Saturday, July 14, 2007
  The End Of film geeks

Alas, all good things must come to an end. Due to Wendy's lost interest in blogging and both of us being busy these days, film geeks is now officially closed. I'll still post film reviews at my regular blog from time to time when the mood strikes me ... and I'll leave film geeks up so that the old reviews are still here ... but there won't be any new posts here. Thanks to those of you who've read, linked, and/or left comments. It was a blast.

Sunday, May 06, 2007
  Theatrical Review: Spider-Man 3

OH, yes, there will be spoilers … but don't worry, the spoilers are in a link below. Nothing you read in this brief review will spoil Spider-Man 3 for you.

The point of a movie review should be to answer the hypothetical question "Should you go see this movie?" It's easy to lose sight of that when a reviewer is writing about a movie based on another artistic source that he or she loves. It's difficult to be objective and keep in mind that not every movie viewer is going to share your love, your dedication, maybe your obsession with the movie's source material.

I'm trying to be as objective as possible and remember that not everyone who reads this review is going to be a 38 year old man who sleeps in Spider-Man pajamas. (That's not a confession on my part or anything … I'm just sayin', that's all.) As a rabid, life-long Spider-Man fan, I'm on one end of the spectrum. On the other end, there are people who see trailers for the new film and say "Spider-Man? Yeah, he's a super powered movie guy, right? I think he's a good guy rather than a villain."

And, with that in mind, I' guess it would be best to subdivide this review:

Should casual movie fans see this film?
Yes, I think you'll get your money's worth. It's a big summer action movie, and it delivers very well on those terms. The special effects are just about the best I've ever seen in any movie, and it provides that ever-popular "roller coaster ride" that summer blockbusters are supposed to deliver. No, it won't change your life … and you'll probably not leave the theater ready to log onto the net and advance order the DVD, but it's an entertaining and fun way to start the summer movie season. There are funny, character driven scenes that elicit genuine laughs … there are great looking superhuman battle sequences … and the action comes with enough frequency and variety to keep you from getting bored. You'll leave the theater satisfied.

Should fans of Spider-Man 2 see this movie?
Well, maybe … just don't get your hopes up too high. Spider-Man 2 was an outstanding film; it worked on all levels. Not only did it excel in all the "summer blockbuster" categories listed above, it also delivered real human drama and told a compelling story that really came to matter over the course of the film. Don't expect anything that good from Spider-Man 3. Oh, it tries to be dramatic … but with three villains and so many trilogy-ending loose ends to tie up, it never really gets into your head and your heart the way the second movie did. As far as special effects and big fun, Spidey 3 comes through … but this movie doesn't have any of the elements that made Spidey 2 so special.

Should fans of the first Spider-Man film see this movie?
Yeah, go ahead. It's as good as the first one, and doesn't suffer from the occasional periods of lag that the first one was hampered by. The special effects are much better in this film than in the first one, and even though there's some serious villain-overkill, at least the villains don't look as silly as the poor Green Goblin (with his awful Goblin Armor) did in the first film. If you enjoyed the first film, you'll enjoy this one, too … and maybe a little more.

Should hardcore comic book fans (and life-long Spider-Man fans) see Spider-Man 3?
I suppose … but with reservations. I'm assuming that other hardcore comic book fans realize, just as I do, that we've been amazingly blessed to have had the chance to see Batman Begins and Spider-Man 2 in the theaters in the last few years. Those are two outstanding movies, and I'd recommend them to anyone, but those of us who have loved comics for so long find them especially thrilling. It's really amazing to watch a movie and realize that it's actually doing a good job of putting everything we love about comics on the screen. Batman Begins did that. Spider-Man 2 did that, as well. Spider-Man 3 doesn't get close to doing that. It's really just one more superhero movie, although it's really a great looking one and it's moves along well and is directed very well. Yes, you will find things in the movie that annoy you, but they're small and relatively inconsequential, and you'll be able to ignore them and just have fun with the film. Just go into the theater expecting an OK (satisfying at best, never thrilling) experience, and you won't leave disappointed.

Now, as far as those spoileriffic complaints I mentioned, hardcore comic fans who've already seen the movie can click here and read them.

No, Spider-Man 3 wasn't as good as I'd hoped it would be, but it didn't suck, either. This wasn't some Joel Schumacher pile of garbage. It does suffer from that classic Schumacher bad-guy-overload, but the SM3 villains are better written, better acted and better directed than the clownish bad guys in Schumacher's Batman films, so it's not too bad.

