Thursday, December 31, 2009

Serendipity (2001)

Directed by Peter Chelsom. A lot of today's movies feature main characters with clear personality disorders who are portrayed simply as very focused on something they want. Simply put, Hollywood is oblivious to narcissism. They think it's a virtue.

And actually there is some great older cinema that portrays narcissism with verisimilitude. One of my personal favorites is a 1946 Warner Bros. effort entitled "The Big Snooze." In this color film, a hunter named Elmer Fudd wants nothing more than to feed his family while a egotistical rabbit needs not only to protect himself physically but to gratify himself emotionally by inflicting pain on Fudd, with no sense of empathy or awareness of Fudd's physical limits.

"The Big Snooze" uses the personality disorder suffered by the rabbit (a cartoonish character named "Bugs Bunny") as its source of comedy, which distinguishes it from contemporary films such as 2001's "Serendipity." "Serendipity" stars John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale as two people ("Jonathan" and "Sara") so destined to be a couple they treat the people they are engaged to instead like crap. The movie suggests that Beckinsale's fiancee deserves it because he makes New Age music, kind of like Yanni. This is played for laughs as a matter of assumption, not because anybody says or does anything funny.

Jonathan and Sara are not happy with the people they plan to marry but stay in those engagements because nothing better seems around the bend. Still, as their respective wedding days approach, they research and scheme finding each other -- their preferred mates. Once clues are unearthed and fate or destiny or whatever seems sealed, they make like Bugs Bunny and dynamite the hell out of the unsuspecting fools wasting time with them.

See this movie with someone you love and then minutes afterward leave them for someone prettier.

Paper Heart (2009)

Directed by Nicholas Jasenovec. This is one of the best movies I've seen in a long time, heavily influenced by a bunch of movies I'm not all that wild about. I'm not sure this movie could have come together if it wasn't for those Charlie Kaufman movies that are designed to fuck with your head, like "Adaptation" and "Eternally No Oscar for Jim Carrey's Spotty Record." Actually, it has as much in common with Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

The key difference between "Paper Heart" and any of what may or may not be its influences is that it features sweet, kind characters ruminating on sweet, warm feelings and very real fears.

For a complicated flick, it's relatively easy to describe. Actor Charlene Yi presents a documentary about love and relationships that is interspersed with improvised scenes recreating her real-life courtship with fellow actor Michael Cera. The arc of the story is Yi getting over apprehensions toward giving of herself emotionally, accepting her own femininity, and commitment in general.

The whole thing is ridiculously entertaining despite an undeniable self-conscious artiness that is completely excusable because it works.

If it sounds like your bag, don't put off seeing it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Taking Woodstock (2009)

Directed by Ang Lee. You gotta be fucking kidding me. What a complete disaster this thing is. What the hell was Ang Lee trying to achieve here? I hardly know where to begin here.

First of all, what some people may not be aware of is that this is based on a true story. The star of this film is Demetri Martin, who plays Elliot Tiber, the man who wrote the original book "Taking Woodstock." The book is Tiber's memoir of his role in making the festival happen: providing his parent's run-down local inn as a base of operations to organizers and as head of the local chamber of commerce, supplying them with their critical event permit. Sounds like dry stuff, but it's not -- Tiber was central to the event from soup to nuts.

But it wasn't interesting enough to Ang Lee to not turn the whole damn thing into a melodrama you'd never believe is based in reality. Lee opens the Sixties Hippie Cliche triptik and dumps so many props and costumes onto the highway it becomes hard to tell whether he truly believes that is what the country looked like back then or if he thinks the audience will simply forget when the movie takes place and needs to be reminded with road signs for peace and love every 50 yards.

As if that's not enough, there's the obligatory First Acid Experience scene, complete with the hippie couple who assures Tiber it's gonna be great and the camera tricks that recreate what he's seeing and feeling. What the...?

And then there's wooden-headed homage to the original Woodstock concert movie where the screen splits into individual windows and to show different views simultaneously. But it's done simply to wink to the audience members who'll recognize it, nothing more. There's no fresh take on it, no new twist, no irony, no multiple plot lines to follow. In contrast, have a look at 1979's "More American Graffiti" for a real homage and leveraging of this device.

I swear I am not making up that famous festival organizer Michael Lang is portrayed as riding a white stallion. This is just part of the parade of quirky characters intended to color the movie with, I don't know, either the free spiritedness that defined the time or to show that Woodstock was not solely marked by greed or youthful idealism or naivety as it seems alternately to be portrayed by the media.

This may be the fatal flaw of "Taking Woodstock" -- if it's point is that Woodstock was not any one thing and that people should not try to pigeonhole it as such, it succeeds mainly as seeming confused and wishy-washy.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Brüno (2009)

Directed by Larry Charles. Sacha Baron Cohen is an important comedian because his comedy doesn't play everywhere. It's just not for everybody. So-called taboos are a myth if everyone is on the joke; this is why the Ku Klux Klan and Hitler aren't taboos. So it's always bullshit when somebody sticks a guy in a Klan hood or a Hitler wig in a movie and a critic calls it unbridled, shocking or taboo.

But "Brüno" is just too goddamn smart to be for everybody. How on earth could an arena full of rednecks lured in to see a free mixed-martial arts exhibition called "Straight Dave's Man Slammin' Max Out," complete with free t-shirts and no evident corporate sponsorship, NOT be waiting for the bottom to drop out of the whole event? But they are oblivious to the fact that they are objects of Cohen's satire and critical to the definition of his taboo.

While Cohen's "Borat" took on issues of racism, war and anti-Semitism, "Brüno" splits its time between the cult of celebrity and homophobia. If "Borat" was a perfect 10, "Brüno" scores a strong 8.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Parent Trap (1961)/(1998)

Directed by David Swift (1961), Nancy Meyers (1998). This was not a particularly good movie in 1961 and it's a much worse movie in 1998. But the weird part is that the weak parts of this movie are not the ridiculousness of the premise -- which in case you didn't know involves an incredibly creepy premise in which a divorced couple has secretly divides their identical twins as if they're flatware or towels. I'm an advanced movie-lover, so I'm willing to work around this. The problem ends up being that the pacing drags, the characters are one-dimensional and the dialog is dry as a bone. In a way, it's strange that such a daring premise can command such a bland movie. This is a screwball comedy with no screwballs or comedy. It's tragic.

Here's what the 1961 version does have going for it: Haley Mills. At 15, she was a great actress, playing the two different identical twin characters in this (one a tomboy, one a cultured socialite, blah blah blah) with subtle distinction. While "The Parent Trap" does cry out for some broader plotting and dialog, it's not from her. The twins should be the smart center with a lot of broad insanity around them. Mills holds up her end of the bargain, but the rest of the flick never really catches fire until it's worn out its welcome in what feels like a fourth act.

The '98 re-make was not intended to be a a vehicle for Lindsay Lohan, who had not yet become star when it was made. Disney clearly had faith in her, though especially in retrospect it's unclear why. She hasn't exactly proven herself a bankable star nor an impressive talent, and looking at this movie it's not as if there's any impressive acting or charisma there to mislead anyone. Are there no talented kid actors out there or are the idol-makers at Disney so arrogant that they figure they can just pull anyone off the street and make them a star?

All I'm saying is that a misstep has clearly been made when Dennis Quaid is the most charismatic actor in a remake of "The Parent Trap."

Monday, November 16, 2009

She's All That (1999)

Directed by Robert Iscove. Somehow when fresh-faced teenagers make the movie where first the boy and girl don't like each other but then they do, it's a little bit more charming. It's sort of a shame that not too long after this these two sweet kids dropped off the face of the goddamn earth.

I mean, that's not entirely true. Freddie Prinze Jr. made a couple of live action Scooby Doo movies and then a bunch of junk animated films, and Rachael Leigh Cook became a secondary character actor. And maybe that's just fine. It's sort of nice to see a couple of talented people find their place, get in it and crank out good work rather than insist on hanging around insisting on being the Kate Hudsons and Zac Efrons.

So I saw this because, in the wake of the "Beth Cooper" debacle I was curious to see a teen romantic comedy that I remember liking. The good thing about this is that many of the kids in it are likable, smart, kind and not cartoon characters. The bad thing about it is that a lot of them are the opposite and now I'm too old to remember if this is accurate or not.

By the way Kevin Pollak is awesome in this.

