Friday, December 29, 2006

Review – Atomic Journeys

If only the DVD had featured an option for turning off the soundtrack music. This production features a ton of fascinating footage, some recently declassified and here presented to the public for the first time. Unfortunately, it’s framed in an inept documentary about “peaceful” atomic testing in the 50s and 60s. Interviewees dwell on the excuses for the testing (ranging from digging canals to tapping natural gas pockets), giving the production the feel of a movie made about an empty room that constantly shows every corner but the one with the white elephant in it. Overall this might have been a much better movie if it had just stuck with the Atomic Café mix of archival footage and period music only. Almost everything else here is an annoying distraction (as borne out by the special features, where some of the original stuff can be viewed without interruption or hysterically over-dramatized score). Mildly amusing

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Review – The Black Dahlia

I’m willing to bet that James Ellroy really liked this production of his novel about the famous Hollywood murder. On the other hand, I thought it was episodic and largely uninteresting. The slaying of Elizabeth Smart is only peripherally part of the plot, the bulk of the screen time going instead to the usual Ellroy parade of tough guy cops with deep personal problems. The result is a much duller movie than might have been made about such a sensational crime. Mildly amusing

Review – Cars

Disney / Pixar strikes again. This time our animated characters are all motor vehicles of some kind. Despite the limitations inherent in characters who have no hands, the story (celebrity race car stranded in the sticks gets a long lesson in the simple pleasures of life) functions fairly well. It was also nice to see one of these celebrity voice parades with nobody especially annoying in the cast (the absence of Robin Williams was a real plus). Though the production doesn’t feature anything especially original or interesting, at least it manages not to grate the nerves too badly. Mildly amusing

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Review – American Dreamz

What a strange little movie. I’m not sure there’s much inherent entertainment value in satirizing “American Idol,” as the show sort of automatically mocks itself. And when that’s all the picture does, it’s predictably dull. However, every once in awhile something quirky enters the fray, such as the President of the United States (clearly based on George W. Bush) getting it into his head that he actually wants to start reading newspapers. Thus while one shouldn’t expect much from the sitcom story line, viewing is nonetheless rewarded by occasional moments of genuine humor. Mildly amusing

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Review - Faust

 Jan Svankmajer strikes again, this time taking on a tale tailor-made for his bizarre blend of live-action and animation. The story loosely follows the Faust legend, dipping in and out of the bracketing plot of a guy lured in off the street and made the main character in a dramatic production of the tale. For the most part this is the same “Sprockets”-worthy film-making we’ve come to expect from the source. However, for my money I would have liked a lot more stop motion and a lot less marionette action. While Svankmajer’s animation is frequently quite good, the rest of it is run-of-the-mill European art movie stock. Mildly amusing

Friday, December 22, 2006

Review – Alexander Nevsky

This is a must-see for any student of propaganda film-making (not to mention anyone studying cinema as a graphic art). Though I suppose Potemkin is a more important work from a film history standpoint, I think this one is more entertaining. In context, the glaring (Nevsky as Stalin, the swastikas on the evil bishop’s miter) and subtle (merchants paying to appease the Teutons even as Stalin himself was working a treaty with Hitler) aspects of art in a dictatorship add a whole new dimension to the viewing experience. It also reverberates into history, not only exposing Stalin’s self-image but also giving Germany a strong hint about what was waiting for its troops four years later at Stalingrad. One can also appreciate the impact it had on subsequent productions, ranging from Conan the Barbarian to The Empire Strikes Back. And of course it can just be enjoyed as an entertaining movie (a little rough around some of the edges, but still quite watchable). The disc itself doesn’t come with any special features (indeed, it doesn’t even have a main menu), but it’s still worth it. Buy the disc

Review – Desperation

Stephen King takes to the pulpit and preaches long and hard. Honestly, there’s more sermonizing in this dumb little horror movie than the fundies build into the Left Behind productions. And what makes that troubling is that this is just that: a dumb little horror movie. Usually the closest such productions ever come to legitimate questions of faith is whether or not a crucifix will ward off a vampire. There are a couple of good, old-fashioned King-style thrills (or at least a reasonable made-for-TV facsimile thereof), but for the most part this is a parade of numbskull theology and animal cruelty. Lots and lots of animal cruelty (without which this might have gotten a slightly better score). Wish I’d skipped it

