Thursday, December 27, 2012

Jack Reacher (2012)

Title: Jack Reacher (2013)

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Cast: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Werner Herzog, Robert Duvall, Richard Jenkins


Jack Reacher is Tom Cruise starting up yet another franchise, this time aiming to make a film that’s a bit more realistic in nature, less fantastic then say the Mission Impossible films, which are films that give us the action, but not the believability factor. The Mission Impossible films present us with situations that are way too incredible, way too out there and way too CGI even for a film that’s called Mission Impossible. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy that type of film, but I saw Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) and after seeing it couldn’t bring myself to write a review for it because it was empty calories, a film with nothing much to say. This is the reason why every once in a while it’s good to get one of these action films that aims for realism and plausibility. Jack Reacher aims to capture the level of credibility see in films like Skyfall (2012) or The Bourne Identity films; not a bad thing to go for when we consider how incredibly cartoonish action films have become in the recent years. I miss those films where the action used to happen right in front of the camera. I’m talking about films like William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), John Frankenheimer’s Ronin (1998) or Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971), you know, films that went through the trouble of actually making things happen on camera as opposed to the inside of a computer. Jack Reacher hearkens back to those days of filmmaking, and I liked that about it.      

Jack Reacher is the ultimate bad ass ex-military, the kind of guy who lives off the grid, no one knows where he is, where he’s going or where he’s been. He’s a ghost. But he’s a do gooder and if you do something wrong, as the tag line for the film says “you’re gonna get it”. In this case, there’s a sniper terrifying the city. He’s killing people randomly off the streets, the government seems to think that he is doing this to inflict terror on society; others think he has a more sinister plan. Jack Reacher decides to use his military skills and detective skills in conjunction with the district attorneys daughter to get to the bottom of things.

This attempt at realism is something that is dominating films nowadays. Films and franchises that were once known for being ultra fantastic and unbelievable, cartoony even, are now changing their ways and directing themselves towards more realistic situations and premises. A good example of this are Nolan’s Batman films, when compared to Burton’s or Schumacher’s take on the character, those films seem like child’s play when compared to Nolan’s three films. Daniel Craig’s run on James Bond is another good example. Once Bond was a comic book character with lazers coming out of his watch, now he doesn’t rely so much on gadgets like these, now he’s all depressed and out of shape, now he’s got real issues to deal with, he’s not so indestructible. These are just some examples of films that have changed their ways because audiences nowadays have requested it.  In my opinion, we have the Bourne movies to thank for that shift. As soon as the Bourne films became huge hits, suddenly every other movie was copying their ultra realistic style, so in this sense, we can see the importance of the Bourne franchise, it was a trend setter, from these films onward, action films have never been the same. And in my opinion, it’s the series of films that Jack Reacher borrows a lot of its style and tone from, heck, even the posters are similar in style. 

But to be honest, Jack Reacher isn’t really an action film the way that the trailers might lead you to believe. There’s not much in the way of action perse, this is more of a detective/crime film, a thriller, a whodunnit.  There’s one awesome car chase sequence in the film, which I have to say was quite good, but other than that, this film is more about  Reacher snooping around, asking questions, punching some faces until he finds the answers he wants. The real strength in this film is the story, which plays with current themes of terrorism. Remember that case back in 2002? The one with the sniper that killed ten people in Washington? His name was John Allen Muhammad and he, along with his 17 year old partner kept a nation in terror for various days, I remember the people of Washington were so terrified that they didn’t even want to walk the streets. This crazy sniper was caught and sentenced to death; he was executed and his partner in crime was given life imprisonment. Jack Reacher plays with a similar premise of a sniper shooting people on the streets in an apparently random manner.  The Jack Reacher character comes from a series of books written by author Lee Childs, who has written 17 Jack Reacher novels so far. The particular one that the film is based on is called ‘One Shot’. Considering how the whole John Allen Muhammad sniper deal happened in 2002, and the novel was released in 2005, I think it’s safe to say that Lee Child’s was partially inspired by these real life events.  

Director Christopher McQuarrie has only one other directing credit to his name, The Way of the Gun (2000), a film that slipped through cinemas practically unseen. I remember renting it and watching it, but not being impressed by it much. Haven’t seen it in such a long while that I think it requires a re-watch, maybe my older, Film Connoisseur eyes will find some redeeming qualities in it. McQuarrie did a good job of directing Jack Reacher, my favorite scene is the car chase, there’s some good camera work there and I hear Tom Cruise did all actual stunt driving himself. One look at McQuarries resume and you can see that he’s more of a writer than a director. He has a couple of really good ones in there, starting with the Academy Award winning screenplay for The Usual Suspects (1995). He is currently working on Mission Impossible 5, which he is also trying to direct. I’m guessing that gig will depend a lot on Jack Reacher’s success, and if box office numbers are any indication, Jack Reacher is gonna make it. It’s not the greatest film in the world and it doesn't exactly succeed at being 'serious' because some of the dialog comes off as cheesy at times, in fact, there's this one scene where Cruise is talking over the phone to the bad guys and telling them how he is going to make them pay that felt like Cruise was trying to be Liam Neeson in Taken (2008). But the film does have a solid cast that makes the film more than it could have been. Hell, we even get famed German director Werner Herzog playing a gangster! We get the always awesome Robert Duvall as an ex-sniper that’s still has a kill or two in him. Final words? It’s a film that’s trying to bring things a bit more down to earth, it’s not trying to get too fantastical, this is a film with a firm grasp on reality and hey, that’s a breath of fresh air in this CGI infested world.  

