Monday, April 30, 2012

John Carter - 2012

"John Carter" - 2012
Dir. by Andrew Stanton - 2 hrs. 12 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There was a persistent narrative in the media about "John Carter" for the first month or so of it's release, about what a bomb it was.  Granted, it didn't immediately set the box office afire, but it did eventually cover costs worldwide.  It seems like that story popped up more as a sign of the times, with the idea of hanging a costly boondoggle around the neck of a giant media conglomerate.  I suppose that was supposed to make everyone feel better about the recession that we're trying to claw our way out of, to think that the big guys didn't have it any better than anyone else.  I should add that I wasn't particularly captivated by the trailers that I saw - I hadn't read any of the source material (I was aware of the character because it's part of a piece of comic-book trivia: Frank Miller's first published artwork was in a 1970's Marvel Comics series about this character), so there was no reason to expect anything other than something in the realm of "Prince of Persia."

But something funny happened.  It seemed for a couple of weeks, every time I logged onto Twitter, someone different was saying what a fantastic time they had watching "John Carter."  One after another, recommending that people ignore the media chatter and go see it for themselves.  And that caught my interest.  I'm not adverse to big action/adventure movies, and seeing people willing to recommend something that was being widely mocked?  Interesting.

The titular character (Taylor Kitsch) is a civil-war veteran; aggressive, uninterested in taking orders from anyone, and mired in a seemingly futile search for a cave full of gold in the southwest.  He gets hauled in by Powell (Bryan Cranston) in an attempt to draft him into the U.S. Army; they have need of his particular skills, as there are constant skirmishes with local Native Americans.  Carter wants nothing to do with it, and escapes his jail cell.  In the chase, the soldiers (and Carter) encounter a band of Apaches, and things go quickly south.  Powell is wounded, Carter saves him and they escape into some nearby mountains.  Luckily enough, the cave they hide in turns out to be the cave that Carter has been looking for, but he encounters a strange being.  The upshot: Carter is transported to Mars in a flash (although he doesn't learn that for a while).  Once on Mars (which is called Barsum by the Martians), he discovers that he can jump extraordinary distances and is far stronger than any of the natives (it's a matter of gravity - having a physique made for the demands of Earth makes Carter nearly a super-hero on Barsum).  These skills are useful to nearly all of the Martians, as it's a planet in strife.

If it seems like that doesn't really leave much room for interesting plot developments, you'd be wrong about that.  I'm being vague because the turns are excellent, and the entire film really is a roller-coaster ride (if you like roller-coasters; feel free to substitute whatever ride you prefer if roller-coasters make you a little sick, like they do with me).  It's a clever, smart film for a big sci-fi thing, but the film doesn't make a big deal about that.  If you catch some of the smaller details, you'll be rewarded, but not catching things won't detract.  To further the roller-coaster analogy, "John Carter" is a fast, fun movie.  One action sequence flows into another, and there's a light-hearted sense of humor present that goes a long way.  I kind of feel that to talk about a lot of the details of the movie would spoil just how much fun the whole thing is.  So I'll just talk about how wonderful the Princess of Mars, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) is.  Aside from Collins' stunning beauty, the character is everything you'd hope a princess would be: smart, selfless, and a warrior when need be.  She's a character that her own people can look up to, which is a refreshing difference from how princesses are frequently portrayed.

I had more fun watching this film than I've had in a long time.  It's not a surprise that director Andrew Stanton was capable of telling a good story (he's responsible for the Pixar hits "Finding Nemo" and "Wall-E"), and this is a worthy addition to his list of credits.  But, considering how badly people talked about "John Carter," I was more than pleasantly surprised at just how good of a movie this was.  Who knows if there will ever be a sequel (storyline-wise, that's a reasonable option), but I'd be in line to see it .

4 / 5 - Theatre

Friday, April 27, 2012

Ferris Bueller's Day Off - 1986

"Ferris Bueller's Day Off" - 1986
Dir. by John Hughes - 1 hr. 43 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

No matter how awful the decade, there are still positive things to be found in it's aftermath.  I am decidedly not a big "1980's" fan; I grew up in it, and surviving it once was enough.  But some of the movies (comedies, in particular) have held up pretty well.  "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" is one of the very best comedies from that era, and unlike most of the films that fit that bill, there's no one in the cast who is primarily considered a "comedian."

