The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension! (1984), or A Black Belt In Crazy

21 12 2009

Another big shout-out to Alex for recommending another movie to me! What a hero! This was a great experience; I appreciate you sharing this with me!

If I were to correctly put Buckaroo Banzai in a genre… on second thought, I don’t know if that’s possible. This is undoubtedly one of the wildest movies I’ve seen in my tenure here at Cinematronica! The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension!, otherwise known as TAoBBAt8D! is something that cannot be put very simply into words. Blending pulp action, comedy, sci-fi, satire, camp, spy flick, and romance into one movie that is as hilarious as it is completely insane. It’s also one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen. There’s something so charming about the nutty concept, the totally dope special effects, and the witty writing make this a winner hailing all the way from the 8th dimension!

Remember the setup for Indiana Jones? It’s basically like that, only crazy. We arrive in the middle of the unfathomable life of Dr. Buckaroo Banzai. He is probably the most legendary dude who ever lived; he can do anything! He can fight, do amazing science stuff, play in a rock band, and negotiate in times of political crisis! The movie is about one particular incident in which Dr. Buckaroo Banzai must defeat an inter-dimensional species of aliens known as Red Lectroids. During a test run of his Jet Car (!!!), Dr. Banzai successfully drives through solid matter by driving through a mountain. When he emerges on the other side, though, he discovers an alien pod that has attached itself to his car. Hearing of this, a strange Italian scientist named Dr. Lizardo breaks free of an insane asylum. An earlier experiment of similar repute 50 years ago briefly opened a door to the 8th dimension, where an evil alien possessed his mind!!! Now the Dr. has escaped, and, with an evil alien in his head, he has plans for unleashing Lectroid havoc all across the globe! But Dr. Banzai happens to be an expert at kicking alien ass, and he is well versed in the art of just about everything. With his amazing team of scientists and band mates and other various relations to the man, the myth, the legend, called the Hong Kong Cavaliers (!!!), Banzai will try to stop the mad scheme of Dr. Lizardo, that involves somehow Rastafarians, Orson Welles, samurais, the Cold War, and a place called Yoyodyne Defense Company! Can Dr. Banzai do it? He has no choice! Otherwise, we’re all doomed for an alien invasion!

Crazy enough for ya? TAoBBAt8D is something that isn’t really easy to process on paper. I really skimmed through all the plot here, I could go on for hours about all the amazingly superfluous backstory going on here. It’s purposefully dense to give that illusion of history for a new character. Imagine walking in on Dragonball Z halfway through, right when Frieza is about to destroy planet Namek. If you don’t watch the show, you’re going to be monumentally lost, but in a bewilderingly exciting way, which is the effect that Buckaroo Banzai has on you. There’s so much cool stuff happening, and so many references to earlier adventures, that you get lost in this fabricated mythology, and it’s a delightful feeling that this film pulls off incredibly well.

The movie is so kitsch in that hilarious 80s way. The fashion is so forward for ’84 that it’s probably getting cool again as we speak. Everyone wears unfathomable colored jackets with no shirt on underneath and madcap gaudy accessories that scream “I don’t care what my children will say when they see my in 20 years!”. The music is pretty awesome, with Peter Weller actually doing all his own vocals and guitar work for Banzai’s rock band. It’s dated, but actually catchy as hell, and I might, just maybe, like Weller’s voice (I’m still not sure yet). The production is very imaginative, filled with striking images, out-there sci-fi effects, and creative, beatific editing. The movie feels very alive, and every scene etches the wild, convoluted world deeper into your consciousness with its turn-on-a-dime style of direction and scripting. It’s a perfect tone for a movie like this.

Buckaroo Banzai has quickly earned itself a place on my DVD shelf. I liked its originality, its great presence, its implacable genre-bending ways, and most importantly its exuberance. It’s a movie about having the most amount of fun possible. Dr. Buckaroo Banzai is unrealistically amazing so we don’t have to be; while he’s out there blasting Red Lectroids away from his Jet Car, we can sit back, relax, and enjoy the fun of something so incredibly sill as this. There’s everything to like about this movie, and as well as a space up on my racks of DVDs, it has also merited an essay later on next year. I want to get into the nitty-gritty of this wild and zany movie, but for now let me just say that this is a cult classic with a lot under the hood! I give TAoBBAt8D 9 Rastafarian Lectroids out of 10! A high recommendation!

Tomorrow I check out Dark Country! Until then!

The Night Out: Avatar (2009), or Cameron’s Spectacle

20 12 2009

I currently have a wager set up with my boss. The wager is that within the time of one month, James Cameron’s Avatar will make $200 million domestically. I am not sure whether or not that is obtainable, as of this writing, but what I do know is that nobody has really talked about the movie much since the whisperings of James Cameron’s opus were started earlier this year. All I’ve heard is that the movie costs this much to make, the special effects are so amazing, the technical specs are blah-blah. But the bottom line is this; it’s not AMAZING unless it does its job and tells us a good story. The specs are just a way to tell the story, but if it isn’t very good, then the effects shouldn’t matter, but now we’ve gotten away from that into this area where effects trump any other aspect of a mainstream movie in the discussion. Avatar is a movie with truly amazing effects, and it really does have the potential to revolutionize the way people make CG effects. And luckily, the movie has enough archetypal strength to carry some genuine emotional power at times, because it’s honestly, on its own as a story, fairly derivative.

Avatar is essentially The Last Samurai with aliens. A wheelchair-bound Marine named Jake Sully, living in the extremely far off year of 2154, is given a chance to replace his twin brother, a scientist, on the far away world of Pandora where he was to research the alien life there, an alien race known as the Na’vi. He is given an Avatar, a creature made with Na’vi DNA that has mental uplinks so a human might control it via a VR interface, and is sent to help the human-Na’vi relations. The humans are on Pandora to mine a precious metal that is worth millions back on Earth, and while they don’t want to eradicate the Na’vi to get it, they’ll do what it takes to get what they want. But they’re trying the talking approach first, though it hasn’t produced results. So Jake is approached by one of the mercenaries contracted by the company mining the mineral with a simple proposition; infiltrate the Na’vi, learn their ways, gain their trust, and learn their defenses at the heart of the forest, and the mercenary will get him his legs back. Jake is torn between the Na’vi, a people he is learning to love and understand, and the ability to walk again, to be self-sufficient. As his Avatar gains more respect in the Na’vi tribe, and he falls more and more in love with the Chief’s daughter, the responsibility he has shouldered in the human world to bring war upon them becomes too much to bear. What will Jake decide to do about the home he has found light years away from his old world? Can he save his new-found people amongst the forest? Or are they doomed to make way for a strip mine?

