A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 457 – Punisher: War Zone

Punisher: War Zone – May 31st, 2011

After last night’s depressing and tiresome gore-fest I was a little leery of putting this in. I mean, we had to according to the project rules and all, but I wasn’t sure I could handle another movie like last night’s. Thankfully, this movie has very little in common with last night’s! Okay, it’s still got Frank Castle, vigilante who takes down mobs. And it’s all gritty and urban and Castle’s got a skull on his chest and a whole lot of guns. But it’s definitely embraced its over-the-top nature and gone storming in with said guns blazing.

The cheese factor here is high enough that it makes things a heck of a lot more fun. Also making things more fun? No brutal backstory lead-up to the action. We get it all in a couple of vague flashbacks from Castle and a bit of exposition from a secondary character. In this one he and his family apparently witnessed a mob hit while having a picnic in a park, so the mob gunned them down too and Castle’s made it his mission to take down as many mobsters as he can. Nice and quick and simple and not at all part of the movie’s plot so we don’t have to care about it aside from motivation! That does a lot to keep the tone of the movie from being so painfully dour as the other one was. This is just pure action cheese, no sympathy for the main character necessary. He’s just a badass with a bunch of weapons and some body armor.

In fact, the main character doesn’t talk for like, twenty minutes. I hadn’t twigged to it but Andy did and it is pretty impressive. He’s just not much of a character and the movie knows that and seems to be a-ok with it. His character development consists of the backstory, two or three moments where he seems conflicted about continuing his bloody mission and some interactions he has with the widow and child of an undercover agent he killed by accident. And as character development for a cheesy action movie goes, that’s pretty good. It’s not too complicated. It’s not too deep. It doesn’t take us anywhere unexpected or more unpleasant than the movie already was. And that’s a good thing. A very good thing.

Really, this is a pretty mindless movie. You don’t have to think too hard to follow it. Castle goes after a mobster and accidentally kills an undercover agent in the process. Mobster gets all cut up in a bin full of broken glass and renames himself Jigsaw when he gets out. Mobster goes after the family of the downed agent, seeking revenge for losing money, being set up, whatever. Castle, having a soft spot for families and all, tries to protect them even though the widow is justifiably pissed off that he killed her husband. It’s a simple plot really. There’s some stuff with the mobster’s brother, who’s been in an asylum locked in a pretty ridiculous version of four point restraints. He’s a cannibal, it seems, so as one might expect there’s some chewing, and not just of scenery. And then Jigsaw gives a big speech to like, every gang in New York (I seriously expected the Baseball Furies to show up) in front of a projected image of the American flag, inspiring them all to join him to take Castle down.

Yes, I am totally serious. I mean, that’s the sort of movie this is. It’s sort of serious? Except it’s really not. It’s crossed that fine line into cheese and it’s a lot more enjoyable to watch because of it. Ray Stevenson isn’t a bundle of personality as Castle, but he doesn’t need to be. He needs to glower and shoot people. Dominic West isn’t playing a truly tragic villain as Jigsaw and Doug Hutchinson isn’t playing Hannibal Lecter as Jigsaw’s brother, Loony Bin Jim. I mean, look at those names right there. This? This is a comic book movie. No mistake about it. It’s even got a sidekick for the hero. A couple, actually, if you count both his intel and gun provider, Microchip (played by Wayne Knight, who does not get eaten by a dinosaur here but still doesn’t make it out alive) and the cop who’s sort of the Punisher version of Fox Mulder, keeping files on him in the basement of the police station.

It’s all just so silly. There’s a whole lot that seems to have been tossed in just to look cool and give Castle someone to kill, like the three meth junkies who go vaulting off rooftops after making deals with Jigsaw. There’s the ex-banger who works for Microchip, buying back guns from gangs and passing them on to Castle. There’s the army of various gangs who are way too easily dispatched by Castle once the Russians show up and start gunning people down. Oh, they have a reason but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it’s all done big. There’s not nearly the same amount of chunks slamming each other into walls as last night’s movie had. The action is quick and varied and it moves the movie at a good clip. Which is the way it ought to be.

I can’t say that this is a cinematic masterpiece or anything so fancy. It was never going to win any awards. It’s got some decent eye candy and it’s not horribly acted, if one accepts that it’s meant to be cheesy. But it’s nothing brilliant. The thing is, it’s not trying to be brilliant. It’s taking some comic book characters and a comic book plot and tossing them onto the screen with plenty of guns and ammo and just enough backstory and plot to keep things going. And that’s all it needs to be. Sure, I could have done without some of the so-called comic relief, but it’s not as grating as it could be and given the overall tone of the movie it doesn’t feel completely out of place. It’s a movie that knows its niche and works well inside of it. It’s unrealistic and it knows it and it doesn’t care and that’s fine with me.

May 31, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Punisher: War Zone

May 31, 2011

The Punisher: Warzone

I didn’t watch this movie before buying it (if you’ve been reading this blog for a while you probably know this is a weakness of mine.) As we put it in tonight I was hoping this would not be as painful as yesterday’s film, and do you know what? It’s not. It’s glorious.

I spent a lot of time in yesterday’s review talking about how unrelentingly violent it was. Well this movie is proof that unrelenting violence and gore can actually be pretty damned awesome. From the very beginning when a big lumbering Frank Castle beheads an elderly Mafia don with a bowie knife and proceeds to stab, slice, dismember and shoot every member of the dinner party you know exactly what kind of movie this is. He hangs from a chandelier and spins around shooting everything. He kills a guy with a chair leg to the face. This is a wonderful, ridiculous gorefest and I loved every stupid minute of it.

Ray Stevenson is our Punisher tonight and he’s a treat. That opening scene at the Mafia dinner party really well sets the stage. This Punisher is a great hulking mountain of doom who spreads cartoon carnage everywhere he goes. I was really impressed by the fact that for the first twenty five minutes of the film he doesn’t have a single line. He just kills bad guys. Lots of them. Gruesomely.

