Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Conan (2011)

Title: Conan (2011)

Director: Marcus Nispel

Cast: Jason Momoa, Ron Perlman, Rose McGowan


I saw this one in theaters during its original release but never bothered to review it because I was so immensely disappointed with it. I re-watched it yesterday at my brothers house just for the hell of it and I reassured myself that I hated it as much as I did when I watched it the first time, in fact, even more so. The good thing about this second viewing is that I finally got to zero in on the reasons why I hated this new Conan flick so much! In this Film Connoisseur’s eyes, this remake simply did not work. At least not when compared to the awesomeness of John Milius’s sword and sorcery classic. What exactly made this remake such an awful film? Why was it such a wasted opportunity? Read on my fellow readers…read on.

 This remake starts a little bit further back in Conan’s life than the original film. On this one we actually get to see Conan being “battle born”, which means he was ripped from his dying mothers womb right in the middle of a war, on the battle field, which was actually kind of a cool way to start the movie. The scene is an example of how nonsensical this film actually is. The filmmakers didn’t care to make sense out of anything; they only care about making things look cool and having Conan strike heroic poses. For example, during the opening sequence we meet Conan’s mother (an old hag of a mother when compared to the bombshell that played Conan’s mom on the original) fighting in the battlefield. During these scenes we learn that Simerian women are so tough that they fight even when they are in an advanced state of pregnancy! Now that’s what I call a tough momma! So anyway, she gets stabbed by an enemy in her pregnant belly, and we see that the sword misses Conan The Unborn Baby by inches! Then, Conan’s dad rips the baby out of his wife’s womb! Just seconds before she dies she whimpers “his name will be…Conan!” One of the few cool things about this remake is that Conan’s dad is played by Ron Perlman, which is always a plus on any fantasy/sci-fi/adventure film. So anyways, Ron Perlman screams at the heavens and then raises Conan The Newborn Baby up in the air, right in the middle of the battlefield! Never mind all the swords that are swinging or the arrows that are flying through the air, or the war that is going on around him…this baby must be dramatically raised in the air for all to see! Cue the Conan logo, in 3-D no less. And enjoy that 3-D logo, because in theaters, the 3-D was so poor for this film that it’s really all that you saw in 3-D, the freaking Conan logo.  

I kind of liked this opening for the film, meeting Conan before he is even born! Sadly, the movie crumbles into pieces from there on in. First up, this remake skips one of the coolest sequences from the original, the scene where we actually see Conan becoming the war hungry, head slashing, enemy crushing warrior that he is. You know that scene in the original in which we see Conan become a slave? These are the scenes where he is enslaved and trained to fight other warriors, for money. We see Conan receiving sword lessons, becoming a man, and finally being released by his master into the world, to be his own person. We see Conan venturing into the world for the first time, on his own, learning to survive in this cruel savage world. These scenes are so important because we see Conan becoming Conan The Barbarian, and we feel connected with the character because we’ve seen him grow, we’ve followed him through his metamorphosis. Well, on this new remake, they totally skipped this sequence! They go from Conan The Kid, to Conan The Adult without any sort of way to let us know that time has elapsed. And this really is one of this films biggest faults, there is no smoothness between transitions, the film doesn’t flow. It feels like a bunch of moments clumsily glued together. This has always been a problem I have with the films of Marcus Nispel, the editing on them is terrible. But the disappointments don’t stop there, read on my friends.

Strike a pose!

The thing I loved the most about the original Conan The Barbarian (1982), and this is the reason why it’s one of my favorite films EVER, is that it was a religion bashing film. Yeah, it had the balls to say that religion is a brainwashing institution, and that we don’t need it. The ones responsible for killing Conan’s parents are the leaders of a religious cult that is spreading through the land. The leader has such power over his followers that they will jump to their deaths if he commands it. The film shows how the mind of the parishioner is at the mercy of the religious leader. So strong is the grip of this religious man over people that even King Osric’s daughter is brainwashed into following Thulsa Doom’s cult. Thulsa Doom’s followers worship this mad man as if he was a holy man. He proclaims himself as their God, their father. He tells them that their world would be nothing without him. And what does Conan do with this religious leader? He chops his head off that’s what he does! He shows the parishioners that Thulsa Doom isn’t a God, and that he can die, just like the rest of us. And then he hurls Thulsa Doom’s head down the steps of the temple and burns it down to the ground! Conan even kills one of the snakes they worship! In the end, Thulsa Doom’s parishioners end up going home, finally free from his powerful grip over their minds. And did this new remake even comment on any of these themes? Nope. They focused more on the fights, the killing, the monsters and the special effects, not the why behind these things. It only cares about everything being in slow motion. Gone is the weight behind the message that the original had. This new remake is an empty shell of a movie with a dumb story behind it.

Yes we still have a crazy religious leader on this new one, but the thrust of the story is his desire to acquire a magical mask that will bring his evil witch of a wife back from the dead, that’s it. And you know what? They could have probably done a cool movie about that as well. Unfortunately, this is the kind of film that never lives up to its full potential. You feel it could have gone further with its ideas, but that it was such a rush job that it never really takes off. The ideas are half cooked, half assed and lazy. An example of this is this scene where Conan fights this giant creature with tentacles. Sounds like a promising scenario for Conan to fight a giant monster, a potentially cool sequence near the ending of the film right? Guess again! You never even get to see the monster, only its tentacles! How disappointing. At least on the original we get to see the giant snake that Conan fights!

