Saturday, July 21, 2012

All the King's Men (1949)

This film won best picture instead of earning critics’ ridicule like the remake. And I would have to say it is vastly superior in almost every way. The visual aesthetic is perhaps more pleasing in 2006’s picture but that’s a very peripheral trait to have. The original has better acting, better line delivery, a much better plot, and much better character arcs. The only other thing the remake has over it is unintentional hilarity.

Jack Burden isn’t the sole focal point of the storyline here, as Willie Stark has much more screen time and we learn just why Jack is interested in Willie moreso than before. Willie becomes corrupt a bit more gradually this time around and still shows human characteristics, he’s not the over the top crazy Sean Penn version but a sensible power hungry dictator instead.

While the ends are questioned in the later film the original focuses on the means, a much better functionality. Of course Willie Stark wants to help the people, it helps him to stay in power. He has his hands in the muck because it’s the best way for him to operate, the crowds singing his praise not only because he paid for them but also because they believe in him. Stark’s wall begins to crumble, but he survives impeachment only to be slain by the much better characterized doctor.

Jack isn’t an ineffectual moron with a terrible accent in this rendition either, he’s an interested observer in Stark’s work. While he fails to capitalize on his love interest it isn’t for such a ludicrous overplayed reason like it is in the remake. He acts and behaves like a 1940s man would. Even the quotes from this movie vastly outdo anything in the second rendition. “There is no God but Willie Stark and I’m his prophet and you’re his…” this even functions as a slight criticism of the Socialism advocated by the real life Huey Long and really any communist dictator, while I don’t necessarily agree with the reasoning it is fantastically purveyed on the screen.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Random Dark Knight musings

Yay short post! I suppose giving TDK Rises 4 stars is a bit nebulous; The Dark Knight is 9.5/10 to 10/10, Rises is 9/10. In terms of Nolan movies its better than Batman Begins, better than Insomnia, and sort of a tossup with Prestige (personally I'd pick Prestige but you could easily go either way). Inception was much better and is kind of still the high water mark though there's definitely a lot to be said for Memento.

The Dark Knight Rises

Ah the mighty Nolan, man who never fails me. Naturally you’ll go into this review wondering the impossible query, can this possibly be better than The Dark Knight? No, it can’t, but there’s still a pretty huge gap between The Dark Knight and every other superhero movie. This film fits in there quite nicely as the second best superhero movie ever made; though there is a debate to be made for the Avengers.

As you’ll recall Batman killed Harvey Dent at the end of the last movie and has been living in seclusion as a fugitive ever since. Bruce is now a hobbled version of his former self, since 4 (7) years have passed since the last movie. But have no fear Gotham prospers while he rests; unfortunately there’s an evil megalomaniacal scheme at work; naturally. This one involves obscure business dealings and Bane appears to assist. I won’t go too far further into the plot except to say about half of the movie is shown in previews; there aren’t any surprises for quite some time.

Now there is one rather out of the blue twist in the last quarter of the film; Christopher Nolan likes to foreshadow almost everything he does. In Memento, in The Prestige, the entire plot is foreseeable if you pay enough attention; but the twist here really isn’t. There’s a lot of supporting information and the situation definitely fits in well but the direct correlation is not. There’s another much more Nolany twist at the very end that I saw about 45 minutes beforehand; but I still liked the previous twist if only for the mild surprise; but it definitely wasn’t an “OH IT MAKES SO MUCH SENSE NOW” sort of twist.

The effects in this film are largely practical and there’s a few really awesome 3-4 second shots of either thousands of extras or dozens of police cars which must have been quite a feat to film. If you’ll remember virtually every main setpiece in The Dark Knight was almost entirely practical, and the biggest action scene in the movie was. They flipped a semi over on its vertical axis and blew it up, and it looked fucking incredible. In Rises there’s the Batwing which is essentially a small gyrocopter with shitloads of artillery installed on it; while they probably did have a working gyro in some respect it certainly didn’t fly at high speeds and definitely didn’t have missiles on board; such a prototype would cost well over 100 million to build; not to mention annoy the US military substantially. The tumbler (Batmobile) is almost entirely practical by comparison, and I think the Batcycle was in TDK but isn’t entirely in Rises. It’s a pretty minor quibble but a noticeable difference between the films.

