crime

“Going in Style” (2017) Review

What do you get when you cross Tower Heist, that guy from Scrubs, and three Best Supporting Actor Oscar winners?  The answer is: something that should be amazing, but sucks in execution.

Going in Style (2017) is directed by Zach Braff and written by Theodore Melfi.  Stars-Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin, Matt Dillion, Christopher Lloyd, Joey King, and Ann-Margaret.  Premise-After losing their pensions because of “generic Evil Corporation #9001,” three retirees decide to rob a bank to get their money back.

Apparently this movie is a remake of the 1979 Martin Brest film of the same name.  Whatever.  Either way, this movie is underwhelming.  Allow me to weep for the crappy few weeks we’ve had in film.  At this point, all I can hope for is entertainment without the stupidity or half-heartedness (this is why I chose Going in Style to review).  The actors know they aren’t winning any Oscars for this movie, but at the very least they could provide some decent humor.  Alright, alright.  Let’s get down to business.

If you are 90% of humanity, then you are only interested because of the ensemble cast (as if they alone can save this crap script).  To their credit, Freeman, Caine, and Arkin work really well off each other.  No one in this movie delivers laugh-out-loud jokes, but these guys are at least funny.  That cannot be said for the supporting cast, who are either one-note clichés, pitiful cameos, or annoying stereotypes (poor Christopher Lloyd).

Despite being 90 minutes long, Going in Style is as slow as a 70 year old man taking a piss.  If you giggled (or groaned, it doesn’t matter) at that rather offensive joke, then you will have gained the maximum amount of laughs Going in Style will give you.  If you watch the movie on DVD, take a shot every time a joke boils down to “ha ha, old people!”  By the halfway point, you’ll be more drunk than Melfi was when he wrote the screenplay.  Not to hate on the guy, but the fact that the writer of Hidden Figures (a movie about breaking stereotypes and preaching against prejudice) followed it up with a comedy built on stereotypes and a fair amount of racist jokes is hilarious.

I’d be nicer to the movie if it had an original bone in its body.  Aside from being an unnecessary remake, the plot is stolen from Tower Heist and Hell or High Water: the former is funnier, and the latter is more realistic.  Going in Style tries to be a hybrid of sympathetic drama and causal comedy.  Sadly, the drama is manufactured and the humor is lazy.  The climax acts all smart and emotional, but it’s actually very stupid and clichéd.  That sums up the movie perfectly, stupid and clichéd.

Despite all that I have said, there is an audience for this movie.  I know this because the 50+ year old people in my auditorium were having a great time (albeit extremely loud and obnoxiously).  If you can make it past the clichés and poor pacing (provided you are not a millennial), then you might enjoy yourself.  And hey, my experience wasn’t all bad; I discovered that my theater has some dang good sweet tea.  Going in Style gets Guy’s Guru Grade of a C-.

“Inferno” Review, Books vs. Movies, and The Robert Langdon Series

Prepare to be ripped apart you pathetic excuses for adaptations!  Back in February of 2016, I watched The Da Vinci Code on Netflix for no particular reason.  By the time it was over, my “Confusion-o-Meter” was off the charts.  I knew it was an adaptation (one with some interesting ideas), so I got my hands on the original novel by Dan Brown and gave it a shot.  Wow.  I couldn’t put that book down!  Interesting characters, great suspense, and a spiritual setting unlike any I’ve seen in a novel (the epilogue still gives me the chills).  What followed was a marathon of reading both the books in the series and watching their film adaptations.  I wanted to write this thing when the Inferno movie was released in theaters last year, but I hadn’t finished the book, and Ron Howard was NOT going to ruin another one of these incredible endings for me!  I finally got a copy and watched it… oh my gosh.  Had I seen it in time, this pile of cinematic waste would rank pretty dang high on my Top Ten Worst Movies of 2016 list.

Anyway, today we are doing something special.  In addition to reviewing Inferno, I’m going to throw my twenty-two cents (inflation) into the hat on the “books vs. movies” debate, as well as Dan Brown’s controversial books.  It’s gonna be awhile, so strap in and grab your popcorn because this is going to be a very emotional experience.

Inferno is directed by Ron Howard and written by David Koepp.  Stars-Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Ben Foster, and Irfan Khan.  Premise-After waking up in a hospital, with amnesia, in Italy, Professor Robert Langdon must elude a secret service agency whilst trying to recall what he was doing before he lost his memory.  All he knows is that whatever he was doing was worth a billionaire’s suicide, a strangely curious doctor’s assistance, and the lives of billions.

This is going to be a spoiler-filled hybrid review, but I am going to avoid spoiling the books as much as possible because you should read them regardless of how badly the movies basterdize them.  That said, they changed the second half of Inferno so much that you’d swear they adapted a different book!  The very first scene is only the beginning of the torrent of crappyness we are about to be subjected to.  Billionaire geneticist Bertrand Zobrist (Foster) is being chased through the city of Florence, Italy (in a very poorly shot chase scene).  When he is cornered atop a tower, Zobrist intentionally falls off to his death.  We then cut to Langdon in a hospital where he is experiencing migraines and memory flashes.  Doctor Sienna Brooks (Jones) informs him that he was shot in the head and left with amnesia from the bullet (which grazed his skull).  After an assassin shows up (obviously for Robert) and shoots a supervising doctor, Brooks helps Langdon escape the hospital.

This brings me to my first of far too many issues with Inferno; Robert Langdon is a freaking moron!  Never once does he question why a seemingly random doctor keeps helping him on his quest to find out why he’s being hunted.  I can buy her taking him out of harm’s way, but she takes him to her apartment, gives him some clothes (that fit too perfectly), and when he produces a biotube from his bag she helps him decipher it.  At some point, any human with half a wit would ask, “Why the heck are you joining me on this quest across Europe to find a secret cave?  Especially when I’m being pursued by secret service agents, and my only lead is a map of Dante’s Inferno (the first third of poet Dante Alighieri’s ‘The Divine Comedy’)?”  In case you’re wondering, amnesia doesn’t take away the ability to ask basic questions.

