Category: B


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(A quick note before I write this review. I think [emphasis on think] that I watched this movie on Monday evening. I was going to review it when I came to work on Tuesday but I forgot to bring my laptop that day and I’ve been on the road since then because of an Arcade Fire concert in Pittsburgh Wednesday and then a Paul Simon/Sting concert in DC on Wednesday. So I ap0logize in advance for the possible weakened state of this review)

Towards the beginning of Heathers, Winona Ryder’s somewhat morally centered Veronica voices her hesitancy to one of the cruel pranks of the powerful Heather clique, and Queen Bee Heather Chandler drops one of the film’s many great throwaway lines, “Well, fuck me gently with a chainsaw.” While I’m glad such absurd aphorisms would no longer sound natural in today’s world, language in the 1980s had character. That character was often garish and patently over-the-top, but it rarely felt dispensable or throw-away. 1984’s Sixteen Candles has not aged particularly well and it plays hop-scotch with being downright offensive at times, but it has more character and memorable style than any modern teen film that isn’t The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

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This viewing of Sixteen Candles was my first since high school (when I was a vocal member of the church of John Hughes. For what it’s worth, I still think that Pretty in Pink is his best film), and after years of catching glimpses of the watered-down broadcast for TV version, I had forgotten how dark and raunchy elements of Sixteen Candles actually are. The film predates the PG-13 rating system, so this is likely one of the few PG films you’ll ever see with bare breasts, the word “fuck,” and more cursing and casual date rape jokes than you can throw a stick at.

The actual plot of Sixteen Candles is about as simple (and well-trod these days) as it gets. Wallflower high schooler Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) is turning sixteen the day before her beautiful (and brainless) sister’s wedding, and in the chaos surrounding her sister’s wedding, including visiting grandparents and their insane Chinese exchange student, Sammie’s family forgets her birthday. To make matters worse for Sammie, she’s in love with gorgeous senior Jake Ryan (MermaidsMichael Schoeffling), but she doesn’t think he knows that she exists, and all the while, a far too horny and overbearing nerd (Anthony Michael Hall) keeps trying to win Sammie’s heart for himself.

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As I said, the plot of Sixteen Candles is simple to a fault, and it’s been done a million times since, and time hasn’t been kind to one of the original high school romantic comedies. Everything involving Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe) is so racist and insensitive that it’s a wonder this movie was made by a major studio. He’s such a collection of awful Asian stereotypes (can’t drive, can’t speak English, yells “Bonsai” when dropping out of a tree despite being Chinese not Japanese) that I spent whole portions of the film cringing. Although to Gedde Watanabe’s credit, he rolls with the part and sells it for as many low-brow laughs as he can get.

Jake Ryan is arguably the Ur-“Dreamy High School Crush” archetype, but I never realized prior to this viewing how much of a sociopath he actually is. Let’s put this into perspective: Jake Ryan’s fragile ego is stroked by a shy girl who constantly looks at him but he knows nothing about her. He only barely knows her name. So, he decides to go on an epic quest to meet this girl despite the fact that he has a gorgeous girlfriend. He abandons said girlfriend who is completely shitfaced, black-out drunk to try and call Sammie and meet her. And then, he abandons his girlfriend to the clutches of the horny nerd and tells her that the nerd is him, and then Jake makes a joke about how the girlfriend is so drunk he could “violate her ten different ways.” He’s a terrible person.

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Despite those huge complaints, there’s a sincerity in Sixteen Candles lacking in the majority of modern teen comedies. When Sammie stares at herself in the mirror when she wakes up on her birthday and bemoans the size of her bust, that’s something many high school girls have had to deal with. When Sammie wallows in her seemingly unrequited crush on Jake Ryan (despite the fact that the two barely know each other), it feels real because everyone who was ever in high school has been there. And when she talks to her father, we recognize the real awkwardness of parents and children talking about romance.

And, most importantly of all, Sixteen Candles is legitimately funny. Anthony Michael Hall’s Farmer Ted/The Geek is the film’s unsung comic hero, and he and his friends (including a young and already charming enough to be a star John Cusack) provide many of the film’s best moments. Farmer Ted and his crew crash a senior party and not long after arriving, Ted leans against a beer can sculpture and knocks it over earning the ire of the jocks. And the payoff comes later as Farmer Ted’s friends are being driven home in the trunk of the jocks’ car, and they’re both convinced that they’ve made new friends. And the film has plenty of great little bits like that.

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Sixteen Candles is an 80s classic, but that doesn’t mean it’s a great film. And there are times where it’s outright bad (Jake Ryan is legitimately one of the most loathsome romantic leads in any rom-com ever), but with a subversive streak a mile wide and an honest ear for certain elements of teenage life, Sixteen Candles‘ shelf life is sure to last for years and years to come. One can only hope that future generations who discover this film move on to Hughes better features, The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink as well.

Final Score: B

 

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One evening in New York City, after a wonderful romantic evening with a girl I was seeing, I walked her to the subway, and on my walk back to my apartment in the primarily Caribbean Crown Heights, I softly sang and subtly danced to “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady. As one of the few Caucasians in the mostly Caribbean neighborhood, I didn’t have to do much to stand out, and singing a show-tune as I walked down the street didn’t help matters. But, I was so happy and so content that I didn’t care who saw or who laughed. When people in old musicals are so overcome with happiness or sorrow that they simply burst into song, I get it. It happens to me in real life. I just don’t have an array of back-up singers (or actual musical talent) and lavish dance routines.

