Monday, May 30, 2011

The Other Guys - 2010

"The Other Guys" - 2010
Dir. by Adam McKay - 1 hr. 47 min.

Official Trailer

Every time I go see a Will Ferrell movie, I want it to be the funniest thing I've ever seen.  Usually, when I'm done watching it for the first time, I feel a little let down.  I guess the problem is that I'm judging each new movie against "Anchorman: the Legend of Ron Burgandy" or "Talledega Nights: the Ballad of Ricky Bobby," which is clearly unfair.  Looking at that last sentence, I should probably not anticipate any of his films without a colon in the title.  Punctuate, Will, punctuate!

'The Other Guys" ought to be great - it's got Will Ferrell working with director Adam McKay again, it's got a great cast (Dwayne Johnson, Samuel L. Jackson, and Michael Keaton all have supporting roles), and it's got Mark Wahlberg doing what he does best (getting confused and yelling at things right before he knocks something over).  It's got a timely subject (corporate financial shenanigans), too.  But for some reason, when I watched it when it came out, I was a little let down.  Oh, I laughed and had a good time, but it felt like a ground-rule double instead of a home-run.

So, what I'm saying is that this is not a great comedy.  It's pretty damned good, and a lot of stuff works, but it doesn't click in the same way that "Anchorman" or "Ricky Bobby" did.  Even on a second viewing, I still laughed a lot.  It's fun watching Will Ferrell play his version of a straight man (Wahlberg's constant blowing up at every situation was the wild card, and it's more fun to watch that in a comedy than in a drama).  The stuff with Jackson and Johnson is great, it completely takes the piss out of loose cannon, hot-shot, attention-hog cops.  Even the more outrageous moments work because they come from the personalities of the characters (the "deskpop," Ferrell and Eva Mendes' rendezvous towards the end of the film, Wahlberg's character having learned how to dance ballet sarcastically to make fun of someone else who had actually learned how to, Michael Keaton's character's verbal tic and his constant denial of it).  It all works really well, and is funny throughout.

So what's the problem here?  And why am I nitpicking a movie that I did like?  Second question first, please. Often times, movies that don't quite come together are more interesting to write about, if you can find the seams.  Great movies don't give you the chance to look for the seams, if they're there at all.  And the seam here is that I wanted more from this movie.  I know I'm being unfair, but I felt the same way after I'd watched McKay and Ferrell's previous movie, "Step Brothers," but absolutely did not feel that way after watching their previous two movies.  As for the first question, it could be as simple as the fact that there is no love story sub-plot.  Yes, it's a standard issue plot device, and yes, I'm flogging myself for suggesting something so pedestrian.  The scenes with Mendes and Ferrell are super-funny (she's much funnier than I was expecting), but part of the reason that love story sub-plots work is that it gives a viewer the chance to see not only something positive in the characters, but allows you to fall in love with the characters a little bit yourself.

Without that emotional entry-point, the filmmaker has to find an alternate way to get a viewer emotionally invested in what they're watching.  What we're left with here is Wahlberg stalking his ex (and drooling over Mendes), and Ferrell verbally abusing his wife (albeit in a really funny way, but still...).  It's not even a question of likability, it's just a matter of where the hell am I supposed to be engaged here?  I'm not even really suggesting a love sub-plot, it's an issue of having a story where I don't have any real reason to root for these guys personally.  The material is so good and the actors so funny that it still adds up to a good film, but I think this is the seam that's showing: the failure of the filmmaker to fully engage the audience along the way.

But I still liked it, anyways.

3.5 / 5 - NF Streaming

The Nude Vampire - 1970

"The Nude Vampire" - 1970
Dir. by Jean Rollin - 1 hr. 20 min.


With a title like this, you know right off that it's probably not going to be very good.  And that's sort of true; the plot and dialogue are completely worthless, but visually, there are some interesting things going on.  The story is that there is a cult in hoods that sort of possess a lovely young woman, whom they are convinced is actually a vampire.  The cult is trying to cure her and keep her away from another cult of vampires that want her back.  Sigh...

I'm not that upset that the plot was inane (and ultimately pointless).  Again, with a title like that, you know what you're in for.  And there was certainly nudity, and there sort-of were vampires (though they certainly didn't sparkle).  The visuals in the first half or so of the movie were very good for this sort of thing (low-budget Italian indie film from that era).  It's not exactly a David Lynch film (or a Alejandro Jodorowsky film, if you really want to get freaky), but the surrealism was well-done, and effectively distracted from the lack of anything else to back it up.

