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

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Daffy Duck's Movie: Fantastic Island - 1983

"Daffy Duck's Movie: Fantastic Island" - 1983
Dir. by Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones, Robert McKimson, and Phil Monroe - 1 hr. 18 min.

Credit Sequence

by Clayton Hollifield

For my money, Warner Brothers' "Looney Tunes" is the apex of animation.  Literally, it does not get better than their best work.  There are have been cartoons that I liked better, but they're a different animal.  A lot of more modern animation focuses on the writing end, and then gets away with whatever they can get away with visually.  But knocking a show like "South Park" on that basis misses the point of the show.  I can't think of a modern show that had the double-punch of being really, really funny, and also had it's animation crews stretching themselves to the limit of their abilities.  That sort of effort is now reserved for big time special effects movies (and I'm steadfast in calling that animation).

"Daffy Duck's Movie: Fantastic Island" is a hybrid of new animation and re-packaged "Looney Tunes" short films.  The new animation, which is a story concocted to stitch together the short films, has Daffy Duck (and Speedy Gonzales) stealing a treasure map from Yosemite Sam (and the Tasmanian Devil).  Daffy finds a wishing well that grants his wish of creating a resort on the secluded island, and then sells other characters a wish apiece for $500.  It's all kind of a spoof of "Fantasy Island," complete with Speedy delivering the "the plane, the plane" line.  It has everyone from Foghorn Leghorn to Sylvester's wife asking for wishes, which segue into the re-purposed shorts.

This film is a clever idea for it's time: home video was in it's infancy (and there was certainly nothing like the definitive "Looney Tunes Golden Collection" sets available for those who wanted to watch old cartoons), and if you hadn't stumbled across these ten cartoons on shows like "The Ramblin' Rod Cartoon Show," all of it was new to you.  The shorts range from pretty good to really good ("Stupor Duck" and the Sylvester short, "A Mouse Divided" in particular), and while some of the new material's humor is a bit dated (it's a spoof of a thirty year-old show, so that's not unexpected), on the whole the movie holds up well.

Having done a quick Wikipedia cross-check, it looks like six of the ten cartoons here aren't available in any of the "Golden Collection" sets, which increases this movie's value quite a bit.  For the ones that are available, it's probably preferable to watch the complete versions, credits and all.  It's amazing, and a testament to the Warner Brothers studios that they could release nearly five hundred short films, and still have great cartoons like "A Mouse Divided" unavailable.  Besides, I promise you you'll never regret spending an hour or so watching "Looney Tunes."

3.5 / 5 - Streaming

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Putney Swope - 1969

"Putney Swope" - 1969
Dir. by Robert Downey Sr. - 1 hr. 24 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I almost feel like I don't know where to start with this one.  One problem with satire is that when you use a timely subject to mock, it can lose relevance over time.  "Putney Swope" doesn't have that problem.  If anything, the heartlessness, emptiness and ubiquity of the advertising world has increased since 1969.  There were some things that went over my head (particularly with the character Swope's behavior), but there was also a lot that remained sharp, funny, and topical.

The movie is set in a standard advertising agency, where the boss keels over dead mid-rant in the board room.  The other board members lay out the body on the conference table, steal his wallet and jewelry (and contemplate stealing his cuff links), and then set out to determine who will be the new chairman.  According to the rules, no one can vote for themselves.  Composer Putney Swope (Arnold Johnson) gets the bulk of the votes - as it turns out, everyone voted for him because they collectively figured that no one else would vote for him.  I'd be remiss in not pointing out that Swope is an African-American; a constant source of humor is the idea of Swope taking over a previously whitey-led company in a white land.  Swope cleans house, renames the agency "Truth and Soul, Inc.," and sets about ushering in a new style of advertising (and business practices: the cost of an ad is a cool million, in cash).  There is constant conflict with those around him, partly based on Swope's refusal to make ads for cigarettes, liquor, or war toys, partly because President Mimeo (played by Pepe Hermine, a dwarf) wants him to do an ad for a poorly-designed automobile.

Swope's methods baffle those around him, but the results are golden.  There's a never-ending demand for his services.  There are several highlights in the film, but the ads themselves are consistently great (and they're filmed in color, while the rest of the film is in black and white).  It's easy to see this movie's influence on other ones, particularly ones like "Kentucky Fried Movie."  The commercials don't really serve the plot in any real manner, other than to illustrate what Swope and his agency are doing.  They're more important as self-contained jokes, and it makes sense that other filmmakers would expand on that idea and do movies that sacrifice ongoing narrative in favor of a randomness and continued level of entertainment value.  And after watching the Lucky Airlines TV spot, it's not impossible to believe that Bill Hicks drew inspiration for his vision of a Coke commercial from this movie.

