Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Paul - 2011

"Paul" - 2011
Dir. by Greg Mottola - 1 hr. 44 min.

Official Red Band Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Paul" is that movie with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost that's not part of their "Three Flavours Cornetto" series, even though Pegg and Frost wrote this one.  I guess it not being directed by Edgar Wright is the difference.  Also, they're in America this time, which is another difference.  But it's still pretty good.  It's not great; it's like a well-written version of a fairly thin idea.  So that means that whatever you think of the idea of two comics nerds coming across a genuine alien and engaging in a road trip, this is one of the best possible versions of whatever is floating around in your head.

Clive (Frost) and Graeme (Pegg) are a pair of British comic book fans who are fulfilling a life-long dream of attending ComiCon in San Diego.  Since it's quite a haul from GB to San Diego, they've also rented an RV, and are taking a road trip through the southwest, hitting up all the big alien-related hotspots, like Area 51 and Roswell.  Along the way, they discover a genuine alien, named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), who is trying to escape the clutches of the government.  Also, he's foul-mouthed and smokes weed.  Among the government agents trying to track down Paul are Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman), and Haggard (Bill Hader) and O'Reilly (Joe Lo Truglio).

One of the unusual things about "Paul" is that it's a movie with two straight-men.  Both Clive and Graeme aren't really the sources of the humor, unless you're really amused by the notion of attending ComiCon or digging alien stuff.  Instead, they spend a lot of time reacting to the people and the world around them.  To some degree, this is a political statement about the oddness of America, from a fish-out-of-water viewpoint.  It's also literalized through a pair of hillbilly bullies, Gus (David Koechner) and Jake (Jesse Plemons).  But this approach might be part of the reason why the cast is stacked, comedically-speaking.  I haven't even gotten around to mentioning that Kristen Wiig is in the movie, and pretty much steals the show whenever she's on-screen, and we're already something like a dozen deep of people who are funny every time out.

On the downside, Seth Rogen does pretty much exactly what Seth Rogen does every time in every movie he's in, but without the benefit of his physical acting and presence.  It's not so much that Rogen isn't funny, as it is that I'd like to see him do something against expectations at some point.  A genial, gravel-voiced little buddy is pretty much 100% what I expect out of him in this role, and a couple of "Observe and Report" moments would have gone far to keep audiences on their toes.  I'll admit this is a petty complaint; I've seen a lot of Rogen's movies, and I'm sure there are plenty of people that are perfectly happy watching him do his thing.

I'm happy I finally got around to watching "Paul."  It's not the best of the Pegg/Frost movies, but it's still pretty funny, and there's a near-infinite amount of really good comedians doing what they do.  And the entire run-time of "Paul" is worth it for the scene where Wiig's character breaks free from her oppressive religious father, and it dawns on her that she can do anything she wants, including cursing and fornicating.  Not only is her awkward pawing of Graeme hilarious, it sets her character down the path of learning how to swear for the rest of the film, which is one of the Rated-R highlights of "Paul."  I feel certain I'd watch it again, if I stumbled across it on cable, and I'd probably enjoy it just as much.

3 / 5 - TV (HD)

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Hot Shots! - 1991

"Hot Shots!" - 1991
Dir. by Jim Abrahams - 1 hr. 24 min.

Original Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I probably haven't watched "Hot Shots!" in something like twenty years, but this is exactly the kind of film that teenager me was excited about.  Sure, "Batman" was a big deal, and I'd devour anything with Bill Murray or Chevy Chase in, but this movie right here?  This is the pure, uncut dope I craved.  "Hot Shots!" is in the line of films that started with "Kentucky Fried Movie," ran through "Airplane!," and the "Naked Gun" films.   They're heavy on sight gags and movie parodies, don't require much thought (beyond just getting into the spirit of things), and if you can get in the right frame of mind, these films are a lot of fun.

Topper Harley (Charlie Sheen) is an Air Force washout, living on an Indian Reservation.  But his country needs him, and he's convinced to return to service as a pilot, provided he can pass a psychiatric exam.  Topper falls for his psychiatrist, Ramada Thompson (Valeria Golino), which dumps fuel on a long-running family grudge with Lt. Kent Gregory (Cary Elwes).  Eventually, they must get along to complete a mission.

But that's not important right now.  What is important is "Hot Shots!" is packed with jokes, delivered at a rapid-fire pace.  You have to pay attention to what's going on, as the sight gags hits nearly as frequently.  Some are large gags, like someone getting electrocuted behind a door.

Others are less so, like when Lloyd Bridges pulls out a cigarette case, pulls out a carrot stick, tamps it like a cigarette, and snaps off a healthy bite.  No mention is made of it, at all.  It just exists, and you either notice it or you don't (which means you're missing like half the movie).  If it feels like I'm harping on this, it's because this is an integral part of this style of humor.  It's fine if this material is too broad and too silly (which I consider it's chief assets) for someone, but if you've half-watched one of these films while futzing around on your computer, you haven't actually seen enough of that film to have an opinion on it.  In some regards, this is an extreme example of pre-second screen life.  Nobody would make a film like this now, because no one could have the confidence that an audience would pay attention to it without deliberately distracting themselves away from it.

Beyond that, this might be the end of prime Charlie Sheen, before his behavior turned him into a caricature of himself.  You've got this and "Major League," and the stuff before that like "Platoon" and his great small role in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."  Afterwards, well, the '90s were pretty much an unmitigated string of suck for Mr. Sheen.  But here, he's getting softballs thrown at him, and he's knocking them out of the park.  The humor here piles up on you, and once one joke hits squarely, you'll spend the rest of the movie giggling from the barrage of jokes.

"Hot Shots!" is something that holds up reasonably well, even removed from the context of the then-contemporary films that it was parodying.  You don't need to have seen "Top Gun" or "Cool as Ice" to laugh at the motley crew that flies with Topper, or Topper's attempt to seduce Ramada on his bike.  It's almost hard to evaluate whether or not movies like this are successful until they're removed from their time; you can't always tell if the humor holds up or is relying too heavily on references until everyone's forgotten the references.  For me, it's still really watchable.  Part of that might be nostalgia, but I'll also never get tired of jokes like, "If I was joking, I'd say, 'What do you do with an elephant with three balls?  Walk him and pitch to the rhino."

3 / 5 - TV

Friday, December 12, 2014

Heavenly Bodies - 1984

"Heavenly Bodies" - 1984
Dir. by Lawrence Dane - 1 hr. 30 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

I don't think I've ever seen a film that was comprised solely of aerobics scenes and montages before.  Sure, there might be another film with only those elements, but I haven't seen it.  Until "Heavenly Bodies," that is.  It's a fair question to ask why I'd watch a film that seems solely about a battle between aerobics instructors, but it sounded funny, it was late at night, and a film with wall-to-wall spandex-clad, leg-warmer brandishing '80s hotties is all the explanation you need.  I knew this would be a terrible film, and it was, but the question is whether it's so terrible that it rebounds back into awful-but-watchable territory?

Samantha Blair (Cynthia Dale) and a couple of her buddies from the steno pool get tired of clocking in for the man, and decide to open their own Dancercise studio (probably off-brand, to be honest) in a dilapidated factory, to be called "Heavenly Bodies."  But, because Samantha is so good at shaking her goodies, she eventually wins a local fitness TV show, beating out rival gym owner Jack Pearson's (Walter George Alton) squeeze, Debbie (Laura Henry).  As it turns out, Debbie is a jealous, conniving little workout queen, and convinces a financier to buy out the factory that Heavenly Bodies is located in, and evict Samantha and her business.  Samantha isn't going to take that lying down, and challenges Jack to an exercise-off, winner takes all.

