Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Q2 Review Purge: Volume 2

You thought I’d finished clearly out my backlog with just five measly reviews? Ha! You underestimate my movie-watching prowess. We’ve got another set of hot ‘n ready reviews coming atcha.

Night of the Comet (For the Scream 101 episode about this film, click here. For the Scream 101 interview with Kelli Maroney, click here.)

Year: 1984
Director: Thom Eberhardt
Cast: Catherine Mary Stewart, Kelli Maroney, Robert Beltran
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

After a deadly comet reduces the world’s population to ash, two valley girls must fight their way through a silent LA filled with radiation zombies, crooked scientists, and shopping montages.

Night of the Comet is one of those great 80’s movies that has not only a towering high concept, but an intimate, human story to tell within it. While the idea of “valley girls vs. the apocalypse” is like bread and butter for trashy horror fans, NotC is much more than meets the eye. Its valley girl veneer is certainly mined for comedy, but there’s something intensely thoughtful pulsing beneath the surface of the film. These are two girls with a severely narrow worldview (“This happened everywhere? Like, even in Burbank?”) that are stripped of everything they took for granted and forced to face a cold, dead world.

The shallow creature comforts they pursue pale in comparison to survival and connecting with the few humans that still remain. It’s hilarious because it’s so bleak, but the emotions that well up from time to time, especially in Kelli Maroney’s striking performance and Mary Woronov’s world-weary acceptance of destruction, are completely earned for that very same reason.

But Night of the Comet, despite its surprising heft, isn’t a tearjerker. It’s a cotton candy blast lit with bright, sci-fi comic slashes of neon color. While I do wish it had the budget to take its perfect concept even further, it’s an intelligent, fun movie with well-drawn characters, masterful production design, and a hellishly witty script jam packed with instantly memorable one-liners.

Rating: 8/10

The Changeling (For the Scream 101 episode about this film, click here.)

Year: 1980
Director: Peter Medak
Cast: George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas
Run Time: 1 hour 47 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A bereaved composer takes up residence in a historical house that turns out to be haunted.

The Changeling is a very classical ghost story almost to a fault. Although the drawn-out, methodical scares pack a punch, sometimes the story lingers a little too much on the past. As our hero investigates the history of the house, the third act slowly unravels until it’s a feeble drama about two old men screeching at one another. Until, of course, it isn’t. The finale is the best kind of grandiose, plunging its low-key atmosphere into a shrieking inferno of special effects and frenzied, unpredictable editing.

While the third act swings from dull to gonzo, the first two are firmly set in traditional haunted house mode á là The Haunting. Though modern viewers may be numb to the effects of these scenes after decades of rip-offs and copycats, they’re expertly executed, with lurking camerawork suggesting an uninvited presence, sharp editing linking the protagonist’s tragic past to the history of the house, and an echoing, sinister sound design that will drives spikes of fear directly into your spine.

The two most startling sequences are birthed from this atmosphere: one the best séance I’ve ever seen, using performance and rhythm to scare rather than special effects, the other a subtle, lingering reaction shot that milks every last heebie jeebie out of something appearing somewhere it patently shouldn’t be.

Without talented filmmakers at the helm, The Changeling would be dry and predictable, but its perfectly crafted scares make it an indelible classic of the genre, even if the plot is a little been-there, done-that.

Rating: 7/10

Brokeback Mountain
Year: 2005
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams
Run Time: 2 hours 14 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Two gay cowboys fall in gay love with each other and it’s very gay but mostly sad.

As a gay gentleman myself, it’s basically sacrilege that I waited this long to watch Brokeback Mountain. But you know what I almost never want to watch on an average day? A tearjerker about how super duper hard and sad it is to be gay. At least nobody gets AIDS, like in every other gay movie ever made.

So no, Brokeback Mountain is not in my wheelhouse, though it’s a terrific film. A sweeping romance that spans decades (as evidenced by Anne Hathaway’s chain of increasingly preposterous wigs), it highlights two fantastic performers working at the peak of their abilities. Gyllenhaal and Ledger are so credible and grounded in real emotion that this “gay cowboy” movie becomes a universal love story about passion, loss, and disappointing your parents.

