The Wedding Singer ★★★

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The Wedding Singer uses a tired story but makes up for it with music and zaniness. Anyone with fond memories from the 80’s should have fun watching it. It depicts the era, or maybe ridicules it, and adds in Adam Sandler to give it an edge.

Sandler is a good actor but a strange comedian. The strangeness is in his humor which often depends on a bit of wit and lots of passive anger. His disposition is usually calm. Occasionally he will express himself “Sir one more outburst from you and I will strangle you with my microphone wire” he says to the brides disappointed father.

This is at a wedding during a time when he shouldn’t be working. His name is Robbie. His fiancé has just left him because his career isn’t successful enough. So naturally he is an emotional wreck. But then he meets a cute and cheerful waitress at an event. Her name is Julia (Drew Barrymore). She has a boyfriend who is very different – vain, selfish, and disloyal, he is the movies “villain” and likes to dress up like Don Johnson from the Miami Vice TV show.

This character is one of the movie’s mocking references to 80’s pop culture. For instance, Robbie’s fiancé has a hairstyle that might remind you of the musical group Bananarama. Then his bestfriend Sammy (Allen Covert) wants to be like Henry Winkler’s popular TV character Fonzie, but dresses up like Michael Jackson. And the wedding band has a keyboardist who looks like a member from Culture Club. If ever, his looks would inspire a game show idea: “Who is the real Boy George?”

Viewers who didn’t experience the 80’s culture might not catch on to all this. They will be left with little to appreciate. The romance is simple. Drew Barrymore continues to shine with her endearing presence. Directed by Frank Coraci, The Wedding Singer isn’t too interested in having a story, but it loves and laughs at music and fashion. It just wants to have a good time.

While You Were Sleeping ★★★★

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While You Were Sleeping has a charming introduction : a voice narration. She tells about her father, that they were close, and that she learned a valuable message from him – that life doesn’t always happen according to plan. A voice narration is a wonderful way to start. It brings forth the same magical feeling as when opening a book and reading the opening line.

The young woman is Lucy(Sandra Bullock), a fare token collector at a Chicago train station. It’s a repetitive task for her but not exactly boring. That’s because at a certain time daily, Peter arrives and purchases a ticket. He’s the man of her dreams even if he never notices her. Then an accident happens. Peter gets mugged and falls unconscious on the railway track. Lucy witnesses the incident and goes to pull him out. And then later, after taking him to the hospital, confusion occurs. As Lucy takes care of Peter who is in a comma, a nurse assumes that Lucy is Peter’s fiancé and tells his family.

The family is so talkative that they barely allow Lucy to speak. We clearly see this as a story technique to prevent Lucy from telling them the truth that she isn’t Peter’s fiance. And so the story proceeds in this manner and Lucy finds herself accepted into Peters family. And then she meets his brother Jack, and things change.

The premise is ridiculous but it does prove one truth: That the longer a lie is concealed, the more difficult it becomes to confess it. And it doesn’t help that the family is so warm and welcoming of Lucy that she becomes helplessly attracted to them.

The movie is a delightful viewing experience. It has a Christmas romantic feel and this is aided by some cozy locations at Chicago. The characters are funny if not pleasant. Even Lucy’s uncouth landlord is funny when we discover his fetish for trying on women’s shoes.

Sandra Bullock plays Lucy as she should be: cute, shy, but strong when necessary. Bill Pullman is Jack who is amusingly suspicious of her, but only because he likes her. And Peter Boyle as Jacks father is entertaining as always as an elderly who tends to argue. It’s an engaging cast.

Movies like this don’t need to be analyzed for flaws. They disarm you with its charm and romance. They indirectly infuse you with optimism and cheer. And While You Were Sleeping, directed by Jon Turteltaub, is one of the best romantic comedies of the 90’s.

Tommy Boy ★★1/2

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Tommy Boy has Chris Farley and David Spade, two former stars of the hit show Saturday Night Live. The former is known for his incredible physical energy and the other for his deadpan sardonic wit. They’re opposing forces. So to place them together in a comedy isn’t a bad idea.

The film is typical of what’s expected. Because of its stars, the story is a conveyor of skits to showcase their talents. But what if the plot itself is interesting? Tommy Boy misses on developing that opportunity.

It’s about a young man named Tommy(the late Chris Farley) who inherits Callahan Auto, his father’s auto parts company based in Ohio. His father is a business genius, has a large physique similar to Tommy, and is played by Brian Dennehy with a lot of enthusiasm. Tommy on the other hand isn’t a genius, is irresponsible, and has an elementary sense of humor. For example, his idea of a great night out is cow tipping. He is the apple that has fallen farthest from the tree.

