Monday, August 29, 2011

Super 8 - 2011

"Super 8" - 2011
Dir. by J.J. Abrams - 1 hr. 52 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Super 8" wasn't exactly what I was expecting, based on the trailer, and thank goodness.  It ended up being much, much better.  Generally speaking, movies heavily featuring children aren't something I'm eager to watch.    In this case, writer/director J.J. Abrams pulls a Tarantino, taking stock movie elements and turning them into something clever, suspenseful, and highly entertaining.

The movie opens in the aftermath of tragedy, the death of a parent.  With that hanging over one of the characters, Joe (Joel Courtney) and Charles (Riley Griffiths) continue working on their zombie short film.  While shooting a scene late at night, they find themselves at ground zero of a train derailment, which turns their small town upside down.  Dogs (as in all of them) run away from home, appliances go missing, and the military shows up to lock things down.  All of the kids seem at least mostly focused on completing their movie, until the plot threads intersect.  At this point, they're drawn into things largely out of their control, but aren't completely stymied by it.

Points of praise: the characters all had their own motivations, and weren't just there to further the plot.  That's something that frequently gets lost in more fantastical movies, but each person acting consistently in a way that makes sense definitely helped to build drama.  Also, the batch of teenagers that held up most of the film did a good job, and Abrams has a deft touch with their dialogue.  Overall, the movie didn't sag, even in slower parts.  The run-time flew by, which is key for action-oriented movies.  And, most importantly, they ran the entire zombie movie the kids were shooting during the credits, which was a riot.

I don't have anything to complain about with "Super 8"; it's a quality mainstream summer action movie, and one that doesn't insult your intelligence.  That's too rare of a feat.  The children didn't turn into superheroes, the emotionally heavy scenes weren't sledgehammers over the head, the fantastic elements were handled well (in the vein of the original "Alien" movie).  It's just a job well done, and I'd like to see this one again.

4 / 5 - Theatre

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Caligula - 1979

"Caligula: the Imperial Edition" - 1979
Dir. by Tinto Brass, Bob Guccione, and Giancarlo Lui - 1 hr. 41 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Well, it looks like the version of "Caligula" I watched was the most heavily-edited version.  I'm not sure that more of the sort of thing that was cut would make much of a difference in the quality of this movie, and I'm not certain I would have even finished a version that was a full hour longer.

"Caligula" straddles an odd line - somewhere between a historical epic and a full-on porno film.  It's a bad combination; if you want titillation, you're going to be very frustrated by the extended plot sequences.  If you want a historical epic (albeit a graphic, baudy one), at some point you'll probably want Caligula to stop molesting his sister (just kidding, it's totally consentual here) and get on with the plot.  Also, the constant need to have half-dressed or naked people in virtually every scene is kind of giggle-worthy.  I mean, if you were going to break rocks with a pick-axe with a gang of other men, even if you thought that letting your doodle flap in the wind was safe (and you could get OSHA to agree), you still might want a pair of shoes or sandals or something.

So let's get into the plot, since I was deprived of all the truly graphic material.  Tiberius Caesar (Peter O'Toole) is old and dying, so Caligula (Malcolm McDowell) decides to help him achieve death in a more timely fashion (but not with his own hands, because he's kind of prissy that way).  With Tiberius dead, Caligula is the new Caesar, and is free to shape Rome in whatever way he desires (which would lead back to the aforementioned incestual relationship with his sister, Drusilla).  Caligula quickly turns out to be a somewhat unreliable choice, which is amplified by the death of his sister.  Ultimately, he is killed and replaced as Caesar.  But pretty much everyone is either half-naked or surrounded by fully naked people all along the way.

And yeah, "Caligula" is pretty much just as bad as it sounds.  Even with the copius nudity as enticement to make it through, eventually my eyes grew numb to all the flesh, and all that was left was Malcom McDowell prancing around all over the place, with Helen Mirren looking on lustily.  I kind of feel like that, having suffered through the meat of the movie, there ought to be a version consisting ONLY of the pornographic and soft-core elements that I can be rewarded with, without the distraction of Caligula trying to bang his sister over and over again breaking up the more salacious elements of the story.  Without that disc of bonus material, there's not much point to this film at all.

