Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Full Metal Jacket - 1987

"Full Metal Jacket" - 1987
Dir. by Stanley Kubrick - 1 hr. 56 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Yes, I watched "Full Metal Jacket" on Christmas.  It's okay - they sing "Happy Birthday" to Jesus himself at one point in the film, so it loosely counts as a holiday film.  Also, even though I'm not particularly knowledgeable or even into war films very much, FMJ is a doozy of a movie.

The plot of "Full Metal Jacket" follows a couple of recruits in the Marines (well. a whole platoon of them, but the focus is on two), Private Joker (Matthew Modine) and Private Gomer Pyle (Vincent d'Onofrio) through their basic training, which involves a lot of how-you-say tough love from their drill instructor, Gunner Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey).  Only one makes it out of basic, and is sent to Vietnam to report on the war, and ends up fighting alongside the unit he's supposed to be covering.

Okay, for a film that's twenty-five years old, I suppose I don't need to tap-dance around spoilers.  Consider that a warning.  As is usually the case, it's not so much the germ of the idea that matters as much as the execution.  And the execution here is absolutely brilliant.  This is something in between two and three films packed into one.  A director could easily make an entire film about basic training, and the first forty-five minutes of FMJ stand on their own as a stunning unbroken barrage.  There's not so much dialogue as there is forty minutes of Gny Sgt. Hartman railing on these recruits endlessly, and five minutes of aftermath.  R. Lee Ermey's performance is iconic, and provides enough verbal material for anyone who would want to provoke bar-fights for an entire lifetime.  And honestly, this entire first part of the film could be carried by Ermey's performance, but it doesn't have to.  Both Pvt. Joker and Pvt. Gomer Pyle have very minimal dialogue; this is appropriate because these Marines are being trained to act and not to talk.  Vincent d'Onofrio does more with reactions and projecting his deteriorating mental state (and virtually no dialogue) than I've ever seen.  He's so excellent in this role (and Kubrick so good at picking out scenes to show how badly Pyle is being broken down over the course of these eight weeks) that as horrific and shocking as Pyle's eventual response is to his situation, you know and feel that it's coming the whole time.

Over the course of these forty-five minutes, it's not so much of an emotional roller-coaster ride as it's the part of the roller-coaster ride where you've crested and start free-falling for a few seconds groundward looped and with no end in sight.  While Pvt. Joker excels, Pvt. Pyle is not only going to Hell, he's arrived there before his death and is taking people with him.  Before we even get to the war itself in Vietnam, the audience is taken through the ringer.

Once in Vietnam, the pressure of basic training is replaced by a different pressure for the two main characters we follow from here - Joker (who has gotten a military newspaper correspondent gig) and his cameraman, Rafterman.  It's not the pressure of having to please a superior, it's the pressure of being somewhere they aren't wanted, and of getting shot at unexpectedly.  There are more iconic scenes here; the "me so horny" bit that kicks off the second major part of the movie and the climax of the movie involving the unit being waylaid by a sniper, and the unit having to take out the sniper.  It almost goes without saying that "Full Metal Jacket" is an intense movie, but it also needs to be said.  Unlike Kubrick's other anti-war film, "Dr. Strangelove...," this is not a comedy.  It's a horror film that is set in a war zone; a battle between two sides that have no correct moves to make.  Everything either side does just makes things worse, but they have no choice but to act.

The climax with the sniper, which turns out to be a young Vietnamese girl, is as brutal and predictable as Pvt. Pyle's end.  And I don't mean predictable as a pejorative, it's the kind of predictable where you can see the mistakes coming and can't get out of the way of them.  This is part of the horror of "Full Metal Jacket," that you know what's coming and there's not a damned thing you can do about it.  Kubrick does recycle one trick from "Strangelove," following up the harrowing scene with the girl begging someone to shoot her and put her out of her misery, with a bunch of troops marching in the middle of the night in front of burning buildings, while singing the "Mickey Mouse Show" theme song.  That juxtaposition of light-hearted music with the horrors of war is a grand anti-war statement: when you have no choice but to behave in an awful manner, the only solace left is subversion and irony.

"Full Metal Jacket" is one of the best war films I've seen.  It holds up, the humor just as dark and awful as ever, the horrors just as bad as any nightmare.  "Strangelove" is still my favorite Kubrick film, but this is right on its heels on that list.

4.5 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Seven Psychopaths - 2012

"Seven Psychopaths" - 2012
Dir. by Martin McDonagh - 1 hr. 50 min.

Official Red Band Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Boy, I wanted this to be a good movie.  I really, really did.  I wanted it to be everything that was promised in the trailer and more, but "Seven Psychopaths" simply doesn't deliver what it promises.  What's actually present in the film is sometimes very good, but is very uneven, and by the time things pick up, it was nearly too late to rescue.

"Seven Psychopaths" is one of those movies about writing a movie.  A creatively-blocked screenwriter, Marty (Colin Farrell), has little more than a title (the title of this film, in fact) and deep affinity for alcohol.  His friends bug him about it, his agent is leaving messages trying to urge Marty along with his process, but to little avail.  A number of threads converge later, but the important ones to note are that Marty's friend, Billy (Sam Rockwell) and Hans (Christopher Walken) run a scam where they kidnap dogs and then return them for whatever reward money is put up a few days later.  One of the dogs that gets snagged belongs to Charlie (Woody Harrelson), who is a local mobster who loves his dog more than he loves his girlfriend.  Like I said, there are a lot of seemingly disparate threads that eventually converge here.

There are two big problems that I have about this movie.  First is that I didn't know that this was a movie about writing a movie.  That's not to say that writer movies are something that I won't go see ("Barton Fink" is a spectacular example of a writer movie), but I don't remember seeing anything about that in any of the advertisements.  Going in, I expected a couple of hours of crazy people going at cross-purposes, frequently with guns involved, and instead a lot of this film is about an alcoholic writer struggling to get his next screenplay written.  And he's not really under that much pressure - the only real pressures seem to be that his next project is a little overdue, and that his drinking is affecting his relationship with his girlfriend (Abbie Cornish).  Eventually, Marty gets dragged into the repercussions of Billy and Hans' scheming, but on his own, he just seems to be a drink or two past his deadline.

The other big problem that I had was the the first half of this film was just not very good.  Everything up until Sam Rockwell's sort-of monologue in the desert, I was pretty disinterested in the entire package.  Sure, things happen and characters are introduced, but I just didn't find myself drawn into the story at all.  The second half of the film pretty much becomes Sam Rockwell's show (and the movie is drastically improved for it), and it becomes apparent that not only is he worth paying to see act in a movie, but that Woody Harrelson didn't have much to play off of until he's on-screen with Rockwell.  So at least "Seven Psychopaths" has a solid third act, but that doesn't make up for the first half or so.  I mean, I was so bored that I didn't even realized how bored I was until Rockwell started being completely awesome and I stirred from my boredom-induced stupor.

This is a throwback of sorts (if it's soon enough to start throwing back) to 90's Miramax indie-ensemble movies.  You've got your crime plot, the criminals who do a lot (and I mean a LOT) of vaguely-Tarantino-esque jabbering, moments of extreme violence, and a bunch of weirdo actors working cheaply.  On top of the people that I've already mentioned, "Seven Psychopaths" also has roles for Tom Waits, Harry Dean Stanton, Kevin Corrigan, and Gabourey Sidibe.  If you don't know these names, you'll certainly recognize their faces.  I have some nostalgia for that period of indie film-making, and it's fun to see the sort of films that an $8 million budget used to be able to buy you during the 1990s.  But the first half was so laggy, and the concept so falsely-advertised, and the amount of Christopher Walken weirdness just wasn't enough to go around that the good third act didn't so much redeem the film as it simply provided relief that "Seven Psychopaths" didn't underachieve from wire-to-wire.

1.5 / 5 - Theatre

Monday, December 24, 2012

Bad Santa - 2003

"Bad Santa (Unrated Version)" - 2003
Dir. by Terry Zwigoff - 1 hr. 38 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Some people really get into the Christmas spirit, and it's the highlight of the year for these people.  And then there are people who completely hate Christmas, and need an antidote to the non-stop saccharine sentiment and commercialism that the season has turned into.  "Bad Santa" is a film for the latter.  If you need an hour and a half of non-stop self-loathing, off-color humor, and a near constant stream of profanity to get you through to the new year, you are in luck.

Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) and Marcus (Tony Cox) are a pair of con-men with a very particular grift: they go to work at a different department store every year and work as the mall Santa and elf, respectively.  Then, when everything shuts down for Christmas, they loot the store and live off the proceeds until it's time to do it all over again.  Problem is, Willie is becoming much more unreliable due to his heavy drinking and questionable behavior.  But he's also a really good safe-cracker, so he's kind of important to the scam.  This time around, they settle on a Phoenix mall as the site of their long scam.

