Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Mafia! - 1998

"Mafia!" - 1998
Dir. by Jim Abrahams - 1 hr. 23 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

One of my personal biggest cinematic disappointments came between the creation of the trailer for this film and it's release, when the title went from "Jane Austen's Mafia!" to simply "Mafia!"  The title itself is probably the single best joke that director Jim Abrahams was responsible for since "Airplane," and it was publicly left on the cutting room floor.  I don't know whose door to lay responsibility for this mistake at, and it doesn't really affect the film itself (this is not a mobster film set in costume-era England), but I'm still kind of irritated about that decision fifteen years later.

There's not much point in recounting the plot - as you might expect, "Mafia!" is a send-up of 90's gangster films like "Casino" or "Goodfellas," and even casting back further with jokes about "The Godfather" series.  The main characters are brothers Tony and Joey Cortino (Jay Mohr and Billy Burke, respectively), and their father, Vincenzo (Lloyd Bridges, in his final film).  Tony has a pair of love interests (not concurrently), in idealistic peacenik Diane (Christina Applegate) and stripper Pepper (Pamela Gidley).  And then there are a million incongruent jokes.

If you're in the mood for this type of humor, and you don't want to watch (or don't have access to) "Airplane!" or "Kentucky Fried Movie," "Mafia!" is as good as anything else from the Zuckers and Abrahams.  If you are in the mood, this film has its moments, and there are a handful of jokes that get me every time.  There are a pair of really good comebacks; one from Pepper, after having been caught sleeping with Joey behind Tony's back, and getting called a slut, she shoots back, "That's what we do.  If I was particular, I wouldn't be a slut."  Another scene, later in the film, has Tony distraught over having been passed over for leadership of the family, and being told point blank that it's because he's a loose cannon and a psychopath, responds, "And I deserve respect for that!"  Other that that, as is the norm with this style of humor, it's the death of a thousand cuts.  Each joke isn't necessarily the best thing you've ever heard, but they kind of pile up on you until you succumb to laughter.  Or you turn the movie off in frustration and irritation.

There's not a ton else to say about "Mafia!"  It's not a bad movie, but you need a taste for this sort of thing, and even then this isn't a prime example of what makes these movies fun and worthwhile.  Largely, "Mafia!" is simply Jim Abrahams doing what he does, which is wringing humor out of non sequiturs, sound effects, puns, and twisting familiar cinematic situations.  And it's got Christina Applegate being both funny and beautiful (which isn't the worst way to pass time), and it's also the last movie by Lloyd Bridges.  A lot of the references haven't aged as well as you might hope (there's a groaner of a "Forrest Gump" joke that also leaves me in giggling fits), but who cares?  "Mafia!" wasn't built for the ages, but you also don't have to watch O.J. Simpson trying his hand at comedy here, either.

2 / 5 - TV

Monday, May 27, 2013

Identity Thief - 2013

"Identity Thief" - 2013
Dir. by Seth Gordon - 1 hr. 51 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Here's the upshot of "Identity Thief": this film is exactly what you think it's going to be, based on the trailer.  That's good and bad.  Good, because the premise and casting work.  Bad, because surprises are nice in comedies.  But also, there's nothing about "Identity Thief" that suggests it's going to be anything more than a pleasant, forgettable comedy that you should probably pay about three dollars to see.

Sandy (Jason Batetman) is basically a corporate accountant, one who is good at what he does, and yet still has to deal with a crappy boss (played by Jon Favreau).  He plays by the rules, but falls victim to an identity thief, who gets his sensitive private data during a fraudulent phone call.  The thief, Diana (Melissa McCarthy), immediately goes on a rampage, getting arrested and racking up huge credit card bills all over her hometown in Florida.  Eventually, the police go after Sandy, who is in Denver, but the police don't show much initiative about resolving the theft, which threatens Sandy's job and comfortable life.  Sandy comes up with a solution: he's going to Florida to bring the thief to justice.  This yields a long road trip with an uncooperative passenger, with some criminal types hot on their heels.

The plot unfolds exactly as it's set up to: odd couple road trip, they end up on better terms, the baddie develops a heart, happily ever after.  The other bad guys are supposed to be menacing, but they're in a comedy, so they're more like speed bumps than actual threats.  Even in a R-rated movie (which seems to be only on the basis of a few too many f-bombs), you know that there's next to no chance that thing are going to end badly.  The result is that I ended up waiting for the scenes where Diana and Sandy would torment each other, and the rest didn't matter much.

