Archive | May, 2015

The Rambler – Review

31 May

Here we have one of those movies that I found for an insanely cheap price at a Best Buy and I thought, “Why not?” I picked it up solely based on what I read on the box, but other than that I had absolutely no idea what I was buying. While it wasn’t released in theaters, The Rambler did have screenings at festivals like Sundance and the SXSW Film Festival before it was released on DVD and blu ray. From the reactions I’ve read of other critics, be it amateur or professional, people either hate this movie or sort of like it. It’s pretty fair to say that I didn’t really have high expectations going into it.

 

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After getting out of prison, a man only known as the Rambler (Dermot Mulroney) returns home to his less than faithful and loving wife, Cheryl (Natasha Lyonne). The Rambler soon finds himself kicked out of his trailer, but finds a glimmer of hope when his brother invites him to come work on his ranch. The Rambler sets off on the the road across the country and finds himself face to face with some of the most bizarre and depraved people you could possibly imagine, like the Scientist (James Cady) whose machine that records dreams to VHS is more than likely to make someone’s head explode and the Girl (Lindsay Pulsipher), who may be the Rambler’s downfall as she keeps meeting him and dying in many different scenarios and ways.

Let me just start by saying that I totally understand where some of the hate towards this movie came from, but I can’t really say I understand why there’s so much hate from a good portion of those people who have seen this movie. Before anyone goes into The Rambler it may be worthwhile warning them that what they are about to see is extremely weird. Like aggressively weird. This weirdness may be part of the reason why a lot of people were not into this movie at all, at least amongst other things. I was really expecting to be bored, annoyed, or both with this movie and I even started asking myself what even came over me that made me purchase it in the first place. Honestly though, this is a pretty cool movie that I would actually CAUTIOUSLY recommend people who have any interest in film makers like David Lynch or weird movies in general.

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The reason why I stress the word “cautiously” is because I don’t want anyone to think that this comes anywhere near a David Lynch movie. Let’s look at Lost Highway, for example. Lost Highway is a deeply unsettling and weird movie, but you can tell that there’s something really deep going on beneath the surface of the movie, even if it takes multiple viewings to get even close to figuring it out. The Rambler is a different story. I don’t know if I’m missing something, but it doesn’t feel like that deep of a movie with any sort of actual puzzle to solve, which is what makes movies like this so much fun. The theory that I have about the meaning of the movie is really weak, but it’s really the only thing I could extrapolate from what I saw. There were a lot of scenes where I thought writer/director Calvin Lee Reeder was doing weird stuff for the sake of weirdness, which isn’t really the right way to go about it.

There are some things in this movie, however, that actually saved it for me as a whole. First off, Dermot Mulroney, who is known mostly for his performances in dramas and romantic comedies, really hits it home as the stoic Rambler. He doesn’t talk much, but he really doesn’t even have to. I love characters like that. The soundtrack is also first rate, and the cinematography really isn’t bad at all. There’s also some scenes that really made me howl with amusement and disgust at the same time. The first time someone’s head explodes because of the dream machine is startling and hilarious. There’s also a scene that probably features the strangest game of poker I will ever see. So while not all of the movie really works, there are parts that hit it out of the park.

While I expected to be completely put off by this movie, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Rambler. It is in no way a first rate movie, but as a B-movie directed by an altogether unheard of film maker, it really isn’t bad. By the time I reached the hour mark in the movie, I was beginning to grow a little tired of it, and by the time the movie was actually over I had more than enough. Still, for anyone who likes movies that go places you would never expect and contort reality in nightmarish ways, it may be a movie you’d like to check out at least once.

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Shock Corridor – Review

26 May

It’s always a joy to talk about one of the greatest film makers to grace American cinema, and this time it’s Samuel Fuller. With films like The Big Red OneWhite Dog, and of course Shock Corridor under his belt, it’s easy to see why. I can almost compare him to Sam Peckinpah in some ways. He’s a master of his craft, but his eccentricities and often taboo subject matter in his films didn’t quite make him popular in Hollywood. Shock Corridor is one of those examples of such odd film making filled with subject matter that certainly shouldn’t have flied in the early 1960s. Nowadays, however, it’s regarded as something of a small classic.

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Johnny Barret (Peter Breck) is a journalist who’s bent on winning the coveted Pulitzer Prize. He will literally do anything to win it, so when he learns of an unsolved murder in a mental hospital, he jumps at the opportunity. Using his girlfriend, Cathy (Constance Towers), to pose as his sister, he gets admitted to the hospital after supposed charges of attempted incest and abuse. Now fully undercover for his newspaper, Johnny begins to interview the three crazed witnesses of the murder and slowly begins piecing it together. All the while, however, Johnny is getting more and more into his role and slowly begins welcoming all of the insanity.