How half assed are the ideas in this movie? Well, at one point Conan fights these sand creatures, we never know what the hell they are, but these have to be the lamest creatures that Conan has ever fought! All Conan has to do is slash them with his sword and poof! They crumble away! These lame-o creatures may look cool, but they were not a worthy adversary for Conan, who never seems to really be in any peril in this film! On the original film, Conan freaking dies! And demons come to take his soul to hell with them! He is placed on ‘the tree of woe’ to starve for killing one of Thulsa Dooms giant snakes! On this remake nothing touches Conan, there was no vulnerability to the character, no humanity to it. On the original you liked Conan for his weaknesses, he kicked ass, but he messed up as well. On this one he is an indestructible asshole.

New Conan (above)  Old Conan (below) 
Another thing I loved about the original film is that they shot in these exotic locations, everything looked real. Not so on this remake in which half of the film was shot on a sound stage, with green screen. I hate it when I can tell everything is a set, I never felt that way while watching the original film. Point is, the original film is a far superior film in every single way. Why? Because the talents behind it were truly talented individuals who gave a damn about making a good film that actually said something. Oliver Stone wrote the original film, but who wrote this new one? Somebody who didn’t know what would make a good Conan film, that’s who. And who directed it? They guy behind the god awful Pathfinder (2007), which was a terrible Conan rip off to begin with! Apparently, Marcus Nispel always wanted to make a Conan film, and when he’s finally given the chance to do it, he does this lazy, dumb, crap fest of a Conan film. Marcus Nispel didn’t know how to make a Conan film that felt believable, which is what John Milius did so well. The world we see on the 1982 film felt real to me; even though it also felt like a Frank Frazetta painting coming to life. This is a balance that very  few directors achieve; making the fantastic seem real. Milius and crew actually went out and shot the film on location; with real wind and earth beneath his actors feet! Not green screen and Styrofoam. Oliver Stone wrote a film with some weight to it, unfortunately this new film is just the empty calories version of a Conan film, a major disappointment and a lost opportunity. They had more money and technology than John Milius had back in 1982, yet they still couldn’t make a better film. Which proves only one thing: what matters is the talent you put behind the camera, not the size of the budget. For this remake, the producers simply chose the wrong crew, they proved themselves unworthy of attempting a Conan film.

Rating: 1 1/2 out of 5

Frank Frazetta's Conan 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Clockwork Orange Film and Book Analysis

I know many of you out there have probably already seen this Stanley Kubrick classic, but I wanted to review this one because I recently got a chance to read Anthony Burgess’s novel and I thought I might talk a bit about how the novel compares to the film version. Also, even though both the novel and the film are immensely popular, I write this review in hopes that those of you who haven’t experienced them will give both versions of the story a chance. In the following article I go in depth about the story, and the themes it speaks about, so if you don’t want to read spoilers, skip it, but in all honesty I try not to give too much away. In other words: their be spoilers ahead, but you might find the article interesting none the less.

On A Clockwork Orange we meet Alex De Large and his gang of ‘Droogs’. They are all in their teens (Alex is 15 in the novel) and they enjoy going around town at night causing all sorts of trouble. They like to fight with rival gangs, break into people’s homes to terrorize them, rape women, steal cars, beat up old people…basically, anything that involves breaking the law. This motley crew of individuals likes to live by the beat of their own ultra violent drum. These guys want money? They take it! They need a car? They steal it! They want to have sex? They rape a woman! Alex and Co. don’t care for other human beings, they only think of themselves and satisfying their own needs. These kids are young and full of life, but they are cold hearted preachers of hatred. Worst part is that Alex and co. are perfectly happy living this way! Alex can have a day filled with all these vile actions and then go home, put on some classical music and just relax while listening to Beethoven's 9th Symphony! Will their reign of terror ever stop? Will they ever learn to value human life or respect their fellow man?

Anthony Burgesses novel is an extremely well respected book, it’s been chosen by many critics, scholars and important magazines as one of the best novels to have been written in the English language; though Burgess himself considered A Clockwork Orange one of his “lesser works”. I can understand how an author can grow to dislike his own work, especially when it’s all anybody ever talks about. Imagine everywhere you went people only asked you about this one thing you did, of course it would get annoying. But aside from Burgess's personal perception of the novel, I think it’s a remarkable achievement of literature, and one of my favorite books. The message it puts across is such an important one, speaking to youth, letting them know how things work in the world when it comes to respecting other human beings. This idea of respecting each others because we all deserve it is a theme that pops up regularly in this story. For example, the story often pits the young vs. the old; it addresses the idea of how young people need to respect the elderly because someday we will all reach old age too and we will all want some respect and love from the young. Human beings are human beings no matter what age.

Alex and his gang, beating up an old man 

Another theme addressed is the right all humans should have to choose their own path in life, and that when the time comes to choose it, that it should be one filled with peace, love and respect for all life, to me this is really the central theme of the book: the respect all humans owe to each other, because really it’s the best way to live. Because what happens if we choose a violent, selfish path?  In the story, Alex chooses to continue his path of violence towards everything and so he ends up incarcerated and taken to the state prison for a crime he commits. While in jail, Alex begins to realize he has made a mistake. He discovers that jail is just too awful a place for him. So he volunteers for an experimental method called ‘The Ludovico Technique’. This technique is being tested out by scientists as a means to totally suppress violent tendencies in inmates. Kind of telling us : You don’t want to be good? Then we’ll make you be good! By Force!

The system finally catches up with Alex's violent tendencies

When the scientists begin to test their new technique on Alex, this offers us one of the most memorable images from the film: that of Alex’s eyes forcibly opened, screaming in horror as he is bombarded with violent image after violent image. By giving Alex an overdose of violence mixed with pain causing drugs, they aim to suppress his love for “the old ultra-violence”. But the question asked by this new technique is: should humans be forced into being good? Or should we choose to be good out of our own free will? What the novel and the story is really trying to tell us is this: be good, or the system will make sure you will be. In fact, the system has its ways to force you to learn humility, but it’s not something you might want! In many ways, the book is a warning as to the horrors of going to prison. A place where you will loose the freedom and the rights you have out in the ‘free world’. And ultimately, another fine message this story offers us is this: everything you do will come back to you. The idea that in this world, what you give is what you get. You give violence? Than you can expect to receive it in return; it’s the old idea that every action has a reaction.

