Thursday, February 28, 2013

Sweet Movie - 1974

"Sweet Movie" - 1974
Dir. by Dusan Makavejev - 1 hr. 38 min.

Boat Entrance (scene)

by Clayton Hollifield

"Sweet Movie" is somewhat ironically titled.  It's one of the most bizarre, willfully wildly inappropriate, messed up films I've ever seen.  Even understanding that's it's somewhat in the vein of Alejandro Jodorowsky's work (although I don't consider this film to be on par with Jodorowsky's films), which is to say that it's a product of a specific time, place, and aesthetic, which is another way of saying that's it's just plainly messed up, it's a film that wavers between occasional brilliance and scenes that would get people arrested (no foolies).  Also, like Jodorowsky's work, writing about "Sweet Movie" is exceedingly difficult, as this is a film that must be experienced to appreciate the depravity contained within.

There are two main plots (although the plot is less the point than trying to create a series of spectacles that provoke, with all that statement implies).  The first follows Miss Canada (Carole Laure) through a series of events that start with a chastity game show that she wins, which earns her the hand of what seems like a Texan blowhard.  Once the wedding night is over, she is discarded, literally put inside of a suitcase, and then loses her mind after a sexual encounter with a singer on the Eiffel Tower that ends in a "love cramp."  Miss Canada goes catatonic, and ends up being breastfed in a bizarre scatological collective.  The second thread follows Anna Planeta (Anna Prucnal), who is courted by a sailor, whom she ends up murdering while they make love in a giant container of sugar below deck.

First up, if you're considering watching this movie, understand that this is a boundary-pusher to the extreme.  If you tried to imagine the filthiest pornography made, you'd still come up short of what's present in "Sweet Movie."  The only real difference is that, while male and female nudity (and sexual acts) are omnipresent, they're not explicitly shown.  That's not to say that there isn't a very high explicit nudity quotient (you will see everything anatomically available, and I mean everything), but actual sex acts aren't shown in close-up.  Having said that, Miss Canada's story ends with her pulling someone's penis out and nuzzling it to her cheek, vacantly staring off in the distance for what seems like half an hour.  That's one of the lesser sights in "Sweet Movie," although it was apparently the breaking point for Laure, who quit the film after this scene.  Also understand, if what I'm describing doesn't seem that extreme, I'm leaving a lot of things unsaid.  According to "Sweet Movie's" wikipedia entry, Laure quit the production in disgust, Prucnal had her Polish passport revoked over this film (effectively exiling her from her home country), and director Dusan Makavejev based filming of "Sweet Movie" in Canada because he had already been exiled from his home country of Yugoslavia over his earlier work.  Next time you hear some celebrity talk about "haters," put it in context.  None of them have ever been banned from their home country over their work, nor has anyone created a piece of work in years where you might look at the situation and think that reaction was reasonable.

These sort of things are relevant for one reason: the entire point of "Sweet Movie" is to provoke a reaction, and then push viewers past their breaking point.  Sometimes, there are visual aspects that are spectacular (like the giant face on the front of the boat, or the White Stripes-themed murder visual of bright red blood mixing with the pure white of the vat of sugar Anna and her lover are in, or Miss Canada being shoved into a suitcase and literally being treated as a piece of luggage), and these are the moments that make you think maybe director Dusan Makavejev knows what he's doing.  And then there are the scenes like when Anna lures four kids onto her boat with the promise of candy, then basically gives them each a fully-nude lapdance (this was my breaking point, and the scene seemed to go on forever) before murdering them that makes you think that maybe Makavejev ought to be imprisoned.  There are scenes like when Miss Canada ends up being brought to the collective in a wheelbarrow, as if she'd been picked from a restaurant's trash-bin and ends up mutely not comprehending the orgy of bodily functions going on around a communal dinner table that suggest that Makavejev assembled this film because he knew a bunch of weirdos who wouldn't mind dropping a deuce on camera.