Look, it's best not to think too much about this kind of film.  Otherwise, I'd start getting very mad about the bizarrely snail-like pace of the third act (there is literally a shot of two men walking into the distance away from the camera, having a pointless conversation that runs for FOREVER), or about the ending which essentially tells you that you that everything the movie was supposed to be about was false (so thanks for the 80 minutes, sucker!).  Instead, I'll just say that the eye-candy (insert eyebrow waggle) was nice, there were a lot of visually interesting shooting locations, and that is all you're going to get from "The Nude Vampire."

1.5 / 5 - NF Streaming

Monday, May 23, 2011

Thor - 2011

"Thor" - 2011
Dir. by Kenneth Branagh - 1 hr. 55 min.

Official Trailer

Yep, another comic book movie.  I can understand if people are tired of that in general (geeks, your backlash is juuuuust about ready to be served, hope you've enjoyed your appetizer), but you only get to complain when the movies in question are not very good.  And "Thor" is pretty good.  It's another in a string of movies that are leading up to the sure-fire blockbuster "Avengers" movie due in 2012, right before the Mayan apocalyspe takes us all (along with the "Iron Man" movies and the forthcoming "Captain America").  Thor (played by Chris Hemsworth) is exactly who you might think he is - Odin's son, the God of Thunder, taking residence in Asgard.  He's not exactly a super-hero like you'd expect - his story is fundamentally different than Iron Man's, for instance.

Instead of being sworn to protect humanity, Thor's a hot-headed prince who is clearly not ready to take over his father's throne.  There's a minor invasion into Asgard by the frost giants, and Thor wants a piece of flesh in retribution.  He won't be deterred, but it leads to his exile on Earth.  This has the effect of splitting the movie into two; there's the Asgardian material (which is about political intrigue and his scheming brother, Loki), and the fish-out-of-water material set on Earth.

Both parts of the movie are wound together, and there's not much confusion, either.  Visually, this movie's a stunner.  Asgard is beautiful, gleaming, and grand.  The Earth scenes are set in the southwest, as stark as Asgard is ornate.  Bridging the two is space, portrayed in swirling nebulae and zooming starscapes.  Given that the source material is visual in nature, it's not a surprise that it should be a strong suit of the movie, but it's worth noting that the film didn't fall short here.

One of the things that good comic book movies do that they didn't used to do (which is why they're better now than they had previously been) is that they're willing to find good actors to ground the more fantastic elements of the characters and stories.  In Asgard, Thor plays off of Anthony Hopkins (Odin), and on Earth, he's surrounded by Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, and Kat Cummings.  Hopkins rages very well, and it's so much fun watching Natalie Portman fall awkwardly for Thor.  In general, the Earth stuff is so much fun, and so funny.  The humor is natural and easy (in the way that Robert Downey, Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow's dialogue feels natural between them), and it's a relief to have something that could have all the fun strangled out of it completely go the other way with it.

To put it in the "Avengers" hierarchy, "Thor" isn't as good as the first "Iron Man," but is better than "Iron Man 2."  It's also far better than either Hulk movie.  It's a beautiful spectacle, with a good story and a good balance between levity and action.  If you haven't seen any of those movies, "Thor" is a reasonable jumping on point - there are passing references to the related movies, but whether or not you get them doesn't affect the story in any meaningful way.  This is a really good popcorn movie, and probably should be seen on the biggest screen you can find.

4 / 5 - Theatre

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Dude, Where's My Car? - 2000

"Dude, Where's My Car?" - 2000
Dir. by Danny Leiner - 1 hr. 23 min.

Official Trailer

Let me be clear about one thing: I know that there's nothing I can say that would sway anyone from their opinion about a movie like this.  And I'm not going to pretend otherwise.  Either you already think that it's just plain stupid (which it is), or you laughed like a little girl being tickled while a unicorn peed a rainbow on you.  Nothing in-between, and that's entirely fair.

And seeing as how the critics have largely weighed in on the "stupid" side, I'm just here to offer a little balance.  Yes, it's stupid, but that's not really a dig on a comedy.  I mean, if you didn't take offense at the stupidity of "Dumb & Dumber" or "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" or "Meatballs" or "Up in Smoke" or Jerry Lewis' entire career, there's no reason to start getting bent out of shape starting with "Dude."  I understand if it's not really your cup of tea, but it's a valid, time-tested approach to comedy, and it's fairer to just admit that it really is you and not the movie that has a problem.  And if we're going to judge this film, it must be on whether it's funny within that realm of comedy, and not whether or not it's a talky, biting satire that you can pat yourself on the back for having watched.

