Friday, February 26, 2010
Simply put, something goes wrong during a simple jewelry store heist for six crooks and the survivors are trying to figure out what the hell happened and who’s the rat in the group. Then there’s a bunch of flashbacks for certain important characters that help fill in the details to the audience. Simple, but effective.
Mr. White/Larry Dimmick: Harvey Keitel is a tough guy veteran of plenty of heists and when things go wrong, he tries to keep a level head while trying to keep the badly wounded Mr. Orange alive. He’s a crook, but he’s sensible and sympathetic.
Mr. Orange/Freddy Newandyke: Tim Roth is one of the younger members of the gang and he’s got the unfortunate distinction of spending most of the movie lying in a bloody mess on the floor with a gunshot wound to the stomach. Probably the most interesting character of the movie and Roth does one hell of a job.
Mr. Blonde/Vic Vega: Michael Madsen would be the badass of the film if he wasn’t a complete psychopath who gunned down a bunch of civilians when the heist went sour. He’s newly out of prison and likes listening to the radio while he works.
Mr. Pink: Steve Buscemi is our extremely paranoid (justifiable) guy who really tries to stay rational and calm, but he’s really on edge for the movie.
Mr. Brown: Quentin Tarantino is really only a factor in the table scene at the beginning and gets blown away during the chaos of the heist. Fodder, basically.
Mr. Blue: Edward Bunker (who actually did serve prison time for robbery, among other things) is the oldest and most mysterious member of the crew. Doesn’t say much and disappears after the first scene. We’re told that he was killed, but I don’t believe it. I think he’s still out there, and that makes him the baddest ass among badasses in this movie.
Nice Guy Eddie Cabot: Chris Penn is the, for lack of a better word, handler of the heist. He’s a daddy’s boy and an annoying bastard who isn’t very nice at all, actually. And he wears an ugly jacket all the time. He’s a good friend of Mr. Blonde and brings him into the heist.
Joe Cabot: Lawrence Tierney is the mastermind behind the heist. A local bigwig in crime, he’s the planner and he is very, very unhappy that it goes sour.
Marvin Nash: Kirk Baltz is the poor unfortunate cop captured and interrogated by Mr. Blonde. Poor, poor Marvin.
Quentin Tarantino didn’t have much of a budget for the film, and most of it takes place inside of an empty warehouse with all the other locations basically being flashbacks. This works in the movie’s favor, since it gives the movie a claustrophobic feel that just feeds into the paranoia, which in turn ratchets up the tension. The action sequences, when they happen, are quite brutal, disturbing and awesome at the same time. Not to mention the now iconic scenes of the table scene and the walking scene at the beginning.
Quentin Tarantino has got a knack for snappy dialog, which is good, because most of this movie involves angry men talking and then shouting to each other and dropping F-bombs 272 times according to IMDB. He keeps it interesting, and the flashbacks help break up the tension nicely. A simple plot doesn’t mean a bad one, and Tarantino wrings a compelling drama out of the old formula of “it was supposed to be a simple job.” Though he does seem to like rambling a little too long occasionally.
Not that I would know anything about that.
No original score. Which isn’t to say there isn’t music. Its mostly worked in as a radio station (with deadpan comic Steven Wright as the DJ) that plays the songs of the 70s. Of particular note would be “Little Green Bag” by the George Baker Selection and “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel, which, well, makes me view that song in a new light. *shudder*
Not gonna lie, Reservoir Dogs is one hell of an impressive movie. It’s a tight little indie film crime drama. Totally recommended.
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
“You know, I've always had the greatest admiration for the black arts, you chaps with your... mysterious spells.”
Set during the Early Medieval “Dark Ages” when Christianity was just making its first footholds in Pagan Northern Europe, we go to the fictional Kingdom of Urland that has a dragon problem. So some villagers make a long journey to a Wizard’s tower to recruit a sorcerer to deal with the beast, but in a test of power from one of the King’s men who followed, the old codger bites it. This leaves his young apprentice trying to accomplish the task and…things get messy by the end. Okay, so maybe its more Low than High Fantasy.
Galen: Peter MacNicol is our hero (yes, really), a sorcerer’s apprentice who’s not very good at the craft who suddenly discovers he can do some pretty spiffy magic after inheriting his master’s amulet. He goes on a kind of power trip that gets a few people killed. Still, the guy means well and is a fairly likable hero.
Valerian: Caitlin Clarke is introduced as on of the peasants who come calling for Ulrich’s aid. Thing is, she’s disguised as a boy because in Urland, there’s a lottery of all the virgins in the kingdom. The “winner” of the annual lottery is fed to the dragon, so that’s why Valerian’s daddy dressed her up as a boy. Anyway, she and Galen have that kind of bickering-flirting thing going on when he finds out she’s a she.
Ulrich: Ralph Rirchardson is the wise old wizard who gets offed in the beginning. However, he’s a major figure who’s shadow hovers over the movie.
Hodge: Sydney Bromley is the aged servant of Ulrich’s. He’s kind of a comic relief character for Galen to boss around for a little bit once he’s gotten his new powers.
Casiodorus Rex: Peter Eyre is the King of Urland and something of a jackass. The lottery was his idea.
Tyrian: John Hallam is Casiodorus’ general and right hand guy with a goofy wig, though he’s very clear that his loyalties are to the kingdom and not just the king. Which is all well and good, except he’s a big jerk who hates wizards because he’s convinced that the sacrificial status quo is better for the kingdom than some guy in a robe coming over and waving his arms around… Huh. You know, he’s got a point. Still, the movie makes him a big jerk.
Princess Elspeth: Chloe Salaman is the king’s daughter who takes a bit of a liking to Galen when he’s imprisoned. She’s a nice girl who’s unaware of just how big a jerk her dad is, and once she finds out that he’s been leaving her name out of the Lottery, she takes an extraordinary measure to ensure fairness.
Brother Jacopus: Ian MacDiarmid (yes, Emperor Palpatine himself) plays a very minor Christian missionary who gets roasted by the dragon when he tries to confront it himself. Its, uh, not a pretty scene.
Verminthrax Pejorative: And now the badass of the film, who exists in puppet and giant prop form. The dragon is pretty awesome most of the time, especially since you don’t see her (gender is a little iffy on the dragon as its also referred to as a he) in full for most of the movie. How badass is Verminthrax? Its last name is an adjective.
