Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou - 2004

"The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" - 2004
Dir. by Wes Anderson - 1 hr. 58 min.

Criterion Collection Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I caught the second half of "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" on cable earlier this week, and had intended only to re-watch the first forty-five minutes or so, up to the point where I had tuned in.  Instead, I got sucked right back in and watched the whole thing all the way through.  In my recollection, I'd considered this film to be the weaker cousin of a couple of movies ("Lost in Translation," for the Bill Murray connection, and "The Darjeeling Limited," another Wes Anderson film that is tonally similar), but I don't think that's necessarily a fair assessment.  It's not that I think "Zissou" is on equal footing with either of those films, but it's got it's own merits that demand more respect than that.

Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is a Cousteau-type (a debt acknowledged in the end credits) in the middle of a late-career slump.  His documentaries haven't been striking a chord with anyone in a while, and during the filming of the last one, his long-time crew-mate and best friend, Esteban (Seymour Cassell) is eaten by a sea-creature that Zissou only gets a fleeting look at, and dubs the "jaguar shark."  Zissou wants to hunt down this creature for his next documentary (and for revenge), but literally everything is falling apart in front of him.  He can't get financing, his marriage is on shaky ground, people are openly mocking of Zissou to his face, he's lost his best friend, and Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) arrives, claiming to be his son.  On top of all of this, he's forced to cooperate with a reporter, Jane (Cate Blanchett) who wants to do a cover article on Zissou, as he can't afford to pass up the publicity.  Zissou and company head out on an expedition to hunt down the jaguar shark on Ned's inheritance money, making Ned a Team Zissou member.

There are two big reasons why this film begs immediate comparison to the previously mentioned films.  First is what you'd think of as "typical" late-career Bill Murray, in films like this one, "Broken Flowers," or "Lost in Translation."  Murray has pared his acting down to the bare minimum of action, somehow communicating fluently through expressionlessness.  It's something that only he can manage to do, and it's entirely appropriate here.  It also plays into the sort of tone that Wes Anderson only can manage to create in this film and in "The Darjeeling Limited."  There's a sort of searching going on in with Zissou, for some kind of direction that's been lost.  The fact that life just won't let up on him, piling frustration on top of tragedy on top of roadblock, offers an unspoken desperation to that search.

When Zissou does finally have some direction (even if it's not a larger, regenerative realization that he needs), the character comes alive.  He's a man who does things, first and foremost.  There are three moments where Zissou really breaks that mold, small moments that carry heavy dramatic weight.  The first is a moment shared with Ned during an attempt to rescue the bond company stooge, who has been kidnapped by pirates.  Steve levels with Ned, telling him how important it is to meet him at this stage in his life.  The second one is following the helicopter crash, and Anderson pulls back from Zissou at this point.  In his own way, Steve has warmed up to Ned, and to have him taken away is agonizing (and worse than seeing Steve react to Esteban's death early in the film, considering that we've barely even been introduced to any of the characters at that point).  The last one is a line Zissou offers when everyone's in the submersible, and they've finally tracked down the jaguar shark.  He says simply, "I wonder if it remembers me."  It's a complete gut-punch of a line, followed up with all of the other people literally reaching out to him in support.  At this point, every step that Zissou has taken in his life has reached a conclusion, and there's no more road.  For the first time in forever, he has the opportunity to make choices, and to forge a path of his choosing.

All of the things (or "quirks," if you're being bitchy about it) that you think of when you think of a Wes Anderson film are present: exquisitely detailed and stylized environments, deadpan deliveries, father issues, Owen Wilson, classic rock-influenced soundtrack (although this one, full of David Bowie songs performed in Portuguese by Seu Jorge, is fantastic).  In this sense, you get exactly what you want out of the film.  Even all the claymation-animated creatures that fill up the sea here are a visual delight.  I do think that Anderson made a better film with a similar dynamic in "The Darjeeling Limited," but I also think that Bill Murray does a better job here than any of the leads in that film.  If this is your sort of film, you're going to really enjoy "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou."  If you're not completely sold on Wes Anderson's films, this isn't the one I'd use to change your mind with, but it's not a bad choice, either.