Watching "Sweet Movie" raises a lot of questions.  On the most basic level, does "Sweet Movie" has artistic merit?  There are moments where you'd have to say yes.  There were moments where I'd also say that it was unrepentant trash that's only purpose is to shock.  But John Waters' "Pink Flamingos" came out only two years prior, and if it's more infamous, it's only because fewer people have seen "Sweet Movie" (and also because "Flamingos" is more of a "movie" than this is).  Is this a good movie?  Man, I don't know.  There's a big part of me that thinks seeing "Sweet Movie" at home, on a big fancy TV and by myself is a complete bastardization of the intended experience.  There was no home video when this was made, and I can see "Sweet Movie" making sense in a darkened, sticky-floored room, and in a crowd, where the viewing becomes more of a "how much can you take" competition, where half the fun is being in a crowd that's groaning and half-covering their eyes, and you can take pride for lasting longer than the people who tap out and flee for the exits.  The first time I saw "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" was at home, as a rented VHS tape, and it's appeal in that context was completely lost on me.  I'm not going to pretend "Sweet Movie" is any good, but I would pretend that was the aim, either.

"Sweet Movie" is deservedly reviled.  There's no other way to put it.  Makavejev wants to make each viewer hate what they are watching, and he accomplishes that.  Everyone's bar will be set at a different point.  I had a real problem with the scene with nude Anna writhing around and on children, but I had an even bigger problem with the spliced-in footage showing the results of a Polish massacre that was unrelated to anything else.  It seemed like an umbrella under which Makavejev hoped to hide beneath, in an attempt to claim artistic credibility or to "make a statement," while grinning madly at the crap that he was pulling on everyone.  I can deal with the content of the film (even if uncomfortably), but those clips felt like Makavejev was breaking the fourth wall in a bad, counterproductive way (which also undermined the final image of the film).

So watch "Sweet Movie," if you dare, but don't say I didn't warn you.  I don't know if it's great or completely evil, but at least it was something.

WTF / 5 - Streaming

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook - 2012

"Silver Linings Playbook" - 2012
Dir. by David O. Russell - 2 hrs. 2 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Boy, I wasn't expecting a film this good when I went to see "Silver Linings Playbook."  I generally like enough of the people involved, but given the setting and set-up (a romance between "crazy" people), I was expecting something leaning more towards the willfully weird "I Heart Huckabees" than, I guess I'd have to throw back to "Chasing Amy" as a romantic comedy that features flawed people that can't help themselves from making the wrong move at times.

Pat (Bradley Cooper) is former teacher who is about to be released from a court-mandated hospital stay, to go live with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) while he tries to cobble his life back together.  He's bi-polar, and for much of the movie seems about half a second from detonating, except when he actually does lose it, which happens more than once.  Pat's goal is to turn himself into the man that his estranged wife wanted him to be, at which point he believes she'll come back to him and they'll live happily ever after.  He's so focused on her that even when he's introduced to Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), and sparks kind of fly (in a way that's appropriate to the characters), he's still talking about the ex and how he plans to get her back, even to Tiffany's face.

Probably the most distinct feature of "Silver Linings Playbook" is that it's very sharply, and specifically written.  The characters are not generic at all.  Despite the mental illness (which could have turned into a caricature in lesser hands), Pat is a real person, one who wants his wife back (even though the pursuit is a continual source of stress), one who's family are big Eagles fans, and one who's on constant edge trying to maintain control of his faculties.  In one of the interviews surrounding one of the "Hangover" movies, I remember someone talking about how Bradley Cooper has a sort of believable anger simmering under his characters, and that was the draw for putting him in those movies.  I didn't quite get that until this film, where that trait is on full display.  It's not malicious exactly, but he flies off of the handle at times, and just blurts out whatever he's thinking at any given time.  Cooper is absolutely the right guy for this movie.

The other half of the equation is Jennifer Lawrence's character, Tiffany.  Her character is equally specific (which is a goddamned miracle), equally well-written, and Lawrence has the fierceness to stand down Robert De Niro in a scene, which is saying something.  All the praise surrounding her performance is on the money and well-earned.  In terms of what that adds to the film is a rare treat; often in romantic comedies, one character is less a real person and more of a cipher, someone whom the pursuer's needs and wants are projected onto.  It would be inaccurate to say that Tiffany is the pursued, but that's often the role that the female lead is slotted into.  She's straightforward and goes for what she wants, which makes Pat's focus on his estranged wife brutal to watch - it's clear that Tiffany's putting up with more than she should in the hopes that Pat will eventually notice what's right in front of him, but that's also far from a foregone conclusion.

