Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

I can appreciate a lot of things about The Blair Witch Project: its reliance on handcams, its meager budget and not inconsequential box office receipts, and its heralding of sorts of a new, personalized (rather than the group slashers of the 80s) era of American horror. That said, I can't really appreciate the film itself, a disappointing bore with an insufficient quantity of real scares.

Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams all play versions of themselves in this now-infamous pseudo-documentary about three would-be documentarians who become lost in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland. As they trudge deeper into the woods, it becomes apparent that there's something bigger at play - the supernatural, townies playing with their minds, or their own fear.

Perhaps Roosevelt was right - the only thing to fear in this movie is fear itself. The film is designed to get you jumping at every sound in the hopes that you've put yourself into the shoes of the characters - who are presented as real people who disappeared in 1994. Unfortunately, this tactic flops fantastically. Instead of building tension, the film seems to sit around waiting for something to happen. After a while, the pacing of the film becomes unbearably slow, as repetitive scenes of trudging through the woods pad the movie with unnecessary filler.

But hold on, you say, those scenes were necessary to develop character! Okay, I'll bite. I then respond: but the characters are overdrawn, amateurish at worst. Donahue occasionally aside (whose infamous "apology" scene has been redone, remixed, satirized, parodied, and lampooned nonstop), the cast spends a lot of time drawing their characters in very broad strokes. Is this a descent into madness, I had to ask myself as one character sat rocking back and forth under a tree, or a crude approximation of a caricature of madness? If the acting had been more credible, relying less on me mentally becoming them, it might have been scarier.

As it is, the only truly scary moments in the film come at night, when the cameras can't capture very much. The eerie sound effects are adequately creepy, and I've always been a bit terrified of the voices of small children at night in haunted woods, but these scenes are few and far between - probably a contributory factor to their success, since every nightfall in the film makes me wonder if it'll live up to the previous night's scare tactics.

Then there's the ending, which I won't give too much away. This is really the only truly successful scene in the movie, in which two of the characters - one having gone missing earlier in the film - come upon a house in the woods that, we're led to believe, was the site of seven child murders in the 1940s. As the action cuts between two different cameras, screams and obscured vision go a long way to finally building the terror for which I was so desperately grasping. But then, just as the most disturbing visual of the film comes in (SPOILER: one character shaking while standing in a corner, similar to how we were told the dead children were murdered) -- it stops. The film ends, leaving the fate of all three characters open-ended though enveloped by screams.

I'm no opponent of ambiguity; in fact, I love it when it's done right. The Blair Witch Project doesn't seem to leave itself eloquently ambiguous; it feels as though someone didn't finish writing the script. (I'm struggling now to recall a good example of an ambiguous finale - help me out!) There's a sequel, but I doubt I'll be seeing it. Ultimately, ten years after its initial release, The Blair Witch Project fails to live up to its own hype.
The MPAA gave The Blair Witch Project an "R for language." F-bombs are numerous (somewhere in excess of 150, according to IMDb), but there are also a few grisly images and the aforementioned mood of dread that pervades the whole movie. Definitely not for the kids.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

W. (2008)

W, Oliver Stone's so-called biopic of the 43rd President of the United States, is a bit like a veggie burger - it's somewhat enjoyable, but it's brutally unable to convince you that it's the real deal despite its distracting claims to authenticity.

Plot summary of a biographical film always seems a bit awkward, more like an attempt to tell you who plays who. Suffice it to say that it's the story of George W. Bush (Josh Brolin), from his college years to the final days of his presidency with all the sordid details in between (seemingly exaggerated for effect). There's a running conflict with his father George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell, who's not acting so much as he is standing around being tall) as well as the headbutting between V-P Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) and Secretary of State Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) over issues of the Iraq invasion.

First, the good news. Brolin is entertaining and turns in a plausible performance as Dubya, oscillating between pages from the books of Will Ferrell and Dennis Quaid (thanks, Dad!) but with the credibility of a more seasoned and serious actor. I'd heard Dreyfuss was "scary good" as Cheney, and while he's not a doppleganger for Cheney where voice is concerned he certainly looks the part and does a good job at being what this movie needs him to be - namely, a Vader-esque villain. As Karl Rove, the diminutive Toby Jones makes me giggle but only because I really enjoy his career choices, and Thandie Newton looks a heck of a lot like Condi Rice, even if she doesn't do much in the film other than frown.

That's the bad news - like Condi, I frowned a lot during this movie. Though Brolin delivers the famous "Bushisms" well ("Is our children learning?" or "Fool me once..."), eliciting chuckles when they crop up, they're out of place, forced, and decontextualized in order to more adequately lampoon the president. And so the film plays out a lot more like a Saturday Night Live sketch (love him or leave him, is the pretzel-choking incident really that significant in Dubya's life?) than a serious biopic; that the film tries to fob itself off as "the true story" is downright clownery. What's also patently offensive is its unequivocal partisanship, ladled on like so much maple syrup on a stack of pancakes; "POWELL SAINT!" the movie cries like Al Franken-stein's monster, stitched together in a lab somewhere near Flint, Michigan; "CHENEY DEVIL! DUBYA DUMMY!" Please, Mr. Stone; 1981's Caveman, starring Ringo Starr, was subtler.

