Friday, June 29, 2007


Director: Mikael Hafstrom
Starring: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack, Jasmine Jessica Anthony, Tony Shalhoub

Running Time: 94 min.

Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

It seems that over the past couple of years a new genre of film has been popping up in Hollywood: The PG-13 rated horror movie. While that label may initially cause some eye rolling and a fear the film has been watered down to be marketed to a broader audience, it doesn't have to be a death sentence. Director Mikael Hafstrom (Derailed) wisely realizes this and when the film ended I was convinced it probably wouldn't have been as effective without that rating. In an age where we're bombarded by graphic images of violence and gore in such horror films as the Saw and Hostel franchises, it's a relief to see a film that actually builds suspense and carries as much impact for what it doesn't show than what it does. Of course, the catch here is that you risk boring current audiences weaned on plenty of blood and non-stop thrills.

1408 is a whole lot smarter and subtler than it lets on and may qualify as one of the best Stephen King horror adaptations ever lensed. It also eliminates a problem that has plagued Stephen King's writing throughout his career: endings. As the film approached the third act I was almost looking at my watch waiting for the film to collapse. That didn't happen. The ending isn't perfect and the last act does have some minor problems for sure, but overall it wraps up well, something I can't honestly say about any King adaptation outside of the Shawshank Redemption. The film also contains a remarkably complex lead performance from an actor we take for granted. Often times I've watched a film and thought to myself a certain role just wouldn't have been the same if it were played by someone else. That's never been truer here as John Cusack, forced to basically perform a one-man show, gives one of the most memorable performances of his career.

Cusack is Mike Enslin, a one-time best-selling travel author known for his novels on paranormal activities at allegedly haunted hotels. One of the clever early scenes in the film show an in-store book signing for which only three people have shown up. For all of Mike's work in the paranormal and all the hotels he's stayed at, he's never once seen a ghost of any kind so obviously he's skeptical upon receiving a mysterious postcard urging him to check out room 1408 at The Dolphin Hotel in New York City. Mike, still grieving over the death of his daughter (Jasmine Jessica Anthony) and separation from his wife (Mary McCormack) sees this as a challenge. It's here that movie does something very, very smart. Mike arrives at the hotel assuming he can just check into 1408, but first he must first deal with the hotel manager, Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), who does everything in his power to convince him that checking into this room is the biggest mistake of his life. He recounts the room's history, which includes 50 deaths ranging in everything from strangulation to drowning. No one has ever lasted past 60 minutes.

The casting of Jackson in this role is ingenius and more crucial to the film's success than it will probably get credit for. I don't know about you but if Samuel L. Jackson tells me I better not do something, I'm going to listen. That Mike doesn't helps establish his stubbornness and cynicism, and makes the terror that unfolds later that much more effective. Watching actors of the caliber of Cusack and Jackson go at each other is a real treat and their scene together was so entertaining I didn't want it to end. The scene is also incredibly effective in building up the room as a threat. So many other movies wouldn't have the patience and just thrown him in there right away. This film really takes its time, building very slowly until, when he finally enters the room, it's a huge deal.

That this room is, for the most part, just as insidious and terrifying as Jackson's character hypes it up to be is quite an accomplishment. Even when we do get into the room Hafstrom takes things slowly and the suspense becomes almost unbearable. And then…he pulls the trigger. Interestingly though, he even does this methodically, slowly unraveling the terror that resides in this evil room. The picture that's just slightly out of place, the clock radio that won't stop blasting The Carpenters, the broken thermostat, strange phone calls. Everything feels important, which is rare these days for a horror film. When the action does really kick in the movie cleverly plays with dislocation of time and place, creating a surreal atmosphere in which Mike, or the viewer, is never quite sure how much of what's happening in this room is real or hallucinated.The room uses his past against him and it becomes clear this isn't just about a stay in a haunted hotel room. It's a morality play and Mike Enslin is battling to save his soul.

I've previously expressed how much I love movies where the action takes place within a certain time limit or characters have a certain amount of time to accomplish something. I've noted that I can't remember a single movie that used this device and wasn't successful. Add another one to the list. Here, it's made even more tense by the fact most of this film takes place in one location, adding a sense of immediacy and claustrophobia to the story. It also helps that we're trapped in this room with an actor who brings as much to the role as Cusack. Early on he knows just how to play dry and sarcastic without going too far and then he believably deteriorates into a man who's slowly losing his grip on reality and descending into madness. That's not easy to do, and it's even harder when you're acting alone for much of the picture. We also feel sympathy for him because Cusack has a gift as an actor in getting us to relate to him as a decent guy. No matter how quirky or zany his character's behavior may be, he somehow makes it seem normal. The film may not be perfect, but his performance definitely is.

I think Hafstrom may have pushed one manipulative button too many with the flashback scenes of his daughter (although it says a lot about Cusack's performance that we hardly notice) and the final act of the film, with all its natural disasters, feels more like The Day After Tomorrow than a horror film. Some may also complain that the movie has a number of false endings (one in particular), but I won't since I was just so relieved none of those endings turned out to be the real one. I suppose you could argue the actual ending of the film is open for interpretation or ambiguous, but I don't think it is. That the film had a couple of false finishes before the real one is probably what's causing the skepticism. It does, however, say a lot about the intelligence of the movie that people are looking for something more hiding under the surface. Regardless, the ending works and closes out in a way I found satisfying and rather direct, at least for a King adaptation.

Those going into 1408 expecting a rip-off of The Shining will be pleasantly surprised to find out there's really a lot more going on than meets the eye. Even though it's not directed with a great deal of visual style, and when it ended I didn't find anything about it incredibly unforgettable, days after certain scenes would pop back up in my head. I realize now that the film was suspenseful and somewhat scary, a tough goal to achieve for a PG-13 rated film. Ironically, between the critical and commercial success of this and Disturbia a couple of months ago you have to wonder if audiences have had it with all the blood and gore. The box office failure of Hostel Part II may be further evidence. The success of this film proves the horror genre is definitely not dead, but rather, its priorities may have just shifted.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Gray Matters

Director: Sue Kramer
Starring: Heather Graham, Tom Cavanagh, Bridget Moynahan, Molly Shannon, Alan Cumming, Sissy Spacek, Rachel Shelley

Running Time: 95 min.

Rating: PG-13

*1/2 (out of ****)

It's with a heavy heart that I report we're going to have to wait a little longer for that Heather Graham comeback role because it definitely doesn't come as an advertising executive coming to terms with her lesbianism in writer/director Sue Kramer's "romantic comedy", Gray Matters. The nicest thing that can be said about the film is that it doesn't fail in a spectacular way, it just merely gets everything wrong. It's contrived and silly and the characters in it bear no resemblance to any human being you'd ever meet in your life. There is a spark of chemistry between the actors and everyone looks like they're having a good time…except us.

The movie does pose an important question though: Can you recommend a terrible film on the basis of a single scene? Well, in the case of this scene, and if you're a guy, yes. Unfortunately this cinematic moment is surrounded by direct-to-cable direction and screenwriting. Worse though, is that this movie contains a premise with some promise and comic gold could have been mined from it… with just a little effort.

Gray (Heather Graham) and Sam (Tom Cavanagh) are siblings who are completely inseparable. They live together, work out together, and even dance together (as shown in the film's memorable opening sequence, a Fred and Ginger dance number that celebrates the glory days of old Hollywood). Unfortunately they're so close everyone assumes they must be dating. Thoroughly creeped out, the two make a pact to branch out and find the perfect mate for the other sibling. This leads to a somewhat funny scene in Central Park with them pretending to walk their dog when they run into zoologist (!) Charlie (Bridget Moynahan). At first it's tough tell who the beautiful Charlie is more interested in or which team she bats for, but soon she finds herself attracted Sam and, in what seems like (no joking) a matter of minutes, they're off to Vegas to get hitched. This leads to a wild girls night out before the wedding that features an uninspired karaoke performance of "I Will Survive" (made all the more intolerable by a cameo appearance from, you guessed it, Gloria Gaynor).

