Saturday, July 28, 2012

Ace Attorney (Gyakuten Saiban)

Extremely prolific director Takashi Miike's recent film, Ace Attorney looked to be right up my alley: It's an adaptation of one of my favorite video game series (I own all five games that were released in the U.S.), and it's a quirky and weird Japanese comedy. I'm obsessed with quirky and weird Japanese movies. After having an opportunity to see Ace Attorney, I'm torn. It's a film with many problems, and I don't think most casual viewers will like it. But, with a theatrical audience filled with even bigger fans of the games than me, I found myself laughing with and enjoying it.

The games and movie follow Phoenix Wright (Hiroki Narimiya, a rookie defense attorney thrust into the big time when the murder of his mentor, Mia Fey, leads to a much deeper conspiracy. Phoenix, along with Mia's little sister, a spirit medium named Maya (Mirei Kiritani), his no-good buddy Larry Butz (Akiyoshi Nakao), and his rival prosecutor and childhood friend Miles Edgeworth (Takumi Saito), must dig deeper to crack the case. The courtroom rules in the world of the game and movie work much differently than in real life. A trial must be completed in three days no matter what. It makes little sense, but it adds a ticking clock element.

Much of the movie's action takes place in the courtroom, as Phoenix stumbles his way through cross examining the often crooked witnesses, trying to pick apart their testimonies and find where they're lying. They also go to the crime scenes to investigate. It's all very faithful to the games (the first one, specifically), and is very silly.

There were some very big laughs in the movie, but I think they were just because of our familiarity with the games. My wife had fun and she's never played them, but she has a similar sensibility to me, so I don't know. Part of the fun is that it's just set in such a ridiculous world.

Between the laughs, however, the movie feels just kind of stagnant and dramatically inert. I think it might be that director Takashi Miike was trying to stay true to a video game that is comprised of a few static shots and lots and lots (and lots) of talking. There's little to no movement in the games, and unfortunately, the cameras play pretty still in the movie too. The characters are dead-on matches to their game counterparts, all the way down to their ludicrous, gravity-defying haircuts. There's just not enough energy to keep this looney world afloat.

The games are much better at building the energy of the courtroom scenes by heightening the intensity of the music and dialogue. If Miike had used more music in that way and made the dialogue banter faster and build to a crescendo as Wright approached the truth, the movie would have felt a lot more alive.

Still, I liked the characters, and the world the movie is set in, and some of the gags were awesome. Ace Attorney could have been a lot more fun, but as it stands, it feels like an honest and sincere attempt to translate the game to the big screen, that just didn't quite work out.

Fans of the game will get something out of it, though. The audience ate it up.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Grab Bag: Diary of a Lost Girl, Transatlantic Tunnel, Series 7: The Contenders

Hey, sorry I haven't updated in a while. I'm in the midst of a big cross-country move. I'll still post reviews whenever I can, but I'm guessing they'll be a little less frequent for the time being.

Diary of a Lost Girl,
by Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1929

I challenge you to watch Diary of a Lost Girl and not fall in love with Louise Brooks. Louise Brooks was a silent movie star in the 1920's whose hairstyle became a big fashion thing. When sound movies started happening, she's one of many who didn't make the transition (see: The Artist), but before giving up completely, Brooks went to Germany and starred in three more silent films by director Georg Wilhelm Pabst.

Diary of a Lost Girl is a silent masterpiece, starring Brooks as Thymian, a girl raped and impregnated by her father's associate. When she refuses to marry him because she doesn't love him, her parents give her baby away and places Thymian in a cruel and abusive boarding school. And so on. Lots of tragic, horrible things happen to Thymian, and she stays strong throughout it all, showing love and compassion in the face of a cruel, uncaring society.

I really loved this movie. The storytelling is timeless (except for the no sound thing, I mean, that kind of dates it), and Louise Brooks is great. Totally worth watching. In fact, I think it's essential. I want to see her other films now too, especially the ones with Pabst.

Transatlantic Tunnel, by Maurice Elvey, 1935

"The Tunnel" was a 1935 British science fiction film chronicling the building of an underground tunnel beneath the Atlantic Ocean from London to New York City. Somewhere along the way, they picked up the word "Transatlantic", which was added to the title for the US release.

The movie actually treats the subject matter rather realistically, and spends much time on the difficulty, danger, personal toll, and great expense of such a massive undertaking. The narrative takes place over a period of many years.

