PSA: Kingdom Of Heaven (2005), or And Peace Be With You

21 11 2009

One of my favorite films of the new millennium, Kingdom of Heaven is an under-appreciated classic, a treasure of a film that was shunned in many circles at the time of its release because of its incongruity and certain character flaws. It faded quickly into the realms of the forgotten, but I always held a flame aloft for the historical epic. I admitted to most of the flaws, albeit begrudgingly, but I still had a weird attraction to it, and until about a year ago, I couldn’t really explain it. Now, before about a year ago, I would have bowed to conventional wisdom that if I could not put my pro-KoH argument in words, than it obviously was not that good of an argument. But, last April or so, I discovered the reason that the movie seemed so off to me, and the source of a lot of anti-KoH arguments, is that the studio edited almost an HOUR out of the theatrical cut! AN HOUR! That’s a lot of info to leave out! Now, with a lot more backing this time compared to March of last year, I can safely say that Kingdom of Heaven IS a good movie, a great movie even. It’s not a perfect movie, but it skirts very flirtatiously with immortality, something I admire in a work of art.

We’re taken to the 12th century, between the Second and Third Crusades. Balian, a lonely blacksmith in France, grieving over the suicide of his wife, finds no solace in his work or his life doomed to obscurity. As fate would have it, however, a knight traveling through the area pops into his life. He claims to be his father, and offers him a choice; he can stay in the sad, empty husk of France during the Middle Ages and continue his life as if nothing had happened, or he can come with him to Jerusalem, where the knight holds court with King Baldwin IV. At first hesitant, Balian joins the group of Crusaders after hearing that perhaps his wife’s soul can be saved from Hell if he absolves her sins in the Holy Land (people believed that suicides were instant fodder for Hell back then, although some STILL do). Thus begins a journey of the self through the world of the Dark Ages as Balian travels from his tiny, myopic Medieval world all the way to the center of the world’s tumult, Jerusalem, where a new dispute is broiling beneath the surface of the Second Crusade’s short-lived peace. King Baldwin IV is dying painfully from his crippling leprosy, the Knights Templar are restlessly itching for a battle with the Muslims, their sworn enemy, and on the other side of the wall, a new Muslim assault is being only barely kept at bay by the efforts of their sultan, Saladin. The truce will not last much longer, and Balian’s part in this is larger than he yet knows. It will be a long, unforgiving road ahead for him, but with his wife’s eternal soul in the balance, he is willing to do anything to unchain her from the fiery pits below.

Let me start with the big flaw before I start gushing. Before it gets any farther, I have to comment on the fact that Balian is a total Harry Stu. In internet lingo, for those not in on the jive, that means that his character is just a LITTLE too perfect. He just happens to know a lot of things about a lot of things that would be helpful in the Holy Land, including the construction of siege engines, leading large groups of men, and considering he’s played by Orlando Bloom, professional heart-throb, he looks damn good while he does it. It all gets to be a little much sometimes, and by the end, I felt more than a little tinge of disgust for him and his implausible perfection. You know how awesome and perfect Balian is? During a boat trip to Jerusalem, his boat capsizes and sinks in a storm; he wakes up the next morning on the beach with no fellow survivors and a saddled horse ready to give him a lift! How serendipitous!

But when I say that that’s really the only thing I think is wrong with it, I mean it. Director Ridley Scott is so good he can make any subject come alive, and it just so happens that he also found one of my favorite historical periods fascinating. Every detail, with the exception of ultra-perfect Balian, is down to the T. Scott has recreated the Middle Ages with such a realism that they speak to us through the ages in the very subtext of his work. From the weaponry, the architecture, the interactions between people, to even the battle formations and times of day that Muslims and Christians fought during the 12th century, this is all genuine. there are so many stories to be told here, during the reconstruction of Europe from its massive, tragic downfall in the 6th century, I’m so glad someone used this period. And not only that, but I really appreciate the use of the different faiths fighting it out as sort of an allegory for today. It’s the same fight going on with different weapons and words, which Scott cleverly alludes to at one point, making the emotional ties to this ancient era all the more indelible.

The main cast is equally proportionate to the supporting cast here. Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Sheen, David Thewlis, and other power players make short but memorable appearances that resonate throughout the movie. My favorite of these is Ghassan Massoud, who plays Saladin. While we never see hm that often, his character is similar to Baldwin in that he doesn’t want war, but political and religious pressures are pushing him into a battle that will cost many, many lives. He is excellent, and most importantly he’s a Muslim character that doesn’t give way into stereotypes that so many other films would have. As for the main cast, I’ve said my peace on Balian, but it must be noted that not everyone’s like that. There are some real winners, like Eva Green, who plays Sibylla, Baldwin’s sister. Her scenes suffer the most cutting, and it felt so vindicating to see the Special Director’s Cut edition and piece together what happens to her. She is a force to be reckoned with for me, especially now that the cut has been restored. She is given whole new sets of scenes that add to the emotional complexities, especially the ones involving her son. Without these scenes, her character is very confusing and inconsistent, and it is a definite boon to the film that she not go from one emotional state to the next without any coercing. Jeremy Irons electrifies as Tiberius, the Marshall of Jerusalem and Balian’s moral compass in the Holy Land. His scenes are few, but they are key, and Irons shows his expertise in authoritative but sympathetic words of wisdom as he tries to keep Christian Jerusalem from going into all-out war with the Muslims and Balian from falling off the righteous path. Edward Norton is the emotional heart of the first half of the film as King Baldwin IV. Underneath a silver mask to hide the hideous deformities left by his leprosy, he is trying extremely hard to keep peace in his time by keeping both the Templars at bay and his court satisfied with the truce. But his frail condition has many worried that the Muslims will attack and he will be unable to lead, or, worse, that he is lying down and making too many concessions to their heathen demands. He has so much weight on his slender shoulders, and watching Norton valiantly struggle to keep lives from being lost is heartbreaking and wondrously inspiring.

