Thursday, December 18, 2014

Pretty Goodfellas: "Wise Guys" (1986)

Brian De Palma is not the first director you would think of to helm a slapstick-laden comedy about the mob, but he gives George Gallo's first produced screenplay a try, and succeeds for the most part.

Best friends Harry (Danny DeVito) and Moe (Joe Piscopo) are two low level Mafia operatives working for Tony Castelo (Dan Hedaya). How low level are they? They run around Newark taking care of his grocery lists and dry cleaning, and Castelo's other henchmen take bets on whether they will survive starting the Don's luxury car. The duo is entrusted to place a twenty-five thousand dollar bet at a horse track, but decide to put it on another horse and lose, costing Castelo a quarter of a million dollar windfall. Castelo decides to teach them a lesson, and takes out a contract on the men- but with Moe hired to kill Harry, and Harry hired to kill Moe. Normally, the laughs would start there, but Gallo throws in a trip to Atlantic City and a few scenes with Bobby (Harvey Keitel), one of Harry and Moe's friends from the past. Harry works hard trying to come up with the money to get things right with Castelo, and Bobby sees an opportunity as well.

De Palma's direction has always been a little intense, so his take on the comedy genre is interesting. The humor can be dark, and De Palma handles it well. Ira Newborn's musical score is awesome (when not drifting into 1980's synthesizer territory), and the grimy New Jersey locale works. Gallo does telegraph a lot of jokes (I could see the punchline in the men's room scene from a mile away), and he doesn't seem to trust his original plot enough to stick with two dumb guys trying to kill each other.

The funniest performance comes from the unlikeliest actor. Captain Lou Albano was best known for his professional wrestling appearances, and roles in Cyndi Lauper music videos. Here, he is unrecognizable as the Fixer, a foul-mouthed killer, and he should have scored an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor. The screen lights up every time he is on, and he had me laughing. DeVito does try to get the film going, since Piscopo can't rely on the "Saturday Night Live" impressions that made him famous. He mostly squeals after DeVito, and gets lost in the cinematic shuffle. Ray Sharkey is given a thankless role as a bartender, his scene in the church goes on way too long.

I remember this came and went back in the day, and I never got the chance to watch "Wise Guys" until I found it in a thrift store on VHS. It's not a perfect comedy, but it does the job. (* * * *) out of five stars.

They Put the 'Con' in 'Unicon': "Bugs Bunny: 4 Favorite Cartoon Classics"

Ah, the public domain extended play-recorded videotape. The catch in the craw of many a movie lover and VHS and DVD collector. I found this thing from a company called Unicon at a thrift store for a whopping twenty cents; it features four pieces of classic animation in one crappy looking collection:

"The Wabbit Who Came to Supper" (1942) Directed by Friz Freleng, Written by Michael Maltese
An early Bugs Bunny cartoon features the fatter version of Elmer Fudd discovering he is set to inherit three million dollars if he is nice to all animals, including rabbits. This is wonderful stuff, a cartoon I have seen a hundred times, and it never gets old. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

"Prest-O Change-O" (1939) Directed by Chuck Jones, Written by Rich Hogan
Two dogs hide from a dog catcher in a house haunted by a magician's rabbit- who was apparently an early prototype for Bugs Bunny. This isn't bad animation, but repetition sets in, and while the white rabbit onscreen may have been an inspiration for Bugs, it still isn't Bugs! (* * *) out of five stars.

"Have You Got Any Castles?" (1938) Directed by Frank Tashlin, Written by Jack Miller
This is another one of those short cartoons where characters from books come alive in a dark library and mix. It's all big fun, especially if you can pick out the in-jokes when it comes to the tomes' film adaptations, although I get the feeling the Cab Calloway-inspired segment might be a bit racist? (* * * *) out of five stars.

"Poor Cinderella" (1934) Directed by Dave Fleischer
Betty Boop shows up on this collection, probably because most of the character's appearances are in the public domain, as well. Billed as Boop's first color cartoon, the version on this video is either so washed out, or was recorded from black and white, that Betty's hair comes off as gray. The quality stinks, I would love to see this restored, or at least in color. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Quality is the problem with most of these public domain tapes, and it is a huge setback here. Anonymous companies churned out these EP recorded things at reduced prices, using whatever copy of the work they had available. While some of these tapes are the only way to see some of these films, the picture is awful and I can't imagine spending too much for "Bugs Bunny: 4 Favorite Cartoon Classics." The average star rating of the films is about a four, but for the overall product, I am going with (* * *) out of five stars.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Jurassic Pork: "Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend" (1985)

A film meant for kids, but featuring nudity, sex, and violence (all to a bouncy Jerry Goldsmith musical score), "Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend" is a bizarre cinematic misfire.

George (William Katt) is a sports writer accompanying his anthropologist wife Susan (Sean Young) to deepest Africa. She is investigating a local legend that dinosaurs are still living in the jungle, and goes about her studies under the watchful eye of mentor Eric (Patrick MacGoohan, sporting an evil hat and equally evil beard as if he was auditioning for a 007 bad guy role). We have already seen Eric stab a colleague to death to get his hands on some dino-papers, so it appears the Imperialist whites are on the right track.

Susan checks on a poisoned tribe, and she and her ready-to-leave husband stumble on a family of brontosauruses. Eric and his sniveling assistant Nigel (Julian Fellowes) and their band of brutish African soldiers murder the father dino and drug the mother dino up, ready to take her back for study. They don't notice the Baby bronto, but Susan and George do, adopting it like it's a giant puppy while deciding their next move.

