Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

Directed by Woody Allen. Before I saw this my sister-in-law Nancy warned me that it made her mad that she'd never get her two hours back. I would say that this is not a good movie for people who don't like thoughtful stories about love, featuring beautifully shot Spanish scenery, and well acted by great looking people.

"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (or as the teens at the rec center are calling it, VCB) is a fairly sophisticated exploration of chemistry in relationships. Specifically, it considers the problem of how relationships require both attraction and devotion. However, not only do individuals vary in their basic capability for each of these things, different couples seem to have chemistry more or less prone toward attraction and devotion. Allen portrays individuals and couples of all possible combinations.

This is a weirdly romantic movie. Without recapping all the crazy couplings, this seems to be statement against objective notions of what constitutes a "functional" or "dysfunctional" relationship. Ultimately the happiest couple here is the most conventionally dysfunctional, but they are the most passionate. As long as they remain smart enough to ignore conventional measures of attraction and devotion and express these feeling as their hearts dictate, they maintain relational satisfaction.

This flick got a lot of attention because it's full of really hot actresses slinking around in thin dresses. I think some people are just creeped out by Woody Allen and the very idea that he's behind the camera or wrote this story is enough for many to be turned off by it. Allen is at a little bit of a disadvantage in that he is both old and well-known. Unknown directors without any gossip baggage in their lives have more license to pose difficult philosophical questions in their work than directors whose work asks questions that may have uncomfortable autobiographical relevance -- or at least can be rationalized as such. Further, is there ageism at work here? Do older directors seem creepy if they explore sexuality?

Tough. This is the smartest, most honest movie he's made in years. These days, when he just tosses off comedies he reveals the sad fact that he's lost a lot of his comedy muscle. Sad to say, but someone needs to point it out.

Grand Slam (Ad Ogni Costo) (1967)

Directed by Giuliano Montaldo. The original marquee poster for this diamond heist caper reads: "Silence!...One whisper could set off Grand Slam -- the world's most fool-proof alarm!" As is so often the case with caper films, silence is also in order to make sure you don't reveal the ending of this movie to your friends. This is a hell of a lot of fun.

And it includes an essential element of a good caper film: an elite team. There's a safe-cracker, a master thief, a electrical engineer and an international playboy. Their benefactor is played by Edward G Robinson, who taught school for 30 years in Rio de Janeiro while in his spare time planning the perfect crime, raiding the jewel vault across the street.

Robinson's character retires from teaching to gather his team and put the plan into action, using each member for some essential step, the diciest of which involves using his playboy to seduce the only woman (Janet Leigh) with a key critical to the plan. Leigh's character presents a challenge because she is prim and ugly, we see this because she wears glasses.

But don't let that bit of sloppiness wreck this one for you, this is all top-notch suspense and action. When things really come to a boil the advantage changes hands fast and frequently, and not in that new way it's done in the movies, where you're made to feel like an idiot ("Oh. So all along she was actually her daughter? And they planned all this out from the beginning? So that whole car chase, and the falling off the building, and when they argued in front of him, they must have been faking that to trick him? So how did they know he was...I'm confused."). No, this one makes sense!

True Romance (1993)

Directed by Tony Scott. I hadn't seen this in about ten years and re-watched it because in June Tony Scott's remake of "The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3" is scheduled for release and I couldn't be more skeptical. That is bound to be a serious stinker.

If you read this blog, you are bound to be aware that "True Romance" was written by a young Quentin Tarantino with him hoping to direct it as his first feature film. I don't want to insult Scott; I liked "Enemy of the State" and "Domino." All I'm saying is that I'm certain "True Romance" would have been much better if Tarantino had done it himself, and the extent of that can not be underestimated. It's such a good script it's hard to think that anyone could have screwed it up. Giving a script like "True Romance" to Tony Scott is like strapping a jet-pack to a turtle.

The movie tells the story of newlyweds Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) and Alabama Whitman (Patricia Arquette), on the run to Mexico while trying to sell a briefcase of cocaine stolen from Alabama's former pimp. The pacing of the story is spectacular, with the third act climaxing in a hotel room scene that's under-sold if described as intricately exciting.

That's enough to recommend this, though there's the context -- at the time of its release, Tarantino's career was getting seriously rolling. "Reservoir Dogs" had hit the previous year and critics and audiences had developed an appetite for his style: real attention to dialog, violence, and strong stories using traditional 'grindhouse' contexts not known for strong stories.

