Movie Reviews

Paul’s Mini-Reviews #10

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“Dark Passage” (1947)

Right off the bat, this film intrigued me. I knew going in that this was a film that starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, which was the Hollywood acting power couple in the 1940s. But now we get something completely different – For the first hour of the film, we don’t ever see Bogart’s face.

In fact, for the first thirty minutes, “Dark Passage” is entirely from his point of view. Every character stares directly into the camera, talking to Bogart’s character. I can see something like this being done in the 1990s or early 2000s, but in 1947? When Bogart is playing a fugitive on the run, as he attempts to find the murder of his wife, having the first third of the film be from his perspective gets us invested in his struggle and makes it feel like we’re the ones on the run.

This just might be one of the best cases of interactive cinema.

On top of that, “Dark Passage” takes full advantage of the Bogart/Bacall relationship. It is often unsettling, yet passionate, as Bacalls’ character goes out of her way to support Bogart in his efforts. She was sympathetic to his cause, even while it was in the courtroom, and never gave up her fight to make sure that he was given a fair trail. But it did not seem like either of them counted on falling for the other in the process.

“Dark Passage” is a film noir way ahead of its time, and gives us a “who-dun-it” that never feels stale or repetitive. It takes advantage of Bogart constantly being on the run, as some of the best scenes are him evading the police or having other crooks attempt to bring him in to get the reward money. Consistently entertaining and always imaginative.

Final Grade: A-

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“The Babadook” (2013)

Scares are often at their best when they are fresh, innovative and tend not to repeat. If films try to rely on the same type of horror, then it will inevitably draw comparisons to other work and make you forget about the film you are watching.

The Australian horror film “The Babadook,” for example, is a psychological horror film about a single mother who must raise her inventive and socially awkward son, who gets paranoid when they read a bedtime story about a dark monster known as the Babadook. As her son begins to act out more, she gets less and less sleep and becomes irritable with everyone, including her son.

Much of the tension comes from the house playing tricks on this little family, and the mother thinking that this mysterious creäture might be followed her to get after her son. But nothing is ever confirmed or denied about the existence of the Babadook. For all we know, the mother was making up the monster due to lack of sleep.

Or was the house haunted? It did seem a bit run down and could fall apart at any moment. All of this is left up to interpretation.

However, my problem with “The Babadook,” was that it did not offer anything new on this tale of paranoia and ambiguity. Almost everything attempted here was done in films like “The Haunting” or “The Shining,” where you are never truly sure if we are dealing with something supernatural or if our cast of characters are slowly going crazy. It would be fine if “The Babadook” had a tense or unforgiving atmosphere, but most of the film felt like the mother dealing with her own problems without ever coming to any realization that wasn’t forced.

“The Babadook” is worth watching for how ambiguous it is, but offers little outside of that.

Final Grade: C+

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“Greed” (1924)

Nowadays, the story behind “Greed” is more fascinating than this already intriguing silent film. The director, Erich von Strohiem, wanted to make a movie that was more than just immediate gratification and made the audience think. What he created was his nine-hour masterpiece of a family torn apart by its own avarice, ending in a desperate duel for money in the middle of Death Valley.

However, the producers and heads of MGM Studios wouldn’t allow Strohiem to début his film unless he cut it down, because they insisted that no one would want to watch a nine-hour movie. So he cut it down to roughly five-hours, but the studio still wasn’t happy. They had someone else cut down the film again to a much more manageable two and a half hours. von Strohiem was understandably pissed off, as the studio had destroyed his vision and was not interested in what he wanted to use cinema to say about humanity.

It was believed that von Strohiem initially held on to the original nine-hour film, but one night, in a drunken rage, he burned and destroyed his copy of the film and his true vision of “Greed” was forever lost. All we have now is what MGM had in mind.

To be fair, MGM’s version of “Greed” is still wonderful to watch, as we watch a family slowly devolve into madness and paranoia, while still using fantastic silent cinema techniques to capture so much without ever saying a word. From the cat preying on the caged birds, to the gold-tint on every valuable possession throughout the film.

Like most great silent films, “Greed” is simple yet effective. It understands the visual appeal of movies, but lacks the technology to create a truly encapsulating experience. The film makes up for that with striking images that range from triumphant to heart-breaking to downright terrifying. It knows what it wants to do, and does so to the best of its ability.

Final Grade: B+

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“Dirty Harry” (1971)

Watching this Clint Eastwood crime thriller, I can see the influence this movie has had on cinema, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s. Every buddy cop film since then, such as the “Lethal Weapon” series or “Speed,” has had one cop who doesn’t play by anyones rules, always seems to be a day from getting his badge taken away, but he’ll be damned if he doesn’t get results. The impact of “Dirty Harry” can still be felt today, because who doesn’t love a cop with his own sense of right and wrong?

