Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Wizard of Oz - 1939

"The Wizard of Oz" - 1939
Dir. by Victor Fleming - 1 hr. 42 min.

Original Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I think you'd be hard-pressed to call yourself an American if you haven't seen "The Wizard of Oz."  That's not to say that it isn't popular elsewhere, but it's hard to imagine someone who grew up in the U.S. and had access to a TV of any kind that hasn't seen this film, to the point where you'd have to be a luddite or a deliberate recluse to have avoided it.  "Oz" isn't a perfect film, but it's enjoyable, and full of lines that everyone knows, even if they don't know that they know them.  It's reached complete cultural penetration (which is less ribald than it sounds), so whatever flaws might be present don't really matter anymore.

Dorothy (Judy Garland) is an irresponsible teen in need of constant attention, and after letting her mongrel Toto run loose in a neighbor's garden, she returns to Auntie Em's (Clara Blandick) Kansas farm and distracts everyone within earshot from their duties, which include securing all the animals, because there is a twister on it's way!  Her acting out reaches a crescendo when she attempts a Superfly Splash into the hog pen, which concusses her so badly that she imagines her farmhouse (with her in it) has been swooped up into the twister, depositing her into a world that is in full color (she had been living a sepia-toned existence until then) and jammed full of singing little people in fanciful costumes.  Unfortunately, Dorothy's house has landed upon a witch, and when the witch's sister shows up, Dorothy steals the corpse's shoes, and the "good" witch Glinda (Billie Burke) taunts the poor Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) about dropping another house on top of her.  This sets Dorothy and Ms. West on a course towards a head-on collision, if only Dorothy had shown a little respect for the recently departed.

I remember when I watched the first "Star Wars" for the first time a few years, I was struck by how whiny and awful Luke Skywalker was.  Re-watching "Oz" for the first time in a while, I had a similar realization about Dorothy.  Her character was absolutely desperate for attention, and freaked out whenever anyone threatened her dog.  I know that this was intended to be an all ages movie, but I just kept thinking that if someone had biked up to my house and demanded that my dog be put down, I might have resorted to physical violence.  At the very least, a very salty stream of language would have been unleashed.  It's neither here nor there, but Dorothy's always flipping out about something.

But ignoring that, it's pretty important to note that I don't generally like musicals or dance movies.  More than that, I don't usually even bother seeing them in the first place.  That's how big "The Wizard of Oz" is culturally.  Even someone like me who is pretty ignorant of those genres knows about "Oz."  Part of this is that this is a really fun movie, from the songs that everyone knows and can sing along with, to the colorful, imaginative, stylized set designs, to the goofy overacting of everyone involved.  Visually, it's got a lot going on, even if the story itself isn't terribly complicated.  At pretty much every turn, you're going to have fun looking at whatever is going on on the screen

Like I said, "The Wizard of Oz" isn't a perfect film, but it is good enough to overcome my prejudices against the musical genre, and good enough to be a common cultural touchstone for pretty much anyone raised within the last eighty years.  I guess that'll have to do, as far as recommendations go.

4 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Thursday, February 20, 2014

This is the End - 2013

"This is the End" - 2013
Dir. by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg - 1 hr. 47 min.

Red Band Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"This is the End" is the movie to see if you want to see Seth Rogen freaking out and saying "oh fuck" over and over again.  This is your jam!  Or, if you'd like to see any number of the Class of 2004 from Hollywood all in one film.  To be sure, there is more to "This is the End" than just that, but those are probably the only two guaranteed things are sure to guarantee your enjoyment.  It's better to look at this film as being a Christmas present that the stars of this film have sent to their fan club members, a sort of thank-you for having been along for the ride.

Jay (Baruchel - this is a movie where everyone is playing "themselves," or at least playing off their image) arrives at the airport in Los Angeles, where he's picked up by his friend, Seth (Rogen).  They indulge in some vintage Rogen relaxation techniques before Seth gets Jay to begrudgingly agree to go to a Big Hollywood Party at James Franco's place.  Seth fits in, but Jay has a chip on his shoulder, which becomes a problem when all Hell breaks loose!!!  I mean that literally; the rapture has come, the pious ascend to Heaven in a beam of blue light, and the Earth opens up to swallow the sinners.  When things calm down a bit, five men are left standing in James Franco's house: James, Jay, Seth, Craig (Robinson), and Jonah (Hill).  After the required freak-out session, they all go to sleep, and wake up to find that Danny (McBride) has shown up, and has cooked all of their supplies into a giant breakfast feast.  Let the squabbling commence!!!

