Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory - 1971

"Willa Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" - 1971
Dir. by Mel Stuart - 1 hr. 40 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

The more I see "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," the more I love it.  I don't even like musicals, but as a film, "Willy Wonka" is the gift that keeps on giving.  But also, I glean something new from Wonka upon each repeat viewing.  This time, it's apparent that this isn't light kid's fare, but instead a look into a dystopian drug-riddled hellscape that chews children up for fun and profit.

The first part of the film shows drug abuse as being aspirational: more money means better drugs.  Even before the Wonka Bar craze hits, all of the children proceed directly from school to their dealer, where they huddle sweatily, coins in hand, waiting for the candy slinger to drop rocks in their hands so they can get their buzz on.  Everyone except for Charlie (Peter Ostrum), who is too poor to fund a decent habit, and stands on the outside of the "candy shop," looking forlornly through the window at all the junk he won't be getting high on.  Then, the mastermind behind this addiction pyramid scheme, Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) comes up with a diabolical scheme to tighten his grip on the pineal glands of the world: the Golden Ticket.  Wonka has been reclusive his whole life, as drug barons usually are, and each of the five tickets randomly inserted into Wonka Bars grant the bearer a once-in-a-lifetime tour of the Wonka factory (and a lifetime supply of chocolate).  Imagine the chaos; it's as if Pablo Escobar offered to fly five people to Columbia to see how cocaine is made, and then set them up with a never-ending line of nose candy to keep each of them twitchy and over-confident for the rest of their sure to be short-ass lives.

So who are the five poor souls doomed to an endless cycle of furious binges followed by unsuccessful rehab stints?  Augustus Gloop (Michael Bollner), a German lad who already has an insatiable appetite for anything that will fit in his mouth.  Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole), a relentless slave-driver who has cowed her parents into using their factory and the workers within to open Wonka Bars until a Golden Ticket is found, at which happiness and harmony will be restored.  Violet Beauregard (Denise Nickerson), a gum-snapping little twat who takes every scrap of attention and the opportunity it affords to lord over her "friends," who I'm not even sure exist.  And lastly, Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen), a deluded kid who thinks he's a cowboy and snaps at his parents when they dare interrupt his westerns.  After a Paraguayan hoax, Charlie goes scrounging for change in the gutters so that he can try to fit in with all of the other drug-addicts, finds a coin, and blows it all at the "candy shop."  This time, Charlie hits the jackpot and pulls the fifth Golden Ticket.  He narrowly escapes a fiending mob back to his house, where the news of this is enough to rouse his good-for-nothing Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) out of bed for the first time in twenty years (!) for a song-and-dance number (!!).  Seems all that was holding Joe back was the family's nightly dinner of cabbage water, instead of a high-rolling diet of Wonka's finest.

Once at the Wonka factory, the children (and their weak-stomached family members) are forced to endure a series of harsh psychedelic stress tests, administered by Wonka himself and his battalion of Oompa Loompas (strange, small, singing orange men, whose cultural history is recounted by Wonka in the form of a 'Nam flashback), which ruthlessly weeds out four of the children until only Charlie stands.  As it turns out, his inability to financially afford the same kinds and quantities of candy as the other children leaves him uniquely qualified to help out Mr. Wonka.  As always, not getting high on your own supply is the route to success in the game of slinging sugar.

Despite the harsh parable "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" contains, it's an iconic film, and for good reason.  It's jam-packed with ideas (the visual designs are routinely stunning), and literally bursting at the seams with flavor.  I don't know if this is the movie that Gene Wilder is most famous for, but it probably should be.  He's got an unhinged, manic energy that's not entirely benevolent, which makes even the smallest details within the film potentially dangerous.  He's also playful, but in a mean-spirited way, which is kind of a delight to watch, especially when it's at the expense of awful, bratty children.  "Willy Wonka" is airtight and flies by, and beyond that, it's a cultural touchstone.  Most movies don't even try to lend ideas to the zeitgeist (it's not really something that's frequently accomplished by design anyways), but even still people make frequently references to Oompa Loompas and to Golden Tickets, which isn't half bad for a movie that's a shade over forty years old at this point.  So go ahead, press play, and watch Veruca Salt get her just desserts.  You know you want to.