Another aspect worth noting is the incorporation of the football material in the movie.  It's rarely acknowledged in film; sports movies are sports movies, and it's completely ignored in every other film (or treated as some macho, juvenile diversion when it's not ignored).  In "Silver Linings Playbook," it's just an organic part of the community - of course everyone in Philadelphia pays attention to what the Eagles are doing.  Football games are a way to get family members who aren't getting along in the same room, a manner of father-son bonding, an event that everyone can come together around, a reassurance of normalcy.  Even characters like Danny (Chris Tucker), who keeps reappearing during the film having just escaped from the same Baltimore hospital Pat had been at, keeps trying to join Pat's family to watch the Eagles games.  It's a community, and the understanding of that here, in what is definitely not a sports movie, is flabbergasting.  If you don't believe that,  watch either of the big scenes between De Niro and Cooper's characters, one in Pat's bedroom, and the other when Pat Sr. explains his rationale for his wager on an Eagles' game; they're both brilliant.

The best compliment I can pay to the film is that even up to the very, very end, how things were going to play out was a mystery.  There are so many believable, combustible elements involved that as a viewer, you know the wheels are always about two seconds from flying off the vehicle.  And even more importantly, I was hoping that they wouldn't.  I was hooked all along, and even through the climactic dance scene, who knew what was going to happen?  "Silver Linings Playbook" is a fantastic movie, way better than I was expecting, and one I'm definitely going to watch again.

4.5 / 5 - Theatre

Friday, February 22, 2013

A Good Day to Die Hard - 2013

"A Good Day to Die Hard" - 2013
Dir. by John Moore - 1 hr. 37 min.

Official Trailer #2

by Clayton Hollifield

There are good and bad things about the fifth installment of the "Die Hard" franchise.  The bad vastly outweigh the good, although the good probably take up more screen time.  My best analogy is that "A Good Day to Die Hard" is a decent house built on a shaky, rotting foundation.  If you work at it, you can probably push the bad to the back of your head and just enjoy the noise and fury in front of you.  I couldn't quite get to that point of living in the moment while watching "DH5," though.

John McClane's (Bruce Willis) son gets in trouble in Moscow, and so John Sr. heads there to help him out.  And things blow up and get destroyed.  Sound like a light plot?  Good, then I got it right.

Praise first: "A Good Day to Die Hard" is hardcore pornography for people who want to see cars get wrecked and things getting blown up.  The initial "car" chase scene in Moscow is pretty awesome, in terms of the sheer amount of destruction presented.  And this is a super-loud film, as well.  That might seem like a weird compliment, but the audience is going to get battered visually and audibly all the way through, and the consistency is at least consistent.  The action material is kind of fun to watch (if exhausting, and if given a pretty slim reason for existing), and isn't amateurish in the least.

Unfortunately, that's about all DH5 has going for it.  The story, such as it is, is one of a Baby Boomer wondering why his adult child hates him.  And then John McClane comes to his senses, understands that his priorities have been out of whack, and amends must be made.  It's a plot that already feels exhausted, partially because DH5 offers no new insights or twists on the scenario.  But also, it's an explicit admission of irrelevance.  People might be better off understanding that there is a time in a man's life where he needs to try to make his mark on the world, and the pursuit of excellence includes an admission fee for those who will be a part of that man's life.  But as long as a man actually is in the act of excelling, he rarely has a change of heart.  It's when he starts to slow down and become irrelevant that all of a sudden family becomes the most important thing in his life.  If that sounds harsh, understand that this is the film that you are being sold here.  Watch John McClane become irrelevant, and try to make his son love him again, with a backdrop of gunfire and helicopters and explosions.

I'm not sure if this plot is tired and awful and mealy-mouthed due to repetition, or if it just feels like I've seen this a million times too many already.  I hate the idea that characters who aimed big and tried to make a difference earlier in their lives are curling up into a ball and being repentant about their earlier actions.  It invalidates all the previous films in a franchise, and neuters the franchise moving forward.  So, again, understand that "A Good Day to Die Hard," as filmed, is essentially Bruce Willis squatting on John McClane's legacy, and coating it thoroughly in a hot, steaming mess.

