Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

I'm not going to discuss the 1939 short story by James Thurber or the 1948 version with Danny Kaye, but as a movie that received less attention than other November/December releases, I'd like to share my opinion that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was both refreshing and engaging.  Directed by and starring Ben Stiller, the film falls between genres stemming from that indie-lifequest type and standard romantic-comedy, with a few brief action sequences thrown in.  The romance is secondary to the plot which in my opinion makes its presence more interesting as a desirable outcome is not guaranteed.  The comedy is subtle half of the time and forward the other half, and the varying surreality of Walter's daydreams cleverly adds to the context of his experiences.  A couple unadvertised roles starring major and minor celebrity actors add to the mix.  I thought some of the other characters were overwritten, but these were forgivable as they only slightly detracted from the story's flow.  To say anything else would go against my delight in the unexpected, but suffice it to say that I enjoyed the film and would recommend it.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Monster House (2006), Part 1

At about 3pm on Saturday I turned on the TV, and before pulling up the DVR's list of recorded programs something caught my attention: an animated film on a local network.  It looked kind of familiar, some CGI kids movie I remembered seeing trailers for a few years back.  It was Monster House, that odd movie where the neighborhood kids are afraid of going near this one spooky house on the block because they think it's alive.  Back in 2006, this movie looked really dumb.  I was 15 at the time, seeing dumb movies like Talladega Nights and Lady in the Water, but I thought Monster House looked really fucking stupid.  Now I think otherwise.  I only watched about one or one and a half minutes before starting another program with my dad, but it really intrigued me and got me wanting to see the full movie.

The animation is what initially caught my eye.  They use a very stylized CGI that reminds me of some of the more realistic claymation where everything is so detailed that you can see the intentional imperfections in the character's faces and skin.  That's what this CGI is like.  I saw two characters up close, an old man and maybe a 10 year old boy, and they both looked ugly, not in a cartoony way but in a realistic way.  The animation is carefully rendered, much more so than the smooth, homogeneous character models seen in the likes of Disney's Tangled (2010), and yet the artist's aim is not to create something aesthetically pleasing but something crude and jarring.  The animation is unattractive, yet I could immediately appreciate its style, and I found this artistic dualism fascinating.

Then there's the whole thing with this "monster-house."  In the brief scene I saw, an old man is approaching the doorstep of this house as the ugly kid and a few others watch from around a bush.  At this point, we see the supposed "monster-house" personified as a character as its windows shift like eyelids and the porch forms the shape of a menacing smile.  The kids are nervous, and the ugly one steps out and tries to warn the old man to retreat, that he is in some form of peril, but as the man disinterestedly turns to look at the annoyance he is consumed by an opening front door and a red carpet tongue that rolls out to wrap him up and retracts to gather the aloof victim into the mouth/entryway of the titular Monster House.  Then the kids scream and run away, and the fucking house gets up and chases them down the street.  It actually had some kind of legs and bounded down the street like Clifford the Big Red Dog in pursuit of the children.  That's all I saw, and I can't stop thinking about it.  Like, in this movie the house is really supposed to be alive?  Is it just a dream or somehow the kid's imagination or something?  If this house is really a monster what are the implications in the story?  Is that old neighbor dead now?  How did this house become a monster?  Is it haunted, cursed, alien, demonic, truly a breed of living creature?  Does it actually need to eat people in order to survive?  I'm lost in the surreality.  I don't even know if this scene took place in the beginning, middle, or end of the movie.  Maybe it's suspected for a long time and then revealed at the end of the film that the house is really a monster, or maybe it's just taken at face value from the very beginning.

I have no fucking idea what happens in this movie or if the house is really a monster or what the fuck is going on, but my curiosity is peaked.  I never thought that I would ever have any interest in this movie, but sometimes I get a new perspective on things.  I gotta see Monster House now.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (1966)

When it comes to Kaiju films (movies featuring giant monsters), Godzilla is king.  Between 1954 and 2004, Japanese studio Toho Productions made 28 movies with the famous Godzilla, starting with Gojira (or Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the slightly reworked 1956 American version), a 1950s science-fiction film that stands among one of the best in the genre of its time.  Although the original movie follows the '50s sci-fi flick standard of containing a serious tone, intense focus on morality, and light yet pivotal romance all revolving around something of an atomic or cosmic nature, the Godzilla sequels quickly devolved into something of a less grand scale.  I use the term devolution as Godzilla movies aren't typically films of high cinematic caliber (for multiple reasons), but through great costume and miniature effects they deliver some pretty cool looking monsters that beat each other up and ravage Tokyo and other earthly locations.  One has to love the Godzilla movies for doing simply that.

Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster is one of the more underwhelming entries in the early Godzilla series, so let's talk about it.  Right off the bat, you notice the English dubbing is really bad (with voices reminiscent of The Three Stooges), but it's not just how the lines are read in English because the writing is just poor to begin with.  The phrase "use your brain", which is frequently iterated by the island-stranded human characters, has never sounded so trite.  What really bothers me about the script though is that it largely fails to identify appropriate timing of humor and seriousness.  In one scene there's Beach Boys-esque, '60s beach music playing while Godzilla knocks fighter jets out of the air, resulting upon immediate explosion and certain death for their pilots.  That's later on though; for most of the first hour you see a crappy cast of two dance contest losers, a purported thief, and a man in search of his lost at sea brother mistakenly set sail for open water, get lost and later shipwrecked by a mysterious sea monster, find a secret organization enslaving native villagers on an island, discover the sea monster is being used by the military group, and plan to awaken Godzilla in order to cause a diversion and escape the island.  All of this happens without any monsters fighting each other.

