Review: BLADE RUNNER (R)

Harrison Ford hangs on in one of the more famous stills from "Blade Runner."

U.S. Release Date: June 25, 1982

Running Time: 116 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Sci-fi violence, sexual content, nudity)

Cast: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, Daryl Hannah, M. Emmet Walsh

Director: Ridley Scott

Producer: Michael Deeley

Screenplay: Hampton Fancher, David Peoples, based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 19, 2011

Over the past couple of decades or so, Ridley Scott’s legendary sci-fi noir Blade Runner has slowly gained in critical acclaim and popularity. It is now considered something of a masterpiece, and has somehow managed to acquire a rather sizable “cult” following. The American Film Institute added it to their “100 Years…. 100 Movies” list a few years ago, ranking it as the 97th greatest film ever made. But is it truly as grand as everyone says it is?

The movie stars Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, a “blade runner”. Blade runners are somewhat like police. They are hired to hunt down artificial human beings known as “replicants” and execute, or “retire”, them. At the beginning of the movie, Deckard is assigned to find a group of six replicants that have escaped from an off-world colony and are hiding out on Earth, in Los Angeles. The plot sounds interesting enough, right?

But it’s not. The concept is fascinating, the synopsis sounds intriguing, but it is not delivered correctly. The story is fairly flimsy. After what seems like a promising opening couple of minutes, Blade Runner falls into a mess of cheesiness, predictability, and, sometimes, absurdity.

Don’t let the futuristic setting fool you. Blade Runner only uses it as a backdrop for the issues that it tackles, such as society, acceptance, and religion. Consider the creations of Dr. Eldon Tyrell, like Roy Batty. He’s practically perfect but somehow still isn’t happy. He wants more. He wants to be immortal. Humans are never quite happy with themselves, even when they have everything going for them. They always want more. Blade Runner does a good job is presenting this message, saying that greed will usually get the better of us, but it does not go anywhere further with it. It’s messages only last for a brief few minutes and then they are spoken of no more.

Deckard may seem like he’s the main character here, but he’s not. Here, in Blade Runner, there really aren’t any main characters at all. Everything begins and ends on Deckard, but he’s out of the picture for a lot of the time. I mean, I guess he could be considered the “lead”, but that’s because there isn’t anyone else that has as much screen time as him. You get what I mean? Deckard doesn’t “feel” like a lead character should. Lead characters should be able to connect with their audience; Deckard doesn’t. He’s also one of the most two-dimensional characters I’ve ever seen in a movie.

And the pace that Blade Runner moves at is ridiculously slow. I realize that all of the “haters” out there always complain about the pacing, and the people who love Blade Runner always get so offended by it, but come on, guys. It’s boring. It’s slow. It nearly put me to sleep. Movies like this shouldn’t be so boring. I mean, at times, it got so dreary and dull that I couldn’t even concentrate. The only exciting part was that final climactic battle near the end, and that was just ridiculous. It resembled one of the boss matches that Solid Snake endures in the “Metal Gear Solid” franchise.

Now, I will say two good things about Blade Runner—- It does look pretty darn good. The production design and the art direction are something to behold, and I agree that they are highly influential in the science-fiction genre. The dark surroundings and rainy skies are very popular in modern sci-fi. Also, the cinematography is grand; smooth and sturdy. But does any of that make Blade Runner one of the greatest sci-fi flicks ever? Good God, no.

I’m not a “hater”. I don’t hate Blade Runner. I just think of it as highly overrated. It’s really not that special of a movie, and if there wasn’t so much critical acclaim surrounding it, I’d think it would be easily forgettable.

RATING: 2/4

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Review: DEAD MAN (R)

Johnny Depp in "Dead Man."


U.S. Release Date: May 10, 1996

Running Time: 121 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, sexual content, violence)

Cast: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, John Hurt, Billy Bob Thornton, Alfred Molina, Gabriel Byrne, Crispin Glover, Robert Mitchum, Michael Wincott, Lance Henriksen, Iggy Pop, Eugene Byrd

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Producer: Demetra J. MacBride

Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 19, 2011

Dead Man is a vastly uncompromising Western. It has all of the typical Western archetypes, yes, but the way in which it goes about them is extremely unorthodox.

