Saturday, December 31, 2011
The thing about comic-book movies is that most of them suck. They are assembled by committee to appeal to the lowest common denominator of the PG-13 universe. Still, the nerd inside me wants these movies to be good, so if there is any chance of a comic-book movie being worthwhile, I will usually check it out. Sometimes it’s a complete disaster, like “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” Sometimes the product is brilliant, as with the X-Men movies. “Hellboy” fell somewhere in between for me, although probably more on the positive side overall.
I think the key to enjoying this movie is to just go with it. The bizarre premise is that the Russian sorcerer and advisor to the Czar, Rasputin, is not dead, but lives on through the power of some multi-dimensional, Cthulhu-like, destruction god. During one failed attempt to bring his god into our world during WWII, Rasputin instead brings over a baby demon with a stone hand. When Rasputin and the Nazis are foiled by Allied troops, the demon falls into the hands of an American paranormal expert. Instead of being raised to help bring about the end of the world, he is raised by a loving father and trained to save the world from various paranormal threats. Hellboy (Ron Perlman), along with a centuries-old, bibliophile fish-man, lives in a secret government facility, brought out Ghostbuster-style to fight the occasional demon, and sneaking out from time to time to visit his pyrokinetic girlfriend, Liz(Selma Blair). Meanwhile, Rasputin hasn’t given up his plans for Hellboy and his tentacled god.
“Hellboy” would be an absolute disaster if it weren’t for some excellent performances, particularly on the part of Ron Perlman as the cigar-smoking, gruff, stone-fisted Hellboy. He lends a world-weary humor and humanity to the character that allows the ridiculous plot to be fun rather than stupid. Rupert Evans is not particularly interesting as the government agent trying to learn to manage Hellboy, but the rest of the cast provides more than adequate support. Jeffrey Tamboor is his usual crackling self, and Selma Blair actually exudes enough sarcasm to hold her own with Perlman. Actually, one of the best performances comes from a guy named Ladislav Beran, playing a clockwork, Nazi assassin who doesn’t say a word, but moves in the creepiest way possible.
“Hellboy” doesn’t elevate the comic-book movie as a genre, but it does show how the genre looks when it is done right.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Within 60 seconds of the start of “Limitless” I was asking, “Did David Fincher direct this?” Turns out it was a guy named Neil Burger, but he is clearly influenced by Fincher movies like “Fight Club” and “Phone Booth.” I mean that as a compliment. “Limitless” is not quite up to the level of “Fight Club,” but it has that kinetic, intelligent action feel.
Bradley Cooper plays Eddie Morra, a failing writer who stumbles into a stash of experimental, intelligence-enhancing pills. The results are astounding. Not only can he recall everything he has ever seen or heard and synthesize all that data into useful conclusions; his writer’s block is completely cured, and the drug improves his ambition and confidence. Eddie cleans up his apartment, writes a bestseller, then moves on to the stock market. The future is wide open, but other people want the drug, too, and then of course there are the side effects…
The thing about watching “Limitless” is that it makes you feel smart, kind of like watching a porno makes a guy feel well-hung. It’s the opposite of what you would expect, but it happens, and it just adds to the fun. Otherwise, the movie is edge-of-your-seat thrilling, with excellent performances all around. I have to admit that I have been a bit slow to get on the Bradley Cooper train. I guess I just think the guy looks like he would be a dick. I’m ready to declare myself a fan, though, because he is excellent in “Limitless.”
As enjoyable as “Limitless” is, the plot is not quite as tight as it should be. The “big twist” is something you see coming from miles away. Also there are a couple of scenes that strain credulity to the breaking point, such as when Eddie gets a much-needed dose of the medication by drinking the blood of a crook who is on the drug. The final scene also felt a bit off; not bad enough to ruin the movie, but it wasn’t up to the level of the rest of the film. Still, it’s a fun ride, and a vicarious look at what it might be like if you could unlock the full potential of your brain.
3.5 stars out of 5
Sunday, November 20, 2011
“Never Let Me Go” is a science fiction story of sorts set in an alternate present that is different from ours only in that the science of organ and tissue transplantation has been perfected so that it is widely used to greatly extend and improve most people’s lives. To meet the demand for organs, cloned human beings are created and raised in special schools so that their organs can be harvested when they reach adulthood. This heartbreaking film is their story.
The tale starts with Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield), and Ruth (Keira Knightley) as children. They have no idea that their life in a boarding school is any different from anyone else’s reality. They just know that they are never allowed off the school grounds, and that a couple of times a year a truckload of used toys, books, and clothes is brought around…a very exciting time for them. Kathy and Tommy develop a natural bond and seem destined for young love, but Kathy’s jealous friend, Ruth, steps in and makes Tommy her boyfriend first. Locked in this unyielding love triangle, the three grow into young adults, and the time approaches for them to start making the organ “donations” that will weaken and then kill them.
Interestingly, the young clones never openly question their status as cattle. They are allowed to wander freely, but none seem to attempt to escape their surgical fate. Still, their yearning for a human identity comes out in various ways, such as their widespread desire to find their “original,” the person from whose genes they were cloned. There is also a widespread myth among the clones that if a young couple can prove that they are truly in love with each other, they will be given a deferral of a few years to live together before beginning their donations.
As a young woman, Kathy is given the job of a “carer,” a clone whose donation time is delayed while they help other clones recover from their operations. This system presumably helps maximize the number of healthy organs that can be used from each clone before they die. In this job, Kathy is reunited with her old friends Tommy and Ruth, both weakened from organ removals, and the three get a chance to resolve some of the issues of their youthful friendship against the bitter backdrop of their foreshortened adult lives.
The question that immediately comes to mind is, “How can people allow a system like this to exist?” The answer, of course, is to look at slavery or segregation. Seemingly good people will do incredible ethical acrobatics to justify to themselves an arrangement that benefits them. In “Never Let Me Go” we eventually learn that there was initially some public outcry against the cloning, but that the public was so pleased with the health benefits of the transplants that such resistance eventually subsided. Meanwhile, one would think that the clones would try to escape their fate, but it seems that a lifetime of being told what their place is keeps them quiescent enough.
“Never Let Me Go” is an atypical sci-fi movie, set as it is in a gray, quaint, recent-past England, but parallels can be drawn to “Bladerunner.” Like the replicants in “Bladerunner,” the clones are created for the uses of others, and they face an untimely death surrounded by an uncaring world. Their desperate efforts to love and live as much as they can in the little time they have, and to make some sense of their cruelly short lives is, of course, a mirror of our own struggles. In the joy, regrets, bitterness, and even acceptance of Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth we see our own lives.
“Never Let Me Go” is a wonderfully made, well-acted film. It isn’t something to watch if you are looking for a barrel of laughs, but when you are ready for a thought-provoking drama, this is one to check out.
4 stars out of 5
Sunday, November 13, 2011
The thing you need to know about Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon is that they are beloved comic actors in the U.K., and have frequently worked together. As such, they often play off of their own public personas in their work, presumably exaggerating and playing off the public perception of Coogan as a bit of a self-important jerk, and of Brydon as the humbler, long-suffering friend. I have no idea what these two would be like in real life, but in “The Trip” they play these stylized versions of themselves as they travel around the English countryside, trying out country restaurants for an article Coogan is supposedly writing.
No need to worry too much about the plot of “The Trip,” because the important part here is all the little things that happen on the journey itself. The conversations, jokes, and songs that pass between these two had me rolling, and you can tell that much of it is improvised. In one particularly brilliant scene, the two bicker over their competing Michael Caine impressions (with Rob Brydon clearly the winner to my ear.) There are also some very poignant insights, as in this exchange:
Brydon: “Don’t you find it exhausting chasing and bedding all these young women?”
Coogan: “Don’t you find it exhausting taking care of a baby?”
Brydon: “We’re forty; everything is exhausting.”
As much as I loved “The Trip,” it is clearly not for everyone. It is very talky, very British, very dry. It’s the sort of thing you will like, if you like this sort of thing.
Thursday, November 10, 2011
“Starter for 10” is weighed down by the worst title since “The Forty-Year-Old Virgin.” Outside of that, it’s a charming, if formulaic, romantic comedy.
James McAvoy plays Brian, a lad from a working class, Essex family who gets an opportunity to attend a prestigious London university. Essex is sort of the New Jersey of England, so he’s a bit lost in the big city at first, but he quickly adapts. He joins the school’s University Challenge team, which is a quiz competition where the best teams compete on TV. Brian also finds himself vacillating between two gorgeous girls. The first is a lanky hippy named Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and the other is a posh, blond bombshell with a thing for dangerous men named Alice (Alice Eve). While these beauties distract Brian from his academic goals, his thuggish Essex buddy Spencer (Dominic Cooper) shows up at college to explain that he may have to go to jail for theft and fraud.