Go ahead and go see it. It's not great, it it's more proof that Marvel movies are almost always better than DC movies, even when they're weak. It won't change your life, but it won't ruin your weekend, either. Things could be worse ... and they might get that way yet.

Monday, March 19, 2007
  DVD Review: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

"Look for the ridiculous in everything, and you will find it." So wrote Jules Renard, and it's as true a statement about the human condition as has ever been uttered by a French, atheist, socialist playwright. Unfortunately, the maxim followed by many of today's journalists, especially film critics, seems to be "Look for the extremely serious in everything, and manufacture it if you can't find it." That's the only way I can explain some of the preening pontifications produced by America's movie critics in response to Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. This movie is easily the most absurd, profane, irresponsible, flat-out-funny farce released by any major movie studio since my all time favorite comedy, Blazing Saddles. Everything about Borat is ridiculously funny, and yet a great many of the journalists who've reviewed it somehow saw this movie as important social commentary. That may be the movie's last running joke: it managed to get people who weren't even in the movie to make asses of themselves. More on that later.

It's only mid March, but I'm prepared to name Borat the DVD of the year. It had me laughing before I even got it into the DVD player. Once I slipped the DVD case out of the cardboard cover, I saw that the cover art is made to look like a bad bootleg, a copy of a copy of a copy. There isn't a word on the back of the case that's in English, and even the disc itself is funny; it looks like a burned DVD-R copy of the film, complete with the title written in black Sharpie marker, the "r" backward. The DVD-R brand name is Demorez. ("Is Life? No. Demorez.")

I slipped the DVD into our DVD player and found that the menus were funny, the anti-pirating warning from the government of Kazakhstan was funny, and the movie itself … forget about it.

Borat is a mockumentary about the adventures of the title character, a Kazakhstani TV journalist who's touring America. It's one of the most vulgar films I've ever seen, but it is soooo funny. It's doubled-over, tears-streaming, braying-laughter funny. In a decade overflowing with top-notch mockumentaries (Best In Show, Trailer Park Boys, The Office {UK}, The Office {US}), Borat is the funniest.

Now, this movie is not for everyone. I believe that Borat's R rating is another example of the MPAA's incompetence. This film should have been rated NC-17 due to the pervasive, graphic, profane content. This is not a family movie. I can't imagine watching this film with my family. I'd be mortified at the prospect of watching it with the Manson family, for Pete's sake. But get together a few thick-skinned adults and maybe a couple of beers and Borat is an hour and a half of hilarity. The laughs just never stop.

Borat is a character created and portrayed by British comedian and actor Sacha Baron Cohen, and he's one of only two or three people in the film who are in on the jokes. The humor comes from the nonchalance with which Borat says horribly racist, sexist, disgusting things to strangers who can only react with confusion, bewilderment, anger ... and sometimes with delight. After all, the rest of the people in the film… politicians, salesmen, frat boys, etc... aren't in on the joke. They think that Borat is a real person. Imagine a bizarro version of Candid Camera. Imagine Jackass or The Tom Green Show if they were actually funny. Better yet, imagine Andy Kaufman if he'd ever realized his potential.

And if Cohen is willing to make others look silly in his film, it's nothing compared to what he puts himself through. Cohen will do anything for a laugh. He makes Will Farrell look restrained. His own body is his best prop, and he literally strips himself of any possible pride during the course of this movie. One scene, involving a nude and public fistfight, is simultaneously hilarious, awkward, juvenile and appalling. Every detail of Cohen's anatomy is visible, except for that which is hidden by a black bar … and even the specifics of the black bar itself serves as yet another joke. I've no doubt that, had he had a better idea, Cohen would have forgone even that modesty.

Borat is uproariously funny … and after you've finished the film, watched all of the DVD extras, and you think you've laughed at everything associated with the movie, you can check the internet and read reviews that say things like this:

"Borat, the old-world specimen of masculis ignoramus from an underdeveloped half-Muslim nation, stands in for a world we didn't have to think much about before 9/11, and the people Borat talks to become the symbolic heart of America — a place where intolerance is worn, increasingly, with pride." - Entertainment Weekly

"Borat is not just blatant but proselytizing ... his target isn't really (Kazakhstan) ... it is rather the domain of the "great warlord Premier Bush," red states in particular." - Village Voice

The picture takes the country's temperature at a rather fraught period in our national life... That Borat finds the streak of poison in American life mitigates the potential perception of "Borat" as some Muslim-bashing movie for a self-satisfied Western audience." -

And on and on and on. It's really funny. Even after the movie has been released, Borat was still getting strangers to act like fools. These reviews, of course, say far more about the reviewer than they do about the film. After all, most movie critics are "urban sophisticates," and the only thing that matches their love for themselves is their hatred of middle America, where most of Borat takes place. Nonetheless, gay-pride paraders, New Yorkers and LA street people are prodded and parodied as well. Nobody is safe from Borat.

