Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Conan the Barbarian - 1982

"Conan the Barbarian" - 1982
Dir. by John Milius - 2 hrs. 9 min.

Original Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Once again, there is a relevant question:

Yes, yes I do.  And what we've got here is a doozy of a gladiator movie, the king of all barbarians.  By Crom, I'm talking about Conan the Barbarian.  Conan, the character that inspired not one, but two spoof comic books that each ran for hundreds of issues (Sergio Aragones' "Groo the Wanderer," and Dave Sim's "Cerebus," which ran for three hundred issues).  Conan, the character that launched Arnold Schwarzenegger as an action star.  Conan, whose paperback covers by Frank Frazetta are still revered and (poorly) imitated, and sometimes painted on the sides of vans.  Conan the Barbarian!

As a child, Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) watches his entire village and family slaughtered by Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) and his minions, and Conan is taken as a slave.  He spends his entire childhood pushing a giant wooden wheel around (to what purpose I don't really know) until he's the last one standing, and all swole!  Conan then is thrown into hand-to-hand combat, where he excels, vanquishing foe after foe.  Only at this point is he educated and trained in actual combat, and he is eventually freed in the middle of the night by one of his captors.  From here, Conan embarks on the life of a thief, which leads to interesting company, and eventually, the opportunity to try to exact revenge on Thulsa Doom.

There are a lot of ways to look at "Conan the Barbarian," and to admire it.  This is a very masculine film (as one might suspect), and it's played straight.  Conan's world is one where there is only one consequence to stepping out of line: death.  As a result, one must either be very good and very aggressive, or be completely under the radar.  Conan is a bad-ass, and is always willing to tackle anything head on.  He even punches a camel in the face while tripping balls on black lotus.  I'm not saying that I want to see more camels getting punched in movies, but if it's already there, I'm not going to say no.  There's a real fine line when making such an explicitly masculine movie - a lot of people's instincts are to undercut the tension and start mocking the dynamic (or the characters themselves), and some filmmakers simply don't have the chops not to understand the absurdity of an ultra-serious approach.  John Milius does a great job here; the action is sufficiently gritty (and none of that shaky-cam crap that has since infested action movies), there's great moments of humor that don't undermine the characters or their environment.

Beyond that, one of the things that I most enjoyed about "Conan the Barbarian" was that, in comparison to other swords-and-sandals movies, it didn't feel like an "epic."  There's certainly an appeal to those kinds of movies, but this is a movie about a kid who was enslaved, and then conquered the world (according to the post-script), and that kind of movie is going to be told mostly in deserts, and in crappy towns and their crappy taverns.  There are "large" moments, though, and they come across as a bigger deal because this film isn't packed wall-to-wall with them.  Thulsa Doom's palace in the middle of BFE is a great example, and there was nothing around to distract from this piece of awesomeness in the middle of nowhere.

But perhaps the most impressive thing about "Conan" is that this is a textbook example of how you work around an actor's limitations.  It would be awesome if every actor (and especially every star) was like Lawrence Olivier, and could tackle anything put in front of them.  But they aren't.  And Arnold Schwarzenegger was not, at this point in his career, particularly versatile.  He had some stuff going for him - his look, mainly, and some charisma - but he also was doing a movie in a second langauge, this seems to have been his first starring role, and probably had to eat a third of the world's chicken population in order to consume enough protein to maintain his look.  Director Milius did the smart thing: focus on what he could do.  Conan doesn't talk a ton, he does fight quite a bit, and when he's not fighting, he's doing something active.  His character is paired up with Subotai (Gerry Lopez), who handles some of the talking for them.  Most importantly, Arnold isn't ever hung out to dry.  Yeah, some of the lines are hilarious, especially as read by Arnold, but since he kills approximately the population of South Dakota over the course of the film, via swordplay, you still have to take him seriously.  And his character is a doer, not a talker, which is entirely the right way to handle things.

"Conan the Barbarian" is a gory, nasty, occasionally silly movie that still holds up as pretty awesome.  More to the point, it's a pivotal movie in film history, in that no one seems to be able to do any kind of movie in this vein without directly copping huge pieces of "Conan."  I watched "Pompeii" not two weeks ago, and you could pretty much just swap in the first hour of "Conan," and the story wouldn't be dramatically changed.  John Milius, co-writer Oliver Stone, and star Arnold Schwarzenegger absolutely nailed this, defining the tropes that make up this genre's hallmarks.  This isn't a perfect film, it's a little too long for my taste, but it's pretty darned good.  Plus, rampant toplessness, and Arnold punches out a camel.  Again, I'm not saying I need to see more of this in movies, but if those sorts of things are already there, I'm watching.

