Monday, May 30, 2011

Tokyo Drifter

Tokyo Drifter is another cinematic oddity from director Seijun Suzuki, made in 1966, not long before his super-weird Branded to Kill got him pretty much thrown out of the studio system. This one is not as weird as Branded was, but it's still pretty weird, and apparently, the studio revoked his privileges to film in color after they saw it.

From what I gather about Suzuki, he was employed by Toho Studios to mostly make standard low-budget Yakuza crime movies. After about 40 pictures, though, he must have got pretty bored, so he started breaking rules. His movies got more and more surreal and absurdist, while still using the framework of the crime genre to tell his stories. Critics apply a lot of analysis to the wackiness in these movies, positing that there's some sort of commentary being made on the crime genre itself. I'm not too sure. I kind of think he was just doing it with no intention other than to keep himself interested in his job.

The movie opens in black and white, with our hero, Tetsuya, a former hitman, taking a beating from a group of Yakuza thugs. They want to employ him, but he's gone straight. To prove this, he refuses to fight. Waiting in a car is the crime boss, saying it's only a matter of time before he gets back up and returns to form. Then there's a jarring cut into a color shot of Tetsuya standing up and shooting a gun. Just as quickly, it reverts to black and white for the rest of the scene, as the beating continues.

After this scene, the rest of the movie is in color. Very vibrant color, in fact. Suzuki is clearly having a lot of fun with it. The interior set designs have a very Warholian pop-art kind of feel. Tetsuya is identified by a sky blue suit, though it occasionaly changes to other light shades, and ultimately becomes white, in the good vs. evil showdown at the end.

Tetsuya's boss sees that the Yakuza is going to keep dogging them for Tetsuya, so he sends him away. He becomes the Tokyo Drifter, roaming Japan, and evading various attempts on his life. Eventually he comes back to Tokyo for the big final battle. None of this really matters, though. What matters is the weird stuff. Suzuki throws in a wacky, slapstick saloon fight straight out of a Hollywood western. There's a scene where the Drifter suddenly breaks into song while walking in the snow.

The final battle is set in a strange room washed entirely in black, with the exception of a statue holding some glowing red light thing. That is, until Tetsuya shows up, entering through a white tunnel, clad entirely in white. The lights go up in the room and suddenly everything is white but the bad guys in black. It's all pretty cool.

OK, it's not all pretty cool. The weird stuff is pretty cool, but there's some pretty draggy stuff in there to advance the plot. I could relate to Tetsuya, because at times, I found myself drifting too. Still, it has a short, 80-minute running time, so it didn't have a chance to get too plodding. The action sequences make the movie entertaining enough, but the interest in Branded to Kill is found in watching the director trying to break out of the claustrophobic box of genre conventions that he was trapped in.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Mack


Michael Campus' The Mack is considered one of the high points of the Blaxploitation genre. I haven't seen much of the genre, but I've seen enough to know the low points. The Mack isn't as exploitative as most of the others, and layers thoughtful social commentary into the story.

The protagonist is Goldie, a drug pusher who is busted by a couple of racist cops in the first scene and sentenced to five years in prison. He bides his time and is ultimately released. You get a sense that Goldie is at a loss with what to do with himself now that he's out. He decides to stay out of the drug business and get into the pimp game. Despite reaping the benefits of being a pimp, Goldie still seems conflicted about some of the things he must do to be successful. It's a slippery slope, though, and he winds up having to do some pretty bad things, and deal with the consequences that result.

There are many obstacles in his way: the two corrupt, racist cops that arrested him in the first place; a rival pimp; a crime lord trying to recruit him despite his refusals; and his own brother, an activist who doesn't approve of Goldie's lifestyle at all.

A lot of the acting was pretty impressive. Max Julien was quite good as Goldie. He was properly badass, but he plays his morally ambiguous actions with a subtle air of conflictedness, sometimes only visible in his eyes. He obviously is troubled about his trade, and tries to compensate by handing out money to neighborhood kids and telling them to not be like him. Richard Pryor plays his sidekick, basically as Richard Pryor. I assume there was a lot of ad-libbing going on. Roger Mosley is good as Goldie's brother, too. He gets to play the moral counterbalance to Goldie, and hopefully he sets the example that most viewers would walk out with.

A lot of the pimps in the movie were played by actual pimps. I thought that was interesting. Before I knew that, I was observing that some of the acting seemed very naturalistic, and didn't seem like acting at all. I wondered if there were non-actors in the cast. Turns out they were pimps. I guess it adds to the authenticity of the movie, but I hope they were at least former pimps. The movie tries not to glorify what they do for a living, but I think it crosses the line more than once. Goldie goes to the Players' Ball and wins the best pimp award. I still can't believe the Players' Ball is a real thing. Also, the real pimps get a special thank you in the end credits, maybe a little more appreciative than men who sell women deserve.

The Mack was pretty influential, too. I recognized elements that were referenced in the spoofs I'm Gonna Git You, Sucka! and Black Dynamite. I also saw reference points that Quentin Tarantino has used, specifically in Jackie Brown, the scene where Sam Jackson puts Chris Tucker in the trunk.

The movie mostly plays it gritty and real, and there's a lot of really good dialogue. There is one scene that seems oddly out of place. In it, Goldie talks about how you have to control the women. We then see how he does it: apparently, he brainwashes them by talking hypnotically into a microphone at a planetarium light show. They go through the whole thing, where he says how they should carry themselves, and they repeat it verbatim, as though in a trance. Pretty ridiculous, right?

You know what The Mack actually reminded me of at times? The Graduate. Bear with me. Goldie has a similar sense of aimlessness as Benjamin Braddock after his release from prison; he makes mistakes and ruins the lives of people he cares about (much worse than sleeping with your girlfriend's mom and then running off with your girlfriend at her marriage to another guy, though), and it also ends with a similarly ambiguous note. They should have called it Black Graduate, or better yet, The Bladuate.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2


My wife and I are both huge fans of the original Kung Fu Panda. It had a heart and emotional depth that was usually only reserved for Pixar movies. Up to that point, the success of Shrek had caused Dreamworks animated movies to focus on humor based almost solely on pop culture references. There weren't any to be found in Kung Fu Panda. I'm happy to announce that Kung Fu Panda 2 not only retains the feel of the original, it also expands upon it.

A major goal of the makers of this (directed by a woman, I was pleasantly surprised to find out, and of Chinese descent, no less: Jennifer Yuh Nelson), seems to build upon the world of the first movie, rather than repeat anything. Show some of it's history, travel to other parts of it. A pet peeve of mine is when, in a sequel, they find a way to revert a character back to how they were in the first movie, after that character had shown some personal growth (see: Frankenstein). Po started out clumsy and full of doubt, but by the end of the first movie, he became the Dragon Warrior. At the start of the second movie, he's still the Dragon Warrior, and he's pretty awesome.

In the first movie, Po had to find the Kung Fu within himself, and learned that it was his Panda-ness that made him special. In the sequel, Po's training continues. His next quest: inner peace. Of course, the battle isn't all internal. There is also the villain Shen, a peacock voiced by Gary Oldman. Shen is the inventor of gunpowder, a weapon that has the power to cripple China and bring an end to Kung Fu. He also has very specific ties to Po's past, we learn.

The animation is excellent. The world is lush and detailed, the characters look stylized and dynamic. Like the first movie, they continue to work an element of really cool, old school 2-D animation into the mix, but this time, they use the technique even better and even more.

Another thing I loved about the movie is how seriously it took the story. I don't mean that the movie wasn't funny, of course it was funny. I mean that the threat Po and the Furious Five face feels real within the world of the movie, and the characters seem to believe it.

Speaking of the characters, the characters and voice acting are still top notch. I honestly think these movies contain the best voice acting in animated films right now. Jack Black is still great as Po, but James Hong once again steals the movie for me, as Po's father, Mr. Ping, the loveable old soup-vending goose. The character is really funny, and Hong brings so much sincerity, enthusiasm and love to it. Gary Oldman brings a lot of depth to the villain, Shen; making him more than just a standard movie villain. We also have such new voices as Danny McBride as Shen's wolf henchman, kung-fu legend Michelle Yeoh as a goat prophet, and Jean Claude Van Damme as Master Crocodile.

One of my only gripes is that Po's team, The Furious Five, while getting a little more to do this time around, still don't have a great deal of depth as individuals. They spend this movie giving us a little more of Angelina Jolie's Tigress. Besides her, Snake, Crane, Mantis and Monkey don't have a great deal of personality or backstory beyond what kind of animals they are. I hope we learn more about them in future installments. It's a waste of Lucy Liu, David Cross, Seth Rogen, and Jackie Chan, otherwise. And who would want to waste Jackie Chan in a Kung Fu movie, right?

Kung Fu Panda 2 is a great sequel, superior to the original in as far as I can tell, every way. It doesn't feel like a tacked on excuse for a sequel, it genuinely feels like there was more story to tell; and from the looks of things, there's still a great deal more to say. I can't wait to see what's next for Po and Co.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Attack the Block


I recently got the opportunity to catch an advance screening of writer/director Joe Cornish's feature debut, Attack the Block. Produced and just recently released in England, this was the first major screening of it in America (besides the SXSW Festival thingy). So what do I have to report? Well, I am happy to tell you all that Attack the Block is the first strong contender for Jim's Movie of 2011.

The movie is basically Critters in the Hood (oh geez, pretend I didn't just say that). In all those Critters movies, alien puppet monsters come down from space or something and kill dumb teenagers. In Attack the Block, the aliens land in the poor, inner city part of London, and the teenagers they're hunting are stone cold hard-asses.

The film opens with a gang of 14-year-old boys mugging a lady at knifepoint. Their mugging is interrupted by a meteor falling from the sky and crashing through the roof of a car next to them. The lady runs away, and the Hoodies go to investigate. Their badass leader, Moses, gets attacked and clawed by the creature and decides to hunt it down. They track it, kill it, and parade it around town, proudly displaying their pelt to all the neighborhood kids. Holy shit! This is in the first 10 minutes!

Not long after, a second wave of meteorites come crashing down, this time way more than just the one. These aliens are bigger, meaner, and scarier than the first one, and appear to be out for vengeance on Our Gang. Other people get embroiled in the whole thing, the young woman they mugged, two wannabe gangsta 9-year-olds, the friendly drug dealers upstairs, and their not-so-friendly boss. Nearly all of the action takes place in or around their crowded, cramped tenement building.

I will spoil nothing else. There is, of course, a body count, including some characters you genuinely don't want to see die. There's some nice gore, but it's actually pretty tame. It's a light R here, but probably earned England's equivalent of PG-13 (I think they have a "15" rating there).

The characters were all very likeable. These kids are actually the age they're portraying (instead of the usual 25-year-olds we get over here), and are mostly minorities (instead of the mostly whites we would get over here). They all have distinct personalities, are funny (besides the stoic, tough-as-nails hero, Moses), and you genuinely sympathize with the state they live in. Yeah, they're little punks, but none of them have crossed that line yet that would make them irredeemable.

The effects are great in their simplicity. They went for practical effects and puppetry with the creatures, which takes away the disconnect from reality that we all accept when going into a CGI movie. It's so much easier to believe in fantasy when it looks like something you can actually touch.

I should also note how awesome the soundtrack is. It's all hip-hop, which I'm not too into or knowledgeable about, but I would probably buy this soundtrack if it comes out in America.

Before the movie started, we were told by a representative of the studio or distributor or something that Attack the Block doesn't have a U.S. release date yet, but it will soon. I'm guessing this fall, September or October, maybe. When it comes out, I want all of you to go see it and spread the word. Attack the Block deserves to find the largest audience possible.

UPDATE: Attack the Block opens in 7 major cities on July 29th. Go see it if you can!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Winter's Bone

I'm afraid this is going to be a short, shitty review, guys. So shitty, in fact, I'm not even going to post a link on Twitter.

It's not that the movie is shitty, it's very good. I enjoyed it immensely. It's just the exact kind of movie I have a hard time describing what I like.

Winter's Bone follows Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), a 17-year-old girl, raising her brother and sister on her own, as she tries to track down her crank dealing father, who has gone missing two weeks prior. Her quest takes her deeper and deeper into the hell of the Ozarks underworld, and the people her dad was mixed up with. It's gritty and suspenseful, and the acting is all around great. It follows the basic structure of the film noir genre, but putting a teenage girl in the place of the hard boiled detective. Ree gets put through the wringer, but she never flinches.

This is the kind of movie that I know is going to be good, but because it looks like a downer, I tend to avoid watching. We had the DVD from Netflix since early February, and we just got around to it last weekend. I don't mind dark movies, but if you set a movie like Winter's Bone next to something weird or goofy, I tend to lean towards the silly movies. I've surely missed out on a lot of great movies because of this.

So yeah, Winter's Bone: Check it out, but if you're like me, don't ask for the disc until you plan on watching it, because you will let it sit around for three months while watching Mac and Me instead.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Heaven Can Wait

Heaven Can Wait is a classic 1940 comedy by Ernst Lubitsch, a director I have never seen anything by before. Turns out I might be missing out, because this one is pretty damn great.

It stars Don Ameche as Henry van Cleve, who must present his case to the devil himself for what he did in live that might have condemned him to hell. We see flashbacks through van Cleve's entire life. He was from rich stock, spoiled and lazy, never worked a day of his life. But unlike his prim, stiff parents, he had a love for living, and was a bit of a cad.

We see him in his twenties, when he sweeps his own dorky cousin's fiancee off her feet and runs off with her. And we see him, years later, talk her out of divorcing him with the same smoothtalking.

Over all these flashbacks, we learn that although Henry certainly wasn't perfect, he also wasn't that bad of a guy. Even the devil has to acknowledge that.

Heaven Can Wait was thoroughly enjoyable and whip-smart. Even the poster (above) is smart. It looks like a parody of Gone with the Wind and all the other romance posters of the time, with Henry's family in the portrait leering down at him in disapproval. I always knew Don Ameche as the old guy from Cocoon and Harry and the Hendersons. Turns out he was pretty smooth back in the day.

There was one moment in particular that kind of blew me away. At his cousin's engagement party, Henry looks on from a distance to get a glimpse of the fiancee. His butler goes "There she is now, turning around". I would say 99 to 100% of all filmmakers would choose this moment to cut away to a shot of her turning around, possibly in slow motion with an orchestral score swelling up behind her. Lubitsch, instead, doesn't cut away at all, and pushes in on Henry, as he reacts to seeing her. The look you see on his face tells us a much more interesting story than the usual way would have.

So check this movie out if you feel so inclined! It's currently on Netflix Instant watch.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Mac and Me

Hey, everyone! My friend Kent and I decided to try something new and write a review together! The result wound up being pretty long, but we had a lot of fun writing it, and I think it shows. Anyway, if you like what you read, check out his blog here. His review for this is the same as mine, but he has a lot of other stuff on there too.

J: If friendly aliens ever really do come to earth with the intention to share their knowledge with us, I would do my best to make sure they never learned about 1988's Mac and Me. It's not that it's the worst movie I've ever seen (oh, I've seen worse), it's that the intentions behind it are so transparently crass and corporate. I would just be really embarrassed if the aliens ever saw it.

K: Calling this movie corporate doesn't even begin to sum up HOW awful the product placement is in this movie, it was almost painful at times. At one point Coke LITERALLY saves characters lives, there is a dance sequence at a McDonalds that lasts a good 10 minutes, and there are constant references to skittles and Big Macs. I remember LOVING this movie when I was a kid and that made me sad.

J: You missed a great "I'm Lovin' It" opportunity there. I think McDonalds was trying to create a new corporate mascot with Mac. A bunch of companies must have been pissed off for missing the boat on E.T. and decided to make one of their own. So, tell me, Kent, what is Mac and Me about?

K: They had the perfect opportunity to make the same movie about this guy!
http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_iu3GNfriqSE/TEH_ipwJvsI/AAAAAAAAADA/bPb97_d76LA/s1600/mactonight.png

I'd much rather watch the same movie about a guy with a moon face who sang and played piano.

But what is Mac and Me about? Aliens, who drink water from straws on the moon......I think, get picked up by a lunar lander, you know from those famous moon landings back in 1988.

J: I thought it was a Mars lander? From the landscape, I thought it was Mars. Also, was it water they were drinking, or was it Mars Coke? If it was, Mars and Mars Coke, then let's assume they lived a Mars-Coke-less existence for the entire year-long transit back to earth. This family of aliens (a mom, a dad, an older kid and Mac) freak out at the government facility they arrive at and escape. This stuff was all pretty unclear. I didn't even realize there were two kids until the end of the movie.

Anyway, the youngest, Mac, gets hit by a car driven by a father and son. Did this father and son take the alien in and then hijinx ensue? No, we never see them again, but it sure felt like they were more important at the time. Instead, Mac sneaks into another car and goes home with a wheelchair kid.

K: It was actually just another part of California, seriously you could tell from landscape, so I guess what was actually going on was immigrants who need coke to live snuck in to California and got picked up by a Mars lander that the military was testing for some reason in southern California. I heard this is in the directors cut but I can't yet confirm that.

My favorite part about the first car that Mac hits, is the kid's reaction. He's not like "Holy crap we just hit some weird alien thing" he's like "dad you're driving like an idiot." which is the logical thing the say at that point. Either way, the handi-capable child, his brother, and Mom move in to a house. Mac moves in with them since he's a young migrant worker on the run from the law. This is where hilarity ensues, see the only people who have seen Mac are the little neighbor girl with the hot older sister and the handi-capable one, I believe his name was Eric. So when Mac decides he wants to turn on all the power tools and allow them to ruin the house ERIC GETS BLAMED! when Mac from some reason moves a bunch of stuff from outside, inside ERIC GETS BLAMED AGAIN! When Mac tries to kill Eric by making him fall off a cliff, oh that goofy eric always trying to kill himself to prove there's an alien in the house.

J: One of my favorite scenes was when Eric and the little girl are trying to catch Mac. They lure him into his bedroom with Coke and Skittles, where Eric tells the girl, "here, strap this vacuum cleaner to your back. We're going to suck him up!" It's really weird that a kid his age would think something like that would even work. Even weirder, it was already established that this is EXACTLY what works. They were vacuumed up by the Mars lander that took them to earth in the first place, which is something that Eric would have no inkling of.

They vacuum Mac up and he causes such a ruckus inside the vacuum bag that the little girl with the vacuum cleaner strapped to her back gets yanked up the wall and across the ceiling like a ragdoll. I have this rule about violence towards children in movies: As long as the kid doesn't cry or show any adverse effects, it is the funniest thing in the world. This movie might have some of the greatest kid violence I've ever seen, with the wheelchair falling off a cliff and the girl getting flung around by a MACuum cleaner. Here is the point where Mac becomes friends with the kids, and they proceed to hide him from the government spooks that come after him.

K: That's the point when Mac get's something like small pox, they never really explain what happened, but they just keep saying he's sick and he looks different he's got some skin lesions or something, so they put him in a Teddy bear outfit and tell everyone it's a toy, that seems to cure him cause this is NEVER mentioned again. ALTHOUGH, this does lead to the BEST scene in the entire movie, it's a long dance scene led by Teddy Bear Mac, followed by a chase scene where FBI agents can't catch a kid in a wheel chair simply because he's going down hill. There's a chase scene in a Steven Seagal movie called "Hard to Kill" where he's being chased in a hospital bed, this is better! the only reason they can't catch this kid is because they're going DOWN A HILL! had he gotten to the bottom 2 minutes before his brother shows up with a Van they would've easily caught him.

J: Let's stop on that McDonalds scene for a minute, it is clearly the centerpiece the entire movie is built around. They take Teddy Bear Mac to a birthday party at McDonalds, which is clearly the most amazing place on earth. There are kids dancing around outside when they get there. And then when they get inside, there are more kids dancing around. When Mac jumps on the counter and starts dancing along, he transforms from a creepy alien puppet into what is clearly a child in a teddy bear suit. The dance number is quite simply the most amazing thing ever put to film.

The thing that struck me about the wheelchair race was that the kid was careening out of control through speeding traffic, and he was smiling and laughing like he was having the time of his life!

I think around this time, there's also a flashback to the alien family's life on Mars. It's played with a sense of Spielbergian wonder, but it really feels kind of weird and unsettling. Something about the aliens' droopy cheeks and permanently puckered lips gives me the willies.

K: Oh yeah McDonalds is clearly one of the greatest wonders of the world. The kids there are all amazed all the time. Mac at one point grabs a McDonald's cup from some kids and the kids just stare in amazement, even before anything's happened! The Teddy bear suit dance scene, the thing that drives me a little crazy about it, is it kinda seems like they couldn't get the Mac puppet to behave how they wanted it to, so they were just like "Grab a kid a throw him in a teddy bear suit" And as the FBI agents come in Eric I believe says "Just keep him dancing" the suit was probably good enough to fool 8 year olds, but the FBI? is that why it took them so long to find Osama Bin Laden? was he just in a McDonald's dancing in a teddy bear suit?

As far as the flashbacks go, what really creeped me out was the aliens legs, none of them bent at all, they had clear knee joints and everything else seemed human enough to expect the knees to bend, but they just walked straight legged all the time.

Moving on Mac leads Eric and his friends to a cave, where he finds his family on the brink of death, sine they've been in a cave and can't get Mars-Coke through straws like they've been able to do for most of their lives.

J: Wow, by now, it seems like this movie should be over. Can't they just find a spaceship home or something? No, instead we get a scene where the Mac Daddy accidentally robs a grocery store at gunpoint. And it goes on from there. I'm not sure if I want to spoil anymore. Kent? Do you want to spoil anymore? Even better, do you have anything GOOD to say about Mac and Me?

K: Well if we spoil any more they'll have no reason to watch the rest. So without saying to much there is a small explosion that makes this movie kinda hilariously awesome toward the end here. The movie was full of hilariously bad moments, but a lot of that is dulled when you realize how EVIL the movie is. The acting's bad, because it's a movie filled with kids who can't act. If you take out the scenes of just pointless product placement it's probably a 45 minute movie. Anything I'm leaving out Jim?

J: The score is by the guy who did the Back to the Future trilogy. He's clearly doing a John Williams impression, but I thought the music was actually pretty good. It sometimes felt out of place against the ridiculous things happening on the screen.

Hey, this was fun. Let's do it again sometime.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Golem


The Golem is a 1920 German silent film written by, directed by, and starring Paul Wegener. Like a lot of German silent films, it's atmospheric, eerie, and haunting. It follows a rabbi in the 1500s who reads a portent in the stars, and in order to protect his people, creates a man out of clay and brings him to life with the dark arts. Needless to say, the Golem rebels and goes on a rampage.

It's a little bit like Frankenstein, but made long before Frankenstein. Wegener's performance as the Golem is a very sympathetic monster. He has a very cold, sad, look in his eyes.

Another interesting thought is the fact that this is a Jewish movie, based on a piece of Jewish folklore, made in Germany before WWII. I also liked the wardrobe. People wear pointy hats in it, like they would have worn in Martin Luther times.

The reason this movie got my attention was actually the score. The version I have doesn't have the typical, public domain piano score that most silent movies are saddled with. Instead, it has an entirely original score by Black Francis, the lead singer of The Pixies, my favorite band. It's pretty awesome. He even wrote lyrics to the songs that match up with the action on the screen. Not like "Now he's picking up the little girl... walking... walking... looking longingly" or something, more like a song that says "something in the stars says that we are through" while the Rabbi is looking through his telescope and telling people of the omen.

This isn't the first silent movie I've seen with a modern soundtrack. I've seen it work to great effect with the band Tortoise accompanying Nosferatu. I would love to see more like this. It's not like the scores we're hearing on these DVDs are the official scores to these silent movies. When they played in theaters, they were often accompanied by a man improvising on the piano based on what he saw happening on the screen. The music that accompanies silent movies on DVDs often doesn't hold my attention, and even some of the best silent movies are very slow paced. A more engaging soundtrack might be just what some of these need.

Even if it didn't have the Black Francis soundtrack, I think I still would have enjoyed The Golem. It's a mesmerizing film. But it was the music that pushed it over the edge for me, it pulled me further into the movie than I think I might otherwise have been with a more typical score. Check it out either way. I'm not sure how available the Black Francis version is, I think you might have to get it off of his website.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Bridesmaids




Finally, after 7 years of movies starring mostly dudes, producer Judd Apatow is giving the ladies their chance to shine. There's actually a lot riding on Bridesmaids. Most female-led comedies are aimed directly at women, and usually star Reese Witherspoon or someone else who is not particularly funny. They then go through the motions of having to decide between two men, both perfectly appealing, blah blah blah. "Chick Flicks". Well, Bridesmaids is here to show us that movies about women can be funny across the board, not just for women. That you don't need Will Ferrell to anchor a comedy.

Don't believe the "It's The Hangover for girls" crap. It really bares no similarity at all to The Hangover. There's no debauchery. It really feels a lot like the other movies produced by Judd Apatow: A lot of improvised one-liners, a lot of humor derived from social awkwardness and personal pain, and, like most of them, about 20 minutes longer than it needs to be.

Saturday Night Live's Kristen Wiig stars as Annie, who is going through a bit of a rough patch in her life when her childhood friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) asks her to be the maid of honor at her wedding. Annie is not very good at getting her own shit together, so, of course, the comedy ensues when she has to organize all these special events for someone else. Along for the ride are a mismatched group of bridesmaids. It's a pretty simple formula, and it doesn't deviate much from where you would expect. But that doesn't matter if it's funny, which it really is.

Kristen Wiig is fantastic in this. She's one of those rare comedic performers that is just at home playing over-the-top as she is playing subtle. I always like her more human characters more. Her awkwardness and nervous patter makes her relatable. I had quite a crush on her in Bridesmaids. She pulls of bedraggled and overwhelmed-by-life nicely.

The rest of the bridesmaids (and the bride) are funny too. A lot of people are saying Melissa McCarthy runs away with the show as Lillian's butch future sister-in-law. She's pretty funny, and they don't use her too much, so she doesn't wear out her welcome. Ellie Kemper (from The Office) and Wendy McClendon-Covey (from Reno 911) are both unfortunately underused. Rose Byrne is excellent as Helen, Annie's rival for Lillian's best friend position.

Also in the mix is Chris O'Dowd, as Annie's love interest. I'm glad things are looking up for him in Hollywood. He's on one of my favorite shows in England, The IT Crowd. He's a funny guy.

One more little thing: I found out in an interview with director Paul Feig that the above poster was modeled after the below iconic album cover:

How cool is that???

As I said before, a lot is riding on Bridesmaids. If it hits, (which, judging by the packed theater at 4:00 in the afternoon, it did) a lot more hilarious women will be getting their big chance. Me, I'm dying to see a Kristen Schaal vehicle.

So, to wrap things up, I'll say that Bridesmaids is pretty damn good. Even though the story itself didn't cover much new ground, it was still engaging, likeable, and funny.

I usually give movies a letter grade at the end, but I'm sick of it and they're stupid and arbitrary, so those are over. Just go see Bridesmaids! Even if you're a dude. Gender really shouldn't matter if it's good comedy.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Student Confidential



Student Confidential is the story of a new high school guidance counselor, and how he changes the lives of four troubled students.... and how they change his. That's right, this is another one of my so-bad-it's-good movie reviews.

Richard Horian pulls triple duty as writer/director/star of this. He plays the counselor, a bearded man who quit his high paying corporate job because he just wants to help. He is, on the surface, composed and cool, has the answer to everything. But deep down, he's troubled, and unable to show it. We see it expressed in an endless series of twitches and some of the greatest eyebrow acting I've ever seen.

Also featured are Marlon Jackson, Michael's less-famous little brother, and Eric Douglas, Michael's less-famous little brother. Also some girls who were presumably cast for their willingness to remove all of their clothing. They might have older brothers named Michael too. In fact, let's say they do.

The first thing the counselor guy does upon starting his job is having the principal round up the four most troubled kids in the school. The first is a shy blonde girl with super long hair brushed over half of her face. See, she was in a car accident and her face was scarred by the glass in the windshield. She thinks she's a freak and needs some confidence in herself. Solution: Excuse her from school, and make an appointment for the most expensive hairdresser in the world to style her hair. That will make her forget all about her disfigurement! When she comes to school the next day, she is brimming with confidence, with the exact same haircut, just poofed out a little bit and crimped in the back.

These are the wonderful solutions this guy has to offer.

Meanwhile, the counselor guy is having trouble at home. His wife clearly hates him for no reason. At one point, he's reading his files (holding them up in front of his face). His wife removes all of her clothes and lays there like she's alone. He lustily and hilariously peeks around his files, and she freaks out at him like she didn't realize he was sitting five feet away from her the whole time. Seriously, watching him peek around his files makes this whole movie worth watching.

Student Confidential was produced by Troma, the exploitation movie company behind the Toxic Avenger series and Sgt. Kabukiman, NYPD. This isn't really like those movies, besides the sub-porn production values, and the requisite full frontal nudity. Don't worry ladies, it's not just the women in this one! But it isn't really like the usual Troma fare. There's no gore in it at all.

In fact, it's much more like that paragon of all bad movies, the much beloved The Room. I can honestly say that I have seen The Room more times than I've seen any GOOD movies in my adult life. Student Confidential isn't as funny, but there are certain similarities. Writer/Director/Star/Narcissist Richard Horian steals the show with his bizarre, oblivious performance, though not near so outlandish as Tommy Wiseau.

Also, you get the real sense that this was his passion project. It's very dear to him, and he had something to say with it. All the best bad movies are done with utter sincerity. There is also the way Horian's character is portrayed as this super-being, a great man, ultimately victimised. Nothing is ever his fault, because he is so honorable that he can do no wrong. Johnny, the hero of The Room is much the same way.

No grade for this one, but you get a special prize if you can make it all the way to the end. That prize is, of course, the ending itself, which I'm not going to spoil. Student Confidential would make a great lead-in feature to The Room, but do not watch it last, or you will be all laughed out.

Friday, May 6, 2011

THOR

Sorry for the lull in posts, folk(s). I haven't been watching movies much these past couple weeks. But it's no big deal, because this is the time I've been waiting for. Summer's here, everyone! And it kicks off with a bang.

The Marvel movie universe expands a little bit more with Kenneth Branagh's Thor. Thor brings a whole new element to the world that produced Iron Man and Hulk through technology gone awry: Real live Gods.

Real quick: Thor is the Norse God of Thunder, who inhabits the realm of Asgard with his friends and family. They once visited the earth, and gained the worship of man, but what they really are are highly advanced pan-dimensional beings. Still with me? It's okay if you weren't. Some of the audience wasn't either. Most of the people there seemed with it, but there were a few that shut down right away.

The first act of the movie is set in Asgard. It's an entirely original creation in movie terms, something I've never seen on screen before: Jack Kirby's trippy, larger than life artwork brought to vivid reality. It absolutely pops with colors, and is filled with architecture and designs that look torn straight from the comic book. Everything in Asgard seems huge, including its inhabitants.

After a fast paced fun adventure with cocky Thor and his mighty band of warriors, events lead to Thor being banished by his father Odin to earth to learn some humility. There he meets Jane Foster, a physicist studying the very dimensional portal that sent him to earth. He also falls afoul of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury's covert government agency previously seen in the Iron Man movies.

I'm not going to give away anymore. I'll just discuss the movie as a whole now.

As I said earlier, you're either with it, or you're not. The movie is very much a light-hearted, goofy, adventure story, quite cheesy, but I mean that in the very best way. Cynicism is best left at the door. The Gods speak in corny, boisterous fantasy dialogue, but I wouldn't have it any other way. That's part of what makes it so fun.

The cast, led by Chris Hemsworth as Thor, is pretty good. Anthony Hopkins has some powerful moments as his father Odin, and Idris Elba does a great deal with very few scenes as the fascinating Heimdall, the guardian of the Rainbow Bridge. The real discovery, though, is Tom Hiddleston as the devious God of Mischief, Loki. He brings depth and complexity to the character, making him much more than a simple villain. I have a feeling we'll be seeing more of him soon.... next summer, perhaps?

Thor's friends, warrior Goddess Sif and Volstagg, Hogun, and Fandrall, are a fun addition to the movie, and their presence gave the movie an extra element previously unseen in superhero movies: Thor has pals with powers too! It's fun to watch them. They have strong, individual personalities, and a nice feeling of kinship between them.

One of my few beefs with the movie, and this is pretty minor, is Kenneth Branagh's insistence on tilting the camera. Not since the atrocious, shit-classic Battlefield: Earth have I seen so many tilted camera angles. Branagh mostly confines these to establishing shots, thankfully, but he does it a lot. Does he think it makes it look more dynamic? Or has Battlefield: Earth just left such a bad association with me that I notice these shots more? I don't know. Anyway, I thought it was a little annoying.

Overall, I really dug Thor. It was good escapist fun and it managed to create a unique universe-within-a-universe that lives and breathes on its own. Some people might be turned off by the comic bookiness and the cheese, but if you are willing to commit to the fantasy of it all, I think you will have a good deal of fun. I think I will give it a pretty solid B+.

By the way, stay through the credits for a tease of what's to come!