Friday, December 31, 2010

The Obligatory Lazy End Of Year Lists

Another year has gone by and its time for some more end-of-the-year filler-- I mean, a retrospective of what’s gone past. Yeah. That’s it.

Soooo, with that in mind (and the fact that updates were interrupted at a few points in time this year) here’s the 10 Best Surprises of the Year (because I‘m too lazy to dig up 20 this time). Like last year, it excludes all the stuff that I’ve watched multiple times in the past, like the Star Wars Trilogy and Ghostbusters. So, keep in mind, this is all stuff that I saw for the first time for this project this year and covered in reviews.

10) Legend of Drunken Master
Jackie Chan and booze. It’s a recipe for comedy. Definitely light on content, its heavy on slapstick and fight scenes and is a perfect kung fu ADVENTURE!

9) Flash Gordon
Thoroughly insane, campy as all hell and so British it shits the queen (pun not entirely intended), it manages to be an epic example of “so-bad-its-awesome.”

8) Stripes
Incredibly subversive yet warm and fuzzy at the same time. That’s impressive.

7) Lethal Weapon
Great characters, great chemistry between the leads, great action and some pretty despicable villains gives you a really well-made buddy cop actioner. And its a Christmas movie.

6) Road House
It ranks up there with the guiltiest of pleasures. A story about the two-fisted adventures of a philosophical bouncer is about as dumb as it sounds, but its also way more awesome than it has any right to be.

Top 5
5) Reservoir Dogs
Simple and made on the cheap, Tarantino’s debut is witty, disturbing and gritty as hell and totally worth watching. Liked it more than Pulp Fiction.

4) Layer Cake
Its like Snatch., only not astronomically overrated.

3) Black Dynamite
Oh yes. Oh. Hell. Yes. And its getting an animated series on [Adult Swim]

2) Murder, My Sweet
Quite possibly my new favorite film noir movie because of the engrossing characters, killer dialogue, and some clever hallucinatory effects. Nothing but love for this.

1) Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Take 1 part Robert Downey Jr., 1 part Val Kilmer, 2 parts Shane Black, add film noir to taste and you get one of the funniest movies ever made.

And now once again, its time for the Bottom Ten Biggest Disappointments of the year, because who doesn’t want to end the year on a list of downers?

Honorable Mention since I haven’t officially reviewed it yet.
Troll 2
One of the true claimants to “Worst Movie Ever Made,” it rightly deserves its place in the pantheon of schlock. However, actually watching it creates a kind of narcotic effect where your mind gets numbed to the pain and all you can do is laugh at the madness on the screen lest you go insane yourself. Come to think of it, that’s probably how Elder Gods make movies.

10) Horrors of Spider Island
Terrible. Truly awful in that wonderfully bad sort of way. Watched this and riffed on it before I was even aware that MST3K had done the same already.

9) Robot Monster
Same reason as above. It’s dreadfully bad and ineptly made, but still manages to have a grim, bleak and weirdly absurdist quality movie. And there’s a gorilla costume with a diving helmet. And a bubble machine.

8) The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy
Badly made (and consisting mostly of flashbacks to the previous movies in the trilogy), the Aztec Mummy Popoca is oddly likable and the villainous The Bat is a gleefully hammy mad scientist. Terrible but oddly fun, and what’s more: A boxed set of the Aztec Mummy Trilogy exists, I have it, and I am waaayyy more enthused than I should be about it.

7) Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines
While Arnold is still fun to watch as the future-sent kill robot and the effects are overall very impressive, this movie in an egregiously unnecessary sequel and considering its subject matter (the activation of SkyNet and the triggering of Judgment Day) completely fails to deliver any kind of dread at the inevitable devastation of the human race. Judgment Day happened, and I wasn’t invested in it.

6) Beowulf & Grendel
Beautiful landscape cinematography and some good performances are not enough to elevate the ponderously boring script that manages to completely misunderstand the reason why the Beowulf story is so popular in the first place. Hint: Its because Beowulf is supposed to be awesome and great at killing monsters, not a navel-gazing existentialist wondering if he’s wrong for wanting to kill a monster.

