Archive for March, 2010

The Phantom (1996) Simon Wincer

Posted in P on March 31, 2010 by moviemoses

Production Budget $45 million

Gross: $18 million

Really I don’t know why I haven’t reviewed this sooner.  This is yet another bomb I saw as a kid in the theater but for some reason never got around to it.  I remember I did not care for it when I was younger and the only reason I can figure is I did not know who the Phantom was.  The trailers were all mysterious and didn’t really say anything and he was not one of those really recognizable superheroes like Batman or Superman.  And I remember walking out of the theater not really knowing that much more about Phantom oddly enough.  This is not like Superman’s origin story.  This movie makes the assumption you know who this guy is and what he is doing.  In fact, the movie opens with the text “In case you came in late” and gives the shortest origin story I’ve ever seen in a superhero movie.  So short I had to rewind the movie a few times to make sure I didn’t miss anything.  It’s like the Seinfeld episode where people tell the stories like “A boat was sunk by pirates, yada yada yada, Billy Zane becomes the Phantom…”  And you are like “But what happened with the yada yada yada?”

So I’ll give you the more thorough explanation from Wikipedia.  The father of a British sailor is killed by pirates and the son washes up on shore of a fictional island of Bengalla.  He swears on the skull of his father’s murderer he will fight piracy and greed and injustice and makes his costume to look like that of a jungle idol.  This mantle is also passed down from father to son to father to son so that bad guys think of him as an immortal of “the man that cannot die”.  The movie is set in the 1930’s with a rich industrialist named Drax (Treat Williams) looking for some ancient skulls with ultimate power for the purposes of taking over the world.

If I were to describe the tone of Phantom is would be an homage to old adventure serials.  It is a kind of Indiana Jones jungle romp with a little Batman (a crime fighter with no superpowers) mixed in.  In fact I hear the Phantom comic partially inspired Indiana Jones.  This movie is very lighthearted in tone.  Phantom is a do gooder who rides a white horse and Treat Williams is the smarmy eeeeeevil guy who really should have a handlebar mustache.  There is a good amount of swashbuckling and fisticuffs to make it entertaining.  I hate to use the phrase but it’s good clean fun.  Billy Zane would not have been my first choice however he plays the part well.  He bulked up for this role and looks great and he has his usual charm as well.  There is also a pleasant cameo from Patrick McGoohan as Phantom’s father.

If I had a gripe, it is that there is not much to this movie.  It is fun while it lasts and it is a nice distraction but I’m still a bit disappointed with it.  Williams hams it up, but Drax does not stand out in any way as a villain.  The romance subplot is dealt with even quicker than the origin story.  The plot is a stock “find the mcguffin” with nothing to distinguish itself from any other adventure movie.  And we actually get so much Phantom that we get no characterization into his alter ego Kit.  We see so much of him posing and saying cheesy one liners we don’t know who Kit is, how he prepared himself to fight crime, who he knows (his partners), or if he has any kind of long term plans.  It is like the director is so concerned with keeping the action moving and doing something every five seconds that we don’t have any time to really connect with any of the characters.  This is a shame because I think this story has a lot going for it.  I would like to see this franchise come back and maybe take some time to build up the mythology of the character.  Now this movie bombed, however it has performed very well on DVD; even having the movie be given a blu ray special edition.  I heard rumors there is a miniseries and even an attempt of a ‘Dark Knight” style reboot starting in 2010 buuuuuuut I won’t be holding my breath just yet.

But I did like this movie.  Phantom isn’t great, but it has the rare problem of me wanting more by the end.  This movie and The Shadow had the unfortunate fate of being lumped in with several other crappy comic book movies and being lost in the shuffle.  So give this movie a shot.

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The Singing Detective (2003) Keith Gordon

Posted in S on March 26, 2010 by moviemoses

Production Budget: $8 million

Gross: $336,000

The Singing Detective is based on a BBC miniseries of the same name. The plot is about a writer of failed detective stories is laid up in the hospital with a chronic skin condition called psoriatic arthropathy. It causes legions and sores to form all over the body and crippling the hands and feet. He chooses not to use any pain medication and the pain is so bad he retreats into the world of his first book The Singing Detective. The writer’s real life is troubled (he has issues in his past) and several figures from his real life show up in his fantasy world. The writer then sees a psychologist to help him with his troubled past. It should be noted in this summary I simply say “the writer” because in the BBC version he is Phillip Marlowe and in the American version he is Dan Dark.

