Léon: The Professional (2013) Remastered Director’s Cut

1366535440145 Léon: The Professional (2013) Remastered Director’s Cut

Léon: The Professional (2013)

Remastered Director’s Cut

Several years ago I saw—what I thought at the time—was the director’s cut of Léon: The Professional (1994/2010/2013) on DVD. It turns out it must have been a partial director’s cut because this past weekend I stumbled upon an art theater in Seoul which was playing a high-definition (HD) international remastered director’s cut. AND… it had a full twenty-five minutes of extra footage!

I’ve seen Léon: The Professional many times over the years in several versions with different titles. This time, I was pleasantly surprised by several new scenes and also a high-definition transfer.

The new scenes are awesome—I still can’t believe they weren’t included in the original theatrical release. Several of these scenes involve the training of Mathilda (Natalie Portman) by Léon (Jean Reno). These sequences explain many of the nots and bolts of how to be a trained “cleaner” (killer). Many times the duo engage in practice hits with paintball guns, working their way up to actual kills. The original scene with the sniper rifle is intact, but there are at least four new training sequences. This changes the tone of the film drastically because it shows Léon succumbing to Mathilda’s wishes to be trained as a killer in a way absent from the original cut. These new scenes make the viewer wonder if Léon will actually succumb to Mathilda’s sexual advances as well as to her intentions of becoming a killer like him.

These scenes also help develop their already controversial romance (If you’ve seen the previous director’s cut, you’ve already seen some of the dress-up game scenes which heavily play up the forbidden nature of their affair, and Léon’s subsequent awkwardness toward it.). This version includes these clips but also many more that flesh out their unconventional relationship.

One sequence of note adds great emotional weight to the finale where Léon hands corrupt DEA agent Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman) the pin from his grenade. This pin becomes a very important token of love, almost a form of wedding ring, and the sacrifice he makes for love becomes stronger in this version. It really enhances the ending of the film, as well as the themes of self-sacrifice and inevitability.

Another great sequence shows how desperate Mathilda is to become a trained killer, so she can exact revenge upon Norman Stansfield for killing her family. She challenges Léon to a game of Russian Roulette. If she wins, he trains her. If she loses, she dies. She nearly loses, and this scene illustrates how far she’s willing to go to have her revenge. It also shows how she’s left her childhood completely behind.

I already thought Natalie Portman’s performance in this film was one of the best of her career, but these added scenes only reinforce my opinion. Her acting is believable beyond her years, and really genuine. It’s no wonder this film made her a star, and the added scenes only make her performance that much better.

The new HD print is gorgeous. It’s amazing this film is twenty years old. Besides the occasional bad suit or mullet, this masterpiece has aged extremely well. The performances by the cast are all top-notch. Natalie Portman is electrifying. Jean Reno has the role of his career and delivers beyond expectation. Gary Oldman plays the perfect sadistic psycho (sadly there isn’t much added of him in this version). And Danny Aiello does an excellent job playing the mafia boss with a soft spot for orphans. Even many of the supporting roles are perfect (see dreadlocked henchman and evil scumbags).

The direction by Luc Besson is handled deftly, and the longer version reinforces how good he is at storytelling. Wikipedia describes Besson’s feelings toward this version of the film via The Guardian:

“There is also an extended version of the film, referred to as ‘international version’ or ‘version intégrale.’ Containing 25 minutes of additional footage, it is sometimes called the ‘Director’s Cut’ but Besson refers to the original version as the Director’s Cut and the new version as ‘The Long Version’.” ["The Guardian interview. Luc Besson". The Guardian (London). 23 March 2000.]

In closing, this version of Léon: The Professional is not to be missed. I haven’t seen the American 2010 DVD release, but I assume this might be the same film, although a few of the added scenes may be a little much for American audiences, so I wonder if I was treated to a unique international experience. Not sure. But it made me remember the greatness of this film. In whatever version it happens to be seen.

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Iron Man 3 TV spot Iron Man 3 (2013)

Iron Man 3 (2013)

[ Spoiler Alert! ]

Beware: This article may contain plot spoilers, but I’ve tried hard to avoid them!

Living in South Korea has some advantages. One of these is the fact that I’m sometimes able to see films, the big blockbusters, a full week before the US release. Other times, with art house or award films (like Lincoln), this is not the case and they release months later. Lucky for me, Iron Man 3 (2013) releases today! Since I’m posting this review ahead of the game, I’ll try to make it as spoiler-free as possible. I won’t discuss specifics of the story line.

After the super-success of the Avengers (2012) it seems like a no-brainer to follow-up with more complicated and intriguing solo vehicles. This is what Iron Man 3 attempts to do. This is the seventh installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it looks to build on the Avengers, but also set up future films in Phase 2 like Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Due 2014), Thor: The Dark World (Due 2013), Guardians of the Galaxy (Due 2014), and the Avengers 2 (2015). Phase 3 is rumored to introduce Ant-man (2015) and Doctor Strange (Due ?)(also one of my personal favorites). So, a lot is riding on Iron Man 3.

Unfortunately, I think it fails to live up to the hype. It’s a decent film, don’t get me wrong, but after the Avengers it seems empty and somewhat too familiar. Director Shane Blake does an admirable job bouncing back from the so-so Jon Favreau directed Iron Man 2 (2010). It’s a better film than the middle sequel. But, it’s also a little too “Shane Blake.” If you’ve seen Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) you’ll think this film is constructed much the same way. It’s sort of an Iron Man version of a modern film noir complete with Tony Stark voiceover and all the noir trappings. But, also a little too happy for true film noir.

The cast is impressive with Robert Downey, Jr. reprising his role as the title character, and Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, and Jon Favreau reprising their roles as Pepper Potts, James Rhodes, and Happy Hogan, respectively. Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Stephanie Szostak, and James Badge Dale, join the film in supporting roles, but the real highlight of the casting (for me) was Ben Kingsley. By adding him as the villain the producers instantly added an element of class. The problem is, he is sadly underutilized.

