Sunday, June 17, 2018

After Hours (1985) ***

Until I started reading about this film, I had never heard the term “yuppie nightmare cycle,” but I immediately recognized the genre. Film critics have defined the Reagan-era subgenre as a merging of film noir with screwball comedy. Comprised of films like “Into the Night,” “Blind Date,” “Something Wild,” “Desperately Seeking Susan,” and David Lynch's “Blue Velvet,” these are movies about a white yuppie being dragged into a dark, unfamiliar world. There is usually an initial attraction to spontaneity, where the conformist yuppie is drawn to a non-conformist femme fatale. Then the yuppie gets in over his or her head, and winds up struggling to survive in what is often a late-night world of freaks and criminals.

In “After Hours,” Griffin Dunne plays Paul, a mild-mannered office drone. Ostentatiously reading Henry Miller in a cafe, in what I assume is an attempt to score chicks, Paul draws the attention of the quirky, pretty Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), who gives him her number. I've never been a huge Rosanna Arquette fan, myself, but she's pretty cute in this film, and later that night, Paul does what any normal guy would do in this situation, he calls her up. Marcy invites him over, and thus begins the worst night of Paul's life. He winds up in SoHo, penniless, meeting one crazy girl after another, ultimately pursued by an angry mob.

Paul's helpless refrain throughout the film is “I just want to go home!” It's the same refrain as in all these yuppie nightmare movies. Whether it's Tom Cruise in “Risky Business” or Kyle MacLachlan in “Blue Velvet,” the conformist yuppie, having played with fire and gotten burned, longs to get back to his safe, white, ordered world.

These movies can sometimes be frustrating to watch, as the protagonist faces one setback after another, often due to stupid decisions. “After Hours” suffers from some of that, but it's funny and entertaining nonetheless. The movie benefits from a strong cast, and the script successfully walks a line between horror-movie darkness and slapstick comedy. There are a lot of lessons in “After Hours”, but the biggest one, the same message as in most of these yuppie-nightmares, is something you've probably heard from your grandmother: “Nothing good happens after 2 a.m.”

3 stars out of 5

Friday, June 08, 2018

Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008) **1/2

I'm not sure that the 2004 cult-classic “Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle” needed a sequel, but it sure felt like it did. The gonzo original was one long, sophomoric pot-joke, a crazy adventure full of bizarre mishaps, titties, and random run-ins with Neil Patrick Harris. It was a delight, and it ended on a note that seemed to demand continuation, with the boys deciding to pursue Harold's crush (Paula Garces) to Amsterdam.

The sequel came out 4 years after the original, but it picks up the story the next day. The boys pack their bags for the trip to Amsterdam, which for Kumar means packing porn and weed. Talk about carrying coal to Newcastle! Kumar's idiocy gets the boys arrested, accused of terrorism (Al Queda and North Korea, get it?), and hauled off to Guantanamo Bay. As the title suggests, they escape, hitch a ride back to the mainland, and set off for Texas, where they hope a politically-connected classmate can help them out. Their trip across the south entails, you guessed it: bizarre mishaps, titties, and a random run-in with Neil Patrick Harris.

I pretty quickly became disgusted with myself for watching this movie. The dick jokes and jr-high humor have gotten a bit stale with the years. The relentless marijuana humor has worn out its welcome as well. There's a general feeling that directors Jon Horwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (who co-wrote the first film) are dedicated to re-creating the success of the first film at all costs. I might have been better off just re-watching “White Castle.”

Still, I wound up laughing. “Guantanamo Bay”s saving grace is that it gets better as it goes (or maybe my standards just got lower.) The second act of the film serves as a goofy, but fun celebration of American inclusiveness, showing that Rednecks, Jews, Arabs, Asians, and Indians can all be good-old Americans who want to get high and get laid.

Just as drinking 3 shots of tequila makes you feel like a 4th shot would be a great idea, “Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle” left me wanting more. I'm not sure that “Guantanamo Bay” is any better an idea than that 4th shot, but if you loved “White Castle,” you are going to have to satisfy your curiosity and watch the sequel. Go ahead and do it, and deal with the hangover later.