1 / 5 - NF Streaming

The Man Who Fell to Earth - 1976

"The Man Who Fell to Earth" - 1976
Dir. by Nicolas Roeg - 2 hrs. 19 min.

Re-Release Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"The Man Who Fell to Earth" is a product of another time, first and foremost.  There are two kinds of sci-fi movies (of which this loosely qualifies); ones based around ideas, and ones based around visuals.  I tend to be of the opinion that special effects ruined science fiction: why spend the time developing mind-blowing ideas when you can just make something look cool instead?  This film decided to take someone who was cool (David Bowie), and build a fish-out-of-water story around him.  The sci-fi elements remain in the background of the story for much of the film (while Bowie is playing a spaceman, he is a stranded one who must amass an Earthly fortune in order to even attempt to return home.  Spaceships ain't cheap!), and the focus is more or less on Thomas' (Bowie's character) relationships; a romantic one with Mary-Lou (played by Candy Clark) and a professional one with Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn).

The film takes advantage of Bowie's image at the time (a somewhat distant, affected one), so I'm uncertain of whether he's a talented actor (Bowie won an award for his role in the 26th Berlin International Film Festival) or the beneficiary of perfect casting.  Either way, it works.  Torn and Clark have more difficult roles, playing several different ages while Bowie's character never ages at all.

As for the plot, it's present, but not very insistent.  This is a leisurely-paced film, at times more concerned with having Bowie acting weird and distant, or with showing it's characters naked (not even getting into the women, both Torn and Bowie go full-frontal at different points).  Director Nicolas Roeg takes full advantage of the natural beauty of New Mexico, there are numerous, languorous shots.  While this makes sense, it's also problematic.  When you're trying to get across something is boring, it's pretty important not to actually bore your audience.  Thomas is clearly impatiently killing time until he's made enough money (and developed technology far enough) to attempt to return home, but there are too many times where it feels like the film is just killing time, too.  For the era it's from, a little meandering isn't unexpected, but this movie is nearly two and a half hours long.

Visually, there are some interesting things going on (Bowie's lean, angular frame being part of that), but it's not quite the equivalent of other then-contemporary fantastic films (in the sense of fantasy - wild visual ideas spread across a big screen).  I wanted to like this movie, and I did, but I wasn't blown away.  I especially liked the sort of mundane approach that an alien had to take to try to return home (filing for lucrative patents isn't that glamorous, but clever in a sophisticated way), but the film's insistence on taking a scenic route to whatever the point is ultimately makes it hard to love.  There are a few graphic, shocking scenes along the way to break things up (Thomas' apparently losing his mind in front of a wall of TVs while Mary-Lou wails at him, Thomas' reveal of his alien form to Mary-Lou, a scene late in the film involving a gun), but it's just not enough to add up to a satisfying experience.  I appreciate the vastly different track taken with a science-fiction idea, and would like to see more films in this vein, but this was not a home-run.

3 / 5 - Theatre

Monday, August 22, 2011

Revenge of the Nerds - 1984

"Revenge of the Nerds" - 1984
Dir. by Jeff Kanew - 1 hr. 30 min.

Official Trailer

Comedies rarely age well, but "Revenge of the Nerds" fares better than a lot do.  A small reason for that is that it felt like half the cast went on to have decent careers (everyone from Anthony Edwards, to John Goodman, even people with small roles like James Cromwell).  But the biggest reason is that this is a pretty tight movie - mostly killer, very little filler.