Matthew Robbins directs the film with a competent eye. The beginning has that standard 80s fantasy movie feel to it (lots of browns, goofy haircuts, a trip through a forest), but as it goes on it gets progressively darker and more epic, leading to a showdown first inside the dragon’s lair, then on top of a mountain. Without spoiling it, all I’ll say is that the idea of a “lich bomb” (my term, not theirs) is pretty awesome.
The visuals are also incredibly impressive (considering 1981) most of the time. The dragon itself is awesomely designed and the stop motion puppet is fantastic (since you had some of the guys who would later become staples at ILM), but there are issues of composition and layering during the climax that undermine the epic-ness of the scene. Its pretty obvious that the two halves of the scene are spliced together in a pretty slipshod way. Didn’t ruin the experience for me, but well, your mileage will vary.
Hal Barwood & Matthew Robbins really go for Low Fantasy in this story, and I’ve got to give them credit for doing something different, especially for what’s generally a children’s film. We get some pretty gruesome deaths, the human lottery (which works exactly like that short story you read in high school) and an ending that can barely be considered happy. But its not like the movie intentionally set out to subvert all the standard fantasy tropes. Its more like the writers went “so what would really happen if a teenaged apprentice went on a slight power trip and tried to slay a dragon without any real planning or preparation?” The answer is "things would get messy."
Alex North delivers a rock solid score with some great themes.
Dragonslayer isn’t remembered much nowadays considering it failed hard at the box office. I’d heard about it and kept meaning to find it until now, and having seen it, it’s a respectable flick. Its not great in the same way that other 80s Fantasy movies are, but it definitely took risks to try something different. I liked it.
No trailer embed, but you can find it over here
Monday, February 22, 2010
Set in the 200s BC during a period of constantly fighting warlords, the powerful King of Qin is trying to make a push to unify the land, but he’s justifiably paranoid about several assassins that are after him, BUT, a police prefect from a small town has apparently taken them down. The King grants the prefect an audience to explain how he was able to achieve this stunning achievement. The action is then told in flashbacks.
Nameless: Jet Li is our main character, a man who’s grown up without a name or family, so everybody just calls him Nameless (which is technically a name so its really more ironic----stop it) and he devoted his entire life to swordsmanship because, well, not like he had any family ties. He is quite awesome.
King of Qin: Daoming Chen is our warlord, a man with a fierce reputation for brutality and strongarm tactics that makes sense for the man who became the first Emperor of China in 221 BC (the guy did some pretty despotic things in his lifetime). Anyway, he’s dangerous, but highly intelligent and classy, and about the only guy who can unite China and put an end to the constant fighting. And, in one of the flashbacks, he can hold his own in a fight too.
Sky: Donnie Yen is only in one scene, but it’s a badass one where Nameless fights him in a rain-soaked building. Sky’s a master of the spear, so he’s got reach on the swordsman.
Broken Sword: Tony Leung Chiu Wai is a very complicated character who’s in a bulk of the flashbacks. He’s Flying Snow’s lover, but also Moon’s mentor, which in some of the flashbacks is a love triangle. Anyway, he’s a really thoughtful swordsman who fought Qin in single combat but pulled back from killing the King. It’s a little hard to explain without spoiling the movie, but out of this assemblage of badasses, he is the biggest.
Flying Snow: Maggie Cheung is a beautiful and deadly swordswoman. She’s got a major grudge against Qin and is one of the most vocal against the King.
Moon: The always beautiful Ziyi Zhang is Broken Sword’s apprentice. More of a minor figure in the movie’s events, she does get into some trouble because of her hot blooded nature that leads to some groovy fight scenes.
Yimou Zhang is an astoundingly good director. Crouching Tiger was very artistically done, but Hero takes that visual artistry and runs it up to insane heights. Each flashback has a different color palette that dominates the costumes, mood and emotion, so you’ve got Red, Blue, Green, White that sort of thing that contrasts with the Black of the “main” action of Nameless’ audience with Qin. With each you get an action sequence that goes big on doing insanely awesome visual stunts, and only one of them (the Blue fight) gets kind of annoyingly ridiculous. Now, a huge part of what makes the visuals work is the cinematography of Christopher Doyle. And I feel pretty bad about passing over the achievements of cinematographers/directors of photography in previous installments, because they are really important to setting the visual tone a director’s going for. So here’s a resolution: I’ll try to give more credit to these often unsung heroes of filmmaking when a movie's visuals are excellently done.
Feng Li, Bin Wang & Yimou Zhang wrote the screenplay, and the structure is interesting. Like I said, its told mostly in flashbacks, but the flashbacks themselves are often conflicting. It’s a credit to the writers that everything does make sense by the end as the real story is discovered by Qin (and the audience).
Tan Dun delivers another epic Chinese Marital Arts Movie score.
Ying xiong got a lot of publicity when it came out in the States because of the “Quentin Tarantino Presents” tacked on (he was also associated that way with Iron Monkey). And while I do appreciate the enthusiastic attention Tarantino brings to foreign films like these, Yimou Zhang’s style is strong enough to be taken for its own merits. This movie is awesome.
Nice trailer, too
Friday, February 19, 2010
“We were talking about automobile insurance, only you were thinking about murder. And I was thinking about that anklet.”
So there’s a cocky insurance salesman who pays a house call to a wealthy L.A. businessman about his auto insurance. He’s not there, but his bombshell wife is, and the sexual tension between them leads first to flirty innuendo, then to an affair where they plot the intricate murder of her husband where they would make a fortune on a life insurance plan they tricked him into signing. And then it all goes to hell.
Walter Neff: Fred Mac Murray (another Hollywood nice guy acting against type here) is outstanding as our protagonist. A decent enough fella at the beginning, if a bit cocky, he gets seduced pretty hard by femme fatale and ends up doing some pretty bad stuff. Despite becoming a villain protagonist, he’s still pretty damn badass throughout, consistently lighting a match with his fingernails before putting it to a cigarette.
Phyllis Dietrichson: Barbara Stanwyck (yet another actress playing against type) is just so damn evil in this movie. Sexy evil. When Neff meets her, she gives off the vibe of a bored housewife looking for some excitement in her life, but as the movie goes on, you get a peek at the layers underneath the character, and my God is Phyllis a disturbing character. Stanwyck acts the hell out of her too, putting in probably the best performance in the film. Some of the looks she gets in her eyes are the stuff of nightmare.