I’ve discussed at length on this blog the special place that musicals hold in my heart and the complicated feelings I’ve developed for them as I’ve gotten older and my tastes have gotten more sophisticated (and my critical skills grew sharper). Grease was one of the first non-children’s movies that I can remember watching, and there’s always been something about theatrical song and dance numbers that have appealed to me on a deep and personal level ever since. Unfortunately, I also recognize that a lot of these “classic” musicals are also sort of hilariously bad in the actual storytelling department. 1954’s There’s No Business Like Show Business is no exception to that rule. It’s gorgeous production and sublime Irving Berlin score make it worth every musical lover’s time, but it’s story borders on non-existent.

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The Donahue clan, led by matriarch Molly (Ethel Merman) and Terry (Dan Dailey), are a struggling vaudeville family act. Though the group finds great success when the parents are joined by their children, Tim (Singing in the Rain‘s Donald O’Connor), Katie (Mitzi Gaynor), and Steve (Johnnie Ray), it isn’t long before the family act starts to fall apart. Steve wants to become a priest, and Tim falls head over heels in love with coat-check girl (and aspiring singer), Vicky Parker (How to Marry a Millionaire‘s Marilyn Monroe). And when Vicky’s career begins to take off, and she brings Tim and Katie along to be part of her new Broadway revue, it spells the beginning of the end of the Five Donahues as a performing act. Throw in Tim’s suspicion that Vicky is having an affair with her manager, and the family is set on a path towards disaster.

I love Donald O’Connor. I doubt that’s a controversial statement. He’s clearly the best part of Singing in the Rain. The title track of that film is great, but “Make ‘Em Laugh” is the best number of that whole film. And he does not disappoint in There’s No Business Like Show Business. The man can dance and he can sing, and he delivers a snappy one-liner with the best of them, and it’s always puzzled me that he wasn’t a bigger star (though I get it. He didn’t have leading man looks). Although I suspect the film would have been enjoyable without him, I also know for a fact that I wouldn’t have liked There’s No Business Like Show Business nearly as much without O’Connor’s presence. There’s a number after Tim kisses Vicky for the first time that has quickly become one of my favorite set pieces from a classic musical.

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Marilyn Monroe on the other hand… she really isn’t a great actress, but unlike How to Marry a Millionaire, this film shows off an area where Monroe is actually startlingly talented: burlesque-adjacent numbers. Whenever Monroe has to deliver actual dialogue, she’s more stiff and unnatural on screen than even the non-professional cast of Steven Soderbergh’s disastrous Bubble. But, when she’s performing her musical numbers in the film, which give her a chance to show off her sultry and simmering sexuality, it’s like watching an entirely different performer. The only other actresses from that era who seem to be as aware and in control of their sexuality were Liz Taylor and Lauren Bacall. And, Monroe’s confidence and presence sell every second of her musical numbers. For an actress that we’ve come to know (from historical records) as suffering from crippling self-esteem issues, it is surprising how well she carries herself in the film’s sizzling musical numbers from Miss Monroe.

And the rest of the cast is full of established musical talent. Ethel Merman is a Broadway legend, and although her performance is about as campy as they get, it fits the silly and fun mood of this film far better than a more serious take would have. Dan Dailey was appropriately lecherous but loveable as the beleaguered family patriarch although it was probably in the film’s best interest that he was involved in as few of the musical numbers as he was. Johnnie Ray shone during what little screen time he had, at least from a singing perspective (his acting wasn’t phenomenal), and I more or less immediately fell in love with the beautiful Mitzi Gaynor who played the sister. Looking at her IMDB page, she appears to have mostly done musicals and never had much of a career which is a shame because she was both gorgeous and talented.

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The costume work and set design and general composition of this film is a glorious exercise in excess. Early in the film, the Donahue’s perform a deliciously over-the-top take on the old Irving Berlin standard “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” that is far more complex and expensive than they should be able to afford, but I loved every second of its multi-national ridiculousness. And, as mentioned earlier, there’s a glorious performance of “A Man Chases a Girl (Until She Catches Him)” performed with fountains and back-up dancers disguised as statues from Donald O’Connor. That was the moment when I surrendered myself to the silly fun of There’s No Business Like Show Business. As someone who’s danced down the streets of Brooklyn after a wonderful evening with a girl, it spoke to me.

There’s No Business Like Show Business isn’t ever going to stand in the pantheon of great movie musicals, and the performance of “Heat Wave,” which featured what I’ll refer to as blackface-adjacent backup dancers, was a little offensive, but like Babes in Arms before it, there’s something just undeniably fun about this film despite (actually probably because of) its ridiculous nature. The songs are great, and not even the sight of Ethel Merman with absurd mutton-chop sideburns during “A Sailor’s Not a Sailor (Until a Sailor’s Been Tattooed” should deter you from watching this film if you have a soft spot in your heart for old musicals. If you aren’t a fan of musicals, I can’t imagine that There’s No Business Like Show Business will convert you, but for those in the fold, it’s worth the two hours of your time.

Final Score: B

 

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There’s an hour and fifteen minutes section of Django Unchained that is arguably the greatest thing Quentin Tarantino has ever done. As someone who used to worship the man’s stylistics talents, that should say something. When Django and Schultz arrive at Calvin Candie’s plantation, the film becomes an examination of the spiritual costs of Django’s revenge and how he turns his back on his own people in order to save his wife. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is cartoon, bordering on slapstick. Had Tarantino kept the tone of the Candie plantation section up the whole film, Django would have easily been his best work yet. That same tonal inconsistency is the biggest misstep of 1991’s Thelma & Louise.

Hailed as a radical feminist parable when it was first released (a reputation that seems somewhat silly 23 years later), Ridley Scott’s (Black Rain) Thelma & Louise is a frustrating exercise in inconsistency. There are moments of intense, lyrical beauty in this beloved buddy road crime drama and unexpected insights into restless female desperation. But, most of the film operates in the world of cheesy B-movie pulp tropes, and it distracts from the message of the film. I spent most of the last half of the film wondering what a serious treatment of this material would look like and wishing I was watching that instead.