Avatar’s stats are self-evident, and they have been propagated all over the internet. Let’s just say a LOT of work has gone into this film, and director James Cameron has spent a good chunk of his life making this come to life. I am very serious when I say that the special effects in this film represent a change in the course of how movies will look in the future. Nearly this entire movie is created from completely new CG concepts, and the realism for something so fantastic is really and truly remarkable. There are animals and plants and places that feel real, that breathe with a life of their own. It seems like the sky is the limit now, like anything could be possible all over again. The ceiling has been shattered again with living, kinetic CG characters that exist in an immersive world all their own, and many people will be spending many years trying to achieve what has been created here. There are flying creatures here called ikran (they look like pterodactyls but more alien) that had me rubbing my eyes in amazement from their sheer technical and aesthetic beauty. Hopefully, whoever is next, they will come up with something that is a little more robust and strikingly original from a story standpoint as well, rather than from just a visual standpoint.

Why do I say that? Well, because it’s not something you’ve never seen before. In fact, you’ve probably seen it quite a few times before. It’s 160 minutes of a man going native. That’s it. There’s a forest of cool shit walking around, but the main story is, verbatim, a mix of The Last Samurai and Dances with Wolves dashed with a sprinkle of astro dust and shot in digital 3-D. The script is derived from archetypes as broad and as universal as Joseph Campbell’s wet dreams, not to mention the situations are completely and utterly stock. I won’t say that it’s terrible. The situations presented give us an almost reactionary response that we cannot avoid, and I could feel myself becoming attached to the Na’vi and their world a number of times. But not once did I really feel the characters, their plight, or any of the dramatic scenarios they set up. The only thing that I enjoyed was the emotional attachment the audience gains for the forest, the poignant remembrance of a life of freedom we have traded away for modern convenience, because at times I cannot help but feel that this world would be much simpler if we were closer to the bosom of the earth, even if it meant the end of modern life and the easy prosperity of men and their long-winded lives.

The acting is good, but it’s really not fair. No matter how cut Sam Worthington is, he can’t really hold a candle to how cool his Avatar looks. For what it’s worth, though, he is a damn fine up-and-comer, and I think his turn here as Jake was enjoyable. I especially love his strength in the face of his disability; what a trooper! Stephen Lang is the villainous mercenary trying to kill the rain forest and the Na’vi. He is unflinchingly evil here, and more than that he is uncaring and battle-hardened, which seems to be an irreversible condition in the face of all the carnage he causes. Sigourney Weaver throws Cameron a bone and gets in here as a scientist helping Jake realize his potential as an Avatar controller. She is a hard-ass, but Weaver adds a sweetness that comes out as she controls her own Avatar, a nice touch that adds to the experience. And Zoe Saldana, while never really acting, lends her voice to the Na’vi chief’s daughter, Jake’s love interest, who shows him the ways of her people. She has a lot of character that comes out in her strong but intensely feminine voice that really makes the character come to life. She has to speak another language a lot, and she also does a different voice than her speaking voice, which I L-O-V-E.

Odds are, you’ve already seen Avatar, so I don’t know why I’m reviewing it, honestly. Apparently it is the 7th highest grossing opening of all time as of today, and the numbers are only growing. But if you haven’t seen it yet, I’ll just say that you might not get what you’re expecting. It’s a decent movie that is jacked-up by the aesthetic. If the budget were quartered, I don’t think Avatar would be seeing the attention it’s receiving. But the numbers are what people are talking about nowadays, for good or bad, and this movie is certainly up there as far as that game goes. It’s a huge movie with what seems to be the future of CG as a bolster, and while that’s certainly nothing to snub one’s nose at, let’s not put this on more of a pedestal than it needs to be just because the price tag is more than we could afford in out lifetimes. I give Avatar 7 sprinkles of astro dust out of 10.

Tomorrow I promise to watch The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai! Until then!!!

Mortal Kombat (1995), or I Had No Taste As A Kid…

19 12 2009

I had to interrupt my viewing of The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai today. I seem to be doing that a lot lately, but with the end of the year rushing up to meet me like a tide of joy and effulgent triumph, I can’t keep my mind on only one movie. In a moment of extreme inspiration, I decided I needed something extremely action-packed and filled with suspense, danger, some martial arts, and topped with heaping helpings of awesome! But, unfortunately, all I could find was this, the smash hit of summer 1995, Mortal Kombat! It’s so cool they spelled combat with a K! Other than the faux etymology, however, there’s not much to rave about in this video game adaptation. I don’t know if I needed to let you know this, though, because depending on the demographic I cater to, you’ve probably already seen it and purchased the smash platinum soundtrack! Everybody my age, as a rite of passage, has seen this at some point in their lives, expecting some sort of action epic, and I’m sure when they were young, as I was when I saw it, they were blown away by it all. But I implore you, if you want to keep your nostalgic fuzzy memories intact, don’t watch it again as an adult, because you will be astoundingly disappointed.

Mortal Combat with a K is based on the SMASH HIT VIDEO GAME of the same name. Basically, once a generation, the top fighters from all over the world are invited to participate in a tournament to test their skills against people from Earth and beyond. That’s right, I said beyond; people from all the other mystical realms of the cosmos (?) are competing in this, especially one realm known as the Outworld. The leader of the Outworld has sent his most powerful sorcerer, known as Shang Tsung, to defeat the fighters from the Earth realm and gain entry into their world so he can do evil stuff to it. Three unlikely warriors are chosen; Johnny Cage, an actor whose attitude might be bigger than his skill, Sonya Blade, a special forces unit member who is looking for vengeance for a dead partner, and Liu Kang, a man who is also looking for vengeance who seems chosen by the Lord of Lightning, Rayden (who is a white guy, for some reason, even though everybody who worships him is Asian…). With Rayden’s help, can these three unlikely heroes take charge of the destiny of the Earth realm and stop the evil surge of the Outworld? Probably!

