Friday, December 30, 2011

The Mechanic - 2011

"The Mechanic" - 2011
Dir. by Simon West - 1 hr. 33 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Sometimes you need a reminder to trust your instincts.  When I first saw the trailer for "The Mechanic," I figured it was just another paint-by-numbers Jason Statham movie.  I'm sure that he's even gone so far as to refer to himself as a "mechanic" in one of his other movies (possibly one of the "Transporter" ones?), so this movie looked to lack even the most basic level of creativity.  But then at some point, I heard that this was actually a remake of an old Charles Bronson movie, and I became mildly curious.  I should have trusted my instincts.

In this context, a mechanic is an alias for a hit-man, albeit a creatively inclined, problem-solving version of one.  And just like in every other one of Jason Statham's movies, he's a highly-organized obsessive planner who is smarter than you and probably has better abs than you do, as well.  And he's super, super serious, all the time.  The plot is simple: Arthur Bishop (Statham) does a job, establishes that his only friend is Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland), and then ends up having to take a job taking out McKenna.  McKenna's son, Steve (Ben Foster), comes along and ends up forcing his way into an apprenticeship under Bishop.  It turns out the job on Harry was a double-cross, which leads to Arthur and Steve taking on the firm that had previously employed Arthur.  Oh yeah, and stuff blows up a few times.

One of the chief problems here is that the story is pretty much a Scooby-Doo; there are so few moving parts  in this story that there's almost no possibility for misdirection, or even surprises of any kind.  Even the end isn't ever in question, seeing Statham's propensity for sequels.  There's no attempt at character development, either.  I don't know conclusively if Jason Statham is incapable of doing anything other than the one character he plays over and over, but there's no evidence to the contrary in "The Mechanic."  Those flaws could be overcome, however, if the action sequences were good enough.  I'm not so naive to think that people who want to see a movie like this are going because they want to see character arcs and high drama.

I will admit to anyone who cares to ask that I absolutely hate the current shaky-cam standard for fight scenes in action movies.  It distracts from the action (or the fact that the actors aren't actually very capable at stage fighting) and is disorienting.  But seeing as how I wasn't initially expecting anything that wasn't completely stock from this movie, I suppose it would be expecting way too much for this aspect of the film to be different.  For this reason, I didn't really care for any of the hand-to-hand combat scenes here.  And other than that, there's a couple of explosion-ridden scenes towards the end of the film involving large vehicles, but neither were spectacular enough to make up for much of anything.

However, there were moments of unintentional hilarity present.  My favorite was when Arthur and Steve had succeeded in pinning down Arthur's boss, Dean (Tony Goldwyn).  Arthur and Steve stand over Dean, who is trapped and bleeding in an upside-down car, and they unload their weapons into Dean.  That is, their high-capacity automatic weapons, wielded side-by-side, legs spread wide.  It's for all intents and purposes completely masturbatory, an orgasmic moment shared between master and student.  Which is cool, I guess. The other bit of unintentional hilarity is the portrayal of Arthur as being nearly invisible.  He escapes from everything without ever being noticed, even in large crowds.  He usually does this by furrowing his brow, staring a hole through someone, and walking directly at them.  If you saw someone doing that, you'd probably yell at the guy being chased that some crazy asshole was chasing him.  It's not just that Statham is super-serious about everything, it's that he seems to be nearly homicidally so.  Even basic actions like putting a record onto a turntable are solemn and nearly OCD-worthy.  For a character that's supposed to plan things out so well, you'd think that he might have figured out at some point that looking like you want to kill someone when you're trying to escape the scene of a murder is the sort of thing that other people might notice.  Or not.  Whatever works for a mechanic, I guess.

To sum up, "The Mechanic" is the sort of movie where the only women present in it are either hookers (presumably in the story to prove that Arthur is totally hetero, in contrast to the glances that he and Steve share) or the family of someone, threatened with violence in order to coerce that someone to give up information.  The plot is weak, the action is either weak and covered up by editing or really cool and handicapped by awful editing, and the acting possibly could have been culled from the cutting room floor of Statham's other films.  The whole thing bears the mark of the post-video game era: leveling up in lieu of actually telling a story.  If that sounds like your cup of tea, have at it.  Having been through this experience, I'm a little curious about the original movie.  It's not like it could be worse.

1 / 5 - TV

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - 2011

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" - 2011
Dir. by David Fincher - 2 hrs. 38 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

First things first, I haven't read the books, nor have I seen any of the three Swedish movies based on Steig Larsson's books.  This movie, directed by David Fincher, is my introduction to the material.  So there won't be any hand-wringing whatsoever about how this movie relates to the source material, although I've heard it's pretty faithful.   So, if you're like me and have had your head in a hole regarding this material (deliberately - I may eventually read the books, but I wasn't going to get that done prior to seeing this movie), let's have a quick introduction.

There are initially two storylines.  The first involves a disgraced journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), who has just been found guilty of libel against a businessman.  The second surrounds the girl who investigates Mikael for a background check on behalf of another wealthy businessman, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara).  The background check on Mikael is for what is publicly purported to be working on the memoir of Henrik Vanger, but is in actuality at attempt to figure out what happened to his niece, Harriet, who was murdered forty years prior.  Lisbeth and Mikael end up working together on the case.  Going into more detail of the plot seems unnecessary, and would ruin a lot of the movie.

There is a lot to praise about the movie.  The plot is somewhat complicated, but not confusing, and all the characters are distinct and have their own motivations.  And while it seems weird to call a movie that's more than two and a half hours long taut, it's an apt description.  There's a great tension to the story, and no real lulls to hamper that.  It's a tense movie punctuated by moments of real violence, and I found myself unprepared for those moments.  That's not a condemnation, either.  Rather than using violence as nothing more than fodder for entertainment, these events are consequential, and have emotional weight.  For instance (and in vague terms), the story between Lisbeth and her guardian Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen) leads to consequences that are horrific, well-earned, and shocking.  That combination of traits is consistent throughout the movie.

The acting is also uniformly excellent, particularly Rooney Mara's portrayal of Lisbeth.  She's distinct and believable playing a character that would be easy to overplay.  Instead of trying to convince everyone she's insane in a showy manner, she just does insane things in a way that makes you believe that she thinks what she's doing is normal.  That leads to a very explosive, dangerous character, in terms of the story.  I wouldn't want to slight the other actors, but much of the success of this material rests on Mara's shoulders, and she delivers.

For me, the entire movie just works.  Even though I was in a crowded theatre (there were 48 people in a room that had 51 seats), and even though this is a long film, I was never uncomfortable or bored.  My attention never wandered, and I was never distracted.  Those are barometers I use to judge how much I enjoy a film, especially when the run-time starts veering towards "Spartacus" levels.  Even more to the point, I'm completely looking forward to seeing another installment, and I wasn't even a fan going in.  This is one of the strongest mainstream films of the year.

4 / 5 - Theatre

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Don't Bother to Knock - 1952

"Don't Bother to Knock" - 1952
Dir. by Roy Ward Baker - 1 hr. 16 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

You may be pondering seeing "The Sitter," as you may enjoy Jonah Hill, and because holiday movie options are ridiculously slim this year.  I myself am looking forward to seeing "The Sitter" for those very reasons.  But if you like the premise of a horribly dangerous babysitter, and don't want to see it played for laughs, and don't mind watching Marilyn Monroe for seventy-five minutes, may I suggest instead that you watch "Don't Bother to Knock?"

The entire movie is set within the confines of a luxury hotel, McKinley Hotel in New York.  Lyn Lesley (Anne Bancroft) is a lounge singer, sullen because she's just broken it off with a pilot named Jed Towers (Richard Widmark).  She did this via letter, and thus isn't sure whether it was a clean break or if Jed will show up to figure things out (he shows up).  Lyn and Jed discuss the state of things during a set break, and it doesn't go well.  Jed is a cynic, and Lyn doesn't like the idea of living the rest of her life cold and indifferent to the people around her.  Elsewhere in the hotel, a couple are guests, and need a babysitter to watch their daughter while the parents attend a ball where the father is to be given an award.  The elevator operator (Elisha Cook, Jr.) offers his niece for the job.  And this is where things go insane.

