Sunday, September 29, 2013

Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle - 2004

"Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" - 2004
Dir. by Danny Leiner - 1 hr. 28 min.

Red Band Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Just like, like it or not, every generation gets the awful Fleetwood Mac cover that they deserve, every generation also gets their own stoner icons.  For the last decade, that's meant Harold and Kumar, and their odyssey started here, with "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle."  Thankfully, this film is both good and weird, and stands on it's own outside of any altered states.  To be sure, if you're not at least neutral on this subject, you'll probably get as annoyed at the references as I do when watching a movie about a drunk, but I maintain the oddness in "H&K" is enough to provide a rich comedic environment for most viewers.

Harold (John Cho) works at an investment firm, and an inconsiderate pair of douchebags decide to ruin his weekend by dumping some work on him at the last second, so that they can hit some strip clubs.  Harold's roommate, Kumar (Kal Penn), deliberately fouls up an interview for medical school, and lets Harold know that he doesn't consider any work sufficient reason to change their weekend plans, which are to get baked as hell.  So when they fulfill their plans, they naturally get a little hungry, and go on a quest to eat a mountain of White Castle burgers.  This proves to be more difficult than one would think, and not just because they're both stoned.

So let's get the discussion of weed-related humor out of the way.  First point that this film makes is that indulging doesn't automatically equal loserdom.  Harold has a decent job; although he's low in the pecking order, that's more due to his age than anything else.  And Kumar is very smart (and very confrontational); although he's screwing up his future education options, he's doing it on purpose.  As he puts it, "Just because you're hung like a moose doesn't mean you have to do porn."  He's not really portrayed as a particularly bad influence, just the more easy-going of the comedic duo, versus Harold being the more uptight one.  For the most part, the things that happen to Harold and Kumar could happen with or without marijuana's involvement, although it does give an explanation for the surreal progression of events, and how the audience is just supposed to take things at face value.  But "H&K" isn't really a PSA or anything, not like this one that's part of the movie:

I'm invincible!!!

For the most part, "H&K" is about a couple of buddies who have the munchies, and keep finding themselves in improbable situations.  Director Danny Leiner is also responsible for "Dude, Where's My Car?", which features a similar manner of story and storytelling.  Thankfully "H&K" got to go for an R-rating, which frees up a lot more comedic space.  This type of story can be very difficult to pull off, and it's done so largely successfully here.  There are many small roles with familiar faces that add to the weirdness of the film, none more so than Neil Patrick Harris' few minutes of screen time.  It's impossible to talk about this film, or the franchise, without mentioning how spectacularly funny NPH is, playing a drug-fueled, hetero sex-crazed version of "himself."  It's a textbook example of how to destroy any preconceptions anyone might have about the roles that an out gay actor can play, with the understanding that there really wasn't a textbook for that prior to NPH's turn here.  The lesson: he's an actor, of course he can convince you that he wants a muff burger.  That's kind of his job.  And he's pretty good at it.

"Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" succeeds because it's funny, weird, surreally episodic, and because it has all the things a good late-night movie needs.  There's a hot girl, dream sequences (Kumar's romance sequence with a giant bag of weed is messed up and awesome, even after multiple viewings), doofus bad guys, substance abuse, a nonsensical quest, and eventual victory for our heroes.  This is a solid film, and I enjoyed it quite a bit, despite never having tasted a White Castle burger myself.  So even a minor thing like that shouldn't hamper anyone's enjoyment.

3.5 / 5 - TV

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Border Radio - 1987

"Border Radio" - 1987
Dir. by Allison Anders, Dean Lent, and Kurt Voss - 1 hr. 27 min.