Robert Langdon may not be a superhero, or a historical revolutionary, but he is one of my favorite literary protagonists.  I’m not saying anything groundbreaking when I say that Brown’s novels demand quite a lot of suspension of disbelief, as well as faith and focus.  There are MAAAAANY people who dislike these stories because of their “impossible premises.”  Either that or easily enraged immature audiences who claim these books are “anti-religious propaganda” or that all seculars/atheists are idiots.  Both of these arguments are ridiculous and invalidated by Langdon alone.  He is a Harvard symbology professor with an incredibly likable personality.  As you would expect, he’s a bit of a skeptic.  Not against the idea of religion, but his intellectual mind doesn’t “allow” him to believe in such things (if you want to hear some mind-blowing debate on science vs. God, read Angels & Demons).  A quote from Langdon himself, “Faith is a gift that I have yet to receive.”  It is Langdon’s down-to-earth views that make him an excellent character to follow on these, admittedly improbable, adventures.  He’s kinda like Dan Fogler in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, only Langdon is brought along because he can decipher cryptic clues and, well, he is the central hero.  The books are worth reading purely for this well-written character.

Back to Inferno, we get some *ahem* “disturbing” imagery that is taken right out of Dante’s Map of Hell.  Only problem is, they CGI’d the heck out of it, and the result looks horrible!  If the crazy editing wasn’t annoying enough, we get at least a dozen mini-flashbacks from Langdon’s fragmented memory.  Half of those flashbacks contain these ugly looking effects that come right the heck out of nowhere.  Despite how bad What Dreams May Come is; at the very least they nailed the set design and visuals.  Inferno looks cheap as heck.  I considered going through as much of the story as possible, but then I realized that most of it was pure exposition.  That’s another problem; this movie treats its audience like children.  In addition to dialogue that only exists to explain the plot, there are a few instances where text on the screen will be spoken by a character. As if to say, “We [the filmmakers] don’t think you have the brain capacity to read, or recall information.  Have a nice day, and thanks for your money, we’ll use it to fund the remake of To Kill a Mockingbird starring Dwayne Johnson.”  While I would be satisfied with giving this film two “birds,” I’d like to point out that these novels are not for younger audiences.  If the religious and historical themes aren’t enough, we also have issues like international terrorism, insanity, and mass genocide in the plot!  In addition, this movie was directed by the guy who made: Parenthood, Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon, and A Beautiful Mind (which won him two Oscars!).  Each of these dealt with adult themes and complex issues with grace and maturity, you’d think he could use some of the ol’ talent with a series that he apparently loves.  The final nail in the proverbial coffin would be the writer, David Koepp who penned: Snake Eyes, Spider-Man, Mission: Impossible, Premium Rush, and Jurassic Park!  You’d think he could craft an entertaining thriller!

If you were wondering why they didn’t adapt The Lost Symbol book before Inferno, then ask Ron Howard who replied with, “We didn’t know how to make something that would really feel fresh and exciting, on a cinematic level for audiences.”  I don’t buy that.  You guys adapted the first two, why was The Lost Symbol so difficult?  Also, you’re one of Hollywood’s most famous/best actors-turned-directors.  Your movies have collectively grossed over 3.3 billion dollars, and you beat Peter Jackson, Robert Altman, Ridley Scott, and David Lynch for Best Director.  I’m pretty sure you can take on a historical thriller set in Washington D.C.  Barring that, we all know the real reason why they skipped The Lost Symbol, it wasn’t as big of a success as the previous two books.  There is no amount of well-researched rhetoric that can convince me that the producers weren’t drooling over the sales of The Da Vinci Code in theaters (as it was #1 in the box office opening weekend and made over $700 million worldwide).  What I am saying is, Howard, you’re better than this.

Inferno reeks of laziness.  I don’t know how they managed to convolute the plot even more than they did with The Da Vinci Code.  That movie’s biggest problem was how boring it was.  Angels & Demons’ biggest problem was how forgettable it was.  Inferno’s biggest problem is EVERYTHING.  Ron Howard’s only Razzie nomination was for The Da Vinci Code (in all seriousness, the lackluster direction led to most of the issues), but the amount of failure present in Inferno rivals that of Miracles from Heaven.  If you want a perfect example, Langdon’s amnesia is wildly inconsistent.  In two separate scenes, Langdon states that he cannot remember his middle name, and what coffee is (it is explicitly stated that his memory is short-term, those two things should not be affected).  All this does is embarrass Tom Hanks, who has to spend most of the movie with this ridiculous expression on his face (and needs to fire his agent).  The performances can’t save this picture either.  Hanks is stumbling his way through every scene (at least they got rid of his stupid haircut from the first two films), Foster doesn’t have enough screentime to shine, and Jones is atrocious!  Again, Howard’s direction was probably a hindrance on the set rather than a help because these actors are not trying.

In keeping with being unfaithful to the source material, literally NONE of the characters are the same as they are in the novel.  I’d use that old critic saying, “I know it’s an adaptation, obviously some things have to be changed” but that is both obvious and kinda giving the filmmakers an excuse to change something that’s already perfect.  I will admit that these particular books would be difficult to adapt to the big screen, but that’s why you have to try.  Especially if these are not studio mandated projects as Howard claims.  The movie has no concept of logic or pacing.  It’s even more difficult to get pacing right in books because everyone reads at their own pace as opposed to everyone watching the same screen in real time.  While the adaptations of Angels & Demons and Inferno are mercifully fast-paced, they cut out the best things in each book.  With Angels & Demons, they took away all the great humor and character moments, neutered the villain, and brushed over the incredible religious/political/scientific/cultural commentary.  In the case of Inferno, it barely resembles the novel.  Let’s get back to the movie.

After completely cutting out one of the most suspenseful scenes in the book and replacing it with, “Hey look, there’s the way out,” Langdon and Brooks learn what is going on.  To sum it up: Zobrist was a transhumanist, someone who believes that humans can evolve through the use of technology, who’s strongest belief was that the human race will destroy itself if overpopulation continues to inflate.  After being ignored by the world’s top scientific minds (and most of the public), Zobrist went into hiding through the use of an organization called The Consortium.   After committing suicide, he left cryptic clues as to where his genetically created “inferno” (that he states will solve the humanity problem for good) is located.  Yes, we have yet another bad guy who hates humans and whose master plan is to kill a bunch of ’em (you may recall this unique-but-tired plot in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or Kingsman: The Secret Service).  This isn’t the movie’s fault-just like the fact that it’s an amnesia storyline-the book used these clichés first.  Despite that, the movie made some major deviations from the character arcs.  The climax particularly is beyond infuriating, especially to someone who loves the novels.

