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Sideways – Review

17 Aug

I like to think of myself as a pretty open minded guy when it comes to movies. I try to soak in all sorts of films from all around the world and from different points of view. That being said, some genres just don’t impress me as much as others. I like comedies as much as the next person, but I’d much rather watch a mystery or a crime thriller. Comedies have to work really hard to win me over, and a good place to look is the work of Alexander Payne. Throughout the years, Payne has walked a thin line between comedy and drama and has garnered a lot of respect. The first movie I’ve seen of his was Nebraska, and I have to admit that I really couldn’t get into it. I’m revisiting his work with an earlier movie from 2004, Sideways, which was also met with many accolades. While I do like this one better than Nebraska, I still just don’t think his movies are for me.

Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) have been best friends since they were room mates in college. They’ve been through various ups and downs together and, despite their efforts, haven’t really made much of an impact on the world. With Jack finally getting married, Miles sees this as a time to take him on a trip through California’s wine country where they will spend quality time together and drink a whole lot of wine. Along the way, the two come across Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress at one of Miles’ favorite restaurants, and they also meet Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a wine pourer at a local vineyard. Jack immediately starts an affair with Stephanie who is oblivious to the fact he’s getting married that weekend. Meanwhile, Miles becomes close with Maya, but has a hard time holding in the secret that Jack is keeping from Stephanie. This affair in the middle of wine country will force these best friends to examine who they are, what they are becoming, and how to finally feel fulfilled.

I want to go ahead and talk about what I really loved about this movie, and it has more to do with the way the characters are written than the actual story. Paul Giamatti’s character has been through a lot of terrible things, and a lot of it has to do with decisions he’s made. By the time this movie starts, he’s a broken man trying to find something special to hold onto, which is why this week long trip with his best friend means so much. Thomas Haden Church’s character is the exact opposite. He’s a loose cannon who feels like he hasn’t lived his life to the fullest, and he doesn’t realize that his bad decisions are the same things that completely ruined his friend’s outlook. It’s an interesting friendship that I don’t think has been explored this well in movies like this. I feel like Payne really fleshed out these two characters to the point where I understand their feelings without them needing to vocalize them, which is a very strong film making technique. Miles sees a lot of his past in Jack which scares him and Jack sees a potential future in Miles which also scares him. I really can’t stress enough how much I enjoyed these two characters and the depth of their connection.

The setting for this movie also really helped put me into the story. Road trip movies now seem to always go for the extreme party cities where shenanigans are bound to happen. The fact that shenanigans occur in the California wine country is certainly different. While the setting is fun and different, I can’t really say the same thing about how the story progressed. While there are things that set Sideways apart, at it’s core it still follows the same formula set down by buddy and romantic comedies. The movie didn’t really throw me any curve balls or offer me any sort of dramatic surprises, which is weird considering how deep Payne worked to make his characters seem unique but he couldn’t really do the same with his story. There are some good moments of humor that do feel very original and that helps the story from becoming too stale. While I did chuckle at the movie and laugh out loud pretty hard once, it didn’t really strike me as hilarious. I can’t help but look at Sideways as a drama more than it is a comedy.

As far as the comedy did go, Giamatti was spot on as always. This is the kind of actor that can naturally find the perfect tone for a movie and strike it without even seeming to try. I wish the same could be said for Thomas Haden Church. I can’t really tell if his character annoyed me or his performance annoyed me. He just seemed over the top at times and, while it was a good foil for Giamatti’s character, he just didn’t have the same effect on me. Virginia Madsen is good in her role although there is one scene where the writing felt a bit too unnatural. Unfortunately, Sandra Oh’s character exists solely for an affair to happen. We get glimpses into her life, but she’s never really fleshed out to her potential, unlike Madsen. For a movie that’s so focused on character development, it’s easy to notice when one of them gets next to none.