Subtle? Certainly not. Entertaining? You could do a lot worse, but Stone's done better films. At least JFK had the dignity to present itself as merely a collection of theories. W, on the other hand, professes to straighten up and fly right, but - as Nat King Cole once sang - "Your story's so touching but it sounds just like a lie."
The MPAA rated W "PG-13 for language including sexual references, some alcohol abuse, smoking and brief disturbing war images." The sexual references weren't anything that I really picked up on, though the war images did indeed disturb when they appeared near the end of the film. As for substance abuse, get over it; the film depicts alcohol abuse as enough of a negative for me not to want to indulge myself without a rating box telling me what to think. Sorry, almost went off on a rant there.

Up (2009)

Up, the latest Pixar/Disney joint, is an exhilarating breath of fresh air at an otherwise stale time in cinematic history. With remakes (I'm still reeling from the God-awful Nic Cage version of The Wicker Man), reboots (Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Nightmare on Elm Street might have been better off dead, though Star Trek wasn't bad), sequels (how many Ice Ages do we need?), re-quels (as Terminator Salvation has been dubbed), and uninspired film versions of media better left unadapted (I'm looking at you, GI Joe), an original story with a breathtaking production value is more than welcome.

Facing a string of troubles after the passing of his adventurous wife Ellie, Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) decides to fulfill the one adventure the two never had - travel to South America's Paradise Falls. Facing a court-ordered retirement home and grabby construction agents, Carl rigs his colorful home with scads of helium balloons and sets off - with Wilderness Explorer (a kind of Boy Scout) Russell (voice of Jordan Nagai) in tow.

To say any more of the adventure the two have would be to pull back the curtains on one of the most magical movie experiences I've had in a long, long while. Up is, like almost everything in the Pixar canon, a whirlwind of a picture, taking advantage of starkly stylized visuals to create a powerful film that never stops being entertaining. This is escapism at its best, simultaneously awe-inspiring and just plain inspiring.

There was an old commercial back in the day for popsicles or something where a kid exclaimed to his dog, "The colors, Duke, the colors!" (Am I the only one who remembers this one?) And so, with a cast of talking dogs in Up, it seems apropos to ruminate briefly on the colors of Up and more largely the visuals as a whole. I don't want to overuse the word "breathtaking," but the images that accompany Carl's flight are so realistic you'll want to rub your eyes in disbelief - but don't, or you'll miss precious seconds. Vibrant colors accompany both the balloons and the wildlife on Carl's journey, and the motions are so fluid you'll forget you're watching a cartoon.

Confession time: Up put the same mistiness in my eyes that Wall-E did, only here it's over an impressively translated tour de force through Carl and Ellie's marriage. This, dear readers, is the single best time-lapse montage since Citizen Kane's "dissolution of a marriage" scene. It won't be long, I predict, before Pixar puts real tears on my cheeks - you're close, dash it all.

Carl is a lovable character, one of the best in the Pixar catalog. Though I was initially suspicious of his grumpy demeanor as depicted in the trailers, Carl turns out to be a curmudgeonly cross between Spencer Tracy and your grandfather, gruff but lovable. Asner does a great job voicing Carl, giving real life to the already emoting digital eyes of the old man. Most of the laughs, though, come from Dug the talking dog, gifted with the power of speech by his intelligent though mysterious master---squirrel! Try not to laugh every time Dug stoically points and brings the pace of the film to a dramatic halt while we watch this ne'er-do-well pup attempt to... well, do well.

It's good to see that Pixar, ten films into its production catalog, has lost none of the magic. Indeed, Up is one of their best (Wall-E might be the most moving, Ratatouille the best animated, and The Incredibles downright the most fun), one of the best of 2009, and - to borrow a line from Superman - you'll believe a man can fly. Squirrel!
The MPAA rather uncharitably handed Up a "PG for some peril and action." Some of the dogs in the film could be a bit frightening, and the antics in the sky may scare some, but I saw this movie in a theater filled with tykes, none of whom seemed particularly terrified. They clapped at the end, though - out of the mouths of babes, eh?

Friday, May 29, 2009

Soul Men (2008)

I've read somewhere that Sam Jackson won't turn down a movie role and will take anything that comes his way. I wonder if that's true.

A movie like Soul Men makes me ask that question, though I can understand why Jackson might have accepted the role. On paper, Soul Men looks bona fide: despite a long-standing feud over women and Lord knows what else, retired soul singers Floyd Henderson (the late Bernie Mac) and Louis Hinds (Jackson) reunite on a cross-country tour on their way to the Apollo to pay tribute to their late colleague Marcus Hooks. As a comedy film about two feuding musicians - particularly ones who speak as rapid-fire and as profanely as Bernie Mac & Sam Jackson, it seems like it's a good idea.