Though I did not think it was a very good movie, I found Transatlantic Tunnel's very existence interesting. You don't hear of a lot of science fiction films from the 1930's, and this might be the only one I know of that actually tries to project an accurate future. The idea of building a tunnel between the continents has been proposed and explored in the past as far back as the late 1800s, and found to be physically possible but not worth the time, money, resources, effort, and danger inherent in building it. They use televisions a lot in the movie, which I thought was cool, since they weren't widely available for another 15-20 years.

I probably wouldn't recommend Transatlantic Tunnel, unless you're interested in the history of science fiction. It's more of an interesting artifact than anything else.

Series 7: The Contenders
, by Daniel Minahan, 2001

I remember when Series 7: The Contenders came out. I was only 18, and it was the peak of the reality TV boom. I thought the idea of a satirical movie about a reality show where people were given guns and given a legal pass to kill each other was really cool. It IS the kind of idea a teenager would find really cool. I never got to see the movie, though. Until now.

It's pretty corny stuff, man. The story was rather silly and contrived, and the execution was trying to emulate the feel of a reality show, but it just didn't feel slick and polished enough. It could have gone so much further. I'll give it a few points, though. There are a couple of good moments. Some nice bits of irony here and there. A couple of surprising twists and some original ideas. I liked that the people were no-name actors, who just looked like real people. The soundtrack by the alternative band Girls Against Boys was decent, I always kinda liked them. The biggest, most pleasant surprise for me, though, was a brief appearance by a pre-Arrested Development Will Arnett as an MC for the reality show.

It's not worth watching for that, though. He doesn't ride around on a Segway or do an impromptu magic show to the Rocky IV music. Series 7: The Contenders has its moments, but there are better satires about reality TV out there. Just watch The Truman Show. Or if you want a reality TV thing with killing, watch Battle Royale or The Hunger Games.


Well, this wasn't the greatest bunch of movies. Diary of the Lost Girl was lovely, though. That's the one to watch. More to come as soon as I can!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Grab Bag: Children of Men, Topkapi, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Children of Men, by Alfonso Cuaron, 2006

OK, everyone! You can all rest easy. I have finally seen Children of Men. Alfonso Cuaron's dystopian masterpiece about a man (Clive Owen) who must find a way to save the first child to be born in eighteen years is every bit as breathtaking as I'd hoped. What I love most about Cuaron's work (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, among others) is his complete commitment to the believability of the worlds he creates. Even his most fantastical worlds are always jammed with small details, often down to the most mundane things, which contribute to making the movie feel utterly real. The war scenes in Children of Men almost feel like a documentary. As the first movie ever to make me cry with the line "Pull my finger", what choice do I but to name Children of Men one of the best movies of the last decade?

Topkapi, by Jules Dassin, 1964

This is one of those cool-as-hell 60's heist movies like The Italian Job or The Thomas Crown Affair, where a bunch of likeable crooks get together to steal something very valuable for the thrill of it all. It's funny, really smartly plotted, and the heist itself is a hoot to watch them pull off. Peter Ustinov won a best supporting actor Oscar for his role as a small time crook brought in as a patsy but later recruited as a full partner in the heist. I'm sure this is one of the movies Steven Soderbergh had in mind when he made Ocean's 11, and there's a wire acrobatics scene that I'm certain inspired the one in Mission: Impossible. Topkapi is definitely worth checking out.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
, by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010

I'll stand by those last two movies, but Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is definitely one of those films that falls into the "Not For Everyone" category. Winner of the 2010 Cannes Palme d'Or award, Uncle Boonmee is the story of a terminally ill man in the last few days of his life, looking back at his past lives, and spending time with his family, including the ghost of his wife, and his son who went missing years before and has now returned as a human-ape hybrid creature. See? Not for everyone.

I can't say I loved it, but I found it strange and fascinating and inscrutable, and I would be interested in watching it again to see if I could decipher it a little more. The highlight for me was the scene at the dinner table where Boonmee's entire family is reunited for the first time in 19 years. The movie is rich with Thai, (or rather a specific region of Thailand) folklore and spirituality, with strong themes of death, change, and rebirth at the forefront. Again, I must stress, this movie is probably not for everyone, but if you ever wanted to see a romance between a woman and a catfish, this movie might be the one for you.


All three of these movies are worth your time, but Children of Men is essential viewing. I can't believe it took me six years to get around to it. Don't be like me!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Grab Bag Movies that Start with 'The' Edition: The Sci-Fi Boys, The Twilight Samurai, The Baxter

I've been watching a ton of movies lately. Already 20 in July alone! It's because I'm moving in August and I won't have nearly as much time to watch movies once I get there. Anyway, here's another Grab Bag of mini reviews. Stay tuned for even more!

