Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Bullitt - 1968

"Bullitt" - 1968
Dir. by Peter Yates - 1 hr. 54 min.

Official Trailer

 by Clayton Hollifield

"Bullitt" is a very famous movie, and it's justifiably famous for one reason in particular.  The drawing card is the car chase, as in the car chase of all time.  Whether or not it holds first place ever is something I'll get around to addressing, but the bigger question is what's going on outside of that nearly eleven minute sequence?  Is it all window-dressing until the main course comes along?

Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is a detective tasked with protecting an important government witness, who just has to survive the weekend.  When it goes afoul, leaving both Bullitt's partner and the witness in the hospital, both clinging to life, Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn), the politician who hand-picked Bullitt for the task, is furious (moreso because of his missed career advancement), and tries to hang the whole thing on Bullitt's head.  But there are some leads to be followed, including tracking down the guy who shot the two men in the first place, and Bullitt must navigate around Chalmers' meddlesome careerism to figure out just what is going on, and to hopefully bring someone to justice.

There's really two movies here, which makes "Bullitt" feel like a very disjointed film at times.  On one hand, like "The French Connection," which came after this, there's a ton of very low-key police procedural material.  It's not that it's not edited down to the essentials, but it's also not edited down to misleading brevity, either.  This sort of material makes up the bulk of the film, which produces an interesting effect.  As a viewer, you kind of settle into the tone of the film, which is mostly not explosive, but definitely under the pressure of looming threats.  Things occasionally happen, like when the gunman breaks into the witness's hotel room and guns down people, but it's not out of the blue.  There's a call from the front desk clerk telling the policeman that there are people wanting to come up, so Director Peter Yates clearly prefers building tension to merely shocking people with abruptness.  Generally speaking, the tone of the movie is watching people go about their work, which is mostly quiet, thoughtful, and involves just doing stuff.  One of the reasons that Robert Vaughn's character is so annoying (in a fantastic way) is that he just rolls into scenes, demands that everyone stop what they're doing and pay attention to him until he's satisfied or successfully blown off.  You can feel every character in the movie mutter "asshole" under their breath whenever Chalmers walks off.

So once you're accustomed to just watching Bullitt and his cohorts going about their business (which is interesting, I'm not going to pretend it's not), everyone just gets slapped in the face with one of the greatest, if not THE greatest car chase in the history of film.  As it turns out, the entire film to that point has been slowly building tension, to be released in an iconic sequence.  In retrospect, it all adds up.  You've got two iconic examples of American Muscle: a Dodge Charger and a Ford Mustang, and they're tearing up a great film location: the streets of San Francisco.  You also have Steve McQueen actually handling some of the driving himself for added authenticity.  And you have Bullitt finally acting: McQueen's character is not very talkative over the course of the film, and it becomes apparent that instead of being sedate, he's capable of exploding into action.  But all of this is just words, and you should probably just watch the sequence and understand exactly what I'm talking about.

The Chase

You could make a case that this scene justifies the entire run-time of the film, but that would ignore the fact that the rest of "Bullitt" is a solid film.  There's an angle between Bullitt and his girlfriend Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset)(I suppose, that's never exactly explained, but she's undressed and in his bed a lot), where she gets a taste of what he goes through on a day-to-day basis, and it doesn't go down smoothly.  And then there's the matter of figuring out exactly what's going on with the witness.  There's another extended chase scene (this time on foot, at SFO at night, dodging taxi-ing planes), and things end definitively, publicly, and bloodily.  It's at this point the question that Cathy has posed to Bullitt early becomes relevant: when your entire life is spent with one foot in all of the ugliness that humanity has to offer, how do you keep the other foot clean?  That question is not resolved as neatly.

"Bullitt" is a must-see movie, not because of sustained excellence, or because it's flawless from beginning to end, but because there's an all-time cinematic peak in the middle of a pretty good movie.  I tend to think the car chase is #1, but "The French Connection" isn't far off.  There's also Steve McQueen being an icon, and Robert Vaughn doing what he does best (playing arrogant, pushy d-bags), and the usual fun of seeing San Francisco on film.  But it's also a solid detective story that gives a small taste of the tedium involved in such matters, without actually being boring, which is a nice feat.  But seriously, go see that Mustang go.