With the little girl asleep, Nell (Marilyn Monroe) starts rummaging through the parents' stuff, and decides to try on some finery.  She gets busted by her uncle when he stops by to check on her, and assures him that she'll take off the clothes and jewelry, but never seems to get around to it.  Meanwhile, Jed is sulking in his room on the eighth floor after having his heart handed back to him, when he notices Nell across the courtyard and through the windows.  He consults a floor plan, and rings up the room.  He invites himself over, unaware of the child sleeping in the adjacent room, which Nell accepts.  When Jed gets to the room with a bottle of rye, he splays himself out on a chair and goes about flirting with Nell.

But it becomes quickly apparent that Nell is off her rocker (her boyfriend had died in the war, and she never fully recovered).  She's desperate for the attention of Jed, and does whatever she can think of to keep him in the room.  It would be spoiling the movie to say what all Nell does, but it starts with threatening the little girl when she won't stay asleep, and progresses from there.  Jed is suitably freaked out by the situation, and ends up regretting his situation with Lyn.

At this point in Marilyn Monroe's career, she hadn't hit her stride of classic films, but it wasn't far off.  It's unmistakably her; even though she's largely unglamorous, there's no mistaking that voice of hers.  And surprisingly, she's very effective in her role.  Her breathy, little-girl voice seems almost a perversion at times in "Don't Bother to Knock;" what seems playful and knowing in other roles comes off as damaged and very fragile here.  And more to the point, you believe that she's capable of doing harm from her delusional point of view.  So when the final blow-out occurs, not only do you worry about the little girl's safety, but each of the characters have been established as to why they have an interest in the situation.

I'll make no secret of it; part of what I enjoy about seeing old films is the anachronistic aspects of them.  The things that would seem out of place in a current film are enjoyable when you view them in their own context. It's a visual treat to see a world that's alien - different phones, people smoking wherever they please, the way people dressed in another era.  Ordinary things are just different enough that you still know what they are, but little things that don't necessarily have great importance are fun to watch just for the novelty factor.  But that wouldn't mean much if the story didn't work, which it does.  And the story doesn't really sugar-coat things: Jed tries to pick up a girl to get over Lyn (a cad move at best) and Nell is a lunatic who has tried to kill herself (and has the scars on her wrists to prove it).  Given the short running time, the plot plays out with brutal efficiency, and I found it very easy to get swept up by the story.

While "Don't Bother to Knock" isn't one of Monroe's classic best films, it holds up.  It's a quick, solid film, and if you've already explored her more well-known movies, this is a good choice from her second-tier.

3.5 / 5 - Streaming

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes - 2011

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" - 2011
Dir. by Rupert Wyatt - 1 hr. 45 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Considering there have been a number of "Planet of the Apes" movies over the years, all the way back to the original with Charlton Heston to Tim Burton's remake, a big question is where this film ranks.  I've seen the Heston original but none of the sequels, and I've seen the Tim Burton version.  This one doesn't quite measure up to the original, but easily outstrips Burton's version.  Another important question: do they get the "damn, dirty ape" line in there?  You know they did.

There are two big successes in this film.  The first is giving a reasonable science-fiction explanation for what seems sure to come, given the title of this film.  And the second is grounding that explanation in a very human way.  There aren't a ton of human characters in this film; fittingly, much of it is set in a laboratory of one kind or another.  Will Rodman (James Franco) works at Gen-Sys, a company devoted to developing new medicines.  One of Rodman's projects ends up showing some promise, but after an incident at the lab, the drug is put on the shelf, and all of the test-subjects chimpanzees are to be put down.  Robert Franklin (Tyler Labine) discovers the reason for the incident (a previously undiscovered pregnancy), and refuses to put down the newborn chimp.  Rodman sneaks the chimp out of the lab and home with him.  He names the chimp Caesar, and ends up raising him.  As you might guess, Caesar is no ordinary chimp.

In the first two acts of this movie, Caesar's development is paired with Rodman's father's (John Lithgow) descent into Alzheimer's Disesase.  Rodman decides to roll the dice on some home-brew science, which works spectacularly for a while.  The father/son story is pretty integral to this story - Will Rodman isn't a madman scientist acting without regard for morals or consequences, he's an outstanding scientist who has both his father and the cure for his father's condition slip through his grasp.  He pushes himself, hoping that he can beat the buzzer, so to speak.  What he comes up with inadvertently gives rise to intelligent apes.

Caesar has a tough existence, as well.  He's not just a smart ape, he can hold down entire conversations in sign-language.  But he also has the body of a chimpanzee, which means that his losing his temper has dire consequences.  He ends up in a primate sanctuary, which is run akin to a prison.  It's from this point where "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" really takes off.  I don't want to ruin any of it, but it's riveting action material, largely unspoiled by too-clever dialogue or ham-fisted witticisms.  The last half-hour of this movie delivers on all the promises made.  There will be primate revenge, and it's spectacular.

Perhaps remembering too strongly how little I enjoyed Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes," I wasn't that excited to see this new installment.  It's amazing how having characters that you can empathize with (Rodman and Caesar, both) makes such a difference.  James Franco does a good job juggling conflicting emotions, and Andy Serkis provides a great physical foundation for what the computer animators did with Caesar.  The result is not a great film, but a solidly good one.  And I'll definitely revise my expectations for the next installment in the franchise.

3 / 5 - Theatre

Monday, December 12, 2011

Real Steel - 2011

"Real Steel" - 2011
Dir. by Shawn Levy - 2 hrs. 7 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There are a number of contradictory statements that I need to get out of the way in regards to "Real Steel."  First, this movie was a lot better than I figured it would be.  Secondly, just because something is better than you think it's going to be doesn't mean that it's a good movie, necessarily.  Thirdly, that also doesn't mean that because a movie is better than you expect and isn't exactly what you'd call good doesn't mean that it's bad, either.  Got all that?

"Real Steel" is a movie about the world of robot fighting, which has replaced actual people fighting in the future, mainly due to the blood-thirsty nature of people who want to watch combat sports.  So you can understand why I'd be a little skeptical - when the movie's quickie description boils down to CGI Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, it's easy to roll your eyes.  Add into that stock characters like the down-and-out fighter, the estranged son, and the put-upon woman who's at the end of her rope with the fighter, and it's getting easier and easier to think that the only thing you're going to get is a big, dumb, loud movie.  All the stock plot elements are there, as well (the hard-ass who gets won over by his kid while putting his life back together: redemption through offspring).  I will not stand before you and testify that there is anything important I'm leaving out here; if you've seen more than a handful of sports movies, there's nothing here that will catch you by surprise.

But, like a catchy pop song, when you hit the right notes in the right order and keep things fun, things can happen.  You may have heard the melody before, and the lyrics don't really bring anything new to the table, but that doesn't mean you can't shake your ass a little every now and then.  That's what "Real Steel" brings to the table.  The plot isn't special, but it does hit the right emotional points at the right time.  And also, you get to see ten feet tall robots punch the crap out of each other.  It's surprisingly satisfying; it's dehumanized carnage, and you don't have to worry about the health of the combatants.  One of the funniest moments of the film occurs during one of the fights.  Noisy Boy (yes, the robots all have names) loses one of his arms in the course of a fight, and a panicked Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) tries to throw a punch with the arm that isn't there.  What ends up happening is that Noisy Boy sprays his oil all over the other robot, and you know there's going to be Hell to pay at that point.

The action in the film consistently delivers, which is pretty key here.  The fights are logical, not just nonsense edited together into more nonsense.  It might have taken a lot more work to put together logical fights that made sense, but if your central point is that robot boxing is the pre-eminent combat sport, it matters.  The characters also do a fun job: Hugh Jackman has a sort of swagger to him that is consistent with the character that he's playing, and his conscience Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly) is a welcome source of beauty and soft curves in a film that's comprised largely of testosterone and small Transformers.

"Real Steel" is a fun movie, a big, dumb movie, and a guy version of a tear-jerker at times, too.  The whole package doesn't give any reason to expect much, but it does over-achieve.  As I put it earlier, that doesn't make it a good movie, but it's also not a terrible one.  That's a kind of a victory.  If you can check your mind at the door, it's not a bad way to blow a couple of hours.

