About This Blog

A place to find my reviews not featured on epinions.com or horror-asylum.com, as well as opinions and lists on everything from movies to TV to music. It's all about me! Send hate mail to vegie18th@hotmail.com or just leave a comment beneath the posts. Review grading system assumes C+ is somewhere in the vicinity of a Passing grade or minor fail.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Review: Rush


Set during the 70s and concerning the rivalry between Formula One racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), one an undisciplined hedonistic Brit, the other a taciturn, aloof, but super-focussed and disciplined Austrian. Olivia Wilde plays Hunt’s model wife, whilst Alexandra Maria Lara plays Bruhl’s more down-to-earth spouse. Guess which pair experience major marital problems? Christian McKay turns up as an integral part of Hunt’s crew, somewhat of a pompous windbag.

 

I loathe car racing, and anyone who has read my reviews of his films knows I think of Chris Hemsworth as the ‘Human Blocked Nose’. He always acts like he’s all blocked up in the schnozz and about to sneeze at any given moment. I was set to not like this 2013 Ron Howard (“Parenthood”, “Ransom”, “Frost/Nixon”) racing film very much at all. And then something unexpected happened: I really enjoyed it. OK, so you probably figured that out before I finished typing that, but believe me, I was pleasantly surprised by this one. It’s certainly a more substantial car racing film than “Days of Thunder”, and not just because it’s based on a true story. It’s probably Howard’s best film since 1989’s “Parenthood”. Although I find it bizarre that Hemsworth does a good British accent in this film when he does an “SNL” sketch-level one in the “Thor” films, I have to say he’s good here. Well-cast as douchebag Brit driver James Hunt, who is more interested in partying and celebrity status than maintaining a place at the top in his chosen profession, he’s not very likeable. Daniel Bruhl’s Niki Lauda, however, doesn’t have a lot of likeable traits either, which you would think would make for dull viewing. I mean, Hunt is a jerk playboy, and Lauda is so humourless and aloof that he rubs his colleagues/opponents the wrong way. However, not only is Bruhl excellent as Lauda, but you never hate him. The difference between the two men is that Hunt is a jerk, but he’s a popular jerk, through his playboy charm. Lauda is unpopular amongst his peers and extremely aloof (he comes off like a prick to journos in the film), he’s an arrogant person yet a good person who is extremely dedicated to racing. Since the film is about racing, you find yourself liking or at least siding with Lauda much more than Hunt, who I was never quite sure if he was a good person or not. Given how dangerous the sport can be, I’d rather champion someone with a more serious mind-set than a drug and booze-hound party boy twat like Hunt. The contrasts and similarities between the men are interesting, as the film shows that being surly and by-the-book is just as likely to make you lonely in life as being an arrogant, philandering, reckless show pony will (Though it’s worth mentioning that even a non-racing fan like me has heard the name Niki Lauda, but I’d never heard of James Hunt before. I think there’s a reason for that, and the film pretty much points it out in a scene towards the end in an airplane hangar). I’m not sure how accurate any of this is to history, but I certainly found it all very convincing.

 

There’s a lot of really interesting stuff in this film, all the stuff about modifying the cars to make them faster, and the frankly insane notion of ‘acceptable risks’ these guys are willing to take, risking at least 20% chance of crashing and dying during a race. The film also looks excellent, with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (“Slumdog Millionaire”, “127 Hours”) forced to work with overcast conditions (sometimes even worse) for many of the racing scenes, yet still making everything look colourful, so it doesn’t look drab or unappealing. The racing footage looked very convincing to me, with some really interesting super close-ups inside and outside of the cars. There’s a helluva crash midway too. If there’s any flaw, I do wish that the lovely Alexandra Maria Lara (“Downfall”) were afforded more scenes as Lauda’s wife, but screenwriter Peter Morgan (“The Queen”, “Last King of Scotland”, “Frost/Nixon”, “Hereafter”) is far more interested in the two men here than in their women. Also, I found the overripe performance by Christian McKay as Hunt’s chief financial backer to be really irritating. He’s like a poor man’s Stephen Fry crossed with eccentric character actor Aubrey Morris (“A Clockwork Orange”, “The Wicker Man”). Full credit, though, to Olivia Wilde for doing an even more convincing Brit accent than Hemsworth for her role. How convincing is it? It took me five minutes to finally convince myself that it really was Wilde and not just some Brit lookalike. Wow.

