Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Under the Skin (2014)

Under the Skin (2014)

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Starring: Scarlett Johansson

So there are movies out there that divide audiences, Under the Skin is undoubtedly one of them. It will divide audiences who like to go see commercial films, from those who enjoy more artful fare. Films that break with the norm and try different things, different structures. Under the Skin doesn't subscribe to Hollywood formulas, we don’t have a hero trying to solve some problem, we don’t follow a clear three part structure, in fact, we don’t know what the hell is going to happen next. Director Jonathan Glazer gets a rousing shout of approval from this Film Connoisseur.

Under the Skin is the story of a sexy voluptuous alien (Johansson) who goes around town looking for lonely guys she can feed on. That’s really all I can say, you see, this isn’t exactly the kind of film that is overtly complex, yet strangely enough, even though it’s simple in many ways, it also comments on society and the world we live in. Most of all, it comments on how men will do just about anything to be with a woman, to share that amazing moment of intimacy. It speaks about how that desire can blind us and drive us. But also, it speaks about the ugly side of sex, how a man is willing to step into the world of rape and violence to get it, sad but true. It's a tragedy that we still live in a world where rape happens so often. So yeah, a “simple” movie in many ways, but if we look past its apparent simplicity, it actually comments on some very important themes.

Think about this film as an art house version of Lifeforce (1985), because it really is the best way that I can describe it. I know it sounds weird to compare a film like this one with Hooper’s Lifeforce, but both films are extremely similar: female alien goes around picking up lonely dudes, seducing them so she can suck the life force out of them. This is exactly what happens in both movies! The difference between both films is that Hooper Lifeforce is a glorified b-movie, while Under the Skin takes a more experimental route. It’s more artsy, for lack of a better word. But I loved how without realizing it, I suddenly felt like I was watching a movie about a space vampire! Want more similarities? Well, how about the fact that Scarlett Johansson gets naked throughout the entire film? Remind you of Lifeforce yet?  

When I say Under the Skin is ‘artsy’ by that I mean it’s that kind of film that just hovers on a moment so you can really absorb it, kind of the way that Werner Herzog or Terrence Malick. You know, where they will just linger on a vista, or stay on a moment so you’ll really get the feel of being there. It also has these long moments without dialog, in fact, Scarlett Johansson’s character hardly speaks. She only talks when she’s going to pick up a guy from the street. The film also used experimental filmmaking techniques for certain scenes, for example, there’s moments in which the alien walks into a mall, or a nightclub, and the filmmakers used hidden cameras to capture real people going about their business, in this way, the film was successful in capturing humanity in its natural habitat. You know how sometimes you wish you could tape people on the street, because truth is sometimes stranger than fiction? Well, they actually do that on this movie, the result is real, no extras, just real people. 

That the film is so different from anything out there makes perfect sense when we take in consideration that the director is Jonathan Glazer, who also directed Birth (2004), the film in which Nicole Kidman ends up kind of falling in love with a ten year old kid who is apparently the reincarnation of her dead husband, or is he? It was a controversial film when it was first released, I remember seeing it in theaters and being perplexed by it, and slightly shocked, but I also remember being wowed by the beautiful imagery. Under the Skin is not without those beautiful images, in fact, the filmmakers went out of their way to find these beautiful locations, again, Glazer did what Werner Herzog does. He finds these beautiful locations to shoot in, you’d swear they aren’t real. But they are, and they serve as a beautiful reminder of the amazing planet we live in.

While Under the Skin is a different kind of film, Glazer also shows he has many cinematic influences, displaying elements you could find in other directors works, for example you can find the surrealism and symmetrical perfection of Stanley Kubrick in abstract images that seem to come right out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. You can also find that ominous feeling you get from watching a David Lynch film, the beautiful locations from a Herzog film, in other words, Glazer loves many amazing filmmakers and puts a lot of them into his own films, but also, of course, adding his own taste and flavor to the mix. That deadly serious tone that all of his films have. This proves what I’ve always said about films, you can give the script to ten different directors, and you’ll end up getting ten, totally different films. I mean, Hooper with the concept of a female space vampire did Lifeforce and look at what Glazer did with the same exact idea, a refreshingly different film. Take it from me; if you like films that break with the norm, this is a film you should not miss. Highly recommended!

