Thursday, February 20, 2014

Two Girls, a Guy, and a Couple of Little White Pills: "Wild Girl Waltz" (2012)

A virtually plotless film that scores more laughs than some mainstream "stoner" comedies.

Best friends Angie (Christina Shipp) and Tara (Samantha Steinmetz) decide to take a couple of mystery pills to get over a boring day sitting around the house (after Angie got a milkshake thrown at her while walking along a road). The pills give them the high they wanted, and they enlist Brian (Jared Stern), who happens to be Tara's boyfriend and Angie's brother, to hang out with them. The trio drive around their small town, still bored.

Yup, that's pretty much it, yet writer/director Mark Lewis lets his cast score some big laughs. I have never been much of a stoner comedy fan (the allure of Cheech and Chong escapes me to this day), but Shipp and Steinmetz are so naturally funny before and after they pop the pills. We get to see a few other characters (a guy who owes Brian money, a hunky bartender who Angie flirts with), and we get to experience the small town boredom Angie and Tara are feeling. This isn't deep, navel gazing comedy, and Lewis does pad the film with a little too many driving scenes. Not all the laughs hit, too, much like when your "funny" friends get drunk or high.

The three leads have a chemistry that is pretty astounding. Shipp, Steinmetz, and Stern are natural together, and Lewis lets them do their thing. I don't know how much of this was improvised, but the goofiness of the women's high is almost natural.

Lewis keeps things small and intimate, and therefore successful. "Wild Girl Waltz" isn't as wild as you think it will get, but it is funny enough to recommend. For more information, visit their website. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Hollywood's Babylon: "Babylon A.D." (2008)

This much maligned Vin Diesel film doesn't deserve the hate it has received.

In a rather simple story, mercenary Toorop (Vin Diesel) is hired by Gorsky (Gerard Depardieu, sporting the ugliest make up in film history...I hope that's makeup) to deliver a girl to from Mongolia to New York. This is all well and good, except the film takes place in the future, where terrorism, global warming, and a new cult-like religion rule an overpopulated planet (New York City's head count is at 32 million). Toorop picks up the girl, Aurora (Melanie Thierry), and Aurora's adoptive mother, Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh).

Toorop and his charge encounter a lot of what you might expect in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but director Mathieu Kassovitz acts as if you haven't seen a Mad Max film, and almost gets away with it. His action sequences are insanely good, rivaling a James Bond film in their excitement. His vision of the future owes a lot to "Blade Runner" (it's funny to see that Coca-Cola owns EVERYTHING), although motel water credits and everywhere-advertising isn't that far from the imagination.

The film was dumped in theaters in late summer of 2008 with almost no advertising, and Kassovitz disowned his creation. I watched the 101 minute uncut version on video (not bothering with the ninety minute theatrical version, which apparently is incomprehensible), but the longer version is still unsatisfying. Diesel plays well with the other cast mates, turning in a nice performance, although the tough mercenary who develops a conscience has been seen before. Charlotte Rampling comes along late as the high priestess of the cult, and this turn in the plot feels all wrong. I'm not familiar with Maurice Dantec's source novel, but the ending, which seemed to hopefully set up a sequel or franchise, is infuriating mostly because you know "Babylon A.D. Part II" is not on anyone's horizon. I am not sure if this longer version is simply more action and plot added to recoup losses (the film was a box office disaster), or if Kassovitz had a hand in this version. Either way, I hope we don't get a bunch of versions of this over the next few years, just like "Blade Runner."

"Babylon A.D." is an interesting failure, and full of irony. In a future run by mega-corporations, the film was mucked up by...a mega-corporation. The future is now, it seems. (* * *) out of five stars.

A Method to the Manliness: "The Men" (1950)

Marlon Brando's film debut is a short, intense drama.

Ken (Marlon Brando) was shot during World War II, and finds himself in a veterans' hospital with other men suffering from "paraplegia," or paralysis. He is angry, depressed, and in a room on his own when his tough doctor Brock (Everett Sloane) puts him in an open ward with others who suffer from the same condition. There he meets gambler Leo (Richard Erdman), reserved Norm (Jack Webb), and inspiring bodybuilder Angel (Arthur Jurado). Ken's fiancee Ellen (Teresa Wright) has been keeping track of Ken without seeing him (his wishes). She decides to hold him to their engagement, reenters his life, and Ken and his group of friends try to deal with life outside their hospital comfort zone, battling prejudice and gawking.