Friday, December 15, 2006

Review – The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel

James Mason does a great job as the legendary German general. As a child I was obsessed with the African campaign, and I confess enough of that fascination lingers to my adulthood to make me wish they’d spent more time on that high point in Rommel’s career. Instead the focus here is primarily on the general’s connection to the plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944. Still, the story is exciting enough. Mildly amusing

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Review – The Benchwarmers

More than once while watching this movie I had to ask myself if I was really seeing a picture about three grown men vindicating the rights of nerds everywhere by playing baseball against little league teams. Despite my disbelief, that’s exactly what this turned out to be. Just about everyone here has done better work elsewhere. I was particularly disappointed in David Spade, who can usually be counted upon to supply a few good lines even in the worst of productions. I’ve seen some bad baseball movies in my time, but this one sets a new standard. Wish I’d skipped it

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Review – Click

By all rights, the title should refer to the sound your remote makes right about the time the first act ends. The story – overworked dad (Adam Sandler) receives a magic remote control that allows him to manipulate his life – has some potential. And as long as the picture sticks to the amusing ins and outs of our hero learning to pause, fast-forward, and otherwise manipulate his existence, it works as a simple-minded situation comedy. Unfortunately, that only supplies enough material for the first third or so. Once the gags run out, the show is left without a natural direction. So it meanders into a weepy blend of It’s a Wonderful Life and/or A Christmas Carol, ultimately hovering between maudlin and just plain dull. Overall this is roughly 30 minutes of funny followed by a big-budget Hollywood sermon on the evils of materialism. See if desperate

Friday, November 24, 2006

Review – Atlantis: The Lost Empire

As with Lilo and Stitch, this movie surprised me with the volume of violence present in a production presumably aimed at a juvenile audience. Here the gun battles seem slightly more apt, as this is an adventure yarn vaguely – and only vaguely – suggestive of Verne or Burroughs rather than a cutesy picture strictly for pre-teens. On the other hand, the casualty list runs high before the story plays itself out. The animation is good, at least by American 2-D standards. The casting is notable for its self-conscious multi-ethnicity and a rare appearance by James Garner as a villain. The plot – adventurers set out to find the lost city of you-know-where – is sufficient to keep the show going, though it bogs down if fake mysticism toward the end. Overall this is a craftsmanlike but not especially inspirational outing. Mildly amusing

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Review – The Da Vinci Code

This is just about exactly the movie I figured they’d make out of the book. Everything about it is expensive: actors, effects, locations, the whole nine yards. In other words, this is pure Hollywood, crowd-pleasing entertainment. I admit that I thought it was somewhat fun to keep an eye out for the weird little bits of symbolism (or “symbology” if you prefer author Dan Brown’s term) sprinkled throughout the production. Beyond that, however, I repeat the criticism I leveled at the book: the question of Christ’s divinity is of considerable importance to many people. If this is a sincere attempt to sugar-coat the debate and thus interest a non-academic audience, then at least the producers’ hearts are in the right place. But if it’s just the cheap exploitation of controversy in order to increase sales … well, we’ll just have to wait and see how the less-scandalous Angels and Demons does at the box office. Mildly amusing

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Review – An American Haunting

The Bell Witch legend could have been made into a terrifically spooky movie. And that’s just what this starts out to be. However, by 30 or 40 minutes in, the film-makers have obviously either run out of ideas or they’re trying to do something other than tell a ghost story. I almost wish the former had been the case. This turns out to be like one of those long, complicated tales that ends up being about how the protagonist’s life was changed by Jesus. Though the secret sermon is about something besides Christ (and I can’t say what the lesson is without ruining the surprise), it’s nonetheless unwelcome to find out at the end that you’ve been tricked into watching a message piece. Thus is one of America’s better “true” ghost stories rendered preachy and dull. See if desperate

Saturday, October 7, 2006

Review - The Feeding

In the first five minutes a werewolf kills two redneck hunters who are out jack-lighting deer. After that things predictably go straight downhill. Law enforcement is hunting the beast. Unsuspecting college students are out camping in the woods. You can see where this is going without sitting through it until it gets there. The budget is low, which doesn’t make too much difference except where the creature itself is concerned. A movie of this quality can get by with bad acting and a useless script, but if the menacing monster looks like two pancakes with teeth surrounded by a big mat of leftover muppet fur, well, let’s say it sort of kills any chance of a successful suspension of disbelief. Clearly the director is aware of the problem, because almost all of the werewolf’s appearances are shot (or later edited) with thick color and filter work that serves no apparent purpose beyond hiding the weakness of the special effects. Also, jumps in the plot of the copy I saw on pay-per-view left me wondering if the editing was really that bad or if semi-explicit sex scenes were being clipped out. See if desperate

