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

Monday, October 22, 2012

Argo - 2012

"Argo" - 2012
Dir. by Ben Affleck - 2 hours

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Argo" is the best film I've seen all year.  Rather than starting off with generic praise, I'll just get down to the details in a minute here.

"Argo" is a film about the Iran Hostage Crisis, in which 52 Americans were held hostage for an extended period of time in the American Embassy to Iran.  This story isn't about the 52 that were held hostage, but about the six Americans that managed to slip out of the Embassy and avoided being held hostage, but who couldn't escape Tehran, and had to go into hiding.  In a joint operation between the C.I.A. and Canada, there was a daring escape attempt in order to get these six diplomats out of Tehran and safely back home.  This attempt was the brainchild of Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), and involved posing the diplomats as a Canadian film crew.

So where do I start with the praise?  A lot of the talk about this film has been centered around it being an intelligent adult drama (in the sense that it's not dumbed down in the least for children), and the film that it frequently gets compared to is "Michael Clayton."  I'd throw another George Clooney movie in there as well, "Syriana."  It's probably not a coincidence that Clooney served as a producer for "Argo."  But these comparisons are accurate.  The word that most describes just about everything in "Argo" is "complicated."  As Mendez says at one point, "This is the best bad choice."  When you get in certain situations, all there are is bad choices, and all that you can do is minimize the impact.  This is especially true in this scenario, where Iranian militants have taken hostages in part because of the actions of the United States (it's explained rather deftly in the film, but the Iranian outrage was over the U.S. offering asylum to an infirm former Shah, who wasn't particularly well-liked).  There is no moral high-ground to be taken, but nor can the U.S. government just stand by and allow their citizens to be held hostage (with the constant looming threat of execution hanging in the air).  "Argo" manages to explain a very difficult situation well, as well as portraying the practical consequences of the situation.

There's also a fantastic attention to detail in "Argo," which begins with the film using the period Warner Brothers logo at the beginning.  Aside from the necessary cars and fashion points, the actors involved all resemble the actual people being depicted (the end credits show pictures of the real-life people and the actors at the same time, to drive home that point).  And since the setting itself (Iran in 1980) is very specific, the film does a great job of showing how things functioned there without having to come out and tell you things.  The other big part of the film is sort of a Hollywood story (this is where John Goodman and Alan Arkin come into play), and that part is equally excellent (and offers a bit of levity in a very tense, focused film).

But chiefly, this is a dramatic, tense true-life story that's executed extremely well.  The acting is great, you get a real taste for what the region looks like, and for just how difficult of a situation everyone was in.  Partially, "Argo" serves as a history lesson (which is useful regarding a region that's had a (you guessed it) complicated relationship with the U.S. over the years), but never feels like one.  One of the most moving things happened for me after the film ended; I overheard a woman who was old enough to have been paying attention the first time around explain to the people that she was with that situation covered in "Argo" was one of the things that ended up costing Jimmy Carter a second term as President.  After watching a film about brave, selfless people working for the betterment of their countries at great personal risk and cost (and one of the key components to this story was the personal cost of the work that these people did), and how these people couldn't take credit for this work because of the danger that it would put their countrymen in, hearing a woman explain how the events shown in "Argo" was used for personal political gain at Carter's expense is a very timely and important message for all to hear.  While it might seem that everyone involved in government is in it solely for their own glory, "Argo" is contrary testimony.

4.5 / 5 - Theatre

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Resident Evil - 2002

"Resident Evil" - 2002
Dir. by Paul W.S. Anderson - 1 hr. 40 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Although "Resident Evil" has proven to be durable franchise, both in video games and film, it's also kind of cookie-cutter.  This first installment in the franchise is probably most guilty of that - there isn't a ton here that hasn't either been presented in other films before or after.  It's not a bad movie exactly, it delivers what it promises.  But most of it's appeal lies with whether you had played the games or really like the actors involved.

