Whiplash

January 21, 2015 by  
Filed under Movies

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’,” says Terence Fletcher, a hard nosed, no nonsense but two-faced jazz teacher. Fletcher, played with vitality by J.K. Simmons (“Spider-man”, “Juno”), teaches at Shaffer Conservatory, and has the most talented musicians at his fingertips. He conducts the jazz ensemble like a drill sergeant, mocking his students when they mess up–even when they haven’t. He expects perfection, and is willing to squeeze every ounce of respectability out of himself to get it. He’ll swear, throw things, bark, threaten, whatever. But he demands the best, and it seems as though he gets the best, too.

Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a young apprentice, an aspiring jazz drummer who has been playing since a young age, looking up to guys like Buddy Rich to inspire him. He plays with a certain drive and fervor that Fletcher likes, and invites him to be a backup drummer (basically turn the music sheets for the starter in the ensemble) to get a taste of being part of the prestigious Shaffer, boosting his ego enough to ask out the local theater girl (Melissa Benoist), and practice his skills. Fletcher seems impressed with his abilities, and he allows Neiman a shot at the drums after the lead drummer loses his music sheets (possibly a scheme hatched by Fletcher). He tells Neiman to “just have fun”–but Fletcher instantly turns on him when he doesn’t hear what he wants to hear.

Neiman is at first high on himself and egotistical for earning the first spot, and somewhat brags at the dinner table to his dad (Paul Reiser) and family members. He mocks a star football athlete at the table, since he’s only Division 3, and maintains that he will be one of the greats. He also breaks up with Nicole, the theatre girl, promising that as his drumming gets more serious, he will not have time for her.

Fletcher plays games with Neiman, allowing another alternate to take the first chair, and putting Neiman down in the process, knowing he’s hurting him. But Fletcher doesn’t care. Only in a very surreal moment when Fletcher stops practice to tearfully lament about a former student’s fatal car accident, do we ever possibly see a “softer” side of him.

Writer/director Damien Chazelle masterfully puts this story together, where it first seems like a standard “kid who really wants to make it and against all odds breaks through” story, it winds up going in a completely different direction. It’s refreshing to see a fresh spin on something seemingly predictable. While it still follows a formula and never strays from being a coherent narrative, there are surprises and climaxes that are exhilarating.

The last 10 minutes of the film had me holding my breath, clinging to my seat, as Andrew beats on drums so fast his hands bleed. He’s desperate…but he’s not desperate to impress anyone. This story is not about how a young kid became a great jazz drummer. It’s not even really a story about jazz. All of the jazz used (songs by Hank Levy and Juan Tizol) is aggressive, muscular…it’s not something to grab a cup of tea and relax to. There’s a fever pitch to the music, which burns inside Andrew and it burns inside Fletcher as well. The film is about obsession, mania, losing yourself to the work you are putting in. It’s not about practicing or rehearsals, or the big show, even though all of those elements are in the film. All Andrew wants to do is drum, and when he gets over his own ego, realizes that the whole world can disappear for all he cares as long as he’s finally “got it”. And Fletcher knows that.

There’s a story that’s passed along in the movie that is a bit made up but based on fact. It involves Charlie “Bird” Parker, where Fletcher relates the story as Parker was performing badly and a cymbal was thrown at his head by Jo Jones, creating the nickname “Bird” because of his reflexes. After that night, Parker never made a mistake again and became legendary. In reality, a cymbal was not thrown at his head. But the point of the story is not even about making a mistake and being punished for it. It’s the obsessive nature of having to be perfect–and not to perform. But to be within perfection itself. It’s so that you have total control over your art, or whatever you do. The film’s standard protagonist is Neiman, and people would say Fletcher is the antagonist. In a way I think both of them are protagonists, and I think the antagonist is the obsession, with the object being jazz. Sure Fletcher is a brute, but what lengths he goes to in order to teach perfection is no less than the lengths Andrew goes to achieve it. It’s compelling, but not preachy or moral.

And it’s certainly not easy listening.

My rating: :D

Carnage

April 14, 2013 by  
Filed under Blog, Entertainment, Home Video

“I wish we could have met in a different way,” is a comment paraphrased from the film “Carnage”, a social commentary film based upon the play “God of Carnage” by Yasmina Reza. I haven’t seen it on stage, but Polanski does his best to bring the theatrical energy from the characters to the screen. And he achieves this through his cast of actors, who turn out some of their best performances in their careers to make this into an appealing film to watch. Also, Polanski uses a few props as symbols to promote some of the themes in the play itself.

The plot of the film is very simple: it begins with a bunch of kids at a playground who get into a fight. We do not hear what they are arguing about, we only see the scene devolve into a shoving match. At its climax, one of the kids takes a stick, and swings it right into the face of one of the other kids.

The next shot is at that kid’s parents’ house, and his parents are Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly respectively). They are in the middle of writing out a synopsis of what had happened to their child, while the perpetrator’s parents, Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz respectively), look on and make minor suggestions as they see fit.

