Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Muppets (2011)

       Years have passed, but the good ol' Muppet gang is back for a big screen show like never before. Probably what makes this Muppet movie so different is its self-aware attitude, and I must say, it's the best self-aware movie I've ever seen. As for the movie overall, if it isn't excellent, it sure as hell is fantastic. With great and hilarious performances from Jason Segel (who co-wrote the film), Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, and of course, the Muppets, The Muppets succeeds in making us believe in magic and optimism all over again and putting a huge smile on our faces.

       The story concerns Walter, the brother of Gary (Jason Segel); Walter is technically a Muppet, but the movie doesn't directly state this. He's been a fan of the Muppets nearly all his life, so when his brother tells him they're going to Los Angeles, Walter is ecstatic to see the old Muppet Studios. Once there, they realize it's pretty much run down and is to be taken over by a rich oil tycoon by the name of Richman (Chris Cooper). Walter decides to reach out to Kermit the Frog and the other Muppets to raise the appropriate funds to save the studio. All the characters in this film are great: Peter Linz voices Walter, an energetic character and a great addition to the Muppet cast; Segel is terrific as Gary, who's heart is always in the right place; Amy Adams plays Gary's girlfriend (of ten years) Mary, who is absolutely cool and adorable at the same time; Chris Cooper couldn't be funnier and more awesome as Richman; and all of the Muppets (Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, etc. etc.) are at the top of their game (for the most part, anyway). What's great is that every character gets their time to shine, which is something I really appreciated - plus, there are a ton of awesome cameos. My favorite characters, of course, are Statler and Waldorf, the two old Muppets who are always cracking jokes; each of their scenes is gold.

       Something that's note worthy are the effects. The Muppets look excellent and are as believable as they can be in a movie about Muppets. There are also musical numbers, which should be expected from a Muppets movie, but anywho: each of these musical numbers turns out being wonderful in some way or the other. And of course, this movie would be nothing without its jokes, but don't expect me to tell you what they are - there are too many to count anyway. Just be alert that this film's full of them and there's a high chance you'll laugh at each one (hopefully).

       Regardless of what you may think before or after the show's over, whether you grew up with these characters or don't even know who they are, The Muppets is guaranteed to put a smile on your face and keep you happy and optimistic the whole way through. It features great performances from all involved and leaves you with a wonderful attitude. In a world where cynicism and negativity reign, it's extremely nice for a movie like this to come along and show us that sometimes all we need to do is believe in ourselves and keep smiling. Movies like The Muppets need to come out more often.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Superman II (1980)

       Superman and Superman II were originally to be filmed back-to-back, but ultimately, production on II was halted to complete Superman. Once it was completed and a success, the crew went back to finish II. However, Richard Donner, the director of the first film, was not asked to finish the film (that job went to Richard Lester); the reasons vary, but the main reason seems to be creative differences. At this time, Donner had already filmed what he says was 75% of the film, so what ended up happening was Lester re-filmed certain scenes and changed up some stuff, which led to the film being, technically, co-directed, with 65-75% of the film being shot by Lester and the reaming being done originally by Donner. To this day there is still controversy on the whole thing. Donner's true vision was never shown to the public until him and some of the crew restored and made Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut in 2006. Regardless of the controversy and problems, Superman II was a big hit with fans and critics alike, with some saying it surpasses the original. 

       Indeed, Superman II manages to be better than its predecessor - as a movie, anyway. What I mean to say is this: Superman had a better story but Superman II was a better movie overall. Much of this has to do with the fact that Superman II is really a continuation and conclusion (of sorts) to the story that began in Superman. The film stars everyone who was important in the first film (except Marlon Brando) and the cast do an excellent job again. While some characters don't get as much spotlight as they did in the first film (Lex Luthor, Perry White) the film makes up for it (and makes you forget about it) with three characters that first appeared in the original: General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O'Halloran). These three are the main villains of the movie and are the best part of Superman II. But what would Superman II be without the Man of Steel himself? Christopher Reeve returns, being just as great as he was in the first one and Margot Kidder also returns as Lois Lane, who is much more likable this time around.

       The story continues from Superman, bringing along with it slight allusions to the story of Christ (Resurrection) and great themes concerning the idea of self-fishness and accepting one's destiny. Like I said, the story isn't as good or as epic as the first film, but it's continuing a story so it's understandable and forgivable, especially when the action makes up for it. That's something Superman II has that Superman didn't seem to have too much of: action.

       The bad guys are great and true individuals: Zod is an arrogant egomaniac who keeps telling people to kneel before him and plans to rule the planet Earth (because he can, right?); Ursa is Zod's second in command and she is a sexy and cold foe with moves of her own and an attitude that shows she cares not for human life (her outfit is also the only one of the three that has opened slits on it's arms and legs, revealing her skin, which didn't seem like a surprising choice of style in her costume's design); Non is a brute that is -what else?- mute, but still a force to be reckoned with. The three Kryptonian villains wreak havoc whenever they're around and it's their interactions with Earth and it's people that is, in my opinion, the best part of the movie. Every scene involving them is excellent and arguably their scenes alone can make the film worth watching. As for Superman? He's just as super as ever: saving the day and being the good guy he was born to be. Clark Kent is also just as fantastic, maybe even better than how we was last time, but that's debatable (not to mention a pointless thing to debate). Lois Lane seems to be the most improved here, not being as annoying and being more entertaining. Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman, receiving top billing once again) is just as arrogant and hilarious, but like I mentioned before, he isn't in the movie as much (some of his scenes were cut). Even so, he still has scenes that are true highlights (one scene involving him and Ursa is a particular favorite of mine).  