The miniseries has been considered one of the most influential British films ever made. Now I saw this many years ago (so admittedly my memories are not as fresh) however I wasn’t really blown away by it. Oh it was good, but not as good as it was hyped up to be. The long and the short of it is I am not some fanboy or extremely attached to the original source material (which was one of the bigger gripes by critics).

Despite the negative reviews, I rather liked this movie. Robert Downey Jr. is one of the first people I would think of when playing this role. He is a prototypical dick but is also cool and can show off his acting chops. This movie really is carried by the main character and they cast it well. My only gripe is that Downey has many singing scenes (singing many hits from the 50’s) but this is some of the worst dubbing ever in the history of cinema. You have Downey’s naturally lower register voice and then he we cut to him lip synching some falsetto male singer from the 50’s. It really is horrendous. The supporting cast also does a good job including Adrian Brody and a nice addition from a heavily makeup’d Mel Gibson.

Now the plot is very reduced. You go from over 300 minutes to about 104 minutes. Obviously you are going to miss some character development, some better transitions, and some extra plot elements. Of course, I’m the one heretical dick who has to think 300 minutes was way too long to spend with this particular story. I prefer to think the perfect time is somewhere in the middle. As it is, the story is a little rushed and we practically blow through what should be big bombshells in character back story.

The story has a few changes to it but the spirit is still the same. Dan for some reason wants to suffer through this condition and is extremely distrusting of women. It is through the mystery story and some flashbacks that we piece it all together. The framing of the story works well and, as I said earlier, Downey does a great job selling who really is rather unlikable dick.

I won’t go as far as say this movie is better than the miniseries. However, it is a nice primer if you are not familiar with it. Some people may not feel like investing over 300 minutes and this is a nice place to start. On its own, The Singing Detective is good movie and dare I say worth a shot if you were at all interested.

The Sicilian (1987) Michael Cimino

Posted in S on March 23, 2010 by moviemoses

Production Budget: Can’t find solid numbers

Gross: $5 million

Really?  Is this my lot in life now?  To review an endless string of Michael Cimino movies?  Really?

The Sicilian is about real life character of Salvatore Giuliano (Christopher Lambert).  During the 40’s and 50’s he was a kind of Robin Hood type bandit/hero of the people.  The Mafia and the rich landowners basically held all the power and influence in the country.  Salvatore would rob from the rich and use the money to buy food for the poor.  He had a small band that would hide out in the mountains and even used some of his ill gotten booty to bribe most of the officials to look the other way.  An interesting side note is that this was written by Mario Puzo and this is set during Michael Corleone’s exile to Sicily in the Godfather series (although he doesn’t make an appearance in the movie).  It should also be noted I saw the uncut version so there should be no excuses as far as not seeing the director’s vision or any such crap.

The Sicilian is a bit of a mixed bag.  This was a movie I had on my stack for quite some time.  It was a movie I knew I should see for the thread but was quietly dreading.  But for all the dread, I was able to see it all in one sitting and found it…um, watchable.

First, let’s talk about the story.  Now I’m no expert on Giuliano (my knowledge is limited to that of the Wikipedia page) although word on the web is that accuracy is crap.  From what I read on the Wiki and what I saw on the movie, I can already agree.  This movie should really be called “Christopher Lambert is Jesus Christ”.  He does absolutely no wrong, he gets betrayed by Judas I mean John Turturro, and dies for our sins.  You really have to see this movie to believe it.  Every character (even Giuliano himself) talk of him as some mythical creature who fulfills prophecy and will die only when the world doesn’t need him anymore.  I half expected people to get nailed up on crosses…oh that’s right; we do get crucifixions in this movie.  It is a common failing for movies about outlaws in that they do not make them human beings and instead fall back on the ludicrous myth and legend created for them.  The Assassination of Jesse James continues to be an incredible movie for me because it showed why he was a larger than life character but also many of his flaws.

