Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Money Monster - 2016

"Money Monster" - 2016
Dir. by Jodie Foster - 1 hr. 38 min.

Official International Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

George Clooney clearly has some things to say about the media, in general.  This movie is the spiritual back-end of a double-feature that starts with "Good Night, and Good Luck."  One is sort of a throw-back to the better days of news coverage (at least from the viewpoint of the film), this one is updating of "Network" (which I haven't seen), which uses Jon Stewart's public evisceration of Jim Kramer as the inspiration for a different kind of media-focused movie.

Lee Gates (George Clooney) hosts a financial "news" show, complete with costumes, hot air, dancers, and dance routines.  It's clear that Gates views this as entertainment first and foremost, but one of his stock tips ends disastrously for pretty much everyone when a company called IBIS experiences a computer glitch that sees $800m disappear overnight.  Kyle Budwell (Jack O'Connell), a blue-collar worker on the edge of financial ruin, loses his life savings, and decides to take Gates hostage on-air.  Complicating matters, the scheduled guest of Gates' show, the CEO of IBIS, Walt Camby (Dominic West), has gone off the grid, leaving no answers behind.

There is always a sort of thrill to seeing a hostage situation, and the twist here is that the situation is played out on live TV.  I can't swear that would even be plausible; I suspect that there's some kind of FCC rule that would say tough shit to someone like Lee Gates - and that no network would be allowed to air something like a hostage situation that might lead to a very large explosion.  Airing something like the situation proposed here would probably just encourage more people to do the same thing, if they knew that they'd get their TV time in exchange for criminal behavior.  So that's the first thing you're going to have to accept in order to enjoy "Money Monster."

One of the other things that you're going to have to accept is an idealistic view of the world.  "Money Monster" makes the point that creating vast wealth is a filthy, ruthless business, based on victimizing people.  Which is entirely true.  It also makes the point that treating financial news like it belongs on Sportscenter or something is irresponsible, which is probably also true.  I've always felt like, by the time something hits TV, especially something like a stock tip, it's old news.  But Kyle takes Gates at his word, and throws his life savings behind something aired on an entertainment show, from the mouth of a dancing baboon.  Obviously, this is foolhardy, and Kyle isn't portrayed as being particularly bright, and neither is taking people hostage.

Once you get past these things, "Money Monster" is a good thriller.  It's not great, but it's somewhat timely, and it functions as a story.  I enjoyed it while I watched it, which is probably a testament to Clooney and his co-star, Julia Roberts, who plays his producer.  The movie makes some valid points, although this is more of a thriller than a hard-hitting satire.  The biggest laughs came from off-hand comments along the way, just frequently enough to keep the tension at a reasonable level.  The point is, this is a film you're supposed to enjoy and forget, even though there's meat on the bones of the topic used as the foundation. 

3 / 5 - Theatre

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Hot Tub Time Machine 2 - 2015

"Hot Tub Time Machine 2" - 2015
Dir. by Steve Pink - 1 hr. 33 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

You know how, when you get a second album by a band you really liked, and only this time there's a new singer or a new guitarist, how that usually means trouble?  That.  Or like when your favorite basketball team suddenly trades away their borderline all-star who made everyone around him better, you know you're going to be in for a long season?  That, also.  In the world of "Hot Tub Time Machine 2," the key missing element would be John Cusack, who was also the only decent actor among the cast.  So when you remove the one guy who can act, and bring back everyone else...

What's left.

This time around, success is not enough for Lou (Rob Corddry), Nick (Craig Robinson), and Jacob (Clark Duke).  Lou goes off the deep end (or just continues his trajectory, more accurately), and ends up getting shot in the dick (yes, really) at his own party.  Since Lou has possession of the hot tub of extraordinary powers, all three hop in to try and head off Lou's impending assassination.  As it turns out, they end up ten years in the future, because they go where they're needed to be, not where they want to be. 

First off, the positives.  There are some funny bits here; it's not that the cast isn't funny, it's that they can't act.  So the dialogue is good, the timing is good, even some of the comedic premises and performances are good.  In particularly, I was laughing at a game show called "Choozy Doozy," a scene at an urgent care clinic, and there are good lines all the way through.  Adam Scott was funny in his role as John Cusack's straight-laced son.  This is far from the worst movie I've ever seen.  While I wasn't happy with it overall, there were parts I enjoyed, and it didn't drag too badly.

Three guesses which one the audience chooses...

