Sunday, December 2, 2012

Pulp Fiction (1994)

       Hitting the world like a punch in the jaw, Pulp Fiction is a phenomenon of a movie that plays with itself as a genre film while simultaneously telling an excellent and fresh tale that never seems to get old with the passage of time or repetition. Featuring an all-star cast that includes John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Maria de Medeiros, Ving Rhames, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, Christopher Walken, and Bruce Willis, Pulp Fiction weaves together three separate tales taking place in '90s Los Angeles, featuring killer dialogue, graphic violence, and a lot of humor - all to the sounds of an eclectic and brilliant soundtrack.

       First off, it's important to point out what kind of film this is. It's first and foremost a genre piece, an exploitation film that is an homage to the kinds of films it has been inspired by. It's also a very successful black comedy, featuring a hilarious cast of characters, scenes, and dialogue that is as quotable as anything that's ever been put on film. Characters such as Jules (Jackson) and Vincent (Travolta) have great chemistry and provide us with excellent conversations to witness. Essentially, every character in this film is excellent in one degree or the other, be it Mrs. Mia Wallace (Thurman), Marsellus Wallace (Rhames), Butch (Willis), or Winston "The Wolf" Wolfe (Keitel). Roth and Plummer are notable as a couple who rob places, with an interesting chemistry and equally interesting dialogue and scenes. However, my favorite character has to be (of all the people) Jimmie, played by Quentin Tarantino himself. As is in Reservoir Dogs, my favorite character ends up being played by Tarantino; something about the way he looks, acts, and is makes it almost impossible for me to not make him my favorite character/person in whatever thing he may be in. In any case, Jimmie has my favorite monologue in the movie and some of my favorite lines as well; the scene that features him is also probably my favorite.

       When it comes to music, Tarantino knows his stuff. He does this sort of thing instinctively, carefully, with smart input and direction. The soundtrack for Pulp Fiction is classic, featuring assorted genres of music that also fit perfectly well in whatever scene they are featured it. While I would say the best use of music in this film is the opening and closing credits, the music is excellent all of the time and can sometimes really make a scene what it is, so it's almost unfair for me to single out a scene or two as being the best; all I have is my opinion, and not even that can be selective.

       I don't know what it is, but Tarantino is an incredible writer with an incredible knack for dialogue, be it unimportant or part of the actual over-arching story. He infuses each of his characters with personality, making them memorable for a variety of reasons. Essentially, any character that has notable screen time could be extremely well liked and memorable because they actually are characters, they are "people" who exist in this world (which is essentially a movie-like world, a theory which can be backed by Tarantino's love for movies in his movies). Tarantino's talent also goes for the stories he writes, but that goes without saying.

       Pulp Fiction is a true American masterpiece, the kind of thing that lives up to its name and manages to stay with you and have an impact on your life in some degree. Quentin Tarantino made something unique, yet old fashioned, and all brand new all at once. Movies like this don't perpetually exist. Movies as well written, as well acted, as well played as this one don't get made. As Jules might say, God came down and graced Tarantino with the will and mind to write this story down and make this film so that the world may see it and embrace it for what is: a perfect piece of pulp fiction.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

How does a robbery turn out this badly?

       Bloody, violent, profane, and full of pop culture references, writer-director Quentin Tarantino's feature film debut is a masterpiece of crime and confusion, dialogue and characters, action and irony. The film stars the following: Harvey Keitel as Mr. White, Michael Madsen as Mr. Blonde, Steve Buscemi as Mr. Pink, Tim Roth as Mr. Orange, Chris Penn as "Nice Guy" Eddie, Quentin Tarantino as Mr. Brown, Eddie Bunker as Mr. Blue, and Lawrence Tierney as Joe Cabot, featuring the voice of Steven Wright as DJ K-Billy.

       The set-up is that a group of guys plan on stealing a jewelry store in a get-in-get-out heist. As one might expect, all goes to hell, tensions rise, people don't know who to trust, and blood is shed. While we never see the robbery in process (knowing only what happened by the various accounts given by the characters), the film's focus is on the people involved in the crime and not the main crime itself. This provides us with an interesting film which believes that, above all, characterization is king. Sure there's violence, blood, and death, but that all comes from the characters. There's never any moment of violence for violence's sake. Tarantino directs everything with finesse, never framing a bad shot, always knowing what he's doing. Even though it is a debut (not including his first short film), he knows what he's doing. Sure, you could say it isn't perfect, but there's no doubt that Tarantino knows how to direct.

       When it comes to who in this film is the better actor, there's almost no definite winner. No matter how much screen time a particular character might get, each and every actor in this film is excellent, believable, and naturalistic. Keitel is excellent as White, a veteran criminal who tries to keep his cool as things get chaotic. Buscemi is phenomenally likeably hilarious (in both senses of the word) as Pink, a guy who has trouble keeping is cool and is the first to believe that the robbers were set-up, meaning that there is a rat among them. He also doesn't like his alias. Madsen unnervingly and convincingly plays Blonde, a criminal fresh out of prison who might be calm and loyal but is also a complete psychopath (this is displayed best during the famous torture scene). Penn is great as Eddie, son of Joe (Tierney's character); both are fantastic in their roles as good ol' gangsters. Roth is probably my favorite (as far as the acting goes) as Orange, a guy who spends a lot of his screen time bleeding and screaming. Bunker (who plays Blue) and Tarantino (who plays Brown) do not get as much screen time, but they make their roles their own through dialogue and character traits. (For the record, Mr. Brown's my favorite Reservoir Dog, but as far as the main Dogs go, Mr. Orange is my favorite.)

