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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Explorers - A Film Review

Explorers is a 1985 science fiction adventure movie for children. It was directed by Joe Dante (Gremlins,The HowlingInnerspace), written by Eric Luke (who wrote several episodes of Tales From the Crypt), and starred River Phoenix, Ethan Hawke, and Jason Presson. The story is about three adolescent boys who are fascinated by science (both real science and science-fiction), and they build a spacecraft together and fly it into space. The film has a magical quality about it, a tribute to a childhood where children can explore off on their own, use their imagination, and have amazing adventures.

Wolfgang (River Phoenix) and Ben (Ethan Hawke) are nerdy best friends who love science and science-fiction (especially pulp comics and low-budget movies from the 1950s),and are fascinated by space travel. They get picked on by school bullies, but it doesn't deter them from following their passions. They meet a fellow kid, Darren, (Jason Presson), who is a little rough around the edges and thinks their science passions are weird, but finds kinship with them as fellow outsiders.

The film showing the home lives of the boys is an example of how some 1980s children’s films attempted to make their characters more realistic by showing their family’s lives being messy and unconventional. While Ben comes from an average suburban nuclear family, Wolfgang’s parents are German immigrants who are quirky and nice (played adorably by James Cromwell and Dana Ivey), and have a messy house with young kids making noise and stuff strewn all over. The home looks lived-in, like a real family’s house. Wolfgang has his own science lab in the basement.  He makes “voice sensors” for his lab rat,which allows it to speak English by hitting certain pedals. The rat even says, “Go to hell,” at one point. The rat is named Heinlein, after the science-fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, who wrote many stories about young boys experimenting with space flight.

By contrast, Darren comes from a trouble single-parent household, whose dad is unemployed and ill-tempered (“What does he do?” “He hauls junk.”) Various kid movies in the 1980s would show kids with the following home lives: single-parent households (E.T),living on the poverty line or losing their home (The Goonies), arguing parents on the brink of divorce (The Monster Squad), unemployed parents, etc. It feels more like a real kid’s life, especially for kids who didn't grow up in “perfect” households.

Ben is having dreams when he receives messages from mysterious beings from outer space, giving him the diagrams for circuit systems to build a flying spacecraft. The dreams look inspired by Tron’s inner computer world, with grids and wires. He tells Wolfgang about it, who is the budding scientist of the group (while Ben wants to be an astronaut), and they and Darren develop their project. They create the circuit boards; have the same dream one night where they all receive the alien messages; create a bubble that can move at incredible speeds with no effects from inertia, hence using it to power their spacecraft, and put their spacecraft into effect, naming it Thunder Road, after the Bruce Springsteen song.

The flying machine is successful, soaring through the night sky, and it is a magical scene, of making the impossible dream a reality. The boys soar past a drive-in theater playing a pulp sci-fi movie; past Ben’s romantic love interest, a girl who he is unaware likes him back; and over a diner and scaring their bullies. Even when it mistaken fora UFO by the US government, it doesn't deter the boys from trying again to reach their mysterious friends and go further in their adventure. The scene even includes a sly reference to Dante’s previous film, Gremlins, with a newspaper headline as “Kingston Falls ‘Riot’ Still Unexplained.”

Dick Miller has often appeared in Joe Dante’s films, and has this kind presence to him that  him immediately likable. It’s his well-worn, raspy voice and crinkly face that makes him very familiar in a warm way. He plays a US government helicopter pilot who spotted the spacecraft and boys, and had mistaken them for aliens in a UFO (their oxygen masks looked like alien faces to him). He is determined to prove this UFO existence, as he says he had seen a UFO as a boy. He’s not a villain, however. When he meets Ben and realizes he’s the “spaceman,” he initially has his instinct is to go after him, but when he sees the boys take off in their spacecraft, he says with pride, “Nice going, kid.”

The boys’ spacecraft,when it breaks through orbit, is then powered by their alien friends and sent at warp speed to their vessel. What they find there is completely unexpected, and the third act is a letdown after so much build-up and excitement as the boys built their spacecraft and planned their journey. It’s not so terrible, but it seems very out of place with the film’s childlike yet serious tone.

Joe Dante is obviously paying tribute to his own 1950s childhood love of science and pulpy science-fiction books and movies, and he does it in a way that feels genuine to 1980s children who are interested in science and old movies. Phoenix and Hawke were both excellent at capturing the innocent joy and intellectual wonder of their characters, and Presson was excellent at playing a cynical and tough kid who was happy to have real friends he could trust.