5) The Brothers Grimm
Talk about wasted potential. What could’ve been a great way to reconstruct the horrific elements of classic fairy tales falls flat due to some face-palmingly bad script/story decisions and sketchy CGI. I didn’t expect it to be great, but I definitely hoped more of Gilliam’s crazy-man genius would shine through.

4) Zardoz
While not the worst movie ever made, it is certainly one of the most incomprehensible science fiction films ever. The core of the story is simple enough, but so much drug-fueled insanity is tacked on that it completely buries whatever it is that the filmmakers were trying to say. Stuff like this should be used by D.A.R.E. to keep kids in line. “Don’t do drugs kids, or else someday you might make Zardoz”

3) Jungle Goddess
Now this one’s just an offensive and bland product of its time. I’m not really one to judge the past for being the past, but a bad movie that’s both blindly racist AND boring has no redeeming features.

2) Robot Holocaust
So bad I keep forgetting that I sat through this piece of dreck. That’s how much my mind wants to erase this from my memory. It’s a bad Star Wars AND Conan rip off.

1) Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women
No movie since Napoleon Dynamite has filled me with such seething vitriol as this waste of time. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Fuck. This. Movie.

Monday, December 27, 2010

“Integrity is something you sell to the public.”

1968, a year before Michael Caine and 3 Cooper Minis went on a merry chase through Torino in The Italian Job, Steve McQueen took his Ford Mustang through the streets of San Francisco in Bullitt. You bet your ass its time for the greatest car chase in cinema history.

Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is a tough detective, a man who’s known to get results, even if he is a bit of a loose cannon at times. That reputation for results at any cost is what brings him to the attention of ambitious District At tourney Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughan), a man looking for dependable cops to protect a key witness against the mob, a key witness who also happened to run off with a large chunk of said mob’s money. Bullitt and his team are put on babysitting duty, and then it all goes to hell. The witness ends up dead and one of Bullitt’s men is in the hospital. Frank…doesn’t take it well, and he makes it his personal mission to find the guys who killed the witness and along the way uncovers a few interesting twists and turns. Bullitt is clearly a cowboy cop, but this isn’t an action movie. There’s a lot of investigation, a lot of angry scowling, and a lot of really thick tension as we watch Bullitt blur the line between doing his job and going rogue.

Directed by Peter Yates, the obvious thing to talk about is the almost ten minute long car chase ¾ of the way through. In it, McQueen (who did his own driving in the scene) chases after a Dodge with two shotgun toting hitmen in it. It lacks the flash and busy editing of modern car chases, but more than makes up for it in narrative punch and character moments. Yes, a car chase with no dialogue and not much music is able to tell a self-contained story of cat & mouse between two cars while still being exciting. It starts off slow, builds and ultimately explodes onto the freeway. It sounds kind of silly to always look to Bullitt as the best car chase ever, but after having seen it (and in the context of the movie), I’m inclined to agree. Yes, its an impressive set piece, but its also building tension and moving the plot forward without words. There should be a “Car Chases 101” class for this kind of storytelling.

And that’s really something the movie does well. It escalates tension in a methodical and deliberate way. This isn’t a “blink and you’ll miss it” action movie. Some scenes, like a chase through a hospital, seem to go on for a very long time, but its all tightly calculated to keep you guessing and wondering.

Screenplay by Alan R. Trustman and Harry Kleiner. Based on the novel “Mute Witness” by Robert L. Pike. The story is full of interesting details, and much like real police work, the majority of it involves investigation and a lot of boring legwork occasionally peppered by violence. The medical scenes (a lot of the movie takes place in a hospital) are also quite interesting to watch, since you get a decent look at medical practice in the late 60s. And yeah, there’s a really interesting twist along the way.

Original music by Lalo Schifrin, and my only complaint is that there wasn’t enough of it. Seriously, Schifrin was an awesome composer, but there really wasn’t a lot of music in the movie. It is surprisingly quiet and restrained.