Lewis and Gilbert are off to college (played by Robert Carradine and Anthony Edwards, respectively), where they fully expect to engage in the sort of behavior that they've been led to believe college is all about.  The catch?  They're nerds, although they don't really seem to realize that.  This point is made at their expense, as the college football team burns down their house, and forcibly take over one of the dorms.  The batch of misfits, including Lewis and Gilbert, are left to bunk at the gym until they can find accommodations on their own (which sounds absurd, except that the same thing happened when I was in college in the dorms.  The school deliberately oversold dorm accommodations, and whoever didn't get a room had to live communally in the common area until enough people got fed up and found apartments on their own).  They do eventually find a house and apply for membership with a fraternity, and are thoroughly despised by the more traditional Greek houses.

From there, it's a battle to be taken seriously (and not have their house trashed by the football team on a whim).  After smaller acts of revenge (such as a panty raid, natch), they compete in a sort of athletic fraternity competition for control of the Greek council, which would protect them from having any investigations into their treatment being railroaded and ignored.

One of the interesting things about this movie is how much things have changed.  Jocks vs. the nerds is an eternal battle, but we live in a time now where literally everyone is trying to lay claim to nerd-dom or geekery.
Beyond that, there's a lot of borderline behavior here that wouldn't fly in a contemporary film (seriously, a panty raid?  We have internet porn for that sort of thing now), whether it be considered hazing (the 20-lap, beer-a-lap tricycle race), bullying (take your pick, and it comes from every direction), borderline rape (Lewis' initial intimate encounter with Betty), or racial insensitivity (Booger's "What the fuck is a Robster Craw?").  Having said that, I still laughed at all of it (except the panty raid.  Seriously...), so I guess the bottom line is that something's only offensive if it's not funny.

"Revenge of the Nerds" isn't outrageous as some modern comedies (at least not in the same way - selling cream pies with a nude pic of the girl you're trying to get a date with is an interesting approach, to say the least), but it's paced really well, there are a number of memorable scenes, and it's got a good cast.  You could do a lot worse than kicking back with this one.

3 / 5 - NF Streaming

Friday, August 19, 2011

30 Minutes or Less - 2011

"30 Minutes or Less" - 2011
Dir. by Ruben Fleischer - 1 hr. 23 min.

Official Trailer

This was a movie that I was actually pretty excited to go see, and now that I have seen it, I don't have a whole lot to say about it.  Yes, it is about as funny as you'd expect.  If you're a fan of Danny McBride, Jesse Eisenberg, Nick Swardson, or Aziz Ansari, you're not going to be let down (although I thought Michael Pena knocked his role out of the park).  If you're going because it's from the director of "Zombieland," well, it's not on that level.

Basically, you've got a film about how male friendships survive stress (in the guise of a dumb criminal caper plot).  One of the things that is done really well is feeling like the pairs of guys (McBride and Swardson, and Eisenberg and Ansari) actually have been friends for a long time.  That's the sort of thing than can float fairly inconsequential movies (like David Duchovny and Orlando Jones in "Evolution"), and take the air out of films when done poorly (which happens more often than I could count).  And while I know it's a staple of this sort of film, the directionless of the core of main characters kind of drags things down.  That sense of directionlessness isn't necessarily a movie-killer (see "Slacker" or "Clerks" to start with), but here I felt like it needed to either be amplified or addressed in some meaningful way.  Yes, even in a superficially dumb comedy, these things need to be worked out.

Well, that's more words than I figured I'd squeeze out on the topic of "30 Minutes or Less."  Yes, I laughed, and yes, I enjoyed it.  You probably will, too.  But there's not much about these 83 minutes that resonate beyond the cinema.

3 / 5 - Theatre

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Green Lantern - 2011

"Green Lantern" - 2011
Dir. by Martin Campbell - 1 hr. 54 min.

Official Trailer

By Clayton Hollifield

It's not often that a movie completely blows it right off the bat.  And by that, I mean within the first five minutes of the film, "Green Lantern" was completely ruined.  Before we even get to nerdy points of contention like casting, how the costume looks, or how close to the source material the film remains, "Green Lantern" was a piece of burnt toast.  Sure, there are other things along the way that are laughable, violate basic storytelling laws, or are just plain stupid, but to screw the pooch so immediately and vigorously is a rare feat.

