Thursday, May 26, 2011

Happy Feet

I hated Happy Feet. I knew I would. Knew it. But... it got almost universally good reviews. And it was directed by George Miller (the crafter of the Mad Max series). That alone should allow him the benefit of the doubt (is that really the saying? The more I think about it, the less sense it makes). And I don't think I could hear more enthusiastic praise for Babe and Babe: Pig in the City, especially the latter which is apparently crazy dark for a kids film. Both of those are on my Netflix queue, incidentally.

But it had an even greater hurdle to push pass my defenses: I hate musicals. And this was the worst kind, at least in my mind. It was all pop songs refigured and sung by other people (I wonder if the creator of Glee was taking notes). And if the commercials were any indication, they used only songs I hated. Oh boy.

But I put my pre-conceived notions in my pocket, keeping them close by just in case, and went to see Happy Feet with my family. When the lights finally came back up, the consensus of the family was that it just wasn't that good, with me probably the most vigorous detractor. Everything I feared I would hate I did. Did I mention that I hate movies that posit that dancing is the ultimate joy to be found in life (I know that's not exactly what Happy Feet is saying, but it ends with a huge penguin dance scene that eventually saves the icy island on which the penguins live and the surly elder penguins are finally won over by the power of the dance, so I think the point still stands)?

So, yeah, I hate Happy Feet. But. I admire that it's willing to go incredibly dark and have the main penguin go catatonic in captivity. Also, there's a great unmentioned message that I've only seen one other place, though now that time has passed, it may be more discussed: Happy Feet is basically a feature-length renouncement of organized religion. I won't go into the details here, but watch it again. Even with my heathenistic beliefs, I was shocked at how blatant the film was regarding this matter. I give Happy Feet mad props for having several Big Issues on its mind (the other is the environmental message that you kind of expect). I hate it, but I respect it.

All of that is to say that the trailer for Happy Feet Two (in 3-D!) is online (notice the gut wrenchingly precious "Novemburr." For the love of god, if you're going to do it, at least go with "Novembrr"! As it stands, it looks like we're finally getting that Aaron Burr biopic in November we've been asking for since those "Got Milk?" commercials). Once again, it was written and directed by George Miller and having watched the trailer, I want to claw my eyes and ears out. It seems even more Glee-tastic (mostly because that wasn't a thing when the original was released) and a hundred time more annoying, and the first one had Robin Williams! Oh wait... so does this. I honestly can't imagine how George Miller can get a second story out of Happy Feet. But I'm curious. The masochist in me kind of wants to see Happy Feet Two just to find out what sort of subversive elements he's put in.

I hate Happy Feet. But I'm curious...

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Lot of Decent Movies by Good Directors (and Two That Are Neither)

Travel and work basically stymied my movie watching and blog writing but I'm back now! This Netflix revue is basically everything from the past three weeks, which shows how little I've been watching movies of late (of course, my little is most people's binge). Hopefully, the earlier films left enough of an impression on me that I'll have something to say.

The Boys from Brazil -- Franklin J. Schaffner
I think I expected a little more from the director of The Planet of the Apes, Papillon, and Patton, but maybe that's unfair. The plot is pretty complex but basically it deals with Joseph Mengele (Gregory Peck) trying to continue his research in cloning long after WWII and the efforts to figure out what he's up to. I really wanted to love the film not just because the plot sounded awesome, but it's got Peck, James Mason, Lawrence Olivier, and... Steve Guttenberg! I'd say I don't know why that tickles me so, but I really do. There's nothing really wrong with the film. It looks great, has a score by the amazing Jerry Goldsmith (though I actually didn't care for it much), and it's kind of a shock to see Peck as such and evil man. I think the thing that kills Boys from Brazil for me is the boy who is featured in several roles. I'll get into this more later on, but he's terrible and I can't believe he got through the first round of auditions. Still worth checking out if you're a fan of any of the principles. Bonus: the epic finale that takes place in Lancaster, PA!

The Ladykillers -- The Coen Brothers
I don't have much memory of the original The Ladykillers other than enjoying it (though I think I mostly enjoyed the cast). When the Coens' remake came out in 2004, I was pretty disappointed that they were not only doing a remake, but that it looked so bad. Sometimes, though, you just need some time to reconsider your gut reactions and I finally looked at my enjoyment of the Coens' work to trust them enough to do something interesting with the material. And they kind of succeeded. It's nowhere near their best, but it's not the worst, either. Tom Hanks wasn't nearly as annoying as he looked from the trailer (actually, he was quite good). In fact, I'd probably rate the film higher if it wasn't for the bad irritable bowel jokes/the fact the IBS was a plot point at all. It just seems so cheap and lazy. I'm also having trouble deciding if the depiction of black people isn't slightly racist (they are either cursing thugs or wholly given over to God). Maybe it's just me...

