Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Addams Family Values

Starring: Anjelica Houston, Raul Julia, Christopher Lloyd, Joan Cusack, Christina Ricci, Carol Kane
Written by: Charles Addams, Paul Rudnick
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld

Rating: * * * 1/2   Stars       +       (Fan Bonus -  )  Total: * * * 1/2

Our favorite gothic horror family returns in this sequel that trumps their first film.

The first film was too fettered in establishing characters, setting, and translating themes from the old television show and books to the big screen. Certainly, this gave the Addams Family movie a forced feel. Addams Family Values is a completely original concept and story taking the established characters into newer comedic waters.

The Addams Family cast all return, except for Judith Malina, who's better replaced by Carol Kane as Grandma. The Addams have a new edition to their family, a baby named Pubert. Of course, this doesn't sit well with Wednesday and Pugsley, and attempt to kill him several times. Enter Joan Cusack as Debbie, the Nanny. Not only does she care for Pubert, she becomes the love interest of Fester (Christopher Lloyd). However Debbie isn't what she seems. She is known as the Black Widow, a woman who marries rich men and murders them on their wedding night. Now she has set her sights on Fester.

The films funniest moments are when Pugsley and Wednesday are sent to a summer camp for privileged kids. The two gothic siblings suddenly find themselves surrounded by obnoxious brats and overly cheerful camp councilors.  The worst of them is Amanda, who is in stark contrast to Wednesday. She's blonde, pretty, popular, and a pure brat. Audiences haven't hated a young girl this much since Veruca Salt insisted on having an Oompa-Loompa now! But it isn't until they are placed into the harmony hut, forced to watch an assortment of Disney films and reruns of the Brady Bunch that Wednesday hatches a diabolical plan to assemble the camps misfits into overthrowing the camp.

Debbie of course marries Fester, but to her dismay seems unable to kill him. Thinking she wouldn't have to go through consummating the marriage, she discovers that Fester is a virgin. However, he explains he's prepared to go through with it. He's been instructed well, including "no giggling", and "no hand puppets." 

If she can't kill him, she'll change him, and now Fester wears toupees and turtleneck sweaters. She also forbids him from associating with his family ever again. 

Joan Cusack's quirky sensibilities make her a perfect choice in casting for the psychotic Debbie. Anjelica Houston and Raul Julia are wonderful as Morticia and Gomez, losing no steam or enthusiasm in reprising their roles. Carol Kane is hilarious as the Grandma, giving a more involved role than Judith had in the first film.

Despite being a completely new story, the characters are still as solid as ever. Definitely one of those rare sequels that improve on an already fine original.

SEE THE TRAILER: Addams Family Values 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Crimson Tide

Starring: Denzel Washington, Gene Hackman, Viggo Mortensen, James Gandolfini
Written by: Richard P. Henrick, Michael Schiffer
Director: Tony Scott

Rating: * * * *   Stars       +       (Fan Bonus -  )  Total: * * * * 

Russian rebels have taken over an ICBM site and are threatening to launch. The U.S. Alabama, a nuclear submarine, is dispatched to launch it's nuclear weapons at the ICBM site. The only problem, the Alabama's crew, led by the new XO, stage a mutiny.

Denzel Washington plays Lt. Commander Hunter, a highly decorated, well educated officer who is summoned to be the new XO of the Alabama as it embarks to neutralize a threat made by Russian rebels to launch against the U.S.

Gene Hackman is the Alabama's Commander, Capt. Frank Ramsey. Ramsey is an older, experienced Captain, with prior combat experience, and well respected by the crew. 

As the submarine takes off, Capt. Ramsey feels out the new XO, asking his opinions on war and the current situation as well as observing his behavior. Hunter impresses Ramsey with his candor, sense of duty, and outlook. Hunter also builds a rapport with the crew, earning their respect.  

The film establishes naval protocol through scenes involving EAMs, standing for Emergency Action Message. Once this message is received it is authenticated and both Captain and XO announce the orders to the crew. They are given their target package and told to launch 10 missiles at the coordinates provided. As they continue on, tension mounts as the crew is uneasy knowing they are to launch nuclear weapons, even though it means saving innocent US cities from destruction. An encounter with a Russian sub only makes matters worse. They receive another EAM, but it is incomplete as the radio is damaged during it encounter. 

