Friday, June 29, 2012

Conan the Barbarian - 2011

"Conan the Barbarian" - 2011
Dir. by Marcus Nispel - 1 hr. 53 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

In an ideal world, I suppose I'd have to judge a movie like "Conan the Barbarian" on it's own merits, regardless of any other version of the character that might exist in cinema or in print.  But I reject that notion; literally the only reason that you'd go see this Conan movie is if you were already a fan of some previous version of the character.  For me, that would be mostly because of the first Arnold Schwarzenegger film, and then because of some pretty well-done comic books by artists like John Buscema or Barry Windsor-Smith.  If you didn't already have some awareness of this character, I find it impossible to believe there's anything present at all that would pique anyone's curiosity.

Screw a plot recap; the plot's stupid.  That's not necessarily a barrier to a decent Conan film, but as I started to type up the plot, I had a sudden urge to kill myself.  I lived through this film once, and that's enough.  If you want to know what happened, you'll have to go through the same pain I did for one hour and fifty three minutes.

My basic problems with "Conan the Barbarian" are two; the first problem is director Marcus Nispel's inability to grasp basic visual story-telling, and the second is a matter of aesthetic taste.  To give credit where credit is due, there are a few good visual ideas within this film.  Unfortunately, Nispel doesn't have the slightest clue how to present them.  I'll focus on one scene, where Conan (Jason Mamoa) has captured an enemy soldier, Remo (Milton Welsh), who is after Conan's main squeeze, Tamara (Rachel Nichols) on behalf of the big baddie, Zym (Stephen Lang).  After finding out why Zym is after Tamara, Conan straps Remo into a chair of some sort, and literally catapults Remo at Zym's land-boat (don't ask).  The idea is good, and it's a visual that I haven't seen before.  But Nispel botches the scene on a couple of fronts.  First, he routinely gets the least mileage out of his ideas through his inability to build tension in any meaningful way.  Things just happen with no warning, which is the equivalent of some jerk coming up behind you, jostling you in the ribs, and yelling, "Boo!"  In this instance, it's not clear at any point until Remo is already in the air that Conan's strapped him into a catapult.  Rather than allowing the audience to anticipate the cool-looking thing that is about to happen for even a second, the event happens before it's even clear what's going on.

Nispel's inability to tease out tension plays out over and over and over through the film.  There are a number of exotic (fictional) locations presented, and they're all introduced the exact same way: cityscape shot with the name of the place as a subtitle.  Not once, and I mean not even once, does Nispel work any of these locations up into a functional reveal.  It's frustrating watching a film that, if handled with a little more respect for the ideas contained within, could have been pretty good.  I should have mentioned a third problem that I had with the direction of this film, but it'll have to settle in as problem one-b.  It seems that someone should have a better idea of what to do with the 3D technology by now, seeing as how it can give an enhanced illusion of depth.  Now, I'm not expecting "Conan the Barbarian" to lead the way, but the lazy shot that has come to define shitty 3D direction was on full, nearly infinitely repeated display here: stuff either pointed at or flying at the camera.  That's fine (if played out) if you're watching a film in 3D, but most people aren't going to see any given movie in that format.  It just looks dumb (and patronizing) whenever that shot pops up while watching in normal formats.  If you've got the ability to separate planes of depth, and all you do with it is point swords at the camera, it's an abuse of the technology.

My other big gripe is an aesthetic one.  And it also has a lot to do with the Schwarzenegger films that I enjoyed.  This entire movie looks like a computer crapped it out.  Everything from the monsters to the locations look digitally-clean and designed.  As a result, there's no definite sense of place present in the film.  I could gripe about how I like the grain of film better than high-definition pixels, it's a matter of preference.  But there's no excuse for doing a movie set however many hundreds of years ago and not having it look even vaguely plausible.  I know that there's a standard look for these kinds of movies right now, mostly gleaned from Zack Snyder's version of "300," but this movie looks like a really bad version of that, occasionally crossed with some "The Scorpion King" for flavor.

I don't know what else to tell you.  If you've seen any other incarnation of the "Conan" character, it's guaranteed superior to "Conan the Barbarian."

1 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Diggstown - 1992

"Diggstown" - 1992
Dir. by Michael Ritchie - 1 hr. 38 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Diggstown" is one of only two movies I've ever been to where the audience spontaneously applauded at the end of the film (the other being "Karate Kid").  It wasn't a special screening, it was just a random showing in a suburban multiplex way back when.  It's not that this is an Oscar candidate, but the ending was just so satisfying.  But it's been a while, and the question is whether time has been kind to this film.