I would like to know what movie started -- and I'm guessing it's some John Hughes piece of garbage -- the teen movie convention that the foe must be flanked by a pair of wingmen, or in this movies case, women. They're always like the henchmen in an old episode of the Batman TV series. Their IQ is about half of the main foe, they wear a uniform that's a slight variation on hers, and they repeat the last couple of words of everything she utters. It's only worth doing if you have exceptional character actors contributing real yuks. Otherwise, can it.

The Proposal (2009)

Directed by Anne Fletcher. I have this theory that as actresses get more plastic surgery in an effort to achieve some ideal set of features and cranial symmetry, they also homogenize their future filmographies.

I can't prove anyone in Hollywood has had plastic surgery but I firmly believe that Sandra Bullock, Kate Hudson, Renée Zellweger and Meg Ryan all have because they both look insane and seem to make a lot of movies where first they don't get along with some guy and then fall in love with the guy.

I also have a theory that these actresses suppress rage and are sub-consciously attracted to scripts in which head trauma is inflicted on the characters played by their male co-stars. This is why these so-called romantic comedies are always filled with a lot of pratfalls, which to a certain extent is a good thing, because the more of this stuff can be quick-cut into the preview, the better chance there seems to be of the flick doing well.

Anyway in "The Proposal," Sandra Bullock doesn't get along so well with Ryan Reynolds until she does, when they fall in wuv, and there's a happy ending. What I will say for this movie is that I enjoyed how it couldn't decide if the Alaskan town Ryan Reynold's character was from should be a rural fishing town, much like the sort one would expect to find in Alaska, or a quaint little outlet shopping village, nothing like you would expect to find in Alaska and actually quite a bit like you would expect to find in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where this was filmed.

Also, I'll say this for Sandra Bullock, she didn't look have as scary in this as she did in the preview for "All About Steve" that me and Karen saw the other night, in which she actually looked like a female impersonator. Meaning she looked like one of those chicks you might see in a bar and think, I don't care how good looking she almost is, she looks like she has a penis. Which now that I think about it makes me wonder, just who is this "Steve" that movie is "all about?"

I Love You, Beth Cooper (2009)

Directed by Chris Columbus. I'm not sure if Hayden Panettiere is the luckiest movie star in the world right now or the unluckiest. She seems like the luckiest because she certainly doesn't seem to have a bit of talent or charisma and yet here she is starring in movies. Yes, she's relatively good looking, but by relatively, I mean relative to the people you work with. You can't tell me you could throw a rock on the set of "Entourage" without popping the boob implant of at least one girl at least as talented and much better looking.

I was going to say that she could be the unluckiest because as soon as everyone else figures all of this out, she's done, but really, this doesn't seem to happen. Kate Hudson just makes movie after movie after movie and not only does Kate Hudson suck, but nobody goes to see her movies. Yet, she gets to be a movie star. O.K., that does it. I wasn't going to write a review of "The Proposal," but now I'm wound up.

Meanwhile, Paul Rust -- a.k.a. "Denis Cooverman" is also in this tedious flick and I don't sense any charisma oozing out of him either. The closest thing in this movie to amusing was third-billed Jack Carpenter, though not in a good way. His feet were nailed into this and ordered to act as much like Apatow-flunkie Jay Baruchel as possible -- so much so, I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of casual moviegoers mistook him for Baruchel.

But it's not fair to place all of the blame on the shoulders of these young actors, who were not led by some amateur, but 20-plus year directing veteran Chris Columbus. I'm not saying Columbus knows how to make a great movie. I'll hand it to him that he didn't screw up a couple of Harry Potter flicks, but he has enough marks on this permanent record ("Bicentennial Man," "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Stepmom") that he should always be eyed with the same suspicion as that kid your sure has peed in your pool.

But the weird part is that 15 minutes into this, I didn't know Columbus had directed this piece of moose poop, and I could have sworn it was made by a first-time director whose problem was simply that he or she had never seen a movie before. Everything wasn't just bad, it was just plain wrong. Shots lingered too long (or too short), bad takes were selected, the actors didn't seem to know what they were supposed to be doing. It's a mess. In a crazy way, I almost want to recommend it.

That's why I'm wondering if maybe this Hayden Panettiere is actually a dwarf goblin or something, and this movie is secretly a masterpiece of either CGI or mythical creature wrangling. In which case Chris Columbus is cursed in that he may never step forward to take the bow he so rightfully deserves.

Perhaps Columbus will have his bow next year, when "Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" is released. I am not making up this title. That's the other explanation for this piece of dung, he's putting all his effort into "Percy Jackson." It's got a huge cast and lots of CGI, so it should be awesome.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Double Indemnity (1944)/(1973)

Directed by Jack Smight. Under what conditions could a TV movie re-make of Billy Wilder's 1944 noir classic "Double Indemnity" possibly be necessary? I'm fine with this. Nothing is sacred and this may be viewed as either a worthwhile experiment or a putrid foregone conclusion open for spitballs.

I didn't write it off so easily. Lee J. Cobb is almost as appealing as Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes and while Richard Crenna is bland as Walter Neff, this is only a different problem from the casting problem in the '44 original. I'm sorry, but Fred MacMurray could never come off any more hard-boiled than an egg and it's distracting throughout this classic, not to mention Barbara Stanwyck's homely lack of sex appeal. Even handicapped by the hair of a poodle and the skin of a bulldog Samantha Eggar was able to steam up the small screen.

The scripts are almost the same, with the biggest differences in the third act, where the role the step-daughter plays in the TV version is cut down from the original.

So here's how it breaks down. See the original for an entertaining story and the quintessential example of film noir, even though it is hampered by some odd casting. Seek out this rare remake for the exact same story and for an example of an insanely unnecessary experiment in TV movie making that is in no way hampered by its own brand of odd casting.

Friday, November 13, 2009

What Would Jesus Buy? (2007)

Directed by Rob VanAlkemade. In this documentary the Rev. Billy Talen and his Church of Stop Shopping go on a cross-country trip protesting excessive consumerism, especially Christmas shopping. They focus on Times Square, Wal-Mart, Mall of America and Disneyland.

But that's it. I've explained it, so you've kinda seen it. Since this was produced by Morgan Spurlock ("Super Size Me"), I kind of wished someone would only eat McDonald's food during the road trip, or something like that, just to make it interesting. Because otherwise, nothing interesting happened.

And I'll tell you why: the Rev. Billy Talen is a very genuine guy. Which means there's no gimmick here and a movie like this needs a gimmick. His reasoning is very simple. We all spend too much on bullshit we don't need, creating two problems, one practical and one spiritual. The practical problem is debt. The spiritual problem is that the meaning of Christmas is ruined. It's all very simple and footage of the Rev. being arrested and thrown out of malls gets old quick. Think Michael Moore but even less interesting.

What motivates this guy? How did he get so fired up about this stuff? Where did he come from? What are his philosophical goals -- meaning, how will he know when he has made a difference? None of these questions are answered.

"I so need what we do to have some impact on somebody," Talen's wife tells him at one point. And perhaps this desperation is more of what the film should be about instead.

Easy Rider (1969)

Directed by Dennis Hopper. It's ridiculous that I went my whole life without seeing this considering first how legendary it is, next how many movies I see, and last, the sorts of movies I tend to see, meaning, this sort.

I've never had anything against "Easy Rider" per se. It's just that there's a point when something becomes so iconic that it also can seem superfluous. And to a certain extent, it's true. I have finally seen "Easy Rider" and I have to say that the endless references, parodies and followers have pretty well nailed it, so revelations and surprises were few and far between. When this movie starts and there they are on the open road with Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" going, it all seems just a bit ridiculous. It's not as if I'm kicking myself for waiting as long as I did to see this.

And I have never liked Dennis Hopper. Well that's not exactly true. He was good in "True Romance" and "Hoosiers." And the older he gets the more I can cozy up to him. But "Easy Rider" is him at his most repellent. Look, this is a movie about bikers, and bikers are just stupid and repellent in the first place.

Yet this is still a great movie because the two best things about it easily carry the whole thing: Jack Nicholson, because he does a great job and plays someone who isn't a biker, and the overall message of the flick, about the death of the American dream, which is still vital as hell.

So Nicholson carries the second act and then the third act is a real wig-out. Like the Steppenwolf tune in the first few minutes of the flick, the acid trip sequence in the final third of the movie also seems a little quaint in this day and age, but to knock "Easy Rider" for being trippy would be like criticizing an old Elvis Presley TV appearance for being too much like Britney. This movie is the Rosetta Stone of trippy film.

It's a difficult spot to be in for a film to age in part because of the profound impact it has had on the massive legacy of movies that follow in its footsteps. "Easy Rider" doesn't just make its point creatively, it has a point to make. Wyatt and Billy set out to feel real freedom but never quite do. They realize this but don't even get freedom through redemption because moments later they are left for dead by the side of the highway; the movie ends as their dream ascends into heaven.

My Side of the Mountain (1969)

Directed by James B. Clark. Seeing this one grew directly from a misunderstanding. Karen had been reading this autobiographical anecdotes by White House press corps correspondent and animal fancier Jean George entitled "The Tarantula in My Purse," and she remembered aloud that she'd also written this great novel called "My Side of the Mountain." And I said, what, that weird thing that all the girls in my junior high were running around with? Wasn't there some crappy TV movie made out of that? And she looked at me and shrugged.

So I poked around on the InterWiki, and it turns out I was thinking of something called "The Other Side of the Mountain," which was about this female downhill skier who has a bad accident, becomes paralyzed, finds love, and most certainly does have a crappy TV movie made about her.

Turns out "My Side of the Mountain" is much more in the predictable wheelhouse of the author of the "Tarantula" book of animal stories, the tale of a kid who takes to the mountains to live off the land. And a perfectly decent movie was made of the book, though while I'm only familiar with about 50% of the book I can say that the flick is substantially different from it.

Either way, this pleasantly subtle movie tells us why Sam wants to live in the mountains -- he has read every fact about surviving in the wild but he doesn't know for sure if he can do it. What the movie lets us ponder is why it is so easy for him to leave his family. Fortunately, this isn't a heavy concern; in fact, the magic of this film is the way it make everything seem so plausible.

We see Sam make his home in the trunk of a tree, train a bird of prey, and skin and clean a deer. Specifics are explained to fascinating detail without risk of nausea; the broad stroke here is the coming of age thing, which is well done. The movie has a reasonable ending, invented about halfway through the story that the book tells, but is well worth seeking out.

By the way, the disc cover shows a bear? The bear is in this for like 10 seconds. A raccoon has a starring role compared to the goddamn bear.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Land of the Lost (2009)

Directed by Brad Silberling. Even before HBO's "Mr. Show" made the definitive point with "Coupon: the Movie" it was well known that Hollywood had turned to stupid places for its ideas. For the most part, these movies based on old TV series have been terrible. Playing it straight, as in "Miami Vice" (2006), "The Avengers" (1998) or even when doing a comedy like "The Flintstones" (1994) is just stupid. What has worked is transforming drama/adventure to comedy, like in "Starsky and Hutch" (2004), updating the time period in which it takes place as in "Get Smart" (2008), or taking an ironic turn on the premise, as in "The Brady Bunch Movie" (1995).

"Land of the Lost" got shit on before it was even released and people were right to be skeptical. Hollywood has made too many shitty movies based on crappy licensed properties, has run out of real ideas, and the original "Land of the Lost" TV show sucked dead ass. The stories were boring and the special effects made the 1933 "Kong" movie look like "Jurassic Park." But trashing the idea is like picking on that obnoxious little nerd in junior high. Yeah, he's probably asking for it, but isn't that a little too easy? Why be a bully? And one day that little shit just might cure cancer.

The only clear strategy to do anything with something as awful as "Land of the Lost" was to hit it with everything: transform the adventure to comedy, update the time in which it takes place, and take an ironic turn on the premise. Will Ferrell goes back in time, dinosaurs, running, yelling, blah blah blah. Also, in accordance with the new Hollywood Code #76354782, ubiquitous character actor Danny McBride is here as well.

Right around when the cast starts singing a song from "A Chorus Line" to a nest of baby pterodactyls and an apeman joins in -- who to that point has only grunted -- should one realize that this movie is a ridiculous farce and thus either succeeds or is pretty much immune to anyone's snobbery.

Ferrell's Will Marshall character begins arrogant, a physicist who understands time travel but with no respect for life, but redeems himself by the end. McBride's character begins the story wanting only to open a gaudy casino but readjusts his priorities by the end of the story. The time travel experience does not seem to make much difference to Anna Friel, who plays fellow scientist Holly Cantrell, but really only because she is a woman and Hollywood doesn't know what the hell to do with female characters.

It's all pretty goddamn funny, so to the whiners what expected something else -- are you out of your minds? Just what did you expect, a National Geographic special? It's Will Ferrell in the "Land of the Lost." If you don't expect him at some point to get crapped out of a dinosaur's butt, you're just not focused. Would you also be surprised to see James Bond fire a gun?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Drillbit Taylor (2008)

Directed by Steven Brill. This is not as bad a film as you may have been led to believe. By no means is it great, but it's got a laugh or two in it and if you start watching it at about 4PM on a Saturday you'll be done with it before 6PM and you'll have your whole evening in front of you. How's that for an endorsement?

As far as I can see, Steven Brill, who directed this, has a long record as an underachiever. He wrote those "Mighty Ducks" movies, which even I won't see, and he directed the Adam Sandler movie "Little Nicky" (2000), which I made it about 15 minutes into before I declared it an assault on my senses. There are very few movies I just give up on, but "Little Nicky" was just hideous to look at, listen to and humorless.

Another Sandler vehicle by Brill, "Mr. Deeds" (2002), is a bit better, as well as "Without a Paddle" (2004). I'd put "Drillbit Taylor" on that level. About where Little Debbie ranks as a packaged snack cake -- it's edible and even enjoyable under strict conditions but you better go into it knowing what you're getting yourself into.

The basic story is this; the fat kid, the smart kid and the funny kid are being bullied so they hire a bodyguard, everybody learns a little bit about themselves, and good GOD, Danny McBride is in this movie too! It seems like he's in every damn movie made.

There are huge holes in the plot, tons of stuff here would not happen the way it shakes out, and the movie would be far more interesting if the bullies had a little more depth. This is basically a script that needs a few more drafts. There's no second act, there are a bunch of scenes that could get cut, and the dialog needs some serious funnying up. Owen Wilson rescues his scenes with personality and delivery. Drink during it.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Hustle (1975)

Although we have only just obtained a copy of 1969's "Impasse" we are growing weary of's ongoing Burt Reynold's project, in which we attempt to try to figure out when the famous Playgirl model (December, 1974) lost his mind, and are beginning to wonder if perhaps the project could cause us to lose ours.

Although we remain committed to seeing 1977s "Semi-Tough" since the disc is rented and sitting around the house. Also, the rare nature of "Impasse" appeals to our warped, natural attraction toward anything not popular enough to be in print. This same backward logic applies to 1975's "W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings."

None of these films are likely to beat "Hustle," which includes all of the wooden-headed elements of the contemporary cop/crime/action genre practically founded by Reynolds by dumbing down a formula introduced by Clint Eastwood with "Dirty Harry" in 1971.

I don't remember anyone mentioning a hustle in "Hustle," though I do recall Christ being referred to by his full name twice, and by full name I mean with his middle initial, H., which made me finally decide what his middle name was. I have often wondered what the H. stands for (Henry? Horatio? Horace?) and have decided it may stand for Hustle. Or at least that might be what this film is suggesting. I can't quite tell.

If you think that's ridiculous, see this movie because that's nothing. A girl who eventually dies (I'm not ruining anything) strips at a club called -- I'm not making this up -- the Scanty Clad Club. Then, in an actual scene Burt Reynolds' character, this Lieutenant Phil Gaines, he yells at Catherine Deneuve's character, "Bitch, you goddamn bitch," as he slaps her around the room. Then he forces himself on her. She tries to get away, but his passion and sheer L.A. cop-fullness is way too much for her. Instead her passion blooms and she tears her blouse open for him, totally aroused. I'm gonna try that sweet-talk myself and see how it goes ("Relax baby, I saw this in a movie once...".

Meanwhile, the father of the murdered dancer at the Scanty Clad Club seems sort of frustrated that nobody is interested in looking into who may have killed her. The reason? He's a nobody. Well let me tell you something, that's not the kind of local government Lieutenant Phil Gaines is part of! He took an oath to protect and to serve and damn it, he's going to bring that killer to justice.

Basically you got a movie here about a cop considered a hero because he does what he's supposed to do even though he's stressed out because his girlfriend's a hooker.

By the way, you know a guy has gone insane in a movie when the sound cuts out while they're showing him. I think it's to show that he's disconnected from everyone and reality. It's one of those movie universals, like when a swing is shown swinging without a child it means a kid has been abducted, or when a lit match or cigarette drops in slow motion it's about to explode something flammable, like a gas leak.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

Directed by Hal Needham. I have this theory that certain things have simple names so that the dumber people who like them can find them more easily. For example, this is why NASCAR has "car" right in the name and super-size K-Marts are just called Big K-Mart. "Smokey and the Bandit" is about a guy named Bandit and a police office nicknamed "Smokey" and I highly suspect an earlier draft of the script was called "Cars Going Fast." It also boasts a dual-purpose soundtrack that provides full narration in addition to the background music. The lyrics to its songs periodically recap everything you have seen, hint at what's to come, and just in case you've forgotten, remind you that that movie is about a guy named Bandit.

Ah, the Bandit. The Bandit has his own theme shoehorned into the middle of this cinematic masterwork, less like the other country and western pop song in this film than a romantic honky-tonk ballad crafted to accompany dubiously necessary visual of Burt Reynolds and Sally Field quietly humping in the breakdown lane of a Texas freeway. And it goes a little something like this:

"Well, they call you the Bandit,
You drive a car like a Bandit,
Wear a big hat like a Bandit,
Bandit, Bandit, Bandit
Can't stop sayin' Bandit"

I'd say it's the best song ever, except that it's not even close and in fact is much closer to worst song ever. This is not the song most people talk about when discussing this film. Most people talk about the incredibly catchy recurring "Eastbound and Down," which was a monster hit for Jerry Reed, who co-starred in the film with Reynolds and Field.

I'll say this, Reed always seemed to me to be a better actor than musician, which I suppose is less a compliment to his acting than a comment on his music, which is an abomination. If you haven't heard his biggest single, "When You're Hot, You're Hot," you must, simply as an example of just how close to NOT MUSIC music can get while still having rhythm, melody, etc. It features his trademark talking while a room full of studio musicians and singers else do the heavy lifting.

So anyway. This "Smokey and the Bandit" was made during a simpler time, when even bullshit car crash movies like this one incorporated some subtext, even if it shows up like a beer bottle broken over your head during a bar fight in a roadside soul food diner, which by the way also happens in this movie. They're subtle about the fact that she's Jewish, the Bandit is not, and Smokey is very likely insensitive to minorities in the off-camera world. So the point of this movie is:

If we all had the cool-headed confidence and philosophical clarity of the Bandit then even amid the rat race of life we'd be able to see how well we can get along with others no matter how little we have in common with them, as long as they are as good looking as a 30 year-old, 100-pound Sally Field in tight pants and not a 60 year-old, 250 pound Jackie Gleason.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Flash of Genius (2008)

Directed by Marc Abraham. There's something very ominous about sitting down to watch a whole biopic about the guy who invented the intermittent windshield wiper. Talk about trusting the filmmaker. Truth is, my son Max, who is eight, has said that he would like to be an inventor. I'm not sure what has inspired him to say that.

I thought about what books I could read him or appropriate films I could show him that would give him an idea what that could be like and I thought of almost nothing. I thought of "Tucker: The Man and His Dream," the magnificently under-rated 1988 Coppola biopic about Preston Tucker, the post WWII industrialist who designed a car that, arguably would be the strongest and most durable automobile ever built and was subsequently crushed out of the industry for raising its standards too high. Similarly, I thought of "Who Killed the Electric Car," the 2006 story of GM hiding the success of their EV1 experiment from the public. I also thought of the episode of the Simpsons in which Homer decides to become an inventor because he idolizes Thomas Edison, but his only good idea is actually one of Edison's discards.

I'm not sure why I wanted to show Max something that would provide any positive message about inventing.

Seeing "Flash of Genius," in which Greg Kinnear plays Detroit engineer Robert Kearns, it becomes very clear that inventing is art. It's not a choice but a calling. The flick wraps that point up in a broader point about integrity, and a little bit in the flag, but I wasn't as interested in that as I was in a more modest point about creativity.

Recapping briefly, Robert Kearns had his idea stolen by the major automakers, sued, and they tried to settle out of court. He refused millions and millions of dollars in a settlement because it would mean that the automakers would not have to admit that the intermittent windshield wiper was his idea and design. He was willing to take no settlement in exchange for them to acknowledge that he was the inventor. You could look up on Wikipedia how the case worked out, but it would be more fun for you to rent this movie, because I can tell you that the movie is relatively accurate in its representation of the facts of the case and in Kearns' handling of himself in the courtroom, and its extremely entertaining. If you like a courtroom drama, you will love the third act of this flick.

It's not a movie to show an eight year-old, but I did tell Max about it, in part because I liked it a lot, which surprised the hell out of me, but also because I though it had a decent message for a kid.

But it had another more subtle one that I liked more. An artist is truly blessed if they can both create something that speaks to people and then get it in front of people so that it can have that voice. Yet any true artist creates in response to an inner voice that doesn't necessarily demand the validation of others. What kind of guitarist plays only when there's people around to applaud?

Similarly, an inventor is blessed when their idea and design solves a problem for millions or billions of people. This population may not appreciate the design as art, they may take it for granted, and like the musician, there may or may not have been a significant payday for the inventor.

And if you think about movies that show unappreciated inventors, their inventions typically have one thing in common: they don't solve much of a problem. There's a robotic arm that pours your coffee for you, another spreads jam on your toast, and then a bowling ball rolls down a chute and drop onto a scale that pops an egg into the air, letting it crack and sizzle in a pan. The inventor is supposedly a genius, but he's not much of a problem solver and he's certainly not an artist.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

Directed by Robert Stevenson. Normally I have a rule against reviewing a movie that I fall asleep during, on the grounds that I couldn't give it a fair shake. Recently I have fallen asleep during Disney's "Rascal" (1969), Disney's "Swiss Family Robinson" (1960) and this. I'm not sure if I tend to fall asleep during Disney films or if I have a subconscious tendency to select Disney films when I plan to fall asleep. Either way, I'm going to write about "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" even though I fell asleep during it for two reasons. First, there's no way I will attempt to see it again. Second, I'm pretty sure anyone would fall asleep during this. It's abominable.

Only from the Disney camp could come a half-animated, half-live action musical for children about witches teasing Nazis. I don't mean that metaphorically. The business model seems to have been to capitalize on the family audience for "Mary Poppins" and the post-war interest in flicks like "The Sound of Music." This was obviously lost on me when this was first released and I saw it at a drive-in with my mother. I didn't remember much about it and wanted to see it again. It's one of those Disney films that everybody seems to be aware of by title, but nobody really sees. Well, it's for good reason. Avoid this. It's slow and it's a musical, which is a good enough reason right there to run away.

Musicals are always bad but the way they are bad has changed. Now they are bad because Elton John writes really drippy songs and Mariah Carey yells them at you through your extremely sophisticated sound system. This movie is the old kind of musical: bouncy, bouncy! Lots of people wagging a finger at each other while they sing! And crossing the room! And folding their arms!

Anyway, I made it about 40 minutes into this monstrosity before falling fast asleep. One last complaint about this DVD release; how about giving me a choice of all the crazy various cuts of this film that have been released? Because get this, the disc featured only a "fully-restored" version that runs an insane 139 minutes -- that's two hours and 19 minutes. The original U.S. release was 117 minutes, which is bad enough. When it was re-released in 1980, they had the good sense to cut it down to 99 minutes, though I strongly suspect they didn't cut out stupid songs, but cut out scenes of Nazis that they decided would make Disney look like interesting filmmakers. If you had your choice of cuts, you might want to see the original, indubitably efficient Germany release, which ran 89 minutes.

Though my own personal recommendation is to just take a nap.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Gator (1976)

Directed by Burt Reynolds. I've explained the Burt Reynolds Project of MoreLostTime. The basic rundown is this. Clearly, Burt Reynolds went insane sometime in the late '70s or so or "Stroker Ace" (1983), "Smokey and the Bandit 3" (1983), "Cannonball Run 2" (1984) and any number of other incidents wouldn't have occurred. As a scholar not so much of film as Burt Reynolds per se, I'm curious to sort through some earlier works to see if any gradual descent into madness is evident.

You can see some transition taking effect during the first few minutes of the "White Lightning" sequel, 1976's "Gator," in which Reynolds is supposed to be hiding out in a tar-paper shack down on the bayou but is wearing blue jeans that have clearly just been pressed.

Moments later Reynolds gets into a boat chase with a bunch of feds, though whenever he roars by, the stuntman driving the boat couldn't look less like Reynolds. The guy being used might as well be Joan Rivers or Shaquille O'Neal. You're thinking, how does sloppy directing indicate the star of the picture losing his mind? Because the star of the picture insisted on directing the damn thing.

This is the problem. I remember my close friend and even closer friend of famous country singer Dierks Bentley, Mary McLaughlin, who also happens to be a postal-based acquaintance of Sir Paul McCartney, once explained to me one reason certain people shouldn't be allowed to make movies. This was in the context of discussing all of the reasons why McCartney's movie "Screw You, Broadstreet" is a piece of shit, so naturally, this was a very long conversation. But Mary explained how Paul McCartney had told her that he's so out of touch that the movie was doomed to fail because he'd surrounded himself with people without the guts or authority to tell him it sucked. And so Sir McCartney went merrily along his way, making a stinking pile of dung.

"Gator" is in no way a stinking pile of dung. It's got some good dialog and tense scenes, and it's the first place we see the undeniable chemistry between Reynolds and Jerry Reed that is so instrumental to the success of "Smokey and the Bandit." But "Gator" is about 25 minutes too long, opens with an unnecessary 10-minute action sequence, includes wasted, broad over-acting from one of the period's great character actors, Jack Weston, and is full of little moments you just wish somebody had spoken up about and warned Burt Reynolds would make him look like a tool.

If it is not the official beginning of the end for Burt Reynolds, we've narrowed it down.

White Lightning (1973)

Directed by Joseph Sargent. I've been seeing Burt Reynolds movies lately to observe his gradual descent into madness. My theory is that the Grecian Formula leaked into his scalp and attacked essential regions of cerebral cortex sometime after "White Lightning" but long before "Sharky's Machine" (1981), very likely starting some time during the second hour of "W.W. and Dixie Dance Kings" (1975).

But during "White Lightning" he fired on all cylinders. He done looked good, he done talked good and he done ran the best shine south of the Mason-Dixon line. He also done flirts with Jennifer Billingsley who done -- O.K., enough of that...This is a movie with a genuine human conflict. Reynolds as Gator McKlusky goes undercover for the government into a moonshine network he grew up in, now collecting evidence against old friends, simply to gain access to one man against whom he seeks revenge. And because this is a Burt Reynolds movie from 1973, naturally that man is played by Ned Beatty.

So there are car chases.

But in between there's actually some decent acting and scriptwriting and Reynolds best acting this side of "Boogie Nights."

Though I'll say this -- you might be better off to watch this for free on Hulu or IMDB, which stream the widescreen version. DVDs you rent or buy will be a full-screen TV version. For some reason Diane Ladd is credited as Diane Lad, and one of the grimy little kids running around in her yard in the movie is her real life grimy little kid, future grimy big kid Laura Dern.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Bad Lieutenant (1992)

Directed by Abel Ferrara. This movie got a lot of attention when it came out and then became a cult film of sorts for a while after that, but it doesn't seem like you hear much about it any more. Now I guess Werner Herzog just re-made the thing with Nicholas Cage, which some people seem to think is like trying to re-paint the Mona Lisa. I'm not going to go that far. I'll say it's like re-making "Bad Lieutenant." You could, but why bother?

Though you are probably well aware, "Bad Lieutenant" is a couple of hours of Harvey Keitel's character having a drug-fueled, emotional and spiritual breakdown. Sure, it's interesting to watch, but there's no question that part of its appeal lies outside its intent, as an example of an over-indulgent art film -- and the cracks show even more fifteen years after its release.

Don't get me wrong, it holds together and it holds up. It's exhausting; I don't have the energy to re-cap it here. The themes are all solid, it's not some haphazard mash. This is a real story about lost faith and redemption. But it's so deliberate and earnest in its challenge to the viewer that at a certain point, any reasonable film goer is well within their right to make a few jokes at the expense of the characters on-screen. Yes, we feel his pain -- but sometimes the pain is a little bit funny, like an old record by the Cure or Echo and the Bunnymen.

Which means that when this Nicholas Cage version comes out, all bets are off and the jokes can start before the house lights even go down.

Flipper (1963)

Directed by James B. Clark. Damn, this is one slow movie. If you tried to show this to a room full of children these days, within the first half-hour they'd rebel and throw you in the ocean. Or their parents would sue you for exposing them to trauma, because in the first half-hour there is a hurricane and a fire and people die, which sounds kind of exciting, but somehow isn't.

Yet "Flipper" is not a boring movie. It's a very sweet, quiet film about a boy who learns unconditional love from a creature of the sea because his father is too big a grouch to to do it. His father also looks very peculiar with his shirt off yet refuses to put one on almost ever. The father is played by Chuck Connors (TV's "Rifleman") though his performance seems to have been coached extensively by Brian Keith who was apparently shut out from the role because at the time he probably looked even more peculiar without a shirt on.

But the real star of this movie is Flipper, right? Wrong. Well, sort of. First of all, I learned by carefully reading the gigantic credits at the end of this movie that Flipper is actually a chick dolphin named Mitzie. Second, Mitzie doesn't get nearly as much screen time as Luke Halpin, who plays Sandy Ricks, the boy who adopts Flipper.

Two things were conspicuously missing from the gigantic credits. One: a separate credit for Luke Halpin's amazing hair. Two: an assurance that no animals were harmed in the making of the film. This would likely not be possible, since it seems pretty plain that in order to make the film a dolphin got shot with a spear gun and some sharks got clubbed until they bled.


Friday, September 11, 2009

Benji (1974)

Directed by Joe Camp. You might also call this "Baby's First Exploitation Movie." If you think about it, it fits the bill. Low budget, no big stars, and goes for real cheap thrills. A long list of cheap thrills. Cute dogs, mean kidnappers, a lot of slow motion and quick cuts to show deep feelings and eerie flashbacks. It's all there.

But it would never play today. They kick a dog for crying out loud. And Benji's penis is, like, flapping all over the screen for half the movie. That would completely wig out most studio executives.

It's like I was saying before, about "The Legend of Lobo." Back when it didn't matter how animals were treated when a movie was being made, movies about animals seemed more likely to include parts were they got knocked around a lot. I just don't know if they don't include parts like that anymore because they're too hard to fake, or because one of the reasons it's illegal to treat animals poorly on a movie set is because people just don't like the idea of animals being mistreated and don't aren't particularly interested in stories where that happens.

So it came as no surprise to me that it was with this movie's famous dog-kicking scene that my son Max decided he was not much of a fan of "Benji." I, on the other hand, relying on an assumption that the scene is faked, found myself sort of unexpectedly thrilled with it all. Which is what made me realize that "Benji" is basically a child's first exploitation film.

I Love You, Man (2009)

Directed by John Hamburg. I'm a married man but I resent portrayals of unmarried people as social defects who can't pull themselves together. Maybe this is true if the person wishes they were married, which Jason Segel's character in this movie definitely does not.

Another thing, he did Paul Rudd's character a significant favor by suggesting that Rudd's character question his plans to marry. For this he's treated like a home wrecker? Couldn't a lot of unhappy marriages and divorces be prevented simply by encouraging engaged couples to ask themselves and each other why they're going ahead with this plan?

Guys like Jason Segel and Paul Rudd are in a lot of movies these days and they seem to be movies for two kinds of people: people who love movies a lot and are interested and looking below the story into the whole making of the thing, and for people who couldn't care less about that sort of thing. People who couldn't care less about movies as movies just want to forget their life for 90 minutes, and are bound to like these sorts of flicks because they are damned entertaining. Otherwise, these movies involve a talented community of actors, writers, producers and directors who have also found a connection with a certain segment of today's film buffs want.

But film fans in the middle might have a rough go with a movie such as this or "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." These aren't the caliber of "40-Year Old Virgin" or "Knocked Up." The blight of these weaker efforts is that, while they start out special by dealing with real problems and feelings, they cheapen themselves by relying on e plot elements of movies it's trying to improve on.

"I Love You, Man" improves on most movies about a couple getting married by allowing them to go through with the plan and not making one of them so hateful that it's not possible they would have connected in the first place.

On the other hand, there's something contrived here that makes it hard to buy these two main characters. Paul Rudd's Peter Klaven vacillates a little unpredictably between well adjusted and completely dorky. Segel's Sidney is so not believable as a street smart confirmed bachelor we spend the first two acts of the picture waiting for a big reveal that never comes; is he really a woman? Is he boffing the fiancee? No, he's just not particularly convincing. Maybe if one more scene had been included of him with his other friends we keep being told he has, then I wouldn't have been so convinced he was up to something.

The last weak link in this chain is the final five minutes, in which all lessons learned are explained out loud, in case we weren't listening, a sure way to drive me up the wall when I watch any movie. You'd think I'd hated this, but I didn't. I laughed some and everyone in it is genuinely likable. What do you want, "Citizen Kane" everytime you open the damn disc case?

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Legend of Lobo (1962)

Directed by James Algar by Jack Couffer. In 1962 Walt Disney made this snuff film for children, showing beautiful wild animals and then shooting them full of lead. Based on my years of film watching, I'm not really sure how certain scenes in this movie could have been made without simply chaining up animals and shooting them with guns. This may explain why the movie is long out of print, because otherwise, I have to say, it's pretty damn good.

It's the late 19th century and Lobo is a curious little wolf cub who grows up and has a number of adventures. At least one of his adventures involves cowboys shooting a cougar, in a scene that looks uncannily as if the cougar used in the scene was actually shot. In another of Lobo's adventure's the cowboys shoot his mother. While we don't actually see them shoot her, we do see her dead on the ground, and while I have never seen a dead wolf for real before, I'd be willing to bet that it looks exactly like the one shown here, which also looks exactly like the one that had been alive in the scene just beforehand. In another of Lobo's adventures, his father steps into a cast iron trap, which cuts badly into his leg. It would appear that in order to achieve just the right level of verisimilitude for this scene, they had a wolf step into a cast iron trap.

In another of Lobo's adventures -- well, you get the idea. I'm not sure how they managed to get footage of Lobo fighting with another wolf, but I'm just saying, this flick was made long before the days of any humane society rules governing filming animals and it really, really shows.

It's weird that when we didn't care how animals were treated in filming, we also wanted movies about animals getting shot and beaten. And today, when there are lots of rules governing how animals are treated on set, it's not as if we fake those sorts of things. We just don't have any interest in that sort of stuff, plot-wise either. Our real-life concerns mirror what we want to see in those movies. Animation is the way to go. If we want to see violence with animals, we should animate them. Then the sky's the limit. We could have fish get into knife fights.

Actually, there is a gap in real-life movies between what we're OK with seeing and how it needed to be filmed. "Benji." That kidnapper dude kicks Benji's girlfriend, that little shitty white dog. That 1974 scene is contemporary enough that it must have been faked with some kind of bell-bottom era Beanie Baby, but the movie was still made when a good old fashioned puppy kicking made it into theaters -- something unthinkable today.

Damn. Now I have to see "Benji." And if I'm going to see that, I might as well go ahead and finally check out its sequel -- which I've never seen -- "For the Love of Benji," which I'm sure is a masterpiece. And naturally that reminds me of Chevy Chase in "Oh, Heavenly Dog!" in which he plays a guy whose soul passes into the body of a dog. In addition to simply being a movie star whose entire career passed into a series of dogs.

Duel (1971)

Directed by Steven Spielberg. This was Steven Spielberg's first feature-length directing job, a 1971 TV-movie based on a short story by Richard Matheson. Spielberg had directed TV shows, in particular a two-hour episode of "Columbo" that's actually one of that show's best, though technically he'd never done a movie.

"Duel" launched his career in part because he did a great job but also because he had the good sense to jump on this opportunity in the first place, knowing that simplicity is what puts a director center stage. "Duel" is an absurdly simple idea. A business man (played by Dennis Weaver) tries to drive to a meeting but is taunted by the unseen driver of a run-down tanker truck. The more he tries to get away, the more enraged the trucker seems to become.

The TV-movie plays out like an extended "Twilight Zone" segment, mostly maintaining its watchability on the strength of Spielberg's direction. Lean as it is, the script is too thick, unnecessarily bulked up with Weaver's thoughts, dropped in as reverb-laden voice overs. Y'know, "Why won't he leave me alone?" Junk like that. You have to figure that when Dennis Weaver was alive he probably praised this flick up and down constantly because it was Steven Spielberg, and he was hoping to God to get cast in "Saving Private Ryan Again" or whatever, but the fact is, Dennis Weaver was a pretty goddamn good actor and didn't need a voice over to communicate to his audience that his character wondered "Why won't he leave me alone?" as a mysterious unseen stranger driving a rusty oil tanker repeatedly rear-ended him at 60 m.p.h while careening down a mountain road.

Still, it's all very exciting, or at least the first 70 or so minutes is. Then you find yourself thinking that, as long as we're clearly never going to see the truck driver -- because he represents the faceless inevitability of death, or whatever the fuck -- can we please just get to the resolution here? Either this guy is going to cheat death ("...for now.") or death will find him in the end and drive off into the distance (" look for its next victim.").

So. It just doesn't take us quite as long to figure out that those are our only two choices. I think we're supposed to be a little further out on the edges of our seats hoping to see who the truck driver is. Maybe I'm a little too jaded and familiar with film school types to enjoy this movie as much as I would have liked.

If you're into seeing this for the piece of movie/TV history it is, I highly recommend it. The opening titles, by the way are great -- it looks like Quentin Tarantino may have lifted them for "Death Proof."

Monday, August 24, 2009

American Beer (2005)

Directed by Paul Kermizian. If you know me, and why would you be reading this if you didn't, you know I've been working insane hours. I've been seriously considering changing careers. Part of this fantasy came from seeing "American Beer," a poorly shot, wonderfully satisfying documentary about a group of friends who visit 38 U.S. breweries in 40 days.

They interview microbrewers, who by the way, are all beautifully nuts. If you look at the pure numbers of the beer industry, it's nothing but corporate consolidation -- 70% of beer consumption is three brands, while craft beers consist of well under ten percent. Yet, planned and executed properly, these microbrewers are happy proprietors of successful small businesses and ecstatic customers love their products.

It reminded me a lot of the independent music business of the '90s, when (some) bands and (some) record companies figured out how to keep margins low and find a sufficiently sized enough fan base to keep a business afloat that existed completely outside of the mainstream and compromised nothing.

The real inspiration to me came at the end of the flick, when the obligatory "where are they now" moment explained that one of the guys on the road trip was so knocked out by the whole thing that he opened the Cape Ann Brewery in Gloucester, Mass., which I checked out online and found is running fine and has decent distribution. Now I want to quit my tedious desk job and open a microbrewery that has an authentic pit barbecue. It would be the only one I have ever heard of, and I can't imagine who wouldn't want to go there, since it seems like there must be absurd crossover between the groups of people who love each of those things. Somebody else open this place so that I can go there.

Inglorious Basterds (2009)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino. There is nothing more pathetic than a dormant blog, unless of course nobody reads it. I remember once Albert Brooks on the Howard Stern Show telling a story about doing a radio show interview for nearly two hours before the disc jockey figured out that they'd been off the air for more than an hour, and not one person had called to let the jock know. Nobody has bitched to me about not complaining about movies, though to be sure, I have always known this is more for me than anybody else.

It's not clear whether the question is to write or not write? As expression, surely it is a form of therapy. I've been working 60-hour weeks, but I haven't stopped watching movies. In between watching the Red Sox gradually throw away this season and reading a bit I have grabbed bits of movies, occasionally at 4AM when coming home from the days at the office that began at 6AM the day before. Maybe I'll eventually write about some of these:
  • The Great Texas Dynamite Chase (1976)
  • Killer Bees (1974)
  • The Savage Bees (1976)
  • Knocked Up (2007)
  • Turistas (2006)
  • Smile (1975)
  • What About Bob? (1991)
  • One Crazy Summer (1986)
  • Roxanne (1987)
  • The Bad News Bears (1976)
  • The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (1977)
  • Crank (2006)
  • Miss March (2009)
  • Frost/Nixon (2008)
  • We Are Marshall (2006)
  • The Wackness (2008)
  • He's Just Not That Into You (2009)
  • So I Married An Axe Murderer (1993)
  • Bee Movie (2007)
  • Fast Food Nation (2006)
  • 52 Pick Up (1986)
  • Reality Bites (1994)
  • The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
  • How to Steal a Million (1966)
  • The Double McGuffin (1979)
And speaking of "The Double McGuffin," don't get me started on the number of rare movies I've acquired in the last month or so that I haven't looked at. It's heartbreaking. I'm used to baseball season cutting into seeing movies, but work has made this silly. I'm seriously thinking of changing careers. Something big needed to happen to kick me and force me to make time to write again.

Enter Quentin Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds." I literally count down time to the release of each new Tarantino movie. I put it on the calendar and the day a new one is released I find a way to sneak out of work early to see it, if possible.

The best thing about the prospect of Tarantino making a WWII picture is destruction of the mold. A broad history of WWII flicks suggests two categories: early ones that dramatize significant historic events ("The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Where Eagles Dare") and contemporary ones that exploit the rhetorical question of how the holocaust was allowed to occur ("Schindler's List," "The Reader").

All deaths are not equal. We cry during "Schindler's List" because the genocide depicted is real and we realize just how recent it was. We do not feel as empathic toward the Nazis brutally beaten and scalped in "Inglorious Basterds" because the specific incidents and the story is fiction and we feel they have it coming. But there are major parts of history re-written here, and there is some savage violence that is effectively humanized amid the fiction. We're entertained but make no mistake; we are forced to deal head-on with our anger and realize that we don't feel the same way about all real-life deaths.

Everything here is not effective. Despite what Tarantino is saying in every talk show interview promoting this flick, I'm not so sure Brad Pitt was perfect for this. His first appearance onscreen is his most critical scene. But his furrowed brow and aimless pacing suggest more an actor struggling to remember his lines than one establishing a bond with either other characters or the audience.

That's the only big problem with this movie. Compared to Tarantino's other movies, this one is missing real chemistry between the characters onscreen. An exception is Col. Hans Landa, who is played by a German actor, Christoph Waltz, in his first American film. Anytime this Nazi character spends any amount of time onscreen, it's a powerful, tense exchange. But he's a Nazi, so it's not really a conversation, it's an interrogation. You can't blame Col. Handa for that. He's just doing his job. At 2.5 hours, while there's almost nothing but dialogue in this movie, there's precious little conversation.

All that said, "Inglorious Basterds" will end up one of the best movies of the year, and Waltz will unquestionably be nominated for an Oscar. Since Pitt is in the movie, Waltz will get only a supporting actor nomination, which is too bad, since I'm sure he has more screen time in this than Pitt, but that's the way it goes.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Taken (2008)

Directed by Pierre Morel. Don't let this one fool you because it's much better than you think it is. As soon as it's over, it's out of your life. A year or so from now, you won't even remember if you've seen it. You'll be at someone's house. "Want to see a movie?" they'll ask, pulling this one down with a finger off a shelf of DVDs, "Have you seen 'Taken'? It's pretty exciting."

"Um, I don't know," you'll say. "Liam Neeson. What is he, like a cop?"

"He's a retired CIA guy who's disillusioned with the global insensitivity of humankind," your friend explains, "and discourages his young daughter from going on a European vacation with only her female friend. She goes anyway, and he has the cosmic misfortune of hearing them kidnapped in Paris as she is calling home to check in with him. And his rescue adventure begins."

"That sounds like a hundred movies," you'll say. "And who gives a shit about Liam Neeson. I'll pass."

"No, don't." Your friend should say. "Most of the time in movies like this the main character is more a prop designed to set off explosions and car chases but Liam Neeson plays a real character, this guy named Bryan Mills, who has a genuine psychological struggle. His job was everything to him -- it tore his family apart and now he's trying to put that back together again. It's made him hate the world, but not only won't that solve his problems, it doesn't make him one-dimensional and either dark and hateful or wacky and silly. He's compelling. I wish this movie had started a franchise of annual sequels where his stupid daughter just gets herself into dumb situations where she's kidnapped annually and he has to rush off and save her. There'd be like 'Taken Again,' and 'Taken Still One More Time' and 'Taken For Good' and 'Taken by a Jamaican' and 'Canadian Taken' and so on.

"O.K.," you'll remember, "I have seen this, but pop it in anyway. One of the things I remember about it is how any car he needs to use just happens to have the keys in it, which totally pissed me off the third time it happens, but I'll see it again anyway because there like four or five awesome parts."

And you will like it a lot.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Downhill Racer (1969)

Directed by Michael Ritchie. Michael Ritchie went on to direct one of my favorite movies, 1976's "The Bad News Bears," but long before that had a very weird directorial style -- sort of documentarian. Really unnecessarily documentarian. To the point of begging a documentary on his subject. He did a pair of movies with Robert Redford, "Downhill Racer" and in 1972 "The Candidate," the first about a pro skier and the latter about a guy who runs for Senator in California. He succeeded with this style in 1975's beauty pageant comic drama, "Smile." It's tempting to accuse him of needing Robert Altman to have made his masterpiece "Nashville" that same year to see how to do it in order to make "Smile" but obviously the two movies were made at the same time, so it wouldn't be fair.

The point is that "Downhill Racer" is not a tremendous success here. Depending on your mood, I'd say it takes a relaxed pace and is a quiet film, though there is a fine line between that and just being goddamn boring. True to the style, Redford is very good and playing this arrogant and self-centered character in an understated and realistic way -- never over the top or cinematically evil, but this means we don't get a hell of a lot to sink our teeth into. When absurdly hot ski groupie Camilla Sparv gets the best of him we get excited simply because something on the screen has happened; this is not the best situation to find yourself in as a film goer.

The best thing about the movie is Gene Hackman, but not because he's particularly good. He plays "Eugene Claire," the wonderfully Canadian named, tough-talking, "what-the-hell-were-you-doing-up-there?" manager. He has a lot of yelling tantrums. He gives pep talks. He's basically a movie cliche, and it's great! It's just what this dead fish of a movie needs.

This Michael Ritchie is weird because after "The Bad News Bears," a brilliant satire on the death of the American dream, it's as if he lost his mind. In '81 he was the uncredited director of "Student Bodies," really a fine, if characteristically understated (and now dated) satire of evolution of contemporary horror films. After that he started cranking out star-driven Hollywood dog shit: "Fletch" (1985), "Wildcats" (1986), "The Golden Child" (1986), even the TV movie "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom" in (1993).

Hollywood is rough, man.

For Singles Only (1968)

Directed by Arthur Dreifuss. There's no way in hell I can beat the two-word review of this on IMDB that reads "trashy timewaster" without either providing some genuine information or at least posing some relevant questions.

This is quite simply a fantastic film that will leave you baffled. Why does this light piece of fluff include a violent rape scene about two-thirds of the way through? Did someone in Hollywood think all of this mediocrity would somehow mathematically combine to more than the sum of its parts? How many of the hot actresses in this did Milton Berle shock with his famously massive schlong?

Milton Berle does a competent job here reading cue cards and mugging for the camera in three scenes placed strategically at the beginning, middle and end of the picture. This was probably done to spread out his appearance and make it seem longer, though I prefer to look at it as only having to take Berle in small doses.

One reason I was sold on this movie was because of John Saxon, one of the most instantly recognizable faces in film/TV cursed with the least recognizable name. You think you don't know John Saxon, but don't you know this guy?

I thought so. He'd show up on "Fantasy Island" and "The Love Boat" once a season and be on his merry way, and people shouldn't forget (though it's far too late to prevent it) that he co-starred with Bruce Lee in "Enter the Dragon."

But in "For Singles Only" John Saxon doesn't seem to know any martial arts or that might have come in handy in the brutal rape scene I'm warning you about for the second time. The other reasons I was sold on this movie were hot '60s chicks, which if you know me -- and why would you be reading this if you didn't -- you know I'm a sucker for. This movie includes Lana Wood (gorgeous sister to Natalie Wood, Playboy model and terrible actress) as well as Mary Ann Mobley, who if you don't know from your collection of Miss America memorabilia (1959), you remember from celebrity game show panels of the '70s:

When this movie was released, the New York Times review said of its producer, Sam Katzman, "only an elderly movie producer living in southern California could remain alive and yet be so dead to the meaning of the world around him."

