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All hype, no substance
23 May 2005
I have to admit that I too fell victim to the marketing hype around this film. It first stuck in my mind when I saw an ad for a special about the film on the SciFi channel (back when they didn't just run lame B-films). For those of you who are too young to remember the buzz around the theatrical release of "The Blair Witch Project", the film's marketing gave the impression that it was an actual documentary of three people becoming lost in the woods of Maryland and falling victim to a mysterious, supernatural power, local legend the Blair witch. It may seem a bit outlandish looking at it now, but the marketing was surprisingly convincing at selling this as an actual documentary, even going so far as to list the actors as missing. Through word of mouth and rumors, the film fascinated the public, who were left to wonder if the horrific events of the film had actually occurred. Even after it became widely known that the film was fictional, the hype surrounding the project and many positive reviews help the low budget B-film become one of the biggest hits of the year.

Before I begin, I'd like to say that I'm not a huge fan of the horror genre; but not because I don't like being scarred, but because I am very rarely frightened by movies. The key appeal of a horror movie to most people is it's ability to get them on the edge of their seat, and it very rarely does that for me. There are a couple that have rattled me (The Exorcist, Seven) and some I enjoy for their plots or directing (The Shining, Alien, Day of the Dead), but on a whole I don't get the genre, whether the film happens to be a teen slasher flick of the 1990's, a gore feast of yesteryear or even the classic Monster pictures of old Hollywood.

That said, "The Blair Witch Project" was an hour and a half of sheer boredom and sloppy camera-work. For those who haven't seen it, it revolves around a group of three film students who set out to make a documentary on the Blair Witch, a legendary figure supposedly living in the woods of Maryland. Seen from a hand-held camera, it shows the group as they go from being enthusiastic about what they think is going to be a two day camping trip to slightly distressed about being lost to utterly terrified at being pursued by what we are led to assume is the Blair witch. The film is careful to never actually show the witch. The "scares" come from the students terrified reactions to their increasingly dire predicament. As the become more and more lost, they begin seeing signs of the witch and of course begin to hear odd noises in the night. Some would argue that the film is scary because of what you don't see; I find that little is given to make us believe that their truly is something evil stalking the students. In order to make the terror seem real, the film mostly relies on one thing: screaming. There is rarely a minute in the "Blair Witch" where one of the kids isn't screaming their lungs out over something. Would real people react the same way in the same situation? Probably, but this doesn't make it interesting. The simple fact is that the movie lacks almost any tension what-so-ever, and rarely manages to surprise (the reasonably well scripted ending being the exception).

To its credit, the acting does lends to the documentary feel of the film well. Since the students aren't actually shooting their documentary most of the time, we see them acting like fairly normal college students, which means crude jokes, pot smoking and an abundance of profanity. The acting, while certainly not interesting by any means, is effecting in creating the illusion that these were real events. The characters seem like a trio of goof balls on a camping trip, and their reactions to their growing troubles are believable. The "real" acting can't change the fact that never once are we intrigued by a character's reaction to the horrors around them, as the reaction is almost always the same: running, screaming and talking about how scared they are into the camera.