Criterion DVD cover art

by Clayton Hollifield

Dammit, you know a movie's obscure when you can't find a trailer for it.  I mean, "Border Radio" has a Criterion edition, and even the Criterion page for this film doesn't have a trailer.  Even trailers have their own trailers now.  That DVD cover art is pretty much the only visual flair I could find related to "Border Radio."  So, without shelling out for the Criterion DVD, information about this film is pretty scant.  It appears to be a student film by Allison Anders, Dean Lent, and Kurt Voss, or at least came out of their meeting at UCLA.  "Border Radio" comes off a bit like a student film (and a lot like what indie films would look like in the 90s): not a ton of visual flair, heavy on the personal relationships, shot wherever anyone had access to (as opposed to using "locations"), and using friends and family as cast.  "Border Radio" has the added bonus of heavily featuring musicians as much of the cast, which makes for one of the more interesting facets of the film.

Jeff Bailey (Chris D.), plans to flee to Mexico along with Dean (John Doe), but a gang of thugs interfere with their plans after hearing an answering machine message intended for Jeff.  Jeff gets away unscathed, but Dean takes a beating waiting for Jeff in a desert drive-in movie theatre.  Unfortunately, no one clues in Jeff's wife, Lu (Luanna Anders) about this, and she's left in the dark in Los Angeles with her and Jeff's kid, running interference with Jeff's record label (he's just released a new album, but his going M.I.A. is wreaking havoc with the promotion for it), and trying to figure out where Jeff has gone, and why.  Jeff's band's roadie, Chris (Chris Shearer), stays in LA, and takes advantage of the situation (and Jeff's wife).  Eventually, Lu has to get to the bottom of the situation (she's a rock journalist, but that's not enough to support much of anything), and starts poking around until the truth begins to be revealed.

I have a real soft spot for this kind of movie, in the same way that punk rock has an eternal appeal: it's motivating to see just how little stands between a person and making a movie (or some songs).  Whether it's good or not is beside the point (and this film isn't without merit), this kind of film-making is essentially creative problem-solving.  If you were to look around you, get a few friends' help, make a list of all the places that you could shoot footage at, and figure out how much money you could cobble together for a camera and film, could you then come up with a story that would use all of those elements, would look okay, and could keep people's attention for an hour and a half?  Sure, you or I probably will never have the opportunity to make a big-budget, special effects-driven spectacle like a "Transformers" movie, but that doesn't mean that you can't make a movie.  Sometimes, it's no more difficult than assessing your resources, and spending a couple of long weekends shooting some footage with your friends.

Having said that, "Border Radio" apparently took four years to finish (I'm unclear on whether the filming took that long, or if that included editing time or what).  The resulting film is decent.  It's very low-key, the cast is comprised largely of non-actors, the story takes a while to unfold.  The directors make good use of the scenery - both the rural desert scenes and the ones that are in Mexico look really good in black and white.  Part of what I like about "Border Radio" is that it also functions as a snap-shot of the mid-80s LA underground rock scene, and it feels very real and accurate.  Movies don't always get this sort of stuff right (and it helps that the filmmakers were immersed in the scene at the time), and there's not always much incentive to get it right.  But this is a gritty story about a band that gets shafted by a club, and tries to take revenge.  It wouldn't make any sense if you were watching a glossy band, or if this movie was populated with rock stars.  And there is one great moment in the movie, where a groupie (Iris Berry) is talking about how the LA scene has changed for the worse.  The best line of the movie comes when she's looking forward to something meaningful happening again a few years in the future, and hoping that she's not too old to be a part of it.  The interviewer asks her how old she is, and she says she's twenty.

The story here was good enough to get me to the end of the film.  It's not a great film, but it holds together.  It's the sort of movie that's more interesting than a good film; if you're a fan of any of the musicians that are involved here, or maybe you've seen Allison Anders' later films, or if, like me, you're a fan of shaggy indie films, you'll enjoy "Border Radio" on some level.  If nothing else, I found a couple of bands on the soundtrack that I'm interested in tracking down some work by.  I doubt that I'll watch this one again, but that's true of the bulk of the movies that I watch.  I still enjoyed it as a movie enough, and also enjoyed seeing one way that people could make a movie without having all of the resources in the world.

