Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The original TOTAL RECALL gets a spiffy new Blu ray release today


In a perfect piece of cross-promotion, Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 sci-fi thriller TOTAL RECALL is getting a new remastered Blu ray release the same week that the film’s remake opens in theaters (Len Wiseman's version opens Friday, August 3rd).

Although the high-definition transfer contained on what’s dubbed the “Mind-Bending Edition” often draws attention to the dated effects, the original still holds up.

Even if you’re not an Arnold Schwarzenegger fan, it’s fun to follow him through the twists and turns of the incredibly intriguing premise which was loosely based on the 1966 Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.”


Schwarzenegger plays a construction worker in the year 2084 named Doug Quaid (in the short story the character’s name was Quail, but at the time the Vice President was the heavily ridiculed Dan Quayle so you can see why they changed it) who gets more than he bargained for when he decides to get memories of a trip to Mars implanted by a company named Rekall.

Our hero opts for the “Secret Agent” package in which he gets to “get the girl, kill the bad guys and save the entire planet,” but he has a violent reaction to the procedure because his mind has been tampered with before because he actually is a secret agent with a Martian past.

Or maybe that’s the phony adventure memory Rekall implanted – the movie keeps you guessing, even after it’s over about whether it’s “all in the mind, you know” as George Harrison said in YELLOW SUBMARINE.

So Schwarzenegger’s marriage to Sharon Stone (later to star in Verhoeven’s BASIC INSTINCT) is a sham, and he’s on the run from goons headed by Michael Ironside under the rule of evil Mars Governor Ronny Cox (also a villain in Verhoeven’s ROBOCOP).

TOTAL RECALL is a successful blend of action and humor with a lot of cartoon violence (including some Tim Burton-esque eye-popping), and it just might have the most shots of people smashing through glass in a movie ever. Oh, and it also has a 3-breasted prostitute (thanks high-definition transfer!) who shows up in a sleazy Martian bar full of aliens that makes the Cantina scene from STAR WARS look pretty quaint.

There are only a couple of new special features on this Blu ray - an interview with Verhoeven, and a restoration comparison featurette. The commentary with Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven was recorded over a decade ago for a DVD release but I'm glad it reappears here because it’s really funny (mostly unintentionally) how they both go on about what’s reality and what isn’t in the film. Also Schwarzenegger notes all the sexual content in a way that I bet he wouldn’t if they recorded it today.

I hear the new version isn't a total remake because it doesn’t have a trip to Mars, but there is a 3-breasted Prostitute! Also Colin Farrell’s lead character is still named Quaid so there's that.

We shall soon see if they do as well with the material as Verhoeven and co. did back in the day.

If not, we’ll at least have this spiffy Blu ray of the original.

More later...

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Hushpuppy’s spirit shines through the murkiness of BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD


BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD

(Dir. Benh Zeitlin, 2012)


Meet Hushpuppy, a six-year old girl in the near future who has to grow up fast, what with the waters rising through the flooded terrain of her homeland, her mother gone missing, her father suffering from a severe illness, and a heard of prehistoric creatures (aurochs) approaching who just thawed out from the melting icecaps.

Like in a lot of tales of environmental collapse, the how and whys are put aside, and we’re left with the daily struggle for survival.

And Hushpuppy, as played by the plucky Quvenzhané Wallis, seems like she can hold her own in what they call the “the Bathtub,” a fictional Louisiana bayou which has been obviously hit by something a lot bigger than Hurricane Katrina.

Hushpuppy’s fierce father (a greatly invested Dwight Henry) practices tough love in hopes of strengthening his daughter’s resolve. Wallis and Henry’s scenes together, usually in tight dark cheap confines, sear in the psyche as much or more than the imagery of the harsh elements surrounding them.

The eerie, but more often powerfully uplifting, score by director Zeitlin and Dan Romer enhances much of the movie, with a throbbing thrust that helps us maneuver through what its often very uncomfortable material.

