Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Machine That Kills Bad People - 1952

"The Machine That Kills Bad People" - 1952
Dir. by Roberto Rossellini - 1 hr. 20 min.

Movie Clip

by Clayton Hollifield

I was lured into this one largely because of the bizarre, unwieldy title, "The Machine That Kills Bad People."  I'm not saying that I expected a murderous robot, but sometimes you just can't be sure until you watch the thing.  Also, I was aware that the title has been translated, and that the original Italian title probably sounds better.  I'm also unfamiliar with director Roberto Rossellini's work, although some quick Google-Fu reveals that he's someone that I probably should be more familiar with.  So watching "Machine" serves as my introduction to Rossellini's work, but is it a good introduction?  Well, there weren't any homicidal robots (spoiler!!!), but that's not make-or-break.

After a clever framing sequence, we're introduced to a small coastal Italian town, and some Americans who are returning after the war (that would be World War II) to buy up some land (currently the town cemetary!) and turn it into a resort for travellers.  They appear to run into an old man on a curvy road, but can't find hide nor hair of him, and continue on.  The town is the in the middle of a celebration for St. Andrew, which has ground everything to a halt.  The same old man that the Americans ran over appears, hale and healthy (sort of), in Celestino's (Gennaro Pisano), where he's begging for a place to stay for the night.  The entire town has St. Andrew on the brain, and Celestino thinks that the old man might be St. Andrew.  The old man shows Celestino a trick that allows Celestino to kill people with his camera (by taking a picture of a picture of someone).  Unfortunately, Celestino's judgment isn't perfect, and every time he kills someone, there are a lot of unintended consequences (mainly greed rearing it's ugly head), and he ends up having to kill someone else.

The first thing I was impressed with in "Machine" is the opening scene, a visually clever framing device that assembles the town out of cut-outs of buildings and people, before transitioning to the actual town.  I was less happy to see the device return at the conclusion of the film; I understand the bookend concept, but by the end of the story, having a omniscient narrator literally remove the pieces of the story that had just been told was an unwelcome reminder that the story was entirely artificial, which dulled the impact of the morality tale.   It might have been less jarring if the device had been revisited at any point during the meat of the story; as it was, I had forgotten about it until it reared it's head again at the end of the movie.

The story itself is basic, but effective.  It's a story of power corrupting, and greed getting in the way of anything good happening for anyone.  For me, it was functional, and was boosted by the great choice of setting, an Italian fishing town with seemingly endless amounts of stairs.  Visually, there's a lot to feast your eyes on, which is always nice.  And the comedy was solid.  Plus, the last act had a ton of people throwing around the sign of the horns; Ronnie James Dio would be proud.  My main problem with the story (and it's less of a "problem" than a glitch) was that the real story was about Celestino and his camera's drone strikes, and the story presents itself as something different.  We're introduced to the town through the planned machinations of the Americans, but their story ends up as not much more than having to shuffle from hotel to boarding house over and over again.  They're largely inconsequential to Celestino's story, whose reactions to examples of greed and selfishness (and his ability to punish those actions) make up the bulk of the movie.  By the time that becomes apparent, it seems in retrospect the Americans are there pretty much only to pad out the run time.  "The Machine That Kills Bad People" is already pretty slight at 80 minutes, and if they were excised from the film (along with the framing device, which I kind of like), it might barely be pushing an hour.

There's not much in the way of great performances, or unforgettable scenes in "Machine."  It's pretty good, a pleasant ride, and feels a lot like a stage play translated into a film.  But the setting is beautiful, and has Miss America 1946 (Marilyn Buferd) in what passed for a bikini in those days, and there are some laughs to be had.  From what I gather, "Machine" is important because the director did other important, memorable work, and without that this would just be some random Italian film about a camera that really will steal your soul.

2.5 / 5 - Streaming

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Big Sleep - 1946

"The Big Sleep" - 1946
Dir. by Howard Hawks - 1 hr. 54 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

Part of what makes the best Humphrey Bogart movies the best Humphrey Bogart movies is a distinct sense of setting; San Francisco in "The Maltese Falcon," the collection of displaced expatriates biding time in Rick's Cafe in "Casablanca," the hard-scrabble Mexican mining camp in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre."  The best of his movies couldn't have taken place anywhere other than exactly where they did, and Los Angeles is very much a relevant backdrop for "The Big Sleep."  Although there isn't much scenery shown, it's always looming just outside a window, and exerting it's influence on the characters living there.  The other thing that the best films have in common is a sense of inevitability; once you see how things are set up, there's really only one place Bogart and whomever is unfortunate enough to get tangled up with him can possibly end up.  It's kind of fun to watch the characters kick and scream and claw against their fate, but even they have an awareness of the road they're on.  In "The Big Sleep," once Bogey and Bacall size each other up for the first time on-screen, you know that the mystery isn't going to be the important part of the story.

Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is hired for a case by a reclusive, sickly man named General Sternwood (Charles Waldron).  Marlowe's been hired to clean up a mess caused by one of his daughters, the wild and flirty Carmen (Martha Vickers), but the other daughter, Vivian (Lauren Bacall) thinks there's an ulterior motive.  Upon his investigation, Marlowe stumbles upon the body of a blackmailer, and a drugged Carmen as his only company.  Marlowe attempts to get Carmen clear, thinking that she couldn't have been responsible for Geiger's death, but every step he takes entangles matters further and further, and more bodies pile up.

Seeing as how I consider this a flawless victory of a film, there's not much to criticize.  Sure, you could bemoan the fact that the mystery aspect of "The Big Sleep" doesn't end up making much sense, but you'd also probably be the kind of person who complains about not knowing how the bowling tournament ends up in "The Big Lebowski."  The film isn't really about solving the initial crime, other than it compels the characters to movement.  For me, it was enough to know that things were very tangled, and that pretty much no one is clean, and that I should probably just not worry about that and instead focus on the ambiance and the budding romance between Marlowe and Vivian.  All of the crime stuff really just exists to either force them apart or push them together at various intervals, and that's just fine by me.

I wouldn't advance the notion that Lauren Bacall wasn't particularly good in this film, either.  The truth of the matter is that she was good enough in her scenes with Bogart (their off-screen chemistry surely helped) that I had no problem with her.  I'm not sure that another actress could have simmered and bantered back and forth with Bogart as convincingly (I love the scene where Vivian calls the police, and then she and Marlowe start playing dumb with the police back and forth - it's like capturing and condensing the best first date ever into a few minutes of screen time), and since that's what really sells "The Big Sleep" as an all-time great film, any criticism is unimportant.  Having seen a number of Bogart's films, Bacall is the one great romantic foil for him (and I mean successful one, there are plenty of tragic ones, but that's not "The Big Sleep"), and that should count for something.  And it's not as if there's just one great scene between the two of them, there are a handful, and there's also the single greatest line reading of telling someone you're in love with them ever, with Vivian slumped down in her car seat, resigning herself to the fact that she's spent some effort trying to deny.