"Heavenly Bodies" is absolutely bonkers.  There's the aforementioned aerobics/montage approach, which is pretty odd.  So Samantha's burgeoning relationship with football player Steve (Richard Rebiere) doesn't have a ton of depth to it.  That's okay, because Samantha literally can't stop dancing.  Like all the damned time.  When she's introduced to her TV show's studio, she breaks into dance.  When Steve won't call, she does a mopey interpretive dance.  And there's like infinity classes that she teaches.  Plus, the climactic exercise-off, which features two teams of ten endurance aerobicizing their tight little buns off.  Samantha probably spends at least fifty of the ninety minutes of this film enthusiastically shaking, strutting, thrusting, and punching the air.  And (this is the point where I had GIFs to illustrate my point), when she's pent up, she starts humping the air (in unison with the rest of her class).  And her dancing is baffling; my impression of Dancercise is that you do some basic dance-y moves, and then the class repeats them until you're all sweaty.  But Samantha does all of her stuff free-form, so I don't know how her class knows how to keep up with her.  But they do.  All of them, all of the time, from air-punching to air-humping, they always get it right.

But you should know, yes, this does turn the corner.  It's a bizarre film centered around a woman who exercises really good and stuff, with awful music and non-stop dancing.  But between the abundance of leg-warmers and running shorts on men (and even more dubious fashion choices), and the sheer enthusiasm of Cynthia Dale (I'm not going to short-change her - she puts a lot of effort and grace into what she's doing, even if it's super-bizarre), "Heavenly Bodies" is like three beers or a bowl (bowl of what?  I don't know!!!  What are you, a cop?  You've got to tell me if you're a cop!!!) away from being one of the best awful films you'll ever see.  In term of just getting ninety minutes of '80s fitness cuties (and hunks, too), it completely delivers.  Crazy dialogue?  Scheming hoes?  Workout icons that apparently have never seen a weight-bench before?  "Heavenly Bodies" gives you all of this and more.

When I finished watching "Heavenly Bodies," my first thought is that whomever wrote "Dodgeball" must've seen this film, and pretty much "Airplane!'d" this into that.  Then, my second that was that if people will watch movies to see Jean-Claude Van Damme kick people in the face (and, historically speaking, they have), maybe it's not so weird to watch a movie solely for a physical performance.  In martial arts movies, that means fight scenes, but Cynthia Dale gives that little extra oomph in her dance scenes (you can see this if you compare her dancing to the other dancers that are in her scenes) that actually makes her performance impressive, from an athletic standpoint.  It doesn't make "Heavenly Bodies" any better of a film than "Double Impact," but I could understand why someone might be able to enjoy it in a different way than I did (which was admittedly at least slightly maybe a little okay more than a little prurient).  I'm completely baffled as to why this film got aired on Turner Classic, but I laughed my way all the way through.  So while this is officially "not a good movie," it's pretty awesome in it's own way.

1 / 5 - TV

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Muse - 1999

"The Muse" - 1999
Dir. by Albert Brooks - 1 hr. 37 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

It feels like the only qualification for a movie getting thrown on Showtime's "Women" channel is that it passes that stupid Bechdel Test.  I don't know why "The Muse" gets thrown on that channel otherwise; it's just a movie.  And really, "The Muse" is a movie about movies (sort of), one of those dreaded "insider" films.  And even worse, it's a pretty good film.  It's not exactly one of those "tortured writer" movies, it's written with a light touch, and ends up raising more questions than it answers.  Mainly, I'm just irritated that I have to watch a movie that I like with that stupid women's logo in the corner, mocking me for watching a chick flick.  It's not a chick flick!

Steven Phillips (Albert Brooks) is a screenwriter of some success, as we're introduced to him receiving a humanitarian award for his career, which included a film that was nominated for an Oscar.  The next day, he's informed that his newest script is evidence of him having lost his edge (whatever that means, but it's a refrain), and that not only is that script rejected, he's been dropped from his development deal at Universal. too.  At his wife's (Andie MacDowell) request, Steven turns to his friend, Jack (Jeff Bridges) for some advice.  Jack is persuaded to introduce Steven to Sarah (Sharon Stone), who purports to be an honest-to-goodness muse.  Jack swears she's the secret to his (and many others') success, so Steven goes along with it.  And, as one might imagine, an honest-to-goodness muse is both capricious AND has expensive tastes.

There are a couple of things you're going to have to accept in order to enjoy "The Muse."  First, you're going to have to like Albert Brooks.  I don't have a problem with that, but his is a pretty well-defined persona, and you're going to have to sympathize with his character.  No ifs, ands, or buts!  Secondly, you're going to need to accept Sharon Stone (yes, that Sharon Stone) as a proto-Manic Pixie Dream Girl.  Granted, her character is both more well-rounded than that trope usually can brag about, and lays claim to mythological reasons for her being that way.  And Sharon Stone wouldn't have been my first choice for this kind of role, even in 1999.  But she pulls it off, I think.  Mileage might vary from viewer to viewer, but she's got just enough of an edge to her to give weight to the concern that pissing off a Goddess (the muses are literally the children of Zeus and Mnemosyne) might have unpleasant consequences.

Once you're past those concerns, this is a pretty sharply-written film.  Albert Brooks isn't the sort of writer to wallow in grandiose demonstrations of torment; you will not have drunken benders, violence, or gratuitous nudity and sex scenes.  This film is not "In a Lonely Place," Steven isn't Humphrey Bogart's self-destructive character.  Brooks' character's concerns are definitely not life-or-death; his inability to write something of sufficient quality is an upper-middle class concern (and Steven's house is testament to a much higher level of success than that), and the stakes are more about continued financial success than anything else.  The universal response to his work is a statement on familiarity as much as it is about struggling professionally.

But the questions that this film raise are interesting ones.  First off, is a muse (or inspiration, to generalize) necessary to create an interesting piece of creative work, or is it just a placebo effect that boosts one's confidence enough to dare to be successful?  Also, the points of friction between Steven and his wife, Laura, are not flattering to Steven's character, but they're also pretty common ones.  There's also the issue of wanting to be successful out of jealousy, and honestly, whether or not the work is worth pursuing at all, beyond financial recompense.  The muse herself is a constant source of irritation and minor inconvenience that Steven puts up with because of the promise of what lies at the end of the process.  One of the unanswered questions of the film is why Steven does what he does.  There are certainly easier ways to earn a buck than by writing screenplays.

On the whole, I really like "The Muse."  I suspect one of the reasons that writers like to write stories about writers is that you can always justify whatever you've written by having the result be a creative masterpiece.  If a muse ran into someone who ran a muffler shop, the result of the interaction wouldn't be very impactful.  Sure, a few people would have brilliantly installed mufflers, but the room for error in the world of mufflers doesn't really require brilliance for the mufflers to work as intended.  But in terms of writing (and creative work in general), even perfect circumstances don't guarantee anything.  But beyond the notion of a real muse wandering around in modern times, you have a basic comedic premise that works.  Two of them, actually.  You've got the cheapskate trying to accommodate a woman with expensive tastes, and you've also got a man juggling the demands of two women, even if the demands are largely not of a sexual nature (I'm not sure I can even remember Steven kissing his wife at any point in the film).  The result is a clever, light, funny film with a bunch of cameos, an absence of Hollywood smugness that frequently sinks insider films (the industry stuff comes off in a surreal manner instead of being self-satisfied), and a couple of nice twists along the way.

But it's not a goddamned chick flick, I swear.

3.5 / 5 - TV (HD)

The Kentucky Fried Movie - 1977

"The Kentucky Fried Movie" - 1977
Dir. by John Landis - 1 hr. 23 min.

Original Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I grew up on movies like "The Naked Gun" and "Airplane!," but "The Kentucky Fried Movie" was the scattershot starting point for not only the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker team, but pretty much for all modern spoof movies.  Even better, a lot of the movie is still really funny, even independent of what's being spoofed.  It helps that there are parts of the film that don't directly tie to other movies, and what's here is deliberately silly and filthy at the same time.  But much in the same way that "Airplane!" has aged well (no one else does this type of humor in quite the same way, so this approach hasn't really been overexposed), "The Kentucky Fried Movie" holds a lot of it's humor, which is saying something for a film that's nearly forty years old.

