Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Man Who Saw Tomorrow

Harold Camping, Christian founder of Family Radio, has predicted the rapture will occur this Saturday. What better way to celebrate the beginning of the end than watching one of my favorite documentaries from my youth/ I am talking about The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, a 1981 docudrama that chronicles the alleged predictions of French astrologer and physician Michele Nostradamas.

The film combines footage from obscure films, cheap new action scenes, and the occasional interview from “experts” like alleged psychic Jean Dixon to lay out a history of Nostradamus’ predictions, generally offering only wild interpretations of the famous quatrains to match them up with major historical events. But the docudrama is hosted with effective creepiness by the grave Orson Welles. The man can sell doomsday prophecies every bit as well as he can frozen peas. With nary a drop of alcohol present, I might add. He certainly had to be tanked when he agreed to star in this thing.

This is the fourth time I have sat through The Man Who Saw Tomorrow. The first time I watched it was in 1986 when it was one of those odd filler films Cinemax showed on two or three odd afternoons a month. At nine years old, I was already a budding history buff who was fascinated by the historical elements in the first half. But I was also a student at a fundamentalist Christian school which adhered to the bob Jones University favored pastime of constantly fretting over the Antichrist’s identity and his role as the harbinger of the end times. So the latter half of the film, which named events taking place in the far flung future of 1988 onward, were frighteningly mesmerizing. Ever notice how predictions of the future make the horrors of the past look like a dress rehearsal?

Fret not, boys and girls. Los Angeles was not destroyed by an earthquake in 1988. The antichrist did not arise out of the former Persia--Iran these days--to begin a 27 year war with the West beginning in 1994 that will be so devastating, much of the civilized world resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. One also must assume the united states and soviet union will not set aside their differences by 2021 to combine forces and defeat the Antichrist, either. We can only guess if the world will actually end in 3997 as predicted, but that is pretty close to when taylor sets off the nuke in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, so maybe.

Subsequent viewings by my older self have taken the youthful sting out of waiting for a bleak future in which iran is going to force me to eat my neighbor in order to survive a nuclear holocaust. These days, the latter half of the film has given way to a camp factor, particularly with Welles’ ominous delivery. The fan of dystopian science fiction still finds it amusing. While still incredulous over claims Nostradamus predicted the past any better than the future, I still find the historical bits every bit as interesting as the first time I watched the film.

One thing that strikes me is the heavy Christian overtones. It is not just my christian upbringing. Nostradamus allegedly refers to three Antichrists coming to power. They are said to be napoleon, Hitler, and this Persian, who will naturally be far worse than the previous. The final war will begin in the middle East as the Bible predicts, depending upon your prophetic leanings. Islam is predicted as a bitter enemy of Christianity. You cannot argue much with that these days. There will be a thousand years of peace, which mirrors the Pre-Millennialist concept of the Thousand Year Reign. All that to say I bet nothing like this film could be made today considering the Christian elements.

You may be recalling a remake of this film NBC did in 1991 right after the Gulf War. Hosted by Charlton Heston, it was otherwise a condensed version of the original with Welless taken out and new footage added to claim the 1988 Los angeles earthquake was meant to be the 1989 quake in san Francisco, and Saddam Hussein was the now toned down third Antichrist. The term Antichrist was dropped, as were references to Christianity and Islam so as not to offend anyone. The original is far more fun with its sincerity. Faked or not.

I recommend seeing The Man Who Saw Tomorrow for the total over the top cheese factor. It is made even funnier by Welles’ absolute sincerity. I am confident he was in it solely for the paycheck, but nevertheless, listen to him closely in the second half as he warns of terrible calamities far and wide. What you will not get is any serious scholarship on Nostradamus, so if that is what you are looking for, skip it. The Man Who Saw Tomorrow is pure Chariots of the Gods level comedy gold.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

(Cross posted, with minor style changes, to Eye of Polyphemus)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Cruel Intentions

It is difficult to believe I have gone this long at Apocalypse Cinema without reviewing a Reese Witherspoon film, but strangely enough, it has. Cruel Intentions is a fine introduction to the lovely Witherspoon. It is not necessarily my favorite of hers, but the film solidified her as one of my favorite actresses.

Cruel Intentions is a loose adaptation of the 18th century French novel Dangerous Liaisons. rather than France of the time period, the story is transferred to a modern day New York prep school to feature the manipulation of wealthy teenagers. The movie fits into the then popular genre of twenty-somethings playing teenagers who are having sex with each other. Popular then, but never really falls out of favor, does it?