The crime part of the story doesn't really give you the full flavor of the level of Willie's depravity.  Part of the appeal of "Bad Santa" is seeing Billy Bob Thornton in a Santa suit, unleashing every bit of contempt on everyone in sight (and in the way that Thornton seems born to do).  His behavior includes everything from pissing himself on the Santa chair as the last child for the day walks away, to nailing a "big and tall" chick in the dressing room at the store, to hiding out at the house of some kid who seems to genuinely believe that Willie is Santa (and continually asks logistical Santa questions of Willie, in one of the best running gags through the movie) and who seems to have no one at the house looking after him (other than his sweet, senile grandmother, played by Cloris Leachman).  If there is a unturned stone in terms of taking advantage of people or behaving in wildly irresponsible ways, you know that Willie will get there (or has already been there).

I'll freely admit, bad taste is easy to do.  So there's got to be more going on in order to make an idea like "Bad Santa" a decent movie.  This isn't a dumb movie at all, it's just that the Santa is mean-spirited and unfocused.  But then you get a gem of a scene like this one, which is messed up in so many ways, but also a spectacular bit of character writing:

And there's also the pair of redemption stories for Willie, in Sue (Lauren Graham), who is a bartender with a Santa fetish and who also takes an inexplicable shine to Willie, and The Kid (Brett Kelly), an overweight spineless lump of a child who at times does really smart things, but always seems kind of off.  At first, The Kid just irritates Willie, but Willie ends up giving him a ride home (with the intention of robbing the house, since there's no mother or father there).  Willie can't believe his eyes when he gets to the really nice house, and while he definitely takes advantage of the situation (the wall safe, in particular, but he also ends up living in the house when he thinks the police are rifling through his hotel room), he also ends up as a foul-mouthed protector of sorts to the kid.  Willie cannot believe how stupid this child is (although it's more like there's no one there to teach him anything at all, a situation which is resonant to Willie), and he gets the chance to help The Kid out as well.

As for Sue, well, Lauren Graham is fantastic in this role.  She's cute, perky, and looks great in nothing but her bra.  There's even a scene where Willie, Sue and The Kid are decorating a Christmas tree, but Willie literally can't take his eyes off of her ass.  It's as if he's stunned at it's very existence, and mesmerized at the same time, and that's a completely accurate assessment.  I don't want to harp on Graham's looks, her comedic chops are in full display here, but this is a movie full of ugly, oddly-shaped, and just plain weird-looking men, and having one camera-friendly character goes a long way.  But her character also has a way normalizing Willie (that's not to say cleaning him up - she doesn't seem to be there to change him) and focusing his odd behavior in one direction instead of all over the place, all the time.

"Bad Santa" has a couple of good smaller roles for Bernie Mac and John Ritter (his final film).  Mac is a presence on screen, and Ritter knocks his material out of the park.  He's all meek sliminess (a tough combination to pull off), and his facial reactions and tics in response to more unsavory discussions are a sight to behold: pure comic gold.  And in honestly, it's the fact that a lot of the other characters in the film are horrified by Willie's behavior (even Marcus, his partner, is always dressing him down for his behavior).  This isn't a film entirely populated by awful people doing awful things in a game of one-upmanship, it's a film populated by people dealing with one truly awful person, some by choice and some forced to by circumstance.  That's the key to doing a bad taste film; if no one in the film seems to think that there's anything wrong with what anyone else is doing, it's just going to put off the majority of the audience.  It's not a world that most people would want to be involved in.

"Bad Santa" isn't a perfect film, but it is a funny one, and if you can't stand watching "It's a Wonderful Life" for the umpteenth time, this might be exactly what you're looking for.

3 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Sunday, December 23, 2012

This Is 40 - 2012

"This Is 40" - 2012
Dir. by Judd Apatow - 2 hrs. 14 min.

Red Band Featurette

by Clayton Hollifield

"This Is 40" is a better movie than my rating would indicate.  But my rating system has an over/under point: three stars means that I'd want to watch the film again at some point in the future.  And there's no way in Hell that I want to watch "This Is 40" again, even though I thought it was a pretty decent movie and I laughed all the way through.  But the subject matter was so uncomfortable to sit through that I will be content if I never see this film again, and even blissful when I can push it out of my mind entirely.

Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) reprise their characters from "Knocked Up" (and no, there wasn't a Seth Rogen sighting, as far as I noticed) here.  They're both turning forty (in the same week, even), and under a lot of stress.  Aside from the milestone birthday, Debbie's boutique is being stolen from (to the tune of $12,000), and Pete's record label is tanking, with pretty much everything riding on their next release. Their kids are constantly at each other's throats, and so are Pete and Debbie.  There are other subplots, but they exist pretty much just to buffer between the no-holds barred arguments that Pete and Debbie have with others and with one another.  If you've seen "Knocked Up," understand that this entire film is pretty much tonally either the argument that Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl have at the doctor's office (not the positive one, the one where they completely blow up at each other) or the moment where Pete gets torn down by Rogen's character at his own birthday party.  For two hours and fourteen minutes.

So let's get to the good stuff first, lest you think that I hated this thing wire to wire.  Pretty much everyone who has a small role absolutely kills their minute or two on screen.  Melissa McCarthy has a fantastic pair of foul-mouthed scenes (maybe the highlight of the film - reinforced by the fact that the blooper reel that runs during the credits is a take of her meeting with the school principal and Pete and Debbie, where neither Paul Rudd nor Leslie Mann can keep it together), Jason Segel's lothario trainer is great, both John Lithgow and Albert Brooks are great as the misguided fathers of Debbie and Pete (respectively).  The feud between Debbie's two boutique workers (Megan Fox and Charlyne Yi, who may or may not be playing the same character she played in "Knocked Up") is pretty good, and Debbie's scenes with each individually are hilarious.  I'm probably missing a few people, but literally everyone who has only a scene or two do a great job with their time.

But here's the problem for me: Pete and Debbie's relationship is absolutely toxic.  It may be a point of personal touchiness about this, but watching two people (and in the context of this movie, two parents) constantly unable to resist going for one another's throats in a very real way (and in front of their children, which isn't glossed over here) isn't entertainment.  It's not some guy looking around wide-eyed, and only half-sarcastically spitting out his catchphrase, "Awkward!"  For me, it's a nearly unbearable re-enactment of the worst parts of my childhood.  I'm not exaggerating to say that if all of the bit parts hadn't been so funny, I might have walked out on "This Is 40," just to preserve my sanity.  As it was, I felt dread in my stomach every time Pete and Debbie were together on screen.  So when I tell you that there's no way I would watch this film again, not under threat of torture or death, I mean it.  It was torturous at times to get through "This Is 40," and now I've got nothing left to lose.  And, unlike what the plot would like you to believe, my personal experience with matters like this left me no faith that this family would find a way to stay together through their troubles.  I didn't believe it during the film, and I didn't buy the ending (which probably has less to do with what was being presented on the screen than I'd like to admit).

I don't expect everyone to react in the same manner that I did to "This Is 40."  But it's fair to mention that if your childhood included a period of tumult, you might find this nearly as uncomfortable of a movie-going experience as I did.  Plus, I hate having to capitalize the "is" in "This Is 40," as it goes against all of my training in the writing arts.  Plus, there was a gout joke here while I'm currently limping around on a cane because of a gout attack.  So, Judd Apatow, perhaps you'd like to take some shots at my weight, or my hair color or something?  You could drive to my home, and wreck into my truck and not leave a note.  Do you want to knock my dog over?  Do you want to steal all of my spoons?  I mean, you've already done everything you can to make this film a miserable experience for me personally, there's got to be a way for you to top that.  All I can say in response is that I used a free movie ticket to see "This is 40," and that feels about right.

2.5 / 5 - Theatre

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Big Year - 2011

"The Big Year" - 2011
Dir. by David Frankel - 1 hr. 40 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

It's not that anything I saw regarding "The Big Year" looked like it would add up to a decent film, but I secretly held out hope that the stars could add up to something worthwhile, even if that didn't mean a good movie.  But I was wrong.  Not only was I wrong, but this movie gave me a nosebleed that took the last half-hour of the film to stop (true story).  While it's true that I might have looked upon the last third of "The Big Year" a little less favorably because I was watching it with a wad of toilet paper jammed up one of my nostrils, but it's not as if this was an all-time great film up to that point, either.