5 / 5 - Theatre

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone - 2013

"The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" - 2013
Dir. by Don Scardino - 1 hr. 40 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" has got to be one of the worst titles for a movie that I've seen in years.  It manages the bad title trifecta: too long, hard to remember, tells you nothing about the movie itself.  I'm not going to stand here and tell you that this title is obscuring a gem of a film that fell through the cracks, I'll tell you instead that it simply doesn't do this film any favors.  It makes it sound like you might be going to see a film that stars a hologram Don Knotts, which has academic appeal, but probably wouldn't lure many viewers into a theatre.

Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) is a bullied youth who gets a magic kit for his birthday, which changes his life.  Burt and his buddy, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), dazzled by the Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin) magic kit devote themselves to becoming magicians, ending up with a Bally's headliner show that runs for many years.  But Burt in particular has become jaded and embodies everything bad a "star" might be, and The Incredible Burt and Anton magic show is fading from popularity.  Part of the problem is the kind of street magic Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) performs (one of his TV specials is centered around Gray refraining from urinating for a week solid), which is on the upswing.  Doug (James Gandolfini), who runs Bally's, threatens Burt and Anton's employment, with a directive to update their show or else.  Their attempt goes awry, and Burt and Anton split acrimoniously.  Burt has to try to rebuild his career, but he's deliberately alienated everyone he's ever come in contact with through his buffoonish and arrogant behavior.

What's good here is that all of the actors are pretty funny (other than Olivia Wilde, who's character is supposed to be the object of desire for Wonderstone, and is supposed to provide a sane path out of his insane behavior).  Carell is great as a cross between David Copperfield (who actually has a cameo) and Siegfried and Roy, all rolled into one velvet-suited, bedazzled, blow-dried Vegas a-hole.  Buscemi's role is more of a straight-man role, which he does very well.  Jim Carrey's "Brain Rapist" parody of Criss Angel is fantastic and dead-on.  The ads implied that Carrey has a bigger role than he really does, although it's not as if he's only in one scene.  He brings a hyperactive arrogance to all of his scenes, and his character is in the movie just the right amount.  Any more and the Brain Rapist would have become too much to deal with, but as it is, Jim Carrey probably has the best scene in the entire film.  There's a bar scene where Steve Gray rolls in, only to find Wonderstone there.  Gray has a series of nonsensical taunts, and then literally floats out of the scene.  It was bewildering to watch, a tasty random bit of surrealism that left me laughing loudly and shaking my head at the same time.

While I generally enjoyed the movie, it wasn't great wall-to-wall.  It was good, but "Burt Wonderstone" isn't an edgy comedy.  It's more of a celebration of hackery (there are plenty of cheesy jokes, but they work in the context if you're in the spirit of the movie), and about watching a buffoon get embarrassed by a prick until the buffoon pulls his head out of his rear (it was PG-13, so I'll ease up on the language, too).  And then he gets the girl (and Olivia Wilde is both beautiful, and fun to watch).  On average, "Burt" is pretty funny with a couple of highlights, but it's not awesomely funny all the way through.

So if you're partial to any of the main actors, this will be a fun and forgettable way to pass a couple of hours.  But if you're not, or you're picky about the types of comedies you enjoy, or if magicians just creep you out, you might not want to go down this road.  But first, you're going to have to remember the stupid title of "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" in order to pick it out of your local Redbox, which is a really bad barrier for a film to have.

2.5 / 5 - Theatre

Saturday, April 20, 2013

National Lampoon's Van Wilder - 2002

"National Lampoon's Van Wilder" - 2002
Dir. by Walt Becker - 1 hr. 32 min.

by Clayton Hollifield

If anyone is going to knock off "Animal House," National Lampoon has more right to do so than anyone else.  Granted, there are many, many years between "Animal House" and "Van Wilder," but it's their own template, so I won't judge them too harshly for following it.  And if you're inclined to these kinds of movies, you can do a lot worse than "Van Wilder."