This movie isn't high-brow comedy. Hell, it isn't low-brow comedy. This is sub-brow comedy. I suppose that only a high-fallutin' film critic would feel the need to justify his or her enjoyment of a movie like this by convincing himself or herself that it's "culturally significant." Of course, Borat himself would probably find these reviews "very inform of politic and customs of society in US and A." As for Cohen, I'm sure he's laughing all the way to the bank. Andy would be proud.

Borat preview:

Thursday, December 21, 2006
  DVD Tax On The Stupid

Not that I'm considering buying a movie as crappy as The Lady In The Water... but I'm glad to see that the full-screen version is more expensive at Amazon than the wide-screen version:

I think that all full-screen DVDs should cost more than wide-screen versions. Think of it as a tax on stupid people.

Monday, November 13, 2006

So, have you heard about this terrifying new thriller called Office Space?

Thursday, November 02, 2006
  Bargain Bin Bounty

It really is worth your time to spend a few minutes digging through those racks of cheap DVDs at Wal-Mart and Target. You know the ones I'm talking about, the displays full of DVDs for $5.50 or less. Sometimes they're in temporary, cardboard shelves … sometimes on the end-caps of aisles. In worst-case scenarios, they can be thrown together in one big 4x4x4 bin. Nonetheless, it's worth your time to look through them. You might be surprised at the number of quality films you'll often find in there, and at prices that are comparable to the rental price at your local Blockbuster store. Why pay a few bucks to rent it when you can pay a few bucks and own it?

I hope to make this a reoccurring feature here at film geeks, a compilation of quick reviews of movies we found on-the-cheap at the Wal-Mart down the road. These are movies that are worth seeing, DVDs that are well worth owning, and as good an entertainment investment of five bucks as you're likely to find anywhere.

Like I said, I hope to make this a regular film geeks series. There really is treasure to be found in the discount DVD racks at a store near you. It's worth the browsing.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006
  DVD Review: Auto Focus

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Paul Schrader's Auto Focus, a film about the double life and gruesome death of Bob Crane. I certainly didn't expect what I got; a linear and bluntly straight-forward film that was alternatingly creepy, compelling and sometimes actually funny. It's not the best film I've ever seen by any stretch, but Auto Focus is not without considerable qualities.

Auto Focus isn't as good as Schrader's finest directorial effort, Affliction, but it's infinitely better than Dominion, the Exorcist prequel that he directed next. And, surprisingly, it shares something in common with those films. All three of them are stories about men caught in self-destructive downward spirals who are equally powerless and unwilling to stop their descent.

The real life Bob Crane is, of course, best known as Colonel Hogan, the hero of the unlikely WWII POW sitcom, Hogan's Heroes. I used to love Hogans Heroes when I was a kid. I looked forward to catching syndicated reruns in the afternoons when I'd finished my homework. I knew, in the early 80's when I watched the show, that Crane was dead, but I didn't know why. As a teenager I remember learning that he'd been violently murdered in an unsolved case, and that one element of his life that came to public light during the investigation was that he'd been an amateur pornographer for years. Crane, it seems, was anything but the squeaky clean Colonel Hogan I'd grown up with.

And yet, Auto Focus argues … somewhat convincingly … that Crane really was squeaky clean in his own way. The movie presents a man with a duel nature, one half of him a devoted Catholic and family man, the other half a sex addict who photographed and videotaped his conquests in sort of a bizarre trophy quest. Crane's sexual addiction isn't glossed over or presented as a palpable thing that simply got out of control. Auto Focus presents Crane's sexual dysfunctions as entirely negative and destructive from the get-go. Early scenes feature Crane sheepishly discussing his habits with his priest, and trying to justify a collection of pornographic magazines that his wife has found. There's no room for doubt that, from the point of view of this film, Bob Crane's sexual appetites were a harmful element in his life.

