Saturday, January 29, 2011

One A Week Reviews #4: Ticking Clock

This one's a stinker, a case of "I watch it so you don't have to," reviewed for!


Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding Jr. (1996, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Jerry Maguire) stars as Lewis Hicks , a crime journalist specializing in brutal murders. When he discovers the mutilated body of his new girlfriend and comes into the possession of a gruesome journal revealing the serial killer's intended victims, he must find a way to prevent the horrific slayings before time runs out in this taut, psychological thriller in the tradition of The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en.

Our Take:

We open with a flashback to 1999 and Neal McDonough coddling a crying baby, cupping it's hands with his bloody hands at the sight of a very bloody murder. An image that disturbs on a surprisingly primal level. It's the most poetic image in the good looking Ticking Clock.

Then we hop to 2011, with Cuba Gooding Jr., playing a reporter drowning his sorrows in his bourbon. He's got a strained job, an estranged family, and a really-too-hot-for-him girlfriend, pretty much the stereotype of "hard boiled reporter." When the new girl runs into McDonough, in all his creepy, dead-eyed paleness, we know she's not long for this world or film, because he has a book that says so. It's a tight, screenwriting textbook Act One setup.

From there, we enter the chase. Gooding finds the book that dictates all the murders, with names, dates, and in some cases, helpful-yet-grisly illustrations. He has to hunt McDonough, keeping neck and neck with his pursuit of potential victims, with the cops he's written harsh pieces about on his tail. Of course he must prove his innocence using every CSI TV trick he can think of before the cops pin it all on him. It's the structure of a thousand other crime thrillers, except that the cops are after him because he's stupidly doing everything he possibly can to make himself look guilty. Showing up at crime scenes, handling evidence, REAL killers do less to look guilty when they kill people. Then at the half-way mark there's a Sci-Fi twist that makes the plot spin out into actually annoying the viewer. This movie frankly isn't good enough to be forgiven a genre-shift the audience isn't prepared for, much less a villain who's motive is pure and simple petulance.

Gooding's preternaturally youthful face is starting to succumb slightly to age. A tired weariness and coarsening of the features serves him well. He finally looks like a grownup, which tempers the more cocksure, trademark dimensions of his performances. McDonough, who's presence will always keep him in the "creepy" column regardless of his talents, keeps popping up like an exposition-spouting bogeyman. If we never see the "he's behind you" reveal again, it'll be too soon. For all their considerable acting talent, neither can save some cliched dialogue that, even for being in "thriller soup," stands out like spoiled meat.

The frequent date stamps that show up throughout the film are oddly jarring, even if explained to be integral to a date-specific plot (part of the aversion may come from their being three months in the future from this writing). Things never recover once the bad child actor shows up, but at that point kick back and "enjoy" as the last 40 minutes spiral into an opposite direction: pure ridiculous.

Audio and Video:
Ticking Clock comes in delicious 1080p High Definition and in the 1.78:1 Widescreen format. The picture is terrific and mostly crisp. Only in pans and some lighting does it reveal it's shot-on-HD-video roots. One scene with some CGI'd rain really looks cheap considering the rest of the film is so workmanlike and clean. The colors are muted and the cinematography is nothing special. Audio is also clear, though the score tends to swell up too sweetly in places. Not being able to skip over the trailers at the beginning of the disc and get right to the menu this late in the Blu-ray game is unacceptable.

Special Features:

  • English, English SDH, and French subtitles
  • English and French 5.1 DTS-HD audio
  • Previews
  • There's also the BD-Live feature, but unfortunately this reviewer just got his machine and hasn't rewired the house to hook it up to the Internet yet.
Is it Se7en? Is it The Terminator? What it isn't is "very good." Ticking Clock is a soup of a hundred thriller cliches blended up and garnished with a dash of horror movie cliche and a side of lousy dialogue. If you like the leads, it's worth a spin. Otherwise, this Sci-Fi/Thriller mash up is a pass.

Overall Picture:
Movie: D+
Extras: C

Saturday, January 22, 2011

One A Week Reviews #3: The Special Relationship

HBO TV movies are usually excellent productions, and this isn't an exception. Practically a sequel to The Queen, and reviewed for!
The Special Relationship

Official Synopsis:
From the Oscar-nominated writer of Frost/Nixon and The Queen comes a powerful new look at the human side of iconic world leaders. Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), the eager young statesman, and Bill Clinton (Dennis Quaid), the seasoned and charismatic president, together dream of remaking the world in a progressive fashion. Their wives, Hillary Clinton and Cherie Blair (Hope Davis and Helen McCrory), complete a unique foursome connected by shared ideologies and personal affection. When world events and personal watersheds shake the very foundation of their relationship, the two men must come to terms with the ephemeral nature of power and, oftentimes, friendship.

