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Feed the Kitty (1952)
One of the Best Films, Long or Short, of All Time. (Yes, I'm Serious.)
"Feed the Kitty" is possibly one of the best stories ever captured on film, whether it be full-length feature or short subject, live-action or animated. In seven minutes, it spins effortlessly between being laugh-out-loud funny, heartbreakingly sad, and tenderly sweet. The relationship between the little kitty Pussyfoot and the gruff guard dog Marc Anthony is magic, infinitely better than some of the relationships in so-called "serious" motion pictures. Pure, unadulterated genius almost seems an inadequate description of "Feed the Kitty" . . . but it'll have to do. It's simply one of the best films ever made. If you ever wanted to know why director Chuck Jones is held in such high regard by the likes of Spielberg, Lucas, and Scorsese (to name just a few), look no further than this little gem. This is absolutely a must-watch piece of animation.
A Glorious, Enthusiastic Mess of a Film
Guy Ritchie's `Snatch' is a highly entertaining crime caper featuring innovative (and often brilliant) direction as well as a horde of memorable, over-the-top characters. The direction and the characters are so good, in fact, that it's quite easy to overlook the threadbare story buried at the bottom of the film. `Snatch' is a great example of a film that excels at flash, flair and extraneous details . . . but has some significant problems with its basic foundation. The end results are still remarkably good, but the flaws while covered up incredibly well -- are enough to keep `Snatch' from achieving the greatness that it comes so close to grasping. (Or snatching, as the case may be.)
The film begins with underground fight promoter Turkish (Jason Statham), a decent guy running with a bad crowd, agreeing to put one his fighters in a fixed bout for the big-time criminal Brick Top (Alan Ford). Meanwhile, Franky Four Fingers (Del Toro), who has recently stolen an eighty-five carat diamond for his boss Cousin Avi (Farina), has decided to place some bets on Brick Top's fixed fight. Nothing goes even remotely right for anyone, of course, and soon there's a mad search on for the diamond by a number of low-life hoodlums, as well as some problems arising from Turkish's new bare-knuckle brawler, a Gypsy named Mickey (Brad Pitt). . .
`Snatch' is a film that's pure eye candy, which is why it's such a joy to watch. Give Guy Ritchie massive amounts of credit -- the man's quite a director. He's a master at editing scenes together in innovative ways, and putting together otherwise ordinary scenes with ingenious and creative methods. `Snatch' is a veritable how-to handbook on visual directing techniques, and it's almost a downright guilty pleasure watching Mr. Ritchie construct this film into such a vibrant, dazzling-looking finished product. The same must be said for the characters, who seem to have come from a place somewhere between `Dick Tracy' and `Reservoir Dogs' -- each and every character in `Snatch' is a distinct and memorable creation, worthy of starring in their own movie, every if they're only on screen for a few moments. (Cousin Avi, Doug the Head, Frankie Four Fingers, Boris the Blade .. . good gravy, where does Guy Ritchie get these wonderful names?) All the characters in `Snatch' and the terrific actors playing them -- are simply awesome. If any deserve special mention, though, it's Jason Statham as the beleaguered fight manager Turkish and Vinnie Jones as the villainous Bullet Tooth Tony. (Any mainstream action film producer would be wise to cast Vinnie Jones as the main villain in any upcoming summer blockbuster; it's almost scary how well Mr. Jones can play a cold-blooded killer.) The characters are an utter joy to watch, and they're filmed in such a highly original and entertaining manner that `Snatch' actually stands apart from other standard action films and independent Tarantino wannabes as something worth watching.
The real problem with `Snatch', though, is that for all its wonderful scenes and awesome characters . . . there's simply not enough story to go around. There's two basic storylines for the film, both pretty good -- but even combined, these storylines are barely enough to last an hour. On the commentary track for the DVD of `Snatch', Guy Ritchie states that his goal for the film was to make a lean and mean story -- well, he succeeded at that goal, but the lean, mean story gets completely bogged down from the weight of its overwhelming horde of characters. Despite how good they are, `Snatch' either would've benefited from a reduction of its cast, if only to provide more time to focus on the storylines; or the addition of a third storyline giving some of the characters more to do also could've helped. (It also might've helped if there was more correlation between the two storylines; the relationship between the two is cursory at best. What's going on in one storyline usually has only slight, minor repercussions affecting the other, and most of the time `Snatch' feels like two distinct and separate small films.)
`Snatch' is a terrific joy ride of a film. The only problem is that the ride really doesn't go anywhere. Still, `Snatch' is one of the best-looking films of the year, and even if it's not necessarily the most satisfying of films, it's certainly a heck of a lot of fun. Worth checking out, for sure. Grade: B+
Reindeer Games (2000)
Doomed From The Start By A Questionable Premise
Most action films are based on a somewhat implausible concept. At some point during any given action movie, the audience will be asked to accept that the meek, mild-mannered accountant trapped in an elevator is really a former Green Beret demolitions specialist . . . or that a blonde stripper is fluent in six languages and can crack government computer codes . . . or that no matter how complicated a nuclear device may be, cutting the red wire will always successfully disarm such a weapon. It's part of the action movie territory. In most cases, the action movie rises above its implausibilities and moves forward into a realm of snappy one-liners and wicked, cool-looking violence that serves to entertain.