Gabriel Cane (James Woods) is a conman, and when we're introduced to him, he's helping another inmate escape from a county prison in Georgia.  He's about a week away from having served his time, but already has another big con brewing.  The target is Diggstown, a boxing-obessed small town (the town being named after a legendary boxer who lives there, Charles Macom Diggs), and more specifically, the man who runs the town, John Gillon (Bruce Dern).  Gabriel's partner, Fitz (Oliver Platt), sets the hook by hustling the locals and agreeing to a bet that seems undo-able: one boxer defeating ten men in one day.

"Diggstown" straddles an interesting line: it's half swindle, half sports movie.  Most sports movies are obsessed with underdogs fighting against long odds, and if the idea of fixing contests ever comes up, it's viewed in almost taboo terms.  The one thing that sports fans will not abide is the notion that what they're watching is anything but a fair contest.  Here, fight fixing (albeit not on a huge, televised stage) is acknowledged, expected, and not entirely condemned.  What this plot hinges on is not whether or not Honey Roy Palmer (Louis Gossett, Jr.) can defeat ten Diggstown men, but whether or not John Gillon or Gabriel Cane is better at fixing fights.  This is all upfront in the story, and we're being asked to root for someone who undermines the spirit of competition.

This dynamic works for a number of reasons.  First, James Woods does a good job of mixing his blatant manipulations with oily charm.  Also, his character is portrayed as having some sort of morals - a point of contention between Cane and Palmer is that Cane threw in the towel in a previous cash boxing match.  Furthermore, there's a early scene in the prison between Cane and Wolf (Randall "Tex" Cobb) that hammers home that Cane is an ethical employer; even though Wolf is in the prison infirmary due to losing a prison fight which serves as a cover for the aforementioned prisoner escape organized by Cane, he's still grateful for the opportunity to make some real money, an opportunity no one else had afforded him.  Successfully juxtaposed against Woods' character is Bruce Dern's.  Dern's John Gillon is a monster parading as a southern gentleman; he swindled the entire town out of their possessions by fixing Diggs' last fight (that's a story on its own), and will stop at literally nothing in order to keep it.  There's nothing likable about Gillon, which is both great acting and necessary in order to get an audience behind someone who is also a criminal.

Once "Diggstown" turns into a sports film (all ten fights are represented in the film), both Cane and Gillon keep upping the odds, until everything's on the line.  Director Michael Ritchie doesn't offer much in the way of visual flair (this could pass for a TV movie if you didn't know better); you won't find much in the way of excessive editing, special effects, or abuse of slow-motion here.  But he does pay attention to details.  There are at least a couple of things that seem like odd things to focus on early in the film, if you think about it at all, but end up playing into finish.  The one that's not a massive spoiler, and might come off as a minor plot point, is over Gabriel Cane's not wearing any socks.  It shows that Cane is willing to get the details right in order to play a character that Gillon and company would despise and instinctively underestimate - it's a douchey big-city high-roller thing, and would make Cane an irresistible target to small-town Gillon.  In a later scene, right before someone knocks at the door, Cane is shown tending to the blisters he has on his feet, since he normally does wear socks.  It's so minor, Cane could have been doing literally anything in his room, but the details add up over the course of the movie.

And that ending.  I'm not going to ruin it, but like the detail about Cane's socks, the big developments at the end are call-backs to things that have already been established in the film.  There's no magic development that falls out of thin air - thinking back, you can see exactly where the twists have come from.  It's rock-solid storytelling, and takes "Diggstown" to a decent film with a bunch of actors who would go on to bigger things (both Heather Graham and Jim Caviezel have roles, too) into a pretty darned good movie.  Sure, when you see the boxers with their shirts off, you're going to be very aware that this is a film from a different era, and visually it's nothing special, but a truly good ending is something to value and appreciate.

3.5 / 5 - TV

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Bending the Rules - 2012

"Bending the Rules" - 2012
Dir. by Artie Mandelberg - 1 hr. 23 min.

TV Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I didn't hate this movie.  Going in to a WWE Studios production, it's very easy to have a lot of negative preconceptions about what you're going to see.  For me, that's mitigated by my being a wrestling fan, and more specifically, a fan of the star of "Bending the Rules," Adam "Edge" Copeland.  Going in, I was mostly curious as to whether or not as to whether Edge could pull off being the star of an entire film, and how bad the film was going to be.

