Archive for the S Category

The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008) Mark Waters

Posted in S on September 4, 2013 by moviemoses

Production Budget: $90 million
Worldwide Gross: $162 million

The Spiderwick Chronicles was one of many fantasy books turned to movie upon the success The Lord of the Rings and more notably Harry Potter. The movie did receive mostly positive reviews however that did not prevent it from flopping at the box office. The story is about divorced mother Helen (Mary-Louise Parker) bringing her children Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and twin brothers Jared and Simon (both played by Freddie Highmore) to the secluded house of a lost relative. The children find a journal of the relative Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn). This journal containes information on all of the creatures that normally stay hidden in the worls like fairies and trolls. The troll Mulgrath (Nick Nolte) wants the journal to take over the world.

While there are movies that feel more like cheap and lazy cash ins like Eragon and The Seeker, The Spiderwick Chronicles feels like it is actually trying. The plot has elements that could be from Harry Potter, but it is not the beat for beat retread from say Eragon. You do have that hidden world element along with magical creatures, but it is repackaged nicely in a kind of Charles Darwin exploration and cataloging of this mystical world.

The story works best bundled with the surprisingly well written character stories. Much of the story is about Jared coming to terms with his parents divorce. In the beginning he is a complete ass to his mom and a bit of a troublemaker. I actually like that because it gives his character an arc. Many of the problems with these movies are the protagonist is a perfect goody goody from the start. Here he has to get over some personal problems and at times it was more interesting than the magical stuff.

There was something about this movie though that kept it from being great. Something I can’t quite put my finger on. One thing I hear is the writers combined several of the Spiderwick books into one movie. That might be the case because the story did seem to meander a bit. We do have to wait a while until we finally learn about an actual threat to the children. The world also doesn’t seem as large as it should be. After all, we are told that there is an entire world hidden from us that is just now being exposed, and in the end we spend most of the movie in a cabin in the woods speaking to a few trolls and fairies. Or it could be that some of the writing to get our protagonists out of danger is a bit too childish even for a children’s story. What harms the trolls? Ketchup. Maybe that could have been established better but it seems way too goofy for me.

The acting of the movie is pretty good all around. Nick Nolte as usual plays a homeless man well and Mary-Louise Parker is charming enough as the mother way in over her head. David Strathairn is fine although he doesn’t get nearly enough time. The best performance goes to Freddie Highmore who plays the twins. Even though it sounds like a cutsie gimmick, he actually does a good job in making them distinct and you don’t think about it after a few minutes.

The Spiderwick Chronicles is an entertaining movie. It establishes its own universe which is distinct enough to not feel like a retread. The characters are interesting and you are genuinely invested in seeing what happens next. There is something lacking from the writing which keeps me from saying this is a great movie. Whether that be from losing something from translation from the books or whether it is something else I’m not too sure about. Still, as a children’s film I certainly recommend it.

Small Time Crooks (2000) Woody Allen

Posted in S, Woody Allen Retrospective on April 30, 2013 by moviemoses

Production Budget: between $18 million and $25 million
Worldwide Gross: $29 million

I can’t find a solid number on the budget although I’ve had more say more pinned this at the 18 number rather than 25. This movie was one of his biggest recent US box office successes at the time although for the purposes of my blog a movie has to at least double budget to be considered a success.

This is where the fatigue REALLY sets in. This is bad because it is not even like I’ve seen these movies back to back to back. I started with Tiger Lily in mid 2011. Sometimes work has gotten in the way and sometimes it has been difficult to get copies of some movies (Small Time Crooks was surprisingly difficult) but it has taken some time. That being said it still doesn’t change the fact I’ve seen over 30 films from one guy and it fills me with absolute dread that only now am I entering the supposed bad period in Allen’s career. I know some people want to give the claim „Even bad Woody Allen movies are better than 99% of the stuff that is currently in theaters“. That is a nice platitude but that is unfortunately not true. I may not be the biggest Woody Allen fan seeing as how I have given some negative reviews to some of his more widely regarded films but even the best of directors can churn out shit when they want. It took me a while to actually put this movie in and not just because of delays in finding it. It was because I had to wait to be in a good enough frame of mind so I wouldn’t come in with a bad attitude and shit on it for no good reason. So after all that, here is what I think of Small Time Crooks.