Marketed as a fun adventure for the whole family, the film was rated PG by the MPAA. Once the kiddies were planted in their seats, popcorn in hand, they are treated to the adventures of a temporarily orphaned dinosaur. They are also treated to a stabbing in the opening scenes, bare breasted African women, William Katt in wet clingy underwear, a guy getting shot in the neck by an arrow, George and Susan having a little jungle lovin', birds pecking at the bloody carcass of an animal, Sean Young's unclasped bra, battle scenes that look lifted from "The Dogs of War," an electrocution, dying tribal chiefs, angry dino moms chewing on a villain, and one guy getting kicked out of a helicopter to his death. Sure, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was also PG, but that was a throwback to a bygone cinematic era complemented with modern film making techniques. Here, the animatronic dinosaurs are interesting only if you stumbled on them during a less popular ride at a theme park. As film special effects, they are not very good. I spotted black string lifting the heads of the creatures on many occasions (and I watched this on a VHS videotape player and a tube TV!). The miniature effects work better but not by much.

I was a jaded teenager when this came out, and thankfully didn't have to take my younger siblings to it. Now, as a jaded adult, I only scoffed and scratched my bald head in wonder at what I was watching. What I do know is that I wasn't watching a very good film. "Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend" certainly lost me. (* *) out of five stars.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

1 Star Review! (The Exclamation Point Means FUNNY!): "9 1/2 Ninjas!" (1991)

What seemed like a can't-miss idea on paper (an "Airplane!"-type spoof of "9½ Weeks" and ninja flicks) barely musters any laughs.

The beautiful Lisa Thorne (Andee Gray) is being evicted from her apartment building by the evil land developer Gruber (Robert Fieldsteel). Luckily, she meets handsome businessman/ninja Joe Vogue (Michael Phenicie), who also happens to be getting kicked out of his stylish apartment by Gruber. Thorne and Vogue are the targets of a massive army of ninjas handpicked by Gruber, so Joe must train Lisa how to protect herself, just like his mother (Magda Harout) taught him how to be a ninja.

There are so many good ideas and background silliness going on, it's a shame this film is such a mess. I found myself laughing at the opening sequence, where Lisa walks down the street and distracts every man she passes. Unfortunately, the half-baked ideas take over. For some reason never fully explained, Joe is also a complete klutz. Physical comedy and pratfalls are an art. When they work (any Charlie Chaplin film), they are comedy gold. When they are tacked on as an afterthought (did anyone think Julianne Moore in "Evolution" was hysterical?), they are painful to sit through. This film's goofy pratfalls rarely work. The timing is off, as well, as punchlines to jokes are premeditated to the point of ridiculous predictability. The film's more surreal moments work better, like Don Stark's odd henchman role, and Lisa's kidnapping (the pay phone in the car was silly fun). Don't be fooled by the erotic aspect of the film. If the filmmakers had trimmed a couple of the topless scenes, they would have had a PG13 rated film easily. The strongest cursing here is "bullshit".

The film seems stuck in Joe's stylish apartment for a very large amount of the running time, and it is in these scenes that the film's story becomes stuck as well. I enjoyed the scenes of young Joe being coached by a blind ninja master, but all of the smiles to be had turned to eye-rolling frowns as the cast tries too hard to be wacky. The results dwindle to the point where this is one of the lowest rated films on IMDB, and I notice it was only released on DVD overseas (I have a VHS copy of this tape, confidently recorded in EP mode).

I'm not sure how you might stumble across "9 1/2 Ninjas!" (I got it as part of a five for a dollar VHS sale at a thrift store), but if you spot it somewhere, move on. You can thank me later. (*) out of five stars.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Brown Mountain Project: "Alien Abduction" (2014)

Aside from the generic title and some pretty bad "Airforce" footage, this film is quite the little chiller. It is hard to make the silliness of alien abduction scary, but director Matty Beckerman does an admirable job with Robert Lewis' sometimes repetitive script.

The Morris family- Dad Peter (Pete Holden), Mom Katie (Katherine Sigismund), teen son Riley (Riley Polanski), teen daughter Jillian (Jillian Clare), and young autistic son Corey (Corey Eid)- is on a camping trip to Brown Mountain in the backwoods of North Carolina. You've heard of Brown Mountain, haven't you? Strange lights, creepy disappearances, and such? Well, the Morrises don't care and head out. The entire film is edited from little autistic Corey's video camera, and according to some beginning graphics and footage, this was found by the Air Force's Project: Blue Book- a government program to investigate UFOs (and a short-lived TV series from the late '70's...hmm, just dated myself right there).

The family sees the strange lights one night, but still head deeper into the woods the next morning, coming upon a tunnel full of abandoned vehicles. Peter is attacked by a shadowy alien creature, and the rest of the family must survive in an isolated cabin after being taken in by redneck Sean (Jeff Bowser).

While many jump cuts provide the most scares, director Beckerman seems to have actually planned out many of Corey's camera shots, meaning the shakiness is convincing without making you want to throw up. There is more than enough tributes to "The Blair Witch Project," and this film stands up well against the grand daddy of all found footage horror flicks. The special effects are effective because they don't try to do too much. Some of the scenes get bogged down in familiarity. It is intimated early on that Corey's camera goes a little haywire when the aliens are around, so it's a safe bet that when it is working fine, then the scary noise the cast hears is probably something harmless. I also doubt the servicemen involved in the Project Blue Book events wore uniforms with "PROJECT BLUE BOOK" written on them. That scene had me laughing.