The film is centered on a young Johnny Depp, who plays William Blake (not to be confused with the poet, although that will come into play later on). Blake is on his way to the town of Machine for a job that has been promised to him. On the train, he is warned that his grave awaits him in Machine. Of course, he pays no attention and only treats the warning with mild shock.

When he arrives, he is informed by the rifle-toting boss Mr. Dickinson (played by Robert Mitchum) that the job is no longer available. Depp, disgruntled and betrayed, leaves and heads to a bar. There, he meets a pretty girl (Mili Avital) and the two set off to her apartment to engage in sexual activities. But their fun is interrupted by an angry ex-boyfriend (Gabriel Byrne), who kills the girl and then is killed by Blake. Blake is wounded in the process and escapes through a nearby window, just before he collapses.

He awakes to an Indian named Nobody who believes him to be the real William Blake, the poet William Blake. Nobody takes Blake under his wing for a spiritual journey and awakening. Meanwhile, back at the ranch in Machine, the man that Blake killed happens to be Mr. Dickinson’s son. Dickinson learns that it was Blake that killed his son, most likely out of anger for the unavailable job, and hires a trio of bounty hunters to find and kill Blake.

Now, that’s where the plot actually begins. But it delves into much, much more. More than I can possible explain with words. Jim Jarmusch is a director that always has a purpose behind everything that he does, but here in “Dead Man”, I just can’t figure it out.

In fact, Dead Man is so unorthodox about the way that it goes about everything that I lost interest rapidly, more and more so as the film progressed. It turns into a wild and almost acid-like trip, but without the flamboyant colors that an LSD-trip would contain, as it is in black-and-white. So, it’s more like some weird lucid dream. I hated the look of the film in general. The cinematography was bland and uninteresting, the characters looked ridiculous, and the black-and-white was gritty and unappealing. I understand what Jarmusch is trying to do in defying the traditional laws of the Western film, but he took it too far. Dead Man is essentially a Western in drag–colorless drag, that is.

Of course, Depp is good in his lead role. He remains to be such a formidable actor and can mold quite well into any character that he portrays. I also liked Michael Wincott and Lance Henriksen in their bounty hunter roles. They had good chemistry and could be quite funny at times. As for the rest of the cast… Eh, not so much.

By saying this, I’m not saying that Jarmusch is an inept filmmaker. He’s had many a great film, but this is most definitely not one of them. I understand that this is probably considered as a “love it or hate it” film, and while I didn’t exactly hate it, I didn’t quite care for it.

RATING: 2/4

Review: PARANOID PARK (R)

Gabe Nevins in Gus Van Sant's "Paranoid Park."


U.S. Release Date:
March 7, 2008

Running Time: 85 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, sexual content, mature themes, a scene of violence)

Cast: Gabe Nevins, Taylor Momsen, Jake Miller, Daniel Liu, Lauren McKinney, Scott Patrick Green, John Burrowes

Director: Gus Van Sant

Producers: Charles Gilbert, Neil Kopp

Screenplay: Gus Van Sant, based on the novel by Blake Nelson

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 17, 2011

In terms of pure filmmaking, Gus Van Sant is a true innovator, and while his films may not always be the most “exciting” films out there, there’s no denying the art in them. Recently, the word most often associated with Van Sant is “pretentious”. Is it justified? In a way, yes.

Paranoid Park is centered on Alex (Gabe Nevins), a teenage skateboarder who isn’t always agreeable with the world and his surroundings. He has a couple of friends, but he’s not really close with any of them. He’s quiet in nature and enjoys being by himself. His girlfriend only wants him for sex, and while he doesn’t mind it, he’s not all too interested in her.

Alex and his friend Jared (Jake Miller) decide to visit a local hangout spot for skateboarders called Paranoid Park. It’s a popular topic of conversation for most teen skaters, but most are unwilling to go there. Only the most skilled skaters dare to show off their skills at Paranoid Park. Alex doesn’t really skate. He just watches, with a sort of awe.