2.5 / 5 - Theatre

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Ice Harvest - 2005

"The Ice Harvest" - 2005
Dir. by Harold Ramis - 1 hr. 32 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I'm not much of a Christmas person, generally speaking.  And I especially dislike Christmas movies.  I've never seen "Miracle on 34th Street" or "It's a Wonderful Life," and Tim Allen's propensity for Christmas-themed movies means that I haven't seen anything he's done since "Galaxy Quest."  And usually, at this time of year, literally everything goes green, red, and garnished.  The last thing on Earth I want to do is further indulge the season by watching Christmas-related programming of any kind.

It's not entirely fair to peg "The Ice Harvest" as a Christmas movie.  What this movie actually is is a neo-noir film (and a pretty sharp one, at that) that happens to be set on Christmas Eve.  It's not inconsequential to the plot; pretty much all of the characters here are in a general state of irritation just to be existing in their lives, and the idea that they should all suddenly be jolly and thankful once a year for no good reason is another straw on the camel's back.  I can relate to that.  But what this is not is a movie filled with all the trite tropes of Christmas movies, or really even a feel-good movie.  It's a crime movie that takes place on Christmas, which effectively juxtaposes the general unhappiness of criminal enterprise with the ideal of a happy Christmas.

Mob lawyer Charlie Arglist (John Cusack), with the help of local pornographer Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton), decide to actually go through with ripping off local mob boss Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid), to the tune of a little over two million dollars.  They do this on Christmas Eve, presumably to delay Guerrard's discovery of the theft, giving them time to get away.  Unfortunately, the weather in Wichita is frightful, and they are going to have to wait until the next morning to leave town.  This leaves both men in the position of having to fulfill their duties and not tip anyone off that something's going on.  This leans more heavily on Arglist, who makes the rounds at local peeler bars that Guerrard controls.  One of the owners, Renata (Connie Nielson), figures out what's going on by Arglist's uncharacteristic behavior, and tries to take advantage of his long-standing crush on her to find a way out of Wichita.  Before long though, Roy Gelles (Mike Starr) is onto the scheme.

While the crime plot is pretty straight-forward (stay out of harm's way and play it cool until Charlie and Vic can get away safely), the smaller stories are very interesting.  Arglist, and his friend (possibly his only friend - he comes across as a very lightly-reformed not-entirely-pleasant guy to be around) Pete (Oliver Platt, an absolute riot here) are both mired, and trapped by the circumstances of their lives.  Charlie's ex is Pete's current wife, and there are a lot of tensions between all of the characters.  Charlie and Pete also both drink nearly constantly, with vastly different results.  Charlie is subdued, the crime story-line means that he's largely playing out his string, seeing a lot of people for the last time one way or another.  Pete's a mess, a social disaster, pushing buttons with glee and ferocity for as long as he can stand upright.  Charlie offers advice, but  lets Pete get into trouble, and then helps dust him off once whatever is going to happen has happened.

There's a sequence in this film that's a glimpse into an entirely different type of film, had anyone cared to take this material in a different direction.  Charlie takes Pete to his family's holiday dinner, both soused.  Pete is loud and delights it in, while his wife and her parents smirk through it with a sort of stiff-upper-lip condescension.  Charlie's children are there; the young daughter just misses her father, the teenage boy is all fury and takes everything the worst possible way.  It's a great scene, a ton of information packed into just a few minutes of film.  But what makes it great is the little bit that immediately precedes Charlie and Pete's arrival at the dinner.  Standing outside on the sidewalk, looking at the happy family (happy possibly because of Pete's absence), Pete admits to Charlie that there was some overlap between their respective relationships with the mother of Charlie's question.  Pete invites Charlie to take a swing at him, but instead of doing that, he lowers the boom.  Pete asks why he isn't angry, Charlie responds (in the way that only John Cusack can), "Actually, it makes me curious.  It makes me wonder who she's fucking now."

It's not necessarily said with malicious intent - it's both a forgiveness and a freeing of Pete.  He's in a miserable marriage with no way out, but the awareness that he's in the same boat that Charlie had been in forges a further bond between the two.  Also, it's the setting of the fuse for Pete to finally unload on everyone once inside, which is also one of the primary joys of watching Oliver Platt in just about anything he's ever done.  I don't know how to factor this into a review of "The Ice Harvest," but watching Platt drunkenly shake a turkey leg at people in an accusatory manner has to be worth something.

The pacing of this movie is unusual, also.  It's a ninety-minute movie, so it's not what you'd call long by any means.  And the pressure definitely gets to Arglist's character (there are a number of fantastic shots of Cusack looking progressively more disheveled as the movie goes on), but it definitely doesn't feel like things are happening very quickly.  That's not to suggest that there's a lack of content, or that the side-plots aren't fulfilling on their own, but "The Ice Harvest" lacks the sort of narrow-minded focus that a lot of noir-ish films have.  I suspect that's because there's no time devoted to the actual commission of the theft; it's all aftermath.     This movie feels a lot longer than it actually is, which is often a kiss of death, but here I didn't mind it.

I don't want to get into hyperbole, and suggest that this is a must-see movie.  But I will say that it's the only good film director Harold Ramis has made since "Groundhog Day."  And "The Ice Harvest" isn't as good as that film, but it does have healthy doses of the same kind of dark emotional states that lend some heft to the funnier material.  It's a quality movie that I've seen a handful of times now, and not just when I'm trying to find an anti-Christmas Christmas movie.

3.5 / 5 - DVD

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Pearl Jam Twenty - 2011

"Pearl Jam Twenty" - 2011
Dir. by Cameron Crowe - 1 hr. 49 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There's a sort of a caveat that seems required when talking about most documentaries about bands: for fans only.  Most music documentaries end up like that - it's rare that what's being captured ends up being far more interesting than the appeal of the people involved might suggest.  It does happen, though, like in "Hype!" (for which this film serves as an excellent companion) or "Dig!" (my guess is that the exclamation mark makes all the difference), but most of the time, what you're in for is a look at a band, and whether you already like the band pretty much dictates whether or not you're going to be interested in the film in the first place.  The only other approach that seems to be take is the "Behind the Music" approach, that focuses on the misery that breaks bands and people, and in a very voyeuristic manner.

"Pearl Jam Twenty" is neither of those things; it's a celebration.  That's not to say that there haven't been low moments in Pearl Jam's history that could have been exploited, but this movie is very much a survivor's tale.  And that story is vastly different than other band's stories, the ones that burnt out or faded away.  The basic rock story arc demands a spectacular flame-out at the end; you must pay if you fly too close to the sun.  That might be a lot of musicians' story; a quick ascendancy brought low by missteps.  Unlike every one of their peers, Pearl Jam still sells pretty well, packs out arenas, never broke up.  The members of the band got their tragedy out of the way early (Andy Wood's OD death before Mother Love Bone's first album could come out).  That's not to suggest that there haven't been problems along the way, but they're still around and ticking twenty years later.

This film is built on piles and piles of archival footage, from their earliest days (one performance is a mere six days after their forming as a band) to current day.  It includes everything from rare concert footage shot in tiny dives to concerts in front of sixty thousand people.  There's even footage of bass player Jeff Ament shooting hoops by himself in the early 90's.  You know how I know it was from the early 90's?  Ament was rocking the running shorts over bike shorts look that was popular in the NBA for about a season and a half (google "Roy Tarpley" images, if you're curious).  This is where this film fulfills it's promise to fans; if you like Pearl Jam, you're going to love this.  Maybe you'd like to see Eddie Vedder and Stone Gossard writing "Daughter."  Or maybe you want to see them get booed like crazy for playing "Bu$hleager" in front of an unappreciative audience.  Perhaps you'd be interested in any of a million interesting clips that you've probably never seen before.  If so, you're completely in luck.

In storytelling, failure is almost easier to deal with than success.  Failure marks a distinct end to a particular era, even if that's not exactly how things work in life.  Pearl Jam existing successfully for twenty years is an achievement, but it's not an easy story to tell.  There is (at this point) no end to that story, and even the members of the band seem not to have a perfect grasp on how they've survived this amount of time.  Fortunately, one explanation exists in the form of the soundtrack.  Whatever personal squabbles have arisen, it wasn't difficult to put together nearly two hours of their music, and it doesn't lag.  It's not a nostalgic set-list either, including everything from early songs to ones as recent as their last album.  Now, this isn't a film that's going to convert the unconverted (unless you've just never heard them play before, and this serves as a first exposure to their music); most people have settled on loving Pearl Jam or just being indifferent to them at this point.  If this is the sort of thing that you're into, it's very, very welcome.