I don't know if this is based on reality or not (a little Google-fu reveals there is a book of the same name that focuses on this subject in 1998), but in this film, birders can engage in a competition to see who can spot the most species of birds (which runs on the honor system).  Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson) is the current record holder, but feels like his record is beatable, so he decides to engage in another Big Year in order to protect his legacy.  This comes much to the chagrin of his wife, Jesse (Rosamund Pike), who is going through fertility treatments so that they can have a child.  Also engaging in a Big Year are Brad Harris (Jack Black), who is a divorced thirty-something office-bound slacker, and Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), who is retiring from the company that he founded and has made him wealthy so that he can finally do a Big Year, something he's wanted to do for his entire life.  And then they go look at birds.

Let's assume that the source material is, in fact, engaging enough to make a movie based on it.  What ends up on the screen ends up mirroring the goal of a Big Year, in that it's a hard-to-explain, pointless-to-many pursuit.  Except instead of bird-watching, what the filmmakers seem to have done is taken on the challenge of screwing up the story in the most banal, Hollywood way possible.  The characters' names are changed, which has the effect of turning the three leads into generic versions of the characters they usually play.  And these generic characters have only the most general conflicts.  Owen Wilson's character is the bad guy, but only because he's been the most successful person in this particular pursuit.  His villainy comes not through how he treats Brad or Stu (the worst he does is psych-out Stu into sea sickness, and later gives the pair bad directions, sort of), but because he doesn't place his wife first and foremost in his life at all times.  This character is bizarre, in the sense that clearly we're all expected to resent success and hate a guy because his first goal isn't putting a baby in his wife right when she demands it.  There's even a tearful scene where Jesse gets to throw Kenny's non-family pursuits in his face, because she understands that "no one remembers who comes in second place."  Her, of course.

Secondly, we're supposed to accept a CEO as an underdog in this story.  It's sort of in tandem with Brad (they end up teaming up), who is the truer underdog because he doesn't have the resources to pursue this endeavor, but what we end up with is Stu bankrolling Brad to go against Kenny.  The dynamics of this story are very off, not just because of how Kenny is painted (basically, there's a lot of resentment towards him, but not really because of anything that he does.  It's all tell and no show), but also because of how the story treats the pursuit of excellence.  It would seem that anything that doesn't result in a man (and this is a mostly male pursuit - the only women involved in birding here are Ellie (Rashida Jones), who is largely there to give a cute falling in love story to offset the story's ugliness between Kenny and his wife, and a freshly-wed bride who is honeymooning with her birder-husband, which seems only to be there to provide a fish-out-of-water character who also is supposed to serve as proof that these guys are tough for roughing it, and instead comes off as a tone-deaf "silly girl" who can't handle anything in the out-of-doors) being a constant 9-to-5er is nothing but strain and heartbreak for the women in their lives (Kenny and Brad are both divorcees, and Stu's wife has to give "I'll miss you dearly, but..." speech to show her sacrifice).

This is a shaky foundation to build a story upon.  If you're not going to treat the pursuit itself with some kind of respect (the best explanation that anyone gives as to why they do this is that it's "hard to explain"), and I don't consider having women constantly opposing what the men in their lives have chosen to do (sometimes tearfully), as treating the pursuit with respect, why even do the story in the first place?  Whatever comedic possibilities bird-watching offers is completely wasted here.  There's no real tension in the script between any of the characters, partially because Owen Wilson's character doesn't function as a villain unless you're a baby-crazed woman, so no one has any motivation for what they do, other than the people involved are good at what they do.  But rather than stress that Kenny is dogged in his pursuit (and make that a positive trait instead of focusing on his abandoned wife), and that Brad is some kind of savant in being able to recognize bird-calls, and that Stu is looking to open a new chapter in his life, even the importance these characters place on birding is treated as trivial.  And if nothing at all matters in the world depicted except getting your wife knocked up, why devote so much attention to the birds?

I just don't understand the point of "The Big Year."  It seems alienating to both men (in that their pursuits are regarded as completely trivial, and any success any of the characters might achieve is deeply resented and comes at a huge cost, which seems to be a persuasive argument of mediocrity as a lifestyle) and women (in that the only two paths here is being ignored by your men in favor of birds or to be Rashida Jones, who falls for Jack Black's generic slacktastic character).  It's a complete waste of a lot of comedic talent, and even the birds aren't well-explained enough to be fascinating (other than when Brad finally gets his dad (Brian Dennehy) interested in a small bird, which is the sort of thing that would have gone a long way towards making the subject matter more fascinating - and this is another problem: when your three main characters are experts in their field, and there's no noob involved, there's simply not enough explanation of why what we're looking at is interesting if you're not also an expert in the field of birding, which 99% of us fall into that category).

And then there's the matter of my nosebleed.  I'm not saying that "The Big Year" caused my nosebleed, but I was watching it, and then that happened.  There may not be a causal relationship, but there's no way that those two events are entirely unrelated, either.

1 / 5 - TV

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Alex Cross - 2012

"Alex Cross" - 2012
Dir. by Rob Cohen - 1 hr. 41 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I guess it's true that in Hollywood, writers don't count for much.  James Patterson topped all authors this year by earning $94 million, which is about four times as much as this "Alex Cross" movie (based on his series of books) made at the box office.  Without having read any of the source material, I find it difficult to believe that Patterson would have released this tepid of a movie, if he'd had any say in the matter.  And yet, here we have "Alex Cross," a film that seems to completely ignore pretty much any strengths anyone involved with the making of this film might have.

Alex Cross (Tyler Perry) is a profiler whiz, working with the Detroit Police Department.  This is what we learn about Cross: he's super-smart, he's a family man (living with his grandmother, wife, and two kids under one roof), he plays by the rules, and he inspires confidence from his co-workers (except his boss, played by John C. McGinley, who seems more concerned with a future political career than with what's immediately in front of him.  Cross and his partner, Tommy Kane (Edward Burns), are called in to investigate a multiple homicide in a ritzy part of town, which turns out to be the work of a twitchy professional killer named Picasso (Matthew Fox).  Cross catches onto the plot, and tries to foil Picasso's paid-for plan to kill a wealthy entrepreneur who has an ambitious plan to revitalize Detroit.

In many ways, it's a lot easier to pick apart a film that doesn't work than it is to prop it up, but it's not my role to make excuses for a film like "Alex Cross."  One of the big problems with this film is the characterization of Cross.  Great lengths are gone to early in the film to show him as being able, giving, and understanding.  Unfortunately, these are all done in a short-hand manner that doesn't really put these traits on display.  The old adage is to "show, not tell," and while we see Cross trying to lure the truth out of a teen-aged prisoner who is taking the rap for someone else, I had a difficult time buying into that aspect of Cross.  I do think that Tyler Perry did a reasonably good job with this character, and I do think that he took the opportunity very seriously.  But the scene in question has Perry trying to play the wise uncle/therapist role to a prisoner, and it doesn't come off as genuine.  Part of it is too hamfisted; Perry's trying to coax the girl into giving up her relative (who has two strikes already), but his attempt to play confidant to the girl doesn't jibe with the fact that he's trying to get info out of her to put away the real criminal.

So let's get SPOILER-heavy now.  After Cross has been established (in a unconvincing way) to be super-good at his job and to be a family man who plays by the rules (even chiding his partner for having an affair that runs counter to department rules), he runs afoul of Picasso, who then murders both the woman that Tommy was having an affair with AND Cross' pregnant wife to exact revenge on Cross.  Alex's reaction to these events are borderline insane (even if you count Picasso calling Cross and taunting him about it); he goes rogue.  He starts engaging in behavior that you might expect out of a policeman in a James Ellroy book or from Vic Mackey.  Cross pulls a complete 180 (with the aid of his partner), which either invalidates the first half of the film, or shows a loose grasp of all of the characterization that's already occurred.  I get that the events that take place over the course of the movie are supposed to "change" Alex Cross, but considering I didn't fully buy into his character in the first place, this change doesn't work for me.

Another large part of the problem that I had with "Alex Cross" is that Matthew Fox is absolutely terrible here.  He opts to play his character as if he's had an urn too much of coffee; he's all tics and twitches, and in a way that feels absurdly artificial.  His acting is showy in all the wrong ways; instead of making him come off like he's deranged or something (which runs counter to how the character is written), it makes him seem like he's not sure of himself and constantly on the verge of breaking down (which completely undermines the way the character is written).  This is not the recipe for making a credible villain, which also affects Alex Cross' "turn."  If the villain isn't credible and a terrible threat (which is how I see things here), then Cross himself is bowing to incredibly weak pressure when he abandons his beliefs in order to hunt down Picasso.

