Friday, October 31, 2008

Week 4

In honor of Halloween, I'm giving Ben's Movie Reviews' Actor of the Week Award to the man who introduced me to the "so bad, it's awesome" sub-genre of horror movies.

Week 4 - Clint Howard


Younger brother of director/child actor Ron Howard, Clint has been playing bit parts since 1963. About seven years ago, I was treated to his outstanding performance in the cult classic comedy/horror movie The Ice Cream Man. Little did I know that this one film alone could open the door for dozens of viewings of movies of this same quality for my friends and I over the years. Here's to you, Clint. Respect.

Sadly, it's been too long since I've seen this movie; long enough where I can't recall my favorite line from it. But through the magic of YouTube, I can share with you the trailer. My favorite quote from that? "Freeze!"



Clint has many upcoming projects listed, the most ridiculous of which being some voice work in Rob Zombie's animated feature The Haunted World of El Superbeasto. Keep on truckin', Clint. We need creepy people like you to make cult classics what they are today. Until next time...

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Blade Runner

An Official Review of the film Blade Runner
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/5/53/Blade_Runner_poster.jpg
I’ve always wanted to check this movie out, but because of reviews that claimed it was too long, boring, and lacking in action, I’ve pushed it further and further on my personal queue. But after checking it out from the library almost four weeks ago, I finally sat down and watched one of the greatest visual journeys I’ve taken via cinema. So hop on board the Trehern-bullet time travelin' speeder to Los Angeles, 2019.

Storyline
Now if you’re anything like me, the greatest thing about a movie is its storyline. Blade Runner meets the criteria of a great tale, basing the movie off the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and also manages to tell it with the visual arts. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a blade runner, a futuristic cop who hunts down rogue cyborgs called Replicants. These Replicants look, feel and seem almost identical to human beings, except they cannot express emotion. They were originally created as slave labor on Earth’s space colonies (created perhaps because of the failing Earth environment and over-population, an issue less prominent in 1982 than it is today), but became so advanced that they would start to ask questions, form emotions and rebel against their human masters. For this reason, the Replicants were given a 4-year lifespan to prevent the emotional evolution they would eventually go through.

So that brings us back to Deckard. He goes on a mission to hunt down four rogue Replicants on Earth. He uses a series of tests and questions and a retina viewing machine to smoke them out, and finds them out one by one, until his final battle with the leader of the group: Roy.
Character Development
Another great aspect of films, the characters in this film were there, and they had history, we just didn’t get to see it. Is this for the better? Is knowing a character has an unknown history better than knowing every single incident in that person’s (or Replicant’s) life? In any case, Deckard is a really bad-ass character: a troubled cop with no inclination to hunt anymore Replicants. Why? We never find out. But he gets the job done. Some questions that were posed during my viewing: Why does Deckard get the shakes when he fights a Replicant? Is he the only blade runner in town, or the best? Why is he the best?

Rachel is also an interesting addition to the cast. She is a Replicant, but doesn’t know it. Tyrell (the owner of Tyrell Corp. which manufactures the Replicants) induced memories into her brain, allowing her to feel like she had evolved emotionally like a human being, but without the time span. Deckard reveals to her that she is not human, and that these memories are that of Tyrell’s niece. You can’t help but feel emotionally attached to this character, because she has as much emotion as any other human, except she is different. She responds like a human, gets scared when she kills Leon like a human, and loves Deckard like a human. Therefore, isn’t she really alive? Who’s to say she’s not human? How would we know?

Some have contemplated that Deckard himself was a memory-induced Replicant, because he really had no idea of knowing. I didn’t get this reaction from the film. Deckard was just out to kill some baddies and get the girl, who he accepted in the end as human. THAT was the bigger question, I thought: Will Deckard accept Rachel as a human being, even though she isn’t?

Roy was an interesting character for one reason: he asked questions. The only thing that made him a bad guy was the way he got his answers. He wanted to know how long he had to live. He wanted to know what these new emotions he was feeling were. He wanted to touch his creator. Roy doesn’t differ from us in any way. We all have childlike outlook towards a new world, we all fear the unknown of death and we all wish to touch the hand that delivered life into us and speak with Him (or Her). He, like Rachel, suffers the strain of emotion while knowing full well they are not suppose to express them.

