Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Safety Not Guaranteed

Directed by Colin Trevorrow.
2012. Rated R, 86 minutes.

Cast:
Aubrey Plaza
Mark Duplass
Jake Johnson
Karan Soni
Mary Lynn Rajskub
Jenica Bergere
Jeff Garlin
Lauren Carlos


Apparently, it’s a slow news month in Seattle. One of the city’s local magazines is trying to come up with ideas for a story to run when they decide to find out about the person and story behind a peculiar personal ad. It is for “someone to go back in time with,” and stresses that it is not a joke. Since it was his idea, Jeff (Johnson), decides to head the investigation and takes two interns with him: Darius (Plaza) and Arnau (Soni). Soon enough, they figure out it’s a guy named Kenneth (Duplass). The initial plan is for Jeff to pose as someone answering the ad. However, Kenneth sniffs him out as a fraud pretty quickly. Figuring correctly that Kenneth probably lacks female companionship, Darius is sent in to play the same role. Unsurprisingly to her co-workers, Darius is a hit with Kenneth who agrees to take her through the training process for time travel. Everyone trying to figure out just how crazy Kenneth is while he prepares to do the impossible ensues.

Several other storylines also persist. Jeff tries to hook up with an old flame and to break Arnau out of his shell (and virginity). Then, of course, there’s the little matter of Darius possibly falling for the seemingly unstable Kenneth. These all sound trite, but they’re handled with a humanity that feels genuine. In addition, the overarching time travel plot holds them all together without intruding upon them like the planets in other recent sort-of-sci-fi flicks Melancholia and Another Earth.

Like those other two movies, the science-fiction part of Safety Not Guaranteed is a seldom seen current that runs beneath the story. This is a movie much more about people interacting with one another than any futuristic occurrence. It’s developing love stories mixed with light comedy and drama, investigative reporting and even some possible espionage. This is definitely for the romantics and not the lights-and-lasers crowd.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Step Up Revolution

Directed by Scott Speer.
2012. Rated PG-13, 99 minutes.
Cast:
Ryan Guzman
Kathryn McCormick
Misha Gabriel
Peter Gallagher
Cleopatra Coleman
Megan Boone
Mia Michaels
Tommy Dewey
Chadd Smith

The original Step Up was a decent dance flick most notable for launching the career of Channing Tatum. The next two movies in the series are horrible stories hidden beneath a bevy of exciting hip-hop influenced dance routines. Each only holds the slimmest strands of continuity to its predecessor as characters from the prior movies are only given cameos. I suppose the director for this outing, Scott Speer, figured if it ain’t broke…you know the rest. And if you’re one of us screaming that the franchise is indeed broken you’re obviously not paying attention. You have to read between the line dances. Replace the phrase ‘if it ain’t broke’ with ‘as long as it’s profitable.’ There ya go. I knew you were smart.

I would call the plot to this latest installment lazy, but hey, it’s actually breaking new ground for the series. The first three movies all revolve around dancing, school and the redemptive qualities of both. Well, part 3 kinda waves the finger at academia, but that’s in another review. School is completely absent this time around. For the bulk of its tale, Step Up Revolution simply rips off dozens of other flicks and dares you to remember which ones.



Okay, I’ve rambled into the third paragraph and haven’t even told you what the plot is yet. I’ll spill the beans since you insist. Emily (McCormick) wants to be a professional dancer but her rich Trump-esque daddy (Gallagher) wants her to take over the family business. The two agree, meaning he tells her, that if she’s not a pro dancer by the end of the summer, she’ll give up the ghost and come work for him. Obviously, dad isn’t into drawing things out. Meanwhile, his little girl falls madly in love with slum-dwellin’, hip hop dancin’ Channing Tatum stand-in Sean (Guzman). Sean happens to be a waiter at dad’s hotel. He’s also part of The Mob. Sadly, this mob does not include De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, an Armani suit, a black leather jacket, an overly made up moll, the FBI and not one freaking dancer gets whacked. Damn. Anyhoo, this mob puts on elaborate, dance numbers in heavily trafficked areas without warning which it films for YouTube in hopes of winning a contest. Never mind all that. Just know we soon discover that Emily’s daddy has purchased all the land in Sean’s neighborhood and is about to tear everything down and put in condos. Or is it a mall? A stadium? Skyscrapers? Habitat for Superheroes? Hell, it doesn’t really matter. Just understand that The Mob springs into action to save their home. So if you’re actually paying attention to what you’re reading and are old enough to remember you should’ve spotted what I am about to tell you. The brilliant minds behind this picture have merely taken the plots of Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo and condensed them into one movie. Mind you, neither is even in the same universe as Citizen Kane, but it is what it is.

You know what, though? I’m not even mad at this movie. Don’t get me wrong. It sucks. It just sucks a lot less than the previous two “steps.” It’s errors are less egregious than those movies. Sure, the dialogue is regurgitated drivel and we’ve already discussed the plot, but there’s nothing offensive or aggressive about it. Well, unless you’re wealthy and/or republican. Even then you’ve seen this hundreds of times before. You already know that “liberal Hollywood” (as some would say) uses you as its go-to villain. You expect it by now. Part 2 suffers from racism while part 3 showcases backwards logic and morality. All three flicks equate dancers to gang-bangers. Despite the name of the group, this movie doesn’t even have that problem. It’s biggest issue is blandness. I’m not sure that connecting the narrative dots has ever been easier. And it still has big, loud, creative dance sequences. This makes Revolution the best of the three sequels. Admittedly, this is like being the best looking ugly person. Still, that’s better than not being the best looking ugly person. Capiche?

