Polter-Cow (spectralbovine) wrote,

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It's a Classic for a Reason

Finally, some classics! Plus some terrible movies, for flavor.

Paranormal Activity 4: As long as they keep making Paranormal Activity movies, I suppose I'll keep watching them (a fifth is due this October), but this fourth installment—a sequel to Paranormal Activity 2—is easily the worst of a franchise. I guess Katie Featherston has realized she doesn't really have a career outside these movies, so she's back as a mysterious neighbor to our latest family who's destined to be killed off horribly by a demonic presence. There are creepy children talking to imaginary friends, there are chandeliers falling, there are people being dragged around, all the usual things. This time, the recording is mostly done on webcams that have incredible resolution, apparently, and this results in absurd scenes where characters carry laptops around even when in mortal danger. All these movies follow the same general trajectory of being kind of boring most of the time except for some scattered creepiness and then jamming in all the exciting, intense, scary stuff into the last twenty minutes or so. But the other three generally have a little more plot to them and help develop the overall mythology of the series, whereas this one basically kind of lets us know what became of a couple characters and...doesn't really offer up anything else new. At least our hapless teenage heroes are pretty likeable. B-

The Preacher's Daughter: I've been hearing about this movie for a long time...because it's my friend filmtx's first full-length film! It broke all sorts of ratings records on the Lifetime Movie Network and it's been winning awards at film festivals. It's got a hell of a misleading-ass DVD cover, though, with an incendiary tagline that has nothing at all to do with the movie. Looking at the cover, you would think it's about a preacher's daughter who turns evil and goes on a killing spree. It is not! It is about a preacher's daughter who gets all rebellious and sinful because that is what preacher's daughters do, I hear. The story itself is not particularly groundbreaking, but I still found it compelling because of the non-linear narrative—we cut between present-day Hannah, who's come home after four years of being on the wrong side of the tracks, and teenage Hannah, who's about to find herself on the wrong side of the tracks—and the strong cast. Andrea Bowen is especially good; for most of the movie, I thought the two Hannahs were played by two different actresses. I also liked Hannah's relationship with her best friend, Rachel. This is not the sort of movie I would watch on my own, but it was a nice character study. B/B+

Six Degrees of Separation: I was recommended this movie as an example of a fantastic Stockard Channing performance so I could better appreciate her on The West Wing. She plays one-half of a rich New York couple—her husband is President Snow himself, Donald Sutherland, who was a private art dealer before he began killing children—who have Ian McKellen over for dinner to ask him for two million dollars because that is the kind of rich the characters in this movie are. Except here comes Will Smith, Serious Actor, playing a con man who...well, it's not clear what his game is at first, as the movie begins with the couple confirming that nothing was stolen, despite all the valuable art lying around for the taking. Channing and Sutherland soon discover that Smith has targeted other rich people as well. What's going on? The curious mystery of Smith's character and his motivations kept me mostly engaged, and I enjoyed the non-linear storytelling—employed with actual storytelling, as Channing and Sutherland continually recount each new chapter to another group of rich people—but I couldn't really connect with any of the characters because they were so awful and annoying and disgustingly rich. Stockard Channing is the only one with a heart, and the connection she forges with Will Smith is the best part of the movie. She has a wonderful monologue at the end that clearly got her the Oscar nomination. Also, J.J. Abrams is in this movie somehow. B/B+

The American President: It's Aaron Sorkin's proto-West Wing, featuring Michael Douglas as Bartlet, Martin Sheen as Leo (SO CONFUSING OMG), David Paymer as Josh, Michael J. Fox as Sam, Anna Deavere Smith as CJ, Samantha Mathis as Charlie, Anne Haney as Mrs. Landingham, and Annette Bening as...Mandy? Abbey? For the first fifteen minutes or so, I wasn't even able to enjoy the movie on its own terms because of the huge cognitive dissonance—why is Martin Sheen not the President—but once the movie became a romantic comedy, it was different enough from the show to appreciate. Sure, there's political maneuvering that felt familiar, but I was completely taken with the adorable tale of the Leader of the Free World dating an environmental lobbyist. As he would later do on the show, Sorkin explores the intersection of the personal and political: in politics, personal is political. The President doesn't want to discuss his relationship, but the public—and his opponent—sure does. And it's not just his relationship on the line but a couple of important bills he needs to get passed to ensure his reelection. So many stakes! It's a charming story that does follow the traditional trajectory but does have at least one trademark Sorkin stand-up-and-cheer monologue. B+

