Thursday, November 21, 2013

Men Are Such Fools - 1938

"Men Are Such Fools" - 1938
Dir. by Busby Berkeley - 1 hr. 9 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Men Are Such Fools" is exactly the kind of movie that I watch only because of the people involved.  It's a Humphrey Bogart film I hadn't seen, and it turned out that it was directed by Busby Berkeley, which I'm largely unfamiliar with other than by reputation (and most of that reputation was formed by the dream-sequence homage from "The Big Lebowski"), but at least I'd heard of him.  On the whole, the film hasn't aged particularly well (and by that, I mean watching a 1930's idea of flirting is kind of rough), but it was short, which was nice.

A mentally-challenged control freak with an explosive temper, Linda Lawrence (Priscilla Lane), works at an advertising agency, but has eyes on a larger role with her company, and writes some copy for something called "Fruit Tea," which she hopes will be her ticket to the top.  She finagles a dinner meeting with her weird boss, Mr. Bates (yes, really - played by Hugh Herbert), who is possibly supposed to be gay (he's kind of flamboyant, but otherwise asexual, unlike everyone else in the movie), but definitely has a speech impediment.  Her dim-witted stalker, Jimmy (Wayne Morris), horns in on the meeting, gets her drunk, and she mistakes her hangover for having fallen in love with him.  Despite this, Linda's manipulative side comes out, and she continues to use other men to make Jimmy jealous with ex-footballer rage.  Another suitor, Harry Galleon (Bogart), makes a play for her, which enrages Jimmy into knocking him out.  That's not the last hurdle for their relationship, though, and Jimmy must overcome both his drinking and general stupidity AND Linda's crazed need for control, incessant game-playing, and emotional unavailability to find happiness.

Maybe that's an uncharitable way to look at the plot, but when your main character always has to be right, and is completely incapable of compromise, and would rather play games with people than just be honest about what she wants, you'd probably have to admit that Linda is either literally a toddler, or merely has the intellectual capability of one.  This collection of traits isn't nearly as charming as anyone involved in the making of this film would hope, but at least Linda is systematically tortured by her choice in men.  Somehow, she falls for being publicly stalked by a dolt who proclaims his love for her nearly immediately (c'mon, she has to have heard that line before), proposes marriage to her by stalling his car on the train tracks in front of an oncoming train deliberately, and reacts to Harry's flirting by dragging her into a pool and repeatedly dunking her head under water.  In a train-wreck sort of way, these two are made for one another.  I can't help but think that if they'd just push those twin beds together every now and then (and yes, this was one of those movies where a married couple each have separate beds), both of them might not respond to adversity quite as explosively.

So look, if you've got any kind of feminist leaning, you're probably going to hate something in this film.  Heck, I even couldn't stand Jimmy, and found myself disappointed in Linda for falling for abuse.  But then again, I'm not really down with romance movies in general.  Rarely, one will click and be entertaining, but I just don't watch that many of them to begin with.  But then again, I watched this movie because Humphrey Bogart was in it, so it's hard to hold the romance plot again it.  Bogart doesn't have a starring role here, he's in perhaps ten or fifteen minutes of the film, which is one of the larger roles.  There are hints of what would come for him (this was three years before the release of "The Maltese Falcon"), particularly in his reluctant, weary proposal to Linda.  It's brief, but you could see from it how it might occur to someone to build an entire film around that tone and a doomed romance, which is a repeated theme in Bogart's best films.  Also, with Busby Berkeley's involvement, I wondered if there was going to be one of those ornate chorus girl sequences that's literally the only thing that I know about his work.  There wasn't, although there was a pool party (Bogart in a swimsuit!) and a couple of dancing scenes (not very choreographed, though).  In general, there just was a lot of soft-focus and fast-talking, so I don't think that I've got a good grasp yet on what exactly constitutes a "Busby Berkeley film."