2.5 / 5 - TV

Thursday, September 19, 2013

American Ninja - 1985

"American Ninja" - 1985
Dir. by Sam Firstenberg - 1 hr. 35 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

So look, sometimes it's late at night and you're looking around at all the movies you have available to you, and you're not exactly in the mood for something intellectually challenging.  I'm not too proud to admit it, sometimes I can't handle "The Usual Suspects," I need something like "American Ninja" instead.  I want bad acting, people engaging in a poor facsimile of martial arts, and to see just how much pulse-pounding action $1 million dollars would buy in 1985.  "American Ninja" is exactly that.

Joe (Michael Dudikoff) is an American soldier stationed in the Philippines.  He's a loner, Dottie, a rebel who refuses to join a friendly hacky sack circle in favor of playing with his switchblade.  When driving as part of a convoy to deliver supplies somewhere, Joe and the other American soldiers are set upon by a bunch of ninjas (!).  Joe decides to fight, which means that four of his fellow soldiers are killed in the scrum, but Joe escapes with the colonel's daughter, Patricia (Judie Aronson).  Upon returning her safely to the base, Joe is persona non grata with the other soldiers, which results in Jackson (Steve James) picking a fight with Joe.  Unfortunately for Jackson, he is not an American ninja, but Joe is, exhausting Jackson with a series of basic throws, which then makes Joe and Jackson best buds.  In between attempts to consummate his doomed romance with Patricia, Joe is targeted by the local gun runner, Victor Ortega (Don Stewart), who sends the Black Star Ninja (Tadashi Yamashita) and his ninja corps after Joe.  And plenty of sweet 80's kung-fu fighting.

Probably the best thing that you could say about "American Ninja" is that director Sam Firstenberg makes efficient use of his budget.  The fact that it was shot in an exotic locale (the Philippines, in case you weren't paying attention) helps, using military bases and equipment helps, too.  The end result, while unquestionably cheesy, doesn't look terrible.  There's not a ton of gloss to it, but if you compared it to an episode of "The A-Team," for instance, I think that "American Ninja" would come off comparatively well.  And that's really what this movie should be compared to: 80's action TV shows.  They even use that same yellow bubble font for the beginning credits that was inescapable for a period of time.

But the cheese, it's so delicious.  The fighting is nothing special, which is both unfortunate and understandable.  There's a ninja-training ground, run by the Black Star Ninja, where you can see things like ninjas who have orange outfits climbing ropes.  The acting, on the whole, is pretty rough.  But seeing as how you'd expect that going in, the only person who's really annoying is Patricia.  And that's partially because of her behavior (although she gets slapped for it at least twice), and partially because I'd expect an Army brat to be a little less helpless and diva-y.  Jackson is actually pretty fun, and once "American Ninja" gets down to the third act (action!) and the crotch-punching starts, it's fun.  Jackson actually has the best nut-check; in the middle of fighting a shirtless, muscular henchmen, Jackson aggressively King of Pop's his opponent, and follows it up by repeatedly punching his opponent with his ball-sweat-drenched fist right in the nose.  If a low-blow and a bunch of a face-punches can't get the job done, making the henchmen smell his own drippings will.

But maybe the best element of cheese here is the idea that America produces better ninjas than anywhere else.  In fact, just one American ninja is enough to defeat hordes of actual Asian ninjas (I say Asian because they're largely masked, and although I'm not sure of their heritage, I'm assuming they didn't all come from the Philippines.  So maybe Pan-Asian?).  American excellence, indeed!  I feel like there's no way "American Ninja," and the idea that it takes only one American Ninja to overcome anything thrown at him (even the Black Star Ninja!!!) might not have played well in countries that have strong histories of martial arts.

