Category: Review


Thor: The Dark World: Grade: B-

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Directed by: Alan Taylor

Written by: Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, & Stephen McFeely

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Rene Russo

Until Thor: The Dark World was released, the only individual franchise in the Marvel Studio universe that had a sequel (and I am not counting The Incredible Hulk as being a sequel to The Hulk) was Iron ManThor: The Dark World is a bigger test for Marvel than Iron Man 2 was primarily because (1) audiences gravitated toward Robert Downey, Jr.’s defining performance so much that the actor alone ensured a huge box office in the first weekend alone; (2) a billionaire playboy who suits up in a electronically sophisticated flying robotic armor is more interesting than a mythological god whose only weapon is a fucking hammer and whose world looks like a poor man’s version of J.R.R. Tolkien; and (3) Tony Stark’s pop culture-infused sharp sarcasm is funnier than Thor’s old English dialogue. It is far less risky to have a wisecracking Robert Downey, Jr. in a real world setting than a Viking god from outer space, played by a relatively unknown actor.

With Thor: The Dark World, I am disturbingly finding myself walking out of the theater thinking once you have seen one Marvel film, you have seen them all.  These films are beginning to feel more like TV episodes (or I guess you can say issues of comic books). While I overall enjoyed Thor: The Dark World, I was disappointed to find that it was not much of an improvement over its predecessor.

In this sequel, Asgard is faced with a new threat in the form of the Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) and his minions, who are these ancient creatures called Dark Elves and who seek to return the universe back to eternal darkness. Malekith intends to accomplish his goal with the use of the Aether during the Convergence, an event that occurs once every like 10,000 years in which all of the nine realms of the universe align together. Thor: The Dark World takes place right after the events of The Avengers. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to Asgard and the villainous brother is condemned to spend eternity inside a dungeon. Thor remains busy bringing peace to the various kingdoms. In the meantime, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), his heartbroken love, continues her research into finding barriers between worlds. During her research, she stumbles across the Aether and is possessed by it. Thor finds her and returns her to Asgard to separate the Aether from Jane. However, discovery of the Aether reawakens Malekith, who descends upon Asgard to possess the powerful object.

If you can’t tell from my summary, Thor: The Dark World steeps itself a lot more into the fantasy Asgardian elements of this property than the first film. As one of the main directors of the hit TV show, Game of Thrones, director Alan Taylor is better suited to handle the fantasy aspect of the story than Kenneth Branagh, the director of the first film. This time Asgard feels more grounded and gritty and you get a sense that there are actual inhabitants outside of Thor, Odin and Loki. Taylor also does a fine job bringing back the humor the first film had and giving Thor: The Dark World a touch of lightness that the Marvel movies all seem to have. Here, it is obvious Joss Whedon exercised a heavy hand in many of this film’s humor, with gags and a great cameo from another Marvel superhero. Taylor also manages to avoid the typically dreadful third act climax/showdown that Marvel movies are sometimes plagued with (see Iron Man 1 and 2) – the final set piece is an inventive action sequence that, although not exceptional, is fun to watch.

However, despite the film’s virtues, Thor: The Dark World is held back by a number of elements. For one, Malekith is a woefully under-developed character, which is a real disappointment given how the very talented, charismatic, and versatile Christopher Eccleston (Mads Mikkelsen was originally cast to play Malekith, but he dropped out because of Hannibal) was cast to play this character. Aside from some decent design work on Malekith and his elvish minions, he doesn’t do a whole lot. Most of Malekith’s interactions occur with his henchman Algrim (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). He has one forgettable exchange with Thor and that is pretty much about it.

It is obvious that the studio decided to give short shrift to Malekith’s development in favor of allowing for more screen time to Loki, probably the most popular and memorable character in the Marvel movie universe next to Iron Man. Tom Hiddleston again proves himself to be indispensable to the enjoyment of this movie. He deftly combines a little boy vulnerability with his malevolent trickster traits. By now, Chris Hemsworth and Hiddleston have starred together in their third movie and you can see the two actors really hit their stride with these characters. At the same time, we are getting the same Loki that we saw in the first Thor and in The Avengers. There is no real character development here with him. The outcome with his character in this film seems to be setting him up for a third Thor film.

I have to say that I did not dig this more mature, noble Thor. I miss the cocky, impulsive, arrogant Norse god that we saw on display in the first film and in The Avengers. Now, he’s just some dull superhero who takes everything too seriously and much of the comedy he provided in Thor is gone (except for what Loki provides).

As for the rest of the characters, I was pleasantly surprised to find an expanded role for Rene Russo, who plays Thor’s mother. One of the best scenes in the film occurs between her and Malekith as she tries to protect Jane Foster from the dark elf. Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard also return to serve as more comic relief. For awhile I was expecting to see the story delve into an interesting love triangle between Jaimie Alexander’s Sif, Thor, and Jane Foster, but other than a few hints here and there, nothing comes of this sub-plot. Many have pointed out that Anthony Hopkins barely registers in this film as Thor’s father, Odin. I disagree and I found the performance to be far better and memorable than what Hopkins did in the first film.

I had the misfortune of seeing Thor: The Dark World in 3D. Reportedly, director Alan Taylor was not told that his film would be converted to 3D and it shows. The 3D make the whole image darker for one, and the technology was not utilized in the least bit. There is some very nice design work and landscapes in the Asgardian scenes and you totally miss it by watching it in 3D.

Ultimately, Thor: The Dark World is a fun, escapist romp that’s worth spending a nice Sunday afternoon in the theater to see (without the 3D). There is nothing original in terms of storyline, visual effects, or characters, but you weren’t really expecting that anyway, were you? Its unfortunate the talents of Christopher Eccleston are totally wasted, but at least we get a large dose of Loki instead, which is always welcome. Make sure you stick around for the end credits (like you should do with every Marvel film) for a nice teaser for Guardians of the Galaxy.

The Snapper (1993): Grade: B

the-snapper-movie-poster-1993-1020243566Is this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime? The Snapper is available for rent via Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime.

Directed by: Stephen Frears

Written by: Roddy Doyle

Starring: Tina Kellegher, Colm Meaney, & Brendan Gleeson

The 1990’s saw a resurgence in films about the working class Irish. My Left Foot, The Commitments, In the Name of the Father, and Waking Ned Devine are just a few notable films among many that came out during this decade. What really sucked about watching these films in the pre-DVD days was that you had no ability to watch them with subtitles on, and without subtitles, it can be quite a challenge trying to decipher what the hell a character is saying. So what explains this wave of Irish cinema in the 1990s? In the late 1980’s, Ireland recognized the importance of promoting its own film industry so it passed industry-friendly tax laws that helped contribute to the growth of the “second wave” of filmmaking that took off in the 1990s. In fact, there were more Irish-produced films in the 1990s than in the entire 90 years before this decade! This decade saw the emergence of widely respected filmmakers such as Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father) and Neil Jordan (The Crying Game).

Although he is English, not Irish, director Stephen Frears has also come up through the ranks to become one of the most respected filmmakers working today. Frears made his name far before he directed The Snapper, with such classics as Dangerous Liasons (1988) and The Grifters (1990). In 1993, Frears directed The Snapper, which was released as a TV movie. This film is part of a trilogy of films that are adaptations of Irish novelist Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy of books (the very popular The Commitments and The Van being the other two). It should be noted that Doyle wrote the screenplay for The Snapper as well.

Like all of Doyle’s stories, The Snapper centers on working-class Dubliners.  Sharon Curley (Tina Kellegher) is a grocery store clerk in Barrytown, which is a north Dublin working–class suburb. The story begins when she announces to her parents that she is pregnant (or as its referred to by the characters, “Sharon Curley’s up the pole”). However, the unmarried Sharon refuses to reveal who the father is. Sharon’s parents, Dessie and Kay (Colm Meaney and Ruth McCabe) take the news surprisingly well considering the circumstances. Sharon’s girlfriends, Dessie’s drinking buddies, and the neighbors all take this news similarly well that is until, the father is revealed to be George Burgess (Pat Laffan), the middle-aged family man who lives across the street from Sharon’s house and whose daughter is one of Sharon’s friends AND he also happens to be one of Dessie’s drinking buddies. Sharon now becomes ostracized and viewed as the town whore and a home-wrecker. She goes on the defensive and declares that the true father of her child is an unknown Spanish sailor who took advantage of her one night when she was drunk.

The Irish seem to be born with the gift of gab – they can walk into any bar and not only carry on a lively conversation, but take joy in giving and taking information and gossip from an intimate gathering of pals. The Snapper embodies this characteristic of the Irish. Its about hard working people, who live in tiny, cramped houses stuck next to each other in small cramped neighborhoods. Chances are that if you have some juicy gossip on someone, everyone else on your street also knows about it and they are all talking about it at the local watering hole, the neighborhood’s central repository of gossip. With this type of environment, one can imagine the scandalous nature of finding out an unmarried young woman got pregnant by a much older, family man.