"Men Are Such Fools" is not a great, or probably even a good movie.  It's like cotton candy, though, in that it's fluffy and inconsequential (if you discount the time you're going to have to spend on a treadmill burning off all that sugar), and kind of silly.  I watched it because Bogart's in it, and I got some Bogart, so no hard feelings.  If you never got around to watching this one, I don't think I could build a case that you were missing out on anything big.  It's possible that, if you're a fan of Priscilla Lane, you'd want to track this down (or if you were a Berkeley completist), but hey, no pressure.  We've all got a lot of things to do, and a lot of movies to watch, and if you're in the right mood to see a dim-witted stalker court a woman with the intelligence of a toddler, this might hit the spot.

2 / 5 - TV

Monday, November 18, 2013

InAPPropriate Comedy - 2013

"InAPPropriate Comedy" - 2013
Dir. by Vince Offer - 1 hr. 23 min.

Official Red Band Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I knew that "InAPPropriate Comedy" would be bad, I just didn't know how bad it would be.  As it turns out, it's pretty rough.  I can't get upset about the content of the film, it's pretty up front about exactly what kind of sense of humor is at work here; director (and Sham-Wow pitchman) Vince Offer is not trying to sneak anything by anyone.  One of the fundamental problems is that a sketch comedy movie is difficult to pull off, and this isn't "Kentucky Fried Movie" (or even "Jackass," for that matter), the other problem is that while Offer is trying to push the envelope as far as he can, the sketches sometimes forget that humor is the point of comedy.  Being offensive can be one tool to that end, but here, the material that was intended to be the most offensive (namely, the "Amazing Racist" sequences) doesn't really seem to work to serve any further purpose.

This is a sketch comedy movie, with a few recurring bits, so there's not much point in talking about plot.  Three recurring sketches run through the film, with a few one-off bits, so we'll talk about those.  Two of the bits are pretty decent, even if they're kind of one-joke premises.  "Blackass" (a ghetto-themed "Jackass" parody) works, sort on the same level that "Jackass" does, and if "InAPPropriate Comedy" had just been ninety minutes of "Blackass," it would have been a better movie.  There's also "Flirty Harry," a "Dirty Harry" spoof, starring Adrien Brody as a double-entendre-spouting, pink capri pant-wearing version of the Clint Eastwood character.  The Flirty Harry stuff works, chiefly because it doesn't overstay it's welcome, and hits all the big stuff you'd want to spoof if you were going to do a bit like this, and also because it's fun to see Adrien Brody doing something utterly stupid (I mean that as a compliment) with total commitment.

As for the third major recurring sketch, "The Amazing Racist," it's the part that I had the most trouble with.  This can be a tough concept to explain sufficiently, as I've tried to explain why South Park's Cartman's racist material isn't really racist (it comes down to Cartman looking like a buffoon for espousing the ideas, and his lack of credibility means that the things he says are immediately assumed to be without merit, which ultimately discredits the racist material) to family members, and I can't say they entirely get it.  It's a fine line to tread, and the material in this movie falls on the wrong side of it.  Most of the time, and I was unclear whether actor Ari Shaffir was generating the material with non-actors or not, but the vast bulk of the material came off as simple race-baiting.  I guess the joke is to figure out what would happen if you just went around saying the most racist things you could to people's faces, but there wasn't a larger point to it (or any sense that Shaffir was going to get his comeuppance - yes, there is a bit at the end that suggests otherwise, but that bit was clearly staged, and the others weren't).  Without making Shaffir the buffoon (it just felt more like being a bully than him saying things that he actually believed in that happened to be really offensive), and without a larger point being made, it's just some dude being a jerk to people.

Having said all of that, there were two things included in the "Racist" material that were pretty funny, even if they were minor details.  One had Shaffir ranting at the US/Mexico border, with the border fence behind him, only for the film crew to legitimately find a pair of presumably illegal immigrants actually in the act of sneaking across the border off in the distance.  The other point came after Shaffir had been assaulted by someone he had been baiting, and a policeman breaks up the fight.  Shaffir tries to explain that it's a hidden camera show, and when the cop asks not what he's doing, but whether or not he's got a filming permit.  It's a perfect Los Angeles question, and even better when Shaffir has to admit that he doesn't have the permit.  If it had been scripted it would have lent some legitimacy to the rest of the material; the implication is that he's going to be in more trouble for not having a filming permit than for offering black people free boat rides back to Africa.