4 / 5 - Streaming

Monday, November 28, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens - 2011

"Cowboys & Aliens" - 2011
Dir. by Jon Favreau - 1 hr. 58 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I'm going to level with you here.  I did not have very high hopes for this movie going in.  Everything from the title (there have already been a couple of other comic books with genre mash-up titles recently) on down didn't inspire much confidence in me.  There was no part of me that was interested in seeing this in a theatre for $10 (thank goodness for second-run theatres).  And I'm not going to look you in the eye and say this was a good movie, exactly.  But when your expectations are that a movie could be close to terrible, and then it doesn't end up being terrible, that adds up to a win.

The plot is perfunctory.  Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in a field, bleeding, amnesiac, and with a curious metal bracelet on his arm.  A trio of unfortunates decide to try to take him in for a bounty, and get dealt with quickly and completely.  Lonergan pillages the bodies, and takes a horse (and a dog comes along, as well) to the nearest town.  He immediately gets in a confrontation with Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), the son of the wealthiest man in town, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford).  Percy and Jake end up in jail for different reasons, and as they're about to be sent off to Santa Fe to deal with the feds, Woodrow and his posse roll into town to spring Percy.  And then, aliens.

There are more plot points, sort of, but this isn't the sort of movie that the plot matters.  A more accurate description is that Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford swagger around like bad-asses, lots of things blow up, and Olivia Wilde provides the eye-candy (of a sort - I don't want to imply that she's running around naked or anything, other than that one scene.  She's a welcome ray of beauty in a movie overflowing with hideous aliens and scowling men).  And Sam Rockwell provides the comic relief.  Then, more things blow up.

If that doesn't sound particularly challenging, know that it isn't.  And without the star-power that Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig bring, this movie could have very easily fallen flat.  After the "Iron Man" movies, it's no surprise that director Jon Favreau knows how to handle an action movie, and a certain amount of the action seems to be torn from the "Iron Man" playbook: particularly the flying scenes over sweeping vistas.  It works.  The movie does work, despite not really having much to work with.  It hits the plot points it needs to, and uses archetypes effectively in lieu of actual character development.  And, to Favreau's credit, the film has the balls to show these aliens in broad daylight instead of just having them lurking in shadows and cloaked in darkness.

That all adds up to a big, loud, dumb movie that is just good enough, but "Cowboys & Aliens" doesn't do anything that would make it essential viewing or that would make it better than a genre exercise.  Still, that's a lot more that I figured I'd be able to give it credit for.  I found it enjoyable, but your enjoyment depends on a lot of things.  But if you watch the trailer and think, yeah, that's a movie for me (or the opposite), you're likely going to be right.  There are no surprises in sight.

2.5 / 5 - Theatre

Friday, November 25, 2011

J. Edgar - 2011

"J. Edgar" - 2011
Dir. by Clint Eastwood - 2 hrs. 17 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

At this time of the year, it seems like most of the movies turn very, very serious.  Part of that is the Oscar-bait strategy (as in, no one remembers what came out in January).  "J. Edgar" is no exception to that strategy.  It's a very serious biography (of a sort) film of the man who brought legitimacy to the FBI.  I have to admit that, while I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, I think that I would have enjoyed it more if I wasn't staring down the prospect of two months of ultra-serious, heavy films, placed primely for awards.  That might not seem fair to director Clint Eastwood or "J. Edgar," but no film exists in a vacuum.

Depending on how much you know about J. Edgar Hoover (and the opinions that you might hold of him, based on how much you know), you might be surprised with the restraint that Eastwood shows here.  Hoover was, to put it simply, a complicated man.  He was also a driven man with few friends, and was highly successful in taking the FBI from an organization with a lowly reputation to one of the most highly-funded organizations in all of government.  He was an early pioneer of finger-printing and forensic science as crime-solving tools.  One of the aspects that this movie captures is that Hoover didn't do that through straight-up means; he held secret files on many notable Americans, and didn't seem shy about using the dirt contained within to extract favors from whomever he wanted to.  And also, the movie speculates on why Hoover didn't trust much of anyone, and why he never married over the course of his life.

This is a pretty well-rounded portrayal of a man who may not have deserved as much empathy as this film offers him.  There many times where Hoover toes or crosses lines to get done what he wants done, and he comes off like a petty tyrant at times.  At the same time, it's clear that he truly believed in what he was doing, which is probably why he was willing to go to the extremes that he did.  If you despise being lied to by politicians, your stomach might curdle as some of the things that Hoover did as an un-elected official.

The best traits of this film are exactly what you'd think they might be going in.  Leonardo DiCaprio does a good job with the character, humanizing someone who has become a bit of a caricature in history.  Clint Eastwood's direction is also outstanding, implying and nudging the story along without hitting you over the head.  It's a movie that asks you to pay attention, and rewards you for doing so with details that really enhance the story.  And the central figure to the movie, J. Edgar Hoover, is a compelling, secretive figure that could use a little light shed on.

And if you really enjoy historical biography films, this is going to be right up your alley.  It's quality through and through, another hit for Clint Eastwood.  It's not his finest work, but it's also pretty damned good for something that's not in a director's top tier of work.  I don't want to short-change that in any way.  But in a larger sense, it also feels like the beginning of a season of films that take themselves very seriously.

3.5 / 5 - Theatre

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Masque of the Red Death - 1964

"The Masque of the Red Death" - 1964
Dir. by Roger Corman - 1 hr. 29 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"The Masque of the Red Death" is one of eight movies that Roger Corman directed based on Edgar Allan Poe's stories over a span of five years in the early sixties.  This, and all but one other, starred Vincent Price.  I know that Corman has a reputation for being something of a low-budget king, but you might not know that from watching this film.

Being based on Poe's work, you know the story is going to be somewhat macabre.  It's set in the 12th century, in the middle of an outbreak of a plague called the red death.  Vincent Price plays Prince Prospero, a satanist with a giant castle, in which the fortunate are allowed to stay for their own protection against the plague.  Their only form of amusement are debauched balls, where pretty much anything goes (being shot in the early 60's, the sexual content is largely implied, although heaving bosoms and dancing ladies are plentiful).  Prospero is transported through a village where an old lady has died from the red death.  One of the villagers mouths off to Prospero, the result is that he, his wife, and her father are taken to the castle for Prospero's amusement while the village is burned to the ground.  The men are locked in the dungeon, and are to be pitted against each other in battle; Francesca (Jane Asher) becomes something of an obsession for Prospero, he wants to corrupt her from her devout Christian ways.

Francesca is cleaned up and introduced at one of the balls, where Prospero humiliates his minions by demanding each one conducts themselves as animals (which doesn't actually humiliate the revelers - the implication being that they've traded their dignity for their safety inside the castle).  Prospero demands that Juliana (Hazel Court) show Francesca the ropes, she does the bare minimum.  Juliana has other things on her mind, deciding to betroth herself to Satan, something that she'd been reluctant to do before the younger Francesca showed up and clearly caught Propsero's eye.

There's a fair degree of camp to this story; it's clearly the product of another era of film-making.  Actors talk with that bizarre actorly affectation, and carry themselves similarly.  But while the acting has a high level of artifice, the setting is ornate and lush.  The inside of the castle and the costumes are fantastic, and the entire setting seems like it's from an entirely different world.  In a movie now, any crowd scene would include a bunch of dressed-down schlubs, that's simply not the case here.  Honestly, much of what made this movie enjoyable was a peek into a different era.  The super-widescreen shots taking in the scenario, used instead of close-up camera work (seriously, I think I've seen up every modern actor's nose into their skulls at some point), great use of the setting, themed stage costumes.  It's a product from when movies were supposed to grand, even if they were about a satanic prince trying to seduce a Christian to the dark side.

Even more fun: listening to Vincent Price deliver lines like, "The way is not easy, I know, but I will take you by the hand and lead you through the cruel light into the velvet darkness."  That alone makes me curious about checking out some of the other Poe films that Corman and Price did together.  There were a couple of somewhat literary visual things that are worth noting, as well.  Red Death was actually a character in the movie, a man cloaked in red.  At the end of the film, he re-united with his brothers, other color-themed plagues.  That, and the series of color-themed rooms inside the castle that ended in a black and red room housing a Satanic altar were touches that feel literary and look fantastic.

