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The Grudge (2004)
Sometimes figuring out what makes a movie good is like reading the ingredients of a candy bar. If you read "nougat" on the wrapper of a candy bar, then you know you're getting NOUGAT! THE GRUDGE is like a candy bar. It is stylistically solid.
There were American-remakes of Ringu and Ringu2, the one that started the buzz over trans-Pacific horror. The first Ringu tasted like brittle seaweed. It broke into a million fragments like the T-1000 and there were seaweed shreds all over the place. Ringu2 didn't taste too bad, although it still left a strange, swampy aftertaste in my mouth.
THE GRUDGE is like a HEATH BAR -- with cat hair stuck in it. What would make me say such a thing? Well, if you look at the ingredients on the wrapper, THE GRUDGE was directed by Takashi Shimizu, the guy who did the original Japanese version. He threw in all those door creaks and angry black cats that tap you on the shoulder and say, "Hey, you're on the security camera!" You know how the saying goes, if it isn't broken, don't fix it. A Heath Bar works well as a Heath Bar.
On the inside of the Heath Bar is the brick and mortar that the director poured into it, and the milk-chocolate layer represents the Hollywood stars who give the package an enticing allure. I found it very pleasant to watch those actors and actresses. Hey, this movie isn't going to be a huge box office success, so let's have some fun with it. I'll pretend like I'm not who I am. "Yeah, we're famous actors, but we're also professionals who know when we make a good movie. We're going to come together and make this creepy Japanese horror thing work."
Watch it twice.
Banlieue 13 (2004)
How does one say "B-13" in French?
There was a time about fifteen years ago when Hollywood came out every summer with a mid-sized action/ adventure to whet your appetite. These were the days when characters like Stephen Segal and Jean Claude Van Damn would fly across the screen with all the grace of a Jewel of the Nile. The plot was guaranteed to be very thin. A bomb was going to destroy the neighborhood, and an army of anonymous thugs stopped the hero from spoiling the plan. Occasionally a girl would get abducted, but you know, that's bound to happen.
The clock winds ten years ahead, and the trend just doesn't exist anymore. What happened to the cheap action, the quirky smiles, and the one-liners? The only movie I can think of that might fall under that category is the Transporter. But on closer inspection, the Transporter was produced by a crew of Frenchmen.
It's no surprise then, that the torch has been passed to France, a futuristic France, in which our new protagonist Leïto has been Christened the recurrence of Van Damage. The opening of the movie features him jumping over the rooftops of DISTRICT B13, slipping like a black cat through laundry machines. Then he tosses a couple billiard sticks around and sweeps the ghost from under you! There are a lot of low to the ground acrobatics featured in DISTRICT B13.
Oh, did I mention the plot? A bomb is going to destroy the neighborhood, and an army of thugs stand in the way of two French cats who are going to save the day. One of the cats gets his sister abducted, but things like that are bound to happen. That kind of thing happens in District B13.
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Leave this segment for last. Even if there's a part 4
Okay all you XMEN fans out there, those following the Stan Lee creed to the Q. Who can truly admit to being a Jean Gery fan? Sure, I was into the comic books, but I could never figure out what powers she had, perhaps moving a couch with her mind. I'll tell you what, though, she was meant for the silver screen.
On the silver screen, Jean Grey turns into an intergalactic Carrie. She gets really blue in the face, and stuff around the house start breaking. Her eyes get really black, and she starts to look like one of those space vampires from LIFEFORCE (1985, starring Patrick Stewart).
But ... and this should apply brakes to the wheel, if Phoenix happened to wander off screen ... say for a makeup session, and the rest of the cast were lounging around talking mutant politics. Only then, my eyes would also wander of screen down to my wristwatch.
If I wanted to talk about mutant politics, I'd join Parliament! Aside from Patrick Stewart and Ian MacKellan, I don't think any of the other Marvel characters took their Shakespeare classes... except for Kelsey Grammar maybe. Who better for President's Council? He seems like a reasonable guy.
But no matter how blue Beast's fur gets, or how easily the Mack trucks jackknife in half, or how spiny the porcupine gets, I still want to see an Xmen 3 that surpasses the X-men 2. How can XMEN: LAST STAND do the X-men legacy justice when former director Bryan Singer hops off to do the Superman movie? I picture Nightcrawler, jumping through the walls of the White House, and then with a whack to the head, he hits a brick wall.
I won't go in depth about WHY I didn't like this movie. I'd rather focus on the positive things in life. Like Famke Janssen as Jean Grey. Did you know, that she was born in the Netherlands? And did you know that she is making a solo PHOENIX movie?
Just kidding, but I think it's a good idea. They could hire the guy who directed Silence of the Lambs to run the project.
Underworld: Evolution (2006)
A Sophomoric Sequel
With UNDERWORD: EVOLUTION in the rear-view mirror, I am hard pressed to say what it was about. A lot of bullets pierced a lot of things, ten minutes took place in medieval times, and Derek Jacobi made a speech on a boat. But that's all I can remember. At some point the memory of UNDERWORLD EVOLUTION gets tangled up with Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula. And somewhere Keanu Reeves has this big smile.
Selene and Michael Corbinus are the lone survivors from the first installment, I think. There were two warring clans of monsters in the first movie, but I think the war ended and they all went back to their day jobs. The two clandestine lovers are running from the law for who knows what reason, dodging bullets in one scene and trees in another. They eventually find a set of keys that have a thousand years history behind them. What do the keys open, and who's chasing them? My memory fails me here. Enter Marcus, flapping like an angry bat out of Coppola hell. He's doesn't like being woken up on a Monday. I don't blame him. Still, over the span of a thousand years he's learned to be quite a jerk, becoming what we modern day folk like to call a "homicidal maniac." You might remember him as the dessicated corpse opening his eyes at the end of the first Underworld.
Let's talk about the first installment. Here's my question. For those of you who liked the first Underworld from 2003, what was it you liked? Was it the sparkly clothes or was it the huge CGI rodents? Or maybe you got sucked into the blood feud and Alex Corbinus' delinquent family members. Whatever your answer may be, those elements aren't in the sequel. The sequel plays out more like an Indiana Jones installment, except you replace all the yellow sand with blue water.
So do you know the original story? Once upon a time, there was one brother bitten by bat, one by wolf, and a whole lot of actors from the Commonwealth started bickering amongst themselves. They were going to set up a welcome party for their friends, but it got derailed by a horde of disgruntled werewolves. A lot of monsters died, and a lot of blood mixing went on. But the human spirit prevailed (?)
We've seen where a sequel has matched the quality of the first and surpassed it. Terminator 2 no doubt made a greater impact than the first. The Matrix: Reloaded raised the bar in special effects production for movie makers out there. Aliens offered heavy machine guns to fight off a gruesome nightmare. These are all sequels that lived up to the legacy set by the predecessor, but what would I say about UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION? I'd say let's redo it with a better story. Then the audience could get wrapped up in the elaborate chase scenes and care about the outcome. Yes, a better, in your face plot -- and why not throw in Wesley Snipes for good measure.