I'm not going to recap the plot in detail.  Buy a "Green Lantern" comic (or hit up your library and borrow a book) if you want to know.  Basically, Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) is a pilot who finds a dying alien, who then bestows a ring and green lantern on Jordan.  This turns him into a superhero.  So now you're up to speed.

Back to the problem at hand.  This movie blows both the "journey of a hero" story and sucks all of the joy out of a sci-fi spectacle at the same time.  The opening scene is set on a cosmic scale, explaining who the Green Lantern Corp are, and how the whole thing works.  Well, mystery solved.  Opening the film in this way serves two purposes, neither of them positive ones.  First, it eliminates the sense of wonder that comes when a sci-fi story goes from everyday to cosmic.  "Green Lantern" saves nothing for the wedding night.  One of the principle joys of these kinds of film is the gradual discovery and understanding of a world larger and more spectacular (hopefully) than our own.  But that only work if you keep your legs together, to further the metaphor.  Instead, this film becomes a piece of meat splayed out, served on a platter.  Secondly, when Hal Jordan goes through the inevitable "whoa" phase, he looks like a nimrod because the entire audience is already three paces ahead of him.  Jeez, Hal, we already saw O'a.  Catch up already.

As for the journey of the hero story, the writers (there are four of them credited) apparently thought it would be a good idea to, whenever Hal Jordan aspires to do something more than sit around and be reliable, have women and children start crying.  I wish I could say this happened only once, but I remember a minimum of three times this happened.  That's a hell of a heroic message: anything other than couch surfing will make every one you know weep (and call you a child, which happens at least as frequently).  I began to think that the true heroic tale of this story was not Green Lantern vs. Parallax, but Hal Jordan rising about his awful, manipulative friends and family to make anything out of himself at all.  All the people around Jordan drill him constantly about being irresponsible and a child, which leads to another point: show, don't tell.

"Show, don't tell" is a basic storytelling maxim.  It means that whenever possible, it's better to have things like character traits be explained by actions or scenes than to do it in dialogue.  And when you're dealing with a huge budget, sci-fi, special effects extravaganza like "Green Lantern," you'd think that might be the one area that they'd knock out of the park.  Instead, we get things like Hal's family and friends alternating between berating him and crying over him, extended expository sequences explaining O'a (the home planet of the Green Lantern Corp), how the ring/lantern combo works, and training sequences.  Just way too much talking, and not nearly enough spot on character work.

That's kind of understandable though, since most of the actors don't really do much with what they've got to work with.  Ryan Reynolds was fine, but his love interest, Carol Ferris (Blake Lively), was awful.  She's part of the berating/crying crew, and was a Smurfette to boot (the only other significant female role belonged to Angela Bassett, but she didn't interact with many of the other characters).  To me, when there's only one woman around in a sea of men, her relationship with the star doesn't mean much.  It means that he's the alpha male and she was simply what was available.  If that's not what a filmmaker is trying to imply, then you need more female characters around to turn Carol from the town pump into someone worth pursuing.  It's understandable that Hector Hammond (played by Peter Sarsgaard) would be jealous over Carol and Hal's relationship; short of mail-ordering a bride from Russia, the village's allotment of women has officially been claimed.  It annoys me to no end to have to point this sort of thing out, but it's just another point on a checklist of reasons why this movie was really, really bad.  There are hoes in many area codes, so why not throw a few of them a payday to patch up a plot hole?

I could get into how this movie shamelessly and ineffectively rips off the Star Wars saga at every opportunity, but why beat a dead horse?  For exercise, I suppose.  The special effects were kind of underwhelming.  They bluntly state in the film that the ring can do literally anything that Jordan can imagine, but he doesn't appear to have much of an imagination.  DC Comics is now responsible for two of the worst films I've seen in recent years (this and "Jonah Hex").  Even though the run time wasn't excessive, I got fidgety and bored at several points.  This is the sort of thing that I have a soft spot for, but a bad movie is a bad movie.