       Sadly, I don't have as much to say about this film as I did for the first (probably because it's not as epic and doesn't have as much depth), but I do have some other things to say: The film is a bit shorter than Superman. II also features a main title sequence nearly identical to the first film (with some scenes from the first movie thrown in). The score isn't composed by John Williams this time, but it still features some of his original compositions. Unlike Superman, II doesn't seem to take place in a specific year, but we can only assume it's '79 or '80. The film has plenty of humor but didn't make me laugh as much as the first film did - maybe because I saw it in the morning in a college library as opposed to how I saw the first film: in my house at night with a glass of soda. There's also a scene that I thought was awesome for no reason involving Superman and a cellophane S (you might even know what I'm talking about). Also, Marlboro has its brand shown more than once throughout the film, but is only obnoxious about it in one popular sequence; this is because Marlboro was II's biggest sponsor. The one scene I found a tad unnecessary involves Zod and Ursa using their blow-wind-from-my-mouth power to blow people and cars away. There's nothing wrong with the scene itself, I just think it went on longer than it had to. Also, it should be mentioned that the special effects in this film are spectacular.

       Superman II is a film that doesn't so much improve on its predecessor as much as it takes a slightly different approach and makes a better film overall. While the story isn't as grand, the film has more action, more enjoyable characters, a great ending, and terrific dialogue, featuring some of the best quotes I've heard in any movie ("Lex Luthor, ruler of Australia"). The action is great and the romance between Lane and Kent builds up to gather interest (or at least some interest). And even with a less than amazing story, the film still manages to address grand themes of sacrifice and destiny that, if elaborated on in this review, would surly spoil the film. Overall, Superman II is an excellent picture that rivals the original and has still to this day garnered respect and praise by fans and critics alike. 

Monday, October 31, 2011

House (1977)

       There is absolutely no proper way to describe Nobuhiko Obayashi's House (which retained its English title in its native country of Japan as a way of keeping things "taboo"). An actual review of this film would only consist of a brief plot summary and explanations of the various events that occur during the course of the film's running time. The film was released by Toho, a popular and well known film company in Japan. Toho decided to take a chance with this film, which was partially written by Obayashi and inspired by the imagination of his daughter. It was hated by Japanese critics but a hit with young audiences, so it was quite successful. The film never saw a North American release date until only recently, when Janus Films bought the distribution rights and released it theatrically in 2009; the result was a hit with the midnight-movie crowd and more positive reception from critics, helping this one-of-a-kind film achieve cult status.

       The film's plot concerns a girl and her 6 classmates, each of them going by a nickname: Gorgeous, Sweet, Prof, Fantasy, Mac, Melody, and (my personal favorite) Kung Fu. Gorgeous invites them all to her aunt's house after their initial summer vacation plans don't work out. Once there, weird things start to happen.

       Majority of this movie takes place in the titular house (or mansion, whatever you wanna call it), but even from the beginning, this movie acts strange. From odd camera styles, to questionable transitions (wipes, fades, those sorts of things), this film lets on early that it's weird. Most of the things that happen have no meaning or anything like that; it's just random. Weird things happen for absolutely no reason -- there are so many bizarre events and occurrences that trying to describe them all or explain them all is pointless, but describing the events can also spoil it for anyone wanting to see this movie. Some highlights that I don't mind mentioning include the cat Blanche (watch out for that cat!), a scene involving pieces of wood, a scene involving large lips, and a scene involving what can only be described as a dance sequence (you'll know it when you see it).

       While the plot may seem nonsensical, it apparently has underlying themes on WWII and what not. This mainly has to do with the aunt, but I won't go into it. I'd rather talk about the main characters, because they're pretty interesting and unique. Each of their nicknames reflects them in some way: Gorgeous is seen to be the most beautiful and glamorous of the group; Sweet is, well, the sweetest and probably the cutest of the group, as well as the most innocent; Prof is the brains of the group, wearing glasses and reading at various points during the film; Fantasy is the one who starts to see the odd events before anyone else realizes they exist, so naturally, they say it's her imagination; Mac is always hungry and eating something; Kung Fu is a martial artist and takes the initiative to do things, as well as use her martial arts skills to defend the girls (but she also uses her skills to do other non-lethal stuff). Another character worthy of mentioning is Mr. Togo, who was originally going to take the 6 girls (not including Gorgeous) to some training camp thing, but it didn't work out, so he also got invited to go to Gorgeous's aunt's house. This character doesn't show up very often, but he's extremely humorous and gives, what in my opinion is, the funniest line in the whole movie ("Bananas!"); the line itself may not be too funny, but the way he says it and the context in which he says it makes it hysterical.

       Overall, House is the craziest movie I've ever seen (Eraserhead, eat your heart out!). It's a film that features intentionally cheesy effects, random background music, unique characters, and a house full of stuff that kills people. I don't know if I'd recommend it to just anyone, but given its odd ball approach and anything goes way of being, I'd say anyone can see it if they want to. There's a few scenes of nudity and gore, but for the most part it's just a silly and (believe it or not) joyous film that only aims to entertain. If you're a fan of midnight movies or Japanese cinema, I definitely recommend it. If you're a fan of movies that make no sense and mess with your head, I highly recommend it. In the end, there is no proper way to review House or explain it; you'll just have to see it for yourself. And if you do decide to see it, be aware that what you're going to see isn't from this planet. 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Superman (1978)

       Noted as the first superhero film, the one that started the trend, and still noted as one of the best of all time, Richard Donner's Superman (also known as Superman: The Movie, which is more of a marketing title, since it's just called Superman in the credits) is a tale of epic proportions. With a beautifully orchestrated score by John Williams, excellent performances from the cast, amazing special effects (for it's time and even today), and a timeless story who's influence is dabbled in religion and mythology, this film stands head and shoulders above the majority of comic books films.