Tarantino's great work was attracting great actors; "True Romance" featured major contributions by Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper, including one long scene that both writers and actors study to this day. "Reservoir Dogs" included Harvey Keitel.

If you've never seen "True Romance" or haven't seen it since it was released you may be surprised or put off by how it has aged. It has a bit of a "neon" look to it that's hard to believe was deliberately tacky, as opposed to regrettable contemporary "Hot Topic" production design. But as the earliest significant installment of Tarantino's career, it's a priceless time capsule.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Special (2006)

Directed by Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore. This movie felt like one of those Charlie Kaufmann movies, like "Adaptation" or "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," where you can just barely tell which parts are really happening in the story or what a character is imagining or dreaming. This is a pretty essential part of the story, which is about a guy named Les (played by Michael Rapaport) who takes an experimental mood-enhancing drug and then either gains super powers or just believes he does.

Naturally what follows is a whole lot of allegorical stuff about what it truly means to be special, what truly represents a special power, how everything we need is inside us all along, how everyone is a hero, etc. Now here's the thing, the messages within this movie are about the same as those within "Hancock," a much huger Will Smith movie about a flawed superhero blah blah blah. "Special" communicates its message with a lot more class and subtlety, but damned if it wasn't exhausting. The Will Smith movie is downright wooden-headed as a piece of cinema, but it's hell of a lot more entertaining.

Listen, it's easy to take the high road and blather about how much more intelligent independent films are, and in nearly all cases, they are. But comparing "Special" to "Hancock" provides nearly a controlled test and its as simple as this: you want smart, stylish, thought-provoking and bittersweet, go to "Special." If you want to be entertained, see "Hancock."

The Reader (2008)

Directed by Stephen Daldry. I suppose a movie that generates as much impassioned response as this one accomplished something, though it is possible that that something might be simply telling a Holocaust tale, which always seems to bring out something so I'm not sure that's such big news. Still, I was moved, I'll say that. But by the end of this movie, I didn't really like anybody in it. Though I'm not sure if I was supposed to.

Not on principle but as a function of consequence, I don't pay attention to much and so I have to admit that I didn't really know what this story was going to be about. I knew it was a period piece that took place around WWII and Nazi Germany, but I didn't know the specifics. So I was as surprised as Michael Berg when the whole damn second act unfolded. I'm glad too, because movies like this generally don't offer a lot in the way of "fun," and as bleak as this story is, my ignorance wasn't going to change any of that, so at least I got to have the fun of being surprised. So in that spirit, I'll skip the spoilers here.

Now. Just to explain my hating on everybody. I sympathize with everything Michael Berg went through in his life, but there does come a point in life when everyone needs to let go. Stop injecting yourself into things. Chalk it up to experience and move on. As for this Hanna Schmitz, finally learning to read is a little bit like when the 400 pound guy tries to improve his looks by getting an earring.

OK, put that one on the stack of other Holocaust movies that are Important To See and I never want to see again.

The Pleasure Seekers (1964)

Directed by Jean Negulesco. This could be considered a guilty pleasure if either: a. watching a film could ever make me feel guilty, or b., this one provided much pleasure. Here Negulesco remakes 1954's "Three Coins in the Fountain" in which three American girls look for romance in Rome with the basic variant being that the girls in "The Pleasure Seekers" are much, much hotter.

The specific attraction of "The Pleasure Seekers" is the attentive blond, brunette and red-headed casting of Carol Lynley, Pamela Tiffin and Ann-Margret, respectively. There isn't a hell of a lot for anyone to do except for Ann-Margret and that, unfortunately, is sing and dance.

The best parts are when Brian Keith shows up to do his mumble-and-nose-breathing routine, and only because that's so damned amusing. Tony Franciosa is simply disturbing because he looks like he may have been carved out of marble, and not in a good way. The girls change in and out of a lot of different dresses, sometimes on screen, which is a huge plus, though without anything else going on to speak for I started to feel a little old for this sort of thing.

In the end, this movie's title does not refer to its audience unless it can be specified somehow that the seekers are unsuccessful in their quest. By the way, named for this very movie, the Pleasure Seekers was Suzi Quatro's first band, from Detroit. I have their single, "Never Thought You'd Leave Me," and if I remember to do it I will upload it to this review so that anyone who wants to can hear it.

Paper Lion (1968)

Directed by Alex March. Lawyers have ruined everything these days so nobody is allowed to do anything daring unless they've been hired to do it. Yes, you could pay to skydive or bungee jump or whatever, but not until you sign a stack of waivers. What writer George Plimpton once did will never happen again. Plimpton was a Harvard-educated journalist best known for putting himself in high-risk professional experiences as an amateur and then writing about his experiences.

In 1963, Plimpton participated in pre-season training with the Detroit Lions and ran a few plays in a scrimmage game as a quarterback. He wrote about it in his book, "Paper Lion," which apparently sold well enough to be made into this movie, which starred Alan Alda and came out in 1968.

The movie takes a lot of liberties with the facts, showing Plimpton playing in a pre-season game rather than a scrimmage. The movie also makes it appear as if the players on the team believed for quite a bit longer than they did that Plimpton was just another player trying out for the team, which is absolutely ridiculous. It's even harder to believe when Alda is playing Plimpton. However, at least they accurately portray Plimpton getting his ass kicked in the few plays he ran. They also accurately portray the famous Detroit bar fight in which Plimpton took on a whole group of provoking troublemakers so that his teammates wouldn't get fined or arrested for fighting.

So this is a perfectly entertaining movie though perhaps not completely as originally intended. The NFL being what it is today, lawyers being what they are today, it's a marvel to know that this happened at all. In other writing experiences, Plimpton sparred with boxers Archie Moore and Sugar Ray Robinson. He pitched to Ernie Banks in Yankee Stadium before the second All-Star Game. I would cherish the "Paper Lion" and Plimpton's career itself as a lost form of journalism and performance art, and this movie as a by-product of that.

Sex Drive (2008)

Directed by Sean Anders. I like a good teen sex comedy but there aren't a lot of them around and there are lots of shitty ones. They shouldn't be so disposable, but they are generational. They're aimed squarely at 17 year-olds, in ten years there will be a new crop of 17 year-olds, and this is why evolution of the genre can be minimal. Teen sex comedies can be about jobs, road trips, school, body-switching and maybe murder -- and that's about it. Re-hashing is not just excusable, it's expected.

"Sex Drive" is a road movie, and a very good one -- a re-hash of another good one, Rob Reiner's "The Sure Thing," from 1985. Not a re-make, a re-hash. Different story, different characters, just a bunch of the same things. It's a good thing. "Sex Drive" has the three essential elements of a good teen sex movie: a truly sympathetic main character (well played by Josh Zuckerman), some goal other than loss of virginity (this involves a vintage Pontiac GTO), and funny ideas for things to happen (my favorite involved a opossum).

"Sex Drive" has some other things that bring a movie like this to the cut above: when the best friend is genuinely funny and not just an asshole (a very difficult role well played by Clark Duke), good performances from the incidental characters (a brilliant role by Seth Green), and good payoff to a running gag that I shouldn't spoil here involving the main character's older brother.

Couldn't put this up there with "Risky Business" or "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" but "Sex Drive" ranks with the '90s' "Can't Hardly Wait" or the '80s' "Sixteen Candles."

Milk (2008)

Directed by Gus Van Sant. I don't care much about Gus Van Sant though I enjoyed this a hell of a lot. My general rule is that I disapprove of biopics because they are unnecessary; I prefer to see documentaries. So more than 20 years ago I saw what may or may not still be considered the definitive documentary on Harvey Milk which is from 1984, "The Times of Harvey Milk," and is directed by Rob Epstein, who got a lot more attention with "The Celluloid Closet" in 1995. However, Prof. Lizie has impressed upon me that movies made from books and then biopics are simply different things. Like, it's not as if I'd say that animated films of trees are unnecessary because it's possible to film real ones. Which is not a bad point.

And a relevant one, because Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, James Franco, Josh Brolin and everyone else here do a damned fine job animating the trees so to speak. Watching biopics I've become very sensitive to those annoying moments where they're clearly compressing a bunch of real-life events and conversations into a single scene. But these actors deliver that sort of awkwardness with style and -- we easily trust -- great representations of the personalities they are recreating.

You know the tale, so I'll spare you. I meant to see that documentary again to compare it to this Van Sant movie but didn't bother because once I saw "Milk" I was pretty Milked out. Once you've sat through one two-hour-plus film of people getting hated on that with them getting assassinated by a sociopathic closet case, you've pretty much had it, I'd say.

What also contributed to my fatigue was the worst and best part of this flick. The best part was the way it switched to its real world personalities at the end, showing images of the real people and updating us on what happened to them (it also demonstrated what a nice job the actors did depicting these people). The part I didn't like was that the movie may have waited just a couple of minutes too long to do that, depicting a candlelight vigil for Milk that I'm sure real footage of exists, and looked maudlin and sappy as a Hollywood recreation.

Either way, a biopic worthy of its Oscar nod.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

High Plains Drifter (1973)

Directed by Clint Eastwood. Westerns don't get enough credit for sophisticated storytelling. "High Noon" is the granddaddy of them all, a great fable about personal demons. Clint Eastwood directed this and was clearly determined to do justice to a story as great as "High Noon," although the moral is pointed more down the barrel of the gun from the protagonist, as is often the case in Clint's tales.

I don't have a lot of time right now to rehash this story but in an effort to nail it in a couple of sentences, the people of the town of Lago have a dark secret and now they're paying for it because they're being bullied by a gang of toughs and have no sheriff to uphold the law. So they hire Clint to defend the town, who seems to be a drifter with no name but happens to be willing to take the job despite a tremendous chip on his shoulder that, being a mysterious drifter, would have to have come from nowhere, right?

Well, if I do say so myself, that's a damn good two-sentence summary and tease. There's a metaphysical nature to this that you don't often see in a western, too. The only thing not to its credit -- you don't tend to see rape scenes anymore in Hollywood pictures unless they're integral to the plot -- and this one has two, one of them the most dated kind, where the girl gives in halfway through because she realizes she's Into It. Eeesh. But please, don't let that keep you away from what's got to be one of the best westerns ever made.

Die! Die! My Darling! (1965)

Directed by Silvio Narizzano. In her last screen role, Tallulah Bankhead plays Mrs. Trefoile, who is grieving the death of her son. It seems that before dying the guy had planned to marry Pat (Stefanie Powers), though it's not clear if that was a contributing factor to the heart attack that killed him.

Well apparently Pat bounces back from these things more easily than Mrs. Trefoile because the flick opens with her getting ready to marry some other guy and deciding to stop over at the old lady's house, you know, just to say hello, as long as she's in town. And here's what a bitch Mrs. Trefoile is: she doesn't even know that with the body still warm Pat's already marrying somebody else, and she still kidnaps her! She's just nuts! But now we've got a movie!

This movie was also distributed as "Fanatic," which is a much more Hitchcock-like title and this movie is often likened to "Psycho," but let's not go crazy, pardon the pun. I actually don't know much Hitchcock compared to many people but the setting, the cartoonish characters, and the dialogue don't strike me as much like Hitchcock. Just because a nut locks up a hot skinny chick and there's a lot of sexual subtext doesn't make it like Hitchcock, does it? Or maybe it does.

Look for a young Donald Sutherland as an imbecilic farmhand. You won't have to look hard; he over-acts the daylights out of the role.

Chicken Run (2000)

Directed by Nick Park and Peter Lord. I watched this with Max, who was reluctant at first, but completely sold on it once he understood that this was made by "the Wallace and Gromit guy." He was further sold by a menu item on the DVD labeled the "panic button" which cuts to a moment in the film when a screen full of chickens run around shrieking for a few seconds. He needed to see this over and over.

The story is simple. A bunch of chickens race to escape their farm while the farmer is busy upgrading production on a machine that grinds live chickens into fully-packaged, ready-to-ship pies. The chickens are losing hope when a stranger arrives to offer help, although they don't know that his arrival was an accident based on his own incompetence. Everyone grows up a little. There are a lot of laughs.

There are three great points to be made about this film. The first is the pacing. It goes by very quickly because it's full of good ideas. No scene is wasted without some unique idea and genuine contribution to the plot; its worth seeing the film just for the scene inside the pie-making machine. The second point is the style. This is a beautiful film. Animated films now are all computer generated and few have much warmth to them. This one uses clay and it makes a big difference. The third point is rhythm. You don't realize how much this pot has come to boil by the third act when all the chaos hits. That's nice screenwriting, when the momentum doesn't just smack you in the face.

This is rated-G, though if your kid is younger than 7 or so, keep in mind that if they haven't figured it all out that chicken meat is chopped up chickens, this flick will put it all together for them.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Over the Edge (1979)

Directed by Jonathan Kaplan. You know what you're getting right from the beginning of this movie when the opening titles explain that the story is of what happens when city planners ignore that the majority of a community consists of minors.

A fictional, very isolated planned community called New Granada sets up nothing for its kids but a rec hall that closes in the late afternoon. So the kids all get into drinking, drugs, vandalism, theft and other petty crimes. There's a riot, arson, a death, everybody points fingers at everybody else and Matt Dillon debuts his big screen persona, Genuine Fonzie.

Breitling reminded me that it exists. I first saw this a lot of years ago mainly because the soundtrack record was very good, which was unusual at the time. For example, the "Grease" movie soundtrack (1978) was huge but this was a score to a show. And 1977's "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack had tons of hit singles, but these were racked up as the popularity of the record and film spiraled. Then there were later soundtrack records like the ones for "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982) and "Heavy Metal" (1981), which were full of top acts but also full of crappy songs you've never heard of because they're throwaways the artists didn't want on their albums.

But the "Over the Edge" soundtrack has hits like Cheap Trick's "Surrender," "Just What I Needed" and "Best Friend's Girl" by the Cars, and Van Halen's version of "You Really Got Me." I don't think it's in print anymore, which is no wonder because music licensing is a nightmare. It's a wonder that the DVD edition of the movie has the original music in it.

Watching it again my main take was that while the film has a point in that the community was poorly planned and overly isolated, it's kind of an irresponsible movie. Here's the thing; I'm a big fan of exploitation films, but I recognize them as adult movies with a significant element of fantasy built into their premise. For the story in "Over the Edge" to really work there needs to be an absurd "perfect storm" of absolutely OBLIVIOUS, insensitive parents and a unanimous population of completely ROTTEN kids. The only thing that's 100% believable is the stupidity of the planning behind this condominium community. To market this film to teenagers as anything other than a ridiculous, guilty pleasure, a cathartic fantasy -- as opposed to a cautionary tale of what the Establishment Is Doing To You -- is creepy.

But then maybe I'm just a scared member of the Establishment.

Palm Springs Weekend (1963)

Directed by Norman Taurog. "Where the Boys Are" was a successful film in the summer of 1960 so this film cleverly capitalized on its popularity using the shrewd tagline, "It's Where the Boys AND the Girls Are!" This was considered money in the bank. These days it would have been mistaken for she-male porn.

If you read this blog I don't have to tell you that one of the great features of a film of this sort is super-old people playing teenagers. While "Beach Blanket Bingo" is the "Citizen Kane" of this genre because Harvey Lembeck played Eric Von Zipper at the age of 42, "Palm Springs Weekend" does very well in this effort. Jerry Van Dyke as (get this) Biff Roberts was 32 and probably the oldest guy on the set pretending to be a teen, it's safe to say that everyone was at least well into their 20s.

Speaking only for myself this is to the benefit of the female cast, which includes Connie Stevens, Stefanie Powers and Zeme North, who tries to steal the film with a fiery performance that instead reveals that in a cast full of over-actors, she is the over-actoriest. North is cute, though plays the Ugly Girl because she has hair that does not go below the rear neckline of her dress.

As for story, a bunch of white boys and white girls are trying to meet each other during spring break in Palm Springs, which despite the title of the film, seems to be happening over more than just a weekend. Mishaps ensue of varying degrees of wackiness involving dancing, soap suds and attempted rape. I recommend this film if it's Saturday morning and you need to fold laundry, occasionally look out the window to make sure your child is not dead, glance through a magazine, check your email, check to see if Stefanie Powers is on-screen, leave the room to get a bowl of oatmeal, and the damn phone keeps ringing.

Monday, April 13, 2009

North by Northwest (1959)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock (duh). So I saw this again because I was watching TV with Max and some montage was shown that included the biplane shot and he seemed to react to it and Karen explained to him that it was one of the most famous scenes from a movie, ever. It made me think about how long it had been since I'd seen it, and wonder, does the scene stand out that memorably? I'd only seen "North by Northwest" once and what I did remember was how effective Cary Grant communicated that horrible feeling of disconnection from everyone. For some reason all I could focus on that first time was how devastating it would feel to have nobody believe you.

Watching this again, I enjoyed it a lot more though my reaction was more sophisticated and consequently, more cynical. I am only now beginning to understand the complexity attributed to Hitchcock, who I have generally considered highly overrated.

"North by Northwest" is a very intricate story about the illusion of control in the lives of men. A man may wear a beautiful suit and make a lot of money working for a successful company in one of the biggest cities in the world. He may be a great playboy who sleeps with a lot of different women while still doing a noble thing by taking good financial care of his mother. But he is not in control. In a moment, by choice or because of a clerical error, the government can use a piece of paper or a woman can use some deceitful words and her body to make you part of a complex plan that takes it all away.

At the end of this story, Cary Grant -- as Roger Thornhill -- manages to get things back under control, or does he? Now he is married, and the message is that the only real control we have in life is to cloak our lack of control in the happiness of love or the sadness of loneliness. That Al Hitchcock was a dark MF'r.

Role Models (2008)

Directed by David Wain. What you probably don't know about me is that I have to exercise every day and I hate to do it. I am not one of these people with a passion for fitness. I am one of these people who could live on bacon and cookie dough. The exercise dictum is why I see so many movies. A high percentage of my film viewing is done while I exercise -- on a machine in front of a big screen, with the volume loud but subtitles on.

This means that, for me, I divide movies into three categories: the very special ones I've really been looking forward to seeing and won't exercise in front of, the ones I can't exercise in front of because they don't have subtitles, and everything else.

I'd planned for "Role Models" as "everything else," just one of the normal ones that I can exercise in front of, though by about halfway through I realized that I had been discriminating against it in a really weird way. I knew that it was going to be pretty good but I also knew what it was going to be like, it's basic pace, it's edge-to-heart ratio, the strength of its performers (Paul Rudd, Sean William Scott, Jane Lynch, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Elizabeth Banks) -- and because of I confused reliability with predictability. Unfair.

This is a great comedy. For me, I don't think that just because there happens to be a lot of this sort of stuff coming out of Hollywood right now isn't a good reason to take it for granted. I liked that an energy drink brand is a key element of the plot of this flick yet there is not one scene where somebody gets all amped up on energy drinks. I liked that even the stereotypes plumbed here have some depth. And I always love me some KISS references. And by the way, this Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who played McLovin in "Superbad," may have some range.

All I'm saying is that I would see this again, and next time I won't exercise. Though to be fair I never exercise to the same movie twice.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Nobel Son (2007)

Directed by Randall Miller. This movie is the Hollywood equivalent of stone soup. Every writer in town brought something to throw it in the pot in hopes of creating a multi-faceted crowd pleaser. The problem is that one writer brought beef and another brought hot fudge. Another brought broken glass.

This is just crazy. The son of a Nobel prize winning scientist is kidnapped. Simple enough. BUT! The dad doesn't really care about the son. The kidnapper knows the dad stole the research for which he is being honored. The son may be a cannibal. A Beautiful Girl is stalking the son. A neighbor has OCD.

All of this, not to mention the deafening, hack-ass electronic score, are there to distract you from the fact that nobody could decide whether this is supposed to be a suspense flick, a heist caper or a comedy. Which means that it's just another failed Tarantino imitation, or much worse, a successful Guy Ritchie imitation, as if someone at a party who normally just tries too hard and makes everyone in the room uncomfortable has found a way to try even harder, making everyone in the room want to leave.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Clerks II (2006)/Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001)

Directed by Kevin Smith. I think of Kevin Smith as an indie rock Hollywood moviemaker. I know there are people who see his movies as flawed but I just see his movies as Kevin Smith movies and I'm glad he gets to make them.

I'm a big fan of indie rock bands including Yo La Tengo, Guided by Voices, the Feelies. The members of Yo La Tengo are not technically the finest singers, many records by Guided by Voices do not boast slick production, and songs by the Feelies are not particularly complex or sophisticated. But when an auteur oversees all aspects of their total work, those aren't shortcomings per se, they are just aesthetics of the work.

So when I hear people complain about Kevin Smith's shitty directing, I generally have to admit that they're right, but I also think that seeing a Kevin Smith movie for the direction is like listening to a Guided by Voices record for the production. He makes Kevin Smith movies, which I see for funny dialogue and story. I enjoy especially when he is on the screen. I enjoy the pace and that he understands three-act structure and that there should be a point made in the third act, however simple. Sometimes the "singing" makes me cringe -- meaning he's so married to his script that the dialogue sounds mannered and unnatural -- but when David Mamet does that, it's considered style.

In "Clerks II" and "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" Smith indulged himself to the ultimate level. To really enjoy them you'd want to have seen at least "Clerks," "Mallrats," "Chasing Amy" and "Dogma." Not that these aren't worth your time too.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Thing With Two Heads (1972)

Directed by Lee Frost. "The Thing With Two Heads" is famously one of the worst movies of all time, though in that way that everyone needs to see it. It is truly awesome. This was my first time, though from now on I will show it to anyone willing to sit still long enough to watch it with me. In fact, I'm pretty sure it should be shown in film school because it's full of good examples of how not to do things. It's just a complete mess.

Ray Milland plays a racist scientist who has figured out how to do brain transplants by grafting the head containing the brain you want to save onto a donor body, whose existing head you don't bother chopping off. There arises a good news/bad news situation for him: the good news is the ultimate test of his technique, the bad news is that the test is on his own head because he's dying and the only body available is a black guy's, and it's Rosey Grier who's an even shittier actor than him.

Thus there arises a good news/bad news situation for the audience: the good news is that all of this is hilarious, the bad news is that it's never clear whether this movie is a comedy or a bleak drama. Also, my description up to this point may or may not account for only act one of the script or act one plus half of act two or both acts one and two.

There's a secondary story about Rosey Grier's character trying to clear his name for a crime he didn't commit but that's sort of let go in favor of him just trying to cut loose from The Man, and by that I mean both society and Ray Milland's head. This is the premise for act three, which consists really only of driving. In circles. Endlessly. In some undeveloped canyon area of California. Film students, please note that car chases need ideas to work.

In the end, the thing referred to in the title of "The Thing With Two Heads" is probably the original theatrical audience for this movie. Class dismissed.

Ginger (1971)

Directed by Don Schain. If this movie was as cool as its opening sequence -- which features Cheri Caffaro as Ginger driving the New Jersey Turnpike in a gold corvette, with her huge sunglasses, a big jazz score pumping, the eponymous title big as life on the screen -- this would be a fun movie. But it just can't sustain that kind of energy with these shit actors and a plot with no ideas in it.

Ginger is an undercover agent busting a drug ring run by a character played by an actor who holds the distinction of being the worst I've ever seen in a movie of this approximate budget. And that's saying something.

This is an exploitation film, made on a small budget for small distribution to drive-ins and privately owned theaters. This was a crazy time for independent film-making, when it was not a highbrow artistic movement but a strict moneymaking proposition. A movie company with no stars under contract found a theme to exploit: sex, race, violence, extreme horror -- some sort of promise was made to the audience that they would see something that they would not see in typical star-driven fare at the conventional movie houses. If you could make a movie for $200,000, turn $300,000 around on it, and crank out six or more films per year, you had a great business.

As an exploitation film, "Ginger" suffers from some limitations of its low budget. The bad acting is so bad I have no doubt it adds at least ten minutes to its run time. The lighting is so bad you sometimes can not see what is going on. Though as a time capsule of its era, "Ginger" is a good one. It's exploitation aspects are decent examples of what worked on audiences in the movie's time, from comparatively tame but sexy nightclub dancing and and beach catfights, to fully nude hetero and lesbian sexual encounters. Beware that there is one rape, and I wouldn't say that it's handled delicately.

But the real shocking scene happens when Ginger tortures the evil drug dealer by tying down his every limb, and I do mean every, to a bed in a seedy motel. In a scene that Quentin Tarantino has clearly rewound and replayed over and over, Ginger explains to the poor schlub that she is recreating a method of torture used in Japan during World War II, strangling his penis by arousing him. She then does a sexy dance, etc.

Aside from the rape, which could be a bit of a dealbreaker, I'd love to say you should pick up a used copy of this on Amazon, have a few friends over and laugh yourself silly over this.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Encounters at the End of the World (2007)

Directed by Werner Herzog. Here the master documentarian explores the Antarctic, portraying the continent as a living being, a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Herzog goes to McMurdo Station to learn about iceberg geology, visits with researchers of animals such as seals and penguins, but also biologists studying single cell entities and physicists using balloons to collect invisible sub-molecular particles. He walks the edge of a volcano and explores the preserved living quarters of Ernest Shackleton, who explored the South Pole in 1909. It's all fascinating, beautifully shot and moves right along.

Still, I saw this film and "Little Dieter Wants to Fly" pretty much back-to-back, and as good as this is, compared to that it feels a bit meandering and created more from a sense of professionalism than art, or at least pure inspiration. "Little Dieter" is a heart-wrenching story of the human experience. To see and hear it is to resolve not to waste one's own life.

On the other hand, "Encounters at the End of the World" is not as inspirational as "Little Dieter," though to be fair it never claims to be that inspired. At the very beginning of the film, Herzog explains that he was compelled to make it when shown film footage shot underwater in the Antarctic shot by his friend, musician Henry Kaiser. That footage, as well as discussions with Kaiser regarding his research, made Herzog think a film showing that the Antarctic is not simply a dead zone of ice and snow was a good idea. It was. Simple as that.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Flushed Away (2006)

Directed by Henry Anderson. This is a movie for kids about a mouse who, because he is flushed down a toilet, learns that his life would be happier if he didn't live alone. It's an obtuse way to teach a moral that most kids will have figured long before they see this movie. So there's nothing heavy going on here; it's about the fun.

And it is fun. Silly characters both smart and dumb, funny dialog, crazy chases, wacky contraptions and just enough sense of the story's London setting to enjoy the novelty of seeing an animated feature from England.

One major objection are the slugs. Most of this story takes place deep in the labyrinths of London's sewer system, which are depicted as infested with jolly singing and dancing slugs. Clearly, in an early draft of this script these slugs were proposed to be anthropomorphic hunks of poop because this would make perfect sense. Plus, troupes of choreographed singing and dancing poop would be very, very funny. At some point, some nervous party, probably a studio head must have insisted that the script gets wiped of all poop -- and the slugs represent a compromise. This is an almost unforgivable cop out.

Kicking and Screaming (2005)

Directed by Jesse Dylan. I guess I enjoyed this but I'm uncomfortable with movies that want to be family films but just aren't. If you're not familiar with this movie, here's the deal; Will Ferrel is a nice guy reluctantly coaching his son's soccer team full of misfits while his mean, hyper-competitive father (Robert Duvall) terrorizes him by coaching another team in the same league.

The movie was marketed as being about the kids but its really about Ferrel's character working out his Daddy issues, which are far too mature for any kid to understand or find interesting. The game play sequences are funny enough, and Will Ferrel's screen presence is funny in a way that kids can pick up on, but that's not enough to make this a kidvid.

So in a way, that just makes this a decent comedy for grown ups, and a breath of fresh air now that it seems like all comedies for grown ups seem to try too hard, like they feel like they have to gross me out or shock me or just one-up the last one. The most unique thing about this is seeing Mike Ditka act. One disturbing thing here is that I really get the impression that Robert Duvall doesn't have to work very hard to play an asshole.

Also, this movie is not to be confused with the 1995 Noah Baumbach movie with the same title, though I seriously doubt there's much danger of that.

Little Dieter Wants to Fly (1998)

Directed by Werner Herzog. Documentary films are the grilled salmon of movies. Meaning, when you have grilled salmon with lemon, don't you think, "how dumb is it that I don't have this more often? What am I doing eating pizza all the time when there's the salmon right there on the menu?" Warner Herzog's "Little Dieter Wants to Fly" tells the life story of Dieter Dengler, a poor German boy whose only ambition was to be a pilot.

Dengler's adventures are astonishing. To meet his ambition to be a pilot he becomes a career military man. In 1966, serving in Vietnam and captured in a prison camp in Laos, he escapes. This is a man who served in the German and U.S. military and in both WWII and Vietnam. He worked as a test pilot. He survived many plane crashes. He watched friends die at the hands of enemies and negotiated for his own life. Obviously, he was a man of tremendous personal strength and phenomenal luck, both good and bad.

The quality of this movie is that different people will take different things from it. At its core is an endlessly exciting story, and really, that can be enough. But for anyone wants it there is human inspiration as well.