2.5 stars out of 5

Friday, June 01, 2018

The Hitman's Bodyguard (2017) ***1/2

Competing for 2017's Worst Title award is “The Hitman's Bodyguard,” an action-comedy buddy-pic about a couple of badasses. Ryan Reynolds plays Michael Bryce, a high-end executive bodyguard whose career takes a dive after one of his clients takes a bullet. He gets a chance to redeem himself by protecting Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson), a professional hitman set to provide evidence at the Hague against a ruthless dictator guilty of war crimes. Naturally, the dictator would rather not face justice for his crimes, so he sends a pack of mercenaries to kill Kincaid and complicate Bryce's job.

“The Hitman's Bodyguard” isn't exactly going to provide you with a lot of food for thought. It's about blowing things up, shooting people, and making you laugh, and it does those things reasonably well. Jackson and Reynolds have good chemistry, and Salma Hayek lights up the screen as Kincaid's wife. Elodie Yung, who plays Bryce's love interest, isn't very interesting, but fortunately she isn't on-screen a lot. Otherwise, the action sequences are good, and the story hums right along. It's an enjoyable action comedy.

Success in the movie business has little to do with how good a film actually is. This film made money, which automatically means there has to be a sequel. In Hollywood's typical, subtle fashion, the sequel to this one is tentatively titled “The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard.” If that title sticks, then at least “The Hitman's Bodyguard” won't seem like the dumbest movie title ever anymore.

3.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Species (1995) ***

Awards season is over, so what's a guy to watch? How about a schlocky B-movie from the mid-'90s that looks like it's from the '80s? I was scrolling through my HBONow account, and they offered up “Species.” One thing about HBONow that sucks but is also kind of awesome is that they don't make personalized recommendations or offer film ratings. They treat all the movies on their site equally, which opens the door to watching some truly trashy films. I read the description of this movie, and frankly, they had me at “alien seductress.”

Ben Kingsley plays Dr. Fitch, a government researcher. He has combined human and alien DNA to create a hybrid creature called Sil. Sil looks human,but she has grown into a teen in a matter of months. When Fitch's team tries to “end the experiment” by killing her, Sil uses her superhuman strength to escape. On the run, Sil morphs into a fully-mature woman in the form of model Natasha Henstridge. Eager to reproduce her alien DNA, Sil hits L.A. looking for a mate.

Fitch, meanwhile, assembles a team to hunt Sil down. Alfred Molina and Marg Helgenberger play Drs. Stephen Arden and Laura Baker, a couple of scientists. Michael Madsen is Lennox, a government assassin, and Forest Whitaker rounds out the team as Dan, an empath who can partly read Sil's mind.

Take a moment to get your mind around that cast list. How did a cheap movie about a half-naked, horny, alien seductress land such a classy, all-star cast? Between them, Kingsley and Whitaker have almost as many prestigious acting awards as this movie has nude scenes, and the rest of the cast are no slouches, either. If you look closely, you may also recognize Michelle Williams at the beginning of the film as young Sil.

It's that inexplicable cast that makes this film more than it should be, even if some of them look like they aren't sure why they are there. Kingsley looks to me like he is ready to fire his agent, although if you ask me, it's Whitaker who has the most to complain about. He gamely recites the most ridiculous lines without irony. His character can read minds, but all he does is state the obvious. When the team see the first video footage of Sil in her mature form, as smokin'-hot model Natasha Henstridge, Dan says “She looks nice.” When the team walks into a train car with a dead body and an empty, alien cocoon, Dan's first impression is, “Something bad happened here.” Dan's observation when the team find Sil's car parked next to the curb, with an empty gas gauge and the door hanging open? “She walked.” He helpfully points in the direction the car is pointing. “She walked that way.” This stuff is unintentionally hilarious!

Otherwise, “Species” is standard B-movie fare, with a lame plot, a handful of naked breasts, and special effects that are remarkably cheesy for 1995. I mean, by the mid-'90s, you almost had to TRY to get special effects that look this rubbery and retro. As a viewer, though, you really have no right to complain. Just based on the movie poster and a brief summary of the film, you know what you are signing up for here.

