Monday, January 31, 2011

Weekly Film Wreck: Around the World in 80 Days

Around the World in 80 Days is the definition of a bloated Hollywood spectacular. According to IMDB, it used (at the time) the most animals ever in one film, 140 sets, over 74,000 costumes, over 68,000 extras, shot in 13 countries, was shot for 35mm and 70mm, features a seemingly endless cavalcade of stars in cameo appearances, and clocks in at 3+ hours. If you search "Worst Best Picture Winners" in Google, you're sure to find this on nearly every list. The film is more suited to be shown at your travel agent's office than the theater (which is ironic since, as I mentioned, it's intended to be the spectacularliest of spectaculars).

I've never read the source material, but I can't imagine that Jules Verne intended each event to play out as a giant set-piece for the skills of the Mexican Renaissance man, Cantinflas. I don't mean to diminish his efforts, but one can only take so much of essentially the same thing until it becomes tedious. Phileas Fogg (David Niven), the main character mind you, is constantly pushed to the background only to watch his assistant awe seemingly everyone in the world (and a man with a name as awesome as Phileas Fogg should never be pushed to the side). How Niven could believe this is one of his best roles is beyond me.

As far as star-studded spectaculars go, I'll take It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. At least it know what it's trying to do (and is good at it, at that). As far as races around the world go, I'll take The Great Race (because seeing an evil Jack Lemmon is always fun). I was incredibly disappointed that Around the World in 80 Days failed in so many ways. I love David Niven and was looking forward to spending a few hours with him. Fortunately for all of you, the run time will prevent most of you from getting to curious about this particular bit of misery.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Weekly Film Rec: Hatchet

Sorry about missing out on my "Weekly" features, but I've been relatively busy/lazy. Anyway, I picked this week's film based on discussing it briefly last night and realizing some very hardcore genre fans hadn't seen it yet. And no, it's not based on a kids book.

I'm certain I've talked about Hatchet on this site before. For a while, I was making everyone I knew watch the film. I've probably seen it myself more than any other film since 2007 because of this and it never gets old. A big reason for this is Hatchet has amazing practical gore effects. The reactions it gets in a room full of people cannot be matched generally because people don't know exactly what to expect (well... until the first scene at least). There is nothing cheesy about the effects either. How they achieved what they did on such a low budget is pretty astounding.

Hatchet is a throwback to 80s slasher movies. A group of people are alone and lost in a Louisiana swamp and a massive killer is after them. It's been seen a million times before. What sets Hatchet apart (aside from the amazing effects) is the characters. Most of them are incredibly likable, even if they're a bit sleazy, and all are entertaining. Best of all, they can all act (well, there may be one exception). Joel David Moore has been in a ton of TV shows and was in Avatar so everyone on the planet can pretty much recognize him. Deon Richmond is a name no one has any reason to know, but when you find out where you recognize him from...'ll be happy to discover he's still hilarious. Moore and Richmond have great chemistry and I found that their friendship was much like a lot of mine, especially in the way they talk. There are many other recognizable faces, if not names: Robert Englund, Tony Todd, Kane Hodder, Joel Murray (Bill's brother), Joshua Leonard, Richard Riehle, and Partika Darbo (and an amazing tidbit I just learned: Mercedes McNab is the Girl Scout selling cookies in The Addams Family!).

Something that the above trailer doesn't even try to get across, which is surprising given the work of much of the cast, is how freaking funny the movie is. I tend to like my horror with a sense of humor, so this is perfect for me. Even in the tensest of situations, writer/director Adam Green takes time out for a funny line or situation. This helps to lighten the mood to where the audience lets their guard down and can really be surprised. (In addition to the normal funny, there is a great joke about how a character didn't actually go to NYU, but to Hofstra. Maybe it's not great to you, but my old roommate and I had just seen a douche from Hofstra give an "inspirational" speech as part of a student award his brother won at BU and it was nice to see is institution taken down a notch [the only other time I've heard Hofstra mentioned was in Bill Cosby's stand-up act]).

Unfortunately, Green's other films, Spiral and Frozen, haven't lived up to his first feature, though they both have their moments (Spiral was film in Portland, incidentally, though Frozen is the better picture [those are unrelated thoughts in the same parenthetical. In no way to I believe that because a film is shot in Portland that it should therefore be the better film]), but Hatchet is just filled with unbridled joy, even if it is about innocent people being massacred by some mutant reincarnate. I've yet to see Hatchet 2, but am looking forward to it. Hopefully Green will catch the same magic.

As a final note, Hatchet was the last film to shoot in a pre-Katrina New Orleans.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Week in Netflix

I accidentally had a Western marathon from Netflix. I normally try to spread genres and decades out on my queue, but somehow I had a trio of Westerns show up at the same time. To top it off, I watched two movies trying to tell you where (or where not) to look. It's kind of fun to look at the superficial trends that occur out of chance.

Look Around You
I love Peter Serafinowicz. One of the proudest moments of my life was when I got him to follow me on Twitter:
He's probably best known as Shaun and Ed's (justifiably) angry roommate in Shaun of the Dead (or as the voice of Darth Maul), but is making a name for himself these days. His Twitter feed is one of the funniest you'll find. Serafinowicz wrote Look Around You with Robert Popper and while it's not consistently brilliant, there are moments of inspired silliness that rival pretty much any comedy show. The show is a parody of old educational films, so think along the lines of all of the fake educational films The Simpsons features. It's only the first disc of the first season, and it was immensely enjoyable. My main fault is that while he rights it, Serafinowicz acting talents aren't really on display. I'm looking forward (does that count as a pun on the title) to seeing how it develops as they become more comfortable. Plus, Edgar Wright shows up as a scientist, so that's awesome.

