Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Full Metal Jacket - 1987

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

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.5 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Seven Psychopaths - 2012

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

Official Red Band Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

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

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

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

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

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

1.5 / 5 - Theatre

Monday, December 24, 2012

Bad Santa - 2003

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

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Sunday, December 23, 2012

This Is 40 - 2012

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

Red Band Featurette

by Clayton Hollifield

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

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

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

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

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

2.5 / 5 - Theatre

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Big Year - 2011

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

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 / 5 - TV

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Alex Cross - 2012

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

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5 / 5 - Theatre

Friday, December 7, 2012

Casablanca - 1942

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

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 / 5 - Theatre

Monday, December 3, 2012

Grosse Pointe Blank - 1997

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

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

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

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

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

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

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

3.5 / 5 - DVD

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Pootie Tang - 2001

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

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

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

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

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

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

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

2 / 5 - Streaming