So with the Bacall stuff out of the way, it's also probably good to point out that Bogart is fantastic in this movie.  This was a Hays Code-era film, so the fact that he rolls around town like a panty-dropper supreme is mostly implied (although the look that bookstore clerk gives him should have been accompanied by an audible "sploosh" and the sound of Marlowe's pants being ripped off telepathically), but his trademark rakishness isn't dulled much.  Bogart's stock character is usually pretty prickly, even moreso when he likes someone, and Marlowe supplies no shortage of great lines to that service.  He's reminded repeatedly that he "takes chances," which must be the 1940's way of telling him to fornicate himself, and it must be said that he usually has earned such a rejoinder.  But beyond Bogart's acting, pretty much everyone is good here, particularly Martha Vickers, who's frequently intoxicated and always playing the coquette, and who's character has boiled the world down to being either cute or not cute.

"The Big Sleep" is one of those movies that's elements might seem fairly standard, but they come together in a way that feels very authentic and fun.  Not everyone get involved in a complicated murder plot (that's the fantasy element), but most people know what it's like to fall in love with someone.  The fact that it happens in an unlikely setting somehow makes it seem more real than in many romance movies, where the romance is the full focus of the plot.  The fact that it's Bogey and Bacall elevates it, partly because it was real, partly because Bogey's so antagonistic that you can feel the pull when he starts including Bacall in his games instead of aiming them at her.  The result is one of the top tier of films that Bogart appeared in, maybe not the absolute finest, but in the top handful for certain, and always an absolute delight to watch.

5 / 5 - TV (HD)

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Running Man - 1987

"The Running Man" - 1987
Dir. by Paul Michael Glaser - 1 hr. 41 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I know that Arnold Schwarzenegger's acting is just one of those things that's never going to get any respect, but I'll be damned if his films aren't still entertaining.  All things considered, they probably shouldn't be (especially if your lead actor isn't a very good actor, by traditional measures), but they usually are.  "The Running Man" comes reasonably early in Schwarzenegger's peak run (he'd done the "Conan" films and the first "Terminator" by this point), and while it's not among his very best films, it's still pretty good.

In the year 2017, everything has broken down, and America is a police state, full of food riots and banned albums.  Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger) is a policeman, piloting a helicopter to survey one of the riots in Bakersfied, running 1,500 strong.  He's ordered to open fire on the defenseless crowd and refuses, but his fellow officers overcome him and follow orders, leaving the slaghter to be pinned on Ben.  He's sent to a work camp, where prisoners wear explosive necklaces to keep them from escaping.  Finally, a few men figure out how to disarm the necklaces and escape back to the urban hellscape.  Ultimately, Ben is rounded up trying to escape the country with the credentials of a woman, Amber Mendez (Maria Conchita Alonso), who has taken Ben's brother's apartment over, whom he kidnaps as cover.  It is at this point where Ben is offered a choice by Killian (Richard Dawson), a television producer/host: be a contestant on the country's most popular game show, "The Running Man," or the men who escaped with Ben will have to compete in his place.  The game show is pretty simple; convicts are supplied to try to run the course in three hours, and if they are able to fight off the Stalkers and do so, they will be granted freedom.  Ben accepts, but promises aren't kept, and things go sideways.

While "The Running Man" is pretty violent (you will see a man's head explode, sort of), it's also a sharp satire of its culture of the time.  Although the idea that contemporary entertainment is too violent and degrading is a constant refrain (I mean, the Bible was pretty violent and ugly at times, and that's not exactly a new book), the notion of a life-or-death game show is one that's taken hold in popular culture.  I'm not saying the idea originated here; 1975's "Death Race 2000" certainly treads some of the same water.  But I can't watch this movie without immediately thinking about "American Gladiators," a TV show that similarly employed physical violence from fitness models and athletes using aggressive stage names to deter contestants from completing a physically-demanding course.  This film also takes sharp jabs at everything from amorality of producing entertainment to the then-current Senate hearings over explicit popular music.  For a movie featuring copious blood and gore (although much of the blood's impact is lessened through the use of color filters, which redden an entire scene, which removes a lot of the visual contrast the blood ought to provide), there's actually a little something here.

In terms of the acting, well, Arnold is Arnold.  His name is right there on the poster, so if you're choosing to see "The Running Man," you knew what you were getting in for, and no complaints will be heard.  And even if he's not what you would call a classically-trained actor, he does have a physical presence, charisma, and pretty good timing.  And on top of that, I always enjoy a bit of glee listening to him swear through his Austrian accent.  Beyond that, Richard Dawson not only does a good job with the sleazy game-show host Killian, his casting is stunt-casting that actually works.  This role came pretty close after a solid decade of hosting "The Family Feud," so turning a real game-show host into a sleazy, manipulative jackass in the exact same role is a fun way of both an actor bringing good baggage to a role, and messing with people's expectations of a particular actor.  And Jesse Ventura has a run smaller role as Mr. Freedom, a stalker turned exercise-tape hawker.  The only other actor with a substantial role is Maria Conchita Alonso, and she brings a pitch-perfect 80's-girl look, but not much else.  There's a kind of train wreck element to watching her and Arnold wade through their respective accents to communicate, but they don't share a lot of chemistry.

On the whole, you've got to just kick back and enjoy "The Running Man" for what it is.  In some ways, it's a throwback to 70's science fiction films, with a big concept that's explored.  Some of the elements of this film haven't aged well (or have aged so poorly as to have become completely awesome), and some weren't great to begin with.  But it's fun, and there's some intelligence at play here even behind the violence and vulgarity, and that goes a long way.

3 / 5 - TV (HD)

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Wolverine - 2013

"The Wolverine" - 2013
Dir. by James Mangold - 2 hrs. 6 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

As bad as "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" was, that's about how good 80% of "The Wolverine" is.  And "Origins" was absolutely terrible, a waste of both the character and of Hugh Jackman.  Thankfully, the 20% that's left of "The Wolverine" wasn't bad, but more or less standard super-hero movie material, so that still adds up to a pretty darned good film.

In case you haven't been following the Wolverine character in the four previous films he's appeared in (well, more than that if you include cameos), um, you might want to catch up.  Following a scene from World War II, Wolverine, aka Logan (Hugh Jackman) has turned into a woodsman in the current day, in the sense that he lives on the mountainside in Alaska (I think).  He's retreated from society in the wake of the previous movies, but is struck by a sense of moral outrage when some hunters injure a bear, but not badly enough to kill it outright.  Logan has to put the bear out of it's misery, and then heads into town to confront the only surviving hunter at a bar.  There, a young girl with bright red hair named Yukio (Rila Fukushima) intervenes, and eventually reveals that she's been trying to find Logan for a year.  She bears a gift, and requests (on the behalf of her employer) that Logan return to Japan so that Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) can properly thank Logan for sparing his life in the past, since Yashida is now dying.