Ray (Woody Allen) is a loser crook who has an idea for a heist. He is going to rent out the property of a store and dig a tunnel to the bank to rob it. He has his wife Frenchy (Tracy Ullman) run a cookie shop as a front. The heist fails but the cookie business does so well it makes them millionaires.

What’s odd is all the trailers I initially saw focused on the robbery portion when in actuality it is only a third of a film. And really I can see why because this was the best part of the movie. This is where you get all the characters together and the comedy can snap quickly between Woody Allen and Michael Rappaport and Jon Lovitz and Tracy Ullman, etc. Sure the comedy is very predictable and weak but it is fun enough that I thought if they could sustain it for the running time, this would be a good movie. Then we get to the other parts.

The second act is when Ray and Frenchy make their millions and if it didn’t feel like a sitcom before, it really feels like one now. We transition from a modern Honeymooners episode to a Woody Allen version of Married With Children. Seriously it is like Allen wrote a special episode where Al and Peggy get rich and they have to deal with those snooty upper class twits. But if there is a character I do not equate with Woody Allen, it is the semi-abusive lower class bum Al Bundy. Hell, I honestly don’t know why they didn’t cast him for this. This just didn’t work for me at all. For one it seems odd that Allen, who is almost a proud intellectual snob himself, is trying to write himself as the hero of the working man. But it all comes off as so weak and poorly written. Oh those rich snobs! All they eat are snails and caviar! Why can’t they eat a burger and watch the game? Seriously that’s how lazy this all seems. I’m surprised we didn’t get a person with a monocle to show up. It also doesn’t work in the fact that Allen does his best when he gives witty dialog. Here he is trying to play the shlubby every man and he cannot pull it off.

The third act seems like a desperate attempt to get to 90 minutes as we get an overstuffed ending where they lose their fortune and they try another heist and this character does this and this character does that and blah blah blah I don’t care.

At best this would have been a great two parter episode for Roseanne or Married with Children or what the hell ever. The humor is TV safe and is kind of carried by the good character actors Allen assembles around him. Unfortunately Allen quickly loses track of the humor and any good narrative. The rags to riches falls flat at best, and dies a slow painful death at worst. Allen both plays against type and writes against type and it shows in the forced and out of character humor. This may have worked in the 50’s but this is absolutely no good today.

Sweet and Lowdown (1999) Woody Allen

Posted in S, Woody Allen Retrospective on April 30, 2013 by moviemoses

Production Budget: $29.7 million
Worldwide Gross: $4 million

Sweet and Lowdown is a mockumentary about Emmet Ray (Sean Penn) who is a jazz guitarist in the 1930’s who was considered the second best jazz guitarist (first being Django Reinhardt). Many wild stories are told about Ray and we also learn about him falling in love with a mute (played by Samantha Morton).

This review may be really short but that is becuase my feelings are rather simple on it. This movie is absolutely carried by the performance of Sean Penn. Emmet Ray could have easily been a despicable character portrayed by most anyone else. Penn perfectly plays Ray as both a selfish prick, but also someone who is charming and slightly vulnerable. He also has to play the balancing act of being wildly over the top for the comic scenes, but at the same time make the dramatic scenes believable without giving the audience tonal whiplash.

The performances of Penn and also Morton (who gives a charming silent performance), elevate this movie from just a good movie in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong, the production is good. Allen does have a good sense of nostalgia as you get the feelings Allen probably gets with the time and the music. The writing and the overal story is also written well. I guess this is where some Allen fatigue sets in as I say the problem is I’ve seen the nostalgia and themes before. I’ll cover this later in my next review, but this is where seeing about 30 Allen films in a short time takes its toll. I will freely admit I would like this a lot more if this had been one of my firsts as opposed to being this late in the game.