The primary enabler in Crane's self destruction seems to have been his friend John "Carpie" Carpenter, played here with disturbing effectiveness by the always convincing Willem Dafoe. Nobody gives good creep like Dafoe, and in Auto Focus Dafoe creates a character that might be his must repugnant on-screen construction yet. "Carpie" isn't simply a bad friend to Crane in the "drinkin' buddy" sense. Dafoe's John Carpenter is an obsessive and truly perverse presence who justifies and facilitates Crane's darkest, ugliest cravings. The movie seems to argue that, had Carpenter never bubbled to the surface of Bob Crane's life, the comic actor would likely have managed to keep it together.

Schrader's directorial decisions are shrewd and calculated in this film, and the visuals nicely mirror the changing state of Bob Crane's life. Early shots, before sex became a destructive force in Crane's life, are bright, clean and steady. Later in the film, as Crane drops further down the spiral, the movie's hues darken and become dingier. The camera forces the viewer into Crane's world with him by way of strange perspectives and shorter shots. It's difficult not to panic with Crane as he feels his world slipping out from under him.

The movie was rated R, partly due to "strong sexuality and nudity." It's a credit to Schrader as a director that the nudity and sexuality in the film is never quite "close" to the viewer. It's pervasive, but always in the background, on a TV screen or in a darkened room. Up close, nudity becomes a matter of intimacy. Auto Focus never lets us forget that the sexual addiction that lead to the self destruction of Bob Crane was never a matter of intimacy. Sex, for Bob Crane, may have been about conquest or habit or simply about compulsion… but it was never about the intimacy of real interaction between two people.

Greg Kinnear, as it turns out, was an inspired choice to play Bob Crane. Like Crane, Kinnear's TV persona is somewhat squeaky clean. He looks comfortable in Colonel Hogan's leather jacket and half-cocked cap. He looks just as comfortable, in fact, as Crane himself did. What's effective about Kinnear's performance is that he's just as convincing in the darker scenes. Two scenes in particular stand out. When he first sees himself having sex on video, Kinnear's Crane says two things, both of which he emphatically means and each of which contradict the other: "We've got to destroy this tape. How much does one of these recorders cost?" Crane simultaniously wants to both stop and to indulge his addiction, and Kinnear sells the scene with an understated reality. If you've ever been addicted to anything... even if it's just cigarettes... you might feel a little pang of recognition here.

In another scene Crane hallucinates during a taping of Hogan's Heroes. Images of sexual dalliances, his crumbling family life, and his career teetering on a precipice overwhelm him. This is the make or break point for Crane in this film. It's a darkly unsettling and comical scene, and Kinnear pulls it off with just the right balance of smirk and fear. It's a perfect Bob Crane moment.

The death of Bob Crane remains unsolved to this day, although the film makes it clear who the murderer probably was … and what the motive was. But it isn't the unsolved murder of Bob Crane that makes this movie relevant to today's age. What makes the movie relevant to the modern age is what it has to say about the combination of technology and sex. In the mid sixties, home video technology was brand new and exciting. Like any tool, it could be used for creation or destruction. Crane used it for both, and seemed to enjoy taping his family birthday parties and holidays every bit as much as he enjoyed taping his sexual liaisons. These days home video is yesterday's news. Today, the technology that has the most potential to nurture sexual self destruction is the very media that you're using to read this film review. Like home video in the 60's, the internet can be a powerfully creative tool, or an instrument with which we arrange and nurture our own sexual dysfunctions. It's impossible not to make the connections while watching Auto Focus, although Schrader never forces that connection with overtly analogous dialogue or imagery. It's simply there. It always will be. Technology changes, but sex remains the same. Both have the potential to enhance and strengthen our relationships … or to destroy them. Even if Bob Crane's story is nothing more than a cautionary tale, it's more relevant now than ever.

The DVD features a documentary in two parts about the investigation of the Bob Crane murder. The documentary is nearly an hour long and builds a solid case for the movie's apparent supposition about who killed Bob Crane, and why. I feel that I should warn the viewer, however, that the documentary contains several close photographs of the murder scene, including photographs of Crane's bludgeoned and bloody body. It's upsetting to watch, and while it might be sobering for some, it'll simply seem gratuitous to others.

Auto Focus Trailer:

  DVD Review: Bringing Out The Dead

Describing Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out The Dead as a downbeat film is kinda like describing the Atlantic Ocean as damp. Bringing Out The Dead is tremendously downbeat and quite surreal. It is, in fact, downbeat and surreal enough to make Blue Velvet play like There's Something About Mary.