That's pretty much the entire story.  There's a bad guy who schemes and pulls a bit of a Keiser Soze on everybody, and we get a final, intergenerational tag-team showdown between the McClanes and the baddie (The Most Interesting Man in the World) and his daughter (Black Widow).  And it happens at Chernobyl.  The action is non-stop and all-inclusive, and the film isn't too long, but the second you stop and try to think about what's holding up what you're seeing, it all goes to hell.  Russia (and Moscow) aren't made much of (other than seeing exotic cars wrecked, everything is predictably drab and captured with standard-issue Seizure-Cam technology), even Chernobyl isn't that big of a deal, which is unfortunate.  And I also spent the entire film thinking that McClane Jr. (Jai Courtney) looked like what would happen if you pasted Scarlett Johansson's face onto an UnderArmor model, which was a little distracting.

I was curious to see DH5 because I liked the fourth film way more than I expected to.  But it had McClane struggling (but at least trying) to come to terms with modern technology and what it meant.  It represented an uneasy step into modernity.  But DH5 is a step into a retirement home.  If there's a sixth installment, and it doesn't center around John McClane's unexpected competitiveness at bocce ball, there's going to have to be a lot of work done to rehabilitate the character and the franchise.  Or they can just choose to ignore that "A Good Day to Die Hard" ever happened, which is probably the best available option.

1.5 / 5 - Theatre

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Beat the Devil - 1953

"Beat the Devil" - 1953
Dir. by John Huston - 1 hr. 29 min.

Full Movie

by Clayton Hollifield

So, what if I told you that Humphrey Bogart and John Huston (and Peter Lorre) had done another film together, about a decade after "The Maltese Falcon?"  Would you also like to know that Truman Capote co-wrote the screenplay?  You might be interested in that film, based on nothing more than that information.  I wouldn't blame you in the least if visions of a lost masterpiece were dancing around in your head.  Now that I've gotten your hopes up, I'll tell you that "Beat the Devil" is no such masterpiece, but it is a perfectly enjoyable film.

Billy (Bogart) and his wife, Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) are stuck in an Italian villa, waiting for both the captain of a ship to sober up so that they can depart for Africa (there's a Uranium scheme involved), and for the last member of the scheming party to arrive.  Billy's not in charge of this operation, that would be Peterson (Robert Morley), whom O'Hara (Lorre) also works under.  None of them get along very well, and matters are further complicated when another couple, Harry (Edward Underdown) and Gwendolyn (Jennifer Jones), show up for the cruise.  Almost immediately, Billy makes a play for Gwendolyn, and Maria makes a play for Harry.  They love each other very much, but it seems this is how they pass time.  Basically, everyone is cooling their heels and getting on each other's nerves until the captain sobers up, and then things get worse once they're all confined to a smaller space on the boat.

A little light internet research reveals that Huston and Bogart conceived "Beat the Devil" as a sort of a parody of the noir films they had pioneered.  Fascinatingly enough, their idea of a parody doesn't resemble the Wayans brothers' idea of parody.  There's nary a fart or a weed joke to be found (although Harry does make a joke, protesting that Maria had made love to him, and not the other way around, which I suppose is a 1950's version of a blow-job joke).  Their idea of parody is pretty interesting, in that they basically flip everything you'd expect out of this collection of characters.  Bogart is the star, and probably has the most screen-time, but he plays a subordinate instead of the loner that he's known for.  Peter Lorre doesn't have a ton of lines (he makes the most out of them anyways).  Unfortunately, although the Italian villa and cafe is a nice setting, it doesn't approach the iconic status of Rick's Cafe or Sam Spade's office, in terms of atmosphere.

But the real surprise of "Beat the Devil" is that the best characters (and best acting) comes from the two female leads.  Gina Lollobrigida is free to be sexy and manipulative in the way that only foreign-born characters seem to be able to get away with.  What can you do?  She's Italian.  And Jennifer Jones' perkiness and disconnect with reality (which is intertwined with a very quick mind, even if it's used for spinning tall tales) is the polar opposite.  But the movie largely belongs to these two actresses.  The men all have their schemes, but the women seem to spend their time jockeying how to most take advantage of the men.

