Monday, May 23, 2011

Cabin Boy (1994)

Simultaneously inventive and consciously (and gratingly) corny, this semi-entry in the long-line of mid-90's attempts at making movie stars out of SNL cast members tells of an educated "fancy lad" who is forced to act as a cabin boy for a crew of scraggly fishermen. The ex-SNL'er, in this case, is Chris Elliot, who, to be fair, was better known for his work with David Letterman (who exec. produces and cameos here) when this film was released. His lack of an established comic persona (other than his patented delivery and clearly outside-the-box sensibilities) hurts his ability to mount a successful comedy vehicle, and, more often than not, his dimwit protagonist just comes off as a screenwriter's contrivance than anything organic or naturally funny. His love interest, an aspiring world-class swimmer played by Melora Walters, feels shoehorned in and forced, and the normally talented Walters flails around in search of a spark of energy to inject into her scenes. And, worst of all, the plot is almost completely nonexistent; other than a failed attempt at giving the cabin boy a self-actualization character arc (please), there are no real narrative throughlines, and the structure ends up resembling something like a half-assed SNL Odyssey sketch.

All of this is kind of a shame, because this Tim Burton-produced endeavor actually has some really great, interesting touches that end up making it somewhat watchable. For one, while the lead and his romantic interest are lame ducks, the supporting cast is near-perfect: as the grizzled seamen, Brion James, Brian-Doyle Murray, and, most of all, James Gammon are wonderfully savvy and over-the-top in their well-worn, tried-and-true sea dog personas. Considering the majority of the film takes place on a tiny, obviously falsified fishing boat, their efforts do miles to establish the sea-adventure tone of the film. Also appearing in hilarious cameos are Ricki Lake, Mike Starr, Andy Richter (as the even dumber original cabin boy), and, funniest of all, Letterman (billed as Earl Hofert) as a curmudgeon who, intentionally, sabotages cabin boy's voyage home to his parents. Other than the lame, poorly rendered ship, itself, the special effects in the film have a whimsical, George Melies-influenced quality that is refreshingly lo-fi and original: clouds have faces in them that blow in the direction of the wind, a man-shark creature is merely Dr. Jacoby from Twin Peaks with a fin strapped to his back, and the six-armed, blue-skinned sex goddess and her giant husband are rendered with merely blue-paint, puppetry, and in-camera tricks, like forced perspective. If the writing (and budget) had lived up to the conceptualization on display, this could be remembered as a fantastical anecdote to the more grounded, family oriented comedies of the time period (see: Billy Madison, Tommy Boy). Unfortunately, as is, it remains as, merely, an interesting curiosity, and a progress note of Elliot's talents at this point in his career (final verdict? Not there yet).

Slightly Recommended for fans of Elliot, or of a more surreal brand of mainstream comedy (Land of the Lost and Your Highness are vague spiritual approximations). This one is best enjoyed with lowered expectations; knowing that, going in, should prove for a fairly entertaining, mildly diverting experience.

Pizza Man (1991)

Funny and political, but nearly unbearably silly, this ridiculous faux-noir centers on a 30-ish pizza man (go figure) as he warily ventures deep into East Hollywood to deliver (*gasp*) a large anchovy and sausage pizza. The pizza man, Elmo, is played by Bill Maher in, from what I gather, what was his only real leading man gig, and much of the humor follows suit: along his journey, he encounters politicos such as Dan Quayle, Ronald Reagan, and, in the least dated touch, "Donnie," the lost, insecure former pizza boy. The whole story is relayed through a sort of neo-noir guise, with Maher delivering a consistent deadpan voiceover relating his pizza-oriented agenda like a cop walking his beat, complete with dispatch calls and a no-nonsense, "just the facts" demeanor. This element masks the true nature of the film's script, which is a then-contemporary political satire, and due to writer/director J.F. Lawton's clear knowledge of noir archetypes and cliches, it keeps the film chugging along right past its stuck-in-the-early-'90s satirical targets, such as Quayle's momma's boy idiocy and presidential candidate Michael Dukakis's shoddy speaking skills. Lawton shoots L.A. through Elmo's winshield like its Taxi Driver, and keeps the film simultaneously rooted in both light-and-shadow driven noir and neon-soaked L.A. nightlife imagery. The one aspect Lawton cannot cover up through sheer style is his budget; the shabby sets are reused, action scenes are ugly and hobbled together, and the supporting cast is filled to the brim with nobody celebrity impersonators, along with a game, but ultimately underwhelming femme fatale by ways of Annabelle Gurwitch. Bill Maher's acerbic wit (and particular political sensibilities) makes him a refreshing, ideally detached noir lead, and, while it is obvious why he didn't parlay this into a serious career as a movie star (see his oft-referenced and disastrous attempt at injecting irony into a nonsensical dance sequence), him and the material have the same bizarre, specific kismit that Dennis Miller was able to harness in the similarly noir-tinged Tales from the Crypt Presents Bordello of Blood. The infectious energy and cleverness Maher and Lawton invested in this film gives it a lot of momentum and many memorable lines and scenarios; its lack of big-budget professionalism takes turns working for and against the production, making it a relatively exclusive, yet fairly rewarding affair for its specific audience (for all those interested: this bad boy's impossible to find, save for on youtube).

Recommended for fans of Bill Maher, or the politically savvy with a particularly clear memory of the general goings-on circa 1991. This is a less fantastic, yet more pointed effort than Lawton and Maher's previous team-up, Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death; it wrings more mileage out of its noir setup than the latter's 50's B-movie trappings, yet fails to parade Shannon Tweed and Adrienne Barbeau around in jungle bikinis (a heinous crime if ever there was one).

