A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

A History of Violence

October 10, 2011

A History of Violence

I bought this movie for a couple reasons. It had a cool looking preview with Vigo Mortensen and Ed Harris. It’s based on a comic book (and and as you know I buy everything that’s based on a comic book, be it worth while or not.) And as was often the case it was pre-viewed at the Blockbuster where I worked so I figured well, why not? As we watched the opening credits I was interested to see that it was directed by David Cronenberg, famous for making great horror movies in the eighties like the re-make of The Fly, Scanners and Videodrome. I was even more interested to see that the music was composed by Howard Shore, who created the amazing, vast, epic score for the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

This is a movie about a man’s past catching up with him. Tom Stall is a simple man who owns a diner in the quiet middle America town of Millbrook. He has a wife and two children. He has a piece of crap pickup that won’t start. He is as completely typically all American as all get out. When a pair of completely cold blooded killers show up in his diner though and try to rob the place and threaten to kill his staff he lashes out, killing both of them. He’s all over the news after that, and a mob boss from Philadelphia shows up in town threatening him and his family because this boss thinks that Tom is Joey Cusack – the son of a rival mobster and an accomplished hit man.

Of course Mr. Fogarty is right. Tom Stall is Joey Cusack, or at least he was, and this movie is about what happens when his life of crime runs smack into his peaceful rural existence. He’s never told his wife, or his children, or anybody in town who he used to be, and when they start to figure it out it begins to tear them apart.

I have to admit that I was somewhat surprised by this movie. It wasn’t at all what the cool previews had led me to expect. I thought this was going to be a guns-a-blazing modern western with one man killing the entire Pennsylvania mob to protect his family. It’s not that movie though. Oh, sure, Tom does eventually kill a whole lot of guys, but it’s not a thrill-packed action adventure. Instead it’s a much more introspective look at the destructive nature of violence, though in the end I’m not sure what the moral is meant to be. It seems to ask if there’s a way to kill enough bad guys to earn the right to earn a peaceful life, but it doesn’t offer an answer to that question.

Rather than an over-the-top action film what Cronenberg delivers here is an intense character study. This is a movie about repercussions. It’s a movie about extreme violence that tries hard not to glorify it. For the most part I think it succeeds, too, and it’s thanks to some restrained direction (according to the trivia on IMDB Cronenberg edited heavily to keep the film more grounded in reality and less actiony. The success of the movie is also due to some fantastic performances. Vigo Mortenson is of course fantastic. I’ve come to expect a deep and nuanced performance out of him with what could have been relatively simple roles and he does not disappoint. Then there’s Ed Harris, who is wonderfully creepy as mob boss Carl Fogarty. Near the end of the film the always astonishing William Hurt shows up in a very short but Oscar nominated appearance as Joey’s made-man brother Richie. The most powerful performance in the movie, however, and the role that really drives the plot and makes the movie work is Maria Bello as Tom’s unsuspecting wife Edie. She is the one most tortured by the revelation that the man she married is not at all the man she thought he was, and Maria completely sells this powerful emotional story.

As for Howard Shore’s score, well it really does a great job of building the tension in the movie. If you’re paying attention (which I was) you can tell that it’s the composer of the Lord of the Rings score, but he reigns himself in in much the same way that Cronenberg does. This is not a bombastic or epic movie. It is a little intimate character study of a movie (with a couple cool action scenes.) Shore keeps the music simple, presenting us with a pleasant theme for Tom’s simple home life and a tense driving theme for Joey’s world.

My only complaint, aside from the one about this completely not being the movie I was expecting from the advertisements, is that Cronenberg lays it on pretty heavily at the start of the film when establishing just how idyllic Tom’s country home life is. We get to see a cute romantic sex scene between him and his wife. We see his daughter having a nightmare (and the whole family comforting her.) We see his son bullied at school. It’s almost excessively perfect. I know that Cronenberg is trying to stress just how much Tom has to lose, but by making it almost unbelievably wonderful he robs the film of some of its gritty realism. It brings the movie into a sort of heightened cinema reality that seems somehow less impactful.

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

Taken

October 6, 2011

Taken

I’m curious about this movie. I bought it because I had heard it was a cool thriller about a guy killing bad guys to rescue his daughter. I have been looking forward to seeing it for months because I just wanted to see Liam Neeson kicking bucketloads of ass. Like Danny the Dog this is a film written by Luc Besson. I think I know what to expect from such a film. Every time I’ve suggested watching it, though, Amanda has been strangely reticent. She really doesn’t want to see this movie and I’ve not been sure why.

The set up for this movie is so straight forward and simple. Liam Neeson plays Bryan Mills, a retired CIA spook who sometimes has an Irish accent and sometimes does not. He’s living a sort of sad lonely life, trying to re-connect with his teenaged daughter. She’s just turned seventeen and is spoiled rotten by her mother’s new husband who is some kind of oil magnate. His ex-wife will barely let him see the girl, though and all his memories of her are sadly out of date. She’s not the little five year old who used to want to be a singer any more. He’s just a hardened man with a mysterious history of special ops. All we really know about him is that he’s dangerous and good at what he does.

Mills has grave misgivings when his daughter tells him that she’s planning a trip to Paris. Now normally this would not be much of an issue. He is clearly overreacting. Teenagers go on trips to Paris all the time. If this were any movie but this one he would just be a paranoid and somewhat controlling absentee father. Of course that would not make much of a movie. So almost as soon as her plane lands she is abducted by a ring of Albanian sex merchants whose MO is to kidnap women, addict them to drugs and sell them into slavery. There’s no particular reason that she is targeted – she’s just a young girl on her own in Paris. It’s just bad luck.

