Sunday, September 23, 2018

Good Will Faltering: "After Earth" (2013)

While not the unmitigated disaster it was made out to be upon its initial release, "After Earth" is an interesting, violent failure yet completely watchable.

Will Smith is Cypher Raige (yeah, I know), a legendary military general. Earth has become uninhabitable, and mankind has moved on to a new planet populated by giant human killing alien monsters. Raige has the ability to show no fear (the aliens feed off the pheromones released), and thanks to that unique ability, has risen in the ranks. His son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), wants to follow in his father's footsteps, but isn't getting advanced at military school. As Cypher prepares for one final uneventful trip before retiring, he takes Kitai along, as well as a captured and contained alien creature.

The uneventful quickly becomes eventful, as the spaceship crashes, leaving just the Raiges alive. Cypher's legs are broken, and he must send his son out to retrieve a distress signal which is buried in some wreckage a hundred kilometers away. Oh, and not only has that creature escaped, but the spaceship has crash landed on Earth, which now teems with genetically mutated animals that are also looking to kill some humans.

Will Smith's name is all over the credits- coming up with the story, co-producing, and starring. M. Night Shyamalan's direction is assured and confident, which camera movements that feel natural. He is not credited with any scripting, so those looking for a Shyamalan twist ending will be disappointed. Doing some further reading, Smith had hoped this would open up a multimedia franchise that would revisit this look at humanity a thousand years from now, but the audiences didn't show up, and the film was panned.

The biggest complaint I heard when this was released was about the performances. Teen Jaden Smith plays a teen very well, but I do agree that Will Smith is not good here. His idea of stoicism and being emotionally distant to his family (Sophie Okonedo is his wife), is to show absolutely no emotion and to deliver his lines in a monotone. Hollywood is filled with films about military men who do show emotion even though there first love is the military. As an Air Force Brat, I can tell you I never saw any personnel act like this. Maybe the silent assassin/military man of the future acts this way, know-it-all? Granted, but does that mean teen boys of the future will still act the same way as teen boys of today, as Jaden Smith's performance makes clear?

The computer generated special effects were also a distraction. The pacing was swift until the last half hour or so, when things began to derail, and while I am aware that the military salute is very important in the military, I would like to call a moratorium on the "you've earned MY respect" salute (complete with swelling orchestral fanfare) that permeates many military-themed films.

Yeah, not a great film, but definitely not a disaster, either. It would be interesting to see the longer cut of the film, or look at some of the material that was prepared to launch this "After Earth" franchise. It's a shame so much time and effort was wasted on such an endeavor. I'll give this (* * *) out of five stars. MPAA Rated (PG13) for strong physical violence, gore, and adult situations.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A Few Minor Missteps: "Alive and Kicking" (1997)

The terminally underrated Jason Flemyng plays a dancer with AIDS who falls for someone unexpected in this dramedy.

Flemyng is Tonio, a dancer in London who is watching seemingly everyone around die from the disease. Infected himself, he and his dance troupe try to power on through a difficult performance under the mentally unstable eye of Luna (Dorothy Tutin, offering up a touching performance). Tonio meets the mysterious Jack (Antony Sher) at the funeral for his mentor/friend Ramon (Anthony Higgins), and learns Jack was counseling Ramon through his fatal diagnosis. Tonio and Jack begin to see each other, and complications arise almost immediately. Jack is HIV-negative, so physical sexual contact is difficult. Tonio throws himself into the upcoming performance, but his body begins having other ideas. Jack has issues of his own, drinking and smoking too much, perhaps racked by guilt that he does not have the very disease he is trying to coach others through. Tonio and his best friend Millie (Diane Parish) confide in each other as Tonio and Jack fight and make up ad nauseam.

While the performances are great all around, Tonio and Jack are hard characters to like. Tonio expresses his emotions through his dancing, but when he isn't onstage, watch out. Jack begins drinking his feelings away, asking Tonio some hard-hitting questions (why aren't you angry? would you have given me a second look if you weren't sick?) that both Jack and the viewer never get answers to. The dance troupe and Jack's counselor friends are all cliquey, and that does repel (again) both the men and the viewer. This isn't a "bad" thing, but where the film does falter is in its romantic conventions in an otherwise uncoventional romance. Jack and Tonio go away on vacation (if I see one more scene of someone's ashes getting scattered, and blowing back onto the person doing the scattering, I will scream). Their bickering gets tiring, and the film's pacing begins to suffer since we know the outcome of what will happen in the next scene. Fight, make up, fight, make up, fight, make up...

