Monday, October 19, 2009
Time-travel sci-fi, when self-serious, can get bogged down in hypothetical discussions of tangent realities and space-time continuum gobbledygook that neither the writers nor the audience really understands. That's why Back to the Future is great, it's supposed to be a big ball o' fun and nothing more. It throws in a few space-time continuum nonsense explanations but nearly winks at the camera as it does it, acknowledging through Doc's manic performance that it's all just for fun. Timecrimes has a darker sense of humor, mostly that you can't trust just any old Hector with time travel, 'cause he will probably just muck everything up. Filmed in Spain, the film's spiraling series of events begins when a middle-aged milquetoast named Hector sees, with binoculars, a young woman undress in the woods behind his house. Once his wife leaves to run errands, he ventures out to investigate. When he gets close, a masked man stabs him and Hector is forced to flee to a nearby science lab where he stumbles upon a time machine. That sounds convoluted as hell, but Timecrimes actually aims small and makes good on the opening scares. It follows Hector throughout the course of the day, beginning with the bizarre violence that begin to make sense as we see back in time. Just when the circular plotting begins to become familiar and Hector tries to fix everything he screwed up with his first accidental time travel, it takes unexpected twists, while staying true to it's opening conceit. A
The Reader (2008) - The Reader not only features today's fashionable Oscar-bait casting choices (Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet), it even employs the Academy's favorite story structure: an old person looking back at several key moments in their life. Fiennes plays the wistful old lover here, looking back at his (here's where I should use the word 'torrid' or 'passionate') affair as a teenager with an older woman. That woman happened to be Winslet, playing a mid-thirties German strumpet who was a concentration camp guard during the Holocaust, unbeknown to Fiennes. Though her ruthlessly efficient and thoroughly German love-making (stereotype jokes are fun) and cold demeanor should have been a dead giveaway. This is the central twist that Fiennes doesn't realize until his mid twenties, during law school, when his class goes to visit Winslet's criminal trial.
In order to keep audiences engaged in a "torrid" love affair that is neither torrid nor especially passionate, the film's marketers advertised the twist as the film's premise, essentially letting film goers know to stay with it until the second half, when things supposedly get interesting. The one moment of inspiration comes from the outspoken douche in Fiennes' law school seminar, who becomes rightfully angry at the trial process that he said places the totality of blame for the Holocaust on a few guards, when there were millions of Germans who knew exactly what was going on. I'd say the odds are about 1-to-1 that he later joined the Baader-Mienhoff gang. The Reader fails to pose any interesting moral dilemmas or dig deep into the banality of evil, though it tries to do so in only the most austere and self-serious manner possible. It practically screams, tastefully of course, with the pinkie clearly extended and tea-in-hand. In other notes, Kate Winslet's character should probably have a sit-down with Chris Hanson. C+
Drag Me to Hell (2009)
Following in the tradition of uh, his own films before he started making Spiderman crapfests, Drag Me to Hell is a Raimi-esque Sam Raimi splash into a cauldron of bloody camp and slapstick horror. The gore is hilarious, the gags are disgusting and the plotting is pitch perfect, but as with all of his horror-comedy films, I always want just a bit something more, even though I don't know what it is. In this case, the something more might just be less Justin Long, who seems to find his way into everything. The plotting follows the super-fine Alison Lohman, who plays a loan officer looking for a promotion at a small bank branch. When she denies an extension for some old Gypsy's mortgage, she gets cursed and has to spend the next 90 minutes getting abused by spirits in some humiliating ways, while convincing everyone she's not crazy and trying to get that damn promotion. This should have been a big hit, but instead the morons in suits cut it to a PG-13 rating and failed to get anyone in theaters besides fans of Raimi's other Raimi-esque work. B+/A-
Observe and Report (2009)
Writer/Director Jodi Hill may be as delusional as his deranged lead characters to think he could make a comedic Taxi Driver for the Apatow set. Predictably, Observe and Report never captures any of the weight of Taxi Driver, nor the laughs of Hill's Danny McBride vehicle Eastbound and Down. It jumps too quickly from slapstick gags and farcical sketches to maintain any dramatic momentum, despite several shorthand cinematic references to Scorsese's masterpiece. It can be pretty fucking funny though, even if it makes you feel a little guilty for laughing. Occasionally, it's as mean as The Foot Fist Way and East Bound and Down, and it continues Hill's characters' refreshing lack of sentiment or redeeming character traits. Though its barely-beating heart is seldom revealed outside of Rogen's scenes with his alcoholic mother. He plays mall security guard Ronnie Barnhardt — the McBride role — well, delusions of grandeur with a self-destructive streak. But he leaves McBride's possibly essential redneck coloring at home. Anna Farris plays the mindless party girl to perfection, she's a shallow slut with more love for "shots!" than her own well-being or self-esteem. Which brings us to the notorious date-rape scene, which is unflinchingly treated as a gag with no more care or seriousness than anything else. I don't know what to think of it. It's just presented matter-of-fact and then left alone. It happened. There are parts of "Observe and Report" that take place outside of anything remotely resembling reality, so much so that one wonders if Ronnie Barnhardt's fantasies of being an actual bad-ass actually become what's shown on screen. B-
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Woodie Allen's first foray into Spain follows two American friends (ScarJo and some brunet) with opposite taste in relationships. ScarJo likes things passionate and occasionally self-destructive and her more uptight brunet friend has a reputable fiance and carefully planned future. Both end up falling for Javier Bardem's passionate artist, Juan Antonio, who indulges in Europe's more libertine attitudes. Eventually the other hottest woman in the world (Penelope Cruz) comes along as Bardem's ex-wife and things get weird.
