Monday, November 06, 2006

Guiltless Review: The Prestige

Secrets are my life

I wasn't really sure what to expect when I sat down to watch The Prestige, the new dueling magicians epic from director Christopher Nolan. I loved Nolan's Batman Begins, and have become a fan of both Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, I think they've both been tremendous in starring roles. However, the movie The Prestige was being most often compared to by film critics was Nolan's Memento, which I found to be mildly entertaining but vastly overrated.

My main issue with Memento was that most of that film's creativity seemed to be put into it's non-linear structure. The movie was a puzzle that was amusing enough to follow at first, but held no investment from me for the characters on screen. It seemed more like an exercise in storytelling than a satisfying story in its own right. In the end, Memento was technically interesting but not a truly immersive experience for me.

I was really hoping The Prestige would avoid those pitfalls, and I'm very pleased to report that said pitfalls were avoided, filled with cement, and built upon.

Set in London in the early 1900's, The Prestige tells the story of two rival magicians who's determination for one-upmanship turns into dangerous obsession. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) is the consumate showman, while Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is technically the better magician. Their rivalry is born of a personal vendetta which is detailed very early in the film, and just grows and grows from there. I don't want to reveal too many plot points because part of the joy of The Prestige is letting the story unfold in front of you. While watching this movie, I couldn't help but be drawn into the plotting and craftsmanship demonstrated by these two men despite the questionable things they do.

Investment: 8
Here's the paradox The Prestige somehow gets away with: our two main characters are obsessive, emotionally scarred, and ruthless. Neither is a traditional hero, yet I was deeply invested in seeing what happened to them. Much credit has to go to the actors and the script here for making me care about what happens to people who are this nasty. Plus, lets face it, magicians are cool. My investment in these characters could also be attributed to the way their story is told. We see the terrible things that happen to shape these guys' perspectives. Once they focus their pain on each other, things just kind of snowball.

Twists: 10
The twists are where this movie shines. The constant game of one upmanship is sweet. The subplot involving Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) adds a touch of mystery to the proceedings. Structurally, the film is told in a non-linear style similar to Memento. However, I found the twists here much more intriguing. You see, The Prestige is a magic trick in and of itself. To further illustrate let me quote the words of Cutter, Angier's mentor played by Michael Caine.

Every great magic trick consists of three acts. The first act is called "The Pledge"; The magician shows you something ordinary, but of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn"; The magician makes his ordinary some thing do something extraordinary. Now if you're looking for the secret... you won't find it, that's why there's a third act called, "The Prestige"; this is the part with the twists and turns, where lives hang in the balance, and you see something shocking you've never seen before.

The film goes through each of these steps, it sets up the audience who know they are about to be deceived. The deception in The Prestige is not even that surprising, I had it figured out fairly early while watching the movie. But like all great magic tricks you put it out of your mind, you don't think too hard how it was done because it ruins the illusion while watching it.

Immersion: 9
I was completely sucked in to the lives of these characters and their surroundings. Not a scene is wasted. This is a brisk 128 minutes, very confident film making.

Resonance: 8
I'm not someone who's usually impressed by surprise twist endings. Nothing against them when they're done well, but a killer ending to a mediocre movie is still a mediocre movie. It just means the film makers were committed to deceiving the audience for 90+ minutes. Too often, this also means those 90 or so minutes were nothing but set-up and ultimately unsatisfying in their own right.

The way I see it The Prestige seems to be saying that single-mindedly following deception is a road to disaster. Illusion is a two-way street that people who come to a movie like this are happy to buy into. Fortunately, in the case of this movie, the 90 minutes leading to the "surprise" prestige are very entertaining in and of themselves. I wasn't fooled by the reveal but was happy to be part of the illusion. Bravo.

Final Word:
I was surprised by how much I liked The Prestige, I can't remember being this pleasantly surprised by a movie in quite awhile.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Guiltless Review: A Sound of Thunder

'Wow! the timestream is falling apart and your staying so cool!'

'Actually, I'm terrified but my face can only make one expression'

Quick disclaimer: I thoroughly enjoyed watching "A Sound of Thunder."

Glad I got that out of the way, because even as I write this I'm still struggling to figure out why. I guess it was mostly due to the fact I got to see it with some good friends and we had a blast tearing the film to shreds. If MST3K makes ever makes a comeback this would be a perfect movie to be given the full treatment.

That said, this movie DID produce a bucket o' laughs & fun, and I for one believe in judging entertainment on the emotional results produced before any analysis of the means by which they were generated. Any movie that made me laugh this hard is definitely worth watching.

In the not-too distant future an eeeeevil corporation offers rich thrillseekers a chance at the ultimate adrenaline rush: Go back to the Cretaceous period and shoot yourself a T-Rex! Much like modern theme park rides, however, the actual risks are virtual, guests are not allowed to actually fire their rifles unless the tour guide (who also happens to be the mono-expressive king of chick flicks about men, Edward Burns) does so first. The whole 'ride' is closely monitored and regulated, because as you know ANY change in the past means we end up catching flies with our tongues in a world that rains donuts in the future.

This movie is based on the classic Ray Bradbury story. If you haven't read the original (I believe I read it as a kid a loooong time ago), you might still be familiar with the premise. Any change made to events in the past have exponentially increasing effects through the timeline creating an unrecognizable present and future. You've may have seen similar themes explored in movies like "The Butterfly Effect" and/or parodied on "The Simpsons."

Predictably enough, SOMETHING goes wrong on one of these little day trips, and the present and future go right to hell. Good thing we have Edward Burns to fix it! (starting to see why this movie is so funny?)

Laughs: 7
The actual laughs I got while watching "A Sound of Thunder" would probably register closer to an '11', but I have to factor in that many of them were courtesy of the jokes my friends and I were making so I can't give the movie full credit for those.

That said, there is plenty that is funny about the film itself. For starters, while the premise of the story is intriguing, this film uses that premise to create a pretty standard monter on the loose action-adventure storyline. Think 'Jurassic Park' with really crappy effects.

In this future gone mad you won't spank da monkey! DA MONKEY WILL SPANK YOU!!!

