Sunday, December 09, 2007

Grandma's Boy (2006)

Grandma's Boy is funny and enjoyable. It's a dumb comedy that sticks to the core premise of dumb comedies: they can't be cynical.

Contrast this movie to Knocked Up and you'll see what I mean. Both movies have raunchy humor and a lot of f-bombs (though I'd say Knocked Up wins in both categories). They both rely on a random humor element, rather than the core plot being funny. However, Knocked Up has an undertone of bitterness and cynicism that makes it really unfunny and unenjoyable. Plus, Knocked Up is way too long, extending the pain if you cared to keep watching.

As a few of you know, my favorite comedy of the last few years is Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle. Other than that, I really haven't enjoyed many of the recent spat of comedies. 40 Year Old Virgin had a few moments of gold, but was otherwise overlong and forced. Wedding Crashers was another one of those movies with an undertone of bitterness. I did mostly like Old School and even liked some of You, Me and Depree.

Most comedies miss the mark when it comes to creating a classic like Caddyshack, Better Off Dead, or Animal House. Those comedies are what they are because they create funny characters and put them in environments that make them shine. Grandma's Boy is like that. I'm not saying it's a classic like those three I just mentioned, but it does have the same formula. It revolves around a 36 year old video game tester who moves in with his Grandma and her roommates. Like Caddyshack, a few funny characters are focused on and the rest end up being role players in the hilarity.

I don't really want to give away more than that, it really is a must see. The co-worker who loaned it to me told me that it was really offensive. Compared to Knocked Up, this movie seemed tame, funnier, and more enjoyable. And... it's not overly long! Finally, someone made a movie in the 2000s that isn't too long!

JSS RATING: It's a Good-Bad Movie. Meaning it's in the traditional film critic category of "bad movie" but is really good.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Done with 'Heroes'

This post has spoilers, but do you care? It's a TV show.

Last year, Heroes started off relatively slow. About 6 episodes in, I wasn't sure if I was going to keep watching. The show has always has a problem with characters that really aren't compelling. Like, for example, Nikki (Ali Larter). Nikki/Jessica, the dual personality chick whose power is to throw people up against walls really hard. Her character was, and is, really lame, and they dedicated way too much time to her all season long.

However, Season One was driven by the story of all the characters meeting up in New York to save the city from a huge explosion. This story made the show awesome. Each week had more suspense than the week before. And then.... they did save the city in the finale of the season. And it was boring.

Then comes the second season. It has essentially no correlation to the first season. It doesn't build on any of the suspense. The cliffhanger basically went away until 5 episodes in, where they decided to go back and explain it. The story has been extremely weak: the future tragedy that they were trying to prevent was a side story, rather than the main story. The directors have decided to try to make the show artsier by adding a shift tilt lens effect -- YEAH, LIKE THAT DIDN'T GO OUT OF STYLE 20 YEARS AGO.

Worst of all, they introduced more characters that no one cares about. These characters they added had the most boring side stories and were the whiniest characters on all of television.

So last night, one of those characters finally got shot. I was like, "YESSS! The writers get it!!!" 5 minutes later, they bring this character back to life.

At the end of the show, their cliffhanger for next season (i.e. half season, since of this stupid writers' strike), was to have Sylar get his powers back by injecting himself with this magical back-to-life serum. I said what line he would utter about 30 seconds before he did: "I'm BAAACK." How stupid is this show?

Anyway, deleted it from my season pass. Done. No more wasting time on that.

I just have to ask, did the writers go on strike because they were writing complete shit for this season? Basically nothing on TV is any good. House. That's another show I'm done with. Same with CSI. They're all just plain bad. They almost make movies look like a good alternative.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Silence of the Lambs (1991)


I saw this movie in HD. I'm not sure I completely recognized the brilliance of this in the VHS, post-widescreen world because of it having been pan-and-scanned down to 4:3. (Although I believe 4:3 is the ratio of the gods, it doesn't mean I think pan & scan is good for movies composed for 1.85 or 2.35).

Silence of the Lambs is not great because of Anthony Hopkins. It's not great because of Jodie Foster or because of its script. They give great performances, but the movie is great because of the composition during dialogue. This entire movie is told from point of view, that is what makes it awesome.

I'm not sure I've ever seen a movie before or since that had so many characters speaking directly into the camera. Usually, it doesn't work because the audience feels they are being spoken to like a bad anti-drug commercial. Jonathan Demme made it work perfectly here because he carefully crafts the way he leads into a POV (point of view) shot.

When Clarisse and Lecter are down in the jail, notice that Jodie Foster doesn't look into the camera until way, way later in the conversation. She looks just to the left of the camera to lead into the POV shot of Lecter. Lecter then speaks directly into the camera throughout. But did you for one second think he was speaking to you, the audience? No. You were in Clarisse's shoes. Demme sets you up that way.

There are many, many examples of the POV shot in this movie. Essentially you are in the shoes of the people speaking to Lecter. Clarisse, the doctor, and the senator speaking to Lecter -- you are also placed in her shoes for the scene in the airplane hangar. But Clarisse talking to her boss, looking around the room of cops in West Virginia. The entire movie is from behind Clarisse's eyes.

However, there is a twist: Buffalo Bill. We get placed in his shoes in this movie. It starts when he puts on his night vision goggles at the very beginning and doesn't stop until he gets shot (hope I didn't give anything away). We constantly look down on the victim in the well from his point of view, or looking in the mirror, etc.

The dialogue in this movie would have been really, really cheesy if Demme hadn't put it together so well.

BTW, the artist who sang that song "Goodbye, Horses" when Buffalo Bill is dancing naked in the mirror... she has her own Myspace Page. Speaking of long tail.... a one hit wonder from 17 years ago has her own myspace page.

