Monday, August 27, 2012

Fellini Satyricon - 1969

"Fellini Satyricon" - 1969
Dir. by Federico Fellini - 2 hrs. 8 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

If you're a fan of upper-thigh dude meat, "Fellini Satyricon" is going to be the film for you.  This film is literally a bonanza of high-rise tunics and loincloths.  But it's also a bit more than that.  But I do have to acknowledge that this is a movie with a lot of partially naked men (and women, but mostly men).  Now that that's out of the way, I'll also acknowledge that this is a very difficult film to write about.  There's the old canard about "dancing about architecture," but most film directors are flattering themselves if they think they're making movies that are really all that difficult to discuss with the written word.  If you were to line up pretty much anything released in the last decade with "Fellini Satyricon" or Alejandro Jodorowsky's "The Holy Mountain," it would a be very jolting brush with reality.

The plot isn't unimportant, but this is a film that is dominated by visuals, and has long stretches that don't feature much dialogue at all.  Rather than make an attempt to explain the plot, I'll just give you the basic outline at the start of the film:  a young-ish boy (mid-teens, by appearance), Gitone (Max Born) is the focus of a love triangle between two roommates, Encolpio (Martin Potter) and Ascilto (Hiram Keller) that's going awry.  The rest of the film sees Encolpio and Ascilto go their separate ways, yet fate sees them begrudgingly re-united in time.

The early part of the film has the truly stunning visual sequences.  There's a long walk through a Roman tenement that Encolpio and Gitone have to take in order to return to Encolpio's apartment that gives peek after peek into a series of apartments, each with their own distinct, depraved scenarios contained within.  I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Encolpio, Gitone, and even Ascilto are pretty boys, surrounded by a harsh world.  And just because you're going to see overtly sexual scenes throughout the film, that doesn't mean that the people engaged various states of nudity are going to be what you might call "camera-friendly."  It's an effective juxtaposition; having these beautiful flowers drifting through the ugly world, completely unconcerned with anything that exists outside of their grasp.

That scene indirectly leads into my favorite of the film, the banquet scene, which is hosted by Trimalchio (Mario Romagnoli), a wealthy man who fancies himself a poet.  The banquet itself is a hellish scene; everything exists in between red and orange, the revelers are all too jaded to look at anything before them through more than half-opened eyes.  And after seeing the seedy tenement earlier, it's clear that the only thing separating the actions of the rich and the poor are the quality of decorations.  The banquet devolves into an argument between Trimalchio and his wife, Fortunata (Magali Noel).  When Trimalchio recites poetry, Eumolpo (Salvo Randone) accuses him of plagarism, which essentially results in his death.  The entire sequence is fantastic, making explicit the gluttony of the wealthy, and covering the whole thing with an ick-factor that is visceral.

There are other good sequences and visuals throughout the film as well.  This is a visual treat, even when you're struggling to make heads or tails of what you're seeing.  I'm not sure I've ever seen another film where a female character could light fires with her vagina, and that's the sort of thing you'd probably remember having had seen.  There were couple of points where things were really dragging, but pacing is often a trade-off you have to be willing to make with directors like Federico Fellini, who are capable of such breathtakingly original spectacles.

I'm not entirely sure that I could recommend this film if this isn't the sort of thing you're already inclined to like.  And I'm also not sure that it's possible to really explain the flavor of this film; "Fellini Satyricon" is the product of the distinct vision of one man, and it's the sort of thing that simply doesn't exist at this point in film history (neither in scope nor in disregard for the sort of things that focus groups might tell you to axe, like the endless supply of upper-thigh dude meat).  There are traits for a viewer that would help your viewing experience to have: a good grasp of film history (so that you can understand just how insane this film is, and not just have a WTF reaction), some familiarity with stage productions (the dialogue is in that vein, although it's also in Italian, and thus subtitled), and an affinity for sixties and seventies art films (and the sometimes languid pacing contained within).  I do believe "Fellini Satyricon" is worth seeing, but it's not particularly viewer-friendly (aside from the aforementioned costuming issues, the dialogue is deliberately badly-synched, and the film jumps all over the place, an attempt to mimic the incomplete version of the original "Satyricon" text that has survived).  If you're looking for a light film to breeze through, this ain't it.  But if you're ready for a bit of a challenge, this might fit the bill.

