Backdraft

“Backdraft” has not aged well. Granted, it’s hard to say how well this movie was received when it opened (I’m going to date myself here, but when it hit theaters, I was nine), but it’s been almost twenty years, and what worked back then does not work anymore.

 

Now, that’s not to say it’s a horrible experience – my movie buddy and I have a fabulous time watching it, but it’s not a comedy; we were just having a good laugh at the movie’s expense.

 

“Backdraft,” directed by Ron Howard, is the story of two brothers, Stephen (Kurt Russell) and Brian (William Baldwin). Their dad was a firefighter who was killed in action when the boys were young, and the ‘family business’ both draws and repels them.

Stephen has become a bad-ass but reckless firefighter, while Brian dropped out of the academy earlier in his life, but at the beginning of the film has graduated and finds himself in the same firehouse as his estranged brother.

 

That’s a solid enough story, but then, in a nod to conventionality, the brothers must learn to work together to stop an killer arsonist on the loose.

Sigh. There’s also some other stuff that happens, the effects are pretty cool, but really, there is a bit too much story here to leave room for anything good. “Backdraft” could have been a compelling family drama with a firefighting/tragedy backdrop. Or it could have been a thrilling action picture about a hunt for a dastardly arsonist.

But instead of excelling in any one area, it went and failed at both; “Backdraft” limps to the finish, with every bit of its conventional storytelling weighing it down.

 

Backdraft” (1991)

Written by Gregory Widen

Directed by Ron Howard

Starring: Kurt Russell (Stephen)

William Baldwin (Brian)

“Exotica” revisited

“Exotica” is not the film you think it is.

 

If you look at the box art, or watched the trailer, you might come away thinking this is a dumb stripper movie. You could even be forgiven for thinking that there is nothing to see here because you’ve seen it all before.

 

Well, if that’s the movie you’re looking for, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

“Exotica,” written and directed by Atom Egoyan, is really more of a mystery. In the opening scenes, you’ll meet a shy pet-shop owner (Don McKellar), a jaded but emotional stripper (Mia Kirshner), a creepy but sad DJ (Elias Koteas) and a world-weary auditor (the stunning Bruce Greenwood).

Their relationships are unclear, their motivations hidden, but if you pay attention and let the movie unfold, this layered and moving drama will draw you in and not let go until it fades to black.

 

Really, I’ve got nothing more to say after that. It would be a crime to give more plot details away, and I could rail against the marketing team for eons over their mistreatment of such a fantastic piece of art. But I won’t; trust me, “Exotica” is worth your time. It’s even better the second time around.

 

Exotica” (1994)

Written and directed by Atom Egoyan

Starring: Bruce Greenwood (Frances)

Don McKellar (Thomas)

Mia Kirshner (Christina)

Elias Koteas (Eric)

Zodiac

In the late 1960s, a killer calling himself Zodiac claimed responsibility for a series of murders in Northern California; he taunted investigators with a series of codes and clues sent to newspapers and made threats against the public that mostly freaked people out.

While there were a good deal of suspects, Zodiac was never brought to justice.

In 2007, director David Fincher decided to make a movie about this bizarre and grisly crime story starring Robert Downey Jr. as Paul Avery, a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle; Mark Ruffalo as the lead Inspector David Toschi; and Jake Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist at the Chronicle (and if you pay attention to the credits, he wrote the book the movie is based on).

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The Hurt Locker

As we learned with “Avatar,” hype can be a dangerous thing for a film. Sure, it will get you interested, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, but more often than not hype sets expectations so high that no film, no matter how good, can really live up to them.

This is not one of those times.

“The Hurt Locker,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow, fully lived up to expectations. The acting, writing, directing, editing were all spectacular, and I almost feel like I’m running out of adjectives to express how pleased I was that the Best Picture winner really, really was that good (and it makes me extra happy that this little film beat the crappy behemoth).