So that's the shit you have to deal with before and between fight scenes with the Kaiju.  Is the majority of the 87 minute duration of Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster worth it to see the monsters duke it out?  Not really, but I decided to stick it out anyway.  The sea monster is a giant lobster/crab-like crustacean known as Ebirah that shipwrecks Japanese boats and eats people after snatching them out of the ocean with its giant pincers.  There's nothing very graphic shown on screen, but I will say that the suggested gore in this particular entry is higher than usual.  Godzilla is awoken at about the hour mark of the film, which is fifty-five minutes too late in my opinion, but at least the movie gets speed from there.  Godzilla and Ebirah throw boulders at each other for a while before engaging in sea combat.  Godzilla rips off Ebirah's claws with ease, clearly irritated he had to get wet in order to cause this ugly arthropod to retreat.  There's also a giant condor that Godzilla fights for a few seconds, and then of course Mothra shows up.  For a giant butterfly, Mothra is actual quite rad and is always among the most well-designed monsters in the many Godzilla movies it appears in.  The problem with Mothra though is that you can never just have Mothra; throughout the course of the movie you gotta sit through at least fifteen minutes of the pygmy Japanese twins, the Infant Island villagers, and the God-awful tribal/summoning songs.  It's a real downside of the sub-plot of Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster just for deus ex mothra in the last ten minutes of the movie.  Mothra doesn't fight or do anything in this one except serve as the getaway for the ill-developed human characters you don't give a shit about.

Oh, well. If you're watching a Toho Godzilla movie, particularly one from the Showa era, you know what you're getting yourself into.  As far as this series of the first fifteen movies goes, I'd recommend Ghidrah (1964), Destroy All Monsters (1968), or Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974) if you're interested in seeing what these movies have to offer and want to choose one that has more action and monsters and sucks less.  Don't forget the original Gojira or Godzilla: King of the Monsters if you happen to like the previously mentioned style of self-important 1950s romantic sci-fi.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Never Say Never Again (1983)

When Sean Connery hung up the tux in 1967 after playing secret agent 007 for the fifth time in You Only Live Twice, he was replaced by George Lazenby for 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service.  The retirement was brief, however, as Connery reprised the iconic role in 1971 for one of the franchise's worst entries to date, Diamonds Are Forever.  It was at this point in history when the legendary actor stated that he would never again play the part of James Bond.  Near the end of the Roger Moore era, as fate would have it, this broken promise would lead to the title of the 1983 film Never Say Never Again.

The thing to keep in mind with Never Say Never Again is that it wasn't developed by Eon Productions and therefore isn't considered to be part of the main James Bond series.  Consequently, viewers won't find this entry in any of the series DVD or Blu-Ray box sets.  Twenty-three James Bond movies were made by Eon between 1962 and 2012, and Never Say Never Again is one of just two non-Eon movies from this time period to feature the 007 character.  The other, a comedic spoof, Casino Royale (1967), would sully the title of Ian Fleming's original novel until Daniel Craig's debut in 2006.  Never Say Never Again is actually a loose remake of 1965's Thunderball which features 007 as an older agent getting closer to his retirement.  Roger Moore's sixth Bond movie, Octopussy (1983), was the Eon film released in the same year as Never Say Never Again and proves an interesting comparison in regards to the age of the two most prominent actors who played Bond.  Roger Moore is three years older than Sean Connery and played the role of Bond in the fourteen years that followed Connery's last Eon picture, so a script that treated an aging actor as an aging Bond was an appropriate change of pace because the complaints of Moore's seniority are certainly valid (just wait for Roger Moore's 58 year-old sex scene in A View to a Kill, 1985).  As for the actual films, Octopussy takes the cake for 1983; it's my favorite of the Roger Moore era, if only surpassing Live and Let Die (1973) due to its major flaws.

That being said Never Say Never Again isn't bad and is better than at least a handful of the Eon films.  Despite being a remake, it feels surprisingly different from Thunderball, and this tonal difference validates its existence.  There's no reason to make an exact replica of a film like they did with Psycho in 1998, and thankfully this is not what they did here.  When it comes down to it, I think, if any, Thunderball was the one to remake because, although it's good, it's a bit weaker than Dr. No (1962), From Russia With Love (1963), and Goldfinger (1964, my personal favorite Bond film) and was the first time the series felt repetitive to me.  You Only Live Twice (1967) still stands as incredibly unique and striking among the series, and Diamonds Are Forever (1971) was just a flop.  As for the others, I don't think you can fairly put Connery in movies that weren't written for him.  Lazenby may not have worked in any single other Bond movie, but he works in On Her Majesty's Secret Service because he's just that vulnerable shade of Bond one doesn't see very often which that particular story requires.

But I digress.  Never Say Never Again is a different take on the story of Thunderball that legitimately feels different.  Similar characters and plots feel fresh.  Reimagined versions of villain Emilio Largo and girly Domino Vitali provide a more modern vision of an abusive relationship, and the people cast look and act differently than their 1965 counterparts.  There's a lot of boat and water scenes, but nothing looks remotely copied from Thunderball, which in retrospect serves to the benefit of both.  Felix Leiter is black for the first time.  Connery is good, and the older character of Bond was well-played.  Maybe it's just me, but his Scottish accent sounds more pronounced here, and his charisma still exceeds an equally or even lesser aged Moore.  The film's title track, "Never Say Never Again" performed by Lani Hall, is a light and melodic soft rock song that I personally like quite a lot.  I have all of the Bond themes in my iTunes library, and this is one of the 24 that gets played more frequently.