There are funny parts here, but the best material is based on watching Diana be her manipulative self.  She spends a lot of time doing that at Sandy's expense, which works, because Jason Bateman is very good at reacting to what's going on.  I wish there were more of that in this film: the other elements (criminals and skip tracers, namely) felt like an excuse to get to the meat of the story.  But those elements don't work well on their own merits, and I wish the story had just dispensed with them, put the bare minimum explanation for why the road trip needed to happen forward, and then doubled down on the interactions between McCarthy and Bateman.  The alternative would have been to beef up those parts, really earn the R-rating, and watch the crap roll downhill.

I don't think it's fair to expect genius out of "Identity Thief."  Instead, it's the kind of forgettable, yet enjoyable film that careers are made of.  If you went down Walter Matthau's filmography, they're not all "The Odd Couple."  Sometimes, you've got to just keep working to keep your skills sharp until something comes along that an actor can really sink their teeth into.  That's reasonable, and I certainly enjoyed myself for the couple of hours this took, but "Identity Thief" is not something I could imagine ever having a burning desire to re-watch.

2 / 5 - Theatre

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Slacker - 1991

"Slacker" - 1991
Dir. by Richard Linklater - 1 hr. 37 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Richard Linklater's "Slacker" is a fascinating movie.  It may not have been the first ultra-low budget film (made for only $23k), but it directly lead to more films made in that vein.  It might not have been the first super-talky film, but more super-talky films sprang directly from it.  Is it the first move without a concrete plot?  There's no way, but it's not an aimless art film, either.  "Slacker" is a distinct film that has a very firm sense of time and place, and it feels like an entirely alien world.  But what's it about?

I think the opening lines from The B-52's "Deadbeat Club" sum up "Slacker" pretty well:

"Get a job!"
"I'm trying to think."

Athens, GA must not have been all that different than Austin, TX.  The film is pretty much laid out explicitly during the first sequence.  None of the characters really have names, but instead are referred to as things like Should Have Stayed at Bus Station, who is played by Linklater himself.  He arrives in Austin on a bus, and takes a taxi into town.  During the entire ride, SHSBS offers a theory to the mute cabbie that every choice considered and not taken splinters off into it's own alternate reality.  When you sleep and dream, you get a glimpse into the worlds created by the roads not taken.  In "Slacker," the camera (or really, you, the viewer) are the main character, and you're constantly making choices (well, having the choice made for you) as to which person is more interesting, and then following them for a while until you stumble upon something else that seems more interesting.  So you're led through a series of mostly unrelated vignettes (the only way they're really connected is by physical space, usually), each of which lasts only as long as it stays interesting.

To my tastes, "Slacker" is a film in the same way that Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain" is art: it is a film because Richard Linklater says it is a film.  In 1991, the top two grossing films were a Disney film ("Beauty and the Beast") and a high-budget effects movie ("Terminator 2"), so putting together 100 minutes of grungy, oddball Austinites on film and letting them each babble until they run out of steam, and then asking people to pay money at a theatre to watch it was a pretty ballsy move.  There wasn't a direct lineage of low-budget movies in theatres at that point (or even movies in this vein); "Slacker" is the equivalent of low-fi bedroom recordings by Sebadoh.  But the act of getting "Slacker" into theatres and projected onto movie screens is what makes it a movie.  It is a movie because it is a movie.  It's aggressively low-key, people talk themselves into circles constantly, and aside from a woman getting hit in the street by a car, "Slacker" is all about inaction.

Most importantly, "Slacker" is an entertaining film.  No one would have ever even heard of it if there wasn't some entertainment value in watching a bunch of wackos interacting awkwardly with one another.  The cast is made up of largely non-actors, and so a couple of people stand out above the rest.  With no plot to speak of, the most memorable bit involved a woman trying to sell Madonna's pap smear, which she's carrying around in a glass jar in her pocket.  There are other memorable bits (like the guy who wanders into a diner which is entirely packed out by what appear to be asylum inmates out of a bit of coffee), but even the low-key, odd stuff commands attention (like the scene where a roommate disappears, so his roomies go into his room to find a handful of postcards on the floor, each containing part of a short story).

