Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Retro Review: Midnight Run

 I've been watching Midnight Run with the intention of breaking it up into 15 Minute Review segments, but I found myself caught up in the film itself and thought I'd put it into a Retro Review instead. I can't say for certain when I saw Midnight Run for the first time, but I'll venture a guess and say it was on video not long after its 1988 theatrical run. Let's also assume I was probably younger than I should have been for a film where 80% of Robert DeNiro's dialogue consists of the word "fuck."

 Midnight Run is the kind of movie that seemed like it was always playing on cable during weekends, in pan-and-scanned / "edited for content" versions. It's a "road" picture, in that Jack Walsh (DeNiro) and Johnathan "The Duke" Mardukas (Charles Grodin) as bounty hunter and bounty, respectively, try to get from New York to Los Angeles by Friday so that Eddie Moscone (Joe Pantoliano) doesn't miss the bail bond he posted. Jack's attempts to bring Mardukas back are thwarted by the Mafia (who "The Duke" stole money from), the FBI (who want Mardukas to testify), rival bounty hunter Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton), and Mardukas himself. He won't fly, complains constantly, and tries to escape more than once. All Walsh wants it to bring the fugitive back, collect his hundred grand, and find a new way to live his life.

 In addition to the leads, there a host of familiar faces playing people contributing to Walsh's headache: there's Yaphet Kotto (Alien) as FBI Agent Alonzo Mosley, who Jack spends a bulk of the movie impersonating; Dennis Farina (Out of Sight) is Jimmy Serrano, the mob boss who ruined Jack's life as a Chicago police officer and who wants Mardukas all to himself. His consigliere?  Phillip Baker Hall (Magnolia). You'll probably also recognize Robert Miranda (Heat, The Untouchables), Wendy Phillips (Big Love, Touched By an Angel), and Batman's "Bob the Goon," Tracey Walter, although Reno 911 fans might know him better as the Sheriff of Revo, Nevada.

 Directed by Martin Brest (Beverly Hills Cop, Gigli), written by George Gallo (Bad Boys, Double Take), and with an atypically saxophone heavy score by Danny Elfman (Forbidden Zone, Mars Attacks), Midnight Run is a cracking action / comedy that is frequently hilarious and makes the best of DeNiro's prickly, acerbic wit and Grodin's wry comic timing. It's weird to think about, but there was a time when he wasn't just the guy who had been in those lousy Beethoven movies - he's the secret weapon of Midnight Run, often playing the straight man to DeNiro's perpetually frustrated tough guy, but then he'll sneak in every now and again with a line that really brings the laughter.

 The film takes Walsh and Mardukas from New York to Chicago to Texas to Arizona to Las Vegas and finally (SPOILER) Los Angeles. Along the way there are all sorts of ridiculous contrivances, car chases, trickery, double crosses, explosions, and lots of yelling. It really shouldn't work, but Midnight Run was just as entertaining to me as it was the first time I watched that VHS tape. It's probably the same tape, a worn out, pan-and-scanned copy (I don't know that I've ever seen Midnight Run in its proper screen format), but when I decided to stay on the treadmill until the movie was done, I grossly underestimated how much of the film was left and ended up sticking it out for the last 50 minutes. I had forgotten that the helicopter chase with Jack, Mardukas, Marvin, and the Mafia assassins was in the middle of the movie and not near the end.

 Oh well, I had fun watching the movie again. I think I'll rent the DVD some time later this year to see what it's supposed to look like. I doubt I'll be checking out the three made for television sequels: Another Midnight Run, Midnight Runaround, and Midnight Run for Your Life. I didn't even know they existed, and by most accounts, that's probably for the best. The important part is that if you're in the mood to see Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin in a comedy before they both became... well, not-so-funny, Midnight Run holds up. Check it out all over again.

Blogorium Review: The Artist

 I want to start my review for Michael Hazanavicius's film, The Artist, but correcting two assumptions I had about the film. Coming in without knowing very much about The Artist, I had the following general impressions:

 1. It was French.
 2. It was some variety of "art" film commenting on... well, something.

 To be honest, I was only vaguely aware of The Artist until two weeks ago; I'd heard it mentioned once or twice and then it started winning awards. I thought it was French because the writer / director and lead actor were both French (the lead actress is from Argentina, but let's pretend I was ignorant and assumed they were all French for this hypothesis). That made sense. It was in black and white and I had no idea what the film was about so let's just say I thought it was maybe one of those New York, New York / A Star is Born kind of movies about relationships between famous people that ends up being flawed and tragic despite their "happy-go-lucky" on-screen appearance (by this point I knew it had something to do with movie-making, partially because an article online mentioned that "movies about movies don't win Best Picture"*).

 Neither of which is true, it turns out. Well, the director / writer (Hazanavicius) and the star (Jean Dujardin) ARE French**, but Bérénice Bejo is not, and neither are John Goodman, Missi Pyle, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, and (briefly) Malcolm McDowell. That was the first surprise: seeing their names in the credits. It's a testament to how unprepared I was coming in to The Artist, which is unlike the Cap'n but in a lot of ways a wonderful way to be caught unawares by a charming film about the early days of cinema.

 George Valentine (Dujardin) is a star of the silent era, the kind who loves to showboat for his adoring fans and who has a dog sidekick (played by a Jack Russell terrier named Uggie). His antics upstage co-star Constance (Pyle) and wear on the patience of Kinograph Studio Chief Al Zimmer (Goodman), and his wife Doris (Miller) doesn't take kindly to his public flirtation with Peppy Miller (Bejo), a fan on her way to being a star of the silver screen, but what does George care? He has his trusty chauffeur / butler Clifton (Cromwell) and legions of fans to see his feats of derring-do.

 And then along comes sound. George scoffs at it and wants nothing to do with the gimmick, but when Kinograph moves to an "all talkies" production slate, the silent heart-throb finds himself on the outside looking in. His attempt to write, direct, and star in one last epic (Tears of Love) ends his career while Peppy's star is rising. She sings, dances, and more importantly embraces talking pictures. George lets his pride get in the way of their budding romance (it's fair to point out that Doris kicks him to the curb by this point) - he was at least partially responsible for her film debut - and as she ascends, the continues to plummet into despair.

 So maybe it sounds like I wasn't so "wrong" about the second assumption, but I actually was. Despite what that reads like, The Artist remains an upbeat, charming picture chronicling two stars during a change in eras. It's amiable without being inconsequential, fun without seeming trivial. Like Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, it wears its heart on its sleeve and wants nothing more than to be a throwback to movies without rampant cynicism. Somewhere along the way we forgot that those movies can be more than mindless fluff, so The Artist stands out in that regard, even if I was totally wrong about what I thought I was about to see (and apparently several other people I know).

Speaking of which, The Artist, like Drive, is getting some guff from audiences who don't seem to be aware that it's a silent film. Like, almost totally a silent film (save for two instances used in a clever way to make you chuckle, or, if you prefer, feel whimsy) with intertitles and music for most of the film. In fact, it's a little surprising when the organ / orchestra score goes away and "Pennies from Heaven" plays because it's been a while since you heard a human voice. It's not as though I haven't seen my fair share of silent films, but I don't remember Chaplin's "Nonsense Song" in Modern Times being quite as jarring as "Pennies from Heaven" is in The Artist.

 Hazanavicius also has some tricks up his sleeve to demonstrate the passage of time in The Artist: as the film moves forward a decade or so, so too do the camera techniques, choices of angles, and editing tricks. Later in the film he starts throwing in some Orson Welles-style camera trickery, and finds a way to sneak in some film noir venetian blind action in a scene where you wouldn't expect them at all. It reminded me a little bit of the way that Martin Scorsese utilized different film stocks for The Aviator as a way to move from one era to the other in Howard Hughes life. I should point out that it isn't in a "look at what I'm doing here" way on Hazanavicius's part, but more of a "I see what you're doing there" followed with a grin.