It definitely is funny, and while I'll excuse you if you think that it's due to a bunch of seemingly random wacky occurances, that's not the reason.  "Dude, Where's My Car?" is not an episode of "Family Guy," where things come and go to no lasting effect, there is a consistent internal logic (and a narrative that unravels over the course of the film).  Things that don't make sense at the time are eventually explained, which might be why it held up a little better than I was expecting.  Also helping: Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott throw themselves into their roles as Jesse and Chester (respectively).  Sure, Kutcher's "That 70's Show" pedigree helped his credibility here, and I wouldn't hazard a guess as to whether the duo were method actors here, but they do a good job with what they've got.

My only gripe is that it seems like they weren't given all that they could have been.  A note on the IMDB page mentions that some of the language in the screenplay with the Hot Alien Chicks was toned down to get a PG-13 rating, and there may very well have been more material that fell into that same pitfall.  We have a movie with characters that are constantly referred to as stoners, but the only drug use in the entire movie is by a small dog who is pretty territorial about his pipe.  While that approach worked in the "Bill & Ted" movies (the behavior is telling enough, even without anything going on on-screen), it seems like a decision that wasn't motivated by making the best movie possible.  Having said that, none of the best "classic" scenes (the dude/sweet tattoo reveal, the "and then" drive-thru sequence being the kings) would have been improved by inclusion of such material, so it might be a moot point.

So yeah.  See it if you want, I don't care.  I liked it and laughed all the way through, and found it to hold up a little better than some of the other popular then-contemporary comedies (like the "American Pie" series, for instance).  I won't hold it against you if you don't like it you don't hold it against me that I did.

3 / 5 - NF Streaming

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Rope - 1948

"Rope" - 1948
Dir. by Alfred Hitchcock - 1 hr. 20 min.

Official Trailer

Here's what I knew about this movie going in: it stars James Stewart, and it's the Hitchcock film where he tried to edit it so that it looked like one continuous shot.  "Rope" is about a pair of post-collegiate men who decide to murder a buddy, and then host a dinner party atop the corpse (the guests are unaware of this, of course) in an attempt to elevate the murder to the level of art.  And at first glance, "Rope" might appear to be nothing more than either a kind of perverse suspense film (the murder occurs literally at the beginning of the film - the question is whether or not any of the guests will catch on) or an academic exercise in pushing the technical limits of film-making.

Instead, there are several things going on here.  There is, of course, the notion of making a film appear to have been done in one long take, in real time.  While it might seem absurd now (digital storage destroying the upper time restraints), filmmakers were limited to filming on actual film reels at one point, each of which ran around 10 or 11 minutes long.  Hitchcock didn't strictly adhere to this, but he does mask a handful of cuts by closing in on the back of an actor's suit until it momentarily blacked out the screen.  The rest of the cuts aren't hidden (but aren't particularly jarring, and were dictated by the need to change reels while projecting the film.  A list of the edits can be found in the Wikipedia article for this film.  What this results in is a series of long takes around the apartment that "Rope" was set in.  It's fitting, the source material for this film was a play, and there's definitely a theatrical feel to the presentation.  Not only that, but the long takes serve to build suspense; it gives a feel of your gaze bearing down on the subjects in the film, increasing the pressure they must be feeling.

Getting into the meat of the film, there's a definite, intentional homoerotic context.  Big deal, you might say.  I would say, have you heard of the Production Code?  Running afoul of it meant that your career could be over (or at least severely stalled), and your film would never be seen (which would piss off your studio to no end).  And that's not to mention the more public consequences of being outed (or smeared, as the case might be).  Although never explicitly stated, the two main characters, Brandon and Phillip (played by John Dall and Farley Granger, respectively) are a same-sex couple (and both actors were gay in real life).  There are moments in the film where things make a lot more sense as a couple arguing rather than just good friends with a difference of opinion.  It's not that there weren't gay actors or subtexts in films at the time, but it was pretty bold of Hitchcock to include both together.

The other big subtext to "Rope" is one of Nietzschean ideals - the idea of a "super man," or superior and inferior people.  It's the stated reason why Brandon and Phillip go ahead with the murder; they consider themselves superior (particularly Brandon), and commit the murder to prove it.  They invite to the party James Stewart's character, Rupert, who is an old headmaster (at the least, there are implications there as well), figuring that he would be the only one who could appropriately appreciate the art and cleverness of their scheme.