This might seem like an excessive amount of thought to devote to what is most definitely not a good movie, not by any stretch of the imagination.  At the same time, I think that you can frequently learn more from failures than from successes; often times, great pieces of art are seamless in their construction.  This is the second sketch comedy movie that Vince Offer has done, and both are more notable for the actors that he convinced to get involved than for the actual material within.  I haven't seen "The Underground Comedy Movie," (aside from the late-night commercials for it that used to litter TV), but it might be time for Offer to see what happens if he directs a full-length movie that follows one plot.  I'm not going to pretend that I didn't get a few laughs out of this one, but there are too many one-joke premises (and the troublesome "Amazing Racist" material) and not enough made out of those premises to add up to much.  At the same time, I'm more sure than ever that Offer would be a riot to have a beer (or ten) with; how else to explain Adrien Brody, Michelle Rodriguez, Lindsay Lohan, and Rob Schneider getting involved here?

.5 / 5 - Streaming

Thor: The Dark World - 2013

"Thor: The Dark World" - 2013
Dir. by Alan Taylor - 1 hr. 52 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

It's not that I didn't enjoy watching "Thor: The Dark World," it's more of an issue that I'm becoming super-aware of the Marvel Comics movie formula; introduce where the characters are at, big battle number one, hero suffers, then big battle two.  Also, don't forget the post-credits scene.  By all means, don't fix what ain't broke, but after three Iron Mans, a Captain America, an Avengers, and now two Thors (and the very recent "The Wolverine"), what's on-screen had better be transcendent, or there's going to be a whiff of formula dragging things down.  If "T2" (as I'll be referring to this film for the duration of this review) had come out ten years ago, it would have been a game-changer.  As things stand, it's a good film.  Maybe not quite as good as the first "Thor," which I enjoyed far more than I figured I would, and better than almost all of the non-Avengers-related Marvel movies.  But if there's going to be another Thor, it damned well better have Beta-Ray Bill in it.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, a bad guy named Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) tries to end existence, using a red goo of a weapon called the aether, but is deterred, and the aether is hidden, too powerful to be in anyone's hands.  In modern day, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is in Asgard, being held responsible for his actions in "The Avengers."  Odin (Anthony Hopkins) dictates that he's to spend the rest of his life in a dungeon, without any contact with anyone else, until he dies, which is quite a long time indeed.  Thor (Chris Hemsworth), is out and about, quashing rebellions around the nine realms, which has left he and Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) separated and without communication for two years.  Jane, and her intern Darcy (Kat Dennings), and her intern, Ian (Jonathan Howard) stumble across some weirdness in an abandoned warehouse in London, which draws the attention of Malekith.  And fights.

If you're dealing with superhero movies, the two big questions are whether the action is up to snuff (it is), and whether or not the visuals are top-notch (and they are).  You could also hammer on casting, but seeing as how this is a sequel, you're either on board or not by this point (although I really like the cast of Thor, in general).  The "Thor" films both have a spectacular cosmic look, and Asgard is still an incredible visual.  Beyond that, the pair of battles with Malekith are engaging, and hold up.  While these are definitely strong points in "T2," they kind of have to be.  Like I said before, ten years ago, this kind of movie would have dropped jaws.  At this point in time, you can't really give too much credit for spectacular fights and visuals, because they're expected, and to fail to deliver them would be a complete dereliction of duty on the part of the filmmakers.