Top Secret! -- Zucker, Abrams, Zucker
As a lover of Airplane! and The Naked Gun series from a very young age, it's remarkable that I hadn't seen Top Secret! until now. While I don't think it's as good as those films (even the lesser Naked Gun movies get a pass because I love Leslie Nielsen), it has many great moments. It's remarkable that this is Val Kilmer's first screen role. You totally understand why he was as successful as he was. I'm endlessly fascinated actors and actresses who own their early roles that it's no surprise they went on to bigger and better things (Tom Hanks in He Knows You're Alone is another example). The film is probably best known for this amazing scene:

Navajo Joe -- Sergio Corbucci
Even though he's part-Cherokee, it's weird to see Burt Reynolds as an Indian. Maybe it's the wig that's throwing me off:

Navajo Joe is a good, but not great Spaghetti Western. Reynolds apparently stated that it was the "wrong Sergio," which is a bit unfair, but the film definitely doesn't have the style of a Leone film. It's a pretty basic revenge story where a man is avenging the cold-blooded murder of his wife and it's handled well, but only necessary if you're into the genre. That said, I've been singing the score (by one of my favorites, Ennio Morricone) for a week now.

Death Rides a Horse -- Giulio Petroni
Lee Van Cleef is, quite simply, a badass. Death Rides a Horse didn't really hook me until the climax where it wasn't just violent, but poignant. It's another revenge flick where a young boy sees his family murdered and spends his life preparing for vengeance. I tend to enjoy stories where opposing forces have to unite against a common enemy. Even though one expects the ending to work out, there's always the tension of what happens after the enemy is dispatched. But really, it all boils down to Lee Van Cleef being a badass.

An Autumn Afternoon -- Yasujiro Ozu
I didn't particularly care for Tokyo Sonata, not because it's a bad film, but it's just a genre I don't connect with. I'm just not that interested in personal/family dramas. It's the same reason I struggle with Cassevetes. I watch these films because they are "classics" and I like to give them a chance before making a decision. Color me surprised that I really enjoyed An Autumn Afternoon. The film stars frequent (very frequent, appearing in 52 of 54 Ozu films) Ozu collaborator Chishu Ryu who I found very unnatural in Tokyo Sonata but is the epitome of delightful here. There's very little conflict, but I was totally absorbed in the efforts to find a husband for her daughter and how the customs of the time in Japan affect everyone. Some are left to care for family, some married to people they don't love, and others who got lucky. In the end, I just like seeing a caring, functional family every now and then.

The Descent: Part 2 -- Jon Harris
The Descent: Part 2 starts off right where the first one ends, which is a problem if you prefer the original, British ending the true ending. There's no way this film can live up to its terrific predecessor, which is fine the way it is and really didn't need a sequel, but that didn't stop one from being made. The characters and paper thin and cliched and the likelihood of stumbling across the same cave locations as the first are extremely remote, but its heart is in the right place. There are a few legitimate surprises (only one of which is truly absurd) and some new cave scenarios are explored (the swimming aspect is particularly frightening to think about). I may have even thought more of the film had it not been for the utterly ridiculous and out of left field ending. They were so close to having a great final image and blew it. But, for all intents and purposes, it's decent (see what I did there?).

The Magnificent Seven -- John Sturgess
I never realized what an awesome presence Yul Brynner is, but damned if he isn't fantastic. It's funny, though. Brynner complained of Steve McQueen trying to steal scenes by doing weird things (like shaking shotgun shells) and, at least in that case, I was watching McQueen the whole time Brynner was talking. He may have had a point. There's a lot to like in The Magnificent Seven, but it hurts it that the source material (Seven Samurai) is out-of-this-world amazing. That's not really fair to compare them, but it's inevitable. I also think it hurts my assessment that I've seen The Three Amigos so many times. It's hard to get wrapped up in one film when you're running scenes from the other in your mind.

Don't Look Up -- Fruit Chan
I've got to be more careful when I take Harry Knowles' recommendation for movies. He likes a lot of good stuff, but the problem is that he likes everything (now that I look back at the recommendation, I see that he hasn't seen it. So why did I put it on my Netflix queue? Oh... that's right). Don't Look Up is a mess of a film with some very poor actor's in lead roles (as happy as I am that Henry Thomas is still working, the man simply isn't that good). There's not much to say about it except to wonder why Kevin Corrigan and Eli Roth were involved at all.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Black Swan -- A Reaction

I went to see Black Swan the other day and left the theater unsure of how I felt about the film. I generally pretty opinionated, so this surprised me a little. Watching the film, I was annoyed by a lot of what I was seeing, but given the nature of Black Swan, those complaints may be a little superficial. I'm basically going to be working out my thoughts here (admittedly, I've already spent a good amount of time thinking about this and think I know the general idea of where I'll end up). And warning: there be spoilers ahead.