But describing these scenes misses the point; "Slacker" is all about the flavor of the situation, not the parts that make up the situation.  It's like the bizarro companion piece to "Wall Street," made up of people who aren't necessarily smart (a lot of the characters seem sedated, even while they talk ceaselessly), who are definitely not driven, but can't quite figure out anything at all.  In fact, the people who are focused and driven are portrayed as being crazy.  One man lives in a room stacked with TVs and video tapes (even having a TV strapped to his back as he walks around), another is obsessed with the JFK assassination, and keeps trying to push books on the subject onto some girl he had a college class with a few years back.  Being adrift and trying to figure things out isn't weird, ambition is weird.

I've written before about films that are more about the experience than about plugging along a series of plot points, and how difficult those films are to write about.  Most of the times that I've encountered those kinds of films, they're highly visual and kind of arty in presentation.  "Slacker" manages to achieve surrealism without approaching the task through visual means.  Mostly it's due to the odd nature of the characters and the conversations they end up having with one another, but it's also because the visual aspect is completely de-emphasized.  There's no effort at costuming; you may never see a larger collection of cut-off denim shorts and unmarked t-shirts and tank tops.  Virtually every indoor setting is blank: there's no attempt at decoration beyond the occasional accumulation of trash, like empty beer bottles or old newspapers.  I'm not even sure there's any signage captured, either.  The physical world in "Slacker" is solely utilitarian, and the sheer lack of visual input leads to a kind of delirium.  Things become surreal not because of a visual overload, but because of a lack of visual stimuli.  Perhaps that's why all the characters are so unmotivated; they're all looking for something to chew on, but the fields are all empty.

"Slacker" is the kind of movie that's going to provoke a love or hate response.  I'm not sure there's anything possibly in between.  You're either going to be bored silly by a bunch of people talking at people, or you're going to get drawn in immediately.  The good news is that you should probably know which camp you fall into within five or ten minutes, so act accordingly.

5 / 5 - Streaming

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Empire Strikes Back - 1980

"The Empire Strikes Back" - 1980
Dir. by Irvin Kershner - 2 hrs. 4 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I'm not even sure what the point of writing about any of the Star Wars films is.  I'm also not even sure what the point of watching any of them is, either.  At this point, watching any of them fills me with a feeling of familiarity, and not in a good way.  Since the 1990's, creative folk have been systematically strip-mining the series for off-hand references, jokes explicitly about the series in the name of homage, and eventually, just plugging their characters into the Star Wars plots ("Family Guy" and "Robot Chicken," I'm looking in your direction) so that there's nothing left at all of the source material but a withered husk, every quirk turned into a big deal and every stone turned over, digested, and ruined for anyone who is unfortunate enough to see the movies afterwards.

"The Empire Strikes Back" is the one with the AT-ATs on Hoth, where Luke goes back to the woodshed with Yoda,  where Lando turns on Han Solo, who is then encased in carbonite, and where Luke has a most unfortunate turn of events (starring in the worst episode of "Who Do You Think You Are?" ever, and being turned into half of a Transformer).  Got it?  Good.

At this point, I can't even begin to judge any of these films as movies.  It's like trying to deal with a song that you liked until it got played to death on the radio, and then everyone kept playing it and making references to it (thinking that they were being super clever the whole time), and then having it jammed down your throat one more time just for kicks.  It's past iconic (by about twenty years) and deep into "go away" territory for me.  There are plenty of cool visuals, but I had to fight the urge to just turn it off and give up on it for good.  As it stands, it took me two sessions to get through the entire film.  I'll finish off the series, if only for the slave Leia outfit, but I think this is probably the last time I'll ever sit through any of these films.

UGH / 5 - DVD

Monday, May 20, 2013

Iron Man 3 - 2013

"Iron Man 3" - 2013
Dir. by Shane Black - 2 hrs. 10 min.

