The Untouchables (1987) Review

The Untouchables is considered to be a classic gangster film, and for good reason. It has an all-star cast and hits all the police cliches of the genre (emphasis on the police). Despite it’s outstanding story and fantastic acting, it’s not without flaws. With all of it’s head explosions and dramatic speeches… it’s cheesy. And until I confirmed with rottentomatoes, I was wondering if it was intentional.

The Untouchables is the story of Elliot Ness who assembles a small crew of honest cops to take down the dangerous Al Capone. In the process he must watch his, his companions and his family’s backs or suffer the harsh reality of the Chicago streets.

The first main problem that lead to cheesiness is the score. It’s so bloody terrible. With booming orchestras that remind you of a western followed by an electric synth/horn jazz remix, the music is horribly distracting and overwhelms a good chunk of the scenes. I could have taken it more seriously if it had the subtlety (yes subtlety) of Goodfellas, but with the cacophonous score I just can’t.

The cheesiness doesn’t end there. Some of the speeches characters give don’t come off as effective as the writer would like, not because of the actors, but because of the stupid analogies or catchphrases. It’s hard to take Capone seriously when he’s rambling about prize fighting for no reason. While there are genuinely intense and suspenseful scenes, there are plenty of outrageous scenes that leave you with tonal whiplash. From the intensity of a baby and mass shooting to Kevin Costner catching a gun and Andy Garcia stopping the carriage with his leg, it’s not a smooth transition.

Speaking of shitty transitions, the editing in this movie is all over the place. I know this is a snob complaint, but there are many rough cuts and inconsistencies in the editing. The dubbing is absolute shit too, which is a pet peeve of mine. To be fair, the second half of the movie got better (probably because of the second editor).

Now that I’ve complained, lets talk about the good stuff (which we all know isn’t as fun). If you can get past the cheesiness that may or may not be there, then there is an engaging story to be had. The story develops at a good pace and even though we all know how it ends, the journey is still an exciting one. The acting is stupendous, Shaun Connery being his usual big badass (although I don’t know if it was Oscar worthy). DeNiro does an okay Capone, but he still is very DeNiro. It’s not an intense emotional drama like Goodfellas or The Godfather, since it’s from the police perspective, but it does have it’s fair share of character drama.

The Untouchables is a fun and engaging cops and robbers movie, but it’s “classic” status is up to question. That’s not to say you shouldn’t watch it, just that I’m too much of a snob. For the first movie I’ve seen about Chicago since moving there, it’s a pretty good one. The Untouchables is available on Netflix, Amazon Instant, Google Play, itunes and Blockbuster (OH WAIT!).

Madoka Magica (2011) Review

In the mass of Moe filled shows coming out these days, one would certainly not be surprised at the release of a cute magical girl show, and particularly from Studio Shaft who have done cutesy slice of life shows before. Indeed Shaft wanted us to think that Madoka Magica was nothing more then it appeared to be and it wasn’t until all the little Otaku sat down and saw the first few minutes that there was a sneaking suspicion that this show was not as it seems. Indeed Madoka Magica is not the happy-go-lucky anime its first couple episodes portray and is in fact a tragic deconstruction, and by doing so a subversion, of the magical girl genre.

For those who don’t know, the Magical Girl genre is one that consists of shows like Sailor Moon and Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha. It for the most part consists of girls being approached by an unusual animal of some kind and being asked to become a magical girl in order to fight the forces of evil, leading to wacky adventures and super-powered transformation sequences that are used over and over. Madoka Magica follows much of the same story. A girl named Madoka is approached by the mysterious creature Kyubey who asks of her one wish, which will then be granted and she will become a magical girl. The only problem is that Madoka can’t come up with a good wish, and as she and her friend Sayaka discover more about the world of magical girls and the witches they fight, they become uncertain of whether or not they truly want to be magical girls. Unfortunately I can’t go much further then that, as I would rather not spoil this show more then I have to.