       Divided into three parts, Superman begins on the planet Krypton, with Jor-El (played wonderfully by Marlon Brando) banishing General Zod (Terence Stamp) and his gang (only two other people) into the Phantom Zone. He later tells the council he's a part of that the planet will be destroyed soon and they will all die if they do not evacuate. Of course, no one listens to him, but Jor-El takes the necessary precautions and sends his infant son Kal-El to the planet Earth, were he will have extraordinary powers, due to Kryptonians being light-years ahead of human beings (or something like that). He sends him in what resembles a star (noted as a Biblical reference), but not before also placing a green crystal in his ship (the ship is made up of white/clear crystals).

       The second part has us seeing Clark Kent (played by Jeff East but dubbed by Reeve) as an 18 year old living in Smallville. He wishes he could show everyone his amazing abilities, but of course, he can't, so he's no where near as popular in school as he could be (but Lana Lang takes a liking to him). His Earth father Jonathan (Glenn Ford) and Earth mother Martha (Phyllis Thaxter) are a great influence to him and stay in his heart and mind for the rest of his journey. The green crystal eventually shows it self to Clark in the family barn and he goes off to the North (where there's nothing but ice and glaciers). Once there, he throws the crystal into the distance, and it lands in the ice, changing the land area and forming the Fortress of Solitude. It is here where Clark sees his father in the crystals, and where the answers to his questions are found. After 12 years of learning and training (which we mainly hear and sort of see in a montageesque sequence, featuring excellent dialogue from Brando which still packs a punch and has grand influence today) he sets off to help the world in any way he can in a blue and red outfit.

       The third (and longest) part thus begins with the mild-mannered and bumbling Clark Kent getting a job at the Daily Planet. It's here we meet the characters Jimmy Olson (Marc McClure), hot-tempered boss Perry White (a hilarious Jackie Cooper), and professional, yet prone to misspells, writer Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). While I've already talked about the film's plot (in embarrassing detail), I'll say very little regarding the rest of it. As is expected, a bad guy by the name of Lex Luthor (a hysterical and evil Gene Hackman) comes up with a plan to make the West coast his own by drowning half of California. The people he mainly interacts with are his bumbling henchman Otis (Ned Beatty) and girlfriend Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine). Their interactions with one another are some of my favorite parts in the whole movie; seeing the apathetic Eve deal with Lex's actions and seeing what happens when Otis messes up an order by Lex are always a delight to watch.

       The main star of the film (no matter what the main credits and end credits might tell you) is, of course, Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent/Superman. Let it be known, till the end of time, that Reeve is Superman. He's also excellent as Clark Kent, pulling off both personas as if he were born to play the roles. While many actors before and after him have played the part of Clark Kent/Superman, it's no surprise that, even to this day, Reeve is the one most remembered and revered in the role. I have absolutely no problem with seeing different actors interpret the role of an iconic hero in their own way (truth be told, I love it), but I think Reeve will forever be engraved as the Man of Steel. (One reason for this probably has to do with the fact that he played him for all 4 movies, not counting Superman Returns.)

       The rest of the cast (as aforementioned) is great. Just like how Reeve is Superman, Brando is Jor-El (but again, I'm all up for different interpretations by other actors). Brando's Jor-El is so well done and respectable, it's no wonder his quotes and monologues are referenced and mentioned to this day. Margot Kidder does a great job as Lois Lane, a woman who's mainly concerned with work but falls head over heels for Superman. Jackie Cooper as the head boss provides some of the funniest moments in the film. But the main scene stealer is Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, who seems to be having a lot of fun playing an arrogantly intelligent and evil character; you could even say his acting is campy or over-the-top. Either way, it's a great performance and maybe even the best one in the whole movie -- but that's all up to debate.

       When it comes to themes, Superman has a lot of them, maybe even too much, so I'm just going to brush over the main ones. The story of Superman parallels with the story of Jesus Christ (as well as Hercules if you want to go that far): a man sends his only son to Earth so that he may find his destiny and do good and help the people of Earth. Jor-El even says some lines that talk about him always being in his son and his son always being in him, further alluding to the Biblical story. Other Biblical allusions include the banishing of Zod and his gang into the Phantom Zone (seen as God banishing Satan out of Heaven) and Kel-El having adoptive parents on Earth who couldn't have a child of their own (alluding to Mary and Joseph). Another thing I'd like to note is that the crest on Superman's outfit (which resembles an S) turns out being the House of El crest (making it the El family crest). This is never directly stated, but apparent in the council scene near the beginning of the movie where Jor-El and his fellow Kryptonians are discussing his doomsday theory; all of the Kryptonians in this scene have different crests on their outfits.

       John William's score (conducted by the London Symphony Orchestra) is amazing, nearly tying for Best Superhero Score Ever with Tim Burton's Batman. Right from the opening main titles (which is easily one of the best main title sequences in motion picture history) the score makes its presence and importance known as credits flash across the screen. The music in Superman is extremely important, since it emphasizes moments that are epic (main titles), romantic (Superman flying with Lois Lane), imminent (Superman facing kryptonite), or inspiring (the last scene of the film).