Colm Meaney as Dessie, the patriarch of the family, and Tina Kellegher as Sharon, Dessie’s pregnant daughter, are fantastic. Sci-fi geeks are quite familiar with Colm Meaney as Miles O’Brien in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (and now plays Thomas Durant in the hit AMC series, Hell on Wheels). Nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance as Dessie, Meaney’s character is a man full of contradictions: humble, but proud; the ruler of the house, but easily silenced by his wife and daughter; not much of a financial provider, but an emotionally giving and loving father. The relationship between Dessie and Sharon is especially close. Dessie does not treat his daughter like a shameful outcast for what she has done or forcefully take charge of her life to fix the things she has screwed up. Dessie instead treats Sharon like a good friend, without condescending her. As her father, he tries very hard to do what is right, and that is to support whatever decision she wants to make no matter how difficult it may be for him to accept it. There is a wonderful scene in the film where Dessie purchases a baby book in order to learn what a woman goes through during her pregnancy. One night he enters Sharon’s bedroom and asks her if she ever feels cramps and she is touched by the fact that her father has taken such huge steps to stand by her side.

I have not seen Tina Kellegher in anything other than The Snapper nor have I ever heard of her name. She is a marvel here and just as deserving, if not more so, of awards attention (which she unfortunately did not get). As Sharon Curley goes through the stages of pregnancy, she also undergoes a transformation from being an irresponsible, immature girl who likes to get drunk every night with her friends to a woman who is about to mother and be responsible for a child. Kellegher convincingly portrays her character’s transition and displays Sharon Curley’s independent, strong-willed attitude.

If you have seen Alan Parker’s The Commitments, the first film in this trilogy, you will notice a marked difference in content, feel, and style compared to Parker’s more slick looking movie. The Snapper is a rougher, British TV drama, and as such, it focuses more on character comedy and less on the drama and emotions contained in The Commitments. Stephen Frears keeps this film going at a fast clip, never descending into gross Hollywood sentimentality. At the same time, the film is not without some sentimentality. Under all of its sharp bicker and banter, we can see a rowdily inspiring study of a family pulling together under pressure, standing by each other in tough times.

Stories about pregnancy seem to always be a popular topic for a movie. For a long time, stories about unwed mothers were controversial enough to make stories about them interesting. However, with our slightly more sophisticated and saavy cinematic minds, a movie about a young, unmarried girl is just not as shocking or interesting as it once was. The Snapper does very well with the material it has, but I found myself not really caring whether or not Sharon Curley’s family and the rest of the neighborhood found out the real father of Sharon’s baby. When it is revealed to the audience who the father is, I found myself shrugging my shoulders as to his identity. This film’s beauty lies in the strong familial bonds of Sharon’s family and especially in the relationship she has with her father. Sharon ends up having the baby (I assume abortion was definitely out of the question in the devoutly religious and conservative Irish neighborhood the story is set in) and everyone lives happily ever after (without anyone knowing who the real father is) in the end. But again, the final outcome is not as important as the interaction of the characters with each other and their development throughout the story.

The Rat Pack (1998): Grade: B

rat_packIs this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime? The Rat Pack is not available for rent via Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime.

Directed by: Rob Cohen

Written by: Kario Salem

Starring: Ray Liotta, Joe Mantegna, Don Cheadle, Angus Macfadyen, William L. Petersen, Zeljko Ivanek, Bobby Slayton, Deborah Kara Unger, Veronica Cartwright

The undefine-able nature of the term “success” lends itself to an endless array of interpretations. The most conventional definition of the term is an accumulation of material wealth (money, property, cars, houses, clothing, etc.). On the opposite end of that spectrum are those who define success as the attainment of knowledge. Still, there are those who define “success” as the freedom to do whatever you want. In addition to accumulating material wealth (worth about $100 million by the time he died), singer/actor Frank Sinatra had this last freedom in abundance. The world was certainly Frank Sinatra’s oyster – the perennial bachelor playboy was limited only by the bounds of his ambition, which seemed to be boundless in 1960, at least in the way he was portrayed in the HBO biofilm, The Rat Pack.

By 1960, Frank Sinatra was enjoying a rebirth of his career. His Oscar win for his performance in From Here to Eternity revived Sinatra’s career in 1953 and ever since then, the singer/actor’s career thrived in both music and film. Sinatra was a regular mainstay in Las Vegas, and he, along with his Rat Pack friends (Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, & Joey Bishop) personified cool. However, in the late 1950’s and 60’s, Sinatra’s ambitions turned his attention to a new arena: politics. Sinatra’s interest was motivated by his desire to gain the media’s respect for him, to elevate himself from being perceived as merely a nightclub singer with mob ties, and he, along with the rest of this county, was smitten with John F. Kennedy’s youthful optimism for this country. The Rat Pack chronicles Sinatra’s (Ray Liotta) involvement with the Kennedy family, his role in getting JFK to the White House, and his relationship with his fellow Rat Pack members (Don Cheadle as Sammy Davis, Jr., Joe Mantegna as Dean Martin, and Angus Macfadyen as Peter Lawford).

Biopics are among the toughest genres to make. A person’s life obviously does not neatly fit within a screenplay’s 3-act structure. What we usually end up with is a movie about a person’s life or an event in which key moments are taken from that life/event, condensed together, and shoehorned into a 3-act structure. Consequently, a lot of details are left out, glossed over, and existing facts are exaggerated to make the film more dramatic. Aside from knowing the members of the Rat Pack, I am totally unfamiliar with their lives and interactions with each other so I cannot attest to how accurate The Rat Pack is. However, given the little I have read about them, I am going to assume everything in this movie is generally true.

Starting with the performances/portrayals, Ray Liotta never seems to get a fair shake despite having given some memorable performances in his career (Goodfellas, Field of Dreams). Most critiques I have read/heard about Liotta’s portrayal of Frank Sinatra in The Rat Pack is that he merely channels his Henry Hill character from Goodfellas. I totally disagree and such a gross oversimplification of Liotta’s performance is unfair. In fact, I was more impressed with Liotta work than what Don Cheadle and Joe Mantegna did in this film. The latter two actors were nominated for Golden Globe awards (with Don Cheadle winning) whereas Liotta was not nominated. Frank Sinatra was by all accounts a complex man. He loved women (particularly Ava Gardner), a high-class lifestyle, and he was fiercely loyal to his friends (both his Ray Pack comrades and his mobster benefactors). Not being content with just being a popular matinee singer from Hoboken, Sinatra ambitiously ventured into film and television acting before setting his sights on gaining access to the political circles in Washington, D.C. At the same time, Sinatra’s career ambitions seemed to always be dogged by his mobster connections, and he seemed to never gain the respect he deserved because of this.

Frank Sinatra was also known for his dedication to achieving racial integration, a view not shared by most in his circles, and his support for those who were blacklisted in Hollywood for their communist ties. The best and most touching moment in The Rat Pack is a scene between Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. in which Sammy announces to Sinatra that he plans to marry his white girlfriend, actress May Britt. Sinatra knew the repercussions of Sammy’s decision, especially to his friend JFK’s electoral chances, but Sinatra continued to support his friend anyway. In this scene, Liotta beautifully conveys both Sinatra’s fierce support for Sammy Davis, Jr. and his sympathy for what his friend would endure for marrying a white person.

Except for having Sinatra’s blue eyes, Liotta may not resemble the Chairman of the Board, but his clearly earnest portrayal of the singer/actor makes up for this. The actor nicely captures the confidence, swagger, and charisma Sinatra was known for. Liotta also does a fine job displaying the naivety Sinatra had about his relationship with the Kennedy family. Sinatra was so enamored by the hopes and dreams JFK inspired in the country that he seemed to willfully ignore the slick political machinery underlying JFK’s campaign to take the White House. Just like the loyalty he gave to his mobster friends that helped him gain fame, Sinatra expected JFK to do the same after he helped him win the presidency. You deeply sympathize with Sinatra when he discovers that he’s merely been a pawn in toward fulfilling JFK’s political ambitions.

Don Cheadle won the Golden Globe award for his performance as Sammy Davis, Jr. A few short years after The Rat Pack was released, Cheadle co-starred in the 2001 remake of Oceans 11, the film that originally starred the Rat Pack. It goes without saying that Don Cheadle is unable to deliver a bad performance. I mean, he even survived Swordfish! Here, Cheadle comfortably fills into the shoes of Sammy Davis, Jr., a man just as complex as Frank Sinatra. Davis, Jr. owed much of his career to Sinatra because without his friend’s help in performing in previously whites-only clubs, Davis, Jr. may have never achieved the success that he did. Davis, Jr. was also a huge advocate of the civil rights movement, and he was not afraid to push back against the establishment to live his life the way he wanted to live it (e.g., marrying white actress May Britt). At the same time, Davis, Jr. recognized that he needed to also toe the line at times and play to society’s stereotypes so that he could pave an easier way for a future generation of black entertainers. Cheadle captures the mannerisms and dialect of Sammy Davis, Jr. without resorting to a caricature of the singer. Unfortunately, the film does not explore the singer’s relationship with the Rat Pack as much as I would have liked it to. It seems there was more friction between him and his cohorts than the movie reveals. Worth noting is the song and dance number where Sammy sings “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” to a group of Klu Klux Klan members.