Mortal Combat with a K is an epochal action epic. At the time, the early CG effects, the animatronics, and the music were unbelievably on the mark as far as timing. It was like the Transformers of 2009; it was the movie that everyone went to see for the spectacle of it all, because everyone had apparently already seen it. But, like all epochal epics, it has aged terribly. The effects now seem very embarrassing, the creature effects are on the level of an episode of Sesame Street, and the hairdos look like they were all ripped off of extras from Demolition Man. How times change things! It’s good for a laugh, but I promise you that it does not hold up very well. You know that quality The Wizard of Oz has, that timelessness and bold character it exudes despite the year the film was shot and the adjusted budget it ran on? Mortal Combat with a K looks at that timelessness, shrugs its shoulders, and starts doing the Macarena!

This is professional plebeian Paul W.S. Anderson’s first big-budget movie, and his second feature overall. For his second shot, it’s honestly not that terrible. Considering this is the guy who would later mindfuck the die-hard fans of the Resident Evil series forevermore, this is a somewhat tolerable mindless action film. Sure, it goes limp about halfway through after a barrage of good-versus-evil poppycock and a parade of characters we don’t care about getting beat up, but it has some engaging fight scenes and a few inventive martial arts sequences (my favorite battle was between throw-away villain Reptile and Liu Kang; good stuff!).

The actors fare a little worse. Christopher Lambert dons some white hair and an inexplicable accent to play Rayden. He doesn’t actually fight; he just laughs in that weird Lambert-esque cackle and strings together various taunts and phrases. Not too good. Robin Shou, who plays Liu Kang, is without a doubt the standout. He’s a good actor, a great fighter, and I can buy him being the Chosen One. Good all around hero. Bridgette Wilson plays Sonya, to my chagrin. This was a bad choice for her. She is a bland asshole character the whole movie, she doesn’t try to branch out a single iota, and worst of all, her fight scene is fucking shameful! It is one of the worst I’ve ever seen. She doesn’t try very hard, and that’s what kills me. Whatever training she went through to get the part, it was a total waste, because she just does not give it her all, and I can’t get behind anyone who half-asses their job for six-figures. Linden Ashby is a good jerk, though, as the one and only Johnny Cage. His smooth-talking and his one-liners seem to come naturally, which always helps the flow of the comic relief.

Mortal Combat with a K is something to watch with your friends and laugh about. It sure gets the cheeks red of someone who talks it up (I know a guy who thinks this movie is like manna from heaven). I listened to Bren’s copy of the soundtrack this afternoon, and could not control a Category 5 smile as it erupted from my face. It’s kitschy, straight-faced in the face of its own insanity, and it has an animatronic giant with four arms named Goro who gives his best O-face every time he wins a fight! What more could you want from a comedy? I give Mourtul Kaumbāt 5 1/2 Caucasian gods of Asian people out of 10!

Tomorrow I should have a surprise review coming up! Until then!!!

Judgment Night (1993), or Four Friends Plus One Wrong Turn Equals Thrill-A-Minute Action!

18 12 2009

Judgment Night is a quick, cheap thriller from the early 90s that comes packing a lot of heat. Starring some fairly talented actors and featuring a solid premise that really ratchets up the mood, I found this to be a movie that worked based on its eerie reminder of reality. Something I had never known about the urban sprawl of Chicago, which a number of people, former residents and the like, have opened my eyes to is the fact that there are entire blocks, entire areas of old Chicago that are veritable ghost towns. Nobody goes there, police don’t even patrol around there, so it is an absolutely perfect place to be mugged and murdered. One of these areas, a casualty of modern urban planning, is the setting for Judgment Night, and the old side of town becomes a character itself as the main characters play cat and mouse with a killer within its striking old confines.

It starts out as just another night on the town with a couple of friends. Four middle-aged buddies from the suburbs decide to go out to a boxing match downtown and have a good time. One of them can’t go at the last minute, so one of them, Frank, decides to supplement him with his younger brother. They go in a swank 90s RV supplied by one of the friends, and they are having a great time at first. But after the gang takes a wrong turn, they end up on the broken and run-down side of Chicago. The friends start panicking, while Frank’s brother starts rambling about how soft they are and how they don’t know what it’s like to live on the street. But this is all quickly silenced when they hit someone in the barren old streets. He appears to be a dingy thug with a bullet wound and a bag full of money. They try to get him to a hospital, but they are soon dragged into more trouble than they bargained for as the man who the money belongs to, a psycho named Fallon, begins to stalk them, and will not rest until he gets his money back and kills anyone with any evidence on his crimes. The four must use all their wits to keep from becoming another victims of Fallon and his goons, and may just have to resort to going dark places they never imagined on a fateful, terrifying night that will change them forever.

What a scary premise! The thought of being chased down vigorously by anyone is pretty freaky, but adding Dennis Leary to the mix is just plain out of bounds! Judgment Night does not have a whole lot to it. It is a simple thriller with no twists, just the anxiety of being chased through the wrong side of town by men with guns. It’s extreme simplicity is startlingly effective. That, coupled with the dark reality of life on the streets makes it a pretty jarring movie at times.

A problem, though, comes with the execution of it all. This seems a rather sloppy production as far as maintaining a mood goes. There’s really no cohesive effort to create any sense of suspense or danger. Judgment Night just shows you bad guys with weapons and expects you to feel really upset. The music doesn’t really match, and when it does, it’s weak and dated, serving only to drag you out of whatever feeling you were heading towards. The cinematography is not really all that dark for something taking place at night; it reminds me of a dimly-lit music video. And the actors aren’t really that good here. Emilio Estevez is on his A-game, but Cuba Gooding Jr. and Stephen Dorff are on total cruise control, completely botching the rapport between the guys with their very scripted character. I was hoping for a little more from Dennis Leary, who has come into success as an actor, finally, with Rescue Me. But back then, he was struggling for a shot, and I honestly don’t think he could have raised it that much with this little-seen action-suspense film.

