Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000)

Directed by Robert Redford. "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" is the "Citizen Kane" of movies in which a magical black man teaches whitey the ways of life. Sidney Poitier is the all-time great go-to guy for that role, not just in "Dinner" but in a zillion other films with a similar theme, some good, others not so good. Will Smith starred in 1993's "Six Degrees of Separation," a thinly veiled companion piece to statement by his publicist to make him the Sidney Poitier of a new generation.

Although similarly themed, "Six Degrees of Separation" was not bad and "The Legend of Bagger Vance" is a steaming pile of horse shit. The irony of the title is, of course, is that all 126 minutes of this movie go by without the audience learning one bit of the legend of Bagger Vance. Bagger is an incredibly minor character in this tale. This story is about white golfers and pretty young debutants, while Smith's character of Bagger, could easily be replaced by a magical leprechaun.

I think it's supposed to be fascinating how he appears out of nowhere, helps everybody, and then when he feels like he's done his job, walks off into the night, but if you're not stupid, you will understand that this is just a bullshit cop out. There is NO LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE. The guy actually a celebratory minstrel-style shuffle dance on his way off-screen. For the leprechaun it would be a little jig. It would have made as much sense to animate Sonny, the Cocoa Puffs Bird into this role.

I'll say this, these days a lot of people write about shitty movies and say, 'this was so bad I can't even say it was so bad it was good.' But I think this was. This was so bad it was good. So have some friends over. Recommended.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Public Enemies (2009)

Directed by Michael Mann. In this incredibly challenging acting role, Johnny Depp makes the life of John Dillinger seem boring. Good God. Historically accurate right down to seeming to take place in real time over the course of many years, this movie is bewildering. Just how can a story so real, so accurately told, and so well acted be so goddamn bland? There just doesn't seem to be any chemistry between anybody here, nobody has any charisma, nothing works. In a way, it's fascinating. At times, Johnny Depp seems influenced by Ray Liotta's turn as Henry Hill in "Good Fellas," and the overall sprawl of this seems to want to have the electricity of Brian DePalma's delightful 1987 retelling of "The Untouchables." But this desperately needed Robert DeNiro to walk on and do something broad, historically inaccurate and entertaining. When the FBI finally catches up with Dillinger and shoots him in the head, you can't help but think his greatest crime was boring you. In case you're curious, there is no mention of Dillinger's legendarily huge honker. Supporting player Christian Bale does not use his Batman voice, though Marion Cotillard, who played Dillinger's Chicago-born girlfriend should have tried that, because she couldn't hide her French accent for crap. Also, Leelee Sobieski is growing up to look less like a midget version of Helen Hunt, but no less peculiar than when she did.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Bedtime Stories (2008)

Directed by Adam Shankman. Adam Sandler is not a gifted comedian and does not make me laugh but it does seem like the older he gets the sweeter personality elements of his characters seem more believable, more endearing and sometimes less maudlin. There's no way I could see something as loud and outrageous as another "Little Nicky" or "The Waterboy" but he was perfectly tolerable in "Funny People" and I caught myself liking this movie despite all of its stupid parts.

This is one of those dumb movies where the themes and plot are much too sophisticated for children to follow but the story, moral and characters clearly have in mind a movie for kids. In the end it ends up perfect for nobody. It's a movie that probably gets Sandler laid because it makes him seem really sweet.

It's got a good gimmick but one that, as usual in a movie of this sort, Hollywood gets tired of playing around with somewhere in the second act and just abandons. Sandler plays Skeeter, a guy who, for no apparent reason explained by the otherwise extensively detailed back story, sometimes seems to be perfectly well-mannered and normal and at other times speaks in that growly, angry Adam Sandler voice and seems to have no sense of decorum. Anyway, Skeeter has to take care of his niece and nephew for a few days and tells the bedtime stories and, again for no apparent reason, whenever the children contribute ideas to the stories, contemporary versions of their contributions come true in Skeeter's own life.

And in the end, he learns how to love.

I just talked myself out of liking this piece of shit.

Boxboarders (2007)

Directed by Rob Hedden. I could easily see this becoming a popular cult comedy with some groups of young movie fans, although specifically fans of crappy movies, because cult appeal or none, this one sucks. It has no story, the acting stinks, much of the dialog would have been impossible to say convincingly anyway, but the biggest problem of all is that there are no good ideas here.

In what little story we have to watch in Boxboarders, a pair of thrill-seeking nerds pioneer a new extreme craze that doesn't so much sweep the nation as portions of a small faction of their high school. The craze is 'boxboarding,' really just rolling down a hill with your vision obstructed. But if that's what passes for innovation these days, sign me up. I have a new "edgy" twist on ice cream cones where you eat it out the bottom.

I'd say hijinks ensue, except they mostly don't. The mean rich kid tries to ruin everything but -- spoiler alert -- doesn't. Though with the super-deluxe ultra-slick rich-kid boxboard that he brings to the big race at the end of this he does point out that boxboarding is nothing more than soapbox derby and that these kids are hardly innovators.

Films Wanted

The Rythmatist (1985)

Made in Paris (1966)

Raquel! (1970)

Directed by David Winters. This is not quite a movie in the sense that it is not at all a movie but a 1970 TV special starring Raquel Welch. So, clearly this is totally worth anyone's while. On the one hand, in 1970, Raquel Welch was a devastating American beauty and TV specials were insane and mind blowing.

Plus, Raquel Welch has always been only marginally talented, so the already trippy weirdness of the period's production values were ramped up many times over as a means of hiding the negligible amount she had to offer. This includes outrageous costumes, which are obviously a huge reason to see this, in part because they definitely show off her obscenely perfect body but also just because they look like they were designed by Black and Decker.

Also, for fans of ridiculous musical arrangements, the musical arrangements here are, well, ridiculous. And if I challenged you to guess the songs she sings, you'd get at least a few. I'm sure. "Games People Play," "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," "California Dreamin'," "Here Comes the Sun." It's really lame, tame, stuff. Music for people who don't really like music, as Karen often describes it.

But it's the best "Age of Acquarius" ever. With this segment, you will realize that this is not simply something to see and tell others about but truly something that must be seen by everyone. In fact, if you or someone you know has any hand in allocating a local small arts fund, I would highly recommend spending on a public exhibit of this, maybe projected on the side of a large building in front of a wide open area where huge crowds of people can gather.

If the guy with the hat that rises into a horse statue isn't enough to make your head explode during the "Age of Aquarius," be patient because in the next segment, Raquel tells a story that combines knights, royalty and flirting with Tom Jones, who then lipsyncs to the LP mix of his hit "I, Who Have Nothing" that my mother used to play around the house when I was a kid.

Next is a "rock and roll" medley by Raquel and Tom of the sort that make actual fans of rock music write open letters of apology to black people. Then she visits John Wayne on the set of what looks like "The Train Robbers" and to try to hide how lame his old ass is, they add a laugh track, I am not shitting you. Then Bob Hope shows up and they really need the laugh track, though at least he's telling jokes.

Then it's over and you're so weirdly disappointed and desperately glad at the same time. It's messed up.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

Directed by Marc Webb. If you don't already dislike "(500) Days of Summer" by it's final 30 seconds, I'm not sure how that couldn't convince you. The last line of dialog
and the final shot are so painfully maudlin I could hardly stand it. The movie is basically a remake of "Annie Hall" for the kind of young people who wear messenger bags and desperately want you to know what bands they listen to.

The good part of this movie is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who stars as Tom. I liked this guy in 2007's "The Lookout" and I've been wanting for a long time to see a 2005 thing called "Brick" that he's supposedly very good in. Gordon-Levitt is very convincing but is not enough to save this disconnect between direction and story.

Both "(500) Days" and "Annie Hall" detail, from the male perspective, the rite of passage of the doomed relationship. Marc Webb's major innovation on Woody Allen's 1977 Oscar winner is to tell the story out of order. Other than that it's the same old mish-mash of references to this film style and that film style. The difference of course is that Woody Allen was funny while Marc Webb is decades late and mostly unclever.

There are moments that are just dumb, like when Webb imitates scenes from Ingmar Bergman movies that feel not so much funny as self-congratulatory. Then there are moments where narrative devices are used -- documentary style interviews and voice-over narration -- where we can't tell it's used as part of the multi-style motif or as a truly slipshod moment of directing.

Yes, I liked the part where the screen split during an evening out and we saw Tom's expectations vs. reality.

But the big problem here is that all of these little tricks: the genre references, the music tricks, the dance number and animation -- there's no real reason for it grounded in these characters. It's not as if Tom is a screenwriter or a cinemaphile who has a problem with reality. The guy writes greeting cards. Yes, that stuff makes the movie entertaining, but when there's no connection between the little tricks and the story, it's just showing off.

And by the way, Hall and Oates' "You Make My Dreams Come True" is on its way to being the new "Walking on Sunshine" as a song that shouldn't be in movies anymore. Enough.

The Honeymoon Machine (1961)

Directed by Richard Thorpe. This relatively early Steve McQueen outing is very different for him, a romantic screwball comedy that looks to be based on a play, judging from the few sets used and the simple staging. Well over half of it takes place in one hotel room.

Here’s the basic plot; a trio of Navy buddies offshore in Venice are using a computer on-board their ship to calculate spins of a roulette wheel in a casino in the hotel. Someone on the ship uses Morse code to signal the calculation, they place the bet and – presto! – everybody wins. They simply have to avoid being seen in the casino, where they are not allowed, and are hiding the scheme from the girls they are dating in order to make the movie hilarious.

This kind of works, even though Steve McQueen is not really the Cary Grant-type, which is what the dialog style here is definitely going for, in that rapid-fire, wiseacre but sexy “His Girl Friday”/”Bringing Up Baby” kind of way. Maybe I give him too much of a pass because I like Steve McQueen. His girl here is Brigid Bazlen, who doesn’t have too much to do here, though Paula Prentiss does, who’s much better and looks awesome, and Jim Hutton is here too and he’s good, as well as Jack Weston, who plays a drunk and good God it doesn’t get much better than that.

Hard to find but recommended.

The Working Girls (1974)

Directed by Stephanie Rothman. This ensemble cast-driven exploitation film has too much going on and never pursues any part of it to develop a theme but also never sticks with anything too long to bore you. The end result is that this never quite good nor quite bad.

This is actually a famous movie in the exploitation realm. It’s highly creative home video title in the U.S. on VHS was “Elvira Naked” because actress Cassandra Peterson, more famous for Vampirella-styled TV-hostess Elvira has a strip scene in the flick.

Otherwise, a huge cast makes the overall acting competence score here typical; nobody is great, some are better than others. The comic stand-out is Solomon Sturges as Vernon Sudsmith IV, a multi-millionaire who gives an unusual job to Honey (Sarah Kennedy), who seems like the main character of the film until about the 15-minute mark when the plotline goes haywire.

In addition to Honey’s career crisis, we see Jill and Nick struggle with a doomed relationship because their jobs as a strip club manager and a small-time gangster get in the way. We also watch Denise struggle as a painter despite being the only one in the whole lot with a place to live – a palatial townhouse far nicer than anything I’ll ever own. We see Mike’s descent into drug addiction and folk music, with no hint of which is worse.

As a melodrama it moves quickly and has a pretty damn good ending, and as an exploitation flick it has the strip club storyline that supplies nudity and all of the actresses are great looking. Female directors were exceedingly rare in this genre and it’s a shame Stephanie Rothman never made another film. I plan to see her 1973 flick, “Group Marriage,” which I recently got a copy of, sometime soon.

The Cat From Outer Space (1978)

Directed by Norman Tokar. Disney had a slick way of starting with something simple like a cat and making a family movie that works. Here they accomplish the feat despite a simple plot, bland characters and some unappealing casting. I pre-screened this to see if it was appropriate for Max, (who will be nine in a couple of months) and decided it was though I wasn’t sure if he’d think much of it. It sat on our AppleTV box for nearly a year before he had any interest in sitting down to it but to my surprise, he loved it.

The main plot involves this cat, Jake, who crash lands on Earth and needs to fix his ship with the help of -- in his 1,237th Disney role -- Dean Jones. To do it, they need a lot of gold, which they get the money for by gambling. The whole thing takes place mainly on a military base and heavily involves McLean Stevenson and Harry Morgan although they do not play Colonels Blake or Potter. However, Sandy Duncan is presented as an appealing young woman, who was not, raising the question why the hell Marlo Thomas never made any Disney movies.

The voice of Jake is played by Ronnie Schell, who is one of the great character actors of all time, but to be honest, he leaves a lot to be desired. If you’ve ever seen “Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey,” in which Michael J. Fox provides the voice of a dog who may or may not grow up to travel through time to cure Parkinson’s Disease, you will both see a great voice acting performance and then be a little disappointed in Ronnie Schell here. However, you will enjoy seeing Schell in a whole other role in the movie, as Sgt. Duffy, which will confuse the hell out of your kid when you try to explain to him or her that it’s the guy who is doing the voice of the cat.

Caution: the chase scene that anchors the third act goes on forever.