Koroshiya 1 (2001)
A New Breed of Superhero
ICHI THE KILLER is Takashi Miike's version of mischievous fun on celluloid. What comes to mind is a scene where two delinquent boys are roasting a beetle with a magnifying glass. The two are giggling and snorting at the expense of the poor insect which is soon to go to insect heaven. Those two boys are Takashi Miike and Tadanobu Asano doing whatever they feel like with a flamboyant film they've entitled ICHI THE KILLER. The movie celebrates the sadistic little kid in all of us.
From the first twenty minutes or so, you might think that ICHI THE KILLER is your run-of-the-mill gangster flick. Oh my, that would be awfully boring. It's so much more! Plain wacky would be a good word to describe it. Characters pop in and out with no apparent association to one another. People get tortured and mutilated before we know who they are. Did the lady have a relationship with the gang lord? Who cares, since she makes such a lovely stain on the carpet!
Other words to describe the film are squeamish, bloody, and darkly humorous. Right when you think you've caught up with the story, it changes gear like a freak Tonka truck. One minute the lens may focus on a sophisticated crime scene, but the next minute it's catching a teardrop in a bowl of Ramen. While you may not find a single meaning for the whole story, you'll surely come away with a basket full of senseless images.
Let's suspend some poor Japanese fool from the ceiling with fishing line and pour boiling hot oil on his head.
The sneaky uncle figure takes off his coat to reveal a huge mass of muscles! He is Japan's champion body builder!
Open the door, and the wall is covered with blood and guts. Nobody says a word. Oh, did I mention that the guy over there has a twin brother? Oh well, it doesn't matter, since that twin just got killed.
And all through the audience you can hear the sound of people scratching their heads in confusion.
In closing, I'd like to comment on Ichi himself, the new breed of Japanese superhero. He's a seemingly normal young man who moonlights as a vigilante in a black rubber suit. His special move is a spasmodic razor-blade kick that can chop a person in half. He has anxiety attacks when speaking with other people. He fantasizes about women in twisted fairy tale scenarios.
Best of all, he plays Tekken under a blanket for a living. Now that is my kind of superhero! It's only a matter of time before the mushroom cloud breaks forth and Ichi wakes up in his perfectly tragic fantasy world.
In this world, his asthmatic gasp spells victory for the human race! It makes no difference -- he dishes out his own cocktail of justice to the evil gang lord or the little kid on the tricycle -- indifferently.
Wild Zero (1999)
Do you Believe in Rock N' Roll?
Blue skinned zombies never more real! The countryside amok with dead people, and a motorcycle gang can rock our world!
In terror time, the citizens die and come back zombie. The only way to kill them is the head. Crawling with disease, who can you turn to? Where do you go? Bring back that rock n' roll sole?
Look no further my friends, because the satellite's gonna shine bright tonight.
WILD ZERO is a kick in the ass. It's made with real fruit juice, mainly from concentrate. Spinal Tap's has the 11+ for extra loudness! Gone, baby, gone. Let's blue-skinned zombie killing!
I'm not the most rockabilly punk on the planet, but on any given day I might gel up my hair real nice. I keep the dark sunglasses on my counter top, next to the root beer. Shuriken guitar picks The Guitar Wolf teeth !
Survive Style 5+ (2004)
Absurdity -- Neo-Tokyo Style
Some people out there may imagine the Japanese of Tokyo to be stoic and colorless like Vulcans. To some extent, that is how they really are. The buildings are gray, and if it's overcast, everything kind of blends together into a formalized drone. There is more paperwork added each day, another speech to sleep through, and the shuffle begins anew. Add the business formalities, and society can get very stiff over there.
That is one side of Japan.
SURVIVE STYLE 5 is the other side. Somewhere buried beneath the hard samurai exterior, the Japanese are the silliest, flashiest people on the face of the earth. Just watch the game shows on TV to see what I mean. It takes the slightest spark to transform a crowd of adults into a crowd of Pokemon monsters. Add this side of Japan, and every conversation at the workplace has a Comic Book BANG! POW! and HORRA!
The movie features five story lines (1) A hip to be square family of four (2) A girl that won't stay buried (3) An assassin on a hit job (4) A hypnotist (5) A traveling band of fools in a van. Here's a puzzle for you -- what is the common element that connects these 5 story lines? Beats me. Maybe it's the STYLE.
SURVIVE STYLE 5 is like a multi-colored salad falling to the kitchen floor in slow motion. Everyone stands agape as the orange leaves scatter like purple rain. Most memorable are the vivid colors and extreme silliness. Take for example the absurd scene where a typical nuclear family is rocking out in the car on their way to a hypnosis show. All four are bobbing their heads to punk rock and shouting American profanities in unison.
A cohesive story would have propelled this movie into greatness. But because it's so scatterbrained, it can safely be filed in the "two-hour music video" drawer. You might want to display it at the entrance to your home on special occasions -- like an Andy Warhol photograph. It can serve as a reminder of how absurd the world can get. "Yes, the world did have a story to tell once upon a time. It made absolutely no sense, but it had such a beautiful Christmas Tree!"
If SURVIVE STYLE 5 is your cup of tea, I recommend Taste of Tea, released in 2004 starring Tadanobu Asano.
Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)
Orientalism, Like this Film, Is Doomed 6 (really a 5, but an extra star for being a milestone)
No, I have not read the book.
Here are foreign movies I easily recommend over MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA: Shall We Dance, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Shanghai Triad. These movies are foreign language with subtitles.
Some American movies that I recommend over MEMOIRS: Last Samurai, Empire of the Sun, Schindler's List, Chicago.
With no momentum to speak of, the tortuously slow and boring MEMOIRS takes 45 minutes to get revved up and then idles in the hangar for another two hours. Sure, the sumo wrestling match was cool. Zhang's dance on the stage was cool. But apart from that, there was no rhythm, and without help from Rob Marshall, you're at the mercy of Yo-Yo Ma's yawn-inducing cello. I do acknowledge that MEMOIRS is a classic sob story, but Zhang Ziyi was not put on this earth to beg for our sympathy. She was put on this earth to kick ass.
Before you watch MEMOIRS be sure to check out Last Samurai, from the director of Glory, starring Ken Watanabe.
Saam gaang yi (2004)
Mixed Reviews, But Makes an Impression Nonetheless 6, 8, 7
I saw this Asian trilogy of terror a couple days ago with my buds, the Oscillator and Mr. VMU. The Oscillator was impressed by the Japanese one. Mr. VMU liked the Chinese one. My favorite was the Korean one. That makes three viewers, each liking a different segment of the trilogy. As a litmus test, it just goes to show that different people are always coming from different perspectives. Without a doubt, THREE EXTREMES will elicit three distinct reactions from your tripartite gut. What else would you expect from a trilogy where each short film comes from a different country?
