Sunday, June 29, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier - 2014

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" - 2014
Dir. by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo - 2 hrs. 16 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I guess Marvel's "Avengers" line of movies is kind of like my version of a soap opera.  I can't be bothered to keep up with TV shows, even ones I like (I'm near the end of the 5th season of "Psych"; it wrapped up it's 8th and final season this year).  And I sure as hell can't be bothered with those shows that you have to watch every episode the exact second it's released (like "Game of Thrones" or "The Walking Dead"); you can go to hell with your appointment television.  But if you ask me to turn up at the theatre every few months, deliver good action and decent stories that advance a larger story, and throw in Scarlett Johansson every so often for good measure, well, that's a commitment I can keep.  And, at least with the Avengers series of films, Marvel's made good on their end of things, frequently making better movies with these characters that have ever been done in the comics.

In the second Captain America film, Cap (Chris Evans) has spent a little time adjusting to having been thawed out and thrust into modern times, but finds S.H.I.E.L.D.'s methods of fighting their enemies a tad distasteful (summation: Cap asks Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) didn't they used to have to commit crimes first before being punished?).  The impetus for this is the recovery of a S.H.I.E.L.D. boat from pirates, which goes a little sideways.  Plus, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) was given a side mission, involving recovering data, unbeknownst to Cap.  When Nick Fury is assassinated after learning that there's something hinky going on within S.H.I.E.L.D., Cap is tasked with getting to the bottom of it by a dying Fury, as well as being grilled on what happened by Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), who controls S.H.I.E.L.D. in Fury's absence.  And during the action-filled assassination attempt (Fury's a tough one to stamp out), we're introduced to a super-assassin, called the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).

So yes, there definitely is a Marvel movie formula by now, and that requires at least a couple of giant battle scenes, a journey of personal discovery, and fighting against impossible odds (that's what makes these characters heroes, after all).  "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" delivers all of that.  There are big action scenes, all of which are pretty good.  There's fun car stuff in the assassination of Nick Fury, the recovery of the S.H.I.E.L.D. boat has good hand-to-hand combat action, the first battle between the Winter Soldier and Cap is fast and furious (and provides some intrigue for the rest of the movie), and the GIANT BATTLE at the end is spectacular.  But aside from these now-expected sections of the films, the real hallmark of this run of films is the relationships and dialogue between the characters.

The only thing I knew about "Cap 2" going in was from the trailer that I had seen, which was basically just an elevator fight scene (and a cool one at that).  So the inclusion of Black Widow as a main supporting character was a welcome surprise, and they share a different chemistry than one might expect.  They become protective of one another over the course of the film, and it feels like Black Widow eventually lets down her guard a bit around Cap (although her shifting personality traits according to situational need is a basic tenet of her character).  There's also a new addition, that of Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), who is a former soldier himself who bonds with Cap over their shared experiences, and ends up being a very valued friend to Cap.  Even Fury and Cap have some good back and forths, debating different sides of their own shared goals.

One of the things that I did appreciate about "Cap 2" is that it was a movie that was about more than just blowing stuff up and punching things.  That sort of story is very easy to tell with these sorts of characters, but the crux of the story is whether or not it's right to use every available means to maintain one's safety, especially when that means encroaching on everyone's freedom.  The stakes are literal here: would you kill twenty million people to make the other seven billion safe?  And more to the point, who would you trust to make that choice?  If power corrupts, having the means to kill people before they've even committed a crime because they might prove inconvenient down the road is a lot of power.  The Captain America character might be a Boy Scout, but that's a necessary counterbalance to those who fancy themselves "realists," who seem to be just itching for an excuse to get their hands dirty (with no personal consequence, of course).

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" was another really good installment in this series of films.  There were some unexpected twists, ScarJo making a "WarGames" joke, good action, good characters that I've come to really enjoy, and enough of a tease for forthcoming material to make me want to come back whenever the next installment comes out.  In other words, really good serial storytelling.  "Cap 2" doesn't benefit from the freshness of the first "Iron Man" movie, and it's not really a surprise that one of the Marvel movies is going to be a good time.  And this isn't sheer awesomeness, like "The Avengers," that had the benefit of a multi-year, multi-film build AND Joss Whedon.  No, this is just another good installment in a good run of movies, and when your seventh or eighth installment is still pretty darned good (beyond just another return to characters you enjoy watching), that's a success.

3.5 / 5 - Theatre

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Filth - 2013

"Filth" - 2013
Dir. by Jon S. Baird - 1 hr. 37 min.

Official Red Band Trailer #2

by Clayton Hollifield

So let's get the obvious out of the way: "Filth" earns it's title, and then some.  It's like a 95th percentile film on the offensiveness scale, meaning that even if you like this sort of material, there's going to be something here somewhere that's going to go down the wrong way.  Then again, if you're the sort of chap who's up for a movie titled "Filth," based on a novel by Irvine Welsh (who also was responsible for "Trainspotting"), and you know what all of that implies, you've got precious little room to complain.  It's important to note, but not the entire story here.  "Filth" is a compelling, darkly funny, supremely messed up story, and it establishes star James McAvoy as something I hadn't really gotten from him in his previous work: he can be a very scary man.

Bruce (James McAvoy) is a detective among a bunch of detectives, and in Bruce's mind, they're all up for the same promotion, which he sees as his path to a better life.  And thus Bruce sets about to prove himself the schemingest bastard in all of Scotland, determined to undermine all of his co-workers, with much success.  A high profile case, involving the murder of a Japanese student by a street gang, and the case is put in Bruce's lap.  Successfully closing the case would pretty much lock down his promotion, but he barely has control of himself.  Bruce rampages through life, fueled by endless supplies of booze, drugs, rough sex with nearly anyone that he can get his hands on (all the better if they're married to someone else), and with absolutely no regrets.  But his erratic behavior begins to catch up to him quickly, and things spiral out of control.

"Filth" is a top-contender in what comics author Warren Ellis dubbed "asshole fantasies."  It's the appeal of the anti-hero - the ability to do the least socially-acceptable deeds without consequence.  For the first half or so of this film, there's the sociopathic glee of watching someone behave in "Grand Theft Auto" manner.  McAvoy plays a true bastard, tearing down anything that even carries a whiff of something to respect.  He's literally never sober, nails co-worker's wives in order to undermine their professional hopes, intimidates suspects (when he can be bothered to do work).  Honestly, he makes being a scumbag look pretty fun.  McAvoy is handsome enough, and the character has a certain charisma to him that it looks like a workable way to live life.  And I know that I'm not making it sound like he's mistreating people that badly, but I want to leave the experience of watching his behavior somewhat fresh for viewers.  Trust me, he is that bad, and another enjoyable aspect to "Filth" is that it's a worthy entry into the "bad cop" genre of film.

But even though the tone is harsh, dark, and probably off-putting to a large portion of the population, there is more to "Filth" than vicarious thrills and then watching the consequences catch up to this man.  This is no morality tale.  Author Irvine Welsh and writer/director Jon S. Baird do something even more evil.  Whenever there's a tragedy, there's no shortage of bereft people shaking their heads, saying, "I just don't understand why someone would do this."  Welsh and Baird take that statement as a challenge to action.  You will understand why Bruce does what he does, and it's going to be uncomfortable, and it's going to challenge you, and the film will turn and the things that seemed funny and messed up graduate to horrific and fucked up.  And if Bruce seems like he's been acting as if he was compelled to behave in the manner that he has been, even when the edges of reality start to fray, you're going to get it.  And then, things don't stop happening just because no one seems to have any control over any of it.  Things just keep happening.

And there are a number of interesting conventions being used to tell the story.  It's always kind of fun when McAvoy breaks the fourth wall, but we've got suitably-warped dream sequences, hallucinations, characters that may or may not exist, song sequences (and a really great soundtrack)...  The whole thing adds up to a dizzying reality that doesn't really have any lulls, except when they're there to lull you into taking a breath.

It's kind of a shame that "Filth" is being presented as an indie/art film.  It's not that I think that it's palatable enough to achieve mainstream success, but it's an impressive piece of storytelling from all angles.  The transition from a hyper-charged reality to what would probably have to qualify as an emotional horror tale is well-done, compelling, and also doesn't try to cram a feel-good ending down your throat, like "Flight" did.  I mean, sometimes drug abusers stay messed up!  Besides, you're not going to see a movie called "Filth" on the basis of a redemption story, are you?  Are you?  I wouldn't, at least.  I want to see a movie called "Filth" live up to it's title, which this movie does, and then get a really good story on top of that, which this movie also does.

4 / 5 - Theatre

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

They Only Kill Their Masters - 1972

"They Only Kill Their Masters" - 1972
Dir. by James Goldstone - 1 hr. 37 min.