On the whole, "American Ninja" is fun because it takes itself pretty seriously, does have some fighting, and sticks to the plot.  It's also fun because the idea of a local crime lord electing to employ a large force of ninjas as his defense program is awesome, and that all it takes is the right American Ninja to overcome all of that.  In this picture, one Dudikoff is worth a thousand ninjas.

1.5 / 5 - TV

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Tank Girl - 1995

"Tank Girl" - 1995
Dir. by Rachel Talaley - 1 hr. 44 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I can't help but think that if "Tank Girl" had been the exact same film that is, but with a credit that read "directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky," it might have been received rapturously, and praised as a surrealist masterpiece.  The reason I say this is that, having seen "El Topo" and "The Holy Mountain," some of the content of "Tank Girl" isn't that far off.  The only real misstep here is that there's a little too much traditional story, and not quite enough insistence that the experience of taking in this film is going to have to be enough narrative for the audience to live with.  For a film that's regarded as a disaster and a bomb, re-watching "Tank Girl" for the first time in at least a decade was somewhat of a revelation.

"Tank Girl" is based on a comic book by Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett (probably better known for providing all of the visuals for the "Gorillaz" project, with Blur's Damon Albarn).  In the film, we're in the year 2033, and the world's in the middle of a decade-long drought.  Water & Power, controlled by Kesslee (Malcolm McDowell), runs everything.  Rebecca, A.K.A. Tank Girl (Lori Petty), is part of a band of squatters who have been diverting water, and are raided by W&P's troops.  Pretty much everyone is killed, including Rebecca's boyfriend, with the exception of her, who is captured, and a young girl named Sam (Stacy Linn Ramsower), who is auctioned off.  Rebecca refuses a job with W&P, and instead vows to break out and save Sam from whatever trouble she's ended up in.

"Tank Girl" is a very weird film.  I don't have any doubt as to why people responded to it in the manner that they did.  1995 was definitely before Hollywood knew what to do with comic book material.  One could argue that they still have difficulty with idiosyncratic material (of which the comic definitely is), but this didn't stand a chance.  But what resulted is so unbelievably 1995, kind of in the way that "Repo Man" or "Heathers" are like the 1980's, or the aforementioned Jodorowsky films couldn't have come from any time except the 1970's.  "Tank Girl" is 200 proof, triple distilled 1995 on a DVD.  At the time, people might have shrugged and moved on; removed from it's context, this film is insanity.  Part of that has to do with the soundtrack, which is a rock solid representation of what that period in time sounded like.  But when factors like popularity or trendiness are removed, things get really weird.

Imagine, if you will, a strip-tease scene set to a Bush song.  You don't remember Bush?  They were that British band that everyone hated because they sounded like Nirvana, but then everyone secretly bought the album anyways.  That's a pretty weird soundtrack to a seduction that includes safety scissors.  Maybe you'd prefer to imagine a world where people have to work in a coal mine (or whatever), but they have to do it while listening to Hole.  You know, Courtney Love?  But not the cleaned up, smoothed out, radio-friendly Hole that had hits like "Malibu," the weird baby-doll dress-wearing, screaming, bereaved widow Hole.  Can you imagine if you had to work in a place like that?  It's Hell.  Literally Hell.  Demoralizing, soul-devouring Hell.  Never mind that there are tons of scenes here that also look like an underpopulated Burning Man (and one is soundtracked by a Sky Cries Mary song).  I'm old enough to remember the context that these songs existed in originally, but enough time has passed that I know how weird this world sounds out of that context.

There's also an entire, separate essay that could be written on how "Tank Girl" portrays the messed-up sexuality of the early 90's.  I won't get that deeply into it, but it's how you get things like a "shower scene" with Rebecca (where she's fully clothed, and is doused with de-lousing powder instead of water), or a scene where you have an entire brothel doing a Busby Berkeley song-and-dance number to a Cole Porter song.  "Tank Girl" isn't a de-sexed film, but nearly all sexuality portrayed is either a threat or is undercut by Rebecca's girlishness (there is a reason they are called riot grrrls, not riot women).  While "Tank Girl" is rated R, it's strangely dicey in this department.

