Monday, May 21, 2012

The Dictator - 2012

"The Dictator" - 2012
Dir. by Larry Charles - 1 hr. 23 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"The Dictator" is closer to "Ali G Indahouse" than it is to "Borat."  That's not to say that it's not funny, but it's something to keep in mind if you're debating whether or not to see "The Dictator."  This is not an extended prank movie with real reactions, it's a scripted comedy.  Sacha Baron Cohen is good at those, too, but without the natural reactions of non-actors, some of the comedy lacks a punch.

Cohen plays Admiral General Haffaz Aladeen, a brutal dictator in the fictional African country of Wadiya.  When he comes to the United States to address the U.N., he is ousted from power and replaced with a imbecilic double.  Of course, this doesn't sit well with him, and with the help of Zoey (Anna Faris), he tries to adapt to life in America (while secretly plotting to get his dictatorship back).  If that sounds like a thin plot, you'd partially be right.  It's a very short film, and the plot isn't really the point.  It's a reason to move Aladeen from situation to situation, and is sufficient for that cause.

I guess the first thing to address is the hand-wringing over whether or not a viewer should be offended by this film.  There are a number of reasons why you might be (or feel like you ought to be), but Cohen's made enough films that what you'd see in "The Dictator" shouldn't come as a surprise (or at least the level of the humor, there is certainly shock value here).  But also, Cohen is a very aggressive comedian.  Rather than taking the role of underdog, he tends to play delusional characters that behave badly because they don't know any better.  A lot of the fun that comes from watching Cohen act is in his aggressively bad behavior; when he gets excited hearing about a "rape center," Aladeen doesn't exactly wink when suggesting that he and Zoey make a night of visiting there).  So, rather than condemning Cohen for his comedic approach, I'd acknowledge that it's not for everyone, and suggest that if you're taken aback by anything in "The Dictator," for heaven's sake please never watch "Bruno."

And for a couple of reasons, "The Dictator" falls short of both "Borat" and "Bruno."  For one thing, it's just not quite as funny.  There are scenes here that are good, and Aladeen's pointed speech at the end of the film explaining how America behaves like a dictatorship (in so many words) is excellent.  At the same time, just like the scene towards the end of "Bruno" involving two mixed martial artists stopping their match to make out in the cage in a southern town, the people who probably should understand the message are going to be put off by the method of delivery.  The deliberately confrontational approach is a valid one, and Cohen is determined to mess with his audience at every turn.  But rather than having the distance of being able to laugh at the people that Cohen is interacting with on-screen, many of the characters in "The Dictator" turn into straight-men for Aladeen to steam-roll.  Even with comedically-risky segments, what's missing here that was present in Cohen's other starring roles is a sense of danger.  There's no chance of a politician storming off, or of Cohen's character getting shot by a hunter that he's hitting on.  I feel like I would have enjoyed this film a lot more if I hadn't seen anything else that Cohen's done, because this felt like a step backwards.  That's not exactly fair to "The Dictator," but I couldn't put his previous work out of my mind as the bar to judge this film by.

My "three of five" ratings threshold is based on whether or not I'd want to re-watch a movie again.  If not, the film has to be less than three stars.  I enjoyed "The Dictator," but I suspect that once all the shock humor has been ingested, it wouldn't play nearly as well a second time around.  So while this film does feature the greatest on-screen appearance Blake Griffin's ever made, I'd be surprised if I ever sat down to watch "The Dictator" again.

2.5 / 5 - Theatre

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Avengers - 2012

"The Avengers" - 2012
Dir. by Joss Whedon - 2 hrs. 23 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Long-term planning is both difficult, and impressive when it actually comes off.  If you want to count Ang Lee's "Hulk," which came out in 2003, Marvel Comics has been working towards this film for nearly a decade.  That's an incredible amount of patience and planning, but again, when it works, you've got a real gem on your hands.

On the off chance that you're not familiar with The Avengers, it's based on a comic book that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby co-created in the early 1960's (although Captain America was created around twenty years before that by Kirby and Joe Simon).  At least in this movie, the team of super-heroes (TM Marvel Comics and DC Comics, and no, I'm not kidding about that) is comprised of Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), under the leadership of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and S.H.I.E.L.D., which is a super-secret spy organization.  We've met most of these characters in the series of movies leading up to "The Avengers," but even if we hadn't, they're all introduced well here.

