Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Review of "Ultraviolet (2006)"

Ultraviolet (2006)

Bloodrayne Aeon Flux '84

The above summary actually sounds better, as an idea in and of itself, than the resulting movie. After Kurt Wimmer's surprisingly entertaining and under looked Equilibrium (starring pre-Batman Christan Bale), I had high expectations for his third movie. I had seen this movie in it's theatrical debut. I remember leaving the theater, however, confused and bewildered. I figured the second time around would yield a better indicator of the actual worth of the movie.

Kurt Wimmer made a movie based on a non-existing comic book. The convoluted story is about a pathophobic authoritarian dystopia, where a super soldier virus evolves into a plague and leads to forced relocations and ultimately genocide. Two factions are born; the healthy (medial totalitarian state) and the infected (terrorist rebel underground - a.k.a. hemophages, a.k.a. "blood-eaters", a.k.a. vampires). Symptoms of the infection include stronger bones, better hearing and eyesight, faster healing and hyper-fast reflexes. The only drawback is the dozen year life span.

In all honesty, I like the first half of this movie. The first 5 minutes is an action movie delight, complete with an air bomb/bowling ball ninja death squad. The narrative voice-over, that follows, is when the dread begins. This is mostly due to the realization that this is a puree of preexisting ideas. Equilibrium (also a puree) worked because it didn't try too hard. It didn't fall into the computer graphics trap. It presented a world that was slightly askew, yet eerily possible. All those things that worked in Equilibrium have been tweaked here to the nth degree and subsequently combines into a Frankenstein movie. Unfortunately, it just looks, feels and acts too much like an Aeon Flux clone. Do we really need two?

The movie is a hell of a nonsensical but visually stimulating ride, until about 1/2 way through. This is about the time when our infected and meta-skilled heroine, Violet (Milla Jovovich), ends up on the fence between her people and the organization she is sworn to defend because her maternal instincts kick in. A highly skilled assassin turns into a highly skilled assassin-soccer mom. Milla Jovovich has a certain knack for picking outrages roles and generally excels in things requiring little acting ability. She does look exceptional in a tight body suit. Some of the technology has a nice wow-factor (gravity leveler and transportable space, to name a couple), but is simply there for show.

The second half of the movie is her trying to act in the middle of a nonsensical, non-stop action scenario. It becomes a case of "are we done yet?". It is just too much and too repetitious to deal with. Nothing new is added to the mix after this point, so it becomes a case of rinse & repeat. As in his previous movie, colors are primary and important. I guess Wimmer forgot to add the visual context, because all the color changes just seem to be part of the cool factor and have little to do with the plot. There is a lot of wire work and continuation of gun-kata (from Equilibrium). The problem is we are made to believe that a nurse and wife became an uber, meta-human assassin through a metabolic change and not training. Is Wimmer choosing nature over nurture or is he just so intoxicated off the smell of his own genius that he didn't even consider what he was creating?

For Wimmer this is his Modern Prometheus. It is the monster he created with his own hands, that is currently proving to be his outdoing. On my "shot scale" this is a 5 drink minimum. The top half is good, with the bottom half being synonymous to diving head-first into an empty swimming pool. Save the last 3 shots for the second half of the movie, as you will be bored to tears otherwise. Here's a toast to Wimmer. May his next movie not suck! Zum Wohl!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Review of "Como Era Gostoso o Meu Frances (1971)"

Como Era Gostoso o Meu Frances (1971)
(a.k.a. - How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman)

Like Dances with Wolves, except with cannibals

This is a pseudo-documentary about a French mercenary whom is executed, ends up as a prisoner of the Portuguese and then is the "honored guest" of a cannibalistic Brazilian native tribe. The film is based on the 16th century account of a German explorer, Hans Staden, who was captured by the Tupinamba. The Frenchman becomes part of the tribe, is even given a wife and a hut, until he is to be eaten in a massive ceremony. During this time he tries to figure out a way to escape, by conforming to the tribe.