Sweeping cinematography, an immersive score by Harry-Gregson Williams, an extremely able cast, and a rich realistic tone make Kingdom of Heaven a sweeping film that should be remembered with the ranks of Spartacus and Gladiator in the realm of great historical epics. It’s a whopping three hours for the director’s cut, the only cut there should be, as far as I’m concerned, so there’s a lot going on. Luckily, it’s all great, and with the exception of one or two faults, I would be extremely tempted to call this a perfect film. To get swept away in this historical fervor is a joy and a pleasure that I plan to relish more and more often. Ridley Scott strikes gold again, and the Holy Land is done justice by his beautiful eye and his great cast. I give Kingdom of Heaven 9 1/2 leper kings out of 10. A high recommendation!

Tomorrow’s Sunday, so I don’t know what I’ll watch! It’ll make for a good review, though, I think! Until then!

Stargate (1994), or This Makes Perfect Sense

21 11 2009

Last week, as I’m sure you noted, I reviewed Roland Emmerich’s effects-riddled disaster opus 2012. I did not think it was very good. So you might be wondering, “Eric, you myopic jerk, why are you reviewing ANOTHER Emmerich film so close to your first?” Well, trust me, my rapier-witted friend, I have a reason. You see, after combing through the filmography of Mr. Emmerich, or, as I like to call it, the $5 bin at Wal-Mart, I noticed an alarming trend; all of his movies, while not without their merits, pretty much suck. I mean, it’s alarming how much his movies have made considering their poor quality. And while that must really say something about us as a nation that we would all rather go see mindless shit rather than well-told and well-executed films, it also says something about Emmerich’s style.

In an odd way, he’s making movies based on what we want to see rather than a vision or his own ideas. Movies like Independence Day, 2012, and especially The Patriot are, in an aesthetic sense, his critique of American taste. And, based on his box office clout, he has hit the nail on the head with a forklift, which is what he uses to haul all that American money away. It’s a shame that they’re all terrible movies, though, and a real shame that Americans identify with them and roll with it anyway, like a pig being teased with a slice of bacon. Today’s film, Stargate, is probably my favorite example of this strange phenomenon. It’s still not very good, but you can look at it as a surprising indictment of American Imperialism and our rough-and-tumble cowboy attitude and really get a lot more out of it.

So, basically, in the late 20s, archaeologists discover a mysterious stone ring near the pyramids in Giza. It seems to have some sort of purpose, but nobody can understand the meaning of the hieroglyphs. The mystery stays a mystery until a woman named Catherine Langford, daughter of the man who found the ring, figures it all out. It seems to be, believe it or not, a transport that can teleport people across worlds (!!!). The US government steps in and has all of this information classified, working on it in top secret, trying to get this “Stargate” to work. Eventually, they uncover how to do it, and they put together a team to go through the gate, which now has a thin sheet of rippling liquid suspended in the ring. Commander Jack O’Neil leads the group, along with Dr. Daniel Jackson as the brains, Lt. Col. Charles Kawalsky, and some dude played by French Stewart; together, along with some Red-shirts, they bravely enter the Stargate, and are indeed transported to another world. But it’s not one they like very much.

Apparently, the Egyptian god Ra was actually an alien (!!!) who came to Earth thousands of years ago for slaving purposes. He captured and bred Egyptians so they could serve him on his alien world, with the Stargate as the link to new, fresh Earth slaves. O’Neil is flabbergasted by all this, but even more so by the fact that they, in their current state, can’t return to Earth because the coordinates are missing somewhere. So, for the time being, they’re stuck on an alien planet full of hostiles devoted to Ra and a bunch of Egyptian slaves that don’t really speak their language. Great! They’re going to be in for a bumpy ride on this planet, and what at first was a recon mission soon becomes a skin-of-their-teeth plan to both destroy Ra’s evil endeavor and get back home alive!

Whew! Crazy, huh? It’s a pretty out-there concept if you think about it too much. Even crazier is that someone threw $55 million dollars at this nutty idea! But somehow even crazier than that is the philosophy behind it. If you look at it from a certain angle, it closely resembles our relationship with countries overseas and our wars across the globe the past 100 years. From the Spanish American War to the troubles in the Middle East, Stargate does a fair job in emulating what we do in other people’s countries. We topple the current regime without anyone asking us to, leave a whole lot of rubble to clean up, and expect everyone to thank us for all the things we did that they should have done on their own, just like Mr. Jack O’Neil. What are the slaves supposed to do without Ra? They never planned for a life without him, or a body to replace him, so why is toppling him such a good thing when the people doing it aren’t even invested in the fight and have no intention of staying around after the fighting is over? It’s a pointed question I think Emmerich had in the back of his mind while he was making this, and even if he didn’t, he’s somewhat of a savant for making something that’s vaguely political.

