Thursday, January 30, 2014

Video Store Eulogy

  I happen to collect movies on VHS. It's a nostalgic hobby, and it's fun since you have to go out of your way to find them. That same area of my brain that generates nostalgia for those large, clunky, noisy, hunks of plastic... has an eternal soft spot for video rental stores. I'm gonna break format today, and I'm not going to be reviewing any actual movie, as you can see. This is, if anything, a personal eulogy to a dead era. When I heard these stores were shutting down, I didn't run out to visit one for the last time, I didn't think about it much. I didn't feel nostalgic or sad because I didn't think about it at all. If I had? I might've been terribly sad.
Lamenting the extinction of stores like these, is no different than returning to your hometown and finding the public park you used to play at as a kid, is now a convenience store...

  Convenience. If anything, that's what killed these stores. While people were worrying about late fees and scratched discs, Netflix was pioneering streaming. It was sleeker than On-Demand, faster than renting, and all from the comfort of your living room. The concept took off quite successfully. Netflix is a wonderful program. I have an account. I dutifully pay my $8 a month for instant access to not only thousands of movies, but entire TV shows as well. Considering the price of two new releases, circa 2005, two new movies on DVD might've ran you $4 apiece. How could they possibly compete with a juggernaut like Netflix? Not possible. Their days were numbered, the writing was on the wall. The DVD era of Blockbuster isn't what I miss though. In my mind, I already had no business there anymore. It was like a massive bargain bin of movies I already had, the novelty was gone.

  What novelty? The novelty of the VHS era. One thing few of my friends know about me is that I preferred Hollywood Video to Blockbuster Video. Hollywood Video had a bigger selection of movies. Older movies. Random movies. Obscure movies. You could find everything you didn't know you were looking for at Hollywood Video. Maybe it didn't franchise like Blockbuster did, but it had guts in my opinion. My mother used to dread sending my father and I to rent movies on a Friday night. Mainly cause we'd take so damn long picking a few out. She hated video stores. Too much choice, in her opinion. Not to mention, my dad and I would hit Hollywood Video first. They had more choices. Obviously.  I still remember trolling the little aisles of shelves, looking for a title or a box cover that would catch my eye. This is where I found out they had made a movie on The Flash! Of course, later I find out it was a TV pilot episode, marketed on home media as a feature length movie. Did I know the difference as a kid? No. It was some straight up awesome stuff.

  Box art was important back then. You'd grab one of those hollow stand-in cases off the shelf, look at the front cover and if it looked interesting, you'd flip it and read the back. If you made it to reading the entire back, this meant two things. That was some damn good box art, and your mind was probably already set on renting it by now. As long as my dad and I took in these stores, there was always a few unspoken rules that anybody followed who was as religious about this stuff as us. Don't waste your own time. Ironic considering much time was wasted anyways, but odds are once you start reading the back cover of a jacket, you're sold. You can't read every tape that stands out to you. You could be there north of three hours. You had to judge on the picture first. Thus... box art was important. It was a combination of eye-catching imagery, a bold title/logo, name recognition,  and taglines. "This time... it's war."

  This whole ordeal was like a movie lovers' ritual. You found movies you've never seen, and would sometimes go home with a full bag of tapes to watch over the weekend. Sometimes, dad would remember a movie he'd seen ages ago that he wanted to watch again, usually something cool I'd never seen. Sure enough, go to a few rental stores... one was bound to have it. In this case, an 80's sci-fi/comedy called My Science Project. One of my favorite 80's movies now (which is saying a lot), I can still remember the first time I saw it. Dad rented it from Blockbuster Video. We actually had to drive a little out of town because none of the local stores had it. Not to mention it was raining like hell at the time too. To a seven year old kid, this was nothing short of an adventure. Not to mention my dad and I bonded over stuff like this.  When we got there, the attending cashier also had seen the movie before. He exchanged a glance with my dad and they both had the most visible look of nostalgia I'd ever seen, and this was before I even knew that word.