Bad luck mostly for the Albanians. And everyone connected with them. The whole rest of the movie is just about Mills killing everybody between him and his daughter. He’s not a subtle operator. He’s an unstoppable killing machine who leaves destruction in his wake. Which is, of course, the appeal of the movie.

I can see where Amanda’s objection to the movie comes from. The world portrayed here is an ugly and brutal one that hates women. There’s no denying that every female in this movie is a victim, and the whole driving force of the film is provided by constant reminders that somewhere out there Mills’ innocent daughter is being abused in unspeakable ways. We see the horrifying fate that lies before her in no uncertain terms, and most of the other girls in this movie (who are not lucky enough to have an unstoppable CIA killer for a father) do not appear to get rescued. Dreadful and awful things are happening to women in this movie, and I can see why it makes Amanda feel angry. It also makes her angry that it is implied that these women cannot help themselves but must wait passively for a man to come along and save them.

I don’t think that is the intent of the movie though. Perhaps it’s an unfortunate implication, but it doesn’t appear to me that the fate of these women is ever portrayed in a salacious manner. It’s never meant to be erotic or appealing. It’s all there to give Mills a reason to be an uncompromising badass and to vilify the many, many people he has to kill on his mission. He’s going to maim, torture and kill just about every person he meets in this movie, and frankly you want to see this righteous vengeance meted out to these despicable, awful people.

I have to admit that for the most part I enjoyed seeing Liam Neeson kicking ass for an hour and a half. His character thinks nothing of walking into a room full of armed slimeballs and killing every one of them with his bare hands, and like I said, the folks he kills here are people you want to see killed. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I enjoyed the movie as a whole, because the atrocities that you witness as his motivation are not fun at all, but it’s cool to see him going all Jack Bauer all over the place. I even bought that this older gentleman could easily mop the floor with all these young mobsters – he’s just so steely eyed and determined. My one complaint about Neeson would be his wandering accent. Why is an Irish ex-pat a CIA covert operator? And why, when he’s pretending to be a French police officer (speaking English for some reason) are the Albanians not even the least bit suspicious?

As we watched Amanda proposed that a gender-swapped version of the film might be more viewable. She would rather see a story about a kickass unstoppable woman killing rapists and pimps, and do you know what? I’d really like to see that movie too.

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

Movie 569 – Danger: Diabolik

Danger: Diabolik – September 20th, 2011

As with most of our done-by-MST3K movies, this is probably my fault. I don’t know why, but every time I see a movie MST3K featured in an episode I feel like I need to buy it and have an unaltered copy. I don’t know that I ever truly planned to watch things like this and The Deadly Mantis. I just liked knowing I had them. I grabbed this one from the video store we used to work at in Pennsylvania. Can you imagine, they were selling this off? How could they?! But there it was, getting shrink wrapped to go in the used VHS bin. So we snapped it up, and regardless of who initially picked it up – me or Andy – I will take the blame here. I’m always willing to take the blame for non-MST3K versions of MST3K movies. Always.

Now, I will say that this one was special. It was featured in the very last MST3K episode and consequently, I think we’ve seen it twice. Most of the other episodes out there, well, we’ve seen them oodles of times. But it was hard to watch the last episode. I’m veering away from the movie a bit, but I’ll come back to it. I just think it’s worth explaining that MST3K was incredibly important to me when I was in my teens. I didn’t make friends easily and suddenly I had a bunch thanks to the online fan forums. Andy and I started talking because he saw a couple of tapes I was letting a mutual friend borrow. So when a bunch of the people I knew online all got together to watch the end of the show together (I think there were about 30 of us) it was hard. I cried, and I wasn’t the only one in tears. Consequently, we never put the episode featuring this movie into our VCR. Ever. I can remember tons of specific moments because I associate them with watching the episode in a room full of my friends and fellow MSTies. The line “Is that stud coming?” caught us all by surprise and I will never forget it. But while this movie is precisely the sort of cheese I adore, I do not know it nearly as well as I would like.

And what sort of cheese would that be? Why, a 1960s romp with a super suave master thief named Diabolik! It’s based on a long-running comic serial from Italy and oh, oh does it show. Diabolik himself is played by a young John Phillip Law (this came out the same year as Barbarella to give you an idea of how young) and he’s basically a criminal but the hero at the same time. He has a super secret lair where he lives with his sexy girlfriend, Eva, and he drives fast cars and has lots of gadgets and is generally incredibly clever and smooth. He steals from anyone he likes, whenever he likes. Watching this I am put in mind of a combo of spy movies like Bond the newer Mission: Impossible movies (since I don’t know the older show) and then also the show It Takes a Thief, where the hero is a master thief working for the government (a plot which has been recycled more than a few times). The big difference here is that Diabolik is really just out for himself. He hasn’t been given assignments by anyone. His illegal actions aren’t sanctioned by some secret organization. Nope. He just likes stealing stuff.

Does it really matter what the specific plot is in this movie? Diabolik steals stuff! People try to stop him! He gets away! He and Eva roll around in a spiral-shaped bed covered in money! He tries to steal more stuff! He almost gets caught! He does get caught! But maybe he’ll still get away with it! The particulars aren’t so much a concern to me. But I suppose they might be a concern to someone else. We begin with Diabolik stealing an enormous sum of money from the government using a smoke screen. An actual smoke screen, not a metaphorical one. The government and police are pretty ticked off, so they up the stakes and crack down on every criminal and illegal business they can find. Crime lord Valmont gets ticked off by that and makes a deal with the police to deliver Diabolik to them. He kidnaps Eva and uses her to try and get Diabolik (and some emeralds Diabolik had stolen for Eva) but Diabolik gets the better of him and escapes with Eva. And the emeralds. This only escalates everything and after destroying all tax records with a bomb, Diabolik is able to try and steal molten gold that the government is selling off. This proves to be his undoing and the movie ends with him trapped in his heatproof suit, having been sprayed with molten gold when the police raided his hideout.