The film is about a possibly corrupt detective named Nick Blades (Copeland), who is on trial for diverting some money from a drug bust.  Blades doesn't seem too concerned about it, even though the prosecuting attorney, Theo Gold (Jamie Kennedy), is a hardline law-and-order type.  The jury deadlocks, and while Blades remains on administrative leave until the matter is cleared up, he gets drawn into Gold's employ via Theo's mother, Lena Gold (Jessica Walter), who is a famous actress that Blades is infatuated with.  Blades is hired to track down a stolen automobile, and ends up having to protect Theo from some criminal types who have an interest in his earlier work.  Mismatched buddy film, level one cleared.

I know this is going to be disappointing to read, but "Bending the Rules" isn't a bad movie.  It's not a good one, either.  The best way I can think to put it is that it's consistent and competent.  Copeland does a decent job with what he's been given, but what he's been given is a stock plot and character from a 1980s low-budget comedy.  This is exactly the sort of movie that Mark Harmon might have made in 1988.  One smart choice that the filmmakers made was to invest in some recognizable character actors.  That sort of thing goes a long way when you're asking an audience to buy into a professional wrestler who's never made a film before as the centerpiece.  Jamie Kennedy, Jessica Walter, Philip Baker Hall, Jennifer Esposito - these are all people that you have seen before in things.  You might not know exactly what you've seen them in before, but a little familiarity goes a long way.

And "Bending the Rules" is consistent - it's consistently almost kind of funny.  There are a few lines and scenes that are alright (I did laugh a few times throughout), and it's mostly devoid of the sort of embarrassing humor that you might expect from WWE.  But also, nothing risked, nothing gained.  Stock plot, stock characters, bizarre message.  What's that message?  I guess you'd have to say that it would be related to people needing to pull the stick out of their collective asses.  Copeland's character has a loose relationship with the details of law enforcement, but generally heads in the right direction.  Jamie Kennedy's character is a cross-the-t's, dot-the-i's kind of guy, and within the span of time covered by this film, his wife leaves him, and berates him once in public and again in front of his children, is passed over for a job promotion because nobody likes him, and is on the run from someone that he put in jail years ago.  He's also tazed by police officers mad that he tried to prosecute their co-worker, and has a strained relationship with his family.  Some of that is forgivable in service of comedy, but sending the message that trying to do the right thing in the right way leads to personal calamity and that everyone will hate you for even trying sounds like the devil on your shoulder talking, not a sound personal philosophy to adhere to.

My bottom line here is that if you're a wrestling fan, or an Edge fan, you're probably not going to hate "Bending the Rules," either.  However, the title doesn't really match the performances - no one here goes out on a limb for anything.  The entire production set it's goals so low that even though everyone involved hits their mark, it's like getting one-hundred percent right of sixty percent of the test.  I mean, mission accomplished and everything, but that still averages out to a solid D.  I would have appreciated more failures over the course of "Bending the Rules," simply because it would have meant that someone was trying to accomplish something a little beyond their grasp.

1.5 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star - 2011

"Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star" - 2011
Dir. by Tom Brady - 1 hr. 37 min.

Official Red Band Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

You and I both know going in that "Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star" is not going to be a "good" movie.  From the trailer, premise, and talent involved, there's nothing that suggests a surprisingly good comedy is even possible.  And I'm not going to suggest otherwise.  But once you've appropriately set the bar for your expectations (and un-clenched your anus, and accept that low-brow humor will forever be funny), this movie does clear that bar by an inch or two.

Bucky Larson (Nick Swardson) is a golly-gee Iowan, whose parents just happen to be porn stars from the 1970's.  Since Bucky has been fired from his grocery-bagging job, the discovery of this previously unknown fact about his parents gives him some direction: he's headed to Hollywood to act in "nude movies."  Once there, he befriends Kathy (Christina Ricci), a waitress who's slumming in a greasy spoon.  After a few failed attempts to make inroad in the nude movie industry, down-on-his-luck direction Miles Deep (Don Johnson) decides to give him a chance.  The resulting clip goes viral, launching Bucky into success.

So...  I laughed quite a few times.  The real problem that I have with this movie isn't the faux-naughty premise ("Orgazmo" did a different take on the same sort of situation), and it isn't with any of the people involved (I do like Swardson's stand-up).  My real problem with this movie is that the first act is weak, and that's tough for a comedy to recover from.  And the bizarre appearance of the main character comes off poorly in the first act, because there doesn't appear to be much effort or skill put into making things funny beyond a weird haircut and buck teeth.  And if that's supposed to sustain the entire film, it doesn't instill much confidence that the next hour or so is going to be any better.

