Sunday, December 31, 2006

Beerfest (2006)




So you like beer and tits? Well, I’ve got the movie for you. “Beerfest,” the latest by Jay Chandrasekhar’s Broken Lizard Productions (“Super Troopers” “Club Dread”), explores the question of what would happen if grown men got to drink beer with a purpose. Imagine it; what if your family name and the pride of your country depended on your drinking lots of good, German beer with your buds. It’s the best male fantasy since that two women at the same time thing, and “Beerfest” takes us along for the ride.

Broken Lizard veterans Paul Soter and Eric Stolhanske are the Wolfhouse brothers, a couple of fun-lovin’, beer-drinkin’ fellas who trek to Germany to dispose of their grandfather’s ashes during Oktoberfest. There they discover that their grandfather is actually a bastard of the late Baron von Wolfhaus, and that their branch of the family is reviled for having stolen the von Wolfhaus family beer recipe. They are then humiliated in a drinking contest by their German cousins, barely escaping with an ass-kicking.

Once back in America, do the Wolfhouse boys just lick their wounds, get back to their lives, and say “good riddance” to the German side of the family? Heck no! With the clarity of men granted a purpose in life, they put together a drinking team and start training for next Oktoberfest so they can “Get sour on some Krauts!” Jay Chandrasekhar (as Barry Badrinath), Steve Lemme (as Fink), and Kevin Heffernan (as Landfill) round out beer-team USA. (The five team members also constitute the Broken Lizard acting team.) What commences is some seriously fun training. “Beerfest” really invites the audience in to enjoy the good times; I could almost taste every glass! Of course, the guys return to Germany for a big showdown, which is like a drinking-game Olympics. The film is very silly, but irresistibly fun.

Jay Chandrasekhar is doing with his Broken Lizard team something like what Christopher Guest (“Waiting for Guffman,” “Best in Show”) has done, using the same core group of actors in each film. So far, Broken Lizard has peaked with their 2001 cult classic “Super Troopers,” an endlessly quotable, uproariously funny police hijinks comedy. 2004’s “Club Dread” marked a serious step backwards for Broken Lizard, skating by with some mildly amusing Jimmy Buffet jokes and a handful of naked breasts. Fortunately, with “Beerfest” the boys seem to be back on track. This film isn’t nearly the classic that “Super Troopers” is, but it is a hilarious good time that allows these actors a chance to be the funny guys that they are. It also marks a promising return to form for Chandrasekhar and company, who reportedly have a “Super Troopers” sequel slated for 2008. Now that is something to live for!

4 stars.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)




I suppose I am the last person in the free world to see Episode 3, or at least the last person who is likely to. At this point, I figure everyone has either seen it or isn’t interested. Me, I loved the original 3 Star Wars movies. Not dress-up-and-stand-in-line loved, but would-re-watch-them-any-time loved. Basically I am a normal Star Wars fan, and it is a testament to how bad the first 2 episodes in the new series are that I just now got around to watching the final installment. After 2 movies filled with Jar-Jar and obnoxious incarnations of Anakin Skywalker, I just couldn’t be bothered. Finally I decided to slap the movie on my Netflix queue and find out how Anakin goes over to the dark side. Great move! I didn’t think it was possible, but this film actually redeems the series. It is the payoff we have been suffering for!

If you don’t already know the plot, don’t worry, I’m not going to ruin the surprise for you. All the big secrets are already obvious if you watched the first 2 episodes. Everyone knows that Anakin Skywalker will become Darth Vader and that Chancellor Palpatine looks an awful lot like the evil emperor from the original movies. More convoluted, but equally obvious, is that the rebellion staged by Count Dooku and the cyborg General Grievous is just a giant con job so that Palpatine can get the intergalactic Senate to grant him more emergency powers. In this episode the Jedi Council becomes ever more suspicious of Palpatine’s power grab, but they buy into the basic validity of the war. They hunt Count Dooku thinking he is the Dark Sith master, but they learn, too late, that he is just a puppet of the evil Palpatine.

If some of this seems to have eerie parallels to modern affairs, I don’t really think it is because George Lucas was trying to make a commentary on current politics. It’s just that every tyrant since the beginning of history has used a war to distract the populace and get people to give up their liberties. George W. Bush is just the latest in a long line, and far from the best at it.

As for Anakin’s slide to the dark side, Yoda pretty much foresaw it when he noted, “Much anger has this one.” It is Anakin’s passion that is his undoing, which makes it a shame that George Lucas didn’t cast an actor more capable of passion. I would envision an Anakin with a truly charming but mercurial personality; something like Leonardo DiCaprio in “Gangs of New York.” (Am I the first to suggest DiCaprio as an alternative to Hayden Christensen? I doubt it.) Christensen seems to have only two emotions: wounded pride and constipation. Anyway, this is a moot complaint, so I won’t belabor it.

As for the other actors, they face the same challenge they did in the first 2 episodes, which is that there is really too much plot and action going on for the actors to do much in the way of developing their characters. They do a little better in this episode. Obi Wan and Yoda get fleshed out a little more here, which really benefits the film. I was relieved to see Ewan McGregor get a chance to actually act, and of course there’s no such thing as too much Yoda. We also get to know Chancellor Palpatine, aka The Evil Emperor, better. Which is nice.

Episode III has the same killer special effects as the first 2 episodes, but the action is better because it is linked to a more comprehensible plot, and we actually get a chance to care about the characters this time. There are plenty of great light-saber fights, and we finally get to see the Evil Emperor show his stuff. The final Obi-Wan/Anakin face-off is stellar, with a truly chilling finale. The duel is especially resonant in light of the light-saber rematch that we know is coming in Episode IV.

To the extent that human emotions are allowed to exist in these films, it is the relationship between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker that ultimately drives Episode III and makes it worthwhile. By the end of this film, we have a much greater understanding of what drives old Ben Kenobi, the grizzled Jedi we first met in Episode IV (Star Wars) back in 1977. That film was subtitled “A New Hope,” and it is only now I can appreciate how much that hope must have meant to Obi-Wan. Luke Skywalker doesn’t just represent a chance to defeat the Empire, he embodies a second chance for the potential that Obi-Wan had seen and tried to nurture in Luke’s father, Anakin. I feel the same way about Episode III.

4 stars.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Up Series (7 Up, 14Up, etc.) *****







In 1964, British television viewers were treated to a charming little documentary called “Seven Up!” The film featured interviews with several 7-year-old English children from a variety of backgrounds. Jackie is from a working class London family. She and her friends fantasize about what they would do with a lot of money, “say two pound.” Suzy comes from money, attending boarding school and spending her summers at her parents’ country estate. Tony is an East-Ender, barely understandable with his cockney accent. Nick lives on a farm, attending a one-room schoolhouse, while upper-crust Charles attends a posh boarding school. Symon, who is half-white/half-black, is in a children’s home because his mom can’t afford to keep him at home.

Despite its light-hearted tone, the film was clearly intended to serve as a reminder of how much class still matters in England. As 7-year-olds, these kids already bear the marks of their upbringing. The posh, boarding-school boys brag about their plans for prep school and Oxford, while Symon asks, “What’s University?”

As a stand-alone documentary, “Seven Up!” is enjoyable, but not something I would necessarily seek out. The extraordinary thing that makes this such essential viewing is that seven years later, Michael Apted, a member of the “Seven Up!” production team, revisited those children to see what they were like at age 14. The result is “7 Plus Seven,” a more serious look at life through the eyes of young adolescents. Seven years later, Apted returned to his then-21-year-old subjects for “21 Up,” and the series continues, with an update every seven years. Some of the original 14 children have dropped out over the years, opting not to appear in any more installments. On at least one occasion Apted has lost track of a subject, only to have them reappear in the next film. The resulting series is like a stop-motion film of several entire lives, allowing us to peek in at intervals for an intimate look at the changes that seven years have wrought on these individuals. The changes can be quite jarring at times, as these characters age visibly, have children, go through divorces, lose parents, and deal with illnesses. The eleven subjects who chose to continue appearing in the films discuss their lives with remarkable candor, even admitting to marital infidelity.

These films bring to mind a scientific concept called “observer effect,” which refers to the fact that measuring something may change it in some way. Sticking a thermometer in hot water allows you to measure the temperature, but it also cools the water slightly, because the thermometer absorbs a little heat. A wildlife photographer may change the behavior of the animals if they see or smell him, so his film may not reflect the true, natural behavior of the wildlife. Thus it is with the “Up” Series. After a few of the films, probably as early as “21 Up,” it becomes apparent that being in the films has had a measurable effect on these people. Some regret things they said in earlier programs. Others have made friends and enjoyed a certain celebrity as a result of the films. If nothing else, some of them just seem to take a more searching look at themselves and their lives than is common. It is no wonder that some of them chose to drop out. When Plato said that the unexamined life is not worth living, he didn’t mean it had to be examined by the whole world!

