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Box of Moonlight
Dock Ellis & The LSD No-No (2010)
The year is 1970 and Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis is feeling the pressures of the big leagues more than ever before. Infamously, he combats these feelings with the use of psychoactive drugs, which most people were clueless about "other than what they'd seen on TV with the hippies." On one particularly strong game-day LSD trip, fog and rain settle into the stadium and miraculously create conditions which help him to sustain a no-hitter. James Blagden takes this story, narrated by Ellis himself, and enhances it using period-inspired animated designs, a contrasting color scheme, simplistic editing, and humorous and clever sound design. Blagden builds the animation's tone around Ellis's laid back and playful account of the event, and the result is a five minute short that is so filled with hilariously exaggerated detail that repeated viewings are essential.
The General (1998)
Top Notch True Crime Story
Michael Mann's recent biopic about John Dillinger, "Public Enemies," posed a lot of probing, psychological questions about its infamous subject, but failed to fully follow through on them, favoring the excitement and the action of the story instead. Maybe Mann should have taken his cues from John Boorman's sadly under-known 1998 film "The General," which is the real-life story of the strikingly successful Irish thief Martin Cahill (also known by the title nickname). This is a film that is so simply but thoroughly grounded in its subject's psychology that each scene is immersing and utterly convincing. The story moves quickly with a cohesive structuring of Cahill's dizzyingly ambitious heists, but what impresses most is how the viewer is always fully aware that the man enacting them is a human being, not a mythologized folk hero.
For that, Boorman is largely indebted to his leading man, Brendan Gleeson, who breathes authentic life into his character and therefore enables the whole movie to stand sturdily on his shoulders. Gleeson is so convincing in the role that it is not only difficult to question the presentation of the subject, but also to question or judge the motives and actions of the subject himself. That is no easy feat, as Cahill is a man who created his own moral code, having been disenchanted with local government authorities since he was a boy, and justified his criminal lifestyle by it. Gleeson humanizes such a rebellious, Robin Hood mentality by giving Cahill the amount of grit, working class pragmatism and playful humor that would most likely be required for one to successfully live his life like a perpetual cat and mouse game with the authorities.
That's not to say Gleeson's performance is the only star of the show. Boorman is in top form, with a lean script that neither misses a beat nor belabors Cahill's sprawling, episodic story. He gives key psychological and expository information at the beginning and lets the factual events unfold at a breakneck speed. The action is well handled, allowing Richie Buckley's playful jazz score to elicit absurd humor from Cahill's exploits, but the film is never too cinematic nor too self-consciously "real life." It is simply a great story told with soulful gusto.
Great biopics are fully aware that they are telling a story, and try not to let needless details get in the way. Boorman achieved this in "The General" by focusing on a tight story arc and letting the details give it muscle. But that's not to say he simplifies the material. Instead, he tells Cahill's story as a succession of challenges to his morally ambiguous, self-serving code which ultimately lead to his much-deserved downfall. By the end, Cahill is shown having lived and died fully by his code.
"The General" is anything one could want from a biopic. It's fast and entertaining while sustaining enough authenticity and ambiguity to keep things constantly interesting.
(3 out of 4)
a Good Sci/Fi Fantasy that Chooses Accessibility over Greatness
The Harvey Weinstein-edited, American version of Rene Laloux's ambitious 1988 feature "Gandahar" is a lavish, mostly satisfying animated spectacle. It suspends Isaac Asimov's sci/fi philosophy, Cold-War politics and psychedelic, Daliesque imagery with conventional plotting that keeps the story clicking along briskly with an accessible, user-friendly approach. Having not seen the pre-Weistein version, it is frustrating to wonder how much of Laloux's original intent was lost in Weistein's decidedly Americanized cut, but what remains is an intelligent, fresh and well-layered fantasy romp.
Weinstein seemed to hold "Star Wars" as a reference point, as he wielded the classical, Campbellian hero structure to ground its complex visual designs in familiar storytelling. These designs immediately plunge the viewer into the peaceful alien civilization of Gandahar, a beautiful blue world inhabited by intelligent creatures who enjoy a blissful political harmony. Gandahar is so peaceful, in fact, that its leaders completely neglect technological advancement due to a universal contentedness in the progress of the civilization. Inevitably, the peace is threatened when mysterious, unidentified rays are reported in nearby areas, causing Gandahar's leaders to send their young, precocious prince Sylvain to investigate the possible alien threat.