Official UK Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There is a beauty to seeing a sequel to an action movie or a super-hero movie: you don't have to waste time establishing characters.  By a third installment in a franchise, either people are on-board, or they've seen enough from the trailers for the previous films to have a ballpark idea of what the characters are like (or you can figure it out in context, of course, if you're willing to miss a couple of continuity-related jokes here and there).  So, instead of screwing around for the first third of a film trying desperately to blend character development with things going ka-boom without sacrificing either too badly.  "Iron Man 3" does this beautifully, jumping straight into the action.  It's also probably the difference between this film being a shade over two hours and it pushing two forty-five.

In Greek mythology, a nemesis is a vengeful spirit that exists to payback hubris.  It's an enemy that one creates from their own actions, and in the months following what happened in New York (which you can see for yourself in a little art-house documentary film called "The Avengers"), Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) begins to reap what he's sown roughly fifteen years in the past.  Stark was badly shaken by New York, and has thrown himself deeply into his work refining the Iron Man costume in order to withdraw from the world.  A series of unusual terrorist bombings, claimed by a "teacher" called The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) riles Stark, who issues a personal challenge for The Mandarin to show up at his doorstep.  That goes about as well as you think it would.

Even though this third installment is helmed by a new director (Shane Black, taking over for Jon Favreau), the tone and visual approach isn't radically changed.  Like the first two films, there's a lot of spectacular action, things move along at a very brisk pace, and Downey Jr. motormouths his way through the entire thing.  One of the main differences is that the Iron Man armor almost takes on a second persona separate from Stark; he's in-costume for what feels like a lot less time this time around.  It's not a problem like in other super-hero movies (the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man series, where he's got a secret identity but keeps taking his mask off anyways), Stark is a public figure and has claimed Iron Man as his own.  Instead, it adds a layer to Stark's withdrawal from everything and everyone around him.  Since the armor doesn't provide anonymity (there's a scene where he leaves it parked outside of a restaurant like you'd park a car), there's much less appeal to Stark to being in it.  He'd rather tinker in his lab than engage the world around him.

The mystery of the film (no spoilers, because the plot twists are at least half of the fun here) is one that breaks down over several stages, and culminates in a huge, destructive fight scene that can only take place on the wharf, where there's all kinds of cool, inanimate things that can be wrecked without having to worry about loss of human life (at least on the scale of what happened in "The Avengers").  The villains are people who have been able to regenerate limbs, but it leaves them with the ability to hurl fire and heat up their bodies to explosive levels.  It's a side-effect of the Exogenesis process, which still has a few kinks that need to be worked out before it's ready and available at your local health food store.  But the people who have undergone the process are equal to Iron Man when it comes to combat, which makes for some fun fights.

In terms of the large action pieces, they're completely up to snuff.  The two largest are probably a sequence involving Iron Man saving people who are in free-fall, and the large end fight at the wharf.  I found myself unexpectedly on the edge of my seat for the former, and while the latter has a sense of inevitability (c'mon, it's the end boss battle.  You kinda know how that's got to end), it's a sustained piece of really good action.  The initial attack on Stark's home is pretty good, as well.  And all through it, there are little details to humanize Stark: it's clear his current armor is still in beta testing.  So on the action front, "Iron Man 3" delivers the goods.

Probably the thing that makes "Iron Man 3" most interesting is Stark's character arc; it becomes clear over the course of the movie that Tony Stark is the super-hero, not Iron Man.  Stark isn't amazing because he's got a cool suit of armor that allows him to do super-human things, the armor is an expression of Stark's brilliance.  The events in previous films has shaken his belief in himself, but he's able to understand here that he's the main attraction, that Stark's got the goods even if he's completely unarmed and you let him lose in a Home Depot with a charge card.  His resourcefulness comes back to the forefront like it did in the first "Iron Man" film, and it's a lot of fun to watch the character rediscover exactly what it is that makes him different from other people.

There's almost no way I could imagine someone who enjoyed any of the previous Iron Man appearances not really enjoying "Iron Man 3."  It works even if you haven't seen those movies, the mystery to the story is a very windy road that unfolds in a fun manner, and the villains are formidable.  So far, Marvel's done a great job with every single one of the Avengers string of films, and "Iron Man 3" continues that streak.  Also worth noting, Gwyneth Paltrow totally puts in her time at the gym.

4 / 5 - Theatre 3D

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Watch - 2012

"The Watch" - 2012
Dir. by Akiva Schaffer - 1 hr. 42 min.