There is a secret underground laboratory in Raccoon City called "The Hive," and it's automated systems go bonkers and kills everyone who works there.  Also, a woman wakes up naked and disoriented in her shower, and as she's trying to figure out exactly what it going on, a military-style troupe breaks into her house, scooping up both Alice (Milla Jovovich) and her husband, Spence (James Purefoy).  They, along with the military crew, have to break back into the Hive and disable the Red Queen, the artificial intelligence that runs the Hive.  And zombies.  Let's not forget the zombies.

As I wrote, there's not a lot new here.  Part of the problem has been the proliferation of zombie movies over the decade that's passed since "Resident Evil" came out, but part of the problem is that the movie really does feel like a video game.  The dialogue is perfunctory and trite, there's minimal character development (indeed, two of the main characters, including Alice, suffer from temporary amnesia).  Actually, pretty much all of the character development occurs within about five minutes in the film, where both of the amnesiacs spontaneously recover their memories, and with that, remember their actual motivations.  The setting itself feels like it could have come from "Doom" (movie or game, take your pick).  The story here just doesn't give itself much to work with.

But, is it cool?  Kinda.  There are a bunch of ravenous zombies in the hive, and a couple of horrific creatures.  Probably the coolest of them are the meat dogs (I have no idea what they're really called, they look like dogs that are draped at a butcher's shop, thus the meat dogs).  Michelle Rodriguez's character gets bitten by a zombie fairly early, so we get to see the slow-change over the second half of the film.  The Hive is pretty cool (although not as cool as the underground structure in "The Andromeda Strain"), and Milla Jovovich is really cool.

This whole ball of wax rests on whether you really enjoy any of the components previously mentioned.  If you're a fan of the game, any of the actors (particularly Jovovich), or zombie movies in general, this is a completely passable film.  It's not good, but it's competent.  I didn't think there was much that was all that scary, but part of that is that there wasn't much to invest in regarding the characters.  That's slowly rectified in future installments, but is definitely a weakness here.  But those meat dogs were pretty awesome, maybe the best part of the film.

2.5 / 5 - DVD

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Looper - 2012

"Looper" - 2012
Dir. by Rian Johnson - 1 hr. 58 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Looper" is tough to dissect, or to describe.  The basic plot is given in the trailer: in the future, time-travel has been invented and quickly outlawed.  It's used only by the criminal element to carry out murders, which have become much more difficult to carry out.  Also present in the trailer is the main character coming face-to-face with an aged version of himself.  I suppose that's the hook as much as the science-fiction elements are: if you could go back, what would you try to correct?

Let me fill in a couple of blank spots.  Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a junkie assassin, which seems to be a fairly common occupation.  I'll leave the mechanics of what and how he does to the film, but it's fairly fool-proof and fairly lucrative.  Having said that, Joe manages to mess up, and comes face to face with Old Joe (Bruce Willis).  When Joe fails to kill the older version of himself, he's forced to go on the lam, as is Old Joe.  There's a lot (and I mean a lot) more to the film than this, but that's the quickie, no-spoiler version.

Since getting into the plot would require spoiling a lot of things, I'll talk about the tone and execution of the film instead.  First off, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has come a long way as an actor.  Looking back at his credits, it looks like I haven't seen anything he's done since "10 Things I Hate About You," which is an oversight on my part.  But he manages to play his character in a way where the drug use is kind of a given, and not a gimmick.  I appreciate a good sloppy, inebriated character as much as anyone, but the work here is more subtle, and appropriate to the story.  Secondly, it's a bit of a challenge to try to stare down Bruce Willis on-screen, but the centerpiece scene of the film takes place in a diner, where the two Joes have a tense conversation.  Gordon-Levitt holds up, otherwise the scene wouldn't matter.

