Monday, December 25, 2006

Plenty to Unwrap

One of the advantages of having Christmas at home is that I usually end up copious amounts of movies on or around Christmas (another obvious advantage is that there's no one around to shout 'Don't open the presents, it's not even December yet!'). This year, along with my traditional Christmas Eve viewing of 'Eyes Wide Shut,' I found a couple wonderfully terrible made-for-tv Christmas movies to watch (at the encouragement of my wife), a new release and a couple others I've finally gotten around to seeing.

I was one of the few who didn't shoot up the sky with a Tommy gun after seeing Condon's 'Chicago' -- my main complaint being that its songs and antics were too draining -- but predictably bought into the Oscar buzz surrounding 'Dreamgirls.' I was ready to put my 'Chicago' complaints behind me after the first act of 'Dreamgirls' -- during which it attains an energy, rhythm and genuine giddy-ness rarely seen these days -- but when Condon slowly starts putting on the brakes during the second half of his movie, I felt my enthusiasm similarly dampen.

While 'Dreamgirls' is good and I will recommend it, a Best Picture award for this movie will be even more of a shame than 'Crash' winning last year over 'Brokeback Mountain.' Compared to 'Chicago,' it is inferior in almost every way, starting with the story. Even if the plot was not loosely based on The Supremes' triumphs and success, it would still be achingly similar to every Behind the Music humble beginnings/rocket to stardom/crash to earth/rebound story ever told. As soon as the Dreams make it big, a group of five educated adults could leave the theater and brain storm what cliches of fame and fortune the rest of the movie will touch on -- and probably be right about 95 percent of it.

Before sleepytime in the last couple acts, 'Dreamgirls' is a marvel of musical entertainment, with showstopping songs delivered with overwhelming passion, combined with a career performance by Eddie Murphy as a James Brown-like singer and Jamie Foxx as a driven but serpentine producer. The movie is at its best when showing how hard the company works on the road and behind the scenes to get a chance in the white-run music industry. The first act is helped by economical storytelling and exposition, two elements that are lacking in the movie's latter stages.

The problem Condon makes himself is introducing needless plot points, which stretch on but then are tied up later with a bat of an eye. A large part focuses on Deena Jones' (Beyonce) film career and Curtis' (Foxx) efforts to make a black version of 'Cleopatra.' We are given a scene with Deena auditioning for a film role behind Curtis' back while he allegedly rounds up mob money for his project -- but both of these storylines meet cursory endings with almost no consequence (in the former's case, Curtis forgives Deena seemingly on a whim, literally less than a minute after accosting her).

On paper, the extra storylines should have served to flesh out the main characters and given emotional weight to the movie's sendoff performance, but that's hardly true since half of the quartet onstage for said concert are still virtual strangers to the audience -- the only thing we learned about Lorrell was that she liked men, and nothing is ever known about Michelle save for her name. 'Dreamgirls' has an outstanding cast and mostly good songs, but I saw nothing that would elevate it from the level of entertainment that many movies reach to the pinnacle of brilliance that supposedly only one film per year attains.

At 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve, I found myself the only one awake in a house with nary one wrapped present. My standard fare, 'Eyes Wide Shut' had been ingested earlier, so I went with a wildcard choice -- along with Maker's Mark paired with the best egg nog ever -- and the result couldn't have been better. I had recently picked up the famed Alien Quadrilogy (along with the Mel Brooks Collection) as part of Deep Discount DVD's buy one get one deal for select Fox boxed sets, so I was able to pop in the Ridley Scott's cut of the '79 classic (the Quadrilogy is half off at Amazon and a certified steal for $32 at Costco).

Because Aliens occupies such a large part of my early film history (more on that in a later post, hopefully), its predecessor has always been a little hazy in my memory. Somehow I envisioned 'Alien' as tepid compared to the lavish sequel, but a fresh viewing reminded me that it is usually superior to James Cameron's version in terms of pacing and storytelling. Like 'Halloween,' part of the appeal of 'Alien' is reliving a variety of horror devices for the first time, which are now commonplace and cliche. Action taking place in dark, closed corners, just a few glimpses of your monster -- Scott may have made these choices based on budget, but it works perfectly.