"KFM" is an anthology movie, comprised of a bunch of unrelated skits (mostly; there are a couple of recurring gags that pop up).  Some are movie parodies (like "Cleopatra Schwartz" and "Catholic High School Girls in Trouble"), some aren't.  The largest segment in the film is a take-off of Bruce Lee's classic "Enter the Dragon."

In some regards, you could consider this an analogue to "Saturday Night Live."  What's the difference?

Well, the one chief difference between this film and SNL is that, like every good '70s movie, it's chock full of breasts.  But not just breasts...

And since it was the '70s, you're not going to get the same thing from the actors that you get from the actresses.  This is about as good as it gets for the ladies:

Now, this isn't the only reason that "KFM" isn't Saturday Night Live.  For the most part, the actors in the film aren't really people who you've heard of, except for the known actors who are making cameos, like Donald Sutherland or Bill Bixby.  But their involvement is more along the lines of "I can't believe they got involved with these weirdos" than actually doing any of the comedic heavy lifting.

But mostly, this is a silly movie with nudity and dildos (and other stuff, too).  In other words, this is exactly the movie you're going to want to throw on after a night out and a couple too many drinks.  You don't need to be in that state of mind to enjoy "KFM," but it doesn't hurt.  It's consistently funny throughout, and comes off cohesively even though the sketches are unrelated, because the style of humor is consistent all the way through the film.  The sketches generally don't overstay their welcome, and it's also a lot of fun to see gags getting worked out that would get play in Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker's later work.  Plus, director John Landis would go on to do a couple of decent films later on, too,  I'm not claiming that "The Kentucky Fried Movie" is better than "The Blues Brothers" or "Airplane!," but that this film is worth checking out on it's own merits.

4 / 5 - Streaming

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Dumb and Dumber To - 2014

"Dumb and Dumber To" - 2014
Dir. by Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly - 1 hr. 49 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

It's been a while since I've watched the original "Dumb and Dumber," but that's another problem for another time.  I remember liking it a lot.  All things considered, even though I was not in the right frame of mind to laugh, I had an expiring free movie ticket that had to be used, and "Dumb and Dumber To" is what I chose to use it on.  I don't regret that choice at all.  Was this as good as the original?  Not exactly.  But it was still pretty funny, and wasn't just a re-hash of what came before (although it's been long enough since I've seen the original I could be off on that).

Twenty years have elapsed since Harry (Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd (Jim Carrey) were seen last, but they haven't changed much.  Lloyd has apparently spent the last two decades in a mental institution, mute and wheelchair-bound, while Harry has been visiting him every week like clockwork.  When Harry tells Lloyd that he's going to have to stop visiting because of a medical problem, Lloyd snaps out of his fugue to reveal that the entire psychiatric stay has been one long joke on Harry.  They agree that it was super-funny.  But Harry needs a kidney, and after some stuff happens, he discovers that he has a daughter, from whom he might be able to get one from.  So Harry and Lloyd set out on the open road to track down Harry's long-lost daughter, which leads them to the KEN Conference (like Ted Talks).

I'll be honest - the first third of "To" wasn't fantastic.  It was okay, but it involved a lot of call-backs to the original film.  Once that's over with, and the film starts to try to stake out new comedic territory, it gets a lot better.  Yes, that's kind of relative, because you're going to have to find fart jokes, slapstick humor, and nearly-psychotically self-destructive stupidity to be funny, but I do, so we're all good here.  It's not called "Smart and Smarter: Deep Conversations with Brilliant Minds," so no complaining about the level of the humor.  You knew what you were getting into the second you selected this film for viewing.  As with many comedies of this nature, the plot is largely just an excuse to string together some funny ideas, and a road trip is a nearly ideal framework to string together funny ideas (like "Bad Grandpa" did, as well).

Jeff Daniels and Jim Carrey are really funny together.  Carrey, in particular, provides a couple of the greatest "no way" reactions I've ever seen.  Rob Riggle has a pair of decent-sized roles in the film (he plays twins), and is a really good foil/target for Harry and Lloyd.  Rachel Melvin plays Harry's daughter with an idiotic zeal that's appealing and good-natured, nearing what Anna Faris has done with the bubble-head role in several movies.  Honestly, once the movie gets out of the throwback section and starts moving forward, everyone does a good job with what they've got to work with.

It's hard to analyze or talk seriously about a movie that involves locking someone in the back of a hearse with a pair of fresh farts for company.  The bottom line is whether or not the movie is funny (it is), and in the case of a sequel, whether it's a worthy addition to the franchise (which it is, even if it's not quite as good as I remember the original being).  It's a lot of fun watching Jim Carrey just being a raging asshole idiot again, it's fun watching Jeff Daniels in on it, and it's fun watching them double-team Rob Riggle when he tries to butt heads with them.  This movie could have been much, much worse, and that's something that you have to remember.  It took twenty years to get all of the important people on the same page, and in that span of time there was spin-off that no one wants to remember.  So the fact that a pretty decent second "Dumb and Dumber" exists is pretty awesome in itself.

3 / 5 -  Theatre

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of 'Smile' - 2004

"Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of 'Smile'" - 2004
Dir. by David Leaf - 1 hr. 49 min.

"Beautiful Dreamer Smile" by David Leaf

by Clayton Hollifield

In the history of rock and roll, there are a handful of mythic albums that have never arrived, arrived after a ridiculous span of time, or never showed up intact at all.  We're talking about works like Guns 'n' Roses' "Chinese Democracy," Dr. Dre's "Detox," or whatever Lauryn Hill comes up with next, now that we're closing in on nearly two decades having passed since her lone solo masterpiece.  Or Bob Dylan's "Basement Tapes," which is finally seeing release.  But before all of that, there was the Beach Boys' "Smile," which was not only an uncompleted masterpiece rumored to be on par with "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," but also sent principal songwriter Brian Wilson insane and dependent on drugs (depending on which version of the story you believe), not to release even a single note of music for upwards of thirty-five years.  An album that was so heavy it literally broke one of the greatest American songwriters of all time?  You'd want to hear that, wouldn't you?

What "Beautiful Dreamer" is is a film documenting Wilson coming out of the fog, and playing his first concerts in three decades (he retired from touring in the 1960s, preferring to stay in the studio to craft the Beach Boys albums, while the rest of the band toured his songs).  And then, someone gets the bright idea of him playing "Smile" as a concert, even though the album was never completed (songs like "Good Vibrations" came out of those sessions, but the album was never sequenced and completed as a full album).  So in order to play these highly-anticipated, very sold-out shows, Wilson and his band would need to confront the beast that broke Wilson decades prior.

There are two ways to look at this film.  First is the way I ordinarily approach music docs: the "Behind the Music" test.  In that regard, there are a lot of ways that "Beautiful Dreamer" comes up short.  There's no actual footage or music used from the original era, just lots of slow zooms on photographs; all the performance footage is from the contemporary sessions.  Secondly, the interviews aren't particularly interested in being even-handed: Wilson is presented as a misunderstood genius, and the people who are presented as being the boogeymen of the story (chiefly Mike Love) are completely unrepresented in the film.  So there's not even the satisfaction of seeing the parties come to any kind of understanding.  This presents the biggest problem: yes, fans wanted to see what "Smile" would be like in a complete form, but the project that people wanted was not a Brian Wilson solo project, but a Beach Boys album, complete with harmonies by the voices that Beach Boys fans knew and loved.  What ended up happening is vastly superior to nothing at all, but it's not quite the same thing as "The Beach Boys' 'Smile'."