Giuliano was not a perfect person by any stretch of the imagination.  He was not interested in land reform, was a murderer, and made frequent dealings with the Mafia.  The movie sugar coats it by saying Giuliano was tricked Dons and betrayed by Judas-er John Turturro.  Nothing is ever really Giuliano’s fault in this movie and the people just weren’t ready for his radical ideals.  It works kind of well enough as a standard Robin Hood template, but does not do justice to the probably very fascinating real life person.  Another quibble about the story is the side plot involving Camilla.  The romance plot between Camilla and Giuliano is entirely pointless to the plot.  They meet, they are attracted to one another, they boink, and that is the end of it.  She does not factor into his decision making and does nothing to move the story along.

The acting is fine in this movie.  John Turturro acts his heart out and adds much depth to his character.  Joss Ackland and Terence Stamp also put in some nice performances too.  But you don’t want to hear about that.  No.  You want to know about Lambert’s performance.  Well, if you had difficulty accepting the Frenchman as a Scottish Highlander, than you will have a harder time as a John Dillenger-esque Sicilian.  I love Lambert as a cheesy B-movie actor and he really tries his best here, but this role is just too big for him.  It would be like Bruce Campbell as Michael Corleone.  Badass?  Maybe.  Good casting for the actual character?  Not really.  Here Lambert is a big block of wood when you need a suave rogue charming the pants off of people.  Lambert’s blocky and stumbling performance just did not work in this movie.  And the less said about his terrible accent in this movie the better.

I also have a problem with the real lack of any supporting characters.  The only people we really get to know are Giuliano and Pisciotta.  There are many other characters we see come in and out of the narrative who do things but we never really get to know their characters.  It is a movie that tries to be both a personal story of Giuliano and Pisciotta’s friendship and an epic about this historical figure but fails to do either particularly well.

Now I have railed against Cimino so I think I am actually being forgiving on this movie.  The cinematography is well done, the acting from the supporting characters is good and some (underline some) of the story elements worked out well.  This is a movie that could have been really interesting.  Overall this is a poor movie you should really skip.  So for those keeping track at home, my rankings of Cimino are as follows:

Deer Hunter – Great

Heaven’s Gate – Good

Year of the Dragon – Meh

The Sicilian – Bad

The Sunchaser – The movie equivalent of anal rape.

Creation (2009) Jon Amiel

Posted in C on March 18, 2010 by moviemoses

Production Budget: $10 million

Worldwide Gross (so far): $500,000

Now in a way I’m cheating because technically it’s still in theaters.  However, do any of you really expect this movie to make over $20 million to break even?  I don’t think I’m being pessimistic here; I’m being a realist.

The main reason this movie did not succeed was because the distributors were scared of releasing it.  It doesn’t take a grand conspiracy theory to explain that evolution is still a divisive issue.  When you still have “intellectuals” like Ben Stein making claims for Intelligent Design and saying Darwin led directly to the Holocaust (a galling, offensive, and moronic view IMO), it is even more murky for many who don’t even do research on the issue.  So the movie went for the longest time without a distributor until Newmarket Films (the same company that released Passion) gave it a small release.  I was finally able to see it on a one screen theater that had a one week only run of it (with absolutely no advertising for it I might add).

The movie takes place prior to the publishing to The Origin of Species.  Charles (Paul Bettany) and his wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly) are still grieving over the death of their first daughter Annie.  The death has caused a rift in their marriage which made Charles embrace his work and science where Emma embraces her faith.  Charles is haunted by his actions leading up to her death and is afraid of the consequences of publishing this book.  While many theists do not have a problem believing in both evolution and God, some do have a literal interpretation of the Bible.  The theory of evolution does scientifically contradict those beliefs and Charles knew it would be a major blow not just to the world but to his already severely strained marriage.