Of course, maybe I’m looking into it a little too much, but I think that something’s definitely there. Stargate is a rather dumb, preposterous science fiction movie otherwise, and it helps if you interject your own thought processes into it so it doesn’t drag like an Egyptian ball and chain. With middling effects, an over-wrought cast filled to the brim with soldier and scientist cliches perpetuated by phoning-it-in A-listers Kurt Russell and James Spader (I feel like I slipped into Starship Troopers for a few seconds of this movie), and a whole lot of ear-screeching dialog, it’s pretty much on par with the rest of his work as far as quality and taste. There is some interesting set design and some of the props are shiny and attention-grabbing, to be fair, and Jaye Davidson, who plays Ra (and subsequently the famous Dil from The Crying Game) is a good character actor, but nothing really meritorious about it. It’s a Sci-fi Original with $55 million behind it. Excuse me; Syfy Original. But if you put your thinking caps on and try digging a little deeper on this, you might find that you can stomach it. All things considered, I give Stargate 6 Americans on foreign soil out of 10.

Keep an eye out for my second review later today or tonight! Until then!

Two Reviews Tomorrow!

20 11 2009

Hey, guys! I’ll be back with two tomorrow! I’ll have up my review of Stargate, as well as (maybe) my review of New Moon or Planet 51. Either way, get ready for some high-flying reviewing action! Until then!!!

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004), or I Can’t Ever Forget You

19 11 2009

The world needs more imaginative people like Michel Gondry. Where are all the artistic savants like him in our generation? To be fair, I don’t know how many like him existed before him, so it’s hard to gauge where they all “went”. Not since the exuberance of the 60s and the hyper-colorful Russo-Finnish co-productions like Jack Frost and The Day the Earth Froze, where imagination was plentiful on the wings of fantasy and adventure, has a director brought such a palpable excitement to the screen. Gondry’s films, while not always very dense, still engross with an emotional connection to the characters and the material that are impossible to ignore. Today’s film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is a contemplative, if not shallow, look at a modern, complicated romance that has some wildly imaginative aspects to it.

A man named Joel and a woman named Clementine meet one day on a cold winter morning. They click almost instantly and chat the day away. Even though they don’t at first seem very compatible, it seems insignificant compared to the fun they’re having with each other. Strangely, though, there is a scientific reason the two are attracted to one another; they used to be a couple, but they just don’t remember. In the film, a new procedure has come into popularity called Targeted Memory Erasure that people are using to erase painful memories from their lives. These two people were in a failing relationship and, in haste, decided that the thought of remembering one another was too much and went ahead with the procedure. Most of the film takes place in the man’s head during the procedure as his memories melt away. He is forced to relive a number of the good times and the bad times with Clementine as they slip away from him one by one. The more he looks at what he had with her, though, the more he begins to realize that perhaps he had made a mistake in asking to be rid of the memories. As he clings to his old life with her, the world they created in his consciousness begins to collapse, and Joel desperately searches for something that will perhaps stick with him as he loses one of the most important people in his life.

What a fascinating idea. An idea like this, in the wrong hands, could have ended disastrously, but in the capable hands of Gondry and wunderkind Charlie Kaufman, this film came out almost flawlessly. You are transported to a world of dreamlike memories falling away in the face of what looks more and more to be a terrible mistake. It’s as terrifying as it is tragic, and its inevitability bears down upon our hearts every second, even though we still secretly hope for a second chance between Joel and Clementine. The world inside Joel’s mind is equally impressive as a visual spectacle. The way the memories manifest themselves, be they half-remembered words and ideas, sketchy faces, childhood fears revisiting the adult manifestation of Joel, or endless loops of seemingly unimportant details all are lovingly rendered in a style that is both technically impressive and emotionally stirring.

This sumptuous feast for the mind is bolstered by breakout performances by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. While I never expected any less from the real deal actress Winslet, Carrey genuinely surprised me. As Joel, he made me feel so deeply for him that it shook me to my core as an ol’ softie. There is such a vulnerability there that I never saw before, would have never imagined before. He changed my opinion of him forever with this role, and for the first time I can look at Jim Carrey as a seriously talented actor with a range that can only be described as phenomenal. But let’s not forget that Kate deserves her due for being half of this depressing relationship. Clementine is a free-spirit who doesn’t like being told what to do, doesn’t like boundaries, and it hurts her when Joel seeks to reign her in and cull her with the rest of the herd. There are a number of scenes in which Kate showcases an emotional range that solidifies her as one of the greatest actresses of this decade, and even with badly-died blue hair I can take a woman like her seriously.

I’m keeping this one short for an essay later, but don’t let that keep you from watching it. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is not only an amazing movie and a classy reference to Alexander Pope, but also a hypnotically powerful drama wrapped in the mysterious language of dreams. Michel Gondry creates visual masterpieces in this film destined to become a classic. The cast and crew is stellar, and while not everybody makes much of an impact as a character (almost nobody does) the leads carry their peculiar weight with dignity and poise that I appreciated. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. I give Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind 9 ol’ softies out of 10. A high recommendation!

Tomorrow I don’t know what I’ll watch, but it will definitely be something new! Until then!