So then you get to whether or not the story holds up.  A huge part of the charm of the first one was watching Natalie Portman get flustered by a Norse God, and their dynamic shifts a little this time around (although not in a bad way, and it's not as if her character is unrecognizable).  One of the things that the Avengers line of movies have done well is provide a sense of continuity; Loki's situation is because of his actions in previous installments, and whatever has developed between various characters isn't just thrown away out of convenience.  At the core of this story is Thor being torn between duty and love, but the main impetus that drives the story is the usual bad guy getting ahold of a big-time weapon plot.  There are a couple of twists (to be expected when one of the main characters' superpower is the ability to cast illusions), but the plot isn't particularly clever on this front.  It is visually appealing, and works in a way that involves many characters, but since it's reasonable to expect that Thor isn't going to eat it before an "Avengers" sequel gets made, the stakes are necessarily not that high (despite what the story tries to convince you of).

In the absence of a compelling story with high stakes, the question becomes whether or not "T2" is a fun ride or not.  And it is.  The various characters have a fun dynamic, and the Asgardians provide the drama.  It's paced well, and the action is fun enough to watch, and the things that need to look really cool look really cool.  It is a fun ride, but it's not an indispensable chapter in the Avengers saga.  The first film was, as introducing the character and his role in the Marvel universe probably wouldn't have been satisfactorily explored had it been a subplot in "The Avengers."  This time around, "T2" is product.  Yes, it's well-crafted product, but by the end of these two hours, the larger Avengers story hasn't been advanced meaningfully.  To me, this is the first film in the Avengers cycle that you could skip without really affecting your enjoyment of the larger story.  You'd miss a fun movie that has some pretty good moments (at least a couple of which are because of Kat Dennings) and some great visuals, but when you go to "The Avengers 2," you're not going to have to ask whomever you're seeing it with why something involving Thor is happening.

3 / 5 - Theatre (3D)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Freaks - 1932

"Freaks" - 1932
Dir. by Tod Browning - 1 hr. 4 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I had heard of "Freaks" before, and decided to record it when it popped up on TV not too long ago.  I figured it would be good for a few laughs and maybe some decent surrealism, and not much more.  Instead, I stumbled across one of the most unsettling, emotionally wrenching, and just plain greatest films I've ever seen.

A sideshow barker is leading an audience on a tour of curiosities, and introduces the drawing point:  a woman who had been a beautiful trapeze artist, but now was reduced to freaking people out in a box.  We don't see her, but the barker promises to tell the story of how this woman got this way.  In a circus, the trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) notices that a dwarf, Hans (Harry Earles), has a crush on her, much to the consternation of Harry's fiancee, another dwarf named Frieda (Daisy Earles).  Most of the other circus performers just laugh at Hans behind his back (and sometimes to his face); Cleopatra schemes with her lover, Hercules (Henry Victor), conspire to swindle Hans out of his fortune through marriage.

The fact that pretty much the entire cast is comprised of circus freaks is something that you'll have to get used to very quickly.  I didn't find myself repulsed or anything, but this is a film comprised of some very unusual visuals (especially if you're used to seeing movies populated with uber-handsome and super-sexy actors and actresses).  But this isn't exactly gimmickry; maybe the advertising played things that way, but they're all still people, and even more importantly, they all have feelings and motivations.  I'd be lying if I said that a big part of why I found myself so upset with the story was that I didn't like the notion of a normal person taking advantage of a dwarf.  It wasn't so much that Hans was a dwarf, but "Freaks" gives off the impression very quickly that the circus sideshow performers were a very close knit group, partly out of necessity.  They've banded together and figured out a way to get by, and even have a sense of normalcy, despite how things might look from the outside.  There are a few scenes in "Freaks" that seem to exist only to show that many of these people were capable of living a day-to-day life (my favorites were the scene where an armless and legless man lights a cigarette by himself, and the scenes of a pair of conjoined twins being courted separately), and even if they're not relevant to the plot, humanizing these characters makes the developments of the plot resonate.