But my biggest gripe about "Alex Cross" is that the movie doesn't play to anyone's strengths.  Tyler Perry can be an intimidating physical presence on-screen, and even in scenes that have him involved physically with other actors, it's not really traded on.  Director Rob Cohen is known for action movies like "The Fast and the Furious" and "xXx," but the action in "Alex Cross" seems heavily outweighed by scenes of Tyler Perry either happily interacting with his family or mourning them.  And the action scenes that do exist aren't anything special; I actually laughed out loud when an explosion launched a single burning body towards the screen.  It just feels like no one present here brought anything special to the mix; you wouldn't have gotten a drastically different film if it had starred Orlando Jones and was directed by Michael Bay.

"Alex Cross" is a blown opportunity.  If you take a popular actor (and Perry has his following) and a popular book franchise and still can't break even on the film, someone screwed up along the way.  There's enough blame to go around: shoddy story, a director known for action trying to do a lot of character scenes, not much care given to keeping a character consistent, bad acting...  Sigh.  That's really the only response that matters here.  Instead of a good (or even decent) movie, "Alex Cross" ended and I sighed, unsatisfied.

1.5 / 5 - Theatre

Friday, December 7, 2012

Casablanca - 1942

"Casablanca" - 1942
Dir. by Michael Curtiz - 1 hr. 42 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Casablanca" is on the short-list for greatest film of all-time.  That's not a matter of opinion, that's a fact.  Seventy years after it's release, people still know the famous lines from it (at the screening I went two, a couple of the lines themselves drew applause from the audience.  Applause.), and the film holds up beautifully.  What more is there to say about it?  Probably not much that hasn't already been said, but I'll go ahead and repeat some of the praise, if you don't mind.

In the midst of World War II and the German encroachment on France, Casablanca, in French Morocco has emerged as a way-station for refugees fleeing Nazis.  Mainly, people come there and get stuck until they can manage to acquire papers of passage, usually to America.  Many of these expatriates end up spending time at Rick's, a saloon owned by (you may have guessed it) Rick (Humphrey Bogart).  Rick "sticks his neck out for no one," and the closest thing to friends he has are his piano player, Sam (Dooley Wilson), and a crooked French official, Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains).  A pair of German assassins are being hunted down; they allegedly have in their possession some papers from France that will allow passage wherever the possessors wish without question.  These papers are worth basically infinity money, and end up in Rick's possession through a series of events that you might want to watch the film and experience for yourself.  The path forward is unclear, until she walks into Rick's Cafe.

The result is the mother of all love triangles.  Rick and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) have a past, but she's with Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) now, and they're on the run from the Nazis, whom Laszlo has been troubling by authoring and printing underground tracts critical of the Third Reich.  He's escaped their grasp before, and even escaped from a concentration camp.  Rick seeks solace in a bottle, Ilsa's heart is torn between two men, and Victor needs to get out of Casablanca and to somewhere where he won't be persecuted for telling truths about Nazis.  To complicate things, there is the matter of the French papers, which Rick is disinclined to let go of, for a variety of reasons.

There is a nearly endless amount of ways to dissect how "Casablanca" is great film-making.  The story itself is great (although there were previous attempts to film this story, and none of those have ended up being the definitive version).  It's also very much a "shades of gray" story, where no one is really good or bad (except the Nazis, because you know...), and they're all just trying to make the best of a complicated situation.  That doesn't mean that there's no one to root for, but even Rick (the lead character) has a checkered past that means he can't return back to the United States (at least not without some subterfuge).  As a love-triangle story, it's compelling.  As a caper movie (the matter of the French papers), it's compelling.  The acting in this film is not just good, but iconic (and that's not a statement that I take lightly - this is one of the roles that immediately comes to mind when you think of Bogart, and it's not like he only had a couple of decent movies over the course of his career).

So I'll focus on just one scene that really makes "Casablanca" work.  There is a scene in the middle of the film where the visiting German party takes over Sam's piano, and starts singing "Die Wacht am Rhein" (a German patriotic song) while the rest of the bar silently watches them, resentfully at that (and that's probably the mildest reaction, you can feel the hatred towards the Germans from all of the patrons of Rick's that have been displaced by this stupid Reich).  All throughout the film, people have been cooperating with these Nazis, largely because it's easier to do so than to invite their wrath.  Everyone knew what they were capable of, and it was best to placate the small party than to have more of them show up in Casablanca.  Up until this point in the film, Laszlo has been portrayed as being a "great man," an important part of the underground resistance.  But when you keep hearing about how great and important someone is, you may start to resent them.  I know that I did.  On top of that, Laszlo has been portrayed as a bit of a chump, mostly oblivious to what's been simmering between Rick and Ilsa (his wife, if I hadn't mentioned that yet), and more committed to his work than her.  Up until this scene in the film, it's really easy to dismiss Victor in favor of Rick and Ilsa re-igniting their relationship.

Victor and Rick have been having a private meeting in Rick's office, and when they emerge from the office, they find the Germans basically intimidating everyone with their drunken singing that absolutely no one will join in with them in.  For the first time in the entire film, someone stands up to these Nazis.  Victor marches straight over to the rest of the band, and tells them to play the French National Anthem.  Rick nods for them to do it, and the entire bar (and I mean everyone) drowns out the Nazis in a forceful, emotionally-charged manner.  Victor knows the price for defying the Nazis (having spent a year in a concentration camp before escaping), and he does it because it's right.  It's at this point in the film that Victor Laszlo becomes a man worthy of respect, and not just an inconvenient part of the love triangle with he, Ilsa, and Rick.

This scene was perhaps the most powerful in the entire film for me.  The romance material had me a little misty at times, but there would have been no dilemma about who Ilsa should end up with if the film had been unable to establish Victor as someone that Ilsa could reasonably love.  Ilsa loves Rick, but she admires Victor.  And then, there's the whole angle about spitting in evil's eye, regardless of the consequences.  There surely are consequences, which Rick knew there would be when he nodded to the band; the Germans storm out, order Rick's closed indefinitely, and pretty much explicitly put a hit out on Victor.

On this viewing, the entire film hinges on that scene.  There are two things that must be established for a love triangle story to work: the intensity of Rick and Ilsa's love (which is shown in a flashback to their torrid Paris days), and the fact that Victor (the third party, as it initially appears) is not just some chump to be shoved to the side.  If Ilsa's choices aren't equally valid in their own ways, there is no mystery to how the film will end up.  The end scene of this film plays out beautifully, navigates a few twists deftly, and confirms Captain Renault's suspicion that Rick is, at heart, a sentimentalist.  And then there's that final monologue by Rick (one of the lines that drew applause, by the way)!

So yeah.  This is one of the greatest films of all-time.  You might have heard that before, but if you haven't actually watched it for yourself, I'm not even worried about over-hyping it.  Between the story, the actors, and the filmmakers, everything came together in a way that you can't even hope for.  And something interesting that I learned was that Don Siegel, the guy who would go on to direct classics like "Dirty Harry" and "Charley Varrick," did second-unit work on "Casablanca," at the very beginning of his film career.  Relevant?  I don't know, but I loved watching "Casablanca" again.

5 / 5 - Theatre

Monday, December 3, 2012

Grosse Pointe Blank - 1997

"Grosse Pointe Blank" - 1997
Dir. by George Armitage - 1 hr. 47 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Sometimes, just making a clever, sly comedy is good enough.  But it also helps if it beats other ideas to the punch, and still executes the core premise well.  "Grosse Pointe Blank," on it's own merits, is a clever, sly comedy with charming, appealing actors and a good high premise for a film.  It's also mining territory that would almost immediately be picked up by other filmmakers.

Martin Q. Blank (John Cusack) is a hitman-for-hire, but work isn't going so well lately.  He's also attempting to go to therapy, albeit with a reluctant therapist (Alan Arkin).  In a convenient bit of happenstance, a job that Martin is obligated to take on coincides in both timing and location for his ten-year high school reunion.  Martin doesn't want anything to do with it, but his secretary (Joan Cusack) insists, and there's no way out of it.  Also, Martin had disappeared on prom night with no explanation to anyone, which has led to the one big regret of his life, abandoning his high school girlfriend, Debi (Minnie Driver).  As it turns out, Martin's return to Grosse Pointe is a trap, sprung by a rival hitman (Dan Aykroyd), and things predictably (but entertainingly) go straight to hell.

