Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Mish Mash 4 (Clueless, Phantom of the Opera (1989), Kurt Russel & J.T. Walsh, 3:10 to Yuma (1957), Heat)

1.       Clueless started the fedora craze ten years before it became popular.  Christian wears one and looks just as stupid as anyone who puts one on today.  I don’t understand this fad and I wish it would stop.  Remember the trucker hat thing?  I’m not sure which one’s worse but at least people stopped wearing the trucker hats.

Anyway Clueless is a damn fine movie.  It’s very John Hughes-esque with how high school life is both funny and dramatic (relatively speaking of course, as you get older all of that shit you worried about back then seems so trivial).  The only real difference is that Hughes focused on middle class kids and Clueless centers on upper class ones.  The movie is also just as 90’s as Hughes’ were 80’s.  Good shit.

2.       The 1989 Phantom of the Opera is a straight up horror flick.  They didn’t entirely do away with singing and music but it’s mostly gone.  They cast Robert Englund (Nightmare on Elm Streets) as the Phantom who gives an enjoyably goofy and weird performance.  He’s a tortured composer but he also seems to enjoy cutting off people’s heads.  The makeup job on the Phantom is strange looking too.  He looks like he has a rubber face when he puts on makeup to pretend to look normal as the composer but when he takes that shit off half of his face looks like Freddy Kruger with burnt and mangled skin.

      Honestly, I’m not very interested in a straight up version of Phantom so this was perfect for my tastes.  This was a pretty fun movie that has great set and costume design and it also cuts to the chase.  I do like musicals but this sorta works as a regular horror film…sorta.  Whatever, I had a good time.

3.       Kurt Russell and J.T. Walsh have been in four movies together: Breakdown, Backdraft, Tequila Sunrise and Executive Decision.  Walsh plays a jerk in at least three of them too (haven’t seen Executive Decision in a very long time).  Man, he was the best at that kinda shit.

4.       Saw the original 3:10 to Yuma and liked it quite a bit…up until the very end.  First I just wanna say how much I love the villain in this thing.  Glenn Ford (The Big Heat, Superman) as Ben Wade is incredible.  He’s so goddamn smooth and manipulative.  You think at first that maybe he’s not such a bad guy but eventually learn that he’s pretty sinister.  That’s why the ending doesn’t make sense to me. 

*Spoilers*  Wade cooperated for most of the movie because he had several men watching over him with guns but when it comes down to just Dan there’s no reason why he should continue to.  When the two men start for the train Wade could’ve run off or his men could’ve forced the situation by confronting both of them head on instead of hiding behind buildings.  But when we find out that Wade actually wants Dan to succeed it seemed very out of character.  Now he’s an honorable man?  He feels he owes Dan because Dan saved his life earlier?  I just think the guy is too evil.  I don’t buy it.

*No more spoilers*  With that said it really is a very well crafted film.  Very play-like, a lot of tension, all character driven, emotions run high, etc.  You should see it.

5.       You know that part in Heat where Pacino talks about Ashley Judd having a “great ass”?  It’s still probably the weirdest part of the movie (but it’s also one of the best).  If you watch closely Pacino was totally about to say "big ass" but caught himself and came up with something better.  Heat is bad-fuckin’-ass, uh, I mean great-fuckin’-ass.    

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Only God Forgives

Nicholas Winding Refn seems to have two filmmaking sides to him.  One is more straight forward (the Pushers, Drive) while the other is much more artsy, symbolic and methodical (Fear X, Valhalla Rising).  Pretentious?  Yea, maybe a little of that too.  Only God Forgives falls into that latter category.

The story is very broad and fairly loose.  A drug trafficking family (Kristen Scott Thomas, Ryan Gosling) wants revenge for the death of their son (Tom Burke).  The cop in charge of the investigation (Vithaya Pansringarm) will not have such unruly behavior take place though.  Badassness abounds and a bunch of people die in some pretty gruesome ways.  Oh, and this all takes place in Bangkok by the way.

Aside from saying that it’s impeccably shot with no steady cam shots (hallelujah!), beautiful vivid colors and gorgeous lighting with tons of shadows, I don’t want to go on too much about it.  I’m still figuring out what things meant and who these characters are.  I don’t know if I’ll ever really find out but this one is definitely sticking with me.