The other way to look at this film is that it's a Christmas miracle that it exists at all.  If this film had been made in 1999 instead of 2004, it would have been a vastly different narrative, chiefly about the cost of flying too close to the sun.  The notion that Brian Wilson would emerge from his lengthy hiatus from performing (much less composing) to slay the dragon that left him laying thirty-five years prior sounds like Hollywood shinola.  And I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that he was successful in the endeavor; it would be supremely messed up to make a film about watching a creative mind getting broken by the same batch of work twice.  The fact that Wilson is coherent, somewhat open about his lost time and what happened in the attempt to finish "Smile" in the first place gives "Beautiful Dreamer" value.

Yes, there are things that I wish were included (or even available to be included - as I suspect that the other Beach Boys who don't come off favorably here would be much inclined to lend okay to the use of any contemporary footage), and there are voices that I'd love to hear from in regards to the original recording sessions.  I wish there had been a good explanation of what happened to the tracks that Wilson finished, and how they were parcelled out for next couple of Beach Boys albums, and how bootleggers tried to cobble together what the project might have looked like from whatever sources they could.  But the fact that the resulting product is pretty damned good goes a long way to justifying this film's existence.  It feels good to watch Wilson finally get the love that his music generated, and in a way that he couldn't have without performing for a live audience.  The length of time it took is pretty much hard to explain, but ask yourself if "Chinese Democracy" lived up to it's expectations in the same way that Wilson's "Smile" has.

3 / 5 - TV (HD)

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Italian Job - 1969

"The Italian Job" - 1969
Dir. by Peter Collinson - 1 hr. 39 min.

Theatrical Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

It's been a while since I've watched "The Italian Job," but I had a distinct recollection that it was vastly superior to the remake.  That much is very true.  It's not a perfect film, but it's definitely better than the Edward Norton version, and has some very definite charms.  It's also very much a time capsule from 1969, which isn't always a bad thing.

Charlie (Michael Caine) is a criminal fresh out of prison, who's friend has died, leaving behind a nearly-intact plan for a heist involving $4 million of gold bullion.  It's up to Charlie to finance and staff the expedition, but the mental lifting has been done.  A decent amount of the film is dedicated to the staffing and planning of the heist itself, and the last act is the heist.  This isn't a terribly complicated film, folks.

One quick test: how much do the terms "Michael Caine" and "Carnaby Street" appeal to you?  One of the best reasons to check out "The Italian Job" is to see the fashion of the day on celluloid.  We may be dealing with criminals here, but they are not common street thugs, and they dress well to the man.  And, to the women, as the actresses are also quite fashionable.  Beyond that, the film also employs Mini Coopers (the old ones), which ought to appeal to car buffs.

I find myself without a ton to say about "The Italian Job."  I liked it this time around, too, but it's a fairly slight film (in the same way that Steve McQueen's "The Thomas Crown Affair" is), and the heist itself is less of a thriller than a slapstick sequence that could have appeared on Benny Hill's show (which is appropriate, since he has a decent role in the film).  It's long on style, goes by quickly, and has a fantastic ending.  The dialogue is snappy.  The clothes and cars are fantastic.  The best compliment that I can pay it is to say that the film recognizes it's strengths, sticks with them, and doesn't overly complicate matters beyond that.

3.5 / 5 - TV

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Meatballs - 1979

"Meatballs" - 1979
Dir. by Ivan Reitman - 1 hr. 34 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

I still don't know what "Meatballs" is about, or even why the film is called "Meatballs."  It's a product of a bygone era, a kind of genre film that doesn't really exist anymore: the summer camp comedy.  And to be entirely clear, I am not clamoring for a triumphant return of summer camp comedies.  I'm reasonably sure the only reason that anyone remembers or watches "Meatballs" at this point is because of Bill Murray.

A bunch of kids attend a $1000/week summer camp, I think (but that might be the rival camp?).  The guy who owns the camp is named Morty (Harvey Atkin), and is constantly being pranked by activities director Tripper (Bill Murray), who also is trying to woo Roxanne (Kate Lynch).  One of the kids, Rudy (Chris Makepeace), doesn't fit in, tries to flee, but is rounded up and befriended by Tripper.  Also, there's an Olympiad against the rival Camp Mohawk, a super-rich and snobbish batch of brats (so that must be the $1000/wk camp), consisting of a bunch of sort-of athletic events.

I had a hard time following the plot.  That's okay, no one watches a summer camp movie for plot.  Either you have a slasher cutting up dumb teenagers in the woods, or you're just hoping for hijinks and an occasional panty shot.  Although Tripper does tease a murderer in the woods during story time around a campfire, "Meatballs" is 90% hijinks, and maybe 10% panty shots.  But even then, the entire point of "Meatballs" is letting Bill Murray go HAM (in every sense of the term) for an hour and a half, the first real chance he'd had to do that.  And Murray totally seizes that opportunity.  Honestly, the film could probably consist of flyover footage of the Canadian tundra with Murray's dialogue as a voice-over, and things wouldn't have been much different.

In many ways, this is a proto-"Stripes."  It's not as good as "Stripes," but you can see Director Ivan Reitman and Murray feeling out some ideas that would come into play in their next film together.  Murray as charismatic leader? Check.  Big speech to rally the troops?  Check.

"It just doesn't matter!"

Taking on an impossible mission?  Check.  Murray giving some lady the old flapjack treatment?  Well, not literally, but he does spend an awful lot of time sweet talking Roxanne.  Granted, whatever ideas are in both films are universally done better in "Stripes," but "Meatballs" is where Bill Murray got some cinematic real estate to work out the sort of comedic character he'd play for the first phase of his career.  It's also worth noting that my favorite gag of the movie didn't involve Murray; one of the female camp counselors somehow manages to break her leg during a game of something (field hockey, maybe?) when she takes a wicked knee to her crotch.  In a real sporting event, you'd have announcers hemming and hawing and referring to a "lower midsection" injury, but we all saw the replays clearly showing a knee striking her lady-balls.  I don't know why, but I laughed harder at that than anything else in the movie.

I'd be shocked if I ended up watching "Meatballs" again.  It's got it's moments, and I can't get enough of Bill Murray, but there's a long stack of his films that are better viewing experiences.  I wouldn't discourage anyone from seeing "Meatballs," especially if you've never seen it before, but it's just best to be aware of what it is that you're in for, exactly.  It's like catching a talented baseball player in AA ball, when you can see the tools and the potential, but things haven't quite come together yet.  At this point, we all know what comes next in Bill Murray's career, so going back and watching "Meatballs" feels a bit like a homework assignment, albeit one that you'll enjoy a bit.

2 / 5 - TV

Monday, November 17, 2014

Nightcrawler - 2014

"Nightcrawler" - 2014
Dir. by Dan Gilroy - 1 hr. 57 min.

Official Trailer #2

by Clayton Hollifield

I hate to discuss the advertising of a film, but "Nightcrawler" is a perfect example of making really awful trailer, and then coming up with one that nails the film completely.  When I saw the first trailer, it was focused around the main character and this stupid line he says, apparently over and over and over in the movie, but there's not much more to take away than the guy's a bit creepy, out of control, and has an awful catchphrase.  I wasn't at all interested in seeing that film.  When the second trailer came out, it was clear that this was a thriller, centered around a conniving, scheming, disingenuous creepy little bastard, and that some cool things were going to happen.  That's the movie that I wanted to see, and I can say that it accurately represented the actual film.

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a sort of bottom-feeder in Los Angeles, although there's no explanation of where he comes from, or how he got there.  He's ambitious, self-educated, has a rap, and is looking for a career, while he's stealing fences and manhole covers to sell for recycling.  And there's something slightly off about him.  He stumbles across a car-crash on the freeway in the middle of the night, at roughly the same time some "stringers" show up - they're freelancers who descend upon whatever awful happens in the middle of the night with their video cameras, and sell the resulting footage to whichever news channel is the highest bidder.  This is the perfect job for someone who has a blurry moral compass, and who is a night owl anyways, so Lou begins his job in earnest (getting yelled at by nearly everyone along the way).  Lou gets in with one of the programming directors, Nina (Rene Russo), and his ambition (and increasing skill at the job) put him in some questionable situations.