       An important trait in this film (and all subsequent Tarantino films) is the writing. None of the dialogue in this film feels forced, wooden, or like something someone wouldn't say. Of course, this has a lot to do with the way the actors treat the material, but none of it would really matter if the actors were great but the writing wasn't. Tarantino infuses his script with rich reveals of his characters, from their general interests, to their relationships with other characters, to how they handled (or would handle) certain situations. For a film full of violence and blood, there are many scenes in which characters are merely talking to one another. It is in these scenes where Tarantino shows his real talent for dialogue and characterization.

       Style is also an extremely important part of this film, which also has to do with the film's soundtrack. From the black suits to the cars that are driven, these sorts of details matter to Tarantino and add to the film and its mythology. Small things from an old cereal brand to a scene specifically dealing with details needing to be remembered, Tarantino breaths his film with real people, real things, and real attention while also juxtaposing it with stringing moments of movie moments, movie situations, and movie awareness. The soundtrack adds to the style, featuring "super sounds of the seventies," which acts as soundtrack dissonance when mixed with violent moments. Above all, the soundtrack makes the whole thing a lot more cool/awesome while being a homage to older films from the 1950's and '70's. Homage is something Tarantino probably loves more than anything else, being a film buff first and a film maker second.

       Reservoir Dogs ranks as a classic crime film, as well as a classic independent film. The performances are top notch, the writing is top notch, the action is entertaining and also realistic. The soundtrack is classic and the dialogue is incredibly memorable and quotable. When it all ends, we are left with a sad scene of a heist gone awry, with a sad sort of ending that cuts to end credits featuring a song that gives off the opposite feelings that the film's end has provided. Reservoir Dogs isn't there to make us laugh (although there's plenty of laughs to go around) as much as it is there to tell a story about a group of criminals who get involved in something bad when it was supposed to have worked out all right. It's like an excellent crime novel that leaves you floored with its characters, situations, action, and understanding. When the end credits roll, I don't have any realization, I don't have any sort of feeling that I've learned something new or that I am emotionally effected (although that's possible). More than anything, I sit back, take it in, and enjoy what has been witnessed, revel in its greatness, and above all, feel satisfyingly entertained, even inspired. I wish I could put it into better words, but in all honesty, for something as simply done as this, I can't. It just is.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Rope (1948)

       Alfred Hitchock's Rope (adapted from the play by Patrick Hamilton) is particularly famous for one special novelty: the use of long takes with little to no editing, making it appear as though the film is shown in one long continuous shot. While the film has a few cuts here and there, the way the film is shot happens to be only the second most impressive thing in the film; the other thing is the acting. The stellar performances and the camera continually rolling (for the most part) compliment each other in a way that is almost always reserved exclusively for the stage. Indeed, given that it's based off a play, this film acts like one completely, featuring one setting during its entirety and taking place in real time. It also features minimal music and relies only on the dialogue of its actors, as well as the ever growing tension that permeates throughout the course of the film.

       The film's plot is fairly simple: It starts with the murder of David Kently, strangled with a rope by Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Philip Morgan (Farley Granger). The reason why they kill David is not explained immediately but becomes clear during the course of the film. As it turns out, they're hosting a cock tail party the same day they kill David, but as one will find out, all this was intentional and carefully planned. I won't go into much detail, since explaining any more will spoil the film and its surprises. We see that the character's motivations seem to stem from various things, from possible jealousy to simply the thrill of taking the life of another individual. The characters of Brandon and Philip (played phenomenally by both Dall and Granger) are so different from one another it almost seems like it was meant to be that these two would concoct such a heinous act together.

       However, the actor who gets top billing here is James Stewart, playing the former head master of Brandon and Philip, Rupert Cadell. Brandon believes that of all people, Rupert would be the one to understand his reasoning behind murdering David. Stewart's character is incredibly important and unique and his acting is also top notch, with his best scene being the final monologue he delivers at the film's end. Stewart's trademark dialect also makes its appearance and actually adds to his character in a way I didn't think possible (although in a way, his dialect always adds to whatever character he plays to some degree).

       The rest of the actors do an excellent job, but the standouts are without a doubt Dall and Granger. The character of Philip is such a nervous wreak throughout while Brandon is so smug and proud of what he's done he can't hide his excitement. His explanation for murder and his reasoning for doing what he does is so convincing and evil it's more than just thrilling in itself to witness; it's outright disturbing. To see Philip go from concerned to just completely losing it is also something wonderful to behold. The suspense attached to the possibility of anyone knowing what these two have done is another thrill the film does expertly and it wouldn't be half as exciting if not for the fine performances taking us through this nerve shattering event.

       Without a doubt in my mind, Rope is one of the greatest thrillers I've ever seen. As a film in general, it is also one of the best I've ever seen, packed with amazing performances and stellar camera effects that keep us on the edge wondering what will happen next. It may not be the most known film out there, but it's most definitely worth at least one viewing. And if you've already seen it, why not see it again, for thrill's sake?

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Looper (2012)

       Looper is not your typical sci-fi film. It isn't your typical time travel film. It isn't a typical film at all. It isn't conventional, mainstream, or what you'd expect. It stars Bruce Willis and Joseph-Gordon Levitt, both playing the character of Joe (Levitt is the younger version were as Willis is the older). The third feature film from director Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom), Looper takes the science fiction genre and gives it a fresh spin, using an original premise with excellent acting, shots, effects, and script.

       Joe is a looper, a hit man who kills people from the future in his present (the year is 2044). Time travel gets invented in the future and is outlawed immediately, so the mob uses it to dispose of people. Joe does his work gladly and understands the price that comes with this sort of job. During a regular hit, Joe's kill doesn't arrive on time, but when he eventually does, it turns out to be future Joe. From this point on, Looper becomes a chase, morality, and philosophical tale about sacrifice and the way things end up in circles, with plenty of violent action to keep you on the edge. 