3.5 / 5 - Theatre

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Thomas Crown Affair - 1968

"The Thomas Crown Affair" - 1968
Dir. by Norman Jewison - 1 hr. 42 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

I can't 100% make this declaration without doing some research, but there's part of me that believes that Steven Soderbergh's career has been hugely influenced by "The Thomas Crown Affair."  Particularly the crime films, but there's something in the pacing and visual approach in "Crown" that is unmistakable, and hasn't been replicated successfully elsewhere.  "Crown" is an unusual film, in that not a lot really happens, except in brief bursts, which is something that this film also shares with star Steve McQueen's "Bullitt."  This is largely a straight-forward story, where a problem is established, and then the audience must sit and watch while the solution to the problem unfolds, and frequently with no real sense of urgency.

Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen) is a very successful real-estate baron, who gets his kicks through a variety of ways, the most relevant of which is his penchant for pulling off anonymous, meticulously-planned bank robberies, where he never actually gets his own hands dirty.  One such heist yields $2.6 million dollars (and that's 1968 dollars), which naturally attracts a lot of the wrong kind of attention.  Enter Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway), who specializes in tracking down money for the insurance company, all the while looking fabulous, acting assertively, and coming off a little flighty.  She fingers Crown straight off from looking at his picture, and then tries to find the evidence to back up her intuition.  At the same time, Thomas and Vicki begin a torrid love affair, where she makes no attempt to disguise her intentions.

"The Thomas Crown Affair" is a straight-forward story, or a pair of stories that overlap.  One is the criminal career of Crown, the other is the affair between the two main characters.  The dialogue isn't necessarily anything to write home about, so the bulk of the movie rests on the smoldering chemistry between McQueen and Dunaway, the languid, indulgent (and successful) pacing of the film, and the peculiar visual approach within.  Steve McQueen is Steve McQueen, only in nice suits and cars.  Faye Dunaway is elegant and assertive (watch the famous chess scene to see what I'm talking about), and on-screen together, the both of them seem constantly about five seconds from storming off the set and wrecking some furniture from riotous, furious copulation.  That long drawn-out tension is amplified by all the time the two spend together in leisure, in various locales, with seemingly nothing to do other than enjoy each other's company.

I keep talking about the pacing, and it's possibly the most notable aspect to how this story was told.  In terms of the content of the plot, it feels like the story could possibly have been told in barely over an hour.  But both of the main characters are used to being in complete control of what's going on around them, and the lack of urgency comes off more as a battle of poker faces than as drawing out things pointlessly.  Also, every single bit of information in "Crown" that needs to be imparted is done so by showing (and not telling), and that naturally takes more time.  Beyond that, this was also one of the first films to break up the picture into multiple panels, each one showing something different going on.  It's an aspect-to-aspect form of storytelling, and while the device may be the sort of thing that would eventually be parodied by an "Austin Powers" film, it feels fresh and appropriate here.

I haven't seen enough of Steve McQueen's films to really be able to nail down what his best movies were, but I do know that there are far worse ways to spend a couple of hours than watching a handsome man and a beautiful woman flirt their way through a series of interesting settings.  The bank robbery material is a nice bonus, but "The Thomas Crown Affair" rests on the chemistry between McQueen and Dunaway, and soars because of it.  If McQueen's character can excuse away a dalliance with another woman by saying "It was a way of getting you in touch with yourself," and not take any gruff for it, you know that their on-screen romance was hot.

4 / 5 - TV (HD)

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Undercover Brother - 2002

"Undercover Brother" - 2002
Dir. by Malcom D. Lee - 1 hr. 26 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I remembered liking this movie a lot more when it came out.  Oh sure, there were still funny bits, but I was a little let down this time around.  Comedies don't always age well, and there's some integral plot points in "Undercover Brother" that have come and gone in the real world, and maybe that's partially to blame.  But not everything is built to last, and it's true here.

Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin) is a one-man operative, trying to fight for the rights of the downtrodden.  But, during a bank-based sabotage mission, he crosses paths with Sistah Girl (Aunjenue Ellis), who is also on a mission from B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., an organization that's dedicated to pretty much exactly what Undercover Brother is doing on his own.  When retired General Warren Boutwell (Billy Dee Williams - think Colin Powell) spurns a Presidential bid to launch a chain of fried chicken restaurants, the organization brings in Undercover Brother to get to the bottom of things.