Look, don’t try to make sense of it. It’s all ridiculous and over the top. But that’s the point. It’s supposed to be outrageous and unbelievable. After all, what good would the story of a regular thief and his not-so-daring exploits be? The character is meant to be larger than life, with his underground lair and all. Not that it makes it a truly high quality film, but a lot of the stranger stuff in it is clearly informed by the comics it’s based on. What I find strange about that is that there’s a lot of talk about dollars in the movie and when Eva and Diabolik are rolling around in their ill-gotten gains the money looks like US currency. But the movie was filmed in Rome and it’s clearly dubbed, not to mention it’s based on a series of Italian comics that weren’t in wide circulation in the US at the time. While personally, I think the movie is fantastic and fun, I can see how it might be a hard sell, given the lack of anything explaining the character’s motivations and his thoroughly anti-establishment nature. Still, I’m not complaining that it exists. I do enjoy it, after all. Not enough to put in the MST3K episode more often, but maybe since I own it un-MSTed, I’ll put that in once in a while.

September 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 565 – The Ninth Gate

The Ninth Gate – September 16th, 2011

I am once again visiting a friend of mine for the weekend, so Andy and I watched our movies for the weekend separately. It’s very different, watching a movie without him. But in the case of this movie, I’m fairly sure I watched it without him the first time I saw it too. In fact, I’m fairly sure I watched it in the same place, with the same friend. It’s a movie she enjoys and I remember watching it in her living room and I don’t ever remember watching it at home. In fact, we didn’t own it until after this project started. It was one of the cheap DVDs we got from my coworker’s husband. So while I watched this in one state with the friend who introduced me to it, Andy watched it in another state, by himself. Sorry, Andy.

I find this movie to be highly amusing mostly because it is one of the few movies that has Action Antiquarian Book Research. This whole movie is about a hunt for a set of rare books and the collectors who want them. Okay, it’s also about the devil and arcane rites and power, but mostly it’s about rare books. Oh, and about how the devil, or one of the devil’s minions, has a thing for Johnny Depp. But come on. Johnny Depp. Duh. Of course the devil wants him. I’m not entirely prepared to rule out that he has made a deal with the devil, really, what with him not aging and all. Sort of like Iman. Wait, where was I. Got distracted by gorgeous people who age gracefully. Right. Johnny Depp. He’s not quite as rogueish here as he is in things like Pirates of the Caribbean or The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, but he’s not too far removed. As rare book buyer/dealer Dean Corso he is frequently unscrupulous, often underhanded and definitely charming.

Now, here is where I digress a little bit and talk about rare books. One might think that the rare book world is a fairly sedate one. And to an extent that’s true. On the other hand, it does have its fantastic stories. Take, for example, Steven Blumberg, who licked bookplates off of rare books he stole from universities. Yes, you read that right. He used his own saliva to dampen the bookplates without harming the pages they were attached to, then peeled them off. He crawled through air vents, stole lock cylinders, impersonated staff members and stole millions of dollars’ worth of rare books. Not even to sell. He stole them because he wanted to “properly” care for them himself. They had to set up a special task force to identify and return the books he stole. The rare book world is fierce, okay? Aside from the actual supernatural element to this story, I do not for one moment find it hard to believe that a collector looking to acquire the “authentic” version of a book or the plates inside it would go to extreme measures. Okay, maybe not quite this extreme, but still.

And how extreme are we talking? Well, murder is pretty extreme, obviously. Corso is hired by collector Boris Balkan to authenticate his copy of a book entitled The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows. There are two other surviving copies out there and he charges Corso with the task of looking at them and comparing them to each other. What Corso finds is that each copy is authentic, but each is slightly different. There are a number of engravings in the book, but looking at them together, each book has three engravings with the initials LCF and the rest with the initials of the author. And each book has a different set of LCF engravings. Clearly there’s something mysterious afoot, right? Of course. There was a story that the author made a deal with the devil and that got him burned as a witch and his books destroyed. The surviving copies would seem to be a curiosity, except that as Corso researches them and travels to find the other two copies, people keep showing up dead and the books themselves go missing or are damaged. And then there’s the mysterious woman following him around.

It’s not really clear whether Corso deals with the devil itself or with a minion. It’s not like the character has a name in the credits or anything obvious like that. But what is clear is that she’s got some pull in dark places. And she doesn’t want Balkan or any of the other collectors or dealers who handle the books. She wants Corso. And, as my friend says, “she’s fun!” And she is! She plays with him and teases him and she doesn’t actually do things for him. She points the way and lets him figure most of it out on his own. She’s also remarkably low key, which explains why she’s not terribly impressed by all the fancy trappings of the cult and ceremony later in the movie. She’s one of the three major reasons that I do like and enjoy the movie, despite its director.

The other two reasons would be Johnny Depp, whom I do enjoy watching, and the rare book action. I just find it thoroughly fantastic that the movie is this dangerous quasi-action thriller based entirely around rare books. It means there are lots of tense scenes where Corso carefully examines engravings and discusses bindings and paper. Of course, it also features him smoking around the rare book and carrying it around, unwrapped, in his satchel. But whatever. My friend and I figure that the smoking is a conceit of the film, because there’s almost always some sort of fire when the book is out and visible on screen. Still, the librarian in me cringes at how the book is handled. Gloves, people! Gloves and acid free boxes! I guess since it’s really only ultimately valuable for the engravings no one cares if it gets some finger smudges.

Anyhow, I do enjoy the movie. It’s a fun supernatural thriller and it does focus on books, so it’s not surprising that I like that aspect of it. But it’s also not really my genre and I’m no fan of Polanski, so I doubt I’d have gone out of my way to buy this had a used copy not been available cheaply and easily. Mostly I enjoy it for the company I’ve watched it with. This particular friend is a very good one and she very much enjoys this movie but didn’t seem to mind my snarking on how the book was handled, which makes it all the more fun to watch.