The Sci-Fi Boys, by Paul Davids, 2006

This is a look back at the early days of special effects and science fiction movies, and how a generation of young fans revolutionized the industry. It has interviews with lots of important figures, such as John Landis, Roger Corman, Forrest J. Ackerman, Peter Jackson, Dennis Muren, Ray Harryhausen, and Rick Baker. Lots of neat moments, including footage from old home movies by these creators as young fans.

The Sci-Fi Boys is a very loving and nostalgic look back at the old days of science fiction, B-Movies, and special effects. I liked it, but it's a subject I'm already interested in. It could have been livelier. There are actually some documentaries on B-movies that I liked much better than this. Check out Not Quite Hollywood and Machete Maidens Unleashed by Mark Hartley.

The Twilight Samurai (Tasogari Seibei) by Yoji Yamada, 2002
This movie is sooooo moving! The Twilight Samurai is the story of Seibei Iguchi, a low-ranking samurai with no ambitions to rise in the ranks. His only priority is taking care of his two young daughters (they lost their mother to consumption) and his senile mother, who doesn't even remember him. When his master assigns him with the dangerous task of killing an exiled samurai who refused to commit ritual suicide, Iguchi must obey or face a similar situation for himself.

The Twilight Samurai is a really beautiful movie. It won best picture in Japan and was nominated for the best foreign film Oscar here in America the year it came out. It's a vivid and realistic portrayal of what life must have been like at the end of the age of the samurai. Everybody should watch this movie. Be warned, though: It just might make you cry.

The Baxter, by Michael Showalter, 2005
Wet Hot American Summer is one of my favorite comedies, and I like to check out any and everything by the guys behind it. I had heard mixed things about Michael Showalter's The Baxter, so I've been avoiding it in fear that I might not like it. Well, those fears were unfounded, because it was a decent little movie, with a lot of little laughs.

Showalter plays Elliott Sherman, a nice guy who lives to be what he called a "Baxter", the guy who women settle for when they can't get the guy they really love. He finds himself in that very situation when he meets Caroline (Elizabeth Banks), and gets himself stuck in a romantic entanglement with her, her perfect high school boyfriend (Justin Theroux), and the temp that he falls for (Michelle Williams). It's kind of a deconstruction of the tropes of the Romantic Comedy genre, and it's kind of just being silly.

The Baxter isn't a great movie, it's really just OK, but it has a very good cast, including the above mentioned people, and smaller roles by Paul Rudd, David Wain, Ken Marino, Michael Ian Black, and Peter Dinklage. Showalter is one of those comic actors who can make me laugh just by making a face or delivering a line a certain way, and he got me a lot in this. If you like Wet Hot American Summer, The Baxter might be worth your time, especially since pretty close to everybody involved in that turns up in this too.


That will be all for today. Twilight Samurai is my recommendation this time. Thanks for reading!

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

I'm about as big a fan as Spider-Man as they come. I've read close to every issue of Spider-Man ever published. Not just The Amazing Spider-Man comic, but also the various other titles, Spectacular Spider-Man, Web of Spider-Man, blah blah blah. As a kid, my mom had my uncle paint a picture of Spider-Man on my bedroom wall. It was awesome.

When Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man movie came out a decade ago, I saw it three times on opening weekend. I know it was a flawed movie, but Sam Raimi got so much right, and even more right the second time around. Well, I guess I feel the same way about Marc Webb's reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man. Despite many plot holes and flaws in the narrative, he got a lot right, including some things that Raimi didn't. And I hope this movie might pave the way to an even better sequel.

The broad strokes of the origin have stayed the same: Peter Parker is a quiet high school kid, who gets bitten by a spider in a science lab that imbues him with spider powers. He is inspired to fight crime when he loses his Uncle Ben through an act of his own negligence. There are some slight alterations, but for the most part, nothing too surprising happens. Now Peter's parents are involved in his origin. His father's work as a scientist is somehow tied to his powers. How, we don't know yet, I suppose it will havve to wait until the sequel.

What I really liked about The Amazing Spider-Man was the cast and their performances. Andrew Garfield's Peter Parker/Spider-Man isn't much like Tobey Maguire's at all. I like aspects of both of them. Garfield's is a little more believable as a high school teen, rather than Maguire's more dweeby, classical geek. He's a lot more angsty and, you know, going through teen things. In fact, he stays a teen all the way through the movie, unlike the Raimi version, who is done with high school within the first hour of the first movie.

