Friday, July 30, 2010

Resident Evil

Some films can evoke a specific time and place. Sometimes it's intentional, since a good period piece can bring a bygone era to life, or a genre tribute can revive a style long dormant. Sometimes, it's unintentional, and the period evoked likely wasn't the period intended. Resident Evil reminds me of the '80s, but in this case, I don't think that was the intent.

Why is that? Well, in some ways, it's the manner in which it's shot. There's lots of spooky smoke machines and a muddy palette that evokes the '80s for me. It also starts with a slow zoom on a frame much smaller than the screen, which I haven't seen since then. In other ways, it's just a campy zombie picture, and campy action is something I associate with the '80s for some reason. This is a film that Cannon Films would gladly attach their name to. It's got marines, things to shoot, action beat, and typical scary movie slow zooms followed by quick cuts, because that's shocking.

The story itself doesn't quite make logical sense. There's a big scary lab run by a computer which manifests itself as a little girl because that's a little creepier. Some virus gets out and the computer decides to kill everyone in a series of elaborate ways. A team sets out to investigate and is killed in ways which suggest the computer is an asshole - there's a hallway with lasers where they are toyed with for no obvious benefit - and then zombies show up. The core team played by Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez, Eric Mabius, Matt Addison, James Purefoy, and Martin Crewes investigate, have mysterious secrets and mostly get killed by zombies. There's even some bad CGI to connect it with the Playstation original.

One of the main faults is that nothing happens for any logical reason. The entire existence of the McGuffin of the day - the T-Virus, which zombificates people - doesn't make much sense, the computer's elaborate killing of people doesn't seem especially logical itself, the entire go down and shut the computer off plan seems unnecessarily risky, though not as risky as giving it the power to kill everyone. Character motivations are never adequately explained and sometimes contradictory, and in some cases the reasons for the characters even being there doesn't make sense.

So it's dumb, it's kind of low budget and the story doesn't make any sense. I was sort of entertained in spite of it though, and that's because the premise actually sort of works. Why do I say that? Well, you've got a confined space, lots of baddies, and a bunch of plucky individuals who need to escape that confined space. Turns out that setup is remarkably difficult to mess up. I also liked the industrial metal score, it was mostly strong and even kind of catchy.

It's not good, it doesn't make sense, and it's pretty stupid overall. Yet, it makes itself enjoyable in spite of many, many obvious flaws. The real reason why? Because it reminds me of the '80s. It reminds me of those wasted afternoons watching bad '80s films on channels like TBS. I can understand hating it, because it's stupid, but it's bad in the right way.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Know the myth of Heracles? Well, discard that in your mind for a moment, it has little to do with the Disney film Hercules. There's good reason for this. You really can't discuss Zeus with bringing up the messy matter of rape - Zeus loved him some rape - and in the original legend Zeus went around as a woman's husband and did some raping. Then Hera was irate at this and decided to punish Heracles a lot.

Now, in the Disney version, that doesn't happen. Instead, Hera and Hercules are in a rape-free monogamous relationship, and Hercules is their beloved son. Then he's stolen away, made mortal with magic juice, and has to be trained by Danny DeVito. Then he finds a girl named Meg, and they live happily ever after, until her murders their children in a fit of rage.

Disney didn't show that last bit either.

The question here is obvious, why did Disney adapt Hercules? It's a story filled with violence, rape and murder. As such, it's slightly less than family friendly. Take all that away, and you've basically got Bam-Bam Rubble smashing his way through a formula. That's fine, since it's Disney, but they could have really adapted anything if they wanted to have a formula. In spite of the names, it doesn't really involve the real legend.

That would be fine, if it was good. Mulan had some serious plot alterations from the poem on which it was based, but they served a dramatic purpose. Here, it's all bad jokes and light plotting. The story is padded - heavily - by the chorus explaining what's going on, but it doesn't really move the action. The story itself is by the book, and the overall film is just low-tier Disney. When the studio was on, they could make masterpieces, but when they were off, they were just dull.

There are some very weird references scattered throughout which make me wonder just what was going on. Scar from the Lion King becomes a lion skin, the names frequently reference the real story, and small details show that someone knew what they were doing. Then the illusion is ruined by the fact that you know in the back of your mind that they're getting even the basic details wrong, and they're not replacing those details with better ones.

