Monday, December 30, 2013

Fast & Furious 6 - 2013

"Fast & Furious 6" - 2013
Dir. by Justin Lin - 2 hrs. 10 min.

Official Trailer #1

by Clayton Hollifield

However many years ago, it would have seemed absurd to think that a movie about musclehead gearheads would still be a viable franchise, six films deep.  Improbable, at the least.  But sure enough, there's enough history here that twists and turns keep coming.  If you caught the last little bit of the fifth movie, after the credits, you'd know that the hook for "Fast & Furious 6" is that Letty is not, in fact, dead.  Considering that the fourth film in the series was about Letty's murder, that's kind of a big deal.  And you know some things are givens, like guns and cars being driven very, very fast.

Following a precision heist in London, Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and his new sidekick, Riley (Gina Carano), feel that their best course of action is to enlist Dominic (Vin Diesel) and his crew to go head to head with the thieves.  There are two lures; the first is a round of full pardons all around, the second comes in an envelope bearing week-old photos of Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who is not only not dead, but working for this outlaw crew.  Since this is a matter of family (plus Brian (Paul Walker) has just had a baby with Mia (Jordana Brewster)), most of the gang (minus the Dominicans) is reassembled to go after Shaw (Luke Evans) and his crew.

So the elephant in the room is Paul Walker's recent death via car accident.  I didn't have a difficult time watching "Fast 6" because of that, mostly being because nearly every film I've seen him in involved him driving very, very fast.  It would have been weirder if he had only done one movie like this, and then had tragedy strike.  But, of course, your mileage may vary on this issue.  The thought did cross my mind once or twice, but most of the big driving sequences didn't involve Walker; the focus this time around was more on Vin Diesel's character, and his interactions with Letty.

On the whole, I liked this film.  I do think it was a bit of a step backwards from the fourth and fifth films in the series; I'm not sure having Dominic and his crew working with the government was a good look for any of them.  Hobbs, as a character, wasn't really advanced here, and didn't really go head-to-head with anyone.  The fifth movie established him as a bad-ass, but that wasn't really explored here.  Instead, he kind of backed up Dominic, and didn't go head-to-head with Shaw; that was left up to Dominic, as well.  A lot of the action was good (I'll get into that more in a second), but I don't think that the stuff with the tank matched up to the last act of the fifth movie (the bit in Brazil), which was probably the best sequence in the entire series.  I guess my main gripe is that "Fast 6" was more of a traditional action movie, full of shootouts and fist-fights and people jumping out of things onto things, with lip service paid to the draw of a lot of these films: street racing and awesome cars.

It makes sense to have a couple of hand-combat scenes if you're going to introduce Gina Carano as a character, and both were pretty good (although, I'll freely admit that I watch fighting scenes secretly hoping someone starts using professional wrestling moves, and I was pleased at least twice during this film).  I wasn't as thrilled by the driving scenes; neither of the car-based scenes really reached that next level that you'd want to see.  The stuff with the airplane was pretty cool (cool being the basic unit of measurement for action sequences), but didn't fit in with the idea I had of these characters going in.  I was caught up in the action while watching it, but immediately questioned it upon finishing the movie.  And just like the fifth installment, there is a short scene at the end of the film to try and hook viewers for the seventh (and final) installment.  However, there was a fundamental flaw with the execution of that scene which undermined it's effectiveness.  I'm tap-dancing around spoilers here; a scene earlier in the film mirrored the end scene, and brings into question if what you are seeing really happened the way you think it should, or if it's just going to be a repeat of that earlier scene.  This wasn't a problem that popped up when I was thinking about the scene later on.  As I was watching this sequence, I was more confused (in a bad way) than excited to see what was going to come of it.

So I liked this film generally, even if I wasn't completely satisfied by it.  My gripes about the story deviating from what I expect out of a "Fast & the Furious" movie are mitigated by the fact that a sixth movie in a series being of any quality at all is shocking, and unlikely.  Truthfully, after watching this one, I was a little relieved to find out that the next installment is intended to be the last one.  I don't know if they have run this well dry, but it's a possibility, and taking the time to wrap things up rather than continue a slide into mediocrity indefinitely feels like a very good choice.  I'm looking forward to one more last time, one more time.

3 / 5 - Blu-Ray (Theatrical Version)

Summer School - 1987

"Summer School" - 1987
Dir. by Carl Reiner - 1 hr. 37 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There are movies, that for the life of me, I couldn't explain why I wanted to watch.  Worse, I've seen "Summer School" more than once, so I should know better.  I don't even really have much nostalgia for the '80s, either.  I guess what I could say is that, when "The Family Guy" makes jokes about '80s movie formulas, this movie right here is what they're talking about.  And yet, in about thirty ways, this movie could have been so, so much worse, that you almost have to respect the talent it took for a movie about a proto-slacker beach bum discovering his joy for teaching amidst a group of misfits stuck having to go to summer school because they're all really stupid to not entirely suck, credits to credits.

Freddy Shoop (Mark Harmon) is a high school phys ed teacher who gets wrangled into teaching summer school English by virtue of being the last teacher out of the parking lot on the last day, because the guy who was supposed to teach that class won a scratch-it lottery (which must have paid out a lot better back then) and blows it off last second.  The class he's inherited include a narcoleptic, a pregnant girl, a dumb jock, a frequently inebriated pair of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" fans (who do a paper, jointly, on Rick Baker), a hot foreign girl, a nerdy kid with no neck, and a surfer chick who wants to be Freddy's Lolita.  Freddy quickly gets in trouble, and tries to save his job with a wager; if all of Freddy's students pass the English test they all had to fail to get stuck in this situation, he gets to keep his job.  And oh yeah, the teacher that ends up helping Freddy (and that Freddy is sweet on) is dating the Vice Principal, who hates Freddy.

There's two main things that make "Summer School" bearable: Mark Harmon and Kirstie Alley.  Harmon's character could easily be a boor, very easily be wholly unlikable, and yet, doesn't ever come off that way.  I'm not saying you're going to love Freddy Shoop, but if you take the character as written, there are so many pitfalls that an actor could have fallen into (like playing his naivety as manipulative, or self-serving, or as a run-of-the-mill horndog, for instances), and any of them would have wrecked the film.  On the second point, at this point in time, it might be difficult to remember Kirstie Alley as anything other than tabloid fodder.  But in 1987, she was at the peak of her comedic powers.  This movie must've been made right before she started on "Cheers," and before she made a string of comedies that are the very definition of what a low budget comedy looked like in its time (like "Look Who's Talking" and "Madhouse"), but she was something special as a comedic actress.  For her part, her not being easy to win over was believable, and believable motivation for Harmon's character.  It's a pretty straight-forward role, the girl who motivates the guy to do better, but she comes off like someone you'd actually try harder for (rather than just being a piece of arm candy), and brings some intelligence to the movie, and in a way that's not annoying or off-putting.  Plus, this:

As for the rest of it, there's definitely some capital-h Hijinks.  Part of Freddy's deal to get the kids to work harder is that he'll do each of them a favor, which involves things like driving lessons, an in-class screening of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," a bed for the sleepy guy, an unexplained solo trip to a strip club on Ladies' Night, being a tackling dummy, subbing in as a Lamaze coach, and so much more.  The good news is that eventually everyone gets a taste for learning, and it's not entirely a bribery situation.  And it's an '80s movie, so you know that the stuffy Vice Principal is going to get his comeuppance.  I mean, this is the textbook for the formula.  There's even a montage!