There are two big "ifs" as to whether you're likely to enjoy "This is the End," and that's even before we get to the content of it.  Firstly, at least part of the humor of the film relies upon some knowledge of exactly who the actors are, in the first place.  If you don't care who Michael Cera is, for instance, you might still laugh at his actions, but you're not really getting the joke.  If you're someone who's been watching this loose cabal of actors since "The 40 Year-Old Virgin," you'll get a lot more out of it.  Secondly, there's the issue of whether or not you're willing to engage with something as utterly meta as a bunch of actors trying to play off of their public personae.  Insider Hollywood movies aren't anything new, but it's a genre that requires a lot of useless knowledge, and might be off-putting to some.  So be warned.

But if you're into all of that, there's some good times to be had.  A lot of the movie feels ad-libbed, and as such, there are a lot of great throwaway lines.  Also, considering the cast, it's inevitable that they would reference earlier work (and not just jokes about "Your Highness"), and this film contains a "sequel" to one of this cast's earlier films that had me rolling in laughter.  That was easily the highlight of the film, along with a shouting match between Danny McBride and James Franco.  And, this film is the land of one million cameos, which is fun in it's own right.  On the other hand, if you don't enjoy a film with admittedly funny actors bickering with one other, or aren't as amused by the idea of having an anatomically-correct fifty-foot tall demon as Seth Rogen seemed to be during his talk show appearance for this film, some of the material is going to fall flat.

I'm not going to pretend that I didn't laugh all the way through "This is the End," or that there weren't at least a couple of parts that absolutely killed me.  But "This is the End" simply isn't as sharp as any member of the cast's best work.  There are moments, there are "wouldn't it be funny to see ___" bits all over the place (shout out to Channing Tatum for the king of those), and the cast combined with the premise was enough to make me want to see "This is the End" in the first place, but it didn't prove to be enough to result in a great (or even very good) film.  So, if you're a fan of this batch of actors, enjoy this the way you'd enjoy a b-sides album by one of your favorite bands.  You know there's a reason these ideas weren't included before, but there are still a few nuggets of gold to be found if you search a little bit.

2 / 5 - TV (HD)

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Monuments Men - 2014

"The Monuments Men" - 2014
Dir. by George Clooney - 1 hr. 58 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I'm not usually a big fan of war movies.  That's not to say that's exactly what "The Monuments Men" was, although World War II is the setting, and the Nazis are (eternally) the bad guys.  So you'd be forgiven if you took a glance at this, thought it was going to be a comedy about old guys trying to fight in WW2, and blew it off.  I generally don't care much about watching people shoot each other over a few inches of territory at a time; if I wanted to see that, I'd just watch an NFL game and comfort myself knowing that there is at least a minimally smaller amount of personal carnage inflicted there.  What makes "The Monuments Men" fascinating (or at least one of the things) is that it's a movie about a small group of men with a specific task in a very large, very deadly war that was for enormous stakes.  This film examines an unexplored nook, and makes a convincing case for why culture and history matter, and even though not everyone shared the same respect for what these men were doing, preserving those things was an act of patriotism on par with every other soldier's.

Frank Stokes (George Clooney) makes a proposal to the President - allow Stokes to lead a small team of men to protect whatever art is left standing after towns have been razed with bombs, and identify what's been looted by the Nazis.  You see, Adolf Hitler dreams of building a huge art museum in Linz, Austria, filled to the brim with masterpieces of art, all stolen from private collections across Europe, and especially from Jewish art collectors.  To that end, whenever the German forces would overtake a town, they would also go through whatever museums and art collections were in the town, and send back cherry-picked pieces home to Germany.  Stokes assembles a small team of artists and historians, and they head into the thick of the action, and immediately receive no support from the other soldiers, who don't really care what they blow up, so long as it means beating the Nazis.

Probably the first thing to note is that I would have gone to see this movie on the basis of the cast alone.  The main cast includes Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, and Bill Murray, which is a nice collection of talent.  All of the characters in the film are "loosely based" on the real people involved (except, I suppose, Adolf Hitler and President Eisenhower), so there's not much point in naming their characters.  The characters all mostly pair off; Clooney mostly interacts with a young translator, Sam (Dimitri Leonidas) and a disgraced British officer, Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), Matt Damon is sent to Paris to try to convince curator Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) to help with whatever information she has gleaned from being forced to work with the Nazis, Goodman and French soldier Jean Claude (Jean Dujardin) roam the countryside in France trying to gain whatever information they can, and Murray and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) do the same while also playing a hangdog deadpan comedy duo convincingly (and entertainingly).  It's hard to say who exactly stands out, as everyone in the cast has their role and nails it, but I think Cate Blanchett has to get extra credit as carrying the only real female role, and it's a hefty one, not a fluffy one that's solely based around her falling in love with some soldier.  Blanchett has a lot of range to cover emotionally, and she's absolutely spellbinding here.