Perhaps the easiest comparison for "Undercover Brother" is "I'm Gonna Git You, Sucka," and with "Black Dynamite" coming down the pipeline about ten years later.  The humor is based on the same blaxploitation films, and on racial stereotypes, and on fighting "The Man."  And I mean that literally - the big bad guy in the film is literally called "The Man."  So if you're not into those films, either the originals or parodies of them, "Undercover Brother" is not the sort of movie that's good enough to convert you.  But if you're into it, there's plenty of things to enjoy, even silly little stuff like Brother navigating his convertible Cadillac through a series of spins, all while keeping his Big Gulp of orange soda perfectly balanced, so that not even a drop spills on his interior.  It's also worth noting that the film picks up considerably in the third act, which is the final showdown on The Man's island fortress.  I mean, part of the showdown between Undercover Brother and Mr. Feather (Chris Kattan) is scored to Michael Jackson's "Beat It," which is awesome in itself.

I will say that a comedy based on the premise of a black man running for president will have, by the current year of 2014, lost a lot of it's punch.  Chris Rock made a movie in this same time frame with a much more serious, albeit still a comedic approach to the topic ("Head of State"), and I suspect that re-watching that film now would yield the same result.  Right now, this is no longer a comedic premise, it's been reality for six years now.  And I'll tell you straight up, I'm more than willing to trade the potency of a pair of middling comedies for breaking what once seemed like a unbreakable barrier in American poliltics.

So, what's left then?  As I see it, there are three main reasons to watch "Undercover Brother."  First off, this is pretty much peak Denise Richards.  If you ever liked her at all, throw this film in between your evening viewings of "Starship Troopers" and "Wild Things" to change up your pace.  Secondly and thirdly, Dave Chappelle and Neil Patrick Harris are fantastic in their supporting roles.  Chappelle plays Conspiracy Brother, which sums things up nicely, and he made the most out of what he had with outstanding energy.  NPH plays Lance, B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D.'s intern, hired because of affirmative action, much to everyone's consternation.  NPH pops up here and there until he gets more to do in the final act, including unleashing a series of Mortal Kombat-style fatalities on some guards who make the mistake of calling him a "sissy."  Aside from the retrospective meta-awesomeness of that, this film was made a couple of years before NPH's role in "Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle," but he's no less hilarious here than he is in those films.

It might be a bit of a back-handed compliment to say that it's worth watching "Undercover Brother" for a couple of supporting roles, but them's the breaks.  Chappelle has done so few films, and NPH is rightly known to be hilarious now, but back then both were surprises.  Besides, if you haven't seen "Undercover Brother" before, you might get more mileage out of the playing off of stereotypes that the first two acts of the film relies upon.  It's not like this is a long film, or a difficult one to get through, so quit whining, okay?

2.5 / 5 - TV (HD)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Viridiana - 1961

"Viridiana" - 1961
Dir. by Luis Bunuel - 1 hr. 30 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

I'd heard of Luis Bunuel before, but had never watched anything that he'd done, so I decided to fix that last night.  I fired up my Roku, did a quick search, and settled on "Viridiana," partially because it was a fairly short film.  It also helped that it was a Criterion Collection pick.  I guess the quickest way to put it is that this was a messed-up film, which isn't exactly a condemnation.  But definitely messed-up.

Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) has just finished her training to join a convent and become a nun, but before she takes her vows, she's pressured into honoring her uncle's request for a visit, seeing as how he's bankrolled her education.  Upon her arrival her uncle, Don Jaime (Fernando Rey), immediately notes how Viridiana looks exactly like his late wife, which is a little awkward.  Then things get really awkward; Don Jaime asks for one favor of Viridiana.  So she dresses up in Don Jaime's late wife's wedding dress, at which point he asks her to marry him and never leave.  Understandably freaked out, she resists, but is drugged by one of the servants, Ramona (Margarita Lozano), and is hauled up to her bed and pawed a bit.  From there, things (incredibly) get worse.

"Viridiana" is a very solid film that flows well.  To director Bunuel's credit, there aren't really any overwrought scenes of Viridiana's suffering and mental anguish.  To be sure, she does not hold up well under the pressures that she endures, but things keep happening without any "woe is me" breaks in the plot to hammer home her victimhood.  In fact, a lot of things that occur within this film are unspoken or implied, and there are big plot points that hang upon the uncertainty of what exactly has happened between the lines.  That, combined with the straight-forward visual approach combines for a film that hasn't aged poorly at all, and who's plot is probably as potent today as it was upon this film's release.

Having said that, this is a movie that pushes boundaries.  If you make a film that includes at least two attempted rapes of a nun-in-training, it's clear that Bunuel doesn't care about pissing people off.  That's not even mentioning the pervasive incest aspects of the story, nor the class dynamics that largely define the second half of the movie, which I feel has enough depth to sustain a short book on that subject alone.  Viridiana has a romantic notion of helping the destitute, but this backfires spectacularly on her.  Really, no one comes off as heroic here; Viridiana is kind of clueless and arrogant and ignorant of how her looks might affect those around her, her family members are lecherous, and the legion of paupers that she tries to help seem completely unable to avoid self-destruction (and destroying things in general), illustrating the lie that there is a nobility in destitution (at least in the confines of this story).  The late-film dinner party is spectacular to this point.  Everyone ends up giving in to debauchery, whether enthusiastically or just keeping up with their peers, until things go too far, and then they go even further.