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Review – Dirty War

HBO and the BBC combine to give the “what if” treatment to terrorists blowing up a radioactive “dirty bomb” in the heart of London. The production strongly evokes memories of The Day After only on a slightly smaller scale and with more racial tension. And even more preaching, if such a thing can be imagined. The whole “Sept. 11 could have been a lot worse, and we’re still not ready for it” message gets hammered in over and over again, occasionally even entering directly into the dialogue. Overall this is unlikely to show up on anyone’s ten-best list, but it serves just fine as a bit of disturbing diversion. Mildly amusing

Friday, September 8, 2006

Review – Cry Wolf

I just never get tired of movies about teenagers getting savagely murdered by serial killers. There’s some kind of wrinkle here about an elaborate game of liar’s poker played between privileged kids at an exclusive prep school. But that’s really just the excuse to get the ball rolling. Once the guy with the ski mask and the hunting knife shows up, things proceed according to formula. Mildly amusing

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Review – Days of Thunder

I hated this one the first time I saw it, only that time it was Navy pilots rather than NASCAR drivers. Wish I’d skipped it

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Review – Basic Instinct 2

I hardly know where to begin. The very idea that Basic Instinct required a sequel. That it was set in London, ensuring that the sex in this movie would inevitably involve the English. And don’t even get me started on Sharon Stone. The only thing I liked about the movie I can’t discuss without ruining the ending. Wish I’d skipped it

Review – Beyond the Wall of Sleep

If I was planning to make a movie out of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, I’m not sure “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” would top the list. And even if that tale was my target, I’m quite certain this isn’t how I’d tell it. Just for starters, this amateurish, straight-to-video hack job contains more jump cuts than I’ve ever seen in a single production. The terrible acting and even-more-dreadful script provide no distraction from the relentless editing mistakes. In the end the monster at the heart of the drama turns out to be so silly that Lovecraft fans – the only natural audience for something like this – are likely to end up alienated. Wish I’d skipped it

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Review – Chocolat

A mysterious woman shows up in a small French village and proceeds to introduce excitement to the townfolk’s lives by opening a chocolate shop. On one level at least this plays like a version of Mary Poppins with more sex and fewer English moppets. Even if occasionally heavy-handed, the overall point is valid; if people were a little less uptight, they might enjoy life more. It’s just that in order for the lesson to take two hours a certain amount of repetition is bound to be involved. Further, this is yet another entry in the list of movies that celebrate the beauty and power of the feminine but ultimately measure its worth in part by how effectively it nets women relationships with men. Mildly amusing

Monday, July 17, 2006

Review – Fabulous: The Story of Queer Cinema

Though some isolated moments in some of the interviews are entertaining, this production falls well short of providing a useful history of homosexuality in film. The focus is almost exclusively on movies made by queer directors, writers, and/or actors (or at least movies that portray gays and lesbians in a favorable light). However, narrowing the range doesn’t appear to have helped much. The discussion still seems to pick and choose particular films, sometimes giving short shrift to big moments and dwelling on smaller pictures that – however influential on individuals – didn’t exactly mark crucial moments in film history. Further, just about every specimen discussed is described by at least one of the interviewees as the most important queer movie ever made. The result plays like an extended chat session between buffs, not a serious discussion intended to inform or enlighten. Mildly amusing

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Review – The Assassination of Richard Nixon

Here’s an oddity: a movie about an assassination attempt that didn’t succeed. In 1974 a ne’er-do-well salesman named Sam Byck tried to kill Richard Nixon by (unsuccessfully) hijacking an airplane and plowing it into the White House. In the wake of September 11, the plot obviously takes on an immediacy it otherwise wouldn’t have had. But beyond that, all we get from this is yet another lone nut obsessed with violence against the rich and powerful. Sean Penn plays Byck (spelled “Bicke” in the movie) as a bizarre combination of Travis Bickle and Rain Man, which fits the story line but generally makes the lead character neither sympathetic nor compelling. Of course the problems here aren’t all Penn’s doing. The production would have been helped considerably by more emphasis on the protagonist’s mental illness, his delusions and his crimes. Instead the stress is mostly on his business and relationship woes. Mildly amusing