1 / 5 - Theatre

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Fritz the Cat - 1972

"Fritz the Cat" - 1972
Dir. by Ralph Bakshi - 1 hr. 18 min.

Teaser Trailer

"Fritz the Cat" is, at this point, more of an important film than a good one.  The lessons it has to offer have been largely absorbed: adult-oriented animation is it's own genre now.  At the time "Fritz" was made, that was pretty far from the case.  The proof of that lies in it's pulling an "X" rating.

"Fritz" is an anthropomorphic movie, based on a R. Crumb comic.  Fritz, the character, is a disaffected NYU student, a writer longing to live life to the fullest.  He's a part-time musician, full-time tail-chaser, occasional dope-smoker.  Most of the movie is a satire of Fritz and his lifestyle, pretty much everyone except Fritz can see through his aspirations.  He accidentally burns down his dormitory because his roomies are immersed in their studies instead of carousing, he goes to a crow bar because he wants to understand the plight of the crows, after a night of smoking weed and running around with a hooker, Fritz incites a riot that sees the crow that had befriended him get shot by the police (while he escapes untouched).  One of his girlfriends tracks him down and offers to drive them out to San Francisco, and to get a secretarial job while Fritz works on his poetry.  After that falls apart, Fritz falls in with a radical anti-establishment group, and finally realizes that it's all a load.

So where did "Fritz" earn it's X-rating?  By today's standards, there's a lot of sexual content.  Today's adult-oriented cartoons seem to largely ignore sexuality, lean heavily on swearing, and offer a wink and a nudge toward drug use.  Here, all three are front and center.  It doesn't feel out of place, director Ralph Bakshi offers a coarse world full of people concerned only with physical pleasure, and in that regard it nails it's target perfectly.  It would be difficult to satirize the 60's with any insight at all without confronting this behavior, so I didn't really feel the material was prurient or solely for titillation.  So I guess it's a matter of taste.  I wouldn't claim that "Fritz" is for everyone, but it didn't feel like the controversial material was there without purpose.

My favorite scene in the whole movie doesn't have any controversial material in it, however.  When Fritz's New Yawker girlfriend decides that it's time to eat in the middle of their road trip, Fritz goes off on this tangent about how he wants to find a greasy spoon diner, so that he can talk with the truck drivers about what life on the road is really like (as if they'd give him the time of day).  He gets very excited about the idea, and she spots a place and makes a beeline for it.  They find themselves in a Howard Johnson, Fritz looking like he'd rather kill himself than eat there.  Post-meal, the girlfriend says something about always being able to rely on Howard Johnson for a good steak.  It's a sharp piece of business, delineating how much their expectations out of life differ, and foreshadowing their blow-up later in the film.

"Fritz" is pretty interesting - I'm always fascinated by low-budget animated films come to be.  It's a trailblazing film, although when you're satirizing something very current, time isn't always going to be as kind as you'd like.  It's difficult to imagine that today's crop of adult-oriented cartoons would exist without "Fritz" existing, if only for the idea that cartoons didn't need to be for children.  Plus, if you ever wanted to see a cat try to hump a crow, "Fritz the Cat" has it covered.

3 / 5 - NF Streaming

Friday, August 5, 2011

Cheech & Chong's Next Movie - 1980

"Cheech & Chong's Next Movie" - 1980
Dir. by Tommy Chong - 1 hr. 39 min.

Official Trailer

It's really hard to hold incoherence and a meandering pace against this movie, especially since you may or may not be in an incoherent and meandering state of mind when you enjoy it.  I also can't really explain much of the plot, as it's not even secondary here.  Instead, it's a series of connected skits (sort of) that exist just to be funny and entertaining, and definitely do not advance plot or story.  It's Cheech and Chong, man!