To get back to the difference between HBONow and Netflix, there's simply no way I would have watched this on Netflix. You might be tempted by a picture of a scantily-clad babe or keywords like “alien seductress,” but when Netflix tells you a movie is only a 36% match with your tastes, chances are you will be too ashamed to hit Play. With HBO's lack of a ratings system, trashy movies are shame-free! You can totally convince yourself that the movie might be good, and feel bad about it afterwards. In the case of “Species”, it actually wasn't as bad as it could have been. If you are looking for something trashy but fun to watch on your HBO account, “Species” might be the movie for you.

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Die Hard (1988) ****1/2

This movie is really part of the canon at this point. It's such a classic of the action genre that it seems ridiculous to write a review of it, but I re-watched it the other day, and there are some things I noticed about it. Warning: The second half of this review contains major spoilers.

Bruce Willis plays John McClane, a New York cop visiting his estranged wife in L.A. over the Christmas holiday. Holly McClane, who has gone back to calling herself Holly Gennaro, is a successful executive with the Nakatomi corporation. John arrives at the Nakatomi skyscraper during the company Christmas party, just in time for the place to be attacked by a machine-gun toting squad of terrorists. Led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), the gunmen take everyone hostage and start working on the company vault. John escapes to the upper reaches of the building and does what he can to interfere with their plans. He gets a radio and communicates with a cop on the outside, Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald Veljohnson), and he disrupts Hans's plans in spectacular fashion.

If you are one of the few people in the Free World who hasn't seen “Die Hard,” then you really need to stop reading now and just go watch it. In the modern, action-movie era of machine-guns, muscles, and explosions, “Die Hard” is one of the greats. Bruce Willis's mix of humor and intensity have aged better than the schtick of most '80s action heroes. He is a much more believable hero than Schwarzenegger or Stallone. Every great hero is only as good as his nemesis, and Alan Rickman is stellar as Hans. At one point in the movie, Hans pretends to be American, which means you have a British actor pretending to be a German pretending to be American. Rickman doesn't do a GOOD American accent, which he is probably perfectly capable of. He does the kind of American accent that a character like Hans, improvising in the moment, might do.

There is one aspect of “Die Hard,” however, that I never noticed before, and that is how anti-feminist the story is. Bonnie Bedelia does a great job playing Holly, the only significant female character in the film, but even her swagger can't overcome the movie's regressive message. We learn early in the film that Holly and John are estranged because Holly insisted on moving out to L.A. to further her career. A nanny watches her kids while she climbs the corporate ladder. She has even given up John's name to appear more independent in the corporate world. When he meets her at the Christmas party, she isn't wearing her wedding ring, but she IS wearing an expensive Rolex given to her by her employer. Holly is now married to her career, and John makes it clear that he isn't happy with her dropping his name and his ring.

When Holly's corporate world is invaded by Hans and his team, it is John, a manly, traditional guy, who comes to the rescue. When Holly shows some initiative of her own and steps up to be a leader, it is in a motherly role, asking Hans for bathroom breaks for the employees and for a couch for a pregnant woman. Finally, in the climactic scene, when Hans is hanging out of a 30-story window, dragging Holly towards the edge by her wrist, John releases the clasp on Holly's Rolex watch, letting it slip off her wrist and causing Hans to fall to his death. Holly could only be saved by giving up the token of her corporate success. Then in the end, having been rescued by her man, Holly introduces herself once again as “Holly McClane.”

To all of this I say, “So what?” Maybe “Die Hard” is a piece of Reagan-era propaganda for traditional family values. While we're at it, maybe the police chief and the reporter, who are secondary villains in the film, are ridiculously mustache-twirly. Maybe Sgt. Powell's story arc is painfully trite. None of these faults prevent “Die Hard” from being a classic and a must-watch. “Yippee kai-ay, mother----!”

4.5 stars out of 5

Friday, May 11, 2018

Bachelor Party (1984) **

“Bachelor Party” is only Tom Hank's second movie, coming out the same year as “Splash.” This was way before he became “Tom Hanks” the legend, but even in these early days you can see he is something special. He is definitely the best thing about “Bachelor Party.”