After coming into contact with the grotesquely deformed remaining members of a previous civilization, Sylvain learns of an army of metallic soldiers who are operated by an enormous brain called the Metamorphosis. They pull their resources together and fight the army using their wits, giving way to a third act that puts its building ideas into a fine focus while also delivering the expectedly rousing action goods.
"Gandahar" grounds its thesis in the fact that a civilization's strength lies in a fully integrated sense of past, present and future. The historical connections are obvious, as the film cleverly points out the inherent weakness of domineering political powers that combine brute force and radicalism in order to eradicate truths demonstrated by history and tradition. As a political statement, the film works incredibly well, as its blend of sci/fi philosophy and politics fit together naturally - reminding one that great mythology is traditionally political.
As an auteur piece, however, it's hard to ignore an overall lack of sheer, artistic wonder. Weinstein's (or whoever's) familiar structuring balances the film's many layers elegantly, but there is a definite artistic compromise present that will likely be disappointing to fans of Laloux's "Fantastic Planet." Much of the movie has a Disney-like simplification of its world and logic that prevents it from fully captivating the viewer with its whimsical absurdities. "Fantastic Planet" is spellbinding because it treats its viewer like a visiting alien, never over-explaining or belaboring its genuinely bizarre imagery and focusing mainly on an amazingly distanced, otherworldly mood one which would have been suffocated by a driving, centralized plot. In this way, "Gandahar" disappoints in its overall familiarity, favoring traditional story tropes over bold originality.
To a viewer looking for a multifaceted, accessible science fiction fantasy, however, the film is a treat. With so many balls in the air, it understandably picked a straightforward approach and is able to satisfy a wide variety of viewers. It's just unfortunate that such an approach is what separated a good film from a potentially great film.
Under the Volcano (1984)
An Indulgent, Often Incoherent, but Interesting Adaptation
John Huston's adaptation of Malcom Lowry's celebrated novel is very much like his adaptation of Flannery O'Connor's "Wise Blood": foggy, dreamlike and at times unwatchable. Huston finds a strange, distant tone that is somewhere between ironic and completely bizarre, with intentionality that is questionable at best. Even though Huston was getting old at this point, he was still tackling challenging material in his old age, which possibly explains the odd mix of provocative, dense material with stilted, unintuitive storytelling. If his age isn't the main culprit for the film's weird failings, then it may be his stiflingly traditional film-making, which seemed a bit outmoded in 1984. Either way, the film never finds a proper stylistic center, causing "Under the Volcano" to continually sink into incoherence.
Huston's most grave misstep was his choice to pace the film with mostly static shots and slow editing rhythms. For being so conservatively made, there is an almost constant lack of clarity, as no one element in the film complements the other. Albert Finney's go-for-broke performance as British diplomat Geoffery Firmin is fearless and raw, but Huston's shot selections and mostly bland mise-en-scene distract from the brimming anger and pain the actor tries so nakedly to express. Similarly, the absorbing, mythical imagery of the story's Mexican "Day of the Dead" setting instead feels random as the foregrounded symbolism seems ham-fisted where it should have been atmospheric. Instead of casting the story's eerie spell, Huston's film-making suffocates the material, causing it to become overblown yet underdeveloped.
That is all not to say Huston is completely to blame, however. Screenwriter Guy Gallo's task of condensing such enormous, literary ideas into a stand alone two-hour film is admirable, and structurally he does great things to keep the story immediately revolving around Geoffory's character arc, but by the end it feels like too many corners were cut to make it happen. The character of Hugh, Geoffery's dashing half-brother, is extremely undeveloped to the point of feeling unnecessary, and Yvonne, Geoffery's estranged wife, is never given the psychological need that would make her sympathy toward him credible. Even worse, the conclusion comes with a clumsy thud, ending the film suddenly and untidily.