In terms of what makes the story here work, one aspect that has to be acknowledged is that how you might respond to this movie will largely depend on whether or not you have any respect for the role of art in a culture's history.  Clooney's character does make an explicit argument for that, but if you're someone who just doesn't care, his assertion that taking away a culture's history and achievements is one thing that a people can't recover from might not hit home.  There's no dancing around it, you either believe that creative works are valuable or you don't, and if you don't, there are plenty of other films out there for you (although I'm not sure why you'd want to watch any movie if you didn't have some respect for creative endeavors).  For me, there were several moments involving the artwork itself that stuck in my throat.  Oddly enough, the worst for me was a still picture during the end credits that had the actual Monuments Men recovering a portfolio of prints, with the word "Durer" written on it.  I've been to Europe and some of it's museums, and I've seen Albrecht Durer's work in person, and the idea that if some Nazi dickhead had his way I (and everyone) would have had to bow down to an anti-Semitic regime in order to experience these pieces of human achievement really angered me.

There are other points in the film where the stakes are made explicit, in broader terms than one little thing that hit home with me.  This is some kind of war film, and that means everyone doesn't make it out alive.  Just because our band of protagonists deal in art and culture doesn't mean that bullets and bombs don't have the same consequences that they do for your everyday soldiers, who are also part of the story.  The point is that there are people who think that this stuff is also worth fighting for, that there has to be something left for whoever survives the awfulness of war.  The fact that the results on that front were mixed (that's not a spoiler, you have to expect some breakage if you're moving anything anywhere) says a lot about not just the talents of the people involved, but also the legitimacy of the threat that Germany and Hitler's ambitions posed to the rest of the world in this time period.  There are plenty of films about the big battles in World War II, this is a film about one aspect that flew under the radar.  I'm not suggesting that it's a more important one than the others, but it's a unique one with a great cast, and showed just enough of the war to keep the audience aware of the stakes, and enough of everything else to not be just another war film.

4 / 5 - Theatre

Thursday, February 13, 2014

That's My Boy - 2012

"That's My Boy" - 2012
Dir. by Sean Anders - 1 hr. 56 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There are people that would have you believe that any time Adam Sandler sets foot in front of a camera, you instantly have a contender for the Worst Film of the Year.  So much so that it's become an eye-rollingly lazy assessment, one that says more about the reviewer than the film in question.  "That's My Boy" is not the worst film of it's year.  I don't know what film was, but to my tastes, it would have to be one of the legion of joyless, devoid of love film designed to push toys via explosions and a humorless steroidal crew trying so hard to be badasses, but are undone by the fact that none of them are over five foot six nor one hundred fifty pounds.  Is "That's My Boy" a good movie?  Not really, but that doesn't matter.  What matters is that Adam Sandler is a Job Creator, and what have you ever created aside from a daily pile of loose stool?  Who are you to judge anything?

The film itself is a paragon of American Values; honesty, the importance of family, and buying American-made.  Babies get made the way they get made, but circumstances (and a vital lack of liberal sexual indoctrination) leave the thirteen-year old Donny (Adam Sandler) with a son.  Donny and his son, Han Solo (Andy Samberg) travel a rocky path, one that leaves them estranged, and neither are happy.  Donny stares down an insurmountable tax bill (thanks, Obamacare), his only hope of covering is to reunite with his son.  Meanwhile, Han has changed his name and invented a fictitious back-story, trying to ingratiate himself into the One Percent.  Han's marriage announcement finds it's way to Donny, and the reconciliation starts haltingly.  At the same time, Donny always has the King of Beers at hand, supporting the American economy by buying the greatest beer ever made, American Made.