If you can’t guess what happens next, then I’m not gonna tell you, but the main weakness of “Starter for 10” is that every plot twist is completely predictable for anyone who has seen a couple of movies before. For such a well-acted movie, it couldn’t be more formulaic. There are the meet-cute scenes. There are a couple of classic, running headlong through the university campus scenes. There’s even some older-people-naked humor, a staple of British comedy.
Other than having a plot that is exactly the same as every other romantic comedy/coming-of-age movie, “Starter for 10” is quite enjoyable. The jokes are good, the acting is excellent all around, and the lead actresses are very easy on the eyes. It’s a British movie, but the accents are mostly understandable, and really the only thing standing between this movie and an American audience is the title, which I think refers to something the quiz show announcer might say.
Sunday, October 16, 2011
In “Paul,” nerdy, British comic/sci-fi fans Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost) take their dream vacation to the U.S. to visit Comic-Con, then RV around to different fabled UFO sites. Near a place called the Black Mailbox, they encounter an actual alien, escaped from a government base. The alien, Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), hitches a ride, and the trio find themselves running from government agents (Jason Bateman, Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio), rednecks, and the crazy father of a girl (Kristen Wiig) whom they accidentally abduct.
I think the key to watching “Paul” is having reasonable expectations. I saw some negative reviews of the movie, and I think those folks may have suffered from looking at the awesome cast list (see above) and thinking, “Whoa! Best. Comedy. Ever!” “Paul” is clearly not the best comedy ever, although with that cast, you couldn’t be blamed for expecting a bit more than you get with this movie. Nick Frost and Simon Pegg wrote it, and it must be said that their script is a rather straightforward, sophomoric, ’80’s-style alien comedy. The all-star comedic cast is so good, however, that the movie is still highly entertaining. The film relies a bit too heavily on bathroom and stoner humor as well as non-stop homages to sci-fi films past, but at the end of the evening it’s a pretty good time. The one caveat is that the portrayal of Kristen Wiig’s character and her father as creepy, fundamentalist Christians is typically over-the-top and will probably offend a lot of people of faith.
There isn’t much more to say about “Paul.” No new ground is broken here. This is a formulaic, but fun comedy with a great cast. Don’t expect the moon, and you won’t be disappointed.
Saturday, October 15, 2011
Netflix’s “watch it now” feature is almost as bad as cable for inducing a person to re-watch movies of questionable worth. You know what I’m talking about. You flop down on the couch, pull up the menu, and you’re like, “Hey, ‘Meet the Fockers’ is about to start.” Next thing you know you’ve lost 2 precious hours of your life. “Watch it Now” does the same thing to me. Just this year I have suckered myself into re-watching “Ghostbusters” and “The Running Man,” and now I can add “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” to the list.
Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) are the stoner characters who loitered outside the convenience store in “Clerks,” then showed up in the next few Kevin Smith movies, including “Mallrats” and “Chasing Amy.” They are really hilarious in small doses, but the fact that these guys are essentially the comic relief in movies that are already comedies should tell you something about how broadly drawn they are. I found that an entire movie about these characters is a bit too silly for me.
The story is that Jay and Silent Bob learn that their old friend Banky (Jason Lee’s character from “Chasing Amy”) is making a movie based on them and their pot-dealing exploits. The pair initially want to get some money out of the deal, but when they get a look at the negative internet comments circulating about them (“These guys are too stupid to live.” “F--- Jay and Silent Bob. F--- them in their stupid a-----s!”) they decide to try to stop the movie, hoping to silence the internet name-calling. What follows is a wacky road trip as the guys hitchhike from New Jersey to Hollywood, hooking up along the way with Shannon Elizabeth and her gang of hot babe heist artists, including Eliza Dushku wearing all the blue eye shadow in the world. The movie features cameos from a ton of characters from the previous Kevin Smith movies, which is fairly fun, but there are too many instances of winking at the camera to let us know they are in on the joke.
“Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” has some laughs, but never reaches the level of Kevin Smith’s better films. What fun there is here is strictly for Kevin Smith fans who have seen his other films, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend sitting down for a second viewing.
2 stars out of 5
Sunday, September 18, 2011
Perhaps you heard some of the buzz about this movie having a lot of nudity? Well, believe the hype. “Love and Other Drugs” delivers on the soft-porn front. Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway look great without their clothes, and the movie is not stingy with the sex scenes. What is pleasantly surprising is that it is actually a good movie when everyone has their clothes on, too.
Gyllenhaal plays Jamie, a handsome guy with a talent for selling things and for getting ladies to like him. He stumbles from retail sales into the murky world of pharmaceutical promotion, “The only entry-level job where you can make over $100K a year.” That’s no joke. Drug reps can make a ton of money if they can manage to do one thing: Get doctors to prescribe their medication. By any means necessary.
In a doctor’s office, Jamie meets Maggie (Hathaway), a young woman with early-onset Parkinson’s disease, and they crash into each other sexually like a couple of freight trains. They both commit to keeping things purely physical, but of course they aren’t able to keep that promise, and we get treated to a very sweet, well-played love story.
Meanwhile, Jamie learns how to navigate the shark-infested waters of drug promotion, but his career really explodes when he goes from selling antidepressants to marketing Viagra. Suddenly, doctors who used to avoid or ignore him start seeking him out. Everyone wants free Viagra samples, and Jamie leverages that new power to get doctors to prescribe his other meds as well.
I wish I could say that all the sleazy drug-rep shenanigans are exaggerated, but it is really spot-on. The scene where Jamie steals another rep's samples off a doctor’s shelf? That has happened. The scene where Jamie interjects, right there in a doctor’s office, to tell a patient that his drug might work better than the one the doctor is prescribing? It’s happened. The lunches and snacks, the free trips, the “preceptorship” where a doctor is paid to allow a rep to hang out with him all day? All true. The film does a good job presenting the variety of physician responses to all the marketing. Some of them completely shun the reps; some are partly open, especially if the rep has something he wants (like Viagra samples); and some, like Dr. Knight (Hank Azaria), allow themselves to get really chummy with the reps. Even Dr. Knight is presented with complexity. He discusses the frustration of having to see so many patients each day that he can’t take the time to do good medicine. Much of his time gets sucked up fighting insurance companies, both for his own pay and for coverage of his patients’ meds and testing. He seems like a decent doctor who has burned out fighting a broken system.
It’s a shame, really, that this movie became known mainly for the nakedness, because there is some good philosophical material here. There are plenty of movies about dealing with your lover developing a fatal disease, but in “Love and Other Drugs” the girl already has the disease. The question is, “Can a selfish guy like Jamie love and commit to someone whose ten to twenty year outlook is so bleak, and even if he can, should he? Is a young man being fair to himself by selecting a mate whom he will probably be lifting on and off the toilet in the not-so-distant future?” The second big question of the film regards Jamie’s pharmaceutical job. Can he continue to do this job in good conscience? Here the film stumbles a bit by failing to present the entire picture. They show the dark side of drug-repping, but they fail to depict the fact that most drug reps do not consider themselves sleazy salesmen. They believe that they are serving an educational function. The film shows companies hiring former cheerleaders and beauty queens, and that is real, but most of the reps I have known have some sort of science background. That doesn’t mean that the information they share with doctors is balanced or objective, but I think that on some level the reps believe that it is. Jamie doesn’t seem to have any such delusions.
With excellent acting, an engrossing love story, and two great-looking people getting naked, “Love and Other Drugs” is well worth seeing. Watch it with a date, not with your parents.
Saturday, September 17, 2011
Several years ago I saw a movie at the Sundance Film Festival called “The Puffy Chair,” by rookie filmmakers Mark and Jay Duplass. The movie was a rough-around-the-edges romantic dramedy, and not a bad little independent film. The Duplass brothers showed promise. “Cyrus” is the first thing I’ve seen from them since, and it looks like now that they have access to a bigger budget and top-notch actors, they still want to make rough-around-the-edges, independent, romantic dramedies.
The best thing about “Cyrus” is the cast, which is just bursting with talent. John C. Reilly plays John, a heartbroken guy who still isn’t over his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) after seven years. His life starts looking up when a hottie named Molly (Marissa Tomei) takes a liking to him, but things get complicated when he meets her clinging, passive-aggressive, grown son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill). From then on it’s just one annoying act after another on Cyrus’s part as he tries to split John and Molly up so he can have his mom for himself.
Yep this is one of those comedies of frustration, where we are supposed to laugh uproariously at the cringe-inducing acts of some inappropriate character. “Cyrus” is not nearly as broad as, say, “What About Bob?”, which is to it’s credit. The problem is that by making the characters and situations more real, they make it that much more difficult to find humor in the situation. The film does make the point that Molly is just as much a part of this co-dependent, dysfunctional mother-son relationship as Cyrus. That makes it harder to sympathize with Molly. I was rooting for John to just cut his losses and go find himself a saner woman.
