A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 583 – The Silent Scream

The Silent Scream – October 4th, 2011

When we started this project we knew there were a few things we’d be adding to the collection. For one, we were missing some movies we could have sworn we owned. For two, we knew that the collection was heavily influenced by Andy’s particular tastes since he’d purchased the vast majority of it, so we wanted to even it out a bit. For three, we knew there’d be things we’d think of or that hadn’t come out on DVD. And then there was everything else we’ve added. It’s an odd assortment, really. Things we’d never really considered owning until they were recommended by friends or that we’d decided we really wanted not just to watch, but to review. This is one of those last types. Because it was directed by Andy’s uncles.

Horror and slasher films aren’t really my thing. And while I can enjoy a suspenseful movie, suspense and horror together aren’t my favorite combination. I get tense and that tension takes a while to dissipate. So I admit, I wasn’t looking forward to this. I wanted to watch it, yes, but I wasn’t really looking forward to how I’d feel afterwards. Fortunately, it turned out to not really be what I was expecting, in a good way. There is suspense and there is some blood, but it’s not the sort of “oh god oh god something’s coming to get me” tone that I can’t deal with. It’s more of a “who will survive and how exactly will all of this play out” tone. That, I can deal with.

The story begins with college student Scotty Parker looking for a place to live after transferring to a new school. The actress playing Scotty, Rebecca Balding, reminds me so strongly of Elisabeth Sladen that I found it impossible not to imagine that Scotty was somehow a clone of Sarah Jane Smith. I imagine having Daleks or K-9 show up mid-movie would have run the whole thing right off the rails, but still. That’s how my brain works. Anyhow, Scotty ends up moving into a rather large house right by the ocean. Mrs. Engels and her son, Mason, have plenty of extra space so they’ve let out four rooms. The other residents are all students. There are Doris and Jack, who already live there, and then there’s Peter, who shows up when Scotty does. And all seems fine, until one of the four gets killed after a night out. And I think you can probably predict at least part of what happens next. I mean, this is a slasher movie. Of course someone else dies.

The interesting thing here is that there really aren’t that many bodies. It’s not a movie full of gore and death. It’s full of odd people and suspicious circumstances. I suppose most horror fans would be disappointed at the lack of blood, and most suspense fans would want more tension. And that’s fine. I understand that. But I like that the tension comes not from wondering what’s going to jump out at the main characters so much as from when they’ll be attacked and who it will be who attacks them.

If I was going to make a complaint about the movie it would be that the eventual reveal of the Engels family secret has so little to it. I mean, it’s a good one and all, and it’s clearly hinted that there’s something terrible in the house and once you know what it is and what’s happened it makes for good background. But it gets so little time because it’s the big secret. On the other hand, I know that there was more footage filmed that would have tied into the background (you can see Mason watching some of it at one point, as if it’s a movie he’s flipped to on television) and it got thrown out as unusable. In fact, a fairly large portion of this movie was reshot entirely and then edited together with what was usable from the original material. And I’ve got to hand it to everyone involved that I couldn’t spot the shots and bits and pieces that were from the older material in with the new. Fantastic editing there. But that those scenes were taken out says something. Either they were really poorly done and simply couldn’t be used in any form other than as a cameo on a tiny television screen, or they didn’t fit the narrative. Since they weren’t reshot, I’m going to have to go with the latter. And while both could be true, their absence in the movie as it stands definitely points to a problem in fitting them into the story. You don’t want to lessen the dramatic tension by giving away too much, but you also don’t want to bog down the climax with too many flashbacks at the end once the secret’s been revealed. Still, I couldn’t help but wish for more foreshadowing. Something to point back to and say “Oh! So that’s what that meant! That’s why that was there! That’s why that character said that!” Something to make it feel like more of a cohesive part of the story instead of just a twist.

I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed this movie. It wasn’t quite what I expected and that’s a good thing. I expected it to be about as far from my preferred genres as possible and I expected it to leave me tense and/or disappointed and I wasn’t either by the time the credits rolled. It’s not a big budget horror masterpiece, obviously, but it’s still fun. And hearing the interviews with Rebecca Balding and Ken and Jim Wheat, I’m really pretty impressed with the process involved in making the movie, taking existing footage, editing down to what was still usable, bringing the cast back, reshooting, editing, etc. I’m not saying it doesn’t have flaws, just that I enjoyed it despite what flaws it has and I think it’s pretty damn cool that it holds up like it does.

October 4, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 530 – 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey – August 12th, 2011

I do not want to review this movie. I’ve been staring at a blank page for days now, holding up my other reviews (because I might be a little obsessive about doing them in order) and drawing a complete and utter blank. Even writing about drawing a blank has had me drawing a blank. But what on Earth can I say about this movie? It feels somewhat pointless to even try to review it. What could I possibly say that hasn’t been said? I don’t really have any personal reflections about the movie or its content. It didn’t move me or amaze me. It didn’t blow my mind (and I’m sure Kubrick would be sad to hear that) and it didn’t bore me.