In real life, Adam Sandler makes movies with steely determination and oat bran-fueled regularity.  For more than twenty years now, he has been keeping his crew of liberal sleazebags gainfully employed and off the streets, otherwise the crime rate would have surely risen, coating our society with a nearly imperceptible, yet acutely odiferous veneer of low morals.  Ask yourself, would you rather have this crew of ragamuffins contained to the silver screen, where you can't smell them or be accosted by their insistent cries for spare change, or would you rather have them in your town, on your streets, and in your daughter's bedroom?  Adam Sandler creates jobs, makes money, and keeps the mentally-challenged entertained as well.  What have you done to make your community safer?  Cowered behind your doors while sipping lattes?  Exercised your First Amendment rights?  Gone cheese shopping?  There is only one kind of cheese for Americans, called American, and it's individually wrapped in cellophane for your protection.  Cheese variety is a secret Muslim plot to keep you from enjoying more Adam Sandler films, and that's not an America I want to live in.

I personally find it comforting to know that every single year, Adam Sandler will wrangle his batch of miscreants with enough skill and organizational know-how to produce a feature film, containing pretty much the same jokes last year's model had, and usually having most of the same Godless Hollyweirdos in the cast.  This is American Exceptionalism: find one thing that works, and then cram it down people's throats repeatedly until you die, and be sure to call it innovation.  I'm glad that Adam Sandler has been making movies for twenty years, and if you don't like that, why don't you move to San Salvador or something?  I hope he makes movies for another twenty years.

1.5 / 5 - TV (HD)

Monday, February 10, 2014

Lovelace - 2013

"Lovelace" - 2013
Dir. by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman - 1 hr. 33 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Lovelace" is the very definition of a "how the sausage got made" movie.  That doesn't have anything to do with the quality of this film, or the performances.  But it's important to know going in that this isn't a light-hearted, titillating look at how "Deep Throat" got made, or about the starlet herself.  This is a take-down of an iconic piece of '70s culture, and lays the blame at the feet of one particular person, and that might not be the sort of thing that you are up for in your choice of entertainment.  Do you enjoy portrayals of spousal abuse?  And worse?   "Lovelace" is definitely intense, particularly due to the structure of the film.

Linda (Amanda Seyfried) is a young suburban girl with a controlling family, and quickly falls for the charming Chuck (Peter Sarsgaard), a former Marine who owns a bar.  They end up getting married, and when Chuck runs afoul of the law (and money troubles), he decides to take advantage of a particular skill that Linda possess, and pushes her to be in a porno.  As it so happens, the movie in question, "Deep Throat," becomes the most successful film of it's kind (rumored to have drawn over $300 million at the box office, and that's in 1972 dollars, although much of it was cash, and thus unaccounted for), and turns Linda Lovelace (her new stage name) into a household name (and a repeated punchline for Johnny Carson).

Part of what makes "Lovelace" unique is the structure of the film, where it goes through the story once (up to a point), only hinting at the truly disturbing aspects of Linda's life.  Chuck comes off as charming and manipulative, and Linda seems wide-eyed and in over her head, but mostly game for whatever.  The second half of the film starts off with Linda taking a polygraph test on request from her publisher, because they need to be convinced that her accusations against Chuck are on the level before they'll print them.  And emotionally speaking, it's all downhill from here.  Chuck is portrayed as a drug-addled psychopath, turning Linda out for tricks whenever he's low on cash, and physically threatening and abusing her into agreeing to do "Deep Throat."  A common description of this scenario says that if you're watching "Deep Throat," you're watching Lovelace being raped over and over, which certainly colors how much one could enjoy that movie.  There's not much indication in the film that the other actors really knew what was going on, in terms of Chuck's threats and intimidation of Linda, aside from her co-star/make-up stylist noting some bruises on her thigh, but it's still a very murky situation.

A lot of this movie's merit rests on Amanda Seyfried's shoulders; she's alternately radiant and deeply tormented, but at no point can you take your eyes off of her.  This role is demanding, to say the least, and she completely nails it (even the recreations of the cheesy dialogue from "Deep Throat").  Without her performance, the material is so harrowing that I'm not sure it would be watchable, or compelling.  And this is a disturbing film.  I'm not sure that anyone really believes that the reality of making pornography is all sunshine and rainbows, at any point in history.  How far you want to argue that point is a political matter, and not one that I'm interested in delving into.  It's clear that in this instance, Linda was manipulated and coerced into doing things that she didn't want to do.  The question then becomes, what to do with the product itself?  What to do with work that was created under intimidation (or straight-up criminal conditions)?  This is the question that isn't addressed by "Lovelace," and even just to start a dialogue about the subject, I wish something had been put forth.