I seriously considered ending “Cyrus” early, but the strength of the acting kept me watching, and I suppose I’m glad I did. Molly and Cyrus do sort of redeem themselves by the end, and I find that I like the movie better looking back on it than while watching it. I think the movie was mis-marketed, with the trailer seeming to suggest a raucous, “Meet the Parents”-style comedy, which this definitely is not. The Duplass brothers have a knack for working with genuine, complex human emotion, but I won’t become a real fan until they figure out how to have more fun with it.
2.5 stars out of 5
Sunday, September 11, 2011
Saturday, August 13, 2011
There was a time when being a fan of the work of Trey Parker and Matt Stone made you part of a cool cult. I was part of that cult. I loved “South Park,” and I had seen the little, animated Christmas short that started it all. I also watched Parker and Stone’s first movie, a bizarrely hilarious musical called “Cannibal! The Musical.”
Nowadays, there is nothing cultish about loving Parker and Stone. After achieving Hollywood success with their animated movies “South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut” and “Team America: World Police” the guys have become the toast of Broadway with their critically acclaimed musical “The Book of Mormon.” It’s nice to see them getting the recognition they deserve, but I can’t help missing, just a little, being part of that cool, nerdy cult.
“Orgazmo” hearkens back to those earlier Parker/Stone days, before they had access to big budgets and big studio backing. This is reflected in the film’s NC-17 rating, which is an absolute joke, and reflects the sheer hypocrisy of the MPAA ratings system. I really can’t even say what specifically would have gotten it that rating. The violence is cartoonish, and the sex is WAY less graphic than what you can see in any number of R-rated films. I would bet that if this film had been made under a big studio, it would have been rated “R”, rather than the kiss-of-death NC-17. “Orgazmo” is a movie about porn; it is not itself anything close to a porno. What it is is dead hilarious.
Trey Parker plays Joseph Young (a combination of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, the two most important LDS prophets). Joe and his fellow LDS missionary are walking the streets of L.A., holding their copies of the Book of Mormon and cheerfully getting doors slammed in their faces. When they intrude on a porno shoot, security guards attack them, and Joe regretfully uses his martial arts to defend himself. The porno director takes a look at the strapping, fresh-faced Joe and his fighting skills, and realizes that Joe would be perfect for a superhero porno film. Now of course, no good Mormon boy would normally make a porno, but Joe is desperate to make some money so he can marry his Utah girl in the LDS Temple. With the offer of $20,000 and a promise that he can keep his clothes on (A “stunt cock” will be brought in for all the sex scenes.), a Mormon porn star is born.
Trey Parker is perfection in this role. Joe maintains a sense of shocked revulsion at the pornography, but he can’t help getting into the acting, as evidenced by the superhero voice he uses in his scenes. Matt Stone kills in his goofy role as a photographer. (“I don’t want to sound like a queer or nothin’, but that’s some hot porn action!”) Michael Dean Jacobs is hilarious as Maxxx Orbison, the director. His frustration with Joe’s prudishness is quite convincing. My favorite “Orgazmo” character, however, is Choda-boy (Dian Bachar), the porn-hero sidekick who is a wealthy inventor when he isn‘t making porn.
“Orgazmo” is not porn, but it is definitely not for everyone. While there isn’t any graphic sex, the discussions about various sex acts are quite graphic. Don’t say you weren’t warned. There are also many for whom the goofy, over-the-top humor just won’t click. For me the movie works, because you have to get in touch with your inner teenager to watch it, but you don’t have to turn off your brain. “Orgazmo” never tries to take itself seriously, so it never stops having fun.
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
I never got around to seeing this a few years ago when it was a big sensation and won an Oscar. Lately, though, I’ve been working on my Spanish, so I have put some Spanish language films on the list. “Pan’s Labyrinth” turned out to be a great choice, because the actors speak Spanish more clearly than in some of the other films I have watched. This won’t be an important point for most viewers, but after re-watching “Nine Queens” recently and having a hard time telling for sure that the Argentinean actors were even speaking Spanish, it meant something to me. More important, of course, is that it is a crackin’ good movie.
Guillermo del Toro wrote and directed this dark adult fairy tale in which a young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) attempts to escape from her miserable circumstances during the Spanish civil war. Ofelia’s widowed mother (Maribel Verdu) has married a captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), of Franco’s fascist army. Vidal turns out to be a ruthless, viscious leader, intent on rooting out the local resistance fighters by any means necessary. He is dutifully attentive to the needs of Ofelia and her mother, but his only real interest seems to be to have Ofelia’s mother bear him a son, which seems to be necessary for his macho self-image.
Thrust into this physically comfortable but emotionally hostile situation, Ofelia is distracted by a fairy, who leads her into a wooded labyrinth and ultimately to the bottom of a well, where she meets a faun. The faun explains that Ofelia is not the helpless, fatherless girl that she thinks she is. She is actually the re-incarnated daughter of the King of the underworld. If she can complete three dangerous, magical tasks, she can claim her birthright and join her real father. Meanwhile, Ofelia is surrounded by the violence and intrigue of the Spanish Civil War, as her stepfather tightens the clamps on the resistance. Her mother is distracted by a difficult pregnancy, so Ofelia is left to her fairies and her quests.
“Pan’s Labyrinth” is, quite simply, an example of what good filmmaking looks like. Ofelia’s magical world is as visually spectacular as it is creepy. The story is good, and the acting is excellent. Sergi Lopez is particularly chilling as the brutal Captain Vidal. I did find the darker elements of the movie disturbing, and no one should mistake this for a movie for kids. For adults, though, it’s an excellent film, and it will even help you brush up on your Spanish.
Sunday, July 17, 2011
When I hear the name Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I tend to think of some backwater, middling, mid-western city. (In fairness, I know nothing about the place.) For Tim Lippe though, Cedar Rapids is very much the big city. A grown man, probably in his forties, Tim has never left the small, farming town where he grew up and has worked his whole adult life as an insurance agent. Beloved by his clients for his honesty and earnestness, he is mostly ignored by his co-workers, and we get the impression that the only sexual experience he has is a current fling with his old junior high school teacher.
When the star salesman at Tim’s agency dies, Tim (Ed Helms) is handed the job of going to Cedar Rapids for a small insurance convention where he will pitch has agency for a prestigious award. Every aspect of this trip, including flying and staying in a hotel for the first time, terrifies Tim. Rube that he is, though, he is generally likeable, so he winds up getting befriended by a wacky trio played by John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. Over a couple of days, these new friends help Tim come out of his shell, even as he learns some ugly truths about the insurance industry.
I didn’t hear a thing about this film during its theatrical release. It was a review of the DVD in “Entertainment Weekly,” suggesting that it was an overlooked gem, that caught my eye. They were right; the movie is charming. It’s pretty silly and over-the-top, but not in an obnoxious, Will Ferrell way. Ed Helms (Andy, from “The Office”) is a comedic genius, and John C. Reilly just knocks it out of the park. Even Anne Heche is funny and surprisingly sexy in this. Fans of the movie “Office Space” may recognize Stephen Root, who played Milton in that film, in a small role. It was also a treat to see Alia Shawkat, who played Maeby on “Arrested Development”. Here she plays a hooker with a heart of gold.
“Cedar Rapids” isn’t going to set a new standard for comedies or engender world peace or anything, but it’s a fun little movie and well worth checking out.
3.5 stars out of 5
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
I’ve recently become a fan of a couple of geniuses of British comedy, Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan. If the names aren’t familiar, the faces might be. The two have done a ton of work in England, and have both done small roles in a number of U. S. productions. I know Brydon best from his role as Uncle Bryn, in “Gavin and Stacey.” I was less familiar with Coogan until recently, but I recognize his face from movies like “The Other Guys” and “Tropic Thunder.” He actually looks a bit like Eric Idle (Monty Python), but Coogan’s humor is more along the awkward lines of Ricky Gervais.
Now that I’ve talked about these actors’ comedy skills, I have to point out that while they are both in “24 Hour Party People,” it is not, strictly speaking, a comedy. The movie has plenty of humor, but what it is is a rather dizzy portrayal of the 1980’s Manchester music scene, which gave us brilliant bands like Joy Division, New Order, James, and The Happy Mondays. Steve Coogan stars as Tony Wilson, the TV personality who started Factory Records and introduced these bands to a grateful world. He discovered and promoted Joy Division, mourned the suicide of their lead singer, and nurtured the rest of the band as they re-emerged as New Order. He discovered the Happy Mondays, and struggled to get them to stay sober long enough to make some records. While promoting all this great music, he also started the first rave club, The Hacienda, kicking off a worldwide movement. As good as his ear for music was, Wilson was a terrible businessman (according to the film), and he managed not to really make any money out of the whole affair. Still, he made possible a tremendous amount of good music, and he put his hometown of Manchester on the music map.