This film is the story of the titular character, Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick), a high-school student who has decided to play hooky.  But seeing as how this is his tenth absence of term, it's going to have to count.  He drags his best friend, Cameron (Alan Ruck), and his girlfriend (Mia Sara) into his scheme: a day trip to Chicago.  In order to do that, Ferris must out-smart his parents, teachers, his principal (Jeffrey Jones), and even his sister, Jeanie (Jennifer Grey).  When put in glib terms like this, it might sound like a brutal film to get through, but as is par for the course with comedies, at least half of the battle is the execution.

And the execution is damn-near perfect.  Matthew Broderick plays Ferris with a lack of malice; he's not a wise-cracking borderline-psychotic asshole, he's just a kid who doesn't want to go to school because it's a nice day, and then doesn't want to spend it alone, so he gets his close friends to go along with him.  He's also someone who's default setting is "why not," so when an opportunity presents itself, he takes advantage of it.  The character is written as someone who has already planned for everything, even if only barely, and there's a lot of fun to be had in seeing his ruses play out (even if it's kind of absurd, but the absurdity is kind of the point.  As Bill Hicks put it, life is a ride).  It's also a necessary counterpoint to the characters who are infuriated by his ability to get away with things (Principal Ed Rooney and his sister, Jeanie).  If there was ever a sense that Ferris was trying to get one over on the system or on an individual, it would really harm the goodwill the character generates, but that never pops up.  Ferris simply wants to have a nice day away from school, which is a sentiment we've all had at one point or another.

Another important factor: the other characters aren't really made fools of.  Someone doesn't have to lose in order for Ferris to win, which is probably the core message of the film.  The only character that really gets embarrassed is Principal Rooney, but that's only because he pushes so hard against Ferris.  Jeanie ends up in a police station at one point because (in a round-about way) she's pushing against Ferris (in a memorable scene with Charlie "Drugs" Sheen), but when she heeds Sheen's advice, things straighten out for her.  It's an important point "Ferris Bueller" makes, that people who are infuriated by other people's happiness are bound for a bad end.  It's only through the pursuit of your own happiness (and sharing that with others) that one can accomplish anything.

The other half of the battle is that this is a genuinely funny film.  It's a bit ahead of it's time, in terms of referencing pop culture (and not in an annoying, short-cut kind of way - perhaps the greatest example of this is the use of the "Stars War" theme, easily a decade before everyone and their uncle started having their way with every little detail of the Star Wars franchise), which makes it feel as if it's not as old of a film as it is.  There are probably at least half a dozen memorable scenes here, which is a sort of litmus test for a really great comedy.  Even relatively minor jokes have had a life of their own (like Ben Stein's droning, "Bueller?  Bueller?"), but the big scenes are great, too (like the parade scene, or the police station scene with Grey and Sheen, or Ferris' race home, or the demise of Cameron's dad's car, or the lunch "Abe Froman" scene, or...).  There's no shortage of really funny material, from the opening scene all the way to after the credits.  And you can even see the influence of this movie on other films, from the contraption-based humor of another John Hughes film, "Home Alone," to the somewhat tortured time-travel logic of the "Bill and Ted's" movies.  There's nothing more you can ask for than for a comedy to still be laugh-out-loud funny twenty-five years on, and for other filmmakers to adopt pieces of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" for their own purposes.

5 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Three Stooges - 2012

"The Three Stooges" - 2012
Dir. by Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly - 1 hr. 32 min.