MY SCORE: 5/10

Sunday, January 27, 2013

House on Bare Mountain

Directed by Lee Frost.

1962. Not Rated, 62 minutes.
Cast:
Bob Cresse
Laine Carlin
Leticia Cooper
Laura Eden
Ann Perry
Connie Hudson
Dan Hyland
John Nada


Since the beginning of cinematic time there has always been crap. True, also, is there are varying degrees of crapiness. There is that painful crap that soils the screen with the difficult to excrete, hardened mass of its existence. Then, there is that joyous, smooth sliding crap. The turd itself, so happy to be crappy, revels in its own crappiness. It’s shape, size and smell are all sources of great pride in the crapper. House on Bare Mountain is just such crap. By the way, you only get one guess at where I was when I dreamed up this paragraph. Too much? Let’s move on.

Alledgedly, there is a plot. I’ll sketch it out as briefly as I can. Granny Good, of course played by a man in a dress (Cresse), runs a boarding school for girls. By the way, he’s definitely channeling Jonathan Winters for his performance. Granny is also a moonshiner. She doesn’t actually make it herself, though. She keeps a werewolf in the basemant who spends almost all of his time concocting the stuff. Yes, you read that correctly. Every now and again he sneaks out to bay at the moon. The cops send in Sally (Perry) to work undercover, presumably to bust the old lady.



As simple as it sounds, executing the story in a coherent manner proved too great a task for the masterminds behind this one. There is plenty of humor, both intentional and not. Dialogue ranges from dumb to slightly less dumb. The acting is pretty bad across the board with one exception. Cress is actually enjoyable as Granny Good. The of the cast obviously weren’t chosen for their skills as thespians. How do I know how the “actors” were chosen? The title offers a hint, but the (lack of) work by the wardrobe department is a dead giveaway. The young nubiles at “Granny Good’s School for Good Girls” rarely wear any clothing. This is quite literally a tits-n-ass movie. Since it is a flick from the 1960s, another part of the female anatomy remains off-camera. Nontheless, there is so much flesh on display the word “exploitation” doesn’t even begin to describe Bare Mountain.

Given what I’ve just told you, you may be incredulous as to what I’m going to say next. Truth is, there is an innocent vibe to the whole thing. It’s far different than boobie movies that would come out even less than a decade later. There is no sex or violence. One would be hard-pressed to find a trace of mean spiritedness. It’s just a bit over an hour of women walking around and doing other random things like shower (lots of showers, by the way), jump rope, read, and go up and down stairs in various stages of undress. I suppose you could argue the constant ogling of women is, in itself, mean. I won’t even try to dissuade you from your point. Certainly, I won’t try to say Bare Mountain has any artistic merit whatsoever. Still, it’s goofy fun for guys who feel like wasting sixty minutes, or so. It’s so bad, it’s awesome!

MY SCORE: -10/10

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Cat in Paris

Directed by Jean-Loup Felicioli.
2012. Rated PG, 70 minutes.

Cast:
Steven Blum
JD Blanc
Anjelica Huston
Phillippe Hartmann
Matthew Modine
Gregory Cupoli
Lauren Weintraub


Dino is a cat that lives in Paris, hence the title. During the day he is under the care of Zoe (Weintraub), a little mute girl that that loves him deeply. Dino brings Zoe any dead creatures he can carry as a token of his appreciation. Zoe lives with her recently widowed mother Jeanne (Harden), a police officer specializing in catching bad guys and absentee parenting. Therefore most of her daughter’s time is spent with Claudine (Huston), the nanny. Oddly, the cat sneaks out of the house every evening and returns in the morning. The others know she leaves but haven’t a clue where she goes. We know that she goes across town to hang out with Nico (Blum) and accompanies him on his nightly burglaries. Eventually in the picture is Costa (Blanc), a ruthless art thief. We’re told he’s the one who killed Zoe’s father. The girl has not spoken a word since.

The seemingly separate strands of our plot are quickly established and work toward each other at a wonderful pace. The early scenes don’t dawdle endlessly, they make their point in a concise manner and provide us with neat foreshadowing. The whole thing is barely an hour long, a testament to its efficiency.

Efficiency without heart is a death knell for a movie. Luckily, this one does indeed have both. We can’t help but feel sorry for Zoe. Her mom is incessantly pre-occupied and her nanny seems well-meaning but can’t take the place of a child’s mother. Other than Dino, she has no friends and is having major trouble coping with her father’s death. Later, we project ourselves onto Nico and the relationship she develops with him.



Of course, with a cop and a bunch of criminals around, there’s bound to be some action. Most of it is back-loaded into the final act. Before this, an intriguing police procedural is well-mixed into a story that’s full, but not cluttered. Each section of the tale feels to be an organic part of the whole. There is some contrivance to get Costa into the story, but once in he’s so much fun we’re okay with it.

