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Stargate (1994)



Starring : Kurt Russel, James Spader, Jaye Davidson, Alexis Cruz
Director : Ronald Emmerich
Screenplay : Ronald Emmerich & Dean Devlin
Rating : PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.

With Roland Emmerich’s “2012” plowing through multiplexes all over the world, I thought, why not go back to one of Emmerich’s older, disaster-free sci-fi epics ? Since there are but a few that do not feature the total destruction of famous landmarks, I picked “Stargate”, Emmerich’s first big-budget Hollywood epic and starting point of a cult following that was picked up by a (very) long-running TV series.

The plot starts off in 1928 with the discovery of a strange artifact in Egypt, then moves on to present day, where Daniel Jackson (James Spader), a goofy Egyptologist with some weird theories, is recruited by the government to help in translating ancient tablets for a research project which is, not surprisingly, connected to the artifact found in 1928. The research concludes that the said discovery is in fact a portal which requires a set of 7 symbols to open up a wormhole to alien worlds. Cue in the military, which put Col. O’Neill (Kurt Russel) in charge of the expedition to see what lies beyond the “gate to the stars”. Soon after they go through, they find themselves on a desert planet and realise they do not have the required 7 symbols to return home. As they explore the planet, they stumble upon a primitive civilisation of humans which turn out to be slaves used by malevolent alien forces led by an incarnation of Ra (yes, the Egyptian sun god), who apparently built the pyramids on Earth. The plot thickens considerably along the way, and it all builds to a typical blockbuster climax which involves a nuclear weapon with the obligatory digital countdown timer, fist fighting, Daniel saving the love of his life, a desert battle where bullets are obviously no match for laser-slinging flying ships, and the line “Give my regards to King Tut, asshole !”.

The film flows nicely for whatever running time it takes them to activate the stargate and go through it (which must be about 20 minutes). After that, the pacing feels a bit erratic. There’s no build-up, just a sequence of discoveries and explanatory dialogue briefly punctuated by bursts of visual effects and some action, which makes it hard to get excited about what you’re seeing. In fact, it’s far from Emmerich’s action-packed epics that followed, at least in that regard. You would almost think that it’s deliberately taking its time to construct a plot, but in fact it’s just superficially maneuvering through a check-list of cliches just so it can have those impressive action scenes at the end. It all feels like it’s on autopilot and when the big face-off arrives, you realise just how little you’ve seen in terms of creativity. Clearly, the TV series was an improvement, providing a better feel of the Stargate universe, since the film is dissapointingly limited in scope.

When they actually get down to business, the visuals are pretty impressive, especially since they’re 15 years old. The FX have aged well, though you can easily spot the rudimentary CGI, because they stick out like a sore thumb. But, the miniatures and more practical photography effects are still pretty neat. The look of the alien hi-tech Egyptian style makes for some very pleasing eye-candy that basically supports the lack of interesting plot/dialogue. Kurt Russel can certainly play it cool. It’s refreshing to see him bravely take on all that square-jawed macho B.S. That “King Tut” line belongs to his character, and, boy, does he deliver it, or what ? He’s clearly been in this kind of B flick special effects extravaganza before and just runs with it. Spader is just as much fun as the airheaded scientist who becomes a saviour of sorts, but Ra, played by Jaye Davidson is only marginally interesting and doesn’t make a very solid villain which is a shame actually, because a villain can make or break a sci-fi film like this.

All in all, it isn’t Emmerich’s most impressive film, and this is coming from someone who expects nothing but mindless fun and total destruction from the man. Despite some honorable ambitions and fun moments, it fails to muster the enthusiasm that the seemingly endless seasons of the TV series did, although in all fairness, this is where it all started. I can’t imagine how the producers got around to spinning the concept for television, but in the end, it was a far more inspired idea than Emmerich’s big screen effort.


The Skeptic (2009)

01skeptic_6006Starring: Tim Daly, Tom Arnold, Zoe Saldana, Edward Herrmann, Andrea Roth, Robert Prosky, Bruce Altman, LJ Foley
Director: Tennyson Bardwell
Screenwriter: Tennyson Bardwell

Inspired by last week’s great reviews I decided to watch more horror movies in spite of being a total pansy and as I started with “Orphan” – because of which I may start billing Skellington for all the electricity I’m wasting keeping the lights on at night, I continued with “The Skeptic”, given to me by the very sweet and considerate little monster that is my sister. I honestly don’t think there will be a third one; I am just not cut out for this.