This is the trouble with reviewing classics. I came up against it with my Neon Genesis review too. This is the sort of movie people write about. This is the sort of movie nerds and geeks much like myself have been talking about and discussing and debating for years and years. And I’m not so egotistical as to think that I have something revolutionary to say about it. It’s a good sci-fi suspense movie with a big enough dose of Meaning to keep people talking. And that’s great. I’d put it up there with stories like Solaris and Moon, the latter of which was certainly making allusions to it, and not subtle ones at that. But it’s been around long enough and been on enough lists and been seen by enough people – even people who profess to not like science fiction – that I admit I feel a little defeated by it. Anyone inclined to like it has seen it or will see it, and anyone disinclined to like it will avoid it or have it forced on them by well-meaning friends. What I say here isn’t going to change that.

I’ve mentioned my aversion to watching overhyped things before and I’m lucky that I watched this well before anyone had a chance to tell me it was the be all and end all of science fiction movies. Because the thing is, while I enjoy it and appreciate it, it’s not top on my list. It’s not even second. As a piece of art, well. That’s different. As something I’ll choose to put in randomly, just because I’ve got time to watch something? Not so much. It’s sort of an investment of a movie. It’s something that to appreciate you really should be spending some time and attention on. At least until the end. Go ahead and zone out for the end. I think that’s required.

It’s the story of an object. A black slab that appears and causes change by its existence. By some undefined quality or mechanism. The opening of the movie implies that early ape-like humans evolved some instincts and skills due to its influence. And I’m sure that there are all sorts of parallels to be drawn between the early human contact with the monolith and its later appearance and the deaths of the astronauts. I’m sure essays have been written on that. I’m not bothering. Anyhow, the monolith really is the centerpiece to the story. The trouble is that while it figures in quite largely early on, and it’s clearly a part of what happens later, I’ve always felt that it turns into a bit of a spectre for the majority of the movie before showing up at the end. We’re left to assume that its presence plays a role, without its presence being terribly apparent. While I’m not advocating for movies to spell everything out for viewers, I do feel that it could have been worked in just a bit more.

So, we evolve from apes (instead of the other way around) and skip over the development of the ancient world and modern world and what have you, zipping straight to The Future! And as is the case any time you date your Future, eventually your Future will be outdated. But it’s such a neat Future, I don’t really mind. There’s a very smooth feel to this movie that keeps it from feeling too spectacularly dated. Sure, the computer pops out punch cards as readouts for the astronauts, but it’s also a so-close-to-sentience computer that controls a huge space ship that’s flying to Jupiter. And besides, the ship itself, and the ship we see earlier in the movie, are so very cool. The movie’s look and feel make it a little timeless to me, and I consider that a true achievement for the movie. I’ll snicker at the punch cards, but I’ll snicker quietly.

Everything up until we get on board the Discovery feels like set-up to me. The movie is presented in chapters with fairly well defined borders but I’ve always felt like the section on the Discovery is where the heart of the movie is. Sure, people remember the apes and the bone in the air and the big black monolith. And people remember that the last section is super trippy. But what moments from the bit in transit to the moon do people remember? Blue Danube? Hardly essential to the plot. Really, what comes to mind for me, and what seems to get mentioned when I read about this movie, is HAL, the computer on board the Discovery, and the struggle between HAL and the astronauts, specifically Dave Bowman. And for good reason.

There are, again, implications that mysterious things are afoot. The core of this section, and in my opinion the movie, is HAL and his actions on the ship. Andy tells me that his reasoning (or difficulty with reasoning) has more obvious roots in the book, but I’ve never read it. What he told me seemed perfectly logical and fit what I’d always assumed, but why should I assign meaning to it? Make your own assumptions. Draw your own conclusions. It doesn’t change the outcome, which is that HAL deliberately sabotages the mission, at least to the point that he kills the three hibernating astronauts and attempts to kill the two who were awake. Ostensibly he succeeds with one (though Andy also tells me he shows up in a later story – whatever) and the other has to try and disable HAL in order to save himself. And then the movie drops some LSD and we all go on an electric kool-aid acid trip.

I’m not even going to try to dissect the last portion, with its rainbowy special effects and ornate bedroom and aged Dave Bowman. After all, Kubrick himself has said he didn’t intend for people to understand it, and to be honest? That kind of crap just makes me roll my eyes. Fine, you don’t want people to understand it. You want people to have questions. But it’s always struck me as a somewhat juvenile attitude. And it just invites pseudo-intellectual sci-fi snobs to prattle on about the true meaning of it all. I don’t care about that. I’m not writing academic articles about all of this. If I was, I’d do a critical viewing of this and the two I mentioned above, including the books and all the versions of Solaris and I’m not in college or grad school. So I’m not in this for academic critical viewing. I’m in it for fun, and like I said, while I enjoy this movie, it’s not something I pop in for fun.

August 12, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | 1 Comment

The Mist

July 8, 2011

The Mist

This was one of those “what on Earth was I thinking” purchases I made while working at Blockbuster. I really had no intention of buying this movie. I’m not a fan of horror films, really. It’s never been my preferred genre. I enjoy the stories of Stephern King, but movies based on them are hit and miss. Of course this movie is from Frank Darabont, the director of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, who has made a career out of doing spectacular adaptations of Stephen King. At the time that I bought this, though, I didn’t know that. I had read the story many years ago and it didn’t particularly make me want to watch a movie based on it. You know what finally made me decide to buy it (after being exposed to the preview for a couple months?) It was the tentacles. There was a shot in the preview that had Cthuloid tentacles descending from the clouds, and because I’m not quite right in the head this image made me want to own the entire movie. But I didn’t watch it until today.