I always kind of want to hate this movie, but I just can't do it.  It's kind of funny, it's well put together.  I know I'll probably break down and watch it again someday.  All the reasons that I want to dislike it for are the things that hold up best - the utterly '80s-ness of the whole thing, the stock characters and plot.  But within that, everyone does their job with more enthusiasm and charm than was strictly necessary, and that goes a long way, especially in a comedy.  So I can't hate "Summer School" at all.  Besides, a dude on roller skates and wearing only short shorts getting thrown in jail?  That's probably always going to be funny.

2 / 5 - Streaming

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Escape Plan - 2013

"Escape Plan" - 2013
Dir. by Mikael Hafstrom - 1 hr. 55 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollfield

First off, Sylvester Stallone has a really lumpy face.  That's actually an asset in films like this, but it stood out upon watching "Escape Plan," and I thought I'd get that out of the way.  Also of note, "Escape Plan" isn't going to go down in the top handful of films that either Stallone or co-star Arnold Schwarzenegger has done, but at the same time, it wasn't "Wild Hogs" or "Space Cowboys," with constant jokes about how old the stars are, and their assortments of balms and ointments.  Instead, this is a straight-up thriller, basically physically solving a seemingly unsolvable puzzle, and makes good use of the people involved, and if you're down with this sort of thing, you won't regret watching it.

Ray Breslin (Stallone) make a living escaping from prisons.  Like, super max security prisons, even from solitary confinement.  He owns a security consulting firm built around selling his particular skill-set to those who would need it, abetted by his "techno-thug," Hush (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson), resident female skeptic, Abigail (Amy Ryan), and business specialist, Lester Clark (Vincent D'Onofrio).  A woman comes in with a dodgy offer, claiming to be from the C.I.A., but with impossible and unfriendly circumstances, and yet with a sufficiently attractive fistful of dollars.  So a day later, Ray is abducted and thrown into a very daunting and harsh prison.  Upon landing in the prison, Emil (Schwarzenegger) slowly befriends Ray, and they work together to first figure out where the hell they are, and then to find a way out of where they are.

I joked ahead of time that I was going to be sorely disappointed if there weren't any explosions here, and that nearly happened.  "Escape Plan" relies a lot more heavily on tension, and personal physical violence (and a pressing system) than pyrotechnics.  And even though both Stallone and Schwarzenegger are clearly still in pretty good shape, it's not a shirtless kind of movie, nor a wall-to-wall action kind of movie.  This is about solving a puzzle when there seemingly aren't any clues to start with, and surviving the circumstances.  While I found the set-up interesting (at least interesting enough to catch the movie in the first place), I can't say that the film gives you a chance to solve things for yourself.  Honestly, the solutions are too complicated to do that, but when Ray breaks out of the first prison (to show you that he's really good at this, instead of just telling you that and hoping you'll take their word for it), I think viewers will find themselves more amazed that this character can make something out of nearly nothing than seeing the puzzle and having the character beat them to a solution.

The suspense of the bigger job that Ray is hired for is enough to carry the movie.  Although both stars bust off a couple of good one-liners along the way, this is also not the kind of free-wheeling, blowing up everything while caring not even a little bit kind of film.  I bring this up because a big part of why someone would want to go see "Escape Plan" is also the same reason that the two "Expendables" movies have done well - nostalgia.  And this film is not like a lost production from the 1980s.  To everyone's credit, they are not just trying to repackage an old product and pass it off as being fresh; they've made a movie where the main characters are older because they are, and they're not trying to pretend they're not.  "Escape Plan" also doesn't feel like the sort of movie that could have starred anyone.  If it were Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson here, you might question if either of them were really smart enough to be an escape artist, specializing in impossible situations (no insult to either, but neither man has made a career playing brilliant men to date).  The main annoyance I had was that the people who had weird quirks were immediately obviously bad guys (because they had quirks instead of death glares), but I can't get too mad about it.  This is not a stage production of "Hamlet."

On the whole, I was glad that I caught "Escape Plan," and especially on a big screen.  It's not going to blow anyone's mind, it's probably not going to be in line for any year-end awards.  But it's intended to be a couple of hours of entertainment, preferably for people who have enjoyed Stallone's and Schwarzenegger's work over the years, and who don't feel the need to nitpick things to death.  I mean, it's Rambo and the Terminator side-by-side, and that's pretty cool.  I can't imagine needing to watch it again, but there are always colds and viruses floating around, and oddball movies on cable all around the clock.

2 / 5 - Theatre

Saturday, December 28, 2013

In a Lonely Place - 1950

"In a Lonely Place" - 1950
Dir. by Nicholas Ray - 1 hr. 34 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

There's a top tier of Humphrey Bogart films, films like "The Maltese Falcon," or "The Big Sleep," or "Casablanca," that are not only fine work, but stand at the top of film history.  There's also some fluff, inconsequential films that every actor has to their credit.  "In a Lonely Place" is a notch below Bogart's best work, yet still stands up as a really good movie; one you'd want to track down once you got the biggest hits of Bogart's career out of the way.  It's a very solid film noir, expertly directed by Nicholas Ray (who would go on to direct "Rebel Without a Cause" a handful of years later), and with a strong streak of fatalism, where even joy is tempered by the suspicion that something is lurking in the immediate future.

Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a screenwriter, and a pretty successful one.  But he's been unable to write much lately, and is having an adaptation of a novel pressed on him by his agent, Mel (Art Smith).  Dix isn't particularly interested, not just in this project, but in much of anything.  He seems to approach life with a bemused detachment, which people frequently take the wrong way.  Dixon's solution: the coat-check girl, Mildred (Martha Stewart - no, not that one), has read the book, so he takes her back to his apartment to tell him the story, thus avoiding having to read it himself.  After getting the gist of the story, he sends her off to the nearest taxi stand and a fistful of cash, to get home.  She never makes it there, getting abducted and murdered in the wee hours of the morning.  Dixon is the obvious suspect, having taken her home from the restaurant she worked in, under what sounds like a bizarre pretext.  Through the course of the investigation, Dixon is introduced to one of his neighbors, a low-level actress named Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), and their meeting proves fortuitous.