The action kicks off when Loki (Thor's adopted, insanely-jealous brother, played by Tom Hiddleston) drops in on Earth, and steals a powerful device called the Tesseract.  Loki intends to trade the device to the leader of an alien army, who will then help enslave Earth.  This is largely a ploy to get back at Thor, as he's taken a liking to Earth.  Nick Fury's been planning for such a situation, and calls the Avengers in to retrieve the Tesseract.  If you know much about the characters involved, them acting like a team is not natural to anyone.  The whole thing comes down to the Avengers defending the city of New York against Loki and his alien hordes.  If that sounds like a rather slight basis for a movie, I'd say two things.  First, you're dealing with about eight characters who have roughly equal billing, and secondly, it's an action movie.  I'm not talking about the details of the action because my words don't have muscles and special effects and loud bangs.  Just trust that the action fills in the gaps nicely.

One of the things that makes "The Avengers" so much fun is the constant ego-clashing.  There are three characters present who have already had their own excellent feature-films (and Hulk, who had two uneven films), and it would stand to reason that Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America all have their own well-defined personalities and quirks, and are largely unaccustomed to having to accommodate others.  They have to earn each other's respect first, and before that happens, there are constant verbal barbs between them, and one spectacular physical showdown that only proves that none of them can punch their way out of  having to deal with one another.  There's also a story between Black Widow and Hawkeye (who is entranced by Loki in their initial battle, and spends a chunk of the film fighting on Loki's side), the closest thing to a love story (albeit a very unsentimental one) here.  For fans who have seen the previous films, the characters all behave just like you'd expect them to (which is difficult when dealing with this many people), and the fireworks that ensue are a huge chunk of what's great here.

And yes, the action here is very satisfying.  There are a lot of spectacular sights, and the extended battle sequence in New York is fantastic.  In lesser films, I'm becoming numb to the city-wide destruction thing; in the trailers before "The Avengers" alone, there were two movies using the same idea.  And that doesn't even include recent films like the "Transformers" series, "Battle: Los Angeles," or even "Fast Five," where Rio takes a hellacious beating.  People who are squeamish about seeing New York get attacked on-screen clearly haven't been watching many action films; this is the standard action movie trope that's getting violently humped into the ground just like the "baddie with a super-virus" plot that was inescapable about ten to fifteen years ago.  So on it's own, that aspect is neither a positive nor a negative (but I'm warning you, filmmakers, this idea is tap-dancing on the border of played out), but it's what is done with it that matters.

The real story here is not about a battle, it's about a group of people with extraordinary abilities setting aside their egos in order to work together to achieve something that one person can't achieve on their own.  How bipartisan!  There are bumps and bruises along the way to achieving that (and the interactions between Cap and Iron Man directly address that), but this is a movie about the need for cooperation (in the way that the Batman movies are about dealing with terrorism) between diametrically opposed forces.  The message isn't heavy-handed, but when you've got a dyed-in-the-wool patriot having to cooperate with a billionaire playboy and a legit God from Asgard, and they're all literally fighting to save America, you can make of that what you will (Congress, I'm looking in your direction).

But with the years of anticipation building for fans of the Avengers, is this really the best comic book movie ever made?  No, I'd have to say it isn't.  It's easily on par with the films leading up to it, with the added bonus of finally getting to see established characters interact with one another, and it's a damned fine film.  For my money, "The Dark Knight" is as good as it gets.  But then again, "The Avengers" is an entirely different beast.  It's intended to be about rad characters doing awesome things and bickering with one another.  It satisfies on all of those levels, thank goodness.  Dropping the ball after so much build-up would have been unbearable.

NOTE: Usually, I don't like to mention any kind of creative disputes about the creation of a film, but as excellent as Marvel Comics' movies have been, none of it would have been possible without the pencil of Jack Kirby (and legions of other artists, as well).  Unfortunately, Marvel has historically had a difficult time admitting as such, and their continued difficulty is absurd, considering that the Avengers is a billion-dollar movie.  If you're so inclined, read this article and consider making a donation to the Hero Initiative, a charity that helps out the authors and illustrators who have made movies like this possible with their hard work.