The 'Ludovico Technique' in action

Ultimately, Alex learns his lesson. He learns to respect others. At first he is forced into doing this by The Ludovico Technique, but later in the story, the government realizes what a huge mistake they’ve made by trying to use this technique on the general population. In the story, society is horrified of the idea that we could loose our god given right of free will. So they reverse the technique. And the film ends on a rather dark note, with Alex saying “they cured me alright”. Bam! Fade to black. The film does hint that Alex is back to his old violence and music loving self, but every time I watch the film I am left with the doubt in my mind: was he really cured? Or did they mess him up for life? This is a very intriguing way to end the film and my hats down to Kubrick for ending it this way. In fact, Kubrick based his film on the American cut of the novel which ended exactly like that. You see when the time came to release this book in the United States; the final 21st chapter was omitted. The publishers thought that the original ending on the novel was too happy; they wanted that shocking ending that slams the door on your face. And that’s cool and all, but in reality, this final chapter was so important! It really took the message home! But alas, Kubrick said that he’d based his script on the version of the book that didn’t have the 21st chapter, and that he’d discovered there was an omitted chapter when he’d already finished the script for the film. He also mentioned that after reading the omitted chapter, he never really wanted to end the film that way anyways. But my fellow readers, when the time comes for you to read this novel, make sure you get the version that includes the final 21st chapter, you won’t regret it.   

Now, aside from the omission of the 21st chapter in the film, there are very few differences between the book and the film. Kubrick did an excellent job of translating this book. The themes are intact, practically every scene in the book made it into the film with very few moments being omitted. This is the kind of book that you read, and as you read it you can see the film playing in your mind, you can hear the lines spoken. I swear I heard Malcom McDowell’s voice every time I read the words “Your humble narrator”. In a world where book to film translations are often times disastrous, A Clockwork Orange is not. It is a faithful translation of the book every step of the way. Add to that Kubrick’s pitch perfect visuals and image compositions and you have yourselves a masterpiece. The film is a perfect marriage between images and music, with Kubrick making extensive use of classical music to effectively enhance many of the scenes. In other words: there’s a lot of Beethoven in this film! There are some tough moments to watch too, like the scene where Alex and his droogs break into a house and rape this woman as they make the husband watch. I guess it all serves as a way to nail the idea home that Alex and his pals are completely out of control and have total disregard for human life. It aint easy watching them doing these vile acts, specially as they sing "Singing in the Rain" while doing it. The horrifying part is that there are people like this in the world. People that never learned that the choice to be good to our fellow man should always come from within ourselves.  That same as a freshly squeezed orange can produce delicious orange juice, we are all capable of goodness and humility and that if  we don’t choose to be good on our own, then the system can turn us into mechanical versions of human beings, hence the title ‘A Clockwork Orange’. We don’t want to be Clockwork Oranges now do we?

Rating for the book and film alike: 5 out of 5   

Kubrick (left) and McDowell (right) taking a coffee break in between filming

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)

Title: Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)

Director: Irvin Keshner

Cast: Faye Dunaway, Tommy Lee Jones, Brad Dourif, Raul Julia, Rene Auberjonois


Have you ever seen an Italian ‘Giallo’? ‘Giallo’ is the Italian word for yellow, and when we talk about an Italian Giallo, we’re referring to an Italian thriller. These kinds of films were named ‘Giallo’, because they were similar in nature to these cheap paperbacks mystery novels that were printed in Italy, and these cheap paper back thrillers all had yellow covers on them. Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Michele Soavi and Lucio Fulci are some of the best directors to have made Italian Giallo’s. Films like Deep Red (1975), Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Stage Fright (1987) are some great Giallo’s that you should give yourself a chance to see. These films all have something in common: they are all about a killer hiding in the shadows, just beyond our sight. Usually this killer is chasing after a girl; to kill her. On these films most of the time we only get to see the killers hands, we never see the killer itself.  The question in your mind during the whole film is “who the hell is the killer?” This is why, while watching Eyes of Laura Mars I felt like I was watching an Italian ‘Giallo’, it has all the elements we can come to expect from this type of film.

Eyes of Laura Mars is all about Laura Mars, a world famous photographer whose violent and sexual pictures keep her in a maelstrom of constant attention and controversy. While many love her pictures and consider them the epitome of art, others find them offensive and repulsive. The media seems to think they glorify violence and objectify women. But whatever, Laura’s an artist and ultimately doesn’t give a damn what the public thinks of her work as long as she satisfies herself as an artist and her pictures sell. Problem comes when a copycat killer begins to commit murders that look a heck of a lot like Lauras violent pictures; in fact, the murders are made to look exactly like her pictures. At the same time, Laura begins seeing visions from the murderers point of view. She sees the murders as they are happening! Why is this killer imitating her photographs? And why does she see these visions? Are they to be trusted?

I really enjoyed this one. It’s yet another solid horror film from the 70’s; the decade that produced some of the classiest horror films ever. What stood out the most about this movie for me was the awesome cast. Faye Dunaway had just won an Oscar for her participation in Network (1976) when she made Eyes of Laura Mars,  so we have on Oscar winner in the main role. We have a very young looking Tommy Lee Jones, playing the role of the cop who’s helping out Laura uncover the mystery behind the murders. Raul Julia is on this one in a very small role as Laura’s ex-husband, but he is there. Hell we even have Brad Dourif playing Laura’s ex-convict limo driver. A very solid cast in deed! This is something that I loved about the horror films of the 70’s, they were taken seriously. Horror movies didn’t have an all young cast; they had mature actors who took their movie seriously. Not some young ‘it’ boy or girl who’s in the movie just to look good as they die. Yet, while the film relies on a strong/mature cast to move its story along, it is also populated by some beautiful looking young models at the height of 70’s New York Fashion.