And now for the elephant in the room, The Joker. Yes, he’s still by far the best superhero villain in any of these movies and yes there’s nothing even close to his performance in this film. Look at this and this for a reminder. Anywho, that’s hardly a detriment on this film but more yet another heap of praise for Heath Ledger’s performance. Aaron Eckhart’s performance also far surpasses anything in this film, though it is just a whole bunch of good performances instead of 2 heavily focused ones. Christian Bale is much better in Rises than he was in TDK, for instance.

Is this movie better than the Avengers? I don’t know, they’re really hard to compare. One is really campy and silly and heavily CG’d, the other is about 75% practical effects and has a deep, serious plot though it doesn’t cut quite as deep as its predecessor. I think you sort of have to accept that the Nolan Batman movies, particularly the last two, fall outside of the Superhero genre and are Thriller/Crime procedural mixtures with supervillains but no superheroes. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Negotiator

This is a movie I’ve seen on TBS about 4-5 times, this was the first time I’d ever watched it in full unedited. It’s a bit hard to judge knowing most of the twists beforehand from memory but I don’t think the movie is all that predictable. Sam Jackson is a hostage negotiator, the dude from Without a Trace is his partner. Sam demonstrates his heroism right at the start so that the audience has no qualms with what’s about to occur.

Without a Trace man gets shot and Sam Jackson is the primary suspect. He had inside information on a police corruption scandal and Samuel knows that his conviction is a certainty; thus he takes action and takes the only lead he has hostage alongside his secretary, a con, and a cop. He tears apart the first attempted negotiator and calls for Kevin Spacey to replace him. Spacey is available and the plot goes on from there in semi-predictable fashion; enough being done so that the audience doesn’t lose their affinity for Sam Jackson throughout.

The movie does have a small amount of comedy in this portion, though it quickly moves on to thriller “guess what happens next” silliness. But for being a 90s movie it isn’t all that cliché’d; I guess the only thing you could easily figure out is who’s the main traitor. The acting is excellent; apart from the two exceptional leads most of the supporting cast is great as well. Paul Giomatti is around as well, this is before he became a lead actor and he was still great as a supporting actor prior to Sideways/Cinderella Man.

I suppose if I was to criticize something it’s the plausibility of Kevin Spacey being able to prevent Sam Jackson from being sniped by hundreds of Chicago policemen. Additionally though he’s a Negotiator Sam also seems to be the most competent “SWAT” sort of guy around and holds off two breach attempts in what seems to be a fairly large building. If they had chosen a narrower office building it might be more plausible that one guy could hold an entire floor by himself.

The very end of the movie is a little magical and providential; the old “get the bad guys to screw themselves” routine. Still there’s a halfway decent twist there and a bit of visual variety from the rest of the picture. Clocking in at 2 hours and 20 minutes this is a pretty long movie for a thriller; though 90’s movies were longer per capita I believe so suppose that’s a product of the era. You could probably cut out about 15 minutes and still have a solid film; but it isn’t all that much of a blight.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

21 Grams

The back cover of the dvd for this movie advertises it as a “suspense/thriller” but generally I saw it as a drama/tragedy. There’s nothing really exciting in the film from beginning to end; it’s pretty much non stop depressing scenes. The scenes play out of order but the plot is fairly straightforward and there’s not any over arching reason why they play out of order. The film basically only leaves one thing up to your questioning until the very end, aside from the initial confusion.

Benicio Del Toro plays a born again ex-con who accidentally hits a father and his 2 young daughters and then speeds off. All three of them die and he turns himself in. The mother, Naomi Watts, fails to prosecute so he’s released in fairly short order but is obviously struggling with his faith and some sick bastard told his kids about what happened so he has to deal with their accusatory glances as well. This kind of drives him insane and he has to leave and cope with his guilt on his own elsewhere. I like his story arc the best but there’s some really over the top symbolism that’s utterly unnecessary.

Sean Penn is on his deathbed to start the movie as his heart failed for whatever strange reason; the only particularly unhealthy thing about his character is that he smokes which would probably cause lung failure before heart failure, but who knows (also fairly young naturally). He eventually makes a speech in the film about the beauty of mathematics and how there’s a number behind everything, unfortunately he couldn’t work out the basic equation that smoking is bad for you. He’s saved by the car accident as the father’s heart is transplanted into his body, though he wants to thank the family members.