September 16, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 537 – Pitch Black

Pitch Black – August 19th, 2011

Would you believe I hadn’t seen this movie before tonight? Wild, right? Because I’ve seen the sequel about eighty million times and I’ve got a family connection to it. How could I not have seen it? I have no idea. There is no reason, logical or illogical, for me not to have seen it. I just didn’t. I knew of it, of course. I knew the basic plot, I knew a couple of twists, I knew that the writers who came up with the story are Andy’s uncles. Yeah. I knew all of that. And yet this somehow never made it onto the television while I was in the room. I never flipped past it while exercising. I had never seen it. A truly bizarre situation, if you ask me. But I suppose I have only my own laziness to blame for never putting it in when I had the time. Except in the past year and a half, because we’ve been saving this.

Going into this I already knew I liked the main character. Riddick is one of the baddest of bad-asses and he’s snarky too. I do love a snarky bad-ass and I hope you do too. So I was excited to see the movie where he was introduced. Sure enough, he’s a bad-ass here too. Which is to be expected, but I was definitely not disappointed in him here. He’s a good solid character and Vin Diesel does a great job with him, so I think he works as a center to the movie, which he has to be, because the rest of the cast might as well be named Prey.

We start out with a ship full of passengers getting ripped a few new holes thanks to some space debris pinging through the hull and acting like a bullet in a torso. I’m not going to quibble with physics here, so let’s just run with the fact that while there is a lot of damage and there are a few casualties, the ship is largely intact and can be landed. The ship’s pilot wants to jettison the passengers to save herself and the other surviving crewmember, but he stops her and then dies when the ship lands so she doesn’t have to tell anyone she doesn’t give two shits about them when it comes to her own survival. Anyhow, moving on! The survivors are a motley bunch whose notable members are a merc, an unattached minor, a group of religious pilgrims, a fussy rich dude and a fairly generic couple who don’t get nearly enough time on screen to give themselves distinguishing features before they die. Oh, and the pilot. And Riddick.

The ship has crash landed on a desert planet orbiting multiple suns, so when one sets another is rising, leading to a lot of blindingly bright scenes in the beginning. The survivors quickly realize they’ll need to salvage supplies from the ship and make a shelter or find one. Riddick gets loose, of course, so when one of the survivors dies while digging graves everyone assumes it was him. Which come on, that’s a logical assumption given that he’s known to have killed people before. They find an abandoned geological research station with a model of the solar system and a little emergency ship they decide to try and use. The trouble is that they’ve now realized that there’s something alive on the planet, below the surface, and when a huge planet rises to eclipse the suns, those somethings come out to play.

From there on the movie becomes a survival action movie. I mean, it was to begin with too, but the beginning of the movie is a stark contrast to the end. Where the blinding sun and white-yellow palette of the beginning combined to make the movie feel oppressively hot and tense, the darkness of the eclipse and rush of the alien creatures makes the rest of the movie cold and claustrophobic and fast-paced. Honestly, I can’t praise the visuals enough. There’s a really nice sense of environment in this movie and the contrast between the two sections is, while a little obvious, necessary to the specifics of the creatures and nicely done.

So we’ve got survival horror/action/sci-fi going on here, but an added bonus is that the hero of the movie is a criminal. Sure, he’s a bad-ass who actually faces down one of the creatures near the end, but he’s also a killer. And there’s some question as to whether he’s actually going to help save the people with him or leave them to their deaths. And I like that extra tension. The aliens on their own are pretty good monsters but with an additional human monster? And one we’ve been guided to like with the help of snappy dialogue and snarky attitude? That’s well done. My only real complaint there is that the pilot, Caroline Fry, is also set up to be someone who’s been willing to sacrifice others for her own survival. And there seems to be something there. An attempt to set the two, Fry and Riddick, against each other. Two rogues who care mostly about their own survival, one a criminal no one expects to care and one a pilot who was supposed to. But it never quite works. The material is there but the plot never makes enough use of it to really impact the movie in a meaningful way.

There’s a heck of a lot this movie does right, so I don’t really want to bog down my review by nitpicking things that don’t work quite so well but here are a few issues: Some of the characters are pretty shallow. I wanted a little more time spent on the “It’s been 22 years since that geology station was abandoned – maybe that means something!” deal, because I assume that was a reference to the eclipse, but it’s never really explained. Where did the rain come from? Given the notes I’ve read from Ken and Jim Wheat, they had a whole ecosystem in mind for the planet but it didn’t make it into the final product. Which is understandable, given that the movie as is exists mostly on the surface, so explaining the underground ecosystem would have been hard to work in. The tricky thing is that when things like that are stripped out, a concept like this planet with its dark-dwelling denizens ends up without as much depth to explain things left in because they’re necessary. The rain provides a good additional mood to the darkness and a contrast to the stifling dry heat of the light, but without the ecosystem, it doesn’t make as much sense.

The one other issue I have with the movie is the character of Riddick himself. Now, I’ve already made it clear that I love him. I think he’s a fantastic character and Vin Diesel inhabits him very well. The shiny eyes that see in the dark are only a bonus, really. They give the character something distinguishing that sets him apart from the norm, and they make him essential later on (and I do love his night vision – the visual effects of his vision and the creatures’ vision are nicely done). But were you aware that the main character wasn’t going to be a man named Riddick? As written, the original main character was a woman named Taras Krieg who was supposed to be more of an outlaw than a murderer, but still. Much as I enjoy watching Vin Diesel be awesome, I would have loved to see a bad-ass woman being all awesome and cocky and morally grey just as much if not more. And I find it frustrating that the movie didn’t get made with her. There are all sorts of reasons why it didn’t happen. Why it got changed. Reasons I don’t have the energy to delve into. But I can’t help but sigh wistfully at what might have been.