So far I have watched this series up to and including the “42 Up” installment. “49 Up” came out this year, and it is burning a hole in my Netflix qeue. I have mixed feelings about watching it, however. I just discovered these movies this year, and my wife and I spread them out over the last few months. We waited as long as we could stand it between films, but we always enjoyed the luxury of moving the next one to the top of our Netflix queue whenever we wanted. We may have to wait a few months for “49 Up,” but it isn’t long to wait to see these beloved characters seven years older. After that, though, we will no longer just be observers; we will be part of the experiment. When “56 Up” comes out, it won’t just be those characters who are farther along in life; I will be 7 years older as well. How will the Guy on the Couch view this series at the age of 41 compared to 34? I don’t know, but I can sure as hell wait to find out!

5 stars and counting.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)



Somehow I got the impression that this film was worth watching; I think “Entertainment Weekly” rated it highly. Just goes to show you can’t trust a movie critic whose publication is owned by Time-Warner.

The film is based on the book “Howl’s Moving Castle,” by Diana Wynne Jones. I haven’t read the book, but reviews suggest that the film retains the book’s spirit pretty well. If so, it makes sense that a Japanese filmmaker, Hayao Miyazaki (“Princess Mononoke”), was chosen to direct the animated film. Like every other animated Japanese movie I have seen, “Howl’s Moving Castle” evokes the reverence for nature, the disdain for war and weapons, and the complex characters that are the hallmark of Japanimation. Unfortunately, the film is also plagued by the bizarre, out-of-left-field mysticism and incomprehensible storyline that is also a hallmark of Japanese animation. Every film I have seen from this genre, from “Final Fantasy” to the beloved “Akira,” has been the same way. They start out well enough, with great animation, intriguing characters, and good action. Somewhere around the middle, though, these films veer off into storylines based on some sort of animistic magic that must make more sense to the Japanese than it does to me.

“Howl’s Moving Castle” is about Sophie, a sensible, serious girl who gets turned into an old woman by a spiteful witch. After the initial shock, Sophie takes this surprisingly well, with the droll observation that, “At least my clothes suit me now.” In her rickety new old body, she heads out into the wilderness in search of the infamous wizard Howl and his walking castle. She hopes that Howl (who never actually howls, by the way) will break her spell, but he ends up being such an emotional mess that she has to save him instead. Two kings are at war, and each demands Howl’s loyalty. Meanwhile, the Witch of the West, who cast that aging spell on Sophie, wants to literally steal Howl’s heart. Sophie tidies up the moving castle and helps the moody, androgynous Howl keep it together, while a fire demon named Calcifer (voiced by Billy Crystal) keeps the castle moving. The un-self-conscious Sophie is a perfect foil for the vain, but well-intentioned Howl (who maybe should have been named Cry or Whine).

“Howl’s Moving Castle” does have some things to recommend it: Billy Crystal’s Calcifer is amusing, and I really liked the Sophie character. The animation is beautiful, and the flying machines and moving castle looked really cool. Still, by the time the credits rolled, I felt like I had been ripped off. The movie is about 30 minutes too long, and that half hour is filled with mostly incomprehensible magic-related crap that fails to explain all the intriguing mysteries introduced earlier in the story. In the translation from an English book to a Japanese movie and back to English, some clarity was apparently lost.

Or maybe not. As I mentioned before, every animated Japanese movie I have seen seems to run into the same problem, getting mired in Earth-spirit mysticism that leaves me scratching my head. I’m sure some of this is just a cultural difference. We Americans tend to associate Japan with crowded cities and technology, but Japan is actually a naturally beautiful country, and a reverence for nature seems to be a part of the Japanese character. There also seems to be a romantic yearning in Japan for the feudal past, represented by the image of the noble Samurai. It helps to recall that the Japanese embraced industrialization only as a response to American military might (Anyone remember the Great White Fleet?). The Japanese attitude was also shaped by having two of their cities nuked in WWII, and this influence is seen in many of their films. I don’t know, though. I am hesitant to blame my problems with Japanese animation on Japanese culture, seeing as how I have thoroughly enjoyed live action Japanese movies like “Seven Samurai” and “Yojimbo.”

Whatever the reason, I don’t dig Japanimation, and I dug “Howl’s Moving Castle” less than most. Check it out if you want, but don’t come crying to me, and don’t ask me to explain the plot.

2 stars out of 5.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Friday Night Lights (2004)



Anyone who has been through Texas will recognize the landscape of Odessa, the setting for “Friday Night Lights.” The country is scrubby, dry, and flat, and human habitation there is necessary only because of the oil industry and maybe some farming. It takes this kind of desolation to drive people to follow high school sports, and in Odessa, TX the sport is football. Ratliff Stadium, the high school football venue, seats 19,500, and the population of Odessa is about 93,000. You do the math. In a state that loves its football, Odessa still stands out as a high school football town.
“Friday Night Lights” is based on the book of the same name by H.G. Bissinger, which follows the Permian High Panthers of Odessa and their run at the 1988 Texas state championship. The film is a dramatization of the events, but DVD interviews with the original players suggest that “Friday Night Lights” is very faithful to the actual events and people. Understand that this is not exactly an underdog story. Prior to 1988, the Panthers had already won 4 state titles and a national championship. In a town where the high school football stadium can seat 20% of the population, you can imagine that the coach and players feel a certain amount of pressure. That pressure only increases when their star running back, Boobie Miles (played by Derek Luke), blows out his knee, essentially ending his football career and presumably dashing the Panthers’ hopes for a big season. While the town vents its frustration on Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), Gaines focuses on keeping the rest of his team together, bringing out the leading men in players who were accustomed to being Boobie Miles’s supporting cast.
In my opinion, sporting events are really rather trivial affairs, but sports movies have always succeeded in bringing out the drama in these seemingly unimportant games and lending gravitas to the outcomes. “Friday Night Lights” does not disappoint in the drama department, and you don’t have to be a football fan to wind up caring about the Permian High coach and players. Lead actors Billy Bob Thornton, Derek Luke, Garrett Hedlund, and Lucas Black deliver excellent, natural performances. Without being preachy, the younger actors make you feel the ridiculous pressure placed on these teenage athletes. As quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) puts it, “I don’t feel 17.”
This movie is also remarkable for one particular scene in which three of the players are out shooting skeet. In most Hollywood movies, generally made by liberal urbanites, you rarely see regular people target shooting, using a gun in self-defense, or just legally carrying a gun. If someone besides a cop, soldier, or criminal has a gun in a movie these days, you can pretty much bet that they will end up shooting their child with it or having some other horrible tragedy as a result. In “Friday Night Lights,” though, the shotgun doesn’t make another appearance. No one kills himself with it or uses it in a misguided bank robbery or anything. It’s pretty refreshing.
“Friday Night Lights” will not change the way you look at the world, or even football, but it is an extremely enjoyable, accessible film. You can’t go wrong with this one.
4 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Trouble in Paradise (1932) *****



Looking for a classic, we once again dipped into Roger Ebert’s The Great Films, and came up with a wickedly funny, sexy, romantic comedy that puts to shame most of the romantic comedies made since. Released not long before the motion picture codes were put in place, “Trouble in Paradise” is frequently referred to as “sophisticated”. This is because it openly acknowledges things like sex between un-married couples, infidelity, and the fact that crime sometimes does pay.
Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall play Lily and Gaston, a pair of thieves who meet up in an opening segment that exudes sex without being graphic. The story then jumps forward a few years, a period the two have apparently spent gallivanting around Europe, stealing for a living and living the good life. Their next potential victim, however, presents a new challenge to the pair. Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), widowed heiress to a perfume dynasty, is beautiful and charming. She also turns out to be horny as hell, but un-tempted by the unsuitable suitors (Charles Ruggles and Edward Everett Horton) who hilariously vie for her hand. When she develops an interest in the smooth-talking Gaston, he can’t help but return the affection, and a classic Hollywood love triangle results.
“Trouble in Paradise” has crisp, clever dialogue that is a bit less affected and stage-like than that heard in many of the older movies. The cast is charming, and they are photographed beautifully. Charles Ruggles and Edward Horton in particular provide comedy that is second to none. In one hilarious scene, the two console themselves on losing Mariette Colet to Gaston (who is posing as her secretary), by discussing that he is the boring, reliable, secretarial type that women seem to go for (Neither of them knows, of course, that Gaston is a daring, international thief.)
Most folks in the film industry credit director Ernst Lubitsch with making this film the classic that it is. His famous “Lubitsch Touch” can be seen in the sophisticated wit and treatment of sexuality which makes this film age so well. Indeed some would say that modern times have not yet caught up with Lubitsch’s sophisticated treatment of sex and relationships. This is discussed in an excellent commentary by Peter Bogdanovich on the Criterion Collection DVD of “Trouble in Paradise,” which also contains an old Lubitsch silent film as a bonus. If you have the means, I highly recommend you pick one up.