But the first movie was unusual, partly because it felt a little more honest, which was partly due to building it around Cusack, who has the ability to make you think there's more going on than there is actually going on.  Even though the first installment was a "R-rated comedy," which has become a genre of it's own, seeing an unusual face like Cusack's involved lent credibility to the whole affair, suggesting that film was going to be a bit more than swearing, nudity, and copious irresponsible behavior.  Minus that, the sequel has to rely on the one-note asshole Lou and the wooden Nick as it's leads.  This does not work nearly as well.  Corddry at least seems committed to the role, Craig Robinson seems barely awake for much of the time.  I'm not exactly mad at anyone involved with the film; get your cash when it's on the table.

The second big issue I have is that the premise of the movie is unrelatable.  It's entirely believeable that people have regrets, and would gladly take a mulligan on some of their earlier behavior.  This time around, the characters actually debate trying again because they think they can do better than being worth $2.6 billion (Lou), and then have to prevent the least likable character from getting murdered.  Even Lou doesn't seem to care about preventing his own death; it's only the fact that he starts "flickering" when he goes off trail that keeps him sort of on-point.  So if they don't care and I don't care, who cares?

"Webber Strut"

After the first film, my working theory was that the characters were all doomed to failure because none of them could get anything right the first time, and that would ultimately catch up to all of them.  I guess I was right.  But all in all, this feels like when they killed off Vin Diesel's character in "xXx" because he didn't want to do a sequel, and then we got a shitty sequel that starred Ice Cube in such terrible shape he wore the equivalent of a parka for the entire film.  If Vin wanted to do another "xXx" film, I feel like it would happen in short order, but we'd all like to forget about that half-assed sequel.  If John Cusack ever wants to get involved with the "Hot Tub" series again, I'd be on board instantly.  Until then, no more awful half-measures, please.

1.5 / 5 - Streaming

Monday, January 11, 2016

Spectre - 2015

"Spectre" - 2015
Dir. by Sam Mendes - 2 hrs. 28 min.

Official Trailer;

by Clayton Hollifield

Put simply, I've never seen a (non-George Lazenby) Bond film that was so bad that I gave up on the series.  Even the ones that weren't great were still passable; I got a late start on the series with Pierce Brosnan, and "passable" is the single most apt word to describe his Bond films.  As for the Daniel Craig films, they seem to alternate between awesome and pretty good.  Since "Skyfall" was awesome, that means "Spectre" is...

"Spectre" finds Bond (Daniel Craig) wallowing in the aftermath of "Skyfall," having been handed what amounts to a secret mission.  Bond infiltrates an assassin's guild meeting, is found out, and then ends up promising to protect a lovely young lady, Dr. Swann (Lea Seydoux), from that same assassin's guild.  At the same time, Bond has been suspended over his actions in the last film, and the double-oh program is trying to fend off a hostile takeover from other British intelligence agencies.

The first thing that keeps taking me by surprise is that the "down" films of the cycle follow immediately in the footsteps of the previous, awesomer film.  It might not kill the Bond folks to include a friendly reminder that you might want to throw "Skyfall" in ye old laserdisc player to brush up on where things stand before you wander into "Spectre."  But at the same time, the opening sequence of "Spectre," set during a Dio de los Muertos celebration in Mexico City, is compelling, thrilling, and a lot of other adjectives that mean you're going to grip the shit out of your armrest for about ten minutes there.  Are there other, quality action sequences in "Spectre?"  Sure, but the opening sequence is easily the best of them.

Visuals, bro!

From one viewpoint, it might feel like the film blows it's load in that first sequence.  In terms of straight up action, maybe.  It ends up feeling like the film isn't supposed to be entirely about action, though.  Things are more complicated than that, although it's difficult to make brooding about one's life choices as thrilling as blowing things up.  And this film is a bit of a thinker.  This might be the first Bond film (at least that I can remember, and I'm far from an archivist on this matter) where he has to deal with someone who not only understands very clearly who and what Bond is, but also has turned her back on that life by deliberate action.  The relationship between Bond and Dr. Swann might be par for the course for Bond, but she also forces him to examine himself and what he does.  Bond, at the core, is a man of action, not of pensive thought, but whether or not that self-examination will lead to hesitation at key moments is a big question here.

This is where fighting on a train will get you.

As far as villains go, well, I'll watch Christoph Waltz all day long.  And Dave Bautista has a great turn as the mostly-mute Hinx.  The two, although they don't really work with one another (like, they're not a duo or anything) present diametrically-opposed problems for Bond.  Blofeld (Waltz) is all brains, sadism, and self-delusion; Hinx is enormous and likes to physically fight people.  He's pretty good at it, too.  The larger (evil) plot is somewhat interesting; it has to do with data collection and sharing.  The great news is that "Spectre" seems to have a better, more even approach to technology than did "Skyfall."  And also, the "good guys" don't come off like grumpy old farts about these things this time around.  Instead, some of the bad guys get to embody why there's a bit of a backlash (the arrogance of youth, having a poor understanding of the larger situation) against having things dictated to you by twenty-somethings.  In "Spectre," it's the difference between trying to find a place for technology in the world, and viewing technology as a sacred inevitability. 