3.5 / 5 - DVD

Smokey and the Bandit - 1977

"Smokey and the Bandit" - 1977
Dir. by Hal Needham - 1 hr. 36 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

If you'd never watched "Smokey and the Bandit" before, I'm not sure how it could be explained.  On the surface, it's a fairly slight film: Bandit and Cledus go get some beer a couple of states over.  And in every conceivable way, it's a product of it's time.  But at the box office, it was barely behind "Saturday Night Fever" as one of the top grossing films of 1977 (third and fourth, for the record).  What the heck is going on, here?

Seriously, the entire film is pretty much about Bandit (Burt Reynolds) and Cledus (Jerry Reed, who also sang the iconic theme song, "Eastbound and Down") accept a wager to drive from Georgia to Texarkana to retrieve four-hundred cases of Coors beer, and return within twenty-eight hours.  Due to the laws of the time, this constitutes bootlegging, and there's roughly eighty-thousand dollars dangling in front of Bandit and Cledus, versus running afoul of the law should they fail.  Early on in the film, Bandit picks up a fleeing bride, Carrie (Sally Field), which means that in addition to whatever other legal obstacles they might encounter, they're also being doggedly pursued by Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason) and his jilted idiot son, Junior (Mike Henry).

For a movie that's based on driving fast, there's not much fancy driving to be found.  There are plenty of cop cars that get trashed (a visceral delight, to be sure), there's a ton of truckers, and Burt Reynolds drives a pretty rad Trans-Am.  As a viewer, if you don't have any kind of recollection or nostalgia for this time period, you might be doing a lot of eye-rolling.  And you'd completely miss the point of "Smokey and the Bandit."  It's a straight-forward film that included a lot of what was popular at the time.  CB radios were a big deal, so that's how everyone communicates in this film.  Cars were a big deal, and racing is an eternally-solid plot device, so everyone drives either big rigs, cool cars, or police cars that are sure to get wrecked (the abuse that Buford T. Justice's car takes over the course of this film isn't quite up to what the car in "The Blues Brothers" goes through, but it's not far off).  There's hot pants, feathered hair, tight jeans, over-done make-up... everything you'd think that 1977 looked like is here on display.  And while people now are too meta-aware to buy into current fads on film, that wasn't a problem back then.  Besides, it's no worse than a "MySpace" mention I saw the other night on an episode of "American Dad."

So if you're over-thinking this film, let me help you out.  Sometimes, it only takes a cute girl and a sexy guy in a cool car who share an easy, charming chemistry to fill an hour and a half.  You can round that out with Jackie Gleason's unique way of pronouncing "sumbitch" and destroying automobiles, and boom, you've got a film.  And it's a fun film, too.  Nobody likes southern police and silly laws, least of all Sally Field.

You can try to hate "Smokey and the Bandit" all you want, but it's not going to matter.  "Smokey and the Bandit" is a bulletproof film.  It's fun, playful, has a rad car and a legitimately great theme song (I sing along at full volume every time it pops up on random), and it's as fun to watch the fifth time as it is the first time.  And if you want to roll your eyes at the seventies on full display, you and your tweets' time to be the butt of the joke is coming.

3 / 5 - DVD

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Fast & Furious - 2009

"Fast & Furious" - 2009
Dir. by Justin Lin - 1 hr. 47 min.

Official Trailer #3

by Clayton Hollifield

Four films in, "Fast & Furious" represents a bit of a detour for the franchise.  Instead of the "man under pressure" story in the first films, this one is more of a revenge flick.  It also marks Vin Diesel's official return to the franchise, which is very welcome.  FF4 (which is how I'll be abbreviating that for the rest of this review) isn't a subtle movie, and you need not worry that it's a radical deviation from what's come before.  It just that rather that examining what a person looks like in pressure cooker, FF4 (and it's sequel, "Fast Five") are more about the consequences of the choices a person makes in that situation.

As is customary, FF4 kicks off with a daring heist, spotlighting the precision driving of Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and his crew, which includes Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and Han (Sung Kang).  This time around, they're stealing the gas trailers from a semi in the Dominican Republic.  It's successful, and they throw a blow-out afterwards (check off one booty-shaking scene here), but they're aware that the law is onto them, and it's time to blow that Popsicle stand.  Dom abandons Letty, knowing that when he's apprehended, it's likely to be violent for everyone involved, and he doesn't want her going down with him.  Later, a character's death brings Dom back to Los Angeles with vengeance on his mind.  To that end, he tries to infiltrate a cartel to get his hands on the murderer.  At the same time, Dom's old buddy Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) is back with the police department, and is trying to infiltrate the same cartel in an undercover manner.  They both succeed, and everyone drives very, very fast the entire time.