Soundtrack
The music was composed, produced and performed by Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou (Vangelis for short). It was dark and synthesized, and fit the story and environment perfectly. The visual effects were intensified even more because of this fantastic score. If I were to place it in a genre, it would probably fit the futuristic dystopian-noir genre you see so often in your FYEs nowadays.

Visual Effects and Blade Runner Society
This was the highlight of the film. Deckard’s world is neo-industrialized with overwhelming Eastern themes. The city-scapes were beautiful, if only to avert the mind to society’s inherent flaws. Further, although technology had advanced (Tyrell’s home, hovercraft vehicles), society had fallen into some sort of fear-based dystopia. Citizens look over their shoulders, never knowing when a Replicant will present itself. The skies are red and orange, with the hyper-pollution that has (and surely will) digress this future world. However, the best way to experience 2019 L.A. is by watching the movie.

All in all, a great film that touches the mind of the viewer on a strong philosophical level. Not only do you walk away with questions, but you enjoy the fact that it is up to you to answer them. Blade Runner prepares us for the choices we make as a human race (how do we go about bettering society and that of mankind?) and at the same time, it reminds us why we exist (to live life for all it’s worth regardless of the time you have left…).

Author Note: For those of you who enjoy movie based novels and wish to continue on with Deckard's journey, JW Jeter has written officially recognized literary sequels to the film Blade Runner. I would take on these for my reading list, but I have a more evolved taste.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Week 3

After featuring both Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman in earlier weeks (and taking a few weeks off afterwards), I'm back in action for Week 3. And since those dudes were pretty old, let's take a look at a solid up-and-comer instead of another geriatric.

Week 3 - Natalie Portman


Definitely one of my favorite actresses, Portman is a diamond in the rough - a young actress who is really attractive and also has considerable talent. And did I mention she holds a degree in psychology from Harvard? Her performances in V For Vendetta and Garden State are my favorites, and since her career only really started in 1994, we've got a lot more to look forward to from Ms. Portman. Next up is a movie called Brothers where she'll star opposite Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire. My favorite quote lies within this video somewhere; there are a couple really solid ones to choose from. Anyone who can make fun of herself to this extent has a little respect in my book. Until next time...

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Editorial: The Evolution of Trilogies

We're young enough to remember when film trilogies were special. They used to be mega-events, inspiring the greatest anticipation among fans. There were only a select few series that were worthy of the trilogy, and that made those series all the more legendary to their fans and the film community. (Kids - don't watch the video below.)


The above clip is DEFINITELY NOT appropriate for children due to extreme language and sexual references.

Today, trilogies are being cast aside in favor of even more films to continue the series. It's just been confirmed that a writer has been hired for a fourth Bourne movie. What's the point of a trilogy if you're just going to continue it on past the end of the third movie anyway? Studios have no sense of history when it comes to these films - they see the quick buck to be made because the fan base is well established and could care less if they tarnish their franchises on the way to the bank. They don't realize that the more trilogies they release (and subsequently add on afterwards), the less special they become. Pretty soon, everything is going to be a trilogy.

Think about the legendary trilogies out there. The original Star Wars films, Back to the Future, The Dollars trilogy, Lord of the Rings, The Matrix - these all hold a special place in moviegoers hearts. Most of these films were released in a time where trilogies were the end-all-be-all of movie existence; the pinnacle of cinematic storytelling capabilities. The sense of completion that a trilogy could offer gave writers and directors the opportunity to build fantastic worlds and universes, ample time to build characters to legendary status, and they were rare enough to set apart from other movies of the times.