An underrated decision by Scott was his choice to push up most of the action -- it really begins at the chest-burster scene -- to the one hour mark of the movie. All the time before that isn't wasted on character backgrounds and comic relief, rather we see how the different characters think and it's never served up to us on a platter just who will be the last one standing. More than any crewmember, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is by-the-book and relies on her knowledge of the ship and its tactics. She is able to escape the ship because of her intimate knowledge of its procedures and technology (all shown to us in that first hour). These skills of Ripley are best showcased in the final climax, when she shows no panic at her surprise visitor and deals with it mechanically. Watching 'Alien' with egg nog (+ bourbon) in hand and snow on the ground outside made for a grand Christmas Eve night.

A Perfect Day
My wife took the liberty of TiVo-ing a multitude of Christmas movies, leading to the inevitable showdown with a couple of made-for-TV lumps. Of the two, one was surprisingly watchable -- this wasn't it. An apparent TNT production starring Rob Lowe and Christopher Lloyd, 'A Perfect Day' had a serviceable budget aiming for a sincere redemption story along the lines of 'It's a Wonderful Life,' but it appears that the greatest hurdle for the director was convincing Lowe to act. I've never seen a movie that is dragged down so much from one actor's performance. Although the story was nothing new and the script offered little, Lowe never once flinched from his 'at least our shooting schedule is only two weeks!' face.

Lowe plays Rob (was the character name a compromise?), a recently fired something or other who decides to finish a book he started in college, which leads him to surprise fame, which leads the movie into every 'what about your family/friends' convention, which was used to greater effect by The Cheetah Girls. There's some would-be M. Night Shyamalan twist involving an 'angel' (Lloyd, yes he's still alive), and by the end I think Lowe winced hard enough for a smile to come through.

A Christmas Do-Over
This movie grabbed my attention when I realized: a) it was an unapologetic Christmas spin on 'Groundhog Day' and b) it starred Adrienne Barbeau and Jay Mohr. The latter was noteworthy because this movie was made on such a shoestring budget and obviously took advantage of being able to re-use footage for the plot. Oh the plot -- um, something about Mohr's character going to his ex-wife's family's house for Christmas and then he can't leave because a boulder blocks the only road out (one of those land-locked peninsula towns we hear about so much) and then his day keeps repeating again and again. Mohr is a pretty good physical actor and is given some respectable material, allowing the movie to sidestep its many unintentionally goofy moments. One thing 'A Perfect Day' and 'Christmas Do-Over' had in common was scenes with CGI snow, which looked accordingly horrible -- didn't they have some cheap way of filming fake snow before CGI?

The Other

This was a big surprise, it really blew me away and can't believe I hadn't heard of it before. Adapted for the screen from Thomas Tryon's novel by the author, 'The Other' immerses us in an idyllic rural community in 1935 with a family that has a history of tragedy. Little Niles Perry is constantly at play with his twin brother, constantly avoiding scrapes of youthful trouble, but we slowly start to catch on that something is not as it seems. The once-perfect country atmosphere slowly degrades as tragedies mount, and the tension keeps increasing until a startling end. As Dennis Cozzalio shrewdly pointed out, the twist that makes 'The Other' work is trotted out about 45 minutes earlier than Shyamalan would have chose, and it's completely believable. I don't want to say too much, but this is superb subtle, atmospheric horror from the early 70s and was recently released on DVD.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

When movie worlds collide

Over at superblog The House Next Door, there's an excellent post and subsequent slew of comments that started with a simple, yet hilarious idea: combine like titles of movies, and sift through the resulting madness. I couldn't help but be drawn in by this brilliance, so I offer some of my own (original) creations:

The Poseidon Adventures in Babysitting
A Chicago babysitter (Elizabeth Shue) is supervising some unruly kids, and their routine trip downtown leads them to unwittingly board a Lake Michigan ferry. The ferry's captain (Leslie Neilson) ignores the weather reports and presses on into the face of a typical Lake Michigan tidal wave, which overturns the ferry. Not only do the babysitter and kids have to fight through danger to reach the top (bottom) of the capsized ship, but they must do it before the 'rents get home!

Road House of 1000 Corpses
James Dalton (Patrick Swayze) is one of the best bouncers in the business, but his latest job might be a little too tough even for him: keeping a murderous family's house in order, and restoring justice in a small town that is ruled by the cold-hearted Jasper Kingpin. Dalton brings his own style to the Firefly family, such as wet t-shirt competitions on Friday and a new rule: be nice.

The Day This Island Earth Stood Still
The most confusing science fiction movie ever made: two parrallel story lines see a flying saucer land in front of the White House with a peace ultimatum from beyond the stars, while a scientist boards a different flying saucer to try and save a dying planet (Metaluna), which ignored the first flying saucer's peace ultimatum a few weeks ago. The Soderbergh-esque give-and-take between the storylines ends with a shocking confrontation between a Metaluna mutant and Gort on the White House lawn.

The Truth About Reservoir Cats and Dogs
This charming mistaken identity romance-cum-robbery shootout yarn starts with a radio DJ (Janeane Garofalo) seducing a listener, who then ends up with the wrong girl. The whole mess is sorted out while the gang plans a jewel robbery, which goes horribly wrong -- leading to a shocking scene where Natalie Portman cuts a policeman's ear off and all the characters are killed at the end.

The Bridge On the River Wild
A family on a rafting trip is taken hostage by a group of Japanese soldiers who force them to build a bridge across the Colorado River. The mother (Meryl Streep) slowly gains pride in their impossible task and eventually finishes the bridge -- leading to the suspenseful climax of Kevin Bacon and Alec Guinness battling over a detonator and some bizarre scene where the family's raft jumps over the bridge via cables.

Ed Woodsman
A child molester (Kevin Bacon) returns to Hollywood after 12 years in prison, bent on starting a new life. In order to mask his past, Bacon starts a prolific career in directing Z-grade horror movies, partially financed by the Baptist Church. On the verge of stardom with his latest movie, his past is revealed to his employers and the financing is cut. Put on trial again, the director is able to force an aquittal after blaming his crimes on the fact that he's haunted by the ghost of Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau).

The Glengarry Glenlivet
Adapted from David Mamet's harrowing tale of liquor salesman, the story follows Shelly Levine (Jack Lemmon) as he tries in vain one night to sell a gross of off-brand scotch to unwanting customers. Alec Baldwin gives an inspired performance as a motivational speaker from Seagrams who tries to motivate the group of salesmen. Contains the classic line: 'Irish Coffee's for closers!'

The Wicker Man's Best Friend
A genetically mutated, killing-machine of a dog is accidentally released from a laboratory, and the canine eventually makes its way to a remote island off the coast of Scotland, where the locals practice an ancient religion. Despite several maulings, the locals are accepting of the vicious dog, who is trying to solve a mystery of a vanished girl. The dog can't find any answers, and at the end is lured by a trail of beef jerkey to the 'Wicker Man' and is burned alive.

American Pie 5: The Naked Lunch Mile
The latest entry in the American Pie series finds a younger Stiffler at a posh liberal arts school with a strange tradition for freshmen. A mile-long pathway on campus is transformed into scenes from the David Lynch movie 'Naked Lunch,' and participants must make it all the way through without vomiting or dying -- or else suffer four years of humiliation. The competition starts with runners having to sniff bug powder and shoot an apple off a coed's head, but things get much more difficult later on in the 'Interzone' part of the mile when runners have to dodge flying typewriters and escape the grasp of an S&M maid before finally attempting to break up a cartel selling alien blood as drugs.

Stranger Than Pulp Fiction
Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, whose life is narrated by Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), a hit man who writes novels in his spare time. Things get weird when Crick gets caught up in the criminal underworld, leading to him shooting John Travolta out of frustration.

Sexy Beastmaster
Gal (Ray Winstone) is an ex-con who took his wife and his powers to communicate with animals to the seclusion of Spain. This peace is interrupted when Dar (Marc Singer) comes back from Gal's criminal past to entice him to embark on a journey to faraway London to make one more score. In London, Gal and Dar battle acid bats, Ian McShane and bad special effects.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Jaguars and Sacrifices and Mayans - Oh Mel!