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Review – Blood Bath

A better script might have turned this from a bad, low-budget horror movie to a good one. The concepts behind the vignettes in this anthology piece aren’t bad, but the dialogue and action are so stiff that the plot gets lost. The bracket also loses focus around midway through. That notwithstanding, there’s some entertaining stuff here. Actor-wise, keep an eye out for supporting roles played by Doris Roberts and P.J. Soles. Mildly amusing

Friday, July 7, 2006

Review – Deep Shock

“SciFi Channel Original” joins the pantheon of great oxymorons. This production can be divided into two categories: stuff stolen from other movies (primarily The Abyss) and time wasted while the characters flounder around waiting for the next stolen plot element. Giant electric eels try to keep an underwater research station from using nuclear torpedoes to seal a hole in the earth’s crust below the arctic ice cap before … oh, let’s be honest. The story doesn’t really matter. If you like cheap effects and bad acting, you’re in the right place. Beyond that, this production doesn’t have much to offer. See if desperate

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Review – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

John Barrymore stars as the doctor/fiend in this early adaptation of the Stephenson classic. Though thoroughly infected with the technical difficulties of the silent era – particularly histrionic acting – this production holds up surprisingly well even decades later. The one notable difference between this and subsequent versions is that Barrymore’s Hyde is actually less physically imposing than his Jekyll, the former a hunched-over creature with spindly limbs while the latter is your typical “man’s man.” Otherwise this is a straightforward version of a familiar story. Mildly amusing

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Review – The Devil Doll

The scariest thing about this movie is Lionel Barrymore parading around in drag more than half the time. Of course as an escaped convict seeking revenge on the trio who had him wrongfully imprisoned years ago, he can perhaps be excused for disguising himself as an old lady. What is harder to excuse is his decision to employ the shrinking technology developed by one of his convict buddies and try to reduce his enemies to doll size. For the most part this is a special effects vehicle from 1936, and though the composite shots aren’t all that impressive by 21st century standards, they were probably pretty hot stuff in their day. Overall I’ve seen better horror movies from this period in film history, but I’ve seen worse as well. Mildly amusing

Saturday, June 3, 2006

Review – Aeon Flux

Sadly, I have little trouble believing that an additional four hundred years of perfume ads, video games and cell phones might actually do this to the human race. Like the animated shorts that spawned it, this production isn’t real long on plot. Indeed, careful editing could probably break it up into isolated, nonsensical episodes just like the original series. It’s a pretty picture, and some of the effects are entertaining. It just doesn’t hold together as a feature-length movie. Mildly amusing

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Review – Carnival of Souls

This odd little picture from 1962 should serve as at least some inspiration for indy film-makers everywhere. Herk Harvey manages to make a not-too-bad movie with minimal resources, something that was a lot harder to do in the early 60s than it is now. Sure, the picture has rough spots. The script is weak. The acting is strictly amateur hour. Even the dimmest audience member must surely see the final turn of the screw coming almost from the beginning of the picture. But some of the defects add to the impact. For example, Candace Hilligoss (as Mary, our protagonist) looks so much like a 60s-era department story mannequin that it’s actually a little surprising every time she talks. In some roles that would be off-putting to say the least. But here it adds to the general sense of disorientation that the director is trying to convey. An abandoned amusement park in Salt Lake City serves as the location for a lot of the key action, and the weirdness of these visuals is almost enough to make the whole movie worthwhile all by itself. I should also admit that I like this picture at least in part because some scenes were shot in Lawrence, Kan., a town where I lived for several years. Thus I got a kick out of the whole “so that’s what that looked like back in ‘62” thing, an experience other audience members might not share. Still, overall this is a solid piece of work considering the era and the budget. Mildly amusing

Friday, May 19, 2006

Review – The Day Mars Invaded Earth

Imagine Invasion of the Body Snatchers reworked as one of the bad episodes of The Twilight Zone and then stretched to more than three times its natural length. Judging by appearances, the producers of this little treasure rented (or otherwise wrangled access to) a deserted mansion out in the Hollywood hills somewhere. Then, armed with somewhere around 20 minutes’ worth of script, they created nearly 80 minutes’ worth of movie by having the characters wander aimlessly around the grounds. If you’re trying to see every humans-replaced-by-alien-look-alikes movie ever made, then sooner or later you’re going to have to sit through this. Otherwise it’s completely missable. VSee if desperate