It’s while he’s on one of his deadly rampages that he inadvertently starts the primary plot of the movie going. While indiscriminately wiping out some mob guys he accidentally kills an undercover FBI agent. This causes him considerable anguish. He’s not supposed to kill the good guys. All of this is demonstrated nicely by a still mute Castle as he watches the agent’s funeral from afar and then visits his own grave. It’s a strange contradiction that this big dumb action romp is better put together and better written than yesterday’s movie with its big name actor villain and gritty realistic feel.

In the same fracas Castle drops the nasty traitor from the 300 into a bottle recycling hopper where his face gets mutilated. “Pretty Boy” Billy Russoti doesn’t die though – he survives and becomes The Jigsaw. Jigsaw has two objectives in his new life. Get the money that the undercover FBI agent was supposed to be laundering for him (he assumes that the agent’s widow has it hidden in her house for some reason) and kill the Punisher. He springs his psychopathic brother “Loony Bin” Jim from the asylum and together they set about achieving these goals.

Meanwhile there’s another FBI agent, the ex-partner of the one Castle killed, who is bent on bringing the Punisher to justice (something that the NYPD don’t seem too concerned about getting done.) It’s not hard to guess that Agent Budiansky’s character arc is going to involve him learning to stop worrying and love the Punisher. Still, it’s fun to watch it happen.

There’s nothing particularly surprising or Earth shattering about the plot of this movie. That’s part of its charm, really. It’s a comfortable sort of familiar action film. The Jigsaw ultimately kidnaps the widow and her daughter and holds them, as well as the Punisher’s sidekick Micro, hostage in an abandoned hotel. He goes out and in a hilarious montage that spoofs the opening of Patton he gives a rousing speech to many of the local gangs that the Punisher has terrorised over the years and invites them all to the hotel to trap and kill the man himself. Of course the Punisher slaughters them to a man – it’s just that kind of movie.

There’s so much to enjoy about this film. The spewing blood and exploding skulls for example. (I actually cackled with delight at one point when the Punisher punched a bad guy in the face and crushed his skull like an egg – it’s not something you see coming and it’s hilarious.) Then there are the fantastic accents affected by Jigsaw, Loony Bin Jim and the parkour loving dreadlocked black Irish goon Maginty. (Hell, the very existence of Maginty in the first place makes me grin just thinking of it.) The accents are heavy, broad, liberally applied and hilarious.

This whole movie is a hilarious treat. It takes everything that made yesterday’s movie nasty and unbearable to watch and turns it on its head. Do I like this one better or the Dolph Lundgren one better? It’s so hard to say. One is a low budget eighties cheese fest, the other a gory over the top action movie romp. I will say that after watching this tonight I wanted more – I don’t know if anybody will care to get director Lexi Alexander (I want more of her movies now!) and Ray Stevenson back for a second go, but I’d be delighted if they did.

May 31, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 456 – The Punisher (2004)

The Punisher (2004) – May 30th, 2011

Somehow I have seen a particular series of scenes from this movie about ten times. This is a phenomenon I don’t quite know how to explain but it seems to happen to me with certain movies and shows. For example, no matter when I’ve happened upon My So-Called Life it has always been the last episode. Always. Every time. It doesn’t matter when I’ve happened upon it, I always end up seeing the same exact scene too. It happens with a few different shows and movies and I’m not sure if anyone else experiences it but that’s what happens with this movie. There are two scenes in this movie and I have seen them many times and I find that kind of hilarious.

We’ve already watched a movie about this character. We watched the 1980s version with Dolph Lundgren a few months back and it was a cheesy action-fest. And I knew this would be an action-fest too, but I figured not so much with the cheese since the two scenes I’ve seen a bunch of times were both pretty gritty and not very cheesy. Both torture scenes, oddly enough. There’s a bit where Frank Castle terrorizes a man by convincing him he’s using a blowtorch on his back when he’s actually cooking a steak and then poking him with a popsicle. Then there’s another where some thugs employed by our villain rip out the facial piercings of one of Castle’s neighbors to get him to talk. Neither of these scenes is particularly pleasant, though the first of the two does succeed in its dark humor goal and it has Eddie Jemison and that’s always a plus in my book. And I have seen them many times. They are what I knew of this movie going in, so I expected it to be somewhat brutal and full of gore and violence and nastiness. And yeah. Pretty much.

This is a brutal movie. There is scene after scene of violence, both with gun fights and explosions and one-on-one fist fights. The movie begins with a shootout during an illegal gun deal/sting, leading to the death of kingpin Howard Saint’s son, Robert. His wife demands revenge on Agent Frank Castle, who helped to set up the sting. So the movie then gives us some sweet scenes between Castle and his wife and his son and then more at a family reunion so we’ll all be emotionally invested and affected when the entire family is inevitably killed off by a band of goons. Really, it was good luck for the goons that there was a reunion going on so they could do some one stop shooting. It’s part of the essential backstory for the character of the Punisher, so it’s not unexpected that this happens here. But it also establishes that this movie is not pulling punches. And from there on the brutal violence is only interrupted by short periods of violent scenes being set up and a thoroughly awkward Thanksgiving dinner.

After his whole family is killed, Frank Castle goes back to Tampa and vows to punish Saint. So he moves into a crappy tenement and starts building an arsenal of weapons, an armored car and a plan to crush Saint’s entire life and everyone around him. He first gets one of Saint’s lackeys, Mickey (Eddie Jemison), tortures him (psychologically), then uses him to do things like learn Saint’s routine and those of his family and associates so he can set everyone up. He learns that Saint’s right hand man is gay and hiding it from Saint, giving him some prime blackmail fodder. He learns that Saint’s wife goes to the movies every Thursday night giving him time and opportunity to set her car up to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. By the end of the movie Saint thinks the two are going behind his back together, so he kills them himself. Castle also messes with Saint’s dealings with a couple of gangsters whose money he launders, or maybe they launder his money? I don’t know. I don’t care. Money is laundered and Castle goes in and destroys the whole operation.