5 stars.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Third Man (1949) *****




Orson Welles once said that black-and-white film was the actor’s friend, and that there were no great performances in color. There have certainly been plenty of great performances in color since then, but it is easy, watching a gorgeous film like “The Third Man,” to see why Welles was so enamored of black-and-white. The crisp play of light and dark on the faces of the actors and on the streets and sewers of post-WWII Vienna makes this film just stunning.
Visual qualities aside, “The Third Man” is quintessential noir. Noir films typically portray a mostly-good man’s descent into a situation where he is surrounded by evil. The outlook is pointedly bleak, and the protagonists of noir films do not generally perform heroic acts to overcome evil. At best, they manage to avoid becoming evil themselves. The tension in a noir is primarily over whether or not the protagonist will lose his soul.
The protagonist in this movie is Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an American pulp writer who travels to Vienna to take a job with his friend, Harry Lime. Unfortunately, he arrives only to find that his friend is dead, accidentally run over by a truck. This is Vienna after WWII, occupied by Allied forces, with just the beginnings of Cold War tension starting to show. The bombed-out city is filled with soldiers, desperate citizens, and international types with shady motives, reminiscent of some of the characters in “Casablanca.” As Martins brushes up against these characters, he learns two things: 1) His friend Harry Lime was involved in the black market. 2) There is something fishy about Harry’s death. One witness says that two men carried Harry’s dying body out of the street, while another claims to have seen three men carrying the body. The mystery of that third man gives the film its title, and gives Holly Martins a reason to stay in Vienna. As he descends further into the heart of darkness, Martins falls for his late friend’s lover, the beautiful Anna (Alida Valli), and discovers that Harry’s crimes are much worse than he had imagined. Eventually Martin’s sense of right and wrong collides with his sense of loyalty to his friend.
“The Third Man” is, quite frankly, a perfect movie, as memorable for its small touches as for its big scenes. The famous chase scene in the sewers of Vienna is a triumph of cinematography, although interestingly enough, Orson Welles refused to shoot his parts in the sewer, so his shots had to be done on a set. Welles’s most memorable line, meant to justify his misdeeds, is a classic, “…in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” One small touch that is very funny and revealing about the character of Holly Martins is that he constantly gets other people’s names wrong, but then is very indignant when someone does the same to him. Joseph Cotten delivers the complaint without irony, revealing the narcissism which is Martins’s biggest weakness.
I haven’t seen any other films by “Third Man” director Carol Reed, but I think it is safe to assume that this is among his best works. “The Third Man” is certainly one of Orson Welles’s greatest appearances, and the beautiful photography does justice to his pre-bloat years. For lovers of film, this is absolutely necessary viewing. I suggest moving it to the top of your Netflix queue. 5 stars.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Koyaanisqatsi



To understand this unusual film, it helps to start with the title. “Koyaanisqatsi” is a Hopi Indian term. Among its translations is “life out of balance,” or “a way of life that demands a different way of living.” “Koyaanisqatsi” came out in 1983, and became the first in a set of three films. “Powaqqatsi” (Life in Transformation) appeared in 1988, and Naqoyqatsi (Life as War) was released in 2002. I haven’t seen the other two, but I understand they are similar at least in style to the first film.
The movie begins with an image of an Indian pictograph, which morphs into footage of a rocket launch. Then there is aerial footage of various desert landscapes and other natural processes, which ultimately gives way to footage of human activities, including mining, traffic, urban crowd scenes, and a nuclear warhead detonation. All of this is set to music by composer Philip Glass. There is no dialog, plot, narration, or characters. To the extent that there is a story, it is created in your mind as you view the various scenes and think about how they connect to each other.
I watched “Koyaanisqatsi” on the recommendation of a friend, and I have to admit that for about the first third of the film I felt like I had been misdirected. While I liked the desert landscapes, the scenes felt long and slow, and the music isn’t really all that impressive. I wondered if maybe you had to be on drugs to watch “Koyaanisqatsi.” My wife came in to join me, and she made fun of the film a little bit. We both agreed that while the footage was interesting looking, we weren’t up for another hour of it. But then something happened. We somehow didn’t turn the movie off and go do something else. We just sat there and kept watching for about 20 minutes worth of time-lapse imagery of cars moving through city streets and freeways. We watched as thousands of people fast-forwarded their way through train and subway stations. As the camera picked out individual faces from city streets, we watched. We started out making fun of the movie, but by the end we were talking about how cool it was. With its strangely captivating images set to classical music, “Koyaanisqatsi” is “Baby Einstein” for adults!
Saturday Night Live once did a skit in which Mr. Rogers (of children’s show fame) interviews a blues musician. He asks the man, “When I hear you play your bass I think about sheep…. or candies, fresh little candies. What do you think about when you play?” The musician replies, “I mostly think about my financial situation.” To me, that is what defines good art. A good work of art stimulates the mind in such a way that different people will have varying responses to it. In that sense, “Koyaanisqatsi” is amazing. There are probably as many interpretations of this film as there have been viewers. Based on the title of the movie, I get the impression that director Godfrey Reggio wanted to make a statement about how the natural world is ordered and sedate, while the world of humans is adulterated, frantic, impersonal, and destructive. I had a somewhat different take on the meaning of the images, which is odd, because I would normally agree with that whole “natural world is better than human world” concept. As I watched the film, I was struck by how the natural images of landforms, clouds, and ocean waves all tended to repeat certain patterns, even though the individual elements moved independently. I believe this concept is the foundation of chaos theory. Not surprisingly, the scenes of human activity also showed patterns arising from chaos. Also, the human activities seemed to recreate patterns from nature. Explosions create fire and smoke patterns that are very similar to the movements of clouds, but faster. Freeway traffic looks very similar to footage I have seen of blood cells moving through our capillaries. As the band Love and Rockets pointed out, “Going against nature is part of nature, too.”
“Koyaanisqatsi” has plenty of explosions and car chases, yet I don’t think it will appeal to the Jerry Bruckheimer crowd. If you are patient enough to sit back and let the movie develop, however, it offers a unique, thought-provoking, and truly enjoyable movie experience.
4 out of 5.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Fast Times at Ridgemont High ****1/2




There are plenty of things that I think I know all about, but often when I go back and study them I realize how much I had missed. “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” is one of those movies that we’ve all seen a million times, but I realized the other night that I had never actually sat down to watch it from beginning to end. So I did, and wow! I’ve always liked the movie, but I never appreciated what an insightful look into teenage life it is.

For the five people in the free world who haven’t seen it, “Fast Times” is an ensemble movie that follows the stories of several high school kids. Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold) starts his senior year on top of the world, with a job, a car, and a girlfriend. He is a self-described “successful, single man,” but then he loses his job and his girl, and winds up spending the year bouncing from one crappy fast-food job to another. Mark ‘Rat’ Ratner (Brian Backer) is too shy to put the moves on his dream girl, Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The guy is so awkward that he is hard to watch, probably because I can remember being that way myself. Meanwhile, his friend Damone (Robert Romanus) is too smooth (sort of) for his own good. Damone is hilarious with his swagger, his Brooklyn accent, and his bogus romantic advice: “When it comes to the making-out part, make sure the first side of Led Zeppelin IV is playing.” On the female side, Stacy (Rat’s dream girl) explores her newly discovered sexuality, heavily influenced by her friend Linda (Phoebe Cates), who is 15 going on 30 and pretends to know a lot more about sex than she does.

And then there’s Jeff Spicoli. What can I say about Spicoli that hasn’t already been said? Sean Penn inhabited this role completely, staying in character throughout filming. He created the prototypical surfer dude. Every stoner-surfer-California-goofball character since 1982 owes a debt to Spicoli. Having said that, fairness demands that we give credit where credit is due. The Spicoli arc in “Fast Times” would not be nearly as memorable were it not for the genius of Ray Walston as Mr. Hand. Serious, no-nonsense Mr. Hand is the perfect foil for happy-go-lucky Spicoli. In one great example of their dynamic, Spicoli has pizza delivered to himself in the middle of Mr. Hand’s class. Hand counters by commandeering the pizza and sharing it with the other students, even enjoying a slice himself.