Well, on Saturday, Alex and Jared decided to re-visit Paranoid Park. Jared can’t make it. He’s got other plans. So Alex goes alone. Once there, he takes a seat on his skateboard and begins to watch. A small group of junkies see him, invite him to go out with them, and a terrible accident occurs.

Alex and one of the junkies decide to hope on a freight train and go riding. A security guard spots them, tries to get them off, but Alex, acting on instinct, defends himself. He doesn’t mean any harm; he just wants the guard away from them. It doesn’t go well; the guard is killed and Alex and the junkie flee the scene. Since the story is told in non-linear format, we get bits and pieces of what happened. It’s not until about halfway through that everything is uncovered. But it’s not much of a surprise.

What makes Paranoid Park such a good film is that it defies the original way to tell a story. Most of the film consists of extended tracking shots, stock footage of people skateboarding, and quiet scenes where not much happens. In reality, if all of the unnecessary footage was to be deleted, I doubt that “Paranoid Park” would be longer that fifty minutes.

Now, this is where people get off on calling Van Sant “pretentious”. You see, I don’t think so. Sure, the scenes where we track Alex from behind as he walks down a sandy path could be deemed as “pointless” and “Van Sant is only trying to waste time because he doesn’t have a story to tell”, but I don’t think that’s true. These shots give the viewer more time to soak in the image and think about what they’re seeing, instead of the harsh and crude cuts in a Michael Bay film where we barely know what the hell is going on.

Maybe Van Sant likes paying close attention to detail. If you asked me, I’d say that he loves real life. It fascinates him. Problem is that it doesn’t fascinate everybody else. It makes the movie feel thirty minutes longer than it should and that just kills some people.

Sure, the ending is abrupt and obscure, but I like Paranoid Park. It’s original and boldly goes where most films wouldn’t. Does Van Sant care if he bores you? Probably not.

The cinematography by Christopher Doyle is marvelous. Simply stunning. The camera will just drift in, shifting in and out of focus. And the performances from the actors are great, despite how unknown they are. It’s nice not to have such a well-known cast. You don’t expect as much, so you’re surprised when they’re actually pretty good. Don’t let the rumors turn you away. If artsy films aren’t your cup of tea, then skip this one. But if they are, this is a must-see.

RATING: 3/4

Review: SAFE MEN (R)

Steve Zahn and Sam Rockwell are a pair of bumbling and inept safecrackers in "Safe Men."

U.S. Release Date: August 7, 1998

Running Time: 1998 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language)

Cast: Steve Zahn, Sam Rockwell, Mark Ruffalo, Josh Pais, Paul Giamatti, Michael Lerner, Christina Kirk

Director: John Hamburg

Producer: Ellen Bronfman

Screenplay: John Hamburg

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 16, 2011

Despite all of the “blah” moments that it has, Safe Men is charming — in a mentally-ill sort of way. There will be parts of it that you’ll like, parts of it that you won’t, and parts of it where you’ll laugh your ass off.

It stars a young Sam Rockwell and Steve Zahn as a pair of untalented singers, named Sam and Eddie. They go from club to club, performing badly-played and badly-sung renditions of songs.

Well, in a case of mistaken identity, they are mistook by a tool named Veal Chop (Paul Giamatti) as a pair of expert safe crackers, or “safe men”, and asked to break into a very important safe. They deny it at first, but realize how much money is at stake and agree. So, they break in, but are soon caught by “Big Fat” Bernie Gayle, a local Jewish mob boss and owner of the house they are robbing. After all the confusion is sorted out, Sam and Eddie discover that Veal Chop set them up and is in league with “Big Fat”. And in order for them to live, they have rob a trio of houses. Problem is they don’t know how.

Safe Men juggles several different kinds of things at once, but doesn’t do any of them very well. It doesn’t do any of them bad; just not very well. At the very least, it’s mediocre.