Barton Keyes: Edward G. Robinson (who was a veteran of tough guy crime movies) is the Hero, Neff’s supervisor and mentor at work, and one of the best claim investigators at the company. Keyes is the kind of guy who puts up a gruff exterior, but deep down he’s a softie who tries to look out for his friends. Too bad one of them is a murderer.
Mr. Dietrichson: Tom Powers is the unfortunate businessman who gets bumped off in the name of lust. Not much to say about him other than while he’s kind of a codger, he doesn’t deserve what’s coming to him.
Lola Dietrichson: Jean Heather is the good and innocent daughter of Dietrichson from a previous marriage. She looks up to Neff after they meet, and he tries to look out for her as the movie goes on.
Nino Zachetti: Byron Barr is Lola’s boyfriend, a kid studying medicine who’s also a wannabe tough guy that’s important to some of the subplots that develop.
Prolific writer-director Billy Wilder handles this film with steady hand. Shots are great, the pacing is great and the whole visual mood of the movie just brings the tension to the fore. Probably the real standout stuff is how he works with close ups of the actors to get maximum non-verbal cues to imply what they’re thinking.
James M. Cain wrote the novel about a 1920’s murderess (Double Indemnity in Three of a Kind) and Billy Wilder & Raymond Chandler wrote the screenplay. Apparently Wilder & Chandler hated each other, but that doesn’t matter, since the end result is probably one of the most riveting of the noir screenplays looked at here. I’ve got a bias toward Chandler’s quality, and Wilder is another solid writer, and here, they’re not working with established characters that have “franchise potential.” What that means is anything can happen to the characters in the film.
Miklós Rózsa’s score fits the dark and oppressive mood of the movie. Its good.
Double Indemnity is another one of those awesome classics where all the ingredients work. Its definite required material for viewing film noir, and its outstanding. However, I’m not kidding about how grimdark and bleak this movie is. There is exactly one bright spot by the end of the film.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
The San Francisco detective firm of Spade & Archer gets a new client, a “Miss Wonderly,” who hires them to trail a man who ran off with her sister. Then things get complicated when Archer gets shot dead, “Miss Wonderly” hires Spade to protect her from whoever shot Archer, and a trio of criminals come looking for a mysterious enamel covered statue of a falcon worth millions that was once a gift from the Knights Hospitaller to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
Sam Spade: Humphrey Bogart nails it in his first heroic leading man role (before that he was usually playing tough guy villains), and everything he does is awesome as Spade. Tough, smart and a magnificent bastard who’s damn good at maneuvering through the bad situation he finds himself in, Sam Spade is not a nice guy. Hell, he’s not even a “good” guy, since he was having an affair with his partner’s wife, and he doesn’t even really like her. Doesn’t matter. Two minutes in and you can tell he’s the biggest badass of the picture. Its like the trailer says, "he makes crime a CAREER -- and ladies a HOBBY!"
Brigid O’Shaughnessy: Mary Astor (who led a notoriously…colorful personal life) is a classic femme fatale here. She hires Spade & Archer under a false name to follow a man named Thursby, then reappears after Archer is shot, seeking Spade’s help to protect her from people that might kill her. Then its revealed that she’s got a very strong connection to the black bird that everybody’s after.
Miles Archer: Jerome Cowan is in the film long enough to provide some motivation for Spade to do something about his death. Archer’s a lech himself, ogling our femme fatale from the minute he walks into the office.
Iva Archer: Gladys George is basically Sam’s baggage. After Miles’ death, she kind of expects Spade to jump right on in. Instead, he tries to avoid her at all times, which leads to some bad feelings on her side.
Effie Perine: Lee Patrick is Spade’s fantastically competent secretary. Sharp, competent and frequently going the extra mile to help her boss out, she’s pretty much the only real friend Sam’s got in the world.
Joel Cairo: The always awesome Peter Lorre plays a cultured, effeminate (he’s clearly homosexual in the novel, but, well, 1940s cinema shied away from that stuff) foreigner who’s willing to buy the falcon from Spade, but would prefer to hold him at gunpoint and search the office for it. Cairo’s a classic henchman.
Wilmer Cook: Elisha Cook Jr. is the other henchman in the movie, a tough talking, gun toting kid who is constantly being called out and taunted by Spade. He doesn’t take it well.
Kasper Gutman: Sydney Greenstreet is awesome as the affably evil “Fatman” who approaches Spade about the bird after Cairo fails to find it. He’s certainly dangerous, but also surprisingly jolly for a man who’s had several people killed in pursuit of that statuette. Watching the game of wits between him & Spade is one of best things about the movie.
Detective Lieutenant Dundy & Detective Tom Polhaus: Barton McLane & Ward Bond are the two cops investigating Archer’s death. Polhaus is generally willing to back Spade up, but Dundy has the detective pinned as the prime suspect.
John Huston, who had a hell of a prolific career as a writer and actor, made his directorial debut with this movie, and damn did he come out swinging. Shot on a low budget, the polish of this film is outstanding. Camera angles and shots are iconic and efficient and the movie races along at an incredible pace. Every scene matters, and every scene works. Its absolutely incredible.
Original novel by Dashiell Hammett & screenplay by John Huston, the story hews closely to the novel. Dialog is sharp, the characters well defined (almost archetypal, considering this was the “first film noir”). Nothing is wasted, and the actors have some outstanding material to work with.
Adolph Deutsch’s score for the film is incredible. Big and orchestral flourishes that sidestep into some dissonance that undercuts the grimness of the storyline. Outstanding.
There is a reason why The Maltese Falcon has the reputation that it does. Simply put, its one of the best films ever made, where EVERYTHING that went into it is firing on all cylinders. The novel and the film were what got me into film noir back in high school, and if you’re looking for a way in, there’s no better place to start. If you haven’t seen this movie, do so now. And if you didn’t like it, get out of my sight.
Monday, February 15, 2010
One of the biggest names in the genre is Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s hard boiled private eye who’s more or less the guy who gets emulated the most in parodies and inferior rip-offs. Marlowe’s been put on the screen a bunch of times, and 1944’s Murder, My Sweet is a good place as any to start.