4.5 / 5 - Theatre

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Total Recall - 1990

"Total Recall" - 1990
Dir. by Paul Verhoeven - 1 hr. 53 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There's one relevant question about "Total Recall:" do you think that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Paul Verhoeven are going to be able pull off a mind-fuck movie (hey, the term is actually used in the film, so there's no reason to shy away from it in this review)?  And, having just watched this film, I'm not sure I can answer that satisfactorily.  There are things that this film does well, and you can certainly feel the Dickian undertones (not that I've read his fiction (yet), but I've seen enough movies based on his work to be able to ballpark what the tone of his work is), but the strengths aren't as fully related to the premise of the story as they might be.

The story is this: Quaid (Schwarzenegger) is a construction worker, married to what you'd probably have to admit is a woman out of his league (at least based on profession; Sharon Stone plays his wife, Lori), and he keeps waking up from nightmares about a trip to Mars.  He's never been there, and tries to convince his wife to move there, but it's no dice.  The next best thing is offered by a company called Recall; you can purchase the memories of your dream vacation, purportedly indistinguishable from your real memories.  Everyone warns him off of it, but Quaid gives into temptation.  The process goes wrong, leaving Quaid in the middle of a psychic embolism, and all of a sudden everyone starts trying to kill him.  Quaid flees to Mars on his own advice (yes, it makes sense when you see it), and gets caught up in a showdown between the freaks (Martian mutants) and Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), the head honcho on the red planet.

So, from the first question that I posed, there are three things that need to be addressed.  First, what are the strengths of this film, second, how does that relate to Philip K. Dick's work, and thirdly, do Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger manage to pull this off?

There are a few strengths about "Total Recall."  The biggest is probably that this is prime-era Schwarzenegger.  No, he's not a particularly great actor, but that didn't really hold him back from making a few good films along the way.  That just means that you have to cater to what he can do, and put him in a position to succeed.  Verhoeven does just that: Arnie gets to flex, fight people, and look confused a lot.  And he makes great noises, which have been parodied endlessly.  No one nyah's like Arnie nyah's.  The other thing that makes this movie interesting is that director Paul Verhoeven has a very distinct vision of the future, and it's consistent through-out his sci-fi work.  Visually speaking, it's very easy to tie together the general "look" of his best work (that would be "Robocop," "Total Recall," and "Starship Troopers," for the record).  The future is boxy, sleazy, media-saturated, well-lit, and highly class-stratified.  Also, Verhoeven makes excellent use of traditional special effects techniques (here, puppetry and prosthetics are used to great effect).  No, this doesn't have the same level of polish as a computer-animated blockbuster of the current time, but there's a wonky, asymmetrical ugliness to the mutants (for example) that's appealing and fun.  And also, there's a three-boobed hooker.  It's such a bizarre detail, one that doesn't tie into anything else in the film, and yet it's also probably the first thing anyone who's seen "Total Recall" will mention.

Does any of this really relate to Dick's work (which, again for the record, I've only experienced in film adaptations).  Not really.  Verhoeven's strengths don't coincide with moral and ethical considerations.  The idea behind the film is a strong foundation, on which Verhoeven applies his ultra-violence and non-stop satire.  But does that even really matter?  Ultimately, if the film is good, the source material is irrelevant.  I still can't figure out whether or not this is a good movie.  It's certainly of it's time; Arnie delivers nonsensical wisecracks when he offs someone (my favorite: his "Screw you!" to Benny, as he kills him with a giant drill), and the hair is as big as it gets.  What could have been a subtler plot turns into a reason to get from one cool visual to the next (and there's no shortage of those, from Quaid fishing a device the size of a golf-ball out of his nose, to the malfunctioning disguise upon his arrival on Mars, to the mutants, to the three-boobed hooker and more), and it does entertain along the way.

"Total Recall" is definitely worth watch for that reason.  Verhoeven usually errs on the side of too much, which is one of the reasons some of the bizarre visuals have held up over time.  But it's not exactly a good film, and it's also not one of Schwarzenegger's very best films, either.  The bottom line is, if you're looking to watch one of Arnie's films when he was huge, you could do both better and worse than "Total Recall."  But I also guarantee that there will be at least one visual detail here that you'll remember long after you've watched it, which is a triumph of it's own.