Saturday, May 6, 2006

Review – The Brothers Grimm

The movie dreadful. This is the exact opposite of what we’ve come to expect from Terry Gilliam. There’s almost no plot at all here, the story consisting almost exclusively of fairy tale sub-references and sight gags. And even these elements frequently don’t work on their own, let alone as part of a larger production. The acting was terrible; why oh why did Matt Damon feel the need to adopt a highly-ineffective English accent in order to play a German character? And don’t even get me started on the animal cruelty. Even the theme is unnecessary. As ever, Gilliam makes a valid point about the importance of imagination. But this is a subject he’s explored to much better effect in other productions ranging from Time Bandits down to Baron Munchausen. Because I was in a fairly good mood when I wrote this, the movie managed to escape a “skip” rating. But just barely. See if desperate

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Review – Dark Water

Here we have yet another American clone of a Japanese horror movie. Dead, drowned girl. Lots of heavy filter work. Does this Ring a bell with anyone? This time around the frights are few, and in the end the whole thing turns into more of a bummer than anything else. Jennifer Connelly plays a recently-divorced woman who has to move into a sub-standard high rise on Roosevelt Island. Her daughter almost immediately develops an imaginary friend, and you can pretty much imagine where things go from there. This isn’t the worst ghost story I’ve ever seen, but it might have been an easier viewing experience if so much of the plot early on hadn’t centered around apartment maintenance hassles (particularly leaky plumbing and water damage). Anyone who’s ever rented a place in a run-down building is likely to find this stuff more annoying than intriguing. Mildly amusing

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Review – Day of the Dead 2: Contageum

I suppose “Contagion” would have been too much like a real word to use for the title of a stinker like this. The folks who brought us Horror 101 now teach another lesson in how not to make a scary movie. This appears to be some kind of prequel to the third chapter in Romero’s Dead series, which raises the question of why – if this is likewise presumably a prequel to the first two as well – they didn’t name it after one of the more successful episodes. But even linking it to the relatively-not-as-good Day of the Dead was too much. This is one of those no-script-no-actors hunks of junk made on the cheap for the video market. The production doesn’t even live up to the lax standards of its sub-genre, as the gore is too crappy to provide much entertainment and there’s no nudity at all. I tried fast-forwarding through some of the dull parts, but that turned out to be most of the movie. Wish I’d skipped it

Review – The Cave

This is another one of those “recipe” pictures. Take a base of Alien, stir in a pinch of The Thing, add scuba diving and rock climbing, pour into a cave and cook for 90 minutes. And as usual, the product is an unpalatable burgoo. The characters aren’t the least bit interesting (indeed, aside from the non-white men and the women, the actors are hard to tell apart). The plot is practically non-existent, the story emerging as little more than weak rubber cement between chase sequences. Even the special effects are bad. If you want to see Alien, rent Alien. See if desperate

Monday, April 3, 2006

Review – Blacula

I think the Simpsons already did the “Hunchblack of Blotre Blame” joke, so here I’ll just add that another good one would have been “The Blummy.” As with a lot of blaxploitation movies from the early 70s, this production’s heart is in the right place. The tale of an African prince turned into a vampire by Dracula has some potential for exploring serious race issues. Further, horror from this era is what scared me when I was a kid, so I got at least some small thrills from some of the shock sequences. But overall this is just as dumb, cheap and packed with racist clichés as the title implies. See if desperate

Sunday, April 2, 2006

Review – And Now for Something Completely Different

The title of this production is both directly apt – Monty Python fans will of course recognize one of the better-known catch-phrases from the Flying Circus series – and ironic, as there’s little if any difference between the skits in this movie and the skits from the TV show. The dead parrot, the nudge-nudge guy, the lumberjack song … the classics never die. Alas, no spam. But otherwise if you’re in search of a Cliff’s Notes intro to one of England’s most famous comedy teams, seek no more. Mildly amusing

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Review – Divine Trash

If you’re a fan of John Waters and/or Divine, you should enjoy this documentary immensely. It doesn’t reveal anything especially new or interesting about Waters and his coterie, and many of the interviews are less than fascinating. It also isn’t a sterling example of the documentary art, structure and editing unobtrusive but not much more. On the plus side, however, it does feature some interesting archive footage. The behind-the-scenes material from Pink Flamingos was especially good. Mildly amusing

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Review – Born into Brothels

A photographer gives cheap cameras to a handful of kids in the red light district of a big city in India, and the rest of the movie pretty much makes itself. This production is priceless proof that Social Darwinism – particularly the notion that poor people are miserable because they’re stupid and talentless – is a lie. The subject matter virtually guaranteed that this documentary would turn out to be uplifting and extremely depressing at the same time. Emotional swings notwithstanding, the most impressive thing about these kids’ stories is just how good some of their photos turn out to be. Maybe I should show them this movie the next time I teach photojournalism. Buy it