While watching Harry track down the Scorpio Killer, a man who enjoys killing and doesn’t seem to care about the money, I was reminded of “No Country For Old Men,” and how the criminal mind was beginning to evolve to the point of cruelty and inhumanity. That would could not understand it, thus making the fight against crime seem pointless.

I think Harry is beginning to understand that as well, while he watches Scorpio injure himself so that the public would hate the cops and get him a better chance in court. That using the law and justice to stop these criminals wouldn’t be enough, as they would find a way around it and continue their spree. In fact, they’re not even criminals, but mad men. Operating outside of the law is the one true way to stop a mad man.

Harry says at one point that he doesn’t know why he keeps being a detective, when he keeps doing the dirty work and getting into trouble for it. But by the end, he knows that the world has changed, but it is certainly worth fighting for.

“Dirty Harry” also has great use of negative space, as in knowing when to use darkness to illuminate a scene. Many scenes will have Harry chasing down “punks” in the middle of the night through the darkened streets of San Francisco, where we’ll often see two figures enter the darkness, but rarely see what happens until another figure exits. This heightens suspense and adds to the mystery of crime in this city.

I now understand why “Dirty Harry” is so talked about – beyond the impact it has had on cinema, it is great cinematography and world that is as intriguing as it is mysterious. Clint Eastwood plays the role much like his Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s Dollar Trilogy, a cowboy who has never seen the inside of a courtroom, while still being compassionate for human life. A great thriller that has aged well.

Final Grade: A-

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“My Little Pony: Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks” (2014)

How anyone reacts to this movie will depend entirely upon how you feel about the musical numbers in “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.” Because this movie is entirely about those songs, down to the plot revolving around a battle of the bands and the villains gaining power through singing.

Personally, the songs in “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic” are my least favorite part of the show, as they’re not often catchy and add little to the episode that wasn’t already there. As a result, I did not care for the majority of “Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks.”

The first film at least a bit of charm to it, with the pony version of Twilight Sparkle being turned into a human while learning about how to act like a person, all the nods and references to the show and the dynamic relationship between Twilight and the villain, Sunset Shimmer. Now all of that is gone in the sequel, with no defining character moments and the film ends up repeating many of the same lessons the show already took care of, like knowing when to ask for help or to never take things too seriously.

The only bits that were amusing were the ones in the pony world, where the animation and color scheme compliment the environment and quirky nature of these characters. It still freaks me out that many of these characters are supposed to be human, yet have blue, pink and purple skin. It works fine on magical otherworldly ponies, not so much on people.

If you have not watched any of the television show, do not bother with “Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks.” If you didn’t like the first film, this one will not change your mind. But if you enjoy the musical numbers in the show and liked the first film, then this one will be just fine.

Final Grade: D+

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“Hotel Transylvania” (2012)

This movie has taught me one important lesson – Adam Sandler can be funny in a movie, when he has zero creative control over the film.

Sandler has not been funny in cinema since “Happy Gilmore,” as each subsequent film from him and his production company, Happy Madison, seems to get worse by being more pandering than the last. To put it simply, Happy Madison and Adam Sandler have turned into the Michael Bay of movie comedy, by appealing to the lowest common denominator and having an onslaught of insulting race or gender humor, or just sticking with fart and poop jokes.

But then I remember how talented and hilarious Sandler was on Saturday Night Live and in films like “Punch Drunk Love,” where his only job was to entertain the audience, and had no input behind the camera. The same can be said for “Hotel Transylvania,” a film that should have failed on paper.

Here is the cast of voices for this animated Halloween flick: Adam Sandler as Dracula, Kevin James as Frankenstein, David Spade as the Invisible Man, CeeLo Green as the Mummy, Selena Gomez as Dracula’s daughter and Steve Buschemi as the Wolf Man. What could turn this around? How about the director, Genndy Tartakovsky, the man behind “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “Samurai Jack,” many episodes of “The Powerpuff Girls,” and co-creator of the “Star Wars: Clone Wars” mini-series.

Tartakovsky has always taken advantage of the animated genre, in particular the speed and movement, especially how unnatural it can be. Which fits perfectly for a hotel full of monsters, ghouls and abominations. “Hotel Transylvania” works because of the insanely fast pace of the comedy that never seems to stop. Every second the film is throwing new visual jokes at you, like bumping into a range of monsters in the hotel lobby as it sets off a chain of events that send magic spells and parts of Frankenstein everywhere.

The voice acting, though sporadic due to CeeLo Green and Selena Gomez, hits the nail on the head, with Sandler surprisingly being the standout performance. Not once did it feel like it was Adam Sandler doing a funny voice, but Count Dracula being an overprotective father that truly cared for all monsters. Sandler disappears in this role, which is a first for him.

“Hotel Transylvania” was a fun ride, with a great visual sense of humor and a creative animated premise. Though there are some scenes that feel out of place, especially near the end, there is a genuine love for monsters and their legacies. The film takes full advantage of its setting and characters and takes ever opportunity to throw something new at us.

Final Grade: B+

 

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