Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Lock, Stock,and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) **

There was a moment there at the turn of the century when director Guy Ritchie seemed poised to be the next Quentin Tarantino. He followed up his debut “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” with the insanely fast-moving, generally enjoyable “Snatch.” Somehow, though, Ritchie never turned into a Tarantino-esque film-god. I think that the problem is that his movies never felt as consequential as what Tarantino was doing. There was lots of fast-paced action, with speeded-up film shots, and cockney accents that required subtitles, but there was no heart.

“Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” is a good case in point. The movie has several story lines filled with potentially interesting characters whose stories wind up intersecting. Ritchie never does anything with these scamps, however, other than to establish that they are lowlifes engaged in ripping off other lowlifes. He never made me care enough about any of them to care much what happens in the story.

The main characters, the ones we are theoretically supposed to root for, include Tom (Jason Flemyng), Soap (Dexter Fletcher), Eddy (Nick Moran), and Bacon (Jason Statham). These are low-level scumbags who hawk stolen wares and such. Eddy fancies himself a card player as well, and the boys pool their funds to get Eddy into a high-stakes poker game run by a gangster named Hatchet Harry (P.H. Moriarty). The game is a racket, as any idiot should have known. Harry not only cheats, he bullies Eddy into accepting credit in order to call a hand, which Eddy goes on to lose. Owing Harry a quarter-million pounds, Eddy leaves the game in a daze, and explains to his friends that Harry and his goons will be holding all of them responsible for the debt.

There's no way these guys can scrape up that kind of money on either side of the law, but when they overhear their neighbors planning a robbery, they hatch a plan to rob the robbers. Hijinks ensue.

There are several different groups of hoodlums, who are hard to tell apart at times, and much of the dialogue is unintelligible due to the thick, Cockney accents. The movie could still be quite good, however, if any of the characters had any sort of saving grace, which they don't. They are not only wicked, they are stupid. Fortunately, many of these assholes wind up killing each other off, which is about the only satisfaction the audience gets.

The problem with “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” as a debut for Guy Ritchie is that its failures are not due to low budget or cinematography. Those are weaknesses you would expect in a first-time director, and easily fixable on future projects. “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” however suffers from a lack of heart, which I think is why Ritchie never lived up to his hyped potential.

2 stars out of 5

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Re-Animator (1985) ***

I'm not sure it's possible to adapt an H.P. Lovecraft story to film without making a cult classic. I mean that in the sense of both words: The movie is likely to become a classic, but only for a certain cult of horror fans. As good as Lovecraft's stories are, there's a single-mindedness to them, an innocence, and an of-their-time element that may not translate well to a blockbuster film. As much as I love stories like “The Call of Cthulhu” and “At the Mountains of Madness,” it's hard to imagine a bunch of big-name actors making a straight movie version of them. To make a good film out of these tales, the filmmaker needs to be able to smile sheepishly at the audience and say, “We all know these stories take themselves too seriously, but we love them anyway, so let's just have a good time.” The 2005 movie “The Call of Cthulhu,” for example was made as a silent film, which somehow takes the over-earnest elements of the story and makes them work quite well.

1985's “Re-Animator” works by reveling in its 1980s campiness. We meet Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), Miskatonic Medical School's “most promising medical student.” We never see Dan doing regular med student stuff like studying, sitting in lectures, or seeing patients with a big team of other students and medical residents. Instead, he has loads of time to wheel bodies down to the morgue and bang his girlfriend, Megan, who happens to be the Dean's daughter. Megan (Barbara Crampton) is '80s-hot, by which I mean she's adorable, but she wears high-waisted pants.

Dan gets a new roommate in the form of Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), a medical student transferred in from Switzerland after his mentor died during a bizarre experiment. Herbert's secretive behavior vexes Dan and Megan until they discover, to their horror, that he is conducting experiments in re-animation. He has a green, glowing chemical that, when injected into the brainstem, can bring the dead back to life. The problem is that the re-animated being, whether a cat or a human, tends to be murderously insane. The answer, according to Herbert, is to find ever-fresher subjects. In Lovecraft's tale, this led the scientist to commit murder in order to have the freshest corpse possible, but the movie “Re-Animator” doesn't take it's protagonists down that road. They simply sneak into the morgue to experiment. Nonetheless, they run afoul of both Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson) and Professor Carl Hill (David Gale), who is jealous of Herbert's science and lusts after Dan's girlfriend.

“Re-Animator” looks like it was filmed on the same camera they used for the old “Incredible Hulk” series starring Bill Bixby, which means it looks dated even for 1985. Enough time has passed, however, that that cheesy, soft-focus look actually makes the film seem somewhat timeless. The movie doesn't have any of that knowing, 1990's snarkiness (think “Scream”). The actors play it straight, letting the plot and the decidedly non-CGI special effects provide the humor. With many cult-classic movies, it's hard to know what the filmmaker was thinking. Did they mean to make it campy, or is it a happy accident? With “Re-Animator,” it seems pretty clear the director, Stuart Gordon, followed the standard B-movie formula: throw in some titties, some gore, and some humor, and keep the overhead low. He just classed it up a bit by getting some decent actors.

My only complaint about “Re-Animator” is that it isn't really scary. It's gory, yes, but it neither startles nor instills dread. I seem to recall that “The Evil Dead” and “The Evil Dead 2”, similarly campy, low-budget gore-fests, managed to at least be startling. “Re-Animator” broadcasts every death well in advance, and there is never any doubt as to how the protagonists will react to a death. They're gonna get out that green stuff and start re-animating!

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) **

For years, the cable channel Cinemax has filled its late-night schedule with soft-porn offerings, inspiring the nickname “skinemax.” This is basically what you have in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie: a titty-flick, although with a bigger budget and probably better acting than most.

