Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Matrix (1999)

For better or for worse, The Matrix was probably the most influential action movie of the 90's.  While things like Terminator 2 early in the decade made big breakthroughs in special effects, The Matrix took things to an entirely new level.  In the years since the film was released the action genre has sort of been depleted a little by overuse of CGI, erratic editing and just a general sense of "been there, done that" to things.

That's not to say there haven't been good action movies, it's just that most of the really good ones I've dug have decided to go against the style that our feature today made so prevalent.  With that in mind, I thought I'd take another look at The Matrix to see how it holds up.  Not bothering with the sequels (because I like myself too much to watch them again) so let's get in the wayback machine and travel back to 1999.
  • Quick rundown of the plot for those who haven't seen it: Keanu Reeves is destined to be the chosen one in a battle to free humanity from the grip of a bunch of computers that have enslaved the planet.  Laurence Fishburne is on hand in the mentor role and there are stacks of inventive f/x sequences amidst an interesting cyberpunk storyline.
  • Fantastic opening sequence with Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) escaping from some cops along with a few villainous Agents led by Smith (Hugo Weaving).  Weaving is terrific as the bad guy and I gotta say that even after it's been done to death by parodies and cash-ins, the way the Wachowskis shoot the action sequences is still fantastic.
  • Unlike a lot of the stuff that followed, there is a clear sense of geography to the sequences in that you can tell where the hell the people are and what the hell is going on while still maintaining the kinetic pace the film relies on.  Good thing too since the story, while entertaining, isn't exactly original.
  • Keanu Reeves was actually a rather brilliant casting choice.  Neo is supposed to be a rather bland programmer by day-hacker by night type and if there is one thing Reeves can knock out of the park, it's coming off as ordinary.  He's also a rather good action star when given the right material and directors (or directors in the case of this film).  It also helps that he spends most of the movie observing and learning, not really doing any true action stuff until the last thirty minutes.
  • The rest of the cast is solid with Fishburne doing a good impression of Yoda is he were as huge bald guy with cool shades and Joe Pantoliano having fun as a traitorous slimebag.
  • Interesting philosophical stuff in the script though to be honest, I think the film is a little too obtuse for its own good.  There are some interesting things, mainly from the Oracle character played by the late Gloria Foster but the payoff is rather muted, though that could just be that when it comes time for the payoff, the film suddenly remembers its a Joel Silver production and it ends to up the action quota.  Not complaining at all really, as the action scenes are really well done.
Outside of some pacing issues (the relative lack of humor sort of hurts it as well), the film still holds up pretty well today.  It's a relatively smart science fiction/action movie and it can be watched quite easily without one feeling the need to slog through the sequels.  The stylized filmmaking, complete with wire work-assisted action scenes and some decent enough CGI makes it certainly one of the more energetic action films of the late 90's.

More importantly, The Matrix changed the way blockbuster filmmaking was carried out with more of an emphasis on special effects wizardry (which is saying something considering what has been going on since the late 70's) and a more stylized feel to everything.  The Matrix had a decidedly huge impact on the action movie that is still felt today to an extent.  The sequels may be forgettable, but the original is still a damn fine piece of movie magic.

Monday, January 26, 2015

2010: The Year we Make Contact (1984)/The Kindred (1987)

Starting things off this week with an 80's double feature.

 Not a huge fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey (the film looks amazing but the pacing is truly bad) but the 1984 sequel from Peter Hyams is surprisingly good.  Roy Scheider stars, playing a character from the first movie who is investigating the events of the previous film as well as a new monolith that has been discovered.  Hyams keeps things moving at a nice, brisk pace and the special effects work is nicely low key and effective.  I also get a kick out of the cast as we get not only Scheider (who I always liked) but also a nicely understated turn from John Lithgow and Helen Mirren as a Russian cosmonaut also heading an investigation.  2010 is not a perfect movie by any means but it's about as good a sequel to the first film as anyone could ask for.

And we finish things off with something I've been wanting to review for a long, long time.  The amount of crap I've had to go through just to view this cheesy little nugget is just incredible.  From defective video tapes (to give an idea of how long I've been trying to see this one) to bad timing on my part, the road to me seeing The Kindred is... Well, probably more interesting a tale than the one the film tells but not as much fun.  Regardless,we're deep into the low budget 80's monster movie jungle here with this tale of genetic experiments, gooey monsters, family secrets and Rod Steiger doing what he does best.  Making you wonder how the hell he got a rep as a good actor.  Actually to be fair, he's pretty fun in this one as a mad scientist but he did have his fair share of terrible performances.