Sarah Michelle Gellar stars as Kathryn, a manipulative girl who takes a shelter new bie Cecile, played by Selma Blair, under her wing to show her the ropes. In reality, Kathryn wants revenge on Cecile for unintentionally stealing her boyfriend. She plans to turn Cecile into a slut. Oftentimes, she has been aided in these schemes by her equally amoral stepbrother Sebastian, played by Ryan Phillippe, but he has his sights set on Annette. Annette, played by my baby Reese, recently wrote a manifesto for a teen magazine in which she promised to wait for true love before having sex. Sebastian bets Kathryn he can seduce Annette, with the prize being roll in the hay with her. If he loses, she gets his vintage Jaguar.

Their machinations run towards the darkly comedic as they both destroy Cecile while Sebastian slowly but surely falls for Annette even though she has been warned of his sexual appetite. The whole affair is rather cynical. Cecile’s fall, for which Sebastian is largely responsible, occurs simultaneously with his redemptive act of falling in love with Annette, thereby becoming a better man. He and Kathryn do earn their deserved respective fate, and in the end, Annette is not quite the innocent little sweetheart she was made out to be. Such cynical turns of events appeal to my jaded view of people, so your mileage may vary.

Cruel Intentions has some major flaws. The script is a pedestrian affair which serves only to introduce sexual innuendo into every possible situation. If innuendo is not enough for you, there is plenty of sex, though nothing more than implied nudity. There is nothing particularly graphic about any of it. In fact, the cinematography when sebastion and Annette finally make the beast with two backs is so well done, the fine hairs on Annette’s tummy are visible. Atmosphere andf attention to detail, folks.

The biggest flaw surrounds the dialogue. It is dry and cliché. The actors often deliver it in such a wooden manner, you swear they are doing it on purpose as though it adds something to their character. Phillippe in particular plods through his lines as though he is reading text he has never seen before off a teleprompter.

But quality filmmaking is not why you see a movie like Cruel Intentions. you want to see the pretty people. You will not be disappointed. The film is a who’s who of young Hollywood sex symbols of 1999: Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Selma Blair, Ryan Phillippe, and Joshua Jackson being the most prominent. Guys and girls can find can find at least one they have an interest in. In just about any combination, too. There is lesbian kissing, gay trysts, taking virginity, interracial, and lots of heterosexual. So it does not really matter the script is lacking. There is an abundance of what you are really after in a teenage sex film.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Monday, May 2, 2011

Billy Madison

Why do I do this to myself? Why do I keep going back to the parched dry well that is the Adam Sandler flexography for reviews? It is because sandler is the most bankable star in Hollywood. His last twelve films have grossed at least $100 million each. He has fans out threre. It is inexplicable to me, but there is obviously something people see in him. Credit where credit is due, Billy Madison is as close as I have come to appreciating Sandler’s brand of comedy.

Sandler plays the title character, a drunken, dumb slacker--surprise, surprise--why agrees to repeat elementary through high school in order to prove to his mogul father he can handle taking over the hotel chain. His nemesis is a pre-Josh Lyman Bradley Whitford. If you are wondering what Whitford is doing in a film like this, so was I. Believe it or not, there are traces of Lyman in the character. He is a sharp, intelligent guy who arrogance allows him to at times be cruel. Here, the character is exaggerated for comedic effect, but that is Lymon all over.

Madison’s task is to devote two weeks to each grade. He spends most of his time being the most immature kid amongst the rest while ogling his cute fourth grade teacher. Madison see saws from being a goof to a bully, generally abusing much smaller children. There is really no heart in the film until high school when Madison realizes what a bully he was back then and attempts to make amends to those to whom he gave a hard time. Even that sequence is little more than to set up a joke and a surprise element to the ending.

No heart is pretty much how Billy Madison goes. Its primary function is to generate laughs in any way possible. While some of the humor flirts with satire, most of it relies on absurd bits like a giant penguin hallucination, cartton violence, and the old standby of bathroom humor. Typical Sandler fare for the typical Sandler fan.

A saving grace for me is that much of Sandler’s more unpleasant man-child shtick is kept to a minimum. He does not have an anger management problem. The violence is slapstick without an ounce of seriousness. Some of the twists in the story are quite clever by Sandler standards. It is a smart, dumb movie.