Black Dynamite: Oh my fucking God, you guys. Black Dynamite is a parody of and homage to '70s blaxploitation films, and it begins with a commercial for malt liquor. After his brother is killed in a drug-related incident, Black Dynamite—which appears to be his actual name, as we see him declare helpfully in a flashback, "I am 18-year-old Black Dynamite!"—goes on the warpath to clean up the streets and have his revenge on those selling drugs in their community. For the most part, the movie plays it as straight as it can manage, allowing the actors' dedication to awkward exposition and absurd plotting sell the humor (some of the supporting actors give embarrassingly abysmal performances, for flavor). Michael Jai White doesn't bat an eye when he exclaims, "Now, Aunt Billy, how many times have I told you not to call here and interrupt my kung fu!" Plus, like Garth Marenghi's Darkplace—it was a comparison to this show by someone on the Nerdist that inspired me to check the movie out—they deliberately make mistakes, since blaxploitation flicks were made on the cheap and couldn't afford to edit out that boom mic in post or reshoot that fight scene. What's surprising is that the movie is very entertaining in its own right, just based on the story it's telling; the comedy is simply the glorious icing. Like a strange combination of chili and donuts, it just works. And then in the third act it becomes balls-out amazing for reasons I would not dream of spoiling, although I will say it's kicked off by the most amazing scene of deductive reasoning I have ever seen in anything ever take that Sherlock Holmes. If you're looking to die laughing, you need to see this movie. Can you dig it? A-

Starship Troopers: I saw this movie years ago, but I wanted to rewatch after reading the book. The book had very little sense of narrative, so the movie is a pretty loose adaptation (Paul Verhoeven didn't even make it past the first few chapters). Rather than simply focus on boring Johnny Rico, the movie actually makes his friends main characters, and we follow their careers in the military as their lives intersect. It makes for a more interesting story, even if it is a fairly generic story of kids going to war and discovering war is hell. Or, well, they don't really; they kind of love their jobs, just like they do in the book. They want to kill those Bugs! And the Bugs are pretty awesome, giant deadly insects that rip soldiers apart with extreme prejudice. The battle scenes are very exciting, but...there's no powered armor! One of the big things about the book was the powered armor! But by giving the soldiers conventional armor and weaponry, Verhoeven better gets across his satire of Heinlein's pro-military stance, which he mostly accomplishes through Nazi-esque war propaganda that plays up the absurdity of the society and worldview espoused by the book. It's not really all that funny, though, so I can see how people just took it as a rip-roaring action-adventure in spaaaaaaaace. B/B+

Lincoln: Abraham Lincoln is Abraham Lincoln in—wait, no, that's Daniel Day-Lewis, they say. As expected, he completely inhabits the character and delivers a subtle, layered performance. The movie focuses on Lincoln's efforts to pass the 13th Amendment and abolish slavery, so it is basically The West Wing: 1865 except with less pedeconferencing, circular dialogue, and witty comebacks. Instead, we get the occasional bits of Kushnerian poetry. Sadly, I could not get into this movie at all. It failed to hold my attention; many scenes did not follow from previous ones and some seemed to have no place. The narrative seemed very disjointed. I most appreciated seeing Lincoln as a father because that was a part of his life I didn't know much about. The scenes in the House of Representatives were the most compelling. Like many people, I agree that the last ten minutes should have been cut. The film is filled with great actors giving strong performances, but since I was rarely drawn into the story, it was all for naught. B

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: How do you take a prequel shorter than any of the individual books in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and somehow turn it into a trilogy? Take inspiration from offhand comments and the appendices and make the movie only nominally about the titular hobbit and more about the dwarves' quest to retake their homeland. Although it makes the purists grumble, I think it actually works. Thorin Oakenshield effectively becomes a deuteragonist, and since Smaug is busy sleeping this whole time, the Pale Orc fills in as a villain. The film does struggle to balance the serious LOTR-type story with the Hobbit-style adventure antics (it is rather unfortunate that a children's book was turned into a PG-13 violent fantasy epic), but it has several shining moments (most notably Bilbo's encounter with Gollum, of course). I do wish more time was actually spent on, you know, BILBO; his transformation from reluctant hero to actual hero, which should be the movie's focus, isn't, really. Also, there is way too much CGI, and it's not even very good most of the time. The movie was better than I expected, given people's complaints about how Peter Jackson had apparently forgotten how to make a movie, but it doesn't really come close to matching the Lord of the Rings movies in any way. B/B+