 

It’s amazing to me that given the characters aren’t terribly ingratiating, given my bias against Chris Hemsworth and car racing, that I still ended up really interested in this film. I think it’s called good filmmaking. Best of all? There’s no childish hospital wheelchair racing to be seen.

 

Rating: B-

Friday, April 10, 2015

Review: Two Weeks in Another Town


Kirk Douglas plays a troubled actor who has fallen from grace. He receives a helping hand from veteran director Edward G. Robinson shooting in Rome. The two have worked together several times over the years- Douglas even won an Oscar on one such occasion. But their relationship has been strained for years. Nonetheless, Douglas flies to Rome for his first acting gig in about four years. Unfortunately, when he gets there, he finds out the acting gig never existed, Robinson just wanted to catch up with his old friend, and ask him to do oversee the English dubbing for the has-been director’s latest film. Douglas (who has just finished a three year stint in a sanatorium) is at first annoyed, but eventually agrees. Unfortunately, the leading lady (Rossana Schiaffino) has problems with English, leading man George Hamilton is completely lacking self-confidence, and Italian producer Mino Doro only cares about money, precious little of which he is willing to part with. But things really go awry with a heart attack, and the reappearance of Douglas’ femme fatale ex-wife Cyd Charisse who turns up to mess with Douglas’ head, which last time sent him to the funny farm. Daliah Lavi plays Hamilton’s girlfriend, who develops strong feelings for Douglas during shooting, and vice versa. Claire Trevor plays Robinson’s shrewish wife, whilst George Macready and James Gregory have minor roles.

 

The director, screenwriter, and star of “The Bad and the Beautiful” reunite for this 1962 unofficial companion piece that similarly deals with movie-making. However, this time the approach is more romantic melodrama and the results dreary, boring, and in some cases really, really stupid. Cyd Charisse in particular is spectacularly awful in an unsubtle performance of such silliness it’s as if she was told to base her performance entirely on Lana Turner’s silly driving freak-out in the earlier film. That was the one false moment in an otherwise really well-made film, this is a much lesser film, and Cyd Charisse sure as shit ain’t no Lana Turner. She’s not even Edy Williams (“Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”), and does all her acting with her eyebrows and her teeth. She’s like a fully-clothed porn star, only not nearly as attractive. They also try and outdo the camp of the driving scene from the earlier film, and indeed they certainly outdo it. In every wrong way possible.

 

I’m not sure what director Vincente Minnelli (“The Bad and the Beautiful”, “Lust for Life”) nor star Kirk Douglas saw in this one, the only thing I really dug about it aside from Douglas’ performance was the use of a clip from the earlier film in a different context here. Here, Douglas is meant to be the actor from that film, which he of course really was. It’s a real meta-movie moment. Meanwhile, as good as Douglas is here, the casting of Daliah Lavi (who is pretty tedious), George Hamilton, and Claire Trevor (whose shouty performance is almost as bad as Charisse’s) show this for the obvious stepdown in quality that it is from the earlier film. Even Edward G. Robinson has been far better elsewhere, he merely gets by because he’s Edward G. Robinson and always good in everything. Credit where it’s due, though, as much as George Hamilton is no actor, the future piece of luggage (one for the Jim Carrey fans) gives one of his best-ever performances. He tries real hard, and is pretty OK playing a method actor (probably based on Monty Clift or James Dean). Total waste of George Macready and James Gregory, I must say, but Laurence Olivier wouldn’t even be able to do much with this.

 

The earlier film seemed to have ambition, this one is content to be soapy melodrama on picaresque locales and with pretty international glamour pusses. It has scenes of camp all over the place, whereas the earlier film had only that one scene with Turner (who was otherwise excellent). Fans of MGM soap opera stuff who haven’t seen the earlier film might be more forgiving than me, but I found this boring and disappointing.

 

The scenery is nice, Douglas tries, I didn’t much care. Watch “The Bad and the Beautiful”, it’s terrific. This one’s closer to “Valley of the Dolls”, “The Legend of Lylah Claire” and “Inside Daisy Clover”. Scripted by Charles Schnee (“The Bad and the Beautiful”) from an Irwin Shaw (“The Young Lions”) novel. How’d this go so wrong? Minnelli blamed studio interference. Must’ve been a whole lotta interference, then.