At first, the two couples are in complete agreement on how to handle the situation. The Longstreets feel that they are being polite and civil by inviting the Cowans over to their house, even though the Cowan’s son struck their son with a stick, requiring some dental work and some other wounds to heal.

The Cowans look to be apologetic, and gracious that the Longstreets are being such kind hosts, such as offering them cobbler and coffee. But as the couples continue to talk, what they truly feel underneath begins to surface, and things go the way of the playground from the first scene.

No one comes to physical blows; but the emotional blows they take at each other, all because of their defensiveness and insecurities about themselves, are completely exposed. And, of course, once Scotch is introduced, you know nothing good is going to come of it. But it’s not always just the one couple pitted against the other. Polanski’s blocking shows that sometimes it’s men versus women, sometimes it’s one against three, and sometimes it’s parent versus parent.

Two props are also skillfully used by the director, one that probably first belonged to the play, and that’s Alan’s cell phone that incessantly goes off and he incessantly answers it. In an act of defiance, one of the characters finally disposes of it in a vase full of tulips, provided by the Longstreets to give their living room an inviting presence for the Cowans’ visit. Another prop is the mirror, in which a few times, someone stands near it. Never once do they look at it.

The film only runs at about 80 minutes, and once you realize they are never going to leave the living room, and settle into the characters, you get used to it. Plus, the conflict starts popping quickly, and once the sparks start flying, it becomes a very entertaining film to watch.

As far as the message of the film, and I assume the play as well, this isn’t exactly uncharted territory with regards to the social commentary. We all know how it goes: the biggest monsters out there are ourselves. Using a title like “Carnage” may suggest this is a horror film, and in a way, it is. The characters eviscerate each other with words and try to needle each other, and hurt their feelings. But the way the actors are totally invested in their characters makes this work extremely well. We know these characters are going to hate each other, because sooner or later, they’re going to talk to each other, and tell each other how they really feel.

And honesty is more brutal than any physical object could be.

My rating:  :-)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

December 26, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

Much like the individual films of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, it’s hard to review something you know is simply part of a bigger story. Like “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1”, you’re only seeing a portion of the whole story. Most trilogies are forged simply because they’re just stringing together sequels (like the “Alien” and “Back to the Future” franchises), whereas these films almost cannot be viewed on their own without seeing all 3 of the films. There is no ending in “The Fellowship of the Ring”; there’s no resolution at the end. Same, obviously, with “Deathly Hallows Pt. 1”. Well, we have the same problem with “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”, which seems more like an unexpected trilogy since “The Hobbit”, unlike “The Lord of the Rings”, was only one book.

I wasn’t enthused about this being stretched into a trilogy. Peter Jackson has gained an apt reputation of being rather self-indulgent with the “Lord of the Rings” franchise, and here it just seemed like he was milking it even more.

But after seeing “An Unexpected Journey”, I think I may have been a little harsh on him to begin with. Besides some pace problems in the beginning, and a lack of a clear reason why Bilbo Baggins (played marvelously by Martin Freeman) wants to go on a dangerous journey, the film is certainly reminiscent of the energy and fun that permeated “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. I suppose these could be called prequels; but this is already a better start than a certain other prequel trilogy which I won’t name.

Here, though, Jackson doesn’t have to practically start all over with his palette of characters. We are familiar with Bilbo, but only as an aged and retired hobbit; there is no Merry, no Pip, and hardly much of Frodo. But we are re-introduced to Gandalf; and, at a later point, Smeagol. So it’s a bit of a reunion but not exactly a “gang’s all here” film. Instead, we have a new gang. All dwarves. The backstory is that a dragon named Smaug wiped out much of the dwarves’ kingdom, and the leader, Thorin (well played by Richard Armitage), is aiming to take back their kingdom. Smaug has settled in what’s called the Lonely Mountain, which is where the dwarves’ home is. Bilbo is enlisted by Gandalf who believes he has a higher purpose than just rotting away in Bag End, and thinks he may be able to help the dwarves because he’s so light on his feet and easy to miss when coming into contact with the enemy. And speaking of the enemy, a pack of Orcs are after the dwarves after their leader’s arm was sliced off during a battle by Thorin, after Thorin witnesses his grandfather slain by the war chief.

Once the dwarves and Bilbo have joined forces, the film’s pace quickens, and we’re taken on another lush journey through Middle Earth, and we even get to see Rivendel again. The special effects are very well done, and although there is some shoddy 3-D effects and the high frame rate can be a bit nauseating, the creatures look great and the magic looks splendid. I also liked the dwarves, and felt a bit of pity for them as they’re forced to be forever nomads. They’re not as easily accessible as the hobbits in “The Lord of the Rings”; but they have their own unique charm. The performances by the principal dwarf characters, along with the other main characters, are all strong.

I was trying to think throughout the film what it’s about compared to “The Lord of the Rings”, which is about the journey of friendship and maturing in life. It seems as though “The Hobbit” is about discovery, and trust. The dwarves and Bilbo aren’t going to be best friends. They’re too far apart as people, and there are too many of them to become intimate. Bilbo is more independent than Frodo, and a bit more selfish. With this theme, however, I believe Jackson has enough material to span two more films.