 The Artist reminded me a lot of Sunset Boulevard by way of Singin' in the Rain, which is every bit as impossible as that sounds but it does it very well. The ups and downs of George Valentin's career are loosely reminiscent of Norma Desmond's, but without the cynicism that Billy Wilder laced Sunset Boulevardwith. It has that sunny optimism of Singin' in the Rain, and the jokes about silent-era Hollywood going "talkie," just without the talking. There is, in fact, a scene you'll recognize from Singin' in the Rain, but without the ability to hear Missi Pyle's voice while Jean Dujardin laughs out loud at her delivery. It's a conceit I guess some people don't take kindly to - we're missing half of the joke because we can't hear what they hear, or something.I'll leave it up to you to determine what (if anything) is being said about audience expectations.

 I feel like I'm doing The Artist a disservice by saying it made me smile or surprised me or that it's "pleasant." The cynic in me says that's damning the film with faint praise, but the true is that The Artist is a really, really well made film with unbridled optimism and enthusiasm. If you're one of those people that CANNOT get past a movie where you don't hear anyone talk for ninety minutes, you're going to miss out on something special, but I guess New Year's Eve is still playing somewhere. Fans of cinema are going to have a fine time watching The Artist and dissecting the camera placement throughout the film. Silent Era film buffs in particular are going to go gaga over this film, and I think if you're willing to go in open for whatever The Artist has in store for you, it's a ride well worth taking.

 * I wish I could find that... I think it was on CNN but I'm not so sure anymore. That is actually true though - I checked and despite my misgivings, I'll be damned if a film ABOUT Hollywood and show business ever own Best Picture.
 ** I guess technically it IS French, but it doesn't FEEL like any French cinema I've seen, and I have been exposed to more than just the New Wave

Sunday, January 29, 2012

You Will Never Find a More Wretched Hive of Scum and Trailer Sunday

Midnight Run

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty


The Man from Hong Kong

Silver Streak

The Little Prince

Patriot Games

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Few Thoughts on the Academy Awards Nominations

 And we're off! Some of you might protest that "awards season" begins with The Golden Globes, but I don't watch the show and don't consider any stamp of approval that The Hollywood Foreign Press Association to be worth much of anything. The SAG Awards, the BAFTAs, the DGA, and something I'm sure I'm forgetting are worth looking into in passing, but the Cap'n actually only bothers watching one awards show - the Super Bowl of awards shows, The Academy Awards.

 Like the Super Bowl, it sometimes takes patience to slog through - it's an "insider"'s event, often testing the interest of casual viewers despite its continued effort to be "hip" or "edgy." The abject failure of last years Oscars telecast, one that temporarily set audiences against James Franco and politely look away from Anne Hathaway, is honestly just a continued step in the direction towards more streamlined, less bloated, but less entertaining programming. That the Academy turned back to 1990s standby Billy Crystal is an indication that they really don't understand why people hated last year's show (personally, I kinda liked it) - let's get that guy everybody liked from twenty years ago!

 That's not a slight against Billy Crystal, by the way - the best hosts are consummate showmen (and women) like Crystal, Bob Hope, Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Martin, Ellen Degeneres, and Hugh Jackman. All were involved in very entertaining Oscar shows. Jon Stewart was less successful, as were David Letterman and Chris Rock. But it's not all on the host - the elimination of nearly all of the "Best Songs" from the show was a bad idea, as was the skipping as quickly as possible through technical awards and last year's inexplicable decision to cut down the "major" awards (acting, directing, screenplay, editing, picture) to a bare minimum. In its place, shorter and less relevant montages, more inane scripted "banter" by presenters, and longer commercial breaks.

 Yikes. I didn't mean for this to get into Academy Awards bashing because, like the Super Bowl, I've been tuning in regularly for years now. I'm always hoping for something lively (the Hugh Jackman one, in particular, was a lot of fun to watch) but one can never tell. Sometimes the nominees can give us a clue of where it might be headed, so let's take a look at some of the categories, shall we?

 Disclaimer: Speculating on who will win or why is not my specialty any more. When I was younger, I pontificated endlessly about the logistics and politics of award shows, but at this point, I concede that I can't predict with any more accuracy than the average March Madness bracket pool in your office. That's where Neil comes in handy, so I might ask him to throw in his thoughts this weekend.

 Best Picture

 The Artist
 The Descendants
 The Help
  Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
  Midnight in Paris
  War Horse
  The Tree of Life

 Okay, so I haven't seen more than half of the nine nominees. I want to see Hugo, The Descendants, and Moneyball. I plan on seeing The Artist this weekend. I honestly have no interest in The Help and War Horse, and haven't heard a kind word about Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close until this announcement. And I read the book, so it was a shame to see it savaged by critics.

 Neil might be able to confirm this, but The Artist has the "hot hand" after the Golden Globes, so if it starts picking up wins, I guess that's the favored bet this year.

 Best Director

 Michel Hazanavicius - The Artist
 Alexander Payne - The Descendants
 Martin Scorsese - Hugo
 Terrence Malick - The Tree of Life
 Woody Allen - Midnight in Paris

 Damn. That's a lineup, with only one name I don't recognize immediately. That name is also attached to The Artist, which is red hot.

 Best Original Screenplay

 Michel Hazanavicius - The Artist
 Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo - Bridesmaids
 J.C. Chandor - Margin Call
 Woody Allen - Midnight in Paris
 Asghar Farhadi - A Separation

 It would be great to see Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo win for Bridesmaids, but there's that movie The Artist again... I'm sensing a trend here.

 Best Adapted Screenplay

 Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash - The Descendants
 John Logan - Hugo
 George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon - The Ides of March
 Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (story by Stan Chervin) - Moneyball
 Bridget O'Connor & Peter Straughan - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

  Ummmm... well, I've only seen Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It had a great script and great acting...

 Best Animated Picture

 A Cat in Paris
 Chico and Rita
 Kung Fu Panda 2 
 Puss in Boots

I brought this up because Pixar's Cars 2, a pretty much dismissed sequel, is shut out. In its place? Puss in Boots? Nothing against Kung Fu Panda 2, which I haven't seen, but I heard that it didn't quite live up to the first film's breath of fresh air. Even Rango, while critically well received, was frequently returned to a store I used to work at because its mostly adult themes were lost on kids. Adults didn't seem all that thrilled with its "Chinatown for kids" story, but I'm still interested. I can't speak for the first two films, but if one of them doesn't win, I guess Rango gets it.

 Best Cinematography

 Guillame Schiffman - The Artist
 Jeff Cronenweth - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
 Robert Richardson - Hugo
 Janusz Kaminski - War Horse
 Emmanuel Lubezki - The Tree of Life

 I think you know what I'd pick. You read the review. That said, there's The Artist again...

 Best Editing

 Anne Sophie-Bion and Michel Hazanavicius - The Artist
 Kevin Tent - The Descendants
 Kirk Baxter, Angus Wall - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
 Thelma Schoonmaker - Hugo
 Christopher Tellefsen - Moneyball

 Hrm. The Artist, anyone?

 I'm not going to say I'm surprised not to see Drive (too many confused people), Melancholia (too many people who hate Lars von Trier), The Guard (too Irish), or any of the other films on my best or near best of list. It seems that not being a blockbuster (or being a remake) derailed most of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's attention. I'm a little boggled by some of the acting nominations, which I chose to leave out but are easy to find. This year, aside from the omnipresence of The Artist, I have no clue. None at all. I turn it over to Neil, sometime in the near future.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Spin the Wheel for a Video Daily Double

 Welcome back to a high octane edition of the Video Daily Double, Educationeers! Cap'n Howdy is here to bring your need for speed to a gentle glide so as not to hurt yourself (and others). Always respect the rules of the road, and remember, if you wouldn't pass your driving test doing it, then you're a horrible person for doing it. Hopefully today's films will enlighten you a bit.

 Be a good driver!


 Our first film, Stop Driving Us Crazy!, is an animated ditty about being courteous drivers. I thought about showing you the Goofy cartoon instead, but certain corporations with mice for mascots don't like that. This one is approved by Jesus, and he doesn't pursue "copyright infringement," so there.

 Our second film, Joy Ride: An Auto Theft, is for you hooligans thinking of making off with someone else's sweet ride. Just remember that it's a horrible thing to do and you're a horrible person for doing it. Just horrible.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Retro Review: A List of "Sword and Sorcery" films I've Seen (or Think I've Seen)

 So while I was working on the Your Highness review, I made a concerted effort to think of every movie that falls into the "sword and sorcery" category that David Gordon Green's movie is paying homage / gentling mocking. If you saw the review, I narrowed it down to Conan the Barbarian (have seen) and Krull (have not seen). I also mentioned The Barbarian and the Princess because, if I remember correctly, the VHS has a four-breasted woman on the cover. It turns out that such a movie does not exist, because it's actually called The Warrior and the Sorceress. Again, I'm not really an expert on this subgenre.