Not only are studios going past the prime number of 3 for today's series, they've been resurrecting series in order to add an unnecessary fourth film onto the end of an otherwise fine franchise. Let's take a look at some of the "fourth's" that have served to put a bitter taste in moviegoer's collective mouths.
  • Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Way to effectively mar the reputation of one of film's most beloved characters.
  • The Sum of All Fears. Just not the same without Harrison Ford.
  • The Next Karate Kid. Nothing against Hillary Swank (other than she looks like a horse), but come on.
  • The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. I've heard that Yetis play football in it.
  • The Star Wars Prequels. Let's take one of the coolest villains around and make him a whiny little schoolgirl while introducing needless characters that will never again be mentioned, instead of building a base for what we already know happens in the existing films. Should we make any mention of Han Solo, the coolest character in the first three movies? Absolutely not. Good meeting, guys - let's break for lunch.
These are just a few famous examples. What we're learning now is that even more of these are on the way, with no end in sight. Let's look at some upcoming sequel/prequels slated for release.
  • Pirates of the Carribean 4 and 5.
  • Spider-Man 4 and 5.
  • Bourne 4.
  • Beverly Hills Cop 4.
  • Austin Powers 4.
  • Scream 4.
  • Fast and Furious 4.
  • The Hobbit and another untitled film between The Hobbit and Fellowship of the Ring
I'm not saying that all fourth entries into a franchise are bad - take a look at Rambo and Live Free or Die Hard. But for films like the Bourne series, which I have said many times before was perfectly ended with The Bourne Ultimatum, there really isn't any need to bring those characters back. As a friend of mine said, "leave a little to the imagination." The audience doesn't need to have every last second of a character's existence revealed to us - part of the mystery and fun about it comes with not knowing. Another perfect example is the recently confirmed I Am Legend prequel - the first one held up great on its own. We don't need to know what happens to Robert Neville in between the events of the virus and the first movie. Does that mean I'm not going to see it? No, because it's a Will Smith movie. But is it necessary? I don't think so.

Since trilogies have become pretty much null and void now, why even get excited about them? The whole point is to tie everything together into a cohesive story, an epic tale that couldn't be told in one film. So when it's finally done and the final credits roll on the third film, the audience should feel a sense of completion. It's a good feeling to have, because you've gone on the complete journey with these characters and you know everything there is to know about their world and what they've done because you were right there with them the whole time. You know that they aren't coming back, but you're OK with that because they gave you one hell of a ride for three movies and you feel privilged to have gone on it with them. Now, we are being robbed of that feeling by the studios today with all of these add-on's and I think that's a shame. I understand why they do it, but I'm in favor of rebooting the series over an unnecessary addition - at least that way you can have a fresh take on previously existing characters instead of more of the same from the characters you've already seen. The upcoming Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins is a good example of meeting in the middle: the film takes place after the events of Terminator 3, but it starts its own three movie story arc featuring the same characters played by different actors.

With today's rapid fire availability and digital domination, people don't have time to watch the entire series anymore. By stretching the number of films out to four and five (and possibly farther), are the studios suggesting that 5 is the new 3? Are we supposed to be excited for the fifth movie in a series because we really want to see what's going to happen to those characters, or because the studios want us to get excited so we'll go see it in theaters? The reboot trend is a good way of cutting that stretch point in half; it allows for fans of one arc of the series some closure, and if they choose to watch the reinterpretation of it, then that's their perogative. It's a shame that we're being forced to see some of our favorite characters dragged back into theaters to uninteresting scripts, especially with sometimes 10 years in between films. Until next time...

Actor/Actress of the Week

Yeah, I know I've missed like 4 weeks. You want to fight about it?

Anyway, I was going to feature the four Baldwin Brothers (one for each week I've missed), but it has come to my attention that they're not worth covering. So after perusing Wikipedia's list of show business families to find a suitable replacement, I was shocked at the amount of connections I found. So for this week I'm going to bring to your attention the most notable connections on that list and hopefully return to normalcy next week.
  • Joel Coen (of the famous Coen Brothers directing duo) is married to Frances McDormand (which makes a lot of sense now).
  • One of my favorites - Talia Shire (Adrian from Rocky) and director Francis Ford Coppola are siblings. Talia's kids are actor/musician Robert Carmine (lead singer of Rooney) and actor/musician Jason Schwartzman (ex-drummer for Phantom Planet). Director Sofia Coppola is Francis' daughter. Actor Nicholas Cage is Talia's nephew.
  • Actor Tony Curtis (Spartacus) and actress Janet Leigh (Psycho) are parents of Jamie Lee Curtis, who is married to actor/comedian Christopher Guest.
  • Actress Debbie Reynolds is Carrie Fisher's mother.
  • Rashida Jones (Karen from "The Office") is the daughter of musician Quincy Jones.
I know a lot of you don't know who many of these people are, but for those of you who do, there are certainly some interesting connections. Until next time...