Silver Linings Playbook: Bradley Cooper gets out of a mental institution after an explosive episode and comes home to live with his mother (Jacki Weaver) and father (Robert De Niro), who has also had an explosive episode. Less explosive but no less fucked up is Jennifer Lawrence: it's telling that when the two of them first meet, they bond over antidepressants. Bradley Cooper is under the delusion that he can reconcile with his wife, who has a restraining order against him, but Jennifer Lawrence is under no such delusions that she can reconcile with her husband, who is dead. I still don't quite get why Jacki Weaver keeps being nominated for Oscars, but she does help the movie get a full set of acting nominations. De Niro, Cooper, and Lawrence all give strong performances, the three of them broken people trying to put themselves together with the help of each other. Although the Golden Globes categorized it as a comedy, they are clearly mistaken: it's a drama that is sometimes funny. I found the unconventional romance surprisingly sweet, and it intersects with the family plot perfectly. The movie gives you complex, interesting characters who are not necessarily likeable but absolutely compelling to watch. Also there is dancing and Jennifer Lawrence in skin-tight oufits. B+/A-

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters: This movie is about Hansel and Gretel, who are witch hunters! It's fucking ridiculous, and it knows it. The reviews were abysmal, but what were they expecting? Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton are clearly having the time of their lives, and Famke Janssen chews as much scenery as she can to pay her mortgage (seriously, she took the job to pay her mortgage). The movie is gleefully anachronistic and makes no attempt at being in any way historically accurate, throwing in rapid-fire crossbows and giant Gatling guns because WHY NOT. It's full of cartoonish gore and frenetic fight scenes with cool steampunk gadgets. The movie clocks in at under ninety minutes, so there's no time to fuck around, and let's throw in a little plot here and get through it with some exposition. Boom, kill a witch, boom, kill another witch, DEAD WITCHES EVERYWHERE. Hansel doesn't give a shit about anything, Gretel's a fucking badass, and this movie's a lot of fun. B+

The Room: After years of hearing about this travesty of filmmaking (and seeing Tommy Wiseau at Comic-Con), I finally watched it on YouTube along with some folks on Spoils and had my life changed forever because what was that. I had absolutely no idea what it was about, but it appeared to be porn. No, seriously, there is a terrible sex scene with awful music every ten minutes or so. Also dudes occasionally throwing a football around. And by throwing a football around I mean they're a couple feet away from each other. The basic plot, such as it is, appears to revolve around the relationship of Johnny and Lisa, who is his future wife, except she is having an affair with Mark, who is his best friend. What will happen? Will we care? The writing is atrocious, and the acting is not much better; I boggled at scenes that were literally nothing more than exposition and characters expressing their feelings. Some scenes had nothing to do with anything. Some characters were inconsistently written or had no purpose. Also, it's horrendously sexist. The whole thing is an affront to cinema...which, of course, makes it ridiculously entertaining. F-/F

Bullitt: Steve McQueen must protect a witness over the weekend. Sounds simple enough, but, of course, the mob is trying to kill him. This movie is most famous for a ten-minute chase scene in the middle of the movie that goes on for too long but is pretty impressive for a while since it's clearly actual cars on actual roads, burning real rubber and squealing real tires. With the exception of that scene, however, this movie is boring. There are some scenes that feel like dead space because they do absolutely nothing to move anything along, and, even though the plot does have some twists, everything is presented so dully that it hardly makes an impact. Also, I couldn't tell all the white guys apart. Jacqueline Bisset is only there to look pretty and make McQueen think about morality or something, I don't even know. B-/B

Birdemic: Shock and Terror: As Cordelia would say, "Oh, here's a lower place!" Suddenly, I appreciate the filmmaking genius of Tommy Wiseau, for, lo, I had not seen the truly incompetent filmmaking of James Nguyen. Anchored by a horrible actor who can't even walk properly, let alone deliver lines with any personality, this movie spends half its running time on exciting tech startup hijinks and a whirlwind romance before abruptly turning into a terrible horror movie with atrocious CGI birds—who somehow have the ability to hover in mid-air, not to mention explode buildings—and a heavy-handed environmental message. Yes, this movie is actually a mash-up of The Birds and An Inconvenient Truth. That is not a joke; those were Nguyen's inspirations. Eagles and vultures attack, and there is shock and terror. But not really. IF ONLY THE MAIN CHARACTERS WOULD STOP GOING OUTSIDE FOR FUCK'S SAKE. The sound mixing is crap, the editing is mindboggling—every shot lasts at least three to five seconds longer than it needs to, and we frequently watch people walk or drive from point A to point B—the cinematography is horrendous, the lighting is amateurish, and there's a five-minute dance sequence in the middle of the movie for no apparent reason. Truly, I have plumbed a new depth of awfulness. F---

