Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Anchorman: the Legend of Ron Burgandy - 2004

"Anchorman: the Legend of Ron Burgandy" - 2004
Dir. by Adam McKay - 1 hr. 38 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There's nothing better than a comedy that is still funny years later.  They're pretty few and far between, and more often due to a timeless premise (like "The Odd Couple") than being built around an individual's performance (like "The Jerk").  But they do happen, and "Anchorman: the Legend of Ron Burgandy" is still the best thing most of the people involved with this film have done to date.

The premise is simple: Ron Burgandy (Will Ferrell) is an anchorman in San Diego in the 1970's.  He's a buffoon, but a beloved one.  When Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) enters the picture, the chauvanistic knees all jerk, and the two leads go from lovers to bitter rivals.  The setting allows the cast to indulge in all the silly fashion quirks of that era, which would be insufferable in lesser hands.  Thankfully, the era itself isn't the point of the jokes.  Since the characters in general are so over-the-top, it makes sense for the fashion and decoration to be so as well.  Possibly the key to the entire thing is that there's never a moment where anyone figuratively winks to the camera; these characters inhabit their world fully, and do so with enthusiasm.

I couldn't tell you what it is that makes this movie so funny other than what I've just written; I can tell you that I laughed out loud over and over again as I was watching this (and this might have been my fourth or fifth viewing, although I hadn't re-watched it recently).  There are a couple of things that are noteworthy (and sometimes unusual with comedies).  First, the cast is ridiculous.  The actors (and Christina Applegate) in "Anchorman" are responsible for most of the memorable comedies since this film's release.  Will Ferrell is the star here, but Paul Rudd and Steve Carell both have gone on to do a lot of really good work since.  Vince Vaughn, Luke Wilson, Fred Armison and Tim Robbins have small roles, and Ben Stiller, Danny Trejo and Seth Rogen have even smaller ones.  Nice b-squad, there.  The other notable thing is that while Ferrell is the star, he doesn't hog all the great lines for himself.  That's not to say that I'd expect him to, but some comedies are kind of hierarchical in terms of who gets to shine.  That's completely not the case here; Ferrell has his share of comedic freak-outs, but literally all of the main characters have at least one classic, memorable line or scene.  My favorite line: Champ Kind's (David Koechner) diss directed at Wesley Mantooth's mother.  The line I quote most often (to my dog): "You know I don't speak Spanish."

Perhaps the most important member of the cast is Christina Applegate.  She's usually the best part of whatever she's in, and it's a pleasure to see her not only knock yet another role out of the park, but to stand toe-to-toe with whomever she's on-screen with.  Ron Burgandy is such a strong character (and performance), but it wouldn't be nearly as funny without an equally funny (and strong) foil.  Also thankfully, she doesn't play a fun-killer (an unfortunately common role for women in comedies); when Ron spots a rainbow in a fantasy sequence, she says, "Do me on it."  She's not putting a damper on things, she's along for the ride and willing to take things one step further.

Now that I've heaped praise on everyone I can think of, there's not a lot more to say than that this movie is shaping up to be a comedy classic.  My earlier comparison to "The Jerk" is one that I'll stand by.  This is an absurd, fun movie that works according to it's own logic, and is filled with energetically silly performances.  I find it impossible not to get caught up in the fun.  What's not to like about that?

4.5 / 5 - DVD (Unrated Edition)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Cabin Boy - 1994

"Cabin Boy" - 1994
Dir. by Adam Resnick - 1 hr. 20 min.

TV Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There has to be a reason why I liked this movie enough to buy it on DVD, but I'm having a difficult time remembering what that reason was.  I also don't remember when I got it, but it's been in my DVD library for quite a while.  I have watched this film at least a couple of times over the years, but not in a long time.  Thankfully, I can now put the DVD on my culling stack, soon to be available at a very reasonable price on eBay.