Unfortunately, `Reindeer Games' is not one of those action films. Without wandering over into spoiler territory . . . let's just say that `Reindeer Games' is crippled from the very start by a vastly implausible concept that is so utterly massive, it nearly boggles the human mind. This concept is not only wildly unbelievable (and stupid), but it unfortunately also happens to be the lynchpin of the film. Each and every decision made by each and every character in `Reindeer Games' is based in some way, shape, or form upon this fatally flawed concept. As such, it's hard to believe anything that the characters do in the film, simply because their decisions are based entirely on some seriously bad ideas. No normal or sane person would accept the things that all the characters in the movie so blindly accept at face value. . . so it's hard to even remotely connect with the events of the film. Even worse about halfway during `Reindeer Games', a glimmer of hope can be seen, as if some of the characters have some hidden motives that may help explain their idiotic acceptance of the main, flawed premise of the film . .. wrong. The first flawed premise, in a supposedly surprising twist, is replaced by an equally awful and flawed premise, making the film no better than it was before. Accepting flawed and often ludicrous ideas in an action movie is part of the action movie experience, but when the audience is not only asked to accept these hideously bad ideas throughout the entire film, but are bludgeoned over the head with them, as they most certainly are with `Reindeer Games' . . . it adds up to a bad, bad movie.
For those of you still vaguely interested in seeing `Reindeer Games', here's the supposed plot: Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck), a former car thief just released from prison, decides to impersonate his former cellmate Nick (James Frain) so that he can meet a beautiful woman named Ashley (Charlize Theron), whom Nick had been communicating with via a `prison pen pal' program. `Nick' and Ashley hit everything off just fine, until Ashley's brother Gabriel (Gary Sinise) shows up turns out he's a gun smuggler looking to pull a heist at a nearby casino that he knows `Nick' used to work at as a security guard. Unable to successfully convince either Gabriel or Ashley that he's not really `Nick', Rudy is forced to become part of a major robbery and has to find a way out for himself and his new love Ashley before big brother Gabriel decides to `take care' of `Nick' with his semi-automatic assault rifle . . . .
The cast of `Reindeer Games' is pretty good, but even an outstanding cast wouldn't have been able to save this heavily flawed film. Ben Affleck is very good as the reluctant hero Rudy; Gary Sinise is a lot of fun as the scenery-chewing Gabriel; and the lovely Charlize Theron, who seems to be sleepwalking through the first half of the film, actually seems to wake up and redeem herself with some nice stuff in the second half. The actors provide some neat little moments watch for Affleck's `Pecan Pie Diner' scene, it's excellent but none of these moments even come close to overcoming the film's very significant flaws. What might've been able to save the film from its flaws is some heavy-duty, jaw-dropping action . . . and that action never materializes. Not once. Oh sure, there's action, but it's very bland and generic, nothing that hasn't already been done in a thousand other action films. Even without the implausible concepts that mortally wound `Reindeer Games' from the very start . . . the film would've been average at best. Throw the amazingly dumb and implausible concepts on top of this average film, and what's left is a disappointing, frustrating, and bland excuse for an action film.
Decent characters, very weak action, and an incredibly stupid plot that's the best way to sum up `Reindeer Games'. This is the sort of action film that should be collecting a lot of dust on the shelf of your local video store. It provides one or two brief, decent moments . . . but that's it. Overall, not a very good action film at all. Grade: D+
A Hilarious Movie, Though It Has Some Mixed Signals
"Shrek" is a laugh-out-loud, incredibly funny movie that manages to savagely shred the saccharine-sweet Disney film formula throughout most of its scenes. Inexplicably, though, it suddenly embraces that same sweet Disney formula as it draws to a close . . . becoming, in many ways, exactly like the films it professes to mock. "Shrek" tries to straddle the line between savvy adult-based humor and sweet family-friendly humor, usually succeeding, but failing miserably in certain spots. Apparently, the strategy of aiming the film towards both kids and adults worked -- if judging from box-office revenue is any indication, `Shrek' was wildly successful -- but the quality of the film is dropped a notch or two by the occasionally awkward blending of adult satire and child sensibilities. "Shrek" is still a very, very good -- and very, very funny -- film, but it could've either been a classic adult satire or a classic kid's movie, if only the producers of "Shrek" had fully committed to pushing the film in one direction or the other, instead of just compromising to appeal to the masses.
"Shrek" is the story of a lone ogre (aptly named, well, "Shrek" -- and voiced by Mike Myers) whose major goal in life is to live in solitude in his beloved swamp. This goal is somewhat thwarted by the ruler of the kingdom, Lord Farquaad (voiced by John Lithgow), a diminutive, evil tyrant who is forcing all the fairy tale characters in his kingdom to relocate to Shrek's swamp. Shrek, unhappy with this relocation program, makes an offer to Farquaad -- he'll find Lord Farquaad a princess, which will allow Farquaad to get married and become a King. All that Shrek wants in return is his swamp to be made like it was before --empty. Lord Farquaad accepts Shrek's offer -- so, along with his loquacious sidekick Donkey (voice by Eddie Murphy), Shrek begins a quest to find a true damsel in distress -- the lovely Princess Fiona (voiced by Cameron Diaz).