Flemyng was Dr. Jekyll in "The League of Extraordinary Gentleman," and was one of the best things about that film. I could imagine him in a Bond/007 villain role. While he expresses all of Tonio's emotions facially and physically, his voice is velvety deep and rich, but slightly monotone (think Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter). His Tonio isn't flighty and light, his bitchiness has an edge even in lighter moments (such as the droll scene where he and lesbian Millie decide to throw caution to the wind and have sex, or his tantrum before a performance). I didn't like the original title, "Indian Summer" (the name of the production that Tonio and Millie are in), as well as the American "Alive and Kicking," which sounds like a documentary about a spunky troupe of octogenarian tap dancers.

Nancy Meckler's direction is good, but Martin Sherman's script is tonally off-putting. Trust me, I'm an expert at unlikely romantic pairings, and while Tonio and Jack go through the paces, I found myself checking the clock once in a while. If anyone else but Flemyng had been in the lead role, you probably could knock a star and a half off my rating- (* * * 1/2) out of five stars.

MPAA Rated R for profanity, some female nudity, some male nudity, sexual content, strong sexual references, adult situations, mild drug use, strong alcohol and tobacco use.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

One-Take It or Leave It: "Broken Mile" (2017)

Writer/director/cameraman Justin McConnell goes the Alfred Hitchcock/"Rope" route, presenting a thriller purportedly filmed in one shot without edits (although a little research online reveals that wasn't the case).

Shaun (Francesco Filice) wakes up in a pool of his own sick in a bathtub, stumbles out into a living room, and finds his girlfriend Sarah (Lea Lawrynowicz) dead of a drug overdose. He panics and runs, with his best friend and Sarah's real paramour Kenny (Patrick McFadden) hot on his heels (armed with a pistol). Shaun flees to former girlfriend Amy's (Caleigh Le Grand) apartment, and the two find themselves running around a rainy Toronto avoiding Kenny, who "just wants to talk."

Going the "real time" route must be hell on a filmmaker. The logistics alone send your mind reeling. McConnell avoids this by employing seamless edits to make the audience think they are watching the story in literal real time (and the edits, however many there are, are seamless- I didn't spot one!). "Rope" worked because the intensity of an unbroken ten minute take (before a laughable transition shot on a performer's back) cranked up the tension of the story, and the actors' over-the-top performances. In "Broken Mile," the fine performances are there, and McConnell's off-kilter script and characterization is evident, too. He did a documentary called "Skull World," which immersed the viewer in another off-kilter person's life. Shaun is no hero, you will wish he would just answer Amy's questions about exactly what happened before he came to her for help. McFadden is fine, McConnell succeeds in making a minivan (of all things) actually menacing. Le Grand seems to be the center of attention in the film, and holds her own, showing us why Amy is drawn to these men and the pathetic turns their lives have taken.

Obvious budget constraints abound here. This is a thriller, but not an action-packed one. The change of point of view during the film, from Shaun to Kenny to Amy, is nifty, but then McConnell hits you with an overly long scene of Amy driving to a rendezvous point with Shaun...and driving and driving and driving. There are a couple of red herrings thrown into the film that makes you think McConnell was going to pick up the speed and suspense, but they didn't amount to anything. The climax is rife with black comedic moments, and I wish the previous seventy-five minutes had played on that as well. You really want to knock some sense into these characters, and McConnell's camerawork makes you believe you are right there with them. The musical score is great, but the sound mix on the DVD gets extremely loud at a few points depending on where the microphone was being directed.

"Broken Mile" is an interesting film. McConnell is a known low-budget film maker in Canada, and I wish he would be able to break into a larger budget, if only to see what his imagination could bring us. I give this film (* * *) out of five stars. This is not MPAA rated, but contains some physical violence, mild gun violence, strong profanity, drug references, and adult situations.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

I'm Just a Boy, Watching a Romantic Comedy: "27 Dresses" (2008)

As I sat through the almost two-hour running time for this film, I kept thinking the same thing over and over again: there is not one laugh to be had here, but I have to keep watching just in case they throw cliche out the window and do something different...aaaand they don't.

Jane (Katharine Heigl) is a responsible young woman who works for hunky George (Edward Burns? Really?). She's in love with him, of course, but she is also in love with weddings. Lots of weddings. She thrives on helping good friends through the biggest day of their lives, and has the titular twenty-seven bridesmaid dresses in her closet to prove it. One night, while trying to attend two weddings at the same time, she meets rapscallion Kevin (James Marsden), who is immediately taken with Jane. Conveniently, Jane's "better looking" sister Tess (Malin Akerman) comes back to town, lies her way into George's arms, and suddenly the two are engaged. Jane tries to turn to cynical Kevin, but he conveniently writes her must-read wedding column in a fictitious New York paper, and in actuality hates weddings. Secretly, he is working on an article about Jane and all of her big days, ready to get out of the Style section for good. Jane's careful life begins unraveling as George and Tess' big day nears.