       Other things to note: The film happens to take place in a specified year (1978, the year of the film's release), but the movie never out right tells you what it is; you'll have to piece it together (which, I promise you, is not hard to do). Due to it taking place in the late '70s, certain trends of the time show up in some of the scenes containing extras walking the street or hanging around (plain looking clothes and collars popped outside of coats, for example), but somehow, it makes the film look modern as well as retro all at the same time. Those types of things can sometimes bother me, since it can make a film look dated, but in the case of Superman, I didn't care -- especially since it takes place in a specified year (like in the Back to the Future films), which helps the film not look as dated as it could have looked. The special effects in this film were completely innovative at the time and looked amazing back then, but even today, they still look incredible and still hold up. They have a magic charm that I don't think could be replicated today, due to the excess use of CG these days. I sometimes thought Kidder's Lois Lane came off as annoying, but for the most part she came off as a city girl with a strong attitude and state of mind. There's a scene I found particularly amusing and a nod to the old-fashioned style of Superman: When Clark Kent first becomes Superman publicly, he's outside as Clark and needs a place to change; he looks at a phone booth (his most famous and iconic changing place) only to realize it's a lot more modern with no booth surrounding the phone. Something I'd really like to mention is how the film starts up: A white image (old Warner Bros. logo) with accompanied lettering lets us know that Warner Bros. released this movie; I guess since this wasn't a Warner Bros. produced film, they had no reason to display their main logo (the colored badge-looking one) at the start of the film. After that, curtains show up and pull a part a little bit to uncover a 4:3 screen showing us a brief black and white interlude (starting with the words June 1938) talking about the Great Depression and how it affected the Daily Planet. I honestly have no idea what purpose this interlude has, but within the screen between the curtains the film unexpectedly segues into the main titles, and that I must say is really cool. Still, the interlude caught me off guard (was that the intention?) and no matter what explanation I might find that explains it's purpose, I'll still find it oddly unnecessary -- but the terrific segue makes up for it.

       As a piece of pop culture or as a comic book adaption, Superman is an excellent film that transcends its initial superhero genre by telling a timeless tale with class and genuine drama, making it unlike any other superhero movie I've ever seen (although this might have something to do with it being the first real superhero movie ever produced). It has its share of action, romance, danger, and most surprising of all, comedy. The film never takes it self too seriously, but at no point does it become a campy parody. The symbolism, the themes, and the overall lesson and tale Superman weaves, along with its brilliant casting, effects, and music, make this classic film a masterpiece in its own right. Trust me when I tell you that, when you watch this movie, you'll believe a man can fly.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Batman (1989)


       Before the late '80s, the image most associated with Batman was the one portrayed in the Batman television series from the late 1960s. This was a campy and spoof like version of Batman that actually didn't stay true to what Batman really was or represented. Never the less, the television show was popular (even among Bat fans) and helped the Caped Crusader gain a wider audience. During the '80s, graphic novels such as Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moor's The Killing Joke helped bring back the dark image and themes that were associated with Batman. By the late '80s, Warner Bros. released a film that brought Batman back to his dark roots, with the help of macabre director Tim Burton.

       The result was Batman, a dark and atmospheric film that, for the first time on screen, showed us who the Dark Knight really was. The film was a huge commercial success and garnered, for the most part, positive reviews from critics and fans who applauded the return to a darker Batman while also criticizing a few things here and there. The film stars Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman, but it's Jack Nicholson who gets top billing (literally) as Jack Napier/The Joker. Other characters and actors include Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale, Robert Wuhl as Alexander Knox (the most '80s character in the whole movie), Pat Hingle as Commissiner Gordon, Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent, and of course, Michael Gough as Alfred. The whole cast does a great job, with the ultimate highlight and praise going towards Nicholson and Keaton, respectfully.

       The story is fairly simple: Joker vs. Batman. That's really all that needs to be said. I mean, there's more to it then that, but not only is the story not a strong focus (a negative or positive depending on how you see it) but possible plot points can be revealed if too much of the story is discussed.

       One of the most interesting things about Batman is that, right at the start, Bruce Wayne is already Batman. I've never seen another superhero movie (that isn't a sequel) have the main character already be the superhero right when it starts (Daredevil and the X-Men films don't count). What this does is establish that in Gotham City, some "bat" or guy in a bat outfit is going around and getting bad guys. Not a bad way to start the movie at all, and it feels a lot more comic book-ish, since most first issue comic books of a superhero already have the protagonist going around being the superhero while establishing an origin story later on. Whether the movie firmly establishes how Bruce becomes Batman might be up to you to decide, but again, I won't go into that. On the other hand, we are shown how Jack Napier becomes the Joker. Nicholson is terrific as the wild and crazy villain who is absolutely unpredictable with a dark sense of humor. I used to think this movie just had Nicholson playing himself, but when I saw the film (and saw it again) I saw that it really was Nicholson playing an insane character while still staying within the confines of reality (to some degree). Some of the my favorite scenes involving him are when he doesn't look like the Joker (but still has his "smile"), like the board meeting with him and some gangsters. One my favorite scenes in the whole movie is when Napier is at a surgeon's place and he sees his reflection in a mirror, breaks the mirror, gets up, and walks out of the place (up stairs), all the while laughing manically. The place where the surgery is done, and the surgeon's character, mixed with the subtle music, the minimal lighting, and Napier's reaction, make it a one of a kind scene in my book.

       Arguably, one could say there's more emphasis on the Joker then on Batman, and to that I say it's the writer's faults. By already establishing Batman as Batman, and showing us who the Joker is before he becomes the Joker, it seems the script is set up to show us more of a character we know very little of as opposed to a character we should already be familiar with. But is any of this a bad thing? No, not really, especially since Nicholson is always a delight when he's on screen.