(2 out of 4)
Death Train (2003)
Weak as an Action Movie, Terrific as a Campy Cult Movie
Bryan Genesse's charms aren't dissimilar to his more mainstream meatheaded counterparts Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Seagal etc. He's got the necessary brawn and martial arts finesse and surprising watchability despite having very little appeal. What makes or breaks the vehicles he stars in are first and foremost the writer and director.
Unfortunately for Genesse, he doesn't have the collaboration of solid directors like Peter Hyams ("Timecop") or Ringo Lam ("Maximum Risk," "Replicant"). His best film that I've seen is "Human Timebomb," where the real points are earned with the balls-out action sequences that are undeniably fun even when they have the lowest of production values. That director, Mark Roper, shows skill at giving B-movie productions big, well-constructed sequences, but God help him if the script has too much dialogue.
Yossi Wein, who served as cinematographer for Genesse's "Cold Harvest" and "Traitor's Heart", tries to bring similar sensibilities to the 2002 Nu Image flick "Death Train". It starts off with a slam-bang train heist sequence that finds all in top form. From the first ten minutes, Wein shows skill at keeping the action coherent and at least marginally expensive-looking. Genesse doesn't need to bring much more than brawn in this one, and keeps the cringe-worthy wisecracks to a minimum in comparison to his other performances anyway.
Unfortunately, there is not much more to be found after the competent opener besides loads of camp and unintentional humor. The villain Weaver, played by Bentley Mitchum, is anything but threatening, only memorable for some downright weird lines. There is way too much talking and not enough challenging complications to keep the film moving after the beginning. In fact, Genesse seems to be doing pointless acrobatic maneuvers along the train cars for most of the second act, which Wein unwisely uses to supplement action. When the action does come, it is usually pretty sloppy like a shootout in the cafeteria car that plays more like an amateur action scene staged by third graders.
Things do come together somewhat in the end, with a decently-choreographed showdown between Genesse and Mitchum (if you ignore one extremely lazy somersault by Genesse). However, the resolution has some bizarre details that should not be given away, because they are probably the biggest laughs one will have in the whole movie.
Camp value seems to be the most redeeming factor about this B-movie, and in that department it consistently delivers. If it could have delivered some good action among the camp, it would have been in better form. But, as any B-movie buffs knows well, asking for both is asking for too much.
Black Circle Boys (1997)
Intriguing in Spots, but Unavoidably Forgettable
The best scenes of "Black Circle Boys" are of the film's wounded teenagers reacting to their turbulent lives in total isolation. The main character Kyle is a young man with a weak personal identification, mostly likely stemming from the distant relationship he has with his parents. Writer-director Matthew Carnahan allows these revelations to happen periodically and inductively. He directs such scenes in long takes, relying completely on the performances and nuance of the barren surroundings to bring forth the tensions boiling below the story's surface.
These few scenes are peppered in an otherwise flawed film which is melodramatic, implausible and disappointingly underdeveloped - giving the film a mysterious emotional undertone it doesn't follow through on. The opening introduces Kyle and his All-American swimming buddies wreaking antisocial havoc on the top of a building. Carnahan uses the POV of a videocamera, but stages the action awkwardly - rendering the whole approach of the scene useless. One pivotal detail in particular is extremely obscured, and that is the accidental death of one of Kyle's best friend who apparently falls off of the building.
The movie shifts into Kyle's new life in a new town and school. It becomes a traditional juvenile delinquency teen pic, throwing trite plot elements seen in most similar films from "Rebel Without a Cause" to "The Craft." Inevitably Kyle falls in with the bad kids, which in this case is a group of headbanging metal thrashers who call themselves the Black Circle Boys. Its leader Shane (Eric Mabius) is uncompromising, sociopathic, and slitheringly persuasive. The Black Circle boys turn out to be more than a fledgling metal band, and Kyle finds himself uncontrollably immersed in dangerous occult rituals and violent antisocial escapades.
The familiarities and annoyances of the film are largely to the fault of the script. While the style could have been glossy and dull like most teen pics of the time, it transcends the disappointing story with an unsettling conjunction of hand-held cinematography and gritty art direction. Carnahan's direction is raw in a way few teen films were in 1997, because he meets the material with at least attempted realism and a very serious tone. However. he's not consistently on his game throughout the film, and some scenes are bogged down from lazy direction.