It’s very funny, if you’re into that whole Napoleon Dynamite kind of off-brand humor. Michael Lerner is hilarious as “Big Fat” Bernie Gayle, who takes the title of “Big Fat” as a compliment. Giamatti, as well, is funny. The story is fairly predictable. It does take a couple of twists and turns, but in all the ways you’d expect. It sort of meanders for the first hour, then the real plot kicks in, but it’s gone in ten minutes. So, for the most part, you’re stuck following around characters who aren’t so likable.

Rockwell and Zahn bring nothing to the table. Practically any actor could have pulled the characters of Sam and Eddie, and the probably could have done it. But that’s only because there isn’t much depth to any character in Safe Men. Is that really so bad? Here, I don’t think so because any depth would be unnecessary. This movie isn’t about its characters, rather the situations they get involved in.

To tell you the truth, I didn’t have a problem with it. It was original enough to keep me interested and funny enough to make me laugh, so I found it pretty enjoyable. It sure won’t appeal to everyone’s taste, but is it a bad movie? No. But it’s not a real good one either. Its just decent, mildly entertaining, and in the end, harmless.

RATING: 2.5/4

Review: CRIMINAL (R)

Diego Luna and John C. Reilly.

U.S. Release Date: September 10, 2004

Running Time: 87 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, sexual content)

Cast: John C. Reilly, Diego Luna, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Mullan, Maeve Quinlan, Jonathan Tucker, Ellen Geer

Director: Gregory Jacobs

Producer: Gregory Jacobs, George Clooney, Steven Soderbergh

Screenplay: Gregory Jacobs, based on the film Nine Queens

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 12, 2011

You don’t ever put your faith in a guy like Richard Gaddis. He’s as slimy as they come, both as a person and as a criminal. He’s constantly thinking up ways to get what he wants, no matter how much double-crossing he has to do. Sounds like a pretty bad guy, right? Well, in his line of business, being bad isn’t always such a bad thing.

Criminal is about gambling, cheating, stealing and lying, and it deals with a character that practices the latter three like they’re almost his hobbies. His name is Richard Gaddis, and he’s that smooth-talking con man from the first paragraph.

Now, Gaddis is all about personal appearance. To him, it’s the name of the game. In order to be convincing, one must look like a professional, and that requires being well-dressed. Gaddis may wear a nice suit and drive a nice car, but he’s really not much underneath it all. Does that matter? Of course not! It’s what you look like on the outside that matters.

The story begins in a casino on Rodrigo, a small-time crook playing a couple of con games of his own. He gets away with the first con, but is caught red-handed when he tries a second time. Security is called. Gaddis, at the bar, sees the commotion and hurries over to Rodrigo, posing as a cop. He clears it up security, flashing a badge, then escorts Rodrigo out to his car. Once at the car, he reveals to Rodrigo his true identity and invites him to be his partner on an upcoming scam.

From there, the story takes it usual turns, but adds in a couple of twists of its own. There are the assorted cons and tricks that you’d expect this kind of movie to have, but, surprisingly, they’re fairly original and somewhat plausible. Often enough, I wondered to myself, “Hey, I bet I could pull that off.”

One real great thing on display here is the lead performance from John C. Reilly. More than often, people refer to him as “the funny guy next to Will Ferrell.” What a disappointment. Reilly is such an underrated actor, and is almost always never given as much credit as he deserves. I, for one, think that he’s fantastic. He always manages to give his characters such depth and personality. Here in Criminal, he creates a character that is so unlikable that we actually pity him, and by the end, when we finally see how much of a sleazebag he is, we feel sorry for him.

People have said that Criminal doesn’t compare at all to the film that it’s based on, Nine Queens. For a lot of them, that’s their reasoning for giving it a negative review. I say, who cares? What if you haven’t seen the original? And since when does the caliber of a remake depend on how alike it is to the original, especially if the original is a foreign film? Appreciate it for what it is.

RATING: 3/4

Review: THE KILLING (UR)

Sterling Hayden as Johnny Clay in Stanley Kubrick's classic film noir, "The Killing."