       The visuals and sound in Looper are all top notch. The film has the look of a modestly budgeted picture, with practical effects (for the most part) and unique shots (camera shaking, tilting, panning, etc.), giving it an old fashioned look and feel. There tends to be a nice amount of care in the details, from Joe's apartment, to the diner he frequents. It may not be much to the average viewer, but it's something that I noticed and shows up throughout the film's entirety. These details could range from the machine in Joe's room that plays music, to the color of the cigarettes his girlfriend smokes. The details are not too much to fully distract us; they exist to show us how life is in this future, how things work, and how people live.

       Speaking of people, the actors are all great. Special mention to Paul Dano for his small but memorable role as Joe's best friend and Jeff Daniels as Joe's boss (who essentially becomes a scene stealer in almost every scene he's in). Emily Blunt is also in this film and has a very active role towards the latter half of the film. Her performance really surprised me, but not as much as the performance of Pierce Gagnon, who plays the child of Blunt's character, Sara. Without giving anything away, Gagnon (as Cid) does an incredible and convincing job as a young boy who is a lot more than what he seems. Another special mention goes out to Willis, who doesn't play the usual wise guy this time around. Levitt and Willis channel and embrace the roles they are given (which is technically the same role), with Levitt really channeling Willis and Willis playing his role as seriously as can be. Older/Future Joe is such a dark character, that whatever preconceptions you may have of him at the beginning will change by the film's end. 

       Speaking of the end (which I won't speak about), Looper doesn't end the way you might think. The easiest way to put it is that Looper has an unexpected ending. Much of what Looper does can be considered unexpected, as well as unconventional. The film does not glorify anything and there are certainly no heroes to be found. The film also plays with the dynamic of time travel very well without getting too deep into the subject (the film outright lets the audience know that it isn't going to go into it). While the film can be simple, it isn't structured in simplicity. When time travel is dealt with, things get tricky, things get complex, and things get philosophical. While one can get many themes out of the movie, I think the two themes that remain constant and understanding are choice and cycle. We all have the power to choose and make things different, regardless of what someone says about the future. We also have the choice to do good and bad things, and sometimes we do the wrong things because we think we're doing them for the right reasons. And as for cycle, well, everything goes in a loop (no pun intended). The final line in the film seems to sum up the main points and ideas presented in the film (or at least put a more significant layer onto the film) by emphasizing the last theme presented in the film: sacrifice. With choice comes sacrifice, and these things tend to go in a cycle. But that's just one interpretation.  

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

"We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold." 

       Based on the book by Hunter S. Thompson (first published in the 1971 November issues of Rolling Stone magazine), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a hilarious and savage look at the death of the American Dream. Although, it could just as easily be a movie about two whack job's doing all kinds of drugs on a weekend trip to Las Vegas, with no point to it at all.

       Fear and Loathing is a movie that you will either love or hate. It took me a second viewing to fully appreciate its brilliance, which is hidden under a swarm of lunacy, hallucinations, and strange behavior. It's a movie that many people have loved, as well as hated. It's polarized many critics, audiences, and just about anyone lucky/unfortunate enough to stumble upon it. It's not an easy trip to take, but as Raoul Duke says, "Buy the ticket, take the ride."

       Directed by the one and only Terry Gilliam, the film stars Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke, AKA Hunter S. Thompson, and  Benicio Del Toro as his attorney, Dr. Gonzo. The plot is arguably non existent, as it has our protagonists covering a race, gambling, taking all kinds of drugs, covering a DEA convention, wrecking convertibles, etc. etc. The amount of things that happen in this movie is so insurmountable the film cannot even show us all of it. Duke himself can't seem to remember half of it, for that matter. Speaking of Duke, Depp narrates over the film as Thompson, who is essentially Duke, since Duke is Thompson's alter ego. His narration keeps all the pieces together (your mileage may vary), explaining the situations, explaining his philosophy, questioning why he's in Vegas in the first place, etc. Most of the time the narration is commenting on the events conspiring on screen, but twice in the film, Thompson monologues about the failed Love Generation, the reason it failed, and so on. It's at these points the film shows its heart most, showing us that all the behavior we see is a result of a failed attempt to promote peace and love (as well as hide from the gruesome beast that is reality) with LSD and marijuana in a time of Vietnam and Richard Nixon.

       The cast also includes many guest stars, which I refuse to list because 1) It's unnecessary and 2) It'll ruin the surprise for those who don't know. The cinematography by Nicola Pecorini is excellent, while Gilliam's directing matches the cinematography in terms of brilliance. Just about everything from the art direction, to the costumes, to the set design is excellent. Visually, the film is incredibly excellent. The soundtrack is phenomenal, using music from Big Brother & the Holding Company, Tom Jones, The Youngbloods, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and so on to great effect. The score by Ray Cooper, which shows its face every so often, is also excellent, manifesting the fear and loathing (and paranoia) into music.

       When all is said and done, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is better left experienced than explained. It's a film that should be watched by anyone with an open mind, and with an understanding that they will either hate or love this film. And if they hate it, they should re-watch it. And if they love it, they should re-watch it. Fear and Loathing is definitely a film that gets better with repeated viewings, which may be required for some to fully understand all that is happening (or at least some of what is happening). It's a comedy that isn't funny, a dark look at what we all strive for, a portrait of America at its worst, and a metaphor so vast that it might take you some time to fully conceive what you just witnessed. Indeed, this film is not for everyone, not for the faint of heart. But if you decide to take the trip, then may the Lord be on your side, and may you fully get something out of the experience, be it positive or negative. For there is no other film, story, trip, or metaphor quite like the one Thompson experienced and the one Gilliam concocted for the screen.