Opening with what’s essentially a silent film about two men thrown together slowly developing respect for one another and culminating in a violently lustful act, Brokeback Mountain uses its epic sprawl to detail the impact that one encounter can have on an entire life. Two entire lives. Its scope is set as wide as the Wyoming sky, covering topics of class disparity, marriage compromise, gender warfare, and dozens more without breaking a sweat. Do I ever want to watch it again? No. But I know I will.

Rating: 8/10

Lust, Caution
Year: 2007
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Tony Chiu Wai Leung, Wei Tang, Joan Chen
Run Time: 2 hours 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: NC-17

A Chinese actress working for the rebellion poses as the mistress of a cruel government official to draw him into an assassination, but falls in love with him in the process.

Ang Lee needs to hire a better editor. After converting the short story Brokeback Mountain into a sprawling epic, he has taken Eileen Chang’s novella Sè Jiè and stretched it on the rack until it’s over two and a half hours long. It does not serve the material well.

Sure, the opening hour is great. While Lust, Caution is an espionage picture about rank amateurs playacting rebellion until it gets too real, it’s a piano wire thriller with a soaring sense of danger and fun. But then it turns into – gag me with a spoon – a love story, and things quickly spiral out of control. Despite the best efforts of its talented leads, Lust, Caution fails miserably to make a case for these two actually falling in love. Their cold, S&M style liaisons might be rendered romantic with a Pedro Almodóvar or, hell, even a Clive Barker at the helm, but Ang Lee suffocates the film. He draws out the relationship far longer than it can be sustained and his relentless formalism keeps us at a constant remove from his characters’ humanity.

What I do admire about Lee’s work here is that the man knows how to craft a visual metaphor. The endless rounds of mahjong underscore our heroine’s constant awareness that she’s playing a high stakes game, and the latter half is sprinkled with shots that indicate how she’s feeling, even if the movie is too chilly to actually explicitly express it. Lust, Caution isn’t a bad movie, it’s just needlessly prolonged. It’s well crafted but empty, like a Ming vase.

Rating: 6/10

X-Men: The Last Stand
Year: 2006
Director: Brett Ratner
Cast: Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry
Run Time: 1 hour 44 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

The mutant community is dived over a cure for the mutant gene, leading to an all-out war with humanity caught in the middle.

X-Men: The Last Stand, the third and final movie in the original cinematic X-Men chronology, has somewhat of a reputation for sucking hard. While I wouldn’t argue against the fact that it’s a tremendously silly potboiler, it’s hardly the worst movie ever made. It’s not even close to the worst X-Men movie ever made.

Yes, it has deep, fundamental flaws. The final battle is a rickety, one-liner-ridden disaster, and its secondary villain, Jean Grey’s dark alter ego The Phoenix, is both a botched pull from the comics and an egregious anticlimax. But people forget that silly movies can be fun.

I love me an unpredictable piece of cinema, and The Last Stand’s almost psychotic willingness to kill off its own characters is captivating. And the CGI is unforgivably crummy, but it provides a flavor blast of summer movie fun by upping the number of effects sequences to a delirious degree. Little comic touches in the script actually work, and two performers pull the beast back from the brink of destruction: Hugh Jackman and Ian McKellen. Jackman is a charismatic badass that provides Wolverine with gruff sympathy so well that he spackles most of the holes in his mothbitten plot. And McKellen is once again a crackerjack villain with a wounded human soul, relishing in his own dastardly ego while drawing from his Holocaust background to provide an actually powerful, compelling turn as Magneto once again.

There’s not a ton to praise about X-Men: The Last Stand, but it’s a sugar rush that only hurt your stomach a teensy bit.

Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1528
Reviews In This Series
X-Men (Singer, 2000)
X2: X-Men United (Singer, 2003)
X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner, 2006)
X-Men: First Class (Vaughn, 2011)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014)
X-Men: Apocalypse (Singer, 2016)

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