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Requiem for a Vampire (1971)

Title: Requiem for a Vampire (1971)

Director: Jean Rollin

Cast: Marie Pierre Castel,  Mireille Dargent,  Philippe Gaste, Louise Dhour


Requiem for a Vampire starts off with two teenage girls, dressed as clowns riding a car that’s being chased by another; the passengers of both cars shoot at each other relentlessly. What are these girls  running away from? What happened before? Director Jean Rolling doesn’t want us to know, but apparently it involved a circus, or a clown show of some sort. Nice way to start the movie I must admit, to keep us in mystery as to why these girls are in clown attire, but whatever, it adds to the weird vibe of the film, which by the way just gets weirder and weirder as it goes along. I’m having a blast checking out Jean Rollin’s films, last night I had the pleasure of seeing Requiem for a Vampire for the first time. I have to hand it to Rollin for sticking so obsessively to his favorite genre monsters for practically his whole career; I don’t believe any other director has ever explored vampires on film as extensively as Rollin has. The way I see it, Rollin did for vampire movies what George Romero did with zombie films, he explored them as much as he could, till vampires became synonymous with his name.

Requiem for a Vampire is an early Rollin film, this was Rollin’s fourth film, before it he’d made The Rape of the Vampire (1968), The Nude Vampire (1970) and The Shiver of the Vampires (1971). Requiem for a Vampire is a film that has all the things you can come to expect from a Rollin film, I of course talk about lesbians in love, vampires, bats, graveyards, skulls, castles, beautiful scenery and lots of nudity. The difference is that this one isn’t as poetic or surreal as some of his later work. As some of you might know, Rollin had a background in porn films, and what he’d do is make these vampire films in between some of his hardcore porn films. I haven’t seen his earlier stuff, but it is my estimation that the further back you go in his work, the more porn like his vampire films will be. 

For example, Requiem for a Vampire is filled with a whole lot more sexuality and nudity then other films of his that I have seen. On this one girls are frequently either topless, or being raped, or having sex with each other or with men, I mean the sexual content on this one is extremely high.  These two girls stumble upon a castle filled with violent sexually depraved vampires who start to rape them and torture them in many ways because get this: in this movie, in order to become a full vampire, you cannot be a virgin! You are either one or the other, but not both; so at one point it’s all about these girls losing their virginity! The nudity in Requiem for a Vampire, is not erotic or beautiful as opposed to other Rollin films where it is. On this the sexuality is savage and depraved. This film will probably seem offensive to a lot of people out there, so if you can’t take that sort of thing, then don’t even bother with this one, this is a violent and sexual film every step of the way, strangely enough, there’s also a lot of visual beauty to it which is something that Rolling always excelled at, orchestrating these beautiful images. But then again, you ever wanted to see a bat giving oral sex to a girl? Look no further!  So yeah, expect a Rollin film with a slightly higher sexual content than usual, there's this rape scene that simply takes for ever. 

For a long time, Requiem for a Vampire functions almost like a silent film, with no dialog whatsoever.  In fact the two main characters don’t talk to each other until about fifty minutes into the film! The films entire first half is without dialog, it’s just the girls escaping, running, hiding, having sex with each other and enticing men to have sex with them all without a single word spoken.  It’s a different kind of film in that sense, I guess Rollin did this for the same reason that directors of Spaghetti Westerns used as little dialog as possible: to facilitate and minimize the dubbing process. It could also have something to do with the fact that Rolling wrote this screenplay in a stream of thought sort of way, he wrote it without any constraints in his mind, many say it’s the most purely Rollin film out there, so this makes it an important part of his body of work, many of his later films would have many elements found on Requim for a Vampire, so this is a seminal Rollin film, if you don’t like this one, chances are you won’t like any Rollin film.

Another element that characterizes this film and this is one thing I didn’t really love about it is that it’s kind of cheesy. I mean, the lead vampire that the girls meet, the one that wants to turn them into his vampire lovers…he is this old man, he looks like a washed up Bela Lugosi, dressed in this clichéd red and black cape? So freaking cheesy, this head vampire looked anything but menacing. He looked like this old man dressed up as Dracula? To top things off all the vampires in the film have these ultra fake looking fangs that looked simply terrible. In one scene the vampire can’t even talk right because he is trying to hold the fake fangs in his mouth. I hated that cheesy stuff on this one, because the film looks so beautiful at times, but then bam, the cheesiness sets in and brings it all down. On the plus side; cheesy elements were eschewed in Rollins future films, Rollin got a whole lot more poetic as his films evolved.

Thankfully, the film has more good elements to it than bad ones. Apparently Rollin’s always had an eye for beauty in nature and architecture because once again his cinematic eye focuses on beautiful vistas, trees, mountains, night skies, he often times focuses on breathtaking  sunsets and cloud formations. He also shot the film inside this ancient castle, it just looks haunting. The visual compositions that Rollin comes up with is the element of his films I love the most and on Requiem for a Vampire he demonstrates that he’s always had that eye for beauty. All in all, this is an extremely simplistic film, Rolling himself says that it was an exercise in simplifying the structure of film, the film is a stream of consciousness effort, something coming straight out of Rollins mind; this is probably why the film has such an emphasis on sex and violence, two of the most purely human traits. This is very much a Rollin film, only a bit cheesier and a times even child like. It seems to me that Rollin’s body of work is one that should be explored by any self respecting lover of vampire films. I love how his films all have a familiarity to them; Rollin has said that his films function as a series of connected dreams and stories, and I believe him. When you watch his films you feel as if they all exist within the same universe, a universe I will be visiting more frequently in the days to come.

Rating:  4 out of 5

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Blood and Donuts (1995)

Title: Blood and Donuts (1995)

Director: Holly Dale

Cast: Gordon Currie, Louis Ferreira, Helen Clarkson, David Cronenberg


Blood & Donuts is this very strange kind of film, I caught it on VHS back in 1995 when it was first released and immediately fell in love with it because of this strange sort of vibe that it exudes. I mean, I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s the fact that it’s one of these films that takes place entirely during the nighttime, there’s something about movies that take place during the night; they have the weirdest characters and this eerie sort of vibe to them that I enjoy a lot, the dark empty streets, the dim glow of the street lights, the fog, the shadows, the moon. Two movies come to mind that are like this: Martin Scorcese’s After Hours (1985) and Sam Raimi’s Crimewave (1985), cue ‘The Freaks Come Out at Night’ by Whodini. These type of films focus on those unique individuals who enjoy the wee hours of the night; I am one of these individuals, in fact, if it was by me, I’d work during the night and sleep during the day, just like a vampire. There’s less of a hassle to life during these hours, less people out, no scalding hot sun, no traffic jams  and no stress. The downside of course is that this is the time for the ghouls to emerge; in the case of Blood & Donuts we’re talking about vampires, taxi drivers with thick New York accents, 24 Hour Donut Shop employees and wannabe gangsters who work for David Cronenberg; welcome to the strange world of Blood & Donuts.