The titular character, Van Wilder (Ryan Reynolds), is entering his seventh year at Coolidge College, with no prospect of graduation in sight.  Van has put those years to use becoming a benevolent BMOC, using his charm and connections to grease difficult paths for other students.  However, his unusual approach to matriculating means that the student newspaper's editor (Tom Everett Scott) wants a story on Van, and assigns the story to hotshot cutie pie Gwen Pearson (Tara Reid).  Van is more interested in dating Gwen, which incurs the wrath of her boyfriend, pre-med student Richard Bagg (Daniel Cosgrove).  Ultimately, Van is put into a situation where he has to graduate or leave Coolidge without a degree.

Let's get to the good stuff first.  This is very much a "save the house" movie, through and through.  It's a useful comedy plot, because it allows for unmotivated or mired characters to be spurred to action, and because it's a situation that plays out over a fixed amount of time.  It might be the very best stock comedy plot, because it doesn't require a strong antagonist, but does allow weaselly and jerkish characters to do their thing without having to construct a story that props them up as particularly cunning or powerful.  Instead, they merely have to be opportunistic and not at all sympathetic to the hero.  And the hero isn't put in the position of vanquishing (or victimizing) another character, which would be a more complicated morality tale.

In a "save the house" movie, the entire film rises and falls on individual comedic performances.  Ryan Reynolds is a capable lead in comedies (he's pretty good here, even if the film isn't anything spectacular), and it's easy to see why he kept getting motormouth charmer roles after this.  This also might have been one of the very last films before Tara Reid was better known as a train-wreck than as an actress.  Van Wilder's two assistants, played by Kal Penn and Teck Holmes, aren't bad in their supporting roles (particularly Penn).  There are a number of cameos (Erik Estrada, Edie McClurg, Curtis "Booger" Armstrong) that are fun, too.

"National Lampoon's Van Wilder" is a fun movie, even if it's inconsequential and formulaic (which aren't deal-breakers with comedy - performances and building great comedic scenes are far more important).  It's a tough movie to recommend though.  There has been a steady stream of college movies like this one over the last couple of decades, and which ones a viewer is partial to seems to be largely correlated to when that viewer was in college himself, give or take a couple of years.  If you're the right age, "Van Wilder" is a fun way to blow a couple of hours (especially if you're doing so with a few beers or whatever).  If you're not in that age range, it's like Mick Jagger wrote: "Who wants yesterday's papers?"

2 / 5 - TV

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Legend of Drunken Master - 1994

"The Legend of Drunken Master" - 1994
Dir. by Chia-Liang Liu - 1 hr. 39 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There's a really, really good chance that most movie-goers know Jackie Chan for his creative stunt work in a string of limp American-produced buddy films, where he is paired with an unlikely companion like Chris Tucker or Owen Wilson.  Those films aren't uniformly terrible (or without their charms), but it would kind of be like only being familiar with Michael Jordan from the years he played for the Washington Wizards, or for his work as a baseball player.  And then, when you hear older people talking with reverence about Jordan, you're unimpressed and keep thinking about how LeBron James would crush Jordan, given half a chance.  I'm not going to pretend I've seen everything that Jackie Chan has ever done, but I have watched most of his American films, and I've watched "The Legend of Drunken Master," and that's enough to know that if you even kind of like "Rush Hour" or "Shanghai Knights" or "The Medallion," you have got a treat in store for you in "Drunken Master."

The film's story isn't that important; there are essentially only jaw-dropping fight scenes (which exist in abundance, open to finish) centered around Wong Fei-hung (Chan), and then funny scenes which set up the fights scenes (and usually involve Wong's story-line step-mother, played by the gifted Anita Mui).  But just to humor you, the story involves Wong trying to evade paying taxes on some ginseng, and then stumbling upon a British plot to sell off Chinese antiquities.  And so, so much kung-fu.