3 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Maltese Falcon - 1941

"The Maltese Falcon" - 1941
Dir. by John Huston - 1 hr. 40 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

I swear this is relevant: the first time I sat down and watched "Citizen Kane," I was pretty underwhelmed.  It was easy to intellectually see why it was considered an all-time classic film, but the problem that I had was that it had been so thoroughly spoofed over the years that anything that might even vaguely qualify as a twist or a surprise had been exposed before I could even get to see the film.  It's hard to complain about spoiler alerts about a film that is now over seventy years old, but at least for me, the myriad parodies pretty much destroyed my ability to enjoy something that is considered to be on the short list for best films of all time.

"The Maltese Falcon" has been spoofed and parodied probably just about as much as "Citizen Kane" has, but for whatever reason, it seems to have been aimed less at plot points and more at Humphrey Bogart's portrayal of Sam Spade (and the line he closes the film with, "The stuff dreams are made of.").  So, I haven't had the "Citizen Kane" problem with "The Maltese Falcon," thankfully.

Here's the nuts and bolts about "The Maltese Falcon:" a distraught, beautiful woman named... well, that's complicated.  Her name ends up being Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), and she hires San Francisco private detectives Sam Spade (Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) to retrieve her sister, who is tied up in some business with unsavory characters.  In the course of trying to find the sister, Archer is murdered in the street. While Spade himself isn't quite the upstanding character you might expect, he gets pulled further into matters by Brigid.  More people die, all over the hunt for the Maltese Falcon (the history of which is explained in the film).  To say the least, it's worth money, which means that more unsavory characters are trying to get their grubby hands on it.  That's probably all you need to know about the set-up; I'm not going to "Citizen Kane" you and blow any of the surprises.

And I'll go ahead and get this out of the way: this movie deserves it's reputation.  It's sharp, tight, and fun.  It's a very, very good mystery, with iconic characters (and not just one or two of them), and a doozy of a final monologue by Bogart, which shows a morally-vague man finally doing the hard thing and taking a stand, regardless of what it costs him.  The plot is timeless, as are the motives and actions of the characters.  All in all, "The Maltese Falcon" belongs on whatever lists that "Citizen Kane" is on.

The first thing that really stands out in this film is Bogart's Sam Spade.  He's a cad, he's a dick, and he's got undeniable swagger (and not in the current, cocky, show-offy meaning of the word, either.  Watch the way Spade takes command of a room and plays people off of each other right to their faces).  He's a wise-cracker of the first degree, and when he gets called on that, he asks if he should learn to stutter instead.  It's impossible to not sit back and laugh at the sheer magnitude of the balls Spade displays.  But it's the only way to deal with the sort of people who he deals with.  As far as the supporting characters go, Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Kaspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) are first class foils.  One is an effete foreigner (albeit with excellent timing - the scene where Cairo and Spade first meet is laugh-out-loud hilarious), the other is an obese Brit whose rather grandiose language and formal manners seem to be a put-on of sorts.  Two complete opposites, but they work beautifully together.  There's a suggestion that the two are in a relationship (suggestions being about as far as a film could go in portraying same-sex relationships in those days), along with their gunsel, Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook, Jr.).  Spade rides Wilmer at every opportunity, which also plays into the culmination of the film.

As for the plot, the developments are interesting consistently.  The mystery itself is a good one, but without the iconic performances by the cast, I don't believe that it would be enough to elevate the film beyond standard noir fair.  But throughout the twists and turns, the question that has to be addressed is what of the burgeoning relationship between Brigid and Sam?  It takes excruciating interrogations from Spade to get her to admit the truth about much of anything, but there's also clearly something between them.  It's hard to believe that Spade would stick his neck out if there weren't.  But once the dust has settled, the issue must be addressed, and it's done with in a fiery near-monologue by Bogart.  He starts by telling her that he'll try to explain it to her once, and she still doesn't get it, she'll have plenty of time to think it through.  It takes the entire film for anything to really break through Spade's shell of nonchalance and cleverness, and once we're all there, it feels like a raw nerve has been exposed.