There is a scene in the middle of the film where Rupert somewhat jokingly advocates the murder of lesser people (Stewart's character exhibits a delightful asshole-ish streak), egged on by Brandon.  The father of the murder victim (I told you this movie was a little perverse) takes deep offense at the idea of one man deciding another man's fate, eventually just standing up silently in pure fury.  This is someone who's been around long enough to know that this is something that people shouldn't be joking around about.  But they all, should really.  "Rope" was released in 1948, just three short years after the conclusion of World War II.  There's more talk of Nietzsche than of Hitler (who is mentioned, briefly), but it becomes abundantly clear that this murder is not just a metaphor for Nietzsche's philosophical leanings, nor a fanciful retelling of the Leopold and Loeb murder that was the basis for this story, but a denunciation of Adolf Hitler himself.

Sixty-plus years later, that may not sound like the most radical thing.  But once that idea sets in, and you realize that this was about as quickly as anyone could have made a meaningful response to that sort of madness at the time, the complete last act of the film is a complete "oh shit" moment.  Things get heavy, and when Rupert returns to the apartment after all the guests have left, and Phillip's drunk beyond composing himself, and Brandon's pocketed a gun in case Rupert has figured out what's going on, the tension is fantastic. And Hitchcock gives us what we need from this story.  James Stewart's monologue at the end is full of righteous fury, delivered to the very face of evil.  It promises retribution, that people will not stand for this sort of behavior.  It's the message that every tyrant, petty or otherwise, should have shoved down their throat, that when you disregard your fellow man, you will pay.

"Rope" isn't the best Hitchcock film I've seen, but it's kind of like they say about sex and pizza.  There's a lot to recommend this film, even beyond the structural gimmickry it trying to look like one long camera shot.  It's a clear notch below "Vertigo" or "Psycho," but more than worth the 80 minutes.

4 / 5 - Theatre

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Romancing the Stone - 1984

"Romancing the Stone" - 1984
Dir. by Robert Zemeckis - 1 hr. 46 min.

Official Trailer

I hate to admit it, but pretty much everything I know about Columbia comes from this movie and every other movie based around cocaine in the 80's and 90's.  I know that doesn't help anyone to know that, but there it is.  Watching "Romancing the Stone" again as an adult (I watched it several times as a kid, but haven't watched it in many years), I was struck that while I clearly remember it as a comedy, that's really the last description in a string of hyphenates.

Kathleen Turner plays the successful romance writer Joan Wilder (although not nearly as successful in her love life), and is forced to bring a treasure map to Columbia in order to rescue her sister from her kidnappers.  Along the way, she runs into trouble, which necessitates her hiring Michael Douglas' character, Jack T. Colton, to get to where she needs to go.  The foreign terrain serves as a scenic backdrop to the budding romance between Joan and Jack.  There's also an action-adventure element, as there are a couple of dangerous, competing forces trying to get ahold of Joan and her map.  For a romance, Jack and Joan get shot at an awful lot.  For an action-adventure film, they rarely seem to be in any real trouble.  For a movie set in Columbia, there's a pretty gaping hole where their most famous national product ought to be (the only drug use is sort of implied - in an abandoned aircraft in the jungle, they use bales of marijuana as fuel for the fire that keeps them warm, meanwhile drinking and inhaling deeply).  For a comedy, there aren't that many funny moments.  But put together, it's a pleasant, even genial film.

What holds it back from being any more than that is that the directing isn't particularly any good.  I'm forgiving of the fact time tends to dull all but the sharpest comedy, but I found myself getting overly frustrated while watching this film that Robert Zemeckis seemed completely incapable of wringing any sense of suspense or drama out of anything at this point.  Scenes that ought to be dramatic aren't, instead things just happen with no build-up whatsoever.  An example of this would be the scene where Joan and Jack find a village, end up getting followed through town by lowlifes, and held up at gunpoint by the village bell-maker, all before it flips and the bell-maker realizes that she is in fact that Joan Wilder, of whom he is a big fan.  The lowlifes aren't all that threatening, and the bell-maker (Juan, played by Alfonso Arau) comes off more like Yakov Smirnov than anything.  Zemeckis doesn't raise the tension at any point, these things just occur, flatly.  Even when the characters are shot at, the gunfire sounds are comically cheesy.  The pleasant and likable nature of the characters and story are continually undercut by the director milking the absolute least out of any given scene.

I did laugh out loud at the end scene, a typically bizarre setting  for an 80's comedy.  How can you explain a couple making out atop a boat on a trailer on a downtown New York City street, being mysteriously driven off into the horizon by some unknown person?  Who cares, it's totally awesome!  I want to do that now.  While I was expecting something a lot funnier (Danny DeVito, while not exactly wasted, isn't really used to any meaningful effect), it's sometimes useful to shelve your expectations and just enjoy what's there.