       Now, about Bruce Wayne/Batman: Keaton does an excellent job as Batman; he's simply awesome in the role as well as convincing. I at first didn't like his Bruce Wayne but came to like it more with repeated viewings. When he's Wayne, he's completely unassuming to the point where I could never believe this guy is Batman. And then he puts on the suit and kicks ass. It's nothing short of phenomenal that he pulls off the role of Batman while still being utterly convincing as some playboy millionaire called Bruce Wayne. Michael Gough as Alfred is pretty good; there isn't too much to say, but he plays his part and plays it well. One interesting thing to note is that not too much is said as to what happened to Wayne earlier in his life, but as usual, I'm not go into that. One of my other favorite scenes is when Wayne confronts the Joker in Vale's apartment and he utters one my favorite lines in the whole movie. (And in case you're curious as to what line that is, it's during the part where he "gets nuts.")

       The cinematography and art direction is beautiful, in a dark kind of way of course. Many of the costumes and buildings look inspired by film noir and art deco architecture, helping to make the film look modern and old fashioned all at once. The only thing that sticks out in this regard are some of the vehicles; they look too modern (or at least, too '80s modern) in this type of environment. Exceptions would include the Batmobile (which is awesome) and anything driven by the Joker and his henchmen.

       The film has two soundtracks: a score by Danny Elfman and original songs by Prince. Some of the Prince songs show up in the movie (notably during the museum scene and the parade), but Elfman's score dominates this picture. This film has what is probably my favorite (if not the greatest) score for a superhero film ever (Superman would be the close contender); the main titles theme still gives me chills. The main titles itself is one of the greatest main title sequences I've ever seen in any film; it establishes the mood and atmosphere while moving around a landscape that eventually shows it self to be the Batman symbol.

       Overall, when all is said and analyzed, Batman is a great piece of superhero action and a great example of a superhero movie. It started off the Batman movie series and helped establish the dark mood of Batman that we see today, as well as help make the Batman animated series possible. Tim Burton knew what he was doing with Batman, and Keaton and Nicholson are at the top of their game as the heroes and villains of this Gotham City tale. However you like your Batman, and whatever your stance on superhero movies in general is, this is one you shouldn't miss; it still holds up today as a fine adaption of a well known and beloved icon.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Big Year (2011)

       Admit it: the idea of watching a movie about bird watchers (or birders, as they call themselves) doesn't sound as appealing as watching a movie about robotic aliens or a weekend in Vegas. Yet, The Big Year made me give a damn about the different species of birds, the character's determination to spot the most birds, and it made me laugh. A lot. Without using any kind of cliches, The Big Year also manages to teach some lessons and show us some truths along the way.

       Starring Steve Martin (as Stu Preissler), Jack Black (as Brad Harris), and Owen Wilson (as Kenny Bostick), the story concerns three individuals who compete in the Big Year, a competition among birders where the goal is to spot as many birds in a single year as possible. Throughout the film, we see all three characters spot so many different species of birds, you can tell the film makers did their homework. Many of the shots of the birds are great while a few are actually CG, but hey, I can forgive'em. The characters keep the story mainly interesting with their struggles and personalities. Kenny Bostick (Wilson) is the best birder in the world, having spotted a record 732 birds in 2003; he plans to keep (or beat) his record, even if it gets in the way of his family life. Brad Harris (Black) is a divorced 36 year old who's always wanted to compete in the Big Year and is able to recognize any bird by its sound. Stu Preissler (Martin) is a million/billionaire who owns his own huge company in New York City and finally decides, after so many years, to compete in the Big Year, having his family's complete support. As the film progresses, we get to see how these three characters get their spotting done, what their families think of the year long ordeal, and what eventually happens once the New Year comes around again and ends the Big Year.

       Shot in anamorphic with Panavision cameras, the film doesn't always use its widescreen to show the audience more of things. Mainly, the widescreen is used to A) show the audience the surrounding areas that the birders visit (which include too many locations to recall) and B) to have space to fill up the screen with text, writing, and tally's. Either way, the widescreen is fitting. The story it self not only deals with the people spotting birds, but what consequences and rewards might come out of it. The film has a very quirky start and eventually goes into "realistic" territory, but for me, its ending really brought the whole thing together (like it should). The film eventually shows us what obsession can do to us if we truly let it rule our lives. It also shows us that through our obsessions or interests we can meet others who relate or understand. Unlike many stories of this sort, it doesn't stick to one side but shows us the different types of people who participate in the sport, their different experiences, the price some pay to be the best at it, and the sacrifices people make to pursue their passions.

       The Big Year may not be a great movie, but it comes out being charming and very sweet. The fact that it's rated PG also goes to show that you don't need to be rated mature to be mature. The Big Year has plenty of laughs, sentimental moments, characters you'll enjoy seeing, and while it isn't perfect, it ends up proving that it has more in store for the audience then it originally let on. Don't let the idea of watching the journey of a few bird watchers turn you off; this is a really good movie with true lessons and great laughs. See it before it disappears into obscurity, like a bird that is only seen by a lucky few.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

       John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 was released in 1976 and was the director's second full-length feature film. The movie tells the story of a few people trapped in an almost abandoned police station that is under siege by a gang of street killers. If that sounds like the plot to an exploitation feature, that's because it is. Assault on Precinct 13 was made on a low budget but never lets that get in the way of the action, suspense, atmosphere, or even the score (though, it might get in the way of some of the acting). While it isn't always action packed, it surprisingly keeps the attention of the viewer and is never exactly boring, thanks to the aforementioned suspense and characters.

