Sunday, November 28, 2010

RIP Leslie Nielsen

Well, this sucks. Leslie Nielsen was huge part of my childhood thanks to the Naked Gun films and countless times Airplane aired on TV. The man was a gifted comic talent, and for many it wilol be his comedy work he shall be best remembed for. The following dialogue exchange is one of my all time favorites, from The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!

Mayor: Oh, and Drebin? I don't want any trouble like you had last year on the south side. Understand? That's my policy.

Frank:Yes, well when I see five weirdo's dressed in togas stabbing a guy in the middle of the park in full view of a hundred people, I shoot the bastards, that's my policy.

Mayor: That was a Shakespeare in the park production of "Julius Caesar" you moron! You killed five actors. Good ones!

Oh course, he was not always known as a comic actor, starting off in "serious" films and classics such as Forbidden Planet, the film that would go on to inspire the iconic Star Trek television series.

So over the next few days, put a classic film of Nielsen, sit back, and remember the man.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Man Made Monster (Waggner 1941)

Earlier this year, I finally watched The Wolf Man, the 1941 horror classic from director George Waggner which featured Lon Chaney Jr. in the title role. While I had some reservations about the film as a whole, it was an ambitious and striking work, thematically complex and an interesting critique of the pressures of patriarchy and traditional conceptions of masculinity.

So when I heard that there was another film from the same year directed by George Waggner with Chaney Jr. in the lead, I was excited to say the least. Unfortunately, Man Made Monster is far from the heights set by The Wolf Man. Instead of a bold an ambitious film, Man Made Monster is a poorly conceived riff on the Frankenstein story, borrowing the broad strokes of the tale and “updating” it for the pre-atomic era. The end result is a film whose sole value is as a camp classic when viewed ironically.

Man Made Monster opens with a bus crash into an electricity tower, which kills five of the six passengers. The lone survivor is Dan McCormick (Chaney Jr.), a carnival showman who comes out completely unscathed despite the high amounts of electricity. This bit of luck attracts the attention of a leading scientist named Dr. Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds), who working on a bio-electrical theory. Dr. Lawrence invites Dan into his home with the idea of studying Dan’s “immunity” to electricity, an offer Dan is more than happy to accept given that he is temporarily out of work. Dr. Lawrence’s colleague, Dr. Rigas (Lionel Atwill) however sees Dan as the perfect subject to test out his more extreme ideas about creating powerful electrically run beings, and sets about a clandestine set of experiments to transform Dan into one of his new electrical men

With a running time of only an hour, Man Made Monster moves at a rapid pace, and the film suffers as a result. The characterisation is rudimentary at best, with characters fitting into only the most basic of archetypes, if that. Only Chaney Jr. is given anything of real value to play in the film as Dan, the dim but loveable victim of Dr. Rigas. A scene late in the film where Dan is under psychological evaluation is given more effort from Chaney Jr. than the scene deserves, managing to bring out some legitimate pathos out of the proceedings. Atwill unfortunately does not fare near as well, with his mad scientist character existing as little more than a plot device designed to deliver poorly written exposition and even worse villainous monologues.

Blame for the shoddy writing falls on the shoulders of George Waggner himself, who wrote the film under the alias of Joseph West. While Waggner does manage to fare better in his direction of the film, Waggner the writer manages to undermine Waggner the director at numerous points thanks to the endless exposition. All too often, particularly in the final third of the film, characters stand about and deliver said exposition while watching events that we the audience are never made privy to, or even in scenes that audience is allowed to see. During the film’s climax, various characters stand around and describe what the monstrous Dan is doing rather than actually doing anything to help the situation, even though they are the characters who are supposed to be intervening.

Man Made Monster does have its charms however, a few of them legitimate. From time to time, Waggner does manage to creating some striking imagery, particularly during a montage scene showing the passage of time leading to a character’s execution date. The effects utilized to realize Dan in his monstrous state are effective, and the film does manage to have a bit of fun mocking psychoanalysis in a manner Alfred Hitchcock would have loved. However, the film is more memorable for its unintended humour, from the laughably bad science (electrical immunity? Really?) to what is perhaps one of the worst “man was not meant to play God” speeches I have heard in quite some time.

As a film likely made to fulfill a production quota, Man Made Monster is hardly the worst film to come out of the Classic Hollywood era. It is however a below average genre piece that would have been a welcome target for mockery on Mystery Science Theater 3000. While hard core genre fans will likely want to see the film, anyone else interested in seeing a science gone wrong film would be best to look elsewhere.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Silent Running (Trumbull 1972)

Science fiction with an environmental theme has a dodgy track record to say the least, thanks to the fact that the issue is a politically heated one. At the best of times, you end up with films such as Wall E or Dune where the environmental commentary is present without being preachy. At the worst of times, such films are fire and brimstone sermons designed to guilt trip the audience, with the pertinent issues presented in only the most black and white of terms (see: Avatar). Most of the time, we end up with middling films or entertaining embarrassments, such as Waterworld.