I was impressed with "Alien Abduction," and watching it in a darkened room in the middle of the night only heightened the suspense. Nicely done all around. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Monday, October 27, 2014

A Great Director Cashes Out: "Jinxed!" (1982)

An infamous flop when it came out, Don Siegel's final film is a chore of missed opportunities and obvious production problems.

Bonita (Bette Midler) is a second-rate singer following her gambler boyfriend Harold (Rip Torn, the film's only bright spot) from Nevada town to Nevada town. Harold is following blackjack dealer Willie (Ken Wahl). Harold consistently beats Willie at the tables, and Willie consistently gets fired, moving on to the next casino job. Finally, Willie's new boss (Tex Avery) advises Willie to break the jinx by taking something of Harold's, which he does by bedding Bonita. The two fall in love too quickly, and decide to get Harold out of their lives permanently, coming up with a murder plan that can't fail.

I can't go into too much depth from here on out concerning the plot, except to say that it gets very convoluted very quickly. This film was an odd choice for Siegel's swan song (he directed "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "Dirty Harry," and "Escape from Alcatraz"). It tries to be a black comedy, complete with some goofball morbid moments, but there is an underlying tension that ruins any "fun" that was to be had.

Wahl and Midler reportedly hated each other and fought constantly. Their onscreen lack of chemistry reflects that. Siegel also stated he would rather starve his family and pets instead of going through directing Midler again. One screenwriter took his name off the film, throwing in a pseudonym. All of this is evident, despite Vilmos Zsigmond's inappropriately beautiful cinematography. Torn isn't playing another lout, the screenplay has him beating Bonita in the past, but he seems to be the only actor to rise above the drama and turn in an actual performance. The Bruce Roberts/Miles Goodman musical score is sure to beat you over the head during the wacky scenes in case Midler's tiresome mugging and screeching doesn't clue you in that this is supposed to be FUNNY. Jack Elam is wasted in the second half of the movie- a bizarre scavenger hunt that feels lifted from another film.

"Jinxed!" was jinxed, doing no business and almost killing Midler's post-"The Rose" film career until "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" and "Ruthless People" came along four years later. It serves as a poor-to-bad movie curiosity, and little more. (* *) out of five stars.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Duke Toils: "The Star Packer" (1934)

The Duke is U.S. Marshal John Travers in this odd western written by director Robert N. Bradbury.

Travers (John Wayne) travels to a small town in order to investigate a crime wave instigated by "The Shadow," an easily identified villain. With his trusty sidekick Yak (Yakima Canutt), Travers also finds himself smitten with Anita (Verna Hillie), the niece of town elder/ranch baron Matlock (George Gabby Hayes, before he became so ornery and Gabbyish). Travers works his way into the job of sheriff after his predecessor serves the shortest term in history, and eventually saves the day.

While the plot is standard B-movie fare, Bradbury creates two giant leaps of bad screenwriting in the film. In some of the opening scenes, for some unknown reason, Travers robs a stagecoach before the real villains get a chance at it. When the villains do come along and find out someone beat them to it, they end up shooting the driver and his shotgun-toting companion, killing one of them. This little plot point is not brought up for the rest of the film, making you wonder if Travers knew what he was doing when he held the thing up. The Shadow's identity is pretty well-known, but I won't spoil it for you. Although, the cook at the Matlock ranch holds onto some pretty important information, letting Anita in on the secret in one scene. The problem is, why did the cook never speak up before, considering his role on the ranch?

The messy screenplay aside, "The Star Packer" serves as a showcase for Yakima Canutt's amazing stuntwork, although his portrayal of Yak, Travers' Native American sidekick, is a little embarrassing. This is a poverty row pic, but Canutt makes it watchable, as does Wayne's earnest performance. Slightly recommended. (* * *) out of five stars.

UnTaken: "A Walk Among the Tombstones" (2014)

I imagine in Liam Neeson's offscreen life, he cannot talk on a telephone without someone with him breaking out in laughter. In his newest film, he again threatens some bad guys, spitting profanity into the receiver, but this time his performance will make you care a little more.

Set in 1999, Neeson is Matthew Scudder, an alcoholic former cop who now makes ends meet as an unlicensed private investigator. He is approached by a revenge seeking drug trafficker (an uneven Dan Stevens) whose wife was kidnapped and raped. Even after a ransom was delivered, the abductors (the chilling duo of David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) murdered the woman and left the body for him to find. After balking at the case, Scudder takes it on, and begins to investigate similar cases that the police were not able to connect. Scattered amongst his investigation are false leads and a lovely sense of paranoia thanks to Y2K fears (remember that?) and some fantastic shots of the killer duo stalking their next target.

Writer/director Scott Frank adapts Lawrence Block's novel and turns it into an interesting flick. It is violent and bloody, with plenty of twists, and Neeson does a great job in the main lead. The cocky expression on his face in the opening gun fight is great, and Frank's ability to lead a character through an actual arc with actual growth and change is almost stunning considering the cookie cutter screenwriting that passes today. The supporting cast is very good, with Olafur Darri Olafsson a standout as a cemetery groundskeeper who once helped the killers. His scenes, and exit from the film, are memorable and I hope the Academy Awards voters remember him early next year.