Sideways is a good movie. I don’t think anyone will say otherwise. My only thing is that it isn’t really my cup of tea. I found it easy to find flaws because it just struck me as pretentious quite often and unfortunately predictable. Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen are excellent while Thomas Haden Church has moments of brilliance but also moments of over the top annoyance. I can’t say much for Sandra Oh since she didn’t have much to really contribute. Sideways works best as an examination of friendship, aging, and trust while also being a strong character study. It doesn’t really hold up quite the same way in the narrative department. As a comedy/drama it still holds up better than many.

Final Grade: B

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Mississippi Burning – Review

5 Jan

In 1964, 3 Civil Rights activists went missing in the small town of Philadelphia, Mississippi. Foul play was suspected, so the FBI made their presence known and an official investigation began. Over time, a handful of city officials and other citizens were ousted as members of the Ku Klux Klan and sentenced to prison for the murders of the activists. This story shows a very dark time in modern American history and is a perfect incident to be dramatized because all of the themes and hostilities that it could explore. This is where Alan Parker’s 1988 film Mississippi Burning comes in. Parker isn’t one to shy away from controversial topics, and this film did spark controversy, but it also works well as a piece of hard hitting entertainment. There is just one major flaw that stands in the way of this being a truly excellent movie.

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When three Civil Rights activists go missing in Jessup County, Mississippi, two FBI agents are sent to investigate. The investigation is headed by the young and hardheaded Agent Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe), who is partnered up with the experienced yet brash Agent Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman). Upon their arrival they are warned by multiple city officials that nobody wants them there and that whatever happens in their town is their business. This is unacceptable to the two investigators who call in more agents to help with the search. This causes an uproar in the Mississippi town, and causes the KKK to become even more hostile to the African American community in this town. With more lives being threatened every day, the town suddenly seems to be at war with itself which forces the agents to change their tactics in order to achieve justice.

The strongest thing that Mississippi Burning has going for it is its fantastic cast.  Other than Dafoe and Hackman, Frances McDormand, Brad Dourif, R. Lee Ermey, and Michael Rooker all have supporting roles. This is one of the stronger casts I’ve seen in a movie in a long time and they all bring their best to the table. While everyone is great I have to focus the most on Gene Hackman. There are times when he really stands out and there are times where I don’t really remember him, but never is he bad. In this film he’s downright excellent and it may be my favorite performance of his I’ve ever seen. These performances work really well with getting me really into the story and into the time period, which is super important for any period piece.

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What also be remembered to get an audience into a time period are the production values and costume design. Mississippi Burning exceeds in these two areas. This is a fantastic looking movie and is well deserving of the Academy Award it won for Best Cinematography. There is a great juxtaposition of serenity in the film making mixed with much more harsh and unforgiving film making. This works great with the themes and story of the movie. The set design and costume design also looks very natural and very believable. Sometimes when a movie about the 1960s comes out, there can be some unnecessary flashiness like the film makers are trying to prove that it’s a different time period instead of trusting the audiences to see for themselves. This movie looks exactly what I’d expect a small Mississippi town to look like the mid-1960s. I wasn’t alive, of course, so this is just an assumption.

There is one major thing about Mississippi Burning that really gets under my skin and I didn’t really notice it as I was watching. It was only when I was thinking about it afterward did I realize that the representation of African Americans in this movie isn’t all that flattering. There’s mention of Martin Luther King and there are a couple of marches shown in the movie, but altogether they’re just portrayed as weak, helpless, and scared. Of course, that’s a part of history. It was a terrifying time to be alive for many people, but it was also a time to stand up for yourself and your basic human rights. There could have been more black main characters instead of just using them as mostly silent side characters. This isn’t something that made the movie any less entertaining as it was on, but it was something that kept eating at me afterwards.

Mississippi Burning is very close to being a great movie. The performances are amazing and the cinematography is worthy of the Academy Award that it won. The only issue is that there are no central black characters in a movie that is all about racism in the South during the 1960s. Even if there was just one main African American character to ground the film with that perspective, I would have been pleased. Still, Mississippi Burning is a very entertaining movie that is filled with tension, suspense, and realistic atmosphere.

