Monday, January 27, 2014

Meet Joe Black ★★1/2

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    Death is an essential, natural aspect of life. It lingers in the darkest of shadows, thriving on the weakness of humanity, and it graces us with its presence when we least expect it. "Meet Joe Black" is a 1998 film that relinquishes death as an ideal, and it gives this sentient entity a persona. This film is loosely based on the 1934 movie entitled "Death Takes a Holiday." With direction by Martin Brest, this American romantic fantasy will tease and tantalize, but ultimately it is overshadowed by what could have been.

    This film opens with our main character, William Parrish, sound asleep in his seemingly multi-million dollar estate. He begins to hear voices, albeit similar to his own, but doesn't make much of them. This, of course, is due to the fact that Bill is on the eve of a very important merger, which involves his company and another media mogul. (This is not to mention that he is just days away from becoming a senior citizen.) During these trying times, Bill manages to organize his time efficiently and even has a life changing conversation with his youngest daughter, Susan. She is currently involved with one of her father's board members, a young and brash gentleman named Drew, although her father can see that she is not "head over heels" in love. He encourages her to find true love as he sees it and to "stay open." For, "Lightening could strike."

    With this new found advice, Susan enjoys coffee at a local diner and meets a young man whose name is unknown to us. She enjoys a genuine conversation, and after multiple compliments, she becomes flattered at the thought of seeing this man once more. Little known to her (or him for that matter), Death is waiting just around the corner--literally. Death proceeds to take this man's life (in a ridiculous computer-generated hit and run) and embodies him. For, Death has an important mission here in the world of flesh, although it is mostly personal. He is here to obtain the life of William Parrish; however, after centuries of tiresome loneliness, he decides to take a personal tour of our world; he has chosen Bill to give him that tour. In exchange, Death will grant him more time, or, essentially, an extension of his life. This strange situation will breathe confusion into Bill's immediate family, and, most importantly, into the relationship between the unnamed man and Susan.

    "Meet Joe Black" exhibits a plethora of familiar and successful actors and actresses. Anthony Hopkins steps into the role of William Parrish. Hopkins is truly believable as this millionaire who is incredibly passionate about his family and career. He displays grace and dignity throughout the process, which is why we have grown to love him as a professional actor. Susan is played by the incredibly beautiful Claire Forlani. Forlani genuinely embodies the character of a young female doctor who is painstakingly naive when it comes to the concept of love. (I have never seen a pair of eyes more piercing than those that belong to Mrs. Forlani.)

    The complex role of Death is played by the one and only Brad Pitt. This is a very delicate role that involves how we believe Death would feel on an emotional front, how he would maneuver and speak. Pitt delivers these characteristics in an awkward and uneasy manner. Overall, this role is incredibly difficult to critique; besides a few notable and rather atrocious scenes involving Brad Pitt conversing in a Jamaican style accent with an elderly lady, Pitt strategically executes the role of Death in the best-perceived fashion.

    "Meet Joe Black" has all the components that a masterpiece should have. The problem is in regard to the execution of the plot and story. For example, there are two relationships at work in this film. First, you have the relationship between Death and Mr. William Parrish, then you have a romantic excursion between Death and Susan. These two partnerships take away from the morale of the film, and we are ultimately left with a feeling of emptiness. We scurry from plot to plot in an unflattering manner with little closure.

    Obviously, the sole inclusion of Parrish is to give Death a reason to enter into this world and to fall in love with Susan. The problem is, we begin to care for the character of Bill Parrish more than this contemporary and bland romanticism. This film has been criticized for its lengthy running time of three hours. Although it is true that we could live without the "love-making" scene involving Death and Susan, it does provide adequate time for the plot to develop naturally. Unfortunately, we over indulge in this meaningless romantic relationship and forget why Death graced us with his presence in the first place.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Professionals ★★★ 1/2

    The old west is full of exciting tales involving gunfights, whiskey, and beautiful women in distress. "The Professionals" is a 1966 western film that includes all of these aspects and much more in a delighting fashion. This film is based on the 1964 novel entitled A Mule for the Marquesa, which was written by Frank O'Rourke. Nominated for three Academy Awards and featuring an all-star cast, "The Professionals" is a film that will linger with you for years to come.