 

Rating: C

Review: Miracle on 34th Street


Based on a novel by the amusingly named Valentine Davies (who wrote and directed “The Benny Goodman Story”), Maureen O’Hara plays a cynical realist who just so happens to work for Macy’s department store and is seen early in a panic because Santa (Percy Helton, of all people) is a drunken mess when he’s supposed to be taking part in the Christmas parade. A white-bearded elderly fellow (Edmund Gwenn) offers himself up as a last minute replacement. However, it seems that this loveable old fella is under the impression that he really is Santa Claus, or Kris Kringle as he calls himself here. Divorcee O’Hara, who has raised her young daughter (Natalie Wood, cute as a button) to see things as realistically as possible, scoffs at the very such notion, but helps get the man a job as their in-store Santa. He strikes up a quick friendship with the young girl and even her mother (worried as she is about his faculties), though the company psychiatrist (a perfectly hissable Porter Hall) resents the old man as someone trying to insult and make a fool of him. Even when Kris advises customers to seek better deals at other department stores, the company head (Harry Antrim) finds that it proves a winner for the store on a PR level, and pretty soon their rivals are implementing similar policies. Even when they find out that Kris was formerly at a mental hospital, the doctors and administrators there chalk him up to being a harmless eccentric and he continues his employ at Macy’s. But then a disagreement with Hall sees Kris act out violently and before long, Santa Claus is defending himself on trial! John Payne plays the friendly, pipe-smoking attorney and neighbour of O’Hara, who befriends young Wood and gives Kris a place to stay, possibly mostly motivated by romantic interest in the somewhat frigid O’Hara. Jack Albertson plays a postal employee, and Thelma Ritter plays a Macy’s customer in her screen debut.

 

Talk about Christmas magic, this 1947 Yuletide favourite from writer-director George Seaton (“For Heaven’s Sake”, “The Hook”, “Airport”) takes the concept of whether Santa Claus really does exist, and deftly- nearly impossibly!- navigates it to a conclusion that will neither ruin Christmas for the less cynical out there, nor will it insult the intelligence of the rest of us. Of course, the subject matter has been revisited numerous times, hell even TV shows and sitcoms borrow elements from it. But it has rarely if ever been equalled, and Seaton’s screenplay won an Oscar. It’s a truly lovely, charming little film and one of the best Christmas movies ever made.

 

The perfect Edmund Gwenn is the big standout here (if maybe a tad small to be Santa…but what does that even mean?), and it was nice for the veteran character actor to have won an Oscar for not only a damn terrific performance, but for basically playing Santa. He even looks an awful lot like the Rankin/Bass stop-motion Santa Claus if you ask me, and has a noticeable twinkle in his eye. But early on, there’s some really nice cynicism in the film, with Gwenn being asked by the department store to promote certain toys. It’s just about the only film you’ll ever see that both deals with the commercialisation of Christmas, but champions the magic of it. Meanwhile, I find Maureen O’Hara a bitter and taciturn presence on screen normally, but at least here she’s well-cast as a cynical working woman and mother trying not to fill her child’s head with fantasies. So far as child actresses go, Natalie Wood was definitely one of the best. She’s cute and far from the worst actress in the film. Look out for small but memorable appearances by two veteran character actors in their early years on screen. Thelma Ritter shows that she was never young and she has always been a scene-stealer. Jack Albertson would later appear in another kiddie favourite (“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”) and here the young-ish Albertson plays an important part in the film’s climax.

 

There’s also plenty of humour, including Kris Kringle having the reindeer as his next of kin. For me, the only dated element here is the alarming trust a mother puts in letting a virtual stranger hang out with her pre-pubescent daughter. But it’s a film from a much different, less cynical time I guess and one needs to remember that. Still, the pipe-smoking weirdo…er…neighbour is rather unenthusiastically played by John Payne, the lone dud in an otherwise solid cast.

 

I’m not sure ‘courtroom drama’ and ‘Christmas movie’ really go together, but the judge here sure is put in a bit of a pickle. I mean, can he really rule that there is a Santa Claus? Can he really rule otherwise? Ultimately, the film seems to tip the scales narrowly in favour of believing in Santa, but really the ending is just meant to be ‘cute’ I think, not necessarily taken literally. It’s a rare Christmas movie that doesn’t actually lie, yet let’s people believe if they want. I think it actually gets the point of Santa Claus, even if a Grinch like me struggles to really support the idea of Santa Claus. Hell, you could even apply the logic used here to understand God. And before you jump on me, I think that it’s intentionally part of the film- ‘Faith’ is a term far too often used in the film to just be a coincidence. What a cute, sweet film that hasn’t been too badly damaged by the passage of time. Not a great film, but a lovely and charming one. Gwenn is excellent. 