There are plenty of films where there's not that much to write about - they're just pieces of flashy entertainment without a ton of substance.  There's value in that, too.  But even a day later, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about "Viridiana," which equals a success in my book.  This isn't an easy piece of work to digest, although it's not very difficult to watch.  It's a short, smoothly-paced and beautifully executed film, but even better, it provokes a reaction, and a complex one at that.  There are plenty of angles to examine "Viridiana" from, at least half of which would provoke readers even with a second-hand examination of this material.  I don't really know if this is an ideal introduction to Bunuel's work, but in the sense that I'm excited to see more of his work, I'd count it as good enough.

4 / 5 - Streaming

Monday, April 21, 2014

Pompeii - 2014

"Pompeii" - 2014
Dir. by Paul. W.S. Anderson - 1 hr. 45 min.

Official Trailer #2

by Clayton Hollifield

First, a question:

Yeah.  Yeah, I kind of do.  I'm not even sure I saw a trailer for "Pompeii," but if I did, it was probably all about the mountain blowing up, hence the title.  I didn't know anyone who was in it (I mean, I recognized people as I was going along, but going in...), didn't know who had directed it, just knew that the mountain was going to blow up.  And that was good enough for me, at least in terms of catching a spectacle movie at the three dollar theatre.  So I was pleasantly surprised to get not only a disaster-porn film, but a gladiator movie, too!

Milo (adult version - Kit Harington) is a little kid who sees his entire Celt clan wiped out by Roman swords, but escapes the massacre by playing dead.  He tries to survive on his own, but eventually is caught and enslaved, where he grows up to be a very fierce warrior, and is eventually pressed into service as a gladiator by Graecus (Joe Pingue), where he will have to face Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who is one win away from being lawfully granted his freedom.  But first, Milo proves that the way to a woman's heart is through her horses, and the forbidden romance between Milo and Cassia (Emily Browning) begins simmering.  Following everyone's arrival in Pompeii for a proper spectacle (Atticus' fight), the man who killed Milo's clan rolls into town, Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), and starts throwing his weight around.  And, ominously, the mountain periodically rumbles in the background.

I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying that entire appeal to this film is that you're going to get to see the historical city of Pompeii get it's ass kicked by a volcano.  And that pretty much lived up to what you'd hope.  As it turns out, the director was Paul W.S. Anderson, who's responsible for the "Resident Evil" movies, which means the CGI and action material is going to be handled well, even if the story isn't going to add much more to the mix.  And there's tons of action.  Gladiator battles, horse chases (the next best thing to a car chase), several different natural disasters, even that silly handshake thing where two guys grab each other's forearm.  It all adds up to a lot of meaningless fun, which is all you can hope for.

The story itself is probably entirely fictional (I'm not going to look it up, it doesn't matter either way), and there's some political intrigue as Corvus basically blackmails everyone in sight into doing whatever he wants them to, and Sutherland's fun as a bad guy.  He's still kind of a caricature (I mean, come on), but he doesn't err in the usual way bad guys in historical films usually do, in being overly stylish.  He's more like a barely civilized thug who's learned that he can get what he wants through coercion than through brute force.  The best thing I can say about Kit Harington is that he kind of looks like Orlando Bloom, but he's appropriately bland in his role.  And the plot comes together neatly, which is fine, because we're all just waiting to see what happens when the volcano kicks Pompeii's ass, which it does spectacularly.

I can't really say that "Pompeii" aimed very high; clearly this is a movie that wants to have the beautiful girl fall for the rogue in defiance of the dickish authority figure, an then everything goes sideways!  And it completely succeeds at that.  It's a story that's been told before (and it'll be told again), but it's a fun ride with great effects.  There's nothing wrong with any of that.  See it on as big of a screen as possible, kick back with some treats and don't worry about the nutritional value of any of it.

2.5 / 5 - Theatre

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Hell Baby - 2013

"Hell Baby" - 2013
Dir. by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon - 1 hr. 38 min.

Official Trailer #1

by Clayton Hollifield

What happens when you combine half of the actors from Adult Swim and half of the actors from Comedy Central, and a possessed baby horror movie plot?  "Hell Baby."  Is that a good thing?  That's going to take a little bit longer to answer.