With the possible exception of the "South Park" movie, never has a film managed to so gleefully and successfully tear apart the Disney tradition of animated musicals as well as "Shrek". Scenes are set up in the traditional Disney manner, then shredded with such razor-sharp wit and flair; it's amazingly funny. The humor ranges from over-the-top (Princess Fiona's singing causes a bluebird to explode) to the wickedly subtle (the Magic Mirror's description of Snow White: "She may live with seven men, but don't be fooled . . . she's not easy.") "Shrek" veers wildly between loving reverence and sneering disdain for the traditions of Disney animated films -- the reverent scenes will most likely appeal more to kids, while adults will definitely appreciate those of disdain -- but regardless of the tone, the structure and the direction of "Shrek" is usually incredibly funny. It doesn't hurt that the cast of voices adds immeasurably to the film, either: Mike Myers plays the ogre Shrek with an oddly peculiar but funny amount of patience and practicality (I also suspect he only agreed to the part so he'd have another venue for his outrageous Scottish accent); John Lithgow is perfect as the pompous, overbearing Lord Farquaad; and Cameron Diaz manages to bring just the right amount of outrage and sweetness to Princess Fiona -- I found her to be the best character in the film. Personally, I found Eddie Murphy (as Donkey) to be the most annoying character in the film -- true, he is very funny, and has some of the best lines, but he's a little too much to take at times. The first third of the movie, he was brilliantly funny; the second third of the film, only mildly funny; and by the last third of the film, just irritating. I don't fault Eddie Murphy at all for this, but I do fault directors Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson for not toning the character down.
The main fault with `Shrek', though, lies in the fact that it tries to appeal to two distinct audiences. It's not that such a feat can't be done (Disney's "Aladdin", actually, does this flawlessly), but that "Shrek" juggles between the two audiences so poorly. For example, one of the "big messages" being delivered to children by this film is that appearances don't matter, that people shouldn't be judged by how they look . . . and then a significant amount of time is spent ridiculing Lord Farquaad's small stature. What gives? When the two aspects of a film like this -- the child aspect and the adult aspect -- can exist simultaneously and separately, the results can be wonderful. "Aladdin" is a prime example of this, as are nearly all of the Chuck Jones-directed "Bugs Bunny" cartoons of the early 1950s. When the aspects start contradicting each other, though, it's confusing, and not very funny. As it affects "Shrek", the contradictions aren't enough to significantly drag the film down, but they are quite noticeable, and they do cause the film to stumble. (And another thing . . . okay, a minor rant . . . please, enough with "The Matrix" parodies. They're officially now like all those stupid "I'm so scared" Blair Witch parodies .. . not even remotely funny. Stop beating the dead horse.)
Regardless of the mixed messages, there's no denying that "Shrek" is a very clever, funny movie that will no doubt be entertaining for both children and adults. There will be a few moments, though, when kids will be utterly puzzled by what's occurring in the film . . . and other moments that will have adults gagging from the nauseating sweetness. Still, "Shrek" is very, very good, and in the end, maybe that's all that really matters. It's certainly better than most standard Disney fare, and is still the best animated film of 2001 . . . not too shabby, huh? Grade: B+
The $200 Million Dollar Roger Corman Film
I'll admit it: I liked "Waterworld" . . . or parts of it, anyway. No, "Waterworld" is not exactly Shakespeare -- for that matter, it's not exactly James Cameron, either -- but it hits a certain "Mad Max/Road Warrior" vibe that's moderately cool, and it provides a handful of decent thrills. Should two hundred million dollars been spent on this flick? Probably not, but I'll ask you this: Does it matter? If you only have to plunk down three bucks to rent a movie, does it really matter what that movie's budget was, provided that you were at least slightly entertained?
"Waterworld" is the story of the Mariner (Kevin Costner); a tough, grizzled loner who roams the seas of post-apocalyptic Earth. The polar icecaps have melted, flooding the world, and land has become little more than a legend. During his travels between the tiny man-made islands that comprise the remnants of civilization, the Mariner meets a woman named Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and a small girl named Enola (Tina Majorino) who claim to have knowledge -- or at least a cryptic map -- of where to find land. Of course, a rowdy gang of pirates known as the Smokers also are aware of the fact that Helen and Enola have this knowledge; so, under the guidance of their mad leader Deacon (Dennis Hopper), the pirates try to hunt down the two. Faced with his one slim chance of ever finding land falling into the hands of complete madmen, it's up to the Mariner to protect Helen and Enola -- and ultimately, to try and defeat the Smokers -- if he wants to keep his dreams and himself alive . . . .
