Friday, November 30, 2012

Lincoln - 2012

"Lincoln" - 2012
Dir. by Steven Spielberg - 2 hrs. 30 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There's two ways to look at a film like "Lincoln."  The cynical way would be suggest that it's a timely bit of Oscar-bait, both on the director's and the lead actor's part, and in the choice of subject matter.  And I can't deny that I had a little bit of that coursing through my veins before I went in to see "Lincoln."  That cynical part of me says, "Of course a big-budget film about Lincoln is going to be successful.  How could this talent screw that up?"  It feels like a gimme, a dive with a low degree of difficulty.  Everyone knows that Steven Spielberg is a talented filmmaker, and that star Daniel Day-Lewis is a very capable actor.  And there's a part of me that resents people for spending their time on something that doesn't feel like a challenge.  That line of thinking is why we can't have nice things (like heroes, or really, role models of any kind) anymore; anyone that anybody would look up to is only has that status on loan until some inevitable, stupid scandal brings them low.  It's like we need a moment of shame to counter-balance actually liking someone and what they've been doing; anything less feels like idolatry.

Here's the facts as I see them, in regards to "Lincoln."  This is an excellent film.  It focuses on Lincoln's attempt to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the one that would permanently bar slavery in the United States of America.  Kind of a big deal.  Kind of a pivotal moment in the history of the U.S.A.  Pretty damned fascinating.  I don't know how closely this movie adheres to history (and don't care; to me, if a film isn't billing itself as a documentary, it's one and only goal should be to make a good film, facts be damned), but the political bickering and partisan politics feel like a timely representation, and with one of the awesomest collections of facial hair in the history of film as an added bonus.

Secondly, although this is a broad film about a big event, this is also exactly the kind of film that Steven Spielberg excels at making.  I might secretly wish he'd tackle something a little more, shall we say, challenging, but this is what he does and what he does best.  This is a big story, and there are moments that humanize each of the characters, and that makes the whole thing feel a lot more relateable.  Everyone, even if they haven't experienced it personally, knows someone who's stuck with a crazy chick in a strained marriage or has a rough relationship with their children.  Abraham Lincoln wasn't some deity  he was a man who got something amazing done while muddling through real-life problems.  Isn't that an amazing message?  The idea that Lincoln was just another man, even though a very smart and shrewd one, and still had the vision and ability to make a real difference in the lives of all Americans is something that everyone can take to heart.  It's not a cloying or patronizing message, this is a call to arms.

Thirdly, taking on a role like playing Lincoln is a pretty big risk for Daniel Day-Lewis.  Maybe risk isn't the right way to put, let's call it a real challenge.  We all have an idea of what Lincoln was like, whether it was formed from a monument, or if you are aware of his lesser-known San Dimas Address of 1989, or if you think he fights vampires at night.  We all know him, his actions, and Day-Lewis has to not only incorporate all of that, he has to find an approach that isn't a direct copy of something else.  To my mind, he achieved that.  His Lincoln is weary but determined, liked to tell tales (but they always have a point), and not at all certain of what the outcome of all of this will be.  So, when I cynically refer to this role as being Oscar-bait, that might be true, but only if you can pull it off.

And that's the key to "Lincoln," for me.  They pull it off.  The story is rousing, a reminder of an instance where we, as a nation, were able to rise above our differences and do the right thing together, scary as that might have been.  As I said before, this doesn't come across all shined up and spit-polished, Spielberg (and everyone else involved) are staring their audience directly in the eye and saying, "We did this before, and we can do it again."  No apologies, no excuses.  Get on the same page and make something happen.  That's a bold message.

So, a film that can feel a little obvious if you're not being charitable is only so in hindsight: Spielberg and Day-Lewis knock this out of the park.  And maybe the reason it feels a little obvious is because it's the right fit, as in these are the people who were meant to bring their specific skills to this project to make it the way it is.  "Lincoln" is a damned fine film.  It's not the best thing I've seen this year, but I wouldn't argue with people who felt it was; making a big film that's successful both financially and creatively is just as harder as mining gold out of difficult material.