The basics
As I stated above, there were several aspects of the film that annoyed me while watching. First and foremost is that I hated Nina (Natalie Portman). She simply seems too weak for anything. I don't believe her character would last four years in that company let alone have enough drive to want to be the lead in anything. I can't really support this position beyond a gut reaction because that's the entire point of the character. And, as I'll discuss later, she has deep mental issues that could be a result of those four years with the company. Furthermore, Portman (who I don't really care for as an actress) legitimately comes across as a changed woman when she becomes the Black Swan. It's a pretty stunning change and I have to give credit to her for being able to sell the weak and the strong so well. Even though I hate the character, I can't justify it as an excuse to malign the film since that's exactly what the filmmakers were going for.

Nina's mother (played by Barbara Hershey) is one of the worst cinematic tropes I can think of: the overbearing parent. It's such an easy way to garner sympathy for the protagonist and make simple explanations for why the character, in this case, Nina, is struggling. All I can think about when I see an overbearing parent is their child developing telekinetic powers and running amok at the prom or whatever social gathering is imminent. I'll be returning to this complaint as well.

The subplot with Beth (Winona Ryder, who I didn't even know was in the film) seemed totally extraneous. I understand what they were going for, but since Black Swan takes place so much in Nina's head, it doesn't add a whole lot to her character or the film as a whole. However, Beth lets there be more Thomas (Vincent Cassel) and I really enjoyed his character. Even though he's a creep, I kind of liked his methods to try to get some fire in Nina's heart. I especially enjoyed when the audience thinks he's about to take advantage of Nina and stops short sneering, "that was me seducing you" and walks away.

In The Wrestler, director Darren Aronofsky followed Mickey Rourke's Randy around everywhere with the camera, all hand-held. I thought that was a genius bit of filmmaking. The image of a wrestler being followed into the ring is so identifiable that it makes sense to use the same image every time Randy went somewhere. He's entering a new battle everywhere he goes. Aronofsky uses the same motif throughout Black Swan and it simply doesn't work. Aside from the jerkiness of the camera (seriously, it's a film about ballet. You couldn't get your hands on a steadi-cam and create some graceful camera movement?), it doesn't make any sense. I can see an argument that by following Nina, it's focusing on the other side of the character (with doubles being so important to the film), but that doesn't really hold water for me. It was just distracting.

To take a step back from complaints, I thought the ballet scenes were amazing. The interplay between the camera and the actors was incredible. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been just to get the choreography of the dancers down let alone throwing a camera in there. Every dance scene was filled with palpable tension and made me question my reluctance to ballet (which really, I've never seen one, so why should I be reluctant). I was in awe of the movement and control of everything on screen.

It's all in her mind
My biggest problem in assessing Black Swan is almost everything is perceived through Nina's eyes, which pretty much means there is no reality. We know early on that she's not right in the head (exemplified in the awesomely icky "skin peeling" scene). Since we know this so early, you don't trust anything else in the film which, to my mind, hurts the narrative. By the time we've dealt with the many hallucinations, she's stabbed Lily (Mila Kunis) on the night of her big premiere. It's immensely more interesting to me to think that she has to perform knowing that she killed someone and this might be her last show than to have it be in her mind. Granted, the way the tied it up was fairly elegant, if a bit unbelievable.

Once we know something so extreme happened in Nina's mind, it calls into question the entire film, which helps in terms of Nina's psychosis, but hurts every other character. It's a mildly fun game to play: was her mother really that overbearing? did she and Lily actually go out dancing together? was Lily ever anything more than a random girl Nina fixated on? But in terms of the film, I'm not sure this re-evaluation adds much to a character we've already seen paranoid and hallucinating.

And I don't think we needed to excessively silly image of her sprouting feathers and turning into a swan, even if it was in her mind. We already know she embodied the role. There's no need to play Whack-a-Mole with your audience.

The use of doubles

Aranofsky does pretty much everything in is power to illustrate the idea of doubles. From the use of mirrors, the plot of Swan Lake (which, if you haven't guessed, is the ballet being performed in Swan Lake), Nina coming face to face with herself, to Black Swan paralleling Swan Lake, there is a wealth of double imagery. In normal circumstances, it would feel a bit heavy-handed as it's so prevalent, but the mirror shots are pretty organic in the world of dance since dance studios are surrounded by mirrors. With all of the mirrors around, the camerawork is that much more impressive (acknowledging that any time a reflection is seen, they could simply CG it out). I still say the double imagery falls on the side of excessive, but at least it's not overbearing.

In the end...
I guess I don't find horror of the mind all that engaging. I was never bored with Black Swan and there are some aspects I really enjoyed. Leaving the film, I thought that I'd end up on the side of liking it, but I'm not so sure anymore. I'm not so inclined to revisit it, though I am kind of inclined to check out Swan Lake, so that's something.

What'd you think of Black Swan? Am I way off in my analysis? Did I miss anything? Not take it far enough?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

My Week in Netflix II

It was a busier week for me this week (Portlandia Premiere and a beach trip), which is good in several ways, but it also means I didn't go through as many Netflix movies (which may be just as good for you). One thing I like about doing this is that it forces me to pay attention to the type of movies I'm watching. This week's film selections aren't quite as diverse as last week's in era or genre (which was moderately diverse to begin with). I can only ask that you bear with me (especially if you get bored with horror/thriller genres), I promise there's more to me than that.