 

Rating: B-

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Review: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace


While a schoolkid asks Superman (Christopher Reeve) to intervene in the arms race between the USA and Russia, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) has escaped from prison and has devised a new scheme. With a lock of Superman’s hair he attaches it to a nuclear missile that Superman has sent (along with every other nuclear missile) towards the sun. The result creates Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow), a solar-powered super-being who is to be Superman’s evil match. Or at least a match for The Ultimate Warrior at the next Wrestlemania. Meanwhile, tycoon Sam Wanamaker has acquired The Daily Planet and intends to Rupert Murdoch the shit out of it. Mariel Hemingway plays his daughter, who has designs on mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent (Reeve again). Jon Cryer plays Lex Luthor’s dopey nephew Lenny. Esmond Knight turns up briefly as an Elder because Harry Andrews and Trevor Howard read the script. Susannah York also apparently read the script and only provides her voice as Superman’s mum.

 

After the debacle of “Superman III”, The Salkinds thankfully handed the Superman franchise over to another mob. Unfortunately, that mob were Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus of The Cannon Group, home to every Chuck Norris, Michael Dudikoff, and 80s-era Charles Bronson film you’ve ever seen. The result was this cheap-looking hack-job from 1987, directed by Sidney J. Furie (the highly underrated supernatural horror film “The Entity”, and the rather mediocre “Iron Eagle”). The screenplay comes from the team of Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal (“The Jewel of the Nile” and “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country”), who wrote the story with leading man Christopher Reeve. They don’t do any better really, than the previous team, though I’m not about to call this one worse than “Superman III”. That’s two hairs I frankly can’t be bothered splitting. Both films are pretty lousy, and both sully the good name of Superman. I saw this one in theatres when I was about 7 and even then I wasn’t overly fussed with it. I was pretty astute back then, it seems.

 

On the plus side of things, Alexander Courage (“The Left-Handed Gun”) does a much better job of adapting John Williams’ “Superman” theme this time around than did Ken Thorne previously. His overall score seems more complete and not as piecemeal as the scores for “Superman II” and “Superman III”. Meanwhile, it may be a bit corny and belated, but Superman taking on nuclear disarmament is at least an idea in its head, so that’s one thing it has over “Superman III” (Which didn’t have a brain in its Atari-programmed head). It’s a little too corny that a little kid writes to Superman to ask him to end the arms race, though. Does he want a Red Rider BB Gun for Christmas too, Jiminy Cricket? Ultimately, though, Cannon just weren’t interested in making a quality film here, and the film truly does look cheap from start to finish. The FX are appalling, even for 1987. I mean, Nuclear Man isn’t a bad idea at all on paper, but has been rendered (or ruined) by the cheesiest FX Golan-Globus could steal, and a David Soul meets one of the members of Dokken ‘non-actor’ in the role by the name of Mark Pillow (He did 13 episodes of “Wiseguy” and one other TV role, and that’s it). Yes, our super-villain’s creation is played by a Pillow, folks. Mr. Pillow may look like a late 80s wrestler (let’s say WCW or NWA, rather than WWF/E), but his scant movie credits and the fact that Gene Hackman ends up dubbing British-born Pillow’s voice show that he’s clearly inadequate as an actor. To continue the wrestling theme, he’s almost as big a flop as The Shockmaster (YouTube it, kiddies. Seriously, it’s hilarious). I did wonder if he was gonna rock Superman like a hurricane at one point though, or maybe bring about the winds of change (Yes, that’s a couple of Scorpions references, not Dokken. Your point?). From what I’ve read, apparently he used to be a Chippendales dancer. I would’ve stuck with that profession.

 