"There was only one road back to L.A. - U.S. Interstate 15. Just a flat-out high speed burn through Baker and Barstow and Berdoo. Then onto the Hollywood Freeway, and straight on into frantic oblivion. Safety. Obscurity. Just another freak, in the freak kingdom." 

Monday, April 30, 2012

Shorts (2009)

       Film maker Robert Rodriguez is known for making family-friendly flicks as well as violent adults-only movies. His family films are always super family friendly and full of fantasy. Shorts (also known as Shorts: The Adventures of the Wishing Rock and Shorts: A Not-So-Tall Tale) is arguably his most original idea. The film is full of fantasy, adventure, humor, comedy, and life lessons. The film didn't make a huge impact when originally released and yielded mixed reviews from critics. It's a shame, but in a way, Shorts seemed destined for obscurity: it's too awesome for it's own good.

       The film stars a variety of actors, from Jon Cryer, to Leslie Mann, to William H. Macy, to Kat Dennings, to James Spader. Of course, those are the adult actors, when the film really belongs to the kids: Jimmy Bennett, Jolie Vanier, Devon Gearhart, Trevor Gagnon, and Jake Short among other names that may not be familiar. All the actors, young and old, do a fantastic job without being annoying or even exaggerated. If I could name any stand outs, I think I'd name Jolie Vanier (who had apparently never done a film before) as Helvetica Black as excellent and Trevor Gagnon as the hilarious Loogie Short, but that doesn't seem fair since every actor does an equally great job in their respective roles.

Wait, I haven't even gotten to the story.

       Toby Thompson (Jimmy Bennett) is our narrator and lives in the community known as Black Falls, which manufactures the Black Box, a black box that can do just about anything (I mean this literally). The boss, Mr. Black (James Spader) heads the whole operation and wants this thing in every home. I thought the whole Black Box idea was extremely clever, since in today's society all we do is play with black boxes that claim to do anything. The film definitely makes a mockery of the suburban subculture many of us endure, poking fun at said black boxes, TV, video games, relationships, school, and so on. It also makes fun of our self-fish attitudes and ignorance  towards certain things, such as what's really important and what really matters.

       Of course, at the center of all these lessons and jokes is the Wishing Rock, a rainbow colored rock that, when held, can grant you any wish imaginable. And I do mean any wish, even if it doesn't go quite the way you wanted it to. The rock manages to teach many lessons to its users as it passes through a variety of adventures, but not everyone who uses it learns something out of it (Toby's older sister Stacey played by Kat Dennings is one of these characters). As expected in family movie lore, the adults are the ones who can't control the rock properly where as the kids know better (or at least some of them do or at least their intentions are good). Also as expected, small quips of "I wish..." often lead to crazy results that lead to hilarity which then also lead to life lessons. This whole movie is wrapped in life lessons that I couldn't help but nod and agree to.

       The style of the movie is what probably stands out most. Due to the narrator being slightly confused and unreliable, the film is not told in order and is instead told in series of shorts (get it?), fast forwards and all. Something that struck me as strange was how the film began -- or better said, how it didn't begin. The movie is divided into five episodes, but before the movie actually starts, we see episode zero, which consists of two siblings (Cambell Westmoreland and Zoe Webb) competing in a never ending blinking contest. Does this ever affect the plot? Does it have anything to do with the plot? (I'll give you hint: Not really.) Needless to say, the short short known as episode zero gives the audience a good idea of what kind of movie they're about to watch. The music is also excellent, right from the opening logos establishing a cool but menacing tone that echos those family friendly movies that themselves have a bit of darkness in them. However, the film it self is no where near dark (not if you don't count the Black family), so the soundtrack ends up merely sounding very awesome as opposed to menacing, which I think was the point. I think the movie being silly and ridiculous was also the point, since the movie has an extremely care free and fun attitude about everything it does, save for those aforementioned life lessons.

       What stood out most for me was the movie's humor. Normally, family films for kids have terribly lame humor that makes me cringe uncontrollably. No, Shorts is extremely witty and clever, but that not only has to do with the script but the actors too. Many times, it's the actors that make a line great or horrendous, and just as many times, young children screw things up. Rodriguez is lucky that his young actors don't, if you'll pardon the phrase, suck at acting. The actors themselves might be what makes the movie as funny and fun as it is.

       Other things of note: Did I mention this movie is funny? Well it is. It's also colorful and fun. I would recommend it greatly to just about anyone. Seriously, anyone could watch this movie and (hopefully) enjoy it in some aspect or other...or they could hate it. Either way, there isn't anything in Shorts that I find bad enough that I couldn't recommend it to literally anyone (although, that last episode could have been handled better, but it's alright). In short (O I'm so clever), while it's not perfect (one of the many themes the movie mocks), Shorts is an excellent family film that can be enjoyed by anyone for it's unique presentation, clever humor, comedy, and life lessons that never seem to get old. As an added bonus, there's social commentary that pokes fun at modern suburbia and its inhabitants. So what're you waiting for? Give this over looked Rainbow Rock it's wish.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Bottle Rocket (1996)

       In 1992, Wes Anderson made a short film called Bottle Rocket starring his old college room mate Owen Wilson and his brother Luke Wilson. In 1994, Anderson's short film was shown at Sundance. In 1996, the feature length version of this short film was released to theaters to terrible box office results but great critical acclaim. It was Anderson's, Owen's, and Luke's feature film debut, and was the start of a unique and fantastic career for one of America's greatest filmmakers. It was also, of course, the launching pad for the Wilson brothers.