It's tough to talk about the questionable situations, because the twists and turns of a thriller kind of depend on surprising the audience.  But that aspect of the film works very well.  Lou exists on a slippery slope, and has large ambitions - as he puts it, he wants to be the guy who owns the station - and things end up with very large stakes at play.  On the whole, I liked the story quite a bit, and felt it got better as the movie went along.  In particular, the second half of the film is pure dynamite.  Once Lou's character is established and starts making moves, it's off to the races.

Probably the biggest takeaway from "Nightcrawler" is that Jake Gyllenhaal totally knocks this one out of the park.  This film is designed to support a virtuoso performance; nearly the entire thing hangs on the lead performance.  That's not to say that the story doesn't function; it does, but so do the plots of many thriller films.  The point of "Nightcrawler" is how the Lou Bloom character makes you feel as the film is hitting plot points, and Gyllenhaal does such an outstanding job here that the results are all over the map.  Even in the most important sequences, I was torn between rooting for him to succeed and knowing in the back of my mind that he didn't deserve to, and that what he was doing was acting out of a lack of moral fiber.  Lou's success at any point literally means watching what amounts to a psychopath climbing the ladder on his wishlist, and I was aware of that for the duration of the film.  In addition to Gyllenhaal's performance, both Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed (as Rick, Lou's somewhat hapless assistant) do an admirable job of grounding the story in their reactions to Lou.

"Nightcrawler" is one of the better new movies I've seen this year.  It's a tight, effective thriller that benefits from a good plot that serves as a great platform for Jake Gyllenhaal's entry for crazy dude of the year.  The other actors in the film hold up their end, and by the end of the film, I wasn't sure who or what I was rooting for.  Regardless of that, I was engaged and interested, and couldn't wait to see where things were headed.

4 / 5 - Theatre

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

C.H.U.D. - 1984

"C.H.U.D." - 1984
Dir. by Douglas Cheek - 1 hr. 28 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

Quick version: don't bother.  Longer version: "C.H.U.D." is so goddamned stupid.

It took two viewing sessions to get through this, and pretty quickly on the second session I needed to grab my laptop and idly surf the internet in order not to turn the movie off.  The only good things were Daniel Stern as a dope-smoking soup kitchen-running hippie, and a random appearance by John Goodman, as a policeman trying to put the moves on a waitress.

The only reason that I didn't give "C.H.U.D." no stars is because I was able to reach the end credits.  That's the ONLY reason.  Do not waste your time with this one.  It's not scary, it's not funny, it's not titillating.  The only thing it definitely is is 88 minutes of film.

.5 / 5 - Streaming

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

See No Evil - 2006

"See No Evil" - 2006
Dir. by Gregory Dark - 1 hr. 24 min.

Official Trailer #1

by Clayton Hollifield

There are a couple of reasons why you might be interested in watching "See No Evil."  Either you're a horror fan who watches everything, or you're a WWE fan who wants to see whether or not Kane can act.  I'm in the latter camp; I rarely watch horror movies for any reason, but my love of professional wrestling can lead me to some supremely dodgy entertainment choices from time to time.  I'm not going to say that "See No Evil" is a particularly good or bad horror film; I haven't watched enough of them to be able to tell when something's playing with it's genre's tropes, and it's not like I didn't get anything out of it.  But absent Kane's presence, there's no freaking way I would have ever gone within a Blockbuster going-out-of-business sale of "See No Evil."

A few years back, a couple of police officers manage to save a woman from a crazed killer, but not before she's lost her eyes, one of the policemen dies, and the other has his arm chopped off with an axe.  Fast forward to today: a bunch of wayward teens get the opportunity to help clean up the decrepit Blackwell Hotel over a long weekend instead of spending a month in jail, while being supervised by the one-armed policeman, Frank Williams (Steven Vidler).  What they don't know is that Jacob Goodnight (Glenn "Kane" Jacobs), a giant, ugly, murderous man is lurking in the halls, waiting to pluck out people's eyeballs before he murders them.

If that sounds awful, allow me to offer this music video, also directed by this film's director, Gregory Dark.

Linkin Park - "One Step Closer" - directed by Gregory Dark

So now you know what the movie looks like.  Dark is a renowned music video director, helming videos for everyone from Britney Spears to the Melvins.  And that's entirely what the movie looks like - one of Dark's videos.  I didn't have a problem with that, other than it kept reminding me that I hadn't seen Nine Inch Nails' "Closer" video in forever (which he didn't direct).

As for the question of whether Kane can act, I think it's fair to point out that a lot wasn't required of him here.  His wrestling character has always been horror-based, he's a legitimately large, intimidating man, and when you ugly him up and give him a chain with a meat-hook on the end of it, he's pretty damned believable as a twisted serial killer.  He's not asked to deliver much in the way of lines, and honestly, the entire thing coasts on Kane's presence and appearance, and the atmosphere that Dark brings to his projects.  Kane's wrestling character is fairly talkative for a demon, so it was a little disappointing that most of the dialogue in the film came from the rest of the cast, which basically means a bunch of idiots playing snotty teenagers, without much charm or wit.

This was the first WWE Studios release, and they played it pretty smart.  The story is an extension of Kane's character, they hired a director who could pull off the atmosphere necessary, they went with an R-rating (because what the hell is the point of a cleaned-up horror movie), and picked a genre that's fairly profitable, so long as the budgets are kept reasonable.  That's not to say that all adds up to a "good movie," because I wouldn't claim that.  But I did enjoy watching Kane tear through annoying characters, and I'll probably eventually see the sequel that came out this year (maybe next Halloween).  If you like wrestling AND horror movies, this might be more enjoyable.  But know going in, you need to like one of those two things, or this might be the longest hour and a half you could spend.

1.5 / 5 - TV (HD)

Monday, October 27, 2014

PCU - 1994

"PCU" - 1994
Dir. by Hart Bochner - 1 hr. 19 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"PCU" represents one of the very first times that I remember a movie review.  I knew they existed, and read them in the paper without much thought or attention, but it was The Oregonian's contemporary movie review for "PCU" that made me want to see it.  I can't seem to track that review down at the moment, but my memory says that the reviewer gave this film an "F."  He watched "PCU," and then declared it a flat-out, complete failure as a film.  I had seen the trailer and couldn't figure out what could possibly be that awful about it.  It was that reviewer's insistence that there was nothing of merit at all in "PCU" that piqued my curiosity, and got me into the theatre to check it out for myself.

Every generation gets their own version of "Animal House," retrofitted for it's times.  In this case, a pre-frosh, Tom (Chris Young), is visiting the campus to see if it's a good fit for him.  Unfortunately for Tom, his weekend guide has been signed up for that duty as a prank, and lives in a giant house called "The Pit," populated with every kind of slacker available.  The guide, Droz (Jeremy Piven), is immediately distracted by tormenting protesters - PCU stands for Port Chester University, but it's really "Politically Correct University."  A plot between the University President Garcia-Thompson (Jessica Walter) and an underground frat weasel, Rand McPherson (David Spade) to remove the Pit residents from The Pit is put into play, all while Tom flees various groups he's offended while fleeing from other groups he's offended previously.

