Movie Project #32 and #33: JFK [1991] and The Untouchables [1987]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

JFK [1991]
JFK: Director’s Cut [1991, dir. Oliver Stone]
In Oliver Stone’s JFK, damn near everyone is to blame for the assassination of our 35th President — the CIA, FBI, Mafia, LBJ, Castro, the Dallas Police Department, and Southern anti-Communist radicals. These targets are all linked together by New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner). The film follows his obsession with the case and his desperate attempts to uncover possible conspiracies.

Whether or not any of the theories presented in the film are true is irrelevant because JFK is simply a masterclass in the art of storytelling. So many different threads are successfully weaved in and out, and once you go down that rabbit hole, there’s no turning back. Our country will never truly know who all was involved in the shooting, but considering the fallacies in the “lone gunman” argument, I wouldn’t be surprised if the film held more truth than the government’s own Warren Commission.

For a film in which the director’s cut encompasses a whopping 206 minutes, time sure does fly by. Part of that is because the mystery regarding the assassination itself is so riveting, but a large part can be attributed to an absolutely stellar cast. Costner anchors the film, but just take a look at some of the other big names involved: Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci, Kevin Bacon, Michael Rooker, Jack Lemmon, Walter Mattheau, Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek, John Candy… Every single one of them delivers a memorable performance, all crucial to the plot in some fashion.

The film’s length is what put me off from watching it for so long, and that’s a damn shame. JFK still has me thinking to this day, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it near the top of my project at the end of the year. 9/10

The Untouchables [1987, dir. Brian De Palma]
The Untouchables [1987, dir. Brian De Palma]
Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables is a real crowd pleaser. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s got a sharp script courtesy of David Mamet, an Oscar-nominated score from the legendary Ennio Morricone, and it’s stacked with memorable setpieces featuring an all-star cast. Set during 1920s Chicago, the film follows the famous Prohibition agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and his group of “untouchables” (including a tough Irish bastard played by Sean Connery) as they seek to take down Al Capone (Robert De Niro) and his illegal bootlegging operations.

There’s a lot to like here, and it starts with the characters. Ness is a straight-laced agent, but there’s something admirable about his dedication to the law. His righthand man, the local beat cop played by Connery, is a real highlight, providing a certain energy to balance out the dry Ness. De Niro isn’t given a whole lot to work with as Capone, unfortunately, though there is one unforgettable scene where he does his best Babe Ruth impression with a baseball bat (except not on a baseball, if you know what I mean..).

Since this is a De Palma film, it is beautifully shot, and it makes brilliant use of its Chicago setting. In arguably the film’s most famous scene, a staircase inside the Union Station is used as an homage to the famous Odessa Steps sequence in the silent classic, Battleship Potemkin. Although the climax is a bit too over the top for my liking, on the whole The Untouchables is a highly entertaining film that still holds up today. 8/10

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Music Box of Horrors 2014 — A Recap

Music Box of Horrors 2014Music Box Theatre

This past weekend I was able to cross another item off my movie-related bucket list — to finally attend a horror movie marathon. Every year for the past ten years, the Music Box Theatre (the best cinema in Chicago) hosts the Music Box of Horrors (formerly the Massacre), a 24 hour horror marathon from noon to noon. The selections are always eclectic and cover the vast spectrum of the world of film, everything from silent features to modern day favorites. While I unfortunately did not make it through the entire event (more on that later), I definitely got my money’s worth.

The Phantom Carriage [1921]

I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the festival than seeing the silent classic, The Phantom Carriage, accompanied by a live organ. Widely considered one of the greatest silent films of all time, it certainly lived up to the hype in my eyes. Its innovative use of double exposures to show the ghosts (including the “phantom carriage”) was a remarkable achievement for its time. Yet for a movie in which ghosts, the grim reaper and other spooky entities appear, the most frightening aspect is alcoholism; specifically, one man’s descent toward the bottom of the bottle and his struggles to move away from it. The film shares a lot of similarities with A Christmas Carol in that it looks back at moments where the main character’s life went wrong, and it’s actually quite depressing. The experience of seeing it on the big screen with live organ accompaniment was enough to keep things from getting too dour, however.