A few years ago I had East Indian neighbors, who were very passionate about their Bollywood movies. I would try and watch some of them (on Indian channel so no subtitles), but could never really get into them. I always meant to show them an American movie that didn't need subtitles, a movie where you could enjoy it without knowing what the characters were saying. At that time I thought of 'Hoosiers' as a choice, but never had the opportunity to show it to them. I'm telling you this because one of the reasons I enjoyed 'Apocalypto' so much was thinking how it could be enjoyed by any culture.

Yes, there are subtitles, but I would argue that it would be an even more entertaining movie without them simply because 95 percent of what the characters say could be deciphered from director Mel Gibson's visuals. Everything in 'Apocalypto' is visual, every single detail adds to the experience, because there is a sense from the very first frame that you're in an entirely alien world.

You think you know about the Mayan Empire, but you don't. I thought I was pretty brushed up on their culture from high school and college, yet nothing prepared me for the female aristocrats and their startling hair, jewelry and piercings. This is due perhaps to the fact that there really are no Mayan movies prior to this one -- the basis of most of our interpretations of their civilization is based on paintings and drawings. We have all seen photographs of Mayan ruins and perhaps drawings of what the civilization might have looked like, but to see it on a big screen just blows all those memories away.

At its core, 'Apocalypto' is an action movie set against the backdrop of the Mayan Empire. It is thankfully not an attempt to give a complete account of the downfall of their society. Gibson goes to great lengths to make it a story that is a snapshot of one person's experience in the Mayan world -- there is no 'stand at the top of a hill transition into overhead shot of the Mayan city,' nor are there any political scenes. In this respect it is similar to 'Full Metal Jacket,' showing a soldier from his conception and giving us the war through his unique experience. The furthest 'Apocalypto' gets from this strategy is the ending -- which is amusing, but also predictable and somewhat unnecessary.

We are introduced early to Jaguar Paw, a nimble Mayan family man, who sees his village burned to the ground by a brutal war party. He manages to lead his very pregnant wife and small son to 'safety' (a deep hole/cave), and the rest of his tale is his relentless pursuit to come back and save them no matter what his predicament. Jaguar Paw faces certain death many times (sacrifice, various large drops and bigger cats) and seems to emerge stronger after each escape.

'Apocalytpo' is raw, unmerciful and sometimes creative in its unrelenting violence, but never cruel or menacing. During the extended raid scene early in the movie, I braced myself for a gruesome shock as the prisoners were being tortured -- but it never came. Largely off-camera, there is obvious brutality happening against women, but the worst we see is pretty harmless. When the violence and gore does shock, it's (mostly) believable, what we see is horrific, but it's also part of their culture. Only in the third act, when the action is ratcheted up a few notches do we get any kind of cartoony violence.

It's in this final act that 'Apocalypto' changes from a historical survival tale into a spin on the Ten Little Indians-style of one-by-one elimination seen in so many horror movies, as the hunted becomes the hunter. I couldn't help but chuckle as this final sequence reminded me of the last scenes of 'Predator,' and it may be the most excitement you find in a theater this year.

If you're looking for a hidden message in 'Apocalypto,' they're here, but it's nothing overwhelming or anything that hasn't been said before. References to contemporary war and corruption are relavent, but to me it was saying that they're relavent to every civilization -- they all had problems, and there wasn't television or the media to blame. There's also the constant theme of survival, of how even the most astronomic odds can be overcome by sheer will -- again nothing earth shattering.

Though the violence will turn a lot of people off (my wife counted among them), it's hard not to appreciate what Gibson has made. He has a cast of apparent non-actors (no Wes Studis or Lou Diamond Phillipses to be found here), he had a tempting opportunity to give us a sprawing, CGI Mayan city (we get only glimpses from atop the pyramid, this is no 'Gladiator') and he resisted all chances to input at least a shred of contemporary issues or pop culture (no, George Lucas, none of the Mayans give Tarzan calls in the jungle). It's a huge production, but also feels bare-bones. I'm ready for Gibson to not receive much credit for his direction, but I'm having a hard time believing anyone else could have done something more impressive or entertaining.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Recent viewings

Publisher's note: November was admittedly not my best effort. The combination of football and a new work schedule really got me off track. I appreciate your patience while I try and get back into my groove.

Shut Up and Sing
I was able to attend a sneak preview of this on Sunday, and it blew away my high expectations. I expected a lot from this not just because I'm a closet Dixie Chicks fan (their version of 'Landslide' is one of my favorite songs from the past few years) but also because the subject matter is something that inspires such a continental divide. On the surface it is a documentary about the Dixie Chicks, but the main theme is about the hard-headedness of America. The cameras of 'Shut Up and Sing' were there in London 2003 to capture the infamous concert when lead singer Natalie Maines uttered their undoing: 'We're ashamed the president is from Texas.' As their footage from the concert will attest -- the line was said in fun, going along with the anti-war sentiment in London at the time, but of course that's not how it was interpreted stateside.

'Shut Up and Sing' also serves as a poignant observation on how much the nation has changed since the beginning of the Iraq war. When Maines said that line, the U.S. was just getting ready to invade Iraq, Bush's approval ratings were still in a post-9/11 climb and many thought the military action in the Middle East would be brief. You have to wonder if the same thing happened today if anyone would really care. And you really have to question what the reaction would have been if it was a group of male performers who made the comment. It's much easier in this country to reap that kind of hate and vengeance on women.

Tangents like the above are not present in 'Shut Up and Sing,' the filmmakers wisely let their vast and interesting footage do the talking -- straying away from sit-down interviews and narration. The documentary is at its best showing the strategizing from the band and its inner circle about how it will fight the impending media firestorm -- eventually concluding that they'll stick with their guns. Many other issues are touched on -- such as the inner workings of the record industry and the marketing of a band through today's convoluted system of radio webs -- but it's the raw emotions captured that really allow 'Shut Up and Sing' to soar above most recent pop culture documentaries. Moments such as Emily Robison weeping at the thought of the cross Natalie must bear because of her comments (saying through her tears that she would walk away from the band if it was too much for her friend) are genuine and will stay with you.

Casino Royale
Yay! Another late review! I realize this has been praised as the best Bond in whatever, but I'll take it a step further: it's impossible to even compare it to other Bonds, because it is an entirely new franchise now, it's been reinvented and simply rocks in every way. It seems that Martin Campbell went out of his way to leave out every conceivable Bond cliche which has linked all the movies together -- there are virtually no gadgets, no over-the-top WTF intro (it's very quick and actually has to do with the rest of the movie), no lavish title sequence (it's stripped down and colorful), even the song is completely different (an annoyance for me actually -- not one of Chris Cornell's better songs). Since there was no reliance on these tired devices, 'Casino Royale' is able to have an intricate (but not intentionally confusing, i.e. 'The World is Not Enough') plot, amazing stunts not involving a BMW turning into a robot dinosaur and some scenes of absolutely brutal violence and tension.

And then there's Daniel Craig. My God. I said when he was cast that American audiences would love him because he's a British Steve McQueen and that was just me talking about his looks, it even involves his acting. McQueen has been called one of the best prop actors ever and I think Craig has a similar skill (the poker scene in particular). Who needs Pierce Brosnan's smirking, daffy English clown when you can have the one-inch-out-of-control badass actions and brutish chicanery of Craig?

I hated every Brosnan Bond after 'Goldeneye' (great fun directed by Campbell) -- the theme in those movies seemed to be to push the technology quotient with each film, and as a result progressivly got dumber and dumber (really, AN INVISIBLE CAR?? We're supposed to believe that?). The over-the-top nature had to be topped with each succeeding movie, resulting in the braindead embarrassment of a videogame Bond windsurfing in the Arctic in 'Die Another Day.' I was convinced the series was dead after that last one, now I can't wait to see what they can do with this model again (assuming they do stick with the Campbell-Craig model, they could easily screw it up again).

Here's a movie I had wanted to see for quite awhile, one of Paul Schrader's first films, it uses the fear of the exploding sex industry to great effect in what is essentially a re-telling of The Searchers. Schrader, who also wrote the movie, gives us Jake VanDorn (George C. Scott), a midwestern businessman who keeps his house full of his church members. We catch glimpses of his daughter Niki, who seems somewhat withdrawn. After seeing off Niki on a missionary bus tour across the country, Jake finds out later that his daughter had gone missing after the group's trip to Knott's Berry Farm.

Jake hires a private detective (an surprisingly greasy and smarmy Peter Boyle), who eventually finds an 8mm snuff film with Niki as the main star. Jake is destroyed by what he sees, but takes it upon himself to dive into a world he barely even knew existed in order to pull his daughter out. In Schrader's version of 'The Searchers,' it isn't savages who kidnap the little girl, it's the unseen savagery of the new generation and the unthinkable horrors of the sex industry that take his daughter. Like Martin Pawley in 'The Searchers,' Jake gives no thought to his previous life as he slowly breaks through every moral barrier he had once lived behind in order to satisfy his hunger of finding Niki. Jake allies himself with strippers and snuff dealers, oftentimes trying to see into their world before pulling himself back, trying to keep some shred of his previous self intact.

It's all very similar to what Schrader would do with Auto Focus, with a man plunging further and further into the darkness because the way back is an even longer journey.

Hard Candy
Similar in some ways to 'Hardcore,' but substituting a more contemporary public fear (sexual predators) as its driving force. I thought I was prepared for how unnerving this movie would be, but I was still shocked. It's the classic tale of the hunter becoming the hunted as young Hayley turns the tables on her older adversary. Even though it's disturbing on many levels throughout, there is almost no violence, making it resemble the best told ghost stories and subtle horror movies -- it's all in the details and atmosphere.

I can't say it was a terribly memorable script, but it was incredibly well-acted and directed. The mood never flinches, and you are never sure just what direction it will all go next. Ellen Page is fantastic as the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood's clothing, who has a sinister plan for one man to seemingly pay for the sins of many others. You think you know about her plan, but her motives and actions are always twisting. What works well is that the movie treats her like the adolescent she is -- her plan is good, but certainly not perfect. She makes mistakes, but so does her victim Jeff -- a hipster photographer who picked up the wrong girl in a chat room. If you're going to watch it, there are times when you're going to wonder if the upcoming images may leave you forever scarred, but keep with it -- and it is hard at times, I know.

The Sadist
I've really been enjoying Turner Classic Movies' 'Underground' episodes with Rob Zombie. Late night on Fridays, Zombie (looking much slimmer and more inviting than I remember) introduces a cult classic and offers his takes on it. I really didn't know what to expect from Underground, but TCM has really committed to the project (check out the cool Web site; and Zombie hangs out in an overly lavish set), dishing out real, hard to find, cult movies and apparently selling Zombie on his role as host (even if his lines often sound scripted). The first movie I caught was DePalma's Sisters, a delightfully twisted and well-made tale of once-conjoined twins, and recently I watched 1962's 'The Sadist.' (Trish -- didn't catch 'Wild Guitar,' which preceded it on TCM, any good?)

Starring the bizarre Arch Hall Jr., you could make the case that 'The Sadist' was grindhouse even before there was such a thing. The level of cruelty and violence is out of character for the year, and its appeal is purely shock value. In 'The Sadist' we find three unlucky teachers whose car breaks down and their trail leads them to an abandoned repair shop. The place seems desserted, except the house has a table with three uneaten dinners on it, and soon we meet the title characters. Hall plays Charlie Tibbs, and Marilyn Manning (who also played Hall's girlfriend in Eegah!) is his murderous accomplice. The two cut-ups are on a killing spree and set about toying and torturing the teachers for the duration of the movie.

The movie quickly loses its momentum in the middle scenes, but makes up for some of that with an out-of-nowhere raucus and violent ending. If you've seen Hall in 'Eegah!' where he plays an ah-shucks teen, he's completely different here as a snarling villain. Hall's at times grotesque would-be hunky looks work better in this movie, which usually finds him pointing his Neanderthal brow down a gun.

DVD Panache in your ear lobes!
You've read my post about Troll 2, now listen to my fan commentary podcast for the movie! The good people over at Best Worst Movie bit me with the festive 'Troll 2' bug, and since I've now seen it close to 10 times now, I felt I had plenty of feelings and observations on the movie to fill a 90-minute commentary. This was my first crack at a fan commentary and it turned out pretty well, won't be my last -- stay tuned.