Judgment Night is written well, and it has a very interesting idea behind it, but style and execution are rarely the same thing. I feel like it could have been a lot better, if they had chosen to make more of a drastic situation out of it, with more to lose on all accounts, even the audience’s. But for what it is and when it was made, I wont be too tragically harsh on it. I would see it again if it came on tomorrow. I would probably change it back to another station constantly, but I would still see it again! I give Judgment Night 6 1/2 spooky sides of Chicago out of 10!

Tomorrow I take a look at The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai! Until then!!!

PSA: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), or Magnificent Opulence

17 12 2009

Out of all the Wes Anderson movies I have seen, I like The Royal Tenenbaums the best. I am not sure if it is his masterpiece, but whenever I see this movie, I cannot help but lose myself in it. There is a quiet mouthing of pastel joy in the heart of this film, a blithe human spirit dressed in the prim and proper attire of a stuffy wealthy sensibility. Wes Anderson’s beautiful epic comedy/drama is really in a class of its own; there will never be anything quite like it, and it is that striking uniqueness that makes it so enjoyable, and what will make it a cinematic classic in the coming years.

The Royal Tenenbaums follows the very unique lifestyles of the Tenenbaums, a well-to-do family headed by ne’er-do-well Royal Tenenbaum. He and his wife Etheline raise three prodigal children, two of their own, and one adopted daughter. Chas is a science genius, Richie is a tennis savant, and little Margot is a little playwright in her own right (HA!). They’re all living on a high from their arly success, but in their prime Royal rains on their parade by telling them that he and their mother will be separating. Cut to a few years down the line, and the Tenenbaum children are all in a post-prodigal funk. Chas is over-protecting his two sons after their mother died in an accident, Margot is married to a much older man she doesn’t really love, and Richie is unmoored in life after a meltdown at a tennis match. The family is scattered about everywhere, but news of a family tragedy brings them together. Royal, aghast at the thought of Etheline marrying again and broke after years of lavish spending, fakes stomach cancer and asks to stay at the house to try and interfere!!! Everyone gathers to see their poor, allegedly cancer-ridden father, and Royal sees for the first time what a circus his family has become in his absence. He tries to help out with Chas’s sheltered kids by getting them out more, helping Margot out by trying to give her advice on her relationship, and helping out Richie by giving him his honest opinion on the fact that he’s in love with his adopted sister (!!!). All of this stuff backfires on him, and it only gets worse when it is discovered that he is faking his illness. Can this family ever get back together? Can the children ever heal their wounds? Can Royal stop being such a damn jerk?

This gorgeous pastel movie practically drips off-beat indie-ness. it is everything fragile and forgotten, everything tragically hip and unnecessarily kept on the inside. It reminds me of the rare artistic child in school who had real problems, not some imagined malady that plagued him in a philosophical sense. It is a realization of the innate humor and sadness in the idea of a prodigy, the ones who peak too soon. It is sad that they have nothing to look forward to, but there is something so splendorous about their lameness that Wes Anderson captures so well. Anderson explored a little bit of the child savant idea in Rushmore, ANOTHER film I reviewed, and it stuck out to me then. This is something of a meditation on the notion of the young coming into their own, but growing up to be horrible adults. It is as well as a story of redemption, because everyone is running away from their responsibilities to themselves and others and they need a second chance at life. That’s where the good and at times loving heart of The Royal Tenenbaums lies, this idea that we all need a second chance to try again.

The soundtrack is one of the best I have ever heard. Anderson knows how to pick some good lo-fi acoustic jams for his very soft-spoken style of filmmaking. Simon and Garfunkel, Van Morrison, Erik Satie, The Rolling Stones, and others all pitch in some nice frolicking tunes for the movie, which make up the emotional center of the movie, since everyone is usually too damaged to say what they mean. The best example of this is from the clip above, when Richie tries to commit suicide. It is one of the most haunting images ever committed to film, and not a word is said in nearly 3 minutes. All that we hear are the strained chords on a beat-up acoustic guitar while Elliott Smith gently pounds away his terribly sad song, “Needle in the Hay”. These characters are either quiet, unable to say what they want, or comically dumb, so it’s up to the beautiful music that Anderson chooses to let us in on the mood, and he does a great job in informing us with as many rich details as possible.

The cast is PHENOMENAL!!!! What a great ensemble! When you hear about a great ensemble cast, this is the one that all others are compared to in the new millennium. Gene Hackman leads off as Royal Tenenbaum, the patriarch of the family and an all-around jerk. He’s pretty funny in that offhandedly thoughtless way. Owen Wilson, the co-writer of this with Anderson, does a fantastic job as well, as Eli, a friend of the family who always wanted to be a Tenenbaum. He flies by without much of a fuss, but his few key scenes are a delight. Owen Wilson is my favorite actor here. He plays Richie, the emotionally complicated tennis savant. There is a lot going on here, with the “loving the adopted sister” thing, so he has a lot to juggle, but he shows that he can really hold his own as an actor (too bad he’s hocking cell phones on TV nowadays…) Gweneth Paltrow is dead-pan Margot, adopted daughter of the Tenenbaums, and she adds a meek sarcasm to the movie that I think it really needed. She is sassy in a quiet-but-hilarious way, and in a few of the comments she makes, she tells a little story about her life that is WAY more exciting than anything going on at the time, which is, ironically, quite exciting. Ben Stiller is Chas, in his first real acting role since Reality Bites in the 90s. He has not really acted since, so if you liked him playing the straight man here, as I did, relish it, because it will not be happening very much more in the future, I believe. Anjelica Huston rounds it all out as the quiet, demure mother, Etheline. She is what drives the whole movie in a way, and her classy, independent ways are very close to how I see Mrs. Huston in real life. What an actress! What a lady!

