Friday, December 31, 2010

Weekly Film Rec: Rock 'n' Roll High School

People who know me are well aware of my massive dislike of musicals. I can probably count the musicals I enjoy on one hand (let's give it a shot! Little Shop of Horrors, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Forbidden Zone [the Danny Elfman factor, I guess... I am listening to Oingo Boingo right now], Singin' in the Rain... and now I start to struggle). My issue with the genre is largely the same as my issue with most action movies: all forward momentum of the story consistently stops for five or so minutes for some spectacle in which I have no interest (special exception for awesome car chases). Even Singin' in the Rain has a fairly useless and unrealistic (in the context of the film) scene in the Gotta Dance sequence. It feels like it goes on for fifteen minutes, though I'm (mostly) certain that that's not the case.

However, Rock 'n' Roll High School has a lot going for it. P.J. Soles (who is one of my top three all-time film crushes), the involvement of Joe Dante (you'll learn a lot about my love of him in 2011), and awesome soundtrack even if you aren't a Ramones super-fan, and Clint Howard. What really helps is that the narrative lends itself to becoming a musical pretty effortlessly. Riff Randell (Soles) wants to write songs for the Ramones. Why wouldn't there be singing?

One of the great strengths of Rock 'n' Rolls High School is that it feels no need to take itself seriously. In fact, it almost revels in its silliness. In what must have inspired Nelson Muntz, Clint Howard has an alternative guidance counselor's office in a men's room stall. Mice experimentation has... unexpected... consequences (with an assist from eventual The Thing creature designer/make-up effects maestro, Rob Bottin). Dialogue is both hilarious and punnerific (though, admittedly, most of the puns are on the walls) :
Kate: Look at your algebra book; it looks like it's never even been opened!
Riff: I only use it on special equations

Miss Togar: [holding phone to radio broadcasting live Ramones concert] That, Mrs. Rambeau, is where your daughter is.
Mrs. Rambeau: [over phone] My daughter? Kate? I thought she was in the basement splitting photons.

Kate: I don't wanna have fun! I wanna be with Tom!

Miss Togar: Those Ramones are peculiar.
Police Chief Klein: They're ugly. Ugly, ugly people.
I'd only seen the trailer before checking Rock 'n' Roll High School. Perhaps it was preordained that I'd like it. It was released on my birthday, August 24 (three years before I was born). I went to see it mostly because the Hollywood Theatre was screening it and I got to see it for free (though it had been on my "I'll get to it eventually" list). The experience was such a complete surprise and utterly joyous. I want to share it with the world.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Weekly Film Wreck: Bringing Up Baby

I thought I'd get all clever on you guys with a little wordplay. I've already got my Weekly Film Rec, so the Weekly Film Wreck will be it's companion. As I'm sure you've already deduced, this space is going to be dedicated to films that I just don't care for. Sometime, it will be classics that I can't understand why people enjoy them, sometimes it's going to be horrible films that I can't imagine anyone would like. I'll never not recommend something, just because sometimes you have to see for yourself (and if I do this right, your curiosity will be piqued just enough to seek the film out). The one problem I face is that if I'm operating from a film I saw months or years ago, I'm not going to be really inclined to revisit it (but in some cases, I might, just to reassess my opinion).

I don't need to revisit this week's selection because I already did that (speaking of which, I think it's time to revisit Sunday Screenings... Paul?). Bringing Up Baby is widely regarded as a classic. It's saved for all time in the National Film Registry and #88 on the AFI Top 100 (and #14 on their 100 Laughs), but I couldn't even watch the whole way through a second time.

In my recent Radioland Murders post, I talk about the how the madcap antics are excused because of the nature of live radio and the murder investigation. Everyone is motivated by something different and trying to achieve their goal before everything falls apart. There's not time for anything else. In Bringing Up Baby, this is done with no reason. It exists only because the film needs to be feature length. If people would simply take the time (which they have) to listen to one another, everything would be cleared up in fifteen minutes. This makes the entirety of Bringing Up Baby contrivance. All films are built on some level of contrivance, but Bringing Up Baby is nothing but. It makes for an incredibly obnoxious viewing.

Katharine Hepburn's Susan is the epitome of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I stand by my comment in the Sunday Screenings post that Grant's David would get frustrated of the runaround faster than the dialogue flies out of people's mouths in Bringing Up Baby that he would be just as miserable as he was with his fiancee. What he really wants is a happy medium. Of course, he's gone mad by the end, as well, so maybe their lives together will be lunacy.

I don't know how Bringing Up Baby achieved "classic" status. Maybe it's because its Hawks, Grant, and Hepburn during their peaks and, therefore, it must be great. Lord knows they've each made enough great films. This just isn't one of them.

“Nonsense, you tried it in the tail yesterday and it didn’t work” is still a great line, though.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Weekly Film Rec: Radioland Murders

I've gotten out of the habit of writing here and as a result, I missed last week's film recommendation. Well, I apologize. I know that all of you were left with nothing to do for your entire weekend and we all know there isn't much going on this weekend...

I initially thought I'd go seasonal, but everyone does top Christmas movie lists this time of year, so there isn't really anything flying under the radar (most of the lists are about "under-seen" Christmas movies).

Instead, I've got Radioland Murders. It's a screwball comedy of the highest order in which a radio station is going national and is putting on its first big show. Of course, things can't go off without a hitch and people start dying. The cops show up. The wrong man is accused. Wackiness ensues.

I don't typically like madcap comedies like this too much, but the murder plot helps Radioland Murders a lot. In many screwball comedies, everything could be settled if people would just shut up and listen to each other (one of the reasons I can't stand Bringing Up Baby). However, with the police chasing a would-be suspect around the station who is trying to find the real killer, there isn't time to slow down. The zaniness is all pretty organic.

Another asset is the setting, in which everyone is just trying to put on a good show, but live radio is naturally hectic. Most of the characters are still trying to retain a modicum of professionalism as chaos envelops the studio. The combination of the broad comedy and the subtler, situational comedy finds a nice balance.

The real reason to watch Radioland Murders is to become awesome at Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Seemingly every great character and comic actor is in this film. Ned Beatty, Michael Lerner, Michael McKean, Jeffrey Tambor, Stephen Tobolowsky, Christopher Lloyd, Larry Miller, Dylan Baker, Peter MacNicol (I'm sorry that list is all men, but there's mostly men in the film and I'm not too familiar with Mary Stuart Masterson's work). Then there are the people that will link you to the past like George Burns and Rosemary Clooney. And I just want to mention that Joey Lawrence is in the film, too. And I thought Apollo 13 and A Few Good Men had a lot of links (they do, however, both have Kevin Bacon).

What's weird to me is that it stars Brian Benben who, much like Mary Stuart Masterson, I don't know much about (aside from wanting to spell his name BenBen or Ben Ben). The only other thing I've seen him in is John Landis' contribution to Masters of Horror, Deer Woman, and he's awesome in that. He's really good here, too, and I can't believe he hasn't had a bigger career that he has. I guess he's been on lots of TV shows, but the man is charismatic and funny.

George Lucas was supposed to direct the after Star Wars and, for reasons he hasn't told me, that didn't happen. That's a little disappointing because I love American Graffiti (and Masterson and Benben's characters are supposedly Richard Dreyfuss' character's parents) and had Lucas directed this, maybe he wouldn't have fallen into Star Wars Forever! mode. That's not to speak ill of Mel Smith (the albino in The Princess Bride), who did a great job of capturing the chaos on screen.

Radioland Murders is on Netflix Instant View and well worth your time. It's a lot of fun.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Weekly Film Rec: Eight Men Out

The problem with my Weekly Film Rec's is that I keep a list of films for the list as I watch them, but occasionally I come across a film I really want to write about, so a lot of films get pushed back. I just end up with a list of movies I watched a few months ago and realize I'm going to have to call on this impression to write something pseudo-interesting. I'd take notes, but not every film is a winner (plus, I pretty much watch a movie a day... I'd be swimming in film notes). Some of the films are horror films which, after October, I promised to take a break from, but there's no real reason why the others should be pushed back. Anyway, this week's selection is coming from the archive, so to speak, and partially inspired by my recent Freaks and Geeks marathon and trivia win (Kevin Tighe is in both): Eight Men Out.

I'm a life-long baseball fan currently living in a city with no baseball team. Even our minor league team is leaving. This, along with the end of the baseball season (along with football and basketball moving to the forefront) made me wistful for my favorite sport. It's fairly surprising that I hadn't seen Eight Men Out before, but I'm certainly glad I finally caught up with it.

John Sayles (who wrote the amazing monster trio Piranha, Alligator, and The Howling) writes, directs, and even acts in this tale of the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal. There is an astounding ensemble cast and all of the major players are well-drawn and sympathetic (well, maybe not Charles Comiskey), not a small feat fore such a huge cast. You really get the sense that these players want to excel, but they are driven to throwing the game by a selfish and stingy owner. The players all have different takes on the situation and the conflict is palpable. How can a team succeed when everyone is pulling in different directions. Even players in on the plot can't turn off their competitive spirit and wind up playing too hard at times.

Like any good movie, you don't need to know much about either the scandal or baseball to follow the film. Perhaps the oddest thing you'll come across is the players leaving their gloves on the field for the other team, a practice common at the time. And unlike other baseball movies ( Bull Durham ) all of the actors actually look like they can play baseball. The jazzy score is incredible and you'll finally be able to quote "Say it ain't so, Joe" with context.

Even though Eight Men Out is about a very dark time in baseball, I found that it's really about loving the game. Yes, people were banned for life from the Hall of Fame. Sure, the motivation is all about greed. But many players realize they aren't satisfied with money. They play the game because they love it and the coda really hits that home (pun mildly intended).

Friday, December 3, 2010

Weekly Film Rec: The Films of Joon-ho Bong

Sorry that I skipped over last week's Weekly Film Rec. I hope most of you were still in a food coma and failed to notice. I haven't posted in a while and I blame Thanksgiving and my parents (who visited over Thanksgiving), but in the best possible ways. As a penance for not recommending something last week, I give you three this week! Joon-ho Bong is a Korean filmmaker who, as far as a can tell, only makes awesomely interesting movies. I've yet to see his first film, Barking Dogs Never Bite, but it's on my Netflix queue and may end up in this space in the future.

Memories of Murder
I remember seeing a poster for this film in the lobby of the Carlisle Theatre in Carlisle, PA when I went to see 2046. This was before my eyes were opened to the greatness of Korean cinema. Obviously, it left some kind of impression on me since I remember it, but it took five years to finally catch up with Memories of Murder. The film takes place in the mid-80's and follows two detectives as they try to solve Korea's first serial killer case without benefit of proper forensics procedure. The particulars of the murders are pretty horrific and it's a testament to Bong that he is able to throw in quite a lot humor without sacrificing the tone of the film (something, you'll find, he is quite adept at). It helps when you have a lead actor as likable as Kang-ho Song (Thirst, The Good, The Bad, and the Weird, among many other great films) who has an air of imbecilic aloofness about him even though all evidence is to the contrary. My enduring thought after watching Memories of Murder was that I need to have a double feature of this and Zodiac, as they explore similar themes and subjects. Keep an eye out for an epic instance of background action that I missed the first time around.

The Host
I feel like I'm tracking my life via Bong's films since I saw this one at the Brattle Theater in Boston (OK... Cambridge). The Host received a lot of attention upon it's release, probably because there hadn't been a really good monster movie in a while. Once again, Kang-ho Song stars and, once again, he is amazing. I don't know what it is about him, but you simultaneously can't take him seriously and must take him seriously. I love him! Anyway, The Host is basically an anti-pollution monster movie in which a family is being pursued by the authorities while trying to locate their daughter/niece/granddaughter. What was most surprising to me the first time I saw the film is that the tone goes all over the map early. The early monster scene is amazing (and totally ignores the "don't show the monster until the end"conceit), but right when you think the film is going to have a somber, emotional moment, that moment is played as a farce. It's so over-the-top that it's funny. As I mentioned above, Park is somehow able to balance these extremes so as not to harm the film (it helps that the subject matter of The Host is so outlandish to begin with that it's easier to get away with these stylistic leaps). The Host is just a great monster movie with an ecological message which, in the tradition of Gojira, is blamed on the Americans.

Once again, tracking my life, Mother showed during the Portland International Film Festival (which I worked) and got great reviews. Bong returns to the murder mystery genre with Mother but instead of the cops trying to solve the crime, the accused mother is trying to prove his innocence (which, given the unfamiliarity with protocol of the detectives in Memories of Murder, is essentially the same plot as said film). Mother can be frustrating to watch simply because it's hard to see someone work so hard for the one they love yet meet an endless succession of roadblocks. However, Bong (as always) makes it worth your while in visuals, content, acting, and an unexpected ending. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Bong's films is that they never end up where I expect them to. And Hye-ja Kim as the eponymous mother gives a hell of a performance. The opening scene really sets the tone for the rest of the film. It's slightly slower paced than his other films, but no less awesome.