I have to admit that I’m glad Darabont keeps going back to Stephen King, because he’s clearly got a knack for King’s work. King is all about putting regular people in dire circumstances and letting them be human. In this particular case the dire circumstances involve people trapped in a grocery store when an unnatural mist rolls down out of the mountains above Castle Rock after a thunder storm. Professional painter David Drayton goes to the store to stock up on supplies after the storm with his son and his litigious neighbour but while they’re there the mist rolls in. At first, of course, it looks like it’s just a strange weather pattern, but soon it becomes clear that there are “things” in the mist. Things that will grab people and tear them apart.

The film, like the story it’s based on, is more about the psychological tension of people trapped in close quarters with each other while something horrific is going on. At first there are skeptics, like David’s neighbour, who refuse to believe that there’s anything supernatural going on. They don’t last long. Then there is the crazy religious fanatic Mrs. Carmody who believes that the mist is the realization of the book of Revelations and that the beasts in it are God’s just vengeance for the hubris of humankind. Almost worse than the creatures outside are the evils brought forth in the simple humans trapped in the store. In some people the crisis brings out the best, such as with bag-boy Ollie Weeks who repeatedly proves himself to be an unexpected hero and our protagonist David who is the voice of reason and finds himself taking command when nobody else will. Many other people, however, become spiteful, frightened, useless or dangerous.

What I found myself especially enjoying about the movie was the deft way that Darabont built the tension and maintained it. The real terror in this movie comes mostly from the fact that we almost never see the beasts in the mist unobscured. They are terrifying nightmare fodder that capture and consume anyone foolhardy enough to venture outside, but we mostly see the results of their actions rather than the creatures themselves. This makes it all the more dreadful when eventually a small group do have to venture outside in search of medicine and possibly survivors at the pharmacy next door. We get to see some of the smaller beasts – giant flying scorpion bugs and four-winged lizard predators as well as terrifying spider things that spit acidic webs – but the most deadly things are just shapes in the fog, ill defined and all the more frightening because of it.

Once you’re done watching the movie you realize that everything is build up to the inevitable conclusion. Every dreadful night-time encounter or spate of in-fighting among the survivors is a part of a larger picture that’s being painted. I have to say that I think I’ve seen this ending done before in other horror films. I haven’t seen it done so well. Darabont spends the whole film creating a state of mind – an overwhelming sense of dread – so that he can sell the events of the conclusion, and he does it perfectly.

There is much that I enjoyed about this movie. I loved the creature design and the effects work. The things in the mist are fantastic nightmare fodder and the glimpses you get of them, particularly near the conclusion, make it clear that they are highly developed, almost majestic killing machines. The acting throughout the movie is superb. After the dreadful Punnisher movie he did I didn’t have high hopes for Thomas Jane as our protagonist David. As Mrs. Carmody Marcia Gay Hardon is almost as horrifying as the creatures outside – she completely sells this woman who has felt under appreciated and put upon for her entire life but who now sees these horrific events as her vindication. Every one of the characters presented is well fleshed out with understandable motivations for their actions, so even the people who are the most despicable are still terrifyingly human.

Again: I am not a fan of horror movies in general. I don’t necessarily think it’s a fun time to be terrified. This movie, though, has instantly leaped to near the top of my list of favorite horror films. I don’t know if it does anything original with the common tropes of people trapped during an apocalyptic event (which I associate mostly with zombie movies) but it does everything so very well that I don’t mind that I feel like I’ve seem most of this before. Indeed as bleak and unsettling as the movie is there are parts of it that I kind of want to watch again. It must be that same thing in me that loves seeing the aliens winning in the new War of the Worlds remake: I have a soft spot for supernatural Armageddon tales.

July 8, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

No Country for Old Men

June 6, 2011

No Country for Old Men

In my time at Blockbuster I had a habit of buying Oscar winning or nominated movies with the intention of watching them at some point in the undefined future. I didn’t always get around to them. Actually – I almost never got around to them. The sad fact of the matter is that in general the kind of movie that wins Oscars is not really my cup of tea. The academy of arts and sciences seems to lean towards serious, intense and often very dark movies. As a result of this behavior I have a bunch of movies in my collection that I’ve just never had the urge to watch all the way through. Movies like Capote and Brokeback Mountain and There Will Be Blood and The Wrestler. And this movie.

The truth is that I have tried to watch this before. I love a good Coen Brothers movie and of course many people had raved about this when it came out. I love Tommy Lee Jones, and I had heard how awesome and powerful Javier Bardem was as the ruthless and unstoppable hit man in this film. It’s not a feel good movie though. It’s not quirky or strange or funny. It’s a brutal suspense crime thriller – sort of a return to Blood Simple but relying less on being slick or cool or edgy. Instead it is gritty, brutal and realistic – relying on its simplicity and sparse detail rather than on the Coen Brothers’ usual camera tricks and style.