Once Bucky is out of the Midwest and in Los Angeles, his no-nonsense earnestness plays off of the more jaded "industry" types, and the humor works a lot better.  I'm not going to lie, I laughed quite a bit once Bucky got to L.A.  Christina Ricci is likable, Don Johnson fills his role well, and Kevin Nealon has a one-note character, but that note is consistently funny.  I'm not sure what could have improved this movie (and if you say "not making it in the first place," you now have to go stand in the corner); the premise is funny, and the performances are decent.  If you accept that Adam Sandler and company are going to make this movie (regardless if you like it or not), then I think you have to accept that they made as much of the material as is possible.  There are a few good scenes present, the awards ceremony sequence and the scene of Bucky and Kathy visiting an oddities museum among them.

Swardson (and writers Swardson, Allen Covert, and Adam Sandler) take an interesting approach to Bucky - no apologies.  The character may be naive, but once he finds his direction he's committed and ready to do whatever it takes.  If there had been a hint of shame in either the writing or the performance, this film would have been unwatchable.  Even if the jokes sometimes fall flat, it's just a joke that didn't work.  There's nothing undercutting it.  But for the first twenty minutes or so, there was a much higher percentage of jokes that didn't work.  For instance, I couldn't tell if Bucky's friends were setting him up when they got together to play a stag film with Bucky's parents in it.  That completely undermined any humor for me - the other characters seemed surprised, but there was an undercurrent of maliciousness in the other characters that tipped the joke and suggested otherwise.

Again, this isn't the best movie I've ever seen.  I think Nick Swardson is generally pretty funny, and I've surely seen my share of Happy Madison movies over the years.  But people act like Adam Sandler murdered their parents or something every time he or his production company releases a film, as if his mere existence is too much to bear.  I wish I could muster up that much rage over a somewhat funny movie just because it didn't suit my tastes exactly.  Honestly, it's not like anyone had to go see "Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star;" if this sort of film isn't your cup of tea, it's self-inflicted damage.  But if it is, it's definitely better than "Benchwarmers."

2 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas - 2011

"A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas" - 2011
Dir. by Todd Strauss-Schulson - 1 hr. 30 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

What a disappointment.  There's no other way to sum up "A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas."  I'm speaking as someone who enjoyed the previous two films, and was looking forward to seeing this one.  And instead of getting another hazy installment in the "Harold & Kumar" franchise, I got characters that bore little resemblance to their previous incarnations and a general tone of joylessness.

Harold's (John Cho) married, and his in-laws are visiting.  They're headed up by Mr. Perez (Danny Trejo), who has an implausible obsession for Christmas trees.  Of course, something happens to the tree that Mr. Perez brings, and Harold has to replace it by the time the Perez clan returns from whatever the heck it is that they're doing.  Separately, Kumar's (Kal Penn) girlfriend has broken up with him because his life's fallen apart.  And it's Christmas-time.  The plot isn't worth much more discussion than that.

Here's one problem: the filmmakers seemed to put together a checklist of things that had been in the previous two films, and then jammed them all together, and set it on Christmas eve.  An irrational quest for a macguffin?  Check.  Graphic male nudity?  Check.  Those two guys that were in the first "American Pie" with John Cho?  Check.  White Castle cameo?  Check.  NPH sequence?  Check.  There's even a gratuitous claymation sequence when the two main characters are drugged, but nothing comes of it.  Nothing comes of any of it.  The characters' motivations are suspect, which undermines any sense of urgency the plot is trying to convey.

Let me put it this way: in the first film, Harold and Kumar had a hankering for some White Castle burgers, and would not be deterred.  I think everyone can relate to that.  In the second one, they had to escape Guantanamo Bay because of a mix-up that left everyone thinking they were terrorists.  If not relatable, it's at least understandable.  Here, Harold is trying to please his father-in-law's hard-on for Christmas trees.  Even though there's a "I genuinely want to make him and my wife happy" speech, it's kind of spineless.  A lot of the potential audience for this film is not going hope that Harold and Kumar can come through, they're going to want Harold to throw his middle finger in Mr. Perez's face and tell him to eat a bag of dicks.

But beyond that problem, both of the characters are off, tone-wise.  Harold has always been kind of neurotic and freaked out, but in this installment they throw in being beaten-down by a less-than-ideal family life.  And his replacement best buddy, Todd (Thomas Lennon), clearly irritates Harold.  Kumar is even worse.  Whatever charm and energy Kal Penn brought to the character is completely gone.  He's been bounced out of the medical profession by failing a drug test (which removes the possibility of a bright future), and he's introduced in this film mired in depression from his girlfriend breaking up with him.  He's not funny, he's not impulsive, and throughout the film, Kumar barely registers the environments that he's in.  It's fine to have the film start off with the main characters being estranged, but it takes entirely too long to for them to re-unite, and when they do, it's in an unsatisfying manner.  Even the NPH sequence isn't as good as the previous ones (although still pretty good), and even worse, it's not even a satisfying stoner movie, either.  Harold largely abstains, and Kumar seems to be smoking out of a compulsion rather than for any enjoyment it might bring him.  This feels like a betrayal, like the "Family Guy" episode where Brian manages to legalize marijuana, only to begin campaigning against it when someone essentially pays him to.  