This is where it gets intriguing. Captain Ramsey intends to continue with the launch, where as Lt. Commander Hunter feels the priority is to restore communications and receive a completed message. This turns into an old school vs new school, as the experienced Captain acts in a contradictory manor to the XO's. The problem is both Captain and XO are acting in the best interest of the Navy, following procedures to the letter. The issue is how they're interpreted. Ramsey reminds Hunter that without an authenticated contradictory order, they are to follow through with the orders in hand. Plus, according to the last message, rebels are fueling the missiles and will attain launch capability shortly. Hunter reminds the Captain that the Navy uses redundancy and there would be another sub to carry out the order if they are compromised. He also points out that it may be an order to stand down, or the coordinates could have changed. Their differences boil over when Ramsey charges Hunter with mutiny at the same time Hunter relieves the Captain of command, siting Navy rules and regulations of which the Captain is violating.

With the boat now under Hunter's command, he instructs the communications room to make the radio a priority. Meanwhile, the Russian sub returns and they engage in combat. The Alabama wins but is damaged. Members of the crew, fearing this unknown XO, free Ramsey from his quarters to retake the ship.

Tony Scott directs this film in classic submarine movie style, using techniques that emphasize isolation and claustrophobia. This, combined with the stories plot, builds a sense of tension. Both Ramsey and Hunter are admirable characters, with Ramsey commanding more respect, and Hunter gaining trust, it's hard to say who's in the wrong here. Meanwhile, the crew takes sides with Ramsey's loyalists doing their best to put down the mutiny and resume the mission.

The supporting cast, including Viggo Mortensen, James Gandolfini, George Dzundza, put in fine performances as crewmen who are caught in the middle of this mess. 

Sadly, this dichotomy of right vs right is ruined by Scott's dumbing down the plot to the audience. During the pictures final climatic moment, the Director has Hackman turn Ramsey from respected war veteran to a racist, thus vilifying his character and forcing the audience to side with Hunter.  

Outside of that, this is a great popcorn film. Plenty of action, tension, and incredible acting making this a favorite among naval war based films.


Monday, August 29, 2011

Forrest Gump

Starring: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Sally Field, Gary Sinise
Written by: Eric Roth, Winston Groom
Director: Robert Zemeckis

Rating: * * * * 1/2   Stars       +       (Fan Bonus -  )  Total: * * * * 1/2 

The complex story of a simple man. Forrest Gump is a heartwarming character who experiences an extraordinary life through the eyes of a less than average person. It begs the question of life being a series of chance, or destiny.

A single feather in the breeze lands at the feet of some random fellow sitting on a bench waiting for the bus. An unassuming fellow, he shares his life story with anyone who sits with him. Random people are taken in by his sincerity as he shares his experiences.

Tom Hanks plays the title character, Forrest Gump. The character narrates his story through extensive flashback scenes starting with his childhood. Forrest starts off wearing leg braces, and having an IQ below scholastic standards. His Mother (Sally Field) is uncompromising in having her son be treated like everyone else. After seducing the principle to obligate him into enrolling Forrest in school, she runs a bed & breakfast out of her large home in Alabama. She's very nurturing and loving with Forrest, and puts the world in a perspective he can understand.

By a miracle, Forrests back straightens up enough that he no longer needs braces. He befriends a neighbor girl named Jenny, who remains his best friend throughout college. Yes, due to his extraordinary speed, Forrest attends school on a football scholarship. After that, he enlists in the military and earns a Medal of Honor. In the military he meets Bubba (Mykelti Williamson), another dim-witted fellow who forms a friendship with him. Bubba goes into never ending detail about shrimping, and offers Forrest an opportunity to go into the shrimping business after Nam. He also meets Lt. Dan (Gary Sinise). After Nam, Forrest becomes an international Ping Pong Champion, and buys a shrimping boat to honor his promise to the now deceased Bubba. A disabled Lt. Dan joins him. A few years later, the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. is worth millions, and Forrest returns home a millionaire, yet still taking work mowing the lawn of the high school field and keeping up the home after his Mother passes. Yet despite all his success and encounters, Forrest remains a humble, open-minded soul who always wants for nothing, except to win the affection of his one and only love, Jenny.

It is his humble nature and humility that drives this film. Experiencing success on a massive scale, meeting three Presidents, receiving a Medal of Honor, an international Ping-Pong Championship, making it as an All-American in Collegiate Football, a self-made millionaire, does nothing to boost his ego, give him cause to brag, or alter his childlike obedience to the opportunities life presents to him.

Jenny (Robin Write) is a complex character as well. A victim of sexual molestation from her Father, she makes one bad choice after another. She sleeps with boys in college, runs away and ends up as stripper. A perversion of her dream to be on stage as a singer. Later she moves to California with the hippies to protest the war, winding up with radicals, and eventually falling into the drug/sex culture of the 70's before coming home to Forrest where she spends time to finally get clean and put her life in perspective. Through it all, Forrest has been there for her and protected her every chance he had. 