Hanks plays Rick, a laid-back bus driver with arrested development who has somehow gotten engaged to marry sweet, rich Debbie (Tawny Kitaen). Debbie's rich dad (George Grizzard) can't stand Rick, and schemes to get her back with the preppy, typical 80's villain, Cole. When Rick's hard-partying buddies decide to throw him an epic bachelor party, Cole sees his chance to break them up. Debbie makes it clear that she isn't interested in getting sloppy seconds from some prostitute. Will the well-intentioned Rick make it through the night without being unfaithful? Will Debbie's mom suffer a sausage-induced heart-attack at Debbie's bachelorette party? Will anyone be trampled by the donkey? You'll have to watch the movie and find out.

Or not. “Bachelor Party”is just barely entertaining enough to watch, and that's mostly due to Tom Hanks. Otherwise, the movie is very of its time. It's a completely typical 80's sex comedy, complete with stereotypical 80's villains. Tawny Kitaen's name and hair are so 80's that they probably helped tear down the Berlin Wall. The jokes are sophomoric and broadcast well in advance.

This is one of those movies, like “Porky's”, that I didn't manage to see back in the'80's when it might have better fit my sense of humor. It hearkens back to a simpler time, when nudity in movies meant titties, rather than knob-and-bollocks. There's also an innocence to the film, which, despite the boobs and the donkey show, really promotes traditional monogamy. It adheres to the age-old view of men as immature, promiscuous horn-dogs who need to be tamed by a good woman, which may be the one part they got right.

2 stars out of 5

Saturday, May 05, 2018

Bentonville Film Festival

It's not exactly Cannes, or even Sundance, but the Bentonville Film Festival is going on this week, so we checked it out. Founded by actress Geena Davis and sponsored by Walmart, the Festival's purpose is to promote diverse voices in media, which means they mostly show films made by women, and a few by men as long as they aren't white.

The first movie I saw was “Stumped,” a documentary by Robin Berghaus about quadruple amputeee Will Lautzenheiser, who lost all four limbs to a strep infection. The film follows him as he rehabs, learning to function as well as he can, and then as he gets arm transplants. It's a pretty well-done documentary that does a good job presenting the science behind the transplants, and Will's sense of humor lightens what could otherwise be a dour subject.

The second movie was “Find Me,” an amateurish fictional film about an office drone (writer/director Tom Huang) whose work crush (Sara Amini) disappears. She sends him a cryptic message saying “Find Me,” and a series of clues that take him across the desert southwest to various scenic spots that help break him out of his suburban ennui. Most of the acting is pretty poor, and the scenes drag on a bit, but the footage of places like Death Valley and Zion National Park is stunning. The story and scenery were actually compelling enough to keep me interested despite the piss-poor acting. The other bright spot was Sara Amini, an American actress of Iranian and Colombian descent. Her energy level may be a bit too high for the film, but she is cute and charming enough that you can't stop watching her.

As film festivals go, the Bentonville Film Festival seems alright. I only have these two films to judge by, but their quality seems comparable to what I used to see at the Sundance Film Festival. The focus on diversity can get to be a bit much. The little tent city where sponsors give away schwag like free makeup and tampons (apparently un-ironically) is called, I kid you not, “Inclusion Town.” Despite all this, the festival isn't as obnoxious as I expected. Everyone seemed pretty nice, and a bit less full of themselves than some of the people at Sundance.

“Stumped” - 3 stars out of 5
“Find Me” - 2 stars out of 5

Monday, April 30, 2018

Ready Player One (2018) ***

I don't see movies in the cinema all that often. When I do, I like to play a little game. After all the commercials, trailers, subliminal hunger messages, and cellphone-silencing reminders have finished, I try to remember what movie I am actually there to see. Sometimes it takes some serious brain-racking! Before “Ready Player One”, they must have shown us at least ten previews, mostly for lame-looking movies aimed at young teens. By the time the feature started, my brain felt like mush. I couldn't remember what I was there to see, and my expectations were creeping downward. Fortunately, “Ready Player One” surprised me by being a pretty entertaining action movie.

Tye Sheridan (young Cyclops from the new X-men films) plays Wade Watts, an orphaned, young man living with his white-trash aunt in a multi-tiered trailer park called The Stacks. That's not really where he spends most of his time, though. Everybody in this crummy, post-apocalyptic America spends as much time as they can wearing virtual-reality goggles and gloves, living in the virtual world of The Oasis.