       The film stars Luke Wilson as Anthony Adams, a man who's checking him self out of a mental institution (he checked in for "exhaustion") and is ready to get back out into the world with his friend Dignan, played by Owen Wilson. Dignan is the kind of man who acts like he should be in a mental institution: he has a strange personality but an optimistic attitude, and is extremely meticulous when it comes to just about anything and everything. Both these characters plan to be big time thieves (for whatever reason) and Dignan's the man with the plan(s); they decide, with the help of their rich friend Bob Mapplethorpe (played by Robert Musgrave), to rob a bookstore, get out of town, and go on the lam. After the heat cools down, Dignan plans to call an old employer of his, Mr. Henry (played by James Caan), who is apparently a great thief himself, so they can work with him. This is the basic premise of the film, but it goes through some notable changes.

       The acting involved is surprisingly excellent by everyone (even Shea Fowler as Anthony's sister is terrific). The man who steals the show (unsurprisingly) is O. Wilson and Dignan, who just has so much energy and charisma. Luke plays it cool while Robert plays it nervous. The Wilson's older brother Andrew even gets a role in this film as Bob's older brother (known as Future Man). Lumi Cavazos plays Inez, Anthony's love interest, who is very sweet and believable in her role. As for Caan, he is really fun as Mr. Henry.

       Even though it's only his first film, the trademarks Anderson would use in his later films are apparent or alluded to in Bottle Rocket: excellent dialogue, ever changing plot, primary colors, Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson, Kumar Pallana, slow-mo endings, smoking, close-ups on writings or objects, rich people, hour-and-a-half running time, The Rolling Stones, etc. Another trademark is Mark Mothersbaugh as composer; his soundtrack for the film is excellent, using very few instruments to deliver a unique sound. The film is also presented in a 1.85:1 matted widescreen, a film ratio Anderson would rarely revisit in his later films (this was, after all, his first movie). On that note, it's incredibly fascinating to see that a major studio (Columbia Pictures) released this film, featuring (then) unknown actors and a film director with a B.A. in Philosophy. Then again, this was a Gracie Films production, and the short film could've made a huge impression on the producers.

       Something I'd like to note are the colors in this film. As previously stated, primary colors are one of Anderson's biggest trademarks, and they play a huge role in establishing this film's tone. When the film first begins, everything is very bright, with the colors all being noticeable, even if they aren't particularly primary. As the film goes on, the colors and the brightness begin to fade, and by the time we are at the final scene, the colors have faded and are no longer bright as they were at the start of the film. In that sense, the colors and brightness express the film's tone, which arguably goes from optimistic to melancholy. Another thing to note is the film's editing, which is much quicker and urgent then it would be in Anderson's later films; however, the film benefits greatly from its fast editing.

       Bottle Rocket is an excellent film from everyone involved, never mind that it was Anderson and the Wilson's debut feature. It's a movie that has continued to stay unique over the years while maintaining appeal and originality. It has plenty of the signature Anderson touches audiences would come to love and features excellent performances from the cast - especially Owen, which would foreshadow his career in movies. From the music to the scenery, from the direction to the dialogue, from the characters to the editing, Bottle Rocket is a great example of film making at its most pure and basic.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Constantine (2005)

       Released in early 2005, Constantine (based on the DC/Vertigo comics series Hellblazer) stars Keanu Reeves as John Constantine, a man who is able to see half-demons and half-angels in their true form. The film was directed by Francis Lawrence and also stars Rachel Weisz, Shia LaBeouf, Djumon Hounsou, Max Baker, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Gavin Rossdale, Tilda Swinton, and Peter Stormare.

       The plot concerns the death of Isabel Dodson, Angela Dodson's (Weisz) twin sister. Ruled a suicide, she refuses to accept this conclusion and seeks to find answers. She eventually ends up at the doorstep of John Constantine (Reeves), a chain-smoking, demon-hunting cynic who has problems of his own. He decides to help her, seeing that she's in more danger than she or he would have ever assumed. The dynamic between the two actors is very enjoyable and very well done. Weisz plays her role convincingly, as does LaBeouf as Constantine's sidekick Chas. Hounsou does a great job in the role of "Papa" Midnite, a type of witch doctor who stays neutral in the fight against Heaven and Hell (he also runs a bar where half-demons and half-angels hang out). Baker and Rossdale have very (very) enjoyable roles, with Stormare being the standout co-star as the-one-and-only Satan. There is also, of course, Swinton who plays the androgynous archangel Gabriel; she doesn't get a lot of screen time, so all I can really say is: she does a pretty good job, so no real complaints to bring up.

       However, the one actor who impressed me most and entertained me most was Reeves himself. I always think that a guy in a coat and tie (who smokes cigarettes, no less) is pretty bad ass, but Reeves actually makes this character his own. Plenty of people think Reeves is anything but a decent actor, but in Constantine, he really puts himself in the role of a guy who's lost all faith in things involving Heaven and Hell. His attitude and personality are all done with ease and naturalism, making the performance the highlight/standout of this whole movie. The Keanu who has the accent and mannerisms of a pot head surfer where no where to be found in this film, and I was all the more pleased for it. The role of John Constantine requires a seriousness and sense of humor that Reeves manages to balance like a professional.