As entertaining as he is, Spicoli is an outlier in this film, providing comic relief. His essence is a refusal to grow up. The main theme running through all the other character’s arcs is that they are growing up too fast. They are dealing with sex and its consequences, relationships, and careers on a level that is too old for them. That’s why “Fast Times” has aged so well; kids today are dealing with all the same stuff. “Fast Times” is far from a perfect movie, but I have come to appreciate its honest portrayal of high school kids. The characters are not idealized innocents or cynical sophisticates. With their bumbling horniness, delusions of grandeur, and lapses of conscience, the kids of Ridgemont High are very real.

Even if “Fast Times” were otherwise completely horrible, it would still be worth watching if only for one scene. Fellas, I think you know what I’m talking about. I’m not normally a believer in so-called “Intelligent Design,” but when Phoebe Cates climbs out of that pool, I know there’s a God! I don’t think water has dripped off a tastier water nymph before or since. (Well, maybe Denise Richards in “Wild Things.”)

Besides its actual content, “Fast Times” is famous for a couple of things. First is how the story came about. As the legend goes, Cameron Crowe posed as a high school student to research his story, which started as the novel “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” He was then asked to adapt his novel into the screenplay for the film. All the characters are based on people he actually got to know in his classes. The film is also now seen as the starting point of a lot of great acting careers, much like the film “The Outsiders.” When director Amy Heckerling cast them, Judge Reinhold, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Phoebe Cates, Forest Whitaker (the school football star), Eric Stoltz (in a bit part), and Nicolas Cage (in a bit part, credited as Nicolas Coppola) were unknowns. Even Sean Penn was at the beginning of his career.

I think that the first couple of times I watched “Fast Times” I was a little put off by the tone. I recently read Roger Ebert’s old review of the film, and he hated it. I think he ran into the same problem I did. On the surface this film seems like it is going to be a straight-up comedy, maybe a teenage sex-romp. While much of it, especially the Spicoli scenes, is simply funny, many scenes blend humor with serious situations. Some of the scenes between Rat and Stacy are funny, but employ awkward silences which, as in the British TV show “The Office,” take a little getting used to. Others are just plain serious, as when Stacy has her second sexual encounter and is left, naked and vulnerable, by her embarrassed lover. It’s best to go into this movie expecting some serious content; otherwise those scenes can seem jarring.

Some consider “Fast Times” to be an “American Graffiti” for the ‘80’s. I’m not sure this is quite right, but I do think that “Fast Times” is built to last. Already the movie is almost 25 years old, and as timely as ever. If you haven’t seen it in a while, I suggest you watch it on DVD. Then watch the insightful and revealing commentary track with Cameron Crowe and Amy Heckerling.

4.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Clerks II (2006)



Kevin Smith isn’t the only one who had a lot riding on “Clerks II.” For all of us thirty-somethings who fell in love with the black-and-white genius of “Clerks” back in 1994, the stakes were just as high. I won’t say that we anticipated this with the same level of breathlessness that met “Star Wars: Episode I,” but the concerns were the same. After all these years, would Smith give us something worthy of “Clerks,” or would “Clerks II” just sully our enjoyment of the original? It’s an extremely fair question given Smith’s inconsistent post-Clerks filmography, including his last film, 2004’s truly foul-smelling “Jersey Girl.” Indeed, while I have enjoyed several of Smith’s films, none of them has fully lived up to the promise of “Clerks,” in which Smith seemed poised to join that interesting fraternity of modern film-makers (including Richard Linklater and Whit Stillman) who understand that conversations are not something that fills the spaces between action in our lives, conversations usually are the action in our lives. Finally, twelve years later, “Clerks II” lives up to that promise.
This sequel finds our heroes in pretty much the same life situation they were in in “Clerks.” Now in their 30’s, Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) are still clerks, now in a fast-food restaurant. Randal is still porn-obsessed and caustic as hell. Dante is still the more sensitive of the pair, and once again inexplicably has two attractive women after him. Appropriately, the stakes are higher this time around for the 12-years-older Dante, who finds himself torn between moving to Florida and a better job with his fiancĂ© or sticking around Jersey to paint the toenails of his hot boss Becky (Rosario Dawson).
Meanwhile, Jay and his hetero-life-mate Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith) are still hanging around outside, making deals and busting moves. Kevin Smith standbys Ben Affleck and Jason Lee drop in for quick cameos, and comedienne Wanda Sykes delivers the goods in a hilarious scene about racial slurs. The film is full of bizarre characters and hilarious, foul-mouthed arguments about everything from “Lord of the Rings” to the appropriateness of mixing and matching body parts during sex. Unfortunately, Silent Bob’s “Berserker”-singing, Russian cousin is nowhere to be seen, but at least there is a live, donkey-sex show.
My pleasure in watching “Clerks II” was lessened not at all by Kevin Smith’s considerably higher budget on this film, roughly $5 million, compared to about $28K for “Clerks.” True, “Clerks II” lacks that black-and-white, film-school feel of the first film, and the jokes and characters aren’t quite as fresh this time around, but overall I feel like “Clerks II” is everything I could have asked for in a “Clerks” sequel. I recommend multiple viewings of both films.

5 stars.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit


There’s something about Clay-mation that I dig. I liked it back in the day when they were using it to sell California raisins, and I like it now, when most animated entertainment is just computer programs tripping over themselves to see who can come up with the cleverest pop-culture reference. As the Shrek sequels and CGI rip-offs become increasingly frenetic, Clay-mation offers a slower-paced, less busy form of storytelling. That said, Let me make it clear that there is nothing “slow” about “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.” This is high-flying adventure filled with belly-laughing fun; more fun than any barrel full of CGI monkeys.
Some folks already know of Wallace & Gromit from some short films on BBC television that are much-loved in the U.K. Wallace is a scatterbrained cheese addict who invents all manner of Rube-Goldberg-style devices. These frequently backfire in some way, requiring Wallace’s quick-thinking, long-suffering hound Gromit to save the day. In “Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” Wallace invents a brain-washing machine and attempts to train the local rabbits not to eat people’s vegetables. Naturally, mistakes are made, and he manages to create a monster rabbit, a veggie-eating machine that puts the annual giant vegetable contest at risk. Wallace and Gromit attempt to stop the beast by “humanely” catching it before the oily Victor Quartermaine (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) can shoot it. Truly fun for the whole family!
I hate to keep ripping on the computer-animated movies, but in recent years it seems that every animated feature has to slip in some slick 70’s or 80’s pop culture references to keep the adults entertained. “Wallace & Gromit” doesn’t have to do that, because it is just plain funny. Everyone can enjoy it, even the dog.
4.5 stars.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Caddyshack (1980)



Lately I’ve been trying to re-watch some of the old movies that I have come to take for granted. Movies that I maybe haven’t ever sat down and watched, but have seen various parts of them on cable about a billion times. So that’s how I wound up renting “Caddyshack,” one of the cultural touchstones of my generation.
For the few people in the free world who haven’t seen “Caddyshack,” there is no plot, so don’t look for one. I think that some of us who saw all or part of it years ago have actually invented plots for the film which don’t exist. For example, I had gotten the impression at some point that the movie was about Rodney Dangerfield’s character, land developer Al Czervik, trying to buy the club and destroy it. Well, it’s not about that or about anything else really other than allowing the actors and the audience to have a good time. There is some pretense to a plot about young caddy Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe) trying to get a scholarship by ass-kissing stuck-up club president Judge Smails (Ted Knight). There is also the enmity between Judge Smails and the socially unrefined, hilarious Czervik, as well as a subplot featuring Bill Murray as groundskeeper Carl Spackler, and his delightfully violent efforts to rid the golf course of pesky gophers.
But “Caddyshack” is not about these plots, it is all about scenes. There’s the scene with the Baby-Ruth in the pool, which to this day makes it hard for me to eat a Baby-Ruth. There’s the scene with the priest golfing in the thunderstorm. There’s the dancing gopher. There’s the scene with Cindy Morgan naked. Who could forget the Bill Murray “Dalai Lama” story, and that weird scene in Bill Murray’s apartment, which was added on after the fact when the filmmakers realized that their two biggest stars, Murray and Chase, didn’t have a scene together. Good times, people!
As cool as those scenes are, I have to admit that while re-watching “Caddyshack” I was struck by how my memory of the movie was much better than the movie itself. I didn’t realize it before, but most of the acting is terrible! Michael O’Keefe is almost unwatchable, and even Chevy Chase is mostly uninspired as golf pro Ty Webb. That “Caddyshack” manages to rise above its own lameness is a testament to the genius of Bill Murray, with an assist from a wickedly insulting Rodney Dangerfield. Thanks to these two, the film is worth watching. For the majority who have already seen it, however, your best bet may be to just reminisce.