Watching “24 Hour Party People” is a bit like being at one of Wilson’s raves. The handheld camera work and documentary style are disorienting even if you are familiar with the music. Coogan occasionally breaks character to speak directly to the camera, which takes some getting used to, and they sort of assume that you know these bands and their music. It’s a really fun ride, though. You just have to hold on and let it sweep you along. The one caveat is that this movie is really only for fans of the music. If you have never heard of the bands I mentioned here, then I don’t know that this story will hold any interest.
Saturday, July 02, 2011
The thing is, you either like Will Ferrell or you don’t. I find him tedious. I can’t say that he has never made me laugh, but his specialty seems to be to do something that is funny for one second, and stretch it out to one minute. His humor shifts tone in ways that I find ugly. If he finds himself doing something that is actually funny, he moves it into some dark place, just to see if the audience will keep laughing. That problem with tone pervades “The Other Guys,” a movie that has a hard time figuring out what kind of comedy it is going to be.
Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg play a couple of cops. They aren’t cool, swaggering cops who catch and kill bad guys in big chase sequences. They are “the other guys,” the desk-jockeys who fill out the paperwork. Wahlberg’s character is chained to a desk because of a mistaken shooting. Ferrell’s character just likes to do paperwork. They finally get out on the street and chase some bad guys when the paperwork puts them on the trail of a Ponzi scheme. In between there’s a lot of ineptly done character development, including a running joke about how Ferrell’s character thinks his gorgeous wife (Eva Mendes) is plain-looking.
I’ve been trying to figure out why I even thought this movie would be worth watching, and the answer is Mark Wahlberg. There’s just something about the guy. I used to think he just played the same character in every movie, but over the years he has won me over. Unfortunately, Wahlberg’s charm is not enough to save this movie.
“The Other Guys” is not completely without laughs. There’s a funny bit where a couple of cops convince Ferrell’s character that in order to fit in he needs to “accidentally” fire his gun inside the station, which they call a “desk pop.” Ferrell screaming, “I need an MRI. I need an MRI.” after an explosion is pretty hilarious as well. Mostly, though, the movie features Ferrell on an entirely too-long leash, going all over the place with his shtick while the film lurches from one nonsensical scene to another. If you find it while flipping through channels in a hotel, it might be worth sitting through, but otherwise, give it a skip.
2 stars out of 5
Thursday, June 30, 2011
I can’t believe I waited so long to see this. I really need to get better about watching these Oscar-nominated movies. “The Hurt Locker” is an Iraq War movie directed by a woman, so I figured it was a real talky, heavy-handed, message movie about how horrible war is, and this war in particular. It’s none of that. This is a fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat action movie that does not suck in any way.
Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner), Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) form a 3-man Ordinance team, specializing in diffusing the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that dot the Iraqi landscape. The work is incredibly risky, and on every job the stress level is intensified by the fact that they are watched by loads of Iraqis, most of whom are just curious, but any of whom could be an insurgent with a detonating device.
No “Best Director” Oscar has been more deserving than the one Kathryn Bigelow won for “The Hurt Locker.” In every scene she brings the viewer right into the situation. You really feel the intensity of being in this dusty, claustrophobic place, surrounded by hostile foreigners. Every scene crackles with the possibility of death.
“The Hurt Locker” is not an anti-war movie, but it doesn’t shy away from the contradictions inherent in these modern conflicts. Iraq was easy to invade, but it’s hard to hold. Tasked with rebuilding the country and keeping peace between murderous factions, our soldiers are vulnerable every minute to attack from the people they are trying to help. If they are overly friendly, they may get killed, but if they are too zealous in defending themselves, they wind up hurting some civilians, which is not only bad in itself, but fuels the insurgents‘ cause. This is more mentally exhausting for some men than for others. Specialist Eldridge is in counseling to deal with his guilt over failing to shoot a shopkeeper before the man could detonate a bomb that killed the team’s former leader. If he had hastily killed an innocent shopkeeper, however, he probably would have needed counseling for that, too.
Sergeant James, on the other hand, seems to thrive on the work. It’s like he was born to defuse bombs. In a fascinating conversation with Sgt. Sanborn, he reveals that his coolness under pressure isn’t born of any Zen philosophy or great courage; he simply has less fear than most people. Growing up, he was probably the goofy redneck always pulling crazy stunts. Back home, he’s just another guy with a dangerous penchant for risk-taking, but in war, he is in his element. Towards the close of the film there is a telling scene in which Sgt. James is back home in the grocery store, trying to pick out cereal for his kid, confounded in a way that he never was in Iraq.
“The Hurt Locker” is no message movie; it is not anti-war or pro-war. I can’t say how true-to-life it is. My friends who have served in Iraq tend not to watch movies about it. All I can say is that this is a gripping action movie that deserves a place alongside such films as “Saving Private Ryan” and “Full Metal Jacket” in the cannon of great war movies.
4.5 stars out of 5
Sunday, June 26, 2011
Sports movies are a hit-or-miss proposition. Between the acting and the action, a lot can go wrong. However heavily the film focuses on the sport itself as opposed to the human drama, my opinion is that they have to get the sport right. “Hot Dog” doesn’t get much else right, but this movie really nails the skiing action.
The plot is standard ‘80’s sports drama. Fresh-faced skier Harkin Banks (Patrick Houser) picks up a sexy hitchhiker named Sunny (Tracy Smith) on his way to the big, international, freestyle skiing competition in Squaw Valley, CA. Once there Harkin is befriended by some happy-go-lucky, underdog skiers, and he makes an enemy of the reigning champion, asshole Austrian Rudi Garmisch (John Patrick Reger). The insipid plot continues from there, following the standard formula for these movies. What really makes the movie bad is not the formulaic plot, though, but the acting. It’s like Patrick Houser and Tracy Smith are competing to see who can act worse. Every actor in the movie sucks, with the possible exception of David Naughton, who plays an alcoholic former ski-champ who takes Harkin under his wing. Oh yeah, Shannon Tweed is in this, and while she can’t act either, she does look really good naked.
That brings up one other positive aspect of the movie, the nakedness. I didn’t keep a running count of the bare breasts, Joe Bob Briggs-style, but there’s a fair amount of soft-porn action to distract you from the bad acting.
Ultimately, though, the saving grace of “Hot Dog” is the skiing. They got a talented group of stunt skiers to lay down some seriously sweet extreme skiing. They blast down the backcountry chutes, go off cliffs, and rip up moguls, and it’s all genuine skiing. During the competition scenes, they even have an event called “ballet,” which is pretty much dancing down the slope. I had never seen this before, and it’s way cooler than you would think. I suppose some might ask, “Why not just watch a Warren Miller ski film?”, to which I would respond, “Have you ever seen Shannon Tweed getting her breasts soaped up in a giant tub in a Warren Miller movie?”
1 star for the acting, 5 stars for the skiing, so we’ll settle at 3 stars out of 5.
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
As Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut, this film does not reflect particularly well on him, but I suppose that after this movie he had nowhere to go but up. Eastwood’s work has always been hit or miss for me. “Unforgiven,” and “The Outlaw Josie Wales” are awesome, but in movies like “Million Dollar Baby“ he indulges an entirely unacceptable level of melodrama and sentimentality. “Play Misty For Me” shows these faults at their worst.
Eastwood plays David, a smooth-voiced, late-night radio DJ with a weakness for the ladies and a soft spot in his heart for a blue-eyed artist named Tobie (Donna Mills, sporting a bizarre girl-mullet instead of the gigantic eighties hair for which she is remembered). David lets himself get picked up by a fan named Evelyn (Jessica Walter) for a one night stand that Evelyn forces into a multi-day fling. When Tobie shows back up, David has no interest in seeing Evelyn anymore, but she turns out to be the kind of girl who won’t take “No” for an answer. He tries to be assertive, but he is impotent against Evelyn’s increasingly crazy, clingy, and ultimately violent behavior, which winds up putting his career, his life, and everyone he cares about in danger.
It’s all very reminiscent of “Fatal Attraction.” To be fair, “Play Misty for Me” came first, but that’s the only advantage this movie has. The sad thing is, none of the actors deserved this movie. Everybody does a pretty decent job with their character, even Clint Eastwood, who basically plays the same squinty-eyed stoic he always plays. Jessica Walters even does pretty well as the Borderline Personality Disordered Evelyn. The problem here isn’t the acting, it’s the movie itself. The plot is painfully obvious, lumbering along as it does toward the terrible acts of violence that you can see coming miles away, but before you get to them you have to suffer through endless, schmaltzy, soft-focus love scenes between David and Tobie.
Even for a Clint Eastwood fan, this would be a good one to skip. Re-watch “Fatal Attraction” instead.
Tuesday, May 31, 2011
I had forgotten what a brilliant, hilarious piece of work this is. I remembered the weirdness, the puppeteering, Catherine Keener’s bitchiness, but what grabbed me this second time around is that this movie is hilarious. Hilarious and cool as shit.