Original Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

You know, sometimes I'm wrong about things.  When I was scouring the TCM listings late one night, I came across a movie starring James Garner and a dog, and I thought to myself that it sounded funny.  But I was dreadfully wrong.  It was not funny, and it wasn't entertaining, either.  I hadn't bargained for a lame small-town cop story, nor a ton of Simon & Garfunkel knock-off acoustic guitar noodling, nor my needing two sittings to finish the movie.

Let's begin with the premise that Abel Marsh (James Garner) is a crappy small-town cop with crappy instincts and no budget to work with.  Actually, just think back to watching "Jaws," but without the whole killer shark angle.  A dead woman turns up in the surf, discovered by a Doberman Pinscher, whom everyone immediately assumes killed the woman.  But a week later, they figure out that she had been drowned instead, and we have an official murder on our hands.  And since the dog, Murphy, is no longer a suspect, one of the women at the vet's office, Kate (Katharine Ross) guilts Abel into adopting the dog, and sweetens the pot by engaging in some steamy business with him.

I ordinarily start off by trying to say something complimentary about a movie, but I don't have much of anything to say about "They Only Kill Their Masters."  I'm generally pro-James Garner, and that was enough to get me to watch this in the first place, but even he seems bored by the conundrum he's in.  This decade of film is littered with fantastic "bad cop" movies (you could probably think of half a dozen of them that are pretty much essential-viewing without breaking a sweat), and this film takes that scenario, and then promptly forgets to pile on the main character, or even to make him that bad of a guy to begin with.  Abel isn't a "bad cop," he's just not very good at what he does, and that's not even exploited for laughs.  He gets a hunch, follows it, and then discovers that it's wrong and moves on to his next hunch.  I think that happens at least four times over the course of this film.  At the least, it's inefficient police-work, and for a cash-strapped small-town police force, that ought to be a matter of concern.

Beyond that, the tone is all weird.  Some of the people that Abel is investigating are basically swingers, and I think we're supposed to judge that harshly.  Abel has some weird, judgmental offhand remarks (there was one in particular, patronizingly making sure that he's got the nomenclature for a menage-a-trois right), partially motivated by the small-town folks being shocked by big-city behavior (the only real difference being that people in cities don't try very hard to cover up what they're doing).  At the same time, Abel is banging Kate like a barista trying to shake loose your smoothie from the blender, but I guess that's okay.  But instead of provoking some sort of moral outrage, these kinds of moments just come off lukewarm, and pretty much without meaning beyond making Abel look like he hates everyone around him, but doesn't have the courage to do anything about it.  And there's this dog, which doesn't even have the acting chops to command his own scenes.

Look, "They Only Kill Their Masters" is weak.  Even if you like James Garner, and are amused by the idea of him interacting with a dog on-screen, or even if you like bad cop movies, this isn't going to do the trick.  The only thing this movie succeeded at doing was making me wonder why I didn't just queue up a couple of episodes of "The Rockford Files" instead.

1 / 5 - TV (HD)

Monday, June 23, 2014

A Good Woman - 2004

"A Good Woman" - 2004
Dir. by Mike Barker - 1 hr. 33 min.

Official Trailer #1

by Clayton Hollifield

There are a few things that I have an inexplicable soft spot for.  One such thing is the work of Oscar Wilde.  It's not to suggest that his work is without merit, that is certainly not the case.  But I usually enjoy more... streamlined work.  I guess you could say more American work.  Wilde's best material is heavy on witty dialogue and glamorous settings (this is set in the 1930s, initially in New York, and then in Italy), and social interplay.  These are not things that frequently interest me.  But Wilde had such a way with what he did that I find his work irresistible, and find him to be a very compelling figure.  I even have "oscar wilde" set as a search term on my DVR, to see what turns up about him (I also have "jonestown" saved, to round out this peek into my personality).  "A Good Woman" turned up sometime over the last year, and I was finally in the mood to watch it this weekend.

Mrs. Erlynne (Helen Hunt) suddenly finds herself struck by a sudden turn of fortune.  Basically, all of the wives in her social circle have simultaneously discovered that their respective husbands have been carrying on with her, and they cut off her sources of income.  She divests herself of her investments and makes off for Europe, having hatched a scheme involving a pair of newlyweds.  The newlyweds Robert and Meg Windermere (Mark Umbers and Scarlett Johansson, respectively), are in Italy on their honeymoon, along with a batch of other expats, like Tuppy (Tom Wilkinson), who is on the hunt for a third wife, and sisters Contessa Lucchino (Milena Vukotic) and Lady Plymdale (Diana Hardcastle).  Mrs. Erlynne comes across Robert shopping for his wife's birthday present, and offers her opinion, which leads to some things and some misunderstandings.  I mean, it's an Oscar Wilde story - half the deal is going to be what people are doing behind other people's backs, and the other half is what the people in the story think that other people are doing behind other people's backs.

First off, the plot is sufficiently tangled to stay interesting over the course of the movie, and a couple of the twists are doozies.  I don't want to give short shrift to this part of the movie - the story is well-executed, interesting, and I'd rather not blow any of the twists.  But an even bigger part of "A Good Woman" is the notion of visually luxuriating in beauty.  It's maybe the most pervasive thing about the film; the settings are so beautiful as to feel dream-like (something that Baz Luhrmann played with in his recent version of "The Great Gatsby," and I think this is a valid comparison even beyond the two films having been set in roughly the same time period), the characters exist mostly only in the pursuit of luxury (a function of the social class and setting being written about).  It's like a perfect vacation, where everyone's always dressed to the nines, drinks are always flowing, and everyone talks in witty rejoinders.

But of course, the real visual focus of "A Good Woman" rests on the unbared shoulders of Helen Hunt and Scarlett Johansson.  Although they play characters at nearly polar opposites of life experience, they both end up wearing the same dress at the same party, and one's opinion about who wears it better likely depends heavily on which of the actresses one's age is closer to.  That's to say, the two woman here are testaments to why female beauty is an enduring subject of art, now and forever.  This isn't the only reason to watch "A Good Woman," but the dynamic of how Mrs. Erlynne uses her beauty in an aggressive, clever manner to get what she wants, against how Meg Windermere's naivety and idealism make her an uncomfortable target of affection from other men is observant and nuanced, which is probably why this movie aired on Showtime's "Women" channel instead of higher up on their hierarchy.  Although the scenes aren't juxtaposed against one another, there are parallel scenes where Mrs. Erlynne is courted by Tuppy (a very adult, pragmatic conversation, although one not devoid of romantic passion), and Meg's husband's best friend pursues her in earnest, which she's been clear is unwelcome, but she doesn't seem to have the tools to keep him at arm's length (or further away).

"A Good Woman" is a pleasant ride, with great visual attention paid to beauty of all kinds.  It's not a story about big things, it's a movie about a young couple's love, and the ways that the less scrupulous and more cynical can derail that love.  The stakes may not be high, but the story goes along so smoothly and with so many great lines being traded off, and I promise you that you'll never look at a woman's mostly bare back in the same way.  This might not be your cup of tea, but it's not the sort of thing that one would regret watching.  But if it is the sort of thing you're into, dig in.

3.5 / 5 - TV (HD)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Choke - 2008

"Choke" - 2008
Dir. by Clark Gregg - 1 hr. 32 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I try very, very hard not to hold the source material against the film version of the same story.  I liked "Constantine," for crying out loud.  But I found the film version of "Choke" to be vastly inferior to the novel by Chuck Palahnuik (who also wrote "Fight Club"), and I just couldn't get around the comparison this time around.  I also felt like, if you were hoping for a worth follow-up to "Fight Club," you would not find it here.  Not in tone, nor in execution.  I don't hold budgetary concerns against films either, that's not the downfall.  It's just that "Choke" feels like it never gets the tone right, as if it's teeth have been filed down not into points, but harmless nubs.

Victor (Sam Rockwell) is a sex addict, and attends meetings where he usually ends up losing his "sobriety" to another addict, mid-meeting.  He's also a con artist, deliberately choking on food in restaurants so that someone wealthy can save him, which usually ends up with these people sending Victor money every so often.  He does this because his mother is in a care facility, and his job as a historical reenactor at one of those period villages does not cover the $3k a month it costs to keep his mom (Anjelica Huston) tended to.  As Victor's mom slides downhill, a doctor at the facility, Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald), both hatches a plan to help Victor's mom and falls for Victor at the same time.  These are very confusing times for Victor, and he seems mostly concerned with figuring out who his real father is before his addled mother moves on from this world.

All of the best things about "Choke" have to do with the actors involved.  There was a moment a few years back where it seemed like Sam Rockwell was going to break out and become a real star, and you can see why in his work here.  He's able to project a lot of conflicting things going on within him in a way that makes sense, and he's able to play a scumbag with some sympathy.  Not to the point where you'd want to hang out with him or really like him, but enough that you could understand that nothing's really black or white with his character.  He's doing things that you might not agree with, and there's a fantastic scene in the back half of the film where Victor is caught literally with the milkmaid's (Bijou Phillips) hand down his pants, by his boss (Clark Gregg), who happens to have quite a crush on the milkmaid (who has also fallen asleep, and is unaware of his presence).  The writing is sharp, the performances are great, and if the whole movie was this good, I'd have been a very happy camper.  Anjelica Huston is also fantastic (as always), playing a challenging double role (she's suffering from dementia in the "present" in the film, and there are a few flashback scenes to her drug-addled, erratic younger days).  Pretty much all of the actors do great work, and the best parts of the film are the small moments between characters, like a kitchen exchange between Victor and Cherry Daquiri (Gillian Jacobs), who is the kind of girl when warned about blondes being particularly susceptible to skin cancer, goes brunette for safety's sake.

On the other hand, one of the things that distinguishes Chuck Palahnuik's work is the tone, and it's one of general nastiness.  There are usually not many characters that you can like, they generally behave badly and maliciously, and this works well in the context of a novel.  Films, however, require a level of likability of at least some of the characters, because you're trying to lure a certain amount of people to a movie theatre during a limited amount of time.  It's a matter of finances, really.  The more people you need to see something, the more you're going to have to hedge your bets on how nasty you can get with your characters.  Victor isn't really a likable guy, and justifiably so.  You're not supposed to like him.  He's a sex addict (which just means he gets laid a lot), he's a con-man, he's unpleasant, he's an underachiever, he's an asshole, he's got bad hair.  But the focus in "Choke" on his dealing with his mother's deterioration forces him into a sympathetic role, no matter what else is going on with him.  This forces a viewer into a spiral of sorts.  He's a rotten apple, but bad things are happening to him, but mostly that's because of how his mother raised him, and she's going downhill fast, so you don't really want to pile on her, either.  So you've got all this bad stuff happening, and you have nowhere to safely lay the blame, and by the time the twists of the third act have occurred, I was in a place where neither a good ending or a downer ending was even possible.  Everything is muddled, and a lot of the bite of the tone and content of the novel had been toned down a bit.

It's not as if there aren't good moments, or even good scenes in "Choke."  It was by no means a home run; I'm not sure there exists a way to turn Palahnuik's novel into something as affecting and dynamic as "Fight Club."  It's a good piece of work (as a novel), but I don't think that the material lends itself to a good movie, unless someone's willing to be a real hard-ass about it and make something brutal that only eight people in the world will like, and then you'd need to deal with a budget of around $75 US.  That's a tough proposition.  I think that this version of "Choke" could have been better, considering that I liked the casting and the work of the cast, almost universally.  But as it is, I'm not sure you'd want to watch "Choke" unless you were a big fan of Palahnuik (like myself), or of Sam Rockwell or Anjelica Huston (also, like me).

2 / 5 - TV (HD)

Monday, June 9, 2014

Slap Shot - 1977

"Slap Shot" - 1977
Dir. by George Roy Hill - 2 hrs. 3 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

My second thought, after watching "Slap Shot," was that this is where "Major League" came from.  Of course, my first thought was that, since I'd been laughing for about two hours straight, that it was a shame I'd never watched "Slap Shot" before.  And also, looking up director George Roy Hill's career credits, that there's some doozies in there that I also haven't seen yet.  It's not like I'd been resistant to "Slap Shot," I'm not really a hockey fan but I'm not against it either.  And I'd heard of the Hanson Brothers, way before their music career.

In the world of minor league hockey, it's not crazy to have a grey-haired player/coach in charge of things.  For the Charlestown Chiefs, that would be Reg Dunlop (Paul Newman), who is hustled onto TV and radio to try to drum up ticket sales for his floundering team.  His players are forced into modelling for a local department store's fashion show, which they hate, also to drum up ticket sales.  Fact is, the Chiefs aren't any good, and they're in cost-cutting mode, selling off spare equipment and bringing in cheaper players, like the Hanson brothers.  They're a trio of coke-bottle glass-wearing long hairs who travel with toy cars and guzzle soda, and instantly repeat whatever Reg tells them.  On a road trip, Reg figures out that his team is going to be folding at the end of the year, putting everyone out of work.  And, of course, there's the girl that Reg is trying to win back, a local hairstylist named Francine (Jennifer Warren).  When thing appear bleak, the Hanson brothers are finally unleashed on the ice, where their unbelievably violent style of play turns the season around.

I'm partial to these kinds of films - the ragged bunch of idiots trying to survive in a world that doesn't care about them one way or another.  It's even better when it's a sports film, even if it's not a sport that I really pay attention to.  That's not a knock on hockey, hockey just happens to run at the same time as basketball, and I can never seem to find enough time to follow both.  And these kinds of films are even better when they're violent, ragged, and obscene.  Any sports movie made currently would be trading off their access to the real deal for getting scrubbed clean by corporate concerns.  And let me be clear, "Slap Shot" does not want to sell you skates, or sticks, or sweaters.  The men in this movie want to drink, fight, get laid, and maybe play some straight-up hockey in between all of that.  But only if there's time, and only if they feel like it.  The corporatization of sport in the ensuing years actually serves to amplify the humor in films like this.

Derrick Rose wants to sell you shoes, but has no personality or healthy knee.

For example, you'll have to get used to watching a bunch of people play hockey without helmets.  Without helmets!  There's blood, constant fighting, raw taunting of one another... all the stuff people used to love about hockey.  And that's all before we even get to see the Hanson brothers in action.  Their collective on-ice debut is one of the funniest things I've ever seen in my life; pure mayhem and chaos.  These brothers are legendary for a reason.  They're also egged on by a sort-of amoral coach, Reg Dunlop.  I've never been into Paul Newman either - by the time I started watching films, he was past his movie-star days.  I never thought badly of him, but I knew him about as well for his organic Oreo knock-offs and salad dressings as I did for movies like "The Hudsucker Proxy."  He's so engaged and different from the other roles that I've seen him in here that it makes me curious about his other prime-era work.  Even "Cool Hand Luke," even though it's unquestionably a great film, didn't make me curious about Newman's other work.

Aside from the riotous humor of the hockey itself, there's a good story (several of them, actually) being told here.  There's the battle to keep the Chiefs from folding, there's a pair of estranged lover stories, there's the story of the town itself.  There's a lot going on, even though the surface of the movie is that of a bunch of dim-witted hockey players and their season.  And not all of it goes the way you'd want it to.  The key is that Reg, in particular, seems to know how to make things work, even if he doesn't know why it's going to work.  It's a skill that's kept him in hockey for far past his expiration date, and we get to see it on display outside of hockey, as well.

By the time we get to the final game, and the good guys have nothing left to lose, you know they're going to go out their way, which is the same way they got that far in the first place.  The final game is just as great as the ones that preceded it, and "Slap Shot" pulls off a wall-to-wall great comedy.  As frustrating as it is that I hadn't seen it before, I'm comfortable knowing that I'm probably going to end up watching "Slap Shot" another half-dozen times before I call it a day.  

4.5 / 5 - Streaming

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Ghostbusters - 1984

"Ghostbusters" - 1984
Dir. by Ivan Reitman - 1 hr. 45 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I can't watch "Ghostbusters" without being overtaken by a wave of nostalgia.  I remember Slimer, and I remember the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, and I remember that "Ghostbusters" played on one of the screens in my small town's multiplex (four screens!) for what seemed like a year and a half.  I mean, I was singing along with the opening theme song absent-mindedly as the movie started, that's how drilled into my brain "Ghostbusters" is.

Who you gonna call?

Doctors Venkman (Bill Murray), Spengler (Harold Ramis) and Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) are investigators of the paranormal, with a grant from a New York college.  It's more of a hunch than a field of study with a lot of concrete evidence, until they're called into the city public library, and find an apparition.  This is very exciting, until they return to their offices, which are being cleaned out.  The university has given them the boot, which inspires the trio to launch their own business: Ghostbusters.  Paranormal investigators for hire.  Their first client, Dana (Sigourney Weaver), contacts them because of a disturbance in her apartment, which ends up being the beginning of something much bigger, supernaturally speaking.

I think, most importantly, that "Ghostbusters" represents peak Bill Murray, at least concerning the first stage of his career.  "Stripes" or "Caddyshack" might be funnier, but "Ghostbusters" is funny, preserves what makes Bill Murray himself, and was a huge box-office smash.  Like, a thirty-five foot Twinkie weighing six-hundred pounds big.  I don't want to downplay everything else about this film, but it's kind of Bill Murray's show.  Other people get the chance to shine, too, but there's a hierarchy here.

As for the everything else?  "Ghostbusters" is a clever, fast-paced, kinda chatty sci-fi comedy.  A really funny one, that feels unlike anything that came before it.  The idea of marrying comedy actors into an action film was unique then, standard operating procedure now.  There's also a streak of making really cutesy, funny things horrific, which I don't remember happening a ton previous to this.  One of the ghosts, Slimer, is a dripping neon green levitating Dr. Seuss character.  The giant monster at the end is not a lizard or a giant monkey wrecking everything in site, it's a marshmallow company mascot.  A chunk of the plot is trying to keep a possessed nebbish (Rick Moranis) away from a possessed bombshell (Sigourney Weaver).  There's also a series of story-telling devices that became standard issue after "Ghostbusters" (although I'm not claiming that they invented them), most prominent among them being the "getting famous" media montage, complete with clips from interviews with famous media personalities and faked magazine covers.

And dang it, "Ghostbusters" is just a fun movie.  It's broad enough for kids, Bill Murray enough for adults.  There aren't any lulls, the lesser characters are still fun (particularly Annie Potts as the receptionist, and William Atherton as an easily aggravated EPA agent), and there's enough action to keep anyone from getting bored.  The effects maybe haven't held up, but that's the problem with using effects in the first place, and the cheesiness of the laser beams and puppetry just add to the fun.  Plus, "Ghostbusters" backs up my theory that having a unique/sweet car in a film is a shortcut to success.  And the company hearse is pretty memorable.  C'mon, you know you wanted to re-watch "Ghostbusters" the second you clicked on this review.  Don't deny yourself!

4 / 5 - Streaming

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Gone in Sixty Seconds - 2000

"Gone in Sixty Seconds" - 2000
Dir. by Dominic Sena - 1 hr. 58 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I'm not going to represent "Gone in Sixty Seconds" as any kind of good movie.  Having said that, I've probably watched it half a dozen times, and I've been wanting to watch it again for a few months now.  Considering all of the actors involved here, this film underachieves.  But then again, there's sometimes comfort in a paint-by-numbers story, like the comfort in repeating rituals.  Plus, goofball Nicolas Cage.

Memphis Raines (Nicolas Cage) runs a go-kart park in the middle of nowhere, but is pulled back into his previous life of crime through his younger brother's errors.  Raymond Calitri (Christopher Eccleston), a British woodworker/criminal boss, hired Kip (Giovanni Ribisi) to steal some cars, and he didn't deliver.  Since obviously the price for failure is death, only Memphis can save Kip, by finishing the job.  The job?  Stealing fifty cars in three days.  That means Memphis is going to need a crew.  And then they steal some cars, with the clock ticking.

"Gone in Sixty Seconds" is like the gearhead version of "Ocean's Eleven."  Not in quality, of course.  There are no elegantly-planned heists, this isn't a crew of fashionably-dressed rogues.  It's Nic Cage and a team of neuroses leading a bunch of stereotype-filling weirdos on a mission of brute force: steal everything, and drive fast while doing it.  For Kip.  And I have absolutely no problem with any of that.  I'm not sure that one could make the case that having better dialogue, or more well-rounded characters, or really anything other than what's already on the screen would have improved the end result.  I mean, I wouldn't have dressed the one woman in the movie, Angelina Jolie, in a series of potato sacks, and I wouldn't have given her pseudo-bleached blonde dreadlocks, either.  I might have made the enemies of the Raines brothers (that would be the police on his trail, played by Delroy Lindo and Timothy Olyphant, and the aforementioned evil British woodworker) a little more formidable, but it's not that kind of movie.

For a car movie, there's an awful lot of oohing and aahing over the vehicles, and there are some pretty sweet whips here, but director Dominic Sena never seems to take any visual delight in the machines that all of these gearheads are driving around.  There are no loving shots of classic cars, no emphasis on them at all.  The chase scenes are all rapid-cut monstrosities, with no real attention paid to what's involved.  If you're showing a lion chasing a zebra in the jungle, at least give us the opportunity to appreciate what a lion and a zebra are.  And again, this doesn't really matter much to the end product.  "Gone in Sixty Seconds" delivers exactly what it promises - Nic Cage being a little weird while trying to get one over on the man.  But it's also morally defensible, because he's doing it for his kid brother.  And also, screw that British guy and his silly benches.