I'm not even sure if this is my favorite Humphrey Bogart film (how do you choose just one?), but he's got a handful of movies that are pretty much flawless.  And "The Maltese Falcon" belongs in that handful of films.  I almost feel like that if you haven't seen this film, you can't really intelligently comment on film.  To be certain, you couldn't really claim to have much knowledge of film noir.  Maybe that's hyping it too much, but watch "The Maltese Falcon" and tell me I'm a liar.

5 / 5 - Theatre

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift - 2006

"The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" - 2006
Dir. by Justin Lin - 1 hr. 44 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

After the awful second installment in this franchise, "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" is back to doing what the first movie did well.  Even better, it's with new characters, a visually interesting setting, and a different angle on the hot babes/rad cars foundation that Vin Diesel and Paul Walker laid down.

Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) is a troubled high-school student, in the sense that he can't seem to avoid getting into trouble.  He and his single mother have had to move repeatedly due to his getting kicked out of schools (for trouble involving street racing), and he quickly gets into another race with a football player, with his girlfriend as the stakes.  It ends with everyone in the hospital, but star football players with rich parents don't get into trouble, and kids with a history of making trouble do.  It's the end of the line with his mother, who sends him off to Japan to live with his estranged father.  Even though there is some culture shock, teenagers doing stupid (but cool) things with cars is universal, and Sean wastes no time falling in with the local semi-legal car scene.  He immediately challenges the relative of a Yakuza member to a race, but drifting is foundation of the Tokyo street racing scene, and Sean wrecks a borrowed car during the course of losing the race.  This puts him in debt to Han (Sung Kang), which plants both of Sean's feet into the shady side of Tokyo.

If one wanted to do a sequel to a movie that had no cast in common with the original film, "Tokyo Drift" is a textbook example of how to do it.  You might debate the foundation in the first place, which is largely a matter of personal preference, but the third installment gets all the things right that the second installment blew.  The cars, muscles, and babes are part of the deal here, but the tone of "Tokyo Drift" is similar to the first "The Fast and the Furious," without telling the exact same story.  Here, the main character of Sean is under heavy pressure from a variety of angles.  If he can't stay out of trouble in Japan, there are no more stops between him and jail time.  He's also in debt to a pseudo-gangster, which largely means that until that's settled, he doesn't have a lot of choice in any matters.  And, much like the romance sub-plot in the first film, Sean falls for Neela (Nathalie Kelley), who just happens to be involved with D.K. (Brian Tee), the aforementioned relative of a Yakuza member, and the guy that Sean lost a race to almost immediately upon arriving in Japan.  The idea of a man under pressure is central to the "Fast and Furious" franchise, and that's effectively communicated here.

The other part that makes this a good sequel is that, while adhering to the tenets of flesh and fast cars, "Tokyo Drift" offers a completely different visual experience, courtesy of Japan.  Thankfully (and oddly enough), the characters all mostly speak English, but Tokyo is a strikingly different setting than Los Angeles. That difference keeps a lot of the elements being repeated fresh.  Also, the different angle on racing (drifting this time, as opposed to American Muscle) opens up a lot of opportunities for different approaches to the big action pieces.  Possibly the most spectacular example comes when D.K. comes after Han and Sean, which naturally ends up in a chase scene.  Having earlier in the film visually set up what downtown Tokyo sidewalks look like, the chase takes all three cars through the throng of people.  But they don't clear in a straight path, instead presenting the chance to watch three precision drivers drift around a turn in the middle of hundreds of people.  When watching the scene, I wondered how on Earth they'd resolve cars going upwards of 100/kph aimed straight at that many people, and as it played out, it drew a huge smile out of me.

By the time the film has built to the Final Showdown, a Loser-Leaves-Town match between D.K. and Sean down a winding mountain, the anticipation for this race is built at least as well as in the first film.  And it's a nail-biting, humdinger of a race.  On the heels of having watched "2 Fast 2 Furious," it's striking what a difference a director who has a good handle on making action scenes work can make.  Clearly, whomever is in charge of the franchise agreed; director Justin Lin has returned for at least the next three installments of this franchise (as of this date).  I don't really know what to say about the acting in this film; it's not really the focus  here, although it's not distracting either.

If you are a fan of the first film, I think that "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" offers another satisfying film in the series.  This movie also starts an unfortunate habit of hooking me for the next installment with the final scene, a short cameo that made me definitely want to check out "Fast & Furious," the fourth in the series.  Again, you need to exercise your judgment before jumping into this pond, but if you dig car movies, you could do a lot worse than "Tokyo Drift."

