Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Day 91: Shut Up Little Man: An Audio Misadventure

"If you wanna talk to me, then shut your fucking mouth!"

The best thing about having Netflix instant is the fact that I am able to see tons of documentaries that I didn't previously have access to. There were lots that I'd heard about and couldn't track down before, and then there are ones I've just stumbled across by pure happenstance that I wonder why I haven't heard of. The documentary I watched last night is one that I hadn't heard of before, but it's actually the summation of a fairly large, underground phenomenon, or at least the film posits it to be.

Shut Up Little Man: An Audio Misadventure tells the story of former roommates Eddie Lee Sausage & Mitchell D, who lived together in a ramshackle apartment building in San Francisco in the mid-1980s. Eddie & Mitch soon found out that they had some pretty loud neighbors: Two guys who stayed up until all hours of the night drunkenly & verbally berating and abusing one another. One of them is violent, raging homophobe Ray, and the other is whiny old gay man Peter. Pretty soon, Eddie & Mitch got the idea to begin recording their rows with a microphone hooked onto a ski pole and placed outside their window. Before long, their apartment became the place to be, with listening parties happening on any given night, and copies of the tapes being made and handed out to friends.

Much like Jack Rebney of Winnebago Man from a few weeks back, Peter & Ray's epic battles became a cult phenomenon completely unbeknownst to the subjects involved. I certainly can't compare the merit of one film's existence to another, but this film does tread a lot of the same ground that the vastly superior Winnebago Man did, namely the concept of ownership in a viral marketplace. Eddie & Mitch lived through the ordeal & created and duplicated the tapes themselves, so they feel that they have ownership of the material. Initially they put a disclaimer on the tapes that said that people were free to use the material for their own purposes, as long as they contacted them first to let them know what the use was for.

In the early 90s, a guy named Gregg Gibbs turned the tapes into a stage play. At first Eddie & Mitch seemed receptive to the whole thing, particularly when Gibbs mentioned turning it into a feature film. Eddie & Mitch decided to copyright the material at this point in time, and suddenly found themselves on the outs with Gibbs, who decided to pursue a separate deal to turn his play into a film. Inevitably this led to a third person, who was friends with Mitch, to also try and turn it into a film. So at one point in time, there were three separate versions of these tapes attempting to be made into a film.

Only one film ended up getting made around 1999, interestingly enough by a fourth person, although it was based on Gibbs' play, called Shut Yer Dirty Little Mouth which starred Glenn Shadix (Otho from Beetlejuice) as Peter. The tapes have been turned into animated shorts, puppet shorts, comics done by the likes of "Ghost World" creator Daniel Clowes & I. Brunetti. Yet through all of this, Eddie & Mitch have maintained a feeling of ownership over the whole affair which has led them to pursue the real Peter & Ray, to find out who they actually were.

As I said, a lot of this same ground is covered in other films, the whole notion of viral video before the internet, who owns what, and how did it affect the people involved. The film is mildly amusing, if for no other reason than a lot of what these two said to one another was very funny, but on the whole, without participation from either of the actual men (both of whom have passed on), it's sadly lacking in any real sort of perspective on how the whole thing has affected, or not, their lives.

If you find yourself out of docs to watch and you've already seen Winnebago Man, I would recommend this in that instance, but if there's other stuff to watch, watch it first. Ultimately it comes down to the fact that the film presents very little perspective other than a bunch of genuinely unlikable dudes arguing over the ownership of something that doesn't really belong to anyone.

[Header Image]

Monday, February 27, 2012

Day 90: Cool as Ice

"Drop that zero, get with a hero"

Vanilla Ice's window of actual fame was so small, it's hard to remember when he wasn't a complete and total joke. He went from having a massive hit single to being the butt of jokes from everywhere, most notably on In Living Color, which I remember was, for me anyway, the point when I finally felt like it was okay to laugh at him. A lot of my 6th grade compatriots were upset with that sketch, but to me it was a relief that someone else felt the way about this douchebag that I did. The guy was a total poser, top to bottom, and he made it virtually impossible for anyone to take a white guy rapping seriously ever again.

I was admittedly a huge Ninja Turtles fan when the second Ninja Turtles movie came out in March of 1991, and when Vanilla Ice turned up at the end of that movie (as if the rest of the movie wasn't a total waste of time), it pretty much single-handedly ended my love affair with the Ninja Turtles. By the time October of that same year rolled around, I think that virtually everyone was fed up with Vanilla Ice, but that didn't stop Universal Pictures from unleashing his "star-making" vehicle on the world, Cool as Ice. The film was directed by a man named David Kellogg, who had 10 directing credits prior to this film, and 2 after it. The ten prior and one after are Playboy videos such as "Wet & Wild" and "Farmer's Daughters." His only feature film credit after this was 1999's Inspector Gadget with Ferris Bueller. I'll leave it to you to decide which misstep actually ended his career.

The fact that Kellogg cut his teeth directing music videos for Lionel Richie probably goes a long way towards explaining why Cool as Ice looks like a 90-minute music video, with random Lifetime movie style scenes thrown in to move the plot along. Oh yeah, the plot, I almost forgot. Mr. Ice plays Johnny (although not a soul utters that name in the entire film), a Kawasaki biker who rides with a crew of two black dudes and a black girl, you know, to establish his street cred. En route to a local bike repair house that's straight out of a Tim Burton movie, Johnny's crew rides past a horse farm where Kathy (Kristin Minter, Heather from Home Alone) is riding her horse. Johnny jumps the fence and does a pop-a-wheelie to impress Kathy, but instead sends her flying off the horse. She's okay though, don't worry.

When Johnny and friends make it to the repair house, it's conveniently located on the same street that Kathy lives on. Kathy's dad (Michael Gross) is harboring a secret. He's in the witness protection program from a case he broke open a long time ago when he was a cop, that I think involved the mafia, I wasn't really paying attention. Anyway, some of the folks that he sent to jail are after him, and track him down because of his appearance on a local news program that was spotlighting Kathy.

So anyway, look, the plot is pretty irrelevant, even to the filmmakers. It's basically a series of random coincidences strung together in order to facilitate getting Kathy and Johnny together in various, slow-motion romantic montages. Now, Kathy's boyfriend is a total asshole, but there's no real reason for her to  have any attraction to Johnny whatsoever. She seems like a smart girl, they go out of their way to establish that, so why on earth would she be so unrelentingly stupid in her relationship decisions? Like I said, the plot doesn't matter on whit, making the low-lit, smoky scenes in the house where they grind things to a halt to squeeze out exposition all the more ridiculous as a result.

There are a lot of lingering questions though, such as why the house is always smoky. Why did halfway respectable character actors like Michael Gross, Jack McGee & Sydney Lassick agree to appear in this film? Man's got to eat, I guess, but still. Why does Johnny wear a leather jacket, with shorts and no shirt? Why does his jacket say Down by Law when he engages in, by my count, zero illegal activities in the film? Why on earth did Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski shoot this movie?

The movie is a total joke. It's the kind of thing that has all the elements of what a studio executive would think that kids want to see, but contains exactly, by my count, zero things that are actually appealing to young people. Watching this film with friends, even via social media, is the only way to stomach this abortion. I know how much you think it's gonna be funny and campy and stupid and you'll enjoy watching it, but it's not something to watch alone. Watching it alone will open up a gaping hole in your soul that's not likely to be filled by anything but medication. So grab some friends, start a live blog, and cue up Cool as Ice, you'll have a blast, I guarantee it. But remember, friends don't let friends watch Cool as Ice by themselves.

[Header Image]

Day 89: Collapse

"I don't deal in conspiracy theory, I deal in conspiracy fact."

There are typically two criteria on which I'll decide whether or not I want to watch a documentary, the subject and the director. If I've never heard of the director, then I'll base my decision solely on the subject matter, and if the subject matter sounds unpleasant to me, I may have my mind changed by who directed the film. Such is the case with 2009's Collapse. I watched the trailer for it two years ago and it scared me so much that I said to myself, "I will never watch that film." Then I saw that it was directed by Chris Smith, who directed my favorite documentary in history, American Movie. He's directed some other great stuff since then like Home Movie and The Yes Men, but nothing in the content of those films can prepare you for what awaits you in Collapse.

While researching a film about how the CIA actually supplied drugs to the lower class citizens in Los Angeles in the late 1970's, Smith came across Michael Ruppert, a man who was a police officer in South Central LA at that time, and had notoriously taken on the CIA in an attempt to expose this scandal. What Smith got from Ruppert instead, was a soliloquy about an entirely different subject. Ruppert says that he was first alerted to a concept called "peak oil" in late 2001, and this concept has now consumed his life. Essentially, everything in modern society is either made by or dependent upon oil to keep society functioning in a normal way, and the theory of peak oil says that once crude oil extraction and oil production reach their peak, it will inevitably drop off and crash, leaving society in chaos.

He presents several compelling arguments, such as the population boom, to show that our world is dangerously close to imploding; And not just if we continue at our current rate of consumption, it will implode period. There's literally nothing anyone can do to stop it. It's an absolutely terrifying concept because the viewer knows in their heart of hearts that even if this guy is crazy, his point about society being so thoroughly dependent on oil is an undeniable fact.