This is something I appreciated about the film, that it felt very, very New York. I mean the whole film takes place in New York City of the 70’s, it took me back to when I lived there. New York back then was equal parts grimy and modern, depending on which street you walked down. Eyes of Laura Mars has that New York feeling to it, flashy, worldly, decadent and alive. One scene has Laura doing a photo shoot right smack in the middle of New York’s Columbus Circle, with models having cat fights as cars explode in flames behind them! Without a doubt, this has to be this films most popular moment. And that’s another thing the film captured well, that 70’s New York fashion scene, with glamorous models, chic art expos and expensive photo shoots.  

Eyes of Laura Mars was the film that gave Irvin Kershner the opportunity to direct The Empire Strikes Back (1980) for George Lucas. George was impressed after seeing a rough cut of Laura Mars and so he asked Kershner to direct Empire. Kershner was reluctant at first because he thought he was too old for the job, but Lucas told him he chose him because he knew everything a director should know, and that he wasn’t Hollywood. Eyes of Laura Mars was a very well directed picture, it had some shots that made me wonder how they were done, especially towards the ending which takes place in a room full of mirrors. There was some interesting imagery there, in those scenes Kershner chose to play around with images, reflection and broken mirrors. It brought to mind a bit the ending for Enter the Dragon (1973). Also, Eyes of Laura Mars has one scene that was unexpectedly tender, because to my surprise, this film has a bit of a romance in it as well. The scene has two characters falling in love and they muse about finding that special someone in life, and about how terrifying life can be if you don’t recognize and find that special someone to go through life with. A totally unexpected tender moment so well acted and directed, holding such beautiful insights on life. Kershner was a very competent director and this movie shows it.

And finally, another great thing this film has going for it is that it’s screenplay was written by John Carpenter. This probably explains why the film draws so much inspiration from Italian Giallo’s. Carpenter has always been a fan of Italian Giallo’s, in fact, what is Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) if not an American Giallo? Same thing can be said of Eyes of Laura Mars, a great example of how Italian slasher films influenced American filmmakers; and that on itself is something very interesting because normally, it’s the other way around. It’s usually the Italian ripping off American cinema. But this Italian influence explains why on Eyes of Laura Mars we have all these shots from the killers point of view; Carpenter and Kershner were both influenced by the films of Argento and Bava. In closing, Eyes of Laura Mars is a great example of a Giallo, its well directed, well acted and has some very cool twists to it. It kept me guessing all the way to it’s  chilling climax.

Rating: 4 out of 5 

The Italian poster for Eyes of Laura Mars

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In (2011)

Title: Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In (2011)

Director: Pedro Almodovar

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Jan Cornet, Marisa Paredes


Almodovar’s films have one reigning characteristic that never fails to present itself; they are always enshrouded in mystery. The mystery always unravels at the perfect pace, not too fast, not too slow; just right. By the end of the film, the mystery solved, you are always left there, on the theater seat, with your jaw dropped open. Now you are left to contemplate the feelings of amazement and bewilderment flowing through your brain. You ask yourself: did I just see that story unfold before my eyes? Sorry for the gushing, but I can’t help it, Almodovar has yet to disappoint me with his films. The Skin I Live In was no exception. Such a well told story! So beautifully shot! So well acted and written!

On the Skin I Live In we meet Dr. Robert Ledgard, a man destroyed by tragedy and sadness. You see his wife was horribly burned in a car accident, after which, hating the way she looked, she jumped off a building and committed suicide. In order to forget these past tragedies (and in his wife’s memory) he works feverishly in perfecting a new synthetic skin which can benefit humans in all sorts of ways, like preventing decease and viruses and curing those with burned skinned, like his late wife. He experiments with his new skin on a secret patient he has trapped in his home. Will the scientific community accept his discoveries? And just who is this patient he secretly harbors in his home?

Usually, as a director gets older, his or her films start to loose the quality that made them special in the first place. There’s something about old age that makes some directors “loose it”, which of course is understandable, making films can be an exhausting venture, especially for someone who is well into his or her years. Examples of directors who’ve lost it? Some that come to mind are John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven, all masters of horror at one point, now, a shadow of their former selves. But then the reverse can also happen. As a director gets older, he keeps making better and better films. The accumulated knowledge over the years allows them to hone all their skills and produce a classic even though they are old. Improving even though they get older. Kurosawa, Fellini, Scorcese, Spielberg, Cronenberg all directors who made or are still making good films in spite of their old age. Of course we can add Almodovar to that list, as far as I’m concerned, he keeps getting better with time, I’ve yet to watch a film of his I didn’t enjoy in one way or another. Each film a beauty to look at, an experience.

Almodovar (left) getting ready to shoot a scene with Antonio Banderas (right)
The Skin I Live In felt like Almodovar remaking Oldboy (2003), but in his own style and mixed in with his own traditional themes. Almodovar mentions that his original inspiration for writing and directing The Skin I Live In came from a novel he read called ‘Tarantula’, Eyes Without a Face (1960) and also Friz Lang’s old film noirs. But if you ask me, The Skin I Live In had a bit of Oldboy in it, mixed with a little bit of Bride of Re-Animator (1990) and also James Whale’s immortal classic, Frankenstein (1931). Antonio Banderas’s ‘Robert’ comes off as a modern day mad scientist, experimenting with genetics, conducting illegal experiments where he mixes animal cells with human cells. Of course it’s all a lot of scientific bull crap that’s not real, but Almodovar pulls it off. Almodovar tells his tale in a very mysterious manner. He’s always been a director that recognizes that some of the best films have a mystery at their core. The mystery is what pulls you in and makes you keep on watching. He’s used this Hitchcockian technique quite often, but the one I remember it the most in was Bad Education (2004) and Broken Embraces (2009). So expect a film that unfolds rather mysteriously.