There was controversy with the film’s production, as the studio changed hands and wanted the film much out earlier than Dante expected. Dante wasn't finished with the rough cut, but the studio wanted to rush it out anyway and took it over from him, not allowing him to add in footage he had on the cutting room floor. They ended up releasing it on the same weekend as the Live Aid concert aired on TV, and the film was barely noticed and bombed in the box office. It earned $9.8 million on a $25 million budget. Dante has said that while he appreciates the cult love for the film from audiences, he can’t look at it because it isn't the film he wanted to make. It is an unfinished product that was released without his permission. It still is a wonderful film, but if there is extra footage on the DVD of unreleased scenes, that would be a treat to see, to see more of Dante’s creative vision.

Explorers is a wonderful film that encourages children to be creative, to take an interest in the sciences, and to use their imagination and intelligence to push further in whatever passions they have. It is a special film, and even if it wasn't a major success at the time of its release, it is still a magical gem of a film to many people, and that is what counts.

Knights of Badassdom - A Film Review

Knights of Badassdom is a comedy that was made in 2010, but not officially released until 2013, due to production issues and difficulty finding a distributor. It is about a group of LARPers (live-action role-players) who accidentally resurrect a succubus during a game (they recite from an ancient spell book as part of their role-playing, thinking it was a prop book that they bought off the Internet), and the succubus is killing people while a game is going on. It is up to the gang to defeat the succubus, and believe in themselves as real heroes.

It stars Steve Zahn, Peter Dinklage, Jimmi Simpson (a McPoyle from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), Summer Glau, and Ryan Kwanten. I really liked it. It is silly and fun, with a good cast and good action and comedy, and done with passion for the LARPing community. It looks very cheaply-made, with cheesy special-effects, and looks as if the movie was made in just a couple of weeks, done with a small cast and filming nearly everything in a woods location. It is worth checking out on Netflix.

Mercenaries - A Film Review

I watched Mercenaries, this Asylum ripoff of The Expendables with female action stars. Zoe Bell, Kristanna Loken, Vivica A. Fox, and Nicole Bilderback played convicts hired by a government boss (Cynthia Rothrock) to be a team to save the President's daughter from the villain (Brigitte Nielsen), who wanted ransom money to get and sell weapons. It was cheap, with bad dialogue, wooden acting, and had choppy fight scenes, but was fun to watch as an action B-movie. Zoe Bell still stood out as the hero and can carry a movie, while Loken is just pretty but blank, Bilderback was just okay (too many Asian jokes in the script), and Vivica A. Fox looks rough and out of shape. Rothrock only appears in the beginning and end, and Nielsen just hammed it up. So it was fine to watch, just a cheap Expendables knockoff.

American Sniper - A Film Review

I went to see American Sniper last Sunday. I was mixed on it. The good: Bradley Cooper's performance, the intense combat scenes, the depiction of PTSD, especially in scenes where Chris Kyle (Cooper's character) is with his family and not mentally connected with them, reliving the war in his head, or being triggered by various sounds and noises. One of the sequences that was very hard to watch was when an innocent Iraqi family is stuck in a horrible situation, and I appreciated that the director Clint Eastwood showed that, as horrible as it was, to avoid depicting of all Iraqis as bad people.
The bad: from what I have read of, Chris Kyle was a racist person who took pride in killing Iraqi people (enemy soldiers as well as civilians) and bragged about it, and went on his tours of duty under the guise of "protecting America," but was addicted to the war and may have greatly exaggerated his number of kills in his book. The film, while keeping Kyle's sense of patriotism mixed with a misguided notion of protecting America, softens his character and makes him less of a sociopathic type, and shows him having remorse over shooting civilians who were aiding the enemy, something that it sounds like the real Kyle would not have remorse over.
The film does break out of that "American hero" image that Kyle got by showing Kyle being distant at home with his family, seeing his family more as symbols to protect and fight for rather than actually having emotional connections with them; mentally affected by the war; unable to function as a normal person; and hesitating to visit veterans at the hospital because he wants to still be in Iraq protecting his brothers. Each time he goes on his tour (he goes on four tours of Iraq) it seems like he goes there less to "protect America" and more so that he feels more alive and focused in the battlefield than he does in civilian life, and doesn't show much concern for being away from his wife and children for many months at a time. It doesn't feel like a patriotic film, though it may be interpreted that way. It felt like a better depiction of Kyle than what he was like in real life.
I found this while scanning articles about Martha Graham for work. I strongly disagree that the sequel was better than the first film. The first film was dark, gritty, violent, and more resembled the original comic book, with the characters being like their 80's cartoon selves. The critics who said that this movie was better because it was "more upbeat, more light-hearted, and funnier than the first!" have no idea what they are talking about, as the original movie was not meant to be "light-hearted." And that concludes my rant on critics with misguided raves about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

El Velador - A Film Review

This originally appeared on IONCinema on June 12, 2012.