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

Simultaneously inoffensively fun and thoroughly lightweight and forgettable, this fourth entry in the Pirates franchise disregards previous leads Will and Elizabeth, and instead focuses on Jack Sparrow as he ventures in search of The Fountain of Youth. I use the term "focuses" lightly; while the central narrative actually does involve Captain Jack this time, he is merely a cog in a larger machine that also includes a haunted ship, run by the legendary Blackbeard and his daughter, a Spanish fleet en route to desecrate the Fountain for Catholicism, and the British Navy, led by a tenuously reformed Captain Barbossa. Jack drunkenly blunders his way in and around these elements, flirting with Blackbeard's daughter (who is, in a lame and obvious twist, a former flame), and fighting alongside Barbossa, leading up to the final showdown at the Fountain of Youth. If the plot seems telegraphed and obvious, that's because it is; eschewing the complicated narrative overlapping of the last two films, the writers have created a streamlined scenario with clear-cut conflicts and tensions, without very much in the way of subtlety or subtext. This both works for and against this chapter, for while the lack of pretension and heavy-handedness allows one to further enjoy both the gorgeous production design and Jack's humorous demeanor, the obvious lack of substance or any memorable, distinctive moments can be directly attributed to that decision. However, where the script fails is where the crew pick up the pace, creating lovely, detailed environments (aside from the anticlimactic Fountain, itself) that are lensed and rendered beautifully, hampered only by the restricted staging and lifeless action scenes (save for the introductory London setpiece) that can be attributed to inexperienced (and overrated) director Rob Marshall.

Another huge problem with deviating completely from the preexisting formula, and cast, of the series is the necessity to shoehorn in a new collection of characters to rival the originals. For the most part, this leads to undeveloped, undercooked, and generally uninteresting roles like Ian MacShane's Blackbeard (a tired mad pirate caricature), his daughter (an indifferent Penelope Cruz, whose entire character is encapsulated by a reference to her "fiery blood from her Latin mother"), a stowaway priest (a clearly contrived substitute for Orlando Bloom), his mermaid love interest (a clearly contrived substitute for Keira Knightley), and a lame, barely-seen captain of the Spanish fleet (a central villain with maybe 5 lines). Faring better amongst the new blood are Scrum, yet another entry in the series collection of grizzled crewmen, who, as played by Stephen Graham, is hilarious, endearing, and more of a presence than any of the glorified extras who swabbed the decks before him, and Richard Griffiths, who absolutely kills it in a cameo as King George. But, even more evident here than in At World's End, the secret weapon of this franchise remains not Johnny Depp, who has a jolly time while not bringing anything new to the table, but rather Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa. His long face, his bulging eyes, his epic line delivery, and, while posing as a good, stalwart Englishman, his splotchily dyed skin and pathetic wig all fit perfectly well into this pirate universe, and his exuberant presence, as in the third one, goes a long way into legitimizing the "piracy" of the film. By the time him and Jack were tentatively teaming up against the Spaniards, I was more on board with the franchise than I had been since the finale of Curse of the Black Pearl, and for a while, the film really allows these two characters to optimally utilize their well-worn characters for an ideal sense of breezy, humorous adventure. His contribution to the franchise, and, especially, to this film in particular, cannot be overstated; he, rather than the Keith Richards impersonation (or Richards, himself, who cameos again), is the true image of a Pirate at the heart of this world, so much so that Blackbeard, with all his supernatural fire and brimstone, just comes off as a bad Xerox of Rush's character.

Slightly Recommended for family audiences, people who really liked the previous entries of the franchise, or for action fans who have already seen Thor and Fast Five (I'd even see Fast Five again, and did, before this one). This was not nearly the disaster I had predicted it to be; time will only tell whether it survives the dissipation of its audience by one adventure-fantasy, one sweat-covered male actioner, and a unanimously approved chick flick, all of which are superior films.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Kicking and Screaming (1995)

Not to be confused with Will Ferrell's soccer-themed children's comedy (Um, that one has an ampersand? Hello?), this Gen-X coming of age comedy (the only one of its kind, *snicker, snicker*) has a group of post-collegiates dealing with their newfangled manhood and possible future, and lost, opportunities. Josh Hamilton plays the main character, a relatively wise, grounded lad, who has bid farewell to his longtime college sweetheart who flew off to Prague after graduation. He deals with his loneliness and bouts with self-worth silently as his friends, a particularly literate, yet terminally self-involved group that include a hyper-neurotic man-boy, an acerbic, defeatist wit (and not much else), a beer-swilling, long-haired ignoramus, and a 35 year-old local bartender who, with his decade or so years of college experience, acts out his sage-like role to largely unreceptive ears. The group drinks, banters, and, occasionally, romances, as they slowly take in the knowledge that they are now, finally, forced to put their superficially advanced intellects to the test.

Hamilton is the weak link here, but it is not due to his strengths (or weaknesses) as an actor; his character is basically a non-entity, continually flashing back to the past instead of focusing on the present, and only engaging with his buds in the guise of a snide comment or a self-deprecating quip. His romance with Olivia D'abo's (similarly abandoned by the script) character comes off as overly contrived and cute, rather than organic. It does nothing to advance the narrative, and, seeing where it ends up, only serves to prove certain points it could've easily relayed in the opening 20 or so minutes. With the central plot line being both vague and uninvolving, the film basically lives and dies based on its supporting players, which, in this case, are more than up to the challenge. Each character, while initially coming off as a caricature, has his own set of mannerisms, tendencies, and ideals, which the actors seem to be in tune with. While the pajama-wearing man-boy is the broadest, most easily likable character, his arc is fairly straightforward. More interesting are the consistently detached, objective sad sack who nevertheless prods into his buddies' affairs, the goofy, perennially clueless, drunken boyfriend, and the "wise," older bartender, played by Eric Stoltz in a scene-stealer of a role. Parker Posey and Elliot Gould are also effective in smaller roles, their familiarity failing to overshadow the less-prolific lead actors.

Aside from the lack of any real narrative thrust, there is also the issue of the tone of the film. This was Noah Baumbach's first film as a director, and his idealistic, inexperienced thinking towards direction shows in the mannered, almost stagy performances. Right off the bat, these do not seem like "real" people, but rather mid-90's indie caricatures, complete with dated hairstyles and formerly obscure interests, now commodified by the completionism of the internet. However, Baumbach, moreso here than in his other work, has a cohesive vision for the piece, and the whole film follows the example that he sets right from the getgo, rather than creating a hodgepodge of hyper-mannerred banter and casual, low-key naturalism that would have been grating (as it is in Margot at the Wedding and the worst parts of Greenberg). The dialogue follows suit, not sounding like any one talks in real-life, but rather how THESE characters would talk in these situations.

Recommended for fans of '90s-era growing-up comedies, such as the similar School Daze or Reality Bites, or of Eric Stoltz, who seems to have been in every smaller movie made around this time, yet still was able to make his character in this film memorable, hilarious, and distinctive, even amongst his eclectic career.

