Sunday, September 30, 2012

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure - 1989

"Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" - 1989
Dir. by Stephen Herek - 1 hr. 30 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Your mileage might vary wildly on this one, but I think that "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" is one of the best comedies of its era.  Part of that might because the timing was right for me, but I've found this film to be endlessly re-watchable (and laugh-out-loud funny every time).  There's a high probability that something contained within is going to trip up one of your pet peeves, but it would be a good idea to take Bill S. Preston, Esquire, and Ted "Theodore" Logan's advice: be excellent to one another, and party on, dude.

Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) are a pair of dim-witted, yet good-natured high school seniors from San Dimas, California who aren't even good at the things that they're supposed to be good at.  They're fully committed to turning Wyld Stallyns into a legendary band, but their practices are derailed by a debate over whether they need to make an awesome video first, which will then lure Eddie Van Halen into teaching them how to play guitar, or if they need to get Eddie Van Halen to teach them to play guitar, which will then result in a triumphant video. Bill and Ted are also, barring a miracle, about to flunk out of school, which means that Ted will be sent to a military academy, and Wyld Stallyns will come to an end.  In what has to be on the shortest list of greatest highdeas of all-time, Rufus (George Carlin) is sent back from the future with a time-travelling phone booth, which Bill and Ted are to use to collect historical figures, who will be used to deliver a history report that will save their educations (as well as the world, since Wyld Stallyns music is supposed to be a catalyst for achieving world peace).

Bill and Ted aren't the first pair of perma-stoned dimwits to show up in cinema (and they never actually address or use drugs of any kind), but they perfectly embody falling into success.  They go with the flow, and  both Reeves and Winter had to spend time in their careers living down these characters; an indication that they both really nailed the parts.  The characters kind of know what to do, do it not particularly well, and still end up bumbling into a better spot by the time things have wrapped up.  The fact that they're both so inept and so free of malice makes it a lot easier to root for them along the way.

But just because the main characters (and the setting itself, San Dimas) are kind of dopey and unaware of their surroundings, that doesn't mean that this is a dumb movie.  A constant refrain of elders is complaining about where kids get their information from.  But instead of viewing that as a bad thing, this film assumes that there really are people who think that Julius Caesar is the "salad dressing dude," and drops some legit historical figures in a decidedly not-reverent setting.  Each of the historical figures stays true at least to what you might think of them: Napolean is a dick, Socrates is eager to learn, Abraham Lincoln won't tell a lie, even when nobody believes him.  And if you dropped all of these people in a mall, why wouldn't Joan of Arc end up commandeering an aerobics class?  Why wouldn't Genghis Khan find a sporting good store, and arm himself a little better?  All of this might not add up to a doctorate thesis, but someone knew enough to pick entertaining characters, throw them together, and keep them straight.

One more thing about the... uh... demeanor of Bill and Ted.  This film was made at a particular time and place, when Nancy Reagan was shouting "just say no" from the hilltops.  So, while Spicoli from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" had no problem being very clear about his medicinal preferences a few years prior, Bill and Ted borrow the behavior and avoid addressing the issues.  You can see the same sort of phenomenon from the "Wayne's World" movies, too.  Fast-forward a few years, and you get more transparency on this issue as well.  In this instance though, I don't mind it.  There's one simple reason: "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" is a very tight, tightly-paced film.  If you have seen films like the "Harold and Kumar" series, the drug scenes can derail things.  They're used almost like a love scene would be used in a drama film, and there's no time for that in "Bill & Ted."  Also, often times, when portraying somewhat aimless characters, there's a tendency to let the plot drift as well, which absolutely doesn't happen here.  Bill and Ted have a goal, they have steps to take to achieve that goal, do so, someone's funny in every scene, and then the film is over.  Even the love story is another function of the main idea behind the film, that of the time-travelling phone booth.

For me, "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" is a superficially dopey, clever, tight comedy.  It doesn't aim for darkness (like "Heathers," a much darker then-contemporary high-school comedy), but jabs are thrown (like with the jock who didn't put much of a report together, finishes with "San Dimas High School football rules," and gets a standing ovation for it).  So many of the plot twists are absurd, so a viewer either has to accept that or move on to another film.  But there's a self-awareness to the absurdity, a kind of wink to the audience that they're all in on the joke together.  It adds up to a brisk, funny film that I've watched probably dozens of times (I wore out two admittedly cheaply-produced VHS tapes of this film), and which never gets old.