There are a few things that are going to jump out about this film to modern audiences.  First is that the main character, Dixon, isn't particularly likable.  Bogart had a weird ability to play unlikable characters who do bad things, and still make you care about him.  Dixon is a volatile, controlling man who lays hands on people more than once, but those are the only moments where he really breaks out of his detachment from emotional responses, and his detachment baffles people around him.  Honestly, a lot of this character, and the other character's reactions to Dixon, seem to come straight from Albert Camus' "The Stranger," which was also sort of a crime story, despite it's reputation as a work of philosophy.  He doesn't have much sympathy for anyone around him, only coming alive to violence.  The crux of the story is that while we, the audience, know that Dixon didn't commit the murder, no one else does in the story.  For Laurel, who finds herself entwined in a romantic relationship with Dixon, the question of where Dixon's line is gnaws at her conscience.

The crime aspect of the story is secondary to Dixon and Laurel's relationship.  Dixon is established as difficult, but Laurel herself is fleeing another relationship, and spends a good deal of effort at keeping people at arm's length.  Either of them pursuing any relationship would seem to be built on shaky ground, but they can't help themselves.  And then, when doubts start creeping into Laurel's mind, she can't help that either.  The whole thing is doomed from the start.  The third act of "In a Lonely Place" is absolutely phenomenal; claustrophobic, full of delusions, the stakes growing larger, impending doom, and knowing that any joy in life is temporary.  The climax of the film (which I won't spoil) takes place in Laurel's apartment, and it just kicks my ass every time I see this film (this is the fourth or fifth time I've watched it).  When you see two admittedly flawed people going all in to try and make something work, only to be undone by timing and outside forces, it's not hard to see this being a pattern in both characters' lives, and it's very easy to understand exactly why they are the way they are.

There's a pair of quotes from this movie that jump out.  The biggest is a line that Dixon has in mind for the screenplay he's writing, but sums up this movie better.  He says, "I was born when she kissed me.  I died when she left me.  I lived a few weeks while she was with me."  It's a fantastic line, and resonant in it's context - both characters are aware that they're living on borrowed time.  But equally good comes in a scene where Laurel, who doesn't really have any friends, confides in Dixon's policeman friend's wife that she was scared, and that she had gone there to have someone laugh at her fears.  But with growing terror, Laurel says, "But you're not laughing."  It's the turning point, where Laurel isn't a girlfriend, but a caged animal looking for escape.

"In a Lonely Place" isn't quite on par with the top noir films, or Bogart's best films (but not much is), but it's a fantastic story with unique characters, and full of emotion.  It's only flaw is that it has Bogart in it, and was directed by Nicholas Ray; it's only second-best by comparison.  But it's a movie that I keep returning to over and over, both one of the most romantic and one of the most emotionally crushing movies I've ever seen.  I'm not saying that you need a box of tissues at hand, but it might not hurt to have one or two handy when things start wrapping up.

4 / 5 - TV

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - 2013

"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" - 2013
Dir. by Peter Jackson - 2 hrs. 41 min.

Trailer #3

by Clayton Hollifield

Going into the second movie of a trilogy, you have to know that you're in for the bummer installment.  In a three-act story, the end of the second act should set in motion whatever needs to be resolved in the third act.  Usually, movies aren't sprawling trilogies, and this all plays out over the course of a couple of hours (instead of seven or eight, when we're all done and before the extended versions hit home video).  If you want to see the template for this, you can consult the original Star Wars trilogy, where "The Empire Strikes Back" is the bummer movie.  So, entering "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" (and much of a downer title is that?), you should expect that things are not going to end up well for Gandalf, Bilbo, and the thirteen dwarves.  So no complaining!

On the heels of the first film, we find Gandalf (Ian McKellan), Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and the rest of the dirty dozen on the precipice of a giant forest that must be traversed due to time constraints.  Gandalf abandons the crew when something more pressing pops up, and the dwarves end up imprisoned in Elvish prisons, but still make friends.  When they escape, thanks to Bilbo's ingenuity, they continue their quest to reach the Lonely Mountain, and the dwarves can reclaim their ancestral land from a giant, possibly slumbering dragon named Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch).

If you're familiar with the book, you'll know that this is the segment that contains both the giant evil spiders, and the escape down a river in wine barrels.  And, since Smaug is in the title of the movie, it's not really a spoiler to say that you'll also finally get a good look at the dragon (and all the riches he's hoarding).  Gandalf also has a solitary battle at a castle, which is separate from the rest of the dwarves and Bilbo's quest.  In terms of the overall tone, the first installment was more light-hearted than this one, but then again, number two out of three has to be the bummer movie.  What hasn't changed is the flair for exotic, vast settings, but a lot of them take place in vast, yet confining places (there was a lot of open space in the first installment).  In terms of the big pieces, I found the giant spider material a little underwhelming, not quite up to what comes across in the book.  On the other hand, the wine-barrel escape was spectacular, one of those action sequences that starts out well, tops itself, and then tops itself again after you think there's nowhere further to go.

Part of the joy of these films is seeing places that you've read about, and getting to nose around in them a bit.  The forest is appropriately awful and maddening, the wood elves' land is as interesting as any of the kingdoms shown in the first film.  The Harbor town, Esgaroth, is a foggy and grim place, ruled by a corrupt king played by Stephen Fry.  And finally, inside the Lonely Mountain lays untold riches and a foul-tempered dragon, and it's as awesome as if Uncle Scrooge's Money Pit had come to life.  Heck, even the bar that the film opens in, with a meeting between Thorin and Gandalf, is exactly the kind of bar I'd love to kill a few drinks in.  The entire world is appealing, and unique, and detailed, and widely varied.  This is the kind of movie you need to see on the biggest screen possible, so that you can wallow in the details and be overwhelmed by it all.

On the other hand, there isn't a ton of character development.  Gandalf is Gandalf, and he's got his own thing going on.  And by this point in the story, it's not really Bilbo's story, more a series of battles (as spectacular as they are) than a strengthening of character.  Only Thorin really develops, cracks appearing in his facade, with the very real possibility of power and riches within his grasp.  It's hard to complain about that; it's difficult to say that this film really stands on its own.  It relies on the emotional depth created in the first film to give resonance to the action here, which is fair enough.  Truthfully, we're having a very, very long film meted out a chunk at a time, and the final judgment of merit will come next December, when the entire thing is available.  Until then, it's enough that this one, for the most part, lived up to what I hoped to see on the big screen, and in a couple of instances exceeded it, and that I had a good time watching "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug."  And, more important, that I'll definitely be at the theatre when part three is ready, anxiously waiting to see Smaug get his.

3.5 / 5 - Theatre (3D)

Monday, December 23, 2013

Lenny - 1974

"Lenny" - 1974
Dir. by Bob Fosse - 1 hr. 51 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

At this point in time, Lenny Bruce might not be a household name.  And among those who have heard of him, it's much more likely that they've heard of him, but are not familiar with his work.  I don't know that "Lenny" is the sort of thing that would shed a ton of light on exactly why he was infamous in his time, although it is a straightforward bio of Bruce.  "Lenny" was released eight years after Bruce's death, so at that point, explaining why he was of importance was less important that getting into who he was and where he came from.