The Royal Tenenbaums is good for me on so many levels. The music, the direction, the unique cinematography, the cast, the cameos by Bill Murray and Danny Glover, and the script come together in a wonderful collage of hilarity and heartbreak that I really, truly enjoy. If you like something that’s a little off-center and different, it also has a universal notion to it that we can all do a little better next time, and that’s a wonderful feeling to have, and it’s something that I can get behind as a filmgoer. You won’t want to miss this gorgeous com-dram that broke the mold back in ’01. I give The Royal Tenenbaums 10 adopted sister love-affairs out of 10! My highest recommendation!

Tomorrow, by request, I will be watching Judgment Night! Until then!

The Departed (2006), or Palpable Dupilicity

17 12 2009

A big thanks to the always-delightful Jenni for requesting this movie! And letting me borrow the special edition on DVD! And for being so generous with her time! Thanks for just being Jenni!

Martin Scorcese has made an entire mainstream career out of the crime drama. The life of the criminal is something that has taken a firm grip in his imagination for the past 40 years in the business. From Italian mobsters to turn of the century Irish gang members to Italian mobsters to psychotic rapists to Italian mobsters, Scorcese has examined the ne’er-do-well and put his methods into the public consciousness for generations to come.  Scorcese’s most recent crime film, The Departed, is another classic that deserves to live atop the glittering, gleaming mountain of public adoration that his other movies inhabit. It’s an intense, intricate examination of identity in a cat-and-mouse struggle that does not let up for more than a moment.

Basically a remake of Infernal Affairs, a blazing Asian crime film made in ’02, The Departed changes the setting from Hong Kong to Boston and adds a few Scorcesian twists. Colin Sullivan, growing up in the mean streets of Boston, was always protected by local mob boss Frank Costello. Costello treated him like a father, the way he did with many young men in the neighborhood, grooming them for service in his syndicate. Costello placed so much faith in him that he trained Sullivan to be his mole in the police, so that he would keep tabs on all the cops poking in on his business. Sullivan has done all that has been asked of him by Costello, who he sees as something of a father figure, and it has been easy for him to play both sides. Unfortunately for him, the police have begun to suspect a mole is in their midst, so they send out one of their own. William Costigan, a young cop from a poor Irish Catholic family, is asked to pose as a criminal, gain entry into Costello’s inner circle, and help bring him down. Both of them infiltrate into their assigned organizations, but they both end up arousing suspicions about spies, so they are essentially sent on missions looking for themselves (!!!). Someone has to sniff out someone, though, so it becomes a battle between the two moles to reveal each other before it’s too late. Who will prevail? And how many lives will be lost in the process?

What a captivating concept!!! The Departed takes the innate suspence of lies and recrimination and uses it against us as we are helpless against the drama of it all. Scorcese keeps us rapt in attention as we mysteriously cheer for the sustaining of a lie. Costigan’s situation is such a lose-lose. Much like Nick Nolte’s character from Mother Night, his identity is basically in the hands of one man. Nobody else knows he is undercover, so he has every possibility of being arrested, which would be bad because Sullivan is a police officer!!! It’s very intense, but we are also taken in a bit by the family-man nature of Sullivan. Besides dropping some info here and there to Costello, he’s not a serial killer or some kind of madman. He’s just a man with ties who is trying to cover his ass and his buddy Costello’s ass while he works his sweet desk job. It’s incredibly well-written, and I found myself really involved with these characters and their confusing lives.

Scorcese did not make a shot-for-shot remake by any means. He adds the flair of a director still wanting to try something new. He and his constant cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, creates a Boston that is dirty, frightening, and hopeless. It’s also the most intriguing portrait of the city I have ever seen, so what does that say for the city itself, I wonder… Either way, these characters live in a rough and tumble city, so everybody in this town seems to be as tough as nails. The way they’re shot, the way they talk, and the way they seem to constantly skirt death, all seem to suggest an outward toughness that is only equaled by their hidden, vulnerable interiors. Scorcese really outdid himself here, and while there’s not much to mull over, it doesn’t seem to give us much time to think anyway, so it makes for a good, quality drama that has a lot of stylistic tones to keep us invested.

The cast is superb, as far as big-name Hollywood goes. Jack Nicholson, although somewhat of a Red Herring as far as the story goes, steals the show as Frank Costello. He chews so much scenery I’m surprised he didn’t rip a hole in Boston’s side! His character is so crass and loud and, at times, ridiculous, that it’s like he’s from a different movie. Costello is that character who doesn’t give a fuck anymore because he’s old, but he’d rather die than let anyone disrespect him, so he randomly becomes super-serious and rather scary on a dime, which I suppose is Jack Nicholson’s specialty. What an exceptional character! I love the two moles, though, as well, Sullivan and Costigan, who are played by Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio respectively. These two are intense! They both play essentially the same character under different circumstances, but it’s really interesting how much more you care about DiCaprio’s Costigan despite their similarities. Costigan has it rough, having to pretend to be a street tough and not having much means of fighting back against Sullivan’s trickery. But Sullivan does have the mental anguish to contend with, the nagging sensation that what he’s doing is wrong and that Costello is just using him. Both actors do a fine job, and I’m glad they received the attention they did at the Academy Awards. There are a few good cameos, but my favorite two are Vera Farmiga, whose small role as a psychiatrist who is romantically linked to both moles is the emotional rock of this rough-and-tumble crime saga. She again impresses, just like she did in the shameful horror film Orphan, and makes me connect to this story even more. Mark Wahlberg plays Dignam, one of the only cops aware of Costigan’s identity, and a real bad-ass. No more Mr. Nice Guy here! Marky Mark is willing to fuck some stuff up to get the info he needs and the respect he deserves. Any in-fighting between the cops usually involves him being one step away from pounding someone. He’s great, and I particularly enjoyed his fateful exchange with an FBI goon asking about his contacts, who happens to be his brother, Robert Wahlberg:

Agent Lazio: Do you have anyone in with Costello presently?

Dignam: Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe fuck yourself.

Great stuff!!!!!!