Monday, March 20, 2006

Review – But I'm a Cheerleader

Imagine a John Waters wannabe directing an After School Special about teenage homosexuality and you’ve got some idea of what you’re in store for here. This picture’s heart is clearly in the right place, and it raises some important criticisms of society’s treatment of teenage sexuality, particularly the camps designed to “de-gay” kids who seem to be straying from the straight and narrow. But most of the humor depends on kitsch and/or cliché, and the serious moments frequently come across as stiff and contrived. Still, I’ve seen worse movies. And if I was a gay teenager I might find some comfort here. Mildly amusing

Friday, March 17, 2006

Review – Birds of Prey

The box for the DVD trumpets not the other triumphs of the director or the past accomplishments of the cast but rather the vita of the guy who did the aerial photography. I suppose that in a movie that’s mostly about helicopter chases, that’s a good thing. Certainly the chopper shots are the high point of this made-for-TV production from 1973 about an ex-Flying Tiger (David Jansen) now reduced to flying a traffic chopper. From his vantage point in the sky our hero witnesses a bank robbery. The robbers take a hostage and – as luck would have it – escape in a helicopter. The rest of the movie is chopper chase after chopper chase, punctuated occasionally by long stretches of pointless conversation. If you see this, consider fast-forwarding through the talking. Most of the dialogue is so stiff and contrived that it could have been written by Mamet and Tarantino, but only if both were having an especially bad day. See if desperate

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Review – The Constant Gardener

Rare is the movie that fails to work on this many levels. It’s a mystery about an English bureaucrat in Africa whose liberal crusader wife is murdered under strange circumstances. The truth behind the killing becomes apparent to even the dimmest audience member almost immediately, but our hero flails on and on trying to reach the place we’ve all gotten to ages after we’ve gotten there. Like some other movies based on LeCarre novels, this show features some action movie elements. But there’s nowhere near enough action for it to qualify for that genre, either. Having an international drug company and its government stooges play the bad guys suggests that the production is also trying to be a message piece, but the message is so simple-minded (poisoning Africans to test drugs for Western markets is bad) that it isn’t any more interesting than the non-mysterious mystery. Finally, the picture seems to be going for stylish and in places erotic. Heroine Rachel Weitz sort of makes it work, but Ralph Fiennes plays his character’s tense and nerdy aspects far too well for him to appeal to viewers as a hero suited to a slick, sexy action movie. The result has lots of ambition but not much achievement. Mildly amusing

Monday, March 6, 2006

Review – The Corpse Bride

Tim Burton is slipping. He used to be known for his excellent use of art direction to create unusual movies. Early in his career – in particular the animated short “Vincent” – he was doing this sort of thing with animation. Trouble is, now the look-and-feel has been co-opted by so many other sources that it’s just not all that much fun anymore. Indeed, large sections of this picture play like an early level of the video game Voodoo Vince. When the innovative visuals aren’t innovative anymore, all that’s left are standard stuff such as plot and character. And in those departments all Burton can muster here is the equivalent of a Rankin-Bass holiday special with goth-grim death themes rather than Christmas cheer. Burton veterans – including Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Danny Elfman – lend their talents to the production. Not bad overall, but far from anyone’s finest moment. Mildly amusing

Sunday, March 5, 2006

Review – Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

In some ways this is an interesting story. On the surface Ken Lay and his cronies appear to have pulled the biggest con job in history. These guys built a huge house of cards, painted over it with government connections, and then ran for the hills with their pockets well lined when the whole mess finally collapsed. And fortunately for the documentary-makers who would follow, they left a copious paper and videotape record in their wake. However, the farther I got into the movie the more I began to suspect that the crimes committed by Enron’s executives were neither as unique nor as scandalous as the audience was being led to believe. The use of creative accounting techniques to perpetrate a fraud on investors might not be all that widespread, but neither profit from corporation-created misery nor close relationships between wealth and government is at all uncommon in our society. I can’t very well fault the film-makers for not pursuing an indictment of all the corruption in American capitalism, but they nonetheless failed to sufficiently distinguish Enron from Haliburton or GE or any of the legion of huge bloodsuckers coddled by our economy and our legal system. Also, the off-the-rack music on the soundtrack is often more intrusive than it should be. Shortcomings notwithstanding, this was a better movie than at least a couple of other productions in the running for the Best Documentary Oscar, including the movie that won. [Supplemental note: they got convicted! Yay! Then Ken Lay croaked over, so now it’s between him and God.] Mildly amusing