But their company is in trouble. Competition is stiff and banks are losing confidence in financing them. And so when Tommy inherits the company, it all depends on him to save it.

The accountant is Richard played by David Spade in full-on sarcastic mode. He is smart, dependable, a bit miserable, and has good insight on business affairs. But he is also annoyed by Tommy’s incompetence. Who can blame him? In one sales call, Tommy sets a customer’s model car on fire to demonstrate the failure of brake pads. Nevertheless, they become sales partners with a shared mission. They travel together on a road trip across several states and market Callahan’s brake pads.

This plot would have worked much better if the film had given it more importance, particularly on the growth of Tommy as a sales man. Instead the movie rushes his development as he discovers that one sells better when using natural charisma and speaking openly. There is also a cliché of a subplot involving a conniving couple that try to take over the business. One of them is played by Rob Lowe who seems misplaced as an incredibly mean character.

The movie is thus mainly about Tommy and Richards travels and juvenile behavior. The pair travel in a convertible that gets more and more damaged as the journey proceeds. At one point, they accidentally bump into a large deer and decide to place its seemingly lifeless body in the rear seat for unclear reasons. And when Spade can’t handle Tommy’s irresponsibility any longer, he manages to find a plank of wood and whacks him on the head with it. It’s that kind of humor.

Tommy Boy, directed by Peter Segal, succeeds in proving the talents of Farley and Spade. But it doesn’t prove to be a recommendable film otherwise. This is the ongoing challenge that some comedies face: combining its comedians with a well written story.

Sister Act ★★★1/2

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Sister Act works in every way it tries. As a comedy, it is very funny at times. As a musical, it’s enjoyable. And as a drama, it is even a little heartwarming.

But that’s because the story is quite good. It’s about a Nevada club singer named Deloris who witnesses a murder. After the culprit (Harvey Keitel) notices her presence, she flees the scene, escapes, and goes to the police for protection. As a result, an agreement is made. In exchange for testifying as a murder witness before the court, she will be granted witness protection but under the new identity of a Nun in a convent.

Deloris is played by Whoopi Goldberg who is perfect for the role. She needs to be feisty, argumentative, and liberated which Goldberg so easily portrays. This creates great comedy as Deloris must accommodate herself into the conservative manners of the convent. Naturally this community is presided over by an austere elderly bishop named Reverend Mother (Maggie Smith) who is disapproving of Deloris. But Later, and after they accept their differences, they turn friendly to one another.

Deloris is assigned to be the leader of the choir whose voices are so disunited and out of tune. But after she gives them singing lessons (in some very funny scenes), they sound marvelous. Maybe too good and perfect to sound true. But nevertheless we are drawn by the choirs charm and energy. There must be around four or five popular tunes that are immediately recognizable including “My Guy (My God)” and “I will follow him”.

Sister Act, directed Emile Ardolino, is great entertainment. It’s wonderful at times, well casted, only 100 minutes long, and a movie that is worth revisiting.

Jaws ★★★★

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Jaws is an outstanding film. It’s brilliant, terrifying, involving, and adventurous. If it were made today when lots of movies are trying to feel realistic, and by a different director, the film might have been too intense and without adventure. But thankfully we have Steven Spielberg creating it. And the result is a first rate monster film, the best Shark movie to this day.

The story is about a man-eating Shark that continues to attack swimmers at the beaches of Amity Island, a cozy summer resort with small homes and picket fences . The species is a great white and is described to be 25 feet in length. It is however not seen for most of the film which makes the attack sequences all the more harrowing. We only catch a view of the victims while being attacked. The first sequence involving a woman swimming alone at night is disturbing.

But most of Amity’s residents, particularly the mayor, don’t care enough. The fourth of July is approaching which means many tourists and summer dollars. This scares police chief Brody (Roy Scheider) who has seen the remains of the first victim and is adamant that it was done by an unusually large shark. Others, including the medical examiner either don’t think so or are concerned about scaring away the towns visitors. So Brody is on his own. He eventually calls for the expertise of a marine biologist to confirm his theory. And they soon hire an experienced shark hunter to catch the Leviathan.

The film is based on a bestselling novel of the same name written by Peter Benchley. He also wrote the screenplay. Wikipedia explains that when producers Richard D Zanuck and David Brown had read the novel, they both agreed that it was “the most exciting thing that they had ever read”.