L.A. detective Philip Marlowe is hired by a petty crook just out of jail to find his old girlfriend. While that investigation begins, he also gets hired by a rich man to accompany him as protection on a midnight handoff of a good chunk of change in exchange for the return of some valuable jade. Marlowe gets socked with a blackjack and finds Mr. Fancy Pants dead in the car. The next day, he gets hired by the real owner of the jade to get it back discreetly, somehow. Then things get messy.
Philip Marlowe: Dick Powell, who was previously typecast as a nice guy crooner, plays against type here as the narrator and hard-boiled guy who’s trying to figure out what the hell’s going on. Marlowe’s a complex character; a tough talking, cynical guy who’d cuff you one for calling him an intellectual without denying it. He’s also famous for having an unbreakable code of honor that gets the tar kicked out of him more often than not, and Marlowe takes quite a beating in this picture. They don’t get much more badass than him.
Mr. Grayle: Miles Mander is an old rich man with a trophy wife. The missing jade was a gift from him to his wife, and he’s the one who calls in Marlowe to find the piece.
Mrs. Helen Grayle: Claire Trevor is a beautiful, wealthy woman who’s the owner of the missing jade. The dead guy was one of her lovers on the side, and she…encourages Marlowe to recover the jewelry. You could cut the tension between her and the detective with a fork.
Ann Grayle: Anne Shirley is Mr. Grayle’s daughter from a previous marriage, and she hates Helen. She’s got quite a bit of tension with Marlowe as well.
Jules Amthor: Otto Kruger (from Dracula’s Daughter) plays some kind of psychologist who’s got a mystique of some mystical woogie-woogie to help his clients, but he admits to Marlowe that he’s a quack running a pretty lucrative racket. He’s crooked and connected to Mrs. Grayle.
Moose Malloy: Mike Mazurki is the heavy that hires Marlowe in the first place to find his girl. Moose is a big brute of a guy who’s slow on the uptake and has something of a temper, but he’s more a figure of pity than a villain. That may be so, but he’s not the kind of guy that takes well to being hit.
Dr. Sonderborg: Ralf Harolde is an associate of Amthor’s, a crooked doctor who’s involved in some pretty bad stuff. Marlowe gets drugged and put into his “care” for a stretch of time. Guess how please our hero is about THAT situation.
Edward Dmytryk makes really good use of the standard film noir elements, but the film also goes for some more experimental shots. For instance, we cut to a nightclub, but the establishing shot is a spotlight cutting horizontally through a dark room and the camera pans down until it stops on a singer. There’s also a section where Marlowe gets drugged by some bad dudes and the movie goes into a really well done dream/hallucination sequence that uses a lot of camera and editing tricks. Then there’s my favorite scene where Marlowe’s waiting outside for someone and he’s standing next to a cherub statue, looks at it for a second, then lights a match on its ass.
Raymond Chandler wrote the novel “Farewell, My Lovely” and John Paxton wrote the screenplay, the story is chock full of that Raymond Chandler goodness. Double crosses, intrigue, femme fatales, whip-smart dialogue and at the center of it a good man in a dirty world trying to make something right.
Roy Webb did the score for it and the music works great for the mood and situation.
Raymond Chandler apparently called Dick Powell his favorite actor to play Marlowe, and I can see why. He’s outstanding in it, but so is the rest of the cast. Murder, My Sweet may not be the most famous film noir out there (we’ll get to some of those in a bit), but it gets major points for effort and experimentation. Totally recommended.
Friday, February 12, 2010
You know, for Valentine's Day.
So there’s this bar in Missouri, the Double Deuce, and the owner wants to clean it up so he can get a nicer quality of clientele than the bikers, rednecks and riff-raff currently infesting it. He hires the services of a man known only as Dalton, famous across the country for being the best cooler (head bouncer) in the world. So Dalton comes to town, starts cleaning up the joint and finds the local, well, I guess “crime boss” is close enough, doesn’t appreciate his actions. Things spiral into a morass of chaos from there.
Dalton: The late Patrick Swayze is one hell of a badass in this movie. He’s a wandering cooler who’s got a philosophy degree and his key rule is to “be nice.” Doesn’t stop him from kicking ass six ways from Sunday when the need arises. The uncontested badass of the film.
Elizabeth “Doc” Clay: Kelly Lynch is the abnormally hot local doctor that meets Dalton the first time he needs patching up and becomes fascinated by him. She’s also got some history with Brad Wesley, so you just know that triangle’s going to explode.
Wade Garrett: Sam Elliot is pretty much Dalton’s Obi-Wan in the Cooler business. And he is indeed an awesome mentor figure for Dalton, spouting some great one-liners and being the second badass of the film.
Brad Wesley: Ben Gazzara (Jackie Treehorn himself) is the Villain of the movie, and its insane. So he owns the local booze distributing company, and somehow he’s managed to essentially buy and bully his way into being the local crime lord and unofficial strongman of the town. I don’t know how, but he’s got an army of redneck thugs at his command. Regardless, when he’s first introduced, he’s just a jackass, but as the movie goes on, the layers get revealed to show a completely insane asshole. You really hate Brad by the end of the movie.
Jimmy: Marshall Teague is Brad’s top henchman, a real vicious guy who becomes more or less Dalton’s opposite number.
Cody: Jeff Healey (of the Jeff Healey Band) and his band are the house band of the Double Deuce, and a pal of Dalton’s from way back.
Directed by the appropriately named Rowdy Herrington, the film is an action movie that follows some of the conventions of a western where the drifting hero comes into town and starts to clean the place up, but somewhere along the way, it goes from a rather amusing but not particularly memorable action movie and jumps off the sanity ledge into a gloriously insane action movie as Dalton proves that he is able to do things that no human being can. I can’t even begin to describe the madness that this film achieves, but its fantastic.
David Lee Henry & Hilary Henkin take a lot of stock characters and twist things around by the end. Dalton is, essentially, a Buddhist monk, and the plot swings into the absurd by the end, but the combination of action and really funny dialog hold the plot together as it speeds along to its violent conclusion.