3 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Saturday, May 5, 2012

2 Fast 2 Furious - 2003

"2 Fast 2 Furious" - 2003
Dir. by John Singleton - 1 hr. 47 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I'm not going to pretend that "The Fast and the Furious" set a high-bar for it's sequels to shoot for, but even so, "2 Fast 2 Furious" fails.  It fails in all the ways that a sequel shouldn't fail in: inconsistent characterization, inability to replicate the tone of the original, and shoddy direction.  And it replicates the things that aren't exactly positives for the first installment: wooden acting, bromantic scenes, and cookie-cutter characters.

Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) returns, this time as a disgraced ex-cop (due to his actions at the end of the first film) on the lam.  He's still street-racing, this time in Miami, in races set-up by local gear-head impresario Tej (Ludacris).  When he gets rounded up by the police, he gets coerced into going undercover one more time, in order to get out from under the laundry list of charges he'd racked up in Los Angeles (and for street racing in Miami).  His task is to infiltrate the local drug kingpin's (Carter Varone, played by Cole Hauser, and looking like Blake Griffin) organization as a driver, and to unite Varone with his money so that both can be taken into custody.  There's already one agent undercover to ease his entry, Monica Fuentes (Eva Mendes).  Brian agrees on the condition that his partner be his estranged buddy, Roman Pearce (Tyrese, who apparently can't utter a sentence that doesn't contain "bruh" in it).  And, of course there are a ton of rad cars (driven by what appears to be the cast of "Crazy Taxi" come to life), barely-dressed ladies, muscly dudes, and they drive really fast all the time.

In the first installment, I admit that there are laughable aspects to the film, but that there's enough positive things and commitment to make it a lot of fun.  And thus, being snarky about a film like that is lazy writing; picking apart things you don't like is easy, and I enjoyed myself anyways.  In "2 Fast 2 Furious," the film is borderline incompetency on display, and I'm not feeling particularly generous.  But I promise, I won't pick on things that don't fully deserve it.

The biggest asset the first film had (other than it's superficial pleasures) is that it conveyed a sense of pressure from every angle.  The various characters all had complicated relationships, even the ones that liked each other.  People were being pulled in more than one direction, and that really helped break up the action scenes.  For whatever reason (and I'm not sure whether to blame the script or the director, John Singleton), that aspect is wholly missing in "2 Fast 2 Furious."  Part of the problem is making the main character opposite Brian an old buddy; even though there's a half-hearted attempt to show some friction between the two, it falls completely flat.  Either the screenwriters (Gary Scott Thompson, Derek Haas, and Michael Brandt for the record) gave the actors nothing to work with, Paul Walker and Tyrese are completely incompetent actors, or director Singleton didn't have a grasp on the dynamic that made the tension between Walker and Vin Diesel's characters work.  There's enough blame to spread around, though.  If you just substituted the words "bro" and "bruh" for "dude," you could sum up Brian and Roman's dialogue thusly:

There is literally a scene with Brian and Roman apologizing to each other, alone on the waterfront with a beautiful sunset behind them.  Tension?  No, man.  Let's hug it out, bruh!

And this leads to the issue of inconsistent characterization.  It's fine to introduce new characters over the course of a series of films, but this film takes Paul Walker's character from a somewhat cocky guy who's possibly in over his head, and is trying to prove himself, to a guy who is just kind of there.  And, instead of always being about one wrong sentence from a fist-fight, all of a sudden everyone is agreeable with his character.  The biggest proof of this is carrying over the Agent Bilkins (Thom Barry) character from the first film.  In that movie, he butts heads with Brian constantly, but all of a sudden he's offering him sweetheart deals to get out of his legal trouble (despite the fact that the reason that Brian is an ex-cop on the lam is because he chose a criminal's side while undercover, letting the focus of Bilkins' investigation go free).  This flip-flopping doesn't even begin to make sense.