Robert Downey Jr. maintains the high-level of charisma from the first two films (+ the Avengers) but this time also adds a level of psychological depth. He gets his ass-kicked in this one. As moviegoers we love when heroes get their asses kicked (see The Empire Strikes Back, Aliens, or The Wild Bunch). These ass kickings reveal what the heroes are truly made of; we also can’t help but be a little sadistic to those who are supposed to be righteous. It makes us feel good to see someone going through hard times like we often do, and it makes our heroes more real.

Ben Kingsley is Ben Kingsley. I’d watch him read a newspaper. I don’t have to say too much more about how brilliant of an actor he is. This is a man who can play Gandhi one moment and the psycho from Sexy Beast the next. Here he mixes the charisma and lethal aspects of both, along with COMEDY! Yes, COMEDY! They don’t show this is in the trailer but his appearance is multi-faceted. His Mandarin is a huge step up from Whiplash (Mickey Rourke) or Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). Both Rourke and Bridges are wonderful actors, legends in fact, but Kingsley brings an edge to his villain that the others missed. However, I will also say I was greatly disappointed at his role in the film. If you see it, you’ll understand what I mean.

Yes, there are many Iron Man suits. Yes, more villains. Yes, more action. But, there is something missing. Of all the Marvel films, Iron Man always seems to be the one that must sacrifice his story to help build the connections between the rest of the Marvel Universe. Sadly, Thor and Captain America don’t have to do this too much (at least not yet). In fact, I would say that is the primary fault of both Iron Man 2 and 3. Too much time is spent building scenarios that have little to do with the plot, and won’t come to fruition for several movies to come.

In conclusion, if you like Iron Man, you’ll be happy enough. But if you’re looking to have your mind blown (like I felt after seeing the first film) you might be disappointed.

One more thing… Like the other Marvel entries, there is a post-credit scene with another Avenger, but I felt like it was the worst of the entire post-credit scenes in the Marvel Universe films. Sorry guys, but this one doesn’t work so well!

Erik the Viking (1989)

erik the viking Erik the Viking (1989)

Erik the Viking (1989)

Last week I wrote an article about Orion Pictures and their quirky off-the-wall comedies of the 1980’s (click here). This week I’d like to review one of their more obscure, but hilariously clever films called Erik the Viking (1989).

Written and directed by Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame) Erik the Viking tells the story of nice guy Erik (endearingly played to the hilt by Tim Robbins) a misfit Viking who is a little too intelligent and considerate compared to his brutish companions and their doltish Viking attitudes.

One day, as the Vikings are doing what they do best, looting, raping, and pillaging, Erik comes across a woman who he must rape per the Viking code. They start polite conversation in the English manner (yeah, I know!), which turns into some chatty banter about how awful the looting, raping, and pillaging actually is, which finishes with heated wordplay and repartee reminiscent of some of the greatest of the Monty Python gags. After taking this joke to the limit, the conversation winds up with Erik stating that he’s tired of all the pillaging, looting, and especially the raping, saying, “I just think it’s a little bit crude.” (See video below for full scene).

 

 

Events ensue. Woman gets stabbed. Erik goes through a depression. Viking seeks oracle. Finally, Erik seriously questions his “tradition” (think of the misfit dentist in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer). Thus begins his Odyssey-like quest to find the “Horn Resounding” (think Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch from the Holy Grail) and end the sunless age of Ragnarok.

Yes, I know, this sounds dreadful, but Erik the Viking is actually a delight. What saves this cardboard narrative from becoming atrocious is the clever writing by Jones and delivery of his dialogue. If you like Monty Python’s The Holy Grail, The Meaning of Life, or Life of Brian you’ll adore this film. Although many of the Python players are absent, the film still has a clever script and good comedic performances by Tim Robbins (whose Erik is just dumb enough to be smart), Terry Jones (whose King Arnulf is just woman enough to be manly), and John Cleese (whose Halfdan the Black is just polite enough to be an executioner). Eartha Kitt (Freya the Oracle) and Mickey Rooney (Erik’s grandfather) also make brief but memorable appearances.

The real stars of the film, however, are Erik’s misfit band of Viking buffoons played by Gary Cady (Keitel Blacksmith = the village stud), Charles McKeown (Sven’s Dad = the nagging father), Tim McInnemy (Sven the Berserk = the clueless berserker), John Gordon Sinclair (Ivar the Boneless = the coward), Richard Ridings (Thorffin Skullsplitter = the brutish whiner), Danny Schiller (Snorri the Miserable = the eternal pessimist), and Freddie Jones (Harald the Missionary = the religious voice of reason amongst pagan savages). They’re the seven dwarves to Erik’s Snow White and they really steal the film.

packshot Erik the Viking (1989)

Robbins delivers the existential straight man bit, but he’s really a simpleton reminiscent of his performance as Norville Barnes in the Coen Brother’s screwball comedy The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)—replace a viking wig with a hula hoop, and he’s essentially the same character. The funniest thing about this film is the contradictory relationship between him and his band of hooligans. He’s supposed to be the wise leader but comes off as foolish; they’re supposed to be the brutish killers, but their comedy is often intellectually-based riffs on the absurdity of society, religion, and philosophy.

Besides all of the Viking-based comedy the film is also an allegory for the rational man and his defiance against the madness society places upon him. Like much of the Monty Python canon this is smart comedy which relies on word play and innuendo. One has to be smart enough to get it, or much of it goes over one’s head.

Some of the comedy is reminiscent of the tongue-in-cheek violence from Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition gag:

Halfdan the Black: [to his henchmen] Er, just cut his hand off.

Prisoner: Oh, Thank you my lord! Thank you a million thank you’s. You can cut them both off if you want! Thank you very much.

Or the Viking’s version of over-protective mother and father routine:

Thorfinn’s Mum: And you’ve got BOTH axes?

Thorfinn Skullsplitter: Yes, Mother.

