Saturday, November 18, 2017

Rush to Judgment: "August Rush" (2007)

I popped "August Rush" into the player and was immediately rolling my eyes. This story of an orphan looking for his long lost parents using only the universal draw of music was sappy, goofy, and the initial dialogue between the boy's parents was unintentionally hilarious. Soon, however, this weird take on "Oliver Twist" drew me in thanks to great acting by Terrence Howard and Freddie Highmore, and a compelling plotline that continually piqued my interest. The music was good, and the director's swirling camera captured the creative mind brilliantly. I loved how young August could hear rhythm and music in the most mundane urban noises, something any musician, artist, or writer can associate with- letting your mind listen and create something out of essentially nothing. I'm more surprised than anyone at how well the film recovered itself.

I Thought 'Ass' Was Spelled With Two S's: "Astro Boy" (2009) and "Astro Boy vs. the Junkyard Pirates" (2010)

Rumbling around the house one morning after sending the wife and fetus off to work, I was perusing Brea's DVD collection. I had jettisoned most of mine, didn't feel like cranking up a streaming service so soon to going to work myself, so I decided to start in the A section (we alphabetize) and pull the first movie I found that I have not seen. Sorry, Addams Family and its sequel, and "Arthur Christmas" (I once watched the beginning, fell asleep, and woke up in time for the end), and pulled "Astro Boy."

I remember having this movie on once when our niece was over, and I fell asleep then, too...I sense a I watched part of it yesterday morning, and finished it last night. Yikes.

Based on a 1960's dubbed Japanese cartoon that I don't remember watching, this misfire had a couple of pretty scenes but little else. The voice cast is full of recognizable names: Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Donald Sutherland, the odious Kristen Bell, Eugene Levy, Nathan Lane and is usual shtick, Bill Nighy, Charlize Theron, Samuel L. Jackson, Ryan Stiles, David Alan Grier, and a few others.

The four or five people who were demanding a big screen adaptation of the manga/cartoon must have been the same people who were demanding the equally bad "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" a few years ago- both films bombed, and didn't spawn any cult followings or franchises. "Astro Boy" boldly tramples into odd areas, sure to pull out some pointed barbs at any Right wingers, but then negates its own Liberal spin with gun and explosion filled battle sequences. The main villain is a war mongering politician who looks and sounds like Richard Nixon, and one of his campaign slogans is something like "WE DON'T WANT CHANGE." Entire subplots are dangled and never followed through, or don't work at all. The Robot Revolutionary Front, another boring subplot that absolutely no child will get, had me doubled over in grand mal cringe. The dialogue sounds like it was written by an ill-equipped fourth grader entering their first rap battle, and the voice work is lazy all around.

I also viewed the "short film" entitled "Astro Boy vs. the Junkyard Pirates." Don't you just love when studios take a rightfully deleted scene from a motion picture, slap it on the DVD release, and then call it a "short film?" View this on its own, without any context to the feature-length "Astro Boy," and it will make no sense whatsoever. If you watch it after watching the almost equally bad "Astro Boy," you'll see why this "short film" was deleted.

This was the first film I've seen in months. I might challenge myself to watch other DVDs from my wife's collection, avoiding the stuff I know I'll hate because of who's in it- Ellen Page, Mark Ruffalo, I see some of your films collecting dust and promising a good time, but I'm mentally stronger than my own need to be entertained. On the other hand, "August Rush," you might be next.

(From my blog Awoke Enrightened)

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 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.