Then there's Edward Burns himself, playing the conflicted but ultimately heroic scientist.

Didn't buy it.

Sure he may have given lip service to being careful not to alter the timeline, but c'mon its Edward Burns! No matter what psuedo-scientific mumbo jumbo he was spouting it was clear to anyone watching he'd rather be in a pub somewhere whining about whether his girlfriend really 'gets' him.

Then there's the idea that the timestream doesn't change all at once, but rather in 'waves' of cheesy cgi. So we don't get dino-baboons, pig-bats, and exploding beetles all at once. Rather they are rolled out in plot-convenient intervals, just in time for a lame action sequence or to thin out extraneous cast members. One sequence involving the aforementioned beetles and an exploding building is so over-the-top hollywoodized that it has to be seen to be believed.

Twists: 7
As silly as the movie is, I have to give it credit, I wasn't really sure where it was going while watching it.

Thrills: -2
Ouch. I have nothing against taking an intriguing premise and making a mindless action flick about it. But if your going this route, it would make sense to include some actual thrills. Instead the action sequences here can be best described as lame. The dino hunt is lame, the pig-bat chase is lame, the sea serpent is lame. Any movie that can make a dino hunt, a pig-bat chase and a sea serpent lame is just plain lame.

Lame lame lame.

Resonance: 5
If you REALLY think about it, the premise of this movie is an empowering one. The smallest of our actions have infinite repercussions throughout history. Anyone who feels their life lacks meaning would do well to consider this message.

Immersion: 0
Are you kidding? This film takes you nowhere other than to the prison of your own mind to look for creative ways to make fun of it. The CGI generated backgrounds look like your uncle's vacation slideshow (sadly enough they STILL look more real than some of the shots in 'Attack of the Clones').

Investment: 1
The only reason why this isn't a '0' is that I was REALLY invested in wanting to see Edward Burns get killed.

Final Word:
Fans of MST3K movies rejoice! 'A Sound of Thunder' is the perfect fodder for a night of drunken jesting.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Guiltless Review: Streets of Fire

Tonight is what it means to be young

Streets of Fire is just about the perfect example to illustrate my philosophy of film appreciation. This movie came up in a conversation with some friends a few months ago, and as soon as the title 'Streets of Fire' came up I instantly remembered almost everything about it. I hadn't seen SoF in 20 years and truth be told, it was not a movie I even rewatched often as a kid in the mid-80's. Anything that leaves that kind of impression on my brain is definitely worth something.

This is a classic love it or hate it movie, and even if you do hate it, it's a movie you won't forget. If you haven't seen Streets of Fire and are wondering what camp you are likely to fall in, please refer to my handy guide below:

You will hate Streets of Fire if you:
- Are anally insistent on 'reality' in movies
- Can't handle fantasy settings that are not specified beyond the words: "Another Time, Another Place"
- The words: "A Rock & Roll Fable" frighten and confuse you
- Are easily freaked out by Willem Dafoe
- Don't appreciate the musical arrangements of the great Jim Steinman (writer for Meatloaf and Bonnie Tyler among others)
- Are easily distracted by cliched dialogue

You will love Streets of Fire if you:
- Are just looking for a good time
- Are not a dorky film student looking to pick apart every little thing and can appreciate the gestalt
- Always wanted to see Rick Moranis play a rat bastard
- Think Jim Steinman rawks!
- Are impressed by gorgeous art direction and cinematography
- Enjoy watching single shotgun shells cause massive explosions

I think that about covers it; for my part, put me unequivocally in the 'love it' camp, I rewatched Streets of Fire yesterday and it hasn't lost a thing.

In a strange fantasty cityscape, rock star Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) gets kidnapped by a biker gang led by Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe). Ultra-cliched tough guy & ex-boyfriend Tom Cody (Micael Pare) sets off to take her back. Not much happens besides that, but this movie is all about style and not plot intricacies.

Resonance: 10
I've talked about this already in the introduction but to re-iterate: this movie is a visceral experience that just stays with you.

Immersion: 11
The unique setting can be described as an urban dystopia that features a combination of 50's & 80's design elements, it's like nothing else that's been put in a movie. The soundtrack, featuring 2 of Jim Steinman's best Wagnerian rock ditties is a classic. The aforementioned cinematography is simply beautiful, every composition on-screen has been put together with loving care. This is a movie I paused often just to admire some of the still shots. And to top it off, the action moves at a brisk pace never allowing you to remember where you really are. Good luck turning off Streets of Fire once you hear the opening notes of "Nowhere Fast" (song featured during the opening scene).

Laughs: 3
If I had to cite one thing I'd wish were better in SoF, it'd be the lack of humor, particularly in the middle 30 min of the movie. This is a movie that is just pure fun, and the lack of humor becomes noticeable when the plot settles down on the primary protagonists. Doesn't kill the movie, just wish it had a few more laughs.

Investment: 6
The characters are totally cliche by design. While the sterotypical tough guy talk ("You know, the problem with kickin' the *beep* out of you is it would be too easy") is fun if you get into it, I admit it can get a little repetetive at times. There is no attempt to develop the characters beyond their two-dimensional surfaces. That being said, I still had no problems wanting the good guys to win here.

Thrills: 6
Sledgehammer Fight! Exploding motorcycles! Assorted beatings and mayhem! Somehow nobody dies, the violence here is totally of the safe, cartoonish variety; still fun though.

Bizareness: 10
Ok, you've probably figured out by now that this entire movie is weird as hell, but let me add one more morsel to the cookie dough.

Willem Dafoe in the best possible light is an odd looking dude. However, in Streets of Fire it's like they've taken every one of his most distinctive features (his broad forehead, his protruding lips) and accentuated them to the nth degree. The end result resembles a fully human-sized ventriloquist dummy crossed with Frankenstein's monster. If SoF had been made this century (the movie was released in 1984), I'd swear there was cgi work involved so big kudos to the makeup department; I wouldn't want to run into Raven Shaddock in a dark alley.

Final Word:
Rewatching Streets of Fire really brought me back and gave me an urge to rewatch it immediately. The songs are now careening around in my head. If you can appreciate the pure style on display here you'll have a great time.