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I’d be hard-pressed to imagine anyone stumbling upon my blog who isn’t familiar with the basic premise of Thelma & Louise, though considering I only watched the film for the first time this week, I suppose anything’s possible. Repressed housewife Thelma (Geena Davis) is convinced by her liberated best friend Louise (That’s My Boy‘s Susan Sarandon) to go out for a weekend in the mountains. Thelma needs to get away from her controlling husband, Darryl (The Iron Giant‘s Christopher McDonald), and Louise needs a weekend away after a bad fight with her boyfriend, Jimmy (Kill Bill‘s Michael Madsen). Unfortunately, they’re never making it to that cabin.

Thelma, who hasn’t had a night of fun in decades, convinces Louise to stop at a roadside honky-tonk so the girls have a couple drinks. Thelma gets very drunk and starts dancing with a man who takes her outside and then tries to rape her. Thelma is saved at the last second by Louise sporting a large gun Thelma had packed for no apparent reason. Thelma and Louise are prepared to leave when the man can’t help but insult them as they’re walking away and Louise murders him in the parking lot. And, thus, the pair embark on a cross-country quest to escape the law as they are now wanted for murder (and eventually other crimes).

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There are elements of Thelma & Louise that are astoundingly wonderful for a film from 1991. Though I think aspects of the film’s gender politics aren’t nearly as radical as they’re remembered, for 1991, Thelma and Louise might as well have been Emma Goldman and Louise Bryant. When the film is focused enough to not be pulpy melodrama, there are quiet moments of Thelma and Louise on the road where you can feel the weight of not just the lawmen that are chasing after them but their whole tired lives and the limited opportunities afforded women of certain backgrounds. But, then the film will shatter that quiet power with gunplay and explosions.

The film’s cinematography from Adrian Biddle is stunning, arguably the best work of his career and some of the best camera work in any Ridley Scott film (Blade Runner seems like the most obvious competition). I disagree with most of the film’s Oscar nominations and consider it’s Best Original Screenplay win to be particularly puzzling, but it’s Best Cinematography nod was well-deserved, and maybe it should have won. Like the best road movies, Thelma & Louise captures the haunting beauty of the American country-side and the restless lives of the women racing through it.

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Unfortunately, Thelma & Louise can’t decide if it wants to be a serious movie or a fun movie, and it never manages to successfully be both. Films can be smart and fun (The Big Lebowski, Annie Hall, American Psycho, The Social Network, etc.). Thelma & Louise will go from being painfully smart and powerful one second to overwhelmingly dumb and pulpy the next. The scenes that are meant to be moments of female empowerment have their heart in the right place, but they come off as ridiculously cheesy when they occur. The most notable example being Thelma & Louise pulling over an obnoxious truck driver and then blowing up his semi.

I like pulp. Justified is one of my favorite shows on TV right now, and though the series got more cerebral in the later seasons, even at the end, Breaking Bad worked within the conventions of pulp storytelling. But those programs do it with internal consistency, and so I’m not brought in and out of two different versions of the same story. That’s where Thelma & Louise falls apart. Had it been all pulp, it would have likely been a riotous, feminist powered-action ride. Had it been all serious, it could have been the 90s response to Badlands. As it is, I felt like I was watching Ridley Scott struggle to decide what kind of movie he really wanted to make.

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None of this is to say that I didn’t enjoy Thelma & Louise. It had its moments of astonishing power, and the “fun” moments weren’t so much bad as they were “out of place.” But, this film is considered one of the true classics of 90s cinema and a definitive classic of feminist cinema and I don’t see how it’s really either. Give me Rachel, Rachel any day. Thelma & Louise simply concerns my belief that Ridley Scott is a good director on his best days, but almost never a great one.

Final Score: B

 

TwinPeaksFireWalkWithMe1Back in 2001, Japanese video game visionary Hideo Kojima finally released the long-awaited follow-up to his now iconic stealth/action classic, Metal Gear Solid. But, when Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty was released, critical acclaim was through the roof but fan reactions were more mixed. Though history has vindicated the game as the original and premier example of post-modernism in blockbuster gaming, Kojima ripped the floor out from underneath players who were expecting more of the same by replacing beloved hero Solid Snake with the far more polarizing Raiden and throwing in an ending that works more as an allegory than an actual narrative. 1992’s Twin Peaks follow up film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, bears the Twin Peaks name, but one can almost hear David Lynch cackling with delight for anyone expecting more of the same of the ABC drama.

Fire Walk With Me was a massive disappointment upon its first release, and it’s easy to see why. Fans who wanted answers to any of the cliffhangers that dominated the show’s controversial finale were left hanging when it becomes quickly apparent that Fire Walk With Me is a prequel. Fans expecting more of the show’s quirky humor and lovable characters will also be unfulfilled because Fire Walk With Me is dark. It is, arguably, the darkest film in Lynch’s whole ouevre, outstripping even the terrifying Inland Empire. And, of course, Kyle MacLachlan’s Dale Cooper is in the film for less than ten minutes. But, if you take Fire Walk With Me on its own terms, it is a stark and deeply disturbing allegory for the darkest sides of human nature that is, unfortunately, wrapped in some of Lynch’s most consistent and glaring struggles as a director.

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As I said, Fire Walk With Me is a prequel to the Twin Peaks television program. And, other than the lengthy intro that delves into the investigation of Teresa Banks (the first murder in a string and what drew Dale Cooper to Twin Peaks after Laura’s murder), the film is primarily contained to the final days leading up to Laura Palmer’s (Sherly Lee) murder. And with Laura’s inevitable murder hanging over all of the actions of the film (as well as the true identity of Laura’s murderer), Fire Walk With Me is a study of a woman in the throes of a self-destructive spiral and a close examination of the myriad causes of her downfall.