There’s something I love about Almodovar’s films and its how he puts us in the middle of a situation, and he lets us think we know what’s really going on. In reality, we couldn’t be further from the truth. As the film unfolds, you realize that what you’d seen before was something totally messed up because you didn’t have the bigger picture. When the film starts, you feel as if you’ve just plunged into this film already in progress. Things are taken for granted and unexplained, until slowly you realize what’s really going on. And then BAM! It hits you. Another thing that characterizes an Almodovar film are the colors, and on this one they jump from the screen as much as they do in all of his films. He revisits old themes, like revenge, lust and rape. This is a very sexual film, but coming from Almodovar, that shouldn’t surprise you. The sex in The Skin I Live In ranges from very sensual to savage and inhuman.

In closing, I’d like to mention that this film has a couple of elements that Almodovar had not worked with yet: science fiction and horror. That’s right my friends, Almodovar has made a film with horror elements. For all intents and purposes, Antonio Banderas is playing the role of a mad scientist; by the way this film is a  reunion of sorts, The Skin I Live In is their first collaboration in 20 something years! Last time they worked together was on Almodovar's Women at the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). By the way, Almodovar wrote the film so that Antonio Banderas would star next to Penelope Cruz, but Cruz wasnt available for whatever reason, so instead we get actress Elena Anaya, who looks a heck of a lot like Penelope Cruz, but has her own stunning beauty to amaze us with. The Skin I Live In brought to mind the best revenge films, like the excellent Argentinean thriller The Secret in Their Eyes (2009) which by the way if you haven’t seen I highly recommend you do. Still, at its roots, this is still very, very much an Almodovar film. It has all the elements and themes you’ve come to expect from this masterful director, a director who as far as Im concerned continues to make his films with PASSION.

Rating: 5 out of 5   

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Immortals (2011)

Title: Immortals (2011)

Director: Tarsem Singh Dhandwar

Cast: Henry Cavill, Mickey Pinto, Freida Pinto, Stephen Dorff, John Hurt


Immortals, the latest Tarsem Singh visual fest is the big fantasy film we’ve all been waiting for. It’s the film that that crappy Clash of the Titans (2010) remake should have been. Here’s a director how knows how to make a film based on Greek Mythology and he knows how to do it right! All you really need to know is that this is a Tarsem Singh film, the same director behind such visually arresting films as The Cell (2000) and The Fall (2006). Tarsem’s Immortals is so visually rich, that one viewing will probably not be enough to absorb everything it has to offer. I was thoroughly impressed with Immortals, I wasn’t expecting it to be such an explosion of coolness. I was expecting a film that was going to be mostly eye candy (and it was) but damn, Immortals was just pure awesomeness.

Story presents us with the tale of Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) the King of Crete. Hyperion hates the gods for not saving his wife and son from death, so he makes it his mission to find the Epirus Bow, a magical bow created by Ares, the God of War. His intentions are to release these evil gods called ‘The Titans’ who are imprisoned on Mount Tartarus. With the release of these evil Gods, Hyperion wants to kill Zeus and the rest of the gods so that he can rule over the world with an iron fist. Meanwhile Theseus, a slave and a bastard lives in a humble coastal town. Sadly, said town is being invaded by Hyperion’s armies which continue to take over every piece of land they comes across.. Theseus’s mother is slaughtered by Hyperion right before his eyes. Now it’s up to Theseus to avenge his mothers death and bring his people to freedom! Will he accept his destiny and achieve his full potential?

While watching Immortals I kept feeling like I was watching a sequel to Clash of the Titans (1981) or something, it had that feeling of grandeur that the original Clash of the Titans had. And I kept thinking that Tarsem should have been the director to make that Clash of the Titans remake, because this guy really gets Greek Mythology, he knows where to draw from in order to get things right. He knows how NOT to make ‘The Greek Gods’ come off as cheesy superheroes. Immortals will undoubtedly, get compared to the old Ray Harryhausen fantasy flicks from the 60’s and 70’s and it will also draw comparisons to Zack Snyder’s 300 (2007) for two reasons. One, they share the same producers and two the way they were made; meaning lots of CGI, with only the actors, props and certain sets being real. Truth be told, this is the best  kind of film for filmmakers to go crazy with CGI on. Tarsem takes full advantage of special effects at his disposal and gives us some truly spectacular visuals. The kind of visuals you will only get on a Tarsem film. The computer generated images on this production are top notch, the colors, amazing. I highly recommend this film for many reasons, but the biggest one is that it’s a beauty to look at. The effects, the colors, the wardrobe all add up to an impressive looking film.

The themes played out in the movie are varied, for example we follow Theseus, a slave who has excellent warrior skills because he’s been trained by Zeus himself. With his character we follow two themes, that of revenge (for his murdered mother) and that of becoming the leader of his people, of waking up, staying alive and rising up to the challenge of going up against the ultimate evil, an evil that is rising yet again after being  dormant for such a long time. So basically, it’s that idea of learning to believe in ourselves, and living up to our full potential. Of becoming the best human beings we can. Because maybe then, by arriving at our fullest potential, we’ll have the Gods on our side, backing us up. Then we have the story of the evil tyrant taking over the land. King Hyperion (played by Mickey Rourke) is hell bent on world domination, even going up against the gods themselves in order to do so. Through him we explore the ideas of an evil government mistreating its people, and that of a rebellious leader - the one most fit for the job- taking the rains of leadership and standing up against the tyranny. There’s a bit of a religious debate as well. Are their gods really listening to our prayers? Or do our prayers fall on mute ears? Do the gods want us to take care of ourselves, so that we can really show our worth? Interesting themes in deed.