“The Skeptic” tells the story of Bryan Becket, played by Tim Daly, who decides to move in his late aunt’s house as a warning to his wife who wants him more emotionally attached. He is very cold, calm and collected, a control freak that hates human bonding. His only friend and his wife both get the jerk treatment, as his calculating lawyer ways leaving no room for emotional blackmail and psychobabble.  That was at the beginning. But soon after he moves he starts to experience a series of inexplicable events. A supermodel psychic join him in his quest to find out what exactly I causing all the apparent supernatural phenomena that makes him question everything he believes in (or doesn’t believe in). He is, of course, The Skeptic.

Tim Daly (the only other thing I’ve seen him in is the TV show “Private Practice”, where I was frankly not impressed with his work, as I thought he was bland, had the mobility of a block of wood and the script tried too hard to make him kind and loving by showing cheesy lines down my throat) grows on me in this movie that requires from its main lead an intentional lack of expression and emotion. And by the end of it, I saw many scenes beautifully acted and a potential for more. It came as a shock to me, but he is very good in this role and about two potatoes out of these 6 are all his. His wife is Robin (Andrea Roth), and she is a little bit too preoccupied to be pretty and blonde for my taste. And the believer, played by Zoe Saldana, started out by being incredibly annoying, but she managed to integrate herself into the story and thus she became useful, but not irreplaceable.

The best actor in this movie is the house. Remember Norman Bates’ mother’s house? Well, this one is at the same level of emoting creepy vibes, only without the benefits of black and white cinematography; I don’t know if they built it or they actually used an existing one, but if someone lives there in real life, then in spite of the multitude of rooms and great architecture, I just cannot imagine any place I would want to be less. It is one of those houses that cannot stop screaming “haunted” even when in broad daylight. The director does a good job focusing on the strong cast, the close ups and tight frames make you afraid of what might happen outside the shot, in the background or in the eyesight of the respective character. These are the good.

The bad? The script is average bordering on nauseating, and the scare tactics are a little overused and clichéd. Some moments make you scream: “Enough already, stop trying to wedge in every leftover horror prop known to man!”, others just remind you of better movies where you saw that exact scene/take/framing. It is scary, yes, and its goal is thus achieved, but it is also completely unoriginal and I am under the impression that it somehow fails to impress the genre fans (which I am not, so it is just a supposition based on the horrible reviews, i.e. 8% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), who have more comparison material. The core story is good, but somehow not meaty enough to sustain an hour and a half of plot development. It could have been worse, but it also had the potential to be much, much better.

This movie is a decent slasher flick. It never amazes, never disappoints, it’s sometimes frightening, sometimes boring, it rests heavily on the actors’ shoulders and it fails at the creativity chapter, but for a night out with friends it will do just fine. Written in the ‘80s, it would have been a hit then, but it has clearly not aged well, as it is not making any waves now.

Defiance (2008)



Starring: Daniel Craig, Liv Schreiber, Jamie Bell
Director: Edward Zwick
Screenwriter: Clayton Frohman si Edward Zwick
Rating : R for violence and language

Edward Zwick’s specialty as a Hollywood director are epic films. Indeed he has a keen eye when it comes to that particular brand of cinema. His might not be the most original films ever ( like his “Last Samurai” being like “Dancing with Wolves” but with samurai instead of indians ), but they deliver. It’s basic, slightly exploitive, professional cinema, preying on emotion and relying on cliches.

One such film is “Defiance”, based on a true untold story from the Second World War, involving a group of approximatively 1000 eastern-european jews that escaped the nazi extermination machine by forming a small community in the woods, where they fought to survive against both the harshness of nature and the cruelty of man. The underground movement was led by the Bielski brothers : Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liv Schreiber) and Asael (Jamie Bell), who had lost their own families so they decide to make a stand. At first they dish out some old fashioned revenge, but as the group grew in numbers, among them women and children, they form their own settlement deep in the woods, to keep them safe from the war. Tuvia and Zus have separate views on the management of the small community, and so Zus runs off and joins the local partisan movement, while Tuvia stays on as leader of the camp. The film’s timeline covers a period of time from the autumn of 1941 to spring, 1942. The plot contains crucial points like the settlers being forced to relocate after being discovered, characters obtaining food any way they can, chilling blue hued winter scenes, mutiny, sibling rivalry, romance in the face of despair, and it all concludes in good ol’ Hollywood fashion with a run-for-your-lives finale which puts the survivors face to face with the nazi army.