Beauty And The Beast (1946), or The Beast Within

18 11 2009

I’m starting to dislike Disney more and more. Every time I hear about a new Disney product or character, I tend to cringe or ignore it altogether. Once the innovator in mainstream (albeit slightly tame) animation, Walt Disney is now the mark of under-achievement, the badge of mediocrity. They have not come up with anything remarkable without Pixar’s golden candy-coated hand in more than a decade, to the point that their new film’s biggest marketing gimmick is that it’s-get this!!!-a hand-drawn feature! Wow! What a novel idea! On the same note, I hear they used to put Coke in glass bottles, too! What will they think of next?! Either way, the days of Disney mediocrity started long before the new millennium, reaching as far back as the early 90s. For instance, when they decided to take on the classic romantic fantasy tale Beauty and the Beast. Disney’s bland adaptation blanketed a generation of fresh minds, leading them to believe that theirs was the only film version of the tale or, worse yet, a Disney original. Little did most know that almost 50 years prior to Disney’s garish musical, legendary director Jean Cocteau, who is actually making his first appearance on the site, made what I consider to be the definitive version of this timeless fairy tale. It’s timeless, elegant, and proudly beautiful in that particular French way, and it’s hard not to fall completely in love with it.

It’s a story I think we’re all familiar with. A father makes a mistake by picking a rose from an enchanted garden, angering a terrifying beast-like man who happens to be the lord of a magical castle in the forest. The only way to curb his ire is to send back one of his daughters, so the father goes home to deliberate this terrible decision with his daughters. One of his daughters, the lovely Belle, makes the decision for him and storms off to the palace to take his father’s place. The beast sees Belle and quickly falls for her, but cannot yet bring anyone close to him and his wounded heart. He keeps her at a distance, making a bargain with her; she will stay with him as his bride and in exchange her father is as good as forgiven. She is given nearly free reign of his magical, mysterious castle, and begins to adjust to her new life as the bride of the mercurial beast. She begins to slowly uncover the tragic history of the beast and his strange castle. She might even begin to grow a fondness for him. Is there more to the beast’s heart than rage and spite? Can the beautiful Belle love somebody like the beast? And will her family, paired with the young man who tried to win Belle’s attentions before the beast took her as a bride, be able to take her away from that castle?

Jean Cocteau has somehow escaped a nod on this site, and while perhaps his estate, fearful of me disgracing his name with my mere mention, is grateful for this fact, I still need to address him. One of the forerunners of the French New Wave, Cocteau really revolutionized the way the motion picture was made. It’s one of the first examples the world was starting to see of intensely personal visions and the rise of the auteur. From the personalized title sequence all the way to the final gorgeous frame, this is completely his vision, and what a grand vision it is. Cocteau had ideas about magic and elegance that translated unbelievably well to film. My favorite parts are in the unknowable secrets of the beast’s castle. The candelabras held by hands coming out of the walls, the mysteries of the rose garden, the brilliant white horse Magnificent, and the fantastical objects in Belle’s room are marvels of cinema, and they easily swayed my youthful heart with their whimsy.

The two leads are incredible. Josette Day as Belle is a knock-out! She’s a strong fairy-tale character with opinions and ideas. She’s an altruist, a selfless daughter, and a real sweet gal. Day plays her with a sense of wonderment and delightful curiosity that complemented her innate bravery well. This was still a time when most of an actor’s work was done in the face, so keep an eye out for the subtleties in Josette Day’s facial features, especially during the touching finale. And Jean Marais! What a treasure! This guy was unfathomably talented, and in his performance you got the full width and breadth of the beast’s pain and tortured soul. He is both the villain and the hero, a figure worthy of Shakespeare, and his love for Belle is conflicted with his pain and his lack of trust in humanity. This all comes through Marais’s thick facial prosthetic, which made him look like a mix between a lion, a bear, and a Furby.

You really ought to see this. This is an amazing adaptation of the story, and a charming romance from the 40s that still speaks to us even today. The score is tantalizingly sparse, the visuals are out of this world, and you might never come across a more appropriate on-screen pairing than Marais and Day, two pros with the theatrical gravitas to make this a surefire success. Jean Cocteau was a man before his time, so perhaps it’s best to take this displaced film and view it in the context of the future. Yes, it’s subtitled, yes it’s black and white, and no, I don’t care if that bothers you. This is something that you should enjoy for what it is; it’s not a musical with quaint musical numbers, bright colors, and 2-dimensional characters in more way than one. It’s a fantastic romance with depth and beautiful mise en scene that you should experience yourself first-hand. I give Beauty and the Beast 9 1/2 hand-held candelabras out of 10! A high recommendation!

Tomorrow I’ll be watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind! Until then!

PSA: Tenacious D In The Pick Of Destiny (2006), or Fun And Frolicking In A Box-Office Bomb

17 11 2009

I’m going to try to make this a quick review tonight. It’s not because I don’t care enough about the D: on the contrary, I happen to think they’re one of the funniest musical acts in history and one of the best satirists when it comes to the pomposity of rock music. Jack Black’s atrociously charismatic lyricism combined with Kyle Gass’s virtuoso guitar playing makes for comedy that happens to be musically accomplished to boot. I’m just going to make this short because this is the kind of movie where you already know if you’re going to like it. It’s a musical comedy that is rock-oriented and Jack Black oriented. If you like the things they did on the HBO show or their first album, you get more of the same, and if you didn’t, then you’re probably very much in the dark as to why any of this is terribly funny.

