Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Revisit: Krull

A Columbia Pictures release 1983

Directed by Peter Yates

Written by Stanford Sherman

A prince and a fellowship of companions set out to rescue his bride from a fortress of alien invaders who have arrived on their home planet.

Star Wars meets Lord of the Rings in this fantasy medieval space mash up. The story follows the typical fantasy archetype: long awaited prophecy involving a future king and his bride finally comes to pass, as the prince must rescue the princess before the evil consumes the land. Only for some reason the evil in this film is a giant Alien looking creature who controls a nasty set of beetles inside Darth Vader-like stormtrooper suits that shoot lasers.

Literally everything in this film is an amalgamation of LOTR & Star Wars, from the epic landscape shots, complete with a snowy mountain trek and wild horse rides through forests and plains, to the pew! pew! laser shootouts in close quarters. There are giant spiders, a cyclops, bumbling magicians, elaborate sets, natural sets. It's even got Liam Neeson.

For some reason, despite the film's lengthy expositions, I couldn't quite grasp the main character's name, or the name of his shiny sharp boomerang. But thankfully, the title of the film is enough to describe all people, places, and objects within it. "Did Krull get his Krull back?", "Oh shit, he's gonna toss the Krull!", etc. I laughed a whole lot while watching this but unless you're a serious fan of early 80's fantasy epics (Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Beastmaster, etc.), you probably won't want to watch this. It's too cheap and slow for modern audiences, and too silly to take seriously.

Peter Yates, by the way, directed the supremely awesome Steve McQueen vehicle Bullitt. He was nominated for two Oscars the year this film was released -- both for his follow up, The Dresser, with Albert Finney.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Review: Observe & Report

A Warner Brothers release 2009

Written & Directed by Jody Hill

Bi-polar mall security guard Ronnie Barnhardt is called into action to stop a flasher from turning shopper's paradise into his personal peep show. But when Barnhardt can't bring the culprit to justice, a surly police detective is recruited to close the case.

After the delirious high that was Eastbound & Down, I had much hope for this comedy helmed by Eastbound co-creator Jody Hill. Mr. Hill, it seems, has a penchant for mining foul-mouthed, aggressive, unlikeable characters for comedy gold. Unfortunately the schtick is too thin here. Hill's script doesn't push far enough, and Seth Rogan is terribly miscast as the bi-polar, pill popping mall cop. Rogan is too jovial and affable to make the deranged, obsessive personality of his character come to life. And since most, if not all of the film rests on his shoulders, it falls flat in the end.

Supporting actors Ray Liotta and Anna Faris are given little to work with; in fact, their presence barely registers. Sadly, most of the film suffers from this half-assed feel -- characters feel more like sketches, and the plot meanders without much story supporting it. The events of the film sort of just happen, there's no rhyme or reason to it. Through lines are set up and then left sitting for a while until they either resolve themselves or are forgotten. Others simply barely exist to begin with, like a feud between Ronnie and an Arab store worker that is basically comprised of a bunch of Fuck you!'s back and forth.

Ronnie's personality troubles are glossed over with the blanket "bi-polar" explanation, except nothing about what Ronnie says or does is particularly emblematic of someone actually suffering from bi-polar disorder. This was particularly upsetting to me; it seems to be a recent trend in films to use bi-polar disorder as an excuse for a character's odd or aggressive behavior. Anyone who acts out of tune in a film is suddenly a "bi-polar" character, regardless of the accuracy of the representation. Someone needs to call bullshit on this: bi-polar disorder is real, and to use it simply as an excuse to create batshit aggressive characters is unacceptable. There's a way to constructively explore bi-polar disorder and it's affects on people, even through comedy, but so far it's only been approached as a blank justification for petty behavior, and I ain't buying.

But forget the bi-polar thing: many critics and outspoken individuals have been up in arms about a scene in which Rogan's character is having sex with a seemingly unconscious Anna Faris, only to hear her cry out "I didn't tell you to stop, mother fucker!" when he begins to second guess his actions. "Date rape!" they cried. "Inappropriate! Too far!" Frankly, I think that's also bullshit; the joke didn't go far enough. It would have been funnier if they had taken that line out. You can't push a joke that far, only to pull it back at the end. It sucks the wind right out of the sails. Likewise, there's nothing suggestive in the scene that it promotes date rape or paints it in a positive light. That scene to me embodies the entire problem of the movie: Jody Hill can't seem to decide if he's going for a caustic, aggressively dark tone or Apatow-style slapstick raunch. He ends up with neither.

Observe & Report is a film that has a lot of ideas working underneath it but ends up with few of them making it onto the screen. It's a shame. The film suffers from so many tonal shifts and such a lack of breadth that it comes across as a faint blip. Hopefully they're just saving all the goods for Eastbound Season 2.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Revisit: California Split

A Columbia Pictures release 1974

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Joseph Walsh

A down on his luck gambler partners with free spirit on a winning streak, but finds himself deep in debt. As a final act of desperation, he pawns most of his possessions and heads to Reno for the poker game of a lifetime.