This film was originally banned in Brazil and was rejected from the Cannes Film Festival because of excessive nudity. The subject matter is portrayed in a documentary style, complete with shaky hand camera footage and including the spoken languages of French, Portuguese and Tupi. With the exception of the few European characters, the majority of the cast spends the film either bottomless, topless or both (also both sexes). The production value appears at first to be quite underwhelming, but I think instead it tries to emulate the simplicity and actuality of the situation rather than some ornate (or romanticized) recollection.

At the same time it is trying to be an objective observer, it is also a critique of mercantilism and its descendants; monetarism and capitalism. There is no real judgment being issued here, but rather is a look at the encounter of the cultures, in an anthropological or rather a more realistic reinterpretation of what occurred when these cultures interacted. Some have said this a black comedy, but I did not find too many places to break out into a roaring laughter (though I did chuckle a few times at the cultural misunderstandings).

This may sound like a rather dry film (which it is), but the relatively short running time makes it seem more like a PBS special than an actual feature film. The movie would also seem to resonate more with the situation and culture of Brazil (past and present). Brazil is a unique country, with a diverse history and culture. It was one of the first films that tried to relate to the "savages", in light of the audience's identification with the Europeans. Even 30 years later, its relevance continues.

Review of "The Hitcher (1986)"

The Hitcher (1986)

Never pick up a Dutchmen in the desert, even if you are falling asleep.

80's meat, C. Thomas Howell, is a glorified delivery boy named Jim Halsey. He's transporting the car he's driving, to it's owner in San Diego, California. While in the desert, he picks up a rain-soaked hitchhiker in the darkness, Rutger Hauer. The hitchhiker is initially quite uncommunicative, but quickly turns into dubious comic, with a minuscule switchblade (and asks questions like; "Do you want to know what happens to an eyeball, when it get punctured?"). Things become more complicated when the authorities get involved and believe Jim to be the mass-murdering psychopath. This is yet another movie I saw on Cinemax and the first with the incomparable, Rutger Hauer. It is also one of the only movies in which Jennifer Jason Leigh does not go partial or full nude.

The first 12 minutes is a delicate blend of darkness, tension building and serves as the introduction to this cat and mouse thriller. These initial 12 minutes, creates the mood of the movie and sets Rutger Hauer as the deadly, yet compellingly charming psychopath. Much in the same way Jigsaw of Saw, believes in the idea of sacrifice as a growth mechanism, so does the hitcher. This is in direct contradiction to the naivety of Jim. In someway I believe their relationship can be described as master/pupil or the physical expression of how experience overwhelms ideology.

What was I thinking?? This is an 80's movie with a whiny, C. Thomas Howell. There isn't that much depth. What there is plenty of is running, car chases and gun fights. Now rinse and repeat. By the third act, the movie loses most of it's steam and the ending (though quite action oriented and enjoyable) never captures the energy level of the first part of the movie. The backdrops consist of the aforementioned desert and also include gas stations, police stations, abandoned gas stations and miles of highway. You definitely get the impression that you are on your own out there.

This is one of those films that does not require much energy to enjoy and yet multiple views does not harm. I would rate this movie at a 3 shot minimum. The first should be drunk when Jim nearly falls asleep at the wheel. The second toast belongs to Jim's initial (and short-lived) victory. The third drink should be empty by the infamous "truck-trailer" decoupling scene. In conclusion, always listen to your mother and then ask yourself and others one question; "You gonna tell me where you're going ?"

Monday, June 18, 2007

Review of "The Tudors (2007)"

The Tudors (2007)

Part accurate, part artistic licensing does not add up to a "Rome" killer.

This Showtime series focuses on the young life of King Henry the VIII of England and seems to be a direct response to HBO's "Rome". Historically speaking, Henry becomes King at the tender age of 17 years old and marries his brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon (daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, who is 6 years his senior). Thomas Wolsey becomes Lord Chancellor and Cardinal in 1515 and this seems to be about when then the series begins. Henry is approximately 24 years old, at this point, and won't meet Anne Boleyn for another decade.

