Archive for August, 2008

Margot at the Wedding

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

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    I still think the best way to describe director Noah Baumbach’s films is “Wes Anderson with less quirk and more angst.” Like Anderson, Baumbach (who co-wrote Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) is mostly interested with dysfunctional families and their extended circle of friends and enemies. His last film, The Squid and the Whale, was a classic tale of teen angst set against the backdrop of a family being torn apart from its core, and it was one of the best films of 2005.

    Margot at the Wedding is just as bitter as Squid and the Whale, actually maybe a little more so. There are probably three likable characters in this film, while all the rest are insufferable in one way or another. That’s not to say that the film isn’t filled with noteworthy performances, it’s just to say I would much rather watch these people in a movie than meet these people in person. I’ve always liked films that feature unpleasant or unlikable people, though, and this definitely qualifies.

Margot (Nicole Kidman) is a well-known writer who has made her name by writing short stories based on her own family, much to the chagrin of her relatives. As the film opens, Margot and her son Claude (Zane Pais) are on their way to attend her sister Pauline’s wedding. Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mrs. Baumbach in real life) is marrying Malcolm (Jack Black), a slacker who is between jobs and spends most his time writing letters to magazines and newspapers. Margot is one of those people who can’t keep her opinions to herself, and tells her sister that Malcolm is not good enough for her or as a father figure for her daughter Ingrid (Flora Cross). Margot and Pauline are not on speaking terms as the film opens, Pauline resents Margot for exposing their family in her writings, and Margot resents that Pauline doesn’t do just as she says.

Leigh and Kidman have a special chemistry in the film, and truly do feel like they are sisters. They love each other, call each other their closest friend but also really can’t stand each other very much. Complications arise in the form of Margot’s former and possible future lover Dick Koosman (Ciaran Hinds), who Margot can’t quite decide if she wants to sleep with again, though Koosman’s vacation home being close to Pauline’s house definitely was part of Margot’s decision to make the trip. Also, Koosman’s twenty-year old daughter Maisy (Halley Feiffer) awakens the boyish curiosity of Claude (and possibly Malcolm). Another key character is Margot’s husband Jim (played by John Turturro), who Margot did not bring on the trip, for reasons that are slowly revealed to the audience.

The film is bleak and moody, but the power of the performances, the quality of Baumbach’s direction and the fine cinematography by Harris Savides help make it worthwhile. Nicole Kidman’s performance here is her finest in some time, and I felt that both Kidman and Leigh were robbed Oscar nominations for their work here. Margot at the Wedding is not an easy film to watch, but it is well worth it.

Tropic Thunder

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

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A week after Pineapple Express, here comes another incredibly violent comedy, or really funny action film, or both. It pushes the boundaries, in some regards, and redeems my faith in Ben Stiller, who was worrying me with some of his recent movies, and here, acting as star/director/co-writer makes an very funny satire. Of course, he is helped out enormously by a great supporting cast, most notably Nick Nolte and Robert Downey Jr., who, with his work in this film, Iron Man and last year’s Zodiac, seems to be on some kind of roll.

The film centers around the filming of a Vietnam war epic, starring the fading action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller,) rapper Alpa Chino (played by Brandon T. Jackson), comedy super star and drug addict Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), earnest actor Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) and five-time Oscar winning Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus (Downey Jr.), who is so devoted to his role as an African-American platoon sergeant that he went through a medical process to change the color of his skin.

Much like the filming of the war classic Apocalypse Now (which this film refers to and parodies in several scenes), the filming is not going well, and in fact becoming some what of a disaster. Rookie director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) does not know what to do with his cast of spoiled actors, and war hero Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), who wrote the memoir from which the film is based, suggests to Cockburn to drop the boys in “the shit” and film the results.

Things don’t turn out the way Cockburn had hoped, and the squadron of actors end up in the jungle, alone, thinking they’re still filming the movie, unaware that there is real, true danger in the form of an army of heroin suppliers, who think the actors are all narcs. The movie is very funny in the way these actors all sort of fall apart in the jungle, with Jack Black going through heroin withdrawals, Stiller convinced this film will save his career and Downey convinced that he’s black. One great scene has rapper Alpa Chino (his name being one of the film’s many clever jokes) saying “the film has one great role for a black actor, and they give it to a white man.)

I also liked the idea of an actor who prefers to stay captured because his captors are familiar with his film work. In addition to the actors I’ve already mentioned, also great is Danny McBride (who you may already know from his great work in Pineapple Express) as an explosives technician, and several very funny surprise cameos, none of which I will reveal. I’ll just say that especially effective are the performances by Tugg’s agent and by the ruthless studio executive who threatens to scrap the project. I think that Robert Downey Jr.’s performance is flawless, hilarious, crosses the line and reaches a kind of comic brilliance. I also laughed just at the sound of Nolte’s raspy, angered voice.

The film is a funny satire of Hollywood war movies, of ego, of the forced “brotherhood” between actors and of action films in general. A welcome return to the land of the funny movie from Stiller. (get to the theatre early enough to see the trailers before the film that feature the characters from the movie. They’re pretty good.)

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

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So, the other night I went out to dinner with a good buddy of mine. Oh, we had Mexican food, since you asked. Anyway, after dinner we wandered across the large parking lot to the local Regal Googleplex, since we both had just been talking about the new X-Files movie, and how it looked pretty cool. Of course, X-Files wasn’t playing. In fact, most of the films that seemed interesting or appealing were not there. I scanned the marquee and noticed the new Mummy film. “You wanna see that one?,” I inquired. He shrugged, “sure, I guess.”