This film came out in 1950, the decade that saw "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "On the Waterfront," Brando's triumphs. He is so good here. Erdman provides enough levity to keep this from being a suicidal, brooding melodrama. Webb is unrecognizable as Norm, but the three actors work well together. This was Arthur Jurado's only film, and that is a shame. He was disabled in real life, and died before the age of 40. Onscreen, he is handsome, and has a natural screen talent that comes along once in a long while. The fate of his character is heartbreaking. Sloane should have received an Oscar nod for Supporting Actor. He is phenomenal, and matches Brando line for line. Wright does some nice work as Ellen, overconfident in her ability to live the rest of her life with a wheelchair-bound man. The film uses actual patients from the hospital in the background and in small roles, which adds to the realism of the story. Ironically, DeForest Kelley is also on hand- playing a doctor! Screenwriter Carl Foreman smartly opens the film with a question and answer session with family members of the patients, and tries to bring up the issues of surrounding spinal cord injuries without offending the filmgoers' sensibilities. It was more difficult to talk about sexual, and bowel, issues back in the day. Foreman does push the envelope with is Oscar nominated story, the rage and frustration is on full display.

Zinnemann's direction is outstanding and unobtrusive. He doesn't beat the viewer over the head, letting us see little moments that tell us a lot about the characters. One huge drawback to the film is Dimitri Tiomkin's screeching musical score. There are some scenes that had me wondering why there was music playing at all, and I kept hitting mute thinking it was coming from another television in my building. He tries to amp the emotion up, but the actors don't need any of his help.

"The Men" came out years before "Coming Home" and "Born on the Fourth of July," but can compete with those films for showing what war-time injuries, both physical and psychological, can do to returning soldiers and other support. A nice debut from one of our greatest actors. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Straight from the Horse's Ass: "Beer for My Horses" (2008)

Forget the damn horses, humans will want to be numbing their brain cells with alcohol after watching this.

Toby Keith is "Rack" Racklin, a kind of stupid deputy in a small town in southwestern Oklahoma. He and his best friend, an even stupider deputy named Lonnie (Rodney Carrington) serve under a weary sheriff (Tom Skerritt, being overly serious for such a throwaway role). Rack has just broken up with his girlfriend (Gina Gershon), for the final time when he finds out his old high school sweetheart Annie (Claire Forlani) has returned to town to take care of her sick mother. Rack never did get along with Annie's stepfather (Barry Corbin), but the two take up where they left off before she left for the bright lights of Chicago.

Rack and Lonnie arrest a Mexican cartel drug lord (Greg Serano) who was trying to steal fertilizer for methamphetamine production, and in retaliation, the drug lord's powerful brother (Carlos Sanz) kidnaps Annie and holds her hostage across the border in Mexico. Our intrepid heroes decide to road trip to rescue her, meeting up with assorted colorful folk along the way in the form of a carnival troupe in their down season headed up by Willie Nelson (who sang with Keith in the awful song that inspired this awful movie).

I have so many thoughts running through my head after sitting through this- none of them good. Before you think "here's another urban non-country music fan trashing one of our own," I should tell you that I am a fifth generation born Texan. I have been to one of the towns where the film takes place, visiting family who lived there for almost a decade (and by the way, New Mexico makes a poor stand-in for Oklahoma). I am first and foremost a fan of good movies, and this is not a good film at all.

This was cowritten by Keith and Carrington. I have never seen Carrington's stand-up act, a lot of my friends are fans, but if this is his idea of funny, I don't think I'll be headed over to YouTube to check him out anytime soon. The film is top heavy with cameos and bit parts for anyone who happened to wander onto the set. It's nice to see Mel Tillis again, but if all of these scenes were cut, the film would run about an hour. The film makers wisely give Ted Nugent only two words of dialogue, he's awkward even playing his part silently. The rest of the cast is awful, Gershon comes off best simply because she has one scene and is lucky enough to disappear from the rest of the film.