Well, it was. The execution left something to be desired, however. While both lead actors are decent and believable as their characters, the movie trips over its own emotional center, dulling the chemistry between Henderson and Hinds. When in full comedy mode, Bernie Mac & Sam Jackson are solid gold, and they're not bad singers either. But when the film moves into territory about a long-lost daughter (Sharon Leal), the film fumbles the ball.

The laughs are strong, but they're few and ultimately far between. Of course, no one can drop a string of F- and M-F-bombs like Sam Jackson, and even Bernie Mac holds his own in this domain, but the movie doesn't have nearly enough of these fun moments to keep an audience fidgetless for 90-some minutes. I didn't have as much fun with this as I did Run Fatboy Run, but it's hard not to at least crack a smile when Sam Jackson's on the screen. They seem like they're having fun, so at times that bleeds through, particularly in a few scenes between Henderson and Hinds that had to be improvised.

Rent Soul Men if you're a fan of either of the protagonists, but there are better films in each of their respective canons.

Soul Men earned an "R for pervasive language, and sexual content including nudity" from the MPAA. From these two guys, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the language is coarse as sandpaper. Nudity is brief, restricted to one scene, though discussion and clothed depictions of sexual situations are abundant.

The Secret Agent (1996)

For my money, The Secret Agent is one of Joseph Conrad's best works. Having read it recently for the first time and always up for a bit of cinematic fun, I was surprised though a bit skeptical to see that there was a filmed version of it - and not in the way that Apocalypse Now is a filmed version of Heart of Darkness. This is an adaptation in the vernacular of Conrad, with as muddy and confining an England as Conrad could have imagined.

The Secret Agent is an extremely complex tale of deception, espionage, and terrorism in 19th century England. In the midst of anarchists, socialists, and other undesirables sits Verloc (a perfectly cast Bob Hoskins), a lazy agent provocateur in bed with the Russian embassy while spying on London's anarchy scene for Chief Inspector Heat (Jim Broadbent). Verloc lives with his wife Winnie (Patricia Arquette, a weak link in the chain) and her mentally-challenged brother Stevie (Christian Bale, emoting with the best of them). When a bomb is detonated near the Greenwich Observatory, suspicion falls on Verloc, who's mysteriously disappeared, and his anarchist "chums" lunkheaded Ossipon (Gerard Depardieu) and the ominous Professor (an uncredited Robin Williams).

As an adaptation, director Christopher Hampton has done a solid job. For the most part - Arquette aside - casting is well-chosen, particular Hoskins as Verloc. I've loved him since he asked Who Framed Roger Rabbit? but here he's exactly the Verloc I was picturing as I read the book. Bale, though a little older than the Stevie in my mind's eye, is incredible here, every tic, twinge, and mumbling creating a pitch-perfect character sketch faithful to a fault to Conrad's book. Broadbent is an excellent choice as always, and even Williams - though he's not straight out of the book - does a fine job as the always-wired-with-explosives Professor. And keep your eyes peeled for an entertaining bit part: Eddie Izzard as Russian ambassador Vladimir, bordering between apathetic socialist and an oddly appropriate Sean Connery circa The Hunt for Red October impression. Arquette, again, is the weakest of the cast, out of place in an ensemble filled with top caliber figures like Hoskins and Broadbent; was Kate Winslet busy?

As a movie in its own right, The Secret Agent isn't terribly accessible. Since Conrad's novel is so infamous complex, the movie loses a little something in the translation that strangers to the story might not pick up on. The pacing of the film moves at a pretty strong clip, potentially leaving newcomers in the dust. What's more, some of the poetry and mystery of Conrad's prose are sacrificed for the sake of linearity; the mystery of Verloc's whereabouts after the Greenwich explosion, for example, consumes about 100 pages of the novel while the film tells us straightaway what's been going on. The character of Michaelis, too, is notably absent, though this seems to be to pave the way for Ossipon & The Professor to take more screen time - a wise choice, since Depardieu and Williams (particularly the latter) are well-cast in their respective roles. Fans of the novel, or at least those familiar with the story, will be right at home, though, admiring the film for its fidelity and its capturing the heart of Conrad's novel.

This is one of the better literary adaptations out there, with an exceptional cast and a thankfully slavish adherence to the source material (excepting, of course, the final 30 seconds, which tweak Conrad's ending a bit and slip into the territory belonging to formula and predictable "Gotcha" endings popular in the late 90s). As I've said before, leave it to the Brits.