Thorfinn’s Mum: And something to sharpen them with?

Thorfinn Skullsplitter: Yes, Mum.

Thorfinn’s Mum: And don’t forget: never let your enemy get behind you.

Thorfinn Skullsplitter: No, Mother.

Thorfinn’s Mum: And keep your sword greased.

Thorfinn Skullsplitter: Yes, Mother. Goodbye, Dad.

Thorfinn’s Dad: And don’t forget to wash – you know – ALL over.

Thorfinn Skullsplitter: No, Dad.

Thorfinn’s Mum: And if you have to kill somebody, KILL them! Don’t stop to think about it.

Thorfinn Skullsplitter: I never do…

Or my personal favorite the ultimate Viking playground insult:

“Thorffin just said Sven’s grandfather died of old age!”

I guess the style of comedy isn’t for everyone, but I think it’s pretty damned funny.

In conclusion, Erik the Viking is a special film from a time when comedies challenged our intelligence and if you like smart banter, British sexual humor, or Berserker Rages you’ll love this film.

BTW… Who doesn’t enjoy a good Berserker Rage?

Amazon Pilots

51a+om3dl9L. SX500  300x252 Amazon Pilots

Amazon Studios has just released 14 pilots, 6 for kids and 8 adult comedies. I have long been fascinated with the Amazon Studios project, where anyone can submit scripts and film shorts. It has an indy crowdsourcing feel, but with money behind it. Although many of these pilots have big names behind them, they nonetheless have a somewhat experimental feel. The format itself is experimental. Apparently, Amazon will use a variety of data points, including how many people watch all the way through, reviews, and social network engagement to decide which of these will go forward.  With the release of Netflix’s House of Cards, Amazon must feel they need to compete. Instead of hard drama, though, they went for kids and comedy. I watched several of the comedy pilots, and here are some initial thoughts, in the order in which I watched them.

 The Reviews

Zombieland

(29 minutes)

This is the one that will probably draw in the most people. It is made by the same people who produced the movie, and takes place in the same universe. The biggest difference between the movie and this pilot is that the movie was good and this sucks. Or bites, if you want to do the zombie thing. It does the same thing as the film, with voiceover, cutaways to tips for survival, and essentially the same characters with different actors. So, basically subtract the charisma of Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson and Emma Stone, and that’s what you have here. Empty formula.

Betas

(26 minutes)

As a nerd, I am always wary of nerd comedy. All too often it gets it wrong, relying on tired cliches and easy jokes. This Control-Alt-Deletes that pattern (I know, I know. I had to). The premise of the pilot is a bunch of tech guys with an app trying to get a buyer. It reminds me of media representations pre-tech-crash Silicon Valley, and the app itself is a little silly and already done, but the writing is funny. The lack of censorship or TV ratings allows them to swear and tell jokes that normal television would never allow. Of the pilots I watched, this is the one I like most, and I hope it gets the green light. Did I mention that this pilot has a cameo by Moby?

Dark Minions

(25 minutes)

This animated series follows two stoners in an evil space empire. It’s pretty funny. The two main characters fool around, slack off, smoke space weed and basically act like a couple of intergalactic slackers. It’s like Office Space meets Spaceballs. Some good dialogue, some funny scenarios, some promise. It reminds me of something you might see on Adult Swim, but with the f words unbleeped.

Onion News Empire

(27 minutes)

I love The Onion. This is like the Onion News Network but with a dramatic through-line. It’s silly, but it has its moments. The fake stories are good, but go by very quickly. Jeffrey Tambor is wonderful in this, and is probably the biggest (if not only) reason I would continue to watch this. This is basically a parody of The Newsroom, with a lot of cynicism. It’s the cynicism I like, when it doesn’t go too far, but The Onion has a pretty good track record on that, so I might give this another chance if it continues.

Those Who Can’t

(23 minutes)

First of all, I hate the expression “Those who can do. Those who can’t, teach.” I really hate it. So, I had bad feeling going into this, some negative vibes and whatnot. Maybe my opinion was colored by this, but I doubt it. This is awful. It follows some teachers who basically act like adolescents, threatening students and acting like stereotypes. It feels like they wanted a Community feel, but forgot to hire good writers and actors to accomplish that. One of the teachers is even a Spanish teacher. Sound familiar, Community fans? Yuck. Maybe these people should go teach, since they certainly can’t do (see, that doesn’t even make any sense).

Alpha House

(25 minutes)

A political farce following GOP Senators, played by John Goodman and Mark Consuelos. These guys share a house, which resembles, predictably, a frat house. This should be good, given the big names, including the aforementioned actors and the writer, Doonesbury author Gary Trudeau. Bill Murray and Stephen Colbert appear briefly as well. It should be good, but, unfortunately, it isn’t. Political satire, or, more specifically, satire of politicians, is hard to write, and if anyone can do it, you would think Trudeau could. Not so sure, here. Pilots often rely on stereotypes and broad characters, and this is no exception. It might be able to grow into something interesting, given the chance, but I doubt it will get that chance. If I’m right, I won’t be sad. If I’m wrong, I might pop in and watch it occasionally, maybe after a whole season is done.

Supanatural

(23 minutes)

Um. Here’s the summary from the site: “Supanatural is an animated comedy series about two outspoken divas who are humanity’s last line of defense against the supernatural, when they’re not working at the mall.”  Two women who are, like, defenders of the universe but care more about hair and men and ringtones. I don’t know what to make of this. It’s not unfunny, I guess, but I find the women’s voices grating. I chuckled a few times, no doubt. I will never watch this again, but I can see the appeal, if this is your sort of thing.

Browsers

(25 minutes)

4 new interns at the web magazine Gush find out that one will be fired by the end of the week. It’s a musical, which is usually not my thing, but it has some internet humor. It’s lighthearted, if not fluffy, but what do you expect from a musical. Meh, but maybe because it’s not my genre.