VCB lets the audience ogle at some of the best looking people in Hollywood, placed near both old-Europe's beautiful city architecture and idyllic cottages and countryside. As with any Allen film, it allows us to question the idiosyncrasies of the human heart without feeling hokey or cheesy about it. And it's witty, of course. B+
Saturn 3 (1980)
When I read the title, I figured, well, I haven't seen the first two Saturn flicks — not that I've ever heard of them — but I can probably catch myself up to speed. It turns out Saturn 3 is not a sequel to a film named Saturn, it's the name of the deep-space base where all the "action" takes place in this stand-alone '80s sci-fi abomination. More curious than Saturn 3's illconceived and misleading name is its A-list cast, comprised of Hollywood stars either well-before or well-after their prime. You've got a young Harvey Keitel, after his supporting role in Taxi Driver but before any other film roles I remember. All his dialogue is comically dubbed, and his strangely wooden performance was an attempt at the future, I guess. It's got Farrah Fawcett after her pin-up heyday, but she's still amazingly hot and she gets naked, briefly. Weirdest of all, though, is a geriatric Kirk Douglas as ... Fawcett's lover?
Douglas and Faucet play a couple who live on an isolated Saturn space base, visited by Keitel's vaguely creepy space pilot who arrives with some robot. Keitel's robot is named Hector, and it kinda looks like that episode of Futurama when Fry thinks he's a robot and starts walking around like one. In other words, Hector is a guy in a robot suit, built so it looks like it has no head. This is accomplished by building the costume's chest where the actor's head would be, and squaring off the shoulders up above the head. Anyway, Keitel's mind controls the robot, and when he gets the hots for Farrah .... the robot does, too. Eventually Hector goes all HAL and there is a dead dog and some awesome non-CGI gore. Hector is one horny robot and he goes berserk. Oh, and I almost forgot, the crappy special effects attempting to show the surface of the planet, space travel and anything else is funny enough to merit a watch in it's own right. There is one extraordinarily shitty attempt to portray flight in an asteroid field, which was plainly accomplished by filling a tub with water, dropped a bunch of Styrofoam rocks in it and then filming a miniature space ship flying by the "asteroids." It didn't look like anything close to outer space.
Saturn 3 was clearly trying to cash in on the Star Wars hysteria, even borrowing Episode IV: A New Hope's opening iconic shot of the spaceship's underbelly as it flies over the camera. It is a truly abysmal, terrible-beyond-belief attempt at sci-fi that can't even accomplish it's fairly modest goals. In other words, a must see. F+ (otherwise known as a gentleman's D-, or a bastard's F)
Tom Cruise is a Nazi (oh but he's the good guy, of course), wears an eye patch, and tries to dispose of Hitler. Pretty entertaining for a thriller, but for something that immortalizes a botched coup d'etat (it's hard to tell without research how much they were following a real story or just completely making stuff up under guise of "inspired by"), they could have stepped even further from reality instead of straying the line between historical fiction and a bunch of 'splosions. Throughout the entire film, I was just assuming nothing even close to this actually took place, and that they were just playing out what one of the plans would have gone like. But by the end, they seem to imply some of it did happen, and I was just left irritated. In other words, either grow some balls like Inglorious Basterds or don't show up at all. But again, outside of the historical contest, it works great as a thriller, despite Tom Cruise's best attempts to suck. (No Scientologists were hurt during the writing of this review.) B