But not really smart enough. It is not a classic of the genre of idiots being forced to prove themselves under absurd circumstances. Billy Madison is frivolous viewing a fan of this kind of movie should watch on a boring afternoon when nothing else is on. There are better choices out there, but I doubt someone who likes modern screwball comedies would hate it. I do not, for what it is worth, and I think most Sandler movies could be used as an advanced interrogation technique at Gitmo.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Untraceable

Thanks to writing reviews for The X-Files, I have developed a sudden interest in the FBI. By what turned out to be an unfortunate stroke of luck, I happened upon Untraceable on cable and decided to give the cyber age FBI procedural film a view. It is not something I recommend.

Diane Lane stars as an FBI cyber crimes guru who is after a serial killer who captures people to put them in eventually fatal torture devices as part of a regular web show. The gimmick is the more people who click on his website to watch the murders, the faster the victims are killed. His message is that we are all accessories to murder. If no one watched, the victims would not die.

The film is a mix of technical police procedure, techno babble, and gruesome scenes of torture. Those three elements combine to make boring sequences of gathering evidence and the completely fanciful way computers work in Hollywood’s view interrupted by extreme violent deaths of the Edgar Alan poe variety. It does not take long to realize the last bits are meant to be a distraction from hoqw dry and boring the other two elements are.

Why are they dry and boring/ for one, the typical trappings of these kinds of films are hinted at, but never utilized. Lane is given a potential love interest in her partner, played by billy Burke, but nothing ever happens between them. Lane herself plays a single mother who lives with her mother and daughter in a creaky old house. You assume at some point her mother or daughter will be caught by the killer, but that does not happen, either. Where is the emotion in the story? There really is not any. It is all a moraL about voyeurism. The audience is supposed to feel guilty we would watch people being brutally murdered live on the internet, but we are all denying that we ever watch such a thing, so big deal, right?

The computer oriented aspects are glossed over. Why is the killer’s website untraceable? There is some excuse given, but even with my limited knowledge of how all this stuff works, I did not buy it. Neither will anyone who actually does know a lot about computers. You have to get this sort of thing right in a movie whose plot hinges on a subject in which lots of people are obsessively knowledgeable.

I am not a big fan of gore, but I can accept it when it adds to a story. Sometimes it is necessary in order to accentuate the sadism of an evil character. But here, gore is for the sake of gore. I doubt even fans of this sort of thing will go for what Untraceable puts on screen. It is not even on par with some of the laughably bad torture devices of the contemporary Saw series.

All the above criticism is a matter of personal taste. Someone else may find such highly entertaining. But for me, the ending blows any chance Untraceable had at a potential re-watch down the road to see if I have a new perspective at a later viewing. Since I have warned I can and will spoil the heck out of any film I review, I am going to spell it all out for you. If you are bound and determined to watch Untraceable against my advice, skip the next two paragraphs.

Lane is captured by the killer in the climax. She is hung up by her ankles and slowly lowered into spinning saw blades on a live show. It is noted 27 million people are watching, which I find hard to believe, but the numbers speed up her slow decent into the blades. At this point, Burke has figured out how to trace the killer’s whereabouts, so he and a team of agents are coming to her rescue. No need, though. The killer is distracted enough that she can swing on the rope around her ankles enough to grab unto something so she can hold herself away from the saw blades, free herself, and then shoot the guy. Roll credits.

Yes, roll credits.

The movie abruptly ends on his corpse. There is no wrap up. No reuniting of Lane and Burke. In fact, the whole bit about the FBI agents coming to her rescue is unresolved. It is literally as though the producers ran out of money and just had to end the movie right now. The only good aspect of the ending is that it is such an abrupt surprise, you will forget how dumb it is the killer, standing five feet away, does not notice Lane is swinging her way to freedom. Oh, and there is gun nearby. He should have enabled comments. That way a viewer could have told him to turn around for a moment.

Think what you will about how well the film is made up until that point, the ending is a dud. What is further disappointing is one expects better from director Gregory Hoblit, who was a producer for Hill Street Blue, LA Law, and NYPAD Blue. How can a talented guy with a history of creative success drop the ball so badly with a feature film? It boggles the mind.

At the risk of piling on, I think lane was severely miscast. An actress with an action movie pedigree might have improved things marginally. Hers was a role more suited for Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Garner, or Uma Thurman. I am not certain any of those actresses could have salvaged the film, but one might have made watching the main character more interesting. Or forced the powers that be to spruce up the love interest aspect. Or shown some nudity. Or appealed to the bondage crowd. Something--anything--more than the final product as it is now would have been appreciated. Untraceable wants to be Seven meets Saw. Fans of neither will enjoy it.

Rating: * (out of 5)