The biggest thing "Grosse Pointe Blank" has going for it is a giddy kind of charm.  Cusack plays Martin as a therapy-talk spouting motormouth, and Debi is a DJ (of the radio variety, not of the iPod-for-a-party variety) with impeccable musical taste (I bought both soundtracks when the movie originally came out, and they're both on my Zune (shut up about my Zune!) to this day).  And while she's understandably wary of Martin and whatever motivations he may have, it's also clear that time hasn't dulled whatever fondness the two have had for each other.  Even Jeremy Piven is really funny (there was a time, pre-"Entourage," when he wasn't considered king of the douchebags).  The charms of this movie extend to the approach to both the therapy and high-school reunion themes: this isn't a cynical movie or one that wallows in nostalgia.  If there's a message, it centers around the question of how to move forward when you've made missteps along the way.  It's a difficult question, and one that may not be sufficiently answered (although Debi, on air, does offer an approach that focuses on acceptance rather than forgiveness being most important).

There's at least two kinds of movies that must be immediately compared to "Grosse Pointe Blank."  The first is the high-school reunion film.  "Romy & Michelle's High School Reunion" was released roughly at the same time as this one, and is a much more sugary confection.  And it feels like it might be about time for a new spate of reunion films, since the only one that I've seen that tries to apply this framework to the 90's was "Zack and Miri Make a Porno," and I'm not sure that anyone would consider that to be a definitive work on the subject.  The other idea is the "bad guy in therapy" concept, which wasn't exactly new, but would be exploited again within two years with "Analyze This" and the launch of "The Sopranos" (fun fact: show creator David Chase wrote an episode of "The Rockford Files" in the 70's that centered on a mobster in therapy).  This film is neither as glib and broad as "Analyze This," nor as dark and harsh as "The Sopranos," but it did beat both to the punch.

On the whole, "Grosse Pointe Blank" holds up pretty well.  I did find myself from time to time trying to do the math to see if Cusack was age-appropriate for this role, but that is more of a function of it being fifteen years later at this point, and the numbers not quite adding up.  But this is still a funny film with a killer soundtrack, and a reminder of a time when Minnie Driver was one of the most adorable actresses around.  And John Cusack makes the most of his ability to travel around with a cloud over his head, and yet still seem optimistic at the same time.  If you're going to wallow in 80's nostalgia (or borrow someone else's, if you're not old enough to have experienced it first-hand), you will almost certainly do worse if you choose any other film.

3.5 / 5 - DVD

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Pootie Tang - 2001

"Pootie Tang" - 2001
Dir.  by Louis C.K. - 1 hr. 21 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Pootie Tang" is more interesting as an artifact of a particular point in time than as a film (although there are genuinely funny parts in the film).  Here's what you should know about "Pootie Tang:" Louis C.K. directed it (yes, that Louis C.K.), and this is one of the shortest feature films I've ever seen.  Also, we'll never know if it's a good film or not.

The titular character, Pootie (Lance Crouther), speaks in gibberish, doesn't ever button his shirt up, wears furs, and whips the snot out of the bad guys like Dirty Dee (Reg E. Cathey) with the belt that his father gave him.  He's also a musician and a hero to his community, which includes a message of not eating fast food or smoking cigarettes, which is a problem for Dick Lecter (Robert Vaughn), who runs LecterCorp, a conglomerate that wants you to eat fast food and smoke cigarettes.  Lecter hatches a plot to steal Pootie's identity (through assuming control of Pootie's trademarks).  Pootie Tang has to find himself, and then confront Lecter.

There are two classic comedy scenes in this film (and a third really clever one).  The first starts with Pootie going to a club, singing a duet with Missy Elliott, and then basically ignoring a club hoe who is literally pawing at him and hanging off of him in a state of ecstatic delirium.  The humor in the scene is in the execution, but the payoff delivers even on paper: when she complains through a door that Pootie's dismissal isn't right, Pootie opens the door slightly and puts a saucer of milk out for her.  And then she gets on all fours and starts lapping it up.  It's messed up and awesome all at once.  The other scene involves one of Pootie's hit songs (which is completely silent).  Again, you'd need to see it to get the most out of it, but it's fantastic down to the last gag, which is a parent busting into his kid's room and yelling at him to turn that noise down.  The clever scene(s) is a framing device: Pootie is a guest on Bob Costas' talk show, and when they go to play the clip, the clip is the entire film.  At the end of the movie, Costas pops back up and can't believe how long the clip was.

So does that make a good movie?  It's hard to say.  It's a fairly funny, silly movie.  There's a lot of funny people involved (Wanda Sykes has a couple of great bits, Jennifer Coolidge is typically awesome in her character, and one of Chris Rock's many roles in this film has him and Mario Joyner doing what could possibly be a vaudeville bit over and over again).  I'm not sure that there's enough material in general to warrant this being a feature film (it came from a sketch on "The Chris Rock Show"); even with the framing device, which may or may not have been originally planned, there's close to ten minutes of credits (which features a Pootie Tang original song, then a video from the movie's soundtrack, plus some cut scenes/bloopers).

But the reason I'm not willing to say this is entirely a bad film is that it's the product of a very specific point in time.  Like "Run Ronnie Run," this is a film that had production difficulties.  Everyone loves Louis C.K. now, but ten years ago, his generation of comedians were trying to make the jump from TV shows and appearances to making films, and it would be fair to say that their brand of comedy wasn't yet palatable to a wider audience.  In this instance, Louis C.K. says that he was fired from directing the film during the editing process, but at least "Pootie Tang" made it to theatres.  So, I can't really tell you what this is.  It's a film, it's been released into the wild, but it's also not the vision of any one person.  I kind of like "Pootie Tang," it's funny (and very funny at points), but it's also kind of a missed opportunity.  Whenever you've got a bunch of legitimately funny people being funny, there's something of merit present, but the final product ends up being a little muddled here.

2 / 5 - Streaming

Friday, November 30, 2012

Lincoln - 2012

"Lincoln" - 2012
Dir. by Steven Spielberg - 2 hrs. 30 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There's two ways to look at a film like "Lincoln."  The cynical way would be suggest that it's a timely bit of Oscar-bait, both on the director's and the lead actor's part, and in the choice of subject matter.  And I can't deny that I had a little bit of that coursing through my veins before I went in to see "Lincoln."  That cynical part of me says, "Of course a big-budget film about Lincoln is going to be successful.  How could this talent screw that up?"  It feels like a gimme, a dive with a low degree of difficulty.  Everyone knows that Steven Spielberg is a talented filmmaker, and that star Daniel Day-Lewis is a very capable actor.  And there's a part of me that resents people for spending their time on something that doesn't feel like a challenge.  That line of thinking is why we can't have nice things (like heroes, or really, role models of any kind) anymore; anyone that anybody would look up to is only has that status on loan until some inevitable, stupid scandal brings them low.  It's like we need a moment of shame to counter-balance actually liking someone and what they've been doing; anything less feels like idolatry.

Here's the facts as I see them, in regards to "Lincoln."  This is an excellent film.  It focuses on Lincoln's attempt to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the one that would permanently bar slavery in the United States of America.  Kind of a big deal.  Kind of a pivotal moment in the history of the U.S.A.  Pretty damned fascinating.  I don't know how closely this movie adheres to history (and don't care; to me, if a film isn't billing itself as a documentary, it's one and only goal should be to make a good film, facts be damned), but the political bickering and partisan politics feel like a timely representation, and with one of the awesomest collections of facial hair in the history of film as an added bonus.

Secondly, although this is a broad film about a big event, this is also exactly the kind of film that Steven Spielberg excels at making.  I might secretly wish he'd tackle something a little more, shall we say, challenging, but this is what he does and what he does best.  This is a big story, and there are moments that humanize each of the characters, and that makes the whole thing feel a lot more relateable.  Everyone, even if they haven't experienced it personally, knows someone who's stuck with a crazy chick in a strained marriage or has a rough relationship with their children.  Abraham Lincoln wasn't some deity  he was a man who got something amazing done while muddling through real-life problems.  Isn't that an amazing message?  The idea that Lincoln was just another man, even though a very smart and shrewd one, and still had the vision and ability to make a real difference in the lives of all Americans is something that everyone can take to heart.  It's not a cloying or patronizing message, this is a call to arms.

Thirdly, taking on a role like playing Lincoln is a pretty big risk for Daniel Day-Lewis.  Maybe risk isn't the right way to put, let's call it a real challenge.  We all have an idea of what Lincoln was like, whether it was formed from a monument, or if you are aware of his lesser-known San Dimas Address of 1989, or if you think he fights vampires at night.  We all know him, his actions, and Day-Lewis has to not only incorporate all of that, he has to find an approach that isn't a direct copy of something else.  To my mind, he achieved that.  His Lincoln is weary but determined, liked to tell tales (but they always have a point), and not at all certain of what the outcome of all of this will be.  So, when I cynically refer to this role as being Oscar-bait, that might be true, but only if you can pull it off.