The Oasis was created by an Aspergian genius named Halliday. Before his death, Halliday inserted some Easter Eggs into the game, a set of challenges leading to keys, which lead to the grand prize, which is ownership of The Oasis itself. With most of the world regularly plugged into The Oasis, this is a prize worth billions. Vying for the Egg are regular egg hunters (“ghunters”) like Wade, as well as big corporations like IOI, which employs hundreds of gamers and researchers to hunt the keys. Thus, rich and poor alike spend their time in The Oasis researching Halliday's life and playing games that they think might lead to the keys.

While everyone vies for control of this virtual world, the real world is falling apart. As Wade says, “...everyone stopped trying to solve problems and just started trying to outlive them.” We don't get to see a lot of the real world in this film, but you get the impression of a world that is corrupt, filthy, and lacking a middle class.

Forget the real world, however, because the Oasis looks AMAZING! It's a beautifully-animated world full of fantastical characters and stunning action. It's no wonder the real-world scenes look dull and drab by comparison, but it's a shameful waste of some talented real-life actors. Tye Sheridan is a perfectly serviceable, young actor. Olivia Cooke has loads of charm, which probably explains why she is suddenly in everything. Lena Waithe is amazing on the Netflix show “Master of None”. They all do fine voice-acting in the Oasis, but none of them gets to do a whole lot in the real-life portion of this movie, which, seriously, looks like a cheap, film-school project grafted onto a high-octane, animated action movie. That isn't a dealbreaker. This just looks like a mostly-animated film where they didn't have a lot of money to spend on the live-action part of the movie. It's kind of off-putting for a Steven Spielberg production, though.

“Ready Player One” is young-adult dystopian fiction, and at the end of the day, it's intended for kids. There are movies like “The Hunger Games” that are able to transcend that genre, but “Ready Player One,” while entertaining, is not transcendent. One thing about YA fiction is that it tries to get kids to think about things. “Ready Player One” tries to have a message about how video games are fun and all, but the real world is what is real and important. The film undercuts that message by focusing most of its energy on the beautiful, virtual world of the Oasis. It also ignores the point that everyone is trying so hard to win control of this world that exists only on computer servers and could be re-created by anyone with the computer skills. Rather than paying all those people to search for eggs in the Oasis, IOI could have just developed a competing virtual world. Whatever, though, it's just a movie, right? Movies, themselves, are a form of virtual reality. Here in the real world, the job of movies is mostly to entertain us, and “Ready Player One” does that. It's a pretty thin entertainment, though, one that kids will like more than adults.

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Super Troopers 2 (2018) *****

You know how sometimes you'll hope and pray for something, and then it doesn't turn out as well as you expected? Well, this is not one of those times. The sequel to 2001's genius comedy “Super Troopers” is every bit the sequel we fans would hope for. After 17 years, it's the sequel we deserve. (This is literally true, as it was a 2015 crowdfunding campaign that provided the seed money to make the movie happen. Fourteen years after the original “Super Troopers,” devoted fans ponied up more than $4 million to bring these characters back.)

Super Troopers 2” picks up an unspecified period of time after the events of the first movie. Thorny, Rabbit, Mac, Foster, and Farva are working construction, having lost their cop gigs following a tragic incident on a ride-along with actor Fred Savage, a ride-along that they never should have done, because, “Actors shouldn't play cops anyway. They always get it wrong.”

The guys jump at a chance to be cops again, in a tiny sliver of Canada that is getting annexed into Vermont. Needless to say, the Canadians there are less than thrilled to be becoming Americans. They don't buy into the “We're all Americans...North Americans!” theory. The locals, the mayor (Rob Lowe) and the existing Canadian Mounties give the super troopers a hard time, but the guys fight back with shenanigans of their own. Meanwhile, they discover stashes of drugs, guns, and fake iphones along the border.

Maybe you are thinking this sounds pretty similar to the plot of the first “Super Troopers”? You'd be right. It's almost the same movie, which is exactly what I wanted in a “Super Troopers” sequel. That movie was perfect: raunchy, irreverent, poking lighthearted fun at pretty much everyone. “Super Troopers 2” revisits everything that made the original so great, and I loved every minute of it. The movie is loaded with back-and-forth Canadian/American insults, riffs on French-Canadians, and dick jokes, lots of dick jokes.