Hobo With A Shotgun (2011)

Simultaneously gritty, campy, and laughably grotesque, this true grindhouse product shows a crime-ridden city, riddled with corrupt cops, psychopathic mobsters, and a general sense of anarchy, as a beaten, morally uncompromised homeless man takes a stand for righteousness. The film is straight out of the Troma school of filmmaking, which, in this case, is a compliment; the over-the-top irony of it all, the hyper-reliance on sensationalism and violence, and the cartoony, straightforward protagonist (in this case, a hobo with a shotgun). However, the production values on display are of a noticably high quality than much of Troma's output, with the gore being fully realized and awesome, the sets and cinematography feeling well-realized and unrushed, and the presence of the veteran grizzled badass, Rutger freaking Hauer. For those of you who don't know who Rutger Hauer is, hopefully you've seen Blade Runner so you know how amazing he is as the "villain," Roy Batty, in that one. Otherwise, seek out The Hitcher (the original, GOD it annoys me that I have to specify that), the film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Nighthawks to see how moody, intense, and just plain scary this guy can be. Here, his dead-serious attitude not only makes his character a blast to watch, in contrast with the outlandish, ridiculous elements that surround him, but holds up the entire film, which could have been lost in a sea of irony and self-parody without him. The rest of the cast is good, but not up to Hauer's transcendent standard, save for Gregory Smith, who successfully subverts his former presence as a child-actor in films like Small Soldiers and Harriet the Spy with his deliciously psychotic guido character (I really wish more people could have the same 'Is that Gregory Smith?' moment I had while watching him torch schoolbusses full of children and the like). The gore moments here are extreme and in abundance, unlike the other grindhouse trailer adaptation, Machete (Hobo With A Shotgun started as a short film entry for a grindhouse contest, which actually played before the Machete trailer in the Canadian prints of Grindhouse), and makes up for what it lacks in budget and big-scale Hollywood set-pieces with strong makeup and clever ingenuity; in short, it is a near-ideal Troma movie, just made without the input of Lloyd Kaufman and his cronies. My largest gripe with the film is with the "hooker with a heart of gold" character that the Hobo befriends, which was poorly acted and conceived, and, more egregiously, deflated the pace of the film. However, even she gets her moment in the sun by the end, stabbing baddies with a wonderfully improvised weapon, but that doesn't escape the fact that she serves as a grounding and realistic element in a film that gets its sickest and purest pleasures from going gleefully off the rails.

Recommended for fans of more outlandish cult films, such as Six-String Samurai or Tromeo and Juliet, or of Rutger Hauer or Gregory Smith, both of whom are phenomenally and scene-gnashingly grotesque. This one's easy to get ahold of, and it's worth hunting down as it actually fulfills its promise of being a take-no-prisoners, blood-soaked revenge picture.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962)

Deep, haunting domestic melodrama about a moderately wealthy family on the verge of collapse, due to the son's progressing battle with tuberculosis, and the mother's resulting insanity and paranoia. The whole of the film takes place in their Connecticut cottage, where the mother, Mary, has secured herself in an attempt to keep reality at bay, and her delusions to run wild. Her primary concern, and reason for instability, is the gnawing thought that her youngest son is on the verge of death, but we learn, as the story progresses, that there are other causes for her troubles. The rest of the family stands idly by and watches its deterioration: the father, a stuffy, British actor, refuses to take any stand, save for coddling his wife and her delirious fantasies, and their other son is a lush, seemingly street-wise, yet completely awash in incompetence and self-pity. As the day goes on, their various tensions, concerns, and insecurities abound, and reveal themselves; while the action is moderately reigned in, there is no doubt that the events that transpire leave the characters remarkably haunted by the end.

This is an early film by the late, great Sidney Lumet, and it shows in his staging; rather than hide the fact that the film is a literal adaptation of the Eugene O'Neill play, he uses long takes and wide shots to keep the geography and physical dynamics of the play on full display, but is unafraid to cut from an all-encompassing wide to a stark, intimate close-up. The film is shot in magnificent black and white, and has that old Hollywood feel that complements the more confrontational, emotionally cutting dialogue well, particularly for Katherine Hepburn. Hepburn, perfectly utilizing her legendary star status, turns in a gut-wrenching, soulful performance as the haunted matriarch, simultaneously smiley and shaky as she searches for something, anything, that she can depend on or respect. While a section of the film puts her at the forefront when, I feel, her character would have served the story better from offscreen, the performance itself is flawless, and more indicative of her talents than more lightweight fare, like The Philadelphia Story. As her husband, Ralph Richardson is all early 20th-century bluster and panache, speaking constantly, but saying very little; his clearly stagey style is a teriffic contrast with the younger men in the family, played by Dean Stockwell and Jason Robards. Stockwell is haunting as the wide-eyed innocent playing it cynical, and we wait for him to fail in keeping up with his father's ignorant cynicism and lose his tenuous grip on sensibility. Robards could play his drunken louse in his sleep, but luckily, he brings his experience with the character (he played him on Broadway) to the table, giving the most raw, physical performance in the movie; you can almost smell the whiskey on his breath. O'Neill's mannerred dialogue becomes almost a hinderence to the film, as Lumet's style is far more contemporary and revealing than O'Neill's early 20th-century prose. O'Neill also leads the narrative into one or two dead ends, where nothing new is revealed, nothing relevant is reflected upon, and the characters stagnate, which, I'm sure, was more forgivable in 1940's theater than it was in 1960's cinema. However, the director, and the actors, are comfortable enough with the material that they intuitively relay O'Neill's ideas and motifs more successfully than the actual words he put in their mouths.

Recommended for fans of the cast, or of family-driven chamber dramas. It is comparable to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in its staginess, its amalgam of old and new aesthetics, and its emotional rawness, but it is the lesser film, and does not contain the remarkable, cohesive beauty of that work.