While more than a few historical inaccuracies occur as well as a bit of chronological confusion (Machiavelli's the Prince is written in 1513, but does not get publish until 1531, for example) much of the sets, costumes, mannerisms and ideas of the day are for the most part in the spirit of the era. The clothing does seem to be more accessible to sex, in light of history, but I assume this is due to some of that artistic licensing.

The sex, to me, seems to be the one aspect that tries to hard to keep pace with Rome's carnal delicacies and seems a bit forced and out of place. The way sex is portrayed seems a bit revolutionary and at least 100 years too early (Libertine era). What is accurate is the outdated and detrimental medical diagnosis of the day as well as Henry's desire for an heir (and subsequent separation from the Catholic Church, start of the English Reformation and influence of the New World).

Jonathan Rhys Meyers is the focal point of the series, playing the Renaissance man that was Henry the VIII. The king is multidimensional and complicated. Meyers does seem a bit underwhelming for a character that seems bigger than life. Sam Neal (Cardinal Wolsey) is ,also, the only other character to truly stand out from the cast (Rome had a thoroughly more distinguished cast). While Meyers and Neal do a good job, there is a certain lack of chemistry (professionally cool) between the all main characters (another problem Rome lacked).

The cities of his kingdom reminded me of the computer graphic backgrounds prevalent in episodes 1-3 of the Star Wars Trilogy; fake looking and lifeless. Rome the series managed to reproduce the intricacies and pulse of that era, down to the battlefield, markets and even the arena. The Tudors remains a bit cold and theatrical, relying mostly on interior sets. The series is very devoid on action and relies mostly on dialog and a slow moving plot (see I, Claudius as an example to the contrary). It lacks the epic quality of Rome along with fewer historically irreplaceable characters (no Julius Caesar, no Mark Anthony, no Cleopatra,etc). Perhaps the the Tudors translates too closely the English demeanor or maybe what it really lacks is the vision of a John Milius ?

Because of the lack of another good historically based drama (don't even mention BBC's Robin Hood series), I will continue to watch this series. It is definitely not as engaging or entertaining as HBO's Rome, but is currently the only game in town. Other notable historical oddities, left out of the show would include :

1)Lark's tongue as a English culinary delicacy.

2)Anne Boleyn tended to vomit in between courses and may have had six fingers on her left hand and three nipples.

3)A cure for baldness involved rubbing dog or horse urine into the scalp.

4)The same year as his coronation, Henry appoints a Groom of the Stool, whose sole purpose is to clean the royal sphincter.

Maybe if those details were present, this would make for a more interesting and authentic experience. As it stands, the show has yet to impress or find it's groove. Here's to your health, M'Lord.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Review of "42nd Street Forever: XXX-Treme Special Edition (2007)"

42nd Street Forever: XXX-Treme Special Edition (2007)

A Time Release Adult Capsule

If you haven't read my review of 42nd Street Forever Volume 1, you really should. This is volume 3 of the series and continues the movie trailer montage, except it switches to covering grindhouse's next door neighbor (namely porn).

Before the videocassette, DVD and the Internet, porn was viewable only in seedy theaters (usually next to grindhouse theaters). Because they were theatrically released, meant that there needed to be an actual story to keep you in the theaters after the money shots. With the 1980's also came the assembly line, cookie cutter porn. The story was no longer important and took a backseat to cheaper (and more frequent) productions, relying mostly on physical attributes. The 80's signaled the death of the "story porn". For reference, Boogie Nights shows this same transition.