       Shot in glorious Panavision, Carpenter makes very good use of the anamorphic widescreen format. For a film that doesn't always have a lot going on and takes place in the dark half the time, the format never seems to be put to waste. Nearly every shot takes advantage of the space that the format provides it with. The score (composed by Carpenter himself) is excellent and is only composed of synthesizers that not only sound creepy but really help establish the paranoid atmosphere of the film. Right from the opening titles (red letters on a black background), the score lets you know you're in for something serious.

       Serious seems to be the word in this film. Majority of the characters (which include a cop, two secretaries, and a couple of convicts) take everything as serious as can be. The convicts are mainly the ones in charge of the comic relief; they have a sense of humor, but are not merely there for comic relief alone and get serious when the time calls for it. The film also has a few moments that impressed me (one in particular shocked and impressed me) but that doesn't mean the film as a whole isn't good; just some moments are more eventful than others. On that note, I'd like to say this: Exploitation films typically have filler (people just talking, that sort of thing) but this movie, while not always full of action, never seems to have a moment of filler. Every scene seems to be there for a reason, and for a film where the siege doesn't occur until the half way point, that's pretty impressive.

       Assault on Precinct 13 isn't the best action movie I've ever seen, it could've been better, but for a second feature and for a low budget movie, it's actually really good. It just happens to suffer from the ol' it-could-have-been-better problem. But even with that in mind, it managed to keep my interest, managed to have plenty of suspense, and had really good action scenes. The acting is okay, but the characters themselves (especially the convicts) can be entertaining (in a low budget kind of way, I guess). Overall, it's a really good movie that is worth checking out, especially for Carpenter fans. When it comes to low budget exploitation action, or just action in general, this one delivers.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Equinox (1970)

For a film like this, a review really wouldn't be necessary, but I just couldn't pass on the chance to spread the word.

       Equinox was originally a short film by Dennis Muren (future Oscar-winning visual-effects artist) entitled The Equinox...A Journey into the Supernatural that was picked up for distribution by Jack H. Harris. Harris and Jack Woods shot additional footage to bring the movie to full feature length. The end result is easily the crappiest movie I've ever seen that actually isn't crappy. The movie was made with only $6500; a shoestring budget, entirely. Even with that budget, the film still has good (enough) acting and very good special effects (for a film with barely a budget). As far as low budget horror films go, this one is surprisingly good.

       The story concerns a group of friends (or are they college students? I honestly don't know) who go into the woods to meet up with a professor (who is a friend of one of the characters). They try to find him, but only find his destroyed cabin, a creepy old man living in a cave, an old book, and a strange park ranger by the name of Asmodeus. Throughout the film (which, as you might guess, isn't very long) strange things happen, which include the discovery of another dimension and fights with monsters. The film is not a gore fest and crazy odd things aren't always happening, but, for whatever reason, I was never really bored; I was actually entertained when the characters were merely interacting.

       As aforementioned, the special effects in this film are quite impressive -- and sometimes hilarious. As you might expect, the film uses stop motion animation to make (most) of these monsters come alive, but the film also uses neat camera tricks to achieve its goals. It may be low budget, but it still manages to look as professional as it possibly can. Since the film is old and easily a midnight movie, the print of the film is not perfect, but it sure is a great restoration (thanks to the boys and girls at Criterion Collection who released the film on DVD). It should be mentioned that the original short film is on the same DVD that houses the theatrical version.

       Equinox is a surprisingly good and entertaining movie that has great special effects, odd moments, surreal scenes, good (enough) acting, interesting enough characters, awesome monsters, and an overall midnight low budget cult B-movie atmosphere and feel. Whether you're into these types of movies or not, I'd still suggest you give Equinox a watch.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Citizen Kane (1941)

       If nothing else, Orson Welles's Citizen Kane is a special film. It has the distinction of being called the "greatest film of all time" as well as being Welles's first film. It also had a lot of controversy behind it, since the titular Kane was based off of William Randolph Hearst, a popular newspaper mogul as the time. But I'm not going to talk about historical information and references; I'm only looking at Citizen Kane as what it is: a movie. And as far as movies go, this one is unlike any other.

       For a film from 1941, it sure as hell doesn't seem like one. If I didn't know better, this film was made in the later half of the 20th century -- except it wasn't. Orson Welles truly was ahead of his time with this motion picture, and he crafted some of the best scenes and dialogue I've ever seen in any film. For the time, this movie must have blown people away. While it may not blow people away today, it can still have a powerful effect. When the film started and the title came up, I told myself this movie would be really cool (and it would also be fitting) if there were no opening credits after the title -- and there weren't. For 1941, that would be almost unheard of. Hell, until the end of the 20th century that was uncommon. The long takes, the different angles, the long zooms: all the things that make Citizen Kane an innovative and unique picture on a technical level.