Bonus Tracks!
Some Streets of Fire videos on Youtube!
Nowhere Fast

Tonight is What it Means to be Young

In Japanese even!
Tonight is What it Means to be Young in Japanese

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Guiltless Review: Battlestar Galactica: Lay Down your Burdens

"The Interesting thing about being a president is that you don't have to explain yourself to anyone" - Laura Roslin

I think realism is overrated in science fiction & fantasy. Yes it's good to ground fantastic stories in some kind of reality, it makes the fantasy more accessible to the audience. It also helps to invest people in the characters and situations depicted. That being said, too often "realism" is used a substitute for creative ideas and good storytelling. For too many creative people the words 'real', 'dark', and 'gritty' carry entirely too much weight. I'm past the point where a piece of entertainment can impress me by just staying true to those adjectives.

Then a show like the new Battlestar Galactica comes along.

Those of you who haven't seen Sci-Fi's new version, and only associate the name Battlestar Galactica with the classic late 70's TV show are in for a rude awakening upon watching this show. I liked the original BSG well enough, while at the same time acknowleding it's purpose as pure escapist fun. By comparison, the new BSG is just brutal (in a good way) on every level. BSG tells the story of a rag-tag fugitive fleet of humans on a lonely, sometimes dehumanizing quest for survival.

I won't get much more into it than that. Suffice it to say that BSG tells a dark, gritty story that does not flinch from the ugliness that exists in humanity. Unlike other shows featuring stylized violence, the brutality here seems a natural extension of the circumstances the main characters live under, and is used to serve a fascinating story about ideas (not that mindless violence is neccessarily bad, its just that this show is soooo much better than that).

BSG is easily my favorite TV show at the moment. If you have somehow missed out on it, I got 5 words for you: The internet is for downloads. Be forewarned the show gets pretty intense and is not for the faint of heart. I'll focus the rest of this review on the last episode that his been shown. An absolutely brilliant 2-parter called "Lay Down your Burdens" that has left me in taut anticipation for next season's premiere.

The rest of the review will contain SPOILERS as well. DO NOT read past this point if you are yet to see "Lay Down your Burdens" in context, you will be missing out.

Resonance: 10
May as well start here. The basis of BSG's story is that humans are now an endangered species. They are hunted mercilessly across space by Cylons, a race of sentient machines that have a strange fascination with humanity, and look to emulate us in many ways. The central questions this show asks are: How far will people go to survive on both an individual and a societal basis? How much are we willing to scarifice our ideals and our morality? What I absolutely respect about the show is that it rarely includes a solution that ends things cleanly with all parties satisfied. Major characters plot against each other on a weekly basis. In a situation this dire, such conflicts are the norm. Unlike many other shows and movies that depict humanity instantaneously and unquestioningly banding together when facing such a common threat, BSG posits that achieving such unity is not inevitable - it's likely impossible and ideals must always be fought for, even in the face of extinction.

In "Lay Down your Burdens" such a conflict arises. In what is as cynical and probably realistic a take on politics as your likely to see on television, the surviving humans are divided along a vital political issue: the decision whether or not to settle the fleet on a recently discovered world that can sustain human life. Two presidential candidates are divided along this issue, however the investment in the issue on the part of one Gaius Baltar (James Callis) is clearly secondary to the political leverage gained by claiming to be on the side of settlement. There is no foresight for the common good, only the opportunistic, timely grab for power.

Of course it works, why wouldn't it? People are sheep, and though its obvious to anyone watching the show that Baltar is a shifty, self-serving hedonist, he gets elected anyway.

These are the kind of conflicts that show up routinely on BSG. The perspective is cynical, but not preachy. The humanity that is shown struggling with these issues is the humanity we can all recognize rather than some idealized fabrication. The outcome of such conflicts creates real resonance.

The planet that is settled on represents an end to despair and anxiety to the voters, even though the sense of safety it provides is an illusion and not what is advised by the experts most informed of Cylon activity. The allure of laying down one's burdens is strong enough to make a disastrous decision though, which is something I can totally relate to.

Investment: 10
As with any show I'll be this into by season 2, BSG has fleshed out so many interesting characters, and drawn me into so many storylines that my investment is pretty absolute at this point. The conflicts I mentioned above make me want happiness all the more for the characters I like. Because they live in a world of moral ambiguity, with no precedence to their dire stituation, much of their moral compass is created along the way. It makes it all the sweeter when these people are able to triumph against the overwhelming odds laid against them.

I'll use the example of Admiral Adama (Edward James Olmos). Adama wastes no action nor words. He commands with a soft-spoken tone, but the way his crew responds to him speaks volumes about the respect he gets, even from the otherwise rebellious Kara 'Starbuck' Thrace (Katee Sackhoff). He is not infallible though. In "Lay Down your Burdens" he becomes involved in a coverup over tampering with the election ballots. When Baltar cofronts him, Adama suggests he take his victory and leave it at that, and that's all it takes to make Baltar back down. It's a great bit of characterization, even though he's about to become his boss, Baltar realizes that NO ONE should cross Adama.

Twists: 11
Wow, as Inigo Montaya put it: "There's too much to 'splain, let me sum up." There are more completely unexpected but naturally evolving twists packed into the last 30 min of "Lay Down you Burdens" than I've ever seen anywhere else. That's a big claim I realize, but I honestly can't think of anything that tops it. The last 15 minutes in particular present a conitnuity jump into the future that was not a gimmick nor felt like a cheat in any way, just the most interesting place to take up the story from. Just one "holy crap!" moment after another.

Laughs: 6
Mostly coming courtesy of Callis' turn as Baltar, there are some hearty laughs to be had here. Particulary when we see Baltar's version of running a presidential administration.


Final Word:
If you haven't seen Battlestar Galactica - There's still time! before the new season starts that is. If you've seen all the way through "Lay Down your Burdens" and have cable can I please come to your house for the season premiere?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Guiltless Review: Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan

Revenge is a dish best served cold; It is very cold in space

What a great time we live in where we can so completely recapture a piece of our childhood for about $20.