4 / 5 - Theatre

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Skyfall - 2012

"Skyfall" - 2012
Dir. by Sam Mendes - 2 hrs. 23 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

First off, "Skyfall" is closer to "Casino Royale" than "Quantum of Solace."  I generally enjoyed all three films, but I got into the "Bond" game awfully late; the first one that I saw was the one with Pierce Brosnan and Halle Berry.  So what I'm saying is that I don't have any long-held beliefs about the franchise.  But I also don't have a sense of the history of these characters that some people do.  This matters because things happen in "Skyfall" (I'm going to forgo any plot recap, and I'm sure as hell not going to spoil these things that happen) that matter to the franchise itself.  These things come across as important regardless of your level of involvement with the Bond franchise, but probably mean more if you've spent a lot of time with these characters.

Probably the most important thing to note is that the Daniel Craig version of James Bond seems capable of feeling human emotions.  While it provides for gripping scenes (and it's nice to have a character that will react to things at times instead of no-selling everything), it also means longer films.  This might become a problem in a film that doesn't have "things happen," but I didn't feel like "Skyfall" lagged at all.  The flow of the film between slower, smaller scenes and the spectacular action pieces make for a good mix.

In regards to the action pieces, the opening chase through Istanbul that starts with cars, moves to motorcycles, and winds up on top of a train was fantastic, and unfortunately reminiscent of the big action finale to the very recent "Bourne Legacy."  It's not a problem, and in the context of the separate films, it's not like anybody's cribbing from one another, but it's worth noting that if you're into spy movies, you might see both, and you might notice the overlap.  There are other action scenes here worth the price of admission; Bond stalking an assassin in Shanghai is spectacular, particularly in a visual sense.  It's a unique approach, and must be seen to be believed.

"Skyfall" also delivers all the things you'd expect from a Bond film.  Aside from the action, which is definitely up to snuff, there's all the beautiful women you'd want to see, the tuxedos, a casino scene, a somewhat flamboyant villain (Javier Bardem, who minces convincingly and appropriately), and even nods to previous films (see Bond's comment to the bartender in the Macao casino - sly without repeating catchphrases).  There's some unexpectedly heavy emotional content (talking about it would definitely constitute a walk in spoiler territory).  It's an enjoyable installment in the franchise, and did nothing to dissuade me from seeing whatever the next James Bond movie is.

So what's keeping "Skyfall" from being an all-time classic?  My main frustration with the story was that while "things happen," a continuing thread from the film is the notion that computers are the answer to everything.  How have computers changed things?  "I don't know.  Computers!"  It's as if that part of the script was penned by an eighty-year old befuddled by Friendster.  Instead of getting a grand tour of big villain Silva's (Bardem) island fortress, we get a story about how he spooked all the natives into leaving, and then we get to see his server farm.  The new Q (Albert Finney) is a computer whiz, and is subject to zit jokes.  Bond has a generally dismissive view of technology that doesn't go "bang."  The computer guys are equally dismissive and arrogant about what they can do in their pajamas (what ever happened to doing more before seven A.M. than most people do all day?  Is staying in your house in a perpetual state of undress something to aspire to?).  The whole angle is tone deaf and not very well-thought out; even John McClane had a more nuanced take on technology (while still expressing the generational difficulties of adopting it) in 2007's "Live Free or Die Hard."  When a film that has Kevin Smith playing a hacker tops a Bond film in the manner that it approaches a subject, the Bond film is the one that has work to do.

Is this nitpicking?  Maybe.  But it's also a matter of having a film that came out literally the week after the American Presidental Election that has as a central component of the story old people grumping about things.   No art exists in a vacuum, and the Bond filmmakers made a miscalculation to think that anyone wants to see old people grumping about things after spending a year-plus listening to nothing else but old people grumping about things in a political context.  This problem isn't enough to derail the film (it's only an adjunct to the main plot, but hacking takes the place of the stereotypical Bond villains' Rube Golberg contraptions), but it's enough of a problem for me to knock it down a peg.  James Bond might not like computers, but if he's in his 40's (or even his 50's), they've been around for more than half of his life in a meaningful way.  If this is the point where he's getting snippy about it, it's more of an indication of him having a problem than the world having a problem.

Beyond that, "Skyfall" is a good film.  The run-time flies by, and there's almost zero chance of anyone leaving this film let down.  It's a big holiday movie, and it functions well as such.  This makes me want to go back and re-watch the two previous Daniel Craig Bond films.  You've got to fill your holiday weekends somehow.

3.5 / 5 -Theatre

Monday, November 19, 2012

Hot Tub Time Machine - 2010

"Hot Tub Time Machine" - 2010
Dir. by Steve Pink - 1 hr. 41 min.