Official Red Band Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

What a disappointment.  When I initially saw the trailer for "The Watch," I was sure it was a movie that I completely wanted to see.  But it came and went from the theatres so quickly that I didn't get the chance to catch it, at which point I started to eagerly await watching it when it hit home video.  Finally, it hit pay-TV, and I recorded it for later viewing.  But I wish I'd put it off a little longer, now that I'm done watching it.

Evan (Ben Stiller) is a go-getter, the kind of guy who starts clubs and gets things done, but doesn't have many friends.  But he does manage a Costco (and it's identified as such), and when one of his security guards is murdered on-duty, Evan decides to create a neighborhood watch to try and keep this sort of thing from happening again (since the police are incompetent and disinterested).  Evan's flyering yields three co-conspirators; Bob (Vince Vaughn), a beleaguered father of a teenage daughter, Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade),  a proper gent with an enormous afro, and Franklin (Jonah Hill), who failed the police exam, possibly due to him being a little insane.  Immediately, a power struggle breaks out between Evan's micromanaging style and Bob's attempts to inject awesomeness into everything.  But when they accidentally kill an alien and stumble upon an invasion scheme, the band of unlikely heroes decides to try to save Earth.

If my intro makes it sound like "The Watch" is a terrible movie, that's not entirely accurate.  I was disappointed, largely because this film had the tools at it's disposal to be really funny, instead of just having it's moments.  Besides, when you put Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn together, there's going to be an instant comparison to "Dodgeball," which was kind of awesome and completely re-watchable.  But the mix was all off here, and there are problems with the writing that could have been fixed, and resulted in a better movie.  What problems, you may ask?  Well, we're going to have to explicitly compare "The Watch" to "Dodgeball" to show what I mean.

Stiller's character in "Dodgeball" was the villain, and was driven to the point of absurdity, which was shown in embarrassing detail.  That was part of the fun, that Stiller's character was a buffoonish jackass, but still could have plausibly ended up victorious.  Stiller's Evan is also shown to be a driven character, but instead of that being his Achille's Heel, his shameful secret (SPOILER!!!1!) is that he's sterile.  Now, are there any scenes in "The Watch" that are comedic in nature on this topic?  Not really.  Stiller hangs his head a lot, which isn't funny, and when he finally reveals this to his wife, Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt), they make up and promise to be a team, which also isn't funny.  It's also not dramatic, because up until that point, his wife's only role in the story is to figuratively scream "put a baby in me" at Evan, so for the most part, nobody cares about her as a character.  And as such, no one cares (I don't mean that sarcastically, but if you don't build a character up, an audience won't feel anything for that character when things happen to them) when they kiss and make up.  And Abby's joining the neighborhood watch doesn't really have any story-line implications, either.  The result of all of this is that you have a secondary character that isn't established well enough, and the interactions between Abby and Evan don't have any resonance, either.  So you have the motivations of the main character in your movie falling flat.

This problem extends to the other characters, as well.  What made Vince Vaughn's character work in "Dodgeball" was his bizarre ambivalence to everything around him, and almost deliberate resistance to success of any kind.  Seemingly, what he wanted more than anything was to be left alone and to do nothing.  Here, it's not hard to say what his character wants the most: the safety of his teenage daughter.  Bob is seeking solace from his rocky relationship in the neighborhood watch, but it ends up confusing his character's path.  Either he wants his daughter's safety and well-being, or he wants to hang out with the guys.  But Bob choosing one over the other doesn't result in meaningful strife.  Yes, there is an argument between Bob and Evan over it, but it's not explosive enough to really put the end of the film in question.  By that point, they've already discovered the aliens, and you know the group is going to have to reconcile to square off with them.  The entire point of the big argument scene in these kinds of film is to make a viewer wonder how the characters are going to be able to cooperate with each other long enough to achieve what needs to be achieved.  It's also a convenient break so that the main character can patch things up with his romantic interest, and thus attack the goal in question with renewed vigor.  But, since the patching-up part fell flat, and the argument scene didn't accomplish the goal of putting the accomplishment of the end task in question, "The Watch" limps into the third act.