I'm honestly baffled as to why I have "Cabin Boy," it's not a very good movie.  It took me three sessions to work through this eighty-minute film (the first interrupted because my Blu-Ray player is being unreliable, the second interrupted because I fell asleep), and let me recommend that you do not view "Cabin Boy" on a big screen.  The DVD is a low-budget affair, firmly in line with the movie itself.  On a sixty-inch screen, you will see every bit of dirt and every scratch on the print that they digitized "Cabin Boy" from.  That's not to say there's a ton of gloss here, but on a more modestly-sized screen, these problems aren't as apparent.

Nor is it a very funny movie.  Chris Elliott can be very funny, but his character seems designed to be off-putting.  He plays a Fancy Lad, Nathanial Mayweather, who accidentally boards the wrong ship after graduating the Fancy Lad academy.  The set-up isn't bad, a fop accidentally boarding a fishing vessel dubbed "The Filthy Whore," but for the most part, there's just nothing there.  It feels like a sketch-comedy bit extended out as far as possible to reach feature-film length.  The fisherman aren't very funny; the actors are fine, but they don't have much to work with, and they don't really work well off of Elliott.  The only bits that were actually funny were the scenes between Nathanial and Trina (Melora Walters), and to a lesser extent, the scene between Nathanial and Calli (Ann Magnuson).  But the bulk of male-male interactions in "Cabin Boy" just don't work.  Part of that is that it's impossible to sympathize with Nathanial, between his condescension and deliberately irritating voice, and the other part is that none of the other characters (save for Andy Richter's) are anything beyond stock.  Stock characters aren't a kiss of death, but when the lead role is irritation and doesn't hold you're interest, all the flaws of the film are a bit more apparent.

So was there anything good here?  Andy Richter's mentally-slow character is pretty good, and David Letterman's cameo is decent as well.  There's an un-credited appearance by Alfred Molina, as well.  Beyond that, like I wrote before, most of what I laughed at was between Nathanial and Trina.  If that had been the focus of the film (instead of late act-two relief from a cinematic sausage-fest), it would have been much, much funnier.

I guess if I had to sum up "Cabin Boy" in one word, it would be "stupid."  And not a clever kind of stupid that is used to satirize something else (like "Beavis and Butt-Head," for instance), and not a train-wreck kind of stupid (like "Jackass"), either.  It's just dumb and aimless, missing both any characters to root for and any reason to care if any of them do anything at all.  Obviously, my virtue of my owning this film on DVD, I must not have always felt that way, but boy did it ever fall flat on this viewing.

1.5 / 5 - DVD

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Beavis and Butt-Head Do America - 1996

"Beavis and Butt-Head Do America" - 1996
Dir. by Mike Judge and Yvette Kaplan - 1 hr. 21 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

The nineties were a big time for cartoons for adults.  Sure, there's the Ralph Bakshi movies like "Fritz the Cat" or other adult animated movies like "Heavy Metal," but the nineties was the point in time when that genre finally hit television.  Behind the runaway success of "Beavis and Butt-Head," MTV spread the wealth and aired several cartoons that were unlike anything before or after (check out "The Maxx" or "Aeon Flux," for instance).  Unfortunately, if you wanted to go back and see what all the fuss was about, you'd be out of luck.  Both "Beavis" and its spin-off, "Daria," have fallen victim to a contractual quirk, which means that the rights to the original music used in both shows is no longer cleared.  During the nineties, the vast commercial appeal of selling collections of TV shows hadn't really been tapped (or even conceived of), and re-clearing the rights to those songs or videos has become prohibitively expensive.  What this whole preamble means is that if you wanted to know why "Beavis" was such a big deal, there's no legal way to do so.  The shows, as originally aired, simply are no longer available to the consumer.  It's a huge blow; a significant chunk of the funniest moments during the series come from Beavis and Butt-Head riffing on the videos they watched incessantly.

Because of this situation, the earliest complete piece of work available to watch by legit means (and please, use whatever means are available to track down the unedited original series) is the fruit of Beavismania, "Beavis and Butt-Head Do America."  Unfortunately, it doesn't really capture the flavor of the TV series, either.  The format of the show involved bouncing back and forth between whatever the short narrative cartoon segments and the duo watching videos and commenting on them.  Each episode was only fifteen minutes long, so the stories were usually around five minutes apiece.  Trying to expand the dynamic that was so successful on television out to a feature-length film is a rocky road, to be sure.