Lenny Bruce (Dustin Hoffman) was a cabaret comedian, and not a particularly good one.  Before his stand-up took off, he fell in love with a stripper named Honey (Valerie Perrine), and married her quickly.  Trying to get her out of stripping, he concocted a double act with her that had her singing instead, but it didn't take off either, and they both had to fall back on what they knew.  And somewhere along the way, they both started using heroin, which would dog the both of them, although not usually at the same time.  As their marriage fell apart, Lenny started pursuing a more ragged, free-flowing, and yes, obscene stand-up act that gained him a lot of notoriety, a vastly improved cash-flow, and the attention of the law.  Lenny was repeatedly arrested on obscenity charges (largely over language), and sometimes on narcotics charges, and the combination dragged him down, until he met his premature end.

Mimicking comedy is very difficult to do well.  There's so much that's intensely personal and unique about each performer that even if you get the timing right (which is the ultimate challenge), and the words right, it can still not be entirely funny coming out of the wrong mouth.  It's one of the reasons I suspect that we rarely see films about comedians; even hitting the target can be damned near impossible. Think about someone attempting to do a film about John Belushi, Chris Farley, or Mitch Hedberg (and doing one of those now isn't even as close on the heels of their deaths as "Lenny" was on Bruce's), and how easily it could turn into a a bad cover-version rendition of their comedic greatest hits.  I'm not sure which films Dustin Hoffman made his reputation as an actor on, but this has to be one of them.  It's certainly in his hottest period, and this was a very challenging role, one that Hoffman nails as closely as one can.  Although "Lenny" is fairly deep in getting a psychiatric reading on him, the role requires Hoffman to behave without the same level of self-awareness or introspection as the film provides.  Probably the best compliment that I can pay is that there were times I forgot I was watching Dustin Hoffman, and was fully immersed in the film and what was happening.  A lot of credit has to go to Valerie Perrine, as well, and not just because she played a stripper and actually went through with what you'd expect of someone in that profession.  It felt like at least half of the film was hers, partially because there are interview reconstructions that run through the film, which let her character have her say, after everything was said and done.

One of the most striking things about "Lenny" is the use of sound.  There wasn't much of a soundtrack, just parts of Miles Davis songs used, but there are points in the film where extended periods of silence are used to enforce a sort of awkwardness and discomfort onto the crowd.  In one instance, Lenny talks Honey into a dope-fueled three-way, and instead of it being super sexy, it feels like the worst thing in the world.  I can't even imagine how brutal that scene would have felt in a theatre, with an audience; it was hard enough to watch at home.  An another scene, Lenny is in no condition to perform, but is trotted out on stage anyways over his mother's protests, high as a kite, wearing one shoe, no pants, and an overcoat.  After stumbling through some half-baked material, and losing control in front of the audience, he just stands there in front of the audience, microphone in hand, saying nothing to the silent crowd for what feels like forever and a day.  Considering Bruce's courtroom meltdown near the end of the film, where he begs for the judge not to take his words away, it feels like the use of sound (or the absence of sound) is representational of Bruce's state of mind.  His normal speech patterns are fast, rapid-fire, and energetic.  And as long as he's talking, as long as there's some chatter, things are okay.  But the silence, whether it's from drug use slowing down his mind, or being enforced by the police, that's the imprisonment that he can't stand.

This is a very good film.  In 1974, George Carlin was following down Bruce's comedic path, and getting in some trouble for it, so it was relevant to show people where that came from.  The approach to the material feels tragic; that's probably because a comedian who died at forty from drug abuse, partially because he was being worn into the ground by the constant threat of imprisonment and the guarantee of financial ruin, wasn't yet a cliche.  Losing Bruce was felt honestly, partially because he was one of the first to take comedy from strip clubs and into something that could stand on it's own, and be culturally relevant.  This movie, while not wallowing in his misery, doesn't shy away from showing the price he personally paid to do that, and what happens when people who have power over you don't understand (or just don't like) what you're doing.  "Lenny" isn't a happy-time movie, it's not going to give you warm fuzzies.  It's not entirely difficult viewing, and when it is, it's because of good filmmaking getting across the emotions.  I don't know if it's possible to watch "Lenny" now without having the ghosts of other comedians who died young in the same manner hanging over the proceedings, but it's to the film's credit that it's possible to forget momentarily.

4 / 5 - TV (HD)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe called Quest - 2011

"Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest" - 2011
Dir. by Michael Rapaport - 1 hr. 37 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

If you're not familiar with A Tribe Called Quest, I'm not sure you can call yourself a rap fan.  As Pharrell Williams himself states in the movie (whom you might know from songs like Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" or Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," to name two of a billion you've heard of), Tribe was the musical father to people like himself, J Dilla, and Kanye West.  If you're not into rap, Tribe is the kind of group that might change that. They were the first (for my money) to incorporate jazz into hip-hop successfully and sustain it, they didn't rap about clubs and cars.  Ah hell, take three or four minutes and watch their video for "I Lost My Wallet in El Segundo."

"Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest" is the story of this group of musicians; Q-Tip (the charismatic leader), Phife Dawg (the second rapper, yin to Tip's yang), Ahi Shaheed Muhammad (the quiet DJ and sometimes peacemaker), and sometimes member Jarobi.  In the early 1990s, A Tribe Called Quest was a very big deal indeed.  They, along with other groups, were spearheading a new kind of hip-hop, one that still resonates today.  Of course, as with any group of musicians, things don't go as smoothly as one might think.  The main time-frame where director Michael Rapaport followed the band around was a particularly tumultuous one: they had reunited to headline the Rock the Bells tour in 2008, after a number of years had passed from their active days as a recording unit (their last album was released in 1998), but hadn't really addressed any of the issues that had come between them.

Every music documentary has to take the "Behind the Music" challenge: is there a reason for this to be a film instead of another episode of the long-running show?  In this case, I'd say yes.  First up, there's a lot of performance footage (although I don't remember any full performances, the movie wasn't unsatisfying in that way).  Secondly, it was necessary to establish the time and scene that ATCQ came out of.  They were big, and they were influential, but it's not as if they ever reached the level of Prince or Michael Jackson.  So some explanation is necessary.  Thirdly, how much (and how openly) does the movie address whatever caused their downfall?  Although all the members pretty much admit that they think the band ran it's course at the time, there was still some beef between Phife and Q-Tip.  It's tempting to delve into armchair psychology here, but one of the biggest issues was Phife's health (and not managing his diabetes as well as he could have).  It seems like Phife wishes that no one knew about it, but when an adult misses shows (at times, I don't think it was a big deal) and looks frail, questions are going to be asked.  Q-Tip seems not to be aware that Phife doesn't want people to know about it, and there is a ton of anger shown over the course of the interviews from Phife towards Q-Tip.  Tip, for the most part, seems content just to play music, whether or not it's with Tribe or own his own.  Like I said, armchair psychology is very tempting, but speaking as someone who's been sick, not having your health messes with everything in your life, including your relationships and your sense of self.