  They both kinda smiled and nodded at each other as he scanned the barcode on the case and bid us a good evening. Moments like that stuck with me for good. The movie turned out to be something special and I hunted for my own copy for the better part of a decade. It wasn't until around late 2005 that I would happen upon a copy for sale. At the time, video stores were in a hurry to purge their VHS inventory entirely, by way of sale, en masse- It was then, in a Hollywood Video, near my favorite comic book store, that I found a copy of My Science Project. The cashier couldn't believe it was one of the tapes that was for sale. Near the end of the VHS era, during the mass sales, there were movies you couldn't outright buy. Ones that remained rentals. Popular movies like, Titanic, The Matrix, Spider-Man... et cetera. The cashier looked distinctly dismayed that I was buying this movie. "This is a really good movie... the only copy I've ever been able to find really." I nodded politely, hoping sincerely there wasn't some clerical error that would prevent me from walking out with this piece of my childhood.

  The guy flipped through the logs in his binder, looking glum, double checking that My Science Project was actually for sale. Much to my excitement, it was. For a mere $2, it was mine. Permanently. I still have that tape. The case is beat up and the colors on the box art are washed out, but... I still have that tape. It defines nostalgia to me. An obscure movie, on an obsolete format, surrounded by only the fondest of memories. I collect VHS movies to bring me a little closer to those days, that era. Those stores. What we have now is convenience. Which is fine. It's progress, of course. Thousands of movies on Netflix is obviously progress. Yet I can't imagine any fathers and sons bonding over dying controllers and sluggish internet. Accessibility has it's price, yet it's once we've all paid eagerly. For convenience. Netflix is like the DVD era of Blockbuster. They had finally banished all VHS, including droves of rare and obscure movies, and they were getting with the latest cutting edge format. You found more movies that you've already seen and a lack of any sort of ceremony to the process of picking one out.

  It was simply a cheap way to see a movie you just didn't own. Nothing more. It's progress, of course. Yet like DVD killed VHS, the internet killed the video store. Those memory-generating hubs of my childhood are gone. Arguably, the first nail in the coffin was the end of the VHS era, but whatever it truly was- it's over now. The feel of the clunky boxes in your hand, the impending doom of late fees, the relevance of box art, the smell of the store, the shitty designs on the carpet, getting annoyed when a movie is mis-categorized, and lamenting when the movie you came to get is already checked out... these are things that are part of the experience. I miss that experience. It defined many a Friday night in my childhood. Countless fond memories, countless good movies. I have enough video store memories to fill a book, but for now... I feel like somehow this sums up everything the best.

 Last week, I found Mars Attacks on VHS at a goodwill, and I almost didn't buy it because I remember I was never allowed to watch it as a kid. I put it down. Force of habit. I must have looked at it's case fifty times going through those stores. Mom was a bit over-protective. Yet, now I'm older and I've already seen Mars Attacks. It's cool. Nothing spectacular. Nothing I'd go that far out of my way to own, but I remember I'm not friggin five years old anymore. So I pick up the tape, and buy it on the spot. Why? So I can look at that case fifty more times, and remember how over -protective mom was.

Not to mention I can be childish and rub it in her face now.
Definitely worth the 50 cents.

(When I checked inside the case, to make sure the right movie is in there, I found the standard Blockbuster Video "be kind, rewind" sticker on the tape. I smiled.)

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Purge

  The Purge is a movie that works around the premise that once a month, or once a year, (I can't recall) all crime is legal. Rape. Murder. Theft. This is set in the USA mind you. In the year 2022. It stars Ethan Hawke and a few other people I don't recognize. Uh. Yeah. The movie is alright. I guess. It's nothing special. Which is a shame because the premise is fuckin' fantastic. So many things you could do with that movie. Social commentary, horror, satire, the works. Does this movie do any of that? Well, it tries. I think. It looks like it's trying, but also not really. How? Because everything but the premise is painfully mediocre. Someone might say, "Well, it wasn't that bad." You'd be right too. It's not that bad. It's alright. The acting is good, the premise is fantastic, it's shot well. So yeah. It's not bad. Does that mean it's good?