Jack (Rob Corddry) and Vanessa (Leslie Bibb) move into a run-down house in New Orleans, not knowing that the locals refer to it as the "House of Blood."  It also comes with F'resnel (Keegan-Michael Key), who lives in the crawlspace, and has a bad habit of surprising people when he shows up.  The house starts negatively influencing super-pregnant Vanessa, who starts drinking and smoking and can apparently communicate with ghost dogs.  A pair of dimwitted cops (Paul Scheer and Rob Huebel) and a pair of very European Fathers (Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant) are dispatched to find out what's behind some of the gory things suddenly happening surrounding Jack and Vanessa.

On occasion, I'll watch a film that's made by comedians that I generally like (in this case. directors Lennon and Garant, who you might know from "The State" or "Reno 911"), but it deals in a genre of film that I don't particularly care for.  It's the nature of comedy, and comedy groups in particular, that they're going to have to tackle different subject matter over time, because that's way easier to do than to overhaul everyone's comedic sensibilities.  I very rarely see a horror film, and usually the only reason that I do is if there are actors involved that I really want to watch.  "Hell Baby" is a perfect example of this, and how I usually end up feeling about this situation.  In the first place, at least I was motivated to watch the film, which I can't say about 99% of horror films, so there's that.  But this film also takes residence fairly low on the list of works that I've enjoyed by this batch of people (any of them, really).

"Hell Baby" isn't terrible, and there are both very funny moments and very funny people involved here.  One of the other traps that comedies can fall into is that the main characters don't get any of the good material, playing straight men to the cast of crazies that they come across.  That happens here, Corddry doesn't really bust off anything memorable, but that's not really the role.  He's more of the put-upon, freaked out guy that stuff happens to, and he pulls that off well.  Leslie Bibb does a great comedic job of alternating between faux-innocence and manipulative demonically-possessed wife (well, it's the demon that's in her womb, really).  Everyone else gets to roll in, do something funny, and then disappear.  And there's a fairly long list of instances of that succeeding, my favorite being Kumail Nanjiani's low-speed departure from the House of Blood.

The biggest thing about "Hell Baby" is that how much you enjoy it is going to largely depend on how much you like horror films, because even though this is a comedy, the plot is going to hit all the horror movie standard plot points in order.  If that doesn't appeal to you, there are laughs all the way through the film, and it goes by fairly smoothly, but you're still going through the framework of a horror film.  Everyone has a particular genre that they're partial to, and this was outside of mine.  The people involved in making "Hell Baby" were enough to get me on-board, but I didn't get anything beyond that out of watching it.  Even if you love horror movies, I don't think this would suddenly become an instant classic.  "Hell Baby" did accomplish one thing, though.  I really want to try one of those Po-Boy's that warranted not one, but two mouth-orgy scenes.

2 / 5 - TV (HD)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sharky's Machine - 1981

"Sharky's Machine" - 1981
Dir. by Burt Reynolds - 2 hrs. 2 min.

by Clayton Hollifield

It can be intensely frustrating when you can see that someone has good taste, and tries to synthesize those influences into something meaningful, and just can't quite get there.  Burt Reynolds both stars in and directs "Sharky's Machine," and it's a film that borrows from other, very well-regarded films, but it doesn't add up to be an all-time classic.  It's hard to say why exactly that is; there are some good scenes, good performances, genuinely shocking moments, but that doesn't add up to a must-see piece of creative work.  It adds up to something interesting (and not a dismissive "hmm, interesting, gotta go now") that will benefit if you have some affinity for any of the actors or the time period, and almost stands on it's own independently of that.

After a undercover drug sting goes south, Sharky (Burt Reynolds) is busted down to the Vice Department, which is the lowest of the low.  Busting hookers and the like is beneath Sharky's skills, which means that Sharky almost immediately gets bored and starts putting his skills to use, and that gets him into trouble.  There is a double murder in a hotel involving a john and a blind prostitute, and when Sharky starts pulling at the threads, things get complicated.  Sharky and his rag-tag crew (they're the other almost competent detectives in the Vice Squad) start surveillance on a beautiful escort (who is "seeing" the Mayoral candidate), who is eventually targeted for a hit by the same assassin.  Sharky's goal is to figure out who is behind all of this, before everyone dies.

The biggest thing that struck me about "Sharky's Machine" is that it felt like what would happen if you gave Burt Reynolds a budget, a top-loading VHS player, and tapes of "The French Connection," "Bullitt," and "The Thomas Crown Affair."  Now, there aren't any real car scenes here, and Reynolds himself might have been gun-shy about doing something like that and cementing himself as "the car guy," after "Smokey and the Bandit," and it's runaway success.  Nonetheless, like in the movies mentioned, there are a lot of slowly-paced scenes that might almost qualify as procedural, punctuated by moments of explosive violence.  As for the "Thomas Crown" influence, there seem to be a ton of loving shots of equipment and the characters' surroundings, something that gave TC a languid, vacation-y feel at times, and in "Sharky's Machine" lends an air of impatience.  And in terms of influence going in the other direction, the raw, off-color dialogue between the men involved in the surveillance feels like a direct impact on Quentin Tarantino's first two films.