The story of "B&BDA" is a series of misunderstandings.  After someone steals their TV, Beavis and Butt-Head leave the house, and get wrangled into a murder-for-hire plot that they interpret as being hired to score with someone's wife.  The whole thing is pretty much an excuse to put Beavis and Butt-Head into a number of different places, and it plays out as a chase-movie.  Of course, they don't know they're being chased, so they just bumble along from place to place.  And while there aren't any actual music videos, there are a few music sequences.  The opening sequence is a blaxploitation riff with an original song by Isaac Hayes (pre-"South Park").  There's a lounge act in Vegas that the duo dance to, set to a Red-Hot Chili Peppers' cover of "Love Rollercoaster" that's pretty fun.  And there's also a hallucination sequence set to a White Zombie song that incorporates singer Rob Zombie's artwork, to excellent effect.  It's not exactly the same, but the effort is appreciated, and the soundtrack is generally very, very good.

But the biggest problem is that the movie just isn't that good.  It's slow-starting, not really taking off humor-wise until Beavis' exchange with an old lady voiced by Cloris Leachman.  There are good moments, but even at the admittedly short running time, there's just not enough there there.  If you arrived at this movie having seen Mike Judge's live-action movies like "Office Space" first, I think you'd be both disappointed and wondering what all the fuss was about.  And unlike the "South Park" movie that would come a couple of years after, there's no real point to this film.  There's nothing in the plot or in the execution (possibly excepting the Zombie sequence) that demanded to be made into a film instead of being split into another season of shows.  Speaking as someone who is a rabid fan of the show (in both it's earlier and current incarnations), I just wanted something more that wasn't there.  Mike Judge's work would get a lot better than what's here, so it's not a crushing blow, but it would have been nice to have a better historical document of "Beavis and Butt-Head" to be able to show people if they wondered what the big deal was.

2.5 / 5 - TV

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Tucker and Dale vs Evil - 2010

"Tucker and Dale vs Evil" - 2010
Dir. by Eli Craig - 1 hr. 29 min.

Official Redband Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"I should have known that if a guy like me talked to a girl like you, somebody would end up dead."

Truer words have never been spoken.  It takes a certain gift to be able to turn hidebound material into something truly funny.  And I don't mean referentially funny, like the "Scary Movie" series, where pretty much all of the humor is of the "I remember seeing that" variety, but the kind of funny that stands on it's own, regardless if you've seen the source material or not.  I'm here to tell you that "Tucker and Dale vs Evil" achieves that feat.

The scenario appears stock: Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) are a pair of hillbillies going into the woods to start working on their "vacation home," and come across a bunch of college kids who are headed to the woods for a weekend of drinking, drugging, and whatever else might happen far away from prying eyes.  They encounter each other at a gas station, and the kids are immediately creeped out by the backwoods duo.  The two groups' paths keep intertwining, and a series of misunderstandings leads to people dying.  You know, just like any good/bad horror film.

Except in this film, the hillbillies aren't twisted, murderous freaks.  Dale comes off badly because he gets nervous talking to girls, which gives the wrong impression.  But they're generally friendly, and really are just in the woods to work on their vacation home.  And the college students aren't put-on, naive kids just trying to have a good time.  They're judgmental little shits that leap before looking, led by Chad (Jesse Moss), a mop-headed, white-belted, popped-collar, hatchet wielding lunatic that keeps escalating matters whenever possible.  And instead of trying to figure out what's really going on, the entire gang displays their complete incompetence at physical combat of any kind.

There are a number of truly funny moments here, stemming from the misunderstandings between the two groups (and also between Dale and Allison, played by Katrina Bowden).  It would be ruining the jokes to explain, but I found myself laughing loudly over and over again.  I'm not a huge horror fan, so the enjoyment I got out of "Tucker and Dale" was out of how the characters related to one another and not out of the subversion of genre tropes.  That's how I know the movie stood on it's own.  I'd probably enjoy a good crime novel spoof, but it would be out of familiarity with the trappings of those kinds of books.  Other than knowing that when a group of kids go into the woods in a horror movie, most of them aren't coming back, I just haven't watched enough horror films to have that kind of detailed awareness of common plot points.