J.S.A.: Joint Security Area -- Chan-wook Park
I was surprised by the restraint Park shows in JSA. His camera is typically so fluid and everything so operatic that going back to one of his earlier films, it's easy to forget he didn't start that way. JSA is a very engaging tale of friendship between enemies on the border between North and South Korea (the Joint Security Area). It's a small story, little like Park's Vengeance Trilogy or Thirst, but highly effective. It also solidifies that Kang-ho Song is absolutely one of my favorite actors working. The man is charisma.

The Boston Strangler -- Richard Fleischer
Perhaps the biggest surprise in The Boston Strangler is Tony Curtis. He gives easily the best performance I've ever seen out of him. He's not stilted or putting on airs; he simply is Albert DeSalvo. The Boston Strangler goes from "slasher" (though the phrase wasn't around yet and he wasn't cutting people up, but all the genre markings are there) to character study without batting an eye. I was very impressed with the film, de Palma-ing it up with the split-screen before de Palma could make it his own. Plus, it's always nice to hang out with Henry Fonda and George Kennedy.

Falling Down -- Joel Schumacher
There's been a bit of synchronicity around my viewing of this film. Patton Oswalt was Tweeting while viewing the film and it was mentioned in Sleazoid Express as the last film shown at one of the last Grindhouse theaters in New York. Schumacher has become kind of a joke, mostly due to his Batman contributions, but also because his films just aren't that good. I've always carried Tigerland in my back pocket if I felt the need to defend the man, so I'm happy to have two films to offer as a counterpoint (and no, The Lost Boys is not a good movie). Michael Douglas' character isn't particularly likable and I found myself frequently siding with outsiders, but it's just so fun to watch him try to maintain a rational mind even as it deteriorates. It's like screenwriter Ebbe Roe Smith was thinking of everything that annoyed him in the world and built scenes around them with a little rant as to why it's stupid. Just an immensely enjoyable black comedy.

The Stepfather II: Make Room for Daddy -- Jeff Burr
The original The Stepfather is a pretty awesome view into the life of a psychotic man who yearns for the perfect family. It's hard to keep the lies straight and watching it all unravel is a lot of fun. The Stepfather II doesn't really deal with that too much. There's no one really chasing him, so the threat is all pretty minimal. Perhaps the worst thing about the film is that aside from Terry O'Quinn, the rest of the cast is either dull or given nothing to do (including the young Jonathan Brandis).

To Catch a Thief -- Alfred Hitchcock
I've got to say, I was hoping for a bit more from To Catch a Thief. It's not bad by any means, just sort of in the middle. Given it's pedigree (Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, and Hitchcock) and it's location (the French Riviera) it could have been much more. Maybe I was too distracted by the disturbingly tan Grant, or the fact that he'd be better suited falling in love with Kelly's mother in the film than Kelly. The idea of a thief trying to use his skills to anticipate the next move of another thief is pretty great, but there is very little of that going on. Instead, the film spends its time having Kelly try to find out who Grant really is. And if I was a retired jewel thief and everyone suspected me, I would welcome the police into my home so they could observe definitively that it was not me. Of course, then there's no movie...

A Simple Plan -- Sam Raimi
I shot this film to the top of my queue on the recommendation of a coworker. Really, it's a surprise I hadn't seen it already since I went through a huge Raimi phase (spurred on by my discovery of the Evil Dead trilogy). A Simple Plan is easily the least Raimi of all of his films. There's a minimum of stylistic flourishes and just about no silliness. I don't typically care for Billy Bob Thornton or Bill Paxton, but both are reigned in here (and for the better because it wouldn't make sense otherwise). It's a little weird not having Thornton be a duplicitous ass and even though I knew better, I kept expecting for his character to turn into one. And, to draw a connection to The Boston Strangler, Bridget Fonda does her best Lady MacBeth to spur on Paxton. The film doesn't make anything easy on its characters and even though you may question their actions, you can at least understand them. All I know is that I'm keeping that money if I find it.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Weekly Film Wreck: Splice

Splice got a lot of notice at the end of the year for being "underrated." The amazing Edgar Wright said so himself. And of course, Harry Knowles loved it from the outset (because he's the least discerning film critic I've ever read). Even though the trailer made it look pretty horrible (and it was produced by Dark Castle)...

... all of this positive buzz around it made me a little excited.

I'll never doubt my first instinct again (I will).

The major problem with Splice is that there isn't a single likable, rational character in the entire film. Elsa (Sarah Polley) doesn't do one thing the entire film that makes any sense, as evidenced in the trailer. Imagine the "I'm going to take my mask off even though you said you were going to gas the room and already counted to three while trying to lure this creature that already attacked me while I'm defenseless" mentality for another hour and a half or so and you've got Splice. I understand she's a curious scientist, but that doesn't mean she has to lose all perspective on reason (oh, but she's a mad scientist!). Clive (Adrien Brody) is supposed to be the reasonable one, but he's so unlikable that we don't care what he has to say or what happens to him.

The film plays out largely as expected (I stated how the end would play out as soon as the creature was "born," though obviously not the events that brought us to that point) and most of the film is viewed in frustration that these characters aren't more interesting. At times, it's as if the writers Vincenzo Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant, and Doug Taylor asked "what new feature can we give Dren (NERD, the name of the science lab [I'm not kidding] backwards) to make her more awesome?" I'll give Splice some credit though, it's not afraid to take you further into uncomfortable places than most mainstream films. But I think that's why people are willing to give Splice a break which is unfair to the rest of the horrible film.

Matt Singer at has a piece detailing some of the various metaphors that may have made Splice "too smart for its own good." I really only want to focus on one, but if anyone missed the "Elsa and Clive are parents to the creature" aspect of the film, then they probably need to start from scratch with their cognitive skills.

I want to talk about Splice as a metaphor for independent filmmaking. While not necessarily wrong, Singer's ideas just come off at silly. That means any movie that features the act of creation can be a metaphor for filmmaking and any film that features the little guy fighting against higher powers can be about independent filmmakers. In the following quote, Singer seems to be making the claim that Splice's ending is trying to make the same point as Adaptation's:
Monster movies like "Splice" are traditionally cautionary tales about the perils of science run amok. Applied to the idea that Clive and Elsa are artistically adventurous filmmakers, that implies a belief that too much experimentation in a movie can be dangerous. That seems like a strange point for a filmmaker to make, and yet the end of "Splice," in which Dren goes on a rather clich├ęd kill-spree in a foggy forest, essentially reinforces it. Though much of the movie boldly creates a creature that an audience can sympathize with and even, at times, root for against her human "parents," the film's decidedly formulaic ending reverts to a simpler, more mainstream style of filmmaking.
I'm not willing to give director Vincenzo Natali and his co-writers Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor that much credit. They made a mess of a movie with a mess of an ending. If you find a metaphor for filmmaking in there, good for you. I'm glad you got something out of it. I just felt bad that I made my friends watch it with me.

Monday, January 10, 2011

My Week in Netflix

I'm going to test this out for a few weeks to see how it goes. It's not like I need to write about movies more and I've already got Weekly Film Rec/Wreck where some of the movies I write about here may pop up, but the fact is, most films fall in between. I'm not going to do big write-ups or even post trailers (unless I find that useful). I just happen to watch a lot of movies during the week and thought it might be fun to track them. And even though I've complained about Netflix a lot, I'm all talk it seems and am starting a feature around having it (and I didn't cut my subscription back, either). So off with the first My Week in Netflix!

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)
Young Sherlock Holmes is basically an origin story. Sherlock meets and befriends Watson (and another important figure in his life to come) and they have their first case together tracking down the cause of several mysterious deaths. The 1980's were big on adventures featuring children: The Monster Squad, The Goonies, Explorers, just to name a few. I'm of the mindset that The Goonies is typically the least of these films and Young Sherlock Holmes fits under The Monster Squad (the absolute best). It's fun and features everything we love about the character (even if the events that lead to him getting his trademark hat and pipe seem shoehorned in). It's directed by Barry Levinson and written by Chris Columbus, the latter striking me as more than a little bizarre, though there is a distinctly Harry Potter feel to it, so maybe his work on that franchise makes sense after all. And definitely watch through the end credits.

Waxwork 2: Lost in Time (1992)
I used Young Sherlock Holmes as an excuse to watch Waxwork 2 (the first of which will be getting Film Rec treatment) because Sophie Ward plays roles in each. Waxwork 2 also features an amazing performance (aren't the all?) by acting god, Bruce Campbell. The film picks off right where the first ends and is somehow even more bizarre. The two don't really make sense with each other, but this one is basically an excuse to parody different genres and films (The Haunting, Invasion of the Body Snatcher, Alien, among many others). Zach Galligan (Gremlins) reprises his role, but unfortunately Deborah Foreman doesn't. It's an immensely silly movie, but fun, especially The Haunting parody with Bruce Campbell. Don't see this without watching Waxwork (which is awesome) first. There is this amazing music video under the end credits, though.

Tideland (2005)
The critical response to Tideland was astoundingly negative. I don't think it's nearly as bad as that. The visuals alone are pretty amazing. It's not exactly a pleasant film though. There's lots of disturbing imagery and people are frequently shot in unpleasant wide angle lens close-ups. Gilliam's DVD intro is also a little off-putting. It's true, critics generally missed the point of the film, but there's no need to insult the intelligence of everyone watching. Still, you have to admire Gilliam. It's better to fail doing your own thing than to compromise your vision for "mass appeal." This is definitely not introductory Gilliam, though. Incidentally, star Jodelle Ferland (who is quite good) has had quite a career for a 16-year old.

Wendy and Lucy (2008)
I already expressed my feelings about this film.

World Trade Center (2006)
I never really had much interest in watching this film. I thought it would just make me sad and didn't know what new it could tell me (and until recently, I didn't care much for Nic Cage), but Josh Becker (who seemingly hates every new movie) said he enjoyed it on his Ask the Director page, so I thought I'd give it a chance. I could have done without the emotions of the family stuff because that falls under the "what new are you telling me" topic, but the scenes of the PAPD getting prepared to help, the buildings collapsing, and subsequently getting trapped are incredibly well done. One kind of expects director Oliver Stone to be a bit too blunt with the subject, but it's all handles very elegantly. The viewer really understands the confusion and fear these men must have felt.

Frozen (2010)
I unequivocally love Adam Green's Hatchet. It's everything a slasher movie should be. So I was pretty excited for Frozen. I'm not sure why, since Green's other films I've seen, Spiral, was mediocre at best. Frozen essentially falls directly in-between those films. Three friends get trapped on a ski lift after the mountain is closed down until the next weekend. It's one of the movies where you watch the characters and can't help but comment on how stupid they are being. There's a lot to like and the tension is high, but there is just as much that feels contrived. Still, it's a pretty effective film using only one location.

Zelig (1983)
Woody Allen can take his place along side Godard and one other filmmaker on this list of highly regarded directors whose films I just don't care for. I'm not giving up hope on any of them, but nothing has struck me yet. I do like Allen when he's wackier (Sleeper, Bananas), but Zelig was simply short of laughs. It's a mockumentary about a man who shapeshifts to match his company (black man, fat men, Chinese men, doctors, Nazis, etc). It sounds like a great concept, but I feel it's ultimately hurt by the documentary format.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
I love John Cassevetes as an actor. As a director, he gets some amazing performances out of his repertory. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is no different. Ben Gazzara is astounding. I had high hopes for this film because multiple friends told me how great it is. While this is my favorite Cassevetes film so far, Cassevetes the director is the third filmmaker I just don't care for. I'm not a huge fan of intense personal dramas (psychoanalyze as you will) and his films have this deliberate pace that I simply don't have the patience for. They also tend on the long side (which is why I didn't even attempt to make it through all of Opening Night). I fully acknowledge the man is doing something different. That thing just isn't for me (my former professor would roll over in his grave, were he dead, should he ever read this)

The Crazies (2010)
In my Romero piece, I stated that I'd probably never see this film. Well, thanks to the recommendation of my former roommate, I did. I'm glad he changed my mind. The remake goes its own way and better yet, isn't overly flashy the way the Dawn of the Dead remake is. The characters are strong and it doesn't veer far from believability. Best of all, it doesn't rely on cheap scares. It's legitimately tense. It may not be better than the original, but it gives one hope that all remakes aren't just a quick cash in on a name property (then again, the original The Crazies is hardly well-known).

The Hawk Is Dying (2006)
My interest in this film stems from a time when I was really into Paul Giamatti. That time has since past and my interest waned. When The Hawk Is Dying showed up at my house, my enthusiasm was pretty low. I watched it anyway and it's exactly what I thought it would be: a story of a depressed man (Giamatti's niche) and the world shitting on him. Even though my interest was lacking, the film did strike an emotional chord at the end, so I can't tell you to stay away. If you're into this type of film, you'll probably like it a lot. I'm mostly taking away that my taste in films and Michelle Williams' taste in scripts are apparently diametrically opposed (with Dick as an exception).

Friday, January 7, 2011

Weekly Film Rec: The Burning

Last year, the Hollywood Theatre screened the documentary Cropsey (I did an interview with director Joshua Zeman and he answered my questions far better than the questions deserved), which juxtaposes the stories of five missing children and their would be captor and the urban legend of Cropsey. Zeman was in attendance for some of the screenings and had a signed poster giveaway for anyone who knew the horror film that featured a man named Cropsey as the killer. I consider myself to be well-versed in the areas of horror, but I must confess, I had no idea. The answer was this week's recommendation: The Burning.

For all intents and purposes, The Burning is a standard slasher film, but there are several points of interest to set it apart from the rest. It features Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter and Fisher Stevens (whose name you may not recognize, but you've seen before). The makeup effects are done by Tom Savini. And of course, Harvey and Bob Weinstein (you know, the guys who founded Mirimax) came up with the story and wrote the screenplay, respectively.

The Burning came fast on the heels of Friday the 13th, itself a knockoff of Halloween (to be fair, The Burning's script was apparently written before the release of Friday the 13th... one of those Antz/A Bug's Life or Armageddon/Deep Impact moments, I guess), but aside from being set at a summer camp, very little reminds one of the other. For starters, much of the action in The Burning takes place in the day time. Also, The Burning seems to me to be the more ruthless of the films (which seems odd to say about a series that would eventually place about a penny's worth on human lives). I will point you to the raft scene for an example of this.

It always interests me seeing popular actors in their early films. Much like Tom Hanks in He Knows You're Alone, Jason Alexander is incredibly charismatic and likable. Just watching him in The Burning you understand why he's had such a successful career.

I was legitimately surprised at how much I enjoyed The Burning. It's your basic slasher, but it's your basic slasher done well with a minimum "don't do that!" moments.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Weird Al Introductory Mix-Tape

I take my iPod into work to supply a little background noise for downtime (which is totally necessary since i didn't have it last night and it was oppressively silent). It also helps spur discussions about any number of things from music to movies to personal history. One particular discussion has come up several times, seemingly only on Saturdays and generally with someone still in high school: "Weird Al" Yankovic. It really surprises me how few people are unfamiliar with even a little of his work given his recent resurgence in popularity (White & Nerdy, Godspeed You! Black Emperor booking him for ATP). I guess I should keep in mind that even back in 1999, VH1's Behind the Music noted that seemingly every Weird Al album (Weird Al-bum?) was a comeback album even though the man never stopped. Our discussions pretty much revolved around me playing select tracks and showing them that not only is Weird Al hilarious, but he's surrounded by insanely great musicians.

Full disclosure: I'd actually jumped off the Al bandwagon after Bad Hair Day. I don't know exactly why, except that I didn't really care for his Star Wars prequel riff on American Pie. I only caught up again once I bought Straight Out of Lynnwood and it was amazing. On going back to Poodle Hat (the name of which only now started striking me as hilarious) and Running with Scissors made me realize how much greatness I'd missed out on.

This appreciation is about the songs I would select to get people into Weird Al's music. I'm leaving off the polka medley's because they would dominate the list. It was hard enough to cull it down to what I've got. There's a lot of latter-day Yankovic on this list which I think just goes to show that he's as good as he's ever been. And don't get me wrong. There are some bad songs, but the highs are so much greater than those lows.

Before I get started, I'd be remiss if I didn't direct you to this great essay Michael Ian Black wrote on Weird Al.

In Al-phabetical order (see what I did there?)

Albuquerque (Running with Scissors)
This is the first of the truly epic, long songs Weird Al did. I have a natural attraction to songs over six minutes already (something you'll soon see), so it's only natural that this makes the list. It's just an off-the-wall story "song" (more just Al fast over a rock riff). The great appeal of Albuquerque is there is no way to know where Al's mind will take you. It's rife with surprises and crazy imagery. If you're a fan of scatological humor, you'll love this song.

Highlight: when the band tries to spell Albuquerque (bonus: I now know how to spell Albuquerque myself after writing this).

The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota (UHF)
There's nothing outright funny about this song. It's just overwhelmingly pleasant. BBoTiM recalls 30,000 Pounds of Bananas by Harry Chapin, which is just as pleasant. Much like Albuquerque, it's a story song and was previously the longest of his catalog. There's just something triumphant about it that suits a road trip to such an odd destination. It takes sort of an existential turn when the narrator starts asking questions about why the twine ball exists at all.

Highlight: Definitely the vocals at the very end, making it impossible for me to ever sing at karaoke.

Bob (Poodle Hat)
What starts as a pretty obvious and straight forward Bob Dylan-style parody quickly reveals itself to be something much more. Every verse is a palindrome. Like most palindromes, the only make the vaguest of sense, but what's more appropriate for a Dylan parody?

Highlight: "Go hang a salami, I'm a lasagna hog."

CNR (Internet Leaks)
One of the things that's most appealed to me as Weird Al has gotten older is that his world of references seems to be expanding and getting more esoteric. Since my tastes in pop music are more or less nonexistent, that aspect of his oeuvre doesn't speak to me so much. I've often wanted him to do an entire album riffing on "indie" music, but that doesn't necessarily make sense. But a White Stripes pastiche about how awesome Charles Neslon Reilly is? That more than appeases me!

Highlight: "He made sweet, sweet love to a manatee!"

Dare to be Stupid (Dare to be Stupid)
The aforementioned Behind the Music featured Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh stating the Weird Al wrote a better Devo song the Devo. Whether he really believes that or not is between him and the producers, but the sentiment stands. The song is amazing and can easily stand alongside its inspiration. Curiously, the song is used in Transformers: The Movie.

Highlight: "Stick your head inside the microwave and get yourself a tan."

Everything You Know Is Wrong (Bad Hair Day)
Another thing I really like in songs is a lot of lyrics in fast succession (you'd think I'd be more into hip hop, that being the case). The lyrics aren't impossibly fast (we'll get there) but you need to plan your breathing right if you're going to get through the song without a light head. In typical Weird Al fashion, there's all sorts of bizarre references to Jamie Farr, Hibachi dealers, and nehru jackets. Sometimes I wonder what I ever got out of this music when I was 13 years old.

Highlight: All that said, I'm quite partial to the musical interlude in the middle.

Frank's 2000" TV (Alapalooza)
Again, nothing outright funny about the song, just filled with vivid imagery and lovely harmonies. I know I would be amongst those standing in awe. I can't count the number of times I've converted 2000 inches into feet to really visualize this TV (obviously, I always forget... it's 166.6 repeating feet).

Highlight: The "Hey now!" segment.

Genius in France (Poodle Hat)
I couldn't believe my ears when I heard Genius in France. A Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention pastiche? Holy crap! I can't even pretend to be on the inside of that club. I know enough to recognize the Zappa style and have heard a small amount of the music. But as far as I'm concerned, he nailed it (if Billy the Mountain is any indicator). Maybe not the best to start someone out on, but it proves that Weird Al and his band are far more ambitious than those who write them off as simply writing new lyrics over others' songs).

Highlight: Pretty much any time the song takes an unexpected turn.

Hardware Store (Poodle Hat)
My karaoke white whale. The song that will bring me greatness. You don't even have to sing it well. Just getting all of the words is enough. I don't know if Weird Al can actually sing it himself (but I like to think he can... it gives me hope), but one day, I'll try. It's an original, but I think I hear an ELO influence. The impossibly fast lyrics I spoke of... yeah, they're here. Listen in awe.

Highlight: The vocal run detailing the inventory. Incredible. Give it a shot:

It's All About the Pentiums (Running with Scissors)/White & Nerdy (Straight Outta Lynnwood)
I believe a coworker of mine was talking about how Weird Al doesn't get the recognition for his flow that he should. It's a lot easier to squeeze your lyrics into something sung than it is something that has a definite rhythm. You need to hit the same beats as the original or it's just not going to work. It seems like every time Weird Al tackles the genre, he creates a classic (I'll forget about I Can't Watch This). These songs basically do the same thing. "Hey, this is an awesome rap song! Let's make it about something nerdy!" but it's done so well and they are so clever that it doesn't matter if he's running the same ground. Weird Al's wordplay in each of these is positively genius.

Highlight: Too many good lines to count, but "You're about as useful as jpegs to Helen Keller" and "What kind of chip you got in their, a Dorito?" from the former, the latter would be too many words to type.

Nature Trail to Hell (In 3-D)
I have to include one all about some awful horror movie. It's playing to everything I love in the world. It helps that the song is amazing and that I want to see this movie (seriously, a follow-up to UHF?). I love that the song won't stop at the end, repeating the title over and over, just like the would-be killer in the would-be movie. Apparently, there is a backwards message in the song that states "Satan eats Cheese Whiz." Yeah, him and millions of Philly Cheesesteak lovers.

Highlight: Once again, I love the musical breakdown.

Pancreas (Straight Outta Lynnwood)
A gorgeous and educational homage to the Beach Boys. This song has actually come in handy at trivia for me. I'm of the opinion that it takes some sort of twisted genius to create a love song to one's pancreas and we're all better for it that Weird Al is just that person.

Highlight: "Flow, flow, flow pancreatic juice..." to the end.

Since You've Been Gone (Bad Hair Day)/You Don't Love Me Anymore (Off the Deep End)/One More Minute (Dare to Be Stupid)
When I first conceived of this posting, I tossed around the idea of breaking down the various styles of Weird Al parody. He has songs riffing on TV, food (probably the most common association), film synopsis, and so on. Probably my favorite "genre" Weird Al deals in is his Not Quite Love songs. Some of them seem sweet even if they use unpleasant imagery, only to have an ironic ending. Some are musically akin to love songs, but spit nothing but bile. All are great, though. This trio of songs encapsulates the variations on a theme perfectly.

As an aside: There's a hidden track after You Don't Love Me Anymore that consists of random noise and Weird Al screaming. In high school, I was doing homework while listening to Off the Deep End. I was deeply immersed, so I didn't get up to change the CD. Unexpectedly, the screaming started and scared the crap out of me. I nearly fell backwards in my chair and lost concentration for the next fifteen minutes. I think I'll be remembering that terror even on my deathbed. Apparently, that was Weird Al's intention. Mission accomplished, Al. Mission accomplished.

Highlights: All of Since You've Been Gone, "You slammed my face down on the barbecue grill, now my scars are all healing but my heart never will" in You Don't Love Me Anymore and when Weird Al's exasperation shines through in One More Minute

Trapped in the Drive Thru (Straight Outta Lynnwood)
I remember when Straight Outta Lynnwood came out, reviews spoke of how bold it was for Weird Al to take on a song that is already inherently ridiculous. I wasn't familiar with Trapped in a Closet before hearing this song, so I didn't know what they were talking about. Having since visited, I understand the review's point of view. That song is crazy! Weird Al smartly (is there anything he doesn't do smartly) took the heightened drama of Trapped in a Closet and went to the other extreme with inanity. It takes a confident comedian to commit eleven minutes to something that for all intents and purposes is a dull, tedious story.

Highlight: Jimmy Page cameo and the twist ending

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Weekly Film Wreck: Wendy and Lucy

This space is quickly devolving into variations on a theme. I promise I'll have different content coming up other than Weekly Film Rec/Wrecks. My iPod crashed the other day, curtailing a very fun column (for me, at least).

Wendy and Lucy isn't exactly a wreck. In fact, I kind of liked it. However, I feel that the reasons that I liked it are the same reasons that it's a wreck. To preface this article, I loved Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt's previous film). Old Joy featured a languid pace and subdued score that helped the film wash over me and get more involved in the relationship between the two main characters, neither of whom is a particularly likable person. That film sneaks up on you and explores the characters in subtle and nuanced ways. Wendy and Lucy, on the other hand, while featuring the same meandering pace, is pure and blatant manipulation.

Wendy (Michelle Williams) is on her way from Indiana to Alaska to find work. Her car breaks down in Portland and her dog, Lucy, goes missing. The rest of the movie is Wendy trying to find her dog and get her car fixed with limited funds. Any roadblock that can be thrown in the way is thrown away.

The reason I kind of like the film is that I can totally empathize with Wendy. I am a dog lover and have had dogs most of my life. I'm very familiar with the attachment to the animals and would be devastated if my dog went missing. Which brings me to the manipulation...

Nearly everyone can empathize with her plight. In fact, I bet there's a sizable chunk of the population that would be more affected by a dog (or other pet) getting lost than a baby (and I'd probably count myself amongst their ranks [this goes only for a movie, not in real life]). An emotional hook has already snagged the audience, so what better way to reel them in by piling on the troubles?

Before I go on to the issue that really gets to the core of why I'm featuring Wendy and Lucy here, the movie does a really good job of portraying aspects of what it must be like to be a woman alone and on the streets. The scene with Larry Fassenden jabbering on while Williams is trying to sleep in the park is legitimately terrifying.

But, and there will be spoilers for the ending here, to have her go through everything she does and eventually find her dog at a foster home only to leave it their is entirely disingenuous. Reichardt has gone to great lengths to show that Wendy is all alone and needs Wendy. Not only that, but it's damned short-sided of the character not to realize that, if things are as good in Alaska as the movie says, Lucy won't just have a yard to play in, but a countryside. Leaving Lucy behind only serves to wrench the last bit of guts in the viewers. Not only that, but she says who nice the man keeping her is seems. Based on what? That he drives a Prius?

The message I took from Wendy and Lucy is said by Andy, the jerk-store working at the grocery store (and I'm paraphrasing... I think): "You shouldn't own a dog if you can't feed it." I happen to agree with sentiment, but it seems to be an odd message to build a movie around. Maybe a thirty second PSA...