Rating: 5 out of 5

Monday, July 14, 2014

Brain Damage (1988)

Brain Damage (1988)

Director: Frank Henenlotter

Cast: Rick Hearst

Frank Henenlotter films have a couple of distinguishing factors about them: they are sexually charged films starring freaks who are frustrated individuals; socially dysfunctional in one way or another. The main characters in Henenlotter’s films are often times social outcasts who have been dealt an ugly card by life. For example, in Basket Case (1982) the main character is a guy who's born with a deformed twin brother stuck to his chest! In Bad Biology (2008), one character has a monstrous penis that can only be controlled with drugs and another character has a vagina with seven clits! And in the film I’ll be reviewing today, the main character is addicted to a drug that is administered to him by a talking worm! Welcome my friends, to the freakish world of Frank Henenlotter films!

Brain Damage is all about Brian, a young man who one night gets a visit from a worm named Aylmer. I call it a worm, but others have described it as a slug, a turd, a talking brain; all of which are correct. So anyhow, Aylmer is a creature that sticks to your neck and injects this hallucinogenic blue liquid into your brain that gives you an incredible high. Problem is that once you get a taste of Aylmer’s juice, you are hooked for life! Ah, but there’s a catch, you also have to feed Aylmer, if you don’t feed him, he won’t give you the blue liquid. The real problem is that Aylmer only eats human brains! So if you want to get high, you have to find Aylmer a victim! Will Brian start killing off people in order to get high? Can he ever stop?

So as you can probably surmise, this film is all about drug addiction. I’ve seen films like this one before,  cautionary tales about drug addiction. Brain Damage brought to mind films like Requiem for a Dream (2000) and Trainspotting (1996), films that are meant to show you the horrors of drug addiction. The difference is that Brain Damage tells its tale through the filter of b-movie magic, with a talking slug as an allegory for drugs. Imagine if Heroin or Crack could suddenly personify themselves and talk to you, this is what you’re going to see in Brain Damage. The film is crystal clear with what it wants to say, and even though it is about a talking turd, the message it sets out to give is a very truthful one. Brain Damage goes step by step through the kind of things that you can expect to go through if you ever became addicted to hard drugs like say, heroin. Brain Damage depicts the alienation, the euphoria, the obsession and the degeneration that follows. Brian goes through it all to the point where the blue liquid is the only thing that matters, going as far as not caring about anything in life, family, relationships, nothing matters except the next high. 

What is awesome about this movie is how Aylmer, the talking slug, personifies drugs and talks to Brian telling him things like “I own you know, you are mine” “I want you to beg for it now” and “Let’s see who cracks first”, I think that was just a brilliant idea because it shows us exactly how drugs end up dominating your life, taking over it. Aylmer tells Brian “This is the start of your new life Brian, a life full of colors, music, lights and euphoria, a life without pain, or hurt or suffering” I think this is with a doubt Frank Henenlotter’s best film because not only does it give us entertaining visuals, and gross out moments to boot, it also has something to say. Since it is a film about drugs, it also speaks about the big attraction that drugs have. Why exactly is it that people crave them even though they are obviously harmful to their bodies and lives? This is something that the film also explores because whenever Brian takes a bit of the blue liquid, we get to see what he sees, and this is when the film goes on these visual trips. Brian obviously enjoys the enhanced state that the blue liquid puts him in, colors are more intense, life is amplified somehow and he wants that all the time. Every time Brian takes the blue liquid, the film goes on these visual trips that are one of the highlights of the film.

But what would a Henenlotter film be without some gory, gross out moments right? Brain Damage goes all out in this department, we get some of the grossest, most shocking moments on any Henenlotter film, and that’s saying a lot! There is one scene that was so graphic and shocking that some of the crew members actually walked out of the set as it was being filmed! You’ll know it when you see it, but it involves fellatio, that’s all I’m saying! On the downside of things, the acting is sometimes not the best, but I guess that goes fine with the whole b-movie vibe, honestly I don’t mind bad acting in this kind of thing, it makes the film more entertaining somehow. And some of the lines on this movie, wow, they’ll have you rolling! Here’s an example, at one point, Brian goes on a killing spree but doesn’t remember what happened and Aylmer fills him in on what happened, then he tells Aylmer: “You ate her brain?!” followed by “Is she DEAD?