JSS Rating: Good/Good. This movie easily deserved Best Picture.

Friday, July 20, 2007

A.I. (2001)

I gave this movie a chance -- 6 years of chances. I've seen it many, many times. Here's what I've decided:

This movie is terrible, ridiculous, and, most of all, it insults the legacy of Kubrick. I think it might be the new gold standard of a Bad/Good film, replacing Forrest Gump. Yes, A.I. might be the worst Bad/Good movie of all time.

You know you're in for a treat when A.I. starts off with a voice over telling us that the ice caps have melted due to all of those greenhouse gases. At the time the movie came out it was shades of Waterworld, and today that plot is even more ludicrous simply because it seems so human-race-hating and politically motivated.

It's unfair to say that this movie hates the human race because at the end, robots from the future repeatedly tell the recently unfrozen Haley Joel Osment how humans were the most perfect creation in the history of the universe. No, I am not exaggerating and I don't care if I just spoiled the movie for you. You deserve better than any of this, so spoiling it is no problem.

The only credit I can give this movie is that the first 10 minutes are very Kubrick. Spielberg was channeling Kubrick in a lot of ways. As soon as Osment enters the picture, that all goes to hell. The pacing is way off from anything Kubrick would have made and the dialogue is absolutely atrocious. Let me give you an example. When it came to "imprinting" Osment (the robot boy) with Monica to be his programmed love-mother forever and ever, this great bit of irreversible dialogue took place between Monica and her husband:

"Monica, don't imprint David until you are absolutely sure."
"Silly man. Of course I'm not sure."

Holy shit, can you believe Steven Spielberg, who wrote A.I. actually sat down to write the words "silly man," then actually told an actress to utter those words, then let the camera roll on those words, and then, in editorial, left those words in, and finally, actually let the studio print thousands of reels with those words and ship those words to theaters worldwide? That's like two or three years of knowing the words "silly man" would be in this movie.

Steven Spielberg did that. This is supposedly one of the greatest directors of our time and the director of my favorite movie (Raiders of the Lost Ark).... Are you frickin' kidding me?

More gems of screenwriting:

Monica: "I'm sorry I didn't tell you about the world!"


David: "I'm DAVID! I'm unique!! I'm special!!" <*smashes with lamp*>

When this movie was being made, it was with insane levels of secrecy. Few people got to read the script. Now we know why.

The movie takes a slight uptick when it becomes a buddy/journey picture with Jude Law, but just when you think it might get better, it again becomes a futuristic movie of whateverness where everything is over-art directed. I really can't stand movies about the future that add details that make zero sense for the sake of cool art direction. When that random art direction tries to look like Tron, like the "hounds" on motorcycles, ya gotta wonder exactly why someone bothers to make the movie.

Spielberg tries to force this movie to be good throughout. He throws in lots of long, symbolic, meaningful, desperate shots of Osment to try to make some point about humanity and love. Many of the hero shots play like they came directly from the art director's gouache tube. The specter of Kubrick was looming over Steve's shoulder and he felt the need to make something deep. Contrast this to Minority Report with its very limited amount of sappy material. That movie obviously came easily to Spielberg, and resulted one of his best movies in ten or fifteen years.

When this movie came out, most people found the third act to be the most offensive. I didn't agree with them at the time, and I think I know why. The two hours of setup for the ludicrous third act make that part of the movie actually seem pretty imaginative. Spielberg defended the end of this movie by claiming that it was Kubrick's idea. Yup, blame the horrendous parts of your movie on the dead. Nice job Steve. CLASSY!

Rating: Bad/Good. Possibly the worst movie ever that was actually supposed to be good.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Die Hard 4: Live Free and Die Hard (2007)

The Die Hard series is probably my second favorite series of movies. My favorite series is Terminator -- yes, including the third one.

That's a different discussion for another time, but these revelations may confuse people out there who know my favorite film of all time is Raiders of the Lost Ark. They'll wonder, "Why isn't the Indiana Jones series his favorite?" Very simple: Temple of Doom is shit. Absolute unwatchable shit. That was the movie where Spielberg first really started making crap movies. He didn't get back to reasonable form until 8 years later, when he made Jurassic Park.

In any case, Die Hard is awesome for two reasons. First reason is because it is the quintessential action movie: the bad guys get shot once and drop off screen, the good guys never die. There are lots of explosions and the bad guys are after money, not political gain. Die Hard 2, the weakest in the series so far, was weak because it strayed a bit from these two basic premises. In that film, they killed a bunch of innocent people in a jetliner, and I think the guys in it were trying to free some political prisoner dude. Die Hard works when the guys don't care anything about that, they just care about the money.

The second reason Die Hard movies kick ass is very simple: Willis. Has he ever been in a bad movie? The John McClane character is perfect for him -- a wise-ass cop who thinks everyone's an asshole and gets stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time -- and the only action character that can make these kinds of sequels work.

Die Hard 4, also known as the much weaker title of Live Free and Die Hard, again manages to trip on the mistake of being politically motivated. It tries to have a post-9/11 message of some sort, and it's just kinda weak as a result.

The movie is too long, of course. Some of the overlong scenes that are simply agonizing because they're obvious setups for later. It's like a screenwriter decided they needed to insert another page back at the beginning or else the end wouldn't make sense. The very first time we see Willis in the movie, it's because he is stalking his college aged daughter while she's on a date. This whole scene was cliche and forced, just to introduce us to this daughter... and I'm sure you see where that goes in an action movie with bad guys.

This is again another mistake they made that's similar to the second movie: McClane doesn't need his family involved to care. Why force the issue?