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Alive

In 1972, Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 took off from Montevideo, Uruguay, bound for Chile. The chartered plane was carrying the Uruguayan rugby team, along with their friends and family members, 45 people in total. Cloudy weather and navigation errors led to the plane crashing in the Andes Mountains and stranding the survivors with little food, no heat, and little hope of rescue.

Everyone knows this story (even though I always heard it was a soccer team); everyone has thought about what they would do if forced into that situation. It’s a nightmare scenario that happened to people in real life.

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Wall Street

Like “Planet of the Apes,” Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” is very much a product of its time. The fashions, sensibilities, location, etc. are all 1980′s, which dates the film but also gives us an intriguing look back at a bygone era.

 

And like “Planet of the Apes,” I didn’t really like this one too much, but I don’t think that’s the point of “Wall Street.”

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The Nasty Girl

First up, let’s address the unfortunate translation of “Das schreckliche Mdchen,” Michael Verhoeven’s 1990 film. The ‘nasty’ in the title is closer in meaning to something like mean or rude rather than any sexual meaning.

If that’s what you were thinking when you clicked on that link, sorry. You won’t find what you’re looking for here.

In case you decided to stick around, “The Nasty Girl” is about Sonja (Lena Stolze), a bright young German girl in the 1970s. She enters a Europe-wide essay contest while she’s in high school and wins the first prize for Germany. She gets a trip to Paris, a medal from the mayor and the admiration of friends and family alike.

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Kitchen Privileges

“Kitchen Privileges (aka ‘Housebound’),” written and directed by Mari Kornhauser, is quite a mixed bag of a movie; on one side, you have a fairly well done drama about a woman recovering from a brutal rape. On the other side, you have a mishandled horror film that fails where it succeeds.

Confused yet? Back to the beginning.

Marie (Katharina Wressnig) has become an agoraphobic after being raped in an elevator about a year before the film begins.  She has adjusted her entire life to staying indoors, to the frustration and concern of her friends and her boyfriend. To supplement her income (and to help her feel safe), she takes in a tenant, Tom (Peter Sarsgaard), a cook on an oil rig who mostly comes and goes.

After a failed attempt at ‘outside’ leads her to a panic attack, Tom helps her through it, and the two of them begin the process of healing her, but like usual, not is all what it seems with this guy. He’s intensely private, he even locks the kitchen door when he’s cooking, and Marie is always hearing weird noises from behind his door. Could he be the mysterious freeway killer who dumps dismembered bodies before moving on to his next victim?

It sounds lame, and it does take a little time to get interested in these characters, but it does happen, thanks to the performances of Wressnig and Sarsgaard. If the movie had just been a psychological drama/horror film with just those two, I suspect I would have liked it more. However, there a number of bit players (most notably Marie’s odious sister Mignon, played by Angeline Ball) that show up to just ruin all the fun.  

(We’re moving in to spoiler territory after the jump; don’t click if you want to be surprised.)

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Nowhere in Africa

Not much to say here; after finishing “Nowhere in Africa,” I seriously wonder about the quality of the other films in the Best Foreign Language in 2001 if this was the winner. Seriously guys, you picked this one???

A Jewish family (mom, dad, daughter), living in Germany in 1938, see what’s coming and flee to Kenya to wait out the war. There are the usual culture clashes, the usual attempts at learning the language, the assimilation on both sides, blah blah blah.

“Nowhere in Africa” isn’t bad, but it’s boring with characters that don’t make sense from one scene to the next. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before; dull, predictable and way, way too long.

“Out of Africa” had a similar setup, similar scenes and yet somehow managed to not suck (I’m sure Streep helped with that one). It had its problems, but it’s above and beyond this film. Skip “Nowhere in Africa,” and see that instead.

“Nowhere in Africa” (2001)

Written and directed by Caroline Link

Starring: Juliane Khler (Jettel Redlich)

 Merab Ninidze (Walter Redlich)

 Sidede Onyulo (Owuor)