We learn here the origins of the D, a rock duo that came together when rock prodigy Jack meets older, more experience guitar player Kyle busking one day and admires his handiwork. Kyle at first is annoyed by this nobody who has seriously latched onto him, but he grows a fondness for the plucky kid, and eventually they learn to rock wonderfully together. They form a bond and a friendship that will carry on through the coming years, and their music perfectly represents this new-found camaraderie. But they need something special to break into the big time, something that will set them apart from the millions of other bands who play open mics nights as their regular gigs. An opportunity appears from a mysterious store owner, who lets them in on The Pick of Destiny, a magical pick made from the horn of the Devil that will allow for any guitarist to play on an entirely different level. The pick is being held at a rock and roll museum, nobody at the museum knowing its true power, and the two hatch a plan to take it from under everyone’s noses. Along the way, their mental alacrity, their physical prowess, and even their friendship will be tested, because the road to the Pick of Destiny is littered with obstacles. But with the assistance of their only fan, Lee, can they avoid death or a break-up and become rock heroes?

It’s a pretty funny flick that really got dropped by fans and casual moviegoers alike when it came out, probably due to all the other Holiday blockbusters edging it out at the time, not to mention the fact that their last album was five years prior, and they were striking while the iron was freezing cold. But still, all things considered, it’s a good comedy. The jokes are pretty strong, most of them involving how pompous they are in the face of their total obscurity and the fact that rock music is so full of shit sometimes. They love to use the idea that you can rock SO HARD that you can change the physical properties of objects, like “I’m gonna ROCK your face off!” or “I’m gonna kill him with ROCK!” like it’s fucking kryptonite. Rock is just as bogus and self-important here as in the real world, and the gags do a good job of representing that. And while there are a few slow scenes that don’t pan out comically, the overall feel is still very positive, especially in the songs that move this musical along. They’re all for the most part, really good songs, well-made and catchy with all the tasty riffage that we expect from Tenacious D. The songs are a little too attached to the movie, sometimes, and can’t really live very long on their own, but as long as you’ve seen the movie once, you can at least cope with it and enjoy without living in total confusion. My favorite song? A little track called Master Exploder where Jack Black actually blows a guy’s head off with his ROCK!

Kyle and Jack have a good rapport together that translates well onto the screen. A big draw to this is their seemingly ad-libbed humor is that they actually like each other, which seems to be mostly a fleeting thing in comedic pair-ups these days. They play well off of one another, especially in the latter half of the movie where they interact more with one another. Like real friends, they just feel right together, and there’s no amount of coaching you can do to get as close and as natural with someone else as you can see with these two. It’s a real buddy duo for a really good buddy adventure movie. There’s action, suspense, lots of ganja, cameos that range from the expected (Dave Grohl) to the surprising (Ben Stiller) to the completely unexpected (Tim Robbins???) that are all pretty good. Don’t be surprised if you’re not a fan of the D to find this movie a little lacking, but even for the uninitiated, I think you can easily find something to laugh at here. Check it out, but don’t expect anything as epic as what you find on the cover and the artwork. It’s just a good-natured comedy with a great sense of humor that will be remembered for its financial failure but should be remembered for its charismatic leads and for fun that really delivers. I give Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny 7 1/2 ROCKED TO DEATH CORPSES out of 10.

Tomorrow we get magical and mystical with the black-and-white version of Beauty and the Beast! Until then!

Amadeus (1984), or Musical Chairs

16 11 2009

One of the most celebrated films of all time, Amadeus has always been a single inch away from my play-list, and it took a fellow lover of film named Jacob to suggest it to my face for me to actually get off my duff and watch it. And am I ever glad I did! Amadeus really is a must-see; now that I’ve seen it, I rue the years spent living without having seen it. It’s a very beautiful film about the aching, sorrowful differences between the unreachable heights of true genius and the rolling, lame slopes of mediocrity, and how that can lead to enmity that shouldn’t have existed at all.

It begins with an attempted suicide and a tearful confession. An old man in 1823, the famous Italian composer Salieri to be precise, is in a mental institution for trying to kill himself after confessing to the murder of Mozart. A priest comes in to talk him out of his horrible malaise, and advises that perhaps confessing will ease his heart. Salieri confesses for nearly a day and a half, setting a scene that recounted the contentious relationship between he and fellow composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He recalls his youth as a devoutly God-fearing man who believed that his life as a composer was a blessing from the Lord himself. He lived under the patronage of the Austrian Archbishop of Salzburg, and made very pretty music that suited the age and his peers. But when Mozart bursts into his patron’s palace to play a piece, everything changes. Salieri regards Mozart’s music as magical, miraculous, but when he sees him off-stage and hears how inappropriate and lewd he is, he doesn’t know what to think. He slaves to write Mozart a March of Welcome, which Mozart, upon receiving it, improvises upon and makes it better! This creates a conundrum for Salieri; he believed that Mozart was somehow touched by God and given a voice to create wonderful music, but now that he has seen Mozart, he feels that God has forsaken him. He hatches a plan to get back at both God and Mozart that is both insidious and cunning, and it requires him to do things he never would have even considered before that damn Mozart came into the picture. Will Salieri’s envious heart and devious mind end up costing him his very soul and Mozart his life? Or are these merely the ramblings of a senile old man?