You see, Sienna Brooks was apparently Zobrist’s lover, and she has been leading Robert on the whole trip so she could ensure his device will be undisturbed.  She betrays him back in Italy and he is captured by his pursuers.  These enemies turn out to be an organization (that I’m not going to spoil) that denounced Zobrist’s overpopulation concerns.  They quickly explain why they were after him, and what is at stake.  An hour of exposition later, they fly to Istanbul where Zobrist’s “inferno” is going to be released, the Basilica Cistern specifically, which would make a great breeding ground for a deadly plague. After a horribly choreographed fight scene involving Irfan Khan (director of The Consortium), 2 random stuntmen henchmen, and Felicity Jones phoning it in (which is hilarious because her character is a thespian in the book), Brooks pulls the pin on a grenade in an attempt to rupture the bag that “inferno” is contained in.  She kills herself in the process and fails to release the plague.  Oh boy, time to go on a rant!

First of all, Sienna does not kill herself in the book, nor is “inferno” a plague.  Of all the characters in the movie, she was the one they changed the most.  In the book, she is: calculated, sympathetic, extremely resourceful, quick-thinking, blonde, and a great character.  In the film, she’s: a brunette, doesn’t contribute much, and everything interesting about her was completely written-out.  Considering that 2016 was the year of the feminist agenda, I’m amazed that so little fuss was made over the butchering of Sienna Brooks’ character.  It could have something to do with the pitiful $34 million it made domestically, but still.  Inferno isn’t the best book in the series, but it has the best female protagonist out of them.  Pretty much all the intelligence and maturity from the book was replaced with cheap thrills and action movie clichés that is the intellectual equivalent to junk food for the mind.  When you read the climax of the novel, it will leave you speechless.  It’s so monumental that it will take a few minutes for your mind to process it.  Ok, I can’t take any more, let’s wrap this up.

Typically, when one reviews an adaptation, they cannot compare it to the original source material.  An adaptation can be reviewed by someone who has seen the original, and someone who has not seen the original.  The only difference is opinion.  I wanted to write this because these great literary works have been thoroughly ruined 3 times too many.  The only thing that remained decent in all three films is Hans Zimmer’s music (for reference, listen to the buildup in this, the intensity of this, and the mystery of this) which provided me with a much needed reminder that even the worst films can contain a diamond in the rough.  When all is over and done with, the sacred novels are still here, and still awesome.  But for now, Inferno gets Guy’s Guru Grade of an F.

This was the first of many projects I have planned for 2017.  Yep, the fun/experimentation didn’t stop with Brian De Palma Month, we have many more to go.  Comment and tell me what you thought of this post.  Or say nothing and let me pretend that I did a good job.  Thank you.

The Robert Langdon Series Ranked

Angels & Demons (2000 Novel)-A+

A perfect mix of action, science, historical art, religious commentary, character, humor, and pacing make this book one of the best I have ever read.  It remains timeless/relevant to this day, and I recommend that everyone should read it.  Also, the villains in Angels & Demons are frighteningly effective.

The Da Vinci Code (2003 Novel)-A-

It’s more subtle (i.e. slower and more detailed) than Angels & Demons, but still thrilling and creative.

The Da Vinci Code (2006 Film)-D

This movie is ungodly boring!  The (seemingly perfect) cast is wasted, the screenplay is lifeless, and it’s shot like garbage.

Angels & Demons (2009 Film)-C-

The only reason this movie is better than the predecessor is the faster pace.  Otherwise, the villains are underdeveloped, the suspense is weak, and the commentary is ground-level easy.

The Lost Symbol (2009 Novel)-B-

Removing the religious elements from this one lowered the stakes/interest, but on its own, The Lost Symbol is a decent mystery that takes full advantage of the setting, (and a shocking twist).

Inferno (2013 Novel)-A-

The amnesia cliché and pre-established formula hold it back, but the urgency, art references, and amazing ending make it more than just a simple action thriller.

Inferno (2016 Film)-F

Did you not read the review?

My Thoughts On: “John Wick: Chapter 2”

I hope you’re prepared for nerdgasming, because this post is going to be little more than a neon sign flashing, “GO SEE THIS AWESOME MOVIE RIGHT NOW!!!”  It is rare to come across a sequel that one-ups its predecessor, and when that happens, it is truly a sight to behold.

Stuntman/director Chad Stahelski (who also directed the first film) returns with even more visual style and intense fight sequences to boot.  I cannot understate how incredible these action scenes are!  This is due to: brutal R-rated hand-to-hand combat, impeccable stunts, camerawork that doesn’t cut or shake around, and sound mixing that packs more punches than the characters do.  The violence in this movie is akin to that of a 90s action flick without the cheesiness or over-the-top setting.  Many people will disagree with me on that aspect, but John Wick 2 makes a great effort to validate the 100+ body count (among other improbabilities).  When characters hear “John Wick,” they shudder in fear or, if he’s in their presence, treat him with respect rivaling that of Pope Francis.  He’s one of the best assassins the crime underworld has ever seen.  It would only make sense that people fear him.

Speaking of crime underworld, John Wick 2 has a stronger story than the first.  I always thought the dog’s death was a flimsy motivation, and they remedied that by expanding the incredibly interesting criminal world in this movie.  We got hints of this in the first movie, like the cleaning service, golden coins, and the hotel.  Hey wait, I just figured it out!  Literally as I write this review, it dawned on me.  They intentionally teased at the underworld in the first movie so the audience would gain interest for future installments.  Do you know what that means?  A franchise film released in the last seven years didn’t beat you over the head with sequel-baiting exposition!  Excuse me, I must sob with joy.