 While thinking carefully about it, I realized I could name a few other movies that I've seen part of, all of, or think I might have seen when I was younger. Here is a list with any thoughts that possibly come to mind with them.

  Masters of the Universe - A He-Man movie has to count in some capacity. I've never seen Masters of the Universe, but it was playing in the background during a birthday party / sleepover I went to. That and A Nightmare on Elm Street, I think.

 Circle of Iron - Hey! I actually reviewed this movie - it's a kung-fu, sword and sorcery, parable sort of thing, but there's lot of loincloths and warriors and stupid crap with David Carradine as a leopard dude.

 Deathsport - So I watched the first thirty minutes of this Roger Corman produced ripoff of Roger Corman's Death Race 2000. Instead of cars, there are motorcycles, but first peasants ride around on horses and avoid mutants, and David Carradine is rocking a loincloth / cape combination but also shoots some kind of weird laser gun. Technically it's more "post-apocalyptic" but it reminded me of some of the dumber "sword and sorcery" shit.

 Willow - I saw Willow when I was young, and even then it seemed like a pretty weak knock-off of Star Wars, but with witches and Warwick Davis and Val Kilmer. I seem to remember the whole two headed dragon growing out of some sort of sac grossed me out and I haven't watched it since.

 Cave Dwellers - I saw it on MST3k.

 The Scorpion King - from the director of A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: The Dream Warriors and the pro-wrestler-turned-crappy-cgi-effect formerly known as The Rock. This isn't even a guilty pleasure - I openly enjoy this silly movie that's part Conan the Barbarian, part Conan the Destroyer.

 The Beastmaster - I'm not positive I ever saw all of Don Coscarelli's The Beastmaster. I'm not even really sure I've seen some of this movie, or at all. Maybe I just know what it is.

  Dragonslayer - Like Willow, I saw Dragonslayer and it creeped me out in parts. Specifically the parts with Peter MacNicol.

 Ladyhawke (?) - Forgive me, because I don't remember many swords. I guess there probably were, but mostly I remember Matthew Broderick from War Games and I remember not knowing who Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer were.

 The Lord of the Rings - These movies don't count, do they? I kept finding it on lists, along with Highlander and Excalibur, which I guess kinda technically count. Your Highness does borrow a few helicopter shots of our heroes on their journey, one of which reminded me of a similar shot used in the trailer for The Hobbit.

 Jason and the Argonauts / The 7th Voyage of Sinbad / Clash of the Titans - The Ray Harryhausen triptych of movies I guess are unmistakably "sword and sorcery" or at least "sword and Greek mythology" films. I saw all of these as a kid (funny how I didn't see many of these films after age nine...) and the robot bird Simon in Your Highness is most definitely a nod to that stupid robotic owl in Clash of the Titans. I forgot its name and don't know that I need to know it. I'll pretend its name is Archimedes, which I'm pretty sure is the name of the owl in The Sword and the Stone.

 The Black Cauldron - Speaking of Walt Disney, I never even considered this movie to qualify, but more than one list mentioned both The Sword and the Stone and The Black Cauldron. I saved The Black Cauldron for last because at least I have a story about this movie.

 I saw The Black Cauldron when it opened in theatres and was apparently the one kid in the world that didn't think it was the nadir of Disney animation (see: Waking Sleeping Beauty). In fact, I couldn't wait to rent the VHS tape when it came out... which was funny, because it DIDN'T come out on videocassette. Not until I was in high school, as a matter of fact. Like Song of the South, The Black Cauldron simply vanished from the lips of anyone involved with The Walt Disney Corporation for the rest of the 1980s. It took the better part of a decade before anyone could watch it again. I still don't really get the "sword and sorcery" categorization, mostly because I always connect that subgenre with the desert, but I guess it does fit in.

 Do you like how I mentioned two different Nightmare on Elm Street movies even though they are in no way topically related to these films?

 So I guess there were more movies than I led you to believe yesterday, although I've seen maybe three of them in the last ten years in their entirety. Several of them I only saw once, when I was pretty young, and they didn't make much of an impression. That might explain why Your Highness was slightly perplexing to the Cap'n.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Blogorium Review: Your Highness

  Sucks is a strong word. It's the kind of word that describes a movie that you loathe, that you actively hate beyond the point you'd forget other movies. Roger Ebert devoted an entire book to it, based on his disgust for Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, when he told Rob Schneider that "your movie sucks." There are very few movies for which I have so much venom for that I'd say they sucked. To no one's surprise, Your Highness doesn't really suck.

 (It's okay, you read that right.)

  Your Highness is one of those movies that people sure think sucks. It'll probably win some Razzies if it's an easy enough target, and it was one of two black eyes for David Gordon Green (All the Real Girls): he took it hard for the first film and then was summarily dismissed for (presumably) ripping off Adventures in Babysitting with The Sitter. I wouldn't know, because I didn't see it. In my defense, I'd just watched Adventures in Babysitting two weeks prior. It seemed redundant. But I did see Your Highness.

 Before we jump into the review proper, it's probably important to mention that I'm not exactly a devotee of the "sword and sorcery" films that Your Highness is paying homage to (or making fun of). I've never seen Krull or The Barbarian and the Sorceress or the dozen of other movies that dominated the "Sci-Fi / Fantasy" section of Video Bar. I saw the covers and shrugged. Eventually I saw (and enjoyed) Conan the Barbarian, but Your Highness is paying tribute to a cinematic subgenre I'm not that versed on. Take that for what it's worth.

 Thadeous (Danny McBride) and Fabious (James Franco) are the sons of King Tallious (Charles Dance) in the kingdom of... well, I'm sure they mentioned it somewhere. Fabious is always on quests and Thadeous is at home picking on Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker), his squire or slave or something. When Fabious brings home Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel), a prisoner of the evil wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux), to be his bride, the sorcerer doesn't take it lying down. He captures Belladonna and Fabious, Thadeous, Courtney, Julie (Toby Jones) and brave knights head out to rescue her. With the help of the mysterious warrior Isabel (Natalie Portman), they race to find the Unicorn Blade and slay the wizard before the moons eclipse and Leezar's "Fuckening" begins.

 Your Highness is a film of unmitigated vulgarity. To what end, I'm not sure - profanity seems to exist for the sake of punctuating sentences. There's also some marijuana-based comedy, but nowhere to the degree of Green's Pineapple Express, which I would think people would make a connection to based on Franco and McBride. Beyond that, I'm not really sure what's supposed to be funny in Your Highness, which is unmistakably a comedy. If the mere image of Danny McBride in a suit of armor falling down stairs is the kind of thing that tickles your funnybone, get ready for yuks! There's also a pot smoking puppet that molested Fabious as a child and requires our heroes to, well, give him a "hand" before continuing on their quest. The best joke is an arguably clever bit of misdirection involving Thadeous' punishment for violating the Queen of the Dwarf People.

 I get that there might be some audience out there for people who want to see a minotaur sodomize Courtney before Danny McBride chops its johnson off and wears it around his neck. It's not a large audience, apparently, but I get that McBride and Ben Best (The Foot Fist Way) wrote this in the way a thirteen year old watching this film would re-enact it with his buddies. It's a hard R movie on a large scale (or it looks it, anyway - at 49 million I guess that's pretty moderate) that didn't seem to find its target market. I'm not saying that there isn't one; I'm just not sure how many hardcore Krull fans wanted to see a movie where the evil wizard promises to defeat Fabious with "magic, motherfucker" (actual line).