Then comes the infamous lesbian kiss between Gray and Charlie, which Charlie ends up having no memory of because she was drunk out of her mind. That anyone, no matter how trashed, could forget a kiss like that might be the biggest leap of faith the script asks us to take. The rest of the film consists of Gray trying to sort out her feelings for Charlie and her potential homosexuality. The way I phrased that almost implies the film contains ideas of some sort. My apologies. What the film does contain, however, are some cartoonish sub-plots and supporting characters that do not hail from this planet.

In my recent review of Ghost Rider I complained how that a TV reporter is the most thankless occupation an actress can be asked to portray onscreen. If it is, then an advertising executive comes in a close second. Gray not only works for a prestigious advertising firm, but she works for one of those advertising firms you may have seen in other movies. You know the ones that look like a penthouse suite and no one does any work all day. But in case you get bored there's always a sarcastic, loud mouth, oversexed female co-worker there for entertainment. She's played by Molly Shannon and the movie even manages to make her unfunny. It also contains one of the clumsiest advertising presentation scenes I've ever seen in a film. Gray gives a presentation and when it's over the client says it's bad. No reason why. It's just bad. "I don't like it." That's the end of the scene. At first I was puzzled until I realized Kramer probably couldn't think of why, so she just cut her losses and moved on. We should probably be relieved.

Another one of this film's genius creations is Gray's therapist (Sissy Spacek) who thinks it's a good idea to have their sessions while bowling and wall climbing. Why? I have no idea. Maybe Kramer thought it would be funny or she was told in screenwriting class it's clever to add an interesting setting to a scene when there's a lot of dialogue. We also have a cab driver (Alan Cumming) with an infantile crush on Gray. Buying Alan Cumming as a heterosexual male is a leap enough, not made any easier by the decision to have him appear in drag late in the film. His character is so needlessly inconsequential and added so late in the story I could almost visualize the notes on the script (likely written in crayon) as I watched.

What prevents this film from going into less than one star territory is that the performances are fine and a nice chemistry exists between the three actors. I could imagine a romantic comedy with Graham, Cavanagh and Moynahan that actually works. They all come out generally unscathed, which is a testament to them. I also thought, against all odds, Cavanagh and Graham were somewhat believable as siblings. Graham is adorable in everything she does (and her presence is always enough for me to check out any film) but this is the first time I can recall one of her characters actually grating on my nerves, which in no way is her fault. She can't reasonably be expected to convey a sudden transformation to homosexuality when the script doesn't give her a reason to have one.

No one could have done any better with this thankless material and all the actors never really stood a chance. The dialogue in the film is so overwritten, long winded and over-the-top you can't imagine ever any functioning person speaking this way. It's like being hit over the head with a sledghammer for 95 minutes (a running time that seems sadistically long for a film like this). Once "the kiss" occurs the movie does pick up some momentum heading into its final act, but by then it's a lost cause.

The film is directed with absolutely no style or substance at all by Kramer, somehow giving us the impression the film is even slighter than it's letting on. That this went nearly straight to DVD (opening theatrically in only one city) and not to Lifetime is a small miracle. Good romantic comedies let us relate to real people struggling with issues in a smart, humorous way. It makes observations about life and relationships and builds its laughs around that. This is a black hole of comedy. So if anyone is tempted to check out Gray Matters for that lesbian kiss I'll offer up this advice: They invented YouTube for a reason.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Ghost Rider

Director: Mark Steven Johnson
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Peter Fonda, Wes Bentley, Matt Long, Raquel Alessi, Brett Cullen, Sam Elliot Donal Logue

Running Time: 114 min.

Rating: PG-13

*1/2 (out of ****)

Nearly every DVD player has a display on the front that tells you how much time has elapsed in the disc you're viewing. While I was watching Ghost Rider this display became my worst enemy as I was constantly eyeing it, hoping the suffering would end soon. It's not that Ghost Rider is just merely a bad film, but rather it doesn't even extend the courtesy to its audience to fail interestingly or entertainingly. It's not even a fun bad movie. Aren't comic book movies supposed to be exciting and create a sense of wonder for the audience? It contains three story arcs rolled into one, yet that just makes the film three times as bad because each one is handled with equal ineptness. It's unpleasant to look at, the script seems as if it was written during a break in study hall and the performances (one especially) are for the most part awful. It's based on a popular comic book that tells the story of a stunt driver who sells his soul to the devil. When the film ended I was willing to sell my soul to the Devil in exchange for having never experienced this mess.

Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) is a stunt motorcycle rider whose legendary daredevil father Barton Blaze (Brett Cullen) is dying of lung cancer and is approached is approached by the Devil (Peter Fonda, collecting a paycheck), who offers to cure him. That is, if he gives up his soul. He does (although rather inadvertently) and the Devil kills his father anyway in a freak accident forcing Johnny to leave town and his beloved girlfriend, Roxanne (Eva Mendes). Years later he goes on to become one of the world's top stuntmen, always cheating death. However, Mephistopheles is always looking over his shoulder protecting him and waiting for the time when he'll be of use.

That time comes when his son, Blackheart (Wes Bentley) arrives and attempts to possess one thousand evil souls and create a hell on Earth. Or something like that. So now Johnny must become Ghost Rider, a hell-raising flaming skulled vigilante on a bike and take down Blackheart and his minions to get out of his deal with Satan. There's also a lot of other nonsense about a contract Mephistopheles and Blackheart are fighting over that dates back to the old west and involves a funeral caretaker (Sam Elliot), who's also narrating the story. His character is so confusing and complicated I wouldn't know how to explain it to anyone. Johnny also has to protect Roxanne, who's just recently reentered his life and wants some answers.

The first five to ten minutes of Ghost Rider are actually very promising. The idea of a mortal man selling his soul to the Devil is fascinating and a lot of interesting material could have been mined from it. The opening grabs you and it kind of reminded me last year's Edward Norton starring film, The Illusionist. Boy and girl from seemingly different worlds fall in love and are torn apart only to reconnect years later when everything has changed. Just substitute stuntman for magician. Both films also deal with the supernatural. Little did I know at the time just how unfair a comparison that would be. After a promising start the movie flashes into the future and from then on becomes a case study in how not to make a successful comic book movie. The biggest problem is writer/director Mark Steven Johnson (Daredevil) tries to do a lot of things at once and doesn't stop long enough to make sure any of them work. We have a whirlwind romance, a pact with the Devil and, worst of all, a supernatural action movie. Amidst all of this are some bad performances, cringe worthy dialogue and ugly special effects.

It's hard to single out the worst aspect of the film, but it all started to go downhill with the appearance of Bentley's Blackheart and his henchmen. Johnson stages their entrance with wildly flashing street lights that are so blinding and distracting I actually had to look away from the screen fearing it would burn my retina. Then he just starts killing people. That would be fine if Bentley were the slightest bit believable in the role. In fact, forget about believability (it is a comic book movie after all), I would settle for Bentley just not looking so physically uncomfortable. He's seems stiff and unnatural, like he's embarrassed to be there. His eyes are also giving a different performance than the rest of his body as he overacts hysterically. That's not even to mention he doesn't look the slightest bit intimidating and is just all wrong for the part. It's like he accidentally walked on set on the way back from a Halloween party with his friends. People have been complaining about Julian McMahon's performance as Doctor Doom in The Fantastic Four films, but they'll want to start an Oscar campaign for him after watching Bentley's work here. It's tough to believe this is even the same actor who did such great low-key work in the Academy Award winning American Beauty in 1999.

