Mean Streets – Review

24 Mar

I’m about to bust a myth for you right now. Martin Scorsese actually hasn’t been around since the beginning of time, weaving stories that are being passed down from generation to generation. I remember hearing in school that his 1973 film Mean Streets was his debut, but Scorsese actually had two other movies already made: Who’s That Knocking at My Door? from 1967 and Boxcar Bertha from 1972. Many people do say, however, that Mean Streets was Martin Scorsese’s first important film and the movie that put him, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel on the map.

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Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is a small time New York gangster moving up the ranks of the local Italian Mafia in Little Italy. He’s a tough, but fair kind of person with a soul that’s aflame with personal guilt that his Catholic beliefs can’t extinguish. Instead, Charlie looks to the streets for some kind of penance and finds it in his childhood friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), who is throwing his life away with his devil may care attitude and outrageous gambling debts. Meanwhile, Charlie is also trying to maintain a relationship with Johnny Boy’s cousin, Teresa (Amy Robinson), and working to run his own restaurant. Charlie soon begins to realize that what he truly wants may be an impossible dream as an aggravated loan shark, Michael (Richard Romanus), gets increasingly violent towards Johnny Boy, and eventually threatening his life.

So not only is Mean Streets Scorsese’s first important film, it’s also one that feels extremely close and personal to the film maker, as it should considering it’s a semi-autobiographical story of Scorsese growing up in Little Italy. Still, this kind of closeness with his films can be seen in a lot of his other work with Hugo coming to mind as an excellent example. While this isn’t as violent or graphic as his later work, it’s one that seems to be paving the way for films like Casino and Goodfellas amongst others. This is still a much smaller movie that takes a lot of inspiration from the New Wave movements going on in Europe and Japan but combining them with the kind of gangster story that Scorsese tells so well.

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One of the most fun parts of watching this movie is seeing a really young Harvey Keitel and a really young Robert De Niro, who of course went on to be a regular in Martin Scorsese’s movies. Before there was Taxi DriverRaging Bull, or Cape Fear there was Mean Streets. Keitel actually worked with Scorsese before on Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, but this was his star making performance, and the same can be said about De Niro. Their performances in this movie are just as great as you would expect and then some. Some of the scenes with the two actors sharing some personal dialogue were actually improvised, which makes their performances all the more impressive. Even if you don’t like crime or gangster movies, the acting alone is enough to see the movie.

So while this movie is fantastic, it may not really be for everyone. The movie’s plot is kind of weird because for a while it doesn’t seem to really be going anywhere. Like many movies inspired by and included in the New Wave movement in other countries, movies focused on characters moving from place to place, going about their business, and interactions with other people. That’s the fuel for the story rather than situations pushing the movie forward. That’s how Mean Streets is. It’s all about interactions with other people and being immersed in the urban environment. It’s a different way to tell a story, but it’s the only way that this story could be told.

Mean Streets pretty much set the tone for the urban crime films that Scorsese made throughout the 80’s and 90’s that are now considered classics. It also marks the start of his career as a respected film maker, but also the starts of Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. It’s clear in some moments that Scorsese was still experimenting with some things that don’t always translate too well, but as a whole this is a small personal masterpiece of his. It isn’t his best film, but it stands up very well to his best films and that in and of itself makes it worth multiple viewings.

Chappie – Review

18 Mar

When I first saw the trailers for Chappie with Neill Blomkamp’s name on it, I wanted to shoot right out of my seat and land in the closest theater and just wait there so I could be the first to see it. I feel like Blomkamp is at the head of the pack along with a few other in terms of modern science fiction movies. His films have this urban grit that meshes so well with the high tech sci-fi, and Chappie certainly isn’t any different. The troubling thing is that every critic seems to have major problems with it, and I found it to be far superior to his previous film, Elysium.

 

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In the near future, the police force in Johannesburg, South Africa is largely made up of state of the art police robots designed by Deon Wilson (Dev Patel). On his own time, however, Deon is working overtime trying to unlock the key to creating true artificial intelligence, a daunting task that eventually pays off. After stealing a deactivated police robot, Deon puts in the artificial intelligence chip, but not before being kidnapped by gangsters Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) and Ninja and Yolandi (played by South African rap group Die Antwoord). When the robot comes to life and becomes aware of the surroundings, he is named Chappie (Sharlto Copely). As Ninja begins training Chappie to be a gangster for a major heist, Deon and Yolandi work to train Chappie in the finer things of life and protect him from the outside world. Meanwhile, Deon’s competitor in the company, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), works to get his own police robot on the scene, no matter who has to die.