Finally, we get to Joe Mantegna, who stars as Dean Martin. For the most part, Martin stayed out of the politics and drama that Sinatra was involved in. With a large family to support, Martin focused exclusively on his career even though he remained cold and distant with his wife and kids. The film does not give a whole lot for Mantegna to do here other than appear and sound like Martin, which he does very well. There are a few, brief glimpses of Martin’s family life, but other than that, Dino spends the majority of this film as a supporting character among the rest of the Rat Pack. I was surprised that Mantegna, and not Ray Liotta, received a Golden Globe nomination.

The Rat Pack is rounded out by a few more notable actors who, more or less, give serviceable performances. Angus Macfadyen plays another Rat Pack member, actor Peter Lawford. Lawford was essentially a bag boy/messenger for Frank Sinatra and the Kennedys. He hated the fact that he was used by all these people (Sinatra used him to get close to the Kennedys and the Kennedys used him to control Sinatra), but he could never muster enough courage to stand up to anyone. Macfadyen almost has a thankless role here playing a spineless man who lacked any self-worth. William Peterson (CSI) plays JFK and Deborah Kara Unger plays Ava Gardner, Sinatra’s ex-wife and lover. Neither actor elevates their performance above a caricature, especially Peterson, who is unconvincing as JFK.

The Rat Pack features some very good performances, but what ultimately stands out is the film’s gorgeous production design by Hilda Stark Manos, who also earned a Golden Globe for her work on this film. I don’t know whether or not the sets accurately portray what Frank Sinatra’s house and office looked like, and nor do I care because the 1950’s space age look of the sets is absolute eye candy to behold. Watch for one particularly nice shot where an FBI agent is sitting inside his car outside of Sinatra’s restaurant and behind the car is a huge Coca-Cola billboard.

One can easily dismiss The Rat Pack as nothing more than your typical TV bio movie and to a large extent, this film does amount to this. Director Rob Cohen presents the story in the same straightforward manner that we have seen so many other TV bio flicks. The movie does not give us anything more than a simple recital of the facts from one dramatic event to the next. At the same time, the marriage of Washington and Hollywood during this period is fascinating enough to make you not care so much about the director’s failure to take this film to another level of insight. With that said, I would have done anything to see Martin Scorsese’s depiction of the Rat Pack, a movie which he was developing for a long time. All in all, even with all its faults, The Rat Pack is an entertaining and educational watch that contains some very good performances.

Blade (1998): Grade: B+

1998-poster-blade-wesley-snipes

Is this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime? Blade is not available for rent via Netflix Watch Instant, but it is available for rent on the iTunes Store and Amazon Prime.

Directed by: Stephen Norrington

Written by: David S. Goyer

Starring: Wesley Snipes, Kris Kristofferson, N’Bushe Wright, Stephen Dorff, Donal Logue, Udo Kier, Sanaa Lathan

“You’re nothing to me but another dead vampire.”

Unofficially, Blade marks the beginning of the Marvel movie franchise. I say ‘unofficially’ because when New Line Cinema greenlit Blade in the late 90’s, nobody envisioned this film to be the financial success it would become, let alone give anyone the idea that audiences were hungry to see the Marvel comic book universe translated onto the big screen. In fact, New Line executives wanted Blade to be a comedic spoof, but writer and self-professed comic book fan, David Goyer (Man of Steel), insisted that the film remain true to its dark and serious comic book origins. With a B-list action star, average production budget, third-string superhero, and low box office expectations, Blade was released during the doldrum months of August (of 1998), when studios release their leftover summer films. To everyone’s surprise, Blade turned out to be a huge box office hit that spawned two more sequels, a TV series, and an anime series. It also gave studio executives and Marvel the idea that despite the box office failure of Batman and Robin (and Shaquille O’Neal’s Steel), which had come out 1 year prior to Blade, and further inspired by the massive box office success of The Matrix, which came out less than 1 year after Blade, a gold mine of Marvel’s properties was waiting to be tapped. Let me put it this way – without Blade, The Avengers may have never happened. The film’s unexpected success led Marvel to greenlight both X-Men and Spider-Man.

Besides injecting new life into the comic book genre, Blade reinvigorated the vampire genre as well, and gave this genre a much-needed contemporary vibe. It is difficult to imagine this now, but before Blade, the idea of a vampire nightclub inside a meatpacking warehouse filled with young vampire ravers was something not yet seen in a vampire film. Blade sparked the imagination behind later films and shows such as Vampire Diaries, Twilight, and True Blood.

Blade was created by comic book legends Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan. Introduced in Tomb of Dracula #10 in 1973, Blade is a superhero and vampire hunter. He was born a vampire when his mother was bitten by a vampire while she was still pregnant with him. However, due to his unique DNA, Blade (Wesley Snipes) has all of the vampire’s strengths, but none of their weaknesses except for their thirst for blood. Blade is able to suppress his blood thirst with a serum, but in the film his body is becoming increasingly immune to the serum. Assisting him in his mission to vanquish all vampires is Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), a regular human who designs and builds Blade’s arsenal of weapons and also serves as a father figure to Blade. In this film, Blade is faced with a new vampire threat – Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), a bitten vampire (as opposed to a pure blood vampire) who seeks to translate ancient vampire texts in order to awaken La Magra (the god of blood) so that Frost can gain godlike powers. With his minions (who include Donal Logue), Frost kidnaps the counsel of vampire elders (who are all pure bloods) in his quest to resurrect La Magra. Blade obviously has issues with this and seeks to put a stop to all these shenanigans.

Sometimes, film adaptations of comic book properties can become successful and influential enough to impact future portrayals of that property in the comic books. This happened with Blade. Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan’s version of the vampire hunter is very loosely similar to David Goyer’s script. The comic book Blade was not super-powered at all – he was just some guy who was immune to vampirism and who threw wooden knives to kill vampires. The character wasn’t even that popular in the comic books. In Tomb of Dracula, Blade was a supporting character and the main focus in that series was Dracula. In later years, Marvel tried to revive him during the 1990’s, but he never caught on with readers. Once the film was released and became a big success, Marvel pretty much adopted Goyer’s version for the comic book version. Ironically, despite the success of the Blade trilogy of films, Blade has remained unpopular in the comics.

If you are familiar with 70’s blaxploitation films, you will probably recognize Blade as a modern blaxploitation movie. In fact, the comic book Blade was intended to be a blaxploitation character. Like his 70’s predecessors, Blade is a black man who can chop your ass up with his martial arts skills. Deacon Frost and his gang are like The Man in that they control the cops and politicians and they have the money, the power, and the rules on their side.

I would argue that the most rewatched and coolest scene in Blade is the opening rave sequence. It perfectly sets the tone of the entire film (and it is the only time we will ever see ex-porn star Traci Lords prove that her talents may perhaps have gone beyond porn and blowjobs). The opening sequence makes it clear that Blade is not going to be some kid-friendly superhero film like the pre-Chris Nolan Batman films, The Phantom, The Shadow, or Dick Tracy. With this sequence, Blade promised and delivered Sam Raimi-esque buckets of blood, a grim and dark tone, martial arts violence (Wesley Snipes has been a martial artist since the age of 12 and has earned a 5th dan black belt in Shotokan Karate and a 2nd dan black belt in Hapkido), and the superhero even says the word “fuck!”

I have never been too keen on Wesley Snipes. Aside from a few standout roles in Jungle Fever, New Jack City, and White Men Can’t Jump, Snipes has carved himself an uninspired career of starring in play-by-numbers action movies like Passenger 57, Demolition Man, Boiling Point, and Drop Zone. However, I have to give credit where credit is due and credit is certainly due to Snipes’ electrifying presence in Blade. Simply put, Wesley Snipes IS Blade and the first film alone turned that role into Snipes’ signature career character. Marvel Studios has regained ownership of the Blade property and apparently, a new film is in development. However, I cannot begin to even fathom who else can play this character other than Wesley Snipes (LL Cool J was initially attached to star as the vampire hunter…Mama Said Knock You Out). Director Guillermo Del Toro, who directed Blade II, even went so far as to state, “Wesley knows Blade better than David Goyer, better than me, better than anyone else involved in the franchise.” While this role did not require top notch acting skills, it did require a dedication to the role, which Snipes wholeheartedly embraced.

Stephen Dorff (in his only enjoyable role), who plays Deacon Frost, is surprisingly effective in a role that almost went to Jet Li (who opted to instead star in Lethal Weapon IV…good move, Jet, but in all fairness, no one thought that film would be ok and this film would be so good). The actor brings an air of menace and sinister theatricality that although comes off cliché at times, it works for this type of movie. His best moments are with Udo Kier, the German actor who plays one of the head vampires. However, among all the villains, its Donal Logue who chews up the screen as Frost’s right-hand man, Quinn. Its strange to see Logue in this film after seeing him in The Tao of Steve, in which he displays the same mannerisms as his vampire character here. And legendary Kris Kristofferson is a brilliant casting choice as Blade’s mentor, Whistler. He brings gravitas and experience to the piece, and his old grizzled badassery nicely complements Blade’s cool badassery.