Volume 3 compiles the trailers from 46 movies, made during the late 70's and early 80's. This would include cheesy 80's hair, clothes and music. Whatever happens, don't get caught humming the music while in line at the post office. The talent level (no pun intended) is quite high here. Names such as Harry Reems, Seka, John Leslie, Hyapatia Lee, Jamie Gillis, Stacey Donovan, Mike Horner, Nina Hartley, Ron Jeremy, Annette Haven, Peter North, Ginger Lynn, Joey Silvera, Vanessa Del Rio, John C. Holmes, Taija Rae, Randy West, Amber Lynn,Eric Edwards, Chelsea Manchester and Richard Pacheco, should be quite familiar to many. What is even more amazing is that some of them had actual acting ability and gave the movies a campy, fun (and yet absurd) quality. Some were highly educated and others, still, had actual acting training. Imagine what they could have done with a good script, a good director and the possibility to keep their clothes on.

The trailers are very graphic and include full on sex and nudity, so don't show this at the local PTA meeting. It is the 80's so you can expect butcher-like closeups, tan lines, bad hair cuts and hedges in full bloom. I would give this a 2 (of anything distilled) on my "shot scale". That is just to relax you, however. It is also much better to watch this in the appropriate company of others. These trailers are a time capsule of a bygone era. Recreate the experience by sharing with others, but please try and keep the Pee Wee Herman to a minimum.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Review of "Rocky Balboa (2006)"

Rocky Balboa (2006)

Hey, Tommy !! I didn't hear no bell.......

This is a segue into a tangent from Commando.

We can only hope, at this point, that Sylvester Stallone has heard the final bell and will be retiring Rocky. It is safe to bet that this is the last Rocky movie. The only exceptions would include 1) Sylvester Stallone as producer/director/writer but not actor; 2)Stallone in a cameo role (a Rocky movie where the namesake of the movie is a cameo role is either sheer madness or sheer brilliance) or 3) Sylvester Stallone in Rocky Ho-tep. Bruce Campbell as Sylvester Stallone, might work, with the right script. Maybe Rocky could fight Apollo Creed-Zombie?

So in light of the above, this is the farewell of one Rocky Balboa. The first movie was the introduction of the blue collar, Philadelphia everyman of Rocky Balboa, who got to live out the "American Dream". It is the quintessential sports movie, yet it isn't and even still, is much more. The second movie is in my opinion the worst of the series because it is essentially the first movie with a happy ending. It did have Rocky reading out loud and learning to read, which is funny. The third and fourth movies are products of the 1980's. Like the 80's, they are a bit gaudy, self involved, bright and very, very hyper (sniff here please). Also Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) has been replaced by Clubber Lang (Mr. T) and Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). After returning from abroad, the fifth movie is essentially Rocky down and out in South Philadelphia. We get back to Rocky's roots and to his legacy. This movie fits very nicely in this chronology.

This movie basically mirrors or is parallel to the first movie in everything except time. We return to all the people and places (that still remain) from his youth. There are some differences. Adrian is now sleeping with Apollo Creed. She's dead Jim!! No Talia, No Problem!! Paulie gets into the action by getting fired and becoming an angry drunk in the process. Rocky even manages a disturbingly uneasy pseudo-relationship with a woman that could be his daughter, in a Gump sort of way.

Rocky, himself, has turned into a Forrest-Gump-Spouting philosophical slab of aged and tenderized beef. He has his own restaurant, in which he walks around and entertains the patrons in true Mickey Mantle-like style. His relations are still strained with his son from the previous movie. This time around even Stallone's son did not want to replay Rocky's son (see Sage Stallone). Rocky (and/or Stallone by proxy) has not aged well. Rocky has become a prime example of too much steroid use and the recipient of too many blows to the head. If he didn't walk around, he could have been mistaken for an animatronic wax statue at Madame Tussauds.

In all honesty, the first time I saw this movie I couldn't help but feel as if this was trying to be a caricature of itself. Stallone's leathery skin and speech is enough to scare anyone into a laugh. There is a point where that changes. It took just one little speech to change it. I loved the speech Rocky gives to his son about life as not being how hard you could hit, but about how many hits you could take and keep going. Up to this point, the movie had been a comical look at Rocky. To be quite honest, all of the Rocky movies, with the exception of the first, have had thick layers of ham and cheese, inducing laughter in the process. Even though Rocky is older, doesn't mean he is any less funny. The speech epitomizes Rocky and salvages the movie.