Official Trailer #2

by Clayton Hollifield

I feel like it's important to get the level of my expectations for "The Three Stooges" out of the way before we get into the dissection.  The trailers looked awful, literally everyone I know would cringe (at the least) at the thought of this film, and there's literally no chance I would have gone to see this film if it weren't for the "free" ticket attached to the Blu-Ray edition of "Dodgeball" ("free" is in quotes because I still had to pay another $.75 over the value of the voucher for a ticket to a matinee showing.  I'm not sure which end is being a cheapskate on this issue, but it's another drop in the bucket of negative expectations going in).  A couple of weeks ago, the lead actors made a in-character guest appearance on WWE's "Monday Night Raw," which was mainly a vehicle to show off Will Sasso's Hulk Hogan impersonation (worth mentioning: Hogan actually works for a WWE competitor at the moment), during which the crowd sat on it's hands.  Credit to Sasso: it was a good impersonation, and he actually took an impact move from a much larger wrestler during the segment.  But still, there's been literally nothing at all about this film that suggests it would be even watchable in the promotion for it.

Mitigating all of this: it's a PG-rated film, so I know going that it's not going to be a high-brow comedy, and the fact that it's directed by Bobby and Peter Farrelly, who have at least a couple of great comedies under their belt.  So even though "The Three Stooges" looks like a dog, there's at least some talent involved, and it's not unheard of for a studio to botch the advertising campaign for a film.

My interest in "The Three Stooges" is a little more abstract; I was curious as to how the filmmakers would approach making what is essentially a cover version of another comedy act.  Movies and TV shows get re-made all the time, and have been since the dawn of cinema.  But the act of trying to re-create something that's come before is fairly rare.  Gus Van Sant remade Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" shot-for-shot, and while it was interesting in an academic sense (and I'm certain it was an interesting exercise for Van Sant), I'm not sure there are many people who would call it a successful movie.  In comedies, the closest thing I can think of right now are the "Brady Bunch" movies, but other than re-creating the house and indulging in a few call-back moments from the original series, it was more of a fish-out-of-water story than an attempt to tell a new story with the same characters.  I'll admit that my knowledge of cinema history isn't as comprehensive as it could be, but the idea of using new actors to impersonate an established property, and then try to earnestly tell a new story on that basis (as in, no winking to the audience or relying on the irony of the situation to carry the humor) isn't something that I'd seen before.

Deep breath, preamble over!

The story in "The Three Stooges" is a well-worn one, split into three sections (complete with title cards and all).  To keep it short, this is "save the house" film; after a chunk of film establishing the Stooges as orphans, as adults, they have to come up with a staggering sum of money to pay off debts that the orphanage has incurred.  They are wrangled into a murder-for-hire plot which would cover the sum (it's not as dark as it sounds), which goes awry.  That's about all you need to know, because the plot exists solely to keep the Stooges moving along into different physical comedy pieces.  That's not a negative; if you're interested in seeing this film, that's likely the draw.  The repeated process is to introduce the characters into a new scenario, introduce the props that are available, and then watch how the whole thing comes together.

And it's worth mentioning that this formula is effective.  I found the first act to be the least-effective, but the hospital scene in the second act and the anniversary party scene in the third worked well.  The comedy is broad and physical, and it's fine to resent that other than THAT'S THE ENTIRE REASON YOU WOULD SEE A "THREE STOOGES" MOVIE.  And it's fine to roll your eyes a bit at the idea of the Stooges running wild in a hospital (as if that's never been done before!), except the target audience of this film probably doesn't have decades of movie-watching under their belt, and so it's new to them.  And also, it's pretty funny.  Having a pissing-baby battle in the maternity ward (while Larry and Curly are in drag as nurses) is a pretty funny idea, and the execution is good.  The scenes come together well, showing that the Farrelly brothers definitely do know how to build a comedy scene.  And really, the only difference between this PG-rated comedy and R-rated ones is that here, all the violence is above the waist.  Slapstick isn't dead, it's just evolved into a crotch-centric genre.

It's also worth mentioning that Will Sasso's Curly is a lot of fun to watch.  Once you get past the stylized sound effects and mannerisms, it's apparent that for a big guy, he can really move.  A lot of the enjoyment I got out of this film came from watching his physical abilities.  I don't want to pretend that it was enough to prop up the entire movie, but since I was already there, and he deserves a tip of the cap, I'm more than willing to offer that.  The other two leads, Moe (Chris Diamantopoulos) and Larry (Sean Hayes) also do a good job with what they've got to work with, but my eyes kept going back to Sasso for the entire movie.