The film's attempts at a believable romance work at the start of the film when Matt Long and Racquel Alessi (who, to the casting director's credit, looks EXACTLY like Eva Mendes) are playing the parts of young Johnny and Roxanne. When Cage and Mendes take on the parts all that energy and chemistry seems to be gone. It definitely doesn't help Johnson reintroduces Roxanne in the most contrived way imaginable. There should be a new law in Hollywood stating that attractive actresses can no longer play television reporters in movies. It's the most thankless onscreen occupation available and exists solely to convey expository dialogue and move the plot forward. The part is always written with an attractive actress in mind since we've been trained by Hollywood into believing beautiful women are not capable of holding any job that requires them to think. They should just stand there and look into the camera.

I have no idea whether her character was a tv reporter in the comic (or even if her character was in the comic for that matter) but it should have been scrapped because it comes off lazy and stupid here. What's far worse is Johnson doesn't even get the details of being a reporter right. When was the last time a reporter signed off saying something like: "This is Roxanne Simpson…on scene." When was the last time you heard a reporter say something like that? To her credit, Mendes gives the least worst performance in the film and does what she can with what she's given, or not given. This occupation also exists so Johnson can stage an awkward reunion scene where Roxanne has to interview Johnny. The scene isn't awkward because they haven't seen each other for years and are unsure of their feelings, but rather because the two actors have absolutely no idea how to play it. That's not their fault, it's Johnson's.

I've yet to talk about Ghost Rider himself or how Blaze transforms into him. It's an ugly visual effect that looks more like a cartoon than anything else. The problem isn't so much that it doesn't look real (how can anyone reasonably expect a human head transforming into a flaming skull to look realistic anyway?) but that it just looks unpleasant. You can't root for a character that looks and sounds like that. It probably doesn't help that he's doing the work of the Devil either. One of the most laughable elements of the film is the "penance stare" he gives evildoers and the hysterical facial contortions the actors give in reaction to it. Johnson even makes sure he adds a scene where a dumb-founded cop looks at his radar gun after Ghost Rider whizzes by him, leaving a trail of fire. Hilarious.

This is easily the worst performance I've ever seen from Nicolas Cage, although in his defense there's nothing he could have done to save this. His southern accent wavers in and out, his hairpiece is distracting and he seems to be sleepwalking through the entire film. I'm glad the movie establishes that he's a world class daredevil stuntman because there's no way Johnny Blaze could achieve any degree of fame based on his charisma. Cage is a great actor but lately a disturbing trend has developed where he seems to be taking paycheck parts in action movies that are so bad the studios aren't even screening them for critics. I hope this stops soon and Cage gets back to more character driven vehicles, or at least action movies that are entertaining.

The movie has a couple of things going for it. I liked the score from Christopher Young. At least it was different and fit the material. Sam Elliot also has a great voice for the narration, it's just too bad he had to appear as a pointless, confusing character in the film. In a sad sign of the times this movie actually cleaned up at the box office and there are actually plans for a sequel. That scares me. I've never read the comic. I don't know, maybe it's good. You'd figure it has to be better than this. What I do know is when this film ended I wanted only one thing set ablaze: Director Mark Steven Johnson.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Reaction to the AFI 100

Well, it's over. The American Film Institute has announced their 100 greatest movies of all-time and updated their previous decade old list to reflect "a changing cultural perspective." The expression "the more things change the more they stay the same" has never been more applicable than now because this list is practically identical to the one they put out a decade earlier with some minor changes, mostly negative. The good news is outside of two or three selections I thought were disgraceful, and one actor's mental breakdown, the show went better than I thought. But that's not saying much.

If one thing stood out it's that the AFI needs to move into the 21st century (or even late 20th). Some of their picks (especially toward the back of the list) were dated and the rankings were predictably all over the map, but that's the AFI for you. Overall, it wasn't horrible. The list skewed older, which I expected. That's why I used my last blog to highlight some newer titles I thought were worthy and unworthy of making it. I knew the classics I liked would be on there so I guess now is my chance to give you my opinion on some of those. So here's their "updated" 2007 Top 100 list. An asterisk indicates a new entry. My analysis follows.

1. Citizen Kane
2. The Godfather
3. Casablanca
4. Raging Bull
5. Singin' in the Rain
6. Gone with the Wind
7. Lawrence of Arabia
8. Schindler's List
9. Vertigo
10. The Wizard of Oz
11. City Lights
12. The Searchers
13. Star Wars
14. Psycho
15. 2001: A Space Odyssey
16. Sunset Boulevard
17. The Graduate
18. The General*
19. On the Waterfront
20. It's a Wonderful Life
21. Chinatown
22. Some Like It Hot
23. The Grapes of Wrath
24. E.T.
25. To Kill a Mockingbird
26. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
27. High Noon
28. All About Eve
29. Double Indemnity
30. Apocalypse Now
31. The Maltese Falcon
32. The Godfather Part II
33. One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest
34. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
35. Annie Hall
36. The Bridge on the River Kwai
37. The Best Years of Our Lives
38. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
39. Dr. Strangelove
40. The Sound of Music
41. King Kong
42. Bonnie and Clyde
43. Midnight Cowboy
44. The Philadelphia Story
45. Shane
46. It Happened One Night
47. A Streetcar Named Desire
48. Rear Window
49. Intolerance*
50. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
51. West Side Story
52. Taxi Driver
53. The Deer Hunter
54. M*A*S*H
55. North by Northwest
56. Jaws
57. Rocky
58. The Gold Rush
59. Nashville*
60. Duck Soup
61. Sullivan's Travels*
62. American Graffiti
63. Cabaret*
64. Network
65. The African Queen
66. Raiders of the Lost Ark
67. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?*
68. Unforgiven
69. Tootsie
70. A Clockwork Orange
71. Saving Private Ryan
72. The Shawshank Redemption*
73. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
74. The Silence of the Lambs
75. In the Heat of the Night*
76. Forrest Gump
77. All the President's Men*
78. Modern Times
79. The Wild Bunch
80. The Apartment
81. Spartacus*
82. Sunrise*
83. Titanic*
84. Easy Rider
85. A Night at the Opera*
86. Platoon
87. 12 Angry Men*
88. Bringing Up Baby
89. The Sixth Sense*
90. Swing Time*
91. Sophie's Choice*
92. Goodfellas
93. The French Connection
94. Pulp Fiction
95. The Last Picture Show*
96. Do the Right Thing*
97. Blade Runner*
98. Yankee Doodle Dandy
99. Toy Story*
100. Ben-Hur