One word that you could use to describe "Tank Girl" is "frenetic," which is both its charm and its failing.  Lead actress Lori Petty is probably doing the female equivalent of a Pauly Shore character here, which works for this movie, but is also unlikely to endear "Tank Girl" to like eighty-five percent of movie-goers.  Director Rachel Talalay also throws pretty much everything at the wall, including a hallucination scene and animated transitions between segments.  It's a visually-rich approach, but can be overwhelming if you're not prepared for it.  And the entire film is built on shaky legs; the story is pretty stock (TM Lars Ulrich).  It falls into a no-man's land; not rich enough to be interesting on that merit, and not non-linear enough to really build on the strengths of this film (which, to be clear, are Petty's energetic performance, a surrealist streak, and being so 1995 that it's at one hundred twenty percent of capacity).  "Tank Girl" is not a great movie.  It is a weird movie, an interesting one, a crazy one, and that's more than enough if you're not going to make a big deal out of it's flaws.

3.5 / 5 - TV

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Oscar Wilde - 1960

"Oscar Wilde" - 1960
Dir. by Gregory Ratoff - 1 hr. 36 min.


By chance, I caught part of "Oscar Wilde" on TV a few months back.  I caught the beginning, which was alright, and I can't remember what I did for the hour or so in the middle, but then I caught the very end of the film, which concludes with a laugh-out-loud declaration by a drunk, broken-down Wilde to a musician to "play me something gay."  That was enough to make me curious to watch the entire film; despite my literature-heavy education, I stumbled across the work of Oscar Wilde in an inadvertent way, through one of the finest volumes of Dave Sim's epic comic book "Cerebus," titled "Melmoth."  Ever since then, I've been interested in Wilde and his work, and I'll admit that I wanted to see if this entire film was full of this sort of double entrendre.  Also, I'd recently seen some other films that Robert Morley had been in, and really enjoyed his work.

For the most part, tracking down information about (and a way to re-watch) the film in question usually isn't that difficult.  There is an embarrassment of riches in terms of information about entertainment, but it appeared that "Oscar Wilde" had slipped through the cracks.  There is a Wikipedia entry for it, and the IMDB page that you may have likely come to this review from, but at the time, I couldn't find any way to watch it all the way through.  I can't find a trailer for it (which is what I'd normally embed above, instead of a poster).  It would appear that there was never a DVD (or Blu-Ray) release, and I wasn't clear on whether or not there had been a VHS release, either.  The Turner Classic Movies page didn't have any replays listed, so I told my DVR to record anything to do with Oscar Wilde, and hoped that it would eventually turn up.  It took a few months, but it did finally turn up.

"Oscar Wilde" is the story of Oscar Wilde (you probably guessed that), a famous pithy Irish writer.  After one of Wilde's (played by Robert Morley) successful theatre openings, he meets a stylish young man named Lord Alfred Douglas (John Neville), and they strike up a very close friendship.  Wilde helps Douglas out of a jam with a would-be blackmailer (Douglas had been careless with some incriminating love letters), and they become inseparable.  There are some problems with this; Wilde is married, Wilde and Douglas' relationship is not platonic, Douglas is still careless with leaving correspondence around, tongues start wagging, and "the love that dare not speak it's name" is super-illegal in Britain at the time.  Wilde and Douglas' relationship also infuriates Douglas' father, the Marquis of Queensbury (Edward Chapman), who eventually outs Wilde.  Douglas eggs Wilde on to press charges against his father for slander, in a vain attempt to get the pee out of the pool, which backfires horribly.