You don't have to go to the extreme of having someone performing non-consentual sexual acts on film to debate this point (and it's adjunct point - how much do you want to know about how your entertainment is made?), you can start with how Alfred Hitchcock treated the actresses in his films, and move sideways to works by people supposedly responsible for reprehensible acts, but there's nothing particularly criminal in how their work was made.  Or does it even matter?  Does it?  Do you care about the demands on a NFL player's health, or is that completely irrelevant to one's enjoyment of professional football?  For this film, "Lovelace" doesn't get into that.  It does tell you how "Deep Throat" got made (at least from one perspective), and if you care enough to want to know how this sausage patty got made, you're not going to finish this film in a good mood.  There is a choice each potential viewer has to make - do you want to look behind the curtain?  Deep down, each of know that it's not going to be pretty, but you've got to decide one way or another, and then decide if what you see is enough to deter you from enjoying "Deep Throat" (or anything in that genre, really) or not.  In this way, "Lovelace" is a deeply disturbing film that requires some self-examination out of it's audience, which might be as uncomfortable as enduring what Linda Lovelace did.

3 / 5 - Streaming

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues - 2013

"Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" - 2013
Dir. by Adam McKay - 1 hr. 59 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Maybe the most thankless task any comedian can undertake is making a sequel to a hugely popular, widely successful comedy.  It's doomed to failure; comedy itself thrives on surprises, which are a lot less possible once everyone knows all of your characters and their quirks.  And most of the time, comedy sequels end up like a bad reproduction of what was great in the first place.  It was an incredible relief that "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" wasn't a bad film in itself, and even more of a relief that it was a really funny movie (if not quite up to the bar set by the first one).

Now, Ron Burgandy (Will Ferrell) and his news team and family are in the early 1980s, at the dawn of twenty-four hour news channels.  An early rift between Burgandy and his wife, lady anchorman Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) splits the family, and Ron ends up far worse off.  At his nadir, he's offered a job at GNN, an upstart twenty-four/seven news channel bankrolled by an Australian millionaire, Kench Allenby (Josh Lawson).  Burgandy assembles his team, and they head to New York for the launch.  Once there, they are shocked to find out that they've pulled the graveyard shift, and Burgandy makes an ill-conceived bet with the network's star, Jack Lime (James Marsden).  In a moment of desperation, Burgandy decides to give people what they want instead of what they need, which turns out to be a big boneheaded hit.

The big challenge of a sequel is how to keep the flavor of the first movie intact, and still allow room to try and surprise the audience.  In this instance, that means transplanting the core characters into a new environment, and fleshing out the movie with new characters.  This is a trade-off; one of the main delights of the first film was watching Christina Applegate bring it with the same intensity and fervor that Will Ferrell (and anyone else in that film, also) did, and their relationship is more of a back-burner deal this time around.  There is a whole new batch of co-workers with which Burgandy won't get along very well with, and a new romantic interest that is surely doomed from the very first meeting.  There's another romance this time around, between Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) and Chani (Kristen Wiig), and literally each of their scenes together had me laughing uproariously.  It was to the point where Carell stole every scene he was in, and that's saying something.

On the whole, there were a lot of really great comedic scenes.  A couple of them were callbacks to the first "Anchorman," but all of the "where are they now" scenes for the news team were fantastic, too.  There just was a lot of funny material (and I wouldn't want to spoil any of it) that was funny just for the sake of being funny, but there was actually kind of a point to some of the humor as well.  While you're laughing, the point is made that all of the kinds of "news" programs that everyone claims to loathe, like celebrity news, kittens, and car chases, were probably created by rich blowhards like Kench Allenby and aggressive dolts like Ron Burgandy, and while we were all laughing at them, they took over.  Is that the entire point of the film?  No, but it's a strong subtext.

All of this adds up to a really solid comedy.  If someone watched this one first (which I suppose could happen), they probably would want to go back and see the first one, at which point they'd probably be blown away.  For a comedy sequel, the first bar that you have to clear is not wrecking the franchise, by which I mean that you can't make one so bad that it ruins the first one retroactively.  Mission accomplished.  Once that's accomplished (and it's harder than it seems, judging by the history of cinema), the question is whether or not it could stand on it's own, and I'd say "Anchorman 2" easily does that.  There's nothing quite as good here as Veronica seeing a rainbow and telling Ron, "Do me on it," but some of the Carell/Wiig stuff is close in it's own twisted way.  And after this film and the two of them voicing characters in the second "Despicable Me," there had damned well better be a full-on rom-com starring those two in the works already.  For now, they have the best scenes in a pretty good comedy, definitely one worth checking out.