The Departed is a great crime flick about secrets, and how they can be used as a weapon. There are some great performances, some amazing camera work, a decent soundtrack, and some of the best (and at times funniest) dialog in mainstream Hollywood of the decade. In time, it will be a classic, in the vein of Scorcese’s other gems. But for now, it’s a movie that needs to be watched again and again for its amazing quality and succinct storyline. I give The Departed 9 1/2 blind moles out of 10. A high recommendation!

Stay with me, folks, as I continue to write through the night! Later on, I’ll have a review of The Royal Tenenbaums for you! Until then!!!

PSA: Godzilla Vs. Hedorah (1971), or Trippy Stuff, Dude…

15 12 2009

Okay, this one is just for me. It’s been a long 12 months, and I need a movie for me every now and then. This is one of the silliest movies I could come up with, and it really has no place on any list anywhere for anything. But damn it, I wanted something that would make me laugh! I will watch The Departed tomorrow! I promise!

At the beginning of the 70s, Godzilla was already over a decade old, and so Toho Productions, makers of fine rubber monster costumes, felt it was time for a change. So they gave the reins of the character to the young bloods, the wild ones in Japanese cinema, to try and revitalize it. But, as the apathy of the mid 70s had not yet kicked in, people were still very much into making protest and message movies. So Toho allowed Godzilla to make a trippy, experimental message movie about the dangers of polluting!!! It’s chiefly about what would happen if the sludge from Tokyo Harbor came to life and attacked the city. The monster is named Hedorah by the young boy who discovers it, who also wishes that Godzilla, protector/destroyer of the city of Tokyo, will stop him. Looking like a gray melted plastic taco with terrifying eyes, Hedorah flies around…polluting things, and killing plenty of civilians, who probably caused its existence, so who cares? In the end, as usual, only the big green guy can take care of the city he loves so much by taking matters into his own hands. But with Hedorah’s horrible power of self-duplication and acidic excretions, is there any way for Godzilla to combat the fiendish beast of our own design?

Godzilla Vs. Hedorah is absolutely reviled in the Godzilla community. Most people think it is the weakest link in the entire 50 year saga of the character. I think this might be a lot of inexperience talking, though, because anyone who has seen a really bad Godzilla movie knows that they’re not anything to even laugh about. This is a hilarious fucking movie though!!!! Director Yoshimitsu Banno somehow combined the most popular genres of early 70s Japanese film into one handy amalgam. It starts out with an environment-friendly theme song about finding a solution to stop pollution, then we’re in a psychedelic jazz club getting high with some Japanese guys tripping balls. Then we’re off to hanging out with an environmentally conscious kid who teaches us about pollution and solar systems with the power of Japanese animation! Then, more psychedelia, followed by some horror elements when Hedorah starts violently turning people into gray human soup. And then finally, finally, we get some Godzilla around 45 minutes in. Almost forget it was a Godzilla movie? Me too. Such is the power of Banno’s amazing genre-defying film.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, the worst part of a Godzilla movie, if you’ve ever seen one, is the people. You’ll have them in any Godzilla movie; they’re basically mandatory filler for Toho Productions, who don’t think apparently that men wrestling in rubber monster suits for 90 minutes will keep our attention. And yet, to keep us rapt with attention, we have to watch a bunch of mouth-breathing amateurs prattle about how nice things are pre-Godzilla and how bad they are post-Godzilla. But this film actually takes steps to make the human characters interesting. My favorite people are the skeevy discotheque characters who are too high to notice that pollution is killing Mother Nature. At one point, one of the guys in the club has a bad trip, and everyone around him start wearing fish masks!!! Symbolic, of course, of the lack of fish in the sea, and how they’re all on land now due to pollution! Brilliant!!! And the kid who notices this pollution is something else! He’s hyper-streetwise! All the adults are stupidly unaware of why Hedorah has come to destroy them, but only little Johnny the know-nothing kid had the prescience to know that if you dump enough medical waste near the electric company, you’re bound to bring something to life!

As far as the fighting goes, I give it a solid B. Most people complain about how it takes Godzilla so long to defeat Hedorah, but the way I see it, the longer I don’t have to deal with people and can focus on monsters with powers, the better. Hedorah has the evil pollution attack, which is pretty deadly, and can fly, but for some reason also has laser beams in his eyes (???). Was that really necessary? “Okay, this plant monster, he’ll have vines to wrap up Godzilla, he’ll have some pollen to make him sleepy, and, you know what? Give him a drill arm. Just one drill arm.” Godzilla has his usual, and that should be enough to stop one Hedorah, but Hedorah’s secret weapon is the fact that it can divide and turn into multiple Hedorahs for fun and sport. This makes it more for Godzilla to take control of the battle, and so he falters a bit more than usual.

This is one of those movies where you have to look past the obvious crap exterior to really love it. It’s an environmentally, trippy Godzilla from the 70s who like to listen to prog rock and get wasted while staving off bad trips all the time. It’s really weird, but it’s endearing. I laugh often in Godzilla Vs. Hedorah; if it’s not the costumes the goofy humans, or the ridiculous musical stings,  it’s something, and I can get behind an environment pic that gets us to chuckle. I think, when given a chance, you will like it, especially when compared to some of the suckier ones of the decade (try Godzilla Vs. Megalon). I give Godzilla Vs. Hedorah 7 gray melted plastic tacos out of 10!

Tomorrow I promise to do The Departed! Until then!

I leave you with the inspiring anti-pollution song “Save the Earth” from Godzilla Vs. Hedorah, whose influence can still be felt today! Take it away, lovely Japanese lady!

PSA: Dark City (1998), or Let’s Start Over Again

14 12 2009

A big shout out to Alex for requesting this movie! Your name is now immortalized in my writings! In 60 years time, you’ll be able to print this very review out on a FUTURE! printer and send it into a literary authority for pricing. He or she will soundly laugh in your face and send you on your way, but at least it will get you out and about in your old age!