I have a fairly large DVD collection, about 120 or so movies. Since I liked them enough to buy them, these are usually films I end up re-watching a lot.

In some cases, a whole lot.

I usually shy away from calling something my favorite _________ of all time. I think it's kind of a presumptuous thing to say. I'm changing as a person all the time, what I might prefer today may not be the same as tomorrow. Mood and external stimuli can do much to alter my preferences. I don't like boxing myself in by making bold declarations.

That being said, if I can think of one movie in my collection that I would never want to lose, or the first movie that pops into my head when asked what's your favorite, it's usually Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (or TWOK for us lazy writers).

My last few reviews have featured movies that got a mix of good and bad responses from me. Be warned that the guiltless review that follows will likely degenerate to out and out gushing.

If you don't know the basics of Star Trek, you won't learn that here. Please refer your nearest video store, DVD mailing service, or fansite to catch up.

Wrath of Khan is a story of revenge and naval warfare told in the Star Trek Universe. It's plot is very simple: Khan Noonien Singh (played with scenery-destroying bravado by Ricardo Montalban) is a genetically engineered megalomaniac who was marooned on a desolate planet 15 years prior by one James T. Kirk (William Shatner in what is easily his best performance as Kirk), then captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise. As you would assume, given the title of the movie, Khan finds his way off the planet and is out for revenge. Of course, there's much more to it then that, but I certainly wouldn't want to spoil it for those few unfortunate souls who have somehow missed out on this movie.

Investment: 10
As a kid in 1982, this movie was my introduction to the Star Trek universe. I was never a big follower of the original series ( I didn't dislike it, I just never followed it that closely). Unlike many other fans, going into this movie I had no history with these characters.

This movie doesn't need it.

In a lot of movies, we are expected to follow a hero's adventures and be thrilled by his or her exploits and be satisfied that they are triumphant. Many times, this level of investment just isn't earned and what should be empathy turns to indifference.

Watching the old star trek series now, as well the other original cast movies I've come to realize that they have never gotten these characters so right anywhere else. Nowhere else are Kirk, Spock, and McCoy more likable than they are here.

It's all in the details. In the little things that are said, the way the main characters have an obvious history and comfort zone with each other. Teamwork and trust just comes naturally by now; they are very easy to root for.


Take this exchange for example:

Kirk is now an Admiral, he is aboard the Enterprise only for a routine inspection. Spock is currently Captain. When they are notified that an emergency situation has presented itself. Spock defers to Kirk as his superior officer, offering him control of ship. Kirk, who has been regretting his promotion to admiral and mired in a mid-life crisis refuses at first, wishing not to upset his friend. That is until Spock sets him straight:

SPOCK: Jim, you proceed from a false assumption. I am a Vulcan, I have no ego to bruise.

KIRK: You're about to remind me that logic alone dictates your actions

SPOCK: I would not remind you of that which you know so well. If I may be so bold, it was a mistake for you to accept promotion. Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny. Anything else is a waste of material.

KIRK: I would not presume to debate you.

SPOCK: That is wise. In any case, were I to invoke logic, logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

KIRK: Or the one.

SPOCK: You are my superior officer, you are also my friend, I have been and always shall be yours.

Of course just reading the lines don't do this scene justice. There is so much heart put into these performances that completely sell it. This one scene adds so much flavor to these characters and their relationship. It also advances Kirk's story arc in TWOK. It also makes me want these guys to succeed. This is one of my favorite-ever scenes in any movie.


Resonance: 12
This one is waaay off the charts. I actually look at the resonance this movie produces in 2 ways. First there is the visceral resonance, the way I remembered so many details about this movie when I bought it on a VHS tape 7 years ago after not having seen it for 15 years.

Then there is the emotional resonance, TWOK features themes of coming to terms with aging and mortality. And this is a theme that is explored in the best possible way. Not in a only-film students-and-megageeks-will-get-it kind of way, nor in a hit-you-over-the-head-with-it kind of way. The theme is present througout the entire film but is never its sole focus. In the very first scene, Lt. Saavik (Kirstie Alley) is going through a Starfleet simulation/test of character (the infamous Kobayashi Maru). The simulation presents a situation where there is no chance for success or escape and is designed to make officers-in-training face the possibility of death.


We later learn that Kirk is the only officer to ever beat this test and thus avoid facing his own mortality. Of course he could only do this by cheating, and thus completely missing the point of the test. The entire rest of the movie can be seen as a Kobayashi Maru test where Kirk can't change the rules.

How does this resonate with me?

I've been depressed much of this past year. Bad year at work, bad year at home, I'm 33 and still trying to get through a doctoral program. I've had to face death as an adult for the first time. Like Kirk, I'm feeling old, worn out. Kirk has to face the music in this movie and I totally relate. I hope to find the same peace Kirk does by the end of TWOK at some point.


Tears: 9

We've come a long way and still haven't spoken about the death of Spock. Yes, Spock does get better eventually (next movie even), but the way his death is handled: the build up, the painfully heroic sacrifice. It's perfect, as well as I've ever seen a major character's death handled in any movie.

The ending coda following Spock's death is just as good. The funeral, Kirk's eulogy, even the soaring orchestral rendition of Amazing Grace are tremendous. Then there's Kirk's reconciliation with his son, his final words of goodbye to Spock, and finally the camera setting down on the Genesis planet and finding Spock's coffin. Then for the only time, it's Spock who delivers the classic Star Trek introduction.

I admit, I don't usually cry at this ending anymore, but the fact that it still moves me after seeing it about eleventy-bazillion times is nothing short of amazing.

Bryan Singer completely ripped off just about every element of this ending I mentioned above for X-Men 2, and I can't even be upset about it cause it worked pretty well in that movie. If your going to rip something off, why not do it from the best.

Awe: 7
I am awestruck whenever I get to see that ending with James Horner's booming score playing.


Twists: 8
I love how the plot twists are so informative of character. The good guys are at a disadvantage for just about the entire movie, and only get by on their wits. And I don't mean technobabble-wits, just good old fashioned quick thinking in a way I could understand and appreciate. I'm thinking of the 'coded messages' trick Kirk & Spock use here, its done right in front of the audience, but people don't usually realize what they did till later.