A genetic scientist, on her death bed, implores her son to destroy all the files pertaining to her work, particularly one involving his "brother" Anthony.  Anthony turns out to be this big, slimy tentacle laden monster created from his brother's living tissue and that's just the tip of the iceberg in this fun monster movie.  We get gooey mutants, Amanda "Leviathan" Pays turning into a fish creature, Rod Steiger with a bad toupee, some decent gore splashed around and enough slime to fill the Grand Canyon.  If you can find it online, check it out.  It's well worth the effort.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Stephen King From Book to Screen: The Dead Zone

Thought I'd try something a little different and compare some Stephen King novels to their cinematic adaptations.  To start off, let's go back and see what happens when a bold Canadian director and a certain writer from Maine with an impressively active imagination team up with Dino DeLaurentiis.

 
With The Dead Zone in 1979, Stephen King proved he could do more than just scare the crap out of readers with ghosts, ghouls and other horrible things.  He could also get inside your head with more or less a straightforward dramatic piece with some supernatural elements thrown in for good measure.

The film and book tell the same tale: A young man named Johnny Smith is involved in a horrible car accident and after being in a coma for several years, he wakes up to find he can now see the future of any person he touches.  King gives us a pretty nice slow build to the accident, going into intricate detail on the subject of Johnny's date with Sarah, the love of his life before literally throwing a truck at us as it smashes into the cab Johnny is taking after getting Sarah home.

After being in a coma for nearly five years, Johnny awakens to find that he has the aforementioned ability and the rest of the story moves along in episodic fashion as he helps catch a serial killer in Castle Rock who turns out to be a local deputy; helps a rich kid graduate high school and finally, meeting a shady politician who he becomes obsessed with to the point where he decides he must kill the man before he starts World War 3.

The Dead Zone is probably the strongest of King's 70's output (though in terms of sheer scares, The Shining still tops them all as well as most of his subsequent output over the ensuing decades) with an intriguing story (Who the hell else has made a failed assassin into a sympathetic character?), sharply written characters (the good guys are interesting, in other words) and one of his better human villains in Greg Stillson.

Old Greg isn't a subtle man (Then again, King has never been the most subtle of writers); possessing a nasty temper, creepily effective charisma and a bunch of bikers acting as a personal goon squad, he leaps off the page whenever he appears and is very easy to hate.  The one real flaw the book has (that the movie corrects) is that Greg doesn't get his comeuppance 'onscreen' as it were.  Rather we are left to assume that his career is screwed after he uses a kid as a human shield while escaping Johnny's attempt on his life.

The slight cop-out at the end aside, The Dead Zone is a damn fine read that still resonates nicely today as it did in 1979 when it was released.

Now for the movie.

Released in 1983, the film version of the novel is a handsomely mounted, well acted and directed thriller.  The script by Jeffrey Boam distills things quite nicely, making Sarah more of a presence once Johnny wakes up (she appears sporadically in the book) by having her work on Stillson's campaign.  Not the first choice I would have made to keep her and Johnny in the same general area but it works well enough, especially having her kid be the one Stillson uses as a shield at the end.

Performances are solid across the board but the two highlights are Christopher Walken as Johnny and Martin Sheen as Stillson.  Walken has become something of a joke as an actor but this film does well in reminding us that he's not just a bizarre voice and mannerisms, he's also an immensely talented performer and here, he turns in a terrific, somewhat low key performance.  We get what we expect now from the man but it has context and focus and makes the overall effect of his work quite strong.

Martin Sheen is equally strong as he tends to channel something a little different whenever he plays a bad guy.  Not to say he hams it up (though he just a little) but he definitely goes to a much different place as an actor than when he's the President on The West Wing.  I also enjoy Tom Skerrit as the sheriff, Brooke Adams as Sarah and Herbert Lom as Johnny's doctor though they have relatively little to do.  Really, the only bit of odd casting is Anthony Zerbe as the father of the kid Johnny tutors towards the end but really, that's just because I sort of envisioned somebody a little more slick when reading the book.