The film deserves recognition for telling a story I don’t recall ever hearing about. It deserves, however, a good bashing for being a less than involving film than the story deserves. Originality might not be Zwick’s forte, but there’s no excuse for all the cliches in there, with characters and routines that are way too familiar from other standard Hollywood epics. If it wouldn’t have been such an interesting story to tell, there would have been little worth watching here except for Liv Schreiber’s excellent supporting part, and the beautiful score by James Newton Howard (nominated for an Oscar this year). It’s catastrophic for the dramatic impact of a film when its most intense moments are contained in mindless action scenes, especially if it yearns for more. But really, that’s where the film picks up the pace, during its final confrontation. The rest is just lifeless storytelling, carried along by good actors, who don’t even get decent dialogue. A lot of intriguing ideas, like the limits a human being crosses while trying to survive, and the weird relationships that arise from such a departure from civilization are touched upon, briefly but very family-friendly despite the R rating for language and violence. It tries to steer clear of possible controversial issues, because the subject is too sensitive, being about an unseen side of the Holocaust. Spielberg went all the way with “Munich”, but Zwick plays it safe. It never really explores too deep into the dark nature of man, choosing to rely on heavy-handed melodrama for effect. Zwick usually goes for the Oscar-bait and he often brings home a little something. It was a big surprise, for example, when “Blood Diamond” (with a similar mix of serious politics and shallow action) brought home 5 nominations, including two for leading and supporting actor. This one however is not even close to generating the same buzz no matter how the marketing machine pitches it, because Zwick simply can’t give the story the epic strength it deserves.

I don’t want it to seem like I’m a Zwick hater. Not at all. I love most of his films, even “Legends of the Fall”. But “Defiance” simply doesn’t cut it. It lacks that certain quality that would make it a must-see. It could be interesting to see once, for the unique history lesson, but in terms of cinematic achievement it’s a wasted opportunity.

Needful Things (1993)



Starring : Ed Harris, Bonnie Bedelia, Max Von Sydow, JT Walsh, Amanda Plummer
Director: Fraser Clarke Heston
Screenplay : W.D. Richter, based on a novel by Stephen King
Rating : R

I’m a big Stephen King fan. I love his books and I try as often as I can to keep up with the cinematic adaptations of his novels, which isn’t exactly an easy task, as there are a lot of them. From crappy horror flicks (““Cujo”, “Silver Bullet”, “Pet Sematary”, “Maximum Overdrive”, the last one written and directed by King himself), to classics, even award winning successes (“Carrie”, “Misery”, “Shinning”, “The Dead Zone”, “Shawshank Redemption”, “The Green Mile”) and TV productions (“Rose Red”, “Kingdom Hospital”, which was originally a mini-series by Lars Von Trier), King has found his name on the credits of all of them. Some bad, some good, some popular, others gone from the face of the Earth. Most of all, I like his novels for their solid characters, most of them based more on psychology and less on the sensationalistic element to generate genuine horror, something that the big screen adaptations mostly ignore in their attempt to insert more action or gore. Also, I can’t ignore the fact that I love his writing because it’s very, very dark.

In the “not-so-great-but-fun-if-you-enjoy-the-type” is “Needful Things”which can more often be found on local TV, usually late in the night, featuring a sinister story, as is usual for Stephen King. A misteryous stranger, Leland Gaunt (Max Von Sydow) arrives in the peaceful town of Castle Rock, Maine and opens up an antique shop. Peaking the curiosity of the people, the little shop of “Needful Things” soon becomes the main attraction. But Gaunt offers not only collectible items, but also, as the title suggests, things that are of great need for each person. They all find in his shop the objects of their obsessions, the things for which they would even sell their souls to own. Gaunt begins collecting “debts”, turning people against each other, bringing about anarchy and corruption and quite possinly the end of days for the little town. The only one who seems out of the reach of Gaunt’s evildoing is sherriff Alan Pangborn (Ed Harris), who will come face to face with absolute evil in a confrontation that defies the limits of a human being.