True Legend (2011)

A badass, throwback Wuxia film, this Chinese kung fu saga tells the story of Su, a war hero who suffers the consequences of handing to his adopted brother, a bitter, venom-poisoned sociopath, his rightful governorship. The opening of the film is an elaborate mountain-set battle scene establishing Su as a stalwart, capable warrior. The initial melodrama moves along quickly; within 20 or so minutes, Su has risen and fallen as a hero, his villainous step-brother has already declared his intentions, and the stakes (the step-brother is in custody of Su's son) are established. Broken and deprived of the use of his right arm, Su heals in the mountains with his wife (and a holy doctor, played by Michelle Yeoh) until he is confronted by The God Of Wushu, a mystical figure who taunts him and assures him that until he can conquer him in battle, he will not be ready for his step-brother. It is here that the story becomes slightly more complex; rather than being a straight-forward wuxia revenge flick, this is just as much about Su conquering his own demons as it is about beating up bad guys. The narrative takes its time to get to its climax, and when you think the film is about to end, it has another chapter, about the West's corrupting influence in the region, that deviates from the rest of the film. However, the central theme of Su living up to his potential, and disregarding his fears, longings, and insecurities to be the best warrior (and father) he can be.

The cast is dedicated, effective, and in tune with the material; the flippant, "I have somewhere else to be" attitude of some Shaw Bros. actors is nowhere to be seen here. Vincent Zhao, as Su, goes through several remarkable character changes, and handles them, both physically and emotionally, with aplomb. Andy On is despicable and terrifying as the villainous step-brother; his physical prowess and shocking training methods keep the tension and forward momentum of the narrative going for a large chunk of the film. In smaller roles, Michelle Yeoh, Jay Chou (as the God of Wushu), and a certain late, great Western martial arts figure (who, singlehandedly, saves the last 20 minutes of the film) add a degree of class and pedigree to what could, on the surface, be easily dismissed as a throwaway kung-fu import. The other key element that separates this from your average Eastern beat-'em-up is the spectacular fighting choreography. Director Yuen Woo Ping's name is synonymous with large-scale, balletic kung-fu; aside from his legendary directorial credits, like Drunken Master, and my personal favorite, Iron Monkey, he provided the choreography for flicks like Kill Bill, The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Fist of Legend, Kung Fu Hustle, and Once Upon A Time in China. He brings his legendary expertise here, with a plethora of fights that come fast and furious like Dom Toretto, each one crucially different than the last. Andy On's 5 venom fist, in particular, is a scary and awe-inspiring delight. The story is strong, and holds up (until the end), but the dynamic fighting is what makes this film occasionally pop off the screen and transcend into something signature and memorable.

Recommended for fans of large-scale Wuxia flicks like Iron Monkey or Fearless. I do not know if it contains enough universal appeal to crossover to western audiences (the crowd I saw it with seemed unsure of how to react, with genuine applause and inappropriate ironic laughter being expressed equally), but I certainly found it to be a remarkable, graciously old-school Wuxia tale.

P.S. This movie is shot REALLY well for any film, let alone an action flick. The skies, mountains, and sets of this movie are fantastic, and will tickle any of the photographically inclined who end up seeing it.

Bridesmaids (2011)

Sporadically funny, but not as consistently uproarious as the trailers would imply, this mid-life crisis comedy-drama concerns a late-30's woman who, after losing her business and boyfriend to the recession, must deal with being her best friend's maid of honor. A more apt title for the film would be "Bridesmaid"; the entire film revolves around the main character, played by Kristen Wiig, as her insecurities toward her lot in life, piled on with her jealousies at her friend and her other bridesmaids (particularly Rose Byrne's attractive, wealthy "new friend"), take their toll. And by take their toll, I mean reduce her into a shrill, shreiking harpy, going to such lengths as jumping on stage to hog the spotlight from one of Byrne's dinner speeches, consistently lying to the girls to protect her pocketbook (classism is a big part of the film), and, worst of all, publicly sabotaging the bridal shower for no good reason whatsoever. Not to mention that the saccharine-coated elements of her character, such as her baking talents (her failed business was a bakery), her romantic exploits (the Jon Hamm P.O.S. or the sweet Irish flatfoot, I wonder?), and her weird relationship with her mother (who is bland and fake quirky in all the ways that only Blythe Danner would have been able to sell) are lame, sappy, and make Wiig's character out to be kind of an unlikable hypocrite. Which would be fine, had the movie fulfilled its promise of being a no-holds-barred gross-out comedy, instead of the tawdry, vapid dramedy it ends up being.

The biggest disappointment of the film is that, sporadically, it is, indeed, very funny. While a good amount of the good beats and one-liners have already been ruined in the marketing, there are still some great moments and set-pieces that keep the film from being a complete waste of time. There are definitely certain moments that are taken way further than they would in a traditional "chick flick," and the Judd Apatow touch (he produced) is all over the improv-heavy banter. The supporting cast is more than game, with Melissa McCarthy and Wendi Mclendon-Covey getting in the best lines, and Maya Rudolph making for a surprisingly endearing BFF for Wiig, but they are all massively underused; other than Rose Byrne's deliciously grating showboat, no one gets the attention and nuance that Wiig's character receives (no surprise that Wiig cowrote the script). Wiig is funny in the film, as anyone who has seen her SNL or film work could have probably figured out; what she can't get right is the drama. She knows the comedic effect of her character angrily tearing grass out of the ground and dumping it in the bride-to-be's decorational fountain of chocolate, but the dramatic effect (read: what a sad, angry bitch!) is completely lost on her. Her character makes too many boneheaded decisions, too many moral compromises, and too many callous, indiscriminate stands for personal recognition to be able to look past them and enjoy the humor underneath; the film, by keeping its third act and much of the second act fairly laugh free, wanted it that way.

Which makes me question the entire point of the film. Had the premise somehow involved the other bridesmaids, and made the narrative into some sort of rumination on forced female bonding and the trivialities of the marriage procession, the downturn into purely dramatic territory could have been more successful. But as is, the main narrative thrust of the film, for much of the running time, is Kristen Wiig's character attempting to seem as well-off and put together as Rose Byrne's clearly wealthier, more successful bridesmaid. For me, the reverance displayed towards the the elaborateness of wedding dresses, the exclusivity and perks of flying first class, the extravagance of invitations, and the financial worth of wedding gifts was a GIGANTIC turn off, and made the whole film into some sort of dirty, ghetto version of Sex and the City with a broke, bitchy, eternally catty 5th friend. There is no moral excuse for her betrayal of her friend solely due to the fact that she is now, due to her move from Milwaukee to Chicago, closer to this other, different woman. It makes the whole film ugly and petty, and, aside with the lack of any particularly strong, sensible female characters, makes the film kind of a sexist endeavor. My girlfriend certainly did not think so, and I am sure this will not be the prevalent notion coming out of screenings this weekend, but it is something that I could not escape in my mind (particularly considering her romantic behavior, which is not only pathetic and self-destructive, but, irresponsible, and, at times, downright mean).