The story focuses on an age old vampire named Boya. When we first meet him, Boya is sleeping the sleep of the undead, when suddenly, a  golf ball breaks through the window of the basements where he rests and awakens him from a 25 year old slumber. He is then faced with having to adjust to the 90’s. He knows no one, and for a time is all alone in the world. Thankfully he has some clothes and money buried inside of an old tomb which he unearths. Later he befriends Earl, a taxi driver and falls for a Donut and Coffee shop employee named Molly. He now has to protect these two friends from a pair of gangsters who have unfinished business with Earl while at the same time dealing with a vengeful ex-girlfriend, it's not easy being a vampire!  

For me the main attraction with Blood & Donuts is how offbeat it is. The performances are quirky and unpredictable as is the rest of the film which by the way is very low-key. This isn’t a film about legions of vampires fighting werewolves or a film with an emphasis on gore or action. Nope, this film is more personal and minimalist in nature, it’s an artsy fartsy sort of vampire flick, which of course makes it unique in my book. The scope of the story centers on these two gangsters who want to use Earls taxi to  conduct their gangster business. If they have someone they want to go and kill, they want Earl to drive them there. Of course, Earl wants nothing more to do with these guys; he just wants to be a regular old cabbie; but not these two guys, they want to carry corpses on Earls cab!  And so, since Earl and Molly are entwined, Boya ends up having to protect the both of them, that’s about as far as the story goes. Basically, it’s a film that’s really all about friendship and self sacrifice, same as The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), this film is about a monster looking for some friendship in this big bad world; more than anything what Boya wants is love. And this is the one element that Blood & Donuts shares with many vampire films, that rampant romanticism, that love obsession that vampires are known for.

The character of Boya, played by actor Gordon Currie is one of the most interesting elements in the film. He is the reluctant vampire, he doesn’t want to be one, yet he is, so he relies on feeding on rats and pigeons to survive. He tries to hide his vampirism, yet vamps out whenever he truly has to in order to protect his friends and loved ones. He is a humanist, he believes everyone is special; everyone deserves a day in the sun, a shot at happiness. Boya’s and endearing sort of character, you’ll get to like him even though he’s a vampire. He muses on things like the sadness he felt when humans first walked on the moon, when they corrupted it by walking on it. When he wakes up from his slumber, he looks like Jim Morrison just woke up from his grave to roam the modern world;  a hippy out of the 60’s and into the 90’s, so in some ways this films plays a bit like a fish out of water story. Most of the performances are solid, for example we also get a great David Cronenberg playing a gangster called Stephen. Cronenberg can really play a psycho extremely well.  Cronenberg’s character radiates a controlled sort of evil. He says clever lines like: “Am I employing retards? I have nothing against retards myself, I just can’t afford to  employ them” Unfortunately, the only downside in terms of performances is the character of Earl played by Louis Ferreira. He speaks in this bad Christopher Walken impersonation that can get a bit annoying at times, but it’s not so bad you’ll want to stop watching the film. In fact, Earl kind of grows on you with his dim wittedness.

Blood & Donuts is also a film that explores the ins and outs of relationships. Boya falls in love with Molly, his new love interest, but an old girlfriend named Rita has a grudge with Boya and follows him everywhere he goes, searching for revenge. Boya is afraid of relationships because they always end somehow, he knows this because he’s lived far longer than any human and all of his previous lovers have died. Will this knowledge stop Boya from letting love into his life again? Should we be afraid to love because it might some day end? These are some of the ideas the film explores. In conclusion, Blood & Donuts is an offbeat film; it won’t go where you expect it to in terms of vampire lore. Performances are quirky and different, Boya is likable and the film has an eerie, dream like vibe to it. The film was made with very little money, which is probably why the story is so simplistic in nature, but it is saved by decent performances and originality. It has cult following written all over it, honestly don’t understand why this film hasn’t made its way onto dvd yet. 

Rating 3 ½ out of 5 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Cool World (1992)

Title: Cool World (1992)

Director: Ralph Bakshi

Cast: Brad Pitt, Kim Basinger, Gabriel Byrne


I remember going to the theater back in the late eighties to see Robert Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). Now this was an event film, it was the kind of film that people went to see more than once, it was that entertaining. Also, it was ground breaking in many ways. The technique of mixing live action with animated characters had been used before in the past, but director Robert Zemeckis used this filmmaking technique in ways that had never been seen before. I remember being completely blown away by it. Not only was it a successful amalgamation of animation and live action, it was a great story, with great actors and to top things off, it had heart. Technically speaking (as is the norm in a Robert Zemeckis film) it had shots and filmmaking techniques that made you wonder “how in the hell did they shoot that?” Another plus was that the animated characters had personality, these cartoons performed, you felt like they were alive. I remember being a bit frightened by the ‘Judge Doom’ character played by Christopher Lloyd. Roger Rabbit was a rampant success; it won awards and accolades left and right. It’s success gave birth to similar films that hoped to duplicate Roger Rabbit’s success. Don Bluth’s Rock a Doodle (1991) is one example, so is the low budget horror spoof Evil Toons (1992), Space Jam (1996) and yet another notable example was Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World, the film we’ll be talking about today. I guess Bakshi saw this sudden interest in animated films as an opportunity to revitalize his animation career, which had been dormant up to that point.