These approaches add up to an interesting film; this isn't a movie that I had difficulty getting through at any point.  I particularly enjoy police/crime films of this vintage - they feel like an accurate snapshot of what things were like in actual places then, in a way that modern crime films rarely feel like.  Plus, the bad guy is sufficiently a monster, and the good guys are sufficiently barely competent (and there are a number of surprisingly nihilistic movies in this time period) that the outcome is far from a sure thing.  I never doubted that Sharky would go all in against Victor (Vittorio Gassman), it's just that I wasn't convinced that he'd get the job done without reliable backup.  Perhaps what's most surprising (and there are genuine, sometimes gruesome surprises) is what Sharky is willing to go through on behalf of the escort, Dominoe (Rachel Ward), whom he falls for from a distance.  "Sharky's Machine" is damn near a "nobody gets out alive" film, and even he doesn't get out unscathed.

So how does this all add up to less than the sum of it's influences?  I think that part of it is Burt Reynolds himself, in this particular role.  It's not to say that he hasn't made some iconic, fantastic films over the years, but those are sometimes anti-authority roles, and it was a little jarring to see him trying to enforce the law instead of dancing just on the other side of it.  Also, and I'm not saying that the three films I mentioned earlier were deliberately imitated, but if you're going to make a film in that vein, you're also stacking yourself (as an actor) against Steve McQueen and Gene Hackman at their very best.  There's a big part of me that wants to give Reynolds a big high-five for being willing to try to meet that standard, even if I felt like he didn't get there.  You'll never know if you don't try, right?  There are also some quirks to the film that felt like they weren't fully-baked, even if they were good ideas.  You have a film that basically about taking down a child trafficker, and out of nowhere, the main assassin has assistants, a pair of ninjas!  I don't know what else to call 'em, they literally kill a nightclub owner with nunchucks, which is a genre mash-up I wasn't prepared for.  There is no part of me that thinks "Sharky's Machine" would be better without the ninjas, but if you're going to head in that direction, I feel like things could have gotten a lot weirder (and this is a film that has one of it's main protagonists coked-up and literally screaming at his targets).

And the relationship between Sharky and Dominoe is complicated, to say the least.  It's a tough one to buy into for a few reasons.  First, she's bat-shit insane, but she's also a DON'T CALL ME A WHORE, I'M A DANCER!!!  So that comes with the territory.  Plus, Sharky falls for her "Rear Window" style, and she's not very sympathetic over the course of the film.  It doesn't feel very genuine, but then again, Sharky isn't the only person in the film who falls in love with her facade, so maybe Dominoe is supposed to be more of a muse-for-hire than a wife-candidate.

"Sharky's Machine" is a ragged film, not in terms of technical perfection (it's pretty smooth, at times), in terms of how it's influences have been integrated with one another.  More or less, I spent a lot of the film alternating between seeing what they were going for or were drawing on, and then being genuinely surprised at something that occurs on screen.  That suggests to me that there were plenty of good ideas present, enough to make this a fun, if uneven film, but the cake came out a little lopsided.  It's still a tasty cake, but I keep one eye on it, worried that the whole thing might topple over onto the floor.  But, you know, cake.

2.5 / 5 - TV (HD)

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Bull Durham - 1988

"Bull Durham" - 1988
Dir. by Ron Shelton - 1 hr. 48 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Hesitantly, I think "Bull Durham" is the greatest sports movie I've ever seen.  I've a lot of them, not all, but a lot, and if "Bull Durham" isn't the best, I can't think of another one that's better at the moment, and if you can, it's probably a matter of personal taste and splitting hairs.  This is a perfect storm - the right actors, a sharp script, actual insight into just about everything, and the kind of story and characters that are both down to earth and who feel like real people.  This is a film that eclipses it's genre, whichever one you want to plug it into.  It's a sports movie, a romantic comedy, heck, a straight-up comedy at times, and it's better and more meaningful than any of that would suggest.

The Durham Bulls are a low-level minor league baseball team in North Carolina, the sort of team you either start off with or end up there on your way out of baseball entirely.  Everyone other than the players, however, are there pretty much permanently, including the simmering Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), who is a part-time community college English teacher, who spends the rest of her time guiding one lucky player each season down the road from young man to man.  As she puts it, she gets 142 days (the length of a season), and they get a lifetime of confidence, which seems like a bad trade, but bad trades are a part of baseball.  This decision comes down to two men; the player on his way up, Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), who is the living embodiment of a proverbial million dollar arm and five-cent head, and the minor-league veteran catcher who has been brought to Durham not with the idea of a future, but instead solely to break in Ebby, Crash Davis (Kevin Costner).