  A hundred times, no. The Purge takes a great concept, and boils it down to a home invasion movie, which subsequently becomes a run of the mill "Who's gonna die next, and how." movie. Oh joy. What fun. Since this movie does absolutely nothing interesting with the premise, I'd like to recommend The Strangers instead. A proper home invasion movie that actually had me crawling out of my skin. Or even Hostage. Not as good, but head and shoulders above The Purge. If you wanna see Ethan Hawke in a good movie? Go see Daybreakers or Training Day. Even the remake of Assault on Precinct 13 would do. See, the moment I knew The Purge was a home invasion movie, I was already disappointed. The premise of the movie, the very concept demands a story on a larger scale. Or at least something creative. This movie's originality begins and ends with it's concept.

  Worse yet, it's predictable. The scenes are all but telegraphed like some sort of bad cinematic lag. Even the fights are predictable. "She's about to swing that ax, but before it impacts on the table, he'll roll out of the way in the nick of time. Oh- wait- yep. Called it." That was me, talking to myself during the movie to keep my interest glued to it. The movie had good marketing, I'm not gonna lie. However, the movie itself is mediocre. I can only say that so many different ways actually. I usually hold myself to a review standard of several paragraphs, believing sincerely that any movie has enough in it to write a decent sized article about.
Short of delving into what the movie could've been, and my personal ideas on how the concept could've been done better... I'm coming up short on stuff to say about this movie.

  So, without further ado, here's the bottom line. It's not good. It's not bad. It falls into that loathed area of indifference where I can't bash the shit out of it, nor can I praise it. There are better movies out there, more deserving of your time. Speaking of time though, this review was requested specifically by someone I know. This is what I do. I watch movies and provide opinions. I'll watch bad movies, so you don't have to. I'll glue my attention to the screen through boring movies, through long movies, and once in a while someone asks me to review a movie that turns out good. This wasn't one of them. Do I feel I wasted my time? No, only because I can now warn people not to waste theirs. That's my function in this equation. I have no problem with that either.

  Mediocre. People use that word like an excuse, or a hall pass. "Don't condemn it, it's mediocre but not bad." This angers me. Mediocrity should not be accepted or embraced, it should be challenged and despised. Concepts like this movie had are mired by the mundane movie itself. That's practically criminal. The concept, the premise was insanely promising. The movie squandered every last ounce of that potential though. It was an easy movie. Easy to watch. Easy to keep watching. Easy to get caught up in the inane clockwork of it's cliche who's-gonna-die-next formula. It's not necessarily thrilling, or even fun, just... easy to watch. It was noise and motion, coordinated to keep my attention span occupied for 90 minutes. Thankfully it'll be easy to forget too. Don't waste your time on The Purge, you might not implicitly regret watching it, but you'll have the need to do something worthwhile afterwards, or even watch something actually entertaining.

  The Purge presents fascinating ideas, but never explores them. It presents you with an itch it has no intention of ever scratching. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is simply loathsome. But hey, whaddayaknow! I found more shit to say about it. Fancy that.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Quantum of Solace

  After the massive hit that was Casino Royale, people were eager to see how Daniel Craig would handle another go-round as the eponymous James Bond. Was he a one hit wonder? Was the appeal of his brand of 007 all but gone? Well, when Quantum of Solace hit the screens in 2008, everyone got their answers. For better or worse... The good at least? Daniel Craig was still a damn effective James Bond. The movie around him? ...Not so much. Quantum of Solace plays more as a direct sequel to Casino Royale than anything. Though you'd be forgiven for not keeping up on current events, Quantum of Solace is haphazardly plotted and only seems to really care about it's predecessor in a couple standout moments. Otherwise... it's only a shadow of Casino Royale. Let me break it down for you.