Meanwhile, after being sent to the naughty corner in “Superman III” for speaking out in favour of Richard Donner (who was sacked from “Superman II”), Margot Kidder is back as Lois Lane. It’s a shame, because I rather liked Annette O’Toole’s Lana Lang (who, you may remember, was employed by Perry White at the end of the film but is never even mentioned here), but it’s for the best really, as Lois Lane is the bigger character. But bringing Lois back to the fore doesn’t bring as much to the table as you’d like, sadly. Unfortunately, not only was Kidder showing her age by this point (even Jackie Cooper looked relatively the same age as he did in 1978 and Reeve hadn’t changed at all), but she has the aura of complete boredom here. Worse still, there is a complete and utter disconnect between Lois and Clark in this. We all know why Kidder and Lois were demoted in “Superman III”, but let’s face it, when they did what they did at the end of “Superman II”, they rendered Lois Lane pretty much useless as a character anyway. So yes, Lois is in a lot more of this one, but…it’s too little, too late. The filmmakers never quite figure out what to do with Mariel Hemingway’s character, either. Hemingway has always been too sweet, gawky and mousy to convince as possible femme fatales, but the filmmakers never really decide to go either way with her, and when she acts all femme fatale it’s merely because the screenplay (awkwardly) dictates it. It results in a completely pointless role and thankless task for Ms. Hemingway in addition to her fatal miscasting. She can be thankful, though, that she at least gets listed ahead of Kidder in the credits, though. Kidder is shockingly listed ninth in the credits! Ninth! The leading lady! Sam Wanamaker, a talented character actor is well-cast but appallingly underused as a Rupert Murdoch-type. Gene Hackman has come back into the fold after defiantly opting out of “Superman III” (smartest actor of all-time? No, he made “The Quick and the Dead” and “Absolute Power”. Still pretty smart, though). Lex Luthor isn’t as effective here as he was in the first film, but he at least fits in better here than in the crowded cast of “Superman II” (where he really shouldn’t have turned up at all). Such a shame that the film is of such shoddy quality. I guess ‘ol Gene needed to pay for an extension on his beach house or something here. Also, was ‘genius supervillain’ Luthor’s complete botching of the word ‘nuclear’ meant to be a sly joke, or does Gene Hackman just no speaka the good English? ‘Nucular’, Gene? ‘Nucular’? Jon Cryer and his goofy punk hairdo are certainly a significant upgrade from the bozos Robert Vaughn was hanging around with as the villain in “Superman III”, though.

 

Production values just aren’t up to snuff in this outing, and while director Furie is no Richard Donner, we all know the two names to blame here. Despite the occasionally interesting nuclear themes, hack producers Golan-Globus (who slashed the proposed budget in half before shooting began) put the final nail in the coffin of this movie franchise with a pretty cheapjack effort. Watch the first film and 2013’s “Man of Steel” and skip any other “Superman” films, folks.

 

Rating: C

Review: Deadfall (1993)


Michael Biehn, his dad James Coburn, and associates Peter Fonda and Michael Constantine are all involved in a drug deal that turns out to be an elaborate con involving Coburn pretending to be dead. Unfortunately, someone fucked up and Coburn really does wind up dead. After this, Fonda suggests Biehn get the hell outta town, and Biehn decides to go and visit the uncle he never knew he even had until now. Said uncle is also played by James Coburn, and it’s not long before Biehn is running scams for Coburn, being set-up by Coburn’s coke-snorting thug Nic Cage, and being seduced by Cage’s moll, Sarah Trigger. Cage isn’t happy to learn that Biehn escapes his plan to have him killed, and is even less happy to find out that he’s bonking Trigger. He flips out a tiny bit. Eventually we get to the big con, involving Coburn, Biehn, creepy Angus Scrimm (who doesn’t get to yell ‘Booooyyyyy!’ at any point, unfortunately), and some diamonds. But nothing is what it seems. Apparently. Along the way, Charlie Sheen plays a pool hustler, Talia Shire is a bartender, whilst Mickey Dolenz and Clarence Williams III play two of Scrimm’s cronies.

 

Sometimes opinions change over time. Some movies get better with repeated viewings. Others are just as bad as they were when you first saw them, possibly even worse. I believed in 1993 that this vanity project/family affair/steaming turd from co-writer/director Christopher Coppola (“Dracula’s Widow”) and debutant co-writer Nick Vallelonga (who went on to write “Brilliant Disguise” and “Choker”) was one of the worst films ever made, and in 2015 that still stands. I believed in 1993 that Nic Cage delivered the worst performance of all-time by a known actor, and in 2015 that still stands (#2? Nic Cage in “Vampire’s Kiss”). Let’s discuss Cage later- and boy will we- because this film would still heartily suck without the director’s brother. I can’t work out whether the film is meant to be a put-on that has been over-pitched, or if it’s a god-awful overblown noir homage. Either way it’s too insufferably boring anyway, despite a whole host of famous faces. Having connections in Hollywood and being Francis Ford Coppola’s nephew don’t mean shit if you have absolutely no talent or aptitude for writing or directing.