It might seem like a shaky foundation to build an entire film around one man and his absurd athletic and creative talents, but people used to pay good money just to watch Fred Estaire and Ginger Rogers dance.  A good action film is not entirely dissimilar to a dance movie; you need someone who has a physical magnetism, grace and athleticism, good choreography, and maybe even an exotic locale to dazzle with.  And it might seem unfair to other scenes to pick out two as being exemplary, but the early close-quarters spear-fight scene beneath a train and the entire closing sequence at the factory are unlike anything I've seen before or after; they play out at an unbelievable pace, Chan makes full use of his surroundings, and you might be surprised that his kung-fu is no joke (even if the Drunken Boxing style is comedic).  And, as you might already know about Chan, he does everything himself.  I'm not sure that there's much I could add to these scenes with words; if you watch this movie, you'll see what all the fuss is about.  And you'll probably wish there was more stuff like this than like his early-aughts output.

So when Chan is able to string together a twenty-minute fight sequence to close this film, you'll understand that the action-foundation is very solid.  Although his later films relied more on his (and his co-star's) charm and humor to carry the stories, this is the best of both worlds.  Chan's humor and charm is on display, and he uses his physical gifts to create a new "style" of kung-fu: Drunken Boxing.  He staggers and lurches and makes faces, and it's an effective fighting system, but he's unstoppable when he's not faking it.  It's more impressive because it's sloppy and yet contained, but also because it's a kung-fu movie that doesn't sacrifice either humor or action in execution.

The only problem that I have is that Jackie Chan has made about three hundred and seventy-four films where British people looting antiquities are the baddies.  I get it, Chan's not an Anglophile, but Mel Gibson only had to make one film where Jewish people are the villains ("The Passion of the Christ") to get labelled as anti-Semitic.  Now imagine how bad Gibson's reputation would have been if stopping Christ's crucifixion was the central plot point of each of Gibson's three films a year for twenty years.  At some point, someone would have taken him aside and gently suggested that he maybe find a new antagonist just for kicks.  But most of Chan's films centered on the evil Brits would come later, and this doesn't affect how stunning of a film "The Legend of Drunken Master" is, in terms of hand-to-hand combat and being able to express a very distinct character through movement.  These things do not diminish with time; watching "Drunken Master" shows Chan at the absolute top of his game, and makes everyone else who can't do their own stunt-work look lazy and unskilled in comparison.  That's how good Chan is here.

3.5 / 5 - TV

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The French Connection - 1971

"The French Connection" - 1971
Dir. by William Friedkin - 1 hr. 44 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Movies from different eras are paced very, very differently.  "The French Connection" is a perfect example of this: the actual content of the film is largely watching Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and his partner tailing people for about an hour, then there's a fantastic car chase scene, then they get back to tailing people, and then there's a shoot-out at the end.  The pretense is that there is a mammoth shipment of incredibly pure heroin being shipped into New York City from Marseilles (the streets are as dry as can be, so this will be very welcome), and Doyle catches on to this enormous, tenuous deal (although not the details).

"The French Connection" is an interesting movie for more than just it's famous car chase scene (but I will get to that shortly).  It's not shot in a documentary style at all (or at least not in the sense that it's come to mean), but we get to learn about the characters almost solely through their actions, which are shown in a no-nonsense style.  That means there aren't any scenes of people chatting about other people, we pretty much only see characters conducting their business.  No narration, no flashbacks, just French people conspiring to bring a batch of heroin into the States, and Popeye and his partner, Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) trying to stop it. We learn along the way that Doyle is not entirely liked, or likable  that Russo isn't his first partner, but that Doyle is dogged in his pursuit once he catches a whiff of something in the air.  And almost as importantly, he's rash and explosive, which has consequences.

Gene Hackman had a number of very good films and roles to his credit, but Doyle is my favorite.  Unless you're old enough to have been following him since this time period, it might come as a surprise that he could believably play a roughneck cop with a real physical presence.  The approach to how the story unfolds mirrors Doyle's character; he doesn't pause to reflect, he just acts on hunches.  And most importantly, he makes things happen.  This plays out over and over again, from him pressing his police chief for wiretaps, to his unseen seduction of a pretty bicyclist, to the entire car chase scene, to his actions in the shoot-out at the end.