Quarantine Vs. Cloverfield

I've been asked to do a comprehensive comparison of these two movies, so let's kick it off. Oh, and just so you know, there probably will be spoilers throughout for both movies. So if you haven't seen Cloverfield yet, check it out before you read this. If you haven't seen Quarantine, it's not that big of a deal.


First off, let me point you to my review of Cloverfield so you can get a sense of how I liked that movie overall. Quarantine is a horror film about a news crew that is shadowing a group of firemen; when the firemen get the call of a woman acting strangely in a building, they go in only to discover that she has some sort of disease. Bad news for the people inside, as more people get bitten and the police and the CDC lock down the building, preventing those who aren't yet infected from escaping.

Quarantine
is a completely different type of film than Cloverfield, separated not only by genre but by tone as well. In the sub-genre of foreign language horror remakes which Quarantine falls, it is more effective than its predecessors (The Ring, The Grudge, etc) because it utilizes the same technique that Cloverfield used to draw us into its characters - the whole movie is shot as if one guy is holding the camera the whole time and the only cuts are made when he pushes the record button. This psychologically allows us to associate with the characters on a more emotional level than we would other characters in a normal film; the YouTube-esque way we view their every action makes them seem more human. [The fact that we as an audience have to see their every move to identify better with them is a testament to the fact that we're becoming a little too reliant on technology.] There is also no music soundtrack in either film - natural sounds are the only thing you hear.


Cloverfield succeeds by showing glimpes of the monster and allowing the audience to join the main group of characters as they search through the city for a fallen comrade, trying to survive and figure out what's going on at the same time. Quarantine doesn't feel the need to show us just glimpses of their diseased people - in fact, the movie thrives on short bursts of seeing them up close and personal. There is even a scene in which one of the infected people is bludgeoned to death with the camera lens. While this doesn't really make sense technologically [it would most likely crack], the scene has a nice impact theatrically because it's a metaphor for the reliance on technology I spoke about before. Cloverfield uses the "first person shaky cam" effect to build character relationships and Quarantine uses it to imply that we're killing ourselves by becoming a YouTube based society.

The films differ in their depiction of government as well. In Cloverfield (a giant metaphor for September 11th) the government tries its best to sweep people along, keeping them in the masses as they try to reach safety. It's only when our group of heroes break free from these masses that the true impact of the disaster hits them on a personal level. This isn't necessarily saying anything bad about the government, instead suggesting they were just trying to keep everyone from freaking out and do what they could to save as many people as possible in the most efficient manner they could. It actually portrays them as personal figures, since the main characters converse with some officers who ultimately slip them the hint of when the last helicopter is taking off from the city. Quarantine, on the other hand, symbolizes the government as a task force that refuses to listen to reason. Even though they can clearly see that not everyone in the building is infected, they block it off anyway and even shoot someone who tries to escape. There is no personal help offered here; they are faceless men in masks with guns who won't take any action to help a fellow human in a time of need. (I see this as an allegory for the government's reponse to Hurricane Katrina.)

The two films definitely had some similarities: both stories are framed the same way (the first part of the movie allows us to get to know the main characters and then something wild happens and we follow their journey to survive), both made use of the night vision on the camera to scary results, both featured relatively unknown actors and actresses, and they both ended the only way that movies like these SHOULD end - everyone dies.


Before I close this out, let me take the time to praise Jennifer Carpenter's acting in Quarantine. The actress (best known for The Exorcism of Emily Rose and as Dexter's sister Debbie on Showtime's "Dexter") was incredible - it's been said that starring in horror movies is the most difficult thing you can do as an actor/actress because it's so hard to conjure up the emotions necessary to make audiences believe you're truly frightened. And if you think about how movies are shot, she had to keep her performance steady throughout the whole movie and not get her different "scared levels" confused with other scenes. She was really fantastic to watch. The rest of her cast members left a little to be desired, and the whole cast of Cloverfield was really solid for the whole running time, but Jen Carpenter had Quarantine on lock by herself and that was enough for me.