While there's plenty of action and excellent driving sequences here, this is a film about having to pick up the pieces when things go sour.  Dom's actions leave him having to avenge a death that's pretty much on his hands (which becomes clearer later in the film).  And while Brian has put himself back on the right side of the law, he has to directly deal with what he did to Dom and his sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster) in the first film.  Even after the amount of time that has passed, he doesn't seem to have much of a handle on it.  Brian tries valiantly to right things with both, but in order to do that, one aspect or another of his life is going to have to give.  It's fortunate for both men that they're after a cartel boss, it gives carte blanche to do whatever they feel like doing to him and his henchmen.

One of the bonuses to this film is that it shows why Vin Diesel is such a good actor, particularly in an action film.  It doesn't hurt that Paul Walker is routinely awful, but Diesel combines a legit physical presence with the ability to portray a coiled spring about to explode.  Finding someone who can jump around and stage fight is one thing, but it's kind of fun to watch Diesel when the other characters are prodding him, and you know something is about to happen.  This far into the franchise, Diesel's character has a reputation (despite only having really been in one film previously), and FF4 makes the most out of that.

I know that it seems to be missing the forest for the trees to ignore talking about the action entirely, so I'll confirm that the racing scenes here are up to par with what's come before.  The initial heist of the gas trailers is pretty fantastic (and nail-biting), and a eye-catching way to kick things off.  There is also the customary "qualifying" race that the main characters have to survive, a pair of scenes involving racing through a tunnel (you kind of have to see it to understand how cool that is).  There's so much racing that the film dares to end on an incomplete heist, knowing that you'll fill in the blanks in your mind, and that you'll want to return for the fifth installment based on what you have to assume is going to happen.  It's a ballsy choice, and it pays off.  It's not a cop-out, cash-grab ending (like the end of the second "Pirates of the Caribbean" film), it's a wink to the audience that yeah, you're gonna come back the next time around because this film has delivered the goods.

Aside from the second film in this franchise, all of the films have been pretty dead-on in terms of how to keep a franchise interesting.  That's pretty remarkable, considering most of the movie franchises that have had enduring success have been based on a series of books (like the "Lord of the Rings," "Harry Potter," or "Twilight" series), and have had some sort of road-map available before they even got started.  Consistently, the "Fast and the Furious" films maintain their flavor, juggle an increasingly large cast of characters, and offer up exotic locales for cars to go really fast in.  It's not Shakespeare, but I'll be damned if they don't have me coming back every couple years for another installment.

3 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Sunday, July 22, 2012

I Need That Record! - 2008

"I Need That Record!" - 2008
Dir. by Brendan Toller - 1 hr. 18 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Maybe you're the sort of person who has wasted more than your fair share of hours browsing through bin after bin of CDs and LPs in store after store, in search of that one elusive album you just couldn't seem to track down.  Yes, I am aware of how quaint that sounds in the era of Amazon and eBay, but it's called a treasure hunt, not a treasure URL.  And, if you're one of those sort of people, you may have noticed that some of your favorite haunts seem to be disappearing at an unacceptable rate over the last few years.  "I Need That Record!" serves as both a eulogy and as praise to those oddball stores that always smelled a bit funny and had that record you didn't even know you needed, as well as taking a look at the changing economics of the music industry.

I'd grant you, this might not be a subject that you're interested in.  Maybe music exists on the periphery of your life, and that's fine.  "Nerd" is a term that's been abused and misused over the last few years, and a film like this sets the record straight.  Liking something doesn't make you a nerd, being obsessed with something that most people don't care about makes you a nerd.  If you've ever passed up buying a record because it was the wrong pressing, this film is for, and about, you.  And it matters a lot that the places you go to indulge your obsessions are disappearing.  Personally speaking, it took me about ten minutes into the film before I started to get an undeniable urge to hit up a record store right then and there, but there aren't many that are open after midnight (and certainly none close to me).