3 / 5 - NF Streaming

Monday, May 16, 2011

Howl - 2010

"Howl" - 2010
Dir. by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman - 1 hr. 24 min.

Official Trailer

I was surprised by the approach this film took to making a movie about Allen Ginsberg and his famous poem, "Howl."  Rather than a gritty indie approach, this is a fanciful celebration of "Howl."  There are four main components to the film: an interview (or interviews) with Ginsberg (played by James Franco) in his apartment, the 1957 obscenity trial against publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the first public reading of the poem in a coffeehouse, with is divided between performance and animated segments that visualize the poem.  The film cuts back and forth between all four segments.

I haven't seen actual footage of Ginsberg, so I can't really judge Franco's take on him, other than to note that he is playing a character.  I've seen enough of his films to know that his diction and mannerisms here aren't his usual ones, but whether they match up to Ginsberg's, I couldn't say.  Jon Hamm has the other prominent role, as Ferlighetti's defense lawyer.

When I mentioned that this film is a celebration of "Howl," I don't consider that a bad thing.  Large portions of the interview segments are an explanation of what a lot of the lines mean (as well as providing a background portrait of Ginsberg).  The performance and animation are ways to deliver the meat of the poem itself without it being a dry delivery, and they work.  And thankfully, the courtroom scenes aren't as heavy-handed as they might have been.  Witness Hamm's closing argument: it exhibits intelligence and a rational argument rather than a preacher-style denunciation of censorship, as well as being forgiving of those who would seek to keep the work out of the hands of the average man.  It would have been easy (and weakened the film, as well) to have taken a more defiant tone: the fact that there is a film about this poem fifty years post-publication says more to debunk the literary experts of the time who took a dismal view of "Howl's" literary merit than any grandstanding or snappy comebacks could.

If you're into beat poetry, you probably will already be interested in this film.  And if you're not, "Howl" is a good place to start: it's hard to find a more important piece of work from that scene.  The film is a pleasant surprise in it's celebratory tone, and that makes what might be mildly unpleasant source material (depending on your point of view) much more palatable.

4 / 5 - NF Streaming

Cyrus - 2010

"Cyrus" - 2010
Dir. by Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass - 1 hr. 31 min.

Official Trailer

"Cyrus" is a study in discomfort and awkwardness.  It's also a comedy, but I think that's largely due to the skill of the cast.  In lesser hands, the material here would be nothing more than watching a trainwreck, and it would likely be more uncomfortable for the viewing audience than anyone else.

John C. Reilly's character, John (I promise all the actors aren't just using their real first names as character names here), finds himself in a hole - he was on a skid before getting divorced seven years ago, and his ex-wife's news that she's remarrying digs him in a little deeper.  She (played by Catherine Keener) insists that he clean himself up and go to a party with her and her fiance.  Reluctantly, he does, and strikes out embarrassingly over and over again.  In a delightfully perverse twist on the "meet cute" trope, John meets Molly (Marisa Tomei), and they take it from there.

The real friction of the movie is provided by the titular character, played by Jonah Hill.  He's in his early twenties, living at home, and is a little too close to his mother.  And he absolutely is not interested in having another man in his mother's life, which is bad news for John and Molly's relationship.  As I mentioned earlier, part of the fun of this movie is having a batch of really good actors who are let loose to do what they do best. John C. Reilly kinds of bumbles a bit, but with good motives.  Marisa Tomei plays not-exactly-dumb, but someone who wears their emotions on her sleeve, and isn't that clued in to the games that people play.  Catherine Keener is Catherine Keener, which is to say awesome, and the fact that she's playing Reilly's ex-wife here leads one to believe that he probably really was a lot better at one point, and that he could probably bounce out of his downward spiral in the right circumstances.

Probably the biggest surprise was that Jonah Hill can act a bit.  It's not that he's not really funny (because he is), but usually he just plays a misguided, motormouth asshole in a batch of them (although usually the best of them).  Here, given the rein to veer far into creepy, manipulative territory, and given enough basis for it to make sense, Hill nails the role.  The third-act panic and desperation of Cyrus isn't something I expected to work as well as it did.

You're as likely to leave this movie thinking that it was totally messed up as thinking that it was pretty funny.  It hit notes of both for me.  It works both in a creepy way and in a funny way, which is a bit of an accomplishment.