3.5 / 5 - Theatre

Friday, February 7, 2014

Waking Life - 2001

"Waking Life" - 2001
Dir. by Richard Linklater - 1 hr. 39 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Waking Life" is a film that's very difficult to talk about in words, though if you're like me, it's a movie that will leave you craving a late-night diner BS session with an old friend.  The first time I saw "Waking Life," it staggered me.  A friend and I went to an art-house theatre to catch it as part of a double-feature with "Tape" (which I still haven't seen), and both of us were so leveled by "Waking Life" we just went home after, silently.  This film is a more visually interesting version of "Slacker," which is also one of my favorite films, but is also the kind of thing that can be unbearably boring for some.  Most of all, "Waking Life" is an experience, something that only makes sense through the actual experience of viewing the film, and you can't really recount it as a series of things that happen.  It's a pile of seemingly disparate bricks that don't seem to be adding up to anything in particular, until it does, and you start to understand what's going on.

In a general sense, we follow an unnamed main character played by Wiley Wiggins, who rarely talks until late into the film, through a series of conversations and vignettes about fairly "heavy" subjects.  For the most part, it seems like Wiggins is just floating from idea to idea and taking it all in.  At some point, it's made clear that Wiggins is dreaming, and there's a discussion about lucid dreaming that informs the rest of the film.  But none of that matters; "Waking Life" is about being barraged by ideas, and about the tone and color of the film.

"Waking Life" is an film that combines two of my favorite things - animation and philosophy.  Director Richard Linklater used a method of animating that involves shooting the movie on video first (a version of rotoscoping), and used thirty different animators to give different segments different looks.  This is relevant because it allowed Linklater to impress the shifting, ethereal nature of dreams, and still maintain a consistent character likeness (while there aren't a ton of people you'd recognize from the acting world, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have a scene, reprising their characters from other Linklater movies, and there are a couple of other "actors" as well).  The animation, which fancifies and intensifies the dialogue, is one of the chief differences between "Waking Life" and "Slacker," whose visually barren approach produced a different sort of delirium.

But the main thing that "Waking Life" shares with "Slacker" is an elliptical kind of storytelling, where you find yourself immersed in something while not being able to make heads or tails of anything.  The bits, on their own, make sense, but when the seemingly non-connected pieces are placed together, a viewer is forced to try to assemble whatever information you've been given to construct something sensical.  There are bread crumbs left here and there, and there are pieces that seem to be there only to provide entertainment (or perhaps more accurately, flavor).  One of the segments has Linklater himself playing pinball, and trying to explain to the unnamed main character that essentially, all stories are about moving from "no to yes," and when you finally accept the yes (or the reality, as unknowable as it might be), you've reached your destination.  Does that help?  I know it doesn't, but it'll make some kind of sense as you're watching it.  I keep trying to figure out a musical or artistic explanation that will help get across what Linklater does (and I've never seen anyone else approach what he does, in the way he does it), and the closest analogy that I've been able to come to is that it's a cubist approach, where you're seeing different angles of the same item all at the same time.  It's not a perfect analogy, but I hope it's in the ballpark.

I find "Waking Life" to be one of the most immersive films I've ever seen.  It's heavy with ideas and oddball approaches, packed to the brim with dialogue, visually stunning.  It owes a debt to some of the more insane surreal movies of the 1970s (the pacing of "The Man Who Fell to Earth," the animation techniques of Ralph Bakshi, the casting of non-actors to great effect), and yet it's utterly unique.  There is a real sense of searching for a meaningful understand of the world around you, and failing utterly, and yet it's not a film of despair or nihilism.  Being awake, being aware of the search and yourself, and not closing yourself off from uncomfortable moments and realizations are the entire point, both of this film and of life.  Buried in what can seem like nonsense, there are moments of intense self-realization and staggering beauty.  As a fellow dreamer says to Wiggins' character, "So whatever you do, don't be bored.  This is absolutely the most exciting time we could have possibly hoped to be alive.  And things are just starting."

5 / 5 - TV (HD)

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Tower Heist - 2011

"Tower Heist" - 2011
Dir. by Brett Ratner - 1 hr. 44 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I wish I could get over this, but I do hold it against a film when it's advertised as something a bit different than what it actually is.  Part of the issue with "Tower Heist" is the cast; when you have something that stars Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy, there's going to be an expectation that you probably have a comedy on your hands.  That's not to say that either actor hasn't done dramatic work, but when the trailer cherry-picks the movies for the few jokes present, that's a promise that the full film can't deliver.  "Tower Heist" isn't a comedy.  It's not really a drama, either.  It's not really a good movie.  It's not a terrible movie, either.  It just sort of exists.