I actually had to stop the movie when watching it about an hour in, I was so bored by the whole thing.  It didn't really feel like anyone was having a good time making this movie, and that showed up on-screen.  And I should mention that while it claimed to be a ninety-minute film, there's about ten minutes of credits at the end.  I can't remember being this let-down by any sequel of any film I've ever seen, and that's saying something.  Maybe part of the problem was seeing a Christmas movie in June (related point - why would anyone release a Christmas movie to home video in the summer?  That's psychotically bad scheduling), but I don't think seasonal appropriateness nor the appropriate lack of sobriety could help "A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas" out.  It's just a flat-out failure.

.5 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Death Race 2000 - 1975

"Death Race 2000" - 1975
Dir. by Paul Bartel - 1 hr. 20 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

First things first - "Death Race 2000" is not a good movie.  Rather, it's one of those films whose level of entertainment is inverse to it's legit cinema quality.  Do not be fooled by the rating I give this film at the end of the article, if you have a soft spot for cheesy, low-budget 1970s sci-fi movies, this is going to be a treat.  But if that sort of pleasure isn't written into your DNA, you should stay far, far away.

The story is built around the Transcontinental Road Race, a cross-country car race (the cars kind of look like the really weird Hot Wheels that you'd see in the toy section) where the racers gain points for mowing down people.  Frankenstein (David Carradine) is the star racer, much to rival racer Machine Gun Joe Viterbo's (Sylvester Stallone) chagrin.  This race is the biggest event in the country of the United Provinces (the government and economy of the good ol' U.S.A. has fallen apart, leading to this version of the year 2000).  There is a group of rebels, led by Thomasina Paine (Harriet Medin), who is suppposed to be a literal descendent of Thomas Paine.  The rebels intend to stop Frankenstein, replace him with a double, who will kill the President after winning the race.

The special effects and animation on this film are absolutely cut-rate.  Witness the cheesy semi-animated opening, the matte work at the race track, or the illustrations at the conclusion of the film.  As I mentioned before, the awfulness of these things just increase how appealing they are.  One thing they don't skimp on is explosions; when each racer in turn dies, they do so in a spectacular explosion.  Visually speaking, the rest of the film is rounded out by cool custom cars driving really fast, punctuated with pit stops full of full-on nudity, and by awesome 1970s fashions and hair.

David Carradine is kind of wooden in the lead, but it suits the character. He wears a gimp mask for a lot of the film, one that has a built-in prosthesis that makes him look like the name of his character.  This also has a very early Sylvester Stallone role (pre-"Rocky"), and he's pretty fun, even if his character is not much more than a caricature.  But then again, everyone in this movie is a caricature, from the racers to the sports announcers, to the fans.  That's the whole point.  The plot only works if everyone enthusiastically embraces the ultra-violent race as the best entertainment that this society has to offer.  Anything less than the best would be a felony.

The whole movie is unabashedly cheesy, which makes it easy to get in the spirit of things.  The cars are kind of cool (and I did like that each team was themed), and Myra's (Louisa Maritz) white fur-covered helmet might be the most awesome piece of safety equipment in the history of safety equipment.  When you dip into Roger Corman-land, you know exactly what's coming.  And "Death Race 2000" is so perfectly that, I can't really hold it's flaws against it.  It's not a good movie at all, but it's fun, mindless, and short.  That's not the worst thing I could say about a movie.

2 / 5 - Streaming

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Point Break - 1991

"Point Break" - 1991
Dir. by Kathryn Bigelow - 2 hrs.

Theatrical Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I guess Rob Cohen and Vin Diesel really liked this movie.  Otherwise, it would be hard to explain why "xXx" uses elements of this film and especially "The Fast and the Furious" use the exact same plot.  I'm not saying that "Point Break" is the first film to explore the idea of someone going undercover, but the similarities are striking.  But this film might be more recently familiar because of it's mention in the excellent "Hot Fuzz."  So what I'm saying is that people have seen "Point Break."