4 / 5 - DVD

Friday, May 13, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles - 2011

"Battle: Los Angeles" - 2011
Dir. by Jonathan Liebesman - 1 hr. 56 min.

Official Trailer

Thrill rides don't really hold up to criticism.  Either they work (which means that you're into the ride) or they don't.  If they don't work as a thrill ride, you can pick them apart, searching for reasons why, but the result is the same: a less-than-exciting experience.  This one worked, in the sense that the film hit all the points it needed to in order to get to the end.  That's called a formula.  The explosions and carnage were big and loud (and there's always a little satisfaction in seeing Los Angeles leveled), but there wasn't anything more to the story.

Short version of the story: unstoppable aliens invade the planet, and a platoon of Marines (led by Aaron Eckhart's character) fight through impossible circumstances.  And, shit gets blown up.

While I was watching B:LA, I was carried from point to point just well enough not to start picking things apart (mostly).  But in retrospect, there are a lot of problems.  While it seems somewhat unfair to take aim at a movie that aims so low, I'm going to do it anyway.  Going in, it's clear that all this movie wanted to be was a spectacle.  Having seen the movie, that fact is laid bare.  Literally everything is stock (TM Lars Ulrich), all the way down to the standard-issue shaky-cam approach and use of that font that lets you know you're watching a military/war film.  I can't stress this enough: the adherence to an existing formula is so complete that the director doesn't even have the balls to mess with a font.  It's a testament to the formula itself that the movie functions on the levels it does.  And I'll give credit to Aaron Eckhart and the other members of the cast - it's not easy doing all those sit-ups and eating all those vegetables to get in shape for a movie like this.

One of the things that an alien invasion movie hangs it's hat on is how cool the aliens and their gear look.  No one would be talking about movies like "Predator," the Alien saga, or even "District 9" if aliens looked stupid. Here, the movie takes as long as it can before revealing the actual look of the aliens; for a long time, they're only seen in the distance or obscured by haze.  It's a smart move, because the actual design isn't very impressive.  And the technology is even worse, using the same "magnet rolled around a junkyard" aesthetic seen in the "Transformers" series.  Visually, the stuff doesn't make any sense, which is a complete failure.  I know that it's getting easier and easier to pile details onto computer-generated imagery, but less is more, especially when it detracts from the story itself.  If I can't figure out what's going on, I'm pulled out of the story.

This isn't a terrible film, it just doesn't aspire to much (other than at times veering into a recruitment ad for the Marines).  The good news is that the formula works, and that Los Angeles looks awesome getting blown up and on fire on a big screen and at maximum volume.  I'm not saying not to see this, but I can't think of a single compelling reason to recommend this over any other variation on this theme.

2 / 5 - Theatre

Religulous - 2008

"Religulous" - 2008
Dir. by Larry Charles - 1 hr. 41 min.

Official Trailer

"Religulous" is a very funny movie. It's also a difficult one to like, unless you're really comfortable taking a hard-line stand on a touchy subject (which I admittedly am). To sum it up, Bill Maher and Larry Charles head out into the wild with cameras and interview people about their religious beliefs. You know how this is going to end up. A lot of people will object to his choice of interviewees, but I think that if you're going to claim to believe in something, then you should also have a decent grasp of what you're claiming belief in. If you're claiming knowledge you don't actually have, I don't have a lot of sympathy for what results.

This movie is pretty much guaranteed to offend. Also, Bill Maher is an asshole. I'm not trying to defend or condemn him; he's a quick-witted, intelligent man who's not afraid to contradict people when he feels they're being stupid or dishonest, and especially when matched with people who aren't up to the intellectual challenge, that comes off as being mean. But you knew that if you've ever watched his shows. Also, it's not a "fair and balanced" "documentary." Most people aren't ambivalent on the topic of religion, so expecting any different from this movie is unrealistic (and kind of stupid - it's not an unfair film just because it disagrees with a lot of people. It's unfair because Maher has the final word in the editing room). Where the movie is fair is that it tackles more than just Christianity (Islam and Judaism also get a significant chunk of attention, Mormonism and Scientology less so), so your sacred cow is not being singled out for attack.

As funny as the movie is (and if, knowing the subject matter going in, think you can get through it without needing to storm out of the theatre), and it certainly was that, it would have been nice to see at least a couple of interviewees who could hang with Maher. There must be one or two out there who can argue beyond "you can't disagree with faith" with wit and intelligence. There's probably a lot of reasons why that didn't happen, but it did undercut his points to a degree. If you're going to make as bold of a statement as "Religulous" does, then you need to confront and overcome the most persuasive arguments counter to your own position.