The narrative may not be as solid for some (although the motivations in this movie are logical).  Come to think of it, the runtime is too long, and the characters are slightly generic.  But for what John Wick 2is, I wasn’t expecting Inception, just some kick-a** thrills and Keanu Reeves proving that he can act.  John Wick: Chapter 2 gets Guy’s Guru Grade of an A-.

Brian De Palma Month: “Dressed to Kill” (FINALE)

The purpose of this series was for me to analyze the movies of one of the most influential directors of the New Hollywood Generation (which Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and John Carpenter are also a part of), and for you to enjoy my findings.  What sparked this idea was Dressed to Kill, an erotic thriller that delivers a disturbingly tense experience.  I watched this movie on Christmas Day on a whim.  I had my bowl of Chinese chicken wings, relaxed into the plush chair, and hit “Play.”  What followed was some of the best filmmaking I have ever come across in an independent production.  The Untouchables might be my favorite movie from him, Mission: Impossible might be his highest-grossing picture, and Scarface (1983) might be his most iconic work, but I firmly believe Dressed to Kill is the best thing in his resume.   I’ve been aching to write this since I reviewed Snake Eyes, so let’s get ‘er goin’!

Dressed to Kill is written and directed by Brian De Palma.  Stars-Michael Caine, Nancy Allen, Angie Dickson, Keith Gordon, and Dennis Franz.  Premise-A call girl (Allen) is hunted by a mysterious blond woman after watching her murder a patient of psychiatrist Dr. Robert Elliot (Caine).  Quick Disclaimer: I can’t go into too much detail because this screenplay is a mystery that could easily be spoiled.

When people think “Brian De Palma,” Dressed to Kill is one of the first responses they get.  No other movie from him is as stylistically pleasing, violent, or as tense as Dressed to Kill.  In fact, this extraordinary example of visual storytelling is in the Criterion Collection (one of three De Palma films to do this).

Don’t let those undeserved Razzie nominations (Worst Director, Worst Actor-Caine, and Worst Actress-Allen) give you the wrong impression of this film.  Dressed to Kill is a wild ride with no way off, and the actors are fully committed to their characters.  Michael Caine is excellent as Dr. Elliot.  He has to figure out why his patient was murdered and still remains intriguingly professional (as the movie goes on, he gets much better), Angie Dickson (playing a sexually frustrated housewife/mother) is incredibly authentic, and Allen (who was De Palma’s wife at the time) is a very likable protagonist.  There are scenes where she is being harassed, chased, interrogated, and psychologically examined.  She works well in pretty much every scenario (even the one where she has to seduce someone).  The supporting cast is just as entertaining (Keith Gordon’s career was greatly helped by this movie); Dennis Franz somehow made the “disbelieving cop with a Chicagoan accent” funny.

One of the biggest complaints naysayers of this particular director bring up is his use of brutal violence.  Advocates of the former should refer to this enlightening video.  I cannot stress how stylistically intense this movie is.  It does bare more than one resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (of which Brian De Palma was greatly inspired), and that could have easily resulted in a cheap rip-off.  The writing of Dressed to Kill not only knows what was effective, but why it was effective.  Through a combination of De Palma’s signature split-screens, tracking shots, and Dutch angles, a chilling score from Pino Donaggio (which rivals that of Ennio Morricone’s The Thing soundtrack), and thrilling sequences (most notably the subway chase and museum scene) make Dressed to Kill practically a spiritual successor to the works of Hitchcock.  This movie is never boring.  The mystery has many layers to it and the character interactions can leave you more informed or more confused.  Either way, the psychological terror is palpable.  I had other plans that night, but I could not take my eyes off the screen, I simply had to see what would happen.

My issues with the movie are extremely few.  There is a dream sequence (a la Carrie) that was unnecessary, but it was cool to watch so I’ll give it a pass.  Also, there is a twist of sorts.  Some people can probably predict it, but you’re talking to the guy who couldn’t guess the twist of The Visit or The Village, so take it how you will.  Dressed to Kill is an experience.  It is nothing more than a stylish thriller, but it does its job so dang well.

If you have taken anything from this little series of mine, it’s that I thoroughly love this artist’s work and I have a great amount of respect for what he has accomplished.  Yes, he made bad movies (any director who’s been working for over 50 years would), but those mistakes are overshadowed by a mountain of entertaining, influential, suspenseful, star-powered, iconic pieces of cinema.  There were so many other fine options I had for this series: the powerfully acted Carlito’s Way, the “filmmaker’s film” Blow Out, the dramatic Casualties of War, De Palma’s breakout film Sisters, and so many more.  When asked in an interview if he was proud of his career, De Palma replied, “To be in my age and to be still making movies, absolutely.”  Dressed to Kill gets Guy’s Guru Grade of an A.

De Palma, if you are reading this, thank you so much for reshaping the industry, and inspiring this lover of film.

Brian De Palma Month: “Passion”

As this series nears its end, I had to choose only two more movies to review for it.  Obviously the final one will be the movie that inspired me to do this series, and the second one should be De Palma’s latest film.  After a quick scroll through his IMDb page, I found that film.

Passion is directed by Brian De Palma and written by Brian De Palma and Natalie Carter.  Stars-Noomi Rapace, Rachael McAdams, Karoline Herfurth, and Paul Anderson.  Premise-Based on the 2010 film, Love Crime (which I haven’t seen), Passion follows a sales associate (McAdams) and her assistant (Rapace).  When her boss steals her idea, what follows is a very confusing path of lies, backstabbing, and murder.

No, the main reason I wanted to review this movie is not to watch Rapace and McAdams make out (believe it or not, that was a major aspect of this movie’s marketing).  The sad thing is that many would consider that to be the best thing about this movie.  I wanted to review Passion (God knows why they named it that) because De Palma is directing a new movie.  This guy has been persisting for decades, and I wanted to see how much better or worse his career became over time.  As I said in the Mission to Mars review, he never recovered after that bomb.