But also, that's one hell of a car chase.  If you haven't seen "The French Connection," it might be worth the entire hour forty-five just to see it in it's natural habitat.  After one of the Frenchmen tries to snipe Doyle outside of his apartment building, Doyle tries to chase him down on foot, which leads to a elevated train station in Brooklyn.  The Frenchman ends up on a train, so Doyle commandeers a Pontiac LeMans, and chases down the train from below.  The entire sequence is a visceral thrill, including footage shot from a bumper-mounted camera.  In an era prior to first-person shooters and racing video games, this car chase scene was as close as most people could get to actually being in a high-speed chase through city streets, swerving through traffic and trying to avoid pedestrians.  I'm not saying that "The French Connection" contains the greatest car chase ever committed to film (I'm sticking by "Bullitt"), but I am saying that it's not far off.  It's top three, for sure, and even if you don't care for cop movies, that scene is enough to justify the entire film.

Thankfully, this is a much better movie than just the one car chase.  Although it's played out on a longer string than you'd see today, "The French Connection" successfully builds tension up, releases it, and then starts building again.  Director William Friedkin takes a very patient approach with the story knowing that he's got the goods to deliver.  The characters in the film are neither sympathetic or unsympathetic; there's very little attempt to force the audience one way or another in that regard.  Doyle is the protagonist (although you'd probably feel differently if you frequented one of the bars that he and Russo shake down routinely), but he doesn't behave in a moralistic manner.  He also doesn't try to charm his way out of anyone's judgment towards him; he drinks, he pulls tail, he uses language that his grandkids would cringe at.  But he's pretty good at what he does, even when blurring lines, and he's got it in his head that he's not going to be defeated by any damned Frogs (how he routinely refers to the French contingent in the film).  The bad guys are similarly not into spinning anyone's perception of them; Alain (Fernando Rey) is almost stereo-typically French, but he's not spitting off bonmots and mincing.  He's there to make a deal which will yield a great return, and in order to be in the position to pull such a thing off, he's pretty slippery.  This deadpan approach means that you're going to spend a lot of time watching the fuse burn: conflict between the two sides is inevitable.  And when it finally comes, it's spectacular.

4 / 5 - TV

Saturday, April 13, 2013

They Live - 1988

"They Live" - 1988
Dir. by John Carpenter - 1 hr. 33 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Magic sunglasses!  Oh man, if you're making a low-budget-ish kind of movie, there's almost no better gimmick than magic sunglasses.  I'm kind of upset that I had never seen "They Live" until last night, because it's a piece of glorious trash.  There are aliens, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, subliminal messages, a heavy critique of 80's consumerism...  All the things that add up to a superlative trashy movie.

Nada (Piper) wanders into Los Angeles in search of a job.  He manages to hook on as a day-laborer with a construction crew, where he meets Frank (Keith David).  Frank brings him back to the shantytown he stays at, where he can stay and eat until he gets on his feet.  But there's something hinky going on with the church across the street, and Nada can't resist prying.  The church is a front for a group of people who have been hacking into local broadcasts and talking about conspiracy theories.  Before he can say anything, a SWAT team rolls in, dozing the shantytown, chasing down the people from the church, and sending everyone fleeing in every direction.  Nada returns the next day, and finds some magic sunglasses in a hidden compartment in the church.  These glasses allow Nada to see things as they really are; advertising is boiled down to simple messages like "obey" and "submit," and that there are alien ghouls that walk among people unnoticed.  A lot of them.  Once they discover that Nada can tell them apart, he has to go on the run.

Director John Carpenter kind of specializes in great sci-fi ideas on a shoe-string budget (with both "Escape from New York" and "Starman" to his credit, among other films), and this one is a doozy, too.  Part of the appeal is showing off unusual settings, and I can't remember too many films from the 1980s taking place in a homeless camp.  And part of what you might think of when you think of that decade are yuppies.  "They Live" is a direct critique of that lifestyle.  One character even tells them that "we all sell out every day, might as well be on the winning team."  Maybe the most pointed barb is, when Nada sees a fistful of money through his magic sunglasses, they read "this is your god."  Although, I must point out, the idea that the alien ghouls are out solely to extract money from people also means that money is everyone's god.  If it's worth enough to fight, defend, and die for, you also have placed money on a pedestal.