It’s the analysis of what really is at stake when these girls fight the reality warping witches and what the true motivation of Kyubey is that leads to this show having its… darker tone. This tone switch is sudden and it’s really when the deconstruction of the cute and innocent world that’s been created begins, as well as its ultimate subversion. Don’t be afraid if you don’t have much experience with Sailor Moon and its colleagues because the story of Madoka packs a punch either way. In the 12 episodes it has, it manages to create a whole world and set of characters that you get invested in and then somehow manages to wrap everything up at the end that it wanted to. For a story of this caliber, it’s very tight and I think the series being any longer would have been detrimental. As it is, Madoka Magica is an easy watch. Every episode is important and progresses the story, but if you don’t want to marathon it all at once there’s still enough recap to jog your memory.

Shaft has really put there all into this series, as it is fucking gorgeous. The labyrinths that the witches create are all composed of random imagery invoking many different visual styles and it’s some of the most unique art I’ve seen in a while. The animation outside of the battle scenes is nice, but not great. It’s a softer style that reinforces the Moe aspect of the show, but it works nice when contrasting it against the dark events to come. The character’s faces all have this odd sketchiness to them, that I actually like a lot, since it made them feel less like the products of K-ON! and more like actual characters.

The music is composed by Yuki Kajiura and its quality is easily on par with the rest of the show. Everything from the victory theme, tragedy themes, epic choruses, and ending song are all fantastic and fit the show to a tee. Fortunately, unlike other shows with her music, the songs don’t distract you from the story, merely adding to it and this is due to (again) how engrossing the story is. The acting in the Japanese track is phenomenal, as far as I can tell, and far surpasses the english dub. It’s not that the dub is particularly bad, it’s just that the characters are defined by a lot of Japanese conventions that are hard to convey in English. I have to recommend subs on this one.

Madoka Magica is a show that’s hard to explain why it’s good without ruining what makes it good. Its play on expectations is exactly what makes its more dramatic moments work. At the end of the series you’ll find yourself attached to the characters, invested in the story and familiar with the world. Above all though, you’ll be satisfied. For only 12 episodes Madoka Magica is a marvel amongst modern anime. There’s really no excuse not to watch it. If the premise isn’t interesting to you, then don’t worry it’s not supposed to be and if you’re worried about time and availability it’s on Crunchyroll for streaming at the time of this review. If you’re tired of mediocrity or you recently got into anime then by all means watch Madoka Magica, you won’t regret it.

Blue Velvet (1986) Review

Out of all the directors I’ve come across in my cinematic travels, David Lynch is probably one of the most memorable of the lot. I’ve only seen two of his films, but I will never ever forget them. His magnum opus of oddity Eraserhead remains continually stuck in my brain as a movie I need to see several more times. If you haven’t seen that, check it out. You will literally never forget it, barring mental disease. His transition to Hollywood after Eraserhead is just as interesting and coming of the reasonably unsuccessful Dune, he released 1986’s Blue Velvet. It’s Lynchian nature is definitely present, but almost weaved in and out of a movie that most will enjoy. Blue Velvet is a conundrum in my head, and coming off of just watching it, I may be in the worst position to review it. It puts you under a spell, entrancing you with its story and then yanking you back and forth with its symbolism that you should obviously be seeing, but not quite understanding. So let me try and put my inquiring mind aside and actually look at the film that captivated me so.

The film centers around Jeffrey, whose investigation into an ear he found leads him to Dorothy Vallens. Along with Detective’s daughter Sandy he unravels the mysterious goings on in Dorothy’s life, ultimately becoming involved in them himself. The acting is hard to judge. It’s convincing, but convincingly weird. We somehow get the impression that the odd line reads and inconsistent interactions are part of the world and eventually they make sense in their own way. Stand out performances go to Isabella Rossellini as the tormented Dorothy and Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth. Frank is a fascinating character. His entrance into the film marks a turning point where the movie changes from a mid-50s Hitchcock movie to an 80s drama and boy oh boy could you dissect his character for hours. The odd combination of inadequacy, possibly homosexual tendencies and over-compensation are absolutely fascinating to watch.