As for the Bond girls, they're nice.  Claudine Auger, who original played Domino in 1965, was one of the finest Bond girls of all time, but Kim Basinger looks alright here, better than in Batman (1989), and those see-through ballet leotards push the envelope for nudity in a James Bond movie and help her make the grade.  Basinger is nowhere near the fairest or the sultriest when it comes to the many actresses and models who've starred alongside 007, but she's flaunted to her potential here and character-wise does a decent job with this new version of Domino.  As the secondary female character, Nicaraguan-American Barbara Carrera plays Fatima Blush, the easy vixen whose exotic charm seduces Bond and viewers alike.

All in all, Never Say Never Again is definitely worth checking out at some point if you're a fan of James Bond, particularly Connery's Bond.  With continuity as loose as it gets in these movies, a remake with the same actor eighteen years later both in actuality and character doesn't really feel out of place.  In my opinion, this movie ranks somewhere in the middle-back when compared to the 23 Eon films but has its unique merits that make it stand out.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

The year was 1984, and the long toil of writer-director-producer trio Chris Columbus, Joe Dante, and Steven Spielberg had come to fruition; their creative endeavor Gremlins jumped on the silver screen to take Hollywood by the haunches.  Its story begins when a mysterious creature known as a Mogwai is negligently purchased from a Chinatown pawn shop and given to a teenage boy as a pet.  The caretaking rules for these cute Ferbie-looking critters are simple: 1) No bright lights 2) No water 3) No feeding after midnight.  Sure enough the rules are broken, the first two by mistake, and the third by a nasty trick of the soon to be transformed scaly, clawed, and evil-looking little monsters henceforth known as Gremlins.  Hell breaks loose as the Gremlins attempt to take over the town, but they're eventually bested by the bright rays of morning sun.  Even though it might be scary for a young audience, Gremlins is light on the horror, focusing more on plot, comedy, and badass animatronics.  There's even a bit of suspense as we slowly discover the life cycle of the Mogwai (think Alien, 1979).  Gremlins is a great movie that successfully blends multiple genres and tells a holiday tale for the ages.  Despite a strong Christmas theme throughout the film, Gremlins was released to theaters in the contradictory month of June, but who cares?  Fuck it.  This would be the Gremlins mentality for the duration of this short-lived franchise.  Gremlins had a diverse line of toys, trading cards, other memorabilia, and even a sequel in 1990.  This sequel would be the last we ever saw of the Gremlins, but God damn did they go out with a bang.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch.  What can I even say about this movie to describe it?  It's undeniably terrible for so many reasons, but under the surface it might just be brilliant.  The plot sucks, a shitty attempt at story just to bring back the main character and his Mogwai friend, Gizmo.  Six years after the original run-in with the Gremlins, Billy Peltzer and his fiancee Katie (who both still look like they could be in high school) are working at Clamp Enterprises, a corporate behemoth which specializes in all products and services imaginable.  Secretly in one of the in-house laboratories, animal experimenting and cloning has been taking place at the whim and sick imagination of a mad scientist.  Somehow Gizmo comes back (does it really matter how or why?) and some dumbass janitor gets him wet when trying to fix a water fountain, and once again his evil brethren are unleashed to make their new habitat their playground.  It's all a big excuse to set up for the introduction of new and ridiculous mutant-Gremlins which take the form of bats, giant spiders, vegetables, and even ugly hookers, all causing chaos and pandemonium when the secret lab is taken over and vial after vial of tranformative potions are consumed by the little monsters.  It's clear that they spread the budget over a much wider array of effects and new Gremlins because although there are much more of them, most of the special effects look pretty crappy in comparison to the original's.  Don't forget the ultra-intelligent talking Gremlin-Professor who can actually say "fuck you" in English in addition to giving the usual scaly, Gremlin middle finger.  The fact that he never degrades the viewer in as many words is a testament to the sly bastards who wrote this sequel because for the duration of Gremlins 2, I couldn't help but feel that the joke was on me for deciding to watch this dumb movie in the first place.

I think one of the greatest lines I've ever heard in a film is simply an uncredited voice blaring over the company intercom at a random point in the movie, "Tonight on the Clamp Cable Classic Movie Channel, don't miss Casablanca, now in full color with a happier ending."  The fact that Steven Spielberg, great and mighty re-editor of the Indiana Jones series, might have had something to with this line makes it all the more hilarious and depressing.  Of course you can't rip on Hollywood without some star power of your own.  Cue Christopher Lee as the twisted, maniacal Dr. Catheter (I am not making this up) and a fourth-wall-breaking cameo by Hulk Hogan (who was presumably a big deal in 1990).  Last but not least, Chuck Jones himself made a comeback to animation for Gremlins 2 to create brand new Looney Tunes/Gremlins animated microshorts.  They're incredibly brief and primarily exist to feature some naughty Gremlins crashing Merry Melodies sketches, once again illogically crossing the reality barrier and interrupting the flow of the film.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch.  I can't make sense of it, but this movie has balls.  Is it garbage?  Is it brain pollution?  Is it a masterpiece in disguise?  Is it the world's greatest practical joke?  Fuck if I know.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Jeepers Creepers (2001)

As kids grow up and begin to challenge the images and ideas that once scared them, a common form of conquest is the endurance of a scary movie. The commercials alone for Mars Attacks! (1996) and Bride of Chucky (1998) were enough to fuel my nightmares when I was in kindergarten and second grade, respectively, and I wouldn't subject myself to their full 90 minute terror until well into my teenage years, but by fifth grade I was comfortable enough to up the ante and watch suspense/thrillers.  I think the first thriller I watched was What Lies Beneath (2000) starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford.  My older sister introduced me to it after she saw it at sleepover, and for the two of us the film would serve as a gateway to the likes of Double Jeopardy (1999), Domestic Disturbance (2001), The Glass House (2001), and Signs (2002).