This was such a splendid piece that my spirits were lifted for the rest of the day after I left the TV screen. Its scope is grand, its vision is elegant and truly gorgeous, and its emotional strength is bolstered exponentially by some of the greatest music ever recorded. It’s a movie that has its roots in the darkness of the human soul, but doesn’t forget to make us laugh. And would you believe that a movie called Amadeus really isn’t about Mozart? This is a story about jealousy, a jealousy that is inspired by Mozart’s incredible talent, and the man himself, while featured prominently, is really more of a source of ire for Salieri rather than a main character.

Directed by Milos Forman, famous for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and, well, THIS movie, Amadeus is exultant in its amazing look at the Classical period in European music created by a man who surely understood its power. Forman transports us to a time of a life at court, composing for the wealthy and educated, a time in music that changed the world forever, breaking away from the Baroque in a way that would pave the way for composers throughout the next 200 years. Forman’s greatest achievement, as a director, though, is getting the larger-than-life stories of these two men on the screen and squeezing it in to a tasteful 181 minutes. The tumultuous relationship between these two geniuses is nothing short of phenomenal, and it must be said that with everything that happens, it certainly doesn’t feel like a 3 hour film (unlike the recent 150 minute debacle of 2012).

The leads here were so good that the Academy Awards gave them a rare double nod for Best Actor. F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce are Salieri and Mozart respectively, and each plays their characters like true acting powerhouses. F. Murray Abraham never really got the break he deserved in Hollywood, and I think this should be his Exhibit A for getting a second chance. His Salieri is so good that I can’t really separate the truth from the fiction now. If someone told me that Salieri didn’t act so cavalier and didn’t hold a grudge like a champ, I don’t know if I would believe him. And Tom Hulce… Tom Hulce is incredible. He gets every nuance about Mozart that anyone ever wrote about him. His high-pitched weird laughter, his relationships with his friends and family, and even his unexpected love of poop and fart jokes! That’s right, both in real life and in this film, Mozart thinks farts are the funniest thing since Chuck Norris! He brings it up a few times, and if you don’t laugh when Mozart lets one rip, I will officially question your humanity.

It’s a timeless, wonderful film set in the most extravagant time in Western Europe, and I don’t think anybody’s DVD collection would be complete without it. If you have a sensibility that is classy with a tinge of weird, you have one major priority right now; go see Amadeus! It’s well worth the time you put into it; it might be the wisest investment of exactly 181 minutes you’ll ever make. The two leads are phenomenal, the director is extremely invested, and the music is some of the best of all time! You’ll never look at classical music the same way again! I give Amadeus 10 Mozart farts out of 10! My highest recommendation!

Tomorrow we give the site a shot of the classical sauce again with Tenacious D and The Pick of Destiny! Until then!

The Night Out: The Box (2009), or Who’s Got The Button?

15 11 2009

If you can be sure of anything in life, it’s that opinions vary. Most people will say that there is definitely a God, and that he has a plan for all of this crazy mess, while other people, namely me, will tell you that it’s a beautifully designed universe, but a universe designed by chance. Most people will say that celebrities are divinely gorgeous and genetically superior, while I find them to be dull and lusterless in the face of real women. I also think that Bjork is bad ass, but I’m pretty much alone on that in the US. Today, I think I stand alone again, specifically in the movie critiquing arena, as I just saw The Box, and while I thought it was pretty good, and feel like it’s a return to form for Richard “I’m Going To Blow My Career’s Brains Out” Kelly, I think most people will consider this strike 2 for him, effectively putting him on thin ice. What gets him is that he’s a broadly commercial director now who has a very peculiar way of progressing the story, and this agitates the sensibilities of most, giving most people the impression of artistic desperation. I don’t feel that this is a movie is a movie made by a desperate man; perhaps an unbalanced man, but certainly not at the level he was while making Southland Tales

So, this is based off of a Richard Matheson short story, and it asks a simple moral question that has far-reaching ramifications. A middle-class family in Virginia around the mid 70s is given a choice by a strange man with a horribly disfigured face. He stops by early one morning and drops a box off at their doorstep with a note that says he’ll return at 5 o’clock that day. Inside the box is another box, a black one with a big red button on it, concealed by a locked glass dome. When the man does return at 5, the wife, named Norma, answers the door to find the disfigured man, who offers her what he calls a “financial opportunity”; he hands her the key to the box, and tells her that two things will happen if she presses it; one, she will get $1 million in cash, and two, that someone, whom she doesn’t know, will die. He leaves, telling her that she has 24 hours, and that he will return tomorrow to pick it up whether she has pressed it or not. She tells her husband when he gets home, and the two deliberate all night as to whether or not they should do it. After a long night and day deciding on it, and factoring in their dire financial situation and the fact that upon examining the box they find no wires or electronics inside, they press it. At 5, the man comes to retrieve the box, and that’s where the film really begins, because the ramifications for pressing that button are more drastic and far-reaching than either of them could ever imagine. As soon as they receive the money they’re embroiled in a web that stretches into the farthest reaches of the imagination.