NFSW Warning!!!

This is a rock-solid piece of low-budget film-making from the 60's (the budget was estimated at $120,000), proof that solid ideas can trump money.  For it's time, and for being a narrative film, there are some experimental touches, and the point of it remains sharp.  Unless I'm missing the point, it seems to say that most people won't get what you're doing unless there's money involved, and that most people do nothing more than chase money around.  The very idea of choosing morals over money is ludicrous in the business world, which is completely upside-down.  There have been plenty of movies made about the advertising world, but they're usually made with a nod towards the reality of what advertising is and does, but are commercial enterprises themselves.  This movie makes no concessions, which is why it holds up well.

4 / 5 - Streaming

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Orgazmo - 1997

"Orgazmo" - 1997
Dir. by Trey Parker - 1 hr. 34 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Now that "The Book of Mormon" is a huge Broadway hit, I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at an earlier Mormon-themed movie that Trey Parker and Matt Stone made (right before "South Park" hit the airwaves).  "Orgazmo" is about a LDS missionary in Los Angeles named Joe Young (Parker), who gets lured into starring in a super-hero-themed porno film.  He does it for the money, so that he can marry his sweetheart Lisa (Robyn Lynne) in the temple in Salt Lake City, which isn't cheap.  Of course, "Orgazmo" (the movie within a movie) becomes a huge success, which complicates his attempt to stay anonymous.  Rounding out the cast is the sleazy, evil porno producer Maxxx Orbison (Michael Dean Jacobs), Orgazmo's sidekick Choda Boy (Dian Bachar), Matt Stone playing a confused PA, and a host of actual adult film stars (Ron Jeremy and Juli Ashton, among others).

First off, yes, it's pretty funny, but it's not up to par with Parker and Stone's best work.  Part of the reason for that is that Parker and Stone have developed into very sharp cultural satirists, but it took a few years to get to that point.  At this extremely early point in their careers, the anything-goes sense of humor is there, but the level of cleverness and insight isn't.  Putting a Mormon into the adult film industry sets up for a number of very easy jokes (funny ones, but still...), and "Orgazmo" doesn't get past that, ever.  Since Parker and Stone haven't really hit their stride here, they settle for faux-ineptness at times instead of really committing to the material in a more satisfying way.

So what did I like about "Orgazmo?"  A lot.  For one thing, it's paced pretty well.  There aren't any self-indulgent lulls (a pitfall when the director is also the star of the film), the jokes come at a steady pace, and things flow logically (at least as logically as they can).  Trey Parker plays wide-eyed pretty well, as does his on-screen girlfriend.  There's a few instances of going unbelievably (but hilariously) cheesy with "special effects," like when Young kicks Ron Jeremy's character in the face, or the mansion fire.  I found myself laughing all the way through - I can understand why some might not (the shock humor stuff isn't universally successful when not in service to a larger point, as Parker and Stone would correct in later work), but I did.

Unfortunately, the circumstances around the film are almost more interesting.  It's an ultra-low budget affair (filmed for $1.3 million) that got some attention because of the "South Park" explosion.  It also got slapped with a NC-17 rating (which is discussed in some detail in the MPAA documentary "This Film Is Not Yet Rated"), which meant that despite Parker and Stone's new-found fame, there was practically no way to even advertise this film through traditional means.  There wasn't any real way to edit the movie down to an R (despite the fact that nearly all the nudity in the film are male asses, the setting, language, and abundant use of sex toys for gags would have gutted it), and re-submitting to the MPAA would have been too costly on such  a shoestring budget.

"Orgazmo" is funny on a level of the first season of "South Park:" there's a lot of dirty language, shock humor, and fish-in-a-barrel targets.  Everyone's got to start somewhere (and yes, I know this is their second film), and this is pretty funny for what it is.  But, if you're going back and checking out Parker and Stone's work retroactively, it might be a little disappointing.  They don't aim very high, but being able to put together an entire movie on their own (and this cheaply) is a kind of achievement of it own.  Making an indie film free of pretentiousness and just focusing on being entertaining makes it unusual for it's time.  And I did laugh, even though I had already seen it a handful of times previously.  That means I'll probably watch it again at some point.

3 / 5 - Streaming