Final Grade: B

The Crying Game – Review

4 Jan

Back in 1992 a movie came out called The Crying Game and it succeeded at causing a major stir among audiences which made it one of the most talked about movies in recent history. Critics and journalists were having a field day writing about the secrets of the movie, and it ended up being nominated for 6 Academy Awards and winning for Best Screenplay. Writer and director Neil Jordan worked very hard to get this controversial film made and it wasn’t always an easy task. At certain points it just seemed downright impossible. As history shows, The Crying Game did get made and has become something of a classic even if it isn’t something that is discussed too much anymore. I’d like to get some of that discussion started up again, so let’s get started.

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After Jody (Forest Whitaker), a British soldier, is covertly abducted by a group of IRA members, he is taken back to their hideout deep in the woods. Over the course of a few days, one of the IRA members, Fergus (Stephen Rea) befriends Jody and learns a lot about his past and his girlfriend, Dil (Jaye Davidson). After tragedy befalls the group, Fergus flees to London acting on a promise he made to Jody to check on Dil. The two quickly meet up in a bar and form a relationship which weighs heavily on Fergus’ conscience. As Fergus wrestles with his beliefs and motives, to of his IRA colleagues, Jude (Miranda Richardson) and Maguire (Adrian Dunbar), arrive in London and force him into another job that involves the assassination of a judge. His two lives from the past and present proves to be a volatile mixture that will lead to an inevitable murderous outcome.

The Crying Game is a movie that takes so many different themes and mash them together to create a hodgepodge of intriguing subject matter. Like the characters in the movie, these themes often clash together which causes a lot of the drama in the film. At first, the movie seems to be solely focused on the tension between Britain and the IRA. The barrier that breaks between Jody and Fergus in the first third of the movie is interesting to see because it shows that if you take away the labels of “British” and “IRA,” what’s left is just being human. The next part of the movie focuses on identity in multiple ways. Without getting into the realm of spoilers, there’s a huge focus on who Fergus is, was, and who he wants to be. This all happens when he meets Dil and introduces himself as Jimmy. He pretty much changes his appearance and name to become someone else, which is threatened when the IRA finally catches up with him. There’s so much more thematic depth that I’d like to talk about, but that would be at the risk of ruining parts of the movie.

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To go along with the deep thematic material of The Crying Game is an incredibly well realized screenplay by Neil Jordan. The characters that are written come with many layers, and each layer is slowly peeled back as the movie goes on, even if the character is only in the movie for a short time. These dimensions are best explored during the many conversations characters have with one another as the plot unfolds. The first half hour of the movie is pretty much different interactions between Fergus and Jody, which has a huge impact on the characters, especially with Fergus who is the main character of the movie. These two men should be enemies, but simple conversations turn them into close friends. This kind of dialogue also opens up an moral ambiguity that stirred up some controversy when this was released in the UK. In 1992, it wasn’t a popular thing in Britain to have a movie with a sympathetic and relatable IRA member as the protagonist.

The Crying Game is one of those movies that has a history that’s almost as interesting as the movie itself. Neil Jordan made a pretty good name for himself with his more independently produced films at the start of his career, but as his bigger budgeted efforts in the United States came along, things started to get a little bit shaky. Jordan saw The Crying Game as his chance to earn back his good reputation and feel like he was making films that were worth it again. The problem was that no producers or distributers seemed to share his enthusiasm about the screenplay. Jordan and his producer, Stephen Woolley, went all over the place asking for funding, and they finally found this funding in the UK, Ireland, and Japan. When the movie was released, it became a sensation. Critics warned audiences not to spoil the movie and it remained in theaters for much longer than anyone anticipated. The cherry on top of it all was an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

The Crying Game is a gem from the early 1990s and has unfortunately seemed to disappear from mainstream audiences. That’s really a shame since the film deals with timeless themes of violence, identity, and humanity in ways that were very controversial, especially for a movie released in 1992. This isn’t just a throw away thriller that is forgotten about 15 minutes after seeing it. This is a movie that stays with you days after you’ve seen it and has so many layers to peel away at to see the whole picture and the message the creators were trying to convey. This is a rich, intelligent, and rewarding movie that I certainly recommend.