90-100: So far, so good. It feels right for Toy Story (99), Blade Runner (97) and Do The Right Thing (96) to be where they're at. I'm glad The Last Picture Show (95) made it. I really like that film. But wait…why the hell is Pulp Fiction only ranked 94th?!!! And why is M. Night Shayamalan being advertised in the opening credits. Oh no.
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80-90: Everyone will be upset Goodfellas is at 92. I'm not that big a fan so I don't have a problem with it. What follows I do. In a move that likely sent everyone who read my blog Tuesday into hysterical laughter (or tears) The Sixth Sense (89) not only made the list, IT RANKED HIGHER THAN PULP FICTION!!! Shayamalan must have some very incriminating photos of AFI jurors. But hey, at least we got our huge injustice out of the way early and they didn't spoil its twist ending. Don't wory though, they'll take care of that with another film later. I'm sorry but I do think Titanic (83) deserves a spot and it is ranked low (but also higher than Pulp Fiction!) so no one can complain…at least too much. I will admit their video package made Titanic look silier than I remembered. In the clips DiCaprio looks really young and I have to say Winslet looks much better now. Just an observation.
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70-80:I had a feeling All The President's Men (77) would be showing up around now even though it's a new entry. Sorry again, but I think Forrest Gump (76) belongs on the list, even if its placement is way off. The clip reminds us how great Alan Silvestri's score for that film was. However The Shawshank Redemption (72) and A Clockwork Orange (70) should be ranked WAY higher than they are. You could make a case for top 20 or 30 for either. I'm not a huge fan of Saving Private Ryan (71) but I recognize its historical significance. They get a pass from me on that one.
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60-70: Here comes the second batch of fireworks for the evening with Tootsie coming in at 69, or should I say coming in at all. I was going rant about how bad a selection it would be in my last blog but I figured it was a thankless cause. They put it on last time and I thought they'd do it again. I was right, but hey at least it dropped 7 spots. That's not the bad part though. The bad part was Dustin Hoffman's "interview" which saw him burst into tears over the film's importance and deep message. Yes, this on a show that contains films like Schindler's List. I respect Hoffman a lot as an actor, but this weirded me out. Raiders of the Lost Ark at 66-applause. Network at 64-more applause.
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50-60: I love Robert Altman's Nashville (59) and M*A*S*H (54) and I wouldn't complain if they were higher. No one will like Rocky coming in at 57 but I say it's lucky it made the list at all. Is it me or have the visual effects and in North by Northwest (55) not aged well at all? Now here's where we're starting to get some really big titles. Taxi Driver (52) is ranked too low and should be the highest Scorsese picture on here. Higher than Raging Bull which makes a way too high appearance later. Stay tuned for that one. The Deer Hunter (53) could also be bumped up a little, not much. Jaws feels about right at 56.
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40-50: We have our first 21st century appearance on the list with The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring at 50. It figures they picked the recent film that has the oldest Hollywood feel to it. It doesn't seem out of place though. Next is the oldest with Intolerance at 49. This is what I'm talking about when I said they need to move forward and some of their picks are dated. Is this movie from 1916 even available anywhere? There have been better movies since the early 1900's, AFI. It's okay to admit it. Rear Window (48) is my favorite Hitchcock film. Midnight Cowboy (43) you could argue is top 10 or 20 material. Halle Berry is interviewed for Bonnie and Clyde (42). Speaking of numbers, I can't believe she's 40. Wow. And she's right it's is an awesome movie. Anyone who hasn't seen it should.
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30-40: Dr. Strangelove (39) really fell from last time. 13 spots. I guess something had to, but I could think of others on here more deserving of that huge a drop. Annie Hall, though dated by today standards, was really the first romantic comedy and a huge influence but it's still too high at 35, refecting the AFI's safety first policy. The Godfather Part II held steady at 32 but for some reason I remember it being higher the first time around. I love Apocalypse Now (30) and I really wanted to see it crack to top 10. And this coming from someone who isn't a big fan of war films.
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20-30: Remember my complaint about dated picks? Well, To Kill A Mockingbird (25) is NOT one of them. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't have liked anything else I mentioned to take its spot. I kind of get my wish as Cameron Crowe appears for an interview, but unfortunately it's to talk about the overrated Some Like It Hot (22). Is the AFI obsessed with cross-dressing films? Everyone will think E.T. is ranked too high at 24, and while I think certain films below it should be ranked higher, I'm glad it came in where it did. It's my personal favorite Spielberg film and this is the kind of pick I wish there would be more of on this list. After watching the clip of it I became even more convinced. Which begs the question: Why can't Spielberg make imaginative films like this anymore? I had to write an essay on The Grapes of Wrath (23) in high school, which was difficult since I fell asleep in class during the film.
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10-20: I would say Chinatown (21) should be higher but we're in the top 20 now so it's tough to make that argument anymore. The field's crowded at the top and competition is fierce. On The Waterfront (19) dropped 11 spots but I don't think it's top 20 material and wouldn't mind if it fell further. Some people (Roger Ebert included) think The Graduate (17) is massively overrated. They may be happy it dropped out of the top 10. I think it's slightly overrated and still ranked too high. In the AFI's defense, if 2001: A Space Odyssey was number 2 I'd still say it wasn't ranked high enough. That said it should be in the top 5 and Star Wars (13), would have never been made if not for Kubrick's masterpeice. And hey, where's The Empire Strikes Back? Spielberg is interviewed and compares Psycho (14) to The Sixth Sense. Excuse me while I throw up.
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1-10: Morgan Freeman tells us only one film in the top 10 is in the same spot it was a decade ago. Gee, what do you think that could be? My problems with the top 10 are minimal (I mean they're all at least worthy, except Singin' in the Rain) but I have one question: Did Raging Bull (4) take on some new kind of cultural significance this past decade and I missed the memo? It's a great film but its 20 spot jump into the fourth position is laughably extreme. I also think Schindler's List (8) is too high, but that's at least understandable. It's an important film. I do question whether all this praise for Citizen Kane (1) is doing more harm than good to the movie at this point. It's giving the film an intimidating reputation, which may drive casual viewers away. That would be a shame because it is really is good. It also doesn't help that the AFI feels obligated once again TO SPOIL THE ENDING OF THE FILM for those who haven't seen it. And that's more people than you think. They won't be rushing out to buy it now.
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So what's the key to getting your film on the AFI 100? Make sure it's not made within the past 2 or 3 decades. I appreciate that they want to expose the audience to older films, and as expected the special was well done, but it wouldn't hurt if they took a broader, less snobbish view toward films. The Sixth Sense isn't a bad film at all but its inclusion came off even more ridiculous than I thought it would because outside of Saving Private Ryan and The Lord of the Rings it was the only fairly modern movie on the list. However, I don't think it was the worst choice overall (that prize goes to Tootsie). Some films that made it 10 years ago that were wrongfully excluded this go around were: Dr. Zhivago, Fantasia, Rebel Without A Cause, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Fargo, Patton, The Manchurian Candidate.

But really…it's tough to get too upset. This isn't a definitive list of any kind. No list is. It's just their opinions and questionable ones at that. We all know our favorite films and we'll always have them whether they show up on the AFI 100 or not.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

What I Want (And Don't Want) To See On the AFI Special Airing Tomorrow Night

It's hard to believe it's been almost 10 years since the American Film Institute revealed their list of the 100 Greatest Movies over a 100-year period. It seems like just yesterday my friend and I were lamenting that we should have recorded the special because, whether or not you agreed with their choices, you had to admit it was done really well and generated great rental ideas. Now, I know what you're thinking. Lists like this are silly, subjective and meaningless so why should we care? To an extent I agree, but the AFI list actually means something to me because I was exposed to a lot of films I shamefully hadn't even known about when this special aired in 1998. It caused me to make a list of films I had to see, and as result, bolstered my interest and knowledge in cinema. Had that program never aired I'm not too sure I'd be reviewing films right now. The show will hopefully get people talking and arguing about films, so that's a good thing. Plus, it's hard to criticize any organization that sees it fitting to pay tribute to Al Pacino.

In celebration of the tenth anniversary of that special, tomorrow night the AFI is airing a three-hour special on CBS called 100 Years..100 Movies-10th Anniversary Edition hosted by Morgan Freeman. They're updating their list to reflect what they call a "changing cultural perspective" and it now includes any American movie made up until January 1, 2007. Of course this opens up Pandora's box since a lot of great movies have come out between 1998 and now and older titles many feel were unjustly left off of the original list now have a second chance.

At first, I was excited. Until I saw the official ballot handed out to the AFI jury (which consists mainly of critics and filmmakers). Anyone interested in taking a peak (and let me save you the trouble and tell you it's not worth it) can go over to their site. They ask for some basic info and then they e-mail it to you. In addition to the ballot there's a section where they ask members to rank their top 5 choices (in case of some kind of tie) and allow them to fill in 5 movies they wish to be considered that aren't on the official ballot. Any movie selected to be a part of this elite list of 100 must meet the following criteria:

1. Feature-length: Narrative format, at least 40 minutes in length.
2. American film: English language, with significant creative and/or financial production elements from the United States.
3. Critical Recognition: Formal commendation in print.
4. Major Award Winner: Recognition from competitive events including awards from organizations in the film community and major film festivals.
5. Popularity Over Time: Including figures for box office adjusted for inflation, television broadcasts and syndication, and home video sales and rentals.
6. Historical Significance: A film's mark on the history of the moving image through technical innovation, visionary narrative devices or other groundbreaking achievements.
7. Cultural Impact: A film's mark on American society in matters of style and substance.