So I think the big point I'd make about "Spectre" is that this is by no means a bad film.  Also, you should watch "Skyfall" sometime in the week preceding seeing "Spectre."  But this is more of a movie about ideology with action elements than something that's constructed solely as an action film with compelling plot points.  So, muich like "Quantum of Solace," "Spectre" comes off as a bit muted, a bit more cerebral, and these are things that people might not necessarily be asking for out of their Bond films.  But if you're open to those things, this is a solid (but not top-notch) addition to the series.

Sam Smith - "Writing's on the Wall" - live on the Graham Norton Show

3 / 5 - Theatre

Monday, December 28, 2015

Doctor Zhivago - 1965

"Doctor Zhivago" - 1965
Dir. by David Lean - 3 hrs. 17 min.

Original Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There's a quote by Dr. Cornel West, from his memoir "Living and Loving Out Loud," where he explains his affinity for Russian novelists (and I don't have it in front of me).  To paraphrase, he says that no one knows misery like the Russians.  "Doctor Zhivago" is proof of this; it's a tale of personal troubles told on an epic scale, in an epic movie, against a backdrop of being told repeatedly and by various sources that personal concerns are meaningless.  Do the troubles of these people amount to a hill of beans?  Who knows, but it's an engaging, engrossing ride to find out.

The train - a metaphor for the film's run time.

The story of this film is extraordinarily complicated, centering around a handful of characters and how they keep bumping into one another over time.  The story essentially centers them all in Moscow, where they are all pulled in different directions.  There is Yuri (Omar Sharif), a talented young doctor and poet, and his wife Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin).  Lara (Julie Christie) is pulled between two men; Victor (Rod Steiger) is older, connected, and aggressive, Pasha (Tom Courtenay) is a young idealist with little clue as to what's happening beneath his nose.  The story is told during a period of great instability in Russia, which forces all of the characters into situations they would never willingly put themselves into.  But we know from the initial framing device that two of the characters have had a child, who was lost (as in misplaced, not as in she died), and who was the product of a grand romance, as evidenced by a slim volume of poetry authored by Yuri.

There are a lot of things to commend "Doctor Zhivago" for, and one thing that you're just going to have to deal with if you want to watch it.  That thing is that this is a very, very long movie.  That's a valid reason to avoid this film; I've certainly passed on watching films that cross the three hour mark, and I wouldn't judge you for doing the same.  I'd argue that there are plenty of reasons that you might want to watch this, but in terms of movie experiences, there is a difference between going for a jog around your neighborhood and running a marathon.  But if you're in, this is the last I'm going to hear about the length of the film being a detriment, because it's not as if "Doctor Zhivago" meanders, or wastes that time.

This is a really big, story.  It's an epic, with all that that implies.  We follow characters from childhood to death, through both sides of marriages, through wars (as in multiples).  We change settings over and over again, as life demands it of these characters.  Yuri has the misfortune of having skills that are in demand (his medical ones), that get him essentially kidnapped and forced into military service more than once.  He also has skills that aren't (his poetry), which is personal, emotive, and earns him repeated admonishment from others that the time for the personal is over, replaced entirely by the value of one's service to whomever is in charge.  This means that when the military wants a doctor, they just grab the nearest one and force him into service.  As you might imagine, this takes its toll on Yuri's marriage, which ends up being of less concern to him as to the danger his existence puts his mistress in. 

Omar and Julie, bed-stressing.

Ultimately, everything about this movie is absolutely beautiful.  The scenery, from the cities to the endless snow, to the countryside, is the sort of thing that makes one want to book a vacation there in haste.  I'm not sure that it would have been possible to cast three more beautiful people to center a film around than Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, and Geraldine Chaplin.  The story itself is full of emotion; one angle of which is Yuri's attempt to carve out a life of personal meaning alongside what is expected of him.  Even as things happen that would sour even the most positive of us, Yuri shows that life is meaningless without poetry (which you can take literally, or figuratively), the simple act of survival doesn't matter if it's not in service to something else, and Dr. Zhivago makes a persuasive argument that one's personal feelings and expression are paramount, even above Communist ideals.