This is pretty much a western set at the end of the seventies. A massive drug deal goes bad in the Arizona desert with a whole mess of people killed and two million dollars in cash st stake. As with much of the movie we only see the aftermath – a hunter tracking game through the wilderness comes upon the carnage and eventually finds the valise with all the cash in it. Llewelyn Moss is a simple self sufficient man, and although he knows it’s probably a pretty stupid movie he can’t pass up that money. So he takes it. And soon he has the Mexican drug cartel and American crime boss who both want the money after him. Most disastrously though he has a brutal and completely cold blooded killer out for him as well.

Anton Chigurh, the killer played by Javier Bardem, is a force of nature. He kills the two mob agents who hire him to hunt down the money, just because killing is what he does. He travels with a strange silenced shotgun and a pneumatic gun designed to slaughter cattle. Every person he comes across ends up dead – and he kills them all with quiet efficiency. What’s so fascinating about this character is that he appears so rational. One of the other characters in the movie says that he seems to have a sort of twisted code that he lives by. Chigurh is so terrifying because he is so steadfast and sure of himself and so befuddled by what appears to him to be the irrelevant ramblings of his victims. He seems genuinely puzzled as to why they keep telling him that he doesn’t have to do this, because in his mind clearly he does.

All this is wrapped up in a bleak kind of fatalistic atmosphere by the sheriff who has been following the unfolding events. Tommy Lee Jones is Sheriff Bell, the man who knows what’s going on and finds himself powerless to stop it. The most human moments in the movie, and the sentiment behind the title, all come from Bell’s sense that the world has become darker, more violent, more brutal and that his sensible form of law enforcement is no longer sufficient. He tries to keep things under control, and most of the time he’s the only character who seems to understand everything that’s going on. His final monologue, which has nothing to do at all with the events in the movie but everything to do with the sentiment, is as affecting and powerful a piece of acting as I have ever witnessed.

I do like this movie. I don’t particularly enjoy it, but I like it. I like it for its craft, for the performances. It’s a movie full of long silences, powerful tension, intense larger-than-life people. There are great huge expanses of the film that have no dialog at all, where we just get to experience the action with the characters, following their thought process. It’s unusual to find a movie that has virtually no musical score, and that’s part of what adds to the power of this film. It’s a kind of heightened reality that works so perfectly to communicate the brutal and unforgiving world depicted here.

Once again, as so often happens, the Coen Brothers have created something powerful and unique. Equal parts Unforgiven and Touch of Evil. It’s all about alienation and cruelty and the evil that people are capable of. It’s not thrilling or uplifting, and it doesn’t leave you feeling better at the end than you did when you started out – and that’s unusual for a big budget film. It’s why it won a mess of Oscars and ended up in our collection. I won’t say that I’m going to be watching it very often, but it is an achievement and I’m glad that I own it.

June 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 436 – Duel

Duel – May 10th, 2011

Oh, how I wish we had not watched this tonight. I really wish we hadn’t. I had a vague suspicion that this was a bad choice for an evening movie to be watched not long before going to bed but Andy assured me that it would be fine. I remembered reading about the movie and how it’s a thriller that manages to make a truck into a horrifying villain, so, you know, I was nervous. But Andy said no, it wasn’t scary. It was cheesy. And when I asked “Will I have driving nightmares?” he said no, I wouldn’t. Alas, I think he might have been wrong, but only time will tell.

Part of the fundamental problem here is that I process tension much differently than Andy does. It’s very easy for me to get stuck pondering a problem, trying to find a solution or a way out of it and when I deal with a stressful situation I turn it over and over in my head in much the same way. So when I’m presented with a tense situation in whatever I’m reading or watching I find it difficult not to do the same thing. It will worm its way into my head and permeate my subconscious. I’ve found it happens even with seemingly innocuous things that I had assumed were minor annoyances. Later on they turn out to be things I will never stop prodding at. So, I’m rather susceptible to thrillers. It’s why I tend not to watch them.

The plot of this movie is almost painfully simple. Meek and non-confrontational David Mann has to drive somewhere for work. He gets in his car and gets on the highway and soon encounters a huge tractor trailer. It’s in front of him and it’s belching out clouds of black exhaust and it’s rusty and huge and has the word ‘flammable’ printed in a number of places on its back and sides. So after a few attempts, he passes it and goes on his merry way. Until the truck shows up again and passes him. And thus begins an hour and a half of the two vehicles duking it out on the road. Mann gets more and more frantic as the truck gets more and more aggressive. He stops in various side-of-the-road places and tries to get help. The truck idles outside a bar he stops at and waits for him. It turns back to show up when he stops to help a broken down school bus. And through the first third or so of the movie it’s just kind of menacing and vaguely threatening. It speeds up, passes him, won’t let him pass, swerves, follows him. It’s only as the movie goes on that it gets outright dangerous.