So what's the good side to "Cheech & Chong's Next Movie?"  There are some, actually.  First, I was impressed with the fact that Cheech and Chong managed to stretch out a minimal story over 99 minutes.  Seriously, there's not a lot going on, but it doesn't exactly drag as you might expect.  Part of the reason for that is that they seem willing to let others get some.  There's a scene at the welfare office that has Michael Winslow (that guy from the "Police Academy" movies that makes noises) doing his thing while Cheech tries to get frisky with a girl in the behind him, and Chong just sits and enjoys the show.  It's a funny sequence, and despite it being somewhat of a non-sequitur, it makes sense in the context of a bunch of guys with nothing better to do than pass time at the welfare office.  This movie also introduces Edie McClurg (whom you should know from a lot of stuff, but probably as the secretary from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off").  Yes, Cheech and Chong get her stoned, and they get a lot of mileage out of that, as well.

But the biggest secondary part belongs to Paul Reubens.  Yes, Pee-Wee Herman is a character in this movie, years before he'd get his own movies and TV show.  Reubens plays a hotel clerk, naturally at odds with Cheech (playing a second role, a cousin of Cheech's normal character) and Chong.  At one point, frustrated with the fact that the police won't help him out, he claims that they look like Iranians (this, on the heels of the Iranian hostage crisis), which seemingly brings out the entire police force.  They end up hauling Reubens in, though.  Later in the film, Reubens does Pee-Wee in a comedy club scene.  He gets frustrated at Cheech & Chong's heckling, which leads to impromptu comedy bits from Cheech, Chong, and McClurg.  So, credit where credit is due - Cheech & Chong do let other comedians have their moments, which adds to the finished product.

I did kind of enjoy this one, although it's not on par with "Up in Smoke."  Part of it may be that there's not a level of freshness to the characters, but that's what happens over time.  On the other hand, they do know their audience, and deliver exactly what their fans want.  I respect that; hitting your nail squarely on the head is nothing to be ashamed of.

2.5 / 5 - NF Streaming

Monday, August 1, 2011

Larry Crowne - 2011

"Larry Crowne" - 2011
Dir. by Tom Hanks - 1 hr. 38 min.

Official Trailer

"Larry Crowne" is a very pleasant movie, which is both it's appeal and downfall.  Also, as a film-goer, you should probably already have a strong opinion on whether or not you want to watch Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in a middle-aged romantic comedy.  I didn't find the idea all that offensive, and there wasn't anything better playing at the theatre that I hadn't already seen, so that was good enough for me.

Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks) is a multiple-time Employee-of-the-Month award winner who is abruptly fired from his job at UMart, chiefly because his lack of higher education means that he'd capped out how high he could go in that organization.  Also, he's upside-down on his house, as a result of having bought out his ex-wife's half on the wrong side of the housing bubble.  When his job search proves unfruitful, Larry bites the bullet and enrolls in his local community college.  While it's unclear, it seems that the Dean of the school encourages Larry to enroll in a speech class as some sort of prank on the instructor.  Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts) is the other half of the love story, a perpetually drunk, ill-tempered community college instructor who is unfulfilled both in career and love.

That description sounds nearly hellish, but despite the rough circumstances and timeliness of the details, it is not.  Again, both Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts are capable of super-human levels of charm, and the determined, somewhat stoic way that Hanks reacts to getting through whatever problems he encounters is kind of inspiring.  Problems can be dealt with, sometimes even in a way that leaves you better off.  I found that part particularly interesting; this film serves as a sort of pep-talk to America right now, but it seems to be one that's been largely ignored.

I don't want to suggest this is a brilliant film or anything, it's a very light romantic comedy.  It's somewhat successful on those terms, but it doesn't really play with the form or the format in any meaningful way.  "Larry Crowne" is charming, almost in a retro kind of way.  It's also a smooth film, the work of talented people who know what they're doing.  They hit all the emotional points along the way that they need to hit, but it never deviates.  There's nothing wrong with a bit of escapist fluff, especially one as relentlessly positive as this one, but it only goes so far.

2.5 / 5 - Theatre