 

Aside from being tone deaf, it’s the direction of the actors here that is Coppola’s biggest weakness, and given how much talent is here on paper, it just goes to show how bad he really is. I like Michael Biehn, and I feel really sorry for him here, having been handed the lead role. When a film sucks as badly as this one does, the poor leading man takes about as much of the blame as the director, I’m afraid (His career never really survived, though he was quite good in the disturbing “The Divide”). The hard-boiled narration is on the nose, and Biehn can barely muster up the enthusiasm to deliver it. On the other hand, he and Michael Constantine badly overact the opening scene. It’s easily Biehn’s worst work, he’s overwrought in that scene, and the narration seems to come out of “The Naked Gun!”. As the noir leading lady, Sarah Trigger (who?) is immediately and embarrassingly out of her depth. Charlie Sheen and Talia Shire (the director’s aunt) have one scene each, the latter is pointless as a bartender, proving once again that she never gave a good performance outside of a “Rocky” or “Godfather” movie. Sheen, meanwhile, is mannered as hell in a dopey cameo as a pool player that proves he ain’t no Jackie Gleason. I’ve never liked Peter Fonda as an actor, but he’s especially bad in this. There’s a cute in-joke with Angus Scrimm having a spherical crystal on his desk (“Phantasm”, anyone?), but his metal claw-sporting character belongs in an entirely different, more comic-book oriented movie. Clarence Williams III is lucky enough to barely even appear in the film. The one bright spot in the cast is one of my favourite actors, James Coburn, but even in a dual role he can’t save this thing single-handedly. In fact, even with him the film is still bottom-of-the-barrel, and his mere casting raises red flags in the plot that should’ve been kept better hidden.

 

And now we come to Nic Cage. Holy crap, where do I start? Looking like Tony Clifton, Cage is immediately awful. Is he even trying to give a good performance? He’s being infantile. He reminds me of the end result of Adam Sandler playing Andy Kaufman/Tony Clifton in the title role in a remake of “Scarface”. I’d be shocked if Clifton wasn’t Cage’s chief inspiration here (Followed closely by a mountain of cocaine). He aggressively sinks the film singlehandedly, and that’s without even having to eat a fucking cockroach. He does his brother no favours here by chewing the oxygen. It’s such a stupid and destructively self-absorbed performance that you end up being really angry at the actor for it. I’m not a fan, but I’ll definitely never forgive him for this one.

 

Aside from Coburn (who isn’t exactly memorable), the only thing this film has going for it is the nice, shadowy lighting by cinematographer Maryse Alberti (“Zebrahead”, “Crumb”, “When We Were Kings”, “The Wrestler”), and that ain’t nearly enough, I’m afraid. A badly overdone wannabe noir (the music score is horribly insistent) with all of the actors so appallingly misdirected that none of them seem to be in the same film. But it’s Nic Cage’s horrendously over-the-top, suicidally hammy performance that is this dreadful film’s death knell. There has never been a worse performance before or since by a well-known actor, nor a performance so destructive to a film’s chance of being anything even remotely worthwhile. Or it would’ve been, had this film not sucked anyway. You won’t see too many reviews online of this film, and I can guarantee that almost none of them will be positive. Even “Jumanji” has its fans. But this? Unlikely.

 

Rating: F

Monday, April 6, 2015

Review: Her


Set in a seemingly disconnected near-future where A.I. technology has advanced far enough that an operating system has been developed with an artificially intelligent ‘personality’. Constantly evolving, it can come quite close to seeming to have its own consciousness. Joaquin Phoenix plays a guy whose occupation is to create handwritten letters for people…via a computer, of course. He has just gone through a rough breakup with Rooney Mara, and decides to buy himself an OS1. He goes through the installation process, choosing the perfect voice and eventually the name Samantha is settled on. Things start off innocuously enough, but after a while, all the compliments and seemingly deep, personally insight from Samantha sees the lonely man develop…well, sorta kinda romantic feelings for her…and his feelings are returned! At first, Phoenix is secretive about the unusual relationship, until he realises that a lot of others are doing it too! But will this seemingly perfect relationship with a non-human specifically programmed to meet his every need (but also to continually evolve), really last? Amy Adams plays Phoenix’s supportive friend, whom he had kind of a thing with years ago, and who may not be as happy as she makes out. Chris Pratt plays a co-worker (aside from Adams, he’s the only real human contact he’s had lately), Olivia Wilde plays the blind date from hell (though to be fair, Phoenix’s inability connect and Wilde’s inability to deal with that, makes it the blind date from hell), and Brian Cox has a brilliant voice-only cameo, the nature of which is best left unspoilt.