The funniest thing that happens in the film is completely lost on the characters, and the film makers. In the climax, the true villain behind the big case is revealed, and it shocks the hell out of Rack (we even get the obligatory "talking villains" spelling out to our simple-minded heroes how they committed the crimes). As a member of the audience, you will have this "twist" figured out as soon as this person appears onscreen earlier in the film. Rack and Lonnie don't do any detective work, or enforce laws of any kind. They drive down to a foreign country in a souped-up Ford (the film serves as an infomercial for Ford pickup trucks), shoot a bunch of stuff, and come back spoiler, you don't honestly think a film that makes "The Dukes of Hazzard" look like "Dog Day Afternoon" is going to put any of their cast in any real jeopardy, do you?

I've wasted enough words describing the awfulness of this film, without going into too much detail about Keith's performance (what is he constantly smiling at?), Carrington's borderline mentally challenged character, the white trash small town folks, and Dan Rather's unspeakable cameo (oh, how the mighty have fallen). This was released into less than a hundred theaters, and grossed less than a million dollars. That is how much confidence the studio had in "Beer for My Horses." I am confident that if you have more than half a brain, you won't bother with this. (*) out of five stars.

Mine Camp: "King Solomon's Mines" (1950)

It's faint praise when one of the nice things you can say about a film is that it is ten times better than one of its remakes.

Allan Quatermain (a sunburned Stewart Granger) is a safari guide in equatorial Africa, schlepping rich white guys around to shoot at giant animals who don't pose much threat. He is approached by the proper Elizabeth (an unusually annoying Deborah Kerr) and her brother John (Richard Carlson). For more money than Allan has ever made, Elizabeth wants him to lead them into dangerous unexplored territory to look for her missing husband. He wandered off years ago in search of some rumored diamond mines (the film's title), and hasn't been heard from since. Elizabeth insists on coming along, and Allan reluctantly agrees.

The vast majority of the film involve the trio's exposure to the wilds of Africa, its animal life, and native tribes. It quickly bogs down as the mystery of what happened to Elizabeth's husband is forgotten as Allan protects Elizabeth time and time again from every creature the film makers could lay their hands on. Her over-the-top, screeching-woman-in-peril helplessness is a surprise, since her character is not in H. Rider Haggard's source novel, and she is the product of the imagination of a female screenwriter.

The film was an odd nomination for the 1950 Best Picture Oscar, probably benefiting from the "All About Eve"/"Sunset Boulevard" split. It did win an Academy Award for Robert Surtees' cinematography (the opening credits sequence alone probably clinched the nomination), as well as film editing. There is no musical score here, with the exception of the music that the native tribes sometimes dance to. While this travelogue aspect of the film might have been fascinating when it was released, now it seems quaint and a little dull. There is some animal violence here, too. I'm not sure how much of it is real, but the ASPCA might have had something to say about many sequences.

The film is credited to two directors, since one apparently left the production midway through, but there is no noticeable change in the shooting style. Being on location, with hundreds of extras and wild animals, there really is no style onscreen at all. The camera set-ups are standard, as if they hurried to get a shot before anything could go wrong. The cast is good, but it's hard to steal scenes from an entire continent. I didn't care much about Allan and Elizabeth's blooming love (they don't get along in the beginning, so their mutual passion for each other was just a matter of time), and poor Richard Carlson is relegated to "the other white guy" role, mimicking the more manly Granger.

Haggard's novel has been filmed many times over the years, most infamously in the mid-1980's. That film starred Richard Chamberlain and Sharon Stone, ripped off the Indiana Jones films, and is absolutely horrid. This version of "King Solomon's Mines" is a messy improvement on that film, but not a "classic" by a long shot. (* * *) out of five stars.

Friday, February 14, 2014

You'll Love It...If You've Never Seen a Television Show Before: "Breakin' All the Rules" (2004)

This mild romantic comedy's title is all wrong. This doesn't even bend any rules, romantic or filmwise, much less break any.

