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DOUBLE FEATURES: Silent Running & Oblivion

Welcome to Double Features, my monthly column dedicated to reviewing a current theatrical release in tandem with a similar classic movie available on DVD. April finds me wondering if Oblivion, Tom Cruise’s new sci-fi effort, shares some DNA with Silent Running, a 1972 cult item that also features a lone astronaut going rogue to protect Earth’s diminishing natural resources from a destructive enemy.

Don’t let the G rating, Joan Baez folk songs, or soft-focus opening shots of bunnies and flowers mislead you. Silent Running – the directorial debut of special effects wiz Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey) – is a somber, adult look at future environmental crisis set entirely aboard a greenhouse space station orbiting a deforested Earth. Bruce Dern goes from docile hippie to psychotic eco-warrior when soulless corporate bosses order him to nuke the last living plant and animal specimens and return to a barren planet sustained by their synthetic amenities. We should be on the oppressed gardener’s side, but his insurrection grows too bloody and paranoid for even the most militant animal activist or macrobiotic foodie to endorse.

Perhaps the only empathetic “characters” in Silent Running are a trio of service robots nicknamed Huey, Dewey, and Louie – reprogrammed to be green-thumbed companions after Dern offs his snide human co-workers. Trumbell’s ingenious miniature droid suits are customized to fit double-amputee actors, who bring a humanizing motion to the walking appliances that’s cute even when they’re digging graves. This is the rare environmental message movie that actually celebrates the machine as nature’s ultimate salvation – a techie’s vision of utopia. It remains progressive today, even if much of the rest of Silent Running suffers from outdated concepts and a meandering plot.
Tom Cruise might hold Bruce Dern’s same custodial occupation on the wasteland of Oblivion, but he’s not going to settle for socializing with a bunch of spherical drones – he wants a hot wife! And not that redheaded nag from his arranged marriage (Andrea Riseborough)… anyone who’s seen Total Recall knows she has ulterior motives for pressing him to spurn Earth for a Saturn moon. No, Cruise dreams of Olga Kurylenko – an enigmatic woman who beckons from repressed memories long before they’re reunited at his secret log cabin tucked inside the last green valley.

The starkest contrast between Silent Running and Oblivion is that Cruise is less preoccupied with rescuing the planet’s ravaged flora and fauna than piecing together his former identity. It’s a self-obsessed journey told largely in cryptic exchanges with coy characters like Morgan Freeman. The mystery unfolds in your head, but never your heart. And once this stooge has finally figured out he’s supposed to be acting like Tom Cruise in a big-budget Hollywood fantasy, many will have grown impatient for some explosions and requisite action.

At best, Silent Running and Oblivion are gentle genre exercises I can only MILDLY RECOMMEND to hardcore science fiction fans thirsting for simple, self-contained stories. Their appeal lies primarily in their visuals.  This is a Double Feature that’s easily wiped from the mind, clones of more iconic movies.

April 29, 2013 Posted by | Movies, Now Playing Podcast, Podcasts, Reviews | , , , , , | 2 Comments

TV REVIEW: Hannibal


Creator: Brian Fuller

Starring:  Mads Mikkelson, Hugh Dancy, Laurence Fishburne, Caroline Dhavernas, Lara Jean Chorostecki

Network:  NBC

Airs: Thursdays, 10pm Eastern /9pm Central

Cinema’s most notorious cannibal has returned to public life as the unlikely star of a one hour NBC crime drama.  Hannibal, set before the events of Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, finds a middle-aged Lecter assisting the FBI on grisly manhunts while masquerading as a Baltimore psychiatrist with a fridge full of secrets.  Any movie fan would naturally be concerned that TV censorship and commercial interruptions inhibit Hannibal even more than his signature straitjacket and facial restraints.  Yet the horror icon remains menacing and seductive in his new serialized incarnation, bringing a potent flavor to introductory episodes “Aperitif” and “Amuse Bouche” that masks the blandness of formulaic forensic shows.

If nothing else, series creator Bryan Fuller (Heroes) has found the perfect actor for the pivotal title role. Dane Mads Mikkelson avoids Anthony Hopkins comparisons by drawing more on the sinister minimalism of his James Bond villain from Casino Royale.   This Hannibal is trying to pass himself off as a boring suit, so he can’t risk the theatricality of those purring taunts and unblinking stares that caged Hannibal used to intimidate his interrogators.  Lecter lives out his double life wearing an unwavering poker face, but subtle gestures and asides help Mikkelson retain the dark humor and refinement that has always made this beast relatable.   A dinner of exquisite looking mystery meat, or a courtesy call placed to a fellow serial killer, play like private jokes between the viewer and this strangely admirable enigma.