The premise of "Waterworld" is interesting enough; I like the fact that the film actually tries to show (at least in the opening scenes) how people would survive in a world flooded by salt water. There's some cool flashes of originality in here regarding what the world would be like -- for example, the fact that ordinary dirt has become so valuable as to become the standard of currency -- but unfortunately, that originality gets ignored the second the action starts rolling halfway through the film. Overall, the script isn't terrible -- however, it's quite predictable. For example, the first part of the film is spent explaining painfully how there is no more land, and how it's just a myth . . . gee, wonder what our heroes will find towards the end of the film? A couple of twists spring readily to mind (for example -- there genuinely is no more land, or dry land can be found far beneath the sea in domed cities, like some kind of "Atlantis", perhaps) -- one such twist would've been nice to see. While the story does have its good moments (particularly any scene involving Dennis Hopper), it's too formulaic to be called exciting. Nice? Yes. Exciting? No. The few good scenes are very, very good, but there's a lot more average -- or even dull -- scenes spread out between the sparse fun.
The most puzzling part about "Waterworld", though, is the direction. The film is loaded with action, and I'll give credit where credit is due -- nearly all of the action looks great, especially since all the fights and the action take place out on the water. But for $200 million . . ? It doesn't look THAT good. I know a significant part of the film's budget was spent on floating sets out in the Pacific -- but the camera cuts and shot selections are usually so quick and tight, it's hard to notice the background. There's no long, slow shots basking on the glory of these expensive sets. "Waterworld" is filmed exactly like a typical action movie, which is okay, I guess, but it completely fails to take advantage of its resources. Quite strange, to say the least.
As for the cast . . . it's a mixed bag. Kevin Costner does a very good job as the grizzled Mariner, playing against type as a hardened, almost amoral anti-hero. It goes against the good-guy grain that Costner has typically played in most of his films, and Costner seems to relish the change. Dennis Hopper is terrific as the villainous Deacon; the role is completely over-the-top and absolutely ludicrous at times . . . in short, the part is perfect for Hopper. His lines simply drip with withering sarcasm, making him a quite memorable screen villain. The rest of the cast . . . ehh. Nobody does a horrible job, but nobody's particularly memorable, either.
Should "Waterworld" have been a $200 Million Dollar Dud? Probably not. In a perfect world, "Waterworld" would've been a $20 Million Dollar Sleeper, directed by John Carpenter and starring Rutger Hauer . . . or a $2 Million Dollar Cult Classic, directed by Roger Corman and starring Lorenzo Lamas. However, this isn't a perfect world (as evidenced by the fact that Freddie Prinze, Jr. keeps making movies), so "Waterworld" is forever branded as the bad film with a runaway budget. Too bad. "Waterworld" is by no means a great movie, but it has some entertaining moments, enough to warrant at least a rental . . . and some frequent pushes of the fast forward button. Grade: B-/C+
The Template For The Modern Slasher Film
John Carpenter's "Halloween" still stands out today as the best horror slasher film of all time, and it's certainly still the standard that all other slasher films copy shamelessly. To be fair, "Halloween" isn't exactly a paragon of originality -- it borrows heavily from Hitchcock's "Psycho", Romero's "Night of the Living Dead", and a number of the later Universal "Frankenstein" flicks, where the Frankenstein monster wandered aimlessly through castle corridors trying to kill people -- but it's the first film to distill all the elements of the slasher genre into a lean, mean core. Other slasher films since "Halloween" have tinkered around with the elements of this core, trying to improve upon it . . . but so far, none of these other contenders and pretenders have come close to succeeding. Despite its distinct low-budget look, "Halloween", by far, is still the most chilling, scary slasher film ever made.
"Halloween" features a very simple but well-done story: Years ago, on a fateful Halloween night, a young boy named Michael Myers puts on a rubber mask and savagely kills his sister with a butcher's knife. Michael is shipped off to a psychiatric facility, where is diagnosed as a sociopath -- an emotionless killer with no concept of right or wrong. For fifteen years, he's held and studied there . . . until again, on a Halloween night, he manages to escape from captivity. He heads back to his hometown with a new mask and a new knife, ready to begin a brand-new killing spree back in his unsuspecting hometown . . .
Written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill, "Halloween" works so well mainly because it keeps all details to a minimum. No motivation is provided for WHY Michael Myers is a bloodthirsty knife-wielding maniac, but then again, one isn't needed. The film works just fine with the basic fact that Michael Myers is an evil killing machine. The same goes for the teenage characters/victims in "Halloween", particularly the character of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) -- these characters are developed just enough for the audience to get to know them, and more importantly, get to sympathize with them. Once the audience starts thinking of the characters as genuine, likable people -- BAM. Michael Myers shows up in full-on death mode, making the audience care about what actually happens to these terrorized characters. It's a great technique for building fear and suspense, one that John Carpenter pulls off perfectly . . . . and one that's been lost with more recent slasher films. Nobody cares if the Killer Du Jour of "Generic Slasher Film" starts butchering the unlikable characters, because the audience doesn't care if the unlikable characters die. With "Halloween", the audience cares, which is one of the reasons why it's such a good film.