The MPAA handed The Secret Agent an "R for some moments of violence." There's an explosion, and we see its bloody aftermath a few times; there's also a not-as-violent scene of stabbing, as well as a few brief and abortive sexual situations that won't make the kids squirm too much. Like the kids would want to see this, anyway.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Enforcer (1976)

With a flamboyantly absurd crew of villains, how does The Enforcer succeed? It's simple, really; make it a Dirty Harry movie and give the bad guys as little screen time as is necessary for a plot to occur.

Director James Fargo (and a good screenplay from Stirling Silliphant and Dean Riesner) saves The Enforcer from the curse of the threequel (which Christopher Nolan recently invoked in his rationale for eschewing a third Batman film - for now) by turning it into a story more about Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) and his new partner Kate Moore (Tyne Daly). Yes, you read that right - Dirty Harry gets a new partner, and this time she's a she. Of course, this isn't exactly welcome news for the traditionalist borderline-vigilante cop, so the movie focuses more on the budding chemistry (decidedly not romantic) between the two inspectors as they try to thwart another city-for-ransom scheme, this time at the hands of the People's Revolutionary Strike Force (a homegrown terrorist group reminiscent of Patty Hearst's abductors, the Symbionese Liberation Army).

Amid hippie terrorists, rocket launchers, and mayoral abductions, it's not difficult for a movie to lose its way, but The Enforcer never forgets that Dirty Harry is the star of the film. Eastwood continues comfortably as the Bauer-esque SFPD Inspector, bearing an irritated sangfroid that makes the criminals cower. Daly holds her own with Eastwood, an excellent straight (wo)man trying to earn the begrudging respect of a partner who doesn't really want anyone around.

The action here isn't too shabby, either. There's a thrilling rooftop chase between Eastwood and a thug who's somehow connected to the bad guys, and though Eastwood never accelerates beyond a brisk jog, there's a sense of urgency and immediacy that's well-handled by the filmmakers. And, over-the-top as it may seem, there's just something damned cool about seeing Dirty Harry wield a rocket launcher.

As the shortest of the Dirty Harry pictures, there's not as much material here for me to cover. Suffice it to say that those who enjoyed the first two pictures will enjoy this one, as absurdist as some of its flaws may be. Because it's all worth it once Callahan, when asked to turn in his badge, calls it a "seven-point suppository."
Like its predecessors, The Enforcer snagged an R rating from the MPAA. There's a brief scene of fleeting nudity as the chase sequence darts through the shooting of a pornographic film, there's brief moments of profanity (only two or so F-bombs), as well as the standard amount of peril, shooting, and resulting blood that one has come to expect from this franchise.

Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987)

I've already given Evil Dead a great review for being fun and frightening, with all the shine of a great Hollywood camp classic. Unfortunately, by the time Evil Dead II came around, the zombie-fied adventures of Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell - a man with so much camp cred, they put it in his name) are wearing a bit of tarnish.

After a mildly disorienting recap of the first film (director Sam Raimi, unable to reuse footage from the first film due to a rights conflict, had to film new footage recapping the first film), we pick up right where we left off - with a mysterious force attacking Ash (Campbell) just as new faces are coming to the haunted cabin in the woods. Along the way, Ash encounters a(nother) demon in the fruit cellar and has to cope with the infection of his own hand, which goes rogue in top slapstick form.

Evil Dead II delves more into the mythology of the franchise, exploring in greater detail what the creepy creatures are and where the Necromicon (Book of the Dead) came from. This attention to detail - and the increased appearance of stop-motion and body-suit monsters - ends up hurting the film, distracting us from the emotional heart of the movie: namely, Ash and the four new forest-going folks. Where the first movie kept the invading forces a mystery - and rightly so (see The Strangers for the utmost in anonymous villainy) - Evil Dead II's interest in world-building seems forced and self-conscious.

Perhaps the creatures would have worked if they looked more realistic. The first film's creatures were predominantly just the actors wearing ooky makeup once their characters became infected. Here we have a full-figured rubber suit living in the fruit cellar and a headless stop-motion skeleton in the woods, as well as a Harryhausen-esque hydralike creature attacking Ash at the climax. And don't get me started on the incarnation of evil that appaears at the end of the film, which looks something like a ridiculous cross between The Blob, Starro the Conqueror, and Spidertron from Power Rangers. Keeping it real rather than resorting to fantastic creatures might have helped the film.

But Campbell still keeps it light as Ash, inciting a decent amount of guffaws - particularly at his antics once his right hand becomes infected. And it takes a special kind of camp to strap a chainsaw to your arm (is this where Cherry Darling's gun leg was born?) and deliver the line "Groovy!" without destroying the audience's experience. So kudos to Campbell.

As sequels go, this isn't the worst I've seen. Evil Dead II is probably on the level of Attack of the Clones as far as sequels go; it takes a while to get going, but the same charm from the first movie is still present and the ending is wow-inducing, setting up perfectly for the third installment in the series, Army of Darkness. Groovy, indeed.