There is an undeniable murkiness to the narrative, with maybe too much shaky cam action, but Wallis’s spirit provides something strong to latch onto. She’s an actress who is definitely going places, and whether one connects with this film (I just barely did – I more admired it than I enjoyed it), her performance is a piece of raw beauty and one every film fan should experience.

Although her narration throughout the film can be cloying, when Wallis states that “the scientists of the future will know once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the bathtub,” you definitely believe her.

More later...

Saturday, July 21, 2012

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES: The Film Babble Blog Review


THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (Dir. Christopher Nolan, 2012)



On the surface, the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is a solid super hero action epic, but underneath there’s a bunch of irksome issues.

The film is most effective in its slow building first half (after a pulse-pounding plane hi-jacking opening sequence, mind you), in which we re-connect to the characters (and meet a few new ones), but the second half is so bloated with bombarding spectacle, and competing storylines that I was more overwhelmed than entertained. The disjointed pacing doesn’t help either.

In the eight years since the events of 2008’s THE DARK KNIGHT, Christian Bales’s Bruce Wayne has retired his caped crusader alter-ego, and is living in self-imposed exile in Wayne Manor. The Commissioner (the grand Gary Oldman) is wracked with quilt over the cover-up that framed Batman and made a hero of the deceased DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart seen in quick-cut flashbacks).

New blood in the form of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an idealistic police officer, and Anne Hathaway as Catwoman (okay, she’s never called that, but c’mon!), Matthew Modine (!) as the conniving Deputy Commissioner and the fetching Marion Cotillard as a Wayne Enterprises board member, are very appealing, but act more as exposition-delivering cogs than credible characters. However, Hathaway slyly steals her early scenes, and Gordon-Levitt’s weighty approach to his role is right in line with the gravitas the film is going for.

With his face mainly covered by a mechanical mask, Tom Hardy is the villain Bane, who does a great deal of speechifying about economic collapse (sometimes unintelligibly), as he and his minions go about occupying Gotham City, but as impassioned as he and the movement are, it’s just a lot of hot air.

Bale shaves, dons the costume to take on Hardy’s Bane, but ends up getting his Bat-ass kicked. Then he’s imprisoned in a pit that is impossible to scale (we see flashbacks that show that Bane was the only one who was able to climb out). This is the expected ‘hero gets their mojo back’ part.

Too much of the movie goes through the motions - Michael Caine as Butler Alfred is there to once again be a soft-spoken worrywart, Morgan Freeman smoothly does his “Q” thing providing Batman with the latest in Bat-themed artillery, and Oldman wearily slouches through the proceedings - although Oldman does have an energetic bomb-defusal bit during the cluttered climax.

There’s a ginormous amount of death and destruction on display, and enough tortuous imagery to make this come off as “The Passion of The Batman.” Sure, we know our hero will rise and save the day, but he and we have to take a lot of pummeling to get there. The power of Bale’s incredibly invested performance goes a long way, but there are too many patches of the film that he’s absent from.

The CGI-ed devastation of the city is seriously striking. From the colossal caving in of a football stadium to long shots of bridges being blown up - Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister impressively outdo their wondrous work on INCEPTION, not to mention just about every super hero movie in recent memory (sorry, THE AVENGERS - you were a lot more fun though).

So, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is a mixed bag. But even at its overlong length (164 min.), there is enough compelling content to make it worthwhile, if you can overlook all the clunkiness - which I bet most folks can.


More later...

Friday, July 06, 2012

TO ROME WITH LOVE: The Film Babble Blog Review


TO ROME WITH LOVE (Dir. Woody Allen, 2012)



This year’s Woody Allen film is a Rome-set ensemble rom-com, but you could probably guess that from its trite title. It’s a blend of several disconnected story strands, that comes off like Allen is cleaning out his notebooks of jotted down ideas without fully fleshing them out.

There is a bit of the winning charm of Allen’s last film, the hugely popular MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, mainly in a scenario which has a sly Alec Baldwin revisiting his youth through Jesse Eisenberg (a perfect fit for an Allen film) who finds himself in a love triangle with Ellen Page and Greta Gerwig.