"Point Break" is an early starring role for Keanu Reeves, who plays Johnny Utah, a former college football star whose career was derailed by injuries.  He is now an FBI agent, paired with Pappas (Gary Busey), working bank robberies.  There is one crew, called the Ex-Presidents, that have been very successful in this endeavor.  Pappas' pet theory is that the unusually disciplined bank robbers are surfers, who use the loot to spend the rest of the year chasing waves.  As to whether or not that theory holds up, I'll refer you to the film's poster for a clue:

Utah has to go undercover (since he's twenty-five, and Busey is in his fifties, possibly in dog years), and a chance encounter with a woman named Tyler (Lori Petty) provides him an in.  At this point, there have been a few films that use this plot, so I don't think that I'm spoiling anything when I saw that Johnny falls for Tyler, gets too close to Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), who is leading the crew he's after, and that he jumps out of a plane without a parachute and survives.  Wait, what?

Yeah, he really does that.  There are a number of pretty spectacular action sequences and natural vistas (since the surfers are adrenaline junkies, they surf and sky-dive almost constantly, which provides ample opportunity to wallow in natural beauty).  There are car chases, bank robberies, house parties, beach football games...  The one thing that the characters have in common is that they're kind of restless, and incapable of sitting still.  And all of that works pretty well for the basis of an action film.

For a lot of the film, the real story is Johnny Utah's search for his own identity.  He's a young man, fresh out of Quantico (which in itself was a back-up plan when his athletic career went up in smoke), and it makes sense that he'd be susceptible to the charms of Tyler, Bodhi, and the ocean.  And as long as the Ex-Presidents stay disciplined, it's all kind of harmless fun.  No one gets hurt, the banks are insured, and the surfers get to live out their Endless Summer.  But when the pressure starts bearing down on Bodhi, he cracks, and things aren't harmless anymore.  It is at this point when the real tension begins to mount for Johnny Utah; he understands the lifestyle and the appeal of it, but when things turn deadly, the Ex-Presidents cannot be allowed to continue on.

A lot of jokes are made about Keanu Reeves' acting chops, but at this point in his career, the role of Johnny Utah was a nice transitional role between his "Bill & Ted's" character and an attempt to do more dramatic work.  All of the quirks of his style are perfectly suited to a movie about surfing (despite him not knowing how to surf before this film was made), and aren't a distraction at all.  Gary Busey is a good supporting actor, and Patrick Swayze knocked his role out of the park.  It's not hard at all to see why other people would want to be around him and follow his lead, which is a prerequisite for this kind of character.  And when his dark side starts to emerge, it's plausible.  I even liked Lori Petty (and yes, I loved "Tank Girl"); she's not a conventional lead actress, but she's easy to warm up to.

Is "Point Break" a good movie?  Well, it's pretty good.  There are things to recommend it (the action, the surfing scenes, a reasonably good plot), and things that work against it (how you feel about Reeves and Lori Petty as actors, the languid pacing at points in the first half of the film), but it's pretty watchable.  I've seen it a few times now, and I'm still not sick of it.  That's probably the best thing that I could say about it.  And plus, Busey's character drifts a 80's sedan around a turn at one point during the big car chase.  What's not to love about that?

3 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Monday, June 11, 2012

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - 1998

"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" - 1998
Dir. by Terry Gilliam - 1 hr. 58 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Having read the book, I understand why "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" was considered "unfilmable" for many years.  It definitely required Terry Gilliam's unconventional approach in order to work, but it's also definitely not a film that's going to please everyone (it failed to make back its budget at the box office at the time).  And if not for the independent boom in the 1990s, I'm not sure anyone would have tried to make this film.  But thank goodness Gilliam did.

Plot?  Well...  In a literal sense, Hunter S. Thompson, or maybe his alter-ego Raul Duke (Johnny Depp), is hired by a magazine to go to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race.  He takes his lawyer, Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro), and Duke does a pretty ineffective job of covering the race.  But the film is more or less about the feeling of having things go sour for the Baby Boomers, and recognizing it as it was happening.  There are a pair of monologues by Duke in the film, one explaining the high-water mark of the Summer of Love, and a second about how just five short years later, everything had seemed to go to Hell.  The fact that this is told through the haze and spectacle of Duke and Gonzo's never-ending drug bender, which just amplifies Las Vegas' natural weirdness and artifice, is very appropriate, since much of the feeling of how things were changing and the Boomers were winning were also fueled by narcotics.