The best part is that the actual fight is not the crescendo climax of the movie. This is the first Rocky movie in which his opponent is unimportant and unimpressive. Rocky's opponent isn't Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver), but time itself. The moment the bell rings is both the triumph, victory and end of Rocky. It was the speech, however, that allowed me to see this movie a second time, for perspective. The second time around wasn't as funny, yet it still worked. It proves this isn't a one-trick pony sent to the glue factory. It isn't the best in the series, but it is a good send off for an icon. Hopefully, he stays there.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Review of "Commando (1985)"

Commando (1985)

Commando. Kirby. Code Red. Coordinates. Got it.

I used to have a VHS copy of this movie that I watched so much, that I wore out the tracking. This is only the second movie (the first being the Terminator), I had ever seen, in which the Austrian sensation did not yield a sword, wear a furry loin cloth or ride a horse. This has the quintessential formula for a Schwarzenegger action movie. Key elements of this formula would include non-stop action, gun play, one-liners delivered with accented stoicism, the muscles and a body count numbering in the hundreds.

In Last Action Hero (an often misunderstood and underrated Schwarzenegger parody action movie with comic elements), Jack Slater (Arnold) and Danny (his pint-size partner from the real world) are in a video store. We are shown an alternate universe where Sylvester Stallone is the star of Terminator 2 : Judgment Day. In that same universe, this movie could well be looked upon as Schwarzenegger interpreting John Rambo.

John Matrix (Schwarzenegger) is a single dad and retired ultra-elite commando living incognito with his daughter, Alyssa Milano. A prepubescent Alyssa Milano, on top of that. I can't make this stuff up. Other members of his elite unit are being systematically eliminated in a convoluted ploy to reveal Matrix's location and kidnap his daughter. Her kidnapping would be used as leverage to force Matrix to perform a presidential assassination. Instead, Matrix uses his commando skills in detecting her location and executing a rescue. His skill set would include : commando driving, commando killing, commando shooting, commando hand-to-hand combat, commando jumping, commando sneaking, commando super senses, commando acting and commando shopping.

The plot isn't very convoluted and reveals itself to be quite straightforward. The non-stop, over-the-top action, sheer personality and pronunciation of Schwarzenegger is what keeps this movie entertaining. That and the sheer body count. I counted 89, but that is a conservative estimate. 85 of those occurred in the last 20 minutes of the movie. The supporting cast is atrociously bad and does nothing to help him. This is a one-man-show. Dam Hedaya's presidentially Latin accented English, Alyssa Milano's best Tammy Faye Baker impersonation and the pathetically whinny (and psychotic) nemesis of Bennett (Vernon Wells) do little except show off the smoked Gouda inherent in the movie. Wells is much better as the crazy, silent type (see the Road Warrior and Innerspace) than the talkative psychotic. Even pre-Boca Rae Dawn Chong barely manages to steal any of the spotlight from the Governator.

I have enjoyed this movie from my youth and it has not lost any of its 80's charm (steel drum soundtrack included). It is impossible to take this movie seriously, so don't. In the real world, the movie would have ended when Matrix jumped out of a jet airline into a 3 foot deep marsh or during the Mall mêlée or while single handedly taking out a small and well armed militia (and dishing the catchy one-liners). So kick back, have a drink (or several) and let off some steam. This is one is sure to not let go.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Review of "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007)"

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007)
The Trilogy Curse Strikes Again

This is yet another summer blockbuster gone Hollywood awry by being a bloated, self-indulging "more is better" behemoth. The series is based on my favorite Disney amusement park ride of the same name. By this point I was surprised that the end product has been this tolerable, considering the sword of Damocles hanging precociously over the entire series. At World's End was the piece-of-eight in my beer that overflows the glass.