There are a lot of convergent stories here, far more than you'd expect to have going on in a standard sports movie.  And most impressively, each of the main characters are fully fleshed-out (even the ladies!).  There's the straight-forward sports story, of the Durham Bull's season, and of LaLoosh and Davis' respective progress towards their goals, with their unspoken futures hanging over their heads.  There's the mentor/student relationship(s), there's the personal relationships.  And then there's what the film is really about, which we'll get down to in a minute.

From any angle I tackle it, "Bull Durham" is an exceptional story.  It accomplishes two difficult things: this is a specific story set in a specific time and place.  And I don't mean that in a weird retro way, where the whole thing hinges upon knowing that nobody had cell phones back then, or none of it works.  The world of baseball is it's own universe, with it's own rules, but this isn't a story set on a grand stage.  The raggedness of the world isn't played for laughs; this is what it's like playing in the low minor leagues.  There are buses and meals that come in paper bags.  There's not enough liniment to go around.  There's no security, there's sparse crowds, and everybody sweats all the time.  There's a short moment on one of the endless bus rides that resonates, and shows why all of them are pursuing their dream, when Crash tells the story of his twenty-one days in the major leagues.  The other players are spellbound; they're technically professional baseball players, but they're all so far removed from the major leagues that they've certainly never played with anyone who's done so, and maybe haven't even really talked to anyone who has.

There are other flashier scenes and moments in "Bull Durham," but the movie is pretty much full of them, from our introduction to LaLoosh all the way to Crash showing up at Annie's near the end.  Things never lull, and some of the scenes are such unbelievably great film-making that it left me shaking my head (the peak of this was Crash's inner/outer monologue during one of his at-bats, providing not only a look inside of Crash's head and his approach to baseball, but also providing something that ESPN could never manage to broadcast, which is the best reason to make a movie).  Even something that feels like a throwaway thirty seconds early in the film, like the manager passing along the info to a struggling player that he's been released, comes back to play later on, deepening the impact of the later scene.

All of the fantasticness of the script and the setting and the action wouldn't mean a lot if the actors couldn't pull off the roles, and every single actor absolutely destroys everything in sight.  A lot of the film revolves around Susan Sarandon's character, she's written as someone who knows a lot of things and is always in control, but still needs to feel desirable.  Her's is a very complex character; she has a gift (more than one, to be certain) and knows it, and will use her knowledge to someone's great benefit, but doesn't resent it or really ask for anything in return.  And on top of all of that, she's the kind of woman that anyone would be lucky to have, in every respect.  Sarandon nails all of that.  She's the woman that you want to sleep with, she's the woman that will leave you better off than when she found you.  The script helps out a bit - rather than having her be a predatory "cougar" that's always two steps ahead of everyone, there's a scene between her and Crash where she gets furious because her love life has been affected by something that Crash has said.  Her insecurity at LaLoosh going celibate rounds out her character in a very real way.

Tim Robbins gets the broader comic character, and he's a lot of fun as the talented young doofus.  Paired with Kevin Costner's hard-ass character, they have a great comedic dynamic.  But part of what makes "Bull Durham" a great film is that this is all to a specific purpose.  The characters both grow, albeit in different directions at times, but they're at different points in their lives, and they don't stay static so that a sequel could come at a later date.  "Bull Durham" is a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end.  Yes, it's a slice of time that contains a bunch of characters headed in different directions, but it works.

Ultimately, what makes "Bull Durham" a great movie, and not just a great sports movie or a great comedy, is that it's about something more than just sports, or laughs.  This is a film dedicated to exploring what desire is, in a hundred different ways.  The biggest example is probably that of sexual desire, and this is a very steamy movie.  But it doesn't rely on peeks of flesh to get inside of your head (the idea of flesh as having or not having value is examined differently, within the context of baseball), instead these are characters that want each other because of their uniqueness and excellence.  Annie has something to offer LaLoosh, LaLoosh has outstanding talent, and yet is largely unformed as a person, and Crash is fully-formed, and excellent at what he does.  For each of the three, they desire something different out of life.  Annie has the ability to help young men along their path, and gets to feel useful and desirable.  Crash wants what he can't have; to be younger, to have been better enough at what he does to not be stuck in Durham, mentoring some kid who doesn't value what he has, to be with a woman on equal footing.  LaLoosh wants, well, he's not entirely sure yet, but for now, what's in Annie's underpants is a good start.  One of my favorite moments in the film is when LaLoosh comes into the locker room the morning after spending the night with Annie, looking like an absolute wreck.  It's a mix of competing desires, and they're all compelling and valid.  But most of all, even if some of the desires are unreasonable or impossible, they're real, and feel real, and resonate deeply.