August 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Jacket

August 13, 2011

The Jacket

I had been somewhat reluctant to watch this. Reluctant because although I had some vague notion of the plot from repeated viewings of the preview I wasn’t sure how it was as a movie. It’s always a risk when you buy a movie based only on the previews, and especially so when it is such a strange and unsettling preview. I’m glad I picked it up, though, because the movie turned out to be one of those unexpected delights we’ve discovered in our collection from time to time.

In many ways this movie reminds me of one of my favorite films of all time: Twelve Monkeys. It also deals with issues of insanity and time travel. This movie also involves a hero who is moving between times and who appears crazy to those he interacts with because of it. Unlike James Cole, however, Jack Starks is moving forward in time, so he knows how things are going to end up – he just doesn’t know how they get there.

I’m getting ahead of myself though. At the start of this movie Jack isn’t traveling through time. He’s dying from a gunshot wound to the head. He’s a soldier in the first Gulf War who is discharged after being so gravely wounded that the doctors assumed that he was dead. His memory is badly damaged, however and he begins to lose his grip on time and reality. Then he runs into trouble. One winter afternoon as he is hitchhiking in the woods he comes across a young girl and her drunken mother who are stranded because their truck won’t start. He is able to get the truck running, and forms a kind of friendship with the young girl, but the mother shoos him off. Instead of getting a ride with them he gets a ride with a shifty individual driving towards Canada. Very soon he and his new companion are pulled over by the police and then… something happens. What exactly is not immediately clear, but Jack is in very short order convicted of the killing of that unfortunate police officer and sentenced to be treated in a mental hospital for his amnesia and post traumatic stress. He has only very vague recollections of that night and the woman and her daughter seem to have vanished.

That’s the set-up. The meat of the movie is a sort of mystery. There’s a fairly less-than-ethical doctor working in the asylum who has been using unorthodox treatments on some of the patients. Dr. Becker is dragging his subjects out of bed in the middle of the night, shooting them full of drugs, putting them in a heavy straight-jacket and locking them in a morgue drawer. He seems to think that this will help to break down mental barriers in his patients. And he’s a bit of a control freak and sadist as well. When Jack is in the jacket however he somehow escapes.

At first it’s not clear in the movie if he enters a dream or if it’s a flashback or a lost memory, but Jack finds himself waiting outside a diner. A young woman comes out and, as a Christmas Eve act of charity offers him a lift. He has no particular place to go, and the woman Jackie is clearly lonely and somewhat unhinged herself, so he ends up at her apartment. He attempts to make friends with her, and things seem to be going well until he makes an unnerving discovery: a pair of dog tags with his own name on them in Jackie’s apartment. Dog tags that he had given to the girl in the woods before the events that landed him in the hospital.

When he confronts Jackie about the dog tags he discovers that she actually is that girl, that he is somehow fifteen years in the future, and that he, Jack Starks, died almost fifteen years ago just after New Years. So now he has to somehow convince Jackie that he actually is that man from her childhood who gave her the dog tags, and he needs to find out how he is going to have died.

Soon Jack finds himself back in the mental hospital. His whole time with Jackie might only have been a delusion or a dream, but he now believes that he’s going to die in just a few days and he needs to get back into the future to find out how – and the only way to do that is to get back in the jacket. Each time Dr. Becker inflicts his treatment on Jack he discovers a little more about his future and about Jackie and her mother and what happens to other people in the asylum. Slowly he comes to accept that his strange trips are real visions of the future and he desperately tries to find a way to alter what is going to happen, even as most everyone around him becomes more and more convinced of his insanity.

What makes this movie exceptional is the high level of the acting and direction. Adrien Brody as Jack was part of the reason I bought the movie in the first place. He’s such a fantastic actor and I was curious to see what he had lent his talents to here. What I had not expected was the high caliber of the entire cast. Particularly note-worthy are Daniel Craig as one of the inmates – he has completely transformed himself with all the nervous twitches and desperate looks from the familiar steely action hero I’m more used to seeing him portray. Dr. Becker is played by Kris Kristofferson with a mad passion in the scenes involving him in the hospital and with a quiet despair when jack meets him in the future. And, oh, what an amazing actress Keira Knightly has proven herself to be. As Jackie she’s quiet, desperate, and broken. She’s so effortlessly able to create this entire character from just a few furtive glances at Jack.

The direction by John Maybury and stellar editing by Emma E. Hickox take these amazing performances and this great tension filled story and make it all into a strange kind of dream. We as viewers are drawn into the story by a sense of disorientation akin to that which Jack himself is feeling. Everything initially feels very disjointed and out of sync. In the same way that Jack questions his own sanity we have to question what exactly is going on. As the movie progresses Jack slowly becomes less catatonic, jolted into action by his impending demise and as he starts to take action the film slowly becomes more coherent and less fragmented.

I was so pleasantly surprised as we watched this. I hadn’t known what to expect and what I got was a treat. A supernatural thriller involving time travel and insanity. A story about broken people taking control of their own lives. An unexpected core of tenderness underneath all the angst. I had braced myself for something rough and confusing, but what I got was a polished gem of a movie that perfectly pushed every one of my buttons.

August 13, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 524 – Jaws: The Revenge

Jaws: The Revenge – August 6th, 2011

I had heard things about this movie. Not good things, I assure you. Just, things. Andy explained to me that it actually bore the tagline “This time, it’s personal.” Which has to be a joke. It’s a joke, right? This whole movie is a joke? I can’t think that it could possibly have been made seriously. The people responsible had to have known they were making something thoroughly ridiculous. It’s a movie about a shark hunting down members of the Brody family and attacking them, from Amity Island in New England to the Bahamas. How can anyone involved have looked at that plot idea and looked at the prior movies and not realized they were making a joke? They can’t have. It’s impossible.