The difference between a piece of fiction that has only one good idea and one that has many good ideas is that some of the great ideas aren't ever even addressed by the characters within.  In this way, "Looper" presents a fully-realized vision of the future.  One example comes with the cars shown.  There are nice cars, but everyone else drives current-era cars that have been modified to run on solar energy.  These cars are beaten up, rusted out, are covered in solar panels that are jerry-rigged to somehow deposit energy into the gas-tanks.  These are aesthetically ugly, clearly present out of necessity, and yet are never mentioned or even acknowledged by any of the characters.  This is just what cars look like at that point.  It's a fairly interesting detail to this story that goes untold.  Other details that are a little more important to what's happening are illustrated through action: there are no lazy exposition scenes that side-step actually having to show consequences of actions (or ideas).  Because of this, the film is both mostly low-key and densely packed with information.

That density of information and ideas left me with a lot to chew on.  When the film ended, the entire audience sat quietly for a few moments, processing everything that we'd just seen.  That's a fairly big compliment - the ending comes as a surprise (not a M. Night Shyamalan twist, but a genuine surprise), and there are implications to it.  I'm still unpacking everything from "Looper" a couple of days later, and I'm just as impressed as I was when it ended.

4.5 / 5 - Theatre

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Copyright Criminals - 2009

"Copyright Criminals" - 2009
Dir. by Benjamin Franzen and Kembrew McLeod - 1 hr. 5 min.

Complete Film

by Clayton Hollifield

"Copyright Criminals" takes a look at the practice of sampling, used primarily in hip-hop music.  If you're not familiar with the term, sampling is taking a snippet (or more) of an existing recording and using it as a piece of another recording.  It's the basis of rap music, and a thorny legal issue (to say the least).  For the most part, this film looks at the practice of sampling from both sides.  Defenders of the practice say that transforming an existing sound into something new is a creative act, and that it's ridiculous to have to ask for permission in order to create something.  The people who are against the practice pretty much just head straight to their lawyers whenever they've been sampled, and wait for the lawsuit money to roll in.

This subject is definitely looked at through a hip-hop lens, which is a little bit of a dated approach.  DJs and hip-hop producers may have been the pioneers, but lawsuits stomped the hell out of the practice of sampling by the early 1990s.  Rappers aren't the only people affected by resistance to sampling; after talking about The Turtles lawsuit against De La Soul and Gilbert O'Sullivan's lawsuit against Biz Markie, a more recent example could have been provided using the scrum over a sample used in The Verve's late-nineties hit "Bittersweet Symphony."  Technology and the widespread acceptance of hip-hop culture and music means that sampling is easier than ever, and isn't just the province of a few rappers any more.

"Copyright Criminals" does give voice to both sides, although not equally or eloquently.  At least on two occasions here, I felt like people who have based their careers on sampling gave arguments that were intended to support their stand, but came off more like an argument against sampling.  The first, DJ Q-Bert, gives a demonstration of how he can manipulate a turntable, and asks how someone can own a noise.  The noise in question is like a quick siren, but it misinterprets the legal issue.  It's not the noise that someone owns, it's the recording of that noise.  It's even mentioned later in the film that trip-hop artists started getting around this issue by recording the sounds they wanted to sample, pressing records of them, and then sampling that.  Being unwilling to take the step of generating your own noise (even if it's a sound-alike) and then processing it to your own preference comes off as an admission that there is something tangible gained by sampling.

The second argument made that comes off at cross-purposes is by DJ Abilities (of Eyedea & Abilities), who brags about being able to have all of these great musicians "in his band."  While that's a very practical advantage to sampling, it's also the reason that some people expect to get paid for their work.  And it also takes away these fantastic musicians' choice of whom to work with.  If something is valuable enough to steal, it's also valuable enough to pay for.

Probably the highlight of "Copyright Criminals" is the interview with Clyde Stubblefield.  Most folks wouldn't know him by name, but they're surely heard his work.  Stubblefield was the drummer in James Brown's band from about 1965 to 1970, and his drum breaks are among the most ubiquitous in the history of rap music.  There's even a couple of montages in this film that go back and forth between Stubblefield playing his famous drum beats and the litany of songs that have used his beats over the years.  Interestingly, while James Brown (and his estate, at this point) gets credit (and payment) for the use of those songs, Stubblefield's work is uncredited, and he's never made a dime beyond the session fees.  Thankfully, he doesn't seem the least bit bitter over it, and was still playing weekly shows at the time of the filming.  But Stubblefield's scenario introduces an important point: the people who get money for the use of samples often have nothing to do with the creation of the initial work (another point at which discussing The Verve's sampling lawsuit would have been useful).