The very first shot implicitly tells us the overall feeling of the film: unexplained and confusing.  With some directors (John Carpenter, Stanley Kubrick, Brian De Palma, etc.) they make better movies if they also write the script.  Unfortunately, the screenplay of this movie is beyond incoherent.  In the first scene, we see the two main characters with absolutely no introduction for 5 minutes.  Only after some painfully obvious exposition do we learn who they are.  The plot gets more and more convoluted bloated complicated as it goes on, but unlike that of Inception, Shutter Island, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, this movie goes for the Sucker Punch route (needlessly bloated).  The characters are extremely bland (their dialogue is even worse), there are 5+ underdeveloped subplots, and the last 10 minutes (while kinda tense) have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie.

This movie was not produced by any major companies.  According to Wikipedia, they had a $25 million budget, and this is why we don’t trust Wikipedia.  This movie does not deliver on the production quality.  It could be that I recently reviewed The Untouchables (a movie with impeccable production design) for this series, but Passion has all the stylistic appeal of a no-budget short film.  The worst offender is a horribly shoddy blood effect that happens during one of this movie’s THREE confusing dream sequences.  Batman v Superman (that movie that was nominated for all the Razzies) had better dream sequences because it told me what was a dream and what was real.  Passion never makes it clear what parts of these sequences are real, so when the movie is over, you’re left scratching your head thinking, “Excuse me, what?”

Yes, this was a short review (the movie gave me so little to work with).  De Palma’s style couldn’t salvage this mess, the lackluster performances don’t do the ridiculous plot any favors, and the decent music only reminds me that I could have been watching Dressed to Kill instead.  Passion gets Guy’s Guru Grade of a D.

Brian De Palma Month: “Mission: Impossible” (1996)

Aw heck yeah, Mission: Impossible!  Bet you didn’t know Brian De Palma directed the first entry into this long-lasting film series.  When the mere idea for this adaptation (from producers Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner) was conceived, it was very risky.  The TV show, that I haven’t seen, was loved by many, and no one was asking for a movie version.  Tom Cruise (who was known for movies like Risky Business, Top Gun, and A Few Good Men), was not an action star.  To top it off, David Koepp couldn’t finish the script because he was directing his own film (The Trigger Effect).  Despite all of that, audiences were treated to an action/thriller no one but master of suspense Brian De Palma could have come up with.

Mission Impossible (1996) is directed by Brian De Palma and written by: David Koepp, Steven Zaillian, and Robert Towne.  Stars-Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Béart, Jean Reno, Ving Rhames, and Vanessa Redgrave.  Premise-IMF (Impossible Mission Force) agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is accused of killing his team and betraying his agency.  Now he must uncover the real culprit using his wits while being pursued by his own superiors.

Out of all 5 of these movies, the first one is my favorite (followed by Mission: Impossible III and Ghost Protocol).  This thing grossed over $450 million on an $80 million budget and it was the third highest-grossing movie of 1996.  It successfully launched a franchise that outdid James Bond for a while.  “How did it accomplish this?”  You may ask.  I can’t wait to tell you why!

From the opening scene (De Palma is great at those isn’t he?) the movie sets up its tone and pace with an excellent split screen shot of an IMF operation.  You’ll notice that Stephen H. Burum outdoes himself in every scene.  The lighting on Jon Voight in the plane scene, the angles he uses during the restaurant confrontation, and oh gosh, and the vault scene (we’ll get to that later).  De Palma’s psychological style is perfectly reflected with the camerawork, you feel the tension in every scene.  Complementing the action sequences is Danny Elman’s slick score.  Lalo Schifrin composed the remixed theme, and Elman did the rest of the soundtrack.  It’s the type of cool music you’d listen to while doing math.  What, no one else does that?  I do.  It makes me feel like I’m doing some serious hacking.

At the expense of the top notch thrills of Mission: Impossible, it would be unfortunate if the story was utterly confusing.  Actually that is the major criticism of this movie, the screenplay.  I have watched this movie four times in my life (once before I wrote this), and I followed the plot easily each time.  Admittedly there are a few plotholes (refer to Koepp’s incomplete script), but the overall story is solid.  The creators (especially De Palma) really wanted to capture the sense of misdirection the show was known for.  Some people are easily offended when a movie outsmarts them (they would be called the negative critics of Inception), but I love the spy-like secrecy in this movie.  When Hunt’s mission goes awry, we don’t learn what really happened until the very end.  Our knowledge is limited to what Hunt knows, and he’s a great protagonist.  There are very few scenes where he is visibly panicked.  He’s resourceful, calculated, fast, effective, intimidating, intelligent, and Cruise’s likability anchors the coolest cinematic American agent this side of Jason Bourne.

Finally, we get to one of the best M.M.M.’s of all time… the vault infiltration sequence.  If you really want to watch this scene, you could find at least five videos of it on YouTube, but all I want to say is how awesome it is!  This is one of the reasons why Mission: Impossible is my favorite out of all five movies, because this scene carries more tension than the rest of the movies put together.  From the use of slow motion, to the lack of music, to the crosscutting editing, to the buildup of the operation, to that heart-stopping moment, this scene is so impressive, only Brian De Palma could have come up with it.  This scene has been copied, parodied, and ripped-off many times (even Ghost Protocol had a clever homage to it).

My few issues with this movie are mostly things that were the result of the limitations of the 90s.  For one, the search engine they use was Netscape, the F/X are really cheap-looking now, and the makeup is obviously fake.  Also, the sound is really stock.  It will be too loud in some scenes, too quiet in others, and occasionally out-of-sync.  Finally, the climax is extremely over-the-top.  Most of this movie’s action sequences were practical, and more focused on wits rather than Michael Bay explosions.  For the sake of not spoiling anything, just know that this finale was too bombastic for a movie this subtle.

Mission: Impossible has become a pop culture and cinematic icon because of its stylistic execution.  It is among one of the best action thrillers of the 90s, and for dang good reason.  Mission: Impossible gets Guy’s Guru Grade of an A.

Brian De Palma Month: “The Bonfire of the Vanities”

With a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 16%, a box office loss of $31 million, an IMDb rating of 5.6, and 5 Razzie nominations (including Worst Picture and Worst Director); it’s safe to say that this pathetic failure is Brian De Palma’s worst film.  Why am I doing this again?  Something about “for every positive, there is negative?”  Mhm, sure.  Let’s go over why this movie is highly regarded as one of the worst movies of all time.