"Freaks" gets billed as a horror film, but to me, it plays more like a noir film.  Even though it's under odd circumstances, the love triangle/murder for profit is something that Humphrey Bogart could have dug into without much trouble.  And everyone more or less just goes about their business, except for the times where an outsider reminds them that they are outsiders (the best example of which was the "one of us" scene, where Cleopatra freaks out at being lumped in with these people, and goes on a drunk tirade that turns the entire circus against her).  And seeing the hurt on the circus people's faces at having their hospitality rejected was one of the high points of the film; you knew Cleopatra was done for then and there.  Another odd detail: I didn't notice a score of any kind during the film.  There are certain aural ideas that anyone would have if you were doing a film in a circus; instead, it's just always silent except for when people talk to each other.  That might not seem like much, but films rarely have an actual moment of silence.  The soundtracks are crowded from beginning to end, and I didn't realize how much that's the case until I watched a film with no music.  It's a vastly different experience.

I found myself completely drawn into "Freaks," feeling real disgust towards Cleopatra, shaking my head at Hans (but knowing how easy it would be to get drawn into Cleopatra's glamour, which wasn't something you'd see often in that milieu), feeling badly for Freida having to watch her love being snatched from her, and basically having to beg Cleopatra not to take advantage of Hans, like she was Dolly Parton singing "Jolene."  And I felt real delight when the circus folk decided to take care of business on their own, and I laughed out loud when Cleopatra's fate is revealed at the end.  Aside from that, "Freaks" isn't the kind of movie that just anyone would make.  Every once in a while, you'll see an idea that has to happen without movie stars and all the usual trappings of a Hollywood movie, and that's this film.  It's absolutely one of a kind.

5 / 5 - TV (HD)

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery - 1997

"Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" - 1997
Dir. by Jay Roach - 1 hr. 29 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

First, I acknowledge there is no way that anyone does, nor should care what I think about any of the "Austin Powers" movies.  For the record, I thought there were a number of funny bits, and it's been long enough since I'd seen it that the overexposure the franchise suffered from has eased a bit, and that it's popularity at the time makes sense - a bright, colorful, exuberant comedy against the somewhat monochromatic and dour nineties makes for a out-of-left-field hit.  And that even when Elizabeth Hurley isn't very good at acting, she's still a lot of fun to look at.

Part of the reason why no one would or should care about what anyone (I'm not singling myself out here) has to say about this film is that it was, at one point, inescapable.  Now, it's a few movies back on the list of giant comedies that every dolt quoted and ruined , to the point where I'm not even sure that people talk about Austin Powers any more.  Even Mike Myers has had another franchise ("Shrek") come and go since the three "Austin Powers" films.  You'd have to admit that both "Anchorman" and "Borat" have come and gone, displacing all the "yeah, baby" interjections with other non sequiturs.  At this point in time, though, if you weren't around for these movies, you might not have any awareness of them, and certainly not as the cultural phenomenons that they were.

That leaves the first "Powers" in an odd spot; most people who have seen it are sick of it, and those who haven't might as well be confronted with a weird indie film that no one wants to talk about.  I remember reading an interview with Outkast's Big Boi, talking about how weird it was that during the 1980's, you couldn't avoid Billy Ocean, but in the 2000's, he didn't exist any more.  It's that kind of phenomenon, where something goes from ubiquity to being in a weird blind spot that no one will acknowledge any more.

To be certain, the reputation of this film suffered at the hands of a pair of increasingly awful sequels that rode the comedic formulas from this film directly into the ground.  But this film is still okay.  There's a kind of comfort that comes from watching "Austin Powers," like listening to a radio hit from the past, and finding that you still know all the words years later.  There are no surprises, but it's comfort food, for when you don't want to be challenged.  It probably sucks to reduce a creative work to that, but if you weren't paying attention for the five years the film series comprised, you can't fathom how much this character was jammed down everyone's throats.  The series went from some weird film by an SNL refugee that blew up to something that companies were lining up to use to sell whatever crap they wanted to sell.  That journey, the one from outlier to corporate shill, that's the story that's most interesting about the character, especially with the benefit of not having to live contemporaneously with these films and their surrounding hype anymore.