But this is not a film lost in characters endlessly babbling, nope, this is an extremely fast paced film. Something spectacular is happening all the time on this one, if it’s not Gods coming down from Mount Olympus to intervene in human affairs, then it’s the humans killing themselves in bloody battles and trust me, the battles get really graphic! This is something that amazed me about this one! When someone gets impaled by a sword or a spear, you really see it; the camera does not cut away. When someone is decapitated or his head is smashed by a war hammer, you will see it! Human bodies are tossed left and right, skulls are smashed, eyes are gauged…things get ugly! Tarsem slows things down during the battle scenes so that you can see the blood flowing and the bodies and skulls being cut in half! These scenes are the ones that will garner Immortals comparisons to 300, but Immortals is gorier with it’s battle sequences. And by the way, I didn’t see it 3-D because the 3-D version was starting much later, but you can bet your asses I’ll be seeing it again this weekend, with the glasses on this time! From what I hear, Immortals is meant to be enjoyed in Three Dimensions! And if what I saw in 2-D is any indication, than those comments are true.

Finally, it was cool to see Henry Cavill in action. All I kept thinking was how he’s the next actor who will be playing Superman and how perfect he is for the role of ‘The Last Son of Krypton’, a great casting choice. The ending of this film leaves the doors wide open for a sequel and though Tarsem is not a director known for making sequels, I wouldn’t mind seeing a second Immortals film. At all! In fact, a sequel is probably a done deal, judging by how much I enjoyed this film, The Film Connoisseur predicts that Immortals will become a huge hit over the next couple of days. And that will probably happen because of strong word of mouth. Once people see this movie, and word spreads around of how awesome it is; Immortals can only go up. Currently, Tarsem is directing a film called Mirror, Mirror which is a retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. I’m looking forward to seeing how Tarsem tackles a Brothers Grimm fairytale, I’m sure it will be another visual feast! So anyhow, drop what ever you are doing right now and go watch this one! This is the best fantasy film to have come in a long time, and it does not disappoint. Trust me when I say that this one was meant to be enjoyed on the silver screen.

Rating: 5 out of 5  


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Rum Diary (2011)

Title: The Rum Diary (2011)

Director: Bruce Robinson

Cast: Johnny Depp, Michael Rispoli, Giovanni Ribisi, Aaron Eckhart, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins


I was looking forward to finally seeing The Rum Diary for various reasons: number one being that I’m a huuuuge fan of Hunter S. Thompson’s work, so this being an adaptation of one of his “lost books” well, of course I was excited to see it come to life on theater screen. Second: the story takes place entirely in Puerto Rico, and they actually went ahead and shot the film in Puerto Rico, so I was excited as hell to see my country in a film, by the way, I want to go right ahead and say that Puerto Rico looks beautiful on this film. Another selling point for me was that this is a film based on a Hunter S. Thompson book, I was looking forward to a heavy dose of Gonzo madness for the evening. Sadly, I was a bit disappointed with the film adaptation of The Rum Diary. If you are so inclined, please keep reading and find out why.

The Rum Diary presents us with Paul Kemp, a writer who’s just arrived to Puerto Rico (during the 1950’s) to begin working for The San Juan Star, an English language newspaper that ran in the island for years and years. When Kemp arrives he is confronted with a heated political climate amongst the Puerto Rican people. A lot of that heat stems from the clash between the American and the Puerto Rican cultures. During those years, there was a very strong anti-American sentiment going on in the island, and depending on who you ask these days, that feeling still exists. Puerto Ricans would call Americans ‘Gringo’s’ and the Americans would call the Puerto Rican’s ‘Jibaros’; neither one had any desire to understand the other. This is the reason why when Hunter S. first arrives at the San Juan Star, he is welcomed by a bunch of Puerto Ricans screaming things like “Gringo go home!” and the such. American’s saw Puerto Rico as a land of business opportunity; a land where hotels, casinos and resorts could bloom and prosper. Puerto Rican’s saw the Americans as invaders coming here to take advantage of the land. Amongst all the madness, Kemp meets his new boss and co-workers, most of which are a bunch of washed up has beens that resort to drunkenness to deal with the current state of their lives. Kemp’s first assignments include writing the horoscope and sports section; not exactly the most exciting of assignments for Kemp. So when Sanderson, a big money entrepreneur wants to pay Kemp to write a  series of brochures to sell the idea of making a huge hotel on a nearby island, Kemp considers it. Will Kemp form a part of this business venture?

The Rum Diary was a novel that Hunter S. Thompson had written back in the 60’s and is based on the experiences he had while living and working in the island of Puerto Rico. Thompson had ignored the novel for many years because it had gotten rejected many times over by many publishers. But when Hunter S. Thompson and his writing became increasingly popular, then they were salivating to print one of the first novels he’d ever written. And so, even though this novel was written during the 60’s, it actually ended up getting published in 1998. I like the book a lot, it captures what Puerto Rico was like during the 50’s, commenting on the growing boom in businesses and development that was going on in the island. I enjoyed reading about Kemp’s adventures through streets that I walk through all the time; this is something the film also got right. The filmmakers actually went out and filmed on the beaches and areas of old San Juan where Hunter S. Thompson had his adventures in. This gives the film a level of authenticity that I enjoyed. The novel (and the film as well) addressed Puerto Rico’s eternal political climate. Should we be independent of the United States? Should we be another state? Should we be a common wealth and have the best of both worlds? These three ideologies have always divided the Puerto Rican people, even to this very day and I found it so interesting that it was just as much of an issue in the 50’s as it is today.