Official Red Band Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Now that I've watched "Hot Tub Time Machine" a handful of times, I think this might be one of the darkest comedies ever committed to film.  Part of that is John Cusack; no matter the film, he always seems to have a cloud hanging over his head (and is still completely watchable, which is his magic trick).  But the entire premise is completely messed up, and as jammed full of real, relatable human misery as I've ever seen, and is still riotously hilarious.

A frayed group of miserable friends in their forties is reunited when one of them, Lou (Rob Corddry) described as being "an asshole, but he's our asshole," lands in the hospital what maybe possibly could have been a suicide attempt (he was drunk, and left the car running in his garage.  His friends, Nick (Craig Robinson) and Adam (John Cusack), plus Adam's nephew, Jacob (Clark Duke) plan a weekend bacchanal at Kodiak Valley Ski Resort.  Upon arrival, they find out that the resort has decayed a bit from its glory days during their collective youth.  They charge forward, and spend the night punishing the hell out of their livers, and wake up in their suite's hot tub. The tub has somehow transported the crew back to 1986, giving them a chance to relive one of their greatest weekends (for most of them).

First off, all of the characters are completely miserable, and it's not some vague malaise that can't quite be defined.  Nick works at a dog-groomer's, fishing keys out of the wrong end of dogs, having given up on the music career he sought as a teenager at his wife's request.  Adam has just broken up with a long-term girlfriend, and not in a painless way.  Jacob is isolated in Adam's basement, content with playing Second Life even though his character has been imprisoned within the game, and barely aware that someone in his own house has moved out.  And Lou has taken the drifting apart of his friends and resulting isolation very, very hard.  These are all real-life situations that people may find themselves in, and not knowing how to get out of.

In 1986, though, at a mysterious janitor's (Chevy Chase) insistence, they all have to relive the weekend exactly the way that it happened.  The weekend had a nostalgic haze over it, but this isn't a great deal for any of them (not to mention Jacob, who wasn't even born, and thus is completely bewildered by the 80s).  Adam has to break up with the girl that he'd always regretted breaking up with (and get stabbed in the eye with a fork), Lou has multiple ass-beatings in his immediate future, and since Nick had managed to pull a groupie after his mediocre singing performance, it dredges up some intense emotions regarding his current marital situation (and he cries all the way through the sex).  It doesn't take any of them very long to go into business for themselves, regardless of the consequences.

But for the most part, things end up with the same results, regardless of the details of how each of them arrives at the end of their road.  And this is the message of the film: you cannot escape your destiny.  But the opportunity does arise for one of them to break free; Lou admits that he was trying to kill himself, and didn't want to return to the future, knowing that he'll just keeping trying until he gets it right.  When the rest of them do return to the future, it turns out that Lou had used all of his "future knowledge" to make a fortune.  In the present day, we now have Lougle and Motley Lue, and he's used his fortune to help his friends see out their  dreams as well.

This is where the film turns so black for me; Lou only succeeds because he's given a second chance and has insider knowledge.  But every last one of these characters has screwed up everything they do on the first pass.  Once they've outlived what they already knew, and don't know what bad choices they have to avoid, they're sure to screw everything up all over again.  And although the film ends on a high point for all involved (and then with a kick-ass Motley Lue video for "Home Sweet Home"), if you've paid attention at all to what the story has been telling you, this is only a momentary success for these men.  And the fall will be even harder this time, since they've all had to be rescued from their own failures once before, tasted mead in Valhalla, and then have to return to being failures.  You cannot escape your destiny, no matter what roads you take to get there.

There's no end of really funny material here, even upon repeat viewings (I think I'm up to four or five times around now).  But if you're in a bad mood, or feeling nostalgic for when you actually used to see your friends, those are the wrong frames of mind to watch "Hot Tub Time Machine" in.  Laughter is supposed to help you out, but the downer message really stuck with me this time around.  But that doesn't diminish the movie in any way, grounding the characters so successfully makes the good times feel a little bit better.

3.5 / 5 - DVD

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Casa de mi Padre - 2012

"Casa de Mi Padre" - 2012
Dir. by Matt Piedmont - 1 hr. 25 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Look, "Casa de mi Padre" is a really weird movie.  It was funny, I enjoyed it, but damn, that was a weird movie.  There's a psychedelic trip scene, there's Matchbox cars, there's a giant animatronic white tiger or panther or whatever the hell it was.  Oh yeah, the entire thing is in Spanish, as well.  Even Will Ferrell only speaks Spanish for (nearly) the entire film.