Bullitt has a well deserved reputation for having one of, if not THE best car chases in movie history, but that same reputation works against it, since it makes you think its an action movie. It is not. In a lot of ways it’s an early Neo Noir where you have a deeply flawed protagonist finding himself falling deeper and deeper into an ugly situation where there’s no easy way out of. Taken with that mindset, the movie is an incredibly taut thriller and totally recommended.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

“What I do not give, you must never take by force.”

Remember Hero and House of Flying Daggers? (Oh, crap, haven’t reviewed House of Flying Daggers yet. IGNORE ME!!) Well, that same director, Yimou Zhang made yet another period martial arts movie, this time with Chow Yun-Fat and a grandiose sense of scale that would make Cecil B. DeMille jealous. Here’s 2006’s Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia aka Curse of the Golden Flower.

Take a whole bunch of plot elements from Shakespeare’s Tragedies, throw them into ancient China and wait for the body count. Explaining it further will simply complicate things, but here goes. Emperor Ping (Yun-Fat Chow -- using the names as they appear on IMDB here) is a bearded badass warlord who rules with an iron fist. He’s got a beautiful wife, Empress Phoenix (Li Gong), whom he is poisoning daily in order to drive her insane (he can’t kill her outright because her father is a powerful lord). Thing is, she knows he’s poisoning her and she’s planning a coup to get her revenge. Between the two of them, they start manipulating the three Princes: Prince Jai (Jay Chou), Crown Prince Wan (Ye Liu) and Prince Yu (Junjie Quin) like pawns on a chessboard. The plot gets heavy.

And then ninjas show up. Yes, this is China, but damn it, the Emperor has a small army of guys who dress in black, strike from the shadows and generally behave exactly like typical movie ninjas.

Directed by Yimou Zhang and cinematography by Xiaoding Zhao, the first thing that strikes you (and continues to strike you throughout) is the sheer volume of color that explodes onto your eyeballs. Gold figures prominently, but next to that, there’s a dazzling rainbow that is constantly assailing your brain. I imagine if you this movie was combined with LSD, heads would physically explode.

Color saturation overdose aside, the movie, like Yimou’s other films, is strikingly beautiful. The fights are breathtaking and brutal and have a punctuate the narrative nicely.

Written by Yimou Zhang and based on the play “Lei yu” by Yu Cao, the plot really does feel like Shakespeare’s Tragedies were stitched together into a Byzantine framework of subterfuge, betrayal, rebellion, tyranny, lust, incest, poisoning, shocking revelations and so on. All that’s missing is cannibalism. I’m saying this is a bad thing, since the end result is a complex but coherent creature with its own personality. Just don’t go into it expecting a happy ending.

Original music by Shigeru Umebayashi. The score is quite appropriate for a movie of this grandeur, with the action sequences being accompanied by a thunderous score.

Curse of the Golden Flower is one hell of a visual trip, and its helped by a significantly deep storyline that is full of crazy twists and turns. It begins as a slow boil, but by the time shit hits the fan, it REALLY hits the fan. Very recommended.


Wednesday, December 08, 2010

“I refuse to be embarrassed by a car that looks like a Trapper Keeper.”

2008’s Sex Drive gets judged a lot by its title. After all, it kind of indicates that its going to be a raunchy teen sex comedy along the lines of Superbad, full of awkward teens trying to get laid. Having seen Sex Drive, that’s really not what its about. I mean, it is, but its not, but it is, but its not. Its a kind of Shroedinger's Cat situation.

Ian (Josh Zuckerman) is a senior in High School, a nice, fairly shy guy and still a virgin. He’s not happy about this, but there is a spot of hope in his self-conscious life: He’s been chatting up a hot blonde online who goes by the handle “Ms. Tasty” (Katrina Bowden). He’s been lying about being on the football team and owning a badass car to her and she (if it is a she) invites him to Tennessee to “give her the D,” as it were. Ian ultimately decides to go through with it, and steals his older brother Rex’s (James Marsden in an epic show of scene stealing hamminess) Pontiac GTO “The Judge” and drive down from Illinois to Tennessee with his best friend Lance (Clark Duke). Along the way, his hot female (Friendzone) friend Felecia (Amanda Crew) joins them and they set off on the road for ADVENTURE!