3.5 / 5 - Streaming

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Losers - 2010

"The Losers" - 2010
Dir. by Sylvain White - 1 hr. 37 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

While I might have questions about why "The Losers" exists in the first place (of all the comic books that DC Comics has created, why make a movie based on this one?), the finished product stands on it's own.  And what is "The Losers?"  A reasonably decent almost low-budget action movie that doesn't seek to re-invent the wheel, but instead tries to pull off standard material with a bit of extra flair and style.

Based on the comic book by Andy Diggle and Jock, the losers in question are a military unit who are under the direction of the C.I.A.  They're lead by Clay (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and include Roque (Idris Elba), driver Pooch (Columbus Short), sniper Cougar (Oscar Jaenada), and Johnny Blaze...  I mean Captain America...  I mean communications expert Jensen (Chris Evans).  One of their missions goes awry, stranding them in Bolivia, cut off from government support.  A woman, Aisha (Zoe Saldana), stalks Clay until offering a way out of their predicament: get back to the U.S. and gain revenge on the man who double-crossed them, Max (Jason Patric).

I don't think that "paint-by-numbers" is the proper way to explain this movie, but a lot of the story is standard-issue.  If you've got a group of quirky soldiers (an easy way to tell them apart) united in a common cause, you know that the villain is going to probably be engaging in some highly profitable, highly duplicitous behavior, and that things are going to blow up.  And, also, that the good guys are probably going to have to face impossible odds, because an easy win is unsatisfying (especially if you're paying to see this story in a theatre).  Also, that the one woman in the story is going to get bedded, with the only real question being how much skin you're going to see ("The Losers" is rated PG-13, so probably not quite as much as you'd like).  These are the foundations that this genre of film is based upon, so unless the film-makers go the script-flipping route, that's what you're going to get.

So then, if a genre exercise hits all the necessary standard plot points, the film will rise or fall based on how these plot points are executed and by the performances of the cast.  Points awarded to the director, Sylvain White, who recognized the quality of the source material, and cribbed from it whenever possible.  There are shots taken directly from the comic books, not to mention incorporating series artist Jock's work into the actual movie.  I'm generally of two minds about this sort of thing - it usually doesn't do a film any favors to continually remind people of the source material, but I felt it was incorporated well here, and added to the general style of the direction.  As far as the crew, the Losers themselves generally did a good job.  I wanted to see them succeed, which is a victory.  Zoe Saldana was good, as well, but being pretty much the only woman in the whole film sets the bar for good acting at a different level than if the cast had been a little more balanced.  However, I didn't care for Jason Patric's Max at all (and not in the way you're not supposed to like a villain, in the way that I think it was generally ineffective), and I think that character not being what it needed to be really hampered the film.  I'm not sure whether to pin that on the script or the actor, but even though the film kept telling me that he was impossible to get hands upon, I never felt that was true.  And if you can't sell the main baddie as a real threat, a lot of the drama of the story falls limp.

So what's left here is a decent film that I enjoyed more than I figured I would have, but it's not essential viewing.  It's a reasonably good film adaptation of a pretty good comic book; it's not like the Fantastic Four films, in that it's not really a blown opportunity at adapting excellent source material, and it's not like "Jonah Hex," in that it's not a complete disaster in every conceivable way.  There's a ceiling for how good a film like "The Losers" can be (barring a genius take on the source material), and it got really close to that ceiling.  If you catch this on TV, you'll probably get through it without much trouble, and probably enjoy a couple of scenes more than you figured you might, but unless you're a huge fan of any of the actors or the comic books, there's no real reason to go out of your way to track this film down.

2.5 / 5 - TV

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Campaign - 2012

"The Campaign" - 2012
Dir. by Jay Roach - 1 hr. 25 min.

Official Trailer #1

by Clayton Hollifield

I was sold on "The Campaign" from the first time I saw the trailer, and watched Will Ferrell's character punch a baby.  But from that, I know that pretty much the worst thing I can do to a comedy is to get overly excited about it going in.  Anticipation is always a killer, and I always leave a little underwhelmed in situations like that.  Either this film was extra funny, or I had managed to temper my expectations going in; either way, I laughed my way all the way through.

Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is a Senator from North Carolina who has won four consecutive terms, largely because he's been running unopposed the whole time.  When his popularity dips over a saucy phone call directed to a wrong number, the Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) decide to fund an opponent, one that will go along with their plan to open legal sweatshops in America.  They settle on the son of one of their friends, Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis).  He's an unlikely candidate, to say the least, but Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) shows up to mold Marty's campaign into one that doesn't suck.  From this point, the campaign is on, with all the dirty tricks and underhanded tactics you'd expect (and some that you might not).

One great thing: "The Campaign" steers clear of actual politics, in the sense that this is not a film about how to create jobs or how to fund health care.  It's a film about two buffoons being manipulated, and really, about how the entire political system is being manipulated.  In the context of this film, Brady and Huggins' political party affiliations are essentially interchangeable, which is a statement of it's own.  So whether you're an elephant or a donkey, rest assured that you're not going to sit through an hour and a half of the same slowly deflating gasbags that you could catch on any cable news channel.

Another big positive: there are at least really great, memorable comedy scenes here.  No spoilers here, but the first involves Huggins trying to find out if his family has any skeletons in their closet that he'll need to work around.  The second is a COPS-esque scene, and the third involves one of the candidates seeking a very personal form of revenge on his opponent.  There's more funny material than that, but having a number of "big" comedy scenes always helps.  Will Ferrell is great here, his character is sort of like what would happen if Ricky Bobby had gone into politics once he'd finished racing; his character even drives a car that's completely decorated as a campaign ad.  Zach Galifianakis is also really funny, rather than sticking with the prissy sort of character he played in "Due Date," his Marty Huggins evolves over the course of the film from that starting point.

At this point, it's probably a more relevant point to say that the entire political system is busted than it is to single anyone out for their actions (which is the main point of "The Campaign").  You can punish a blade of grass, but if the entire forest is messed up, doing that is nothing more than actively pursuing distraction from the real problems that need to be addressed.  Thankfully, the antics of these two characters are entertaining, but that's the sugar that helps the real medicine go down.  But more importantly than any particular point, "The Campaign" is a funny movie, and I think it's one I'm not going to have any problem watching more than once.

3.5 / 5 - Theatre

Friday, August 17, 2012

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze - 1991

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze" - 1991
Dir. by Michael Pressman - 1 hr. 28 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Every time you want to complain about an adaptation of your favorite comic book into film, remember that there was a point in time where "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze" was about par for what you could reasonably expect out of that translation process.  And then know, unless you're a huge "Jonah Hex" fan, I haven't seen anything in the last ten years that even approached this kind of awfulness, and you're being a big fat baby about it, and everyone is rolling their eyes behind your back.

The first couples of minutes of this film are devoted to a sort of montage of the people of New York City eating pizza.  Literally everyone is cramming slices in their pie-holes.  Delivering pies for pie-holes is Keno's (Ernie Reyes, Jr.) job, and one of his deliveries takes him to a toy store, where a bunch of perverts have pantyhose on their heads for no apparent (non-sexual) reason.  I say that because even though there are dozens of these perverts they get their asses handed to them by Keno, with some assistance from the Turtles, who show up pretty quickly.  Also, I have no idea why these perverts are there in the first place, since providing dozens of men to steal two pizzas seems like overkill, and they also don't seem very interested in stealing any of the merchandise, and they have no demonstrable martial arts skills.  They're just perving out in a toy store after-hours, socially luxuriating in what one hopes is the scent of unused women's undergarments (although I don't have any means to confirm whether they were previously used or not).

On the home front, the Turtles (Raphael, Donatello, Michaelangelo, and Leonardo, if you didn't already know) and their sensei, Splinter (a giant, man-sized rat) are crashing at news reporter April O'Neil's (Paige Turco) apartment.  They believe that they've managed to kill Splinter's nemesis, Shredder (Francois Chau), who is a flabby dude in a shogun helmet that appears to have been decorated with Post-It Notes that have been spray-painted in a metallic tone.

Shredder (r), with Prof. Jordon Perry (David Warner)

But since they didn't kill him, and Shredder's got a bad attitude about it, Shredder tracks down some of the "ooze" that created the Turtles and Splinter, kidnaps the scientist responsible, and creates a new pair of Jim Henson monsters to exact revenge with.  And then they fight, first in a junkyard, then in an construction site, which is conveniently located on the other side of a wall from a Vanilla Ice club gig.  ARE YOU HALLUCINATING YET?!?

