Sunday, June 27, 2010

Review – District 9

This movie works on several levels. It’s cinema a clef about problems in refugee camps in Africa in particular and the world in general. It’s a profound commentary about racism recast with space aliens in the victims’ role, robbing it of its social context and thus making it easier to see for what it is. And it’s an entertaining movie on top of all that. The filmmakers combine pseudo-documentary and straight narrative drama to tell the story of a government factotum in charge of a shantytown inhabited by stranded refugees from a broken spaceship. Our not-initially-heroic hero gets sprayed with some kind of goo the aliens have been brewing, and it starts to transform him into one of them. The script and acting are reasonably good, and the effects hold up under scrutiny. Occasionally they ladle in just a bit too much preachiness, but for the most part this is an impressive mix of thought provoking and fun. Worth seeing

Friday, June 25, 2010

Review – Dead Snow

The over-the-top zombie splatter of Dead Alive gets transplanted to the hills of Norway, proving yet again that the international community can come up with horror movies every bit as dumb as American products. Once again a squad of witless 20-somethings make the mistake of leaving the big city, and once again I found myself cheering for the walking dead trying to kill them. Or almost cheering, as in this case the zombies are the remnants of an SS division that fled into the mountains after Germany lost the war. Folks who love a lot of gratuitous gore should find this reasonably entertaining. However, the end bothered me (so spoiler alert). In the final minutes the lone survivor manages to placate the Nazis by giving them back their gold, which of course was most likely stolen from their victims to begin with. I don’t need a morally uplifting ending to a picture like this, but I didn’t welcome the intrusion of real-life horror into the otherwise safely imaginary realm of a standard zombie picture. Mildly amusing

Review – Charlie Wilson's War

One of the criticisms of Kevin Costner’s performance in JFK was that his approach to the role transformed a Confederacy of Dunces story into a half-baked Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Same problem here. Tom Hanks at least tries for a warts-and-all portrayal of Wilson by including the congressman’s addictions to sex and alcohol. But he still comes across as a basically decent guy trying to do the right thing. I just couldn’t get past one big fat omission – or perhaps “brief mention” would be a better description – in the story. We get an hour and a half of Wilson’s heartfelt, Reagan-era struggle to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan, but the end of the movie only briefly notes that what we accomplished with more than a billion taxpayer dollars was the transformation of the mess from the Russians’ problem to our problem. Decades later, Wilson’s “victory” continues to consume American lives and resources. That deserves more than a brief “oops” at the end. On the other hand, I enjoyed Philip Seymour Hoffman as the CIA operative who seems to be the only person in the whole thing who actually knows what’s going on. Mildly amusing

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Review – Dune

So in the future everyone will spend their lives stoned on worm secretions? Well, that’ll give humanity something to look forward to. Honestly, I’ve sat through this thing three or four times now (in at least two different versions, one of which was Alan Smithee’d), and it still strikes me as a noisy mélange of pretty sets, meandering story, rock star glitz (in the cast and on the soundtrack), Frank Herbert sci fi mysticism and general David-Lynchiness. I respect the effort it took to even attempt to make a movie out of Herbert’s book, but an E for effort isn’t the same as an A for quality. Mildly amusing

Review – Don't Look Up

Why? Is this hunk of junk playing on the ceiling? The IMDb notes made it appear that this is a remake of a Japanese production, though the database didn't feature a lot of info on either movie. The story is standard haunted movie set stuff, with "accidental" deaths aplenty. However, when the forces of evil actually manifest themselves they tend to take the form of clouds of houseflies. So if you suffer from Pteronarcophobia, this will probably send you to bed with nightmares. Otherwise it will work your yawn muscles but not much else. See if desperate

Review – The Domino Principle

I should have loved this movie. One of my big gripes about most conspiracy pictures is that they tend to dwell in the corridors of power where the plots are hatched. The parts I find far more interesting are the ground level stuff, tales of the shooters rather than the schemers. This production finally starts to deliver toward the end, but the first hour or so is all setup, with some parts so static they could almost be scenes from a bad stage play. Gene Hackman – backed by a cast of familiar faces – plays a gunman busted out of prison so he can shoot a prominent politician. Once things finally get moving this is a reasonably good movie. But the first half requires some patience. Mildly amusing

