Thursday, May 28, 2009

Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (1978)

Directed by Curtis Harrington. This just might be the most important TV movie of its era. First, how could anyone regard as scary a horror movie that shares its title with the name of a pre-packaged pastry? This may tip the hand that none of these TV movies were made with a straight face. When I point a finger and chuckle at "Diary of a Teenage Streetwalker, Hitchhiker and Hot Dog Vendor," maybe the joke is on me.

I love this movie.
  • I love that the brother and sister in it are played by Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann, both of whom played the brother and sister witches in Disney's "Escape to Witch Mountain" (1975) and "Return From Witch Mountain" (1978). Is this some evil-twin sequel? Booooo!
  • I love that the kids name the dog Lucky. Get it? That's like naming the hero who dies at the end of your movie J.C. Crossnailed.
  • I love that the family's housekeeper of some unspecified ESL nationality warns the family that "there is something evil" about the little puppy they have adopted, because if there's one thing I know from movies like this it's that little foreign people can detect supernatural energy that WASPs can't.
  • I love that the dog possesses the family members one-by-one but it apparently happens during the commercial breaks. Is he like a vampire, biting them somewhere? Is he peeing demonically on their respective bedroom carpets? Heaven forbid, is he humping them into some satanic state?
  • I love that possession seems to affect everyone very differently. The son seems to have some very vague but morbid plan involving a lot of blood, though fortunately with no specified timeline for completion. The daughter, limited by the acting range of Kim Richards, changes from confused by life to angry with life. Mom suddenly seems very horny.
There is one thing the possessed people do share in common. Like that rule that little foreign people can detect evil that white people can't, possessed people are only amused by confusion expressed by non-possessed people. In fact, to them this is the funniest thing ever. To them it's like the just got the first Steve Martin record:

Non-Possessed Person: "My God, why are you acting like this?"

Any Possessed Person: "HAHAHAHAHA! HAHAHAHAHA!"

Naturally, there's also a great scene when Dad (Richard Crenna, though it could have been anybody), finds Someone Who Knows About This Stuff who explains what the hell is going on so that Dad can get the third act of the picture into gear, when he gets everything back to normal.

The third act is massively padded because obviously there is no B-story to resolve, no character development, and no subtext. If you've seen "The Exorcist," you know the rule: kick the demon out and you get your life back. All it takes is whatever poem, magic beans or special effects the friggin director wants to put you through and/or the budget will allow.

Fortunately, there is not much budget here and the director is Curtis Harrington, a guy whose most immediate projects were episodes of "Charlie's Angels," "Wonder Woman" and "Dynasty." Boom! Guess whether good or evil triumph.

All of Me (1984)

Directed by Carl Reiner. Steve Martin's career really pulled together in this underrated movie. Martin seemed to learn a lesson in 1981 after spending two years developing an overly ambitious film musical, "Pennies From Heaven," that tanked. He teamed with Carl Reiner and began cranking out comedies that seemed to work consciously to please audiences while still exploiting his individual talents as a comedian and artist.

In '82 he cross-cut clips from classic film noir features into "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" to parody that genre; 1983's "The Man With Two Brains" was a mad scientist send-up from the Mel Brooks or Woody Allen playbook; and 1984's "The Lonely Guy" (directed by Arthur Hiller) surprised people that he could play lower-key comedy. "All of Me" showcased Martin's physical comedy.

Since his stand-up days were not yet ancient history, people were well aware of how outrageous Steve Martin could be, but the plot of "All of Me" added a significant to what he was doing on-screen. The story is a slight twist on those "Freaky Friday" body-switching plots that were pretty big at the time; briefly put, Lily Tomlin plays an insensitive, rich woman with no friends who is dying but wants to keep living. She pays some shaman to move her soul into the body of a young beautiful woman, who screws up and drops into Steve Martin's character, who now has two souls in his body. The bulk of the picture consists of Martin acting as if Tomlin's character, established in the first act, controls the right side of his body while he maintains control of the left side of his body.

Hilarity ensues.

Also, this movie -- alongside those others from that three-year stretch and 1979's "The Jerk" -- make you realize how much Jim Carrey's screen persona owes Steve Martin.

It must have been hard for Martin to work so hard on "Pennies From Heaven," looking forward to establishing himself as a deep, serious artist, only to have audiences either confused by it or indifferent to it. However, that's an important, career defining moment for someone in the entertainment business because it forces you to shake the Etch-a-Sketch and start over, and if you're really good at what you do and pay attention to what has worked and what has failed, you'll come back with something much better.