It's also the only Disney film with a nipple, but that's easy to miss.

If I was 8, maybe I would like it, but people who are 8 typically have very low standards. It's not awful, per se, but it's simply not as good as Disney is capable of making. Knowing what they can do - and Mulan is an example of this - it's difficult to watch something in which they aren't at their full potential.

Friday, July 23, 2010


Disney princesses - sorry, Disney Princesses, since it's a brand - are as a whole pretty useless. Their stories tend to revolve around getting a man, keeping a man, being saved by a man, and generally bending to the will of a man. Then, at the end of the day, all they get is a pretty dress. Yet, the princess formula is an integral part of Disney's success, and something which they have made a lot of money on. Still, I imagine some people within the Disney empire was getting annoyed by how completely useless the princesses are, for the most part. Hence, Mulan.

Mulan is counted among the pantheon of Disney Princesses, but unlike, well, all of them, she isn't useless. Hell, the entire film is about how women aren't useless (and possibly also about being a lesbian, but that's reading a lot into it). There's a society that doesn't value women, so Mulan becomes a man and joins the army so her father doesn't have to. Then she kicks everyone's ass and kills thousands of enemy soldiers. She also scores a man, but that part is mostly pushed to the last five minutes because that's really not the focus here.

She essentially beats all odds by not only being a Disney Princess who doesn't suck, but also possibly the most badass Disney character. She certainly has the highest body count, at the very minimum. Her actions are pretty much presented as the pinnacle of badassery, with there being frequent mentions of her being a girl, just to point out that the ladies are doing it for themselves. It's a break from the convention of useless women, a female Disney character who does more than fill out a dress and pick a handsome yet earthy guy.

Of course, it's a Disney film, so formula can't be abandoned completely. Are there catchy songs? Are there ever! Do we get wacky animal sidekicks? Oh baby, ladies and gentlemen, Eddie Murphy as a pointless dragon! It's also got that trademark very pretty Disney animation, which is a highlight, but even as the story breaks some conventions, it strictly adheres to others, and it still does the "heroes have to end the story together" thing that was pioneered a mere 1000 years ago.

Actually, I wonder how much better this might be if it wasn't Disney. The story is fairly violent - war, China fighting off the huns, etc. - and there are several cuts and scenes where you could see the filmmakers straining under the restrictions. A full on bloody spectacle could easily be made - and made well - with this material, and it often feels about a half step too safe.

Still, it was progress, and proof that someone at Disney could make an interesting female character. Yes, they had to dress her up as a man, but still, somewhere in that land of dormant franchises and elaborate theme parks, a nugget of feminism remained. A tiny nugget, that never really got a chance to flourish as the studio was confused by changing tastes and Pixar generally doing a lot better job of filmmaking than they were, which lead to a pile of bad decisions and worse movies, but a nugget. A nugget obscured by the Disney Princesses brand, but a nugget. Hopefully people see beyond the surface glitz of Sleeping Beauty, the naivety of Snow White, the balls to the wall stupidity of Ariel, and the general pointlessness of Jasmine to find that nugget.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Smokey and the Bandit Part 3

I recently complained that Smokey and the Bandit II didn't do what it says on the tin. Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 does, and yet, it's somehow worse. How does that work?

Well, for all their flaws, the first two movies had a story. It wasn't a good story, or a deep one, but it existed. There was a forward momentum, something to follow, some characters that you could conceivably care about. This doesn't have that. The story? No real story, just a destination, with no real connection from point a to point b. It's a collection of silly vignettes that have nothing to do with each other.

Hell, the warning signs come early. No Burt Reynolds - well, there's a pointless cameo, but he's largely absent - no Sally Field and the director was not Hal Needham. Is it that hard to get Hal Needham? He's not exactly an A-list director. He's barely even a C-list one, how crap does your production have to be if you can't get Hal Needham? Jackie Gleason is back, though he phones it in, and Jerry Reed grows a mustache and turns into the Bandit. Yet, while he actually turned in a pretty respectable performance in the first two, he's possibly the most annoying thing on screen.

So, let's cover what is done right. There are a lot of stunts, and many are well done. They don't really serve much purpose, but if you want to see cars crash through things, well, this is a movie where that happens. The breadth and depth of things being crashed through is vast. It's a very impressive variety of pointless crashing. Also, in one scene you can see a nipple if you look closely.