If Drive is the only Refn movie you’ve seen and are expecting something like that then there’s a good chance you won’t be into this.  I know this is gonna sound really fucking stupid but Only God Forgives is more about feeling an emotion (or several rather) than it is about just watching a story about people doing things and when the picture ends you move on to the next one.  With a movie like this the overall feeling you walk away with is equally, if not more, important than the actual plot points.  When I think about this film I don’t think of actual scenes but rather the imagery that Refn puts in front of you like the rotating shot around the cop before he has his fight with Julian (Gosling) or the shot of the cop’s men watching him perform karaoke.  It all blends together to form a blob of a feeling and perhaps a state of mind. 

As you can already guess I really liked this thing.  It’s definitely not for everyone though.  Between the nasty violence, the sparse dialogue (half of which is in Thai), the many shots of hallways ‘n’ shit there’s a lot to potentially turn folks off. 

I’m not sure if I like this better than Valhalla Rising.  This is a little more reigned in than that one was.  Valhalla is more Terrence Malick-y with less story and a lot of nature whereas Forgives (while still being Malick-y) is more Kubrick-y with more story and stunningly photographed scenes that curiously feel a bit off.  I dunno.  I’m actually leaning more towards Forgives at the moment but then again I’m still riding the high of my first viewing.  I need to see it again.  

Thursday, July 18, 2013

xXx and xXx: State of the Union

*Just to let you guys know I’m using the spelling xXx as opposed to XXX because that’s how IMDB has it.  In the movies themselves the titles are animated giving little indication how it should really go.  I mean two of the x’s on the sides do seem to be smaller than the larger middle one.  Ah who gives a shit.

It’s pretty amazing that Vin Diesel is still a viable action star.  Who could’ve predicted that the Fast and Furious’ would remain popular in 2013?  Even his other franchise, the Riddick’s, are still going with another one due out soon.  Diesel should’ve been a relic of the early 2000’s but he’s defied the odds and survived.

And you know what, I don’t mind the guy.  He’s not the most charismatic individual but at the same time he does have a bit of a presence, he gets the job done and some of those Fast and Furious’ are pretty damn entertaining (Five is my fav).  It’s too bad that xXx is total schlock.

By all accounts this is a dumb fuckin’ picture.  Maybe the acting isn’t the worst I’ve ever seen and it’s shot, eh, ok I guess, but the script is atrocious.  None of the ideas work very well.  The Columbian raid scene, the avalanche scene, the poison gas water rocket scene are all ham handed and feel more like pieces that screenwriter Rich Wilkes (The Jerky Boys, Airheads) came up with first and then later had to write the rest of the screenplay around.  He didn’t even try with the dialogue so don’t expect anything remotely interesting there.  The characters are very simple too.  The villain wants to destroy the world, the love interest is an undercover agent and the gadget guru is some nerdy guy.

Our hero, Xander Cage (Diesel), isn’t any more complex.  He’s an extreme sports fanatic and uses those skills (motorcyclin’, car drivin’, snowboardin’, rock climbin’, skate boardin’, parasailin’, etc.) to take down the bad guys.  The filmmakers try to make you think that there’s more to him with an inner struggle angle.  Xander’s supposed to act like he doesn’t give a shit on the outside but deep down he really cares about the world.  The thing is he always ends up doing the right thing.  He never acts selfishly or in a manner that would suggest that he truly doesn’t care.

The general idea here seems to be an updated version of James Bond.  Instead of a suave and smooth spy we get an unsophisticated and brash one.  There’s even a line where Xander says “dude you gotta stop thinking Prague Police and start thinking Playstation, blow shit up!”  So just charge forward.  It’ll all work out (and of course everything does).  However, I would say that this isn’t different enough from your usual Bond picture.  Aside from Bond and Xander being kinda different the rest of the film isn’t.  I could totally see Bond outrunning an avalanche on a snowboard or parasailing his way onto a water rocket.  It’s really your standard 007 flick with a slightly different lead.

I really wanted to like this one.  I remember it being better the first time I saw it.  The whole thing is so meathead-y and incredibly predictable.  It gets boring pretty quick when you know what’s going to happen at every turn.  I can’t stress enough how dumb (that’s really the best word to use) the entire production feels.  I’m sure director Rob Cohen (Stealth, The Fast and the Furious) and his crew were all standing around saying to each other “we’re gonna blow shit up real good this time”.  But you can’t just blow shit up.  There has to be something behind it, a reason for the audience to care.  It’s all action set pieces just for the sake of having them.