Monday, February 27, 2006

Review – Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle

Cheesecake aside, the only attraction this production has to offer is an endless parade of references to other movies. The nods and homage fly fast and furious, including tributes to just about everything from Boogie Nights to Singin’ in the Rain. Sadly, it’s just not enough to make a feature-length movie entertaining all by itself. And the rest of the show is fluffy silliness punctuated by cheap fight sequences. See if desperate

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Review – Demolition Man

Sylvester Stallone plays a 20th century cop awakened from cryogenic storage midway through the 21st century to stop his unfrozen former nemesis (Wesley Snipes) from destroying the peaceful, harmonious world of tomorrow. The sole attraction here are the “clever” jokes about future shock, such as the wall-mounted boxes that issue citations every time someone utters even mild profanity. Beyond that, this is nothing but an exceptionally mediocre action movie. Mildly amusing

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Review – Abe Lincoln in Illinois

Tall, lean, lanky Raymond Massey was born to play the title role in this picture. Every imaginable threadbare cliché gets worked into the screenplay for this biography of Lincoln’s early years. Every line of dialogue is delivered in the stiff, hushed sanctimony usually reserved for church services. Overall this brings me mindful of the remark in Amadeus about lofty-sounding characters. Mildly amusing.

Saturday, February 4, 2006

Review – Brokeback Mountain

Several years ago I recall seeing Desert Hearts, a western about lesbians. That production didn’t make anywhere near the noise this one did. Of course Ang Lee didn’t direct Desert Hearts, nor did it star Heath Ledger or Jake Gylenhall. But the real hook here is the open exploration of the gay underpinnings of one of the most ultra-macho genres around. The concept had some potential. But aside from the novelty of the theme this is an extremely boring movie. Even the landscapes, which should have been consistently breathtaking, are only rarely put to good use. Throw in the de rigeur animal suffering, and this is by far the worst of the best picture contenders this year. See if desperate

Monday, January 30, 2006

Review – The Emperor Jones

Writer Eugene O’Neil and actor Paul Robeson combine to make a chilling commentary on the nature and consequence of blind ambition. Brutus Jones (Robeson) begins the picture as a Pullman porter, and by the end of the movie he’s done time on a chain gang, shoveled coal on a steamship, and become the dictator of a Caribbean island. The end of the movie – when the Emperor attempts to escape a coup by fleeing into the jungle – is not to be missed. Robeson’s emotive reactions to the ghosts and memories that haunt him are one of the great, overlooked moments of American film. Of course it’s been overlooked at least in part because the dialogue contains more uses of the N-word than a Tarantino movie. Also, it’s helpful to do some background reading before viewing this picture, as it was cut in places to avoid offending white audiences. This would make an interesting double feature with Cabin in the Sky, another predominantly African American movie that came out in 1943. Mildly amusing

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Review – Cabin in the Sky

One could do an entire doctoral dissertation on the racial dynamics of this movie. This is a fascinating blend of an all-black cast, Hollywood’s 1940’s approach to black characters, theological twists in the plot and Vincente Minelli in the director’s chair (on his own for the first time). The story alone is worth a look. Little Joe (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) has a near-death experience and ends up in the middle of a battle between angels and demons for his soul. Lucky for him, his wife Petunia (Ethyl Waters) is so devout that her prayers buy him a little more time to prove that he’s basically a good person. Enter Lena Horne as one of Lucifer’s best temptresses, out to lead our hero astray. But the main attraction here is probably the music. Waters and Horne are terrific, and they’re accompanied by Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong (who also has a supporting role as a devil) and plenty more. And although the dialects and a plot twist or two are very much creatures of their time, at least nobody in this movie picks cotton or works as a maid for white folks. Overall, then, this is a fun movie and historically at least a small step in the right direction. Mildly amusing

Review – Cabin Fever

Once again a decent premise is ruined by squandering it on a juvenile splatter movie. Ever since reading The Hot Zone I’ve wondered if a flesh-eating virus could be spun out into a decent horror flick (and not some big-budget Robin Cook medical thriller, but a real genre piece). But if this effort is any indication then the answer is “no.” Of course by the time you’ve stirred in a handful of annoying 20-somethings, just about any premise is doomed from the start. Indeed, the acting and script here succeed only in causing me to lose interest in whether any of the characters live or die, and that makes it hard to get into the story at all. Thus I hope more skillful filmmakers will be willing to take a stab at making the premise work in the future. Flesh-eating viruses have a lot of potential, but not when they’re coupled with a run-of-the-mill slasher movie production. Oh, and the almost constant animal violence didn’t help. Wish I’d skipped it