First of all, I thoroughly enjoyed the juxtaposition of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cultures, and I hope to see more in the future. What would I recommend for future CKJ trilogy releases? Horror might be the genre to stick with, maybe something set in medieval Asia, warlord style. Maybe something with Genghis Khan and Francis Ford Coppola vampires. But before I get carried away, I had better check whether THREE EXTREMES made money at the box office. I'm supposing that it did not.
Dumplings (6.0) Fruit Chan, director of Public Toilet
Both the Oscillator and Mr. VMU were impressed by the shock value in the first installment. I agree, some of the scenes strike the nerve like cold lightning, but I wanted more shock. There seemed to be a lot voodoo floating around, what with the cursed fetus and all, but it pretty much went over my head. I have to admit, I'm not up to speed on my Chinese voodoo. Unlike the latter two short films, Dumplings features select scenes taken from a longer full-length movie. I think watching the whole movie would fill in some of the holes where I was plain lost. What are these dumplings supposed to do? Why don't they work? Who are these people?
Cut (8.0) Chan-Wook Park, director of Oldboy
The Korean installment features some lengthy sermons. The villain goes off ranting about the nature of society, so on and so forth, as the bound Byung-Hun Lee listens helplessly. I got kind of bored by the speeches myself, but after THREE EXTREMES was over, I realized that I liked Cut the best out of the three. It reminded me of the existential plays that Tom Stoppard used to write. The symmetrical film has four characters, two of which are bound and gagged. The weird, absurd situation produces a cozy environment where we can explore both the humor and terror behind psychosis. As Sartre said himself, hell is other people.
Box (7.0) Takashi Miike, director of Iishi the Killer, Audition, Visitor Q
I have a feeling that Miike is the main reason most people come to watch THREE EXTREMES. Besides, who really prefers Chinese or Korean movies over Japanese film anyway? Box is slow and quiet. That's all well and good, but during the whole installment I was waiting with breathless anticipation for needle-point shock. I'm sad to say that, there is no shock. Most of the terror comes from hidden uneasiness as opposed to in-your-face grotesqueness. I really wanted to see the bag monster from Audition. Thus "Box" gets a lot more interpretive than I had hoped for, and that means it gets boring. I am also not a fan of Atsuro Watabe, the male lead. His acting is annoying, and more often than not gets on my nerves more than the coat-hanger does.
Swamp Thing (1982)
I Dedicate All Five Stars to Adrienne Barbeau
More than a nuts and bolts movie review, this is more an ode to the beautiful Adrienne Barbeau who almost completely steals the show in SWAMP THING. Sure, there's this green guy all decked out in rubber, by why go artificial when you can stare at natural, wholesome beauty?
I believe that I've covered quite a broad spectrum of lewd video, from Bugs Bunny in a dress, to Vivid, right on to that really disgusting out-there stuff. But there's something mystical about Adrienne Barbeau in SWAMP THING, despite the crazy hair-do, and I can't put my finger on it. She embodies an 80's kind of beauty that is more feminine than anything the silicone-pumped swimsuit models of today can offer. Sigourney Weaver had it. Margot Kidder had it. It's the kind of beauty I hear whenever I listen to Roseanne Cash's "Seven Year Ache." It's a brunette mystique that simply doesn't make the casting call anymore. Were I eight years younger, I'd wear out the rewind button trying to get Adrienne in exactly the right frame.
I first saw SWAMP THING 20 years ago, when I was the height of a pumpkin, and by then most people had come down from the disco era. Back then, there were two scenes that scarred me for life. One was the transformation scene in American Werewolf in London. In second place was the transformation scenes in SWAMP THING. Near the end of the movie, one of the goons turns into a hairy midget (and starts talking like something out of the Wizard of Oz). After that, the villain turns into a really angry badger. It just goes to show that a six year old child knows nothing of quality production, as both the SWAMP THING and American Werewolf in London stood as classics in my fragile egg-shell mind. But don't let me mislead you. SWAMP THING is no American Werewolf by any stretch of the imagination.
Aside from the aforementioned bright spots Adrienne Barbeau and fun little transformation sequences - the movie is pretty bad upon review. Nothing really happens. The goons are chasing after Adrienne. The swamp thing fends them off. They come back with harsher "aargh's" the next time, but the swamp thing fends them off again. I enjoyed the slimy villain by Louis Jourdan, but I attribute this to his being European. The rest of the early 80's American cast don't do a convincing job. It's almost as if they exhibit residual traces of the 50's "Gee Whiz," goody-two-shoes style acting. "Gee golly, Mr. Beaver, that's a swell idea!" (arm swings up)
So there it is bad story and bad acting that somehow managed to cause nightmares when I was a child.
Here's my suggestion: Cut out all the parts with Adrienne Barbeau, do the same with her other B-Movies, and lay over your favorite 80's track, like "Heart of Glass" by Blondie. Oh, and be sure to check out her upcoming book "Worse Things I Could Do," due to hit stands spring 2006.
Session 9 (2001)
Brad Anderson Brings Back the Slow Zoom 8 (the fumes make you crazy)
My two favorite things about SESSION 9 are (1) the scenes shot in broad daylight, and (2) the slow zoom. What exactly is the horror centerpiece we're looking for? Is it a ghost, a psychopath, or some kind of supernatural astral projection? Well, figuring that question out is the main driving force of the movie, so I won't give anything away.
SESSION 9 is a relaxing kind of freaky. Fortunately there's no noisy soundtrack blaring in your face, as the film draws its suspense more from silence than in your face shock. The most memorable scenes are the slow zooms over some tall grass onto the hospital walls against blue sky. While you might catch a slow zoom from a sixties or seventies movie, it is severely underused these days, which is really too bad. It's a subtle camera technique that heightens a guttural curiosity, and it stands in stark contrast to the obtuse and fit-inducing material blasted in your face by major US production companies.
To an innocent passer-by, SESSION 9 might not even appear as a horror movie at first. Some good-spirited guys get together to renovate a hospital in Danvers. It's nice weather outside, and all of the conventional horror movie clichés are no where in sight. Soon enough, though, the slow zooms, uneasy facial expressions, and the awkward silence betray a creepiness that has been hidden underneath.
All in all, Brad Anderson makes an outstanding film with limited resources and a five-man cast. It just goes to show that when you creep style into a movie, you don't have to rely on car chases and explosions.
The Devil's Rejects (2005)
A Worthy Addition to Serial Killer Genre 7 (Not Bad)
The one line that comes to mind when I think about DEVIL'S REJECTS is "Rob Zombie pulled it off." It turned out to be a pretty good movie that certainly had an unconventional style. I would easily recommend it over several of the mainstream productions I've seen recently.
The best aspect of this movie is that it's not burdened with morals. Since there are no contrived good or bad values outlined in the movie, DEVIL'S REJECTS is a film that is blessed with freedom to roam. It is more likely than your conventional production to elicit a wider range of reactions, to make people think afterward, and, most importantly, to be remembered and watched again.