Sweet and Lowdown is a sweet little movie. It is one of Allen’s most popular now and it is easy to see why. It is completely inoffensive and fun nostalgia trip which is carried by one of the best performances in an Allen movie ever. The rest of the movie is good, but they don’t quite feel on par with some of Allen’s true masterpieces. This is a movie I want to revisit down the road when my batteries are recharged and some of the elements don’t seem so stale. For now I liked this film, but I didn’t love it.

Shadows and Fog (1991) Woody Allen

Posted in S, Woody Allen Retrospective on July 31, 2012 by moviemoses

Production Budget: $14 million IMDb lists costs at $19 million

Domestic Gross: nearly $3 million

My apologies for the delay and what will probably be shorter reviews than I’m used to for the following two Woody Allen films.  I had seen them several weeks ago and had every intention of reviewing them then.  But a mountain of other engagements seemed to pile up at once and I’m trying to work my way through a mountain of movies that have backed up in my review queue.  I also have to note I could only find the domestic totals for this film.  While international totals have propped up Woody Allen films in the past, I do not see it likely they pushed it into a profit on this occaison.

Shadows and Fog follows Kleinman (Allen), a nebbish clerk who is woken up in the middle of the night by a vigilante group.  There is a serial killer roaming the streets of this European city set around the 1920’s.  The group claims Kleinman is an intergral part of some plan to capture the killer (although they never tell him the plan) and release him on the streets of the city alone to be a part of said plan.  In another plot thread, sword swallower Irma (Mia Farrow) runs away from her cheating boyfriend (played by John Malkovich) and eventually runs into Kleinman.

This was one of the Allen films I was eager to get to on my retrospective.  I always appreciate the times Allen leaves his comfort zone because you are guaranteed something which is, at the very least, and interesting effort.  Plus in my limited readings of other reviewers, they list it is a very underrated film of his.  Of course, when something is underrated, that means it wasn’t rated very highly upon initial release.  Well, what would my box office bomb reviews be if not a fresh take on films that may not have had a fair shot on their theatrical release.

So what is my opinion on this movie?  I’m not quite sure.  There are aspects of this film I should love but by the time the credits were rolling I had many conflicting ideas rattling around in my head.  The movie is apparently inspired by one of Allen’s plays called Death however I more strongly caught on to the similarities to Franz Kafka.  Yes, this is one of the few times I get to brag about reading Kafka.  One of my original ideas for film analysis (which I may still do) would be of Orson Welles‘ adaptation of The Trial which I have also read.  Both Trial and Shadows have that same surreal and satirical tone and both follow a rather hapless fellow who is caught in a dream world where he can’t make sense of the insane world around him.  I also love the look of the movie as it is a recreation of noir films of that period.  Woody Allen made this the most expensive film of his career by building the largest set in New York to recreate the European setting and look.

If I had a criticism it would be with the inconsistent tone of the movie.  As I mentioned before, Kafka’s Trial was a satirical but there is a difference between satirical and goofy.  The court and K’s trial were absurd because of the overwhelming powers it had and K not knowing what the hell was going on.  But the book was not playing it for straight up yuks.  Shadows and Fog sometimes has that dark satire, but then we cut to Kleinman clutzing around almost like Allen’s usual nebbish character.  It’s like having a vaudeville routine in the middle of Network.  They are both comedy, but they work in two completely different contexts.

The subplot involving Irma also doesn’t quite fit with everything else.  I see similarities with this and with Bergman’s Seventh Seal with the knight plot and the family subplot.  But as the main plot was inspired by Allen’s play of which Irma was not in, the Irma subplot does not feel like she is fully integrated and does not feel completely relavant to everything that is going on.

While I didn’t love Shadows and Fog, it is a movie I want to see a few more times.  While there are things in the writing and tone that hold it back, there is more that I really like about it.  Allen, when he is not playing to the audience, is actually good as a tragic hero.  You feel for this character as you see him getting railroaded and how he seemingly cannot escape this nightmare.  I love the great black and white photography and the overall tone of the film.  With some extra work, this could have probably been a masterpiece.  As it is, I will simply call it an underrated gem.