This movie fills an interesting niche - it's not like Tribe is unknown, this isn't the story of a band that's been overlooked unfairly.  Nor is it a glimpse at a band that dominated the world; I'm pretty sure that when Tribe's first album came out, Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer were killing it on the charts and in record stores.  It's just the story of a really good band, and if you're into them (or this brand of music), "Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest" is a must see.  This movie also accomplishes what every good music doc must: it put this band's catalog back into my listening rotation.  It's not like I didn't listen to them (I have all of their albums, and if you're going to watch this film, you probably should too, or get ready to abuse your credit card on iTunes) previously, but after a quick reminder of how great they are, I need to hear their material all over again.  Even though the film does address the beefs that each member has with one another, it never loses sight of how great the music is.  There's a great, brief scene near the end of the film where Busta Rhymes pops into their rehearsal space, and they all just stand there, listening to one of Tribe's songs, bobbing their heads together.  That's the whole thing in a nutshell, right there.

3.5 / 5 - TV (HD)

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa - 2013

"Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa" - 2013
Dir. by Jeff Tremaine - 1 hr. 32 min.

Red Band Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa" is the evolution of the Jackass brand of comedy.  Or, just as accurately, it's taken lessons from Sacha Baron Cohen in how to blend prank stunts into a more traditional narrative, so that it feels more like "a movie."  That's a positive thing, overall, particularly for Johnny Knoxville's health.  It shifts the onus of the comedy from constantly, dangerously raising the bar to building sympathy for a character, which for the most part doesn't include things like people getting shot or tasered.  Having said that, the stunts will still please "Jackass" fans.

The plot, which is pretty much an excuse for a road trip full of pranks, is that Irving Zisman's (Johnny Knoxville) wife has died, which doesn't upset him that much.  However, his daughter, Kimmie (Georgina Cates) is staring down a jail term, and needs Irving to transport his grandson, Billy (Jackson Nicoll) to his father, who lives in North Carolina.

The discussion of "Bad Grandpa" is probably going to center on what your favorite segment of the film was.  There's plenty to choose from; my favorite joke involved an airbag, my favorite extended sequence was the infiltration of a beauty pageant.  That was probably the only part that wasn't a joke for a joke's sake (although it was a great joke), instead making explicit the creepy subtext of child pageants.  A close second place takes place in a bar during Ladie's Night.  It's difficult to talk about much of the film, as it would constitute spoiling the jokes, which would dampen anyone's enjoyment.  In a general sense, it is often the case with prank movies, the best material isn't always the stunt itself, but capturing people's reactions to the proceedings.  There's plenty of legit double takes, mothers shielding their childrens' eyes, and deeply concerned passerbys.

The Bad Grandpa character isn't a new one if you've been watching "Jackass" over the years, so if you've seen any of it before, you'd know what to expect.  But the addition of Billy adds a different dynamic to the film.  And he gets a large share of the jokes, as well; this isn't a case of some kid being trotted out to further embarrass people with his mere presence.  Jackson Nicoll is more than game here, seeming like Dennis the Menace if people were encouraging him instead of trying to tamp down his mischief-causing instincts.  On the whole, "Bad Grandpa" is a funny movie.  There's nothing wrong with repeating what works, like with the previous Jackass movies, but transitioning one of the characters into a narrative (even if it's a very loose one) is enough of a refresh of the formula to make the jokes feel new again.  How much you'll enjoy this film probably depends on how much you like Jackass and Johnny Knoxville, and how much you enjoy R-rated comedies, but if you're yeah on any of those accounts, "Bad Grandpa" will hit the spot.

3 / 5 - Theatre

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - 2012

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" - 2012
Dir. by Peter Jackson - 2 hrs. 49 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Ordinarily, movies of this ilk aren't really my cup of tea.  I didn't see any of the "Lord of the Rings" films, none of the Harry Potters, and I particularly dislike films instinctively when the approach a three hour run time.  But for some reason, I decided to sit down and read J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" this year, and was blown away by the book.  Like, it was one of those books that you find yourself staying up two hours past when you should have went to sleep in order to finish reading the book.  The next morning suuuuuucked, but it was worth it.  I managed to put off seeing the first of the three films based on that book until now, figuring I could then piggyback into seeing the second installment while it was still in theatres (so look for a review of that sometime this week).

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is a hobbit (which is to say short, with huge hairy feet, a timid sort that lives in a hole in the ground), and an elderly one at the point when we meet him.  He figures it's time to tell his tale, that he wasn't always a respectable, timid sort, so it's autobio time.  Gandalf (Ian McKellan) shows up on Bilbo's doorstep, offering an invitation to adventure, which sounds terrible.  Nonetheless, thirteen dwarves show up, eat up all of Bilbo's food, and is (very) reluctantly sold on a very risky proposition; this band intends to go reclaim the dwarves' ancestral land, which was taken from them, and this also involves confronting and killing a giant dragon named Smaug.  So they journey.

Most importantly to me, "The Hobbit" doesn't feel like a movie of it's length.  It might seem excessive to make roughly nine hours of film out of one (fairly slim) novel, but the material doesn't lag, and neither does the movie.  The scenery is spectacular and fantastic and varied, exactly the kind of setting that you can just kick back and let your mind wander around in.  Once you get past the idea that you're watching a movie about D&D stuff, the story itself is very solid.  It varies from the personal story of Bilbo, who spends the movie trying to prove himself to everyone, including himself, to amazing action scenes (like the underground segments, or the fiery battle with the Orcs), and along the way sets some things in motion that will have to resolve themselves in the next two installments (I mean, I read the book, I know what's going to happen).

I'm probably late to the party on this one, but probably the most striking scene in the movie is the riddle-off between Bilbo and Gollum.  That's largely due to the spectacular animation of Gollum; it rivals the top Looney Tunes work in terms of facial expressions and elasticity of Gollum's features.  The character work is so distinct and specific, and a delight to watch.  There are a great number of fantastic scenes, but this is my favorite.

There's not a big point in getting much more specific about the first "The Hobbit" movie.  After the Lord of the Rings' success, this was as close to a sure thing as a huge budget movie could be.  It totally delivers, on top of that.  This movie did it's job; it was entertaining on it's own, and made me want to see the next one immediately.  I kind of wish I'd waited another year, so that I could have taken in all three in a row,  but I guess I can wait a year to finish off the trilogy.  If nothing else, I can always read the book again before then.

4 / 5 - TV (HD - Theatrical Version)

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Observe and Report - 2009

"Observe and Report" - 2009
Dir. by Jody Hill - 1 hr. 26 min.

Red Band Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

In the summer of 2009, there were two movies about mall cops.  Maybe the idea had just reached the boiling point, maybe it was mere coincidence.  But the two movies couldn't have been more different.  "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" was another instance of Kevin James underachieving (and I like him, and think he's funny.  I just wish he'd do a movie that wasn't a waste of his comedic talents).  "Observe and Report" was just plain messed up.  F'd up, even.  I'm trying so hard not to drop an f-bomb here, but it would be entirely appropriate.  "Observe and Report" is not some cuddly, sight-gag laden Adam Sandler production.  As one of the characters states, mid hard-drug bender, "I ain't going to lie to you, Ronnie, there is nothing good about this at all."