Second problem of Die Hard 4 is that it's a buddy film where the buddy is annoying naive guy. Die Hard 1 and 3 both had buddies that worked: the LA cop in 1 and Samuel Jackson in 3. Die Hard 2 didn't really have a single buddy, but there were some decent supporting buddy like characters. This movie has the Mac guy as McClane's buddy. He runs around with a laptop and hacks stuff into shape, but otherwise is just a tool while McClane saves the day.

Which brings me to my third point... the hacking around with a laptop. Yes, this is another mainstream movie that tries to use tech in its plot. This makes it very, very hard to watch for anyone who knows the first thing about technology:
  • Cell phones do not use satellites. It's 2007 and people still get that wrong? Unreal.
  • I like when they are "downloading" 500 TB of data remotely to their semi truck full of computers and the first 20% of that is done within minutes. That amount of data, downloaded over the fastest wireless link available today (2.1 mbs EV-DO), would take 80 years to transfer.
And many more.

The action scenes in the movie are ridiculous, much more so than the other Die Hard movies except for 2. McTiernan, who directed Die Hards 1 and 3, always kept some semblance of
reality in the action for the most part, then had one over the top action sequence at the end of the movie. Die Hard 4 has about ten over the top action sequences. Not that they aren't entertaining, but at one point, one of the audience members mock-clapped after a big explosion and everyone laughed. That pretty much sums up the movie overall. It has some good laughs, good action, and you leave feeling pretty good rather than depressed... but I think the spirit of the Die Hard series is probably lost again. Bring back McTiernan to direct the 5th one!

JSS Rating: Good/Good. It's supposed to be a good movie and it is. Clearly, being an action film, seeing on the big screen with an audience is fun. The audience I saw it with wasn't that into it. HD HBO will probably suffice if you're on the fence.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Flight of the Conchords (TV)

In a word, "horrendous."

This show barely gets the needle to the level of "amusing" at times, but then settles back down to "unwatchable" at the 20 minute mark. I think one or two scenes I almost -- not quite -- cracked a smile. Their band's "one fan" in the show ran the two main guys off of the screen in level of humor. Maybe HBO should spin-off a show about the stalker fan.

On IMDB, there was some obvious comparison to Tenacious D. The difference is that Tenacious D taps into the rock-angst-hipster-humor of 1970s/80s American adolesence. They connect to us because we all remember loving Ozzy or AC/DC or whatever in 1979. The Conchords don't have that, and the schtick not funny as a result.

I bet most people like this only because of the network this is on. HBO, or HBO fans, have convinced people that anything on their network is good. If this was on NBC or Fox, it would be off the air before the first commercial break. It's about on the level of "Good Morning Miami", though somehow that show made it two seasons.

Speaking of comedy and NZ, I can't wait to see Black Sheep. The trailer for that cracks me up an order of magnitude more than the 20 minutes of Conchords I was able to bear.

Here's the Black Sheep trailer for your true comedy enjoyment:

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Munich (2005)

Before this movie was released, Kathleen Kennedy (I think) said that it was Spielberg's best movie ever, a great film of the ages, yada yada yada.

One thing could have tipped you off that all of this was empty hype: Eric Roth co-wrote it.

I can't speak much to the facts in this particular Docu-Drama™, but given the what Spielberg put together, it wouldn't surprise me if very little of this is based in fact.... other than the Munich events themselves, and that many of those responsible were later assassinated. Slate goes into this a little bit.

One of the tipoffs that this is another work of fiction "based on fact" by Roth is that these characters are the lamest assassins ever. On their first shooting, they hemmed and hawed about pulling the trigger. You're telling me that Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency traditionally known as bad asses, recruited hitmen who would get cold feet right when they had a gun drawn on one of the Black September terrorists who killed their countrymen? Not only that, their crack bombmaker is a toymaker who was trained to defuse bombs and their bookkeeper was some guy who ran an antique store. That's exactly who I would recruit for this if I was the Prime Minister of Israel (who they connect to this plot at the beginning).

This movie is a mess. Spielberg tells us about the Munich massacre through a bunch of scenes as told on television. Later, he fills in the missing details through flashbacks that Eric Bana has at dramatic times: flying to his first assassination mission, as he hides in the closet on night from assassin paranoia, and while he has sex with his wife. None of this is at all meaningful, or symbolic. It's just that Roth, Michael Kahn, or Spielberg, or whoever, realized that this movie would duller if they had just laid out the Munich story as it should have been: at the beginning.

Spielberg at his worst puts in cool filmmaking tricks for no reason, and this movie has a few of those, like the TV clips at the beginning. The second one is the reveal of the prime minister, Golda Meir. She's hidden behind a file folder they pass down a row of people and then gets revealed when the folder is flipped down. It looks cool on film until you realize how awkward it was.. and for no reason. This is what happens when a good director makes a film with very little story substance.

The only decent parts of the film are the actual plots for assassination, which attempt to be spy-movie-like. However some of these were so poorly executed, in film terms, that the FX crew should be embarrassed. One scene had guns pointed the wrong way out of a car, yet those bullets hit their target (blood packs went off). In the same scene, there was at least one blood pack that went off prematurely to a gunshot as well. I have no eye for practical effects, but even I was able to catch these.

One criticism I had heard of the movie was it was sympathetic to the Munich terrorists. I didn't really feel that way, except for one scene where some Palestinian guys end up at the same "safe house" as the Israeli hit squad. That scene was so forced that it could have been there to alleviate the concern that the movie is too pro-Israel. Well, I'm sure that scene alone has people are lining up to see the film in Damascus. Right.