Immersion: 10
This film moves fast, so much story is told in such little time. It's a model of efficient and emotional storytelling. James Horner's score, which I alluded to earlier, totally adds to the immersion, picking it up at just the right moments.

Dread: 6
Three words: Ear-burrowing worms. Khan's method of mind control is absolutely gruesome. Nothing nearly as disturbing as this anywhere else in Trek.

Laughs: 5
Surprisingly, in a movie this tense there are some genuine laughs. I've always felt that moments of levity make the danger in movies seem more dangerous. The laughs here all come from well written character moments that serve to make the protagonists seem more likable.

What's any discussion of Wrath of Khan worth without the oft-parodied line:


If you don't love this movie you are just not trying.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Guiltless Review: Serenity

or "River the Reaver Slayer"

Yes, its been awhile, but I haven't stopped watching movies. Specifically, I've watched just about the entire Joss Whedon oeuvre this year, from Buffy to Angel to Firefly to Serenity.

Ok, I admit I skipped most of "Angel" and just about all of "Firefly," but judging from "Serenity", I pretty much gather what happened. Serenity is a movie I liked overall, but had some distinctly tiresome "Whedonesque" touches in it. In any case, there'll be time to discuss it in the context of his other work later, for now its onto the guiltless review.

Malcolm Reynolds (or Mal played by Nathan Fillion) is captain of the titular transport ship. He's also a smuggler and a thief, just trying to make a free and dishonest living in a galaxy dominated by the rule of an oppressive "Alliance." He's surrounded by a crew of old war buddies and like-minded freedom lovers who form something of a makeshift family.

Reluctantly, during the run of Firefly (which precedes this film continuity-wise) Mal took on two passengers that have caused him no end of trouble: Simon Tam and his sister River. River doesn't speak much and has a mysterious connection to the Alliance. The Alliance has since been hunting down Serenity. To that end they have assigned The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who may just be smart and resourceful enough to succeed in catching her.

Twists: 7
I'll start here because this is what the movie really has going for it. The story drew me in, despite the fact that I didn't see most of "Firefly." I won't ruin things by divulging too much plot. Suffice it to say that what passes for civilization in this interplanetary society lives in fear of "reavers"; people who have gone mad by living on the isolated fringes of space for years. The origin of the reavers is revealed here in a disturbing way that sets the tone for the second half of the movie.

Immersion: 9
This is a fully realized fantasy universe. Just learning more about this universe kept me interested. In addition, the pacing of the movie is excellent, Whedon accomplishes a lot with most of his scenes, wasting no time in moving a dense plot along. For example, an early shot that follows Mal around his ship and serves to introduce the entire crew is particularly impressive.

Laughs: 4
A couple of decent chuckles here. The script is witty but not nearly as funny as say "Buffy" was.

Investment: 4
Ok, this is one of the oddest numbers you'll see for a movie I liked. Usually with dialogue this sharp, acting this good, and a plot this involving I will get more invested in the characters. However, I think some of my Whedon-overload may have worked against the movie here.

If you've seen the later seasons of Buffy or Angel, you'll know what I mean. Whedon has a tendency to use shock tactics (think sudden deaths of major characters) to add a sense of "tension" to the proceedings. Sometimes this works dramatically and sometimes it doesn't. For me, it removes a layer of investment I would otherwise have for characters knowing that they are subject to such whims. As a result, what should be a high level of tension turns into a detached coldness. It diminishes how much I cheer for the heroes or am saddened by their tragedies. It all ends up feeling like a cold writing exercise rather than a dramatic story. This might be by design; I'm sure the morbid 18-year old death fetishists eat it up, it just doesn't work for me.

Bizareness: 2
A very loud '2' here. The reavers get such a build up and a great back story, but end up looking pretty lame. So much potential wasted.

Thrills: 5
One really cool thrill comes late in the movie when Serenity is being chased by about a zillion reaver ships. The hand-to-hand fighting involving River is just a tad less cheezy than classic Buffy-Fu, that is: not very thrilling.

Final Word:
I enjoyed watching Serenity, but honestly don't really care to watch what I've missed of Firefly or if there is ever a continuation of this story. Despite being entertained, I'm just not invested enough to care about what happens next. End of non-spoiler review.


Knowing Whedon, such a continuation would inevitably include the intergration of the operative to Mal's crew and more tediously bad kung-fu. My brain starts to hurt just thinking about it.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Guiltless Review: A Failure to Launch

Warning: Poster is not indicative of viewing experience

Ok, I have no idea how I ended up paying to see "A Failure to Launch", but it happened. I am clearly not the target audience for a Matthew McConaughey/Sarah Jessica Parker romantic comedy, but alas the sacrifices of marriage.

So it was with a feeling of queasy dread in my stomach (or was that movie theatre hot dog?) that I sat down to watch the subject of my latest guiltless review.

Trip (Matthew McConaughey) is a thirtysomething successful boat broker/salesperson who is nevertheless still living at home with his parents (the always terrific Kathy Bates and a surprisingly good Terry Bradshaw). In an effort to push him out of the nest, the parents hire Paula (Sarah Jessica Parker) who sells her services as a professional girlfriend to the shut-ins of the world (not as skanky as it sounds), with the end goal being to motivate her client to move out of his parents' house.

Investment: 6
Ok reality check; ignore the posters - this is not a romantic comedy. This isn't even close to being a romantic comedy, in fact neither of the 2 principle characters appear to have a romantic bone in their body. The 'romance' in the movie is completely secondary to the comedy. I didn't care in the least whether Trip & Paula ended up together. Now that being said . . .

I kinda liked them, Trip & Paula are both defined in broad strokes, so if your looking for nuance look elsewhere. Trip is a guy who gets by on his looks and charm and is completely unavailable emotionally to women. Paula is a take charge professional who's attitude masks some deep relationship scars. Both can seem kinda cold & heartless at times, which I can relate to, especially considering each character's emotional baggage. No, they aren't externally romantic, but to me that just makes the relationship between them a little more real.