So what we got here my friends is an anti-drug film that explores every single aspect of drug addiction, through the lense of a gory, graphic, loud b-movie. I love it how this kind of film can go deep, as opposed to what a lot of people think of b-movies, which is they are tripe, banal things. Well, most of the time they are, but in Brain Damage’s case, I say b-movies can be deep and profound without losing what makes them b-movies. So hurray for Brain Damage, undoubtedly Frank Henenlotter’s best film.

Rating: 4 out of 5   

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Invaders from Mars (1986)

Invaders from Mars (1986)

Director: Tobe Hooper

Cast: Karen Black, James Karen, Louise Fletcher, Laraine Newman, Bud Cort

I have a lot of love for this movie because I grew up watching it. When this film was released, I was about 11 years old or something, I didn’t even know it was a remake back then. I just knew that I loved those goofy aliens. I guess I just watched this movie at the right age and time, I connected with the little kid in the movie and his feeling of paranoia, after all, who doesn’t feel that there’s sometimes something slightly ‘off’ about the world they live in right? Hell, I still feel that way today! Weird thing is that as time passes by, I like this movie even more! Last night I screened it, and the crowd stayed glued to it all the way to the end, I guess that says something about the kind of spectacle that Tobe Hooper created with this film.

Invaders from Mars is all about David Gardner, a little kid who actually sees an alien spaceship land on the hill, just behind his house. Is his mind playing tricks on him? Did he dream it? Soon after that, David noticing that people are acting weird all over town, even his mom and pops are talking in this weird tone and doing weird things like putting tic-tacs in their coffee and eating burnt bacon. What gives with everyone in town? Are they all being controlled by Martians like David suspects? Can David stop the Martians from taking over his town?

So yeah, this is that kind of movie. The kind in which everyone in town starts acting strange, as if they were all telepathically connected in a hive like mentality, not unlike the plot we can find in films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) which has an extremely similar structure. If we take in consideration the type of atmosphere that Americans were living back in those days, it makes perfect sense that films like these were being made. You see, back in the 50’s, Americans hated and feared communism. Communism was like this decease that had to be eradicated from society. This mentality bled into films such as these, as mentalities often do. We can easily say that they Martians in the 1950’s version of this film represented the fear Americans had for communism and the fear that this mentality might spread somehow. In the film, Martians were secretly gathering and plotting against the humans, the same way Americans thought that there were communists amongst them secretly gather and plotting against capitalism and the American way of life. Of course, it’s the American military that saves the day in the film! The film makes a whole lot more sense when we see it from that perspective don’t it? Suddenly, it’s not just a film about an alien invasion. Fast forward a few decades and here comes the 1980’s version of the film, did it still hold the same meaning it did in the 50’s? Would this remake still be about the fears of communism?

The way I see it, Hooper's remake takes a slightly different route with its meanings. Now it’s not so much about communism, to me it’s more about the evils of the powers that be controlling the masses with lies. The leader of the Martians is called the “Supreme Intelligence” and it is essentially a giant talking brain. The Supreme Intelligence injects a needle into the brains of humans in order to control them and use them for world dominating purposes, so while yeah, it’s still about plotting against the humans, it’s also a plea against controlling the minds of the masses. It’s a film about letting the people think for themselves, about letting people make their own choices in life instead of manipulating their perceptions with lies. In one pivotal scene David Gardner actually begs the aliens not to control people. It’s wrong, he tells them, they never did anything wrong, he pleas. This film actually has something to say as opposed to what a lot of people might think about it, it isn’t as empty as you might think! The beauty of the film is that it delivers these deep themes through an awesome and entertaining spectacle and an otherworldly story about Martians wanting to take over our minds, and our planet.