Compared to District 9 and ElysiumChappie feels like Blomkamp’s departure from a more violent and hopeless kind of science fiction. Both of the Blomkamp’s earlier movies leaves me feeling a strange sense of dread by the end of them, but Chappie made me feel different. There’s plenty of social commentary to be found, but I was way more interested in the characters and what happened to them. That being said, I felt that was the intention. There’s a lot of focus behind the differing factions of characters and the philosophical urges that push them. Then there’s Chappie, another memorable robot to add to the list of memorable robots. By the end of this movie, even though it doesn’t quite end on the happiest of notes, left me feeling a lot better for the situations and the characters than Blomkamp’s other movies did.

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There are plenty of great actors in this movie and a few quite interesting casting choices to really regard as a cinematic anomaly. The star of the whole show is Sharlto Copley who did the voice and motion capture for Chappie. Copley’s voice and movements bring Chappie to life more than any kind of advanced special effects could. He’s a tragic and interesting character and plays it to perfection. Dev Patel and Hugh Jackman work well as enemies, even though Jackman’s character was one of the least interesting parts of the entire movies. Finally, we have Ninja and Yolandi, a South African rap-rave group that seems to be playing themselves. I’m a big fan of Die Antwoord, and seeing them act was odd. Ninja was pretty on point and Yolandi did well with her character, but there were times where I was reminded that they weren’t trained actors. Still it was pretty wild to see them.

As I said before, Chappie dives right into social commentary in that strangely real way Neill Blomkamp does. District 9 brought racism to the screen in a way that was fresh and memorable while Elysium dealt with class differences in a classic science fiction sort of way. With Chappie, Blomkamp deconstructs the idea of a police state and a society that has become far too mechanized. This is a theme that plays very well with society today, in a world where technology seems to be going crazy. Combine that with the military, and things may continue looking bleak. It’s a smart way to go about telling a story, and it’s incredibly original in a world of reboots, remakes, and adaptations.

While Chappie isn’t quite District 9 it shoots past Elysium, and I’m baffled as to why critics are giving this movie such a hard time. Not only are there memorable characters, a sentimental feeling, and interesting commentary on technology and government, but all of that wrapped up in Neill Blomkamp’s distinct style. Not only is Chappie a good movie, Chappie is also a great movie. Suck it, critics.

Men Behind the Sun – Review

11 Mar

Oh boy. This is what it’s come to. I’m really digging up something with this one. This time we’re gonna be looking at T.F. Mou’s 1988 film Men Behind the Sun. It sounds innocent enough, but this infamous, though relatively obscure film, is one of the most brutal, grotesque, and disturbing films ever made. Look at any list about warped movies, and it’s guaranteed that you’ll find this one on here. Many people argue over what this movie is trying to do, but everyone seems to agree that it will definitely leave a mark on anyone who dares to watch.

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In the later days of World War II, the Japanese were getting desperate to turn the fight around to their favor, and a method that seemed both popular and deadly was biological warfare. The film follows a group of young Japanese boys enlisted in the youth corps that are stationed at Unit 731, a mysterious base run by a recently disgraced Lt. Gen. Shiro Ishii (Gang Wang). Soon the boys (and the viewer) finds out the secret work happening at Unit 731. The base is a testing ground for new biological weapons with the test subjects consisting of captured Chinese and Russian citizens.

This is actually the first part of an unofficial series that I’ve made the decision not to watch, mostly because they’re pretty hard to find and it’s pretty unnecessary considering the heavy subject matter. This is a movie that has torn audiences in to two separate factions with differing arguments on how to look at what is being presented. On one side, there are the people who think this movie is a disgusting piece of exploitive horror, using the testing and gratuitous gore as only a way to make people squirm. The other side truly believes that Men Behind the Sun is an important film that explores a horrific time of history in a no nonsense way. It’s hard to choose a side because there’s enough evidence to support both theories.

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T.F. Mou is a very odd figure in terms of his filmography. After joining the Shaw Brothers, Mou worked in the genres of crime, horror, kung fu, and exploitation. The Shaw Brothers aren’t really known for producing the most thought provoking work, but Mou, himself, was very dedicated to making Men Behind the Sun as realistic and historically accurate as possible, and for that I commend him. He hired actors who looked like their historical counterparts and researched for over a year in order to create an accurate depiction. Wang’s performance as Shiro Ishii is especially memorable. This makes me think that T.F. Mou was really trying to create a historically significant movie that would shock people into understanding the horrors that people endured. Unfortunately, he sort of took it way too far.