 

The Takeaway

None of these blew me away, but of the 8, I like Betas best. If I had to rank them it would go:

  1. Betas
  2. Dark Minions
  3. Onion News Empire
  4. Alpha House
  5. Browsers
  6. Supanatural
  7. Zombieland
  8. Those Who Can’t

Orion Pictures and the South Korean DVD Bang Room

inside a dvd bang Orion Pictures and the South Korean DVD Bang Room

South Korea has a phenomenon known as the DVD bang (pronounced bahng and means “room” in Korean). This is one of the greatest attractions of this interesting country—along with LP bars (you request records to be played by a bartender/DJ) and nori bangs (personal karaoke rooms).

A DVD bang is like a mini-theater and video store combined. The viewer selects a film from the collection and brings it to the counter. Behind the clerk are perhaps 5-10 DVD players which all lead to different rooms. The clerk will control the player, but before he does, he will escort you to the room. In it, there is a couch that is more like a bed, with pillows and a rail to set your beverage you may have purchased in the lobby. The room is very cramped, like most things in Korea, but the television screen is rather large, maybe up to 60 inches. There is barely room to walk. You can remove your shoes, relax, or eat a smuggled in snack.

The peculiar thing about these places is they also serve as a kind of “Inspiration Point” or dating spot. Most Koreans of date-able age live with their parents until they get married which is usually around the age of 29-30. Well, you can imagine how this might cramp your desire to get busy with the opposite sex. The DVD bang is the perfect answer to this problem. Luckily, the couches are vinyl and the sound systems are loud.

These rooms also act as 2 hour power nap pseudo-hotels for those nights when you get a little too tipsy and you don’t want to pay for a “love motel” (a cheap hotel that is also used for nookie).

With that said, lone customers rarely frequent DVD rooms. But, if you’re an expat, most times you are alone, and sometimes you do attend these places without a significant other, or friends who desire to join you.

O.K. With that said, you can probably imagine the looks you get when you attend by yourself. You can also imagine the looks you get when you and your roommate of the same sex decide to innocently check out a movie. You can also imagine the looks you might receive when you, plus one male roommate, plus a girl decide to see a movie this way. Boy + boy + girl = weird “you guys must be perverts” look from the clerk.

O.K. Now with that said, I come to the real purpose of this article. Last year, I made friends with Mr. Kyle Kuehner of Iowa. Like me, Mr. Kuehner happens to be a big fan of cult movies, so we frequented these DVD rooms. While there we watched some classics like Top Gun (1986), or Big Trouble in Little China (1986), or Over the Top (1987). After exiting these rooms we would head to the local LP Bar and discuss quirky films of the 70’s and 80’s.

Recently, Mr. Kuehner sent me a web link for a list of films that Orion Pictures had made with his proclamation that this now defunct studio had made some of the greatest films of the 80’s and 90’s. Having seen many of them, I completely agree with his proclamation.

It got me thinking about our days in the DVD bang and also those quirky films we loved to discuss. So, today I thought I would do a little expose on Orion Pictures.

0 Orion Pictures and the South Korean DVD Bang Room

Orion Pictures Corporation was an independent film production company that produced work between 1978 and 1998. It began as a collaboration between Warner Bros. and three former executives of United Artists. Although it was never a large motion picture company, several of their films won Academy Awards for Best Picture including Amadeus (1984), Platoon (1986), Dances with Wolves (1990), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

On December 11, 1991, Orion filed for bankruptcy after several years of struggling to recoup the loses from a string of box office failures. They planned to reorganize under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code, but they continued to struggle before Metromedia merged the subsidiary with Samuel Goldwyn Entertainment in 1996, and then subsequently sold the studio (as well as Samuel Goldwyn Entertainment and Motion Picture Corporation of America) to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and thus ended an era of great film distribution.

But in that twenty-year period Orion Pictures produced some of the greatest, quirkiest, and innovative films of this time, and they were highly respected by actors and filmmakers.

One of the first films Orion produced was the Monty Python classic Life of Brian (1979)(co-produced by Handmade Films). I wouldn’t say this was the best of the Monty Python films, but it does hold up over time, and it’s a glimmer of the type of zany comedies the studio would become known for.

They followed this up with the excellent sci-fi mystery Time After Time (1979), a great time-travel epic about Jack the Ripper starring some great British character actors like Malcolm McDowell and David Warner. This film would also set a precedent for the thoughtful sci-fi/fantasy films they would later make like Robocop and The Terminator.

The 1980s would become the studio’s strongest decade for comedies with classics like Caddyshack (1980), Arthur (1981), Yellowbeard (1983), Easy Money (1983), Up the Creek (1984), Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), Back to School (1986), Three Amigos (1986), Throw Momma from the Train (1987), Married to the Mob (1988), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), UHF (1989), Erik the Viking (1989), and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). This is a pretty impressive list and most of the films are truly hilarious.

Their 1980’s output also included some great action, horror, and science-fiction films like Excalibur (1981), First Blood (1982), Lone Wolf McQuade (1983), Never Say Never Again (1983), The Bounty (1984), The Terminator (1984), The Return of the Living Dead (1985), Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985), Platoon (1986), RoboCop (1987), and No Way Out (1987). Two of these films, Robocop and The Terminator, redefined the genre.

Orion Pictures were also no strangers to controversial art house fare and dramas like Broadway Danny Rose (1984), Amadeus (1984), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), Colors (1988), and Mississippi Burning (1988).

The 1990’s were not as good to them. They had some great work like State of Grace (1990), Dances with Wolves (1990), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and I Shot Andy Warhol (1996). But by then much of their magic was gone, and they were producing mostly lackluster sequels to films like Robocop and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But much of their other fare lacked the innovative spirit of the 1980’s, especially in the comedy genre, which produced far fewer hits than their 1980’s output.

In conclusion, Orion Pictures was a large part of my childhood and teen years. Many of the films defined me as an individual. And yes, it was really great to re-experience some of them with good company in the DVD rooms of South Korea. If you ever take a journey to Asia, I highly recommend these rooms. They’re a really important cultural experience.