This remake pays its respects to the original film with a few homages here and there, while still offering welcomed new elements. For example, there’s a scene in which two cops come over to David’s house because he files a complaint, well, one of the cops is the original actor who played David Gardner in the original film! As the cop inspects the hill, he says “I haven’t been up here since I was a kid”, which is true of course. The update on the Martians is a welcomed element, they were designed by the great Stan Winston, and trust me, they are a real highlight of the film, The Supreme Intelligence is an awesome creation that looks alive, it pulsates, it breathes! It’s so refreshing to see creatures that are actually physically there and not computer generated, I miss this kind of physical effect on films. Finally, there’s this sense of wonder throughout the whole film because we see everything through the eyes of a child, everything happens because of this kid, and for once the adults actually listen to the kid! This is one of those '80’s Kid Movies', where the pre-teens are the main characters of the show. Sadly, the only weak link in the film is the kid himself, played by Hunter Carson. Still, it’s about the only bad thing I can say about this film. In an interesting turn of events, Hunter Carson the kid who played David Gardner was actually acting next to his mom, actress Karen Black, who plays the nurse in the film. It’s interesting to see them acting side by side. And speaking about the acting, I’d say it’s Louise Fletcher the actress who plays Mrs. McKeltch, the evil teacher whom the Martians take control of, that steals the show, she plays a memorable villain here.

Ultimately, what we get with Tobe Hooper’s Invaders from Mars is a loving homage to the original. This was one of Tobe Hooper’s favorite films, he says that the original film burned holes in his memory. This was obviously a film that made an impression on him when he was a child. What Hooper did with this remake was recreate some of the images that the original director William Cameron Menzies had created in the original film, by using the original film as a very definite foundation, but embellishing the classic imagery, making  it bigger, flashier. Hooper took the classic film and amplified it. I’d say he achieved this quite well because the remake feels familiar, yet more spectacular in a lot of ways. It’s certainly flashier and louder than the original; the visual and make up effects were obviously improved upon. It was Stan Winston’s intention to create aliens that didn’t feel like a man in a suit. The design of the aliens surpasses anything we saw in the original film by leaps and bounds. So this film comes to us from a crew of people who really loved the original film and wanted to pay their respects to it by keeping what worked so well in the original, while improving the effects and visuals, that makes it, in my book an excellent remake.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Tobe Hooper (extreme left) on the set of Invaders from Mars (1986)

Monday, July 7, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

 Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

Director: Michael Bay

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor

So I was willing to give this movie the benefit of the doubt because dammit, I don’t like to hate on a director just because. I really don’t like it when people hate a director by default, just because everybody else says his films stink. This review comes from a guy who actually kind of enjoyed Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) So I went into Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) with the best of intentions, completely willing to give the film a chance; cause who knows, maybe Michael Bay has learned a thing or two about what worked and didn’t work with his previous films. But alas, it seems success has blinded Michael Bay’s judgment, he knows not what makes a good movie. Let’s face it, the only reason these movies are making money is because people love the concept of The Transformers, not because they actually like these films, because who in their right mind enjoys this crap?

This time around, the Transformers are hiding from the government because apparently, even though they saved the world from an alien invasion in the last film; they are now seen as a threat to humanity. Sure they destroyed most of Chicago, but didn’t they also save like…the entire planet from an alien invasion? But whatever; so anyhow, now The Transformers have gone into hiding. But wait! Mark Wahlberg finds Optimus Prime and brings him back to life…because he’s an inventor and he likes to tinker around with mechanical doo-dads. So anyhow, one thing leads to another and it’s The Transformers vs. The Evil U.S. Government who wants to duplicate the Transformers DNA in order to create an army of Transformers so they can use them for military purposes. Can Optimus Prime lead the Transformers once again? Can he stop the humans from creating an army of Transformer clones?

For the first few minutes of this movie, I was actually thinking to myself “why is everybody hating on this movie?” because we were getting to meet these human characters, and suddenly little by little transformers are figuring into the story and I was like “this aint so bad”, but then, somewhere around the midsection, when the action begins, things begin to fall apart. It’s the damn CGI characters, I can’t connect with them. And then, around the last forty minute mark I was praying for this film to be over! Then I understand what everyone was bitching and moaning about. Then film turns into torture! Pure and simple torture because you can’t root for anyone, because the transformers are not fleshed out characters and you can’t really root for anyone all you see are things exploding with no sentimental or intellectual value attached to the proceedings. Not even Optimus Prime, the main character in the film, is a well developed character. He’s just this stock character, always speaking like some sort of wise man. Why the hell does Optimus Prime always have to give people advice? The Transformers are all cardboard cut outs, generic characters with no depth to them, I don’t think it’s the fact that they are animated characters that doesn’t allow me to connect with them, it’s the fact that they are not developed at all. They don’t have a personality. You won’t know who the villains are; you won’t know who the good guys are, because they are all one huge indistinguishable pile of CGI crap.