One of the things that makes "The Wolverine" engrossing is that the film shows a good grasp of what makes the character interesting.  The character may be a super-hero, and may have powers, but that's maybe the least interesting thing about Wolverine.  He's a man with a past, and barely functions around other people.  Logan would be content to be left alone, but sometimes that's just not possible.  When he relents, bad things usually happen.  A large theme in "The Wolverine" is the idea of trying to deal with one's past, and how to move forward.  For a character that's largely invulnerable to physical harm, he's very vulnerable personally.  He's literally haunted by the ghost of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), a woman that he loved deeply before things got complicated (you're going to have to watch the previous X-Men films to get a good grasp of the whole story), and unable to find a reason to move forward.  Yashida at one point calls Logan a ronin, which cuts to the bone of the matter.  Everything that Logan had wanted has been destroyed, and he doesn't see any reason to move forward, which kind of sucks when you're basically immortal.  His nightly dreams are nightmares, with his former love urging him to join her (presumably in the afterlife, although things are usually more complicated when you're dealing with mutants), the X-Men goal has dissipated, and everyone he touches ends up dying.

This is a much more fascinating character than when he's involved in standard heroics and battles.  I'm down for a good superhero fight, but the things that are interesting about Wolverine get lost in that dynamic.  Thankfully, much of the movie understands that, and everything is more about personal dynamics and relationships, with great backdrops (Alaska at first, then Japan) and the opportunity for spectacular action sequences.  There are three big action sequences, and two out of the three are fantastic.  The last is the least of the three, sort of your basic third act throw-down that has become standard issue in comic book movies.  It's not bad by any means, and it's a culmination of a confusing series of double-crosses where alliances shift very quickly.  But at the same time, after watching Wolverine try to run through a town against a fleet of ninjas to get to the castle, seeing him fight a giant robot and a lizard chick in the standard-issue superhero third act location of a giant laboratory is frustrating; until this point, there's been a decidedly Japanese flavor to the settings that adds a lot to how awesome everything looks, and that's gone once Logan enters the castle.

However, the other two action scenes are fantastic, the first one especially so.  It starts with an attempted kidnapping of Yashida's granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto) at a funeral, and turns into a chase across Tokyo, and then morphs into a battle atop a bullet train, which is literally one of the most nail-biting, spectacular action scenes I've ever watched.  There's no point in talking about it beyond that, if you don't enjoy anything else about "The Wolverine," this sequence is worth the price of admission on it's own.

There's a lot of good things about "The Wolverine," but you should probably expect that at this point.  Hugh Jackman owns this character, and the entire cast does a good job.  I thought that, aside from both films coming out in the same year, the fairest movie to compare this one to would be "Iron Man 3."  Both are deep sequels, so the characters have a lot of backstory to build upon, and both movies move the characters forward while using the events that came before in a meaningful way.  It was a great relief to have another satisfying Wolverine movie after "Origins," and I'm ready to see where Wolverine ends up next, which I couldn't say after the last installment.  And you'll probably feel the same way, especially if you keep watching until after the credits end, which you should already know to do with Marvel Comics movies.

3.5 / 5 - Theatre (2D)

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Virtuosity - 1995

"Virtuosity" - 1995
Dir. by Brett Leonard - 1 hr. 46 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I keep wavering on whether "Virtuosity" is a complete waste of time, or if it's just something okay that I shouldn't get all that worked up about.  I think the reason that the "waste of time" thought keeps running through my head is that it was a decent idea with a decent cast, and yet nothing meaningful comes of it.  But is that a useful way to think about a generic Hollywood movie?  Does "Virtuosity" aspire to be anything more than something that occasionally looks cool and a unchallenging way to pass a couple of hours?  Must everything be art?  Or is it okay just to exist without any additional purpose?

Some software company is using prisoners to test out their virtual reality program (and the virtual characters within).  Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington) and John Donovan (Costas Mandylor) are policeman, tracking down a serial killer named SID (Russell Crowe), but something goes wrong, and SID is able to actually kill Donovan.  Parker is sent back to prison, and his whole "troubled past" thing comes out in whole pretty quickly, waiting only for Parker to get into a prison fight with a white supremacist buddy of Donovan's.  And since this was made in the 1990s, the software people are complete sociopaths, and one of them figures out a way to make SID real, and sets him loose on Los Angeles.  At this point, everyone figures that Parker is the only man who has any real experience with SID, so they bust him out of the pokey and give him back his badge, and he and this psychiatrist chick, Dr. Madison Carter (Kelly Lynch) team up to chase SID down.

The main positives here are that Denzel Washington is pretty good at what he does (acting, in case you wondered), and so is Russell Crowe.  I don't remember ever having seen Crowe before "L.A. Confidential," and I'm not sure that his being the main villain made any difference to audiences back then, but even here Crowe is clearly a movie star just waiting to blow up.  There's also quite a bit of gloss to this film, and you might consider the first chunk of "Virtuosity" to be a precursor to "Crank," in blending life and gaming in a feature film.

Unlike a lot of computer movies, the computer-y stuff is pretty much contained to the first act, after which the movie turns into a more conventional pursuit film.  There's a lot of technobabble, and other than SID letting you know that his character is 50 terabytes big, there aren't many of those oh-so-fun "you think 1.44 MB is a lot of storage?!?" moments to be found.  If you're looking for a digital slice of the times, there isn't much in that vein, either.  There is a club scene that offers some fun visuals (if you know what "smart drugs" are, or went to Lollapalooza when it still toured, it's pretty fun).  There's also an early UFC appearance, although I'm not sure the filmmakers really understood how UFC worked, as there were always four men inside the cage, and I'm not sure that UFC has ever fully embraced the idea of tag-team ultimate fighting.  The idea of crossing the barrier between reality and virtual reality is a very 90's idea, although it's not meaningfully explored here, it's just an excuse to let loose a flashy, amoral serial killer.  And, of course, being a mid-90s film, even though it pulled an R-rating, there's nothing in the way of sexuality presented (or even a little bit of playfulness).  The lead actress, Kelly Lynch, plays the entire movie in a boxy gray pantsuit, and even though Traci Lords has a cameo in the club scene, she's covered neck-to-toe (in latex, but wasn't that really the latex-covered era?).