Emma Stone plays Peter's love interest, Gwen Stacy. I was worried she would just play the role as Mary Jane with blond hair, but she did great. She was Gwen Stacy. She even looks like an old John Romita drawing. She and Garfield were great together, and by the end of the movie, I was totally into the romance between the two of them. One of my favorite scenes was when Peter fumbles through asking her out on a date.

Martin Sheen and Sally Field play Uncle Ben and Aunt May. They get a lot more screen time this time around, which I thought was nice, because they both do great. Denis Leary is really good as Captain George Stacy, Gwen's father, a cop on Spider-Man's trail. Rhys Ifans' Curt Conners/The Lizard is adequate, but from what I've seen online, his character suffered a lot of cutting and re-editing.

Some things I didn't like as much as Raimi's version. Obviously, the familiar origin scenes didn't feel very fresh the second time around. There's no real sense of awe or excitement in the web swinging, since we've already seen it so much before. I preferred Raimi's bright color scheme and comic booky, more comedic tone. I don't mind the slightly more muted, realistic take on the world, though. They've done it both ways in the comics over the years, and there's room for both in movies too.

There are also too many ticking digital clocks in the movie's finale. That's par for the course for this kind of movies, I guess, but what really bothered me was the lady's voice on the computer telling us how much time is left. The lady announcing how much time is left at the very end seemed especially forced, as it was coming out of some device that The Lizard rigged together. Why would he give it that voice?

During the credits, they try to do the post-movie sequel tease now expected at the end of superhero movies. When done correctly, like all the Avengers teases, they get everybody talking. (OMG THAT'S NICK FURY!) (THOR'S HAMMER!) (THANOS!!!) But this one doesn't work at all. I won't spoil it, but it's nothing very interesting, so, you know, don't get your hopes up for that post credits scene. I guess we'll just have to rely on the actual movie's merits to get us excited for a sequel.

As for the complaint that it's too soon for a reboot, I suppose that's probably true, but they tend to update and retell the origin in the comics every decade or so, too. There have been a lot of different versions and takes on Spider-Man over the years in all kinds of different styles, and this is just one more. I can live with it.

Overall, I thought The Amazing Spider-Man was pretty good, but not as good as the Raimi movies when they were at their heights (half of part 1 and all of part 2). The cast really elevated this movie for me. I'll be happy to watch Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, and Sally Field in future installments, and I look forward to meeting the new Mary Jane Watson, Norman and Harry Osborn, and maybe J. Jonah Jameson. There's a lot of groundwork in place for them to knock it out of the park next time. I hope they pull it off.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Grab Bag Smoochies Edition: The Pajama Game, A Farewell to Arms, As Tears Go By

Got three more reviews. These movies all have romances at their center, so I guess that's kind of a theme.

The Pajama Game
, by Stanley Donen and George Abbott, 1957
Ok, I admit I wasn't prepared for The Pajama Game. I knew little about it when I pressed play. I just saw that Stanley Donen directed it, and hey, I love Bedazzled. And I saw that Doris Day was in it, and with that title, I assumed it was going to be like Pillow Talk or something (which I've never seen either but have an idea in my head of what it's like). Well, instead, it was a musical about... unions.

The Pajama Game is about a guy (John Raitt) brought in to oversee a pajama factory who falls for the girl (Doris Day) who represents the workers in the union. She's fighting for a 7 1/2 cent raise and he's just trying to prevent a labor dispute, and their relationship gets in the middle of it.

I'm not one of those guys that goes "UGH, musicals". In fact, I quite like them. This one had some pretty good numbers in it, with catchy songs, though I thought some of them went on for way too long and did little to advance the story. Overall, I don't think The Pajama Game was really my thing, but I could see how the Broadway show of it might have been pretty fun.

I'm glad I watched it, though, because of all the decades of American cinema, the one I'm least knowledgeable of is definitely the 1950's, and this was a film from that period that I wouldn't have normally thought to watch. So it was worth it.

A Farewell to Arms, by Frank Borzage, 1932
A classic, Best Picture nominated adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's story, A Farewell to Arms is a tragic love story between an American ambulance driver and an English nurse set in the backdrop of the first World War. I've never read any Hemingway, so I can't judge it based on any knowledge of him, though I did read on the Wikipedia entry that the film is less pessimistic.

I enjoyed A Farewell to Arms a great deal. Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper were both very good in the leads. I totally bought into the love story. But the best part of the movie for me was the beautiful and dense black & white cinematography, for which it won an Oscar. I would recommend the movie for that alone.