The film has a nice, wintry atmosphere to it and Cronenberg handles things with a subtle, effective touch though it does get a little slow in places and the third act feels rushed (while Sheen is very good, he really isn't onscreen all that much).  It has none of the over the top visuals he's known for (even the one really gory bit where the killer deputy kills himself with a pair of scissors is taken from the book) but keeps the solid character work and funnily enough, predicts the way his career would go in more recent years with slightly more sedate fare... For him, at least.  This isn't one of my favorite King flicks (honestly, it's a film I like but don't love) but it is a solid thriller nonetheless.

The Dead Zone is fine as both a book and a movie.  Neither one is on the top of my favorites list when it comes to Stephen King but there are tons that are worse.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Zardoz (1974)

Before we begin, I want to give props to the fine folks at Her Majesty's Secret Podcast not only for inspiring me to write about this movie but also the other Connery films I've covered in recent months.  And now, for the third and last entry in this look at the cinematic choices of Sean Connery, prepare to have your mind blown right out the back of your head.

Submitted for your perusal (because approval might be asking a little too much), one of the most bizarre pieces of 70's sci-fi I have ever seen.  Zardoz is one of those movies that makes you just stare at the screen in amazement at what you're seeing.  It's... It's just bizarre on a level that even David Lynch would say "That's frigging weird."

Directed by John Boorman of Deliverance fame, Zardoz is a baffling, utterly bizarre, sort of tedious yet fascinating sci-fi film with some deep, pretentious aspirations which are more or less muffled by simply being too bizarre for words.

The plot, in a nutshell, involves a post-apocalyptic society that has been divided into an upper class of immortals called Eternals; a working class called Brutals and a bunch of Exterminators who... Well, they exterminate.  Connery is an Exterminator named Zed who one day finds out their god Zardoz, personified by a ginormous stone head that flies around is just a sham put on by an Eternal.

Disillusioned, he ends up with the Eternals, led by Charlotte Rampling and the ensuing events are part self-discovery, part fulfilling a prophecy and all incoherent.  The basic gist is that Zed has been allowed to find out the truth about the world and out an end to the lie in the most roundabout, pretentious way possible.  To put it bluntly, a bunch of immortal hippies get tired of being bored in their self-imposed exile and decide to annihilate themselves in the most Rube Golbergian way they can think of.  A word of advice, if you need to resort to genetic manipulation to find a way to off yourselves, you're over thinking things just a wee bit.

John Boorman has gone on record as saying he's not really sure what he was going for and I gotta say, he's not lying.  The film is a mess for the most part with a vague plot, desultory performances (though Connery manages to have one or two decent moments just by being Sean Connery) and a final half hour that would be explainable if the necessary drugs needed to make it coherent were legal anywhere on this planet.

Another issue, and this is just my personal sense of taste here, is the abundance of nudity on display.  I have no problem with the female form, however I do prefer it to not be that skinny, pale, underfed 70's look that was popular in... Well, the 70's.  It's sort of a good news, bad news thing.  Good news is that there are plenty of naked women.  Bad news is that most of them look in dire need of a cheeseburger.  It's rather hard to find a woman attractive when you're worrying she's about to keel over from starvation any minute.

That being said, there are some genuine merits to the movie.  First off, it's quite nice to look at with some really nice locations in Ireland.  Second, and this is really where I get a chuckle from this hunk of strange, is the utterly bizarre way the film throws images at you.

From the giant floating stone head that barfs guns and lectures on the evils of reproduction to Connery turning into a grunting caveman every now and then to the completely odd way the Eternals function and operate, this movie is a smorgasbord of weirdness that will either have you giggling with amusement or staring slack jawed at the screen, wondering how the hell you'll get that 106 minutes of your life back.  The revelation that Sean Connery's sweat is pure concentrated adrenaline is maybe the most amusing twist the film tosses our way.

I sort of fall in the middle on this one.  The first 75 minutes or so are actually pretty damn intriguing but once it gets into the last thirty minutes it just falls apart.  Instead of a satisfying conclusion, we are given a typical 70's "everyone dies" type ending along with a montage of Connery and Rampling as they age and turn into skeletons.  Not exactly 2001, and even in that case I have some issues.

Zardoz is worth seeing at least once, just so you can say you saw that weird film with Sean Connery running around in a red diaper and knee high boots.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Tales From the Darkside: The Movie (1990)

Based on the enjoyable 80's horror anthology series George Romero produced, Tales From the Darkside: The Movie is a fitfully effective, sometimes ghoulishly fun horror film with a decent wraparound story and three perfectly acceptable horror tales, one of which is from Stephen King.