4.5 / 5 - DVD

Friday, September 28, 2012

Hit and Run - 2012

"Hit and Run" - 2012
Dir. by Dax Shepard and David Palmer - 1 hr. 40 min.

Official Red Band Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

So, if you had the opportunity to make a film that you wrote, directed, and starred in, and got to cast your (beautiful actress) girlfriend as your love interest, and have the main bad guy wear a bizarre set of dreadlocks, you'd probably go for it, right?  Also, let me include a parade of pretty sweet cars.  And also included in this deal are some pretty funny character actors to round things out.  That's a movie I'd make, at least.  And Dax Shepard managed to make all of this happen, which sounds like a pretty sweet deal for him.

The results aren't bad, either.  Shepard stars as Charlie Bronson, who is in the Witness Protection Program, has been dating Annie Bean (Kristen Bell), a motormouth college professor, for a year.  They live in the boonies of California, and Charlie is being protected by a borderline inept Federal Agent Randy Anderson (Tom Arnold).  When Annie gets a job offer that is ridiculously tailored to her skills, it comes with the caveat that it's at a university in Los Angeles, which happens to be the city that Charlie has fled.  And from there, hilarity ensues.

First off, there's a lot of funny dialogue in this film.  It's not really a slapsticky comedy, although you might be forgiven for expecting a little bit of that.  One of the appealing things in "Hit and Run" is watching a real-life couple chirp at each other good-naturedly (mostly).  Both Shepard and Bell are pretty funny, and their hyper-speed psychobabble exchanges are good.  One important thing here: every character believes they're right about whatever they're doing.  Tom Arnold's character might be constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but he's trying really hard.  Bradley Cooper's character (the dread-locked Alex Dmitri) might be overreacting, but then again, all things considered, he might not be.  And even Charlie sees Alex's point after he drops a bombshell on him late in the film.

So while there isn't a ton in "Hit and Run" that's brand new (unless you really want to see a real lemon party on the big screen - that's in the trailer, so it's not much of a spoiler), it seems like the people involved had a good time, had good reason to have a good time, and the film itself is a good time.  And it's also got a pretty decent soundtrack, which is worth mentioning.  You probably already know whether or not you want to go see a film starring Dax Shepard (and his fingerprints are all over every aspect of this film).  I did, and wasn't let down.

3 / 5 - Theatre

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Expendables 2 - 2012

"The Expendables 2" - 2012
Dir. by Simon West - 1 hr. 43 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I don't know how something can be both satisfying and frustrating at the same time, but "The Expendables 2" manages to achieve both.  I don't know how you juggle so many ingredients, while simultaneously having so many actors that probably can't carry this type of film at this point successfully, but I'd argue that this film just barely succeeds at that.

Plot?  Well, have you ever wanted to see like every action star ever in one film, teaming up against evil?  Of course you do.  This time, Barney Ross' (Sylvester Stallone) crew is lured into chasing down a macguffin, which is hijacked by Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and his crew, the Sangs.  When one of the Expendables proves to be exactly that, Barney has a new goal: "Track 'em, find 'em, kill 'em."  And stuff blows up.  That part is pretty important, too.

The only other film that I've seen (which admittedly isn't a comprehensive list) that deals with the idea of aging action stars is "Red," and that proved to be a hit as well.  And while that film was more clever, the entire point of "The Expendables" films is overkill.  There's nothing clever about dozens of heads exploding, about gathering possibly too many stars in one film, or about the execution of the ideas within.  What "The Expendables 2" does have is a level of self-awareness.  It's not for me to say whether it's too much or not, but for folks of a certain vintage, it's pretty awesome to have Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis stealing each other's famous lines back and forth.  And if you've ever heard a "Chuck Norris is so tough that..." joke, you'll appreciate his role here.