"The Three Stooges" was a lot better than I figured it would be, going in.  It would have been almost impossible for it not to be.  But I still can't figure out why on Earth the film got made.  The original Stooges are so far in the past that I can't believe there was some pent-up demand for more adventures.  And the resulting film isn't so great that it would have demanded to get made, either.  It's a more interesting approach to a movie "cover song," in that it's an attempt to re-contextualize classic characters without emphasizing their chronological "otherness" or a mere re-creation, but I didn't think it really succeeded at providing a foundation for more "Stooges" material.  To put it more plainly, even removed from the intellectual approach, it wasn't that great.

But thank goodness it didn't suck as badly as the trailers.  At least there's that.

2 / 5 - Theatre

Monday, April 16, 2012

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story - 2004

"Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" - 2004
Dir. by Rawson Marshall Thurber - 1 hr. 32 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

For official record keeping purposes, the version I watched was the unrated Blu-Ray cut; I couldn't tell you what the difference between the versions is, and there's only one minute's difference in the run times listed at IMDB for the theatrical version and on the packaging for the unrated version.

I don't know exactly what makes up the difference between a pretty good comedy and a really good comedy, but there is a difference.  And whatever that difference is, it's what's missing from "Dodgeball."  But also, after saying that, I also know that I'm going to have to walk that assessment back a bit, because it makes the film sound a lot worse than I think it is.  But also, on re-watching "Dodgeball" for the first time in a few years, it wasn't quite as good as I'd remembered it being.

"Dodgeball" is a classic "save the house" film: Average Joe's gym is being foreclosed upon (to be turned into a parking structure for rival Globo-Gym.  Even though gym owner Peter LaFleur (Vince Vaughn) seems more than willing to go down without a fight, his core group of gym-goers are willing to follow him to any lengths to raise the $50k needed to pay off the debt.  They include Steve the Pirate (Alan Tudyk), high-school cheerleader wannabe Justin (Long), bespectacled mail-order bride owner Gordon (Stephen Root), the gym's trainer, Dwight (Chris Williams), and befuddled team manager Owen (Joel David Moore).  These men, along with bank employee Kate Veatch (Christine Taylor), end up entering a dodgeball tournament who's cash prize is coincidentally $50k.  Globo-Gym also enters a team of ringers, led by White Goodman (Ben Stiller), for the sole purpose of trying to personally deny the Average Joes the money they need.  Yes, it's an incredibly dickish move, but a lot of the fun in this film comes from Stiller's bizarre character, and this is par for the course.

So here's the point where I try to explain why I think this is only pretty good, and not really good.  It's a tough call, especially since there are at least a couple of really classic, great comedy scenes present.  Chief among those is a one-scene appearance by Lance Armstrong, with a devastating, self-aware, yet devoid of malice instant assessment of LaFleur's situation.  There's easily a handful of heavily-quoted scenes, as well.  Everyone knows, nobody makes me bleed my own blood.  Also, thank you, Chuck Norris.  There's great scenes, memorable lines, a good cast, outrageous characters, and a foul-mouthed old man (Rip Torn playing the team's coach, Patches O'Houlihan).  So why is this movie like a B-minus instead of a B-plus?

There are a few things that chip away at the overall film.  First off, I wasn't that impressed by Vince Vaughn this time around.  He's funny in the way he's frequently funny, but as this character was written, Peter LaFleur just doesn't care about what happens one way or another.  I get the notion of having a lead character with an ironic sense of ambivalence, and it makes for some funny exchanges.  At the same time, it's leaning too heavily on irony as the source of humor; if Peter doesn't care what happens, why would a viewer?  There are a few points that a "save the house" movie has to hit in order to add up at the end, and one of them is the character arc of rousing an ambivalent/slacker-ish character to action.  This movie is already playing within the confines of that formula, but misses the mark on that point.