This is a little more complex than you’re led to believe in any of the trailers. I was honestly underwhelmed when I first heard about the idea, but after hearing more about it, it started growing on me. I wanted to know what the deal was with this button, and what I got was beyond my wildest imaginings. It’s unusually dense for a Richard Kelly movie, filled with haunting music, esoteric imagery, and a lot of references to Jean-Paul Sartre that is a bit literate for most, but I found it refreshing. In a way, it’s really his most obscure work yet, even more obscure than the dumb, loud Southland Tales. For something he’s touted as his commercial movie, I have the feeling that he might never have actually seen a commercial movie before, because this movie is quite weird, and more than a little off-putting for the old lady who was looking for The Transporter 4 starring a disfigured Frank Langella.

I can’t say that it’s all good. There are a few things I could have done without. Firstly, Norma, played by Cameron Diaz, has a ridiculous-looking disfigured foot, a handicap that neither looks real nor plays any huge factor in the film. It’s simply an oddity for the sake of being an oddity, and while one scene uses it for leverage (HA!), and other scenes make the slightest attempt at referencing it, it seems like a big thing for no payoff. Also, there are a few characters that deserved a little more screen time while others are given a full fucking set of scenes! I could have done without knowing too much about Arthur’s NASA boss who never really contributed much, but good luck trying to get an elusive character like Lucas Carnes on screen for more than a minute. I suppose it’s a preference thing, but I would have preferred to become immersed in the intricate story rather than see Norma’s sister’s wedding rehearsal dinner and reception. And every now and then you get this weird feeling that Richard Kelly, who also wrote this, doesn’t really interact with people, and doesn’t have an idea of how things sound. Some of his dialog is quite unwieldy, and it’s only amplified by the hushed tone of his conspiracy-theorizing style of conclusion-jumping.

The cast is where things get kind of hazy. James Marsden is good as Arthur, the devoted dad who works at NASA but could use a few extra bucks to help out with the bills and his child’s college education. He has a lot of nuances that help the character breathe; even though Marsden is chiseled from limestone, it appears, I still buy that he could have worked at NASA in the 70s. Cameron Diaz, however, is a problem here as Norma. The main problem being I can’t stand it when people use unnatural accents, and her being Southern is kind of a stretch for her Cali girl pallet. I think she could have lost it and not appeared to be a total outcast; not everyone in the South sounds like Sookie Stackhouse, you know. Frank Langella shines as the mysterious man known only as Arlington Steward, who delivers the box to them for unknown and perhaps unknowable purposes. He is a terrifying presence that exerts a particular will in the film that really shows his growth as an actor from an inferior incarnation of Dracula in the beginning of his career to a real power player. All of my favorite scenes feature him in them.

I like The Box. I might be the only one, but if you can put on your Senior Critic Helmets for a second when you watch it, ask yourself this simple question; why not? Why not let yourself get taken in by the massive web of story that has a philosophical weight behind it? Why not get behind the poor Lewis’s, who only wanted some money for their son’s college tuition? And why not enjoy a movie that has a fair cast, a good director, an excellent score, and an exceedingly good, if not slightly confusing story? If you have some answers to those questions that are valid enough to write down and don’t involve the words “Balls” and “Sucked”, let me know, because I have no reasons why not. So I’ll be the one with the oddball opinion and give The Box 8 noticeably bad Southern accents out of 10!

Tomorrow we get a little Amadeus action going on! Until then!

The Night Out: 2012 (2009), or Epic Fail

15 11 2009

Roland Emmerich likes the idea that the world is coming to an end. He’s certainly made enough movies about the idea. The weird thing is that he’s never really followed the cynical mainstream notion about what will undo humanity; global war. He always likes to think somewhat better of us, and places us in a situation that has grown entirely out of our ability to handle it rather than a situation that is entirely controlled by us. Because we can’t stop a hostile race of aliens from wanting to invade or the unforeseen effects of global warming, but we can stop war anytime we wanted to. It’s an unexpectedly optimistic take on humanity that he’s chosen. It’s not that there aren’t horrible people that populate his films, it’s just that their power only reaches so far and they can only do so much harm before the heroes overtake them. Today’s film is another where Emmerich takes the fate of mankind out of his own hands and sets him up with a series of such large natural disasters that humanity probably will not survive. It’s a slightly new spin on well-worn territory that’s trying to cash in on the most recent end-of-the-world movement, and it just confirms my long-standing belief that if you’ve seen one Roland Emmerich disaster film, you’ve seen them all.

So the world is ending, according to the data retrieved by the advanced scientists over at Chichen Itza Astronomical Research Facility about 1100 years ago. They accumulated with their highly accurate scientific machinery a wealth of important and terrifying discoveries, the most disturbing of which was that the best toilet paper available to them a millennium ago was a corn cob. But a close second place goes to the fact that an important astronomical event was to occur on December 21, 2012, something so important that they decided to stop their long count calender ON THAT DATE. Flash forward to 2009, where a group of real modern scientists discover that there will indeed be a huge even going down on 2012, but it’s probably the worst thing imaginable; a massive solar flare will bear down on the planet, causing the tectonic plates to shift dramatically and consequently starting enormous tsunamis all across the globe. It’s estimated the shift will be so dramatic that nobody is expected to survive. So the scientist, named Adrian Helmsley, has about 3 years to try and work with the world’s governments to try and save some semblance of humanity and monitor the earth’s seismic activity.