In those preteen years, I could handle thrillers, appreciate the scares that come from a movie like Signs, and slowly gain enough comfort to delve into the horror genre.  Around this time period when I was in fifth grade, there were two films that I remember my friend Brandon Koubratoff talking about extensively, both scary movies released in 2001 that coincidentally both started with the letter "J".  To this day they're still burned into my brain, schematically going hand in hand: Jeepers Creepers and Joy Ride.  One weekend we rented Joy Ride together and watched it multiple times.  It's a striking and suspenseful story about some college kids who play practical jokes on truckers via CB radio on a road trip and eventually discover much to their misfortune that they've messed with a psychopath.  Naturally, as this psychotic big rig driver discovers their identity and whereabouts, the chase is on.  The film was scary in a clean way; looking back everything about it seems finely polished, especially when taking a look at the choice of actors for the protagonists: Steve Zahn and Paul Walker.  Gore and other gruesome trademarks of the horror genre are missing or scarce to be seen; it's a pure thriller.  Joy Ride was a crucial movie when I was an impressionable boy that reinforced the idea that I could enjoy scary movies and continue to push the envelope with what I was capable of handling.  Jeepers Creepers would have served well as a followup with its tinge of horror and the supernatural, but as fate would have it, I never actually saw it as a kid.

Well, I finally got my hands on Jeepers Creepers a few weeks ago, and after seeing it for the first time, I must say that I was quite impressed.  Looking back, Jeepers Creepers shares even more similarities with Joy Ride, as the plot begins with a couple of college kids on their way home from a distant university, this time a bickering brother and sister.  Although unsolicited, trouble comes in the form of a lunatic driver in an old 1920s-style truck who runs them off the road.  The pair manage to recover but eventually pass this same truck stopped at an old barn and witness a cloaked man disposing of what appears to be a bloody, wrapped body into a sewer pipe.  At a safe point in time, the brother and sister return to the abandoned barn to investigate with hopes of rescuing a possible victim.  I really like the premise to the movie but especially its name, which gives credibility to that old 1969 episode of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! "Jeepers, it's the Creeper".  When I was little, I always wondered, "Who's the Creeper? I've never heard of him."  Jeepers Creepers establishes the character and myth of the Creeper, a feature which I personally think gives the film a strong sense of validity.  To my knowledge, there weren't any significant movies before it which attempted to define this character.  With the worked-in use of the 1938 whistly tune "Jeepers Creepers", the established lore within this film is masterful.

As far as cinematography, Jeepers Creepers features strong visuals, angles, and contrasts of light and color in its shots, and it's no wonder: Francis Ford Coppola was one of three producers.  For a horror movie, I'll say that the acting is very good and even the bullshit dialogue in the exposition feels genuine, insignificant but that's its beauty.  Justin Long stars as the younger brother and in my opinion is the cast member who really excels in his role.  Released three years before his breakout in DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story (2004), I was unaware Justin Long was even in this movie, so to see him have such an uncharacteristic role and perform so well was a pleasant surprise when seeing this movie in 2013.  Watching the story unfold was a legitimately thrilling experience which had me on edge until its conclusion.  As holds true for most movies, I think the less you know about it ahead of time the better your chances of enjoying it will be.  Thankfully, Brandon didn't spoil too much twelve years ago, and Jeepers Creepers manages to hold up surprisingly well today.  I can't speak for the 2003 sequel, but if you happened to miss this original back in grade school, it's definitely worth checking out.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Flash Gordon (1980)

I've never been a fan of Flash Gordon.  I'd heard a bit about the franchise and how it inspired the likes of Star Wars and other more contemporary space-themed series, but it was several generations before my time and not a saga that successfully transcended the decades.  I'd seen a few episodes from the 1950s serials and failed to find them entertaining.  After this 1980 film came up in both Queen's discography and Timothy Dalton's filmography (I'm inherently interested in anything starring a former/future James Bond), however, I decided to check this movie out and was hopeful that it might allow for a modern interpretation of the Flash Gordon franchise that I'd enjoy.  This hope was naive.  Tim Dalton wasn't bad, but the Queen soundtrack was terribly underused (no more than 20 minutes in the whole movie), and overall it was just shitty.  I didn't see the movie Ted (2012) until after I'd actually seen Flash Gordon so had no expectations in that regard, an interesting carryover effect to say the least.

So what's in this caca concoction?  The requisite recipe is as follows: Begin with a base of Barbarella (1968).  Swap sultry sex-symbol Jane Fonda for Playgirl coverboy Sam J. Jones.  Remove all overtly sexual concepts, plot devices, and set/costume designs and replace them with equally moronic, sexually inert approximates.  While producer Dino De Laurentiis' ideas while masturbating worked perfectly for Barbarella, you'll need to wrack his brain twenty minutes after he's done masturbating this time around to avoid anything too kinky.  At this point the cheap sci-fi atmosphere should be unimpressive and inexplicably overbudget with likely nothing inspiring to show for it.  Fast forward all cultural references 12 years but be sure not to update any of the special effects.  In an attempt to appeal to contemporary sports fans, make Flash be the New York Jets quarterback despite the fact that the Jets were a mediocre to terrible team in the 1979 and 1980 NFL seasons.  Use this otherwise irrelevant character detail in a fight scene in which Flash Gordon uses a football and illogical play formations to defeat a team [?] of henchman, a scene which won't be topped for ludicrousness until Halle Berry's quid pro quo basketball scene in Catwoman (2004).  Enlist help of successful rock band Queen to write and record an entire soundtrack but only use two of the songs: one to be a theme in the first five minutes and credits and one to play on loop the last fifteen minutes of the movie.  Be sure not to use anything remotely resembling the sound of Queen during the middle 90 minutes of the film.  Leave to rot for 33 years.