Slightly Recommended for chick-flicky women and the guys who get dragged along that can appreciate the comic sensibilities of the cast, which, in the end, is all that the film has going for it. With a cast like this (including Tim Heidecker, one of the funnier talents in contemporary comedy, who, in one of the films greatest crimes, is not given a single line to utter), this makes for a considerable flex of comedic muscle, but the other elements on display do not sufficiently hold up the funny schtuff.

P.S. I have read reviews, from men and women alike, that say the film is a strong "chick flick" that can be enjoyed by both genders. I'd agree, only because men are more than likely to dismiss the blatant sexism on display here, and women, typically much less demanding toward female-centric entertainments, will probably disregard such notions for the entertainment value (which, in my opinion, was disappointingly inconsistent and mild).

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Double Dragon (1994)

I had written a longer, more comprehensive review of this film, and before I was able to publish, Blogger decided to not only stop working, but to lose its autosave of my progress. This film is not worth reviewing in full form again, but I am very disappointed that my thoughts on video game adaptations in the '90s are lost forever in the annals of the internet.

Long story short, Hollywood did not know how to go about adapting video games because they were seen as toys for children, yet had fairly violent and large-scale notions and ideas. That's how you get a Street Fighter movie where no one fights in the streets, a Mortal Kombat movie without any blood-dripping fatalities, and a Double Dragon movie where Billy and Jimmy Lee are being pursued by evil, rather than taking it out one punk at a time. They have a ghetto-looking car that they control with a video game controller. Their main physical threat is a disgusting pig man who looks like a Max Headroom reject. They wear color-coded hoodies and sweats until the last 5 minutes of the movie. They are backed up by a gang of rebellious street punks led by Alyssa Milano. And they are played by Mark Dacascos and, direct from Party of Five, Scott Wolf. Needless to say the movie's a bomb; even Robert Patrick's scenery gnashing as the villain does nothing to kickstart the movie into something watchable. The action is almost nonexistent, and the martial arts that ARE on display are absolute crap, on par with a bad Power Rangers episode (a shame, given I've seen Dacascos kick some serious ass on film).

Skip it. For context, this PG-13 flick made a little less than 2.5 mil in the U.S. box office. Less than R-rated flicks like House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark, and Bloodrayne (made by a German genius named Uwe Boll). Hmm.

P.S. Andy Dick, George Hamilton, and Vanna White play news anchors in the film. Just in case there were some of you still ready to hunt this down like I did.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2011)

Cute, low-key horror-comedy about duo of well-meaning, but buffoonish rednecks on vacation who are vilified, demonized, and, indirectly, tortured by a nearby group of teens. The central joke of the piece is a riff on Deliverance; because Tucker and Dale fit the image of inbred, angsty jungle folk, the teens are so scared for their lives that they, in turn, go about putting themselves in actual danger. There is not much more in terms of plot, save for a cute, tenuous romance with Tucker and one of the teens, so I will not ruin any of the gags, plot twists, or death scenes(!) that make this quite a fun watch for horror buffs. I will say that as the titular duo, Reaper's Tyler Labine and Alan mothafreaking Tudyk are absolutely sweet, well-rendered, and hilarious; if you did not buy the well-meaning sincerity of their rough-around-the-edges characters, the entire film would fall apart. Katrina Bowden, the resident "hottie" of 30 Rock, also warrants mention for playing it straight and irony-free (unlike on 30 Rock) as the love interest; in a nice spin on the typical horror lead role, she is separate from her friends in her understanding that there is NO threat, as opposed to her being the savvy survivalist a la Jamie Lee Curtis or Neve Campbell. The movie has a sort of half-indie, half-DTV feel to it, sort of like David Arquette's similar, but more freakish The Tripper, but it only serves to highlight the absurd and over-the-top tone of the film; a big-budget sheen on this one, along with bigger names in the starring roles, would have taken the piss out of the whole thing. I am not saying that this is Shaun of the Dead, or even Cannibal: The Musical, but it is a fun, diverting flick that tickles its core audience (read: horror fans) to the bone.

Recommended for savvy horror fans, specifically those familiar with the subgenre of films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Wrong Turn, and The Hills Have Eyes. There is a cuteness and sincerity on display here that elevates it above purely comical exercises like The Tripper

P.S. There is a tacked-on, probably reshot ending that is hokey and doesn't really fit with the rest of the film, but it does keep the tone from seesawing completely over to one side of the horror-comedy balance.

Drive Angry (2011)

A surprisingly fun, self-aware enterprise, this relentlessly aggressive throwback to '70s car flicks such as Vanishing Point revolves around a near-psychopath as he attempts to rescue his kidnapped granddaughter from murderous satanists. The film never gets too much more complicated than that; aside from a couple of other characters, such as a beleaguered waitress and a mysterious "Accountant" in pursuit, the narrative is almost solely tied into the protagonist's quest for his missing granddaughter. The race-against-the-clock aspect, along with the cult aspect, reeks of '70s exploitation, and the film is definitely in that mold, eschewing logic for impact at any given moment. However, unlike similar exercises in action meta-awareness (like Shoot 'Em Up), this one actually knows where to draw its goofy/serious battle lines, with the slower moments having just as much dirty, grimey, pulpy energy as when it's at its most kinetic. That is not to say the action is not up to snuff; bullets fly at the screen, sex is rampant, and, for a film of this budget, the car stunts are surprisingly large-scale and well-rendered. And the cast, not an Ocean's 11 ensemble by any means, is wonderfully game.