Time after time, I found myself cursing John Singleton while watching "2 Fast 2 Furious."  I want to say that he's completely incompetent as a director, but instead I'll just say that he's incompetent as an action director.  Shots are routinely framed in the least-possible interesting manner, the acting was awful (a more charismatic actor might have been able to pull off Walker's role, but after watching the finished product, no one involved with this film seemed to be the least bit concerned about the fact that he's not interesting when he's not doing something action-related), and Singleton blew what is a complete gimme in terms of satisfying audiences: wrecking police cars.  I guarantee you, anyone who does not work in law enforcement really enjoys seeing police cars run into things: trees, fire hydrants, other police cars, hot dog stands, what-have-you.

Here's a clip from "The Blues Brothers" that really shows how much fun it can be to watch dozens and dozens of police cruisers wreck into things.

And here, Singleton has dozens of these cars at his disposal.  And they do run into things.  But very, very gently.  The police cars kind of bump into each other, but not in a satisfying way at all.  When a comedy that's twenty years older than your film trumps what you've done with the same set-up, it's time to admit that car movies aren't in your wheelhouse.

So, after doing my best to neuter this film with a pair of rusty nail-clippers, I might as well offer what I did enjoy.  A couple of the car chases were good (not great, but good - particularly the bridge-jump scene, and the one where Brian and Roman tag-team race for pinks against a couple of greasers), and Eva Mendes is breathtakingly beautiful.  Other than that, the only reason to watch this film is if you intend to go all the way through the series, because "2 Fast 2 Furious" is easily the dog of the bunch.

1.5 / 5 - Blu-Ray

The Fast and the Furious - 2001

"The Fast and the Furious" - 2001
Dir. by Rob Cohen - 1 hr. 46 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

It may have seemed ridiculous at the time "The Fast and the Furious" was released, but the franchise has been one with legs.  The first installment of the series isn't without it's flaws, but it's a decent start.  Having said that, if you have no interest in cars going fast, women wearing not a lot at all, dudes with rippling muscles and with a bunch of tattoos, or in a nu-metal soundtrack, you might have more difficulty enjoying this piece of cinema that I did.

"The Fast and the Furious" is about undercover cop Brian O'Connor's (Paul Walker) attempt to infiltrate the street-racing scene, because there have been a string of heists targeting big rigs using precision driving and very specific vehicles.  The investigation centers on Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his crew, but once working his way into Dom's good graces, Brian has doubts about whether or not the Toretto crew is responsible for the heists.  But also, everyone has kick-ass cars, and drives them really fast, often to escape the police, and everyone in the movie is super-hot.  That part is probably more important overall than the undercover cop stuff, but even if it's a common story-line, it props up the visuals of this film well.

If you're in the frame of mind to, there's plenty to mock about the contents of "The Fast and the Furious."  I'm not suggesting that anyone should take this as one of the finest dramas in American cinema history, but there's also a long, proud tradition of car movies that this fits neatly into.  And if you're going to have a bunch of really cool cars going really fast, surrounding them with muscly men and beautiful women is a choice that's not often going to backfire.  So, rather than being snarky about this movie (which is the easy way out), let's get into what it does well (other than the superficial aspects mentioned before).

Where "The Fast and the Furious" succeeds is in building tension between the characters and their motivations.  There's the obvious tensions created by an undercover cop trying to work with and gain information on the semi-legal activities of Toretto and his cronies, but it's also complicated by Brian's burgeoning relationship with Dom's sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster).  Brian's also under pressure from the investigation, including a particularly prickly relationship with an FBI agent, Agent Bilkins (Thom Barry).  Even some of the ancillary characters are under pressure, such as the rival crew leader, Johnny Tran (Rick Yune), who is fingered for the heists by Brian, and which leads to a series of increasingly desperate actions from Tran.  And a common thread throughout the film is people wagering their vehicles (these magnificent vehicles that can outperform nearly anything, and cost tens and tens of thousands of dollars to put together). There's usually a moment of realization of what's on the line for those that choose to wager in this manner, and there's at least a moment showing the emotional consequences (even if it doesn't extend past that moment).  In the world of "The Fast and the Furious," the worst thing you can be is good at something; being good means that you're dumb enough to want to press your luck, which means that you're likely to get eaten alive by those who are actually great in this milieu.