The story takes over from the end of Dead Man's Chest: Davy Jones' Kraken kills Jack Sparrow, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann are in couple's limbo, Captain Barbossa returns from the dead and newcomer Lord Cutler Beckett is attempting to do away with all pirates. If you thought the second movie was confusing and went nowhere, then you will be right at home here. Where the second movie contrasted the unevenly paced and somewhat dull movements of the first movie by going over the top(and campy) with the plot, action and characterizations, the third movie tries to outdo the second movie through sheer bulk.

Up to this point the saving grace of the series is Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). This movie ultimately dumps him into a secondary backup role in favor of promoting Barbossa, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann (who continue their pouting, emotionless whining as primary backups to Rush's pirate babbling). Davy Jones, who once was good character, has now been reduced to a lackey. Chow Yun Fat seems to be doing his best impersonation of Vincent Price or Chistopher Lee, by starring in useless cameo roles. Maybe for his next English language movie, he can add to his contract that his character must at least live into the second half of the movie. The character of Calypso is a complete waste of time as that story arc sinks to the bottom of the ocean (literally). There is a nice cameo of Keith Richards playing Sparrow's pirate father, that comes across more like the king of the gypsies than a pirate captain and ultimately is useless and fluff. The characters of Pintel, Ragetti, Mr. Gibbs, Cotton and Marty round out the supporting pirate cast and provide a nice array of comic moments. That's they're role after all and they do it pretty well.

The continuation and proliferation of a plot based on backstabbing the back stab, with a back stab and double-dealing double deals, just had me not caring. It had gotten a bit ridiculous before and it is even worse now. In this movie, I just didn't know why people were doing things except that it was in the script. This is a major problem with story telling these days. Instead of writing a compelling story that you can experience over and over, writers instead option out for ridiculously convoluted stories with improbably plot points that stretch out over long periods of time without saying anything (or when it does say something it is horribly simplistic or enigmatic to the point of confusion).

You are probably asking what is left. There is some action, though not a much as you would think and spread unevenly. The start of the movie has very little action, but it eventually gets to it. It is much more satisfying than Spider-Man 3 (which isn't saying much), but at times it doesn't know when to stop. The final action sequence (what Fleet Week should be every year) is a perfect example of too much, including the most ridiculously cheesy pirate wedding in the middle of a battle while falling into a vortex in the middle of the ocean. I kid you not.

Ultimately, this movie seemed to be lacking enough of Jack Sparrow. When he is on screen he is no longer the cunning rascal and is quite predictable. It was interesting to see Johnny do his best Being John Malkovich impersonation, however, his character was amusing at best. Whether Johnny, the script,the director or sheer over-use of the character is to blame, what is true is that Jack Sparrow needs to sail into the sunset on his dingy.

This slack is picked up by the man who single-handedly made Peter Sellers an uninteresting bore. He is the constant of the movie. Now who wants to see the dead-pan and unfunny pirate rantings of Geoffrey Rush over the course of two hours and forty minutes? I sure don't. By the end, I was wishing Barbossa would have had his head hacked off or at the very least got shot in mouth.

You maybe thinking this is a little graphic, but it is in the spirit of the movie. This is probably one of the most graphically violent movies I have seen from Disney (so far?), and without a doubt the most violent in the series. The opening scene is a grime gallows, where men, women and children are being hung. This segues into a musical number reminiscent of Pink Floyd's the Wall and I was on the floor laughing. Unfortunately, I was the only one in the theater to do so.

There is a political message there, but it is superficial and confused at best (dark times/dark empire/current events). Much as Leonidas' freedom speech had me laughing during 300, so did Elizabeth Swann's pirate freedom . It would be the equivalent of writing a speech about human rights and making Joseph Stalin deliver it. The intentionally funny moments are mostly tepid and everyone involved seems somewhat over the subject. The apathy is not as bad as the cast of Spider-Man 3, but it is still present.

The movie predictably wraps up the story and is the best thing that could have happened to the series (namely finish). The editing is atrocious and seems to have been done by recovering alcoholics, locked in a liquor store over a 4 day weekend. The similarities to Return of the Jedi are uncanny. Here's wishing we don't get any prequels.