I had read, prior to seeing the film, that Nic Cage plays against his strengths in this, going for a "Man With No Name" vibe, as opposed to his own patented explosivity; I call bullshit on that. While he is not screaming "It's murder! MURDER! And you're all guilty! GUILTY!!!", he is definitely aware of the silliness of the production, and takes his character to various extremes, but never condescends to the material; if I had to guess, I'd say this and Kick-Ass were more the kind of work he'd like to be doing than Sorcerer's Apprentice and Season of the Witch. As his waitress cohort and co-lead, Amber Heard is vicious, vivacious, and all sorts of awesome, giving this role a decent amount of humanity, and never once seeming like a desperate wannabe starlet running away from pyrotechnics. She has consistently turned in strong work in all that I've seen her in, but if she plays her cards right, Heard could easily make a career as a tough action heroine, sexier than Michelle Rodriguez and more fiery than Angelina Jolie. Billy Burke (who I recognized from Jane Austen's Mafia) is an effectively eerie villain, and David Morse shows up in an extended cameo as a friend of Cage, but the real highlight of the acting department is William Fichtner. Instantly recognizable, but elusively eclectic, Fichtner all but steals the film as the Accountant, seemingly toying with everybody in the film; neither a hero, nor a true villain, his character exists only to toy with civilians and to increase the stakes for Cage, both of which he does with a great sense of relish that I hope to see more of from the talented actor. He really has established himself as a modern day Warren Oates, or Elisha Cook, Jr., killing it in talented directors' work without ever worrying about being typecast or overexposed (remember his opening scene in Dark Knight?).

Highly Recommended for anyone who thinks that they'd like a movie called Drive Angry 3D starring Nicolas Cage and Amber Heard. Or for anyone who has ever said to themselves, "You know? They really don't make 'em like Vanishing Point anymore." I have. And they did.

Monday, May 9, 2011

El Topo (1970)

Strikingly original, yet slightly overlong, this surreal western tells the story of a gunfighter as he trains his son, rescues a damsel, hunts down rival gunmen, and, finally, seeks redemption. The imagery of this film is its most striking element. Utilizing its fullscreen scope to its full potential, the exposures of the sky, the desert, the caves, and the mountains contained within the film are all absolutely gorgeous and picturesque. The imagery is heavily slanted towards religious symbolism, which, thankfully, is not specific enough to turn off atheists and agnostics (like myself). The action is effective, but minimal and quickly-cut; this is not a Sergio Corbucci actioner, by any means, but a more broody, evocative piece, where the violence, although prevalent, is the exception to the rule. The first part of the film is a more traditionalist western, with the gunfighter being taunted by his woman into challenging the four master gunfighters in the area. Each of them have their own method of survival, directly tying into their philosophy of life, which the gunfighter is then forced to emulate or subvert in order to achieve victory. Had the film been solely about this narrative, it could have been a more open-minded, spiritual cousin to the other foreign-made westerns coming out at that time (see Leone and Corbucci). However, writer/director/star Alexander Jodorowsky tacks on a whole other act, jumping forward a decade-plus, showing the gunfighter on his path to redemption.

Although there is plenty of inspiring, poignant footage within, it is this section of the film that is the most problematic. For one, the other characters of the film disappear, and the one(s) that remain are magnificently warped, creating a brand new plotline almost completely separate from what came before. This could be very brave, and, potentially, outstandingly effective, if not for the second crucial problem, which is that the new plotline is, surprisingly, rather cliched. The gunfighter is nursed to health by a band of malformed outcasts, and he becomes a monk, devoting himself to reintroducing his new friends back into mainstream society, possibly by force. While there are interesting aspects to this, such as his dwarf love interest and the uncompromisingly brutal ending, it is fairly preachy and, dare I say, soft in comparison to what came before it. It remains a hauntingly executed, astoundingly inventive western, one that shares much more stylistic commonalities with Orson Welles and Godard than Sergio Leone or John Ford. However, I cannot forget the feeling of waiting for the film to end, and seeing the multiple opportunities to do so effectively without dragging the more sentimentalist, middling elements of the film out to their breaking point.

Recommended for fans of highly original, New-Wave influenced work of the late '60s, early '70s, or of less conventional, more outside-of-the-box westerns, such as Dead Man or High Plains Drifter. I am definitely fascinated enough with Jodorowsky's style to seek out his grand opus, Holy Mountain, which, without the trappings of the traditionalist western, I can imagine will be an even more revelatory, striking experience.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Paper Man (2010)

Clunky, overlong dramedy that begins, promisingly enough, about an author having a crisis of identity while on a retreat in Montauk, before deevolving into yet another indie about an older man and a younger woman helping each other get past their personal quirks. One key distinguishing factor in this one is that the man in the relationship, Richard, actually laments on how his problems are not "real" problems; however, he cannot gain enough objectivity to actually get over his white, bourgois inner turmoil, which is fine compared to the heavy-handed, sludge-paced dilemmas of his youthful, female counterpart. It is funny when Richard replaces his garish couch with a couch made out of copies of his unsuccessful novel, but it is not as funny when Emma Stone's Abby continually throws matches into a steel drum in an attempt to light garbage on fire reason. Richard's most interesting personal quirk, one that never truly reaches its comic and dramatic potential, is his imaginary friend, the peroxide-haired Captain Excellent, who, with his stalwart nature and wisecracking tenacity, provides a consistent source of strength for the edgy, neurotic author. After a strong, humorous, and surprisingly touching first half, the film becomes more and more plodding, lifeless, and redundant, reducing every character to their most sappy, melodramatic cores and, for the most part, leaving the abundant comic curiosities of the film behind (although a late scene between Captain Excellent and another character manages to transcend the rest of the climax). The film would have had definite crossover potential had it managed to avoid these common, pretentious indie movie pitfalls.

Part of its potential crossover appeal would've been due to its excellent, prolific cast, which, essentially, bolsters the movie, and keeps it from being a total wash. The best of the actors is Jeff Daniels, who, as Richard, turns in one of the finest performances of his career. Matching the comic affability of Harry Dunne, while bringing his mental shagginess (but not his shaggy beard) over from The Squid and the Whale, he achieves an ideal balance between affability and complexity that sustains the films watchability, even at its most turgid and corny. Had the film remained more about him than the cliched, tired, and overused "teen relationship" plotline that transpires, this would have been a more memorable, noteworthy film. But the more Emma Stone's character reveals about her neuroses, troubled relationships, and self-doubt, the less true and concise the film feels. Which is not to detract from her performance, which, surprisingly, creates a human being out of what would, otherwise, be a series of character quirks and contrivances. The rest of the cast is up to snuff, as well: Kieran Culkin is likably angsty as Abby's best friend, Hunter Parrish is funny and showy as Abby's P.O.S. boyfriend, Lisa Kudrow is restrained and identifiable as Richard's barely-there surgeon wife, and Ryan Reynolds is ideal, albeit too seldomly shown, as Captain Excellent. It is really, truly too bad that the film ends up falling under the weight of its own pretension, and does not prove worthy of the performances and actors that have contributed to it.