This might sound like I'm against sampling, and that would be untrue.  I have more albums than I can count in my collection using this method of creating music.  But the way the law is set up, it's hard to root for either side.  Free expression and creative endeavors ought to be protected, but if you're a different type of musician, you still have to pay for your guitar and your strings.  And I do agree that the people who's work is being blatantly used should be compensated, but not only do the wrong people frequently profit from other people's work, but one artist having to beg another for permission to create is flat-out wrong.  I feel like "Copyright Criminals" doesn't really do enough to illuminate the issue - the cases for sampling boil down to people saying "we live in a remix culture," and the arguments against come from creepily grinning lawyers telling you that you're going to get sued.  I still enjoyed watching this film, but I don't feel like it took me anywhere that I hadn't already visited before.

3 / 5 - Streaming

The Bourne Legacy - 2012

"The Bourne Legacy" - 2012
Dir. by Tony Gilroy - 2 hrs. 15 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Going in, "The Bourne Legacy" is in about as big of a hole as any film can be in: following up a well-regarded and well-received trilogy of films, and doing so with a new lead character (and the star of the previous films is nowhere to be seen in the advertising).  That sort of thing is the province of straight-to-DVD films that trade on a famous title without offering any actors you've ever heard of to back it up.  But I'll be damned if "The Bourne Legacy" doesn't pull it off.

As the trailer says, there was never only one.  The same program that yielded Jason Bourne has also yielded other agents.  This time, the focus is on Aaron Stone (Jeremy Renner), who is in the middle of a frozen wasteland, doing nothing but popping meds and dodging a pack of wolves.  The call is made to terminate the program, and Stone narrowly misses being rendered obsolete.  Despite surviving, Stone (presumably like the other agents) is dependent upon meds, and heads back to mainland United States to locate more (and to figure out what's going on, exactly).  However, since the government program that created Stone doesn't want him around anymore, this isn't exactly a cake-walk.

I didn't see any major negatives to "The Bourne Legacy," other than having warmed up to Matt Damon's character that was the focus of the first three films in this series.  Here, he's mentioned in dialogue and shown in file pictures, leaving the door open if they should want to return to Jason Bourne's saga.  I'm not going to say that Jeremy Renner is an equal replacement as the lead, but he's talented and believable in the action sequences.  Also, Renner's not the only actor of note here; both Rachel Weisz and Edward Norton play large roles, making it clear that this film is not a low-budget piece of crap that's only exploiting the "Bourne" franchise name and not backing it up.

In terms of the action sequences, there's some very good material here.  The big parkour/car/motorcycle chase in the Philippines is spectacular and filled with tension all the way through.  The setting itself is used to great effect and not just as a backdrop.  There's also a shoot-out at Dr. Shearing's (Weisz) house that's a very effective introduction to Stone's abilities.  But the things that make the action sequences matter are the ideas behind the film.  Both Shearing and Stone are given the opportunity to explain why it is they are doing what they're doing, and it's both relevant and meaningful.  Discussing them would be heavy spoiler territory, but it sheds a new light on the Jason Bourne films, as well.

Walking into "The Bourne Legacy," I kept my expectations low.  The original batch of films are some of my favorite action films, and I felt there was no way this film was going to be able to reach the bar set by them.  It's fair to mention that this film didn't reach that bar, but was still a pretty good action film.  "The Bourne Legacy" manages to stand on it's own, even if it's not a stand-out film like any of its predecessors.  As long as you're not trying to hold this film to the standards of the previous installments, I don't think anyone would view this as a let-down.