That's it.

Some stuff is just weird. Some scenes were heavily, and obviously, dubbed in post production. Reportedly Jackie Gleason also played the bandit in the first cut, which wouldn't have made sense, and I wonder if that change explains the variety strange cuts and general incomprehensibleness of the goings on. Other strange things are nudists and having our heroes stumble into an orgy. That seems like an odd choice when the film really is only good if you're 8 or watching it on TBS while making a cake. Speaking of the orgy, that sequence is weird, as the bandit character and the smokey seem to be in entirely different worlds, as one goes to a rather dry novelty hotel and the other picks up a tranny hooker.

But mostly it's just bad. The comedy isn't funny, and there's no reason to care what happens. It's just a series of slow motion car crashes, without any reason to follow or care. It forgot that while lightweight, pointless and often stupid, the first two Smokey and the Bandit movies were, well, movies. They had stories, characters, and even a little tension. Not great stories, characters, or tension, but they were there. This just has cars crashing into things. I'm pro cars crashing into things, but unless there's a reason for it, what's the point?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Smokey and the Bandit II

There are two reasons people want to watch Smokey and the Bandit. Reason 1, to see a man with a mustache drive a black Trans Am recklessly. Reason 2, to see Jackie Gleason swear and play a jerk cop. Smokey and the Bandit II, unfortunately, decides that the main reason people want to watch a Smokey and the Bandit movie is to watch some bad comedy. This is an erroneous assumption.

The story must be a meta commentary on the production. Jerry Reed is eager to do a silly run like in the first movie for muchos dineros. Burt Reynolds is a washed up drunk coaxed into another race in order to further his fame and fortune. Sally Field - who is introduced in a way that must have been commentating on her contract negotiations - also wants money. And Jackie Gleason plays so broad that he has to play three different characters. There's also a literal elephant in the room, perhaps referencing the metaphorical one, that nobody besides Jerry Reed wanted to be there.

It's a retread, and a bad one. There's a dearth of car stunts - no black Trans Am until 25 minutes in, not even a stunt until 47. Everyone is visibly annoyed and wanting to be somewhere else - with the exception of Reed, who actually seems to be enjoying himself, as though he just likes to be on camera. There's really only one notable stunt sequence - though it's a biggie, with what looks like hundreds of cars destroyed - but until we get there we've got a lot of pointless elephant-based drama, bad comedy.

I liked that the relationship between the Field and Reynolds characters collapsed between films, that was believable. It seemed like the natural conclusion, as they had nothing in common and a relationship forged in high stress circumstances. I also like that it made fun of Reynolds' ego a lot, since it's clear he's got a big one. I didn't like how even with a pointless story it didn't really have an ending - it seemed like they just ran out of movie - I didn't like how it tried to setup an even more awful sequel, but more than anything, I didn't like that it didn't do what it says on the box.

Nobody cares about anything but the stunts with this kind of movie, and the first one realized it. This either didn't have the budget or the effort needed to do what it says on the box. If you're going to do an unnecessary sequel, at least keep doing what made the first one so... decent. Don't turn it into a bad comedy, that's forgetting why people watch in the first place.

Good lord, there's another one of these things?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Smokey and the Bandit

Some movies are intellectually stimulating, deep, and artistically challenging. That does not describe Smokey and the Bandit. There's really not much substantive in this film at all, though of course that doesn't mean it's a complete loss.

Truth be told, if you're watching the film you're really not looking for much in the way of story. Burt Reynolds is the Bandit, Jerry Reed is the Snowman, and they're trying to get beer from Texas to Georgia for a bunch of money. On the way they meet a runaway bride played by Sally Field, and misogynist, racist, and all around objectionable Buford T. Justice, given life by Jackie Gleason, who happens to be the potential father-in-law of said runaway bride. Also in a starring role is a black Trans Am, which goes really fast.

Plot exists solely to give some motivation for some super fast driving and to destroy as many 70s full sized sedans as possible. We're introduced to a fraternity of CB radio enthusiasts, as though the CB industry had heavy investment in the film. Everything happens as an excuse to drive fast and smash stuff.