Still, there's no point to the movie. That's not a bad thing. It's like sitting in the back seat of a car, which makes good sight seeing. But sometimes that leaves you itching for the wheel. Rob Zombie's in the driver's seat, and if you ask him where the storyboard is, he'd probably reply, "Yeah, whatever. I'll get to that. First I need to pick up my accordion from Bill Ta's house."
Sure, the plot doesn't make much sense, but then neither does the sound of a jackhammer. The courteous sounds of real life can sometimes fit nicely together, but more often chaos reigns supreme. Stuff happens, and sometimes you feel like an ice-cream cone for no reason. DEVIL'S REJECTS plays out like leisurely road trip through the American South where the passengers have a knack for short tempers and spontaneity. Any hint of a specially designed plot line is abandoned, as the sprawling events unfold like a blood splatter on the wall. What comes through is a thick wad of southern-drawl attitude that bowls through the desert like a meat grinder.
This movie is no doubt influenced by David Lynch, Tarantino films, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and such - as if all those films mated and bore a malnourished kid who listens to ACDC and doesn't listen to a word you say. The nice thing is that DEVIL'S REJECTS is ballsy enough to stand out on its own, apart from its incestuous forefathers.
One Hour Photo (2002)
Best of Recent Robin Williams 8 (Bright, clean, and nervous like a straight jacket)
When I think of all the recent Robin Williams movies I've seen, I'm left with a peculiar aftertaste. He appears in stylish, well produced films that don't really leave a lasting impression. Foremost in my mind are What Good Things Will Come, Bicentennial Man, and Final Cut, none of which I would recommend. They're all too busy.
One Hour Photo stands out from the rest because unlike the others it's simple and effective. Williams does a thoroughly convincing job as Cy the Photo Guy, a character who epitomizes the privately obsessive side of human nature. That side we strive to squash on a daily basis to appear presentable in public.
The effectiveness of simplicity shines through in every aspect of ONE HOUR PHOTO. The score is creepy. The photo lab is antiseptic. Williams' strained mannerisms suggest that he has too many secrets brooding in the subconscious. And the plainness of the local retail store and soccer-mom-suburbia confirms the suspicion that the neighborhood is too comfortable. The undercurrent of psychosis lurks precisely where life appears so ordinary.
I was lost on how such a widely known Robin Williams movie could affect me so deeply, but the background of the director provided some insight. Mark Romanek hasn't worked on too many feature-length films, and most of his work has been producing music videos. That makes sense, because ONE HOUR PHOTO features a lot of well placed color against sterilized white. I don't know how to put it. It's the silent kind of creepy when you're watching a mime. It's like watching a skilled surgeon operating on a patient's leg. Camera zooms out to reveal that he's working on his own leg! (credit arnold for that one)
Here's a shortlist of music videos by Romanek you can find on his 2005 Director's Label DVD:
JAY-Z - 99 Problems; RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS - Can't Stop; JOHNNY CASH - Hurt; AUDIOSLAVE - Cochise; NO DOUBT - Hella Good; NIN - Perfect Drug; BECK - Devil's Haircut; EELS - Novocaine for the Soul; MICHAEL & JANET JACKSON - Scream; MADONNA - Bedtime Story; LENNY KRAVITZ - Are You Gonna Go My Way; EN VOGUE - Free Your Mind; KD LANG - Constant Craving
While a noisy production could have driven you away, the simplicity of ONE HOUR PHOTO draws you in. Watch this movie if you're tired with THX explosions, if you're losing faith in Robin Williams, or if you're looking for some good old, quiet perversion.
Hollow Man (2000)
Paul Verhoven's Worst, which isn't necessarily terrible 6 (Elizabeth Shue brings in an extra star)
Right now I am listening to my favorite reggae song on my twelve speaker home theater system. Let me tell you, it is rocking the roof off! Can you hear it? Oh, man, it's dope. You hear the 3/4 beat blasting the roof off?
No, you probably can't.
What if I told you that the song and the stereo system are magically INAUDIBLE. You can't hear the song even though it's actually playing through the speakers. Wouldn't that make things overly confusing? My point is that I've never understood how a movie about invisibility could work, much less do well. I don't think the concept has much potential, and I've always felt this way since seeing clips of the old black and white Invisible Man make footprints in the snow. Do you remember Disney's Pete's Dragon (1977) and how the thugs were hoisted into the air by a supposed invisible dragon? The movie was a classic for many other reasons, but if the dragon had never become visible to the audience, it would have made kids cry out of disappointment.
I had always been suspicious of HOLLOW MAN for this reason specifically. I don't see how film can do invisibility justice. But after finding out that it was PAUL VERHOVEN'S Hollow Man, I quickly put it at the top of my to-see list.
Without a doubt the most memorable scenes of HOLLOW MAN take place within the first half hour. First, an invisible gorilla is strapped to the operating table, and is brought back to visibility by an injected serum. The way the invisible gorilla writhes and screams in pain is enough to make an impact by itself, but we are treated to a meticulous CGI rendering of its anatomy. The skeleton becomes visible, then its organs, and eventually its musculature. The process is repeated with Kevin Bacon on the operating table, and the transformation from visible to invisible man is astounding. The top-notch CGI coupled with the screaming and kicking make for a scene that can stand among the best of its genre.
But while these transformation sequences make quite an impression, the rest of the movie can pretty much be thrown away for two reasons:
(1) The movie gets claustrophobic in a bad way, since the rest of the movie takes place mainly in an underground lab. The Invisible Bacon whines about not being let outside, where he could exercise his new powers, and I commiserate with him. The movie would have done itself a big favor by including scenes in public places, a supermarket for example, where the invisible man could wreak havoc on innocent bystanders. Instead the drama is pushed forward underground entirely by the clashes between Bacon and the other five members of his scientific team. Limiting the action to an underground lab severely shrinks the scale of the movie and wastes whatever potential the invisible concept had to begin with.
(2) Kevin Bacon's sudden jump from ambitious scientist to crazed madman needs more explanation. Josh Brolin tells Elizabeth Shue, "Kevin Bacon is a genius; he can go from A directly to D. I can't do that. I need the B and C." Hey, me too. I need the B and C, too. Why does the happy-go-lucky doctor turn into a homicidal maniac? I see why the movie needs to turn Bacon into a lunatic. After all, where else would you get the dead bodies? But aside from the pretext of cabin fever, we never see WHY Bacon goes nuts. The invisible man's insanity and subsequent irrational behavior rings hollow in the absence of character development.
If Verhoven had fleshed out (1) and (2), the movie would have been a lot better. Instead what you get is a shiny laboratory where the protagonist AND villain are non-existent. The suspense and drama are pushed forward by strange gripes among the characters that come out of nowhere. To make matters worse, the extra DVD features reveal how much work went behind creating the bulk of effects. The special effects team went to great lengths making the invisible Bacon appear in smoke, under a sprinkler, and underwater. If you ask me, it just looked like wisps of smoke and water. I can do that in my back yard! To achieve these effects, the crew had to paint Kevin Bacon either entirely black, fluorescent green, or dark blue with the matching contacts, all three of which were definitely cooler than the resulting invisibility. In my mind that stands as the biggest waste of time by a Hollywood production team I've ever seen.