  First, I said in my review of the previous movie- a Bond movie's strength should be able to be determined by whether or not you can market the film entirely around the villain. In that case, let's look at the villain. Dominic Green is the chief bad guy this time, played with gusto by Mathieu Almaric. Unfortunately, this guy is about as interesting as a cardboard cutout. His unique Bond villain endgame is to control 60% of the water in Bolivia so that he can like... I dunno. Swindle then out of paying double for water. So... evil. And yes, while it is evil, it falls flat in a 007 movie. The guy himself has none of the on-screen presence of a proper villain, and comes across more like a greedy business mogul than anything. He has no unique traits about him, and all in all is uninteresting.

  Marketing the movie around him would've been disastrous. He's horribly boring as a character, as a villain, and doubly so in the wake of the profoundly sinister, Le Chiffre from Casino Royale. That's just one issue with this movie. There are plenty more. Secondly, things just seem to kinda... happen? The story is muddy, and the plot is too. Not to mention the Bond girl is entirely dead weight. She actually contributes nothing to the actual story aside from just tagging alongside Bond for the last act of the movie. Compared to how absolutely crucial Vesper Lynd was, this is just criminally disappointing. The movie seems content to be technically competent and only technically competent as he plot is advanced with one bloody action set piece after the next.

  This is wrong. This is a bad formula. Bond should not be reduced to being Jason Bourne in a suit. He has his own brand of suspense and danger, one that is only glimpsed here is a few scenes. Otherwise there is little to separate Quantum of Solace from being an entry in any action franchise. This is the first 007 movie to feature a foot chase, car chase, boat chase AND plane chase. Yet does this abundance of action make for a good movie? No. Solace is thematically weak, and stylishly inept. Director Marc Forster makes some mind bogglingly bad choices here, visually. Cutting to superfluous footage during action scenes, horrible shaky cam, and specific instructions to Almaric to not make any attempts to give his character any memorable visual attributes.

  On top of these issues, the first rough draft of the script was completed right before the writer's strike. It got so bad that Daniel Craig himself would have to re-write scenes, dialog, and even write entire new pages, on the set. It really shows too that the script was sort of thrown together. It's the kind of weak blockbuster formula of fill in plot holes with action scenes. Also, I've yet to find a movie with Olga Kurylenko in which her character has any intrinsic value to the movie itself, at all. Craig's character has little to do besides get shuffled along and swept up with the lackluster insanity around him. Aside from a promising opening, which is properly thrilling, Bond himself is wasted.

  The character we saw built up in Casino Royale has been hopelessly reduced to something with the emotional dimensions of an action figure. Daniel Craig must be commended though because you can see him trying to act right through the confines of this script. The direction was dire, but Craig tried very hard to breathe life into 007 again. And lucky for us too because we eventually got Skyfall, which was a superior effort in every way imaginable.  I cannot fully recommend against Quantum of Solace, because if you've seen all the James Bond films, you know they can get much worse than this. If anything, it scrapes by just enough on a wink and a bullet to be marginally entertaining.

  The camera manages to capture beautiful locales, stunning action sequences, and even some moments which teeter on artistic beauty. I'm willing to give them that much. Despite the fact the movie is a terribly disappointing misfire, it's a pretty looking one nonetheless. I suppose this movie works about as well as a car wreck. Something you can't take your eyes off of even though you really should look away. It's sleek visual style is somewhat captivating. It's sort of like the fact that anything in extreme slow motion is interesting to look at. Whether it's a water balloon being popped, a fly landing on a table, or someone falling off a bicycle. To watch the intricacies of such things, whether they are mundane or painful ends up being fascinating. I am hesitant to call Quantum of Solace fascinating per se, but it pays close attention to the mundane, and ends up being painful. Take that for what you will.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Casino Royale

  I love James Bond movies. Most of them anyways. There's something about a good 007 caper, that no matter who's playing him it's just so damn engaging. He's one action hero, who doesn't need to be in action, to be fascinating, or at the very least, entertaining to watch. I wasn't much into James Bond back in 2006 when this came out. It looked good, but what the hell did I know? Not much apparently. It wasn't until 2008 I even got around to seeing it. By god it was good. Really good. Exceptionally good. I took it upon myself to snatch up as much Bond as I could. By way of bargain bins and netflix, I was always watching one or another. Dr.No (which is not only the first, but my all time favorite), Thunderball, From Russia With Love (and come on, who doesn't love the Connery era?) then there was the Roger Moore ones (which I haven't seen as many as I would have liked) and lest we forget his one shot predecessor, George Lazenby- and well you get the point. There were a couple others too. My list is far from complete, but I've seen enough to choose favorites and do so educated.