And that's the key to "Lincoln," for me.  They pull it off.  The story is rousing, a reminder of an instance where we, as a nation, were able to rise above our differences and do the right thing together, scary as that might have been.  As I said before, this doesn't come across all shined up and spit-polished, Spielberg (and everyone else involved) are staring their audience directly in the eye and saying, "We did this before, and we can do it again."  No apologies, no excuses.  Get on the same page and make something happen.  That's a bold message.

So, a film that can feel a little obvious if you're not being charitable is only so in hindsight: Spielberg and Day-Lewis knock this out of the park.  And maybe the reason it feels a little obvious is because it's the right fit, as in these are the people who were meant to bring their specific skills to this project to make it the way it is.  "Lincoln" is a damned fine film.  It's not the best thing I've seen this year, but I wouldn't argue with people who felt it was; making a big film that's successful both financially and creatively is just as harder as mining gold out of difficult material.

4 / 5 - Theatre

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Skyfall - 2012

"Skyfall" - 2012
Dir. by Sam Mendes - 2 hrs. 23 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

First off, "Skyfall" is closer to "Casino Royale" than "Quantum of Solace."  I generally enjoyed all three films, but I got into the "Bond" game awfully late; the first one that I saw was the one with Pierce Brosnan and Halle Berry.  So what I'm saying is that I don't have any long-held beliefs about the franchise.  But I also don't have a sense of the history of these characters that some people do.  This matters because things happen in "Skyfall" (I'm going to forgo any plot recap, and I'm sure as hell not going to spoil these things that happen) that matter to the franchise itself.  These things come across as important regardless of your level of involvement with the Bond franchise, but probably mean more if you've spent a lot of time with these characters.

Probably the most important thing to note is that the Daniel Craig version of James Bond seems capable of feeling human emotions.  While it provides for gripping scenes (and it's nice to have a character that will react to things at times instead of no-selling everything), it also means longer films.  This might become a problem in a film that doesn't have "things happen," but I didn't feel like "Skyfall" lagged at all.  The flow of the film between slower, smaller scenes and the spectacular action pieces make for a good mix.

In regards to the action pieces, the opening chase through Istanbul that starts with cars, moves to motorcycles, and winds up on top of a train was fantastic, and unfortunately reminiscent of the big action finale to the very recent "Bourne Legacy."  It's not a problem, and in the context of the separate films, it's not like anybody's cribbing from one another, but it's worth noting that if you're into spy movies, you might see both, and you might notice the overlap.  There are other action scenes here worth the price of admission; Bond stalking an assassin in Shanghai is spectacular, particularly in a visual sense.  It's a unique approach, and must be seen to be believed.

"Skyfall" also delivers all the things you'd expect from a Bond film.  Aside from the action, which is definitely up to snuff, there's all the beautiful women you'd want to see, the tuxedos, a casino scene, a somewhat flamboyant villain (Javier Bardem, who minces convincingly and appropriately), and even nods to previous films (see Bond's comment to the bartender in the Macao casino - sly without repeating catchphrases).  There's some unexpectedly heavy emotional content (talking about it would definitely constitute a walk in spoiler territory).  It's an enjoyable installment in the franchise, and did nothing to dissuade me from seeing whatever the next James Bond movie is.

So what's keeping "Skyfall" from being an all-time classic?  My main frustration with the story was that while "things happen," a continuing thread from the film is the notion that computers are the answer to everything.  How have computers changed things?  "I don't know.  Computers!"  It's as if that part of the script was penned by an eighty-year old befuddled by Friendster.  Instead of getting a grand tour of big villain Silva's (Bardem) island fortress, we get a story about how he spooked all the natives into leaving, and then we get to see his server farm.  The new Q (Albert Finney) is a computer whiz, and is subject to zit jokes.  Bond has a generally dismissive view of technology that doesn't go "bang."  The computer guys are equally dismissive and arrogant about what they can do in their pajamas (what ever happened to doing more before seven A.M. than most people do all day?  Is staying in your house in a perpetual state of undress something to aspire to?).  The whole angle is tone deaf and not very well-thought out; even John McClane had a more nuanced take on technology (while still expressing the generational difficulties of adopting it) in 2007's "Live Free or Die Hard."  When a film that has Kevin Smith playing a hacker tops a Bond film in the manner that it approaches a subject, the Bond film is the one that has work to do.

Is this nitpicking?  Maybe.  But it's also a matter of having a film that came out literally the week after the American Presidental Election that has as a central component of the story old people grumping about things.   No art exists in a vacuum, and the Bond filmmakers made a miscalculation to think that anyone wants to see old people grumping about things after spending a year-plus listening to nothing else but old people grumping about things in a political context.  This problem isn't enough to derail the film (it's only an adjunct to the main plot, but hacking takes the place of the stereotypical Bond villains' Rube Golberg contraptions), but it's enough of a problem for me to knock it down a peg.  James Bond might not like computers, but if he's in his 40's (or even his 50's), they've been around for more than half of his life in a meaningful way.  If this is the point where he's getting snippy about it, it's more of an indication of him having a problem than the world having a problem.

Beyond that, "Skyfall" is a good film.  The run-time flies by, and there's almost zero chance of anyone leaving this film let down.  It's a big holiday movie, and it functions well as such.  This makes me want to go back and re-watch the two previous Daniel Craig Bond films.  You've got to fill your holiday weekends somehow.

3.5 / 5 -Theatre

Monday, November 19, 2012

Hot Tub Time Machine - 2010

"Hot Tub Time Machine" - 2010
Dir. by Steve Pink - 1 hr. 41 min.

Official Red Band Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Now that I've watched "Hot Tub Time Machine" a handful of times, I think this might be one of the darkest comedies ever committed to film.  Part of that is John Cusack; no matter the film, he always seems to have a cloud hanging over his head (and is still completely watchable, which is his magic trick).  But the entire premise is completely messed up, and as jammed full of real, relatable human misery as I've ever seen, and is still riotously hilarious.

A frayed group of miserable friends in their forties is reunited when one of them, Lou (Rob Corddry) described as being "an asshole, but he's our asshole," lands in the hospital what maybe possibly could have been a suicide attempt (he was drunk, and left the car running in his garage.  His friends, Nick (Craig Robinson) and Adam (John Cusack), plus Adam's nephew, Jacob (Clark Duke) plan a weekend bacchanal at Kodiak Valley Ski Resort.  Upon arrival, they find out that the resort has decayed a bit from its glory days during their collective youth.  They charge forward, and spend the night punishing the hell out of their livers, and wake up in their suite's hot tub. The tub has somehow transported the crew back to 1986, giving them a chance to relive one of their greatest weekends (for most of them).

First off, all of the characters are completely miserable, and it's not some vague malaise that can't quite be defined.  Nick works at a dog-groomer's, fishing keys out of the wrong end of dogs, having given up on the music career he sought as a teenager at his wife's request.  Adam has just broken up with a long-term girlfriend, and not in a painless way.  Jacob is isolated in Adam's basement, content with playing Second Life even though his character has been imprisoned within the game, and barely aware that someone in his own house has moved out.  And Lou has taken the drifting apart of his friends and resulting isolation very, very hard.  These are all real-life situations that people may find themselves in, and not knowing how to get out of.

In 1986, though, at a mysterious janitor's (Chevy Chase) insistence, they all have to relive the weekend exactly the way that it happened.  The weekend had a nostalgic haze over it, but this isn't a great deal for any of them (not to mention Jacob, who wasn't even born, and thus is completely bewildered by the 80s).  Adam has to break up with the girl that he'd always regretted breaking up with (and get stabbed in the eye with a fork), Lou has multiple ass-beatings in his immediate future, and since Nick had managed to pull a groupie after his mediocre singing performance, it dredges up some intense emotions regarding his current marital situation (and he cries all the way through the sex).  It doesn't take any of them very long to go into business for themselves, regardless of the consequences.

But for the most part, things end up with the same results, regardless of the details of how each of them arrives at the end of their road.  And this is the message of the film: you cannot escape your destiny.  But the opportunity does arise for one of them to break free; Lou admits that he was trying to kill himself, and didn't want to return to the future, knowing that he'll just keeping trying until he gets it right.  When the rest of them do return to the future, it turns out that Lou had used all of his "future knowledge" to make a fortune.  In the present day, we now have Lougle and Motley Lue, and he's used his fortune to help his friends see out their  dreams as well.

This is where the film turns so black for me; Lou only succeeds because he's given a second chance and has insider knowledge.  But every last one of these characters has screwed up everything they do on the first pass.  Once they've outlived what they already knew, and don't know what bad choices they have to avoid, they're sure to screw everything up all over again.  And although the film ends on a high point for all involved (and then with a kick-ass Motley Lue video for "Home Sweet Home"), if you've paid attention at all to what the story has been telling you, this is only a momentary success for these men.  And the fall will be even harder this time, since they've all had to be rescued from their own failures once before, tasted mead in Valhalla, and then have to return to being failures.  You cannot escape your destiny, no matter what roads you take to get there.