Along the way they run into Ezekiel (Seth Green) an incredibly sarcastic Amish man who knows a great deal about car repair and cameos by Brian Posehn and David Koechner (trust me, you’ve seen/heard them before)

Directed by Sean Anders, the movie certainly looks fine but doesn’t have a whole lot of “gee that’s awesome/new” visual elements. It is however, a solidly told road movie with a lot episodic moments that all kind of come together. Also, that donut costume you see on the poster? Yeah, that gets used in a really hilarious way.

Screenplay by Sean Anders and John Morris, based on the book “All The Way” by Andy Behrens. The story certainly IS about sex, but its also, interestingly, about exploring teen angst, sexual frustration, shyness and lots of other not-exactly-raunchy concepts. There’s a lot going on under the surface of this movie, and I appreciate that. Also, it makes the Amish cool and Rumpspringa really funny.

Original music by Stephen Trask. We’ve also got Fall Out Boy appearing as themselves at the Amish party. And The Judge appropriately enough gets AC/DC associated with it.

I really enjoyed Sex Drive. A lot. It’s a surprisingly heartfelt examination of teen angst about virginity and a look at relationships and the lengths people will go to for some really stupid reasons. That’s high school in a nutshell right there. It doesn’t hurt that the movie is wickedly funny as well. Sadly, the movie didn’t find an audience in theaters, and I’m noticing a curious trend about modern comedies that the ones I enjoy the hell out of are the ones that don’t find an audience in theaters, while the ones that DO prove to be commercial giants (like The Hangover, which I thought was just okay), I’m significantly lukewarm about. Okay, I realize that I sound like a major snob right now and I’ll stop.

Monday, December 06, 2010

“You weren't listening. We never give anything away. What we do is bargain, trade.”

In case you haven’t noticed before, I’m a little bit… off-center in a lot of matters regarding taste. Case in point: while many who’ve read fantasy turn to the big named series as their preferred series (I’m talking about The Lord Of The Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Dragonlance Chronicles (yes, I’ve read it, I have no excuse), Harry Potter or even The Inheritance Trilogy Cycle (no, I haven’t read it and need no excuse)) the series I look to with the most fondness are The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander. Long story short, it’s a high fantasy series of five books that are based (somewhat loosely) on Welsh Mythology. It’s a tremendously underrated series that manages to cram in a lot of heavy themes and is just as deserving of the cinematic adaptation treatment as the others.

In fact, the series has already received the movie treatment back in the 1980s from no less than Disney itself with The Black Cauldron in 1985. Unfortunately, its got a reputation as the black sheep of the Disney animated canon. Let’s explore!

Well, uh, considering it’s a movie based on the 2nd book of the series, its really radically different from the books aside from some of the core characters and themes. There is a legendary evil cauldron that can create invincible undead soldiers and a powerful evil lord is trying to find/use it to take over the world. Our hero, Taran (voiced by Grant Bardsley), is an orphan who grew up in a wizard’s remote cottage/estate and serves as Assistant Pig Keeper to an oracular pig. Taran is a headstrong youth who dreams of great heroic deeds and mostly by chance he gets caught up in ADVENTURE! Along the way, he encounters the Horned King (voiced by the ever-awesome John Hurt) (an amalgamation of the books’ villains Arawn Death-Lord and a warlord named the Horned King), the Princess Eilonwy (voiced by Susan Sheridan) (who sadly doesn’t have her signature red-gold hair, here its just blonde), Gurgi (voiced by John Byner) a short, furry, cowardly…thing, and Fflewdur Fflam (voiced by Nigel Hawthorne) a old bard (probably the saddest change from the books where he’s a young king of a distant land who prefers to go wandering around as a bard because ruling his kingdom is boring).