Scarface: Hey, it's Grand Theft Auto: Vice City: The Movie! Starring Al Pacino as a heavily accented Cuban, Michelle Pfeiffer as the whitest white person in the movie, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as the least convincing Cuban ever. Once you get over the fact that almost none of the Cuban characters are played by actual Cubans—for the most part, everyone is passable because they're also great actors, but Mastrantonio is incredibly distracting—this movie is actually pretty great, and it's clear why it's an iconic classic of the genre. Everyone knows that Tony Montana wants you to say hello to his little friend, but how did he get to that point? He comes from humble beginnings, a Cuban refugee in Miami with a lot of ambition. Initially, his ambition is kind of admirable, but the more he achieves, well, power corrupts and whatnot. Although a lot of his growth is handled in musical montages, he does have a very well defined character arc, and Al Pacino completely owns the character and the movie. Even though the movie is nearly three hours long, Oliver Stone and Brian De Palma keep the narrative moving along fairly swiftly, so that by the end, even though we may not completely understand why Tony Montana is the way he is, we've taken a hell of a journey with him. B+/A-

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Paul Newman is the smartass, charming Butch and Robert Redford is the sullen, laconic Sundance in this classic Western penned by William Goldman, who provides the pair with delightfully witty, sly banter. The criminal duo are great fun together, and it's enjoyable to watch them commit crimes. The movie itself, however, meanders without a great sense of purpose most of the time. What are Butch and Sundance trying to accomplish? At first, they talk about wanting to escape to Bolivia, but then they spend a lot of time being chased, and there is some tension, but not a lot. The movie picks up a little in the last third, though. There are a lot of funny moments, and it's got an iconic ending, but I think half an hour is musical montages. B/B+

Dog Day Afternoon: How about Al Pacino with a Brooklyn accent instead? Man, this guy sure can act his way out of a paper bag. Al Pacino robs a bank on a summer afternoon, and it...does not go smoothly, because this is a movie. It is also based on a true story, so sometimes events this dramatic do occur in real life. But the thing about this movie is that the dramatic bank robbery is not some sort of tense standoff with lots of shootouts. Sonny is a Vietnam war vet, and his motivation—which isn't revealed for quite a while—is unique in the history of bank robbery movies. He's just a regular guy, and although he's a little more savvy than the average Joe, he's not some hardened criminal. He's just trying to make it out of this day alive. Pretty soon, the robbery attracts an entire media circus, and he becomes an unlikely hero to the people. I have a much larger appreciation for the movie after finding out that much of it was improvised, which makes a lot of sense given how natural it all feels, you hardly feel like anyone is acting (which is even more of impressive given how many familiar faces are in the cast, most of which I didn't even recognize). It manages to feel appropriately long without feeling slow and boring, effectively keeping you interested in the characters' fates while also escalating the police involvement and thus the danger. It's sleek, confident filmmaking. B+/A-

Sweet Smell of Success: Vince Gilligan named this movie as one of his favorites, and he took a line from the movie to name a couple episodes, so like the Breaking Bad lover that I am, I immediately put it in my Netflix queue. Burt Lancaster is J.J. Hunsecker, influential New York columnist, and Tony Curtis is Sidney Falco, sleazy New York press agent, and holy shit, these people are awful. You can see a little bit of Gus Fring and Walter White in their relationship, Falco blinded by his own ambition, not even deigning to take a coat so as to avoid tipping the little people, and Hunsecker ordering him around with the knowledge that he could easily destroy him at any minute. These two are master manipulators, and together they plot to break up Hunsecker's sister's romance with a jazz guitarist. That's it, that's all they want to do. What's amazing about this movie is that's it: it's lean and tight and even though it seems to be focused on something so mundane—there's no vast conspiracy, there's nothing criminal—it's sinister as fuck. Falco has the "scruples of a guinea pig and the morals of a gangster," and very little is beneath him. Yet, he's so charismatic that as much as he makes you squirm, you do kind of root for him a little, at the very least over Hunsecker, who is clearly even more of a slime. Or is he? It seems strange to describe a movie from the fifties as refreshingly immoral, but that's how I feel about it. A-

Three Days of the Condor: After an attack on his office, CIA researcher Joe Turner—codename Condor—finds himself on the run as various people keep trying to kill him for whatever reason. He just reads books! And he must have read a book that says that if you are in danger, you must kidnap a beautiful woman and have romantic, slightly rape-y tension with her so that she will help you. (The theatrical trailer is pretty hilarious on this point, as it ends by declaring that "Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway are in danger...and in love!") I do love a good conspiracy thriller, and this one is a classic. It's swift and incredibly tense, with scenes of shocking violence, and it's also so old-school! Sure, there are rinky-dinky computers doing complicated searches, but the coolest thing in the entire movie is watching Condor do some phone-hacking. Like with switchboards and shit. All the on-location shooting makes it feel down-and-dirty, and I can see how conspiracy thrillers decades later still take cues from it. The story itself is one we keep seeing, but the execution is excellent. The final scene with Max von Sydow kind of blew my mind. B+/A-

Next up: more classics, plus some new stuff I missed in the theaters! Which will be better? (I think it'll be the classics. Probably.)
Tags: making the grade, movies, real life friends
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