I admit, I was doing mostly fine with this movie until a particular scene. Mann stops at a railroad crossing while a freight train passes by, and of course the truck shows up behind him. But this time it doesn’t just menace. It starts actively pushing him towards the speeding train going past. It’s a horrible sort of situation, with no good exit. It’s the sort of trapped helplessness that digs at me and that was when I realized that I had been right from the start. This was indeed a thriller and I should not have put it in before bedtime. There are a couple of other moments, like when the truck speeds in out of nowhere and chases Mann while he’s on foot, smashing through cases full of snakes at a roadside attraction and gas station. Hideous not just because of a man on foot being pursued by a bizarrely agile tractor trailer, but because oh, the snakes! And if a movie can make me feel horrible about snakes dying then well, there’s something going on. There’s another scene where an elderly couple almost gets smashed when Mann tries to enlist their help and a couple of others where it’s quite clear just how malicious the driver of the truck is. It starts out with the truck actually playing nice when around anyone other than Mann, but that soon devolves into outright aggression towards anyone unlucky enough to encounter Mann while the truck is in pursuit. And there’s no real reasoning to it. It’s just because the man driving the truck was an asshole who felt like doing it (no, really, that’s what Spielberg gave the driver as his motivation). And normally I roll my eyes at the villainy for villainy’s sake, but for something like this? It works.

Part of what makes it work is that the villain isn’t really human. You never see the truck’s driver. You see his arm once or twice, but his face is never shown. He’s incidental to the movie’s portrayal of the villain because the villain is the truck. It’s huge and beat up and not taken care of and it’s utterly inhuman. It’s almost as if this truck has no purpose other than to show up and terrorize random drivers. It’s not there to deliver anything or carry anything. It’s there to scare you and eventually kill you. It’s the serial killer with a mask on and it is implacable.

So yes, the tension worked for me. Too well in places. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie didn’t work nearly so well. Perhaps it’s that we were watching the longer theatrical cut of the movie and not the made for television version, but the pacing is kind of off at times. There are long stretches of road where nothing happens and all we get is Mann’s internal dialogue, at best. Or a lot of shots of him looking in his mirrors for the truck. It’s a whole lot of boring road and driving punctuated by a few tense scenes or action scenes. I really felt like the tension lessened a lot the more Mann drove, which was a pity. And part of that is the whole concept of the movie. It’s got a single lead character: Mann. No one else even comes remotely close, so he has to carry the whole movie. To give him some personality we get two things: His horrible internal dialogue that I wanted to turn off and a phone call to his wife.

The phone call to Mann’s wife serves a sole purpose: To demonstrate that Mann is the sort of guy who won’t even confront someone for groping his wife. That’s it right there. This is a guy who avoids confrontation at all costs. So it’s that much more of a build up until he snaps at the end. And I didn’t enjoy knowing that about him, but I appreciated why it was there. On the other hand, the internal dialogue is just annoying. It’s meant to show his rapidly unraveling thought process and to keep the movie from being utterly voiceless for vast swaths of time. What it ended up doing for me was making me tune out.

Overall, I can see why this movie has the reputation it has as a strange but fascinating thriller that manages to turn an inanimate object into a horrifying villain and spin out what is essentially a chase scene for an hour and a half. I got the tension and the thriller aspects and I might well have nightmares about trains and trucks. But I also got bored by it much of the time. It wasn’t balanced well enough for my taste. And the ending felt somewhat anticlimactic, to be honest. It’s a good example of an unfired Chekhov’s gun. Because if you’re going to have a huge and menacing truck with ‘FLAMMABLE’ written all over it, I expect an explosion. Perhaps Spielberg should have gotten a young Michael Bay to help him with that.

May 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Lucky Number Slevin

February 22, 2011

Lucky Number Slevin

It had been many years since I last watched this movie, and the circumstances of my first viewing were such that I didn’t really trust my memory of the film. I watched this movie back when I was managing the North Quincy Blockbuster location over the course of four lunch breaks. It was something I used to do to kill the time while eating lunch – I’d pick out a recent release and watch it in segments. It’s not a recommended way to view a film, and as a result I wasn’t sure just how well this movie worked as a whole. See, the film has three segments and I watched each on a different day so I didn’t know how well it fit together. There’s the hook, where we get a grizzly crime story in the opening that sets up the world of the movie. Then there’s the main body of the movie where we see an unfortunate individual struggling to stay afloat in this nasty world. And finally there’s the reveal, which explains how the two stories fit together and just what exactly has been going on the whole time.

After finally seeing the whole movie in a single sitting tonight I can happily say that it works wonderfully. The story of Sleven, an unlucky schlub who through a case of mistaken identity finds himself caught up in a deadly rivalry between two crime lords, is compelling and fascinating. From the opening story, narrated by a very mysterious Bruce Willis before he kills some random guy in a bus stop, we know just how bloody and dangerous this world is. We know that an innocent family man can be brutally murdered and his entire family as well if he makes the mistake of backing the wrong horse. So we know just how perilous things are for Slevin, which adds a lot of tension to the movie. That tension works in strange contrast to the majority of the film because Slevin is played by Josh Hartnett with a sly wit, and most of the movie is played for comedic effect.

Slevin is caught between a mob boss called “The Boss” and a Jewish crime lord called “The Rabbi” (because he’s a rabbi of course.) There’s a sinister hit man called Goodkat involved as well and a detective named Brikowski trying desperately to make sense of it all. There’s also the mystery of Slevin’s missing friend Nick Fisher, who owes vast sums of money to both mob bosses and for whom Slevin has been mistaken. Trying to figure everything out with Slevin is the neighbor from across the hall from Nick’s apartment, Lindsey, who is a free wheeling adventurous soul who enjoys trying to solve a mystery.