 So I get why there's so much animosity towards Your Highness. I don't see how it's the worst movie of last year, or even close to it, but the movie never "clicks." That said, I didn't really HATE Your Highness. It's not a "good" movie, but it's not unwatchable. I have no idea who thought this would be funny (well, my pet theory is the people who made it) but it's sporadically funny, there are some decent action scenes, and the relentless profanity can catch you off guard and induce a chuckle. It's also extremely violent at points, which works in its favor. I'm not saying you SHOULD watch Your Highness, even if you are, shall we say, stoned out of your gourd, but if it was on Showtime one afternoon and you were, shall we say, stoned out of your gourd, it's not going to kill your buzz. The cast is clearly having fun (especially Justin Theroux) and the stupid is kind of infectious after you give up trying to figure out why this movie exists.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

What the Hell Were They Thinking? Trailer Sunday



Doctor Detroit

The Garbage Pail Kids Movie

Masters of the Universe

DC Cab


Thursday, January 19, 2012

One More 2011 Post for Kicks: My Favorite Fancy Schmancy Discs of Last Year

 When I started the Blogorium over on another social media site several years ago, I eventually became an early adopter of Blu-Ray. At the time, I worked at a used book store that sold video games and systems and I was able to purchase an 80gb PS3, partially for the games but mostly for the shiny new discs that beat HD-DVD in the "successor to DVD" format war. I wanted to upgrade TVs from the old standby 17" (?) set I had (and its twin, a loaner from a friend who moved) and eventually did pick up that HDTV monstrosity (it's in storage now for various reasons).

 At the time, I was gently mocked by friends for taking such an interest in a "niche" market for home entertainment, to the point that I jokingly referred to all Blu-Ray and HDTV posts as being "fancy schmancy." Now that most of the world seems to be catching up (because Blu-Ray discs are often cheaper than their DVD counterparts and you don't have to get rid of your DVDs with a BD player), I haven't used the term in a while.

 People seem to be moving more and more into the "all digital" direction, to the point that a younger co-worker derisively said to me "Blu-Ray is for noobs!" I laughed out loud, because that doesn't make any sense, especially coming from someone who never knew an analog world. I'm not articulating this well, but I think anybody who has been following the development of home media for the last... let's just say thirty years is far from being a "noob" on the subject. Maybe I'm the opposite - the fuddy duddy who still likes to have a tangible copy of something, an actual library of film, music, and books. I have plenty of digital copies and songs on iTunes (no e-reader to speak of), but there's something to be said for having friends over and giving them time to look through your shelves in the down time.

 We've also established that I'm a "supplement junkie," and you don't get those kinds of extras with a digital copy. I get most people could care less about commentary tracks or making of documentaries or retrospectives, but it's not a coincidence that I buy Criterion discs that have lots of contextualizing extras about the films. To me, that's as interesting as the film itself - watch the second disc of The Battle of Algiers (if it's the DVD, the second and third discs) and then watch the film again. The all digital, just the movie world of cloud technology isn't totally for me just yet. It has its purpose, but it doesn't replace a shelf full of quality releases.

 Speaking of quality releases, I think that was the point of this whole post... I must have gotten lost back there somewhere. Oh well, let's skip to the chase. The following are some of the most interesting discs I picked up in 2011. Not all of them were released in 2011 (I'm guessing with the imports anyway) but it's my list so you'll live. When possible, I'm going to put up links where you can buy them, because several are titles you probably didn't know you could buy and are already available.

 For starters, let's look at this:

 A Nightmare on Elm Street Collection - In the US, we got the first Nightmare on Elm Street on Blu-Ray released in time for the shitty remake in 2010. Last October, we got a double feature of 2 and 3 on one disc... and that's it. Not the worst deal, necessarily - two of the best entries in the series and... well, Freddy's Revenge. Still, it's not like we can replace our boxed set yet, right?

 Not true, gang - Amazon.co.uk had an October 2011 release of the entire series on Blu-Ray. The five disc set replicates the individual release of the first film and then doubles up 2/3, 4/5, and 6/7, with a bonus disc of new extras, including episodes of Freddy's Nightmares, the anthology-ish series that you can only see if you're patient enough to watch Chiller for a week.

 (Oh, Freddy vs. Jason fanatics are admittedly SOL, but that's not really a Nightmare film anyway. Wait... are there Freddy vs. Jason fanatics?)

 Additionally, each of the BD discs has all of the interview clips from the seventh disc of the Nightmare on Elm Street DVD set, but without having to navigate the "labyrinth" to find them. Even though we're dealing with two films per disc, I have to say that all of the sequels look very good in high definition. This set will probably come out in the US (let's hope by next October) but if you've got a Freddy fix, the whole thing is available now. Most importantly, it's REGION FREE, meaning that all of the movies are going to play on any BD player you have here in the states.

  Payback - also region free and available on Amazon's UK site, the release of Payback overseas improves the existing BD release here by including both versions of the film (the US release only has the director's cut) plus all of the extras from both original discs. Whether you like one version or the other, it's got something for all Payback fans, so you can watch it whenever you like, however you like. Let's hope Point Blank makes the leap to high definition in 2012...

 Taxi Driver - Everything included from all the various versions of the DVD, plus the Criterion laserdisc commentary with Scorsese, at a very reasonable price. What's not to like?

 Citizen Kane (Ultimate SomethingorOther Edition) - Best Buy has a two-disc version with Kane and The Battle for Citizen Kane, which is nice, but the super fancy schmancy edition (for a few dollars more) also includes RKO 281 and The Magnificent Ambersons. If you want to quibble, only Citizen Kane is a BD disc, but it's a nice set that encompasses all things Kane with the added bonus of the only version of The Magnificent Ambersons we're ever going to get included as a bonus. The film looks fantastic, by the way.

 Battle Royale - I know Anchor Bay is releasing BR next week on Blu-Ray, but Arrow Films beat them to the punch in the UK with a region free set of the theatrical cut, the director's cut, and an additional disc of extras for what amounted to $35 at the end of 2010. As I didn't get it until 2011, I'm counting it - it also doesn't include Battle Royale II, which is a very nice thing for Arrow to do. That would only sully the experience. I opted for the super fancy, now out-of-print Limited Edition, which came with some other fun stuff, but you can still get the three disc version for a reasonable price.

 The Lord of the Rings Extended Editions  - Is it maybe a pain to switch out the discs? I guess. Are the "appendices" just DVDs? Well, yes. Will I take this over the "theatrical" Blu-Ray set? Any day. The movies look better, all of the extras are intact, and the extra documentaries from the "Limited Editions" are included for good measure. It's an impressive package, all things considered.

 The Twilight Zone - I finally have all five seasons on Blu-Ray, and it's more than worth your while to pick the sets up. Yes, you can watch the episodes on Netflix, and they look pretty spiffy. The sets are packed to the gills with everything a TZ fanatic like the Cap'n could possibly want to see, hear, or know. I didn't think a series would catapult past Battlestar Galactica's complete set, but The Twilight Zone on Blu-Ray did it in spades.

 Blue Velvet - on Blu-Ray, with an hour of long thought lost footage, restored and fancy schmancy-ed by David Lynch.

 I couldn't narrow down the Criterion selections, so here's just a sampling of what they kicked our collective asses with this year: Kiss Me Deadly, Three Colors, The Great Dictator, The Killing / Killer's Kiss, Island of Lost Souls, The Music Room, 12 Angry Men, Cul-De-Sac, Blow Out, Carlos, The Phantom Carriage, and Sweet Smell of Success. That's not counting the HD upgrades to Beauty and the Beast, Orpheus, The Naked Kiss, Shock Corridor, Rushmore, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Dazed and Confused, The Double Life of Veronique, Army of Shadows, Le Cercle Rouge, The Battle of Algiers, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Solaris, Diabolique, Smiles of a Summer Night, or Fanny and Alexander. To name a few.

 Special kudos also go to Lionsgate for slowly but surely releasing Miramax films in a way that doesn't suck (*coughEchoBridgecough*), including Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Cop Land, Trainspotting, The Others, Mimic (in a Director's Cut!), Heavenly Creatures, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Amelie. It's too bad Echo Bridge got From Dusk Till Dawn with all the Children of the Corn and Hellraiser sequels, because unless you want to see what happens when FDtD looks like when crammed onto a disc with both of its sequels and the documentary Full Tilt Boogie, you won't be seeing it on Blu-Ray (unless Criterion gets it... knocks on wood*). Oh sure, it's ten bucks, and that's three dollars more than just From Dusk Till Dawn on Blu-Ray (no, seriously), but it looks like crap. Trust me; someone bought it for me and I looked at all four movies on the disc. From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter probably looks the best of the three of them. Technically they're all watchable quality, but it's a missed opportunity to be damned sure when you see that Lionsgate is releasing HD versions with all of the extras from the DVD versions. Echo Bridge? Not so much.