I think most of this criteria is ridiculous, to be honest. It makes it sound like a popularity contest. I also love how they make sure the box office is "adjusted for inflation" so they have a proper measurement of how much money the film made. Like that should even be a factor. Also, award recognition is an especially stupid prerequisite since the Academy and often other major critics groups screw up royally. Citizen Kane was hardly nominated for anything, but since it has "historical significance" and "cultural impact" I guess that's excused. It made no money in theaters, but racked up in home video sales. The criteria is confusing, but like I said, it's subjective. After looking at the ballot of the 400 films under consideration for a spot I picked the 5 films I'd least want to see make it, the 5 I'd jump for joy if they did, and lastly, I'll reveal my 5 write-in choices that aren't on the official ballot. And yes, I'll be fair and use their stupid criteria to make those selections.

These are the films on the ballot that, if they make the list, I'll throw a brick at the television:

1. The Sixth Sense- Can you believe this movie was actually nominated for Best Picture?! Now, it may weasel its way onto this list. Give me a break.
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2. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl- To be fair I've never actually seen it, but I don't know anyone who would claim it's one of the 100 greatest movies in American history. I know their list tends to go mainstream but this is ridiculous. Too bad Michael Bay's Transformers didn't come out last year or it probably would have stood a chance.
3. The Matrix- I was actually planning to do a list of the most overrated movies in motion picture history. Looks like the AFI has taken care of that for me. I appreciate it's special effects were influential and important (in mostly negative ways), but why not reward a movie like Pleasantville or What Dreams May Come? They were visually amazing, but told an emotionally compelling story.
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4. Spiderman 2- I'm sorry I just never got it with this movie. The fact that people whose opinions on film I genuinely respect love this make me think I should give it a second look. I certainly didn't get anything out of it the first time. It just doesn't belong here. How about Richard Donner's Superman or Superman II, or even Tim Burton's Batman? Any of those would be better choices than this.
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5. Mystic River-This is the least offensive of the bad choices and I expected to see it on the ballot. That doesn't make it any easier to take though. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Clint Eastwood as a filmmaker, but I'm sorry this is one of his weakest films and it shouldn't have won (or even been nominated for) Best Picture in 2003. It's essentially a made for tv movie with great performances and a ludicrous ending. I'd rather see any other Eastwood directed movie represented on the list (except Blood Work). Incidentally, Million Dollar Baby is on the ballot and I'm fine with that making it.

Here are some other bad choices on the ballot: As Good As It Gets, Shakespeare in Love, Crash, Apollo 13, Austin Powers, The Aviator, Braveheart, The English Patient, Erin Brockovich, Gladiator, Philadelphia, Shrek, There's Something About Mary

Now, some films on the ballot I'd be thrilled to see make the list. Notice I didn't include any movies that don't need my support because they'll make it anyway (like Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Apocalypse Now, The Godfather or Pulp Fiction).

1. Back To The Future- Thank God. Thank God this movie is on the ballot. Now let's just hope it makes it this time. This is one case where the AFI's commercial tastes paid off. One of my all-time favorites.
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2. The Empire Strikes Back-Star Wars will make the list. We know that. If someone put a gun to my head and asked me to pick whether A New Hope or Empire Strikes Back makes it, I'd pick The Empire Strikes Back, the superior film. I guess I should just be grateful The Phantom Menace isn't on the ballot the way they've been doing things.
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3. Fight Club-The REAL BEST PICTURE OF 1999. American Beauty won Best Picture that year. It's on the ballot and will rightfully earn a spot, but this deserves to be ranked right along side it, if not higher. It's paid its dues and deserves it. Strong box office, culturally significant, critical recognition, popularity over time. Check, check, check, check. Has this movie aged well or what?
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4. Requiem For A Dream- AFI, I'm impressed. Getting a little edgy. This was a pleasant surprise when I saw it on the ballot. Will it make the 100? Probably not. Still, it's a victory they even considered it. Massive critical adulation likely forced the issue for them.
5. Harold and Maude-Is there a film as darkly comic and, at the same time, as strangely moving in American cinema history? The very first cult classic deserves a spot. This is long overdue.

Here are some others also on the ballot that I was happy to see and wouldn't mind if they made it:
Badlands, Boogie Nights, Being John Malkovich, A Beautiful Mind, Blue Velvet, The Breakfast Club, A Christmas Story, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Groundhog Day, Ghostbusters, Halloween, Memento, American Beauty, Million Dollar Baby, The Shining

And now here are my top 5 movies I want to be considered that are NOT ON THE BALLOT. Keep in mind this is not a list of my all-time favorite films (though a couple are), but rather a list BASED ON AFI'S CRITERIA of what qualifies for the Top 100. Let me first say though that David Fincher's The Game (1997) is one of my all-time favorites but is ineligible because it got no awards recognition, had mixed reviews and isn't "culturally significant." Hopefully Fincher will be represented with Fight Club. I love Roger Avary's The Rules of Attraction (2002) but Paris Hilton is universally liked more than that film, it too received no award recognition and was box office poison. I also think Frank Perry's The Swimmer (1968) belongs at the very top of any list of the greatest American films ever made but it fails to meet any AFI criteria other than critical support. It's so obscure AFI members have probably never even heard of it. So now that I've put this in perspective these are my five write-in picks not on the ballot:

1. Almost Famous- I loved Cameron Crowe's Jerry Maguire also, but this is an outrage. When I saw this wasn't on there I nearly flipped. I really expected it to at least be on the ballot. In 2000 it was robbed a Best Picture nomination, Crowe was robbed of a Best Director nod and Kate Hudson was handed an unfair Best Supporting Actress loss, a blow from which her career has yet to recover. Not only is it one of the greatest American movies, IT IS AMERICA.Time is revealing it to be one of the true greats and "culturally significant." It's also one of the few movies to get a good cry out of this reviewer. If this were in the top 10 of all-time greatest films you'd hear no complaints from me. It's that good. I'd get rid of every other selection I made here for Almost Famous to get a slot in the AFI 100.
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2. Donnie Darko- Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko was released into theaters the week of September 11, 2001. Needless to say, not many moviegoers were interested in watching a movie about a jet engine crashing into a family's house. It came and went with little fanfare. Slowly it started to pick up steam on video and is now considered one of the great cult classics and underdog success stories in movie history. It has its detractors, but even they will admit it's a one of a kind, original work that can only come along, oh, every 100 years or so. It's been analyzed from every angle and picked apart to death, yet still no one can agree on any answers. I was considering putting another time travel movie, 12 Monkeys on here (and it does deserve to be) but came to the conclusion that it doesn't push as many boundaries cinematically. Darko also has one of the most unforgettable and haunting endings you'll ever see.
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3.The Ice Storm-When I decided I would put Ang Lee's quiet 1997 masterpiece on here it occurred to me that I've probably seen this movie more times than any other. Whenever it comes on cable I can never shut it off. It's almost hypnotizing and it's amazing to think such an accurate portrait of this country in the 1970's was directed by a man not even born in this country. It didn't do that well in theaters and underperformed at the Oscars, but it's done exceptionally well on home video and is now widely regarded as a modern classic. I was very surprised it didn't show up on the ballot. Very surprised. Watch it and remember when Tobey Maguire was a real actor. If they want a film of "cultural significance" it'll be hard to find one better than this.
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4. Little Children-As I was browsing through the ballot I was overcome with a feeling I couldn't shake: "Why isn't Little Children on here?" I just expected to see it for some reason. It's tough to explain why I thought that since it came out so recently, but it just feels right. It feels like an AFI Top 100 movie. It's technically brilliant, culturally significant and was nominated for 3 Academy Awards in addition to winning numerous critical honors. More importantly though, it tells us something about how we live and intelligently examines human behavior. Simply put: It's important. I thought this and Brick were the two best films of 2006, but Brick isn't culturally significant like this is. I know it may seem early to judge its place in history, but they're likely going to put the heavy-handed Crash on the list. That film already hasn't held up well at all and it's only been two years. 10 years from now I can guarantee you that Todd Field's Little Children will still be emotionally resonant and relevant. It's a great choice.
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5. The 40-Year-Old Virgin-
I have an idea. If the AFI wants to be mainstream, how about they put a mainstream movie on the list that's actually great and deserves to be there? To their credit, the AFI were one of the few in 2005 to put this film on their best of the year list so I was kind of surprised it wasn't on the ballot. I would put this movie up against any comedy they have on there and it would win. No one could tell me this film isn't far superior to Animal House, Airplane! and Austin Powers. They're not even in the same league. It's probably the most underrated comedy of all-time since it's so funny people often don't give it the credit it deserves for just being a brilliant movie. And I don't care if it's a comic performance, Steve Carell deserved an Oscar nomination. It's slowly revealing itself as the best film of 2005 and possibly the most well written comedy ever. It did get critical and awards recognition, is proving to be culturally significant and did massive box office. They have no excuse.