There's certainly a lot of "big corporations are big and dumb" talk in this film, but it's not unearned.  The sort of person who would run their own record store certainly would take pride in their knowledge of music and having the sort of connection with their customers that allows them to earn a living swimming upstream.  A couple of valid points were brought up, one being a 1996 law passed that changed the number of radio stations an individual corporation was allowed to own.  In 1996, only 45 radio stations were owned by large corporations; by the time this film was made in 2008, that number had grown to over 12,000.  In fact, 99.9% of radio stations were owned by these large corporations, which effectively eradicated regional differences in programming.  The other main point that was made was in relation to major labels' resistance to adapting to the times, namely in regards to their attitudes towards digital music and backwards logic towards pricing physical product.

But that's more about the business of the business.  The thing that I found most interesting about the film was the common lamentation of a sense of losing touch with one's community.  Target or Wal-Mart might sell you things cheaper, but they aren't gathering places for obsessed weirdos to tip each other to something they might not have heard of.  The digital music revolution has a lot to do with this; when your industry caters towards the whims of children (or teenagers), unintended consequences follow.  You can't really explain what a sense of community means to someone who's never gone without it.  Until people are out of school, they're not usually in a situation without a ready-made group of peers around them at nearly all times.  At times in this film, the stores are referred to as "clubhouses," which is pretty accurate.  Once you're not galvanized by hundreds of people your own age, you've got to find a place where you do fit in, and record stores are one such place people find a sense of community.  And the disappearance of these places have profound effects on their proprietors; the "after closing" interviews with some of the former owners are a little heart-breaking, in the sense that you can see their sense of purpose has been taken away from them.

Like a lot of documentaries, this one caters to a niche audience.  I don't think it's one of those rare documentaries that is so good that it demands to be seen, regardless of your interest-level in the subject matter, but it's very well-done.  And if this is something you're into, you're going to appreciate some of the musicians that were interviewed: Mike Watt, Thurston Moore, Chris Frantz, Ian MacKaye, and more.  Those are guys you know that have spent their time in the bins as well, and know what they're talking about, in a film jam-packed with guys who love music and know what they're talking about.

3.5 / 5 - Streaming

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Gentlemen Broncos - 2009

"Gentlemen Broncos" - 2009
Dir. by Jared Hess - 1 hr. 29 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I suspect a lot of how much a particular viewer enjoys this movie depends heavily on how old they are.  To me, "Gentlemen Broncos" feels like it's straight out of 1983, or at least what I remember of that era from my childhood.  I have some nostalgic fondness for some of the things this film is based upon, but if you didn't, I wouldn't blame anyone for thinking that this film was about much of anything at all.

Teenage, home-schooled science-fiction writer Benjamin (Michael Angarano) gets the opportunity to attend Cletus Fest, a writing workshop for high-schoolers.  The keynote speaker is Benajmin's favorite writer, Dr. Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement), who ends up giving awful advice to everyone involved (ranging from the importance of suffixes for character names, to selling out your work as hard and enthusiastically as possible).  Benjamin enters one of his stories, "Yeast Lords," in a writing competition to be judged by Chevalier.  Also, we get to see what the "Yeast Lords" story looks like as a film, from no less than three different perspectives (explaining why would spoil things a bit much).

All of this is a lot to juggle, in terms of presenting a coherent story.  Complicating matters is the trademark weirdness that director Jared Hess brings to the table (you might know him from "Napoleon Dynamite" or "Nacho Libre").  I don't know that "weirdness" is exactly the right way to describe it; his characters exist with almost a complete lack of guile or self-awareness.  When that's the norm, the world feels very odd indeed.  Plus, there are so many odd details to this world (and that's even before we talk about the "Yeast Lords" sequences) that are never acknowledged as unusual (instance number one: Benjamin and his mother, Judith (Jennifer Coolidge), live inside of a geodesic dome), and it can leave a viewer shaking his head that people actually can live this way.  I don't know whether or not people do, but that's the reality presented.  Some of the humor comes from people in improbable or odd situations, yet taking themselves and their surrounding perfectly seriously.  If you've seen "Napoleon Dynamite," you obviously know what I'm talking about.

Perhaps the most interesting parts of the film are the visions of "Yeast Lords."  Depending on which of the three versions you're watching, the main character of Bronco (Sam Rockwell) either looks like a mountain man, Edgar Winter, or like a frightened mannequin with a crimped mullet (Mike White).  It's never explicitly stated who's version is connected to whom, but if you pay attention visually, it's explained.  They all come across as unbearably awfully produced home movies (and I mean that in the funniest way possible), filled with things like yeast that makes you fly (and appears either to be a giant piece of dung or a giant, hard double chocolate chip cookie) and battle-stags.  All three versions are hilarious for their own reasons.