I've got to hand it to the people who masterminded the "Blair Witch", because they certainly managed to do well; making well over $200 million dollars from a movie that cost just over twenty grand to produce. While arguably one of the biggest phenomena of 1999, "The Blair Witch Project" hasn't become the classic many people said it would become. This is all well with me, because despite the fact that it scarred a whole lot of people, the "Blair Witch" is a movie without a hint of substance, even by horror standards. I can remember very few other films that managed to bore me as much as this simple minded scream-fest. Perhapse I just don't get it, and I'm sure most people would be frightened by some of the film. Either way, I'm taking comfort in the fact that we probably will never see a movie like this again.
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Desperado (1995)
One of Rodriguez's lesser efforts
23 May 2005
Robert Rodriguez is certainly one of today's most influential directors. While few of his films could be considered masterpieces (the cult classic "El Mariachi" being the possible exception), he has constantly turned out hits and pushed the envelope of digital filming and computer effects. With "Sin City" on it's way to becoming a minor classic, it's interesting to go back and take a look into Rodriguez's first foray into the world of Hollywood: the bullet ridden No-western "Desperado". More of a Hollywood update on his low budget "El Mariachi", "Desperado" stars Antonio Banderas as a revenge-bent vagabond. Carrying a guitar case filled with enough firepower to level a small town (which he ends up doing), he wanders around Mexico, looking for the man who murdered his girlfriend. Upon arrival in a town ruled by a local drug lord, El Mariachi begins a war against the drug cartel. As he is relentlessly hunter by hired thugs he encounters a local named Carolina (the smoldering Salma Hayek in her Hollywood debut) and inevitably finds time to become her lover in between shootouts and jumping out of exploding buildings. When it was released on the scene in 1995, "Desperado" was met with enthusiasm by many fans tired of the bland shoot-'em ups that Hollywood had been pumping out since the 1980's, and it's easy to see why. Rodriguez takes a high style approach to his action scenes that was rarely seen by many Americans at the time. It's easy to see the influence of John Woo in the shootouts, as Banderas takes on armed goons with double pistols and a ton of attitude. While choreography is inventive and at times exhilarating the action of "Desperado" has since been outclassed by other films, not to mention John Woo's Hong Kong efforts. By no means bad and still fun to watch for the first time, but it all seems a bit slow by today's standards. And when you take away the action, your of course left with the plot and acting. The revenge story is hardly original and the movie does little to vary the formula, but it's reasonably well done with an interesting twist towards the end. The acting is just about what you'd want from a film like this. Banderas screams bad ass with his getup and arsenal, and emits a dark, brooding charisma. Before she proved herself as a serious actress, Hayek's fame came from her looks, and it's certainly easy to see why. She's simply gorgeous and exudes sex in the film, and her chemistry with Banderas is immediately apparent. So when you add up the unoriginal story, solid characters and stylish (though dated) gunfighting your left with an average action piece. Some will be drawn into Bandera's Mariachi and Rodriguez's maverick directing, but ultimately it's nothing to get excited about.
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And if only he kept the mask on...
1 May 2005
I've always had a soft spot for a great period piece. A well made historical drama should be able to suck the viewer in, make them feel a part of the era the film depicts. Disney's "The Three Musketeers" was not one of my favorite historical pieces. The juvenile plot and idiotic one-liners made Dumas' epic adventure into the standard kid friendly crap that Hollywood seems to pump out in great volume nowadays. That said, I was more than a little intrigued when I heard of "The Man in the Iron Mask", another adaptation of a Dumas book that would be given a more serious treatment than its predecessor. With a great story and stellar cast, they couldn't go wrong, could they?

Unfortunatally, the actual adaptation is far less compelling than the concept. A feeling of unevenness lingers through the whole film. At times the drama is simply overbearing and bogs down what is supposed to be an epic adventure. Little tension or suspense is ever felt on screen, and the sparse action scenes do little to invigorate the viewer. Instead of being exhilarating and inspirational, the climax comes off like a bad cliché and takes away any emotional effect that the crew intended.

The characters themselves provide other problems, in particular DiCaprio's portrayal of the royal brothers. To his credit, he plays both roles quite well: Louis as the spoiled, selfish and obnoxious king, and Philippe as the insecure, innocent and passive prisoner. This is another major flaw of the film: for an adventure picture, the protagonist/antagonist are just boring. We have a villain who doesn't so much need to be defeated as he needs a spanking, and a hero who isn't so much heroic as he is meek. Like DiCaprio, the rest of the cast gives good performances, but none of them really amaze.

So what we have is an adventure film that isn't really adventurous and a historical drama that seems over-dramatic and sentimental. At times entertaining and even potent, but overall poorly executed. As crazy as it may sound, I think I'd have to consider the swashbuckling camp of "The Three Musketeers" over this film.
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The tribute film that could
10 April 2005
While Kill Bill was originally intended to be one film, somewhere along the line the decision was made to split it into two parts, and it's quite surprising just how well this works. On the surface, volume 2 is the Spaghetti Western half of Tarintino's tribute to cult films. But when you compare to two movies on a deeper level, they're dramatically different films.