And what the fuck is up with the title?  The main character’s name is Xander Cage.  That’s only one X if I counted right.  Where the hell do the other two come from?  The spy program isn’t called xXx, Xander’s code name doesn’t become xXx, he doesn’t prefer to be called xXx as a nickname and his series of sports videos aren’t called xXx (it’s the Xander Zone).  The only xXx that appears in this movie (expect in the title) is in the form of a tattoo on the back on Xaner’s neck but no one ever says one goddamn word about it.  It’s just there minding its own business waiting for someone to comment and no one does.  Obviously they went with xXx because it sounds risqué but it’s just another layer of stupid that this film piles on.

This thing did well though and so a sequel was made.  Diesel opted for The Pacifier instead attempting to broaden his appeal and his image.  I don’t think it worked considering three out his next five movies were Fast and Furious’.  And even then, out of the other two remaining only one was a totally different role for him with the lighthearted courtroom drama (at least that’s how the trailer makes it look) Find Me Guilty.

Anyway, moving on to xXx: State of the Union.  This time a new guy needs to stop the secretary of defense from taking out the president and starting World War…IV?  Hold on, when the hell did we fight and wrap up World War III?  I’m pretty sure I would’ve remembered that.  Not only does the movie make no mention of World War III but this is supposed to take place in modern day and not the future where you could pass off a comment like that.  I swear they mention this World War IV thing more than once too making an actual part of the plot and not just some weird line that Ice Cube improv’d during shooting.    

As I alluded to, Cube takes over the lead role as Darius Stone (they tell us Xander Cage is dead) and does about as well as could be expected.  He plays pissed off pretty well but that’s about all he can do (at least in more serious roles like this, Ghosts of Mars, Anaconda, Trespass (1992), etc.).  Cube is likeable though and does a serviceable job overall.

Samuel L. Jackson is back in his role as mentor and it was nice that they gave him more to do this time.  He actually becomes an important plot point and gets to do some ass kicking himself.

The strangest casting decision, however, goes to Willem Defoe who doesn’t do a particularly interesting job either.  What the fuck is he doing in this thing?  By this time he had already been in huge movies leading up to this one like Spider-Man, American Psycho and Finding Nemo.  I guess I never realized that he has Lance Henriksen (Aliens, Stone Cold) syndrome where even though he’s a legit star and a well-known actor that’s been in big name films, for some reason the man feels the need to say yes to every piece of shit that comes across his path.  Defoe has done at least two movies a year since the mid 90’s.  In 2005 alone he was in four pictures including this xXx sequel.  He’s a workaholic.

The action is ok at best.  It’s not as bad as most others were at the time but there are still problems with it.  Like the use of the stunt double is too obvious during the hand to hand fight scenes.  It just doesn’t look right the way they edited it together.  Inserting a close up of Cube’s face every so often doesn’t make it look like he’s actually fighting the bad guy.  I think they probably shot these scenes fine but totally fucked it up during editing.

There’s a lot of bad green screening and CGI too.  The bullet train sequence at the end looks especially terrible.   

And this time they explicitly tell us that a xXx is what the NSA calls their secret division of spies.  For example Darius Stone is a xXx and so is Xander Cage (sorry, was a xXx).  At least we got that cleared up. 

This is a real image from an actual scene
that takes place in State of the Union
Lee Tamahori (Along Came a Spider, Next, Die Another Day) directs and I’ve seen most of his pictures accidentally.  He’s not a very good director.  One thing I noticed is that he likes to put a bunch of CGI in his movies but the thing is he seems to have one of the worst feels for CGI out there.  He also doesn’t know how to make a story flow.  Most of the scenes in this start and end abruptly without transition.  I wanna say that Tamahori is the perfect candidate for a job like this because who fuckin’ cares about the xXx films?  But you never know what could be done with a series in the right hands.  Those Fast & Furious’ just got better and better (until Furious 6 which was extremely disappointing and (I hate to say this) kinda bad). 

And I don’t know if there were scenes that were cut out or just never written but I have to admit that the whole thing flew by quickly.  I was never very engrossed in what was happening or on any part of the production but for some reason before I knew it the film was over (running time is 100 mins).  It felt proper though.  I didn’t wish that there was more.

So if you compare this to its predecessor State of the Union is probably equal with it.  Neither one is very good.  The first feels more like a big budget picture and you could tell they were going for something (James Bond update).  The sequel has a lower budget feel but it also doesn’t come off quite as dumb as the original. 