The Ronnie in question is Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen), head of mall security.  He's the sort of guy who pushes to be allowed to carry actual firearms while working, and gets mad when the actual cops show up to do their job.  In this instance, it's because of a flasher, who keeps returning, and eventually traumatizes the girl that Ronnie has a crush on, Brandi (Anna Faris), who is a hot mess of a make-up counter girl at the mall's department store.  Ronnie and Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) immediately butt heads, but Ronnie finally sees that he wants to be more than just a mall cop, he wants to be a real cop.  When that falls through, Ronnie has to return to working the mall, which is another straw on the straw heap.

I guess the first thing that you'd have to understand that calling this a "dark comedy" would be understating things a bit.  "Observe and Report" is literally watching the world poke a mentally unstable, aggressive man with a chip on his shoulder with a stick, over and over again.  Writer/director Jody Hill has done another movie you might not have seen (the excellent "The Foot Fist Way"), and co-created an HBO series you might have seen, "Eastbound and Down."  But if you've seen either of those, you'd understand the tone of this film.  Seth Rogen is perfect for this role (it's before he slimmed down a bit), he's got enough of a physical presence that when he gets aggressive or a little unhinged, you can feel the danger.  And indeed, there are a couple of scenes where he ends up in fights, and more than holds his own.  Whether he was right in the first place is another matter, but he's no quitter.

In terms of the story, it's unfortunate that Ronnie is in a situation where he has no positive role models.  His co-workers aren't any smarter than he is, and Dennis (Michael Pena) actively leads him down the wrong road.  His mother is a blackout drunk, and the one person in the entire world who even kind of has his act together, Detective Harrison, takes an immediate disliking to Ronnie, going so far as abandoning him in the worst neighborhood in the town, just to amuse himself.  In terms of the cast, there's a lot of talent here.  Anna Faris is totally committed to her alcoholic, pill-popping, party girl with puffed up lips.  Michael Pena is a riot; seeing him in any position of authority is practically a sacrilege to the uniform he's in, which should tell you how scuzzy he is here.  Ray Liotta's great at yelling at people, and he has a lot of opportunities to do so.  Aziz Ansari even has a small part that he wrings a lot out of.

Probably the best scene of the movie is one where Det. Harrison invites Ronnie down to the police station to break the news that Ronnie didn't pass the psychological test, and couldn't be a cop.  But first, Harrison invites one of his co-workers to hide in his closet to listen in.  Halfway through breaking the news, the co-worker just walks out of the closet, and says that the whole thing wasn't funny, but sad, so he was leaving.  He doesn't even wait for Ronnie to leave, he just walks.  That seems to be the aim of the movie.  Ronnie doesn't get any of the best lines, he's no saint, nothing breaks his way, but he dusts himself off and perseveres, and he wins that way.  Even when he's doing things he probably shouldn't do, he's still sympathetic.  That's what makes this dark, dark comedy work, and makes it funny, instead of depressing.  Sometimes you can win just by not quitting, which is a pretty realistic message to offer.

3.5 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Monday, December 16, 2013

Team America: World Police - 2004

"Team America: World Police" - 2004
Dir. by Trey Parker - 1 hr. 38 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There is one thing that Trey Parker (and long-time collaborator Matt Stone) manage to do better than anyone else: make cheesy, horrible material based on cheesy, horrible material, and have it come out awesome and funny.  The problem with making something deliberately awful and low-rent is that even if you succeed at your goals one hundred percent, you're still left with something awful and low-rent.  There's no way to win this game; for ninety-nine percent of people, if you start with crap, you end up with crap.  But "Team America: World Police" is proof that Parker and Stone belong to the one percent; a political action movie about terrorism made with puppets (with visible strings) is a patently bad idea that ends up being hilarious and awesome.

After a strike against terrorists in Paris that leaves the city in ruins and their squad leader dead, Team America is in need of a new leader.  Gary, a Broadway actor working on a play called "Lease," is recruited for the team.  He reluctantly joins, and Team America must work to thwart Kim Jong-Il's diabolical plot, and face off against the Film Actor's Guild, led by Alec Baldwin, and their liberal criticism of Team America.

Usually, making a film that makes liberal use of action movie cliches would end up lame and difficult to watch.  Viewers are sophisticated enough at this point that just pointing out the tropes of a genre isn't sufficient as a critique or as a basis for satire without something more being brought to the situation.  Genre films work largely because the filmmakers are able to use the cliches, and not draw attention to them while using them.  But making an action movie with puppets?  Perfect.  There are still action scenes (even a Matrix moment), there are explosions and lines delivered through gritted teeth.  But the fact that it's all done with puppets makes "Team America" pretty funny.  That, and Parker (and Stone) deliberately and gleefully go flying past the line of appropriateness over and over again.

There are two kinds of great stuff in "Team America": the soundtrack, and the scenes where it's even better because it's puppets doing awful things.  Much of the movie is just the cliche action scenes, but executed with absurd seriousness, and really great, ridiculous lines.  But there are also two great comedic scenes, even beyond the standard-issue action material that's been made funny.  There's an extended sex scene between two characters.  Does it matter that neither of the puppets have genitals?  Nope.  It's actually funnier, because I'm pretty sure everyone's taken two Barbie dolls and made them do X-rated things to each other, if only to get a quick laugh out of one of your friends.  So the idea of someone doing that in a multi-million dollar film, and having it projected onto big screen all across the world?  Awesome.  The other great scene is the dicks, pussies, and assholes analogy that Gary launches into, when called upon to out-act Alec Baldwin.  The monologue sums up everything great about Parker and Stone's material; it's so vulgar it's hard to repeat publicly, it's completely insane, and yet makes perfect sense.

And, as you might expect by now, any soundtrack by the "South Park" guys is going to be a complete winner.  It's really hard not to want to run around screaming, "America, fuck yeah!" after seeing "Team America."  There's more than just that one song, though, and I'm left scratching my head at how I could have managed not to have acquired this soundtrack by now.  That's going to have to be rectified sooner rather than later.

"Team America: World Police" isn't the best film that Parker and Stone have made; the South Park film is probably untoppable.  But it's probably the second best movie they've made, maybe only because they had something resembling a budget this time around.  There's no way this will leave you disappointed, unless you simply can't fathom that being too patriotic is a thing, and a thing to mock.  But then again, if that was the case, you'd have to be one of those people that get duped by "The Onion" headlines not to know exactly what you were getting in for when you sat down and watched this movie.