Aside from the very 90’s getup that Blade has, Blade remains a remarkably stylish film – it contains slo-mo, time-lapse shots, overcranking and undercranking, and fast-edits using shaky handheld cameras. Much of what this film has predated what we saw in action movies for well over the next decade. However, the one film that everyone compares this film to is The Matrix solely because the Keanu Reeves movie came out less than a year after Blade did and there is much in that film that Blade had already done. Watch both films back to back and you will see a lot of similarities in action choreography, shots, and themes. Blade is also strikingly atmospheric – the score, when not pounding out annoying techno tracks, produces an incessant heartbeat-like John Carpenter percussion. Admittedly, some of the VFX has not aged well, but it doesn’t take you out of the movie and it is compensated by having some satisfying practical work.

Blade is an underrated and underappreciated film that still manages to deliver an entertaining product that clips along at a nice fast-moving pace. As I said before, Marvel now controls this property and based on how insanely successful they have been with their other properties, I have high hopes that they can reboot this franchise to be just as good as it used to be, if not better (let’s not forget how bad Blade: Trinity was).

Carrie (1976): Grade: A+

Carrie-1976-Movie-Poster

Is this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime? Carrie is available for rent via Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime.

Directed by: Brian De Palma

Written by: Lawrence D. Cohen

Starring: Sissy Spacek, John Travolta, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving, William Katt, Nancy Allen, Betty Buckley, P.J. Soles, Sydney Lassick

“They’re all going to laugh at you.”

The 1970’s is considered to be one of cinema’s golden ages and, according to film purists, the last decade where art dominated the business end of movie-making. Unlike today, the 70’s marked a time when studio executives respected and trusted the filmmaker’s vision to guide the final product that audiences would see. The decade also witnessed the emergence of a new generation of filmmakers that was film school-educated, counterculture-bred, and young. They were dubbed the New Hollywood and some of the most prominent names in film history belonged to this class: Woody Allen, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman, Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Brian De Palma, the director of Carrie.

Carrie marked a first in a couple of ways. For one, the film was an adaptation of Stephen King’s first novel (published in 1974), which is still considered among his very best, even by the author himself. The film also marked Brian De Palma’s first big commercial success after he made a series of respected Hitchcock-influenced films (Obsession, Sisters). The unexpected success of Carrie further spawned an endless cascade of Stephen King adaptations to the screen (Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, John Carpenter’s Christine, and Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me and Misery). Film adaptations of King’s novels continue to this day as we are about to endure Kimberly Pierce’s needless and recent remake of Carrie.

Carrie is Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), a lonely high school adolescent who endures daily ridicule and cruelty at the hands of her high school classmates. However, Carrie is special – she possesses powerful telekinetic powers. Unfortunately, her power is viewed as a sign of the devil by her crazy, religious nut of a mother (Piper Laurie), who makes Carrie sit in a closet for hours praying for forgiveness for her sins. After one particularly horrible incident, Carrie’s tormentors are placed under suspension by their P.E. teacher (and Carrie’s protector), Miss Collins (Betty Buckley). One of the girls, Sue Snell (Amy Irving), feels horrible about what she did to Carrie so she convinces her boyfriend, the popular Tommy Ross (William Katt), to take Carrie to the prom instead of her. However, another one of the girls, Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), is pissed that she has been suspended because of Carrie so she, along with her nimwit boyfriend (John Travolta), plots revenge against Carrie on the night of the prom.

Stephen King’s novel was perfectly matched with Brian De Palma’s bold visual sense. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote of De Palma: “De Palma’s Carrie is an absolutely spellbinding horror movie, with a shock at the end that’s the best thing along those lines since the shark leaped aboard in Jaws. It’s also (and this is what makes it so good) an observant human portrait. This girl Carrie isn’t another stereotyped product of the horror production line; she’s a shy, pretty, and complicated high school senior who’s a lot like kids we once knew.” Carrie opens with what is undoubtedly one of the most memorable and horrific openings in a film – the girl’s locker room scene. The scene is gorgeously shot (see picture below) as steam from the showers softens the image on screen, giving the whole sequence a sexual fantasy feel. The serenity contained in these scenes is wonderfully complemented by Pino Donaggio’s romantic music score. As we pan across the locker room and watch the camaraderie between the young women, the camera finally settles on Carrie, all by herself in the shower, relaxed and at complete peace. That is, until De Palma pulls his well-known bait-and-switch and transforms his scene from one that is full of sexual innocence into one of pure horror. Carrie starts to bleed from her period and, not knowing what is happening to her, she begs and pleads her classmates to help her. However, Carrie is only greeted with ridicule and scorn as her classmates laugh and throw tampons at her.

This opening perfectly sets the tone of the entire movie. Although since Carrie’s release, realistic portrayals of high school and adolescence have become commonplace in movies, Carrie was the first film to portray high school like it really is: a less violent, but no less competitive, harsh, and cruel version of Lord of the Flies. Carrie White is the weak link in this society, and like animals with a sixth sense, the other, stronger kids can sense it and prey upon Carrie. The teachers are generally oblivious to the dynamics of this adolescent society. Even Miss Collins, the P.E. teacher, doesn’t understand that despite all of her good intentions to help and protect Carrie from the bullies, Carrie has been permanently marked an outcast by her peers and Miss Collins’ protection actually hurts more than helps Carrie (by placing Chris Hargensen on detention, Miss Collins’ motivates Chris to eventually dump the pig’s blood on Carrie at the prom).

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Sissy Spacek embodies Carrie White so fully and perfectly, that even with Spacek’s impressive filmography, I still cannot watch Sissy Spacek and not think of her as Carrie White. This role will forever remain Spacek’s defining role (perhaps tied with her Oscar-winning performance in Coal Miner’s Daughter). It is a testament to Spacek’s talents that she was able to effectively portray Carrie as a sweet, innocent, and very sympathetic young woman and at the same time show her to be a rage-filled woman with a frightening supernatural force she uses to kill every person, friend and foe, who has been involved in her life. Carrie does not fall within the category of one-dimensional, evil creations such as Michael Myers, Jason, and Freddy Kreuger. Thanks in no small part to Stephen King’s gifted ability to create characters that are so alive that you must think they exist in real life, Carrie White is a complex, fully developed character. Because of this, Carrie transcends the typical tropes of the horror genre to the point that to categorize Carrie as a horror film would be to undermine those qualities that makes this film such a classic.

Equaling Sissy Spacek’s performance in this film is Piper Laurie, who plays Margaret White, Carrie’s unhinged, religious fundamentalist mother (by the way, both actresses were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances). Although Carrie White officially fills the role that Michael Myers, Jason, and Freddy Kreuger play in their movies, Margaret White more appropriately represents these singularly evil personas than Carrie does. Margaret views the world (and her daughter) as one giant test from God that continually throws new temptations at her and Carrie to test their faith. No amount of reasoning can shake her beliefs, especially her belief that her daughter is a spawn of the devil. Given how the film was released only a few years after the counterculture movement of the 1960’s, with its attendant hippie communes that gave rise to religious cults, Stephen King and Brian De Palma seem to have taken the folksy, sandal wearing-guitar playing 60’s variant of Christianity and combined it with gothic, Puritanical sensibilities to create Margaret White.

The remaining cast of characters in Carrie pull in solid performances and nicely capture Stephen King’s sensibilities. Nancy Allen’s (Robocop’s female partner) Chris Hargensen is Carrie’s other antagonist, but one that could not be more apart in values from Carrie’s mom than Chris is. Chris reminds me of a mean and less sophisticated version of Lolita. Like Margaret White, Chris is singularly focused on one thing, but rather than religion, she is obsessed with exacting revenge on Carrie. John Travolta has a small part in this movie and he basically plays Chris’ dumb hillbilly boyfriend who goes along with whatever she wants so long as he gets a blowjob at the end of the day. Amy Irving also doesn’t get to do much here, but apparently it was enough to land her a date with Steven Spielberg (she was supposed to have been cast as Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but she lost the role after breaking up with Spielberg), who she later married and then divorced.

The most substantive and important supporting role belongs to William Katt (Greatest American Hero TV series, House), who plays Tommy, the most popular guy at school, and the one who takes Carrie to the prom. Sporting the blond perm, Katt looked like the quintessential 1970’s high school heartthrob. Katt’s only job in this movie is to be as cool and likeable as possible in order to set up the horrific nature of Carrie’s final act at the end of the movie. A lingering question remains after the film as to whether or not Tommy genuinely liked Carrie. There is an indication that he does during the prom, but the film never clears up what Tommy really thinks of Carrie. Had he lived, would he have pursued Carrie White, or would he have returned to his real girlfriend?

Speaking of the final act in Carrie, I never believed that any modern remake of the movie would allow Carrie White to kill every person at the prom, especially Miss Collins and Tommy. Sure enough, although I have not seen the recent remake, I know that Miss Collins (or Miss Deskardin in the remake) escapes along with some other students. That is a real shame because it takes away from the horrific nature of Carrie’s action. What makes this final scene so haunting is not the fact that Carrie goes absolute apeshit on the whole prom and burns it to the ground, but that she indiscriminately kills even those who were trying to help her, like Tommy and Miss Collins.