So is he crazy or is he the second coming of Nostradamus? Well, he correctly predicted the 2008 economic collapse way back in 2005. His timing was off, he predicted it to occur in 2007, but when it occurred, it was right in line with what he predicted was going to happen, not just in the United States, but across the globe. This is the main point used to bolster his intuition about peak oil, and the one that the film continues to come back to to lend credence to his more dire predictions for the future.

The film is, for all intents and purposes, a soliloquy, except for a few interjections, presumably by Smith. The film is shot almost exactly like an Errol Morris film, even including the black-out cuts mid-interview, and it goes to show how effective that style is for this particular kind of documentary. Smith's interjections serve as a counterpoint to his arguments at several points, the most notable of which is when he asks Ruppert about "human ingenuity" and whether or not he discounts that theory outright in regards to a possible solution to the looming crisis. Ruppert then goes off on a completely unrelated tangent and Smith brings him back with the question again, and the first cracks in the facade begin to show. The title of the film refers not just to the total collapse of society Ruppert is predicting, but also the collapse of a human being that we're witnessing. He makes a vague reference to his girlfriend or fiancee "betraying" him, and how it's just him and his dog now, walking around, counting how many smiles they get from people on their daily walks.

Is this guy a whack-job? Maybe. But the points he's making are hard to ignore and even harder to forget. Yes, he's in a bunker of some sort during the course of the interview. Yes, he gets emotional and begins crying a few times. Yes, he begins talking about President Obama and then stops himself because he comes to a sudden and emphatic revelation that he doesn't feel like revealing. Yes, there have been people saying that there was going to be a total collapse of society many times in the past due to our dependence on foreign oil, but it has yet to come to fruition. Even still, it's a thoroughly unsettling affair because there's a kernel of truth in everything he says.

Michael Ruppert may be a prophet or he may be as crazy as a loon, but he's talking about things that are very scary. He's talking about a business that keeps a lot of rich and powerful people in this country rich and powerful, and that gives us all the more reason to think that everyone in power in the world would be trying to discredit this guy and make people believe he's crazy, and that's the truly scary thing behind all this. It's a frightening film, scarier than any bullshit horror movie you could watch. It will chill you to the bone whether you believe it or not because it gets at the core of what's really scary about the world we live in. This is an essential film and I emphatically recommend it for everyone. This is the kind of thing we need to be prepared for because whether or not his prophecies come true, the things he suggests could make us all more responsible citizens, friends and neighbors.

[Header Image]

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Not as Good as They Used to Be (A diversion about directors)

So I was having a polite discussion with someone this morning about film directors, and the person I was talking with told me that they thought a particular director's best films were behind him. When someone has a career in directing (meaning they make more than a few films over the course of their lives), it's hard to tell until they reach the end of their careers, or their lives, whether or not they suffered a decline.

It's easy for us to look at the career of someone like Alfred Hitchcock and say that he started slow, reached a creative peak in the early 1960s, and then suffered a pretty major decline at the end of his career. This is not the trajectory that every director follows however. The second group a director can fall into is one like Stanley Kubrick slow start, and then once he peaks, his quality never drops off. This is a fairly rare group as most directors suffer a decline over time, but I think that Kubrick's less than prolific manner of making films aided in the lack of a drop off in quality. The third group a director can fall into is the one made famous by Orson Welles. He started off with a bang, making Citizen Kane, and even though he made some great films after, nothing would be as good as that ever again. The fourth group that a director can fall into is the rarest of them all, and that is the director who gets better with every film and then makes their best film at the end of their career. I had a really difficult time coming up with a lot of directors that did this, and the only two examples I could come up with are Pier Paolo Pasolini and Luis Bunuel.

The average director follows the first trajectory, which I'll call the Hitchcock trajectory: Sergio Leone, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Jean Cocteau, Michael Curtiz, John Cassavettes, Charlie Chaplin, Stanley Kramer, Sydney Pollack, the list is pretty endless. Then there's the second scenario, or the Kubrick trajectory which has its fair share of members: Robert Altman, Frank Capra, John Ford, Samuel Fuller, Jean-Pierre Melville & Michael Powell being a few examples. The third group, or the Welles group, is smaller, great directors who made a lot of great movies, but none as good as their first includes directors such as Sidney Lumet, John Huston, & Sam Peckinpah (this seems to be a mostly American list). As I said earlier I can only think of two directors in the fourth group, but maybe someone can make an argument for others.

Now, with directors still alive and working, you could make a case that there are ones who fall into the first three groups. All of what I'm about to say is purely speculative, and is subject to change, but as of February 26, 2012, this is where I see them:

Hitchcock directors: Brian DePalma, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Jean-Luc Godard, Clint Eastwood, Tim Burton, Roman Polanski, Milos Forman, Steven Soderbergh, Ridley Scott, Oliver Stone, & Spike Lee.

Kubrick directors: David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese, The Coen Brothers, James Cameron, Darren Aronofsky, David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino & David Cronenberg.

Welles directors: Peter Bogdonavich, Sam Mendes, Robert Rodriguez, George Lucas, Mike Nichols (though I think you can argue some of these men peaked with their second films).

Here's the thing though, these are subject to change. If you had asked me after I walked out of the theater from seeing The Ladykillers, I would have told you the Coen Brothers' best days were behind them, and then they came back strong with No Country for Old Men. If this were 1993, I would have put Spielberg in the Kubrick camp, but he's only made two great movies since then (Saving Private Ryan & Munich). I guess what I'm getting at here is that we can never truly judge a director until their career is over. We can put them in one camp or another, but they're pretty movable until they die.

What's the point of all this then? I think the most you can hope for a director is that they maintain a quality of work that's becoming of their past work. You could have walked out of The Godfather and said, well, Coppola will never make anything that good again, and then he unleashed three more undeniable masterpieces before the decade was out. So the next time you're ready to say that a director is down for the count, and won't rebound, remember, their true masterpiece may be just around the corner. Granted it might not be, but it could be, so we can't really judge anyone until they're done.
What are your thoughts?

Day 88: The Secret World of Arrietty

"My heart is stronger now because you're in it."

Studio Ghibli produces films that are pure magic in every sense of the word. Founded in the mid-80s by directors Hayao Miyazaki & Isao Takahata, they have churned out amazing animated films every few years since: Naussica of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, Porco Rosso, Castle in the Sky, Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbors the Yamadas, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, and most recently Ponyo. If you haven't seen any of these films, you're truly missing out on the best cinema being produced anywhere in the world. Up until this year's Cars 2, Pixar was the only other studio with a streak of quality films to match it.

One of the things that makes their films so unique is the lack of a true antagonist in almost all of their films. It's a really odd thing to say, but the filmmakers at Studio Ghibli shirk the traditional dramatic structure, and virtually all of their films are devoid of an antagonist. More than anything else, the films tend to be about people, often children, finding their place in the world and trying to make sense of a world that adults have more or less ruined, or are in the process of ruining, and their latest film is no exception. First time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi brings us The Secret World of Arrietty loosely adapted from the novel The Borrowers by Mary Norton. (For the sake of ease, I'll be listing the voice actors from the American dub, since that is the version most readily available her in the States).

Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler) is a fourteen year-old girl who lives with her father Pod (Will Arnett) and mother Homily (Amy Poehler). They are a normal family, except for the fact that they are about four inches tall, and live in the floor of a house owned by regular sized human beings. They make their existence as "borrowers" by entering the house at night when everyone's asleep, and taking small bits of things that they need to survive, and the human "beans," as they call them, won't miss like a sugar cube or a tissue. The home they live in is owned by Sadako (Grace Poletti), who's nephew Shawn (David Henrie, not sure why they Anglicized his name as that's never been their practice in the past and his name in the original is Sho) has come to live with her for some peace and quiet prior to having an operation on his heart. Shawn is looked after by the elderly housekeeper Haru (Carol Burnett) who has a sneaking suspicion that there are little people living under the house, but everyone just thinks she's a senile old lady.

When the film opens, Arrietty is preparing for her first borrowing excursion with her father. Their trek through the interior walls of the house is breathtaking. It adds an element of danger and surprise to something as mundane as interior walls. Arrietty discovers a sewing pin along the way, and keeps it as a sword in her skirt (if there were any justice in this world, I'd see the neighborhood populated with girls dressed like Arrietty this Halloween with oversized clips in their hair and a giant sewing pin attached to their belts, but I digress). Everything is going well on her first excursion as they procure a sugar cube from the kitchen and then head upstairs to get a tissue for Homily. Arrietty and her father enter the bedroom through a dollhouse that takes Arrietty's breath away, as she marvels at the rooms and furniture seemingly designed just for people their size, but her father warns her that they can only take things that will go unnoticed by the beans.

When she and her father are about to grab the tissue and be on their way, Arrietty sees Shawn in his bed staring at them. She drops the sugar cube in fright and she and her father scamper back to their home. The next day when Arrietty is sitting out by the backyard of the house, Shawn brings the sugar cube, along with a note reading "you forgot something" and leaves it by the grate they use to enter their house. Arrietty is curious and wants to start a friendship with the boy, but her parents warn her that once a borrower is seen by a bean, they must look for a new place to live, as the beans curiosity will lead them to stop at nothing in getting rid of the borrowers.