Okay, let me make this one quick because I have some sleeping to catch up on from a weekend where I saw too many movies. Let’s turn the clocks back a few years, shall we? Long before the movie known as Knowing totally burned down my trust bridge between me and director Alex Proyas. Let’s turn it all the way back to 1998, where techno was getting darker and angsty, the Matrix was brewing in the Wachowski Brothers’ brain stems, and we were living with a President who liked blowjobs on the down-low of the extra-marital kind. Back then, if you had told me a movie like Dark City was possible, I would have mightily doubted you. But assuaging doubts was something Proyas was good at back then, and I would have been put to shame once I saw one of the most cerebral films of the decade. It is a mind-bending sci-fi film that breaks barriers and takes more risks than I ever would have dared to as a filmmaker.

A big part of it is the story, written by Proyas himself. It is crafted so well, to the point that I am surprised that it is not based on a novel. It has all the makings of a great mystery, in the tradition of Raymond Chandler. Involving things as common as amnesia with things as unbelievably complex as the nature of time and the destiny of man as a species, we are taken from the noir to the nouveau and into the world of the extraterrestrial as Proyas weaves his tale of mystery and whispered truths into our minds with his cerebral, gut-punching cinematography and his intense special effects. The magic of Dark City is not the answers to these troubling questions, but how we arrive at the point of discovery.

The characters walk through half-remembered states of routine, living in a haze that seems almost manufactured. It seems like the world has always been that way, but nobody really knows for sure. The truth of their existence is more disturbing than they could imagine, but it’s always just out of their reach. Rufus Sewell plays an amazing amnesiac as the lead character Murdoch. He is really quite amazing here, pulling off what might be one of my favorite performances of his career. He’s fully committed in every way, and it’s his zest for discovery that makes the movie so fun to watch. Also intriguing is Kiefer Sutherland as the Doctor, a mysterious man seen around town in the company of strange, pale-faced men. His quirkiness is practically coming off the screen in chunks; I can’t remember seeing Sutherland so animated. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see him act so weird, so I suggest you relish it. William Hurt plays a detective similar to Phillip Marlowe who is in WAY over his head. He smolders with a low-voiced beat-down attitude that reminds me why I like William Hurt’s character acting so much. He adds so much to this, but you don’t ever notice it the first time, so just try to keep an eye out for him in this film. Do NOT keep an eye out for Jennifer Connelly, though, who plays Murdoch’s gal pal. She again looks helpless and weak throughout most of the film, and whether or not that was a character flaw,  it seems to me that too often I see her just ease up on any realistic emotional response and go for the Hollywood Shuffle. I think she has a lot of potential, but none of that shows up here in Dark City.

I could go on and on about this film. I really like it, and I think it’s a unique experience, even as far as Proyas’s filmography goes. But I am dog tired, so let me conclude by saying that if you were to see one sci-fi film from the 90s, I would probably make it Dark City. It’s well-crafted storytelling from start to finish, and it creates real movie magic by forcing us down this long, shadowy corridor of the mind, not allowing us to see the light until we’re all the way through. It’s amazing, and therefore I give Dark City 9 1/2 jittery Kiefer Sutherlands out of 10! A high recommendation!

Tomorrow we go to Boston for The Departed! Until then!!!

The Night Out: Invictus (2009), or Nobody Knows Who Nelson Mandela Is?

13 12 2009

I find it increasingly alarming that nobody around my neck of the woods knows exactly who Nelson Mandela is. I don’t have a lot of heroes in my life, and over the years I become more and more suspicious of anyone who claims to do something for the greater good. But Nelson Mandela has always been a personal icon for international peace, equality, and, most importantly, forgiveness. His story is harrowing and meaningful, and an important one for us to learn and never forget. But it’s a story that is already fading from people’s hearts and minds, and I hope that today’s film, a spry little sports movie named Invictus brings his inspiring tale to new ears, and reminds everyone that not very long ago, people were still separated in society based on the color of their skin.

It is the story of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the year South Africa hosted it. But it is simultaneously about the life of Nelson Mandela, specifically from his inauguration in 1994 to the Rugby World Cup. When he first takes office, Mandela is swamped from the start with issues that require his immediate attention. Although apartheid is over, South Africa is not yet united, and that seems to be his first great hurdle, to unite the once-oppressive minority whites with the majority of black South Africans. While watching the national rugby team, the South African Springboks, Mandela decides that the way to unite the races is to ensure that the team goes to the World Cup Finals and wins. Considering that they’re a bunch of losers when the film starts, it seems like a daunting task, but Mandela has an idea of how to inspire them to victory. With a tough set of matches ahead of them, can the Springboks pull it together and come from dead last to make it to the Finals? Can Mandela unite a country torn apart by racial tensions? Can anybody tell me what a Springbok is?

Clint Eastwood takes a break from directing taut, heart-breaking dramas to make what might be the most inspiring movie of 2009. It just makes you feel GOOD. I just wanted to erase the racial tensions of my own country after I left the theater, but it’s always a little more difficult in America, you know. It’s a positively uplifting story about the power of one man to forgive and how that can affect a country, and how something as simple as rugby can bring people together from all walks of life. I detest sports, and even I was invested in this plucky underdog story. Eastwood touches on a lot of issues here, and through Mandela we travel across all walks of life to discover the sometimes startling fact that we’re really not all that different.

The production is middling but pleasant. All music in Invictus is surprisingly bland. The more I heard of it, the less I wanted there to be a soundtrack at all. There is hardly any good African music, which happens to be a soft spot for me, and a lot of the songs featured are message songs about peace that only serve to pile on to the peace-iness that is Nelson Mandela’s story. The direction is good, but often Eastwood sticks with a shot and goes with it for too long. I liked his more dynamic work in Flags of Our Fathers and Million Dollar Baby, where he was willing to take more risks with his camera. His straight-forward approach is not bad, by any means, but for an energetic rugby movie, I was not really all that jazzed, even during the sporting scenes.