A few people have taken issue with Scudder's friendship with a homeless kid played by Brian Astro Bradley. I, too. rolled my eyes at their first scene together, but screenwriter/director Frank never takes the relationship between the hero and the boy who emulates him to the annoying heights that brought the excitement of "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" to a full stop in between action set pieces. T.J. is a tough kid, never precocious, and I eventually accepted him. Although Scudder is an alcoholic eight years sober, we thankfully never get the old chestnut scene of him sitting alone in a dive contemplating a cheap drink sitting in front of him. His Alcoholics Anonymous recovery is not just a plot device, it works for him and he dutifully goes to the meetings, repeating his story and weak little joke about why he quit while internalizing the real reason he stopped.

The NYC setting hearkens back to the bleak urban mysteries of the 1970's, Scudder's grasp of 1999 technology is tenuous, but Frank doesn't make it a punchline. Frank also doesn't let Scudder become a superhero. He investigates, playing some witnesses in order to get the information he needs. The two villains are creepy and evil, their scenes reminded me of Fincher's "Zodiac," until their identities are learned (or at least until they come out into the light). There is no conspiracy that finds its way to the mayor's mansion or anything- sometimes movie mysteries are allowed to be self-contained.

We have seen Scudder before, played by Jeff Bridges in "8 Million Ways to Die" (now that would have been some interesting casting, over two decades after the now-infamous film!), and Lawrence Block has a number of Scudder novels I imagine are ready to get adapted. Neeson may have found his new franchise, and I wouldn't mind seeing more of this character. "A Walk Among the Tombstones" is Neeson's strongest work in years, and one of the best films I have seen all year. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

He's a Lumberjack, But He's Not Okay: "Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan" (2013)

You know your film is in trouble when the best performance from your cast is thanks to Joe Estevez.

A group of non-descript first-time criminal offenders are shipped off to a week-long boot camp in Minnesota (being portrayed by Ohio and California for this film). It is run by a Sgt. Hoke (Thomas Downey) and sympathetic counselor Ms. K (Kristina Kopf). The five criminals can avoid jail time if they make it through the tough program...and survive a twenty foot tall monster that is wandering around in the woods murdering bears and such. According to a very long expository speech from Meeks (Joe Estevez, who took all his crazy pills before cameras rolled), the monster is Paul Bunyan. The tall tale books got it wrong, this incarnation of Bunyan is bloodthirsty, overreacting to the death of his beloved ox, and seeks vengeance when one of the young criminals (don't worry about their specific characters, they are all dispatched without making any sort of impression on the viewer) steals Babe's horn from a makeshift shrine.

The fact that special effects guru Robert Kurtzman is involved with this silliness is surprising. The film is very violent, very gory, and very awful. The most successful aspect of it are the practical gore effects, but these diamonds in the rough are negated by amateurish acting and some of the silliest computer generated special effects I have ever seen. The film almost had me in the beginning, with Dan Haggerty still trying to be a horror film star (anyone ever seen "Elves"?), but then it quickly slid downhill. So many scenes had me laughing out loud, but the dead seriousness of the script made me realize this wasn't supposed to be "Sharknado"-type awfulness.

The end credits promise us that Bunyan will return (as soon as they go down to Best Buy and get some more of that special effects software). Here's hoping that is a promise the film makers cannot keep. "Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan" is tiny when it comes to entertainment value. (*) out of five stars.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Huh?nt: "Haunt" (2014)

It's another turn at the age old haunted house story, but "Haunt" does answer a very pressing question- whatever happened to Ione Skye?

The Morello family has seen it's share of tragedy. Three of their children die, and when the husband is finally killed by a strange paranormal being, Janet Morello (Jacki Weaver, looking just like Sally Struthers) leaves her giant isolated mansion. The Asher family moves in (Ione Skye relegated to the Mom role), and 18 year old Evan (Harrison Gilbertson) claims the cavernous attic bedroom once occupied by now dead teen Matthew Morello (Sebastian Barr). Evan and his two sisters begin noticing odd things in the house right away. Evan stumbles upon a beaten Sam (Liana Leberato), who is inexplicably drawn to the house, and the two begin a romantic and sexual relationship right under Evan's overly permissive parents' noses. There is a small room just off Evan's bedroom that seems to be the center of creepy activity, although Evan's younger sister Anita (Ella Harris) also finds time to snag an imaginary friend.

Evan and Sam conveniently discover an Electronic Voice Phenomenon machine in the small room, a machine that the original owner of the house was using when he was killed, and the two try it out. Soon, we discover the source of the paranormal activity in the house, and despite a surprising ending, the film makers leave us with many questions unanswered.

They also leave us with a mediocre horror film that does have some good moments. The cold Utah location is outstanding. However, Andrew Barrer's screenplay is padded with some deathly dull dialogue between Evan and Sam about the hauntings. I don't know if he was trying to recreate what was going through the viewers' minds, but much of it leads nowhere. Director Carter makes good use of the jump scare, and adding little pieces of terror in amongst the big house set. The film is already brief, and I wish more work had been done on the screenplay, though. I can't help but come back to what a mess it is, and wonder why no one questioned the leaps in logic, obvious plot turns, and an ending that makes you start your questions with a "yeah, but...".

"Haunt" is purely average, but with enough atmosphere to slightly recommend it. (* * *) out of five stars.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

With Friends Like These, Who Needs a Prostitute?: "My Best Friend's Wife" (2001)

I am very nearly the same age as the two main caricatures in the film "My Best Friend's Wife," and I admit to thinking about casual sex in the same way they do. Generation X came of age during the AIDS crisis, which put a damper on all the hippie free-love and swingin' we observed in the 1970's. Best friends ad man Steve (John Stamos) and attorney Eric (Daniel London) resort to the same situation the characters in "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" did, with shallow and predictable results.