The film then becomes a journey of two children from different worlds trying to convince their elders that not everything is as it seems, and just because things have been one way for so long, doesn't make that the right way to live. The animation style is amazing, in typical Ghibli fashion. It makes the mundane seem wondrous in ways I never thought possible. The way it balances the two different scales of the two different worlds the characters live in is remarkable. The film moves at a very leisurely pace, but it's never boring. Clementine was enthralled the entire time, and I feel that adults are probably more likely to get bored with it than children. The events are not ones that can work themselves out in a matter of minutes in screen time, and the film gives the problem solving the time it needs to work the conflict out in a truthful way.

As I said, there's no real antagonist in the story. When Haru discovers the borrowers, she becomes a minor antagonist, but she's a senile old woman, and presents no more of a real antagonist than Ponyo's father did in Ponyo; A minor threat, but not a true antagonist. It's a wonderful storytelling device and makes the film that much more enjoyable as a result of how unconventional it is. The voice talent on the English dub is excellent as well. With Arnett and Poehler, you expect there to be some sort of zany comedy afoot, but Arnett in particular has a deep, resonant voice that works very effectively as a stern but caring father.

The film is beautiful and has a wonderful message at its core. I think it's perfect for children four and older, and as I said before, I think that as much as I liked it, it is the kind of film that a child will appreciate in an entirely deeper way than their parents. The world is a big place for little people, and this film gives them someone even smaller than they are to root for, which aside from the typical anthropomorphic talking animal film, is something they don't get very often. Take your kids and go see The Secret World of Arrietty, it's better than anything else out there right now for your family.

[Header Image]

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Day 87: The World's Greatest Lover

"Is this what you want? You want to do a number eight with Rudolph Valentino?"

Gene Wilder is an icon, one of the true living legends of comedy. His total dominance of comedy films in the 1970s is unbelievable: Willy Wonka, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Silver Streak, Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother, The Frisco Kid. I defy you to name me someone with more classics under his belt than this man. One of his least seen and talked about films is 1977's The World's Greatest Lover, which he also wrote and directed. There's a reason for this that's plainly obvious once you see the film. It's just not very good.

There's some very funny stuff in it, and it starts out with a bang. In fact, I would say the first thirty minutes are damn good. It just gets sidetracked so quickly and so drastically, it literally stops being funny for virtually the last thirty minutes. Wilder's first directorial effort, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother, benefitted from the presence of three other genius comedians, Madeline Kahn, Dom DeLuise & Marty Feldman. Here, he has DeLuise in only three or four scenes, and Carol Kane, and while Carol Kane is great, she's no Madeline Kahn, and Wilder without a foil like Marty Feldman just isn't as good. I guess the point I'm getting at is that Gene Wilder is infinitely better when he's surrounded by outstanding talent.

Wilder plays Rudy Valentine, a baker from late 1920s Milwaukee who is taking his wife Annie (Kane) to California for an open audition at Rainbow Studios to find the next big silent film star. His wife Annie is obsessed with the big star of the day, Rudolph Valentino, and unbeknownst to Rudy, she's going to leave him when they get to Hollywood to go find Valentino.

The wild, manic, unhinged Wilder that you may love from the last half of Young Frankenstein is on full display in the first half hour. His performance is deliriously over-the-top, and it works so well that I never wanted it to end. Once Annie leaves him, however, he becomes sad and withdrawn, and the film just doesn't regain its footing. It's funny to me as the role of Annie starts out as a fairly nominal character, but he clearly put a lot of love and attention into writing her arc, much more so than he did with Madeline Kahn's character in AOSHSB, yet he couldn't land her for the role for one reason or another. I'm not saying Madeline Kahn would have saved the film, I just find it curious that the role is so much better than many of the ones he'd written for her that it's a shame he couldn't get her for the film.

Dom DeLuise is hysterical as the head of Rainbow Studios, and reminds you just how good he could be when he was on his game. Granted he doesn't really have many great scenes here, like the "Why don't we all drink some very sexy wine" scene in AOSHSB, but he's still a remarkable comedic force and a joy to watch.

Wilder has a very clear love of the silent film era, and this is his love letter to that time period, I just wish the tonal shifts weren't so obvious. The film is a knockdown farce for the first half hour, with his mishap at the bakery in the beginning, to the flooding of his hotel suite, but then the film becomes pure melodrama, drowning in, not necessarily self-indulgence, but it's a definite shift away from the slapstick of the first third of the film. It's a shame that Wilder didn't trust himself enough in one direction or the other. Either he didn't trust himself enough to make a straight melodrama, or he couldn't avoid the tropes of that genre and ended up getting bogged down in them.

Either way, the film is uneven and never better than it is in the first thirty minutes, so I would say it's only essential viewing for Wilder completists. He made much better films and I would seek those out first, but if you're a fan like I am, you're going to watch this one way or another. Just don't get your hopes up that the entire film is going to be as funny as the first half hour. It drops off fast and never looks back (except for DeLuise's double take near the end which was hilarious). If nothing else, just bask in the company of one of the great screen comedians that's ever lived. There are a lot worse ways to spend ninety minutes.

[Header Image]

Friday, February 24, 2012

Day 86: Stripes

"We're not homosexuals, but we are willing to learn."

The 1980s was the best decade for American comedy, period. The comedy revolution began in the 70s with Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and John Landis, but the films made by these and others laid the groundwork for the comedy renaissance that would come about in the 80s. Every year of the decade had at least two comedies in the top five highest grossing films of the year. A new group of stars was born as well with Saturday Night Live becoming the breeding ground for a new generation of comedy film superstars. Out of all the superstars the show has bred over the years, Bill Murray is arguably the most revered and respected of them all. Chevy Chase had bigger initial success, Eddie Murphy's films grossed more at the box office, Mike Myers and Will Ferrell have achieved superstardom as well, but Murray seems to be the one that rises to the top of most people's lists of favorite actors from SNL.

After making a splash in 1979's Meatballs, Murray stole the show in 1980's Caddyshack right out from under the feet of Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight & Chevy Chase. But it was 1981's Stripes that showed the world that Murray had true movie star charisma, and could easily sustain a career as a leading man. The film is a classic, usually cited by people as one of their favorite comedies. Now, I'm not trying to make it a habit of tearing down sacred cows here, but between Tootsie yesterday and Stripes today, I'm wondering how long it's been since people have watched these movies.

I found myself in Best Buy a few weeks ago holding the blu-ray of Stripes in my hand, but it stated on the cover that it only contained an extended cut with 18 minutes of additional scenes edited into the movie. I pondered that for a moment, and decided to pass, hoping to catch the theatrical cut sometime soon and decide from there if the film could actually sustain another 18 minutes of footage. I'm glad I held off. Don't get me wrong here, there's a lot of funny stuff in Stripes, it's just not the laugh riot you remember. Murray has tons of charisma, and there's a danger to him that was in short supply with most leading actors in comedy. That edge is what makes Murray's true classic, Groundhog Day, work so well, because you don't actually know if he's going to change his ways.

Stripes on the other hand doesn't know if it wants to be an ensemble piece or a one-man show. They spend entirely too much time without Murray as the center of attention for it to be his show, and Murray doesn't always have the best lines. The film initially took life as a vehicle for Cheech and Chong, which makes a lot of sense, because I never understood why Harold Ramis' character Russell would sign up for the army along with Murray's character John. It has the feel of a two-man show, but clearly favors Murray's antics over Ramis's.

It's curious how much the structure of the film seems to share with Full Metal Jacket, and how I feel the same way about both films. Both films have much better first halves, and come precipitously close to falling apart in the second half, Stripes more so. Once they leave basic training, the film more or less grinds to a halt. Bringing back Sgt. Hulka was the saving grace for Stripes (a move Full Metal Jacket obviously couldn't duplicate) but it almost serves as a reminder how much better the film was an hour ago than it is now.

Stripes is very funny. There's a lot of really great bits like the mud wrestling, the graduation ceremony, and anything involving John Larroquette, of whom I am an unabashed admirer. There's also a ton of filler and bits that don't work, like the two MPs played by PJ Soles and Sean Young. They're clearly there to add a love interest for both main characters, and it feels that way. They really serve no purpose other than being a plot device, so why have them there at all? If the film were fifteen minutes shorter, it would rightly deserve to be called a classic, but at a slightly bloated 106 minutes, it's a few cuts short of being great. I can't even fathom what the extra 18 minutes does to it. Pushing any comedy north of the two hour mark is a dangerous proposition that very very very few comedies have been able to sustain.

More than anything though, Stripes gave us Bill Murray the movie star, and for that alone, it deserves its place in film history. I guess I just wish it were as funny as I remember it being.

[Header Image]

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Day 85: Tootsie

"I think we're getting into a weird area here."

I'll never forget, as long as I live, the day my dad brought home our first VCR. To film-geek children of the 80s, I can think of no other moment in our lives more seminal than the entry of a VCR into the house. We had one of those RCA Selectavision players where you put the disc in, pulled out the housing, and after an hour you had to flip it over, but that thing sucked. Now we could watch a two hour movie without having to be interrupted. The only two movies that we owned on VHS that first few months were The Empire Strikes Back and Tootsie. Needless to say, Empire got a lot more playing time from me, but I am haunted by that old VHS copy of Tootsie, with that weird looking lady in the sparkly red dress staring at me. I don't know that I ever actually watched it to be honest. Watching it last night, I didn't remember any of it, so it was like seeing it for the first time.

I love Dustin Hoffman, I really do. I think he's probably one of the top five actors that have ever lived. He's absolutely amazing in almost everything he does, and his dominance from the time The Graduate was released through the release of Ishtar is undeniable. Tootsie is one of his most beloved movies, and maybe because I'm seeing it for the first time now, thirty years after it was made and became a box office juggernaut, I just don't understand why. It's not a bad movie, by any stretch of the imagination, but it really isn't as good as the sum of its parts.

Hoffman plays Michael Dorsey, a struggling New York actor who has developed a reputation of being impossible to work with. Desperate to raise money so he can produce a show written by his roommate Jeff (Bill Murray) that features a great role for him and a woman from one of his acting classes, Sandy (Teri Garr), he resorts to dressing as a woman to earn a role on a soap opera. Using the pseudonym Dorothy Michaels, he lands the role on Southwest General, a General Hospital knock-off, and finds himself employed and making a decent living. Complications arise when he falls in love with the young star of the show Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange, in an Oscar winning performance), and finds himself pursued by every horny old goat he comes across from Julie's father Les (Charles Durning) to the other star of the soap, John Van Horn (George Gaynes, wonderfully aloof).

Michael finds himself trying to keep both sides of his life secret from everyone except Jeff and his agent (Sydney Pollack), but finds it a delicate balancing act that threatens to implode on itself at any moment. All of the comedy is situational of course, with the laughs coming from the ridiculous predicaments Michael continues to find himself in. Mrs. Doubtfire would mine eerily similar territory a decade later, but Robin Williams' antics make that much more of an outright comedy as opposed to Tootsie, which plays everything straight, so to speak.

The biggest issue I have with the film is its running time. This should have been a breezy ninety minutes, but because it's essentially a drama that plays out as a comedy, it runs a bloated two hours. There's way too much filler, and the second hour of the film gets bogged down in repetitious scenes of Michael struggling to win Julie over, but not being able to because she thinks he's a woman. I genuinely like Sydney Pollack as a director, but it's funny to me how his most bloated films are his best regarded. This film and Out of Africa are lauded and fawned over, but nobody mentions Three Days of the Condor or They Shoot Horses, Don't They? which are lean, intense and focused.

Tootsie is a film that's above reproach though. It's so beloved that there's no way to argue with the people who love it. Jessica Lange is very good, and she was so beautiful it makes me sad to think of how she looks now, having had all that work done. Bill Murray is also fantastic, and Hoffman's lead performance is more admirable than it is a great performance. There's too much work being done to let you know how good he is, and the effortlessness that made Ratso Rizzo & Benjamin Braddock such great performances is sadly missing here.

But like I said, my opinion doesn't really matter. The verdict is already in on Tootsie, I just don't see it being a film I'll revisit. I don't know what happened to that old VHS copy of it, but I'm sure it got tons of mileage from my parents, and at the end of the day, I guess that's all that matters is that they loved it. I'm just a fussy old bastard that refuses to get caught up in the hype.

[Header Image]

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Day 84: Being Elmo

"The thing that people love about Elmo is, he needs them."

I'm a very lucky person. I was a child in the golden age of Jim Henson's Muppets. I was able to see Sesame Street in the morning, The Muppet Show at night, and I got to see The Muppets Take Manhattan, Follow That Bird & Labyrinth in the movie theater. I'll never forget when I heard about Jim Henson's death from my mother when she picked me up from school that day. Now, I never had any ambitions about becoming a Muppeteer, I was more taken with the jokes and the comedy behind the Muppets, but there are lots of kids who watch these shows and movies and have a desire to create and perform as Muppets.

One of those was a young boy from Baltimore named Kevin Clash, who was a nine year-old child when Sesame Street debuted, and it changed his life. He knew what he wanted to do when he grew up. Actually, he knew what he wanted to do right then and there, so he created a puppet using the lining of one of his father's overcoats. Clash was a very lucky kid because he had parents that encouraged him to follow his dreams and didn't get mad at him for destroying that coat, and I think that's so key to his success. He's undeniably talented and has a gift that very few people possess, but it's so clear that the love and support he got from his parents is what enabled him to live his dreams.

Clash was watching The Dick Cavett Show one night when Jim Henson was on with a man named Kermit Love who actually built a lot of the puppets Henson used. Clash was able to get in touch with Love who told him that he should stop by their studios anytime he's in New York and meet with him and take a tour. This begins an apprenticeship under Kermit that allows him to learn the tricks of the trade, and eventually leads to bigger and better things for the young puppeteer. He lands a job on Captain Kangaroo's show in New York, as well as a show created by Love called The Great Space Coaster, which I have definite memories of seeing when I was younger.

One thing leads to another, and Clash ends up working with his idol Jim Henson on Labyrinth, which he's able to parlay into a job on Sesame Street. One day, the young puppeteer is given a Muppet that famous Muppeteer Richard Hunt was unable to do anything interesting with, this furry little mongrel named Elmo that spoke like a caveman. Clash took the puppet home with him to Baltimore to figure out what to do with him, and when he returned to the Sesame Street Studios, he brought with him a brand new character that would go on to become a legend.

Now, if you're of my age range, you probably remember finding Elmo endlessly annoying when he started coming around regularly on Sesame Street. The thing is, we were too old to appreciate Elmo. Having children of my own, it's thoroughly undeniable that Elmo appeals to young children and connects with them in a way that virtually no other fictional character does. There's a real magic that happens when Elmo is on television, and children just go crazy over him. I love Elmo now. He has an infectious joy that just radiates off the screen and it's impossible not to be taken by someone who displays such unconditional love.

Kevin Clash is a genius. The way that he brings Elmo to life is amazing. In one scene, he's working with Muppeteers on the French version of Sesame Street, and when he is showing the woman how to operate the puppet in such a way that gives it life at all moments, it's just incredible. It's so subtle, it's a true art, and watching an artist like Clash work is awe inspiring. He's a master at what he does, and it's no wonder he's risen to be the guy that pretty much runs the show on Sesame Street now.

If there's one complaint I have about the film, it kind of glosses over the fact that he has sort of, not really neglected, that's not the right word, but he very clearly feels that he hasn't been there for his own daughter as she's been growing up because he's been out entertaining the world. It's clearly a regret of his, and he gets very emotional at his daughter's Sweet Sixteen party near the end of the film, but this isn't the kind of film that's interested in showing any sort of dark side to Clash. I think the film is more effective for not showing this darker side of him, as it makes it a great documentary to watch with your older children, but I wish they had explored his regret over this a bit more.

Unless you're a cynical person, I don't understand how you couldn't love Elmo, and if you love Elmo, this film is essential viewing. It's a great documentary that shows a man who followed his dreams and now helps others follow theirs. Watch this with your kids and show them how important it is to have dreams and to know that no matter how impossible they may seem, they are attainable.

[Header Image]

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Day 83: The Reinactors

"It's very cutthroat. It's like Peyton Place down there."

I have a confession to make: I've never been to Hollywood. I've never actually set foot in the state of California. The farthest west I've been is Las Vegas. You'd think a movie lover such as myself would have been by now, but I just haven't. Apparently there is a group of people who wander the block in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater dressed as movie characters. They are of varying degrees of commitment and talent, but the common thread that seems to run through almost every single one of them is true mental instability. There's a documentary from 2008 called The Reinactors (not sure why the typo) that follows a year in the life of the people who occupy this space.

There are a few main players that are more than willing to talk to the director of this project, David Markey. The main and most notable of them is Christopher Lloyd Dennis (my father always told me to never trust a man with three first names). Dennis bears a passing resemblance to Christopher Reeve, and took it upon himself about fifteen years ago to start dressing like Superman and wander the walk of fame taking pictures with tourists. He's definitely a gigantic douchebag, and I'm not trying to be mean when I say that, I'm being honest. The guy's an asshole. He spends his free time getting high, drinking milk right out of the carton & talking shit about his wife who seems genuinely infatuated with him. He's also sort of appointed himself the leader of the re-enactors, and fancies himself the star-maker of the boulevard, as he "discovered" at least one of the other re-enactors.

The guy he discovered is Max Allen, a guy who bears a passing resemblance to George Clooney and now dresses as Batman. Max is mentally unstable to say the least and has had his fair share of encounters with the law due to his barely in-check temper. In one particular instance caught on camera, Max ditches his cape and decides to take on a group of protestors, apparently because he used their port-a-john. It doesn't end well for Batman.

Another regular on the walk is Gerard Zacher, who portrays everyone from Freddy Krueger to Peter Pan to James Dean. His dalliances as Krueger have gotten him arrested at least twice, once for "brandishing a weapon" and once for getting into a fight with a hobo. Zacher's story is tragic, he was abandoned by his parents, abused by his adopted parents, left his one true love back home to come to Hollywood and follow his dreams, frequently lives as a drifter when he gets kicked out of his apartment. It's sad, and he's one of the truly pitiable characters portrayed here.

The other two are Michael Luce, who bears a passing resemblance to Johnny Depp, hence his turn as Captain Jack Sparrow, and his fiance Tiena Marie Johns, who works alongside him. They have a fairly sad story as well, living as drifters, but they have found a soul mate in one another, and rely on each other to stay strong. Their story is touching, and it culminates in their Valentine's Day wedding in front of Mann's Chinese.

Virtually everyone else interviewed is a psychopath. The guy that plays Shrek, insane. The guy who plays Chucky, crazy. The guy who plays Michael Jackson, fucking delusional. The woman who plays Marilyn Monroe, bat-shit crazy. The guy who plays Borat, annoying. The guy who plays Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean is like a living version of Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. But Christopher Dennis takes the cake. He's been doing this for fifteen years, but apparently it's just until something bigger comes along. I wish someone would level with this douche-nozzle and tell him he's insane. My issue is how much of an elitist he seems to be. He says right at the beginning that he considers himself an ambassador for Hollywood, and proceeds to hold people who have just as much right to be there as he does, to a set of self-imposed standards he doesn't feel the need to share with them freely.

If you ever go to Hollywood and see the re-enactors, stop by and give Capt. Jack or Freddy Krueger a buck or two. Give Batman a wide berth, and kick Superman in the fucking balls for me. These people need help, some because they'd genuinely benefit from it, and the rest because it'll get them off the god damned street. Proceed with caution.

I'll be back tomorrow with my review of Being Elmo, the documentary about Kevin Clash and his career performing as Elmo.

[Header Image]

Monday, February 20, 2012

Day 82: Eyes Wide Shut

"No dream is ever just a dream."

Stanley Kubrick is my favorite director. I also think he is the greatest visual director that ever lived. I think that is an indisputable fact over which I will gladly fight anyone. To the death. So why is it, then, that I'm nearly a quarter of the way through this year-long odyssey, and I have yet to review any of his films? Well, I guess it's two reasons. First, I love everything he did, and gushing about his films isn't something I necessarily wanted to engage in. Second, I'm honestly a bit intimidated by his filmography, at least from a critical standpoint. What can I possibly hope to bring to the table that hasn't already been said?

So I've decided to review four of his films, the four that are the most "challenged" for lack of a better word. I think he made eight undeniable masterpieces: The Killing, Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket. His four other films, not counting the virtually unattainable Fear and Desire, have a much more mixed reception: Killer's Kiss, Lolita, Barry Lyndon & Eyes Wide Shut. So once a quarter, I'll examine one of those four films, and give you my perspective on why I think they're brilliant, and why you should revisit them, in spite of what you may have thought of them the first time you saw them.

Let's start with the most derided of the four, his final film, 1999's Eyes Wide Shut. The most common criticism of the film is the two lead performances by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. When the film was made, they were probably the most famous Hollywood couple of the time, Cruise had an unstoppable winning streak at the box office, and nobody really questioned his sanity or sexuality. In the ensuing years since the film, these are two very different people than they were thirteen years ago, and I feel that most people who hold their mere presence in the film against it, are not seeing the forest for the trees. Cruise was at his apex in 1999, giving arguably his two best performances ever in this film and Magnolia. Kidman hadn't had much of a chance to be given a big, juicy role outside of films with her husband, and would come into her own as an actress within the next few years, but I remember this being the first time I really took her seriously as an actress.

Cruise and Kidman play Bill and Alice Harford, a wealthy couple in New York City, who dabble in some pretty influential circles, but are still probably a step or two below the absolute upper echelon of high society. At a Christmas party they attend at the home of their friend Dr. Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack, one of the few directors I actually love as an actor), both Bill and Alice have separate, innocent encounters with members of the opposite sex that could potentially raise the ire of one or the other. It's harmless flirting, but a few night later, the couple gets high and discusses the subject of fidelity. Bill swears he's been absolutely faithful to Alice in both thought and deed, but Alice confesses that on a recent summer vacation, she caught the eye of a young soldier, and had thoughts of leaving Bill and their daughter to run away with this man if he asked her to.

She didn't act on her impulses, but the fact that she even had them sends Bill into a fury. He storms off into the night, first to visit a patient who's father has passed away, but then on a journey to travel the streets of New York City and see if he has it in him to cheat on Alice. Bill's odyssey takes him to a costume shop where the owner may or may not be selling his own teenage daughter in prostitution, to the home of a prostitute, where Bill finds himself unable to seal the deal, and finally to a masked orgy that may be populated by some of the most influential and powerful people alive.

To give you some background, Eyes Wide Shut came out the same summer as a lot of big films, not the least of which was the first Star Wars film in 16 years, but for me, it was the undeniable event of the summer. I had only been alive for the release of two other Kubrick films, both of which I was too young to see in the theater, so the idea of getting to see my hero's final film on the big screen was almost too much for me to handle. I saw it three times that summer, and I didn't even really love it at the time. I loved the idea of it, the notion of seeing Kubrick writ large (this was in the days before big screen tvs for the most part), but I was sort of indifferent to the film.

A lot of that had to do with being a twenty year old kid who had never been in a committed relationship before. So what have twelve years and a marriage done for my view of Eyes Wide Shut. For one thing, it's made both Bill and Alice entirely more sympathetic characters. These are people who spend their lives fighting any sort of primal urges they may have because of the commitment they've made to one another, and the moment that one of them decides to open up and admit to having had these urges, her spouse seems to try and punish her for it by giving in to that desire. The fact that he never does follow through on it is key. His desire and his attempts are all a part of who he is, and what makes the film so effective is the way he's seemingly punished for having these desires in the first place.

The next day, after his dalliances, he sets out to find out the truth about the orgy, the prostitute, the costumer, his friend Nick Nightingale (Todd Field, who's gone on to direct two masterpieces himself), what is the truth, who's being punished for it, and why. These are the questions he seeks answers to, and when he gets the answers he needs from his friend Victor at the end, it's so vague and stultifying that it makes Bill wonder if the whole thing was a dream. And the film is shot in such a dream-like state, particularly the orgy sequence, that it does give one pause and makes you wonder if it was really all just a dream.

This is not minor Kubrick, as some have written it off to be. This is a master at the top of his mind games. He deliberately shoots the film with a disorienting feel, to keep you wondering what's real and what's not. Is Bill being followed by some weirdo? Did the girl at the party die of an overdose or was she murdered? The fact that when he doesn't even believe what he hears when he's presented with the truth is the whole point of the film. If you can't even believe yourself, who can you believe?

The film is an incredible success from start to finish. The colors are sumptuous, and even though it's clearly New York by way of London, it never feels false. The orgy sequence is a masterful ballet of sexual choreography, and seeing it on the uncut blu-ray, without the inserted figures blocking the action, the film has a more cohesive feel to it. The scene always felt sort of digitally stilted because of the addition of stationary figures in front of various sexual acts, but now, you can see the camera glide through each room just like it would in a dream. It's so incredibly effective at creating a dreamlike state, that when Bill is pulled out and forced into the room to divulge who he is and how he got there, it's just like a cold, rude awakening. It feel vulnerable and naked and harsh and intense, just like it's supposed to.

This is not some film to write off as a lesser work of a great director, this is an incredibly well staged, well thought out, well shot film that burns with intensity that few other films can even hope to achieve. Watch it again if it's been a while, and just marvel at how well everything works together as part of achieving a disorienting state of is this a dream or is it real? Yes, it's long, but it needs to be. It needs to feel like something that you sort of stumble out of into the harsh light of day. This film is an undeniable masterpiece and is unfairly derided by its detractors. Watch it again and see for yourself just how good and sharp Kubrick was, even at the very end of his life. You'll be amazed.

[Header Image]

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Day 81: Space Buddies

"I've never been so ready in all my life. Come and get it, rhinestone cowboy!"

Motherfucking Space Buddies, all up in this piece! Those of you who have been following my reviews for a while will remember the praise I heaped upon the most recent Buddies movie Treasure Buddies, and tonight we'll be looking at one of the earlier films in the series, 2009's Space Buddies. When this movie starts, the all the buddies are living with different owners, all of whom live in the same town, go to the same school, and take the same field trip to watch a space shuttle launch. The buddies are rounded up by Buddha to tag along and watch the festivities. I can't even begin to tell you what kind of trouble Budderball gets into when he gets around the kids' lunches, oh my!

Bill Fagerbakke, Dauber from Coach and the voice of Patrick on Spongebob, plays Pi, the designer of the Vision One, the ship that's heading to the Moon because, well, you know, the Moon. Vision Enterprises has a "vision" to make space travel accessible to everyone, even the family pet! The tour group arrives, the buddies get suited up in a machine that will design a space suit to fit your exact body type, and then they stow away on the Vision One for some high flying fun.

The evil Dr. Finkel (Kevin Weisman) has other plans however. His nefarious scheme to take over the company sees him sabotaging the mission in an attempt to discredit Pi. What a cocksucker! The mission control team realizes that the ship doesn't have enough fuel to get to the moon because of Dr. Dickwad's actions, so they're forced to stop at a Russian Space Station to refuel. When the buddies get to the space station, they meet Spudnik, one of those Spuds McKenzie dogs, and the cosmonaut running the station Yuri (Deidrich Bader). Bader is one of those great character actors who fully commits himself and this role is no exception. I found myself genuinely laughing at his hijinks. I would equate him to Hank Azaria in The Smurfs, I wish everyone else were as committed as he is.

Yuri wants to live in space forever, but Spudnick wants to go back to his owner Sasha. Spudnick manages to make a deal with the Buddies to come back to earth with them before Yuri can find out and sabotage their escape. Will the Buddies get back to Earth with their new friend? Will they be the first dogs to walk on the moon? Will Dr. Asshat get his comeuppance? All these questions and more wait for you when you pop in Space Buddies this weekend as I know you're going to.

I have no qualms whatsoever with saying that this is by far the best Buddies movie, and 95% of that has to do with Deidrich Bader. His dancing and lines about American Discotechques had me laughing, and sadly he;s only in the film for about ten minutes. But he makes the most of it. Amy Sedaris also voices Pi's ferret Gravity, and I genuinely love her, so I'm always happy to hear her voice.

So what doesn't work in Space Buddies? Virtually everything else. It's not downright awful like Treasure Buddies was, but it should have been so much better than it actually is. I feel like these films start with a title and then a script comes into being, so they kind of half-ass reasons for the buddies to go into space or go to Egypt. Start with a solid script, I know literally hundreds of writers who would be happy to work for scale and could write a damn good script that kids and parents would enjoy.

The scenes, especially the ones with the kids, are so piss-poorly staged, they're painful to watch. They shoot each kid individually, and I kind of refuse to believe that the takes they use are the best possible ones. The budget on this movie was $9 million dollars. That money could have been better spent on a good script and good child actors. I don't want to be mean, especially to kids, but the child actors are awful. I guess, at the end of the day, I'm not the target audience for films like this, but as much as my kids love them, they won't want to watch them in a few years when they're still wanting to watch some of the much better movies they love now.

I know these are cash grabs more than anything else, but an ounce or two more of quality would make them so much better. Oh well, who am I to complain, I'm the one who shelled out the money for this thing, so who's the real sap?

[Header Image]

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Day 80: Annie Hall

"Look, there's God coming out of the men's room."

First things first, Annie Hall isn't Woody Allen's best film. That would be The Purple Rose of Cairo. It's also not my favorite of his films. That would be Love and Death. So what is it then? Everyone's always going on about it and how great it is. It won four Oscars, it's always mentioned on those lists of the greatest films ever made. It must have something going for it.

It does. It has a ton going for it, not least of which is that it's easily Allen's most accessible film. It's the perfect gateway into his filmography for newcomers. I started with Sleeper, but I like Allen's more eccentric side, so that was a perfect gateway for me. But for your average person, Annie Hall is the best way to introduce someone to the world of Woody. The other issue is that it is also his most referenced, most quoted and most aped film. It is ridiculous how much this film is copied from in modern love stories. The only film that I would even venture to say is a worthy successor to Annie Hall is High Fidelity.

Allen plays Alvy Singer, one of his many thinly disguised versions of himself that serve as the protagonist in virtually all of his films (though he found his true muse in Mia Farrow in the 80s and let her take over protagonist duties on most of his films in that period). When the film begins, Alvy's relationship with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton, in her well-deserved Oscar winning role) has just ended.

The film then uses a non-linear structure to jump around in time, although once it settles in around the twenty minute mark, it tells the rest of the story pretty much in order. Alvy & Annie are the perfect example of opposites attracting, and their relationship is doomed pretty much from minute one, and not just because we already know it's doomed. You can sense it. These two are not right for one another, but we root for them to end up together to fulfill that hopeless romantic desire that maybe even two people who are such polar opposites can work it out in the end.

Alvy's best friend is Rob (Tony Roberts) though they call one another Max for some unexplained reason (it's like the point I made about Harold & Maude, I wonder how many critics would deride such a choice in a modern romantic comedy). Rob is constantly trying to get Alvy to move to California, but just as Woody Allen would never leave New York, so too Alvy never would. I can't say much about the plot, it's pretty razor thin, but that's not a criticism. I don't think a film needs a strong, event heavy plot to work. One of the reasons Annie Hall works so well is that it doesn't rely on a point a to point b structure that can bog down and sink most romantic comedies. And I also don't call this a romantic comedy in a derogatory way. That term has really come to have a lot of repugnance associated with it, particularly in the last decade, but this is the true definition of a romantic comedy, in that it's a funny movie about love.

Allen is the true heir apparent to Groucho Marx, his quick-witted one liners never stop coming throughout the entire film, and while some of them are horribly dated (Ben Shahn paintings anyone), most of them still land with the acerbic wit that made them funny to audiences thirty five years ago. The thing that Woody Allen does better than anyone else though is write fantastic female characters, and he gifted Diane Keaton with a star-making role. He has written and directed more Oscar winning female performances than any other director (five by my count), and while I'm sure it was a great role on the page, Keaton turns Annie into a true free spirit who still has that impressionable streak that she can't shake from her Midwestern upbringing. I'm actually happy for her at the end, because I think she would've been miserable had she and Alvy stayed together. She's definitely younger than him (11 years in real life) and wants to get more out of life than he does, so it's definitely the best possible outcome for her.

Fox just released Annie Hall on blu-ray and it's a great transfer. The only version available before this was the MGM one from the late 90s that was fake anamorphic (they admitted to taking full screen versions of some films and adding black bars to them to give them the appearance of widescreen). This is a substantial upgrade and I wholeheartedly recommend it to fans of the film and the technology. I still have most of the movie memorized as I watched it endlessly in high school, but it's always fun to revisit a film you haven't seen in a while. And if you know someone who has never seen a Woody Allen film, or claims they've never seen one that they liked, watch this with them. They'll thank you for it.

[Header Image]

Friday, February 17, 2012

Day 79: I'm Still Here

"Is this human shit? Did someone human shit on me?"

Joaquin Phoenix is an undeniably talented actor. Roundabout November 2008, rumors began swirling that he was retiring from acting to pursue a career in hip hop. The stories that followed on the internet and on tv were often hysterically funny: He fell off the stage during his rap debut, he suffered a meltdown on David Letterman's show, he got into a fist fight with a fan at another show. This was genuinely funny stuff, the kind of thing that makes for great performance art. The issue, however, is that while he was doing this, his brother-in-law Casey Affleck was filming it all for posterityand the joke is actually on anyone who thought it was a joke. I know that both Phoenix and Affleck have come out and said the whole thing was a hoax, but watching this film makes you feel like it was anything but. I think they're trying to make the best of a bad situation.

The film is the kind of self-indulgent, navel gazing nonsense that Hollywood stars are derided for in the media. I have a really difficult time liking Phoenix because, well, he's a dick. The encounters he has with various friends and celebrities reek of sadly staged attempts at garnering empathy for Phoenix through the derision of the people around him, and it just makes the whole affair that much more ridiculous as a result. For example, a visit from Ben Stiller to persuade Phoenix to take a part in the film Greenberg ends in disaster. Later in the film we see Stiller mocking Phoenix at The Academy Awards, as Phoenix watches at home with a mixture of hurt and sadness. Then in the end credits, Ben Stiller gets a big, stand-alone special thanks credit. So what exactly are we supposed to glean from all this?

The film is full of this kind of nonsense, where Phoenix bitches and moans about the lack of honesty and truth in entertainment, but is so full of shit that it's hard to know exactly who the joke is on. For some background, Phoenix takes part in a staged reading of a play in honor of Paul Newman's passing. He takes this opportunity to announce his retirement from acting and that he'll be springboarding into a hip hop career. His attempts to get a notable producer for his record fail, until he is able to secure a meeting with P. Diddy. Well, his pubicist is able to secure a meeting, but Phoenix is more interested in getting high, fucking prostitutes and acting like an imbecile to actually go and meet with Diddy.

Okay, so this is where I'll get up on a soapbox for a moment. Phoenix's older brother, River, very famously overdosed on drugs some twenty years ago, so why on earth am I watching his younger brother fucking around with drugs? And who knows if the whole thing is staged, it could be for all I know, but it's sort of a hollow joke when it involves drugs and this particular family. Okay, rant over.
So anyway, he finally ends up meeting with Diddy and getting him to sort of agree to produce the album if his stuff is good. So is it good? Look, I'm no hip hop expert or aficianado, but it sounded like garbage to me. It was rank amateurishness at best and pretentious bullshit at worst. Diddy later calls him out on this after listening to his demo, asking him if he wants to get into hip hop because he thinks it's funny to walk around and act like a black dude.

Phoenix takes virtually every opportunity he can to deride his friend and assistant Antony. In one particularly awful outburst after his disastrous appearance on Letterman, he tells Antony that he doesn't want him around anymore, and in the middle of the night, Antony takes a shit on him. It's a fitting gesture from a friend who's devoted any sort of time to being around this lunatic.

As the film draws to a close, it becomes obvious to Phoenix and everyone around him that this whole endeavor has been a failure. He travels to Panama to see his father (played by Affleck's father for some inexplicable reason. Why list that in the credits at all?) Phoenix wades out into some water by a waterfall he was filmed at as a kid (don't worry, they replay the footage from the beginning of the movie, just in case you weren't paying attention, and at this point, I wouldn't blame you if you weren't). The last five and a half minutes of the film are just a shot of Phoenix, from behind, walking in the water as this sad piano music plays.