But then, I have to balance the decent performances from the lead actors and decent idea with the fact that there's not really anything about "Virtuosity" that isn't completely stock (TM Lars Ulrich).  The story is pretty straightforward, there's no real chemistry between the male and female leads, and the only butt they show is Russell Crowe's, in a bout of nude tai chi in a computer lab.  The execution is solid (although the swoopy pointless helicopter shot at the very end pissed me off in it's needlessness), but for what?  I've certainly enjoyed dumb films before, as well as ones that weren't very ambitious.  But usually, that's offset by some kind of charm, the kind of charm that "Virtuosity" lacks.  Denzel broods, Crowe struts (to a Bee Gee's song once, through a swap meet, which was pretty awesome), Kelly Lynch doesn't do a lot other than look gray and formless.  I know that theoretically I'm supposed to want to see the bad guy receive justice, but I mostly didn't (and not because I was rooting for SID, but just because I didn't care a lot one way or another).  Being roused to ambivalence is probably not the exact result that the people who made "Virtuosity" was aiming for.

1.5 / 5 - TV (HD)

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Chaperone - 2011

"The Chaperone" - 2011
Dir. by Stephen Herek - 1 hr. 43 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

So look, I'm partially to blame for this.  I keep subjecting myself to these WWE movies, knowing full well that they're likely to be completely awful.  Usually, I'm pleasantly surprised by the fact that they aren't 100% awful, but "The Chaperone" is the first one where I actually question what the point of making the film is in the first place.  I get that they're generally low-budget filler, and that no one's aiming too high for the most part.  I get that.   I get that they're trying to cruise on the appeal of whoever the star is, and that wrestling fans might want to see a movie starring that guy.  But "The Chaperone" is the kind of movie that fails to deliver anything approaching what it promises, from any angle.

Ray-Ray Brownstone (Paul "Triple H" Levesque) emerges from prison a changed man, thanks to the platitudes of radio show host Dr. Marjorie (Lucy Webb).  Up first on the agenda is patching things up with the wife, Lynne (Annabeth Gish), and daughter, Sally (Ariel Winter), that he left behind, right after he convinces people to stop calling him Ray-Ray, and start just calling him Ray.  But they're bitter, and his ex-colleagues are pressuring him to take up his old profession, being the best damned getaway driver anyone in Louisiana has ever seen.  Due to a mix-up, Ray ends up chaperoning a trip to New Orleans that his angry daughter is on, and his crime buddies are after him, too, with evil intentions.  Will Ray reconcile with his family and escape the clutches of his nefarious colleagues, or will evil prevail and will Ray duplicate back into Ray-Ray?  Only one hour and forty-three minutes stands between you finding out the answer to that question.

Lookit, I don't aim to just pointlessly shit all over movies.  That's not really my "thing" here.  I try to give praise where praise is due, and I focus a lot on the mechanics of storytelling because that's the main thing that I pay attention to when watching movies.  I'd love to faintly praise this film and tell you that it was competently done, even if not all that exciting or surprising.  But I can't even do that, because there was a soundtrack mistake that was so amateurish and badly timed that it damns the rest of the film.  To be clear, I'm talking about a street sequence in New Orleans, where Ray is trying to return a duffle bag to two baddies, and the tense background music starts, but it starts with a drum hit that sounds like gunfire.  No one in the film is shooting guns at this point, but the drum hit is so confusing that it took me a few seconds to figure out that I hadn't missed some random street shooting, that no one had been shot, and that the reason no one on-screen was reacting to the apparent gunfire was because it was just the drums in the soundtrack.  In a movie where people are routinely pulling guns (even though it's a comedy), it took me completely out of the movie, and left me shaking my head that no one involved with this film had noticed at how it made it look like no one was paying attention at any point during the production and editing of "The Chaperone."  More things that back up my point: the fact that no one's clothes fit well, Levesque's prison beard, and Kevin Corrigan's hair.

But there are more reasons that I feel like no one was paying any attention whatsoever, at any point.  Chief among them is that I can't figure out who this film was supposed to please.  If you're a fan of WWE and of Triple H, are you excited to see Triple H deal with ex-wife bitter beer face and a teenager talking down to him?  Is that the film you want to see Triple H in?  There's hardly any fight scenes at all, and they're pretty perfunctory when they happen.  So there's no satisfaction there.  If you're just a fan of mindless comedies, this isn't funny enough, nor is Triple H a strong enough personality to carry things on that basis, unlike Adam "Edge" Copeland in "Bending the Rules."  If you're a fan of muscly men on a bus full of fourteen year-olds, you're probably a pedophile, and "The Chaperone" isn't going to satisfy on that account, either.  Even in the context of the film, Ray is billed as being a fantastic driver, and the closest we get to see of that is him driving a bus over a curb, and him letting his daughter steer his car in a flashback sequence.  Put plainly, there isn't enough "WWE stuff" to make wrestling fans happy, and the movie simply isn't good enough to warrant attention from non-wrestling fans.  And if there's another way to find interest in "The Chaperone," rest assured that you'll finish this film with the cinematic equivalent of blue balls.

So I don't know why "The Chaperone" exists.  It's filler, but even by WWE Studios standards, it's not particularly good filler.  I was unbelievably disappointed to find out that this film was directed by Stephen Herek, who's responsible for one of my favorite films of all time, "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure," among other films.  I don't think it's impossible to deliver something mildly entertaining starring Levesque, and with this general concept, but things needed to get a lot weirder, and a lot quicker.  There seems to be no awareness that seeing a big-time professional wrestler get run down by a jilted wife and kid isn't a set-up anyone who would go see that wrestler in a movie wants (and that people who are fans of Triple H might like a couple of fun, awesome movies with him before we get to the "The Tooth Fairy"/"The Pacifier" stage of his screen career), unless it ends in Triple H pedigree-ing the crap out of everyone in sight.  And, although this might be considered a mild spoiler, Triple H does not Pedigree anyone at all.  So what's the point?  I couldn't find one, and I'm not sure anyone involved here could tell you either.

.5 / 5 - TV (HD)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Videodrome - 1983

"Videodrome" - 1983
Dir. by David Cronenberg - 1 hr. 27 min.

Original Theatrical Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

The number of times that I've actually been freaked out by a movie is pretty low.  I distinctly remember watching "A Clockwork Orange" in high school with a friend late one Saturday night, and having a terror-filled late-night drive back home.  I don't remember anything recently having that kind of effect (I mean, I hated "The Doom Generation," but it didn't freak me out), until watching "Videodrome."  And to think, it had just been sitting there innocently on my DVR for months, pretending there was nothing abnormal about it, and that it was just another movie and not a messed up fever dream.  But "Videodrome" was lying to me about being nothing unusual, lying so hard that there ought to be a law.

Max Renn (James Woods) is a programmer for a UHF station in Toronto, and his network specializes in sleazy programming (the kind other networks won't air).  His techie, Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), comes across something called "Videodrome" on a pirate satellite transmission, and the images of straightforward torture immediately spellbinds Max.  Max sets about finding out who is responsible for it, so that he can air it, but this proves to be a difficult nut to crack.  He and his girlfriend, Nicki (Deborah Harry) watch the tape one night, and she's so into it that she bolts her job to try and get on the show (she's kinky that way).  At the same time, Max starts going a little bit crazy, experiencing hallucinations of growing intensity.  Max finds a thread about who's responsible for "Videodrome," but this just raises bigger questions.

