356 – The Ex

November 25, 2007

Originally, this movie was titled Fast Track, since it’s about an up-and-coming marketing guy who’s on the proverbial way up at his father-in-law’s firm. But then it was changed to The Ex, which shifted the focus from the workplace to the home. But let’s get this straight: Either name is infinitely better then the unhealthy dollop of mean-spirited junk that appears after the title card on the screen.

Tom (Zach Braff) has been fired from his job as a chef at a hoity-toity restaurant, so he and his wife Sofia (Amanda Peet) and their newborn baby schlep from New York to Ohio, where Sofia’s dad Bob (Charles Grodin) has not only set Tom up with a new job but also has procured a nice little houe for them to raise their new family in. Aww, ain’t that sweet. But things don’t start off well for Tom at the marketing firm, which turns out to be both new age and, well, wacko. You know, a place where such “creative” aspects as casual dress, unwalled offices, an imaginary ball of ideas or something abound. Tom has some issues with fitting in with the eclectic, quirky crew, but more importantly he clashes immediately with his new supervisor, Chip (Jason Bateman), who just happens to be a former schoolmate of Sofia. Oh, and a paraplegic, of course.

But don’t worry; although it seems like this is a romantic comedy about jealousy and redemption, about a young couple getting past their differences to survive as a unit, it’s set up to be more like a slapstick comedy, with many jokes at Chip’s expense. (Which is okay, because Chip is a real jerk.) The sad reality, though, is that the movie fails at both genres. Women won’t like it, because there’s no real romance, no genuine feelings on anyone’s part. (Sorry to generalize, ladies.) Guys won’t like it, because there’s not nearly enough physical humor. That would be fine, except there’s hardly any subtle humor, either. What you’re left with is just vicious, mean-spiritedness that drains every ounce of humor from an otherwise talented cast.

Braff’s not terrible, but I never got the sense that he was, well, believable as someone women would desire. But what do I know, I’m a straight male. The affection between him and Peet seemed forced, tentative, and unnatural, sort of like unwilling siblings. Peet wasn’t bad, either, but she didn’t have much to work with – on a positive note, she doesn’t come off as icily unappealing as she does in most of her other films.

And man, check out Charles Grodin. I had to check to see who was playing Sofia’s dad – Grodin, who hadn’t been in a movie in 13 years, looks about 85 years old here. I thought he was Bob Eubanks. There’s one scene, too, in which Bob utters the f-word. For no freaking reason other than to have Charles Grodin, septuagenarian, drop an f-bomb.

Interestingly enough, the unrated version of the movie runs about five minutes shorter than the rated one that was seen in theater. And, having seen the unrated one, I couldn’t tell you about any particular scenes that were so raw that they would have pushed the rating to an unwanted NC-17. So I have to assume that the rated one was even tamer, and thus even crappier.

Sad and predictable in its attempt at comedy, The Ex is a waste of time. You’ll be clawing your eyes out at the numbing awfulness.

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10 Weirdest Movies

November 20, 2007

Listverse has an interesting… well, list. A list of the ten weirdest movies of alla time.

I’ve seen exactly half of them: Brazil, Donnie Darko, Naked Lunch, Mulholland Drive, and A Clockwork Orange.

They list Jacob’s Ladder as a notable other weird movie. I’d definitely place that among my weirdest, for sure. Heck, we could also add Being John Malkoovich, or even the recent The Fountain, directed by Darren Aronofsky, who also directed Pi, number six on this list.

I bet there are others, too, that are escaping my mind right now…

355 – Lions for Lambs

November 18, 2007

“Whatever it takes,” says Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) to journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) as he explains his foolproof plan to save the world from the scourge of terrorism. Too bad director Robert Redford didn’t apply the same sort of balls-out approach to this film, because what we’re left with seems more like a commercial, either for the armed forces, the starched-shirt suits who run wars from their armchairs, or the pompous professors who presume to know everything. Bah to all of it, I say.

The movie’s told in three intertwining parts. In one, a college professor (Redford) talks with one of his many apathetic students (Andrew Garfield) about idealism and acting on principles and doing something, even if it is destined for failure, instead of doing nothing at all. To illustrate his overreaching, heavy-handed points, Redford’s Malley talks about two previous students of his (Michael Pena, Derek Luke) who left the friendly confines of college life to enlist in the current Iraq war.

In the second story, Irving grants an interview to Roth (an hour long one-on-one session, exactly mirroring the professor-student talk) in which he will lay out his grand new plan to retake Afghanistan from the Taliban. For Irving, the interview is a way for him to resell the war to the American public through the use of a very-willing American press. For Roth, it’s a way to get information that no one else in the ultracompetitive media world will have, as it’s an exclusive interview. But who is using whom? Redford wants us to believe that the press is being used by the government, but that’s hardly news; he would also prefer that we think that Roth, representing the media, understands now how much of a shill she and her colleagues have become, but Roth’s actions in that direction come much, much too late in the movie. She certainly should have been pushing Irving a lot harder than she was; instead, she seemed content to sit back and ask the occasional probing question. The underlying effect of this is that Irving’s neocon senator gets to make a long, barely contested speech about saving the world from terror is awesome, and by golly if you don’t agree then you must hate freedom, and blah blah blah. Such posturing would make some sense if any of the jingoistic points made by Irving were addressed, even refuted, but no. For some reason Redford just lets the words hang out there.

The third story involves Malley’s two former students, now Special Forces rangers in the middle of the new operations launched by Irving. For much of the movie, they’re trapped behind enemy lines, one very badly injured, the other trapped in a snowbank, with Taliban members closing in. They don’t know if their fellow soldiers can get to them in time. In the closing moments of the film, one of them makes a decision so disturbingly stupid that it negates all the evidence seen to that point that the two former students had any kind of wits or intelligence about them.

Watching this movie, you can’t help but feel like Redford is smacking you across the head with a 2 x 4, screaming that we need to stand up or fall down or some such emptyheaded nonsense. Like Jasper Irving, Redford’s film offers no ideas, no real food for thought; he’s selling us an vague concept as political theater. Lions for Lambs is a gelatinous dessert, full of sound, half-empty with fury, and signifying nothing new.

*1/2

Long Day’s Boring into Suck

November 17, 2007

Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962)

This movie is very dated. Whoopie, the mom’s a drug addict and the son’s an alky, whee – you see worse on TV every day now. Well, you would if there wasn’t a writers’ strike, but still. The performances are at turns overwrought and hammy – even Ralph Richardson’s, and he’s PLAYING a hammy actor. The dialog comes off as stilted at best, and it’s extremely obvious that it’s basically a filmed play. Plays need to rely on the dialog to tell the audience what’s happening, for the most part, because a typical stage will have exactly one scene in the background – and you can’t use camera angles, or really any kind of special effects that enhance the storyline, rather than detract from it. As a result, when the play is performed in front of camera, most of the time it’s going to come off as if the actors are merely reading off cue cards.

Katherine Hepburn got a crapload of plaudits for her work here as the Tyrone family matriarch, but her performance struck me as just all over the map. She’s literally climbing the walls in some scenes. Okay, so she’s playing a woman addicted to morphine, but honestly, how tough is it to overact? Her performance made me laugh, it didn’t make me feel any sympathy. The rest of the cast (Richardson, Jason Robards, and Dean Stockwell), by comparison, is mostly good, with Robards really turning in the best work of the bunch.

In all, though, it’s a huge, long bore. Can you believe it’s almost three hours long? Felt more like six. I know it’s based on a classic play and all, but this is one play that probably belongs solely on the stage.

Guilty movies

November 16, 2007

No, not movies that are guilty pleasures, like Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks. And no, not movies about guilty parties, like Guilty by Suspicion, Guilty As Sin, or Guilty As Charged. I’m talking about movies you think you should have seen already, movies that perhaps everyone you know is talking about but you never got around to seeing. For example, maybe you missed seeing Anchorman in the theater and never rented it, so when your buddies quote the movie ad infinitum, you feel out of the loop.

For me, as an amateur critic, the definition expands to include older movies that I feel I should have seen (or should see).  I’m talking big-name, everyone-knows-em-even-now classics, timeless films to which people can still relate on some level.

So here are mine:

1. Gone with the Wind. I actually own this movie (I bought it for a Christmas present, but it didn’t arrive in time), but I’ve never seen it and never plan to. If it were half as long, perhaps. But three hours of a Southern soap? Nah.

2. Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962). Watching this now – it’s friggin’ long, too. I don’t think it’s very good.

3. In Cold Blood (1967).

4. A Man for All Seasons (1966).

5. A Streetcar Named Desire (1954).

6. Patton (1970).

7. Metropolis (1927). It’s a silent movie, and I often eschew those, but it’s sci-fi! And I can’t tell you how many times people have said, “Aw man, you’ve never seen Metropolis?”

8. Master and Commander.

9. Scarface (1932 and 1983). I’ll probably never see the Pacino version, but the Muni one is on The List.

10. Anchorman

11. Talladega Nights

12. Blades of Glory (do you see a pattern here?)

13. Billy Madison. Yet, anyway.

14. The Sound of Music (1965)

Most of those are in my Netflix queue. There are probably scads of others I haven’t seen that fall under these criteria, too..

How about you?

The Satan Bug (1965)

November 13, 2007

The movie’s dated, yes, but the theme isn’t. There’s a supersecret lab in southern California that’s creating viruses and the like in order to study them, sort of like what they do at the CDC in Atlanta. The worst of these is basically a botulism-type virus. Then one night there’s a break in, and flasks are stolen. And it’s discovered that there was an even more advanced virus that the center had created – called the Satan Bug, because it can kill anyone nearby within five seconds. A few weeks after a flask is broken, all life would cease.

The center calls in an expert, played by George Maharis. Some of you old timers might remember him from the old Route 66 show; he left that show in order to pursue a film career. Sadly, this was his best movie. Anyway, it’s up to Barrett (Maharis), Anne Francis from Forbidden Planet, and crusty Dana Andrews to find those flasks! Ed Asner, by the way, plays on of the bad guys.

It’s a gripping thriller – you really don’t know what’s going to happen next. The twists and turns are eminiently plausible, and even 42 years later they don’t seen trite or played out. You honestly feel like the world could end at any moment during the film. It also boasts a wonderful period score by Jerry Goldsmith.

So, apparently it’s NOT about a possessed Volkswagen.

***1/2

354 – Evan Almighty

November 10, 2007

Evan Baxter is movin’ on up to the capital side of things. Baxter (Steve Carell) has been elected to Congress as a New York representative, leaving Buffalo and his old job as news anchor behind (as we last saw him, in Bruce Almighty). He’s schlepped his prettier-than-he-deserves wife (Lauren Graham) and his three sons down to Washington. Shortly after he arrives there, though, God (Morgan Freeman) appears to him and tells him to build an ark.

Why, you ask? Why, to drive the plot, of course. Back in ye olden times, Noah was told to build an ark so that when God flooded the planet, the humans and the animals could repopulate. That’s not quite the scope of the task at hand here, though we don’t find that out till near the end of the movie.

Building an ark in this day and age is disconcerting enough, but Evan has ancillary problems. He prides himself on his appearance, but lo and behold, once God has Spoken to Evan, he notices he can’t shave in the morning. Or anytime. The beard grows right back. His hair also begins to grow at an alarming rate. And pairs of animals, from gophers to birds, are following him everywhere. Not a good turn of events if you’re a freshman congresscritter.

Naturally, no one believes that God has spoken to Evan, thus making for awkward moments when a powerful congressman (a hammy John Goodman) wants Baxter to cosponsor some kind of land rights bill, and every time he runs into Evan he sees animals and hair. Bad impression!

Not that the movie’s completely lacking in cleverness, however. Evan’s wife is Joan (Joan of Arc, get it?); the Baxters’ realtor is Eve Adams (an annoying Molly Shannon) (Eve, Adam, get it?); God His Own Darn Self wears a name tag when he appears to Joan that says “Al Mighty.” Oh, and the company that drops off the wood that Evan’s supposed to use to build the ark is the “Go 4 Wood” company. Because the original ark was supposedly made of gopher wood.

For the most part, the movie is pretty formulaic. No one believes him, especially his family. Then they sort of do, but no one else does. Then people ridicule him while he builds the arc. Then the flood happens, and suddenly everyone’s a True Believer. Har. Oh, and then there’s the obligatory sideplot of the supposedly nice politco who’s actually up to dirty tricks. In Washington, of all places! I know!

Carell isn’t too bad, and neither is his supporting cast, and that may actually be the problem – they’re just “not bad” instead of “pretty good.” This isn’t a movie you’ll remember in a few years, in other words, except when you think of movies that had pretty good CGI scenes (check out the flood!). Freeman is as smooth as you’d expect Morgan Freeman to be, really, and there’s no one else who could have done a better job than he did. But really, everyone else in the movie was sort of bland and could have been replaced by another, similarly innocuous actor. (Except Wanda Sykes, who plays Evan’s executive assistant – she could be replaced by someone who’s not a major irritant.)

The end does compensate for an otherwise grayscale movie, with a wonderful staging of The Flood. Except, you know, on a much smaller scale, which sort of undermines the whole idea of The Flood in the first place. In Bruce Almighty, God wanted Bruce (and HIS not-understanding girlfriend, Jennifer Aniston) to gain understanding. Here, He’s asking Evan to solve a political/social crisis. Bruce Almighty, it turned out, taught us about free will; Evan Almighty teaches us that if you put your mind to it, you can achieve anything. Evan Almighty’s overall message just doesn’t feel as all-encompassing or rich as that of Bruce Almighty, which makes it feel a little flat.

**1/2

Martin Scorcese and ….. Liza Minelli?

November 8, 2007

Yeah, I don’t get it, either. Was she ever attractive? No way.

For those of you who don’t subscribe to Mental Floss magazine (or who don’t get the awesome RSS feed of its blog), there’s a brief entry on the many battles Scorcese underwent back during his salad days (and even beyond).

It’s all based on Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Definitely something to add to the ol’ Amazon wish list.

353 – Knocked Up

November 7, 2007

Knocked Up is one of those movies that seems to get instant cult status, based partly on its pedigree (guys from The 40 Year Old Virgin and recent Will Ferrell movies) and its appeal to twentysomething stoner/slackers. But although some of the jokes are pretty good, and the performances are mostly spot-on, the film’s pretty uneven; the funny parts are mostly funny, but the so-called sincere parts come off as maudlin or treacly.

Ben (Seth Rogen) is the slacker/stoner in question here. He and his not-all-there buds (ha! check out the double meaning) are in the process of launching a website dedicated to finding nudity in mainstream movies. If you immediately said, “What, like Mr. Skin?” you’re in the target audience. So basically, Ben has no job, and neither do the rest of the man-children in his posse.

Contrary to that is Alison (Katherine Heigl of Grey’s Anatomy), an E! entertainment producer-type who’s just been given a shot at working in front of the camera. So she heads out to a club with her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) and winds up hooking up with Ben. Of course, she was drunk at the time – Heigl is a pinup model and Rogen is a fat slob. So you know it’s sort of true to life in that sense.

Fast forward eight weeks later, and Alison’s preggers. Whoopsie daisy. Now how will these two lustbirds reconcile the fact that they don’t really know each other with this impending birth? Or, for that matter, the fact that while sober neither has anything in common with the other?

As I said, scenes that are supposed to be funny usually work, because Rogen is just doofy enough to pull it off; the film works when it pokes fun at Ben’s slacker proclivities or the idiosyncrasies of his friends. It doesn’t work so much in the way the women are portrayed, however. Look, we’ve all enjoyed movies in which women are mere objects, right? Porky’s, I’m looking at you! Done right, that sort of approach can be raucously entertaining. But in this movie, the womenfolk alternately come off as wildly bitchy or just humorless. Alison was never really shown to have much of a sense of humor (although there’s one scene in which she helps the boys spot nude scenes in films for their website).

That’s all well and good regardless, because some movies can manage to have “bad” female characters off of which the males can play. But that’s where the schizophrenia of this movie comes into play; is it a low-brow, misogynistic comedy or a relationship movie? Too often, it opted for the latter, and if you’re trying to show the trials and tribulations of two crazy kids who aren’t even in love with each other, you shouldn’t make one of them unlikable and irrational. Even if, you know, that’s how it’d be in real life.

Judd Apatow, who brought us similarly flawed The 40 Year Old Virgin, compares the burgeoning Ben-Alison relationship to the marriage of Debbie and Pete. Oops, looks like Pete’s an inconsiderate jerk! Looks like Debbie’s an overreacting, hyperactive nitwit! Of course, Apatow’s not saying theirs is the ideal relationship for which Ben and Alison should strive, but he makes it seem as if just having an relationship is a bad idea.

And I know I might be in the minority here, but I’ve never liked humor that serves only to humiliate someone. So when Ben or Alison launches a profanity-laced attack on the other, that’s not funny. It’s not even entertaining. It’s annoying.

(Another recurring theme was that Debbie feels unappreciated. Check out the scene in which she and Alison are turned away from a club – Alison because she’s pregnant and Debbie because she’s, um, old. Leslie Mann is two years younger than me, it should be noted; anyway, the scene is presumably supposed to show the sisters bonding over their respective rejections, but all it did was show Debbie as whiny.)

One plus, though – good to see Alan Tudyk (Wash from Firefly) getting some work; here, he’s Alison’s boss. His rotten-bitch-sycophant assisant has to go, though. She, like some of the other secondary and tertiary characters, was just thoroughly obnoxious and useless – not funny in the biting, sarcastic way, just caustic and off-putting.

**

9 Awesome Directors Who Temporarily Lost Their Mind

November 6, 2007

When I was growing up, there were basically three parody-style kids’ magazines: Mad, Cracked, and Crazy. (At least I think there was a Crazy.) But over time, with the advent of the Internet and a zillion other ways for kids to get their jollies, the goals and scope of these magazines changed a lot. Mad went corporate and began to include ads (ads!) and color. Cracked, by contrast, became much, much more adult than it’d ever been. It’s clearly aimed much more at twentysomethings than preteens – there’s a lot of profanity and Adult Humor.

The writing is still top notch, though, perhaps more so with Cracked than with Mad. This article is a great example: 9 Awesome Directors Who Temporarily Lost Their Mind.

Very well done, crack Cracked team! I salute you and your verve.

352 – Bee Movie

November 4, 2007

Back in olden times, a B movie was one that was filmed largely on the backlot of a particular studio – that is, the kind of movie that had few, if any, known actors and that received little, if any, real promotion or hype. These were low budget, low-impact movies.

But the similarity between those B movies and Bee Movie is purely nominal. Look! Big stars! Lots of hype? Is it worth the 90 minutes of your time to put up with a theater full of squealing youngsters, even if you yourself have no children and in fact are quite conspicuous? Short answer – yes!

Jerry Seinfeld (who also cowrote) is Barry B. Benson, a worker bee who just wants to fly away from the hive and see what’s out there in the great big world; he doesn’t want to be tied down to the same ol’ monotonous job with Honex, making honey. Which is what bees do. No, he wants to fly, explore, live! His best pal Adam (Matthew Broderick), is a bit more conversative and openly embraces the long, dull office job that awaits him, and he tries in vain to dissuade Barry from acting on his dreams. Ah, but to no avail; once Barry flies out with the Pollen Jocks, bees who, well, collect the pollen the bees use to make honey, he sees those dreams fulfilled. But such a journey isn’t a cakewalk, nosir, it’s fraught with danger, as Barry gets caught in a car’s engine, along with other mishaps, eventually finding his way to a windowsill outside the apartment of one Vanessa Bloome (Rene Zellweger), who saves him from being splattered by her friends.

So it’s your typical bee-meets-girl movie. Oh yes, I went there for that silly pun.

Now, things are tough enough for Barry as he tries to win over Vanessa while jousting (verbally and physically) with her beau, Ken (Patrick Warburton, who’s terrific as always) and dealing with his overprotective and not-completely understanding parents (Kathy Bates and Barry Levinson) when he learns that – gasp! – humans EAT honey. Honey that the bees make! After a little investigating, Barry sees with his own eyes how honey is harvested by humans from manmade hives populated by drugged-out bees – and he decides to sue the human race for stealing the bees’ honey!

And what had been a quirky love story (look! interspecies romance!) now becomes a little-man-versus-the-big-conglomerate plotline, and to tell the truth I felt a little guilty siding with the little guy. Barry takes the major corporations to court, and they’re represented by the oleaginous Layton T. Montomgery (John Goodman), who lays on the good-ol-boy thicker than, well, you can guess. Can Barry and the bees stand up to Monty and the humans? With Oprah Winfrey as the judge, how can he go wrong? But wrong he does go, and that’s as far as I’ll take this plot summary.

Bee Movie is everything you want to see in an animated movie. It’s inventive and creative (check out how detailed the hive operations are, or even Vanessa’s apartment, or the courtroom), it’s believable, and it’s utterly charming. An animated movie HAS to be charming, too, because otherwise we adults would see it as just some dopey kids movie, wouldn’t we? Seinfeld is winning and sincere as the bee with a cause, even when – especially when – things don’t work out the way he expects them to. Bee Movie has a lot of heart, with a perfect, cheery ending.

***

351 – Planet Terror

November 1, 2007

As half of the larger Grindhouse movie (with Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof), Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is precisely what it aims to be – an homage to cheesy, low-budget zombie movies of the seventies and eighties. Although it’s told in a straightforward manner, Planet Terror allows the viewer to enjoy the nostalgia theme ironically, with just enough creeps and scares to be viewed as a honest-to-goodness horror thriller.

Seems some kind of noxious nerve gas that changes those who breathe it into flesh-eating zombies has been unleashed into the air at a military base (helpfully called “Military Base” on road signs). The army can’t help – they might be behind it! So who can save the day? Why, a motley crew of citizens from a nearby town, of course, including a stripper who’s just quit her job (Rose McGowan), a tow-truck-driving loner (Freddy Rodriguez), an honest sheriff (Michael Biehn), and a domestically abused doctor (Marley Shelton). Somehow, they must eradicate just enough of the mindless drones to escape to a better clime and find out how to keep the disease from spreading further. Can they do it? Yes they can!

As with most Robert Rodriguez movies, there’s a lot of style AND substance to go around. For one thing, the movie’s very well filmed, from the seamy lighting surrounding J.T.’s Bone Shack to the orderly madness of the local hospital. Heck, even the music sounds authentic, like the producers spent $20 to grab a few songs off of iTunes. Which brings me to the same conundrum I experienced with Death Proof: Why, if these are supposed to be homages to old-time crapfests from the 1970s or so, are there so many nods to modern living? I mean, why not go whole hog and have the movie actually SET in the 1970s? Wouldn’t that have made more sense?

Eh, doesn’t matter too much. Little anachronisms may be an irritant, but the movie’s so well put together that you likely won’t even notice or mind. Plus, Rodriguez makes up for that – and then some – by mischievously releasing the movie as if it had a missing reel (a reel that was never filmed, it should be noted). Oh, it’s priceless. Freddy Rodriguez, as El Wray, is in the middle of coupling with his ex-ex-now-maybe-on-again, Cherry (McGowan) when the film appears to melt and perhaps fall off the reel; the viewer then sees a title card apologizing for the delay, and then POW, we’re back in the movie, well further along than when we’d left it. (Humorously, the sheriff thanks El Wray later on for revealing his true identity and calling to the lawman; El Wray nods and tells the sheriff to keep it under his hat. Nudge nudge, wink, wink!)

But see, this isn’t just about a stripper with a heart of gold warding off hordes of zombies; it’s about a legless stripper with a heart of gold. See, early on, Cherry was sideswiped by a transport vehicle as she walked along the side of the road. She somehow caught the disease the zombies would later get, but she was “saved” when the good doctors chopped off the offending and infected leg. Heck, for part of the movie she has a table leg wedged into her metal stump, but later on? Later on she gets a machine gun there. Now THAT’S badass! She’s a lithe stripper, you see, able to bend and twist and fire the gun wherever she wants. That Cherry, she has quite the assets, doesn’t she?

McGowan and F. Rodriguez are both great, and so’s the well-picked supporting cast, including Biehn as the intrepid sheriff and Jeff Fahey as his brother, a restauranteur. Oh, and Michael Parks, who’s played the same kindly Texas Ranger Earl McGraw, who’s been in both Kill Bill films and Tarantino’s Death Proof, not to mention From Dusk Till Dawn (also directed by Rodriguez), and he’s wryly amusing here. Heck, Bruce Willis appears unbilled, too. Tarantino’s in it as well; he’s actually half-decent as an actor, although his turn in Death Proof was a bit more entertaining.

In all, Planet Terror serves as a grimy reminder of just how deservedly unsung those cranked-out crapfests were back in the day, back when you’d pay a nickel for a double feature, and that included popcorn, by gum! The characters are appropriately shallowly written, although often the actors add just enough depth to make the movie worthwhile, even nonironically.

***

Friday the 13th and Vampires

November 1, 2007

A day late and all that, but here are a couple of entertaining articles for you horror buffs out there.

First, we have The AV Club’s take on all of the Friday the 13th films and how each one was symbolic of its particular era, whether it was early-80s Reaganomics or early-00s Bushastrophes.

I have seen some of the F13 movies, but I think early on I hit a wall with them, since the formula was hardly ever varied. Kids do sinful things in the dark and get killed. Still, it’s amusing to see a horror story last as long as this one has.

 Then we have the Top 70 Vampire Movies. Why 70? I dunno. I didn’t even think there were 70 great vampire movies, but there you go. Maybe in ten years we’ll have 70 zombie movies, since they seem to be everywhere nowadays.

350 – Death Proof

October 31, 2007

Grindhouse was originally released in theaters as one big movie comprising two feature-length parts, complete with fake trailers, that evoked the cheap and cheesy cinematic experience of low-budget movies in the olden days. However, each of the features was instead released separately on DVD, also in keeping with grindhouse theater tradition.

Death Proof, from Quentin Tarantino, relates the story of one Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a movie stunt dude who’s tricked out his kick-ass muscle car to be, well, death proof, mMeaning that it could be used as an actual stunt car, able to withstand high-velocity crashes without its driver sustaining much in the way of injuries. But see, Stuntman Mike isn’t just some guy with a mean-looking car, he’s also a sicko who gets off on killing young women. This is the kind of theme you’d see frequently in low-budget films of yesteryear – the sexy damsel in distress who’s mowed down by a some psychopath with no greater motivation than sheer lunacy. Mike’s a scary-looking fella, too – he has a long vertical scar that begins above his eye and travels down to his chin. He’s gritty, slimy, grizzled. Heck, he kind of looks like Snake Plissken, come to think of it; all he’s missing is that eyepatch.

In the first half of the movie, Mike stalks a group of young women, following them to a honkytonk bar. The women are luscious and oversexed, another theme of cheapo trash movies; eventually, Mike offers a lift to Pam (Rose McGowan), who’s not even in the group he’s been following. Do you think Pam will make it home in one piece? Yeah, I’m gonna go with “no” on that one, Johnny. Mike’s car is death proof, indeed, but as he accurately notes, you get the full effect only if you’re in the driver’s seat. Hey-o! Anyway, death happens. There is a huge, wildly violent crash, as Mike uses his car as the ultimate murder weapon.

Once you accept the concept of the movie – that it’s really supposed to be reminiscient of those crappy drive-in films of the past, complete with poor cinematography and editing – then you can somewhat enjoy the movie. I qualify that statement because there’s one big problem I had with the movie, and that’s while it should remind you of, say, a 1977 hot-rod/sexploitation movie, there are such curious anachronisms as cell phones and some late-model cars. There must be a logical explanation for this, but if we’re supposed to think of those older movies and the primary vehicles in the movie are from the 1970s, then why have modern gadgets? Doesn’t that sort of defeat the purpose a little?

Russell is awesome as the diseased creep – he reminds me not only of Plissken but of Rondo Hatten, who played many seamy and seedy monsters back in the 1930s and 1940s. Stuntman Mike is a typical tough, hard-ass Tarantino character who can also use words to knock down an opponent – or win a lady. With a squint and a glint, Mike is instantly a mysterious rascal with an agenda, although the exact nature of that agenda isn’t known until deeper into the film.

The rest of the cast is pretty good, although I do wish the entire atmosphere of the 1970s had been preserved; there was just too much modernity to the sets and the characters’ mannerisms to suit me. The women we see in the latter half of the movie outshine those in the first half, particularly real-life stuntwoman Zoe Bell (playing herself, natch) and Rosario Dawson. Not faring as well were Vanessa Ferlito and Jordan Ladd.

Beyond that little head-scratcher, though, the movie’s not half bad. Were it not released as a big budget movie to such fanfare, it might even qualify for cult-movie status. Heck, it still might. The crash scenes are wonderful, pulse-quickening shots born of angst and revenge; you can almost feel the glass splintering, the metal bending, the rubber leaving a mile-long skidmark. This, along with pepper-hot dialog, is Tarantino’s calling card – recall the crash scene in Pulp Fiction with Butch’s car. Tarantino, typically, writes himself a good part as Warren the Bartender, although he didn’t give himself a witty monologue like he did in Sleep with Me or even Pulp Fiction.

***

349 – Saw IV

October 28, 2007

You don’t need me to tell you that the blood and guts in Saw IV is, well, a bit grotesque. After all, the torture series has made evisceration its bread and butter, if you will, and it’s probably a little bit late to slap that sin back into Pandora’s Box. So, Saw = gore. Presumably, if you’ve read even this far, you’re all in for goopy blood and entrails and whatnot. It’s your bread and butter too, you see.

So Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) and his faithful companion Amanda (Shawnee Smith) are no longer among the living, but their “work” lives on, in an unending conga line of sequels. In this one, two veteran FBI agents join the local cops to try to figure out who’s killing cops, especially with the supposed mastermind quite sincerely deceased.

As with the first three movies, people are maimed and killed in variously creative ways, all part of some posthumous scheme cooked up by Jigsaw. Or by some accomplice who’s carrying on the evil work. The good news? It’s all interconnected with the events of Saw III. The bad news? Saw III was somewhat confusing, and this one blows it out of the water in terms of murkiness and who the hey is doing what and when. But we do see a lot of the same basic concepts, like a victim wakes to find himself in some sort of diabolical trap, and he must suffer incredible pain if he wants to live. I have to admit that the devices themselves – and the plots they forward – are pretty ingenious. In one scene, a husband and wife wake to find themselves impaled on a series of sharp sticks. That is, a stick enters the woman’s body and exits, and then enters the man’s body. The backstory is that she was physically abused by him for many years, and now she literally holds his life in her hands. She can live, but only if she removes the sticks, and by doing so his vital organs are skewered. Awesome stuff.

But at its heart, this is a revenge movie. Revenge of Jigsaw for the wrongs he’d suffered. In IV, we find out a heck of a lot more about John’s life story, what made him who he is. In fact, we learn he has/had an ex-wife, who makes an extended experience here. Can the ex-wife jokes, you guys out there. She’s actually a good guy in this one. I think. It’s hard to tell, the plot’s so convoluted. You did something wrong to Jigsaw? You die violently. Cut him off at the supermarket? Dinged his car in the parking lot? Littered on his part of the sidewalk? Man, you are so dead.

Meanwhile, all the cops and agents are trying desperately to find out where the actual Jigsaw headquarters is, because the killings continue – and one of their own is missing. Well, more than one, actually; one’s been gone six months. But another just vanished, and for some reason the men in blue think he’s the one behind everything. They may have a point, since as they follow his trail the bodies pile up. And, as I said, each victim has been selected for a specific reason. Man, if Jigsaw put as much effort into saving the world as he did in killing people off, we’d be pretty set.

This ain’t for the squeamish, certainly. First scene is Jigsaw being cut open during an autopsy, and no sight is worse, perhaps, than seeing the skull sawed open, the skin flapped down, the brain removed… Eww. It’s a big fat eww, and it’s not the only one. If I were you, I wouldn’t eat anything sticky or squishy while watching this – parts of it make Hostel seem like Herbie the Love Bug.

The biggest caveat is that the plot is a little tough to follow, since your mind is overwhelmed by all the carnage. At one point during the final ten minutes or so, a character appears whom I swear I didn’t even recognize, and that’s because some of the events of IV run parallel, timewise, to those in III. Saw III was so last year, so I didn’t remember the character.

Overall, though, there is no substantial dropoff in quality from III to IV. Or even, really, from II to IV; the first one still reigns supreme, but that’s partly because it was all fresh for us back then, and the others have had to live up to that film’s standard. IV manages to hold its own; good thing, too, since it’s very likely we’ll see a V and a VI.

**1/2

348 – Bug

October 27, 2007

I can’t possibly give this movie the rating it truly deserves. This is one of those movies that fools you into thinking it’ll be a pretty decent film, only to not only not be decent but to be hands-down one of the worst movies of the year. If I had a rating system of one to ten, with ten being the best, Bug would rate at about a negative infinity. But perhaps I’m being a little harsh on it unnecessarily.

Bug is about a stereotypical lonely midwestern woman who lives in a crappy, run-down motel in the middle of Nowheresville, Oklahoma. She has the standard crazy ex-husband who’s just been released from jail and the standard lesbian best friend who works with her at the honkytonk cowboy bar down the road a piece. Agnes (Ashley Judd) is kind, considerate, saucy, sassy, and gorgeous. Agnes is supposed to be sort of broken down; she has just her one friend R.C. (Lynn Collins) and doesn’t like to party – although she does snort her share of the cocaine. Still and all, she seems like a right nice sort, although in typical Lifetime movie of the week fashion she’s instantly cowed by her psychotic ex (Harry Connick, Jr.).

One day R.C. brings over a guy she found at their bar, Peter (Michael Shannon), a man who seems even more distant and unsure of himself than the lovely Agnes. Peter takes to her, and she to he, despite not knowing a damn thing about him. He has no home, no car, no nothing. Dude’s not even handsome, like her ex. But there’s something kindly, if off-putting about Peter; he seems to listen, you know, care. Chicks dig it if you fake caring about them, you see. At any rate, Agnes lets him spend the night, chastely on the couch.

But it quickly transpires that Peter’s not all there. He’s a former war vet, and he’s a little batty about bugs. Sees them everywhere. Once, in the middle of the night, he insists he’s been bitten by an aphid and tears the bed apart looking for it. When he does find it, though, Agnes can’t see it. No one can see it. You know why? Because it’s not there. That doesn’t stop Peter from bitching about it. The next day, he’s spread flystrips all over the motel room. Oh, and somehow gotten a hold of a microscope, the better to look at slides containing his own blood. You know, normal stuff.

Now, you or I might think, “Hey, Peter’s whacked from being tested with drugs by sinister Army doctors!” and that he clearly needs some freaking medical attention. R.C. points out to Peter that aphids don’t bite, and he in turn accuses her of selling him out to The Man. And of course, at that point, as you might predict, Agnes goes crazy at her friend, screaming at her that she’s trying to take away the only thing Agnes has left in her life, and yadda yadda yadda, and it all ends with a classic line of “Get out of here! And don’t you ever come back!”

Knowing that logic has been jettisoned might actually help the viewer here, because plainly a lot of stuff here just isn’t meant to make any sense. It’s a screenwriter’s crutch, really, having a character be so completely off the wall that one can’t relate at all. Peter goes from being simply creepy (and, it should be noted, not someone a fragile, single woman should ever allow into her home) to certifiable in the wink of an eye. Much worse, though, is that Agnes goes from being intelligent and romantic to being… well, really, really dumb. Suddenly nothing she says contains one iota of smarts. It’s as if Peter’s enormous head (seriously, go look at Michael Shannon) was sucking all the brains out of Agnes. Or she sucked the crazy out of him. Because, come to think of it, she wasn’t loopy until after she slept with him.

I have to wonder, though, if this movie is supposed to be ironic. Because it’s loaded, absolutely chock full, of seemingly unintentional comedy. Here’s an actual line. Actual line, mind you: “Agnes! Tell me what you don’t know!” I am the dumber for having typed those words. Watching this movie is like being hit repeatedly about the skull with a blunt instrument. It’s badly written – this stuff wouldn’t make sense on paper, why would it make sense in a movie? – terribly acted, and an overall embarrassment. One plus: Judd is naked for quite a bit of time, rare for such a high-caliber actress.

*

347 – Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters

October 21, 2007

Let’s be frank. If you don’t like this late-night Cartoon Network series (or if you’ve never even watched it), you’ll likely find this movie to be a huge bore, veering from frat-house humor to incomprehensibility. The characters are bizarre, and the premises are bizarrer. More bizarrererer. Or something. It’s absurdist comedy that makes sense only within a certain context, and that context is “Oh my god I am so stoned is that a talking milkshake woo.”

I’m generalizing a bit, but yeah. Basically, you have to accept the idea that a Happy Meal – a giant milkshake, an order of fries that can fly, and an shape-shifting meatball – lives in New Jersey. It’s not worth considering how they pay for groceries or how, you know, they even exist, you just have to buy into that premise above all else. Master Shake, Frylock, and Meatwad inhabit a run-down craphole of a house somewhere up in north Jersey; they interact with mainly just their next-door neighbor Carl, a sterotypical Joisey bastard with a lot of chest hair, medallions, and no Inner Voice. Oh, and then there are the eight-bit aliens, and a robot bird..thing,

Now, most episodes of the show end with someone or something (usually the Teens’ house) blowing up. And then in the next show, all is well. It’d be a mighty quick series otherwise. Frylock is the wisest of them all, and he has superpowers – he can fly! he can shoot lasers out of his fries! – and he spends much of each episode trying to keep the other two out of trouble – or yoinking them away from it. Master Shake is callous, egotistic, heartless, and not terribly bright. But he’s smarter than Meatwad, who’s simply a ball o’ meat. Meatwad’s also terribly gullible, a trait that shows up roughly every episode, as Shake takes advantage of him all the time.

This movie does make a stab at not being a simple extended episode, which many ‘toons wind up doing (I’m looking at you, Mister Squarepants!). You know the drill. Hey, this show is pretty funny for 30 minutes, so naturally it’ll be three times as hilarious if it’s 90 minutes long! Am I right or am I right? Am I working hard or hardly working? Woo! But in this case, the decision was made to explore the origins of the Teens, since it’s never really explained in the series how they came to be. Seems our boys were the creations of Dr. Weird, who has a lab out on the Jersey shore. To be fair, this is covered a little bit in the series, but the movie goes into much more detail about who begat whom and why and what this all means.

In addition to the where’d-they-come-from angle, the plot centers around a kick-ass new exercise machine owned by Carl and borrowed by Shake, called the Insaneoflex. Yeah, you’d think with a name like that, it’d have you ripped in no time, right? Yeah, well, it does, only not in the good way. It’s a bad machine. And it’s up to our boys (well, mostly Frylock) to save Carl from its evil clutches!

And there’s your threadbare plot right there. Now, again, if you’re not a fan of the series, you won’t buy into any of this. The jokes are sometimes very subtle and completely off the wall. And they often don’t make a whit of sense, even if you have indeed seen the show. So what I’m saying is this: If you’re in the right frame of mind (that is, chemically enhanced or some facsimile thereof), you might find this entertaining. It’s not as bad as many mainstream critics claim it is, mainly because it’s perfect for the audience it’s aiming at. That said, such audience is probably a small focus group, and since the movie doesn’t (perhaps nobly so) attempt to move outside its mien, I’m not going to give it a particularly good rating.

**

Three oldies not all goodies

September 24, 2007

First up, we have 1962’s Days of Wine and Roses, starring Jack Lemmon as an alkie who marries Lee Remick and draws her into the disease as well. I’m sure that in 1962 this was cutting-edge, gritty stuff, but now it feels dated and flat as hell. Here’s problem #1 I had with it: Lemmon’s Joe Clay, a PR guy, berates the secretary of one of his clients merely because she had the audacity to sniff at his chosen profession (which is, to be blunt, to be a pimp for his clients). After he’s done berating her, she leaves, and so does he. And then, seconds later, she’s asking him why he’s not asking her to dinner. The guy who just got done yelling at her, yes, he’s an appealing fella. Nasty son of a bitch, more like. Were women dumber in 1962? The rest of the movie is the two of them sinking further and further into full-blown alkiness, with Lemmon finally being saved by AA. The ending’s good – not trite, not pat – but the movie wallows so much in self-pity and morosity that you don’t feel any better when it’s all over and done with. And since Clay is despicable from the moment we see him, we don’t see a huge change in his personality as the disease overtakes him (and he loses his job and self-respect). **

Then we have Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), directed by Frank Capra, about a small-town tuba player who inherits $30 million from a distant relative and ultimately decides to give it all away once he realizes how many vultures want a piece of it. And that’s when they arrest him for being completely out of his mind. Gary Cooper is Deeds, and Jean Arthur plays the cynical reporter who plays him like, well, a tuba in order to sell papers and get a free vacation. It’s pretty awesome. And hey, it was the movie that introduced the terms “doodling” and “pixelated” to the masses! True story. ***1/2

And then we come to an early Alfred Hitchcock movie, 1931’s The Skin Game, about the shenanigans between two moneyed families in England, the Hornblowers and the Hillcrists. Seems Mr. Hornblower wants to moderize the neighborhood with his new-fangled chimneys, and the old-money Hillcrists want nothing to do with it, so they spend most of the movie trying to outmaneuver each other. That doesn’t sound bad, but the movie is very poorly shot and recorded, and the dialog is atrocious. Sometimes, Hitch would have a shot of a door – for several seconds – as we wait for someone to walk through it. Or he’ll focus on someone while someone else speaks to them off camera. It all looks inept, all the more so because it’s Alfred Freaking Hitchcock. **

What we know about Indiana Jones 4

September 19, 2007

We know that it’ll be called Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

We know that Cate Blanchett will be in it and that she might be playing the Bad Guy. Well, a Bad Guy, anyway. Maybe she’ll be the one who looks to be Good only to turn on Indy at the last moment. Or maybe she’ll be bad all along. (I can’t call her a Bad Girl, because I’m sure Ms. Blanchett would above that sort of moniker.)

We know that the fedora will still be on Indy’s head.

We know it’ll be in theaters on May 22, 2008.
And, um, that’s about it. Oh, Shia LaBeouf, Jim Broadbent, Ray Winstone, and Karen Allen will all be in it, but since Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are involved, there’s not much to go on regarding everyone’s role. Sigh. Hey, it doesn’t matter anyway, does it? Seriously, if all of those people were NOT in it, and all we had was Harrison Ford versus, say, an ECG machine, wouldn’t you still watch it? Of course you would. You’re as weak as I am when it comes to Indiana Jones. Indiana Jones and the Curse of Universal Medical Care would be a heart-pounding (literally) thrill ride. No one would be admitted after the movie’s begun, and the studio would take no responsibility for deaths owing to heart attacks or strokes. Especially not strokes. It’s not that kind of movie.

Me, I’m glad the elegant Blanchett, who’s a great actress indeed, will be in it to class up the joint, not to take anything away from respect thespians Winstone and Broadbent. (You might remember Broadbent from Bullets over Broadway and Winstone from Sexy Beast. Or not.) Dunno about LaBeouf, since all I’ve seen him in has been the loud Transformers movie, but at least he was appealing in it. And Allen? I’m glad to see Marion Ravenwood again, of course, but frankly I don’t think Karen Allen had anything pressing going on in her career, anyway. A quick look at the good ol’ IMDb shows us that she hasn’t done anything movie-wise since 2004, and nothing of note in the theater since 2001’s In the Bedroom, which sounds like a porno but was in fact a fantastic thriller starring Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson as parents of a young man (Nick Stahl) who’s lover’s husband just got himself killed. Oops. I don’t remember Karen Allen in it, though.

Da da da daaaaaaaaaaa, da da da….

346 – 3:10 to Yuma

September 8, 2007

This remake of the 1957 oater (that’s movie talk for “western”) is servicable largely because of the earnest craftiness of its two leads, who skillfully play off each other in a battle of wills, if not morals. Unfortunately, while the motives of the good guy (playes by Christian Bale) are both noble and realistic, some of the actions of the bad guy (Russell Crowe) may leave you scratching your head, and while nebulous intentions can make for wonderful mystery, in the end you’re still not sure why Crowe’s dastardly Ben Wade has done what he’s done, and what it all means.

Dan Evans (Bale) is a dirt-poor farmer who lost a leg in the Civil War. His farm’s about to be foreclosed by an unscrupulous land owner who’s taken to damming a river and burning down Evans’ barn to force him off his own property. So when stagecoach robber Ben Wade (Crowe) is captured and needs to be escorted to the nearby town to get on the titular train, Evans volunteers, both to gain payment to help save his farm and to save face in front of his two kids, one of whom is sick from tuberculosis and one who thinks his old man is a spineless failure. Saddled by debt and ungrateful kids, Evans’ decision and motivation are easy to understand.

Ah, but getting the nefarious Wade to Yuma is going to be a complicated trick indeed, because the rest of his gang, led by Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) isn’t going to let their fearless leader be trundled off to Yuma to die. Luckily, bounty hunter Byron McElroy (a gritty Peter Fonda) gets the idea of using a decoy stagecoach to lure the varmints off the trail while he and the rest of the posse, including Evans, schlep Wade in the other direction. The gambit works for a while, allowing the good guys to place precious geographical space between them and the bad guys; it also allows the movie to continue unabated. Because, after all, there are more people in Wade’s gang then there are trying to bring him to justice – all they’d have to do is find him, shoot the hell out of the place, and grab him.

Although there’s plenty of gunplay and death by bullets, this is much more of a psychological drama than anything else. Wade, as played coldly (but not charmlessly) by Crowe, has two goals in mind: gain the mental upper hand on Evans, an untrained rancher, and gain his escape from the clutches of law and order. Meanwhile, although Evans’ intentions are less murky, he’s not some squinty-eyed sharpshooter whose aim is always true; he’s not an iconic hero who you just know is gonna save the day. Bale is terrific; you can really see the anguish he feels as a supposed failure in the eyes of his sons. In the hands of lesser actors, these two complex roles would have seemed less symbiotic and therefore less sincere. For example, apparently Movie Guy Tom Cruise was initially supposed to have Wade’s role; if that had come to fruition, we would have been distracted by Movie Star Tom Cruise, and the movie would have suffered terribly as a result.

But despite the wonderful performances by Bale and Crowe, the movie’s shortcoming is that Ben Wade’s intentions seem rather inscrutable. I don’t mean that they’re simply ambiguous (is he going to flee or help the good guys fight off Navajo Indians?), I mean that they don’t make much sense. One minute, Wade is all set to get away from Evans and escape to the safety of his gang, but in the next he’s actually fending off his gang as it attacks Evans. There’s no explanation given for this change of heart, but the new attitude is gone as quickly as it arrives, leaving the viewer a little puzzled. Sure, some may explain this as “Wade comes to respect Evans and so doesn’t want to see the rancher killed,” but Wade’s actions were much more than that. He wasn’t just trying to save Evans, you see, he was actively trying to knock off members of his own gang, and the reason for that escaped me completely.

Still, 3:10 to Yuma is firmly entertaining, benefitting from two gritty, believable performances by Crowe and Bale, although it’s marred by some unexplained actions on the part of its charismatic villain.

***