So thank God for Douglas Trumbull’s 1972 science fiction mini-classic Silent Running, an environmentally themed film that forgoes being didactic in favour of being a psychological drama in which the loss of nature is symbolic for a loss of humanity. While flawed and occasionally heavy handed, the film is a complex work, with striking imagery and ideas which are held together by a magnificent performance from star Bruce Dern (The ‘Burbs).

Silent Running concerns Freeman Lowell (Dern), a crewmember aboard the spaceship Valley Forge, who maintains the last remaining forests of Earth. Valley Forge also is the home of three other crewmembers, none who hold Lowell’s personal investment in preserving the forests, and are more interested in going home after 8 years in space. Having to wait until they are recalled, these three pass their time performing their jobs, lounging about, and giving Lowell grief.

This early section of the film, with its blatant Eden imagery of Lowell as a Space Age Adam, are disheartening to say the least, and leave the impression that the rest of the film to follow will be full of righteous anger and nothing else. This is only confirmed further as we are presented with several moments in which Lowell preaches to the rest of the crew about how oblivious they are to the importance of the forests, both for the spirit of mankind as well as basic survival. It is seemingly all designed to be a quick shortcut to getting the audience on Lowell’s side: he is the outsider; the other crew members treat him with contempt; and they openly wreck havoc on Lowell’s forests.

So when the orders come to destroy the forests, it is no surprise that Lowell makes a stand against the rest of the crew. At this point, it would be fair to guess that the film would follow a fairly predictable path, with Lowell courageously bucking orders by engaging in a battle of wits between himself and the crew for the rest of film. Lowell perhaps might even die in a noble, if tragic, fashion at the film’s conclusion.

Instead, Lowell kills the rest of the crew in a matter of minutes, transforming the Space Adam into Space Cain. Like Cain, Lowell becomes literally and figuratively disconnected from humanity, drifting away through space in an effort to protect his Eden and hide his crimes. And, much like Cain, Lowell discovers that his ability to preserve the forests is compromised, he is unable to solve why the last forest is dying.

This fusion of Biblical narrative, environmentalism and character study give Silent Running a surprising power, both emotionally and intellectually. Lowell’s journey is epic and mythic whilst retaining the crushing ambiguities of life, and the film provides no easy answers to the questions it raises concerning dehumanisation and the destruction of the environment. Instead, director Turnbull simply captures the weight and frustrations of the issues, refusing to allow his work to be interpreted in any one, narrow manner by providing us a future that is neither a utopia or dystopia, nor providing us a character that is strictly a saint or sinner. The film even goes as far to note that human kind on Earth has managed to survive without the forests, and that disease and poverty have been eliminated. Given this, Lowell's attitudes about the preservation of the forest are brought into question. This will likely anger the extremists on both sides of the environment debate, but for everyone else provide an engaging experience in working out the complexities of the narrative.

As noted, the film is a showcase for star Dern, who carries the film for more than two thirds by himself. Dern walks a fine line with the role, balancing the character’s arrogance and obsessive tendencies with a fragile vulnerability, and he manages to pull it off successfully. Perhaps no bigger testament to Dern’s abilities as an actor can be found than a farewell speech he delivers to one of the ships drones, which is given enough sincerity and commitment as to make the scene one of the most touching in the film, despite the fact that he is talking to what looks like a dumpster pail.

Director Turnbull, who made his directorial debut with this film, is clearly hamstrung by the film’s low budget and his own lack of experience as a director: the exterior shots of the ship are clearly models, and at times it appears as if he was unsure how to stage a scene that does not involve special effects. For the most part however, Turnbull makes the most of his limitations and captures an appropriately cold and contemplative atmosphere, allowing Lowell to be visually dominated by the environment around him, just as Lowell is emotionally and intellectually caught between past, present, and future.

The film does feature a few significant flaws though. While I hate it when films are labelled “dated,” as if it is a real criticism of a work (all films date. All things date, so why hold that against them?), the film features songs clearly written in the dying days of the counter culture movement. This would not be bad if it were not for the fact that the songs are dreadful, and engage in the type of heavy handedness avoided or critiqued in the rest of the film. While these songs are mostly kept to the clunky montage sequences, they stand out as a particular problem in the film’s final moments, as the most striking image of the film is almost undermined by the overly sentimental song playing on the soundtrack, making the image nearly laughable rather than poetic.

That final shot however is a powerful one, and encompasses the film's themes and ambiguities perfectly. While I do not wish to spoil the film’s conclusion, I would like to ask the following questions to consider after watching: how long can Lowell’s solution last? And more importantly, if it can last, what does this final shot say about the place of humanity in the future?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Season of the Witch Trailer

I want to believe that this will be good. I really do. But I am not sure I trust modern Hollywood to do period horror right. Plus, Nicolas Cage has this thing about appearing in films that sound cool, but end up being garbage.

Still, the trailer is somewhat promising. And any film with Christopher Lee is worth checking out. I just hope that director Dominic Sena is capable of making a film as solid as Kalifornia (1993), his debut film, rather than Gone in Sixty Seconds (2000) his last film with Nic Cage.

Back with reviews later this week. Yes, Plural.

