Saturday, February 14, 2015

Return of the Jedi - 1983

"Return of the Jedi" - 1983
Dir. by Richard Marquand - 2 hrs. 14 min.

Theatrical Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Once again (and possibly for the last time), I'm in the position of trying to bang out some paragraphs about a movie that's been beaten to death, and then beaten to death by people who thought they were being clever by beating it to death, and then had it's corpse humped into a pile of meat by the children of the people who thought they were being clever by beating it to death, and then had the pile of pre-humped meat sold wholesale to Disney, who will be re-packaging and cramming this stuff down everyone's throat until the end of days.  And this is easily the worst of the three original "Star Wars" films; even Harrison Ford is mugging for the camera before long, lest he be upstaged by a menagerie of puppets.

This is what you need to know about the plot:

Literally everything else in this film is either teddy bears or stuff blowing up.  And the sarlacc pit, which was pretty cool.  Not as cool as Princess Leia's slave costume, but still pretty cool.  These facts don't exactly make "Return of the Jedi" unwatchable, but this is a film that takes literally every opportunity to pander to children, in a way that the earlier films weren't quite so naked about.  I'm not saying this film is populated entirely by characters who exist to sell toys of, but the ensuing thirty years doesn't give much credence to opposing that view.

I knew when I watched "Empire Strikes Back" that this would likely be my last trip through the Star Wars films, and that was confirmed by watching "Jedi."  I'm not exactly mad about it; they were big films, but they're kids' films, and don't deliver what I want out of a movie.  And they don't take me back to a time I'm nostalgic about, either.  This material is just better receding to the deep storage closet in my brain, where I can spend a few minutes ruminating on exactly how hot Carrie Fisher was in 1982 and not have that interrupted by a talking slug or Greedo yelling about traps.  I'll probably see the new batch of films, not because I'm super-excited about them, but just because they'll at least be something new that hasn't been drilled straight into the ground yet.

3 / 5 - DVD

Thursday, February 12, 2015

52 Pick-Up - 1986

"52 Pick-Up" - 1986
Dir. by John Frankenheimer - 1 hr. 50 min.

TV Commercial

by Clayton Hollifield

Purely by coincidence, I noticed that "52 Pick-Up" was playing on one of the deep cable movie channels, and decided to record it.  The reason that it was a coincidence is that I was in the middle of reading the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name at that time, and figured it would be a rare opportunity to compare the source material with the Hollywood version of the same story in a short span of time, which was not what I was expecting when I grabbed the book off the top of my ever-growing to-read pile.  I mean, I'll read Elmore Leonard novels like I snack - pretty much all the time.  And Leonard actually co-wrote the screenplay, which gave me a little hope.

The story: Harry Mitchell (Roy Scheider) gets caught playing around on his wife, Barbara (Ann-Margret), with a much younger woman named Cini (Kelly Preston).  A trio of enterprising criminals, Alan (John Glover), Leo (Robert Trebor), and Bobby Shy (Clarence Williams III) are in cahoots with Cini, and they blackmail Harry for a tidy sum.  Problem is, Harry's kind of a hard-ass, and doesn't want to pay them anything.  So the trio up the ante, Harry starts playing mind games, and a blood-bath ensues.

Since this is a movie review blog, lets dig into the movie first.  Even if you weren't familiar with the story going in (a problem with having literally just read the book like a week before watching the movie), the story is pretty paint-by-numbers.  It's a crime story, and a pretty basic one: blackmail with an unwilling, uncooperative target.  One of the main appeals of Elmore Leonard's work is that he's got a way with atmosphere and dialogue, and his books are easy reads that rarely bog down.  Sometimes, the plot's pretty decent, but "52 Pick-Up" isn't an example of one of his better plots.  The gift for dialogue stays - there are some good exchanges, and the plot is just good enough to not get frustrated with.  But in terms of the film, the only real appeal is in the performances by some of the cast.  Alan, the porno-theater operating mastermind of the crime, is really brought to sleazy, unbearably sleazy, super sleazy life by John Glover.  Robert Trebor has a good monologue in a bar when he's breaking down, and much of the appeal Clarence Williams III's Bobby Shy is seeing what a psycho coke-sniffing hitman might be like if he resembled Dr. Cornel West.
On the flip side, Ann-Margret is pretty much terrible, her nadir coming when she delivers a speech in front of what should be a partisan (for her, even!) event, but can't deliver the lines with the goods that would suggest she'd be believable as any kind of a politician.  Roy Scheider is alright - there weren't any moments that really took me out of his performance, although I was more spellbound by his sweet convertible Jag than I was by him or his predicament.