I watched over 170 movies this summer and Flash Gordon was the worst of them all, hands down.  Golden Raspberries mean nothing when even Edward D. Wood's very own Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) outshines this trainwreck without question.  Flash Gordon ranks along with Spy Kids (2001), Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams (2002), and The Cat in the Hat (2003) for worst movies I have ever disgraced my mind with viewing.  The comedic warning of Mark Wahlberg and Seth McFarlane of "so bad but so good" is insufficient, and I shudder to think that Ted attracted a mainstream and entirely new audience to the existence of this terrible movie.  Whatever movie you select to watch, don't see Flash Gordon, but if you're forced to against your will or choose to do so out of some sick form of sadistic humor, don't see it sober.  Fuck this movie.

Monday, September 16, 2013

More American Graffiti (1979)

More American Graffiti is a follow-up to the George Lucas/Francis Ford Coppola classic American Graffiti (1973).  Released six years after the original on which it's based, this movie continues to tell the story of some of the characters we had last seen on that fateful summer night of 1962.  More American Graffiti was written and directed by Bill Norton, although Lucas did co-produce it and almost the entire cast returned to reprise their roles.  Considering that I've claimed American Graffiti to be my favorite film of all time for a few years now, it took me a long time to get around to seeing this thing.  Although nowhere near as timeless or original as its predecessor, I found More American Graffiti to be a thoroughly enjoyable movie which had a lot more going for it than I expected it to have.

While for its time American Graffiti was ambitious to simultaneously follow the paths of four characters and the intertwining adventures they have in one night, More American Graffiti goes even further and simultaneously tells four different stories that occur on subsequent New Year's Eves (1964, 1965, 1966, and 1967).  This approach may sound strange, but it works surprisingly well.  There's also a lot of experimental directing in regards to switching between camera ratios for certain scenes and even piecing together up to three separate frames.  The effectiveness of these camera choices is up to interpretation.  In my opinion, sometimes they suck, and sometimes they look pretty cool and provide a nice psychedelic effect to go along with the late '60s soundtrack.  While I already knew and liked a lot more of the songs I heard in the soundtrack of More American Graffiti than American Graffiti, I still prefer the original's soundtrack because it blended into the setting much more effectively, providing the feel that the songs were playing on the Wolfman's station all night long.  This is just one example of why the loose sequel is not as tightly packed as the original, but for what it is More American Graffiti explores the only logical option it could have: the mid to late 1960s, and it does a pretty decent job at that.

With the exception of Rick Dreyfus and Suzanne Somers, every actor from the original returned to reprise his or her role as either a main character or at least a cameo.  Seeing Debbie followed as a major character in place of Curt was really disappointing at first, but her arc surprisingly maintained my interest.  With the exception of John Milner's drag racing plot, the three other plots delve into the political and social aspects of America's decision to station military in Vietnam.  Yes, Vietnam was officially one of the inspired undertones for the theme of "coming change" and "end of an era" expressed in American Graffiti.  Like it or not, More American Graffiti shows Toad and Joe the Pharaoh stationed in 'Nam, Steve and Laurie unintentionally caught in a war protest, and Debbie and Carol living in a country that has certainly seen dramatic change in the past five years.  The film explores American motivation for invading Vietnam, the backlash of anti-war protesters, police brutality, and the role of an individual citizen within a large-scale democracy.  Nothing new in this regard for Vietnam movies (I think it's all been done before and probably had already been by 1979), but once again the parallel between the youth of the characters and the youth of the nation they live in is part of what gives their struggles such validity and power to engage viewers.

A lot of movie sequels or spiritual successors satisfy both the criteria of being not only unnecessary but also liable to detract from the purity of the original works on which they're based.  Think Stayin' Alive (1983) or S. Darko (2009) for a more modern example.  In the case of More American Graffiti, while I think that it was definitely unnecessary I did really enjoy seeing the lives of these characters I've grown to love a few years down the road.  For me it didn't detract in any way from my view of the original and also made that epilogue after the plane takes off less random and perplexing.  While it substantiated that small afterthought with which American Graffiti concludes and was enjoyable overall, I'd only recommend More American Graffiti if you've seen the original multiple times and really love the characters or for some reason just can't get enough Vietnam movies.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

I've been a fan of Steve Carell ever since I saw the first minute of the US version of The Office on NBC in March 2005.  Carell's roles in Bruce Almighty (2003) and Anchorman (2004) were good and funny, but he just didn't jump out as me as an actor to care about until that opening scene of The Office with John Krasinski.  The show became an instant favorite and Carell a favorite actor.  Between that first moment of The Office in 2005 and the end of 2007, I was treated to the first three glorious seasons of The Office and the three films that I deem to be Carell's best: The 40 Year-Old Virgin (2005), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), and Dan In Real Life (2007).  In this short amount of time I was given a great TV comedy, one of my top comedic films of all time, and two of my favorite feel-good movies that I can rewatch at any time no matter the circumstances.

I watched these episodes and movies habitually through the end of high school (which was 2009 for me), but by that time I'd noticed that Carell's recent output wasn't as high caliber as it had once been.  The Office had peaked (admittedly by Rainn Wilson, in season two), and though I watched every episode until the recent series finale this past spring, it's clear that it noticeably deteriorated during the last few seasons with Carell and suffered even further in the two seasons without him (although it redeemed itself in the second half of the ninth and final season).  Whereas my season one and two DVDs of The Office have some of the most wear out of my entire collection and even three and four saw a lot of usage, I still haven't even played every disc from season 5, and seasons 6 through 8 I still have yet to remove from the packaging.  As far as Carell's movies went, Get Smart (2008) was more of the Evan Almighty pseudo-slapstick comedy I didn't cherish, Date Night (2010) was a big letdown, and Dinner For Schmucks (2010) just rubbed me the wrong way.  I actually did enjoy Crazy Stupid Love (2011), but The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013) resumed the train of bad movies from an actor I'd grown to like more as a person and less as an actor (at least as far as script choices go).