As always, the movie is too long. Spielberg seems big on scripts that have the old wise person show up halfway through to guide the protagonist. Munich is no exception, however the relationship between those characters is fleeting (except in screen time) and has no bearing on the real story. Even Minority Report, which had a ghastly instance of the Old Wise Person appearance (the lady with the plants), had more relevant story in that meeting. Removing the Old Wise One from Munich could have easily stripped an hour from this movie and not lost a thing.

JSS Rating: Yet another Bad Good™ rating for an Eric Roth movie. However, unlike The Good Shepherd, this film is watchable. HBO HD is where I saw it, and that's where I'd recommend seeing it if you ever have 3 absolutely free hours of time.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Children of Men (2006)

Alfonso Cuarón is a very talented director whose mad skillz I had recognized as far back as 1997, when I saw A Little Princess (yes, DVD rental choices were scarce at that time). That film had spectacular cinematography and storytelling.

This film shows off mad skillz as well. Great filmmaking, good acting, great cinematography, good story... and .... somehow the whole package just doesn't work.

The problem might be that it's an annoying movie. They're trying to make some kind of point about politics today. I think. Right? Were they? Anyone? Because whatever current political message they were trying to connect to the story in this film -- that women can no longer have children in the future -- it just didn't come together. Michael Caine plays a political cartoonist that's friends with Clive Owen's character. In his house he grows pot, has a lot of "Don't invade Iraq" stickers, etc.. I guess he's kind of like a hippie in the 90s who still protests the Vietnam war. I don't know about you, but I ignore those people because they're insane. But this movie is in the future, so his hippieness is about something in our present, therefore it's meaningful. And then we have some people who are supposed to be good, but are labeled as terrorists, or are they good, or are they bad. Whatever point is being made here, it's jumbled and confused.

It's sad that the movie is so annoying because it should be recognized for the technical achievement of filmmaking. Repeatedly, Cuarón is able to pull off very long action sequences in a single shot -- with the help of deft visual effects of course. The first one, an action sequence in a car, is just awesome. I'm surprised people hadn't tapped Cuarón for an action film before, because what he does here is very effective. He also used an effect that I had prototyped in 2000 for a film, which was to have digital blood stick to the lens assembly in an action scene. Sadly, the director (not Cuarón, another guy) never got to see that because my visual effects supervisor wouldn't show it to him. However, it's used much more effectively in this movie. Cuarón leaves the effect on the screen for a single shot that's at least a minute. That's bold. He's a director that's not afraid to take chances visually, and most of those risks work out.

[Aside: I guess it's a lot like JFK in that regard. JFK is a technically brilliant movie, takes a lot of visual risks, but is annoying as hell. Oliver Stone is an expert at making those. Check out The JFK 100: One Hunded Errors of Fact and Judgement in Oliver Stone's JFK. ]

People either like or hate this movie. I like some aspects and hate others, but I don't agree that the movie is overrated because, on technical level, the filmmaking is very good. I agree that other than to appreciate the technicals of this film, there is no redeeming reason to watch it. If you don't appreciate that sort of thing and are just looking for a movie to entertain you, this is definitely not it.

JSS Rating: Borderline...Good/Good.

The Good Shepherd (2006)

Apparently, you can say a movie is "based on a true story" when it's pure fiction set within broad truths. Here are the things in this movie that we know are true:

  • World Wars were fought between 1914-1918 and again 1939-1945.

  • The CIA is a US Government agency.

  • Hitler, Castro, Kennedy and Arbenz were all real people mentioned in the movie.

  • The CIA tried to launch an invasion against Castro called the Bay of Pigs.

  • Robert De Niro should not be directing movies.

  • Eric Roth is a hack.

Those are the truths, because everything else in the movie is pure fiction. If you think this is based on the history of the CIA, understand that none of the names used in the movie are real except the four that I mentioned above. Why? Because there's so much fiction in The Good Shepherd that they would have gotten their asses sued by using real names.

How do I know? Becauase I'm reading The Very Best Men: The Daring Early Years of the CIA by Evan Thomas, where the author uses the real names. I had come into The Good Shepherd thinking that it would be about Richard Bissell. Instead, we get a fictional character that's not really historically interesting.

All of this is why I generally hate docudramas. I can't stop focusing on the inaccuracies in the movie. I tried very hard to judge this movie on its own though, as just a product of entertainment, so how's this for critque:

De Niro should not be allowed to direct movies, fiction or pseudo-fiction.

He took great subject matter -- the CIA between WWII and the Bay of Pigs -- and made it sensational, overlong, and confusing. For the content that's in this movie, it's easily 1 hour too long. The sensationalism was over the top... pretty much all button-pushing current political topics attempt to be touched on (waterboarding, LSD, assassinations). But the main issue is the editing. There are flashbacks, flash forwards, flash sideways, flash unders and the actors are not visibly different enough to distinguish what's going on. When you see title cards explaining where you are in the timeline, that's indicative of poor filmmaking. The story couldn't hold itself together without these cards.

It's also not a good sign when the supporting characters in the film blow away the main character. De Niro, Turturro, Hurt, and even Tim Hutton's 2 minutes in the movie give you more compelling character development than do Matt Damon or Angelina Jolie. Damon is neither evil nor good, he's just kind of a bump on a log. There's no reason to root for or against him. That might have been the point, but if it was, doesn't it seem like a waste of film? Why make a movie about someone who just sits there?

I did find the first half of the movie entertaining. Maybe it's because that was before it had gone way off in terms of history. I won't give anything away, but the first real plot twist in the movie seems way too contrived, and it goes downhill from there.