Survival of the Dead (2009) George A. Romero

Posted in S on June 27, 2012 by moviemoses

Production Budget: $4 million

Worldwide Gross: $143,000

I’m easy.  Okay, I maybe should explain that a little bit.  When it comes to selling me on a movie I like to think I’m easy.  I recently saw the Darkman trilogy again simply for the reason I wanted to see Darkman III: DIE DARKMAN DIE.  Why?  Because DIE DARKMAN DIE is one of the best titles for a sequel ever.  The movie could have been about Darkman making quilts and I wouldn’t care because the title made me laugh.  So trust me when I say it is hard to scare me away from a movie.

Survival of the Dead scared me, and not in the good way.  Every time I would pass it in my Blockbuster (and yes, I still go to an actual Blockbuster store) I almost flinch as if the box will give me some electroshock if I picked it up.  Diary of the Dead was so atrocious and showed how far Romero had fallen that I honestly did not want to see him fall any lower.  It is not about seeing Survival and being pissed off, I didn’t want to watch it and be depressed.  That being said, this is a box office bomb and, fuck it; let’s get on with the review.

So the main location of this movie is some island off the coast of North America.  The inhabitants have it pretty good in that they can sustain themselves on the island by ranching and zombies can’t get them because of being surrounded by water.  One of the family leaders O’Flynn, decides it may just be in the best interests of everyone if they killed the few remaining zombies left on the island.  Because you know, I would feel a lot safer if I didn’t think my sleep would be interupted by a zombie eating my intestines like a four year old eats a plate of spaghetti.  The other family, the Muldoons, thinks that is a monstrous idea and banish O’Flynn from the island.  I then decided to rename the island Moron Island because I could not identify with any of the people or their actions. This is despite the director on his soapbox berating me that I should feel like he does.  Romero seriously wants me to feel like zombies are people too and what O’Flynn is doing is so monstrous and yada yada yada.  You know what I think is monstrous?  Eating my brains and I see no problem with people defending themselves from that.  This movie sucks.

To add insult to injury we then meet our “protagonist“ Sarge.  He is the psychopath highway robber from Diary of the Dead because, because I could totally sympathize with someone with no redeeming qualities.  The writing tries to backpeddle the character and make him some world weary badass looking for a home but it only left me asking: what’s the point?  Was anyone flooding Romero with emails begging for a continuation of the oh so important character of “Colonel“ from Diary of the Dead?  Just have someone else be your protagonist and don’t now try to pretend there is some continuity between the Dead movies.  But even if I did forget what Sarge did in Diary, he is still an unlikable asshat who is not compelling in the least.  This movie sucks.

This movie even has to find ways to upset me like including crappy CGI.  The practical effects were some of the best things in early Romero movies but here we have terrible CGI gore.  This is capped off by some of the most dreadful seconds in all of Romero’s flimography.  A character grabs a fire extinguisher, puts it in a zombie’s mouth, and shoots him full of CGI goo until the goo comes out his ears and makes his eyes pop out in even worse CGI.  That had me literally yelling in anger which, given the fact I was watching this on the go with my streaming iPhone app, I’m sure garnered me some strange looks and calls to 911.  This movie sucks.

So Sarge gets convinced by O’Flynn to come to the island and kill Muldoon because it’s like the Hatfields and McCoys.  You know Romero, you can’t make zombies a metaphor for everything.  It has already been a message for racism, the 1%-ers in Land of the Dead, how media is bullshit in Diary, and now about wars and feuds.  Are the next movies going to be about gay zombie marriage and zombie Obamacare?  I don’t care about these characters and because of that I don’t feel any tension from the zombies.  They are all so stupid I don’t care if they all get eaten by zombies.  Everything about this movie is stale.  The message is stale, the effects are at the very least a letdown by Romero standards, the acting is dull, and the action is nothing I haven’t seen a million times before in a now oversaturated zombie market.  And yes, apparently Romero can sink lower because he wants to do another two Dead movies.  Oh joy!

This movie sucks.