As I said before this film starts out very 50s in its style and setting. It’s colors, suggestive imagery and characters all suggest 50s suburbs. It’s not until we get to Dorothy’s apartment that the darker world starts to infest the movie. Then when Frank shows up the movie completely flips, immersing Jeffrey and the world into the darkness and it’s only with the help of Sandy and her love for Jeffrey that the world is once again brought into the light. It’s tough to believe that “Love Conquers All” is the message in a Lynch film, but the cyclical nature of the symbols and motifs seem to suggest it. Again, another watch is needed.

The colors and light are played on constantly in this movie, making it feel like a colored film noir. Lynch seems to love working with shadows, in a way very reminiscent of German expressionism. It pervades through the movie and even if you can’t garner it’s meaning, it’s certainly something to look at. The color as well is unique to look at, as for a movie called Blue Velvet it certainly has a lot of red. Almost all the shots have some primary pop to them, but reds seem the most dominant. Perhaps to give more contrast to the blues.

Blue Velvet is a suspense movie that remains suspenseful for the entirety of the movie. The sense that there is more going on then meets the eye adds to the experience and most certainly gives it rewatchability. You absolutely should see this film. If you are even slightly into stranger movies, of any kind, then this will give you plenty to feast on and if you’re as into film as I am, then this movie will be great discussion fodder for a long time to come, especially if it’s accompanied by Eraserhead. So while I haven’t talked much about the quality of this film, I’m sure you can tell from my gushing that Blue Velvet is worth your time.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) Review

An introvert freshman is taken under the wings of two seniors who welcome him to the real world.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is yet another coming-of-age film, this time not brought to us by John Hughes, but instead by Stephen Chbosky. Chbosky has taken his book and created a film that’s… different than the average teen movie. This is a coming of age film that reflects an entire years worth of growth, not a couple of days or random events. It departs from any semblance of a plot to show the arc of not just one character, but many. It shows real problems from a very specific perspective, and does so very seriously. It takes place not at the time it was released, but 15 years prior. All these things compound to create a film that stands out from its peers in its presentation, even if its themes and motifs are a mixture of Empire Records and The Breakfast Club.

The characters are all unique and easily attachable, partly because most of us have known people similar to them, but also because Chbosky takes advantage of every method he can to get you to like them and understand who they are. He uses snappy dialogue and even glorifying the two main supporting characters (Sam and Patrick) to get you to understand that they are awesome. This can be interpreted as a bad translation across mediums (which it is), but also as just Charlie’s perspective. He’s telling the story to us and since he saw them as these elite and special people, that’s how we see them. All the characters get quick simplistic introductions, either through exposition or key dialogue. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this, but for a character piece it could be considered a flaw. Any and all simplifications are easily compensated by the mostly strong and dynamic performances by the actors who all do their best to make their characters unique, even the purely cliché ones. The characters, particularly Charlie, are seemingly identifiable, because they would be in any other film, but this movie stands its ground and forces you to stop thinking of Charlie as the awkward kid that’s just like you were and instead as a person with his own severe problems. Odds are you won’t be able to identify with his life’s issues, as they are very specific and in fact all the characters here have rich white kid problems. That’s not to say that they don’t happen to other people, but if you’re not a middle class white person the chances of you identifying with these characters and their issues decreases drastically.

There is a years worth of story told here, which in a book is fine, but in a film requires more compression to get it into that 90 minute time slot. Perks picks up the pace by using mostly quick and snappy transitions to move between scenes that seem to have little correlation to each other. This actually works for the most part, as we understand the passage of time and the changes in the characters. These vignettes, for lack of a better term, that the film cuts between are merely presented, not really analyzed or gone into depth on. This is an unfortunate symptom of the compressed time, leaving you to do the analysis if you’re looking for anything more then reflection. Luckily the film knows this, and doesn’t try to do anything more then show you what’s going on. For the amount of plot it has to tell, Perks does a good job of getting that across. That is if you can call it a plot… Perks is more of a collage of different subplots, all with varying degrees of importance. The “main plot” is the romance between Charlie and Sam, but there are large chunks of the film that have little to do with that. This more aimless approach to traversing through a year may be off putting to some expecting a flat out “get to point B” plot or character arc.