Dakota Johnson plays Anastasia Steele, a virginal college student studying English Lit and living in the social shadow of her vivacious, blond roommate. When the roommate is too sick to perform her journalism class interview with businessman Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), she dispatches Anastasia to ask the questions for her. Anastasia and Grey wind up hitting it off, bonding over the banality of questions like “What is the secret to your success?” and “Are you gay?” Soon, Anastasia is being wooed by the crisply-dressed billionaire, who reveals his taste for sexual sadism and offers her a contract detailing what her role would be like as his submissive sex-slave.

First of all, let's hear it for those names: Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. I haven't heard such awesome character names since Brock Landers and Chest Hardwell, from the movie “Boogie Nights.” If you can keep a straight face when these two characters introduce themselves, that's a good sign that this is the movie for you. If you can't keep the chuckles in, well, you can enjoy laughing your way through the unintentionally hilarious scenes of this film while you wait for them to get around to the kinky sex. They definitely take their time getting to it, spending time on helicopter and glider rides, and dragging out the nonsense about the contract forever. Once sexy-time finally arrives, the soft-core action is fairly good. Don't be expecting full-frontal nudity, but Anastasia spends a fair amount of time with her arms stretched over her head, wearing nothing but her panties, getting smacked with a riding crop.

The worst part about “Fifty Shades of Grey” (besides the self-loathing you will feel for watching it) is Jamie Dornan's acting. Dakota Johnson actually puts out some effort, and makes her character somewhat interesting despite the lame lines she has to recite. Dornan, on the other hand, plays Grey with absolutely zero personality, gazing at Anastasia with dead, shark eyes as he presents his contract to her like he's selling an insurance policy.

So should you rent “Fifty Shades of Grey?” Why not? It probably won't be the most miserable thing you do this week. Just know what you are signing up for: 30 minutes of soft-porn plus an hour and a half of laughable filler.

2 stars out of 5

Thursday, June 04, 2015

The Imitation Game (2014) ***

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, the mathematics professor and electronics whiz who helped England crack Germany's Enigma code during WWII. “The Imitation Game” tells the story of how Turing and his team cracked the code. Jumping back and forth in time, the film also shows how Turing became interested in code-breaking as a nerdy, semi-autistic teen, and how in his later years he was convicted of indecency for being gay.

The story of Turing's persecution is certainly sad, but the movie is not a downer. I found “The Imitation Game” to be thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish. This is partly because Benedict Cumberbatch is such a compelling actor that it is simply impossible not to watch him. He gets assists here from an excellent supporting cast, including Keira Knightley as a fellow code-breaker, Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister on “Game of Thrones”) as the commanding officer, and Mark Strong as a shifty MI6 agent.

The code-breaking part of the story is exciting, with Turing's machine clicking and whirring, but the film doesn't do a good job of explaining the machine and how it works. Also, the brilliant insight that finally allows them to crack the code seems patently obvious, the kind of thing that any code-breaker would think of from the start. More interesting to me is that after the code is cracked, MI6 (England's intelligence service) puts the team to work using statistics to guide them in how to use all those de-coded messages. They can't simply start thwarting every German attack, of course, or the Nazis would quickly figure out that Enigma had been compromised. MI6 also uses the existence of a Soviet spy in the service to leak carefully chosen information to the Russians when it serves England's purposes. I found these insights into the layered intricacies of intelligence work fascinating, and wish they had explored them more.

Ultimately, “The Imitation Game” is a nicely-done, enjoyable film, but it does require you to turn your brain off a little, which is surprising given that it is about brilliant people doing brilliant things. Somehow all the mathematics doesn't translate onto the screen, and we are left with a movie about personalities. I get the feeling Turing would not have approved.

3 stars out of 5

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

9 to 5 (1980) ***

This is another of those cultural touchstone movies that I somehow failed to see back in the day. Thirty-five years later, I finally gave it a watch, and I have to say that it's pretty good. It's fairly predictable, and the humor is broad, but writer/director Collin Higgins (“Harold and Maude”) gives the movie something that makes it stand out from the other silly comedies of its time.

In the very first scene, “9 to 5” let's you know that it intends to be more than just a dumb comedy. Rather than immediately introducing the stars, Higgins shows a montage of a variety of women hustling through the streets of New York to get to their jobs. I found that poignant, like he was dedicating the film to all working women.

Then we meet Violet, a low-level supervisor at the Consolidated Company. She is smart and competent, but she can't break through the glass ceiling at Consolidated, because the men she trains keep getting promoted ahead of her. This includes Franklin Hart (Dabney Coleman), an egotistical, sexist jerk who takes credit for Violet's good ideas and sexually harasses his secretary, Doralee (Dolly Parton). Jane Fonda plays Judy, a recent divorcee new to the workforce. These women bear, as best they can, the indignities of working under Hart, but they share with each other their fantasies of doing him in. When one of these fantasies comes true, things get wacky.

“9 to 5” succeeds because it has a genuine social message packaged as comedy. The film got its start as a project of Jane Fonda's production company. The movie was originally to be a drama, but Fonda and her team found it too preachy, so they switched gears to comedy. The humor lightens up the mood surrounding serious issue like sexual harassment and equal pay for women. The movie gets in some biting satire, as when Doralee fantasizes about forcing Hart to endure the constant pawing and innuendo that he subjects her to. There's nothing like a little role reversal to show how messed-up a situation is.

The years have lent some bitter irony to this film. Violet manages to get a policy of equal pay for equal work instituted. The male executives mutter to themselves that that is a step too far and that they will have to reverse the policy. The joke was simple satire in 1980, but I'll bet the filmmakers didn't think that this would still be an issue 35 years later.

3 stars out of 5