       The story of Citizen Kane concerns the life of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), which is shown in a series of flashbacks. At the beginning of the film, we see a news serial that pretty much summarizes his life; it's interesting to see the rest of the film show the details that the serial misses out on. When not showing flashbacks, a reporter (William Alland) tries to find the meaning behind Kane's last word: Rosebud. Throughout the film, the reporter reads entries by Kane's guardian (George Coulouris), speaks to his best friend (Joesph Cotten), his loyal associate (Everett Sloane), his second wife (Dorothy Comingore), and his butler (Paul Stewart). These characters are very interesting in their own ways and are quite like-able. It's Orson Welles as Kane, however, who steals the show. Welles pulled off something so subtle yet so clever I'm fooled at how he did it: his character at the beginning has no mustache, but once he dons one, I'm almost certain that this isn't Welles. In fact, when I'd seen pictures of the movie before watching it, and even during the news reel scene in the film, I didn't believe that Welles played Kane. He's nearly unrecognizable in the role; that's an accomplishment almost no actor can do. Almost half the time, I expected him to shout "I'm Charles Foster Kane!" as an excuse for whatever actions he may do; that's proof to how enjoyable it is to watch Welles be Kane.

       Welles's direction is simply phenomenal (like his starring role); he directs this movie like it's nobody's business. No matter what people say about this movie, there's no denying that Welles knew how to keep people's attention on the screen and to admire all that was going on. One thing that, oddly enough, enhances the film is its aspect ratio. Unlike most films these days, Citizen Kane was released in a time where widescreen didn't really exist; all films were shot with the Academy Ratio (1.37:1), the equivalent of a 4X3 television screen size. I usually don't like watching films in this ratio (it can make a movie feel less cinematic in my opinion), but I do respect films enough to see them in their intended and original ratio. Welles made this ratio work amazingly in Citizen Kane, to the point where I couldn't imagine seeing this film in any other ratio. The "full screen" feel of the film makes it seem as though it demands your attention and that it really is something grand.

       The themes of power and greed are ever present in Citizen Kane. Kane is born into a poor family that, without knowing, lives underneath a gold mine. He is (legally) taken by a guardian to be educated and inherits his fortune at age 25. Kane starts off wanting to run The Inquirer and give people the real news. He wanted to do it for the working men and women of the United States and didn't want them reading things he thought were false. Over time, we see him turn more into a power hungry individual who believes that the people will believe anything he says. This egotism reaches its peak when he decides to run for governor of New York (one of the best moments in the film), but due to scandal, doesn't become elected, despite having plenty of supporters (as well as detractors). Over time, we see Kane go from lonely but happy to lonely and distraught. By the film's end, it seems as though Kane never really wanted all the fame and fortune that came to him. As he himself says at one point "...if I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man."

       When it comes to movies and film making and acting and story telling and technical innovation, I'm not sure if one can do much better than Citizen Kane. Its influence is massive, and its social status has only kept growing in stature. It's topped nearly all the major film polls and its impact can be felt to this day. It was ahead of its time and feels ever so modern in today's film making world. It has rightfully gained praise and status as a masterpiece and classic film. It's a film that will always be enjoyable to watch and will forever stand the test of time

But is it the greatest film of all time? You be the judge.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Psycho (1960)

       Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho: Is it a thriller? A mystery film? A drama? Or a horror film? Depending on when and how you see it, it could be either one or all four. Psycho tells the classic story of a woman, a man, his mother, and $40,000 in cash. It manages to keep a suspenseful atmosphere, right from the opening credits to the final shot.

       Janet Leigh plays Marion Crane, a woman who was supposed to leave a sum of $40,000 in cash at the bank, but instead decides to take the money and run. On her way out of town, she acts more and more suspicious the more she interacts with strangers, which include a police officer and a car salesman. Due to heavy rain, she decides to stay at the nearest rest area: the Bates Motel. It is here were she meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) who runs the motel and also takes care of his ill mother (the Bates live in a mansion that resides above the motel). From this point on, revealing anymore of the story would be a crime. Even though the film has been around for years and plenty of people know what happens after Norman and Marion meet, the most disrespectful thing I could do in a review is reveal everything that happens. I will say this: the infamous shower scene is only the beginning of the twists and turns this movie has in store.

       Hitchcock does some things in Psycho that I still haven't seen done in any other movie. His decision to not show all the details to certain events frees him from the dreadful issue of continuity errors; it's something that is better shown than explained. Hitchcock also uses very good camera techniques to show use interesting perspectives of scenes (this comes in handy for most of the film). The black and white is also an interesting artistic choice, but I don't know what kind of effect it it supposed to have. That being said, were the film in color, it wouldn't have the same effect. I can't put my finger on it, but something about the black and white cinematography really works for this film.

       There isn't much I can say about Psycho technically, but there is much that can be said about its story and characters. All the actors do a fantastic job; Janet Leigh (as Marion Crane) is subtle in her paranoia and charm, John Gavin (as Crane's married boyfriend) is calm but determined, Vera Miles (as Crane's sister Lila) is caring and genuinely worried, and Martin Balsam (as Detective Milton Arbogast) is really sleuthing. However, it is Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates who steals the show and stays with you once the film has ended. His performance is so nervy and believable, that he's just too convincing. It's no surprise he's one of cinema's most famous characters. It's also very hard to talk about Norman Bates without revealing everything that happens in the movie, and as far as this review is concerned, I'm not going to do that.

       One of the highlights of the film (as is the highlight of many Hitchcock pictures) is Bernard Herrmann's score. It truly defines the mood and atmosphere of the film: the paranoia, the suspense, the insanity. While some musical themes may be repeated throughout, the music never gets tiring and always keeps you on the edge. It's a score that can be enjoyed out side of the film and can still bring chills to the spine.