Here's the basic overview (although, as is frequently the case with comedies, it's the execution that matters more than plot points): Armando (Ferrell) works on his father's ranch, along with his friends Esteban (Efran Ramirez) and Manuel (Adrian Martinez).  Armando's brother, Raul (Diego Luna), returns home with his bride-to-be, Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez).  But Raul is mixed up in some shady business, and Armando falls for his brother's girl.  And rival drug dealers do what rival drug dealers do.

The bottom line for me was that when I saw the trailers for this film, I knew I'd have to see it.  If I've suffered through "Semi-Pro," then I was going to have to see exactly how Ferrell was going to pull off a film done entirely in Spanish.  As it turns out, it's really, really weird.  And it works at times.  Subtitles really are the enemy of comedy; they are necessary, but distract from being able to watch the actors, you know, act.  Some of the humor comes from this - the characters will do things that you can't play close attention to while you're reading subtitles, and then you'll look up and Onza (Gael Garcia Bernal) has two lit cigarettes in his mouth.  There's also a lot of visual humor, things like Armando awkwardly helping Sonia onto a horse that don't sound very funny, but the execution is there.  It also continues the trend of the year of Nick Offerman popping up once or twice, being awesome, and disappearing for the rest of the film (just like "21 Jump Street")

But a weird movie, and an intermittently funny movie, do not necessarily equal a good comedy.  It's not bad, and there are a couple of inspired moments (the barroom scene with Armando, Raul, and Onza is one such, as are a couple of musical numbers, one at a campfire and the other at the end of the film, and there's a fight between some coyotes and the white jungle cat that's got to be seen to be believed), and I did laugh all the way through.  But often, the laughter was out of wondering where the hell what's in "Casa de mi Padre" came from.  I was on board from the point when I saw the trailer, and if you were hooked like I was, I don't think there's any way you'd be disappointed from what you saw.

But again, this isn't exactly a good movie.  It's a really weird low-budget comedy that Will Ferrell must've wanted to do, and it's fun, but it's also apparent in the first five minutes of the movie that one of the challenges of the film was always going to be how to extend the jokes that they had into a feature-length film.  There's enough success to warrant watching "Casa de mi Padre," but it might not be one of Ferrell's movies that you return to over and over again.

2.5 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Friday, November 16, 2012

Switchblade Sisters - 1975

"Switchblade Sisters" - 1975
Dir. by Jack Hill - 1 hr. 31 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

So, even if you weren't aware that Quentin Tarantino had re-released this film back in the 90's, upon watching it, you'd get the clear impression that "Switchblade Sisters" is exactly the kind of film that he'd be able to give an graduate-level dissertation on.  This is a straight-up exploitation film, meaning you're going to get delinquent girls fighting with one another, flashes of boobs, and glorious violence.  I don't mean to imply it's a bad exploitation film; it's really watchable even when laughably unbelievable, which is more than a lot of films of this ilk could claim.

If there was a contest to re-title "Switchblade Sisters," I'd go with "Bitches Be Crazy."  Lace (Robbie Lee) is  the leader of a teenage girl gang (Gang?  I don't see any gang here!) called the Dagger Debs, the lady-accomplices of a teenage boy gang called the Silver Daggers, who are led by Dominic (Asher Brauner), who is also Lace's fella.  A scuffle at a burger joint introduces Maggie (Joanne Nail), who gets thrown in juvie with the rest of the Dagger Debs.  Eventually, Maggie joins the Debs, but Dominic complicates matters by raping Maggie, which Patch (Monica Gayle), Lace's #2, interprets as Maggie making a move on Dominic.  So yeah, bitches be crazy.

A film like this, centered around high-school gangs that all seem entirely populated by actors in their twenties and thirties, is not ever going to be considered a stone-cold classic like "Chinatown" or "Citizen Kane."  The entire goal is trashy entertainment, which "Switchblade Sisters" provides in spades.  You got your knife fights among women in smoking hot outfits, you've got all the girls that you want to see topless get topless at one point or another (I couldn't help but over-think matters and connect the ideas that if the women were really high-school aged, there's no way all of them could legitimately be over 18, and thus appear nude on film), you got your grass-dealing, you got your roller-skate shoot-outs, you got your evil lesbian matrons, you got your female militant black gangs being called in to back up the white girls in another gun fight, you've got Crabs' (Chase Newhart) entire wardrobe.