Especially for a low-budget sort of film, the comedic acting is really good throughout.  Tudyk and Labine work well together, and even a couple of the college kids are good as well.  The post-woods ending wasn't as good as the rest of the movie, but it did tie things up in a reasonable manner.  But since everything else up to that point was funny, I don't hold it against "Tucker and Dale vs Evil" that much.  I feel like I'm probably going to have to watch this one again before too long.

3.5 / 5 - Streaming

Monday, January 2, 2012

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol - 2011

"Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" - 2011
Dir. by Brad Bird - 2 hrs. 13 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Do you know how hard it is to win back a viewer after they've bailed on a franchise?  The simple answer: really hard.  You might even say... impossible.  As a quick background, I refused to see the third installment of the "Mission: Impossible" series because I absolutely hated the second installment.  It's been a few years now, so I couldn't exactly tell you why I hated it so much, but I disliked it so intensely that I refused to even admit the existence of a third installment.  And it might be selective memory, but I don't remember hearing much that suggested I missed out on much of anything.

So the question is, what is it that would make me reconsider?  There are two big reasons.  First, the trailer was really, really good.  If you want to sell a big, action movie, this trailer is textbook.  It promises insane situations, exotic locations, huge effects and action pieces, and is set to a really great song (Eminem's "Won't Back Down").  Secondly, it is the live-action directorial debut for Brad Bird, who has a couple of animated instant classics ("The Iron Giant" and "The Incredibles") to his credit.  To sum up: looks good, plus I'm curious about the director.

Going in to a movie like "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol," you know that you're not likely to see a hyper-intelligent, mind-bending film.  That's not a knock, you're going to see an action movie, and you can't punch or kick a conundrum.  There are different standards for different films.  In a big-budget action blockbuster, the keys are whether the action pieces are satisfying, and whether or not there are any lulls that would let a wandering mind start to poke holes in the plot.  Thankfully, MI4 succeeds wildly on these accounts.

There is a pretty non-stop string of action pieces from beginning to end, with lulls just long enough to let you catch your breath and start to build anticipation for the next sequence to get underway.  Things kick off with a prison break, which is a great way to reintroduce the Ethan Hunt character that Tom Cruise plays (as well as the rest of his team).  From there, there are extended sequences in Russia, Dubai, and India.  I'd rather not get into specifics (it's much more fun to kick back and enjoy the events not knowing what's coming up), other than to say that there is a fun travelogue-esque aspect to this film, and that the Dubai sequence of events is beyond spectacular.  There's also a certain logic to the physical combat in this movie that's refreshing - Hunt in particular may achieve his goals, but it's rarely smoothly or without some personal physical agony.  It humanizes his character, and gives a little weight to his nearly suicidal complete lack of regard for his own well-being.  It's one thing for a character to attempt death-defying feats if they routinely escape unscathed, but when Ethan Hunt tries something in this movie, you know that it's at his own peril.

"Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" holds up well against the other big action movies of the year.  Although the story doesn't have a tremendous amount of depth, it's a true adrenaline ride, possibly more so than other films of it's ilk.  It's also a refreshing deviation from wise-cracking action stars delivering punchlines out of the side of their mouths; Ethan Hunt is a machine, but verbal cleverness isn't part of what he has to offer.  The character understands what is at stake, and prioritizes success over literally everything else.  With that driving the film, even the impossible (like me jumping back on the franchise bandwagon) becomes possible.