"Videodrome" comes off like a surreal paranoid horror film.  Although the surreal elements grow throughout the run-time, it's not like the movie starts off normal and then ends up really weird.  It's pretty weird to begin with; Max is kind of an unrepentant pornographer of sorts (that's slightly overstating things, but he's not procuring Christian programming by any means).  And we're almost immediately introduced to the kind of flesh-centric programming that he's looking for.  Much of the sexual content is bundled up with pain of some kind, and I'll admit that it was unnerving to see Blondie asking Max to stab her with a Swiss Army Knife, and even more so to watch her burn one of her breasts with a lit cigarette.  Max participates, although there's a little unease about it, it's not clear that he's entirely comfortable with pushing these boundaries in his real life.  And this was even before Max's viewpoint becomes unreliable; when Nicki sees the torture tape, she's like a moth drawn to a flame.  That's fairly hardcore content, stuff that's designed to push emotional buttons: there aren't many films where the chief female character is overtly, sexually explicitly masochistic.  At least I don't remember Meg Ryan doing any roles like that.

But once the conspiracy plot starts to take hold, things really go off the rails.  Max's hallucinations grow, but are real at the same time.  For me, the "holy shit" moment was when Max develops storage capabilities in his sternum, and leaves a gun in there (to be retrieved later, and used, which is part of the epic mindfuck of "Videodrome").  That's hardly the craziest thing here, but it's the point where I sat there with my mouth open, wondering what the heck I was watching.  There were at least a couple of other moments that had the same effect, including the ending, but the whole stew of horror, sexuality, machinery, and violence seems chemically engineered to work it's way into every viewer's head and mess with whatever you've got going on up there.

One interesting element of the film came early on, during a panel interview that included Max, a provocative woman dressed in red, and a man named Prof. Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley), who appears only on a TV screen, on a TV on the set of the talk show.  An argument is advanced about technology overwhelming people into a state of over-stimulation, which I thought was kind of comical, considering that this movie was made thirty years ago.  But it makes a larger point, that there is always an element of society that feels like they're losing control over their own lives to "progress," but the fact is that argument pops up continuously over the years.  Maybe the argument is right, but the amount of information and technology that we're all expected to juggle hasn't ever regressed, so it's a meaningless point.  The movie itself is summed up here; if the technology exists, someone will use it.  Doesn't matter if the result is good, bad, or indifferent, if it can be done, someone will do it.  Although "Videodrome" appears to be condemning the advances of machine's ability to influence man, it might better be viewed as a warning to keep up or get trampled.

There are a lot of ways "Videodrome" could have gone wrong, but it's a focused, pointed film that is more interested in raising questions than answering them.  The acting is universally good, with everyone feeling a little bit off (and James Woods' usual bluster comes off more like trying to cope with what's going on around him this time, which works very well).  This is just unusual, a very unusual movie, one that actually tries to make a point, but by the end, it's not clear who's side the narrative has been supporting.  But a point has been made, nonetheless.

4 / 5 - TV (HD)

Monday, October 14, 2013

Mad Max - 1979

"Mad Max" - 1979
Dir. by George Miller - 1 hr. 28 min.

Theatrical Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

You know that you're in for a great time when the intro credits to a movie tell you that there's going to be a character named "The Toecutter."  There are many other reasons to enjoy "Mad Max," but having a character with that name definitely promises an unusual (probably trashy) movie.  And, I've got to admit, it would be highly unlikely that any of us would have heard of this film at all if it didn't deliver on that promise.  Oh, but it does.  It's like the perfect storm of low-brow entertainment, and resulting stew is so much better than it has any right to be.

Sometime in the near future, Australia is in the grips of a gas shortage, which makes keeping law and order difficult.  The Nightrider (Vincent Gil) and his girl have gone terminal psycho and stolen a police cruiser, with which they are leading the police on a high-speed chase, all the while spouting AC/DC lyrics over the police band and sweating profusely.  Most of the police aren't up to the Nightrider's skills, but Max (Mel Gibson) is, and when he takes over the pursuit, it ends in twisted steel and flames.  You'd think no one would be that upset about the Nightrider's passing, but he belonged to a biker gang, led by the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), an intelligent, yet crazed man with spectacular hair and eye make-up.  And Toecutter is very upset about Nightrider's death, therefore his gang is used to extract revenge from the police in general, with Max as the ultimate target.

There are a lot of things to like about "Mad Max," but there is also the very real possibility that this film might exceed your threshold for violence.  Some of the worst things that happen do so off-screen (which doesn't really help), but there are also a lot of graphic, shocking elements on full-display here.  And, this being a low-budget independent feature (it cost less than $500k to make, which was still not a big budget for a film in 1979), the shocking things aren't a matter of effects, or super-loud explosions (although things do blow up).  This is not the sort of film where Max suffers and turns the other cheek, instead it's one where a man is pushed past his breaking point, and then responds in kind.  So if you're looking for a positive message, know that you're not going to find it here, and that if you need that in your entertainment, you might want to skip ahead in the series to the much less challenging "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome."

With the disclaimer out of the way, let's dig in.

Maybe the most important thing about "Mad Max" is that the story just works.  It's not a complicated story, but it is one where you can understand where each of the main characters are coming from.  The police are struggling to maintain order, the biker gang does what biker gangs do (all the way back to "The Wild One" and then some), and that's terrorize wherever they descend upon, and simple-mindedly seek revenge whenever they're wronged.  Max is trying to get by, and when the bikers up the ante, there's no choice but to see the battle to a final conclusion.  There's some question as the movie goes along if anyone's ever going to come to their senses, but it's not really that kind of movie (in the same way that "Dirty Harry" doesn't have a scene of Clint Eastwood trying to get troubled teens to try harder in school, and then helping them with their homework).  I can help but think that the slightly unusual setting (to American audiences) and accents help sell that this world is a possibility; American audiences might not be able to suspend disbelief as easily if the world "Mad Max" is set in was more familiar in its details.

One of the fascinating details to this film is that there are long stretches that don't have star Mel Gibson in them.  One grows so accustomed to seeing movies built around "star roles," where the audience will presumably grow bored and wander out of the theatre if Brad Pitt isn't on screen for more than a minute or two that seeing a filmmaker that just tells his story the way he wants to is refreshing.  There are two things to note about that, though.  At this point in Mel Gibson's career, he wasn't much of a star (this was only his second film).  And secondly, this is very much a "Harry Lime" kind of star role, where his presence in the story makes a difference as to what's going to happen.  But my point stands, it's fascinating to watch a movie that isn't structured exactly the same as others.