El Velador | Review

Natalia Almada El Velador Review

Shooting Spree: Almada Documents Open Air and Closed Doors of War Zone
A documentary film that is a nearly wordless account, save for the Mexican TV and radio broadcasts of the ongoing drug wars happening in the north of Mexico, particularly in the notorious cities of Juarez and Culiacan. El Velador (The Night Watchman) is one day in the life of those left to tend the memorials and mausoleums of Mexican’s fallen drug lords, whose corpses lie like kings in marble tombs. Natalia Almada’s chilling look at what happens when criminal drug lords are deified even in death, while their victims are completely forgotten might be wordless, but speaks volumes about a problem that is unlikely to go away.

Martin, a solitary worker along with his faithful dogs, takes care of the mausoleums every night, as the “velador” of the title. Workers keep the ground moist by hosing it down periodically, and an attractive young widow mops the floor of her husband (a corrupt police officer)’s mausoleum while her children play hopscotch across a row of tombs. They work and live as if time has stood still, paying respect to these men who spread death and destruction across the country.

Since President Felipe Calderon took office, there has been war declared on the drug cartels, increasing the violence and death toll, of both criminals and innocents. Approximately, 35,000 people have been killed since 2006. Many people wait in long bank lines in hopes of retrieving money that was stolen from them by the drug cartels. The illegal drug trade doesn’t just affect Mexico, but is a worldwide problem.

Almada is a native of Sinaloa, both an agricultural state and a place that is also a major area for drug trafficking and where the local “narcos” have a romantic quality to them, as outlaws or like Mafia movie heroes. But upon hearing from close neighbors of the deaths and disappearances of their loved ones, the glamour of drug life quickly disappeared, revealing a monstrous reality and this doc allows the images to do the speaking, juxtaposing the grand memorials with radio broadcasts tracking the latest news about death being spread by their people.

The gorgeous, wide shots in the desert environment say so much about people whose lives are still dedicated to taking care of these people who were responsible for so much violence and unimaginable mayhem. El Velador is unnerving to watch, a film filled with so much restraint and quietness, yet not forgetting to remind the audience of how violence pervades and, even if a drug lord is dead, their deaths are still celebrated while paupers and illegal immigrants lie in unmarked graves.

Reviewed at the 2011 ND/NF.

Still Alice - A Film Review

I saw a great but heartbreaking film last night, Still Alice, directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, and based on the novel by Lisa Genova. Julianne Moore played Alice, a Columbia linguistics professor who has been diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer's. She was magnificent in this film. Alice starts out as witty and extremely talkative, and begins to have momentary lapses where she forgets a word or repeats a question or can't remember something from a minute ago. As her forgetfulness and confusion progresses, she goes for testing by a neurologist, and the worst comes true. It is devastating when she realizes she has this disease. When she cried to her husband, "It feels like my brain is dying!" I felt gutted inside.
The film was a realistic and honest portrayal of life with Alzheimer's. The film felt very intimate because it focuses on Alice and her immediate family: her husband (Alec Baldwin), and her children (Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish, Kristen Stewart). Alice is a brilliant woman who prides herself on her intellect, her knowledge, her use of language, and building a meaningful life with her family, and the disease is so unfair as it robs her of her memory, her autonomy, and her hard work. The neurologist states that often times, brilliant and highly intelligent people people are more prone to the disease due to overworking on the brain, having a higher memory reserve, and not getting treatment when memory lapses because they assume it's just middle age. She even says she wishes she had cancer instead, because it isn't as shameful or as embarrassing.
The film had an understated pace, where there weren't any screaming matches, no heavy Oscar-bait moments of hysterical scenes, no abandoning of Alice by family members, or tacked-on happy endings. The film was about a family's struggle and understanding of the disease, and respecting Alice while trying to manage the rest of their lives. Life goes on as one daughter gives birth to twins, the father is offered a job opportunity in the Midwest, and another daughter struggles to succeed in an acting career. I agreed with a criticism by Peter Debruge in Variety that the audience gets a sense that life continues on outside of the scope of the scenes, as the year progresses and Alice becomes a shadow of her former self. She, the esteemed linguistics professor, now can barely say a coherent sentence or get out the right words to say what she wants to say, and it's emotionally frustrating for her. Alice's transformation is heartbreaking to watch, and Moore's performance is subtle and gradual in portraying Alice's mental and emotional decline. 
The major cast standouts apart from Moore were Alec Baldwin and Kristen Stewart. Baldwin was touching and sympathetic as her caring husband who was keeping his devastation to himself while losing Alice, who was as intellectual and career-driven as he was. In his eyes, there was hurt, confusion, and sadness as his wife was losing her memory reserve and brilliance. And Stewart delivered a raw and honest performance as the wayward daughter, who seemed at first emotionally distant because of her choices to forgo school and live on the West Coast for an acting career, but surprised the family by stepping up and being there for her mom and getting past old wounds. She was remarkable in this role, and belongs more in character-driven indie dramas than blockbuster films.
Julianne Moore appeared at the screening to introduce the film, so I got tickets for myself and a friend to see it together. She is absolutely stunning in real life, with shiny red hair, gorgeous fair skin, a big smile, and was wearing this really pretty and stylish black blouse that looked cool on her. She is personable and funny and intelligent. She spoke about the film, her introduction to considering a film acting career via Robert Altman films, seeing a double feature of Straw Dogs and Emmanuelle when she was younger, and her research in studying people with Alzheimer's. I really hope she is nominated for an Academy Award for this. I don't know the other actress competition, but she greatly deserves an Oscar by now.
I really felt for this film, and not because Moore was there to introduce it. I nearly cried a few times, it was just emotional and hard to watch sometimes. I don't have direct experience with Alzheimer's (a great-aunt had it, another great-aunt has dementia), but I feel for anyone who has it or is close to someone who had it. It is a devastating disease, and I hope one day there will be a cure.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Living Out Loud - A Film Review