JSS RATING: BAD GOOD™. Congratulations De Niro! You've hit the jackpot with a trademarked Bad Good™ rating from Joel Schumacher Sucks. Bad Good™ of course means it was supposed to be an A-list movie by design, but it actually is bad. Oscar is a sucker for Bad Good™ movies. Previous recipients include Forrest Gump, which Eric Roth actually won an Oscar for.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Departed (2006)

Scorsese, supposedly a great director who makes great movies, hasn't made an great movie since Goodfellas. There, someone finally said it.

You may have previously read my review of The Aviator, which was a terrible movie that got nominated for an Oscar (never forget the Oscar rules: making a movie about Hollywood itself automatically gets you nominated). Casino was forgettable. I didn't see "Bringing out the Dead" or "Gangs of New York." Those had 6.6 and 7.2 ratings respectively on IMDB, where every Scorsese, De Niro, Pachino, etc., movie is overrated.

Scorsese's problem is that he tries to force a movie, rather than show us, via the film medium, a story. The camera is there to do one thing: record the story. Sure, there are symbolic things you can do with the camera, but the goal is not to overmake a movie for art's sake. That's what film school projects are for. In regular movies, camera tricks should only be used when they help tell us something, not to force them for your "signature".

Prime example of forcing shots is Brian DePalma. ONCE in his career, the top-down shot worked really well. It was in The Untouchables, after Capone had beat the guy with the baseball bat.

Let me give you an example of a Scorsese forced scene -- actually in Goodfellas. Remember the sweeping cameras over dead people put to Clapton music? Well, thanks to Youtube, here it is for you to remember. That's an example of forcing a shot. The scene is memorable, sure, but it plays like something out of a NYU film student's mob movie. Sweeping camera moves, just like top down cameras, are almost never necessary to tell the story. They're put in there to exaggerate the drama. But if the scene is that really that dramatic, you don't need it. In DePalma's favor, at least top down cameras have the symbolism of someone rising to heaven. Sweeping moves don't mean much beyond "I'm a pretentious jackass".

Getting to The Departed. Fortunately, this is one movie that Scorsese decided not to overmake too much. He mostly let the story tell itself, and actually, it is a great story. The movie keeps you pulled in thoughout. I honestly didn't think the acting was that great. I'm shocked Marky Mark was able to get an Oscar nomaination for his performance. All he did was swear up a storm. His dialogue and delivery was entertaining, but unnecessary for the story and certainly not Oscar-caliber.

Of course, Scorsese uses every chance possible to work 60s music into his movies, and The Departed is no exception. It starts off with a 60s scene of a younger Jack Nicholson and a kid version of Matt Damon, then leads into "Gimme Shelter". Scorsese has used this song in his films now three times. I didn't know that until I read it on Wikipedia, so are they shitting me? Can this guy become a cliche of himself any more than he has?

The Departed is, no surprise, too long. Maybe half an hour. Overall, for a long movie this one will keep your interest. I found the ending very unsatisfying -- and this is where Scorsese tries to work in his needless camera tricks -- but it is a decent film. Not Oscar-winner worthy. I'm not sure why they insist on giving those out every year. Instead, they should give it out every 5 years. That's about how often Hollywood makes a truly worthy film.

Rating: Good/Good. Worth a rental. HD-optional.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Turistas (2006)

Josh Duhamel must the easiest man in Hollywood to cast. Need a guy in a movie that is kinda dumb, kinda goofy but takes his shirt off a lot? Call Josh Duhamel! The script finds at least 4 or 5 ways to get this guy's shirt off in the movie. When I've seen that show he's in, "Las Vegas," he always seems to find a way to take his shirt off in that as well. The guy is ripped, good for him. I'm glad he has 8 hours a day to work on his body, unlike the rest of us who sit in front of a computer.

I'm not sure which came first, Josh Duhamel being cast or a movie producer honestly wanting to make this movie. I think it was a script floating around, then Duhamel got cast and someone said "OH GREAT, now we have to make this piece of shit. Ok everybody, book some tickets for Brazil, at least we'll get some R&R in." Everyone involved in this mailed in the effort. The script is a one-week hackjob that someone thought of while they were on vacation. The movie relies on gross-out scenes to have a plot. I'd rather have gross-out scenes with no plot, which are commonly called "slasher movies", than agonize through gross-out stuff just to explain why things are going on. Oh, and the only way they got this to be feature length (i.e. 75+ minutes), was an extraordinarily long chase scene at the end.

Although, in saying this I'm ripping on one of my favorite actors ever: John Stockwell. You might remember him as Mike Harlan in My Science Project (1985) or Cougar in Top Gun (1986). Here's a pic of John, as Mike Harlan (note trucker hat, those are back in style now)

Well, he directed this movie. I feel kind of sorry for him, because he had previously directed Blue Crush (2002), an actually enjoyable movie that had no gore. Like Blue Crush, this movie has extensive underwater photography, which could be the reason he hooked up with it. Sadly, Stockwell has nothing in development according to IMDB, probably because of this horrific movie.

In any case, JSS rates this movie as BAD/BAD. Avoid at all costs.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Full Metal Jacket (1987) vs. Platoon (1986)

The two greatest Vietnam movies by two of the greatest war filmmakers. Head to head, in one review. I had the good luck of seeing both in High Def this week: Full Metal Jacket on HBOHD and Platoon on Comcast HD On Demand. Let's break each movie down.

Platoon (1986).

I should remind everyone that this film won on Oscar for Best Picture, therefore, it almost automatically gets the label of "overrated." But, watching it again 21 years later, it is unquestionably a very good movie. Despite being hung up in the 60s and being a conspiracist, Oliver Stone is one of the last 20 years' top 5 filmmakers and this movie reflects his abilities.