Evil Dead II was initially released unrated, but the creature violence (graphic blood of all kinds of colors) and gruesome shadowplay (mostly involving chainsaws) would land it a hard R rating today, with the help of some strong language.

Arlington Road (1999)

One thing's for sure about director Mark Pellington's Arlington Road - you won't look at your neighbors the same way again.

Jeff Bridges plays Michael Faraday, a history professor specializing in American terrorism. After his wife dies in an abortive FBI mission gone awry, Faraday starts to suspect that something may be amiss with all-American neighbors Oliver (a spooky Tim Robbins) and Cheryl (Joan Cusack, in a role that didn't make me want to scream, as most of her other roles do) Lang. The movie oscillates between painting Faraday as a paranoid delusional and hinting that there may be something darker at work in the Lang house.

Bridges proves himself one of the better actors of our day, in a very un-Dudelike performance here. And Robbins steps deftly out of the Andy Dufresne pigeonhole (oh, the myriad Shawshank puns I could have made!) and keeps the audience guessing about his intentions. I even can't say much negative about Cusack, who usually induces a run-for-the-hills mentality any time I see her in a movie; I'm only just getting over similar sensibilities when it comes to her brother. So the acting is fairly strong; Hope Davis does a fantastic job as Faraday's girlfriend who initially rejects his theories but eventually comes to see things his way, and it's fun to see The Closer's Robert Gossett as Faraday's FBI buddy.

Major kudos go to both screenwriter Ehren Kruger and director Mark Pellington for balancing suspense without compromising story. Though the movie at times feels like it's dillydallying without delivering and approaches being formulaic, an explosive final reel more than atones for the movie's sins.

The disadvantage with a film like Arlington Road is that most of the fun (if we can call such an experience fun, laden as it is with a heavy scoop of gravitas) of the movie is discovering along with Faraday what's true and what's imagined. Once we know how the movie ends, there's little fun in rewatching it; it doesn't harbor as many delightful nuggets that make a second viewing as worthwhile as, oh, Nolan did in The Dark Knight.

So ultimately this cerebral thriller comes with a solid recommendation from The Cinema King, with a caution that - ending aside - it might be a little forgettable. Decent acting all around, though.


The MPAA rated Arlington Road "R for violence and some language." Violence consists of some gory footage of terrorism as well as a few bloody flashbacks. Language is sporadic but objectionable. Most of the violence is all in your head, though, since there's more tense moments than in-your-face guts.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Mulberry Street (2006)

Let's give new director Jim Mickle's Mulberry Street an A for effort but unfortunately brand it with a C for execution. I usually deplore such graded reviews since they invite comparisons (I'd certainly give The Dark Knight an A for effort, but that in no way equates it with other As for effort), but here it seems appropriate.

One of a string of recent "experiment films" in the horror genre, Mulberry Street is an update of sorts of the zombie genre. Here the zombie infection is spread via rats in a soon-to-be-abandoned tenement home on Manhattan's Mulberry Street. The tenents end up fighting for their lives while holed up in a creaky building that is bound to have a few infestations; chief among these characters is Clutch (Nick Damici, co-writer with Mickle), who's expecting his daughter Casey (Kim Blair) to return home from the war today of all days.

I give this one an A for execution because rats scare the jeepers out of me. Anything with gnawing teeth and an irritating squeak just rubs me the wrong way, so I'm glad someone decided to give government bioweapons and biological mutations a rest. The overall creepy factor of swarms of rats succeeds here, and the gore that's becoming more prevalent in horror films is effectively used here. And fairly fresh face Damici has a lot of potential as demonstrated by his tough yet compassionate and endearing turn as Clutch.

Yet the movie drops the ball in a lot of places. Jump moments - my favorite part of any horror movie - are almost invisible, predictable when they occur and absent in most places where they should be. The cinematography has been praised for being realistic and documentarian, but I found it overly shaky and blurred, feeling a lot like watching video game animatics rather than combat sequences pitting human against rat-person. And, Clutch aside, most of the cast falls into empty cliche territory, feeling like good ideas but without the characterization to adequately explain their purpose in the plot.

The hallmark of any good horror film, furthermore, is twofold: a strong message and a gripping ending. Unfortunately, Mulberry Street is lacking in both. The movie hints somewhat at themes of eminent domain (anti), the war in Iraq (pro), and perhaps even AIDS - the latter of which relies on some muddy subtext that other bloggers have picked up on moreso than I did. As for endings, Mulberry Street practically steals from Night of the Living Dead without the creativity, imagination, or irony that the 1968 groundbreaker had.

Skip it, dear readers. Let me know if there's any really good horror movies out there that I haven't seen just yet!

The MPAA rated Mulberry Street "R for creature violence/gore and language." Gore is abundant, as is some objectionable language that gives the film an authentic Big Apple feel.

Magnum Force (1973)

A man's got to know his limitations.