I really love this film, Living Out Loud. It's about a woman named Judith (Holly Hunter) who is dealing with life after divorce, and the film is full of small, intimate moments between people as friends and confidantes. I find this film to be very special, and it touches me inside. Likely because the film's main characters are lonely people dealing with trauma and change in their life (Judith's divorce and depression, and Danny DeVito's character is Pat, a doorman whose daughter just died, his wife left him, and he has gambling issues), and the film is about rediscovering joys and passion in life, and building meaningful relationships in life. The actors are just fantastic in this film (including Queen Latifah as a charismatic torch singer who falls for gentle, kind men that turn out to be gay, and Elias Koteas in a brief cameo as the flame to ignite Judith's joie de vivre). The film is funny and honest, and has a mix of being sad while being optimistic at the same time.
This is my favorite role that I've seen Danny DeVito in. I like him as Frank Reynolds in It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia and his guest role as Herb Powell on The Simpsons, but he is excellent in this role. His character seems like a loser, but he's not. He's honest and sympathetic, and he plays the part like he's lived the character, like he's been him. He is fantastic in this film.
I appreciated that the film is not a love story. It's not about people falling in love with each other, or finding love after heartbreak, or a kind of cliched romantic comedy. It is based on two short stories by Anton Chekhov, and plays more like moments and sequences in a person's life, like looking briefly into their life, without a wrapped-up ending. Like the film Nine Lives, which was made up of nine ten-minute segments of interrupted takes into a woman or girl's life, just peeking for ten minutes into a moment of their life, and continuing on to another story when the ten minutes were up. Living Out Loud is one of my favorite films ever, and I feel emotionally connected to the characters, in their bittersweet mix of joy and sadness.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Frailty Film Review

Frailty is a psychological thriller with supernatural elements from 2002. I watched it last month, and was really amazed at how good it was. It starred Matthew McConaughey and Bill Paxton, and Paxton directed it. Most of the film is in flashbacks, telling the story of two young boys who live with their religious fanatic father (Paxton), who claims to have received messages from an angel about demons and Judgement Day. These messages are telling him that he must destroy demons, who appear in the form of regular people. The family will be "warriors," fighting during "the final battle" on Earth. One son is horrified by his father's insanity and break with reality, while the other son worships him and wants to do "God's work" in "destroying" these demons. The film is framed by the adult version of the skeptical son (McConaughey) telling an FBI agent all of this as the reason why his brother may be the serial killer that they are looking for.
I found the story really haunting, horrifying, and suspenseful, and seeing how easy it could be to believe in messages that could either be real or delusions, and how the father was becoming a serial killer without realizing it, because he saw himself as a "demon hunter" rather than a murderer. Paxton didn't play the role as being "crazy," but as someone who was calm and collected, and saw himself as a hero instead of a madman.
The film stuck with me afterwards, especially as the story revealed itself more at a slow burn that fascinated me. A reviewer described the film as "A resoundingly old-fashioned and well crafted study of evil infecting an American family," and I agree. It wasn't just the horror of the killings or the idea of someone going crazy that scared me, but it was the evil infecting the family that got to me. How it is difficult to accept that a loved one may be going on a dangerously wrong path, and how difficult it is to break away from them or to convince them that they are wrong. The film is a Southern Gothic story, a haunting mystery that I thought about long after the film.