Glancing over the cast, it might occur to you that a film starring Jeremy Piven and David Spade might have a likability gap.  Granted, this was made before Piven was in full "Entourage" mode, and was just piling up funny bits in other people's movies, but you wouldn't, at this point in time, be watching "PCU" under those circumstances.  Thankfully, this story doesn't ask you to actually root for Droz.  You may end up doing so, but more because his character wants nothing more than to continue being a facilitator for chaos, and a fixer for those who are wronged along the way.  There's one great scene that makes it clear that you don't have to root for Droz, a flashback to when he and Rand were roommates as freshmen (which brings up the point of why Rand has also spent seven years at PCU).  Droz considers it a "nightmare," but the flashback consists of Droz howling at Rand to go to sleep so that he can sleep with some girl in peace, and Droz wrecking their room in fury that Rand won't go to sleep.  It's funny on it's own, but it's also a clever little piece that tells you the filmmakers know that you're possibly not going to like Droz anyways, so they're not even going to try to justify his behavior.


I suppose the big question is whether or not "PCU" is funny.  It's certainly derivative, although that's not a barrier to a film being an enjoyable one.  I have to say that it is funny.  Yes, there are things that haven't aged well; I don't really care about the costuming, it's accurate enough for the time, as are the stereotype groups Droz and his crew are constantly in conflict with.  The thing that's probably aged the worst are the maybe half dozen statements that begin with "times have changed" or "these days..."  I'd let that slide if it was only once, but those kinds of things are going to make younger audiences roll their eyes, and remind everyone else that this film was the product of another time.  It's hard to get mad about stuff like that - not every film is timeless and will find an audience in perpetuity, and it's probably something that no one was even thinking about as it was made.

But if you're one of those people who like dumb comedies (or "save the house" films, as this literally is), there's some good material here, like everything that Gutter (Jon Favreau, in an early film) does.  His character doesn't get the most screen time, but he's possibly the most likable guy in the entire film, mainly because he's not malicious in his intentions (and because he makes up for his mistakes by accidentally delivering George Clinton and P-Funk to the Pit Party).  Piven's motor-mouth stylings actually work pretty well, and there are a couple of pretty great bigger gags in the film (my two favorites: raining meat and torturing a donor party with the Starland Vocal Band).  There are consistently good little gags along the way (detail stuff, like a Womynist (look it up) getting mad at Rand, and just yelling "Republican!" at him), and truthfully, the silly politically-correct groups haven't really changed that much over the last twenty years, except in the way they dress.

"PCU" doesn't re-invent the wheel, but the wheels on this bus work just fine.  I don't know that anyone could come across this movie now and really get into it - it is in many ways a product of it's time (one way that's a bonus - a pretty decent soundtrack, including a Mudhoney cover of Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up").  At the same time, that damning Oregonian movie review really peeled back the curtain for me: I've always been baffled why movie critics are consistently brutal on comedies, and seem to take their mere existence as a personal affront to be met with a stream of profanities, screamed until a critic is laying in a pool of their own tears, hoarse with rage.  Droz himself has the answer to that:

Get us laid!

As funny as "PCU" is, this isn't going to be on anyone's list of greatest films.  But it's bizarre to see anyone get so worked up over a film that's main point is that people take themselves too seriously, and it's a good idea to throw back a few and watch a legendary funk band every now and then.  I hope that reviewer was just having a bad day, and eventually was able to come to terms with having to live in the same universe that yielded "PCU."

3 / 5 - TV (HD)

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Limey - 1999

"The Limey" - 1999
Dir. by Steven Soderbergh - 1 hr. 29 min.

Theatrical Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

At this point in his career, director Steven Soderbergh is a well-known commodity, as is his visual and editing style.  Sure, he's done micro-budget indie films that deviate from what people know him for, but this is the guy responsible for the "Ocean's Eleven" films, which pretty much cemented what people expect from one of his films.  When "The Limey" was released, things were a little different.  Soderbergh was known for a decade of indie films like "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," and "The Limey" was his follow-up to the slightly-underperforming (yet completely brilliant crime masterpiece) "Out of Sight."  "The Limey" seemed like a bit of a step backwards into indie-land at the time (although if you look at Soderbergh's career, bouncing between small and large films is a characteristic of his resume), with no huge stars, just people who had turned into character actors over the course of their careers.

"Tell me about Jenny."  This is the the demand that Wilson (Terence Stamp) makes of pretty much everyone's he meets in Los Angeles.  Wilson is a Cockney career criminal, and Jenny (Melissa George) was his daughter, who has perished in a fiery car crash in the hills of L.A.  One of her friends, Ed Roel (Luis Guzman) wrote a letter to Wilson about Jenny's death, and Wilson shows up at his doorstep to piece together what actually happened to Jenny.  The name that keeps popping up is Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), a '60s music producer who had been seeing her.

The plot itself is pretty straightforward: Wilson shows up, figures out who is responsible for what's happened to his daughter, and then proceeds towards a showdown with him.  It's a solid plot with a sense of inevitability that builds over the course of the film.  But it's the execution of the story that makes "The Limey" a special film.  It's probably easiest to discuss the acting; Terence Stamp is riveting in his role, Luis Guzman makes the most out of his supporting role (as he seemingly always does), Peter Fonda is suitably smug and earnest (witness his self-absorbed short scene explaining what the '60s were really like to a barely interested younger lover, who is trying to pay attention from the bathtub), Lesley Ann Warren is a necessary and lively counter-point to the matter-of-fact aggression, playing Jenny's closest friend, Elaine.

Some of the things that Steven Soderbergh's films have become known for are on full-display here; non-linear editing, divorcing dialogue from what's on-screen (in this case, showing actors reacting while their own dialogue flows over top of the footage), a languid pace (even though this story takes place over a relatively short amount of time, it doesn't feel hurried), a certain style of soundtrack (provided by Cliff Martinez, who has worked on other Soderbergh films since), and a matter-of-fact visual approach.  Perhaps the best example of the last point is what I thought was the best scene of the film, involving Wilson showing up at a warehouse, having a violent confrontation, getting kicked out, and then walking back into the warehouse to finish his business there.

The scene in question, subtitled because that's how the internet is.

The unmoving camera shot at the end of the scene is perfect, the scene is perfect, the conclusion is perfect.  Just in case you had any doubts as to whether one ought to mess with Wilson, those doubts are settled by the end of the scene.  Despite the straight-forward nature of the story, the editing style keeps viewers constantly wondering what's happening.  It's not disorienting as much as it feels like a stream-of-consciousness manner of film-making, and by the time Soderbergh starts to work in alternate possible conclusions (as in the party scene), the viewer has been conditioned to know that they're going to have to wait a minute to know if what they're seeing is what's really happened.

Above all else, "The Limey" is a clever film, down to it's marrow.  The choice of casting Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda as adversaries is one that carries cultural weight.  Turning Captain America into a faux-hippie businessman plays off of his past.  As for Terence Stamp, his past is actually interpolated into the film itself - re-using footage from the 1967 film, "Poor Cow," in flashback scenes.  This approach is uncommon, but a deeply clever way to get around flashbacks with actors who are cast largely because of some passing resemblance to the older actor.

The result is that "The Limey" is an exhilarating crime film, one that has a distinct personality and pace, and owes nothing to the elephant in the room in '90s crime films, "Pulp Fiction."  Upon it's release, "The Limey" was pretty much completely ignored, but it's aged well, and remains a powerful, pleasing film.  The distinct approach to the material and the excellent work by the cast elevate this film to an equal (in a creative sense) to the other films that Soderbergh made in this string.  His next three films were "Erin Brockovich," "Traffic," and "Ocean's Eleven."  Considering "Out of Sight" and "The Limey," that's an incredibly strong run of five films, and this one is the one that people are least likely to have seen.  I'd recommend taking care of that oversight as soon as possible.

4.5 / 5 - TV (HD)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Foo Fighters: Back and Forth - 2011

"Foo Fighters: Back and Forth" - 2011
Dir. by James Moll - 1 hr. 41 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

There's a big part of me that's a huge Foo Fighters fan; I saw them play on their very first tour, and I've got the t-shirt to prove it.  I would have been to one of their first couple of gigs, if I had only been over 21 at the time.  So I was pretty thrilled to finally sit down and watch "Foo Fighters: Back and Forth," to try to glean some insight into the things that have happened to the various band personnel over the years.  Although they're pretty much the face of alt rock for the last couple of decades (!), it hasn't been an entirely smooth ride.  I'd assume that's the case with any long-running creative endeavor, though.  I'm not sure you could find half a dozen people and expect that any fifteen year run would yield no problems over that span of time.