  Daniel Craig is the second best James Bond ever. Right next to Connery. Pierce Brosnan would be a close third. Why is Craig the best? Because of what Casino Royale gave to the franchise. New life. Which is no small task. How do you take something which has been loved for generations and make it brand new yet preserve what was so loved? You have to make some hard choices. Which begs the question... what do people love about James Bond? Oh I'm sure if you asked people what they know about James Bond, you'd probably get "Exploding pens!", "-a really cool jetpack", "Invisible cars-", "Gets all the hot women-" et cetera...  Yet... he had all of that in Die Another Day, and that was practically laughed out of the box office.  Do jetpacks, super cars, and gadgets make James Bond... James Bond? As it turns out, they don't. James Bond is not the working man's hero, he's a sophisticated protagonist. James Bond can generate as much sexual tension or dramatic suspense drinking a martini as he can actually bedding a female conquest or getting in a shootout. Which is also... no easy feat.

  This is why it was a smart move to give the franchise, and the character a drastic make over and go back to basics. Look at Dr.No... no gadgets, no ejecting seats in his Aston Martin, no exploding pens... just bare knuckled brawling in the action department, and a car chase or a shootout or two for good measure. What does Dr.No have that makes it so great? The villain. However, we'll get back to that before I lose track of what I was saying about the big double o himself. Bond is about suspense, and tension, and about thinking on his feet. Daniel Craig can do suave, he can do intense, he can flex a muscle and his enemy might startle. When his eyes land on a target, no doubt someone gets goosebumps. He's a force of nature, yet after the most grueling ordeal... he can dust off his dinner jacket, adjust his cuff links, and act like he's only been away- freshening up. Not to say other Bonds haven't been able to pull this off to some extent, but Craig embodies it. What Bond is supposed to be like. Retrofitted for the modern spy game, for modern audiences, and for fans who are only capable of chuckling weakly at in-jokes and puns which have become drier than 007's trademark martini.

  With Casino Royale, we're not introduced to a Bond we've never seen before- only one we've forgotten about. Naysayers argue it's not true to form, yet I'd argue it's the truest. Side by side with Dr.No, they match rhythm so damn well. Bond is not a walking cliche this time. He's a character we're rediscovering as he's being introduced into this lurid mess of shady deals and licenses to kill. He lives and breathes the atmosphere, but he's a bit green. Casino Royale is the movie in which Bond cuts his teeth on. He becomes the 007 we all knew we loved. Which is why, at the end of the movie when the trademark theme slowly creeps up on us and we know what's coming- we're not ready with a weak chuckle, but a sense of excitement and anticipation. "Bond. James Bond." Words that have become so iconic they almost lose their impact, yet the movie behind them this time gives them new energy. Maybe they're not so relevant anymore, maybe people only need a hero like Jason Bourne... but Casino Royale itself is the perfect argument that Bond is still relevant.

  The other essential half of ANY 007 movie is the villain, which is what Dr.No did so well. Mads Mikkelsen plays Le Chiffre. A sinister man who's gravitas is staggering, in the presence of brutal south African war lords and devious socialites who could afford to buy and sell your very life a thousand times over.  His onscreen presence is simply amazing. Sitting across from Bond, merely playing poker, and he somehow manages to be more threatening than a power hungry dictator with his finger on a big red button, wired to something catastrophic no doubt. This is where I am developing a theory... A Bond movie is only good if you could market the entire thing around the villain. I mean... your hero stays the same. More or less, you know what you like, you're already sold. If you can pull off a marketing strategy that focuses almost solely on the villain, then most likely you have a hit. If not... you have a Quantum of Solace. Le Chiffre would steal the entire movie from a lesser character, and Mads would from a lesser actor. Craig and Mikkelsen, Bond and Le Chiffre... they are fierce opponents, more brutal in their methods than any the franchise has seen before.