Jaws is suspenseful in many ways. One is the approach of the shark. As it swims closer to the victims, there is a thumping musical score (written by John Williams) that escalates. It’s a bit nerve wrecking, particularly since the scene is shown from the sharks point of view. Spielberg utilizes many angles. Some are viewed partially submerged, just above water level. Others from far below the victim’s body so they are only seen as a silhouette floating against the daylight above. And then the camera closes in, indicating the sharks movement towards them.

The film is terrifying and even haunting. But it is only part of why Jaws is such an effective film. The performances are also admirable. Roy Scheider as Brody is very good at portraying the pressures of a police chief who is trying to juggle numerous tasks at once, and keeping the town in order. Richard Dreyfuss as Matt balances fear and excitement like a marine biologist who is facing his first dangerous assignment. But it is Robert Shaw as Quint who steals the show. As a shark hunter, he’s an old timer who works alone, has a few loose screws, and whose cheerful disposition belies the experience of a man who has survived too many close calls at sea.

When the trio decide to go out and hunt the shark, the movie changes into an ocean adventure. The obvious inspiration for this part is Moby Dick. The men use an old boat and after trying all kinds of plans on capturing the shark, involving spear guns, floating barrels, and even medicinal serums, Brody and Matt realize that Quint has a personal agenda.

Jaws is such an entertaining picture. This is Spielberg’s first movie, remains to be one of his best, and explains why he is a great director. Yes, Jaws is about the terror but it is also about characters. The human drama is never ignored.

Alien vs The Thing

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The universe can encourage many questions. One is whether earthly organisms are its only inhabitants. An optimistic answer would be no, and that there are other creatures which can love and care for one another. They might be more intelligent and have amazing abilities.

But the minds behind the movies Alien and The Thing suggest opposing views. Their idea of outer space carries all possibilities. That if the universe was conceived out of random scientific occurrences, that it would also produce evil with no explanation. A Roman Philosopher named Plutarch believed that evil exists between the divine and visible world. If this is true, then perhaps Alien and The Thing would certainly prove logical.

However let us not get carried away with deep thoughts. The movies Alien and The Thing are devices to quench our thirst for entertainment. The word ‘device’ is suitable because the movies don’t have much of a story to tell. And yet they are among the highest order of entertainment which can be summed up in one word- Escapism; the kind that pulls viewers into its atmosphere and relies on effective variables. In this case there are two: Fear of the unknown and Terror.

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Yes, they are terrifying. Grotesque. Very grotesque in fact that they stay with you long after. Both movies share an inspiration. They were both conceived from a 1951 movie called “The Thing from Another World” which is based on a 1938 novella called “Who Goes There?”. Basically it is about a group of government workers (scientists and military) who discover an evil alien and must defend themselves against it. Wikipedia provides three interesting points: 1)The creature is a humanoid life form whose cellular structure is closer to vegetation 2) that the story reflected a negative view of scientists who meddle with things better left alone, and 3) that the novella is written by John W. Campbell who is considered “the most powerful force in Science Fiction ever..”

The point is that Alien and The Thing have powerful motivations behind them. And as such, they needed expert visionaries. The kind that can engage a viewer’s curiosity. The minds that can induce fear when a situation presents it. And the visions that can convey terror to its full potential. Thus we are not only given experts, but two maestros: Ridley Scott and John Carpenter.

The two have different approaches. Scott’s interest veers more towards atmosphere and authenticity. His previous work is The Duellists, an historical war drama that was acclaimed for its portrayal of military conduct and uniforms. And in Alien, we observe his keen attention to more details. In the opening sequence, the interior of a large space vessel is filmed with patience and serenity. The silence before the storm, as they say. We observe its long corridors and modern design. We are taken into the dimly lit rooms, particularly the cockpit where we hear and perceive electronic equipment humming. We see the bulky pilot seats, empty, and above them sit large space helmets. A small monitor begins transmitting a message. All this attention is given aesthetic detail. And later, particularly during the suspenseful moments, Scott will demonstrate how smoke and lighting can be manipulated to influence the viewing experience. We immediately get the feeling of a first rate production. The movie won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.