Now for all the hullabaloo (technical term) about releasing this movie and the theory of evolution, it really is a personal story about Charles Darwin and not a documentary about evolution.  This is about a man coming to grips with the death of his daughter and at the same time reconciling her death with his personal religious beliefs.  In that respect, the film is very good.  Paul Bettany carries this movie as he shows both charm and wit, and also the torturous pain of a father losing the daughter he loved so much.  This really is a great performance and I will admit to getting a tad misty (despite some of it being too schmaltzy and over the top).  The direction, despite being an intimate story, is quite good.  Amiel stages all of the scenes well and intercuts many of Darwin’s musings to kind of ecological shots of the interconnected web of life.  It’s kind of hard to explain.

Now I have to agree with Ebert in one respect and that is in saying the director does kind of puss out in going into the theory of evolution.  We get brief snippets of Darwin explaining natural selection but it really isn’t much.  If you didn’t know too much about evolution before then you aren’t going to learn much watching this.  And it seems kind of a waste to go through all the trouble of making this movie with all the controversy and to not really go into the subject at any depth.  It is like they were scared of offending people so they cut it out, but the mere mention of Darwin’s name (no matter how much you push evolution away) stigmatized the movie.

This is a shame because I really did like this movie.  It was actually a movie I had rather bland attitude going in and was actually won over by the end of it.  While it isn’t all that interested in exploring the science, it is a good personal story.  It certainly didn’t deserve to get shafted the way it did.

Myra Breckinridge (1970) Michael Sarne

Posted in M on March 15, 2010 by moviemoses

Production Budget: $5 million

Gross: $3 million

Subsequent Earnings: $4.3 million

Myra Breckinridge was a highly successful novel written by Gore Vidal which was a satirical take on gender and sexuality at the time. Many considered it pornographic and the materials satirical edge to hard to translate and therefore unfilmable. Michael Sarne was a director who had a mild hit and wanted to make a name for himself with Myra Breckinridge (I’ll simplify with MB later). The shoot was typical bomb pandemonium you have come to expect. The script was being re-written over and over again, the stars (especially divas Mae West and Racquel Welch) had numerous public clashes, and the director was an incompetent tool. Reports were he would spend hours at a time getting the perfect shot of a car or spending a day on the set just to think to himself. It is rather clear Sarne (through the audio commentary) he did not like the material and only did it for the money. Sarne also did not like the homosexual content of the novel and wanted to work it out. The result was a massive failure which Gore has spent 40 years disowning. Sarne later got a job as a waiter in a pizza place, which Vidal said “proves that God exists and there is such a thing as Divine Symmetry.” (IMDb).

The story is about Myron who gets a transgender operation (from John Carradine no less) and becomes Myra Breckinridge (Racquel Welch). Myra goes to an uncle’s acting school and demands half of the property owed to her by Myron.

Really, this movie is so disjointed that’s the best I can do as far as a main plot. There are some side plots involving Mae West as a talent agent who sleeps around with her clients and Myra raping a male acting student.

It has taken me a while to compose my thoughts on this movie because, well, this movie is so freaking confusing. Not that this movie is so deep and prone to analysis, but because it is so poorly put together you don’t understand anything that is going on. I’m sure the book is much more fleshed out but here I don’t get anything. I don’t get why Myron becomes this militant feminist in the form of Myra. I don’t get why Myra gives two shits about her uncles acting school. I don’t get the entire point of the Mae West side plot. Seriously, we devote like 15 minutes to her just walking around giving her one liners and sleeping with various men (including a fresh faced Tom Sellick). This movie is 94 minutes and has all the logic of a fever dream. Scenes just splice together with no lead ins or narrative consistently and there really is no story arc. Sh*t just happens.

Much of the statement made by the book is lost in the translation. You get the fact she is rebelling against traditional glorified male personas and empowering the female image. But there is supposed to be more about sexuality and homosexuality which seems all but forgotten. I also have no clue what to make of what this movie has to say about Hollywood. Myra goes on extended rants about the age of Hollywood and movies like Tarzan and we see clips from (for example) Laurel and Hardy movies but I have no idea what this means. I really wish I could say more than “I don’t get it”. I wish I could convey just how inept and incompetent this movie is in its writing and direction.

