Monday, September 29, 2014

No Good Deed - 2014

"No Good Deed" - 2014
Dir. by Sam Miller - 1 hr. 24 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"No Good Deed" is the very definition of "product."  I'm not going to hold that against the film; if there's a choice between competent creative people doing work and getting paid for it, and them just sitting around doing nothing, I'm okay with those people staying busy and keeping their skills sharp.  The key, however, is that they're keeping those skills sharp for use on other projects.  A funny aside - I kept referring to this film as "Bad Luther," so much so that when I went to the theatre I had a hard time remembering the real title of the film.  That what happens when you have a generic, forgettable title!

Colin Evans (Idris Elba) is a bad man; he's presumed to be responsible for the deaths of five women, but since they couldn't prove any of those, he went to prison for killing a man in a bar fight for looking at his woman.  Five years deep, he has a shot at parole, which is shot down, so he escapes from his transport back to prison, and heads straight for his ex, Alexis (Kate del Castillo).  Turns out, she wasn't as true to Colin as Colin would have preferred, so Colin teaches her one final, fatal lesson.  He leaves the scene, but wrecks his car on a rainy night.  The nearest house (and it's a giant, awesome house) belongs to Terri (Taraji P. Henson) and her husband, and their two small children.  Colin charms his way into the house, under the guise of calling a tow truck, and tension hangs in the air!

Probably the best thing that I could say about "No Good Deed" is that, although the cast was predominantly black (I was going to say African-American, but Idris Elba is British, and I've already used up my weekly allotment of hyphens), the story didn't depend on that in any way.  Literally anyone could have been cast in these roles, from any background, and the casting decisions held up just fine.  I don't even know if that was the intent or if everyone got lucky with good performances; it feels like Idris Elba should be above that sort of themed casting.  He was Nelson Mandela, for crying out loud.  Then again, this is product, and you use whatever angles are available to sell unremarkable films.

But that's not really a strong endorsement for "No Good Deed."  What's better about the casting is that Idris Elba gets to hang out in his wheelhouse for an hour and a half; brood, be handsome, and project a dominant physical presence on screen.  This wasn't necessarily a challenging role for him, but if you're a big Elba fan, I think you'll get your money's worth from him.  Also, the target of Colin, Taraji P. Henson, holds her own, and is enjoyable to watch.  Unfortunately, all of this is in service to a plot that is literally Idris Elba away from being a Lifetime movie.  Aside from one clever turn near the end of the film, this is a paint-by-numbers experience.  You know the second the plot pieces start revealing themselves exactly how this is going to play out.  I don't want to spoil anything for you, but you'll figure it out for yourself about twenty minutes in how things must unfold in order not to be one of the most depressing films you'd ever see.

"Bad Luther" is a better title for "No Good Deed."  It's accurate, and you'd know what you were in for.  Here are reasons you should see "No Good Deed": someone gets whomped in the face with a shovel, Idris Elba is shirtless for a little bit, Taraji P. Henson is pretty cute (although I was sad when they straightened her hair out at the end - I liked the curls better) and likable, and that's about it.  I'm not going to get mad if you want to see this - I watch wrestling, so there is no available moral high ground.  So if you are a smart, empowered lady who likes those "bad guy tormenting women" kind of Lifetime fare, but wish it was Idris Elba in the film instead of some doofus who can barely deliver lines but looks great without a shirt (or some barely-employed '80s sitcom actor messing with all of your childhood television paternal memories), grab a bottle of wine, get some fantasy material churning, and knock yourself out.

1.5 / 5 - Theatre

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Little Caesar - 1931

"Little Caesar" - 1931
Dir. by Mervyn LeRoy - 1 hr. 19 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Sometimes, "important" films don't really age well.  Heck, even lame films don't age well.  It took me two sittings to get through "Little Caesar," which isn't exactly a glowing recommendation for a film that's pretty shy of ninety minutes.  That's not to say that there aren't good things here, and it's not to say that I wouldn't watch it again, but it's pretty clear to me that "Little Caesar" is best understood in the context of it's time, and not as some timeless crime film that draws a viewer in so well that you barely notice the influence of when it was made.