While talking about the movie with Andy, I mentioned that it’s possible to read this movie semi-seriously if one assumes it’s all happening inside the head of Ellen Brody, Chief Brody’s wife. The movie starts out on Amity Island, where Sean Brody has taken his late father’s place on the island’s tiny police force. It’s Christmastime and he’s about to spend the evening with his mother and his fiancee when he gets called out to deal with a log that’s stuck on one of the channel markers. Apparently this was a trap set by the shark, which snaps his arm off as he reaches out to move the log, then gobbles him up. Overcome with grief, Ellen is convinced to join her elder son, Michael, and his family down in the Bahamas for the holiday. Where the shark again appears, this time coming after Michael, his daughter Thea and Ellen herself before Ellen kills it.

Throughout the movie Ellen has nightmares and frequently obsesses over her remaining son and his family living near and working in and around the ocean. She begs Michael to give up his research on conchs and take a teaching job somewhere safely inland. And when the shark shows up near the boat Michael and his research team are working on, ignoring the rest of the team in favor of going after Michael alone, Ellen knows something has happened even though she’s not at all nearby. She tells Michael that the shark’s killed both his father and his brother, to which Michael responds that his father died of a heart attack. Ellen claims that it was fear of the shark that gave him that heart attack. So this is my theory: While this movie could well be just poorly plotted and ill-conceived, cashing in on the franchise and trying for cheese but falling just short of it, it’s also possible that someone had some sort of purpose and was going for a psychological thriller concept.

Oh, I’m not saying it’s well done. I mean, if the psychological thriller aspect was intentional, then it was very poorly executed. It almost makes me wish that it had been intentional and that someone had managed to pull it off. After all, even though this movie is clearly ignoring Jaws 3 in its timeline, we’re still talking about a family that’s had more than its share of close calls with sharks. I can easily see Chief Brody camped out up in his shark watch tower, year round, thermos of coffee and a shotgun close at hand, obsessing over the shark for the rest of his life. I can see that sort of obsession taking its toll on him and on his marriage. On his wife. On his children. So his wife obsessing to the point of fantasizing that her entire family is in danger from the shark? That she’s the one who ultimately saves the day? Toss in the burgeoning romance between her and the pilot who brings them to the Bahamas and I could buy that. I want to buy that.

Unfortunately, even if someone involved with the movie did have that idea at some point in the making of it, it wasn’t really incorporated into what ended up on the screen. According to some reading I’ve done on the movie, apparently the whole revenge thing and the shark’s obsession with the Brody family was supposed to be due to a witch doctor using voodoo to kill them all off. I like my version better. It’s at least less culturally offensive. It does rely on the old “it was all a dream” trope, but that’s the least of this movie’s problems, to be honest.

I won’t say that the performances are bad. They’re adequate. Same for pretty much everything here. It’s all just adequate. Which means that there’s nothing to elevate the absolutely laughable plot to something other than bad. And they’re not self-aware enough about what sort of movie they’re in to take it to cheese levels. I mean, this movie has Michael Caine in it as the pilot who flirts with Ellen Brody. This movie has Michael Caine! And the best I can say about it is that the scenery is pretty and the performances don’t suck. And that it has Michael Caine, whom I do adore no matter what. I hope he made decent money from this and I wish it had been a better movie. I wish it had tried to go in one way or another, fantastically bad or chillingly good, because bobbing along in between just makes for a mess that nothing – not even Ellen Brody’s gigantic shoulder pads – can save.

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

Movie 499 – The X-Files: I Want to Believe

The X-Files: I Want to Believe – July 12th, 2011

When this came out in theaters Andy and I were so far removed from the show that it never really came up in conversation. We didn’t go see it and we didn’t rent it and the only reason we own it now is because my coworker’s husband had it used and was willing to sell it cheap. Going into it this evening we were a little worried that having skipped out on the later seasons of the show we wouldn’t be able to follow what was going on in the movie. Luckily for us, for the most part this movie isn’t really a part of the Big Mysterious Plot Arc that the first one tackled. If the first movie is an extended episode tying into the plot arc, this one is just plain an extended episode, complete with unexplained phenomena that never get explained, gruesome murders and plenty of Mulder and Scully butting heads.

Unfortunately for us, the movie is very clear that it takes place well after the events at the end of the series. How do I know this? Well, because both Mulder and Scully have left the FBI, Mulder is wanted by them and there are several points where it’s clear that the almost-kiss from the first movie clearly heralded a much more intimate relationship. Around when Mulder’s head pops up from beside Scully in bed, Andy and I both said “Well, we did miss something.” And then I looked it up and yeah. We missed a lot. Not that I’m invested enough to go digging around for the episodes, but yeah. Apparently they were not opposed to hopping into bed together, even after some time apart. The movie doesn’t really make it clear how close they’ve been in recent years. Scully’s working as a doctor at a Catholic hospital and Mulder’s living in a rural area, obsessing over supernatural stuff. Scully walks right into his house and it’s implied that she’s been there before and clearly knows how to get there, but then she’s in bed with him and talking about bringing darkness into their home. It’s kind of confusing and distracting because their relationship seems to be key to the emotional impact of the whole plot.