In a building called "The Tower," which is purported to be the most expensive real estate in the world, Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) runs the support staff, which is the real draw of the building.  They exist to make everyone's life run smoothly, and do so very well.  One of the tenants, Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda) is an investment banker on Wall Street, and runs afoul of the law.  Coincidentally, part of Shaw's Ponzi Scheme involved The Tower's staff pension fund, which has now been wiped out.  After Josh and a pair of co-workers get fired after confronting Shaw, the idea of stealing Shaw's as-yet-unlocated rainy day fund is drunkenly put in Josh's head by the FBI Agent in charge of the Shaw case, Special Agent Clair Denham (Tea Leoni).

So when I say "Tower Heist" isn't a comedy, I mean to say that it's not particularly funny.  There are a few decent exchanges, but Stiller's character is the main one, and he's a very earnest, straight-forward character (and even that trait isn't ever really put on blast).  If you put Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller (and Tea Leoni, and Casey Affleck, and Michael Pena, and Matthew Broderick, and Alan Alda) on the screen in various configurations, there's going to be a few moments here and there, but the story is more of a timely, socially-conscious Robin Hood tale than anything else.  I can see the thinking behind this film - it's like trying to set up a situation where you could morally justify pulling an "Ocean's Eleven."  You've got the same colorful variety of characters (well, not the same exactly, but I think you know what I'm getting at), the "impossible" heist, a burgeoning love story, a ritzy setting.  But if you sat down and watched Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's Eleven" and Brett Ratner's "Tower Heist" back-to-back, you'd see exactly what the difference in the two men are as filmmakers.

That comparison is going to be a rough one for Ratner, but he's not without skill as a filmmaker.   For as much as I felt like the plot (and characters, for that matter) weren't fleshed out as much as I would have preferred, Ratner will give you a smooth ride.  He's proven that over and over again, that he can make a big Hollywood action comedy movie, and even if you're not blown away by it, you're not going to be shifting in your seat and checking your watch.  Enough things happen with enough regularity that there aren't dead spots or lulls, it's more that all of it doesn't add up to much.  It never feels like any of the characters hit a real low (at least in the sort of way that you, as an audience member, would feel - it all feels like shorthand for bad times).  Even when one of the characters attempts suicide over having his retirement wiped out, it's skirted around, and when you see him in a hospital bed afterwards, he's not messed up at all.  He may as well have been taking a nap.  And since Ratner never really gets across the low times with any conviction, whatever successes occur don't resonate as hard-earned victories, either.  And beyond that, not getting an audience to feel anything real in the first place makes the logic behind suddenly deciding to steal TWENTY MILLION DOLLARS flimsy.  These are basic storytelling flaws, but it also fits with Brett Ratner's career.  Never too high, never too low, just a smooth ride.

Most of what's good comes from the cast of "Tower Heist."  Stiller and Tea Leoni have an easy, brusque chemistry that makes me wish this film had been a romance comedy between these two characters, with the big heist in the background.  Everyone who had more than a line or two made the most of them.  It just didn't matter a whole lot.  By the time we got to the actual heist, I wasn't really rooting for anyone, I was just hoping that something funny might happen.  The idea of pulling something over on one of the Wall Street jackasses is one that's ripe with potential, very little of that potential is on display in "Tower Heist."  But Heavy D did have a "blink and you'll miss it" role, and I was pretty happy about that.

1.5 / 5 - TV (HD)

WarGames: the Dead Code - 2008

"WarGames: the Dead Code" - 2008
Dir. by Stuart Gillard - 1 hr. 40 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

Well, it finally happened.  I wondered what it would take for me to give a film no stars at all, and we have arrived at the answer in "WarGames: the Dead Code."  The answer is simple: I have to turn the movie off.  I can't pretend I'm disappointed, this film didn't look good to begin with, and literally the only reason that I gave it a chance at all was that it bore the name of one of my favorite films of all time.  I understood going in that there no real connection between the two, but I still figured that if I could make it through a direct-to-DVD "Dukes of Hazzard" sequel with none of the original cast, I could probably muddle through this.

I was wrong, and gave up about fifteen minutes in.  The movie looks like an off-brand syndicated knock-off of an episode of "24," and is jammed full of know-it-all shithead characters (I counted at least three in that short amount of time).  I get it, profiling seems really cool when you want to pigeonhole people really quickly on the basis of next to nothing!  But I'm not going to waste my time with a movie that sullies the reputation of a legitimately great movie, and is full of characters who are all apparently two levels dumber than they think they are (and this isn't being played for laughs, either).