A lot of the truly funny material here made it's way into the trailer, but nearly all of the good stuff that's not in the trailer is in the third act, which is why it's a shame that "The Watch" has lost much of it's momentum by that point.  When you've got a shoot-out against aliens at a Costco, and the only way to defeat the aliens is by shooting them in the dick (really), there's an opportunity to do some funny material.  And there is some funny material.  If only the first hour-plus of the film had set things up better, the showdown would have been tremendous.  As it stands, I was thankful that the last half-hour was better than the rest of the film, but I still had to break up "The Watch" into two viewing sessions to get through it.  That's not a strong compliment, especially for a movie that I was pretty psyched about seeing.  All of the actors do a good job with what they have to work with, but it's a set of strong walls built on a shaky foundation.  "The Watch" isn't a home-run or a strike-out, it's like a bloop single.  But nobody paid to watch Babe Ruth hit bloop singles, and in this case, wasting a good cast and decent concept may as well have been like hitting into a double-play.

2 / 5 - TV

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Cheech & Chong's Nice Dreams - 1981

"Cheech & Chong's Nice Dreams" - 1981
Dir. by Tommy Chong - 1 hr. 28 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Cheech & Chong's Nice Dreams" is pretty much exactly what you expect from Cheech & Chong.  Instead of this being a drawback, it's kind of comforting to know that you're getting exactly what you signed up for.  "Nice Dreams" is the duo's third movie together, and it's nice to see them just doing what they do well, with the characters that they've developed together.  It doesn't add up to anything meaningful, but it's a good way to blow ninety minutes.

Eschewing characters, Cheech (Cheech Marin) and Chong (Tommy Chong) use their own names.  They drive around Los Angeles in an ice cream truck, selling weed disguised as push-pops, barely incognito.  They roam about the city, going about their business, while a pair of policemen trail them.  Cheech and Chong try to celebrate their success, but end up waylaid by a pair of enthusiastic cocaine-sniffers (Evelyn Guerrero and Paul Reubens).  While Hamburger Dude (Reubens) absconds with their money, Cheech and Chong head back to Donna's (Guerrero) apartment.  When Donna's convict husband returns from jail, Cheech and Chong flee, and decide to track down Hamburger Dude and their money.

"Nice Dreams" has a shaggy-dog tone to it, and that's to be expected (and embraced).  Is there a plot?  Sort of.  But honestly, the entire point is just to watch a pair of stoners wander around and get in and out of trouble.  Even better if whatever is happening is either funny or weird.  There's plenty of both to go around.  In the weird category, there's Stacy Keach's Sgt. Stedanko gradually turning into a lizard from smoking Cheech and Chong's product, and the entire Casa Del Whacko situation, which culminates with a straight-jacketed Cheech and already heavily-medicated Chong being dosed with LSD by a cackling Tim Leary himself.  On the funny side, probably the biggest, broadest bit that's still really funny involves a fully-nude Cheech dangling from the outside of a glass elevator.  And for those who enjoy gardening, there is a pretty spectacular garden of a very relevant variety to feast one's eyes on.

But, as is appropriate for a movie where the main characters use the names they are known by, the most interesting scenes are ones that take a low-key approach.  One in particular, that takes place in a kitchen, just plants the camera in the corner of the room, while Cheech tries to cook something and Chong has a conversation with what appears to be a blind man.  I was drawn into the conversation, although nobody is talking about anything meaningful, and it's fun to watch Cheech try to play subtle jokes on Chong.  It's more akin to what it's probably like seeing these guys when they're not "on."  "Nice Dreams" has a blend of these lower-key scenes mixed with the ones that involve wide-eyed cocaine use or naked dangling Cheech (or Paul Reubens doing a simpleminded proto-Pee Wee; Reubens is at least as fun as Cheech or Chong in his smaller role).  It's an interesting development in the sort of film that you wouldn't necessarily expect to find any cinematic experimentation within.

If you were eyeballing the line-up of Cheech and Chong movies to make your evening complete, this isn't the one that I would start with.  But, if you've already seen "Up in Smoke," this one is a good number two choice.  You're going to get exactly what you want out of "Nice Dreams," but without the freshness of the first film.  But you're going to laugh still, which is really all I wanted here.