The movie tries to be all “hip” and “groovy” and “screwball” *gets smacked for overuse of air quotes*…sorry. It tries to do all of those things but it tries too hard. Subtlety is thrown out the window as characters are overacted to beyond caricatures. The boobie prize has to go hands down to Mae West who at 77 years old was still playing the sex goddess who beds everyone. This is like when Tom Jones still thought he “had it” and released Sex Bomb as a single. No one bought it, and no one buys the Crypt keeper like West as some temptress. In fact the idea of her and Thomas Magnum getting it on makes me throw up a little in my mouth.

As I wrap up this review, I have to express my own disappointment at it. No matter what I say I can’t really describe how stupid it is. No matter what I think of the story is, the most damning indictment is that it is a satire that is not funny in the slightest. It is not funny as originally planned, nor is it funny in a ‘so bad its good’ way. MB is a waste of time and money and it deserves to get “balled” as they say in the movie. Or it needs to get Burger’d in the Blackmun by a gigantic Rehnquist (code words used by Vidal to get past pornography ruling in the Supreme Court).

Sphere (1998) Barry Levinson

Posted in S on March 8, 2010 by moviemoses

Production Budget: $80 million

Worldwide Gross: $50 million

Michael Crichton adaptations are generally not very good.  Jurassic Park is probably the best you are ever gonna get out of an adaptation and it is a great movie.  Andromeda Strain and 13th Warrior are alright movies.  The farther you go the crappier it gets: Disclosure, Congo, (haven’t seen Rising Sun), Timeline, and finally to our shit de jour Sphere.

Oh wow, how I hate Sphere.  Now I have not read Sphere (or any other Crichton book) but like his other books I’m sure there will be people saying the book was obviously much better.  Clearly I am no expert so I have to focus on the book.

The movie (which was mostly ruined by the trailer) is about a spacecraft which was found at the bottom of the ocean.  A team of scientists is brought as a response to the team including a psychologist, a mathematician, an astrophysicist, and a biologist.  The crew finds a sphere which holds many different mysteries inside of it.

To start with I hate the characters.  Norman (Dustin Hoffman) is what Jabootu would classify as a “designated hero”.  He is not anyone we like or think is heroic, but only a hero because the script says so.  Norman is supposed to be the logical grounding the crew needs.  He may not be brilliant like all the Phd’s that come on the expedition, but he brings common sense and he is the voice of reason among the crew who is becoming increasingly more paranoid.  In the movie he is an incompetent dipshit who freaks out the most and is terrible at his profession.  For being the best psychologist for crises situations, his idea of comforting people is condescending and talking to them like they are infants.  For being someone grounded in logical thinking, whenever he is put in a dangerous situation he is practically running around the room flailing his arms going “BLLLAAAARGH WHAT DO WE DO? WHAT DO WE DO? WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!!!”

It doesn’t help we get one of the worst performances by Dustin Hoffman ever.  It is like he is channeling Rain Man again but through the David Duchovny style of acting method of mumbling.  He is so hyper yet at the same time so annoying with his mumbly line reads you will find yourself driven to madness.  The sphere is not to blame for all the death, destruction, and paranoia; it’s freaking Norman.

The rest of the movie you feel that it would be interesting fleshed out in book form but not in its current state.  Many of the ideas and themes are explorations of life on other planets, the nature of fear, and the chaotic mess underneath our intellectual disguise we show to the rest of society.  In a book, you can have lengthy discussions and debates and it is engrossing.  In a movie that is hard to do, so many of the discussions are paired down to bald assertions and rather stupid guesswork.  It gets rather childish at some points in the movie that I can pick apart these supposed “geniuses” with my high school science education.  Take for instance when the astrophysicist hits the hull of the ship with a hammer and goes “HA! Here is basic physics ladies and gentlemen! If this ship were so super strong then why does my hammer chip the paint.  This proves something!”  Um, no. Strength is not something that is always attributed to rigid inflexibility.  It all depends on what you need the material to do.  Many materials are incredibly pliable yet strong at the same time.  Kevlar (for example) is strong to ballistic forces but not to others.  You can’t just lump in hard=good and hand me this crap as basic physics.  That is just one example; I could go on the whole movie where they are making these bullshit assertions and illogical leaps.