It's kind of pointless to rate a film like this; "Doctor Zhivago" is justifiably on the list when people start talking about the all-time greats.  Where it lands kind of depends on your personal tastes, but it's a real accomplishment in cinema.  This is a film where everyone involved went big without any hesitation, and then completely knocked it out of the park.  The fact that I could go see this movie fifty years later with a decently-sized audience in an actual movie theatre says everything that needs to be said about this film's enduring appeal. 

5 / 5 - Theatre

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - 2015

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" - 2015
Dir. by JJ Abrams - 2 hrs. 15 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

First things first, yeah, there's probably going to be some spoiler talk here.  The internet's been remarkably good about not blowing anything contained within "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," but if you're checking out a review about the movie, you probably have already seen it and wonder what other people think.  And I thought it was pretty damned good.  I also have been sick of the overexposure of the original batch of films for quite some time now, and really wasn't hell-bent on seeing this installment.  Turns out, part of that malaise was due to how poor the second batch of films were; what's to look forward to when the people in charge of the franchise haven't a clue?

This time around, we start in a small village on Jackoo, where Poe (Oscar Isaac) obtains a thumb drive (okay, not really, but kind of) purporting to contain a map explaining where Luke Skywalker (who is now a legend people have heard of, but never seen) is hiding out.  Unfortunately for everyone involved, the First Order (which is what the Empire has evolved into) rolls into the village, levelling everything and capturing Poe, but not his droid, who escapes with the Hello Kitty thumb drive.  One of the Stormtroopers seems to have a difficult time with the massacre, which leads to a whole lot of things happening.

Collect 'em all!!!

So where to start?  First off, the action in this film is all a lot of fun, never far away, and resembles the action in the first trilogy.  In fact, the whole film looks like the first batch in a very satisfying way.  Even more to the point, this film makes use of things from the first batch of films in a very satisfying way.  I don't know how much to reveal here.  Obviously, if you look at the list of actors in the film, it's not a secret that there are going to be some familiar faces.  They're blended well, and have skin in the game, so to speak.  Those characters are not just there to make you forget that Jar Jar Binks ever existed.  They are part of the story.  And really, the best aspect to the film is that the main characters all have motivations that are intertwined with the others; the characters are well-written and relatable, even when they're not the good guys, which goes one hell of a long way to getting an audience emotionally involved in the action material.

You have to provide your own airplane sound effects.

Secondly, even though this (and the entire franchise, really) are all-ages (read: kids) movies, TFA doesn't really insult your intelligence.  The humor is light, the monsters fantastic, and the aliens are all visually interesting.  The soccer ball droid is probably the most kid-friendly thing in the film, but it's not as cloying as the Ewoks were, either.  You'll be able to leave the theatre thinking you saw a pretty fun adventure movie, not a merchandising juggernaut. 

I think I'll leave it at that, rather than dig any further.  I'm pretty excited to see the next two films in this batch, which I absolutely wasn't going in to this one.  I viewed seeing TFA largely as geek duty, and left having enjoyed a pretty good film, one that I wouldn't mind watching again.  So even though I didn't think TFA was the greatest film ever made, it was enough of a success to rekindle long-dormant stirrings of fandom for me. 

4 / 5 - Theatre

Monday, December 14, 2015

Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp - 2012

"Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp" - 2012
Dir. by Jorge Hinojosa - 1 hr. 29 min.

by Clayton Hollifield

When I tried to search for "Iceberg Slim" on IMDB, it automatically took me to the page for "Ice Sculpture Christmas," instead.  Thanks, dorks.  Likewise, no dice on a trailer for this movie.  I guess I'll track down a poster or something, so forgive the lack of visual flair.  I recorded it off of TV, anyways, and just now finally got around to watching it.  I shouldn't have been in such a hurry.

So, who is Iceberg Slim, and why is there a documentary about him?  He's a legendary pimp (the real deal, not a comedy figure), mostly famous because he quit pimping after a few prison stints, and was urged to write about his experiences.  So he did, and sold a pretty large number of books (six million is the quoted number, which is a lot for the dinky publishing house he published through).  His books have famous fans like Chris Rock and Ice-T, thus this effort to share Slim's (aka Robert Beck) story.

Perhaps the question that should have been asked is why should people care about Iceberg Slim?  I suspect the entirety of that answer lies in Beck's books; I have one ("Trick Baby," but haven't read it yet), and I can buy the idea that an author is worth talking about.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of the world hasn't read Slim's works, and I didn't feel like this film got across the appeal of his work in a meaningful way.  Also working against my interest: the story is presented chronologically.  So Iceberg Slim is not presented as an author of important and interesting work, he's presented as a pimp (and let's be clear, that means that he ran prostitutes and took all of the proceeds from their work to pay for his own hair care products and general flyness) who bounces in and out of prison until that becomes too much for him, at which time he attempts to live a straight life.