 Now John Carpenter is no Ridley Scott. But his direction is no less impressive. If Scott’s interest is in the look of a situation, Carpenter is more interested in the vibe of that situation. The feeling. His previous work is Halloween, which is still very chilling to this day. That film, which is about a masked killer, also likes to patiently film its surroundings. However it is not to observe the details but to generate anxiety about where the killer will show himself. He will sometimes appear through a window standing still. Or as a shadow in a dark corner. Roger Ebert once explained that Alfred Hitchcock likes to play his audience like a piano. And that’s the impression given in Halloween- a director manipulating the viewer’s fears without mercy. 

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And in The Thing, Carpenter controls another feeling: Paranoia; almost to an unbearable level depending on how much the viewers engages themselves. In its beginning, we watch a wolf as it escapes gun fire and finds refuge in an Antarctic station occupied by American researchers. The animal looks ordinary. But the movie presents it in suspicious ways. For example, in an early scene, we observe a hallway where it comes out of one room and walks to another. The wolf pauses at the doorway and looks on. We see the shadow of one man who is perhaps sitting down. Then the wolf proceeds inside. It doesn’t seem agitated. But what does it want? What is it going to do in that room? What is going on? The scene fades to black. This will lead to many more suspicious scenes that end before giving an answer. Some characters appear and disappear around the station, and with different behaviors and for unknown reasons. The setting is one of paranoia, and Carpenter basks in its control.

Now for the monsters. Perhaps grotesque is not enough to describe them. Hellish is probably a more accurate description. Both creatures are ingrained in the memory of cinematic lore, not only because of their appearance but also because of what they can do. They have a stunning growth rate. The one in Alien stands a few inches tall at conception, but by the end of the film looks to be taller than 7 feet. By the story’s timeline, it grew to that height within 48 hours. It has arms and legs, but its hands and feet are claws and the head resembles a large narrow shield with a mouth of slimy human-like teeth. It opens and produces a smaller head, a worm-like creature with similar teeth and the same amount of slime. This Alien has blood that is incredibly acidic. In the film, it eats its way through three decks of the space vessel. The creature is skillfully designed by H.R. Giger and it is fearful to think of what other images roam in his mind.  

But the monster in The Thing is an abomination that tops Giger’s Alien, and any other movie alien for that matter, in terms of absolute horror. It has no form. It is an organism of slime, pink membranes, and bone matter replicated from other living organisms. For example in one scene, because it encounters several wolves, the creature tries to absorb them all. The result is a deformed multi-headed organism of some fur, tentacles, and spider legs that must have must have absorbed along the way. The human characters will also be absorbed. The monster is a glutinous, gluttonous, grotesque kind of a creature that is an incredibly effective creation of special effects. Do not eat during this movie, even if you have a strong stomach.

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And finally we observe the human characters, which makes the difference in any movie. In this regard, Alien is the better movie. The Thing, which stars Kurt Russell, uses its characters as objects to be consumed or suspicious about. Because the creature replicates its victims, we spend most of the movie wondering who is an alien. This leads to an edgy scene where all the characters are in a room and go through a blood test one by one. We await with genuine suspense on who will suddenly transform into the creature. But we know little about their personalities.

Alien provides its characters with personas and motivations. We remember its crew who have just completed a mining expedition- Parker (Yaphet Kotto) the engineer, for his tendency to complain about not being paid enough. Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) an engineer buddy of Parker who shares the same sentiment regarding pay. Dallas (Tom Skerritt), the mission leader, experienced, but perhaps exhausted from too many missions. Kane (John Hurt), an officer who appears inquisitive, intelligent and becomes the first victim of the alien in one of the most gruesome scenes in film history. There is also a disguised android who provides additional suspense. But the key character is Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, as a strong minded warrant-officer who is strict on protocol and bravely engages the physical situations of the story. She remains an iconic character among female action stars.

And yet, if Alien betters The Thing in terms of interesting characters, they are equally entertaining pictures. In terms of which is the better movie, it might actually be a draw. Alien focuses on creating atmosphere, building suspense, observing personalities, and working around minimal views of its creature. While The Thing also builds on suspense, it focuses on the sense of paranoia, and reveals its creature without care or mercy. In short, both films are effective, successful, classic, and landmarks of achievement in the realms of horror films.

 

Die Hard 2 vs Die Hard (revised)

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Creating a sequel for Die Hard is not exactly a good idea. Apart from being a classic, apart from setting a high standard for the action picture, the first movie is based on a story about coincidence –  about a wrong man being at the wrong place at the wrong time. And therefore to propose that same character and scenario again would seem ludicrous.