Though Clint Eastwood, returning for the first time as Dirty Harry Callahan in Magnum Force, spoke those lines in reference both to himself and to a villain overstepping his bounds, it's a complaint I've often levied against sequels. "Quit while you're ahead," I've been known to yell, "know your limitations."

Fortunately, I didn't have to yell this at director Ted Post while watching his 1973 sequel - the first in the franchise - to 1971's classic Dirty Harry. Though it's not on the scale of The Dark Knight (lest we forget its status as second in the franchise though first in our hearts) or The Empire Strikes Back as far as sequels go, Magnum Force is a worthy successor to the mantle of Callahan.

Back on the force after the touchy situations of the first film, Harry Callahan (Eastwood) is stuck on stakeout duty after boneheaded Lieutenant Briggs (Hal Holbrook) wants him out of the way to ensure a promotion for himself and continued ignominy for Callahan. But after a few scandalous characters turn up dead and a vigilante appears to be at fault, Briggs admits that this is exactly the kind of job that requires Dirty Harry to be so... well, dirty.

Something in this reminds me of LA Confidential, though Ellroy's novel came almost twenty years after Callahan butted horns with Briggs - a trait we see frequently on 24, which I've already suggested might be a descendant of the Dirty Harry franchise. As rivals on the same side of the police force, Eastwood and Holbrook are evenly matched, though the script could do with a bit more explanation for why Briggs doesn't like Callahan; there's fertile grounds in the first film for a superior disliking Dirty Harry, but aside from a brief suggestion of ambition there's not much. The film, fortunately, doesn't rely on this conflict but instead continues to rest its shoulders on Eastwood, who continues well as the gruff and grizzled Inspector Callahan.

The villain here, a vigilante sharpshooter on motorcycle, isn't as compelling as Andy Robinson's skittish dynamo of chaotic cruelty from the first film, but the mystery surrounding the killer's identity allows us to see Callahan in full detective mode. Of course, Callahan gets to flex his shooting muscles, too - with the highest body count in the franchise, there's plenty of room in Magnum Force for a few exciting shootouts and vehicle chase scenes.

Though it's no Dirty Harry, Magnum Force is plenty of fun and a good way to continue the Callahan legacy. I'll be looking forward to the rest of the movies in the series.
The MPAA slapped Magnum Force with an R rating. Violence here is sporadic and somewhat more graphic than in the first film (there's a higher body count, to boot), as well a disturbing and infamous scene involving drain cleaner. A few fleeting scenes of nudity seem unnecessary here, as does a brief sexual encounter. Brief strong language is present as well.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Dirty Harry (1971)

At this point, Clint Eastwood's "Dirty" Harry Callahan is something of a legend, a mythological figure in the annals of Hollywood. An ideological forefather of Jack Bauer, the ultimate archetype of the rule-bending policeman, even the inspiration for a Gorillaz song - Dirty Harry has a lot of hype following him almost forty years after his big screen debut.

Fortunately, Dirty Harry lives up to its hype, aging surprisingly well.

As cop movies go, this is probably one of the most definitive - though I'm going to try to avoid blacking-out pixels in such rehashing of canonically accepted beliefs of Dirty Harry's overall superlativity in filmdom. Sgt. "Dirty" Harry Callahan (Eastwood) is called in on a less-than-routine homicide after sniper Scorpio (a wickedly creepy Andy Robinson) sends a ransom note to the mayor (John "Dean Wormer" Vernon), virtually holding the city hostage. While on the case, Callahan ends up stopping a "211 (robbery) in progress" and having to decide between following the rules or stopping Scorpio before he kills again. Things get complicated when Scorpio kidnaps a young girl and buries her alive - then we find out just why Callahan is nicknamed "Dirty Harry."

That's only half the movie, but I've got to stop the plot summary there because it'd be criminal to give away any further details. Of course, like I said, director Don Siegel's first installment of what would eventually become a full-fledged franchise is something that most people have probably already seen. If you haven't, you should. Maybe it's all this talk about waterboarding and closing Gitmo, but something about Dirty Harry seemed if not timeless then at least timely. It's aged well, like a good cheese or wine, without much to date the piece as nearing its fourth decade.

Despite Roger Ebert labeling the morals of Dirty Harry as "fascist," it's difficult not to root for Callahan here, thanks in large part to Eastwood's gruffly endearing portrayal. The movie is riddled with iconic moments, like the "211 in progress" scene in which Eastwood growls his now famous "Do I feel lucky?" speech, so major props have to go to Harry Julian Fink & Co. as well for a knockout screenplay. Additionally, Siegel has a great intuition when it comes to guiding the eye of the audience (using several innovative camera angles to disorient when necessary) as well as an uncanny ability to play on the imagination, wisely showing us some things and keeping us from seeing others.