4 / 5 - Theatre

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

xXx - 2002

"xXx" - 2002
Dir. by Rob Cohen - 2 hrs. 4 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Vin Diesel movies always cheer me up.  And there's something so perfectly 2002 about "xXx" that I just can't resist re-watching it every now and then.  I'm not saying it's the best Vin Diesel movie, but it's up there. Who doesn't want to watch an X Games-style James Bond?   That's perfect!

Xander Cage (Diesel) is an underground website star, and we're introduced to one of the reasons why, with him stealing a California State Congressman's expensive car, and then flying it off of a bridge while Cage parachutes to safety.  Unfortunately, these kinds of stunts have consequences, and Cage is taken into custody by a S.W.A.T. team.  Once he passes a couple of tests (one involving a diner being held up, another involving a drug cartel in Columbia), Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) offers Cage the opportunity of a lifetime: become a government agent in exchange for ignoring his criminal indiscretions.  Cage's first assignment: get thee to Czechoslovakia and infiltrate a terrorist organization called Anarchy 99.

There's so much to love about "xXx" if you're willing to let go of your need for a movie not to be dumb.  As far as the action goes, there's no shortage of very good action pieces and interesting visuals.  Everything from the initial grand theft auto to the long chase at the end of the film works well, and visually makes sense.  Plus, lots of things explode, which is pretty important when you're dealing with a big, dumb movie.  Xander even deliberately causes an avalanche, and then attempts to outrun it on a snowboard.  Why?  Screw you, why not!  Even better are the scenes where Xander jumps things on motorcycles - not only does he get major air, he also does kick-tricks while shooting guns.  The only thing missing from this film is a sponsorship from an energy drink.

As far as the rest of it goes, the acting isn't bad.  Diesel's kind of underrated as an actor; just because his most famous roles don't usually involve sleeves of any kind doesn't mean that's not really good at these kinds of roles.  He's got a level of charm that raises him above some other action stars, and that helps this movie cruise along between explosions.  Even though he makes a really silly "uh-oh" face while atop Ahab (the submarine that... just watch it, okay), he carries "xXx" pretty well.  Yorgi (Marton Tsokas) and Yelena (Asia Argento) are fun foils for Xander, and beyond that, there's an endless supply of (barely clothed) eye candy, floating around the film.  The plot isn't particularly innovative; the entire point was an updating of James Bond for a hyper-caffeinated generation, and it uses the standard "unleash a virus" terrorist threat that was inescapable in movies of this ilk at that exact period in time.  It feels like things might have gotten more interesting if there had been a sequel involving Xander's character (I'm still trying really hard to ignore the Ice Cube version of xXx), as everything outside of the visual treats feels lightly sketched out, and like the sort of thing that might have been expanded upon in future installments.

As big and dumb and extreme as "xXx" is, it's still a really fun movie.  It's the sort of film I feel like requires an apology prior to admitting that I like it; this isn't health food for your intellect.  But then again, I like being able to check out and watch some guy drive a GTO really fast, watch stuff explode, and watch hot chicks just be hot without apology.  Can't I just enjoy something without having to feel guilt for it?

3 / 5 - Streaming

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Daisies - 1966

"Daisies" - 1966
Dir. by Vera Chytilova - 1 hr. 14 min.

2012 Re-Release Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

It's always kind of a disappointment to stumble across what looks like a good, really weird movie, only to find out that you have already watched it a few years prior.  I was annoyed by the opening scene, which brought up memories of having been previously annoyed by that same opening scene.  Fortunately, I also remembered that it got better, so I stuck with "Daisies."  But to be sure, this is a very up-and-down film, and not one that's likely to appeal to wide audiences, but who cares about all of that?