Brian De Palma is well known among cinephiles for his slavish devotion to Alfred Hitchcock. His films, especially his early ones from the 1970’s and 80’s, shared similar themes to Hitckcock’s films (Obsession, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out) and he paid generous homage to the master of suspense in many of his movies. In Carrie, Margaret White chases her daughter with a big ass knife that is reminiscent of Psycho. More tribute is paid to Psycho at the beginning of the Carrie, when we see the titular character in the shower, and we see that Carrie’s high school is named Bates High School, after the motel in Psycho. Carrie also features what has become Brian De Palma’s signature technique: the split screen (see picture below).

1976 Carrie Brian De Palma

Carrie gives a huge middle finger to a society that ultimately does not accept her despite every effort that Carrie White makes to fit in. Rather than end the story on a hopeful note in which Carrie perhaps finds love or new friends, she gets fed up and decides to burn it all to hell. This is what makes Carrie so memorable, haunting, and easily one of the best film adaptations of a Stephen King novel.

Gravity (2013): Grade: A

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Directed by: Alfonso Cuaron

Written by: Alfonso Cuaron & Jonas Cuaron

Starring: Sandra Bullock & George Clooney

James Cameron: “I think it’s the best space photography ever done, I think it’s the best space film ever done, and it’s the movie I’ve been hungry to see for an awful long time.”

Buzz Aldrin: “I was so extravagantly impressed by the portrayal of the reality of zero gravity. Going through the space station was done just the way that I’ve seen people do it in reality. The spinning is going to happen — maybe not quite that vigorous — but certainly we’ve been fortunate that people haven’t been in those situations yet. I think it reminds us that there really are hazards in the space business, especially in activities outside the spacecraft.”

Quentin Tarantino has named Gravity one of the top ten best films of 2013 so far.

When a filmmaker spends four years of his life (mainly to invent technology to make his film possible!) defying what has come before to make a bold, impactful statement in cinema, you breathlessly anticipate a generation-defining experience on the scale of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Pulp Fiction. With Gravity, Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron has done what so precious few filmmakers have ever done: he has crafted a blockbuster type of story and infused it with an art-house sensibility to create an experimental thrill ride that has set a new benchmark of excellence. Its astounding to look back at Alfonso Cuaron’s American career beginning with a little children’s film called A Little Princess, then diving into low-budget foreign fare with Y Tu Mama Tambien, switching to a franchise blockbuster with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and now vying for James Cameron’s crown with a huge sci-fi artsy/commercial studio picture. Filmmaker Ang Lee is the only director I can think of who has displayed an ability to adeptly traverse across an eclectic diversity of genres and styles of cinematic storytelling.

Gravity’s plot is stunningly simplistic and I do not mean that in a derogatory way. Unknown actress Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a rookie astronaut on her first mission to install a new experimental instrument on the Hubble Space Telescope. Accompanying her on the mission is Matt Kowalski, played by another unknown actor, George Clooney. During the mission, the astronauts receive word that the Russians have fired a missile into a satellite and now the debris from the satellite is heading toward the astronauts at the velocity of a speeding bullet. Unfortunately, the astronauts are unable to avoid the satellite debris in time. Their shuttle is destroyed and the two astronauts are hurled out into space. With depleting oxygen and with more satellite debris headed their way, the astronauts must quickly figure out how to survive and get back to Earth.

The baseline understanding of Gravity is that it is fantastic and groundbreaking. Like with such films as Avatar and How to Train Your Dragon, Gravity is designed to be viewed in IMAX and 3D. With that said, this is a film that as spectacular as it is in terms of technology and thrills on the big screen, it is one whose seams will be a lot more apparent if you watch it on the small screen. Furthermore, once you have seen Gravity once, it will have less repeat watchability because you will know what happens and that sense of dreaded anticipation that makes the film so fun to watch will be gone.

Since watching Gravity, I have spent more time defending the casting choices of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney than anything else that pertains to this film. I too have never been a big fan of Sandra Bullock’s performances or her film choices. I cannot say the same for George Clooney, who may not have a wide range when it comes to acting, but the quality of his films cannot be denied (e.g. The Descendants, The Ides of March, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Up in the Air, Burn After Reading, Michael Clayton, Syriana, Good Night, and Good Luck). With that said, allow me to dispel any of your reasonable notions that no film featuring these actors can be any good. This may be my first and very last time that I will sing the praises of Sandra Bullock’s performance. Playing the role of a mother who lost her daughter in an accident and now spends her life buried in her work to forget the pain, Bullock does a fine job conveying the pain and loneliness of her character. Mind you, my approval of her performance is less an approval and more of a pleasant surprise that I finally got to see Bullock deliver a performance I could tolerate and respect. As for Clooney, admittedly, he puts forth the same schtick he has done in just about every movie he’s ever done (including Syriana, for which he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor). I don’t find anything wrong with that. Just like with other famous actors who have generally delivered the same type of performance, you either respond to it or you don’t.

Putting their performances aside, I was disappointed that Bullock’s character basically amounted to another stereotypical female. Dr. Ryan Stone was prone to emotionality and fear. She was inexperienced. When faced with a problem, her first response was to lock up and panic, and we almost never saw her approach a situation calmly and with intelligence. I wish we could have seen more of a heroine instead of someone who simply pauses, reflects, and waits for the next disaster to strike, and when that disaster comes, she is unprepared. And not surprisingly, when she decides to totally give up and die, the film “resurrects” the male character so that he can push her to move onward.

A big issue with thrill ride films like Gravity and Jurassic Park is that the technology overtakes the story. Sometimes, as with these two examples, the technology is ground-breaking and exciting enough to dwarf any issues the movie may have, such as the lack of a complex narrative. That is not to say that Gravity’s story is weak. Alfonso Cuaron is known as a visual storyteller and you see that skill displayed here, in which the dialogue is secondary to the visuals in terms of telling the story. By the way, the opening of Gravity is probably the best use of silence I have ever seen – it perfectly sets the tone of the entire film. In addition, it is a testament to the filmmaker’s storytelling skill that despite the fact that 80-90% of Gravity is all CG, you will never once be distracted by the technology or, alternatively, be drawn by it to the detriment of what is narratively going on in the film.

In terms of the technical craft that went into making Gravity, I can’t say much more than what I have already said. Cuaron boldly commits to the idea that what we will see is not a fictionalized/fantasy version of space that we see in every other space movie, but that the outer space our story takes place in is the real thing. Hence, there is no sound other than the voices of our characters. When there is an explosion, you do not hear it. Cuaron accomplishes creating a space that comes off feeling airless, isolated, and hermitic. Supplementing the sound design is Steven Price’s fantastic score, which perfectly marries the silence of space. Furthermore, Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki should be credited with creating instantly iconic shots and compositions that will forever be hailed as essential additions to space-set filmmaking. Now not being a fan of 3D, I was also relieved that for once someone was able to make good use of the format. The 3D is never overwhelming. It is used judiciously and sparingly, frequently to heighten the emotional moments rather than serve as a battering ram of laser pyrotechnics.

Gravity may not have the philosophical ambition of 2001, the space adventure to which it is most often being compared to. However, fairness demands that we recognize this film for trying to be something else. With its deliberately archetypal characters and chewy dialogue, Gravity feels a lot like something James Cameron would have made and that is an enormous compliment to make. In short, Gravity is a brilliant, unerringly entertaining thriller that will make you believe in the higher power of movies, of how a giant screen, a darkened room, and a story can take you to places you can’t even imagine. As a fun little tidbit of information, the voice of Mission Control is Ed Harris, who played Flight Director Gene Kranz in Apollo 13.

The Perfect Host (2011): Grade: B

the_perfect_host_poster01Is this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime? The Perfect Host is available for rent via Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime.

Directed by: Nick Tomnay

Written by: Nick Tomnay & Stacey Testro

Starring: David Hyde Pierce, Clayne Crawford, Helen Reddy

I never watched Frasier because it looked like the most boring TV show ever made (and it still does). So although I knew who David Hyde Pierce was, aside from his voice performance in A Bug’s Life, I was completely deprived of the joy and experience of watching this immensely talented, four-time Emmy award-winning actor perform weekly in my college living room. Since Frasier, David Hyde Pierce (or DHP) has found a second career in theater, earning himself a Tony award to place right next to his four Emmys. The Perfect Host marks his first time back on screen since Frasier ended and it could not be a more appropriate return for the actor.

The Perfect Host is Australian director Nick Tomnay’s first feature film, which prompted me to wonder how he managed to snag a talent like DHP to star in his movie. The Perfect Host actually began as a short film in 2001. The short apparently won some awards and attracted attention. Tomnay then began working on expanding his story to be a feature film, and after a few promising production and distribution deals failed to pan out, Tomnay finally had a chance to realize his vision. Tomnay generated a wish list of actors to play the story’s main role and at the top of that list was DHP. Although I don’t know how Tomnay attracted DHP’s attention and interest, Tomnay’s background in commercials and music videos undoubtedly opened up a few doors for him to reach out to people like DHP.