Is there anything necessarily wrong with that? Well, if you're looking for substance, yes. Smokey and the Bandit was seemingly designed to allow director Hal Needham to film lots of stunts - he's a former stuntman after all - and provide a light Saturday afternoon of entertainment. It's the kind of film that works perfectly on a channel like TBS, there to watch between other programs with every minute leading to something a bit amusing or an impressive stunt. The story is kept as bare as possible because you really don't have to follow it, so why bother?

This isn't to say that the film is meritless, just really lightweight. The junk food of cinema, let's say, but even junk food can be really tasty sometimes. Plus, there are some things that it does right. For one, it's really well cast. Field is great at being simultaneously charming and very annoying. Reynolds has an effortless, bad boy charm and Reed has a strange neurotic charm which also somehow works. The star of the show, really, is the Trans Am, which has this redneck cool that shouldn't be nearly as appealing as it is.

The best actor of the show, by contrast, is Gleason. He manages to make Buford T. Justice into a really horrible asshole that you never object to so much that you hate him, but always just enough that you want him to lose. Every loss where you might feel sorry for the guy is always ended by a perfectly chosen line where you are reminded that this man is an ass. It makes it okay to root against him, but also okay to like it when he's on screen. He's the kind of person you love to see fail, which is good, since he fails a lot.

It should also be noted that it's the source of possibly the world's greatest driving song, Eastbound and Down. It's not used as well as it could be - the chase it is used in is actually a surprisingly boring one - but it's a great song and I always drive a little more irresponsibly when it's on the stereo.

So Smokey and the Bandit has merits, it's just not a very deep movie all around. It's fun, more than anything, for the actors, the cast, the crew, and everyone. Nothing wrong with being fun, and that's why it got two sequels, which will be covered in the coming weeks. Why? Because they're included on the DVD I got, that's why! Hope you're prepared for Smokey and/or the Bandit forever.

Friday, July 9, 2010


I don't claim to know why genre conventions have evolved as they have over a hundred years of cinema. The two cops which are opposites, serial killers, all the conventions that have sprung up over the years for crime-based films and I've got no idea why they exist. Still, at this point they've become so well known that they become a reference point for something completely apart from a cliche. Se7en is an example of this, a taut disturbing thriller grounded in genre conventions which everyone knows and loves.

I mean, we've got the typical standards here. Morgan Freeman plays a cop who is too old for shit, especially this shit. Brad Pitt is a passionate upstart who lets his emotions run wild. Together, they fight crime, and a serial killer who models his murders on the seven deadly sins. Seen this before? Yes, you have, though perhaps not the seven deadly sins part, and it actually is strangely comforting as the movie starts. Here's something familiar, something tangible that we can identify with after years of movies doing the same thing.

Then it takes a wild turn for the messed up zone, and thank the lord for that.

By basing the movie around two characters which could easily collapse into cliche it becomes a little bit more disturbing overall. The familiar sights are combined with something completely different and more than a little disconcerting, and it's filmed in a moody, tense way which is a complete departure from a typical police film. There is something familiar in the mix, and that makes the content itself more disturbing, and the ultimate conclusion significantly more shocking.

See, what it does is take something we know, love, expect and appreciate and turns it on its head. It's almost a commentary on film cliches in a way, as it takes the most predictable of genres and makes a film that is as unpredictable as you can get, and which goes in directions which nobody can anticipate. It takes cornerstones of enjoyable fiction and turns them in on themselves, a clever and engaging move.

A good film will go somewhere you won't expect, even if that direction makes complete sense as you go through the story. This does that, and for that it has to be one of the best intense thrillers that you will ever find. It's likely not far from the truth that this film made David Fincher's career, and considering the unique, varied and often dark directions he's taken, it's a career we can be grateful for.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Bad Sleep Well

Every so often, I'll mention that a film's subtitles are conspicuously bad. Sometimes, the movie is bad to start with (Immortal Enemy), but it's often the case where bad subtitles are just annoying. Now, the first time I saw The Bad Sleep Well, it was a downloaded copy with awful babelfished subtitles. The movie was clearly good, but the serious tone was undermined by lines like "YOU JUMP DOWN AND DIE!" Now, having watched the classy, well done subtitles on the Criterion release - legitimately, might I add - I can honestly observe the difference a proper translation makes, and also why if a film was good, not even the worst translation in the world can hold it back.