As Tears Go By, by Wong Kar-Wai, 1988
I've been reluctant to watch more of Wong Kar-Wai's films for quite some time. I saw Chungking Express many years ago and loved it, and then I watched Ashes of Time and didn't care for it at all. I know he's one of the most acclaimed and respected directors out there, but I was unsure where I stood with him, after that.

His debut film, As Tears Go By, falls somewhere in the middle of those two for me. It's one of his most successful films over in Hong Kong, but I don't think it wears it's age very well. It screams 1988 in just about every way imaginable, all the way down to a Chinese cover of 80's cheese ballad "You Take My Breath Away". The cover of The Cranberries' "Dreams" in Chungking was much much better, in my opinion.

As Tears Go By is the story of Wah (Andy Lau), a mob enforcer, who is good at his job, which from what I gather is collecting money from other mob guys and beating the shit out of those that don't have it. He keeps himself out of trouble by following the chain of command and laying low. His brother, Fly (Jackie Cheung), on the other hand, is all talk and no game. His belligerent attitude gets him in trouble time and again, and it's up to Wah to keep him in line and protect him from those who hate him (EVERYONE). You already know from that set up that things aren't going to end well for these two, right?

Meanwhile, Wah is tasked with letting Ngor, a distant cousin (Maggie Cheung), stay at his place while she is visiting Hong Kong for medical reasons. They connect with each other and soon fall in love, even though she knows the world he lives in. I never felt that creeped out by the cousin thing, because it was pretty well established that she's not that closely related (Wah never even knew she existed), and found myself rooting for them to work out.

The movie is decent. Wong Kar-Wai's talent is on full display, though not as honed as it comes to be, and with a pretty low budget. His films always have such sharp and vivid colors. There are a lot of reds and blues in this, and his reds are very red and his blues are very blue. It got a ton of award nominations in Hong Kong, and won for art direction, which is unsurprising.

I found the little brother character pretty hard to bear, but I think that was sort of the point. He won the Hong Kong best supporting actor award for it. He was super insecure from having Andy Lau as a big brother, and wouldn't we all be? There's a part where Andy Lau shoves a gun down the front of a guy's pants and pulls the trigger. He doesn't hit anything, but he makes it clear that he could have. How can you live up to that?


Boy, I didn't expect that last one to be so long. That was practically a full review itself, wasn't it? These mini reviews were supposed to save me some time! Oh well, I had fun writing it. Hope you enjoyed. I've got a lot more movies to talk about, including some new releases here and there, and even one that is only playing festivals here in America.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Pirates! Band of Misfits

The Pirates! Band of Misfits is the latest stop motion animated film from Aardman Studios, the folks behind Wallace & Gromit. The original title in the UK was "The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!" It's a much better and funnier title, but somebody in marketing must have got twitchy about releasing a film for kids with the word "scientist" in the title in America, where we fear science. Especially if that Scientist is Charles Darwin, which it is.

The hero of the story is a luxuriantly bearded pirate captain named Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), leader of a loyal ragtag crew with names such as "Pirate with a Scarf" and "Pirate with Gout". He dreams of winning the prestigious Pirate of the Year Award, but is outclassed by his far more cutthroat competition. Pirate Captain's fortunes change when he stumbles across Charles Darwin's (David Tennant) ship, The Beagle. Darwin, while bargaining for his life, notices that Pirate Captain's parrot, Polly, is actually a Dodo, thought extinct for 150 years. Darwin hatches a plan to bring the bird to a science convention in London, bringing himself lots of acclaim and, he hopes, the love of Queen Victoria (who HATES pirates).

The movie is unabashedly silly, playful, good natured and good fun. It's not as great as the Wallace & Gromit movie, but not much out there is. The silliness and the historical setting reminded me very much of Monty Python, which is a very good thing in my book. I enjoyed the voice cast, which, in addition to Hugh Grant and David Tennant, also included Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton, Brendan Gleeson, and Salma Hayek.

The animation was in Aardman's trademark style. I always prefer their stop motion animated stuff over their CGI stuff. It's just more fun to look at. You can see the craftsmanship necessary to make a movie like this. I love stop motion animation and it's always a treat to see a feature come out, especially when Aardman is behind it.

The Pirates: Band of Misfits: In an Adventure with Scientists! is good, kids and adults will get a lot of laughs out of it. Lots of jokes about beards and monkeys and Queen Victoria's big butt, and of course, pirates. Lots and lots of pirates.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Vampirama 2: Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, The Nude Vampire, The Return of Dracula

More vampires, everyone! There are so many vampire movies out there, I bet I could do these forever. But I'll probably get sick of it before then. Here is a link to the first Vampirama set of reviews, if you are interested.

Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter
, by Brian Clemens, 1974

This is a pretty awesome Hammer production starring Horst Jansen as Captain Kronos, who is on the trail of a vampire who feeds on youth, rather than blood. What really took me by surprise is that it doesn't entirely match the moody feel of the other Hammer horror films I've seen. Instead, it appeared to me that Brian Clemens was taking a visual and rhythmic cue from the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and maybe Kurosawa's samurai films as well. There is even a bar room showdown that played out like something straight out of a Man with No Name movie, but with swords. A very cool movie with an original take on vampire mythology and a visual style unique to the genre.

The Nude Vampire (La Vampire Nue), by Jean Rollin, 1970

I watched Rollin's previous film, The Rape of the Vampire, for my last Vampirama entry. What interested me about him is that he seemed to make a lot of vampire movies, but because he wanted to, not because the industry had pigeonholed him into it.

The Nude Vampire is even weirder than Rollin's first movie. It's about a rich guy who lives a bit of a hedonistic lifestyle who finds out his dad is into even weirder stuff. As he investigates, he learns of a suicide cult of vampire worshipers and of a vampire girl that his dad is actually trying to cure.

Anyway, the story doesn't exactly add up, and I'm not entirely sure if the movie fully engaged me, but Rollin's movies are strange and interesting and that should count for something. There appears to be a recurring motif in his films, combining cultish or mystical imagery with scientific and medical stuff. This one was a lot more exploitative than The Rape of the Vampire (which was thankfully not very rapey). The Nude Vampire definitely lives up to its title many times over. Not sure if I would recommend it, but it's somewhat interesting, so maybe it's worth your time if you're into the strange and obscure. Gotta love that poster art, though.

Also, I was disappointed to find that, unlike the first film, the version on Netflix Instant was dubbed rather than subtitled. Boo, Netflix!

The Return of Dracula by Paul Landres, 1958

This is a little bit older than most of the vampire movies I've been watching, and it is maybe more in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 vein. Things are getting too hot for Dracula in Transylvania, so he takes the identity of an artist he kills and moves to California, where he stays with his victim's distant cousin, feeds off the neighbors, and tries to seduce the cousin's daughter.

My favorite part was at the beginning, when he somehow takes a train all the way from Romania to California. OK, maybe he got off the train and took a ship from Europe to the States, then got on another train, but all we see is him get on a train in Transylvania and get off a train in California. The Return of Dracula is silly and certainly not great, but there's definitely a level of camp enjoyment to be taken from it. Not very memorable, though, to be honest.


Of this batch of movies, I would definitely go with Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter. It's super cool.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Grab Bag: Peeping Tom, Hopscotch, Where the Sidewalk Ends

Three more movie reviews coming your way. No theme today, just some good old movies that I think are all worth your time. Enjoy!

Peeping Tom by Michael Powell, 1960

Mere months before Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was released here in the states, a somewhat similar film was released in England, to much less acclaim: Michael Powell's Peeping Tom. The story of a cameraman who kills women in order to preserve the look in their eyes at the moment of their death, Peeping Tom is a bit edgier than Psycho, focusing less on the Hollywood thrills and twists and turns that Hitchcock preferred and instead takes a more subdued, realistic, and well, British approach.

I actually may have liked Peeping Tom better than Psycho, if that's possible. Mark Lewis, the killer character played by Carl Boehm, is a more realistic portrayal of the psychology of a serial killer than Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. He is less charming than Perkins, and is more of the quiet, strange man who lives upstairs. As a child, his psychologist father filmed him at every moment of the day, often intentionally scaring him to record his reaction. There's a very unsettling sexual subtext to the footage and Mark's reaction while watching it. There's a lot of sexual subtext throughout.

Upon release, Peeping Tom tanked, but over the years, the critical reception for it has completely turned around. Now regarded by many as a masterpiece, it was a bit ahead of its time, I think, and people didn't know what to make of it. Anyhow, this movie is a must. Check it out, if you haven't. It would make a perfect double feature with Psycho.

Hopscotch by Ronald Neame, 1980
Whew, look at that poster. That is not a movie I would want to see. Perhaps not the ideal marketing campaign for Hopscotch, but then again, what do I know?

Hopscotch is the story of Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau), an experienced CIA field agent who is punished for no good reason by his superior, and put on a desk job. To get back at them, Kendig runs off, goes into hiding, writes a tell-all book exposing all of his dirty laundry, as well as the CIA's and the KGB's, and threatens to publish.