And I can't stress the degree to which drug-use is the basis for this film.  There are points in the film where whatever is supposed to be happening stops and visual manipulation takes over.  There's an early scene where Duke and Gonzo have to check into a hotel when their LSD is peaking, and while the characters are barely functioning, Gilliam does a fantastic job of conveying their disorientation.  Some people in the hotel bar turn into lizards, the designs on the carpet begin swirling and overtaking people who are standing around, unbothered, and Duke is paralyzed in fear.  Honestly, it's almost redundant to talk about the drugs, because they're omnipresent, and as a viewer, you quickly become accustomed to things going very, very wrong.  You don't even question it when Gonzo is tripping, and demands that Duke throw a plugged-in tape recorder into the the bathtub full of water that Gonzo is laying in.  Or when Gonzo pulls a knife on a waitress at a off-strip diner.  Or any of another dozen ways that Gonzo and Duke behave in a way that should end in certain incarceration, but never seems to get to that point.

While you may, as an upstanding citizen of unquestioned moral fiber, naturally recoil from such barbaric behavior, it does serve a very specific purpose in telling the story of how the hippies didn't change the world in the way that they had intended.  The fact that the source material was published at a point when people might not have been aware of that also matters.  It takes such a depraved pair to point out that things are amiss precisely because they do not have anything to lose by doing so.  These animals, living second to second, don't have a mortgage to worry about, and stand in direct opposition to law and order (witness the police narcotics convention that Duke and Gonzo attend).  There's nothing that would entice them to put blinders on and keep on believing that everything was going to be okay.  As Duke writes, there was a point at which they all believed that, and thought that just their belief that things were changing for the better through their mere existence would be enough to preserve that state of bliss.  For whatever reason, the lack of maintenance of their ideals quickly turned the tides, which were receding to the previous status quo.

That high-minded (in every sense) message is the foundation of the movie.  But what makes it work is that "Fear and Loathing" is essentially an existential comedy of errors, one where the characters keep failing and seem to suffer no consequences for it.  It's a drug-addled buddy movie, a petty crime story of narrow misses.  If you don't get that message, you can still enjoy Gonzo and Duke, messed up on ether, boggling at a stand-in for Circus Circus as broad comedy.  What makes this different than a Cheech & Chong movie is that this isn't a pair just looking for good times, Duke and Gonzo are hell-bent on pushing themselves as far as possible.  Far past enjoyment, far past good times, to the point where Duke is questioning his very purpose in life.  And then Duke takes some adrenochrome, wakes later up to find his hotel suite is wrecked and flooded, and that he's wearing a giant lizard tail and has a microphone attached to his face with electrical tape.  Bit by horrific bit, he pieces together what had happened.  All that's left at that point is to finish his article and get out of Vegas.

"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is a challenging film, and a rewarding one.  There are easy pleasures to be had (the distinct visual approach and a parade of cameos of notable actors among them), but they're buried in a parade of largely indefensible behavior and copious drug-use of every stripe imaginable.  Further, the message that the film is conveying isn't a feel-good, happy-ending one, and that message is one that applies to society at a large, not just Gonzo and Duke.  However, it's a perceptive story, and the acting is both incredibly odd and specific, while also being consistent throughout.  One of my friends joked that "Fear and Loathing" ought to be shown in high-schools as an anti-drug film, and that's pretty accurate.  I can't imagine many people seeing this film and thinking that it's something to emulate.  But "Fear and Loathing" is one hell of a ride, and it's a damned fine piece of cinema.

4.5 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Prometheus - 2012

"Prometheus" - 2012
Dir. by Ridley Scott - 2 hrs. 4 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I think the bottom line with a film like "Prometheus" is whether or not it was a cool film.  And yeah, it was a cool film.  There are essentially two kinds of films: ones that are story-based and ones that are experience-based.  "Prometheus" is the latter, almost by default.  That's not to say that there isn't a story here, there certainly is.  But in a movie that devotes so much attention to its visuals, or to put it another way, sheer spectacle, parsing the film for plot points misses the point.  It's like this: sure, a spaceship lands on a foreign planet.  Is that the point?  No, the point is that the ship looks awesome, and the reveal of the alien planet isn't something that can just be conveyed by telling someone that there were mountains and stuff.  You need to experience the reveal itself in order to "get" what the filmmakers want you to get.

So, what exactly is "Prometheus" about?  I'll sketch that in broad strokes.  A pair of archaeologists, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), discover a set of 35,000 year old cave painting in Scotland, which happen to depict something that has also been depicted by other primitive cultures, ones that couldn't have had any contact with one another.  They take that as an invitation to the stars, and ten years later, they head a commercial space expedition shrouded in mystery, with a Weyland Corporation representative (Meredith Vickers, played by Charlize Theron) in ultimate charge.  And then a bunch of other things happen.