Hunter S. Thompson, enjoying the beaches of Puerto Rico. Notice the hotel in the background. 

Other issues the film addresses are still relevant for the Puerto Rico of today. Hotels have taken over the coasts, nowadays there are so many hotels in the San Juan area that you have to pay to see the ocean. And that’s a big part of what Paul Kemp is against in this story, he doesn’t know if he should be a part of this rampaging capitalism, building and building and building. I recently went to a Hotel right smack in the area where Hunter S. Thompson lived and wrote what we now know as The Rum Diary, and all I can say is, I’m glad I wasn’t the one paying! A breakfast for four was well over a hundred dollars! And we’re talking about breakfast here people! Eggs, ham, juice; for a hundred bucks? Get out of town! There is a character in the film called Sanderson, he is the developer who wants to make the hotels, at one moment in the film he looks at the beach and says “an ocean of money, waiting to be made!” And that’s how developers see Puerto Rico; they don’t care about eliminating beautiful natural areas that people can enjoy for free, nope, the only thing they care about is making their hotels for the rich people who can afford them. In the book, Kemp muses about the beauty of the island, and nature, and he wonders if it should all be destroyed so that tourists can come and waste their money on casinos.

Of course this is the kind of subject matter that Hunter wrote about, he spent a huge part of his life traveling from hotel to hotel, from casino to casino, from hotel bar to hotel bar. Even Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1994) takes part mostly in hotels and casinos. He knew what he was talking about, he lived in hotels for a huge part of his life, but he hated the fakeness of it all. Why switch nature for fakeness? These are the things Paul Kemp partially muses about on this film. One thing I liked about the film were those scenes that we see Hunter S. Thompson sitting in front of his typewriter simply musing about his situation. That’s when we get Hunter S. Thompsons thoughts and mentality; thats when we get to know him. We have a couple of those scenes on this film, but in my opinion they weren’t enough. I didn’t feel I was with Hunter S. for the ride. Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the character and the way he was written, made it feel like Thompsons spirit was distant this time around. It surfaced briefly for a few seconds then hid again in the midst of the banality. One scene I did like, and it’s a scene that has Thompson talking about how he will always be a writer for the people, that was what Hunter S. was all about, but again these scenes are few, Hunter S. Thompson was a very verbal individual, he always said what he tought and it was tough titty if you didn’t like it. But on this film he is so silent, I wonder why they went with that.  

The rest of the movie? A disappointment. The way I see it, it was a wasted opportunity. Now, I’m not  saying it’s a badly made movie, cause it isn’t. I’m just saying it needed a bit more lunacy. It needed to really capture the essence of being a drunkard, which in my book it didn’t do. I mean, you see Fear and Loathing and you feel the essence and the madness of going on a drug binge. Deep and Benicio really looked wasted, they made us believe it. This does not happen in The Rum Diary. Though Paul Kemp is drinking for a huge part of the film, you don’t get that drunkenness vibe. The madness isn’t there. The big scene where everyone goes to this big carnival, it should have been this totally insane moment, with everyone drunk out of their minds, yet that’s not really what I got from the scene. They should have gone more into what it is to be an alcoholic. So many things just didn’t live up to their full potential, they had all the elements necessary to make a funny and interesting story, for some reason they chose to make it a totally lifeless film. This being a film about Hunter S. Thompson then you know that lifeless and Thompson shouldn’t even go in the same sentence.

They needed a director who was a bit more in tune with Thompson’s craziness. Bruce Robinson, the director behind The Rum Diary is primarily known for having made Withnail and I (1987); a film about a pair of friends who are all searching for their purpose in  life. It captures the bohemian lifestyle, the poverty and the uncertainty of living with very little money and a whole lot of alcohol. Whitnail and I is the story of two guys who want to be something, but aren’t exactly there yet. They are in some sort of middle ground, a limbo. And that film is great, and I enjoyed it immensely, but it’s not what I’d call an exciting film. And neither is The Rum Diary, which didn’t need to be another Withnail and I in terms of pace. Unfortunately, the themes and the characters in The Rum Diary where all screaming for something better than what we got. It’s as if you had all the ingredients to make a great Cuba Libre, but in the end you didn’t put enough rum in the mix, so you end up with a watered down drink. The result is a very banal film. The most outstanding thing about the film was Giovanni Ribisi's performance as Moburg, and even he was underused.

But what disappointed me the most was that this film wasn’t a faithful translation of the book. They tacked on an ending that never exists within the pages of Hunter S. Thompsons book. The whole third half of the film was completely made up by the writers. And so, we end up with a film that has a drug induced scene that was tacked onto it merely to connect this film with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1994), as a way to let other people understand that this is actually a prequel to that film. And yet another disappointment was the elimination of ‘Yeamon’ the character that Kemp befriends once he gets to the island. They twisted things around beyond recognition, therefore, I, as a fan of the book, was not pleased. My point is, if your going to ignore the source material, then at least do something that’s worth a damn. In this case, they made a film that was boring and ultimately feels unimportant when it could have been so much more. Hell, even Depp didn’t bring his A-game entirely, for some reason, his voice in the film, his character, felt muted. Fans of Hunter S. Thompson won’t get enough of him and fans of the book wont get that either. You’ll just get a so-so movie that had potential, but failed to live up to it. 