Shock Corridor was unleashed onto the public in 1963, making it one of the more provocative films I’ve seen of that era. This was a time where the Cold War and Communism was a big fear and the Summer of Love was still some years away. This wasn’t exactly a time of free artistic expression, and Samuel Fuller couldn’t care less. I really wish I was around to see what people’s reactions would have been to this movie when it was released over 50 years ago. There were a few moments where things like incest and prostitution were being discussed in such detail that I would wonder, “Could he really get away with that?”

 

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Shock Corridor is basically Fuller turning a mirror around on society and its beliefs through the use of patients in a mental institution. Think about that for a second. It’s probably not the most flattering someone could do. There are themes in this movie that deal with communism, atomic powerhouses, and racism which are all very important topics that Fuller handles in this most abrasive of ways. What really sticks out is the commentary on racism and how he pretty much makes racists and extremists look like complete wackos, even when he is speaking through the mouth of a black man who believes he is a white supremacist.

The main character of this movie is journalist who is striving to win the Pulitzer Prize through any way possible. There’s really no other film maker with enough credentials to write a journalist character than Fuller, considering he worked in journalism for pretty much his whole life up until he started making movie. You can see he has a lot to say through the way Barret behaves and conducts his interviews. While his subjects pretty much pour out their souls to him during their moments of clear thinking, all Barret cares about is solving the murder. What he doesn’t realize is the people in the hospital provide him with more than enough information for a Pulitzer Prize. I’m not sure exactly what he’s implying, but it’s certainly something about journalistic integrity.

Shock Corridor is another one of those movies that reminds me why I love them in the first place, and who better to remind me than Fuller, the man who inspired people like Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino, and Martin Scorsese. This is definitely a bizarre movie that defies all logic at time, but it’s one that has a lot to say about the time that it was made. This is a film that’s way ahead of its time, but that makes it all the more memorable, and more than worth the watches it may take to completely dissect it.

Terribly Happy – Review

22 May

For this review, let’s take a trip over to Denmark to take a look at the movie that swept the Bodil Awards (the Danish equivalent to the Academy Awards), winning 7 categories in 2009. Right from the title, I had a feeling I was in for a unique movie. I just can’t get over how great a title Terribly Happy is. It pretty much gives away that this is a very dark movie, but you will find yourself laughing at certain points. The comedy is pretty much as dark as it gets, which is probably why this film has been compared to Blood Simple and Blue Velvet. While I can’t really say it’s going to be regarded as classics like those films, it is an under appreciated European gem.

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After suffering from a mental breakdown, Copenhagen policeman Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren) is reassigned to a small town in South Jutland. While certainly not looking forward to the assignment, Hansen does feel that it will be easy work and his main goal is just completing this job and getting reunited with his estranged daughter. Unfortunately for him, this town is nowhere near an easy assignment. Being based around a preexisting set of laws that is governed by the townspeople themselves, Hansen is immediately shunned by everyone except a woman named Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christensen). As Hansen gets closer to Ingerlise, he is made savvy to her husband Jørgen (Kim Bodnia), the local bully who also is known for abusing Ingerlise. While attempting to protect the woman he has grown so fond of, Hansen inadvertently sets off a chain of events that will forever change the town.

Like I said before, I definitely see how people can make comparisons to the Coen Brothers and even David Lynch. This movie has a very unique style that definitely seems to draw some inspirations from those and other film makers, yet the movie really stands out as its own piece. There are elements of classic noir here from the disgraced police officer to the almost obligatory blonde femme fatale. At the same time, there is also plenty to laugh at since this movie starts feeling so weird and uncomfortable, it’s almost like a defense mechanism starting to kick in. It’s as a dark a comedy as you will be able to find.

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So the plot of Terribly Happy starts off pretty normal, and it keeps on going for a while. I was with it and feeling pretty confident I knew what was going on and what may happen even though things did start feeling a bit off. Whatever, though, I was on it. Then something happens about half way through and that’s that. Take everything you thought you knew about the movie and what was going on and just toss it out the window because everything is different now. That is where I think this movie really shines. It doesn’t treat the audience like children and expects them to be able to handle a plot twist or change that is this dramatic. It threw me off, yes, but it still made me laugh.