Monday, November 8, 2010

RED (Schwentke 2010)

While RED (Schwentke 2010) may not be a revenge film in terms of its narrative and genre, the film none-the-less offers a revenge fantasy for baby boom audience members faced with marginalization as Generation X and beyond come into power economically and politically. RED’s plot, about a group of retired CIA agents banding together to fight back against their old employer who is looking to execute them, takes every available opportunity to allow its protagonists to beat down their successors, demonstrate sexual vitality and simply prove that they are not too old live like the young. As a card carrying member of Generation Y/Next/Echo Boom/whatever-you-want-to-call-us, my reaction to RED is quite simple:

It is a hell of a fun little film.

Now, that does not mean that RED is a great film, or some sort of classic in the action genre. It is not. Nor is it necessarily better than its comic source material, a three issue mini-series by the legendary Warren Ellis. I have yet to read the series, so I cannot comment. What RED is however is a slick little piece of popcorn entertainment that would have been nice to have had available during this past summer, in order to relieve audiences of all the garbage that the studios tried to pass off as fun films (with the obvious exceptions of the great Inception and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World). RED is a film without any preconceptions of greatness: it knows is strengths and limitations with regards to the material, and the filmmakers do their best to liven up the stock characters and situations with sharper than expected writing, directing and acting.

While director Robert Schwentke’s work thus far has been rather undistinguished, with credits on films such as Flightplan (2005) and The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009), he brings a steady hand to RED, working from a script by Jon and Erich Hoeber (Whiteout). Schwentke seems to know that the best approach to the material is to simply allow the cast to carry the film and get out of their way. There are no auteur or wannabe-auteur attempts made in the film: Schwentke’s direction primarily consists of keeping the film energetic and moving a good clip, and it works. More importantly, Schwentke keeps the film relatively grounded, allowing for moments of comic action absurdity that are fantastic without turning the film into an outright fantasy of superhuman beings.

Carrying most of the film’s weight however is the cast, which provide uniformly excellent work. Lead star Bruce Willis, who earlier this year was underserved by the sub par script and direction of the buddy comedy Cop Out, gets to really flex his comedic muscles here as Frank Moses. Willis plays the role in a surprisingly vulnerable manner, downplaying the supposed “badass” coolness of Frank and instead plays up the character’s awkwardness with average life and relationships. This of course is helped in no small way by Mary-Louise Parker as Sarah, Frank’s possible romantic flame who comes to rather enjoy the dangerous situation she finds herself in. While Parker’s character is unfortunately saddled with the damsel in distress role at a certain point in the film, Parker makes the most of every scene she is in, brining a sense of spunk and joy to a character that could easily have been phoned in.

The film’s supporting cast is equally worthy of mention. Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich are given somewhat thin characters to work with, with Freeman particularly stuck playing a variation on the wise-old-man role. Both are clearly having fun onscreen however, and it is infectious. Malkovich in particular eats up every odd quirk he is given to play as Marvin, the paranoid and childlike ex-CIA agent who spent years being the subject of LSD experiments. The sight of a sad Marvin holding a stuffed pig by the tail is one of RED’s highlights, and Malkovich is given plenty of similar scene stealing moments throughout. Karl Urban as the young but not na├»ve agent tracking Moses is stuck playing straight man to pretty much everyone else in the film, but he once again proves that he has the charisma to be great leading man if he can ever score the right role to take him to the A-list.

However, RED’s best weapon is the duo of Helen Mirren and Brian Cox, as romantically involved agents from opposite sides of the long over Cold War. The pair’s subplot romance is almost a delightful romantic comedy onto itself, particularly in the final act of the film as the band of heroes put their final plan in motion. By this point, Cox’s character of Ivan Simanov seems vastly less interested in the grandiose nature of Frank’s plan than he is in pursuing Mirren’s Victoria with as much smooth charm as possible. Mirren meanwhile appears to relish the opportunity she has to play the most badass member of Moses’ crew, finding ways to blend flirtatious and motherly types of behaviour with the stone cold professionalism. Combined with the fact that Mirren and Cox have great chemistry, I simply would have loved for the whole film to be nothing more than a charting of their peculiar romance over the decades. A spin off film perhaps?

By the time RED comes to a close, there will likely be members of the audience saying that the filmmakers could easily have made a more substantive film dealing with the issues of an aging population and its rivalry with its offspring, and they would not be wrong. Others will likely be complaining that the film moves far away from leaner and meaner premise of Warren Ellis’ original comic. Again, I have not read the comics, though its reviews online point to it being a massively different work, and a fascinating one. Again, such complaints would not be wrong. However, both criticisms would seem to miss the fun to be had with RED, particularly given the lack of action films focused on older characters in modern filmmaking. Besides which, the film simply succeeds at what it sets out to do.

Fans of Ellis’ original comics can take one little bit of solace when it comes to the film: at least RED is not as disappointing as The Losers. Or as bad as Jonah Hex. Those are fans who really have something to complain about.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

New Review Tomorrow

Tomorrow shall bring the review of the 2010 action comedy RED.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Autistic Speaking Day Today!

Hello everyone!

While I am not myself autistic, I have many friends who are, and it is important that they are heard. Please check out No Stereotypes Here for more information, and please take time to listen to the experiences of people on the spectrum!

Also check out the following post: