Film Review: Cutthroat Island (dir by Renny Harlin)


Today is Talk Like A Pirate Day which, let’s just be honest, is an extremely stupid holiday that mainly exists to remind us that “doubloon” is a deeply silly word.

Doubloons were a currency that were popular in Europe and South America back in the 18th century and pirates were always looking for doubloons.  If you listen to enough pirate talk, you’ll quickly discover that there’s a lot different ways to say the word doubloon.  Some people put the emphasis on the fist syllable while others emphasize the second.  Some people say Due-bloon while others say Duh-bloon.  Either way, it’s impossible to listen to pirates talk about doubloons without thinking that they sound very, very silly.  The secret behind the success of The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is an understanding that it’s impossible to take pirates seriously.

Unfortunately, I chose not to watch The Pirates of the Caribbean for Talk Like A Pirate Day.  Instead, I watched 1995’s Cutthroat Island.

Cutthroat Island is a story of pirates, a lost treasure, and one big sea battle that literally seems to go on and on.  There is occasional talk of doubloons, though not enough for my liking.  Instead, most of the film deals with the efforts of Morgan (Geena Davis) to find a hidden treasure before her uncle, Dawg (Frank Langella), discovers it.  Morgan has one-third of a map.  It was originally tattooed on her father’s head.  After he died, she scalped him and took over his boat.  She also purchased a swashbuckling slave named Shaw (Matthew Modine) because Shaw is capable of reading Latin, the language in which the map is written.  Needless to say, Shaw and Mogan fall in love while Dawg teams up with corrupt colonial officials to not only track down the treasure but to also capture his niece.

The film starts out as a romance with a dash of comedy before eventually transforming into a standard action movie.  That means that boats get blown up and there’s a lot of scenes of people fencing.  There’s also a lot of slow motion footage of bodies plunging into the ocean.  The climatic battle goes on forever and it actually features Morgan hissing, “Bad dawg!” at her uncle.

(Amazingly, “Bad Dawg” isn’t the worst of the dialogue to be heard in Cutthroat Island.  Morgan has a habit of saying stuff like, “I will maroon you on a rock the size of this table, instead of splattering your brains across my bulkhead” and “Since you lie so easily and since you are so shallow, I shall lie you in a shallow grave.”)

Throughout the film, there are hints of what Cutthroat Island could have been, if it hadn’t been such a by-the-numbers action flick.  The fact that it was Morgan who was continually rescuing Shaw was a nice change-of-pace from the usual damsel-in-distress clichés that one finds in most pirate movies.  When Morgan effortlessly breaks the neck of a soldier and sets free her crew, it’s a great moment, comparable to Angelina Jolie taking out Liev Schreiber in Salt or Milla Jovovich kicking zombie ass in a Resident Evil film.  Unfortunately, director Renny Harlin (who was married to star Geena Davis, at the time) is usually too concerned with getting to the next action set piece to truly take advantage of the film’s subversive potential.

Frank Langella is smart enough to bellow his way through his villainous role while Matthew Modine appears to be so amused by the film’s terrible dialogue that it’s impossible not to like him.  Geena Davis is convincing when she’s breaking necks and swinging swords but she delivers her dialogue like someone who has already figured out that the movie was a bad idea and resigned herself to the fact that her film career will never recover.  She doesn’t appear to be having any fun, which kind of defeats the purpose of being a pirate.

Cutthroat Island was a huge and notorious box office flop and it’s still considered to be one of the biggest financial disasters in film history.  Apparently, Hollywood was so traumatized that it would be another 8 years before there was another major pirate production.  That production, of course, was Pirates of the Caribbean, a film that captured the fun that was so lacking in Cutthroat Island.

A Movie A Day #284: Brainscan (1994, directed by John Flynn)


Michael Bower (Edward Furlong) is a 15 year-old loser who walks with a limp and still has nightmares about the night his mother was killed in a car wreck.  Brainscan is the new PC game that Michael makes the mistake of playing.  In the game, Michael is encouraged by The Trickster (T. Ryder Smith) to kill both his friends and complete strangers.  When Michael starts finding body parts around his house, he realizes that whenever he kills someone in the game, he kills them in real life too.

Though it may be forgotten now, Brainscan was heavily promoted when it was first released.  I think the producers were hoping to turn The Trickster into the new Freddy and get a new horror franchise out of it.  Like most films from the 90s that dealt with computers and gamers, Brainscan is now as dated as dial-up internet.  T. Ryder Smith does ok as the Trickster but it is difficult to take him seriously because he has a big red mohawk skullet and he dresses like the keyboard player in every new wave band that has ever synthesized.  As for Furlong, he had apparently already entered the I-no-longer-give-a-shit phase of his career when he made Brainscan.  Add to that one of the worst endings that I have ever seen in a horror movie and Brainscan is one film that is easy to forget.

It is easy to say what Brainscan is lacking: suspense, gore, and horror.  It is less easy to say what would have made it better.  Considering its suburban setting, I think Brainscan would have been improved by cameos from the stars of Shattered If Your Kid’s On Drugs.

With Burt Reynolds and Judd Nelson around to serve as mentors, Eddie Furlong never would have gotten addicted to playing video games in the first place.

Right, Burt?

Horror Film Review: Dracula (dir by John Badham)


I have to admit that, when I first sat down to watch the 1979 version of Dracula, I wasn’t expecting much.  I hadn’t even heard of the film until I came across it on Encore and, when I considered that it was made in 1979, I immediately assumed it would be a disco Dracula film.

And, let’s be honest — a disco Dracula film sounds kinda fun.  But still, it’s Halloween.  Dracula is an icon of horror.  And somehow, the idea of watching disco Dracula just was not appealing.  It would be appealing in November or September.  BUT THIS IS OCTOBER!

Well, despite my misgivings, I watched the film and I quickly discovered that it wasn’t a disco Dracula at all.  This Dracula takes place in 1913 and there’s actually very little about it that would lead you to suspect that it had been made in the 1970s.  Instead, it feels more like a tribute to the colorful and lushly erotic Dracula films that Hammer produced in the 60s.  Except, oddly, the Hammer films were far more bloody than the 1979 version.  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  There’s a few gory scenes in 1979’s Dracula.  Towards the end of the film, there’s a rather bloody impaling.  Dracula graphically breaks another character’s neck as we watch.  But, even with those scenes in mind, the 1979 Dracula feels oddly restrained at times.

In this version of Dracula, the title character is played by a youngish Frank Langella.  I have to admit that it was a bit odd to see Langella playing someone other than a corrupt authority figure.  Dare I say it, Langella is almost sexy in this film and his somewhat feral features are perfect for a character who considers wolves to be “the children of the night.”  Langella’s performance falls between the haughty charm of Bela Lugosi and the animalistic fury of Christopher Lee.  And while Langella’s performance never quite reaches the heights of those two actors, he’s still effectively cast.

As for the film itself, it starts with a shipwreck near a local asylum.  One of the passengers on that ship is the charming but mysterious Count Dracula.  Dracula introduces himself to the head of the asylum, Dr. Jack Seward (Donald Pleasence, stealing almost every scene in which he appears).  There’s an immediate attraction between Dracula and Seward’s daughter, Lucy (Kate Nelligan).  That does not amuse Lucy’s fiancee, Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve, who is perhaps the whiniest Harker in film history).

Meanwhile, Lucy’s best friend, Mina (Jan Francis), has been taken ill and it might have something to do with the two puncture marks on her neck.  After Mina dies, her father (played by Laurence Olivier) comes to investigate.  Her father’s name?  Abraham Van Helsing.

As I said, I was not expecting much from this version of Dracula so I was actually pleasantly surprised during the first hour of the film.  This version gets off to a nice start, with director John Badham giving us a mix of lush romanticism and gothic moodiness.  I’ve already talked about Langella’s performance but  Donald Pleasence and Laurence Olivier also distinguish themselves.  It’s obvious that these veteran performers enjoyed playing opposite each other and there’s a lot of pleasure to be found from watching Pleasence and Olivier compete to see who can steal the most scenes.

Unfortunately, after that strong first hour, Dracula slows down.  Once Seward and Van Helsing know that Dracula is a vampire, the whole movie becomes about finding excuses for them to not do anything about it.  The final 40 minutes feel almost like filler and, at one point, you’re required to believe that an elderly man, who has been seriously wounded, could still find the strength to swing a hook into a much stronger person’s back.

In the end, the 1979 Dracula is more of an intriguing oddity than a definitive version.

So, I Finally Watched Grace of Monaco…


Grace_of_Monaco_PosterWell, I finally saw Grace of Monaco and…

Oh God.

Seriously, I am sitting here right now and I am just thinking to myself, “Oh God, do I really have to try to think up something interesting to say about this movie?”  Grace of Monaco is not a good movie but, at the same time, it’s bad in the worst way possible.  It’s not so bad-that-its-entertaining.  Instead, it’s just a dull misfire.

In fact, probably the only really interesting thing about Grace of Monaco is that it is the first film to go from opening Cannes to premiering on Lifetime.  Though it may seem impossible to believe now, there was a time in 2013 when everyone was expecting Grace of Monaco to be a major Oscar contender.  It seemed like everyone was saying that Nicole Kidman was a lock for a best actress nomination and maybe more!

Then the film’s American release date was moved from November of 2013 to June of 2014.  Rumor had it that the infamous Harvey Weinstein was chopping up the film and destroying the vision of director Olivier Dahan.  “Bad Harvey!” we all said.  (Of course, having now seen the film, I can understand why Harvey may have had some concerns…)

Okay, we told ourselves, Grace of Monaco probably won’t be a best picture contender.  But surely Nicole Kidman can get a nomination.  Surely the costumes and the production design will be honored…

And then the film played opening night at the Cannes Film Festival and it was greeted with less than appreciate reviews.  In fact, the reaction to the film was so negative that it has since become somewhat legendary.

And so, the American premiere was canceled.  The film opened in Europe, where it made little money and received scathing reviews.  But it was destined to never play in an American theater.  Instead, Grace of Monaco was sold to the Lifetime network.

And, after all of the drama and the waiting, I finally got to see Grace of Monaco tonight and … well, bleh.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s a pretty movie.  I loved looking at what everyone was wearing.  I enjoyed looking at the ornate settings.  Whenever Grace Kelly stopped to look out at the view from the palace, I appreciated it because it was a beautiful view.  If I had hit mute and simply enjoyed the film as a look at beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes and living in beautiful houses, I probably would have enjoyed it a lot more.

But, unfortunately, Grace of Monaco has a plot that gets in the way.  The evil French, led by Charles De Gualle (played by Andre Penvern, who gives a performance that would probably be more appropriate for a James Bond film), want to take over Monaco because the citizens of Monaco don’t pay any income tax.  (I was totally Team Monaco as far as this was concerned.  Everyone should stop paying their taxes.  If we all do it, we’ll be fine.  They can’t prosecute all of us!)  Only Princess Grace Kelly can stop them but first, she has to convince her headstrong husband, Prince Rainier (Tim Roth), to listen to her opinions.  She has to convince her subjects that she’s more than just an opinionated American.

But Grace doesn’t just want to keep the French out of Monaco!  She also wants to return to her film career.  Alfred Hitchcock (Roger Ashton-Griffiths) wants her to star in Marnie.  (Hitchcock is always filmed as being slightly out-of-focus.)  Rainier doesn’t want her to return to acting.  And neither does a priest played by Frank Langella…

What was Frank Langella doing in this movie?  I have no idea.  He was some sort of advisor.  I understand that he’s based on a historical figure but honestly, the film was so boring that I can’t even bring myself to go on Wikipedia to find out who exactly he was.

But really, the main issue with Grace of Monaco is that it tells us absolutely nothing about Grace Kelly.  The film doesn’t seem to know who she was or what it wants to say about her.  And Nicole Kidman is a good actress and I hope that I look as good as she does when I’m 47 and after I’ve given birth to two children but seriously, she seems to be totally lost in this film.  Olivier Dahan fills the film with close-ups of Kidman’s face but for what reason?  Never for a minute do we believe we’re looking at the face of the star of High Noon, Rear Window, or To Catch A Thief.  Instead, we’re always aware that we’re looking at Nicole Kidman and she doesn’t seem to be sure just what exactly she’s supposed to be doing.  We learn nothing about Grace, Monaco, France, royalty, or movies.

And it’s a shame really.  Because the story of Grace Kelly would make a great film.  But Grace of Monaco doesn’t really tell you anything about her life.

It’s just boring and a film about an actress like Grace Kelly has absolutely no right to be boring.

Shattered Politics #76: Good Night, and Good Luck (dir by George Clooney)


Goodnight_posterOne of my favorite episodes of South Park is called Smug Alert!  As you may remember, this is the episode where the citizens of South Park all buy hybrid cars and end up getting so self-satisfied that a dangerous cloud of smug forms over the town.  At the same time, another smug storm is racing across the United States.  This smug storm was created by the speech that George Clooney gave when he won the Oscar for Syriana.  When those two clouds of smug meet, it’s the perfect storm.  It also ends up destroying San Francisco.

The same year that Clooney was named Best Supporting Actor for Syriana, he was also nominated for directing the 2005 best picture nominee, Good Night, and Good Luck.  In his speech, Clooney specifically said that he felt he was winning supporting actor to make up for not winning director and proceeded to give the speech that he would have given if he had won director.

And looking back, I think that we do have to admit that it was a very smug speech.

Fortunately, Good Night, and Good Luck has aged better than Clooney’s speech.

I do have to admit that, when I recently rewatched Good Night and Good Luck, I was a little concerned.  I always manage to forget that the film starts on a really bad note.  The year is 1958 and news anchorman Edward R. Murrow (played by David Strathairn) is receiving an award.  As Murrow stands behind the podium, he proceeds to give a long and self-righteous speech about how television should be used not to entertain but to educate as well.  And, quite frankly, he comes across like such a pompous blowhard that I was dreading the idea of having to spend the next 90 or so minutes with him.

But then, fortunately, the film entered into flashback mode and, until the final few minutes of the film, we didn’t have to listen to anymore of Murrow’s speech.  The majority of Good Night and Good Luck takes place in 1953.  U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (who appears in archival footage throughout the film) has declared that he has the names of communists who hold important positions in both the government and the media.  Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly (George Clooney) defy the corporate overlords of CBS and bravely investigate and challenge McCarthy’s claims.  McCarthy and his henchmen respond by trying to smear both Murrow and one of his reporters (Robert Downey, Jr.) as a communists.  As always seems to happen in films about McCarthyism, another supporting character reacts to the change of communism by committing suicide.  And, in this particular vision of the fight against Joseph McCarthy, Edward R. Murrow and the media save America.

Of course, if you actually make the effort to learn history, you’ll discover that it wasn’t just Edward R. Murrow who stood up to McCarthy.  In fact, you’ll discover that Murrow stood up to McCarthy after several other prominent people — on both sides of the political divide — had already done so.  If anything, the real-life Murrow seems to have more in common with pompous scold seen at the beginning and end of the film, as opposed to the one that we see standing up to McCarthy.

One can very legitimately debate whether or not Murrow deserves all of the credit that he’s given in this film.  Still, the film does make a larger and very important point.  We, as Americans, have to always be on guard against witch hunts and against demagogues and the forces of fear and paranoia that are always trying to shape our politics.  And, whether or not Murrow was a hero or just a bystander, one cannot deny that the larger message of Goodnight, and Good Luck remains as relevant today as when the film was originally released.

Judging from some of his other films — The Monuments Men and the Ides of March — I don’t particularly feel that George Clooney is that good of a director.  But he does do a good job with Good Night and Good Luck.  (In fact, he does such a good job that you can’t help but feel that it’s the exception to the rule as far as Clooney the director is concerned.)  Filmed in wonderful black-and-white and full of good performances, Good Night, and Good Luck remains surprisingly watchable.

Just avoid any George Clooney Oscar speeches while watching it.  San Francisco has never recovered.

Shattered Politics #54: Dave (dir by Ivan Reitman)


Dave Poster

Way back in 1919, the terrible U.S. President and tyrannical dictator Woodrow Wilson* suffered a stroke that left him semi-paralyzed and unable to perform his duties.  By all standards, Wilson should have been removed from office, if just temporarily.  However, in those pre-Internet days, it was a lot easier to hide the truth about Wilson’s physical and mental condition.  While Wilson spent his days locked away in his bedroom, his wife Edith would forge his signature on bills.  Whenever anyone asked for the President’s opinion, Edith would give her opinion and then assure everyone that it was actually the President’s.

(And really, as long as you were promoting eugenics and white supremacy, it probably was not difficult to imitate Wilson’s opinions.)

Of course, back then, people were used to the idea of never seeing their President in public.  Hence, it was very easy for Wilson to remain sequestered in the White House.  If a similar situation happened today, it’s doubtful that anyone could successfully keep the public from finding out.  When we don’t see the President every day, we wonder why.  How, in this day and age, could a Presidential incapacitation be covered up?

The 1993 film Dave offers up one possible solution.

Dave is the story of two men who happen to look exactly like Kevin Kline.  One of them is named Bill Mitchell and he’s the arrogant and corrupt President of the United States.  The other is named Dave Kovic.  He’s a nice guy who runs a temp agency and who has a nice side job going as a professional Bill Mitchell imitator.

So, when Bill has a stroke while having sex with a white house staffer (Laura Linney), it only makes sense to recruit Dave Kovic to pretend to the President.  White House Chief of Staff Bob Alexander (played by Frank Langella, so you know he’s evil) tells Dave that Vice President Nance (Ben Kingsley) is insane and corrupt.  Dave agrees to imitate the President.  Of course, Alexander’s main plan is to convince Nance to resign and then get Dave to appoint him as Vice President.  Once Alexander is Vice President, it will be announced that Mitchell has had another stroke and then Alexander will move into the Oval Office.

However, what Alexander did not take into account was just how much Dave would enjoy being President.  From the moment that he joyfully shouts, “God Bless, America!,” Dave’s enthusiasm starts to win the public over.  Suddenly, people are realizing that President Mitchell isn’t such a bad President after all.  Even more importantly, Dave wins over the first lady (Sigourney Weaver) who, previously, had little use for her philandering husband.  When Alexander claims that there’s no money in the budget to continue funding a program for the homeless, Dave calls in his best friend, an accountant named Murray (Charles Grodin), and has him rewrite the budget…

And you know what?

Dave is one of those films that tempts me to be all cynical and snarky but, ultimately, the film itself is so likable and earnest that I can even accept the idea that one accountant could balance the budget through common sense alone.  I’ll even accept the idea that Dave could come up with a program that would guarantee everyone employment without, at the same time, bankrupting the country.  Kevin Kline is so enthusiastic in the lead role and the film itself is so good-natured that it almost feels wrong to criticize it for being totally implausible.

Sometimes, you just have to appreciate a film for being likable.

Dave—–

* For those of you keeping count, that’s the third time in two weeks that I’ve referred to Woodrow Wilson as being  a dictator.  Before anyone points out that some historians rank Wilson as being in the top ten of President, allow me to say that I don’t care.  I DO WHAT I WANT!

So, was Noah good or not?


Poster-Noah-Aronofsky

Was Noah a good movie or not?

That’s a question that was first asked way back in March.  At the time, the answer depended on who you asked.  For instance, Noah is one of Arleigh’s favorite films of the year.  My reaction, however, was far more mixed.  Noah was one of those movies that I thought I would review as soon as I watched it but that proved to be a lot more difficult than I expected.  As I found myself wondering what I should say in my review, it became very apparent to me that I wasn’t sure whether I liked the film or not.

By the time that I finally decided that I was, overall, disappointed by Darren Aronofsky’s controversial and spiritual-but-not-quite-biblical version of the Deluge, over a month had passed and we had all moved on to different movies.

And so that review remained unwritten.  And, at first, I thought it wouldn’t matter.  As much as I try to review every single movie that I see, I know that the world is not going to end if I miss a film or two.  After all, I’ve never specifically written down just how much I hated the latest Transformers movie and the world has yet to plunge into the sun…

And yet, for all of its flaws and the fact that it left me feeling underwhelmed, Noah has stuck in my mind in a way that many of the films that I saw this year have not.  It would be a struggle for me to remember much of anything about Dracula Untold but Noah Noah has stayed with me.

Thinking back, it’s easy for me to say what did not work about Noah.

As opposed to Aronofsky’s best films (Requiem for A Dream, The Wrestler, and my beloved Black Swan), Noah felt oddly paced with certain scenes ending too quickly while other scenes seemed to drag on forever.

The film’s environmental message was delivered with such a heavy hand that it ultimately did not make much of a difference whether you agreed or not.  For a film that went out of its way to establish itself as not being a traditional biblical film, Noah was certainly preachy.

While the film deserves credit for not flinching in its portrait of a surly and self-righteous Noah, it still doesn’t change the fact that the movie was essentially 138 minutes spent with a very unlikable character.

Anthony Hopkins gave perhaps the worst performance of his career as Methuselah.  In the role of Tubal-Cain, Ray Winstone was such a one-dimensional villain that I half expected him to invent trains just so he could tie Emma Watson to the tracks.

And, of course, there were the Watchers — fallen angels who had been turned into sentient piles of stone by a vengeful God.  I know that some people loved the Watchers but to me, they looked ludicrous…

NoahWatchers

And yet, that’s the reason why we love Darren Aronofsky, isn’t it?

Obviously, it was a risk to portray the fallen angels as being a bunch of talking rocks.  It was also a risk to take a character who is mentioned only once in the book of Genesis — in this case, Tubal-Cain — and then use that character as a representation of everything that’s wrong with the human race.  It was a risk to make a “biblical” film that openly questioned both the existence and wisdom of God.  We expect and demand that directors take risks but, at the same time, we also want to ridicule and judge when those risks don’t work out.  That’s the issue that we, as film lovers, often face.  Do we celebrate and perhaps excuse a director for his intentions or do we solely judge him based on the results?

And the thing with Noah is that, as much as the movie did not work for me, it also did work for me.  For all of those flaws that I listed above, Noah is full of images that are so beautiful and so memorable that I can still visualize them as if I saw them yesterday:

Noah and his sons walk across a gray and blasted landscape, stopping just long enough to stare at a foreboding city in the distance.

Noah walks through a decadent settlement and briefly, this somber film is so full of bright colors and flamboyant characters that the viewer is almost as overwhelmed as Noah.

That Ark, looking small and isolated, floating across an endless blue ocean.

And finally, Noah talking about the horrors of humanity and briefly, we see that the shadows that he’s visualizing are dressed in modern clothing.

For all of my issues with Noah, it’s such a visually impressive film and takes so many risks that I can’t help but respect it.  I don’t consider it to be a great film but, after all this time, I can say that it’s a film that only a true artist could make.

And, considering the current state of American film, that’s one of the best compliments that one can give.

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