U.S. Release Date: May 20, 1956

Running Time: 83 minutes

MPAA Classification: UR (Violence)

Cast: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Jay C. Flippen, Elisha Cook, Jr., Marie Windsor, Timothy Carey

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Producer: James B. Harris

Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick, Jim Thompson, based on the novel Clean Break by Lionel White

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 10, 2011

Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing is a fine example of classic crime. It’s short, sweet, and to the point, but entertaining and well-acted.

The plot entails a heist that is carried out by a group of criminals. It is led by Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), who plans to carry out the heist and then settle down and get married. He gets a couple of other men involved and before long, the heist is ready to happen.

Where it takes a place is at the race track, which is a rather ingenious place to carry out  a heist, if you think about. The constant betting and large amounts of money make it perfect for being robbed. Most of the men involved in the heist work at the race track, so it’s logical that that’s why Clay hired them in the first place.

The Killing is brilliant in its own way. Many get turned off by older films. Since most post-1960 films aren’t very relative nowadays, they can’t catch the interest of most people. Well, The Killing is actually surprisingly modern for our time. And it’s very thrilling. From about twenty minutes in to that final memorable shot, you’re hooked, tense to know what happens next. Not many films can manage to do that.

Also, The Killing has some very true-to-life characters. Kubrick gives them some specified depth and you can almost connect to them in a rather emotional way, such as why they’re going to carry out with the robbery. Money can be such a powerful motive, and a hard one to overlook when there’s so much of it.

The final scene at the airport has to be one of the greatest scenes of all time: the dog barking, the money floating in the wind, the expressionless faces. All such iconic images. I wonder, whatever happened to class in the cinema? It seems to have all disappeared.

Of course, this film is undoubtedly legendary because of its director, but don’t look at it in that respect. Look at it not because of who made it, but because of what it is: a thoroughly entertaining thriller.

RATING: 3/4

Review: BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET (R)

Joe Morton as the Brother from another planet.

U.S. Release Date: September 7, 1984

Running Time: 104 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, brief nudity, drugs)

Cast: Joe Morton, Daryl Edwards, Steve James, Leonard Jackson, Minnie Gentry, Bill Cobbs, Tom Wright, David Strathairn, John Sayles

Director: John Sayles

Producers: Peggy Rajski, Maggie Renzi

Screenplay: John Sayles

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 10, 2011

I suspect that many will be discouraged to watch Brother From Another Planet simply because of the movie’s premise and title. Hell, that’s mostly what I go on when deciding what movie to watch. But I took a chance on this one and I wasn’t disappointed at all.

Joe Morton plays The Brother, who is essentially a walking metaphor. That much you can pick up on from about ten minutes in. The Brother looks like your average black man, but comes from outer-space.  He’s dressed in rags and roams the city, not quite sure what to do. Now, this is a hard act for Morton. He’s the good guy here and despite his stoic nature, you learn to like him. His character doesn’t say a single word throughout the entire film. Instead, his emotions are displayed solely through actions. Can you think of a more challenging character to play than that? I should think not.

The rest of the plot doesn’t concern much else. We follow The Brother as he adjusts to modern American life and human sin. He starts out by being looked down on by society but slowly becomes more Messiah-like. What is it exactly that he represents? Does he represent the slavery of the African-American race? Or does he literally represent an alien, in the most terrestrial sense of the word?

I didn’t have many problems with Brother From Another Planet. The camerawork was nice and it had a handful of great scenes. The biggest fault I could find was that it got a little bit more preposterous as it went along, but that’s not that big of a deal. By the way, did you know that John Sayles financed this movie with his MacArthur Fellows ‘genius’ grant? Did you know that he was one of a very few to be selected for that award? I sure didn’t and I find that to be pretty impressive.

Brother From Another Planet uses many themes and motifs to get its point across. Most of them deal with The Brother and his quest. He becomes involved with the trials and tribulations that most other humans face. He is faced with the epitome of human desecration: drugs. How does he react to them? He tries them, sees how harmful they can be, and tries to put a stop to them.

Brother From Another Planet is not an important film or one that should even be sought out. But it’s clever, well-made, and well-written, and if you have the time to watch a good movie, you’ve got my recommendation.

RATING: 3/4