I found "The Masque of the Red Death" to be pretty enjoyable, not entirely because of the plot.  If you're accustomed to current films, this is going to feel like aliens dropped this thing off without any explanation.  It's literally contrary to every current film-making trend, from the lush colors (as opposed to the de-saturated look common now) to making the most out of one setting, an admittedly awesome castle.  So even if you're not into the somewhat simplistic plot, you can kick back and enjoy the visual treat in front of you.

3 / 5 - Streaming

Monday, November 21, 2011

Contagion - 2011

"Contagion" - 2011
Dir. by Steven Soderbergh - 1 hr. 46 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

In the age of Purell, germs are the last frontier of horror.  There's a proud tradition of mystery viruses in movies, whether it be action movies that have villains trying to sicken everyone (like "Mission: Impossible"), or one that take a closer look at the actual outbreak ("Outbreak," to give a terrible example), or ones that follow the aftermath of such an outbreak (like the original "The Andromeda Strain" or even "28 Days Later," in a way).  These movies vary vastly in quality, but the best of them are both plausible and maintain a tension throughout the film.

"Contagion," to some degree, follows the standard plot in these situations.  People die, the CDC clues in, and scientists and the government try to work out a cure or vaccine before it's too late for a ridiculous amount of people.  That's fine, because that's pretty much how things really work.  It's a solid premise that works.  But this film has a few things working for it that takes that basic framework and turns it into a very good film.

First off, a lot of credit goes to director Steven Soderbergh.  He's one of the most consistently excellent filmmakers over the last twenty years or so, whether he's doing sub-$1 million budgeted experimental work  (like "Bubble" or "The Girlfriend Experience") or big-budget, star-studded extravaganzas (like the "Ocean's Eleven" series).  One of his hallmarks is always having the camera in the right place, and not being particularly showy about it.  It's understated excellence: he wants you to pay attention to what's on-screen, not his awesome technique.  Even so, once you've seen more than a couple of his films, it's always apparent that it's his work.  So it's no surprise that he gets all of the little details right.  Just in the opening sequence alone, instead of needing some prologue explanation of what's going on, the entire situation is conveyed visually.  It's a master-class in effortless film-making.  Instead of hammering on the people who have become sick, the camera lingers for a moment on something that the sick person has touched; you know what's happening without having to be told.

Another big point in "Contagion's" favor is that it does an excellent job of humanizing what is a fairly large cast.  People live sloppy, complicated lives, and that point is made.  You'd expect the main actors to have enough time to get that across (especially with actors like Matt Damon and Laurence Fishburne), but even the small roles are well done.  That shouldn't really be a surprise, given Soderbergh's earlier ensemble work in movies like "Traffic" or the "Ocean's Eleven" series, but it's also true here.

"Contagion" also begs comparison to one of my favorite science-fiction films, "The Andromeda Strain," and holds it's own.  There's a heavier emphasis on the science aspect in "The Andromeda Strain" (which was copied to some degree in the "Resident Evil" series of films: look at the underground bunker structures to begin with); it's the germ-horror genre's version of a police procedural.  One of the things that I immediately noticed a similarity in was the score for the two films, and I really liked the score to "Contagion."  The tension throughout both films was excellent, and when you're talking about maintaining tension while watching scientists perform lab work, that's a nice accomplishment.

"Contagion" is on the high upper end for this sort of movie.  Good acting, good direction, and a good story all add up to a really good film.

Gil Melle - "Desert Trip" - from "The Andromeda Strain" soundtrack

Cliff Martinez - "Placebo" - from "Contagion" soundtrack

4 / 5 - Theatre

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Star Wars - 1977

"Star Wars" - 1977
Dir. by George Lucas - 2 hrs. 1 min.

Original Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

How do you judge a phenomenon that has almost nothing to do with the original movie?  The Star Wars empire is broad and nearly endless: there's no shortage of officially-produced merchandise to spend your money on, no matter how deep your pockets.  It's an entry-point into nerd culture (which I dispute, and I'll get to that in a bit), an excuse to play dress-up, an inexhaustible supply of TV shows and video games, books and comics.  It's gotten to the point where people can pass off TV shows spoofing the Star Wars canon as original work.  But what has all that got to do with the movies themselves?

To start off, the version that I watched was from the 2004 box set of the original trilogy.  Everyone already knows the plot (even if it's via spoofs), so there's not much point in getting into that.  The original "Star Wars" is a good kid's movie.  It's got all the elements - a kid (of the whiny variety, Luke Skywalker), a sage wizard (Obi-Wan Kenobi), oppressive parental figures (Luke's uncle and aunt), a beautiful woman (Princess Leia), and a rebel force trying to oppose an insanely powerful dictatorial force with unimaginable fire-power.  And it's in space!  And there's a million different critters, as well.  It's as if this film was genetically engineered to blow a twelve-year old's mind.

Honestly, the series of films that start here cast a pretty large shadow over science-fiction films.  It's to the point where anything set in space is going to draw inevitable comparisons to the Star Wars films, if for no other reason than it's a common reference point.  With all the archetypal characters, you'd have to work very hard not to repeat something that was contained in these films.  On an entertainment and creative level, that's an accomplishment, and this is a good, entertaining film.

My main issues with "Star Wars" and the rest of the franchise aren't so much with the films themselves (although the more recent trilogy isn't quite as good), but in the aftermath.  There's at least two TV shows that have recurring "Star Wars"-themed episodes as if they were Christmas specials.  There's the obsession with the films, passing off minutiae as if it was clever and funny.  It was clever and funny when Kevin Smith did it nearly twenty years ago, but now it feels like buying tickets to a Pearl Jam concert and finding out you're going to be seeing Nickelback instead.

Then there's the attempt to tie this stuff into the nerd/geek culture, which is plainly absurd.  What made that culture unique was the attention to forgotten, esoteric material, not reciting lines from one of the most famous (and profitable) movies of all time.  Re-contextualizing obscure bits is art, but quoting "Star Wars" makes about as much sense as quoting "Titanic" and thinking it's clever.  "Star Wars" is the second-highest grossing film of all time adjusted for inflation.  It's not some little indie film that people stumbled on, it's like thinking that "The Bible" is some book that nobody's ever heard of, and then mining it for in-jokes.  This is one of the biggest films of all time.

So this is what it comes down to for me: I enjoy watching "Star Wars" from time to time, and find myself utterly annoyed with everything else that surrounds it.  The constant referencing of this film and its sequels degrades the impact of this film (also how I feel about "Citizen Kane"), and is a big hint that people who rely on those references might not be as funny as they'd like to believe.  George Lucas' handling of his franchise is as extreme as Bill Watterson's handling of the merchandising of "Calvin and Hobbes," and that shameless hucksterism is hard to push out of my head when I'm trying to watch the movies.  Is that fair?  Maybe not, but if Lucas feels slighted, I'm sure that he can dry his eyes with some of his millions that's he's earned from his enthusiastic approach to merchandising.

3.5 / 5 - DVD

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Rum Diary - 2011

"The Rum Diary" - 2011
Dir. by Bruce Robinson - 2 hours

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"The Rum Diary" has a few background details that are pretty interesting.  This film is based on a book of the same name by Hunter S. Thompson, which was written in the early 1960's, but remained unpublished until 1998.  It's the only published fiction book by Thompson (there is supposed to be a second, as yet unpublished fiction novel written).  The story is largely based on Thompson's own experiences in Puerto Rico, so having Johnny Depp playing the main character (Paul Kemp) is a sort of call-back to his portrayal of Thompson in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."  And this is also director Bruce Robinson's first film in something like twenty years.  That's a lot of background!

Kemp (Depp) is a near alcoholic writer who has managed to wrangle a job as a reporter in Puerto Rico with an English-language newspaper.  It's not particularly prestigious, and the editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), largely views the newspaper as light reading to entice Americans to come down to spend some tourist dollars on bowling and gambling.  All of this is in the early-1960's, and in contrast to the near-constant violent protests in the streets, there are also wealthy American moguls angling at the best way to extract insane profits from the islands.  Kemp gets wrangled into one of the schemes organized by Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), partially by virtue of his position as a writer for the San Juan Star, but also easily lured in through his barely concealed interest in Sanderson's wife, Chenault (Amber Heard).  Like most of the other newspaper employees, Kemp is nearly always drunk, and is urged on in this pursuit by his flat-mate, Will Sala (Michael Rispoli), and it nearly always ends badly.