Final Grade: B+

An American Werewolf in London & An American Werewolf in Paris – Review

15 Dec

I gotta be honest, werewolf movies really aren’t my cup of tea. There’s something about them that just strike me as kind of silly, but I guess that can be said about a lot of classic monsters. One of the most iconic werewolf films is John Landis’ horror/comedy An American Werewolf in London. Over the years this film has become known as a cult classic due to its wit, blending of genres, and it’s outstanding practical special effects. Like many horror movies that have come before and after, a sequel was released, An American Werewolf in Paris, years after the original. This one has received the opposite kind of attention and it seems that people just want to forget about it. Today, I’m going to be looking at both of them and giving my own thoughts.

Let’s start with John Landis’ original film from 1981.

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David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are two American college students backpacking through England. After being warned by locals to “beware the moon” and “stay on the road,” the two end up getting lost and attacked by a large animal. Jack is killed and David is injured, waking up in a hospital three weeks later. At the hospital, David meets nurse named Alex (Jenny Agutter) and the two form a relationship with David eventually staying at her apartment. Throughout this time, David is plagued with bad dreams and is getting visits from Jack’s slowly decaying corpse who explains that he has been infected with the werewolf’s curse, and if he doesn’t die then all of the werewolf’s victims are doomed to walk the earth in limbo and more people will die because of David. David doesn’t know what to believe until the night of the full moon when he first transforms into a werewolf and begins a bloody spree throughout the city of London.

Horror and comedy often time go hand in hand. When I’m watching a really scary movie and something just frightens me more than I thought it would, I often find myself laughing at both myself and the incident that happened onscreen. This is why horror/comedies also blend dark humor and horror so well. An American Werewolf in London is one of the classics of the horror/comedy genre. This is a very lighthearted movie and at no time does it ever really take itself too seriously. Even when things do start getting more intense towards the end, the film adopts this over the top brutal slapstick that is more funny then actually scary. What is taken very seriously, however, is the outstanding make up and special effects work. Rick Baker, who previously worked on Star Wars, does amazing work with the famous transformation scene and also creating monsters and walking corpses that appear throughout the movie. Baker’s also the first person to win the Academy Award for Best Best Makeup and Hairstyling, which was a new award the year of this film’s release.

With all of the cool werewolf effects and dark humor at the forefront, there are some elements that get pushed aside. For one thing, the characters in the movie are nothing all that special. David and Jack are both fine characters, but what’s really memorable about them is the situation they’re in. The ending of the movie also can define the term “anti-climactic.” While I was being critical of how the story was being told with some scenes not seeming to go anywhere in particular, I had time to admire how much like a classic Universal monster movie An American Werewolf in London felt like. Everything from the foggy countryside to the pub in the beginning with the cautious villagers to the relationship that grows between David and Alex. You can really see how much John Landis was inspired by those movies to create a classic of his own.

An American Werewolf in London has become a shining example of horror/comedy and the work that can be achieved with practical special effects. It’s a darkly funny story of a fish out of water that also happens to be a werewolf. I only wish that the story could have been tightened up a little bit and the ending made into something more memorable. Still, any fan of horror movies or even comedies will have a lot of fun with this film and see why it’s considered a modern cult classic.

Final Grade: B+

Sixteen years after the release of An American Werewolf in London, the sequel titled An American Werewolf in Paris was released and was met with pretty overwhelming negative results. After seeing it for myself, I’m comfortable jumping on that bandwagon.

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Andy McDermott (Tom Everett Scott) and his two friends are traveling Europe looking for excitement and girls. When the trio arrive in Paris, Andy chooses the Eiffel Tower for his next base jumping stunt and ends up saving a woman, Sérafine (Julie Delpy), from jumping off and killing herself. After this heroic act, Andy and Sérafine get more involved with each other, but the relationship gets more than a little complicated when it is revealed that she is a werewolf who, along with her step father, has been working on a cure for their curse. On the opposite side of Sérafine are a group of werewolves, led by the vicious Claude (Pierre Cosso), who want to reverse engineer the cure and use it as a way to transform anytime they want to.