The second thing that I found slightly less charming than I might have before is the overacting by ten or fifteen percent thing that's going on.  It makes sense with some of the more outlandish characters (particularly Stiller's, and he's fantastic at it), but it gets exhausting when everyone's doing it.  It's another symptom of leaning too heavily on irony to carry the comedic load; some of the characters don't have any solid footing.  I don't need an explanation for Steve the Pirate, it's better off unexplained.  But there are scenes to be found at various points featuring any of the characters mugging for the camera.  It's not overt enough to be obsequious, but there's a habit overplaying things for a beat in a really unsubtle way, and it makes me want to withhold my laughter so as not to reward the lack of directorial confidence in the material and actors.  The third thing, not big enough to warrant its own paragraph, is the debt that "Dodgeball" owes to "BASEketball."  It's not a big enough deal to call shenanigans on, and this is definitely the better (and vastly more successful) of the two films, but some of the gags (from the wacky, themed teams, to the sportscaster parodies, and even basing a film around a pseudo-sport) are retreads.  The borrowed ideas are put to good use, but it's worth mentioning.

But it's a pretty good movie.  I feel like I have to keep repeating that; I had some very specific qualms watching it this time around, but I still enjoyed it very much.  It's in the top tier of both Ben Stiller's and Vince Vaughn's comedies, but not quite at the same level as "Zoolander" or "Tropic Thunder."  But, after spending all that time splitting hairs, I'll end on a positive note.  My favorite scene in the whole movie, and the one guaranteed to make me laugh every time is a small response from Justin Long, when he randomly meets the cheerleader that he's got a crush on all the way in Las Vegas.  A male cheerleader shoos the girl away from Justin, and flips him the bird.  Justin's response is a baffled, quiet, "What?"  It's just one moment, but the response is perfect; both amazed and confused that a random meeting with this beautiful girl has so quickly turned into being thrown an obscene gesture.  The Lance Armstrong scene has legs, and there are great bits scattered all the way through "Dodgeball."  But that one little moment from Justin Long kills me every time.

3.5 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Wanderlust - 2012

"Wanderlust" - 2012
Dir. by David Wain - 1 hr. 38 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I'm going to get straight to the point, here.  I think I've seen this film before.  No, I don't mean that there's some film out there that "Wanderlust" has copied, nor have I literally been in the theatre to see this film at an earlier date.  My problem is that this film seems to be cobbled together out of leftover pieces of earlier Paul Rudd films.  There's the hippie aspect of "My Idiot Brother," and the same character story arc that he's played over and over again (stable situation goes unstable, he ends up blowing up at everyone, and then has to learn to adapt and appreciate those around him as they are).  I really, really wanted to like this movie going in, but it just didn't quite happen.

George (Paul Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston) are New Yorkers, and banking on their future success finally take the plunge into buying a "micro-loft."  Naturally, this being a comedy, both are doomed to immediate failure (Linda's meeting with HBO over a documentary about penguins with testicular cancer quickly descends into a hilarious boiling down of what HBO seems to be interested in, while George's company is seized by the feds, plunging him into unemployment).  They flee the city for George's brother's (Ken Marino) place in Atlanta, but stop over at a B&B called "The Elysium" on the drive down.  It's an "intentional community," and they have the time of their life.  Hesitantly, they continue on their journey to the brother's house, but end up boomeranging right back to the Elysium when the living situation in Atlanta quickly goes south.

There is a lot of funny material here; while it would be very easy to eviscerate the hippie lifestyle (something a less sympathetic portrayal likely wouldn't have hesitated to do), and especially through the somewhat cynical Rudd character, it's shown as a sort of absurdity that works for the people involved.  On the surface, a nudist vintner (Wayne, played by Joe Lo Truglio) who also is working on a novel sounds silly and stupid, and the humor that would likely arise from that character would be cruel and centered on detachment from reality rather than from someone earnestly striving to accomplish their goals.  And there are probably half a dozen of these characters, each in their own distinct vein, and there's an honest attempt not to make the easy jokes.  They may be largely hazy, vague, and overly concerned with nature and all of that hooey, but they're still people (albeit with a higher quirk quotient than most would be comfortable accommodating), and that level of effort is deeply appreciated.