So, there are two main questions to be answered about this movie.  The first: how is it as a movie?  Not bad, not bad at all.  There's a lot of charm to the setting (the island is beautiful, as are the period cars and ramshackle structures), and the story works.  Kemp shows up in Puerto Rico hoping to jump-start his attempt at writing novels, but laments his inability to find his "voice" as a writer, even after ten years of writing.  This is the main theme to the movie; Kemp starts off as someone who doesn't seem to have a strong opinion about much of anything aside from the need for another drink.  But as his drunken antics end up getting him caught up in situations beyond his control, he also finds himself genuinely seeing and reacting to the situation around him (namely, the nearly obscene poverty that many Puerto Ricans find themselves in, and the contempt that Americans like Sanderson treat the locals with).

When Kemp tries to use what skills he has (namely, writing) to attempt to address the situation, his article is quashed by Lotterman, and he's basically lectured that no one wants to hear bad news, and that his job is to make people think that they're living in an island paradise.  Any deviation from that will result in the financiers of the newspaper pulling the plug, and everyone will find themselves out of work.  With that avenue closed, Kemp is drawn further into Sanderson's business plan to develop a small island into a resort hotel, island inhabitants be damned.  You can see Kemp's empathy for the locals turn to disgust at what's going on around him, and in this he starts to find his voice as a writer.

The second question about this movie: how is it compared to the book?  I've read a handful of Thompson's books, and enjoyed this one (even if I didn't feel it was up to "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" or "Hell's Angels").  It's not a super-famous novel with legions of fans that are going to revolt at the slightest deviation from the holy scripture.  And that's good news, because much of what is taken from the book are the broad strokes (the Thompson-esque main character, the settings, the island development plot).  The flavor is there, and that's more important that slavish imitation.

Unfortunately, the movie deviates from the book at the worst time: the ending.  In the novel, the characters are forced to scatter because of more legal troubles in the middle of the night.  They help each other out in  whatever way they can manage, but they're all ultimately on their own.  It has the feeling of a brotherhood of scoundrels parting with fondness for one another.  In the movie, events wrap up much less dramatically, and with a big, fat Hollywood bow tied around it.


Kemp literally rides off into the sunset, having stolen one of Sanderson's boats, with the intent of tracking down Chenault in New York.  We even get the "Animal House" ending (without the benefit of the gang pulling off some giant prank in triumph before) - at some point during his travels on the sea, Kemp turns into Thompson, becoming a revered journalist and getting the girl.


Granted, the movie isn't aiming for the same tone as "Fear and Loathing" or as in Thompson's writing, but the end kind of took the sails out of the movie for my tastes.  It was literally about as trite and artificial ending as you can come up with, and felt kind of unearned (particularly after the sequence of events surrounding Carnival).  That's frustrating, especially since I was pretty much on board up until that point.

There's some really good acting in this movie.  It's fun to watch Depp do his Hunter S. Thompson again (especially after so many pirate movies), Giovanni Ribisi is fantastic as the greasy, filthy Moburg (greasy isn't enough to describe him; what would you call a concentrated grease?), Michael Rispoli really inhabits his "been there too long" sidekick Sala.  Amber Heard is beautiful enough to blind, and it's not hard to believe that Depp's character would be smitten with her at first sight.  And generally speaking, this was a decent movie based on a decent book.  Unfortunately, the two don't share the same mistakes, each one has it's own problems to deal with.

3 / 5 - Theatre

Monday, October 31, 2011

In Time - 2011

"In Time" - 2011
Dir. by Andrew Niccol - 1 hr. 49 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"In Time" is a throwback sci-fi movie, in the best way possible.  It's got the same sort of great high concept that  movies of it's ilk from the 1970's had, with a more modern execution.  The metaphor that holds the movie together (time as currency) is easy to grasp, and the consequences of this system seem both fully formed and very timely.

In this world, time is literally money.  People live for their first twenty-five years for free, and then a meter in their forearm starts ticking.  They stop aging at that point, and they get one year of currency to start with.  When their meter hits zero, they die immediately.  But if you don't hit zero, you live as long as you can manage, forever twenty-five in appearance.  In a larger sense, the world is broken down into "time zones," which is an approximate class system.  In order to travel from one time zone to another, you have to pay, and pay an amount that pretty much keeps everyone exactly where they start.  Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) lives in the ghetto, living day to day, in an apartment with his mother (Olivia Wilde).  He works at a factory making bank devices that hold time.

Unwinding in a bar one night, a rich stranger (he's got over a century on his meter) nearly gets caught by a gang of thieves, but Will helps him escape and hide.  The man has lived for over one-hundred years and doesn't want to live anymore.  Long story short, the man gifts Will all of his time while Will is sleeping, and zeros out off of a bridge.  This transfer of time (and the suspicious death of the man, a very famous and wealthy man slumming in the wrong time zone) raises the attention of the Timekeepers, which seems to be the only real police in existence.  Timekeeper Raymond Leon has been on the job for fifty years, and takes on the Will Salas case.

There are two aspects to this film that I really enjoyed.  In the tradition of science fiction, "In Time" takes a look at a current situation through allegory.  And this is a very timely movie, taking a hard look at the class stratification and removing poisonous contemporary politics from the discussion.  What's invisible in our world is made visible here through the time zones.  They're nearly impossible to get out of for a variety of reasons (business manipulating prices to keep people mired, ghetto residents preying on one another, lack of opportunities in general).  The wealthy take the view that the lower classes exist so that the rich may be immortal.  The classes don't merely have a difference of opinion, they're diametrically opposed.  Unfortunately, the poor are held down so that nothing can ever change.  Timberlake's character's populist views run in his family, and his actions also play on both sides of the idea of being able to change your own destiny (if you believe in such things).

The other aspect of the film that I really enjoyed was the visual approach taken.  Not only do the time zones have distinct looks, everything in this world feels custom.  Details like the toll booths (sort of) are different than anything you'd see in reality - rather than a mechanical arm, there's a sort of rolling cement device.  The buildings are fantastic, and the automobiles are even better.  The cars are customized, clearly starting with real cars, but the grills and details are changed so that it's like a slightly alternate reality.  The entire world is stylized in a consistent, pleasing way.

The story plays out somewhere in-between "Logan's Run" and "Bonnie and Clyde," which is a solid place to be.  It's always more interesting when the characters are trying to uphold what they think is right, even if that's not the same thing from character to character.  The Timekeepers are just trying to uphold the system, even if they're misguided or confused at times.  Will Salas wants to upend the system that's keeping people down to benefit a lucky few.  Even the wealthy have a view that makes sense to them.  So instead of a black and white world, you've just got people with competing interests, also competing to make those interests reality.  Between the timeliness of the subject matter, having a solid allegory, and the interesting visual approach, "In Time" is a fun ride.

4 / 5 - Theatre

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Apollo 18 - 2011

"Apollo 18" - 2011
Dir. by Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego - 1 hr. 26 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Apollo 18" isn't a bad movie.  For what it is, it's not bad at all.  And, for the record, what it is is low-budget horror/sci-fi movie with a conceit that could have come out of the 1950's.  The material isn't approached in an-over-the-top manner, but that's a double-edged sword.

The idea of the film is that someone has anonymously uploaded eighty-four hours of footage from a secret NASA mission in the 1970's to the internet (for those that aren't history buffs, there were only seventeen Apollo missions).  That "found" footage was then edited down into this film, "Apollo 18."  It's definitely "The Blair Witch Project" in space.  As the manned mission to the moon continues, things start to go haywire.  It becomes apparent that the two men who have been sent to the moon (there is a third who stays in orbit the entire time) have been sent under false pretenses.  I don't think it'd be spoiling the movie to say that things end badly; no one does a fake documentary that ends up awesomely for everyone involved.