Roddy Piper is exactly the right guy for a movie like this, and him being in it is the main reason that I wanted to watch it.  His wrestling persona is fairly jittery and hyperactive, so it was nice to see him play someone a little more composed than I was used to seeing.  At the same time, only he could deliver lines like "I'm all out of bubblegum," and have it just feel right.  Also, Nada's extended alley fistfight with Frank was a lot of fun.  Piper managed to work several wrestling moves and even a couple of suplexes into the fight (belly-to-back and gutwrench, if you're keeping score at home), and the whole thing was drawn out and ridicuously awesome.  And Nada has a way with women...

Seriously, if you're even half-way into trashy, high-concept/low-budget sci-fi stuff, there's no reason you shouldn't have already seen "They Live."  I can't believe that it took me this long to finally see it.  It's a ton of fun, quotable as all get out, and goes by really quickly.  It's an 80's film in all the best ways.  But most of all, it's just super-fun.  There's no other way to put it.

3.5 / 5 - TV

Friday, April 12, 2013

Leap of Faith - 1992

"Leap of Faith" - 1992
Dir. by Richard Pearce - 1 hr. 48 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Leap of Faith" is maybe not the best film Steve Martin has ever done, but I find it endlessly fascinating, moreso than some of his better and better-known movies.  There's a pile of talent in the cast, the central idea is a fairly rough one to digest (I mean that as a compliment), and I've always viewed it as a very sad movie.  At this point, Steve Martin was much better known as a comedian than as a dramatic actor, and this film is an odd hybrid of drama and comedy.  Even though this isn't an even film, there are moments that resound, and justify the rest of the run-time.

Martin plays Jonas Nightengale, who runs a roadshow big-tent ministry, which he explains is better than having a church, which you'd know if you'd ever been to a church.  It's immediately clear that Jonas is more of a showman (and a conman) than a holy roller.  So when his convoy breaks down in a small fictional town called Rustwater, Kansas, Jonas decides to put on his show right there instead of letting everyone cool their heels until the part one of their trucks needs can arrive.  The local sheriff, Will (Liam Neeson), is wary of the entire enterprise, but can't find any legal reason to block them from putting on their event.  Plus, he develops a quick crush on Jonas' assistant, Jane (Debra Winger).  The problem is, of course, that Rustwater is a town down on its' heels, with high unemployment and a desperate need for rain, lest the seasons' crops dry up and blow away.

As you might expect, one of the major themes of a film about a flamboyant preacher (witness Jonas' sparkly jacket!) is going to be redemption.  Despite the message Jonas and company provide, they're more like carnival hawkers or performers (depending on whom you're talking about), talking about "rubes" and about making their daily nut.  This leads to one of the many points that might be uncomfortable to watch; when you're dealing with big productions (religious or otherwise), it's always going to be more about the show than about the content of the message.  The Nightengale roadshow is no different than an arena concert tour; it costs a certain amount to keep the show on the road, and that's fulfilled by selling merchandise and asking for donations (instead of selling tickets).  Certainly, this is an insight gleaned by the problems suffered by well-known televangelists from the 80's (which would have been recent history at the time this film was made).

The idea of redemption comes in the stories of Jonas and Jane.  Jonas immediately sets his sights on a waitress, Marva (Lolita Davidovich), who is referred to as "the holy grail of road pussy" by Jane, chiefly because she doesn't immediately succumb to Jonas' charms.  Marva's younger brother, Boyd (Lukas Haas), is what gets Jonas to back off: he has real problems, and they're ones that can't be solved by prayer or by snake oil.  It's a complicated situation, and when Boyd starts buying into Jonas' act, Jonas is forced to try to deflect Boyd's real needs, and yet not reveal that his entire enterprise is dubious.  For Jane, she comes off as someone who would succeed at anything she set her sights upon, and unfortunately, she's chosen evil.  Will sees through her, and finds someone who isn't as dishonest as Jonas appears to be, and tries to offer her a different choice.

One of the other aspects I found interesting about "Leap of Faith" is that there is a kind of bait-and-switch happening here.  That might be a strong way to put it, perhaps it's more of an element of anger being taken out on the audience.  Maybe you didn't know this, but Steve Martin was kind of a big deal as a stand-up comedian.  The long version can be found in Martin's excellent book, "Born Standing Up," but the short version is that his stand-up career spun out of his control until he found himself playing the Astrodome.