Compared to the original film, this one is completely outrageous. The positives of An American Werewolf in London that helped it become a cult classic is its charm, simplicity in story, and the remarkable practical effects. All of this is completely absent in An American Werewolf in Paris. This film has all the charm of a bargain bin sex comedy and special effects that are guaranteed to cause belly laughs. It’s hard to even call this movie a sequel because at first glance, there’s nothing to really connect it to the original film. It was only after reading up on the film a little bit did I realize there’s an absurd connection that is teetering a very fine line of making sense. What we have here is more of an absurd remake than an actual sequel, but calling this a remake would be an insult to the original. My best guess is that this movie is simply a cash grab that’s riding on the name and popularity of Landis’ classic.

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There really isn’t a whole lot to say that isn’t painfully obvious once you actually watch the movie. I’m not sure who thought that the idea of making the plot to this movie as contrived as it is was a good idea, but they couldn’t have been in their right mind. Amongst all of the negativity, I will say that Tom Everett Scott and Julie Delpy seem to be doing their best, but a lot of the lines they deliver that’s meant to be funny are cringe worthy at best. When people finally do start turning into werewolves, which feels like forever with the “character building” scenes, they aren’t anything impressive at all. In fact, the look unfinished and out of place. There are a few instances of practical effects which are welcome, but they’re so few and far between.

The bottom line is that this isn’t a movie anyone should see even if they are fans of werewolf movies. It takes the same ideas as John Landis’ film and presents them in a much weaker way without the wit and charm that should come with a movie that’s related to An American Werewolf in London. Just stay away from An American Werewolf in Paris and your brain cells have a better chance of staying intact.

Final Grade: D

There you have it. An American Werewolf in London is a cult classic that deserves all of the praise it receives whereas the sequel is a disaster disguised as a horror/comedy. Like I said before, I’m not a huge fan of werewolf movies, but An American Werewolf in London is just too much fun to pass up.

La Vie en Rose – Review

6 Oct

If someone were to make a list of iconic singers from around the world, I can guarantee that Édith Piaf would be close to the top. Piaf’s unique voice and graceful stage presence made her an international success until her untimely death at the age of just 47. Even today, her music can be found in movies, television, and commercials which shows that even though she’s no longer with us, her musical legacy is still strong. Something that reinforced this was the 2007 film by Olivier Dahan, La Vie en Rose. This film tells the life story of Édith Piaf, which includes incredible joy and overwhelming tragedy. It’s definitely a story that had to be told.

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The film begins with a sick looking Édith Piaf (Marion Cotillard) taking the stage for a concert, and quickly fainting during a song in front of a large audience. The film then cuts back to 1918 when Piaf was just a young child who is left by her parents to live with her grandmother in a brothel in Normandy. As the years go on, Piaf makes a meager living singing on the street, but is soon found by Louis Leplée (Gérard Depardieu) and invited to sing at his club where she quickly becomes something of a local celebrity. As time goes on, her fame increases and travels around the world, including New York City, where tragedy hits hard when she loses the love of her life, Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), in a plane crash. Finally, back in France towards the end of her life, it’s clear that Piaf’s abuse of prescription drugs and alcohol have taken a huge toll on her health, and the devastating realization that soon she will no longer be able to sing anymore.

This is a hard movie to summarize because it tells so much of a person’s life. This is a pretty long movie, clocking in with a run time of almost two and a half hours, but even then I feel like there may have been more to be told. That works to the film’s credit since I was intrigued by the subject and the handling of Piaf by making the icon into exactly what she was: a human being. While I love the way Piaf is depicted in this movie, I wasn’t really a huge fan of how the story was told. The film starts towards the end and then jumps back to the beginning for a while, and naturally progresses from there. That’s all fine, but as the movie goes on it jumps back and forth and then introduces an even later timeline, and then starts jumping around even more rapidly. Towards the end of the movie, I jumped around so much that I was sometimes confused with where and when I was in the story. I understand that this was a way for the film makers to get in as much of the story as they could, and I’m ok with a cut up timeline, but this was just way overdone.