What the fuck? As I said before, who exactly is the joke on here? Is there even a joke? At least in Exit Through the Gift Shop, that was a legitimate question that the film has nothing but fun with. Here, the whole thing is devoid of fun that I can't even begin to fathom what anyone involved was thinking. If there's a statement to be made about the falseness of fame, it's certainly lost in the whirlpool of self-indulgence and drug use on display here. This isn't a film so much as it is an endurance test. It was so devoid of fun, that by the time we see his appearance on Letterman, I was so happy to see someone calling this bonehead out on his bullshit.

There's no reason I can think of to recommend that anyone see this film. Let it be a private, unfunny inside joke between Affleck and Phoenix and let it die with them. I used to respect Phoenix. From here on out, I'll be approaching everything he does with an air of caution, lest I end up being another sap that fell for his joke that's on no one in particular.

[Header Image]

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Day 78: Season of the Witch

"I serve the church no more."

That makes two of us holmes. Man alive, Nicolas Cage has a real knack for ending up in garbage. It seems like for every Drive Angry, which is a knowingly bad movie, he ends up in at least three outright bad movies. There's a definite streak that runs through his films, and it's undeniable that he balances his work in halfway decent films with work, no less committed mind you, in some downright bullshit. Season of the Witch falls firmly into the second camp, as it has the elements in place to be a good movie, but it's so full of nonsense, particularly the last twenty minutes, that it's hard to see anything good in it by the time it's over.

Cage and Ron Perlman (one of my absolute favorite character actors) play Behmen & Felson, two knigts templar who swore a vow to fight for the Catholic Church in the Crusades. They have lots of witty banter to set them up as friends and badasses, the kind of half-hearted attempt at backstory that George Lucas tried to squeeze into Revenge of the Sith, so people will know they're friends without having to show it. They fight in many battles, but at one particular battle, they storm a castle and find that they've been led to slaughter innocent women and children. Well, Nic Cage is many things, but he's not a kid killer, so he and Felson abandon their duties and flee the war.

They stumble upon a village that has been decimated by the plague, and they are arrested as deserters. They're given an offer by the dying Cardinal (Christopher Lee, in grotesque plague makeup) to accompany a priest (Stephen Campbell Moore, looking like Tobey Maguire in that fake trailer from the beginning of Tropic Thunder) and another knight (Ulrich Thomsen, looking like Sting) to a monastery to deliver a young woman (Claire Foy) suspected of being a witch to the monks there, who can perform an ancient ritual to reverse the plague that has been brought on them. They are also joined by an altar boy (Robert Sheehan, looking like a cross between Shia LaBeouf & James Franco) who's handy with a sword, and a thief (Stephen Graham) who will act as their guide.

Along the way, they have to cross a treacherous bridge, cross through a forest that will drive them mad and is also full of wolves (as if the madness wasn't enough), and they lose the knight that looks like Sting and the thief. When they arrive at the monastery, they find that all the monks are dead from the plague and low-rent Tobey Maguire will have to perform the anti-witch ritual himself. They are then alerted to the fact that the girl is not a witch, but she is possessed by a demon, who takes the form of a typical winged demon and flies off into the church to destroy the ancient manuscripts that deal with exorcism. Short of Henry Winkler showing up and water-skiing over the demon, I don't know how much harder this film could have jumped the shark. It's one thing to make a movie about the unfair persecution of young girls by the church, it's another thing entirely to turn that all on its head in favor of becoming another god-damned exorcism movie.

The film is a jumbled mess. It seems like it's going to be a screed against the church, but then it turns out that the priest was a good guy all along and the devil is really waging a war against humanity, and the film eventually has no idea what message it was trying to get across. It's fine if you just want to make a mindless action movie, but don't set up pins you don't intend to knock over by the third act. Does Behman regain his faith? Who fucking knows, the film forgets all about that in favor of having him battle cgi demons.

I felt sort of hornswoggled because I thought, okay, this will be like Nic Cage, with his ridiculous hairstyle that starts almost at the crest of his head, in some anti-church propaganda dressed up as a medieval action movie. That kind of thing I can get behind, but the film just sort of tosses all of its thoughts on religion right out the window when the demon shows up. It felt kind of like Don't Say a Word, that movie that spent an hour and twenty minutes as a taught, psychological thriller, and then decided to have mild-mannered therapist Michael Douglas turn into John McClane in the last fifteen minutes. Make up your mind people. Don't start a movie in one genre and try to end it in another.

I guess there's some fun to be had here, Ron Perlman is always a blast to watch and Nic Cage does some really committed acting here, for no good reason. I like Nic Cage so much better when I'm not sure how self-aware he is, and he seems entirely too self-aware here for me to enjoy the film. The rest of the cast is populated with some pretty lousy actors who serve no purpose but to remind you of better actors. The direction by Dominic Sena is uninspired at best, and downright clumsy at worst, and the script by someone named Bragi F. Schut is a mess of convoluted gobbledygook and awful, modern sounding dialogue for a film set in the 14th Century.

There are much better worse Nic Cage movies you should be watching Trespass or Wicker Man, so don't waste your time unless you're a completist like myself. And even then, lower your expectations. You'll still fnd yourself wistful for a Nic Cage movie where you're just not sure if he knows how bad the movie around him is. I think he had a pretty good idea about this one, and that ruins half the fun.

[Header Image]

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Day 77: Take Shelter

"There is a storm coming like nothing you've seen! And not one of you is prepared for it!"

Michael Shannon is an actor of unusual intensity. There was a time in Hollywood when intense actors were much more commonplace, but that has faded over time, and most of those actors have gone on to softer, less intense roles (Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, Ed Harris, Edward Norton, & John Malkovich are five examples of this). I would place Shannon firmly in this camp. He's an actor that can make even the smallest, most subtle gesture carry the weight of a thousand words, and everything he does is endlessly watchable, regardless of how good the film around him is. His performances in Bug, Revolutionary Road, Boardwalk Empire and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, are intense, focused, and brilliant.

Writer/Director Jeff Nichols worked with Shannon on 2007's Shotgun Stories, which I have not seen, and they have reunited for 2011's Take Shelter. Shannon plays Curtis, a construction worker living in a small town in Ohio who begins having nightmares about approaching storms. His dreams range from a strange, yellowish brown rain, to people trying to break into his house and abduct his daughter, to his own dog attacking him.

Not wanting to worry his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and their hearing-impaired daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), he doesn't share his anxieties with his family or friends. He goes to a doctor to get some anti-anxiety pills or something that will help him sleep without the nightmares, and his sleep improves after taking those. However, his visions are now beginning to seep into his waking hours, and he begins having visions while at work. His anxiety about all of these visions is fueled mainly by the fact that his mother (Kathy Baker, who has one small, but great scene) was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in her mid-30s, which is where Curtis currently finds himself. Are the visions real, or is he losing his mind?

He begins building out the storm shelter in his backyard, seemingly in an attempt to give into the visions and not admit to himself that he may be going crazy. His biggest issue beyond these visions is that he is keeping everything secret from his wife and friends, and as his obsession with building the shelter increases, their concern for him does too, and threatens to unravel everything in his life.
Now, to say anymore about the film would be to ruin it. If you haven't seen the film yet, and I recommend you do, I would stop reading now, and return after you've seen it, as I find it impossible to talk about the film without ruining the surprises.

Okay, so here's what worked for me and what didn't. One of the things that really worked for me was the decision, whether it was by the costumer or the director, is the fact that Curtis is always dressed nicely in his visions, and differently from how he dresses in real life. His clothes in real life are in earth tones and usually unkempt, but whenever he's in a vision, his clothes are nice, neat, and usually dark colors. It's a really nice, instant visual cue to let you know whether you're watching a dream or not. It's an incredibly effective tool, and a wonderful example of what great costuming can do, even in a small, modern, independent film.

Here's my biggest issue though. The fact that the film doesn't end when he makes the decision to leave the shelter. He takes his family down there, thinking that the storm has come. They stay down there the whole night, and his wife tries to convince him that there is no storm and he needs to let them out. He tries to give her the keys, but she tells him that he has to do it himself. I didn't need her to vocalize this, I understood what she was trying to do, and thought it was a bit of a cheat to have her verbalize that. The ten minutes or so leading up to him opening the shelter are super intense. It's the best scene in the film, and the intensity is almost unbearable.

Anyway, the fact that the film continues after they leave the shelter makes you immediately know that there's going to be a storm at the end. It seemed anti-climactic after the intensity of the scene in the shelter to have the film continue. You now know exactly what's going to happen, so it ruins its impact when it does happen.

Shannon is remarkable in the film, definitely one of the best performances of last year. The scene at the Lions Club dinner when he flips the table and begins screaming at everyone, then withdraws and breaks down when he sees the look of terror on his daughter's face is amazing. It's the kind of big, showy, scenery chomping scene that actors love, and the fact that he can have that explosion and bring it down so quietly and effectively at the end is incredible. Jessica Chastain is also very good, and was in so many films last year that she went from unknown to overexposed all in the same six month period. She's definitely an actress worth watching though and is a great match for Shannon's intensity.