There's a good chance that how you feel about the movie will depend on which age you're at when you watch it, and that your view of it will change over time.  I remember thinking it was super funny when I was younger, a lot of Crash's motivations were lost on me, even when his actions weren't.  Susan Sarandon, at this point and time, is one of the sexiest women I've ever seen, as much for her character as for her appearance.  And her character is someone that you'd probably react to at any point post-puberty, but the more I understand what she's got going on upstairs, the more I like her.  A good movie, a really good movie ages like that.  The complexity that's lurking underneath what seems like a simple story about two ballplayers and a world-class groupie (if you want to look at it like that) changes how you look at the story over time.  For my tastes, "Bull Durham" is as good as it gets.  It's unique, it's paced well, it's insightful and relentlessly funny and real.  And it's got baseball as your plausible cover story for you wanting to curl up with a great romance.

5 / 5 - TV (HD)

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Raiders of the Lost Ark - 1981

"Raiders of the Lost Ark" - 1981
Dir. by Steven Spielberg - 1 hr. 55 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I don't myself as a Steven Spielberg fan, exactly, even though I definitely grew up on his work.  I'm not sure what it is that makes me indifferent about seeing one of his movies; it's not like I ever watch one and don't really enjoy it.  But when I'm trying to figure out a movie to watch, if I know Spielberg directed it, I'm usually on the fence about whether or not I want to watch it.  Although I'm certain I have seen "Raiders of the Lost Ark" before, I didn't remember much outside of the things that always get parodied (like the giant boulder chase), so it was pretty much like getting to see a new film.  And it was a pretty good film, which was nice.

Dr. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is a relic-hunter and a college professor circa the 1930s, and when we meet him, he's balls-deep in the jungle, on an expedition to grab a shiny trinket out of a trap-riddled underground ruin and to make messenger bags and khakis fashionable.  Unfortunately, he's double-crossed by a rival, Dr. Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman), who is French, which is surely the source of all of his villainy, and he's backed up by a tribe of bare-assed Peruvian natives, armed with poisoned blow-darts and DIY archery kits.  Belloq gets the trinket, but Jones lives to fight another day.  Once back in his Ivory Tower, Jones is approached with an interesting proposition - fight the Nazis through relic-hunting!  The Nazis are tearing up Egyptian desert, trying to find the Ark of the Covenant, which has some Biblical signficance, but they must find another trinket first to find the exact location.  The question for Indy, as an archeologist, is this:

Perhaps the thing that makes me ambivalent about Steven Spielberg's movies is the ease and facility with which he handles action scenes.  Over and over again, he makes this kind of storytelling and film-making look easy (which it is, of course, not).  Sometimes, an artist must pretend to struggle to remind an audience of the skill that's required to pull off complicated things, and Spielberg's chops are seamless (particularly in this time-span).  Beyond that, he's got a knack for creating memorable moments (like that shot of Roy Scheider in "Jaws," on the beach, realizing what's about to happen).  These are not negative traits.  It's very easy to get caught up in what you're watching (which is the entire point), and that probably describes "Raiders" best, as well of the appeal of "Raiders."  This is a seamless adventure that never lags, executed brilliantly.

There are a number of unforgettable scenes (and that's not even getting into the travelogue appeal of seeing jungles and Cairo filmed), which is pretty important for action/adventure movies.  When you see a good one, and want to recommend it to your friends, there has to be a "you gotta see this" thing to tell people about.  There's the boulder scene, there's the tomb of snakes, all kinds of fights (including Indy's famous dispatching of a sword-wielding menace), and the awesome end of the film (even if the special effects seem dated, it's still awesome).  But maybe the most important thing about "Raiders" is that Harrison Ford is someone you want to watch get in adventures, and that Karen Allen is a feisty, rough-edged charmer, and I wanted to see them get in adventures together and just interact.  Entire films have coasted by on lucking onto the chemistry between actors, and even the more minor characters are interesting and fun to watch here.

Maybe the reason that I regard this (and a lot of Spielberg's work) as being pretty good instead of awesome is that a movie like "Raiders" is an example of completely nailing a genre film, but not offering much more.  "Raiders" is a kick-ass ride, but as far as having something to sink your teeth into, well, you're going to just have to sit back and enjoy the ride.  The Nazis are evil because they're Nazis (duh), but there's not much of a feeling of this being an ideological battle, or there being anything in the film that would elevate the story beyond being an excellent example of a certain kind of film.  I don't have anything to criticize "Raiders" for, I had a great time, and I'd watch it again in a second.  It's really good, and has held up very well (aside from the effects at the end, which I still think were awesome).  If you haven't watched it, fire this bad boy up and check out for the next two hours; you're in for a great ride.

4 / 5 - Theatre