According to the criteria, here are some other films not on the ballot that deserve to make it: 12 Monkeys, Dark City, Adaptation, Pleasantville, What Dreams May Come, Magnolia, The Big Lebowski, House of Sand and Fog, Before Sunrise, Eyes Wide Shut, Clerks, The Goonies, Straw Dogs, They Shoot Horse, Don't They?, Mulholland Drive, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Princess Bride, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Karate Kid, Say Anything, Superman II, A History of Violence, Seven

Monday, June 18, 2007

Cult Classic Corner: The Warriors

Director: Walter Hill
Starring: Michael Beck, James Remar, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, Roger Hill, David Patrick Kelly, Dorsey Wright, David Harris, Lynne Thigpen
Running Time: 93 min.

Rating: R

Release Date: 1979

***1/2 (out of ****)

"Warriors...come out to play-ay!"

A while back I was having a conversation with someone who told me can't stand it when people bitch and complain about how unsafe the New York City Streets are. He said if they think it's unsafe now he'd like to see them try to last two minutes in the late 70's and early 80's. He's right. We've actually come a long way. Or have we? Did that time period just feel more dangerous? It wasn't long before our conversation shifted to Walter Hill's 1979 cult classic, The Warriors. Even though the film is supposedly taking place in the future, there's no mistaking where it's really coming from. This is a movie very much a product of its own time and era. Everything about the film, from it's music, to its setting, to its whole feel just screams late 70's and early 80's New York. If that's the future, we're in for a rough ride.

It's rare I praise a film for being all style and no substance but this is one of those exceptions. It needs no substance. The movie doesn't really say anything important thematically, the acting is average at best, the story at times feels like one big practical joke, yet the whole thing works. In fact, it not only works, but it holds up just as well, if not better, today than it did in 1979. It's constantly quoted and referenced in pop culture circles, was given a special edition DVD treatment in 2005, was made into a very popular video game and now there's a remake in the works. It's amazing to think that at the time of its release the film actually inspired gang violence since by today's standards there's so little of it in the film and the whole movie feels more like a cartoon come to life.

I think it was the movie's depiction of gang mentality and message of rebelliousness that inspired the violence rather than the violence itself. The fight scenes are staged like dance sequences and the uniforms of the gang members look more like something you'd wear on Halloween. Walter Hill has gone on record to say he was interested in turning the source material of Sol Yurik's 1965 novel into a contemporary live action comic book and he succeeded. The 2005 special edition DVD hammered this point home by actually adding animated comic book transitions between scenes, which is a change that surprisingly helps clarify the tone of a film that was always slightly misunderstood. This surrealism is all set against the backdrop of a very gritty, realistic New York, making for an always interesting, well-paced movie that, while no masterpiece, isn't that easy to forget.

It's midnight in New York City and a summit is called by the messiah-like leader of the Gramercy Riffs gang, Cyrus (an electrifying Roger Hill) with the intention of calling a truce between all the gangs in New York. His plan is to unite them all against the NYPD, whose stranglehold over them and the city is slipping. It sounds good (especially in his unforgettable speech) but in reality it's just a pipe dream. During his speech he's fatally shot by Luther (David Patrick Kelly), leader of a gang called the Rogues, who end up framing The Warriors for the murder during the ensuing chaos. The Riff's beat their leader to death and The Warriors find themselves on the run and every gang in New York has a bounty on their heads. With their second in command Swan (Michael Beck) now in charge, a loose cannon named Ajax (James Remar) and a feisty girl from the streets, Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) tagging along, they try to make it back home to Coney Island by morning. It's getting there alive that's the problem.

I have to admit I love movies that take place over the span of one night or one day and focuses on characters that have a certain set time to accomplish what they need to stay alive. It always adds a certain forward momentum and urgency to the proceedings, giving the film a narrative focus it doesn't have if it takes place over the span of a couple of weeks or months. I'm not a screenwriter, but I'm guessing if you outlined your story in that manner it would likely become a hell of a lot easier to write. There should be a new rule that no action movie can go over the 24-hour time limit because very rarely, if ever, have I seen a movie employ this device and fail. The protagonists in the film have a clear problem and there's only one way it can be solved: They must get from point A to point B without being killed and they must do it by morning. So simple, yet so effective. A journey and a destination.

It's amazing how many action movies have problems doing this and get sidetracked, but Hill takes it a step further by using the New York subway system as a character to get them there. One station leads to another and at each stop is a different set of obstacles and gangs preventing them from reaching their destination. And how about those gangs? This is the movie's crowning achievement. Each gang has what can best be described as a gimmick of sorts, with their costumes and names suggesting their personalities. It seems ridiculous when you think about it (and it kind of is), but it adds a campy, entertaining feel to the picture that becomes even more of a blast on repeated viewings. It's one of the few times when watching a movie I found myself in awe of the costume design and admiring how much it added to the story and feel of the picture.

We have the cowardly Orphans (all in green shirts with "ORPHANS" stitched on the back and blue jeans), The Lizzies (an all female lesbian gang), The Punks (who all wear overalls and have a leader on roller skates), and most memorably The Furies (guys in pinstriped baseball uniforms and KISS-like face paint wielding baseball bats). The Furies have since become the iconic symbol of the film and their fight with The Warriors in Central Park recall Kurosawa's samarai films, except with baseball bats. Looking back, parents who had children in this era must be grateful the film was rated R because if not I'm convinced every little kid in America would probably be wearing face paint and wielding baseball bats.

Hill also employs the device of a Greek chorus that comments from the sidelines. It's a forgotten art, but can be very effective and entertaining if used properly. Here that Greek chorus is the great Lynne Thigpen (tv's Where In The World Is Carmen San Diego?) as a radio DJ who not only provides the film's soundtrack but also updates us on the location of our protagonists and their situation. Somewhat similar to Samuel L. Jackson's role in Do The Right Thing. She has a great, deep speaking voice and Hill shoots her in an almost unsettling extreme close-up to drive her delivery home. It's just one more example of Hill using his setting and characters to move the story forward without you ever consciously noticing.

The performances are adequate but it's almost irrelevant since this isn't an actor's movie at all. Everything is about spectacle. Wisely realizing big names may cause a distraction and take some authenticity away from the film, Hill cast unknowns. Beck is sufficient in the lead while Valkenburgh is a pleasant surprise mainly because she doesn't fit the profile of your typical leading lady, which in this case works in her favor. The best performances come from Kelly and Remar, who get to play the two most manic, over-the-top characters in a film that's just bursting with them.

Walter Hill, much to author Sol Yurik's disappointment, took major liberties with his novel to the point it could be considered a completely different story. The novel was actually loosely based on the Greek story Anabasis, which told of a Greek army that made it's way through enemy Persian territory to The Black Sea. This is alluded to visually (in comic book style) in the prologue to the special edition DVD release. Since The Warriors has become such a cult phenomenon it's ironic that Hill now finds himself struggling to preserve his own vision as they're planning a big budget remake he's said to be strongly against. Originally Tony Scott (Man on Fire, Déjà vu) was scheduled to direct, but rumors circulated that he dropped out unhappy with the direction the studio wanted to go.