The film is helped by a consistent and believable performance by Scott Bairstow. He is brooding, but likable and draws understanding to a character who makes progressively bad decisions. This is a weak, but all-around watchable teen drama that was a precursor to the realistic teen dramas of the 2000's, like "L.I.E.," "Bully" or "Mean Creek."
Mark Roper was one of Nu Image's golden boy directors in the late 90's. Hot off the high-octane spy romp "Human Timebomb," he was more than an appropriate pick for the second "Delta Force" sequel. His craft is in fine form with "Clear Target", displaying a tighter focus on pace and plot - as thin as it may be. His skill has always been at deploying limited resources to follow the trends of Hollywood action directors. Here, his influences are clearly Michael Bay and John Woo, and he delivers a product worthy of his ambitions.
A harbor shootout kicks the film off nicely, with all the heavy artillery and explosions one watches this kind of film for. Roper shows improvement with keeping things cohesive and accessible, more notably in the next big sequence, which involves a locomotive ambush. Crane shots, dollies, and quick pans are utilized very efficiently and the many dimensions of the layered action are captured with seasoned confidence. The stuntwork is top-notch, with the actors scaling locomotive cars with apparently no safety harnesses, giving the scene raw and perilous danger.
Roper's B-movie tendencies are not completely shed in this stage of his filmography, however. Some drab sets, costumes and props drag down too many scenes and he seems to have trouble coaching the actors. Some do a fine job, most notably Gavin Hood (six or so years before winning an Oscar for directing "Tsotsi"), but plenty of the scenes are cardboard and far off hitting their mark.
This is an enjoyable film if you watch it in the context of an independent actioner. Sure there's abundant stock footage and direct-to -video cheese, but there's also an impressive use of resources and genuinely good film-making. It plays like a comic book, with a simple story tying together sequences of great action. Army/navy buffs will surely get a kick out of it, as will die-hard action fans.
(3 out of 4)
Shoot 'Em Up (2007)
A Near Pefect Satire
Writer-director Michael Davis seems to have watched enough mediocre action movies to know what makes them bland and silly. Just look at the brilliant nerd dissections of the James Bond movies in "Eight Days a Week." His new one "Shoot 'Em Up" takes all the clichés that have made modern action movies so bland and hypes them up into a surreal, fast-paced send up.
"Shoot 'Em Up" can be best described as a punk rock action movie with mockery and gratuity so deeply intertwined that its shameless excess becomes ultimately thrilling. Unlike indecisive action spoofs like Charlie's Angels, which couldn't seem to find the right tone or balance to truly spoof its subject, Shoot 'Em Up is constantly clever in its cartoonish cracks at tired action movie conventions. This is one of the only movies I have ever seen that is truly seamless in its blend of action and comedy.
Clive Owen plays your typical loner action hero world weary, cynical and tough. He goes by Smith and is always seen eating a carrot. Why not? Don't action movies usually tend to be as ridiculous as Looney Toons? Anyway, Smith reluctantly ends up saving an infant child from a band of crooks led by a hilariously over the top Paul Giamatti.
Soon he finds himself caught up in a political conspiracy involving the firearm industry. Typically some jabs at gun ownership are made, but the social commentary is nothing particularly revolutionary or insightful. "Shoot 'Em Up" is so pitch-perfect as a spoof that its political messages don't seem immediately relevant.
I loved "Shoot 'Em Up" because it never stops moving at its breakneck pace. It reminded me of last year's similarly fast-moving and ludicrous Crank, only it didn't feel as desperate and it didn't run out of steam like that movie did. It is keeps your interest by being genuinely thrilling and funny, not by being cheap and mindless. Michael Davis has created a Spinal Tap for the action movie. May the tired formulas of routine action pictures rest in peace.