Ridiculous! Here's the plot: John Saxon plays Bret Hendley an apparently non-Jewish young man about to be kicked out of grad school because he's got money problems. Saxon was 33 when he made this but I think he's supposed to be a lot younger. Anyway, his buddies in the swinging singles apartment where they all live bet him all the money he needs that he can't bed down the new cutie down the hall whose given all the boys the brush off. Ladies' Man Bret takes that bet -- but wouldn't you know? He falls in love with the lady!

I won't spoil any of the surprises that follow, and before you go thinking I'm sarcastically implying that a movie like this has none to offer, let me remind you one more time of the horrible, brutal rape that shows up inexplicably in this otherwise very light romantic comedy! Not to mention the appearance by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band! I swear I am not shitting you!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Terror on the Beach (1973)

Directed by Paul Wendkos. Poor Susan Dey. Her acting career just consisted of being abused. When she wasn't pretending to sing and play the Fender Rhodes on the "Partridge Family," she was thrown in prison in 1975's "Cage Without a Key" or in this movie terrorized by dune buggy-crazed beach thugs. And goodness knows throughout it all she didn't allow herself a square meal.

So yeah, this is essentially a biker movie without the bikes. The ruffians drive dune buggies, don't ask why. But the movie is less about Susan Dey unfortunately and more about her ineffectual goofy dad, played by Dennis Weaver, and how he eventually finds his center and stands up to these assholes in the last ten minutes of the flick. The other 80 minutes is pretty standard biker movie fare, where they bully the family and you wish something else would happen.

I'll say this -- great vehicles. I love these early '70s dune buggies and especially the tricked out camper van that the Dennis Weavers are driving around in. It's got the pop-top roof and the booth-style table. I love that stuff. Otherwise, I can't believe I sat through this.

Cage Without a Key (1975)

Directed Buzz Kulik. I need to show somebody this movie, or at least about ten seconds of this movie. Because while I was able to verify on the Internet that this is indeed a TV movie, and the sound is not great on the copy I have, I could swear that in one scene this woman asks a guy, "Did she tell you to fuck off?" which to me seemed peculiar for a TV movie from 1975.

I'll tell you what does not seem peculiar for this TV movie. It's AWESOME! You'd expect nothing less from director Buzz Kulik, the director of "Bad Ronald," the greatest TV movie ever. If Alfred Hitchcock was the Master of Suspense then Buzz Kulik was the Master of Bad Ronald. "Cage Without a Key" was his follow-up to "Bad Ronald" and while it's not a sequel, it's almost as if he is metaphysically channeling Ronald's journey to prison at the end of that film by showing a completely unrelated character going to prison in a completely unrelated story.

Confusing the question for me as to whether this is a TV movie is that it came to me titled "Imprisoned Women" (see image icon above), which in it's own way is a much better title. In this movie there are many imprisoned women, who are indeed stored in cells not unlike cages but, in the interest of accuracy seem unquestionably to operate quite reasonably with keys even if the women are not provided access to the keys. Being imprisoned and all.

Anyway. Susan Dey is the imprisoned woman of central interest here and I'm not sure why it is not until my 40s that I've realized just how good looking she was. A little too skinny, but what a beauty. The demands on her acting in this particular flick change with the three acts. In act one she is naive and foolish. Act two involves a lot of crying and carrying on as she assimilates with imprisonment. In act three, she becomes hardened because society has failed her. It's all very distressing, except for the part about her being quite fetching.

I won't ruin the ending, although if you see a lot of movies from this period, you probably know what happens to an African-American when whitey go and be friends.

Fanboys (2008)

Directed by Kyle Newman. I would like to know the story behind why the release of this film got delayed over and over because that's usually the mark of a serious stinker, and while this is hardly a classic of any kind, it's certainly not a stinker and is in fact, very much my kind of movie. I love a teen comedy, especially one with a road trip plot, a good heart and good actors, and "Fanboys" has all of that.

Some time ago I wrote about "Sex Drive" and this is as good as that. The only thing that might have made me not like "Fanboys" is that its plot is about a group of "Star Wars" fans and the plot is full of sly winks and obscure references to "Star Wars" movies and fans and that sort of stuff is lost on me. I'm also conflicted on whether it detracts from the film or if it's not the filmmaker's fault that this important, fun part of the film is lost on me so I should just shut up. I'm willing to give the benefit of doubt and say nothing more about that.

"Fanboys" has a nice premise. The story takes place a few months prior to the release of "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace." A group of charming but geeky, 20-something, life-long "Star Wars" pals plan and execute a sort of "Make a Wish" mission on behalf of one of the group. As the young man dies of cancer, they work together to break into George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch to find and view a print of the movie the friend will unquestionably not live long enough to see.

Hilarity ensues, their is not too much "Star Wars" bullshit for people who will not find that sort of foolishness funny, and the ending of the movie does not pussy out on its premise. A great comedy.

The Wave (1981)

Directed by Alexander Grasshoff. This won an Emmy at a time when I think it you just got an Emmy if you scared the living fuck out of people. If you made a TV movie that suggested that the Russians might drop the bomb before the next commercial break, you got an Emmy. If you made a TV movie that suggested your tap water was flammable, you got an Emmy.

"The Wave" was Based On A True Story, which one of the more meaningless phrases around. History teacher Burt Ross proposes a school club called "The Wave" that promotes power, discipline and superiority. Through subtle passive aggression he promotes recruitment through high pressure.

His goal is to illustrate the climate of 1930s Germany to his students. However, they are apparently too dumb to see the connection and so starved for any kind of organization and structure in their lives that they LOVE IT! Eventually though, he herds them all into a gymnasium and says shame on you, you stupid kids, that's just how Hitler convinced all the dumb Nazis to kill Jews and what are you, like a bunch of wild Nazis and what if I had asked you to kill Jews, would you have just done that? You can just imagine if a teacher tried this today. Damn, these days if a teacher bring peanuts to class they get tarred and feathered.

Either this Burt Ross is a complete creep or this is the most poorly set up screenplay I've seen in a long time. To justify the second act, in which Ross introduces the Wave, shouldn't the kids NOT QUITE GET the proliferation of Nazi power? Shouldn't they question the likelihood of the widespread acceptance of the Final Solution? Wouldn't that somehow justify an experiment as daring as the Wave? BUT NO! When Ross explains the execution of Jews, Gays, gypsies, blacks, the disabled, and several other religions, the high school kids are appropriately horrified and seem in no way incredulous. So why traumatize them? It makes no sense.

Yet "The Wave" seems to be a classic of some sort, despite it barely airing. I could not verify this, but I have heard that it aired only once or twice on US TV because it was ultimately deemed too intense. Well, Stan in the "South Park" movie may have said it best when he asked, "Dude, what the fuck is wrong with German people?" Germany re-made this crazy thing just last year as "Die Welle," though I'll bet that's a lot better than "The Wave: The Musical," which I apologize for writing off without listening to even though I could download the whole thing for free at

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Rolling Thunder (1977)

Directed by John Flynn. Revenge movies are very simple but not very easy. The plot is always the same but it is hard to make work. For the movie to succeed, we need to want revenge as badly as the film's main character -- but what should we feel once the hero gets his revenge? There are wooden-headed films about nothing more than the satisfaction that comes with settling a grudge and more complicated ones that consider whether vengeance comes with the price of lowering oneself to the level of one's enemy.

I like the idea that either way the hero of a revenge movie makes a sacrifice on behalf of the audience. They sacrifice their soul so that the audience may feel cathartic satisfaction without paying the price of malice.

As a movie "Rolling Thunder" works it manages to have it every which way. William Devane plays Major Charles Rane, a late-70s Hollywood boilerplate Vietnam POW -- psychologically scarred, physically wounded, alternately sneered at and condescended to by society. As if things couldn't get any worse, his wife and kid get murdered when their house is robbed by Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane, who also pushes his hand down a garbage disposal.

Major Rane spends the rest of the movie running around Mexico, somehow a lot more physically agile than he was before the robbery, finding the killers one-by-one using methods never made perfectly clear and exacting extremely satisfying revenge with the help of a hot chick played by Linda Haynes and fellow disenfranchised vet Tommy Lee Jones.

There's a nice 'we're all guilty" angle to it all because in the end, Major Rane and his buddy finally feel at home in post-war civilization again as killing machines, which we turned them into, so really it's our own fault. They got their revenge and they feel at home again. Major Rane can't get his family back, but at least he has his sanity. And the revenge film genre is far healthier than it is in the hands of Sylvester Stallone.