Another interesting aspect is the animation. Hand drawn, it’s less concerned with being a photo-realistic representation than it is with conveying feelings. For instance, Nico is a burglar and has to be sneaky therefore, he moves fluidly, snake-like. Costa, on the other hand, is a brute with a gang of henchmen. He moves accordingly. It may sound strange to say this about such an old style of storytelling but it’s a breath of fresh air among all the computer animated fare out there. Likewise for the storytelling on display. It sets a brisk pace and doesn’t pad its runtime with extraneous exposition and over-manipulation. It doesn’t beg you to keep up because it’s secure enough to know that you will. The ending leaves some loose ends but we’ve had such fun watching, we don’t really mind.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Take This Waltz

Directed by Sarah Polley.
2012. Rated R, 116 minutes.
Cast:
Michelle Williams
Luke Kirby
Seth Rogen
Sarah Silverman
Jennifer Podemski
Diane D’Aquila
Graham Abbey
Vanessa Coelho
Aaron Abrams


When Margot (Williams) meets Daniel (Kirby) during a plane ride home the two hit it off immediately. They even decide to share a cab leaving the airport only to discover they live across the street from one another. Margot also makes it clear they cannot act on their obvious chemistry because she’s married. When we meet her hubby Lou (Rogen), it appears they have a great relationship. However, we soon discover that something is just a bit off. They obviously love each other but the sparks aren’t quite flying anymore. This issue is heightened because Margot is pretty fragile, emotionally. Our heroine flirting with Daniel, becoming more infatuated with him yet still trying to reignite the flames of her marriage ensues.

Despite what you’ve just read, this is no romantic comedy. This is a drama, and certainly qualifies as romantic but there are no easy answers here. That’s how Take This Waltz separates itself from the pack. Intensely told mostly through Margot’s eyes, it’s narrative can be brutal and certainly takes us on an emotional rollercoaster. It also avoids making either of the guys the hero or villain. Lou is not some horrible husband we beg her to leave. He’s a guy who loves his wife very much. Unfortunately for the two of them, they suffer from something a lot of couples do. To oversimplify, because there’s much more to it, when one’s in the mood the other usually is not. At times, Lou seems like Margot’s very best friend. At others, she’s frustrated by him. There are even times when she’s bored with him. Though that last thing is what makes their relationship the most vulnerable, Daniel is no knight in shining armor. He sends mixed signals. After he’s spent all day sweeping her off her feet and has her seemingly ready to give in to her most sinful desires he literally sends her home. He wants to present himself as respectful of her vows, but it makes him seem manipulative.



All of this adds up to us traversing some dark roads with our heroine. It’s not brilliantly torturous to the viewer like Blue Valentine, another movie about a tough marriage starring Michelle Williams, but it’s still pretty raw. This is because we understand she probably won’t completely shake sad feelings no matter which guy she ends up with. As in BV, Williams turns in a tremendous performance. As our suitor, Luke, Kirby is also very good. He doesn’t have the magnetism and sheer movie star quality of Ryan Gosling, Williams’ co-star in BV, but he does have a certain charm about him that works perfectly, here. Surprisingly, Seth Rogen plays it nicely understated. He’s still a goof-ball, but you can tell it’s a silliness once shared with the woman he loves and possibly why they got together in the first place. In small doses, as Lou’s sister, Sarah Silverman is also quite effective.



Things get a little strange over the last 20 minutes. This portion of the movie drags on a bit and it feels like a healthy chunk of it could’ve been left out without changing the movie one iota, and better yet, tightening the story. This includes Silverman’s big scene. I know I just praised her work, but it wasn’t necessarily needed and only serves as a way to get one more shot of Margot crying. The feelings conveyed during this scene are already explicit by the time this little event plays out, making it completely redundant. Speaking of explicit, the other thing that seems forced and over the top is the sudden soft-core adult flick that breaks out during this time. Far be it from me to complain about getting to see Ms. Williams in action, so to speak, but at least part of what happens confuses the matter (or maybe just me) and feels out of place. Further thought reveals what the director was trying to do, but I think the actual ending shows this without the sudden, and unexplained, involvement of other people.

Despite the overdone section near the end of the film, Take This Waltz is very much worth your while if relationship movies interest you in the least. It’s not really concerned with appealing to your carnal desires. Instead, it is more about what these people find sexy and, just as importantly, when they find it that way. And just how important is sex to our relationships? As I said, don’t go looking for the same answers you’ve gotten from other movies.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Ted

Directed by Seth MacFarlane.
2012. Rated R, 106 minutes.
Cast:
Mark Wahlberg
Seth MacFarlane
Mila Kunis
Joel McHale
Giovanni Ribisi
Aedin Mincks
Patrick Warburton
Matt Walsh
Jessica Barth
Bill Smitrovich
Sam J. Jones
Norah Jones
Tom Skerritt
Ryan Reynolds

As a boy, John (Wahlberg) doesn’t have any friends. He is so unpopular even the kids who get beat up all the time don’t want to hang out with him. Desperately needing companionship, John wishes that his teddy bear would come to life so they could be best friends forever. Since it is Christmas, John’s wish comes true. The bear, named Ted (MacFarlane) of course, becomes a celebrity but never forsakes his pal. Fast forward twenty-five years or so. Ted is no longer a celeb but is still bestest buds with John. On the other hand, John is trying to maintain a meaningful relationship with girlfriend Lori (Kunis). Unfortunately, hanging out with Ted keeps getting in the way. Teddy bear profanity, drug use, drinking and sex ensues.