 

With a premise that screams ‘A Charlie Kaufman Screenplay’, it’s a bit of a surprise to find that director Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”, “Adaptation”) came up with the script for this 2013 film all on his very own. And it’s undoubtedly original, interesting, and if you can go with it, ultimately really moving. It’s as if author Douglas Adams had collaborated on a screenplay with one of his own creations, Marvin the Paranoid Android, and this is the result put to the screen. The film may be fanciful and set in the future, but it’s definitely saying something about our current relationship with computer technology. Is the situation depicted here likely to happen? Not exactly like this, and I found the expressiveness in the computer’s voice a little too far-fetched to be entirely convinced at first, but after a while, the film really started to get to me.

 

This isn’t science fact, but it’s a fascinating, if depressing look at a rather lonely, disconnected worldview that may not be a million miles from where we end up as a society. I mean, Facebook and other internet sites already keep track of your movements and interests to provide ‘helpful’ advertisements, so the situation here isn’t so far removed from plausible reality that it seems laughable. And if you think about it, Phoenix’s relationship with Samantha follows an awfully familiar trajectory…it’s kinda like most romantic relationships, really. Whether or not you entirely buy the specifics here, you can see how problematic it could be to have a machine give you constant platitudes, reassurances, compliments and affection without having any of the flaws that us human beings have. It’s almost the perfect relationship, no one would venture outdoors if this were to happen. And then the subject of surrogate sex is brought up and things get really, really weird. It leads to the most bizarre threesome in cinematic history, and yet it’s one of the most plausible things in the film. You just know some lonely tech-head in Japan is gonna get drunk one night and work this thing out. In fact, how was this film idea not made into a Japanese film first? But for me, the thing that best encapsulated this idea of human disconnect mixing with computer technology, is the fact that Joaquin Phoenix’s character’s occupation was working for a company that specialises in writing ‘hand-written’ letters to loved ones from people who are too emotionally inert to write the letters themselves. The letters, of course, aren’t really hand-written, they are printed off a computer that has software to ‘write’ these ‘handwritten’ letters. Holy crap, if that’s not the most depressing job in the entire world, I don’t know what is. And if that’s an insight into the future, I hope I don’t live to see it. In fact, there’s something creepy about the A.I. here, too. With the way it evolves, one starts to wonder if this is the first step in the “Rise of the Machines”. Let’s just say, I hope Bill Gates never finds himself single, lonely, and despondent. 

 

The film isn’t entirely without humour. The film is almost worth seeing alone for the reaction on Phoenix’s face when his new OS1 asks ‘Can I look at your hard drive?’ is absolutely priceless. And don’t tell me you don’t know why. It’s the same reaction you’d have on your own face at such a question.

 

Phoenix is absolutely perfectly cast in this. I personally would’ve given him the Oscar the previous year for “The Master”, but he once again shows himself to be a strong and versatile actor. He’s very impressive and empathetic (rather than pathetic, a line that he could’ve easily crossed over into), even if he was better in “The Master”. I guess you could argue that all or at least most of his characters have some kind of inner torment going on as a common thread, but you can’t really say his roles in “Parenthood” (Yes, Leif Phoenix and Joaquin Phoenix are one and the same), “Gladiator”, “Walk the Line”, “The Master”, and “Reservation Road” are all the same.

 

Phoenix finds himself one lucky bastard here, supported by a trio of lovely women (four if you’re a Scarlett Johansson fan), especially Amy Adams, who is so wonderful. Full Stop. The End. She just is, even when not glammed up here (Wanna know how glorious she is? According to IMDb she cheered herself up during some of the more emotional scenes by singing songs from musicals like “Annie” and “Rocky Horror”. I hate musicals and even then I still love this woman. There, I said it). Rooney Mara is hilarious casting here when you think about it (“The Social Network”, anyone?), and she gives a terrific performance. Meanwhile, Phoenix’s date with Olivia Wilde is seven flavours of awkward and genuinely funny and sad at the same time. The film has also been expertly shot by Hoyt Van Hoytema (“The Fighter”, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), it’s incredibly beautiful to look at. There’s lots of pretty shots of street lights and neon signs, and nice lighting at times.

 

Reminiscent of “Synecdoche, New York”, “Stranger Than Fiction”, “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, it’s not as great as those films, but not too far behind I must say. It’s a remarkable film that, despite its futuristic setting, might just make you think about today’s world. Funny, sad, moving, thought-provoking, possibly creepy and a little uncomfortable, but definitely one of the best and most memorable films of the year.