Original score by Michael Kamen, but it gets overshadowed by the hard rock and blues soundtrack, most of which are covers by the Jeff Healey Band (including, most appropriately, The Doors’ Road House Blues)
Honestly, I wasn’t ready for Road House. I don’t think you can be ready for Road House. The movie is a gloriously cheesy 80’s Action B Movie where the rule of awesome supersedes everything else. I wouldn’t call it “good” in the same way as, say Indiana Jones or even Die Hard, but its got a level of charm and audacity that puts it in a similar position as The Last Dragon. Road House is a gigantic dose of cinematic cheese, and I loved every minute of it, and recommend it with the caveat that it’s an unapologetic big dumb action movie.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
“Follow the zany antics of our combat surgeons as they cut and stitch their way along the front lines operating as bombs and bullets burst around them; snatching laughs and love between amputations and penicillin.”
So in wartime setting that is basically Vietnam thinly veiled as Korea (it was released in 1970, after all), a couple of recently drafted doctors arrive at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. And then they proceed to do two things: operate on wounded soldiers while on duty and misbehave in a completely politically incorrect way while off duty. That’s pretty much the plot. Oh yeah, and they play a game of football at the end.
Hawkeye Pierce: Donald Sutherland is our main character, a bespectacled, Boonie-hat wearing doc with a penchant for lady nurses (even though he’s married) and for saying “finest kind.” He also has a trademark whistle for when he’s surprised, or amazed or whatever. Extraordinarily laid back, he starts off his tour by basically stealing a jeep (well, Duke thought he was the driver for it and told him to drive) and, well, he’s awesome. I know I’m speaking blasphemy, but I prefer his Hawkeye Pierce to Alan Alda’s.
Trapper John McIntyre: Elliott Gould is a “chest cutter” surgeon and one of the best. He transfers in to the 4077 and gets bunked with Hawkeye & Duke in “the Swamp,” immediately making a good impression by bringing olives for martinis.
Duke Forrest: Tom Skerritt is Hawkeye’s immediate buddy for the movie and he’s the more lewd of the duo. Essentially, Duke, Hawkeye & Trapper John are our three anti-heroes who are just trying to get by in a place they don’t really want to be.
“Hot Lips” O’Houlihan: Sally Kellerman plays the chief of nurses who’s a firm believer in the Army and following proper protocols. This of course does not sit well with our heroes, who end up pulling a lot of pranks on her in compromising situations. One of which is how she gets the nickname “Hot Lips.”
Major Frank Burns: Robert Duvall is the first roommate Hawkeye & Duke have, and he’s a sanctimonious, self-righteous ass with a holier than thou attitude. He also blames some of the younger staff for patient deaths, so that really gets him on our anti-heroes bad side.
Colonel Henry Blake: Roger Bowen is the commander of the 4077, and he’s mostly an absent-minded, lazy, harmless fool who doesn’t know (or willfully ignores) what’s going on in the camp and usually gets walked on by characters more clever than him.
Father John “Dago Red” Mulcahy: Rene Auberjonois (who’s done a ton of voice over work and was Odo on Deep Space Nine) is the Catholic chaplain of the camp. In contrast to Maj. Burns, he’s a friendly, cheerful and helpful guy, but also out of place because there's not much he can do. The other characters tolerate him fairly well, they just keep him out of the loop for their more naughty antics.
Corporal “Radar” O’Reilly: Gary Burghoff (who was also Radar on the series) is the bespectacled assistant to Col. Blake, and basically the guy who really runs the day-to-day workings of the camp. He finishes the colonel’s sentences, knows all the loopholes, and frequently participates in and makes sure Blake doesn’t know the kind of shenanigans going on behind his back. Radar is badass.
Dr. Oliver Wendell “Spearchucker” Jones: Fred Williamson is a black doctor who transfers to the camp, but that’s not the reason why they get him. He was also an all-star football player, and the 4077 needs him as a ringer for the game at the end against another Army unit.
“Painless” Waldowski: John Schuck plays the staff dentist who’s got a reputation for being well equipped. He kind of loses it when said equipment fails to function properly during an intimate moment, and he becomes despondent, convinces himself he’s suddenly homosexual and then starts thinking suicide. Hawkeye & the gang decide to snap him out of it by indulging his suicide fantasy, throwing an extravagant wake for him (coffin and everything) and giving him a sleeping pill, and then hooking him up with a nurse who’s leaving for home in the morning. I don’t think I could’ve made that up if I tried.
Robert Altman’s visual aesthetic for the movie is a very gritty style with muted colors. It’s a comedy, so that kind of stuff takes precedence, with lots of sight gags and dialog. However, you never lose sight of the fact that this is a military camp during a war; and while you never see any actual combat stuff, the constant barrage of wounded that filter into the hospital and the completely nihilistic tone (and behavior of the staff) makes a very strong statement without being preachy about it. There’s also some boobies.
Novel by Richard Hooker, screenplay by Ring Lardner, Jr. (one of the in/famous Hollywood 10 that were blacklisted in the 1950s), which is kind of funny when you think about it, since Hooker’s novel swings to the right and the movie swings to the left. So, really, there’s a M*A*S*H for everybody, dirty communists and dirty fascists alike. Lardner won an Oscar for the screenplay, which is funny as well, since most of the dialog was improvised. The movie is also famously accepted as the first to say “fuck” in a major motion picture. Watch it yourself and try to find it.
Score by Johnny Mandel, which works fine, but M*A*S*H is probably most famous for its moody theme song, “Suicide is Painless” with its extraordinarily bleak lyrics (that they understandably kept out of the TV version). What’s more notable? The lyrics were written by Robert Altman’s then 14-year old son, Mike.
The thing about M*A*S*H is that it’s an incredibly dark black comedy. Sure, none of the main characters are in any real danger, and not a whole lot actually happens, but the comedy comes from trying to cope with the stresses of civilian professionals being drafted and shipped off to a place they don’t want to be and working under very difficult conditions, and they can’t just leave. And these people don’t exactly rise to the occasion through clean living and virtuous acts. Though these questionable ethics lead to some truly wicked comedy. This is probably the best anti-war movie I’ve ever seen, because you never see the cool explosions and lovingly choreographed action scenes, only the bloody harvest that results from it. Honestly, I like it better than the TV series. Totally recommended.
Be aware that this trailer is kinda/sorta/close to being NSFW.
