Sunday, February 27, 2011


Every once in a great while, something truly odd sneaks it's way through the Hollywood system. Something with very limited box office potential winds up getting tens millions of dollars poured into it. An uncommercial director is given a ridiculous amount freedom to construct a grand vision. These rare movies are usually financial disappointments, and often creative disappointments as well, but they're usually at least interesting to watch. In fact, I often like an interesting failure more than a well-made but typical Hollywood product, and as a result, I am much more forgiving of Speed Racer and Ang Lee's Hulk movie than either film probably deserves.

Something that always interests me is when a filmmaker known for making grown-up movies makes a kids film. George Miller knocked it out of the park 15 years ago with Babe (whose sequel, Pig in the City, is one of the strangest huge-budget movies ever, by the way). So did Wes Anderson with Fantastic Mr. Fox. Martin Scorsese has one coming out at the end of the year, and I totally can't wait to see it. Popeye was Robert Altman's entry.

Robert Altman's Popeye is perhaps one of the better cinematic oddities out there. It's not a perfect film (these movies rarely are), but it's certainly not a failure. It's just really weird. It's hard to believe that producer Robert Evans managed to get funding for this insane movie. But am I glad that he did? You betcha.

Altman made a live action cartoon, with it's own self contained laws of physics. With the town of Sweet Haven, he created a complete miniature world that feels lived in and alive. The extras appear to be entirely made up of tumblers and acrobats so they can bounce around and do all sorts of physical comedy.

The songs are pretty awesome. They're written by Harry Nillson and arranged by Van Dyke Parks. You can totally hear the Van Dyke Parks in there. Lots of Pet Sounds-style orchestration. The actors don't have to worry about nailing any high notes, because the songs are sung in the character's voices.

Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall and the rest of the cast are all pretty perfect. That's no surprise. We all know that Altman was great at casting. But the great casting leads to one of the movie's greatest failings: Popeye is mumbly and incoherent and Olive Oyl is shrill and obnoxious. But you know what? They're kind of supposed to be. That's how they always were in the cartoons too. Much of the dialogue had to be overdubbed, presumably because nobody could understand a word Robin Williams was saying.

The other thing that doesn't quite work is the finale. Altman did what he could, but that damn octopus puppet clearly would not cooperate. It looks like a piece of junk. The arms barely move, and when the actors aren't holding them in their hands and shaking them around, they just float motionless in the water. It's kind of anticlimactic when the monster you're supposed to battle just kind of droops there. Still, the movie ends with a battle with a giant octopus, something I can't say about most event movies (well, maybe Pirates 2).

Popeye was a production out of control, went insanely overbudget, and was shot far, far away from studio executives. As a result, we got a truly bizarre family movie, strange even by Robert Altman standards. It's known as one of the biggest disasters in cinema history, and it damaged Altman's directing career for the entirety of the 80's. It is also known as an enduring cult classic. It's not a movie for everyone, but the right people (people like me) are going to dig it. And dig it I did.

Popeye: B+

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Heartbreak Kid (1972)

A few years ago, the Farrelly Brothers released a remake of The Heartbreak Kid that was, by all accounts, terrible. I never saw it, but that's really too bad, because Elaine May's 1972 original (scripted by the legendary Neil Simon) is a great film. It's influence can be felt all over comedy, including and especially the Farrellys' classic There's Something About Mary.

The setup is such: Newlywed Lenny, while on his honeymoon in Miami, quickly realizes that every little thing his wife Lila does grates on him. He meets and falls for Kelly, and will then stop at nothing to end his marriage, win her over, and gain her father's acceptance. The comedy that ensues is relentlessly uncomfortable, the squirm-in-your-seat variety that fans of The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm surely appreciate.

Lenny is played masterfully by Charles Grodin. I don't think he has ever had a role as perfect as this, which is too bad, since it was his first lead role. Grodin bullshits and manipulates his way through everything and everyone like a force of nature, completely fearless of whether or not an audience likes, pities, or sympathizes with him.

Side note: I recently heard director/hero/king among men Edgar Wright say that Michael Cera considers Charles Grodin a major influence on what he does, and watching this movie, you can see a little bit of where he's coming from. Cera gets just a little Grodin-y when he shows the slimier side of Scott Pilgrim.

The rest of the cast is great as well. Jeannie Berlin plays Lenny's wife Lila. She's surely a perfectly sweet girl, but since we see her through Lenny's perspective, she's pretty much a monster. He spends his entire honeymoon trying to get away from her and coming up with excuses for why he was gone. Cybill Shepherd plays Kelly, the beautiful midwestern college girl Lenny is chasing. On the surface, there's not much going on with her character, but there's more to her than meets the eye.

Lenny's Nemesis, Kelly's father, is played by Eddie Albert. He sees right through Lenny. Everything about him rubs him the wrong way. And he will keep Lenny away from his daughter at all costs. It's a battle of two stubborn, willful people who refuse to back down.

I don't want to spoil the ending, but I will say it ends on a bittersweet note, somewhat reminiscent of The Graduate, and you do wind up kind of feeling something for Lenny in the end.

I wish there were more comedies as dark and unflinching as The Heartbreak Kid. Whenever I see something like this, it makes me wish that more modern comedies would strive for more than just pressing record and pointing the camera at the funny movie stars.

I know I give out a lot of good grades. I'm glad I don't have any credibility, because that fact would certainly hurt it. Anyway, the trend continues: I probably liked The Heartbreak Kid. A.

The Heartbreak Kid is on Netflix Watch Instantly if anyone is interested. I don't think it is available on DVD.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Bride of Frankenstein

Last weekend, I watched the original Frankenstein with certain assumptions of what the movie was that I wound up being dead wrong in. Tonight, I was confounded again with the 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. I knew nothing about this one, either, besides the bride's fright wig. Turns out that everything we know about Frankenstein, referenced in pop culture, is pretty much from this movie.

Bride of Frankenstein is everything that nowadays defines a sequel. Exponentially more ambitious than the first, with a visibly much larger budget, but with a ton of callbacks to the scenes and elements of the first one that audiences responded to so much. There is a drawback to the widened scale, of course. I feel like it lost a little bit of the soul of the original in the process.

That said, it's still a great movie, just in different ways. The opening, for example: Director James Whale obviously needed a way to bring our heroes back after their (spoiler? Can I spoil an 80-year-old movie?) fiery demise. Solution? The movie opens with Mary Shelley narrating to Lord Byron how the story of Frankenstein would continue, should she ever continue it. What a brilliant device! We the viewers get to pretend that the author herself is acting as a deus ex machina for her own story.

This time, Dr. Henry Frankenstein is an alright guy, penitent and guilt-ridden after barely surviving his fall from grace at the hands of his own hubris. The monster, too is painted in a more heroic light. He is gradually and fascinatingly humanized over the course of the film. The villain of this piece is Dr. Praetorius, and he is the very epitome of the mad scientist archetype I always took Dr. Frankenstein to be. He blackmails Frankenstein into creating a woman for him and uses the monster to do his dirty work.

Boris Karloff, awesomely credited as only "Karloff" in the credits, is great again as the monster. He brings the same pathos and sadness to the character as in the first one, but with a much wider palette to work with. The best sequence in the movie is, of course, his befriending the old blind violinist (the scene was famously parodied by Gene Hackman in Young Frankenstein). He teaches the monster to talk, which is where the "Fire bad" talk in all the spoofs comes from.

The ending, which I won't give away, in case you aren't familiar, is pretty incredible. James Whale brilliantly builds tension and anxiety throughout much of the last twenty minutes with the sound of a pulsing heartbeat. The camera angles get more wacky too. It's gripping, all the way to the epic, emotional, and satisfying conclusion.

The one thing I didn't like was this weird old lady character that was Dr. Frankenstein's servant or something. She was the comic relief, and her attempts at humor were too wink-wink-nudge-nudge for the movie they were featured in. There are times where she's just shy of looking directly at the camera, which took me out of the movie. The one thing she said that I laughed at was when she was bringing Praetorius to Frankenstein, she mutters to herself skeptically, in earshot of Praetorius, "Praetorius isn't a real name." It's such a weird thing to say!

So in the end, Bride of Frankenstein is a worthy, ambitious sequel that builds upon the world established in the original. I think I still prefer the first one overall, but one could make a good argument for the superiority of this one. If it weren't for the awkward attempts at humor, I'd give it perfect marks, but still I'll give it an A.

Wow, this might be my longest review yet. I had a lot to say about this one. Good night, everybody! If you made it this far, thanks for reading.

Friday, February 18, 2011


I love watching the classic films that I've somehow missed. There are quite a lot of them, especially from before the 60's. Every time I see one, I can feel a huge gap in my knowledge of cinema history fill up just a little bit and create two smaller gaps where it once was.

The Universal monster movies are definitely something I should have gotten to sooner. I saw Creature From the Black Lagoon a couple years ago and really dug it. It's amazing how well that costume holds up to this day. I watched Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein over Halloween this year. I don't know if that counts. But last weekend was my first time watching the original, real deal, 1931 James Whale Frankenstein.

I was surprised by what it was. This wasn't the movie I expected at all. I grew up watching so many Looney Tunes, Mel Brooks, and everyone else parodies of Frankenstein that I thought I already knew what it was, without ever seeing frame one of the movie itself (okay, I've probably seen some frames).

Dr. Frankenstein (not Victor, but Henry) is not the wild haired mad scientist cliche that I expected, but a clean cut dignified man (except that "It's Alive" scene, which is pretty much exactly how it's portrayed). His hunchbacked lackey, Fritz (not Igor), was a sadistic little monster of a man.

And Boris Karloff's Frankenstein's Monster was such a touching performance. It wasn't the "FIRE BAD" thing that Phil Hartman did. Karloff had this look of pain and sadness in his eyes the whole time. There's a scene where Dr. Frankenstein opens the skylight to show him the sun. The monster reaches up to the sky and takes in it's rays and warmth.

The movie was also startlingly violent for an old movie. It came out before the Hayes code effectively neutered all Hollywood films until the late 60s. The famous scene with the little girl was amazing.

One thing that surprisingly was the same was the fact that Fritz/Igor actually did break the original brain and take a brain clearly marked "abnormal" from another jar. I would never have guessed that this was in the original since it feels tailor made for a Mel Brooks movie.

Another classic. Of course I liked it. A+

I plan on watching Bride of Frankenstein soon.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Cedar Rapids

Oooohh, look everybody, I saw a new release! That's right, we went to the movies last night. The movie we saw was Cedar Rapids. The poster doesn't sell this movie very well. In fact, I kind of hate that poster.

Cedar Rapids is a new comedy directed by Miguel Arteta (Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl). It's also produced by Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election, About Schmidt). It actually feels kind of like a combination of the two.

The movie stars Ed Helms as Tim Lippe, a naive insurance agent, sent from the small town home he's never left to the big city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa for a big convention. Over the convention, he learns a bit about not only the bigger world, but also that his small town home is not as comfortable and innocent as he's managed to remain.

And it's a lot of fun. Ed Helms is perfect in this role. He's been my favorite part of The Office since he joined the cast. He makes me want to cry every week as hopeless romantic Andy Bernard. He brings that same quality to Cedar Rapids. He has this open face and sincerity and enthusiasm that makes you want to hug him when he just can't catch a break.

Also in the cast is John C. Reilly. If you've read my Cyrus review, you all know how much I love him. He's mostly just doing his thing in this movie, which is hilarious, of course. He's not playing the dummy he plays in Adam Mackay movies, which is fine. John C. Reilly has a vast range of different dummies in his head to choose from.

The rest of the cast is strong, too. Anne Heche, Isaiah Whitlock Jr., Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Root, Kurtwood Smith, a Rob Corrdry cameo. They all seemed to be having a great time together. Tom Lennon (Lt. Dangle from Reno 911) got a laugh from the audience as soon as he appeared just because they recognized him, which I thought was pretty cool. He should get bigger roles, he's always hilarious. Alia Shawkat (Maeby from Arrested Development) is really good as a prostitute Tim befriends.

A quality I appreciate about Cedar Rapids is something it shares with the films of Alexander Payne: a brilliantly observational portrayal of mid-western, middle class mundanity. Those hilariously painful moments like the wedding in About Schmidt, or the tacky, tourist-y winery in Sideways. This movie is loaded with that kind of stuff; the difference being Ed Helms is reacting to it like it's the most amazing thing he's ever seen.

I dug this movie a lot. I hope we didn't get the best comedy of the year this early. I'm giving it an A, so there.

A Town Called Panic

A Town Called Panic is a Belgian stop-motion animated feature following the crazy adventures of a cowboy, an indian, and a horse. It's chaotic and frenetic and colorful and relentlessly silly.

The plot is simple and absurd: Cowboy and Indian need a birthday present for Horse. They mistakenly buy him 50 million bricks and ultimately wind up losing their house. They all go on a big zany journey together to get their house back.

The movie is based on a TV series featuring little animated dolls mounted on stands stuck to their feet, not unlike the army men in the Toy Story movies. The world it takes place in is goofy and surreal. Horse is the brains of the trio. Cowboy and Indian constantly get into mischief, while Horse drives a car and signs up for piano lessons in order to get closer to a lady horse.

If you can't tell, the movie is a ton of fun. It has a very short running time of about 75 minutes, and it flies by. I was happy to see the version on Netflix Instant Watch was subtitled and not dubbed. You never know with animated stuff. I don't watch anime on Netflix because it's always dubbed.

I'm a week behind on these, so this one is going to be especially short. I'm beginning to realize how arbitrary I am with grading these movies. Most of them just fall into "like" and the occasional "didn't like", but I always try to apply a letter grade to it, and I rarely give much thought to what grade I give it. Continuing in that tradition, I'm giving A Town Called Panic a near-meaningless B+.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Seven Samurai

This is a big one, everybody.

A confession, this is the first time I have seen Seven Samurai all the way through. We watched it in Japanese class in high school, but I think I missed the first day, and I probably read books during the rest of it, because I was a shithead. I wasn't the best of students in that class, and my dumbass teenage apathy for old and foreign movies were also factors. We're all shitheads in our own ways in high school, though, right? Don't say you weren't, because we were all shitheads.

I discovered the films of Akira Kurosawa, along with anything else subtitled or made before Star Wars, on my own as an adult. I watched several of the major ones: Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Hidden Fortress, Rashomon, Throne of Blood; but I always have a hard time finding three and a half hours to set aside for an epic. On my recent quest for an awesome Blu Ray collection, I have finally righted this egregious error.

Look, it's a masterpiece. It's a perfect, perfect film. One of the best ever made. Kurosawa is possibly the greatest filmmaker who ever lived, or at least up there pretty high in the rankings.

What strikes me most about Akira Kurosawa's films is his storytelling. He conveys such emotional depth and complexity in all of his characters, and he achieves this with absolute clarity. The story is as straightforward as can be: a village of farmers, terrorized by a pack of brigands, recruit a group of samurai to help them defend themselves and their harvest. With that setup, Kurosawa unfurls a rich character-driven drama and adventure movie, simultaneously epic and personal.

The cast is huge and all of the characters are great, but we all know the star of this movie is Toshiro Mifune. There he is front and center on that poster. The man was one of the strongest screen presences of the time. The Brando of Japan (or Japando, as I like to say). This was before the role of Sanjuro took over his life and he became an international screen giant. He was still doing a variety of characters for Kurosawa at the time. And this is one of the greats. He runs rampant through the movie, and is clearly having a blast doing so. His energy is infectious for both the characters and the audience.

The only kind-of complaint is just the unfortunate fact that this movie was not shot in widescreen. Widescreen movies were still a fairly new thing at the time, the industry's way of competing with television. Kurosawa's first widescreen film was Yojimbo, 6 years later, and the man knew how to use the format like nobody else. That Yojimbo, a small, dark comedy got to use this format, but a movie as huge as Seven Samurai didn't have that opportunity is a shame. It could have opened up the scope so much more.

That complaint is small potatoes, really. The movie is beautiful. You can watch it instantly on Netflix, if you can find an appropriate chunk of your life to give to it.

Seven Samurai: A+

Marlon Japando: A+

High School Me: Shithead

The Secret of Kells

Hi, folks. I'm one month into this blog, so I thought I'd throw in a quick status update. This is my 10th movie review. It is the most dedication I have shown to something in ages. I know some of my entries have been a little half-assed, but at least I'm still posting them. There's going to come a time in the future where I need to make this website look a little less skin-and-bones. I have no idea how to do that, so for now, you'll have to settle for this boring old no-frills template.

Okay. Now for the movie.

The Secret of Kells is a fairly recent animated movie directed by Tomm Moore. It's about a young boy in Dark Ages Ireland named Brendan who lives on an abbey, with his uncle as Abbot. Under the looming threat of viking invasion, and against his uncle's wishes, Brendan is tasked to finish writing the story of Aidan, an old master who has taken him under his wing. Along the way, he journeys into the magical forest and meets Aisling, a forest sprite who manifests as a girl Brendan's own age.

The animation is fantastic. It isn't hi-tech CGI, a la Pixar; it isn't fluid, hand-drawn animation, a la Disney. The Secret of Kells is more along the lines of a show from Cartoon Network, pushed to the very boundaries of their capabilities. In fact, I'm sure the animators owe a lot stylistically to Samurai Jack/Sym-Bionic Titan creator Genndy Tartakovsky, and Powerpuff Girls/Foster's creator Craig McCracken. Visually, the movie looks like if Tartakovsky had animated Samurai Jack on a stained glass window. How's that for stylized?

The shot compositions are striking. The backgrounds look a lot like ones you would see in a painting from the era (around 1000 years ago). The character designs are very basic, made of simple, expressive shapes. The colors are vibrant and vivid.

Kells was surprised last year with a Best Animated Picture Oscar nomination. This was deserved. It probably even could have won, if Up hadn't been listed in there as well, because, of course, Up deserved the win. I could go on about how perfect Up was, but you've probably all seen it, and you probably haven't seen The Secret of Kells. Redeem yourselves now. It's an instant watch on Netlix, and it's only 75 minutes long.

The Secret of Kells gets an A from me.