       Psycho's influence has been immense. It has been classified as the first slasher film, and arguably, it is. It's also been called one of the most shocking films of all time, and unarguably, it is. It's been called one of the Hitchcock's defining films and one of the greatest films of all time. Even if it becomes less shocking with later viewings, it is nevertheless always entertaining and a fascinating study into the mind and motives of a psychopath. Psycho is a film that must be seen by anyone with an appreciation for film. It should also be seen by anyone with a right mind. It's an unforgettable masterpiece by the Master of Suspense.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Vertigo (1958)

       Released in 1958, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo was released to mixed reviews but has, in the years passed, garnered universal praise by both fans and critics alike, calling it one of Hitchcock's defining works. For the first hour, I admired and enjoyed the beautiful cinematography and great acting, but was a little less than thrilled by the very little action happening. Then, something happened, then things start to happen, and then, it happened. By the time the Paramount logo returned to end the film, Vertigo had done it's job and affected me in a way I could not have seen coming; at that time, I understood why so many critics and people consider Vertigo to be one of the greatest films of all time.

       James Stewart stars as John "Scottie" Ferguson, a police detective who quits the force due to his acrophobia (fear of heights) and self-blame for having let his partner die while on a chase. He gets a call from an old acquaintance that wants him to shadow his wife (Kim Novak), because he fears something may be wrong with her. Scottie decides to follow her and eventually falls in love with her. However, this evolves into an obsession that neither he nor the audience would have anticipated. Talking anymore about the film's plot will not only spoil what is easily one of the greatest mysteries in all of cinema, but it would take too long to explain. The plot of Vertigo is so much more complex than what it appears to be on the surface, so much so, that you might find yourself still thinking about it long after film's end.

       The score written by Bernard Herrmann and conducted by Muir Mathieson adds to the film's haunting atmosphere and themes, to the point that just listening to the score on its own will bring chills to the skin. James Stewart is phenomenal in the role of Scottie; he is all too convincing as a man who is slowly losing his sense of reality. The rest of the cast is excellent too, especially Novak, who is all too hypnotic in this film. Vertigo was shot in VistaVision, which truly captures the aforementioned beautiful looks that are a part of the San Francisco Bay area (including the Golden Gate Bridge from below).

       Vertigo is a film that starts off slow, but rewards your patience at its end. It's a film that takes a different route than what is usually seen in a Hitchcock thriller. It's a film that feels like an art house movie that was made for a mainstream audience. It's a film that tricks you into thinking one thing, then knocks you stone cold. It's a film that has so much too offer that one could not possibly see it only once. It's a film that will haunt you once the screen has gone black and has left you with it's shocking conclusion. It's a film that refuses to let go once you've decided to hold on. It's a film that has more than deserved the praise it has garnered in the past 50 years since its release. It's a film that I will never forget.

Rushmore (1998)

       Wes Anderson's sophomore effort Rushmore is a film that truly defies categorization. It knows what it is but leaves us to figure it out. It's funny, original, old-fashioned, and honest all at the same time and at different times, as well. It's a film that exists in its own reality where things are quite similar to how they are in the real world. It's a film that doesn't force you to like its protagonist and where you are allowed to simply observe a character instead of trying to sympathize with a character. It's a film that uses its soundtrack very, very wisely. It's a film, that, quite simply, isn't like anything you'll ever see.

       Rushmore tells the tale of Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), who attends Rushmore Academy and excels at extracurricular's but not academics. He makes friendships with a 1st grade teacher (Olivia Williams) and a self-made millionaire (Bill Murray). Describing the rest of the plot from here on out seems pointless and a bad idea. The reason being is because Rushmore doesn't feature a standard plot or narrative. The film goes from one issue to the next, changes its mind (mirroring the changing nature of the characters), and does what it thinks is best. This works for the film strongly, since it's always nice to see a film with a changing narrative and this style suits the nature of the story. If you were to watch the trailer for Rushmore, it would give you pretty much the information I've provided, since that's all it really can provide; to say more would be to spoil a story that a trailer could simply not summarize.

       Anderson's use of a 2.35:1 aspect ratio is expressive and put to better use than most films where humour is present throughout. It's beautifully shot with normal colors (nothing crazy) and with a sense of realism; the look and feel of an indie film. As is Anderson's forte, he takes advantage of the many angles and corners that the widescreen display provides to him. Many scenes fill up every space of the screen to an advantageous degree, allowing Anderson to add things in the background if he chooses. Of course, there is the occasional there-is-only-one-person-on-the-screen-doing-nothing scenes, but even these lone shots of characters look fantastic in the long widescreen. For whatever reason, all the shots in Rushmore look well orchestrated and done even if it is merely a shot of a kite in the sky.

       The film's dialogue is fantastic and all the actors in the film do a wonderful job, but as it is, the standouts are Schwartzman and Murray. Schwartzman embodies the role of Max completely to the point that I don't see the actor but the character. The same goes for Murray. When these two are on the screen, I see an arrogant and ambitious youngster who is friends with a self-loathing millionaire. It's no wonder that Murray won an award for his role and it's amazing that after years of seeing Schwartzman in other projects, I still can't recognize him when he plays Max. Mason Gamble is excellent as Max's best friend Dirk Calloway and Brian Cox as Mr. Guggrnheim is hilariously wonderful.

       The film's soundtrack is outstanding, featuring such memorable tracks as The Creation's "Making Time" and even an excerpt of the Who's "A Quick One While He's Away" (the film uses a live version of the song). Even the Faces "Ooh La La" is included in the final scene, and its inclusion feels more justified than most songs that end films. Anderson did a tremendous job concocting an authentic story that pays tribute to the cinema of the past as well as the pain and determination of the adolescent in all of us. Rushmore never denies that it's not a mainstream film and, much like it's protagonist, would think it self superior to anything Hollywood usually cooks up.