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It’s impossible to talk about La Vie en Rose and not talk about Marion Cotillard. This is, in my opinion, one of the greatest screen performances of all time. When you’re watching the movie and getting more engaged in the story, you forget that you’re watching Cotillard playing Édith Piaf and are actually watching Piaf herself. I know that’s how I felt. It’s a complete transformation from one person into another, and it’s truly incredible. Not only does she nail Piaf’s voice (although the singing was dubbed), but also the way she stood, small mannerisms that she had, and even small changes to her face that made all the difference. With a movie like this where the character was a real person whose life was filled with such success and tragedy, it’s important to believe what’s happening. Cotillard’s performances made this a very easy film to believe and get lost in. She is a marvel to watch, and earned the Academy Award for her performance, which is one of the few times someone has won this award for an entire foreign language role.

La Vie en Rose also is just a beautiful looking movie, even in the beginning when a young Piaf is living a life on the streets in Belleville to the more upscale life that she led in New York. The set design is all fantastic and the costumes work great with the different decades that Piaf lived through. There’s just so much wonderful stuff to look at, and I have to give a lot of credit to Olivier Dahan and his direction for adding something more to the design. At first, I thought the directing was nothing special, but that’s not the case. It’s understated and controlled and never takes the style too far. One of my favorite scenes in the movie happens during a devastating moment in Piaf’s life, and instead of cutting, the scene follows Piaf through her entire apartment and catches the entire range of emotion in her performance and the atmosphere surrounding the incident.

La Vie en Rose is not without it’s faults, but it’s a movie that truly captures the tumultuous life of an icon of music. This is a frustrating movie to sit through, at times, because how the story keeps jumping from the past to the present to the future to the past then who knows where. If that was just toned down a bit, the movie would have been improved. Still, Cotillard’s performance, the production design, and Dahan’s skilled directing make this an above average biopic.

Final Grade: B+

Starship Troopers Series – Review: Part 1

15 Sep

Science fiction is one of my favorite genres of film, and when you add the themes of war and militarization along with the enemies being giant bugs from another planet, I’m completely on board. This makes the Starship Troopers movies right up my alley, but not all of them have gotten much praise. Based off of a 1959 novel by Robert Heinlein, the story of humanity in a utopian, yet oddly fascist, world in the 23rd century who go to war against a race known as the Bugs provided a lot of heavy handed messages that the author believed in. It seems pretty ripe for feature film story telling, and in some ways it worked. This series, like many others, certainly has its fair share of ups and downs.

Let’s start with Paul Verhoeven’s original cult classic from 1997, Starship Troopers.

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By the 23rd century, the Earth is now classified as a federation that is ruled in a fascistic and militaristic way. It’s a strange utopia that condones violence to survive and the only way to become a citizen is to serve in some branch of the military. That’s exactly what Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) intends to do once he graduates high school. Along with his friends Carl (Neil Patrick Harris), Carmen (Denise Richards) and Dizzy (Dina Meyer), Rico joins the military and is assigned with Dizzy to Mobile Infantry. After a race of giant insects called the Bugs shoot an asteroid across the galaxy and completely wipe out Buenos Aires, the Mobile Infantry and the Federation’s air fleet mobilize to the Bug planet of Klendathu, where a bloody war begins for the survival of the human race.

When it was first released, Starship Troopers was not met with too much success critically and the box office return was less than what was expected. Over the years, however it’s gained a status as a cult classic. When the film first begins and a lot of time is spent at the high school and basic training, I was worried that this would be an uneven mess with a disappointingly low amount of action. The first 45 minutes seemed to drag, but when the action does begin, I became thankful for all the time setting up the characters’ personalities and relationships. This makes the war scenes all the more impactful, and when someone gets hurt or is killed, I really felt like something was lost. Believe it or not, this is not a mindless movie and does evoke some real emotion, even though the acting is less than stellar.