Shallow and predictable can describe our "heroes" as well as this film. There is an element of sleaze that permeates every scene, an "eww" quotient that makes you want to shower after every plot turn. Eric constantly jokes about swapping wives with Steve, but the joke is never funny to the characters or the viewer. Eric is married to the stunning Ami (the stunning Meredith Salenger), who wants to start a family. Steve is married to Claire (Tara Westwood), an underwritten character who works with Eric. After losing out on a dream job, Steve decides Eric's dumb idea deserves practice as the men already seem to be in the throes of a midlife crisis while only in their early 30's. The wives act appropriately outraged, but eventually come around based on the flimsiest of reasoning (this was written by two men). After the couples swap, there is naturally fallout despite the best laid plans, and the decades-old friendships begin to suffer.

Of the four main performers, Salenger comes off best because she is the last to cave and the most rounded character. She is given two cliched overbearing parents in the form of Jessica Walter and Tony Roberts, but finally agreeing to the swap so she can start having babies and show up her parents makes little sense. These characters are supposed to be urbane, and the plot "zany," but bits like Steve doing an ad agency-style pitch to his wife about why they should do this falls flat. Director Finelli's use of fade-outs in some scenes made me think I was watching a dirty network television movie with the commercials edited out. The odd loud musical score is all wrong, and I wished for more scenes with Steve and Eric's college roommate Chuck (Bill Sage), a bachelor who sleeps with younger women based on whether they know who the Fonz is.

"My Best Friend's Wife" is a small film, and a small-minded one. It's characters annoy from the first few scenes, and major marital issues like infidelity are played for awkward laughs. I simply did not like these people. Now if you will excuse me, it's time for that shower. (*) out of five stars.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Merry Effin' Christmas: "Scrooge in the Hood" (2011)

Since retail outlets set their Christmas decorations earlier and earlier every year (I'm in retail, I know this), why not watch a Christmas comedy with almost six months until the holiday?

The tried and true Charles Dickens story, "A Christmas Carol," which has been produced hundreds if not thousands of times on stage, film, and television, gets yet another treatment courtesy of Richard Chandler. Here, Scrooge is an African-American gangsta pimp played by George Raynor (who fails to take advantage of his Redd Foxx-style delivery in the role). In addition to the three ghosts (an okay Seregon O'Dassey, a less-than-okay Todd Thierren, and director/writer Richard Chandler) who take Scrooge through his past, present, and future, Scrooge is also being hunted by the Jewish Mafia, who play on both Jewish and Italian stereotypes.

The film is foul-mouthed, appealing to the lowest humor denominator it can muster. It is also shockingly violent, with gunshots to the head and tongues being cut out. That is all well and good, the Dickens story needs a good edgy treatment ("Scrooged" wasn't exactly satirical fare, turning treacly). However, "Scrooge in the Hood" cannot seem to decide what it wants to be. A grindhouse throwback? A Lisa Lampanelli stand-up routine come to life? Some men play some women's roles without any explanation. The sets are obviously actual apartments and basements. The video effects are okay considering the budget. Actors trip over each other's lines, the editing is a little spotty, and once it blows it's wad over it's own dangerousness, it kind of bogs down thanks to the overly familiar story.

I wanted to like "Scrooge in the Hood." From the preview, I was ready to laugh out loud. Instead, I was bored. There is a great comedy that should be made from this germ of an idea, but this film is not it. (*) out of five stars.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Featuring, Literally, a Cast of Thousands: "Ants" (1977)

After the success of "Jaws" in the mid-1970's, films involving nature rising up against man were a dime a dozen. The budget for this made-for-television film probably wasn't much more than that.

The story centers around an old hotel run by Ethel (Myrna Loy) and her daughter Valerie (Lynda Day George). Next door, construction foreman and Valerie's main squeeze Mike (Robert Foxworth) is building or digging something when his men happen upon an ant colony. One man dies, another is in the hospital, and the grizzled doctor is flummoxed. Why is an ambulance having to show up at the hotel three or four times a day, what is causing these mysterious poisonings? We certainly hope thousands of killer ants don't ruin Tony (Gerald Gordon) and Gloria's (Suzanne Somers) plans to buy the old hotel, or handyman Richard's (Barry Van Dyke) romancing of hot homeless hippie Linda (Karen Lamm, completing the sexy blonde trifecta featuring George and Somers). Government officials poo-poo Mike's killer ant theory (I blame Jimmy Carter), and shut the hotel down because of a mysterious "virus." Mike goes a little nuts trying to prove his theory, and inadvertently pisses the ants off as well. The insects trap most of the cast in the hotel, and they must be rescued since no one seems to own any of those flowery looking ant traps.

While typical of a network television movie, you have to admit that is one heck of a cast. Bernie Casey, Brian Dennehy, and Rene Enriquez all show up in supporting and small roles. Myrna Loy, taking a cue from Olivia de Havilland, Gloria Swanson, and Helen Hayes, who all appeared in disaster flicks long after their prime, does okay with her annoying role. Barry Van Dyke is so tan, he should be checked for melanoma. The small setting guarantees the majority of the budget could be spent on some splendidly average special effects. There are lots of shots of ants (how some characters don't notice hundreds of ants at their feet is beyond me), and I did find myself brushing away imaginary bugs as the film went on. The optical effects are pretty atrocious.

