Friday, September 25, 2009

Army of Darkness (1992)

Movie quotes:
[Upon getting the powered glove in place of his right hand]
Ash (Bruce Campbell): Groovy.

Possessed Woman: I'll swallow your soul!
Ash: Come get some.

Ash: Lady, I'm afraid I'm gonna have to ask you to leave the store.
Possessed woman: Who the hell are you?
Ash: Name's Ash. [cocks rifle] Housewares.

At a glance:
This loose sequel to the Evil Dead films lets Bruce Campbell flex his slapstick comedy and action hero talents while we watch with guilty pleasure in Sam Raimi’s fun-filled sword and sorcery / horror romp

Our review (with spoilers):
Army of Darkness is a loose sequel to Evil Dead 1 and 2. Once again, Bruce Campbell stars as Ash, but unlike the other two films (which were straight horror), Darkness add time travel, sword and sorcery, and slapstick comedy to the formula. Here’s the story: the evil force that tormented Ash in films 1 and 2 propels him, his car, and the chainsaw (that fits over the stub of his arm) through time and into the middle ages. There he is viewed as the chosen one sent to defeat the evil forces that torment the people of that time. For his part, Ash only has an interest in returning home, but since the goals of defeating evil and returning home both require that he obtain the nefarious Necronomicon (book of evil), Ash agrees to the plan. When he messes up and incorrectly recites an incantation (in a hilarious scene), Ash unwittingly unleashes a skeletal army, commanded by a gruesome walking corpse (a former Ash clone – and also played by Campbell). His medieval girlfriend (Embeth Davidtz) is captured, prompting Ash to lead the forces of good into battle.

Campbell’s dream role has him on screen about 97% of the time. He has the chiseled good looks of a matinee idol or a superhero, and no one delivers a ‘groovier’ hero catchphrase line than him. But he’s not just a pretty face; he’s a face so pretty that Maryann Johanson (the Flick Filosopher) ached to push Campbell’s wife out of the picture and marry the big lug. He exudes charm and camp (and he has gone on to assume the unofficial crown as the King of Camp – making his "Hail to the King, baby" closing line strikingly prophetic), but he also can act. Even in this script that wavers between a sincere sword and sorcery epic and a Three Stooges movie, Campbell still manages to make subtle physical changes to his gaze – that faraway regal bearing when he commands his army against the evil - that made me believe that Ash had assumed the responsibilities of leadership. The weakest bits are probably the overlong slapstick scenes pitting Ash against graveyards of skeletons or miniature copies of himself, and the somewhat anticlimactic final battle. Some viewers will say that the skeletal army was done before and/or better in Jason and the Argonauts; others will consider it homage. The high points are the pure camp, and director Sam Raimi’s use of zoom and blackout (with no dialogue) in a scene where Ash is building his robotic hand. The film is a highly entertaining, guilty pleasure; aspiring Campbell ‘brides’ should add at least another half ratings point.

I’ve watched Army of Darkness at least four times now, starting in about 1995, when good friend Carlos was leading me through the Evil Dead films. Carlos considered Darkness the weakest of the ‘trilogy’, but I was thrilled to be treated to something funnier, nobler, more inventive, and with less horror (a genre that is not my favorite).

Rating:  3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Camp isn't just an undercurrent here--it's the grindhouse force that drives the movie, with Bruce Campbell clearly happy behind the wheel."
- Christopher Smith (Bangor Daily News [Maine]

"Raimi and Campbell (who also produced the films) are among my indies heroes, mortgaging houses and maxing out credit cards to finance their wonderfully silly flicks."
- Maryann Johanson (Flick Filosopher)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Antichrist (2009)

Movie quotes:
"Little tears are hiding among the ferns as usual."
- She (Charlotte Gainsbourg)

"A crying woman is a scheming woman."
- She

"Chaos reigns."
- The Talking Fox

At a glance:
Controversial director Lars von Trier worked through his own personal depression by creating this massive misstep: a slow-moving, distastefully misogynistic horror/torture film

Our review (with spoilers):
Thirteen years ago, I subjected myself to Breaking the Waves, the first English language film by Lars von Trier. Yes, I know that many ‘art’ film critics with film study credentials greater than mine (that’s easy; I have none) thought this film was fantastic. I was appalled at the stupidity of the characters. If they were not real people, just symbols of world conditions, then let’s have a documentary, I say. The little Cat-in-the-Hat smile of Emily Watson haunted me for years; I refused to watch anything with Watson or by von Trier. Yet, I grudgingly admit that von Triers is an artist who painstakingly sculpts film (whether I like them or not). Antichrist was my chance to give von Trier – and myself - a second chance. Keep in mind, however, that I view films primarily as entertainment. I have little time for directors who have more interest in furthering a personal, semi-subliminal agenda, and who have little interest in creating a work that is both entertainment and art.