Needless to say, I think Cloverfield has a lot more to say than Quarantine, but the latter definitely scared the crap out of me a few times - and that's why you go see movies like that in the first place. Until next time...

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Appaloosa

After the recent surge in westerns and western-themed films in 2007 (3:10 To Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, No Country For Old Men), I'm glad that Appaloosa stepped up and continued the trend. Co-writer, producer, director, and star Ed Harris makes his love for the genre clear to the audience as he treats us to a decent western that suffers mostly from Renee Zellweger's performance.

Appaloosa
Writer/Director: Ed Harris
Starring: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger


Great characters are one of the reasons I love movies so much. I think it's most noticeable when these types of characters appear in westerns (more than other genres) because they're contrasted with such stark backgrounds and relatively simple storylines, making it easier to showcase their relationships with other characters on screen. Such is the case with Appaloosa, a movie that rides heavily on the Lonesome Dove-esque dynamic between its two main characters, lawmen solidly portrayed by Harris and Mortensen (reunited on screen after A History of Violence). The two play cowboys who ride from town to town getting paid to reclaim them for townspeople who are terrorized by gangs and outlaws. Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch are the best in the business, and they've got the track record to prove it. They've been riding together for a while, much like another cowboy duo, and there is an unspoken comraderie and smoothness to their relationship that only years on the American frontier could cultivate. When the two stumble into the town of Appaloosa, they discover this job would be no different than any other they've completed...or would it? As they hunt an outlaw who killed a city marshall, Cole falls for Annie French (Zellweger), the new woman in town. Can our three heroes stay alive long enough to make a home in Appaloosa, or will the evil Bragg and his men put a stop to their plans?


It was kind of tough to pull for Ed Harris after he repeatedly goes back to Zellweger's character after she cheats on him constantly. I wanted to reach up to the screen and smack some sense into his five o'clock shadow; it was really quite frustrating. She even tries to make a move on Hitch, her man's best friend! (Who does that?) Hitch, like an honest cowboy, puts a stop to her funny business and then she tries to blame it on him later. How are we supposed to like a character like that? (Hint - I didn't.) She was definitely the weak link of the cast; even Bragg, the bad guy, was really cool because he was played by Jeremy Irons, who has never disappointed me in anything I've seen him in. Let me stop right now and say this movie is no Tombstone (my favorite western and arguably the best one in the last 20 years), but it takes some cues from that film and succeeds in doing so. The relationship between Cole and Hitch is reminiscient of that of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday (with Mortensen turning in a performance that clearly aspires to Kilmer-ish levels of talent), and the Bragg and his gang and their antics mirror those of Curly Bill and the Cowboys from the aforementioned classic.


(Spoilers ahead. But most of you are never going to see the movie anyway.)

The final scene was worth the wait - although the movie wasn't really that long, it felt much longer due to some scenes that stretched on a little too long. Everett Hitch has finally challenged Bragg (once again, like Tombstone) to a gunfight in the streets. It's referenced many times in the movie that Cole is faster on the draw than Hitch, so Hitch begs Cole not to help him and to allow him to fight this one battle on his own. Hitch knows that this is a defining moment for him - either it will prove that he can hang with the best of them or he'll die knowing he was never good enough. Either way, he's ready to accept his fate and faces off against Bragg in the middle of the town. Of course, he guns down the villain, giving him the ultimate sense of accomplishment and opening up his life for countless opportunities. This is, in effect, an awakening for Everett Hitch, and his time of riding Virgil Cole's coattails has past. It's time to move on with his life, so he rides away from his friend for (possibly) the last time. It was a great show of friendship on Cole's part to actually grant that wish to his friend and let him test his own manhood instead of ensuring Hitch's survival by killing Bragg in the dual. A moving scene, and a great ending to a cool western.


I'd definitely recommend Appaloosa to any fan of the genre. It's got all the great conventions that you've come to love and some good acting holds together the bits that don't work. Occasional movie watchers might be bored with it, but movies like this are the bread and butter of the old Western Wednesday crew. (Oh yeah, a bit of trivia - Diane Lane was signed on to play Zellweger's role, but had to drop out when the movie got stalled in production. Man, you have no idea how much I wish that had panned out.) Until next time...