Elliot Gould and George Segal shine in this affable comedy-drama about gambling addiction. The two make a great on screen pair, with Gould playing the fast-talking, easy, sleazy know-it-all against Segal's excitable but straight laced persona. Add to the mix Altman's meandering, multi-layered audio, long takes and tracking shots -- a perfect match for the film's loud, chaotic casino settings -- and you get a pretty unique buddy picture.

The story is pretty simple: an amateur gambler meets another and find they make perfectly profitable partners. Soon enough the pairing goes sour and the two must part ways. While Gould pretty much sticks to what he does best (re: wisecracks), Segal gets to stretch his chops a bit once he gets in too deep. The film doesn't really aim to make any poignant commentary -- one scene between a mournful Segal and a loud, foul-mouthed female alcoholic seems to make a statement on the blind nature of addiction -- but it does do some interesting things to the buddy picture, namely in the fall-out ending.

While not one of Altman's landmark pictures, California Split exhibits much of his trademark style and motifs at a more palatable pace for broader audiences. If you're new to Altman, this isn't a bad place to start. I'd recommend it for the Gould & Segal pairing as well.

Revisit: The Hunger

An MGM film 1983

Directed by Tony Scott

Written by James Costigan, Ivan Davis & Michael Thomas

Based on the novel by Whitley Strieber

An ancient vampire seduces a famous gerontologist after her similarly ancient husband begins to fade away.

Tony Scott's studio debut has become somewhat of a cult classic since its release in 1983. The Hunger is a vampire flick cut from the Anne Rice tradition -- elegant, ageless, and refined. Much of the film focuses on the seductive powers of the female, played by the always beautiful Catherine Deneuve. Likewise, the main theme is the quest for immortality, and the consequences that come with it.

However, once you strip away the film's glamorous atmosphere, it falls rather flat. Tony Scott's films always seem to be in montage mode; he's a fan of cutting back and forth between planes of action while synchronizing voice-over to wring out double meaning, a trick I always found to be a bit obnoxious. It can be done well but here (and in another one of Scott's films, Spy Game) the cuts move so fast there's barely any time to process the visuals. It's rarely a good sign when a film starts out with a flurry of quick cuts and crazy images, and this one turned me off almost right away.

The performances aren't too great either. Say what you will about Miss Deneuve's looks, but her acting here is stoic, aloof, and disengaging. Likewise for Susan Sarandon, who looks great but is unconvincing as a doctor who specializes in aging research. Casting David Bowie, however, as Deneuve's rapidly aging husband was a very inspired choice. Bowie is by no means an extraordinary actor, but he plays the role straight and does a serviceable job. Marrying the fading vampire character with Bowie's androgynous persona, openly bisexual orientation, and frequently reinvented image adds a lot of intertextual depth that would not have been present otherwise.

If you like gothic vampire lore, you've probably already seen this flick. Otherwise I wouldn't recommend it.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Revisit: Altered States

A Warner Brothers film 1980

Directed by Ken Russell

Written by Paddy Chayefsky

A Harvard scientist conducts experiments on himself with a hallucinatory drug and an isolation chamber that may be causing him to regress genetically.

William Hurt makes his film debut in this 1980 sci-fi/horror thriller that poises itself as an intellectual dissertation on consciousness and slowly descends into absurdity by its last act. Directed by British filmmaker Ken Russell, the film meshes video art style with practical makeup and special effects. The film is sort of a cross between Cronenberg's The Fly and something like A Beautiful Mind. At the start it appears to be a drama revolving around post-radical 70's academic elites, but slowly it regresses (quite literally) as Hurt devolves into an ape like creature, and then some.

Russell is often criticized as being overly obsessed with sexuality and the church, and Altered States is no exception. Hurt's scientist is obsessed with restoring his faith and externalizing his past lives, and his hallucinations are often riddled with religious and allegorical imagery, from depictions of hell to himself on the cross. As he genetically retrogrades, the idea of man's progression from nothing becomes literal, and downright bizarre. Russell's direction treats these events so matter-of-factly that it's hard to take serious; the whole thing almost feels facetious, just short of camp. But the film's strangeness is its greatest asset; each twist and turn leads down an unexpected path until the ultimate WTF? climax is revealed.

Of course the films final message is that humanity is the ultimate truth - outside existence is merely a vast, impersonal nothingness. The film really strains to bring this idea to the forefront, and a lot of questions/absurdisms linger at the end. But if you're into so-heady-its-campy sci-fi or simply bizarre films, this one won't disappoint.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Revisit: Night of the Living Dead

A Columbia Pictures release 1990

Directed by Tom Savini

Written by George A. Romero

One would assume that this 1990 remake of George Romero's zombie apocalypse classic Night of the Living Dead exists for the same reason as Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead - advanced film-making techniques "update" a horror classic for modern audiences. There are only two problems with this theory: Tom Savini's amateur direction, coupled with his DIY special-effects aesthetic, are rudimentary even for early 90's standards.