There's really no way around the fact that this is a terrible film.  This is the sort of film that a kid demands to watch when they want to torture their parents because children are cruel, remorseless monsters.  Every dynamic in the film is either inexplicable, or the film refuses to explain it.  I don't know why April O'Neil likes having a bunch of Turtles that act like fifteen-year-olds hanging around her apartment, but I suspect the answer is unsavory.  I don't know why Shredder and Splinter can't just arm-wrestle or something to quash their beef, instead creating their own armies to face off.  But I suspect someone's nursing some unrequited feelings.  I don't know how you can create a movie that actually gets better when Vanilla Ice shows up on-screen and starts rapping.

Instead of explaining any of those things, the turtles talk like mentally-damaged surfers and Jersey d-bags to each other (and I know it's picking on a technological limitation, but the dialogue rarely matches up with the animatronic mouths' movements), scarf pizza, and just generally be annoying.  It's easy to see why Shredder wants to end the Turtles (aside from them trying to kill him before, presumably in the first film).  Thankfully, the film is relatively short, and it's not hard to get through it once, since I was constantly wondering when the awfulness was going to bottom out.  On the upside, at least a couple of cartoonists got paid for this (actually, far more than a couple, if you consider that Kevin Eastman has been publishing "Heavy Metal" magazine for years, and his co-creator Peter Laird is responsible for the Xeric Grant), and it didn't kill the franchise.  I'm willing to trade a really bad movie (or two, or three) to fund the good that the TMNT creators have done for other cartoonists over the years.

1 / 5 - TV

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Super Troopers - 2001

"Super Troopers" - 2001
Dir. by Jay Chandrasekhar - 1 hr. 40 min.

Original Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

It's so tricky to do a screwball comedy featuring authority figures as the protagonists.  The underdog status of the rough-around-the-edges lead is so central to the format that it's almost unthinkable to flip it.  "Super Troopers" manages to do just that, and even more impressively, is a really good comedy at the same time.

The plot is only half (or less) of the story: a pack of Vermont state troopers are locked in a turf war with the local police, with the threat of closure hanging over their office.  They stumble across a murder, and then a significant amount of drugs, and the two seem related.  Piecing the two crimes together seems to be the key to keeping their jobs, and they set up a publicity bust for the Governor's (played by Lynda Carter) benefit.  But that's really just the background for prank-oriented stunts.  The troopers all more or less have a flair for the dramatic, leading each other on high-speed chases and engaging in other hi-jinks, which is the difference between the troopers and the humorless, somewhat mentally-challenged local police.

I don't know what the golden number is of classic humor scenes a comedy film needs to have in order to be successful, but "Super Troopers" kicks off with an all-time great, involving Thorny (director Jay Chandrasekhar) and Rabbit (Erik Stolhanske) pulling over a trio of stoned college students.

Opening Scene

I don't think that I'm overstating things at all; this scene is in my top five comedy scenes of all-time.  It's bizarre, surreal, skillfully assembled, hilarious, and manages to keep topping itself.  It's one thing to be able to break off a couple of good one-liners, but the ability to take a situation and keep cranking up the tension over and over again is a rare one.   It helps that half of the cast is a comedy troupe, Broken Lizard, and you may know them from other films like "Beerfest" or "The Slammin' Salmon."  But since "Super Troopers" was likely the first film that anyone saw from these guys (they did have one previous film, "Puddle Cruiser," a low-budget affair), this trait shows off a high-level of skill.  It's not surprising that director Chandrasekhar has had a career directing non-Broken Lizard material.

As for the rest of the film, it's pretty good.  The opening is so strong that the rest of the material never quite gets back to that level, but "Super Troopers" is a very funny movie throughout.  It doesn't lag, and the main non-Lizard cast members (Brian Cox, Marisa Coughlan, and Daniel von Bargen) do a good job.  But I still marvel at the idea of making a film where an audience is expected to get behind what are literally authority figures.  There's something inherently wrong with authority figures deliberately messing with people, but pitting the troopers against the dim-witted local cops (and against a drug-smuggling ring) works.  It also helps that most of them aren't malicious about enforcing the law, other than Farva (Brian Heffernan), but none of his co-workers really tolerate him, either.  The line is clear: clever and playful is okay, dumb and mean (NSFW) is not.