Unfortunately, I feel like this is a film that punishes you if you're familiar with Rudd's work.  In particular, if you've seen "Role Models" or "Knocked Up," his character arc is going feel very familiar.  Then, if you throw that character into "My Idiot Brother," (the actress that plays his ex-girlfriend in that film, Kathryn Hahn, plays an identical character in this film) you've got a pretty direct hit on what's going on here.  Looking back over his body of work, I'm not sure why I reacted so strongly to the repetition of certain elements.  It's not as if he's been doing exactly this kind of work for decades (and the supporting characters are memorable and funny, and co-star Aniston is game and able for her role), but "Wanderlust" isn't a movie that I'd necessarily want to watch again.  Whatever positive points that "Wanderlust" has to offer, I feel like there are other films that in Rudd's career that do each of those things better.

2.5 / 5 - Theatre

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Repo Man - 1984

"Repo Man" - 1984
Dir. by Alex Cox - 1 hr. 32 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Repo Man" is a product of its time and environment, in the best possible way.  There's no way this film would be made today, and if it was, it would be a forgettable throw-away.  Instead, it's a low-budget film (calling it indie would be inaccurate, as it was distributed by Universal Pictures) that absolutely nails the early 80s punk Los Angeles, and then throws in some sci-fi elements to keep things interesting.

The movie kicks off with a visibly crazy man being pulled over in the desert by policeman.  Long story short, the cop gets evaporated by whatever's in the trunk of the Chevy Malibu, and the crazy guy drives on.  The main character of the story, Otto (Emilio Estevez), is introduced as he's being fired from his stock-boy job at a grocery store for not paying close enough attention to the spacing of the cans of peaches.  He goes out middle fingers blazing.  At a party after, he finds his girlfriend (I think, it's not particularly well explained) in bed with his friend who has just gotten out of jail (or juvie, probably), and stalks off.  It's not so much that Otto is disappointed; he pretty much thinks that everything around him sucks, and finding the girl he's with with another guy in his spot in bed is just another drop in the bucket.

While Otto is literally kicking a can along the sidewalk, Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) asks him to help him out by driving another car to the hospital, using some dodgy story about his wife being pregnant.  Otto agrees for $25, but they end up at a repo lot.  Otto initially doesn't want anything to do with being a repo man, but ends up as Bud's trainee.  Fortunately, the lessons usually come over drinks, lines of coke, or during car chases with rival repo men, so the whole situation manages to keep Otto's attention.  After some more things have happened, the Chevy Malibu pops up with a $20,000 bounty on it's head, and the focus of the film turns toward getting ahold of this vehicle.

There are several things working in this film's favor.  First, it's a very self-contained universe.  The science-fiction elements are immediately introduced, so there's never one of those "left turn" moments in the film.  You know from the beginning that it's part of the story.  Also, there's a high attention to detail.  Literally everything consumable in the film is packaged with a generic white label: Otto eats out of a can of "food," the characters drink "beer" or "drink," even the cereal in the background of the liquor store is plainly labelled "corn flakes."  It was a common message in punk music of that era that everything was just bland and pointless, even down to the entertainment.  That's expressed through the flair-less packaging of almost everything, the deliberately "square" clothing that Otto adopts on Bud's recommendation, and the almost oppressive lack of joy the characters feel throughout the film.  There's a scene in the film that shows us Otto's family, vapidly staring at their TV set, watching a televangelist do his thing.  But before that, we've seen Otto drinking, and singing his version of this punk classic:

Again, seeing his family like that isn't a surprise.  Pretty much everything sucks, and there's not much surprise left in the world.  But being a repo man means constant excitement, which is the appeal that the job holds for Otto.