Anyhow, depending on your own tendencies to hysteria and ability to process opinions diametrically opposed to your own, I'd completely recommend folks check this one out.

4 / 5 - Theatre

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Allegro Non Troppo - 1976

"Allegro Non Troppo" - 1976
Dir. by Bruno Bozzetto - 1 hr. 25 min.

Clip from the movie

"Allegro Non Troppo" is a sort of a take-off on the classic Disney film, "Fantasia."  Like the original, it's largely dialogue-free animation set to pieces of classical music (with black and white live-action sequences between the seven segments).  And not surprisingly, it's a winning formula.  There are several jokes in the live-action segments that directly allude to where this film's roots lie, which are pretty funny.  And while this is an Italian film, the animation doesn't have any dialogue, and the live-action sequences are very visual in their humor, so you could probably wouldn't lose much if you weren't paying attention to the subtitles.

I'd like to say this is a dirty hippie version of "Fantasia," but that's not exactly dead on.  Granted, there are naked women, a satyr, and some reasonably adult content even beyond that, but it would be more accurate to say that it's a product of the 70's.  There's no drug content in the film, but it's so heavily psychedelic that the intent is clear.  The animation style is also clearly from the 1970's (which isn't necessarily a bad thing - trippy watercolor artwork is more appealing eye-candy to me than anything that has originated from pixels).

This is a really tough film to talk about, chiefly because the bulk of it's appeal lies in it's visuals.  What it is not is a straight narrative film.  It's just an experience, and a good one at that.  In particular, the "Bolero" sequence is fantastic (it's turned into an evolutionary narrative, complete with color-shifting dinosaurs marching to the beat of the song).  Maybe that's the right word for the film: fantastic.

4 / 5 - DVD

Monday, May 9, 2011

Erik the Viking - 1989

Dir. by Terry Jones - 1 hr. 37 min.

Official Trailer

"Erik the Viking" stars Tim Robbins as the titular character (and from the same era as "Bull Durham," which was a fertile time for comedy by Robbins).  Erik is a viking that hasn't quite worked everything out, though.  He starts off the movie with his cohorts, looting and pillaging another village.  Unfortunately, he has difficulty pulling off the rape part of the equation, not only failing to successfully complete that act, but instead accidentally killing the woman while trying to defend her from a couple of men on his own side.

If this sounds like heavy stuff, you should be aware that this is sort of a Monty Python-adjunct film.  Terry Jones wrote and directed it (and plays King Arnulf, ruler of Hy-Brasil), and John Cleese has a supporting role as well.  So, it would probably be better to understand this movie as a deeply silly one instead, where matters of life and death are addressed with inanity.  Not being a Python fan (I'm more indifferent than anti-Python), I wasn't expecting genius, which probably helps matters.

There are funny bits along the way (including the attempted rape scene - pure comedy!), but the whole thing doesn't really click until the viking crew reach Hy-Brasil, about half-way into the film.  From there on out, it's consistently pretty good (and biting at times, wait until you see how the Norse Gods are portrayed), but the lull in the first third of the story is tough to come back from.  While this version of the film is roughly 100 minutes long, Jones cut 10 minutes out of the run-time for UK release, and there's a later "Director's Son's Cut" that runs only 75 minutes long.  There is a DVD available of the shortest version (and no others), and it might be an interesting academic exercise to see how the two versions play against each other.  It's clear that the editing is an issue (according the offical record of our time, Jones was unhappy that he wasn't given enough time to edit the film to his satisfaction), and to the detriment of the work.

There is some great stuff in here, and it's also fun to sit back and enjoy the cameos.  Aside from Jones and Cleese, Mickey Rooney and Eartha Kitt have small roles as well.  Tim Robbins plays Erik with a gusto that isn't usually seen in Python-esque movies (there's usually a determination to be silly frequently, as well as a very British resignation.  To see what I'm talking about, especially note the scene when Erik boards Halfdan the Black's warship), and it's a nice change of pace.

3.5 / 5 - NF Streaming

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Brewster's Millions - 1985

"Brewster's Millions" - 1985
Dir. by Walter Hill - 1 hr. 37 min.

Official Trailer

What to do with a comedy that isn't particularly funny?  There's no way to make that sound any better, either.  But while I didn't find it particularly funny (at least not in a laugh-out-loud way), it was still an interesting, engrossing film.  It's the same issue I had with parts of "Get Him to the Greek;" to what degree does something billed as a comedy have an obligation to deliver laughs consistently?  It brings up a lot of questions about pigeonholing and to what extent genre must dictate content.