And, as far as great Hollywood villains go, Andy Robinson stands right up there with Ted Levine's Buffalo Bill from Demme's The Silence of the Lambs. Robinson sneers his way through the movie, a walking instability that could break at any minute, devising cruel plans to wreak havoc while building his own personal vendetta against Callahan. Robinson has talked about this role as a career killer of sorts, but that's the double-edged sword of pitch-perfect casting. (Ledger's Joker, anyone?). This, pardon the cliche, is one cat you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley.

Unless, of course, you're feeling lucky. Well, do you?

The MPAA gave Dirty Harry an R, a rating that would probably stand today. The movie is violent without being excessive, indeed looking a little more fake than today's standards. Objectionable language is somewhat sparse, and there's a surprising but not graphic or close-up amount of nudity. Leave the kids at home.

Run Fatboy Run (2008)

As part of Sunday's birthday marathon, I sandwiched David Schwimmer's (yes, Ross from Friends) Run Fatboy Run in between Dirty Harry and Pineapple Express, which was probably the optimal placement for the latest comedy (no, his role as Scotty in the latest Star Trek doesn't count as a comedy) starring Simon Pegg (who I'm still calling "Shaun"). [Yes, I'm aware that How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is chronogically more recent, but I haven't seen it and I haven't been encouraged to do so. On with the show.]

It's no secret on this blog that I'm a Simon Pegg fan and have been ever since Shaun of the Dead. It might be a bigger secret that there's no love lost between Schwimmer and me, but it seems my Peggophilia outweighs whatever grudge I bear against "Ross." Plus, a movie title that includes the word "Fatboy" is just too good to resist.

The plot doesn't break any new grounds, so stop me if you've heard this one before. Five years after leaving his beautiful bride Libby (Thandie Newton) at the altar, Dennis Doyle (Pegg) is out to win back her affections now that she's involved with American toolbag-supreme Whit (Hank Azaria). After learning that Whit runs marathons and hinged upon an offhanded comment by Libby, Dennis decides to sign up for the next marathon - with only three weeks to get his self-described "not fat - just unfit" self into shape.

I think it's safe to say that if it weren't for Pegg, I wouldn't have given this movie a thought. When I said "stop me if you've heard this one before," I wasn't kidding. Other than a few choice moments of savory comedy, Run Fatboy Run hits almost every cliche in the "win-her-back" genre. In the hands of a more skilled director or an edgier screenwriter, some of the groan-worthy moments like Dennis's slo-mo training montage could have been beautifully parodic; Pegg co-writes but doesn't bring enough of the biting satire from Shaun of the Dead or even Hot Fuzz. Instead, Run Fatboy Run darts full steam into the predictable traps of every romantic comedy about regaining lost love.

That isn't to say that it's all bad. Sure, it doesn't have many surprises as far as plot goes, and certainly it errs on the side of being trite, but there are a few lights along the way. As Dennis's best friend, Dylan Moran (top Irish comic, co-star of Shaun, and a doppleganger for a young Alan Rickman) is in top dry form, biting one-liners off in between long drags from a cigarette. And for pure slapstick comedy, Harish Patel's role as landlord and assistant coach Mr. Goshdashtidar is tough to beat; I've never been able to keep a straight face when an overweight Indian man chases a pasty British man down the street with a spatula. Actually, I've never seen that before. Chalk one up on the originality column, I suppose.

Ultimately, Run Fatboy Run is fun but forgettable, a good diversion lacking the longevity to be a favorite like some of Pegg's other works.
The MPAA rated Run Fatboy Run "PG-13 for some rude and sexual humor, nudity, language and smoking." Some of the language and sexual humor pushes the boundaries of PG-13, but it wasn't anything that made me cringe. Nudity consists of three instances of male buttocks, and don't even get me started on "smoking." Guess Bogart movies get to be Rated R!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Pineapple Express (2008)

These are the cats that brought you Superbad, the poster declares, and, with much of the same cast and exactly the same sense of humor, it's not hard to believe. It's also not hard to have a great time with a movie that couldn't take itself less seriously.

I'm an unabashed fan of these Judd Apatow "Frat Pack" comedies (You Don't Mess with the Zohan aside, which I couldn't even finish), but something about the premise brought a skeptical Cinema King to the sofa for the DVD run of this one. Seth Rogen plays Dale Denton, a stoner who witnesses a murder and runs to his dealer, played in top form by James Franco, to hide out. The pair end up fleeing into the woods to avoid Ted Jones (Gary Cole, the father of film's Brady Bunch and Ricky Bobby) and his feuding henchmen (Kevin Corrigan [Cousin Sean from The Departed] and Craig Robinson [Darrell from The Office]). Meanwhile, Dale tries to save his relationship with his high school girlfriend (literally, she's 18), played by Amber Heard, though this subplot fades in and out with only a hilarious appearance by Ed Begley, Jr., as Heard's father, to redeem it.