Let’s not beat around the bush. The draw of this movie is the novelty watching a stuffed animal do raunchy stuff. Luckily, much of it is rather hilarious. Just as good, it fits neatly into bromance vs. romance motif it sets up. The tugging on John from both directions sets up both the humor and emotion of the movie. The humor is certainly of the no-holds barred variety. Though every joke doesn’t hit its mark, many do. For this, much credit is due to director/star Seth MacFarlane rechanneling his Peter Griffith voice into the bear. His delivery is perfect throughout and he even references the Griffith character. By the way, this movie includes possibly the funniest fight scene of all time.



The emotion of Ted is pretty standard rom-com fare, but it works better than similar material in other movies. Kunis is sufficiently upset with her man for not being all he can be. She expresses disappointment and delivers ultimatums with the proper zest. Wahlberg’s man-child act wonderfully pulls both sides of the story together. He plays the role with a likeable naiveté that makes him a sympathetic figure. We feel he really wants to do the right thing. Sometimes, he just can’t. Other times, he’s not even sure what the right thing is. In several similar movies and roles, Seth Rogen endows his characters with harsh sarcasm, vocal selfishness and aloofness that works against the films because he seems hard to like for females in the audience. Wahlberg has no such issue. He wants to please them. He just seems weak as opposed to Rogen’s stubbornness. Of course, it helps that the popular opinion is that Wahlberg’s much easier on the eyes.

Where Ted falters is a third act that fails us twice. First, it integrates a kidnapping that feels artificial to the story. It doesn’t wreck the movie and has some laughs of its own, mostly from a fantastic performance by the creepily funny Giovanni Ribisi. Still, it feels like it’s there to inject an action scene where it isn’t needed. Second, when the credits roll nothing has been resolved. It’s meant to be a touching finale. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help thinking that everyone involved is back to square one.

See Ted for the toilet humor, or what doesn’t get into the toilet in one case. Somehow, through all the expletives and general crassness this movie achieves a level of cuteness that doesn’t seem possible. Don’t see it if you’re easily offended or actually looking for any sort of depth. The fact that the bear talks is about as deep as it gets.

MY SCORE: 7/10

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

John Carter

Directed by Andrew Stanton.

2012. Rated PG-13, 132 minutes.

Cast:
Lynn Collins
Samantha Morton
Dominic West
James Purefoy
Polly Walker
Daryl Sabara


Civil War vet John Carter (Kitsch) spends all of his time searching for a fabled cave full of gold. The Confederate Army wants to press him back into service. They capture John, he runs away, they give chase and start a little skirmish with some Native Americans who happen to be in the way. Our hero runs some more and practically falls into the cave he seeks. The only problem is there’s a strange looking dude already there. He and John get into it and bada-boom, bada-bing, John winds up on Mars, here called Barsoom, trying to save the planet from a budding tyrant who is getting some special help. Why yes, there is a pretty girl involved. Her name is Dejah Thoris (Collins). She’s a princess being forced by her father to marry the bad guy as a means of potentially saving their empire. You see, the king doesn’t watch movies and doesn’t know that these sorts of arrangements never work out the way you’d like. Oh, one other thing, while on Mars John can leap tall buildings in a single bound. Almost.

Almost is a good word to describe the movie as a whole. By almost, I mean it’s almost good. Visually, it is quite the treat. Narratively, it is not. Once our hero gets to Mars we get eyefuls of interesting creatures and scenes of swashbuckling that feel simultaneously futuristic and primitive. The action comes often enough, usually in the form of chase scenes, highlighting the things John Carter does well. It’s between those scenes where the issues lie.



The story itself suffers from over-familiarity. It’s strictly paint-by-numbers with no deviation from the beaten path. From the moment John reaches Mars his next step always feels pre-ordained. In short, we’ve seen this many times before. You know the drill: escape here, decide to help the natives there, realize you’re in love with the princess here, and so on. In fact, it too closely follows the template set by Avatar, sans the “go green” agenda. That movie has many of the same flaws (awful dialogue, forced love story, bloated length, etc) but is even more of a spectacle. Try as it might, JC never achieves the grandeur of Avatar making its flaws even more of factor.

For a light-hearted, kiddie-fied action flick JC isn’t really a terrible choice. It’s fairly fun and the two hours go by pretty quickly. It is likely to be a forgettable crowd pleaser. Sitting through it is pleasant enough. However, by time the credits roll, you’d be hard-pressed to differentiate it from any other movie where a stranger in strange land does what such heroes do.

MY SCORE: 5.5/10

Monday, January 14, 2013

Red Tails

Directed by Anthony Hemingway.
2012. Rated PG, 125 minutes.