Then there’s the action, which is very difficult to follow because it’s all just a mess, a huge, excessively loud CGI mess. And sad part is that it’s more of the same, Transformers fighting in a city, destroying everything. I’m guessing that the reason why they decided to shoot part of the film in China was to offer us different visuals; sadly, Michael Bay makes China look exactly the same as Chicago? Transformers fighting in between buildings is the same crap we’ve seen before, dammit Michael Bay you have all these millions at your disposal and you still can’t figure out a way to offer us something visually interesting or new? Come on dude. You could have tried something different. Instead, we get the same crap we’ve seen before, explosions, cars flipping, buildings toppling…you even swiped ideas from Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013)! That whole thing about a space ship that sucks up everything in its path like a giant magnet and then drops it all back down? Totally stolen from Snyder’s Man of Steel! Bay simply played around with the concept in his own way, but it’s quite obvious Bay wished he had come up with that idea, those scenes scratch on plagiarism if you ask me.

Sure, eliminating Shia LaBeouf from the franchise was a step in the right direction and replacing him with Mark Wahlberg was a genius idea, but then you get so many other things wrong, that it’s like taking ten steps back. Okay, the film does have its moments, the bit with the cars being sucked up in the air, even though extremely similar to what we already saw in Man of Steel, was entertaining. There are obviously some cool special effects in the film, the problem is that it’s all so mind numbingly redundant, that I literally saw people walking out of the movie theater mid way through the movie. People just didn’t care. I didn’t care, and that’s something very difficult for me to do because I am very forgiving of films, especially low budget films that attempt to be creative. But when it’s multi-million productions that have every possible tool at their disposal to make a good movie and still don’t, well then I rip those movies a new asshole, which is what I’m doing with Transformers: Age of Extinction. Michael Bay, shame on you dude.  You have to know when to cut back, you have to know when you have too much, and not enough of it is good. I mean, didn’t somebody in the studio watch this movie and think it was freaking horrendous? Or unnecessarily long? If a movie is going to be this long, then the least it could do is move us somehow, or attempt to at least connect with your audience, but damn it, three hours of impersonal CGI robots is torture for the senses. The Film Connoisseur says, skip this piece of crap! It’s the stuff nightmares are made of! What a dissapointment this 2014 Summer Blockbuster Season has turned out to be!

Rating: 1 out of 5  

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Runaway (1984)

Title: Runaway (1984)

Director/Writer: Michael Crichton

Cast: Tom Selleck, Cynthia Rhodes, Gene Simmons, Kirstie Alley  
Michael Crichton was best known for having written Jurassic Park (1993) but few know that he was already a prolific filmmaker/writer long before that. For example, he’d written and directed films like the sci-fi western mash-up Westworld (1973) and the sci-fi thriller Coma (1978). When we get down to it, he was more of a writer than he was a director, directing wise, in my opinion, he never really had a style, you couldn’t tell his films apart by the direction, rather, you could tell them apart because they had a clever concept, an idea with an often times real life scientific explanation behind them. However farfetched Jurassic Park might seem, Crichton’s books were based research he made about cloning experiments that went on in the real world. And like the best science fiction, Crichton often times tried predicting the future. In Runaway Crichton imagined a world in which robots are common place in society. How did Crichton’s concept play out on film?

In Runaway we meet Jack Ramsay, a police officer who specializes in capturing “Runaway” robots that malfunction and start doing crazy things, like killing people. You see, in this future robots do all sorts of jobs like cook, clean, take care of the children...and even hard labor like construction work. But when robots malfunction and become dangerous, that’s when the Runaway Units comes into play. You see, Runaway Units are these police officers that specialize in dealing with these robots gone awry. When a series of robots start going berserk for no apparent reason, Ramsay discovers a plot to turn robots into killers by installing a special chip on them; can he stop the bad guys from achieving their goals?