Of course, Castle isn’t subtle about this campaign against Saint. He knows damn well who’s responsible for the slaughter of his family and starts off by carting his headstone out to Saint’s golfcourse and planting it by one of the flags. He walks up to city hall and asks the police chief and mayor (I assume) why no one has yet figured out anything about the slaughter. No one has any good answers for him, and he’s wearing a shirt with a big white skull on it so, you know, I’m thinking it’s pretty obvious what’s going to go down here. But no one stops him. Or tries. That’s pretty much the last we hear of the police or anyone in any position of authority. I guess it’s just less messy that way. So Castle goes about his business, pissing off Saint and getting beaten up whenever Saint sends someone to try and take him down. And here we come to my major issue with the movie.

It’s not necessarily the relentless violence that bothers me. I mean, look at last night’s movie. I enjoy a decent action movie and when a movie is wall to wall violence I don’t get fussed by it just because of that. It’s just what some movies are. And last night’s is a good example of a very silly movie with some absolutely gorgeous action sequences. Are they violent? Yes. Are they amazingly choreographed and enjoyable to watch? Yes. Tonight? Not so much. It’s all just beefy guys smacking each other around. There’s nothing inventive or interesting about them. Castle gets his ass kicked on a regular basis and then he bashes up the guy who’s kicking his ass. It’s just not fun. It’s messy and clunky and starts to feel repetitive, which is bad, considering this isn’t even the extended director’s cut edition. I can only imagine that the longer version has more slabs of muscle punching each other for longer periods of time.

By the time the final scene rolls around and we watch Frank wade into Saint’s club and shoot up the place, along with every hit man Saint has just hired to take Castle down, I was just weary of the action. The breaks in it are all so depressing that they don’t really give much of a reprieve from it all. Frank gets to know his neighbors, who are a trio of outcasts who’ve banded together, and they’ve all got hard luck stories. He drinks a lot of Wild Turkey and he gets his weapons ready. When we see Saint he’s getting increasingly pissed off about losing money and whatnot and he gets all ragey at his goons. And then there’s more violence. It’s exhausting to watch instead of exhilarating. And I get that the character of the Punisher is a dark and gritty character, but a comic book action movie shouldn’t make me this tired.

May 30, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

The Punisher (2004)

May 30, 2011

The Punisher (2004)

We’ve already watched one Punisher movie for our movie a day project, and frankly I think I preferred that version of the story. This movie is just so needlessly bloody and violent. I know that the whole point of the story is that it’s a tale of gory vengeance, but it’s also supposed to be a thrilling comic book adventure movie. My recollection from the first time I watched this movie is that by the end it’s too full of blood and death to really be enjoyable. Paradoxically it’s mixed in with some dreadfully unfunny comic relief, which is also not terribly enjoyable.

In the eighties Dolph Lundgren version of this same story part of what made it so much fun was that it got right to the punishment without having to go through the pain of watching his origin story. Ludgren’s Frank Castle was the Punisher right from the very beginning. Thomas Jane’s Frank Castle has to go through the entire ordeal of having his whole family wiped out by machine gun toting goons.

In this adaptation of the Punisher comic books Frank Castle is an elite undercover FBI agent. He’s just completed a gun-running case and is set to retire, but unfortunately the son of a powerful gangster gets killed in the crossfire during the final sting. Howard Saint is not a forgiving man, so he sends his hit squad to kill Frank. Not just Frank, though, they kill his wife, his son, his parents, and his entire extended family – thirty people in all. The problem is that although they shoot Frank in both legs, in the solder and in the chest and blow up the pier he’s bleeding to death on he doesn’t die.

Instead Castle comes back to Florida and goes about killing every member of Saint’s gang and family. The problem is that although clearly Frank has been wronged and has some right to vengeance the brutal cat and mouse game of killing as Frank hunts Saint’s people and Saint in turn unleashes more and more deadly killers in attempts to eliminate him – well it just never feels justified. I know what this movie is trying to be. It’s trying to make us, the audience, cheer at Frank Castle’s victories as he takes down the evil mastermind behind his family’s death. Instead however I feel like I’m watching Castle sinking into evil himself. The punishment he doles out never feels appropriate, and at times it seems absolutely cruel. By the time we see a weeping and broken Howard Saint being dragged through fire behind a car with explosives stuck on its trunk I almost feel sorry for him.

This is a movie that revels in violence. It’s an R-Rated bloodbath filled with brutality from beginning to end. Now in some cases that would not be a detriment. The same could be said for example of Robocop, which is still one of my favorite movies of all time. Extreme brutal violence is not particularly my cup of tea, but in some cases it can make a move a more visceral experience. In this case, however, it just doesn’t work for me.

Then there’s the comic relief. In the tenement house where Frank sets up his base of operations there are a trio of disenfranchised loners who appear to have formed a kind of loose family amongst each other. There’s a be-piersed and angry young man, a chubby dim fellow who loves food, and a hard working waitress with an abusive ex-boyfriend. These bits of incongruous humor do not fit at all with the dark feel of the rest of the movie. They feel like they must be part of some other movie stuck in here to make it clear that this is a comic book movie.

It wasn’t until I went to read the trivia on IMDB while writing this review that I saw that many of the plot lines and characters involved in this movie come from a series of Punisher books written by Garth Ennis. I have never read the “Welcome Back Frank” arc in question, but it explains so much about this movie that some of its inspiration comes from Ennis. He has a particular style of writing which blends humor with gruesome gore, which in general I have really enjoyed. I loved Preacher for example. Perhaps this is simply a case of something that works in comic form not translating very well to the screen. Whatever the case, I have to simply say that I don’t enjoy this movie. It isn’t fun to watch. Which is kind of sad, really.

May 30, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 455 – Equilibrium

Equilibrium – May 29th, 2011

I’ve got to admit it, I really like Christian Bale. Okay, I know next to nothing about him as a person, but as an actor I’ve always enjoyed his stuff. Yet somehow I’ve missed this movie. I remember seeing ads for it when it came out and thinking I would very much like to see a movie where Christian Bale wore a long dark coat and was a total bad ass. These are the sorts of shallow things that I have no shame in admitting to. Of course, I also enjoyed him singing and dancing in Newsies, which we still don’t have for some reason. My enjoyment of Christian Bale on my television screen is not limited to bad assery. But he does bad assery so well.