The Man They Could Not Hang [1939]

Next up was the lesser-known Boris Karloff sci-fi/horror flick, The Man They Could Not Hang. Karloff, entertaining as always, plays a scientist who has developed a mechanical heart which he hopes will bring the dead back to life. When he gets charged for the murder of one of his patients, he is sentenced to death, only to come back to life thanks to the very procedure he invented. He becomes a man out for revenge, trapping those who found him guilty while attempting to kill them off one-by-one. It’s a good bit of b-grade fun that doesn’t take itself seriously. At just 64 minutes long, it doesn’t overstay its welcome either.

Cat People [1942]

Another short-but-sweet low-budget classic was to follow, the original 1942 film Cat People. This one had a bit of a goofy premise — a young Serbian woman (a playful Simone Simon) believes she will turn into a panther when aroused, all because of an ancient tribal curse — but it works because of a terrific sense of atmosphere. We never see the woman physically change, but due to some creative camerawork and use of shadows, we can sense her threatening presence. Fun fact: director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca later collaborated on one of the all-time great noirs, Out of the Past.

The Curse of the Werewolf [1961]

I was really looking forward to the next screening, The Curse of the Werewolf, because I had somehow never seen a Hammer film before. Unfortunately, I found it to be disappointing. The story was all over the place, and too much time was spent building up to such a small payoff. The werewolf itself didn’t make an appearance until the final ten minutes or so, and by then it was too little, too late. The makeup and special effects were major highlights, but the film itself didn’t do much for me.

The Borrower [1991]

The centerpiece of the marathon was arguably John McNaughton’s fairly obscure 1991 film, The Borrower, presented on Laserdisc (!) from the director’s own personal collection. McNaughton and a few others involved with the film were at the screening, and they did a Q&A session afterward. Originally the plan was to screen the director’s most popular work, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but he offered to bring in The Borrower, a film that he hasn’t “discussed to death.” From the sound of it, the filming process was a real bitch, but the end result still holds up quite well. This was a crazy, over-the-top sci-fi/horror hybrid that was a real crowd pleaser. An alien serial killer is charged with murder and sent to live on Earth in human form as its punishment. It spends its time “borrowing” the heads of humans, acquiring new ones whenever its current head randomly explodes. Rae Dawn Chong (Commando, The Color Purple) stars as the police officer who is trying to figure out just what the hell is going on. It’s all utterly ridiculous, but also a total blast.

Nosferatu the Vampyre [1979]

At this point during the marathon, I was dealing with some really bad back pain (the seats at the Music Box aren’t especially conducive to long-term sitting, and I have on-and-off back troubles anyway) so I decided to take a break after the next film: Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, starring the inimitable Klaus Kinski. This was another one I was eager to see, as I had really enjoyed another Herzog/Kinski collaboration from a past 50 Movies Project: Aguirre, the Wrath of God. It did not disappoint. Kinski’s portrayal of Count Dracula is downright frightening, and the film excels at building up a sense of dread. There is death and filth everywhere (so many rats…), and the film is about as dark as it gets.

Nosferatu the Vampyre turned out to be the end of my marathon, as I biked back home, passed out and didn’t get up in time for any of the morning screenings. I missed out on Dead Snow 2 (which I already saw and reviewed this summer), Nightmare, Shakma, Don’t Look in the Basement, Just Before Dawn and Audition (which I was hoping to revisit). Alas, I had a great time even though I only made it through half of the event.

Line of the night: “The law is quite explicit, one cannot divorce an insane person.” (Cat People)
Runner-up: “My dear Mr. District Attorney, your law is shockingly bad. I have the perfect alibi. I am legally dead. Your business is with the living.” (The Man They Could Not Hang)

Final rundown:
The Phantom Carriage [1921] – 8/10
The Man They Could Not Hang [1939] – 7/10
Cat People [1942] – 7/10
The Curse of the Werewolf [1961] – 5/10
The Borrower [1991] – 7/10
Nosferatu the Vampyre [1979] – 8/10

Movie Project #30 and #31: Apollo 13 [1995] & Philadelphia [1993]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

Apollo 13 [1995]
Apollo 13 [1995, dir. Ron Howard]
Ah yes, “Houston, we have a problem.” Ron Howard’s spin on the near-disastrous real-life Apollo 13 mission certainly has its place in pop culture history. It also serves as an intriguing history lesson, especially for someone (i.e. me) who somehow had not seen this over the last nineteen years.