There’s no way to be comfortable watching this movie. I first saw this movie in school during a class about horror movies, and I found myself looking away at many points during the movie. Me. The guy who loves gory movies, but this was just too real. This is where the movie seems to lose its footing in a major way. For an hour and a half, you’re just subjected to scenes upon scenes of relentless brutality that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. It’s just way too much gore and sickening imagery to really keep someone’s attention focused on the history. Men Behind the Sun really is one of, if not the most sickening and repulsive movies ever made.

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Normally, I post a video in these reviews, but I just can’t for this movie. I can’t even write a review giving my opinion on it because I don’t know what it is. Technically, it’s very well made in terms of shot composition, effects, and historical accuracy. At the same time it’s a horrific piece of exploitation that is enough to make the most experienced movie watcher sick to their stomachs…or more. All I can say is that whatever this movie was trying to do, be it sicken people or depict a terrible history, it did it’s job. It’s just a bit to much for me to recommend to anybody.

The Bridge on the River Kwai – Review

9 Mar

World War II is a topic that no one can really stay away from, which is fair enough because there’s so much to do with it. There’s been a huge amount of movies, games, and books dedicated to certain moments throughout the war, be it real or fictional. There are some, however, that really stand out and one of them is David Lean’s 1957 war epic, The Bridge on the River Kwai. While it is a work of fiction, it’s based off of a true event, but nonetheless, it stands as one of the greatest war films ever made but also one of the most complex.

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Lt. Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) and his British troops find themselves in a bind when they end up in a Japanese labor camp commanded by Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). Nicholson and Saito soon butt heads when Saito orders everyone, including the officers, to start work on constructing a bridge over the River Kwai. Nicholson soon finds himself watching over the construction and believes it to be an accomplishment for the British, but also a way of raising the morale of his men. Meanwhile, escaped American prisoner, Commander Shears (William Holden) is put in charge of a mission to destroy the bridge and the first train scheduled to cross it. As Shears’ team gets closer, it becomes clearer that Nicholson will do whatever it takes to complete and protect the bridge, even if it means betraying the Allied forces that he is a part of.

What’s so impressive and difficult about this film, especially considering the time it was made, is that there are no real good guys or bad guys. The Japanese Saito runs the camp with an iron fist and mistreats certain prisoners, but deep down he’s a man who appears weak facing the code of honor and winning the war for his country. Nicholson appears to betray his own country to protect the bridge even though he’s doing it for reasons he thinks are for the long running good of Britain and his troops, making it easy to sympathize with him. Meanwhile, Shears is a liar, lazy, and cold towards other people making him more of an anti hero, despite him being an American soldier fighting for the Allies. It’s incredibly interesting seeing these morally ambiguous characters clash throughout the movie, and it makes them seem like real people.

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While it is ultimately the actor’s job at making the characters seem real, it would all be for nothing if nothing else had the air of realism about it. This movie feels very grounded in reality and part of what makes it feel that way is how huge it is, and I’m not just talking about the close to three hour run time. What I mean is that the jungle seems vast, the bridge looks gigantic, and everything just pretty much feels epic. This makes sense since Lean would go on to do his masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia just a few years later. That’s one thing that I just couldn’t get enough of in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Lean’s sense of space translates so well to the screen, especially with this being the first film that he shot in Cinemascope.

I look at this movie like it’s a two part type of deal. The first part is pretty much just in the Japanese labor camp with Nicholson and Saito trying to outdo one another. The second part deals mostly with Shears and the other British troops making their way to the bridge to destroy it. While the second part definitely has more action, I prefer the first part more because I loved Alec Guinness’ performance and his character. The second part had a lot of meetings and walking through the jungle that made me kind of fidget during. It all still comes together really well in one of the most memorable and intense climaxes in film history.

Simply put, The Bridge on the River Kwai deserves its place in just about every film textbook you can find. It’s a triumph as a character study, an adventure story, and a war epic. While the second half seemed to drag a little bit and got a tad derivative, the movie as a whole took a lot of chances in its viewpoint of soldiers from around the world during World War II. It’s a fantastic film that deserves to be watched way more than once.