Eventually he gets together with the widow, Naomi Watts, and they end up having a relationship. It’s not really sexy or romantic at any point by design; though it is a bit weird. You have to allow for some Hollywood magic here as the reason he finds Naomi is because of some PI. It’s not divine providence that draws them together in infidelity, but Sean Penn’s stalking her for a while to find out more about why he’s still alive.

I won’t spoil the rest of the plot but suffice to say everything works out about as sadly as possible. The film is well acted, well shot, and fairly interesting from start to finish; if occasionally offensive. It is better than the Machinist, the only other hit and run car accident film I’ve seen, though a lot of that has to do with having 3 good lead actors instead of 1. Without the “bash you over the head” symbolism in Benicio’s story I would have liked it a fair amount better. The film is mostly silent on the music front, which functions quite well as there’s a lot of focus on breathing and otherwise silence in various scenes.

Monday, July 9, 2012

48 hours

Ah 1982, a time of repression, segregation; pre civil-rights if you will. At least that’s how the film is constructed, a modern Birth of a Nation so to speak. Nick Nolte gives his gun to some bad guys for no apparent reason and gets a guy killed; his captain (also the captain in Last Action Hero, that masterpiece) informs him that he must catch (kill) the cop killers at all costs. Some fortunate magical police logic leads him to Eddie Murphy, a cop disguised as a convict mysteriously.

And so the main plot begins, the original buddy cop picture; though if Eddie Murphy was just his actual partner that would place him on equal footing with Nick; and Nick could not have an epiphany about racism if he wasn’t in a “superior” position. It is still pretty funny though it’s also ironically funny in retrospect; this movie sort of seems like it was made pre-civil rights and obviously pre political correctness (the latter being a terrible thing for the most part). I’ve heard quite a few aged white men tell me this was their favorite movie, but it sort of has direct racism to start with and then Nick evolves into a standard soft racist (“but I have black friends!”) as the movie goes on, he becomes a modern white person instead of coming from the 1950s; bravo Nick.

But being that this is an 80s movie the action is still really well done, even brief shootouts are fairly interesting and believable. The movie is very predictable but presuming it actually spawned several of the clichés within it I don’t think that’s too much of an issue. Even though most of the movie takes place in same-y city streets they somehow still make it varied enough that it never gets boring visually. There’s one sequence with the buds’ car chasing a bus where they actually exchange blanks on a road; this probably wouldn’t happen in any modern filming situation for safety reasons, but that’s part of the charm of the 80s; stuntmen could actually die mid filming due to lack of safety precautions so there’s a legitimate air of danger added to the material.

At the end of the movie Nick lets Eddie keep his money but returns him to prison for 6 months; since no black people ever got off for good behavior in the reconstruction era. Keeping drug money = good; letting people out 6 months early after they helped you stop a serial killer and risked their own life in the process = bad, very bad. A funny, well shot, strikingly ancient film and very entertaining all told. Women are objectified of course, but that certainly hasn’t changed in modern pictures.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Die Hard

Wow, the 1980s were a fucking awesome decade for action movies. Sure sure you can say there’s a handful in the early 90s (or 1997 if you like Starship Troopers) and late 70s but you just get so much awesomeness in one decade; all of it destroying any modern CG picture. Before Bruce Willis was Bruce Willis he was John McClane, a regular old guy stuck at a party with a bunch of stuffy businessmen and his bitch wife who wouldn’t even take his name when she moved to LA. Unfortunately a bunch of high class German (English) super terrorists showed up and tried ruining the party, but John was there to save the day.

Fortunately for Bruce his wife languished in relative obscurity while he rose to stardom after this movie alongside his trusty companion, the Dad from Family Matters. There’s 2  Steve Urkels in this movie as well, one more Steve Urkelish than the other, and eventually they join together in yet another glorious scene. Mr. McClane utilizing his cowboy powers manages to almost single handedly thwart the plots of Hans (Alan Rickman); much to Hans’ chagrin.