The last laugh belongs to Bogart, of course, except it doesn't.  He gets one-upped at the end, even after some admittedly brilliant scheming in cahoots with the administrator in the African country the entire group washes up on shore of, at the expense of Peterson.  Huston and Bogart's idea of parody means giving an audience the exact opposite of what they expect they'll get from this cast and in this scenario.  I've watched "Beat the Devil" three times now, and it's pretty decent.  It's better to approach this film expecting to watch the equivalent of a pretty good obscure b-side.  On it's own, it has merits, but if it was stacked along side Bogart's real heavy-hitters, it would look pretty shabby in comparison.  So take "Beat the Devil" for what it is; a film about a bunch of schemers being manipulated by a pair of beautiful women, who are competing amongst each other as well.  It just happens to have a bunch of famous people in it, too.

3 / 5 - DVD

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Lake Placid - 1999

"Lake Placid" - 1999
Dir. by Steve Miner - 1 hr. 22 min.

Theatrical Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Lake Placid" is not a good movie.  It's not even a good bad movie.  It's schlock, padded out by Betty White and Oliver Platt being their awesome selves in the time they have to do so, and there's also a thirty-foot crocodile that bites the heads off of things.  Is that enough to carry an eighty-minute film?

In a lake in rural Maine, Sheriff Keough (Brendan Gleeson) and some monosyllabic Fish & Game officer are out on a lake, investigating a disturbance.  The officer gets chomped in half (and is shown as half a man), which brings in all the weirdos to investigate.  This includes Jack Wells (another Fish & Game representative, played by Bill Pullman), Kelly Scott (Bridget Fonda, playing a paleontologist), and Hector Cyr (Platt, playing a wealthy mythology professor obsessed with crocodiles).  And together, they must track down this oversized croc.

On a first viewing, the important things to take away are that Oliver Platt is rad in a bottle, no matter how awful the material he has to work with is, and that this is the film where people started to realize that Betty White was still really, really funny.  She had been largely doing TV shows for duration of the 90s, and her foul-mouthed turn here was a genuine shock, considering that she'd more recently been known for playing a good-natured ditz on "Golden Girls."  Other things to note: people once considered Bridget Fonda a movie star, Bill Pullman can be very forgettable, and that it's kind of fun to watch a giant crocodile eat cows, bears, and chomp the head off of a police officer cleanly.

Unfortunately, I had seen this movie before, and it definitely doesn't hold up to a second viewing.  Fonda is super-annoying, Pullman's aw shucks routine is slightly less annoying.  And schlock only works when it's not ironic (or you have a director with both ungodly skills and a real affinity for this sort of material, like Robert Rodriguez or Quentin Tarantino, who can elevate cheesy material into something more substantial).  Once you get past Platt's and White's performances, it's apparent "Lake Placid" was assembled and constructed entirely on auto-pilot.

But at least it's short, so "Lake Placid" has that going for it.

1.5 / 5  - TV

Friday, February 15, 2013

Running Scared - 1986

"Running Scared" - 1986
Dir. by Peter Hyams - 1 hr. 47 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Running Scared" is one of my sister's childhood favorite movies, so I've watched it previously a number of times, too.  It's been a number of years since I had watched it last, so I had a general sketch of it in my head, but I really enjoyed getting a number of details that I had mistakenly mis-attributed to other films solidified this time around.  I'm not going to pretend that "Running Scared" is an all-time great film, but it's free of a lot of the cliches that have infested the buddy cop movie over the years, and that goes a long way.

Ray (Gregory Hines) and Danny (Billy Crystal) are undercover policemen in Chicago, and are surprised to see Julio Gonzales (Jimmy Smits) out of jail and conducting big drug deals again.  They don't nab Julio, but do get their hands on Snake (Joe Pantoliano, with pink hair!), and try to get him to flip on Julio.  When this doesn't go down they way they had planned, Ray and Danny are suspended, and head to Key West to chill out.  The trip agrees with them, so they both decide to quit and buy a bar there.  Upon their return, they offer their thirty day notice, but learn that Julio has skated on the charges they had hung on him.  They vow to nab Julio for good within their thirty days, and set about accomplishing that task.