This is another in a famously uncomplicated line of comedies from Apatow & Co., but it's one of the funniest - perhaps even more so than Superbad, which I loved. Pineapple Express takes everything I loved about Superbad - silly characters, rapid-fire dialogue, and a race to... somewhere (Franco says something along the lines of the splendid line, "I wish we could run away to... nowhere.") - and adds things Superbad didn't have, like the inimtable rising star Danny McBride and plenty of gunfights & explosions. If there's one thing I can never have too much of, it's explosions.

I praised the dialogue earlier, similar praise being offered for Rogen and Evan Goldberg's previous screenplay (Superbad, for those not paying attention), especially because this movie really finds its niche in the kind of dialogue that's becoming popular these days - quick, hysterical, and occasionally mumbling. Rogen and Granco in particular do a masterful job of handling their lines, in which their characters frequently find themselves digging themselves into a verbal hole, often ending their scenes with self-conscious reflections like "That was too far" or "I shouldn't have said that, that was mean." It's also a credit to director David Gordon Green that he knows when to cut the scenes and how best to pace them so the laughs keep coming.

There's not a whole lot more to say about Pineapple Express except that it's a lot of fun. There's no heavy message - except maybe something about the nature of friendship (platonic friendship between males being a central tenet of Apatow flicks) - so it's really about having a good time. The movie won't appeal to everyone, of course; there's bound to be accusations of it being a "stupid" movie or condemnations for its drug culture backdrop. But for those who have enjoyed the Apatow train thus far, Pineapple Express might prove addicting.

The MPAA rated Pineapple Express "R for pervasive language, drug use, sexual references and violence." The violence is exceptionally cartoonish and only occasionally bloody, and the sexual references aren't as explicit as they have been in the past. Drug use, though, is all over the film, as is crass language some might not care for.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Evil Dead (1981)

Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead is without a doubt one of the most disgusting movies I've seen in my life. Yet, for all the blood, gore, and effluvium copiously flowing through the film, I couldn't tear myself away.

I couldn't stop laughing!

It's kind of funny that I'd resume my reviewing duties with a look at a cult classic almost thirty years old, but then I have a habit of seeing these "golden oldies" too late (I'm reminded of the Jim Gaffigan bit where he sees Heat and wants to talk about it, only to find all his friends saw the film six years ago - a plight I'm now in with that exact movie). But after watching The Evil Dead, I'm not surprised that Bruce Campbell and the character "Ash" are cult favorites. After a lackluster experience with Mulberry Street, I was looking for a startling and severely nauseating horror flick, and Raimi delivered.

It's difficult for me, without a thorough knowledge of the genre, to separate what's innovative from what's cliche, so I won't suggest such distinctions. Ash (Campbell) and four of his buddies are spending some time in an abandoned cabin in the middle of some undeniably haunted woods when the spirits are awakened by a tape recording and begin to attack the five youths. It's a simple premise, one that Raimi executes more than adequately.

This is, after all, a horror film, so the acting isn't Oscar caliber; Campbell approaches credibility, but the star acting comes from the "Fake Shemps" screaming and writhing as the epnoymous zombies. As a horror film, though, there's blood -and plenty of it. Deft cinematography and edgy camera angles bring more terror to the film than the admittedly dated special effects could. The first thirty minutes of the movie are not the best; the exposition sputters and dies a few times, delivering a few attempts at jump moments that flop and leading me to question whether I should give up the film before too long. Once the audio tape is found and one of the girls returns from a disorienting encounter in the woods, however, I was on solid ground.

I asked at the beginning why it was this particular film that brought me back to the reviewing fold. Here's the short answer - this is the Pirates of the Caribbean of zombie films. By this I mean that it doesn't take itself too seriously, but you'll take it seriously enough to have a good time with it - that is, don't be surprised if you're cringing one second and laughing the next. I sure did; those in the house with me when I watched it were flabbergasted by my uncharacteristic loudness during the film, groaning in disgust, reeling with nausea, doubled over with laughter. I had a blast with this film. I suppose, by reviewing it, I hope you will too.

The Evil Dead bore an NC-17 rating on its original release, though the DVD is unrated. Brutally gory scenes of zombie violence, as well as some partial nudity early in the film, would probably garner it an R rating today.

I'm Back!

Back by popular demand, The Cinema King (that's me!) will be resuming the Sisyphean mantle of movie reviews ASAP, on the double! Get ready for a whole new slate of recaps, reviews, refreshers, and commentary!

For 2009, I'll be continuing the same popular format as 2008 saw, although I'm adding a little something to the end: a movie poster image as well as a brief parental advisory notice (in the hopes of elucidating reviews like "PG-13 for thematic material"). This should in no way impact your overall enjoyment of the site, but I welcome your commentary.

Also, be on the lookout for more blogging beyond movie reviews themselves - I've got one stewing about the nature of a good vs. a bad review, as well as a revisiting of the "Great vs. To-My-Liking" debate. So please adjust your cell phones for no light and no sound, remember you have free refills on your pop and popcorn, and enjoy the show!