State of the Union was totally a different script that was adapted into a xXx movie and maybe that’s why I might like that one only slightly better.  There isn’t any of the snowboardin’, motorcyclin’, etc. that was established in the first one and was very obviously intended to be a trademark of the series.  State of the Union is a bit more of a straight up action piece with several battles involving tanks, hand to hand fights and shoot outs.

Oh yea, Xzibit's in this too
xXx is more of a spy movie though.  There’s the globetrotting, the gadgets, the undercover work, a villain that wants to take over the world, etc.  State of the Union only takes place on the eastern seaboard, Stone doesn’t really go undercover (dressing up as a waiter for a minute so you can eavesdrop doesn’t count) and the villain wants to be president (ok and maybe start a world war).  There’re gadgets too but there were more in the first one.

There’s also one more important difference between the films.  Xander Cage was a civilian that was recruited to be a spy but Darius Stone is already a spy (or Navy Seal at least).  I thought the idea of xXx was to take non-military delinquents, adrenaline junkies and felons who could think outside the box, who were expendable and turn them into secret agents.  State of the Union goes against that by taking a well trained, already established perfect killing machine and turning him loose.  Just like the absence of the extreme sports stuff, this isn’t in the spirit of what the series was supposed to be.

Whatever, I wouldn’t recommend either one.

Side note: apparently another xXx movie is in the works (fuck, I’m gonna have to see that one too now).

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The X Files (1998)

This should fill out my x letter quota just fine.  That’s right, just like the letter q I hadn’t talked about a movie that begins with an x.  But of course I fixed q with a very enjoyable viewing of The Queen.  X is a little trickier because I didn’t want to go into any of the X-Men pictures and that doesn’t leave much else.  Both xXx films were in strong contention.  I hadn’t seen the first one since it came out and never checked out the sequel so they would’ve worked wonderfully.  But ultimately I went with The X Files feature.  I can’t really tell you why.  I guess the truth is out there or some shit.

In preparation for this movie I saw about the first half of the first season.  A little boning up on the series seemed warranted and I’m glad I did that.  The goal was to make a film for both newcomers and fans but this definitely feels like it’s more for the latter.  There’re a couple of lines thrown in here and there to get beginners up to speed like that the X files division has been dissolved and that Mulder’s sister got abducted by aliens when he was a boy.  It comes off as the forced unnecessary dialogue that it is though.  The rest of the time the filmmakers are moving forward with the characters and ongoing story.

Speaking of story, it’s really confusing.  I got that there are these aliens that use humans to gestate inside of like in Alien but there’s a bunch more going on.  Who the fuck are the good humans and the bad humans?  Are Mulder and Scully the only good ones and is everyone else bad?  Does the ending mean that nothing’s changed?  Who was driving the flying saucer at the end?  Are the aliens dead or did they just leave earth?  Why are there some humans that want to keep the aliens alive?  Since they’re a threat to the entire world wouldn’t all humans want to wipe out these sonsabitches?  I don’t fucking understand any of this shit.  The show stuck with simple narratives that were really easy to follow.  Sure, for a feature film there’s the desire to make it bigger in just about every way but I think the gestating alien plot with one government agency trying to cover it up would’ve been enough.  I guess that’s what happens when you have 90 to 120 minutes to fill as opposed to 45. 

Honestly, aside from shit being unclear I’m kinda struggling to find stuff to say about this one.  It’s not like Mulder and Scully are very interesting characters (one’s a wise crackin’ alien believer and the other’s a solemn skeptic, that’s about it). 

Let’s see what else there is…the aliens have a cool look to them and it’s nasty when they tear a couple of people apart.  But because this is rated PG-13 they’re barely in the movie.  The camerawork and editing was ahead of its time whenever they attack with close-ups and quick cuts.  It’s unfortunate they had to do this to keep the rating down.

Everything moves along fine for the first hour or so but then it all becomes too convoluted and falls apart.  In order to keep the script a secret they didn’t have an ending until right before they shot it and it sure feels that way.  In fact most of the picture feels like that.  They knew they had to hit certain beats (the FBI tries to split up Mulder and Scully, both of them get closer to death presumably than they ever have, they care for each other more than ever before and even almost kiss, the X files department gets reopened, etc.) and they had a good starting point with the initial plot.  The problem is the filmmakers threw in too many twists which made it difficult for them to fit everything together. 