Let’s face it, though, this is a sci-fi war film, so let’s get into the real nitty gritty. Paul Verhoeven may have had some missteps as a film maker, but it’s much easier to remember his films like Starship TroopersTotal Recall, and RoboCop. This movie stands as one of his achievements. The special effects are out of this world for the time and were even nominated for an Academy Award. When the Bugs swarm the soldiers, the movie gets so intense and action packed, which is where it really shines. There’s also lots of what I like to call “Verhoeven gore,” which, if your like me, adds some fun to the movie. He just seems to love blowing people up. Finally, this film works great as a satire of fascism and blind love and devotion to the military. The 1959 novel this film is based on got a lot of flack for seemingly glorifying a Nazi-like utopia. Verhoeven used this, flipped it on its head, and created bitingly funny satire that’s the backbone of this entire movie.

While I was planning on not really liking this movie when it first started up, I ended up loving it as the credits began rolling. It’s such a fun movie loaded with action, great special effects, and hilarious satire that starts in the very first scene. I was even surprised with how much I cared for the characters, despite some rather tone deaf performances. This is a movie I wish did better when it was first released so Verhoeven would have returned for a sequel. Nevertheless, it is what it is and this particular movie is a total sci-fi blast.

Final Grade: A-

I feel like I was just talking about direct to video movies with my review of the Darkman films, and here I go again. The original Starship Troopers was the only film to make it to theaters, and all the sequels went right for the home viewers. Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation premiered on Encore (now known as Starz Encore) in 2004, and then went on DVD a few months later. The reasons can not be more clear.

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The war against the Bugs has been raging for nearly 5 years, and while the humans are victorious in many places, there are fronts where the Bugs have the clear upper hand. On one such planets, a group of troopers are overrun by a swarm of Bugs and are forced to retreat to an abandoned outpost called Hotel 1-8-5. With their commanding officer, General Shepard (Ed Lauter), missing, the squad is under the new leadership of psychic Lt. Dill (Lawrence Monoson) and Sgt. Rake (Brenda Strong). As the Bugs find the outpost and prepare to attack, Pvt. Sahara (Colleen Porch) releases an imprisoned officer, Captain Dax (Richard Burgi), in the outpost to help fight against the swarm. What these troopers don’t know is that the Bugs can now infect people and infiltrate squads from within, which spells danger for these soldiers confined to this small area.

With Hero of the Federation, we go from the knock out action, special effects, and satire from the first one and just downgrade it to what comes close to the lowest it can possibly get. I understand that a t.v. movie isn’t going to have the budget of a Hollywood feature film, but my goodness this movie looks hideous. Aside from the fact that it was shot on HD video, it’s just a dark and colorless film. All of the exterior shots are filmed at night with only a small area lit or sand completely covering up any scenery that could’ve given me an idea of where everything was taking place. Once the soldiers get into Hotel 1-8-5, things remain dark and colorless, but everything now just looks old and gross. I give the film makers credit for the claustrophobic feeling, which is nailed really well, but this is just not an easy movie to look at.

Phil Tippett, who is known for his special effects work on Jurassic Park and the first Starship Troopers, returns to direct this film which helps in a lot of ways. For one thing, for a t.v. movie that’s then released right to DVD, the special effects are really good. They aren’t stunning, but there are some scenes that had really impressive practical work. I can’t really say the same about his work with the actors. The acting in the first film really wasn’t anything special, but this is a different story completely. There are some line deliveries that made me either cringe or burst out laughing. The fact that this isn’t a big budget film really isn’t much of an excuse since I’ve seen t.v. movies with impressive performances. I feel like the ambition of this project just didn’t meet the standards of what was actually possible in making a good movie.

Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation is more than a disappointing sequel. It hardly even registers as a sequel. Not only was it released almost 8 years after the original, but it was also a t.v. movie that loses a lot in translation to the small screen. The acting is subpar, the cinematography is bland, and the only saving grace is some cool special effects and an action filled ending. If you want to watch a movie with close to the exact same storyline, watch The Thing, or forget this storyline and just put on the original Starship Troopers.

