Monday, December 28, 2015

Doctor Zhivago - 1965

"Doctor Zhivago" - 1965
Dir. by David Lean - 3 hrs. 17 min.

Original Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There's a quote by Dr. Cornel West, from his memoir "Living and Loving Out Loud," where he explains his affinity for Russian novelists (and I don't have it in front of me).  To paraphrase, he says that no one knows misery like the Russians.  "Doctor Zhivago" is proof of this; it's a tale of personal troubles told on an epic scale, in an epic movie, against a backdrop of being told repeatedly and by various sources that personal concerns are meaningless.  Do the troubles of these people amount to a hill of beans?  Who knows, but it's an engaging, engrossing ride to find out.

The train - a metaphor for the film's run time.

The story of this film is extraordinarily complicated, centering around a handful of characters and how they keep bumping into one another over time.  The story essentially centers them all in Moscow, where they are all pulled in different directions.  There is Yuri (Omar Sharif), a talented young doctor and poet, and his wife Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin).  Lara (Julie Christie) is pulled between two men; Victor (Rod Steiger) is older, connected, and aggressive, Pasha (Tom Courtenay) is a young idealist with little clue as to what's happening beneath his nose.  The story is told during a period of great instability in Russia, which forces all of the characters into situations they would never willingly put themselves into.  But we know from the initial framing device that two of the characters have had a child, who was lost (as in misplaced, not as in she died), and who was the product of a grand romance, as evidenced by a slim volume of poetry authored by Yuri.

There are a lot of things to commend "Doctor Zhivago" for, and one thing that you're just going to have to deal with if you want to watch it.  That thing is that this is a very, very long movie.  That's a valid reason to avoid this film; I've certainly passed on watching films that cross the three hour mark, and I wouldn't judge you for doing the same.  I'd argue that there are plenty of reasons that you might want to watch this, but in terms of movie experiences, there is a difference between going for a jog around your neighborhood and running a marathon.  But if you're in, this is the last I'm going to hear about the length of the film being a detriment, because it's not as if "Doctor Zhivago" meanders, or wastes that time.

This is a really big, story.  It's an epic, with all that that implies.  We follow characters from childhood to death, through both sides of marriages, through wars (as in multiples).  We change settings over and over again, as life demands it of these characters.  Yuri has the misfortune of having skills that are in demand (his medical ones), that get him essentially kidnapped and forced into military service more than once.  He also has skills that aren't (his poetry), which is personal, emotive, and earns him repeated admonishment from others that the time for the personal is over, replaced entirely by the value of one's service to whomever is in charge.  This means that when the military wants a doctor, they just grab the nearest one and force him into service.  As you might imagine, this takes its toll on Yuri's marriage, which ends up being of less concern to him as to the danger his existence puts his mistress in. 

Omar and Julie, bed-stressing.

Ultimately, everything about this movie is absolutely beautiful.  The scenery, from the cities to the endless snow, to the countryside, is the sort of thing that makes one want to book a vacation there in haste.  I'm not sure that it would have been possible to cast three more beautiful people to center a film around than Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, and Geraldine Chaplin.  The story itself is full of emotion; one angle of which is Yuri's attempt to carve out a life of personal meaning alongside what is expected of him.  Even as things happen that would sour even the most positive of us, Yuri shows that life is meaningless without poetry (which you can take literally, or figuratively), the simple act of survival doesn't matter if it's not in service to something else, and Dr. Zhivago makes a persuasive argument that one's personal feelings and expression are paramount, even above Communist ideals.

It's kind of pointless to rate a film like this; "Doctor Zhivago" is justifiably on the list when people start talking about the all-time greats.  Where it lands kind of depends on your personal tastes, but it's a real accomplishment in cinema.  This is a film where everyone involved went big without any hesitation, and then completely knocked it out of the park.  The fact that I could go see this movie fifty years later with a decently-sized audience in an actual movie theatre says everything that needs to be said about this film's enduring appeal. 

5 / 5 - Theatre

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - 2015

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" - 2015
Dir. by JJ Abrams - 2 hrs. 15 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

First things first, yeah, there's probably going to be some spoiler talk here.  The internet's been remarkably good about not blowing anything contained within "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," but if you're checking out a review about the movie, you probably have already seen it and wonder what other people think.  And I thought it was pretty damned good.  I also have been sick of the overexposure of the original batch of films for quite some time now, and really wasn't hell-bent on seeing this installment.  Turns out, part of that malaise was due to how poor the second batch of films were; what's to look forward to when the people in charge of the franchise haven't a clue?

This time around, we start in a small village on Jackoo, where Poe (Oscar Isaac) obtains a thumb drive (okay, not really, but kind of) purporting to contain a map explaining where Luke Skywalker (who is now a legend people have heard of, but never seen) is hiding out.  Unfortunately for everyone involved, the First Order (which is what the Empire has evolved into) rolls into the village, levelling everything and capturing Poe, but not his droid, who escapes with the Hello Kitty thumb drive.  One of the Stormtroopers seems to have a difficult time with the massacre, which leads to a whole lot of things happening.

Collect 'em all!!!

So where to start?  First off, the action in this film is all a lot of fun, never far away, and resembles the action in the first trilogy.  In fact, the whole film looks like the first batch in a very satisfying way.  Even more to the point, this film makes use of things from the first batch of films in a very satisfying way.  I don't know how much to reveal here.  Obviously, if you look at the list of actors in the film, it's not a secret that there are going to be some familiar faces.  They're blended well, and have skin in the game, so to speak.  Those characters are not just there to make you forget that Jar Jar Binks ever existed.  They are part of the story.  And really, the best aspect to the film is that the main characters all have motivations that are intertwined with the others; the characters are well-written and relatable, even when they're not the good guys, which goes one hell of a long way to getting an audience emotionally involved in the action material.

You have to provide your own airplane sound effects.

Secondly, even though this (and the entire franchise, really) are all-ages (read: kids) movies, TFA doesn't really insult your intelligence.  The humor is light, the monsters fantastic, and the aliens are all visually interesting.  The soccer ball droid is probably the most kid-friendly thing in the film, but it's not as cloying as the Ewoks were, either.  You'll be able to leave the theatre thinking you saw a pretty fun adventure movie, not a merchandising juggernaut. 

I think I'll leave it at that, rather than dig any further.  I'm pretty excited to see the next two films in this batch, which I absolutely wasn't going in to this one.  I viewed seeing TFA largely as geek duty, and left having enjoyed a pretty good film, one that I wouldn't mind watching again.  So even though I didn't think TFA was the greatest film ever made, it was enough of a success to rekindle long-dormant stirrings of fandom for me. 

4 / 5 - Theatre

Monday, December 14, 2015

Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp - 2012

"Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp" - 2012
Dir. by Jorge Hinojosa - 1 hr. 29 min.

by Clayton Hollifield

When I tried to search for "Iceberg Slim" on IMDB, it automatically took me to the page for "Ice Sculpture Christmas," instead.  Thanks, dorks.  Likewise, no dice on a trailer for this movie.  I guess I'll track down a poster or something, so forgive the lack of visual flair.  I recorded it off of TV, anyways, and just now finally got around to watching it.  I shouldn't have been in such a hurry.

So, who is Iceberg Slim, and why is there a documentary about him?  He's a legendary pimp (the real deal, not a comedy figure), mostly famous because he quit pimping after a few prison stints, and was urged to write about his experiences.  So he did, and sold a pretty large number of books (six million is the quoted number, which is a lot for the dinky publishing house he published through).  His books have famous fans like Chris Rock and Ice-T, thus this effort to share Slim's (aka Robert Beck) story.

Perhaps the question that should have been asked is why should people care about Iceberg Slim?  I suspect the entirety of that answer lies in Beck's books; I have one ("Trick Baby," but haven't read it yet), and I can buy the idea that an author is worth talking about.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of the world hasn't read Slim's works, and I didn't feel like this film got across the appeal of his work in a meaningful way.  Also working against my interest: the story is presented chronologically.  So Iceberg Slim is not presented as an author of important and interesting work, he's presented as a pimp (and let's be clear, that means that he ran prostitutes and took all of the proceeds from their work to pay for his own hair care products and general flyness) who bounces in and out of prison until that becomes too much for him, at which time he attempts to live a straight life.

I mean, that's not super-charming, right?  It's only after Slim reaches a breaking point with his day job as an exterminator that his then wife convinces him to write down some of the crazy stories he's been telling her, which are then organized and published, to some success.  Maybe there's a reason to have a romantic notion of what exactly a pimp is, and since Iceberg Slim is one of the few that people might have actually heard of, maybe it makes sense to introduce him as a pimp rather than an author.  Then again, it made me really not like the guy.  I don't have to like someone personally to enjoy their work,  But including a clip from an interview with Slim, where he's reunited with a former ho, he comes off cluelessly as to what exactly the girls were dealing with.  He asks, innocently enough, what made her go straight, and she tells him that people were assaulting and murdering prostitutes on the streets, and that was reason enough for her to get off the streets.  That doesn't seem to register with Slim at all. 

The best thing about "Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp" is that it did make me curious about reading some of his work.  What it did not do: make me want to watch this film again.  Pretty much every interviewee in the film stopped one paragraph short of giving some real insight.  They would, routinely, get up to the edge of something interesting, and then we'd move on to something else. 

2 / 5 - TV

Monday, November 30, 2015

Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church - 2015

"Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church" - 2015
Dir. by John McDermott - 1 hr. 29 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

I always wish there were more music documentaries.  They don't even really have to be insightful; watching top-notch musicians doing their thing is usually enough to hold my interest.  There's a little more to the footage that's presented in "Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church," but really, it's concert footage padded out with an attempt to explain the circumstances of the event presented.  That means, naturally, that you will have to wade through '60s tropes like people wistfully explaining that how things were changing, and how it was a revolution, man, but it's kind of worth it for the concert footage of Hendrix.

There's not much point in going through a plot explanation, so let's do this fast.  Hendrix (playing with bass player Billy Cox and drummer Mitch Mitchell) headlined the second (and final) Atlanta International Pop Festival in 1970, only a couple of months prior to Hendrix's untimely death.  The headlining set had been filmed for a documentary, but was left undeveloped in some dude's barn for something like 30 years, until "Electric Church" was released. 

The whole point of this deal is getting to see good footage of Jimi Hendrix playing.  It's not the best I've seen or heard from him, but it was good (and the footage looks good).  The concert, while not shown complete, is shown uninterrupted in the middle of the film, which is pretty ideal.  I don't want to hear people waxing eloquent about Hendrix while he's playing instrumental passages, I just want to see him playing.   And that's what we get, here.  The complete concert is available as an audio recording, under the title "Freedom," so the show is covered from an archival viewpoint.  There's no torching of guitars here, although he does finish a song by playing with his teeth.  It's just a solid show from a legendary musician.

"Stone Free" - The Jimi Hendrix Experience

The attempts at putting the show into context range from helpful to masturbatory.  On the onanistic tip are when baby boomers go glassy-eyed and start talking vaguely about change and all that stuff that you've heard a million times before, frequently put in a better, more interesting way.  But what are you going to do?  If you ask people to reminisce on camera, you're going to get a certain amount of noise.  What was interesting was the explanation that the Atlanta International Pop Festival was not actually in Atlanta (otherwise known as a big city that probably could have handled the influx of hippies without much trouble), but instead a vastly overwhelmed small town of about 2000 people who had no choice but to kick back and hope that nothing too bad would happen, and just watch the freak parade.  And it was a crush of people, estimated at around 500k attendance.


And when they explain late in the film that all of the people who were doing so much barking about the environment left the small town covered (literally) in human waste and debris, there's a sense that it's probably a good thing these festivals went the way of the dodo.  They were poorly planned, poorly organized, and never even came close to providing the kind of resources that a crowd of that size would require.  After a while, the people that descended upon the small town basically knocked down the fences, demanding entry for free, and spent the weekend in 100 degree heat, pooping in the open and scarfing whatever food the local townspeople would bring down to the event to hand out.  Considering that later attempts to put on mammoth shows (like Woodstock '99) ended up in violence and crime, I think that people should just be happy that no one seems to have gotten seriously hurt (or killed) at a show like this one. 

But forget all that.  You can always just fast-forward to the part of the movie where you get like 45 straight minutes of Hendrix being Hendrix.  The rest of the information in the movie is either helpful or benign, and there's an explanation of the "Electric Church" term.  Maybe this kind of music isn't your cup of tea, but it definitely is mine, and you can do a lot worse with your time than watching The Jimi Hendrix Experience kiss the sky.

4 / 5 - TV

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Extraordinary Tales - 2015

"Extraordinary Tales" - 2015
Dir. by Raul Garcia - 1 hr. 13 min.

Official Trailer #1

by Clayton Hollifield

Every once in a blue moon, I'll get to go see a movie without knowing much about it going in.  And that usually vastly improves the viewing experience.  This time, it was Raul Garcia's "Extraordinary Tales," a film that adapts five different Edgar Allan Poe stories into animation, each with a different visual approach.  Honestly, animated Poe is enough to pique my interest; it's like hearing cover versions of well-loved songs - the chance to rediscover material through someone else's sensibilities.

"Extraordinary Tales" adapts five Poe short stories; "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," "The Pit and the Pendulum," and "The Masque of the Red Death."  Even more fascinating is the use of found audio sources; "The Tell-Tale Heart" features a scratchy recording of Bela Lugosi (yes, that Bela Lugosi) as the narration.  "Usher" is narrated by Christopher Lee (spectacularly so), and there's even a stray line of dialogue from Roger Corman!

Each of the shorts is visually interpreted in a vastly different style.  "Usher" is a kind of clunky CGI style that you might see in dozen different kids movies, "Heart" gives a shout-out to Alberto Breccia (although it should also give credit to Frank Miller), "Valdemar" layers an illustrative, pen-and-ink style on CGI framework (and resembles golden age newspaper comic strips in the color approach), "Pendulum" is a moody CGI approach, and "Masque" uses an elongated, emaciated, elegant style reminiscent of Egon Schiele's work (Schiele also died young from a sort of plague, the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, which added a bit of resonance to the choice to borrow from his work here).  The interstitials, which feature Poe as a raven in a graveyard, marry computer animation and paper cutout style to elegant effect.

The segments are mostly successful to me, but frequently for different reasons.  Christopher Lee's actorly, booming narration for "Usher" is compelling.  The visual approaches for "Heart" and "Masque" are spell-binding, particularly "Masque."  "Valdemar" is such a curious story that it carries itself (and making one of the characters look like Vincent Price was a bonus).  And Guillermo del Toro's voice work on "Pendulum" is fantastic.  In some regards, I guess you could say the film was uneven, in that I think only "Masque" clicked 100%, but all of the segments had something interesting to recommend them, so there weren't any lulls or dull parts.

So, "Extraordinary Tales" is good spooky fun for kids who may not have been exposed to Poe's work yet, and it's good for those of us who are a little more familiar with the material, too.  You'll certainly have your favorite segment, as do I ("Masque"), and this is a worthy, fun animated project I'd love to see more in the vein of.  I had a deja-vu moment with "The Tell-Tale Heart," and it turns out that it had been created nearly a decade ago, and I likely saw that segment at a Spike and Mike's Festival along the way.  I'm glad that Raul Garcia and everyone else involved decided to round this out to a feature-length film.

4 / 5 - Theatre

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Back to the Future - 1985

"Back to the Future" - 1985
Dir. by Robert Zemeckis - 1 hr. 56 min.

Original Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I could have sworn I'd written about this movie before.  It seems impossible that I haven't.  Well, caveats out of the way - I threw this on in honor of Back to the Future Day, but only to have something on in the background while I was working on some artwork.  Usually, music serves that function, but I've seen "Back to the Future" enough times previously where it's not like I was going to miss anything.  Also, anyone of my generation has probably seen this film enough times that it's kind of weird re-watching it, since every scene is drilled into our collective brains.  And, as such, the movie goes by very, very quickly.

Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is a teenager with teenager concerns; getting through high school, trying to get into the talent show, sneaking away for a "camping trip" with his girlfriend.  He's also got a crazy-ass scientest buddy, Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd), who may or may not resemble a character from "Rick & Morty."  His family is pretty much straight out of "Repo Man."  But Dr. Brown has an invention that requires some assistance from Marty, which leads to this:

Huey Lewis & the News - "Back in Time"

So here's my thing.  It's impossible to say much about the movie.  It made a zillion dollars.  Everyone knows every line.  I've been on the ride at Universal Studios a number of times.  Is it my favorite movie ever made?  Not really.  But I like it.  So does everyone.  So everyone involved must've done something right.  Is there anything at all that anyone involved could have jumped in a DeLorean to change, that would have made people remember it MORE fondly?  That would have this film make even MORE money?  Nah, I doubt it.  It's not perfect, but it's definitely the right film for the right time that struck the right chord with audiences.  "Back to the Future" is a broad, all-ages comedy that completely succeeds at that task, even if it occasionally deviates from my own personal tastes.

It's a lot easier to pick at the sequels than this film, because this has ascended from movie to pop culture touchstone.  So lets just say that "Back to the Future" is pretty good, and you're likely not to regret the couple of hours that it'll take to watch it.  Anything beyond that is wasted breath.  So let's take a look at that sweet ride, and if I watch the sequels, I'll have a lot more to say about them.

THE DeLorean

4 / 5 - DVD

Monday, October 19, 2015

San Andreas - 2015

"San Andreas" - 2015
Dir. by Brad Peyton -  1 hr. 54 min.

Official Trailer 2

by Clayton Hollifield

Once you've seen the trailer for "San Andreas" (and a lot of films like it), you pretty much know what to expect.  Things are going to shake and blow up and end up in rubble (spoiler!), and someone's going to have to save their family (or loved one).  What is up in the air is just how enjoyable the film will be.  Guaranteed, no one is checking out "San Andreas" for the plot.  The relevant questions are: are the special effects up to snuff, how much do I like the actors, and just how many boring parts are there going to be?

We're introduced to Ray (Dwayne Johnson) while he's piloting a helicopter for the fire department, tasked with saving the bacon of some girl who drove off the side of a hill while texting and driving, and is literally hanging off the side of a cliff.  So he's pretty good at this sort of thing.  He's also got a lot of hero baggage (an ex, a kid he's having trouble connecting with, some other dude banging his ex).  Separately, Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) is a seismologist working at Cal Tech, and he's developed a way to predict earthquakes ahead of time.  While field testing this with his co-worker, Kim (Will Yun Lee), a big 'un strikes, both wreaking havoc and confirming their predictive technology.  And guess what?  There's more big one's coming!

It's always nice when a disaster porn movie casts better than it needs to.  It's the difference between "San Andreas" and "Sharknado"; the difference between Carla Gugino and Tara Reid.  Obviously, you'd cast The Rock given the chance, and there's a good reason for that: he's awesome.  And believable as an action star.  But it's fun seeing Paul Giamatti in something that's not Oscar-bait.  I always love watching Carla Gugino, even in things that don't necessarily require a ton out of her, because she usually adds to whatever she's in.  And also, the storyline progeny of Johnson and Gugino (Alexandra Daddario) isn't hard to watch either (other than the story kind of makes you feel a little pervy for eyeballing her, but she first appears in a bikini, there are numerous lingering shots that invite you to get lost in her giant eyes, and she spends the bulk of the movie filling out a wet tank top.  So stop baiting me!).  This is part of the reason why:

Alexandra Daddario and co.

Onto the special effects, which were up to par.  Many times, in these kinds of movies, the film will settle for destroying only Los Angeles, or only New York.  But we get the bonus of watching the San Andreas Fault have it's way with both Los Angeles AND San Francisco!  Buildings are destroyed, topple, submerged under water, people are shaken, set on fire, and washed away.  And all of it looks cool.  Part of that is that we get to see some of the destruction from Ray's chopper seat, which isn't necessarily a different angle to view carnage from, but gives a reason why we're in the sky to begin with.  Just a little nod towards logic goes so, so far sometimes.  And, this might be the only time you'll ever hear me say this, the resemblance towards video games actually helped things out.  This is largely because Ray's character might as well be a superhero; he repeatedly scans a scenario, finds a way to make things go together, and then gets right to action.  There is no hesitation, no fear, just him figuring out what to do, and then, improbably, making it happen over and over again.  And that's pretty compelling!

And, thirdly, there aren't that many down parts.  There's surprising effort put into rounding out the standard hero baggage into something that gives the characters depth.  This is another area where just a little nod towards logic makes things so much better.  Johnson and Gugino actually feel like they have a past and a connection (although that might just be Gugino being awesome again), and when the movie starts working on your tear ducts, it succeeds on the basis of their work.

Carla Gugino and some dude who's trying to cock-block The Rock.

All of this adds up to a fun couple of hours.  It's probably not something that people will go back and watch years down the road (unless Daddario becomes a huge star, and this was an early work of hers), but you get to see two towns get wrecked for the price of one (and a vacation destination, too).  You get Mr. Johnson doing what he does best (and stretching his acting muscles a little bit, too).  You get to watch two beautiful actresses do a lot of jogging in tank tops (I'm not going to sit here and pretend that totally didn't happen, okay?).  And it'll probably kick your stereo's ass when you sit at home crank this bad boy.  If you want some loud, explosive, action hero entertainment, "San Andreas" will most certainly get the job done.

3 / 5 - Theatre

Monday, October 12, 2015

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story - 2007

"Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" - 2007
Dir. by Jake Kasdan - 1 hr. 36 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

There's a lot of good material in "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," but boy did it feel fresher on the heels of "Walk the Line."  That's pretty fitting, because "Walk Hard" borrows a lot (and I mean a LOT) of plot points from Johnny Cash's life (and the rest from Ray Charles' life, which was the big music movie that preceded "Walk the Line"), and he was kind of a big deal.  But it's also a very silly, very fun romp through all the rock 'n' roll cliches that we're all familiar with.  It's just that the childhood trauma that haunts Dewey is that he accidentally halved his brother while play-fighting with machetes.


Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) is Johnny Cash a rock singer who came to prominence in the 1950s, with his hit "Walk Hard."  Through his career, he hits every imaginable speed bump from "Behind the Music," from bigamy to drug abuse to losing his sense of smell.  He meets his first wife, Edith (Kristen Wiig) when he's 14 and she's 12, and they leave home to chase Dewey's dream.  And then there's a second wife, Darlene (Jenna Fischer), and she's a little more permanent.  And basically, we work through the decades of Dewey's life until a late-career resurgence brings him back into the spotlight.

Any discussion of the positives of "Walk Hard" have to begin with the cast.  John C. Reilly is funny.  Make that really funny.  He's such a goof that you kind of look forward to things falling apart over and over again so that his character will take his frustrations out on a sink somewhere.  Both of Dewey's wives have found deserved success in the near-decade since this movie came out.  The ghost of Dewey's brother is played by Jonah Hill.  His band is comprised of Matt Besser (Upright Citizen's Brigade), Chris Parnell, and Tim Meadows.  Even a one-off joke has Elvis Presley played by a hyper-active, karate-enthused, mumble-mouthed Jack White.  The Beatles are played by Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Justin Long, and Jason Schwartzman. The cameo characters are played by people like Jane Lynch, Harold Ramis, and Craig Robinson.  So the main thing to know is that if you've enjoyed pretty much any comedy movie in the last decade, you're going to recognize a lot of faces.

Secondly, the movie zips along.  Part of the appeal of "Walk Hard" is that it's a comedy trip through rock 'n' roll, and since we're all pretty familiar with the tropes, there's not much need to establish jokes.  We're on the same page before they even start talking, so the jokes come quickly, and the scenes don't overstay their welcome.  The running gags are good, too, like Dewey's aforementioned targeting of sinks whenever things go awry, and Tim Meadows' "you don't want any of this shit" refrains.

Smoking reefers

On the whole, I enjoyed "Walk Hard."  I enjoyed it when I watched it when it came out, and I enjoyed it this time, too.  I don't have any real complaints about it; this movie is fun and quickly-paced.  It doesn't aim very high, which probably keeps it from being great, but it's still really funny (particularly if you're versed in rock lore), and you'll see a ton of people you'll likely recognize.  So go ahead, give it a whirl when you're bored and want some laughs.

3 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation - 2015

"Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation" - 2015
Dir. by Christopher McQuarrie - 2 hrs. 11 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Impossibly, these "Mission: Impossible" movies seem to keep getting better.  To give a quick history of my viewership of these films, I was okay with the first, hated the second one so badly that I refused to see the third, watched the fourth only because it was Brad Bird's first live-action directorial job (and was very happy with that film), and was actually looking forward to this fifth installment.  And this one delivers, at least as well as the fourth film did.

Once again, Ethan Hunt  (Tom Cruise) is back on the job, trying to get his next assignment.  However, he's been identified by the enemy, an organization called "The Syndicate," and is captured in a typically elaborate manner.  Meanwhile, Stateside, William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) is tasked with defending Hunt's and the IMF's actions against accusations by the director of the CIA, Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin).  Ultimately, the IMF is shuttered and folded into the CIA, and Hunt is on the official government shitlist, trying to solve the issue of the Syndicate without any official help.

So, let's get the big stuff out of the way.  With films in this franchise, you know there's going to be at least a couple of spectacular, arm-rest-gripping scenes, and that they completely need to deliver.  There are two (well, three, if you include the opening scene), and they come correct.  The car chase is spectacular and wild, and there's an underwater scene that's just as gripping.  So rest assured that you'll get your action fix.  As far as the actors, they've eased into their respective roles.  Especially so with Simon Pegg, whose exasperation with Cruise's character is a constant stream of amusement.  He has a more prominent role this time around, and he's game.

Beyond that, the story does carry some intrigue.  There are unexpected twists and turns, and the movie keeps you guessing all along, until you see exactly how things are going to play out.  I mean, you know that everyone's up to something, and that the movie is essentially a series of reveals, and that's okay.  That, along with the action pieces, are why you'd show up for a MI movie.  That, and the girl, of course.

Someone get Rebecca Ferguson a towel!

Ilsa, played by Rebecca Ferguson, is up to the challenge of stringing along both Ethan Hunt and the leader of the Syndicate, and looking damned good while doing so.  It's not a femme fatale situation; Ilsa has her own motives beyond romance (and there's not exactly a romance angle in MI5; there's the possibility, but Ethan always has other things on his mind).  And, as the picture above shows, the nod to Ursula Andress in "Dr. No," albeit in evil black instead of white, was appreciated.

I don't have anything bad to say about MI5.  I was looking forward to seeing this one, and it delivered.  One might suggest that the complicated traps and the insane stunts stretch credibility, but that's exactly what you sign up for when you buy your ticket to a Mission: Impossible movie.  So no complaining about that now.  I was completely into the story, and the run-time flew by, and the twists and turns worked.  "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation" is maybe the best of the five movies (or at least even with the fourth installment).  It used to be that sequels were an exercise in the degradation of a concept, but this franchise and the Fast & the Furious franchise prove that doesn't have to be the case.

4 / 5 - Theatre

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Spies Like Us - 1985

"Spies Like Us" - 1985
Dir. by John Landis - 1 hr. 42 min.

by Clayton Hollifield

It's impossible for me to give a fair review of "Spies Like Us"; this was one of my favorite movies growing up.  So even though I'll try my hardest to present a decent look at it, ultimately I've already watched this movie dozens of times, and I'll probably end up watching it another dozen times before my days are over.  To kick things off, a song:


A pair of CIA wannabes, Emmett Fitz-Hume (Chevy Chase) and Austin Millbarge (Dan Aykroyd) get a last-minute opportunity to take a test that would turn them both from desk jockeys to actual field agents.  Emmett is a classic BS artist (as most Chevy Chase characters are), and Austin is great with machinery and languages, but is languishing in a basement somewhere, doing someone else's work for them.  The test goes poorly (!), but the CIA decide to put Emmett and Austin in the field as decoys, to draw attention away from the actual operatives and operation.  Once they're air-dropped into Pakistan, they make their way to Afghanistan, all in the middle of the Cold War, trying not to get captured or killed along the way.

This film features a pretty prime performance by both Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd.  It's hard to think of a better Chevy Chase movie (maybe one of the first two "Vacation" films?), and Dan Aykroyd excels as the straight man to Chase's insincere motor-mouth character.  It's almost impossible to overstate how much Aykroyd owned this time period; his run from "Blues Brothers" through "Ghostbusters" and "Spies Like Us" is a stretch that most comedians would be envious of.  This duo is enough to justify the film, even if it's a little like "Stripes," minus any Bill Murray pep talks.  The story is good enough - it's a series of settings in which Chase and Aykroyd get to ply their craft, and is no more or less complicated than it needs to be.

One word scene.

So what's the downside to "Spies Like Us?"  Is there a downside to "Spies Like Us?"  Not really.  Yeah, it's an '80s comedy, and plays like one, but it's one of the better examples that kind of film.  You might not be partial to Chevy Chase, but this is one of his best roles.  And if you don't like Dan Aykroyd, you should probably go ahead and kick yourself in the crotch.  Get help if you need, but definitely get that done.  There are a number of great (!) scenes, like the doctor scene, or the test-taking scene, and everything moves pretty quickly aside from that.  There aren't any lulls in the movie, just set-ups and pay-offs, and it works well.

Like I said before, I've seen this film a ton of times, and I'll surely watch it another ton of times.  While all the other kids were watching Disney films, this is exactly what I grew up on.  It's cinematic comfort food.  I completely accept that your mileage might vary, but I'll probably judge you harshly if you disagree with me.  So let's just leave it at that.  I like "Spies Like Us."  You might too.  I hope you do, so that I don't have to dislike you.

3.5 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Greatest Movie Ever Rolled - 2012

"The Greatest Movie Ever Rolled" - 2012
Dir. by Ryan Polito - 1 hr. 30 min. (?)

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Perhaps the faintest praise you can damn a project with is to dub it "for fans only."  "The Greatest Movie Ever Rolled," I dub thee.  There's a lot of reasons for that, perhaps the biggest being that it took me two sittings to get through the film, and then I forgot to write about it for another week after that.  Clearly, that meant that I was not particularly compelled by the material, even if it was good enough to get through.  And it was that.  But your enjoyment is going to be determined by how much you love Doug Benson almost entirely.

"The Greatest Movie Ever Rolled" is a documentary of a tour headlined by Doug Benson, supported by Graham Elwood.  It's a mix of travelogue (sort of) and performance material, and Doug smoking weed out of apples.  There's not really a point to any of it, nothing important happens other than that they get through the tour, and no one stuck around to smoke with Doug in Des Moines.  But that's about the worst thing that happens in the film.  This is a very low stakes movie.

On the positive side, this film exists.  Benson and Co. set out to document a tour through the heartland of the United States, and they were able to accomplish that (and apparently fund it through the concerts).  The crowds seemed to be into the shows, and that's always good.  Beyond that, there's not a lot to tie the material together.  There's a fundamental issue with comedians that their personalities aren't usually radically different from their stage personae.  There's no layers to peel back, because the peeling of layers usually occurs on-stage.  So, the footage of Benson and Elwood travelling aren't really relevatory, because they're just less refined versions of what you see on-stage.  This isn't like with musicians, who frequently craft an image of themselves that isn't perfectly in line with their actual personalities.

But also, nothing really happens in the movie.  There's no focus on the locations being of interest (which is probably exactly how you'd view an endless parade of cities you were performing in), there's nothing to overcome (or if there was, it wasn't included).  There aren't even a ton of interesting personalities in the film, and you'd expect some of that.  There's just performance, travel, and Doug seasoning apples with his own herbal blend of spices.  That's super cool if you're a big Doug Benson fan.  I'm enough of a fan to have watched a stand-up special of his, and "Super High Me," and now this.  "The Greatest Movie Ever Rolled" is definitely the weakest of the batch, but it's still watchable.  Yes, it's pointless and directionless, but that's at least part of the appeal of Benson himself.

So if you're a fan, dig in.  If not, try "Super High Me" first.

2 / 5 - Streaming

Monday, September 7, 2015

Hackers - 1995

"Hackers" - 1995
Dir. by Iain Softley - 1 hr. 47 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

"Hackers" is a really weird movie.  That's probably the best thing it's got going for it.  It's really weird, it's a movie about a despised subculture, it doesn't even bother apologizing for that either.  At the time it came out, it didn't really have any stars in it (obviously Angelina Jolie blew the f up over time, and you can see why here, but some of the other actors have had decent careers as well), and movies could kind of tell where things were going with the entire "internet" thing, but nobody had a good idea of exactly what it was going to look like.  In fact, the "internet" at the time was pretty much the province of college students and government employees.  This is a pre-AOL free disk movie.  It's pre- everything that we all take for granted as part of our daily lives now, but it was trying to look forward a few years.


Dade Murphy (Johnny Lee Miller) is a child prodigy at hacking, to the degree that he gets in a significant amount of legal trouble for messing with the stock market, and is banned from things like using touch-tone phones (Google it, youngster) until his 18th birthday.  Fast forward to his senior year of high school, and he and his mother are forced to move from Seattle to NYC, and he's got to fit into a new school.  Dade, or Zero Cool as he was once known, celebrates his 18th birthday by pulling an all-nighter and taking over a TV channel, before getting booted out of the system by another hacker named Acid Burn.  Meanwhile, at the school, he gets jerked around by a super-confident girl named Kate (Angelina Jolie), and some of the other hackers take note of his skills.  One of the low-level hackers, chain-smoking Joey (Jesse Bradford), breaks into a Gibson (Google it) and copies some garbage files, which contain proof of a worm (Google it) being used to scam a giant oil company out of a royal buttload of cash.  This also brings the attention of The Plague (Fisher Stevens), the oil company's hired hacker goon, who sets out to frame this batch of teenaged hackers for what will be a fairly significant crime.

Yes, "Hackers" 100% looks like a film from 1995.  There's no getting around it, but it's a fairly decent representation (visually) of the time and subculture.  But, to director Iain Softley's credit, he gives zero fucks about trying to represent what the actual world looked like at the time.  Everything is weird and custom and computery and neon and on wheels.  The batch of good guys rollerblade everywhere (which, thanks to the WTF interview with Josh Homme from a couple of years ago, is called "fruitbooting" in my head whenever I see it).  Even The Plague, middle-aged corporate hacker hoe, is first seen skateboarding into screen.  He even skateboards during a hand-off!


Everyone in the movie dresses like there are no mirrors in this universe, which is why you just have to accept Matthew Lillard in pigtails, or Angelina Jolie's weird white leather biker outfit.  Basically, what you need to understand is that people dress here like Tank Girl, if Tank Girl lived in New York City.  And then there's the visual representation of hacking.  This film might have the best approach I've seen from this era; there are scenes of microchips as cities, everyone's hacker stuff is on the level of a 13 year old's aesthetic, and whenever anyone hacks into anything, they start tripping balls (if LSD caused mathematical equations and lines of code to swirl around one's head).

Dade is so high right now.

In fact, the best thing about "Hackers" is the director's insistence on visualizing anything that could potentially be boring.  Sure, the actors always look interested and involved instead of having that dead-eyed, slack-jawed, lightly-drooling look that comes from staring at a screen for hours, but this is a visually interesting (if dated) film, when it could have been about beige boxes and the consumption of Jolt Cola (Google it).  And there are no apologies for that, either.  There were no stars here, no one in the real world was going to sympathize with hackers because they were the scourge of the ongoing computerized revolution, so this film goes for broke over and over again on the visuals.  Nonetheless, this gets a little closer to the heart of the movement than anyone should have expected from a Hollywood film, and gives credence to the concerns of the kids involved.

"Hackers" pays more than lip service to the idea that the kids are going to be fine; The Plague is a semi-skilled sell-out (Google it), and his speeches about being cowboys with no loyalties don't resonate with the hacker crew; kids that fruitboot together stay together.  Even when the fix is in, they stay on point and get done what needs to get done, both to preserve their own freedom and to keep deliberate sabotage for profit from being the order of the day.  Even if some of the technobabble doesn't make any sense, and the visual metaphors aren't necessarily dead-on, they're still interesting enough not to lose me as a viewer.  And the idea that the government is clueless and manipulable resonates super hard.  And, if you needed another reason to check this out, Angelina Jolie.  This was a decent role for her, but it's also immediately clear that she's kind of too good for weird teenager movies about computer dorks with braids, but boy was I glad she was there.

3.5 / 5 - Streaming

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Terminator 2: Judgment Day - 1991

"Terminator 2: Judgment Day" - 1991
Dir. by James Cameron - 2 hrs. 17 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

First off, the version of "Terminator 2" that I watched was the theatrical version.  When you crack two (or even three, heaven forbid) hours, I generally speaking am not at all interested in whatever deleted scenes are available - you can keep those, and I'm going to keep my fifteen minutes.

So this is the version of "The Terminator" that I was introduced to.  There are some pretty big differences between the first and second film, and I prefer this one to the first one.  But one of the main differences was that star Arnold Schwarzenegger was firmly cemented as a huge, huge deal, the kind of big deal that justified a leap in budget from $6.4 million (per Wikipedia) for the first installment to $94 million for the sequel.  This was an event film, completely inescapable, whatever the opposite of an underdog is.  Another huge difference: CGI.  One of the selling points of T2 was that the villain was made of liquid metal, which was one heck of a big deal.


As with the first installment, two people are sent back in time, butt-ass naked.  One is a T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the other is a T-1000 (Robert Patrick).  As we've moved a number of years forward, the spawn of Kyle Reese's unholy demon seed and Sarah Connor's savior ova is now a child of ten or so.  John Connor (Edward Furlong) is a real person, living in a foster home, and is now the target of a Terminator.  But which Terminator?  The T-800 has been sent back in time from John Connor himself to protect his hide from the (liquid metal) T-1000, which confuses the hell out of Sarah (Linda Hamilton) when she is reintroduced to the T-800, inside the mental institution she's been stuck in for a considerable amount of time.  And there are a lot of things that get shot.

It would be hard to argue that James Cameron didn't put his budget to good use.  There are a number of iconic scenes (although the best of which just involves a naked Arnie strolling into a biker bar and treating it like a department store), and many impressive visuals.  The T-1000 really was something new and cool, even if it doesn't come off quite as impressively twenty-some years later.  That's special effects, baby.  The chase involving John on a dirt bike, the T-800 on a Harley, and the T-1000 in a semi through Los Angeles is as good of an idea as it sounds.  And the end battle in a smelting factory is incredible, even if there's no practical reason for them to be there, other than that's where they ended up.

One of the obvious comparisons I had in mind going in was to "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome."  The influx of cashish into a franchise fundamentally changes the film, which is hazardous when you've made your name on a gritty sci-fi film that isn't necessarily going to benefit from being slicker and more explosive.  The first two Mad Max films are incredible, the third one has a children's choir singing in the fucking forest.  The changes that occur between the first two installments here are also not entirely productive.  Yes, the T-800 comes off like a bad-ass (literally exiting the biker bar to George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone"), but they also turn him into a petulant child's play-thing (not to mention creating the dynamic for "The Iron Giant").  And maybe it was on purpose, but this Los Angeles is a very slick, clean world.  It might have been created that way to juxtapose against the horrific future that's coming, but I feel like that might be overextending credit.

The big problems that I had with T2 are ones that don't really matter to the vitality of an action film.  In a big-budget shoot-em-up, what matters first are big action sequences that are impressive and that you'll tell your friends they need to see.  T2 has those in spades.  It had a hot soundtrack (getting a couple of Guns 'n' Roses songs when that was a really big deal, instead of just a dispatch from some band people used to like and who never release anything anymore), catchphrases.  Whether or not it had a hot chick depends on what you thought of Linda Hamilton (and she was absolutely shredded here, so if you're into hardcore gym bodies, two thumbs up), but she had as iconic of a look as Arnold did.

Check out those guns!

The things that bugged me are things that drag T2 down from being an all-time classic to just something I'll watch when I'm bored and want to see things blow up.  Edward Furlong's screechy voice annoyed the hell out of me, as did the story's insistence of having a Terminator try to be non-violent (although Arnold murdered the shit out of some shins and ankles), as did the story's insistence on turning the T-800 from a nearly unstoppable killing machine into John Connor's big metal puppy.  Sarah Connor is wildly inconsistent; it's as if her time in a mental institution turned her into a crazy person (witness the scene where she goes after the inventor of Skynet).  If you like gym-rat chicks who cry all the time, this one's for you.  The dialogue still isn't any better than last time around.

So that evens out to a pretty good action film.  This is the best of the Terminator films I've seen, even if it's not perfect.  I was going to say that it was the last James Cameron film I've seen, but a quick look at his resume says that I definitely saw "True Lies," and that definitely came out after this.  I'm still not a Cameron fan, but I can deal with his work when he's blowing things up.  And he definitely blows things up in T2.

3.5 / 5 - Blu-Ray (Theatrical Version)

The Terminator - 1984

"The Terminator" - 1984
Dir. by James Cameron - 1 hr 47 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Here's the thing I don't understand about "The Terminator."  And yes, it's true that I've never seen the first one until last night.  I've seen a couple of the sequels, but not the original.  What I don't get is that this film is not appreciably better than anything John Carpenter was putting out in the same time period, and yet The Terminator is a big deal, and John Carpenter's stuff (which is arguably deeper, concept-wise) has cult-movie status, at best.  Honestly, if you put "The Terminator" side-by-side with "Escape From New York," I'm probably headed to New York every single time.  That's not to dismiss "The Terminator," but I was fairly underwhelmed, and constantly reminded of Carpenter's work.

So, there's this scrappy young waitress named Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who works at a diner in Los Angeles.  And there are these two men whom teleport into 1984 L.A., bare-ass naked.  One is mountain of muscle who shows up at Griffith Observatory, is hassled by some punks, and then steals their clothes.  That's the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a robot killer sent back in time to find and kill Sarah Connor.  He's not very smart, though, and just starts killing everyone in the phone book (Google it) named Sarah Connor, assuming that he'll find the right one eventually.  The second one is also sent back from the future, to defend Sarah Connor.  He's a human soldier, fighting against the robot uprising, named Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn).  That's about all you need to know.

So if we're going to get into what makes "The Terminator" worthwhile, you have to start with Arnold Schwarzenegger.  He owned the 1980s (and a good portion of the '90s), and this movie is a good reason why.  No, he still can barely form sentences, and yes, he's jacked like no other.  But, like with the Conan films, director James Cameron uses that to his advantage.  Guy is intimidating and can't talk?  Make him a killer robot.  Problem solved.  Schwarzenegger has presence for days, and the gradual reveal that he's a cyborg under that flesh is a good one.  Plus, I'm not sure any other actor has had more prosthetic faces made for special effects purposes as Ahnold.

If you think this is bad, wait until "Total Recall."

Beyond that, the special effects are alright (I'm sure for the time they were good, but some of it reminded me of the stop-motion and matte work from the first "Robocop" movie), about on par with what John Carpenter was doing at the time.  There are things you just have to overlook as relics of their time, and roll with them, and there are other things that work fairly well.  But "The Terminator" is definitely a pre-CGI film, and that's something that you have to make peace with fairly quickly.  The other thing that stood out to me was the soundtrack, which seemed very much like the direct predecessor to Daft Punk's score to the recent "Tron" film.  And, considering this was an electronic soundtrack in the '80s, I've got to tip my hat for a job really well done.

Where's my beef, exactly?  "The Terminator" isn't much of a story - it's a decent concept with some fighting and shooting and Arnold being bad-ass, all of which was expanded on greatly in the next couple of sequels.  There's a built-in excuse for the clunkiness of the some of the action; it's explained that the robots aren't very smart, and have had great difficulty building cyborgs that could pass for human, and this Terminator is the first one that comes close.  But that is an admission that some of the material is clunky.  As is the dialogue.  Sometimes, like with Arnold's lines, it totally works (largely because he doesn't say more than three or four words in a row at any given point).  Sometimes, like with the police, the dialogue sounds perfunctory, like there's some vital information that needs to be gotten across in the quickest, least elegant way possible.

And there's the issue that while people remember things like Arnold looking bad-ass in a leather jacket and shades, saying "I'll be back," he spends at least as much time in the film dressed like a hulking dork.  Witness:

Total dorkage

I think that a lot of the fondness for the original Terminator film comes down to selective memory.  There are a few memorable scenes, but it's largely indistinguishable from any other action film from the same era, save for Schwarzenegger's presence.  I might feel that way because I saw T2 first (when I was a kid, and I was blown away by it, naturally), but it could just be that I've watched a few films from this era, and a lot of what's here isn't particularly gritty or interesting, even when it's trying hard to be.  But then again, I'm not really a James Cameron fan, so make of all this what you will.

3 / 5 - Blu-Ray

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Let's Be Cops - 2014

"Let's Be Cops" - 2014
Dir. by Luke Greenfield - 1 hr. 44 min.

Official Red Band Trailer #2

by Clayton Hollifield

It's been a while since I've truly enjoyed a dumb comedy (and I'm using that term as a genre, ie. "dumb comedy," and not to slur a comedy by calling it dumb), but "Let's Be Cops" wasn't half bad.  When I saw the trailer last year, I kind of wanted to go check it out, but also knew I'd have one hell of a time convincing anyone to go see it with me.  So it slipped through the cracks, and I didn't get around to checking it out until last night, when I discovered it was hiding in the on-demand section of my cable box.  Here's the thing, dumb comedies won't cure what ails you.  At their best, you can check out for a couple of hours and laugh at some doofuses.  That's about it.  It's not fair to judge them on any other basis than whether you had a good time for a little while, perhaps when you really needed it.

Ryan (Jake Johnson) and Justin (Damon Wayans, Jr.) are a pair of losers (let's call them) underachievers who had moved to Los Angeles to pursue their dreams, and now that both are approaching 30, are starting to question whether it's worth it to keep trudging along, or better just to move back to Ohio and do whatever it is that people who move back to Ohio do.  Ryan was a star football player who had an injury derail his career, and Justin is a video-game designer without a spine or any confidence in himself.  They head to a reunion party dressed as cops, only to discover it's a masquerade (which is one of those parties where everyone wears feathered masks and suits and it devolves into "Eyes Wide Shut"), and feel the scorn of their peers, who judge them harshly.  Dejectedly, Ryan and Justin wander around town in their cop outfits, and discover that people actually think they're cops.  So they roll with it, have the night of their lives, and eventually decide to do it again.  And again.  Until they get into a spot of trouble.

One of the things I really enjoyed about "Let's Be Cops" was the work of Damon Wayans, Jr.  There was part of me that fully expected him to have that over-the-top hammy energy that some of the Wayans family possess; this was not the case.  Aside from the familial resemblance, his work was understated, well-timed, and just plain funny.  I feel like it's worth mentioning that he was funny (as was his co-star, Jake Johnson), and that the movie is funny, because there are a lot of things that are pretty stock (TM Lars Ulrich) in "Let's Be Cops," and if you want to enjoy it as a film, you're going to have to forgive some things.

The girl-shaped-object of the film, Josie (Nina Dobrev), is pretty inconsequential.  But, at the same time, history has proven that if you don't include a girl-shaped-object in a losers' redemption story, no one will go see it.  Partially, I believe that's because what defines an underachiever as a "loser" is not having a girl-shaped-object in his life, and that no one will believe that anything meaningful has changed in a characters' life unless he has someone on his arm.  Yeah, this film probably fails the silly Bechdel Test, as do 98% of dumb comedies, but that's because the basic structure of this type of film both requires the presence of a ridiculously hot, yet also attainable girl-shaped-object who also can't have any meaningful personality or influence on the main characters, because the story is really about friendship and directionless men getting their act together.  And, in the parlance of our times, obtaining access to the girl-shaped-object is more about leveling up than being involved in a emotionally meaningful relationship.  Put it another way: would anyone go see a movie where the goal is for some dork to get his life together not because he wants to impress some girl, but instead really wants a copy of Incredible Hulk #181, and this was the motivation the character's behavior hinged upon for the entirety of a movie?

Possibly, but probably not.  So, if you're seeing a film like "Let's Be Cops," you're going to have to check the expectations that there's going to be anything meaningful for women to watch or do.  But so what?  This is a dumb comedy.  The question is whether you laughed, not whether you advanced the cause of equal rights and screen time for women.  There are a lot of funny things here.  Yeah, it seems ridiculously easy to impersonate a policeman, and that the characters didn't even know it was illegal is pretty silly.  Getting a patrol car from eBay is pretty funny.  And the main duo do learn respect for police, beyond just people treating them differently when they're in uniform.  But the big thing is that if you want to watch "Let's Be Cops," don't think about it too hard.  It's a funny movie with funny people in it, but there's a lot of machinery that doesn't quite work propping up the surface of the film.  Also, beware that while the rating does promise nudity, it doesn't specify what kind (or from whom).

2.5 / 5 - TV

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Fluffy Movie: Unity Through Laughter - 2014

"The Fluffy Movie: Unity Through Laughter" - 2014
Dir. by Manny Rodriguez, Jay Lavender - 1 hr. 41 min.

Official Trailer #1

by Clayton Hollifield

I feel like there are a whole checklist of caveats I need to get to before I can really start discussing "The Fluffy Movie: Unity Through Laughter."  The main reason for that is that I was surprised by the second half of the film, and I feel like I need to explain where I'm coming from in order for that to make sense.  So, we'll get to the caveats in a minute here, and why I was surprised, but first let's have a light, refreshing recap to get us all up to speed?

"The Fluffy Movie" is a theatrical stand-up comedy concert film, starring Gabriel Iglesias, which is a rare beast these days.  The film starts off not with the comedy, but what you could probably explain as a short film that goes into how Iglesias' parents met, and how he stumbled across Eddie Murphy's "Raw" as a kid.  This segment feels longer than you'd expect; it's less of a framing device that comedy films usually employ, and more of a necessary foundation for what's to come.  Then, the concert itself, which was filmed in the Bay Area.

So let's get into why I wasn't expecting a lot out of "The Fluffy Movie."  First off, and this might sound awful, but I've never rated Iglesias highly as a comedian.  That's not to say that he's not funny (because he is), and that's not to say that I haven't watched some of his TV specials (because I have), but I usually don't change the channel when he's on because he's good at what he does, but what he does doesn't always require a lot of attention be paid in order to get it.  Put it this way, if it's Saturday night and I'm surfing the internet and maybe have had a drink or two, AND a Bill Hicks special came on Comedy Central, I've got to shut everything down and pay full attention.  Same with Richard Pryor.  Or any of a number of comedians.  But Gabriel Iglesias does work that I can keep on in the background and is broad enough where I'm not going to have to pay attention to catch the nuances of what he's doing.  This is the guy who got out of speeding ticket by offering the policeman fresh donuts, for crying out loud.  His material is not usually pointed social commentary.

Also, frankly, I hadn't intended to sit all the way through the movie.  I figured I'd probably watch about half an hour, shut it off, and finish it the next night.  I do that frequently enough with stand-up specials; a lot of times I'm just looking for something to kill a little time before I can go to bed.  I ended up watching "The Fluffy Movie" wire-to-wire, and I'm really glad I did.  The material in the first chunk of the concert is pretty broad - he talks about how people have pushed back on his attempts to get in better health, and he tells some good stories about exactly what that's like, and not to worry that he's going to change.

The second half of the concert, on the other hand, gets very, very real.  I had listened to Iglesias on Marc Maron's WTF podcast, so I knew a bit of the story, but when the short film at the beginning of the movie becomes the basis of Iglesias' material, his performance is absolutely spellbinding.  Long story short, Gabriel's father shows up at one of his shows, a man he's never met.  And to say that he's conflicted about this is a minor understatement.  It helps that he's such a likable character, because there is real anger present, and he doesn't handle things ideally.  But he reacts honestly, and tells the story honestly (with all of it's complications and angles), and for me, Iglesias goes from a cartoon of a performer (which isn't an insult when you're talking about a comedian) to a man, a real flesh-and-blood man.  Granted, maybe I felt this one a little more deeply because of my own background, but real recognizes real.

So maybe "The Fluffy Movie" is a little uneven, maybe it gets off to a slow start.  But the second half of the movie is worth all of it.  That extended segment, from where his father shows up at one of his shows, is one of the best, realest, most masterful pieces of comedy I've ever seen.  His ability to juggle heavy emotional content with the need to keep things palatable and the need to come across honestly (and stay likable) is something that I frankly never expected to see out of him.  Maybe I wasn't paying enough attention over my laptop, or maybe it really is the breakthrough that I didn't see coming.  It's easy to lash out at other people in comedy, but only the greats like Richard Pryor get to that same level with themselves and their own actions, with the perfect balance of honesty and humor.  Now, no one is as good as Richard Pryor, but for half an hour Gabriel Iglesias came to visit that level, which is half an hour longer than 99% of other comedians have.

4 / 5 - Streaming

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road - 2015

"Mad Max: Fury Road" - 2015
Dir. by George Miller - 2 hrs.

Official Main Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Now this is a dystopia I can get behind!  Sure, I dig a good dystopian movie from time to time, and they're all usually dusty and ragged and jerry-rigged worlds, but rarely do you see something like "Mad Max: Fury Road," where the world has evolved into something truly horrifying (and spellbinding).  Although the premise isn't new ("The Road Warrior" covered some of this, once upon a time), the visuals certainly are, from top to bottom.  The visual aspect of this film is so strong that the story is nearly irrelevant, other than as a road for the frequent clashes between groups to follow.

Max (Tom Hardy) is a haunted man with a past and a bad-ass car, the Interceptor.  But he's quickly set upon by the War Boys, captured, and turned into a blood bag (which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like - the lowest classes in this film are used solely for the fluids they can produce).  When Furiosa (Charlize Theron) makes a break for it with Immortan Joe's (Hugh Keays-Byrne) harem, Max is strapped to the front of a war chariot vehicle, and the War Boys set out to capture Furiosa and Joe's concubines.

All of that isn't necessarily important; this isn't a plot film.  "Mad Max: Fury Road" does what comes rarely in film, and what frequently only comes from truly bizarre or surreal works: this is an experience.  You can dissect the plot, the action, the acting, even the movie poster, but it all comes second to what the experience of watching this film feels like.  And it truly feels, man.  There are truly epic sights, like the War Boys' hometown, which feature giant earthen towers containing all the good stuff (like water), and the wretched who live below, who are periodically given a few drops of water while being warned not to love it too much, lest they resent its absence later.  There's a giant (and I mean giant) sandstorm, which was in the trailer, so I'm not spoiling anything.  There are endless waves of inventively welded-together vehicles; if you have any weakness for cars, this movie is going to blow your mind.  Most of all, there are two full hours here of insane, bespoke, impressive sights that really put you in the middle of the endless fighting and racing through the desert.

In tone, "Fury Road" feels a lot like "The Road Warrior," but with the time to create every nook and cranny from scratch, and the budget to make it a reality.  As is the norm for the Max movies,  there's no CGI in any of the stunts, and you can feel the difference.  I'm not prioritizing one over the other, but when real-world stunts and action are performed and performed well, there's a tangible difference from even the best CGI.  And that's the big deal about "Fury Road."  It's hard to explain exactly why it was so exhilarating; telling you that it's non-stop action for two hours might sound numbing, but it wasn't.  Telling you that the action was top-notch doesn't really get that across.  Telling you that there is originality oozing out of every pore of the film doesn't get across how awesome something like the war guitar guy is to see.

"Mad Max: Fury Road" is completely gonzo, over-the-top, violent, crazy, inventive, original.  I need to see it again on a big screen just to try and catch some more of the details that I might have missed the first time around.  It delivers on everything that the trailer promised.  It's an experience.  You should probably go see this, if you're on the fence about it.  If you're not, "Pitch Perfect 2" came out this week, too, and people seem to like that one.

4.5 / 5 - Theatre (3D)

Monday, May 4, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron - 2015

"Avengers: Age of Ultron" - 2015
Dir. by Joss Whedon - 2 hrs. 21 min.

Trailer #3

by Clayton Hollifield

Well, I think my streak of seeing Marvel movies is just about over.  No, not because of "Avengers: Age of Ultron," it was just fine.  Instead, I saw trailers for both "Ant-Man" and the "Fantastic Four" reboot, and I'm pretty sure I'll be giving one of those a big ol' pass.  FF, in particular, looks brutal.  But we're not here to talk about those films, we're here to talk about the official sequel to one of the biggest-grossing, most-beloved action films in recent years.  And it was pretty good.  I didn't like it as much as the first, or even as much as the first "Iron Man" and "Thor" films, but I did like it.  I think, once some time has passed, and another Avengers film comes along, that this will come off better, and as part of a longer story being told.  Right now, it's much like the second "Star Wars" film, in that it's the "bummer" film, and until another movie in the series comes out, it's the final word on the story.

The Avengers start off avenging, crashing Baron Strucker's (Thomas Kretchmann) party and liberating Loki's wand-thingy from the grips of evil-doers.  Tony Stark (Ghostface Killah Robert Downey, Jr.) borrows the wand for a few days for some research, which means trying to understand how Asgardian technology works.  Ultimately, after bonding over being mad scientists, Stark draws in Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to help with the research, as there's a bit of a time crunch before the artifact is to be returned to Asgard.  The goal: artificial intelligence, in the form of something that will help prevent something like what happened in the first Avengers movie from happening.  The actual result: a crazy robot named Ultron (voiced by James Spader) that wants to, well, you know exactly what a crazy-ass robot accidentally created by Iron Man and the Hulk is going to want to do.

So, I wasn't kidding when I said this was the "bummer" film in the series.  Part of that is that the events in the first Avengers film have had lasting effects (Iron Man, in particular, has had difficulty in processing all of it), but part of it that one of the opponents they have to deal with, the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), has the power of killing positive vibes and forcing people to wade through their own personal nightmares.  This leads to one of the best action sequences, the thing that should have been built around in it's own film, putting fright and fury into the Hulk, which results in even more of the carnage that Dr. Banner has been trying to avoid and atone for.  The message of the film is very much that people are often their own worst enemies (and that everything is better when you're part of a team, if you can manage to keep that team on the same page), and messages have to be felt and understood, not just explained to people.  That means that everyone on the team will have to suffer in their own heads (which also leaves open the door for some stellar character development, where you kind of start to understand what it is exactly that motivates each character).  These scenes aren't easy viewing, but they are good filmmaking.

Big action films need a couple of things.  Big action pieces (check.)  Big stakes (check).  Bringing back as much of the cast as humanly possible (check - the only people that were really missing was Pepper Potts and Natalie Portman's character, and they were both discussed within the plot, so I don't think we're to assume that Ms. Portman and Ms. Paltrow have been written out of the series).  Once you get past that stuff, it helps if you can sympathize with the characters, even if they're on opposite sides (check).  And maybe if there wasn't another Avengers film, I would have liked this one better.  The big issue was that the first Avengers film felt epic (and not in a internetty way, in a Homeric way).  The action sequence at the end of that one was exhilarating and exhausting in a completely satisfying way, and hit upon something that I rarely see in films (how fighting for something, even something worthwhile, can wear you down to your very soul, and leave marks that can't be seen).  Even though the stakes in "Age of Ultron" were large, it never felt epic in the same way.  It was a giant battle, but felt on an individual scale.  And the result never really felt like it was in doubt.

From where I'm sitting, "Avengers: Age of Ultron" felt more like another one of Marvel's admittedly pretty damned good string of solo character films that like another event film, like the first "Avengers."  That means it was still good, all the things that you would have enjoyed about the other combination of characters are still there (like the character interactions and fast-paced dialogue), and it didn't break the string of enjoyable Avengers-related films.  But things might look different five years from now, if there's a third Avengers film and more story with these characters.  I leave open the possibility that "Ultron" will feel more like an important, but down chapter in the longer story when the whole deal is wrapped up.  I do not leave open the possibility that the new "Fantastic Four" film is going to be any good whatsoever, though.  That's straight doo-doo.

3.5 / 5 - Theatre (3D)

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies - 2014

"The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" - 2014
Dir. by Peter Jackson - 2 hrs. 24 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Yeah, it's kind of lame that I'm only now getting around to seeing the third Hobbit movie in the theatre.  But sometimes things get in the way, even of things you want to see.  Besides, past the first week of release, it's pretty much the same when you see something.  Some dork on TV will have already spoiled the movie, if one of your friends haven't already.  Anyhow, I read "The Hobbit" a couple of years ago, so I knew what was going to happen.  And all things considered, you probably ought to as well, so don't get your hackles up if one or two things get talked about without a precious "spoiler" tag, okay?

"The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" is the final of three Hobbit movies, and as the title might suggest, is largely the huge battle at the end of the book.  Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) sets his sights on burning down Lake-town near his lair, which is one of those win/lose situations.  Yes, there is ample opportunity to roast s'mores on the smoldering ashes of what was once a town, but Smaug also receives a most-uncomfortable piercing (right in the heart!) from Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) that snuffs out Smaug's fire forever.  The rest of the movie is mostly concerned with the battle of the five armies, over the immense fortune Smaug had hoarded over the years, that the crew of dwarves, led by Thorin II Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), have taken possession of.  Because everyone loves gold.

Of the three Hobbit films, this is the one that's probably least qualified to stand on it's own as a film.  There's a lot of things that have happened over the roughly five hours of screen time that precede this installment, and some of it is compelling!  We have gotten to know some of the players who are going to populate the giant final battle, and without that, you might as well just punch in a cheat code and go around killing things in a video game.  If all you want is action, "Five Armies" doesn't even match up to the second installment, which had a bonafide must-see action sequence (the one that starts with the river escape in wine barrels).  Yes, there are armies fighting, and one-on-one battles of great importance, but none of it is particularly memorable.  Enjoyable, yes, most definitely, but nothing here ever kicks into that extra gear that truly great action sequences have.  The action is like a solid B, bordering on a B+, except that when you take into account all the resources that were used to create these adaptations, it's definitely a B.

This isn't really an "acting" movie, either.  Director Peter Jackson basically spent five hours trying to get you to care what happens to these characters, and spends these two and a half hours answering those questions one-by-one.  The only character that really gets to do anything beyond fight and grimace is Alfrid (Ryan Gage), who is delightfully cowardly, and a welcome chance to catch your breath during what would otherwise just be wall-to-wall sword swinging.  I have a hard time judging the plot here, since I have read the book recently enough that there weren't going to be any surprises.  I very much wanted to be blown away by this film, and there were moments here and there that were spectacular (the New Zealand scenery, as always, and also the War Moose thing that Thranduil (Lee Pace) rode in on - I couldn't stop staring at the giant rack of horns it wielded), but my biggest problem with the series is that it only occasionally topped what was in my head when I read the novel (and in a couple of instances, fell way, way short).

So this third installment was more about delivering what had been promised, and Peter Jackson did that.  There weren't going to be any big surprises, and I had hoped for a little more, but I can't complain about what's here.  It's a solid work, and it'll probably be a very long time before anyone else tackles the same material, so we're all just going to have to get used to the idea that these films are the definitive film versions of "The Hobbit."  I'm largely okay with that.  I could definitely imagine blowing through the trilogy again, it was that good.  If "The Battle of the Five Armies" was the least of the three, that's because it's two hours of resolution without really presenting new questions to be resolved.  But I'm a bad example - not quite a super-fan, but I'm familiar enough with the material that I can't be surprised.  These movies are probably blowing some kid's mind somewhere, and that's good enough for me.

3 / 5 - Theatre