I don’t want to delve too deeply into the action of the film for those who haven’t seen the film, but in true David Lynch fashion, if Fire Walk With Me accomplishes one thing, it’s that it leaves you with more questions than it provides answers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Inland Empire and Eraserhead are both particularly inaccessible but if you ponder them long enough, you’ll realize what they’re about (maybe). And Fire Walk With Me is the same way. And, while it’s packed to the brim with Lynch’s signature surrealistic flourishes, they are almost always in service to the film’s haunting allegory of rape, incest, and drug abuse.

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Fire Walk With Me is scary. Though it occasionally devolves into what I believe may be blatant Lynchian self-parody, when Lynch sets out to scare you, he does. Disturbing barely scratches the surface of many of the film’s most brutal moments. Fire Walk With Me becomes so intense and painfully raw that it hurts to watch. Ignoring the most obvious choice (Laura’s death), there’s a moment mid-way through the film where Laura and Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle has been replaced by the superior Moira Kelly) go to a strip club. And Laura’s sexual degradation is haunting and heart-breaking.

Sheryl Lee (who was originally cast just for the show’s pilot and to be a corpse but was eventually made a recurring character as Laura’s cousin Maddy because she made such an impression with David Lynch) has to carry the entire film, and her performance is something of a mixed bag, and it’s weird where it falters. She handles the “biggest” scenes of the film extraordinarily well to the point that I suspect David Lynch was actually torturing her somehow (Hitchcock was notorious for abusing his leading ladies to get more natural performances). But, during the little moments, her acting is wooden and artificial. It’s confusing. Ray Wise is the best performance of the film as the terrifying (and more complex than previously on the show) Leland Palmer.

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But, lacking Inland Empire‘s excuse of being a literal nightmare in movie form, Fire Walk With Me can be unforgivably unfocused. It takes nearly forty minutes before Laura, the main character of the film, shows up and while there are some inspired moments here and there, the intro, told from the point of view of new characters Agents Chester Desmond (Chris Isaaks) and Sam Stanley (The Lost Boys‘ Kiefer Sutherland), seems to serve no other purpose than to tease the audience. It’s only contribution to the over-all plot was a Chekhov’s Gun for the very end, and it could have used some heavy editing.

You have to come into Fire Walk With Me with an open mind or you’re going to be terribly disappointed. Though it is technically Twin Peaks: The Movie in name, it is not Twin Peaks: The Movie in content or style. But, it is still required viewing for fans of the show who want a deeper look at the figure whose tragic murder drove the entire first season. And though I took umbrage with Lynch’s inability to stick to what was working (certain elements of the film felt like he was trying to shoehorn in plots the networks wouldn’t let him run on the show), this film is an undeniable look into sheer terror and one of the most terrifying films I’ve seen in ages.

Final Score: B

 

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(A quick aside before I begin this review. I watched this film last night at work at the bar. Beyond the usual interruptions that come with watching this film at the bar like having to pause it any time a customer wanted a beer or something, I also had to stop it for hours at a time not once but twice when old ladies came into the store and I felt it was probably wise to turn off the R-Rated movie. If I thought the pauses would have overly affected my review, I just wouldn’t have written one. But I figured I should be up front about it since as a horror movie, I kept regularly escaping the tension and atmosphere of the film).

In Stanley Kubrick’s film version of The Shining (though I suppose it’s equally true in Stephen King’s book), the Overlook Hotel was as much a character as Jack, Wendy, and Danny Torrance. Kubrick’s camera lavished fetishistic attention on every nook and cranny of the secluded hotel, and with a decided Mid-West Native American meets 1920s art style, it’s impossible to forget the time spent within its haunts (pun most definitely intended). Genuine atmosphere and tension are becoming a lost art (though 2009’s The House of the Devil is a brilliant exception). And while 2001’s Session 9 may have a somewhat muddled central story, no one can deny the suffocating atmosphere and unease at its core.

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That The Shining-centric introduction is not without reason. Session 9 is cut very much from The Shining‘s same “haunted house” cloth. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that they’re less “cut from the same cloth” and more, “The Session is a wide-eyed homage that occasionally borders on stylistic plagiarism” (but, thankfully, it’s borders on that line. It never crosses it.). And if the Overlook was the secret star of The Shining, then the real-life Danvers State Hospital (which an asylum for the criminally insane that was the inspiration for Arkham Asylum in the Batman universe) steals every second of Session 9. Though the film has actual quality performances and tension, the abandoned and supremely terrifying Danvers State Hospital is the star of the show.

Shot almost entirely on location in the hospital, Session 9 is a creepy and atmospheric modern spin on the classic “haunted house” horror trope. Struggling haz-mat removal contractor Gordon Fleming (War Horse‘s Peter Mullan) is desperate for work. He’s just had a child and his business is on the verge of going under. So, the opportunity to remove the asbestos from the Danvers State Hospital is too good to pass up even if it means seriously underbidding the competition and agreeing to do the job in one week when it should take three at a minimum. And, when he and his partner Phil (David Caruso) cross the threshold of the hospital for the first time, it’s immediately clear that this job will be more than they bargained for.

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But, despite the overwhelming creepiness of the hospital (and the fact that Gordon may or may not have heard voices when he first entered), they take the job and bring on three workers for the crew. Petulant and obnoxious Hank (You Can Count On Me‘s Josh Lucas) is banging Phil’s ex-girlfriend for no other reason than he can and he knows it pisses off the hair-trigger temper of Phil. Gordon’s nephew Jeff (Brendon Sexton III) is new to asbestos removal and terribly frightened of the dark which is probably the wrong phobia to have in this hotel. And law school drop-out Mike (Oz‘s Stephen Gevedon) labors away at this job despite being way too smart to spend any time with manual labor.