The film is full of crazy subtexts. At one point, Casey, an African-American actor, turns a fire hose on a crowd of white people and accompanying police. The climax involves fooling the ants through meditation and relaxation, before a hilarious shot that looks like something out of a Cheech and Chong movie. Fremantle Media's DVD release lacks extras of any kind, but makes up for it with a crystal clear transfer that makes the film look a lot newer than almost forty years old.

No, this isn't especially terrifying, or even exciting. But it is a reminder of life before cable television, when a network movie was actually something to look forward to. "Ants" is average, but a good average. Wow, one whole review and not a picnic pun in sight! (* * *) out of five stars.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Little Waterlogged: "The Abyss" (1989)

Does James Cameron's groundbreaking film about underwater aliens still stand up twenty-five years after its theatrical release? I can answer yes, and no, after viewing the almost three hour special extended edition released on DVD a while back.

Bud (Ed Harris) is the leader of a motley crew of working stiffs on an underwater oil drilling platform. It seems those idiots in the military (Cameron makes his feelings for soldiers in uniform abundantly clear throughout this film) went and crashed a nuclear sub in a deep trench nearby, and the quickest way to rescue them is to use the platform. The platform designer, and Bud's estranged wife Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), is sent down to the platform along with a Navy SEAL team headed by the immediately unbalanced Coffey (Michael Biehn, turning in a nice performance). Above on the surface, a hurricane is blowing through, and international tensions with the Soviets are high. Coffey and Bud clash as to who is running the operation, which quickly turns from a rescue mission to a mission to survive mechanical failures, weather-related disasters, secret military agendas, oh, and some pretty, glowing space aliens.

I think we can all agree that Cameron's strength comes from his technical savvy, and not his screenwriting skills. Dialogue here clunks badly after lingering uncomfortably in the air when uttered. It's awful, I compare it to how a junior high schooler thinks grown-ups at work talk. Bud and Lindsey's bantering threatens to degenerate into "nanny nanny boo boo" insults and accompanying wedgies (the number of times she is referred to as a bitch is kind of shocking). The special extended edition of the film adds half an hour to the theatrical release, which means half an hour more visual marvel, and Cameron's annoying preachiness, breaking down the Cold War into its most simplistic ingredients. Cameron borrows from "2001: A Space Odyssey," "2010" (a huge debt to that film), the random "Twilight Zone" episode, and even the glassy-eyed look of wonder and amazement from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

The cast struggles with Cameron's dialogue, and seem to do best when left to their own devices (Lindsey's drowning scene, and Bud's descent into the underwater abyss). The shoot was a troubled one, according to some online research, and that is sometimes evident on the performers' faces. Some of Harris' expressions at his lines indicate disbelief. Biehn's Coffey is the most interesting character.

So why am I recommending this? Technically, the film is awesome. The widescreen is used wisely, and the film is epic in scale. Some of the special effects are a little iffy, this was CGI in its infancy, but the crystal clear cinematography and sound is perfect. Alan Silvestri's musical score is terrible (really? drums when the military killing machines are onscreen? are those bongos during the fight scene between Bud and Coffey?). The plot is a good one, I wish Cameron had taken a story credit and handed it over to someone who could flesh the caricatures out and made us care about the people going through all of these great action sequences (a mini-sub chase) and suspenseful set-pieces (the crane collapse).

In the grand scheme of Cameron films, "The Abyss" falls behind "Titanic," "True Lies," "Aliens," and his Terminator films. I will say this- it's light years ahead of "Avatar." Glub-glub. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Finest Work by All Involved: "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (2007)

The outlaw and mass murderer, Jesse James, has been the subject of dozens of documentaries and fictionalized films and television shows over the years. From silent films to a "The Brady Bunch" episode, we seem to be fascinated with him. I haven't seen all of these incarnations, but I have seen enough to declare this film not only the definitive piece about James, but also the greatest Western of the last forty years.

Jesse (Brad Pitt) and brother Frank (Sam Shepard) James are continuing their robbing ways in the American Midwest. Their choice of gang members has fallen off, as they must resort to petty thieves and ignorant backwoods men- including a set of brothers, Charley (Sam Rockwell) and Bob (Casey Affleck) Ford. Jesse is a paranoid manic-depressive now, after years on the run. His wife (Mary-Louise Parker) is more than understanding, taking care of their young children at home while he is away "on business" or whatever cover story he finds himself using. After yet another train robbery that doesn't net nearly as much as expected, the gang scatters and awaits their cut. Rumors of double crosses abound, and the gang, which includes dumb-as-rocks Ed (Garret Dillahunt), James' cousin Wood (Jeremy Renner) and the womanizing Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider), begin fighting amongst themselves.

Writer/director Andrew Dominik does an interesting thing, as we watch the scattered gang, in tangents from the main titular story. Luckily, they are as fascinating as the James saga. An unbalanced Jesse begins hunting down his gang, sure they are going to turn him in, either killing them or luckily having them turn on each other. He keeps the Ford brothers close, however, and Dominik tells us that the Fords' deal with the law may be the only way Jesse James will find peace.

Based on a novel by Ron Hansen, audiences didn't seem to take to this meditative film. It moved too slow, and was full of Terence Malick-inspired imagery. Nominated for two Oscars, Affleck was a victim to Javier Bardem's menacing villain in "No Country for Old Men," and Roger Deakins' perfect cinematography lost to "There Will Be Blood." In my opinion, most of the cast should have been nominated, as well as the crew. While movies have the ability to transport the viewer to another time, or another life, this film does it so well, it's two and a half hour running time flies by.