Skip it, save for fans of Jeff Daniels, who really does turn in magnetic, strong work here. But, unfortunately, he does so for yet another quirky, low-key mid-life-crisis indie melodrama.

Super (2011)

Pitch-black, take-no-prisoners satire about a societal malcontent who, after his wife leaves him, goes on a quest to become a superhero in order to "free" her from the man she's shacked up with. The tone here is very bizarre; decidedly not a straightforward comedy, nor a bizarre melodrama, the mood never settles into something easily digested, nor easily explained. More than his previous feature, Slither, James Gunn invests the film with his anarchic roots with Troma Films, focusing, in nearly equal parts, on both the grotesque and the heartfelt, the benign and the macabre. He throws you off with the casting, as the presence of Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page as the principals suggesting some sort of detached hipster irony that never comes, leaving you not only emotionally bare from the events on screen, but doubtful that there was anything "genuine" worth getting worked up about. It is a very brave, unique mood for the movie to sustain, and it is, actually, the most noteworthy aspect of the film.

The cast is bolstered by the primary duo of Wilson and Page as the wannabe superheroes. Wilson, in particular, seems thoroughly immersed in the material, and shows a selfless dedication that very few superstars tend to show in their own star vehicles. Page is hilarious and, surprisingly, likable as the feisty, overexcited comic book geek, Liv Tyler is doomed and sympathetic as Wilson's wife, and Kevin Bacon, as the villain, is delightfully smarmy and baffling. In smaller parts, Gunn's Slither buddies Michael Rooker and Nathan Fillion are pitch-perfect, and The Wire's Andre Royo gets in some good lines as Wilson's coworker. Ruining much else of the movie would be a disservice to its effect; I had not seen any trailers for the film, and thus, was definitely impressed by a number of the films surprises. Just don't think this is some hipster comedy version of Kick-Ass, 'cause (maybe unfortunately) it's not.

Recommended to fans of out-there, no holds barred black comedies (read: TROMA) or Rainn Wilson, who, if he does nothing as prolific for the rest of career, can always use this performance to show what he's capable of as an unconventional, intense leading man.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)

Simultaneously a madcap farce and a commercial for Penn & Teller's stage act, this black comedy has the titular duo of magicians running away from psychopaths after Penn states, on television, how exciting he'd find it if men were out to kill him. The narrative is treated as importantly as the duo, with their detached wit, treat anything, that is to say, not at all; once the initial conceit is established, the film is, essentially, a revolving door of scenarios, characters, and magic acts tenuously held together with scenes of Penn & Teller facing imminent death. There are a number of allusions to their stage personas, obviously egging you on to pursue their further work: several tricks are revealed to the audience, Teller has a showy response to cornier, "rabbit-in-the-hat" magicians, and many of Penn's particular sensibilities and interests are highlighted, seemingly for no narrative purpose. The two are funny, but Teller comes out looking better in the end because a. his endearing appearance is more suited for film comedy, b. his physical humor and sense of timing are impeccable, and c. the majority of Penn's lines are contrived, terrible, and often contradictory. His "romantic interest," if you could call her that, is hokey and obviously invented, and their scenes together are a fantastic drag. David Patrick Kelly, as the main psycho out for Penn & Teller's blood, is actually hilarious in his short screen time, but the convoluted "plot" often leaves him without a clear motivation for his character. The ending, with its final reveals and dark punchlines, is actually the most noteworthy scene of the film, with its moral and thematic ambiguity, its relentless bleakness, and its progressive, over-the-top tone, unmatched at any other point in the film.

Skip It, save for diehard fans of late '80s dark comedies or Penn & Teller. This one was directed by Hollywood legend Arthur Penn; this clumsy, directionless piece of work doesn't exhibit his talents.

Thor (2011)

Ambitious, inventive, and ultimately satisfying, this oddball superhero movie revolves around the titular God of Thunder as he is cast down from his native realm Asgard (read: Valhalla meets Mt. Olympus) for betraying his father, Odin's, command. After a brief, gratefully grounding introduction in New Mexico, much of the first act of the film takes place in regal, vaguely viking yet strikingly foreign Asgard. The film's greatest achievement is in its realization of Asgard; its self-contained history, its architecture, its science, and its methods of transportation are all given a fair amount of attention, which, in this day and age of assembly-line studio tentpoles, is a real blessing, and gives the Asgard sequences a sense of wonder and delight. Once Thor arrives on Earth, the film naturally deflates a little bit; after a dynamite, eye-opening first act, Natalie Portman's astrophysicist, SHIELD's slow, already-seen discovery of Thor's lost hammer, and the obvious fish-out-of-water Thor vs. contemporary New Mexico comedy deflate the pic around its midsection a bit. However, as his villainous brother, Loki, makes his political stand for Thor's rightful place on the throne of Asgard, the film gains its momentum and, while never quite reaching the apex of the opening scenes, leads to a satisfying, surprisingly convincing climactic showdown.

I must say, I had doubts over the previously-untested skills of Chris Hemsworth as Thor, but they were thoroughly unfounded; while he is going to have to work to keep up with Avengers teammates Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans in the charisma department, he looks the part (much to my girlfriend's delight), he fights very convincingly (for someone formerly on Australia's Dancing with the Stars), and, most importantly, takes this stuff very seriously, that is to say he knows when to act regally haughty AND when to relax in the role a little. Among those backing him up on Asgard are Ray Stevenson, Idris Elba, and Rene Russo (as his mother), all of whom are appropriately tough, decadent, and Norse (Elba's badass gatekeeper character is a personal favorite). Anthony Hopkins is, surprisingly, effective and non-campy as the wise, tough Odin, and Tom Hiddleston makes for a complicated, volatile Loki, a stark contrast from Thor's stalwart beefcake. Inevitably, the human characters get the short end of the stick: Natalie Portman's Jane Foster is underwritten and goofy, Kat Dennings is essentially reduced to making one-liners about Thor's hot body and weird demeanor, and poor Stellan Skarsgard, clearly one of the more talented and experienced actors in the film, relegated to spouting out whatever benign dialogue the plotline saddles him with. None of them are ever even exposed to Asgard, keeping their realm of experience, and thus their interest quotient, to a minimum. However, as members of Shield, Clark Gregg is, once again, absolutely hilarious and deadpan as Agent Coulson, and Jeremy Renner makes a cameo as a certain Marvel character whose appearance is, at the same time, mercifully brief and perfectly integrated (his introductory shot elicited cheers from me and maybe a handful of other wise audience members).