The first half of the Kill Bill saga was essentially an extended romp that introduced the characters, conflicts and mythology of the story through highly stylized action scenes. Slower paced, with significantly less action and outlandish violence, Volume 2 is a departure from the original. But what it loses in action and style it more than substance. While the plot is still a revenge story, it's one of the most complex and humanized revenge sagas ever put on film. The central aspect of the plot is the relationship between the Bride (Thurman) and Bill (Carradine). Both of these characters turn out to be surprisingly deep, and through excellent dialog and acting we can understand their relationship to one another, as well as the supporting characters. This slowly builds up and comes to a head with their meeting. Some complained that the final confrontation was anti-climatic, but I couldn't disagree more. It's a deeply emotional moment for both characters, and is the perfect conclusion for the Bride's journey.

And of course, the plot isn't the only thing to praise with this film. Tarantino's directing skills are, as always, superb. Uma Thurman was superb, and David Carradine gives an almost mythical performance as Bill. The supporting cast was excellent as well (particuarlly Madsen and Liu). Tarentino has always been known for being able to combine music and scenes memorably, and Kill Bill is no exception, with the score lending itself to the film perfectly.

While it still possesses the style and action of it's predecessor, Kill Bill Volume 2 sets itself apart with it's deep and emotion filled story. No other director could have made this film, and Tarantino shows why he's revered as one of today's greatest directors. By paying homage to the his influences and heroes, Tarantino has created a classic.
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Brilliant, stunning and disturbingly entertaining
1 April 2005
Few films are as sensational or infamous as Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange". It's impossible to sit through ACO and not have a reaction; whether it be shock, disgust or amazement. The savage tale of a brutal young droog and his subsequent "reformation" by the government is as shocking and thought-provoking as ever.

While the film's depictions of violence and sex are what it's most known for, ACO works on far deeper levels. The disturbing portrayal of youth and its satirical depiction of a government's attempts to create a better society are brilliant, but the most fascinating aspect of ACO is the questions it poses about good and evil. While the crimes Alex commits at the beginning of the film are atrocious, what the government does to him is worse. The film presents the absolute worst aspects of man, but shows that even these are still favorable to a man without the choice. People can denounce the film because of its brutal content, but the importance of the questions it poses can't be denied.

Equally excellent to the film's content is the effort by the crew. Kubrick's perfectionism pays off well, as ACO in one of his most visually striking films. Malcolm MacDowell is nothing short of amazing as Alex. Kubrick's use of surreal imagery and set pieces, as well as the ingenious use of music to compliment the on-screen action, creates a world that perfectly reflects the protagonist's behavior and the government's policies.

A Clockwork Orange is by no means an easy film to get through, as many will be turned off by the scenes of violence and rape. But this masterpiece is far more complex than a simple romp through a world of youthful violence. It's a rare example of film-making that demands that the viewer actually think. Real horrorshow all around, Oh my brothers.
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True Lies (1994)
Mindless action at its very best
29 March 2005
Growing up I had a fascination with the mindless action films of the 1980's, as I'm sure many boys my age did. And while I've come to realize that Arnold Schwarzenegger isn't the greatest actor of all time as I had once thought, I still enjoy a bit of campy action, and few films manage to entertain as much as True Lies. The key to the films appeal is that unlike most action flicks, it doesn't take itself seriously. It has the classic action plot: secret agent fights America-hating terrorists. While starting out like many action films, True Lies shifts gears when the agent (Schwarzenegger) discovers his wife (Curtis) may be having an affair. Upon learning that all she really wants is a little excitement in her banal suburban existence, Arnold decides to give her exactly what she wants. As you might have guessed, this takes a turn for the worse and Arnold ends up having to save his family from the terrorists in addition to saving the country. While it uses nearly every cliché in the book, it's done in a lighthearted and well directed way that makes the movie a blast to watch. The frequent humor is actually funny, and the action is very well done (and, as usual, completely over-the-top). The one liners are great, and Curtis' legendary striptease is one of cinema's greatest guilty pleasures. While certainly not academy award material, even the acting is well done. Arnold is at his best as the over-the-top agent. Curtis is excellent as a neurotic housewife, and Tom Arnold works surprisingly well as the wise-cracking sidekick. And Charlton Heston's cameo is simply brilliant. True Lies is the ultimate action flick. Cameron took a tired genre and struck gold. Is it a great cinematic achievement? No, but it sure is a blast to watch.
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