John Cusack plays Craig Schwarz, an incredibly talented puppeteer in a world where there just isn’t much demand for that sort of thing. He takes a job as a file clerk for a company located on the 8 & 1/2 floor of a building, a half-sized floor that boasts cheap rent, but forces everyone to walk hunched over. Craig meets and falls pathetically for Maxine (Catherine Keener). He would gladly leave his mousy wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) and her menagerie of pets for Maxine, but she is completely disinterested. That all changes when Craig discovers, behind a file cabinet, a hidden tunnel that leads into the actor John Malkovich’s mind. Anyone who crawls into the tunnel gets to see the world through Malkovich’s eyes for 15 minutes, before being dumped into the grass next to the New Jersey turnpike.
Maxine isn’t any more interested in the scientific or philosophical implications of this tunnel than she is in dating a puppeteer, but she immediately sees the monetary potential in being able to charge people for the opportunity to “be” John Malkovich. While she and Craig rake in the cash, Maxine falls in love with Lotte, but only when Lotte is in Malkovich’s body. Would you believe me if I said it gets even weirder from there?
“Being John Malkovich” is simply a wonderfully funny movie, and a wild ride. It manages to warp the viewer’s sense of reality without resorting to any of the cheap tricks that plague “head trip” movies. It isn’t all a dream, or a hallucination, or somebody’s fantasy. In the best science fiction tradition, the filmmaker creates a bizarre, new, technological possibility, then has interesting, fully realized characters negotiate that possibility. The result is engrossing and hilarious.
4.5 stars out of 5
Sunday, April 24, 2011
It’s nice to know there are some things in this world you can count on. The James Bond formula is one of them. Start with the opening credits over some lame, mildly titillating graphics, then kick the movie off immediately with an action sequence. Then Bond reports to M for some gentle scolding about “crossing the line,” and we’re off on another disposable adventure with Agent 007 and some nifty gadgets. It took me a while to get around to this latest (and so far last) installment, but there’s really no urgency to this sort of thing. It isn’t like people I know are going to be talking about the movie and ruin the plot for me!
Truth is, it’s a waste of time to summarize the plot of a Bond film. Suffice to say that Daniel Craig is once again ruggedly handsome and sufficiently deadly as 007. I really do like his hard-edged take on Bond, and I hope he will get to do a couple more of the films. The action in “Quantum of Solace” is pretty much standard-issue Bond. There’s a car chase, boat chase, plane chase, you get the picture. They don’t waste a lot of time on fancy gadgets in this one, which is refreshing. Bond just relies on his wits, his gun, his fists, and his cellphone. For Bond girls this go-round we get Gemma Arterton, who is rather uninspiring as Strawberry Fields, although she does meet her end in a very nice homage to an earlier Bond film. Fortunately, the main Bond-babe is the amazing-looking Olga Kurylenko, who tints her skin to play a part-Latina assassin.
One disappointment about the modern-day Bond movies is the lack of memorable villains. From the Timothy Dalton movies on, I can’t name or describe a single bad guy. I generally just recall a bunch of vaguely greasy characters involved in things like terrorism, environmental degradation, or global corporate conspiracies. Yawn. Give me a one-eyed guy with a cat any day. Even better, give me Goldfinger, the best Bond villain ever.
For a while it looked like financial problems at MGM might make this the last Bond movie, at least for a while. Fortunately, a deal with Sony has resurrected the series, with the next movie release planned for 2012. Will they finally create a villain half as interesting as Daniel Craig’s Bond? We should be so lucky.
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Sometimes it pays to listen to the critics, and sometimes it pays to listen to a second opinion. I completely wrote this movie off back when I saw the trailer for it. It looked like just another lame, romantic comedy, and critics didn‘t seem to care much for it when it was in theatres. Also, the premise: a guy hijacks his female friend’s artificial insemination, seemed too similar to some Jennifer Lopez movie that was also getting advertised back then. Fast forward to the present, when this movie, and all other movies dealing with artificial insemination, have been relegated to history. The DVD section of Entertainment Weekly had a good review of the DVD, suggesting that it is an overlooked gem, so my wife convinced me to give it a try. It turns out this really is a fun, little comedy.
Jason Bateman plays Wally, basically the same likeable, slightly awkward character that Bateman always plays, maybe a little more misanthropic and neurotic this time around. He is secretly in love with his best friend, Kassie (Jennifer Aniston), but lacks the walnuts to make a move. Instead he hangs out in the “friend zone” while they both suffer through one failed relationship after another, until Kassie decides to have a baby via artificial insemination. Rather than just having the procedure done in a doctor’s office, Kassie throws a party, where everyone gets to meet the handsome, Viking-like donor, Roland (Patric Wilson). A mixture of alcohol and Xanax puts Wally in a position to “accidentally” pour out Roland’s sperm sample, then replace it with his own. Thanks to the roofie-like effect of the Xanax, Wally remembers nothing the next day.
Thinking that New York might be a tough place to raise her son, Kassie moves back to the mid-west, leaving Wally to continue his string of doomed romances. When she moves back to NYC a few years later, Wally is delighted to meet her son, whose odd quirks seem hauntingly familiar. Meanwhile, Kassie strikes up a relationship with Roland, whom she believes to be the father of her son. Hilarity ensues, along a surprisingly tasteful helping of real emotion.
While there are some good laughs in “The Switch,“ it’s the emotional side that elevates the film beyond it’s hackneyed premise. Jason Bateman may not have the greatest dramatic range, but he has a genuineness that plays really well here. His interactions with his son, Sebastian (Thomas Robinson) hinge on the fact that Sebastian is rather precocious and doesn’t like being talked down to, while Wally probably wouldn’t know how to patronize a little kid even if he needed to. Here’s one classic piece of father-son dialogue:
Wally: So, how do you like your new school?
Sebastian: How come everybody asks me that?
Wally: Because you’re a kid. There’s nothing else to talk about.
Jennifer Aniston is also surprisingly good in this role. I’ve always found her quite charming, but pretty bland as an actress, but she really brings some personality to the role of Kassie.
“The Switch” is as formulaic as you might expect, and certainly not the best romantic comedy ever, but good acting saves the day. Your life won’t be missing anything if you don’t manage to rent it, but it is worth a watch if you get the chance.
3 stars out of 5
Thursday, March 17, 2011
It’s a good question, really. With all the fans of superhero comics out there, why doesn’t anyone ever put on a costume and go out to fight crime? This is the question posed by Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), the quiet high-school student who is the protagonist of “Kick-Ass.” Sick of being preyed on by local thugs, Dave buys a colorful diving suit, a mask, and a nightstick, then proceeds to get his ass handed to him by a couple of hoodlums and a hit-and-run driver. This would discourage most people, but Dave is motivated by something that I think many of us have felt: He is sick of seeing assholes prey on the weak while everyone else turns away. He heals his wounds, puts the costume back on, and manages to bumble into a situation where he actually helps someone.
The instant celebrity of the “superhero” known as Kick-Ass inspires the populace, even though Dave has no “powers” and doesn’t even have any athletic talent or fighting skills. His only edge is that his original injuries leave him with some nerve damage that supposedly makes him impervious to most pain. Other than that, he’s just a fed-up citizen with a nightstick. His activities do, however, bring him to the attention of a pair of more capable, if less likely, masked vigilantes. The mentally unbalanced Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) wears a Batman costume and takes his 11-year-old daughter Mindy, also known as Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) along on his crime-fighting missions. Both are ridiculously bad ass experts in gung-fu, gun-fu, and everything in between, and they have no qualms about killing criminals. The pair have a grudge against a mafia boss, and Kick-Ass/Dave winds up in the middle of it.
Most action movies, and definitely most comic book movies, try to get a PG-13 rating to maximize their access to the teen audience. Not “Kick-Ass.” Between her foul mouth and her penchant for bloodshed, Hit Girl earns this film an R all by herself. Chloe Moritz is actually pretty awesome, and it will be interesting to see how she turns out as an actress. Nic Cage chews the scenery admirably in a movie that is actually suited to his bizarre talent. Aaron Johnson didn’t blow me away or anything, but he does alright in the title role.
Through a combination of sincerity and audacity, “Kick-Ass” manages to overcome its formulaic plot and genuinely entertain. I like that the movie doesn’t apologize for glorifying vigilante justice. A lot of good people would like to do exactly what Dave, Big Daddy, and Hit Girl do. I dig that this movie doesn’t do the standard, hypocritical, Hollywood thing of profiting from displays of violence, then throwing in a public service announcement about how violence is never the answer. (Batman, anyone?) You know what? Sometimes violence IS the answer. Yeah, I understand the dangers of vigilantism, but sometimes I want to watch a movie where a decent citizen who isn’t a cop or a soldier kicks the bad guys’ asses. “Kick-Ass” is that movie.