I'll be honest, having twenty-some years of films between this one and now had conditioned me to expect healthy doses of tired black people/white people humor to pad out the run-time, built around a boring catch-the-bad-guy motive that plays out over the last ten minutes of the film.  But comedies from the 80's frequently play out differently.  Just like with "Brewster's Millions," the relationship between Hines and Crystal is that of a pair of old friends, not a deliberately (and transparently) mismatched pair of stereotypes.  This is probably the biggest cliche that's deftly avoided, and I breathed a deep sigh of relief when it became apparent that "Running Scared" wasn't going there.

Also awesome: although both characters are kind of hot-shot weirdos (which is explained as a necessary component of their job), they are characters with real, relatable frustrations.  They've both got exes, and have prioritized their job and friendship over everything else.  Danny's ex, Anna (Darlene Fluegel), is kind of a one-note character (loving Danny while wishing he'd "grow up"), but rather than sounding like nails on a chalkboard, it both makes sense and explains why there aren't a million women in this film.  The ones that are there are fleeting, but that's how both Danny and Ray have constructed their lives.

In terms of "must-see" comedy bits, there's not a ton to be found here.  Both Crystal and Hines are pretty good, but even when they're engaging in hijinks, the tone of the film doesn't lend itself to loud guffaws.  There's a bit when Crystal does a fake voice that's good, and seeing Jimmy Smits run around in pink Jockeys is always good for a laugh.  There's also an extended car chase between a limo and a taxi cab that ends up on the L, which is worth checking out.  The entire film is decent, and it's enjoyable, but there's nothing that stands out.  But then again, part of my enjoyment of this film is seeing 80's Chicago caught on film - it's a little bit of nostalgia to see what the world looked like when I was a kid.

So check out "Running Scared," or don't.  There are vastly worse ways to pass your time, but you might enjoy seeing Billy Crystal sticking a handgun in someone's face.  If you dig 80's comedies, this one ain't half bad.

2.5 / 5 - TV

Monday, February 11, 2013

Judge Dredd - 1995

"Judge Dredd" - 1995
Dir. by Danny Cannon - 1 hr. 36 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

You can tell a lot from how Hollywood handles comic book movies by the difference between this 1995 version and last year's version of movies made based on the Judge Dredd character.  The basic difference is that filmmakers in 1995 didn't have a god-damned clue what to do with the source material.  The 2012 film is solid, made it's money back, and was vastly more entertaining than I expected.  If that movie had come out in 1995, it would have blown people's minds, in the way that "The Matrix" did when it came out.  Now, it's just expected that any (non-DC) comic book movie is going to be pretty decent, and not radically violate the rules surrounding the source material.  But in 1995...

The world has gone to Hell, and the entire Earth's population has settle in one Mega City that spans the entire Eastern Seaboard.  Since the dense population is difficult to control, the entire judicial system is condensed into one person: a judge that also carries out sentencing and the sentence itself.  Dredd (Sylvester Stallone) is the finest of the judges.  Naturally, that means that he's framed for a murder by the long-lost brother he never even knew he had, Rico Dredd (Armand Assante).  Once Judge Dredd is stripped of his position and sent to jail (alongside Herman, played by Rob Schneider!), he must fight his way back into the city to confront his brother and to blow things up.

If I wanted to comprehensively cover all of the ways this movie was terrible, I'd still be typing three days from now.  Instead, I'll focus on three main areas of problems: derivative-ness, inability to grasp the source material, and absurdity.  You can't exactly judge a film for looking like a film from it's era, but this is super-true for "Judge Dredd."  There's a kind of shininess that's a hallmark of sci-fi films from this time-frame; everything takes place in the dark, but everything's also kind of well-lit and sometimes features neon.  When it's done poorly (like here, or in the Joel Schumacher Batman films), it just looks like you stepped into an arcade in your cargo shorts and flannels, and there's no dirt on anything anywhere.  I suppose this look came from Paul Verhoeven, in movies like "Robocop," "Total Recall," or "Starship Troopers."  It works for his films, partly because there's a built-in cheesiness to what he does (I mean that as a compliment, I swear).  The look feels organic for Verhoeven, but only because it feels like the actors are on the same page as he is. Here, it feels like the actors are drawing on the 1960's Batman film - Stallone is a mix between Adam West (especially when he's got his helmet on) and Fonzie (two direct Fonzie rips - he says at one point that he's never apologized to anyone in his life, and at another point he bangs on a piece of technology with his fist to make it work, and it actually starts working!), Armand Assante is also on the Batman tip with a blend of Nicholson and Cesar Romero's versions of the Joker, and Rob Schneider is every annoying pocket-sized sidekick ever.