3 stars.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Nacho Libre (2006)




With a baby in the house, I don’t get to see movies in the cinema much these days. So when the opportunity came to take my wife to the movies, we wanted to pick something really good. “Nacho Libre,” which brings together the creators of the hilarious “Napoleon Dynamite” (Jerod and Jerusha Hess) and foulmouthed funnyman Jack Black seemed like a sure thing. Two great tastes that taste great together!

Wrong, dude! How could we have known what a waste of time this movie is? Well, we could have heeded the critics who almost universally hate it. Or maybe we could have thought about the differing comedy styles at work here. “Napoleon Dynamite” used unknown actors to create hilariously un-self-conscious characters. Jack Black’s style, on the other hand, is all about being Jack Black. Unfortunately, “Nacho Libre” sucks all the funny out of Black’s routine, leaving nothing but a lame, fake Mexican accent. Meanwhile, the Hess’s characterizations, which held some nuance in “Napoleon Dynamite,” are simplified into predictable grotesques in “Nacho Libre.”

Black plays Nacho, a monk who cooks at a Catholic orphanage in Mexico. His real passion isn’t Christ, though, it is Lucha Libre, Mexican pro wrestling. For some reason, he hooks up with this really skinny, homeless dude (Hector Jimenez) and the two enter amateur tag-team wrestling matches. Despite their complete lack of “skills,” the team is a crowd-pleaser, and they learn to their delight that in wrestling, even the losers get paid. Nacho starts out using his winnings to buy better food for the orphans, but he winds up scoring some polo shirts and polyester pants in his efforts to seduce a tasty nun (Penelope Cruz look-alike Ana de la Reguera).

Nacho and company don’t bother speaking Spanish; they just speak English with stereotypical Mexican accents, which is brilliant! I’d like to put in a request that all foreign-language films come this way from now on. Imagine how much better a classic like “The Bicycle Thief” would have been without those pesky subtitles. “Mama Mia. Somebody took-a my bike!”

Humor, like food, is purely a matter of taste. Somebody must be enjoying “Nacho Libre” as I hear it has done well at the box office. To my taste, this movie is a plate of soggy chips, with bland salsa. Some of the sight gags, like Nacho and his skinny partner wrestling a couple of midgets, are mildly amusing, but most of the jokes are just plain dumb. I know some people made the same accusations about “Napoleon Dynamite,” but that film had a certain freak-show genius to it. “Nacho Libre” tries for the same spirit, but fails, leaving Jack Black with nothing funnier to do than flaunt his endomorphic physique.

There’s a scene in “Napoleon Dynamite” that exemplifies the way that film found the absurd in daily life. Napoleon and Pedro set up a ramp to jump Pedro’s bike off of. With his unfailing geek karma, Napoleon collapses the ramp when he hits it, racking himself in the process. That scene resonates because we have all jumped our bikes off of ramps like that, and we have all seen a buddy rack his balls on the cross-tube of his bike. And, dude, it was hilarious! Now imagine that instead of that simply photographed scene, they had had Napoleon set off on some important mission on the bike, and he ran off of a cliff, crashing spectacularly. That’s what “Nacho Libre” is like. Thanks to a much bigger budget, the scenes are bigger and better photographed, but they lack that “Dynamite” spirit. The question in my mind is whether the Hess’s are a one-hit wonder, or if they will someday recapture that spirit that made “Dynamite” so enjoyable, and put out a movie worth watching.

As for “Nacho Libre,” one thing that I will credit it for is timeliness. Given all the immigration-related turmoil surrounding Mexicans these days, what we really needed was a movie that shamelessly mines the stereotype of Mexicans as greasy, low-rider driving taco-eaters. “Nacho Libre” is that movie. Thanks to a couple of white Mormons from Idaho (the Hesses) and Mike White (the whitest white man living), we can laugh at Mexicans instead of with them.

1 star out of 5.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Over the Edge (1979)




One thing about getting movies from Netflix is that they will make recommendations for you based on your movie selections. Some of these are dumb, like “Oh, you liked ‘Reservoir Dogs,’ so you might enjoy ‘101 Dalmations’.” Others make more sense. Based on the fact that we LOVED “Repo Man,” Netflix suggested this movie about youth-gone-wild called “Over the Edge.” It’s Matt Dillon’s first movie, so we figured “What the hell.” I can’t say that I see any connection to “Repo Man,” but it turned out to be pretty good, in a twisted way.
“Over the Edge” follows the exploits of several early-teenage kids in a suburban planned community, which I think is somewhere in Colorado. Some of the kids live in the upscale part, while others live in tenement-like apartments, but one thing they all have in common is that there is nothing for them to do out in the middle of nowhere but get in trouble. And get in trouble they do. They get stoned, screw, and vandalize everything in sight, and their parents only seem to get involved with them when the police call. Finally, the parents have a meeting to discuss the “youth problem”, and their kids bring reality home to them in a truly violent climax.
This is one of those rare movies in which teenagers are played by actual teenagers, instead of 20-year-old models. Using real 13-year-olds really benefits the film, lending stark reality to the disturbing nature of these kids’ lives. The story goes that the filmmakers first held regular auditions for the movie, but they didn’t think the clean-cut, drama club kids they were getting had the right look. They then just went to some New York junior high schools and looked around, which is where they found young Matt Dillon, getting suspended in the principal’s office. The rest, as they say, is history.
These “troubled youth” type movies tend to either border on exploitation or look like after-school specials, but “Over the Edge” manages to walk the fine line between the two. The film has something of a “Reefer Madness”-esque, public service announcement feel, but I have to say I was totally entertained. “Over the Edge” has aged very well, and the story could just as easily be set in 2006 as in 1979. The film’s overt message is that suburban communities often lack amenities for kids, and bored kids are trouble. As one character puts it, “Seems to me like you all were in such a hopped-up hurry to get out of the city that you turned your kids into exactly what you were trying to get away from.”
“Over the Edge” got me thinking about how movies have expressed our cultural anxieties about the “younger generation.” I think that adults have always had a tendency to think that their children are out of control, but it seems that the sixties and seventies were a more openly rebellious time for young people. Some writers have suggested that movies from that period like “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), “The Exorcist” (1973), and “The Omen” (1976) reflect the fears of adults at that time that their children were literally monsters who had turned against them. If so, then maybe more overt films that came out later, like “Over the Edge” and “The Outsiders” (1983) represent some progress in terms of adults trying to understand what their kids are dealing with. Of course, “Rebel Without a Cause” came out in 1955, so maybe I’m just making all this up. Either way, even after 25 years, “Over the Edge” retains the ability to shock, and is worth watching.

3 stars out of 5

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)




Well, another Harry Potter movie made it to DVD. Like everyone else in the free world, I did my civic duty and watched it, and yes, Maximus, I was entertained. This latest installment features Harry entering a tournament of wizards, and the kids finally start dating. Of course, Lord Voldemort makes an appearance.
My list of complaints about the Harry Potter films is long, so let’s get right to it. First, Harry is supposed to be this powerful wizard, but we hardly ever see him cast a spell that Hermione couldn’t have cast just as well. In the first Star Wars, Luke seems like a snotty, young hick, but when he suddenly blocks 3 laser blasts with that visor over his eyes, we start to realize that he might have something special. After 4 movies, I still haven’t gotten that feeling about Harry. Instead of someone who works magic, he just seems like a good-hearted bloke around whom magical things happen.
Second, why are all the spells in Latin? Rome was one of the world’s most logical, scientific, non-superstitious societies. The Romans were one of the least likely people to have been into magic, so why would all the spells be in their language? I would think it would be something like Sumerian, Hebrew, or one of the Celtic tongues. I realize this is a very nitpicky point to make, but for me it is just a reminder that while these films (and books) appeal to many adults, they are still kid’s fare.
With that in mind, I suppose I will shut up about the negative points. If adults are going to indulge in children’s tales, we shouldn’t complain that the story is immature. “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” the fourth Potter film, is at once the most engrossing of the stories so far, and the clunkiest. Throughout, the film benefits from acceptable dialogue, superb action, and excellent acting from stars Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione), and Rupert Grint (Ron), as well as a really creepy Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort. On the other hand, this two and a half hour movie probably would have been even better at three hours. There are several points where it seems key, or at least potentially entertaining, scenes were cut. These lead to incongruous scene changes, which makes the story lurch forward a bit.
The Harry Potter films are much like fast food, perfectly suited to younger tastes. As an adult, I can still totally devour a Macdonald’s burger, but at the end I am left feeling vaguely unsatisfied, and so it is with these movies. I guess if I really cared to fill in all those details, I would read the Harry Potter books, which would probably explain away a lot of my other complaints about the series. For now I am content to just enjoy the movies as the popcorn fare they are.