After watching Terribly Happy, I couldn’t help thinking about how strange it was. That being said, it never got so strange that the movie became just about weirdness. There are some movies that are fun to watch simply because they’re odd, but that’s not the main point of this one. The plot, the characters, and the setting are always the main focus and the strangeness is only there to enhance all of those things. It felt like a very well written and executed movie all around, even though it certainly isn’t the most fast paced.

This is one of those movies that I feel should get more attention, but it’s hard to reach a wide American audience with a foreign movie that’s as odd as this one. Terribly Happy isn’t destined to be a classic, or even a cult favorite for that matter, but it’s a movie that I really can’t find any faults with that need to be discussed. There are definitely comparisons that can be made with other films and film makers, but it stands alone as it’s own unique movie, and for that I say it’s worth a watch or two if you ever stumble across it.

Mad Max: Fury Road

17 May

It’s going to be very hard writing this review considering my brain has just been blown through the back of my head and splattered all over the back wall of the theater. Anyone who is familiar with the Mad Max movies knows that the series doesn’t shy away from complete insanity. George Miller has created a dystopian world where gangs rule the wastelands of what used to be planet Earth. Now, what Miller has done with Mad Max: Fury Road is not only redefine the term “survival of the fittest,” but has also raised the bar for any action movie to be released in the future.

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Still haunted by the death of his family, Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) continues to wander the wasteland and simply survive. Of course, it’s never that simple for Max and he soon finds himself in the hands of the War Boys, who are led by the maniacal and vicious King Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). During what should have been a routine pick up for gas, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) makes a quick detour into the wasteland. The truth of the matter is that she has all of the king’s wives in the back of her tanker and is taking them to the safety of her old home. As always, Max is inadvertently thrown into the mix, and with the memories of the family he failed to save haunting him, he decides to help the wives and Furiosa get to their destination, which may prove difficult with an army of War Boys and factions chasing them through the vast nothingness.

It’s almost like I can’t even process everything that I witnessed in Mad Max: Fury Road.  To be honest, it’s kind of refreshing. It’s as if George Miller took the book of directions on how to make a movie and tossed it out the window in favor of sheer insanity. There is so much spectacle that I actually felt exhausted when the movie was over. At the very beginning, there’s a little bit of set up to get the viewer into the world once again, but don’t get too comfortable. Before you can even say “Rockatansky,” you’re being thrown into one of the most unreal car chases you may ever see at the movies. When it was over, I was actually kind of worried because I didn’t want to have seen all of the coolest stuff at the beginning of the movie. I really had nothing to worry about.

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The action just kept getting better and better, and the movie only slows down a few times. If it didn’t, I’d probably be dead. But the action isn’t the only spectacle on display. Believe it or not, this is a beautiful movie in pretty much every way. The way the blue of the sky contrasts with the yellow and orange of the sand looks amazing and there’s something mesmerizing watching the slow motion destruction. It’s all calculated so well that I can only describe it as synchronized mayhem. What only adds to how great it looks is that most of it was done through stunts and practical effects. Sure, there’s CGI in this movie and it looks great, but most of what you see is actually happening, and that’s pretty mind blowing.

I’ve heard complaints that Max doesn’t do enough in this movie and that Furiosa is actually the main character. My response to that is that, yes it feels different in the sense that Max isn’t the only hero. In all of the movies, Max is thrown into a situation that he doesn’t want to be in, and in really no way is he an interesting character. His role is to save the day, sure, but also be our eyes and ears to the anarchic world of the future. The most interesting things in this movie and the other movies is the world around him and the villainous scavengers that inhabit it. The fact that Furiosa is the main focus is cool because she’s a badass, but it’s still clear that Max is crucial to her success in the movie.

Mad Max: Fury Road feels a little different from the other entries in this series, but it is actually a superior movie to The Road Warrior, which I didn’t think could be topped. Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, and Hugh Keays-Byrne are all completely in character and the action is some of the best you’ll ever see. To anyone who is a fan of the Mad Max movies, it’s necessary to check this movie out, and really it’s necessary for anyone who likes to have fun. It’s one of the best movies of the year so far, and may end up being my favorite movie of the summer.

Edge of Tomorrow – Review

15 May

Summer blockbusters usually go one of two ways. Either they are a special effects extravaganza with a little movie on the side, or they are a well thought out movie that just so happens to employ a high amount of special effects to help tell an engaging story. The first time I saw the trailer for Edge of Tomorrow, I automatically assumed it was going to be a flop, but it turns out, like so many times before, I was dead wrong. In fact, it was highly successful. Well, I’ve finally gotten around to watching it, and I have to say it’s one hell of an exhilarating ride that gives the popcorn movie a hefty boost.