Ordinarily, I'd dive into the positives first, but since there are way more positives than negatives to this film, let's get the weird stuff out of the way first.  One of the things that you'll have to suspend your disbelief over is the idea of Robert Morley playing a character that's at least a decade younger than he actually was.  That's not to say anything about his performance, but it's something you might notice, and then will have to dismiss from your mind.  Some of the background info helps with this: "Oscar Wilde" is based on a successful play that Morley starred in when he was considerably younger.  Even with the amount of time it took to turn the play into a film, it would make sense to use the same actor who had helped make the play notable.  The other quirk to this film is the use of the word "gay."  Morley drops that word into conversation at least a couple of times, and there's also a point where he uses it as an adjective (as a synonym of "happy") during a courtroom scene where he's defending himself from the charges of being gay!  I have to grant that the language around this particular issue was different at the time, and these lines probably weren't intended to be huge punchlines, but the intervening fifty or so years since the release of the film has turned those lines into punchlines.

One of the things that I was curious about when watching "Oscar Wilde" all the way through was just how explicit they were going to be about the fact that Wilde was going being persecuted for being gay.  Those punchlines are a lot funnier if the filmmakers and cast were going to spend the duration of the run-time tap-dancing around the issue, but the film does eventually get down to brass tacks, explicitly calling Wilde a sodomite (in a great scene - Douglas' father writes on a note card to be delivered to Wilde that he's posing as a sodomite, hands it to a hotel desk clerk, who then has to look up what a sodomite is in his handy dictionary).  This isn't an explicit film, you shouldn't expect to see Wilde and Douglas express their affection for one another physically, nor are there going to be any explicit descriptions of the mechanics of gay love.  Even so, the issue is laid out bare, much more so that I would have expected from a film of this era.

The part of this film that I missed the first time around turned out to be a spellbinding extended courtroom sequence, one that's supposed to be about proving Douglas' father had slandered Wilde by calling his sexuality into question, but quickly turns into Wilde having to defend his assertion that he wasn't gay (against mountains of evidence to the contrary, dug up by private investigators).  The entire section of this film feels like a play in the best possible way: it's set in one locale, the director mostly chooses to get out of the way of his actors, and the tension mounts and builds until it all falls apart.  It's an incredibly simple approach, but one that rests on having actors that can pull it off (and that you might have enough sympathy for the main character to want to see him escape intact).  I can't say enough about the work that Morley and Ralph Richardson (playing Edward Carson, the Marquis' lawyer) do here, and about how sharply the characters and dialogue are written.  By the end of it, the very traits that made Wilde famous (his sharp wit, ability to command an audience, and his inability to avoid turning a phrase for the purpose of entertainment) have repeatedly fended off Carson's accusations, until Carson manages to parry Wilde's gift with language long enough to allow Wilde to stick his foot in his own mouth.

Wilde's downfall and death are swift here, and that's the part of Wilde's story that I had known about going in.  It's beyond bleak; Douglas had been preying on Wilde's infatuation with him in order to harm the Marquis, and when that failed, Wilde was left with nothing but a prison sentence ahead of him, and then the inability to work afterwards (perhaps because his audience and circle of friends had dissipated to only one man, Robert Ross (Dennis Price), a manager of sorts).  The final line of the film ("play me something gay") is both riotously funny and unfortunate.  The beginning of the film is extravagant and refined, the middle is tension-filled, and the downfall sequence is fun only if you like pulling the wings off of butterflies.  The story successfully manages it's tone throughout, only to be undone by the mutation of language over time.

I was pleasantly surprised watching "Oscar Wilde" all the way through.  I had somewhat expected a superficial, campy, occasionally goofy film, and got something much better.  It seems Robert Morley often played supporting roles in films (he didn't exactly have a leading-man physique), and I enjoyed seeing him get the opportunity to carry a story with a role that was perfectly suited for him.  If you're a fan of Wilde's work (or of Morley's), this is a really good way to spend an hour and a half.  But it'll pretty much have to be an accident for you to stumble across this film, so set your DVRs and commence to waiting.

4 / 5 - TV