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Review – Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony

The history of black resistance to the apartheid regime in South Africa is a fascinating subject all by itself, but it becomes even more interesting when the focus shifts to the role music played in the struggle for freedom. The thing I found most interesting was the often-sharp contrast between the sound of the music and the message it conveyed. For example, a song that might sound joyful and carefree when left untranslated takes on a whole new importance when the subtitles reveal that the lyrics are about killing people with machineguns. The production suffers from some technical difficulties – inconsistent sound quality and occasional lapses in the subtitles – that HBO’s money should have been able to correct. But overall this is a touching portrayal of artistic expression as a weapon against injustice. Worth seeing

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Review – Crash (2005)

Question: how many race-related clichés can be crammed into one hour and 53 minutes? Answer: this movie. Ensemble piece. Lots of small stories, all related in some way to racial tension. The final impression is that all of Los Angeles has only a dozen or so people in it, and they keep running into each other. This is the sort of stiff, heavy-handed squandering of a big budget that must give hope to thousands of earnest but talentless film students. And I thought the Ballard Crash was bad. See if desperate

Friday, January 20, 2006

Review - Far from Heaven

And likewise far from good. The goal here seems to be to make a 50’s-style movie about problems that nobody in the 50’s would have made a movie about. A happy Connecticut housewife (Julianne Moore) discovers her successful businessman husband is gay. For solace she turns to her gardener, an educated black man relegated to menial tasks by the color of his skin. By the end of the picture everyone’s lives are ruined. Part of me wants to dish out some points for the guts it took to attempt such a strong re-creation of the era’s film-making style. Unfortunately, the points for intent are swiftly lost by the inept execution. The lighting and camerawork are terrible, and the script’s faithfulness to the decade that spawned it turns it into a stiff, cliché-ridden mess. This is how good ideas become bad movies. See if desperate

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Review – Blood from the Mummy's Tomb

Once again Stoker’s “Jewel of the Seven Stars” gets whipped out for another flogging. Ancient curses. Artifacts stolen from a tomb. Beautiful woman possessed by the spirit of an Egyptian princess. Blah blah blah. Some of the “scary” sequences are kinda fun in a creepy, Hammer sort of way. But most of the rest of the production moves between predictable plot points in a not particularly interesting path. Mildly amusing

Monday, January 9, 2006

Review – A Bridge Too Far

And at least an hour too long to boot. Like The Longest Day, this is one of those ensemble war epics that feature just about every actor in Hollywood in the appropriate age bracket (in fact, at least one or two of these folks are veterans of the aforementioned picture). Unlike D-Day, however, here we have a tale with a much sadder ending. Rather than emphasizing the heroic nature of the Allied assault on Germany’s Fortress Europe, the main idea this time around is that the airborne attack on Holland in 1944 was at best poorly planned and resulted in the unnecessary deaths of a lot of men. So sing “war is hell” rather than “dulce et decorum est.” Even as long as the movie is, we never really seem to get enough of any one particular story to make the characters fully fleshed-out and sympathetic. Indeed, several of the many subplots seem almost beside the point. Still, if you like this approach to storytelling then you should walk away happy. This is a fine, well-made example of the type. Mildly amusing

Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Review – The Devil's Rain

The B-List Actors’ Rain would have been more apt, as there’s certainly a deluge of them here. Some, like William Shatner, Eddie Albert and Ernest Borgnine, are on the down-swings of their careers. Others, such as Tom Skerritt and John Travolta (so new at this point that he has no lines) would later go on to bigger and better things. Even devil-cult-leader-to-the-stars Anton LaVey has a hand in this as a behind-the-scenes advisor. And his take on the whole Satan-worship thing is fairly evident throughout the production. The story is a half-baked Twilight Zone-esque tale of an evil cult that perpetuates itself by taking over people’s bodies and imprisoning their souls in a big deviled Faberge egg in which it rains all the time. But in the end the joke’s on them (or most of them anyway) in a vast festival of noise and melting. Though this isn’t exactly anyone’s finest hour (well, maybe LaVey’s), it has a few moments. Mildly amusing