2.5 / 5 - TV

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Wild One - 1953

"The Wild One" - 1953
Dir. by Laslo Benedek - 1 hr. 19 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Watching "The Wild One" for the first time provided me with one of those great cinematic moments, where one of the characters sets up another for a line, and you already knew the line because it's that famous of a line.  And it's completely awesome, because you knew the line but not exactly where it came from, and there it is, all set up for you to say, "Whadda you got?" along with Marlon Brando.  I know the answer!

Johnny (Brando) is the leader of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club, and after trying to disrupt a reputable motorcycle race, they roll into a small town looking for kicks, or more likely, to torture the town's inhabitants for the duration of the weekend.  Quickly, things go from tense to problematic when one of the members of the BRMC gets into an vehicular accident with one of the townsfolk.  The Sheriff, Harry Bleeker (Robert Keith) tries to smooth things over, but Johnny refuses to cooperate.  He's got an eye on a waitress (Kathie, played by Mary Murphy) at the diner, and a steadfast refusal to cooperate with the police in any manner, so he and his motorcycle gang take up residence at that diner until the injured biker can get patched up by a doctor.  While waiting, another club called The Beetles (a splinter group from the BRMC) rolls into town, and led by Chino (Lee Marvin), immediately starts trouble, which gets further and further out of control.

When you're dealing with a movie from another era, you have to deal with the fact that not every aspect of a film is going to age well.  "The Wild One" kicks off with a screen that explains it's based on a true story, and that this is a cautionary tale that should be heeded with all seriousness.  It's a really dated storytelling device (a cop-out for those who want to watch people behaving badly, or those who would want to make a film on that subject, but don't want to have to defend it on those merits), and I giggle a bit whenever I see a stern warning about hooligans or whatever.  But other than that, "The Wild One" is a fun movie that's held up well.

Mostly, that's because of Marlon Brando's iconic performance here.  If you're only familiar with Brando's later work (which is true for me - I'm not sure I've seen him in anything earlier than "The Godfather"), "The Wild One" is a bit of a revelation, and of the era a viewer should be referencing if you're trying to understand why he was held in such high regard.  Brando's character isn't very verbose, and what he does say doesn't always make a lot of sense.  It's something that the other characters pick up on; at this point in this character's life, he's acting on instinct more than having any particular goal or direction.  Even he doesn't know why he's so angry and surly, but he is, and acting on those motivations is sure to get him in some serious trouble eventually.  Brando has a physical presence here, and that's understating it.  Part of it is his size, but his body language and facial expressions never waver in projecting someone who's behaving like he's half-animal (the title refers to his character, of course).  Details and fashions might change over the years (although when you're dealing with a stylized outside group like biker gangs, that's less important), but Brando turning in a performance that you can't take your eyes off of is the sort of thing that holds up well.

Brando's not the only one here who does a great job with their material.  Lee Marvin's character, a sort of frenemy of Johnny, lives somewhere between menace and a rueful regret about their not being able to get along, and he also busts off some of the best lines of the movie (my favorite is when he's being hauled off to jail in the streets, and he keeps sarcastically bellowing, "Oh, the shame!").  He's a large, chatty character in all the ways that Johnny is not, and the tension between the two characters essentially holds the entire town hostage.  And the lead female character, Kathie, seems to put up with much more than you'd expect a good girl to.  Mary Murphy does a good job of trying to keep Brando at arm's length, at least until she can figure out what to do with him.  Her character is a fascinating one; she's trapped in a small town, and has dreams of someone swooping in and rescuing her from her doldrums.  But when this situation becomes plausible, she's terrified, at least partially because it doesn't match up her expectations.  Johnny is interested in her, but he's no white knight (which is drilled home with his behavior towards one of the Beetles), and Kathie is aware that whatever interest Johnny has in her is probably not long-term, and probably not something that she's going to be able to have any control over.

On one hand, "The Wild One" is a silly 50's movie about a biker gang with a brooding, misunderstood leader that seems to invite violent reprobation at every step.  On the other hand, it's got Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin rocking every scene either is in, to the degree that this is still totally watchable and fun sixty years later.  Execution matters, and even if some of the threats that the bikers present seem understated (or unstated), this is still a tight movie with a billion cool, old Triumph motorcycles.

4 / 5 - TV

Monday, May 6, 2013

Pain & Gain - 2013

"Pain & Gain" - 2013
Dir. by Michael Bay - 2 hrs. 9 min.