Finally, I must admit that while nobody else seems to care for them, I was quite impressed in having everything together in the Stanley Kubrick Limited Edition Collection and I also bought the nine disc Star Wars Saga. I watched most of the extras and some of the movies. Guess which ones (okay, one) I haven't put in... Hint: It's EPISODE ONE THE PHANTOM MENACE. I won't be buying the 3D Blu-Ray Set, even if I have a 3D TV at that point. I'm also not going to see The Phantom Menace in 3D. You don't need to believe me because I know that's true.

 And I'm out of steam... there were more, but I'll get to them another time.

* This is not as crazy as it sounds - I still have the Miramax DVD set of the Three Colors Trilogy, and Criterion picked up the rights to that...

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Video Daily Double: The Remake!

 Good day to all my favorite Educationeers! And also to the rest of you, the ones sitting in the back who don't pay attention but aren't allowed to leave. Don't think I don't know that isn't oregano you're burning back there! Today I bring you a special treat for the Video Daily Double: two films that are the same! But different! One is from the glory days of the 1950s, and the other from the troubling 1970s, but they both have the same message: don't trust people!

 Don't trust people!!!!


 Our first film, The Strange Ones, is about people you ought not to trust.

 Our second film, The Strange Ones, is also about people you ought not to trust, but this time in color!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Retro Review: Back to the Future Part II

 This is an odd choice, but a good one; perhaps one day I'll tell the story of seeing Back to the Future and the much itchier story of seeing Back to the Future Part III, but let's start in the middle. Back to the Future Part II was a movie that exemplified, in many ways, what it was like to be a movie geek in the pre-internet days.

 It's true that I did see Back to the Future, possibly in theatres (I was six and it was PG, after all), but definitely over and over again on video. Many of the more "adult" jokes were over my head, but I got the basic story. The hook was the DeLorean, especially at the end of the film. When Doc Brown comes back to get Marty and Jennifer, just as all seems right with the world, he has a souped up DeLorean. It has a "Mr. Fusion" that takes garbage for fuel. Doc is nervous, and Marty doesn't know why he suddenly needs them both to come to the "future."

 "What happens to us in the future? Do we become assholes or something?" Marty asks.

  "No no no no - you and Jennifer turn out fine. But your kids, Marty - something's got to be done about your kids!"

 And so Marty and Jennifer and Doc get into the DeLorean and we get "Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads." And the DeLorean flies into the camera, flashing light: TO BE CONTINUED...

 I didn't know that "To Be Continued" was a joke. At a young age I had no idea that director Robert Zemeckis and producer Bob Gale had no intention to make a Back to the Future Part II. Most of America didn't know that either, but we're all have to wait four more years to find out what happened next. In the meantime? We waited.

 For someone woefully out of touch with the world of popular culture outside the family living room, I had no idea there hadn't already been a Back to the Future Part II for a while. When a fellow student lied about it in second or third grade, I believed him. He said they went back and stopped Marty from setting the rug on fire. To a naive kid, that made sense for a minute or two. I mean, that was something that Marty mentioned in Back to the Future. The failure to produce any other details (at all) meant he was a bad liar and that I maybe didn't miss the sequel to Back to the Future that everybody else must have seen.

 To be honest with you, I don't remember WHEN I realized Back to the Future Part II was coming out - I remember going to see it, and I remember not understanding any of it. Paradoxes, parallel timelines, interacting with your future and past selves, old Biff, the "Fistful of Dollars" setup for Part III, Hell Valley, and the clever way Zemeckis presented elements of the first film from another perspective - it didn't mean a hill of beans to a ten year old. The hoverboards were cool*, "girl" Marty was funny, and I somehow managed to retroactively replace Claudia Wells with Elisabeth Shue in my mind as Jennifer for years to come. I liked the brain-twisting ending, that replayed the end of Back to the Future but with a twist following what we thought was the last shot of Emmett Brown in 1955.

 Otherwise? Really didn't get it. There was too much going on in that movie and I will honestly admit I couldn't follow it. Not for years. The appeal of the Old West and the clarity of narrative drew me back the third and first films (respectively) for years to come, but it wasn't until I was older that I "got" and finally came to enjoy Back to the Future Part II. It's still just behind the first film as my favorite in the series, but a loooooong way ahead of the third film, which is at times too simplistic, to "kid friendly." I appreciate the willingness to really push the story into crazy time travel directions, to subvert expectations, and to deliver a film over the head of its target audience. And let's be clear here, at PG, those films were as much for kids as they were for teenagers and adults, Jaws joke aside.

 Since high school, I tend to alternate watching the first or second film, depending on the mood I'm in, though it's been a while since I watched Part III. That might be the movie itself; then again, it might be the poison ivy talking... but that is another story.

 To Be Continued... in 2015!

 * How this happened, I don't know, but I was never under the impression they were real, which was not the case if you listen to any of the extras on the DVD / Blu-Ray.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Throw Me the Idol, I Throw You the Trailer Sunday!

The Big Country

Land of the Minotaur

Fright Night Part 2

Velvet Goldmine

Lafayette Escadrille

RKO 281


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Year End Recap Part Three

 And now we come to it, the final portion of Cap'n Howdy's 2011 Year End List. Today's Your Highness-free edition includes the very best in what I saw for 2011 (excluding the much lauded Hugo and The Skin I Live In, because I haven't seen them... yet). Of course, there's still Your Highness to deal with, so we'll deal with that soon. That, and the next "Cranpire Movie": Conan the Barbarian. But for now, let us focus on the positives, with the best of what's around. Only one of these films do I hesitate recommending to every single person I know, and that's because it's a Lars von Trier joint, and you have to be a particular kind of masochist to even consider watching his excellent (but soul crushing) efforts.

 Everything else? Well, get out there and see them. This will probably be the longest of the entries because I've only actually reviewed one of the movies on this list prior to today. I will attempt to make brief, cogent points about why you need to drop what you're doing and watch them, but we all know it's going to get ramble-y. That's how Cap'n Howdy rolls.

 I'm going to try to put them in order, but understand that all seven are interchangeable and leapfrog each other on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis.

 Drive - The most unfairly maligned film on the list if for no other reason than people expected something totally different from the actual film. If you look around at the negative reviews for the Nicolas Winding Refn directed, Ryan Gosling starring neo-noir, you'd swear people thought they were going to see another Transporter or Fast and the Furious movie. A one-star review on Amazon begins with "I was expecting a white knuckle thriller and instead got long periods of silence," and there's the story of the woman who sued because she felt the trailer was "misleading."

 Is the trailer misleading? Having seen Drive and watching it again, I'd say that it encompasses the plot accurately, even if it does use every single "driving" scene in the film. There's nothing in that trailer that doesn't happen almost exactly the same way in the movie, but on the other hand there's not a lot "more" of what you see in the film. Drive is a meditative, quiet film. It's about a guy* (Gosling) who is very good at driving a car. He works in a garage for a guy named Shannon (Bryan Cranston). Shannon works for Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) a gangster, who has a blowhard lieutenant named Nino (Ron Perlman). He lives a solitary life until, for reasons unclear to anyone but the driver, he decides to help his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos). Her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is in prison, and the driver knows this, but it doesn't stop him from getting emotionally attached, and when Standard gets out and runs afoul of some associates, the driver comes in to help.

 Where it goes from there should be familiar territory for film noir fans: we've set up the hero, the down-on-his-luck friend who works for shady characters, an accidental femme fatale (there's a second, more direct version of the type in the form of Christina Hendricks' Blanche), and it shouldn't be hard to figure out that the driver puts himself in the position of hurting everyone while trying to help. Film noir and neo-noir are the same songs played differently, and it's the arrangement and performance that make all the difference. Drive is one hell of a song, it's just not the kind of approach most people thought they'd be getting.