The first thing that was done well here was to cast people who aren't immediately recognizable.  The three main characters, Captain Anderson (Warren Christie), Lieutenant Colonel Grey (Ryan Robbins), and Commander Walker (Lloyd Owen) are anonymous enough not to immediately blow the faux-documentary conceit of the film.  And in general, I respond better to science-fiction material than I do straight horror material.  One of the cool things here is that you get to see vintage space-exploration ephemera casually presented.  A lot of time is spent in the shuttle (and there's also a Russian shuttle shown, as well), and it's kind of neat to see nuts and bolts stuff presented.

But a lot of the success of the film hinges on the double-edged sword I mentioned earlier.  This is a low-budget movie (made for around $5 million), and all of the things that allow a film to get made for such a modest budget (non-star actors, the documentary approach, not requiring locations to shoot at) also end up hampering the movie.  The lack of storytelling flourishes that could make things more interesting (there's not even a soundtrack, much less any kind of liberties taken with editing technique) wind up leaving things to fall flat at times.  And especially when you're dealing with a story that's fairly predictable (at least in broad strokes), anything that might have distracted from the long, straight road that you as a viewer are on would have been appreciated.  Even the ending is something out of a scare-film; what happened here could happen in your town!  To someone you love!  Or maybe even you!

Like I wrote before, "Apollo 18" isn't a bad movie.  It's predictable, doesn't aim for much, and other than the space equipment, the scenery isn't presented in a particularly impressive manner.  But it's short, hits the points it has to in order to function, and at least the idea of secret NASA missions isn't a bad one.  And though I know this is faint praise, you could probably do worse.

2 / 5 - Theatre

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Our Idiot Brother - 2011

"Our Idiot Brother" - 2011
Dir. by Jesse Peretz - 1 hr. 30 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

The title of this movie sounds like one of those playful jabs you'd lob at a family member or close friend, but for the bulk of "Our Idiot Brother," the main character's sisters act like they mean every syllable of it.  It's kind of troublesome, but would probably be nearly unbearable if not for the easy-going, good-natured charm of Paul Rudd.

Rudd plays Ned, a guy who bears an uncanny resemblance to early-90s Eddie Vedder, who's so trusting that he ends up getting busted for selling marijuana to an in-uniform police officer, and gets sent to jail for it.  When he gets out early, he discovers that his organic-farming girlfriend has moved on to another man, and didn't bother to tell Ned about it.  She's supremely passive-aggressive, to the point where she won't let him stay there (Ned also worked on the farm, so he's out a girlfriend, a job, and a place to stay, all without notice), and refuses to give Ned their dog, Willie Nelson.  Ned successively strikes out with all three of his sisters, unintentionally sabotaging their relationships along the way with his naive honesty.

There are some very funny scenes along the course of this movie, particularly the ones involving Ned and his ex-girlfriend.  They have super-passive-aggressive arguments steeped in hippie talk, which ends up being hilarious.  But the bulk of the movie is dedicated to Ned's generous geniality pitted against his family's individual determination to lie and act behind other people's backs.  It's clear that the audience is supposed to chuckle at Ned's overly generous view of humanity, and possibly identify with his sisters' attempts at alpha-femaling being undone by Ned.  The only actress who manages to strike the right note here is Zooey Deschanel, which is probably because her character bears the closest resemblance, personality-wise.  Elizabeth Banks' character is too bossy and focused to accommodate much of anything, and Emily Mortimer's is too haggard and worn down by her children and ass of a husband (Steve Coogan) to pay attention to much of anything.

It takes Ned returning to jail (under similar dubious circumstances) for the witches three to realize what's good about Ned, and they rush to his defense.  It's less of a triumphant moment than a "what took so long?" moment.  I'm not sure exactly what the resistance is to a person just wanting to live happily (and avoid the career-based pitfalls of his sisters), but it doesn't seem like the sort of thing that should take two acts to arrive at.  On the other hand, most of the joy of this film is in watching Paul Rudd be easy-going and charming.  I can't stress that enough: while it's frustrating watching Ned's family reject him one after another, I didn't feel at all cheated because it was that much fun just watching Ned be Ned.

2.5 / 5 - Theatre

Friday, October 21, 2011

Cool as Ice - 1991

"Cool as Ice"-  1991
Dir. by David Kellogg - 1 hr. 31 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

When you've got an ultra-hot pop star, it makes sense to throw him or her into a low-budget, quickie movie, so as to extract more cash from their fans before their star fades.  I don't fault any of the people involved for making that decision; it's a basic career move for anyone in that position.  If you luck out and unexpectedly make something not terrible, you've got new avenues open.  If it goes the other way, it probably didn't cost much to make in the first place, and hopefully people will just forget about whatever cinematic abortion you've just created.  To give you an indication of which way "Cool as Ice" headed, understand that the film was never released on DVD.  There is a nearly endless list of truly awful movies that did get released on DVD, but "Cool as Ice" never made the cut.

What you need to know about Vanilla Ice, according to this film:  he's a martial-arts expert (there are two fight scenes, including one where he finishes off a guy with a palm-thrust to the chest!), his every-day wear includes a leather jacket that has "sex me up" written on it in large letters, he's largely incapable of delivering more than one line of dialogue at a time, he rides neon-painted motorcycles with the least intimidating hip-hop biker gang ever, he holds an unnatural sway over little boys (I think that the love interest's little brother loves Ice more than she does), and seduces women via public pelvic thrusts and dance floor dry-humping.  Got it?  Yep yep.

I'm not going to bother with much of a plot description, but here goes.  Ice rolls into a small town, but one of his buddies' motorcyles breaks down.  Ice sees girl, chases girl.  There's also a b-story about the girl's parents being chased down by some thugs, which is mainly an excuse for the parents to scowl at Ice, but ultimately get proven to be a good guy.  So there you go!  There are also three musical segments within the film (the first six minutes are basically a Vanilla Ice music video, and the last few minutes are basically the same, with a different song), only one of them plays into the plot at all.  In the middle of the film, Ice and crew eject the house band, and deliver the bar patrons into their own special version of hell.  Ice starts performing (it's unclear what he does other than ride motorcycles, in the context of the film), spots his love interest, Kathy (Kristin Minter), and then decides to do a song for her.  Before he even gets to the first lyric, the first thing he does is go "uh!" and deliver a pelvic thrust all up in her business.  Did I mention this was also in front of Kathy's boyfriend?  And the entire bar?  There are more pelvic thrusts to be had, as well as Ice laying her down in the middle of the dance floor and air-humping the shit out of her, before returning to the task at hand, rocking the mike.

It's hard to get mad about things like that, though.  If you're hitting "play" on "Cool as Ice," odds are you're not expecting a quality film.  There is, without question, wall-to-wall unintentional absurdity on display, and literally everything present is standard issue.  And even the music is second-rate; there's an undeniable catchiness to "Ice Ice Baby" or "Play That Funky Music," even if it's largely due to the source material being sampled.  And none of that catchiness is evident in any of the songs here.  That should be the one given if you're making a movie about a musician, and even that falters.

So, if this movie is really as awful as I say it is, why not give it a goose-egg on my rating?  A couple of reasons.  First, there is a lot of unintentional comedy here, from Ice's monosyllabic lines to Ice absolutely wearing out his "Blue Steel" face.  And a laugh still counts as a laugh.  But probably more importantly, though Vanilla Ice's credibility was shaky even at his peak, this has to count as an early hip-hop movie.  Ice's taste is questionable, but he's committed to what he's doing, and this is an attempt to bring hip-hop culture to a wider audience.  Believe me, I wish that Public Enemy or Run-DMC or even Digital Underground had been given $6 million to make a movie during this time period.  But they weren't.  Kid 'n Play did "House Party" the year before, so if you want to see what the early days of rap's chart success looked like, these two films are your then-contemporary options.  So even as a spectacular failure, it succeeds on the basis of documenting a particular time and place.  That might sound like faint praise, but at the time, everyone wasn't toting a video camera around in their pocket in those days.  It may have been a gaudy, neon-encrusted, ridiculous point in fashion history, but at least it's on film.  Sure, a painfully bad film, but it's there.

1.5 / 5 - Streaming

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Death Wish - 1974

"Death Wish" - 1974
Dir. by Michael Winner - 1 hr. 33 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Death Wish" isn't a bad movie by any stretch, but it's probably more interesting as a cultural artifact than it is just on it's merits as a movie.  It came after "Dirty Harry," but continues along the same notion of taking matters into your own hands, in the most extreme manner possible.  Partially, you just have to shrug and say, "It was the 70's."  But that's not really the entire story.