Just watch the Matthew Broderick "WarGames" over again rather than bother with this.  You'll be glad you did.

NIL / 5 - TV

Monday, February 3, 2014

Barbarella - 1968

"Barbarella" - 1968
Dir. by Roger Vadim - 1 hr. 38 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

There are no shortage of films that are essentially based around looking at a beautiful woman for an hour and a half.  Film is a visual medium, and looking at attractive people is one of the primary visual pleasures for all of us.  It helps if there's a decent story to pretend to care about when you're trying to defend your prurient interests, a little creativity goes a long way, too.  But even then, most of the time, everyone forgets about the film after a while, and if it's remembered, it's remembered for one scene (like Halle Berry's topless scene in "Swordfish," or Catherine Zeta-Jones' career highlight in "Entrapment") only.  "Barbarella" has turned into a cult classic, which means it's one of those films that people will put on after everyone else has gone to bed, but beyond all of that, it's really goofy and fun.

The movie opens with a zero-G strip tease by Barbarella (Jane Fonda) inside of her completely shag-carpeted spaceship, which is worth mentioning, and is eventually interrupted by the President of Earth (Claude Dauphin), with instructions to head further into space to retrieve Durand Durand, a lost scientist.  Barbarella wrecks her ship and is abducted by creepy children (on a sting ray-pulled ski-system).  She is rescued by Mark Hand (Ugo Tognazzi), the hairiest man who ever lived, and is introduced to the ancient method of intercourse, which agrees with her very much.  She continues on her quest to find Duran Duran, falling in love with an angel, Pygar (John Phillip Law), and eventually finds herself in Sogo, a city ruled over by The Great Tyrant (Anita Pallenberg), whom Barbarella finds herself at odds with.

When you think of what weird '70s sci-fi films look like, "Barbarella" fits into that like a glove, or a tight body-hugging contraption that Jane Fonda had somehow wiggled herself into.  Yes, it's low-budget, yes, it's indisputably a product of it's time, but at least there's some imagination here.  The entire look is bizarre (which you'll notice if you can take your eyes off of Fonda, which is admittedly very difficult), like a set designer went insane with naught but a French Curve and a set of day-glo paints in his hands.  I find this charming, and inventive, and something completely lacking in modern cinema.  The only real stylistic hallmark I can think that's emerged from the slavish adhesion to dull reality in modern sci-fi film design is the ability to make people look really, really small next to enormous machines that sometimes look like a wad of aluminum foil (any of the Transformers movies, for instance), but I hope that someone comes up with something more impressive (design-wise) before long, or we'll all have to admit that all of these computers have sapped the fun out of science-fiction.

Instead of boring concrete and metal, we have purple skies, spaceships furred out floor to ceiling, beautiful naked people pretty much everywhere, psychedelic images on every flat surface imaginable.  "Barbarella" is crammed full of insane, colorful visual ideas on every square inch of the screen, and that's even before you get to the fact that Jane Fonda is absolutely stunning, and on full display, and has an easy, playful charm that goes a long way to make the absolute bizarreness of "Barbarella" go down smoothly.  Like I said before, there's no shortage of eye-candy in the history of film, but there's got to be something more in order for a film based around that aspect to hold up at all.  In different hands, "Barbarella" could end up a horror story, or just not funny, or completely forgettable.  Fonda finds the right tone for her character (a sort-of gung-ho attitude that's not at all manipulative, or salacious, and it doesn't feel like a put-on, either), and everything follows that.  It's hard to even imagine another actress who could pull off this kind of role (and that has as much to do with the acting as Fonda's appearance), possibly one of the reasons that the long-rumored remake hasn't ever come to fruition.

"Barbarella" is a crazy, sexy, inventive, goofy, funny film.  It's tone and attitude mark is as clearly not being the product of the American film industry, and there's not a lot of movies like this one.  I don't know how to help you loosen up if you can't enjoy a scantily-clad Jane Fonda discovering her joy for good old-fashioned sexual intercourse, break an orgasm machine, search for Duran Duran in the arms of an angel with hilariously crude animatronic wings, and meet up with a guy named Dildano.  "Barbarella" is the definition of a good time, and was intended as such, so it's a bonus that there's a lot going on visually outside of Fonda to enjoy, as well.  Just make sure everyone else is already asleep, I don't know how you're going to explain Barbarella's fur ship, much less her strip tease, much less the general state of undress of nearly all the background characters, much less Dildano, to children.

3.5 / 5 - Streaming