The Fury -- Brian de Palma
Further exploration into my new found enjoyment of de Palma. The Fury is pretty sweet, though it's hurt slightly by the fact that de Palma made Carrie the year before and that Kirk Douglas is the lead (for the life of me, I couldn't think of anyone but Rutger Hauer for that role even though he hadn't been in an American movie yet). It's a better movie than Carrie, but the subject matter is awfully similar, though it's take on telekinesis is much different. I don't find Kirk Douglas to be a very good actor. His delivery feels stilted and hammy to me. Despite all that, The Fury is pretty great. I love John Cassevetes as an actor and the film goes off the rails in a good way in the last third (seriously, the ending is amazing and makes the whole ride worth it). Incidentally, the female lead possesses perhaps the most unfortunate last name in all of show business: Snodgress (her first name is Carrie[!]).

Tommy -- Ken Russell
The only thing I'd ever seen of the movie version of Tommy was Ann Margaret getting doused with baked beans. Now that I've seen the whole thing, I kind of preferred just knowing it for that scene. I can see why people would like it. It's uber-kitschy and the music is pretty good. I say pretty good because, for me, the music as sung by the actors (including Jack Nicholson) simply pales in comparison to the albums version. The most recurring thought I had during Tommy was that I wish it was the original version of the songs. I know many people have issues for Pink Floyd's The Wall, but I was transfixed by the images the first time I saw it (and I've never even seen it stoned). None of that happened here. I won't say the experience was a complete loss, though. I'd never really paid much attention to the narrative of the album before and now when I hear the music, I can place it in that context, which is a nice bonus.

Slasher -- John Landis
When you see a movie called Slasher by John Landis, if you're like me, you think it's going to be a horror comedy about a killer. Instead, it's a documentary about a traveling used car salesman who is brought in to dealerships across the country to liquidate stock. While I was in Nashville, I was hoping to come across the particular dealership featured, but I had my Tennessee cities (Tennessities?) confused (it's Memphis). Anyway, the documentary is decent and even though Michael Bennett (the Slasher) has a grating voice and a mildly annoying personality, he comes across very thoughtful and human. It's a bizarre way to make a living and the film reveals his conflicted nature about spending is time away from his family selling used cars quite effectively. I have to major complaints about Slasher, though. One is that I can't imagine how the method used to attract customers could ever actually lead to a person buying a car. The other is more a complaint about the nature of documentaries which allows for massive audience manipulation because it's supposedly "truth." Yes, everything we're seeing happened, but how much was shifted around in editing to raise the stakes?

Real Life -- Albert Brooks
Speaking of documentaries... I wanted to like Real Life a lot more than I did, though should I ever watch it again, I can see it growing on me. It just wasn't as laugh-out-loud funny as I expected. There's lots of absurdity and silliness that's very appealing, but I think I didn't connect much with the characters. No one is particularly likable. Now, Brooks isn't supposed to be, but I just really didn't care about his subjects, either. I do like seeing Charles Grodin, though. And there are some inspired bits like the "unobtrusive" cameramen who walk around with everyone wearing a giant helmet cam that looks like it's better suited for a spacesuit.

This isn't my first introduction to the work of Albert Brooks, but it's the first prolonged exposure. I feel like once I get to know him better, I'll get to like him better.

Major Dundee -- Sam Peckinpah
There are two scenes in Major Dundee that had me glued to the screen. The first had to do with strained race relations around a campfire and the other dealt with French attackers. The movie is pretty good and could have been great, but it's too long. Add to that annoying narration and you've got a lot of lost potential. The story and structure themselves are amazing. A union Major (Charleton Heston), a Southern man by birth, leads a crew of Confederate POWs into Mexico after the Apache massacre local families. Dundee raids a French encampment for supplies, but they don't have many so he lets the French prisoners escape so they will return with more forces (and ammo). So we have French after Americans, after Apache with a split in the American camp. Can you get more conflict? With a few minor changes, it could have been great. And I wish that the ending had played out in a more satisfying way. Still, if you dig on Peckinpah, you'll dig on this.