If you like car movies, you're probably going to like "Mad Max."  Part of what's interesting is seeing cars that look like American muscle cars (customized, of course), but with variations peculiar to Australia (like having the steering wheel on the right side of the cars).  There are tons of footage of these cars (and motorcycles) racing across what must be an endless supply of flat, open space down under.  Director George Miller favors a very low camera angle (possibly bumper-mounted or off the fender of a car), so you really do get a POV sense from a lot of the shots, and there are times where I really felt in the middle of things.  There's also no shortage of car-crashes (both police and non-police cars, and there's also demolition of cars by hand) throughout the film, which is pretty important to the car-chase dynamic.

Over the years, "Mad Max" has held a lot of it's potency to shock.  There are little cartoon-y moments that let you know that it's okay to laugh at this sort of ultra-violence (there are two identical very brief shots, in separate parts of the film, where a characters eyes bug out right before he drives into something that's going to explode and take him with it), and the characters never seem to break the fourth wall.  That they're all taking the events seriously helps; breaking the fourth wall can make this sort of film unbearable.  If violence isn't supposed to be disturbing, but mere entertainment, it can feel nihilistic.  In the case of "Mad Max," the sense that you're supposed to laugh at the big violence, but also understand why the characters are doing what they're doing is the key to enjoying the film, and not feeling like you've been pounded into the filthy ground by torture porn.  The final scene is a great example of this (as well as another "Dirty Harry" moment); the bad guy doesn't even really see himself as being bad (although he's been led further down that path that he'd have liked by Toecutter, as shown earlier) even though the audience surely feels differently, and he's presented with a satisfying comeuppance.  There are two messed-up choices, and the real question is whether he's got the stomach to continue on like he has been.  It's a moral quandary, but also left me laughing at the awfulness of the situation.  That, right there, sums up "Mad Max."

4 / 5 - TV (HD)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Dave Chappelle's Block Party - 2005

"Dave Chappelle's Block Party" - 2005
Dir. by Michel Gondry - 1 hr. 43 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Documentary films can be a strange beast - often they're filmed to document something that's happening that might not be getting the attention it ought to.  "Dave Chappelle's Block Party" is a different kind of film; the event was created in order to make a film about it.  That's surely not the only purpose behind "Block Party," those are myriad.  It's a notable film because, firstly, the music is fantastic, and also because it's the sort of thing that maybe only Dave Chappelle could pull off at this specific point in time, because of his level of fame and because of the musicians that he organically knew.  The result is a snapshot of a time when there was a lot of goodwill between a group of musicians, and when Chappelle wanted to do something cool for people, and could pull it off.

There's not much purpose talking about the plot here; "Block Party" is comprised of three elements.  There's the musical performances, there's interviews and rehearsal footage, and there's the times where Chappelle is wandering around, just talking to people.  How much you enjoy the music might depend on how much you enjoy the particular acts featured.  And part of that will depend on how you view rap music, something that Chappelle addresses a couple of times.  One local Brooklyn woman says that she doesn't enjoy it because of the foul language, which seems like a lame surface stereotype of rap music (and particularly of some of the acts included in the film), but when the interview butts up against Chappelle swearing freely during comedy bits (as well as unedited musical performances), it becomes a bigger criticism.  Aside from dead prez and a very early Kanye West, none of the musical acts in this lineup are what you'd consider confrontational or hardcore (I mean, we're talking about acts like the Fugees, whose biggest hit was a reworking of a Roberta Flack song, the Roots, who are now Jimmy Fallon's late-night house band, and Erykah Badu - this is an eclectic and somewhat artsy batch of musicians).  

But director Michel Gondry lets the woman raise the point, and doesn't try to ease up on the harsh language afterwards to try and make the woman look silly.  The question hangs in the air; is this merely a cultural divide, artists either not having the awareness of what their actions look like or just not caring that they're alienating people, or is the hypersensitivity of language some sort of coded racist criticism towards a surface detail of urban black music?  This might seem like a minor detail to a performance film, but it's an important one.  There's no real attempt to provide a concrete answer, and I don't think there's an easy one available.  I suspect one of the reasons that so many artists signed on for this film is that it was conceived as a genuine attempt to unite people, to reach out through music to provide something memorable and fun for people that might not get that opportunity often.  But even so, every piece of art is not for everyone, and sometimes you just can't get past whatever resistance has already been established.

A big part of the charm of "Block Party" is that the cool moments keep popping up.  There are musical moments that are meaningful, like the Fugees re-uniting to headline the whole she-bang (it was just supposed to be Lauryn Hill, but her record label refused to clear her solo songs for use in the movie, so she figured out a work-around).  The Fugees don't even seem to get along here; there's a halting, carefully-worded rehearsal interview with all three, where all three members are careful not to say anything that might scuttle the next day's performance.  But when they take the stage, it's magical, and it's easy to see why fans are frustrated with their inactivity.  There are also small moments, like seeing Chappelle talking with area kids at a youth center, or wandering through a giant, bizarre house with it's owners, that are spell-binding.  But the other big cool moment involves Chappellle coming across a college marching band in his hometown in central Ohio, and decided to invite them to come to the Brooklyn show.  It's touch-and-go, but the charter buses get paid for and everything works out, and the band gets to perform "Jesus Walks" with Kanye West (!).  

"Dave Chappelle's Block Party" captures a moment where a lot of things seemed possible, a moment of optimism and enthusiasm and unity.  It was supposed to be a feel-good event, and it certainly comes off that way.  But watching this film now, it's frustrating to know what would be in store for some of the people involved, particularly the two central figures.  This was kind of Chappelle's last hurrah before retreating (some day, someone's going to write a book about Chappelle's last ten years, and it's going to be required reading), and you could arguably say the same thing about Lauryn Hill, except she'd already retreated at the point in time when this film was made, and is only now hesitantly popping her head back up, and not entirely because she wants to.  But the music is top-notch, the film flies by, and if this isn't quite "Wattstax," it's a worthwhile snapshot of a musical scene, with an appreciative audience enjoying a good time.  

4 / 5 - TV

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Army of Darkness - 1992

"Army of Darkness" - 1992
Dir. by Sam Raimi - 1 hr. 21 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Army of Darkness" is a tough one to write about.  Either you get it or you don't.  I have, at various times, fallen into both camps.  This is actually one of the very few films I've ever walked out on from a theatre (I'm claiming extenuating circumstances), but upon re-watching it, it made a lot more sense.  It's just difficult to watch a comedy in an giant, mostly empty theatre, and without any frame of reference for what goes on here.  I'd certainly never seen anything like it (including the two "Evil Dead" films that preceded it), and I've never been big on horror films anyways.