    This western begins with a short montage of the four "specialists" that will be the centerpiece of the plot. There is a weapons expert, a horse wrangler, a scouter and expert tracker, and, lastly, a master of explosives. The hirer, J.W. Grant, is a rich Texas rancher who has nowhere else to turn except to these four men. His wife has been taken captive by a Mexican outlaw named Jesus Raza. The mission is to travel into the unforgiving and wretched Mexican desert to obtain the location of Raza's hideout and bring Mrs. Grant back home safely. This task will prove most dangerous, and, ultimately, everything is not what it seems to be between Mr. Grant and his blushing bride.

    "The Professionals" features one of the most entertaining ensemble casts I've ever seen in a western film. Henry "Rico" Farden, the weapons expert, is played by the most talented Lee Marvin. Marvin is genuine in this role of an ex-soldier who now makes a living by instructing militias in weapons training. (Earning a measly forty dollars per week.) When given the opportunity to earn a "big score" from Mr. Grant, Farden becomes the leader of this group of professionals and will stay true to his word. The secondary leader to this group of men, recommended to Mr. Grant by Farden, is the explosives expert Bill Dolworth. Now, Dolworth is played by the ever youthful Burt Lancaster. He is a notorious ladies man who served with "Rico" a few years back. Additionally, he is fearless in his line of work and is very tempted by money and the lure of beautiful women. In recent years, Lancaster has personally become one of my most cherished actors, and it is easy to see why. Lancaster is a natural performer with a voice that any radio personality would kill for. He works well with his environment here and is truly a pleasure to watch.

    Other notable performances include Jack Palance as Jesus Raza and the most luscious Claudia Cardinale as Mrs. Grant. Palance is a seasoned, veteran actor who brings a sense of dignity to the role of a Mexican bandit. (It is difficult to even recognize Palance under a coat of dark toned make-up and with him fluently speaking Spanish.) Claudia Cardinale is an Italian actress who is as talented as she is beautiful; Cardinale brings a certain spark and an air of humility to this male-dominated cast of characters.

    If you have not previously had an interest in the western genre of films, then this film will give you a reason to engage it. "The Professionals" will excite you from scene to scene and will leave you wanting more. Richard Brooks lends his hand to the direction and to the writing of the adapted screenplay, both of which earned him Academy Award nominations. Splendid scenery and your typical western musical scores accentuate this film in a respectable manner; however, this picture is made by the performances. Lancaster and Marvin are the pulse and livelihood of this movie. A masterpiece will be unmatched in direction, cinematography, and script. Unfortunately for this film, the performances outshine these essential components. "Amigo, we've been had."

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

High Crimes ★★

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    "High Crimes" is a 2002 thriller directed by Carl Franklin, and it is a picture that is based off a novel of the same name written by Joseph Finder. It is the second feature film starring the duo of Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd as the title characters. With a subpar plot and very little intrigue, "High Crimes" falls tremendously short of any real expectations we should have for a masterful American thriller.

    This film opens with a startling image of several deceased villagers and a mourning mother. We are told this scene takes place in El Salvador, sometime in the year of 1988. We can also assume that these villagers did not die of natural causes, as their deaths seem to be the result of a multiple homicide. (This event alone will glue together the pieces of this below average storyline.)

    Fast forward to the present time period and we meet one of our main characters, Claire Kubik, in her Marin County, California, residence. She has just checked her ovulation test to find that she is in "prime" condition to conceive a baby. Why not get started immediately? She alerts her carpenter husband, Tom Kubik, and they begin to fool around.

    Everything seems picture perfect in Claire Kubik's life. She is a well to do defense attorney, who just succeeded in getting one of her clients a new trial, even though it seemed rather futile. The depiction of her received praise, as she enters her firm's law offices, only adds to the opinion that lawyers care more about their "wins" or "losses," then they do about the actual individual they represent.

    As if this rudimentary plot description weren't banal enough: Although, that is essentially all that is of any prominence here (the plot), considering this film cannot muster much more from its fragile structure. (It becomes even more fruitless as the storyline proceeds in its contrived dullness.)

    This "white picket fence" dream of a life is suddenly thrown to the dogs when, during a Christmas shopping spree, the FBI arrest her husband (in an utterly ridiculous scene with regard to plausibility) and charge him with the deaths of the nine civilians murdered in El Salvador. Claire Kubik must defend her husband's honor, and with the help of an ex-military lawyer, Charlie Grimes, she will unearth a reality that is as unexpected as it is preposterous. (Which is very.)