3.5 / 5 - TV (HD)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Rockshow - 1980

"Rockshow" - 1980
Dir. by Paul McCartney - 1 hr. 42 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

This review is going to be very much a statement of when I'm writing this.  Five years ago, or ten, things probably would have looked very different.  But in 2013, Paul McCartney seems to be taking a well-earned victory lap.  He's got a pretty darned good new album (titled "New"), the re-issue campaign of the Beatles catalog a few years back rekindled a lot of interest in that material.  People are finally remembering that they liked Paul (and by that, I mean he's more visible than he's been in years, even if he's been consistently recording and touring for pretty much forever).  His recent concert on Jimmy Fallon's show was a joyous romp through his history, and into the future.  But a subtext to all of this is that he's doing amazing things and looking pretty spry, considering his age.

Now, the Beatles stopped touring before too long (and they were sometimes playing 15 minute concerts when they were still playing live), so there's not much extended footage of them from the sixties.  If your curiosity has been piqued by Macca's recent resurgence, you might start to wonder what a show of his might have looked like when you didn't have to add a qualifier to your enjoyment of his performances.  "Rockshow" is one such answer to that; it was recorded during Paul McCartney & Wings' tours during 1975 and 1976 (this film is a composite of four different concerts).  This is a full-length show (just how full-length kind of depends on which version you're watching, I caught a TV airing of it that included commercials (that I fast-forwarded through), so I couldn't tell you exactly what the run time was), an arena show at that, not a gimmicky "intimate" performance.  It includes songs from both the Beatles and Wings; and other than wanting more Beatles songs, there's probably not that many songs missing if one was to compile an ideal Macca setlist.

So, when you turn back the clock and watch "Rockshow," the thing that's probably most striking is how energetic and at-ease Paul seems playing his songs.  The arrangements aren't strikingly different from what you already know, this is simply a document of a time and place.  I've always preferred entire shows instead of compiling together a handful; the warts-and-all approach is more fascinating than cherry-picking performances for whatever is closest to the studio versions.  There doesn't feel like there's any of that kind of shagginess allowed to show here; I don't know if that's simply due to the professionalism and polish of the performances, or if it's been left on the cutting room floor.

Then, you're left with a few things to judge this concert film by.  First, it sounds pretty good.  You're probably going to keep reaching for your remote to crank it up when one of your faves pops up; I sure did.  Secondly, there's not a ton in the way of stage presentation, which is entirely appropriate for the era this was filmed in.  When concertgoers bought a ticket, they were expecting to see a band that could play their instruments and their songs live, and play them well, and that what you get here.  There's a brief laser thingy towards the end, but there are no dancers, or elaborate stage set-ups.  "Rockshow" is, literally, a straight-forward concert film.  Thirdly, the song selection is pretty good.

If you're expecting more than those three things, this might be depressingly straight-forward for you.  "Rockshow" is good, but I can't imagine watching it more than once or twice.  It's most interesting as a document of a particular point in the career of one of the finest composers of the 20th century, when he was at the peak of his powers and packing out football stadiums (part of this was filmed at the late, not-so-great Kingdome, a Tupperware bowl of a stadium that could hold upwards of sixty thousand people).  I'm glad this document exists; it's useful to be able to go back and see what the real deal looked like, without having to peer through the haze of nostalgia and knighthoods.

3 / 5 - TV (HD)

Saturday, December 14, 2013

W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism - 1971

"W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism" - 1971
Dir. by Dusan Makavejev - 1 hr. 24 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

Sometimes, I'm just in the mood for a supremely weird movie, and as I learned from "Sweet Movie," anything from director Dusan Makavejev is a sure bet in that regard.  "W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism" is the movie that immediately preceded "Sweet Movie," and it's definitely work from the same mind.  Part of that is that there's only a minimal attempt at continuity (at least in a traditional sense), part of it is including Yugoslavian content (yeah, I know that's not one country any more), but it's more or less that once you've seen something by Makavejev, it's unlikely you'd confuse his work with anyone else's, even other directors who incorporate surrealist streaks.

So, talking about the "plot" of "WR" isn't necessarily going to be entirely useful.  This is an episodic movie that blends documentary footage and plots with fiction plots.  The basis of "WR" is Wilhelm Reich's work (just follow the wikilink if you want to know more), which he explored after fleeing the Nazis and Europe, settling in the United States.  His work supposed that orgasms were the basis of life energy, and tried to build a unified theory of life and health around that.  The fiction segments basically follow Milena (Milena Dravic) and her attempt to seduce a Russian figure skater, Vladimir Ilyich (Ivica Vidovic), as well as her public rabble-rousing about the importance of sex, both in people's everyday life and as a cornerstone to successful public policy.  Also, there are threads involving Tuli Kupferberg (of The Fugs fame), Jackie Curtis (a Warhol cohort), and footage of Joseph Stalin, among others.

Where to begin?  One of the things that really endeared this film to me is that there was a point to it.  It's somewhat unusual to blend nonfiction and fiction into a cohesive narrative (and I'm not saying the narrative was entirely cohesive, just that it did all build to the same point, even if the different segments seemed unrelated by anything other than theme).  But the narrative was generally about Reich's ideas about the orgasm's importance (a narrator informs us at one point that the average person has about four thousand of them over the course of their life), and that neuroses arise from thwarting that impulse.  It doesn't matter whether or not you or I buy into that, what matters is that the film states it's purpose, explores the matter at hand, and then presents a fictional exploration of the confrontation between the need for sexual gratification and the Soviet Communist movement's suppression of that need.

Another positive point to "WR": I've got at least half a dozen tabs open in my browser, just to properly explain any of the stuff that's in the film.  This is the sort of piece of art that dangles threads in front of you, hoping that you'll choose to further explore at least one or two of them.  That's somewhat obscured by the surreal and shocking scenes in the film, but those are to be expected (and welcomed; that's kind of the point of watching a film in this vein).  The impact of some of the scenes in the film have been dulled by time (in particular, Jackie Curtis talking frankly about his relationship with another guy, including talk of gay marriage, was less shocking than it might have once been).  Part of that is that the internet has made footage of people engaged in coitus depressingly pedestrian and common.  So seeing two (or more) people going at it isn't as titillating as it could be.  On the other hand, there's lack of self-awareness, rock-hard abs, and southern hemisphere grooming habits, and the presence of a sense of playfulness and joy in most of these scenes that make them fun to watch (like an invitation to enjoy yourself, versus someone yelling at you to get off right fucking now).  Maybe you've wondered exactly how a plaster caster goes about the business of making such a cast; this movie will solve that riddle.

There wasn't really that much that I didn't like about "WR."  Sure, it's a ragged, crass, graphic film, but that's why I wanted to watch it in the first place.  Those are it's positive points.  Ultimately, I can see why the Communist approach to lovemaking was of importance to a director from a country surrounded by the Eastern Bloc, but I don't place the same amount of importance on that dilemma as Makavejev does.  So that material was watchable, but not compelling to me, which means that I wasn't spellbound by a lot of the second half of "WR."  But I can't hate a film that has Tuli from the Fugs jerking off a rifle; that's timeless and hilarious.