Another technique used by Carpenter that gets overlooked today is how the story moves along at such a rapid-fire pace. "Halloween" takes place in a single night, with Michael Myers moving and killing at a relentless pace. Sure, the other characters do dumb things -- sometimes, they make it almost entirely too convenient for Michael Myers to slit their throats -- but at least the stupidity is plausible, simply because neither they nor the audience is given time to think about what's happening. The characters don't have time for logic; they're running instead on pure animal instinct, and that instinct is often wrong. Compare that to later drivel like "I Know What You Did Last Summer", where the characters essentially wait around their hometown for weeks, waiting to be picked off by a knife-wielding maniac . . . stupid. Those characters had time to think and to properly assess their situation. The characters in "Halloween" aren't given the luxury of time, making their panic and irrational behavior all the more believable -- and making the film all the more terrifying.
There's other items as well that set "Halloween" apart from all other slasher movies, or at least mark it as an original -- Carpenter's claustrophobic use of Steadicam to give the film a nervous, uneasy edge; the fact that "Halloween" lacks a sense of humor and treats its story with deadly seriousness, unlike the smug, smarmy, slasher films of recent years; or the creepy way that Carpenter has Michael Myers moving through the background of otherwise innocuous scenes. The bottom line, though, is that "Halloween" pulls all the right elements together -- and then assembles them together flawlessly -- to form the perfect slasher film. I'll be honest -- if you don't like the slasher genre, then you probably won't like "Halloween". However, if you do like the slasher genre -- or have never seen a slasher film -- then I highly recommend "Halloween". Without a doubt, it's simply the best film of its kind. Grade: A-
Escape from New York (1981)
Not Exactly An "A-Number One" Movie, But Darn Close
"Set in the dark future of 1997 . . ."
Okay, so John Carpenter's post-apocalyptic vision of the future didn't exactly come true, but "Escape From New York" still holds up as a darn fine low-budget sci-fi/action flick. Snake Plissken (as played by Kurt Russell) is still one of the coolest anti-heroes ever to grace the silver screen, and the story still contains some great scenes and dialogue . . . so who cares if parts of it look like low-budget cheese? As long as you can appreciate great low-budget cheese, you'll be fine.
"Escape From New York" is set in the supposedly dark future of 1997, where the island of Manhattan, completely overrun with criminals and terrorists, has been walled off and turned into a Federal prison colony by the United States government. The most vicious and ruthless criminals in America aren't sent to regular prisons anymore . . . they're simply dropped into the walled confines of Manhattan, where they face the choice of being killed by the other criminals living on the island or being killed by government sharpshooters if they try to climb the walls and escape the prison colony. So, New York has been transformed into a lawless hellhole where murderers rule the streets, and from which escape is impossible . . . and exactly where Air Force One has just crash-landed, with the President of the United States (Donald Pleasance) aboard. To rescue the President -- and the President's unknown but valuable cargo -- military man Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) decides to send the best man for the job into the heart of this lawless hellhole. That man is Snake Plissken (Russell), an ex-soldier and former war hero who no longer takes orders from any man -- but who faces execution unless he can bring the President back from New York alive . . ..
"Escape From New York" features a terrific plot as its foundation and a great cast for support. It's the details, though, where the film starts to slip. Some of the details -- both in terms of story and production -- are quite good, others . . . well, they'll make you wince. Director (and script co-writer) John Carpenter is smart enough to keep things simple and to keep everything moving along at a rapid pace; whenever things start moving into the realms of the laughably stupid, something new and cool happens onscreen to wipe that stupidity away. It's a story painted with very broad and vivid strokes; everything seems very cool and makes sense as long as you don't dwell on the details. Carpenter also takes what advantages he can from his low budget and low production values -- almost everything is filmed in the dark, and a lot is filmed indoors; also, everything (props, costumes, etc.) are deliberately given a cheap and dirty look, rather than attempting to make things look good with no money. Not only do these moves let "Escape From New York" look as good as it possibly can, but it also fits the feel of the "gritty, dark future" that already permeates the film.
The characters in "Escape From New York", though, are what really make the film shine. Donald Pleasance is perfectly cast -- and perfectly scummy -- as the President, who is little more than a weasel in a three-piece suit. It's great to watch Pleasance strut around pompously in the beginning of the film -- hey, after all, he's the President of the United States -- and then eventually be reduced to a pathetic, animal-like, gun-wielding thug, no better than any other criminal trapped within the walls of Manhattan. Ernest Borgnine serves up some welcome comic relief as the cheerful Cabbie, who's possibly the only happy person still living in New York. Isaac Hayes, of all people, turns out to be very good as the "A-Number One Duke of New York"; he's not exactly what you'd expect from a movie villain, but he definitely makes the part distinctly his own. Lee Van Cleef is great as the no-nonsense Bob Hauk; he plays Hauk in a low-key but menacing manner that stands out nicely against the over-the-top performances put in by nearly every other actor. But "Escape From New York" is really Snake Plissken's movie, and Kurt Russell is THE reason that Snake Plissken is one of the best movie anti-heroes of all time. Partly borrowing from Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name" character, Snake Plissken is a man who's going to do whatever he feels is right or necessary, and orders be damned. He doesn't say much -- he usually lets his guns or his fists speak for him -- but when he does speak, he doesn't mince words. It's interesting to note that nearly every other character in "Escape From New York" is a liar of some sort with selfish hidden agendas . . . not Snake. He always speaks his mind, he nearly always speaks the truth, and ironically, he's the most dangerous character in the movie. Kudos to Kurt Russell for making Snake Plissken one of the best sci-fi/action characters of all time. For Snake Plissken alone, it's a genuine pleasure to watch "Escape From New York".