Tuesday, March 08, 2011
This week we watched this pair of films by French New Wave mastermind Jean-Luc Godard, and I‘m not yet sure what I think of them. Godard was clearly a highly influential filmmaker. As part of the ‘60’s New Wave (Nouvelle Vague), he made an effort to break with the conventions of traditional Hollywood-style filmmaking. He used hand-held cameras, long tracking shots, curious cuts between shooting angles, and long talking scenes. The effect of his experiments is to sacrifice photographic perfection in favor of intimacy with the actors. This works, which is why so many of his methods have been adopted by modern directors like Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, Richard Linklater and others. Unfortunately, once we get intimate with his characters, we find that there isn’t much to them. In these two films, at least, Godard seems to have focused on style at the expense of character and story.
“Breathless” is the better of the two, in my opinion. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Michel, a small-time crook who hits the big time by killing a cop. He flees to Paris to collect some money he is owed and hook up with Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American girl with whom he is in love, to the extent that he is able to love. The film explores what it means to love someone, especially for an emotional midget like Michel. The film never manages to convince me that Michel is capable of viewing another person as more than an object to be used, but he does seem to love Patricia in that he is unable to drag himself away from her, even when staying puts him in danger of getting caught by the police. As for Patricia, I can’t really figure out what she is feeling for Michel. She allows him to make her an accessory after the fact to murder, so I suppose there is some devotion there, but in the whole affair I get the feeling that she is just watching herself from outside to see how self-destructive she might allow herself to be over a man whom she doesn’t even necessarily like. I suppose we have all been guilty of emotional confusion and delusion, and this was Godard’s way of exploring that. At the end of the day, I don’t know that Godard said anything extraordinary, but he does manage to make Jean Seberg and Paris look absolutely charming.
Godard worked with Jean-Paul Belmondo again in “Pierrot le Fou” (Peter the madman). Belmondo plays Ferdinand, a bored husband who casually leaves his family one night to run off with a crazy ex-girlfriend. Marianne (Anna Karina) is all mixed up with various criminal types, and she and Ferdinand wind up fleeing across France with a rifle and a suitcase full of money. This is a classic setup for a fun, action-packed, Bonnie-and-Clyde-style movie, but somehow the actors never manage to make life on the lam seem all that compelling. Any normal person would be wildly turned on to be on the run in the company of someone as sexy as Anna Karina or Jean-Paul Belmondo, but Michel and Marianne seem to be bored before the journey is even begun. I don’t think this is completely the fault of Godard’s script. Some interesting things happen to the two fugitives, but Belmondo in particular seems to be sleep-walking through most of the movie. It’s a shame, because “Pierrot, Le Fou” could be a classic example of New Wave film. There are some interesting uses of voice-over to create commentary and inner dialogue, unique cuts between camera shots, and the actors even break into song at times. The beginning of the movie has a particularly scathing scene at a high-society party, where all the conversation is in the form of commercials. (It is this party that drives Michel to run off with Marianne.)
“Pierrot, Le Fou” also showcases a general amorality that seems to be popular in French movies. In American movies, outlaws have a code of their own, and if they break that code or harm an innocent person, they are usually punished for it. In French movies, on the other hand, the stars will do truly rotten things to innocent bystanders and never be made to pay for their deeds. Some people think of the French as socialists, but judging by their movies, I think the French are naturally anarchists. Socialism may just be what it takes to keep those crazy bastards in line.
I feel bad that I wasn’t more into these movies, since Godard is considered such a master. My take on Godard so far is that he was an innovator of filmmaking style, who helped others make some truly great films. As for these two films, they are just okay.
Breathless - 3 stars
Pierrot, le Fou - 2 stars
Sunday, March 06, 2011
I’m probably the last person in the free world to see “Iron Man.” It was pretty much what I expected: a slightly better-than-average comic book movie that, despite competent acting, is still mostly aimed at 14-year-old boys. I’m sure you know the basic idea behind the movie and the comic it‘s based on: Billionaire inventor Tony Stark builds himself a high-tech suit of armor that allows him to fly and shoot various weapons from his limbs.
Robert Downey, Jr. plays Stark with humor and confidence, but I was actually disappointed that the film didn’t offer up more depth to this character. In the comics, Stark has a history of alcoholism. With Robert Downey, Jr’s addiction history, it would have been interesting to see him explore this territory, but the film doesn’t go there. Likewise, the all-star supporting cast (Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark’s assistant, Jeff Bridges as Stark’s business mentor, and Terrence Howard as his military liaison) lend a level of class to this action flick, but they don’t really get to develop their characters. This is par for the course for an action movie, but it isn’t just explosions that take up the time. “Iron Man” spends a LOT of time with Stark in the lab, developing his suits, and while I liked seeing this side of the story, it actually got to be a bit tedious. The movie could have easily been twenty minutes shorter if they had trimmed some of these scenes. Then there’s the ridiculous plot-line involving Stark having pieces of metal shrapnel lodged in his heart, so he has to wear an electro-magnet on his chest to hold the metal in place so he doesn’t die. It’s ludicrous.
My problem with “Iron Man” is that I went into it believing the hype about how Downey’s amazing performance made this a different kind of comic-book movie. It doesn’t. This is the same old song, just played by better musicians. There’s a lot of good material available in this story, but the filmmakers don’t bother to take advantage of it. There’s that alcoholism issue, for one. The film could have also delved more into Stark’s motivations for getting out of the weapons-design business. The movie does touch on this a little, and I like where they were going. Stark believes that there is nothing wrong with designing better weapons and selling them to the “good guys,” but when he learns that his weapons are getting into the hands of our enemies, he starts to view the enterprise as futile. If everyone is getting his weapons, then he isn’t really tilting conflicts in favor of the good guys, he is just profiting off making those conflicts deadlier. He comes to believe that if he applies his genius to peaceful pursuits, clean energy production for example, then he can make more of a positive impact on the world, and possibly make some of those conflicts unnecessary. “Iron Man” suggests all of this, but I think they should have run with it. They could also have done more to explain what drives Jeff Bridges’s character. Instead the movie sticks with pretty typical hero and villain archetypes.
Why am I quibbling about the narrative in a comic-book movie? I don’t believe we should have to settle for mediocrity in a story just because of its genre. We have always had stories about heroes and gods, beings with special powers who carry on the age-old battle between good and evil. Comics are just the modern incarnation of that tradition. Comic books and the movies made from them are targeted mostly at kids, which explains much of their shallowness, but there is nothing that says kids don’t deserve better. I think these stories deserve to be told well. “Iron Man” is better than most of the genre, but somehow it keeps the audience at a distance, and I wound up not liking it as much as, for example, the X-men movies. Like so many other action movies, and like Tony Stark himself, “Iron Man” has a problem with its heart.
Monday, February 21, 2011
Kirk Douglas has played some amazing roles. It seems to me that more than most actors, he has taken on roles of men who fought heroically against tyranny and lost. My favorite of these is the character Jack Burns, in “Lonely are the Brave,” based on Edward Abbey’s novel “The Brave Cowboy”. Burns is the classic, American, rugged individualist. He is pitted against the faceless machine of progress and industrialization. Inevitably, he is beaten, but he never surrenders. In “Man Without a Star,” Douglas plays a cowboy fighting a losing fight against the fencing off of the American West. Then, of course, there is Spartacus, who attempts to lead a slave revolt against the Romans.
To this list of dissidents portrayed by Kirk Douglas can be added Colonel Dax. In Stanley Kubrick‘s “Paths of Glory,” Dax is a commander in the French army. An ambitious general orders him and his men on a hopeless attack on the Germans. When the assault inevitably fails, the embarrassed general puts some of the soldiers on trial for cowardice in the face of the enemy. Colonel Dax steps up to defend them and finds himself opposing an uncaring military machine that considers the lives of good men to be worth less than the pride of an incompetent general.
Kirk Douglas plays Dax with brilliant outrage, and the rest of the cast is excellent. I can find nothing, really, to criticize in this film. It’s a little hard, watching Douglas and several British actors speaking English, to remember that all the characters are supposed to be French, but in the end it really doesn’t matter what the nationality is. I suspect all armies are similar in how they deal with these situations.
War movies tend to be either gung-ho, like the movie “Gung-Ho,” or anti-war, like “Apocalypse Now.” As good as it is, “Paths of Glory” suffered at the box office, probably because it doesn’t have a definite place in the war-movie framework. The film doesn’t make any statements about war itself, rather it is a tale about the evil workings of large, machine-like organizations, an evil which can outstrip that of any individual person within the machine. Colonel Dax, like so many of Kirk Douglas’s other characters, represents the moral superiority of the individual over the machine. This is an excellent movie, with superior performances on all fronts. It does not really have any iconic scenes or stunning cinematography, and I cannot say that it belongs in the ranks of truly classic movies, but it is well worth watching.