 

You might find yourself amazed at how invested you become in this film and its characters. After all, it sounds a bit like “Electric Dreams”, doesn’t it? Yes, except the only thing about “Electric Dreams” that didn’t suck was the title song by Giorgio Moroder and Phil Oakley. It’s a beautiful, maybe even sweet film, and the ending is simply perfect, almost kinda spiritual (Certainly existential). A must see.

 

Rating: B

Review: The Wild


Paternal lion Samson (voiced by Kiefer Sutherland) and a few animal colleagues escape their New York zoo in pursuit of Samson’s son Ryan, who has fled in embarrassment after failing to deliver a mighty roar. Unfortunately, he has unwittingly boarded a ship of animals headed back to the wild. Ryan has grown up entirely at the zoo, and thus Samson is worried his son is ill-equipped to survive in the wild. Samson is accompanied by a squirrel named Benny (voiced by Jim Belushi), giraffe Bridget (voiced by Janeane Garofalo), lethargic koala Nigel (voiced by Eddie Izzard), and a snake called Larry (voiced by Richard Kind). Along the way, the gang finds out that Samson isn’t the almighty king of the beasts that they thought him to be, and they encounter a herd of nasty wildebeests, headed by Kazar (voiced by William Shatner!).

 

Cute animals and lovely colours aren’t enough to make much out of this 2006 animated film from director Steve ‘Spaz’ Williams (who comes from an FX/animation background on big films like “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” and “The Mask”), which has earned the ire of some for ripping off DreamWorks’ “Madagascar”. I’m not even gonna touch that debate with a 50ft pole. I just think this is a disappointing, underwhelming film from The Magic Kingdom. It’s awfully slight and hasn’t been made with adults in mind at all. It’s purely a kids film, which is fine, but I’m an adult and can only view it from my POV. I didn’t get into this one.

 

The array of different animals is pretty interesting, but there’s some really odd stuff going on here. For starters, Men at Work front man Colin Hay (A Scottish-born Aussie) voices a flamingo, but cross-dressing Brit Eddie Izzard is chosen to voice a koala with the very Aussie name of Nigel. Who misquotes Churchill at one point, I might add. Koalas are Australian. Very, very Australian. Izzard is very, very British. I know that there’s a Canadian voicing an African lion, but c’mon, we all know that Izzard is just wrong for the part, and someone screwed up. Thankfully they at least get the lazy, somewhat stoned demeanour of a koala down, but whoever approved the casting of Izzard is either culturally ignorant or just plain stupid (Did I mention that the director is called ‘Spaz’? Just sayin’…) My guess is culturally ignorant, because we also get some seriously oddball pigeons with strangely Indian-sounding accents. What the hell? They are the strangest characters I’ve come across in a film in ages. But seriously, there’s no koala named fuckin’ Nigel over here, let me tell you. It just doesn’t happen, and if he was meant to be London-raised, then I think that’s way too complex for what is a kids movie, not a family movie, so I’m inclined to call bullshit on that excuse. Then we get to the chameleons. Oh boy. I don’t know whether to blame Mr. Spaz or screenwriters Ed Decter, Mark Gibson & Philip Halprin (the duo behind “Snow Dogs”), and John J. Strauss, but someone here has no idea how chameleons work. They seem to be under the impression that chameleons are like ventriloquists and can project their camouflage abilities onto other animals. That’s just scientifically ricockulous and insulting to anyone with a working brain.

 

The film does have its merits, though. The animation isn’t as photorealistic as in “Rango”, but it is nonetheless extremely pretty and colourful, and somewhat textured. It’s on the level of “Over the Hedge” in that respect, perhaps. It’s a little weird to hear Kiefer Sutherland’s rather creepy voice in an animated film at first, let alone playing a benign, fatherly character, but he makes for a much more convincing lion than Liam Neeson at least. He shows his versatility in a rather gentle role. Jim Belushi is an inspired choice for a squirrel that has the hots for a giraffe, which is a funny idea. Best of all is the brilliant choice of William Shatner as the chief wildebeest. It’s only the pregnant pauses that give his casting away, but he’s surprisingly terrific here and the only thing to interest anyone over the age of 10. Unfortunately not even the Shat Man can make me forget the truly abysmal, embarrassing dancing finale that erases any cool that Kiefer Sutherland might’ve had in a single moment. Wow.

 

This is pretty subpar Disney animated stuff, and really only recommended to Shatner completists. I mean, it’s hardly the worst thing he’s ever done (‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, anyone?).

 

Nigel? NIGEL?!! Really?...

 

Rating: C