Brad Pitt is mesmerizing as Jesse James. His performance is his best onscreen. He doesn't make James out to be a hero, and watching this mythic Robin Hood suffer psychologically from what he has done is interesting. The supporting cast all score (except James Carville in a small role...can we stop stunt-casting politicians and wonks in film and television, please?). Mary-Louise Parker fans were disappointed with her lack of dialogue in her role as Jesse's wife, but she is still able to find an immense presence with her role.

Casey Affleck should have won the Oscar. Nothing against Bardem, he was great, but Affleck's performance is one of those great jobs that should be studied by acting students. Never has the character trait of "awkwardness" been shown so well onscreen. Affleck's cracking voice and toothy uncomfortable grin are never comical. He is nothing short of brilliant. Bob is the constant butt of jokes from the rest of the characters, and Affleck's reaction to finding his cohorts going through his treasured James memorabilia is sad, pathetic, and had me rewatching the scene just to see Affleck's skill. Pitt, Affleck, and Rockwell's work when James is shot is suspenseful, even though you know what will happen, and Dominik and editors Curtiss Clayton and Dylan Tichenor shine in this great segment. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' musical score is so fitting and memorable, I can't unhear it when I find my mind drifting, and Hugh Ross' narration fills in any spaces a viewer needs in the story (the original cut of the film was four hours), and his voice turns Hansen and Dominik's words into poetry.

Every piece of celluloid Deakins shoots here is a work of art. Every single one. From the breathtaking train robbery, to the final frozen frame of Affleck's face, every shot is meticulous and stunning. Characters simply looking out wavy window panes take on a life and story of their own. Kudos to the makeup and costuming as well. Much was made of older actors being cast in much younger roles, but here it works. The fact is that rural folk in the 1880's probably aged a little faster than today, you know?

"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" is one of those films I find myself appreciating the more often I see it. It would definitely fit well into my top ten favorite films of all-time, and it is certainly the best film of 2007. You can have your stupid "American Outlaws," I'll stick with this masterful vision. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Good Behavior: "Antisocial Behavior" (2014)

The tortured artist as a character in a story may be a predictable one, but this film effectively shows us the reasons behind the torture.

Joe (Jackson Kuehn) is a frustrated artist rooming with Scott (Chad Bishop). Scott and Joe grew up together in an orphanage, and Scott still looks out for his moody friend. While grudgingly attending a party, Joe meets Wendy (Mary Elizabeth Boylan). Wendy takes a liking to the morose man, and after she leaves, Joe is recruited into a 'Truth or Dare"-style drinking game. During the game, when asked what the baddest, most evil thing is that he has done, Joe flips out, hallucinating, and cutting his hand open. This begins a series of events, as Joe starts vomiting up giant balls of flesh, and having visions to repressed memories of his life before ending up at the orphanage.

Kuehn, as Joe, is perfectly cast. Joe is definitely odd, and Kuehn is able to make him both sympathetic and menacing, sometimes in the same scene, just by changing his facial expression. The script, by director Kenneth Guertin and Chris Perdue, put Joe in almost every scene and Kuehn is up to the task.

For a film with a small budget, Guertin does an outstanding job as both director and editor. The story travels along fast, punctuated with some genuinely frightening imagery. Guertin doesn't seem to hide behind his small production, he goes for the scare over the money. The climactic revelations make sense, and the final kicker is delightfully creepy.

Technically, the film is almost flawless. The cinematography is fresh, the sound recording is excellent, and the cast is great. My dithers mostly concern Wendy's unquestioned dedication to Joe after just meeting him, and how her behavior toward him could be construed as odd if he wasn't such an emotional wreck himself. I know of "love at first sight," but many scenes involving Joe and Wendy made me expect more to Wendy's backstory than what we are given, which ain't much.

"Antisocial Behavior"is a prime example of great psychological horror. Seeing that horror spill out of Joe's head (literally) and into our own minds is pretty terrifying. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Monday, April 28, 2014

There are 23.5 Million Stories in the City of Karachi- This is One of Them: "Good Morning Karachi" (2013)

Known more for her documentaries about women in the Muslim world, film maker Sabiha Sumar presents an interesting fictional film about a young model torn between her dreams, and society's expectations.

The beautiful Rafina (Aamna Ilyas) lives in a small apartment in Karachi, Pakistan, with her widowed mother and little brother. She is having a chaste courtship with Arif (Yasir Aqueel), a supporter of Benazir Bhutto. Arif's mother is Rosie (a wonderful Beo Raana Zafar), who travels around providing beauty salon services for women. Rosie takes Rafina on as an assistant, and they go to work for Radiance, a modeling agency.

Rafina is obsessed with a large glamorous billboard outside of her apartment showing a Pakistani woman without a veil. Rafina starts to distance herself from Arif, as the family begins planning their wedding (they are scandalized that Rafina wants to work instead of keeping house for her new husband). Rafina eventually gets noticed at the modeling agency, and as her career takes off, her home life unravels.

The film's title refers to a morning radio show overheard during Sumar's shots of Karachi's endless cityscapes. The street scenes are chaotic. Set around Benazir Bhutto's attempted return to power before her death, Sumar does not preach, using her simple story to make her point. There are no "I am woman, here me roar" moments. The revelatory moments here are quieter, like when Rafina discovers an old photograph of a younger Rosie.