But what else would you expect from a paradox like "See the Invisible Man!"
Oh, but Elizabeth Shue looks good in anything she does.
Steaming Iron Monstrosity 5 (Silly story that degenerates into a hulking iron mess)
Is it possible to comment on Otomo's STEAMBOY without referring to the legendary Akira made 20 years ago? I believe the comparison to be essential. After all, many Anime fans will watch STEAMBOY while in the back of their minds making frame for frame comparisons to Akira. Still, however enticing it may be to bring Akira into the picture, I'll try to eke out a few sentences in an attempt to evaluate STEAMBOY on its own.
The artwork is amazing and hovers several notches above even the work of Miyazaki. But note here, it is meticulous artwork of 19th Century England and large, noisy iron steam engines. Why on earth would Otomo devote six plus years of his life animating antiques? The anathema puzzles me, and I can only interpret it to be some kind of religious derangement. An equivalent would be to agonize over animating every thread of flat burlap cloth. Why bother when you could be pouring your energy into something else? If you surveyed 1000 anime fans out there, asking the question "What would you most like to see animated?" I bet you would get the answer "Something unreal." I would go for dragons or futuristic babe-droids. Or futuristic babe droids riding dragons. The jarring combination of beautiful artwork wasted on a dull Victorian landscape led only to frustration. Akira aside, why oh why did Otomo choose steam engines?
(As a side note, listening to supposed 19th Century English people speak Japanese is like watching a Spaghetti Western that features cowboys in spacesuits. It only makes for more subconscious scratching of the head.)
Well okay, let's say you're a fan of the 19th Century artwork and you're able to hone in on the story. What you'll discover is that there is no story underneath all the pretty pictures. As each frame ticked by I was frequently asking myself, when will this story pick up? About halfway through I realized that a half-way decent plot was not going to happen.
The first third of the movie involves some thugs chasing Ray Steam around the provincial neighborhood for the precious steam-ball entrusted to him by his grandfather. Once the precocious chase scene is over and done with, we are led to the second third of the movie, a meandering tour of a hulking steam factory run by Ray's father, all the while being introduced to the implausible inter-familial strife between Ray, his father, and his grandfather. At the end of this tour we are thrown into a sudden war between father Steam and Robert Louis Stevenson which is where we abandon all hope of a worthwhile plot and things get truly ridiculous. Not only does this war burst out of nowhere with gratuitous noise, but it sinks the pointless story that had barely hobbled through the first sixty minutes. The last third of STEAMBOY is nothing more than a cacophony of explosions from giant iron machines that add nothing to the movie but smoldering junk.
Now add the double whammy that Akira was both thematically and artistically right on the money, and you are left shaking your head for two meaningless hours of noise. What was Otomo thinking, no doubt in the grips of madness? Why did he trade in Neo-Tokyo for a English steam kettle whose only purpose was to blow up in our faces? I recently saw an excellent documentary on the life of Akira Kurosawa and am hoping that a similar one will be done on Otomo in my lifetime. It may explain what freak forces of nature made him produce this noisy and pointless monstrosity.
In regards to STEAMBOY's top-heavy international appeal, you can chalk up the over qualified English dubbing of this movie to Hollywood's Johnny-come-lately response to hype over substance. The next time you see Anna Paquin, Patrick Stewart, and company hauling this dismal iron wreckage out of the sea, tell them to do history a favor and let go of the ropes.
The Machinist (2004)
Modern Hallucination Backed by Classic Hitchcock Score 8 (very good)
Taking heed of the advice of my good friend and IMDb correspondent "The Oscillator," I searched out a DVD copy of THE MACHINIST and was rapt in suspense from beginning to end.
Christian Bale plays an emaciated Trevor Reznik who after a year of insomnia starts to lose his mind. As with any well done film about insanity, THE MACHINIST casts a nightmarish cloud of confusion over what is real and what is hallucination. No one knows what's going on, and it appears that the key to the puzzle rest deep on the oceanic floor of Reznik's subconscious.
Brad Anderson, poised to direct a 2006 remake of Romero's The Crazies, does a nice job of stringing together quiet, eerie scenes that culminate in periodic epileptic fits of psychosis. Wasting away in his delusional world of half-sleep, Reznik causes a horrific accident at the machine shop. All of his coworkers, including his nasty boss are conspiring against him, or so he thinks. Slowly Reznik gets the feeling that the conspiracy against him is deeper than it appears and that some of his coworkers don't really exist. To make things worse, someone is sticking random sticky-notes on his refrigerator.
One glaring point of distraction, though, was that I was constantly asking myself, God, how did Christian Bale lose so much weight for the part? For those who don't know Bale, you might think man, that guy's skinny. But for the millions of Christian Bale fans out there, simply seeing his face in THE MACHINIST might conjure up a myriad of irrelevant questions from "How much does he resemble that British kid in Empire of the Sun?" to "How in the world did he wind up in that awful Batman Project?" Sorting through different images of Bale in your head, from stick figure to schoolboy to bat, could be called entertainment. For me it gets kind of distracting.
Fortunately for the audience the macabre storyline remains tangled and dizzyingly suspenseful right up to the last five minutes where everything is unraveled and the mystery is explained. As always in this genre the bulk of the entertainment behind THE MACHINIST lies not in the final five minute ennui but in the preceding 90 minute cloud of schizophrenic psychosis. For another movie that has the same effect, I highly recommend Angel Heart (1987) with Mickey Rourke and Robert Deniro.
One final note, the score was excellent. It had a classic feel to it that made me think of Hitchcock's PSYCHO. An appropriate score (or an appropriate absence of one) is more than half the battle in any film, and the score behind THE MACHINIST proves that some Hollywood formulas for suspense never get old.
I Heart Huckabees (2004)
A Silly, Awesome Movie! 9 (excellent)
A full-time environmental protectionist, played by Jason Schwartzman, enlists the help of existential detectives Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman to explain to him a three part coincidence involving the "African guy." Now, here's the coincidence, and listen closely. (1) Schwartzman sees a tall man flipping through signed photographs at a local shop. (2) Schwartzman sees the same man, who happens to be a doorman, at the entrance of his friend's girlfriend's apartment building. (3) Schwartzman while demonstrating outside a Huckabees Store against the destruction of open spaces is almost hit by a car driven by exactly the same man.
What does it all mean? Well, you might as well be asking yourself the question, what's the meaning of life? As the characters probe deeper and deeper into the mystery, things seem to get more and more absurd. That is why I HEART HUCKABEES rocks. Sure, it has its fair share of slapstick comedy, but what makes this movie particularly funny is the ticklish feeling you get from it -- that underneath the seriousness of modern life, things are pretty silly and meaningless.