Nil by Mouth – Review

3 Mar

Everyone knows about Gary Oldman’s acting career. He’s been in so many movies as great as The Dark Knight Trilogy and as awful as the 2009 “horror” film The Unborn. He’s one of those actors that seems to turn up everywhere, but he always brings an air of seriousness to all of his roles. I’ve just recently learned about his work in directing after reading about his 1997 directorial debut Nil by Mouth. I didn’t really know what it was about, but being a fan of Oldman’s, I felt it was worth checking out. That being said, this is a surprisingly gritty, disturbing, and genuinely upsetting film.

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Set in the working class environment of South London, this film examines the life of a small, but poor family. Billy (Charles Creed-Miles) is a heroine addict that struggles with both his finances and his addiction, mostly using one to help the other. Billy’s sister is Val (Kathy Burke), a relatively unhappy woman who is married to Ray (Ray Winstone). Ray is a thief, an addict, and violent, many times taking out his rage on the pregnant Val. After a vicious night between the two, the family really seems that it is finally ready to break down and leave everyone on their own.

When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997, Nil by Mouth was received with much critical acclaim and Kathy Burke winning for Best Actress. This is really no surprise to me since this movie tackles subject matter in an unflinchingly realistic way. As I was watching it, my mind kept going to Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, although the main protagonist in that movie is a kid and it was released two years later in 1999. It still deals with the same ideas as poverty and the breakdown of a family. There were many times in this movie that it got so intense and real that it stunned me.

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Like I said before, Kathy Burke won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for this movie, but that isn’t where the excellent performances end. Everyone in this movie seems to be working their hardest to completely sell their roles to you. Burke has a lot of different levels she plays at and Ray Winstone matches her perfectly by showing an aggravating and complex character. He has become one of the most hated characters for me because Winstone makes him so real. Charles Creed-Miles also works well as the pathetic drug addicted thief who I really couldn’t help feeling sorry for.

To really make Nil by Mouth work, Oldman had to create a certain kind of uncomfortable atmosphere that isn’t really easy to do. Many of the scenes are shot in dark side streets of London, the kind of streets that you wouldn’t want to find yourself alone at night. When we’re not in some alley, we’re in cluttered, tiny apartments that seems to have a few too many people in it. That being said, certain scenes have to appear comfortable and livable since this is just the way of life for these people. It’s an odd combination where I would be disgusted one moment and then almost feel at home the next.

Nil by Mouth can definitely be classified as a film that isn’t easy to watch, nor is it particularly entertaining. It is, however, a film that seems to be a very deep and personal project of Gary Oldman’s, and that comes through in how realistic and honest everything is in the movie. This may be one of the realest movies I’ve seen and it certainly isn’t afraid to throw a rotten piece of life into your face. While it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it’s an intense experience nonetheless.

Alice, Sweet Alice – Review

25 Feb

The 1970s was a big decade for the horror genre, especially when it came to slasher films. In 1974, Tobe Hooper gave us The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and in 1979, John Carpenter’s Halloween was released. I’ve talked about and referenced these movies many times because I feel like they are very important to the genre. If you look hard enough, however, hidden between these two movies is the 1976 film Alice, Sweet Alice directed and cowritten by Alfred Sole. This is a film that has now become a cult classic, but should really be considered a masterwork in the horror genre.

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Karen Spages (Brooke Shields in her first role) is a 9 year old girl who is more than ready for her First Communion. Her older sister Alice (Paula Sheppard) on the other hand is more of a problem child and causes her mother Catharine (Linda Miller) to be stressed. During Karen’s First Communion, she is brutally murdered with evidence pointing at Alice as the culprit. Catharine’s ex-husband, Dom (Niles McMaster) comes back to town for the funeral, but also to start his own investigation. As Dom keeps snooping around, more of the Spages family and other tenants in the building begin getting attacked and killed in a variety of ways while Alice fights back against the accusations of being a murderer.

This movie felt like a combination of so many cool things. It felt like Alfred Hitchcock meets Jean-Pierre Jeunet, or John Carpenter meets Dario Argento. Really it’s like they all just mushed together and this is the result. It has the feeling and pacing of a giallo film by Argento, thy mystery of Hitchcock, the horror of Carpenter, and the oddball scenes found in a Jeunet movie. It really is baffling how a movie with this much creativity and thought remained so unnoticed. Alice, Sweet Alice belongs in the upper echelons of horror films, especially since it was so successful on such a small budget.