 Drive is built almost entirely around little moments. There's not much that happens early in the film - there's a game of cat and mouse in cars that in some films would be the "white knuckle" introduction to the driver, but instead there are long stretches where no one says anything. In its place is Cliff Martinez's minimalist synthesizer score, punctuated with songs that sound like (or are) from the 1980s. The driver always has his jacket on, one with a scorpion on the back, which might seem trivial save for a passing line late in the film that explains everything we need to know about how the driver sees himself without spelling it out. We learn a lot with very little information given directly, from glances, conversations between secondary characters, but it isn't until Standard gets out of jail that any sort of "plot" emerges. It's more of an exploration of the driver's life, of the people who orbit around him, and the way he ruins everything by trying to be the bigger man.

 Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, Valhalla Rising) makes the most of the silence, giving the audience plenty of time to fill in the pauses in their own way, but without testing the viewer's patience. I was never bored during Drive, even though very little happens for long stretches of time. Gosling's driver is a man of few words, but he makes them count, and we slowly learn that he's much more than just a great getaway driver - he's a very dangerous man. Albert Brooks, likewise, is a practical criminal of sincere menace who kills when he has to, but in a civilized manner. He may slice your arm open to let you bleed out, but he won't stomp your head in - the driver will. The silence in the film makes the outbursts of violence that much more potent, more disturbing.

 I think that if you know that Drive isn't the kind of movie that might otherwise star Jason Statham or Vin Diesel, you're going to be more willing to take the ride Winding Refn has in mind, and it's one you'll be rewarded by in the end. I'm looking forward to seeing it again, to put together pieces that Refn sets up early on about the driver and about Rose and Shannon's relationship and to watch how it plays out when you know where things are going. The not knowing is the fun part the first time - if we knew, we'd just watch The Transporter again.

   Midnight in Paris - Woody Allen's whimsical take on wish fulfillment (as much for himself as it is for Owen Wilson's Gil) might be a little selfish for pragmatists, but Midnight in Paris isn't mean to reflect the position of realists. It's a movie for dreamers, for tourists in fantasy. It's a film about Paris in three distinct eras that doesn't cop out and settle for "it was all a dream" in the end - everything that happens to Gil really happens because it isn't the only "objective" character in the film that it happens to. The film is delightful and balances its cameos without ever feeling obvious or tacky. And yes, I'm still skirting around what exactly it is that happens to Gil because if you knew going in you would have a little less fun when it happens for the first time. Allen's pervasive sense of whimsy is infectious, with nice touches for literary, art, and film geeks, and it's the sort of film that asks you to put aside your cynical instincts for 90 minutes. It's well worth the effort.

  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - I could say that Gary Oldman makes this movie and while that would be true, it wouldn't be the entire story of why Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is such a great film. It's true that you're never certain what George Smiley (Oldman) knows and when he knows it, but in his search to locate the mole in Britain's intelligence agency (nicknamed "the Circus"), he is left on the outside looking in at the four options left who Control (John Hurt) expected of being the traitor (Smiley was the fifth, incidentally, which is always to be considered early in the film). The agents in question? Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), and Bill Haydon (Colin Firth). One of them has been feeding information to the Russians during the height of the Cold War, possibly to the long thought dead agent Karla.

 Smiley puts together the pieces Control had in place and must rely on assistance from Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), a member of intelligence willing to help him from the inside, along with a missing agent with a price on his head who may or may not be a traitor, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy). Oh, and another spy, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) who died... or did he?

 The mystery unfolds at a languid, deliberate pace under the skilled hands of director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In). We're never quite sure what it is we know - the various pieces of the puzzle have differing agendas, including Smiley, and every conversation or flashback is loaded with subtext. Oldman's face is a study in underacting - it's hard to say whether Smiley has something figured out or is as out in the cold as the audience can sometimes be. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does require being able to pay careful attention to what's presented to you, as it is a spy film less about action set pieces and more about men (and women) sitting together in rooms and having loaded conversations about something other than what they're saying.

 It's an enormously rewarding film for fans of great acting, and the cast is loaded well beyond the central players listed above. I didn't even mention small appearances from Stephen Graham (Boardwalk Empire, Public Enemies), Kathy Burke (Sid and Nancy, Absolutely Fabulous), or Simon McBurney (Kafka, Body of Lies). Oldman and Cumberbatch, who audiences might know from the BBC Sherlock films, are the anchors of the film, but there's not a weak link in this cast. It's an exercise in the best of British cinema at their best, in a mystery of espionage that you don't tend to see in films today. I'm opting not to make direct comparisons between Gary Oldman and Alec Guinness, who played George Smiley in the mini-series version from 1979, because that's not so much the point. John le Carré was directly involved in both iterations, and they are designed a bit differently. Both are exceptional and reward multiple viewings.

 The Tree of Life - I've heard so many different reactions to The Tree of Life, all from people I know and respect when discussing film. Several were blown away by it, others liked it, but felt off-put by how "strange" it was. There are audiences who outright hate the film, but it seems to me that The Tree of Life, perhaps more than any of Terrence Malick's other films, is something you're going to have an intensely personal reaction to.

 I know what I'm going into when I sit down to watch a Malick film, because by and large every one of them since Days of Heaven has the same kind of approach: the contrast between humanity and the natural world, long stretches without dialogue or sparsely, half-whispered narration. The plots are slight, to say the most, and can generally be reduced to one or two sentences that cover the entire film (a family is split apart while working as hired hands on a farm; soldiers have a crisis of meaning in the midst of combat; the worlds of natives and colonists intersect and change, mostly for the worst). It's not necessarily what happens in a Terrence Malick film that counts; it's the experience of the film that's important.

 The Tree of Life is arguably Malick's most "experiential" film to date: it's a contemplative look at what it's like to grow up, what life as a child looks like, feels like, and in passing ways, what it is to reflect back on that as an adult. It's a film which is more about the experience of being a boy than anything else - how we relate to our parents, to our siblings, our friends, how we carve out identities apart from those influences. There are events in the film that sometimes feel like they have no bearing, per se: the film begins with Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) learning her oldest son died. She shares this with Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt), and we move forward in time to the adult Jack (Sean Penn) reflecting on the anniversary of his brother's death.

 We follow Jack's life, from birth forward, and Malick has a knack for placing the camera in such a way that you always have a child's perspective on the film. It feels like being a kid and seeing the world that way for almost the entirety of the film, something that has the effect of forcing you to relive similar moments in your mind, similar decisions and experiences as they unfold in the film. Early on, Mrs. O'Brien (in voiceover) explains that you can live by the way of nature or the way of grace, and the boys experience the contrast in their parents. Mr. O'Brien is the way of nature, a musician who compromised his dreams to be a father and wants his boys never to accept fate. He can be oppressive and cruel to the family, even as Mrs. O'Brien takes his domineering without complaint.

 The "weird" part that seems to come up repeatedly (other than the ending, which I'll get to in a bit) is Malick's "creation" section, which deals visually with the Big Bang all the way through the first Ice Age, his (figurative) depiction of the way of nature. As the film also loosely interprets the Book of Job and deals directly with questioning one's faith, the "creation" component also figures into this narrative thread, although I cannot help but think that a moment between two dinosaurs is a literalization of "the way of nature vs the way of grace" - even though it doesn't play nearly as obviously as my description makes it sound.

 As to the ending, which I am still mulling over, in part because I think I misunderstood which son Penn was supposed to be playing, is presumably all supposed to be in Jack's mind, although what you make of it is up to your own interpretation. On the one hand, you could imagine it to be similar to the way the series Lost ended, although I suspect Malick is less explicit in what the beach-side reunion is meant to mean to Jack in light of what we know about his life growing up. I'm still digesting that, so let's put it aside.

 The Tree of Life is going to polarize viewers, and I can't imagine how it would be to see this movie as a parent (because I'm not one), but I would think it would have a different affect on those audiences. The visual effects in the "creation" sequence,  including the work of Douglas Trumbull (2001, Blade Runner), is truly impressive and in large parts practical, all the more awe inspiring considering what's on screen. If you're going to watch The Tree of Life, be sure to see it on the biggest screen you can - the experience is one not to be missed. Give yourself some time after the film to let it settle in your mind. Trust me, you'll need it.

 Martha Marcy May Marlene - I know I said I didn't have time to see this film, but after Friday's write up I had a little wiggle room and decided to sit down and watch Martha Marcy May Marlene. I'm glad I did, even if I'm still a little disturbed by the film. The whole thing doesn't work with Elizabeth Olsen in the title role. Her actual first name is Martha, but she's renamed Marcy May at the commune she goes to live at by Patrick (John Hawkes), their spiritual leader. When we meet Martha, she's escaping from the commune, running into town where one of the members, Watts (Brady Corbet) tracks her down but lets her go. Martha calls her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who picks her up and takes Martha from upstate New York to her vacation home in Connecticut.

 Lucy's husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) is happy the sisters are reunited (both of their parents are dead) but seems troubled by Martha's erratic behavior and her inexplicable outlook on life. She criticizes the size of their home, mocks her sister's desire to have a child, and tries to swim naked in the lake behind their home. We learn, in small doses, exactly what happened to Martha (whose last name may or may not be Marlene - you never hear Lucy say anything and the only time Martha ever says "Marlene" is during a flashback) at the commune, all of which directly influences how she behaves when she leaves.

 It's probably for the best that we learn in measured portions the depths of physical and psychological damage that Martha experienced - if the film played chronologically there would be no doubt what happens at the end, but we are instead introduced to parallel flashbacks. Or so we think. It's an interesting narrative trick that writer / director Sean Durkin employs - what we assume are simply flashbacks may actually be moments Martha is experiencing in real time. At one point, while cooking with Lucy, Martha asks her sister "is this really happening or is this a memory?" She is unable to distinguish the present from the past, so the flashbacks we assume are part of a narrative design might simply be how Martha deals with trauma, uncertain where she is in her own mind.

 I won't lie and pretend that the film doesn't go to some very dark places, or that even after they've passed that things get easier to understand (in particular the commune's "initiation" scene plays out for two different characters in two different positions and the second is admittedly more upsetting than the first because of what Martha knows is going to happen). By the time we fully understand how the commune functions, what they're capable of, and how far down the proverbial rabbit hole Martha is, we're already to the films inevitable, unsettling conclusion. It's probably a bit of a spoiler to say this, but comparisons to Funny Games are going to be inevitable. Nevertheless, Olsen's performance is a tour de force and she's someone to look out for in the future, as is Durkin. I can't wait to see what he does next.

 The Guard - To say The Guard is a cinematic sibling to In Bruges isn't just figuratively true - it's literally the case. John Michael McDonagh, the writer and director of The Guard, is the brother of Martin McDonagh, the writer and director of In Bruges, and the comedic sensibilities are very similar indeed. I'm certain McDonagh is sick of hearing his film compared to his brother's, because nearly every review mentions that fact and points out that Brendan Gleeson is in both films, so I'll leave it at that. The Guard stands on its own as a modern classic comedy / crime / police procedural as it is. It's clever, surprising, periodically violent, and full of great characters.

 Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Gleeson) isn't a bad cop, so to speak - he's just learned to embrace his vices. At the beginning of the film, he casually watches some drunk hooligans crash their car and die before wandering over, searching one of the deceased's pockets, and finding some LSD. He then drops the tab on his tongue and so begins The Guard proper. Boyle is the man on the Irish police force who could, at best, be seen as "unpredictable": he has a fondness for prostitutes and schedules his days off to organize role-playing escapades with them, he has a mother on death's door that wants to ask him what taking heroin is like, he's not afraid to jot off to the pub for a drink during an investigation, and he's certainly not aware of the ignorant-to-borderline-racist questions he asks visiting FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle).

 Everette is in the coastal town because drug traffickers are trying to smuggle in a "half million" worth into the city, and he needs the mostly corrupt force to help him. Boyle, who Everette determines is "really motherfucking dumb or really motherfucking smart," is already working on a case linked the the drug trafficking, and the two end up working together for lack of any other help. And it's true - it's hard to tell if Boyle is a fool or just playing one to lower the expectations of others. Everette doesn't believe most of what Boyle tells him, or tries hard not to be offended by his questions about "growing up in the ghetto."

 Meanwhile, the trio of drug smugglers - Liam (David Wilmot), Francis (Liam Cunningham) and Clive (Mark Strong), are introduced debating the relative merits of philosophers while driving around. They're certainly more interested in the philosophic side of what they do than the actual practical job at hand, and the trio are responsible for as many chuckles as the mis-matched lead pair. I need to apologize to Mark Strong for suggesting he was a weak presence in the first Sherlock Holmes film, because between Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Guard, he's more than capable of being funny, menacing, touching, and unnerving onscreen.

 The Guard is, from the first moment to the clever final scene, filled with fine writing and sneaky jokes that hit you a moment later. It's not much of a mystery in that we know more than Boyle and Everette do (having spent some time with the criminals) but the way their paths cross and the climax, which takes on notions of American action film "showdown"s are sure to keep you laughing well after the film is over. It's irreverent, a little naughty, and certainly smarter than most of the comedy on this side of the pond.

 Melancholia - And I saved Melancholia for last. It's appropriate, as the film is about "the end," in every sense. I could probably write about nothing other than the impressionistic opening sequence and have enough for three reviews: it does encompass the entirety of the story to come in ambiguous but representative images. Better still, I could mash it together with the "creation" sequence of The Tree of Life and have one magnificently bizarre interpretation of the beginning and the ending of Earth and everything on it.

 I guess that's a bit of a spoiler, though I can't imagine anyone who is planning on seeing Melancholia doesn't already know that this is Lars von Trier's "Apocalyptic" film, the one that is a literalization of the themes in Antichrist. The world does end and the Earth is destroyed as the planet Melancholia crashes into it, despite the promises from scientists that it would just "pass by us." Life ends, fade to black. Cue the credits.

 In between the beginning and the end of the film are two hours of unmitigated cruelty. There is no hint of kindness on display in Melancholia, only characters who hate each other almost as much as they hate themselves. It's the tale of two sisters, broken up into two chapters: One for Justine (Kirsten Dunst), the bride who undermines her entire wedding night in every possible way, and the other for Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who planned the wedding with her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) and hosted it at their lavish estate, complete with trails to ride horses and an 18 hole golf course.

 They gave her a lavish wedding because they felt the perpetually depressed Justine would be happy if they did so, and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) goes along with it in the interest of lifting her spirits. No sooner than Justine and Michael have arrived for the reception are they admonished by Claire and John for being late and the wedding planner (Udo Kier) refuses to look at the bride who "ruined" his occasion. Justine and Claire's estranged parents Dexter (John Hurt) and Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) are in attendance, although their mother objects to the wedding entirely (and may not be as far off as we first believe in her assessment.) Michael's father, Jack (Stellan Skarsgård), who also happens to be Justine's boss, is more interested in her providing him with a tagline for their advertising campaign than the wedding, to the point where he sends his nephew Tim (Brady Corbet) to follow the bride around until she comes up with one.

 Chapter One, devoted to the wedding reception, is little more than repeated examples of people behaving horribly towards each other, being spiteful, making cruel comments or acting out frustrations on undeserving targets. It's somewhat ironic (and appropriate) that Gaby, who seems to be the most openly bitter person at the reception is actually the only one of the attendees who really knows Justine well enough to give her honest advice. She provides the only act of kindness in the film when she tells her daughter to run away from Michael and the whole event. I have already explained how chapter one ends, so it shouldn't surprise you that Justine doesn't quite take her mother's advice.

 Chapter Two is, by comparison, a smaller affair: Justine, Claire, John, and their son Leo (Cameron Spurr) are the only characters (aside from fleeting glimpses of butler / housekeeper Little Father, played by Jesper Christensen). It takes place some time after the wedding implodes, when a depressed to the point of incapacitation Justine comes to stay with her sister, much to John's dismay. In the meantime, the planet Melancholia has been discovered (hiding behind the sun) and is giving Claire constant fears that it will crash into Earth and kill everyone. John, the Astronomer, assures her this isn't the case, but appears to be preparing for the worst behind her back.

 If the second section of the film is not as emotionally mean-spirited, it is nevertheless more bleak, more hopeless than the portion devoted to nuptials. Justine is now the sober contrast to irrational Claire, and her blunt response to her sister's fears may be as summarily dismissive as anything that happened in the first half of the film. It's not that roles are reversed necessarily: Justine is no more rational than she was before. She is perhaps more comatose, but her outlook is clearer than Claire's: there is "no other life" and Earth "won't be missed" when it's gone. She welcomes their extinction, even as her sister tries in vain to persevere. John, on the other hand? Well, I'll leave that for those of you brave enough to watch Melancholia.