And, as the crew passes the time in the hospital, they get an almost hilariously miniscule of real work done as each member of the crew (except for Phil and Jeff) splits away from the group as they discover secrets and scares lurking in the shadows of the asylum. After accepting the job, Gordon has a fight with his wife though you don’t learn til later on what it was about and Gordon slowly starts to become unhinged over the week. Hank finds a cache of old coins behind a loose brick in the walls and concocts a scheme to steal them and get rich. All the while, Mike discovers a series of recordings of a former patient in the hospital with split personality whose tale is linked to the inevitably lethal turn their work takes over the course of the week.

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Perhaps the most shocking element of the film is that (beyond Brendon Sexton III’s Jeff) the performances are almost uniformly excellent, particularly Stephen Gevedon and Peter Mullan. Peter Mullan is wound immensely tight and is a bundle of nervous, desperate energy that you’re constantly left wondering when he’ll finally snap. And Stephen Gevedon (who I know from his Season 1 turn on Oz as Scott Ross) captures Mike’s morbid curiosity and intensity. There’s an especially memorable moment where he teases/abuses the new guy, Jeff, by explaining the practical applications of a lobotomy with a chop-stick millimeters away from Jeff’s eye.

But, beyond any other element of the film, what makes Session 9 work (when it’s central mystery is obvious from the start) is how “lived in” the film feels. And, of course it would feel lived in because Danvers State Hospital was a working asylum (and one of the most notorious in the country) up until 1992. Even if the members of the crew didn’t start getting murdered halfway through the film, the hospital itself would have been scary enough, and like The House of the Devil and The Descent, Session 9 wisely holds off on any jump scares or real horror so long that when it arrives, you’re on the edge of your seat.

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The only time where the film falls apart is at the ending which is both open-ended enough to invite speculation over whether the killer is crazy or possessed (which is good though I tend to lean towards possessed) but it’s also handled in such a muddled way that certain things simply don’t make sense within the continuity of the film itself. They are minor complaints because Session 9 is one of those rare horror films that relies more on an audience’s over-active imagination and paranoia than gore and violence. If you don’t like slower paced horror, you will probably find Session 9 to be a snooze, but I thought it was a treat.

Final Score: B

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After watching the somewhat disappointing second chapter, The Girl Who Played with Fire, in the film adaptations of Stieg Larrson’s Millennium trilogy a little less than two weeks ago, I found myself less than enthusiastic to take the time out of my schedule to sit down and watch the concluding chapter, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. And that was a shame because after both the (inferior) Swedish version and the (superior) American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I considered myself a fan who wanted to know how this story played out. And though no one will really know how Stieg Larrson wanted the series to go (there were reportedly seven more books in the work before he died of a heart attack at 50), I can happily say that The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest was a satisfying conclusion to the saga of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist even if this final entry featured too little Lisbeth.

One of the reasons that I’ve enjoyed the Millennium series so much (though I haven’t yet read the books; it’s on my to do list) is that Lisbeth Salander is easily one of the most interesting and well-drawn female heroines in the fictional market today. Take the bad-assery of Katniss Everdeen but then take away the shitty characterization (I love The Hunger Games series but Suzanne Collins is not a good writer) and you have a character half as cool as Lisbeth. Honestly, the only modern female characters I find as intriguing as Lisbeth are Peggy Olson from Mad Men and Buffy Summers from… Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But, in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Lisbeth’s contribution to the active resolution of the overall plot is nil at best, and it was somewhat disappointing to see such a fantastic character take a backseat for practically the entire film.

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This review will contain minor spoilers for the plot of The Girl Who Played with Fire (I’ll try to keep the plot spoilers of this entry to a minimum) so if you haven’t seen that entry, you should probably stop reading now and come back later. After surviving being shot three times (once in the head) as part of an attempt to confront her father, ex-Soviet defector and criminal kingpin Alexander Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), hacker prodigy and general problem child Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) is rescued from near death by left-wing journalist (and her former lover) Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist). And although Lisbeth has been cleared of the murder of the two journalists that provided the tension in The Girl Who Played with Fire, Lisbeth finds herself in even hotter water as she is now accused with the attempted murder of her father after she nearly killed him with an axe (an act of self-defense).

Much like the last film, the conspiracy at the heart of the movie is propelled forward by a rogue faction of the Swedish government’s need to keep their ties with Alexander Zalachenko a secret. When Zalachenko defected, a corrupt faction of Sweden’s Security Services (which I imagine is functionally similar to the FBI or the CIA. But there was another government police organization in the film, the Constitutional Protection, so I don’t know what equivalency either organization has with American government), known as The Section, took him in, and they sucked off the largesse of his criminal activities for decades in repayment for his anti-Russian information. And as Lisbeth is being prosecuted by the government to keep the Section’s dirty little secrets quiet, it’s up to Mikael and the rest of the Millennium staff to prove Lisbeth’s innocence.

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I’ve said this in my reviews of the two earlier entries in this franchise, but it should be said again that Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace were both cast expertly in these roles. And though I slightly prefer Rooney Mara as Lisbeth (she captures the vulnerable side of the character better than Rapace does), I pretty firmly believe that Michael Nyqvist commits to the role of Mikael Blomqvist better even than the excellent Daniel Craig. And that’s good because unlike the first two entries of the series (which are more Lisbeth heavy), most of the dramatic weight of this film falls on Nyqvist’s shoulders. And throughout the film, Blomqvist must decide if not only his safety is more important than uncovering the truth but also if the safety of his coworkers and lover is more important. And Michael Nyqvist again makes me wish I had seen more of his work in his native Sweden outside this franchise.