Monday, February 07, 2011
Some books and movies gain immortality by morphing into a cultural concept that eclipses the original work. “Catch-22” is way better known as a figure of speech than as a book or movie. “Deliverance” is a terrific film, but all most people know about it is dueling banjos and “squeal like a pig.” It’s the same way with “The Man In the Gray Flannel Suit.” The book and movie have been superseded by this cultural concept of a 1950’s company man in a non-descript suit, desperately trying to climb the corporate ladder. It’s a shame that what has been lost is actually a fairly riveting story of a man finding himself and figuring out what is important in life.
Gregory Peck stars as Tom Rath, a WWII vet with a small house in Connecticut, a desk job in Manhattan, and a lot to think about. As he rides the train to work each day in his titular, gray suit, he has plenty of time to ruminate on the war, and all he did and saw there. We gradually come to realize that Tom’s life since the war has been something of a shadow life, always under the specter of the amoral, life-and-death reality he knew in Europe and the Pacific. His wife, Betsy, regrets the change in him, and she transfers her dissatisfaction to their house. She says the place is depressing and represents giving up, but of course she is really talking about Tom. He finally takes a higher-paying job at a large, media company in an effort to appease her. There, he meets Ralph Hopkins, the president of the company, and he sees that Hopkins’s success has come at the price of a loveless marriage and a spoiled, ungrateful child. Meanwhile, Tom becomes involved in a legal dispute over his grandmother’s estate, and a ghost from the war comes back to haunt him. His and Betsy’s quiet, little life becomes anything but boring.
This sounds like it could be some claustrophobic melodrama along the lines of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe,” but it isn’t like that at all. Tom and Betsy are so decent that it is easy to root for them, and while the plot makes you worry, it never gets too dark. The film is long for its era, 2 ½ hours, but this gives us time to really think about these characters and what they are struggling with, which is the existential question of what kind of person to be, what kind of life to live. Gregory Peck is not the most expressive actor, but in a movie this long there is time for him to develop his character slowly, and the performance actually ends up being quite satisfying. The film is helped along by some other intriguing characters, including Ralph Hopkins (Fredric March) and Judge Bernstein (Lee J. Cobb).
For me, the point of the movie is not that all those men in gray suits are mindless drones. It is that while they may look alike, they are all human beings, with stories of their own, and their own struggles over what is important in life. Tom ultimately decides that being with his family is more important than advancing his corporate career. He decides to be a “9 to 5 man,” partly because he sees how Mr. Hopkins’s devotion to his work ruined his family life. Hopkins expresses admiration for Tom’s choice, but he also makes a valid argument that without men like himself, who are driven to build great enterprises, there would be nowhere for the “9 to 5 men” to work. It is this kind of embrace of complexity that saves “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” from being a melodramatic morality play. It’s a shame that this complexity has been lost in the popular memory of the movie.
“The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” is not quite a must-see classic. The film can be melodramatic at times, and Gregory Peck’s stoic acting takes a while to get used to. The movie’s slow pace and 2.5 hour length mean that it isn’t a movie to see when you are distracted. It does have moments of brilliance, however, and it’s well worth checking out. It's also worth noting, for fans of the show "Mad Men," that stoic, complicated Tom Rath is the prototype for the Don Draper character.
3.5 stars out of 5
Tuesday, February 01, 2011
Even though Jeff Bridges won the Best Actor Oscar for “Crazy Heart” last year, it took me until just recently to see the movie. Even after the Netflix disc arrived, it sat for a while. It’s a testament to how a raunchy comedy or a big-budget action movie is easy to throw in the DVD player, but a serious drama is too easy to keep putting off. These critically acclaimed dramas just always seem like they might be a real downer, and ruin an otherwise fine evening. Of course, once we finally settled in to watch it, “Crazy Heart” was completely engrossing and not a downer at all.
The only bad thing about the film is the name of the main character, Bad Blake. It says a lot for how convincingly Jeff Bridges inhabits the role that I was able to get past what a dumb-ass name his character had chosen. Blake is a fading country music legend who is desperate to rekindle his career, or at least make enough money to keep himself in decent whiskey. What is cool about Blake is that despite how his alcoholism is ravaging his body, he never misses a show. He may show up drunk, but even when he is playing in a small-town bowling alley, he manages to give something to the fifty to a hundred people who show up to see him play. When he meets and falls for a reporter (Maggie Gyllenhaal), however, Blake has to face up to how pathetic he and his life have become. It takes a little while, but he is finally inspired to clean up his act and start writing songs and caring about life again.
Maggie Gyllenhaal really redeemed herself for me in this movie. I had most recently seen her in “The Dark Knight,” which is an excellent movie, but Gyllenhaal has a real do-nothing, damsel-in-distress role that left me feeling very unimpressed with her. In “Crazy Heart” she is considerably better as a single mom trying to figure out whether to take a chance on a bad bet like Bad Blake.
No film is so good that it doesn’t get a little better when Robert Duvall pops in. Duvall adds some class to the role of Blake’s bartender, recovering-alcoholic, best friend. His presence in this movie is especially cool for those who recall Duvall’s 1983 movie “Tender Mercies,” in which HE plays a down-and-out country singer trying to put his life together.
Another supporting character that deserves mention is the music. In addition to a background of classic country by the likes of Waylon Jennings, George Jones, and Townes Van Zandt, the film features Jeff Bridges singing some beautiful original songs by Stephen Bruton and T Bone Burnett. The creative duo deservedly brought home the Best Song Oscar for this film.
At the end of the day, though, “Crazy Heart” belongs to Jeff Bridges, and he knocks it out of the park. I’ve worked with a lot of alcoholics, and he really gets that part of the performance right. Bridges doesn’t just play Blake as a drunk, though. He plays him as a poet with a big heart and the soul of a true entertainer.
Saturday, January 22, 2011
The original title of this movie was “Lesbian Vampire Killers,” which tells you half of what you need to know about it. The other half is that it stars the brilliant James Corden and Mathew Horne, who played Smithy and Gavin in the hilarious BBC series “Gavin and Stacey.” What’s that? You haven’t seen “Gavin and Stacey?” My friend, it is urgent that you immediately go to Amazon.com and either download this series or order it on DVD. Watch it twice, because half the jokes pass you by the first time due to the characters’ heavy Essex and Welsh accents. Even if you do miss half the jokes, the show is still twice as funny as most everything else on TV.
I had just finished watching the “Gavin and Stacey” series, and was itching to see more of those characters. The creators of “Vampire Killers” basically read my mind and created a movie specifically for me by taking a couple of the “Gavin and Stacey” guys and putting them in a movie with a bunch of sexy girls who make out with each other and show their boobs. Genius! Corden and Horne play Fletch and Jimmy, a couple of characters pretty much identical to their “Gavin and Stacey” roles. On a hiking trip they wind up in a little town that, due to an ancient vampire curse, is ruled by hot, lesbian vampires. These gals feed on anyone passing through town, turning the women into fellow vampires, and feeding on the men. The boys battle this curse with the help of a Dutch babe (MyAnna Buring), an intense local priest, and a few pints of beer.
“Vampire Killers” is every bit as silly and exploitative as it sounds. It spoofs vampire movies, much like “Shaun of the Dead” spoofed zombie flicks, although perhaps not with the same level of cleverness. James Corden is an absolute comic genius, reminding me in some ways of Ricky Gervais. Paul McGann is quite good as the local vicar, who is hilariously oblivious to the fact that all of his supposedly arcane knowledge about how to kill vampires has been widely disseminated through pop culture. This won’t be on anyone’s list of “Best Satires,” but if you liked the “Gavin and Stacey” characters, and/or if you like to see girls kiss and get their tits out, then “Vampire Killers” is a guaranteed good time.
3 stars out of 5
Sunday, January 16, 2011
The thing about “Ghostbusters” is that it was an absolute meg-hit. There’s nothing you can say about this movie that will change the fact that it is a defining piece of 1980’s pop-culture. Every English-speaking person of a certain age knows what you mean if you say “Cross the streams,” or “I am the Gatekeeper; are you the Keymaster?” I am honestly curious, however, if the movie holds any relevance at all for people outside my generation. The question is, should people who are now in their teens and twenties be renting and watching this film? Having recently re-watched it, I can’t really think of a reason that they should.
The basic plot is that a few guys start a ghost-catching business right when paranormal activity in New York city is going through the roof due to the impending resurrection of some Sumerian god of destruction named Gozer. They wind up doing battle with Gozer to save the earth, or at least New York (That part is never made perfectly clear.) What the film is really about, however, is Bill Murray’s dry humor, which is an unfortunate fit for an action comedy. The actor who was so brilliant in “Quick Change” and “Groundhog Day” is actually just kind of annoying in “Ghost Busters.” He is meant to be full of rakish, anti-authoritarian charm, but there is no depth to his character. He starts out as a complete fraud, milking the field of the paranormal for money and chicks, and he winds up saving humanity. There is never any moment of transformation, though, no personal crisis. His actions as the hero and the romantic lead feel contrived and inevitable, as does the whole film, barreling along as it does from action sequence to comic interlude and back again. There is no time, of course, to develop the characters played by Dan Akroyd, Harold Ramis, or Ernie Hudson, the other ghostbusters. They serve merely to bolster Murray’s character as he woos Sigourney Weaver and, you know, does that saving the earth thing.