There's no end of really funny material here, even upon repeat viewings (I think I'm up to four or five times around now).  But if you're in a bad mood, or feeling nostalgic for when you actually used to see your friends, those are the wrong frames of mind to watch "Hot Tub Time Machine" in.  Laughter is supposed to help you out, but the downer message really stuck with me this time around.  But that doesn't diminish the movie in any way, grounding the characters so successfully makes the good times feel a little bit better.

3.5 / 5 - DVD

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Casa de mi Padre - 2012

"Casa de Mi Padre" - 2012
Dir. by Matt Piedmont - 1 hr. 25 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Look, "Casa de mi Padre" is a really weird movie.  It was funny, I enjoyed it, but damn, that was a weird movie.  There's a psychedelic trip scene, there's Matchbox cars, there's a giant animatronic white tiger or panther or whatever the hell it was.  Oh yeah, the entire thing is in Spanish, as well.  Even Will Ferrell only speaks Spanish for (nearly) the entire film.

Here's the basic overview (although, as is frequently the case with comedies, it's the execution that matters more than plot points): Armando (Ferrell) works on his father's ranch, along with his friends Esteban (Efran Ramirez) and Manuel (Adrian Martinez).  Armando's brother, Raul (Diego Luna), returns home with his bride-to-be, Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez).  But Raul is mixed up in some shady business, and Armando falls for his brother's girl.  And rival drug dealers do what rival drug dealers do.

The bottom line for me was that when I saw the trailers for this film, I knew I'd have to see it.  If I've suffered through "Semi-Pro," then I was going to have to see exactly how Ferrell was going to pull off a film done entirely in Spanish.  As it turns out, it's really, really weird.  And it works at times.  Subtitles really are the enemy of comedy; they are necessary, but distract from being able to watch the actors, you know, act.  Some of the humor comes from this - the characters will do things that you can't play close attention to while you're reading subtitles, and then you'll look up and Onza (Gael Garcia Bernal) has two lit cigarettes in his mouth.  There's also a lot of visual humor, things like Armando awkwardly helping Sonia onto a horse that don't sound very funny, but the execution is there.  It also continues the trend of the year of Nick Offerman popping up once or twice, being awesome, and disappearing for the rest of the film (just like "21 Jump Street")

But a weird movie, and an intermittently funny movie, do not necessarily equal a good comedy.  It's not bad, and there are a couple of inspired moments (the barroom scene with Armando, Raul, and Onza is one such, as are a couple of musical numbers, one at a campfire and the other at the end of the film, and there's a fight between some coyotes and the white jungle cat that's got to be seen to be believed), and I did laugh all the way through.  But often, the laughter was out of wondering where the hell what's in "Casa de mi Padre" came from.  I was on board from the point when I saw the trailer, and if you were hooked like I was, I don't think there's any way you'd be disappointed from what you saw.

But again, this isn't exactly a good movie.  It's a really weird low-budget comedy that Will Ferrell must've wanted to do, and it's fun, but it's also apparent in the first five minutes of the movie that one of the challenges of the film was always going to be how to extend the jokes that they had into a feature-length film.  There's enough success to warrant watching "Casa de mi Padre," but it might not be one of Ferrell's movies that you return to over and over again.

2.5 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Friday, November 16, 2012

Switchblade Sisters - 1975

"Switchblade Sisters" - 1975
Dir. by Jack Hill - 1 hr. 31 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

So, even if you weren't aware that Quentin Tarantino had re-released this film back in the 90's, upon watching it, you'd get the clear impression that "Switchblade Sisters" is exactly the kind of film that he'd be able to give an graduate-level dissertation on.  This is a straight-up exploitation film, meaning you're going to get delinquent girls fighting with one another, flashes of boobs, and glorious violence.  I don't mean to imply it's a bad exploitation film; it's really watchable even when laughably unbelievable, which is more than a lot of films of this ilk could claim.

If there was a contest to re-title "Switchblade Sisters," I'd go with "Bitches Be Crazy."  Lace (Robbie Lee) is  the leader of a teenage girl gang (Gang?  I don't see any gang here!) called the Dagger Debs, the lady-accomplices of a teenage boy gang called the Silver Daggers, who are led by Dominic (Asher Brauner), who is also Lace's fella.  A scuffle at a burger joint introduces Maggie (Joanne Nail), who gets thrown in juvie with the rest of the Dagger Debs.  Eventually, Maggie joins the Debs, but Dominic complicates matters by raping Maggie, which Patch (Monica Gayle), Lace's #2, interprets as Maggie making a move on Dominic.  So yeah, bitches be crazy.

A film like this, centered around high-school gangs that all seem entirely populated by actors in their twenties and thirties, is not ever going to be considered a stone-cold classic like "Chinatown" or "Citizen Kane."  The entire goal is trashy entertainment, which "Switchblade Sisters" provides in spades.  You got your knife fights among women in smoking hot outfits, you've got all the girls that you want to see topless get topless at one point or another (I couldn't help but over-think matters and connect the ideas that if the women were really high-school aged, there's no way all of them could legitimately be over 18, and thus appear nude on film), you got your grass-dealing, you got your roller-skate shoot-outs, you got your evil lesbian matrons, you got your female militant black gangs being called in to back up the white girls in another gun fight, you've got Crabs' (Chase Newhart) entire wardrobe.

That's freaking awesome, and worth the price of admission right there.

And you've got the central premise of this film, that you can't put two women in the same situation with any man present and expect the women to maintain their sanity.  In fact, most of the bloodshed in "Switchblade Sisters" is the direct result of the women getting insanely jealous of one another over a guy who isn't worth a used tissue.  Lace completely loses her shit, sells out both the Debs and the Daggers, and ends up in a one-on-one knife fight with what was at one point her best friend.  She has a good excuse to get a little emotional over things (I'll leave that particular spoiler unspoiled), and although Lace isn't hard on the eyes, I can understand her jealousy over having to compete (in her mind, I have to stress - Dominic raping Maggie early on doesn't leave her with much interest in him) with what Maggie's got going on.

She's a looker, and her outfits show off everything she's got to offer.  And that's really the entire point.  You're not supposed to root for any of the characters, you're kind of supposed to get off on their bad behavior.  That's what an exploitation film is.  And, honestly, I can't hate a movie that names the fat chick "Donut" (Kitty Bruce, Lenny Bruce's daughter) or names the black militant leader "Muff" (Marlene Clark).  That's all kinds of messed up, but that's the kind of movie that "Switchblade Sisters" is.  The modern-day comparisons to this movie are all going to be from either Robert Rodriguez or Quentin Tarantino, and if you enjoy the trashier aspects of their films, this is going to be right up your alley.  "Switchblade Sisters" is definitely a bad film, but it's also a bad film with entertainment value.

3 / 5 - Streaming

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Good Old Fashioned Orgy - 2011

"A Good Old Fashioned Orgy" - 2011
Dir. by Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck - 1 hr. 35 min.

Official Red Band Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

This is one of those movies that I had intended to catch at the three-dollar theatre, but it was there and gone in a week.  So I threw it on my Netflix queue, and was disappointed to see that there wasn't even a Blu-Ray version available (I guess they never released this film in that format, which I didn't think happened to actual theatrical releases these days).  But a month or so later, the HD version popped up on streaming, and I was saved from having to watch "A Good Old Fashioned Orgy" in (blech!) standard def.  Thank goodness!

Eric (Jason Sudeikis) and his thirty-ish friends seem to have passed their twenties by throwing epic parties at his dad's summer house (Don Johnson, but he's only around for one scene).  However, his playboy dad (I guess that's the right way to put it, he's got a much younger girl with him) has decided to sell the house, which leaves Eric with no playground.  So, in honor of the end of an era, Eric has to come up with the perfect theme for their last party there, on Labor Day weekend.  Eventually, he and his best friend, Mike (Tyler Labine) settle on the idea of an orgy amongst the inner circle of friends.  Some of the people need some convincing, but eventually everyone is down with the idea.