I can’t decide what I like more about this movie: the snappy, quick and clever script by Jason Smilovic or the amazing and brilliant cast. It’s a tragedy that this is Smilovic’s only feature film writing credit, because the script is pure brilliance. The dialog is fast, filled with pop culture references, and delivers both tension and humor in equal parts. That script in turn is brought to brilliant life by the group of ultra-high-caliber actors that make up the cast. Morgan Freeman is as always fantastic – full of gravitas and a slow burning fury as The Boss. His rival, The Rabbi, is played by Ben Kingsley as a caricature, but a sinister one. Kingsley can express so much with just a little gesture or exclemation. He takes a role that was written almost exclusively as parody and gives him an anguished soul. Bruce Willis plays the deadly killer Goodkat with his usual flare. The real stars, though, and the pair that give the most fun and life to the movie, are Josh Hartnett and Lucy Liu. The repartee between Slevin and Lindsey is so spontaneous, so entertaining, and so incongruous in a movie filled with brutal and deadly mob bosses that it wonderfully brings the whole movie to life.

I’m so glad that I own this movie. I’m glad we decided to put it in tonight, and I’m glad that I was able to share it with Amanda. We have so many glaring omissions in our collection (The Big Hit and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Out of Sight and Get Shorty all leap to mind) that it’s good to know the mob-caper-comedy genre is still in some way represented by a couple movies we own. I could watch Slevin and Lindsey together any day of the week.

February 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Prestige

December 29, 2010

The Prestige

This movie starts right out of the gate being clever. It dives right into the fantasy of the movie world without any of that mumbo-jumbo of having opening credits. It just has a title card – two words in bold type hovering over a field filled with top hats – the first hint in a long series of clever slight of hand that slowly reveals the secret behind this movie. Even without opening credits however this movie absolutely screams Christopher Nolan. It plays with time, jumping forward and back through the story in a very Chris Nolan way (familiar to anybody who’s seen Memento of the more recent Inception.) It stars some of his favorite actors in Christian Bale and Michael Caine. It has a fun mystery to it and a cool reveal at the end of the movie.

There are several tricks Nolan uses in the telling of this tale. I mentioned how he bounces back and forth in time. The plot revolves around a pair of rival magicians and their constant bitter and nasty attempts to destroy each other’s careers and lives. They discover much about how their lives played out by reading each other’s diaries. So we get narration, flash backs, flashes even further back, jumps forward… just keeping track of it all takes a lot of concentration. Just editing this together into a film that makes sense to the viewer must have been a herculean task. What’s even more astonishing though, is that all this cleverness is just misdirection. It’s the magician waving a handkerchief about while the real trick goes on in his other hand. Nolan wants you concentrating on all the plot threads, he wants you concentrating hard trying to figure out just what the actual sequence of events is so that he can cleverly work the real magic of the film right out in the open without you seeing it.

This movie is part mystery, part tragedy, part dark fantasy and all magic. It’s an homage to the art of magic, with detailed reveals that explain how some of the tricks work, but also a warning about the danger of becoming obsessed with that world. There’s an underlying theme that in order to become a truly great magician one has to be willing to make sacrifices. One of the rivals – Alfred Borden aka The Professor – understands this from the very start. His rival, Robert Angier, never seems to grasp it until near the end of the film. He wants to believe that great magic is possible even when his wife, early in his career, is tragically killed onstage while attempting an underwater escape. He has a great grasp of the necessary theatricality necessary but not of the sacrifice. Magic, this movie says to us, is a gruesome and brutal art form based on deception. The two lead characters are men consumed and destroyed by this constant deception.

There are layers upon layers to this film, with deep motivations for the characters that are not entirely clear in some cases until quite late in the movie. It must have been a wonderful pleasure for the actors to dig into these characters and bring them to life. Hugh Jackman plays the pathetic Angier, who is destroyed by his wife’s death and commits all of his efforts from that point on to the destruction of the man he holds responsible. Borden is played by Christian Bale, who in many ways has the hardest job here since his character is so hard to understand. Michael Caine is their mentor in the ways of magic and an inventor of clever contraptions to deceive the audience. Throw in a cameo by David Bowie as Nikola Tessla, the real life eccentric genius and inventor and a wonderful performance by Scarlett Johansson as Angier’s attractive assistant and you have probably one of the best casts you could possibly assemble. It’s their job to sell this warped, sad, tragic world of deception and betrayal.

I had this film spoiled for me before I watched it. I truly wish that I had not. It would have been so much more fun if I hadn’t known the trick behind it. But as you know if you’re a fan of Penn and Teller the best magic tricks are the ones that are still fascinating and fun to watch even when you know how they are done. Perhaps especially then because you can appreciate all the more the craft of the magician. Chistopher Nolan is a wonderful master of his craft, and it’s a joy to watch him work, so even with the ending spoiled for me in advance I completely loved this movie.