3 / 5 - Streaming

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Monkey on My Back - 1957

"Monkey on My Back" - 1957
Dir. by Andre De Toth - 1 hr. 34 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Ever since one of my friends showed me a very special episode of "Little House on the Prairie" that dealt with one of the characters getting hooked on morphine, I've got a soft spot for old movies that deal with drug addiction or use.  At this point in time, there are so many first-hand accounts in both literature and film that go through the process in excruciating detail that it's kind of hard to fake (or be deliberately misleading) about this stuff anymore.  But in the past?  Well, that's how stuff like "Reefer Madness" came to exist.  So when a '50s era film about a boxer that got hooked on the needle popped up on the TCM program guide, I was in.

"Monkey on My Back" is based on the true story of a prize-fighter named Barney Ross (Cameron Mitchell).  Barney was a champion and a high-roller, but lived a fast lifestyle that depleted his earnings more quickly than he could bring them home.  This was a point of contention between Barney and his girlfriend, Cathy (Dianne Foster), and eventually caused Cathy to leave when Barney's gambling habits intensified after his retirement from boxing.  When Cathy took off, Barney took a left turn and enlisted in the Marines, eventually being sent to Guadalcanal during World War II.  Before leaving, he patched things up with Cathy, and they got married.  Barney was a war hero, but contracted malaria in the process, which was treated with morphine.  It didn't take long before Barney was hooked on the stuff, and was sent home from the war effort with a Silver Star and a taste for morphine (a fairly common result from wars of this era).

"Monkey on My Back" ended up being surprisingly watchable, way beyond my hope of some drug-related absurdity.  Sure, some of Barney's behavior seems a little overblown, but for entertainment's sake, I didn't mind it.  Cameron Mitchell does a good job of playing the character's arc, from the super-confident boxing champ all the way through Barney's descent into drug hell.  His wife's character often times comes off a bit icily, but the way the story is set up, she's constantly being put upon (and this is the story of Barney Ross, not of his wife), so her being nearly constantly upset with him seems appropriate.  The tone of the film, understandably, is fairly dark, culminating in a scene that I found pretty shocking.  At the depths of Barney's problems, he actually shoots up in an alley while ducking the police, which is kind of outrageous (in a good way).

There's a number of ways where the approach to this material is vastly different to how it would be approached now.  In "Monkey on My Back," despite the title, the drug material isn't the bulk of the film.  The first act establishes Barney as a successful boxer at the end of his career, with a rocky transition into retirement.  The second act is mostly war material, which further establishes Barney as not just a famous athlete, but a war hero to boot.  It's not until near the end of the second act where Barney gets hooked on morphine, and we explore the depths he sinks to (peaking with him shooting up in an alley).  As promised by the beginning of the film, Barney's rehab is the culmination and afterward to the film.  Opposed to a film like last year's "Flight," which didn't even bother to establish the main character as anything but a remorseless addict from the opening scene, and then wallowed in the main character's addiction in graphic detail for the duration of the film, "Monkey" taking the time to establish that it's main character is actually more than just a vessel to fill up with drugs before showing the depths comes off as charming, and even more than that, good storytelling.  After all, if you don't know where someone was before their fall, what does the bottoming out represent beyond simple addiction misery porn?

The consistency of the Barney Ross character also helps; he's a man who doesn't really ever consider what tomorrow will bring, and repeatedly finds himself in over his head.  That provides the basis for a pretty solid movie, one that's way more watchable (and way less absurd than many films of its vintage that deal with this subject matter might be) than I figured it might be.  Plus, you get three films in one; a boxing film, a war film, and a drug film!  There's a good chance that one of the three might hit one of your sweet spots.

3 / 5 - TV

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Hitchcock - 2012

"Hitchcock" - 2012
Dir. by Sacha Gervasi - 1 hr. 38 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I'm pretty sure that if you put Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette, and Michael Wincott in the same movie, the results are going to be, at the absolute minimum, fairly watchable.  When you put those people in a movie about Alfred Hitchcock and the making of "Psycho," you're got something going.  And this was a good movie, an easy one to get into and watch, and it also falls prey to the need to explore a legendary figure's clay feet.  Since that's a large part of the tension of the movie, it's understandable, and ultimately, Hitchcock himself isn't lessened by any of this, but it's not really a trend that I'd want to encourage.

Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins), fresh off the success of "North by Northwest," is searching for his next project, his final film on his studio contract.  Hitch settles on adapting "Psycho," a novel by Robert Bloch, about serial killer Ed Gein, but is met with incredible resistance.  Hitch ends up having to finance the film himself, relying heavily on it's success.  The pressure of everything starts to get the better of him, and his marriage (and professional partnership) with Alma (Helen Mirren) starts to show cracks.  For his part, he's jealous of Alma's friendship with another writer, and for her part, she's jealous of the attention Hitch pays to the young starlets that he directs, like Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel).

There are two things that pull at "Hitchcock" upon an initial viewing; there's a lot more drama in the story if you don't know much about the man himself, or about "Psycho."  At the same time, I'm not entirely sure why anyone would want to see this movie if they weren't already interested in Hitchcock, or about the making of "Psycho."  Since I knew a bit about Hitchcock and his career, many of the things that were supposed to be dramatic came off instead as people who were proven wrong in time trying to flex their muscles on him and his work.  That lends a lightness to the proceedings (it's a lot harder to get mad at a studio head telling Hitchcock that they don't want to do "Psycho" when you know that the movie itself became a basis for a part of the Universal Studios tour at the theme parks, which suggests at least a basic level of success for the film) that helps the movie fly by.  That leaves most of the heavy dramatic lifting up to Hitchcock's mercurial relationship with his wife, the strains of making a film that you're paying every dime for, and for the possibility that Alma might step out on Hitch with the writer that she's working with, Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston).

The problem with watching a "behind the scenes" movie is that you're going to have to get into some stuff you'd probably rather not know about someone.  "Hitchcock" isn't really a muckraking movie, but there's difficulty with incorporating the peeping tom/gluttonous/jealous side of Hitch with his work, which still represents some of the finest films ever made.  It shouldn't matter that he sometimes had harsh words for his wife, or that both of them were occasionally stubborn; that's real life.  But since this is essentially the story of Alma getting her due (she, at one point, declines a by-line, saying that the people who matter would know that she was invovled), both publicly and from Hitchcock himself, it's important to show her being occasionally taken for granted, mistreated, and to be less than thrilled about that.

"Hitchcock" is a smooth ride, one that rewards fans of the director and of "Psycho" both.  And with the cast involved, there aren't any weak spots to be found.  It's kind of a feel-good story, which is odd for the characters involved, but it still works.  There wasn't much drama to be found, but that was probably by design; a lot of this story demands a certain level of knowledge of it's viewers.  And the reward is that both Alma gets her due, and we all get confirmation that even if nobody believed it at the time, Alfred knew exactly what he was doing.

3 / 5 - TV (HD)