3 / 5 - TV (HD)

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Crow - 1994

"The Crow" - 1994
Dir. by Alex Proyas - 1 hr. 42 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I didn't quite get around to rewatching "The Crow" on Halloween night, but one day late is better than not at all, right?  I'd really loved this film when I was younger (it hit me in a sweet spot, being a comic book fan and coming out when I was still in high school), watching it this time around produced a much different result.  Maybe it's a shift in perspective, but there are things that are apparent this time around that I hadn't focused on previously (namely that's it's basically "Dirty Harry" in goth trappings), and it wasn't as enjoyable of an experience.  I still enjoyed it, but not like I had before.

In Detroit, a young couple, Eric (Brandon Lee) and Shelly (Sofia Shinas) are murdered by a pack of scum, led by T-Bird (David Patrick Kelly), the night before their wedding.  A year later, Eric returns from the grave with supernatural powers to avenge his death, since the police never were able to get anyone to talk about what had happened.  Eric tears through the gang that murdered him and his fiancee, leading to a final showdown between he and Top Dollar (Michael Wincott) and his creepy half-sister, Myca (Bai Ling).

On paper, that doesn't look like much, but "The Crow" is long on style, and it's also a gothic-styled doomed romance.  In fact, there are about a million reasons why this is way more interesting than I've made it sound.  Part of it is the architecture and gloomy mood of the film (which weren't common at this point in time, except in big-budget movies like Tim Burton's "Batman" movies).  There's the real-life history of the source material; a graphic novel created by James O'Barr to cope with his own fiancee's death at the hands of a drunk driver.  There's also the history of the film itself, where star Brandon Lee was accidentally killed during the filming, by an improperly attended-to firearm, which was it's own tragedy.  Lee, the son of Bruce Lee, was filming his first decent movie (he'd done a couple of no-budget films with titles like "Laser Mission" and "Rapid Fire" before, and this was to be his breakthrough role), and really stepped up to the plate throughout "The Crow."  And beyond that, the soundtrack to "The Crow" is essential listening to anyone attempting to understand 90s alternative music, in the way one would probably consider the "Garden State" soundtrack an essential compliation to understanding the last ten years of understated indie music.

All of this adds up to a film with a distinct look and sound, stylish beyond it's era, and featuring a tantalizing taste of what Brandon Lee might have been able to do in future films, had things worked out differently.  These things are enough to make "The Crow" a successful film by any measure, and haven't been dulled by the two decades that have passed since it's release.  What has changed for me is that this is a fairly nihilistic film, where violence is met by bigger violence.  Surely, in the real world, crimes aren't always solved and criminals aren't always made to atone for their sins, and there's an undeniable thrill to seeing bad men meet a well-earned bad end, particularly at the hands of a stylish, charismatic man who's been done wrong in a spectacular fashion.  What this story is missing is the idea that violent revenge serves any purpose.  Yes, T-Bird and his crew die (violently, individually, and in terror), but judging by each man's determined self-destructive behavior, they all were slowly headed to the grave on their own.  Eric's actions actually shorten these men's suffering, although possibly keeping them from doing any more harm to anyone else.  But he doesn't come back to fix much of anything; his fiancee is gone, and the girl that had befriended the couple, Sarah (Rochelle Davis), only benefits in a sideways manner.

Like I wrote earlier, this ends up being a vigilante tale, "Dirty Harry" with pancake makeup and a Nine Inch Nails soundtrack.  The style is unique, the action spectacular (especially for a movie of this budget range), and there's momentary satisfaction in seeing justice meted out.  But it's short-lived, giving way to the sadness that permeates these characters' lives (and even the filmmakers' lives, considering Lee's death during filming).  Ultimately, no one's happy, and there doesn't seem to be any path to happiness for anyone, and I don't know what to make of that.  I'm willing to cut some slack, considering that the film had to be re-written and cobbled together from an incomplete shoot, but I feel like we've all been left with an incomplete thought, gaps obscured with style and noise.

3 / 5 - Streaming