There are two teenage girls, both named Marie (Jitka Cerhova and Ivana Karbanova), who basically decide that since the world is spoiled, they also should become spoiled.  This results in a pair of a petulant girls taking advantage of everyone they can without remorse (mainly for food), all the while laughing with a high-pitched chipmunk chirp.  Eventually, they tire of their games, but stumble across an opportunity to step up matters when they come across a ballroom prepared for a feast, but without attendees.  They systematically destroy everything in sight before seeing the error of their ways, sort of .

"Daisies" is very much a film where I had to wade through how annoying certain aspects are in order to get to the parts that were meaningful or just plain entertaining.  The DVD case on IMDB dubs "Daisies" "a mad-cap feminist farce," while one of the Maries strategically holds framed butterflies in front of her otherwise naked body.  But this is one of those feminist movies where girls cut sausages and pickles in half with oversized pairs of scissors, and act like spoiled brats to get a free meal out of some poor geezer who is dumb enough to fall into their trap.  Other than that, I didn't interpret much of anything present here as having a feminist bent, but perhaps having a movie built around two female leads and no meaningful male characters qualified in 1966.  At the same time, the movie was potent enough to be banned in it's country of origin, Czechoslovakia, and director Vera Chytilova was banned from working in Czechoslovakia for nearly a decade.  It would appear that Czech officials identified rather strongly with pickles and sausages.

Despite the annoying non-stop laughter of the main two characters, and their self-indulgent behavior, it does add up to something over the short run time of "Daisies."  As I said before, I don't know how much of a feminist statement was made, but "Daisies" takes a direct shot at the rich and powerful.  After wheedling a series of free meals out of sugar daddies, one of the Maries decides that she doesn't like the other Marie very much any more.  It's a visceral reaction from one of the characters about the practical effects of their behavior.  But things don't really get serious until they end up stumbling into some farming village (after emerging from a train tunnel practically in blackface), and their coquette routine fails to attract the level of attention that they're accustomed to.  In fact, nobody in the entire town takes notice of these girls, which leads to an existential crisis.  If the Maries' deliberate poor behavior fails to produce a horrified reaction, then what is the purpose of their behavior, and indeed, their lives?  A satisfactory answer is never produced, which is a meaningful statement of its own.  Even without an answer, they steel themselves and carry on.

For me, these previous scenes turn the final main scene into a horror show.  They know that their behavior is destructive, and meaningless, and when the come upon the unattended feast, they instinctively act.  Not only that, but the Maries up their behavior.  By the end of the movie, they have become so debauched that a free meal isn't enough to satisfy them anymore; they must destroy everything in sight, and then wallow in the wreckage.  By the time they realize exactly where their behavior has gotten them, they both decide that they don't want to be spoiled anymore (as they're dangling from oars, trying not to drown in a river - one of the steady joys of "Daisies" is a sustained commitment to a sort of magic realism), which is easier said than done.  Their attempt to undo the damage they've done consists of hastily re-assembling broken plates and scooping destroyed cakes from the ground, and calling it good.  This is the best kind of satire: transferring what you're critiquing into another setting, so that people can see that behavior in a new light.

As a movie, "Daisies" is too weird, annoying, and hostile to appeal to a wide audience (which is probably why it's a Criterion Collection release), but as art it nails it's target perfectly.  I can't promise you that makes for a perfect entertainment experience.  I'm not sure that's the question that should be asked about "Daisies," however.  Director Chytilova doesn't play by any rules (the film was even financed by the Czech government, who clearly didn't know what they were getting in for, and might explain their outrage at the final product) at all, which makes for an interesting and provocative product, which is more important than the entertainment factor.

3 / 5 - Streaming

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

But I'm a Cheerleader - 1999

"But I'm a Cheerleader" - 1999
Dir. by Jamie Babbitt - 1 hr. 25 min.

