Friday, December 30, 2011

From Russia with Love

Alright, everyone! Here I am again with another 007 adventure. This time, it's Sean Connery's second go-round as James Bond, From Russia with Love.

After the huge success of Dr. No, a sequel was inevitable. From Russia with Love, again directed by Terence Young, builds upon the success of its predecessor, and establishes the template for what we've all come to know and love as a James Bond film.

For the first time, we get the opening sequence of sexy ladies gyrating over the cast and crew credits, projected upon their bodies. For the first time, we get a title song for the movie, in addition to the famous Bond theme. We also get our first ever gadget tutorial from Q, and a further glimpse of Bond's archfoes, the shadowy criminal organization SPECTRE.

This time around, SPECTRE is out for revenge on Bond, after killing their agent, Dr. No and foiling their scheme in the process. They send an assassin named Grant (Robert Shaw) after him, and set him up with Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), a Russian clerk that has no idea who she's in bed with (figuratively speaking. Literally speaking, she's in bed with Bond). The majority of the action is set in Istanbul this time around.

Bond is more clever with the one liners than he was in Dr. No. The sexual suggestiveness is played way up. I mean, this movie is DIRTY. I always knew the Bond films had this stuff in them, but I guess I had never seen one where it was pushed to this extent. I grew up on the cleaned up, neutered Pierce Brosnan 007 films.

The villains become a little more arch this time around, but only a little. It's not like Dr. No was a paragon of subtlety. Robert Shaw is one of the better nemeses in a Bond film as SPECTRE assassin Grant. And Number 3 is pretty memorable too, with the blade that pops out of the tip of her boot.

Whereas in the first film, Bond was a pretty low-tech spy, this time around, he gets some gadgets from Q, including a trick briefcase. They're still not at the heights of implausibility that they eventually reach. I believe I remember him unfolding a briefcase into a helicopter in a later one.

One thing I noticed in From Russia with Love is product placement, something we've all come to expect in a James Bond movie. There may have been some in Dr. No, but I wasn't on the lookout for it at the time. Eveready batteries must have paid top dollar for some screen time in this movie.

Though I preferred the less gimmicky, more gritty feel of Dr. No, From Russia with Love is just as good. It expands and solidifies the Bond universe and utilizes its increased budget by adding some grander set pieces and action sequences. I was actually surprised that it was a direct continuation of Dr. No. The later James Bond movies have little to no continuity from one to the next, which I think is a shame. At the end of the movie is the promise of a third, surely already in production at the time of this one's release.

James Moore will return soon with his review of GOLDFINGER.

War Horse

Two Steven Spielberg movies in one week!

War Horse follows a thoroughbred horse named Joey from being purchased at an auction by a poor farmer in a small town in Wales through the mainland during World War I, being passed from one owner to the next. The horse is charmed, and through its good fortune its live is spared many times over. His original owner is a teenaged boy named Albert who loves and cares for him until the war begins and Joey is conscripted into the military.

Among the themes and ideas that Spielberg is exploring in this movie, the one that fascinated me the most is the impact of technology on warfare. We witness this firsthand when nearly the entire English cavalry is gunned down by German machine guns. It reminded me of Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha, where Kurosawa showed us many evocative shots of horses lying dead or dying in the field of battle.

The horse travels across enemy lines more than once, finding owners and caretakers on both sides, be they English, French, or German. Spielberg doesn't take sides in the war, he only takes Joey's side, and his owners are always humane and kind towards him. Our capacity for kindness towards animals is something that ties all of us together.
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I thought War Horse was a very lovely film, sentimental and earnest; Steven Spielberg doing what he does best: pulling on your heartstrings. The cinematography is among Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski's very best, and some of the best I've seen all year. Lots of sprawling John Ford-esque landscapes. The World War I battle sequences are intense and as realistic and evocative as they can be, given the film's bloodless PG-13 rating. John Williams' score may have been the best I've heard by him in years.

The cast is very good, too. Standouts include Jeremy Irvine as Albert, Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston as two English cavalrymen, and Niels Arestrup and Celine Buckens as an old man and his sickly granddaughter who one day find the horse in their windmill. Also, there is this awesome goose that lives on Albert's farm and serves as comic relief, always attacking visitors and running into their house unexpected. I'm hoping Spielberg makes a spinoff War Goose movie.

It was kind of nice to see both sides of Steven Spielberg come out in the same week. The Adventures of Tintin felt like Spielberg just having a good time, and is a lot of fun as a diversion, but War Horse is Spielberg showing that he's still a master of heartfelt, emotional storytelling.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Sherlock Holmes is possibly my favorite literary character. I've read all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes stories. I'm sure a lot of the most devoted Holmes fans probably hate Guy Ritchie's hip, revisionist take on the classic characters and stories, but I think the characters are quite elastic and open for reinterpretation many times over. I also think these movies are quite fun, though both of them slouch for a good stretch in the middle.

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law return as Holmes and Watson, this time on the trail of Prof. James Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime. Joining them this time around are Noomi Rapace as a gypsy fortune teller, and Stephen Fry as Holmes' equally brilliant older brother, Mycroft.

Unlike many other Holmes films, Guy Ritchie presents them as action adventure mysteries, utilizing his hyperactive, slick visual sense to its best advantage. I like this angle, because the original stories were very much the forerunner to pulp adventure books. Holmes was an expert pugilist and swordsman, and Watson was a former military man, who did much of Holmes' legwork for him. I get so sick of Watson being portrayed as a fat sidekick who is just there to go, "Amazing! However did you figure it out?"

Downey's Sherlock is an interpretation only he could bring to the table. He's eccentric and foppish and weird, and from what I can tell, he's obsessive-compulsive, and possibly bipolar. Without a case to occupy him, he gets depressed and turns to drugs, but when he's in a manic state, he becomes obsessed with certain ideas. In addition to his infatuation with Moriarty, this time around, Holmes is hung up on disguises.

Mad Men's Jared Harris is pretty much the perfect James Moriarty. I mean, seriously, you can't get any better than him for this role. He's manipulating events on a grand scale, diabolically twisting the fates of entire nations to his will. Sherlock Holmes is truly the underdog in the face of this Moriarty.

Like the first Sherlock Holmes movie, this one isn't perfect. The two leads are great together. The Victorian England it is set in is vivid and fully realized. But man, that second act starts to drag. There's a point where they're being chased through the woods and being shot at and it changes to super slow motion as trees explode around them as they run. It looks really neat, but it grinds the movie to a halt. My mind started to wander for a few minutes there.

The droopy middle is made up for in A Game of Shadows by a wonderful showdown at the end, where Holmes and Moriarty have a chess match, both figurative and literal, deciding the fate of the world.

Like the first one, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is worth a watch, though not as good as it could be. I'm glad that Guy Ritchie has found a Hollywood-type movie that is a good fit for his style. I like his first couple movies a great deal, but he floundered for quite a while after those. For those clamoring for a more faithful yet still refreshing take on the character, might I suggest the currently airing BBC show, Sherlock? If you haven't seen it yet, you're missing out on the definitive Holmes of our generation.

Dr. No

As much as I love the 60's aesthetic, it's somewhat baffling that I've never seen most of the Sean Connery James Bond films. I can't explain it. But I can correct it. Over the next couple weeks, I'm going to try to watch as many of the first seven James Bond films as I can, in order, before they are unceremoniously ripped from the Netflix Instant Watch menus on January 8th. If I had known they were leaving, I would have watched them sooner!

Dr. No is Sean Connery's debut as 007, directed by Terence Young, and I think it's about as good as a James Bond film can possibly be. The series has yet to establish its' gimmicks and cornerstones. The camp level is minimal. The spy action is low-tech and down and dirty. The character of James Bond is cooler and grittier than he gradually becomes. In fact, the closest Bond film I've seen to Dr. No is my other favorite Bond film, Casino Royale, though the latter is obviously on a much grander scale.

The plot revolves around James Bond being sent to Jamaica, where he finds a small island ruled by a scientist named Dr. No, who is plotting to sabotage the American space program. Helping Bond out are CIA agent Felix Lieter, who appears regularly in Bond films, this time played by Hawaii 5.0.'s Jack Lord, and Honey Ryder, played by Ursula Andress.

I was pretty surprised by how violent Dr. No was. There's actually a decent amount of blood in it. I assume this is because it was a United Kingdom production, and they did not have to work within the strict boundaries of the Hollywood system. Then again, I could be wrong, since Hollywood was slowly starting to loosen up around this time.

Connery is as cool as can be as Bond, but he's not quite the quip-spouting sexaholic he later becomes. He still quips and sexes with the best of them, but I think those qualities were played up in later films after proving popular in this one.

The best Bond movies are known for their villains as well. There are some pretty memorable bad guys here, including Dr. No himself, and a trio of assassins known as the Three Blind Mice (introduced by a sinister orchestral rendition of the nursery rhyme).

Let's see, what milestones do we get in this first James Bond film? We see James Bond walk into the crosshairs, turn and shoot at the camera for the first time. But get this: HE'S WEARING A FEDORA. Also, M, 007's boss gets his first appearance. And the existence of a criminal organization called SPECTRE, an ongoing thorn in Bond's side, is revealed to MI6.

So there you have it. The first 007. Arguably the best.

James Moore will return soon with his review of FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE.

The Adventures of Tintin

I've already said much of what I had to say about how much I like the character of Tintin a couple of days ago in my review of Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece, an old French adaptation of the character. In short: I'm a big fan. But even if I wasn't already a fan, I would have been pretty psyched for this new movie.

You see, The Adventures of Tintin's geek credibility is through the roof. It's directed by Steven Spielberg, and produced by Peter Jackson. The screenplay is credited to current Doctor Who/Sherlock showrunner Steven Moffat, Shaun of the Dead/Scott Pilgrim writer/director Edgar Wright, and Attack the Block writer/director Joe Cornish. It features Daniel Craig, AKA James Bond as the villain, Andy Serkis, AKA Gollum as the sidekick, and Shaun of the Dead's Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as the comic relief.

Holy crap!

The Adventures of Tintin is the story of boy reporter Tintin, who purchases a model ship at a market. Within the ship is a clue to hidden pirates' gold that leads him and his dog Snowy on a globetrotting adventure filled with peril and intrigue. Along the way, he gets help from dunderhead inspectors Thompson and Thomson and everybody's second favorite drunk seaman with an anger management problem (the first being Donald Duck, who must have been hitting the sauce, right?), Captain Haddock.

The movie was filmed using the performance capture method, where the actors' performances are fed into computers and then animated to look like the characters they're playing. These movies never seem to perform very well, mostly because of the often zombie-like rendered appearances of the characters. The technology has come a long way since Polar Express, though, and I have to say, it didn't really bother me this time around. There's no attempt in Tintin to make the characters look photo-real; rather, they're made to look like the human equivalent of creator Herge's art style.

Spielberg seems to be having a field day, letting his camera and imagination run wild. Positioning the camera in places that would otherwise be physically impossible in a live action film. The action centerpiece of the film is a huge, complex chase sequence done in a single shot. I'm not sure he captures Herge's spirit, exactly, but I think he manages to emphasize the stylistic and tonal qualities that the two of them have in common.

The cast all seem to be having fun as well, and are all perfect fits for their characters, particularly Jamie Bell in the title role. Pegg and Frost are quite impressive at making themselves indistinguishable from each other as the Thom(p)sons, especially considering how different they look in person. The dog, Snowy, is a purely CGI creation, but interacts perfectly with the actors, and perfectly captures the dog's personality from the comics. John Williams delivers a fun, upbeat score, that actually surprised me. In my mind, I expected it to be more along the lines of Indiana Jones, given the similar nature of the stories.

I'm honestly not sure if everyone will enjoy The Adventures of Tintin like I did. I have to admit, I was pretty inclined to like it from the get-go. I'm still not sure if America at large has any real reason to care about the character. Luckily for me, the rest of the world loves him, so a sequel is already on the way. Yay, Tintin!

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

My wife was actually much more excited to see David Fincher's adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo than I was. Don't get me wrong, I wanted to see it. I want to see any new David Fincher movie. But I get nervous about seeing movies with particularly brutal violence, such as rape and torture. Sometimes I chicken out entirely. I've got to say, though, I'm glad I didn't chicken out, because I found that I enjoyed the movie way more than I thought I would.

For those who don't know, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a murder mystery thriller about Mikel Blomqvist (Daniel Craig), a recently disgraced Swedish investigative journalist hired by an old millionaire (Christopher Plummer) to figure out who in his family murdered a niece he was close with 40 years prior. His life soon collides with Lisbeth Salander, a tough, brilliant, but emotionally shut-down hacker who has been more than once been sexually and physically abused by men in her life.

So, was my initial hesitance justified? Not really. Well, kind of. There are multiple rape scenes in the movie, and they're pretty intense and brutal and not for the weak of heart. But whenever I'm nervous about a movie like this, I almost always find that my constitution for this sort of thing on film is a lot stronger than it is in my imagination.

I've read the original Stieg Larsson novel that this movie is based on, but I haven't seen the original Swedish film. I should probably check it out, I suppose. I liked the novel but didn't love it. It was definitely a page-turner when the thriller aspect was going, but there were long stretches that I just didn't find all that interesting. David Fincher actually did a great job of weeding out those parts. There are several scenes of them simply researching old photos and files, but Fincher manages to draw you in and keep it engaging. The story actually continues in the book for 150 pages or so after the huge climactic mystery-solving scene. In the movie, that stuff is thankfully reduced to about a half hour or so. It's still a lot of movie after the story is seemingly over, but I felt like it really drove home that the story is more about the relationship between Blomqvist and Salander than the murder they're investigating.

I liked Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara in the leads. I'm unable to compare the two of them to the original actors who played them, which may have worked to my benefit. My wife has seen the original and she says both sets of leads are good in different ways.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a pretty great thriller, and it grew on me even more over time. I've probably thought about it more than I've thought about all the other movies I've seen the last few weeks. Zodiac is my favorite of all of David Fincher's films (in fact, one of my favorite films of the last decade), and I think he applied some similar techniques to this film. Certainly the whole making research interesting thing.

If you're not a movie wuss like I am, you should totally check out The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Even if you are, maybe you should give it a shot. I did, and it totally paid off. I hope that it does well enough and that they can lure Fincher back for the sequel, because the story is a great match with Fincher's sensibilities, and Lisbeth Salander is a truly unique and interesting character.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol

I never gave up on the Mission: Impossible franchise. The first 3 films were all successful to varying degrees, but were never quite as good as I hoped them to be. As great as Tom Cruise running away from (and toward) things can be, there was always a bit of an unfulfilled feeling by the end of the movie.

Brad Bird's fourth entry, though, eliminated that feeling for me. In fact, I would say it's easily the best Impossible Mission yet. The movie is full of twists, truly original high-tech spy gadgets, a likeable team of non-Cruise characters, and one inventive and intense action setpiece after another.

The film opens with the IMF breaking Ethan Hunt out of a Russian prison to lead a mission of breaking into the Kremlin. The opening titles are downright awesome, starting with Tom Cruise saying "Light the fuse" like a badass. Their mission is botched by somebody piggybacking on their radio frequency and making them look like they were there to commit an attack. Ethan and his team must now clear their name and retrieve stolen launch codes in order to prevent a nuclear war.

Like all Mission: Impossibles, the story is crazily complicated, and like all Mission: Impossibles, it matters little. What matters is that there are lots of fight scenes, chases, explosions, and espionage operations, and boy, do they deliver. Tom Cruise engages in a foot and car chase through a sandstorm, scales and rappels off the world's tallest building, and kicks ass to your heart's content.

A key factor in M:I:Ghost Protocol's success is the team Ethan Hunt is given to work with. Unlike the previous three films, all four members of the team are given personalities, backstories, and most importantly, are instrumental in the success of the mission several times over. Usually, it's just Cruise, Ving Rhames, and a couple more people who you don't even remember when the movie ends. This time, Simon Pegg returns as Benjy, a character established in a cameo in part 3, providing all the technological know-how and comic relief, Paula Patton acts as Hunt's second in command, and Jeremy Renner is a CIA "Analyst" who seems much more able than one in his profession should.

I also really loved the way the odds are stacked way against Cruise and friends. Without the resources of cooperation of the government to help them, they are left afloat and on their own. The odds feel overwhelmingly against them, and the tasks they perform are difficult, to say the least. Cruise gets the brunt of this, and he takes quite a beating throughout the film. There are several times where he jumps down from a high place and slams himself painfully onto a surface below. They really make it look painful. What I'm saying is, this mission actually seems kind of impossible.

Before I go, I can't forget to bring up Brad Bird's direction. As the director of Pixar's The Incredibles, he has now transferred to live action his ability to stage elaborate, perfectly laid out and executed intense action sequences. The production design on the movie is also ridiculously detailed and layered. Unfortunately, I didn't get to see it in IMAX, but I did see it in "XP". The image was amazingly sharp. If you're planning on seeing it, I would strongly recommend paying the extra and seeing Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol on the biggest screen you can find.

Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece

Before Spielberg's recent The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn was released, most of us here in America didn't even know Tintin was a "thing". Well, guess what, us? It's been around for a good long time! I remember the cartoon on HBO when I was a kid, even though I didn't really watch it. I started reading the comics a couple years ago, and found that I really enjoyed them. There's a certain timeless purity to them that appeals to me in the same way that, say, Astro Boy does.

Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece was a live-action French take on the characters from 1961. That's right, 50 years ago! That makes this one of the very first comic book movies ever made. All of the characters everybody outside of America knows and loves are here: boy journalist Tintin, his little dog Snowy, indistinguishable bumbling inspectors Thomson and Thompson, lovable drunk Captain Haddock, and deaf inventor Professor Calculus (who is not in the Spielberg film).

The story follows Tintin and Captain Haddock, as Haddock learns an old shipmate of his has died and left him his boat. With the boat are clues to a treasure (there's always a treasure). Tintin, Haddock and Snowy race the bad guys (there's always bad guys) to follow the clues and find the treasure. It's actually an original story, though there are elements lifted from Red Rackham's Treasure, one of the books the new film lifts from. They both really take an idea from that story and put a different twist on it, so one doesn't spoil the other.

In some ways, this movie actually captures the look and feel of the comics better than Spielberg's film. They have real actors dressed as the characters. I kind of preferred the exaggerated features on the CG renditions, but this movie shows that a live action movie could have been done too. Snowy wasn't nearly as cool in this movie, since he was a real dog and therefore limited to what he could be taught to do. The dude playing Tintin looks exactly like he should. I'm not sure if it's the early 60's Technicolor look or what, but the color scheme actually matched Herge's coloring style more than the new movie did. It's brighter and more primary looking.

The production values in Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece are actually pretty good. I think it was a pretty big popcorn movie in France at the time, not just a little B-production. There is some location shooting, I think in Greece. There's some fun little chases and action sequences, but nothing huge, unsurprisingly. Tintin gets in a few fist fights and they're actually pretty cool, seeing him kicking some ass.

I'm sure The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn is going to create a few new fans of the character in America. I mean, I'm not expecting it to blow up, but it's definitely getting a bit of exposure. This old movie is probably not worth seeking out unless you already love the world of Tintin. If you did enjoy the movie, and the movie opened your eyes to the comics, then you will probably get a big kick out of Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece. There are other Tintin movies out there, too.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Miracle on 34th Street

Every Christmas-celebrating household has their own set of traditional movies and TV specials that they watch over the holidays. The other day, I was treated for the first time to the Christmas classic, George Seaton's original 1947 film, Miracle on 34th Street, which was not one of those movies for my family. I'm sure that young, dumb me would have balked at the black and white and never even gave it a shot. I never even saw It's a Wonderful Life until a few years ago.

Just because I'd never seen it doesn't mean I hadn't absorbed the entire movie into my brain through cultural osmosis. I already knew all of the famous beats in the movie, since, well, I think everyone does. The rest of the movie was basically filling in the gaps.

As we all know, it's the story of Kris Kringle, a man who may or may not be the actual Santa Claus (SPOILER: he totally IS), who gets a job at Macy's and spreads the Christmas cheer to a cynical, capitalistic world. His biggest challenge is to instill a little magic into the life of a serious, skeptical little girl raised by her mother not to believe in Santa. It all comes down to a courtroom trial over the existence of Santa Claus.

It's all very sweet and charming and magical. Edmund Gwenn's Kris Kringle is probably the best Santa Claus the movies have ever provided. He embodies all the patience and kindness that the spirit of Christmas should. The scenes between him and little Natalie Wood are pretty great.

It's hard not to be cynical in the face of the crass commercialization of the modern day Christmas Machine. In fact, I was going to be all snarky about the movie just now, but I totally fought the urge because that's not what Christmas is about. As skeptical as we can often be, Miracle on 34th Street is there to remind us that it doesn't hurt to let a little bit of magic into our lives once a year or so.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Young Adult

I enjoy Jason Reitman's films. I enjoy a good fart-fest as much as the next guy, but it's so nice to see comedies that try to be a little something more. That shouldn't be all that lofty of a goal, but in this day and age, that kind of comedy is really hard to come by.

Reitman's latest, Young Adult, written by his Juno collaborator, Diablo Cody, is one of his best films yet. Young Adult stars Charlize Theron as Mavis, a writer of a series of Sweet Valley High style of novels, who is unable to let go of her own High School years, clearly the best years of her life. Nowadays, though moderately successful in her career, she's a pretty hollow shell of who she once was. Pushing 40, she lives alone in Minneapolis, and spends her days watching Kardashians on TV, chugging Diet Coke from a 2 Liter bottle, and getting plastered.

One day, she gets a bulk email from an old high school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) who just had a baby. This eats away at her until she snaps, packs up her little dog, and heads home, determined to win him back. In her deluded view, she's rescuing him from the nightmare of his life. In reality, he is happily married.

Charlize Theron gives a bold and funny performance as Mavis. She is truly a mess of a human being, thoroughly unlikeable, but totally watchable. Patton Oswalt is great as her foil, Matt, a former high school classmate that she forms a bond of mutual bitterness with. He never hesitates to tell her that she's a nutcase. Patrick Wilson is in a tough role as Buddy, the ex boyfriend. He's likeable and patient with Mavis, even though her behavior with him is often creepy and inappropriate.

Diablo Cody appears to have grown a great deal as a writer since Juno. The stylized dialogue in Juno that a lot of people found to be overly cutesy is not often found in Young Adult. The people talk like people, specifically people who came of age in the early 90's. With Young Adult, she has delivered a rather unflinching, darkly funny script about aging, depression, and the inability to let go of the past. There's a great turn towards the end that breaks all Hollywood conventions, and then laughs in their face.

I would rank Young Adult as my second favorite of Jason Reitman's films, behind Up in the Air. I still think he has yet to deliver his best film. I've enjoyed all of them, but none have truly blown me away. Looking at his track record so far, though, he has a good solid career ahead of him.

Murders in the Zoo

I did a lot of reading over the month of October on movies made before the Hays Code went into effect. Hollywood movies were allowed to be a little more violent, or a little more sexually liberated, until the code was passed in the early 30's, which was filled with all sorts of ridiculous rules and limitations that haunted movies until the late 1960's. You know, how a man and woman weren't allowed to be seen in a bed together? Stuff like that.

Murders in the Zoo was made just before the time these rules started being enforced. It's a relatively minor film, but there is at least one scene that is one of the most messed up I've seen in a movie this old. It is the very first scene of the movie, where we are introduced to our villain, sewing a man's mouth shut and setting him loose in the jungle to fend for himself. The act of sewing is conveniently happening just below the frame, but you do see the results, and you know from the very beginning what this guy is capable of.

This villain is an explorer and zoo owner who is extremely jealous and vengeful when it comes to men making eyes at his wife. Which appears to happen quite a bit. His wife really wants out of this marriage. On the way home from the very expedition that he sewed a guy's mouth shut, another guy falls for her, against her warnings.

When they get back home to the zoo, the murders of the title start happening. The zoo guy has devised a murder weapon that can make the cause of death look like a snakebite. There are several other characters, some destined to be victims, some not. There isn't really a hero, everyone is pretty much a good guy compared to this monster. There's a scientist, and a jittery guy who is afraid of all the animals (rightly so in this movie). The fun of the movie isn't watching the good guys stop the bad guy, it's watching the bad guy bring about his own comeuppance.

Murders in the Zoo is only an hour long, which is actually pretty nice. It's a fun little horror movie that breezes right by. And by fun, I mean uncharacteristically dark and grisly for its time.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Johnny Dangerously

Every, I don't know, 5 or 10 years, Hollywood decides it's once again time for a humorous pastiche of a bygone era of cinema. Usually those movies come and go without making much of a splash. Comedies are marketed towards youth, and the youth has little to no connection to or interest in the old days. But they always try, and hey, some of them are actually pretty good movies.

Johnny Dangerously is one of those movies that was on Comedy Central all the time in the late 90's. I don't believe I've ever seen the whole movie from beginning to end, but it's very possible that I've seen it in bits and pieces. I always enjoyed it, it's a really fun movie.

Made in the early 80's by director Amy Heckerling, Johnny Dangerously is the story of the rise of a prohibition-era Chicago gangster (played by Michael Keaton) who went into a life of crime to pay for his perpetually sick mother's medical bills. Meanwhile, his own brother (Griffin Dunne) is climbing the ranks of the District Attorney office. Not knowing that Johnny Dangerously (an alias) is his brother, he is determined to bring him in.

What follows is a fast paced barrage of silly sight gags and one liners, not unlike Airplane! or Top Secret!, the difference being that Dangerously plays them with a self aware wink at the audience, hell, even address the camera, whereas the humor of the Zucker comedies is found in the straight faced seriousness the actors play it with.

There's some really funny stuff in here. Michael Keaton is awesome as always, funny and mischievous and suave in the title role. Joe Piscopo found the role he was born to play: a cartoonish old timey gangster. Peter Boyle has some great stuff as Johnny's mentor. Maureen Stapleton gets some good material as Johnny's mother.

There are some great running gags throughout. I especially liked the bookends, where Johnny is telling his story to a kid at the pet store he now owns. Keaton is always maintaining his pet store business with the animals while he's talking, putting price tag stickers on dogs, polishing the turtles, etc.

When Johnny Dangerously begins the joke pacing is pretty fast and furious. Unfortunately, it can't sustain that rate through the entire running time. While still funny, the movie does gradually lose its steam as it goes. Some of the jokes are a little corny, but more gags hit than miss.

In my last few reviews, I notice that I've been throwing in another movie that might play as a good double feature with the one I'm reviewing. It wasn't intentional, it just happened that way, but I'm thinking of making it a regular feature of my reviews. Sort of a "if you like this, try these together" recommendation. With that in mind, I think Johnny Dangerously would play really well in a double bill with one of the Coen Brothers' most underrated films, The Hudsucker Proxy. Yes, that would make a pretty great movie night.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Charley Varrick

Charley Varrick is one of those older movies (1973, in this case) that holds up ridiculously well. It's a shame that nobody seems to have heard of it. It was directed by Don Siegel, who had directed many movies of almost every genre before this, but had achieved a huge box office success with the gritty crime action genre with his previous film, Dirty Harry. While Dirty Harry was an over the top action movie, built around an iconic, badass performance by Clint Eastwood, Charley Varrick is much more subdued, with intelligent plotting, a more relaxed pace, and really good dialogue. In fact, I would even say that Charley Varrick is the better of the two films, if not quite as memorable.

The title character is played by the great Walter Matthau (who won a BAFTA for this performance over in the UK), a down-on-his-luck former stunt pilot, now cropduster, who puts together a gang and masterminds a low-profile, small town bank robbery in New Mexico. The robbery is a bit of a disaster, with half his gang getting killed, along with some cops, but Varrick is very good at thinking on his feet, and he and his (surviving) partner in crime manage to elude suspicion.

When they return to his trailer park and check out their haul, they realize that they've stolen almost a million dollars, which is almost a million dollars more than they expected a tiny small town bank to have in its vault. Varrick deduces, correctly, that the money must belong to the mob, and was being held there until it could be properly invested overseas. This means that the mob is going to stop at nothing until they're dead and the money is returned.

What follows is a chess game, where Varrick must stay ahead of all the obstacles in his path, including the police, a nosy old lady neighbor, the corrupt owner of the bank (played by John Vernon), and a man named Molly (Joe Don Baker), the hitman employed by the banker. The question is, will Charley Varrick get away with the money and his life?

Charley Varrick (the movie, not the character) reminds me a great deal of the work of Elmore Leonard. In fact, I would go so far as saying that this film was a direct inspiration for Quentin Tarantino's Leonard adaptation, Jackie Brown. I haven't read anything saying this, but I am sure of it nonetheless. They are quite similar in style and tone, and both contain a smarter-than-their-station-in-life hero working a long game against all odds for a huge sum of money.

Charley Varrick (the movie, not the character) is an extremely smart caper with funny moments, great performances and colorful characters. Another thing worth noting is the awesome score, composed by the great Lalo Schifrin. There are so many reasons you should all watch this movie. Check it out on Netflix Instant!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

What does it say about me that as a lover of cinema, I still have never seen a film by Godard, Fellini, or Bergman? Or that I haven't seen Gone with the Wind or The Ten Commandments? I've never seen a film by William Wyler and the only John Ford film I have seen is Stagecoach. All of these statements are sad but true. But what is even sadder is that, given the choice between watching one of these movies or watching an early, lesser film by John Carpenter, my goddamn geek instinct will always make me choose Carpenter.

Lesser isn't quite the word. In the 90's, Carpenter's work got far lesser than his second film, 1976's Assault on Precinct 13, could ever be considered. But when you compare Assault on Precinct 13 to the Carpenter craziness that was to come in the next decade; Halloween, The Thing, Big Trouble In Little China (my favorite), or even the cornball fun of They Live!, it's surely the work of a director who was just starting to hit his stride.

Assault on Precinct 13 is set in Anderson, a slum of Los Angeles, where a street gang runs rampant, armed with a supply of automatic weapons. When a guy kills one of their members in retaliation for his little girl's murder, they chase him to the local police station, in the process of shutting down. The few remaining officers there must then team up with the convicts and defend their fortress from a seemingly endless onslaught of LA gangbangers.

The movie is a lot of fun once it gets started. Sort of a modern western mixed with a zombie movie, but the zombies aren't dead. The problem is, it takes a really long time to get started, 45 minutes before all the chess pieces are in place. Come on now, John Carpenter, you've got to make your way through act 1 as fast as you can.

The acting isn't exactly top notch for the most part, but the two leads are pretty enjoyable, especially Austin Stoker as Ethan Bishop, the heroic cop. Surely taking inspiration from Night of the Living Dead, Carpenter makes his hero a black man without ever drawing attention to that fact, something that is rare even now, but was practically unheard of in 1976. Darwin Joston plays the roguish Napoleon Wilson, the badass crook with a heart of gold. He spends much of the movie asking for a smoke and not telling people why he's called Napoleon.

The gang is portrayed as a faceless force of evil rather than individual people, almost supernatural. They just keep on coming, pressing down on the Precinct, and seemingly never running out of ammo and men. They've cut the power and phone lines, and after every attack, they clean up all the bodies and hide, so nobody will notice their presence. I doubt that would really work, but you buy it in the movie.

I enjoyed Assault on Precinct 13 for what it was. It would play well with The Warriors, another similar (and superior) cult movie from the same time period that I only saw recently. Maybe next up I will finally watch a film by Godard, Fellini, or Bergman. On second thought, I have the rest of my life to watch those. I'll probably just watch Buckaroo Banzai again.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Machete Maidens Unleashed!

Documentarian Mark Hartley has made a name for himself chronicling cinematic histories that nobody else seems to want to touch. With his first film, Not Quite Hollywood, he explored the creative energy and weird anything goes vibe of the Australian exploitation movie scene. Along with countless trashy ones, some genuinely good films came out of that genre, such as George Miller's classic Mad Max, and Richard Franklin's demented horror film Patrick (which Hartley is now set to remake).

Now comes Hartley's second film, Machete Maidens Unleashed!, about the cinematic revolution in The Philippines through the 60's, 70's, and 80's, spurred on by schlock producer Roger Corman. Like the Ozsploitation scene, this is a lesser known piece of cinematic history that still deserves to be told.

The Philippines offered many resources for Corman to exploit: extremely cheap non-union labor, real life jungle sets, and stunt men willing to do anything for a buck. Corman made his movies there one after another, cheap and fast, utilizing many of the same actors and directors. He explored and exploited many genres there, including many Women in Prison films, some blaxploitation, martial arts, and horror. Most of these movies were, of course, terrible, but some of them do have their moments. Actors Pam Grier and Sid Haig cut their teeth making movies in The Philippines, and The Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme got his start writing them. The fact that the movies were so trashy allowed him to sneak in some subversive political subtext in places where nobody would look.

Hartley's documentary is told in a series of interviews, with, among others, Corman himself, Grier and Haig, his trailer cutters Alan Arkush and Joe Dante, and director John Landis. The interviews are intercut with scenes from the movies themselves. There are a lot of interesting stories told. A particularly funny one is Arkush and Dante's story about the exploding helicopter, and how it found its way into many of the trailers they cut.

The history of Americans shooting their films in The Philippines ultimately culminates in Francis Ford Coppola bringing his infamous production of Apocalypse Now to the country. Since there's already an entire movie about how that went down, they just spend a few minutes on it, but it's still some of the most interesting stuff in the movie.

After Apocalypse Now, The Philippines started exporting their own products. We're introduced to Weng Weng, a dwarf action star who starred in James Bond spoofs such as "For Your Height Only". He was their first homegrown success story in the international scene.

Machete Maidens Unleashed! is an extremely interesting, often outrageous story. I love this kind of thing, I find the oddballs working on the fringe of the mainstream so much more interesting. I hope Mark Hartley keeps on making these documentaries and exposing the world to the stories behind all these weird grindhouse gems. Next up, he's telling the story of Cannon Films, the Israeli production company that produced the hilariously bad disco musical The Apple (WATCH IT, EVERYONE!), Breakin', its sequel, Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo, and Masters of the Universe. Can't wait!

Machete Maidens Unleashed! and Not Quite Hollywood are available on Netflix Instant if you want to see them.

Monday, December 5, 2011

American Graffiti

I try to keep the reviews on my site mostly limited to movies I've never seen before, but every once in a while, I make an exception, usually because the last time I watched a movie was long before I could form an educated opinion on it. I saw American Graffiti once as a kid of maybe 10-12. All I knew at the time was it was by George Lucas, and the guy from Jaws and Harrison Ford were in it. All I remembered about it from that initial viewing was the scene where the kid was trying to buy some booze for his girl, which is still one of the most memorable scenes in the movie.

So how does American Graffiti hold up? You know, not bad. At the time it was made, George Lucas was only known for a little seen science fiction art film called THX-1138. I'm sure that based on that movie, he was having a lot of difficulty getting funding for any of his other projects. So it was probably just as much a calculated career move for him to make such a mainstream movie, even though the result is an obviously very personal, nostalgic and sentimental take on the early 60's hot rod scene that Lucas grew up around.

Set in 1962, American Graffiti follows four teens just out of high school, having one last bang in the old town before they must choose what to do with their adult lives. Steve (Ron Howard) is trying the old "let's see other people" thing on his girlfriend (Cindy Williams). Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) is on a search for a beautiful girl he saw addressing him from another car, inadvertently joining a street gang on the way. John (Paul le Mat) is the coolest kid in town with the coolest car in town, who gets saddled with a girl way too young for him, while being taunted into a race by his rival (Harrison Ford). And Toad (Charles Martin Smith) is a geeky kid who, after borrowing Steve's car, somehow picks up a girl who is way out of his league.

The four stories kind of intertwine and bounce off of each other. An alternate title could have been "Guess Who is in Which Car Now?". No, American Graffiti is better.

American Graffiti is also well known as one of the first and most important soundtrack movies. The film is wall to wall stuffed with great late 50's and early 60's period rock and roll. Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys, EVERYONE else. If you wanted to, you could probably not pay attention to the dialogue at all and still enjoy the movie for the sounds alone.

The acting, though not exactly setting the world on fire, is probably the best out of any George Lucas film. The characters are all funny and likeable. Young Dreyfuss and Harrison Ford doing a bad cowboy accent are fun to watch.

The only thing I didn't really care for was the very end, where they do one of those "Where Are They Now?" freeze frames. It was really heavy handed and preachy, with one getting killed in Vietnam, and the cool kid dying in a hot rod crash. Come on, man. I felt like it was a last ditch attempt on Lucas' part to make the movie more "meaningful" or something. Totally unnecessary after 2 hours of nonstop rose-tinted nostalgia.

That aside, American Graffiti is a pretty great film. As one out of only two George Lucas directed films I even like (the other is Star Wars, duh), I'd say this is my second favorite.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

When it comes to Hong Kong and Chinese cinema, I'm still learning. I've seen a few Kung Fu movies here and there, a couple of Wong Kar Wai movies, lots of Stephen Chow and Jackie Chan. Oh, and Infernal Affairs, I own that. Not much else. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin seems like a good place for me to start. It is considered one of the great martial arts movies of all time.

Made in 1978 as a Shaw Brothers production, and directed by Liu Chia-Liang, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin made a star out of a young Gordon Liu, a huge star in his own right, but best known to me as Johnny Mo and Pai Mei in the Kill Bill movies, in the role of San Te. San Te is a young man who joins the monks in Shaolin to learn their brand of Kung Fu, with the goal of introducing it to the oppressed people, and giving them a means to fight back against the Tartars.

A large bulk of the movie basically plays as the most awesome training montage ever. Over half of the movie is San Te's training, succeeding in difficult and painful trials, and climbing the ladder from the 35th Chamber all the way to the top. His first trial is simply finding a way to jump across a pool of water with a bundle of sticks floating in it, in order to get his food.

You'd think it would get boring, but it never does. San Te's single-mindedness and dedication to his goal, and the promise that his lessons will pay off in the end makes the training very engrossing and downright fun to watch. Not to mention the diversity and creativity behind each of the trials. At one point, they strap downward pointing knives to his biceps and make him carry buckets with his arms straight out. If he lowers them, he gets cut. Later, San Te invents a new weapon in order to defeat a higher ranking monk in a duel. Totally awesome.

I was really happy to see it subtitled on the DVD, rather than dubbed. The dubbing is one of the things that keeps me from watching a lot of Chinese movies. I really hate dubbing, and it seems like it's the only way a lot of these old movies are available.

So that's that. Another classic I can now say I've seen. Another gap in my knowledge filled. Next up, I suppose I should probably see Master of the Flying Guillotine, or maybe Hard Boiled or The Killer.

Hugo

I'm not sure if a lot of fans out there were clamoring for a Martin Scorsese kids movie, but I know I was. About a decade ago, waaaay back when I was in college, there was an internet rumor that Scorsese was interested in directing the remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This was years before the Tim Burton debacle that eventually happened. I just really like it when great directors known for more adult subject matter make movies for children, because they make them with the same degree of sophistication that they give any of their films.

Hugo is not only a wonderful, magical children's adventure set in 1920's Paris, it's also a loving ode to the dawn of cinema and the ability of movies to transport you into your dreams. Figuratively speaking, of course, we're not talking a Last Action Hero golden ticket scenario. It stars young Asa Butterfield in the title role, Hugo Cabret an orphaned son of a clockmaker who lives inside the walls of the train station in Paris, keeping the clocks running, unbeknownst to anyone. In his spare time, Hugo is trying to repair an old automaton that his father found at a museum, stealing parts from an old toymaker with a shop in the station. When Hugo is caught by the toymaker, his whole life is upturned, and he begins a journey, uncovering the toymaker's mysterious past while finding his own purpose in life in the process.

I'm not going to go into what Hugo discovers, and how it ties in with cinema, because that was all part of the magic of the movie. I loved how magical the movie felt, even though there was actually very few truly fantastical elements. Pretty much only the clockwork automaton.

The performances are all around wonderful. Asa Butterfield was great, as was Chloe Grace Moretz as the toymaker's God-daughter. Sacha Baron-Cohen continues to show his versatility and his prowess for physical comedy as the station's orphan hunting inspector. I wouldn't be surprised if Sir Ben Kingsley gets a Supporting Actor nomination for his part as Papa Georges, the toymaker.

I saw Hugo in 3-D, something I don't usually do. I was very curious to see how Scorsese utilized the 3-D technology as a tool. Unsurprisingly, it's among the best 3-D I've seen. But I learned something that I kind of already knew while watching it: As well done as it was, even the best 3-D doesn't look half as good as a 2-D movie. As deep and immersive as the experience was, I feel it would have been even more so in 2-D, without the darkened tint on the glasses and the eyestrain and the blur.

Hugo is based on a novel, called The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I suppose the studio that made the movie shortened the title in a desperate bid to make the title more memorable and hence more marketable. Or maybe they thought people would pronounce Cabret with a T instead of the French way. But in shortening it they drained all the magic and wonder from the title. Hugo gives the viewer no indication what they're going to see. Disney is doing the same thing with net year's John Carter (or JC as they like to shorten it). Hey Disney! The John Carter part isn't what interests us! It's the "OF MARS" part we want. Look at Hugo's opening weekend box office. Shortening the title didn't work.

Ok, enough ranting. Hugo is a movie that any film buff should go and see. Martin Scorsese clearly has put as much love and passion into it as anything he's ever done, if not more in some cases. I'm not sure if all kids would find it too interesting, but if you take the right kid to see it, you might just be setting them on a path to find their own love of cinema.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Mystery Team

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the Encyclopedia Brown books. I had a bunch of them and read them over and over again, even though I already knew the solutions to all of the mysteries. I totally wanted to be a know-it-all boy detective. Nowadays I've graduated to reading Sherlock Holmes and wanting to be a know-it-all man detective, but my affection for Encyclopedia Brown remains. Mystery Team is the story of a trio of boy detectives who steadfastly refuse to make the leap to man-detectivehood.

The Mystery Team were the toast of the town when they were seven, solving local mysteries for a dime. Now they're 18, on their way out of high school, and still dressing and acting like they're a group of plucky kids from a Hardy Boys book. There is Jason (Community's Donald Glover), the team leader and master of disguises (usually a mustache). There's Duncan (DC Pierson), the brains of the group, whose knowledge is mainly taken from trivia books. And there is Charlie (Dominic Dierkes), the muscle of Mystery Team, who is, well, not very smart.

The thrust of the movie is provided when a little girl hires them (still a dime) to solve the murder of her parents. The team, looking to step up to the big leagues, takes the case. They are then thrust from the world of cookies thieves and playground bullies into the seedy underbelly of society, where they try to remain willfully and desperately ignorant of the corruption, violence, and temptation found therein.

Mystery Team is written, directed, and produced by the comedy group Derrick Comedy, best known for their viral internet videos. Much of the humor in the movie is in the tradition of, say, The Addams Family, where a group of naive oddballs from a different kind of world are forced to interact with the way things really are.

There are actually a lot of laughs in the movie. The characters are funny, and the three leads are all really good. You can see that Donald Glover can totally carry a movie, and his chemistry with Dierkes and Pierson is a lot of fun. I dug a lot of the throwaway gags about the trio's state of arrested development, like how Duncan's thesis for a high school assignment is a list of all the dinosaurs, and Charlie's inability to say the right thing in unison with the other two. There are a few more familiar faces in Mystery Team, too, including The Office and Bridesmaids' Ellie Kemper, SNL's Bobby Moynihan, and Parks and Recreation's Aubrey Plaza.

You can tell Mystery Team was made for a relatively tiny budget. Most of the cast is made up of friends and family of the Derrick Comedy group. There are a lot of young people playing characters who should probably be older than they are. That's all part of the charm, though; that whole putting-on-a-show-with-your-friends feel of it.

Not all of the jokes worked for me, though. The movie leans a little too heavily on poop and vomit jokes for my taste (although admittedly, I laughed at a few of those too). The best stuff in the movie comes from their own childlike view of the world, but sometimes they push it a little too far past the realm of believability, like a gag involving Duncan drinking dog pee.

Mystery Team was directed by Derrick Comedy member Dan Eckman. He does a decent job for a first film, especially when you take into account the low budget. I know the movie didn't make much money, but I hope that doesn't mean he won't get another chance at directing a comedy. It has a little bit of a weird, off-the-beaten-path sensibility, it's certainly not a mainstream comedy. Mystery Team is the kind of movie that a college-aged comedy nerd would possibly discover and show their friends, which is exactly who the target audience for their videos happens to be.

And now, since it looks like I may have written more about Mystery Team today than I did about Kagemusha, I will leave you. My final thought: If you like comedies like, say, Wet Hot American Summer or The Brothers Solomon, movies that are a little bit weird, a little bit surreal, and a little bit filthy, you will get some laughs out of Mystery Team, but it's probably not going to change your life.

Kagemusha

This review is nine months in the making. I bought Kagemusha on Blu Ray in February. It took a long time to find three hours to watch it, but we finally got around to it in May. But then, every attempt to watch it was thwarted by my PS3. And now, in late November, after replacing my Blu Ray, getting my Playstation repaired, and buying a brand new damn Blu Ray player, I bring you, with great relief, my review of Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha.

Kagemusha is a sprawling samurai epic, set in the 1500s, following the Takeda clan, led by the feared and respected warlord Shingen. The film opens with a long, uninterrupted shot of what appears to be three Shingens having a conversation. In actuality, one is Shingen, one is his nearly-but-not-quite identical brother, Nobukado, who acts as his decoy (or Kagemusha). The third is a lowly bandit that Nobukado has discovered and saved from execution because of his uncanny resemblance to Shingen. He believes that this bandit could serve as Kagemusha better than he can.

His belief is soon put to the test, when Takeda Shingen is shot by a sniper and dies. If their enemies were to find out Shingen is dead, the clan would be done for, so the Kagemusha is made to replace Shingen. He must fool Shingen's clan, his family, and his enemies. Inspired by the kindness Shingen showed him, the double soon begins to carry on the ruse by choice, out of loyalty to the clan.

The legendary Tatsuya Nakadai plays the dual role of Shingen and his decoy. You may remember him as the gun-wielding gangster in Yojimbo, or maybe as the cold hearted protagonist/villain in Sword of Doom. He couldn't be more different in his roles here. Shingen is a smaller role, but must cast a huge shadow on the rest of the film. The decoy, stripped of any identity before the start of the movie, is never given a name. Where Shingen is regal and stoic, the decoy is crude and low born. It's kind of a The Prince and the Pauper situation.

Kagemusha is actually pretty delightful for the first couple of hours, before taking a dark turn, culminating in the true historical event of the Battle of Nagashino. Watching the decoy having to learn how to be another man, winning the love of Shingen's grandson, charming Shingen's mistresses, and ultimately earning the loyalty of Shingen's clan was really enjoyable and quite funny at times. The double is surrounded by many characters, and though they are not as colorful as those in Seven Samurai or some of Kurosawa's other early masterpieces, they are still interesting.

The pacing is slow and deliberate. There are many scenes played out in a long sustained single shot. Kurosawa also puts a heavy focus on the nonverbal interplay between his characters. It amazed me that sometimes he'd have like 10 different characters in a shot and you could just look at all of their faces and body language and feel like you could read them all. Pretty complex stuff.

Visually, Kagemusha is gorgeous and rich with detail. This is the first color Kurosawa film I've seen. I could tell from his earlier work that he composed every one of his shots like a painter would a painting. It turns out he paints them like a painting too. The colors are so vivid in Kagemusha, the reds and greens just leap off the screen.

I'm not sure if I would recommend Kagemusha to just anyone, however. It's probably not so much for the uninitiated. If somebody I knew hadn't seen any Kurosawa films, I'd certainly point them towards Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Yojimbo, etc. and if they were still coming back for more, then I would show them the less accessible Kagemusha. Still, it's another great film from possibly the greatest director.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Muppets

There are few things I love in this world more than The Muppets. Friends and family excluded, I rank the creations of Jim Henson up there with pretty much all of the greatest things in life. So it always saddened me a little when the property fell into disrepair and disuse for the better part of the last two decades. I've been hoping for a revitalization for, well, maybe half my life. I am proud to announce that Muppets are once again vital.

Writers Nick Stoller and Jason Segel, and director James Bobin bring a lifetime of love, passion, and enthusiasm to The Muppets. From the moment the first musical number begins, you can tell that Jason Segel (in the lead human role) is living a dream come true. Everyone involved in the movie appears to be having a blast, and giving it their all, and their joy is infectious.

The Muppets follows Gary (Segel) and his brother Walter. Walter has always been different. He stopped growing at age 7, he's small and fuzzy. He never knew how to relate to his world. That is, until the day he saw The Muppets on TV. From that day forth, he was The Muppets' biggest fan. When Gary and his girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams) are planning a trip to Hollywood for their 10th anniversary, they invite Walter along, so he can visit Muppet Studios.

Unfortunately, when they get there, the once glorious studio is now abandoned and decrepit, all of the locations in the tour are closed "for repair". Sneaking off into Kermit's old office, Walter overhears an evil oil millionaire (Chris Cooper) plans to tear down the studios and dig for oil there. Walter, Gary, and Mary decide that the only way they can save the studio is to reunite the Muppets and have them put on one last show.

What follows is what you would hope for in a Muppet movie. Endless gags and vaudevillian banter, big, moving musical numbers, celebrity cameos, and a hilarious and disarming self awareness that tells you that even the characters are aware that they are in a movie and that the narrative is bound by certain rules.

I loved the musical numbers. The new songs were written by Bret McKenzie of the musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords (whose show was co-created by Muppets director Bobin). They're clever, catchy, and silly in much the same fashion as the Conchords songs are. And the old songs are, well, there are a few old Muppet favorites in there, and I have to say, I teared up when they came on. Sorry I'm such a dork. I teared up a lot during the movie.

Bobin, Segel, and Stoller's love for the characters comes through, too. They give everybody a moment, including many of the more obscure characters that only geeks like me know the names of. They bumped up the role of Uncle Deadly, the cool looking dragon character usually only seen in brief Muppet Show gags, and gave him a little dimension for the first time. While Segel and Adams were welcome additions, I hope that now that we've been reintroduced to the Muppets, any possible future Muppet movies will be able to shift attention away from the human leads and back onto the Muppets where they belong. In the old movies, the humans were reserved for villain roles and cameos.

I enjoyed the movie a great deal, but it wasn't quite the same as Henson's Muppet movies. The energy was different. The difference was especially noticeable with Kermit. Steve Whitmire, the performer who operates Kermit, doesn't have Henson's distinctive hand acting. Obviously, he has his own. Kermit is still endlessly earnest and hopeful, but I kept waiting for him to have the frantic, frazzled energy that Kermit gets when he is trying to run his show, and keep everything from falling apart at any given moment while he's surrounded by so many loose cannons (figurative and literal cannons when Gonzo is around). That Kermit never arrives. Still, he was a good Kermit, it's just got to be tough under the shadow of Henson.

I am so happy that this group got The Muppets right. I want a whole new generation of children to see this movie for the first time and react to it the same way Walter and I did when we first encountered Kermit and the gang. There's still a month to go, but when all is said and done, I'm fairly positive The Muppets is going to be my favorite movie of the year. There just aren't enough movies with such unabashed joy and positivity out there anymore.

The Warriors

Wow, where was The Warriors when I was a teenager? I mean, it was out there, but I never even heard of it until I was in my twenties, and just got around to watching it recently. If I had seen it as a teen, it would probably have been given the same heavy rotation that Evil Dead 2 and Big Trouble in Little China got in my VCR.

The Warriors is a 1979 cult classic directed by Walter Hill, set in Brooklyn in the near future where gangs rule the streets. Cyrus, who appears to be the Martin Luther King Jr. of street gangs, calls a huge meeting, with the intention of forming a United Nations of gangs. Together, they would outnumber the police three to one. But before the alliance can be formed, Cyrus is gunned down by an unstable member of The Rogues, who then pins the assassination on The Warriors. The Warriors must then get back to the safe haven of their home turf in Coney Island while every gang in the city is out for their heads, not to mention the police.

The movie has a very post-apocalyptic feel. 1979 New York is run down and nasty looking. Graffiti completely covers the subway walls. Walter Hill is also very deliberately invoking comic books, right down to illustrated scene transitions, making it appear that the film is jumping right off the panels. It reminded me of Frank Miller's comic book work of the mid-80's, such as The Dark Knight Returns, though The Warriors predates Miller's fame by a couple of years.

I love that every gang has a dress code and a theme. That's something from a lot of 80's pop culture that I wish were real. The Warriors and a few others just have logos and jackets or vests. But some gangs go all out, with pinstriped baseball uniforms, full clown makeup, what have you. If Walter Hill had included shots of the clown gang sitting in front of a mirror putting on their makeup so they could go beat some ass, they would have lost a lot of their menace.

The police are also always on The Warriors' tails. At least I think it was the police. I have a theory that they might have just been a police-themed gang trying to join the alliance, but things just got out of hand. Maybe they should consider a fireman theme.

I'm glad I finally saw The Warriors. I tend to watch a lot of older, more straightforward classics, but for me, it's always a real treat to find something like this; a unique, strange little movie set in its own universe with its own rules and sensibilities. It's a shame I didn't get to watch The Warriors over and over again in my VCR days, because it would have been perfect for that.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Descendants

Hot on the heels of my review for Alexander Payne's first film, Citizen Ruth, comes my review for his latest, The Descendants. I've been looking forward to this movie for a long time. I guess, technically, since after I saw Sideways like 7 years ago, just as I am now looking forward to his next film, whenever that may be. What I'm saying is, I really like Alexander Payne.

The Descendants is, like his films after Election, a comedy, but only kind of. It has funny stuff, but it also has a lot of sad stuff, a lot of moving stuff, and a lot of painfully real stuff. It stars George Clooney as Matt King, a work obsessed Hawaiian husband and father who suddenly finds his whole life upturned all at once when his wife gets in a boating accident and is put into a coma. He was never much of a father to his daughters, who, due to the traumatic circumstances are both acting out in their own ways, ways that he has no clue how to deal with. On top of this, Matt is in the midst of a huge land deal that could make him and his extended family millionaires, but would bruise the state of Hawaii by bringing development to hundreds of acres of untouched land. As if all that wasn't enough, his life is upturned yet again when he learns the hospital intends to pull the plug on his wife, and it is revealed to him that she was having an affair before the accident.

This guy really needs a break, doesn't he?

So the premise that drives The Descendants is Clooney taking his daughters on a trip to Oahu to find and confront the man his wife was sleeping with. It sounds like I already gave away a lot of the movie, but that was just a whole lot of set-up.

The acting is top notch. George Clooney gives one of his best performances to date. Alexander Payne has a way of taking huge movie stars and making an audience forget that they're famous. It was quite a feat he performed in About Schmidt, making Jack Nicholson the least Jack Nicholson he's ever been.

Clooney is surrounded by a colorful cast of supporting characters that are extremely well realized, even the ones who only have a couple of scenes. His daughters, Alexandra and Scottie, carry the movie along with him. Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), his 17 year old, is a bit of a wild child, but still quite intelligent, and she reminds him of her mother in the most painful ways. Scottie (Amara Miller) is 10, and she is already beginning to show signs of rebellion, even as Matt does his best to keep her innocent of her mother's transgressions. The three of them feel like a real family unit, you never question it.

Along for the ride is Sid, Alexandra's mouthy stoner buddy, played by Nick Krause. Alexandra refuses to go along with her father without Sid, and Matt, not knowing how else to deal with her, acquiesces. My little sister has brought many Sids into our lives, so I found his inclusion pretty hilarious and believable.

There are several other talented performers in the movie in smaller roles, including Robert Forster, Mary Birdsong, Rob Huebel, Beau Bridges, and Matthew Lillard as the man he's looking for. I especially liked Judy Greer, who always deserves mention but seldom gets it. She's so good in general, and especially in The Descendants.

The movie hit home for me several times, and I teared up more than once. There's a lot of underlying sadness in Matt King's journey, and a lot of tension within his family at such a trying time, but rather than being a downer in the end, The Descendants is quite life-affirming without ever feeling forced. All told, I came out of it feeling pretty good about things. I haven't done any real tallying at this point, but I'm fairly certain The Descendants will wind up near the top of my favorite movies of the year list.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Citizen Ruth

I'm not sure why it took me so long to see Citizen Ruth. I love the films of Alexander Payne. So much that I can't even pick a favorite between Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways. So with the very imminent release of Payne's new film, The Descendants (which I will surely be reviewing this weekend), I thought I would go back to the beginning and finally watch his first film.

Citizen Ruth stars Laura Dern as a paint-huffing mess of a human being who, after being taken in from her latest binge by the authorities, finds out she is pregnant. This is nothing new to her. It will be her fifth child that society deems (correctly so) her unfit for. The judge gives her a choice. She either must terminate the pregnancy, or go to prison for placing her unborn child in danger through her excesses.

While being held in jail, Ruth meets a group of Pro-Life protesters who, after hearing her situation, decide to pay her bail and take her in, with the intention of using her as a figurehead for their cause. Soon enough, the Pro-Choicers get their mitts on her too, and Ruth finds herself caught in the middle of an escalating battle between the two.

The satire in Citizen Ruth is sharp and Payne does a great job of walking a fine line. He does this by making the activist groups on both sides of the issue both pretty equally corrupt and self-centered. They are both willing to do anything to get Ruth's endorsement, even though she really doesn't care about what either side thinks.

Laura Dern's portrayal of Ruth is excellent. She and Payne (and co-writer Jim Taylor) have created a perfect foil for these two groups. Even though she is a complete wreck, Ruth is also innocent in her way; not particularly smart, not interested in the greater issue at hand. Her main concern is getting her hands on some cash so she can score again and get high. Despite all this, Payne shows a great deal of empathy for Ruth and her plight. The situation she is pressured into forces her to rethink her priorities and consider maybe getting herself together.

The supporting cast surrounding Dern is a good deal of fun to watch as well. Kurtwood Smith and Mary Kay Place are hilarious as the Pro-Lifers who take her in. I especially liked M.C. Gainey as one of the Pro-Choicers. Burt Reynolds has a small part, in the midst of his post-Boogie-Nights mid-nineties career revival.

Citizen Ruth was a strong first film, but it is still a first film. As much as I enjoyed it, I think Alexander Payne was still working out his trademark style and tone. The subject matter is bold, and was surely a great way to get his name out there, but I felt the satire in his second film (Election) was a lot funnier, if not quite as edgy, and his (and our) empathy for his often hopeless characters has only grown in his later films. Still, Citizen Ruth is totally worth checking out if you haven't yet, especially if you're a fan of Payne's other work.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Logan's Run

Keepin' the review part of this one short, but guess what? I've got illustrations!

Logan's Run is a 1976 science fiction film by Michael Anderson, set in a future where everybody is put to death when they reach 30. It stars Michael York as Logan 5, and Jenny Agutter as Jessica 6, two citizens who choose to run before their time is up, searching for the legendary "Sanctuary". They wind up exploring the underbelly of the world, seeing what their society is really like, and ultimately escaping, before deciding to return and bring freedom to the rest of their people. That's the very brief version.

It was made not long before Star Wars, which means the special effects weren't quite "there" yet. There's some high camp value therein, but it's all in fun. I actually liked the movie quite a bit. The world was really cool in that stylized 70's way. Lots of unconvincing miniatures and silly future clothes. Michael York and Jenny Agutter (mmmm...) are both enjoyable to watch and easily carry the movie. Peter Ustinov is kind of horrifying as the oldest man on earth. He's not meant to be, but if I met him, I'd never want to age past 30. Speaking of which, I always wished the maximum age was much younger, like it was in the book. Death at 30 isn't nearly as resonant as 21, and the social commentary could be much richer if all the people running around in this world are practically children. There's a remake coming out in the not too distant future by the guy who made Drive. Maybe he'll delve a little deeper into that.

And now, without further ado, my take on Logan's Run in four horribly rendered MS Paint pictures. Thanks for reading!

Dracula (1931)

Whaaaat? Dracula? But Halloween is over, you might say. And I might say you're right. I planned on watching Dracula in October, but I missed my arbitrary deadline by a week or so. I did, however, finish reading the book before Halloween, and holy crap, it was good.

As those scant few followers of this blog surely know, I've been watching all the Universal monster movies over the course of the year. I've enjoyed the lot of them, especially the James Whale ones, so I went into Tod Browning's Dracula with reasonably high expectations. Sadly, it was not able to live up to them.

The movie opens with Renfield visiting Dracula's castle in Transylvania, right away a huge departure from the novel, where it was Jonathan Harker's duty. Dracula uses his hypnotic powers on Renfield to turn him into his lacky. He comes along on the boat to England, where Dracula abandons him to be committed. While in England, Dracula uses his powers to seduce and transform Lucy Westenra and begin the same process on Mina (now Dr. Seward's daughter), while they try to hunt him down and prevent Mina's transformation.

There are some inspired scenes and moments that were sufficiently creepy. I loved the way the lights would only shine on Bela Lugosi's eyes when he was using his hypnotic power. And there was a great shot of the dead captain of the ship that brings Dracula to London. But despite the expressionistic style and moody atmosphere, I felt the movie suffered from being too cheap. Yes, I know all these Universal movies were made on a shoestring, but some were able to work around it and hide it more creatively than others. This movie has a scene where they're watching a wolf (Dracula in wolf form), and since they couldn't get a wolf, they just stand there and describe to the audience what the wolf is doing. I felt a little cheated.

Bela Lugosi, is of course, magnetic in the role. I can see why he is iconic. I think it's weird the way people paint such a pointy widow's peak on their forehead when they dress as Dracula, because his isn't that pronounced. I also liked Dwight Frye as the lunatic Renfield a lot. He was awesomely over the top and really fun to watch. I don't think the rest of the cast deserves much mention, though. They were for the most part forgettable, if not kind of bad. That's too bad, too, because in the book, Professor Van Helsing is every bit as iconic as Count Dracula and Renfield, and Mina Murray/Harker/Seward is a fantastic character, too.

Maybe it was because I had just read the book and they left out a lot of my favorite parts, I don't know. I thought Dracula was a pretty slow movie and was kind of bored. You know what? Besides Monster Squad, I'm pretty sure this was the first movie I've seen with Dracula in it. I would like to see other adaptations, but I hope some of them are more faithful to Bram Stoker's story. What's the best Dracula movie? Is the Coppola movie worth watching? Keanu Reeves as Harker worries me a bit. Hey, I like Keanu in things, and am willing to defend him, but even I have my limits.

I seem to be rambling, so I guess it's time to go. Final thought? Dracula has its moments, but if given the choice, watch Frankenstein or The Invisible Man instead. Blah!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Winnebago Man

Ahhh, the early days of viral videos. Remember when these funny, weird little videos would float around the web and people would laugh at them and pass them around for months? Nowadays, they rarely have that kind of longevity. We watch them, laugh, and forget the next day when somebody else's embarrassing video comes to our attention.

Winnebago Man is a documentary about one of the web's first viral video sensations. I had forgotten all about this video, but the moment they showed footage from it, it all came rushing back. The Winnebago Man, known alternately as "The Angriest Man in the World", is Jack Rebney. In 1989, Rebney filmed an industrial video for Winnebago. He was so comically nasty, grouchy, and foul mouthed between takes, that somebody on the crew saw fit to edit together the outtakes and pass the video around. 16 years later, it found its way onto a fledgling Youtube, and took the world by storm. It found its way into pop culture (we're treated to Ben Affleck doing an impression, and a reference to it on 30 Rock), and had countless parody videos and even an Italian knockoff made. The documentary's director, Ben Steinbauer, became fascinated with Rebney's tragically hilarious outbursts, and decided to track the history of the video, and attempt to track down Rebney himself, if he's indeed still out there.

At first, I thought this movie was going to lay a guilt trip on those of us who laugh at viral videos. You know, because these people are human too, and this kind of notoriety could cause a lot of damage to somebody's psyche. The Star Wars Kid is a good example of that. But it doesn't judge us for laughing at these people. We can't help it if these videos are funny. It does address these issues, and even talks to some other subjects of these unintentionally videos. It's all very interesting, and you do sympathize with these people.

Winnebago Man really takes off when Steinbauer finds Rebney. He lives alone, running a campground in Northern California. He seems to be calm, at peace, and able to laugh at himself. If that seems too good to be true, it's because it is. A week later, Steinbauer gets a call from Rebney, saying that was all a ruse. I'm happy to report that Jack Rebney is still the exact same man we saw in that video, and he's irate about the youth of today and their internets and Youtubes.

As the movie progresses, we come to sympathize with Rebney, and maybe even like him a little (don't get me wrong, I wouldn't want to spend any time with him). He is who he is. He's grouchy and angry even towards people he likes. The climax is when Steinbauer convinces Jack to attend a Found Footage Festival screening of his video and do a Q & A. You get a sense that Jack has come to terms with this whole thing, maybe just a little.

Winnebago Man reminded me a great deal of last year's awesome documentary, Best Worst Movie, about the cult status of the hilariously terrible Troll 2. They both follow the effects of a new kind of fame, where maybe the people who love something aren't loving it for the intended reasons. These movies both humanize their subjects while still giving us permission to find them funny. We as viewers should just all be mindful that we're all just one accident or unguarded moment away from being a cult sensation ourselves.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Rope

One of the things I love most about Alfred Hitchcock is the way he would find ways to challenge himself. Sure, he mostly stayed within the thriller genre, so there was always the relative safety of knowing he's doing what he does best. But Hitchcock would sometimes find ways to intentionally restrict himself as a director, such as limiting his camera's perspective to only that which his protagonist could see, in Rear Window.

Rope is Hitchcock at his most experimental, taking away from his arsenal what is perhaps the most important tool a director has for building suspense: editing. Rope is a story told in (seemingly) a single shot. The limitations of the time, specifically the length of a reel, forced him to hide a cut in there every 10 minutes or so. What does Hitchcock do without editing? He finds a million other ways to increase tension.

The story follows two old prep school chums, Brandon and Phillip, who in the film's opening, have just finished strangling a man (David, a third "chum") to death. Brandon believes they have committed the perfect crime, Phillip is not so sure. All that's left to do is to wait until dark, and take the body out to the country to dispose of it.

It's not going to be that easy, though, is it? Brandon is so cocky and brazen, his head so full of philosophical justifications of his own intellectual superiority, that he can't help but see just how far he can dangle his accomplishment over everybody's heads without them catching on. The best way to do that? Throw a dinner party before they go, the guest list full of associates and loved ones of the victim himself.

Among the guests are their housekeeper, David's girlfriend, his father and aunt, the 4th chum in their Chummery, and Rupert, their old teacher, the one who filled Brandon's head with these philosophical notions (played by Jimmy Stewart). James Stewart is the biggest name in the movie, so you know he has a meaty role.

Brandon takes every chance he possibly can to drop little hints of what he and Phillip did in front of the guests. Phillip is just trying to keep it together. Rupert can see that something suspicious is going on, and is putting the pieces together. It's pretty much one of Hitchcock's "perfect murder" setups, where a character starts off thinking they're secure, and we get to watch as their schemes slowly crumble do to a missed detail here and there.

The fun of the movie is in Hitchcock's inventiveness in finding tension and suspense without edits. The camera swoops all around the apartment, following different conversations as they happen in real time, and panning in on objects, letting the audience in on details that the characters may not be aware of yet. The music is only source music, never soundtrack, and it is provided by the jittery Phillip, nervously fumbling through an off-kilter, lilting piano tune.

The lighting is pretty masterful, as well. Set in a New York high rise, the movie uses a phony backdrop of the New York skyline outside. The movie is set at dusk, though, so with some clever trickery, the backdrop is replaced with darker and darker ones as the sun sets. Things reach a crescendo when the blaring neon lights on the building across the street burst on, washing the room in anxious reds and greens.

Some of the edits in Rope are more subtle than others. Most of the time, Hitchcock just pushes in on the back of an actor's jacket and hides the cut there, where the screen is all black. There's a particularly seamless one early in the film, where he cleverly overlaps the sound of piano and dialogue from the next shot in with the previous.

Rope is more known for its gimmick than its content, but I found the story to be quite entertaining. Jimmy Stewart is always fun to watch, isn't he? Hitchcock was the master of pulling our strings, and there's a subtle psychology to the way he would put together a story, especially within his editing. It's interesting to see that he was just as able to mess around with us without the benefit of his greatest tool as he was with it.