I HEART HUCKABEES proclaims itself to be an existential comedy. Existentialism is a branch of philosophy that seeks to rationalize the uneasy feeling we get when we ask, why are we something rather than nothing? I HEART HUCKABEES approaches the existential question with light-hearted silliness and artistic wit that I haven't seen since Woody Allen. The script and the situations are so absurd that the entire film amounts to a grand laugh at life, and by golly, what more can you ask from the world of art?
The most solid aspect of this film is its cast. To be sure they all give outstanding performances that give the feel of impromptu comedy. My biggest impression was that everyone had a lot of fun shooting this film. Each of the cast members let their silliness sparkle in grand luminosity, and I can imagine even the veteran actors Hoffman and Tomlin watching I HEART HUCKABEES and thinking "I'm glad I did this movie. And, hey, it looks like I'm having fun there in that scene."
[ as it turns out they did not always have fun ]
Don't miss this one. It stands well above any other comedy of recent memory.
Nothing Special -- 6 (Generic storyline that leeches off the GITS mystique)
Brand names sure can sell a product quick. Just slap the "Ghost in the Shell" label on anything and it'll probably sell like hotcakes. GITS trading cards, GITS lunch boxes, GITS cologne.
And of course, any wise prophet of the industry would tell you that the "Ghost in the Shell" brand name would sell its own sequel instantly. I mean, how could anyone miss seeing the sequel to the critically acclaimed Ghost in the Shell?
Yup, I was sold instantly, and as I popped the DVD in, I took a deep breath and calmed myself down.
The opening of Innocence, Ghost in the Shell 2, features an enhanced CGI rendition of the girl android getting assembled underwater. It's just like the opening of part 1 and is backed by another haunting choir & Koto drum score. Those first five minutes seem to say, hey, you're in for one heck of a ride!
Make room for disappointment because the other 95 percent of the movie is pretty dull. Sure, Innocence has some spotty moments of well done animation, but the story isn't so good. A virus has infected a cartload of pleasure-droids making them homicidal. Special agent Batou, a tough as nails android, and his squeamish human partner investigate the situation and find that it leads from one bad guy to another. After overcoming some flimsy obstacles, Batou makes his way to the last stage and beats the boss, all the while listening to his partner groan about the burdens of human life. That's really all there is to the story.
The same kind of story and growing pains partner situation can be found in the Lethal Weapon series. Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of Lethal Weapon. That's because they flesh out the generic storyline with witty humor that's fun for the family. Innocence fleshes out its generic video game kill-the-boss story with long drawn out scenes where nothing really happens. The original GITS breathed with life because it introduced us to a world inhabited by trash men who didn't know they were robots and a villain who lived in the Internet. It asked the big cognitive science questions with style. By the time we get to Innocence, all the characters are moaning and groaning in the rain. Horray.
While "Ghost in the Shell" was appropriately named for the subject matter it dealt with, I'm still at a loss why the sequel was called Innocence. Was it because of the piles of dead Yakuza members? I would have called it "Cut out my good parts and compress me into 15 minutes."
Fantastic Four (2005)
Go Marvel Go! -- 7 (Fun Fun Fun)
THE FANTASTIC FOUR succeeds in ways the Neo-DC Comics executives will never understand. In particular, as you might have guessed, I'm comparing this movie to Batman Begins, which was a severe, heartbreaking letdown. While Christopher Nolan chose to shroud Batman in darkness, FANTASTIC FOUR dances in vivid pastels. While Batman markets to those of us who've grown up too fast, FANTASTIC FOUR instead markets to the kid in all of us.
I don't know why, but I get a kick out of seeing the Fantastic Four on-screen. I attribute this childish exuberance to having never once seen an animated episode of Hannah-Barbara's Fantastic Four :(
Basically, super-heroes are not tough to do. The name of the game is simplify, don't over complicate, and FANTASTIC FOUR dishes out exactly what we kids are looking for. All we really want to see is Mr. Fantastic, the THING, the Invisible Woman, and the Human Torch standing proud in the flesh, wearing the costumes we've grown to love. We want to see them flaunt their super powers ... a lot, and that's what they do in this movie. Batman Begins supposed that the audience wanted to see the background psychological trauma that shaped the infamous dark knight. That would have been nice if it had been done correctly and taken to the proper extremes, which "Begins" failed to do. But the kid in me also wanted to see Batman use little gadgets and drive the Batmobile like he did in the comic books. I don't care how cheesy the Batmobile looked, I want to see it! Gimme the cheese, full blast!
Thank heavens FANTASTIC FOUR did not focus on psychological trauma, or else it would have devoted 120 minutes to the strained relationship between Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman. That would have turned out to be a weird & twisted Sleepless in Seattle, wouldn't you say?
THE FANTASTIC FOUR gets the comic book feel just right, without being too Disney on one hand and without getting too boring and drawn out on the other. That's how the comics books operated back in the day. They portrayed the difficult themes of adult life but were rhythmic enough to keep you flipping the pages.
The movie is pretty short and fast paced, which considering the playful direction the production took, was a good thing. We are taken on a whirlwind tour of the accident that created the super team, given a light taste of their personal troubles with society, and zoomed through their battle against Doctor Doom. At the end you're left still feeling high-spirited with a couple minutes to sip a soda and reminisce about the good old comic book days with your blokes. I would highly recommend bringing kids to see this movie, more so than I would with any other super-hero movie of recent memory.
My only gripe with this movie was its portrayal of Doctor Doom. Okay, so he has these devastating electrical powers which I don't remember him having in the comic books, but that's not important. His voice is too highly pitched. Behind the mask he's a weaselly corporate executive, but if I did Doctor Doom, I'd have him older and more foreboding like Darth Vader. Perhaps James Earl Jones was too busy with Verison and the MARVEL casting team had no where to turn on a tight schedule.
Speaking of MARVEL, the great American comic giant has pushed quite a campaign recently wouldn't you say? I remember ten years ago when I heard rumors of an X-men movie, and of course the foremost question on my mind was, "Will Arnold Schwarzenegger play Colossus?" (He instead chose to do Mr. Freeze, which no doubt helped him greatly in his political campaign.) Well I'm glad to see that MARVEL finally sprinted to the big screen in recent years churning out:
1. The Hulk (my favorite)
2. Spiderman (lukewarm for Raimi), Spiderman 2 (pretty good)
3. X-men (not bad), X-men 2 (better than the first)
4. Daredevil (haven't seen)
5. Elektra (haven't seen)
Having been so pleased with THE FANTASTIC FOUR and betrayed by Christopher Nolan and DC Comics, the next question on my mind is, which MARVEL super hero should be next?
How about the BLOB?
"Nothing can stop the BLOB!"
Final Destination 2 (2003)
Shock Value -- 7 (Good Flick)
You know that feeling you get when you're watching America's Funniest Home Videos and the oblivious son hits his hapless father in the crotch with an aluminum bat? It gets a quick reaction, like, ooh, I feel your pain man. FINAL DESTINATION 2 is a 90 minute or so string of those painful shots, as each character one by one meets an unfortunate death by household appliance. Bodies are slammed by trucks, heads are impaled, and limbs fly through the air. When one of the characters dies when her car's airbag explodes out of nowhere, I blurted "Yeah! Wow, did they do that??? Yeah, they DID do that. Right on!" Although the film has a very serious atmosphere about it, what with the creepy score and people sincerely freaking out and everything, it still retains a campy humor about it buried beneath its high-budget exterior. Many movies would shy away from smashing up plastic ketchup-filled dummies, opting instead to avoid the gore. Not FINAL DESTINATION 2! This movie is an honest approach to movie-making, hearkening back to the day when you got together with friends and said, "Okay, in this scene we cut to the dummy falling off the building, it's run over by a Mack truck, and it splatters chunks of blood all over that Oldsmobile over there." As for the premise behind FINAL DESTINATION 2, how do I put it into words? A.J. Cook has premonitions that people died in a nasty pileup on the highway. Thing is, this never happened. And ... she continues to have premonitions that those same people will die in due time. Those people eventually die. Did I get that right? The universal law of nature is that, well, Death sometimes misses its mark and has to fix its mistakes (which usually involves electrical equipment getting wet and other freak accidents of home improvement). If this all sounds convoluted, watch the movie. You'll see what I mean. The premise of FINAL DESTINATION 2, as much potential as it might have, doesn't make much sense and is pretty hokey, but if you medicate your inquisitive mind with heavy sedatives, you'll be able to look past the flimsy premise and enjoy the movie. I'm definitely looking forward to a Final Destination 3.
Mostly Uneventful -- 6 (Decent)
Incorrect pronunciation: "Them Dagon gofers gotten into my garden again!"
Correct pronunciation: "My word, where has the Dagon (day gone)?"
The first time I saw the name "HP Lovecraft" on the cover-box of DAGON, I thought to myself, cool, a movie from the guy who drew the concept art for Aliens! Not till midway through the movie did the bubble float to the surface of my brain, whereupon I exclaimed, "Wait a minute, it wasn't Lovecraft. The guy who did the art for Aliens was HG Giger, not HP Lovecraft!" Oops.
DAGON, though, did prove to be mildly entertaining, regardless of which HP or HG it turned out to be. (And you know, it probably doesn't matter, since both come from a similarly twisted state of mind.)
The movie opens with an effectively suspenseful shipwreck scene where two couples off the coast of Spain get caught in a sudden storm and hit a rock. As one of them gets injured on the lower deck, one couple sails to shore in an inflatable raft.
Once on shore, the main lead Ezra Godden is directed to a local hotel where everything is really dirty, I mean REALLY dirty. Looking out the window, he notices that the townsfolk have gathered outside grunting for his blood. You see, the townsfolk signed a pact with supernatural forces and are slowly growing gills and fins in preparation to return to the sea. Also, for some reason, signing such a pact makes them really hungry and hostile, too. These fish-people start chasing Godden out of the hotel and around the village in the rain. (As you can tell tourism was not high on the revenue list.)
The campy style in which the shipwreck and chase scenes were shot reminded me of EVIL DEAD, what with all the well placed close-ups and quick cuts.
These two opening scenes, about thirty minutes all together, establishes a solid beginning for DAGON, but the rest of the movie is downhill from there in my opinion. That's not too bad, considering the movie runs 90 minutes, resulting in the opening third of the movie being juicy nougat with the remaining two thirds being a stale wafer-like biscuit.
My biggest complaint about this movie is that the creepy townsfolk are hidden under too much darkness and hooded clothing. Although you hear a lot of constipated surround sound grunting on the audio track, you only see a crowd of hooded people in robes. Skateboard culture meets Cocoon. There are very few fangs or tentacles to be spoken of. That's a shame since Stuart Gordon has proved as a director that he can go over the top with visual gore and rubber in his mid-80's classics Re-animator and From Beyond, two great films I would recommend over DAGON for freakish audacity.
Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
An Overly Orchestrated Mess -- 3 (Total waste in every respect)
This movie was absolutely terrible. The bottom line is that two hours of a deliberately serious score backing forced close-ups of grim faces is mind-numbingly boring and approaches being torture when you pay 1800 yen for a movie ticket and are strapped into a theater seat with obligations to not walk out on your friends.
As KINGDOM OF HEAVEN ticked slowly from second to second, I grew increasingly confused. What's happening in this movie? Orlando Bloom is here, now he's there, now he's on his way elsewhere. Am I supposed to care? I don't know why, but I couldn't' bring myself to being least bit interested in the plot at all. It's as if the movie were intentionally made to be boring. So I sat back in my chair, closed my eyes, and prayed to God that KINGDOM OF HEAVEN would miraculously shift gears and transform into a movie that didn't suck bad.
Such divine salvation failed to appear, and I was left forsaken,eyes-closed in my theater seat trying to block out the drone of this movie's script, praying to a heaven I did not know.
Imagine with me if you can a heavily orchestrated score, something that with strings and brass says "Things are very serious now. I need to make a big decision, and everything is so serious." Now imagine the face of your favorite middle-aged European, say Liam Neeson, looking off-screen and taking a deep sigh, then another for that extra-drama effect. Then he says something distinctly royal, like "Let it written let it be done," turns around with Jedi robe flowing, and walks out of the room.
While this type of scene is effective at times, you can't loop it repeatedly for two, three hours, can you? That's what I thought, but that's exactly what Ridley Scott dishes out in KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. There's too much music, too many minutes wasted on serious faces, and too much chivalry.
Even Jeremy Irons leaves this movie about two-thirds way through. He pleads with Orlando Bloom, "Don't waste any more time, lad. It's a lost cause. If I were you, I'd round up your troops and high foot it out of the kingdom of heaven." I urge you all to follow Irons' lead, except do it early on before suffering another minute of this God forsaken mess.
War of the Worlds (2005)
M. Night Shyamalan's SIGNS is better -- 5 (too one dimensional)
I haven't read the book, nor have I seen the 1953 movie, but I don't think that doing either would lend any meaning to Spielberg's 2005 remake of WAR OF THE WORLDS. To begin with, two hours of people screaming and running for their lives gets pretty boring after the first fifteen minutes and gets downright annoying past the half-way mark. Like a laboratory mouse exposed to too much noise and frequent prodding, I felt like running around in circles after irascibly getting up from my seat in the theater.