The wraparound is a pretty nice structure for the film as rock star Debbie Harry plays a cannibalistic suburban witch planning to make a meal out of a young kid played by Matthew Lawrence.  Lawrence is the one telling the stories in order to stave off becoming the main course and both performers do their jobs fairly well.

The three stories are equally competent.  "Lot 249" is based on an Arthur Conan Doyle story and it is more interesting for the cast than the rather typical revenge tale composing the story.  Steve Buscemi is a college student who has been screwed over by a dumb jock and his girlfriend (Julianne Moore) who happens to be the sister of his roommate, played fairly well by Christian Slater.  Buscemi is a collector of rare artifacts and has come into possession of a mummy, complete with the scroll to bring him back to life.  Needless to say, he gets his revenge.

The second and best story is based on a Stephen King short story called "The Cat From Hell" and concerns a hit man played by David Johansen who is hired by a rich, mean old bastard played by William Hickey (who was one of the best when it came to playing mean old bastards) to kill a cat that has been steadily taking revenge on him for the 5,000 cats he killed while perfecting the drug that made him his fortune.  It's a nicely done, taut little story with good acting and a nice gross-out gag at the end.

"Lover's Vow" is the last tale and it is a fairly plain romantic tragedy as James Remar plays an artist who has an encounter with a gargoyle who spares him if he promises to never tell anybody about it.  Shortly thereafter, he falls for a beautiful woman played by Rae Dawn Chong and if you can't see where this one is going, I really will need you to hand in your movie viewer card.  The acting is fine, funnily enough, Remar always seems to play guys who just can't help but make dumb life decisions whether it's charging a pissed off Nick Nolte in 48 Hrs. or pissing off a gargoyle as he does here and the gargoyle is great looking but as I said, the payoff is rather obvious though nicely done.

Tales From the Darkside: The Movie is an adequate enough horror anthology film with solid acting, great KNB f/x and a brisk pace that helps it not overstay its welcome.  The first and third stories are rather pedestrian but the middle one is enough of a gem to warrant at least one viewing.

Doctor Sleep (2013)

Not too many Stephen King novels lend themselves well to sequels (the number of people who want to know what happened after Firestarter ended is probably rather low) but The Shining is one of the ones that does.  Doctor Sleep starts off with a nicely creepy prologue that reintroduces us to what is left of the Torrance family.  Wendy and Danny have gotten a rather decent settlement from the owners of the Overlook Hotel but Danny is still haunted by ghouls from the first novel.

We jump forward to Dan in more or less the present day, now a recovering alcoholic (the description of his rock bottom point might be more squirm inducing than anything overtly supernatural that goes on in the rest of the book) who works at a small hospice where he offers comfort to the dying.  He ends up developing a psychic bond with a young girl named Abra who, like Dan, also has psychic abilities (to the point where she's even more powerful that Dan) and as a result, is being targeted by a roving band of pseudo-vampires known collectively as The True Knot.

The members of the group are both one of the novel's biggest strengths and also a bit of a weakness as while they're adequately monstrous (they torture kids with psychic abilities to get an essence called "stream" from them which keeps them young and healthy) the few times they go up against Abra and Dan, either separately or as a team, the end result is a bit of a curb stomping from the good guys.

Even the climax counts as the last member of the group is rather easily shoved off a cliff after putting up what I would call a bit of token offense given that she's going up against a psychic who has already wiped out her entire group in one move.  I do like the touch of them rapidly dying off because their last victim had measles. It's a neat bit and makes perfect sense.

Issues with the finale aside, there is plenty in the book to enjoy.  This is old school King in terms of plot mechanics (kids in peril, vivid descriptions of things designed to make you lose sleep) with the focus and control he's developed over the last few years.  King really gets into the meat of Dan's alcoholism (being a former addict himself, King can speak from experience) and keeps you interested without ever smashing you in the head with it.  That, as usual, he saves for describing gross stuff which is always fun.  The other characters are pretty solid as well with Abra coming off the best and for the most part, main villain Rose though as I said above, she does sort of go down like a punk at the end.

For the most part, this is a fine sequel to the original with some nice callbacks (there is a subtle cameo at the end I will leave to you to discover) and some great passages though the subplot about Dan helping the dying could have been fleshed out a little more (his nickname is Doctor Sleep and he basically just psychically comforts people until the end) and the climax, while pretty fun is a bit of a letdown.

Still, Doctor Sleep is one you should probably make an effort to not miss.

About Me

I've been a huge fan of action, horror and comedy for as long as I can remember.