Official Red Band Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

First off, I'm not hating on this film because Michael Bay made it.  In fact, if you were going to make a movie about an overly testosterone-laden trio of bodybuilders who try to pull off a criminal plan that they are convinced is foolproof and genius, and it's set in 90's Miami, I'd be hard-pressed to come up with someone more appropriate for the job.  "Pain & Gain" is a big, flashy, dumb, aggressive, and pretty funny movie.  It feels like one of those movies where everyone involved just shows up, does exactly what they're good at, and that's it.

Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is an aspirational personal trainer: he wants the American Dream.  He manages to triple his gym's membership in three months, so he's not completely clueless, but this success just serves to open his eyes to the kind of success he's not having.  Daniel hatches a kidnapping plot at the expense of one of his clients, and ropes fellow trainers Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and Paul (Dwayne Johnson) into the scheme.  Of course, it doesn't go as smoothly as they'd hoped, but it is ultimately successful.  This gives all three men access to the high life, which they handle with varying aplomb, which means that they reluctantly plan another kidnapping.

As I mentioned earlier, Michael Bay is exactly the right guy to handle this kind of material.  The very idea of fitness as a means of overall self-improvement is central to the film (as is the single-minded focus required to achieve it), and a filmmaker who wasn't sympathetic to that idea would likely make a completely insufferable film based on this material.  There is no such thing as an ironic push-up, and all of the characters involved have the mind-set that you get things done by putting your head down and pushing through the pain.  It should also be mentioned that this film is based on a true story (how closely, who knows?), so the setting and the characters involved aren't really interchangeable with other kinds of stock characters.  Frankly, most of the appeal of "Pain & Gain" lies in seeing three meat-heads trying to pull off a kidnapping, and how badly they're going to botch the job.

And the storytelling is pretty decent, too.  Each of the three meat-heads has a distinct character and motivation, which is something that could have been glossed over.  They may not all be smart, or good people, but they are people.  That makes the story a lot more complicated, and a lot more interesting.  Daniel is a natural-born leader, but without substance, so he's prone to running afoul of the law.  Paul is desperately clinging onto his sobriety, which is a difficult task when no one will give an ex-con a break, and even the people who are supposed to help him try to take advantage of him.  And Adrian is sort of the runt of the gym, who can't possibly live up to the standards that everyone around him are setting.  He's desperate for approval in that situation, and Daniel takes advantage of that neediness.  So you don't have three mute big dudes trying to pull something off, you've got three people with different weaknesses and personalities, barely functioning as a team.  This is more thought and characterization than was necessary for this movie, and it goes a long way.

As far as the acting goes, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has the most ground to tread.  He plays his character both clinging to sobriety and barely functional due to drug use over the course of the film, and there's a definite transformation.  Yeah, he's still huge and muscly all the way through, but there's also some honest-to-goodness acting going on here.  Wahlberg is good, but it's not anything you haven't seen from him before.  Anthony Mackie has the most embarrassing material to work with, but he manages to make himself sympathetic through it.  And Tony Shaloub (he plays the first kidnapping victim) is great as the victim that nobody can sympathize with because he treats everyone so shabbily.

But we're still dealing with a Michael Bay film here.  Yes, there is a shot of three men walking towards the camera in slow-motion while something blows up behind them (which is hilarious, considering Wahlberg already made fun of that exact shot with Will Ferrell in "The Other Guys").  Yes, nearly all the women are strippers (or work in the sex industry one way or another).  Yes, it's in Miami.  This all to say that while this is a fun film (in a sick way), and everyone shows up with their working boots on, no one does anything at all that would stretch your perception of their abilities.  That is not a prerequisite for my enjoying a film, I can enjoy the application of hard-earned mastery of one's craft.  I can enjoy big, dumb movies.  And I enjoyed this one all the way through (although I did get a little hungry by the end of it).  But this is not the best film any of these men have made.  "Pain & Gain" falls into the category of a movie where you'll enjoy it if you're into the idea or the actors, and it's probably not going to convert anyone if you're not already inclined to a generous opinion of the idea or the cast.  Unless, of course, you like the idea of seeing Mark Wahlberg with a dress shirt tucked into jean shorts, or of seeing men wearing fanny packs non-ironically, which is pretty awesome.

2.5 / 5 - Theatre