Gary Sinise gives a powerful performance as Lt. Dan. A proud soldier and squad leader, he comes from a long line of soldiers that fought, and died, in every American war. Forrest rescues him after being wounded, resulting in the amputation of his legs. Lt. Dan grows bitter and withdrawn feeling he should have died in the field, with honor, and not being a pitiful cripple. Lt. Dan shows up in Forrests life years later, living off disability, drinking, and bitter towards life, people, and God. He ends up working with Forrest on the shrimping boat, and after a terrible storm makes peace with himself and the Lord.

Sally Field plays Mrs. Gump as a strong-willed, but tender Mother. She tells Forrest that it was her destiny to be his Mother, and that he needs to find his own destiny. When she dies, Forrest is alone for the first time. He stands on his own two feet. Eventually, this all leads up to him at the bus stop where we learn what he's doing there. Jenny has returned to Alabama and sent him a letter wanting to meet him, with directions to her apartment.  There, she is clean and sober, and introduces Forrest to his 4 year old son. Jenny is dying, inferred that she's dying from AIDS that she must have contracted in her tumultuous past. Forrest marries her anyway and keeps her comfortable until she passes away. 

Extraordinary performances by all, this film is among the greatest films of all time. The characters are rich in depth and very relatable. Wonderful special effects seamlessly put Forrest into actual footage such as meeting Nixon, Kennedy, as well as being on tv sitting next to John Lennon. Humor and tragedy are blended well as this film fully illustrates the range of experiences we share in life. It also shows what potential life has for all of us if we just remain humble and obedient. Whether life is destined, or merely chance, what we do is our choice.


Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Fox and the Hound

Starring: (voices of) Mickey Rooney, Kurt Russell, Peal Bailey, Sandy Duncan
Written by: Larry Clemmons, Daniel P. Mannix, Ted Berman, Peter Young
Director: Richard Rich, Ted Berman

Rating: * * * 1/2   Stars       +       (Fan Bonus *  )  Total: * * * 1/2

Two young characters, from different worlds, become the best of friends, but are forced to be enemies. This story is so heart-wrenching, if shown to target audiences, it would boarder on child abuse.

The film opens with the young fox, Tod (voiced by Kieth Coogan), witnesses his Mother being killed by a hunter. Scared, and all alone, he is eventually taken in and adopted by a kindly old widow named Widow Tweed (Jeanette Nolan). Tod, being both young and a fox, naturally gets into some mischief as his curiosity gets the better of him. He wanders nest door and discovers a young hound dog pup named Copper (voiced by Corey Feldman). They're first curious about each other, but soon form a friendship. Occasionally, their playtime is interrupted by Chief, the old hound dog (voiced by Pat Buttram) and their Master, Amos Slade. Amos (voiced by Jack Albertson) is a hunter, and Chief is his trained hunting dog. Naturally, they hate foxes, putting young Tod in considerable danger every time he comes to visit Copper. But their youthful exhuberance ignore these warning signs as they vow to be best friends foer life. One day, Copper is taken away with Amos and Chief to "learn the ropes." When he returns, Copper has matured somewhat, having been exposed to the hunt, and warns Tod not to come back. Tod, still being innocent and naive, does not heed Copper's warning and returns to play. Amos sees Tod and fires off a few rounds at Tod, who scurries home to Widow Tweed. Amos screams that he'll kill Tod the next chance he gets.

Fearing for his safety, she takes Tod and drives him off into the middle of the woods and abandons him. In classic Disney fashion, there is always a song that accompanies scenes of dramatic significance, and this is no exception. Widow Tweed, through the song, conveys how her heart is breaking, and that she loves him, but realizes she cannot keep him safe anymore. Disney's fine animation conveys enough facial expressions to illustrate Tod's utter confusion as why she's leaving him, and his sense of fear and abandonment washes over him just like it did the day his Mother died. He finds the world a dangerous place, and longs for home.

Time moves on, and both Tod and Copper are now adults. Voice acting is now taken over by Mickey Rooney and Kurt Russell respectively. In the wilderness, Tod meets a female fox named Vixey(Sandy Duncan) and quickly warms up to her. This is the first time he has encountered another of his kind. She teaches him the basics of life in the wilderness. Copper, now a fully grown hound dog, has earned the respect of old Chief and his master Amos, as Copper has turned into a fine hunting dog. 