 You won't have an easy time with it - that's not really possible (or to be expected) with Lars von Trier. This is a film unconcerned with human decency, or the value of life or anything else. It is a film consumed with hatred, a film where hope is the sad punchline to some cosmic joke. It is a beautiful and captivating film, but one that dares you to find something to feel good about when it ends. I cannot possibly recommend it to anyone I know with young children - you won't want to watch any part of the second chapter, particularly as it careens towards oblivion. Melancholia is a reminder that art does not need to be safe to be effective, that it does not need you to approve to make its point. It's a combative film, one that will send you to the nearest bar for a stiff drink afterward. It is one of the finest films of the year, and yet I must consider very carefully who it is I send in its direction. Take that for what it's worth.

* By the way, unlike the movie Faster, where the main character has a name but every review keeps saying "The Driver," Gosling's character does not have a name. They call him "kid" or "driver" but no one ever says his name, if he even has one.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Year End Recap Part Two

 Welcome back! Today the Cap'n is continuing my Year End Recap, and we're in rarefied air here. We're on our way to the top, and if yesterday's movie came with recommendations, today's movies are "add these to your queue / get to the store this weekend" kinds of movies. The only thing that separates tonight's list from tomorrow's "Best of the Year" is maybe one teeny tiny transcendent moment. That's it. These are as good as anything there is to offer as entertainment goes, and I don't think you're going to do anything but sit back and have a good time.

 There's still no Your Highness on this list. Again, we'll get to Your Highness, but not just yet.

 Presented in no particular order, say hello to your next few weekends and evenings' entertainment.

Attack the Block - This movie was so close to making the "best of the year", and I still debate with myself about whether I should put it up there or keep it here. The only difference between Attack the Block and the very best of 2011 is that it embraces the pulpy fun of early John Carpenter, which is a really good thing. I have no doubt in my mind you're going to have a great time watching Attack the Block, so maybe I'm hesitating because I feel like I've mentioned it so many times in the last six months that it doesn't need anymore heightened expectations. Joe Cornish does well enough on his own that he doesn't need Cap'n Howdy and Major Tom to toot his horn for him... wow, that sounded worse than I mean to it to.

  The Muppets - It's a testament to the quality of this film - which features none of the actual Muppets for the first fifteen minutes - that I saw it with friends who had already seen the film and didn't
hesitate to see it again. You'll leave with a big smile on your face, satisfied that the Muppets can still be in fine movies.

 Rise of the Planet of the Apes - It takes a really good movie to overcome wafer thin characters, but this film belongs to Andy Serkis' Caesar, and the apes are fantastic. You're not even going to notice the fact that the cgi apes are more believable than the human cast.

  Horrible Bosses - The movie I laughed at the second hardest this year is everything The Change-Up is not: it's certainly not "PC" or even generally in good taste, but the gross out is at a minimum. Better still, the cheap jokes sit this one out for better character-related humor, and the three leads (Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day, and Jason Bateman) are more than matched by the title characters (Colin Farrell, Jennifer Aniston, and the "where have you been all this time" Kevin Spacey). Throw in Jamie Foxx as a more interesting than advertised criminal, and you're going to laugh hard.

 The Innkeepers - From Ti West, the director of The House of the Devil, comes another slow burn horror film where tension continues mounting and the sense of dread is palpable. Instead of replicating the horror of the early 1980s, West's "haunted hotel" follow-up is set squarely in the present, and he's just as adept at creeping you out with slow tracking shots, suggested noises, and believable characters you relate to. Sara Paxton's Claire is a young woman without much of a clue what she want to do or be, who becomes way too interested in Luke (Pat Healy)'s hobby: ghost hunting. She's fixated on finding the spirit of Madeline O'Malley, a bride who killed herself in the hotel in the 1890s.

 On the last weekend that the Yankee Padler hotel is open, Luke and Claire trade off shifts, watching over the last remaining hotel tenants - former actress / new age guru Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis) and a mysterious Old Man (George Riddle) - while they hunt for evidence of O'Malley's presence. West doles out the scares slowly but surely, and only towards the very end do things go the way most horror films go. In fact, if there's any fault to be found in The Innkeepers, it's that what comes before and after the climax of the film are undermined ever so slightly by what we know HAS to happen, even if the subtle clues of why it happens don't always add up. Without spoiling too much, I can say that the film is an example of the kind of movie 1408 could have been, one that eschews cheap histrionics and trickery and deliberately ratchets up the "willies" factor.

 Fans of The House of the Devil are going to find a lot to love about The Inkeepers, but if you like your horror fast and relentless, this may seem a little slow for your tastes. For me? Let's just say I had to watch something else after I finished it, because I wasn't going to bed.

Fast Five - Let's put it this way: I had never seen one of the Fast and the Furious films and really had no intention to until I started hearing the genuinely positive reviews for this film. It didn't hurt that Dwayne Johnson was joining the cast as the guy determined to make Vin Diesel's life a living hell, but I watched Fast & Furious (which ends the way that Fast Five begins) in order to come in with some sense of context on a franchise I'd never once considered before. And I'll be damned if it wasn't entertaining, amusing, with good action, strong car chases, decent characters, and a better "action movie" plot than I was expecting. It's more "Ocean's Eleven" than racing movie, which didn't hurt things. At the beginning of 2011 I don't think you'd have ever heard me saying this, but I'm on board for Fast Six and beyond if they keep this level of quality up.

Bridesmaids - The movie I laughed at the hardest this year. Not since The Sweetest Thing has a film so unmistakably designed as a "chick flick" has a movie been willing to mix the scatalogical with the slapstick and quirk of character. Anchored by Kristen Wiig and bolstered by a strong supporting cast, it doesn't surprise me that the clever, lewd Bridesmaids made its way onto so many critics' lists for 2011. It's a comedy that doesn't pull punches, and not just with the jokes - the way that Annie (Wiig) and Nathan (Chris O'Dowd) come in and out of each other's lives is at times painful. And funny. The important part is that you're going to laugh, so much so that you can convince your guy friends that a movie that ends with Wilson Phillips performing live at a wedding is "cool" for them to watch too.

 Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop - This is a candid, warts and all portrait of the comedian as an insecure middle-aged-man. Conan O'Brien brought director Rodman Fletcher along for his "Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on TV" tour after the fallout of leaving The Tonight Show, and the results are side-splitting, revealing, and at times uncomfortable. O'Brien's rage is bottled up but he often lashes out in passive-aggressive but cruel ways towards his assistant, his writers, friends, and most of all, himself. It's refreshingly candid and also quite funny, just laced with a bitter sense of regret and self doubt from the man in the title.

 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two - I can't imagine how this film could have been made in a way that would satisfy every Potter fanatic, but from the opening shots of Alan Rickman's Severus Snape to the final flash forward, it did the finale of the series justice. If I had to point out just one moment that stuck with me (again), it's Helena Bonham Carter playing Emma Watson pretending to be Helena Bonham Carter's sadistic Bellatrix Lestrange. Did the "battle of Hogwarts" deliver in the ways I hoped it would? Maybe not totally, but the tone of the film is pitch perfect and I look forward to watching parts one and two as one uninterrupted film.
 Super - Of all the movies on this list, I sense Super will divide friends the most. I'll tell you from the get-go that James Gunn's take on the "normal guy becomes vigilante to horrible results" isn't for everyone. Then again, this is a movie from the writer / director of Slither. If you've seen Slither, then you aren't even finishing this review - you're on your way to getting Super. Forget the indie / hipster friendly posters, because Super is the Troma version of Kick-Ass, in all the offensive, violent, and just bizarre ways you'd expect that mashing of styles to be. It's funnier than Kick-Ass, more subversive than Kick-Ass, more wantonly cruel, and stranger than it has any right to be. I was aghast almost as often as I was amused, and if you think that's up your alley, then give Super a shot. If nothing else, you'll never see Ellen Page the same way again.

 Come back tomorrow for the final list - the best of the best that I saw for 2011. It's a strong list, if I may say so myself.