  There's something just beyond my ability to describe that just makes this movie work. Not just as a Bond movie, but as an action movie, a drama, and a thriller. The opening foot chase is amazingly exciting, even 8 years after it's release, it's still insanely gripping. For that matter so are the poker scenes, a veritable crux of the story. They carry so much tension and intensity. I never knew a mere poker game could be so nerve wracking. I suppose that's what the movie does so well, it sets the stage perfectly. The stakes are incredibly high, and more is on the line than just money or any one or two lives- but perhaps hundreds and thousands of lives. Because, see, in this universe of 007- it's not so much about a bomb about to go off, or a massive laser orbiting Earth, about to eradicate a whole country... it's about terrorism. Letting a terrorist financier go free would be disastrous, and more or less that's what Le Chiffre is. Those are the stakes. The movie asks us to think ahead, to consider consequences. Not just flashy special effects that blaze across the screen, or allow a car to look invisible.

  A fantastic part of this movie is also how it reminds us about the rest of what makes 007 movies so fun.
Exotic locations for example. The movie is nothing short of globe-trotting espionage. It's a broader type of thriller than say... The Bourne Identity. It's not drab or bleak either, lurid for sure. Murder and death follow Bond everywhere. But look at where he goes. The Bahamas, Miami, Montenegro, London- it's all simply fantastic. The locations and the locale are interesting if not at the very least, visually interesting. This is something that's to be loved about the Bond movies. Classic sexy looking beach scenery is a must. Bright clear waters, golden sand, stunning blue skies- and yet... right around the corner someone is bound to get shanked in the back, or thrown out of a moving car, or shot, or punched, or... you get the picture. That sort of juxtaposition is really striking. Beauty with violence. Something 007 has revolved around since it's origins.

  I'd be a fool if I didn't bring up the "hot women" aspect on that note. This time, the Bond Girl so to speak calls him out on it right away "you think of women as disposable pleasures-" and it's true. He does. So... he's not entirely different from the 007's of olden days. You can tell this is a woman who's not here just because she's pretty. She's not a typical damsel in distress, and she's not the opposite cliche either. She's not the sort to pick up a Kalashnikov alongside him and take out a few baddies. She's a real character, played by a real actress who was picked to be able to emote and bring life to this James Bond. It's funny how that works. Most Bond girls are eye candy, and Bond treats them as such. He's expected to. He's Bond. James Bond. Yet... this time, we have a character who seems like a real woman, and he begins to treat her and react to her like a real person. Someone who maybe shouldn't be called a "Bond Girl". The title is too kitschy for such a character. Bond grows to care about her. A statement that in and of itself seems kitschy, but the movie pulls it off in such a way that the inevitable tragedy that climaxes their relationship will forever shape him into the cold hearted secret agent we all know and cheer for. The difference now? We understand, and dare I say... we sympathize.

  Is this too serious and droll for a James Bond movie? Not at all. There are poisoned martinis, car chases, foot chases, shootouts, fist fights (a machete ends up involved no less) and death defying stunts that still manage to make me gasp for air a little bit. Yet we actually care about this man, this... James Bond. Who while is so unlike the cookie cutter cliche his namesake had devolved into, he seems new. Fresh. Yet is on a journey which will make him cold and broken. Yet does that mean he has to be a boring character after this movie? Casino Royale promises: No. Quantum of Solace tried to keep that promise, only to leave Skyfall to pick up the pieces and continue with a fascinating take on 007. Because we can care about this character, and because he's wrapped up in such a well written story, airtight if you will- all the stunts and the action scenes and everything is that much more engaging. And the filmmakers' efforts to keep them somewhat grounded and semi-plausible help create this world that this Bond inhabits. It's not above supervillains, but maybe these supervillains play poker instead of rant about world domination... and maybe they're scarier like that.  Which is why this 007 works so damn well.