Apollo 13 tells the story of what should have been America’s third Moon landing mission, one that ultimately put the crew’s lives in danger due to a mechanical defect. Even though I had known at the very least that the crew would survive, the film remains a mostly suspenseful ride. The three men aboard the spacecraft, Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), frantically work together with Mission Control back in Houston (led by a flight director played by Ed Harris) in order to make it home alive. Naturally, there’s quite a bit of tension, and the moments where everyone is able to come up with possible solutions feel like genuine triumphs. By all accounts, the film is also technically accurate, and this really enhances its overall presentation.

The cast here is terrific, though I wish characters other than Hanks’s Lovell would have been fleshed out more. I felt bad for Bacon’s Swigert, as he gets little to no development after being selected as a last-minute replacement for an astronaut with possible impending measles (played by Gary Sinise). Paxton’s character is also lacking in depth, which is surprising since these three men are essentially considered equals on the same team, yet only Hanks is given proper attention. Still, regardless of these character flaws, Apollo 13 does remain an engaging account of a mission that could have been an awful tragedy. 7/10

Philadelphia [1993]
Philadelphia [1993, dir. Jonathan Demme]
Philadelphia has its place in history for being one of the first Hollywood films to tackle HIV/AIDS and homophobia, and for that, it certainly deserves some praise. It helps to have two powerhouse performances from two of the best actors in the business as well.

Tom Hanks plays Andrew Beckett, an AIDS-stricken lawyer who is fired solely because of his condition. He enlists the help of Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), the only willing attorney in Philadelphia to file this wrongful dismission suit. Miller is homophobic, and the film makes sure to remind us this over and over again. Some scenes meant to establish this are laughable (such as one where Miller is hit on at a pharmacy by a football-carrying man), but Washington is so good that he transcends the sometimes cringe-worthy dialogue. Hanks won an Oscar for his performance, and perhaps deservedly so — this is among his best work.

Philadelphia has its heart in the right place — the fact that it helped deconstruct so many myths about AIDS is fantastic — but it fails in other accounts. For a film in which its main character is a gay man in a loving relationship with another (played by Antonio Banderas), I can’t recall seeing two men kiss at all during its run time. Perhaps the world wasn’t ready for this at the time, but it seems like a glaring oversight. Philadelphia is still a captivating watch, as well as a solid courtroom drama, but its issues are more noticeable today. 7/10

Month In Review [September 2014]

In order of viewing:
1) Master and Commander: Far Side of the World [2003] – 8/10
Master and Commander: Far Side of the World [2003]

2) Dead Silence [2007] – 3/10
Dead Silence [2007]

3) Waking Life [2001] – 8/10
Waking Life [2001]

4) Apollo 13 [1995] – 7/10
Apollo 13 [1995]

5) Philadelphia [1993] – 7/10
Philadelphia [1993]

6) Tape [2001] – 7/10
Tape [2001]

7) The Untouchables [1987] – 8/10
The Untouchables [1987]

8) The Aviator [2004] – 8/10
The Aviator [2004]

Video Games Completed:
1) Batman: Arkham Asylum [Xbox 360]* – 9/10
Batman: Arkham Asylum [Xbox 360]

2) South Park: The Stick of Truth [Xbox 360] – 8/10
South Park: The Stick of Truth [Xbox 360]

3) The Walking Dead: Season Two [Xbox 360] – 9/10
The Walking Dead: Season Two [Xbox 360]

* denotes replay

TV Shows Finished:
1) Veep [Season 2] – 8/10
Veep [Season 2]

2) Archer [Season 2] – 8/10
Archer [Season 2]

Best of the Month: Aside from one misfire which I will get to in the next section, I had a great (albeit slow) month of movie watching. Although I rated most of them similarly, I have to give the edge to Waking Life as my favorite of the group. Richard Linklater’s philosophical animated film raises a lot of intriguing thoughts and questions, though I can’t pretend to understand some of its more weightier segments. Definitely one I would like to revisit at some point. For video games, the second season of The Walking Dead was just as bleak and depressing as the first one, and I loved it pretty much all the way through. It doesn’t have a character on the level of Lee from season one, but it’s still an excellent followup, and I am very curious to see where the next season goes.