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Review – The Bedford Incident

It’s been quite some time since I’ve seen a movie with a surprise ending that actually surprised me. But this one did. More about that I won’t say for obvious reasons. A journalist (Sidney Poitier) goes out on a ride-along with a Navy destroyer prowling the North Atlantic. The captain of the vessel (Richard Widmark) is an intriguing character, neither a weak-willed Queeg nor a cruel Bly. Nonetheless, he is most intent on messing with a Soviet sub caught lurking where it oughtn’t. The psychological drama that plays out between the characters is well scripted with just the right balance of tension. Worth seeing

Monday, June 14, 2010

Review – Doctor Blood's Coffin

If your family name is Blood, wouldn’t it be a good idea to either change your last name or seek work in a profession other than medicine? I mean, who would voluntarily see a physician named Doctor Blood? That’s like trying to get students to enroll in a class taught by Professor Homework. And yet the denizens of a small English village don’t seem to have a problem with this guy. Of course relations take a turn for the worse when everyone learns he has a secret lab in an abandoned mine where he’s trying to revive corpses by implanting fresh hearts from vivisected victims (which seems like it would be something of a zero-sum game rather than a genuine boon to humanity). We finally get a Frankenstein-y monster in the last few minutes, but the first hour and a half of the picture are pure boredom. See if desperate

Review – Cross of Iron

I first saw this movie during its original theatrical release in 1977. Toward the end of the movie the hero – a battle-weary Wehrmacht sergeant (James Coburn) – has one of the double-crossing bad guys at gunpoint. A guy in the front row lost it. He started bouncing up and down in his seat and yelling “Stick him! Stick him!” at the top of his lungs. Without the floor show, this movie is substantially less entertaining. The story is unusual in that it’s set on the Eastern Front in World War Two, and the Germans are the heroes. Coburn’s character won’t sign a false statement that would allow his arrogant captain (Maxmilian Schell) to get the Iron Cross he wants. As a result, the officer leaves the sergeant’s platoon to the tender mercies of the advancing Soviet forces. The picture features a lot of Sam Peckinpah’s hallmark macho posturing and slo-mo death scenes, not to mention a hearty dose of unhealthy sexuality. Otherwise it’s a run-of-the-mill war movie. Mildly amusing

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Review – Children of the Corn 3: Urban Harvest

If my memory serves me correctly, this is the only picture in the series in which He Who Walks Behind the Rows makes an actual appearance of any significant length. Of course if he’s going to look like a cross between a lizard and a big pile of poo, perhaps it’s better that he limits his exposure in the rest of the set. A couple in Chicago adopts two orphaned country brothers: normal Joshua and creepy Eli. In short order a corn patch grows in the vacant lot next door, and things go downhill from there. See if desperate

Monday, June 7, 2010

Review – Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

I was surprised at how much I ended up enjoying this movie. I really shouldn’t have. It has all the classic crappy kids’ movie elements: mediocre computer animation, a silly story, a preachy message and plenty of action sequences tailor made for easy media convergence into a videogame version. But on top of the usual nonsense it also packs a steady stream of little clever touches that help the picture appeal to people with two digits in their ages and three in their IQs. A ne’er-do-well inventor comes up with a device that turns water into food. When it’s accidentally propelled into the sky, it starts raining food. It’s the small stuff rather than the big picture, but at least the small stuff is good for a change. Worth seeing

Review – Cruel World

I’ll let you invent your own “goodbye, cruel world” joke here. You’ll have an easier time of it if you actually see this stinker, as it’ll make you want to say goodbye to it in short order. A bloated Edward Furlong plays a psycho who got kicked off a reality show and now seeks revenge – with the help of his dim-witted brother – by starting his own contest and slowly killing off the contestants. The result plays like a bargain basement blend of Fear Factor and Saw. See if desperate