     The performances in "High Crimes" scream of mediocrity. The beautiful and talented Ashley Judd stars as Claire Kubik. Judd plays this character to the best of her abilities, or as well as the script allows her to. In a few emotionally charged scenes, Judd does show her credibility as an actress. She once again plays the "victim," and Judd has a natural talent for playing these types of roles.

    The only bright spot in this film is the character of Charlie Grimes, played by the one and only Morgan Freeman. Grimes--as mentioned above--is an ex-military lawyer, who is enlisted by Claire to help prove her husband's innocence. He is a man who spends his time counting the days of his sobriety and cherishing life without conviction. Freeman brings his brilliant range as an actor to this less than deserving film. He breathes life into this role and produces an edge that this picture so desperately needs. It is a shame that his performance becomes overshadowed by the inept story and the lack of surrounding talent.

     Movies in the "thriller" genre of filmmaking are supposed to do just that: thrill and entertain the audience. "High Crimes" is a bitter example of what happens when a semi-interesting novel is begrudgingly transformed into a dull and unmotivated film. The direction has its moments, but, overall, it is not consistent enough to keep us involved. Case in point: There is a scene in which Claire answers her cell phone and that apparently calls for a sudden, fast paced and jerky close-up. It only proves that there are masters of filmmaking and others who do not understand the delicacy of such techniques.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland ★★★ 1/2

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    As human beings, we live in two very distinct worlds. We spend most of our time fully awake and in touch with reality; however, when we fall asleep, we enter a realm of infinite possibilities. Sometimes our dreams are innocent and full of wonder. Other times they can be dark and desolate. "Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland" is a 1989 animated film that brings the realm of dreams to life in a charming and guileless manner. This film is loosely based on the comic strip "Little Nemo in Slumberland" written by Winsor McCay, which was first published in the year of 1905.

    "Little Nemo" begins with an enchanting dream sequence courtesy of our main character. He "awakens" in his dream realm and is soon transported by his magical flying bed all over the city and eventually into a dangerous chase scene with a rapid locomotive. The next day, Nemo sneaks off to a parade celebrating the visiting traveling circus. Here, Nemo encounters various characters including the circus organist and ringmaster. That night, these circus employees become much more once Nemo drifts off into a deep slumber. The circus organist, now Professor Genius, visits Nemo and invites him to the magical world of Slumberland. The invitation is extended to Nemo by King Morpheus, the circus ringmaster, and he is to become the heir of Slumberland. Nemo, accompanied by his pet flying squirrel, Icarus, will encounter many interesting characters, and he will ultimately defend this perfect dream against the sinister Nightmare King.

    This animated film provides splendorous visionary sequences and superb voicing talents. The most well known of these voice actors would be Gabriel Damon, who supplies the voice for Nemo. (He will be recognized by young children for his role in voicing Littlefoot in the "Land Before Time" series of films.) Mickey Rooney provides the voice talent for Flip, a cigar-smoking clown who is seen as nothing more than a mischievous troublemaker in the world of Slumberland. Flip befriends Nemo in a similar scene to that of "Pinocchio," in which Pinocchio befriends the character of Honest John. He is detoured from his present task due to his naivety, and it causes troublesome results.

    The script for this film is well written and deserves much praise. We are transported into this visual world of magnificent palaces and secret caves; however, it would not have been pulled off without a quality dialogue. Chris Columbus provides his writing talents for the screenplay, and he is a master at providing a quality storyline that reaches into the pit of our souls and forces us to feel like a child once again. He has contributed to the scripts of such films as "The Goonies," and even directed films in each of the "Home Alone" and "Harry Potter" series. Even though Nemo is a young child and not the most intriguing character, Columbus makes him interesting enough to fulfill our needs.

    Overall, "Little Nemo" is a youthful and engaging animated film. It had an incredibly high budget of around thirty-five million dollars and it shows in the brilliantly developed animation. When first released, this film had a hard time finding the right audience; sometimes these things happen. If you are looking for a film to amuse your child and keep you entertained, then this would be a terrific film for you. The Nightmare King sequences may scare some young children; however, they are short-lived. We all have some dreams that we wish to cherish and others that we choose to forget. "Little Nemo" is simply one that should be cherished.