Last I heard they were planning to cast real gang members, set it in Los Angeles instead of New York and discard many of the campy elements of the original. You'd think, inevitably, it would also be more violent. I'm not too sure this is a good idea. It's not that the film is an untouchable masterwork, but rather there isn't much more can possibly be wrung from this material. Plus, the story is now so identifiable to that time and place a modernized version couldn't possibly contain the nostalgiac enjoyment of the original.

If they really are going to do a remake though, for some reason I see The Rock filling Roger Hill's shoes as Cyrus and delivering that impassioned speech at the start of the film. He seems like the most logical choice to deliver what in essence is a wrestling promo written for a movie. I've heard some fans recommending Vanessa Ferlito (Grindhouse) for the role of Mercy, which is also an interesting casting choice that might work. The Warriors isn't a film for all tastes and it takes more than one viewing to fully appreciate what Walter Hill was trying to accomplish. Despite its reputation as a violent gang picture, it's really the threat of violence and pervading sense of danger accompanying it that makes this film feel special. It's a memorable experience, if you can dig it.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Hostel Part II

Director: Eli Roth
Starring: Lauren German, Heather Matarazzo, Bijou Phillips, Roger Bart, Richard Burgi, Vera Jordanova, Jay Hernandez, Jordan Ladd
Running Time: 93 min.

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

Almost two years ago I reviewed a movie called Hostel, directed by Eli Roth. At the time I noted it had slightly more for going for it than just blood and gore and praised the film for exploiting our fears of being left helpless in a foreign country. That infamous line in the film, "You're a long way from home" couldn't have rang any truer. I also thought Jay Hernandez's underrated performance was an overlooked reason why the film's third act worked. I gave the movie three stars and moved on. I didn't really pay it a second thought after that.

Sometimes when people find out I review movies they ask me which I enjoy more: Praising a great film or bashing a terrible one. The answer is neither. The most fun comes from reviewing the movies that fall right in the middle in that three star category, but then later they somehow return to your conciousness. You realize there was more to them than you originally thought and you can go back and re-watch them, discovering little details you may have missed the first time. That's what I love most about movies. This has been happening a lot with me lately, especially with horror films, most recently with The Descent, which I realize now I didn't give the credit it deserved when I reviewed it earlier this year. Hostel is such a film and I recently re-watched it with the commentary on and realized there was actually a great deal more going on than maybe I gave it credit for. It's still a three-star movie, but it's a more memorable one. If I wrote a review now it would likely be completely different.

You could imagine my surprise then when the movie got an incredible amount of publicity and Roth became a lightening rod for hatred and controversy, prompting allegations that his films are misogynistic, homophobic, and he holds contempt for his characters. And that's just the beginning. I haven't even mentioned the things that were said about him personally. A new term, "torture porn," was even coined to describe what many believe is his sick and sadistic method of filmmaking. I'm going to be brutally honest here: I don't care. It's a horror movie. People are going to die. People are going to be tortured. The strong will survive and the weak will perish. And, oh yes, there will be blood. I care even less what his films say about him as a person since I don't know him. What I do care about is whether he can tell a visually involving, smart and entertaining story for an hour and a half. I'm happy to report that the answer is "yes."

Now the big question: Is Hostel Part 2 better, or as good, as the original? Visually and technically it's leaps and bounds better and a noticeable directorial improvement for Roth. In fact, it's probably his best directorial work (his Thanksgiving trailer during Grindhouse notwithstanding). The film also contains something the original didn't: genuine suspense and terror. Unfortunately the sequel, unlike the original, contains minor miscalculations by Roth that individually may not amount to much, but by the end start to add up and take the film down a notch. Still, it's impressive and the film is redeemed by two unforgettable characters and an interesting twist at the end that ranks among the most psychologically complex you'll ever see in a horror film.

Hostel Part II opens with a prologue catching us up on what's happened to Paxton (Hernandez), the first film's protagonist, who managed to survive and is now haunted by visions of his horrific experience. He's in hiding with his girlfriend (Jordan Ladd) at her grandmother's farm and always looking over his shoulder, basically living in fear. It's at this point that a decision is made early on with the Paxton character I didn't agree with and does more to negate the ending of the first film than add to the start of this one. It seems like it was thrown in for shock value and sensationalism. I understand the point of the prologue was to catch people up on the events of the first film, which is fine, but I think most of it could have been excised with no harm done to the picture. The cynic in me thinks it exists just to get Hernandez and Ladd into the movie.

Luckily we shift quickly to meet Beth (Lauren German), Whitney (Bijou Phillips) and Lorna (Heather Matarazzo) who are three American girls studying abroad in Italy. While there they encounter exotic model Axelle (Vera Jordanova) who lures them to the same Slovakian hostel that led to the bloodshed for our pals in the first film. Then in one of the very best scenes in this film we see an electronic, e-bay like bidding for the three girls and the winners are two American businessmen, Todd (Richard Burgi) and Stuart (Roger Bart). Todd, an arrogant prick, is almost literally dragging the shy and reserved Stuart to Slovakia to do some "elite hunting" for his birthday. The dynamic between these two characters make the film and before it's over they'll be tested as much as the girls they've won the privilege to torture and kill.

There's a lot of plot going on in the first act of this film as we're thrown from the prologue into two different, but directly related plots. We also get an unprecedented, behind the scenes look at the inner workings of this secret murder-for-profit organization, which has even further reaching influence than we originally thought. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is left to the imagination as Roth throws everything out on the table for us to see. We even get to meet the mastermind behind the entire operation. Normally leaving so little a mystery should rob the film of suspense and tension, yet strangely it doesn't. Somehow it increases it as seeing the sadistic way it all works makes us fear for these girls even more. Roth seems to be using the sequel as a means to fill in the little details that were missing in the first film and expand on themes that were only just touched on. If you think about it, that's exactly what a sequel should do.

It could have just been me, but the protagonists in this film seemed a lot stupider than those in the original. You'd think traveling to a foreign country, and especially being female, these characters would have been especially cautious and made smarter decisions, even if this is a horror film. Everything they do, and how they eventually find themselves in the dire situation they're in seemed like it came out of a handbook titled, "What Not To Do When Traveling Abroad." However as stupid as their decisions were (and boy were they stupid) I can honestly say I believe someone could have made them. Still, I thought how the guys in the first film found themselves in the situation they were in was more realistic and held up better to logical scrutiny. Also in the first film the guys seemed like they were really good friends with a strong camaraderie.

Here, these girls seem like they're just mere acquaintances which takes away from the story a little bit. They're also more stereotypical characters. We have the slut, the dork and the normal girl (if normal can actually be considered a stereotype). Phillips and especially German (who's really tested late in the film) give good performances, but Matarazzo does not. Those wondering why you haven't seen her much since her role as Dawn Weiner in 1995's Welcome to the Dollhouse will get their answer here. Her performance is like nails on a chalkboard and a parody of every movie geek stereotype with the volume turned up to eleven. It's like Dawn Weiner goes to Europe. What a testament to how gruesome a later scene is that we do eventually have sympathy for her.

The first film featured the cruel irony of guys going to the hostel to take advantage of women only to have the tables turned on them and get taken advantage of themselves in the worst way. Even though the backpackers here are young women Roth still finds a way to make an insightful commentary on gender roles and male psychology. He does this with the characters of the two businessmen and the performances from Burgi and Bart (who ironically have both appeared on tv's Desperate Housewives) are absolutely sensational. You'll swear you know guys exactly like Todd and Stuart. I know I do. Considering this is a horror movie, which aren't generally known for deep characterizations, that's a major accomplishment. Roth was interested in blood and gore in the first film but here he's actually interested in exploring the moral ramifications of what these people are doing. By having two very different types of males who aren't in agreement about what they're doing, a moral center is created in the film. By the end he challenges our expectations of what each will do and how they will act, but does it in a way that makes so much sense and brings truth to the situation. Roth has publicly called the ending to his film "the most shocking in horror movie history," but it's actually what comes just before the ending that's more shocking and carries the most emotional impact.