My Own Private Idaho -- Gus Van Sant
My history with Gus Van Sant is spotty. The only film of his I've actively enjoyed is Milk (I've seen about half of his filmography) and while I've heard nothing but praise for Paranoid Park, I actively hated watching it (the same goes for Last Days, though without so much praise). Needless to say, I didn't have high hopes, though I'd heard from trusted sources that it's a good movie. I was pleased to find that I reacted to My Own Private Idaho in much the same way I do to early David Gordon Green or non-documentary Werner Herzog, which is that I can see the flaws, but in the end, the experience was unique and meaningful enough to make those flaws fade away. Even Keanu Reeves, unintentionally in Ted mode (even when speaking Shakespearean) can't even sink this ship. The character of Bob Pigeon (William Richert) easily steals every scene he's in. Maybe the most interesting aspect of My Own Private Idaho is that the main character is ostensibly Mike (River Phoenix) but the character who actually undergoes any sort of change is Scott (Reeves). Definitely worth checking out, especially if you want to see early '90s Portland.

The Hill -- Sidney Lumet
With Lumet's recent passing, there was a lot of ink (well, internet-style ink) about his best films. Lumet is probably in my top-10 filmmakers of all-time and I've seen most of his classics and many of his less known works (seriously, check out Deathtrap. It rules). I hadn't seen The Hill, though, which nearly every remembrance mentioned with Dog Day Afternoon and Network. I can see why. The movie is amazing. The Hill takes place entirely within a prison camp which has a centerpiece of a giant sand hill that misbehaving inmates must repeatedly run up and down. Sean Connery shows up and almost immediately gets on the wrong side of the powers that be, who want nothing more than to break the prisoners down to build them up again. Everything in the film works, from the opening tracking shot to Ossie Davis stripping down to his skivvies. It's one of those films that makes you despise mindless authority (if you didn't already). There's a point where you realize that The Hill can't have a happy ending, but no telling what that will be. This is definitely the only must-see on the list this week.

Omega Doom -- Albert Pyun
Blind Fury -- Phillip Noyce
The experience watching these films may have been tempered by the manner in which I watched them. I was staying up to pick a friend up from the airport at 3:30 AM. However, I wasn't that tired and I can't imagine ever enjoying either of these films. After watching Nighthawks, I Rutger'd up my Netflix queue. I decided to have my very own Rutger-spective in honor of my theater showing Hobo with a Shotgun. What a mistake. I didn't have any expectations for Omega doom and it didn't even meet those. There's a terrible comic sidekick who is not funny and every time one of the characters move, there are robot noises. You see, because they are robots. And robots, no matter what, must make mechanical noises when they move, but not when they talk (though some have processed vocals just so you know they are still robots). Do you know how annoying it is to hear that "vvvvv vvvvvv vvvvv" sound for an hour and a half? If you watch Omega Doom, you will. There is literally nothing to recommend about this film.

Blind Fury, on the other hand, I expected to be awesome. Phillip Noyce has made some reputable films and Rutger Hauer as a blind man who just happens to kick ass with a samurai sword? Sign me up! But for some reason, Blind Fury is a comedy! Just look at this poster:

Ugh. And you know, the film may have been salvageable. Remember when I complained about the boy in The Boys from Brazil? The kid in Blind Fury is a hundred times worse because he's featured heavily. There's nothing redeeming about his presence in the movie. He sucks the life out of everything with his terrible acting. Maybe that's harsh. He's just a kid, after all. But how the hell did he get the job in the first place?! With all the effort that goes into making a movie, how can you let one bad actor ruin the whole movie AND have him in a major role? But you know what? I can't bring myself to blame him. Because WHY WAS THIS A COMEDY IN THE FIRST PLACE?

King Rat -- Bryan Forbes
The early shots in King Rat reminded me a lot of Kurosawa and I was a little disappointed the vibe didn't pan out through the rest of the film. King Rat takes place entirely within a Japanese prison camp (you know what, I really dig POW films) and deals mostly with a man who has it made in the camp. George Segal is awesome as Corporal King and well, everyone else is awesome, too. There's a lot of camp politics since the Japanese leave the men to mostly run themselves, which is how King has come to live a life of relative luxury given the circumstances. He's an opportunist and a conniver. It actually takes nearly an hour to get to why it's called King Rat and I wish they had done more with the concept. As it stands, it's just a background item that lends an awesome name to the a movie (I call dibs on King Rat as a band name, a la They Might Be Giants) (also, it may feature more prominently in the book). There's a lot going on in the movie, so I won't get into it much here, but it's well worth your time.