Saturday, October 15, 2011

Movie Reviews-Thor,You Kill Me, Reanimator and More

I am a huge Norse mythology fan. I was less interested in the Marvel cartoon series and comic book featuring Thor. Those were  watered down and rewritten versions of pagan myths made more palatable for children. The original stories were grim and bloody. Unlike the Greek gods or the Christian God, the Norse gods are not all-powerful. They can and do die. They are going to lose the battle at the end of the world and die. And they know this. But they persevere anyway because that's what northern heroes do-be they gods or men. The Norse mythos is the incarnation of It's Grim Up North.

So I was a little wary of the Thor movie. However Marvel has generally done a good job with its comic book adaptations. I was intrigued because this was directed by Kenneth Branagh and included Natalie Portman. So I put aside my complaints and sat down to watch it.

Thor was okay for what it was.  It was thoroughly predictable, even if you neither knew nor cared about the myths behind it. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the arrogant and eldest son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), king of gods (it's explained in an aside that these are not actually gods but quite advanced extraterrestials) is convinced that the Old Man's gone soft in his dotage. Thor wishes to restart the eternal war against the Jotuns (Giants) who have managed to find a way into Asgard to attempt to steal a relic of great power. Incensed by his father's refusal to act forcefully, Thor leads a punitive expedition to Jotunheim. This is a total failure. Thor is only saved by Odin's timely intervention.
Brought back to Asgard, Thor refuses to admit he was wrong and continues to needle and insult Odin and question his leadership. Finally roused to wrath, Odin strips Thor of (most of) his godly powers and hurls him to earth where, banned, he will be unable to regain his true powers until he has learned humility. From earth this appears to be some sort of singularity that opens and closes. It attracts the attention of scientists Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard). Foster has a more than scientific interest in Thor-especially as the buff Hemsworth appears shirtless in a few scenes. Unlike the comic book, Thor has not forgotten who he is, nor is his hammer altered; he just can't get to it.
Meanwhile back in Asgard, Thor's foster brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), is attracting the suspicion of Heimdall (Idris Elba). When Odin is mysteriously struck down, Loki becomes ruler of Asgard and starts making even more changes.

And you can guess the rest. The movie looks good; I loved the rainbow bridge. But I would still like to see a true rendition of a Norse story-cycle. In the myths, Odin is the arrogant and cruel god. Thor is a friendly, red-bearded, simply dressed rustic who is often mistaken for a plowman or other peasant.  Since Marvel's Iron Man used Black Sabbath's Iron Man, I was half expecting Thor to use Kiss' God of Thunder but I don't think it did.

You Kill Me
Movies like this are often described as quirky or offbeat. You kill me fits that description quite well. It makes a few tips of the hat to The Sopranos or Analyze This.
It is about the problematic life of one Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley), a hitman for his Buffalo based crime family. And this is a family- the boss is Frank's uncle Roman (Phillp Baker Hall).

Frank used to be one of the best killers around but lately he's gotten depressed and has a rather serious drinking problem. Frank's family is being pushed out of the rackets by the Irish mob-presided over by Edward O'Leary  (Dennis Farina). Roman knows he's running out of time before O'Leary eliminates the Polish gangsters. So he orders Frank to do what he does best and remove O'Leary from the planet. However Frank falls asleep and does not carry out the hit. Worse, O'Leary becomes aware of the failed plot and Frank's degeneration into drunkenness.

Angry, embarrassed and frightened, after telling Frank that the only reason he's still alive is because of their blood relationship, Roman sends Frank across the country to AA in San Francisco with orders not to return until he's clean and sober. The dour Frank gets a job as a funeral home assistant. He finds this ironic considering that he usually supplies funeral homes. But he comforts himself with the idea that he's still in the death business. After some hesitance Frank becomes friends with fellow AA member Tom (Luke Wilson) as well as a woman, Laurel (Tea Leoni), who attends a funeral and shares Frank's mordant sense of humor. Things are going better for Frank. But AA requires that you share everything. Frank doesn't want to share what his day job is. And without a Frank there to scare them off, back home the Irish mob is digging graves for Frank's friends and family.

The movie turns on what makes Frank happy and whether by attempting to solve his alcoholism and depression, AA and his friends are just making Frank a better killer. The answers may surprise you. Kingsley and Hall are always fun to watch. Farina has played his share of gangsters but they tend to be Italian, not Irish so I guess this was different. Obviously there is also a love story between Frank and Lauren. Leoni is channeling Lauren Bacall here. Bill Pullman has a small role. This was a nice movie but not a must see by any stretch of the imagination. Killers with personal problems has been done to death if you pardon the pun.

This is a CLASSIC horror film that is based on a pulpy, viscerally racist HP Lovecraft story.
The movie Reanimator drops the racism but turns up the pulp. This is an EXCELLENT Saturday afternoon movie that over the years became something of a cult hit. Reanimator walks that fine line between too much and not enough in terms of sex, gore and frights.  It was considered over the top when it first came out but it's nowhere near today's torture-porn. It also has a delicious sense of humor.

Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) is your normal semi-impoverished horny medical student at Miskatonic University. He may be struggling now but he has a bright future ahead of him, not only because he's going to be a doctor but because his girlfriend is Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton), a leggy blonde bottle of energy who also happens to be the daughter of the medical school dean (Robert Sampson). Dan's future is so bright he's got to wear shades but he still needs help with the rent (He and Megan don't live together as she has to play "good girl"). Dean puts up a "roommate wanted" sign on campus. At an incredibly inopportune time  (Dean and Megan were just about to play "Doctor and Nurse") a strange, prissy young fellow named Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) shows up to become Dean's roommate. Megan immediately takes a dislike to him. Combs is perfect for this role. He literally brims over with repressed arrogance, pride and anger. He's the Nietzschean Superman made flesh. Evidently West was expelled from European medical schools for his unauthorized experiments and his outre beliefs about the limits of life and death.

West doesn't tolerate fools much. On literally his first day in class he gets entangled in an argument with his instructor,  Dr. Carl Hill. (played by John Kerry lookalike David Gale) Hill is a creepy fellow who is friends with Dean Halsey. Hill has an interest in Megan Halsey that is anything but professional. He's not her father but he'd like to be her Daddy if you know what I mean.

West is obsessed with death. He begins the same experiments that got him previously expelled elsewhere. Only this time he has a (mostly unwilling) accomplice in Dan , who he browbeats, blackmails and begs for help. I really, really liked this movie. In terms of music, pacing, direction, and lighting Reanimator showed that you don't need a lot of money (the film cost less than $1 million) or huge stars to make a great horror film. Stuart Gordon directed and Brian Yuzna produced. Both men have an affinity for Lovecraft stories. If you like short quality horror movies with little flab, lots of scares and by today's standards modest amounts of gore, this could be for you. This was similar  in feel to Evil Dead (1 and 2). The trailer gives away too much imo so no link here. The SFX were quite realistic and scary. This owed a lot to old time comic books and pulp novels. And it showed in every scene.

Fear of a Black Hat
The obvious comparison is to the similar satire film This is Spinal Tap. But honestly Fear of a Black Hat is much funnier. It's also aged surprisingly well. It's a satire of just about every rap group of note from back in the day. 
Fear of a Black Hat is shot in documentary style. It follows the rise, fall and eventual comeback of the rap trio N.W.H.  N.W.H. is led by the sly, extremely verbose and sex-obsessed Ice Cold (Rusty Cundieff). The other two members are Tasty Taste (Larry B. Scott), an angry short man with a fascination for "busting a cap in somebody's a$$"  and Tone Def (Mark Christopher Lawrence) a gentle giant of a man--unless you mess with his money. The documentary director Nina Blackburn (Kasi Lemmons) follows the group around-primarily Ice Cold, who is totally upfront with his desire to get to know Nina on a biblical level.
This is one of the funniest satires ever made. Obviously the director (Cundieff) knew and loved a lot of the then current rap music. Whether it's lampooning the need for rappers to be seen as hardened criminals -a school reading session with rival rappers escalates with each group making ever more outrageous boasts about their criminal past- making fun of the group's seeming inability to keep managers alive (Ice Cold explains that starting out many of their managers got shot in disputes and since then the group decided it would be healthier for the black community and the group's families to only have white managers) or the ripoffs inherent in the music business-the shot at C&C Music Factory is a laugh out loud moment, this movie starts in "Tough Neighborhood, Anytown USA" and doesn't let up for a moment.

The group is never seen without hats because as Ice Cold earnestly explains, during slavery blacks worked all day in the fields without even a babushka to shield themselves from the sun and were thus too tired and hot to rebel. But now they have hats, so watch out!!! N.W.H. wears increasingly ridiculous hats throughout the movie and occasionally even in the same scene.

Ice Cold is particularly adept at coming up with laughably ludicrous justifications to show the alleged hard core social and political meaning behind his lyrics, most of which are relentlessly concerned with sex, violence and partying. A semi-clean example involves a song titled "Kill Whitey" which the group claims is just misunderstood and not a racist ode at all.  Ahem. Supposedly the song was actually about their former manager Whitey DeLuca , who allegedly ripped the group off and was later mysteriously shot to death. Tasty Taste and Ice Cold say they don't know anything about the murder as "they were out of town when it went down". The somewhat slow on the uptake Tone Def contradicts his band members and is telling them " Remember you two said we had to straighten DeLuca out for once and for all" before the tape is stopped and restarted and Tone Def reappears to solemnly agree that no one knows what happened. 
This came out at the same time as CB4, which had a similar theme. But Fear of a Black Hat is a much much tighter satire and about 1000 times funnier. It helps the viewer, but is not necessary to have a passing familiarity with rap and R&B of the late eighties and early nineties.

The Thing
This is strictly speaking a prequel to the 1982 Kurt Russell movie but in actuality it's a remake right down to the music and even the scene progression. This was a mistake. A bad one. The SFX are good but basically if you've seen the previous movie, you've seen this one-only done right.  In fact this was such a disappointment I don't really feel like writing much about it. This might be okay for people who haven't seen the 1982 move but of course any sci-fi/horror fan has already seen the 1982 movie. This is based on a John Campbell pulp story but it's 100% Lovecraft inspired. Sigh. It wasn't a bad movie but looking back I just think it was unnecessary. The SFX are both a homage to and an improvement on the 1982 film but what's missing is the sense of paranoia. There was also more explicit violence and gore, probably because that's what the modern audience is used to seeing. A woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) had the lead role. She does ok. The movie just didn't work for me. Ok that's it. I'm not writing more about this. Here's the trailer and you can make up your own mind.

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