In Antichrist, Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg – known only as He and She – are engaged in passionate sex when their un-minded toddler son climbs a chair, opens an unlocked window, and plunges to his death from their upper story apartment. Von Trier’s guilt-laden graphic imagery (a brightly lit close-up of a fully erect penis plunging into a vagina) leaves no doubt in my mind that he wants to blame sex itself for the death of this toddler. As events transpire, She also seems to blame sex – or herself – for the death. How much does von Trier hate women? He abused Watson in Breaking the Waves. He abuses Gainsbourg’s character here. I do give him credit for creating good roles for actresses, and for masking his hatred behind the façade of artful film-making. I was secretly pleased, after forming this opinion, to find out that the ecumenical jury at Cannes gave Antichrist a special ‘anti-award’, stating that the film is "the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world".

And why is all this guilt being heaped on She (and He)? I’m for a more rational approach to the initial situation. If you live on the third floor of a building where the windows are not permanently closed, and you have a toddler, you need to take precautions first, as there is no way anyone could possibly watch the child 24/7 even if they weren’t having wild shower/laundry room sex. So there’s plenty of ways to spread that blame around.

Despite his usual misgivings about it, He (a psychiatrist by trade) decides to treat She’s depression himself. He identifies that the source of her fear is a forest cabin called Eden that they have visited before. They hike there together – in slow motion - stopping every once in a while to stare at a series of dead baby animals that keep appearing before them. This subtle imagery is too oblique for me; I have no idea what these dead baby animals were supposed to represent – but they certainly seem to be upsetting to He and She. Maybe the talking fox knows the answer. The forest scenes are visually beautiful. Too bad that beautiful forest will soon be buried under two feet of acorns (at the ridiculous rate they are falling on the cabin roof).

She works through the pain of losing her son; soon after, she has a long night’s sleep and wakes up with a smile on her face, claiming that she is cured. He isn’t so sure, and he’s right. He’s also going a bit mad. He meets the previously mentioned talking fox (never a good sign unless you are in a children’s story). He sleeps with his arm out the window, hanging over the sill, no less (in an attempt to get RSI?) and wakes up with his hand covered in engorged ticks. These he rips off (I thought this left all the heads in and he will get infected, but of course he doesn’t). He discovers that her thesis on witches and persecution of women has somehow led her to the conclusion that women are evil. When He finds a series of pictures of their son, always dressed (by She) with shoes on the wrong feet, he begins to suspect that She is a demented torturer. Too late! Soon he is knocked out and is having grotesque, turn-your-face-away acts inflicted on parts of his body. When she’s done with him, she mutilates herself in a scene that is almost impossible to watch.

Antichrist is a horror film – admittedly, a genre that I do not usually like – embellished with shallow trappings of great portent by a self-indulgent director. Von Trier has made wonderful films; hopefully, this one is an anomaly.

Rating:  1 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Dogville, Von Trier's cinematic masterpiece from 2003, was a film that said so much about so many things. It explored America, evil, men and women, humanity, power and more, while being ambiguous enough to treat its audience with respect and let them draw their own conclusions. Antichrist just seems horribly shallow in comparison. Von Trier has confessed that in working on the film through a bout of almost debilitating depression, Antichrist was made using "about half" of his "physical and intellectual capacity". The truth is that it shows."
- Mayer Nissim (Digital Spy)

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Transporter (2002)

Movie quotes:
Look, I’m gonna give you some advice. I don’t know what you’re into; I don’t care what you’re into. But whoever wants you dead thinks you’re dead. You have a free pass to start over. Here’s the advice: START OVER!"
- Frank Martin (Jason Statham)

At a glance:
Jason Statham’s makes Frank Martin a worthy action hero with top-notch car chases and Jackie-Chan style fight choreography, but the dramatic/love scenes are clunky

Our review (with spoilers):
Frank Martin is a transporter – the transporter, as a matter of fact. His job is to deliver anything you want by car. Should troubles arise, he’s built to handle it. He’s a former Special Forces operator who left the Armed Forces due to disgruntlement with all his good work going to waste. So he decides to just become a mercenary with a very short list of unbreakable rules (like #3: Never Look In The Bag). Of course, he breaks his own rules and looks inside one of the bags he is delivering. Circumstances build until he is fully involved – romantically and otherwise – with Lai (Shu Qi), as Asian woman small enough to be stuffed into a bag, and yet tough enough to hold a gun to her own father’s head. Lai wants to break up a people smuggling racket. About 30 guys with guns, knives, axes, and martial arts training stand in the way, led by Wall Street (Matt Schulze), a man so lanky and so evil that he even sneers in his official police file photo. Statham also has to fend off Inspector Tarconi (François Berléand), a laconic, persistent local detective.