Monday, February 08, 2010
So it’s the early 1800s in French occupied Germany (yes, you read that correctly) and two brothers are basically making money off of people’s fear and superstitions as “monster busting” con men that set up the monsters they defeat. Then wouldn’t you know it, they get arrested by French authorities and are drafted into a job where they have to find who’s been stealing away children from a small village. Only this time, the monsters are real. Yes, just like in one of those Scooby Doo movies. Around here, the plot sort of loses cohesion and vigor and then the brothers divide over a woman and we get some majorly cliché story elements along with some flashes of actual Gilliam goodness.
Wilhelm Grimm: Matt Damon seems to be our designated hero, the more forceful leader of the partnership. And by forceful, I mean he’s a big jerk to his brother for most of the film, verbally tearing him down, not believing his tales of supernatural experiences until the plot basically requires him to and so on. He’s not likable. Jakob refers to him as Will, but I do not, because he’s supposed to be German.
Jakob Grimm: The late Heath Ledger is so much more human and personable than the other Grimm. Jakob’s a believer in the otherworldly, and since this is a Gilliam film after all, he’s the one who’s right about there being more to the world than what the senses and reason can detect. And then he falls in love in a charmingly awkward way with one of the villagers they’re trying to help and Wilhelm gets in the way big time. Wilhelm calls him Jake, but I refuse to, because he’s supposed to be German. It BOTHERS me greatly that all of the GERMAN characters have ENGLISH accents.
Mercurio Cavaldi: Peter Stormare (a Swedish actor who’s been in a ton of stuff, including a nihilist in The Big Lebowski) hams it up big time as an Italian torture expert in the employ of the French that gets sent along as a kind of chaperone for the Grimms to make sure they don’t try to escape. He’s mostly around to provide sociopathic comic relief, and does it very, very well.
Delatombe: Jonathan Pryce is gloriously hammy as the French Villain who runs the region the movie takes place in. He’s cultured, polite, ruthless and bloodthirsty, all great traits in a villain. Unfortunately, the movie has two major villains, and as a result, both get divided and neither gets enough screen time. Still, the scenes with Pryce are easily the best in the movie, and he is truly badass here. I'd rather follow his adventures.
Angelika: Lena Headey plays an extraordinarily anachronistic liberated woman in 19th Century Germany. The character of Angelika is also an extraordinarily boring one that’s been done to death many times over in cliché fantasy and/or period films: the plucky, boyish tomboy on the outskirts of the village that comes from common stock yet happens to be exceedingly intelligent and important. Its not that I hate that particular archetype, its just that I’ve seen it so many times without any notable variation that it shuts my brain down. Sadly, the script does not allow for her to become more than that cliché.
The Mirror Queen: Monica Bellucci is the other big Villain, a centuries-old vain and evil queen who’s been trapped in a tower for a long, long time, but now apparently making a move on regaining her power. The stuff with her is great as well, and she is probably the most “Gilliam” of all the main characters in the film. Very good, just doesn’t get enough screen time.
Terry Gilliam’s signature style is clearly present in a lot of scenes and the cinematography and costumes are fantastic, but then there’s this feeling of executive meddling that rattles against the good things. It’s a bit hard to describe it, but if you’re familiar with Gilliam’s other work, you can sort of tell the scenes where he went hog wild from the others. The very Gilliam scenes are great, but there are a lot of scenes with the brothers just kind of arguing in the village (and they do it a LOT in this movie) that lack the exuberance of the better scenes. There is also quite a lot of CGI in the film, and most of it is the bland and soulless kind, unfortunately.
Ehren Kruger’s script does some good things and some bad things. First the good. It tries to present the fairy tales in a darker light, which makes sense for their original context. Fairy tales are cautionary tales and meant to warn and disturb. Some of the supernatural elements are incredibly creepy, like a horse that eats someone and runs off into the night. Stuff like that is awesome. The villains are very entertaining with some great lines.
Now the bad. The movie becomes a standard issue buddy movie by the end with only a few surprises. A great deal of things happen by the end not because of character development, but because things like that always seem to happen in buddy movies, as though someone was checking them off a list. Not going to spoil them, but if you saw the movie, you’d probably spot them easy.
And then there’s one thing at the end which really skeeved me, and I feel like spoiling it because it pissed me off. So by the climactic battle, Jakob, who’s been in love with Angelika for a while, despite Wilhelm basically telling him not to be, saves her life because of some “true love” clause. All well and good, yes? She wakes up and for some reason is taken with Wilhelm, which comes completely out of nowhere. The two didn’t have any real tender moments before this, nor was there chemistry or any of the telltale signs of any kind of romance between them, not even the constant bickering that’s a telltale movie sign of attraction. Nothing. Just comes out of nowhere because I guess you can’t end the movie with one of the brothers ending up saving the day AND getting the girl. Even though Wilhelm was more of a hindrance than a help. And it kind of craps on that whole “true love” clause too. I mean, that whole ending made no sense. Bah!
Also, don’t expect to see any of that dynamic linguistic research action that they actually conducted. Nope. Sadly, Jakob Grimm’s discovery of a system-wide consonant shift in Germanic languages away from Indo-European somewhere in the forgotten past known as Grimm’s Law has yet to be immortalized in celluloid.
Dario Marianelli’s score does the job quite nicely.
The Brothers Grimm is an exercise in frustration, because its full of evidence that points to a very good movie that was buried inside what actually was released. Beneath the unconvincing CGI, the boring cardboard heroes and the inability to go beyond some of the predictable storytelling elements there are some flashes of very groovy things. Sadly, it’s painful to watch the good bits because you know they don’t last long enough to carry the movie. So, not recommended.
Friday, February 05, 2010
Great. Just great. An adaptation of an epic work that tries to tell “the real story” behind the myth. In the 2000s you couldn’t spit without having it land on some supposedly “realistic” take on a famous epic or legend that decided to cover everybody in brown, make it extra grimdark and take away all the elements that made the source material a timeless classic. Well, here’s 2005’s Beowulf & Grendel and I am just enthused to examine this movie.