Set It Off (1996)
Alarmingly Unrealistic and Sensational
I've never lived in the projects. I have in no way experienced the plight of the marginalized. I've never known what it's like to be kept below the line that divides those who should be educated and those who should be left in the dark. For that reason I, by no means, have any right to speak for those people. But after watching the 1996 movie "Set it Off," I can't understand why no one seemed to get offended at its ignorance about, and exploitation of, the lower class- in particular the struggling black communities of urban areas.
"Set it Off" is about four close-knit women who have all had tough breaks in life. They made the best out of growing up in the projects and became, for the most part, honest, hard-working and self-respecting young women. The story starts off with Francesca, a bank clerk, getting held up and witnessing a violent shoot out that her fear crippled her from possibly preventing. A by the numbers detective named Strode blames her for it, causing her to get fired. The story shifts to its main character Lida, Francesca's friend who is a janitor in an upper-class apartment building, soon learning she has to compromise all of her good traits just to break even in life. To help her little brother get some money for college, she gives in to her shady employer's sexual demands. When her brother is coincidentally mistaken for the bank robber by Strode, he is shot and killed with no apologies.
The movie was off to a good start, but I quickly started noticing that its scenes were getting progressively dumber. First off all, Strode seems to be on every case that the L.A.P.D. has to offer. Being that I have heard much praise for this film, I was surprised when more and more coincidences started trying my patience. The movie started feeling like a predictable crowd-pleaser, although it was supposed to be a hard-hitting protest about why the lower class seems to have abandoned.
Any high school or college writing class teaches that to evaluate something is to see how closely or effectively it comes to its intended mark. My problem with "Set it Off" is that it is unclear as to what its mark really is. It shakily walks the line between action movie and socially-conscious drama so much that I started to question how dumb does the screenwriter thought his audience was. Since there is an objective made early on in the script, that there must be a reckoning for the unfair treatment of these women (and the lower-class community at large), it is questionable when it starts to stray.
In his three and a half star (out of four) review of the film, Roger Ebert calls it "observant and well-informed." Sure the film had some very relatable characters and situations, but the screenplay is far from "Observant and well-informed." If anything, the writing is histrionic. A realistic screenplay would have characters who were less heroic and aware of their exploitation. Sure Queen Latifah is fabulous as a gun-toting lesbian, but does such a character really represent underprivileged women? A competent screenplay also wouldn't rely on coincidences and action sequences to make its point.
(1 and 1/2 out of 4)
Disappointing Despite Nunez's Typically Sublime Film-making
Victor Nunez is on par with a lot of directors who use their surroundings as their muse. Like Scorcese with New York, Mann with L.A., or Shamalyan with Pennsylvania, Nunez builds his stories around an area he knows well: east coast Florida. His masterpiece "Ulee's Gold" used the enchanting backdrop of Orlando's peaceful outskirts to build on the emotional aspects of its main character Ulee. The movie came alive from Nunez's subtle, but powerful focus on atmosphere, character nuance and rich symbolism.
It's disappointing that his follow-up "Coastlines" (which completes his "Panhandle Trilogy") had some of those elements in tact, but failed to use them effectively. The story is about a young man named Sonny (played by a well-cast Timothy Olyphant) who gets released from prison to a home town that has grown up without him. He gets back in touch with his old friend Dave, who is now a police officer and married to Sonny's old crush Ann. Simultaneously, he deals with unsettled issues from his old mobbed-up employers.
From that story come some potentially engaging themes like revenge, jealousy, nostalgia, disenchantment and betrayal. However, disappointment quickly sets in when the scenes become more and more dull. The screenplay was written before "Ulee's Gold," and is extremely similar, with many characters and back stories almost exactly mirroring those of the previous film. "Coastlines" brings nothing new to the table, and has no energy with the subject matter at hand. As the movie moves on, it becomes hard to shake the feeling that Nunez had run out of inspiration.
What the movie lacks despite energy is originality. The movie contains plenty of drama, but there is nothing happening that hasn't been done better in other movies. What Nunez needed, in order to transcend the clichés, was the rich undertones and subtexts that made "Ulee" so engrossing. Nunez needed another layer of depth to give weight to all the things going on in his story.
There is no doubt that Victor Nunez is an excellent independent director. However, that doesn't excuse the fact that "Coastlines" is a movie that simply didn't need to be made.