Dr. Lecter hungers for an equal to sniff out his true nature, which makes his relationship with tortured FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) the crux of the show.  Graham’s heightened intuition helps him process crime scene clues through the eyes of the most depraved psychopaths – he’s a great investigator but an unstable lawman.  Lecter is brought in to help Will develop coping skills and process his recent first kill, but the shrink uses the sessions instead to insinuate his macabre world view inside Will’s fevered brain.  Dancy’s jittery performance is a nice contrast with Mikkelson’s calculating stoicism, even when the storylines push Graham’s emotional state to campy extremes.

Fans of Red Dragon and Manhunter recognize Will Graham as Lector’s eventual captor, but Hannibal has changed enough about the set-up to make that future uncertain.  Like JJ Abrams’ Star Trek or A&E’s Bates Motel, the project isn’t a slave to the source material and many canonical elements have been tweaked successfully.  Will Graham looks more damaged and socially awkward here than in the movies because he has a house full of stray dogs rather than a stabilizing wife and son.  Turning sleazy male reporter Freddie Lounds into a scheming female blogger not only contemporizes the character, it gives Lector a tempting new target.   As long as the show runners respect the source material, I think defying expectations is a great way of keeping fans interested.  Right now I don’t care if this Lecter ever ends up behind bars.

Still, not everything about Hannibal feels like a fresh reinvention.   Laurence Fishburne makes for a credible Jack Crawford, but he leads a stock crime fighting unit transplanted from a lesser procedural (annoying Asian scientist, dour bearded white dude, sexy lady shrink, etc.).  And the overwrought cases, which include a deer hunter skewering women on a wall of antlers and a pharmacist growing a mushroom garden out of comatose diabetics, create the bogus impression that every murderer on the East Coast is some aspiring performance artist using cannibalism to redress childhood hurt.  If this is what we’re going to get week after week, it’s going to diminishes Lecter’s reputation as a unique monster.

Hannibal has impressive production values, and its queasy corpse imagery and violent standoffs don’t feel compromised by broadcast television standards.  Yet I can’t help feeling like the show would play better on a network that doesn’t require it to make room for 17 minutes of commercials. Graham resembles a psychic more than a cop when ads don’t give us enough time to covet the clues, and he has to make improbable deductions to compress the plot.

Despite its flaws, Hannibal promises to be a worthy new chapter for the serial killer if it can maintain the Lecter/Graham dialectic.  I’m just afraid the show will get lost in America’s overcrowded DVR and wind up cancelled before its audience can find it.  I definitely RECOMMEND streaming both episodes over at sooner than later, and look forward to tasting the remaining 11 courses of Season One.


April 17, 2013 Posted by | Movies, Now Playing Podcast, Podcasts, Reviews, Television | , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on TV REVIEW: Hannibal

Movie Review: Spring Breakers

Spring Breakersspring-breakers-poster-1

Director:  Harmony Korine

Writer: Harmony Korine

Starring:  Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, and James Franco

Studio:  Muse Productions

Release Date:  March 22, 2013

Harmony Korine, a provocateur with a long rap sheet of films about juvenile delinquency, isn’t the most obvious candidate for directing a teen party movie set on the beaches of St. Petersberg. His previous youth culture explorations have shunned Disney princesses in florescent bikinis in favor of more extreme subjects – a serial rapist spreading AIDS (Kids), a drooling schizophrenic (Julien Donkey-Boy), cat killers on ten speed bikes (Gummo), and fetishists grinding their pelvises against canisters of garbage (Trash Humpers – his most literal celebration of depravity).

Yet the four curvaceous coeds at the center of Korine’s new opus Spring Breakers share a commonality with all the other freaks in his menagerie: they’re poor, horny and bored… and that makes them dangerous. Desperate to escape the crushing sameness of their deserted dorm, Candy (Hudgens), Brit (Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine, Harmony’s wife) use squirt guns and harsh language to intimidate patrons at an all-night diner into funding their hedonistic vacation. Faith (Gomez) knows she’s courting sin by abandoning her Bible study group for beach time with these hellions, but the utopian promise of Florida’s flesh parade proves equally irresistible to her repressed soul. These girls are sick, and fun is the only cure for what ails them.