In a strange sort of way this film reminded me of Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof in that we're given time to get know a group of girls before the carnage comes. Of course Roth doesn't have Tarantino's ear for dialogue (who does?), but three quarters of this film is dedicated to building suspense, and it's done successfully. When the carnage comes it's brutal and graphic, but to be honest if you look at the whole picture there isn't that much of it. There's a scene with one of the characters alone in a swimming pool and Roth does something he's never done before. He directs a scene that's terrifying and sets a mood. I was legitimately frightened for this character and worried what would happen next. The first Hostel was just fun. This one, even though it probably has more flaws, seems better put together and feels like a deeper movie with more to say thematically.

All the little pieces don't quite fit together seamlessly and I thought the film went on one scene longer than it should (with a final shot that really breaks the film's tone). Also the "bubblegum kids," one of the few genuinely frightening elements from the first film, return in what seems like a larger role, except this time they're treated more as a joke than anything else. These are relatively small complaints because overall this is a strong effort. Eli Roth has yet to make a truly great film, but for the first time, he comes dangerously close. There are flashes of brilliance here. I wouldn't want to see a Hostel Part III and I don't think we will, at least judging from the box office take of this one. This feels like a good time to end it and for Roth to move on to something else, which I'm looking forward to since he's improving as a director with each film he makes. It's a shame little mistakes at the scripting level prevented this from being everything it could have been because it's almost flawlessly directed. If you're looking for a quality horror film you're not going to do much better than Hostel Part II.

Monday, June 11, 2007

From The Vault: Birth

Director: Jonathan Glazer
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Cameron Bright, Danny Huston, Lauren Bacall, Arliss Howard, Anne Heche, Peter Stormare

Running Time: 100 min.

Rating: R

Release Date: 2004

(out of ****)

is a strangely compelling motion picture, but more importantly, an extremely frustrating one. It starts off with an intriguing premise, but then bombards us with unearned scenes of shock and sensationalism meant to make us feel as uncomfortable as humanly possible. It also features some of the most irresponsible adult characters I've ever seen in a movie. They should all be thrown in jail for child abuse and endangerment. Even worse, after the film has drained us emotionally and presented a sensitive subject matter in the most insensitive way, it fails to give us any kind of resolution or closure.

The film is mean-spirited and at times incredibly difficult to watch, but yet frustratingly you can't take your eyes off it. The film moves at a snail's pace yet I sat transfixed by the disaster that was unfolding in front of me. That it's so beautifully shot and acted only adds to the frustration because you wonder what this film could have been with a better script. This is the kind of bad movie that can only be made by talented people.

The film opens memorably with a jogger collapsing and dying in New York's Central Park. We flash forward ten years to find out that man was Sean and now his widow Anna (Nicole Kidman) is on the cusp of marrying wealthy businessman Joseph (an incredibly bland Danny Huston). While attending the birthday party of her mother (Lauren Bacall) the family is greeted with an unexpected guest. He's a 10-year-old boy coincidentally named Sean (a creepy Cameron Bright), who claims he's Anna's dead husband and doesn't want her to marry Joseph.

Right off the bat, we already have some serious problems. First of all, we have no idea who Anna's deceased husband Sean is as a person. All we know is that he's a jogger who collapsed in Central Park. It would have helped to establish who he was and his relationship with Anna in the opening minutes so we actually care when this kid shows up claiming to be him. Instead, it just seems creepy. That this child acts like he just stepped out of Stephen King's The Shining doesn't help matters. Another detail about this 10 year-old: his parents let him roam the streets of New York City alone at night hailing taxi cabs and crashing strangers' parties uninvited. At first, because of the tone of the picture and his demeanor I thought he would be a supernatural being, which would be fine because then he wouldn't have parents. So you can imagine how shocked I was to find out he not only has parents, but that they could care less what he's doing.

All of this seems almost normal compared to what follows and how the characters choose to deal with this bizarre situation. Anna's family is determined to "get to the bottom of this" and find out if Sean really is Anna's husband. May I ask why? Shouldn't they instead be getting this obviously disturbed kid some help? Wait…I have a better idea. Instead why don't they grill him about the intimate details of Sean and Anna's life that he couldn't possibly know… or could he? Once he answers those questions he's ready to move in, have ice cream, go on dates and take baths with her. After all, she has to find out the truth. You think this kid will have some wild stories for school?

You may be wondering where Anna's fiancée Joseph is in all of this. Well, he's kind of pissed. This leads to a scene in the house that's supposed to be dramatic, but instead evokes unintentional laughter. That this guy enabled the kid into their lives just makes it even stupider. I almost forgot to mention a married couple (played by Peter Stormare and Anne Heche) resurfacing from Anna's past who we're led to believe have some connection to all of this. I'd love to tell you I was trying to figure out what it was, but I was too busy wondering why Anne Heche's eyebrows and lips were mysteriously missing. I was also way too happy to see Peter Stormare in a role that didn't involve him killing people.

It's clear what the movie is trying to do, but how it executes it is another matter altogether. They're trying to convince us Anna is becoming obsessed with this boy because she can't let go of the memory of her husband, who this kid may be the reincarnation of. That's how the filmmakers can justify the uncomfortable scenes we're forced to endure between the two of them. Except they're wrong. All this kid has proven is that he can robotically recite information from Sean and Anna's past. He hasn't taken on any of Sean's personality (whatever that may be since the movie refused to let us know who that man was), therefore all the scenes between Anna and young Sean come off as a grown woman attempting to seduce a creepy 10-year-old boy.

There's been much controversy surrounding the infamous bathtub scene with them, but that's actually harmless since they're not actually in the tub together and the scene was spliced together in post-production. The real disturbing scene is in the ice cream shop when you'll want to cover your ears when you hear a woman having a conversation like this with a little boy. The movie is not about pedophilia, but because of the lazy script and Jonathan Glazer's irresponsible direction (which includes seductive lighting and uncomfortable glances) the movie feels like it's all about pedophilia. Here's a question: Would this movie have been made if the gender roles were reversed?

There's also a serious problem with tone in this film. You're never quite sure what it is. A horror movie? A drama? A mystery? It even has a Merchant/Ivory 1990's art house feel to it. The tone just all over the place. Alexandre Desplat's score is fantastic, although I have to wonder whether it was appropriate for the film or even if it was a good thing that I noticed it that much. Come to think of it, any score probably would seem out of place for a film this bizarre. The best part of the movie is the work from director of photography Harris Savides (Gus Van Sant and David Fincher's cinematographer, whose work includes The Game and Elephant) who adds a beautiful, layered richness to the film that makes it compellingly watchable. He's hands down the best working cinematographer today and without him it frightens me to think how much worse this movie could have been.

Probably the saddest part of this entire enterprise is that Nicole Kidman gives one of the best performances of her career and she justifiably earned a Golden Globe nomination for it. The camera loves her as she's never looked as good as she does here and manages to make all this garbage somewhat convincing, selling it like a pro. You really do feel the pain of this woman over the loss of her husband. Too bad we have no idea who he was. It's not Cameron Bright's fault he's asked to act like the spawn of Satan so he does a reasonable job conveying the emotions, or lack of them, required. I just hope the poor kid isn't traumatized for life.

I could actually understand how someone could appreciate this film (notice I didn't say enjoy), but I can't understand how anyone could sit through it more than once. It's just too draining. Plus, this isn't the kind of film where repeated viewings reward the audience with its secrets. There are no secrets. I'm all for ambiguous endings if it's called for, but when a movie sets up a big mystery and forces the actors to endure uncomfortable scenes like the ones here, it better pay off. Maybe there will be a sequel (Birth 2?) that addresses all the unanswered questions. After all, I'm still curious what happened to Anne Heche's eyebrows.