I'm not sure to what degree it's a spoiler to mention that this is an antecedent of the "Alien" franchise.  "Prometheus" stands on it's own, and honestly, there's only the most minor of connections made explicit.  As far as to whether or not it ties directly into the other films, that falls into the "I don't know/I don't care" category.  It's been a number of years since I've watched any of the other films, and I'm not watching four films in preparation to maybe glint another line or two out of "Prometheus."  One thing I can tell you is that the visual design sense of H.R. Giger (the artist who's work was the basis of the franchise) is present (and still spooky).

Breaking down the plot or analyzing the acting wouldn't do much good here.  The story hits all the points it needs to in order to get out of the way and let visually interesting or harrowing events to be shown.  If a film is not going to be able to manage to break new ground in terms of story, that's about the best alternative.  What is important is that the story is told with a maximum of visual flair.  Two scenes among many stand out: the initial scene set at a waterfall is spectacular, and there's a computer-generated scene of what appears to be the creation of the universe that is equally breathtaking.  Those aren't the only winners, but without spoiling things (and part of the joy of this film is one visual marvel after another), let me use that word "cool" to let you know that your eyes are going to be very, very happy while watching "Prometheus."

I liked this film a lot.  It's tense, visually interesting, and the run time flew by.  The "Alien" franchise isn't one of my personal favorites, so that wasn't really a factor in my enjoyment.  And I don't think that it would be fair to view "Prometheus" as an "Alien" prequel, as you don't really need to know anything about those film in order to appreciate this one.  If you're going to see "Prometheus," be sure to find the biggest screen in your area that you can.

3.5 / 5 - Theatre

Monday, June 4, 2012

Men in Black III - 2012

"Men in Black III" - 2012
Dir. by Barry Sonnenfeld - 1 hr. 46 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

When you reach the third film in what is probably going to end up being a trilogy, it makes sense that the third film will generally have to be about resolution of some kind.  Otherwise, what you have feels unfinished (kind of like the Sam Raimi-helmed Spider-Man movies), and there's almost nothing worse in story-telling of any kind than an unsatisfying ending.  "Men in Black III" manages an odd feat: it's a satisfying conclusion to the series (if this does, in fact, end up concluding the series), but not really a great movie.  That's sort of a problem, considering the length of time between the second and third installments pretty much demands that III stand on it's own merits.

Once again, Agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) are Men in Black, agents who deal in matters extraterrestrial.  The pressing issue this time is the escape of Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) from a lunar prison, with the intent of travelling back in time to avenge the loss of his arm and capture by K.  This will pave the way for a global invasion of giant space critters who will come to Earth to devour it.  K disappears, the timeline having been rewritten by Boris' actions, and J has to travel back to 1969 in order to make things come off as they should have.

In terms of what works here, one of the bigger things is Josh Brolin's portrayal of a younger K.  Problematically, part of what makes it work is him working off of Tommy Lee Jones' work in the previous installments (Brolin has more screen-time here than does Jones), but his impression is a lot of fun.  Jones really doesn't have a lot of moments to shine here - he spends most of his time dazed and in reverie, so that portrayal doesn't do much to help you if you haven't seen the dynamic between J and K previously.  There's also the fun reveals of the aliens that are living among us, although it feels like much less so that in the previous movies.  But the thing that drives the movie is J having to learn to take things a little more seriously than he has been.  That lesson comes in many different forms, but the bottom line is that he has to at least partially deviate from the smart-ass character in order to show some gratitude.  That's not exactly an easily-digestible message for a summer popcorn movie to offer up, but it's still the lesson that's there.

So what doesn't work?  As I mentioned before, a lot of how much you enjoy Brolin's version of K depends on your familiarity with a pair of films that are ten and fifteen years old, respectively.  Also, Smith's "you're so old" jokes fall flat coming from the mouth of a 43-year old.  While it may be in line with what the character has previously been, it's sort of comedically tone-deaf at this point.  If Jones' version of K wasn't so consistently distracted in the story, there would have been an opportunity for him to start to fight back a bit on that issue.  Also, while we've already seen a lot of the gadgets before, this film exists in a limbo where it's not clear if the gap between films means that they need re-explaining, or if they should just assume familiarity at this point.

All in all, there's funny stuff here, but for a good bit of the film, it's best described as dealing with weighty issues in an inconsequential, glib manner.  When the flip switches in the third act, and weighty matters are dealt with in a little less glib manner, it's an uncomfortable fork in the road in what, to this point, has been a series of glib and shiny movies.  The thing that redeems this under-achieving film is also the thing that is uncharacteristic compared to the previous two and three-quarters films.  I can't really say that it's a mistake, but it does result in an uneven film.  Viewed on the whole, it's a satisfying end to the trilogy, but it's also not in line with everything leading up to it.

2.5 / 5 - Theatre (3D)