Your general vibe about Transporter will depend on whether you view Jason Statham as just another small-brained, superficial movie muscleman, or a quiet, intriguing hooligan. I happen to be in the latter camp, so Statham movies amuse me and Statham holds my interest.

Strengths are the opening and closing car/truck chases, and a series of brilliant Jackie-Chan-like martial arts fights pitting Statham against roomfuls of heavily armed thugs and martial arts experts. When things get tough, Statham even greases himself up and fights from the floor, wriggling around like a farm animal. The action looks even better when compared with the attempts at love and drama. Shu Qi is adequate as the comic relief femme fatale, although I must admit I liked her better years ago during her full frontal nudity days (under the monikor Hsu Chi). The plot is facetious, yet still seemed to be taking itself seriously (this is never a good thing). Some of the Statham/Qi dialogue is clunky; this often happens when the directors (in this case, successful Hong Kong filmmaker Corey Yuen and French filmmaker Louis Leterrier) speak English as a second language.

Rating:  2.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"The acting might be shoddy, the plot nonsense and the dialogue clunky, but the fighting is exquisitely done. Inventive, athletic, fun, stylish and tight, it's everything the rest of the film isn't."
- Time Out

"Statham impresses in a movie that is simultaneously the best (the fight scenes) and worst (everything else) action movie of the year. Destined for drunken Friday night rental heaven."
- Empire Magazine

State of Play (2009)

Movie quotes:
"You have your show horses and you have your work horses; I’m sure we can all find a way to get along."
- Rep. George Fergus (Jeff Daniels) to Rep. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck)

At a glance:
Headed by an understated, effective performance by Russell Crowe, State of Play’s robust, top-shelf cast creates an intriguing political thriller that ultimately fails under the weight of one twist too many

Our review (with spoilers):
Washington-based investigative reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) looks disorganized, and is often late for a deadline, but he’s almost detective-like in his approach to a story. He’s connected with the police and the coroner’s office. His clothes, demeanor, and car are similar to another investigator named Columbo. His college friend Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), who is now a Congressman, is in big trouble. The pretty young staff member that he fell in love with (and neglected his wife for) is dead. Collins heads a congressional committee investigating Pointcore, a multi-billion dollar defense contractor that stands to lose a lot if their business interests are curtailed. Collins asks McCaffrey for help; McCaffrey agrees, although he sees Collins as both a friend and a ‘story’. Competing against McCaffrey is the up and coming blogger, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams). Frye and McCaffrey learn to work together and to pull back the cover on a story that keeps growing and getting more convoluted and interconnected.

State of Play steams along beautifully for two-thirds of its running time, building intersecting emotional relationships and a web of political intrigue. Then, suddenly, the human element is dropped, and the final 30 minutes feature Crowe dashing around, servicing the plot and its multitude of needless twists. Eventually, every single major character either reveals a dark side or has a saint-like epiphany, as can only happen in a Hollywood film. Character development is dropped and a tied-up Hollywood ending is contrived. This film did not build to its conclusion; it built its conclusion.

Before these unfortunate missteps, however, State of Play features a fantastic cast at the top of their game. Crowe is unafraid to share screen time and lines, and to speak softly and carry a big pen. Rachel McAdams is sufficiently beautiful and intriguing until her character is given short shrift toward the end. Helen Mirren turns up her obnoxious factor to play the hard-nosed newspaper editor; Jason Bateman (always a pleasure to see) is a delightfully sleazy PR guy.