Platoon spends all of its time out in the warzone, and although Charlie Sheen is the protagonist, the real story is between the two sergeants played by Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger. After Berenger's character massacres Vietnamese in a village, Dafoe and Berenger go toe to toe. Those two are the interesting aspect of the film. Charlie Sheen's transition from wide-eyed cornfed boy to heartless killer in the field is just a bit too cliche.

Platoon has a great cast. A lot of these guys went on to become bigger actors after this, not the least of which is Forrest Whitaker, who, before this film, mostly played high school football players in films. And of course Johnny Depp, who I barely recognized. His notable contribution to the world since this film is becoming an anti-American expatriate who lives in France. Nice.

There's really not much to complain about with the filmmaking. Stone is a brilliant filmmaker. It has its wartime cliches thrown in a bit much, but the story is effective and flows well.

I guess my main problem is that there isn't much redemption for the characters in this movie. As Keith David gets on a helicopter, he says something like "I'm going to be living the high life back in the real world, see you suckers!" Sadly, we know a lot of Vietnam vets suffer from PTSD and were disowned by an anti-war society upon arriving home. And I feel like Stone, having come out of it pretty well, was somehow trying to rub the soldiers' faces in it with this little allusion to how it turned out for them when they came home. Even though he fought in this war, I just don't think Stone is very respectful to sacrifice in this movie, even though he later went on to make Born on the Fourth of July.

Platoon is an original script by Stone; therefore, it's solely a creation of Stone's mind. Stone, as we know, is a fanatic 60s peace-movement filmmaker. Again, great film, but this being Stone's "semi-autobiographical" record of Vietnam, so I don't think it should be taken as historical record.

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

If you've ever read this blog before, you know I'm a Kubrick fan boy. In my opinion, he's the greatest filmmaker ever, and I'm shocked that this is only a "three star movie" according to my cable guide. FMJ, like Platoon, is easily a four star movie.

That said, this film has problems that are unique to Kubrick.

It's often said that this film is two films. That is not what Kubrick intended. Not at all.

His intention was to break you down, break the film goer down, just like basic training breaks down recruits. Why do you think he shows all of those scenes of them marching, singing? The repetition is to make you feel the monotony of basic training. Like Gomer Pyle, we all start off laughing at the drill sergeant (R. Lee Ermey). I don't know about you, but I find his initial "you are the scum of the earth" rant to be absolutely hilarious. I bet I'd be laughing my ass off just like Pyle if placed in that room. (Where did Ermey come up with this stuff? I heard a lot of it was improvised.). At the end of that basic training, Kubrick has broken us down. We feel as tired and frustrated as Pyle. If he had just not had the jelly donut we wouldn't have had to watch them do pushups over and over. And that's essentially what our soldiers go though in basic training, except they're the ones doing pushups of course.

So it's a natural transition to go from basic training to Vietnam, but Kubrick failed to make this separation in the movie natural. The characters in the first half (Ermey, Pyle) -- and the scene in the head at the end of basic training -- are just too powerful to make this seem like a natural transition in the film. Granted, Kubrick was working from The Short Timers, so it's not really his fault that this was in the story, but the transition confused the audience.

The other "only Kubrick" complaint is that it was shot entirely in England. Wasn't most Vietnam fighting supposed to be in the jungle? I understand that the last scene is supposed to be the city fighting in Hue, but it's not really representative of the war, right?

Watching this in HD prevented me from seeing some of Kubrick's awesome composition, and I think the film is more powerful when watched in 1.33 format, as Kubrick intended.

Also, given that Kubrick was completely anal about filmmaking and took years to put a film together, I'm a little disappointed in some of the principal photography! There are a few scenes with fire that have a lot of reflection in the lens assembly. Very annoying, and very un-Kubrick in that I can't see how he intended this.

The end of the first half and the second half are a couple of the most intense scenes ever on film. If Joker's "hardcore, man... fucking hard core" moment doesn't stay with you after seeing the movie, you have no heart. I had never noticed this before I read it somewhere else: that Joker only shoots at the end when his peace sign is completely obscured by his lapel. Kubrick, again, is the master.

Sadly, I feel like I can skip a lot of this movie just to see those two scenes. Kubrick has portrayed the monotony of basic training and of "being in the shit" a bit too well, it seems.

Head to Head.

Like all Kubrick (and Hitchcock) movies, the camera is God. The deliberacy of each shot makes the film feel 180 degrees from Stone's film, where the camera tries to follow mayhem in war. It is cold, removed view of war, whereas Stone's down in the mud, bullets flying overhead, chaos everywhere. To its detriment, Platoon ends up having a bit more of a cheesy factor: Sheen ends up with that red scarf around his head, Berenger saying Sheen doesn't have the guts to shoot, stuff like that.

Both films really have the same point: the duality of man that Pvt. Joker tells the general about in Full Metal Jacket. Joker's peace sign/"Born to Kill" combination is the short version of Charlie Sheen's transition from wide-eyed kid to red bandana hard ass killer.

Overall, I think Full Metal Jacket gives a slightly better view of the entire picture of war, but Platoon is a more entertaining, watchable movie.

Both have their place in showing the Vietnam War, and are great films.

Friday, March 09, 2007

This post brought to you by...

William Zabka.

He's in a movie I'm watching in the background right now called "Python", and he's playing the hell out of the character called Deputy Greg. This movie also stars Wil Wheaton. This movie's a b-actor dumping ground, thus must be seen to be believed.

"SWEEP THE LEG", Buddy! Cobra-Kan!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

King Kong (2005)

Someone I discussed this movie with replied, "Well, that's what happens when someone has too many 'Yes' Men around."