It is going to be very difficult for me to meaningfully discuss The Perfect Host without getting into its spoilers. To prevent any of you loyal readers from accidentally discovering these spoilers, I have reserved all discussion of the spoilers following the huge alert below. The Perfect Host begins with John Taylor (Clayne Crawford), a fugitive who has just robbed a bank. Thinking he has gotten away free, Taylor instead discovers to his dismay that the authorities have his full identity and he’s now wanted. Taylor begins to frantically seek refuge and finds himself in a quiet L.A. residential neighborhood. He picks a random house to hide out in and he sifts through the house’s mail to create an excuse to be invited inside. The house belongs to Warwick Wilson (David Hyde Pierce), a single man who is preparing a dinner party for his friends. Taylor bullshits his way inside by making Wilson believe that Taylor knows Wilson’s friend. However, Taylor eventually finds out that Wilson is not the naïve and kind stranger who took him in, but is in fact, a deeply disturbed serial killer.

I think it is fair to say that Niles ended up being the most popular character on Frasier and even for those, like me, who were not fans of the show, DHP’s performance as Niles was respected. The character of Warwick Wilson is essentially a disturbed, maniacal version of Niles. Like Niles, Wilson is highly educated, cultured, and he appreciates the finer things in life. This character starts off being just like Niles, but once we are introduced to the crazy side of him, you will never see DHP in the same way again. There are moments of humor and creepiness that displays the full range of acting DHP is so wonderfully capable of handling. Every actor has what can be described as a ‘calling card’ performance and so far, The Perfect Host is it for DHP.

It is very easy to write off Clayne Crawford as another pretty boy actor who merely plays second fiddle to DHP. However, such a dismissal would be a huge disservice to Crawford’s impressive performance. He certainly has the less flashy role, but he brings an intensity to his role that is fitting for the roughneck criminal that he is supposed to be at the beginning of the movie. Crawford reminds me very much of Ray Liotta in both appearance and acting style, and he needs just that one breakout performance to really put him in the public sphere.

SPOILERS AHEAD SPOILERS AHEAD SPOILERS AHEAD

Some filmmakers have made a career out of telling stories with plot twists in them. Christopher Nolan (Memento, Inception) and M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Signs, The Village) are prime examples. Nonetheless, it is very difficult these days to surprise an audience. They have seen every trick in the book when it comes to plot twists and even for those they have not seen, they can usually figure out what the twist is going to be halfway through the film. To make a filmmaker’s job even harder, you cannot have your plot twist occur without giving a few clues to the audience before the twist. Otherwise, audiences will call bullshit and say you are cheating. Put simply, the American audience is a sophisticated son of a bitch.

Screen Shot 2013-09-27 at 9.20.26 PMLike any first time filmmaker, Nick Tomnay is not afraid to throw caution to the wind and risk falling flat on his face. Despite what I just described about the finicky U.S. audience, Tomnay takes every character and the entire plot of the movie and up ends it in a bizarrely unexpected and delightful way. For one, we learn that John Taylor did not simply rob a bank to get rich. He did it to pay for the medical attention his girlfriend apparently needs. We discover that even that is not true – the girlfriend lied to Taylor about being sick to use him to rob the bank and get rich!

As for Warwick Wilson, he is still maniacal, but he is not a murderous one. Throughout John Taylor’s ordeal inside Wilson’s home, Taylor is beaten (true), drugged (true), and sliced up (not true). Wilson makes it clear that by 3:00 A.M., he will finally slice Taylor’s throat and leave him out in the alleyway. He does so…sort of. Taylor awakens the next morning in the alleyway wondering why he isn’t dead and finds out that all the “bruises and cuts” on his body are theater makeup! Wilson also turns out to be a police detective who…drum roll…is assigned to investigate the recent bank robbery that Taylor committed.

Critics have dismissed The Perfect Host for its implausibility and twist overkill. I can certainly understand those sentiments – the filmmaker is asking us to suspend any notions of logic and plausibility when he finally leads us through all the twists and turns contained in the second half of his film. However, such a critique can only be held against this film if you expected The Perfect Host to somehow be a realistic portrayal of what it would be like for a bank robber to be held hostage by a crazy person. The filmmaker obviously did not intend his story to be realistic and you can tell that simply from his outlandish setup.

If there is anything worthy of criticizing in The Perfect Host, I wish we saw less of Warwick Wilson’s delusional imaginary dinner party friends. I did not so much mind a few such scenes (e.g. the dance sequence), but too much of Wilson and Taylor’s interaction was seen through Wilson’s perspective. The film also suffers from a poor supporting cast of actors whose characters are underdeveloped and totally forgettable. This is especially noticeable with Wilson’s imaginary friends.

The Perfect Host is a wildly entertaining comic thriller (that also contains a nice music score by John Swihart – the complete score can be heard here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7nyLdYAhM_M) that marks a strong start for first time feature director Nick Tomnay. Although this film depends very heavily on the talents of its two lead actors, especially DHP, I would be curious to watch Tomnay’s next film to see whether he truly has any writing and directing talents that do not depend on a single strong performance.

Love Etc. (2011): Grade: B-

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Is this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime? Love, Etc. is available for rent via the iTunes Store and Amazon Prime.

Directed by: Jill Andresevic

American romantic movies fall into two camps. The first type offers an escapist/fantasized version of romance, where the world looks like the love child of Starbucks and Banana Republic. The lovers are poster children of conventional beauty, and so long as they find each other attractive, chemistry inevitably follows. The story doesn’t bother itself with such petty things like personality and such dilemmas as dealing with what the couple will do once the passion dies off. Examples of this are not difficult to find because EVERY SINGLE FUCKING HOLLYWOOD ROMANCE falls under this camp.

The second type shines a harsh white light on romance and reveals all the ugliness that exists beneath its facade. These films deal with such realities as the dying out of passion in a relationship, lack of chemistry, financial limitations, children, and breakups. The characters in these films look like everyday people (more or less), they lead everyday lives, and they have everyday problems. Sometimes the relationships work and sometimes they don’t. Recent examples of such films are Blue Valentine, Like Crazy, Revolutionary Road, and many of Woody Allen’s movies.

Director Jill Andresevic’s Love, Etc. is a light, frothy documentary that mostly lands in the second camp, but it also gives the film a romantic sheen with its beautiful rendering of New York City. The film follows five stories over the course of one year in the five boroughs. The first story (“First Love”) is about two high school seniors, Danielle and Gabriel, who are in their first serious relationship. The second (“Single”) is about Scott, a single, gay man who bravely decides to become a surrogate dad of twin babies. The third story (“Getting Married”) presents Chitra and Mahendra, a newlywed Indian couple who go through difficulties of Mahendra’s being unable to find a job and the couple’s doubts as to whether they got married too soon. The fourth (“Starting Over”) introduces us to Ethan, a divorcee construction worker who is raising two teenagers while looking for a new partner. The fifth story (“Lasting Love”) is about Albert and Marion, an elderly songwriting couple who has been married for 48 years. As Marion begins to battle dementia and failing health, Albert becomes her caretaker in their twilight years.

Although both Love, Etc. and Crime After Crime (the last film I reviewed, which you can catch here: https://voiceofcinema.wordpress.com/2013/09/22/crime-after-crime-2011-grade-c/) were distributed by the Oprah Winfrey Network, there is a stark contrast in quality between the two films that is indicative of what a lot of money and talent can do to make your film stand out. One of my biggest issues with Crime After Crime was the film’s lack of style, depth, and the educational/corporate video feel the film had. I suspect the reason for this was a combination of lack of funding to produce a more polished looking movie and perhaps the filmmaker’s experience. On the other hand, you look at Love, Etc. and you can immediately tell that the documentary had plenty of money backing it up and it had a highly talented production crew to put it together.

For example, despite this film being her first feature film, director Jill Andresevic has produced award-winning marketing campaigns for Nike, and has made over 40 short documentaries for Cadillac that featured stars like William H. Macy and Jay Leno. Her backers and producers are also highly experienced individuals who have won Emmys, produced independent films for major filmmakers, and who possess a lot of money and connections to have gotten this documentary made. As an additional and interesting note, the memorable music score for Love Etc. was composed by Rob Simonsen, who also scored this past summer’s The Spectacular Now.

More money and more experienced talent does not automatically translate into a better film and the movie landscape is littered with the carcasses of big-budget films made by the best talent money can buy. However, Andresevic and the producers behind Love Etc. had a clear vision of what they wanted their movie to be about, how it would look and sound, and they had the means and experience to bring their vision to life.

Each story in Love Etc. represents the various stages of a romantic relationship (a teenager’s first love, getting married, breaking up, being single, and growing old together). Like Woody Allen back when he still made films in NYC, director Jill Andresevic also uses the city as a character in her film, beautifully rendering the city as a romantic backdrop to these relationships (I’m sure it helps that the executive producer of this film, Jonathan Tisch, is a former chairman of NYC’s tourism bureau).