Worst of the Month: I have mostly enjoyed director James Wan’s past work (particularly Saw and The Conjuring), but Dead Silence is just an awful, awful film. It has a cliché-ridden plot, laughable performances (Ryan Kwanten and Donnie Wahlberg, ladies and gentlemen) and some seriously cringe-worthy dialogue. Worst of all, there is no sense of dread anywhere. Just very disappointing.

Movie Project #28 and #29: Pirates of the Caribbean [2003] & Master and Commander [2003]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl [2003, dir. Gore Verbinski]
It’s kind of amazing that I have managed to evade the Pirates of the Caribbean series over the years. It wasn’t until recently (say, in the last couple years) that I was even aware of the theme park ride that served as Curse of the Black Pearl‘s inspiration. Nowadays, it’s not inconceivable to make an enjoyable film based on something so shallow (i.e. The Lego Movie), but I imagine it was quite the surprise back then.

In a nutshell, Curse of the Black Pearl is a huge budget adventure flick that relies heavily on its uniquely strange — and charismatic — lead, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). There’s no denying Sparrow is a great character, and Depp delivers a performance so likable that it inspired him to basically play (mostly uninspired) variations of this for the next several years. Geoffrey Rush matches him step-for-step in the form of the villainous Barbossa, and the two of them make for quite the pairing. Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley also play pivotal characters, but they are far less interesting. When neither Sparrow nor Barbossa are on screen, the film suffers slightly.

Curse of the Black Pearl overstays its welcome a bit, but it does manage to find the right mix of action and humor (with a dash of romance) throughout. It’s easy to see why this became a successful movie franchise, although it’s also surprising how dark it can be, given the Disney name attached to it. 7/10

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World [2003, dir. Peter Weir]
Whereas Pirates of the Caribbean is a fantastical adventure with skeleton pirates and an eccentric hero, Master and Commander comes across as authentic as it gets. While I don’t know a starboard from a poop deck, I was continually impressed with how this Peter Weir feature doesn’t dumb down its content for the audience. The very first scene throws us right into the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, with Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and his HMS Surprise being ambushed by a French privateer ship that is significantly larger in size. It isn’t until the battle scene is over that the film sheds some light on what we just saw, thanks to some dialogue between Aubrey and others on the ship. Even then, the conversation feels natural, and not forced to enlighten us as viewers.

It’s this sense of realism that really impressed me with the film. Crowe makes Aubrey out to be a great leader, but not one without flaws. He is kept partly in check via his friend and ship doctor, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), a man who finds respite in the form of species observation and collecting. They provide a good balance for each other, with the doctor being the more levelheaded of the two.

Master and Commander makes for an excellent underdog story, as Aubrey leads the HMS Surprise across the high seas frantically in pursuit of the French ship that damn near destroyed them at the beginning of the film. Pursuing rather than retreating is a ballsy move, but this chase makes for an increasingly entertaining adventure. It’s a shame that Master and Commander has become a bit of a forgotten film, because this is a great piece of historical fiction. 8/10

Movie Project #27: Top Gun [1986]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

Top Gun [1986]

Top Gun [1986] 
Director: Tony Scott
Writers: Jim Cash & Jack Epps, Jr.
Country: USA
Genre: Action/Drama/Romance
Starring: Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards
Running Time: 110 minutes

It’s near impossible to watch Top Gun without thinking of the countless references and parodies it has spawned since its release. Between the running “Danger Zone” gags in Archer and Quentin Tarantino’s infamous homosexuality theory (not to mention Hot Shots!), there’s just no way Top Gun can be taken seriously. Of course, it helps that the film itself is a loud, brash “AMERICA FUCK YEAH!” Polaroid-taking, middle finger-waving, karaoke-singing cinematic spectacle.

Top Gun is about two things: fighter jets and “Maverick” Pete Mitchell (Tom Cruise), a cocky navy pilot who is both reckless and dangerous (Danger Zone!) yet can manage to win people over just by flashing his blinding smile. Maverick and his best pal Goose (Anthony Edwards) are recruited to attend the Navy’s elite Fighter Weapons School (aka “Top Gun”) where the small group of students compete to be the best in the class. The top competition at the school is the smug and confident Iceman (Val Kilmer), who immediately butts heads with the loudmouthed Maverick. Their rivalry serves as the crux of the movie, with both men attempting to win the prestigious “best in class” award.