The intertwining subplots are an attempt to show that every person has a story. That each student in the hallway and each fan in a crowd is a person with their own problems and own lives. Sometimes it takes a wallflower to see that or the forced clashing of people, like in The Breakfast Club. As I stated before, you have to be within a certain range of people to specifically identify with Charlie and his problems, but a lot of the themes and details surrounding Charlie are what are going to get you to attach to this movie. The concept of the past always affecting you is strongly represented by the Aunt Helen “subplot.” There are the usual high school tropes such as being an outsider, those cliché people that always pop up even in real life, and those school events that are all awkward. These are mainstays of the genre and emotional reaction is instinct, even if we understand how cliché they are. And of course, with all of these movies there’s the “getting away from it all.” Characters throwing away their problems for a carefree laugh with their friends. No past, no future, just a tunnel in-between the two where you are as big as you want to be, even infinite. That’s what being a teen is about. Facing that maturity of adult life and turning away from it, because fuck it you can.

Those internal feelings and experiences of what it’s like to be a teen, to go through high school, to leave high school, and all the times in-between are what make this movie special. It doesn’t hit every universal mark though. While its 90s setting does make it more timeless and cross-generational, it can be off-putting to the current generation who never had those big phones or even used a cassette. The more mature issues it tackles, such as mental illness, child abuse, and homophobia can be alienating as well to anyone whose life wasn’t as dramatic as that. A film like The Breakfast Club will work better on these people because the issues tackled are more basic, but Perks, when it hits home with its audience will surpass others because the issues are more intimate and thus, emotion-evoking.

On an exterior front it’s average because it’s appealing to a specific audience and its conflicted attempts to attract a larger one ultimately fail . On an interior level though, as a reflection (not an analysis, or a dissection, but a reflection) it succeeds better than any other film for its true audience. If you can identify with those feelings, if you knew people like that, if you’ve dealt with these issues then this will have the nostalgic and emotional power of every John Hughes film combined. I dealt with those issues, I felt that way, I knew people like that and I was that observer. Perks doesn’t hit every mark for me, but it hits enough that it pushes itself above the rest and makes the viewing experience one of the most powerful I’ve ever had. Watch it and figure it out for yourself, but if you find yourself discussing afterwards not the general themes, but instead whether or not it portrayed PTSD properly, then this movie wasn’t intended for you.

Much Ado about Nothing (2012) review

A modern retelling of Shakespeare’s classic comedy about two pairs of lovers with different takes on romance and a way with words.

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado about Nothing is Whedon’s pallet-cleansing follow-up to The Avengers, and it achieves this, not just for Whedon, but for the audience as well. The film was shot over 12 days at Whedon’s home, but the quaint location is rarely an interference, and when it is it’s played for laughs. The film sticks with the original dialogue, trimming some monologues and excess conversations, but nothing’s lost in plot or character motivation. Whedon very cleverly turns a couple of the monologues into songs, which are surprisingly smooth and suave, adding to the films atmosphere.