And the races/chases are pretty fun.  There's nothing in this movie that is on the level of "Bullitt" or "The French Connection," but by the time we get to the final showdown between Brian and Dom, their relative skill levels have been established, and there's been enough going on between them that the race actually means a lot.  It's a credit to the movie that if you just showed someone the final race, it wouldn't have the same impact as if you'd watched the entire film before reaching that point.  It's the difference between being able to make a single, excellent scene, and being a capable story-teller.  At least in the action-movie realm, director Rob Cohen is capable.

So "The Fast and the Furious" may be a big, dumb, flashy movie, but it's committed.  If any part of the film wavered in that, it would drag the whole thing down, but it's got a certain swagger and charm that isn't always there in films of it's genre.  If you're immune to the charms this film has, I don't suggest that this is a superior version of a car movie that you really must see, but it's a decent and fun film once you kick back and shut your brain off, and the series has used this installment as a basis to create at least a couple of better-than-average films.

3 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Pirates! Band of Misfits - 2012

"The Pirates! Band of Misfits" - 2012
Dir. by Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt - 1 hr. 28 min.

Official Trailer #2

by Clayton Hollifield

Usually, if it's an Aardman film, it's pretty fun.  "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" is no exception (wonky punctuation aside).  Did you know that the best part of being a pirate is not the looting, nor cutlasses, but ham nite?  I had intended to get around to seeing this movie eventually, but the movie that I wanted to go see was sold out (on a Tuesday night?  Heresy!), and this was the next best thing.  It ended up being a much better choice in retrospect.

"The Pirates!" is from the same production company responsible for "Wallace and Grommit" and "Chicken Run," so if you've ever seen either of those, you know what the characters are going to look like (which is fine - they do a very good job of claymation).  This movie is about a second-rate band of pirates, led by the Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant), who wants to win the coveted Pirate of the Year award.  Unfortunately, he's outclassed by some of the other pirates like Cutlass Liz (Selma Hayek) and Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven).  The Pirate Captain's resolve is renewed, but after a series of attacks on other ships yields nothing, he is set on a new path by Charles Darwin (David Tennant), who recognizes the Pirate Captain's parrot as a definitely not extinct dodo.  Darwin lures the crew back to London with the promise of untold riches, with is the prize of the yearly scientific discovery award, biding time to steal the bird for himself, which would net him the fame, prizes, and hand of the woman he has a crush on.

The animation itself is top-notch.  In an era of computer animation, there's a certain charm to traditionally animated films.  The Aardman sense of character design is wonky and appealing, and the characters themselves have a heft to them that feels more tangible.  To further heap kudos upon this crew, the set design is wonderful: detailed and feels like the world these characters would live in.  And while you might expect that a stop-motion animation film might not handle action as well as you'd like, that's completely not an issue here.  There are a couple of stand-out visual scenes (more than that, actually, but I'll mention two): the first is at Blood Island, where the contenders for Pirate of the Year are introduced, each more fancifully than the other.  The second is in Charles Darwin's manor, when an attempted abduction of Polly turns into a spectacular chase involving the entire staircase of the multi-story building, various knick-knacks, and the entire pirate crew in a bathtub.  It really has to be seen to be believed, especially considering that the entire thing had to make some kind of real-world sense in order to be filmed.

The sense of humor here is broad (in a positive way).  This isn't an edgy film; if you're taking children to see it, it's unlikely that there's anything cringe-worthy to worry about.  That doesn't mean that it's dull for adults, either.  This is a film that's aware of pirate tropes, including such characters as The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate and The Pirate Who Likes Sunsets and Kittens (yes, most of the pirates have names like this, only non-pirates seem to have sort-of normal names).  Probably the best character is Darwin's man-pan-zee, Bobo, who communicates with note cards (and there are some fantastic gags involving this).  There's some verbal humor, but the best stuff is visual (fitting for a cartoon, "The Pirates!" seizes the opportunity and takes advantage of it's visual approach), and there's no shortage of visual gags.

This isn't the best kids movie I've ever seen (or are they called "family movies?"  I don't know), but it's a decent one.  It succeeds on the most fundamental level - it's a fun, enjoyable movie.  If you're an animation buff, there's more to enjoy based on the masterful use of claymation, but even if you're not, I find it hard to believe that anyone would be distracted by technique.  Mostly, it's a goofy pirate movie for kids (but also adults), and it's a good way to spend an hour and a half.

3.5 / 5 - Theatre (3D)