So we open up with some trolls being hunted in broad daylight somewhere in the land of the Danes. Wait. Daylight and Scandinavian Trolls don’t mix, or rather, they mix like water and concrete. Anyway, Troll dad gets killed by some Vikings, then Lead Viking leaves Troll kid alive. Cut to the Future where Hrothgar the king of the Danes opens up Heorot and it gets attacked in the night by Grendel, who just happens to be the Troll kid all grown up and pissed off about his daddy’s death. Meanwhile, Beowulf washes ashore after a swimming competition and later finds out that Hrothgar’s got monster problems and sets out to kill things because that what Beowulf does. Beowulf and his Geats get there and find Hrothgar is a drunken, despondent ruler helpless to do anything about the monster. Then we find an Irish/Celtic priest who’s newly arrived and trying to convert the populace and a witch on the outskirts of town that knows a lot more about what’s going on than--
Really? I mean, REALLY? What all this stuff means is that there is a distinct shortage of Killing Things in this movie, and Beowulf doesn’t like that situation one bit. I agree with him.
Beowulf: Gerard Butler does a pretty good job of being a convincing Geatish hero. He’s a warrior and well regarded by his people and the Danes, and he’s a fairly upstanding guy too. Unfortunately, he’s a man of action stuck in a movie full of inaction, and doesn’t feel like a grandstanding epic hero in the fine Anglo-Saxon tradition. Which is a shame since he totally pulled off the epic hero in 300. Still, I suppose he’s the badass of the film.
Hrothgar: Stellan Skarsgård glowers his way through the movie as a grim and dour Hrothgar. Skarsgård’s not a bad actor by any means, and his performance here seems to be quite subtle. He’s a man haunted by his past actions, but the regret that Skarsgård shows seems to be different from the regret the story wants to tell us. Or maybe that was just me.
Grendel: Ingvar E. Sigurdsson’s Grendel is not a very good one. This Grendel is a big guy in mediocre makeup and extra bits of hair glued on. This Grendel is also given, of all things, a backstory full of some wash about how Hrothgar killed his father when he was a wee little noble savage analog, and so apparently when Grendel grew up he decided to take revenge by invading the hall of Heorot and killing a bunch of Danes whenever its open and leaving Hrothgar alone, because that’s- Wait. No. No. No. In Germanic society, personal honor and feuds were seen as something between the two disputants to settle. Taking the fight to others who aren’t a part of it was considered dishonorable, evil and cowardly in a society based around Heroic concepts (now, of course this stuff happened, but it was frowned on and stuff like murdering someone could start up a long running feud based on reprisal murders until either both families were left dead or somebody finally paid the weregild to settle it peacefully), which is the whole point of Grendel being a scary monster that needs to be put down. Turning him into some kind of feral Noble Savage archetype just shoehorns the monster into a position he’s ill suited for, since Grendel’s repeated attacks on the hall are brutal and cruel in their nature. As it stands, this Grendel does a bad job of being sympathetic AND fearsome. About the only interesting thing this movie does with Grendel is that he’s got his father’s desiccated skull in a place of honor in his cave.
Father Brendan: Eddie Marsan gives an… unflattering portrayal of early Christian missionaries to Scandinavia. On the one hand, he’s traveled there from Ireland in a little wooden boat all by himself unarmed, which is pretty ballsy. On the other hand, he’s shown as a filthy zealot prone to epileptic-style fits where he drools and falls down after getting worked up in conversations. And yet he’s still successful in gaining converts among the Danes, including one or two of Beowulf’s Geats. Because I guess even as uncharismatic as the guy is, he can still get converts because the Past is full of Superstition and Fear or something condescending like that. Yeah, he’s not in the manuscript.
Selma: Sarah Polley plays the most irritating character in the movie. Also completely fabricated for the film, she’s a witch on the outskirts of town that freaks people out because she claims to be able to know when people will die, which isn’t that irritating of a premise. Then she becomes an important character because she seems to be under Grendel’s protection and knows more about the situation than Hrothgar’s told Beowulf, which is annoying, yes, but not nearly as annoying as her incredibly smug and self-righteous attitude about, well, everything. Oh yes, and she’s never wrong about anything ever because she’s just so special. She’s also Beowulf’s sorta love interest because, well, she’s the only attractive available woman in the village. And a redhead.
Sturla Gunnarsson uses the extraordinarily bleak and beautiful landscape of Iceland to speak volumes about the harshness and danger of life in early Medieval Scandinavia. Secondly, the costuming and architecture is suitably period, and the armor looks very good and apropos. Other than that, things fall pretty flat. The makeup on Grendel is pretty average and his mother’s costume is rather better, but she’s barely in the movie anyway. The pacing is glacial and the brutal action (*cough* and quick pacing) that’s a hallmark of the Beowulf story is mostly absent. Magic is nonexistent despite having a witch, but we’ve got some monsters, so there’s a disparity in mythological elements, and the famous Beowulf/Grendel showdown is unrewarding, because while Grendel loses an arm, as per story requirements, its not from Beowulf tearing it out with his bare hands due to his sheer awesomeness.
Andrew Rai Berzins did some…interesting things adapting the ancient poem to the screen. First, all of that beautiful alliterative rhythm of the language and the subtle wordplay that describes things indirectly known as kennings is totally gone. Nobody's calling the ocean a whale-road in this Beowulf movie, thank you very much. Nope. Dialog here is dull, modernized and unimaginative. Grendel is described several times as “a fucking troll” by Hrothgar. I mean, really? That’s the best they can muster? I mean, I’ve got nothing against profanity by any means, but when you put something as uninspired as that into the mouths of warriors who’ve grown up in a heroic, boasting and non-literate culture, words should have greater meaning than that. Though there is one bit that is rather amusing: Grendel doesn’t attack the first night the Geats keep their vigil in the Hall. Grendel comes to the door and proceeds to piss on it, which, for infantile toilet humor, is pretty decent.
Then there’s the issue of all the story additions. The new characters aren’t good or welcome, but they’re covered above. Now, the movie tries to garner sympathy for Grendel, what with making his attack on the Danes a matter of revenging the death of his father in the prologue. So what’s the lesson of the movie?
Well, if you’re a Danish warrior who kills a troll and decide to show mercy by not killing his son, don’t do it. Finish the job. More lives will be saved by killing the little troll kid than by letting him grow up into an incoherent brute. Moreover, why is it so easy to kill Grendel’s pa in the beginning, but so damn hard for the Danes to do the same to Grendel?
Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson’s score is fine and appropriate to Scandinavian shenanigans.
Beowulf & Grendel is a well shot movie that fails because of the story and script, and the kicker is that Beowulf is not a complicated thing to get at least somewhat right. Grendel breaks shit, Beowulf shows up to break him and tears off Grendel’s arm with his bare hands because he’s just that awesome. Its not a difficult concept, but this movie pads the story with so much ancillary bullshit and boring bits that the basic appeal of the epic is completely lost.