And there’s some amusement from Allen, acting onscreen for the first time since 2006’s SCOOP, as a classical music promoter trying to make an opera star out of his daughter Alison Pill’s fiancée (Flavio Parenti) who can only sing in the shower.

But mostly TO ROME WITH LOVE is a trifle; a fluffy only fitfully funny film. Yet it so pleasantly breezes along with such gorgeous photography of its Italian locales by Darius Khondji, that it’s still a likable lark.

Take, for instance, Roberto Benigni’s storyline - Benigni plays a man who wakes up one morning to find that he’s become the most famous person in Italy, but for no given reason. The press follows him everywhere, recording his every moment, much to Benigni’s bemusement.

Throughout his career, Allen has so much better satirized the media’s obsession with meaningless celebrity (see 1998’s CELEBRITY), than this silly go-round, but here he seems to be having such fun with it that it’s hard not to chuckle - even if it’s just a few mild chuckles worth.

Another strand, maybe the most sitcom-ish, concern Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi as newlyweds who have to separately deal with the sexual temptations of a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) and a famous actor (Antonio Albanese). The comedy in this bit creaks more than in the others, and the payoff is extremely predictable, but Cruz, stunning as she’s ever looked on the screen, still makes it pop.

I was happy to see Allen back in his familiar role as the neurotic nebbish, and married to Judy Davis (a veteran of 4 previous Allen movies), but wished he came equipped with better one-liners. It says a lot that the role he gave himself is as underwritten as everybody else's.

TO ROME WITH LOVE is an average later day Woody Allen film - it’s better than SCOOP, TO MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER, and WHATEVER WORKS, but not as good as VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS or MATCH POINT. For a 76-year old film maker who puts out a movie a year, that’s not a bad batting average.


More later...

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

SPIDER-MAN Restarts


THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (Dir. Mark Webb, 2012)


Sure, it may seem too soon to re-boot the Spider-man franchise, but it’s a big profitable series for Sony so, of course, they’re going to keep it going.

That’s fine, but despite a likable new cast, headed by Andrew Garfield taking over from Tobey Maguire as the webbed crusader, and an intriguing variation on the origin story, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN seems more like a re-tooled remake than a brand new beginning.

Director Webb (fitting, huh?), recreates the aesthetics, tone, and formula of Sam Raimi's Spider-man trilogy so precisely that the movie can’t help but seem redundant. Especially when it hits the same story beats as the 2002 original. In this film’s origin story, Garfield’s Peter Parker, who is less of a dweeb than Macguire mostly due to his hip bedhead hair-do, gets bitten by a genetically-modified spider at an Oscorp Industries lab while trying to get to the bottom of mysterious death of his parents.

Oscorp, as folks well versed in Spider-man mythology should well know, is the ginormous weapons manufacturer, whose cross-species experiments really need to be better regulated.

Garfield’s love-interest (Emma Stone as Gwen Stacey), and adversary (Rhys Ifans as Dr. Curt Connors, later The Lizard), both work at the Oscorp Tower, which was almost added to the skyline in THE AVENGERS, where the film’s finale, arguably its most impressive CGI sequence, takes place.

We get to go through Uncle Ben attempting to be a father figure to our hero again, but since he’s played this time byMartin Sheen - I’m not complaining. Sally Field is also a successful, yet underused recasting, but Dennis Leary is the best change-up present as NYC Police Captain George Stacy (played in Spidey 3 by James Cromwell), Gwen’s father.

Leary has the best lines (such as“Thirty-eight of New York's finest, versus one guy in a unitard”), and his gruff cynical attitude fills in for the missing Daily Bugle Chief J. Jonah Jameson appropriately.

Garfield, Stone, and Ifans put in fine thoughtful performances, but there isn't much room for them to truly embody their characters. Though, in a movie like this, could there ever be?

As I said before, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN covers many of the same plot points as the 2002 take but it doesn’t have as much fun with the material. Raimi’s version had a zip to it, and a strong sense of humor, that this film can’t match. Through an equally excellent sequel and a less liked, but still okay, third film, Raimi and Macguire rebranded the super hero for the modern age.