December 29, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie Project 259 – WarGames

WarGames – November 14th, 2010

Would you believe I had not seen this movie before today? Bizarre, right? How could I have missed this movie? It’s an 80s movie about hacking and global thermonuclear war, starring Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy. Why the hell didn’t I see this as soon as I was old enough to pick out my own movies at the video store? I love Ferris Beuller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club and pretty much ever hokey hacker-based movie ever made. I enjoy Hackers, okay? And what’s Hackers but a visually spiffed up 90s version of this with lower stakes? And yet. Tonight was my first full viewing of this movie.

Now, my first thought upon watching this was the one I expressed above regarding Hackers, but then I also thought this would be great paired with The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, what with the threat of nuclear war and the 80s and all. I’m also amused to be watching this movie, so very obviously set in the early 1980s with no real attempt at action at all, after last night’s super slick sci-fi action bonanza. It’s a pretty stark difference to see the two back to back. And I can even draw parallels! Last night’s V.I.K.I. to tonight’s W.O.P.R. (the dangerous computers with too much power). Last night’s Farber to tonight’s Malvin (the pointless comic relief characters who add nothing to the plot – though I do maintain that Shia LaBeouf is infinitely preferable to Eddie Deezen).

To be honest, though, aside from the huge gaping plot hole that there’s no way it would be that simple to break into NORAD’s computers, the basic tech shown here doesn’t ping as hard on my bullshit meter as Hackers always did. Kind of funny. Maybe it’s that Broderick’s character seems a little more true to what I’ve always assumed early hackers did: Lots of paper and tedious trial and error work. He sets up an auto-dialer to try and find numbers he can dial into. When Sheedy’s character comes to find him after he’s been gone from school for days she finds him in his room surrounded by papers and numbers and research. There’s an action research montage, complete with a physical card catalog! This is what I want out of my hacking movies. Paperwork and action research.

Of course the plot itself is patently ridiculous and over the top, but that’s kind of the point. The folks at NORAD, finding that human beings are too reluctant to bomb the commies, have handed the missile firing decisions over to a supercomputer, designed by a scientist named Falken, to run war simulations all the time. So theoretically the computer will always be able to make the right decision. Except this stupid hacker kid, David, breaks in thinking it’s a computer game company he’s found. And he decides to play this awesome-sounding game: Global Thermonuclear War! Unfortunately he can’t just quit and the computer has no failsafe built in to divide simulations from the real thing and now David, his friend Jennifer and the military bigwigs at NORAD need to figure out how to stop the computer from nuking Russia.

Ridiculous, right? But it helps that it’s set in the 1980s, with people who are absolutely incredulous that computers can even do these things and really, should we be trusting decisions like this to machines that don’t understand the consequences of their actions? It also helps that a lot of the movie is about this kid poking around where he shouldn’t and using the newness of it all to cover what he’s up to. No one’s caught him yet because the possibilities just aren’t widely enough known. There’s a charm to that sort of global naivete. And Matthew Broderick plays a good mischief-maker you can’t help but like. I like Ally Sheedy as Jennifer, who goes along with it all but while she’s not the computer-savvy one, she’s fully on board with watching David poke around at it. That’s me right there. It’s a fun movie with fun characters and the big obvious plot holes are ones I can forgive. I really can’t believe it took me this long to watch this.

November 14, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

WarGames

November 14, 2010

Wargames

I wish that we were reviewing this right after reviewing Hackers. It would be a more stark contrast. Hackers is a movie full of silly GUIs, impossible hacking and laughable technology. This movie is full of 1200 baud modems, 8 in. floppy disks (even bigger than the 5 1/4 inch disks I was used to on my Atari 800,) and all ascii displays. In short, although there is much that is implausible about the technology in this movie it feels a lot closer to my experience with computers of the day, which lends it an air of realism not often to be seen in movies. So it has some of the best and most realistic computer hacking in any Hollywood film. I see that Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes, the screen writers, went on to write Sneakers – which is another wonderfully plausible movie about hacking. Good job, guys!

This movie is so much a product of its time that it’s almost painful. Not just because of the “state of the art” computer technology on display. This is a movie that leverages the immanent threat of nuclear destruction during the cold war for most of its tension. It features a prominent picture of Ronald Regan at one point, implying that the never-on-screen President that people are constantly talking to is him. There is mention of the Soviets mobilizing their troops in East Germany.

A very young Matthew Broderick plays David, a video-game obsessed kid with more cool computer tech in his room than you could believe. In an attempt to hack into a game company to learn more about their new line-up of computer games he inadvertently stumbles upon a government mainframe. It is WOPR – the computer that has been assigned by the government with the task of planning a nuclear attack strategy against the possibility of World War III. In an attempt to impress a pretty girl (Ally Sheedy as Jennifer,) and with the shrill and annoying help of Eddie Deezen, David attempts to find a user name that the computer will recognise. (There’s a very cool research montage where David reads articles and visits the library to learn everything he can about the man who programmed the computer.) Unfortunately for him when he finally gets in the simulation the computer begins to run turns out a little too real.

WOPR can’t distinguish between a simulated war and a real one, and wreaks all kind of havoc at NORAD command as it seems to indicate that the Russians have launched a nuclear first strike. This gets David arrested and brought in for questioning, at which point he discovers that the computer is still playing the “game” and intends to start World War III for real in about fifty hours. So he has to escape from government custody and, with Jennifer’s help, track down the programmer who created WOPR. It’s a boy-hacker-adventure story – perfectly suited for an eleven-year-old me, so naturally I have quite fond memories of it.