"27 Dresses" has all the cliches. ALL OF THEM. Judy Greer is along to play Jane's oversexed bestie (I'm hard pressed to remember her not playing this same role in other films and television). Kevin has a sex-minded pal (Maulik Pancholy), too, but they don't seem to be too close. The cast gamely goes through the motions, and I really felt my age when Brian Kerwin popped up as Jane and Tess' dad- there was a time a few years ago when he could have played Marsden's part. Every plot point is telegraphed, and it was painful to watch a capable cast pretend that what they were doing was unique. The final shot is nice, but the film runs about twenty minutes too long.

So why not a one-star review? Rake it over the coals? Two words: Katharine Heigl. She is fantastic. Her comic timing is impeccable, she's easy on the eyes, and watching her react to Tess gunning for the man she loves is a treat. Everyone else is so involved in their own lives, they don't see Jane suffering in silence, barely able to utter complete sentences. Heigl pulls this role off so well, she rises high above the sub-par material she was given. When Jane and Kevin meet cute for the first time, both performers must take deep breaths in order to release every double entendre and verbal barb that screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna has cooked up. A lot of the quips could have been spaced out later into the film, when lethargy sets in because you know exactly what will happen next.

In the end, "27 Dresses" is standard stuff, and I don't recommend it. (* *) out of five stars. This film is MPAA rated PG13, and contains profanity and sexual references.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Insert Snarky Phone Pun Here: "Cell" (2016)

The behind-the-scenes drama surrounding the financing, making, and distribution of this film based on Stephen King's novel is more interesting than the film itself, which is yet another post-apocalyptic road movie that owes plenty to King's previous works.

Clay (a tired John Cusack) is a graphic novel writer who is finally making it big. His estranged wife and son live in northern New England, and he has just arrived in a Boston airport with his good career news. Everyone's on their cell phones, when suddenly people start going insane and killing others around them. Planes collide and crash to the ground in all their computer animated glory (more on that later), and Clay flees, finding himself underground in a subway tunnel where cell phone signals cannot reach. He meets up with Tom (Samuel L. Jackson), and they head to Clay's apartment, picking up neighbor Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman) along the way (she killed her own mother, which she seems to shake off rather quickly). The trio set out for Clay's family's home, he is confident that despite the chaos going on around them, his wife and son are going to be alright. The impossible trek turns into an information gathering field trip, as our group of heroes meet up with various characters who all offer input as to what is happening, and the audience has to delineate the facts as well. The climax of the film has gained cult status for its lousy, impossibly cheesy special effects.

From what I have read, "Cell" seems to have been a doomed production from the start. King co-wrote the screenplay, but there were financing issues (there are a ton of production companies listed in the opening credits). The lack of a sure budget means what should have been some epic scenes (the opening airport scene, a mass cell-zombie extermination on a soccer field, the climax) are treated to special effects that are more at home on a YouTube fan film channel. The film itself debuted online, then opened in a handful of theaters (has this marketing strategy ever worked in the history of movies?), and even the DVD/digital copy I purchased was in the $5 bargain bin at Wal-Mart, despite coming out almost a year ago.

Director Williams has done other films, but he seems to have been hamstrung in his creative efforts here. He is the only one who participated on the audio commentary (I couldn't sit through this again to listen to it), and it's very telling that his behind-the-scenes featurette interview is done with a giant green screen in the background. The computer animation here is awful. The climax should have been effective and creepy, but I couldn't stop guffawing at the Video Toaster-like effects (there's a early 1990's reference for all you middle-aged broadcasting and mass communications majors out there). I didn't read King's novel, I gave up on King after slogging through half of "Insomnia," but I could spot story elements from The Stand, Pet Sematary, The Shining, and even Maximum Overdrive here. In King's America, does everyone sit on a cache of guns? Good thing one supporting character seems to be an expert bomb maker, providing a convenient catalyst for the finale. In true Hollywood fashion, guns are found, everyone is an expert shot, and ammo is never-ending. Williams' best scenes are the intimately creepy ones, like the drive-in theater, Clay's home, and a fortified bar. His direction is a bit shaky and off-putting, which adds to the tension.

The cast does what they can, everyone gets their little moments. I wondered why no one turns on a TV in the film, or where the stereotypical evil government was. The characters, and the viewer, must accept what is happening and run with it, and ambiguity is a good thing, but having all the survivors being visited in their nightmares by the same red hoodie-wearing demonic character was never followed through with or explained to my satisfaction.