For me, one of the biggest reasons that I enjoyed this film (and feel like it would be difficult to do today) is that there isn't a pervasive sense of irony in the portrayal of the characters.  Certainly, some of the characters do things that would undermine their image (particularly with Duke, who tries to come off like a hard criminal, but when prompted to go commit some crimes comes up with the idea of eating sushi and not paying for it), and there's a level of irony to that, but not in how the actors portray the characters.  There aren't any winks to the audience: Otto really is an angry asshole of a kid, but he's focused on whatever he's doing at the time.  Same for everyone else in the film, as well.  The audience isn't supposed to view it as actors wearing costumes without any attachment to the role (a sort of nihilism that undermines humor), the humor comes out of things not going how these characters plan for them to.  Especially in a movie where many of the characters are members of a sub-culture, not taking that seriously would doom the tone of this film.

I really enjoyed "Repo Man."  It's not supposed to be high-brow, intellectual entertainment, it's a punk rock movie with aliens, drugs, and car chases in it.  But it fully embodies what it's trying to be about, and that makes it successful.  That it's really funny is a nice bonus, too.

4 / 5 - Streaming

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance - 2012

"Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance" - 2012
Dir. by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor - 1 hr. 35 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

First off, if you're in any way annoyed/offended by Marvel Comics' treatment of Ghost Rider co-creator Gary Friedrich, feel free to direct your attention/dollars to this benefit t-shirt.  I intend to, myself.

Onto the movie, which isn't very good.  You could probably tell that from the trailer, but let me reinforce that point.  There are concrete reasons for why this isn't a good movie, some of which are entirely unrelated to the source material.  But, since I brought it up, let's address the source material.  One thing has been proven in regards to comic book adaptations: if there isn't already a definitive story to refer to, Hollywood is largely unable to create one.  It's the dividing line that ought to be used when determining whether or not to make a movie based on any given character.  The biggies (and the most creatively successful franchises) like Batman, Spider-Man, or the X-Men all have numerous famous stories that you could pick up and use as the foundation for a movie.  The unsuccessful ones (and I'm counting the ones that have multiple attempts), like the Incredible Hulk, Punisher, or Ghost Rider movies, for the most part don't have any stories that you'd hand to someone as an ideal representation of those characters.  Good stories, sure, but Batman has at least half a dozen stories that you'd need to read before you had a good grasp of the character.  Speaking as someone who's read more than a few Ghost Rider comics, the essential Ghost Rider story either doesn't yet exist, or there just isn't one.

And over these multiple attempts that just never click with characters like Ghost Rider, the vacuum that exists where a definitive story ought to live has never been filled in adequately by any Hollywood screenwriter.  Ghost Rider, as a character, is pretty much a cool visual and spooky Devil nonsense.  When you hand this half-formed mess to filmmakers like Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, whose resume includes directing the "Crank" films and "Gamer," as well as writing the hot garbage of "Jonah Hex," it's highly unlikely that they're going to build anything meaningful on such unstable ground.  Yes, there's fire and explosions everywhere, but they also take Johnny Blaze from a teetotaler in the previous movie (remember his infamous martini glass of jelly beans) to an alcoholic pill-popper in an effort to lend some PG-13 grittiness to the proceedings.

I feel like I've adequately expressed why and how this movie isn't very good, and I don't think there's any reason to keep beating that dead horse.  Instead, I'll take a gleeful turn, and let you know that pretty much every bit of joy that there is to be had in this film is due to Nicolas Cage's fantastic over-acting.  Most people would be demoralized to have to produce such an awful film (and really, if there's anything about this film that I've overlooked that would suggest that the goal was anything other than producing a hot turd in a vain attempt to turn a quick buck, I beg you to let me know what it is), but it seems to energize Cage instead.  I respect his commitment to go down enjoying himself, and I honestly wish that I was capable of mustering that much energy in a lost cause.  There are a couple of line-readings that are absolutely fantastic when they have no business being anything more than drek (particularly his, "Yeah.  Black, French, alcoholic priest, kind of a dick.  Why, do you know him?" when asked about another character, which rivals some of Julianne Moore's best stylized dialogue deliveries in "The Big Lebowski").  If you're going to see this movie, Cage is the sole reason to do so.