The result of the first movie was unexpected. So surprising was its success, that Bruce Willis became an instant big movie star. His John McClane character became iconic. But not only because the man is a hero. It is actually because of his other qualities, some of which are actually unappealing. For example, his disposition presents a man who is cheeky. Had we known him as a supporting character, he might have actually been unlikeable.

Ironically, that’s part of his charm. He’s an easy going man of action. He isn’t interested in conflict but has strong feelings about resolving them. And unlike other action heroes like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, he isn’t too muscular nor appears threatening.

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So the first Die Hard movie places this unheroic-like of a character in a hostage situation. He is visiting his wife at an office party when international terrorists invade and take over the entire building. Their leader is a memorable villain named Hans (Alan Rickman) who was upper class, intelligent, but also a bit playful. He was one reason for the movies success. Another is director John McTiernan, who does a masterful job particularly in selecting camera angles to depict tension and vertigo. It was a work of pure craftsmanship and expertise. He had proven himself previously by directing Predator, where he films the jungle in ways to draw enchantment and claustrophobia.

Die Hard 2, directed by Renny Harlin, doesn’t demonstrate the same level of craft as its predecessor.  Instead, it compensates heavily with creativity. For example, in Die Hard, McClane escapes an explosion on the building roof by jumping off with a Fire Hose tied around his waist to keep him from plummeting all the way down. In Die Hard 2, McClane escapes an explosion in a locked airplane cockpit by fastening himself to the pilots seat, and pulling the ejection lever. The scene is filmed from high above the plane and we watch McClane ascending away from the explosion, and flying towards the camera. It is done very well using special effects.

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 When viewed in very broad strokes, Die Hard 2 is similar in plot to the original. Just replace the building with an airport, the terrorists with rebel soldiers, and Holly (McClane’s wife) is up in a flying airplane instead of a building. There is also a skeptical policeman who continually argues with McClane about his suspicions at the airport. And it all takes place during Christmas, only the sequel is set in Washington where it heavily snows.

There are however some important differences, particularly with supporting characters. If Die Hard 2 gives its terrorists dedication and discipline, Die Hard gives them presence and personality. Aside from the fashionable Hans, there is the hot tempered Carl, his patient brother Tony, and the excitable computer expert Theo. The film gives Carl his own personal motivation of revenge when Tony gets killed by McClane. And Theo tends to get giddy while in control of computer software. As for the good guys, the supporting characters include a limo driver named Argyle (who spends most of his time in the building basement listening to disco music), and Sgt. Powell who is caring and becomes crucial to McClane’s survival. And if supporting good or bad guys isn’t enough, there is the sleazy Harry, Hollys friend, who likes to drink, laugh, and think that he is a good hostage negotiator.

 These variety of characters are what make Die Hard a much better film than the sequel. They are given attention and we get to care about some of them in the same way that we care about McClane and his mission. Some also unintentionally lighten the films tension. Like in one amusing scene, while a terrorist is waiting for the SWAT team to arrive, he cautiously steals a chocolate from the candy store. It might have been a Butterfinger.

The terrorists in Die Hard make their appearance by simply walking into the building and taking the elevator. In Die Hard 2, the villains operate in hiding. Some are initially disguised at the airport while others are stationed in an old house where they gain control over the airport tower . They are led by a merciless, no-nonsense Colonel (William Sadler). In his introduction, he is naked while practicing kung fu which can be dangerous to himself. But considering his steely eyes, he looks as though he is in full control.

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Bruce Willis as McClane maintains the same character in the sequel, which shouldn’t be difficult for him. Physically he may have gained about five pounds, but he is still cheeky, moves in the same way, fires his Beretta in the same manner, and continues to prove the efficiency of a proper head butt. In an early brief encounter, he is disadvantaged when an opponent uses martial arts on him. But by simply resorting to the head butt, the opponent is floored.

Die Hard 2 has good supporting characters. The belligerent chief of police is amusingly played by Dennis Franz, who sums up his position by shamelessly telling McClaine “You are in my Pond, and I am the big Fish”. Then there’s Fred Thompson who is convincing as the authoritative chief of operations at the airport tower. And how about Tim Bower as the old friendly janitor, who works underground and is unaware of the troubles above. They are all satisfying in their roles.

 If a sequel can’t better its predecessor, it can simply focus on its strenghts. If Die Hard has a better villain, is more skilfully directed, and has the position of introducing a new kind of action star, Die Hard 2 has more action. It delivers bigger explosions, more bad guys, and widens the setting. The result is a highly entertaining motion picture that may not resonate like the first movie, but can still deliver a bang.

 

 

 

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