Steve Martin was very smart to just push out funny movies that capitalized on his talent. It's sort of a shame that now it seems like he's not very discriminating. Are "Burning Down the House" (2003), two "Cheaper by the Dozen" movies (2003, 2005), and two "The Pink Panther" movies (2006, 2009) really the best popcorn movies to come across his agent's desk? All the "Shopgirl"s in the world won't make up for those.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Directed by David Fincher. Hmmm. This movie could have been made by Robert Zemeckis. Recently I saw the old Zemeckis movie "Used Cars" and thought about how much his career has changed into a new kind of moviemaking -- big budget, tech-heavy projects that skate by on ambition and star power. Spielberg and Ron Howard are big on this stuff too.

I have mixed feelings about film projects that get so much attention from their budget and ambition that it's like getting spotted 20 points in a hand of blackjack. This "Benjamin Button" movie was like that. It got a Best Picture nomination, which just seems silly. I don't see every movie that comes out but I can't believe that this was one of the best movies made last year. It was entertaining, but it's strength is a book that's been around since 1921 (which by the way you can legally print and read for free).

The flick looked great, the acting was fine, and the special effects were impressive, but I could say that about a lot of commercials. I could also say that about "Role Models" and "Hamlet 2," my two favorite comedies from last year, because comedies never get nominated.

I'll say this: this was an easy movie to exercise to, and it's so goddamn long that it encouraged me to do longer workouts. So in that respect, I liked it. I'll also admit this, which I think baffles Karen: I can't tell Cate Blanchett, who was in this, apart from Kate Winslet, who was not. In fact, to type that last sentence, I had to look up both actresses names by looking up the casts for this movie and "The Reader," because I knew the two actresses I can't tell apart are in those respective movies. Wouldn't know either of them if they cashed me out at Target.

Bride Wars (2009)

Directed by Gary Winick. Kate Hudson must have been born with a four-leaf clover up her ass because all she makes are horrible fucking movies and it seems like a new one shows up every month.

I've resolved myself to seeing every new comedy released but I may have to stop because this one was so far out of my wheelhouse I don't know what I was thinking. Though wait just a minute -- none of the stench from this shit pile is my fault. It's not because it's not my kind of movie. This fails to establish itself as farce. We neither get behind it as believable, nor relax and enjoy it as ridiculous. Thus, we can't even love to hate these hateful characters. We can only hate them.

This is both misogynistic in its portrayal of brides and whatever the opposite of misogynistic is in its portrayal of how brides treat their betrothed. Not that I'm not misogynistic, I'm just bringing you the news. Speaking of which, why does Hollywood insist on trying to convince me that Kate Hudson is hot? She's piggy.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Inside the Osmonds (2001)

Directed by Neill Fearnley. The most important thing I learned from "Inside the Osmonds" is that there is at least one kick-ass Osmonds song. It's called "Hold Her Tight" and if you're a fan of '70s cock rock of the cowbell and horn section variety, you need to seek it out.

"Inside the Osmonds" is a very standard TV movie that tells the story of the world famous showbiz Mormon family. One of the things that makes it interesting is that, while VH1 perfected the "rags to riches to rags to redemption" boiler plate for these sorts of things, the savvy producers behind this funfest knew enough to skip the first chapter and just get to the downfall.

The film opens with the Osmond brothers already at the top of the pops and bitching about being teeny-boppers, about little brother Donny getting all the attention, and not being able to make rock and roll. And to make the point, they roll out "Hold Her Tight," which rips off Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" riff but like all excusable rip offs, does enough with it to create its own identity. The 1972 single peaked at #14, the year the Crazy Horses LP made their statement as rock and roll musicians. Keep in mind that that the Osmonds weren't textbook bubblegum personalities in that they played their own instruments and wrote at least some of their own songs.

So the label lets the band diversify with the rock as long as they also throw tons of Donny into the mix, that runs its course and Donny and Marie become TV stars. The Hollywood-weary Mormons spend more than $40 million to build a state of the art production studio/theater back home in Utah. When the show is cancelled they've lost everything. They make it back gradually over the next several years on the road by sticking together as a family, if you don't count all the divorces.

There are two important takeaways here. The first is that even in a dramatization, that little Jimmy Osmond seemed like an obnoxious little shit. The second is you need to hear this "Hold Me Tight."

Chinatown (1974)

Directed by Roman Polanski. This is a good movie to see when you're stuck on the couch, distracted by a cold with a sore throat, which was my situation this past weekend. As you know Jack Nicholson spends a big chunk of the middle of this with a giant bandage on this nose, which is supposed to distract you, so it makes sense to watch it distracted by your own sore something or another.

It also makes sense to put John Huston in your movie, who knew how to act the hell out of the character of Noah Cross, who you already know is a giant creep but have no idea just how big a creep he is capable of being.

Are all directors great actors? No. Roman Polanski himself has a great little role in this, even though it makes no sense. We already know that the town has hired Mulvihill (played by Roy Jenson) to guard the reservoir but why would this guy be around, dressed like he's on his way to a party? What a moment. You feel that knife in your nose.

Scorcese, good actor. Sydney Pollack, great actor, arguably a better actor than director. Tarantino, shitty actor, but lots of fun. Woody Allen, no range, but great personality. Spike Lee, limited like Woody Allen. Mel Brooks knows his range.

But back to the knife in the nose. I like it in movies when what it takes to take the hero down is realistic. It's a very different kind of movie when Kevin Costner or Burt Reynolds takes 20 punches to the chin and keeps swinging.

Though I'll say this. Before Mulvihill and "Kittycat" approach Gittes at the fence in that scene, they fire a warning shot at him and he jumps down into the reservoir. How do people always know where to hide when a shot is fired in an open area? I guarantee you that if a shot was ever fired at me, and I dived behind a rock, I would be behind a rock but in front of the shooter. I'm telling you, sound is a tricky phenomenon of physics and it is not simple and it is not that easy to know where a shot is fired from. So there.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Girls on the Beach (1965)

Directed by William Witney. In this empty-headed movie, the Beach Boys appear a few times as a bar band of no particular note, upstaged over and over in the plot by mere mentions of the Beatles.

It's not as if the Beach Boys were ahead of, or behind, their big success. They were a huge act when this came out; in the 12 months that preceded this film's release they had six hit singles including "Fun Fun Fun," "I Get Around," "Help Me Rhonda" and "California Girls." The Beatles aside, if the popularity of the Dave Clark Five warranted their own starring feature ("Having a Wild Weekend"), what could have stopped anybody from thinking the Beach Boys could support their own feature film?

Their manager, Murry Wilson, might be one explanation. Did he not want them off the road for the time it would take to make a movie, which would be a gamble, as opposed to playing concerts -- a sure moneymaker? What about studios who might have been sensitive to the fact that, while the Beach Boys made appealing music, they did not have spectacular personalities nor movie star good looks. Drummer Dennis Wilson was exceptional looking, and by 1971 would star in a fine film, Monte Hellman's "Two Lane Blacktop," but that had nothing to do with personality. Most of his role in that film consisted of grunting and looking out the window of a car.

So instead, the Beach Boys were segregated to a handful of performance cameos to canned music in "The Girls on the Beach," making the stars of the film the title roles. If you're into mid-'60s looks, this movie is a non-stop parade of gorgeous girls in headbands and sunglasses with their hair in flips, bouffants and beehives. The swimsuits are cut wide but the cinematography shamelessly points out every bit of skin the camera can find.

The plot is so dumb you can feel your IQ dropping as you watch. A sorority fights to save its house against a bank lien by entering every swimsuit contest, beauty pageant and bake-off they can find. You know, they do girl stuff. Meanwhile a bunch of guys try to get into their pants and Lesley Gore keeps walking around in her mother's housecoat, singing and squinting up into the stagelights.

In their ongoing effort to get the girls into the sack, the boys claim they could get the Beatles to play a show for them to get the money to save the sorority house. The girls fall for this, as do the 30 or so people who show up to see the Beatles. Boy, are they mad when the Beatles don't show up and the girls try to trick everyone by dressing up in wigs and pretend to be the Beatles! Oh wait, no they're not. They don't seem to give a damn!

At the end, the Russians drop the bomb and they all die. Just kidding! It all works out and presumably the creepy guys do indeed lose their virginity to...The Girls on the Beach.

Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw (1976)

Directed by Mark L. Lester. In this movie, which was clearly supposed to offer a contemporary "Bonnie and Clyde," Bobbie Jo's motivation is not clear. Faye Dunaway's Bonnie Parker was taken with the charisma and sheer sex appeal of Warren Beatty's Clyde Barrow, and had a bit of a wild streak in her herself. In this movie, Lynda Carter's Bobbie Jo Baker does not seem to have much of a natural wild side, unless coming off like a dumb hillbilly counts as a wild side.

Though perhaps "the Outlaw," Lyle Wheeler (a career defining role as played by Marjoe Gortner), knew this because he brings Bobbie Jo into their crime partnership gradually, sharing information on a "need to know" basis. She begins to suspect he may not be who he initially claims to be when they are driving away from a hail of gunfire at 90 m.p.h., dragging the bloody stump of a deputy's leg from the back of the car. "Hey...are you really an upholstery salesman?"

Much of the plot just retreads "Bonnie and Clyde." Lyle is a desperado traveling through town, he falls for Bobbie Jo on first sight and convinces her to run away with him. Lyle's motivation is easier to pinpoint. This is a 1976 Lynda Carter.

Like Bonnie and Clyde they team up with friends and relatives, kill a lot, steal a lot, argue a lot. Throughout we see much of the ruthlessness Gortner would go on to emote in 1989's "American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt." And Lynda Carter spends a lot of time in this little denim halter top that is not to be missed.

Speaking of which, yes, this film contains her one nude scene, which the editor was so clearly taken with he used it in two entirely different parts of the movie. So anyone who tells you she has two nude scenes in this movie is not looking closely enough which says something about me.

Prog Rock Britannia (2009)

Directed by Chris Rodley. This documentary about the progressive rock movement of the late '60s and early '70s was fun to watch though the story it told may have been a little too beholden to available footage and personalities.

If this film is to be made it has to spend the lion's share of its attention on the biggest groups of the genre: Yes, Genesis, ELP and King Crimson. But it's hard to tell what determined the acts of other note that were mentioned. OK, maybe in 1967 Procul Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale" was part of a shift in the sound of pop music but it hardly established a prog rock force. The single, certainly a strong one, was part of an expansive year for pop music. The Doors' "Light My Fire" broke the four-minute mark for a radio single and the Beatles released "Strawberry Fields Forever," neither act establishing a prog rock movement.

In fact Procul Harum were barely a band. The group that capitalized on the immediate success of "Whiter Shade of Pale" were rushed together with one song in their repertoire. The recording was produced by a guy named Denny Cordell for a pop act called the Pinewoods. Cordell was also producing the Moody Blues, whose LP, Days of Future Passed, is considered an early prog rock masterpiece -- but the band and that LP are not mentioned in this documentary.

But the band Egg is. I had never heard of Egg. They actually sound pretty cool in a very nerdy, goofy way. The act's frontman was clearly available and contributed a great deal to this film, which may or may not explain the prominence of Egg in the film.

Of course, there's something to be said for avoiding the beating of dead horses. In a brief survey of a genre such as this, how much really needs to be said of Yes and Genesis. I'd have been happy with a few more facts about bands like Egg and Caravan. I've always wondered who the hell Family are, and Gentle Giant, and Wishbone Ash. What about Hawkwind, whom I am aware are so legendary that there may exist a whole film just about them?

Additionally, it's always interesting to hear people discuss how musical movements like these come about. Why was the time right? What disparate elements pulled together to bring about both supply and demand? On the other hand, I don't care as much about the dissolution. Look, we all know that things run their course and are replaced by other things. The reasons prog rock went away is not nearly as sophisticated or interesting as the reasons it came about in the first place. So instead of spending 20 minutes on that, briefly pointing out a few of the funnier, more embarrassing records released during the death of prog's popularity will do (e.g., Procul Harum's 1977 musical storybook, "Something Magic") and leave it at that.

All that said, there is always room for more old Genesis concert footage of Peter Gabriel prancing around dressed as a flower or a wart.

Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker (1979)

Directed by Ted Post. A movie with the title "Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker" can only be one of two things. If the drivers are the protagonists then it's a dirty movie with the message that if you pick up teen hitchhikers, you will get laid. If it's about the hitchhikers then it's a TV movie with the message that if you hitchhike, you will die. I'd say that as a film-goer, either way you win. Though the two respective film-going experiences are going to be extremely different. This turned out to be the second kind of movie.

If you know me and why would you be reading this if you didn't, you know how I love TV movies. I say there is very little bad in a TV movie that can't be saved by Dick Van Patten, who fortunately shows up in this quite a bit. Still most of the screen time is dominated by Charlene Tilton, who by the way does not seem to keep a diary despite the movie's title, nor do any of the other teen hitchhikers portrayed here.

You might think that surely there must be some additional plot here, since it would be impossible to fill the length of an entire movie with nothing but talk about hitchhiking. Well, you'd be wrong. This movie is a solid 90 minutes of long conversations about needing a ride, not being able to get a ride, wishing for a car, not being able to afford a car, being resigned that there are no other option but to hitchhike, the various pluses and minuses of hitchhiking, and then of course, long sequences featuring actual hitchhiking. It turns out that this is a rich enough topic to support an entire miniseries if Dick Van Patten hadn't had so many other acting jobs going on at the time.

I learned a lot from this movie. First, all girls hitchhike because they have no other way to get to work. Their dads won't buy them cars because they can't afford them or because girls have proven over and over that they'll just crash the cars anyway.

Second, no fat girls hitchhike. Also no boys hitchhike or it simply isn't a national problem warranting the attention demanded by the crisis in girls hitchhiking, or at least, the crisis in slim girls hitchhiking.

Third, slim hitchhiker girls don't ever, ever, ever learn their lesson until the creepy guy in mirrored sunglasses assaults them personally. Even after one of Julie Thurston's (Tilton) hitchhiker friends is raped by a driver and a different one is killed, she still hitchhikes. Eventually she is picked up by Creepy Mirrored Sunglasses Guy Who Tries to Assault Her, but she beats him over the head with a little statue of two lovers in an embrace (irony). She ends up in the hospital. But get this, the film ends with her little sister standing by the side of the road with her thumb out. Duh.

Slim hitchhiker girls hear about these assaults on the radio, read about them in the newspaper, their parents tell them about them breakfast because it might happen to someone they know, and in fact, it can happen TO SOMEONE THEY KNOW! But they'll still just keep hitchhiking until it happens to them.

This is a very important point because it means that nothing can actually be done about the grave slim hitchhiking girls problem in our country. This begs the question whether it's actually a societal crisis or just a flaw in the slim hitchhiker girl species. At some point we need to leave Darwin alone and let him take out the trash. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, lemmings gonna jump, hitchhikers gonna die.

For the record, this movie is not quite as entertaining as "Death Car on the Freeway," a TV movie that originally aired the EXACT SAME WEEK as "Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker" -- in September, 1979. "Death Car" was a more truthfully titled film because its story involved many deaths via a car on a freeway, unlike this absurdly titled competitor in which nobody -- NOBODY(!) -- kept a diary.

Also, in "Death Car on the Freeway," the cars, drivers and highway assaults are all parts of a big metaphor for rape. For example, Shelley Hack, who plays a TV reporter, is doing journalism on one of the highway assaults, so she interviews some male chauvinist pundit who says something like, "Well, I don't know...what kind of car was she driving? I mean, she was kind of asking for it, don't you think?"

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Boss Nigger (1975)

Directed by Jack Arnold. I don't know how many westerns came out of the blaxploitation film trend of the '70s, but this one is great. Taking place just after the civil war, Fred Williamson and D'Urville Martin are bounty hunters on the trail of an outlaw who has terrorized a small town without a sheriff. Williamson takes the job, deputizes his partner, and the pair begin enforcing a tough breed of law -- including new racial statutes.

Williamson is tough and cool, but Martin steals the show by keeping it on the edge of comedy. The bass-and-strings soul music score characteristic of black films of the period runs counter to what you'd expect from westerns of the time, but I like that. Every western doesn't have to sound like Sergio Morricone and shouldn't.

The strengths here are in the charisma. There's a decent plot and a strong ending. But truth said, if it weren't for D'Urville Martin's great comic presence and the black power sub-plot here, this would be a bit of a paint-by-number Eastwood-style western. Yet I can't imagine there's a better blaxploitation western better than this.

I hesitated to show the title above, but what is this, Entertainment Weekly? Look, that's the name of the movie. Though over the years it has been re-released to screens as "The Black Bounty Hunter," "The Black Bounty Killer" and is currently on DVD packaged as "Boss." Must see.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Used Cars (1980)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Do you have one of those friends who seems to think it's not enough to throw a good party, it has to be an unprecedented statement? They have to hire a circus to perform, or there has to be fireworks and everyone gets an iPod? This is the way Robert Zemeckis makes movies now.

While he has made dumb junk (1992's "Death Becomes Her") and suspense fluff (2000's "What Lies Beneath"), he now specializes in a rare brand of big budget, technologically sophisticated projects that skate by on ambition and star power. I'd put Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg into this camp too.

"Forrest Gump" (1994) got Zemeckis there, a high-tech show with a charismatic actor, two things that distracted from an over-bearing performance and maudlin storytelling. Movies such as this don't have to be good, they seem automatically ushered in to some film pantheon, like fraternity pledges with legacy status. The style is as subtle as a plane crash, and as if to make that point, his 2000 film opens with one: "Cast Away," part two of his Tom Hanks trilogy. Then came "The Polar Express" (2004) and "Beowulf" (2007). Later this year will come a remake of "A Christmas Carol," starring Jim Carrey, an actor not known for underplaying roles.

However. In 1980 a little movie called "Used Cars" made a small profit to Zemeckis started. In contrast to where his career was headed, this is a normal little comedy. For its time it had enough story to hold your attention, enough edge to be provocative, and enough star power to get asses in seats. Zemeckis co-wrote the story, which is not worth re-capping here but is engaging and funny. Two used car lots battle for customers amid municipal corruption and family dysfunction. Some of it's dumb, it doesn't all work and the third act is sort of ridiculous.

But movie making is a bit of a magic trick and sometimes the most impressive ones are the ones that happen close-up, with simple objects. In "Used Cars," Zemeckis proves that without billions of dollars worth of technological gimmicks, even as a kid he was a competent director.

Maybe Zemeckis hates actors. He seems to like Tom Hanks and wants to work with him but not other actors. Because once you get to the point Zemeckis at creatively, where so much of the moviemaking is pre-production, special effects, post-production and editing, directing means working with technical staff more than actors.

Note that since "Cast Away," Zemeckis has made films of long-existing and highly familiar books. He's not particularly interested in storytelling, he's interested in moviemaking, and the less the story is likely to upstage his craft, the better. Thus the forthcoming remake of "A Christmas Carol" and, if my prediction bears out, a 2011 combination live-action and motion-capture production of "This Little Piggy Went to Market" using only Oscar winners that will be shot on the moon.

Baby Mama (2008)

Directed by Michael McCullers. I have to exercise or I will die at an early age, according to my doctors. I have to watch movies when I exercise or I won't exercise, according to me.

This is pretty unfair to the movies because it means that I have to use subtitles because I exercise using a machine that simulates cross-country skiing and it is loud. Every now and then I see a movie while exercising that I will want to watch again when I can give it my full attention, hear all of the dialog and music and see it one sitting (since I don't often exercise the full length of a movie).

"Baby Mama" was one of these. I also wanted to show it to Karen because I knew she would like it.

Good Things About "Baby Mama"
  • Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have enough chemistry that you can tell when they're using takes with muffed lines
  • I don't care that Dax Shepard has no range because his one on-screen persona is awesome
  • Barry has a pony tail
  • When I'm not watching a movie I don't think I like Greg Kinnear, but I guess I do
  • Chaffee Bicknell is one person
  • This movie knows: the Doorman is always wise
  • This movie knows: use Romany Malco

This movie must have been easier to direct than edit. The film feels highly improvised, in a good way. Success or failure in a comedy like this rests in the performances of the cast, and this one is fantastic. Steve Martin's moments alone make the movie worth seeing though one can only imagine how many takes were done of each of his scenes.

First-time director Michael McCullers is better known for writing the last two "Austin Powers" movies, but knows comedy as well anybody in Hollywood, similar to Judd Apatow. A weaker comedy focuses on broad situations, asking the audience to recognize the comedy. I can get away with watching it in a noisy room, reading subtitles. "Baby Mama" provides real laughs from characters, language and ideas.

Yes Man (2008)

Directed by Peyton Reed. At first I was going to accuse Jim Carrey of making the same movie over and over, one similar to "A Christmas Carol," in which a guy in need of an attitude adjustment has a metaphysical experience that changes him for the better. In this movie he plays a guy who decides the only way to get himself out of the horrible rut he is in is to say yes to every option before him -- and it works. At first his life improves by leaps an bounds. But eventually it all goes too far and in the third act he learns the virtue of moderation and balance, etc.

Anyway. My first inclination was that Jim Carry has made this movie a lot, so I looked at his IMDB profile and realized that I was thinking of "Liar Liar," his 1997 comedy in which a patently insincere man is cursed with an inability to tell anything but the total truth at all times. This forces all sorts of comic situations but also teaches him the virtue of moderation and balance, etc.

Looking more closely at Carrey's IMDB profile, my initial thought was that I had been mistaken and that he has made this specific movie fewer times than I'd thought. But has he, really? "The Truman Show" (1998). "The Majestic" (2001). "Bruce Almighty" (2003). Even 2004's credibility-laden "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." All of these, in only a somewhat broader way than "Liar Liar" and "Yes Man," portray a man who either learns or teaches the same relatively superficial life lesson. Holy cow, he's starring in a re-make of "A Christmas Carol" due for release later this year!

That said, this is not a bad movie. Is it so awful for someone to make such similarly themed movies if they approach plots differently and are funny? This movie has funny parts, though I didn't get the ending (somebody explain it to me). Also here you've got the Zooey Deschanel, whose got great screen chops. I have a feeling she's a great singer because I've now seen her sing in two movies (this and "Elf") and in neither one of them does she make me uncomfortable. People singing almost always make me uncomfortable. I might be the person who most like music who least likes real singing. "Yes Man" is notable as the first fictional movie I've seen to feature as part of its plot a rock band that didn't make me uncomfortable to listen to.

Jim Carrey's overall tendency to make the same movie over and over may be what made his performance in the 2005 remake of "Fun with Dick and Jane" refreshing to me. This one is not like the others, and I don't know why more people didn't like it. The story and its message was more outwardly focused. It was a social satire and less cerebral. He could stand to make more like that. I don't recommend he make more like 2000's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," which has a box I won't even look at let alone its actual frames of film.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Idiocracy (2006)

Directed by Mike Judge. This is a Rip Van Winkle tale with a twist -- Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) wakes up after a military experiment goes wrong, hundreds of years in the future to find that U.S. society and culture have not evolved, they have devolved, because far more dumb people have children than smart people. A great deal of comedy is mined from this in the half of the picture. The second half of the picture is more of a Wizard of Oz tale with a twist, as Joe tries to get home from this strange land.

It's all pretty great. This is the best kind of satire. It's very funny and spot-on because, in the flick's first ten minutes, its premise is laid out clearly and is undeniably true. All around us the brightest couples contributing the most to the economy seem to be waiting until later in life to have children, and limiting the size of their families. Meanwhile the most dysfunctional families are most likely to be the biggest, have been started earlier, and take the most from the economy. Extrapolating this over the next several hundred years, this will prove catastrophic.

This is the biggest problem facing our country. We can address problems piecemeal all we want: hunger, crime, crowded schools, crowded prisons, racial unrest, abuse, whatever you want. The problem underlying all of it is unestablished couples having lots of kids barely growing up before they pair up and do the same thing.

The most insightful moments in this movie are when Luke Wilson's character innocently offers advice to people, who sneer and accuse him of elitism. In reality, politicians never mention the core truth addressed in "Idiocracy" because they will be called elitists and lose votes.

Silence kills -- our future may not be even as promising as the one laid out in this movie. "Idiocracy" is not science fiction per se, but like a lot of futuristic films, there are holes in the logic. If everyone is so dumb, why are prices so high, growing the economy? The commercial nature of the country -- dumb as it is -- suggests the existence of an economic super-power, apparently outside the knowledge of President Camacho (Terry Crews).

We can only hope for such a thing. Otherwise, when the mythology of this film comes true the economy will have fully collapsed and all of the country will be a giant swamp.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Way We Were (1973)

Directed by Sydney Pollack. What about us determines our favorite movies? My oldest friend still speaking to me, Ann-Marie, pointed out to me one day that my sister's Facebook list of favorite movies had an interesting theme to them. I looked myself and sure enough, "Pretty Woman," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Cinderella" all boast a revealing story. Women here were rescued from unhappy lives by decent men, as my sister was.

In turn, Ann-Marie fired off her top-five: "Barfly," "Out of Africa," "The Way We Were," "Juno" and "The Accidental Tourist." All movies about writers, a lot of strong women, a lot of dysfunctional relationships, and if you give "Juno" some slack, all fish-out-of-water dramas. I didn't point this out to her.