 

Warm Bodies (2013)

warm bodies Warm Bodies (2013)

Warm Bodies (2013)

In America, Warm Bodies (2013) was released a few weeks ago. Now, that I’m living back in South Korea, I’m exposed late to certain films being released, and early to others. Warm Bodies opened recently here, and to be honest I had little intention of seeing it. But, the theater I live near has limited English options, so Saturday afternoon I decide to give it a chance.

I’m glad I did. In fact, I love when I’m pleasantly surprised by something I didn’t  think I would connect with. Warm Bodies did that on many levels.

The film could have been a disaster—a zombie boy falling in love with a living girl sounds a little too far-fetched of a premise to get behind, even for a zombie film—but this unorthodox horror-comedy in the vein of “Romeo and Juliette” is a heartwarming (literally) romance tale that not only works, but is actually quite fun. I had a great afternoon with lots of laughs, and most importantly, it gave me much to think about, which most zombie films don’t always do.

These days the zombie genre works best when it’s cross-pollinated with other categories like comedy, sci-fi, or drama. The strict “Night of the Living Dead” formula of yore has given way to clever horror-comedies (Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead) and character study television dramas (The Walking Dead). The George Romero zombie archetype has gone to the wayside. The comedy genre fits so well with zombies there’s even a Zombieland television show in pre-production.

But Warm Bodies succeeds because of a few key elements that help it transcend beyond the mere zombie-munching buffet (although there is plenty of this too).

First, the romantic chemistry between the two leads is believable and really quite engaging. Nicholas Hoult (X-Men First Class) plays “R” an emo-zombie with inclinations toward record players and hoarding archaic pre-apocalypse junk who falls in love with Julie, a hardened zombie killer, played by Teresa Palmer (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice).

Hoult does an excellent job at making the audience identify with his zombie-troubles through the skill of his performance, which could have been a lot of growling Frankenstein stuff, but instead he goes the more interesting route, and develops his “Romeo” character admirably through a lot of complicated facial and body acting which is often silly pantomime, but also helps us relate to him as an individual with a heart, not a mindless flesh-eater. He brings emotion to a character who isn’t supposed to have any, and his performance makes the “wrong side of the tracks” romance so much more believable. Even as a zombie, he’s that swooning dorky-but-kind-of-cute guy in the back of the class who fawns over the pretty blond girl who doesn’t give him a second glance. Like real life, he must prove his love to her. The problem is: he’s a zombie.

It seems Palmer has the easier job as Julie because she plays the stereotypical love interest, but she may actually have the more difficult task because she actually convinces us that it’s OK to fall in love with a rotting corpse. She brings a believability to her role that only increases the romantic relationship created between the two actors, and makes us feel their forbidden love isn’t totally gross and necrophiliac. Yes, it’s a tough job convincing us that this is fine, but she’s more than capable of making us believe.

John Malchovich also delivers another great performance as Julie’s militant father who obviously disapproves of their match. He’s the type of father who wouldn’t let anyone come near his daughter, let alone a walking dead. Many of the father/daughter tropes are rather funny with the zombie twist.

The film has a tight, well-written script based on Isaac Marion’s novel of the same name. It’s fairly obvious the story comes from a novel because of the narration, and also by the level of detail associated with the characters and their backgrounds. The story being told from the zombie perspective is also an innovative approach I can’t recall seeing in a zombie film (if you know any, leave them in the comments below). Details about what happens when they eat brains, or when they develop social relationships, or when they gain fondness for certain objects or people are revealed in a creative manner.

Finally, the metaphor of the heartbroken, soulless “dead” person regaining their warmth and humanity through love is also dealt with exceptionally well. It’s handled deftly without insulting our intelligence.

This is an excellent date movie, and for those who aren’t too jaded, it should provide a nice hour and a half of guilty pleasure. If you can’t muster a little romantic glee at Warm Bodies you might just be a little dead inside.

The Lost Art of Mystery in Filmmaking

et shed2 sm The Lost Art of Mystery in Filmmaking

The Lost Art of Mystery in Filmmaking

These days Hollywood has lost much of the mystery of its heyday. Mostly, this is because of the advent of digital technology and special effects. As the medium evolves, and filmmakers gain more and more proficiency at rendering objects/people/creatures in the digital realm, it makes sense for them to want to show off their hard work.

Yes, this does makes sense, but unfortunately modern filmmakers (on the whole) have lost something very important to the success of great storytelling. They’ve lost a little thing called mystery.

Mystery is an important element. More important than one might think. The more filmmakers create flashy digital effects the more they want to wow us with their tools. But, this is a trap. Because of this most modern filmmakers have lost the ability to allow for mystery.

For example in Steven Spielberg’s early career—in films like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T.—the films were plagued by technological limitations. The mechanical shark didn’t work most of the time and he was forced to use an impressionistic style of filmmaking. As a result the shark became a terrifying presence, more for when we didn’t see it, than for when we did.

The aliens he presented in Close Encounters were portrayed in a similar fashion. Quick cuts and tricks of light accentuated the mystery.

For E.T. Spielberg had to resort to a combination of mime artist, dwarf actor, puppetry, and robotic effects. The synergy of these styles makes E.T. come to life in a way a digital E.T. would have been lacking; mainly, because we would have seen too much of him. By keeping him in the closet, the work shed, and the dark forest Spielberg was able to create a more interesting character—try to imagine him like a motion-capture weirdo ala Gollum from Lord of the Rings or Caesar from Rise of the Planet of the Apes and it’s clear E.T. would have lost much of his mysterious charm. For example, digital Yoda is not nearly as interesting as Frank Oz puppet Yoda. Much of the reason for this is because digital Yoda is too animated. We see too much of him.

Suspense, horror, thrillers, or science fiction films can all benefit from a little restraint. Hitchcock was a master at providing terror through impression. Psycho is a perfect example. David Lynch is especially good at creating terror with very little. Some other films that benefit from implied mystery are The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Nosferatu, Halloween, Friday the 13th, Basic Instinct, and The Sixth Sense.