There's not much reason to delve into the plot (typical "save the kid from the evil religious boogeyman" nonsense), or much of anything else.  When things weren't getting shot or blown up, "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance" was boring.  Boring as Hell, you might even say.  That was at least half of the film, and even at it's modest run time, there was still way too much of the trademark Neveldine/Taylor video-game inspired "reach the checkpoint" storytelling going on, and not nearly enough actual character development.  I mean, if you're going to make a whole movie about a biker with a flaming head having to save some kid from the Devil, at least try to make me care about any of the characters.  Start with one, and work from there.  If a filmmaker can't manage that, at least blow some more shit up.

1.5 / 5 - Theatre

Monday, April 2, 2012

Jeff, Who Lives at Home - 2011

"Jeff, Who Lives at Home" - 2011
Dir. by Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass - 1 hr. 23 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I suspect that how much a viewer enjoys "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" depends highly on his or her tolerance for meandering in general.  There are a lot of movies like that, particularly in the indie realm, where a certain ambiguity is what defines a character's existence.  To put it another way, "Armageddon" would be a much different film if Bruce Willis didn't have a clear vision for his own life, and instead of acting decisively, liked to smoke weed in his mom's basement and try to work things out.  Not better or worse, but definitely different.

In "Jeff," the titular character is played by Jason Segel, who is a 30-year living in his mom's basement (literally), and we're introduced to him waxing eloquent on the merits of "Signs" on the john, and then smoking weed by himself, in the A.M.  It's his mother's birthday (Sharon, played by Susan Sarandon), and all she wants from him is for Jeff to go to the home improvement store, get some supplies, and fix a wood shutter in her kitchen.  She even drafts her other son, Pat (Ed Helms), saying that Jeff is "stuck," and could probably use some help from his brother to get unstuck.  Pat's mired in an unhappy marriage himself, and is kind of an asshole.  The general situation is a little more complicated than that, especially Sharon's, and thankfully so.  She's involved in a "secret admirer" flirtation at her office that has her at turns twitterpated and humiliated, and it's a meaty sub-role for Sarandon to bite into.

Jeff's real issue is that he does believe in destiny, and while he's open to following whims (a wrong-number phone call for "Kevin" sends Jeff off on what seem like tangents, at least at first), he just can't figure out what he's supposed to be doing.  So while it might seem like a simple task to take the bus to a Home Depot to get some wood glue, coming across another bus-rider named Kevin turns it into an adventure.  His brother is the opposite; always convinced that he's in the right, locked in an unhappy relationship, and having to deal with his idiot pot-head brother, all the while knowing that there's no help coming for him.  Part of that is his overbearing personality, part of it is just his situation.  As with any odd-couple story-line, at some point they're going to have to come to appreciate what each other has to offer, but it's a rocky road.

There are likely two vastly divergent opinions of what I have just described.  If you're a Pat, this probably sounds awful.  The idea of having to put up with a film (even as short as this one is) that just won't get to the fucking point, already is untenable.  And I'm not going to tell you that you're wrong on that point.  While things do happen, it's all in the service of navel-gazing, and you might find that uncomfortable (at best), but more likely boring.  Go ahead and pop in that copy of "Armageddon," to each his own.  But if you're more like Jeff (in temperament, the recreational drug use is completely optional), there are points that might definitely hit home.  For whatever reason, Jeff is out of friends and down to his family, whom don't really understand where's he's coming from.  He had hoped that something meaningful would have occurred to him by this point to point him in the right direction for his life, and despite the fact that he's actively trying to figure things out, it just hasn't happened.  That's a sentiment that I think a lot of people can empathize with.

Comparing movies to other movies is always unfair, but at the same time, necessary.  Nobody would listen to me go on this long about any movie in a conversation, but if I told you that this was kind of like "The Darjeeling Limited" without the scenery mixed with a bit of Richard Linklater's work, I think you'd be able to see the ballpark that "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" is playing in.  This isn't my favorite movie of it's ilk, but I'm partial to this sort of situation, and it's a quality addition to the Sibling Misunderstanding/Mired Adult section of your local video store.  But if you don't already look in that section, there are probably half a dozen reasons that immediately come to mind as to why you should probably just keep walking until you hit that Exploding Asteroid section.

3.5 / 5 - Theatre