In this movie he starts out as a sort of fascist ubercop and ends up an antifascist uberrebel. The society he lives in, Libria, has been built following World War III. In an effort to eliminate the perceived root of all human cruelty and suffering and war, Librians are not allow to have emotions. To accomplish this, since it’s not something that’s easy to just do out of will, all Librians dose themselves with an emotion suppressant called Prozium every morning (and possibly multiple times a day). And that is the movie’s first major failing and unfortunately it’s part of the foundation for the whole plot. This entire society is based on enough government brainwashing to keep people taking this drug, voluntarily, on a daily basis. Children are trained to dose themselves. Everyone carries around these little hypodermic guns and sticks themselves in the necks when a city-wide buzzer sounds. And the plot of the movie depends on people ceasing to take the drug and starting to feel again, so there had to be this mechanism that they could circumvent. But that circumvention seems so very easy. Why isn’t it more widespread? Do people keep dosing themselves out of fear of being caught and incinerated? But fear’s an emotion, so, no. They do it because they’re brainwashed. But some people don’t. It’s really just very hard to buy as a serious premise.

And oh, oh does this movie take itself seriously. It starts out with a raid on an illicit building full of paintings and poetry books. Since emotions are forbidden, so is art and anything that might cause an emotional response. Guess Prozium only works so long as you’re not exposed to anything that might make you question the brainwashing that makes you keep taking it. The initial raid shows us the destruction of the Mona Lisa, and no, it isn’t meant to be cheesy or over the top. This is supposed to show just how dire things are and how nasty the guys in charge can be. I think my problem here isn’t necessarily the serious tone, but that the world building is too sloppy to support it. So the tone ends up coming off as far too heavy and it tips into silly.

Fortunately it wasn’t too hard for me to shove all that aside once the action started. Because once the action started it became clear that there is no way to actually take this movie too seriously. How could you when it involves Christian Bale’s character managing to kill an entire room full of men with guns – while standing in the center of said room with all of them aiming at him – without a single grazing on himself? Bale’s character, John Preston, is a Grammatron Cleric, a sort of Secret Service agent in charge of leading raids on “sense offenders” who hoard art and the like and who don’t take their Prozium. Clerics are also pretty damn deadly even without a squad of armed soldiers at their beck and call. There’s a bit in the movie where it’s explained how a Cleric can use some sort of fancy statistical research to calculate the best place to stand in a room full of armed men and how to kill them all really fast without getting hurt. But the truth of it is that it’s just plain movie gun fight magic, so why even bother having a technobabble explanation for it? Clerics are super well trained at killing people and not getting hurt. There you go. All the explanation you need! Preston certainly displays some impressive fighting skills through the course of the movie, with a gun and without one. So that right there is the draw for the movie.

Through the course of the movie Preston becomes disillusioned with his fascist government, eventually making contact with the very underground resistance he was assigned to find and eliminate. He stops taking his Prozium, starts feeling, avoids his Cleric partner, avoids his creepy son (who’s studying to be a Cleric as well), and talks to a young woman who’s been imprisoned for sense offense. There are plot holes galore here (why is she still wearing what must be her own colorful clothes and make-up even when imprisoned? why isn’t she incinerated sooner? who knows!) but it does allow Emily Watson to give some nice performances in the few scenes she gets. It’s sort of Logan’s Run-ish in its overall story arc and I can run with that. Bale gets to be all tortured and stoic at the same time, which he does fairly well, and there’s plenty of action to watch to distract oneself from the wobbly plot.

I think I liked this story better when it was part of A Wrinkle in Time or The Giver. Or, you know, when people who didn’t feel were Vulcans, who are awesome. Okay, those are cheap shots, but wouldn’t Christian Bale make a great Vulcan? In all seriousness though, if you can swallow the conceit of the movie then the rest of it follows fairly well. It had perhaps one too many twists near the end, but none of them were implausible. The action was fun and the acting was fairly decent all around. I liked Taye Diggs in the role of Preston’s new partner, Cleric Brandt, and while Sean Bean’s not in the movie for long he does a nice job with what he’s got. I wish there had been more solid worldbuilding. I wish the holes in the plot hadn’t been so big. Because the movie itself is a nicely stylized dystopia with an engaging main character. So watch it for the action and the acting and look elsewhere for serious commentary on human nature.

May 29, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Equilibrium

May 29, 2011

Equilibrium

It’s funny how one’s perception of a movie can change. My recollection from the last time I watched this, shortly after I bought it on the recommendation of customers who really enjoyed the shooty action of it, was that it was a dark and gritty film with some cool gun fights. That was eight or nine years ago. As I watched it tonight I found myself somewhat startled by how flimsy the plot is, how brutally heavy handed the message, and how ultimately silly the whole movie is from start to finish.

If you were to go by my more impressionable Blockbuster patrons this movie would be the be all and end all of gunfight movies, and I can’t deny that it has a certain charm. Part of the premise of this movie is that the highly trained clerics that act as the secret police for the fascist regime that rules the world (or at least the one city we see) in this dystopian future have mastered a kind of gun-fu. They call it the “gun-kata” and there’s some mumbo jumbo about how their training allows them to fire into areas that have been statistically shown to be the more probable locations for their targets to be. The end result is that the clerics have a super-human ability to walk out into a gunfight and wave their arms around magically hitting every hapless person around them. It looks very cool, but it’s hardly realistic.

Indeed I think that could be my summation of this entire movie. It’s a cool, cheesy, meticulously produced action movie with not much plot to speak of and more holes in it than Albert Hall. It also clearly thinks it’s a movie with something important to say. It’s exceptionally pretentious and heavy handed in its attempts to appear to be something more than simply a movie with some cool fight scenes.

Right from the start it is a movie that would rather tell us in no uncertain terms what it is about than bother to try and show it to us. The opening monologue explains how after World War Three humanity decided that the only way to end all conflict was to outlaw the one thing that caused all hatred, andger and violence: emotions. To that end everybody is prescribed a daily dose of a powerful mood altering drug that must have made the lawyers for Prozac itch to claim libel. All art, music, perfume, prose or anything else that might elicit an emotional response is contraband, and the police, led by the clerics, hunt it all down and burn it. Think Fahrenheit 451 with a broader net than simply books. The most efficient and emotionless of the elite clerics is John Preston, played by Cristian Bale.