2008’s Cloverfield was especially good at utilizing mystery. Another recent film that really used this technique to full effect is 2010′s Monsters written and directed by Gareth Edwards. Much of the special effects were done on a home computer by the director. Because of this limitation he was forced to create much of the tension by implying that the aliens were nearby showing a random tentacle or sound. It wasn’t until the end of the film that the monster was shown in all its terrifying glory. This technique is super effective. Apparently, he’s been hired to helm the new Godzilla remake and I can only hope he sticks to this method. I sincerely hope the larger budget doesn’t make him get lazy with the thrills.

All in all, implied terror is always more powerful than too much detail, and modern audiences are often to blame for the success of effects heavy films. If the audience demanded to use their imagination, the studios would be forced to provide films that would cater to this style. Or maybe it’s been so long since we’ve seen films like this we’ve forgotten how effective they can be at thrilling us.

Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and UFO’s are all cultural icons of mystery because of the fact we can’t capture their likenesses too easily. This makes them enigmas we can’t get enough of. Their appeal never grows old.

My advice to modern filmmakers who are craving to give their audience a thrill is to use restraint whenever possible, and to use digital effects like salt. When the filmmaker finally decides to reveal something gruesome, weird, deadly, or wonderful, it will be that much more powerful.

Rumble Fish (1983)

rumblefish 01 Rumble Fish (1983)

Rumble Fish (1983)

Rumble Fish turns thirty this year (Wow! That makes me feel old.). Like all classic works of art it keeps getting better and better with age. This French New Wave influenced teen noir film directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and based off the novel by S. E. Hinton (who also co-wrote the screenplay), is one of the coolest films of the 80’s. Yes, Repo Man is great, and Heathers is equally great, but Rumble Fish is an example of high art disguised as teen melodrama. It’s the Rebel Without a Cause of its day.

Rumble Fish focuses in on the relationship between Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), an almost mythical former gang leader who has renounced his past, and his younger upstart brother, Rusty James (Matt Dillon), a simple hoodlum who tries to emulate his brother’s myth. The story deals with issues like the need to transcend the mistakes of your past, the burden of tough choices, and the need for acceptance by your peers.

This is an incredible film for many reasons. I will name a few.

1) Francis Ford Coppola

Mr. Coppola just came off of the success of The Outsiders (1983), another great S.E. Hinton story. In The Outsiders Coppola paints a golden colorful picture of teen angst. In it the tragedies of teen-hood are glorified but hopeful. It retains a “stay gold” innocence. The cast is pretty, and so is the message.

With that in mind, Rumble Fish is the nihilistic darker brother of The Outsiders. Filmed in luscious black and white Rumble Fish shows a different side of Mr. Coppola’s vision of teen life. While the Outsiders is fuzzy entertainment, Rumble Fish is down n’ dirty grit.

In the film we see his Goddard influences. We also see his frustrations with mainstream cinema come to the fore; he lashes out and tries to destroy ever cliché of the genre. Whether it’s the decision to include Stuart Copeland’s crazy syncopated drum heavy soundtrack, or to film the drama like a hardboiled detective flick of the 40’s, or to include so many untested actors and actresses. He destroys the teen film, rips it to shreds, injects existential angst, and then reconstructs it to look like an alternate universe—a place where the adults act like children and the children take on the burden of adulthood. He does this with realtime visual effects, and the results are stunning.

2) Mickey Rourke

Here we see Mr. Rourke at the top of his game as the nihilistic Motorcycle Boy. He’s super cool. Brando-like. A silent enigma who looks at his surroundings—his dysfunctional family, his outgrown past, and his relationship with his peers—as if they’re alien artifacts from a world gone mad, and he doesn’t care to understand. Life, for him, is a big fat joke, and he knows all the answers. He’s our zen warrior in the mold of Camus. He’s sexy, solitary, and beleaguered. Rourke brings him to life deftly, and it illustrates why he’s one of the best actors of his generation. Upon reviewing the film I’m struck with how handsome he used to be, and also how far he has come.

3) Matt Dillon

Matt Dillon, who also starred in The Outsiders, used to be the James Dean of the 1980’s. Yes, I said that. He had a strong run of successful vehicles. He did The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, and Drugstore Cowboy back to back. He was the aloof tough rebel destined to go out in a blaze of glory. If he would have died of a drug overdose or car wreck he would have been bigger than River Phoenix.

In Rumble Fish, he isn’t quite as tough as Dallas Winston from The Outsiders, but he’s something more interesting, something pitiful. Dillon’s performance as Rusty James brings out something pathetic, almost repulsive. He’s not a likable hero, and Dillon hones into this with precision.

4) The Supporting Cast

The supporting cast of Diane Lane, Dennis Hopper, Diana Scarwid, Vincent Spano, Nicolas Cage, Chris Penn, Laurence Fishburne, William Smith, Glenn Withrow, Tom Waits, Sofia Coppola, and S. E. Hinton make this a virtual who’s who of great newcomers and veteran standbys. Dennis Hopper is brilliant as usual. Cage, Fishburne, and Penn are at the beginnings of their careers and they seem hungry and fresh. William Smith, best known as Conan’s father, Clint Eastwood’s nemesis in Any Which Way You Can, and the Russian commander in Red Dawn, is especially effective as the arch-enemy of Motorcycle Boy. He represents everything the Motorcycle Boy rebels against, and he does it with wicked style.

All in all, Rumble Fish is a great teen drama. If you like The Breakfast Club, St. Elmo’s Fire, or Three O’Clock High, you’ll love Rumble Fish. If you haven’t seen it in a while it deserves another look. It’s truly a beautiful example of what can be accomplished when a filmmaker breaks all the rules.