The story is empowering, but familiar to me. I am not saying this is a bad film, just one that I recognized from years of film watching. A lot of the cultural ingredients are interesting (one character's funeral, the class system inside the agency), and Sumar handles her story with confidence. Ilyas is both beautiful, and a natural actress. Her character is not handed instant fame right away, and her stealth-like "audition" at one point is caught onto by some other characters. These are not stupid people, the screenwriters do not make fashion an easy target to mock. Modeling is a way for Rafina to escape her assumed role in life.

"Good Morning Karachi" doesn't wear out its welcome despite its predictability, clocking in at just under an hour and a half. This is a nicely played, written, and directed film. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Legend Continues to Amuse: "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" (2013)

Much to my girlfriend's chagrin, I had the preview for this film memorized, and would repeat lines from it ("...93...93!") way too often. I waited until video to sit down and revisit the Channel 4 news team, watching the theatrical version first.

While the original "Anchorman" ground it's wheels in the finale, this film takes up where that one left off, error-wise. Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) is fired from his job as his wife Veronica (Christina Applegate) takes a new job as a national anchor in New York City. Ron is approached by Freddie (Dylan Baker) to take the graveyard shift of a new cable news channel, and must reassemble his trusty news team and head to NYC. Champ (David Koechner) runs a disgusting fried chicken restaurant (they serve bat), Brian (Paul Rudd) takes photographs of kittens for inspirational posters, and Brick (Steve Carell) is thought dead. Veronica and Ron's son (Judah Nelson) are already in New York when the team finally arrives, with Veronica taking up with psychologist Gary (Greg Kinnear).

Ron butts heads with the new network's star anchor Jack Lime (James Marsden), as well as his new boss, African-American Lisa Jackson (Meagan Good). Ron and his new boss begin dating, and Ron's newscasts are ratings blockbusters because they don't deliver the news people should watch, but want to watch. Of course, as narrator Bill Kurtis tells us, Ron has an Icarus-like fall, and must claw his way back into the lives of his family, and his news team.

The first half hour of the story, with Ron and Veronica breaking up and his reassembling of the news team is amusing, but also a mess of editing. There is no rhythm to the scenes, it seems the cuts are placed precisely before the actors break into laughter. I mostly grinned through the beginning of the film, until the cast hits New York, and things get terribly funny. The new cast members are great, holding their own with Ferrell and company. Kristen Wiig's Chani matches Brick line for line in weirdness. Meagan Good is sexy and perfect. There are oddball segments (Ron's lighthouse retreat, the raising of a shark) that had me question where the film makers were going before I gave in and somehow found myself giggling hysterically all the way through. Ferrell's Burgundy is a lovable buffoon, whether making inappropriate racist comments at Lisa's parents' dinner table, or cursing in front of his angelic son. McKay and Ferrell go way off the rails at the end, in an anchor team fight that will go down in movie history for all of its cameos (save one...the hell with spoilers, what the hell is Kanye West doing in this segment? He's awful!), but the build-up to the special effects-laden silliness is both appropriate and very funny. This film is equal to the original film, but I am kind of hoping a Part 3 isn't on the horizon. It would be hard to beat the lunacy of this. On a side note, I live in Bismarck, North Dakota, where Ferrell as Burgundy anchored a local news broadcast a while back. I wish he had been able to do more, but it was nice to see my home state get some national attention!

Now that I have finally seen the theatrical version, I will eventually get around to the alternate versions. If anything, "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" has given me even more lines to repeat to my girlfriend. By Tony Danza's scrotum, I know she can't wait. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Life and Death in the Arbor: "The Arbor" (2011)

British film maker Clio Barnard takes what could have been a gimmicky film making stunt, and turns it into a stunning documentary that shakes the viewer.

Andrea Dunbar was an English teenager who penned a play entitled "The Arbor," about life in the British equivalent of American housing projects. Her play mirrored her own existence, and she was quickly vaulted into theatre literati. She had two children by the time she was out of her teen years, had a third child young (all three were by different fathers), and died of a brain hemorrhage in a pub at the age of 29, five days before Christmas in 1990.

Her children, still growing up in the housing area, are scattered to extended family members and foster homes. The oldest daughter, Lorraine, is half-Pakistani, and must deal with racism on a daily basis. She then becomes a drug addict and prostitute, and after having a few children of her own (mirroring her mother, who she came to hate), suffers a tragedy that sends her to prison.

This is not your straightforward documentary. What Barnard has done is record audio interviews with the subjects (Andrea Dunbar's children, family, and neighbors), and then has actors and actresses lip synch the lines. It is not as goofy or conceited as it sounds, I was quickly taken with the idea. Interspersed with these scenes is old news and documentary footage of the real Andrea Dunbar talking about her writing and upbringing (she comes off as a very harsh young woman), and another group of actors dramatizing Dunbar's play in the neighborhood where the play is set (the chosen scenes are well-acted but Dunbar's lines sometimes play melodramatically).

I don't know what possessed Barnard to conceive this film, but I am grateful she did. I had no clue who Dunbar was, but what happened to her and her brood is infinitely interesting. This film is not a loving look back through rose-colored glasses, and Dunbar does not come off very well (her child-raising skills were lacking thanks to her alcoholism). The story of her daughter Lorraine is tragic and maddening. Barnard never presents all the facts for the viewer, she entices the events along, giving just enough to make you want to know what happens but without teasing. The structure is incredible. The actors, having to lip synch others' words, do a great job. They must tailor their reactions to another person's voice, literally, and they do this so well you will quickly forget this was "dubbed."

This came out in the United Kingdom in 2010, and was released in the United States the following year, and I can say without a doubt "The Arbor" is one of the best documentaries of the decade. (* * * * *) out of five stars.