Right from the beginning it is established how powerfully emotionless John is. His own wife was incinerated for sense crimes at some point in the past. He kills his partner when he discovers that he has been rescuing books from incineration. His children are well dressed automatons with slicked back hair and are trained to rat out any classmates they see showing emotion. Then one day he accidentally misses a dose of not-Prozac and everything comes crashing down.

This is not really a movie with many twists or turns. There are a couple attempts at misdirection near the end and some machinations on the part of “The Father”, the talking head that runs the whole society, but for the most part this is a straight forward tale of a man deciding to overthrow the system that created him. The ultimate warrior.

If I were to level any complaint at this movie it would be that it tries so darned hard. It’s okay, movie, you don’t have to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. It’s alright just to be a very slick and cool looking action film. My biggest complaint would be that the action scenes, cool as they are, are too few and over too quickly. There’s a lot of style and class to this movie, and the shootouts have a look to them that is pretty much unique. (The closest I can think of to compare it to are the bullet-curving firefights in Wanted.) The aesthetic of the emotionless society is great. Full of blacks and greys with the evil troops all decked out like Nazi SS troopers with their long black leather jackets. When the movie reaches its inevitable conclusion however it feels, well, insubstantial. It is implied that the great revolution is begun, but I didn’t really feel that the short action sequences right at the end brought any closure to the film.

I don’t know. This is not a great movie, but it seems to think that it should be considered one. In the end it’s a little disappointing to me in spite of the style and the swagger and the very cool performance of Christina Bale (who does emotionally confused and tortured so very well.) I would have to say that for pure cheese and action fun I somewhat prefer writer/director Kurt Wimmer’s more recent film about a lone warrior taking on the religious demagogue of a dystopian future society – Ultraviolet. That movie at least knew just how silly it was and reveled in it somewhat.

May 29, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 454 – Wait Until Dark

Wait Until Dark – May 28th, 2011

Before tonight I had only seen this movie once and it was enough to make a lasting impression on me that stuck enough that I insisted that we add this to the collection when we started the project. Andy hadn’t seen it and I was absolutely thunderstruck when he said so. He hadn’t seen this? With Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin? Really? There are some bizarre spots in our collection where I’ve seen classics he hasn’t and he’s seen classics I haven’t. Between the two of us we’re very well-watched (and by the time we’re done with the project we’ll both be considerably more so). The thing is, the collection was largely bought by Andy, so it’s weighted in his favor in terms of things one or the other of us has seen. This was an exception to the rule.

I have to say that I’ve been very lucky in my education. I had some teachers who managed to ruin subjects for me (I will never forgive my Philosophy professor from college for being so tied to her own opinions that she made discussion impossible) but I also had some amazing teachers who introduced me to fantastic ideas and media. I was an English major and I did my best to take film-related classes whenever I could count them towards my major. But I watched this movie for the first time when I was in seventh grade. My school separated boys and girls for seventh grade English for some reason. It was the only academic class I can think of where that was done. My class bonded pretty tightly over the course of the year, thanks, I think, to the teacher we had. So Dale DeLetis, if you ever read this, please know that you had a profound effect on me as a student and a reader and a viewer.

We watched this movie in a theater. Not a full sized screen, but fairly close to it. Big enough that it gave the feeling of being in a real theater. There were maybe fifteen of us, probably fewer. We had small classes. And the lights were turned all the way down aside from the emergency exit signs. And none of us had any idea what we were going to be seeing. There’s a moment in this movie – a crucial moment – that made every single one of us jump out of our seats. Which was precisely what Mr. DeLetis was intending and apparently it’s a common reaction to the movie. I have never experienced a phenomenon quite like it. Tonight, even knowing it was coming, I jumped. That is the sort of movie this is. It is a movie that is so well built and so well acted and so well filmed and so well directed that it can cause that sort of reaction even in someone who’s expecting it.

No question about it, this is a thriller. And it’s a very tightly focused one at that. There’s really only one location for this movie: The basement apartment where Susy Hendrix and her husband Sam live. Sam is a photographer and Susy doesn’t seem to have a job really, but that’s apparently because she’s fairly recently become blind through an unspecified accident and has been going to school to learn the new skills she needs to be independent. Susy is the heart of the movie and Audrey Hepburn plays her wonderfully. She’s so determined, but at the same time aware that she’s new to being blind and she doesn’t yet have the confidence and experience she wants. She’s frustrated by not being able to do the things that she feels should be simple and hates depending on others, but knows that for some things (like seeing if there’s a car parked outside without actually going out to check) she must. The character is sympathetic, likable and strong, which makes her a wonderful lead for the movie.

On the other end of the spectrum we have our villain, Roat, played by a very young Alan Arkin. And he is evil. He radiates malice in a way I would never have guessed Alan Arkin could. But he does. From the moment you meet him you know that this is a man who knows how to do terrible things and would feel no remorse for doing them. And he proceeds to do terrible things throughout the movie, not the least of which is manipulating the entire plot in such a way that Susy is thoroughly terrorized by the end. And he’s experienced in these things. That’s what makes his character so much worse. He is the sort of man who buys plastic gloves by the roll for use in unsavory dealings where fingerprints would be unwanted.

The plot revolves around a doll filled with heroin. A woman smuggling it into the country passed it to the innocent Sam, intending to retrieve it later. Unfortunately for her, Roat and two other men intend to get it themselves. And unfortunately for Susy the doll is missing. Roat and his new compatriots devise a scheme to get Susy to give them the doll, assuming she knows where it is. The terrible thing is that Susy doesn’t know. And Sam’s been sent off on a wild goose chase, leaving Susy to cope with these three men she can’t see who are bent on tricking her. They disguise themselves, claim visual cues that aren’t there that she can’t refute and play out an elaborate charade designed to break her down. It really is far more complicated than it needs to be – a sort of good cop/bad cop/loose cannon cop deal. But I don’t mind the complexity, largely because I think it adds to the character of Roat.