"Cell" isn't the worst film ever made, heck, it's not even the worst Stephen King adaptation ever made (I'm glaring at you, "Dreamcatcher"), but it is a definite curiosity. MPAA rated (R), the film contains physical violence, gun violence, gore, profanity, mild sexual content, and adult situations. (* *) out of five stars.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Twisted Sisters: "Sisters of Death" (1976)

This 1970's relic is a clever little thriller with plenty of twists and turns and the over-the-top finale is fun. Too bad the film makers don't make the best of the nubile female cast and fantastic setting, instead dwelling in technical mistakes and iffy pacing.

The film opens with a ceremony inducting two new members into a group called the Sisters. One of the initiation rites involves putting a gun to the newbie's heads, and it goes off, killing Liz (Elizabeth Bergen). The other half dozen Sisters are rightfully horrified. Cut to seven years later, and all of the Sisters receive invitations to a reunion. They gather, and are driven out to the location by two hired men (Paul Carr and Joe E. Tata), who have never met their boss. The Sisters are obviously intimidated by the mystery, and the guys hang around hoping to score with the women. Soon, the partygoers find themselves trapped in the remote mansion by an active electrical fence, and the murderous Sisters are slowly being picked off one by one.

I collectively refer to the women as the Sisters, because aside from Claudia Jennings as model Judy, none of the other characters stuck out in my mind. The two brunettes looked so much alike, and Jennings resembles another brown haired Sister, I thought everyone might be related in real life. Just when you think you know who is creeping off with who, who might be in on the murderous plot, and who just got killed, their doppelganger pops up and you think "oh, wait, I thought that was who died." Old pro Arthur Franz plays a good bad guy, and the location is wonderful. The screenplay does generate some tension here and there, but an over-enthusiastic boom microphone will suddenly fall into a shot and kill the mood. By the time the climax rolls around, where a very large gun makes a laugh-worthy entrance, my patience had run out as well. As with many of these public domain films, this screenplay is screaming for a remake.

Star Claudia Jennings should have had a big career in television and films, but her life was cut short three years after this film was released (she fell asleep at the wheel and died in a car accident). Her charisma comes through onscreen. She found herself trapped in many exploitation films (she had been a Playboy Playmate), but seemed to be on the cusp of bigger things at the time of her death. "Sisters of Death" serves as a reminder of what could have been. The film is MPAA rated (PG) and contains physical violence, gun violence, some gore, some adult situations, and some sexual references. (* *) out of five stars.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Steele Crazy After All These Years: "Nightmare Castle" (1966)

Horror legend Barbara Steele takes a dual role in this cornball, "gory" Gothic story that is screaming for a remake.

Unfeeling cynic Stephen (Paul Muller) is one of those movie scientists who spends the entire running time of a motion picture excusing himself to go to his laboratory, working on generic experiments. His shrewish wife Muriel (Barbara Steele) is dallying with stable boy/handyman David (Rik Battaglia), and the two are discovered and murdered by Dr. Stephen. In the background lurks Solange (Helga Line), an elderly woman (sporting terrible old age make-up). Stephen drains Muriel's blood, burns the couple's bodies, and then goes in search of Jenny (also Barbara Steele), Muriel's look-alike sibling.

It seems Muriel changed her will so that Jenny inherits everything, and lucky for our villainous doctor, Jenny is nuts. Quicker than you can check the running time on the film, Stephen has married Jenny and brings her home, where she meets Solange, who is suddenly younger looking. Solange and Stephen decide to poison Jenny, sparking a return of her insanity, but there's a problem- Jenny has a "nightmare," and sees outlandish things, but had not taken any of the solution Stephen prepared. Is she crazy on her own, reacting to a very real haunted castle? Or has Muriel come back from the dead to possess Jenny's body? A visit from Jenny's old hunky doctor Dereck (Marino Mase) should clear up all of these questions.

"Nightmare Castle" is one of those films in the public domain, meaning anyone can grab and show a copy. There are a variety of running times, cast and crew pseudonyms, and picture quality prints out there. When you find a copy of this (I counted at least six different versions on YouTube alone, but screened a cheap DVD version for review) you need to take all of this into account. This isn't a very good film by any means, but Caiano uses his limited resources to the extreme. The set is nicely decorated, the shadowy cinematography works, and Caiano does some nice things with his camera. The small cast and castle setting make this feel stagy at times. The performers' performances are hard to judge since the dubbing on the film is atrocious. Ennio Morricone delivers an odd score.

"Nightmare Castle" is passable time-filler, in all it's versions. Not scary or great, but it could make you reminisce about the long-gone late late shows on independent television stations. The film contains physical violence and gore. (* *) out of five stars.