In terms of the action, it's not bad at all.  The opening sequence, where the Expendables free a prisoner from a Nepal prison via invasion, is really good.  And the end sequence, where the Expendables face off with the Sang in an airport, is also good.  One valid question going is how these guys look physically; are they still the same action stars you remember, and can they still move convincingly?  That part's a mixed bag.  Instead of harping on the negative and whatever cosmetic enhancements are on display, I'll just offer up that Jet Li's fight sequence is excellent, and that Jean-Claude Van Damme still has the athleticism and swagger that made him a star.  I kind of feel like Van Damme might get more roles on the basis of his performance here; he's really believable as a dickish villain (I swear that's a compliment), and he could probably get more mileage from that ability in a less-crowded film.

So where's the disappointment come from?  I feel like the "Expendables" movies have all the tools at their disposal to make a really great film.  Not a decent one, not a pretty good one, but a straight-up great action film.  This film certainly delivers everything you'd expect going in: the explosions, the gun fights, the muscles, the tough-guy banter.  And it doesn't rest on nostalgia as the draw - the filmmakers certainly tip their hat when appropriate, but this isn't a sentimental victory lap for a generation of action stars.  Twice now, we've gotten good-ish films (you'll appreciate them more if you grew up on this sort of thing).  I want more out of this franchise.  Maybe that's not fair, and I should just accept that this is the sort of thing I'm going to get out these actors at this point in their careers.  It feels like something more is tantalizingly just out of reach.  If there's a third installment, I'll be there.  I hope that that film would be the one to finally knock it out of the park.

3 / 5 - Theatre

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Ted - 2012

"Ted" - 2012
Dir. by Seth MacFarlane - 1 hr. 46 min.

Official Red Band Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I go back and forth on my opinion of Seth MacFarlane and his work.  There have been times where I eagerly watch whatever he's responsible for, and there are times where I despise his work (for a variety of reasons, which I will address later).  But ultimately, you have to take someone and their work for what it is, and not what you wish it was, nor what it could be.  With most of MacFarlane's work, including "Ted," that ends up making the results something of a mixed bag.

John Bennett is an unpopular kid, and during a particularly stressful period of time makes a wish that his teddy bear was alive so that he would have at least one friend.  This wish comes true, Ted (the bear, voiced by MacFarlane) becomes famous (understandably so), and then gets forgotten.  Fast-forward to the modern day, and John (Mark Wahlberg) is working at a rental car agency, inexplicably has been dating Lori (Mila Kunis) for four years, and still hangs out with his teddy bear.  Unfortunately, the bear (and John) have developed some counterproductive habits, which is getting in the way of John and Lori's relationship.  This means that Ted has to move out on his own.

Here's the thing: formulas are formulas because they work.  It would be supremely easy to describe this film in terms of what it rips off.  There's MacFarlane's own work (a cutesy, debauched prominent character, like "American Dad's" Roger or "The Family Guy's" Brian), and there's that probably eighty percent of the plot is from "Clerks."  Seth MacFarlane didn't invent this wheel, but he does make it feel like it's one of his wheels.  If you were to describe "Ted" as three episodes of "The Family Guy" in tone and plot, you wouldn't be far off (part of this is using actors that he's familiar with, like Kunis, Patrick Warburton, a voice-over by Patrick Stewart, or even seeing characters from his shows have cameos, like Ted doing a Stewie voice, or the almost English-fluent club guy).  But, while the lack of originality is sometimes infuriating, this is what a Seth MacFarlane product is going to look, sound, and feel like.  At this point, you're either on board or not, and neither view is going to make one whit of difference.

Once you've accepted that MacFarlane is not the sort of creative force who tries to continually re-invent himself (and after a decade-plus of "The Family Guy," you should have arrived at that conclusion by now), then you have to look at the film in question and decide whether this is a good Seth MacFarlane project or not.  In terms of other cartoon directors who have made the jump to feature films, "Ted" is better than "The Simpsons" film, but not as good as any of Trey Parker and Matt Stone's post-"South Park" films.  It probably falls in the middle of Mike Judge's oeuvre; better than "Beavis and Butt-Head Do America," but not as good as any of his live-action films.  "Ted" is a funny film from people who are talented at what they do, and I enjoyed it.  I don't think that it was particularly ambitious, but then again, that's asking for something that isn't usually present in MacFarlane films.