Right, so the storyline of the movie really diverges from the books, but I really don’t think they could’ve done otherwise back in the 80s, since animated movies didn’t really get sequels or series. For what it is, the changes from the book are a bit disappointing, but nothing actually deal breaking.

Here’s where things get really interesting. Directed by Ted Berman and Richard Rich, the movie’s art direction and animation are right up there with the rest of the accepted Disney canon. The Black Cauldron looks gorgeous. Not just gorgeous, but there’s a lot of creepiness involved too, with the Horned King being one of the most malevolent looking villains I’ve ever seen in a Disney movie aside from maybe that guy from Night On Bald Mountain in Fantasia. And the guy gets one hell of a villain death scene (like that‘s a spoiler. It‘s a Disney movie for crying out loud). It’s not a fully unified artistic direction however, what with the Fair Folk looking and behaving like your standard Disney fairies (Doli is supposed to be a Dwarf, not a Pixie), but overall, the art department really brought their A Game to the movie, and it really made me nostalgic for traditional cell painted animation.

Okay, this is going to be long. Based on “The Chronicles of Prydain” by Lloyd Alexander, story by David Jonas, Vance Gerry, Ted Berman, Richard Rich, Al Wilson, Roy Morita, Peter Young, Art Stevens and Joe Hale; additional dialogue by Rosemary Anne Sisson and Roy Edward Disney; and additional story contributions by Tony Marino, Steve Hulett, Melvin Shaw, Burny Mattinson, John Musker, Ron Clements and Doug Lefler. Whew. The writing is not bad but struggles with trying to cram in and adjust two books worth of material into one movie. That’s really the biggest flaw of the film. Characters behave like they should, but the whole thing feels very rushed, which is unfortunate. Still, the general theme of Glory and ADVENTURE! carrying a much heavier price than those who would seek it out understand are right there from the start, and there are a couple of misty-eyed moments to be found by the end. Its quite dark for a Disney animated movie.

The soundtrack is by the legendary Elmer Bernstein and it works brilliantly with the movie. Can’t complain about it. Also, in a departure from essentially every other Disney movie, there are no songs. Yep. Not. One. Song. That should tell you this movie means serious business.

The Black Cauldron has a large number of flaws. It also bombed in theaters and kind of drove Disney’s animation arm into the ground until The Little Mermaid, which is a damn shame really. The movie has some of the most impressively fluid animation work I’ve seen in a while and a story that, while divergent from its source material, isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty with some pretty dark themes. It’s definitely worth checking out if you get a chance, and it really makes me wonder what a big budget, live action, book faithful take on the series would be like. Hmm. Guess I’ll just have to become a famous writer and some time in the future adapt the screenplay. Obviously.

Curiously enough, its not easy to find the actual trailer for it.

Friday, December 03, 2010

“My god! Do we really suck, or is this guy really that good?”

Guns, guns, guns, guns. That’s the be-all and end-all of Shoot ‘Em Up, a hyper-stylistic, hyper violent action flick that carries around a hefty dose of black comedy. Its kind of a one trick pony in that regard, lets see if it’s a good enough trick to last the whole movie.

We have a pregnant woman being chased by gunmen who passes a homeless looking “Mr. Smith” (Clive Owen) who has a mysterious past, a surprising competence with firearms and a fondness for carrots. He intervenes in the struggle (by jamming a carrot through one thug’s head, which right there should tell you exactly what kind of movie this is). The woman gives birth but is killed and Mr. Smith ends up an erstwhile nanny for the baby. Turns out, it’s the baby the bad guys, led by Hertz (Paul Giamatti) want and we get one giant gunfight of a movie. Oh, and we also get an ally/mother figure in the shapely form of a prostitute named D.Q. (short for Donna Quintano/“Dairy Queen” and played by Monica Bellucci).