Top Gun [1986]

Along the way, Maverick falls in love with his school instructor, Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), deals with the tragic death of his best friend, and continuously gets reprimanded by his superiors. Yet even with so much going on, he never changes. There is a brief respite where he appears to gain some humility, but by the end of the film, he’s still the same reckless S-O-B he was at the beginning.

But who cares about what happens on the ground when we can watch high-class dogfighting in the air, right? Top Gun follows a distinct air-land-air-land-air formula, with the jet scenes full of exhilarating high-octane action. The combative flying is intense and often disorienting, but damn if Tony Scott doesn’t make it look good. It’s no wonder the Air Force enlistment rate went way up after this film’s release — Top Gun makes being a navy pilot look like the best thing in the world.

Top Gun [1986]

What’s most amusing when watching the film today is the clear gay subtext between the pilots. When Maverick and Iceman first meet in class, they can’t stop looking at each other. There is some serious sexual tension right there, moreso than that between Maverick and Charlie. The film overall is dripping in machismo and homoeroticism. There are several lines about “hard-ons” and “johnsons”, constant moments where the men are shirtless and/or in their underwear (while making it a point to talk very closely to each other), and of course, there’s the infamous volleyball scene. When you sit down and look out for these moments, the film gains an all-new perspective. I think Tarantino was onto something here.

And who could forget the classic soundtrack? I had to keep a running tally of which song was played more — “Danger Zone” or “Take My Breath Away“? The latter won, four times to three, though it is “Danger Zone” that is still stuck in my head to this day. These songs still resonate today, as evidenced by the crowd going nuts when producer Giorgio Moroder played both hits at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival.

With the adrenaline-pumping action scenes and Tom Cruise’s otherworldly charisma, it’s not hard to see why so many people flocked to the box office back in ’86. In many ways, Top Gun feels like the definitive ’80s popcorn flick — it’s not a very good movie, but it can be pretty damn entertaining.


Video Game Review: Velocity 2X [PS Vita/PS4]

Velocity 2X [PS Vita/PS4]

Velocity 2X 
System: PS Vita [reviewed], PS4
Genre: Shoot ’em up, platformer
Developer: FuturLab
Publisher: FuturLab
Price: $19.99 (cross buy, free for PS+ members)
Release Date: September 2, 2014

Velocity Ultra was a bit of a sleeper indie hit on the Playstation Network last year, and today sees the release of its much-anticipated sequel Velocity 2X.

Whereas Ultra innovated with its unique hybrid of shoot ’em up gameplay and puzzles involving teleportation, 2X expands upon this template by bringing in a brand new dynamic: side-scrolling platforming. The transition between shmup action and platforming is seamless, and it tactfully brings together two genres that you normally wouldn’t think of combining.

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Video Game Review: Crimsonland [PS Vita/PS4/Steam]

Crimsonland [PS Vita/PS4]

System: PS Vita [reviewed], PS4, Steam
Genre: Top-down shooter
Developer: 10tons Ltd.
Publisher: 10tons Ltd.
Price: $8.99 (cross buy)
Release Date: August 19, 2014 (Vita)

Crimsonland is an apt title for a game that lets you paint the landscape red with the blood of your enemies. Originally released for the PC way back in 2003, this kinda-cult classic has been remastered and released on Steam, PS4 and PS Vita. For this review, I am focusing on the Vita version.

In this top-down shooter, you play as an unnamed soldier with your goal being to kill everything in sight — including aliens, spiders, zombies and mutant lizards. These enemies flood the screen in large waves, dozens at a time. Certain levels push that number closer to 100, creating some ridiculous mayhem on screen (with no slowdown either). As you wipe out more and more enemies, the game’s backdrop begins to turn red — a fitting portrait of the chaos around you.

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Movie Project #26: Rudy [1993]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

Rudy [1993]

Rudy [1993] 
Director: David Anspaugh
Writer: Angelo Pizzo
Country: USA
Genre: Biography/Drama/Sport
Starring: Sean Astin, Jon Favreau, Ned Beatty
Running Time: 114 minutes

When it comes to inspirational films, Rudy has a surefire winning formula. It’s based on a true story, it involves a massive underdog, and it’s about someone who refuses to stop following his dreams. Football is at the heart of the story, but it’s the type of feel good flick that can appeal to anyone.

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