Quincy (Jamie Foxx) is dumped by his beautiful model girlfriend at the same time his magazine editor boss Philip (Peter MacNicol) wants Quincy to come up with some pointers on how to fire people effectively, given his brief graduate school career in psychology. Quincy quits, holes up in his home with his ex-girlfriend's pug, and uses his knowledge of psych research to write a self-help book on how to end a relationship. Best friend and cousin Evan (Morris Chestnut) tries out the tips, is successful, and Quincy's old magazine hires him back as his book becomes a best seller.

Cue the sitcom complications. Evan has been seeing Nicky (the always, ALWAYS beautiful Gabrielle Union), but he thinks she wants to dump him. He asks Quincy to talk him up, but not knowing that she is Evan's girl, Quincy starts dating her instead. Meanwhile, Philip is trying to get rid of his gold digger girlfriend Rita (Jennifer Esposito), and asks Quincy for help. Rita ends up mistaking Evan for Quincy, and the wacky mistaken identities plot lurches through the grand finale.

Like I said, this is sitcom level stuff, even featuring a bit of dialogue along the lines of "he doesn't know I know." The cast is certainly game, with Foxx turning in a good leading performance. I wish writer/director Daniel Taplitz would stop riding the fence on whether Evan is a heel or not. Chestnut is fine in a very undefined role. The rest of the cast, including a pre-Oscar Octavia Spencer, is up to the task of doing what they can with the material, with MacNicol coming off best. Taplitz's direction is good, helped with some fine comically timed editing by Robert Frazen. The musical score is overwhelming, though, with loud cues telling you when something is funny.

Because this plays like an hour and a half sitcom episode, the "complications" are anything but complicated. Yes, the cast goes through the paces, but their energy seems to wan as the film goes on. Aside from a very funny sight gag in the finale, the climax is both weak and predictable.

"Breakin' All the Rules" suffers from both familiarity, and a lousy title. It's not terrible, but not memorable, either. (* * *) out of five stars.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Three Little Pigmalions: "Hoi Polloi" (1935)

The Three Stooges go the "Pygmalion"/"My Fair Lady" route in this funny short film.

Two professors (Robert Graves and Henry Holman) make a $10,000 wager that one of the men can turn three uncouth men off the street into gentlemen. They find three garbage men (our Three Stooges- Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Curly Howard) who would be perfect candidates. They stay with the professor for months, taking etiquette and dance lessons, until their big society debut at a classy party. This is the highlight, with Curly dealing with a couple of hilariously awful dance partners.

All the old bits are here, but remember they were new bits back in the day! A still-funny sequence has the dance instructor (Geneva Mitchell) telling the three to do everything she does, just before a bee flies down the back of her dress. The slap and punching choreography is top-notch, and the other cast members get into the act by the end of the film. Lord does well with his direction, matching the performers.

I have never been a fan of colorizing black and white films, but Columbia/Tri-Star does a good job here. Their choice of crayon color costuming for the Stooges is hilarious, but the technology still isn't quite there yet, although the colorized print I saw was done about a decade ago (and for some reason, tacked on to a DVD release of Jamie Foxx in "Breakin' All the Rules").

"Hoi Polloi" is good, funny, surreal physical comedy from the kings of slapstick. They were at the top of their game. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Queen Margo: "All About Eve" (1950)

It's infamous, now, the film with the classic line "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night," but this 1950 look at an aging actress and the people who surround her is just as fresh and fun as the day it was released.

Margo Channing (Bette Davis) has passed forty years of age. She is THE star of a Broadway play, and her every need is catered to by Birdie (the acidic and always excellent Thelma Ritter). She has an on-again/off-again romantic relationship with her play's director, Bill (Gary Merrill), and is best friends with the playwright Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe) and especially his wife Karen (Celeste Holm). On the periphery is the theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), who has made himself a part of the theater community despite what he writes about it.