What makes this an interesting film for me is that either of the two main parts of this film (the teenage small-town writer and the "Yeast Lords" material) would probably not end up making for a good movie on their own.  It's the juxtaposition of the undeniably weird "real world" against the story world (that, against all odds, ends up being even weirder) that keeps things moving along.  The low-budget awesomeness of the "Yeast Lords" material would wear thin on it's own, and Benjamin's story would probably be too earnest to enjoy.  I can't deny, having grown up in a small town in the 1980's, having read science fiction books during that era, and also seeing a parallel between the hero-worship of the accessible (and probably not that famous) Chevalier and the comic-book industry that I cut my teeth in (Comic-Con is cool and mainstream now, but twenty years ago a regional convention didn't look much different than the world portrayed here), I felt a connection to "Gentlemen Broncos'' that someone in my circumstances may not have felt.  This film isn't as good as "Napoleon Dynamite" or "Nacho Libre," but it's insanely creative, and ambitious in a weird, no-budget way.

3 / 5 - DVD

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Wild Bunch - 1969

"The Wild Bunch" - 1969
Dir. by Sam Peckinpah - 2 hrs. 25 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"The Wild Bunch" is a difficult film to write about, largely because it's so iconic and so imitated.  But it's earned that status honestly.

Pike Bishop (William Holden) leads a stick-up crew, and they've set their eyes on a bank near the U.S./Mexico border.  It's a trap, laid neatly by a railroad employee whom Pike had crossed before.  The result is a bloody shoot-out, one that leaves townspeople, members of Pike's crew, and many of the railroad's bounty hunters dead.  Pike and a few of his men get away with the loot, and retreat to their hideout across the Rio Grande, where they discover their loot is nothing but sacks of steel washers.  Desperately searching for another score, Pike's gang comes across a Mexican general, who will pay handsomely for hijacking a shipment of weapons intended for the U.S. Army.

There are three large action pieces in this film: the initial heist, the hijacking of the train, and the shoot-out at the end of the film.  All three are spellbinding, and breathtakingly modern in execution.  It's to Peckinpah's credit that despite the complicated editing, I never got "lost" visually.  That's one aspect of action films that's exceedingly difficult to pull off - it's far easier just to edit haphazardly than to focus on making the material make sense.  Also, none of the characters are the least bit glib about this violence.  These aren't clever men slumming and scamming the system.  These are hard men who eke out a living by taking what's not theirs.  There are no quips or one-liners, and despite the long stretches of time between intense bouts of action, not much reflection on their actions, either.

The point at which this film goes from a stylishly-executed western/heist film to something far more interesting is a quiet scene between Pike and Dutch (Ernest Borgnine).  After they've fled the scene of the initial heist and discovered that they got away with nothing, everyone's winding down, and drinking.  Pike tells Dutch that the botched heist was supposed to be his last.  Earlier in the film, the Gorch brothers (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson) had used the same line in an attempt to haggle a larger piece of the pie (before discovering there were only steel washers in the bank bags), but it was clearly a ruse.  Pike's admission carries a lot of weight; he's clearly been at this a long time, the game is changing (and not in his favor), and he's physically breaking down.  But it's Dutch's reply that changes the film: "Back off to what?"

These aren't the sort of men who have a retirement plan.  They make a score, drink and whore their money away, and try to make another score.  Being good enough at armed robbery is a sort of curse: those who die get a quick (and painful) retirement, but if you survive, something will eventually catch up to you.  It might be the law, it might be a bullet, in Pike's case, it's simply time.  There is nowhere to back off to.  Once this realization is made, Pike doesn't seem to fear death at all.  That's not to say that he courts it, he is also responsible for the livelihood of his men, but survival no longer is his main focus.