This, of course, leads to the films climax where on a hunting trip these two former friends cross paths. Copper attacks Tod, who is shocked at Coppers attitude, but quickly fights back as to distract the hunting party away from Sandy. As the conflict continues they run afoul of a grizzly, and must work together to overcome their mutual threat. They save an injured Amos from the bear and part ways. The final scene shows Copper and Chief hanging out at Widow Tweeds, as she attends to Amos's bandages. Tod and Vixey look on from the safety of the wood's edge. In a way, Disney tries to summon a happy ending by illustrating that all the characters have a companion, and won't live in fear or loneliness. This fails, because the film plays back the clip of Copper and Tod vowing to be best friends, when the message is clear: If you're different, you cannot be friends. It's better just to stick with your own kind. Not exactly a positive life lesson for the kids.

This film is rank and file Disney fair, with colorful characters, fine musical numbers, and great animation. The film does deviate from established stories of good vs evil. Rather, this film deals with the realities and ambiguities of life. If you suffer from depression, anxiety, or have abandonment issues, you have been warned.

SEE THE TRAILER: The Fox and the Hound

Saturday, August 27, 2011

This Is Spinal Tap

Starring: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Tony Hendra, Rob Reiner
Written by: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Rob Reiner
Director: Rob Reiner

Rating: * * 1/2   Stars       +       (Fan Bonus *  )  Total: * * * 1/2

The very definition of "cult favorite", Spinal Tap is a mocumentary that follows a fictitious British Metal band on their North American tour. An aging rock group, they try and milk their mediocrity for one last go around.

Meet the band:
Lead Vocals and Rhythm Guitar - David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean). 
Lead Guitar and Back Up Vocals - Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest)
Bass Guitar and Back Up Vocals - Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer)
Keyboards: Viv Savage (David Kaff)
Drums: Mick Shrimpton (R.J. Parnell)

This film establishes itself quickly, presented as a documentary film that follows Spinal Tap on their U.S. Tour. Even director Rob Reiner plays the documentary director, Marty DiBergi. Once established, this film becomes a satirical tour de force that spoofs the rock n roll, record company, music business as it was in the 1980's. The music of this film is truly exceptional. The lead actors, Michael, Cheristopher, and Harry actually wrote the songs and lend their vocal and musical talents to the film. In other words, it's really them onstage and really playing. Their songs are perfectly crafted in the sense that musically and lyrically it fits the genre, yet being a comedy, the words are very tongue in cheek. But because they sing them straight man style, you actually have to do a double take as you realize how absurd they are. for example, in the song "Big Bottom", you hear "big bottom...big about mud flaps, my girl's got 'em." Other hits include, "Rock N Roll Creation", "Sex Farm", "Gimme Some Money", and more.

Anything and everything that can go wrong does. The band get's lost backstage in Cleveland. Derek gets trapped in a cocoon stage prop for the entire song. No one shows up at an autograph session. The band plays an Air Force social function, and Nigel's wireless guitar begins broadcasting the air tower transmissions. A song dedicated to the majesty of Stone Henge, with an 18 inch stage prop, with dwarves dancing around it. A gig at a festival show where the puppet show is billed above them. And that's just the beginning.

Not to mention we see plenty of band drama. David's girlfriend, Jeanine, joins them on tour. In traditional Yoko Ono fashion, she begins influencing the band through David. Their manager Ian (Tony Hendra) quits the band, and Jeanine takes over, basing her management decisions on her interpretation of the zodiac. Nigel quits the band out of frustration. The album cover gets rejected and they go with a solid black cover, no title, no label, nothing. 

Be warned, Christopher Guest is perhaps the most brilliant and underrated actor going. In dozens of films, he is so engrossed in character, he is virtually unrecognizable from previous roles if placed side by side. He is also a talented musician, and brilliant comedy writer. However, Christopher's comedy isn't for everyone. It takes a refined pallet to truly appreciate his art, but if you can, you'll be a fan for life.

The film gained cult status, especially in the circles it spoofs. Actual musicians have gone on record as saying the more they watch it, the less funny it becomes. Referring to the spot-on situations that real bands inevitably encounter. Take U2, who once on their Lemon Tour, were stuck inside the giant Lemon prop as it failed to open. In fact, the terms "a Spinal Tap moment" and "Crank it up to 11" are common slang in the music industries vernacular. They have even played live concerts including a massive benefit festival at Wembly Stadium, in which all the bass players from other bands join in to accompany Spinal Tap on Big Bottom. They have music videos that played on Mtv, and you can find their records at record stores. Not bad for a band that doesn't really exist.

In 2003, a film about Folk musicians called A Mighty Wind sees Christopher, Harry, and Michael reunited, this time as Folk Singers. Again, spoofing this type of music and the people who play it.