September (1987) Woody Allen

Posted in S, Woody Allen Retrospective on May 3, 2012 by moviemoses

Production Budget: $10 million

Gross: $486,000

Part of the reason why I do the other feature of my blog (the box office bomb reviews) is because I like to find hidden treasures.  Those movies were ignored for one reason or another and I hope to look past all the irrelevant reasons and see if it is actually any good.  So when it comes to the lesser known or lesser appreciated Woody Allen films, I come in with the same good intentions.  I probably enjoy Interiors a lot more than most Allen fans would give it credit for.  I was hoping that September would be another film that, while not ranking among his other masterpieces, I could really enjoy.  Boy was I wrong.

This is one of Allen’s more infamous failures.  Allen always wanted to do a chamber piece and he originally shot the movie with Maureen O’Sullivan, Sam Shepard, and Charles Durning.  Allen hated the finished product so much he re-wrote the screenplay, hired a new cast of Elaine Stritch, Sam Waterston, and Denholm Elliot, and re-shot the film all over again.  This is probably the lesson to take on why Woody Allen has not had much trouble making films in his 40 or so years.  Even his big failure which caused him to re-shoot an entire film and grossing the lowest of any Woody Allen film is still not a bad beat.  If you look at some of the bombs we are talking about 80, 100, 150 million dollar debacles but Woody will continue to plod along with his small budget films and investors will always bet on a record like Allen’s.

Viewing the trailer beforehand, it occurred to me it was probably the worst trailer I had ever seen for a movie (and no I don’t have an official list anywhere).  There was no action, no lines of dialog, and I think I only saw one person’s face.  However, all the blame can’t be put on the person who cut the trailer.  There is not much of anything to note about this movie.  This feels like the Chicken McNugget of Woody Allen films.  You get the skin and whatever else people don’t want from a chicken, grind it up, form it into a lump, fry it, and you have something you can eat with enough weak ass barbeque sauce.  In the case of September, you have the summer house with a few love triangles ala Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, you have a domineering mother subplot ala Interiors, throw in all the usual Woody Allen character types (troubled writer, Woody’s mother, someone who philosophized about God, etc.), and boom you are eating a Woody nugget.  But where you might be able to choke it down with some sauce like some jokes in a comedy, here we have nothing.  I am choking on Woody’s dry nuggets.

This feels so uninspired and dull.  None of the dialog has any of the charm or wit you are used to.  The monologues are dry and are fit so awkwardly into the narrative they might as well flash things like “THIS IS HOW WOODY FEELS ABOUT GOD AND THE UNIVERSE“.  And again, normally he can make it more interesting even in his dramatic movies like Crimes and Misdemeanors.  Here it evokes a whining emo kid cranking up the Linkin Park and cutting his arms.  I’ve been an atheist for years now and have had nothing near the “Woe is me life is empty“ crap Woody sometimes devolves into.  Just goes to show how good writing can make something interesting and thought provoking and lazy writing can make you want to slap the writer on the face with a fish.

We just go through the motions with the love triangles working themselves out in completely passionless ways.  There is a moment at the “climax“ of the movie where Mia Farrow’s character explodes with all her pent up emotions and frustrations.  Normally this would be an alright moment in another Woody Allen film but with all the nothingness around it this was like the freaking gun fight in Heat.  And then the movie ends with nothing really changing.  That is one of my pet peeves with a movie as I show in my tirade against Immortals.  I ask very little but the one thing I do ask is don’t waste my time.  At the end of the movie all the characters are in the exact same place with nothing learned or anything to show for it.  They are all the exact same failures we saw at the beginning of the film.

This is easily my least favorite of the retrospective so far.  There are tiny moments here and there that are nice and I like the acting from Wiest, Farrow, Waterston, Stritch, and Elliot.  This movie though has nothing special or noteworth about it: no outstanding performances, no memorable exchanges or speeches, and a completely nothing plot.  I can’t even see myself recommending this to die hard Allen fans.  This was a dud in every respect.