On the whole, this isn't a very good movie.  While it functions as a basic crime movie, it's not slick or clever enough to be entertaining, and there's not a lot else going for it.  It's not gritty or sleazy enough to hold attention in that manner, either.  Sure, the settings are pretty seedy (a porno theatre, a handy-j shack, and some dude's home keeps getting used to make home-made XXX flicks), but the only female character (past Ann-Marget's) that gets any kind of time is a stripper/whatever else you might desire named Doreen (played by Vanity, whom I believe was one of Prince's musical proteges earlier in the '80s), and how to put this...?  She's way too beautiful to be working in the place she's working in, story-wise.  Past that, this movie doesn't really feel like it has a compelling reason to exist.  It doesn't really feel like anyone involved was motivated by anything other than another gig and another paycheck (which doesn't automatically disqualify a creative work from being a good one).  And the reason that I know no one involved gave any shits whatsoever is that during the final, climactic scene, which involves a hostage exchange, the scene that, theoretically, the entire film has been building to, one of the actors bumps the camera, and that's the shot that got put in the film.  It's such a fundamental error that it's shocking to see it pop up in a film that has more than one person involved that I've ever heard of.  The audience being made aware of the camera's existence in a tense scene immediately blows the illusion and shatters suspension of disbelief.  And there's nearly nothing worse than a movie with a poor ending, aside from a movie with a poor ending that's been pretty boring up that point anyways.

Now let's turn to the book for a bit.  First up, "52 Pick-Up" is not one of Elmore Leonard's better books.  I've read a disproportionate amount of Leonard's writing, and this is a pretty pedestrian effort from him.  Granted, that still meant it was readable, displayed Leonard's talent for dialogue, and was better than a lot of crime fiction that I've read.  And the big appeal of the book, as written, is watching Harry Mitchell NOT freak out when he's being blackmailed.  His character is in charge, although not arrogant about it, and knows how to deal with people.  Much of the book is inside his head, and the other characters are there to back up that perception, that these blackmailers really don't know who they're messing around with.

As a baseline for what the filmed version would become, there are some fascinating differences. Some streamlining of extraneous characters is to expected, and surely occurs.  There are a couple of minor story-lines in the book that don't exactly relate to the main plot, but do illustrate how Harry deals with people that need to be dealt with (the best of which involves a union rep trying to goad Harry a couple of weeks ahead of the scheduled negotiations).  In this case, it's a question of how you want to build to the end of the story.  Is the story being told that the blackmailers didn't know exactly who they were getting involved with, and then inevitably getting taken apart piece-by-piece, or is the story about whether or not Harry could pull off dealing with these criminals?  The book tells the former (and leaves little doubt that Harry will get the job done, although not without suffering a bit), the movie goes for the latter.

The other aspect that I found fascinating was the difference between the book and movie versions of Barbara.  If you're familiar with the book, you can literally see the demands that must've come from Ann-Margret.  In the book, the character works, and is interesting, but if you reduce the character down to a quick description, she's a housewife who plays tennis, and gets cheated on in favor of a younger woman, sticks by her man, and gets kidnapped and surprise butt-sexed later in the story.  Try selling that character arc to any actress in her 40s or 50s, and see how that goes.  So instead, Barbara is a politician embarking on a campaign (which weakens Harry's positive motivation - instead of trying to take care of the blackmailers to keep Barbara from having to deal with it at all, he's running scared from ruining her career), gets to kick Harry out of the house (in the book, he chooses to leave in order to give her space.  In the movie, it's unclear, but it's played like she kicked him out, and they backtrack that later on when she asks him why he left), even gets a "do you know how this feels" indignant moment.  I'm not saying the book version of the character is a juicy character that anyone would want to play, I am saying that the changes made to Barbara's character drastically change the dynamic of their relationship.  It's fine to want to see strong female roles, but the alteration of the Barbara character changes the entire film from a man trying to protect his wife from the ramifications of his own reckless behavior to a man trying to not to ruin his wife's career by cleaning up after his reckless behavior, all the while getting yelled at by her for erring.  In the context of "52 Pick-Up," you can either have a strong male character or a strong female character, but not both.  And since it's ultimately Roy Scheider and not Ann-Marget's withering gaze who has to face down the trio of blackmailers, I would have preferred that the filmmakers had kept Harry strong going into the final series of battles.  I mean, she gets kidnapped and drugged anyways, it's not like she ends up being much help, after being unsupportive along the way.  So what good is all that increased independence, that weakens the story, after all?  At least Ann-Margret can say she didn't play a role where she's only the older, cheated-upon wife (who, in the book, is continually portrayed as being super-hot and desireable - even Harry had decided that she was way better at pretty much everything than Cini, and was ready to put that foolishness behind him when everything went down).

Honestly, this is way more attention than either the book or the film "52 Pick-Up" really deserve.  You can find better Leonard novels (try "Get Shorty," for instance) and better movies made from his books (try "Get Shorty," for instance).  It's only by a weird coincidence that I read the book and watched the film in a short span of time.  I'm not recommending that anyone repeat that; read or watch pretty much anything else based on Elmore Leonard's work, unless you're like twenty books deep into his catalogue already, like me.  If that's the case, it's your rabbit hole, man.  See you down there.

1 / 5 - TV (HD)

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Still Smokin - 1983

"Still Smokin" - 1983
Dir. by Thomas Chong - 1 hr. 31 min.

Original Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

It's not often that you see a film that's essentially a b-sides collection (in my estimation).  Also, to be fair, it's not often that a comedy duo makes as many films (and largely sketch comedy-based ones) as Cheech and Chong did.  Since plot was never the point of any of their work, and they were able to get away with even less plot than other, "Still Smokin" makes sense.  Going through the structure of the film, I'm not entirely sure how it was cobbled together; it could literally be anything from a literal b-sides movie of discarded bits filmed at other times to just the laziest assembly of material ever (seriously, random bits and half a live performance?  That's vault-raiding on a Hendrixian scale).  But the shaggy form of the film makes sense, considering the source, and there's some decent material within.

Cheech (Marin) and Chong (, Tommy) head to Amsterdam to do something, although it's unclear what.  They claim not to have worked in six years, and at the Amsterdam airport, Cheech is mistaken for Burt Reynolds (mustache); Burt and Dolly Parton are supposed to be on their flight, arriving to promote a movie.  Instead, Cheech and Chong hijack the publicity train (and its benefits, like a fancy hotel), and offer to do a show there to help out somebody.  This is the skeleton that the random skits hang on; the duo recall bits they want to dust off, we see them, and then ultimately, the last half of the movie is from a live performance in Amsterdam.

I'm not even going to start to pretend that this film is for everyone, even if you're into Cheech and Chong (or just their lifestyle).  They didn't invent the sketch comedy movie, and their best work doesn't even really fall into that category ("Up In Smoke" is definitely their best, but it's more like an overtly stoner version of "Slacker" than an overtly stoner version of "The Kentucky Fried Movie").  This form is something that they kind of fell into, which makes sense, since they were stage performers more than filmmakers.  So the real question is, once you get past the question of whether or not you enjoy this sort of thing, is about the strength of the material.

The answer: uneven.  The footage from a live performance is generally a lot better than the other skits, but the skits have some highlights (like the insatiable maid, or the telethon where a green-wigged Chong wants to raise money to buy tanks and anti-aircraft missiles to defend his crops).  There are misfires, like "The Harder They Don't Come."  Obviously, your mileage might vary on this, but it's hard to get mad even when segments flop, because the framing device basically has them hanging out in a sauna with naked women to segue from bit to bit, and I find that completely acceptable.  Like with Cheech and Chong's comedy, there's a strong feeling of "I can't believe they got away with this" in the construction of the film.  It seems underbaked, but at the same time, it's a film because they say it's a film.

Look, if you've seen "Up In Smoke" enough times that you want to switch things up a bit, "Still Smokin" is a reasonable option.  It's definitely an option B, but it's not unfunny (like most of "The Corsican Brothers" is).  I stumbled across this flipping through the channel guide late at night, and that seemed about the right amount of effort to devote to checking "Still Smokin" out.  Again, this might come off like a thirteen year old's idea of a good time, but is it really any worse than whatever Kevin Hart has put out this month?  And I guarantee nothing Kevin Hart's ever done is as funny as the "Ralph and Herbie" bit that closes this movie.

2.5 / 5 - TV

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Groundhog Day - 1993

"Groundhog Day" - 1993
Dir. by Harold Ramis - 1 hr. 41 min.

Original Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There's been several Bill Murray phases over his career, and which one is your favorite version can depend on a lot of things, including which version you were introduced to first.  I look at "Groundhog Day" as being the finest film of his second phase (the first being broader comedies, running through about "Ghostbusters").  Scratch that, it's one of the greatest comedies of all time from where I'm sitting.  Murray would do equally affecting work later on, but probably until "Rushmore," there's nothing that hit all the sweet spots simultaneously.

Phil (Bill Murray) is a weatherman with a generally awful attitude, compounded by the fact that he's up against his yearly assignment to head to Punxsutawney to cover Groundhog Day, and local celebrity groundhog Phil.  His crew, including producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) put up with his behavior, not really having much choice.  A blizzard that Phil had mistakenly thought was headed elsewhere forces them all to stay in Punxsatawney for the night, which is even more fuel for Phil's attitude of misery and condescension.  That's when something funny happens; when Phil wakes up the next morning, it's Groundhog Day all over again.  Over and over again, starting with Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe," Phil has to relive Groundhog Day repeatedly, and with no instructions.

There are a million ways to dive into talking about "Groundhog Day," but my first statement has to be to reaffirm the impossible: Murray and director Harold Ramis have made a comedy that stands the test of time.  Just like "Some Like it Hot" or "The Odd Couple," the concept is rock-solid, the humor character-based (instead of a barrage of references, which age instantly and awfully), and the performances are dead-on.  So let's start with the concept.  The idea of having to endlessly repeat the same day is a sort of philosophic exercise on it's own - what would you do with endless time?  This becomes a test of one's character.  Phil starts off with the easy stuff; seducing a woman through deceit, amusing himself, even unarmed robbery to finance his hijinks.  When that wears thin, he sets his aims higher; seducing his producer.  In the terms of this story, she represents a clear upgrade in the female companionship department; she's upbeat, intelligent, willing to stand for what she believes in.  And Phil starts each day having dug himself a hole with his previous behavior and attitude.

On one hand, this goal represents a stronger challenge, but it also gets at the heart of Phil's problem: people are just props to his own goals.  Rita turns out to be an uncrackable nut, which reveals a startling truth about Phil to himself; even armed with infinite time with which to mine Rita's life for inside information that he can use to present himself in a more appealing fashion, Phil is fundamentally incorrect for Rita.  Throughout the film, we see Phil trying to take shortcuts.  The most visible way is in his daily broadcast covering the groundhog, but it's also on display with his sequence of dates with Rita, where he's theoretically nailing down what he needs to do step-by-step in order to bed her in one day.  When he discovers something that works organically, it's fine, but when he repeats it the next time around, it's insincere and hurried, and turns Rita off from him.  This is one of the geniuses of casting Bill Murray in this role; he errs towards insincerity and wit anyways, which can feel very off-putting, which leads to Murray being at his funniest and completely failing at his goals.  And, to hammer on the philosophy side, change can be painful and unwelcome.  But that's exactly what's required of Phil.

But that's not what comes first.  Despondency over his inability to seduce Rita builds into nihilism, because when you can't achieve the only goal that you've set for yourself, what point is life?  Phil tries to avoid the question, killing himself repeatedly.  But he still keeps waking up to the sounds of Sonny and Cher every morning, no matter what fate he's met the night before.  Even though Phil doesn't consciously come to the realization, he does recognize on some level that what's wrong with the situation is himself.  He stops worrying about himself, and tries to help some people around him, starting with a homeless man.  Even though he ultimately can't do anything to help the homeless man, Phil learns the value of the people around him.  This sounds like something that could be extraordinarily trite and hollow, but it's a transformative experiences for Phil, and one of the first steps in building himself into the sort of person that everyone (and Rita, although he's apparently given up on that) can respect and enjoy the company of.

Even though "Groundhog Day" is sharply written, it wouldn't be the same movie that it is without Bill Murray's performance.  This film contains a wide range of what he's capable of, while deconstructing the appeal of a lot of '80s comedy (it's hard to look at Chevy Chase or some of Steve Martin's arrogant characters that we're supposed to identify with in the same way after this film).  The story itself requires Murray to start as someone we're repulsed by, and then follow his development into something else, and to stay entertained the whole way.  That's a much more complicated task than most comedies aim for, and "Groundhog Day" and Bill Murray pull it off.  It's the difference between trying to pull laughs and trying to get an audience to actually feel something, the use of an advanced skill as a tool towards another, more difficult aim.

I'm not even sure how many times I've seen "Groundhog Day."  Maybe ten?  I saw it when it came out when I was in high school, so that's probably not a crazy estimate.  But it's such a rare beast, a comedy that holds up, and holds up even beyond just being funny.  How many movies that don't suck get across the need for empathy for others, and the rewards that can bring and do it without being maudlin or sappy?  There's enough greatness in "Groundhog Day" before you even scratch the surface to see what's beneath, I recommend it without reservation.

5 / 5 - DVD