Lisbeth spends 75% of this film (if not more) either in a hospital, in prison, or on trial. The film centers around an investigation by Millennium magazine and eventually Constitutional Protection (which sounds like the ACLU but is apparently a police organization) to prove that Lisbeth is innocent of attempted murder and that there’s been a systematic attempt her entire life to keep her quiet and under control as well as to cover up the misdeeds of Alexander Zalachenko. But, sadly, with her life on the line, Lisbeth isn’t able to contribute in any meaningful way to her own defense. The only real plot contributions she makes in this film either occur at the very end of the movie and aren’t related to the main plot as well as something she did way back in the first film. It sucks to see such a bad-ass and resourceful heroine kept on the bench like that when the series clearly revolves around her.

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Thankfully then, the rest of the film was an enjoyable (if somewhat far-fetched) conspiracy thriller and the same type of journalism procedural that we’ve come to expect from the franchise (even if it doesn’t work on the same great level as other journalism procedurals like Zodiac). Stieg Larrson was a left-wing journalist in his native Sweden before becoming a writer, and he uses these books/movies as a mouthpiece for his views on the exploitation of women and the corruption of government. And as a fellow left-wing socialist, I respect Larrson’s dedication to his politics (even if I have quibbles here and there with his abilities as a storyteller). Having seen the entire series now, I’m once again excited to see this story make its way back to Hollywood and the capable hands of David Fincher. This ending left me satisfied.

Final Score: B

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When movies are shot on paper-thin budgets but go on to be massive successes anyway, it gives heart to independent film-makers around the world that you don’t need a studio-sized checkbook to make an appealing movie that others will want to see. Whether that’s Paranormal Activity, Clerks, or The Blair Witch Project, there are plenty of great examples of accomplishing a lot with very little (Paranormal Activity was first shot in 2007 on a $15,000 budget and now it’s one of the most profitable films of all time). 1992’s El Mariachi was very profitable if not a huge box office smash (it made around $2 million compared to the $7,000 it required to shoot it), but it’s success is notable for an entirely different reason. With a movie financed almost entirely by taking part in a medical research study, Robert Rodriguez (The Faculty) shot himself to international superstardom as a filmmaker and it only got better from this impressive debut.

Although it will become somewhat clear that I have nothing but the utmost respect for Robert Rodriguez and El Mariachi, that respect is primarily related to how professional this film is able to feel despite the fact that Rodriguez had never made a feature-length film before, shot the movie entirely in single takes, and made it for a grand total of $7,000. Because, at the end of the day, El Mariachi is a B-movie at it’s heart (though, let’s face it, all of Rodriguez’s films are), and if this same movie were made on a budget of over half a million dollars, people would probably laugh in his face. But, the film was shot for $7,000 and for someone who struggled to shoot a five minute short film on a literal $0 budget with film-making tools given to me for free, it’s impressive to an absurd degree that Rodriguez was able to make this film.

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When a white gangster, Moco (Peter Marquardt) in Mexico double-crosses a vengeance-fueled Mexican hit man, Azul (Reinol Martinez), an all-out war breaks out between Moco’s men and the one-man death army known as Azul. Azul’s MO is to wander around as a traveling Mariachi but he secretly keeps his stash of weapons hidden inside his guitar case to be able to be pulled out at a moment’s notice. And this spells trouble when an actually mariachi, known only in the film as El Mariachi (Carlos Gallardo), stumbles into town just looking for a job and a place to play his music. But when a case of mistaken identity leads to El Mariachi being mistaken for Azul, El Mariachi becomes the prime target of Moco’s men and though he flees to the safety of a saloon ran by the beautiful Domino (Consuelo Gomez), that only spells more trouble for himself and his unwilling savior.

I won’t waste your time harping on any of the performances of the principal actors because none of them are worth praise (though Carlos Gallardo seemed like he had potential. It was a shame his career never really took off after this film). Instead, what’s impressive is Rodriguez’s ability to tell a mostly compelling action story (that was a fun spin on the classic North by Northwest tale of mistaken identity) with so few tools at his disposal. Even this early on, Rodriguez’s talents as a pop auteur were on full display and even as a neophyte, Rodriguez already had a mastery of pacing and editing. In fact, it’s the editing of the film that I often found the most impressive because as someone who’s written, directed, shot, and edited a film, editing is without question the hardest part.

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I’ll keep this review extra short cause it’s been a couple days since I’ve watched it and other than being a feat of budget wizardry, there’s not a hell of a lot to say about El Mariachi other than how enjoyable it remains even 21 years later. There’s nothing deep about this movie. It’s an action movie centered around a case of mistaken identity that happens to feature a surprisingly sympathetic hero and love interest. If you aren’t a fan of B-Action films, knowing that Robert Rodriguez made this movie on a shoe-string budget won’t make you like it more. But, for those who have a soft spot in their heart for camp, El Mariachi is a delightful exercise in independent film-making and a fascinating insight into the formative years of a star who is one of the most talented popcorn filmmakers out there today.

Final Score: B

 

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Besides the moments where I watch true cinematic masterpieces for this blog (Annie Hall, Chinatown, The Tree of Life), it may be true that the best moments on this blog where I watch a film that isn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be. That may seem like a sad statement, but when you’re expecting to loathe a film, and it turns out to be at least a little enjoyable, that’s a victory. It’s the opposite of that terrible feeling when you know a movie is going to be awful (The Help) and it stays awful (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). I’ve got a pretty set view now (after having reviewed 400 odd films for this blog) of what I like and I don’t like, and it’s gotten easier and easier for me to tell when a movie will be something I will like or not. 2011’s Puss in Boots (a spin-off of the Shrek franchise) seemed like it would be torturous, but it was, thankfully, a pleasantly surprisingly enjoyable children’s film.