Alas, the remake does the original little justice, and brings little new to the table. Aside from being filmed in color, everything seems a lot more routine this go-round, particularly in the shadows of Day and Dawn of the Dead. A few alterations are made to the plot of Romero's classic horror tale, including the survival of our hero Barbara, who doesn't make it out alive in the first film. Romero has gone on to amend and augment much of his zombie apocalypse universe, with Land of the Dead and other recent forrays, so the chance to revisit his pioneering classic was, and still is, presumably very tempting.

I'll give Savini some credit -- Living Dead is his directorial debut, and hand-made effects are always a delight. But it doesn't negate the fact that the film is, quite frankly, a pointless excursion.

Ultimately you're better off watching the original or one of it's earlier sequels. But if you're a splatter fan or zombie freak, you could do worse. It's better than Return of the Living Dead by a long shot.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Revisit: Baby Doll

A Warner Brother's film 1956

Directed by Elia Kazan

Written by Tennessee Williams

Steamy tale of two Southern rivals and a sensuous 19-year-old virgin.

The second film pairing director Kazan with writer Tennessee Williams brought much controversy upon its release in 1956. Francis Cardinal Spellman condemned the film in a stunning attack from the pulpit of St. Patrick's Cathedral two days before the film opened, saying that the film had been "responsibly judged to be evil in concept" and was certain that it would "exert an immoral and corrupting influence on those who see it", and exhorted all Catholics to refrain from patronizing the film "under pain of sin". Cardinal Spellman's condemnation of the film led to the Legion of Decency's first-ever nationwide boycott of an American-made film produced by a major studio. All over the country, almost 20 million Catholics protested the film and picketed theaters that showed it. The Catholic boycott nearly killed the film; it was cancelled by 77% of theaters scheduled to show it, and it only made a meager $600,000 at the box office. The film was also condemned by Time Magazine, which called it the dirtiest American-made motion picture that had ever been legally exhibited.

Despite all the fuss, the Production Code Administration gave it a seal of approval, (which in many ways led to the PCA drifting farther and farther away from its traditional guidelines until it was replaced by the MPAA ratings system in 1968), and Baby Doll was nominated for four Oscars, included Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress for Carroll Baker.

By today's standards the film is a little less shocking, but its straight-forward approach to sex and violence still stings. Miss Baker struts around in a slip while Karl Malden's ineffectual male dishes innuendo after innuendo before Eli Wallach (in his first screen role) can swoop in and squeeze himself uncomfortably between the two. The acting is top-notch, and the tension starts on high and simply mounts with each progressive scene. A surprising amount of humor is wrung out as well; for all the seriousness going on, the film ultimately shapes itself as a sexual farce. The delta setting, including a dilapidated mansion, is gorgeously portrayed in detailed black and white.

Baby Doll is one of Kazan's forgotten masterpieces, a sort of sick sibling of Streetcar. Worth hunting down.

Revisit: The Holy Mountain

An ABKCO Film 1973

Written & Directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky

A Christlike figure wanders through bizarre, grotesque scenarios filled with religious and sacrilegious imagery.

An epic exploration of the connections between religious and socio-political trends, Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain aims to be a spiritual experience of its own. Mixing traditional religious narrative with shockingly grotesque imagery, the film attempts to expose art and religion as tools of mass-mind-control. As with many of Jodorowsky's films, the bombastic and eclectic imagery often overshadows the thematic intent, resulting in a film that is more fun to simply absorb rather than analyze. But Jodorowsky has a lot of ideas working in here, from the artificial nature of film to the corruptive powers of prominent social/religious stature and the fraudulent nature of spiritual guru's. Decoding all of the film's symbols would be a herculean task -- objects ranging from the solar system to a war between frogs and cameleons act as representative figures -- with much of the film's icons rooted in occultism, astronomy, and alchemy.

From a production standpoint, Holy Mountain is drop dead gorgeous, particularly aided by a 2006 restoration effort, which brings much of Jodorowsky's harrowing imagery to brighter, more detailed heights. Jodorowsky is a master of the surreal, and the restoration process certainly did this film justice. Dada would be proud.

Holy Mountain is an interesting experience chock full of controversial imagery and engaging ideas. While it may not be a spiritual experience that will rock you to your core, it will certainly leave a lasting impression, most likely different for every person.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Revisit: Going Overboard

A Trimark release 1989

Directed by Valerie Breiman

Written by Valerie Breiman & Scott LaRose & Adam Sandler

A struggling young comedian takes a menial job on a cruise ship where he hopes for his big chance to make it in the world of cruise ship comedy.

Going Overboard, Adam Sandler's first feature film, rests comfortably at #71 on IMDB's Bottom 100 list. It's the kind of film you'd find on the turn-style rack at your local supermarket - forgotten. Let's hope it stays that way.

Going Overboard is terribly humorless. It strains to wring laughs out of mean-spirited characters, a lame-duck plot, and piss poor production values. Of course some of the quality issues have to be forgiven - director Valerie Breiman made the film on a shoe-string budget while on a cruise - but it doesn't help when the script is an unfunny travesty to begin with. Sandler leans on the usual angry man-child schtick, though not quite as refined. The rest of the cast adds nothing. The result is a film that feels like a bunch of slapdash ideas with little comedic merit. Avoid at all costs.