I mean, that's not super-charming, right?  It's only after Slim reaches a breaking point with his day job as an exterminator that his then wife convinces him to write down some of the crazy stories he's been telling her, which are then organized and published, to some success.  Maybe there's a reason to have a romantic notion of what exactly a pimp is, and since Iceberg Slim is one of the few that people might have actually heard of, maybe it makes sense to introduce him as a pimp rather than an author.  Then again, it made me really not like the guy.  I don't have to like someone personally to enjoy their work,  But including a clip from an interview with Slim, where he's reunited with a former ho, he comes off cluelessly as to what exactly the girls were dealing with.  He asks, innocently enough, what made her go straight, and she tells him that people were assaulting and murdering prostitutes on the streets, and that was reason enough for her to get off the streets.  That doesn't seem to register with Slim at all. 

The best thing about "Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp" is that it did make me curious about reading some of his work.  What it did not do: make me want to watch this film again.  Pretty much every interviewee in the film stopped one paragraph short of giving some real insight.  They would, routinely, get up to the edge of something interesting, and then we'd move on to something else. 

2 / 5 - TV

Monday, November 30, 2015

Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church - 2015

"Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church" - 2015
Dir. by John McDermott - 1 hr. 29 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

I always wish there were more music documentaries.  They don't even really have to be insightful; watching top-notch musicians doing their thing is usually enough to hold my interest.  There's a little more to the footage that's presented in "Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church," but really, it's concert footage padded out with an attempt to explain the circumstances of the event presented.  That means, naturally, that you will have to wade through '60s tropes like people wistfully explaining that how things were changing, and how it was a revolution, man, but it's kind of worth it for the concert footage of Hendrix.

There's not much point in going through a plot explanation, so let's do this fast.  Hendrix (playing with bass player Billy Cox and drummer Mitch Mitchell) headlined the second (and final) Atlanta International Pop Festival in 1970, only a couple of months prior to Hendrix's untimely death.  The headlining set had been filmed for a documentary, but was left undeveloped in some dude's barn for something like 30 years, until "Electric Church" was released. 

The whole point of this deal is getting to see good footage of Jimi Hendrix playing.  It's not the best I've seen or heard from him, but it was good (and the footage looks good).  The concert, while not shown complete, is shown uninterrupted in the middle of the film, which is pretty ideal.  I don't want to hear people waxing eloquent about Hendrix while he's playing instrumental passages, I just want to see him playing.   And that's what we get, here.  The complete concert is available as an audio recording, under the title "Freedom," so the show is covered from an archival viewpoint.  There's no torching of guitars here, although he does finish a song by playing with his teeth.  It's just a solid show from a legendary musician.

"Stone Free" - The Jimi Hendrix Experience

The attempts at putting the show into context range from helpful to masturbatory.  On the onanistic tip are when baby boomers go glassy-eyed and start talking vaguely about change and all that stuff that you've heard a million times before, frequently put in a better, more interesting way.  But what are you going to do?  If you ask people to reminisce on camera, you're going to get a certain amount of noise.  What was interesting was the explanation that the Atlanta International Pop Festival was not actually in Atlanta (otherwise known as a big city that probably could have handled the influx of hippies without much trouble), but instead a vastly overwhelmed small town of about 2000 people who had no choice but to kick back and hope that nothing too bad would happen, and just watch the freak parade.  And it was a crush of people, estimated at around 500k attendance.


And when they explain late in the film that all of the people who were doing so much barking about the environment left the small town covered (literally) in human waste and debris, there's a sense that it's probably a good thing these festivals went the way of the dodo.  They were poorly planned, poorly organized, and never even came close to providing the kind of resources that a crowd of that size would require.  After a while, the people that descended upon the small town basically knocked down the fences, demanding entry for free, and spent the weekend in 100 degree heat, pooping in the open and scarfing whatever food the local townspeople would bring down to the event to hand out.  Considering that later attempts to put on mammoth shows (like Woodstock '99) ended up in violence and crime, I think that people should just be happy that no one seems to have gotten seriously hurt (or killed) at a show like this one. 

But forget all that.  You can always just fast-forward to the part of the movie where you get like 45 straight minutes of Hendrix being Hendrix.  The rest of the information in the movie is either helpful or benign, and there's an explanation of the "Electric Church" term.  Maybe this kind of music isn't your cup of tea, but it definitely is mine, and you can do a lot worse with your time than watching The Jimi Hendrix Experience kiss the sky.

4 / 5 - TV