For those unfamiliar with the Puss in Boots character (Antonio Banderas) from the Shrek films, he is a suave, womanizing feline thief that is the cat embodiment of the smoldering Latin lover archetype (one of many areas in which this film scores some decent jokes for the grown-ups). In his own self-contained story, Puss is his nation’s most-wanted outlaw and its most notorious lover and thief. At a bar (where he orders “leche”), Puss hears about magic beans being held by grotesque spin on Jack & Jill which are the key to a giant’s kingdom in the sky with a goose that lays golden eggs. Puss makes it his mission to steal these beans when he encounters Kitty Soft-Paws (The Faculty‘s Salma Hayek), a female cat who is an even better thief than him. Kitty is working with Humpty-Dumpty (The Hangover‘s Zach Galifianakis), a friend of Puss’s from his childhood in the orphanage but now there’s bad blood between the two and Humpty may turn out to be (awful pun incoming) a bad egg.

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Antonio Banderas is essentially playing an exaggerated version of his typical film persona (that of the smolderingly sexy Latin lover) so it shouldn’t be surprising that he voices Puss well. Puss’s addition to Shrek 2 was generally considered one of the high points of that particular film, and although I’m not sure if he deserved his own spin-off film, Banderas’s deliciously hyperbolic performance and the writing’s sense of the character give him enough presence to hold the attention for the whole film. Salma Hayek is thoroughly unremarkable as Kitty, but she’s mostly a thoroughly unremarkable actress (her talents as an actress. not her physical looks which are god damned perfect). Zach Galifianakis has the chance to show off a more low-key performance for him as Humpty and he makes the parts work.

What’s most surprising about Puss in Boots is that it is a legitimately, no qualms in saying this very funny film. From the opening sequence where the film doesn’t even attempt to subtly imply that Puss just had a one night stand with a female cat, Puss in Boots blends typical children’s slapstick humor with plenty of tongue-in-cheek pop culture references and almost outright adult humor for the parents. That seems to be Dreamwork’s thing since both Shrek and Rango utilized that same set-up (Puss in Boots falls somewhere between Shrek and Rango in terms of overall quality). And sometimes, it isn’t even the biggest jokes that worked the most for me. Sometimes, it was the tiny little visual gags hidden in a scene. Particularly, Humpty’s map to the giant’s kingdom looks like a children’s map. The gorgeously animated film is full of those little touches.

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I’m going to keep this review short. Puss in Boots lacks the emotional context or thematic richness of Toy Story 3 or The Iron Giant, but I had a good time for the 90 minutes I spent in its world. Much like last year’s Oscar-winning Brave, this particular Oscar-nominated children’s film is not going to wind up part of the required canon of modern animated cinema in the way that Up and other children’s classics are. You don’t need to go out of your way to watch this film if you don’t have kids. But if you have children or nieces and nephews or a young sibling and are looking for an entertaining way to pass the time with them, Puss in the Boots will get the job done and you won’t be miserable while it happens.

Final Score: B

 

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When I think of Billy Wilder, his legacy is divided firmly into two categories. The dark and moody noir like Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard and then his later comedies such as Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. At least one of those four films come up on virtually every list of the greatest films ever made (and usually there are several). The Austrian turned American become of the most beloved directors of the 1940s through the 1960s, and list of the greatest directors of Hollywood’s golden age is complete without him near the top. And though his direction is stunning per usual, perhaps it’s the lionized ideal of his works that I hold in my head which caused me to find his 1954 romantic comedy, Sabrina, so lightweight and insubstantial.

No one would ever accuse the light-hearted farce of Some Like It Hot as being cerebral or challenging material, but the lightning-fast nature of its script and the manic energy of Lemmon and Matthau make up for the fact that it lacks the dark overtones that made Wilder so famous in the first place. But, in Sabrina, there’s much to love but almost as much to remove us from the experience. From the lack of any real romantic chemistry between Hepburn and Bogart to a turgid script that feels as if it never wants to get off the ground to some material the feels blatantly misogynistic and condescending to women in a modern viewing, Sabrina is a truly enjoyable film but not nearly one of Wilder’s best works.

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Sabrina is a modern spin on the classic Cinderella “rags-to-riches” tale. In 1950s New York, the Larrabees are a family whose wealth seems to rival the Rockefeller. The daughter of the family chauffeur, Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn), is in love with the youngest of the Larrabee men, David (Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing‘s William Holden), a rakish skirt-chaser who’s been divorced three times and is set to be married yet again. Though his current engagement has been set up by his brother Linus (To Have and Have Not‘s Humphrey Bogart), the mature and responsible member of the family. When Sabrina sees David seducing a floozy in the tennis court, she tries to kill herself but is rescued by Linus who pretends to be unaware of her original intentions.

Afterwards, Sabrina heads off to Paris to learn to be a cook so she can continue the family tradition of serving wealthier families in the New York area, but when she befriends a wealthy baron, Sabrina returns from Paris a woman fully grown and confident in her own beauty and value to men. David picks her up at a train station and she is so transformed that he doesn’t even recognize her until he brings her back home. Linus, too, falls in love with Sabrina, and both men begin to compete for her affections. Though at first, Linus simply wants to remove Sabrina from the family’s affairs as she threatens David’s new engagement which is holding together a priceless business deal, but sooner or late,r Linus discovers he has to confront his own feelings for Sabrina.

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To the film’s credit, the black and white photography by Charles Lang is beautiful in the way that only black and white films from the period could be. We go back and watch movies like Double Indemnity or Pickup on South Street, and for many movie lovers, you long for films with such crisp and clear visual ambition. Sabrina may not look quite that good, but when Wilder has the camera glide in and out of parties and into subtle close-ups which frame the sexual yearning between David and Sabrina and Linus and Sabrina, it’s accomplished with a grace and ease that few film-makers today could hope to match.

