Saturday, January 22, 2011

Vampire Killers (2009) ***

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 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

Ghost Busters (1984) **

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.

2 stars

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Yentl (1983) ***

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.

3 stars

Saturday, January 08, 2011

The Kids are All Right (2010) ****

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.

4 stars

Saturday, January 01, 2011

True Grit (1969) ****

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.

4 stars