The real star of the movie, though is Kit played by Zooey Deschanel. To say the movie becomes more watchable whenever she's onscreen is an understatement. Kit is disturbed; sarcastic and prone to extreme and occasionally violent mood swings. She is openly hostile to the world, including her roomate Paula. Of course all of this masks a voracious sexual appetite. Yes, she is my perfect woman. If I were to know her in real life my marriage would be in serious trouble.

Laughs: 6
A decent amount of laughs, most of which coming courtesy of Ms. Deschanel. Her berating of a sporting goods clerk is priceless. There's also some quality slapstick in a paintgun scene.

Bizareness: 7
Ok, wasn't expecting this score to be so high, but there is some really head-scratchingly disturbing stuff in this movie.

First of all, we see Terry Bradshaw's naked butt. Not just a quick cut of it either, but a long 10 or so seconds of it in focus.

Also there is a ridiculous sub-plot about Trip's living condition being 'out of touch' with nature. As a result, Trip is frequently bitten by normally benign animals like chipmunks and dolphins. These animal attack scenes aren't particularly funny, but the sheer audacity of including something this bizarre in a mainstream comedy gets my respect. Most filmakers would just resign these to the 'deleted scenes' section of the dvd.

Twists: 3
Plot is fairly cookie-cutter romantic comedy, though it was fun to see Kit's romance with one of Trip's buddies unfold.

Final Word:
Not an overwhelmingly memorable movie, but fun nontheless. I'd certainly take "A Failure to Launch" over most of the so-called romantic comedies I've been dragged to over the years.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Guiltless Review: Godzilla Final Wars


I love Godzilla. Loved him ever since I started watching his movies as a 4 year old. I believe the first film I ever saw in a theatre was "Godzilla vs. The Cosmic Monster" (that would be the original "Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla" to those of you who know the real titles). When I saw that movie years later, I realized I'd forgotten just about all of it. All of it, that is, except for the monster fights. Even 15 years later I knew exactly how those fights went down. I had no idea at the time these were men wrestling in rubber suits. They were simply enormous and fantastically powerful creatures who could shoot laser beams out of their mouths and level multiple city blocks in seconds. These kind of images leave an impression.

Well, by now I've seen many, many Godzilla movies. I've seen 16 of the 17 'original series' movies (all except for the annoyingly hard-to-find 'Godzilla Raids Again'), all 7 of the 1984-1995 VS. series (or 'Heisei' series named after the ruling Japanese emperor throughout most of its run; holy sweet nachos am I a geek!). Finally I've seen 3 of the 7 'Millenium' films that have come out since 1999.

Anyway, the point is that when I heard that the final millenium series film was going to be an all-out monster slugfest in the spirit of 'Destroy All Monsters', I was excited to say the least. Destroy all Monsters (1968) was always my favorite movie as a kid. Whereas the average Godzilla movie would feature 2, 3, or maybe 4 monsters if we were lucky, Destroy all Monsters featured no less than 11!!! This was simple math at the time: 11 monsters > 4 monsters, therefore Destroy all Monsters=greatest movie of all time.

Well, the 4-year old in me was blown away by the kaiju quantity present in 'Godzilla Final Wars': 15 monsters! Now THIS, I thought was a movie that had its priorities straight. How did the jaded 33 year old react? The guiltless review reveals all . . . .

Aliens invade earth using the might of an army of kaiju, Oh Noes!! Us pesky humans resist with the help of Godzilla. Who really cares about plot anyway?

Awe: 4
I start here cause this is what godzilla movies are supposed to be about. The best of the godzilla series are all about creative carnage. There are a ton of monster fights in this film, but unfortunatley most of them breeze by way too quickly. When there is much more care taken with human fight scenes than monster fight scenes in a godzilla movie, we got a problem. There is extensive use of what I'd call 'MTV editing'; rapid cuts that produce more confusion than anything else. The fights almost seem like a trailer for a real godzilla movie.

We all know that these are stuntmen in rubbber suits. Yet past godzilla films have created awe through creative lighting, high-speed cameras (giving the creatures the illusion of massive size and weight), and some truly spectacular miniatures. Most importantly, the really good fight scenes are presented in long cuts, with the camera pulled back as to better give a view of the surreal, oversized mayhem. The fight scenes in GFW ignore these principles and what we're left with is an episode of "Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers" guest starring Godzilla. Total bummer.

Immersion: 0
The director was clearly more interested in remaking 'The Matrix' than in making a godzilla film. As such we are treated to endless derivative 'bullet-time' fights between the human-sized characters. Despite the impressive number of monsters on display, their actual onscreen time seems disproportionately small compared to the rather dull human cast. Also, Akira Ifukube's classic music is replaced by short bursts of techno and hard guitar riffs. Bottom line, I felt every second of the 125 min runtime and was frequently tempted to skip over the non-monster scenes.

Laughs: 3
I laughed exactly once, but it was a biggie. After a big build-up, Godzilla dispatches a monster with a striking resemblance to the American version of godzilla (from 1998's abysmal 'Godzilla') in about 5 seconds. Afterwards, we cut to the evil alien leader saying "I knew that tuna-eating monster was useless." Take it Roland Emmerich!

Investment: 1
The characters are dreary, not even in a fun way. Godzilla himself is the 'friend-of-mankind' version that is not my preference either.

Final Word:
Yikes, there goes my kaiju theory of relativity. I promise to review a godzilla film I actually liked next time I visit the genre.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Guiltless Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Body

I've really gotten into 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' these past few months. At its best the show is both hysterically funny and unbelievably tense. As a matter of fact I think the show's creators tried to push the tension a bit too much in the latter seasons of the show but thats a topic for another article. Today I wanted to write about "The Body", a very well known episode from season 5.

Now if you haven't seen Buffy yet . . .

First of all what are you waiting for? I readily admit I took entirely too long to give this show a shot. This is a very cool series, well worth the time and effort to watch the entire run. It is pretty addicting though, so be careful.