This plays out in his interactions with General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez).  He's aware that Mapache would prefer to kill him and his men and just take the guns instead of paying out according to the deal they had agreed upon.  His solution is the threat of blowing up the guns along with himself and his men.  And when Pike decides that he must have Angel (Jaime Sanchez) back to free him from being tortured, there's no illusion of surviving that decision.  Pike, Dutch and the Gorch brothers walk right into the General's face, guns ready to go.  Pike has been pressed into a corner; the railroad men led by a former member of his gang, Deke (Robert Ryan), who himself has been pressed into a untenable situation, on one side, leaving one of his men behind to be tortured to death by a sadistic General who is running roughshod all over his own people on the other.  When Pike sees that there is literally no future left for him, he and his men decide that at least they can take down an evil man on their way out.

At the time "The Wild Bunch" was released, it was considered nearly impossibly violent.  Years of violent films have lessened the shock factor, but what hasn't lessened is the intensity of these clashes.  When this film was restored to it's original run-time in 1995, it received an NC-17 rating from the MPAA (it had originally received an R rating), despite none of the ten minutes added back having any violence whatsoever in them.  This is a muscular, mean, hardened film that doesn't shy away from depicting a sort of casual cruelty that people often engage in.  It's entertainment when adults do it, but the opening sequence shows a bunch of children toying with a scorpion covered in red ants for their amusement.  Peckinpah explicitly shows that people don't turn cruel, it's right there from the very beginning.  It's understandable if that's an unpalatable view, but "The Wild Bunch" offers plenty of evidence to that.  This film suggests that this part of humanity may be inescapable, but that you can choose to fight against it.

5 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie - 2012

"Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie" - 2012
Dir. by Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim - 1 hr. 33 min.

Official Red Band Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I would think that any comedy duo/team who is making the leap from TV to feature films would watch "BASEketball" at least once before doing whatever it is that they will end up doing.  I don't mean that anyone should necessarily try to emulate that film, but there are reasons why that film is the least successful (artistically and financially) of Trey Parker and Matt Stone's careers.  Unfortunately, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim make pretty much the exact same mistakes with "Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie," and end up with an even less-watchable film.

Tim and Eric play fictional versions of themselves here, and they've just torn through one billion of the Schlaaang Corporation's money making a film that ended up only being three minutes long.  Understandably, Tommy Schlaaang (Robert Loggia) is upset, and wants his money back.  Tim and Eric flee town after seeing a TV commercial offering the opportunity to earn a billion dollars back by turning a decrepit mall around.  If you've ever seen "Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!," you'd know that the plot isn't the entire story. Much of their humor is derived from awkwardness, whether it be in editing, acting, or deliberately poor production values.  That much hasn't changed.

The primary problem with this film (other than it not being particularly funny) is that there are no characters to connect with on any level.  Tim and Eric play dipshits (if you'll pardon my French), and not even shaggy dogs that you can like in spite of themselves.  They're just stupid, and you can tell they're being stupid on purpose, which is off-putting.  This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between a film and a TV show (and in this case, a TV show with an 11-minute run time).  It's possible to get away with mining awkwardness and eighties production values for humor when a viewer only has to deal with it for eleven minutes: it's an insignificant investment of time, and there's not much at stake.  If a joke bombs, whatever, there's another show on in a couple of minutes.  But if a filmmaker is going to ask a viewer to sit through ninety minutes or more, having some way to connect with the characters involved is a must.  Funny jokes and weird characters aren't enough; if a viewer doesn't connect with the characters (and here, Tim and Eric deliberately avoid that at all costs), ninety minutes is an eternity.  If that reeks of a "formula," too bad.  Different means of presentation have different requirements.

But worse, this movie doesn't have a bunch of funny material.  Considering the comedians involved, that's nearly a crime.  It's not like anyone is really set up to shine, but Ray Wise does the best with his material out of everyone.  John C. Reilly plays a character called Taquito, but the only funny scene that he has is when he dies.  Okay, the bit where he eats unrefrigerated frozen taquitos is kind of funny, too.  But both Zach Galifinakis and Will Ferrell have WTF roles; they both seemed more concerned with being a little weird and creepy than anything else.  And I guess that brings me to the biggest point: not being funny in an ironic way isn't actually funny or ironic.  This film is just an overload of an attempt at that, but funny things are funny because you react to them, and smothering a film in eight layers of irony makes it very hard to have any kind of reaction at all.  It's something that can work in small doses, but a feature film isn't a small dose.  When you have a comedy film that isn't funny, that's not Andy Kaufman-esque irony, that's a failed comedy film.