This isn't built to be a classic, five-star comedy.  It's a good basis for a funny R-rated comedy (and unrated home video release), and if you're down with the cast, you're going to have a good time.  My main problem was that it took me a little while to buy the chemistry between the crew (which also included Leslie Bibb, Lake Bell, Nick Kroll from "The League," Michelle Borth, Angela Sarafyan, and Martin Starr), but once I got used to the idea of this as a batch of long-time friends, the movie went a lot more smoothly.  It would be weird not to mention that while all the women in the film were absolutely smoking hot (seriously, take your pick, they all did their pilates to get ready for this movie), the guys were more comedically-built (and Labine was naked more than any other actor in the film).  I don't exactly have a problem with that; the women held their own in terms of comedy, and it's a completely different film to have the guys all ripped and cracking jokes (a little more, shall we say, bro-tastic.  Fraternity-sympathetic, in other words), and as a male viewer, that totally worked in my favor.  But ladies might be a little disappointed if they're hoping for equal quality eye-candy.

But this is a pretty funny movie, especially if you're in the mood for something like "Hall Pass" or "Horrible Bosses."  There are a few laugh-out loud scenes (particularly David Koechner's scene, playing Labine's uncle), and enough adult-oriented (read: dildos) stuff to back up the title.  The progression of events in the film and the inevitable wrinkle in the plot works and feels true; it may be a comedy, but it's not a complete caricature.  "A Good Old-Fashioned Orgy" is what it promises to be, and it goes by painlessly and quickly.  You should know if this sort of thing is up your alley or not.  I enjoyed a raunchy comedy from time to time, and I'm glad I finally got to see it (and not in yucky standard definition, either).

2.5 / 5 - Streaming

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Resident Evil: Apocalypse - 2004

"Resident Evil: Apocalypse" - 2004
Dir. by Alexander Witt - 1 hr. 34 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Stage two: escape the city.  Now, I don't hold it against a film that's based on a video game franchise that it plays out like a video game.  That's actually a positive, all things considered.  But if the first "Resident Evil's" objective was to escape The Hive, "Resident Evil: Apocalypse's" objective is to escape the city.  Unfortunately, this is a much less interesting level than the first.

"RE:A" overlaps with the end of the first film (even recycling some footage).  At the end of the first installment, Alice (Milla Jovovich) wakes in a lab, hooked up to wires, and stumbles out of a hospital to find Hell on Earth.  To begin, we rewind a little bit, and discover that the T-Virus (a virus that reanimates dead tissue, which means yes, zombies) had not been contained within The Hive.  Once loose in Raccoon City, we get zombies roaming a reproducing by putting their mouths on whatever they can.  The Umbrella Corporation acts quickly, sealing off the city in an attempt to contain the effects of the T-Virus to the city.  This leaves both the infected and the uninfected trapped.  There is a way out for a few people though.  The Umbrella Corporation botched an early extraction of a scientist's daughter, and he strikes a deal with whomever he can to get her out of the city in exchange for passage out of the doomed city.

While the first film had the claustrophobic underground setting to tease tension out of, "RE:A" comes off like a shitty 1980s low-budget horror film.  On what looks like a studio back-out, zombified Raccoon City denizens shuffle and shamble around cars that are on fire and broken storefronts.  There are the big special-effect monsters, which kind of look like syphilitic cock-monsters with embedded eyes, and they must of course die.  The school where the scientist's daughter is hunkered down in isn't nearly as good of a locale for terror as The Hive was, but at least the film had the good sense to bring the meat dogs back for another go-around.  There's the evil Umbrella Corporation employee with a weird accent (Thomas Kretschmann), the good scientist with a weird accent (Jared Harris), the S.T.A.R.S. infantryman with a weird accent (Oded Fehr); it seems like half the lines delivered in this film were done so by people who might not speak English as a first language.  But that, along with the meat dogs, is appealing.

There are huge problems with the film, mainly that it's so predictable.  Of course the reporter chick has to die, because she's so annoying.  Nemesis, one of the aforementioned cock-monsters (and has his origins in the first installment), has to die because he's so ugly.  The evil Umbrella Corp employee has to die because he's such a dick about everything.  And beyond that, there are basic, unaddressed points within the story itself.  First off, why would anyone live in a walled city?  Surely The Umbrella Corporation didn't erect a wall around Raccoon City upon discovering that the T-Virus hadn't been contained.  There are scenes shown in the city itself where it appears to be your average suburban community.  Wouldn't you be a little curious as to why there were already walls built around the entire city?  And secondly, the outfit worn by one of the main female characters, Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory).  If you were in a city overrun by zombies, where an errant scratch or bite could mean your fate, how you choose to dress?  Personally, I'd favor something like a Ghostbusters outfit, but Ms. Valentine went with a tube top, mini-skirt, and boots (just in case you might confuse her for a hooker).  That's an awfully generous amount of flesh to bare in that scenario, but somehow she survives the film.

This is just a poor film at every turn.  Milla Jovovich's role seems to be minimized in favor of Sienna Guillory's, and that's not to anyone's benefit.  Mike Epps shows up to do what Mike Epps does, which is mostly talk loudly and deliver bad dialogue.  The setting isn't interesting, the story isn't interesting, the monsters (save for the meat dogs) aren't interesting, the film isn't interesting.  Arguably, this film would have been better on a shoe-string budget and with all the money for CG effects instead earmarked for cheesy prosthetics and matte paintings; at least that would have yielded an "I can't believe they actually cobbled together a finished film" sense of bewildered amusement that those sort of films can offer.

1 / 5 - DVD

Friday, October 26, 2012

Dredd - 2012

"Dredd" - 2012
Dir. by Pete Travis - 1 hr. 35 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Dredd" might not look like much, judging from the trailer.  If you're at all familiar with the source material, or just dig violent sci-fi movies, sure, this might look interesting.  But otherwise?  But this is a very solid film, with moments that are way too good for a run-of-the-mill shoot-em-up (which isn't exactly a fair description of "Dredd," but I'd forgive you if that's the impression you got).

So what, then, exactly is "Dredd" about?  It's based on a British comic book by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, firstly.  America has been turned into a nuclear wasteland, save for Mega-City One, a vast walled city on the eastern seaboard that contains eight-hundred million inhabitants.  Crime is the order of the day, with only government-backed judges to enforce law and order.  These judges are basically heavily-armed soldiers who pronounce sentences (and carry them out) on the spot.  The titular character, Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), is a particularly effective and grizzled judge, who is asked to evaluate a rookie judge (Anderson, played by Olivia Thirlby), who is on the bubble, yet possesses certain abilities that are rare.  As luck would have it, Judges Dredd and Anderson almost immediately get in over their head, being trapped inside a two hundred-story slum, with an enormous bounty put on their heads by Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), who is the head of a drug cartel.  The drug in question, Slo-Mo, is brand new to the streets, and slows the passage of time to one-hundredth speed.

Judge Dredd is a juggernaut, a character that has evolved into a ruthlessly efficient upholder of the law.  If you're one of those people that were annoyed by Christian Bale's "Batman voice," you'll probably be annoyed by the Dredd voice, too.  But unlike Batman, there's no other side to Dredd.  He's just balls-to-the-wall all the time.  His costume obscures everything except his frowning mouth and chin (and it seems unfair to only call Urban's expression a frown - it's more like the face you'd make if you had smelled garbage for the first time, and immediately hated it with every ounce of your being).  And Dredd is the perfect juxtaposition for Anderson - her story is that of a timid rookie getting battle-tested immediately.  If she survives, Dredd is what she'll end up becoming.  This is an effective, basic story that works well to introduce the duo.

There are two things (and they're related) that really shine in "Dredd," and both relate to the director.  First off, the violence is fascinating.  This is an unbelievably violent film, but it's treatment is almost poetic.  Because of the effects of Slo-Mo, we're treated to a few heavily-slowed down scenes.  When this is simply to introduce (or reinforce) the effects of the drug, the film has a breath-taking beauty.  Granted, things slow to a crawl, but the grimy, filthy setting gains a colorful haze and things sparkle - without seeing how awfully grim and colorless the setting is, it's hard to understand how powerfully this comes across.  It's not hard to understand the popularity of the drug itself as a momentary respite from the oppressiveness of the environment.

When the effects of the drug are applied to scenes of violence, the film is fascinating in the same way the slow-motion video of a man being hit in the stomach with a cannonball is.  Skin ripples from impact, bullets tear through flesh in a manner that is absolutely not sudden, but is completely graphic.  This approach is striking and distinctive.  Other scenes (there is one in particular, where the baddies unload thousands of high-powered rounds of ammo and obliterate an entire floor of the complex trying to kill Dredd) are loud and explosive.  But it's the changing of speeds that make both approaches more interesting in this context.

Ultimately, making a visually-striking hyper-violent film doesn't mean that you have a great film on your hands.  I generally liked the results here - the story was basic (and felt a little video-gameish), yet effective, and the action/violence scenes justified themselves.  I'd go see another Dredd film without hesitation, but with the hopes that they fill in the blanks in the characters a bit.

3 / 5 - Theatre