Final Grade: D

So far we have a one great movie and one that really bugged the hell out of me, pun definitely intended. We still have a few more movies to go with this series, but that review will be coming soon. For now, stick with the original.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – Review

16 Aug

The golden age of Hollywood is a very unique time for American film. This was a time when actors were a commodity for a studio and the idea was more important than a director’s vision. While this is true for most films of this time, there were exceptions to that rule. With that said, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of the biggest exceptions, and took major risks for that time period. When I think of character arcs that grow and eventually take a turn for the worst, while also showing the viewer what’s wrong with society, I think of the movies of the 1970s by auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. The fact that The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was released in 1948 and featured this level of dark development and cynical humor made this film something that would live on forever with lovers of the medium.

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After failing to find any real kind of income in the Mexican oil-town of Tampico, Mexico, two drifters named Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Curtin (Tim Holt) are close to giving up their efforts. Luck starts to shine one them, however, when Dobbs wins a small lottery and the two meet a prospector named Howard (Walter Huston), who tells them of the abundance of gold hidden deep in the Sierra Madre mountains. The three men soon set out on their adventure to dig up the gold and make their fortune. Trouble waits for them along the way, including a gang of ruthless bandits, but that’s just where their troubles begin. The trio soon begin to get very suspicious of each other and how much they can all trust each other. It soon boils down to a game of last man standing to determine who will get the gold and the fortune that goes along with it.

Like I said before, this is a pretty dark and cynical movie that certainly didn’t pander to audiences of the time period. Anyone who looks at the posters or trailer for this movie when it was first released could swear that The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was a straight up adventure story. Well, they’d be surprised to find out that it most certainly wasn’t. Jack Warner was very excited about this movie and gave writer and director John Huston complete control over his film, but Warner was also very concerned with how to market the movie once it was finished. This movie is more of a character study of Dobbs more than it is anything else, and at times, the film got pretty cerebral which was unexpected. A lot of the success of this movie, along with John Huston’s superb direction, can be associated with Humphrey Bogart’s thrilling performance.

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Now, I’m going to say something that may sound pretty outrageous, but I’m not really that huge a fan of Humphrey Bogart. His acting in most things is pretty standard and I find him to be a little overrated. He pretty much plays the same range of character in any movie I’ve seen him in. Of course, the theme of this movie’s history can be titled “exceptions to the rule” and this is another one. Bogart is simply outstanding in his performance as Dobbs, a character who goes from one trouble to another and by the time the movie’s over, it’s all finally caught up and has become too much for him to handle. At first, Bogart plays the role pretty subtly, but as the story progresses, he lashes out more and more and becomes almost unrecognizable by the end. This is one of the finest character changes in this history of film, and it’s all thanks to Bogart’s ever changing demeanor and this rare time that he literally seemed to become somebody else entirely.

While The Treasure of the Sierra Madre isn’t an adventure movie per se, it does have it’s fair share of adventure. There’s plenty of shoot outs and tense interactions that give this movie some real excitement. It’s interesting to note that at the time this movie was being shot, it was relatively new for Hollywood film makers to shoot a film on location, especially when the location is as brutal as it was for this film. Some of these scenes were shot on back lots and in the studio, but a lot of the film was actually shot in the deserts of Arizona and Mexico. This made for a really grueling shoot filled with loaded tempers, but it all paid off in the end. Shooting this movie on location gives it a sense of realism that adds to the darker, more realistic tones of the movie as a whole. I couldn’t have seen it working as well as it did if it were all shot in studio.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a movie far ahead of its time that shares similar themes and characterizations that would become more known with movies of the 1970s. There’s plenty of adventure and entertainment stuffed in the story, but the most fun I had watching this movie was seeing an average character fall way too deep into his own head and become paranoid beyond repair. This film works best as a character study, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have thrills along the way. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre has certainly earned the right to be called a classic and named one of the best American films of all time.