Directed by Charlton Heston’s son, this being his cinematic debut (and sort of the only film in his resume), “Needful Things” is a flimsy adaptation, way too compressed, held up by its impressive cast, who aware of this being a B flick, overact their way through it just enough to make it bearable for us to watch, and even, dare I say, fun. Released in ’93, it leaves a “made for TV” impression, though it has its fare share of quality tehnical moments. There are spectacular explosions, perhaps even too gratuitous in the greater context, an excellent ominous soundtrack by Patrick Doyle befitting of “The Omen”, and some slick dark cinematography that commands attention and adds plenty of dread onscreen. Lacking is the screenplay, which circumvents Stephen King’s character development that probably would have improved the quality of the story. The characters are empty stereotypes without it, and their madness and inner conflicts, in relation to the faustian deals they, make seem absurd simply because they lack depth.

According to IMDb, american televisions run an extended three hours version as opposed to the two hours film available on DVD and european television. I would have loved to see that extended cut, since it probably improves the character details and maybe makes more sense of the story. As it is, it’s a flawed Stephen King adaptation not worthy of too much consideration, unless you are an avid collector of B flicks, or a fan of any of actors.

The Proposal (2009)



Starring: Sandra Bullock, Ryan Reynolds, Malin Akerman, Craig T. Nelson, Mary Steenburgen, Betty White, Denis O’Hare, Oscar Nunez
Director: Anne Fletcher
Screenplay: Peter Chiarell

“The Proposal” is the movie that nobody saw coming. The consensus was that Julia Roberts, age 42, is too old to successfully open a weekend, and here comes Sandra Bullock, who was practically considered prehistoric, aged 45, setting new box office records. Although it was expected that the movie would bring the usual income that typical romantic comedies bring and in spite of the mixed reviews, people came in huge numbers to see it, maybe brought by this particular statement: “It drives me insane when movies are called romantic comedies when most of them are neither romantic nor funny. ‘The Proposal’ is the last funny comedy. “

Here she plays the boss from hell, closely related to Miranda from “The Devil Wears Prada”, who finds herself about to be deported (or “de-por-TED”) to her home country Canada because she was busy working and thus did not  really read the received INS warnings. Her genius idea is to blackmail her assistant to marry her. The poor assistant is played by Ryan Reynolds, an expert in frat boy comedies who has apparently evolved. He’s good, pretty and patient, the ideal man. If we decide to believe the lame premise, more shenanigans ensue at his parents’ house, where they shamelessly lie to his whole family.

I expected to cringe watching this movie. I saw my fair share of comedies and I can’t say that I had my hopes up. Still, I was surprised how much I loved the main characters, together or separately. Sandra Bullock is a trademark; she has the kind of perfect comedic timing that should be taught in acting classes, classes that would help Kate Hudson become bearable. And she makes her character likeable, even though it’s not an easy task. Reynolds is up for the challenge, and their continuous banter is the best part of the movie. He’s very believable as the stressed employee and/or the abused man. I laughed a few times, in spite of myself, and I wanted them to love each other happily ever after (let’s pretend that was not totally predictable). Another great advantage: no joke or line hints to the age difference (Ryan is 32), and many other flicks wouldn’t have missed that opportunity. Sandra’s fans will see more than she has ever shown before on screen, and Ryan’s fans will be delighted be the way he listens to music after jogging.

There had to be some cons, right? Well, the rest of the cast is pointless, obviously placed in a pathetic attempt to bring a new dimension into the story. Betty White embarrasses herself in the most awkward scene of the movie. She makes it up by faking a heart attack. The whole story is condensed into just 72 hours and you fail to understand how these people who have worked together for so long can fall in love in such a short period of time.  In the hands of a less charismatic couple of leads, this script would be at the bottom of the pit from which Matthew McConaughey is desperately seeking a way out. And on top of that, we are witnesses to a vomit inducing striptease scene that I’ve completely blocked out. And finally, there is nothing original about this movie, it sticks to the classic clichés and takes minimal chances, afraid to try to attract new crowds because it may lose its target audience.

6 potatoes for a pleasant afternoon, filled with good spirits and fun, watching two great actors star in a story that I did not bother to understand or to try to make sense out of, two things that I recommend to whoever goes to see this movie.