That's freaking awesome, and worth the price of admission right there.

And you've got the central premise of this film, that you can't put two women in the same situation with any man present and expect the women to maintain their sanity.  In fact, most of the bloodshed in "Switchblade Sisters" is the direct result of the women getting insanely jealous of one another over a guy who isn't worth a used tissue.  Lace completely loses her shit, sells out both the Debs and the Daggers, and ends up in a one-on-one knife fight with what was at one point her best friend.  She has a good excuse to get a little emotional over things (I'll leave that particular spoiler unspoiled), and although Lace isn't hard on the eyes, I can understand her jealousy over having to compete (in her mind, I have to stress - Dominic raping Maggie early on doesn't leave her with much interest in him) with what Maggie's got going on.

She's a looker, and her outfits show off everything she's got to offer.  And that's really the entire point.  You're not supposed to root for any of the characters, you're kind of supposed to get off on their bad behavior.  That's what an exploitation film is.  And, honestly, I can't hate a movie that names the fat chick "Donut" (Kitty Bruce, Lenny Bruce's daughter) or names the black militant leader "Muff" (Marlene Clark).  That's all kinds of messed up, but that's the kind of movie that "Switchblade Sisters" is.  The modern-day comparisons to this movie are all going to be from either Robert Rodriguez or Quentin Tarantino, and if you enjoy the trashier aspects of their films, this is going to be right up your alley.  "Switchblade Sisters" is definitely a bad film, but it's also a bad film with entertainment value.

3 / 5 - Streaming

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Good Old Fashioned Orgy - 2011

"A Good Old Fashioned Orgy" - 2011
Dir. by Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck - 1 hr. 35 min.

Official Red Band Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

This is one of those movies that I had intended to catch at the three-dollar theatre, but it was there and gone in a week.  So I threw it on my Netflix queue, and was disappointed to see that there wasn't even a Blu-Ray version available (I guess they never released this film in that format, which I didn't think happened to actual theatrical releases these days).  But a month or so later, the HD version popped up on streaming, and I was saved from having to watch "A Good Old Fashioned Orgy" in (blech!) standard def.  Thank goodness!

Eric (Jason Sudeikis) and his thirty-ish friends seem to have passed their twenties by throwing epic parties at his dad's summer house (Don Johnson, but he's only around for one scene).  However, his playboy dad (I guess that's the right way to put it, he's got a much younger girl with him) has decided to sell the house, which leaves Eric with no playground.  So, in honor of the end of an era, Eric has to come up with the perfect theme for their last party there, on Labor Day weekend.  Eventually, he and his best friend, Mike (Tyler Labine) settle on the idea of an orgy amongst the inner circle of friends.  Some of the people need some convincing, but eventually everyone is down with the idea.

This isn't built to be a classic, five-star comedy.  It's a good basis for a funny R-rated comedy (and unrated home video release), and if you're down with the cast, you're going to have a good time.  My main problem was that it took me a little while to buy the chemistry between the crew (which also included Leslie Bibb, Lake Bell, Nick Kroll from "The League," Michelle Borth, Angela Sarafyan, and Martin Starr), but once I got used to the idea of this as a batch of long-time friends, the movie went a lot more smoothly.  It would be weird not to mention that while all the women in the film were absolutely smoking hot (seriously, take your pick, they all did their pilates to get ready for this movie), the guys were more comedically-built (and Labine was naked more than any other actor in the film).  I don't exactly have a problem with that; the women held their own in terms of comedy, and it's a completely different film to have the guys all ripped and cracking jokes (a little more, shall we say, bro-tastic.  Fraternity-sympathetic, in other words), and as a male viewer, that totally worked in my favor.  But ladies might be a little disappointed if they're hoping for equal quality eye-candy.

But this is a pretty funny movie, especially if you're in the mood for something like "Hall Pass" or "Horrible Bosses."  There are a few laugh-out loud scenes (particularly David Koechner's scene, playing Labine's uncle), and enough adult-oriented (read: dildos) stuff to back up the title.  The progression of events in the film and the inevitable wrinkle in the plot works and feels true; it may be a comedy, but it's not a complete caricature.  "A Good Old-Fashioned Orgy" is what it promises to be, and it goes by painlessly and quickly.  You should know if this sort of thing is up your alley or not.  I enjoyed a raunchy comedy from time to time, and I'm glad I finally got to see it (and not in yucky standard definition, either).

2.5 / 5 - Streaming