The movie is a smart, funny, and spirited chase movie, as Kendig leads his CIA superior (Ned Beatty) and replacement (Sam Waterston) on just to mess with them. It's unpredictable, since Kendig keeps his plan under wraps, even to the audience. I like the low tech, analog aspect. Spy movies with crazy technology are cool, but there's something really fun about it all being done the old fashioned way. It's sort of like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in that way, but, you know, funny. Walter Matthau is great here as always.

Where the Sidewalk Ends, by Otto Preminger, 1950

This has nothing to do with the Shel Silverstein book. It's a film noir, and a good one, at that.

Where the Sidewalk Ends is about Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews), a hotheaded detective, recently demoted for his violent impulses. When investigating a murder at an underground gambling house, Dixon is sent to question a possible but unlikely suspect, one that he shouldn't have much problem with. Well, Dixon ends up accidentally killing the guy.

He attempts to cover it up, but things only get worse from there, as he takes a liking to his victim's estranged wife and father-in-law, a cab driver prone to exaggerating stories. How far can Dixon carry his guilt? When will the lies pile up too high?

Where the Sidewalk Ends is a satisfying film noir, though in the end, it's a lot less nihilistic than some of its peers. I always wonder when I see a film noir end with anything but the darkest of outcomes if this was a compromise with someone at the studio. Not necessarily, I know, but I bet there are many cases where it is.


That's all for today. I've got a lot more stuff to review, so I'll try to have three more tomorrow.

Friday, July 6, 2012


In the years after Pixar's 2006 weak link, Cars, and before last year's unnecessary sequel, Cars 2, Pixar had been on a role with a stretch of what I consider the four most daring and moving films of their nearly spotless track record: Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3. I think Toy Story 3 may have marked the end of an era for Pixar, thought it's probably a little early to say what the next phase will be.

Their latest offering, Brave, directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, plays it safer than, say, Up, but is still a very good movie. It's a thrilling and imaginative Careful-What-You-Wish-For fairy tale, with kind of the anti-Disney Princess as the heroine. It's the story of Merida (Kelly MacDonald), a fiery young Scottish princess whose interests lie in adventure and archery. Her mother (Emma Thompson) doesn't believe her lifestyle is behavior becoming of a princess. When Merida is promised, against her will, to marry one of the princes from the neighboring clan, she rebels, and goes off on a search for her true destiny.

One thing I like about Brave was that the emotional center of the story is a Mother-Daughter relationship. Something I'm sure I've seen in a movie, but for the life of me, I can't think of one, they're so uncommon. Merida stumbles across a witch's shop, and makes a wish that ultimately forces her to work with her mother to undo the consequences.

Merida was a refreshing Princess character. Truly a free spirit, with a gorgeously rendered, tangled mess of orange hair as untamed and fiery as her personality. She's not interested in finding her prince, at least not right now, and she's certainly not interested in these dudes. I liked that they made her strong and independent without resorting to making it a gag. Admittedly, I didn't see Disney's Tangled, but the previews made it look like they were going, "look, she's a princess and she needs rescuing!... but wait! She knows kung fu! That's not like a princess! HAHAHAHA!" Like it's shocking and crazy that a girl is into that stuff. I'm a huge fan of Disney's Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, but Merida is the first Disney Princess that I'd actually want my daughter (if I had one) to look up to. Ok, maybe Mulan would be fine, but I really don't want to have to listen to that Eddie Murphy dragon character, alright? Plus, she still had to dress as a boy to be awesome, right? Merida doesn't.

The animation is, of course, beautiful and innovative. I doubt that's even worth mentioning, since it's expected of Pixar at this point. Even Cars 2 had innovations. There's so much to look at on the screen besides the story, everything from the grass and foliage of the Scottish Highlands, to the light reflecting off a bear's wet fur.

Brave is a good movie, and I think up to Pixar's standards. The problem is, they set the bar for themselves insanely high with those 4 bold movies. I thought it was certainly as good as some of the early ones, such as Monsters, Inc. We might have to accept that they can't all be Ratatouille and just appreciate that they're still better than most other stuff. Next year's Pixar film is yet another sequel, Monsters University. I'm sure it will be good, but we'll only know what the next phase of the life of Pixar will be when we see what originals they have up their sleeves in the coming years. I still have faith in them.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Grab Bag Robert Edition: Enter the Dragon, Bad Company, The Hustler

By coincidence, all three of the movies I'm reviewing today are directed by guys named Robert. It's a theme!

Enter the Dragon, by Robert Clouse, 1973

I remember when I was a little kid and Bruce Lee was the bomb. I knew he was the greatest long before I ever saw a single one of his movies. He's still the bomb, as it happens. I haven't seen Enter the Dragon in probably close to 20 years, so all I really remembered was that Lady from Shanghai style fight in the house of mirrors, and the claw marks on Bruce Lee's chest and cheeks.