So far, "Super Troopers" is the best film that Broken Lizard is responsible for.  That opening scene has bought them a lifetime pass from me, and I keep hoping that they'll be able to top it someday.  But even other than that, this is a really funny movie, and has held up for me over repeated viewings.  That's a real success for any comedy, to still work well when the element of surprise is gone.

3.5 / 5 - Streaming

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth - 2005

"Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth" - 2005
Dir. by Philip Di Fiore - 39 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Bernie Worrell was the keyboard player for Parliament-Funkadelic, so you really should be familiar with his music, even if it's second-hand through omnipresent sampled work.  He's also played with the Talking Heads (as seen in "Stop Making Sense," a tremendous live concert movie) and dozens of other musicians.  He's regarded as a genius by other musicians, and created part of the foundation that hip-hop was built upon.  So how come nobody knows who he is?  And why is he living in a Motel 6 instead of raking in royalties from his heyday?

I wish that "Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth" did a better job of answering those questions (and others).  But before I get into the negatives here, let's start positive.  I'm glad that someone thought to do a film on Mr. Worrell in the first place.  In the 1990's, both George Clinton and Bootsy Collins had their own resurgences, and they were well-earned.  Worrell deserves no less, and there's no shortage of respected musicians who have worked with Bernie and are willing to sing his praises here (David Byrne, Clinton, Bootsy, Mos Def, Dr. Know, members of the Talking Heads and Living Colour, to begin with).  It's very clear that he's held in esteem by his peers; you don't even need to listen to the words any of these people say, just watch the expressions on their faces as they're talking about Worrell and his work.  And credit where credit is due, there is performance footage (although chopped up) not just from a contemporary concert, but from what would be considered his "prime."

So, what problems do I have with the film?  First off, it's not even as long as a P-Funk album.  It's hard to get a feel for what it was exactly that Worrell did when his band was known for longer-form songs (in other words, P-Funk wasn't a three-minute radio-hit kind of band).  And "Stranger" also runs afoul of the one cardinal sin regarding music docs: no full performance of any song.  Everything doesn't have to be played in full, but refusing to give any full songs at all (and that's not to mention the oddness of editing together performances when the guy you're talking about is a composer, and the whole of a given piece of music might have some integrity that's not being preserved) demands a familiarity with the subject's work that most people don't have.  And if you do have that familiarity, hearing snippets of some of your favorite pieces of music is akin to being taunted over and over again.  It's maddening, and it's worth tacking a few more minutes on the run time (especially with such a short film) so that a viewer can absorb just what it is that Worrell is doing (David Byrne talks at one point about how Worrell's style involved being somewhat invisible, which makes it hard to tout) in a full and accurate context.

The other big issue is that "Stranger" tap dances around questions that are alluded to in regards to Worrell's career and life.  It's clear that he's not what you would call successful (financially), and it's stated that he was on the tail end of the generation of musicians that were pretty much ripped off wholesale.  It's kind of shown that he's unstable (not exactly the right word, but it's ballpark), but the exact reason isn't ever given.  They say that he drinks, and smokes, but it's otherwise un-addressed.  And Worrell himself doesn't seem to allow much insight; nearly all of the footage of him is either on stage or quietly existing.  I'm not saying that every documentary needs to be a warts-and-all depiction, but when the other musicians are lamenting his inability to get things done within the confines of the existing record industry, there's a big pink elephant tap dancing in the room right behind each of them.  What exactly is the problem?  If neither the filmmaker, his friends, nor Worrell himself are willing to be honest about that, it's something that probably shouldn't have been brought up at all.

Maybe it sounds like I'm being really harsh on this film.  I'm glad it exists, that someone decided to shine a (flash)light on Worrell and his music.  I grew up on rap music that was based on his work (Digital Underground, in particular).  For what it is, it's enjoyable.  But it also either expects too much knowledge out of a viewer or just doesn't care to explain itself if you're not already knee-deep in the P-Funk catalog.  And, no full songs is a deal-breaker for me in any music documentary, particularly when the inclusion of not even a handful would have taken this from being a short film to nearly a feature-length.  It's a weirdly antagonistic stance to take towards more casual fans (or people who might not know who he is by name).  Even long-time fans would appreciate the chance to kick back and luxuriate in the work of what is billed over and over in this film as a musical genius.

2.5 / 5 - Streaming