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In the not too distant future, the human race is engaged in a war to defend Earth against an alien race called the Mimics. Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is a public relations officer who is assigned by General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) to the front lines of what is supposed to be the final pushback against the Mimics. Pretty much as soon as Cage is dropped into battle he is killed, but he then finds himself waking up at the beginning of that day. Sgt. Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who once was in the same situation as Cage, recruits him to train him herself. The two find themselves repeating the same day and learning the ins and outs of the same battle with the mission to get to the Omega, the brain that is keeping all of the Mimics alive.

Right away, this seems like a really unique idea for a movie, but for some reason I just couldn’t immediately wrap my head around how it was going to work. Then I made the smart decision and just watched the movie, and now I get it. Not only is the story unique, but it’s told in such a way that I was engaged for the entire movie. While the story of trying to find and destroy the Omega and save the Earth was really exciting stuff, I have to give the movie credit for going even deeper than that. There’s also a great story involving William Cage’s character arc. Cage starts out as a Major in the United States army who really only works with the press. He is then thrown into battle and we see, as the movie progresses, him grow as a character and earn the rank that he was given. It’s excellent story telling.

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For a movie that’s packed to the brim with special effects, I have to say that they are some of the best that I’ve seen in a few years. That’s because the crew utilized a smart combination of CGI and practical effects and blended them together just right. The aliens and the ships are all CGI of course, but most of what you see at ground level is actually practically achieved. The beach is exactly what it is, a section of beach with trenches dug into it, with a wall of green screen around it to enhance the effect. The exo-suits  were all worn by the cast and hooked up with cables to make them move like they do. It’s perfectly executed and only made me get into the movie more. In fact, there was one scene that looked so great, I had to rewind and watch it again a few times.

Credit also has to be given to Tom Cruise for working so well in this role. Like I said, part of this movie is seeing his character evolve from an unauthentic face for the military into an actual battle hardened soldier. Cruise’s acting and the script both make this change happen gradually and it was great to actually see the changes happening as he lived and died over and over again. Again, it’s a great way to tell a story, because if something happens to immediately, I’m not going to believe it actually happened. I guess what it really comes down to is that even though Edge of Tomorrow is science fiction, it was still very believable, and that’s a high compliment to pay a work of sci-fi.

Edge of Tomorrow is like a textbook definition for how a summer blockbuster should be properly executed. It’s an entertaining, action packed thrill ride that supplies a hefty amount of depth and character development. This isn’t a movie where you turn your brain off and just look at how pretty it is. It’s also a movie that’s fun to talk about once it’s over and even more fun to watch it again to pick up on things you might have missed. I know that’s what I’m going to do. I loved Edge of Tomorrow.

The Element of Crime – Review

15 May

Well, here we are again. I really can’t seem to stay away from the works of film making extraordinaire and 100% grade-A nutcase, Lars von Trier. This time, like I previously did with Steven Soderbergh and sex, lies, and videotape, I’m going to be looking at von Trier’s first effort at a feature film. While having done some short films before this, this is the one that introduced his odd style and uncomfortable atmosphere that would be present in most of his movies. So, let’s take a trip back to 1984 with The Element of Crime.

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While in Cairo, Detective Fisher (Michael Elphick) goes to see a psychiatrist due to completely losing the memory of his last case. While there, he undergoes hypnosis, which unlocks the part of his mind that is hiding the information he desires. This memory is of a dystopian Europe, where poverty, anarchy, and violence rule the streets. After visiting his mentor, Osborne (Esmond Knight) and discussing his book on solving crime, he is called to investigate a murder perpetrated by the “Lotto Murderer.” In order to solve the case, Fisher employs the method that Osborne wrote in his book “The Element of Crime,” and that is to get into the head of the murderer until you finally understand them. As Fisher delves deeper into the case, he soon finds himself losing touch with himself and finding more in common with the murderer.

Like many of von Trier’s movies, The Element of Crime is very big on style. The only problem is that it lacks in just about every other department. The entire film is tinted yellow or orange, which gives it a very distinct look. What makes it even cooler is that there will be splashes of blue thrown in, whether it’s the static on the tv or the lights hanging overhead. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a movie that looks like this one, and that’s still a pretty high complement when movies tend to look like other movies. The dystopian Europe is shown through such a horrific lens, that it will be hard to forget moments of this movie and its overall style. Still, that isn’t enough to make a movie great.