3.5 / 5 - Theatre

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Big Lebowski - 1998

"The Big Lebowski" - 1998
Dir. by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen - 1 hr. 57 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"The Big Lebowski" is a tough film to write about, much less assign any kind of a rating to.  Part of the reason for that is that it's one of the most written-about films since "Pulp Fiction."  There are several books about the movie; even more than a decade after it was initially released, there are boxed gift sets and calendars and festivals for this film.  It's a very rare beast, one that seems to have outlived it's context.  Even rarer: it's not a "geek" film either.  The Star Wars, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings franchises all have inspired that sort of fanaticism, to the point where if you showed up at a comic book convention, you'd be disappointed if you didn't find in-costume representatives of each franchise's respective fan-bases present.  But "The Big Lebowski?"

The first time that I watched this film (when it was released), I was a little underwhelmed.  I don't want to imply disappointment, I enjoyed "The Big Lebowski" thoroughly.  As strange as it seems, a lot of people were in the same boat initially.  The Coen Brothers' previous film was "Fargo," which also was the mainstream success that everyone had been waiting for from them.  It was also a critical success, winning two Oscars and having been nominated for five more.  In case you haven't seen "Fargo," I'll just say that the tone was a little different.  That was a very dark film, with it's darkness tempered mildly by the silly accents and Midwestern setting.  And this was the expectation for the Coen Brothers, many people having seemingly forgotten the humor and silliness of "Raising Arizona" and "The Hudsucker Proxy."  Looking back, it's a lot easier to see the Coen Brothers' pattern of trading off between very tense, dark movies with lighter fare.  At the time, "Lebowski" just confused people.  It wasn't what anyone was expecting from the duo, and while it did okay at the box office (roughly $28 million), it wasn't a runaway hit.

So what happened between then and now that turned it into a must-see cult classic?  I can't speak for everyone, but after I'd watched "Lebowski" for the first time, it kind of nagged at me until I broke down and saw it again.  And freed from the yoke of expectations, I liked it a lot more.  A LOT more.  Once I was able to view "The Big Lebowski" on it's own merit, it became clear that it had a lot to offer.  The plot is enough to keep the parts moving, but it's not exactly the focus of the film.  The protagonist, The Dude (Jeff Bridges), is referred to as possibly the laziest man in all of Los Angeles, which means that it's unlikely the story is going to be goal-driven.  He gets dragged into problems, and then talked into exacerbating them.  The Dude is more concerned about his bowling league (one in which one of his teammates pulls a gun on an opposing team in an argument about a scratch).  The real joy of the film is the batch of unique characters, The Dude and Walter (John Goodman) in particular, being dragged into detective work that they have no business doing.  The Dude gets along (or abides, I should say), surviving calamity through no particular skill.

The plot is good enough, the dialogue and characters sparkle (as much as a pack of foul-mouthed middle-aged bowlers can), and that leaves the visual element as the other strongest point.  The Coen Brothers have a strong ability for visual stylization.  You can see it in good films like "Fargo," or in less well-received films like "The Hudsucker Proxy."  It's a gift that has stayed with them throughout their career.  The easiest (and showiest) scenes to talk about are the pair of dream sequences.  The first is fun, the second is a Busby Berkeley bowling-themed spectacular that borrows elements from the film-within-a-film, "Logjammin.'"  Talking about visuals like these is kind of pointless; both sequences are jammed with surreal settings, but they're not non sequiturs.  The first leads into plot points that develop later on, and the second one is a sort of a recap of the things that are hanging over the Duder's head at the time, and also leads into the rest of the film.

There are a number of other elements that I could get into, but would run the risk of turning this into a novel. But just a few of the other things I love about this movie: the soundtrack, Julianne Moore's affected accent, the "brother shamus" exchange, The Dude's car's story arc, Jesus Quintana, Jackie Treehorn's house, and what cell phones looked like in the early 1990's.

Similar to the problem I had with assigning a rating to "Clerks," how can you be objective about a film you've seen twenty or more times?  It's not a perfect film, but I can't think of a single thing that might have improved it (and I've read a number of books related to the film - the level of thought that went into making this film is impressive).  I guess the fact that I've watched it so many times removes the need to think about it in those terms.  It's "The Big Lebowski," one of my favorite films.  It's a singular, unique piece of film-making. It might not be to everyone's taste, but there are plenty of us who would disagree with you.

4.5 / 5 - Blu-Ray