The running time is a bit laborious; but at least the ending comes when you expect it to, and the film doesn’t run on too long in that regard. Besides that, I am a fan of fantasy films in general, and I always appreciate them being done well such as they are in this case. For this, I actually had a great time revisiting this world, and I see why Jackson has spent so much time and effort on this project. You can see he loves it, too, and that this is a labor of love rather than a love of cash. He allows his characters to talk to each other, to have fun with each other, and entertain each other as much as they entertain us. The soundtrack, again, is wonderful to listen to. This is a film that lives and breathes through the Middle Earth, and if you want to take the trip, you won’t be disappointed with it. I would say, however, if you weren’t a fan of “The Lord of the Rings”, don’t make the mistake of thinking this will change your mind. You may as well stay away from it.

There is a thought out there that says this trilogy is making us “pay” for the success of “The Lord of the Rings”. That may be true; but if you’re willing to pay the price, it’s well worth it.

My rating: :-)

Tower Heist

November 8, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

Oh those heist movies. Cute little capers. I don’t think you can go too wrong when you involve Eddie Murphy in them; and even though this one is fairly standard with its typical implausabilities and somewhat thin characters, it is rather entertaining. I call movies like these “getaway movies”. Normally these come out in the summer or around the holidays. This one’s a little early. This would be a great movie to leave the Holiday family woes behind and just enjoy 2 hours of peace and a few laughs. But if you’d still like to get away for 2 hours of your real life (do you still have leaves to rake? that annoying cousin’s birthday party to attend?), then I’d still recommend seeing it.

Just to be clear, it’s not all that great. The concept is similar to “Oceans 11” (which is a better film): a group of charismatic people get together to pull of a robbery. In this case, it’s not elites, it’s average joes. Ben Stiller plays Josh, the building manager of The Tower, a luxurious hotel in New York City. He’s rather mild mannered and well liked by his employees that include Charlie (Casey Affleck), Dev’reaux (Michael Pena), and Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe). He’s also well liked by an extremely wealthy client, Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), who winds up being caught in a Ponzi scheme that winds up including all of them in his losses. The fraudulent money he threw around was used by Josh to put into their pensions, leaving them all with nothing. Lester (well played by Stephen Henderson), the doorman, attemps suicide, and it strikes a chord with Josh who wants to do the right thing and get their money back. The problem is, he takes out his angst on Shaw’s prized possession: a Ferrari 250. So now Shaw, who believes he will be found innocent, wants to charge Josh and that little incident also costs him his job. It also costs Charlie’s and Dev’reaux’s. Charlie’s upset because his wife is pregnant and he needs to work.

But Josh believes Shaw is guilty, and teams up with some oddfellows to rob Shaw of some misplaced money after a drunken evening with an FBI agent, Claire Denham (Tea Leoni), leads to her leaking information about a safe being in Shaw’s penthouse suite somewhere.

Josh enlists Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick) who was recently evicted from the building because he’s broke and was fired from Merrill Lynch, and a guy he knows from crossing paths every morning (and his childhood, apparently), named Slide (played by Eddie Murphy).

So you have the ingredients for a fun little caper. Enough of it works to be enjoyable. I wish it wouldn’t have relied so much on the standard issue heist plot; but I suppose in the hands of someone like Brett Ratner, what can you really expect? The performances are all well done, but of course the stand out is Eddie Murphy. In recent years, I thought he should scale it back a bit and maybe take a supporting role in something to get back on his feet. Seeing him here, where he’s most comfortable being a fast-talking criminal who still can light up the screen, made me want to see more of him. He’s just underused for some reason.

This script was originally intended for an all black cast that included Murphy, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle in which a group of employees attempt to rob the Trump Plaza. In a way, I wish that would’ve been made instead of this. With some of the edgy comedians in it, perhaps Eddie Murphy would’ve still been lost in the shuffle; but you’ve got great supporting actors there. Not to say that Broderick and Stiller can’t hold their own–but their characters just don’t allow them to do much, either. And both actors play their characters completely straight; something I don’t think we’d see out of guys like Rock or Chappelle, or Tracy Morgan (another rumored star attached).

Some of the rewrites included screenwriter Ted Griffin, whose work I’ve always been impressed with (including “Ravenous”, “Best Laid Plans”, and of course, “Oceans 11”), and you can see some of his sharp wit and dialog fused in the script. With some of the characters, good dialog is necessary. Obviously, with Murphy, the guy could write his own and improv.

A lot of the climax is hard to believe, and I still think they missed an opportunity to make a Ferris/Ferrari joke somewhere seeing as how they cast Matthew Broderick who isn’t exactly Mr. Movie Star anymore (and that film is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year).

But again, this is not a very creative director at the helm. And so we’re left with a fairly garden variety film that is amusing enough to pass; but I think we could’ve been in for a lot more treats.

My rating: :-)

Moneyball

September 26, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

Out of all of the sports in America, baseball has the most mystique. That’s always been the pull, I think, in its history. Funny game. Can’t figure it out. We try. We’ve been trying for over a century to put a finger on the pulse of the game. But really, with all of its tradition, its pattern behavior, its rock steady consistency, baseball can be all over the place. We try to normalize it by using statistics to define it. Is this guy a good player, or just a good hitter? We use terms like “5-tool” to quantify how good a player can be. Is there any other sport that we do this for? There are specialists in baseball, but they’re not every day players, like in another sport. In basketball, a scoring specialist can still be in your starting five. In football, a guy with velcro hands will most likely be among your starting wide receivers. In baseball, a guy who just steals bases will be a pinch runner. A guy who can hit in a tight spot is your pinch hitter. If you’ve got a guy with a killer curveball, he’s your 8th inning set up guy–or just someone to bring in to get one guy out. Maybe it’s a lefty-lefty matchup.

In “Moneyball”, the GM of the Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), along with his numbers-crunching economist, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), are faced with a very common problem among any team that isn’t the New York Yankees. Beane is given a very small payroll, and his team’s been gutted. It’s 2003, following a disappointing 2002 post season series loss to the Yankees. Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen, all blue chip players, are gone. So he’s left to replace these players, which he knows, of course, is impossible. After a dubious meeting with the general manager of the Cleveland Indians to try and re-build his team, he takes notice of a kid that nixes a deal that would send a good prospect to the Oakland A’s. Beane is taken by the kid, a recent Yale grad, who is good with numbers, but isn’t very respected by his bosses. Peter Brand thinks there’s a better way of looking at players–their value, rather than just their name or their hitting ability.

Beane assembles a team of players who don’t even know the position they’re supposed to play (one player is a former catcher who can’t throw anymore, and is expected to play first base). Beane faces opposition from not only his team of scouts, but of his team’s manager as well (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman). He’s taking a big risk by doing something this unconventional, and his team starts off extremely poorly, leading to more criticism from the world of baseball.

He’s also haunted by his own past as a can’t-miss prospect baseball player who was actually considered a “5-tool” player by scouts. He was offered a full scholarship to Stanford, but turns it down in favor of playing in the big leagues for the New York Mets at the young age of 18. What happens in his career isn’t uncommon–he can’t keep up with the game. He eventually is out of the game, and returns as a scout. What’s interesting about Beane is that he’ll look at players the same way he looked at himself. He’s a general manager who was also a former player. He has more of a stake in evaluating the talent of a player, in theory.

Not every move Beane makes works out, and what is very obvious throughout this story is that it’s not all about the wins and losses, although Beane can’t stand to lose. He says nothing matters until you “win the last game of the series”. But what he does is put together a team that finds ways to win because they play a very fundamental game. Nobody steals; everybody is supposed to get on base. It’s small-ball.

Eventually, Beane’s approach does start to work out, though, and even leads to an historic 20-game winning streak by the A’s that puts them in front of the American League West division. There’s a great sequence in which the clinching game starts off as an 11-0 laugher in the 4th inning that convinces Beane to, for once, actually watch the game. He is never seen watching a game prior to this. What he sees in front of his eyes, though, is what every fan goes through when it comes to jinxes. He watches as the 11-0 lead is bled to the point where the opposing team actually ties the game at 11 all. The manager, who had been opposed to Beane’s approach for most of the season, finally puts in a player that Beane had selected. This is the guy who can’t play first base. All he’s brought in to do is get on base. What he does, however, is hit a home run that wins the game.

In that whole sequence, we see what baseball is, and what effect it has on people like Beane. Everything from curses, miracles, redemption, and just the oddball nature of baseball, is illustrated in that scene. It defines what the movie is about. You can’t control baseball–but you can enjoy the ride, sometimes.

Some criticism of the film’s portrayal of the events may be directed at the fact the A’s did not “win anything” while this philosophy was implemented. While Beane himself wants to win, the movie’s agenda and Beane’s isn’t exactly one in the same. What you see are the good little stories that come out of a team that was predicted to be laughing stock of the league. And who says there can’t be great teams that didn’t win a championship? How about the Bills teams of the early 90’s? The 2001 Seattle Mariners that won 116 games. The ’85 Boston Celtics. Sure, a lot of it comes down to your own perspective. But the point of this movie isn’t about winning; it’s about innovating. It’s about striving to change. Baseball is always going to remain the same; but that doesn’t mean you have to go through the motions. And eventually, change works, as illustrated in the last line of the film displayed on the screen about the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series in 2004.

As much as this movie involves baseball, those who don’t follow the game or care about it could still enjoy this film. There’s a universal human element to it that can be appreciated by anyone who’s had to face adversity in their life…so pretty much anybody could relate to some of the themes. The performances are strong, and the film has some really big laughs that you don’t necessarily have to understand baseball in order to get. It’s a feel-good type of movie but it isn’t manipulative or patronizing. It’s about as natural flowing as a good, clean, non-Joe West umpired game of baseball.