       This was Francis Lawrence's debut feature film, and he does an incredible job. The camera angles and movements are all done very, very well. Being shot and shown in anamorphic, Lawrence knows how to utilize his widescreen for moments of spectacle, intimacy, and general space. The visual effects are really good, not succumbing to the ol' I-know-it's-CGI problem I tend to personally have when I see a film that uses CGI frequently; sure, I might know it's CGI or whatever, but in Constantine I was pleasantly impressed and pleased with what I saw, sometimes wondering how they pulled off some of the effects. Something else to note is the score: it's nothing special, but works well in the context of the film -- but like I said, nothing special (sorry to say). However, just because it's "nothing special" doesn't mean it isn't good or doesn't fit the film's mood; it's just not memorable is all.

       Constantine succeeds in being a nice hybrid of horror and action, while also throwing in some interesting religious info, practices, and cool action scenes, as well as some great demonic set pieces. The acting is great by all involved, with Reeves and Stormare being the standouts. The effects and direction are great as well, with only the score being less than impressive. Constantine is no where near perfect or excellent, but it still manages to be fun and entertaining on different levels, and should definitely be taken for what it is: a (silly) fantasy movie and not merely a comic book adaption. In my opinion, Reeve's performance is what really makes this movie good and worth seeing.

It is called Constantine after all.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Descendants (2011)

       The main thing that attracted me to the Alexander Payne directed film The Descendants (based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings) was the cinematography. Indeed, the cinematography in the this film is fantastic: from sandy beaches to high mountains, we are shown Hawaii (the film's setting) in all its natural brilliance. However, when the film ended, the thing I thought of most was the one thing I cared least about: George Clooney. In The Descendants, Clooney plays Matt King, a real estate lawyer/land baron whose wife is in a coma after suffering a boating accident. During this time, he is only days a way from making his biggest real estate deal -- one that involves land that he has been in-trusted with. He also has to deal with his youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and oldest daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). 

       This is the only film I know (in recent memory) that, during the course of the film, I eventually liked characters that I initially disliked. That's because the characters happen to be complex and realistic; so realistic, in fact, I truly believed them - every single one. Every actor and actress in this film is on top of their game, no matter how small the role. Highlights include Robert Forster as King's wife's father, Beau Bridges as Cousin Hugh (one of the many cousins King has in this film), Matthew Lillard as Brian Speer, and Judy Greer as Speer's wife Julie. One character that impressed me was Sid, played by Nick Krause; initially, his character came off as stupid, but as the film went on, we got to know him a bit more and see who he really is (or, at least who he claims himself to really be). It's a terrific example of one of the things this film did phenomenally. In addition to that, I was able to understand the characters, understand why they felt a certain way, why they acted a certain way, and why I would initially dismiss of them. All of them have layers, all of them are more then what they initially seem, and whether or not they themselves reveal the layers, we as an audience are able to see them at some point or another. 

       The other big highlight of this film is, of course, the scenery. The film shows off Hawaii in a non-exploitative fashion, showing us what's really there and not trying to pretty it up (which in turn, makes it all the more beautiful). We see the city how it is (just a city) and we see the world as it truly is (without color saturation). The thing shown the most (in terms of scenery) are mountains, fields, and beaches. The mountains and beaches are all fantastic, but the fields (like the land in-trusted to the King family) is breathtaking. The anamorphic widescreen used in the film really allows the camera to do plenty of close-ups, as well as wide shots of Hawaii's vast geography. On a simple note, seeing people dress like (as King would say it) "bums" (Hawaiian shirts and shorts) is enjoyable, given they all live on a tropical island and it would be expected, but it ends up looking more natural and realistic than one might expect. And that's probably the film's biggest accomplishment: making realistic characters. Characters I can believe in, that I care about. It's always a vast triumph to make your audience truly and honestly care for the characters they see on the screen. 

       Which brings me to what is arguably the film's most important point and its general selling point: Clooney. I like George Clooney a lot, but I didn't see The Descendants because he was in it. Truth be told, I didn't care he was in it. But then I saw his performance. What I saw wasn't George Clooney: what I saw was Matt King, a man who is having the hardest time of his life trying to cope with all that is happening around him. Never would I have thought that Clooney could completely convince me that he could act this good. What makes it is what makes every other character: naturalism. King is a completely human and understandable character, who's actions and motivations are realistic and honest. He also sees everything that happens: the whole movie takes place from his perspective, essentially. Because of this, we are able to see the different sides of every character, the different emotions King experiences (laughter not being one of them), and understand him better than anyone else. By the film's end, King is a real person, a person I know in real life, a person I know and love. King reminded me of my father, and that never happens while I watch a film. While he isn't exactly like my father, King shares realistic qualities that I can relate to real people. But it isn't just King: every character (or at least every main character) in this film reminds me of someone in real life - it doesn't matter if I can name the person or not, the point is these characters are human and real because I've seen their qualities in other people before. I always see these qualities because these qualities are not fictional; nothing the characters do in this film are things that only happen "in the movies." 

       Ultimately, what brings The Descendants home is it's message of loyalty. King has many responsibilities, and he stays loyal to each and everyone (or at least he tries). It's the loyalty and honor that make King who he is; it's what makes his daughter's respect him; it's what we as an audience admire most. Every character in this film has something to say that's important, and every character is an important piece to the overall picture. The Descendants tells a story that can resonate with all of us and it makes us care without even trying. It has moments of pain and moments of laughter - but there are two adjectives that describe this movie best. The first adjective is melancholic, for it is the one thing this movie wallows in throughout. The second adjective is beautiful, for it is the main thing this movie proves it self to be. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Scream 3 (2000)

       Released in February of 2000, Scream 3 is the third installment in the Scream film series and the final installment in the Scream "trilogy," wrapping up the story that began in Scream. As expected, it was directed by Wes Craven, but not written by Kevin Williamson; it was instead written by Ehren Kruger. This was due to Williamson being unavalible to write a full script for the new movie; what he did, instead, was write a 20 to 30 page outline that was used to aid Kruger in re-writing the script. This change in writers is where 3's biggest flaw comes into play: the script - it's just not as good as the first two's. However, this doesn't mean Scream 3 is a terrible movie (as some may have you believe); while the violence and gore is toned down a bit, the scares are still there and the comedy is as abundant as ever. But it wouldn't be a Scream movie without self aware humor, satire, and subverted cliches.