The Bonfire of the Vanities is directed by Brain De Palma and written by Michael Cristofer.  Stars-Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith, Kim Cattrall, Bruce Willis, and Morgan Freeman.  Premise-A New York aristocrat’s (Tom Hanks) mistress (Melanie Griffith) runs over a black teen.  Resulting in the downfall of his cushy life, the revitalized career of a depressed reporter (Bruce Willis), and a whole lot of social injustice.  Adapted from Tom Wolfe’s novel of the same name.

I have not read Wolfe’s book, but after what I’ve seen, it is most likely better than this movie.  This is one of those movies where literally everything is wrong.  The movie opens with a promising tracking shot of reporter Peter Fallow (Willis) on the way to accept an award for his highly successful book on the fall of aristocrat Sherman McCoy (Hanks).  Unfortunately, the movie quickly deflates from then on.  We get some narration (done by a half-hearted Bruce Willis) that shows us how we got to this point.  This narration largely disappears after this opening scene, so that was pointless!  Hey writers, I have an idea: why don’t you just *GASP* start the movie at the beginning?  Whatever.  We are then introduced to Sherman McCoy.  He is your stereotypical “rich white guy in New York” caricature.  He has a socialite wife (Kim Cattrall), a personality-lacking daughter, and a high-class hooker/mistress (Melanie Griffith) who he has a private affair with.

This brings me to my first criticism; the acting in this movie is horrendous!  Aside from Morgan Freeman, everyone in this movie is either: perplexingly robotic, laughably over-the-top, or not even trying.  This was early on in Hanks’ career, but he must have gotten no direction because he is fumbling around most of the time.  My “favorite” scene with him is when he uses a hunting rifle to escort people out of his apartment.  Willis and Cattrall aren’t even trying (especially Cattrall), and Griffith has to act like a southern ditz for two hours straight.  In an interview, De Palma said “It’s always the director’s [casting] call.”  Almost every actor you see in this movie was not the first option.  Wolfe wanted Chevy Chase to play McCoy, Willis is not British (unlike the character in the book), and Freeman was cast purely because the producers wanted some ethnic diversity in this controversial story (at least De Palma went with that).  These were a few of the many decisions that alienated fans of the book, as well as general audiences, from the movie.

Over the course of his (over four-decade-long) career, De Palma has been nominated for five Worst Director Razzies (one of which was for Scarface, which is ridiculous).  None of those is more deserved than the one he got for Bonfire of the Vanities.  Not only is the cast missing instructions, this is an ugly-looking movie.  The color pallets they used (this was a $47 million production so it wasn’t poor quality equipment) make the movie look dingy and gross.  Stephen H. Burum abuses wide-angle lenses to nauseating degrees, and the overall tone is without emotion.  Oh, yeah.  Did I mention this is a comedy?  I found little humor in this movie and the scenarios it sets up.  A Clockwork Orange is funnier than this movie, and it is also a dark comedy with unlikable characters and social commentary.

While I consider Bonfire a pathetic pile of Hollywoodized garbage, there are a few minor elements that deserve respect.  Actually there is just one thing that deserves respect; Morgan Freeman.  He plays the judge who takes up McCoy’s case.  It could just be Freeman’s inability to give a poor performance, but his intensity and dialogue is incredible.  He gives an excellent speech at the end of the film about corruption, racism, and politics.  I rewatched this scene multiple times because my mind couldn’t believe anything this good could have come from the movie I was watching.  Despite the terrible camerawork and Freeman’s lack of hair (I really don’t know why they chose to make him bald), he still shines but his limited screentime can’t save the movie.

There has been a book written about this disasterpiece (The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood or The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco).  The reason why Bonfire fails so miserably is because it has something to say, but has no idea how to say it.  Mission to Mars was bad, but that was a disposable sci-fi flick, this movie is an adaptation with adult themes and serious consequences.  The dialogue feels fake, the actors have no direction, the commentary is botched, and the humor is nonexistent.  I found myself shouting, “You’re all awful people!” at the screen many times.  If the movie was less insistent on trying to please every audience member and committed to the book’s tone and darkness, it could have been better.  De Palma made great efforts to make this movie more acceptable to the average Joe, but all it did was neuter the message.  The Bonfire of the Vanities gets Guy’s Guru Grade of an F.

Brian De Palma Month: “The Untouchables” (1987)

After Mission to Crap, I needed to review one of De Palma’s best movies.  Yes, 1987’s The Untouchables is my favorite Brain De Palma film, but it is not the movie that inspired me to do this “De Palma Month” thing (I love keeping suspense!).  This movie is right up there with John Carpenter’s Halloween, A Clockwork Orange, and Inception in terms of movies that constantly inspire me to talk about filmmaking.  Let the fanboying commence!

The Untouchables is directed by Brian De Palma and written by David Mamet.  Stars-Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia, and Robert De Niro.  Premise-During the 1930’s prohibition in Chicago, federal officer Eliot Ness (Costner) creates a team of “Untouchables” to aggressively take down crime boss Al Capone (De Niro).

De Palma was in a bit of a rough spot after the financial disappointments of Body Double and Wise Guys (his previous two movies).  Before he could get back to making movies he wanted to make, he needed to secure funding.  The solution?  A big-budget, studio funded, star-studded, blockbuster.  Along with producer Art Linson, De Palma went to Paramount Pictures (who owned the rights) and they were given the project; a film adaptation of The Untouchables TV shows.  From there, they went to David Mamet (writer of The Verdict) for the script.  What followed was risky decision after risky decision, but boy did they pay off.

I have not seen any of The Untouchables TV shows, from what I researched, they were pretty popular and successful.  Making a movie out of it would require precise casting and excellent writing.  From the opening title sequence, you know this movie is gonna be awesome!  This brings me to the first great thing about The Untouchables; the music.  The score from this movie is in my top ten movie soundtracks of all time.  It is done by the impeccable Ennio Morricone (hot off of The Mission).  This is why I love scores so much!  A comment on that video says, “Ennio Morricone captioned [captured] the essence of corruption here.”  The movie takes place in a very unstable/dishonest time in American history, and Morricone’s music encompasses the emotion and tone of the picture indescribably well.  It’s one of those soundtracks that fits perfectly with the visuals.  I’ve listened to it while I write reviews (including this one), and makes every part of this movie 10 times better.

