Monday, November 28, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens - 2011

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

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

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

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

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

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

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

2.5 / 5 - Theatre

Friday, November 25, 2011

J. Edgar - 2011

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

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

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

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

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

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

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

3.5 / 5 - Theatre

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Masque of the Red Death - 1964

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

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 / 5 - Streaming

Monday, November 21, 2011

Contagion - 2011

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

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 / 5 - Theatre

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Star Wars - 1977

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

Original Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5 / 5 - DVD

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Rum Diary - 2011

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

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

3 / 5 - Theatre