So, just for a minute, imagine going to see a stand-up show in a football stadium.  That's how big he got.  Martin quit doing stand-up, shortly after that, not seeing where he could take things after that.  Years later (like fifteen years later), Martin finally returns to a stage here, and instead of being straight comedy, it's in the guise of a conman preaching about morality, all while dipping his hand into every wallet he can reach, in a movie that seems hell-bent on stressing how everyone is either conning or being conned.  Maybe it's a matter of mere coincidence, maybe the scenario was relevant because this film is actively antagonistic towards what people want out of others, presenting it as open-season for those who were willing to tell people what they want to hear.  I'm not sure that anyone other than Martin could answer that, but I can't help but see "Leap of Faith" as some kind of oblique comment on his own career.

There is, as you would expect from a movie about religion, a feel-good ending for pretty much everyone involved.  I didn't mind that, but found it fascinating (in a meta sense, once again regarding Martin's career) that the ultimate answer for Jonas Nightengale is that he must quit his ministry and disappear for Boyd, Marva, Will, and Jane to have happiness in their lives.  Even Jonas seems relieved when he slips away.  He has been running a profitable roadshow for an indeterminate amount of time, but the path he's been on leads nowhere for everyone involved.  Or, at least, it doesn't lead anywhere near happiness.  He can continue on his path, even more profitably once a genuine miracle has occurred, but it would require corrupting that miracle to do so.  If I ever met Steve Martin, probably the biggest thing I'd want to know about is whether or not this was intended to be commentary on his own career.  But then again, the Wikipedia entry for this film says that Michael Keaton was the original lead, and quit.  So all of this could just be nonsense that I'm reading into the material presented.  This film could be an important look at Martin's career through his own lens, or it could just be something he did because the opportunity was there, and was quickly forgotten.

"Leap of Faith" is an okay movie.  No, it's a little better than that.  It's not "The Jerk" or anything, but it's real.    And it's a movie about someone gaining something valuable through artifice.  It's also probably a movie that a viewer would interpret wildly differently depending on what stage in life they might find themselves.  That, in itself, is a rarer trait than you might think.  But that's something that you'll have to figure out for yourself, when you watch it.

3 / 5  - TV

Friday, April 5, 2013

Broken Lizard's Club Dread - 2004

"Broken Lizard's Club Dread" - 2004
Dir. by Jay Chandrasekhar - 1 hr. 44 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

When I got up this morning, I honestly couldn't remember which movie I had watched the previous night.  Drew a complete blank on the title.  I had to go into my DVR's settings to figure out what it was that I had watched.  It turns out that it was "Broken Lizard's Club Dread," and once I figured that out, the whole thing came rushing back to me.  But still, when a two hour gap pops up in your mind, that's probably not an indication that you've just watched the greatest film ever.  That's not my bar for what constitutes a good time, but it would be fair to say that "Club Dread" isn't Broken Lizard's best film, either.

Coconut Pete (Bill Paxton) is a burned-out good-times rock-star with his own private island, paid for by his hit song, "Pina Colada-Burg."  Pete has opened a resort there, where his fans flock to for sun-soaked, booze-fueled relaxation.  Someone is slowly offing all of the staff of the resort with a machete, and eventually strands everyone on the island while he attempts to finish his corporate downsizing project.

I generally like the Broken Lizard crew; "Super Troopers" is one of my favorite comedies.  But it's also the high point of their work together.  Their other films are uneven, which is the nice way of saying that there are really funny parts and other parts that don't work.  Part of the reason why I didn't enjoy "Club Dread" as much as "Super Troopers" or "Beerfest" is that I don't have any affinity for horror films.  Not good ones, not bad ones, not at all.  This film is a riff on slasher films, but I'm more interested in the comedy than the source material.  Since I wasn't particularly interested in the plot or the murders, I found myself just waiting for something funny to happen, which did happen from time to time.  But every time it was time to advance the plot, I returned to my disinterested state.