Plot recap?  Well...  The Foo Fighters were initially born out of the ashes of a pair of influential bands from the early 1990s (although the two bands were not equally popular), Dave Grohl and Pat Smear from Nirvana, and William Goldsmith and Nate Mendel of Sunny Day Real Estate.  They were an immediate success, band members came and went (Grohl and Mendel are the only two members who started and are currently with the Foo Fighters), and the band steadily grew to the point of playing sold-out shows at Wembley Stadium.  The last third or so of the film is devoted to the recording process of their seventh LP, "Wasting Light," which was notable for being produced by Butch Vig (who produced that Nirvana album that everyone knows), having former Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic guesting on a song (as well as former Husker Du/Sugar frontman Bob Mould).

The big question all music documentaries must face is whether or not this could have been covered on an episode of "Behind the Music."  "Foo Fighters: Back and Forth" passes that test in a couple of regards.  First, there are no tearful reunions with jilted ex-Foos, although they are interviewed and have the opportunity to say their peace.  There's no ridiculous on-stage jam with all the Foos, past and present, no hugs, no tears.  Although there is a bit of a bow placed on the story by Grohl at the end, saying that he wouldn't change anything that had happened, the film is also honest about what happened with each of the members, even when it's not particularly complimentary to Grohl.  A prime example of this was Grohl's choice to re-record Goldsmith's drum parts for what would be the Foo Fighter's second album, without Goldsmith's knowledge.  That's the sort of thing that you can't really go back on; even though Grohl is considered one of the all-time great rock drummers, it's a pretty aggressive statement that someone's work isn't good enough.  The situation probably could have been handled better, but it still would have been extremely difficult to stay in a band when you've been deemed insufficient.

Another way in which "Back and Forth" passes expectations is in it's soundtrack, and use of performance footage.  Although I can't remember any instances of a full-song being performed by the Foo Fighters, the live footage is used very well.  One great example of this is, during a point where Pat Smear is talking about the drudgery of touring and playing the same material every night, there's a montage of Dave Grohl introducing the same song in the same way, probably a dozen times in a dozen different places.  Beyond the Foo's material, there is also a lot of their then-contemporaries featured, and there's actually examples of the other bands when they're being talked about.  All of this might seem minor, but I assure you it's not.  It adds up to a well-rounded musical picture of not only where the Foo Fighters' members come from (both in terms of the scenes that they came from, and the actual bands themselves), but what was going on around them at the time.

The Foo Fighters fan in me loved the movie, but the last third (and what's come after, for the band) had me shaking my head in admiration at the shrewdness of Dave Grohl.  It's important to know that with the specific personnel assembled for the making of "Wasting Light," expectations were extremely high.  The Foo Fighters have evolved into a very good arena rock band, drawing huge crowds wherever they go.  But when you get all available hands on deck from an album that changed the course of popular music, at least for a few years, that's a whole other deal.  The glimpse at the recording of "Wasting Light," which ended up being a very successful album for the band, both critically and popularly, trumps the usual mid-career magazine cover-article interview, but hits all the same points.  The band is in a good place, stronger than ever, and this is the best work of their career.  So you should buy it.  But watching what's come after for the Foo Fighters, like the "Sound City" documentary/soundtrack, and the upcoming HBO series "Sonic Highways," which documents the recording of the Foo Fighters' upcoming eighth album of the same name, Grohl has turned documentary film-making into a way to promote his albums, in a way that other bands haven't.

Obviously, one's enjoyment of a music documentary is going to hinge on how much someone likes the band in question (unless it's something like "Searching for Sugar Man"), so only you know if you care about the Foo Fighters.  For me, it's a no-brainer.  This isn't exactly re-inventing the wheel, but more like putting a wheel in an unexpected place, like those three-wheeled motorcycle things that kind of look like Transformers.

"Foo Fighters: Back and Forth" is a good documentary that doesn't ignore the rough patches for the band, but doesn't really wallow in them in pornographic detail, either.  There's no simple answers, other than that the Foo Fighters keep chugging along, and it seems to keep working for them.  This adds up to something that's worth your time, so long as you've got a favorable view of the band.

3.5 / 5 - TV

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Black Dynamite - 2009

"Black Dynamite" - 2009
Dir. by Scott Sanders - 1 hr. 24 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I think I've officially seen more spoofs of blaxploitation films than the real deal.  It's okay, I've got "Blacula" on my DVR, in honor of the Halloween season.  "Black Dynamite" goes in a different direction than other spoofs (and spoofs in general, actually) - instead of putting someone who clearly has no business being the lead in an ass-kicking movie front and center, they find someone who ought to be the lead in an ass-kicking movie and let him take everything extremely seriously.  The result is a lot of fun, whether or not you have any affinity for Jim Kelly or Isaac Hayes movies.

Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White) is everything you imagine when you see a hero from the 'hood, wearing a mustache and afro to go along with his leather jacket.  Unfortunately, someone has killed his younger brother, Jimmy (Baron Vaughn), in a mix-up over a new drug to hit the streets, smack.  Black Dynamite vows to avenge his brother's death, but soon finds himself in the midst of a much larger plot aimed at his community.  Ultimately, this leads to a trip to Kung-Fu Island and a showdown with Fiendish Dr. Wu (Roger Yuan), and nothing less than a hand-to-hand combat showdown with President Richard Nixon (James McManus).

Trying to explain why comedy works is difficult.  I found "Black Dynamite" to be a really, really good comedy, which implies strongly that the comedy here works well.  A lot of the credit for that has to go to lead Michael Jai White; it's hard enough to develop real martial arts skills and to be able to pull off a lot of these stunts legit (there's a great scene where he jumps up and kicks out the overhead lights - not only is it something that an awesome action hero would do, but it's something that White just jumps up and does without any help), but then to put those skills in the service of comedy...  To be sure, the script and jokes are tight.  They've got to be, when the jokes in a scene can come from anything from the boom mic dropping into frame, to clueless erroneous line readings (my favorite being, "Sarcastically, I'm in charge."), to Black Dynamite having unexpected rage-filled overreactions to other characters on occasion, to actual jokes being told.  In this way, "Black Dynamite" borrows heavily from "Airplane!," rewarding extra attention being paid with extra gags.  And, like "Airplane!," "Black Dynamite" is endlessly quotable.

To my mind, "Black Dynamite" is probably the best blaxploitation spoof film out there.  It helps that it's genuinely funny, it helps that there's a story being told (even if it's an amalagmation of every black-focused low-budget movie from the 1970s).  It helps a lot that White would feel at home leading a legit action film.  When you can get past the gag of having an unlikely comedian being the focus of this kind of movie, it opens up a lot of options as to the story you can tell and the humor you can wring from it.  I was continually impressed by the fact that "Black Dynamite" wasn't a one-joke movie.  For a film with a short-ish run-time, there is a lot crammed into the film (including the origin of Roscoes Chicken and Waffles), and no lulls in the story at all.  It's one joke after another, with no let-up, and they come from all angles.

Instead of beating a dead horse (being that "Black Dynamite" is really funny, and I think you should see it), I'll just leave things at that.

4 / 5 - TV (HD)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Etsuraku (Pleasures of the Flesh) - 1965

"Etsuraku" (translated - Pleasures of the Flesh) - 1965
Dir. by Nagisa Oshima - 1 hr. 31 min.