As I mentioned, Roat is experienced. For me it’s that experience that makes the character, because while the plot itself is incredibly complicated, I can’t help but think that it was set up to be so not because it was necessary but because Roat was amused by it. He could have gone in and just plain tortured it out of Susy if he’d wanted to do it the fast way. He doesn’t seem to have any objections to hurting her and it’s implied near the end that even when he gets what he wants he’ll still hurt her. So why the play acting with the other two, Mike Talman and “Officer” Carlino? And aside from the dry answer of dramatic tension, I think the answer is that Roat prefers it this way. It’s more fun for him. And that makes him a very scary villain indeed.

Fortunately for Susy, she has an unlikely ally in the moody and temperamental teenage girl, Gloria, who lives in an apartment upstairs and sometimes helps Susy out with grocery shopping and the like. They don’t get along too well at first, but eventually they have to work together as the three men get more and more desperate to find the doll. I like that Gloria gets some key moments in saving the day. But I like it better that while Gloria does help quite a lot, it’s Susy who comes up with how Gloria can help, and Susy who ultimately saves herself. It’s a fantastic role for Hepburn and she plays it magnificently. She and Arkin really steal the movie between the two of them, which is a bit of a shame for Richard Crenna, in my opinion. He plays Mike Talman, who spends most of the movie trying to get in good with Susy, convincing her that he’s an old friend of her husband’s. He gets a ton of screen time and he does an excellent job with the role. He’s a bad guy, no doubt, but it’s clear by the end that he’s got some sympathy for Susy, which, of course, is why he’s not the ultimate villain.

I love every moment of this movie. It’s just all done so brilliantly. I love Hepburn and Arkin. I love the growing bond between Susy and Gloria in this terrible situation. I love when Susy figures out what’s going on and moves from panicked despair to determined action. I love when she realizes what she needs to do to even the playing field. I love that this movie has a clever heroine who can take care of herself even if she needs to adjust to the tools she has to do that with. I love that it’s a movie about a woman with a disability and said disability doesn’t make her weak. It means she needs help for some things, but it doesn’t mean she’s helpless. It’s a major plot element both in how she’s tricked and in how she eventually faces off with Roat. As I said, I love everything about this movie. I love the script, the cinematography, the directing and most certainly the acting. And I love that even after all these years and knowing what to expect, it still worked on me just the way it’s supposed to.

May 28, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | 2 Comments

Wait Until Dark

May 28, 2011

Wait Until Dark

Today for a change I asked Amanda if we could watch a movie that she had seen and I had not. We had bought this movie for just such a reason, because it the a movie Amanda had vivid memories of watching in high school but which I had for some reason never picked up. I wish I knew why I never saw this – it’s a fantastically constructed film full of suspense and tension and it features a wonderfully strong female lead. I love Audrey Hepburn (doesn’t everybody?) but somehow I never ended up seeing this movie. Very strange.

I’ve seen it now, though, and I can understand why Amanda was so eager to share it with me. What I found fascinating as I watched this movie is that it is a combination of a heist film and a suspense/horror film. It combines some great tension with amazing acting and direction to produce a fantastic whole.

Audrey Hepburn, whose enormous eyes are rather distracting to begin with, plays a woman blinded in a car crash and fire who is trying (with the support of her photographer husband) to learn how to live without her sight. This alone would make for an interesting movie, and as Susy Hendrix Hepburn is completely believable as blind. Very soon, however, Suzy is caught up in a frightening situation that would tax any person who still had their sight. Her husband Sam, while returning from a trip to Canada recently, was given a doll by a woman he met on the plane. He was told that the doll was to be given as a gift to this woman’s sick daughter in the hospital, but in reality it is stuffed full of heroin and she gave it to Sam to keep it away from a terrifying killer named Roat.

Roat kills the smuggler Lisa and tracks the doll to Suzy and Sam’s place, but when he tries to get it back from them it has mysteriously vanished. So Roat comes up with a convoluted plan to get the doll back. He blackmails a pair of hoodlums who used to work with Lisa into working with him (implying that if they try to double cross him he will implicate them in Lisa’s murder) and the three of them convince Sam to leave on an all night photography job so that they can work a complicated sting on the supposedly helpless Susy to convince her to help them find the doll.

Admittedly the plot is needlessly complicated and intricate. That’s not what makes the movie great though. This is Susy’s movie and everything else in it to give her something to be awesome in. I was fascinated after watching the movie when I read in IMDB (the source of all knowledge) that the role of Suzy was not actually originated by Audrey Hepburn at all but was played on Broadway by Lee Remick. Either way this is an absolutely killer role. Susy as a character is initially fairly timid, able to get around in spite of her handicap but not entirely comfortable with it. Her biggest advantage though is that she’s absolutely smart as a whip. It’s just so much fun to see her figuring out just what is going on with these three con artists.

Interestingly it is precisely because she is simultaneously so smart and so timid that this movie has the great level of tension that is maintains. With each new discovery about her dire circumstances Suzy becomes more terrified, so that by the end of the film when she fully realises that she is trapped in her apartment with no help on the way and a brutal killer intent on not just getting the doll from her but on doing her harm just because he can… well it’s a fantastic confrontation and a great pay off for the film.

Playing the nefarious Roat is a very young Alan Arkin, and I have to say I was completely blown away by him as well. His character is so casually and thoroughly evil – so delighted by any opportunity to manipulate and toy with other people – he’s a perfect foil for the ever so trusting and gentle Suzy.

A good deal of what makes this movie so fantastic is the tight and well written script. As with any adventure/thriller the elements that will make up the climax of the movie are carefully planted in the viewer’s mind early on in the film, and I had a lot of fun seeing how everything fit together. I’m curious to know just how much had to be altered from the original play by Frederick Knott when it was adapted for the screen by Robert and Jane-Howard Carrington.