       The film (apparently) takes place three years after the events of the second film. The setting has once again changed, this time to Hollywood, CA. where Stab 3 is being filmed (and believe me, Stab 3 is very important to the film's plot). The plot involves Ghostface, once again terrorizing people and trying to kill Sidney Prescott (played by Neve Campbell), only this time he's leaving clues that relate to Sidney's deceased mother. To say anymore would be to spoil a surprisingly great plot with a twist that'll have you in shock.

       The main cast that survived Scream 2 are here again: Neve Campbell (who I like more and more as the series goes on) as Sidney, David Arquette as Dewey, Courteney Cox as Gale Weathers, and Liev Schreiber as Cotton Weary (though, he only shows up in the opening scene).  New faces include: Patrick Dempsey as Detective Mark Kincaid, Scott Foley as Roman Bridger, Lance Henriksen as John Milton, Deon Richmond as Tyson Fox, Matt Keeslar as Tom Prinze, Jenny McCarthy (in an extremely minor role, similar to Sarah Michelle Gellar's minor role in Scream 2) as Sarah Darling, Emily Mortimer (very cute) as Angelina Tyler, Parker Posey as the annoying but amusing Jennifer Jolie, and Patrick Warburton as Steven Stone, Jennifer's security guard. Scream 3 also has more cameos this time around (probably due to the Hollywood setting), which include Jay & Silent Bob, Carrie Fisher, Kelly Rutherford (as Cotton's girlfriend), and Heather Matarazzo (as Randy's sister). There's even a special guest appearance by Jamie Kennedy as Randy, who let's us in on the rules that govern the final installment of a trilogy. And, as it should be, everyone in the film does a great (or good) job.

       The presentation is once again great: the sound, the cinematography, the anamorphic widescreen, it's all good. The scares were really great too; I found myself caring more and more about these characters as the film's progressed, so by this point I was really scared when a character I really liked was attacked (even though most of the cast in this movie is new to the series). As I mentioned before, the violence and gore in 3 is toned down a bit, but not too much, so there's still plenty of great death scenes and chase sequences. Marco Beltrami's score is at its best here, being more haunting and moody then ever before.

       The one thing I really want to talk about is 3's script. As far as story is concerned, it's actually really good, but as far as dialogue and characterization is concerned, it has issues. The story genuinely entertained me, keeping my interest throughout. Some of the dialogue, and its delivery, was either a little silly or awkward at times. In fact, this seems to be Scream 3's other biggest flaw: it's too silly. From some of the acting to some of the events that occur, 3 has more then its share fair of silly moments. But of course, there are plenty of good things in 3, too; I really liked the psychological aspect of the story (which I won't reveal) and the film's self aware humor is still around, flaunting it self wherever it can.

       Things of note: Scream 3 never seems to mention the events of Scream 2, making it almost seem as though Scream 2 either A) Never happened or B) Happened a long time ago (which, given the film's three year gap between 2, makes some amount of sense). This isn't anything too unusual, however, since certain trilogies do do this, so I was okay with it. Sidney's character doesn't show up as much this time around, so we get to see more of the new cast and the love-hate chemistry between Dewey and Gale (which is never really boring). I really liked the new characters (especially Dempsey) and they all seemed to be varied enough to warrant different types of personalities; the one thing most of the new cast has in common, however, is that most of them either play actors or movie makers. The blend of reality and fantasy doesn't seem to be too apparent this time around, but the film is just as self aware as ever, so I would still say the film plays around with reality and fantasy to some degree.

       While it isn't as good as its predecessors, Scream 3 still manages to deliver wonderful scares, great performances, comedic self aware satire, and an excellent conclusion to the "trilogy." If nothing else, Scream 3 is terrific entertainment that just aims to be fun and enjoyable. But probably the most rewarding thing about Scream 3 is that it reminded me of what the Scream franchise really is: a series of slasher movies, with a touch of satire.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Scream 2 (1997)

       Directed by Wes Craven and written by Kevin Williamson, Scream 2 is (obviously) the sequel to the hit slasher film Scream. Scream 2 was released only a year after Scream was released, but the film (apparently) takes place two years after the events of the first film. It stars most of the original main cast: Neve Campbell once again as Sidney, David Arquette as Dewey, Jamie Kennedy as the film geek Randy, and Courteney Cox as the ever snoopy for a story Gale Weathers. The comedy and scares are balanced extremely well the second time around and the film manages to be more entertaining and interesting than the first.

       The film's story is similar to the first: a killer is on the loose. However, the setting has changed to a college campus and town (which is something I really liked) and the movie, and it's characters, are well aware that this is a "sequel." The self aware humor is one of the things that made Scream so great and it's in full bloom, once again, in Scream 2. Right from the opening scene (a preview screening for Stab, a movie based on the events of the first movie), the film is all too aware that it's a sequel. Of course, this is mentioned by the characters, who reference the new killings as a sequel to the first killings. It's all done way too well and I enjoyed every second of the self aware attitude this film proudly flaunted. But of course, as I saw in the first film, Scream 2 is serious and scary when it needs to be. Ghostface feels more threatening here, but he's/she's also shown to be even more clumsy and amateur then in the first film; this asserts the realism that was seen in the first film. The death scenes are excellent and even more frightening this time around; the editing is also better and the score is as good as always (although snippets of scores by Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman are also used). Craven's use of anamorphic widescreen is put to better use in 2, as we see him really take advantage of the space he has for some of the more important scenes. On another note, I only saw one tipped-to-an-angle shot this time.

