually be a more interesting figure in this movie. They accompany a troupe of actors while on their way home from a Crusade, while Antonius struggles over his loss of faith in God. You'd think being met in person by Death himself would help that out, but he still wrestles with it while fighting for his soul in a game of chess which carries out over the course of the film.

Besides that the plot is a bit light, introducing a variety of characters but not really having a ton for them to do. There's a few scuffles that get violent, and brief subplots by one of the actor's supposed heavenly visions, but the only real conflict in the movie is Antonius fight for his soul and those of his comrades. The rest of the movie fails to get too boring though, with Jöns rescuing a couple people from harm, giving his own unique view on life and generally just keeping the movie from getting too heavy. There's a surprising amount of enjoyable dialogue, and the Swedish itself isn't unpleasant to listen to. Really, what I'm getting at is that while I wasn't fully struck by the film's supposed awe-inspiring power, it was still very well made and more enjoyable than I expected. Not that it wasn't effective at all with the real subject matter, and in fact the climactic scene is pretty amazing even today. You never see what the characters see, but their complete fright and devastation is obvious. Certainly worth seeing for fans of world cinema.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


Vonnegut's eighth novel is not exactly one of his best, but I still found it pretty enjoyable. He calls it "the closest thing" he'll ever write to an autobiography, and it begins with a relatively long prologue that is both funny and surprisingly poignant, where he writes about how he came to write the book and reveals where a lot of the pieces of the plot came from before you actually know they're in there. The novel itself follows at a very brisk pace, with this being one of the quickest to read Vonnegut books I've tackled. The writing style just lends itself to being absorbed in huge chunks, because it's very disconnected with extremely short chapters. Despite the small word count the plot itself isn't very dense, so it's quite simple to just power through in a couple sittings.

And you don't mind doing so because it's pretty funny and has some weird new ideas. The whole thing is written as the late-life memoir of a pretty strange man, born a freak with an unusual attachment to his twin sister, eventually growing to be President of the United States as the country slides into anarchy as the result of some strange diseases. Some of the stuff from his youth gets pretty uncomfortable, and the descent of civilization is just downright odd. While capable of providing a few laughs, the strongest part of the story might just be its structure, with the way it slowly fills in the picture from both directions, and a few pretty good bits of foreshadowing just from putting two and two together with the way it was written. Again, not really one of my favorites, but still a pretty enjoyable book from a great author.

Friday, October 1, 2010


So yeah, this isn't part of that whole "watching the greatest movies ever made" thing. It's a simple low budget comedy, but a pretty good one for the most part. I wasn't expecting a lot out of Ice Cube's acting as Craig, but his hard edged persona actually works well with the silly material. Chris Tucker plays Smokey in what was his breakout role, and the two of them make for a pretty entertaining on-screen duo. The plot is as basic as they come - Craig lost his job yesterday, so he spends his now-free Friday hanging out with Smokey and watching the people in the neighborhood. Things get more complicated later, after Smokey accidentally smokes too much of the weed he was supposed to sell, and they get into some trouble with the dealers. Also the local bully causes some troubles. But all of the trouble they get into is pretty minor, and just a way to try to build some tension near the end of the movie and give it a climax. They're never really in a lot of danger, and things work out exactly as expected. Which is okay, because the movie's just supposed to be funny, and it mostly is. A few of the jokes are pretty broad and disappointing, like some easy scatalogical humor and a midget being funny because he's a midget. But for the most part it's an easygoing movie with a few likable comedic performances and a decent soul behind it. It's just nice to see a side to 90s LA that's a bit more fun. I don't know about the sequels though, especially without Tucker's strong personality holding them up.