Director John Carpenter will probably never be appreciated for what he is -- the master of the modern B-movie. Along with "Halloween" and "They Live", the film "Escape From New York" stands as one of the greatest modern B-movies ever made. Carpenter's films often look like they have the budget of a high school musical production, but they usually at least manage to be original and entertaining . . . which is something more than a lot of recent $100 million dollar so-called "blockbusters" can claim. (Forget the production values; I'll watch "Escape From New York" over the soulless, spectacularly unoriginal "Tomb Raider" any day of the week.) "Escape From New York" might not be one of the slickest or best-produced action films ever made -- but it is one of the coolest action films, and certainly one of the most memorable ones. It might seem cheesy in places, or a little raw and crude in others . . . but it's got heart, and it's got guts, and in the end, that's what really matters. A great action flick, and one of the best "B" movies ever made. Grade: A-.
They Live (1988)
When Bug-Eyed Monsters Become Politicians . . . .
John Carpenter's "They Live" is really a fiendishly clever reworking of the "Bug-Eyed Monsters From Outer Space" movies of the 1950s. Instead of featuring insect-like aliens trying to take over the world, though, "They Live" features aliens that have managed to disguise themselves as human beings . . . and they aren't "trying" to take over world, because they've already succeeded in taking it over. Politicians, newscasters, policemen, business executives -- these are the positions in human society that the aliens have assumed, and as such, they effectively rule the world. It's an offbeat take on a conventional movie formula, and for the most part, it works fairly successfully.
"They Live" is a story about Nada (Roddy Piper), a downtrodden, unemployed construction worker just looking for a job and a little happiness. (Those looking for a shred of subtle subtext in this film will note that Nada's name literally means "nothing".) While wandering aimlessly through some city streets, Nada discovers a strange pair of sunglasses that allow him to see a different world than the one he sees normally: a world blanketed with subliminal messages. Magazines and television ads flash messages like "Obey", "Submit to Authority", and "Conform". Nada is also able to see the true form of all his supposedly human authority figures (policemen, politicians, and the like) -- they are all bug-eyed aliens, dedicated to keeping the human race happy, dumb, and subdued. Nada, who's already tired of being pushed around and told what to do, decides that's there's only one way to take care of this alien menace -- and that's to take matters into his own hands, preferably with an automatic weapon . . .
"They Live" is an interesting, if not always successful, movie because of its ability to take some standard movie formulas and inject some new twists -- and realism -- into them. It's not the typical tale of humans beating back confounded aliens without too many setbacks or difficulties. Instead, there's some real problems -- Nada (and the other resistance fighters he encounters) find that not all of their efforts to fight or defeat the aliens actually work; the aliens actually use all the vast resources at their disposal to their full advantage, instead of constantly being dumbfounded by the human freedom fighters; and so on. (As an example of an original plot twist, I liked the fact that the aliens use the TV networks to portray Nada as a psychotic killer to the public at large after he shoots some aliens; after all, without the benefit of Nada's strange sunglasses, the aliens look like ordinary, everyday human beings . . .) Just when the events of "They Live" look like they're going to become predictable, something happens that completely shifts the film in a brand-new and original direction. This originality is occasionally hit-or-miss -- sometimes, the brand-new and original direction works a lot less effectively than a more predictable direction would've worked -- but "They Live" deserves credit for constantly daring to be different, if nothing else.
The other factor that makes "They Live" such a fun, interesting movie is its hero -- Nada. Instead of making Nada the stereotypical hero of a bug-eyed monster movie -- i.e., the scientist whom nobody believes until it's far too late, or the strong, silent soldier battling grimly against overwhelming odds -- Carpenter makes Nada a complete moron. True, Nada's a well-meaning moron, but that doesn't change the fact that he's about as smart as a bag of rocks . . . and yet he represents humanity's only hope of survival. There's no subtlety when it comes to Nada. If aliens need killing, then he kills aliens. He has no concept of long term planning, or losing a battle in order to win a war -- he's a very violent and very stupid man dedicated to ridding Earth of its disguised alien rulers, and he simply does what he thinks is right in order to accomplish this mission. What adds to this is the fact that his stupidity doesn't confound the aliens -- they recognize Nada for the Neanderthal that he really is, and deal with him in ways that actually make logical sense. (For example, Nada always seems mystified that the aliens can hunt him down after his little alien killing sprees -- he never seems to fully grasp the concept that aliens control the police departments, the military, and so on . . .) It's kind of a backhanded compliment, but Roddy Piper plays Nada beautifully; it's hard to think of too many other actors who could play such a determined moron so well. (As a side note -- it's also interesting to notice how Nada automatically assumes that the bug-eyed aliens are evil. He turns out to be right, of course, but he manages to gun down a decent number of aliens before finding even a shred of proof that his assumptions are correct.)