Bakshi on the Cool World set

Cool World tells the story (or tries anyways) of Jack Deebs an ex-con who spent his years in jail creating a comic book called ‘Cool World’. The comic book is an underground success, and when he gets out of jail he learns that people worship him for his comic book. But something weird happens one night, Deebs somehow ends up inside of the world he created himself! Nevermind how it happens, but it does! Not only that, Deebs ends up falling head over heels for one of his own creations: the super hot ‘toon Holli Would. Some of the toons living in Cool World want to cross over to the real world, so they can be truly alive; one of these doodles is sexy Holli. Will she ever get her wish to cross over to our world?  

Believe it or not, writing a synopsis of Cool World is not an easy task because the film is a real mess story wise. This film being a mess is not big surprise for me because many of Bakshi’s films are this way, messy and convoluted. In fact, it’s something I’ve come to expect of is work. Check out Fritz the Cat (1972) or Wizards (1977), two very interesting animated films, unfortunately when it comes to telling their story, they are not very clear films. But in spite of all that, the animation and the themes of these films make them watchable. Unfortunately, Cool World is Bakshi’s sloppiest stab at storytelling. Too many questions are left up in the air with no answers in sight. Why do Dweeb and Frank end up in Cool World? Why can’t toons have sex with humans? Why is Frank so hell bent on stopping toons and humans from having sex? Why is there such a thing as a spear that can make Cool World spill into our world?  Why does Holli want to go to the real world to “feel” when she so obviously feels in the cartoon world? And why does she want to turn the real world into the cartoon world she was trying to escape from? I thought she wanted to be real? Why does Frank’s mother’s death cause him to appear in Cool World? And why does he apparently forget about her as soon as he is in Cool World? So many questions and absolutely no answers.  This friends is a major flaw in this movie. Reportedly, this film is supposed to speak about the “dangers of casual sex” but honestly, I couldn’t pick up on anything this film was trying to say. The film said nothing to me!

But this wasn’t necessarily Bakshi’s fault, the film he had planned was not the film we ended up seeing on the silver screen.  He had a better film planned, more structured. In fact, Bakshi’s original concept was something closer to a horror-comedy film. The characters were darker, more adult oriented; something closer to Frank Miller’s Sin City. You can actually pick up a bit of that “film noir” vibe in Cool World.  Unfortunately after the studio decided to finance Bakshi’s film, producer Frank Mancuso Jr. took the script and had it changed to the point where it was not what Bakshi had originally intended. Reportedly, Bakshi was so furious at this that he punched Mancuso Jr. in the face! Don’t know how much truth there is to that story, but damn, an action like that one could certainly be justified. The studio bought Bakshi’s pitch for the film, but then they twisted it around until we got the messy film we ended up getting. The studio threatened to sue Bakshi if he didn’t finish the film, so Bakshi had no choice but to finish a film he really didn’t have his heart in making, and it shows. According to Bakshi himself, he ended up trying to have as much fun with the animation process as possible, but that’s about it. One look at the film and it’s clear, Bakshi’s heart was not on this one. The animation feels unfinished, unpolished, rushed. Now, most of Bakshi’s animated films have that sketchy nature to them, but here it seems even more so. If this was supposed to be “Roger Rabbit on acid” as Pitt said in an interview, the animation had to at the very least be as good as Roger Rabbit. Unfortunately, you don’t feel like the cartoons are there with the actors, you feel like the cartoons were added in. Sadly, what is most important in this kind of film -the interaction between actors and animated characters- was not pulled off convincingly. This is one of the crucial elements that breaks this film.

But not everything is gloom and doom in Cool World, the film does have a couple of good things going for it. Number one, the background art, the way Cool World looks, was pulled off by this great artist known as Barry Jackson. He achieved the twisted nightmarish look of Cool Worlds buildings and architecture; honestly it’s pretty cool looking if you pardon the pun. Buildings have mouths and faces, the buildings are twisted and contrived…loved it. These paintings really do give Cool World a bit of a horror look, closer to what Bakshi wanted. The soundtrack got more praise then the film did, it even includes a David Bowie song written specifically for the film called “Real Cool World”, too bad it’s a cool song for such a crappy movie! Another plus in the film is of course, the beautiful Kim Basinger, she just looks stunningly sexy on this one. I hear she was a big problem during the production, in fact, she was part of the reason why the film was “softened up” to become a PG rated film instead of the hard ‘R’ that Bakshi wanted. Apparently she thought since it was animated, it would be a film for kids and so she pushed for the film to be more family friendly. It seems she knew nothing of Bakshi’s body of work which always mixed adult themes with animated characters. Still, Basinger brings the film up with her bodacious curves, her acting, sadly isn’t all that, ditto for the rest of the cast.  This is one of Brad Pitt’s earliest performances, before he became the super star he is today. Gabriel Byrne plays the cartoonist who creates Cool World and falls for Holli. A pretty decent cast, the problem is that these actors seem to struggle to pull this movie off, the story is so convoluted, it seems even the actors where having a hard time making it all work.

Final words are that this isn’t a good movie; it’s extremely hard to follow and doesn’t make an iota of sense. At some point during its early stages, it had something worth doing, but then the producers decided to bastardize it and make something more family friendly, which they failed at doing anyways. Holli is too sexually suggestive for this to be a childrens film, she’s always talking in double entendres, always posing in alluring ways. Hell, this story is all about the follies of humans having sex with cartoons? How is that the basis for a family friendly film? This film suffers from that dreadful ailment some films suffer from: it’s a film that doesn’t know its target audience, a malady that many of Bakshi’s films suffered from.  Worst part is that the animation, which is basically the big draw with these type of films, is crude. Too bad, because the film offered an interesting concept, it just wasn’t executed very well. I recommend this film only to animation/Ralph Bakshi fans, as a curiosity, as a way to see a project gone horribly wrong, but not as a film you will enjoy.