And just look at all these familiar faces! Not just Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy (who I TOTALLY had a crush on from this movie, Breakfast Club and Short Circut) but also Dabney Coleman (from 9 to 5) Barry Corbin (from Twin Peaks) James Tolken (didn’t that guy ever have hair?) and Eddie Deezen (from 1941.) Maybe they’re not household names, but all of these great character actors in one place makes it feel like a whole bunch of familiar friends all together.

While we watched this Amanda asked me “Was this what you were like in the eighties?” to which I had to reply no. Then she asked “Was this what you WANTED to be like?” Well of course! What nerdish kid in the eighties didn’t want a room full of awesome computer tech, Ally Sheedy coming over to visit and an adventure into the heart of NORAD? Have I mentioned that I wrote “Global thermal nuclear war” in basic on my Atari? I just with it had had better graphics.

November 14, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 222 – The Bourne Ultimatum

The Bourne Ultimatum – October 8th, 2010

Last night when we finished the second movie Andy suggested waiting for midnight and putting this in immediately. I was tempted. Very tempted. Because while I did have issues with last night’s movie, I enjoyed it all the same, and knowing there was a third I was left very hopeful. After all, at the end of the second movie Bourne’s still dealing with some very difficult morality issues and his fractured memory and identity. He’s looking for answers about who he is and who he was and why he’s been doing what he knows he’s been doing. So even though it could all possibly end at the second movie, there’s plenty to work with for a third. But I was exhausted. And I wanted to sleep. I’m glad I did, because this is one hell of a tight movie, full of twists and double crosses, and I’m glad I watched it when I was awake enough to really pay attention to it.

I loved this movie. I loved every moment of it. For one, it starts off nice and tense, picking up where it left off in Moscow and setting Bourne up to be injured and on the run. So it starts out with risk involved and it never really lets up. That’s a far cry from the second movie, where yes, there’s danger, but it doesn’t last. Yes, there’s a plot point that sucks Bourne back towards the CIA but I think it was done far more elegantly this time and he was headed somewhat in that direction anyhow. And it all plays well into Bourne’s search for his past. I’m kind of hesitant to go into too much detail, to be honest. I could explain the plot and what it involves, but really, it would start to get spoilery so quickly.

The plot we get involves a leak to the press regarding Treadstone, which is now defunct, and Project Blackbriar, which was mentioned in the end of the first movie and which is easily assumed to be something equally or more dangerous than Treadstone was. The leak gets the attention of Noah Vosen, played by David Strathairn, and that’s where all the big shit starts. I like David Strathairn. No, scratch that. I fucking love David Strathairn. Dude’s a badass with glasses and a mild voice. I’d say he’s on a level with Joan Allen as an unexpected badass. Someone professional and cool and collected. The big difference between Strathairn’s Vosen at the start of this movie and Allen’s Landy is that Landy in the last was working without everything she needed. She started out behind Bourne and never quite caught up. Vosen starts out with an upper hand. He knows who and what Bourne is and what he’s capable of and he has tools on the same level at his disposal. I immediately feel like Bourne’s at risk, even though he’s just as tough as always. And then Landy’s brought on board with Vosen and Bourne’s doubly in danger because Landy almost had him when she was at a disadvantage and now she’s distinctly better armed. It’s a lovely set-up. Fast paced and tense, with just the right element of danger involved.

What really strikes me now that I think about it is that this movie goes back to something from the first one, which is that the enemy Bourne is dealing with is someone who knows him better than he knows himself – theoretically at least. He has allies, and some unexpected ones at that, but his opponent is another chess master, playing by some creative rules. I am reminded in one scene of a game called Fluxx. It’s a card game and on the surface it’s a simple one. There are item cards, there are action cards, and there are also cards that set the instructions for how many cards you can have, how many cards to draw, how many to play each turn. And there are goal cards that set the winning conditions. And every turn the rules change. That is how the game works. You play a card and suddenly the goal your opponent was playing for is gone and one that you’ve got the cards for is in place. Winning is a matter of setting everything up right. When Vosen says it’s over when they win? I can’t help but think that he’s looking at a win condition that someone else might change in the next turn. That’s the sort of movie this is.

I can’t help but admire this entire setup. Where last night felt like amateur hour every so often, tonight feels like watching artists at work. There are so many double crosses it’s brilliant. There’s genuine risk, and it’s at such a high level it forces Bourne and Landy to both work at the top of their games because Vosen’s working at the top of his and he’s got resources. It heightens the entire movie for me. There’s at least one moment mid-movie where I laughed out of pure delight as what had just transpired, with all three leads involved in something so twisty I didn’t quite see it coming. The movie deftly works in issues of morality that surface for many of the characters, not just Bourne. He’s a catalyst for many of the key players. Landy, Nicky, at least one of the assassins he faces. The movie has some amazing plotting, writing and direction as well as once more demanding fantastic performances from its leads. And when it was over I was so thrilled with what I’d seen, I was left speechless for a little while. That’s one hell of a movie.

October 8, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment