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.