Our Take:
The Special Relationship opens with the Oscar Wilde quote "True Friends Stab You in the Front" and a montage of film of meetings of American Presidents and British Prime Ministers. The title refers to what that dynamic between the two roles has always been called, and the quote fits the story of the friendship. We start with Clinton in office and Blair about to be. Starting with this power difference and it's changes helps the audience come in to relate to idea of the actual men who hold two of the most powerful positions on earth. Much like in The Queen, the film revels in the normal domestic chaos the Blairs are seemingly known for.

It's hard for a film to strike the balance between telling a story and capturing subjects who are still alive and vibrant in living memory. We also forget sometimes that public figures are, in fact, "people" with all the foibles that implies. Structuring a look at recent history as a series of dinners and conversations in kitchens and bathrooms is a more delicate balance still. The Special Relationship is a breezy walk through the 1990s distilled as the arc of a friendship between two couples rather than a couple of world leaders.

After The Deal and The Queen, this is Michael Sheen's third go-round playing Tony Blair. He captures the "impression" one has of Blair for an American who's seen him on television. Dennis Quaid's Clinton doesn't hold up as well when compared to one's memory of the real thing, though he brings a brusqueness that Clinton probably possesses in private. It's hard to watch without comparing him to years of more accurate passes made on Saturday Night Live. I'm amused and hopeful that a British audience has the reverse problem.

Helen McCrory also played Cherie Blair in The Queen. Both she and Hope Davis both sell intelligence. Davis nails the "concept" better than Quaid does, along with the mannerisms. She's especially good in the sequences touching on the "Lewinsky scandal." (When one sees the public figures surviving the situation one starts to wonder how strong Monica Lewinsky must have been to have survived being thrown to the world's wolves at all.) All four performers work on capturing an intimate dynamic of two couples having light laughs as opposed to their weight as power brokers. The film's sympathies seem to lie more with the Blairs, and one walks away thinking the wives are the real strategists in these couples.

In the end, The Special Relationship is a TV movie. Fast paced to hit the highlights, nothing looks expensive, or is focused on long enough to pick apart. An HBO production, it has that deluxe quality and still gives the impression of lives lived on a grand scale. It's fascinating for an audience to see two world leaders portrayed as very normal, familiar people -especially in terms of laundry- though you never really get an idea of what makes these men tick.

Special Features:
The Special Relationship is presented widescreen in English 5.1 and Spanish 2.0 Digital sound. Subtitles in English, Spanish, and French are available. There's also a five minute making-of documentary on the disc.

Michael Sheen and Helen McCrory as the Blairs are getting to be as comforting and familiar a team up as Tracy and Hepburn or Powell and Loy. The actors go for the "idea" of the people rather than straight up impersonation, and all have moments that shine. The Special Relationship is a political version of a comforting "cozy murder mystery" that looks at world leaders like they were "couple friends" who dine and vacation together. A familiar TV movie, but worth watching for anyone who remembers the political landscape of the 1990s.

Overall Picture:
Movie: B-
Extras: B-

Sunday, January 16, 2011

One A Week Reviews #2: Forbidden Planet

While I'd never seen it all the way through before, once I got myself a blu-ray player, I moved Forbidden Planet to the top of my Netflix queue. With both Leslie Nielsen and Anne Francis having recently passed away, and my memories of it from snippets on cable television are of it being a lavishly set-bound and colorful movie. All I knew about it going in was that it was inspired by Shakespeare and that, according to The Rocky Horror Picture Show "Anne Francis stars in 'Forbidden Planet' woah-oh-oh-OH-oh/to the late night/double feature/picture show" Obviously, I thought it was just the thing to show off what the player could do.

If you're not familiar with Forbidden Planet, a space crew from Earth, headed by Nielsen, land on Altair-4, a planet inhabited by the dry, creepy Dr. Morbius, his overripe daughter Alta, and Robby the Robot. The planet had been inhabited by the Krell, and their magnificent matte-painted underground cities, but now their technology lives on only to serve Morbius and his wish-fulfillment fantasies. It increases his intellect and winds up killing a few people by manifesting his Id as an invisible monster. (Oh, hush about spoilers - this movie came out in 1956)

It's a very stilted, silly movie by today's standards, dull as dishwater in places. For every charming, quaint animated special effect there's long slogs of talk-talk-talk, but the charm still comes through. And those effect are charming. The "invisible footprints" still hold up and the matte paintings, even though fantastical, please the eye. Lavish, enormous sets and grade-A production values are the standard here. Miniature work, big cyclorama backdrops, everything here is very stage-bound and expensive, but beautiful. However, the Fifties ponderousness of this take on The Tempest doesn't prevent it from also being downright pervy at heart.