Red Band Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

When I watched "But I'm a Cheerleader" years ago, when it first came out, I remember that it had a lot of good things going for it.  At that point in time, the idea of a faith-based sexual-orientation rehab program sounded so ridiculous that it was nearly unbelievable, and thus a perfect basis for a comedy.  Secondly, Natasha Lyonne was turning in good work (the first "American Pie" movie and "Slums of Beverly Hills" had been recently released) that was getting her some attention.  Plus, the idea of Lyonne and Clea DuVall in a romantic story had a certain amount of appeal.  In the years since, it's become apparent to me that there are people who genuinely believe that you can pray gay away, which makes this premise even better for comedy.

Megan (Lyonne) is a straight-laced good-girl.  She's a cheerleader, has a boyfriend on the football team, and never gets into trouble.  Even though she doesn't seem to understand, those around her think that she's got a more-than-friends attraction to the women around her.  Her friends, family, and boyfriend stage an intervention for her, and she's sent off to True Directions, where she will be rehabilitated from her unnatural desires.  The director of the program, Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarty), has developed a five-step program that will help these young lesbians and gays to accept their proper roles in society.  While at the program, Megan meets Graham (DuVall), who start off rocky and gradually warm up to each other, in defiance of Mary and True Directions.

"But I'm a Cheerleader" is highly critical of the idea of being able to change who someone is attracted to.  True Directions is presented as a misguided attempt to shoehorn people into existing slots, in the futile hope that societal normalcy can be gained.  The basic argument is that love isn't wrong between two consenting adults, and that trying to shame someone's sexuality is far more damaging than just letting people be themselves.  The false life that the characters are striving for is reflected in the set and costume design in this film; candy colors dominate, and pink and blue are the two colors most everything is divided into.  Even Lyonne's and Moriarty's hair reflects this - they're both sporting elaborate do's that come from the 1950s, which is the era that a program like True Directions is trying to throw everyone back to.

The movie has gained some credibility over the years, since the emergence of rehab stories as it's own genre of TV and fiction (although that usually deals with drug addiction, as that's a bit safer and less personal topic to explore rehab through) over the past decade.  By now, it's almost accepted that if you have a problem, you get shipped off for a month or two to deal with it, but that doesn't really bear any resemblance to real life.  Most people don't have health coverage that would fund such a working vacation, nor jobs that would allow someone to put everything on pause to examine and correct their own behavior.  In "But I'm a Cheerleader," there are at least a couple of passing mentions of the price of the program, which is another angle of criticism aimed at these programs.  Offering nonsensical, ineffective solutions at an exorbitant price is profiteering, and takes advantage of desperate, misguided, yet still concerned families who just don't know what the right thing is to do.  At that point, the question becomes exactly what the goals of these programs are: helping or profiting?

The actors universally do a good job, having fun with their roles.  A lot of the roles are broad stereotypes of different kinds of gay people (which makes sense, considering the deliberately artificial tone and look of the film), but there's a great moment where one of the girls in the program, Jan (Katrina Phillips), admits that she's not actually gay, even though she likes softball and isn't pretty.  There are a number of smaller roles filled out by familiar actors (like Richard Moll, RuPaul, and Wesley Mann, plus a brief Julie Delpy sighting) that are fun, as well.  The entire package ends up looking like a piece of fluff, but with a meaningful center.  That meaning comes in embracing who you are, which is summed up nicely towards the end.  Although being a cheerleader is something that might be cause for mockery in certain circles, it's the manner that Megan knows how to express herself in, and it's the way that she chooses to plea for Graham to follow her heart.  It might seem awkward, or weird, but it's Megan embracing herself and who she is, and comes off like the character growing into a comfort level with herself, which isn't a bad character arc at all.

3 / 5 - TV

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Mystery Men - 1999

"Mystery Men" - 1999
Dir. by Kinka Usher - 2 hrs. 1 min.

Theatrical Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I remembered really liking "Mystery Men" when it came out.  Part of it was probably just the dearth of comic book adaptations, which was quickly rectified in the passing decade.  Part of it was my crush on Janeane Garofalo, part was the sheer improbability of a Hollywood film being made on a Bob Burden comic.  "Mystery Men" has a more than solid cast and is pretty funny, so what's the problem here?