Monty Brewster (played by Richard Pryor) is an aging minor-league relief pitcher who, along with his catcher/best friend Spike (John Candy), are let go from their contracts due to getting thrown in jail over a bar fight.  At what seems like a real dead end, Brewster is informed that he's inherited a sizeable amount of money.  The catch: spend $30 millions in 30 days with nothing to show for it to net $300 million (informing no one of the reason that he's tearing through that much money), with failure to do so meaning that he'd receive no further money.  If that sounds like a manageable feat, it was probably almost unthinkable 25 years ago.

One of the things that I appreciated about the story is that it since it was done in the pre-therapy-as-humor days, we watch Pryor act and then have to deal with the consequences.  There's little hand-wringing or pop psychology involved, just action and reaction, and then Pryor's character having to deal with the fact that he's being perceived as an asshole or a lunatic, and with no way of correcting (or even nuancing) this popular perception.  Also, the movie deals fairly honestly with Brewster's hanger-ons.  Some people see what's going on and are content to enjoy the ride at his expense, some try to do what they think is the right thing, some are downright ineffectual.  For what's an oft-revisited comedy scenario (there have been nine versions of the original novel made into movies), there's a lot of meat to dig in to.  This movie does just that, although not as deeply as it could (but who wants to watch a 3-hour comedy?).

As an aside, one of the other things that I found fascinating is how much sports and sports movies (which this is, partially) have changed since this movie was made.  Take a minute and think about any current sport that could pass off the number 10 (Pryor and Candy) both as competitors in the same sport.  Maybe football, but that's even a stretch.  I'm sure at the time this film was made, it wasn't even noticed.  But in the passing years, the physical ideal of an athlete has changed to such a degree that anyone who isn't a gnarled mass of muscle couldn't pass as athlete, even in film, even in a comedy.  The related point is that I'm having a hard time thinking of not only a decent baseball film in recent years, but any baseball film at all.  The late 80's seem to have been the golden era of baseball movies (including "The Natural," "Bull Durham," and "Major League," to mention a few), but there hasn't been anything half as good in 20 years.

There's a lot of positive nostalgia factors involved here, with Richard Pryor and John Candy present, fantastic 80's clothes (and giant eyeglasses, especially), and the story is a solid one.  Despite not laughing frequently, I was still into the movie for the full run time.  The real humor is in the bittersweet moments (there are two biggies: Brewster funding an exhibition game vs. the Yankees that he gets to pitch in, and a moment near the end of the film with an interior decorator), they resonate much more deeply than tossed off one-liners do.

3 / 5 - NF Streaming

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Auteur - 2008

"The Auteur" - 2008
Dir. by James Westby - 1 hr. 17 min.

I'll admit, sometimes when scouring my queue on Netflix, I'll choose a movie based on how short it is.  In a theatre, with fewer distractions and the commitment of having driven somewhere with the sole purpose of seeing a film, I can deal with longer movies.  But at home, it's a different story.  I don't remember why I put this movie in my queue (or when), but being a trim 77 minutes long, it sounded like a reasonable choice for a quick late-night movie.

As it turned out, it was pretty good.  Better than I was expecting, to be sure.  "The Auteur" is a movie about a famed porno director who is being honored with a career retrospective in a theatre, although his recent films have been getting progressively worse.  The director, Arturo Domingo (played by Melik Malkasian), is an artist, shooting on film and only including sexual acts in his films when they are central to the story.  There's more to it than that, but that's a good place setting.

This is unquestionably an indie film, and that means that I hold it to a slightly different standard.  A film on no budget isn't going to have the same gloss as a more expensive one, and that's fine.  It's offset by a casually enthusiastic approach to nudity and foul language (including a parade of fake porno titles like "Full Metal Jackoff" and "Dyke Club," with parts of each "movie" actually shown) that you'd never get from a big budget production.  While there are moments that are sitcom-predictable, on the whole it's a pretty funny movie.  The star, Melik Malkasian, is hilarious (with a thick accent and in full-on tyro mode).  There's a couple of lines in the film that are flat out great (relating to Google-stalking a girl), and on top of that, there's a number of beautiful establishing shots of Portland (Oregon, of course) that ought to be used to encourage tourism.  Being an Portland-area resident, it was fun actually knowing where they had shot a lot of the footage (there are few enough movies done in the area that it's still a thrill).

I did enjoy "The Auteur" more than I expected.  It's not everyone's cup of tea, but you could do a lot worse with your 77 minutes.

3.5 / 5 - NF Streaming
Stream the entire movie at Hulu