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12 Reasons Why Tom Cruise Is Actually A Good Actor

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12 Reasons Why Tom Cruise Is Actually A Good Actor

Tom Cruise is an enigma. On the surface, he represents the archetypal overachiever, good-at-everything, good-for-nothing, jocko homo, super-being. He’s muscular, attractive, and confident. In his films he often plays the “best of the best,” whether it’s a fighter pilot, race car driver, pool player, bartender, vampire, or motivational speaker. He is always A+ Number One. Superficially, he seems the alpha male movie star of his generation.

Underneath, however, this man—who has worked with some of the best directors of his time including: Francis Ford Coppola, Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese, Barry Levinson, Oliver Stone, Rob Reiner, Neil Jordan, Stanley Kubrick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann, and many others—is a complicated method actor who rarely repeats himself, and often pokes fun at his perceived persona.

Tom Cruise is a contradiction. I’ve never heard so many hostile reactions to a single person whether it has to do with his acting, personal life, or religious beliefs. People hate this guy, yet he’s one of the highest grossing/paid stars in history.

People often dismiss his acting abilities. Although he’s had 3 Academy Award nominations, 7 Golden Globe nominations and 3 Golden Globe wins, as well as many other accolades.

He’s appeared in over 40 films, and while many of them are straight action pieces, some are stellar character studies.

Here’s a list of 12 reasons why Tom Cruise is actually a great actor:

Taps (1981)

Cruise’s second film follows a group of military school students who take their school hostage in order to save it from being closed. Along with George C. Scott, Timothy Hutton, Ronny Cox, and Sean Penn, Cruise gives an excellent early performance.

Cruise’s Cadet Captain David Shawn is a crazy military zealot, the type of dude that would blow up a government building or shoot up a movie theater. He’s so tightly wound his undoing is a glory to behold.

The Outsiders (1983)

Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s classic novel stars Cruise, C. Thomas Howell, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Ralph Macchio, and Diane Lane. It’s a tragic adolescent odyssey toward redemption, and many of the performances are stellar.

Although Cruise’s Steve Randle is a supporting character, he takes full advantage of his screen time. The importance of his performance here is that he’s an integral part of an ensemble, and he knows it, not letting his ego get in the way.

legend 12 Reasons Why Tom Cruise Is Actually A Good Actor

Legend (1985)

If you’ve seen Ridley Scott’s timeless director’s cut of this dark fairy tale starring Cruise, Mia Sara, and Tim Curry, you know how great Curry, Sara and Cruise perform. Please avoid the original cut at all costs—the cheesy Tangerine Dream soundtrack might make you spontaneously sprout a mullet.

Cruise’s Jack is a rarity of his career. Yes, he’s the best Pan in the forest, but he’s also his most innocent, pure role. Who’d have thought someone so diabolical (according to the tabloids) could penetrate so deeply into his inner child.

The Color of Money (1986)

Martin Scorsese’s unofficial sequel to The Hustler (1961) stars Cruise, Paul Newman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Helen Shaver, and John Turturro. Newman won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance.

Cruise’s pool hustler Vincent Lauria feeds off of the genius of his collaborators. I mean: How do you fuck up a role where you get to stand opposite of Paul Newman and Martin Scorsese directing? This is the first of Cruise’s “I’m-the-best…” roles, but he does it well this time. Films like Top Gun (1986), Cocktail (1988), and Days of Thunder (1990) I can do without.

Rain Man (1988)

Barry Levinson’s Rain Man tells the story of a selfish yuppie, who discovers that his estranged father has died and bequeathed his multimillion-dollar estate to his other son, an autistic whose existence Charlie was unaware.

Cruise’s Charlie Babbitt is an interesting character. It could be Cruise’s most transformational role. He grows from a very unlikable “dick” into an actual human being. I’m sure that wasn’t easy to pull off, especially for Cruise.

Born on the 4th of July (1989)

Oliver Stone’s story of a damaged Vietnam vet is a difficult film to watch. There are too many supporting actors to list, so go check out IMDb for a comprehensive list.

Cruise’s Ron Kovic earned him his first Academy Award nomination, and I’m absolutely sure Cruise had to dig deep into some dark shit to find this character. This is the anti-Cruise. At the beginning he wants to be the “Cruise-everyman” but he gets shot to hell, and realizes that life is shit. Somehow, despite how despicable this character becomes, we always feel sympathy for him. Let me repeat that—we always feel sympathy for him. How many times have you felt sympathy for Tom Cruise? Yep, he’s a good actor.

A Few Good Men (1992)

Rob Reiner’s military courtroom drama starring Cruise, Jack Nicholson, and Demi Moore is a tense, watchable, classic.

Cruise’s Lieutenant Junior Grade Daniel “Danny” Kaffee is the “Cruise-everyman” but this time he’s a lawyer. The great scenes here are the ones between Cruise and Nicholson. They’re emotionally charged and exciting to watch.

Interview with the Vampire (1994)

Neil Jordan’s vampire epic based off of Anne Rice’s popular novel could have been a disaster. However, Cruise, Brad Pitt, Antonio Banderas, Kirsten Dunst, and Stephen Rea all deliver excellent performances which make this one of the best vampire films of the last few decades.

Cruise’s Lestat is a difficult character to pin down. Anne Rice preferred Rutger Hauer for the role, but after seeing Cruise’s performance she changed her tune. He does an admirable job playing a complicated anti-hero. At times he’s a little over-the-top but I guess if you’re playing a centuries old vampire lord, you gotta be a little heavy-handed. Although it would have been interesting with Hauer too.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Stanley Kubrick’s last film is perhaps the greatest work on this list. It’s definitely the most artful. It’s a stroke of genius to penetrate into Cruise and Kidman’s relationship (which was on the way out). Art imitating life?