First, recap.  Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), Shoveler (William H. Macy) and the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria) are a super-hero team, sort of.  They're not any good at it, and end up trying to save senior citizens from a gang of thieves, but are quickly eclipsed when Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) shows up and routs the baddies.  Turns out Cap is so good at fighting crime that people, and therefore his sponsors, are losing interest.  To rekindle interest, Cap decides to get his old nemesis, Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), sprung from Arkham Asyl...  I mean, the looney bin, so that they can renew their rivalry and Cap can continue to rake in the sweet sponsorship moolah.  Casanova has learned a few new tricks in his time away, and that leaves Furious & company as the last heroes standing between him and tragedy.

So lets start with the good.  All of the actors, and I mean all of them, do a great job.  Stiller and Garofalo (playing "The Bowler," she has a super-powered bowling ball with her deceased father's head in it, which she talks back to) bicker like you want them to, Macy plays things straight, Azaria's strange and puts on a fake British accent for much of the film.  If I recall, this was also one of the first movies that Paul Reubens (playing The Spleen, a lisping, bezitted dork armed with super-powered farts) made after his legal run-in at a theater of a different kind, and he does a great job here, too.  Pretty much all of the good stuff in "Mystery Men" (and there is plenty of good comedy and acting here) is due to the cast going above and beyond.

I have two essential problems with "Mystery Men" at this point, nearly fifteen years after its release.  The first concerns the direction; director Kinka Usher (this is his one and only feature film, he's returned to directing TV ads since) is obsessed with jamming people's faces right into the camera.  And when faces aren't approaching the camera, maybe it's a car driving right up to the camera.  I feel like I've just spent two hours looking up actor's noses and staring at people through a door's peephole.  It's unbelievably repetitive (I was aware of this quickly, and completely sick of it half an hour in); it's the sort of approach that might work in thirty-second commercials, but is unsustainable over the course of two hours.  Also, it forces an awareness of the camera that distracts from the pure storytelling aspect of "Mystery Men."

I didn't mind the story (even though it's basically a mash-up of Grant Morrison and Dave McKean's "Arkham Asylum" graphic novel and "The Warriors", which offers up little of creator Bob Burden's surrealist appeal), but the approach to making this film is hard to grasp.  I'm not a purist; I don't believe for a second that a film has to match up to it's source material at all.  They're two separate entities, and I'm more than willing to give the creators of each room to make their art work in the format that they're using.  But if you look at the source material in this case, which were throw-away characters in Burden's main comic book creation, "Flaming Carrot," I can't begin to figure out how anyone saw a film budgeted at $68 million.  "Mystery Men" is a movie based on a forgotten drunken bar joke (literally - Burden had to be reminded of a joke he'd made at a bar about a nonsensical superhero one night and then promptly forgot about), and Burden's work is surreal and crude (I don't mean that as a slight - his work's appeal lies in it's humor and approach, and not in his draftsmanship).  So how does that translate into a film that cops it's neon/greased plastic look directly from "Batman & Robin," one of the most critically reviled comic-book adaptations ever committed to film?

The entire approach is misguided and overblown; "Mystery Men" should have been an ragged indie comedy to have any chance to succeed.  Instead, we get chestnuts like the entire team walking seven-across in slow-motion through fog.  Another problem; while "Mystery Men" is set in the future, no one has a cell phone.  1999 would have been on the cusp of when people really started carrying them around, but it seems implausible to have a future world where people don't have any electronic means of communication.  I'm willing to chalk that one up to bad timing, but there's a big dividing line in film on this issue, and "Mystery Men" is on the wrong side of that line.

"Mystery Men" isn't a bad movie, it's a mixed bag.  It's funny, it's jammed full of funny characters, the cast does everything they can with what they've got to work with.  But the visual approach is infuriating and frustrating at every turn, and burns up a lot of the good will I have towards the film.  I guess all I can say is that it's fun to watch if you're not paying attention, and you'd have to file it among the comic-book movies that were made before Hollywood got even a decent grasp of how to approach this sort of material.