Surveillance (2008) Jennifer Chambers Lynch

Posted in S on March 19, 2012 by moviemoses

Production Budget: $3.5 million

Worldwide Gross: $1.1 million

At the end of my Boxing Helena review I mentioned something to the effect of that being her only real attempt at filmmaking.  I was being dismissive and I guess I should go a bit more in depth about my feelings of Jennifer Lynch.  I don’t believe in holding one movie against a director;especially a first time effort.  Everyone has their bad days and many directors are barely learning the trade when they start out.  I remember David Cronenberg talking about how fought to get his debut with Shivers and when he finally got behind the camera he realized he had no idea how to make a movie.  Fortunately Shivers was a good movie but the point is it was a starting point and he is now one of the best directors working.

Boxing Helena was a bad movie there is no doubt about that.  However, that does not mean I would not necessarily watch another Jennifer Lynch movie (well, obviously, since I’m reviewing another one).  My issue with Boxing Helena was not so much with the technical aspects of her directing.  My issue was with the crap story, the uneven tone, and  horribly forced symbolism.  It seemed she was trying too hard to be quirky like her father when I more wanted her to find her own voice.  So long story way short I was actually looking forward to Jennifer Lynch’s return to filmmaking after 15 years.

Surveillance is about two FBI agents (played by Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond) who go to a small town to investigate a series of murders.  Three witnesses survive the latest incident, and the agents interview them about the events which lead up to the killings.

I left Surveillance puzzled and in this case it is not a good thing.  I was puzzled by the tone and what exactly Lynch was going for in this movie.  I got the feeling she was trying to emulate her father once again ala Blue Velvet.  There is that same attempt at quirky/stilted dialog, reversal of the ideal small town vision, dark humor, and gritty violence.  It is here though that you see the difference between an innovator and someone trying to imitate that person.  The things that happen in this movie may sound David Lynchian, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it.  There is a sub plot about a pair of quirky gung ho cops.  What do they do in this movie?  They shoot the tires of speeders as they drive by, threaten and assault them with their guns,  proceed to abuse them in various ways, and then let them go.  Why don’t any of these hundreds of witnesses report them or sue the department?  I dunno, maybe because the cops give them a break on their speeding tickets I guess.  I can only blindly speculate this was supposed to be some kind of dark humor (especially due to the fact one of the cops is played by an overacting French Stewart), but it doesn’t feel that way.  This is an awkwardly handled subplot that frustrates more than anything because this is so unbelievable (as well as not making any goddamn sense) given the tone of the rest of the movie.

I also feel as if Lynch is trying to do a Rashomon style movie about several people with different stories about the same event but even that doesn’t work.  Every once in a while they try to throw in something that subverts the narrative but when the witnesses start giving their statments it immediately goes to an objective omnipresent narrator.

One big flaw for me is the lack of any kind of a protagonist.  Everyone in this movie ranges from flat out unlikable to evil prick.  Because of that I really didn’t care what happened to any of them.  There are some big name talent in this movie (Pullman, Ormond, Michael Ironside) as it seems daddy called in some favors of his old casts.  Unfortunately none of them are given anything to work with.  Both Ironside  and Pullman are charasmatic but aren’t allowed to express that as they are given flat stunted dialog and nothing characters.  The story was actually alright for the most part, but in what seems now typical Jennifer Lynch fashion, she has to include a bullshit twist ending that doesn’t work.

I wanna be fair with Surveillance in that there were things I liked about this movie.  I actually did like much of what Lynch was doing on the technical side.  The movie was shot well with a nice bleak appearance.  The tension was built up well at times and she has a better feel for dramatic timing.  This was a well made movie.  I would still like to see Jennifer Lynch direct a movie without that terrible screenwriter she always drags along also coincidentially named Jennifer Lynch.  Seriously Jennifer, fire her as your screenwriter and have someone else write your movies.  Surveillance is a better movie than Boxing Helena but it still is not a good movie.  Lynch gets an A for effort and I enjoy the look and when she actually sticks to the thriller feel.  However the writing lets her down yet again as if she learned to write a screenplay from the Ed Wood school of creative writing.  Jennifer needs to learn she is not her father as stuff like the French Stewart subplot was one of the more grating experiences in quite a while.  Finally, and most importantly, STAY AWAY FROM TWIST ENDINGS!!!