It’s discovering great films like this that make our movie a day project so much fun. I might have watched this some day if we hadn’t started the project, but I don’t know if I would have added it to our collection. I’m so glad that on Amanda’s recommendation I did buy it and that we now have it on a shelf and ready to be watched or shared with guests and friends any time. I am only slightly saddened that I did not get a chance to see it in a theater on a big screen as Amanda did when she first saw it.

May 28, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | 2 Comments

Movie 453 – Planet of the Apes (1968)

Planet of the Apes – May 27th, 2011

Why yes, I am only just now seeing this for the first time. Strange, I know, but it’s one of those movies I’ve seen parodies of and references to for so long it always managed to escape me that I hadn’t seen it. There are so many other sci-fi movies out there that looked more interesting than a shirtless Charlton Heston running around screaming at apes. And besides, I knew the ending. Tonight when we put it in we realized that the cover for the movie and the menu background for the disc totally spoil it. Which is just one of those things, I guess. When a movie is as much a part of the cultural lexicon as this is, it’s hard not to spoil it. It’s like Rosebud or Darth Vader. So I never really felt much need to stop on this while I flipped channels or grab a copy from work. Still, we had an opportunity to buy it cheap and it was a sci-fi classic shaped hole in our collection. So here I am.

And I’ve got to say, it is an impressive piece of film. The ape make-up on the vast majority of the cast alone is amazing in its scope and realization. Not that I expected anything less. After all, this isn’t considered a schlocky classic like Plan 9 From Outer Space. It had a big budget and well-known actors. What I am impressed by is how well it stands the test of time. Sure, it has problems, but visually it still looks very good. Part of that is that there aren’t really any special effects. The ape costumes and make-up do all the work here. So there’s not as much to date the movie as there would be if we had lots of lasers and effects shots. The thing that dated it the most for me was seeing the main character smoking at the control panel of the space ship he starts out on. This was filmed only a few months after the tragic fire that killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee, caused by a spark in a pure oxygen environment during a launch rehearsal for the Apollo 1. Smoking on board a space ship? Now that’s fantastical. It’s the sort of thing that genre parodies like Amazon Women on the Moon poke at. But once that space ship crashes, well. Its timelessness is rooted in its plot.

The whole story is set on what appears to be a strange and somewhat primitive world. It’s sparsely inhabited, with vast stretches of desert before any hospitable land is found. And the inhabitants are both apes and men, with the apes in the dominant role. The humans are non-verbal and uncivilized. They seem to be pre-When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, even. The apes, on the other hand, are cultured, with their own laws and religion and scientific community. They use horses and horse-drawn carriages for transportation and know nothing of achieving flight, but they also carry somewhat modern rifles (apparently they’re circa WWII), so the state of their civilization isn’t precisely analogous to any specific time period of our own. Suffice it to say that they’re a good deal ahead of the humans and believe humans to be dirty animals, untameable and only intelligent enough to learn simple tricks. And then along comes Taylor, leader of the space expedition that crashed on the planet. He’s an intelligent human from an advanced human civilization. And that changes everything once the scientists who’ve captured him realize that he’s different.

Of course, to keep the tension up, his crew is rapidly dispatched. One dies on the ship and the other two are dealt with once they’re captured by the apes. So Taylor’s on his own, trying to convince the apes that he’s a thinking and reasoning being and not a lab animal. The drama here comes from the very clear references to our own culture and conflicts. The apes have some very firm religious beliefs that state that apes were set above all other animals and given souls and reason. These beliefs are all set forth in a series of sacred scrolls that are believed to be the entire history of the world. So a human who can talk and reason? That’s heresy. And to be honest? It was painful to watch the religious authorities (who are also the scientific authorities) run a trial denouncing proof of intelligent humans as blasphemy. I’d like to believe that this was meant to be an allegory for such people as Copernicus and Galileo, but let’s face it: There are people right now who still deny that the theory of evolution has any basis (and its inclusion in text books is challenged all the time) and that the Earth is only a few thousand years old. It was unpleasant to watch the trial scenes, and I think it was supposed to be, but maybe not to the extent I felt it was.

There is a bit of a saving grace to the movie, however, which is that the character so vehemently opposed to Taylor’s existence, Dr. Zaius, has more motivations than he initially claims. It’s hinted that he knows more than he’s letting on. Zaius is both a scientific and religious leader and everything he does he claims to do in the name of science. But once you know more of what’s going on you see that he’s figured a lot of it out himself and is trying to protect his civilization from what he perceives as an ancient threat. And given the ending and what’s implied about the humans who came before? He’s probably right to be so cautious. Which is damn depressing, if you ask me. But this is a dystopian look at things, so that’s not shocking. The thing is, while pretty much everyone now knows the basic story and the “twist” ending, at the time the movie came out it was likely a huge revelation that Zaius was right and while not a good character, perhaps not as evil as he appeared to be.

I do like that the movie turns in different directions that way. I like that by the end we’re presented with our hero as the alien and humanity as a scourge. Just ask Al Gore, I’m sure he’d whip up a slide show for you to support that. But I like it because it does what some of the best sci-fi does: It makes you look at things with a different perspective. It views the world from a different angle. And that it can still do that and not come across as horribly dated more than forty years after it was made is an impressive feat. Of course, the impact of it is lessened by everyone knowing the twist already. If you already know what’s going on when you start the movie it takes a little more work not to watch the movie with it in mind. But it’s worth it.

I did find a few other aspects of the movie quite interesting and I was curious about tham and a little disappointed that they weren’t explored in more depth. The personality of Taylor, for one. He gets some time to explain himself when he and his crew are walking through the desert after the crash. He’s pretty damn misanthropic, which makes sense for the mission they were on which would have meant the crew would never see their friends or families or homes ever again. But it also ends up setting him up as an interesting figure to be mourning the end of human civilization. Unfortunately, that aspect doesn’t get much time since it’s only revealed in its full form at the end.

The other thing I liked and didn’t get enough of was the ape civilization. We’ve got gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees all living together, but in what appears to be a caste system. The gorillas are all in security type roles. The orangutans are the authority figures. And the chimpanzees are the inquisitive ones, but somewhat looked down upon by the others. I’d have loved to see more of the civilization itself, but that’s not the point of the movie, so it’s more background worldbuilding.