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It’s easy to make people jump, but it isn’t easy to make people feel uncomfortable. Horror movies now seem to aim to give people a momentary scare with a cheap build up, but this film is something entirely different. Just look at that picture. Just look at that god damn mask. If that isn’t one of the freakiest masks you’ve ever seen, than I don’t even know what. There’s also plenty of other great scares in the movie. Remember that scene in Psycho when Norman Bates walks out of his mother’s room and stabs the guy on the stairs? It’s so out of nowhere and unexpected, and a lot of the scary scenes in Alice, Sweet Alice reminded me of that. Things happen so suddenly and without any warning.

There’s also a really interesting use of the Catholic faith in this movie that only strengthens the eerie atmosphere. I’m not saying that the Catholic faith is eerie, but it isn’t very hard to make it seem that way. In one scene in particular, the murderer is doing their thing and the camera keeps cutting away to the faces of different statues, almost as if they’re all watching this happen. That, along with the use of church hymns and the receiving of communion while there’s a murderer present is just a weird thing. It’s a very off putting feeling that sets this movie above the average horror film.

Alice, Sweet Alice is a memorable and effective horror movie that has undeservedly only received the honor of being a cult classic. This is a very strange and unsettling movie, but that should appeal to horror fans even more than most other generic films that have gotten way more recognition. This film isn’t only creepy, it’s also provides genuine scares, suspense the whole way through, and a great mystery story on top of it all. To those horror fans who haven’t had the pleasure of seeing this one, I highly advise you get on it right away.

In Time – Review

23 Feb

One thing that I look for in movies is originality, and while the story for In Time may have similarities to previous works in science fiction, it’s still one of the most original movies to come out of Hollywood in a long time, especially in a world of sequels and reboots. Andrew Niccol showed his talent for science fiction in the memorable and boring sci fi film Gattaca, and here we are once again in a futuristic world of his creation. In Time shows a dystopian world that seems fresh and new and for that I give it a lot of credit. Unfortunately, the execution could have been done a hell of a lot better.

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In the future, humans are being genetically engineered to live to the age of 25 and the only way to live longer is to earn more time on a biological clock that is implanted and shown on the left forearm. Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) is a poor worker who lives day to day with less than 24 hours on his clock. After receiving over 100 years from a suicidal businessman, Salas comes to see how unfair the system is and how the wealthy can live forever. Soon, Salas begins a campaign to break the system along with his hostage turned partner Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) who comes from a wealthy background herself. As the duo continues stealing from the rich to give to the poor, a determined Timekeeper, Ray Leon (Cillian Murphy), remains hot on their trail with a mission to uphold the system of economics already in place.

When this movie first started, I was all for it. The dystopian world that was created was both believable but also anchored in a sort of unspoken history if that makes any sense. I could believe that, by the way people spoke and acted, the world actually got to this point. Also the whole idea of the currency being measured in time made me stressed out. I’m the kind of person that always has to know what time it is, how much time I have to do something, and if I’ll have any time left over. This world would be impossible for me to live in, so the stakes were high. It got the exact reaction out of me that was intended, so I’ll definitely give it that.

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Now let’s take a step back and look at the movie as a whole. The idea is fantastic and the cinematography by Roger Deakins is great as you would suspect, but that’s really where the excellence stops. The word I would use to describe this movie is “serviceable.” Maybe part of the problem was that I went into In Time expecting a whole lot more than I actually got. What the movie turned out to be was a lackluster science fiction Robin Hood/Bonnie and Clyde type story. That’s totally cool, but when the pacing is so weird, the movie just begins to feel uneven and often boring. There isn’t a whole lot of action, which is fine, but when the movie slows down, the scenes of drama and dialogue aren’t especially hard hitting.

The acting talent in this movie is also questionable. Justin Timberlake and Cillian Murphy were just fine in my opinion, but everyone else was either underutilized or not good. Both Olivia Wilde and Johnny Galecki, two actors who were giving good performances, were in it for a total of 10 minutes each. Amanda Seyfried, a main character who was in most of the movie, blew the big one. I never really was a fan of hers, and this just solidifies my opinion. Every line she delivered was hollow or phony and I just didn’t believe her at all. Isn’t that kind of a main requirement for an actor?

In Time works as a mediocre film with a strong sci fi story that just isn’t used well. The acting is hollow and the pacing is just plain awkward. It’s so disappointing that a movie with so much originality and such a great premise is wasted on something that ends up being a derivative popcorn flick that could’ve used a double shot of excitement and cleaning up. I mean, really.

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