Sigourney Weaver, thank God, provides one of the few bright lights in the film, supplying a character with a modicum of real humanity, and serving as the emotional center of the movie. As the comic center of “Ghost Busters” I would nominate not Bill Murray or Dan Akroyd, but Rick Moranis. Moranis takes his biggest role up to that time and runs with it as Sigourney Weaver’s nerdy across-the-hall neighbor.
Those two good performances aside, my experience of re-watching “Ghost Busters” did not live up to my memories of the film. That should be no surprise. I first saw it in theatres, as a teenager. Of course, there are movies that I loved then that I still love, like the first Indiana Jones movie, “Die Hard,” and “The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonsai.” It isn’t that I couldn’t appreciate something good back then, I just had more tolerance for lazy, formulaic crap at that age. These days I know that with almost 100 years of film to choose from, there is no reason to settle for crap.
Sunday, January 09, 2011
I basically watched this on a dare from my wife. I can’t say that I ever had a desire to watch a musical movie starring Barbra Streisand, in which the most famous song is called “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” How shocked was I then to find myself actually liking the movie?
Yentl (Streisand) is raised by her single-parent father in a Jewish community somewhere in eastern Europe. Her dad is a rabbi and a bit of a rebel. He secretly teaches her to read the sacred texts, the Torah and the Talmud, something that is traditionally forbidden to women. When her dad dies, Yentl cuts her hair, dresses as a boy, and goes to the city to study at a rabbinic school. There she proves such a quick study that she is paired with star pupil Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin). Yentl falls in love with the handsome, brilliant young man, but Avigdor is in love with a hottie named Hadass (Amy Irving), and, of course, he thinks Yentl is a man. Things get really strange when Yentl winds up married to Hadass and has to ward off the advances of the increasingly in-love, young bride. This bizarre love triangle is hilarious most of the time, sometimes touching, and actually pretty sexy.
I generally found myself more interested in the story than the music in “Yentl”. The songs serve well to explicate Yentl’s inner life, but I don’t see myself listening to the album in my car. The acting is excellent all around. Streisand and Patinkin have great chemistry, and they do a great job portraying the kinkiness of their situation. Amy Irving doesn’t have as much to do as they do, but she is very easy on the eyes. All the times that Yentl refuses to bed Hadass I found myself wanting to scream, “Just take her!”
This film has been the butt of a lot of jokes, and it’s easy to see why. The title is terrible, the music is overwrought, and the whole look and feel of “Yentl” is not really for mass consumption. I’m glad I gave it a chance, though. It’s really a fun, thoughtful movie.
Saturday, January 08, 2011
I’ve heard that there are only two basic stories: 1) Someone goes on a journey, and 2) Someone comes to town. “The Kids are All Right” is of the “someone comes to town” variety. Lesbian couple Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) have a nice, suburban family life with their teenage kids Joni and Laser. Everything, as they say, is going smoothly until the kids look up their sperm-donor biological father. Paul (Mark Ruffalo) is a laid-back man-child who immediately charms the kids and hippy-dippy Jules. Uptight Nic, however, takes a dislike to him, and she becomes more incensed the more her family gets tangled up with him.
“The Kids are All Right” is a genuine dramedy, a story about real people and real conflicts that manages to be hilarious. The reviews I read didn’t really get across how funny and how sexy the film is. It was promoted as a movie that I SHOULD watch; you know, to show how open-minded I am. It’s not a hard movie to watch in any sense, though. All the performances are really excellent. Ruffalo and Moore are great as mildly irresponsible dreamers. Mia Wasikowska looks like a Young Actress To Watch, with a nuanced portrayal of 18-year-old Joni. In my mind, though, it is Annette Bening who deserves the award for her portrayal of Nic, the man of the house. I know that sounds like I’m stereotyping, ignorantly insisting that one member of this lesbian couple has to play the male role. I think it is fair to say, though, that Nic is a character with a lot of masculine energy. Bening’s genius is that she does not overplay that. She doesn’t play Nic like a softball coach or a female drill sergeant. She has respect for the fact that Nic can be a woman while still clearly being the yang to Jules’s yin.
Most movies are like wine coolers, made to please the sugary palate of the lowest common denominator of movie-goer. “The Kids Are All Right” is like a big, tannic red wine. It’s delicious and satisfying, but the viewer who has not developed a palate for sophisticated films will not find the movie to his taste. Some viewers might find the pace too slow or complain that not enough happens. Then, of course, there is the unfortunately large contingent who will be unhappy that the film promotes a gay lifestyle. If, however, you are up for a talky, art film and you are cool in the first place with a story about a couple of lesbians, then “The Kids are All Right” will be a barrel of fun.
Saturday, January 01, 2011
Many reviewers of the new Coen brothers’ version of “True Grit” have been falling all over themselves to describe how the new movie captures more of the true spirit of Charles Portis’s book than that old 1969 version, which, they say, was overly Hollywood and lacked the true grittiness of the novel. I can only assume that those reviewers either didn’t read the novel, didn’t re-watch the 1969 film, or both. I just recently read the book, and now re-watching the movie I am amazed at how faithfully it hews to the book. Even when the film makes small changes to the story, it generally captures the spirit.
“True Grit” is the story of Mattie Ross (Kim Darby), a 14-year-old girl bent on hunting down a scoundrel named Tom Cheney, who killed her father. “Spunky” just doesn’t describe Mattie; she is a force of nature. Neither attractive nor charming, Mattie is a character study in shrewdness and force of will. In a world run by men, this teenage girl uses that indomitable will to get what she wants, and what she wants is a federal marshal who will uncompromisingly pursue her dad’s killer. She finds that lawman in the form of Deputy Marshall Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn (John Wayne), a pitiless, one-eyed drunkard who would just as soon bring them in dead as alive. Mattie bullies Cogburn into agreeing to go after Cheney, and remarkably gets him to agree to bring her along. A Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Glen Campbell), who is also after Cheney, complicates her plan, but ultimately the tough and resourceful Mattie bends both these men to her will, and together they track down Cheney and the outlaw gang he has joined.
John Wayne won his only Oscar for his portrayal of the flawed alcoholic Rooster Cogburn. He is a fascinating character who we learn has walked on both sides of the law. Doubtless, as a Confederate veteran of the Civil War, Rooster didn’t lose much sleep over stealing a little Federal gold in his younger days. Likewise, as a hunter of outlaws in the lawless Indian territory, he doesn’t feel much constrained by what were considered, even at the time, usual police procedures. This, of course, is why Mattie hires Rooster. She wants someone who will stop at nothing to catch or kill Tom Cheney, not someone who might follow the letter of the law, and let him get away.
Robert Duvall does an admirable job in the small role of Lucky Ned Pepper, leader of an outlaw gang that Tom Cheney joins. He and John Wayne have one of the great all-time movie scenes together when Rooster Cogburn faces down Pepper and three other outlaws across a clearing. What makes this scene such a great exposition of Cogburn’s character is that Mattie has already been rescued and Tom Cheney captured. Cogburn could easily follow Ned Pepper’s suggestion to back off and let the rest of the outlaws escape without further bloodshed. Instead, Rooster replies “Ned, I aim to see you dead in the next thirty seconds or else hung back in Fort Smith…Now which’ll it be?” Ned returns the famous line, “I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.” If you don’t know what Rooster’s answer to that is, I’m not gonna tell you. You just need to watch it and see!
The real hero of the story, however, is Mattie, and I’m not quite sure what it is, but Kim Darby’s portrayal of Mattie lacks something. For one thing, she is a bit hard to look at, with her ridiculous bobbed haircut that no woman would have sported in the 1890’s. Also, her face isn’t really expressive enough, and sometimes it just feels like she is reciting her lines. That’s a shame, because Mattie has some zingers, most of them straight out of the novel. When offered some whiskey: “I would never put a thief into my mouth to steal my brains.” When Ned Pepper comments that unlike most girls, she seems to like guns, she replies, “If I did, I would have one that worked.”
Darby isn’t the only example of poor casting here. Glen Campbell is a questionable choice for La Boeuf, the Texas Ranger. I suppose he does reasonably well for a musician trying to be an actor, but there is clearly some room for improvement in this role.
I can’t wait to see if the new Coen brothers‘ “True Grit” manages to improve on these and other aspects of the original film. I hope it does. This is an excellent story that is worthy of re-telling. John Wayne and company set the bar pretty high, however. The original “True Grit” is nothing less than a classic, and it does not, as some have claimed, water down the novel it is based on. Watch the new film if you get the chance, but definitely check out the original version as well.