Ash (Bruce Campbell) goes on a camping trip with his girlfriend Linda (Bridget Fonda) in the woods, but they are attacked by something that kills Linda and sends Ash and his Buick back in time to the medieval era.  He's rounded up with some other enemies of Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert), and is thrown in the pit to die.  Instead, Ash survives, and takes over Lord Arthur's village.  There is only one way to return Ash to his time: retrieve the Necronomicon.  Ash must quest to retrieve this unholy book, at which point he'll be able to return to his own time, and his own job at the S-Mart.

That might not sound like the greatest movie ever made, but this is a comedy foremost (and not one of those comedies that gets mileage out of pointing out anachronisms and the conventions of the genre), so the best stuff is hard to explain in words.  Maybe the quickest explanation is that this is like a Three Stooges movie, but with skeletons and demons and the such.  And the hero isn't much of a hero, he's pretty much 100% asshole, so when he suffers misfortune, the audience doesn't have much trouble enjoying seeing him take a fork in the rear-end.  And since the hero is Bruce Campbell (and this is the role where he became "Bruce Campbell"), you'll end up yelling about your boom-stick for days after you finish watching "Army of Darkness."

The key here is that "Army of Darkness" is a film that's distinguishing feature is director Sam Raimi's personality - very aggressive camera work, overblown (in a good way) acting and effects, all on top of a genre film.  There are parts that might sound funny when described (like Ash battling an army of tiny versions of himself inside of a windmill), but the actual visual approach taken by Raimi amplifies these scenes into something riotous.  And it works well, partly because it's grafted onto a genre that's not particularly realistic to begin with, and it also celebrates and distracts from the low-budget nature of "Army of Darkness."  If you can't afford to make a glossy film, for heaven's sake, pick up the freaking camera and move it around some!  There's no need for loving, languid takes that will just expose that you're using puppets and skeleton masks.  Instead, Raimi's take is to introduce dynamism and energy into every take, and to use P.O.V. shots whenever possible.

The entire film is over-the-top, and energetically so, and it's that full-tilt commitment to the absurdity here that makes it nearly a great film.  In terms of entertainment value, if you're of a certain attitude and disposition, this is definitely a great film.  It still blows me away that the guy who did the "Evil Dead" series is also the guy who got the chance to helm the blockbuster "Spider-Man" franchise, and we got a couple of top tier super-hero films out of the three.  But at the same time, I found it hard to believe that the guy who made "Meet the Feebles" got the chance to make "King Kong" and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.  So, if you know Sam Raimi only from his bigger movies, check out the youthful energy and enthusiasm of "Army of Darkness," and you'll be quoting along with Ash in no time.

4 / 5 - TV (HD)

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Red 2 - 2013

"Red 2" - 2013
Dir. by Dean Parisot - 1 hr. 56 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There is one particular reason that I often enjoy sequels as much as the first installment in a franchise: the introductions are out of the way, and the film can just go ahead and tell a story without trying to figure out ten different "meet cutes."  So, as much as the first "Red" was surprisingly enjoyable (the comic book source material was very, very slight, and the movie rounded things out in positive way), it's nice to get down to the business of just telling a story with those characters.  On the flip side of that, once you start adding numbers after the title, there's got to be a reason for each particular story to exist on a big screen and as an isolated, infrequent event, and not just be a really good episode of a TV series.

Frank (Bruce Willis) and Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) have settled into domesticity (displayed here by a trip to Costco), although it seems that Sarah isn't as into it as Frank is.  Marvin (John Malkovich) pops up in an aisle to warn Frank that all three of them have been turned into targets, on the basis of a mission back in the 1970's that went astray.  Frank blows him off, but then Marvin's car blows up in the parking lot, so he kind of has to take Marvin at his word.  And when highly-skilled people start coming after Frank, he's forced to try to get to the bottom of things, which involves a lot of world-wide travel and spies trying to outwit one another.

Probably the best thing about "Red 2" is that it's kind of turned into a buddy movie between Frank and Marvin, and now Sarah wants to join in on the fun.  Mary-Louise Parker isn't playing a kidnap victim here, she's not content with being protected and staying in the car.  That shift is very welcome, not only because I'm half in love with Parker, but because she adds a different element to what can be a very macho profession.  Honestly, she's got all the best acting material in the movie, from frustration at not being allowed to play with everyone else, to enjoying the thrill of accomplishing something risky, to outright jealousy of Catherine Zeta-Jones' Russian spy character.  Bruce Willis pretty much glides along with that look of his, where he can't quite believe what the other people around him are doing, and John Malkovich gets all of the best lines, but mainly because he's a little brain-damaged here.  If that sounds a little by-the-numbers, well, it's only the second movie in the franchise, so it's okay to ride the established dynamic for a little while.  And seeing these actors slip into the roles with ease is one of the joys of watching the film.

Some of the other characters don't have as much to do, although watching Victoria (Helen Mirren) and Ivan (Brian Cox) getting some rare alone time, and being completely over the moon to be in each other's company is a lot of fun.  Anthony Hopkins gets to show up and be Anthony Hopkins, which works.  The best of the new characters is Han (Byung-hun Lee), who is hired to come after Frank.  He starts off as a typical super-serious Asian assassin (Korean, to be specific), but by the end of the film has evolved into a fun character, one I'd like to see more of.  I don't think I'd seen him before, but looking at his filmography, his work here almost makes me want to watch the "G.I. Joe" movies.

But while "Red 2" is an enjoyable ride (I mean, if you liked the first, I'd be surprised if you found the sequel not to be up to par), that pesky TV show/movie dilemma raises it's head.  Probably the biggest reason "Red 2" couldn't be a TV show is the cast; I find it unlikely that anyone could fund this cast for a season of a TV show, and roughly 90% of the appeal to these movies is the chemistry between these specific actors.  But it terms of what is actually presented, I didn't find a compelling reason to get to the theatre (I saw this at a second run theatre) and throw down my hard-earned Hamilton to check it out.  What I ended up seeing was enjoyable, and I'd be ready to see a third installment if things come to that (and if Mary-Louise Parker is part of it), and I don't have any large complaints about the film.  It's solid entertainment with a good cast and stuff blowing up, and it's a more charming movie than many spy/action movies are.  It also feels content with being charming and a pleasant way to pass a couple of hours, and not much more.

2.5 / 5 - Theatre

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Wreck-It Ralph - 2012

"Wreck-It Ralph" - 2012
Dir. by Rich Moore - 1 hr. 48 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

A clever idea goes a long way with animated movies, and "Wreck-It Ralph" is based on a very clever idea: what happens when the arcade closes?  Even better than that, instead of having a standard hero adventure through various video game landscapes, the protagonist is a video-game villain who is unhappy with how the other characters in his game treat him.  All of this adds up to a Disney movie that doesn't really feel like a "Disney Movie," which is about as strong of a compliment that I can offer.

Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the villain in the game "Fix-It Felix," which bears a strong resemblance to "Rampage."  Ralph breaks things (and he's really good at that), and Felix (voiced by Jack McBrayer) fixes them with his magic hammer.  But when the arcade closes, Ralph goes back home to live in a literal garbage dump, while all the other characters throw a 30th anniversary party without him.  Ralph decides to confront Felix at the party; just because he's the bad guy doesn't mean that they have to treat him like a bad guy.  Unfortunately, Ralph is too big and ends up accidentally wrecking things, and storms out of the party swearing vowing to win a medal so that he can also be a hero.  All of the video games are connected in a common world, so Ralph sets out to find a game where his particular skills can be useful instead of awful.

One of the great things about "Ralph" is that there are actual video game characters present.  It would have been possible to create knock-offs for all of it, and the audience would still know what was going on, but it's a small delight to see Q-Bert and Zangief in the same world as the fictional characters.  It lends credibility to the whole idea.  Also, the fictional game worlds feel pretty fleshed out, particularly in the case of Sugar Rush (a candy-themed racing game).  It makes me really want to play a game in these worlds (although a quick peek at Wikipedia suggests that the games based on this movie weren't anything special), and the idea behind this movie suggests almost endless possibilities for future installments.

To me, one of the strongest points was the decision to focus on a villain as the main character.  Although it's made pretty clear that Ralph isn't really mean-spirited so much as thin-skinned (and is constantly being put in environments that are simply too small for him to exist safely in), this runs contrary to what I think of when I think of a Disney cartoon.  Ralph isn't a princess, this isn't some far-flung exotic locale (at least not in the standard Disney mold), and it isn't really a romance story (Ralph's relationship with Vanellope, voiced by Sarah Silverman, is a father/daughter one, and the other romance story here is very much a side-plot).  The larger point is that Ralph doesn't fit in his world, and the people around him shun him as a result.  That's usually played for laughs, but Ralph's main motivation is that he's tired of being left out of everything, and that no one even thinks twice about it.  He's a villain out of convenience, not necessarily out of disposition.

"Wreck-It Ralph" is a solid movie, and holds entertainment value for more than just children.  Part of the appeal is the thoughts that any gamer has had floating through their head at some point: wouldn't it be cool if this guy was in that game?  There have been crossover games, but "Ralph" teases a few crossovers that make me wish for a new batch of games and scenarios.  But beyond that, the story is pretty good, the worlds are fleshed out well, and the entire idea is approached from a novel angle.  I wouldn't say that there was anything particularly special about the animation or voice work (other than John C. Reilly, who really makes you feel for his character, and I don't think that comes down to the writing or the animation), but the different worlds are handled well.  That adds up to a fun movie, and I'll keep my eyes peeled for the inevitable sequel.

3.5 / 5 - TV

Friday, October 4, 2013

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 - 2013

"Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2" - 2013
Dir. by Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn - 1 hr. 35 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

My admission: I didn't see the first "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" movie.  There are only so many kid's films that I can drag my girlfriend to as a buffer from being that one creepy guy going to see a kid's film by himself, and that wasn't one of them.  This is the burden of being an adult animation buff.  I just hoped that there wasn't some intricate plot-line that I wasn't going to grasp by starting with the sequel.  Thankfully, things made enough sense.  I'm not going to pretend that this is the greatest animated film I've ever seen, and my take on it is probably not relevant to how it's supposed to play with it's intended audience (like, kids, man), but I did enjoy some things about "Cloudy 2."

Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader) starts the movie triumphant, surrounded by friends and family (and giant food).  He's quickly offered a job in San Franjose by his hero, Chester V (Will Forte), to work at one of those giant idea tanks (like a cross between Google and Apple) called Live Corp, but initially struggles with his attempts to become a full-fledged member of the Live Corp family.  Chester needs a disposable inventor for a particular mission, and settles on Flint.  So Flint (and his crew of friends and family) return to Swallow Falls, which has turned into a jungle populated with foodimals (like a Tacodile, for instance), to fix the FLDSMDFR (the computer that Flint invented, and is modifying food items into something new).

Probably the one thing that I enjoyed more than anything about "Cloudy 2" was the set design and background work.  If that sounds like faint praise, maybe it is, but whoever designed the environments that Flint et al exist in (particularly in Swallow Falls) really knocked it out of the park.  There are a number of visual stunners throughout.  Some have to do with the environment, like inside the Rock Candy Mountain, and some are just riots of color, like when Flint's party in a box explodes.  There are a range of color schemes, as well, including some of the jungle material, which borrows from black-light posters (not exactly literally, but there's some sinister day-glo action there, foliage colored in pinks and purples, used to great effect).  Also of note: the foodimals' character design is universally fantastic, to the point where my girlfriend kept squealing, "Kawaii!"  Lastly, full props for the credit sequence at the end, drawn in the style of a "Little Golden Book."  It's five minutes of undistilled awesome, and even if you don't watch the entirety of "Cloudy 2," it's worth watching this.  I couldn't help thinking that I'd kill to see an entire film animated in this style (that's only barely an exaggeration), but I guess traditional animation techniques and style is only good for kitschy end pieces these days.

So Clay, you might be asking, if your praise is limited to background and secondary elements, what's the problem here?  Allow me to preface.  For me, getting lost in the fantastic settings and adorable creatures roaming around in them was enough for me to have a good time.  But I love animation (and it's associated cousin of cartooning, in general), and seeing one aspect done exceptionally well can be enough to get me through an hour and a half.  For instance, I wasn't particularly taken with "Ponyo," but director Hayao Miyazaki's varying animated treatments of water was spellbinding, and visually fascinating enough to carry the film for me.  But if you need me to dig into the more prominent elements of "Cloudy 2," I consider that a fair request.

Quick answer: there's a lot of stuff here's that not particularly above average.  The plot had some visual flair, but it's a "stick by your bros" story, and not much else.  With only one exception (for some reason, the ape voiced by Kristen Schaal was awesome, but maybe it was just the side ponytail on an ape that made it work), the character design was depressingly stock (TM Lars Ulrich), and the character animation was largely not that interesting.  Maybe the directors realized that, as there's a habit of having a third character doing something silly in the background whenever two characters had to deliver some dialogue that didn't have any real visual elements.  Even the voice actors really didn't make much of a difference (and I like some of them, in a general sense) over just having a professional voice actor do the work (other than Schaal, who has a distinct voice that works beautifully for animation).  But it's still kind of fun, and a lot of the jokes land (if you're in the right mood to enjoy them - no frowns allowed).

The upshot is this: the prominent elements in "Cloudy 2" are super bland and indistinct, but exist in a stunningly beautiful environment.  For kids, maybe that works well.  For me, I can just get lost in the environments, wait for one of the jokes to click, and enjoy things that way.  For anyone else, this probably isn't going to hold up to the 8th or 212th viewing (because kids like to re-watch things to a psychotic level).  But if you can manage to see it only once or twice, it's a mixed bag that ends up being just north of okay.

3 / 5 - Theatre