But the title is "All About Eve," and Anne Baxter's Eve is very important. She is a naive homeless waif from Wisconsin who watches Margo onstage every night. She is brought backstage to meet her idol, by Karen, and everyone's lives change. The film opens with Eve receiving a grand theatrical award, so right away we know she not only succeeds in becoming an actress, but we watch as her presence upsets the star routine Margo and her circle of friends have become accustomed to.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz has written a flawless screenplay. The film is so full of memorable quotes and double entendres, you can barely keep up. Hollywood, television, and even other well-known actors and actresses are hung out to dry by these theater people. His direction is great. This could easily be adapted into a stage play, there are certainly many memorable set-pieces that would transfer very well. However, Mankiewicz opens it up, and his final shot of an actress standing in front of a bunch of mirrors gave me the chills. I kept hearing strains of "Gone With the Wind" in Alfred Newman's musical score, but other than that and a badly shot sidewalk scene, the technical side is first-rate.

What can I say about the cast that has not already been said? Of the twenty acting Academy Award nominations in the year 1950, this film had five performers nominated (Baxter, Davis, Holm, and Ritter, and the Supporting Actor win to Sanders). The film's fourteen Oscar nominations is still a record today (shared with 1997's "Titanic"). Anne Baxter can change from a pie-eyed starstruck fan into a scheming ingenue, and back again, at the drop of a hat. Marlowe and Merrill are also excellent in two very ignored performances. Holm is wonderful, she has a scene in a broken-down car with Davis that is incredible. I wished Ritter was in this more often, she always brings a comforting shot to a role. Marilyn Monroe, in a small role here, is fantastic. Funny, sexy, and you can tell she was going to be a star. Actors and directors alike should study the belated birthday party for Bill scene. Davis delivers her most famous line here, but the entire sequence is an exercise in how to act in a film. Not one bad performance or line to be seen or heard.

Judy Holliday beat out Bette Davis for the Oscar that year, but more people remember Davis' performance today. It is flawless. Since I am going through the same middle age issues Channing is going through (she laments that Bill is EIGHT years younger!), maybe Davis' lines and expressions meant more to me now. She is excellent- bitchy, fragile, Holm remarks in the film, I'm going to run out of adjectives.

Theater people will especially get a kick out of "All About Eve," and the backstage drama behind the onstage drama. There are still people like this around today, in theaters and real life. This isn't a slam against theater, it's a factual statement. Another factual statement is that this film is one of the best of the 1950's, featuring perhaps the best female film performance of all-time. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Let Go and Let Goddess: "The Book of Jane" (2013)

Sometimes intriguing, sometimes incomprehensible, Antero Alli's story of a friendship between a university professor and a homeless person does not play out like you might expect.

Alice (Marianne Shine) is a tough comparative religion professor, settling down with her younger partner, Collette (Madeline H.D. Brown). Collette is an artist, and Alice is her muse. The first half of the film is seen through the eyes of Jane (Luna Olcott), a "nomadic" (not homeless) woman who lives by a creek on Alice's campus. She strikes up a conversation with the professor one day, and Alice is intrigued by Jane. Alice is working on a new book about Goddess theory, and Jane offers up intelligently worded questions and critiques, when she isn't crassly telling people about her constipation due to the intense medications she is on. Eventually, Collette and Alice invite Jane to dinner, and the second half of the film deals with the fateful night and how it changes the couple's lives.

Alli's film is a dense story that I am not going to pretend to completely understand. There are some wonderful visuals, I assume we are seeing what Jane's eyes see, but many of the philosophical conversations between Alice and Jane lost me. I don't have a background in comparative religion. What I did appreciate was Alli's direction. His camera is in the characters' faces, the viewer will feel like they are sitting with the actresses. He thankfully doesn't call attention to his vision, every shot seemed both natural and thought-out. Alli also does not man-bash for close to two hours. His script is too intelligent to take that easy way out.

The cast is excellent across the board, considering the difficult subject matter. I liked the characters, and want to give special notice to Felecia Faulkner as a detective brought in to question Alice and Collette at one point. The cast is small and wonderful. The song score is very appropriate, and Alli's cinematography is interesting. Technically, the film is well-made despite its small budget.

This is not a popcorn munching story for the masses. Alli seems to want to say something about feminism and religion, his other works also deal with more cerebral fare. It isn't for all tastes, but I found enough in "The Book of Jane" to recommend it. (* * * *) out of five stars.