The story is a sort of grisly murder mystery with supernatural elements. I’d call it a thriller but it doesn’t have as much of the suspenseful aspects as I normally associate with the genre. If you’ve seen monster-of-the-week episodes of X-Files, you’ve got the basic tone here, but without the dry humor that the show displayed on a regular basis. It’s however many years after the show ended and the FBI comes knocking on Scully’s office door, asking her to help them find Mulder. And why do they need Mulder? Well, aside from having wanted him for years, they want his advice on how to handle a man who’s come forward claiming to have had visions of a missing FBI agent. But when they followed his visions they found not a missing woman or even a body but a man’s severed arm. So yeah, mysterious. And apparently the FBI has only one go-to supernatural expert and that’s Mulder.

Mulder, of course, believes that the man is a psychic and totally knows what he’s talking about. Scully, of course, is skeptical and thinks he’s full of crap and only gets more skeptical when she finds out that the psychic, Father Joe, is a convicted pedophile. And here is one of my major issues with the movie. The whole secondary arc for Scully, involving a dispute with the hospital administration and experimental stem cell therapy for a young boy with an otherwise untreatable illness feels so very tacked on. The main plot is about this missing woman and then another missing woman and how a man these people might never have given the time of day is somehow able to pinpoint where discarded body parts have been dumped and been able to make connections to the missing persons cases. But then there’s Scully, tagging along going “This is ridiculous! He’s a fraud!” seemingly so that he can then say something meaningful to her and she can go back to work determined to practice her own form of faith. It just feels so clumsily put together. Like they needed something to do with her and couldn’t quite figure out how to fit her into the story. For every somewhat tense moment with the FBI agents and Father Joe and Mulder and the women being held prisoner there’s a moment with Scully looking concerned or arguing with a priest at the hospital. Granted, both plots end up involving experimental surgery, but they feel at best tangentially related.

Now, I actually rather liked the whole kidnapping and murder and dismembered limbs plot, along with the unwitting psychic who doesn’t know why he’s getting the visions he’s getting. I just feel like for such a gory and gruesome plot, with experimental science and all, it really gets short shrift. It’s left unsaid just what’s happening to these kidnapping victims until quite near the climax of the movie, so the bizarre Brain That Wouldn’t Die-ness of it all is barely touched on. There’s not even a whole lot of suspense for it. It just isn’t given time. It could be that this is a problem carried over from the series, but it’s been so long I don’t really remember the whole tug of war between Mulder and Scully feeling so tedious or Scully’s conflicts between her skepticism and her faith feeling so extraneous. I get why they’re in there, I just find it hard to care.

I would far rather have gotten more time to investigate the procedures being performed by the mysterious Russian doctors and found out more about the man being operated on and the man trying to save him. I would rather have spent more time on Father Joe and his visions-of-unknown-origin. They’re never explained, by the way. There’s a connection drawn between him and one of the other people involved but it’s never given the time necessary to give it any impact beyond shock value, which is pretty cheap if you ask me (as is the totally out of left field accusation that Mulder wants Father Joe to be psychic so he can find Mulder’s sister). There’s a lot of stuff like that, things with good concepts or potential but no weight whatsoever. I don’t require black ooze and conspiracies from the X-Files and I don’t require full explanations. But I do prefer to feel like the plots and stories were thoughtfully put together. This feels more like it’s supposed to be character development with a plot tossed on for kicks and it doesn’t hold up. Unfortunate, but there you go.

July 12, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Toy Story 3

July 7, 2011

Toy Story 3

I know I’m going to cry tonight. I have the tissues out (and, yes, when I went to see this in the theater with Amanda and our friend A we stopped in at CVS on the way to buy tissues then as well, because I know how Pixar movies touch me.) Just remembering the final scene in the movie makes me choke up.

This movie takes the most tear-jerkery moment from the first movie – the bit where Jessie remembers being abandoned by her original owner – and expands it into a full movie. As the movie starts Andy, the owner of all the toys from the movies, is heading off to college. He hasn’t actually played with his toys in a long time and they’re beginning to wonder what is in store for them. Still, through all the years he has held on to a core group of toys he doesn’t want to give up. There’s Woody, Buzz, Jessie, Bullseye, Slinky, Hamm, Rex, Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head and their three Pizza Planet children. Before Andy can leave he is tasked by his mother with the chore of choosing what he will keep in the attic, what he will bring to college with him, and what he will throw away.

He decides to bring Woody with him and packs all the other toys up in a garbage bag to go in the attic, but through a disastrous mix-up they end up on the kerb with the rest of the garbage. Woody rushes to rescue them, but the other toys decide after being thrown out (they think) they should just leave Andy, so they all climb into a box being taken to Sunnyside Daycare to be donated.

This movie goes to some dark and disturbing places. Especially for a movie about living toys. Sunnyside is one of the darkest and most disturbing. At first it appears to be an idyllic utopia for toys where they will always be played with for all time, run by a friendly cuddly bear named Lotso. But of course things are not as they seem. Sunnyside is a police state with Lotso and his thugs ruling through fear and intimidation. New toys are relegated to the “catterpillar room” where the youngest children maul, maim and misshandle them. I don’t really expect to see sinister dystopias in my animated childrens’ movies, but that’s the wonder of Pixar, isn’t it?

The brilliance of this movie for me lies in the extremes that it is able to portray. It’s not just the bleak world of Sunnyside with its exploited toys and Lotso’s megalomaniacal rule. It’s nit just when Buzz is co-opted to become a jailer for his friends (Lotso re-sets him to his factory setting so he becomes delusional and thinks he’s a space man again.) It’s that even if the toys escape from Sunnyside they have an uncertain fate. Andy has grown up and what is the purpose of a toy that doesn’t get played with? Things get darker and more bleak, an there’s a climactic scene which is so intense and hopeless that the MPAA have actually declared that they made a mistake giving this a G rating instead of a PG.