The rest of the movie tries to be the Thing where everyone turns on one another from fear and paranoia and it just doesn’t work.  Again, this is due to the characters.  Norman is an irrational douchebag, Beth is a psycho allowed to work on a top secret mission (literally, she attempted suicide, is on medications, and was given shock therapy!), and Harry is too inconsistent a character to really get behind.  Watching these characters bicker with the terribly written dialog is like having someone hit your head with a carnival clown hammer.

The action is also laughable.  I personally love that during the climactic scene where a giant squid attacks the station, they seemingly ran out of money (I can’t confirm that) and they don’t show the squid at all.  That’s like in King Kong if we had some onlookers going “By George!  That giant ape is climbing up the Empire State Building! Something should be done about it.  Oh look, there are planes shooting it down aaaaaaannnnd yup.  Dead.”  It is a scene so embarrassing I almost feel ashamed and I didn’t make this movie.

This is a movie that tries to be intellectual sci fi but is so intellectually frustrating you spend most of the movie pissed off.  The characters are unlikable and horribly written and there is a general air of incompetence all over the project.  This movie pisses me off and unlike the characters in the movie, I don’t have the power to forget.

Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (2009) Paul Weitz

Posted in C on March 3, 2010 by moviemoses

Production Budget: $40 million

Worldwide Gross: $32 million

As this blog goes on and on themes start to emerge.  Among them are people in bear suits, Angelina Jolie, almost Direct to Video movies starring Sylvester Stallone, and now this; movies trying to start a franchise based on a series of kids books.  We have The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, Spiderwick Chronicles (possibly a future review), and Cirque Du Freak.

This movie is about a teenager named Darren who stumbles on an ancient circus with supernatural freaks.  For some reason the vampire Crepsley (John C. Reilly) turns Darren into a half vampire (powers of a vampire but can go into daylight) to be his assistant.  Meanwhile, an evil mastermind named Tiny turns Darren’s best friend into his rival and is trying to start a war between vampires and the vampaneze (vamps who simply drink blood but don’t kill and vamps who kill their prey).

I can’t give you too much detail because, well, this movie has a problem of explaining too much and not enough at the same time.  You can tell this movie is the first in a series because they try to cram a dump truck full of book plot points while trying to be entertaining to an audience (trying being the operative word).  I always feel like I’m being given the Cliffs Notes of Cirque Du Freak when they rush through making Darren a half vampire, making Steve the villain, explaining what the Cirque is, explaining the war between the vampires, explaining what these brand of vampires powers are, who the main villain is, and introducing a conflict to wrap up this movie in the series.  Because of that, I am never given a chance to really relate to any of the characters or get the flow of this movie (so to speak).  We have to care about these characters otherwise it’s a waste of time.

At the same time, the movie explains diddly squat.  Who is Mr. Tiny?  Why does he want to destroy everything?  Why are Darren and Steve so important to that plan?  What is the story behind Crepsley?  Why is this Cirque so important to everything?  Why do vampereze care what other vampires do?  I know the reason they don’t say anything.  It is because they want to draw people into the rest of the series.  But this is like putting the cart before the horse.  If I don’t give a crap about the first movie, I’m not going to go in and see the rest of the series.

I think the casting of John C. Reilly may be the worst of that year.  He is supposed to be a dark mysterious vampire who is also the general in the coming war between vampires.  He is not Dewey Cox in a Ronald McDonald wig.  There are other cameos by actors like Willem Dafoe and Selma Hayek but they are so small as to not even bother wasting your time telling you what they do.  For the most part the movie is carried by the teen actors and they do a competent job.

I may be a bit of a grinch with this movie.  Reading several IMDb reviews many say this is one of the better adaptations of these teeny fantasy novels.  I will say this movie didn’t piss me off, but rather I was bored by it.  I was simultaneously bored by having exposition shoved down my throat only to be frustrated they don’t explain the reasons behind any of it.  It sounds hypocritical but believe me when I say this could have been salvaged in the right hands.  In the end though this movie goes the way of The Golden Compass in promising a sequel and never ever delivering on it.