 

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I challenge anyone who’s watching this movie for the first time to tell me what’s really going on. If you can, than you’re a better person than I’ll ever be. There’s nothing wrong with a movie whose goal is to confuse the audience, but there should always be some sort of payoff. The Element of Crime simply makes no sense. I get that it’s about a police detective that’s getting too deep into the mind of a killer, but that’s about all I really get. The acting is all fine and a lot of the dialogue is actually very smart, but it doesn’t really amount to anything much since I had no idea what was happening.

The Element of Crime is the first part of a thematic trilogy about dystopian Europe. The other two films are Epidemic and Europa, which I have previously reviewed. I haven’t seen Epidemic, but The Element of Crime is really nothing when standing up against Europa. Still, you have to give credit where credits due, and this debut film was important in showing what Lars von Trier was capable of creating, if even just giving a glimpse of it. It put him on the spotlight and since then, his style and skill have only been improving.

As far as debut films go, The Element of Crime certainly isn’t the best, and the reason why it’s included in the Criterion Collection sort of remains to be seen. Perhaps it’s just the fact that it’s the first feature film for von Trier, and they can’t really seem to stay away from him. In my opinion, this is a pretty shallow effort that looks gorgeous on the surface, but there’s not really anything backing it up. This is only a film to see if you’re a huge fan of Lars von Trier’s work, but even then I guarantee that you’re going to be disappointed.

sex, lies, and videotape – Review

8 May

I love going back to the beginning of acclaimed film makers’ careers and seeing what they were capable of before making it big. Kevin Smith had Clerks, Robert Rodriguez had El Mariachi, and Richard Linklater had Slacker. All are impressive starts. Let’s go back even earlier than these movies to a director’s debut that surprised everyone, and he just so happens to be one of my favorite film makers. This is Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape. Not only did it take major awards at the Cannes Film Festival, but also helped jump start the independent film movement of the 1990s.

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Ann’s (Andie MacDowell) marriage is in trouble, and she can’t seem to figure out why. In her mind, she just no longer has any interest in sex. In reality, her husband John (Peter Gallagher) is having an affair with Ann’s sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). This deceit continues regularly until John’s old college friend, Graham (James Spader), arrives in town with hopes of finding a new apartment. Graham has a secret of his own, a fetish that rips into the lives of everyone involved and changes the way they look at each other and their relationships.

Now, this movie has really left me thinking. On the surface it works really well as a dark sex comedy/drama, but it possesses something much more psychological. The characters in this movie are all twisted beyond repair, and it’s only appropriate that the first scene of the movie takes place in a therapist’s office. Trying to unravel the characters is no easy task and the past few days since I’ve watched it, I’ve been thinking about it and thinking about it. It’s obvious that sex is the main drive for everyone in the movie, but what their true intentions and motivations are are sometimes a little bit foggy. The sex seems to control their entire lives, but what are they really trying to hide or escape from?Sex-Lies-and-Videotape-1989

 

The writing in this movie is also something to really be appreciated and looked at differently than you would a more normal kind of movie. The way the characters speak to each other is far from how people actually interact in everyday life. Deep personal secrets are brought to light way earlier than they should and the graphic nature of the dialogue compared with how long some of the characters have known each other makes it almost a surreal experience listening to them talk. It also makes you wonder what Soderbergh was trying to do by not beating around the bush at all, which is a way more common thing to do in movies. This deconstruction of sexual dialogue is sure to make puritans cringe, but is certainly something to be appreciated.

It also isn’t very rare for a debut film to have acting in it that is less than superb, but that isn’t the case in sex, lies, and videotape. James Spader won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his subtle portrayal of Graham, who is arguably the most normal person in this movie. Peter Gallagher and Laura San Giacomo are both fine, but Andie MacDowell is the real powerhouse next to Spader. Soderbergh was originally very hesitant in casting her, but it appears he made the right choice. Her nervous energy is comparable to James Stewart in Rear Window.

Thinking back on sex, lies and videotape, I can sort of describe it as what would happen if Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen collaborated to make a movie together. It has the neurotic energy of Woody Allen, the mystery of Hitchcock, and the combined dialogue of both. Steven Soderbergh may have, at the time, unknowingly created one of the more important movies of the last 30 years, since the aftermath resulted in Miramax being the forerunner of bringing independent movies to the main stream. It’s a superbly written and acted movie that has certainly made its mark in film history.