Rating:  2.75 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"The film held me a fair way in, because it's well paced and the actors are competent. But finally, the plot took one or two big twists too far."
- Julie Rigg (MovieTime, ABC Radio National)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Killing Room (2009)

Movie quotes:
"People will do anything to survive, don’t you think?"
- Dr. Phillips (Peter Stormare)

At a glance:
A thoroughly harrowing film, The Killing Room forces the viewer to observe innocent victims trapped in sadistic, government-sanctioned mind control experiments

Our review (with spoilers):
In the 1950s and 60s, the CIA conducted mind-control experiments that involved subjecting private citizens to deprivation, torture, and worse. These programs were officially ended in the 1970s. The Killing Game puts forward the fictional but believable notion that these programs have begun again (or never stopped), this time in response to the events of 911. We watch four innocent people, trapped in a room and subjected to horrific acts of torture and violence. Watching along with us is Emily Reilly (Chloe Sevigny), a rising star at the NSA with a special talent for military psychology. Reilly is there as an observer to prove to sadistic team leader Dr Phillips (Peter Stormare) that she is talented enough – and has a strong enough stomach – to join the team.

Having just watched a similarly themed film, The Chaos Experiment, I can state that Chaos got it wrong and Killing Room got it right. Chaos makes a brief attempt to give us background info about the four steam room inhabitants, in the hopes, perhaps, that we will sympathize. Killing Room makes no such attempt, and merely subjects us to the terror that is imposed upon the prisoners, with Reilly’s emotional reactions mirroring and intensifying our own. This would have been an intense thriller on its own, but it is intensified by the fact that it could be real – there is a sick and twisted logic in the end result of these experiments.

Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Unremittingly gripping and unnerving, The Killing Room transforms a simple premise into an almost unbearably tense experience."
- Tim Grierson (Screen International)

Gigantic (2008)

Movie quotes:
Mr. Weathersby (Edward Asner): Ah, whatever that boy wants, he’ll figure it out at some point. Now, you’ve got 15 years on him, both of you. You – you forget what you were like when you were his age?
James (Robert Stanton): I was finishing my residency when I was his age.
John (Ian Roberts): Yeah, I was in Russia buying oil tankers

Al (John Goodman): Here, take this.
Brian (Paul Dano): What’s this?
Al: A switchblade. Don’t lose it, I got it in Corsica

"Effectively combines three of my great fears: the dark, heights, public nudity."
- Happy (Zooey Deschanel)

Brian: How’s your soup?
Happy: A little…ligamenty.

At a glance:
Gigantic has many original and witty moments, and its low-key quirkiness is fun to watch, but it struggles to create characters that we care about, and its slight transformation into a conventional love story is a distraction

Our review (with spoilers):
The late great film critic Gene Siskel had a propensity to not only critique a film, but to make suggestions on how to improve the script. I tend to avoid this type of exercise. I believe a film is like an artist’s painting. We can view it and comment on it, but there’s no point in suggesting that there should be another tree added to the lower right. Having said that, I wish Gene was here now to rewrite the slightly sentimental turn that Gigantic injects into its story.

Brian (Paul Dano) has an unusual life-long ambition: to adopt a Chinese baby. He’s 29 now, and still on a waiting list. But this is obviously a strong passion with him, set apart from the other elements of his life. He almost sleep-walks through his job (selling luxury Swedish beds on commission). Brian is genetically disposed to quirkiness. His father (Ed Asner) walks the border between wit and dementia, and his brother John (Ian Roberts) speaks his mind, even during the pointy end of a massage. As Brian moves closer to getting that baby, he meets and get into a relationship (a quirky one of course) with Happy (Zooey Deschanel). Happy is passionate, but specializes in backing out of jobs and relationships whenever they get too serious. Happy is also quirky, as predetermined by the genes of her father Al (John Goodman). Goodman is again cast in a variant of the role he most often plays; a tactless businessman with a colorful past, he has the body shape and social graces of Homer Simpson; although, granted, he’s got a lot more intelligence than the cartoon character.

To complicate matters more, Brian is occasionally attacked by a street person – the same street person – who for some unexplained reason is stalking him, challenging him.

Gigantic is very funny at times; there are oodles of great lines. It is at its best when it delivers a steady stream of original, unusual scenes and situations (all presented in a low-key, somnambulistic mood). But it’s hard to care about the characters. As appealing as Paul Dano is, I had trouble taking his character seriously: a man who, as a boy of nine, was pleading for a Chinese baby? That’s intriguing but also a little creepy if true. Similarly, the success or failure of his relationship with Happy held no emotional meaning for me. Hopefully, other viewers had better experiences, because parts of the movie were charming and some of the dialogue is very clever.

Rating:  2.75 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"An indie comedy that's been kooked to a crisp. Wearing its quirkiness on its sleeve, the whole thing's just too self-consciously strange to engage."
- David Edwards (Daily Mirror [UK])