3 stars out of 5

Friday, June 23, 2006

Saget Chic

This doesn't necessarily relate to movies, but Has anybody noticed that all of a sudden Bob Saget is EVERYWHERE? He killed in that movie "The Aristocrats," then he showed up on the HBO show "Entourage." Now there's a killer rap video on www.youtube.com called "Rollin with Saget." You can't get out from under the guy.
We had Lesbian Chic, then Porno Chic. Now it's Bob Saget Chic. Check it.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

New York Doll




Whether I am watching a movie or reading a book, one thing I enjoy is for it to have a story. I know that sounds obvious, but let me define what I mean by “story.” A set of characters (or people, in the case of non-fiction) is introduced. The narrative then takes the characters through a series of events, usually involving an element of conflict and resolution. By the end of the story, the characters have been changed in some way by the events that occurred. If it is a good story, then I will have been changed, too.
Once again, I know, obvious stuff, but when I look at some of the movies that get tossed our way, I am amazed at how some of them are unable to meet even that basic definition of story. That would be understandable with documentary films, which purport to be non-fiction. Life does not always fall out into a neat story format. In fictional stories, however, the creator has the luxury of making everything up, so there is no excuse for a lack of story.
I started thinking about this while watching the movie “Junebug,” which was released last year after a well-received Sundance screening. Everyone else seemed to love this dreary piece of naturalism, but I didn’t grok it. It’s one of those stories about a son returning home, in this case with a new wife, and how that creates a bunch of family dysfunction. I’m not really a fan of this genre anyway, but I can tolerate one of these films if something interesting happens, some kind of STORY. In “Junebug,” not much happens, and the characters don’t change one bit. I wonder what was the point of that hour and a half?
As tedious as “Junebug” and other story-free movies are, they look even more pathetic when contrasted with the amazing stories woven together from real-life by some documentary filmmakers. Great recent examples include documentaries like “Daughter from Danang,” “Murderball,” and “Grizzly Man.” That brings me to “New York Doll,” one of “Junebug’s” classmates in the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, and another example of great storytelling using real-life events.
The New York Dolls were one of the seminal bands of the early-70’s punk scene. With their cross-dressing and outrageous antics, they never quite achieved mainstream success, but they helped kick-start the punk movement before splitting up in the late 70’s. In his first film, director Greg Whitely documents the reunion of the Dolls for a London music festival hosted by mope-rock singer Morrissey. Two of the original members had succumbed to the rock-n-roll lifestyle, leaving three original Dolls, Sylvain Sylvain, David Johansen (who enjoyed some 1980’s success with his bizarre lounge-singer character Buster Poindexter), and Arthur “Killer” Kane. Of these, bassist Arthur Kane’s post-Dolls life had been perhaps the most intriguing. He had burned out on booze, attempted suicide, and finally become a Latter Day Saint (That’s Mormon, for you Easterners.) Despite finding some peace and sobriety in his new religion and his job at the Mormon geneology library in L.A., Arthur clearly nurtured bitterness and regret over his lost rock-n-roll dreams.
“New York Doll” picks up at this point, following the band members as they gear up for the Dolls reunion and concert. The film focuses on Arthur Kane, who really achieves some redemption as he makes up with his old band-mates and relishes his return to the stage. Arthur annoyed me at first with his nebbishy whining, but his wry sense of humor ultimately won me over. I also really dug Arthur’s Mormon co-workers and fellow church members, who look straight-laced but are really cool! I can imagine that the filmmaker started out following all of the Dolls, but by the end of filming, it must have been clear that the real STORY here was Arthur’s journey. Greg Whitely recognized that and used it to make “New York Doll” a story in the best sense.
4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Quick Change (1990)


The career arc for comedians like Bill Murray has become monotonously predictable. They start with light comedies (Caddyshack), then after a few years move on to more refined comedies (Rushmore), and next thing you know they’re hustling for an Oscar (Lost in Translation.) I guess if you can do good comedy, you can do anything. At this rate, that Stifler guy from “American Pie” will be the next Robert De Niro. Meanwhile, as our comedians gradually get more serious, a supposedly serious actor like Tom Cruise just gets funnier and funnier (albeit unintentionally.)
“Quick Change” is one of those movies from the slapstick phase of Murray’s career, but traces of the Bill Murray that was to come are evident. The film starts with a close-up of Murray’s character Grimm in clown makeup, with that trademark sad sack Murray expression and those eyes that never really smile. As Grimm proceeds to rob a bank, an outraged bank guard asks, “What the hell kind of clown are you?” Grimm responds, “The crying-on-the-inside kind.” That’s gold, Jerry! As the tale progresses, we learn that Grimm is a disgruntled civil servant from the city planning department. He only robbed the bank so that he could escape New York City, because “I’ve seen how this city degrades the individual.” Unfortunately, the robbery turns out to be the easy part for Grimm and his gang. Negotiating the urban wasteland of New York proves much harder, and hilarity ensues.
One thing I have noticed is that movie and TV portrayals of New York City have changed over the years. Nowadays everything is about what a great, vibrant city New York is. Back in the 70’s to early 90’s, though, New York was always painted as a dirty, seedy place full of assholes, perverts, and muggers. What happened? Did the city change, or did the movies just start showing a different side? Whatever the case, “Quick Change” (1990) is definitely part of the old, New-York-as-hell-hole school.
My only complaint is that this is one of those Comedies of Frustration. You know the type. Circumstances and other characters conspire to make a simple task extremely frustrating for the main character, and we are free to hoot wildly at him. (See “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” “The Money Pit,” “Funny Farm,” etc.) The problem is that if a movie has halfway decent characters (which “Quick Change” does), I identify with them. So then I wind up feeling really frustrated, too. For example, Randy Quaid does a great job as Grimm’s friend Loomis, but I wound up wanting to kill the guy. It’s like, “Just leave him behind! Go! You idiots!”
Other than the frustration factor, “Quick Change” is good fun and classic Bill Murray. It’s worth watching if you have nothing better to do some night.
3 out of 5.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Repo Man




I’m sure there are movies about modern-day street warriors that are better than “Repo Man,” movies with better punk soundtracks and more bizarre, dark humor. I’m sure Emilio Estevez has probably made better movies. The problem is, after watching “Repo Man” last night, I can’t think of any. This movie totally blew my mind, and I’m lovin’ it!
Displaying the baby-faced punk attitude that made him great in “The Breakfast Club” and “Men at Work,” Estevez plays 18-year-old Otto, a broke, bored underachiever with a bad attitude and no prospects. He falls in with a colorful bunch of characters at a car repossession business. Under the mentorship of Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), Otto learns the Repo Man Code and, oddly enough, finds meaning and purpose in his new job. Meanwhile, an apparently insane guy in a ’64 Chevy Malibu has made his way from Los Alamos, NM to Los Angeles with a trunk full of deadly government secrets. The government puts out a fat bounty on the Malibu, which sets Otto and every other Repo Man in L.A. hunting for it. This is all set against a backdrop of seedy, low-rent L.A. suburbs, with a killer punk soundtrack including Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, Iggy Pop, and a live performance by the Circle Jerks.
“Repo Man” is a cult classic in the best sense because it consistently holds onto its sense of the absurd without having to wink at the camera. It reminds me of the movie “Tremors.” Both are bizarro, sci-fi fun-fests that stand up well to repeat viewings.
In a lesser film, where the characters and dialog would be merely vehicles to forward the plot, we would be unlikely to suspend our disbelief enough to follow such an unlikely story. Certain other films go ahead and acknowledge their absurdity, so we don’t have to bother with suspension of disbelief, but they bend over backwards to let us know how clever they are, with their tongue-in-cheek and all (The “Austin Powers” movies come to mind). “Repo Man” doesn’t suffer from any of that crap. The characters are intriguing, and time is taken to develop them with scenes that simmer with fun dialog and action.
In a lesser movie, Otto would get the girl, or save the day, or come to some great realization. In “Repo Man,” the only revelation is something we have already figured out for ourselves: “This Repo Man thing is intense!”
4.5 stars.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Days of Heaven (1978)


My wife checked out a Roger Ebert book called The Great Films. This is, of course, only Ebert’s own opinion of the greatest movies ever, but it proved really useful in suggesting movies we might never have thought to watch. The book recommended “Days of Heaven,” which ranks as one of the most beautifully photographed films I have seen. In fact, I think this movie is mainly known for the beautiful imagery created by director Terrence Malick (Badlands, The Thin Red Line) and cinematographer Nestor Almendros (Goin' South, Places in the heart).