So, what's good here?  Well, I suppose that most of the characters were designed to be annoying because of horror movie tropes: don't you see those kinds of movies because you kind of want to root for the bad guy? There's a well-rounded collection of annoying people, and I sure didn't find myself rooting for any of them to escape the machete.  As far as actual scenes, probably the only one that I thought was clever was the human-sized Pac-Man game, complete with people in fruit costumes, and substituting pretty girls for the ghosts.  The Coconut Pete songs were pretty hilarious, and Bill Paxton did a great job with the character.  And "Club Dread" has ruined the name Penelope for me forever, due to Juan's (Steve Lemme) hilarious mispronunciation of it.  In fact, I think Juan and his hilariously tortured accent were responsible for most of the funniest things in the film.

But the single thing that made it easy to get through "Club Dread" was Jenny (Brittany Daniel).  I liked her character, and she's incredibly easy on the eyes (as befitting her role as a fitness instructor).  Even when things were dragging (and they might not drag as badly for you if you're a horror/slasher fan), she'd pop up and I'd contentedly watch her in her blue bikini, patiently waiting for something else funny to happen.  That's not a bad ace up the sleeve to have.  But for me, this just isn't my kind of movie.  I'm more into comedy, I've always been that way.  I can get into genre spoofs from time to time, but poking fun at genres I'm not familiar with (and the rules of those genres that I'm also not familiar with) is like listening to some odd dialect that shares common ground with the language I speak, but is like 30% different.  It's enough to throw me off and guarantee that I won't get enough of the jokes to really keep the movie moving along.  I saw "Club Dread" when it came out, and did so on the basis of it being a Broken Lizard product.  But if I'm not into the source material they're tackling, I guess their involvement isn't going to be enough to guarantee an unqualified win for  me.

2 / 5 - TV

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - 1992

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" - 1992
Dir. by Fran Rubel Kuzui - 1 hr. 26 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

It's never a good sign for a movie if it takes two nights to get through it, especially when it's just shy of 90 minutes long.  It's not that "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is terrible, exactly.  There are a lot of things that ease it's inconsequential nature, but it's still essentially inconsequential fluff.  And, for a film that was on the cusp of the 90's cultural shift, it finds itself on the wrong side of the dividing line.

Buffy (Kristy Swanson) is a cheerleader, one of those annoying, flighty, popular girls that drive all her male classmates insane.  She has a couple of odd run-ins with Merrick (Donald Sutherland), who tells her that she's the chosen one.  Chosen to slay vampires, that is.  As it turns out, there's a vampire infestation in her town, led by Lothos (Rutger Hauer) and Amilyn (Paul Reubens), and Buffy is, despite all appearances to the contrary, uniquely qualified to turn back the tide.

"Buffy" is, at it's core, a somewhat self-aware 80's comedy with a great title.  But, while I chuckle at the title and idea, that's different than enjoying an hour and a half of it in execution.   Part of the problem is the amateurish production; whether deliberate or not, the entire movie looks like an episode of "Kids Incorporated."  For a movie predicated on the slaying of vampires, the actual combat is laughably bad.  I get it, this isn't supposed to a be a big action movie, and that this is supposed to be a comedy.  Even so, if you're going to have a movie with fighting, it wouldn't take a ton to make it not absurd (or to make it so absurd that it's intentionally funny).  And the bigger problem is that even if you do so intentionally, making something intentionally bad still yields something bad.

The things that are fun about "Buffy" are a few.  Kristy Swanson is super-cute in this movie, and it's fun seeing actors in early roles (like David Arquette and Luke Perry).  For me, it was bizarre seeing Hilary Swank playing a valley girl; for some reason, I have a really hard time imagining that she ever existed as a teenager.  Stephen Root is fun in a small role, and Paul Reubens is a lot of fun in his role (particularly his death scene).  But it's all in service of nothing in particular.  Once you get past the amusement of a cheerleader fighting vampires (and these are cheesy as hell), the story doesn't lead anywhere.  The characters don't really evolve (Buffy aside, and then only a little), the entire situation resolves itself, and all in under 90 minutes.  It's bizarre that "Buffy" evolved into a longer-running TV show by writer Joss Whedon, because this comes off as a half-baked idea.  Maybe the years between this and the production of the TV show allowed for further development of the idea, but it's not apparent here.

1.5 / 5 - TV