I'd never seen "The Way We Were" but I'm always compelled to see someone's favorite, especially if it's reputation is weak. "The Way We Were" is a romance, which as far as critics are concerned is a strike against movies whose title is not "Gone With the Wind." However, this film's reputation originates with disagreements during its production among its director (Sydney Pollack), writer (Arthur Laurents) and principle stars (Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford).

The movie is not the mess it is reputed to be, though shrapnel from the conflict is evident on-screen. One side wanted the story completely driven by the romance between its main characters. The other wanted to bring more to the forefront its secondary storyline: hearings going on at the time by the House Un-American Activities Committee questionning the political motivations of ten high-profile filmmakers.

As a result of this conflict, the third act is chopped up in a way that the story's resolution is a bit open-ended. Still, with more than 35 years of distance since the flick's release, I'd argue this is a virtue. Audiences don't get enough credit these days.

This is not to say the movie is great. Despite big budget the production design is weak; the film takes place in the '40s, yet it all actually looks like a bunch of people in the '70s are attending a '40s-themed costume party. Streisand at 31, and especially Redford at 37, look disturbing playing college students.

This feels very long while its stars are curiously short on charm. However there is one fantastic scene early on that takes place outside a bar. Redford's character convinces Streisand's character to have a beer with him. The writing is perfect, the actors own it, and for a few minutes, we forget they are supposed to be 21 and just enjoy the movie. It needs more of this.

By the way, my top five: "Pulp Fiction," "American Graffiti," "Love and Death," "Dazed and Confused," "A Boy Named Charlie Brown." The main characters here all question whether it's necessary to seek redemption -- or anything really -- before it's too late.

Lookin' to Get Out (1982)

Directed by Hal Ashby. I have a sneaking suspicion that "Lookin' to Get Out" is the reason Angelina Jolie refuses to speak to Jon Voight, the film's star. It's best part is the closing theme, not just because hearing it means you are done watching this hunk of poo, but also because it is my very favorite kind of movie theme.

I realized this back in 1992 seeing "My Cousin Vinny" with high school buddy Dano at the Crest discount movie theater in Seattle. The movie ends with the kind of generic boogie-woogie blues romp that you can tell was played by overweight white guys with ponytails, and Dano was moved to improvise his own live vocal over it: "He's my cousin Vinny!/He's my cousin Vinny!/He's used to be a dope but now he's a really good lawyer!" Fortunately there were very few people in the theater, though to his credit, Dano making up lyrics and singing them off the top of his head is as funny as the very idea of Joe Pesci carrying a comedy.

But really, why should he have had to put in even that much effort? Ever since this revelatory moment I appreciate movies that jackhammer the title into their music. This past weekend I saw the first few minutes of "Joysticks," a teen-sex comedy from 1983 that I will watch in small doses because I can tell is going to contain a lot more teen sex than comedy. However, I was pleased that it's opening titles featured a wonderfully generic rock cut featuring the refrain: "Video joystick!/Video joystick!/Video joystick!/Totally awesome video game!"

Anyway! The magnificent closing theme of "Lookin' to Get Out" goes -- over and over and over: "Lookin' to get out!/Lookin' to get out!/Lookin' to get out!" Plus the 1982 drumbeat goes "DOOSH! DOOSH! DOOSH!" like someone in the studio couldn't stop firing a cannon.

Another good part is the decent co-starring performance of Burt Young, an underrated character actor (Curly in "Chinatown" and a zillion other movies though not as Curly) who you would recognize the instant you saw him and didn't seem to get a lot of opportunities to carry a picture.

But the real anchor dragging this ship down is Voight. I don't get this guy at all. Jay Kumar -- college buddy and host of iTunes' popular 'Completely Conspicuous' podcast -- summed it up well when he called Voight "hammy." Voight's characters order lunch with gritted teeth and frantic urgency, they hail taxis by falling to their knees with upturned palms, they express every emotion as if Mr. Blonde just wandered over and cut off an ear. It's exhausting and distracts from everything else on-screen, like an alert beeper on a dumptruck backing up in the room where you watch this.

That said, at least Voight's performance distracts from a plot that begins as hackey before adding complications that make it ridiculous and then adding a romantic sub-plot in an apparent effort to lose anyone still interested.

You will not find "Lookin' to Get Out" available on DVD nor on broadcast TV. Naturally this unavailability makes it very important that you seek it out on second-hand VHS, because if you love movies like I do, you also enjoy looking for rare hammers to bonk yourself on the head with.