Film still, from Criterion Site

by Clayton Hollifield

First off, you've got to know that a Japanese film from the mid-1960s is probably not going to live up to a title like "Pleasures of the Flesh."  There may be a parallel universe where a film with this title and from these circumstances is going to yield a Dionysian orgy of Earthly pleasures, but in the universe we're all sharing?  Please.  You know this has got to be more morality tale than Fellini film.  Surely enough, that's exactly what we have here, and it's a decent one, at that.

Atsushi (Katsuo Nakamura) is a sweaty, nervous tutor to a young girl, Shoko (Mariko Kaga).  A criminal returns to blackmail Shoko's parents, and Atsushi is asked to deal with the matter.  He does so, although Shoko is never to know about this, and the police seem never the wiser.  One person does figure it out, Hayami (Shoichi Ozawa), a bent politician, who uses his knowledge to blackmail Atsushi into watching some of Hayami's embezzled loot until he can get out of jail and reclaim it himself, five years later.  Eventually, Shoko gets married to a cosmetics magnate, and feeling betrayed, Atsushi loses the plot, deciding to blow through the thirty million yen in a year of decadence, at the conclusion of which he will kill himself.

At the core of the morality play is the question of what keeps a man from turning into a monster?  Atsushi, as a tutor, is fairly timid and meek, but the character's evolution over the film suggests that the only thing keeping ordinary folk from going nutso is the opportunity and resources to do so.  Once Atsushi decides to spend the money, consequences be damned, he essentially begins to hire women that vaguely resemble Shoko, paying out the sum of one million yen a month to take his hatred of her out on their bodies.  Don't get excited, there's not much visual evidence of this.  And he also starts feeling entitled to take his hatred out on everyone else around him.  He's cruel to the women (there are a series of them, each relationship ending somewhat catastrophically), he's mean to others around him, and begins to throw his weight around.  On the other hand, the people around him are very willing to give him whatever he wants because he's splashing cash around like there's no tomorrow (which, in the context of the story, there really isn't).  So normal people don't really come off any better than he does, and he's a grade-A asshole by about half an hour into the film!

Probably the most interesting part of the film is when each of the women inevitably reveal themselves to be something other than a living, breathing, Shoko-shaped love doll for Atsushi to pound his hate out on/in.  Atsushi seems to be a lost cause pretty quickly, but his projection of another personality onto another woman can only last so long before the charade falls apart.  One woman ends up being owned by the yakuza, another has a destitute husband and small children, a third is a virgin who tries to walk into the ocean to avoid being raped by Atsushi, only to agree to a sham marriage with him, a fourth is a mute child-like streetwalker who can't really avoid being who she is.  When Atsushi can't keep up the image in his mind, things fall apart.

"Pleasures of the Flesh" was not a bad film, it was just disappointingly chaste in it's portrayal of a man on the run boning his way through a fortune on his way to a date with destiny.  For a film that has "flesh" in the title to be a largely cerebral enterprise is cruel irony.  On the other hand, it was a decent story told well (visually, there are some interesting things going on here, like director Nagisa Oshima's repeated motif of having characters on opposite ends of extremely wide shots, a visual metaphor for Atsushi's disconnect from reality, and the lack of emotional connection any of the women in the film feel for him, even when being paid handsomely to fake it), and it makes me curious about Oshima's other films.  There were a few genuinely surprising moments, including a series of twists at the conclusion, that raise the question I always have when I see a film from someone I don't know anything about: is this as good as it gets, an average representation of what he's capable of, or is there a better work lurking out there in his filmography?  As always, more research is needed.

2.5 / 5 - Streaming

Monday, October 6, 2014

Gone Girl - 2014

"Gone Girl" - 2014
Dir. by David Fincher - 2 hrs. 29 min.

Official Trailer #2

by Clayton Hollifield

Finally, the movie year of 2014 has begun.  Yeah, there's been a lot of movies out this year, and a ton of them that I didn't even need to see to know that I didn't need to see them.  There's been fun stuff like "Guardians of the Galaxy" (or any of the other comic-book adaptations), but "Gone Girl" is the first movie of the year that I've just gotten lost in the story, and not had much of an idea where things were going to end up.  Not only that, it was a great ride from beginning to end, a tense thriller with twists and turns that just don't let up.

On his fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) comes home to find a mess, but he doesn't find his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), anywhere.  There is blood, but no body, and the police, led by Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens), tries to get to the bottom of things, which appear less clear than they initially appear.  First assumption: she's been killed, and that Nick is probably responsible for it.  And just like every time a pretty blonde wife disappears under suspicious circumstances, bloodsuckers like Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle, playing a Nancy Grace clone) turn it into a 24-7 media circus.  Nick and his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon) do what they can to clear his name, but it's pretty much all they can do just to keep out of the media's lenses, and they don't really even stay a step ahead of the police in this matter.

First things first, this is easily the best film I've seen this year.  I mean, I haven't seen "Godzilla" yet, but I feel safe in saying that this is in the discussion for best movie of the year, to this point.  As much as I enjoyed "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," "Gone Girl" is probably the best possible argument to let director David Fincher tackle the other two books in that series.  His visual sense, mastery of suspense and tension, and expert pacing (this was a two-and-a-half hour film, preceded by twenty minutes of trailers, and never once felt like it was lagging or wasting time) are all on full display here.  The questions that drive this film, namely what happened to Amy and whether Nick did it, aren't answered on accident, and when they are answered, the answers raise more questions than I had before.  This is a complicated story, and there are lot of threads about, and it doesn't get any more confusing than necessary.  That is masterful storytelling.

I also loved the casting in this film, all the way around.  For people who have nothing better to do than hate Ben Affleck, casting him as Nick is kind of an act of trolling (which I whole-heartedly endorse).  If you don't like him, you're going to be inclined to immediately believe the worst about his character, which "Gone Girl" makes clear is at least partially the result of training by decades of sensationalist, irresponsible media coverage of these kinds of crimes.  If you're a fan, watching what happens when an imperfect man and his life is suddenly put under intense pressure and scrutiny is going to be a painful, uncomfortable experience.  The story isn't entirely about the standard knee-jerk media coverage of crimes like this, but the way that coverage affects both how the principals in the story are treated and how they must behave to avoid adding to the flame that's attracting all of the moths. This aspect of "Gone Girl" was handled well, cleverly, and was boosted by the casting of Tyler Perry as a sort of a "celebrity lawyer."  It's almost impossible to have a neutral response to Perry - he's a huge star who has done nothing of note aside repeatedly playing a comedy character in drag, so it's really easy to view him as little more than a buffoon (which is my bias showing), which is pretty much exactly how you should feel about lawyers who are famous pretty much for being on Nancy Grace's show.  As an aside, Perry is also physically larger than Ben Affleck (which is saying something), which is a necessary component of Nick's relationship with Tanner Bolt; it's a subtle thing, but requiring someone physically larger to direct Nick plays up to the distinct possibility that Nick murdered his wife in a rage.

There's a lot of this movie that I won't talk about, just because to spoil much of anything would be awful.  That makes it exceedingly difficult to talk about Rosamund Pike's performance throughout the film (the story is told in a somewhat non-linear fashion, but that aspect doesn't make the film difficult to understand), but a lot of the story rests on her shoulders, and she carries it.  She kind of kicks everyone's ass, in this department.  Beyond that, "Gone Girl" is a successful film.  I mean, it's the first movie in a while that I want to encourage people to see.  It's the kind of movie that theatres are made for; you need to be locked in a dark room away from the world's distractions, devoted to nothing more than paying attention to this story to get the most out of it.  There are some movies that don't suffer from being broken up or from periodic distractions.  "Gone Girl" isn't one of those films.  The tone is remarkable and enveloping, the mood is involving (no matter where the material heads), the acting is top-notch, and the story flat out kicks ass.  This isn't a cool movie, it's one that will find it's way into some of your worst fears, and take you on a ride from there.  So see it, like right now.

4.5 / 5 - Theatre