Love Etc. does not shed some profound light on a puzzling question that has confounded humanity since the beginning of time. Nor does it intend to, and unfortunately, it seems like the movie critics have punished it for somehow not being ambitious enough. Drawing its inspiration from all of those romantic comedies and reality shows we never get sick of watching, Love Etc. simply gives us the real version of that in a nice Hallmark envelope. In a way, this film serves as a behind-the-scenes for Hollywood romantic comedies and “reality” shows – Andresevic is showing us what the real couples who inspire these movies and shows are like. Some of the stories portrayed are more compelling than others. I for one was unable to get into the teenage relationship and it was exasperating listening to the two teenagers coo over each other and lament how much they will miss each other when they go off to college. On the other hand, the story of the old songwriting couple is a sentimental and warm story that made me wish an entire film was made just about them. When you watch 79-year old Albert stir a can of Campbell’s tomato soup for his wife, Marion, your eyes well up because even in such a mundane thing as stirring soup in a can, you can see how much Marion means to Albert.

Jill Andresevic obviously gained her subjects’ trust to confide in her to reveal intimate details about their relationships. With a combination of lucky happenstance and an instinct to capture true moments, Andresevic provides us with surprising revelations that I would normally only expect a more experienced director to pull off. One such revelation occurs three weeks after Chitra and Mahendra’s wedding. The newlywed couple is sitting on their couch arguing about how little Mahendra does around the house. When they eventually bring up the issue of whether they got married too soon, to my shock Mahendra pretty much admits that the marriage was a mistake! The film is peppered with these moments and Andresevic makes sure that each story receives its equal share of screen time.

Despite how beautifully New York City is captured by DP Luke Geissbühler, I wish we could for once have seen a different city receiving the spotlight. Imagine how beautiful San Francisco or Chicago would have looked through Geissbühler’s eye? The film would have also benefited more if it had spent more time observing the couples engaging in the actions and situations they instead described to the camera in interviews.

I enjoyed watching Love Etc. even if my level of enjoyment was only slightly more than what I would have gotten from a well done reality show on Bravo. As a result, the film does not stay with you once it is over, but at least for the few hours you are watching it, Love Etc. gives you a nice realistic warm and fuzzy escape.

Crime After Crime (2011): Grade: C+

CrimeAfterCrime_poster-large1Is this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime? Crime After Crime is available for rent via Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime.

Directed by: Yoav Potash

I enjoy trashing messy, big budget action movies like the ones Michael Bay puts out, or bad major studio films from directors who get paid a lot of money for what they do. I do not enjoy trashing movies made by the blood, sweat, and tears of newbie filmmakers who hit the pavement day after day to find organizations willing to throw enough pocket change to fund their film and spend many years and sleepless nights putting their labor of love together. For one, I open myself up to the criticism of, “I didn’t see you making a fucking movie.” Cheap shot, I know, but its one critique I have often heard before. For another, the entire filmmaking process from conception to sale is an indescribably difficult process for any filmmaker. Not that my reviews are widely, if ever, read, but a negative review on the internet makes a bigger impact on these smaller films, which depend more on good word of mouth to even register on the public’s peripheral vision, than the bigger studio films. Finally, when the film you are reviewing also happens to be one that is trying to educate you about something, I am even more reluctant to criticize the film, and am willing to give the film far more leeway in the interest of recognizing the filmmaker’s effort to make us aware of an important social or political issue.

With this in mind, it took me far longer than the 2 milliseconds it normally takes me to decide a Michael Bay movie blows to determine that, despite its important message and the compelling journey Deborah Peagler endured to get out of prison, Crime After Crime is an underwhelming account of that journey. Crime After Crime was a widely acclaimed film that earned a place at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011 (no small feat), and garnered 25 major awards (Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, The National Board of Review’s Freedom of Expression Award, the Hillman Prize for Broadcast Journalism, and a New York Times Critics’ Pick). Bay Area filmmaker, Yoav Potash, took over 5 years to put this documentary together with support from the Sundance Documentary Fund, the San Francisco Foundation, the Bay Area Video Coalition, and Netflix, among others. The cherry on top was broadcast and home video distribution by none other than the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Crime After Crime is about the case of Deborah Peagler, a woman from South Central Los Angeles who was wrongly convicted to serve 25 years to life in prison for the murder of her abusive pimp boyfriend, Oliver Wilson. 20 years after her incarceration, two rookie land use law attorneys who knew nothing about criminal law, decided to represent Deborah pro bono, and get her out of prison. Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa, the two unlikely attorneys who took on Deborah’s case, pulled off the near hopeless task of finding long-lost witnesses, smoking gun evidence purposely withheld from public view, and uncovering corruption at the highest levels of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office.

We love stories about those who get wrongfully imprisoned by the criminal justice system for something they did not do. These stories draw audiences in because they are about the blameless underdog, the Davids who stand up to the Goliaths (the corrupt prosecutors, stone-faced judges, and ignorant juries) and face seemingly insurmountable odds. Films such as The Shawshank Redemption, In the Name of the Father, and A Thin Blue Line exemplify this. Crime After Crime provides an interesting wrinkle to these types of stories in that Deborah Peagler was not entirely blameless. On May 27, 2982, she did, in fact, lead Oliver Wilson, the father of her daughter, to a park in Los Angeles, where two Crip gang members beat Wilson to death. In short, despite how cruel and abusive Oliver Wilson had been to Deborah, and how deserving he probably was of an ass beating, Deborah technically committed a crime under the laws of this country.

This film goes beyond simply asking whether Deborah Peagler served her “debt to society,” because there is absolutely no doubt that she did. Under the Penal Code section and sentencing laws applicable to her crime, Deborah should have only served a maximum of 6 years! The more important question posed by this film is whether Deborah even deserved to have been imprisoned for what she had done. For that, I am going to provide you with a very brief legal background on how victims of domestic abuse are treated under the law.

In 2002, California became the first state to allow battered women convicted of killing their batterers to petition to the court what is called a “writ of habeas corpus,” containing evidence proving that the battering led to the killing. With this petition and their evidence, convicted women could now seek a whole new trial, to reduce their sentence, or try to get some other type of remedy. Because most of these women did not know the law, understand the legal process, or have an attorney, the California Habeas Project was formed to recruit and train volunteer attorneys to help these women file their petitions. This is how the two lawyers in Crime After Crime became involved in Deborah’s case.

Within the first few minutes of seeing Deborah, you immediately sympathize with her. One would expect to encounter an angry, hateful individual pissed at the world for imprisoning her far beyond the number of years required for her crime. After all, here is someone who was (1) regularly beaten and made to become a prostitute by her boyfriend; (2) sentenced to serve more years in prison than what is allowed under the sentencing laws; (3) improperly/illegally prosecuted by a corrupt and powerful Los Angeles D.A.’s office that refused to acknowledge its wrongdoing; and (4) became diagnosed with terminal lung cancer while in prison. Instead, we see someone whose glass is always half-full. Deborah is a survivor and she has transformed her unfortunate circumstance into opportunities to educate herself (she earned two Associate degrees while in prison), and to help others (she has helped many women in prison to read and write). She is a remarkable woman who exudes a strong maternal quality, and who holds a strong belief in God. In getting to know Deborah and her family, you cannot help but imagine what it would be like if your own mother was improperly imprisoned for 26 years, and your entire childhood interaction with her consisted of sporadic, brief meet-ups at the prison.

Deborah’s story is not unique. There are thousands of women who were imprisoned under the same exact circumstances as her. Many of us may have already heard or read similar stories. However, how many cases have you heard of in which someone has managed to receive parole with the help of attorneys who know nothing of criminal law, and after being repeatedly rejected by the parole board and the courts? As an attorney, I can attest to the difficulty of what attorneys Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa were able to accomplish. The result with which Safran and Costa got for Deborah is something that most times is only seen in the movies. Their success is all the more impressive when you consider the fact that they worked with Deborah for 7 years without receiving any monetary compensation and in addition to meeting the various obligations of their regular day jobs. Any attorney looking for a dose of inspiration or motivation should look no further than this film.

Adding yet an additional layer of interest to Deborah Peagler’s story is the corruption and secrecy committed by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office relating to her case. The city of Los Angeles has always been saddled with a reputation of having corrupt politicians and police officers (e.g. the police officers involved in the Rodney King beating, the recent revelations in the city of Bell, etc.), all of which has been memorialized in such films as Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. Here, for reasons not fully explored in the film, the D.A.’s office managed to convict Deborah through the use of an unreliable witness and the suppression of evidence. In internal correspondence that were kept secret during Deborah’s trial, even the D.A.’s office admitted that the evidence against Deborah was unreliable. And yet, they were still willing and able to get the court to impose a 25-to-life sentence on her.