Rating: 1 1/2 out of 5 

Friday, December 7, 2012

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

Title: Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

Director:  Joe Dante

Cast:  Zack Galligan, Phoebe Cates, John Glover, Robert Picardo, Dick Miller, Christopher Lee, Robert Prosky


Gremlins 2: The New Batch is the sequel to Gremlins (1984), one of the films that took over the box office during the summer of 1984. Now that summer was a good one! At the box office we had Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) fighting for the top spot with other huge money makers like Ghostbusters (1984), Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), The Karate Kid (1984) and Purple Rain (1984). Still, in spite of this tough competition, Gremlins went on to make huge bank.  Joe Dante had established himself as a director of successful films like Piranha (1978) and The Howling (1981), but it was with Gremlins that he had his first huge hit. A sequel was a no brainer; unfortunately, Dante didn’t want to revisit the grueling experience of making a film like Gremlins. The studio went on to plan a sequel without Dante’s involvement (Gremlins go to Mars!) but since for whatever the reason, it never materialized, they approached Dante yet again offering him a bigger budget and cart blanche with the project, this is to say, he could do with the film whatever the hell he wanted; and that he did my friends, this film is pure Joe Dante every step of the way.

Joe Dante, next to one of the many Gremlins in Gremlins 2: The New Batch 

The story centers once again around Billy and Kate, the two teenagers who confronted and destroyed the Gremlins on the first film. This time around, Billy and Kate are young adults and have moved from the small suburban town they lived on in the first film, to New York City! They both work in Clamp Plaza, an ultra modern building where everything is computerized! Meanwhile, as fate would have it, Gizmo The Mogwai gets sent to a bio engineering lab in the very same building! It isn’t long before Gremlins start reproducing, turning monstrous and destroying everything in sight! Will Billy and Kate have what it takes to stop these creatures before they escape the building and wreck havoc on New York City?

Gremlins 2: The New Batch is obviously a larger picture. Where the first film was an 11 million dollar picture, this sequel had 50 million dollars to work with. To the films favor, I will say that you do see the money up there on the screen, there’s literally thousands of Gremlins on this film tearing up the place. If you take a look at the first film, the gremlins are virtually indistinguishable from one another. But on Gremlins 2 they employed the talents of makeup effects guru Rick Baker. This is the guy responsible for making each Gremlin in Gremlins 2 different from one another; Rick Baker is the reason why we get Vegetable Gremlin,  a Gremlin who talks, a female Gremlin, a can’t stop the laughter Gremlin, we get a Spider Gremlin;  we even get an electrical Gremlin made up of pure energy! These variations make this sequel way more fun than the first. So yeah, this film is way bigger than its predecessor, we don’t only  get more Gremlins, we also get a large amount of cameos on this one. This is one of those films filled with cameo after cameo, which of course makes everything that much more fun.

 And speaking of fun, it seems that this was Joe Dante’s goal with this sequel, to make it funnier than the first one which in contrast played out more like a horror film. Honestly, this is where the first film is superior to this sequel in my book. What I loved about the original one is that it’s a bit darker in tone than this sequel, which is so bright, goofy and colorful by comparison. Gremlins 2: The New Batch feels like a live action Warner Brothers cartoon, which makes perfect sense when we take in consideration that Joe Dante is a true blue fan of the old Warner Brothers Cartoons, the ones with Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny . This is evident by the many slapstick gags that Dante squeezes into the film,  the whole vibe of the film is cartoony; this is really what sets this sequel apart from the first film. The first Gremlins film is so much more of a horror film. By the way, Chris Columbus the writer behind the first film, had written a far gorier and scarier picture then the one we got. Columbus’s script had the Gremlins killing people in gory ways, but Dante and Spielberg softened the film up a bit because Spielberg himself thought the film had to be as family friendly in order for it to be successful. Still, even with the modifications to the script, the first Gremlins film has its scary moments. So much so that, along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the first Gremlins film was the reason why the PG-13 rating was created. The film wasn’t all that scary, but it wasn’t all that innocent either, so the PG-13 was created as a middle ground for films of this nature. But when compared to the first Gremlins film, Gremlins 2: The New Batch isn’t even remotely scary; it’s simply, goofy, cartoony fun.

The only negative thing I can really say about this movie is that it starts out like a normal film, with a story and everything, but somewhere along the line it turns into a series of vignettes or sketches if you will, with the Gremlins causing all sorts of mayhem. The film even gets a bit surreal and other times it turns into a musical? What I didn’t enjoy is that this sketchy nature of the film hurt it, because you don’t feel as if you’re watching a film, you feel more like you’re watching a series of gags. Yeah they are fun gags, but this sequel isn’t like the first one, which did feel like a true blue genuine film. Still, Gremlins 2: The New Batch has many good things going for it, mainly the creature effects which are still awesome by today’s standards; in fact, I love how the Gremlins are all real and palpable. These were amazingly animated puppets. I’m pretty sure if they made one of these films today, every Gremlin would be computer generated, and that would suck for me. But, thankfully, Gremlins 2: The New Batch is an amazing display of puppetry and creature effects. These Gremlins simply look awesome; the puppets seem full of life, Kudos to the puppeteers behind these creatures.

Finally, what makes this film so fun for me is that special brand of Joe Dante humor. There’s this unique kind of humor to his films that always puts a smile on my face.  Dante’s love for WB cartoons is very present here; the film even starts out with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck fighting for the spotlight! All of Dante’s films are infused with this goofy, cartoony nature of the WB cartoons. This is after all the director behind Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003). Many of Dante’s films have some kind of reference to these old WB cartoons; they were obviously a huge part of his upbringing. Final word? This is a fun film, it moves at a fast pace, something is always happening on the screen and well, Dante really ups the ante ;  on this one we get more Gremlins than ever! The film has awesome monster effects, things get slimy and nasty, if you love those films from the 80’s that were always filled with slimy, gooey creatures, then this is the film for you. You’ll also find the huge amount of cameos entertaining, Christopher Lee,  Rick Ducommun, John Astin, Leonard Maltin, even Hulk Hogan makes an appearance. Just don’t expect much of a story, this film plays out more like a series of gags one after another, still, this doesn’t make it any less entertaining, Gremlins 2: The New Batch though not superior then the original, is a worthy sequel in my book.