All of these problems could have been at least mitigated had Tim and Eric just watched "BASEketball" first.  Though "BASEketball" did have some pretty good gags, it also featured lead characters that were difficult to connect with, and humor that is better in smaller doses than in large ones (incessant trash-talking).  Frankly, I was disappointed in this film; I had enjoyed their TV shows, but I don't see any particular reason in the material present that demanded a feature film be made from it.  I mean, can you make the very act of making a film ironic?  I suppose that's the meta question here, but the answer isn't very entertaining, and it's not going to hold your attention for very long.

1 / 5 - Streaming

Midnight in Paris - 2011

"Midnight in Paris" - 2011
Dir. by Woody Allen - 1 hr. 34 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

When I saw the trailer for this film, it didn't really register.  I wasn't really aware that Woody Allen had directed it (and that wouldn't have necessarily been a selling point for me), and I don't really remember the central idea of the film coming across, either.  Could be that I wasn't paying attention, but there wasn't anything that made me jazzed to see this film until I had a bunch of friends tell me separately that it was really good.  Thank goodness they were right!

Gil (Owen Wilson) and Inez (Rachel McAdams) are an engaged couple, vacationing in Paris.  For Gil, a screenwriter who is working on his first book, there's no place else on Earth he'd rather be.  He's smitten with Paris, but he's the only one.  Inez and her family pretty much hate it there, and constantly get annoyed whenever Gil likes anything at all.  A couple of Inez's friends are there as well, Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol (Nina Arianda), but they're too interested in themselves to provide anything more than eye-rolling companionship.  One night after a wine-tasting party, Gil over-indulges and gets lost.  Eventually, a car stops, and invites him along for a drink.  The car takes him to a party, where things are slightly odd.

The central idea of the film - a guy getting to explore what he considers his "golden age" - is a good one, but the execution and exploration of the idea is fantastic.  For one thing, it shows Gil's enthusiasm isn't dependent on a given situation.  He's genuinely excited about things in general, and wants to explore.  In the present time, it seems literally all of the characters are acting at cross-purposes to Gil's best interests, if they're taking them into consideration at all.  It's easy to see why a guy like Gil would romanticize another era, if only to escape the relentless negativity surrounding him.  And when he falls in with his artistic heroes, it's easy to see the appeal of that: being around people who are really into what they're doing is an energizing experience.

Beyond that, all of the performances are fantastic.  Not knowing how this cast of historical figures really were doesn't matter: they all function as fictional characters.  Hemingway (Corey Stoll) is almost laughably intense, Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) is focused on making art the best that it can be, Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) is a lovable dingbat, Scott (Tom Hiddleston) and Zelda (Alison Pill) are a train-wreck of drama, and on down the line.  It's a bizarre cast of characters, but it all adds up to the literary Disney theme-park ride that you could only dream of.  The characters interact in a delightful manner, and if you know anything about their respective careers, you'll realize how clever this film actually is.

Not just for Gil, but for the viewer, this is like an entire vacation in an hour and a half.  Paris is beautiful, day or night, sun or rain. The conversation is captivating and witty, the company is great, there's a nearly-endless parade of beautiful people and ideas on display.  When Gil comes to his big realization, he (and I) is ready to face the future, make the most of his time, and do something great.  That's a beautiful feeling, and "Midnight in Paris" is a beautiful movie.

4.5 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Big Money Rustlas - 2010

"Big Money Rustlas" - 2010
Dir. by Paul Andresen - 1 hr. 35 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Big Money Rustlas" is a western film, starring the Insane Clown Posse.  That might be all you need to know in order to judge whether or not you want to watch this film.  One thing is certain, you either are a juggalo, or you are not a juggalo.  I fall into the latter camp, but since I was laid up with an injury, and woozy on pain medication, I figured what the hell.

Mud Bug is a small western town, pretty much run by a gang of rustlas, who are led by Big Baby Chips (Violent J).  Sugar Wolf (Shaggy 2 Dope) returns to Mud Bug after many years, and takes over as the sheriff.  Big Baby doesn't care for having a competent sheriff around, and starts sending henchmen after Sugar Wolf.  This leads to an inevitable showdown between the two.