By the time 2012 actually arrives, only a few people in the world’s political administrations have been notified, and Helmsley feels like it’s time to get the word out. But the quakes are occurring more frequently than expected, and before Helmsley can really do anything, the disasters start happening all over the globe. It’s global chaos, with millions dead and more expected to die along the way as the plates shift dramatically and the earth falls out under everyone’s feet. He as well as the top scientists and officials in the American government are being shipped out of danger via Air Force One. A plan has been hatched to safeguard about 400,00 of the best, brightest, but mostly richest people, as well as Earth’s most precious flora, fauna, art, and cultural artifacts, in a secluded Chinese mountain range. Can they make it there in time? Will Helmsley’s heartless politician boss make the right decisions for humanity? Or will he have to take charge of his own destiny, and the destiny of perhaps the last shattered remnants of the world?

Oh, and there’s a really stupid and useless story that’s tacked on here about a limo driver/ former author who is trying to get his family, including his two kids, his ex-wife, and her boyfriend, to safety and somehow makes it from LA all the way to the secluded mountain hideaway in China, narrowly dodging natural disasters along the way. And that’s supposed to be the MAIN STORY LINE! Boring. No thank you.

This is a two and a half hour long movie. Two and a half hours of worn-down material that I saw in 1996 and in 2004. 2012 is the third in a series of disaster movies that Emmerich has helmed, the first being Independence Day and the second being The Day After Tomorrow. Did you feel like the setup to those two were similar? Well, it’s deja vu all over again, because this is more of the same! You have the effects of the disasters shown in painful, excruciating detail, you see the human cost from the highest station in the land all the way to some old Jazz singers on a boat, and, best of all, you get the inane social commentary/humor moments from the sassier characters! Are you pumped yet?

The main draw is supposed to be the effects, I suppose. 2012 is the 2nd most expensive movie of all time before adjusting for inflation. And PARTS OF IT show that off with some amazing CG. I’ll say that 50% of the time, I’m impressed by the effects. There are a lot of neat things they do with lava and volcanoes as the plates shift that really immersed me in the landscape. The exquisite detail in the tsunamis are also hard to ignore, and the awesome force of nature is unleashed in their terrible scenes of destruction. But other scenes, like near the beginning with the cracks in the roads and the initial destruction of LA, are actually pretty weak. I did not believe it for a second. They seemingly put more time and effort into certain scenes, and while those certain scenes look awesome, it makes for a very uneven experience, and I would have liked a more complete and smooth CG experience.

The “star” of this movie is John Cusack, but the hero of this movie is Chitwetel Ejiofor, who plays Dr. Helmsley. Much like his other two disaster movies, Emmerich breaks the story down into a story we care about, and a story we could have done without. I REALLY did not care about John Cusack’s implausible around-the-world journey to get his family and his family’s new dad (!) out of the way of the destruction. I mean, Cusack isn’t even going out of his range on this one, and somehow he gets more screen time than the guy who’s trying to save the human race just because his name is easier to say! Hell, I can’t even remember his character’s name, and they say it probably a thousand times! Not that it matters, since he’s basically John Cusack playing John Cusack in a John Cusack film. What a crock of shit! Ejiofor is seriously good, though, and one of the only reasons to watch this. Other big names pop in for this easy payday, and let me just do a quick run-down for each of them:

Danny Glover plays the President here. Neither here nor there, a pretty tepid disaster President. He had one touching scene after the disaster hit, though, while Bill Pullman in Independence Day had zero, so kudos!

Amanda Peet is John Cusack’s ex wife. She looks pretty good here, which I assume was her reason for being cast, and her character is pretty cookie-cutter, so nothing really to say, except that she needed to be a little more independent; I would have liked to see HER fly a plane.

Thandie Newton is similarly banal as the President’s daughter. Her performance has about the same Ph level as water; there’s no flavor, not even a bitter bite. I think she’s immensely talented, and I did not relish watching her in this movie. But it’s better than Norbit

And Woody Harrelson shines in a cameo bit as Charlie, an oddball right-wing conspiracy theorist who is actually right on the money. His crazy is kind of infectious, and he’s definitely playing to type in the best sort of way. I can imagine Woody being like this off the set.

There’s really nothing new with 2012. If you like the idea of the world coming to an end, you like cool and innovative special effects, or find natural disasters fascinating (like Bren does), this might not be a total waste of your time. But it will definitely be at least a partial waste of time because the movie is two and a half hours long! Just don’t come in expecting anything new, because apparently the Roland Emmerich Idea Bucket (the patented R.E.I.B.) has officially been emptied, so now he’s cribbing from his own films and making bizarre and possibly self-plagiarizing hybrids of them. I’m not a fan, but I guess you didn’t expect me to be, considering I called Independence Day “a charcoal briquette that you painstakingly watch as it slowly burns its own appeal away into the atmosphere”. I honestly should have just copied and pasted that review, but hindsight is 20-20, and this is only 2012 (HA!!!). Anyway, I give 2012 4 John Cusacks as John Cusack out of 10.

Keep an eye out for my second review of the day! Until then!

Sorry! I Will Return Tomorrow!

14 11 2009

Sorry, everyone! I was watching 2012 to review it, but it ran about an hour too damn long, and I can’t finish it! Be assured that I will have that plus another review tomorrow! Until then!