Take Shelter is a very good film that could have been a great film had it ended about six minutes before it did. It's very much the same feeling I had about The Hurt Locker. I don't know, maybe the ending worked really well for some people, and I could see it working for some, but it really disappointed me, if for no other reason than, once the film continues, you know exactly how it's going to end, and it was so mysterious up until that point.

[Header Image]

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Day 76: Hobo with a Shotgun

"When life gives you razor blades, you make a baseball bat... with razor blades!"

In 2007, Quentin Tarantino & Robert Rodriguez unleashed a bold, experimental vanity project on the world with Grindhouse, an homage to the low-budget, violent exploitation films they grew up watching. It could have been a great film, but with two directors notorious for refusing to cut anything from their films, the film became a bloated mess with a handful of good moments (mainly the fake trailers) and a whole lot of nonsense. Three years later, Rodriguez turned one of his fake trailers, Machete, into a feature length film that was a complete and utter nonsensical waste of time. The film wanted to have it both ways, it wanted to be a fun, violent throwback to the old grindhouse pics, but also it tried to be a deadly serious screed, not-so-hidden agenda about immigration. The film is pure garbage as a result, leaving me with little hope for anything Rodriguez does in the future (which I'm told includes turning Machete into a trilogy. Sigh.)

When Grindhouse was released, there was a contest for amateur filmmakers to create their own fake grindhouse trailers, and the winner would be shown as part of special screenings of the film. The winner was a Candian kid by the name of Jason Eisener who created a trailer for a film called Hobo with a Shotgun. Like the much more expensive trailers produced by big name filmmakers for Grindhouse, Eisener's film was a masterpiece in miniature, but would it actually be able to sustain for a full ninety minutes? When Eisener signed a deal to turn his trailer into a feature, we got the answer to that question, which is a resounding yes.

What makes Hobo with a Shotgun succeed where Rodriguez failed miserably, is that the film has a genuine air of danger and borderline carelessness to it. It's a true low-budget affair with big aspirations instead of a big-budget film with low aspirations. Films like this can only be made on the cheap, and any attempt to do otherwise is immediately fighting an uphill battle. The biggest and best asset the film has going for it is Rutger Hauer as the title character. Hauer is an actor who can play go-for-broke without a shred of vanity, and his presence elevates the film immediately.

Hauer's hobo arrives by boxcar in Hope Town (which has been changed on the sign to Scum Town) and finds himself in the middle of a town run by a ruthless gangster named The Drake (Brian Downey) and his two sons Slick (Gregory Smith) & Ivan (Nick Bateman). The hobo gazes longingly at a $50 lawn mower in the pawn shop window, dreaming of starting his own lawn care business. Not the type to roll over and let a bunch of punks push him around, the hobo fights back when Slick tries to rape a prostitute named Abby (Molly Dunsworth). When the hobo brings Slick to the police station, he finds out that everyone in town is on The Drake's payroll, and they cut the hobo up and leave him for dead. Abby takes him in, grateful for his help earlier, and the two lonely outsiders find comfort in one another's dreams of bigger and better things.

The hobo is finally able to scrounge up the fifty bucks to get his dream underway, but when he goes to the pawn shop to buy the mower, some punks in ski masks show up to rob and terrorize the people in the shop. The hobo takes a quick glance at the wall, seeing a shotgun with a price tag of fifty bucks. Seeing his true destiny taking shape, the hobo grabs the shotgun, and begins a spree of vigilantism that sends the people in power reeling and gives the outcasts of society hope that things can change.

There has been a common misconception about this film that it was made by inept filmmakers, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Eisener is an incredibly skilled filmmaker, and as I mentioned in my review of House of the Devil, it takes talent to make a film so seamlessly steeped in the tropes of the films it's paying homage to, that it feels like it could have been made at the height of that genre's heyday. This is one such film. It could very easily have been made in the mid to late 70s, as it uses makeup and effects techniques that have been around since then, and it doesn't rely on a bunch of bullshit cgi and after-effects to make the film look like it didn't cost anything to make.

The script is phenomenal, full of gloriously ridiculous quotes and monologues that very blithely walk a tightrope between dumb and knowingly dumb. It takes a ton of talent to make a film this good, and the people who don't appreciate this film, don't understand what these filmmakers were going for. It's a delirious excessive blood orgy, but it's fun, never trying to make anyone take it seriously for a second, and the scenes where it does attempt to be serious end up being more ridiculous as a result. The serious moments should be the dumbest, and this film nails that. Rutger Hauer gives the performance of his career, committing so wholly to the film and the character, that he makes you genuinely afraid that he may have lost his mind in real life. It's a great performance from a great and underrated and underused actor, and hopefully it will encourage other directors to use him more.

Hobo with a Shotgun is not a movie for everyone, but if you love films like Black Dynamite, and were similarly disappointed with Grindhouse and Machete, then this is the film for you. I can't recommend it highly enough!

[Header Image]

Monday, February 13, 2012

Day 75: Chronicle (2012)

"This is just... this is what I'm doing now, I'm filming everything."

So, I've officially seen the first great film of 2012. It sounds funny to say it, but Chronicle might be the most realistic portrayal of what it's like to be a teenager in America since Welcome to the Dollhouse. This is the kind of film that gets virtually everything right, and that's a rare commodity when dealing with characters in high school. Films set in high school try, and fail, to achieve this kind of verisimilitude through easily labeling people as the nerd, the jock, the outcast, etc. when in actuality people are really shades of grey and aren't so easily pigeonholed.

It's also strange to find this kind of truth in what is more or less a science fiction film. I don't know how else to categorize it, but that seems like the most fair genre assignment. The film is about three teenagers, starting with Andrew (Dane DeHaan), a bit of an outcast who has a terminally ill mother and a drunk and abusive father. He begins documenting his life for reasons that are never fully explained. Is it because he's afraid of his father's outbursts and wants to catch him on film? Is it because he has no way of connecting to people, so he creates a barrier between himself and the people around him? Is it because the film requires it of him in order to exist? It's more than likely a combination of the three, but most other films in the "found footage" genre that has exploded lately have built this premise on far more wobbly ground (I'm looking at you Cloverfield).

Andrew's only real friend is his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), the perfect example of a guy everyone went to high school, the guy who's not super popular, but not an outcast, and spends all of his free time reading various philosophers in an attempt to shape his worldview. If you didn't go to high school with a guy like this, you were that guy. The two cousins attend a rave (they still have those?) one night and Matt discovers a giant hole in the ground just down a hill from the party, along with one of the most popular kids in school, Steve (Michael B. Jordan). They ask Andrew to come film the hole in the ground, and when the three go down into the hole to explore, they come across a mysterious quartz-looking entity that is radiating light and noise.

The film suddenly cuts to three weeks later, and the three have now formed a friendship based around their mutual discovery of telekinetic abilities that came from their encounter with whatever was in that hole. I have to stop and say how much I loved how organic the friendship between the three builds. It's a true stroke of realism that one of the most popular kids in school just becomes friends with these guys because he's a genuinely nice person. There's none of that, "you're too cool to be our friend" or "why are you guys so weird" dialogue that would easily sink a film like this. Their friendship develops and I don't only buy it, it likely sold me on the film as a whole.

Matt develops a theory that their telekinetic abilities are like a muscle that needs to be worked to develop fully, yet can also tear with too much pressure put on it. That's the only real stab at rationalizing these abilities that anyone makes, and the film is much better as a result. If it had gotten bogged down in analytical conversations, it would have sunk the whole film. Instead, these are teenagers, running around and fucking with people through their new found superpowers, and it's what makes the film so thoroughly believable. This is what kids with telekinesis would do, and while I am surprised by the lack of undressing of girls they do, I'm more surprised with how much the film actually wants to invest in the reality of a fairly unlikely scenario.

I am an unabashed admirer of The Blair Witch Project, and I haven't seen anything that has approached that film's realism until Chronicle. It's the first film that has taken the time to make you care about the characters and how they react to the predicament, as opposed to the other way around, which seems to be the stock in trade for most found footage films in the interim. The turn of events that happens in the last twenty minutes or so of the film will likely lose a lot of people, but I feel it's a very natural progression, and I bought it 100%. I'm curious to talk to someone who felt otherwise, because I could very easily see someone becoming infuriated by the third act of this film.

The three main actors are all genuinely good. DeHaan resembles a gawkier Leonardo DiCaprio, and plays an abused social outcast very well, with tons of empathy. Jordan is fantastic, the kind of young actor who brings a ton of magnetism to an otherwise underwritten role, and you can genuinely see why he would be the most popular kid in school. Russell has the hardest part to play, and he does a pretty great job of playing someone who's endless readings of various philosophers would inform his decision making in light of being given superpowers.

This is a film that I cannot recommend highly enough. It's awesome, in the truest sense of the word. It makes you contemplate what you would have done if you had gotten powers at that age, and you'll find yourself marveling at how much these kids are just like you, as much as you may think they aren't. It's the kind of film you can just get lost in and have a great time doing so, and I recommend you do that sooner rather than later. This is the kind of film that deserves to make tons of money at the box office, and I truly look forward to what not only these young actors do next, but also what director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis (son of John) do next. They've all got talent to spare, and I hope someone can tap into it this well again.

[Header Image]