Rating: 4 out of 5 

The pupeteers and their puppets on the first Gremlins film

Monday, December 3, 2012

Skyfall (2012)

Title: Skyfall (2012)

Director: Sam Mendez

Cast: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris


Through the decades, various directors have taken a stab at directing a Bond film. Usually directors  chosen to direct a Bond film are not what you’d call “popular” or well known directors. Usually they are directors who have made a successful action film at some point and so they are given the opportunity to take Bond for a spin, but it’s not like we’ve seen a Bond film directed by Steven Spielberg or Peter Jackson.  Most Bond directors can almost be labeled as anonymous in the industry; they’ve done a successful film or two, but they aren’t house hold names. It seems that with this new cycle of Bond films, producers are attempting to change that; Skyfall was directed by Sam Mendes, the director behind such amazing films as American Beauty (1999), and Revolutionary Road (2008), two films that have nothing to do with action or espionage, yet are extremely well written, acted and directed. He was also the director behind Road to Perdition (2002), a gangster film that was also heavy on the drama. So I think it’s great that for Skyfall we get a director with a solid background on drama, taking that into consideration, what did Mr. Mendes bring to the world of Bond?   

On this Bond film, Bond has to protect ‘M’ from an old foe who wants to exact revenge on her and all of MI-6. Problem is that Bond has taken something of a sabbatical and is simply enjoying the life, hanging out at the beach, getting drunk, partying. He is taking advantage of the fact that the folks at MI-6 think he is dead. But when M’s life is suddenly in peril, Bond decides to step out of the shadow life he’s been living to protect M; considering how out of shape he is in, can Bond still be Bond? Is Bond as indestructible as he’s always been?

One of the elements that I’ve enjoyed the most about the new Bond films is that Bond isn’t the indestructible super spy he’s been in previous films. Unbelievable as it may seem, Bond’s only gotten shot in two of his films and Skyfall is one of them; so we can deduce that Skyfall aims to make Bond a more vulnerable character. On these last three bond films Casino Royale (2006), Quantum of Solace (2008) and now Skyfall, Bond has been portrayed as a hero with an element of mortality to him, he makes mistakes, he gets beaten to a pulp by villains, in fact, on Skyfall he is practically falling apart, no longer able to pass the physical test that MI-6 gives to its operatives. But I like that about this new Bond, it makes him a bit more real and therefore, more interesting. On this one we get a partied out Bond who’s having a hard time readjusting to the secret agent lifestyle.  Daniel Craig does a great rendition of Bond; dare I say that he has proven himself to be one of the best and most credible Bonds ever? Well, yes, I do dare say it, because that’s exactly what he’s become. When I compare Craig’s Bond with the old ones, the old ones feel like cartoon versions of Bond, while this new one feels so much more credible and serious. He doesn’t have that smirk on his face so much, he’s not about the classic one liners. He comes off as a Bond with lots of inner turmoil. 

Actually, you will notice that this film makes fun of the way the old movies were, for example, when ‘Q’  gives Bond his new weapons, Bond asks “is that it? A gun and a radio?” and Q answers “What did you expect; pens with lasers shooting out of them? We don’t do that sort of thing anymore” making an obvious statement at how much more realistic these next batch of Bond films will be. To be honest I welcome this more realistic rendition of Bond…for now. Chances are that at some point Bond will revert to that jokey version of himself at some point? Who knows, all I know is that right now, I like this super serious version. Daniel Craig does a fantastic job on this one. The filmmakers behind Skyfall have not only humanized Bond more, they’ve also made this film decidedly less technological. By that I mean, Bond doesn’t have all these unbelievable gadgets like exploding toothpaste or cars that turn invisible. On this there’s less unbelievable gadgets; things are made more difficult for Bond this time around. In fact, the car Bond gets on this one is a Silver 1965 Aston Martin DB5, no doubt it looks stylish and slick, but it’s very retro, not cutting edge. It does shoot missiles out of it though, so we still get that. But in many ways, this stylish yet old car represents Daniel Craig’s Bond, he’s growing old, yet he’s still got it, he can still kick ass. 

And what is Bond without a good villain and a good cast of characters to populate his world? For years now we’ve had the same actress play ‘M’ the motherly brains behind MI-6, I speak of course of the awesome Judi Dench. But it’s time for her to move on, and I found it interesting how they’ve structured a whole Bond film around M’s retirement. It gives the filmmakers a chance to show the mother/son relationship that M and Bond have always had. Bond’s an orphan, so he sees M as his mother and she sees him as her son. The dynamics that stem from that relationship offer us some of the most heartfelt moments on this Bond film, this is something rare in a Bond film; heartfelt moments. But we do get those, because thanks to the involvement of director Sam Mendes, this film has an emphasis on drama and characterization. This Bond film isn’t about saving the world, this is a more personal film, with a villain who has a more personal agenda in mind. It’s a different type of Bond film in that sense. We get a mad man, but his vendetta is personal. Javier Bardem eats up the screen whenever he’s on proving once again that he is one of the best actors of his generation.  I mean, I loved how this film has such an amazing cast, we even get Ralph Fiennes playing the new ‘M’. So expect a Bond film whose emphasis isn’t so much in action, but more in characterization, good performances and a well developed story. It might not be the most action packed of the Bond films, but it’s brilliantly acted, you might find yourself more invested in the characters with this film. But fear not action lovers, the film does have some spectacular action scenes, the opening of the film for example is a good twenty minutes of nonstop action. 

It’s no surprise that Skyfall has turned out to be one of the most successful of all Bond films. It’s a well made film, with an amazing cast. Sam Mendes has made a Bond film that pays its respects to everything that came before it, while shaking things up and establishing a whole slew of new characters for future films.  Sam Mendes also infused this film with a great visual flare, there are lots of colors, beautiful locations and vistas, the images conjured up are simply beautiful. Aesthetically speaking, this is one good looking Bond film. The opening credit sequence with Adele singing her bond song, awesome visuals! That opening montage was one of my favorite things about the film. It’s like we get the elements that make a traditional Bond film (gadgets, bond girls, sex, martinis, cars and bullets) but with enough new stuff to keep us on our toes. Skyfall redefines Bond movies for years to come; it shakes the status quo of things, nothing is the same after this one, for this and many other reasons, it’s a special Bond film, highly recommend checking it out in theaters.