Overall I wouldn’t say I necessarily enjoyed this movie, but I appreciated it. It’s very well made and well acted. I have to give enormous respect to everyone who acted in the ape make-up, which I’m sure was difficult as it covered their entire faces. And the movie itself was done in such a way that it can be watched today and appreciated. Obviously it’s been referred to all over the place, from The Simpsons to Spaceballs. It spawned a number of sequels and tie-ins and that’s because it’s got an interesting and potentially vast world that’s ripe for exploration. It’s a success through and through, so I don’t need to have been grinning through the whole thing or want to watch it in regular rotation to acknowledge that and agree with it.

May 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 1 Comment

Planet of the Apes (1968)

May 27, 2011

Planet of the Apes (1968)

I like, as I watch this movie, to try and imagine a time when it was fresh, new and revolutionary. This movie spawned a franchise that involved a new Planet of the Apes movie every year from 1970 to 1975, a television series, multiple television movies, even a modern re-imagining. It has been the subject of references and spoofs in the Simpsons, in movies like Spaceballs, in MST3K – it is infamous and ubiquitous. I, myself, watched all the original movies on television in the early eighties. Channel 38 showed them all over the course of a single weekend and I was absolutely captivated by the somewhat strange mythology of the series. This was the seminal movie that started it all though, a movie so fascinating, radical and so compelling that it created an empire.

What people might not realize if they haven’t actually seen the movie and have only seen all the parody is that it is actually a very well done sci-fi film. It has a cool premise, a big budget, famously well done make-up, a powerful and well respected leading man, and of course some rather heavy social commentary. The strong messages of the film, and its often lampooned twist ending, should not be surprising considering that is was adapted for the screen by none other than Rod Serling, the creator of the Twilight Zone. As with much sci-fi from the sixties and seventies this is a movie that makes no attempt to hide its agenda.

The movie follows Colonel George Taylor and his ill-defined mission of space exploration. Traveling nearly at the speed of light he and his little crew are flying to a planet somewhere in the constellation of Orion. They make the journey in suspended animation and at relativistic speeds so that although back on the Earth they’ve left so far behind more than two thousand years have passed it is only a year or so for them. Unfortunately their spacecraft crash lands at the end of their journey leaving Taylor and the other two survivors of the crash in a desolate alien wasteland.

The first half hour or so of the movie shows the three of them, Taylor, Landon and Dodge trudging across the barren landscape. I’d say that this is the weakest part of the movie because although it gives a lot of time to establish Taylor’s nihilistic and skeptical character as he buts heads with Landon it also highlights the absurdity of their mission. Had it not gone awry what exactly were they supposed to be doing? Taylor takes almost annoying delight in pointing out that everything they knew when they set out in 1972 (which was the future when this movie was made) is now ancient history and dust. As such it seems they’re a very poorly equipped crew even just on a psychological level. Dodge is cool – he’s a scientist and more interested with exploration than anything else. Landon, however, is described by Taylor as mostly a glory hound – which doesn’t make much sense as there’s little glory to be had if nobody even remembers you. Then there’s Taylor himself, who seems to have been running away from Earth and from humanity as much as anything else. An interesting character to be sure but I wouldn’t send him on a mission to Mars, much less put him in command of an interstellar mission of exploration.

Glossing over all that though we soon get to the meat of the movie when the trio encounter a race that seem very much like primitive humans, and shortly thereafter are captured by intelligent apes whose agrarian culture is the dominant power on this planet. Rendered mute by a grazing bullet wound to the throat and separated from his crew mates Taylor must somehow find a way to communicate with his captors. He gains the confidence of a chimpanzee named Zira and her fiance Cornelius, an anthropologist with some interesting theories about the origins of simian culture. Eventually his very existence as an intelligent and talking human endangers both of them because he contradicts the ancient scrolls handed down from the Lawgiver – legendary creator of all simian culture fifteen hundred years ago. Dr. Zaius, the orangutan Minister of Science and defender of the faith, seems determined from the start to foil Zira and Cornelius at every turn in their attempts to explore knowledge of the time before the Lawbringer, and is deeply afraid of Taylor and what he represents.

There’s a lot of interesting social commentary here. Amanda was very much put off by the theme of demagogues putting faith before scientific inquiry I know (and I’m sure her review will explore those themes.) Of course there’s the infamous ending with its anti-war message which perhaps resonated more in the days of the cold war but is still great today. Me, I found myself captivated on this particular viewing by the slightly more subtle messages on race relations. I wonder how radical it was in 1968 that the science officer on Taylor’s expedition, Dodge, was black. It is not an issue for the characters in the movie, which is perhaps even more interesting given the time period. (Though of course sci-fi has often been a bastion of equality for both races and sexes since speculative exploration is part of the nature of the genre.) The apes themselves also raise questions of race and segregation though. There are three different species of ape featured in the movie, the chimps, the gorillas and the orangutans. The orangutans are clearly in command roles, the gorillas are muscle, and the chimps seem the most inquisitive and intelligent of the three. There are all kinds of hints about tensions between the races – such as the mention Zira makes to accords giving chimpanzees more clout in the scientific community lately. I’m fascinated by the entire concept of multiple sentient species cohabiting. The notion of specialization and segregation is something I’d have liked to have seen explored in greater detail.

It must have been a great coup to get Charlton Heston to star in this film. I mean this guy played Ben Hur, he played Moses, he played a Mexican in an Orson Welles movie. He’s a big time actor and his very presence on the screen gives a certain legitimacy and weight to this movie, which could otherwise have been fairly cheesy and campy. Indeed there’s a serious tone to this whole film that doesn’t seem to be present in much sci-fi any more. The sci-fi of today, with some rare and special exceptions like the excellent Moon which we reviewed last year, is largely a popular adventure film format – they don’t make movies like this one any more. With time even the Planet of the Apes movies became increasingly cheesy and silly, which is why when I watch this one I try so hard to see it for itself. Back before this movie became little more than a punchline.

May 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | 1 Comment