There's no denying that there are some significant problems with "They Live". The ending is abrupt and makes little sense; the production values are pathetically shoddy; and apart from Roddy Piper, the cast is more or less forgettable. Still, "They Live" is a decent, solid movie that largely succeeds in its quest to provide some original, offbeat entertainment. For that, it deserves a lot of credit. Grade: B . . . for a darn good "B" movie.
Apt Pupil (1998)
Some Terrific Acting, But A Film That Doesn't Push Things Far Enough
`Apt Pupil', based on the Stephen King novella of the same name, is a wicked little film that delves into an unholy relationship between two evils, one young and hungry, the other old and experienced . . . . and both dangerous. This relationship is what drives the film, and is what ultimately makes `Apt Pupil' a fairly compelling film to watch. The film fails, however, to deliver a satisfying payoff at its conclusion. While there's a lot of patience and care taken to build the story, there's a feeling of incompleteness as `Apt Pupil' eventually grinds towards its ending. `Apt Pupil' takes its audience on a wonderfully acted journey . . . and then stops short of its final destination, as if it couldn't find the final ounce of courage near its end to push beyond good, ordinary film-making and into the realms of film greatness.
`Apt Pupil' is the story of Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro), a seemingly bright, normal, All-American high school student with one secret quirk he's morbidly fascinated by the Holocaust, viewing it as something dark and cool rather than as something horrifying. He's also incredibly knowledgeable about the Holocaust, which is why he's able to recognize a local old man for what he truly is -- Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellan), a Nazi SS officer wanted for his crimes against humanity. Todd confronts Dussander, telling the old war criminal that he wants to know what happened in the concentration camps `the stuff they won't tell you in books', as Todd says. Dussander wants nothing to do with this, but faced with having his identity exposed, he is forced to accede to Todd's demands. What follows from there is a malevolent, almost symbiotic relationship that begins to grow and spiral rapidly out of control -- for Todd, it's an introduction into understanding the real face of evil, and for Dussander, it's a reacquaintance with a dark side of his past that he quickly learns to embrace once more. While Todd and Dussander do not necessarily trust one another, they soon realize that they need each other if they want their secrets protected -- namely, Dussander's real identity and Todd's failure to reveal that identity to the proper authorities -- and people are starting to come dangerously close to learning these secrets, such as Todd's parents, and Todd's high school guidance counselor Ed French (David Schwimmer) . . . .
The relationship between Todd and Dussander is the heart of `Apt Pupil', and it's here where the film really shines. Admittedly, the film does open in far too rushed a fashion it's pretty much Todd immediately confronting Dussander about his true identity; some build-up to such an important moment might've been nice -- but once it stumbles past this rushed opening, it's a joy to watch the cat-and-mouse relationship between Dussander and Todd. Todd thinks he has the upper hand over Dussander, but he literally has no idea about the slumbering evil he's managed to awaken until it's far too late. Meanwhile, Dussander is initially a pitiful man, desperately trying to forget the atrocities he's committed . . . but the pity doesn't last for long. Once Todd forces the old man to acknowledge his past, Dussander realizes that he likes what he used to be a monster. Both Renfro and McKellan are fascinating to watch as their respective characters; Renfro because he's so chillingly believable, McKellan because he runs the gamut from being a pathetic drunk to a devil reborn. Both characters struggle throughout the film to dominate one another, and that conflict which, in essence, is the foundation of their twisted relationship is what sets `Apt Pupil' apart from other films as something worth watching.
The main problem with `Apt Pupil', though, is that besides acting as a wonderful showcase for this evil relationship . . . `Apt Pupil' doesn't really go anywhere. In particular, the character of Todd Bowden doesn't go anywhere. More the fault of the script than of Brad Renfro, Todd never comes across as depraved. He's certainly evil as some of the acts he commits in the film certainly show but part of the film is about how monstrously depraved the Holocaust was. Todd is portrayed as a monster, someone who born in a different place and time certainly could have been a Nazi war criminal, but he does nothing to show that monstrous nature. I kept waiting for Todd to commit that one unspeakable act of pure evil that would truly make him Dussander's `Apt Pupil' and never saw it. Without this unspeakable act, the audience never gets the opportunity to see that Todd really learned anything from Dussander. (Todd's slightly sick and twisted? No kidding! We knew that in the opening credits!) There's a few other things that bring down `Apt Pupil' as well; there's a chance meeting between Dussander and a hospital patient that seems entirely too fortuitous and coincidental; and the casting of David Schwimmer as the guidance counselor is just way, way off the mark.
The ending of the film `Apt Pupil' is markedly different from that of Stephen King's novella. In fact, the novella contains the `unspeakable act of pure evil' that I wanted in the film. Perhaps if I'd been unaware of the existence of the original novella, I wouldn't have felt that the film was missing anything . . . but I doubt it. `Apt Pupil' is a good, solid film that touches on some disturbing issues but it could've been great, had it chosen to closely examine evil instead of just scratching its surface. `Apt Pupil' is a decent, if somewhat incomplete, movie. Grade: B-
The Others (2001)
Slow, Deliberate, Stylish . . . and Slow, Slow, Slow.