What most people remember about this classic (yes I believe that it stands as one of the best mob classics of all time) is the ensemble cast.  Paramount didn’t really care about this project, according to De Palma, “They [Paramount] said we didn’t need big stars.”  Mr. De Palma is very good at deciding what actors can play what roles in his movies.  In the case of The Untouchables, he couldn’t have done better.  After watching Silverado, he decided on newcomer Kevin Costner to play the incorruptible (aka “untouchable”) Eliot Ness.  Charles Martin Smith was someone he wanted to work with since seeing his potential in American Graffiti.  Andy Garcia was originally supposed to play Al Capone’s right-hand-man, Frank Nitti, but he convinced them to let him play George Stone (a member of Ness’ Untouchables).  Robert De Niro (one of the two actual stars cast in this movie) was Brian’s first choice to play the legendary gangster, and after a lot of waiting, he signed on.  Fun fact: De Niro worked with De Palma on Greetings, The Wedding Party, and Hi, Mom! in the late sixties/early seventies before he became an Oscar-winning actor in The Godfather: Part II in 1974.  In Sean Connery’s case, there was no better actor to play Jim Malone, the ancient beat-cop who teaches naive Eliot “The Chicago Way” of police work.

The Untouchables practically made careers for Garcia, Martin Smith, and Costner, and they deserve it.  I am one of the few people who legitimately believes Kevin Costner is a good actor (see Dances With Wolves, Hidden Figures, Field of Dreams, or McFarland USA), and he does the “eager, likable, good cop” character extremely well.  De Niro is amazingly over-the-top as Capone, check out this bat scene for proof (minor spoiler).  He put on weight and mastered the accent.  Pretty much every single scene he occupies is quotable.  No one holds a candle to Sean Connery though.  I can’t overstate this; Connery’s performance in this movie is one of the most effortless, authentic, charismatic, entertaining, and iconic performances I have ever seen.  Screw James Bond, this is his best role!  Mamet gave Malone really good dialogue, and Connery delivers it with so much charm.  For his awesomeness; he won the Oscar and Golden Globe, and was nominated for the BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor in 1988.  Let’s just say, he’s the best thing about this movie.

The positives don’t end there my friend!  If you watched that first video, you may have noticed that Gorgio Armani was credited with the wardrobe.  Yes, the Armani helped design the costumes for this movie, and they look incredible!  This film is one of the most convincing period-pieces I have ever seen.  The crew went through a little production hell during filming.  The budget was stretched, and a few scenes had to be cut because they couldn’t afford it, but everything evened out in the end.  Chicago in the movie looks nothing like it does now.  Everything from the vehicles, buildings, costumes, props, filming locations, and interior designs look flawless to me.  Cinematographer Stephen H. Burum, who has shot many De Palma films including Snake Eyes and Mission to Mars, has a very distinct style that I don’t think was ever better displayed than in The Untouchables.  There is a church scene that shows off what makes Brain De Palma films so artful (one of those things being split-screen shots like this).  The combination of Morricone’s thrilling music, De Palma’s talent, and Burum’s camerawork creates some extremely tense action sequences.  The best of which is a scene that takes place at Union Station.  I can’t say much about this scene (spoilers n such) other that it’s a definite M.M.M. with a very clever homage to The Battleship Potemkin.

Unfortunately, this movie does have a few flaws but most of them are nitpicks.  For one, the editing is very abrupt.  At one point, it felt like a scene was on speed when it cut to the next one (without the sound fading out or anything).  The movie has a slightly fast pace (and that keeps it from getting boring), but the tonal shifts can get jarring.  In one scene, a child becomes collateral damage (i.e. dead), and in another scene, Costner is holding a Hawaiian umbrella and looking like a fool.

A major criticism of this movie is that it’s too goofy.  I agree with that in terms of tone, but I don’t think movie was ever meant to be as dramatic as The Godfather.  I mean, come on, this is an adaptation of a TV show, which was an adaptation of real life events.  If you watch the movie, you’ll see that they definitely took some artistic liberties and changed up a few things (for one, Ness and Capone never met face to face in real life).  This movie is more of an action/thriller with a setting that took place around a serious time in history.  I was invested in the drama because I liked the entertaining characters, and when the climax (a brilliant hybrid of action and courtroom cleverness) arrived, dang it felt satisfying!

My only major gripe with this movie is Ness’ family.  He has a wife (played by Patricia Clarkson) and a daughter.  They have absolutely no character.  His wife is more or less “the supportive cop’s wife” and his daughter is just, his daughter.  Things get pretty serious for Ness at times, but beyond moving them to a secure location, he barely talks about them.  Heck, they don’t even have a complete character arc; they just disappear from the movie a little over the halfway point.  They could have been written out of the movie, and the plot would be 100% the same.

Again, the few problems with this movie (except for Ness’ family) are essentially nitpicks.  I can’t describe how much fun I had while watching this.  It’s the kind of movie I’d be trying to reenact as a kid.  Running around in daddy’s coats, pointing my plastic revolver at the air and proudly proclaiming “Here endeth the lesson!”  Brain De Palma’s The Untouchables is one of my favorite movies of all time and it gets Guy’s Guru Grade of an A.  Seriously, get your hands on a copy, take out 2 hours of your day, and enjoy.

Brian De Palma Month: “Scarface”

Today, we’re talking Scarface (1983), one of the most popular, most quoted, and most iconic American crime thrillers of all time.  This movie is considered by many as Brian De Palma’s best work.  After watching it, I can see why.  Some of the movies I am reviewing for “De Palma Month” are first-viewings, and some are rewatches.  In the case of the movie that inspired me to do this series (which I’ll review later) and Scarface, this is a first time viewing.  Let me tell you, when it comes to exceptional artists like Brian De Palma, Stanley Kubrick, and Quentin Tarantino, the first viewing is always the best.  They are so creative with their visuals/storytelling that your eyes are glued to the screen and every scene builds upon the next.  When the end credits appear, only one word escapes your mouth, “Wow.”