I wish I could remember who said that to give them credit here, because no movie I've seen recently demonstrates that concept better than this one. From concept all the way to release, too many people must have been telling Peter Jackson "yes", instead of "you're a moron."

Let's address the concept first: a remake of King Kong.... correction, a remake of a remake of King Kong. This movie has been made three times in Hollywood, and the story isn't even that great! For 7 decades, King Kong captured the imaginations of .... who exactly? It's a monkey movie. The plot of the movie is no more meaningful than Bedtime for Bonzo -- monkeys put in human situations; nature vs. nurture; cross-chromosomal love story. If you're a conspiracist, remaking King Kong again is all part of Hollywood's monkey conspiracy. And, at worst, remaking King Kong again puts a blind eye towards the cries that the story has always been racist.

I'm not going to debate whether King Kong is racist because that's not what this blog is about. I'll leave it to you to Google around for articles that expore the controversy of King Kong's racist themes. I prefer to focus my attention on the self-indulgence and delusions of grandeur of the filmmaker instead of the characters in the story, because I love to write about movies that suck.

Which brings us to point #2 of Jackson having too many Yes Men: Hey Pete, ever heard of a film editor? You know, they do that now, edit a film before releasing it. They even have computers called Avids that can do it easily, then a negative cutter will put that together at the end.

The film is over 3 hours long, which is just too long for any movie. Give me 1.5 hours of passably decent action like Wolfgang Petersen was able to do in Poseidon, not 3 hours of grueling, meaningless action just to fund your personal visual effects company. I can almost understand why LotR was too long, since there was a lot of material to cover. That's not the case for King Kong. This story is very, very simple. We don't need 15 minutes of CG Kong looking at Naomi Watts longingly on the top of the Empire State Building. OMGWTFBBQ, WE GET IT ALREADY. We've all gotten it since 1933. Thankfully for HBO HD and a Comcast DVR, I was able to fast forward through most of the film. I firmly believe that all movies are too long, so now you know why I don't watch them until they're on DVD or HBO. I reserve the right to skip a filmmaker's self-indulgent bullshit.

Finally, let's get to point #3: the visual effects. This movie proves that all movies will be remade for no other reason than to remake the effects. They can do that because effects have gotten too easy to do! You read that right: too easy! Armies of relatively cheap digital compositing, roto and paint artists have made these kinds of things so easy that filmmakers can become, again, self-indulgent. Based on the growth of the VFX industry since Jurassic Park, today Jackson can just fly artists down from the United States as temporary full time to get it done. Compare this to the vision and tenacity the original King Kong filmmakers must have had, to take on visual effects like that in 1933.

Before this movie premiered, some had the gall to predict this movie could be bigger than Titanic. Titanic had at least some decent story qualities (I'm not saying I liked it, just that many did like that story), whereas this movie, a remake of a remake of an originally lame story, has none. Don't waste your time on this movie in any way. Even the visuals aren't as cool as the 1933 version when you consider how difficult it was to pull those gags off 70 years ago compared to today.

Rating: Bad/Good movie (as it, it was supposed to be good, but it was terrible, kind of like Forrest Gump). In HD, it's a tremendous waste of space on your DVR. If you find it for $0.50 on Blu-Ray underneath a pair of used boxer shorts at a garage sale in 10 years, maybe worth picking up and watching then.

Poseidon (2006)

This movie's about as safe as you can get.  A very safe script, safe director choice, safe and inexpensive B-list cast, safe VFX company choice, etc..

The script here is so safe it's abysmally cliché.  Given the number of standby subplots thrown at us, I'm surprised they didn't have a murderous psycho roaming the ship.  There's the "I'm a loner but I suddenly start to care and save someone" guy.  We've got drunk annoying guy who you know will get killed soon.  We've got the people who stay put during the disaster and are fools of course, because they'll all get killed.   We've got the kid who wanders off and gets lost at exactly the wrong moment. Seriously, I know kids wander, but would kids wander off in disaster situations at exactly the wrong time like they always do in the movies?  Petersen actually gives these such minimal screen time,  he probably should garner a Best Director award for sparing the audience. 

Don't get me wrong, I actually like Petersen's body of work a lot, but he's definitely a safe choice for any big budget underwater film.  He's not going to screw it up, and he'll make it exciting no matter what crap script he has to work with.  He mercifully keeps this film to 90 minutes, and I mean exactly 90 minutes when the credits rolled (according to my Comcast DVR).  I'm sure he looked at this movie as a paycheck as much as everyone in the theater looked at it as just another $10 down the drain.

It should be no surprise that I prefer the original film, even with the effects that look like they were shot in your bathtub rather than with a $50m VFX budget.  It has been a long time since I've seen it, but who can forget that cast of the 1972 version.  I'm a huge Kurt Russell fan, and he was the only standout actor in the cast of the most recent film, but his character sucked here (see section on "abysmal script").   Irwin Allen produced two of the greatest disaster films of all time, both with spectacular casts:  The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno.  I was perusing the cast of the original Poseidon and just noticed that Red Buttons and Shelley Winters both died last year.   How sad.  By the way, don't forget that the original Poseidon Adventure was nominated for a bunch of awards -- even Shelly Winters for best supporting actress! 

The most recent Poseidon was nominated for best VFX, which, even given my lack of filmgoing in the last year, it should have been.  The opening shot was really, really nice and there were a bunch of other great shots.   But when a film is made the safe way -- the way that guarantees audiences will neither love it nor hate it, just spend $10 and forget it --  no amount of eye candy can keep it from being utterly forgettable.