Ironically, those most primed for the sun-burnt decadence of a Girls Gone Wild video, or crass Hollywood comedy like Project X, will probably be Spring Breakers’ most disappointed audience members. Korine has never cultivated a taste for commercial storytelling or traditional beauty, and remains fixated on unflattering details as he reduces the foursome’s exploits to a disjointed montage of scooter rides and repetitious drunk talk. Boredom hasn’t been conquered, merely transformed into something more frenzied and sad.

The fun doesn’t begin for viewers until our heroines are jailed and forced to take bail money from Alien, a drug smuggler with delusions of rap superstardom. One look at James Franco’s gold-toothed leer as he leads the ladies from the courthouse into a spaceship-shaped bed blanketed in $100 bills tells you Korine has finally found the proof he needs to convict the American Dream. “Look at my sheeyit! This ain’t nuttin’, I got ROOMS of this shit,” the narcissist boasts as he produces everything from Kool-Aid to Calvin Klein cologne in an effort to impress his guests. It’s Alien who completes Candy and Brit’s transformation into gangsta bitches now packing real firepower, and the trio sail off into a day-glo finale filled with Britney Spears sing-a-longs and drive-by shootings.

Many will call Spring Breakers an empty exercise full of callow behavior, and I’ll not dispute them. Still, I Recommend the movie to anyone able to appreciate the singular way Korine and cinematographer Benoit Debie (Enter The Void) render depravity as its own special kind of beauty. The paradox of their painterly images, married with Franco’s gonzo-yet-human performance, creates empathy for these shallow party girls when their words and deeds might otherwise draw contempt. Korine might not be an artist, but I refuse to label him an exploiter. Perhaps we’ll agree he’s that nose picker that sits in the back of the classroom making sculpture out of his boogers. Certainly Spring Breakers is a gross and glorious mess not soon forgotten.

March 28, 2013 Posted by | Movies, Now Playing Podcast, Podcasts, Reviews | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Double Features: Stoker & Shadow Of A Doubt

Welcome to Double Features, my ongoing column devoted to pairing a new theatrical release with a complimentary older title available on home viewing formats.

shadow of a doubt
Shadow of a Doubt Stoker

For March I’m fixing up stylish new thriller Stoker with 70-year-old Alfred Hitchcock classic Shadow of a Doubt for a double date that explicitly reminds audiences why it’s never a good idea for a girl to lust after her uncle.

Hitchcock movies pack a subversive punch because the director was so clever at sneaking taboo subject matter past his censors. Audiences in 1943 would merely have understood Shadow of A Doubt as the story of a gushing teenager (Teresa Wright) horrified to learn her visiting uncle (Joseph Cotton) is The Merry Widow Murderer. But savvier contemporary viewers will likely be creeped out by the closeness of their familial bond long before Uncle Charlie’s homicidal habits come to light. The nubile niece, also named Charlie, characterizes their connection as “telepathic”, but I’m closer to calling it out as incest.

Shadow of A Doubt isn’t one of Hitchcock’s more suspenseful or technically innovative pictures. The audience spends most of the run time waiting for its naïve star to deduce what they’ve known since the opening scene. But I suspect Hitch called it the favorite work of his career because it does such an expert job satirizing America and traditional Hollywood depictions of wholesomeness. Not only does a niece’s unbridled desire for her uncle go unnoticed in this seemingly upstanding small town, but common folk commiserate over speculation on how they might kill one another, banks profit from blood money, and perversion can be seen beneath the chipped paint of civility in every scene. The one false note of the picture comes when an FBI agent tries to assure the disillusioned young Charlie that people are basically decent and criminals like her uncle are the anomaly.

shadow poster

Stoker clearly invites comparisons to Shadow of A Doubt as it also introduces a homicidal Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) into the home of a blossoming schoolgirl (Mia Wasikowska), but takes the scenario one step further by suggesting the two share an inherited proclivity to kill. Dour young India certainly knows her way around a hunting rifle, and thinks nothing of silencing randy classmates with the sharp end of a pencil. But she’s a virgin when it comes to the ways of sex and murder, and spends most of the movie warming up to the idea that her father’s brother (and possible killer) has a lot he could teach her in these areas.