Second of all, I want to put out a very serious SPOILER WARNING. Don't read beneath this paragraph if you have any desire to see the show in the future. Unlike the case with my "Family Stone" review, the show is a good deal more entertaining than this review will be.

Ok, now that the niceties have been dealt with . . .

I've been wanting to write about this episode ever since I saw it about a month ago. It hasn't so much lingered in my head as it did smack me in the face to remind me of some harsh realities at the time. This episode features almost no plot or character development, just the raw emotions of a group of friends in a realistic situation none of them want to be a part of. Not the kind of entertainment I usually go for but it works here, it works big time.

Vampire slayer Buffy Summers comes home one day to find her mother's lifeless body lying on the couch. What follows are the mundane, arduous tasks that must be done following the death of a loved one. Paramedics are called, family and friends are notified. Just a lot of time is spent waiting, staring into space, and feeling like crap. Sounds fun doesn't it? It isn't, and this episode captures that perfectly.

Tears: 11
I didn't cry once during this episode. I was too distracted by my heart rubbing against the pit of my stomach and the overwhelming sense of numbness associated with that. It's the feeling I've felt too often these past few months as I've lost my father and my sister in-law. It wasn't usually about tears, it was more about fear, and regrets, and a general discomfort with myself; not knowing how to act. This is the only piece of 'entertainment' I've ever seen that captures that feeling. This is intended as praise, but I'm not particularly keen on experiencing such feelings again.

Bizareness: 7
The existence of this episode is bizarre all by itself. The fact that this is an episode of a network television show is incredibly weird.

Investment: 11
This is what TV has all over the movies. When a show is done well, as Buffy has been, it creates fuller, richer characters than movies ever could. I would probably never choose to watch a movie about nothing more than the excruciating hours following a character's death. But I'd sit through a TV episode about that if I was sufficiently invested in the characters. Fortunately 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' features some great characters, who had 80 or so episodes by this time to invest me in their lives and welfare. All of the Buffy regulars: Giles, Willow, Xander, Anya, and Tara are here performing scenes so realistically uncomfortable I couldn't help but feel for them.

Resonance: 11
This episode definitely meant something to me. The aforementioned smack in the face was the reality that most everyone has dealt with a situation like this one in their lives. I mean, heck they even made a Buffy episode about how much life sucks when you lose someone! It was oddly comforting.

Dread: 4
There is some dread here to be sure. However, once it's established that Buffy's mom is indeed dead, the dread kinda diminishes and turns to the overwhelming sadness and discomfort I've described above. There is even a vampire that appears late in the episode but he's treated as an afterthought and produces no dread.

Immersion: 9
I felt a part of this world. The pacing is painfully slow, allowing the discomfort to permeate completely. The dialogue was not particularly snappy or well timed, adding to the bleak realism.

Final word:
An incredibly effective episode (three 11's!!!!!) I'm not sure I ever need to see again. Sad, disturbing, and uncomfortable, don't say I didn't warn you.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Guiltless Review: Raising Arizona

I saw Raising Arizona - AGAIN, with some friends last week. I remember one month in the late 80's this movie was on HBO like every night. I joked that it was on about 25 times and I watched about 24 of those showings (not too far from the truth).

Reformed convict H.I. McDonough (Nicolas Cage) and his police officer wife Ed (Holly Hunter) steal a baby boy from a recently born litter of quintuplets because they can't have any of their own. A bounty is set on the baby's return by his father Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson). This sets off a series of zany conversations and bizarre chase scenes. Of course the plot is completely secondary to the great music, over-the-top performances, and quotable dialogue.

Laughs: 9
I liked 'The Big Lebowski' and loved 'O Brother Where art Thou' but this is easily the Coen brothers' funniest movie. It is the rarest of comedy feats, a movie that stays funny after repeated viewings. There are scenes that become funnier the more you think about them. Like when escaped convicts Gail (John Goodman) and Evelle (William Forsythe) are shown listening to what sounds like a children's record in a drunken stupor admist about 30 empty beer cans. Sometimes its a running gag, like the opening montage where Hi repeatedly is caught for attempting to rob the same convenience store. I can't explain why its funny, it just is.

Investment: 9
This is where the Coen brothers' other films have run into problems for me. Sometimes their characters are just so stylized that they seem completely alien and its hard to be invested in them ('The Ladykillers' and 'Intolerable Cruelty' come to mind here). The characters in 'Raising Arizona' however, happily avoid this fate. These are not realistic performances, mind you, Hi, Ed, and the rest of the cast are often treated as cartoon characters. The opening montage, for example, is pure Wile E. Coyote. Yet somehow, I really empathized w Hi & Ed, a testament to a pair of brilliant performances.

Bizareness: 11
Off the charts. Randall 'Tex' Cobbs plays bounty hunter Leonard Smalls, who is just about the meanest, grimiest biker ever put on film. Leonard blows up small animals off the side of the road as a matter of course.

There's a chase scene involving heavily armed store clerks, cops, dogs, and bag of diapers that needs to be seen to be believed.

The music by Carter Burwell mixes bluegrass banjoes with gothic organs and is absolutley haunting (it will stay in your head for days, and in my case, years).

Even the extras speak in a quotable, hyper-stylized manner ("Which is it young feller, you want I should freeze? Or you want I should get down on the ground? If I freeze I can't very well drop, and if I drop, I'm a gonna be in motion").

Immersion: 10
Like most Coen brothers' films, Raising Arizona exists in a hyper-real alternate universe where everyone speaks snappy dialogue. However, none, of their movies (with the exception of 'O Brother') is as immersive as this.

A lot of this has to do with the pacing, the film is lilsted at 94 min long, but it feels more like 30. There are no wasted scenes. The dialogue itself is extremely efficient, much is accomplished with each scene. In addition, The characters all speak with thick accents, there is a real sense of locale that is transporting. I have a real hard time getting up during this movie.

Twists: 7
The plot is not unconventional, but the pacing really helps how much the twists drew me into this one.

Awe: 3
Some of the surreal dream sequences, paired with the unique music create some sense of awe.

Dread: 5
Randall 'Tex' Cobb is one scary mofo in this movie, while his character has something of a silly side, I was surprised how much I dreaded him by the end.