Michael Crichton’s films always dealt with technology failing somehow, technology going evil. For example, in Crichton’s Westworld we are presented with the idea of an amusement park that’s made to duplicate the experience of living in the Old West, right down to having real cowboys, cantinas, horses and guns. The only difference is that the cowboys are lifelike robots! At one point, one of the robots goes rogue and starts killing the guests! As you can probably infer, Westworld was actually the precursor to Crichton's own Jurassic Park, which plays with a similar premise, but with dinosaurs. So as you can see, at the center of Crichton’s films there was always this idea that technology can’t be trusted; same thing with Runaway, a film in which robots are turned evil by none other than Gene Simmons from KISS, who plays the villain named Luther. One look at Simmons’s face in this film, and it’s obvious he relishes playing bad guys, he’s evil stare says it all.

The Runaway Division plays out a lot like the premise for BladeRunner (1984), with police officers assigned to stop the rebel robots, only Crichton delivers the whole idea in a cheesier fashion, because while Blade Runner uses the premise of chasing evil robots to explore existentialism, Runaway is all about Ramsay conquering his fear of heights, that's about as deep as this one goes. It's cheesy because while this movie is supposed to take place in "the future" nothing in this movie looks very futuristic at all; everything looks like its 1984, only with clunky looking robots doing things. By the way, the robots in this movie look like the retarded brothers of R2-D2. Even cheesier is the fact that all these cops have to do is turn off a switch on the robots? I mean, it kind of makes you think why people can’t do this job themselves? Why do they have to call a cop to do it? But part of the fun of watching this particular movie is how dated technology is, how everyone is amazed at things that are common place today, like hacking into a computer system. At one point Gene Simmons hacks into the police departments cameras and he’s like “I bet you’re wondering how I did that?” So yeah, technology is completely out dated on this one, which makes it kind of funny.

A promotional still for Runaway, and a sample of the clunky robots in the film

And the film is so incredibly 80’s, starting by how the cops have cars and uniforms that don’t look futuristic at all, they look like cops from T.J. Hooker or C.H.I.P.S? Anybody remember those cop shows from the 80’s? So anyhow, lots of things make Runaway oh so very 80’s, starting by the fact that Kirstie Alley looks really hot on this movie, so that dates the movie as well, this movie was shot well before she turned into the poster girl for overweight women; but on this movie? She’s hotter than Georgia Asphalt! There’s this whole sequence in which Kirstie Alley having to strip in order to locate a bug on her body? So sleazy! Then we have Tom Selleck and his intimidating monster moustache which is just like awe inspiringly huge on this film. And then there’s all these nonsensical things that could only happen in a film from the 80’s, like this scene in which a robot spider shoots acid on Ramsay’s face and it’s like, no big deal, he only gets a mild wound when his whole face should have melted off? Or when all Gene Simmons’s has to do in order to infiltrate a police station is dress like a cop? Doesn’t anybody notice this guy doesn’t work here? And he does this to hack the police files! Then, in order to break into the computer he uses someone’s eyeball (it’s never explained whose eyeball it is or how he got it) in order to break the police computers retinal eye scan code…nobody gives a flying flip that this guy has a detached eyeball in his hand!? This movie is hilarious as only a film from the 80’s can be.

"Kiss me, never mind the acid on my face!" 

But then it’s got some cool things about it, like this whole chase sequence in which the good guys are chased down a highway by these little remote control robots that blow up, that was cool. There’s this whole plot line about Gene Simmons selling these black market guns that shoot heat seeking bullets. When shot, we get these cool bullet POV shots that reminded me of something Sam Raimi would have done in his Evil Dead movies. Then there’s this whole ending sequence that takes place in a construction site, high up, it’s such an extended sequence, goes on forever, but it has some cool vertigo inducing sequences. At the end of the day, this isn’t the greatest film in the world, but it’s also kinda entertaining, and I have to admit it has an original premise. It just feels like it needed a bit more money to make it a bit more futuristic and a bit less like an 80’s television show.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 5   


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