Rating:  Bad/Bad... don't spend any money on it, just see it on HBO HD, like I did.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Fourth Protocol (1987)

Michael Caine and Pierce Brosnan in an actual spy movie.  Before Brosnan took on Bond and became yet another silly spy with a bunch of gadgetry, he played a KGB spy in this movie... just a bad, evil KGB agent planning to nuke a US air base.  The most exciting chase in the movie is when Caine is following Brosnan in a mini-van.  Not speeding.  Not crashing through Paris or shooting laser guided missiles from  the car ... just following him. 

Granted, this movie is outdated in today's world:  an old Cold War plot.  I'm not sure if it takes memory of the Cold War to enjoy those type of movies, but since I have those memories, I do enjoy them.  The Hunt For Red October is one of my all time favorite movies. 

Ned Beatty has a throwaway role in the movie.  I half expected him to turn up being the bad guy.  I wish he had a larger part in the movie.  His role in Network (1976) is one of the most classic of all time.  Instead, he has about a 10 minute role where he doesn't do very much.

"Fourth Protocol" is just long enough -- a little shy of two hours -- and keeps you interested throughout.  That is, if you're actually an intelligent filmgoer that can pay attention for 5 minutes to a movie that has no explosions or dinosaur chases (see next review of King Kong). 

RATING:   Good/Good.  Worth a view.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Superman Returns (2006)

Something I know from experience is that Warner Brothers is the worst studio to work for. It's a studio run by hateful people with the collective business sense of a twelve year old lemonade stand owner on the wealthiest street in town.
So I imagine they must have thrown a dumptruck full of cash onto Bryan Singer's lap to agree to come direct this movie for them. Warners, after all, was considering having McG direct this movie just before they scored Singer. That should tell you something about the business sense of the Warner Brothers executive staff. Jack Warner would be turning in his grave if he knew the people running his company would consider hiring McG to direct Superman's great return.
However, all turned out because they got the glorious director of all things comic book to come and direct this movie. Obviously Singer hit two home runs with X-Men.
The end result is potentially Singer's fourth best movie. His best is The Usual Suspects, #17 on IMDB's top films and a movie that garnered Spacey his first Academy Award. I would say that X-Men 2 is better than X-Men 1. X-Men 1 required a lot of character setup, and the ending was generally a pretty lame battle at the Statue of Liberty. Actually, having read the original draft script for X-Men to bid on its effects -- that's another sob story for another time -- I can tell you that a bunch of cool character development was cut from the final movie. They were going to show Storm and Cyclops', but didn't (IIRC).
Back to this movie. It's a lot less cheesy than Superman:The Movie. Spacey, of course, nails Lex. I'm kind of glad the Miss Teschmacher and Otis characters were not in this movie, though Parker Posey's character "Kitty" plays as close to Teschmacher as you can get without being her. I really like Lex and his underlings in this movie. Kal Penn does not speak, which is probably a good thing when he's not playing Kumar.
Which brings us to Lois and Clark. Routh does a good job as Superman/Clark. It's a pretty simple character though, right? He acts all klutzy as Clark, he acts all Eagle-Scouty as Superman ("You know, smoking will kill you..."). When he gets near kryptonite he acts all weak. It doesn't take a great actor to play Superman beyond having a strong chin and profile, which Routh does fine.
Kate Bosworth raises the bar on the Lois character. She proves exactly how silly they were to cast Margot Kidder the first time around. As an adult, I realize how stupid and crazy Lois was made out to be in the first couple Superman movies. This version of Lois seems like a reasonable adult journalistic type. Bosworth does a stellar job and is one of the best superhero girlfriends lately (compared to Katie Holmes in Batman -- a worthless character -- or Kirsten Dunst).
The movie is pretty good, though we have one random "Hey, Superman saves these people and does something cool" moment (the eye-bullet scene which was in the trailer). The rest of his super actions in the movie are actually tied into the story, which is remarkable for most superhero comic book films. Overall this movie is pretty watchable, I would see it again.
I did want to mention here that while Superman : The Movie came across as more cheesy--especially after we're introduced to Lois (spinning the world backwards to save her, anyone?)--the first 30 minutes of that first film could be some of the best frames ever printed in the history of film. The story of Jor-El, Krypton, Superman's time in Smallville is awesome. No comic book movie has come close to matching the character and story development of that part of Superman : The Movie.
Finally, no viewing of this film would be complete without a critique of the effects work, since my former division of AOL was supposed to work on it (another sob story for another time). I'll go gently though since so many friends worked on the movie. All-in-all, the effects are okay. My favorite effects in the movie look like models, so if they weren't, then bravo to the CG people who did them. I did like the bullet-in-the-eye effect. I also really, really liked the x-ray vision effect. Nice way he can go through layers of walls progressively with his vision. The explosion and space-shuttle effects look CG. I could see a bad matte or bad spill supression on some shots, and on an HD transfer compressed down to 7.0GB, that's pretty questionable. Furthermore, I was surprised the skin and cloth shaders on the CG Superman were as unconvincing as they were. I've seen better cloth and skin shaders in real time, rendered on the GPU. I think it might be time to revisit some of the shader techniques utilized by these films. It could be the treatment in the composite... I wasn't there when they were putting together the shot of course.
Speaking of the HD transfer, I watched this movie via Xbox Live. The compression was pretty horrendous. Granted, at 2 and 1/4 hours, this movie required about a 1:35 compression ratio to get it down to 7 gigabytes. I think the digital color timing done on the film also did a number on the compression though. It seems like these video codecs don't play well with visual gradients that have been messed with digitally (like clouds). A lot of parts where Superman is flying through the clouds looked pretty blocky as a result. I'd be curious to see how this looks on HD-DVD.
Rating: Good/Good. If you can stand supporting the people of Warner Brothers, it's worth grabbing on Xbox Live or an HD-DVD.