Yet, reviewers who describe the film as a thriller or an action film aren't really off the mark, either. There is action in the film. There is suspense and there are thrills along the way. It's just that there's a darkness to everything on the screen that nearly suffocates the film. Watching Bringing Out The Dead is often like being smothered.

That is probably intentional. If you're going to tell a story about a man who hates his life, who feels panicked and afraid at every turn, and who's haunted by his every decision, I don't suppose you'd want the story to come across lightly.

Bringing Out The Dead is the story of an NYC graveyard shift EMT named Frank Pierce (Nicholas Cage) who's on the verge of burning out disastrously. Frank hasn't been involved in a call that actually saved a life in months, and he's haunted by the memory of Rose, a young woman who died during his attempt to save her months ago. As the movie begins, Frank responds to a call for a heart attack victim who clearly wants to die. But it's Frank's job to keep him alive, so he does. The patient is transported to a crowded and inefficient hospital, where he's cardio-shocked seventeen times in a desperate attempt to preserve his life. The conflict between those who are unwillingly alive because of Frank's actions ... and those who'd still be enjoying life if only Frank had known what to do ... becomes too much. Something has got to give.

A number of the cards that Scorsese always has up his sleeve end up on the table, here... including flashy camera work, voice-over narration, and a pulsing pop music soundtrack that often actually carries the story rather than simply serving as a distraction. Martin Scorsese is one of our greatest living filmmakers, and even a middling work from him is going to be better than the best work of almost anyone else. Unfortunately for Scorsese fans, Bringing Out The Dead is sometimes little more than a middling Scorsese affair.

One problem is that Cage's performance often drags. Although it's appropriate that his character seem tired all of the time, there are also sequences where it just doesn't seem that he's learned his lines very well. Other scenes are shot and edited in a way that some viewers might find distracting. From the point of view of a midnight shift worker (as I myself am for seven days each month), I think a lot of what Scorsese has done in Bringing Out The Dead was artistically valid. Scenes speed up and slow down at random. Shots never seem to last for more than a minute or two, making it hard to stay focused. There's a dreamlike quality to everything here, with odd lighting and strange sound mixes in even the least surreal scenes. As a shift worker, I thought I understood what Scorsese was doing while I watched the film. If you've ever worked graveyard, you know that it often really seems like things are speeding up, slowing down and randomly distorting in the wee hours of the night. I recognized that, just as I recognized other little nods to the shift worker, such as the aluminum foil taped to Cage's bedroom windows. Other viewers, however, are more likely going to find some of these stylistic choices to be pure distraction.

Strong supporting performances by the rest of the cast help make up the difference. Patricia Arquette, I admit, is merely adequate as the daughter of the heart attack victim (and Frank's love interest). It's the other wacko EMT's and the New York late night street people who provide the action and the thrills along the way. Tom Sizemore plays Tom, a brutally indifferent ambulance driver … and Sizemore never fails to deliver the weirdness in hugely watchable doses. Singer and Actor Marc Anthony is also quite good here (really) as a dreadlocked suicidal headcase named Noel. Best of all, though, is Ving Rames as Marcus, the pseudo-gospel preaching, pimping and profiling playa who spends a kinetic Friday night driving Frank from call to call.

The movie seems to be at a loss with regard to exactly what Frank needs to put his ghosts and regrets behind him. Along the way he tries everything from doing his job well to trying to get fired ... everything from drinks to pills to impromptu IV cocktails ... and everything from reckless driving to meandering conversations. Frank seems to have come to the conclusion that his job is neither to prevent death, nor to hasten it, but simply to witness it. The actions he finally takes to bring closure to the lives and deaths that haunt him seem somewhat contrived and out of character, and the movie resolves everything with a sappy, conventional "hero-gets-the-girl" conclusion. As I said, this is neither Scorsese's best, nor most cohesive motion picture.

Nonetheless, it is still clearly the product of a movie maker who'd been honing his considerable skills for some 40 years by the time he made this picture. Scorsese is no slouch, and even this uneven and often messy movie still packs a great deal of punch. Cage steps up and delivers in certain critical scenes, and he sells Frank's weariness when it matters. Plus, it's simply impossible to take your eyes off this movie. It doesn't always make sense, but it never gets boring. It is, after all, Scorsese.

A Clip From Bringing Out The Dead

Dubbed in Spanish

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