I am aware that I keep hammering on the fact that pretty much everything to do with "Ted" has to be judged on Seth MacFarlane himself, but when you write, direct, and voice-act one of the lead characters in a film, who else to judge it by?  I'd suggest that if you like R-rated comedies, you could do worse than this one.  It's an opportunity to put a few things that Fox won't let MacFarlane normally do (full-on swearing and boobies, for example) into a film, and if you're a fan of the man responsible for "Ted," it's worth checking out.  Just be aware that, for good or bad, if you're familiar with his work, "Ted" is exactly what you think it's going to be, no more, no less.

3 / 5 - Theatre

Sunday, September 2, 2012

God Bless Ozzy Osbourne - 2011

"God Bless Ozzy Osbourne" - 2011
Dir. by Mike Fleiss and Mike Piscitelli - 1 hr. 34 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There is a fine line between making a documentary about a musician and creating an episode of "Behind the Music."  Since BtM has really nailed down a particular documentary format about the rise and fall of musicians, it can be very difficult to break free from not just that format, but the same sort of approach (particularly when you're dealing with people who have not lead squeaky-clean lives).  So the bar really becomes whether or not something was achieved in this film that couldn't be done on BtM.

The very beginning of this film states that the film-makers were able to spend two years (not in full, I'd assume) with Ozzy Osbourne.  You might only know him from the hit MTV series, "The Osbournes," which would be really weird, but he's also known as the singer of Black Sabbath, one of the hugest and most influential metal bands ever.  He went on to have a successful solo career, as well, and still tours to huge crowds wherever he goes.  Also, if you hadn't heard, he had a bit of a wild side (and if you hadn't heard of that element before, you should probably clear an evening and do some research about Ozzy's past).  But he's sober now, and chugging along nicely.

So that's the outline of this film, which is just as it would be on that TV show that you're probably already sick of me mentioning.  What are the positive differences in this film?  For one, no studio interviews.  Also, despite nearly always playing clips of songs instead of full performances, there is a lot of archival footage shown.  Sometimes, these kinds of films will tap-dance around having to license old footage, which is why you often see slow zooms on still photographs playing over music.  Not here.  There's footage (and photos) of Ozzy from every point on the spectrum of his career.  There are interviews with members of both of his families, and no one's particularly shy about letting everyone know exactly what effect Ozzy's substance abuse had on his ability to be a good parent.

But more to the point, "God Bless..." covers pretty much everything you'd want to know about Ozzy; how Black Sabbath came together, how he ended up with Sharon, details about his substance abuse, interviews with fellow musicians (Tommy Lee and Paul McCartney are among the peers interviewed), Sabbath band members, and possibly estranged family members, dirt of the filthiest variety, what was really going on during "The Osbournes," his friendship with and mourning of Randy Rhoads, it's all there.  This is a really watchable film, pretty much all the way through.

What's missing, though?  It's difficult to put my finger on it, but at almost no point does "God Bless..." show that it needed to exist.  The film-makers may have spent two years with Ozzy, but it doesn't really show up in the final product.  There may be the opportunity to see pictures of Ozzy holding zip-lock bags of cocaine, what this film does not have is any special insight into Ozzy.  He did drugs because he felt inadequate?  Dr. Drew would have probably guessed as much in five seconds.  People love Ozzy?  No kidding; why else would you make a movie about him?  Speaking strictly for myself, I would have killed for any kind of examination or explanation of his creative process, particularly during the Sabbath years.  I knew Ozzy did drugs and drank, but where the hell did "Iron Man" come from?

Focusing on the freak-show aspect diminishes his actual accomplishments, of which there are many.  The closest that "God Bless..." comes to this sort of thing is a late segment where Ozzy watches some of his old videos from the 1980s.  He's dismissive of them, but that's about as deep as any of this gets.  I'm not even going to pretend that I didn't enjoy watching "God Bless Ozzy Osbourne;" I'm a fan of his music, and on that level, this film gives fans something to enjoy.  But there's not enough going on to make this a must-see documentary if you're not already on-board.

2.5 / 5 - TV