The very hefty Shakespearean lines are carried well by the actors. Now before all the English majors jump down my throat, let me explain. The Shakespearean dialect is that of a stage, it’s grandiose and explanatory of characters emotions. It is extremely out of place not only in film, but especially in modern film. To use this dialogue is extremely difficult, unless you are merely translating the stage version to film, grandiose style and all. This is how most Shakespeare movies have been done, and in particular the works of Kenneth Branagh, who also directed a version of Much Ado about Nothing. The films are colorful, spectacular and while they do use the medium of film to their advantage, they use it mostly to add to the story. Whedon manages to fit the story into the medium of film, turning the larger-then-life stage version into a quieter, smaller, and by default more realistic version, which is what your average movie-goer expects to see from the type of story being told.
The actors treat the dialogue with the greatest of nonchalance, acting exactly as if the words they saying are natural and only occasionally bringing the tropes of stage acting in to accent a few of the jokes that require such. This blend works well, compensating for some of the aimless silliness that makes up the original and has been lost here due to the format, script, etc…

Whedon’s challenge when making this movie was to get you to ignore the location, budget, and dialogue and get you to focus on the characters and what they are feeling. With the help of the aforementioned acting, Whedon also has put this movie out in black and white, giving the film the slightest of a noir feel to it, but not too much so since the movie rarely has black and white lighting to it. The noir feel teams up and even helps the interjected mafia replacement setting feel all the more natural. What the black and white does is it takes your eyes away from the environment and focus on the actors. After all, it’s hard to pay attention to the colors of Whedon’s walls, or expect the vibrancy of a Branagh movie if there are no colors to begin with. What you can focus on is the ever moving Alexis Denisof, whose long monologues are a good example of why parts of this movie don’t work.

Alexis Denisof as Benedict does a great job, with the scenes between him and Amy Acker (Beatrice) having all the chemistry of their days back on Angel. However, during the long monologues he has fussing over his feelings, it gets hard to follow along, mainly due to his inability to hold your attention. This is partially due to his limitations as an actor, but also due to the inability to be as grandiose as Branagh and grab the audience with his presence, which would have been possible in a more stage-like version. It’s times like these when the limited charisma of the actors can’t push the monologues and dialogue in an interesting way, and the film slows down tremendously. However, these scenes are few and far between and easily compensated for by their performances when it comes to the humor.

The humor in this movie is brilliant, mainly for how basic it is. There are plenty of extremely clever gags inserted in, but for the most part the humor is very basic. It still works though, due to how unexpected it is with none of the slapstick or character reactions being what you would expect to see in even a comedy of Shakespeare’s. The actors still pull off the original wit of the dialogue well, but I found myself laughing more at the inserted humor, a testament to Whedon’s abilities to write humor around serious subject matter… or shall we say slightly more serious subject matter. I will not spoil the funnier parts of the movie, but the highlight of the film is most certainly Nathan Fillion and his merry band of police-men. Every scene they’re in has a brilliant blend of the original and new humor, and the movie is worth watching just for that. On occasion the bad guys are overly EVIL, but it’s by no means a betrayal of the original since Jon the Bastard was a mustache twirling fiend to start with.

Overall, Joss Whedon’s Much Ado about Nothing is a wonderfully funny and small film, a perfect pallet-cleanser from the mega-blockbusters Hollywood is rolling out today. It’s spectacular at times, but not overly spectacular. It has a story to tell and it tells it, but with a few stops to smell the roses along the way. Due to this, I’m saddened it doesn’t have a wider release, since I’m sure it would make money (Whedon’s name alone is enough to bump this far above being considered an average independent film), but just not enough as another showing of Iron Man 3, hence no theater chains picking it up.

It’s important that audiences have a light movie, and on top of that, a small one. The Great Gatsby could have benefited from this type of filmmaking, since that story was tailor-made for a slightly higher budget version of this film, but alas it became nothing more then a 3D tye-dye Dicaprio love-fest with a pop soundtrack. For now it seems I’m going to have to settle for crossing my fingers and hoping that Redbox or Netflix will pick it up out of mercy.

I recommend this film to any fan of Shakespeare, theater, dramas, those who hate the average comedy that comes out these days, and of course those looking for something different, but not too risky, to spend some time with. However, I must warn Whedon fanboys and girls to not see this movie purely because of him, because while it has his fingerprints on it, it most certainly is not Buffy saying shakespeare. If it’s at a theater near you, defiantly go and see it, and try to bring as many people as possible, as it’s sure to spark some fun conversation.