Directed by Michael Davis (who also directed personal guilty pleasure favorite 100 Girls), the movie certainly moves at a quick pace. The gunfights are pretty fun and provide a hefty dose of visual comedy. Physics does tend to get broken over one knee in this movie FREQUENTLY, so if that’s something you feel very strongly about, you’ll probably hate this movie. A lot. Still, the fights just go on into increasingly bigger and more audacious scenes, and the fight choreography is really solid too.

Written by the above mentioned Michael Davis. The writing has some funny lines and moments here and there, but its really a weak point of the film. The plot, if it can be called such, is insanely convoluted AND contrived and by the end of the movie. I called bullshit a few times. As far as a “message,” I don’t think there really is one. There’s kind of a half-assed anti-gun bit, but the movie’s answer to everything is to add more guns, so really, I think its just intended as a big, loud, stupid action movie with a nihilistic tone its violence.

Original music by Paul Haslinger, but the licensed songs that go along with the action scenes are a huge part of the awesomeness of those scenes, particularly Wolfmother.

Shoot ‘Em Up isn’t a particularly great movie. The writing is crude and juvenile at a LOT of points, but the three leads give it enough weight to make getting from Point A to Point B a reasonably fun ride. The movie is at its strongest during the plentiful (if not the actual bulk of the movie) and inventive action scenes. The schtick was enough to keep me entertained, but I know of several people who absolutely hated it. Approach with caution, I suppose.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

“Negative, I am a meat popsicle.”

Its kind of hard to preface a movie like The Fifth Element. After all, it’s a brightly colored, shiny, largely optimistic space opera/Adventure! that was released in 1997. And its got Bruce Willis in it.

Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) is a former military pilot who’s now a down on his luck cabbie (in THE FUTURE!). His mom nags him, his wife divorced him, and he can barely afford to keep up with his traffic violations. He’s about to have bigger problems. See, there’s this ancient EVIL which manifests physically every couple of thousand years in an attempt to kill all life in the universe. So it falls to Commander Shepherd and his crew to--wait, sorry.

The only way to stop the EVIL is the lost “Fifth Element” (as opposed to fire, earth, air & water, oh, and DUN DUN DUN!). There is a faith based around this Elemental power, and its current priest, Father Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm) is desperate to convince the Earth government that the only thing that can stop the EVIL is this element. Some friendly aliens try to deliver said Maguffin, but get shot down by mercenaries. The Element is recovered and reconstructed by SCIENCE into Leeloo Minai Lekariba-Laminai-Tchai-Ekbat De Sebat (Milla Jovovich), a smokin’ hot little mama jamma fully capable of kicking anyone’s ass. She escapes from a hospital and falls (literally) into Korben’s cab, and a course is plotted for ADVENTURE!

I should add that along the way, we run into a DJ named Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker) and the villainous Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman), and it seems to me that the two spend their screen time trying to out-ham each other. I’m okay with this.

Directed by Luc Besson, the film is, again, very, very bright and colorful. It really jars against the more cynical and darker visuals of its contemporary sci-fi movies (like Dark City and The Matrix). There’s a lot of makeup, model work and wacky outfits, and all of it (aside from some of the weirder costumes) is really well done. And the fight scenes are really badass, which is a plus.

Screenplay by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen and based off a story Besson wrote back in the 70s. It’s got action, its got a LOT of comic moments and funny dialogue, and its got some reeaaalllly memorable characters. About the only complaint I have is that the ending is a little bit anti-climactic.

The original music by Eric Serra is an interesting blend of electronica, opera and a blend of international touches. It’s a bit hard to describe, but the one fight scene juxtaposed with the opera scene is easily one of the best in the movie.

Yeah, so I will admit to being late to The Fifth Element party. I’d seen clips here and there and thought it was cool and all, but never sat through it all the way before. I concede the awesomeness of the movie and feel a little ashamed that I haven’t experienced it until now. It’s good. Real good. One of the better surprises this year. Hell, if I had seen this back in the 90's like God intended, it might've become one of my favorite movies ever.