Any time you're going to have that much action going on with cars flying in the air and huge clunky robots demolishing the earth, it pays to have a breather once in a while and focus on the story and characters a little bit. Twister (1996) did this quite nicely, where Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton had to sort out their previous marriage amidst fighting a natural disaster. WAR OF THE WORLDS fails miserably in character development, since it seeks only to capitalize on Cruise's sexiness, the little girl's cute innocence, and the boy's unmistakable resemblance to Lord of the Rings' Elijah Wood, while failing to give us a better explanation for the three of them being together than "they made the cast." The interim family scenes where Cruise tries to comfort his children are contrived, and more than feeling an kind of familial bond among the characters, I was more ready to imagine the young actors returning to their trailers and calling their friends on expensive cell phones. "Yeah, we had a rough shoot today, but I have some cool stories about Tom Cruise, you want to hear?"
Taking a step back, I'm not even sure the original concept behind WAR OF THE WORLDS could effectively make an entire movie. I have a feeling that the original novel dealt more with each individual's struggle against insurmountable odds, as in Camus' Plague. Unfortunately the Spielberg filter reduces that character centered concept to the stereotypical urban panic scene, which is probably what people pay to see anyway. A sign of the concept's attrition on its way to the modern silver screen is that three of the novel's original characters were compressed into one character played by Tim Robbins.
Although the distilled panic-driven concept behind WAR OF THE WORLDS is utterly flat and one-dimensional, the one scene at the beginning when the Martian tripod breaks out of the ground is very well done. Everything happens in full daylight, and there is a seamless combination of CGI and real sets that simulates the impression of seeing something really big against a blue sky. Still, the rest of the movie can be thrown away, and that one scene can be looped on the home theater showcased at your local electronics store. After all, that's really what the movie is meant for, you know, with a catchy chime and the Intel Pentium logo flashing across the screen.
I would definitely recommend Shamlayan's Signs (2001) over WAR OF THE WORLDS any day of the week. For a fraction of the budget, Signs succeeded in portraying the alien invasion theme ten times better than WAR OF THE WORLDS, opting for subtle directorial style over huge noisy special effects. Plus, one of the central themes to this kind of movie is American Dad's weakness in the face of an overpowering force. Mel Gibson does a far better job of playing the confused and powerless father figure than Tom Cruise. While Mel Gibson gives a silent, blank expression on his face, Tom Cruise in a cliché explosion of frustration throws clichéd peanut butter and jelly sandwiches against a window. The same contrast can be seen with the two movies compared in their entirety. Signs is quiet and disturbingly comic while WAR OF THE WORLDS is two straight hours of THX noise.
The Rapture (1991)
Not good or evil, but everything in between 6 (Worth the time)
THE RAPTURE is all about God and whether he'll come down to save us all. While some films contrast black against white in the usual fashion, THE RAPTURE is instead gray all over. Those of you looking for the conventional good conquers evil story will be confused. The morality portrayed in this artistic film is at times murky below sea level and at other times sparse as the desert sky.
Several employees at a dark 411 call center experience visions of a pearl in their dreams which they interpret as a sign from God. I can't recall reading anything that associates pearls with conventional Christianity, but I think that's the point. The religion depicted in THE RAPTURE is anything but conventional, and the existential faith adopted by the characters is something you might find in play by Tom Stoppard or Jean-Paul Sartre.
Speaking of plays How many of you out there are into post-modern stage production? I mean the live on-stage type thing with real actors? If you are, you might be familiar with the nebulous, uneasy feeling of being confronted with dialog that's disjointed and doesn't quite make sense. The acting is based more on the over-emphasized feeling each actor gives to the words than the words themselves. The play culminates in a ritualistic dream sequence that would have even Shakespeare scratching his head. At the end you leave the theater not knowing whether good conquered evil and your head is full of strange thoughts about life.
THE RAPTURE incorporates many of these thespian elements on film, and I wonder if it's actually an on-screen adaptation of a play. The sets are normal, bedroom to bedroom to office, and there are rarely more than two people in one shot. There's no stylistic cinematography to speak of, and the cuts and audio track are nothing special. That being the case, I would say that THE RAPTURE would undoubtedly be more effective on stage than on screen. The main reason being that the audience is posed with the question is Mimi Rogers going insane? Is she dreaming? What the hell is going on? Now, in Hollywood, dream sequences are a dime a dozen. Anyone with plenty of time on their hands, a computer, and a microphone can pretty much do anything they want on screen. That's why when you rent a movie, you're expecting something artificial. With a theatrical play, on the other hand, what you see on stage is actually happening. The pyrotechnics is real fire. The actors are living breathing human beings.
When we step into the Shakespearean theater, although everything you see is a fictional story, the events are physically happening for real in front of your eyes. That's what makes on-stage theater eerily dreamy, because what you're really seeing isn't really happening. With the only thing separating you and the actors being the stage lights, the dream sequences are even more unsettling than their cinematic counterparts. Like a child you sigh, I think I see an angel coming down from heaven, and it's more lifelike and three-dimensional than any possible CGI-rendered figure.
My point is, THE RAPTURE attempts this same eerie feeling, but since it's only a movie, it can only do so much, even with its appropriately orchestrated score. It's a question of format. If you ever get to see THE RAPTURE on-stage, don't pass it up. If you're tempted to rent it on video, beware that it might bore you. The suspension of belief and the dues ex ma-china just don't appear.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Wartime Grit with an Unlikely Premise 8 (Very Good)
This Academy Award Winning Best Picture of 1998 contains the grittiest, most graphic war scenes I've ever seen on film. On top of that, the film quality is pristine and the high-speed equipment used to shoot the movie is nothing short of groundbreaking in the war genre. That being the case, does the artistic quality of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN automatically overshadow/surpass the other movies of 1998 like American History X or Run Lola Run for example? Perhaps so.
Still, as I attribute the entire 8 stars to artistic merit, the last two gaping empty stars must be addressed. The premise that the movie is based upon, namely the mission of bringing back one soldier to his mother mandated by the war department, is simply something I cannot swallow. What's the word I want to use to describe how I feel about the impetus for the movie? It's not cheesy, nor is it saccharine. I feel as if it's an insult to my intelligence. Let me spell this out word for word...
First of all, I simply don't understand why history has been racked with so many wars. I'm not rabidly anti-war per Se. I just want to understand why the people of one nation collectively want to kill the people of another nation. IMDb is not the place to discuss such issues at length, so let's assume for now that wars are fought for any of a million reasons: defense, propagation of freedom, power, resources, territory, maybe the utter lack of something better to do.
Now here is my gripe with SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, which otherwise is a masterpiece. If the war department is focusing all of its energy and machinery on the above mentioned war objectives, is it plausible for them to really care about one kid or his mother? I am curious how the parents of American soldiers killed in Iraq feel when they watch this movie. I just cannot for one second believe that the American defense department would go to such lengths for any single individual.
Rather than swallow this implausible premise hook line and sinker, I would more enjoy a film that exposes the real modus operandi behind bloodthirsty war machinery. Platoon or Apocalypse Now are considered classics, and rightly so given the grimy mood each depicts. But despite is technologically phenomenal production, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is too heavy with the flag-waving patriotic Dreamworks score and tells a story you'd only find off the shelves of Disney Corporation -- one that is sugar-coated at the core and just plain fantasy.