Even with all of these things being provable facts, "Gone in Sixty Seconds" is still pretty fun.  This kind of story gets told over and over again, and it doesn't seem to get old.  There's a kind of comfort in watching the reluctant hero having to reassemble his army of misfits.  Then we get to watch this army accomplish what seems impossible, until something goes wrong near the end.  And usually, then success.  And all of this while we have to endure the quirks of the man himself.

That story works.  You can plug in any batch of actors, and as long as the goal is action-oriented, you've pretty much got a functional movie.  Sometimes you can add in bits and twists, but that's not that important.  "Gone in Sixty Seconds" is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch.  And the same way that I'll more than likely eat another PB&J, I'll probably end up watching this silly movie again, too.

2 / 5 - TV (HD)

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Spring Breakers - 2012

"Spring Breakers" - 2012
Dir. by Harmony Korine - 1 hr. 34 min.

Official Red Band Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Spring Breakers" is a movie that dares you to judge everyone and everything in it harshly.  I found that reaction almost unavoidable, and none of the characters are people that you'd have much sympathy for.  It's also a fairly accomplished piece of filmmaking, if fairly nihilistic in approach.  I don't know if I'd call it a "good" movie, exactly, but it's a provocative one, and sometimes that's enough to justify a piece of work.

A quartet of college party girls (I don't know what else to call them) are frustrated because they don't have the means to head to Florida to take part in Spring Break (caps, because it's that important to them).  They're young, they're bored and restless, and dying for a new experience, which is to be interpreted as them wanting to throw down party-style even harder than their current collegiate setting will indulge.  The girls acquire some cash in an underhanded manner, and set off to St. Petersberg, FL.  Eventually, they run afoul of John Q. Law in their earnest attempts to destroy themselves with copious amounts of liquor and drugs, and are bailed out by a true G, Alien (James Franco).  The four girls are now kind of in debt to Alien, a grill-wearing, dope-slinging and dope-smoking local hustler, and respond to that situation in different ways.

"Spring Breakers," at it's core, feels like a sarcastic response to overhearing a middle-aged couple complaining about "kids these days."  If you think kids these days are bad, wait until direction Harmony Korine shows you about bad kids.  Almost endlessly, Korine juxtaposes hardcore partying (and by that, I mean routine toplessness, aggressive drug and alcohol use, and flat out sex, and that's where we begin the film) against things like the girls calling home to their parents, talking about how everyone's so friendly and how they think they've really found themselves.  The directing style of "Spring Breakers" is a big part of the film's appeal; it's elliptical, ironic, languid.  Until it isn't.  But the endless display of bad behavior (in slow-motion, frequently) is engaged in without any consideration for what may come next.

That the characters are so clueless about themselves is one of the big reasons why they're hard to sympathize with.  One of the great scenes has Faith (Selena Gomez) sitting in jail, bemoaning about why this was all happening to her, and that this wasn't how things were supposed to go.  But when you're part of a cocaine-fueled rave-up that destroys hotel rooms in it's fury, the "I'm a good person, why me" bit reinforces the notion that these girls, in particular, seem to be motivated by nothing more than boredom.  I don't usually get offended by violence in films - it's not preferable, but there's usually some kind of reason why it's occurring within the context of a story.  It might be a flimsy pretext, but that fig leaf matters.  The girls here don't have any reason for why they act, it's simply a means to alleviate boredom, and being willing to kill people simply because one is bored is sheer nihilism, the notion that nothing at all matters.  And their actions are a reminder that even people who have nothing positive to offer anyone still want things, perhaps to stand up to the idea that they aren't worth anything at all in the first place.  This idea is backed up by Alien's best scene, the "look at all my shit" scene.

I'm torn about a lot of things about "Spring Breakers."  I suppose it's fitting that such an elegantly directed movie is in service to characters who are not much more than beautiful appearances; it's using beauty to prop up the notion that beauty without substance is a valid path.  Of course, this path leads to a bad end for a lot of people, but if you're making a film about vapid thrill-seekers, doubling down on the visual approach works well.  It's just that all of this is telling an ugly story about awful people, and after an hour and a half, that's all that you're left with.  It's not just "kids these days," it's that you (and I, and all of us) have no choice but to turn over the keys to these kids at some point, and then you'd better hope that they're not bored, or we're all boned.

3 / 5 - Streaming