It seems overly simple to classify "The Others" as a cross between classic Hitchcock and "The Sixth Sense" . . . mostly, because that implies "The Others" is a film of that highest caliber. It's certainly not. However, it's not awful, either; instead "The Others" unfortunately falls into the film limbo of being just plain mediocre. "The Others" is a suspense/horror film owing a lot to its predecessors from the 1940s -- it relies on mood, atmosphere, and the casts to create the eerie mood that permeates the film, and never falls back on gratuitous gore to create its horrors. The look and feel of "The Others" is very much that of a vintage Universal film; in fact, if this film had been made in black & white, and if a digital CGI version of Lana Turner could be inserted in Nicole Kidman's place, you would probably swear that this was a forgotten suspense/horror film from that era. It's definitely not a classic -- there's a number of significant issues that add up together to keep "The Others" far, far short of greatness -- but it's an interesting film nonetheless.
"The Others" is, at its heart, a vintage ghost story -- on a small island off the shores of England, there is a forlorn manor house located far away from the trappings of civilization. Living in this isolated house are the elegant Grace (Nicole Kidman) and her two children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley). There are strange rules in the house, which Grace cryptically explains to her new servants are important. Each of the fifty doors in the house must be locked before another can be opened. The curtains must always be drawn. While odd, these rules are vital, Grace explains, because Anne and Nicholas are so allergic to the sunlight that they might die if exposed to it. The servants, led by the wise Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), accede to these rules . . . but they begin to hears voices. And things going bump in the night. So do Anne and Nicholas. Grace doesn't hear these things, or at least she claims not to, which slowly but surely leads to the questions: Are these new servants creating the disturbances for some sinister purpose? Is troubled Anne creating them? Is Grace? Or does something really lurk within the walls of the manor house, something long-dead, something evil . . .
"The Others" relies on its pacing and direction to create its ominous mood. This reliance is both the film's strength and ultimate downfall. Director Alejandro Amenabar lets the viewer savor each moment of the film, building suspense from scene to scene at a slow and steady pace, dropping subtle hints about what has happened and what's going to happen with a very deft touch . . . he really lets things build slowly. In fact, too slowly. "The Sixth Sense" also moved along at an unhurried pace, but at least that film had the good sense to know that in order to maintain the slow pace, some sort of payoff -- or at least a good scare -- has to be tossed out the audience once in awhile, if only to keep some interest and to prevent the film from spiraling into mind-numbing boredom. "The Others" has no sense of this. An hour into the film, the luxurious pace of "The Others" has become little more than self-indulgent tedium. The process of building tension degenerates into pure impatience. There's only two moments in "The Others" that can genuinely be considered "jump-out-of-your-seat" moments; if there had been three or four more of these moments, the film might've averted its slow, steady crash into monotony. Yes, some of the scenes are extremely impressive, and I was particularly impressed with a lot of the cinematography, as well as the richness of the dialogue . . . but these things only can carry a film so far. They have to lead to some kind of ultimate payoff in order to truly mean anything, and in the case of "The Others", that payoff never comes. It's a nice film with some wicked little touches, a few of which border on pure genius . . . and then the film ends. No build-up to a dramatic resolution -- or, for that matter, a satisfying resolution. For that reason, "The Others" can be appreciated for what it is trying to accomplish, and for the techniques it uses . . . but in no way, shape, or form can the end result be called a success. It's a shame, because it seems as though it wouldn't have taken much to turn "The Others" from a bland film into one that was grippingly tense.
Though billed as the star of this film, Nicole Kidman falls just short of providing the strength that "The Others" needed from its central character -- the film revolves mostly around her character's beliefs and perceptions, and she's simply not up to the task of making those beliefs and perceptions one thousand percent convincing. Personally, I've always found Ms. Kidman to be somewhat of an acting enigma -- she's undeniably talented, but apart from her tour de force performance in "To Die For", she always appears to be struggling to find the right outlet for her talent. There's flashes of brilliance from Ms Kidman in "The Others", but that's it, only flashes -- overall, the performance is uneven. I found myself wondering what the film would've been like had it featured either Julianne Moore or Helena Bonham Carter as its star. Fortunately, there's a "sleeper" star in this film, one I would hope to see in many films in the years to come: Alakina Mann, who plays Grace's young daughter Anne. As Anne, this young actress shows both strength and vulnerability with a powerful range, one rarely seen in young actors and actresses today. She's asked to go head-to-head with Ms. Kidman on a number of occasions in the film, and not only does Ms. Mann hold her own, she shines through like a champion. If nothing else, "The Others" might be worth watching simply to see Alakina Mann's superb performance.
"The Others" probably could never have been made without the success of the equally low-key "Sixth Sense". "The Others", though, while possessing an undeniable sense of style and grace, is a film ultimately without a lot to say . . . or a lot to give to its audience. As such, "The Others" is a film with some interesting qualities, some more enjoyable than others -- but it's ultimately little more than an okay film that goes on way longer than it should. "Interesting" doesn't always mean "good" -- and with "The Others", this is certainly the case. Grade: B-