But sadly, the film’s story isn’t as good as its direction (which is the case, I feel, for so many of the films before the 1960s). Audrey Hepburn is more or less emotionally manipulated and abused by both David and Linus for the entire film, and though David suffers his fair share of hilarious mishaps as punishment (a broken champagne glass providing one of the film’s funnier moments), Linus only gets a happy ending with no personal cost. He constantly tries to ignore, buy off, and exile Sabrina, but at the end, they still fall madly in love (I can’t imagine that obvious ending being a major spoiler). He treats her mostly like a nuisance, but she never seems offended by it. My sister and I were both rooting by the end of the film for her to say “Fuck it!” and abandon both men.

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Most damning for the film is that the romance between Hepburn and Bogart (which is the very core of the film) carried about as much sizzle and heat as a snowman. The much older Bogart (he was thirty years older than Hepburn at the time of filming) had been in a passionate love affair with Lauren Bacall for ten years in 1954, and it is clear that he had almost no attraction to Hepburn, and subsequently, he couldn’t make it seem like Linus did either. The only romantic scenes which seem to work involve the pouting and long-suffering Sabrina lusting after the elusive and roguish David, if for no other reason than Hepburn’s beautifully expressive face captures the depth of Sabrina’s longing and pain.

All those complaints aside, Sabrina is a lovely and very enjoyable film. It just seems so… light and shallow compared to the greatest films in Wilder’s library. Of course, my sister expressed a most Philistine of opinions when, after the credits rolled, she turned to me and said she enjoyed Sabrina more than Casablanca. I may have to disown her for such heresy, but perhaps my indifference to the romantic whimsies of this film are rooted in the fact that I am an often cynical male and not the type easily swayed and romanticized by the fantasy of this tale. For Bogie and Hepburn fans, Sabrina may not be their best work, but it’s still a must-see film.

Final Score: B

 

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Adapting Superman to any medium, even his birthplace of comic books, is no easy feat. Superhero stories are fueled by epic conflict, but when you are nearly a god (though not to a Dr. Manhattan-level of omniscience/omnipotence), it’s hard to design scenarios where the odds aren’t seemingly stacked overwhelmingly in Kal-El’s favor. And, in the process, most film adaptations of the Superman mythos ignore the godlike aspect of the last son of Krypton. Director Zack Snyder (Sucker Punch) understands how crucial Superman’s world-shattering strength is to his character, and in the process makes the first Superman film that really grasps how powerful this man is. However, the film also constantly left me hungry for the vulnerable human element that I loved so much in Superman Returns.

Because, to Man of Steel‘s credit, there hasn’t been a Superman film yet that truly delivers the sort of world-rending sci-fi action on display in practically every action sequence of Man of Steel. Alongside The Avengers and Avatar, this movie may very well have some of the best fight scenes in recent memory. Man of Steel seemingly draws as much inspiration for its action choreography from Japanese anime as it does traditional Western comic book influences, and the high-flying Dragonball Z-esque theatrics were a delight. And, in true Zack Snyder fashion, the action of the film almost never lets up from beginning to end, which is ultimately a shame because I wanted more of an emotional connection with the characters on screen which it rarely delivered.

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After rampant destruction of its natural resources leads to the imminent destruction of Krypton, Jor-El (Les Miserables‘ Russell Crowe) is forced to send his only son, Kal-El (Henry Cavill), to Earth as the last chance for the Kryptonian race. And, so baby Kal-El lands on Earth where he’s discovered in a Kansas corn field by Jonathan Kent (The Untouchables‘ Kevin Costner) and the radiation from Earth’s yellow sun endows him with superhuman strength including super-hearing, x-ray vision, heat vision, and flight. His powers even gain him the attention of intrepid report, Lois Lane (The Fighter‘s Amy Adams). But when the genocidal Kryptonian General Zod (Revolutionary Road‘s Michael Shannon) arrives on Earth looking to make a new Krypton on Earth’s ashes, Kal-El, known now as Clark Kent, must answer the call to being a hero and become the Superman that Earth needs.

Though that plot seems simple enough (in many ways, Man of Steel is a conventional origin story in the very modern vogue style), the movie is fast-paced and entertaining enough to never feel like it’s dragging over its two hour running time. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the film rarely gives you time to breathe, and it’s all action, all the time focus ultimately becomes a tunnel vision obstructing us from getting a clearer view of why Clark would want to remain loyal to a humanity that was not always so kind and loving to him. Zack Snyder has a reputation as being all style and no substance, and sadly, it’s on full display in Man of Steel.

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Henry Cavill (and it’s difficult to sell just how important this is) looks like Superman should look like. He has that all American charm, good looks, and appeal, and I can’t imagine anyone having any complaints about his casting. His performance was nothing special, but it didn’t require him to do anything special either. Michael Shannon gave one of the better supporting performances for this blog in recent memory in Revolutionary Road and while clearly General Zod isn’t that kind of character, he made him appropriately larger than life. My only complaint in the casting of the film was Amy Adams who was as miscast as Lois Lane as Kate Bosworth was in Superman Returns.

I’m going to keep this review short because this is the first movie review I’ve written in like nearly two weeks now. I’ve been at Bonnaroo and writing articles preparing for Bonnaroo and writing articles for when I came back from Bonnaroo and working at the bar. This is my first day off in forever where I don’t have to go anywhere and I can just stay at home and enjoy myself. And that’s what I plan on doing. Probably going to play either The Last of Us or Bioshock Infinite. If you’re in the mood for a bombastic, science fiction action spectacular, Man of Steel delivers and then some with some of the craziest action scenes I’ve ever seen. If you’re wanting any depth with your superhero tale, you’ll be disappointed.

Final Score: B