3.5 / 5 - Theatre

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Fletch Lives - 1989

"Fletch Lives" - 1989
Dir. by Michael Ritchie - 1 hr. 35 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Fletch may live, but save Chevy Chase playing the lead character, this film doesn't have a ton in common with the first film.  And the things that it does share, I kind of wish that it didn't.  "Fletch Lives" is a sequel to "Fletch," and carries over having the main character dressing up in disguise and giving outlandish names, as well as a tone that undermines the detective story angle of the films.

We find Fletch (Chevy Chase) in the middle of another undercover investigation, this time in an Italian restaurant that appears to be funneling mob money (these things aren't very clear, nor is the reason why Fletch, a writer for a Los Angeles newspaper, is doing the sort of thing that the police ought to be doing).  After getting the evidence he needs and returning to the office, Fletch discovers that he's inherited an estate in Louisiana from a long-lost relative.  He immediately quits and heads south to claim his property.  Unfortunately, he finds himself under pressure and in the middle of some larger plan designed to separate Fletch from his property.

Good detective series make you want to return to a specific world, and having completely failed to establish a world that anyone would want to re-visit in the first installment, most of "Fletch Lives" is set in a small Louisiana town.  This is a step in the right direction - at least, this provides a cast of very specific characters to play off of that don't require a lot of explanation.  Although Los Angeles could provide the same, that wasn't taken advantage of in the first film.  Here, before Fletch even at Belle Isle, he has a "Song of the South"-type dream sequence while flying there, complete with animated animals.  Once in Louisiana, there's a band of inept Ku Klux Klan members, slow-talking, gentlemanly lawyers, good ol' boys, lazy help, bikers, holy rollers...  everything you'd find in a Lego "Southern Living" starter kit.  That's okay, this is slightly more comedy than detective story, so comedic tropes help out matters.

Also, "Fletch Lives" takes a half-step in the right direction regarding the tone of the film.  It's still not successful, and I think that Chase's portrayal of Fletch as just becoming a little more dickish when under pressure doesn't work, but the other characters have a little more room to breathe.  A couple of them actually get the chance to run with the ball - R. Lee Ermey plays Reverend Jimmy Lee Farnsworth (a Jim Bakker stand-in, and released the same year as "Full Metal Jacket," which blows my mind), and Randall "Tex" Cobb plays a hirsute thug who introduces himself by letting Fletch know that he's in jail for "molesting a dead horse."  And Cleavon Little has a decent role as the apparently dim-witted Calculus Entropy.  The Fletch character plays a lot better when people are able to either play along or against him, and it's a shame that nobody figured that out until film #2 in the series.  Also, by embracing a running joke (the brakes on Fletch's inherited pink Cadillac don't work, so he always ends up stopping by running into something inanimate), it's clearer that we're meant to laugh (and not take Fletch's seeming unawareness of danger at face value).

I think that "Fletch Lives" is a better film than "Fletch."  The funniest material is light years ahead of the highs of the first film (the Bibleland material in particular), and I wasn't as actively annoyed by the problems with the second film, either.  But it's still not a good film.  As a comedy, it's okay at best, and as a detective story, there's little suspense.  I don't know if it's a script issue or an acting issue, but the fact that Chase as Fletch never seems the slightest bit concerned about whatever is hanging over his head doesn't play as a devil-may-care attitude, it simply undercuts all dramatic tension (and not in service of anything else more important, either).  If a guy's got the opportunity to dress up as a maid or with false teeth, why would an audience care about anything, either?  Fletch clearly doesn't take anyone else seriously, but in a way that removes the villains' fangs.  Seeing as how both director and star made the same mistake in two films running, it looks more like a mutual inability to tell this sort of story than a fluke.

2 / 5 - TV

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Fletch - 1985

"Fletch" - 1985
Dir. by Michael Ritchie - 1 hr. 38 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

A serious question: how much do you dock a movie for not aging particularly well?  I guess that's not even entirely accurate, it's more of a question of whether one should take into account when a film was made, even if that means forgiving some things that seem really, really goofy in the present day?  I know that not every film is going to age well (particularly comedies), but the development over the last twenty-seven years of this particular type of comedy character kind of makes "Fletch" look rudimentary.