2 / 5 - Streaming

Monday, June 3, 2013

Saved! - 2004

"Saved!" - 2004
Dir. by Brian Dannelly - 1 hr. 32 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Saved!" is a movie that walks a very fine line.  It would be extraordinarily easy to make a film that was designed to play to converts that would also repulse the majority of average people.  It would also be very easy to make a movie that has the things that happen in "Saved!," and just trash Christianity thoroughly, and it would repulse a lot of people who don't have the same religious fervor as Mandy Moore's character, but still consider themselves part of the religion.  Somehow, this film incorporates a number of viewpoints, real-life complicated situations, and handles them all deftly, and in a way that even I, as a confirmed heathen, found to be reasonable and touching.  But also, very, very funny, which is equally important.

Mary (Jena Malone) is your typical Christian school student, which is to say earnest and focused on doing the right thing.  The wrinkle is that her boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust), is questioning his sexuality.  Mary does everything that she can to keep Dean from heading down a dangerous road (at least in terms of his spiritual life), and ends up doing something that she's not supposed to do, even though she thinks that she's being urged by Jesus to do that very thing that she's not supposed to do.  At the beginning of the school year, Dean is quietly hustled off to Mercy House, which Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore) spills the beans on, despite her swearing that she wouldn't.  Also, Mary's mom, Lillian (Mary-Louise Parker) is falling in love with the school's pastor, Skip (Martin Donovan), while his son, Patrick (Fugit) arrives on the scene after a missionary/skateboarding trip to Africa, and quickly falls for Mary.

There are a lot of threads running through this film, and one of the main ones is that real life is rarely as neat and clean-cut as people wish it were.  If there was an overarching message, I'd say that "Saved!" is trying to get across that approaching life with rigidity unnecessarily complicates matters.  Perhaps Bruce Lee can explain this better:

The characters in this film only seem to have a chance of happiness when they let go of their expectations and just flow like water.  For Lillian and Skip, Skip's hung up on not officially ending a marriage that's over (a divorced pastor is not something he wants to be, it would compromise his authority as his community's spiritual leader), and not being willing to accept that there is a new chapter of his life waiting (impatiently) for him.  Patrick and Mary's budding relationship is complicated by her trying to fight the consequences of unprotected sex.  There's a third relationship in the film, between Roland (Macaulay Culkin), who's wheelchair-bound, and the school's bad girl, Cassandra (Eva Amurri Martino), and their willingness to look beyond their superficial problems and just be there for one another is the template that the other characters have to follow.

But it's also very important that a comedy actually be funny.  A lot of the big LOL scenes are a result of Cassandra and her loose cannon persona (her approach to speaking in tongues is fantastic, and must-see), but she's not the only draw.  Macaulay Culkin turns in a really good, understated performance, as does his on-screen sister, Mandy Moore.  Moore's character is sort of a Jesus bully, cloaking everything she does to big-foot everyone around her in religion, and Culkin's character has to tolerate her because he's not exactly self-sufficient.  Jena Malone is really good here as well, deeply conflicted and searching for an answer that makes any kind of sense, after seemingly being punished for trying to do something good.  It's her character that's the key to the film and the balance between criticism and belief; she's a good person who has a real problem, and is in way over her head.  It wouldn't even be fair to say that she made a mistake, her character made a choice teenagers make every day and suffers the same consequences teenagers suffer every day.

I think the thing that I came away most impressed with is that "Saved!" doesn't just suggest dispatching religion entirely, but asks for people to find a way to apply the concepts within in a usable way that relates to real life and it's attendant problems.  Blindly applying the demands of Christianity in an abstract way only applies unbearable pressure to some people who are having difficulty finding steady footing, and is counter-productive to these people's overall well-being.  "Saved!" posits that not grasping that is as bad of a sin as falling short of the mark, spiritually-speaking.  That's not a radical concept, and nor is the plea not to demonize those who are struggling.  Even Metallica grasps the "judge not lest ye be judged" concept, and are you dumber than Metallica?

3.5 / 5 - TV