The underlying story of Deborah Peagler and her legal journey to freedom is a compelling and inspirational story that has a nice mix of drama, hope, and suspense. Unfortunately, Crime After Crime does not fully explore the various facets of this story on the same scale as a filmmaker like Errol Morris has done with this same subject matter. On a general note, the tone and structure of this film comes off feeling more like something made specifically for instructional use in schools and other institutions rather than a film intended to be shown theatrically. Its progression from Deborah’s story, to the lawyers involved, and finally to the revelations concerning the D.A.’s office is too cleanly outlined as if I was watching an episode of Unsolved Mysteries (sorry for dating myself there with that reference). There is a general lack of spontaneity that the film sorely needed.

Throughout the film, I always felt that filmmaker Yoav Potash was either somehow restrained from delving deeper into his subject matter or he just simply chose not to take that next step to better illuminate the facts and characters of the story. For example, I never got a good sense of what Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa were about. Sure, we learn how Safran’s Orthodox Jewish belief guides him to help those in need, and we learn that Costa had a painful experience in her past that helped her relate to Deborah’s situation. However, I felt there was even more to explore in terms of what these attorney’s lives were like in balancing their family life with their day jobs and their work on Deborah’s case. Related to this was the work of the late investigator, Bobby Buechler. This man has a very interesting background that is never touched upon. It may have been that Buechler wanted to keep his contacts and investigative methods a secret, but I think there was a huge missed opportunity by not spending some time with him and how he obtained his evidence to support Deborah’s case.

Most disappointing is how little the film digs into the levels of corruption at the L.A. District Attorney’s office. Much of this may and probably was due to the lack of resources and access to delve more into this issue, and the risk that Deborah’s case may have been jeopardized if filmmaker Potash decided to pull a Michael Moore on the D.A.’s office. Nevertheless, aside from two moments in which Potash confronts Deputy D.A. Lael Rubin and D.A. Steve Cooley about Deborah’s case, the film just scratches the surface of the corrupt workings of the D.A.’s office.

Crime After Crime is an illuminating account of how dysfunctional our criminal justice system is. Having the facts and law be on your side does not necessarily mean you will gain justice for your client, and this film shows how depressingly common this is in American society. Despite the film’s shortcomings, Crime After Crime is still one that should be watched by not just attorneys and advocates of victims of domestic abuse, but by everyone. Like me, you will probably be shocked to learn that the vast majority of women in prison are there because they killed their partners in response to being abused and battered by them. How California remains the only state to address this problem with its laws (which it only addressed recently in 2002) is just as perplexing as the parole board and District Attorney’s office’s refusal to acknowledge this problem.

Chiller-poster-2-328x500Is this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime? Chiller is only available for rent via Amazon Prime. I have also provided a link below where you can watch the entire film for free on Daily Motion.

Starring: Michael Beck, Beatrice Straight, & Paul Sorvino

Directed by: Wes Craven

Written by: J.D. Feigelson

Wes Craven’s Chiller reminds me of Stephen King’s short stories (as an aside, with the exception of The Stand, King’s short stories are better reads than his novels). Those stories typically have straightforward, simple plotlines that cut right to the chase without wasting any words. They don’t dwell on huge character backstories or veer off into the author’s political or philosophical views. These stories are essentially fun, cheap thrills. This pretty much describes Chiller and if you can get past the HUGELY shitty VHS transfer (it is so bad that in one scene you can hear on one of the soundtracks a sound feed that must have been picked up from another channel by whoever recorded the film), Chiller is a fun ride that is best enjoyed with a group of drunk (or high) friends sitting around with absolutely nothing to do on a Saturday evening.

When I first heard of Chiller, the first question to enter my mind was why a director with the presumably big clout that Wes Craven had (he had just released the popular A Nightmare on Elm Street the previous year) would opt to make a TV movie? I mean sure, there was some pretty rock-on shit that was made for TV back in the 80’s (Shogun, North and South, The Winds of War, Burning Bed), but once you have established yourself as a feature film director, you only go back to doing TV if your feature film career stalls out. However those who are familiar with Craven’s work will know that Craven didn’t hold himself above working in television. In fact, Craven has put out some pretty memorable stuff for television, such as the 1980’s version of The Twilight Zone and two other made-for-television films, Invitation to Hell and Summer of Fear.

For someone who didn’t enter the movie business until the late age of 33, Wes Craven has created quite a colorful filmography for himself. He has gone from making visceral 1970’s grindhouse movies like The Last House on the Left (Craven’s first film, which is still one of the most disturbing films I have ever seen) to 1980’s supernatural horror classics like A Nightmare on Elm Street to the post-modern 1990’s slasher film Scream. Craven’s best work tends to be those films that were made for a low budget. The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, Swamp Thing, A Nightmare on Elm Street. Now please don’t interpret “best” to mean that these films are actually good, award-deserving movies. Many of them are not, but they are the best that Wes Craven has put out and they provide, at most, the fun, cheap thrills that I attributed to Craven’s also-low-budget film, Chiller. Again, lest I lose my good-taste-in-film credentials, I really want to stress the fact that Chiller is by no means a good movie. Putting that aside, however, I had great fun watching over-the-top performances from Michael Beck, Beatrice Straight, and Paul Sorvino.

Chiller is about Miles Creighton (The Warriors and Xanadu’s Michael Beck), a young man who died 10 years ago. Refusing to accept the finality of his death, Miles’ mother (Poltergeist’s Beatrice Straight) has his body cryogenically frozen until such time medical technology can advance far enough to bring her son back to life. That time arrives when one night, Miles’ preservation unit malfunctions and Miles’ body begins to thaw out. Miles is rushed to the hospital, where doctors perform an operation that was not possible 10 years ago. The operation is a success and Miles returns back to the land of the living. However, although Miles is successfully resurrected in body, he comes back without a soul.

With Chiller, Wes Craven makes no bones about the fact that the pipe dream concept of cryogenically freezing your body for a later lease on life is creepy as hell. Aside from the fact that scientists have yet to bring back a person to life after cryogenically freezing their body, this controversial process poses very interesting questions for those who believe in an afterlife. Craven explores this idea in a scene where a priest (Goodfellas’ Paul Sorvino) questions how someone like Miles can be brought back to life when his soul has either gone to heaven or hell. The priest asks whether the soul can even be brought back to Earth to its host body and he concludes that it cannot – once the soul has left this world, it is gone forever. The film’s best dialogue exchange follows this scene, in which the priest finally confronts the true nature of Miles Creighton. Expecting to get a description of heaven or hell, he asks Miles what it was like being dead for 10 years. Miles replies that nothing happens when you die – its all just blackness. Michael Beck gives a wonderful delivery of that line and just as fun to watch is the priest’s shocked reaction to hearing that his faith in God may be a sham.

The character of Miles Creighton also represents Wes Craven’s swipe at the mantra of greed that defined Corporate America in the 1980’s. Upon Miles’ return to the living, he takes over his father’s company and immediately begins firing the old people, makes the women screw their way to the top, and cuts all corporate charitable contributions. Miles is a precursor to Gordon Gecko, who came onto the scene just two years after this film’s release.

Let’s face it – Michael Beck was never really a good actor. The only reason he became somewhat famous was due to the cult successes of The Warriors and Xanadu. Those films, in turn, became popular for reasons other than Michael Beck’s performance. I may be inciting the wrath of rabid cult fans of the films I just mentioned, but I would argue that Beck’s best career performance is in this made-for-TV movie. Sure, Beck’s performance is hammy and way over-the-top, but he is after all playing a man without a soul, which seems to be interpreted to mean people who are complete evil assholes. What helps sell the performance is Beck’s cold, calculating, yet handsome, look. In terms of looks, he is perfectly cast. With a movie like this, no one should be concerning themselves with plot holes, but there is one that I absolutely must point out: If Miles has no soul and is therefore, purely evil and uncaring toward his fellow man, then why does he have a soft spot (until the last scene) for his mother? Is Wes Craven trying to tell us that a child’s love for his mother can survive even without a soul?

Speaking of mothers, Beatrice Straight plays Miles’ mom. If you think you don’t know who Beatrice Straight is, then you are wrong. Beatrice Straight played the paranormal investigator in Poltergeist (she also won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Network for a performance that is considered the shortest one to ever win an award) and she was one of the best things about that classic film. Straight’s style of acting is one that you don’t see in movies anymore and it harkens back to the acting style that was prevalent in Hollywood before the 1970’s. She, like Michael Beck, also plays up her character in a hammy manner and her character is not very well developed, but she is still a delight to watch.

It is difficult to imagine Paul Sorvino playing anything but a mobster, but he does a fine job as the concerned and reserved priest, who tries to convince Miles’ mother that her son is not the same man she once knew. I mentioned the scene between Miles and the priest, and that is the highlight of the film.

Chiller may not be something I would recommend to the discerning film snob. It does not have the signature Wes Craven gore and blood, it has a shitty VHS transfer, and it is low-budget in a bad, porno film way. However, Wes Craven offers up a straightforward tale that appeals to our very basest levels of entertainment and fun while also giving us a half-baked metaphysical discussion and a critique of 1980’s corporate America. I wish someone would put out a nice, pristine version of this movie with a Wes Craven commentary (like they did with Invitation to Hell).