The center of Forbidden Planet seems to be "all impending date rape, all the time." This focus on Alta, who's never met anyone besides her father, and her spaceman love triangle is down right creepy. Sure, she's a girly girl who designs her own jewel-encrusted gowns, but in real life you can't help but think she'd probably have a terrified skittishness at these strangers. Instead they go for "typical Fifties female" with just a hint of simmering libido. She's really rather non-plussed by their appearance after all these years, waiting to get snatched up and married even if she's unfamiliar with the concept.

One also gets the impression she'd have been turned into a bit of a love slave by Morbius, since he certainly comes off as a bit of a creep.When he takes the Krell "test of intelligence" he winds up creating a hologram of his daughter in a mini-skirt. His Id Monster goes to sabotage the ship after Lieutenant Farman kisses his daughter and he nearly does in Captain Adams with a tiger. It's all rude and more than a little passive-aggressive. The first go-round, Morbius cleans off the planet so it'd all be his. This time, the Id is in it just to protect Anne Francis' maidenhead.

Leslie Nielsen is... well, pretty damn dull. His later fame as a comic stems from the same super-serious delivery he employs here. Without that spark of madness he's just kinda wooden, and I'm from a generation conditioned to expect him to spark laughter. Anne Francis has a character that I'm not sure anyone could do well with at that time, but she's lovely enough. Towards the end she starts to stand out as Alta makes proactive choices, but otherwise she's a Fifties movie-gal all the way through.. In reality, she'd be odd, as overly-mannered and educated as she'd be near-feral from lack of exposure to other people. Walter Pidgeon is good, very dry and very "old Hollywood." A definite curio from the Fifties, with it's glacial pacing, shoe-horned-in love story, and ponderous morals, it's still a beautiful, classic movie movie. A satisfying, old-fashioned entertainment
Gotta say, when you see that red-outlined, Tasmanian Devil-looking Id creature, he is pretty nightmarish. He can't be defeated by laser beams or electric fences. No, just lots of scenery-chewing by Leslie Nielsen and Walter Pidgeon can do the critter in, with the help of flashing lights, weird electronic noises, and static shots of the set since the critter's invisible. Forbidden Planet is a beautiful piece of CinemaScope eyecandy. Enjoy.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

One A Week Reviews #1: Frenemy

Welcome to 2011's run of One A Week Reviews. While last year I did tend to get a little behind on them (little? HA!) last year. This is a new year with a fresh start and I'm hitting the ground running. First off, let me route you AWAY from this wrongly advertised stinker, reviewed for!


After a group of friends witness a horrifying crime, they wonder how they were lucky enough to escape, unharmed, while one friend did not. Through this self-discovery they start to understand the meaning of their own hilarious yet twisted fate. As their time starts to run out, the chance for redemption isn't too far behind.

Frenemy – once known as Little Fish, Strange Pond – opens with a scene of banter between Matthew Modine and Callum Blue so gratingly obtuse that if you bail out there, no one will blame you. Their characters, Mr. Jack and Sweet Stephan, have wandered in whole cloth from some awful undergraduate's Master Thesis play for two, layering one non sequiturs with little rhyme or reason like a psychotic Mutt and Jeff. They bring their detached banter to an adult video store run by Zach Gailfinakis. This leads to a hold-up, evidently by a bad stand-up comedian, and a never-ending, meandering debate of the meanings of life, death and evil. While Matthew Modine is usually a compelling actor, not even he can hold this nonsense together. He and Blue, lunatics bantering away, wear out their welcome early in the proceedings, making 80 minutes feel considerably longer. Adam Baldwin fares a little better as the police officer who briefly comes into their lives to save, then hunt them.

Throughout the film there are weird fade-outs to subplots that feel as tenuously connected as the digressions in a David Lynch film. This whole feature feels like a little too much Lynch and Tarrantino were watched during it's making. The twists at the end are unsurprising, and considering how absurdist the whole trip is, aren't even necessary.

Gregory Dark, director of many a porn film as part of The Dark Brothers and many Cinemax classics as Gregory Hippolyte, crafts an ominous, absurd psychodrama billed as a comedy with a big picture of Galifinakis on the cover because he's currently "hot." This packaging is as misleading as the official synopsis above. It comes nowhere near capturing the actual tone of this odd movie. Dark's been directing (in one genre or another) since the early 1980s, but Frenemy feels like a first feature from someone who overdosed on film school.

Frenemy is presented in 16x9 Widescreen with 5.1 Dolby Digital English Audio. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish, and there are some trailers.

Packaged as a "comedy" to exploit the fame of Zach Galifinakis, this oddball drama is more a weird, disjointed vehicle for Matthew Modine. Frenemy is dark and offputting, a must-see only if absolutely nothing else is available for viewing. AVOID.