In addition to being amazing visually this film is also very humorous; almost every scene having a wisecrack from John or a dumb comment from the incompetent police downstairs. The police do manage to kill exactly one (1) of the terrorists before the end, thanks again to the Dad from family matters, and suffer countless casualties. The audience doesn’t really connect with those assholes though and we are forever endeared by John McClane and his heroic antics.

For all of his heroism Bruce was not yet a super hero at this point, he suffers a vast variety of injuries throughout the ordeal and by the end he’s sort of a bloody mess. Christopher Nolan is trying to sell The Dark Knight Rises (finally saw a not terrible trailer yay!) as this gritty over the top situation in which Batman gets beat down by a steroid pumping mask wearing crazy dude, but really he should just have Christian Bale play his role in the Fighter and gradually deteriorate into a bloody mess by the end of the film. Bale would be much more appealing than his Straight Lawman genericness and he’d also be quite humorous as he poked fun at how silly Bane looked and bitched at Catwoman for moving to LA. The Dark Knight/Die Hard crossover would really have been the successor to Heath’s masterpiece.

All the King's Men (2006)

 I have recently begun appreciating the extended works of one Sean Penn, despite only rarely seeing movies with him in them for whatever reason (coincidence). So I’ve seen Mystic River, Carlito’s Way, and now this odd film. All the King’s Men is a novel based on the life of Huey Long, a pseudo-socialist dictatorial Governor of Louisiana (oh yes, there will be terrible southern accents) who was assassinated prior to challenging for the presidency. Short of FDR one of the most interesting American political leaders of the past century. The dude who shot him was immediately annihilated by Long’s “gunmen” Gestapo police force. Per the trustworthy Wikipedia: “Long's bodyguards returned fire, hitting Weiss 62 times and killing him instantly.”

I’ve always been a fan of silly stories like that, hence my fascination with Rasputin and his inability to die. Anywho, this film stars Sean Penn, Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, Mark Ruffalo, James Gandolfini, Kate Winslet, Patricia Clarkson, and Jackie Earle Haley; but despite the incredible cast was critically panned and poorly received. This film is actually a remake of 1949’s best picture of the same name so evidently was placed under a microscope.

That said it is a bit hard to defend the film, most of the performances are over the top, Jude Law’s character is basically a means to move the plot forward, and Sean Penn turns into a power hungry “corrupt” government figure in about 5 minutes. Still I don’t think it is entirely without merit, the cinematography is outstanding, the score is fantastic, and the acting while over the top is still entertaining.

Every 20 or so minutes there’s an interlude where Sean Penn stands on a soapbox and yells to an audience, “every man a king” speeches and lambasting all of his opposition. He has a pretty amusing sounding southern drawl which I honestly have no idea as to the accuracy of. Jude Law is the center of the plot otherwise, various blabbing about his irrelevant past and how he must serve Huey Long’s magnificent corruption for no apparent reason. But then the weakest part of the film surfaces.

Jude Law has several overly emotional scenes that are really laughably bad; I don’t really care about the character since the film gives you no reason to. Evidently every tragic moment in his past must be emphasized heavily so he can finally decide to not help out Huey’s reign of terror; unfortunately this goes for naught and impeachment fails. Conveniently he’s then assassinated 5 seconds later and the single bodyguard (Jackie Earle Haley) in this case kills the assassin. Jackie’s character is awesome throughout as the only word he ever says is “bastard” while shooting or driving (Suga boy is his name), but unfortunately he fails to redeem the film by hilariously saying this in the end sequence and suddenly goes mute. Bastard is my favorite word and its omission is absolutely grievous and uncalled for, what a disaster.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Amazing Spiderman

Ah the glorious movie industry and their weirdass release dates. July 4th is tomorrow (or today I suppose), thus our movie must premier on July 3rd! Tuesday!? Who cares, people go to see movies on July 4th weekend err… I mean week. All week long in fact! It’s a weekend week if I ever saw one. The 75% full theater testifies to the intense popularity of Tuesday releases and future Monday releases that will inevitably follow. Glorious!