Scarface is directed by Brian De Palma and written by Oliver Stone.  Stars-Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.  Premise-Cuban immigrant Tony Montana (Pacino) and his friend Manny (Bauer) work their way up the ladder in a 1980s Miami drug cartel.

Before I continue, this is technically a remake of the 1932 Scarface directed by Howard Hawkes.  I haven’t seen that one (I didn’t even know it existed until “This movie is dedicated to Howard Hawkes” showed up at the end of De Palma’s film), but I don’t think it makes much of a difference with this remake.

The first thing most people think of when they hear “Scarface,” is Al Pacino’s performance (considered to be one of his best in a career filled with powerhouse roles).  What did I think of him?  He’s fine.  I can see his energy in every scene, he never breaks accent, and he delivers his lines like a bad***.  He does get a little over-the-top at the end, but then again, every performance (with the exception of Pfeiffer, who is deadpan most of the time) in this movie is over-the-top.  I like this because the whole style of the movie is crazy, loud, and dramatic.  In fact, the style of this movie is the best thing about it.  Oliver Stone’s dialogue is very aggressive, the cinematography is wild, and the score is edgy.  Actually, “Push it to the Limit” (written by Gorgio Moroder/Pete Bellotte and performed by Paul Engemann) encompasses the tone of this movie.  The song plays during the montage scene (when Tony is making it big with his drug deals, and begins living lavishly).  This song is intense as heck, and should have been Oscar-nominated because it fits so well with Tony’s character.

My dad brought up something interesting while I was watching this; he said it was “Shakespearian”.  Now, I don’t claim to be an expert in this playwright’s works, but I can see the similarities.  Without giving away too much, the protagonist succumbs to substance abuse, pride, and greed.  Montana started out as an average criminal with a strict set of rules, but when his overconfidence gets to him, he makes mistakes that come back to haunt him.  While he thinks everything he does is the correct thing to do (in his own, drug-clouded, twisted logic), everything he once cared for turns against him, and his response only make it worse.  Only when it is too late does he realize his errors.  Even the way his character arc wraps up is similar to that of Toshirô Mifune in Throne of Blood (an adaption of Shakespeare’s play).

By now it would seem like I love this movie more than life itself, not even close.  For me, I did not connect with this movie.  Tony Montana is an entertaining antihero, but when things go wrong, I wasn’t as invested as the movie wanted me to be.  Also, it is 2 hours and 50 minutes long and there are definitely some characters and scenes that could be cut.  All things considered, this movie is still a fun ride with iconic performances, which alone makes it worth the watch.  Scarface (1983) gets Guy’s Guru Grade of a B.

Brian De Palma Month: “Snake Eyes”

Happy New Year my fellow cinephiles!  If you follow the tradition, then you are setting New Year’s Resolutions.  One of my resolutions is, “Create a few review series’ and write other projects.”  The “projects” will come later, but I have something much more fun right now… BRIAN DE PALMA MONTH!  Every week of January, I will review 1 to 2 movies from the “master of macabre.”  I watched one of his movies recently, and it left me with the same feeling I felt when I first watched: Inception, A Clockwork Orange, 1982’s The Thing, and the original Star Wars.  That feeling was: passionate obsession (not the creeper kind).  After watching those movies, I immediately had to research the director/writer, and I couldn’t stop watching their movies.  I have seen (and thoroughly loved) movies from De Palma before watching this specific film, but never once have I talked about them.  Time to change that, starting with Snake Eyes!

Snake Eyes is directed by Brain De Palma and written by Brian De Palma and David Koepp.  Stars-Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise, Carla Gugino, John Heard, and Stan Shaw.  Premise-Undercover detective Rick Santoro (Cage) is caught in the middle of a murder at a boxing ring involving the United States Department of Defense, and a conspiracy.

Just a disclaimer: there is no way I can review every one of his movies, but I can manage eight or so.  I won’t go into spoiler territory (because I want others to see this master’s movies), but this review will contain high amounts of fanboying.

Anyway, this movie is awesome!  From the very first shot, you know Snake Eyes is going to be a stylized, energetic, well-acted thriller.  By the way, this opening shot is 12 (uninterrupted) minutes long, Nic Cage is gleefully over-the-top throughout it, and it sets up every main character, the tone, and the plot in an unbelievably entertaining way (eat your heart out Scorsese).  This tracking shot opening is in many people’s Top Ten Opening Shots lists, and is well-deserving.  Sadly, this is when most of the negative reviews start.  They claim that the rest of the movie is not nearly as astounding as that first shot.  To some extent, they’re right.  It’s kinda like the “Married Life” sequence from Up.  The rest of the movie is good enough, but that one scene is too impressive for its own good, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the movie sucks.

The most impressive things about this movie are the acting and the cinematography.  Cage is gleefully goofy throughout the film (with a few somber moments here and there to balance it out) as he plays a detective with big aspirations, and a crummy life.  Cages’ energy (and humor) combined with the character’s personality create a very sympathetic/relatable character.  Gary Sinise plays a stiff, but devoted government official, and the banter between him and Cage is classic stuff.  Gugino always has an air of mystery around her.  You don’t know if she can be trusted, or who she is until much later.

When you watch a De Palma film, you know you’re in for a ride.  This movie is surprisingly short (90 minutes), and the plot is always moving.  As the mystery of “who orchestrated this and why?” is unraveled, there are a few twists and devastating reveals.  Unfortunately, that is where the movie falls flat.  The last 10 minutes is extremely flawed.  Can’t say much, but there is more than one inconsistency, and the arc of one of the characters felt incomplete.  But those are minor problems.

Snake Eyes was De Palma’s last 90s movie, it was also the movie that followed up Mission: Impossible (another reason critics didn’t like this one).  Sure, the rest of the movie isn’t as stellar as the opening; sure the story isn’t very “important” or dramatic.  This movie is a perfectly enjoyable, charmingly acted, original, tense thriller.  I’d say it did its job pretty dang well.  Snake Eyes gets Guy’s Guru Grade of an A-.