At this point in time, films were pretty straight-forward.  Nuance existed, but barely.  So the plot of "Little Caesar" is pretty straight-forward, too.  Rico, aka Little Caesar (Edward G. Robinson) is an aspiring gangster, and pretty much forces his (and his friend, Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks)) into a gang.  Rico embraces the life of crime, and is regarded as somewhat reckless and aggressive, but succeeds quickly.  Joe doesn't feel the same way, and wants a life outside of crime as a nightclub dancer.  Rico drags Joe along kicking and screaming, until the whole thing comes to a head, and ends with Rico (and his entire criminal empire) hauled in by the feds.  Rico ends up back on Skid Row, only too be goaded into a confrontation where he is shot and killed (because crime doesn't pay, kids).
Good stuff first: Edward G. Robinson pretty much is single-handedly responsible for making this film watchable.  The plot doesn't have many wrinkles; this is straight up a film about the ascendancy of a criminal, with his complicated relationship with his childhood friend as the only real source of tension.  The other criminals are either in awe of Rico, or are too scared to much of anything but follow his lead.  Even rival criminals can't really do much about him, so they end up under his thumb when their machinations fail.  Robinson's performance launched his career (according to the WIKIGOD), and for good reason.  He's a live-wire; despite his stature, he makes it believable that the other men wouldn't to cross him, not even the first crime boss (Stanley Fields), who has an unfortunate habit of standing behind his desk with his fists on the tabletop, looking much like a gorilla.

The other real success in "Little Caesar" comes toward the end of the film, when Rico and Otero (George E. Stone) have come to Joe's apartment to kill him and his girlfriend, Olga (Glenda Farrell).  It might not seem like a big deal, and I don't have a strong grasp on the chronology of when cinematic "firsts" happened, but when the confrontation hits it's peak, director Mervyn LeRoy switches from a longer shot to a shot of Robinson directly facing the camera, gun in hand.  That shot hadn't occurred in this film previously, and one can only imagine what a 1931 audience might felt when having a character pointing a gun directly at them, instead of the other characters in the film.  In the context of it's own time, this was probably a really big deal, even if 2014 audiences would be numb to the shot's effect.  Certainly, contemporary audiences wouldn't have been as familiar with such cinematic techniques.

There are also parts of the film that are problematic.  First off, the weird way that Edward G. Robinson talks all the way through the film has spawned infinity imitations.  In fact, that very voice that's in your head right now that's a parody of how old gangster movie characters talk?  That's literally from this film, and literally from Robinson's performance in this film.  It's so weird (and been so thoroughly mocked) that it makes it hard to take the film seriously, even if it also kind of makes it a lot of fun.  I found myself spending the entire third act responding to the TV with a duck-sounding "myah, see?" every time Robinson spoke.  Secondly, I couldn't figure out the whole "dancer" angle that Douglas Fairbanks was working.  I couldn't figure out the logistics of it; was he getting paid to be like a pace runner or something, making sure everyone danced their asses off?  Was this a gigolo situation?  If so, how did his girlfriend, Olga, another dancer, play into this?  And why does Rico get so mad about his buddy coming off soft, since he had a girl and Rico never did?  I know a common reading of this film has a homosexual subtext (Rico's gay, in plain terms), but that still doesn't really explain what the hell Joe Massara was getting paid to do, precisely.  It explains Rico's jealously, and if Joe gets to hang out dancing with chicks every night, it's clear why he'd be game for a career change.  But I just could never wrap my head around what Joe was doing.  I'm just going to assume that he was a jazz-era go-go dancer, and leave it at that.

The fact that "Little Caesar," and it's star, Edward G. Robinson, remain really watchable and interesting eighty-plus years after it's release is enough of a reason to recommend it.  It's not a complex film, and it's not a technical masterpiece (you'd probably prepare yourself to deal with the hiss that accompanies a film that largely has no score whatsoever - I didn't keep track if whether or not music was used at all, I just noticed the background hiss more than a couple of times).  It's probably even odds that you're going to get pulled out of the straight-forward story by a number of things.  It could be the Robinson voice, it could be what passed for technical expertise in film-making in 1931, you might just think that the whole thing is funny and ridiculous and blow it off.  Delving deep into film history isn't for everyone.  But if you're curious about how crime films developed over the years, "Little Caesar" should probably be on that checklist of the bare-bones essentials you need to watch.

3 / 5 - TV

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones - 2014

"A Walk Among the Tombstones" - 2014
Dir. by Scott Frank - 1 hr. 53 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

So let's get some stuff out of the way before we even get to the movie.  First off, I'm a huge Lawrence Block fan (the author of the source material), and the idea of a movie based on anything at all that he'd written is pretty exciting to me.  Secondly, I haven't read any of the Matthew Scudder books - I've read all of the Evan Tanner series, and all of the Bernie Rhodenbarr series, and some other assorted things here and there, but I haven't gotten into his darker material yet.  It's not that I don't intend to, but more that I just haven't found time to do so yet.  The other thing that I know is that previous adaptations of Block's work have been weak sauce, even though I haven't seen 'em yet.  There was a Scudder movie from the '80s that had a far-too-young Jeff Bridges starring, and one of the Bernie books got adapted in the '80s, but instead of being about a middle-aged male cat burglar/bookstore-owner, it starred Whoopi Goldberg.  So when I talk about "A Walk Among the Tombstones," understand that the bar has been set extraordinarily low for what I could hope for out of this project.

Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson) is an unlicensed private detective, of sorts, which isn't exactly how he puts it, although it is also pretty much exactly how he puts it.  He's a former police officer who now has to deal in worlds where everything is referred to by euphemisms, and yet everyone knows exactly what's up.  Scudder meets someone at an AA meeting whose brother could use his services.  Turns out Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) is involved in the drug trade, and his wife has been abducted, ransomed, and brutally murdered by a pair of serial killers.  Scudder is initially hesitant to help, but eventually agrees to get involved.

For most crime fiction, there are certain tropes that have to be adhered to (or at least acknowledged).  I'm not going to pretend for a second that "A Walk Among the Tombstones" gets much further than that.  You have to have a beleaguered, damaged hero, you need a murder (or murders), a mystery to unwrap, and then a face-off between whoever's left standing by the end of the film.  It helps if there's a love interest (which there really isn't, here), or someone involved who depends on the hero (which there is).  That's the genre chessboard upon which millions of words have been spilled.  Once you admit that, the question becomes "did I enjoy the ride?"  And I totally did.  "Tombstones" is a solid ride with twists and turns, and it's executed well.  Even more to the point, there were no big, dumb mistakes like casting Mo'Nique as an alcoholic ex-cop, just because fuck Lawrence Block and everything he's ever written about this character, you'll cash your check and shut your stupid writer mouth!  Butthole!

To me, that's a giant victory.  Just trusting the story and the character and avoiding glaring missteps is enough to keep me happy.  Liam Neeson is great casting; Scudder is a character with miles on him, but there still needs to be a glimmer of competence and ability.  And if this movie is similar to Neeson's other recent work, I don't really care.  I didn't watch any of those movies, anyways.  The rest of the cast are similarly scuffed up, albeit without the desire to do something for any reason beyond cash or revenge (or drugs, in at least one case).  Director Scott Frank also does a great job of giving a sense of place to the movie - even though this is New York, this isn't a nighttime rainy/neony/grungy kind of place.  Most of the movie takes place in the daytime, and we get to see wide shots of buildings and backgrounds, to the point where the city is not a mere backdrop to Scudder scowling.  By the time we get to what the title is referencing, the switch to a rainy nighttime cemetery setting is jarring, and unsettling, which is exactly what it should be.

Like you'd expect, this is a dark, nasty movie, featuring a lot of unredeemable characters.  Just like a good crime story should be.  Ultimately, these kinds of movies are about surviving ugly situations, even when you're ill-equipped to do so.  In that sense, this is a very positive movie, although not exactly an optimistic one.  There's never a happy ending, so much as just a chance to catch one's breath before things pile up again.  I liked "A Walk Among the Tombstones" quite a bit.  I liked pretty much everything about it, certainly enough to hope for another round of Scudder in a couple of years.  Even if I haven't read them, I know there's a ton of Scudder books, and finally getting a good adaptation of one of them (which is far from a sure thing) is a relief.

3.5 / 5 - Theatre

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Marc Maron: Thinky Pain - 2013

"Marc Maron: Thinky Pain" - 2013
Dir. by Lance Bangs - 1 hr. 37 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

I've been warming up to Marc Maron lately; I've been listening to random episodes of his podcast for a year or two now (not every episode, but when someone interesting to me is the guest), I finally gave in and started watching episodes of his TV show (I'm four or five episodes into the first season.  I've been aware of him for quite a while - I remember seeing him host some stand-up show on Comedy Central what must have been like twenty-five years ago - but he's not someone who I've kept up with his work over the years.  So why not dive into a stand-up special/movie (I don't know exactly how to categorize this)?

There's two big things that I think need to be explained.  First, I'd usually do a plot recap here, and that's pointless.  This is ninety minutes of Marc Maron doing stand-up comedy.  There, you're all caught up.  Secondly, when I settled on a way to rate movies that I watch, I figured that three out of five (and above) meant that I'd be willing to watch the film again, at some unspecified point in the future.  Anything less than that pretty much sums up the lengths I'd go to in order to avoid watching a movie again.  I've watched a few stand-up specials over the years, some of them repeatedly.  I've watched or listened to Dave Chappelle's "Killin' Them Softly" probably a minimum of a dozen times, and I'd watch it again in a heartbeat, no matter what point in the run time I stumbled across it.  That's a five of five.  Sadly, I also had Pauly Shore's CD, "Future of America," on repeat for much of my high school years, so take that for what it's worth.

I enjoyed Maron's comedy.  He's often repeated that his podcast is the best thing he's done in his life, and I'd agree with that.  His comedy isn't bad; he's angry, and often self-lacerating, but you'd know that before long, and know whether or not it's your kind of comedy.  I kind of like it.  I'd probably not want to watch "Thinky Pain" again.  It's not like I'd pitch a fit and whine about it if someone else wanted to watch it, but I'd also probably spent that time half-listening to it while playing around on the internet.  I haven't seen anything else by Maron in so long that I couldn't tell you whether or not this was a matter of him not being at top form (although I don't think that's the case - he's pretty sharp), or whether the material was uncharacteristically weak (again, I doubt that, but I couldn't speak authoritatively).  I liked "Thinky Pain."  I laughed all the way through it.  I'm like 95% sure that, given the choice of re-watching "Thinky Pain" or checking out something else that he's done (whether that be more stand-up, an episode of his show, or an episode of his podcast), I'd check out something else that he's done.

I don't think that means that "Thinky Pain" is weak, or mediocre or anything.  I had a good time.  I want to stress that, that I had a good time.  I just don't want to re-watch everything that I see.  This was good, but not transcendent, and there's nothing wrong with that.  If I'm getting defensive, it's because I don't people to think that I hated, or even disliked "Thinky Pain."  Once was enough, however.

2.5 / 5 - Streaming

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past - 2014

"X-Men: Days of Future Past" - 2014
Dir. by Bryan Singer - 2 hrs. 11 min.

Official Tralier

by Clayton Hollifield

Although it's been played out over a longer span of time, we're about as deep into the "X-Men" cycle of movies as we are the "Avengers" cycle.  And while the Avengers movies have been more consistent, the X-Men movies have had some great moments, nearly all of which involve director Bryan Singer.  "X-Men: Days of Future Past" is his return to the franchise, his first film since 2003's "X2."  It's a welcome return, considering the source material and actors are generally the same from film to film.  Here, we get the opportunity to see some of the actors from the first batch of films come face-to-face with their younger counterparts, from "X-Men: First Class," and it works well.  Not "Avengers" well, but still well.

At some point in the future, the Sentinels have taken over, hunting down mutants and killing them whenever they get the chance.  The Sentinels are giant robots, programmed to identify and kill mutants, the pet project of Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage).  The mutants are down to their last few, including Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellan), as well as Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Storm (Halle Berry).  They've figured out what the point in history was that unleashed support for the Sentinels as a government project, and have the ability to send someone's consciousness back in time to do something about it, but only Wolverine has the ability to physically survive the trip.  Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) sends Wovlerine back into the 1973 version of himself to unite the then vehemently-opposed Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Xavier (James McAvoy), to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Trask.

The story itself is kind of complicated, probably more so than it needs to be, so it's better to just focus on the broad strokes than trying to figure out all of the science-fiction elements.  I feel like, if you were so inclined, you could pick apart the story.  But this is also a pretty enjoyable movie, so the real question is whether or not you, as a viewer, want to get in the way of your own enjoyment.  Thankfully, the story itself doesn't go in for treating another era as the basis for a series of anachronistic jokes (that's pretty much limited to Wolverine dryly being "impressed" by a system that's set up to record "all three" networks).  There's bigger fish to fry, and once again, the issue is the ideological battle between Xavier and Magneto.  For me, the most compelling material in the film involved young Xavier's struggles.  To some degree, seeing Xavier struggling with literally everything in his life, and having turned somewhat nihilistic over the events from "X-Men: First Class," is heartbreaking and a fascinating peek at Xavier's journey, as a character.  Patrick Stewart's Xavier is a full-on God - he's in control, has a vision, and is seeing it through.  He's more than capable of helping others, a true role model.  He's Yoda in the second "Star Wars" film, a guru that the others look up to.

James McAvoy's Xavier, on the other hand, is broken; his dreams have been crushed, he's physically a wreck, and has no hope or confidence.  He doesn't know where he's going anymore, and doesn't seem to care.  As a fan who's watched every film in the X-Men cycle, it's hard to watch someone who ends up such a strong, confident character who is a source of hope to many around him, and is nearly always presented as such, flailing around, rendered impotent by drugs (literally), failure, and the loss of those close to him.  The greatest success of "X-Men: Days of Future Past" is that the thing that needs to happen for the hero to save the day remains very much in doubt for the bulk of the film.  It feels impossible that Xavier can become what he needs to in order to do what needs to be done, and his barriers are very human and relateable.  Xavier has a real journey in this movie, and it's great stuff for people who have been on the X-Men ride for a while.

I'm not going to claim that this "X-Men" movie is a complete success.  It's pretty good, and I'm sure I'll watch it again.  But a lot of the focus is on long-term repercussions of one's actions, and that's something that's hard to make an action movie about.  I felt like it was explained enough, and the foundation of the idea was successful, but I also feel like correcting one error in history doesn't mean that everything's smooth sailing afterwards.  So maybe there's room for more installments down the road.  There was one thing that Xavier said in the film that really resonated with me, and even though it came out of a time-travel movie, is something that people now need to hear.  In a time where saying one wrong thing on the internet means that a great number of people will instantly, and forever tune someone out, Xavier provides the ideal: "Just because someone stumbles and loses their path, doesn't mean they're lost forever."  It's a timely message, one that the people who most need to hear it, likely won't.

3 / 5 - Theatre

Monday, September 8, 2014

Canadian Bacon - 1995

"Canadian Bacon" - 1995
Dir. by Michael Moore - 1 hr. 31 min.

Official Trailer #1

by Clayton Hollifield

There's three or four reasons why "Canadian Bacon" is a movie of (minor) importance.  First off, it's director Michael Moore's one and only non-documentary film.  Also, it's the last film released that starred John Candy.  Aside from that, there are a ton of cameos from notable actors and comedians, and it feels like some of this concept might have been borrowed for "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut."  But while this is a genial, light-hearted movie (a lot of the credit for which goes to Candy and co-star Rhea Perlman, who are great at playing dimwits), it's also a movie built on a poor foundation, questionable character motivation, and not enough quality material for it's cast to chew upon.

Because of the end of the Cold War, prosperity and peace have overtaken the nation, which is bad for the military industrial complex.  R.J. Hacker (G.D. Spradlin) has closed his munitions factory in Niagara Falls, forcing thousands of employees to find new jobs.  Some, like Bud Boomer (John Candy) and Honey (Rhea Perlman), have found work with the local police force.  Others, like Roy Boy (Kevin J. O'Connor), decide to kill themselves.  The President (Alan Alda) makes an appearance at the Hacker surplus auction to try and boost his sagging popularity, but all the appearance does is introduce Hacker to Stu Smiley (Kevin Pollak), the Secretary of Defense, and they conspire.  After a failed attempt to get Russia to re-kindle the Cold War just for appearances' sake, Smiley and Hacker hatch a plan to paint Canada as the new enemy of America, which will distract Americans from their dwindling opportunities.  Boomer, Honey, Roy Boy, and Kabral (Bill Nunn) take this hook, line, and sinker, and things escalate from there.

There are exactly two good scenes in "Canadian Bacon."  The first is when Boomer sets off a riot at a hockey game by insulting Canadian beer.  The second involves a cameo by Dan Aykroyd, where plays a Canadian Policeman who demands that the anti-Canadian slurs spray-painted on the side of the truck that Boomer is driving must also be in French, so as to agree with the dual-language requirements of Canada.  Beyond that, all the good things about "Canadian Bacon" involve watching John Candy gamely trying to make the most out of what he's given (and he's so good at that, it generates a lot of good-will towards the film), and a rare movie appearance by Rhea Perlman.

Everything else is pretty bad, though.  "Canadian Bacon" isn't necessarily a hard film to get through - it's not incompetent or offensive (at least on this side of the border), it's simply poorly written.  Without turning this into a dissertation on why character motivation matters, the basic point is that none of the characters seem to have any reason to do much of anything.  The President eventually decides to demonize Canada because re-kindling the Cold War will help him win a second term, but he's so wishy-washy and easily manipulated that I can't believe anyone cares whether he achieves that goal.  Even worse, the goal isn't a simple accomplishment, but rather hoping to create tension between the nations to distract everyone from how bad things are around them.  So if the President succeeds, he's a con-man, and if he fails, he's a pussy.  These are the stakes of this film.  Furthermore, neither Hacker nor Smiley seem very intimidating, nor even adequately caffeinated.  I guess Hacker wants more money, which is supposed to make him super-evil, but he doesn't really come off that way.  And Kevin Pollak has been in roles where he was sleazy and/or intimidating, but none of that comes through here at all.  And this is the relationship that's supposed to be driving the machinations of the entire movie.  This is, in a way, a save-the-house film where we don't care whether or not the house gets saved, and neither do we even get some entertaining hijinks along the way (which is the entire point of a save-the-house comedy - it's a loose framework to allow comedic actors to ply their craft).

Whatever you might think of Michael Moore, at least he had the common sense to see that this fiction/comedy thing wasn't going to work out for him, and went back to making his versions of documentaries.  It's unfortunate that this was the last real movie of John Candy's to get released, but that's also like 90% of the reason you'd watch "Canadian Bacon" in the first place.  Everything else here has been done better (and more sharply) in the intervening years elsewhere, and unless you've got a John Candy checklist to work your way through, that's probably where you should seek your entertainment from.

1 / 5 - TV (HD)

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Adventures in Babysitting - 1987

"Adventures in Babysitting" - 1987
Dir. by Chris Colombus - 1 hr. 42 min.

Original Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

It seems like every good movie from the 1980s was set in Chicago.  Even if you just stuck with "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "The Blues Brothers," that whole decade at the movies was like a travel brochure for the Second City.  "Adventures in Babysitting" may not be quite on the level of those other two films, but it's still really funny, and holds up well, and is yet another movie set in Chicago.  And you might think that you don't want to watch a movie about some high-school kid toughing it through a night watching other kids, but you'd be wrong.  There are plenty of surprises along the way, and it does the nearly impossible; this is a watchable all-ages movie that won't bore anyone.

After getting stood up by her boyfriend, Mike (Bradley Whitford), because of an ill sibling, Chris (Elisabeth Shue) ends up getting wrangled into a babysitting gig.  The kids she'll be watching are a high-school freshman who's in love with her, Brad (Keith Coogan), and his Thor-worshipping little sister, Sara (Maia Brewton).  The plans for a smooth evening in are wrecked, first by Brad's goofball friend, Daryl (Anthony Rapp), who shoehorns his way into the evening plans, and then further by Chris' friend Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller), who has impetuously run away from home, only to regret the decision, and to find herself without any money, stuck in a downtown bus station full of aggressively colorful characters.  Chris has to save Brenda's bacon, and also has to drag along the three kids for a quick trip into the city.  And, of course, things go smoothly.

There's a lot to be said for making an adventure movie that's fun for everyone.  And, aside from this scene, the humor's held up pretty well over the years:

Vincent D'Onofrio and Chris Hemsworth might disagree.

The entire situation is set up pretty well; all the characters have specific motivations, and are not just generic "kids" that are there to be generic kids.  That might seem like a minor thing, but the character's personalities come into play through the plot.  Even if you work backwards from the things you want to have happen in a story, and then build characters around that, it's satisfying as a viewer to have seemingly oddball personality traits play directly into how the story unfolds.  There are also things that probably seemed terrifying back in the 1980s that come off as charmingly naive, like a trip into the big city being a life-threatening daredevil trick.  But then again, entire movies were built around the idea of downtown New York being Hell on Earth, so things have presumably been cleaned up a bit over the intervening years.

A lot of the movie's charm rests on Elisabeth Shue's performance, and she's game from the opening scene, where she's bedroom dancing to the Crystals' "Then He Kissed Me."

It's a great scene, and a great opening scene, and an amazingly efficient opening scene; a brief moment of anticipation and joy that will come crashing down pretty much immediately.  It establishes Chris' character, she's positive and joyful and charming and girlish and unguarded, in all the best ways, and sets her up as a sympathetic character, which is important when bad things start happening to and around her.  The fact that is all established in something like the first minute or two of the movie (I mean, you might be won over before the scene is concluded, if you're a push-over like me) is a minor masterpiece of a scene.  And Shue has other good scenes as well, the best of which are probably when she defuses a train gang-fight, and when Albert Collins leads her through an impromptu blues song about the difficulties of babysitting in front of a skeptical audience.

"Adventures in Babysitting" is very much an adventure movie, with twists and turns just like an Indiana Jones movie, albeit in an urban setting.  As it turns out, against the conceit of the movie (that the big city is terrifying and will eat you alive), pretty much everyone wants to help Chris and the gang achieve their goal, even if they're otherwise unsavory.  And there are a lot of fun surprises along the way, the biggest of which for me was that Vincent D'Onofrio played "Thor" in this movie, bearing little physical resemblance to his character from roughly a year prior, "Full Metal Jacket."

On the whole, I really enjoyed re-watching "Adventures in Babysitting."  It's been a number of years since I'd watched (since I was a teenager, probably), but I was pleasantly surprised to see how well the whole deal held up.  I don't think it's a matter of nostalgia clouding the matter, either.  It helps quite a bit that the kids aren't 'tude-riddled brats who need a time-out, but have distinct personalities and wants, and behave consistently to those.  The one kid who can't stop cracking wise is regarded as a dork (at best), which is not how this story would have played out if this movie had been made in the last ten years (look at Jonah Hill's "The Sitter" for concrete proof of that).  Instead, this is both a solid comedy and a solid adventure film, anchored by Elisabeth Shue being pretty awesome.  It's also the first directorial effort by Chris Columbus, who would go on to handle movies like "Mrs. Doubtfire" and a couple of the Harry Potter films, so you know that he's got the touch on the all-ages front.  "Adventures" is just early proof of that.

3.5 / 5 - Streaming

Monday, September 1, 2014

Tammy - 2014

"Tammy" - 2014
Dir. by Ben Falcone - 1 hr. 37 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

You know, it's not just that they were in "Identity Thief" together, but Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman seem to occupy the exact same role in filmdom right now: this is who gets to churn out comedy after comedy right now.  I'm sure someone else will come along before long to take over this workhorse role, but it kind of feels like both McCarthy and Bateman have something coming out every three months, like clockwork.  That's not a bad thing, even if the premises of these films are broad and somewhat uninspired.  Instead, you get to see films rise and fall more on the individual abilities of the stars, and that's not a bad thing when you're in McCarthy's (or Bateman's) hands.  "Tammy" is another film in this line.  It's neither great nor awful, not particularly inspired, but is another chance to watch a talented comedian do their thing for an hour and a half.

Tammy (Melissa McCarthy) is an unfortunate loser on a particularly bad day; she wrecks her car into some wildlife, which makes her late for work, which gets her fired from her fast-food job, which lets her return home early, only to find her husband, Greg (Nat Faxon), wooing a neighbor, Missi (Toni Collette).  She storms off to her mother's (Allison Janney) home, and ends up embarking on a road-trip to Niagara Falls with her grandmother, Pearl (Susan Sarandon).  And then (and previously, also), comedy happens.

Positives first!  Melissa McCarthy is really funny, and although this probably isn't the most kind comparison, I couldn't help but think of Chris Farley when watching her in "Tammy."  It's a compliment, I swear.  McCarthy is capable of playing crass, dumb, chaotic, and arrogant, but still has a likability to her that make you want to root for her.  In recent years, there haven't been m/any actresses that have been able to pull off a buffoon role without the assistance of a push-up bra.  That's how strong her comedic gifts are.  There's a stick-up scene that I'm not sure many other people could pull off, other than her.  And beyond that, there's a ton of assistance from the rest of the cast.  Susan Sarandon is always great in comedies, and this is no different.  Gary Cole seems to be reprising his "Ricky Bobby" persona here, with Mark Duplass playing his put-upon son who falls for Tammy.  Kathy Bates is also good in a smaller role.

But this being one of a string of somewhat generic comedic premises, there's not a ton of assistance from the plot.  Comedies don't always need a coherent plot to excel, they just need to provide bridges from one scene to another.  There aren't enough great comic scenes in this film to hold the entire tent up, though.  The best one is the aforementioned stick-up scene - that's pure gold.  Otherwise, there are a lot of scenes that are pretty funny, and the film moves along quickly and comfortably.  There's just not much that's must-see; instead there's a lot of stuff that works well enough because you're already there.

So "Tammy" is pretty good.  It's not great, but it's fun, and there's a billion familiar faces in it.  I waited to see it at a second-run theatre, which felt about right.  I'd have expected a lot more out of a comedy for $10 than I do for $3, which is why I often see comedies at a second-run theatre.  The lowered expectations work in a comedy's favor, as does getting to see one with an audience instead of by myself, late at night on my TV.  I can't imagine people being disappointed in "Tammy," even if you're not blown away, it's still solid comedy product.  I just keep hoping for another "Bridesmaids"-level comedy for McCarthy before the next Jason Bateman (or Sandra Bullock, for a more fair comparison) comes along and starts churning out their generic comedies, and McCarthy's start coming less frequently.  "Tammy" succeeds because of McCarthy's talents and the good-will she's able to create from her audience.  I'd love to see that put to better use.

2.5 / 5 - Theatre