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Review – Avatar

The big disadvantage to missing “the most popular movie of all time” in theaters is that for what seemed like months everyone was making Avatar references I didn’t completely get. The big advantage, however, is that it’s a lot easier to appreciate the picture for its own merits rather than for the hype. And it certainly has shortcomings. The story – especially the romance – is straight out of Ferngully. The effects are expensive, elaborate and occasionally impressive, but they create a world that’s half video game and half drug-addled day-glo from Spencer’s Gifts circa 1978. Most troubling, however, is the treatment of the conflict between the indigenous “savages” and the technologically sophisticated Earth people. The movie hedges its bets by simultaneously extolling the virtues of war and condemning its destructiveness. And despite the happy Custer’s Last Stand ending, I can’t help but wonder if a realistic Avatar 2 wouldn’t inevitably include a Wounded Knee destruction of the entire planet. Overall this wasn’t the worst blockbuster I’ve ever seen, but it didn’t merit all the hoopla either. Mildly amusing

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Review – Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp do to Alice what they did to Ichabod Crane and Willie Wonka, creating another effects-intensive reimagining of a classic story. This time around Alice is a bit older and a bit more in charge of her own destiny, an improvement over the creepy age and gender politics of the original story. On the other hand, Burton twists the characters around in uncomfortable ways. Sometimes it works. For example, I loved the Cheshire Cat. In other cases it’s less successful. Though overall I prefer Carroll’s version, I found this a reasonably entertaining summer rental. Mildly amusing

Review - Fame (2009)

How on earth did they manage to make a movie more vapid than the original? The basic formula is the same: spotty coverage of four years in the lives of a handful of students at New York City’s performing arts high school. And of course both versions exist primarily to showcase teen angst and musical numbers. But in the 80s edition at least some of the characters faced what older generations would have considered real problems: poverty, abortion, coming out and the like. The worst things that happen to anybody in this one are that their parents aren’t sufficiently supportive and they don’t become famous fast enough for their liking. Verdict: see if desperate

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Review – Bordertown

This might have been a better movie with fewer big stars in it. Jennifer Lopez in particular is distracting in the lead, doing a better job as herself than as her character. And that’s a shame, because this movie has an important story to tell. The movie’s thesis is somewhat complicated: NAFTA made cheap manufacture of consumer goods for the U.S. market a particularly lucrative business in Mexican border towns such as Juarez. Women who flock to the factories in search of work are easy prey for serial rapist/murderers who waylay the workers when they’re trying to get home after a late shift. And of course the police and evil capitalist overlords want it all hushed up so as not to interfere with business operations. Enter a crusading journalist (Lopez) who finds a woman who miraculously survived an attack but must now be protected from her assailants and the authorities seeking to silence her before the story gets out. The picture develops third act problems as the filmmakers try to plot a course between an ending that’s too happy and an ending that isn’t happy enough. Mildly amusing

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Review – Creepies

Thank goodness someone’s still willing to hire Ron Jeremy, even if it’s just for apropos-of-nothing walk-on roles in the middle of low-budget horror movies. I wouldn’t want to live in a nation that would abandon its superannuated porn stars (or worse, make them get actual jobs). Jeremy aside, the most expensive things in the whole production are the mutant spiders who will take over Los Angeles if the Army and/or a group of assholes at a recording studio can’t come up with a way to thwart them. In the first five minutes we learn that jeans have become part of standard military uniforms. With attention to detail like that, this picture didn’t hold my attention for long. See if desperate

Review – Disturbing Behavior

“Annoying behavior” is a lot more like it. Yet again we’re treated to a hefty dose of the teen paranoid fantasy that all the popular kids in high school are actually evil robots. And of course they’re out to make everyone into letter-jacket-wearing jerks just like themselves. Maybe if you’re actually in high school and taking it a bit too seriously you’ll find some entertaining relief here. Otherwise the high point is the Vonnegut-reading spaz janitor with a severe Pied Piper complex. Mildly amusing