The story follows angry-young-man Bill (Richard Gere), his sister Linda, and his girlfriend Abby. Born into poverty, Bill is too intelligent to resign himself to drudgery and abusive bosses, but not quite sharp enough to find a way out. In the heat of an argument, he kills his boss in Chicago, so he and his little family flee to the farmland out west. In Texas, they find more of the same thing they had in Chicago: hard work, crappy pay, and petty bosses. When the gentleman farmer (Sam Shepard) falls for Abby, whom Bill has been passing off as another sister, Bill encourages the match, essentially pimping out his girl in hopes of a life of wealth. Inevitably, their desperate attempt to better their lot leads to misery all around.

In this film, Richard Gere really demonstrated that he was not just a pretty-boy, but a decent actor, even if his range is somewhat limited. He lends great humanity to Bill, who is prickly and proud, but not a bad man. He encourages Abby to marry the farmer because it is known that the man is sick and expected to die soon. Bill is too young and callow to suspect that his and Abby’s love is unlikely to outlive her husband. He tries to follow his mind, but in the end is betrayed by his heart, which is neither pure enough nor completely mercenary enough to carry him through.

The best character in the film is Bill’s preteen sister, Linda (Linda Manz). While Bill, Abby, and the farmer pursue their love triangle, Linda is basically left to grow up on her own, providing heartbreaking voice-over narration. She provides the majority of the pathos in the film with lines like, “I've been thinking what to do wit' my future. I could be a mud doctor. Checkin' out the eart'. Underneat'.” She also passes perfect judgment on her elders with a line that pretty much sums up the movie, “Nobody's perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You just have half-angel and half-devil in you.”

Really, the main characters are all sympathetic in their own way. These people are easy to root for, which just makes it more of a downer when things don’t go well. I’ve never been a big fan of naturalistic fiction. Watching the doomed, pitiful protagonists of Ethan Fromme or The Grapes of Wrath struggle and fail to escape from their miserable lives is just a big bummer. That’s why, despite the beauty of “Days of Heaven,” I was left feeling a little disappointed. Still, I was thinking about the movie days later, which speaks well for it. Other than that one hitch, which is a matter of my personal taste, this is a good story, well-acted, and stunningly filmed.

4 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Cinderella Man

Most people who don’t follow boxing probably know as little about James J. Braddock as I did going into “Cinderella Man. Braddock was a heavyweight fighter who started his career in the late 1920’s. He showed great promise and eventually earned a shot at the heavyweight title in 1928. Braddock went 15 rounds against the champ, Tommy Loughran, but lost by decision and left the fight with a broken hand. His subsequent career slide perfectly mirrored America’s slide into the desperation of the Great Depression. By 1933 Braddock was considered washed up, losing considerably more fights than he won. Ultimately, his boxing license was revoked. He scrambled for scarce jobs on the docks to feed and house his family, just like millions of men across the country during that period. Then, in 1934, Braddock got a second chance. Tapped to be an easy knockout for a rising young boxer, Braddock returned to the ring and pulled off an upset. He ultimately parleyed that into a second shot at the heavyweight championship against Max Baer.

Russell Crowe plays Braddock in “Cinderella Man,” an agile telling of this comeback story. Natural performances by Crowe, Renee Zellweger as the wife, and Paul Giamatti as Braddock’s manager make the film heartfelt without being overly sentimental. “Cinderella Man” is what “Seabiscuit” would have been if it had been a little less sugary. It is so much better than the syrupy glop that was 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby” that I won’t even bother comparing them further.

The film is supposedly pretty historically accurate except for the pro-wrestling-bad-guy portrayal of Max Baer. Baer was something of a roguish clown, and he did kill Frankie Campbell in the ring. “Cinderella Man” portrays him as being flippant about it and bragging that he would do the same to Braddock, but historical accounts describe Baer as deeply shaken by Campbell’s death. He even took it upon himself to provide support for the fallen boxer’s family. Another boxing fact: Baer, whose father was Jewish, defeated Nazi poster-boy Max Schmeling, becoming a national hero in his own right. Apparently director Ron Howard found it more dramatic to gloss all that over and portray Baer as a villain.

Braddock’s boxing comeback would have made a remarkable story at any time, but coming as it did during the Great Depression, it made him a national hero. It is not surprising that he was a source of hope and inspiration for a country full of people who felt like washed-up fighters themselves. What is surprising is that such an agile telling of this tale did so poorly in theaters today. Despite Russell Crowe’s draw, a fantastic trailer, and a theatrical re-release that included a money-back guarantee, the film has been considered a financial disappointment. It seems that the movie-going public’s brief, post-9/11 love affair with genuine, heartwarming, American stories is over. Now we are back to the irony and cynicism of movies like “Crash.” No matter, I’m willing to bet that in 20 years, “Crash” (which won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2005.) will be forgotten, while “Cinderella Man” will stand alongside “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” as one of our greatest boxing movies.

4.5/ 5 stars

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (2005)

Repeat after me: “Wal-Mart Bad; Family Business Good. Wal-Mart Bad; Family Business Good. 2 Legs Bad; 4 Legs Good.” Continue for the next 90 minutes and you will pretty much recreate the experience of watching Robert Greenwald’s diatribe “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.” This clunky documentary exposes various reasons why Wal-Mart is evil, including: 1) They drive small-town stores out of business (often intentionally). 2) Misguided local governments often bribe Wal-Mart to come to town by giving them tax breaks. Since Wal-Mart then drives the existing, tax-paying stores out of business, the result is a loss of tax dollars for schools, etc. 3) Wal-Mart has crappy wages and minimal health insurance. Their managers have to keep a list of public programs like food stamps and Medicaid that they encourage their employees to pursue. Full-time employees on welfare! 4) Wal-Mart forces employees to work off the clock, hires illegal aliens, and discriminates against women. 5) Their stores have some bad environmental practices, like keeping bags of pesticide sitting out in the parking lot where they contaminate nearby water. 6) Wal-Mart factories are almost all overseas, where they can exploit the workers even more than they do here in the U.S. 7) Wal-Mart parking lots are unsafe. 8) Well, you get the idea. If you didn’t already think that Wal-Mart is evil, this film will hit you over the head with it until you believe.

My problem with this documentary is not that I disagree with it; I am actually very much in favor of shopping at local stores and buying American instead of supporting China-mart. I just think Robert Greenwald took a ham-handed, one-sided approach that reduces his work to the level of propaganda, and weak propaganda at that. At least when Michael Moore tells half-truths, he makes it entertaining. “The High Cost of Low Price” is to entertainment what Wal-Mart is to small businesses. In many cases, Greenwald’s attempts to show the human side of Wal-Mart’s evils just wound up being people crying on camera. Dude, there’s nothing entertaining about someone crying! The segment about high crime in Wal-Mart parking lots is just un-watchable. I think the point was supposed to be that Wal-Mart spends a lot on cameras and security guards inside the store, but they don’t bother with security in the parking lot, even though more violent crimes occur there. It was hard for me to get that message, because the segment is mostly people giving tearful descriptions of crimes they or a loved suffered in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Apparently, people have moved from expecting the government to look after their personal safety to expecting businesses to do so. Also, no effort is made to allow a rebuttal or present Wal-Mart’s side of the story. There are archival clips of Wal-Mart president Lee Scott making various statements, but they are just used to show what a hypocrite he supposedly is. Almost all of the interviews are with disgruntled former Wal-Mart employees; they do not interview anyone who has a satisfying Wal-Mart career. Finally, as crazy as it sounds, I have this theory that the reason Wal-Mart is able to move into so many towns and take over is that people shop there. This film doesn’t have a single interview with a regular Wal-Mart customer to see why they shop there and explore how shopper’s values affect their buying decisions (if at all).

All of that is a shame, because the topic of this film is very timely and worthwhile. How much are we willing to sacrifice to get rock-bottom retail prices? How much are we really saving if store prices are low, but taxes have to be raised to support the families of people who work at the stores? How long can a nation remain strong once all of its manufacturing jobs have been moved overseas? There are a number of pointed questions that need to be asked about Wal-Mart and our consumer culture, and maybe someday a better documentarian will ask them (Morgan Spurlock, are you listening?). In the meantime, “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price” is too lazy to preach to anyone but the choir.

1 star for the film. 5 stars for the topic.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Last Detail


Every now and then I need a reminder of why we all put up with Jack Nicholson and his obnoxious sunglasses. Seeing “The Last Detail” was a good reminder that this guy can wear whatever he wants. Actually, all three lead actors give amazing performances in this film by Hal Ashby, director of dark classics like “Harold and Maude” and “Being There.” My initial take on this film is that it would be a typical road-trip film, with lots of laughs and hijinks. Instead, it is pretty much a downer, although paradoxically it is not depressing, and there are plenty of laughs to be had. In that respect it reminds me of other Jack Nicholson films like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Easy Rider.”