I know that doesn't sound like much to work with, but I propose another way to look at this film.  Imagine that you had the opportunity to take a vacation with like twenty of your co-workers and friends.  But everyone got bored sitting around the pool, sipping on margaritas, and someone noticed that you were right next to a ghost town that was used like once a year for some festival.  Someone, on their third margarita, gets the idea of, instead of taking a bunch of dorky vacation photos, puts two and two together, and suggests making a movie.  Some calls are made, costumes and basic equipment are tracked down, and a couple of your co-workers hunker down overnight with whatever pharmaceuticals are available, and cobble together some kind of plot. Everyone gets to have fun and mug for the camera.  Everyone gets to make as many awful jokes as they want.  Some guy wants to do his role in the worst Mexican accent in the history of mankind, and call himself Dirty Sanchez.  Why the hell not?

I'm not going to tell them not to do that.  It sounds like fun.  If I was there, I'd be pissed off if I got left out of it.  And a couple of weeks later, someone with a nice computer set-up and some free evenings edits the thing up, and you have literally the best vacation video ever.  Better than a souvenir shirt, better than collectible cups, better than a ten-percent off coupon for your next visit.  Every time you fired that sucker up, you remember how Violent J wanted to squeeze the words "motherfucker" and "money" into every bit of dialogue.  And how all Shaggy wanted to do was pimp slap people, all movie long.  And that guy who you hadn't met before, who just kept shouting, "I'm the foot, bitch!" over and over again.  You got to ride horses, shoot people with blanks, and maybe even got a dodgy tattoo from a friend of a friend late one night.

Yeah, "Big Money Rustlas" is a terrible movie.  But Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope got to throw a theme party  for a bunch of their friends, and recoup some of the costs of it by putting it out on DVD.  If you were there, or if you're a juggalo, it's probably a riot to watch.  I laughed at parts, even.  Besides, when was the last time you saw a little person (Bridget Powers) as the leading lady?  Or any movie where everyone didn't spend the six months prior to filming attached at the hip to a trainer?  I'm saying, there's a lot of fat dudes in this movie. And that's cool.  No one involved takes themselves too seriously, and they all seem to be having a good time.  Your mileage may vary, but there's no harm in that.

1 / 5 - Streaming

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut - 1999

"South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut" - 1999
Dir. by Trey Parker - 1 hr. 21 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

In the time since "South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut" hit theatres, it's become less uncommon for a TV show to spin off into a movie.  "Beavis & Butthead Do America" was ahead of "South Park" on this curve, but "South Park" did more with the change in format than any other film I can think of.  In retrospect, it might not seem as big of a deal, but at the time, "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were pretty much viewed as potty mouths, and not much else.  Sure, they were funny, but it had yet to be proven that their writing was anything more than a gleeful celebration of toilet humor and foul language.

And since that was the case, Parker and Stone rolled with that opinion, and upped the ante by creating a hard-R musical.  The boys of South Park (Kenny, Kyle, Stan, and Cartman) go see Terrance and Phillip's new movie, "Asses of Fire," itself being little more than a mash-up of farts and swearing.  The boys pick up a few new phrases, which quickly raises their parents' ire.  Instead of brushing it off, or reacting reasonably, the parents do the obvious: blame Canada.

This prompts an all-out war between the United States and Canada, once the United States takes custody of  Terrance and Phillip, with the intention of executing them.  If this is accomplished, Satan (and his lover, Saddam Hussein) will return to Earth, and rule over everyone.

This film is the point where Parker and Stone showed the ability to write with more depth and insight than most people would have expected.  They used their own battles with the MPAA, and turned it into a feature film.  "South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut" is a biting satire of parents who focus more energy on causes than on their own children, as well as the tendency to periodically overreact to "indecency."  But even more than that, this is a filthy, funny film.  The first forty minutes or so are flawless; the pacing is tight, there's one insanely funny song after another, and you'll never get the songs out of your head.  That's fine if you're humming the tune, but when you find yourself absentmindedly singing "Uncle Fucka" in public, you'll understand why censorship doesn't work.  You can't beat a good joke over a catchy hook.

If you're squeamish about language (or Satan having a gay relationship with Saddam Hussein), I can see why you'd have a problem with this film.  It's not one to watch around the kiddies, but then again, the message of the film is aimed at adults.  And what's a blue word or three-hundred between adults?  This is one of the funniest films I've ever seen, and it holds up just as well a decade later.  Watch "Kyle's Mom is a Bitch," and tell me I'm wrong.

5 / 5 - Blu-Ray