As for the plot, Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) has his wife and daughter attacked in his own apartment by a gang of hoodlums (including Jeff Goldblum's movie debut).  The attack is savage (and benefits from not having been filmed during the last twenty years - instead of the now-standard "shaky-cam" approach, a more documentary, fly-on-the-wall approach is taken); Kersey's wife dies from a beating, and his daughter goes catatonic post-rape.  Who knows what to do after something like that happens?  Paul reluctantly accepts an out-of-town temporary assignment from his employer on the advice of his son-in-law (who confusingly (and a little whiningly) keeps referring to Paul as "dad").  The trip seems to help, and Paul is befriended by Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin), which reintroduces Paul to guns, which he grew up with.  I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention that Ames drives the sweetest whip ever to grace Tucson, Arizona.

Upon returning to New York, Paul finds out that his daughter's condition has worsened, and that she's going to have to be institutionalized.  At this point, Paul snaps (sort of; Bronson's a pretty stoic actor), grabs the pistol that Ames gave him as a present, and starts trolling the streets of 1970's New York City, hoping for someone to try to rob him.  He is obliged, and ends up shooting a mugger in the chest.  It's a transformational experience for Paul.  Up to that point, he's explicitly described as a bleeding-heart liberal, and had been a conscientious objector during the Korean War.  He returns to his apartment and literally throws up, but it's not the end of his vigilante rampage.  After a series of confrontations, one goes wrong, and Paul is apprehended by the police, but not jailed.

The idea of vigilante justice isn't a new one at the point that "Death Wish" was released, but the particular flavor of it is telling of it's time.  It feels like a push-back on the counter-culture movement of the 60's and 70's; straight-laced and responsible people felt threatened, and as if their world was spinning out of control.  At one point, Paul asks his son-in-law, "I mean, if we're not pioneers, what have we become?  What do you call people who, when they're faced with a condition or fear, do nothing about it, they just run and hide?"  The son-in-law stammers out an answer, but the unspoken reply is that it would make you a coward.  In this situation, the only "reasonable" response to bewilderment or discomfort is violence.  The answer lies at the end of a gun's barrel.

What makes this interesting is the extremes to which people must have felt themselves pushed to embrace vigilantism as an answer.  It was the 70's, but in NYC, historically speaking, things hadn't even reached their apex (or nadir).  David Berkowitz or Bernie Goetz hadn't achieved infamy by this point, that sort of overt madness was still bubbling under.  Thinking of New York now, it seems almost absurd to think that a movie about shooting street thugs would be popular to any extent.  But this is a different movie about a different New York.

Charles Bronson's stoicism works well for this character; it's not hard to put yourself into his shoes (especially given the circumstances, ones that would test any man's character).  But it's the attack scene early on that really makes this movie work.  As I mentioned earlier, if this movie was filmed today, it likely would have been done with shaky camera work and hasty edits.  I find myself increasingly numb to that sort of approach; it's gimmicky and ineffective.  The trio of thugs (Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Logan, and Gregory Rozakis) are there for money and kicks, and not to entertain an audience.  The violence is played as matter-of-fact (and they beat the hell out of the two women, Hope Lange (Paul's wife) and Kathleen Tolan (daughter) and savage.  Goldblum's character (Freak #1!) tears off Tolan's clothes and forces a sex act on her, but what we don't have here is titillating close-ups on Tolan's breasts, or even on Goldblum's bare tuchus.  Again, director Michael Winner understands the point of the scene, and keeps on point.  This is important to the rest of the film, because if the initial attack scene works, the movie doesn't have to keep justifying Paul Kersey's actions each time.  And because it does work, the specter of this attack hangs over every one of the other criminals that ends up getting shot.  All of the criminals are paying for the sins of the first gang, and in terms of internal logic, the film holds together.

I ended up liking "Death Wish," probably because it's a less-sanitized version of the current incarnation of vigilante movies, the comic book superhero film.  It's not fanciful and acrobatic, but it's also no less morally lacking.  Obviously, people watch films all the time where they don't agree with the actions of the characters.  As entertainment, the movie holds together pretty well, and gives a plausible explanation of how someone could go from being a conscientious objector to gunning down thugs in the middle of the street.  Whether or not you think that shooting criminals is a reasonable reaction to crime isn't important; it poses an extreme answer to a problem, which is then the viewer's responsibility to work through and debate for themselves.

3.5 / 5 - Streaming

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Friends with Benefits - 2011

"Friends with Benefits" - 2011
Dir. by Will Gluck - 1 hr 49 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Pleasant surprises are pleasantly surprising.  I didn't have much hope for this move based on the trailer, but as you may have guessed from my first sentence, I was pleasantly surprised by "Friends with Benefits."  A lot of my indifference going in was based on dreading yet another movie about twenty-somethings trying to circumvent a traditional relationship model, but instead got both a charming romantic comedy and a commentary on how self-awareness hamstrings some people's happiness.

Going in, it's impossible to not know the basic over-arching story.  It's the same romcom plot that has been repeated endlessly (and will continue to be repeated endlessly, likely in inferior forms); Dylan (Justin Timberlake) flies to New York at the behest of a headhunter, Jamie (Mila Kunis).  They meet cute (in this case, Jamie is chasing a flier around a baggage carousel at the airport), and on the heels of recently ended relationships (Emma Stone and Andy Samberg in small roles) they agree to engage in a sexual relationship, so long as both of them keep their feelings to themselves.  At some point, there's a misunderstanding that causes the relationship to go sideways, and they've both got to get to an emotional point where they can reconcile and ride off into the sunset together.  In broad strokes, this is exactly a conventional romantic comedy masquerading as an anti-romantic comedy.

However, there are two mitigating factors.  As always, when you're dealing with a formula story, the execution is key.  Timberlake and Kunis seem to really enjoy each other's company, and have a steady, biting repartee that carries large chunks of the film.  While they're trying to be cynical and practical about matters, there's a feeling that it's not a perfect fit for either of them, and that leaves some hope that they're not just soulless beings settling for an imperfect situation.  The smaller roles are uniformly well-done as well: Woody Harrelson in particular is a riot as a gay sports editor for GQ (and takes advantage of another opportunity to play basketball in a film).  In terms of execution, the pacing is steady and never lags.

The second, more interesting (and slightly less entertaining) element to this movie is the notion of self-awareness.  There's a movie-within-a-movie here, an uber-cheesy romantic comedy that stars Jason Segel and Rashida Jones dutifully acting out every awful trope.  Both Timberlake and Kunis' characters have a love/hate relationship with the movie - they are aware of the saccharine quality and impossible standards that romantic comedies have set for people, but still want to have a version of it.  There is a reason why this story gets told over and over again: the falling-in-love narrative is a universal experience, even if it plays out in a less-glamourous and less-fanciful version in real life.  The characters' awareness of this narrative at times keeps them from fully embracing their experiences (one of their shared traits is a difficulty in emotionally connecting with partners), due to a variety of fears.

Instead of just leaving the character development at that, there is a stretch of the film that's pretty rough to watch, where the audience discovers exactly why Dylan and Jamie are the way they are.  In short, it's due to flawed relationships with their parents.  I have to give credit where credit is due: it would have been very easy to just throw some more R-rated content in the film, and not really start digging, emotionally.  But this is where "Friends with Benefits" turns from lame-ass product into something more worthwhile.  Dylan is having a very difficult time dealing with the reality of his father's frailty and his mother's disappearance, and it's not glossed over.  Jamie's mother is present at times, but highly unreliable, and she seems to have a difficult time staying anchored.  In this portion of the movie, the characters go from characters to people.

I'm sure that there are parts of this movie that will age poorly (I've got my eyes on the flash mobs, in particular), but the core is solid, and Timberlake and Kunis have good chemistry.  It's a fun movie, except when it needs not to be, and the run-time flies by.  This is a perfect example of a movie that doesn't aim that high (or at least pretends to be nothing more than a slightly more raunchy version of a romantic comedy), but through execution and an interesting approach ends up being more than the sum of its parts.

3.5 / 5 - Theatre