Final Word:
A classic, one of the only movies I can think of that is both surreally (is that a word?) immersive and laugh-out loud funny. Now I'm wondering why this still isn't in my DVD collection? Must rectify that soon . . .

Format changes

I'm still fiddling with changes to the guiltless format. What I've decided is not all categories are relevant to all movies. In addition, while watching a few things recently (mostly the entire run of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer', I'm up to season 5 and it rocks!) I've thought of a few additional reasons I may like something. They are as follows:

Resonance is the degree to which something you've seen or heard sticks with you after its over. This may happen for any number of reasons such as a thoughtful quote or a disturbing image. The way I see it, if a movie or show causes resonance it's definitely worth something.

I've kind of taken part of the old 'spectacle' category and merged it into 'awe.' What I really wanted to get out 'spectacle' is now defined as immersion. Immersion is the sensation of being in the middle the events depicted on screen. This is done by pacing, music, realistic performances, and other things. A movie is immersive if you forget where you are for extended periods of time and reality is instead replaced by the on-screen experience.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Guiltless Review: War of the Worlds (2005)

Run away!


Shiny new adaptation of War of the Worlds. Aliens invade and overpower our puny intellects with their superior firepower. Explosions and disentegrations ensue, lots of people running away . . .

Laughs: 0

Nothing funny going on here. That's kind of the point I suppose, but with an action fantasy such as this, having no laughs really hurts how much I care about the characters. Which leads us to . . .

Investment: 2

I don't get Tom Cruise. I mean I get why everyone thinks he's a loon nowadays, I just don't get why people found him so appealing in the first place. The thing is he's actually a good actor. His performance here isn't bad at all. It's just that the movie asks us to follow his adventure throughout the entire running time and the guy he's playing is kind of a jerk. Cruise as always does a good job of playing a jerk, but as a lead character he's a hard guy to get invested in. Speaking of which, I think Cruise would be much more interesting playing a flat-out bastard rather than these arrogant-but-heroic leads he usually gets. I'll even go as far to say that my favorite 2 Tom Cruise characters are when he played flat-out bastards in 'Interview with the Vampire' and 'Magnolia.'

Tears & Lumps: 0

One scene that was supposed to be dramatic featuring the parting of the ways between 2 main characters feels limp precisely because there was no investment from me.

Bizareness: 4

The weird red growth the aliens leave on the ground is icky cool.

Dread: 6

This score should really be higher and would've been had I found the characters more appealing and thus the danger more dread-inspiring. The alien tripods are pretty scary. Love the otherworldly foghorn sounds they make when they're about to let loose.

Twists: 6

Not much plot other than aliens appear and our main characters run away from them for 90 minutes. The end twist (which anyone who's read the book, heard the radio drama, or seen the 1953 film version will know)however, is a classic, and gets 6 points practically all by itself.

Awe/Spectacle: 8

The effects are top-notch. The tri-pods unlike many other effects depicting mechanical contraptions, look like they exist in the real world. I love how they are almost always seen in the distance with no artificial backlighting used to illuminate their every detail. For the most part we see them as the characters see them, they're huge and menacing, and it would be foolish to get close to them.

Thrills: 4

While the appearance of the tri-pods was indeed very effective, the action in the movie falls a bit short. Some of this has to do with the lack of investment in the characters. The encounters in this movie produced some awe, but were not particularly thrilling for me.

Final Word:

Watchable but not truly memorable except for the scenes featuring the Tri-pods.

Guiltless Review: The Family Stone

Oh my god! We ruined Christmas!
So I saw a movie during the Christmas break. With the family. With King Kong being deemed to intense for the 10 year old present and Narnia being deemed to childish for the adults who weren't me, we at last settled on 'The Family Stone.' Actually "we" didn't settle on anything, the decision was made and tickets purchased behind my back (and yes, the wife will pay for this). The review has something of a spoiler, but if you want my honest opinion, it'll have more laughs than the actual movie.
New England family that the writers really wished were funny, quirky, or remotely interesting have a reunion for Christmas, hilarity ensues (oh, if only . . . .).
Laughs: 2
I laughed exactly twice, both during slapstick jokes that were not particularly well done. This movie is advertised as a comedy, draw your own conclusions.
Tears and Lumps: 0
As some of you may know, I've had my share of family tragedy this year. You'd think that a movie that tries its hardest to illicit tears through depicting a family tragedy would effect me more than this does. What I felt worse about was the sinking feeling that we could've been seeing King Kong.
Investment: -5
Heres where the movie falls apart. Being that this is an ensemble piece with few laughs and virtually no plot, it is absolutely essential that the characters be appealing. Yes they are pleasant enough, just not very memorable or entertaining. I'm not a huge fan of Diane Keaton, but I can understand her appeal. She's fine here, but there's just not much to her character. Dermot Mulroney has got to be the blandest leading man in the history of film, the fact that the movie follows his story closely is a huge minus. Sarah Jessica Parker is ok playing the jittery neurotic girlfriend. Nothing terribly wrong with the rest of the performances, its just that the characters and circumstances are so uncompelling that I did not get invested at all.
Twists: -10
Compounding the fact that the characters had me bored was the complete lack of anything interesting for them to do. From the moment Claire Danes' character was introduced, I knew exactly where this movie was headed. There were no twists worth anything for anyone who's seen at least 10 movies in their lifetime. Did I mention there's a tragedy? Just what I love seeing on Christmas.
Bizareness: 3
Here's where the movie scores highest, all due to one shot of topless Diane Keaton post-mastectomy (i.e. theres a scar there instead of boobie). Yes, it was repulsive and made me cringe, but it was also easily the biggest reaction the movie got from me.
Final Word:
The other guiltless categories don't really apply here. The least appealing film I've seen in quite some time. Only if you enjoy mind-numbing predictability with your feel-good Christmas tragedy.

Embracing normality

Holidays are over and I'm embracing that some or any semblance of normality will shortly return to my life. As part of my new definition of "normal" I'd like to post here more often, at least twice a week. Hope to hear from you all soon.