There's also the section of the film that feels like it's exactly the "Back to the Future" ride from Universal Studios theme park.  I don't know what else to say about that other than if you have been on that ride, the sky-motorcycle chase scene in the third act is going to feel super-familiar.

It took a lot of bad comic book movies for Hollywood to get even a loose grasp on making this genre of film work.  One of the things that many filmmakers didn't understand is that there are very specific reasons why each character works for it's fans.  Yes, Spider-Man is kinda emo sometimes, but he's also funny, and it's an underdog story.  This is why there should never be a movie where he leads the Avengers.  Batman is an ass-kicking machine with all the best toys, this is why romance plots involving Bruce Wayne are rarely the best Batman stories.  Judge Dredd is all-work, deadly serious (although the comics are darkly humorous, and not "dishing out crappy one-liners" humorous like Stallone seems to think), always gets the job done.  He's a juggernaut of justice.  He literally shoots criminals in the face when he catches them.  The source material is an ultra-violent statement on a fascist government agency.

In the comics, Judge Dredd literally (literally!) never removes his helmet.  At least not so the reader can see in his face.  So why would you have Stallone's Dredd take his helmet off in the first fifteen minutes of the film, and spend more time bare-faced than helmeted?  Or more to the point, why, when comic books were the furthest from cool they could be (and I say this as someone who was working on the very periphery of self-publishing at that time (as well as having worked in a comic-book store during that time period), and thus tasked with try to sell uncool products to people who could care less), would the very first thing you see on the screen when the movie starts is a collage of "Judge Dredd" comic book covers and panels?  Did these filmmakers believe the sort of people who either liked the comic or would go see a Stallone film would care that Gianni Versace designed the Dredd costume (absurdly, I might add)?  Were they not aware that the early-film shot that pans up Dredd's Versace threads from head to toe also leads to a full-screen close-up of Dredd's codpiece?  Or did they think that a Stallone/Dredd audience (and let's peg it exactly - a teenage/early 20's guy who wants to see things blow up and people get shot) might not be that interested in the only female character, Dredd's peer Judge Hershey (Diane Lane), haranguing Dredd for not sharing his feelings?

A film that starred a man in a codpiece grossed over $100 million in the mid-90s.  Think about that for a minute.  But at every turn, "Judge Dredd" is a film that seems to be a baffling collection of the vanity quirks of everyone involved, rather than an attempt to make a decent film.  There doesn't seem to be any grasp of the material that they're supposed to be interpreting; Dredd is supposed to be a symbol of government oppression, and this film becomes a man vs. system story before it turns into the brother vs. brother story.  The costumes look awful (too shiny, which is absurd in a profession where you can expect to be shot at frequently), and Dredd is literally the opposite of someone who seeks attention and adoration, but the costume seems to be an excuse for Stallone to stand around, helmet off, with his chest puffed out and his ass stuck out so you can see how much he's been working out.

But really, the key word for "Judge Dredd" is "absurd."  And not in a clever way, or an ironic way, but more like a WTF, what were they thinking kind of absurdity.  Everyone engaged here (aside from Diane Lane, when she wasn't scripted to whine about Dredd's feelings) seems to think that a comic book being the source material means that you have to act like a cartoony villain.  When you a have a standard-issue plot and overall look, there has to be something to ground the story.  No one seemed to be both willing to do that and was in a position for it to matter.  The result is condescension: the actors inability to commit to the material tells viewers that the material isn't worth taking seriously.  For a film that was in a genre on shaky legs at that point, comic book fans can smell that sort of attitude a mile off.  And unlike now, when you can see a comic book movie every couple of weeks at the multiplex, this was a blown opportunity.  A big-budget adaptation with a real movie star wasn't something that came along every day; it's more likely you'd get something like "Monkeybone," starring someone you'd heard of (Brendan Fraser) in a role almost tailor-made to guarantee that his fans wouldn't want anything to do with the film.