Kenneth Brangah has never directed a film of this magnitude, the closest being his remake of Frankenstein, but, as with Favreau's Iron Man, you'd never tell based on his work here. Aside from the perfectly realized and rendered Asgard, with the rich, unconventional iconography, the rip-roaring action scenes, the large-scale effects sequences, and his interesting, canted angle-heavy shot compositions, he more than steps up to the plate of this grand style of filmmaking. In many cases, his bravery is commendable; there are not many contemporary directors of big-budget comic book flicks who would have had the chutzpah to dress Ray Stevenson the way he looks here (and he sure looks great drinking and gnawing on bones in a banquet hall). The old-world dialogue is concise, and rings true, marking a decided contrast with the Natalie Portman- and Kat Dennings-speak, and the interplay between Thor and the humans is far less corny and obvious as it could've been. However, the latter contains some of the least intriguing moments of the film, and, without the magnetism of, say, Tony and Pepper Potts' scenes in the Iron Mans, keep the film from attaining the modern classic status of Favreau's original masterwork.

Recommended to fans of the source material, the current generation of Marvel-sanctioned flicks, or of high-scale, big-budget sci-fi fantasy such as David Lynch's Dune, 1980's Flash Gordon, or The Chronicles of Riddick. This is above the level of The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2, yet not quite to the level of the original Iron Man; it is yet to be seen whether this or Captain America will be the better-remembered of this year's Avengers flicks (alls I know is, Marvel will have enough footage for a teaser by the time late-July rolls around, so...definitely ready for that).

Monday, May 2, 2011

Freaks (1932)

Half behind-the-scenes showbiz drama, half genuine freakshow, this Tod Browning classic portrays the lives of several sideshow performers, and their relationships. There are several subplots, but the central throughline concerns a dwarf and his troubles with his fiancee as he is conned by the Strongman and the new, physically normal blonde with the troupe. Their plotline is adorable, and exemplifies the point of this production, which is that these physically deformed people go through the same emotional trials as us, "normal" folk. It is the backbone for the rest of the film, which focuses more on the sensationalist aspect of the sideshow, and the human interactions between the motley crew of societal outcasts. The freaks are great; being real-life performers, they are all comfortable in front of the camera, and several (such as the Half-Boy and Angelo Rositto's dwarf) actually possess genuine, magnetic charisma. The dialogue they are given successfully straddles the line between 1930's wholesome banter and genuine, thoughtful, expository interplay. Director Browning, a year into his post-Dracula fame/infamy, deserves a load of credit for portraying this saga with a remarkable amount of confidence, and without a hint of condescension; these are real people, with real problems and feelings, and he knows how to shoot them as such, without ignoring the fact that these are physically deformed people, with handicaps and/or gifts beyond the realm of many of our understandings. This film nearly sank his career, and I am not surprised that it was considered a flop and a travesty until the counter-culture of the 1960's embraced it wholeheartedly (much like another bonafied classic, Fantasia).

Highly Recommended. There is enough substance here for the genuine cinephile, along with a plethora of freakish people doing freakish things to satisfy even the most hardened of sensationalists. A truly brave, wonderful film.

Reflections In A Golden Eye (1967)

Melodramatic and hokey, this mildly interesting soap opera involves the denizens of an army base, particularly a closeted homosexual Major, his philandering wife, her Lt. Col. lover, his repressed wife, and a broody, quiet private. Aside from the fact that no one actually, outright exposes the Major as a homosexual, there is very little subtlety on display here; the acting is typically loud and over-the-top, the scenarios are implausible and thoroughly preventable, and the whole film is glazed (by director John Huston's orders) with a golden-hued filter, lest you question for a second the nature of the film's title. The relationships are hokey and contrived, completely devoid of chemistry; most of the only genuine interactions occur between the Lt. Col.'s beleaguered wife and her manservant, Anacleto. For a John Huston movie, the scale is remarkably contained and, most disappointingly, cliched, with the occasional visual flourish (such as the closeups on *gasp* reflecting eyes!) coming off as extraneous and showy.

The cast is, simultaneously, a pro and a con for the film. On one hand, you have wonderful actors such as Elizabeth Taylor and Brian Keith floundering about in search of a character, throwing themselves at their overly revealing, thoroughly stagey dialogue at the expense of their integrity as actors. On the other hand, there is Robert Forster, killing it with his stoicism in his first major role as the creepy, stalkerish army recruit, Julie Harris, cutting a marvelously sympathetic and identifiable figure, and Marlon Brando, who, given the juiciest role in the show, manages to elevate the whole endeavor from more than a mere curiosity to a mildly interesting piece of work. Sidney Lumet, in his book Making Movies, mentions that in his prime, Brando would, on the first day of shooting, give the director two near-identical takes for a scene, one with his full, undivided attention, and the other, more of a throwaway mime of the scene. If the director could call out which take was the genuine article and which was the lemon, Brando would be devoted to the production, and hang on every word from the director. He did this for Lumet, and, given his work here, I am venturing that he did this for Huston. His character never, for a second, comes off as a screenwriter's invention. and without condescension allows the audience to FEEL, if not understand, the inner workings of this complicated, conflicted figure. It is Brando's work, rather than the screenwriter's, or any of the individual crewmembers, that creates a sense of tension and scope in the film, merely through his exhibition of his character's throughline. When the sensationalist ending finally comes, and he is at the mercy of the hokey script, the strength of his performance survives through it, and, unlike Taylor, he comes out the other end unfettered. It is one of the better, more encapsulating performances I have seen from Brando, up to par with anything he did in the '60s, and it is the only thing keeping this turgid, overcooked melodrama afloat.

Slightly Recommended for fans of soap opera-y marital dramas or Brando aficionados, who, gratefully, get one of the performances that he actually, truly, seemed to have given a hoot about perfecting.