       The returning cast is as great as always, but there are some new faces: Jada Pinkett (Smith) shows up in the opening scene, Timmy Olyphant plays Mickey (a friend of Randy's who is dating Sidney's roommate), Elise Neal plays Sidney's roommate Hallie, Jerry O'Connell plays Sidney's college boyfriend Derek, Duane Martin plays Joel  (Gale's new cameraman), and Liev Schreiber returns to play Cotton Weary, the man who was originally accused of having killed Sidney's mother in Scream. Schreiber's appearance in this film surprised me; I remember him being in Scream for about 10 seconds, but his role in this film is much, much bigger - he even gets semi-top billing in the film's cast credits (but so did Pinkett). Since I'm already a fan of his, I really enjoyed his performance in this film - but of course, his performance (as well as everyone else's) was great regardless. The film also has a couple cameos: Heather Graham plays the Stab version of Casey from the first film, and Sarah Michelle Gellar plays Cici, a sober sorority girl.

       Things of note: I really loved the fact that anyone in this sequel could be a victim; but of course, I'll keep the details of that to a minimum. The blend of realism and fantasy is spot on once more, with some really good social commentary thrown in; this is a satire, after all. The chemistry between Dewey and Gale is ever so fun and sweet to watch, having only gotten a small taste of it in the first film. Kennedy plays Randy just as good as he did in Scream, and he even lets us in on the rules that govern a sequel. I didn't fall in love with the climax this time around (like I did with Scream), but it was still great with a twist I didn't see coming; I also thought the ending was better than the first film's. It seems that everything that I thought was (merely) good in Scream was great in Scream 2, which also means that whatever I thought was good in 2 was done better in Scream.

       Scream 2 manages to out do the original by simply being a better overall movie. The self awareness, comedy, and satire are all excellent, the subverted cliches are as great as always, and the performances are even more enjoyable than before; but 2 also manages to be scarier and more violent then its predecessor. It proves it self to be more then just a great slasher movie, but a great movie in general.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Scream (1996)

       Released in December of 1996, the Kevin Williamson penned and Wes Craven directed Scream is truly a unique piece of horror. It attempts and succeeds in satirizing and subverting slasher films and their cliches. However, in this process, it creates a film that is smarter than you might think and a whole lot funnier then you would have expected. The film might be known as a horror comedy but it does have plenty of genuine scares and surprises, all the while playing it straight and joking around.

       The story goes like this: a killer is on the loose in a small town. That's pretty much it. There is some exposition, but I'll be the last to spoil it for you. The film's cast of characters is surprisingly lovable (as opposed to likable): Neve Campbell plays Sidney, the main protagonist; Skeet Ulrich plays Sidney's boyfriend Billy; Rose McGowan plays Sidney's (extremely) attractive best friend Tatum, who is dating Stuart (played phenomenally by Matthew Lillard); Jamie Kennedy plays Randy, a movie geek who lets everyone know the rules of horror flicks; David Arquette plays Tatum's older brother Dewey, a deputy in town; Drew Barrymore plays Casey, one of first victims who only shows up in one scene, although, it's probably the most famous scene in the whole movie; rounding out the main cast is Courteney Cox as Gale Weathers, a nosy reporter who is also a local celebrity. The acting done by this cast is varied and enjoyable, with the highlight going straight to Lillard (for all the right reasons).

       The presentation is spot on, with Craven's trademark anamoprhic widescreen in check. The editing is really great too, and the film has a handful of scenes that are tipped to an angle, making it proto-modern if you ask me. The scenes featuring violence are also handled very well, and the deaths themselves are great (for the most part).

       Things of note: The film's most famous quality is its villain, Ghostface. Ghostface acts more like an entity then an actual person with a knife and the film plays with this idea cleverly and expertly. Whenever Ghost appeared on screen, I was on the edge of my seat and scared like everyone in the movie. However, the film also manages to be something else: hilarious. There are so many funny scenes in Scream but there's no way I'll reveal what they are. Another thing Scream managed to do was have a scene that completely elevated it from being a good movie to a great movie, and that scene is the climax. The biggest twist is revealed during the climax and I cannot tell you how hard I was laughing during this scene; although, the scene it self wasn't exactly funny, but it is arguable the scene is funny in a dark sense. The film's score (by Marco Beltrami) is also worthy of mentioning, maintaining the haunting and self aware attitude the film goes by. There's also some obligatory '90s songs thrown in, but that's okay.  

       Two things I loved in this film were the sense of realism and fantasy throughout. This is probably one of the most realistic films I've ever seen, in terms of characterization. I completely believed all of the character's emotions, behavior, and actions as genuine and real; that feat alone is something to admire. The idea of using an easily available costume to terrorize people is also one of the film's strong points in establishing a realistic setting. Ironically, though, the film also lives in a world of fantasy - like the ones in the movies. Plot points and the subverted cliches help establish this film in a movie world that is self aware of all the cliches and plot points. The blend of realism and fantasy make this film all the more enjoyable to watch (and re-watch).

       Scream was a breath of fresh air at the time of its release and still is today in the twenty-first century. It's a funny and scary movie that satirizes the slasher genre by subverting the cliches and surprising you at every available opportunity, all the while making you wonder: Who's really the killer? It succeeds in turning the slasher genre on its head and making a mockery of it, while giving the audience some great twists that make it more then just an average horror flick. But in the end, that's exactly what Scream is: an easily mock-able slasher film.