Not nearly as exciting as the trailer
Wednesday, February 03, 2010
“I managed to take out the tiger with a can of mace, but the shopowner and his son... that's a different story altogether. I had to beat them to death with their own shoes.”
So Wayne Campbell’s life has improved for the better. He’s dating a hot musician, moved out into an apartment and his cable access show is a success, but he’s still not satisfied with his life. Then in a dream, the ghost of Jim Morrison (along with a weird naked Indian guy) tells him to host a concert. And lo, Waynestock was born. Though all is not well in Aurora, IL, as Wayne’s girlfriend’s producer is trying to become more than that, and Wayne has to deal with the realities of getting his concert off the ground. So, you know, this movie actually has a plot.
Wayne Campbell: Mike Myers again with more character development ensuing as he tries to, in a way, grow up and do something with his life that has some kind of meaning.
Garth Algar: Dana Carvey again, and this time, Garth gets an honest to God subplot that focuses on his romantic misadventures.
Cassandra Wong: Tia Carrere again as Wayne’s girlfriend. Her character doesn’t change much from the first movie’s formula. They’re together, some guy gets in between, misunderstanding leads to separation, happy reunion.
Bobby Cahn: Christopher Walken hamming things up as Cassandra’s lecherous producer. On the one hand, he’s got less to do and is less of a threat than Rob Lowe’s character in the first movie. On the other hand, its Christopher Walken as the Villain.
Milton: Chris Farley (who was in the first movie for like one scene) is a friend of the guys and joins their crew for Waynestock.
Del Preston: Ralph Brown plays an addled, burned out roadie that Wayne & Garth visit in England to recruit for Waynestock. The guy’s totally insane, but a legendary roadie, and he had the same Jim Morrision dream, so he signs on. The badass of the film for his mad-eyed delivery of anecdotes.
Stephen Surjik, who’s done a lot of TV work, goes for a very similar look as the first movie. Lots of sight gags, a hell of a lot of cameos and the pacing moves along at a nice clip.
Mike Myers, Bonnie Turner and Terry Turner do a better job with the story this time around as stuff actually happens and characters actually develop. There’s some good jokes, but some gags seem to go on longer than they should, like the dubbed kung-fu fight and the whole “The Graduate” segment. Still, it has a lot of the elements that made the first one work.
Carter Burwell’s original score is completely overshadowed by a very solid rock soundtrack. Edgar Winter, Golden Earring, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, the Village People and an appearance by Aerosmith are a few of the songs involved.
Wayne’s World 2 is a fine enough sequel to the first movie. The story is a little bit more involved, but its not quite as funny as the original. However, major points for Christopher Walken and an actual plot.
Monday, February 01, 2010
“She's a fox. In French she would be called "la renarde" and she would be hunted with only her cunning to protect her.”
So its based on an SNL skit where two slackers in Aurora, Illinois have a usually music-centered cable access show filmed in a basement. Now, for the movie part, we get a sleazy executive who takes notice of the show and its underground following, buys it, tries to commercialize it and turn the, uh, heroes I guess, into sellouts and steal Wayne’s girlfriend. No really, that’s pretty much it for the plot.
Wayne Campbell: Mike Myers does a great job in the movie role that made him. And why not, I say? I mean sure, he’s a caricature of early 90s teen slackers (and he was very obviously not a teen in this movie), but he’s a genre savvy and fun character who’s aware of his current limitations and ambitions to rise above them. Wayne’s not a revelatory character by any means, but he’s got more layers than a simple caricature.
Garth Algar: Dana Carvey is Wayne’s sidekick, a big-haired, really shy geek with the usual quirks. Kind of a standard sidekick character, but he does the job well for Wayne and makes a good comedic foil. Then he gets an awesome (and extremely cheesy) badass moment near the beginning where he takes on a bully in a bar.
Benjamin Kane: Rob Lowe is our Villain, a scheming, oily and standard issue evil corporate guy full of smarmy, insincere charm. That’s pretty much all there is to him. As Garth expertly puts it, “if he were an ice cream flavor, he’d be pralines and dick.”
Cassandra: Tia Carrere is Wayne’s love interest, a hot bassist and singer in a local rock band, she and Wayne hit it off and the Benjamin gets in the way as a real threat since he has the means to help promote her career.
Russel Finley: Kurt Fuller is Benjamin’s lackey who gets sent over to help produce Wayne’s World (the show within the movie, not the-oh never mind). Naturally, he’s the nice henchman and eventually sides with the heroes.
Noah Vanderhoff: Brian Doyle-Murray is the owner of a chain of arcades (yeah, remember those?) in the Chicago area whom Benjamin approaches with the show as a means of advertising. He really doesn’t give a damn about the show either way and isn’t much of a presence anyway. Has a wife played by Colleen Camp.
Stacy: Lara Flynn Boyle plays Wayne’s crazy ex-girlfriend who hasn’t accepted the fact that he broke up with her.
Penelope Spheeris keeps the movie going forward with many a nod and wink to the audience. Visually, its all pretty normal stuff, but the film’s got a quirky energy as it moves from gag to gag. Using the actual Aurora, IL as a location helped a lot too.
Mike Myers, Bonnie Turner & Terry Turner turn in a script that, while fairly fluffy on the surface, is loaded with lots of quotable moments, pop culture moments and absurdist touches that blur the line between the story, the fourth wall and other movies, like a part where out of nowhere, Wayne gets pulled over by a cop who’s played by Robert Patrick as the T-1000. It comes out of nowhere and is never mentioned again, but the movie is full of those kinds of gags.
Original score by J. Peter Robinson, which is completely and totally overshadowed by the rock soundtrack. You’ve got songs from The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix an appearance by Alice Cooper and a lot more. Though the crowning musical moment has to be the drive in the Mirthmobile (a Gremlin) where the guys sing along to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” If anything in the movie can be considered iconic, its that scene.
Not much to say about Wayne’s World. It’s a fun, quotable movie that doesn’t pretend to be more than simple popcorn fare, though it will check to see if you’re paying attention from time to time. With the passage of time, its also become something of a pretty effective time capsule of the early 90s. Definitely recommended.