Irwin "Fletch" Fletcher (Chevy Chase) is a newspaper reporter, currently undercover on the beaches of Los Angeles, trying to crack open a story about who is pushing drugs on the beaches.  "Fletch" is a pseudo-detective story (the tone is supposed to be funny, not dire), so he's constantly clashing with his boss, drives a beat-up shit-wagon, is hounded by his ex-wife's lawyer for past-due alimony, is threatened by the police chief (Joe Don Baker), and quickly gets dragged into a scheme, where a rich businessman hires Fletch to murder him (it's an insurance scam).  Since this is a comedy primarily, it's worth mentioning that Fletch's shtick is to don disguises, offer up false names, and motor-mouth his way through every situation.

Before I get into my problems with "Fletch," let's throw a little praise.  It's a fast-paced comedy, and the plot actually works to propel the film from beginning to end (instead of wrapping everything up in the last fifteen minutes after spending the previous hour-plus ignoring the plot).  Also, there's a few familiar faces here and there, like Geena Davis and George Wendt, which is part of the fun of watching non-contemporary films.  More fun - seeing what Los Angeles looked like a bunch of years ago.

I don't want to imply that "Fletch" doesn't work, exactly.  It's just that, in the intervening years, the comedic crux of this film has been, shall we say, borrowed, and to better effect.  If you want to watch someone dress in costumes and play different characters, why not enjoy Roger (the alien) from "American Dad?"  If you want to watch a smart-ass detective bluff his way through solving crimes, perhaps "Psych" would be a good TV show to watch.  And to the point, "Psych" is a superior evolution to "Fletch."  Having a main character to play off of makes the difference between two friends playing and one person big-footing everyone in sight.  Here, it felt like Chevy Chase was delivering at least eighty-percent of the film's dialogue.  Largely, the other characters don't matter; they're all drowned out by Fletch's incessant chattering.  Perhaps that's the point, though.

At the time "Fletch" was released, Chevy Chase was a big comedy star, and no doubt the humor would have played better.  Age has taken it's toll on that aspect, changing what was probably viewed as a glib film into one that feels a bit desperate.  Desperate in the sense that Chase's character is being hounded on all sides, and his non-stop repartee feels like an attempt to keep any of it from sinking in.  If he can't hear anything but his own voice, then the rest of it isn't really real.  Even the romance sub-plot doesn't give off any sparks, because Fletch is too busy trying to make everyone else look stupid for not knowing who Ted Nugent is, for instance.  With everything else in his life in shambles, being a little smarter than everyone else is all that Fletch has left to hang on to.  I've found this when watching other older comedies: once the humor fades away, what's left is an entirely different film.

And how about those things that are really dated, and kind of detract from the experience of watching "Fletch?"  I'll stick with two: opening/ending credits, and the soundtrack.  I'm sure at the time, the synthesizer soundtrack didn't sound out of place, but let me assure you, it's not only out of place, but really awful, too.  It keeps popping back up in transition shots, trying to remind you that, ha ha, this is a comedy!  But since a lot of the humor has been eroded by time, it works against the film that a current audience would see.  And in a related issue, the film begins with a bad 1980s synth-pop song running over a black screen, while what feels like the entire cast's credits run.  Instead of starting off with a bang, it would be easy for someone to think that someone else had forgotten to rewind the VHS tape before they returned it, and that you were at the end of the movie.  And the end credits?  Have you ever wanted to see the credits run over a series of still shots of Chevy Chase mugging from all of the scenes throughout "Fletch?"  If so, you're in luck.  I mean, that's what you'll get to see, not that it's awesome, or anything other than unbearable.

I had a fond recollection of "Fletch," but upon this re-watching, it's apparent that Chevy Chase could have used a little help along the way with this one.  But he has no one to play off of, no one really gets the chance to do more than be the straw men that they need to be in order for the story to play out.  It's not as if "Fletch" is horrible or anything, but there are certainly better Chevy Chase films out there.

2 / 5 - TV