Strange release date aside I thought this was a decent enough film as absurdly fast reboots go. The cast is much improved over the previous Spiderman trilogy, though oddly that doesn’t make as much of an impact as you’d think. The strongest part of the first Spiderman was Daniel Defoe as the Green Goblin, and his story arc is much more compelling than the Lizard’s is in this film (or in general). Additionally Sam Reimi did a much better job of directing and constructing a film, even with much weaker actors.

That said the first half of this movie is great and far exceeds the precedent; unfortunately the movie starts to take itself too seriously at roughly the halfway point. If the original Spiderman pandered to post 9/11 audiences with New York joy, this film is outright insane. There is, no joke, a 5 minute sequence of nothing but that sort of pandering with a ridiculously overdone “epic” soundtrack (James Horner: Titanic, Braveheart, Avatar, Troy… and Spiderman). That alone knocked at least a half star off the score of this film.

There is one strange part about the early part of the film, literally every primary “high school” actor looks and acts like they’re 10 years older than they are. The school they’re in has collegiate style classrooms, the love interest (Emma Stone, who’s only 22) looks like she’s 25 and acts like she’s at least 30 and has the job credentials to match evidently. Andrew Garfield doesn’t look quite that old but he’s competing with a 5 foot tall guy who sounds like he’s 5 and looks like he’s 12; he may as well be as old as Martin Sheen.

Speaking of which, Martin Sheen dies in the good half of the movie and its not too overdone, I guess you could say it’s a necessity for Uncle Ben to die and as long as its over quickly that’s fine. But, then the second best actor in the movie dies and there’s a 10-15 minute sequence blabbing about him and things related to him. All of the over-dramatization sort of kills any chance this movie had of surpassing the original Spiderman (doesn’t even come close to Spiderman 2 regardless). That said I still think it is worth a look since there’s not much else coming out until Batman.

The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Athena

++ Satisfying mixture of melee and ranged combat
++ Moderately difficult
+ Decent boss fights
+ Fantastic sparse dialogue
+ Some interesting first person puzzles
-- Too much shooting
- Melee is a bit too twitchy against the only two difficult opponents
- First half of the game looks like Doom 3

Ah here we are, only several months late. Vin did okay in my absence, however, have no fear. The original Escape from Butcher Bay (included and remastered on the disc) is regarded as a sort of classic for the X Box. If you recall that system had only a handful of competent games so being a classic isn’t much of a challenge. When your competition is a couple of alien shooters and Morrowind you too will be escalated into the pantheon of legends.

So, how does this game stack up to Butcher Bay? Eh, it’s not horrible by comparison. Dark Athena is sort of a mix of a modern shooter and Butcher Bay’s melee/ranged mix. You don’t have a ton of regenerating health so there’s a greater tendency to think about situations. Unfortunately only a few encounters in the game can be solved by multiple methods, for the most part you’ll just be shooting or punching your way to victory. While the few situations that can be solved creatively are quite satisfying I only wish there were a lot more good moments like that.

Without wishing to be too spoiler tastic I’ll say you fight an enemy about halfway through the game who has a long death scene immediately thereafter. Then, without any justification that same enemy returns to life magically. It sort of feels like they had two boss fights and didn’t know what order to put them in and thus randomly stuck one before the other (both having long death scenes, the latter being far more escapable than the aforementioned one). It’s just bizarre and very strange especially in retrospect.

The massive genre of first person melee/ranged hybrid adds another to its list, and so I’ll try to compare it to the closest game I can think of: Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. Yes, Skyrim sort of has the same vibe but it is extremely non-linear and the action is still the most wanting part of that game; both Dark Messiah and Dark Athena outdo it for simple combat. In Dark Messiah almost every situation can be solved dozens of different ways. Kick an enemy into spikes, collapse a wall on top of him, stealth kill him with a knife, stealth kill him with a bow, charm one enemy and make them fight each other, let your flimsy companion take care of it, there’s just a ton of ways to kill stuff and almost all of them are satisfying. Dark Athena needs this if its going to challenge that throne.

As it is Riddick’s (likely) last installment isn’t quite as good as the first but is still reasonably unique in the modern military shooter era. I wish the color palette wasn’t so grey/brown, but at least there’s some incentive for playing well in having non full regenerating health. For how cheap it is I think it’s worth the purchase on X Box or PS3, though I’m told the PC version has some more troublesome issues.

Final Score: 8/10