Cruise’s Dr. Harford is the guy we love to hate. He’s a successful doctor with a beautiful wife and a successful practice. Yes, he lives in New York, and probably shits gold. But, he’s also emotionally destroyed in this movie. His scene where Kidman tells him of her desire for another man, which shatters his “Cruise-everyman” ego is perhaps his best five minutes of acting in his career.

magnolia 12 Reasons Why Tom Cruise Is Actually A Good Actor

Magnolia (1999)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s ensemble character study stars Cruise, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, and Jason Robards.

For his role of Frank T.J. Mackey, Cruise was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the 72nd Academy Awards, and won the award in the same category at the Golden Globes of 2000.

This role is very similar to his role in Eyes Wide Shut. Both characters get demolished emotionally and Cruise does a great job being in the uncomfortable “hot seat.”

Minority Report (2002)

Minority Report is a neo-noir science fiction film directed by Steven Spielberg and based on the short story “The Minority Report” by Philip K. Dick starring Cruise, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, and legendary character actor Max von Sydow.

Cruise’s PreCrime captain John Anderton is very similar to his character in the Mission Impossible films. But, Spielberg’s direction helps Cruise elevate his performance into a good example of the quintessential Philip K. Dick  protagonist. He’s certainly more believable than Schwarzenegger, Farrell, or Affleck, but maybe not as good as Ford in Blade Runner (1982).

Collateral (2004)

Michael Mann always makes cool tough guy films and Collateral is no exception. Cruise is joined by Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Mark Ruffalo.

Cruise’s hit-man Vincent is perhaps Cruise’s most dangerous characters. In fact, I really like when he plays the villain and I wish he would do it more often. Here he plays a hard-assed tough guy. Vincent is way more of a badass than Jack Reacher.

 In Conclusion

Besides the 12 reasons mentioned above, Cruise has been in lots of financial and critical successes including the Mission Impossible franchise, Tropic Thunder, Jerry Maguire, The Firm, Risky Business, etc. But, he seems to work best when he’s playing characters against his type, or characters that shirk his maverick image.

My advice Mr Cruise is to ignore box office sales and start exploring more complicated middle-aged characters. Go the route of a Clint Eastwood or Paul Newman, hang up the gun, stop lifting weights, and explore the salt-and-peppery roles that could nab you some real accolades and perhaps make audiences reconsider you as not a scientologist wacko, but a great thespian.

At Close Range (1986) Forgotten Walken Lore is not A Bore.

Sean Penn and the Christopher Walken were in a movie together!? Really? You mean to tell me in said movie Walken had a Magnum P.I. mustache? No shit? Wait you mean to tell me Crispin Glover, Kiefer Sutherland, Mary Stuart Matherson, and Chris Penn were all in a tense crime drama set in 1978 rural Pennsylvania and it was good, borderline great?

No shit.

What is this mystery movie?

At Close Range (1986)                                      url At Close Range (1986) Forgotten Walken Lore is not A Bore.

 

Director: James Foley

Writers: Elliott Lewitt, Nicholas Kazan

Cast: Sean Penn (Brad Whitewood Jr.), Christopher Walken (Brad Whitewood Sr.), Mary Stuart Matherson (Terry), Chris Penn (Tommy Whitewood), Millie Perkins (Julie), Eileen Ryan (Grandma), Tracey Walter, R.D. Call, Candy Clark, Kiefer Sutherland, Crispin Glover, Stephen Geoffreys.

I recommend At Close Range for lazy evenings especially when USA and TNT have exhausted your favorite Law & Order/ NCIS reruns. At Close Range are equal parts tense crime drama, love story, and family melodrama narrated by restless Brad Whitewood Jr. (Penn) son of career criminal Brad Whitewood Sr. (Walken). The primary struggle in At Close Range is Brad Jr’s growing desire to become a man. A man who stands on his own is now the desperate goal of Brad Whitewood Jr.

Brad Jr.’s restless behavior, his driving force to be a man, befuddles and clouds his judgment; he has no control over his impulse to prove his worth to his estranged father. Brad’s hidden paradox is how do you become that to which he has no previous knowledge? That is; how can a boy become a man when his role models where in Jail, just passing through, or un-interested in raising the two sons of criminals.

The struggle of Brad Jr. to become his own man is the weakness of a young man, but his strength is that of a man twice his years. Brad’s strength lays in the inherent need to protect his loved ones. To protect those abandoned by his father, and to prove to himself that he can be a reliable strong man to be loved and love his girlfriend Terry (Matherson) it is a Shakespearian love, tragic. He knew it from day one with a stolen glance and a shared smile that he would love Terry forever. Brad Jr’s relationship with Terry brings happiness and Joy to his life, but as the pendulum swings one way it so sways in the direct opposite and in Brad Jr’s chosen path no one is innocent of his crimes reach.

At Close Range is a little more than a typical crime family drama. Is it reinventing the Genre? No, not even close. But I would lie if I told you there weren’t some very tense moments. I felt tension, but ironically enough, it was only when Christopher Walken was on screen.

Christopher Walken put At Close Range in his pocket and ran all the way to the closing credits. Brad Whitewood Sr. is a man of pure evil that will burn his entire world to ashes just to maintain his perceived power. Walken made a common two bit thief of tractors and cars a terrifying force to be dealt with the care of a venomous snake.

I hold the opinion that At Close Range was a failed showcase for Sean Penn. With Sean Penn’s steady string of successful film roles this movie looked to perform stronger in the box office. Unfortunately for Sean Penn Christopher Walken’s performance cast a large shadow over Penn; that and his soon to be ex-wife Madonna scored her first #1 adult contemporary hit with the title track. Ouch!

I think that’s why At Close Range can be considered a found film, or maybe forgotten best describe this film. Not because it was terrible-melodramatic staccato pacing verging on the inane aesthetic of Michael Mann, but maybe because it was a reminder of what it was to be a media celebrity in 1986. Not known as a moving crime drama but a film overshadowed by the history of Sean Penn’s ego.

At Close Range is and was a compelling crime drama about two brothers trying to become men with the help of their vicious crime lord father.

No shit.

0 At Close Range (1986) Forgotten Walken Lore is not A Bore.
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