Rating: 3 out of 5 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)

Title: Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)

Directors: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman


The Paranormal Activity movies have all gone in reverse. The first film is actually the last chapter, and this new film called Paranormal Activity 3 is actually the first chapter of the ghostly saga. The idea behind these films is that a family is being harassed by demons, and always at some point a member of the family decides that it’s a good idea to whip out a video camera and try and capture supernatural events on film. We see the film unfold through the footage shot on these cameras. The gimmick behind these films is that Hollywood would like for us to believe that they are composed of real life “found footage”. We’re supposed to believe that somebody found these cameras after everything went down, edited the footage and that the result is the movie we’re watching. Of course, if you have a brain cell in your noggin, then you know it’s all bull crap and that these movies are the same as any old Hollywood production. The only difference is that they were shot to give the illusion that the footage was shot by a real person instead of a film crew. Neat trick,  but it’s not a new one. Films like Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and The Blair Witch Project (1999) had done it before, and quite successfully too.

Cannibal Holocaust did it first! 

The thing about these ‘found footage’ films is that maybe you and I know that they aren’t real, but a big number of people actually believe that they are. I remember when I came out from seeing The Blair Witch Project from the theater; I heard a person telling his group of friends (in a tone that led me to believe that he believed it himself) that it was all real; I was like “Man! Really?!” So yeah, these movies do convince some people that it’s all true. Hell, in the 1980’s the Italian filmmakers behind Cannibal Holocaust had to go to court and prove that they hadn’t killed their actors in the making of their film! Truth is, this documentary style of filmmaking does add a level of realism to the proceedings, and I dig that; even though I know it’s just a movie.

The popularity of this type of film has grown a lot over the past few years, and I’m sure a lot of that has to do with the success that some of these films have had. For example, Cannibal Holocaust and Blair Witch Project were extremely profitable, same as all of these Paranormal Activity films. Cloverfield (2008) made a huge chunk of change. Even George Romero has taken a stab at these kinds of films with his Diary of the Dead (2007). Apollo 18 (2011) is the most recent example I can think of. So yeah, these kinds of films are proliferating like bunny rabbits. The success of these films stems from the fact that they are extremely cheap to produce. The budget for the first Paranormal Activity was roughly 11,000 thousand dollars! The budget for this third entry was a 5 million, which is nothing when compared to what Hollywood normally spends on a film. The sweet part of the deal for Hollywood is that people love the realism that these films bring with them; they don’t feel like a movie. They feel like something you could have shot with your own video camera. As a result films like Paranormal Activity 3 can make more than 173 million dollars at the box office. So their success means that these films keep getting made. How did Paranormal Activity 3 do?

On Paranormal Activity 3 we meet Katie and Kristie when they were little girls. These are the two sisters that we’ve already met as adults on the previous two films. On Paranormal Activity 3 we see where it all began, we learn why demons are chasing them all through out their adult hood. Both girls befriend an invisible entity (read: demon) who talks with them. They call it ‘Toby’. One day, Katie and Kristie’s parents are making a sex tape in the privacy of their own home when suddenly, an earthquake interrupts them. Bummer. I know. But on the tape recording, they notice that when dust falls from the ceiling, it falls on something that looks like an invisible…something. What could it be? A ghost? So from there on in, they put cameras around the house to try and capture the ghost on tape. What they don’t know is that this is much more than a ghost. Were talking about a freaking demon!   

Was this movie effective as a horror film? It was in my book, it got me a couple of times with its boo scares. Its story about demons harassing the family was creepy, as is usually the case with films about this subject manner. A lot of people see the supernatural events depicted on these films as completely plausible, so of course they get freaked out by them. On these films, invisible beings from the great beyond are invading your home and physically and psychologically torturing you, of course the idea of that happening can be scary to many. Add to that the whole documentary style angle and you got yourselves a creepy movie. Paranormal Activity 3 gives us more of what we’ve already seen in previous movies. Doors that close by themselves, creepy sounds in the middle of the night, little kids talking to demons. On this one, they develop the story a bit further. It goes deeper into why this is all happening, in short, it finally gives us all the answers as to why these girls have always been bothered by spooky beings from the netherworld. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shinning (1980) was a huge influence over this one with it’s story about little kids talking to spirits. I remember, the kid in The Shinning spoke with an entity called Tony, on Paranormal Activity the entity is called Toby, so yeah, the similarities are there.

My only real gripe with these Paranormal Activity movies is the same kind of gripe I have for films like The Blair Witch Project. They don’t have much re-watch value. You seen them once, that’s all you are ever gonna need to see them. Second time they kind of loose their charm, the gimmick wears its welcome, the trick is up. I mean the thing about these movies is that they really don’t show us anything, most of the scares are in our heads, which in reality is a good thing. The best scary movies are the ones that don’t show us that much, they play with our minds; they play with ideas and emotions rather than with special effects. This third one was a mix of a good story and scares. Out of all the three films, I think this is the one I enjoyed the most because it has more meat to it. Even the scares that have nothing to do with demons scared the audience! That was one thing that I found interesting. The audiences so on the edge with these movies that even a scare with no ghosts involved will get them to jump anyways! I liked how the filmmakers played with the audience in that way. The filmmakers are totally aware that their audience is already a bit scared to begin with.  

This movie made so much money and made such a profit that more sequels are inevitable. Unfortunately, the next couple of Paranormal Activity films will probably be watered down versions of these first three. I’m afraid this series can only go down from here. Kind of the same way the SAW movies went downhill after part III. The third film in a series is usually the one where they try to pull all the stops, really blow you away. And I think they achieved this with Paranormal Activity 3. My only question is, where can you take the story from here? A new family? A new house? Whatever they come up with, I’m sure they’ll think of something to milk this series for all it’s worth. Or maybe they’ll surprise us and actually make a good fourth entry? Who knows? Only time will tell. But undoubtedly, we will be seeing more of these films, probably every Halloween for the next couple of years. If you ask me, this third one gave a fitting explanation to the story behind Katie and Kristie’s demonic torment. Any further developments will probably disappoint, but what do I know. Here’s hoping they prove me wrong.

Rating: 4 out of 5  


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