So not only does "Judge Dredd" suck nearly as badly as any film I've managed to watch in it's entirety, but it was a (at the time) rare opportunity for such an adaptation to succeed completely botched.  I laughed all the way through "Judge Dredd" in the way you would at "Plan 9 From Outer Space"; in complete bafflement at how so many people could work together and produce such an incompetent, awful result.  If you're going to watch this, get drunk first, or maybe smoke a whole bagful of crack instead.  It'll help things like this scene make some kind of sense:

.5 / 5 - TV

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Enter the Dragon - 1973

"Enter the Dragon" - 1973
Dir. by Robert Clouse - 1 hr. 38 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There's this action star you may have heard of before, Bruce Lee.  He only made a handful of films, all of them low-budget, and he died in the prime of his life, in the middle of shooting another film.  "Enter the Dragon" is Lee's last complete film, and was released shortly after his untimely death.  It's also Lee's martial-arts masterpiece.

There is a mysterious invite-only martial arts tournament on an island, run by a man named Han (Kien Shih).  Lee (Bruce, of course), Roper (John Saxon), and Williams (Jim Kelly) are brought to the island.  Lee has been enlisted by the British Intelligence Agency to bring down Han.  And there is a ton of kung-fu fighting (ok, that's not true - Lee's own Jeet Kune Do is one of the focuses).  When the tournament breaks down, everything comes down to a final battle between Lee and Han, partially in a hall of mirrors.

You might have already guessed, but the real appeal of this film is not the plot.  And I'd be lying if I said that everything has aged well - you'll likely enjoy Jim Kelly's striking resemblance to Black Dynamite, as well as John Saxon looking kind of like a turtle-necked George Clooney, but the fighting is still pretty good.  Part of what I enjoy about films from this era is that the actors involved were generally actually doing the fighting themselves, instead of just having the cameraman film the scenes while having a grand mal seizure.  But even more than that, there's the ungodly swagger, charisma and ability of this film's star, Bruce Lee.

This video shows Lee's fight against O'Hara, a man whom Lee holds a very personal grudge against.  As I was watching this scene, I was yelling at the TV that O'Hara should just get the heck out of there.  Bruce Lee is a bad man, and you know exactly what's coming.  At first, it's a straight-forward fight.  And then Lee starts dancing, so to speak.  It's spellbinding: excellent film-making in it's minimal approach.  When you've got someone who can actually pull off the things you want to show on screen, you can't add to it.  Just point the camera and let Bruce Lee do his thing, it'll be guaranteed magic.

There's a second memorable fight scene, the final battle with Han.  The entire island has lost the organization that it had earlier, and everyone is fighting everyone.  And that's a lot of people!  Han has apparently severed one of his own hands so that he can attach weapons in it's place, and he employs this technique repeatedly against Lee.  Eventually, Han and Lee move through a revolving door and into a hall of mirrors, which provides a spectacular series of visuals.  I don't want to over-hype it, but when you're dealing with low-budget film-making (this was budgeted at $850k, which was still low for the time, even if it was the biggest budget Lee would have the opportunity to work with), coming up with a spectacular visual is a challenge, and highly necessary.  So aside from it being awesome, it's also an awesome solution to the problem of not being able to hose down anything that pops up with a steady stream of cash.

If you've never actually sat down to watch a Bruce Lee movie, "Enter the Dragon" is a good choice to start with.  "Way of the Dragon" has Bruce Lee fighting Chuck Norris in the Roman Colosseum, but this is a more iconic and even film.  I warn that you're just going to have to accept the quirks of 70's martial arts films, but if you're capable of that, there's a lot of enjoyment to be had out of this film.  But even if you can't, there's almost no way not to be charmed by Lee.  He had the rare gift of being someone who people would pay money simply to watch him physically move (think about Michael Jackson's gifts as a dancer in the 70's and 80's as a fair comparison - you can see those on display in "The Wiz," if you want to know what I'm talking about).  There's such a short list of people who have that kind of athleticism and grace that you could probably familiarize yourself with all of them in one day.  "Enter the Dragon" is a time capsule of Lee at his absolute peak, and it's worth a couple of hours of your time on that basis alone.  And then when you're done, you can watch "Kentucky Fried Movie," and will then have the necessary knowledge to fully enjoy that film, too.

3.5 / 5 - TV