Here the web that Webb weaves (sorry, couldn’t resist), along with screenwriters James Vanderbilt (ZODIAC), Alvin Sargett (co-writter of SPIDER-MAN 2 & 3, and Steve Kloves (screenwriter of the bulk of the HARRY POTTER film series), is taken from the strands of the previous trilogy’s DNA.

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN is a reasonably well made comic book action film that has its moments - including possibly the best Stan Lee cameo in a Marvel movie ever - yet it still reeks of ‘been there, done that.’

There's just not enough of a new angle or fresh invention to make this essential viewing.

But if you haven’t seen any Spider-man movies before, maybe you’ll dig it. Or maybe if you just want another noisy summer super hero movie to take the kids to. If you haven’t already taken them to see THE AVENGERS, eh - this should do.

More later...

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Wes Anderson's MOONRISE KINGDOM Is Twee-rific

MOONRISE KINGDOM (Dir. Wes Anderson, 2012)


There are times during this film, Wes Anderson’s seventh as director, that I felt like I was paging through an old slightly faded and yellowed picture book of Rhode Island landscapes and settings.

The world that Anderson creates here will be familiar in its tone and eccentricity to those who’ve seen his previous movies, but his usual hallmarks - actors positioned in dead center frame, extreme shots of handwriting on notebook paper, a bold primary color scheme, kids who are too smart for their own good, and very formal dialogue - all come together much more naturally than before.

As whimsically titled as it is executed, MOONRISE KINGDOM concerns Jared Gillman and Kara Hayward, as a couple of kids in the summer of 1965 who don’t fit in their respective lives - he in his “Khaki” Scout troup; she in her dysfunctional family. They run off together across the fictitious island of New Penzance, off the coast of New England, in the days before a storm of “historic proportions” hits (as Bob Balaban, our onscreen narrator tells us).


This triggers the Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), the local police Captain (Bruce Willis), and the girl’s lawyer parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), to form a search party to find the missing children.

Although he was the most unpopular scout in his troup, Gillman has mad camping skills so the kids are able to survive just fine in the woods. Hayward helps pass the time reading aloud from a stack of unreturned library books (all fictitious children’s titles with authentic period aesthetics).


The pair reach a secluded cove protected by steep cliffs where they dance on the beach to Françoise Hardy’s “Le Temps de l’Amour” on a battery-powered record player. They kiss and fall in love, but the search party soon swoops in to separate them.

Meanwhile there is a palpable chill in the air around Murray and McDormand as she is having an affair with Willis. There’s no real time to flesh this out so it’s on a back burner as Tilda Swinton as Social Services (that’s actually how she’s credited) shows up to take away Gillman and place him in a “juvenile refuge.” 

Gillman’s scout troup decides to help the love-smitten kids escape again, and with the help of Anderson regular Jason Scwartzman, as a Khaki scout leader, a makeshift marriage ceremony goes down. Then there’s that pesky violent storm to deal with.

Sure there’s a preciousness to the precision that some may find pretentious, and maybe it is a bit. But it’s touching how faithful Anderson is to that little inner kid of his.

We don’t learn much about these people as the characterizations don’t go very deep, and some details seem a bit too quirky (McDormand using a megaphone to order around her family - and I know that comes from co-screenwriter Roman Coppola’s real life), but the overriding sweetness and colorful aura casts too big a spell for that to matter.

Despite that it's set in the mid '60s, there surprisingly isn't any British invasion pop present. Apart from the Françoise Hardy tune and some Hank Williams, classical music dominates the soundtrack by way of a 7 part suite by noted composerAlexandre Desplat, some apt Leonard Bernsteinselections, and Benjamin Britten's “The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.”

Of Anderson’s films, I was most reminded of THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS in such elements as the yellow tent aesthetics, Murray’s wife having an affair, a dog getting accidentally killed, and the ancient turntable, among some other more subtle similarities. Maybe it’s true that every film maker is essentially making the same movie over and over until they get it right.

Well, Anderson’s MOONRISE KINGDOM is a twee-rific try.

More later...