Rating:  5 out of 5

Monday, November 26, 2012

Life of Pi (2012)

Title: Life of Pi (2012)

Director: Ang Lee

Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Rafe Spall


So Life of Pi is an event flick: a wonder of the imagination, a celebration of film, escapist entertainment of the highest caliber; if only it wasn’t so preachy! I went into this movie pretty much not knowing what it was about. I’d seen the previews with the flying fish sequence, and it looked to me like it was going to be a surreal, visual spectacle (which it ended up being every step of the way) but I had no idea what the book the film is based on was about, or the themes that the film was going to be addressing. I went into Life of Pi pretty much blind. But the previews displayed qualities of a top notch production at the hands of a gifted director, so I went in expecting to see something really amazing, and it was amazing in many ways and not so amazing in others.

Life of Pi tells the story of one Pi Patel, a little Indian kid who is brought up by his mother and father,  who by the way run a zoo. One day, as the family embarks on a life changing journey to Canada, a huge storm breaks out in the middle of the ocean and the boat, with mother and father and all the animals from the zoo go down into the ocean. Pi barely survives by escaping in one of the lifeboats. He manages to stay afloat on the boat, along with a hungry, defiant tiger, an injured zebra, an orangutan, a rat and a hyena. How long will Pi survive out in the vast ocean before he dies? Will he make it?

Life of Pi reminded me of a couple of movies. First off, it reminded me of Interview with the Vampire (1994) because it has this premise of a writer, listening to someone tell a story so they can then write a novel, or an article. So the film unfolds as a man interviews Pi, who very willingly tells the writer his story; a story that will supposedly make anyone who hears it “believe in God”. As the adult Pi tells his tale, we get to see Pi through various stages in his life, key defining moments that shape Pi into the man he will become. I loved the character of Pi, he comes off as very defiant of life, he isn’t afraid of anything, he willingly goes out and looks at a storm square in the eye and asks for “more”. To him life is fun, vibrant, joyful and wondrous, something to be experienced and cherished. I loved how the young Pi is portrayed as someone so curious and full of life. The character of Pi is one of the best things about the film, we can identify with Pi because he asks the same questions we ask. He isn’t afraid to question god and his existence.

And here’s where the movie took me completely off guard! I wasn’t expecting Life of Pi to be a film about religion at all! Now, this being one of my favorite themes, I was even more engaged in the film then I thought I would be. Suddenly, this was a film about Pi challenging God, to see if he was really there, to see if he would answer back. The existence of God is one of the biggest questions anyone could face in life. Is he real? Does he even know how much we suffer down here? If he is so powerful, why doesn’t he do something about all the bad things that happen? Why doesn’t he show himself? I loved how inquisitive young Pi is, because I myself always asked these questions, and I would always get the shaft from adults, because let’s face it, not many adults know how to define God, can’t say I blame them. Personally, I think that if there is such a thing as god, then it is probably something bigger and more powerful then anything we can imagine. But I don’t know if there is a god, because I’ve never seen him or heard him. The only thing that comes close to being Godlike for me is the universe and everything in it, which is one viewpoint displayed in the film. At one point a giant lightning bolt hits the middle of the ocean and Pi thinks he is seeing god and that it’s amazing. I was right there with Pi, believing in the majestic, awesomeness of nature. Now there’s something worth praising!

So anyhow, be ready for a film that questions the existence of god, and tries to define why we should believe in him, which to be honest is what I didn’t like about the film. The film starts out with a believer trying to get an unbeliever to believe. I don’t mind films that address the idea of God, in fact, I often times find them fascinating. What I do hate is when films of this nature try to give a definitive answer to a question whose answer is elusive and inconclusive at best. I mean, when it comes to God, all we can really come down to are ideas, a hypothesis, a proposal of what it could be, but what the ultimate creator of all things is, let’s be honest, nobody really knows. It’s one of the biggest mysteries in life.  Sadly, there comes a point in Life of Pi where you feel as if the film is preaching to you about believing, and honestly, I don’t like films that propagate the idea of believing in fairy tales. I like watching fairy tales and fantasy films for their escapist nature and for entertainment, but I would never believe these films to be true. Because they are fantasies, unreal by nature.

What this film asks us to do is believe in God because it’s a far prettier perspective on life then the sad, dark truths that unbelievers have to offer.  The film is right though, being an unbeliever offers a bleaker outlook on life, they don’t believe in a beautiful afterlife where you will meet all your loved ones that have died. They don’t believe in magical invisible beings that watch over you. Unbelievers usually side with logic and science, things that are tangible, things that can be proved, tried and tested.  And though this is a more realistic outlook on life, some rather believe in the fairy tales that religions have to offer, however faceless and ephemeral they may be. In the end, we all choose how we are going to look at life. Each man is an island; we all see the world the way we want to, if you feel better going through life believing in fantastical beings watching over you, then more power to you. I just didn’t agree with the idea that Life of Pi is trying to propagate: that simply because the idea of God is a “prettier idea” that it is immediately a better option. I’m sorry but no. If you were to tell me that you suddenly want to believe in Hobbits, because you thought they were cute, I’d give you a good wakeup call and tell you to try and live in the real world. Would you rather see life through the spectrum of reality, or through the looking glass of an elaborate fantasy? If you ask the filmmakers behind Life of Pi, the pretty lie is better.