My rating: :D

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

August 7, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

Look out, Hollywood! The apes are back! But where’s Estella Warren? Hm? Where are you?? She’s gone…it’s all gone. It’s all been re-booted. In the totally original genre called “re-booting” franchises that was handled with brilliance like in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (which would have been a hated movie by me if I could have just stayed awake throughout it)…or wait, I think that was just a remake. This is a true re-boot. It’s like “Star Trek”; except, it’s different. There’s no Captain Kirk, for one thing.

So let me tell you the plot because it’s OMG so totally WeSoMEZZ (I just made that up; think it can become a meme?)

It’s about this guy (James Franco, who holds a record of being miscast in films; I think his streak is up to 5 now or something) who wants to treat his dad (the Harry-less John Lithgow, who trades Sasquatch for a chimp) for Alzheimer’s disease by creating a retrovirus called “113” and tests it on apes. The result? The chimps have a heightened intelligence. This is pretty amazing, of course. But it doesn’t impress his boss, played as standard as possible by David Oyelowo (say that five times fast! starting…now!), and so the project is scrapped. Well, there is a test subject that he takes home with him, named Caesar (named after the dressing), and this is no ordinary chimp–it’s a CGI! (Chimp Graphic Interface). Forgive the cheap joke.

Well, Caesar is quite limber and intelligent, and the film spends a few reels showing something that’s very akin to cut-scenes in a video game as we see Caesar grow up and become more intelligent; meanwhile, Dear Old Dad is given a dose of the medicine as well, and it actually works. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last forever…and he replases eventually. Meanwhile, the guy, Will, develops a relationship with a doctor named…oh…you know? I don’t remember. Why? Because she serves no purpose other than to say a few things to Will about how careful he should be. And they kiss at some point. Finally! The film lapses through about 8 years–this girl knows how to hold out.

Also, Caesar starts to really emo out. He gets lonely and sad, and wonders if he’s just considered a pet (which he is), and winds up taking out his self-loathing on a neighbor (who gets a few shots taken at him…but not enough payoff). He is sent to a little…monkey prison, where he is tormented by Draco Malfoy (well, Tom Felton, the guy who played him) to the point where Emo Caesar starts to really get peeved. He befriends the apes in the prison, and they basically break out and wreak havoc.

And that’s actually where this movie is so disappointing! Here you’ve got a pretty entertaining premise, and Andy Serkis is so good as a CGI actor that he’s basically a human special effect…possibly the best ever. But they go so by the book, standard, garden variety, no violence and no real tension…it’s not that it’s boring, it’s just that it’s so sterile! This movie could have had a lot of fun with itself, or gone the complete opposite direction and make it a real bloodbath. Apes just killing and pillaging and whatnot.

Instead, the movie feels like some kind of weird kid’s movie, which is confusing because kids would probably be scared to death of these chimps once they turn, and I gotta believe zoos better be aware that kids need to be told that A) the chimps in the zoo are not computer generated and B) not going to suddenly go America all over your ass.

Yes, the apes hold our attention more than the cardboard cut out human characters; but they’re also given very formulaic personalities that never really lets them breathe…so we get something that could be maybe enjoyed at a Drive-In; but it could have been a really fun movie if it wasn’t so Studio-tweaked.

I wanted to have fun with the movie; but it just didn’t let you in. It looks good, the CGI is well used, and the emo factor is fantastic–all Caesar is missing are the bangs. And maybe a Twitter account. But this movie just doesn’t explore any of the amazing possibilities (like Apes using Twitter) that it had, so we’re left with a very banal and standard action film that’s so synthetic that we can’t connect with any of it.

I can only hope the sequels do something more; but I highly doubt that’ll happen.

Maybe they could at least use LinkedIn though…

My rating: :(

Captain America: The First Avenger

July 27, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

I remember back in the summer of 1990, I was going to see “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” for the second time in the theatre, when I spotted a really cool looking poster for an upcoming movie. All it was was a shield, red white and blue. I recognized it immediately. It was Captain America.

In my youth, there was nary a superhero film (besides the “Superman” sequels) until 1989’s “Batman”, so I was really excited. I thought, well if there’s going to be a movie for Captain America, then maybe they’ll make a Spider-Man movie, too!

Well, that poster was the last I heard of “Captain America”, the movie. It was only about a decade later when I read that the movie was such a bomb, it wasn’t even really released at all. Back in those days, Hollywood wasn’t about to spend money to churn out superhero movies the way they do now, like a fast food combo meal.

And so, my childhood was left with no “Captain America” movie. And now, into my thirties, I realize by seeing this 2011 film, that I wish I could go back to my childhood and take this film with me. If I were 11 years old again, I probably would have enjoyed the film thoroughly.

Instead, I was absolutely thoroughly bored with this film. Every simple-minded gag and plot device is utilized here. It’s just your average Rah-Rah Go America style action flick, and the lack of depth to the characters and plot would’ve been ignored had I been a kid, simply amazed and swept off my feet by the dazzling special effects. Instead, nothing worked for me.

The film is, like every other comic book movie, an origin story. And like most Marvel comic book heroes, this one is an underdeveloped kid who suddenly gets massive powers. He goes from being the Little Engine That Could to the Coors Light Train, blasting through enemies (who look like a cross between S&M enthusiasts and the Cobra Command) at a breakneck pace. He has a love interest, played dutifully by the amazingly beautiful Hayley Atwell, and he has a boss, played amusingly by Tommy Lee Jones. The only real waste of a good character actor is Hugo Weaving, who plays the main villain known as the Red Skull. He’s so paper thin and uninteresting, it’s really a shame. Captain America himself is played actually pretty well by Chris Evans, who has already had a comic book character attached to his name in his career. That’s another thing that’s strange to me: time was, a comic book hero that became a movie also became the identity of the actor. Christopher Reeve was Superman. That was it. But now, you’ve got actors who are appearing in several comic book movies as separate heroes. I wonder if kids know the difference, or care.

What does it matter anyway? We’re so inundated with comic book movies, they all start to look the same. I enjoyed “Thor” for what it was, and it was at least a bit different. But this movie is just your average, garden variety, run of the mill superhero movie; but it lacks heart and eagerness to please. It’s almost as if just because it’s Red, White, and Blue, we should cheer. It’s the Flag Waving Comic Book Hero Movie.

Well, I’m sure that will appeal to certain audiences. Count me out.

My rating: :(

The Goonies – 25 Years Later

June 7, 2010 by  
Filed under Blog, Entertainment

“Ye…intruders beware…crushing death and grief…soaked with blood…of the trespassing thief.”

How many times have you said this, in that totally awesome Fakey British Accent just like Corey Feldman as “Mouth” in “The Goonies”? If you grew up between the years 1985-1990, you know these words by heart. You probably know half the movie, if not all of it, by heart. It was a defining “kids” movie of the mid 80’s that still lives on as one of my favorites of all time.

What sets it apart for me as a great film compared to a lot of other “kid gang adventure” movies is that this one has a lot of heart; and not only doesn’t spend its running time showing off kids talking in their lingo and being against their parents but the whole plot revolves around a group of foul-mouthed kids who want nothing more than to help their parents. They want to save the Goon Docks, a little neighborhood tucked away in the rainy, gray skies of coastal Astoria, Oregon.

My friends and I wanted to be The Goonies. Of course, we didn’t have to save our neighborhood. None of us had a Spanish speaking cleaning lady who had to beware of cockroaches and live without food or water if she didn’t comply with orders. Also, none of us, unfortunately, lived near a legendary pirate ship carrying thousands of “rich stuff”.

the-goonies
This was the kind of adventure every boy dreams of, hopefully before they get to 16. In the wide-eyed days of 1985, when we were younger, it was still possible to dream that something like this could happen. This movie was incredibly fun, even with the lame typical mafia-is-after-us subplot. I mean, I guess kids movies always have to have a bumbling group of darkly dressed “burglars” or whatever chasing them. At least this one had a young Joey Pants, and the fight over Pepperoni Pizza was funny. And of course, no one can forget Ma Fratelli who utters the famous line, “Kids suck”. But still, I don’t think there’s a kid’s story out there like this one that doesn’t involve some bumbling mafia guys or some lame government plot that only kids can bust wide open.

I like that the Fratellis never steal the spotlight from the Goonies themselves. Their story is even amusing sometimes, and endearing because of Ma’s deformed progeny, named “Sloth”. Plus, the Fratellis are actually dangerous, unlike most other bumbling villains in kids’ movies. We’re introduced to them breaking out of a prison and murdering someone, stuffing the corpse in a freezer at a seasonal restaurant that’s closed. Well, that’s not totally true–the restaurant is somewhat open. But all they serve is pinkish colored water and tongue.

The Goonies realize that what’s important about the restaurant is that underneath is a cave that does, indeed, lead to the pirate’s treasure. The infamous One-Eyed Willie. But along the way, Sloth joins the group, the Fratellis follow them through the tunnels and the booty traps (that’s Booby traps!), and of course there’s a climax where they’re all on the pirate ship itself.

HEY YOU GUYS!!!!

HEY YOU GUYS!!!!

I was first introduced to this movie through a family friend who was talking to my twin sister about it when we were visiting them down in Slidell, Louisiana. She told us about this movie about a pirate and a bunch of kids, and the pirate was named One-Eyed Willie and he had a patch over his eye. It sounded scary to me, and I didn’t really hear much more about it after that. That was because at the time my family and I were living in one of the most remote towns in the country…Lyon’s Falls in Upstate New York. I was surprised that in my second grade class, the student body was invited to a screening of “The Karate Kid”. But nothing about “The Goonies”.

It wasn’t until 1986, a year after it being released, that I finally got to see the movie. Living in Atlanta, Georgia, and surrounded by neighbors who all had kids me and my sister’s age whom had all seen the movie, it was only a matter of time before I finally got to myself. My next door neighbor, whose hobbies including setting fire to things and copying movies he rented onto blank VHS tapes, let me borrow a copy of it. I was hooked from the first viewing. I identified with its main protagonist, Mikey, and some of my friends around the neighborhood resembled the kids in the movie. I wasn’t nearly as brave or cunning as Mikey, and I didn’t have asthma or braces; but I had a bowl hair cut and I was about his height, I think. I liked quoting Mikey.

“Down here it’s our time… it’s our time down here.”

My friends and I had little adventures of our own. There was an abandoned barn down at the end of a street in our neighborhood that was spooky and old. Naturally, we explored it. There was also a field and a forest behind it. I always wanted to imagine what was beyond…I found out later that it was a Seven Eleven. But at age 8, that’s still pretty cool.

Pizza...? Shhh! Pepperoni...? Shhh!

Pizza…? Shhh! Pepperoni…? Shhh!

The movie shaped my childhood, along with other adventure movies like “Explorers”, “The NeverEnding Story”, “The Dark Crystal”, “Labyrinth”, and “The Goonies” famous rip-off, “The Monster Squad”. Throughout my teenage years I didn’t watch it much. I was over all of that, and I had to give it a break. I think I had watched it 20-30 times during the years of ‘86 and ‘91.

But probably about 8 years ago, around the time when it started to be “cool” to think back on the 80’s (VH1 really went to town with all of that…they sure Loved the 80’s…), I really missed this movie. I still had a clamshell VHS tape (those always made me feel weird, because it just seemed baby proofed or something) and I popped it in and watched it. It really made me ache for my childhood again. I couldn’t watch it for years after that.

For whatever reason, “The Goonies” is still a little painful for me because it’s such a reminder of a wonderful time in my life that’s long over. Sounds strange, but it’s like revisiting the grave of my youth. I don’t know if kids nowadays are introduced to “The Goonies”, but even if they are, it’s not the same. “The Goonies” came out in the middle of the 80’s, when it started to define itself as a decade and date itself. There are elements of the movie that are incredibly dated. The clothing (Mouth’s Member’s Only jacket), Stef’s insanely large glasses, Chunk’s Hawaiian shirt and plaid pants (when was that ever popular?) and of course…the music. Some of the songs they listen to are just brutally 80’s teen rock ditties I’m sure were sellers back in ‘85. But now, they just sound bad. Fun bad, but bad.

This past weekend marked the 25th Anniversary of “The Goonies”. AMC was showing it throughout the weekend. Twenty-five years. It’s pretty hard to think about that. When I was growing up I still remember thinking the 25th Anniversary of “Psycho” meant “it’s old”. Now “The Goonies” is in that class. It’s old. It’s a by-gone era. The Silver Anniversary. It’s just not fair. It should never be considered an old movie–but it is. I just listed reasons why, too. But I don’t want to accept it! I don’t want to accept that I’m old!

OK, I had to get that out of the way.

The DVD release, while not providing a true widescreen presentation (ahem), was a real treat. The commentary track featuring the cast and director was so nice to watch along with revisiting the movie. It was like catching up with old friends. OK yeah, we weren’t really friends. But I made so many connections with these characters, that’s what they felt like. And apparently, these kids formed friendships on the set as well, so it was a real reunion for them as well. It was cute to see, and it’s a cute movie.

Everything from Data’s Pinches of Power to his father telling him in his native Chinese “You are my greatest invention”; Chunk getting his favorite pizza (Domino’s?!?) from his mom and telling Sloth that he loves him; Mouth and Stef sharing a moment; and, the hottie cheerleader Andy telling Mikey he’s a good kisser.

Ah, the Truffle Shuffle!

Ah, the Truffle Shuffle!

With more viewings of the movie, more things just become so darn cute about it. Data’s rant when he falls down the stairs is really hilarious. Mouth’s “I’m taking them all back” soliloquy moves me. And I just think it’s funny that Jake Fratelli makes up a story (presumably?) about going to the Bronx Zoo; and then tells Sloth a story (most definitely true) that they spent money meant to fix his broken teeth on brother Francis’ toupee. There are a lot of little things that just come out of nowhere that add to how great this movie is.

Sure, there’s vulgarity that caused some tidal waves from parent groups back when it came out; but even Ebert said these kids sounded “like real kids”. Of course that meant to him that he couldn’t follow what they were talking about. But we, of course, followed it perfectly. Even when they contracted themselves. Contra…contradicted themselves. We just didn’t want to dictate…or delude ourselves.

Happy Twenty-Fifth, “The Goonies”. You’re still good enough.

A Nightmare On Elm Street (2010)

May 3, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

Michael Bay has quickly become the equivalent of a 1st Grade Elementary School Level Producer of Remakes. And even then, I’m probably giving him too much credit because at least a 1st Grade production of something has charm and innocence, something his “remakes” lack. While he’s not the filmmaker, he is the money guy and the one who usually puts these together. But along with “Friday the 13th” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “A Nightmare On Elm Street” joins the clothesline of butchered projects that are coincidentally slasher remakes.

It’s not that this film is necessarily bad. The acting is fine, the visuals are well done, and the make-up is credible. It’s just incredibly bland. And I think that’s actually worse than something being bad. I’ve seen plenty of bad movies. Some of them are just bad. Like “Pulse” (not the 80’s thriller, but the awful 2006 film–which was a remake, too, but not of the 80’s thriller), or “Boogeyman”. Then there are films that actually are charmingly bad, like “Final Destination 3” or “Troll 2”. The remakes of “Friday the 13th” and “A Nightmare On Elm Street” fall into the former, rather than the latter. They’re literally ghosts of what made the originals classics. While those two movies created bloated franchises that became unoriginal and trashy, the originals still resonate today as being legendary horror films.

This film strays a bit from the original, too. And I’m not sure why. They’ve made Freddy more of a pedophile/stalker than a child murderer, which was what he was in the original “Nightmare on Elm Street”. But the film does nothing with this revelation. There’s absolutely no personality to this Freddy. He’s seething, angry, armed with his knife fingers and a bass amplified “scary” voice. But he has no value whatsoever. Part of what made Freddy endearing was his sense of humor about being so diabolical and sickeningly evil. He was a charismatic villain. This Freddy is a real glum one. He is also a pervert. Who wants to see that? It just doesn’t fit.

There’s nothing really of value in this film. People get slashed up, there’s blood. There are a few moments of “suspense” climaxing into a burst of orchestral hits and loud noises that’s supposed to pass for “thrills and chills”. But this is an empty funhouse. Wes Craven was not involved in this remake, unlike “Last House on the Left”, and I think they really missed out on letting him at least be a consultant. After all, it’s his movie. I find it interesting that a good portion of his catalog has been remade. I don’t know how I’d feel about that if I were him.

Like Zombie’s unfortunate “Halloween” remake sequel (I did like the first one), there’s no ambition or creativity at all in this film. It’s there, and it’s got some spooky imagery. But it doesn’t do anything for me at all. I think Jackie Earle Haley (Freddy) is a really good actor. But he was given nothing in this script to really do anything with. He’s a monster, but he has no personality.

So, Michael Bay I guess will keep on churning these things out. My advice is to recognize that every one of his movies looks the same, and every one of his movies will feel the same. Empty.

My rating: :(

Surrogates

September 28, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

The premise of this film is nothing we haven’t seen before. I was immediately reminded of a lot of different films, such as “Blade Runner”, “Strange Days”, “Total Recall”, and even “The Terminator”. The idea revolves around our own feeling that we need to create a perfect self, since we are so full of flaws. Of course, this is primarily driven by aesthetics. Our imperfections on our body, and nothing else, has driven this human race to go through incredible lengths to make ourselves look better. In this case, you can do so by creating a “puppet” of yourself, and hook yourself up remotely to this “double” of yours. They’re known as “surrogates”, and almost 90% of them look like they were spawned from the Bret Easton Ellis universe. You can live out your wildest fantasies with these things, and if they die? No worries. You aren’t affected. You can just buy another one.

Until one night, an operator is killed along with his surrogate. And the operator just happens to be the son of the creator and former CEO of the company that makes them. The FBI is brought in, and the main team on the case includes Agent Greer (played by Bruce Willis); of course a covert plot is uncovered, and just about everything you can imagine from a garden variety action thriller ensues.

The film begins almost like “District 9” does, with a series of “explanatory” scenes that bring us up to date on the technology and progression of the “Surrogate” project; but that would be the only similarity I’d draw between the two. Where “District 9” blatantly has a purpose and an agenda, “Surrogates” plays around and dances around a lot of interesting themes and doesn’t delve into any of them. Instead the film just delivers a tired plot and an underdeveloped theme of losing your identity and self through these robots.

There is a collection of humans, known as Dreads, that have “reservations” as it were, where no surrogates are allowed. Their leader is The Prophet–and would you guess that he’s got dreadlocks? I mean, that is pretty much a guaranteed symbol of enlightenment and power. But there’s a twist with The Prophet–one you can see coming a mile away if you’re paying attention in the least. But again, these scenes with the Dreads are very trite and predictable, and nothing really interesting happens with them.

There could have been a lot to this movie. I’m guessing the graphic novel series it’s based on digs more into the themes of human insecurity and our thirst for beauty and youth. The film only runs at 90 minutes, so there wasn’t a lot of room for these different ideas to grow. But then why make the film? Why did we need another action film with a flimsy who-dun-it story and a pathetic excuse for a car chase climax?

And while I’m on a roll, why does every single IT/Computer hacker have to resemble Harry Knowles? Seriously. Have some imagination!

While the film is an utter disappointment for what it could have been, it does deliver in some respects. If you were missing Bruce Willis with hair, for one, you get to see that. Also, there are some interesting scenes between him and his wife, about their deceased son. But overall, the movie takes itself too seriously and it doesn’t develop itself enough to really care about these characters, nor does it give you any sense of discovery about human worth and whatnot.

But what did you expect from the screenwriters of “Terminator Salvation” and “The Game”? I hope not much.

My rating: :?

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