I cannot stress enough how long I have wanted Nelson Mandela to be portrayed on the screen by Morgan Freeman. He looks and speaks just like the man, and while Freeman is slightly more daunting in stature, they seem perfect for each other in a cinematic sense. And while I was hoping Freeman would do a straight biopic of him, I will take this over nothing. This was Freeman’s role of a lifetime, and he nailed it! Every line was dripping with cultural and historical importance, and I doubt even Morgan Freeman knows how powerful his performance was. Matt Damon exceeds expectations as the captain of the rugby team, Francois Pienaar. He is a little bland, and rather off-putting at first with his prudish Afrikaner family, still does his best and succeeds in hitting some good emotional notes. He is not really that interesting, honestly, but you cannot really fault Damon for this; it seems to be a situation that the character, intrinsically, has not so many interesting things about him, so he just has to work with what he has, and for that I say kudos. A standout minor player is Tony Kgoroge, who plays Mandela’s head bodyguard. As the head of security, he is constantly plastered with a worrisome look on his face and a 24 hour grimace. He is on hgh alert as an actor, and I appreciated how natural he was at it. I look forward to seeing more from this young actor.

Invictus is something special to me because of its content, but on its own merits, it’s merely good. Greatness might have been achieved a great many other ways, by making it more about Mandela’s life and times, perhaps spending a bit more thought on the production, or having more exciting rugby scenes, but it’s far from mediocre. With excellent performances by everyone involved, a very inspiring and uplifting script, and a delightful appearance by the New Zealand All Blacks as the villains at the end, it does a good job for what it is. Anyone not very knowledgeable on Nelson Mandela, though, should watch this and learn a little something about one of the world’s finest living individuals. I give Invictus 8 Morgan Mandelas out of 10. Check it out!

Tomorrow I watch Dark City! Until then!

Blood Diamond (2006), or Zwick On Atrocities

12 12 2009

Director Edward Zwick has taken on many of the pains and triumphs of war in his career. He has covered a number of important battles that have sprung up in our more recent history, and he has certainly has an eye for the vicissitudes of war. In Glory, he bravely covered the Civil War and the trials of the black soldiers fighting in the Union. In Legends of the Fall, he focused on the endurance of family in times of war. Courage Under Fire exposed the Gulf War conflict and the role of women in modern fighting forces. The Last Samurai deals with the American involvement in the Meiji Restoration of the late 1800s in Japan, and one man’s fight against the end of an era and the end of a people. Today’s film, Blood Diamond, is about the most sinister of conflicts occurring in the world today; the war zone that is Northern Africa. So many countries in turmoil and civil unrest, atrocities happening at every turn, and nobody seems to want to intervene. Blood Diamond deals specifically with the exploitation of the Africans during the Sierra Leone Civil War during the late 90s. It’s a harrowing film full of great performances that I think might be Zwick’s best work to date.

Blood Diamond stars Djimon Hounsou as Solomon, a fisherman whose family is taken from him by forces of the Revolutionary United Front, one of many opposing guerrilla military groups rooted in the region of Sierra Leone. His son is taken away to be trained and brainwashed as a member of the group, and he is taken to the diamond mines to dig until he drops. Under the strict leadership of a warlord named Captain Poison, he works day in and day out, ripping the diamonds from the earth. One day, he finds a mysteriously large pink diamond that he keeps and hides for himself. But moments later, there is an attack on the mine by the forces of the ruling government and both he and Captain Poison are taken to a prison. While in jail, he strikes a deal with a Rhodesian mercenary named Archer to help him find his family in exchange for the diamond he found. Archer is a greedy slimeball, and he has his own seedy agenda, but after they’re released from prison and they start looking for Solomon’s family, he undergoes a transformation of sorts, as he begins to look through the world with a new set of eyes. With the help of Maddy Bowen, journalist and generic love interest, can Solomon and Archer make it back to his son before the brainwashing goes too far? Can Archer find peace in himself and become selfless before his greed ruins a friendship and a budding romance? Or will they all be shot to death by crazy militants anyway?

This movie, I believe, captures the dire circumstances of the people living in Sierra Leone during the Civil War. It was a terrible time that most of us, including myself, simply cannot imagine. There were families torn apart, people being brutalized and enslaved, and it is something that we really don’t discuss enough in the Western world. Zwick takes on grueling subject matter, and deals with it in the most sensitive way he can without pulling punches. He gets into the darkest recesses of the dark continent, taking us into the heart of the conflict, which is something as simple as greed. It’s not the kind of greed where a man takes from another man to feed himself and his own; this is the greed of the wealthy, the kind that drags thousands into the mire of conflict to sate. I applaud the director here for finding the hardest-hitting shots and the most evocative angles to bring out the stark reality of the African condition.

The acting is either amazing or off the mark. I swear, Djimon Hounsou, for the first time, makes me sit up and notice him as an actor. As Solomon, he finds a character he can do justice. There is so much emotion that he has to put a voice to, almost as if he were voicing the struggles of an entire generation, and he succeeds almost effortlessly. I hope he continues to make more movies like this, and I think he has it in him as long as they give him the lead (imagine HIM as the lead in Gladiator! Yeah!) DiCaprio is DiCaprio, I should not even have to say any more. He has not disappointed me in over a decade, and I consider him to be one of the best actors of his generation. He invests himself in every role, and as Archer he really branches out to play the greedy white man, which is usually a type he avoids. Michael Sheen again dazzles as a villain, this time playing a corrupt hand in a South African diamond trading company. He is much more subdued this time, opting for the calm, more reserved seat of evil rather than the more obvious, out-there evil he protrayed in New Moon. The only stick in the mud is Jennifer Connelly, who plays maddy Bowen with a wide-eyed mediocrity that can best be described as “I Got Paid $2 Million For This Feature And All They’re Getting Is This Lousy Facial Expression”. ‘Nuff said.

Blood Diamond is a great movie punctuated by powerful performances and scenes that stick with you for a long time after you’ve turned it off. A powerful score enhances this striking drama about greed in Sierra Leone, as does cinematography that does us the service of taking us right into the fray. It’s a great film in the tradition of Zwick’s other war films, and I am very glad to have watched it! Thanks goes to Jenni for recommending this, by the way! I give Blood Diamond 9 corrupt South African diamond trading companies out of 10! A high recommendation!

Tomorrow I have no idea what I shall watch! Please help me decide with RECOMMENDATIONS!