Stoker marks the Hollywood debut of acclaimed director Chan Wook-Park (Oldboy). Like Hitchcock, he’s come to America with a healthy dose of cynicism and an eye for subversive detail. Almost every shot in the picture simmers with Freudian possibilities – from the snaky removal of a belt used to strangle a man during intercourse to a spider crawling up the girl’s thigh as she plays a love song on the piano. These searing images perfectly capture the balance between suppressed desire and sociopathic bloodlust that hangs over our not-so-naïve star’s coming-of-age.

Hitchcock used the incest taboo to tease audiences about presumptions of innocence, but stops far short of nihilism and always delivers crowd-pleasing thrills. Stoker, by contrast, corrupts audiences by asking them to fully explore the darkly erotic possibilities of the uncle-niece union and resists reassurances of societal norms. I RECOMMEND both movies, and suspect viewers will get even more out of seeing them together. But you may not want to invite the family to watch along with you.

stoker poster

March 20, 2013 Posted by | Movies, Now Playing Podcast, Reviews | , , , , | Comments Off on Double Features: Stoker & Shadow Of A Doubt

Now Playing’s St. Paddy’s Day Movie Marathon… Or Why Irish Cinema Totally Sucks


St. Patrick’s Day is a time for partaking in many great traditions – pinching those that forget their green apparel, washing corned beef and cabbage down with a Shamrock Shake, or maybe dancing a jig at the local pub. Movie-going, however, never seems to play a big part of the holiday. That’s because Irish movies are fookin’ shite!

Look, I’m from Irish stock myself. It gives me no pleasure to reach this conclusion about the state of Celtic cinema. And it’s frustrating when you consider how many great Irish actors (Daniel Day-Lewis, Liam Neeson), actresses (Saoirse Ronan, Maureen O’Hara), and writers (Oscar Wilde, Martin McDonagh) have brought iconic stories to the movies. But I find it impossible to name five Irish films I love.

Hollywood has been the worst perpetuator of Emerald Isle clichés – Sean Connery singing with Darby O’Gill And The Little People, Tom Cruise boxing to Enya in Far And Away, and Tommy Lee Jones channeling a box of Lucky Charms as Blown Away’s psycho IRA bomber. I’m a staunch defender of Titanic, but even I wouldn’t hold it up as a great depiction of my peeps.

The trouble is productions from native filmmakers are no better. I’ve endured soggy history lessons (Michael Collins, In The Name Of The Father), tortured biopics (Angela’s Ashes, The General), cloying romances (Once, The Playboys), and insufferably cute comedies (Waking Ned Devine, Hear My Song… so off tune I walked out on it).  I know I’ve omitted some beloved Irish “classics”, but show me one that isn’t about starvation, drunkenness, or political oppression – that unavoidable trifecta of Ireland’s miserablist existence.

St. Paddy’s Day is supposed to be about having fun. So I’m forced to get a little creative in order to present a movie marathon that compliments the occasion. None of these five flicks are “Irish” in any traditional way, but they’re a hell of a lot more enjoyable than My Left Foot.

Images (1971)
Arty thriller has children’s author Susannah York descending into madness on holiday in the Irish countryside. This atypical effort for director Robert Altman and composer John Williams plays like a Celtic prequel to The Shining.

Jekyll (2007)
Sure you could watch Irish actor James Nesbitt make his country proud in Paul Greengrass’ 2002 Bloody Sunday re-creation, but I enjoy him so much more as the definitive screen version of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s split personality in this addictive six hour BBC mini-series.

Miller’s Crossing (1990)
Long before Boondock Saints made Irish gangsters trendy, the Coen Brothers shot up the screen with a mob movie that’s got dialogue and camerawork as rapid fire as a Tommy gun.

Snakes On A Plane (2006)
What better way to honor the legend of St. Patrick driving serpents from Ireland than watching MF Sam Jackson do the same for a doomed Hawaiian flight?

Withnail & I (1987)
Richard E Grant goes on the ultimate bender in 60s London starring in the cult movie that made his career. True he’s not Irish, but if this holiday is just an excuse to get drunk then think of Withnail as the St. Paddy’s Day version of It’s A Wonderful Life.

And if you opt for Gangs Of New York or The Departed, head over to afterwards to listen to my thoughts.  Both movies are available as podcasts in a Martin Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio Retrospective (which will be picking back up this fall with the release of The Wolf Of Wall Street incidentally).


March 16, 2013 Posted by | Movies, Reviews | , , , | 2 Comments