There were just too many things to juggle with the production.  The movie had to satisfy both fans and non-fans, the script had to be kept on the hush-hush as long as possible (meaning parts were left unwritten until the last minute), they had to craft a story that hadn’t already been covered in the five seasons of the show and things had to be left open-ended enough for future seasons.  Plus on top of all that there’s the usual politics, compromise and bullshit that goes with making a major picture (especially one that’s going for a PG-13 rating).  AND this all goes double for this particular film because it already has a huge established following built in.  The X Files is a proven formula so naturally a lot of folks want a piece of the pie.

In the end this isn’t very good.  It doesn’t have enough good stuff in it to make it worth checking out (at least for novices to the series) and it’s not interestingly bad either.  Dammit, I’m gonna have to watch the xXx’s now.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Queen

Late to the party on this one.  In fact I’m so late that everyone else has moved on to other parties about one specific time in a famous person’s life like The King’s Speech, Lincoln and Behind the Candelabra ‘n’ shit.  Well it’s a pretty good party anyway.  I especially like the venison hors d'oeuvres.

Who the fuck knew something like not acknowledging Princess Diana’s death could be so goddamn interesting.  I actually thought this film was supposed to be about the whole life of Elizabeth II but it only showcases one week.  These couple of days sum up perfectly though not only her as a person but also the monarchial institution.

Here’s how shit went down.  Princess Diana dies in a car crash in Paris in 1997 (oddly enough this is one of those I-remember-where-I-was-at-the-time things for me, watching Saturday Night Live (it was funny back then), when they stopped the show for breaking news) and of course Elizabeth is kinda sad.  She never cared for Diana very much but she was still the mother of her grandchildren and future kings.  The rest of the English people are immensely upset over Diana’s death because she was the people’s Princess and all that.  Elizabeth just wants to move on from this and pretend like it never happened.

The newly elected Prime Minister, Tony Blair, tries to convince the Queen that she needs to address her people and show that she gives a shit.  Elizabeth refuses and the country turns on her.  At one point one in four are in favor of eliminating the monarchy and establishing a republic in its place.  All because the Queen won’t show Diana any respect.

And part of it really is about giving respect to get respect.  Elizabeth thinks she has been selected to lead her nation by God so in turn she also thinks that her people need her more than she needs them.  This upheaval shows that this isn’t the case.  The commoners don’t want a Queen if she’s not going to respect them and their wishes.

Another part of it is about appearances.  Elizabeth feels she needs to hide her feelings and essentially be a robot.  She wants to put her needs second to those of the country.  The whole notion of stiff upper lip and carrying on no matter what the difficulty is a British trademark.  The Queen is supposed to embody this ideal.  Ironically by acting this way she’s not putting the needs of her people before her own.  The country needed to grieve but Elizabeth didn’t want to join in.  She’s a surrogate mother to all her subjects and they need her to mourn with them.  By ignoring their feelings Elizabeth is holding England back from properly processing Diana’s death and moving on.

There’s also the deer allegory.  Throughout the picture there’s mention of a big deer roaming the woods in the Scottish countryside where Elizabeth has retreated to until the Diana thing blows over.  She sees the thing and it really is a beautiful looking animal with a full rack of antlers and a robust build.  This is supposed to represent the monarchy in all its glory.  Later the deer is shot and beheaded.  Elizabeth goes over the detached head and pets it realizing that the monarchy is not an indestructible establishment.  If the people don’t want it anymore then they can cut its head off.  In order to preserve this wonderful (and fantastical) concept Elizabeth knows that she has to go to London and do what her people want her to do, tell them she’s sorry Diana’s dead and show up at the public funeral.      

Alright, I’m gonna be real upfront about this, the reason why I bumped this to the top of my list was because when I recently upgraded the “Movies I’ve Talked About” section I noticed that I haven’t talked about a movie starting with the letter q.  It didn’t seem right to neglect that particular grapheme so I went to my Netdicks list.  Turns out The Queen was the only one on my radar that started with a q and the rest is history.

I’m really glad I saw this.  I didn’t think I would like it as much as I did and found this near brush with dissolution very fascinating.  The story doesn’t sound like it would make for an entertaining movie but goddamn is it engaging.

Also, I really appreciate that the filmmakers put the camera down for this picture.  I don’t think there’s one steady cam shot in the whole thing.  Thanks director Stephen Frears (High Fidelity) and cinematographer Affonso Beato (Ghost World), you made my day.