The story was still clear, even if the details were hard to parse. Toshiro Mifune is Nishi, a secretary and son-in-law to powerful guy Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori), vice president of the Public corporation, which has something to do with Japanese building contracts. Iwabuchi is corrupt, and powerful enough to get people to kill themselves (an element uniquely Japanese), but he made the mistake of suiciding the wrong man. As a result, Nishi's out for revenge, in a plot that's quite complicated and rewarding in equal measure, with a shocking twist ending.

That story brought me back again, for the second time, even as bad as the translation was, but I appreciated that well written dialog made things a lot clearer. It took away the constant distraction and put the focus squarely on the picture, which is great, because it's a good one. The dueling themes of corruption and loyalty play out in frequently compelling ways. The scheme isn't necessarily complicated, but it also is intricately woven in with the personal relationships between characters. Corruption is a theme, but what corruption does to people is the important part of that theme, and the focus is always on the people rather than the scheme itself.

I'm sure I've mentioned before that Akira Kurosawa makes films like a painter, and this film is no different. Hell, this is the movie that gave me that realization in the first place. Just in the way shots are framed and actors positioned can tell the story of the scene, and sometimes it does more than the necessary exposition in establishing character.

It does have a couple problems. There's a lot of exposition, which can get tiresome as it's not always strictly necessary - sometimes things are explained a bit too much for no clear reason. Kô Nishimura's turn as Shirai requires him to react in shock, which at times seems to border on the ridiculous overacting that sometimes plagues silent films. Still, that's just me picking nits, because that's what I do.

Everyone thinks of samurai epics when they think of Kurosawa, possibly because he was very good at them. However, with this, he proves just as adept with a modern setting and characters. They reach into the core problems of Japanese society - especially of the era it was made - perhaps better than the old samurai, possibly because they're more easily identifiable. The corporate shenanigans are something still relevant 50 years after the fact, and it's one of those films that will always be just a little relevant overall.

Friday, July 2, 2010


One of the reasons television is having a renaissance lately is that people have finally figured out the strengths of the medium. Free from having to deliver everything, all of the time, TV shows can often have entirely character-centric episodes, a slow burn of a story, subplots that anchor the show and are never quite revealed, and so on. In a movie, you have to begin and end in two hours, and while subplots don't hurt they generally have to be wrapped up unless you're ludicrously confident that a sequel is going to happen. Even telling the same story, it's a completely different pace, and one which necessitates taking a very different approach to storytelling. As a result, it's always interesting when a TV show takes to the big screen, and in the case of Serenity, tell a season's worth of story in about two hours.

Serenity picks up where the beloved, short lived, and mishandled TV series Firefly left off. Mal (Nathan Fillon) is still the captain of the Serenity, old war hero for the losing side, and general enjoyable screen presence - albeit with the dick meter pegged a bit higher here. His crew is still a lovable cast of characters which everyone became fond of during the show's run, but the story itself focuses squarely on River Tam (Summer Glau), everyone's favorite slightly crazy young psychic girl who can absolutely, positively, kill every motherfucker in the room if triggered. There's also Chiwetel Ejiofor as the cold operative who is trying to kill her.

There are two pieces of the show's mythology that have never been explained that the movie tries to wrap up. The story of how River got to be so crazy, and that of the reavers, people who eat people. Here, they neatly align, so we can get some of the mysteries explained just in case the movie didn't get the series renewed. Given that part of the story is about the reavers, we also have an excuse for a lot of action, which seems to be the law for sci-fi films.

Serenity had a pretty much impossible job, reaching out to old fans and yet attracting new ones, which is pretty hard at the best of times. It didn't work at the box office, since Firefly is now truly dead, but I wonder if it could have. Characters are introduced briefly, but this is all about Mal and River, meaning the supporting characters are not given nearly as much to do. If something happens to a character, while a fan might be crushed, someone just wandering in might be curious why they're supposed to care. It relies of those 13 original episodes to give some moments of emotional resonance, which is a shame if you're not a fan of the show.

I was a fan of the show though, and it's nice to see what amounts to a really big series finale. It does feel like a double length episode at points, but that's really no bad thing, as the show was consistently witty and heartfelt, and anyone who liked it would just want more. Serenity fills that need, but I worry that in doing so it might have been alienating to people who never watched Firefly first.