SEE THE TRAILER: This Is Spinal Tap

Friday, August 26, 2011

Time Bandits

Starring: John Cleese, Sean Connery, Shelly Duvall, Ian Holm, David Warner, Kenny Baker, Craig Warnock
Written by: Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin
Director: Terry Gilliam

Rating: * * *   Stars       +       (Fan Bonus *  )  Total: * * * *

The first of Terry Gilliam's Trilogy of the Absurd, Time Bandits is a delightful film spoofing history, mythology, and theology, all in the name of becoming "stinking rich."

A band of bumbling dwarves steal a map that shows all the holes in time and space. They decide to quit their jobs working with the Supreme Being and creation, and to exploit it by committing robberies. They warp into the room of a 10 year old English boy named Kevin (Craig Warnock) who's parents are more concerned over household appliances than their own child. The Supreme Being tracks them down, and they flee into the next portal taking Kevin with them. What follows is one jump after another throughout history as the dwarfs try and establish themselves as world class thieves. But the Supreme Being isn't the only one interested in the map. The Evil Genius (David Warner), trapped in the fortress of ultimate darkness, also wants the map to escape his fortress and undo creation.

This is classic British comedy at its finest. Small budget effects jell with witty dialogue and satirical situations. David Warner is absolutely at his best as the Evil Genius, Devil, Lord of Darkness, call him what you will. This evil being is obsessed with technology, and wouldn't waste his time with creation as God did. He even reflects on slugs. "Slugs! He created slugs. They can't hear. They can't speak. They can't operate machinery. Are we not in the hands of a lunatic?" And like all evil geniuses, he is surrounded by complete morons and retards. Or, as he points out, "mercifully free of the ravages of intelligence."

Craig Warnock plays Kevin as a wide-eyed youngster who shares in their adventures but finds home, love, and a Father figure in in ancient Greece, with King Agamemnon (Sean Connery). Yet the dwarves rescue him from his happiness as they now are out to pursue the most fabulous object in the world, hidden in the time of legends, and is, in reality, a trap set by the Evil Genius.

John Cleese plays Robin Hood, a man of charity in a colorful outfit. The Merry Men however, are a gross motley of diseased scum. Wait till you get a load of maid Marian. Ian Holm plays Napoleon, the great French General with a, surprise, Napoleon complex. He likens himself to the great, short statured rulers of history. naturally, he embraces the dwarves as "his kid of people."

Terry shoots plenty of scenes in the film with low camera angles to give the film the perspective of the heroes, a small child and dwarves. Also slow motion and puppetry are used in key scenes when a giant crushes a home.  George Harrison is uncredited with the film's soundtrack "A Dream Away." The film itself is funded by Harrison's production company dedicated to funding independent films.

Time Bandits seems to have had a younger target audience in mind, but seems to appeal to the high school/college crowd who appreciate its dry humor, sense of satire, and cult status among Monty Python enthusiasts.


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, George Carlin
Written by: Chris Matheson, Ed Solomon
Director: Stephen Herek

Rating: * * * 1/2  Stars       +       (Fan Bonus 1/2 )  Total: * * * *

Time travel has never been this bodacious. Two slacker seniors use a time machine to help them with an oral history report. Little do they know that this test is the linchpin that holds a future society together.

Bill S. Preston (Alex Winter) and Ted Theodore Logan (Keanu Reeves) are frontmen for their garage band Wyld Stallyns. Although they can't play a note, they sure can pose. During history class, their teacher informs them that they will fail the entire year unless they ace their final exam, an oral history report held in the auditorium. To make matters worse, Ted's Dad plans to enroll him into an Alaskan military school, thus breaking up their friendship, and the band.

What's so big about splitting up two tone-deaf hard rock posers? Apparently a lot. In the future, Rufus (George Carlin) is sent back in time to aid the two in passing their report. Their entire way of life is founded on the music of Wyld Stallyns.

So our heroes decide to kidnap historical figures including Napoleon, Joan of Arc, Billy the Kid, Genghis Khan, and more. What ensues is hilarious situational comedy as Bill and Ted collect people throughout history, evade Ted's Dad, and cause a scene at the mall in which they have to break out all the historical figures from jail. Genghis Khan going nuts in a sporting goods store is movie gold. Napoleon is priceless as he is left with Ted's younger brother and friends. They introduce histories greatest general to the future by taking him bowling, to an ice cream parlor, and a water park.

Alex and Keanu are perfect in their roles as two below average teens who's brains have been fried from MTV. George Carlin plays it straight as Rufus, their time-travelling benefactor. The soundtrack captures the era perfectly with 80's musicians like Extreme, Shark Island, Vital signs, and Robbie Rob providing original tunes.

With a decent follow up in 1991, Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, these characters remain cultural icons, even if Keanu Reeves to this day still tries to shake that stigma.