Friday, January 31, 2014

Heathers - 1988

"Heathers" - 1988
Dir. by Michael Lehmann - 1 hr. 43 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

I just want you to understand that no generation's ennui and nihilism can never be as dark and stifling as this.  I submit as proof the film "Heathers."  When people talk about "dark comedies," it's still frequently performed at a safe emotional distance, where horrific things are laughed at, yet still remain fairly implausible and unconnected to many people's everyday life (or the story just wallows in the "awfulness" of what's going on, with little emotional impact).  "Heathers" doesn't play that game; the story arc follows the pursuit of callowness, the dawning awareness of the effect of that on the people in this setting, and then the futility of trying to stuff all of that back into the bottle.  And while the characters are frequently flippant and deliberately mean, very few of them learn anything from anyone's behavior.

The titular "Heathers" are a trio of popular girl sharing the same first name, led by Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), a cruel girl who wields her power maliciously, and also including Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) and Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty), and they're joined by the somewhat reluctant Veronica (Winona Ryder).  Veronica has an eye for the new kid, J.D. (Christian Slater), immediately gets in trouble for pulling a gun on a pair of jocks who try to bully him in the school cafeteria.  Veronica and H-Chizzle fall out after attending a college party where Veronica gets sick (maybe she drank too much, maybe she was drugged), and Chandles threatens to lord it over her once school resumes the next week.  J.D. and Veronica end up sort of accidentally poisoning H-Cheesy, and successfully frame it as a suicide.  And then there are more "suicides," and the stakes continue to grow.

There is a layer to "Heathers" that is easy to enjoy and super-digestible - the dialogue is snappy, unique, and such a document of it's time that, whether or not people actually talked this way before the film came out, they started to afterwards.  I haven't checked, but I suspect that the list of "quotes" from "Heathers" is actually larger than the entire internet put together, porn sites included.  This film is literally soaking in people trying to deal with their environment through flippancy, cruelty, and feigned boredom, which sets off Veronica's panic from losing control of everything around her, even her own actions.  And this isn't only a talky, dark film, it's also got a good visual sense (even more than just having some seriously '80s fashion going on).  There's a great visual scene involving a funeral and the entire congregation wearing 3D glasses, but there is also a steady stream of little touches and details that aren't acknowledged as being out of the ordinary (like one of the Heathers touching up her hair with holy water), but add up to make "Heathers" completely awesome.

The story itself is a fairly harrowing one.  There are a few ways to look at it; you could approach it from the idea that popularity is born and maintained out of cruelty, you could take the angle that all it takes is one unhinged (albeit charismatic) kid with a little know-how and a lot of stick-to-it-iveness to bring down hundreds.  There's also the view that you can never stomp out cruelty, not among teenagers nor adults (as Veronica's mom points out, when teenagers get upset about not being treated like people, that's usually when they're most being treated like adults treat one another - a cynical and incisive view), because someone will always pop up and assume an alpha role and wield that power to break people.  You also have a very intelligent, self-aware character in Veronica, who is unable to keep herself from doing awful things.  And if she's not able to stop herself, then what chance does anyone else have?  Students openly mock a trendy anti-teen suicide song, one of the Heathers tries to kill herself because people laugh at her for feeling overwhelmed, unfazed jocks will still try to beat up nerds in the parking lot outside of a funeral, gay-baiting and gay-bashing is a knee-jerk reaction to confusion.  This high school is not a jungle, it's a buffet for assholes.

And one of the most intellectually bothersome points made here is that people just want to wrap things up neatly and as quickly as possible, so they can not have to think about anything and move on with their lives.  Even in a situation where teenagers are seemingly killing themselves at an unbelievable rate, the detail that sells a pair of football players being gay is that they're found with a bottle of mineral water.  That's all it really takes to tie the whole situation up with a bow.  If the students are dumb and mean, looking at the adults in the film doesn't promise a richer, more meaningful future for anyone.  In the end, complete evil doesn't prevail, but things aren't resolved in a way that will allow you to put the idea that it could prevail to rest.  "Heathers" is a nasty little piece of business, one that's designed to stick with you even as you're laughing along and enjoying the tons of little things that make it a fantastic, rich, detailed film.

4 / 5 - Streaming

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Escape from New York - 1981

"Escape from New York" - 1981
Dir. by John Carpenter - 1 hr. 39 min.

Original Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I'm not sure the original intention behind "Escape from New York" was to create a film that functions extremely well as a cult classic; I'd say it's more likely that someone wanted to get the flavor of "Mad Max" set in America, and to just make a gnarly movie all the way around.  The idea behind the film is excellent, and the execution of the idea is solid, considering the budget for the film.  The story has held up well, and even if some of the costumes and such seem bizarre, it's aged in a way that actually works pretty well.

1n 1997 (which is now, according to the film), crime has skyrocketed, and Manhattan has been abandoned as a defacto prison island.  Those who enter do not leave.  Air Force One is hijacked by a crazed militant, who rams the plane into a building, leaving only the President (Donald Pleaseance) surviving, having escaped in an escape pod.  The President is quickly kidnapped by prisoners, to be ransomed.  The problem with this is that the President's presence is required at a peace summit, which will fall apart if he is not rescued roughly twenty-four hours hence. The out-of-the-box solution: enlist the help of notorious criminal Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a former special ops soldier with an eye-patch and a perpetually shitty attitude.  Snake gets offered a full pardon in exchange for being dropped into Manhattan and rescuing the President within (now) twenty-two hours.  Fail, and Snake will die, thanks to micro-explosive implants in his neck.

One of the things most striking about movies like "Escape from New York" is the vastly different opinion of the city itself.  Now, movies that take place in New York often have characters viewing their surroundings with a magical gleam in their eyes, and there's an "only in New York" tone to a lot of what happens.  But if you travel back to the films from the '70s and '80s, before everything got cleaned up, you see that the prevailing opinion was that New York was a cesspool, overfilled with people who are only half a step above animals, decorated in aerosol, and generally an unsavory place to be.  Granted, this film was supposed to be roughly fifteen years in the future, but "Escape from New York's" New York has the ambiance of a dump, with all the rats scurrying around for added flavor.  In this environment, it's not crazy to think that the only reasonable response to getting someone out of a trash heap is to send in a foul-mouthed, specially-trained asshole in.

If you were going to cast a weird, violent dystopian sci-fi movie, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better batch of actors than here.  "Escape" was part of Kurt Russell's attempt to escape his Disney past, but there's also Isaac Hayes as the Duke of New York (A number one!), Harry Dean Stanton as the Brain, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Van Cleef...  That's a good stack of distinct, oddball actors that all bring something unique to what's admittedly a pretty odd film.  And they all pop up one after another; it's like getting a gift inside of each gift that you've received.  As far as the action goes, it's not bad for what it is.  Fight scenes weren't choreographed in 1981 the way that they are now; a punch or two is about all anyone's going to get.  "Escape" isn't short on action, but it relies more heavily on the tone of the film, the grimy setting, and the imposed tension of a literal deadline hanging over Snake's head.  And it succeeds on that front.

Part of what I like about "Escape" is that it's a distinct kind of film from a specific point in the history of cinema.  There are certainly other films like this, and some of them have their own merits, but "Escape" is weird enough, and violent enough, and just plainly good enough of a story (with a really good protagonist with an excellent sneer) that I enjoy watching it every so often.  Some of the cheesiness in it is due to budgetary constraints, but if you sit down and watch "Waterworld," a bloated dystopian sci-fi film that is in the same lineage as "Escape," it's clear that money can't fix everything.  It's fun watching Kurt Russell be a badass, it's fun watching Ernest Borgnine do anything, and it's fun to watch "Escape from New York."

3. 5 / 5 - TV (HD)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Zoolander - 2001

"Zoolander" - 2001
Dir. by Ben Stiller - 1 hr. 29 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

There are a lot of good jokes in "Zoolander."  Yes, making fun of male models is kind of like shooting fish in a barrel full of fish with a bazooka, but some of the best moments come not from the subject matter, but from the characters themselves.  Dumb characters will always be funny, and both Derek Zoolander and Hansel are a pair of the dumbest men ever committed to film.

Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) is the shining light of the male modelling industry, but loses what would have been his fourth Model of the Year award to the new hotness, Hansel (Owen Wilson), in a spectacular gaffe.  To boot, a cover article in Time Magazine, written by Matilda Jeffries (Christine Taylor), paints Zoolander as a complete idiot, and Zoolander's modelling bunk mates all die in a manner befitting male models.  With Zoolander's career and life on the skids, stand-offish designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell) hires Zoolander to be the face of his new "Derelicte" campaign, which is a cover to use Zoolander to kill the Prime Minister of Malaysia.  And that would be bad.

First off, "Zoolander" is a really solid concept.  The story doesn't lag, and does hit all of those plot points you want to see in a riches-to-rags-to-riches story.  Even better, it knocks every single one of those plot points out of the park.  The gaffe that sends Zoolander's career into a tailspin was Kanye-worthy, before Kanye did it for real.  The failed reconciliation with his family?  Male model in a coal mine.  The love story?  The first time they make love is in the context of a drug-fueled orgy (and is still sweet, at the same time).  Even Zoolander and Hansel's burying the hatchet is a riot; every court case in America should just begin with one person asking the other, "Why are you acting so wack to me?"  And before that, the epic throwdown between the rivals is a walk-off, which is a sort of competitive modelling competition, with the best possible random judge.

And beyond the big stuff, there are dozens of small moments that are just as spectacular.  From Zoolander not understanding the concept of a table-top model of a building, to the repeated arguments over people not getting the "Earth to..." joke concept, to breakdance fighting...  "Zoolander" is so jammed full of ideas and jokes (without feeling like a series of comedy sketches that are loosely connected) that it's overflowing, and that means that sometimes you've got to pay attention or things are going to fly by unnoticed.   That's a great feeling for a comedy, especially when it's clicking (like when Matilda tells Derek and Hansel that she's bulimic, and they both think that means that she can read minds).

"Zoolander" is a comedy for people who want to laugh and feel good and stuff.  I hope the sequel, whenever that happens, is as good (although that's pretty unlikely).  This is one of the films in director/star Ben Stiller's career that makes me keep showing up for his work.  He does a lot of "product," films that just exist because they exist, but then there are those handful of films that Stiller has done that are so riotously funny and so insane that they justify everything else he does.  "Zoolander" is up there with "There's Something About Mary" and "Tropic Thunder" (and there's probably a couple of other films that people like of his, but that would vary from person to person), that maybe give me false hope whenever I see his name in the credits, but even if his newest film isn't anything special (I saw "Along Came Polly" in the theatre, for example), it's no problem, because another viewing of "Zoolander" wipes it out of memory.

4 / 5 - Streaming

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Despicable Me 2 - 2013

"Despicable Me 2" - 2013
Dir. by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud - 1 hr. 38 min.

Official Trailer #3

by Clayton Hollifield

I'd say that the things that I really love about both of the "Despicable Me" movies have more to do with the execution of the material, and with the character design, than with the story or humor within.  I'm not sure what to do with that; there are peculiarities that I find fascinating, but I'm not sure how that translates to someone who isn't an animation buff or isn't an artist, and just wants to go see a movie.  "Despicable Me 2" is clearly not painful to get through, it's a pretty breezy hour and a half, and it's fairly clever, and thankfully for adult viewers, the entire story isn't told through the lens of a five year-old.

Not too long after the first movie ended (I think all the goorls, as Gru calls them, are about the same age as they were before), Agnes is having a birthday party.  Things seem to be going pretty well on the family front, but Gru (Steve Carell), instead of trying to conquer the world with evil, is concentrating his efforts and resources to developing a new line of jams and jellies.  Thankfully, Lucy (Kristen Wiig), an agent with the Anti-Villain League, comes along with a more fulfilling job offer.  This involves going undercover as the owners of a cupcake store in the mall, to figure out which of the other proprietors is in possession of a formula that turns things evil and capable of eating steel.  At the same time, the goorls start to feel the absence of a mother in their lives, and push Gru into the dating arena, albeit very reluctantly.

Again, the story isn't really the whole point here.  It's not bad, I wasn't sitting in the theatre rolling my eyes at it's ridiculousness.  But the things that really appeal to me are the character and set design, and the lively, specific character animation.  Both movies in this series achieve something unusual with computer animation: stylization.  Despite obviously coming out of a computer, the characters are not just slightly exaggerated, yet largely realistically depicted.   Gru's design makes me want to sit down and draw him, he's like Charles Addams' Uncle Fester with a giant beak.  The other characters are similarly specific; Eduardo (Benjamin Bratt) is the proprietor of a Mexican restaurant, and he's built wide and jiggly, like an aged luchador, and Lucy is also refreshing - she's built for comedy and expressiveness, not your standard female character with interchangeable hair to distinguish her.  There's a great gag near the end of the movie to do with Lucy's and Gru's oversized noses that couldn't have been done with a button-nosed Disney princess.  That's the sort of reward you get from non-standard designs, and from having someone paying attention to how the pieces fit together.

Secondly, and probably the primary reason to go see animated features in the theatre as opposed to just watching whatever animated TV shows are available, is that all of the characters actually move!  And I'm not just talking about their lips (there was a great clip that someone had done of a "Family Guy" scene, where they blacked out everything on-screen except for what was actually moving.  Suffice to say there was a lot of black on the screen), the characters are generally lively and fun (and that's not even counting the minions, who are constantly awesome).  There was a short sequence where a pair of minions were taking Gru into Eduardo's house that showcases how good (and how specific) the character animation is here; Gru overacts dramatically, trying to sell that he's a prisoner to the onlookers.  And then there's this sequence, which probably won't be online for long:

"Happy" sequence"

It's really hard to get mad at a children's feature for not reinventing the wheel.  If you're aiming at ten year-olds (or whatever), they haven't seen enough film to know that some things might have been retreaded.  All you can really hope for, as an adult viewer, is that it's not brutal to watch, and not so stupid that you can feel your IQ points floating off into the ether.  Granted, there are fart guns here, but "Despicable Me 2" isn't hard to get through.  I don't know if my appreciation for the execution of the material made me enjoy the film more, or just differently than others, but I still liked it.  I think it's a solid film, although not a great one, which I think is about what I thought of the first installment.  After two examples of handing animation well (and in their own, non-standard way), I'd be game to see whatever directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud do next.

3 / 5 - Theatre (2D)

Sunday, January 5, 2014

God Bless America - 2011

"God Bless America" - 2011
Dir. by Bobcat Goldthwait - 1 hr. 45 min.

Official Red Band Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"God Bless America" is pretty much exactly what I hope for when I see an independent film - an audacious, possibly unpopular idea executed well.  If the idea of gunning down celebutards was a popular one, this wouldn't have to be an independent film.  Money-men would be lining up at the opportunity to get in on the ground floor and claim their chunk of the profits, and you'd have a big-budget, broad comedy that said nothing.  Maybe "God Bless America" won't get seen by as many people, but it takes a common refrain, turns it into the absurd, and sticks to its guns.

Frank (Joel Murray) is a divorced middle-aged insomniac, and his life isn't getting any better.  He spends his nights awake, channel-surfing, and getting no reprieve from his insomnia.  He works in a cubicle, surrounded by people who discuss American Superstarz (you know, "Idol"), his ex-wife is unable to control their increasingly bratty daughter, and his d-bag neighbor routinely boxes his car in every night.  When things take a turn for the worse, and Frank apparently has nothing left to lose, he arms himself and decides to take out his frustration on the teenage star of a reality show, Chloe (Maddie Hasson).  One of Chloe's classmates, Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), begs to come along and for Frank to continue on this path.

"God Bless America" is a movie born out of frustration with popular culture.  Often people will tell you that if you don't like a TV program, simply not to watch.  The problem with that is that you can't also switch off the people who watch this stuff, nor switch off the people who base their behavior on the aggressive, dumb, and mean people on those shows.  It's not enough for you, yourself not to engage in this behavior, when you're surrounded by people who are aggressively rude.  Is it overreacting to gun down people who act like assholes in a theatre?  Maybe, but when people act in that manner, it's foolish to expect that there isn't going to be a reaction at all.  Frank is presented as the only sane man in an insane world, or at least the only person who seems capable of examining his own behavior, and then adjusting it accordingly.  Everyone else is either going along with a system, or simply isn't capable of self-examination in the first place.

All of that is not a popular message, that people should take a second look at how they affect the people around them.  It's a very pointed criticism, implying that people haven't even taken a first look at how they affect those around them, and one that's not likely to sit well with the sort of people who need to take a look in the mirror, possibly because some people haven't ever even considered that what they do isn't positive, and there are people who think they should be gunned down for being who they are.  Frank's stance is that spreading evil and being mean all the time is bad.  It's a very straight-forward stance, and there's even some dialogue between Frank and Roxy, talking about selecting their next targets, that makes this explicit.  It's not a matter of taste, as Roxy brings up people like NASCAR and country fans; that's just a matter of preference (and they feel the same way about people who sip lattes and blaspheme, so down that path lies mutually assured destruction).  It's a matter of lowering the bar for profit, which is evil, no matter your justification.

All that stuff is the message, but "God Bless America" is a comedy, and it's a pretty funny one.  Joel Murray was perfect for this material, like a more composed/less cartoony Milton from "Office Space," carrying a world's worth of frustration and anger on his shoulders.  And the Roxy character is a burst of energy, off-setting Frank's weariness.  Tara Lynne Barr is just right for that role, saving Frank's life (literally, which her character would be delighted to know that I'm using correctly here) and keeping him going.  This isn't a pretty, feel-good comedy, but if you're in a foul mood for whatever reason, you might find yourself agreeing with both the premise and how Frank chooses to deal with it, and in a way that might make you a little uncomfortable, and will require some self-examination to come to terms with.  That's why "God Bless America" is an indie film (in the best way possible); for a lot of people it'll come off mean-spirited, but for some people, it's going to feel just right.  This movie isn't for everyone, that's kind of the point.

3.5 / 5 - Streaming

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Searching for Sugar Man - 2012

"Searching for Sugar Man" - 2012
Dir. by Malik Bendjelloul - 1 hr. 26 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Searching for Sugar Man" is one of the most engrossing documentaries I've seen in quite a while.  I generally enjoy watching documentaries about musicians, but in most cases, I'll see a movie about a musician because I already like that musician's music, and want to know more about him (or her, or whatever).  "Sugar Man" is a different beast; it's a movie about a largely unknown musician, and has one hell of a mystery involved, as well.

Sixto Rodriguez released a pair of albums in the early 1970s, to little fanfare, which baffled a lot of the people involved.  As one of the producers mentions, if you listen to those albums now, it seems impossible that they weren't huge.  But they didn't sell at all here in the States, and Sixto was dropped from his label, which ended his recording career.  That's not an uncommon story, there are legions of musicians who got the chance to record a couple of albums, nothing happened, and then they continued on with their lives.  But there's a second part to Rodriguez's story; during the Apartheid-era in South Africa, his music became something of an essential soundtrack for a lot of people.  Tapes made from a lone LP someone brought to South Africa spread, and then bootlegs spread, and South African labels then licensed the album and put it out legitimately.  All told, it's estimated that between the forty million South Africans, half a million of them bought a Rodriguez record (which is considered 10x platinum there).  But because all of this was happening in a country that was an international pariah, this was all happening in a vacuum.  No information out, and just as importantly, no information in.  Rodriguez was a mythical figure, rumored to have committed suicide mid-concert.  Eventually, a couple of South Africans got curious, and wanted to know more about him, and how he had died.

Now, telling any more than that would constitute a massive spoiler.  As I was watching "Sugar Man," I had to strongly resist the urge to grab my tablet and find out immediately what Rodriguez's fate was, I was that drawn into the story that I didn't even want to wait another five minutes to know.  I don't even have to bust out the "Behind the Music" test this time; just the act of discovering Rodriguez's music is enough to make this film worthy.  At the time, he was compared to Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens, largely in the sense that he was a singer-songwriter.   From the music played in the movie, it's clear that he was in that ballpark, but with a distinct personality, and that his music held up pretty well.  It was also clear, though interviews with both the South African "detectives" and musicians, that his music had a profound effect on many people's lives.  Rodriguez, at least in South Africa, was a cultural touchstone in a time of extreme turbulence.

I'm not sure that I can talk anymore about what happens in the movie, but the last third was compelling, and fantastic.  "Searching for Sugar Man" is one of the best music documentaries I've seen, and that's because it's a fantastic story, not because anyone (in the States) knows who he is.  Most of the people who are interviewed are reverent about him, but the interview with Rodriguez's former label head stands in stark contrast, and very clearly outlines what it's like to be a creative figure in America.  He states bluntly that nothing matters outside of America, and that even then, success is measured by one's bank account.  You see the disconnect between art and commerce, and it's kind of up to the viewer to decide who is missing the point.  It's funny that someone and his work can be so meaningful to some people, and seemingly not even worth discussion in another.  I can't recommend "Searching for Sugar Man" enough, although you might end up having to get the soundtrack as soon as you're done watching it.

4 / 5 - TV (HD)