In the end, I really enjoyed the visual aspects of Life of Pi, the film was an amazing trip, it offers one amazing vista after another, the visual wonders never cease with Life of Pi. Technically speaking I am sure that Life of Pi will win the best visual effects Oscar, no doubts about it. This is a surreal masterpiece, it felt something akin to a Tarsem Singh film, like The Fall (2006) for example. Life of Pi is escapist, visual eye candy. The colors leap off the screen; the computer generated images are top notch. Just the fact that almost all of the animals depicted on the silver screen are computer generated says something about the achievements of the film. The computer generated animals  look amazingly realistic. When compared to something like Jumanji  (1995), yet another film filled with CGI animals, Jumanji feels like a dinosaur in terms of realism achieved through computer generated imagery. As for the the 3-D in Life of Pi, it’s great, fish seem to leap off the screen and onto the theater! For these reasons, Life of Pi is definitely worth a visit to theaters, just watch out for all the preaching that leaps off the screen as well.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Grapes of Death (1978)

Title: The Grapes of Death (1978)

Director: Jean Rollin

Cast: Brigitte Lahaie, Marie Georges Pascal, Mirella Rancelot


I am quickly learning there are various elements one can come to expect from a Jean Rollin film: girls, nudity, lesbians, gore, shock value, heavy atmosphere and blood, blood, blood; all great elements if you’re making a horror film, which is what Rollin specialized in. I am quickly absorbing many of Rollin’s films and I have to say, I have an affinity for them. I really like all that he achieved with so little money. I understand the kind of films he made, and admire him for making such beautiful looking films on such low budgets. How did Rollin achieve so much with so little? Well, basically, Rollin spent a lot of his time as a pornographer. For example, the film he made before The Grapes of Death was something called Hyperpenetrations (1978) and the one he made after it was called Discosex (1978). But the artist in Rollin wasn’t just satisfied with making porn, he wanted more! So he often times suggested his producers to fund a real film with the same amount of money it costs to make a porn film. He would use porn stars for his films; and you know how that goes: you give a porn star the chance to be in a real film and of course they’ll jump at a chance to do it. It is a step up for them; it’s something they can finally show their mom. This is no longer just porn, this is a real film we’re talking about here! So this is the reason why Rollin always had such sultry looking ladies in his films, this was also the case with The Grapes of Death, a film filled with luscious looking women running from the undead.

The film starts out with these men spraying pesticide on a crop of grapes. One of them doesn’t feel so good, but his boss tells him to continue working no matter what. We are then presented with these two girls traveling on an eerily empty train, their destinations are different, yet they travel together for companionship. On one of the train stops, the sick man who was spraying the crops, boards the train and sits next to one of the girls. At first there is nothing weird about him save for his awkward behavior. But soon, his face starts to degenerate and blood starts coming out of his pores! He is suffering from some sort of infection! The girl, terrified,  gets off the train looking for help but she only ends up stumbling upon more sick people, worst part is they are not only sick, they are violent as well! What the hell is going on? Why is the world now populated by violence, death and destruction? Elizabeth will soon discover the truth about The Grapes of Death!

So again, what I enjoyed about this film is what I have enjoyed about all of the Jean Rollin films I have seen:  the atmosphere, the mood, the ambiance. Rollin shot these films for very little money, so he did what any low budget filmmaker would do to make the most of his films: he shot in amazing looking locations. Great chateaus, abandoned locales, places with ancient architecture; he really exploited the use of interesting looking locations. Add a bit of mist, the howling sound of the wind and voila! Your movie is instantly creepier. This is something Rollin understood quite well for The Grapes of Death is a film in which the wind is blowing all of the time. This is something that a lot of directors don’t understand, but the sound the wind makes is something that adds a great level of spookiness to any horror film. Fulci used this sound effect a lot; Fellini used the hell out of it too and Rollin uses it to great effectiveness here.  The localizations he used for the film add a tremendous feeling of isolation, starting with the lonely train, followed by these beautiful (yet spooky) looking landscapes and finally, the eerie village where most of the action takes place in. So this is a great example of a director making a film better simply because he has an eye for beauty, something that is often times taken for granted by modern filmmakers. 

Most of the time, Rollin specialized in making vampire films like Requiem for a Vampire (1971), The Rape of the Vampire (1968) or The Silver of the Vampires (1971). Sometimes his films would be a strange hybrid between a zombie film and vampire film like for example The Living Dead Girl (1982), where I wasn’t quite sure if it was one or the other and sometimes he’d venture into the zombie genre. I personally didn’t like Zombie Lake (1981), I consider it a low point in Rollins career, but with The Grapes of Death he made a full blown zombie flick that I found completely satisfying. The Grapes of Death is something along the lines of The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974) where people are infected by some kind of toxic that makes them violent and crazy, the same thing happens on The Grapes of Death;  it’s the pesticide used on the crops that turns people into zombies. The zombies in The Grapes of Death degenerate both psychologically and physically; but they don’t completely lose consciousness, they know what they are and what is happening to them, they just can’t control it or their violent urges. So these zombies are unique in the sense that they are conscious of their decomposing state and they hate themselves for it.  

As a zombie film, I’d say this is a very satisfying one. It has a strange eeriness to it; things slowly creep up on you until you are right smack in the middle of zombie chaos. Rollin’s films are deliberately slow paced, building up on the atmosphere, but then at some point you can rest assured that Rollin will flat out shock you. Rollin’s loves to take you by surprise! In terms of gore, the film is pretty impressive! If there’s something that distinguishes a Rollin film it’s a well orchestrated gore scene. On this one we get one of the best decapitations I have EVER seen on any film. I remember The Living Dead Girl delivered the best scene of a vampire/zombie feeding on human flesh…well, on this one we get an extremely memorable decapitation by axe that will leave you gasping for more. In conclusion, I have to say this was a great zombie flick, I loved many things about it and practically found nothing I didn’t like, another plus being that we get beautiful girls left and right! Brigitte Lahaie, one of Rollin favorite actresses and all around muse returns looking as sensual as she always did in Rollin’s films. Highly recommend this French zombie film, it shows you don’t need a lot money to make a satisfying and entertaining film, all you need is talent and if you ask me, Rollin, with his artful eye, had it to spare.

Rating: 4 out of 5


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