Cast:
Cuba Gooding Jr.
Nate Parker
David Oyelowo
Tristan Wilds
Marcus T. Paulk
Leslie Odom Jr.
Andre Royo


World War II marked the first time in American history that units of black soldiers were put on the front lines against a foreign enemy. Eventually, this would include a unit of fighter pilots. Some credit for this is due to the simple necessities of winning a war. However, it’s still a near-miraculous achievement given the climate of our country at the time. As the quote that appears at the beginning of Red Tails tells us, blacks were thought to be genetically deficient in the areas of intelligence and courage with not enough of the former to fly a plane and not enough of the latter for any facet of war. Of course, this ignores the fact that all-black units fought 80 years earlier in The Civil War (see Glory). Then again, racism often ignores logic. How ridiculous is it that the military so purposefully segregated itself that thousands of its members practically had to beg to fight for their country even though they all signed up with the knowledge that dying in the line of duty is a distinct possibility.

To prove the theory of white superiority, the U.S. government commissioned a sociological study. A number of students from the all-black Tuskegee University were sent through the same rigorous testing and training hopeful white pilots underwent. The hypothesis going in was that all of these guys would wash out, thus proving the inferiority of the black race. After all, if the cream of the crop couldn’t rise to the occasion who would? Of course, many Tuskegee kids successfully completed the program. They were then maligned to their little squadron, the 332nd, and charged with flying practically meaningless patrols hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from the action. They were bored and itching to prove themselves. This is where Red Tails picks up.

Pretty quickly, we meet our cast of would-be heroes. There’s the curmudgeonly old leader Major Stance (Gooding Jr.), the reserved squad leader Easy (Parker), we’re going with nicknames here, the talented but rambunctious loose cannon Lightning (Oyelowo), the super-southern hillbilly Smokey (Ne-Yo) and an assortment of other stock characters. These are all fun folks, but lack any sort of depth. They are personas already fully formed by whatever baggage they with them into the Tuskegee. The things they go through during our time with them is mostly generic stuff recycled from too many movies. What should be a collection of truly compelling men is reduced to a group of clichés in blackface. Only their leader, the crusading Colonel Bullard (Howard) escapes this fate. However, his screen-time is severely limited.



It would have helped if the movie had picked up earlier in the proceedings. By not seeing them go through the training program, we never get a real sense of their struggle. An old adage of storytelling is that it’s better to show than tell. RT would be a much more effective film if it had shown us what these people went through rather than just mentioning it once or twice. This means the audience is left to draw on whatever their own knowledge and opinions about race relations in America both now and during the first half of the 20th century. Therefore, how we feel about the characters is open to a broad range of interpretations from raging militant support to disinterested apathy. We’re left with something that should be, but is not more than an action flick about fighter pilots.

In fact, RT hangs its hat on the action sequences. They are beautifully shot and exciting. Planes get shot down, crash and burn pretty good. The same goes for trains, ships and even an entire base. Mid-battle banter between our heroes is cheesy, but in an entertaining way. It gives us a few chuckles to go with the violent eye-candy. These scenes come at a fast enough rate that even though the movie doesn’t connect with us the way it wants to, it doesn’t bore us, either.

For what it actually is, RT really isn’t that bad. Sure, it feels like rehashed material but the guys are pleasant enough to root for and those “dog fights” are excellent. It’s light, forgettable fare that zips by like one of the Germans’ (then) new-fangled jet planes.

Unfortunately, because of the subject it chooses to tackle, we have to judge this particular film on what it is not. RT is not a gripping historical drama. It offers very little perspective, if any, on what these men meant to their country or race. I fear its shortcomings as a potential teacher are behind the extremely negative reviews. While certainly not a great movie, it isn’t the scourge of cinema it’s made out to be. Though, to be fair, HBO made a better movie on the same subject, The Tuskegee Airmen (1995), in which (a much younger) Cuba Gooding Jr also appears. I encourage you to seek out that one. It will give you a better feel for what these men went through. RT is just sorta fun.

MY SCORE: 6/10

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Mudhoney

Directed by Russ Meyer.
1962. Not Rated, 92 minutes.

Cast:
Hal Hopper
Antoinette Cristiani
John Furlong
Frank Bolger
Lorna Maitland
Rena Horten
Princess Livingston
Sam Hanna
Stuart Lancaster
Nick Wolcuff
Lee Ballard


Often, a movie is only as good as its villain. Mudhoney has a very good villain. His name is Sidney (Hopper). He’s a mean drunk that gets into fights at the local whorehouse whenever they refuse to give him freebies. After all, he is a loyal customer. Eventually, he staggers home, smacks around his wife, Hannah (Cristiani), and even rapes her. Against her father’s wishes, she stays with him, clinging to memories from when he was a better man. Sidney, on the other hand, is only hanging around because he, through Hannah, will inherit the farm they live on once his sickly father-in-law, Lute (Lancaster), kicks the bucket. He intends to sell it for all he can as soon as the old man’s body goes cold.

Since Sidney is no help with the upkeep, Hannah and her dad hire Calif (Furlong) as a live-in farmhand. Lute doesn’t want to hire him, mostly because of possible friction with Sidney. However, he likes Calif even though he’s picked up on the fact that the young man is fresh out of prison. It also becomes clear pretty quickly that Calif and Hannah have the hots for one another. They both respect her vows, but Sidney senses their obvious attraction. He takes every opportunity to antagonize Calif and remind him that Hanna is his woman.

Knowing this is a Russ Meyer film, I was ill-prepared for what I saw. I thought I was going to see a campy exploitation flick with outlandish scenes played for laughs and filled with large-breasted women badly reading sexually suggestive dialogue. That’s the director’s M.O. as I’ve encountered it. Instead, I saw a thoughtful, solidly directed morality tale that may have been ahead of its time. In other words, this is a genuinely intriguing movie.



I have to be completely honest, though. Mudhoney does have plenty of the elements I expected to get. Almost all of them involve the whorehouse, run by Maggie Marie (Livingston). Her only two workers are her daughters Clara Belle (Maitland), who talks a lot and Eula (Horten), who is ridiculously gorgeous but literally can’t talk at all. They don’t really add anything to the story. Their main function is to kick Sidney out when he gets too rowdy, provide us with a physical embodiment of his evil side and give us gratuitous nudity. Princess Livingston’s performance as Maggie Marie is akin to chalk screeching across a blackboard. Youngsters, if you’ve never experienced this youtube it, or something, with the sound up. It’s something that can’t (yet) be replicated on a dry-erase or smartboard. Aside from her, the acting as a whole leaves something to be desired. The dialogue is hammy at times, always lacking subtlety.

Flaws aside, perhaps even because of them, Meyer has crafted an entertaining, slyly poignant film. I’m certainly not suggesting this is among the era’s great movies. However, I will say it’s a step above the B-movie madness much of his canon gives us. He establishes characters we can root for and against. While each is merely a type and not a fully realized being there is some depth to our main players, some gravity to their situations. Whether by accident of him being prolific or somehow on purpose, Meyer has crafted a pretty solid flick.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Man with the Iron Fists

Directed by RZA.

2012. Rated R, 95 minutes.
Cast:
Dave Bautista
Cung Le
Byron Mann
Daniel Wu
Zhu Zhu
Gordon Liu
Andrew Ng


Zen Yi (Yune) is away getting married when he gets word that his father has been killed. Right away, he decides to head home to Jungle Village and exact his revenge against the Lion clan. Ah yes, the most tried and true plot of martial arts flicks. Englishman Jack Knife (Crowe) is in the area in hopes of finding gold. All of the warring clans get their rather heinous weapons from the local blacksmith known only as...um…Blacksmith (RZA). Okay, fine. Whether it’s time for lovin’ or fightin’ everyone congregates at the local house of ill repute run by Madam Blossom (Liu). Bad narration, cheesy dialogue and gory martial arts goodness ensues.

If you know anything about the brains behind this operation, it makes perfect sense for this movie to turn out precisely as it does. The Man with the Iron Fists formed in the mind of its writer and director the RZA (pronounced Riz-uh for the uninitiated). He’s also one of the people most responsible for giving us one of the greatest groups in hip hop history, The Wu-Tang Clan. They built a mythology surrounding themselves in which 70s and 80s martial arts movies play a huge role influencing both the music they created and philosophies they espoused. This movie is nothing short of an unabashed homage to those films. Though RZA struggles in his acting role, as director he gives us a visual treat chock full of Shaw Brothers inspired madness.



Another major influence is the work of producer Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, for which the RZA provided the score along with QT pals Robert Rodriguez and Eli Roth. As a result “…Iron Fists” achieves a look and tongue-in-cheek feel of movies by all three. It lacks the depth and quality of their work but its apparent reverence for the genre that inspired it at least puts it in the same vein. Roth was even brought in as a co-writer on the screenplay. He’s been credited mostly with chopping the movie down from a four hour, two part behemoth down to its fighting weight of just over 90 minutes. Thank goodness.



Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu seem to be having great fun hamming it up. Crowe does everything except twirl his moustache between his index finger and thumb. Meanwhile, Liu revisits her Kill Bill days. Big, bad wrestler Bautista effectively stomps around the set knocking over things and people alike while grunting his lines. His character is heavily influenced by both Toad from the genre classic Five Deadly Venoms and Colossal of the X-Men. This is a perfect blend of old school kung fu flick and comic book sensibilities. This lends authenticity to the hokeyness that is Iron Fists. It would have been perfectly at home in either of the two places where the RZA saw most of those martial arts pictures during his formative years, either in a grindhouse theater on Manhattan’s 42nd Street or at 3 o’clock every Saturday afternoon on Channel 5 (WNEW, back then). At least, that’s where me and all my friends saw them. The plots were always simple, the acting and dialogue was almost always bad and the fighting was always exhilarating.

If you go into …Iron Fists expecting anything other than a zany kung fu flick you’ll be sorely disappointed. A sharply written plot and Oscar-worthy performances are not found her. To be honest, don’t even expect it all to make sense within its own context. Things get convoluted, at times. All of these together normally add up to a very bad movie. However, the blood splattering action makes it a package just too cheesy to resist. If you’re like me, a heavy nostalgia takes over. Before you know it, you’re having a grand time watching a rotten movie. That’s right, it’s so bad it’s awesome!

MY SCORE: -10/10

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor.
2012. Rate PG-13, 95 minutes.
Cast:
Violante Placido
Johnny Whitworth
Fergus Riordan
Christopher Lambert
Anthony Head


Like a lot of single moms, Nadya (Placido) is having major trouble with her baby daddy. Unlike those other women, despite whatever they say, her baby daddy really is the Devil, or Roarke (Hinds), as he likes to be called. He suddenly wants custody of their son Danny (Riordan), but doesn’t trust the courts will support him (my speculation). He sends the mercenary Carrigan (Whitworth) and his goons after her. French wino priest Moreau (Elba) heard how it’s going down and wants to help out. Unsure whether the grubby looking clergyman is really a good guy, she shoots at him and the actual bad guys alike. This leads to the coolest looking scene in the movie about two minutes in. Figuring he’s in over his head, Moreau then enlists the help of Johnny Blaze AKA the Ghost Rider (Cage) to bring mom and the boy safely back to the local monastery. Blaze only agrees because the priest promises that once the task is done, he’ll rid him of the curse of the Rider.

The first Ghost Rider movie is definitely an “also ran” in the comic book flick genre. It was panned by critics and audiences were lukewarm to it. Even its biggest supporters were merely saying “It’s not that bad.” Still, it made enough money that someone felt a sequel was warranted. So here we are watching Nicolas Cage go Nicolas Cage, while wearing a bunch of leather, in yet another bad movie. How many awful films has he starred in? I suppose I can’t really blame him since the checks keep clearing. I’m so jealous. Oh well. At least the title character looks really cool with a skull and motorcycle engulfed in flames, so there’s that.



“That” is pretty much all there is. The Rider and just about everything he does looks great. He’s got fire and chains whirling about. He’s absorbing gunshots and spitting back flaming bullets. There’s all sorts of stunts with the bike and other machinery. The same could be said of Carrigan once he gets "the power of decay." Watching things fall apart in his hands is just awesome. By the way, one thing that doesn’t fall apart provides us with the only moment in the film that’s actually funny on purpose.

Unfortunately, everything else is horribly botched. Cage’s performance is bizarre. The super shaky cam, sped up film and quick cutting employed during his most over the top moments provide a number of unintentionally hilarious happenings. Whitworth, as Carrigan, chews scenery in a similar fashion. Mom is bland, the kid is annoying and Ciarán Hinds looks like a bored devil. Only Idris Elba shines, but he might have been downing real wine to make himself forget he actually signed up for this.

Spirit of Vengeance delivers precisely what the first one did: a fancy looking mess. The action scenes are silly, but fun. The rest of it is silly in a bad way, a very bad way. It is paced pretty briskly so it passes quickly. Thank goodness. The kids will like it so it’s got some use as a popcorn flick. However, this isn’t that fresh, piping hot and buttery popcorn we go crazy for. This is that slightly burned, a second from being stale poporn we eat because it happens to be sitting on the table in front of us.

MY SCORE: 4.5/10

Monday, January 7, 2013

Flight

Directed by Robert Zemeckis.
2012. Rated R, 139 minutes.

Cast:
Tamara Tunie
Brian Geraghty
Nadine Velazquez


Airline pilot Captain Will Whitaker (Washington) parties hard. He drinks until he can no longer lift the bottle to his lips, snorts coke and bangs stewardesses. He’s also an unbelievably talented flyer. When his plane full of passengers starts falling apart, he pulls off a miraculous landing. Six people lose their lives. However, subsequent tests show that everyone on board should’ve been killed. Will is hailed as a hero when he wakes up in a hospital. Luckily for him, he suffers no major injuries. Unluckily, but not surprising, both alcohol and cocaine are found in his system immediately after the crash. An attempt to keep him out of jail ensues.

Riding to Will’s rescue are his long-time buddy Charlie (Greenwood) and a lawyer named Hugh (Cheadle). Their task is made incredibly tough by the realization that Will didn’t just have a wild night. He’s a raging alcoholic. As such, Denzel Washington gives a performance worthy of his lofty status. For the first time since American Gangster, the star turns in truly compelling work. He’s not alone, either. Don Cheadle is his usual excellent self. Kelly Reilly is also good as Nicole, the girlfriend he picks up at the hospital. Perhaps, the best performance belongs to John Goodman as Harlan, Will’s buddy/coke dealer. His screen time is severely limited, but he steals every scene in which he shows up.



Director Rob Zemeckis keeps things moving along at a very nice pace. It’s actually a pretty big feat considering the only action scene is right at the beginning. Such movies can feel like the air has been sucked out of the balloon. Here, the adrenaline-packed opening smoothly transitions into character study without alienating us. That study is conducted in a manner that makes us care for this man and his predicament.

However, Flight is not without its faults. Mainly, it’s just in-your-face preachy. It eventually gets to a point where it feels less like a movie and more like a public service announcement. We get the message because we’re hit in the head with it repeatedly. Other things that would’ve served the film better aren’t explored nearly as much as they should. For starters, how and why did Will become a drunk? How did he and Harlan become friends and what impact does that have on the situation? Without these and other answers, Flight has no more depth than a thirty second commercial for Alcoholics Anonymous.

Due to an outstanding cast and expert pacing Flight mostly overcomes its flaws to be an enjoyable experience. These combine to make Will Whitaker a person in which we really become vested. We see the shards of his life littering the ground beneath his feet. We hope he can pick them up and glue them back together in order to save himself.

MY SCORE: 7/10

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Shame

Directed by Steve McQueen.
2011. Rated NC-17, 101 minutes.
Cast:
Michael Fassbender
Carey Mulligan
James Badge Dale
Nicole Beharie
Lucy Walters
Hannah Ware
Elizabeth Masucci

Like a lot of bachelors, Brandon (Fassbender) sleeps and walks around his apartment in the nude and uses the bathroom with the door open. This is the opening scene and serves as your warning Shame is a movie that doesn’t pull any punches. We learn shortly hat he has a well-paying job, watches lots of porn and has hookers over from time to time. He also spends a few nights a week at bars with his boss David (Dale) who is constantly trying to pick up chicks. A little after that, we find out the woman pleading with Brandon on his answering machine is not some jilted lover, but his estranged sister Sissy (Mulligan). She suddenly re-enters his life without permission. Against his better judgment, he decides to let Sissy stay with him a while. From there we watch his life, and eventually hers, fall apart.

It becomes pretty clear that Brandon is a sex addict. This is eroding his ability to function as a normal member of society and carry on meaningful relationships. However, we wonder why all the disdain for his sister. He seems to see her as a free-loader who bounces in and out of his life, wreaking havoc as she does. However, there also appears to be more to it than that. The movie moves steadily down that path, intriguing us all along the way.



Unfortunately, the seams burst during the third act. It happens when Brandon suddenly isn’t able to perform. Why isn’t readily clear. Perhaps the lady he's with is too nice a girl. Maybe it’s because his attraction to her isn’t based on sex. Or maybe it’s because she’s a co-worker, or because she’s black, or because he doesn’t like her choice of underwear. Whatever it is, it needs further explanation because none of those ideas hold much water based on what follows. We immediately see Brandon go on a serious binge involving a bit of everything. I guess it brings us back to the meaningful relationship/nice girl line of reasoning. However, their encounter isn’t something that takes place while they appear to be falling in love or even considering each other as serious potential mates. It’s a spontaneous, mid-day, ‘let’s go do it’, type of thing a day or two after they’d only had their first date, a moderately successful but decidedly asexual event which didn’t even result in a goodnight kiss. The problem is compounded by what Sissy does. It’s something that positions itself as an impetus for something, but for what? I’ve said too much. I’ll stop before I get into serious spoilers.

Michael Fassbender is ceaselessly fascinating in the lead role. His work is nothing short of courageous as he exposes himself both physically and emotionally throughout. He ably conveys the fragile mind state of an addict. He doesn’t have to go it alone, either. Carey Mulligan is nearly as good in her role. Her portrayal is not quite as in your face as Fassbender’s but it’s even closer to the breaking point right from the start. She teeters the edge very well.

Shame is an interesting movie dealing with an addiction not often depicted on screen. Director Steve McQueen tells his story without flinching and manages to hold our attention even when everyone has their clothes on. The problem comes with the pivotal scene I mention above. It triggers a serious binge by Brandon but doesn’t make much sense within the context of the movie. It just hangs there, a giant loose end we can’t quite tie. We get a similar feeling about how Brandon escapes even the slightest consequences for his behavior and of the ending itself. I’m all for ambiguous conclusions but when the credits roll on this one the questions raised aren’t compelling, leaving us with a dissatisfied feeling even after we enjoy so much of it.

MY SCORE: 8/10

Friday, January 4, 2013

Men in Black 3

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld.
2012. Rated PG-13, 106 minutes.
Cast:
Will Smith
Tommy Lee Jones
Josh Brolin
Jemaine Clement
Emma Thompson
Michael Stuhlbarg
Bill Hader
Nicole Scherzinger

Agent J (Smith) and Agent K (Jones) are still chasing intergalactic baddies that commit their crimes here on Earth. Boris the Animal (Clement), just Boris if you ask him, is one such villain that K locked up way back in 1969, costing Boris his arm in the process. He’s so bad, a special prison was built for him on the moon. After all these years, Boris escapes. Of course, he wants revenge on the man who put him away. However, he doesn’t want just regular old retribution. In Terminator fashion, he decides to go back in time and kill K before the arrest or loss of his arm. Obviously, a different outcome in that situation will drastically alter the course of human history. After Boris’ apparent success, it’s up to Agent J to also travel back in time and rescue his partner.

All the familiar tenets of the franchise are present. We have the exotic creatures, though fewer than in the previous films, and the special fx that come with that. We also have the save the world urgency. Most prevalent is the foundation the franchise is built upon: the funny banter between our two main characters. It is based on their differences and has proven to be a winning (i.e., profitable) formula.


This time around there is a twist in that formula. When J goes back in time, he encounters a younger and happier version of Agent K played by Josh Brolin. Brolin is a fine actor in his own right. Here, he apes Jones perfectly and the powers that be were wise enough to use Jones’ voice to help create a fun performance.

Honestly, there’s not much else to Men in Black 3. It is the result of the director faithfully following a recipe. Nothing is done that might alter the dish. The one major wrinkle is the involvement of Brolin, but even that’s about as safe a choice as possible. If there is another it’s advancing the idea of multiple dimensions co-existent as alternates of one another, but even that’s not terribly revolutionary. The important thing is that it’s an enjoyable entrée. Every frame is indeed lightweight, but it is fun. Suffice it to say if you like the first two movies in the series, you’ll probably like this one.