In “The Last Detail,” sailors “Bad Ass” Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young) are detailed to transport a young seaman to military prison. Seaman Meadows (Randy Quaid) is set to serve an 8-year sentence for a petty crime that pissed off a petty base commander. As the trip north begins, he is understandably quiet and downcast, but he seems surprisingly resigned to his fate for a man who is about to spend his early twenties behind bars. Buddusky even points out, “He’s probably secretly glad. In the outside world there’s all this bad stuff that can happen to you. Now he doesn’t have to worry, cause the worst thing has already happened.” For their part, Buddusky and Mulhall are delighted to have an easy detail, with a whole week off-base to do a job that should only take two days. They start the trip looking forward to the fun they will have after they drop off their charge, but it isn’t long before they are moved by the pathos of Meadows’ unjust situation. Bit by bit the straightforward train trip degenerates into a series of side trips as the two guards try to show Meadows as much fun as possible before he goes to prison. The three get drunk, chase skirts, scrap with Marines, and visit a brothel. They even walk in on a Japanese chanting ritual, which seems to impress Meadows more than all the rest. By the trip’s end, Meadows is no longer resigned to his fate; he now understands what he is giving up for the next 8 years, and we are left wondering if his new friends’ gift of a few days’ partying will help him or cause him more pain.

Throughout the story, scenes of humor and camaraderie are occasionally balanced with the sobering reality of what waits for Meadows at the trip’s end. As their time runs out, the mood gradually grows darker, as summed up in Mulhall’s declaration, “I hate this detail. I hate this mother-fucking, chicken-shit detail!”

Just as “Cuckoo’s Nest” explores the frustration of people caught up in the machinery of a mental institution, “The Last Detail” is a great story about basically good men facing the senseless injustice of the military machine. What sets the film apart from many other modern military movies is that it doesn’t take the lazy approach of demonizing the military. It recognizes that injustices occur not because the military is evil, but because it is a large machine in which there is no mechanism to ensure that general decency will win out over personal pettiness.

“The Last Detail” also breaks down well as an allegory for our lives. We are all on a trip to someplace we’d rather not think about, which is death. To cheer ourselves up along the way we make some friends, get drunk, get laid, and seek solace in religion. But no matter how much fun we have, there’s a major buzzkill waiting at the end of the line.

4 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Brick


"Brick" was in theaters earlier this year, and I would expect it to be on DVD soon. I saw it a year and a half ago at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was widely praised. Here's what I though of it then.



Opening shot: A young man squats next to a stream, his head in his hands. What is he looking at? The body of a young woman, lying half in the stream. Next we jump to 2 days before, to follow Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an intelligent, cynical high school student, self-exiled from the cliquish world of jocks, stoners, and socialites. He is stoically heart-broken 2 months after being dumped by his girlfriend Emily (Emilie DeRavin), who left him to pursue that world. A frightened phone call from the missing Emily asking for help and filled with incoherent references to a “brick” and “the pin” prompts Brendan to launch back into high school society. He does this in the movie detective style of Sam Spade (“The Maltese Falcon”), shaking things up with a relentless directness punctuated by well-timed acts of cunning. Once found, Emily recants and asks Brendan to forget everything she said. Of course, we know from the opening scene that things aren’t going to go well for Emily, and by this point we also know that Brendan isn’t likely to back off from anything.
After Emily’s death, Brendan starts looking for answers in earnest, slicing through high school society and the underbelly of suburban California like a weedwacker. Much like the detectives played by Humphrey Bogart in “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep” this battered tough-guy keeps shaking the tree until the answers he wants fall out. His search leads him to the rich femme fatale Laura Dannon (Nora Zehetner), an underworld kingpin (Lukas Haas), and a handful of assorted thugs in a completely amoral teenage world. Battered physically and emotionally, he maintains his cool while playing all sides against each other in an effort to achieve some justice for the girl he loved.
In “Brick,” writer/director Rian Johnson pays homage in wonderful style to the classics of noir fiction. Setting the story in the world of high-schoolers allows him to make use of classic detective story characters without seeming redundant. We have a beautiful seductress with ambiguous motives, a dangerous vamp (played brilliantly by Meagan Good, which sounds like a porno name for some reason), a crime boss and his hired muscle, and even a Vice Principal who fills the role of the police captain. Of course, Brendan is the classic loner private eye, moving through a world of scum but never allowing the dirt to get under his skin.
Language is both the strength and weakness of “Brick.” Johnson drew heavily from the fiction of Dashiell Hammet (creator of Sam Spade) when writing the film, and that spare, 1940’s style permeates the dialog. Suffice to say that these kids do not talk like high-schoolers. That’s fine, because a stylized manner of speech suits these extremely cool, stylized characters and sets the proper mood. On the other hand, while the story of “Brick” is not wildly original, it is an excellent, riveting piece of noir fiction which deserves to be appreciated on its own merits and not just in reference to old Bogart movies. The Bogartesque lingo is entertaining, but it occasionally distracts from the story. Also, the linguistic style may simply be confusing and off-putting to audiences not familiar with the older films on which it is based.
Interestingly, none of the principal cast members were familiar with the literary and film sources from which their characters were drawn. This is remarkable, because their characterizations are so dead on, and given without a trace of the self-conscious irony that so often passes for wit. Joe Gordon-Levitt in particular deserves to be a star after this performance. He appears in every scene of the film, channeling the best of Humphrey Bogart.
“Brick” won a special Jury Prize at Sundance, and my understanding is that it has, in fact, been picked up for distribution. I suspect that despite its quality, it may have difficulty finding an audience. I hope I am wrong, because it was by far the best film I have seen this year. 5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

I'll make my first review here one that is timely, given the recent convictions of Enron execs Lay and Skilling, may they rot in hell.



Voltaire famously said that while he himself had lost his religion, he hoped that his butcher was a Christian. The assumption is that a religious man would be more honest in his dealings. I have always found, however, that there are just as many scoundrels on church pews as there are sleeping in on Sunday mornings. For those who doubt it, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” is a great introduction to the kind of rationalization that allows supposedly morally upright, Christian Conservative types to lie, cheat, and steal while maintaining the bland smile of a Baptist minister.

Unless you spent the last few years under a rock, you are at least vaguely aware of the Enron scandal. Ken Lay, an Enron top executive, lobbied hard in Washington and in the states for deregulation of energy companies. Once that deregulation occurred, Enron set out to make billions buying and selling energy futures, under the leadership of CEO Jeff Skilling. By posting record profits each quarter, Enron drove Wall Street traders into a frenzy, and their stock price doubled repeatedly. The company was a darling of conservatives, particularly Ken Lay’s good friend, George W. Bush. Then, very rapidly, it all came crashing down, as reporters and investors started asking questions that the company couldn’t answer. It came to light that those record profits were just based on projections, many of which never panned out. What’s worse, in order to hide their losses, Enron created dummy corporations under executive Andrew Fastow to which they sold worthless property to shore up their bottom line. Remarkably, they did this with the complicity of the world’s largest banks and Arthur Anderson, America’s oldest accounting firm. As the lies inevitably unraveled and Enron stock plummeted, Enron executives froze the employee retirement accounts so that employees couldn’t sell their Enron stock. Meanwhile, Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay unloaded their own stock for hundreds of millions of dollars. Finally Enron declared bankruptcy, leaving 20,000 people unemployed, with their retirement savings wiped out.

“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” is Alex Gibney’s crisp, riveting documentary about how Enron fooled all of the people for some of the time. Based on a book by reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, the film graphically depicts the greed and hypocrisy on which the company ran. The film is rated R for nudity (one of the Enron execs frequented strip bars), language, and one violent scene, but the part I really wouldn’t want a child to see is the recorded phone calls in which Enron traders laugh about shutting down power plants in order to manufacture the California energy crisis and raise electricity prices. The part that disgusted me the most, though, is the way Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling cloak themselves in the image of Christian, clean-cut, white-knights while committing fraud on a scale that is downright evil. These guys epitomize what is wrong with the so-called Neo-Conservative movement. Having said that, I am not a liberal, and this is not just a liberal film. Where “The Smartest Guys in the Room” delves into politics, it is mostly because the Enron story itself is rife with political connections. From energy deregulation to the Bush family connection to the Governor Gray Davis recall in California, the Enron story is in many ways a political story. Unfortunately, this is a story in which all the villains happen to be conservative Republicans. Other than taking a few shots at Arnold Schwarzenegger, however, the film is pretty even-handed about the politics; much more even-handed than this review!

With “Enron,” Alex Gibney has managed to take the potentially bone-dry subject of financial fraud and make a riveting tale. I was on the edge of my seat for this one! With the recent convictions of Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, this is the perfect time to watch it.

4.5 stars out of 5.