“Super Troopers 2,” the original “Super Troopers,” and a handful of other films including 2006's "Beerfest" star the Broken Lizard comedy team: Jay Chandrasekhar (Thorny), Kevin Heffernan (Farva), Steve Lemme (Mac), Eric Stolhanske (Rabbit), and Paul Soter (Foster). These guys don't always knock it out of the park. 2004's “Club Dread” was pretty lame, and 2009's “The Slammin' Salmon” was just alright. When they are on, though, these guys produce a brand of intelligently coarse comedy that allows smart people to laugh uproariously at bathroom humor. It's hard for me to explain why it works, but it does. I laughed 'til I cried at jokes about ball-shaving and anal sex, and never felt bad about it.

Admittedly, “Super Troopers 2” is not for everyone. If you didn't think the first movie was an instant classic, you will hate this one, too. For all of us civilized people, the 2018 Oscars race is already over. “Super Troopers 2” wins! You should drive as fast as you can to the theater to see this one. Just watch out for the cops!

5 stars out of 5

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Diner (1982) **1/2

There are some movies that we remember as being way better than they are. I recently wrote about how "Alien" is one of these, for me. Well it turns out 1982's “Diner” is another. I was probably in my late teens when I saw the film for the first time, and I had fondly recalled it as a classic, a funny and poignant depiction of friendship, from a time that seemed simpler, but really wasn't. Watching it now, I just found it mildly amusing and mostly annoying.

Packed with stars and future stars, “Diner” is about a group of friends: Eddie (Steve Guttenberg), Shrevie (Daniel Stern), Boogie (Mickey Rourke), Fen (Kevin Bacon), Billy (Tim Daly), and Modell (Paul Reiser). Friends from high school, the boys get together over Christmas Vacation to drink, chase girls, and most importantly, hang out at their late-night diner. The diner is where they meet to eat disgusting food and unpack the details of their dates with girls, mainly how far they got with the girl and what their prospects are for getting further next time. They also bullshit about music, movies, and all the usual stuff guys talk about with other guys.

These boys have got some issues. Boogie, the lady's man, has a gambling problem. Eddie is engaged, but looking to back out of the marriage by making his girlfriend take a football-trivia test. Shrevie is already married, and has no idea how to interact with his wife as a human being. Fen is brilliant, but mentally unhinged.

My problem with “Diner” is that I found it difficult to care about any of these doofuses. Frankly, they are annoying. These are grown-ass men acting like teenage boys. Admittedly, there are aspects of the film that are so ludicrous, like Eddie's fiance agreeing to submit to that football quiz, that the story should probably be viewed allegorically. Even suspending disbelief to that extent, it's impossible for me to like these guys. Mickey Rourke's Boogie probably comes the closest to being a fully-developed, sympathetic character. Rourke really flexes his limited acting muscles to make Boogie seem redeemable. The Billy character is meant to be the most reasonable of the crew, but Tim Daly's wooden acting makes him feel less substantial than Paul Reiser's Modell, who isn't even supposed to be one of the main characters. Reiser manages to steal quite a few scenes with his clever patter, but when you pay attention to him, he is really just doing his standup routine, not conversing.

“Diner” won quite a few rave reviews, and it gets credit for pioneering the “Seinfeld” style of scene-making, filled with characters talking about banalities. The movie also packed a lot of talent into a small space, launching the careers of Rourke, Bacon, Reiser, Guttenberg, and Ellen Barkin, who plays Shrevie's wife. I've been pretty critical here, but I should note that “Diner” has its moments. Some of the conversations feel stupid and contrived, but there are moments that feel genuine, and a couple that are hilarious. The popcorn scene, in particular, is a classic piece of comedy that makes the film worth seeing. I would say it's worth seeing once, but for me it didn't hold up to a repeat viewing.

Maybe the reason I remembered “Diner” so fondly is that I saw it when I was young and callow myself. I shudder to think that I might have actually identified with these scrubs at some point, but maybe that's the explanation. Fortunately, I grew up into someone who has better things to do than hang out with these annoying characters for a couple of hours. Let's hope Eddie, Boogie, and the gang find it in themselves to do the same.

2.5 stars out of 5