Then there’s the perfect, gorgeous, bittersweet ending which brings tears to my eyes just to recall, much less to watch. This movie proves once and for all that the folks at Pixar know better than just about anyone else in the world of cinema how to reach right into your chest and grab you by the heart. They are the masters of eliciting a powerful emotional response. This movie is so wonderful, touching and intense that it transcends its genre and takes its place as one of the greatest movies ever made. It’s too bad that I don’t think I have the constitution to watch it more than a couple times a year though – it’s far too powerful.

July 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Movie 486 – Insomnia (2002)

Insomnia (2002) – June 29th, 2011

We bought this on the strength of the cast, which looked excellent. I knew very little about it aside from that it was a thriller/crime drama/murder mystery. And let’s face it, there’s a lot of crime dramas out there. But then we realized this evening that it was directed by Christopher Nolan, which, along with the cast, elevates it quite a bit on potential alone. And that was really all I knew going into this tonight. Run time, basic plot concept, cast and director. That sort of stuff. And knowing it was Christopher Nolan, I admit my expectations went up a good deal.

I wish I could say that the movie completely lived up to those expectations, but it’s not quite there. Oh, it’s not that it doesn’t work. I was just hoping for more twisty-turny psychological effects of the film’s gimmick. After all, part of the conceit of the story is that the main character, Detective Dormer, doesn’t sleep at all through the entire movie, which takes place over the course of a week. The murder mystery takes place in northern Alaska in the summer and the sun doesn’t really go down. The brightness coming in around the curtains of his hotel windows keeps Dormer awake through the night, leaving him bleary and confused during the day. Not the best mental state to be in when investigating a murder.

I would not be able to live in Alaska in the summer. My sleeping habits are atypical at best – I’m nocturnal and I’ve dealt with insomnia in the past – and the idea of having perpetual daylight and not being able to sleep? I’ve been in that state where you’re so tired you can’t trust what you’re seeing and you still can’t sleep and you would give anything to just get a few minutes. If you’ve never experienced it I don’t recommend intentionally trying it. We sleep for a reason. And this movie does an excellent job portraying the experience of being sleep deprived. Dormer focuses on sounds and the world recedes and he sees people where people aren’t. The thing is, while the cinematography showcases the visual effects well and the sound department did a fantastic job with the audio effects and Al Pacino gives an admirable performance, I felt like the movie could have gone further. It could have used the confusion more explicitly in places.

Part of Pacino’s character’s story is that he’s doing things that good cops don’t do. He’s acting questionably. And throughout the movie I had the suspicion that some of what he was doing could be attributed to sleep deprivation and unclear thinking. But then the movie goes and says no, not necessarily. Which means that the effects I was hoping for from the sleep deprivation aren’t so much from the sleep deprivation, which means I think that aside from Pacino’s performance and the handful of explicit moments of visual and audio confusion, it doesn’t so much affect the actual plot as much as I wanted. One thing it does do, however, is provide a link between Dormer and his prime suspect, author Walter Finch.

Finch calls Dormer in the middle of the night, talking to him about how isolated you feel when you’re awake that late. How it seems like you’re the only person in the world. This late night call connects the two and introduces Finch to the audience. And he has a good reason to be calling Dormer: He believes they’re alike in more than just their inability to sleep. He sees them both as accidental killers, unintentionally causing people they cared about to lose their lives. Because he saw Dormer and his partner in the fog, when they were out looking for him. And he saw Dormer take aim at his partner and fire. And he saw Dormer’s partner try to get away from him and he saw Dormer hold him as he died. So the movie links the two men, the detective and his suspect, through both action and reaction. Through manslaughter and insomnia and guilt.

The story follows Dormer as he goes to Alaska to help investigate the murder of a young woman, but that’s not really the story on its own. Because Dormer’s problems in LA, where he’s from, don’t go away just because he’s been sent north. He’s being investigated by Internal Affairs. His partner has decided he has no choice but to cut a deal. And Dormer knows that this will not go well for him. It colors every move he makes. Every decision. Which is what makes the whole insomnia aspect not matter as much as I want it to. The things Dormer does and doesn’t do and his reasoning for everything could well have happened back in LA, without the sunlit nights and lack of sleep. The only thing that really seems extreme for him is when he shoots his partner, and that happens well before he’s so sleep deprived that he’s seeing things. I guess I just don’t feel like the movie took its hook and fit it well enough into its plot.

Now, Dormer and Finch? They are very nicely built characters with lots of motivation and personality. And Pacino and Williams play their roles extremely well. I do love seeing Robin Williams do roles that don’t depend on his manic comedy persona. But there are a number of minor roles that could have been more fleshed out. There’s the murder victim’s abusive boyfriend, whom we only meet a few times before he’s framed for his girlfriend’s murder. There’s the innkeeper for the lodge where Dormer is staying, who listens to him and talks to him and tells him how there are two kinds of people who live in Alaska: People who were born there and people who came there to get away from something. And there’s the local detective, Ellie Burr (played by Hilary Swank), who’s followed Dormer’s career for years and is eager to prove herself both to him and in general. And I wanted more meat for all three of those characters. They could have figured in a lot more and for the latter two it seems like they really should have. Burr is such a pivotal figure in a lot of what happens at the climax of the film and the innkeeper has some lines that suggest that she’s meant to mean a lot more than she does. It’s frustrating, feeling like I’m missing bits for them.

All that being said, despite my criticisms of the spare treatment of a few characters and the uneven handling of hook vs. plot, I really did enjoy this movie. It’s visually gorgeous, and not just because of the beautiful scenery. It’s superbly acted and while I would have liked the plot to be better dealt with in places the actual lines as written all work on their own. I loved seeing the play between Dormer and Finch and how they interacted. I loved seeing Burr figure out much of the puzzle on her own. And I had to take some extra time to think about it before I could finish my review. Which is something I don’t usually allow myself but I really didn’t want to rush this one and I still feel like I haven’t done it justice. I wish it had been better, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t good.

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