One thing that struck me about Enter the Dragon is how, in an effort to reach all the demographics they could, the producers made a movie that mixed as many genres as they could (martial arts, crime movie, spy movie, blaxploitation), and was strangely racially diverse for its time. I'm not saying it's not exploitative, but it was kinda cool that there was a Chinese guy, a black guy, and a white guy fighting in this tournament on equal ground. I liked the villain with the fake hand that had various weapon attachments too. I guess I forgot about that guy. But Bruce Lee was coolest of all.

Bad Company, by Robert Benton, 1972

I don't think I've ever seen Jeff Bridges this young before. So I guess that's cool. Sort of like seeing young Beau Bridges in that old Hal Ashby movie, but, you know, better.

Bad Company is a western starring Barry Brown as a young, well-to-do, educated lad, sent west by his parents to save him from conscription and certain death in the Civil War (Vietnam parable, anyone?). On his way, he crosses paths with a fellow kid named Jake (Bridges) and his gang of teenage thieves, also avoiding the war, cheating and stealing their way west. Barry joins up with Jake's gang and gets into all sorts of trouble, though he still tries to keep on the straight and narrow.

It's a pretty good movie. Better than I expected, anyhow. Bridges is awesome as always in a sort of loveable rogue role. I liked the way it starts with them as mortal enemies, becomes a buddy movie, before they become mortal enemies again and then buddies. It was also pretty violent and dark with a surprisingly high good guy body count, showing us just how wild and dangerous the west can be. This movie is worth checking out, I'd say, though it's not great.

The Hustler, by Robert Rossen, 1961

Now THIS is great. A legitimate classic, by all accounts.

This is the story of Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), a pool hustler with a desperate need to prove himself by beating Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). Along the way, he makes some enemies, and finds a fragile love in Sarah (Piper Laurie), a sad alcoholic woman.

The performances are all around excellent, but I especially loved George C. Scott as Bert Gordon, who takes it upon himself to manage Fast Eddie. The dialogue is incredible, too. It makes you wish more movies nowadays were written this well, or at least in this manner. I also loved the cinematography, which won an Oscar. There's an amazing continuous shot that follows Sarah around a party. We see just how much of a wreck she is as she finishes three entire drinks in a single take. Much of the movie is shot around a pool table, but it never stops being interesting. You'd think there would only be a limited way to shoot a game of pool, but they keep you involved.

Out of these three movies, this is the big one. If you haven't seen The Hustler yet, you definitely should.


So there you have it. If I was to base it off of these three movies, I would say that guys name Robert are pretty good directors.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed

I'm not sure if everybody has seen the popular internet meme that Safety Not Guaranteed is based on, but I'm guessing there's a pretty good chance. It began as a joke want ad in a small magazine in 1997, that read:

Over the years, the ad has spread over the internet, appeared on television and attained a sort of notoriety. The choice of words were brilliantly deadpan. It was hard to tell if whoever placed the ad was serious or not. The premise of Colin Trevorrow's film is, "what if the ad was written by a man who was dead serious?"

Aubrey Plaza stars as Darius, an intern at a Seattle based magazine, chosen to accompany a reporter, Jeff (Jake Johnson), on a trip to find and interview the man who placed the ad, and see what his deal is. The man in question is Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a clerk at a small town grocery store with a mullet and ever-present jean jacket, paranoid and mistrustful of strangers, and seen by locals to be a little off. Darius is recruited to talk to him and try to win him over and get him to open up.

Problems, of course, arise when Darius begins to like Kenneth. They're both unhappy and damaged by events of their past, and she finds a kindred spirit in him. He seems to genuinely believe in his time travel theories, and at times, seems to seriously know what he's talking about. Darius is skeptical but sympathetic and must decide whether or not to take a leap of faith in the guy. That's the whole theme of the movie, having the guts to take that leap, and believe in somebody.

I really enjoyed Safety Not Guaranteed. It was simple, quirky, upbeat, and heartfelt. The performances were great, especially Plaza and Duplass. Plaza will probably be a star someday, and Duplass, also a producer on the film, has been turning up all over the place lately. Jake Johnson was funny, as was Karan Soni as the soft-spoken, nerdy second intern on the trip.

The ending is particularly satisfying. The movie skirts the line on whether or not we're watching a science fiction film or not. Are Kenneth's theories legit, or is he nuts? I won't tell. It's up to you to take the leap and see the movie.