As a Steve Carell fan, I had mentally categorized Seeking a Friend for the End of The World as a Steve Carell movie, and it is only in this regard that I seek to comment on the film.  I didn't see it in theaters, so when I finally rented it a few weeks ago only one question was on my mind: Is this going to be a good movie?  The simple answer is yes.  Being disappointed by 80% of the past five Carell films I'd seen had left me in a state of apathy.  How enjoyable a pleasant surprise in life can be, and in cinema the experience is no different.

The premise is exactly as the title describes, and very early on in the film a strong tone of stark realism is established.  With a few end of the world movies at least partially falling under the comedy genre that came out in the past couple years I can come up with off the top of my head, I prefer the approach utilized here.  Even if a cameo by Rihanna or Emma Watson makes for a good laugh (This Is The End, 2013), this style of humor often strikes me as shallow and reflects on the lack of substance in the film that resorts to it.  It's entertainment, I know, but it's substance that separates a film I see once and a film I make an investment to own and watch multiple times throughout the course of my lifetime.  Just as Little Miss Sunshine and Dan In Real Life offer seemingly real characters and relatable life situations, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World upholds this approach, which as far as I'm concerned is a very good thing.  They're not pure comedies, and their pacing reflects this characteristic.

Steve Carell and Keira Knightley work together well as on-screen leads.  Their combination feels a lot less out of place than Jim Carey and Zooey Deschanel in Yes Man (2008) or Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation (2004, although with this last one the age difference was clearly intentional).  I've always liked scenes with Carell projecting sarcasm, and the level of cynicism achieved in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is something I savor.  I like Keira Knightley's role because her character is very different than what I've seen her do before.  It's challenging to the viewer because she's quirky and less sexy than in some of her other roles (in this regard much like Natalie Portman's character in Garden State, 2004).  If there were no variation in an actor's roles, I'd question whether he or she was acting at all (my biggest complaint with the tedious repetition of Zooey Deschanel). Adam Brody has a very brief role in the movie which I didn't care for because his character crosses that boundary of believable which the rest of the characters achieve so well, but since his importance and screentime is so minor this lapse is forgivable.

As a longtime fan of Steve Carell, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World was a surprisingly refreshing film that renewed my hope in this actor's career and ultimately proved to be quite thought provoking due to its more realistic approach of the apocalypse.  It's not being robbed by Hermione Granger, and it's not Bruce Willis dying on a meteor; for me, it was just right.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Dazed and Confused (1993)

In the moments that immediately followed my first viewing of George Lucas' pre-Star Wars masterpiece American Graffiti (1973), I distinctly remember thinking that it might just be my new favorite movie. Almost four years and several rewatches later, I can confidently state that at this point in my life American Graffiti is my favorite film of all time.  Although well-respected by both film historians and critics, it's not the greatest movie ever made nor is it one that everyone will appreciate, but for me this film has it all.  Set in 1962 Bakersfield, American Graffiti tells the story of a group of recent high school graduates and their struggle to figure out what the next chapter in each of their lives will be.  For some of them the decision revolves around college, but for others the stark reality of working in the same small town in which they grew up seems almost predetermined.  Life is changing, but decisions can wait until morning when the infinite possibility of one summer night lies on the city streets before them.

American Grafitti has a strongly established setting (a specific year in a specific US city, taking into consideration contemporary music, cars, trends, etc.), a diverse set of characters with passions, problems, and quirks, and a simple plot/theme of enjoying the time at hand which allows the events of the film to take place in one 24 hour period of time.  Naturally when I kept hearing about how Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused (1993) accomplished these same feats nearly as well, I was excited to check out this more recent film.  I wasn't expecting it to dethrone my favorite movie (which it didn't), but I figured I'd at least enjoy it (which I did).

Dazed and Confused begins on the last day of school in 1976 Austin, Texas and follows a group of adolescents who have just been set free for the summer.  These teens range in age from incoming freshman to newly crowned seniors.  Rather than focus on life after high school, the worldview of Dazed and Confused is more narrow in scope, and in my opinion the initiation of last year's 8th graders is one of the more interesting aspects of the film.  While this shift in focus admittedly lessens what little plot there is (no matter what happens, they're all gonna be back at school in a couple months), it makes the theme resonate all the more clearly: wherever you are in life, live it up to the fullest.

Similarly to how American Graffiti marked the debut of several stars (including Ron Howard, Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfus, and Cindy Williams), Dazed and Confused introduced an even larger batch of Hollywood names with the likes of Milla Jovovich, Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, RenĂ©e Zellweger, Anthony Rapp, and Adam Goldberg topping out the list.  Some of their roles are a lot of fun to look back on, particularly Matthew McConaughey (who I usually dislike).  Ben Affleck's character is a real jerk which, if you already hate him, makes it all the better when he gets what he deserves.

The music in the film is killer.  It's all '70s rock with a bit of folk (Bob Dylan's "Hurricane") and two songs by War ("Lowrider" and "Why Can't We Be Friends"), a group whose genre I can never quite put my finger on.  A few of my favorites used include "Sweet Emotion" by Aerosmith and "Paranoid" by Black Sabbath, and the fact that they chose Ted Nugent's "Stranglehold" over "Cat Scratch Fever" I think shows a lot of taste.  Peter Frampton and Alice Cooper are also put to great use.  The soundtrack would be supreme if not for one fatal flaw.

My biggest problem with this movie was that it paid tribute to my favorite '70s movie but not my favorite '70s band.  Despite the fact that its title is taken from a track from Led Zeppelin's 1969 debut album, the film fails not only to include the song "Dazed and Confused" but also to incorporate a single song by the band that played it!  In my mind there was no excuse not to replace a few of the more run-of-the-mill songs by Foghat or Sweet or ZZ Top with at least a couple mainstream Led tracks like "Rock And Roll" or "Whole Lotta Love" let alone write/direct a sequence to go along with some portion of the six and a half minute perfection that is "Dazed and Confused."  When the credits rolled and ended with no Led, I was in disbelief.

I did some research, and it turns out that the director actually intended on using "Rock And Roll" but was unable to secure the proper authorization required to do so:  

'Plant sold his rights to the Led Zeppelin material in the early 1980's, although he still maintains 1/3 creative control, but he doesn't get any royalties from the sales of Led Zeppelin albums, hence his comment when being interviewed by Letterman about Zeppelin being more rewarding for Jimmy these days. Robert has used this control to veto the 20th anniversary single of "Stairway to Heaven" and the use of any Zeppelin material in the film "Dazed and Confused."

Director Richard Linklater went to the extreme length of sending a video tape of him personally pleading to Plant to let him include the song "Rock And Roll" in his movie "Dazed And Confused". The film is about a group of teenagers in the 1970s and what they get up to on the last day of school. The film featured a lot of classic seventies songs such as Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion". Both Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones approved the inclusion of the song, but Plant, for reasons best known to himself, refused to allow it to be used. This meant it couldn't be used, as agreement from all three surviving members of Zeppelin was required. There is no Zeppelin content in the film anyway, and Linklater was of the opinion that Plant's "people" rather than him were behind the refusal, actually expressing his doubts that his pleas ever got to Plant himself.'

So no one really knows why authorization for the Dazed and Confused soundtrack was denied by the band.  It's a shame because the film really would have benefited that little bit by filling out its vintage rock playlist, but at the end of the day it's a minor complaint by an outspoken Led Zeppelin fan.

Another factor that doesn't make this film as classic for me is that the characters by and large are degenerates.  They're entertaining, but I just don't identity with them or think I would have been like them had I been in high school in 1976.  With American Graffiti, I really feel like I could have been there in 1962 cruising downtown with Wolfman Jack on the radio, trying to find that blonde in the T-bird.  For me, that's what these movies are all about: capturing a time we never could have experienced otherwise.  When it comes down to it, these are just the trivial reasons why I prefer American Graffiti; Dazed and Confused is great, too, partially in its own way and partially through emulation.  Long live the '70s!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Revenge of the Creature (1955)

When Universal Pictures released Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954, they successfully created what most film historians consider to be the last of the classic Universal monsters: Gill-man. Whether or not you've seen the original movie, that pale green, fish-faced humanoid also known as the Creature would probably look familiar with a quick image search.  With back to back sequels in the two consecutive years that followed the original's release, the Creature movies not only harked back to the timeless romanticism of the older Universal monster films but also helped update the science fiction genre with dialogue explaining biological research and theories as best as 1950s science could as well as offering social commentary on the increasing issues of pollution and destruction of ecology.  This duality is what allows the films to fit in with the classics that predate it by over 20 years while simultaneously being easy to watch for modern generations.

For a younger film lover getting into the Universal monster movies, one of the biggest challenges is determining the plot continuity between their array of sequels and deciding which ones are actually worth watching.  Having seen Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Wolf Man (1941), and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), this was the exact point I had reached.  I'd seen the first two Frankenstein sequels (Bride of Frankenstein, 1935, and Son of Frankenstein, 1939), but none of the other sequels/spinoffs are as talked about as these two, and ignoring the rest would surely result in missing out on some great American cinema. Well, I recently rewatched Creature from the Black Lagoon and subsequently viewed Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956) for the first time, and I can say that this well-contained trilogy is worth seeing in its entirety.  I'd like to focus on Revenge of the Creature because personally I liked it more than the last sequel and have some more noteworthy points in its defense.  Like most other Universal monster movies, the Creature movies no longer fit in what's commonly known as the horror genre, but all three can be considered science-fiction films with elements of romance.

For Revenge of the Creature, Jack Arnold returned as director and Ricou Browning reprised his role as Gill-man in the underwater scenes (land scenes featuring the Creature would be covered by three different actors in each of the movies).  While the overall formula of the first sequel is near identical to the original, what really keeps Revenge of the Creature fresh and different from its predecessor is its setting.  While the first movie takes place in the Black Lagoon in the Amazon, Gill-man's home turf, the sequel is set at an oceanarium in Florida where the Creature is studied by scientists after his capture in the film's opening sequence.  This turning of the tables offers a new cast of marine biologists and animal psychologists the opportunity to study the Creature in captivity.  Needless to say, his escape is imminent.  Actor John Agar is the leading man and Lori Nelson his lovely counterpart, and while she ultimately becomes the damsel in distress she is one of the scientists studying the Creature and an intelligent one at that.  Whether or not this qualifies as progressive for the 1950s is up to opinion, but it's a step up from the original if that womanizing factor tends to bother you in movies.  The scientific discussion  between characters in Revenge of the Creature is more prominent than in Creature from the Black Lagoon.  While this feature adds to overall production value of the film, it's also fun to observe what scientific explanations were available in the mid '50s that are still sound today and have a bit of a laugh at the couple lines that don't quite sound right if you've studied biology or psychology lately.  The action and swimming sequences are on par with the original but with a bit more variety, and although they messed up his eyes on the out of water costume (just wait for the third), the gill flapping effects on Gill-man's head are even better than in the first movie.

The Creature Walks Among Us takes a radically different direction with the series but is interesting to say the least.  New ethical issues are delved into as scientists operate on Gill-man in order to keep him alive, replacing his gills with lungs.  In this regard, it reminds me a lot of George Romero's Day of the Dead (1985); I don't like either as much as the first two films in their respective series, but they raise some interesting moral concerns while generally retaining what made the previous films great.  An interesting thing to note about The Creature from the Black Lagoon series is that the first two films were shot and released in 3-D and all three films were made in black and white.  If you're watching Revenge of the Creature, keep your eyes peeled for an uncredited cameo as a lab assistant by Clint Eastwood.  This brief role was his first onscreen appearance!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Wolverine (2013)

To preface this discussion, I do consider myself a fan of X-Men.  I've never been a comic book reader, but I've seen all of the movies, followed a few of the different TV incarnations since the early '90s, and played through some of the video games (particularly X-Men Legends and its sequel).  That being said, although I don't qualify as what some would consider a true fan or hardcore fan due to my lack of exposure to the original source material, I feel that I have a fair grasp of the X-Men universe and a decent knowledge of its characters.  And also for the record, I enjoyed the first five films and even thought the first three held up pretty well when I rewatched them in the days leading up to seeing The Wolverine.

All I knew about The Wolverine in advance was that it focused on Logan and that it took place after X-Men: The Last Stand.  I didn't see a single trailer beforehand, and I had no idea which actors to expect other than Hugh Jackman.  I went into the theater without expectations of any kind and yet I was disappointed, mainly because of what I didn't see in this latest franchise installment.

The title's lack of the franchise name "X-Men" is appropriate because with the exception of a few dreams/flashbacks/telekinetic instances with Jean Grey, there aren't any mutants other than Wolverine you've seen in the previous films and most likely none that you've even heard of.  Instead there's a story set in Japan with a Samurai or Yakuza family obsessed with Wolverine's powers and a villain that's general to the Marvel universe and possibly more tied in with Captain America and The Avengers than the X-Men.  After a bit of research, I discovered that The Wolverine is based on the similarly titled Wolverine comic series which began in the early '80s.  In following this particular storyline, the film probably does a great job (and I think the current consensus among hardcore fans is that it does), but for the more casual X-Men fan like myself this movie was hard to enjoy because the characters were unfamiliar and frankly boring in comparison to the 30+ mutants I already know and love.  It's not a bad movie by any means; it's just incredibly far removed from what most people know of the X-Men universe.  The character development seen in Logan is solid yet marginal considering the emphasis the first four films already put on him, but Hugh Jackman delivers perfectly as always.

If you like X-Men (particularly Jackman's Wolverine) or simply action movies in Japanese settings, I recommend seeing The Wolverine eventually even if that means waiting for a rental.  If neither of the above applies to you, this one is a very skippable movie, and for the record I wouldn't recommend this as a first exposure to X-Men (instead try X-Men [2000] or X-Men: First Class [2011]).  Whenever you watch this movie though, be sure to wait for the short teaser scene after the end of the credits.  This scene alone elicited more excitement from the theater than the entirety of the actual film on the ticket stub, indicative of the fact that there's a world full of casual comic fans who don't actually read the comics and that we are beyond stoked to see X-Men: Days of Future Past next year!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Don't be put off by the actor combination of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman; Eyes Wide Shut is not the typical Hollywood power couple box office exploitation.  Having seen their previous tandem film, Far And Away (1992), I wouldn't have been remotely interested in seeing this film had I not known it was directed, written, and produced by Stanley Kubrick.  Having recently seen his 1980 adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining, my third Kubrick film following A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey (books I've all read and enjoyed), I've recognized the fact that this man was incredible at interpreting stories worth reading and turning them into movies worth watching.  Based on the 1926 novella "Dream Story" by Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler, Eyes Wide Shut further enhanced this newly found understanding of why the name Stanley Kubrick speaks for itself.

The last film before Kubrick's death in 1999, Eyes Wide Shut is a mesmerizing suspense/drama about uncivilized human sexuality in modern society and its effect on the civilized union we know as marriage.  The film serves as a warning to both those in monogamous relationships as well as those merely wary of the need to conduct proper social behavior while handling the chemical sexual urges that make us human; the wet dreams we have with eyes wide shut are not without meaning.

Cruise and Kidman play a wealthy married couple who live with their one child in New York City.  At a dinner party the couple is separated and hit on by strangers, both entertaining what they believe to be harmless flirting.  After an argument about their prior behavior ensues the next night, Cruise realizes for the first time that his unwavering assurance of mutual fidelity may be naive.  Feeling inconsolable primal male jealousy (unsuppressed for perhaps the first time in their marriage), he uses a coincidental opportunity to stay out and roam the streets and clubs of NYC to his full advantage, finding sex offered in the strangest of places and temptation more alluring than ever before.

One thing some viewers may want to know in advance about this movie is that there is a fair amount of nudity in the R-rated version and, to my understanding, much more in the unrated version which is apparently a better representation of Kubrick's unedited intention of the film.  I don't think that it's nudity for the sake of nudity, however, because despite this sometimes controversial feature I didn't find the movie to be particularly erotic, most likely because I was conscious of the illogical decisions the characters were making because of their innate sexuality.  This dual focus is what made Eyes Wide Shut such an interesting watch and why I recommend it to fans of Kubrick, Cruise, Kidman, or just good movies in general.