His lukewarm reaction to my half-assed invitation is, I’m sure, a pretty typical scenario for the masses of people who winded up at the new Mummy film. It’s not that it’s terrible (no, that would be The Mummy Returns, that was god awful), it’s just really mediocre. I don’t ask for my summer action movies to be realistic or thought-provoking, no, I know they’re going to be stupid. I just ask them to be fun. I love dumb, fun movies. It’s death for a film like this if it’s boring.

While the other two Mummy movies (not including The Scorpion King, which is technically in the Mummy franchise, but not part of the Mummy series, if that makes any sense) were about the evil mummy Imhotep, this one is about the evil Dragon Emperor (played by Jet Li). So, the dangers of Egypt have been replaced with the dangers of China. Which is cool, since Ancient China also has lots of awesome mythological beasts and legends to interweave in the story, right?

Anyway, the evil Dragon Emperor’s spirit is awakened, and shockingly it’s Alex O’Connell (played by Luke Ford) who awakens said Dragon Emperor. I say shockingly because Alex, of course, is the son of the hero from the other two Mummy films, Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser), and his wife Evelyn (who was played in the other ones by Rachel Weisz, but then she won an Oscar and became too classy for these films, I guess, and her character is now played by Maria Bello.)

So, all the whole O’Connell clan ends up in Shanghai, including that lovable drunk Uncle Jonathan (John Hannah) who owns a night club in Shanghai (the Shanghai night club scenes give the filmmakers a nice excuse to rip off the Shanghai night club sequence in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which is fitting since this franchise owes a giant debt to the Indiana Jones films anyway). There are three other characters important to the plot of the film: the evil General Yang (Chau Sang Anthony Wong), the two thousand year old “witch” Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh) and her daughter Lin (Isabella Leong), who falls in love with Alex, of course.

It’s a neat trick how they can make action scenes with Dragons, ninjas, booby traps, abominable snowmen and various mythological Chinese monsters ho-hum and run of the mill, but mission accomplished. I thought borderline hack director Rob Cohen was good at making the cheesy/fun action movie, but his talent evades him here. This is one franchise that should have stopped after the first one, which, you know, was a remake anyway (That being said, I still enjoy The Scorpion King, because it is basically just a Conan rip-off with the Rock. That is good, stupid fun.)

Pump Up the Volume

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

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    In the eighties and early nineties, there was a glut of films being made about the teenage experience. Many of these (including Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Heathers, The Breakfast Club and many others) are very good, and several (including the horrid Can’t Buy Me Love) are really quite terrible. Still, there are only a few that really dig deep into the teenage experience, to highlight the reality of being a teenager: the feeling of alienation, the despair, the utter loneliness and desolation that a teen can feel.

    One thing that director/screenwriter Allan Moyle captures incredibly well is the anger, guilt and frustration that many (okay, probably all teenagers feel). Pump Up the Volume centers around a young man named Mark who also happens to run a pirate radio station, and is becoming a big sensation amongst his peers on the airwaves as his on-air persona Hard Harry Hard-On. Mark is painfully shy at his new high school, but when he’s on the radio, he is the voice of those who don’t have a voice. This, of course, really pisses off the administration.

Mark resents being viewed as the voice, or really being viewed as anything noble or important. He, whether he likes it or not, represents his peers, even though at school he never talks and eats alone on the stairwell. In a harrowing scene, he speaks to a student who’s planning on killing himself. We know where this scene’s going, and then Moyle dares to take the scene, and the film, to unexpected places. The burden placed on Mark is huge, and lots of the film centers around the question of the whether or not he can handle this responsibility.

Christian Slater was becoming well known in the late eighties (probably mostly for his strong comic work in the aforementioned Heathers,) but I think it was his performance here that really established him as a star. It is a terrific performance, he is strong-willed, confident and angry as Harry, but shy and nervous as Mark. And his sneaky, shark-like voice, which has a faint tinge of Jack Nicholson, helps sell Harry as a legitimate radio personality.

Mark develops a sweet relationship with Nora (Samantha Mathis in her film debut), a fiery spirit who uncovers his true identity, and helps him with his crisis of conscience. Pump Up the Volume is a good film, but I found the last third got a little silly, with the help of a car chase (was this a requirement of every movie made in the 90s?). Also, Mark going up against the school is great cinematic fodder, but was Moyle making it too easy by making the administration really, really corrupt and by making the principal and vice principal clearly satanic?

There’s a subplot with Ellen Greene as an English Teacher who, I guess, inspires Mark that doesn’t ever resolve itself (it is pretty clear, though, that Mark’s teacher knows exactly who he is). If you’re paying attention, you’ll see Seth Green (years from the Austin Powers films) as a student. The film does use a couple Leonard Cohen songs, to great effect.

Waxwork

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

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    Seven years after the perfect horror/comedy hybrid hit the theatres (that would be An American Werewolf in London), and eight years before Scream would show that it was ok for horror films to be self-referential and have a sense of humor, director Anthony Hickox created Waxwork, which is either a horror movie that is sort of funny or a comedy that is sort of scary.

The basic plot has lots of potential: a group of college students are invited to a special midnight group tour of the local wax museum, ran by the diabolical David Lincoln (played with tongue-in-cheek brutality by the great David Warner). The wax museum exhibits, however, are actually gateways to an evil dimension, where the victim…er, visitor, is sucked in to the exhibit, usually to be killed. This idea gives free range to the filmmakers’ imagination, and indeed, the exhibits range from the Wolf man to Dracula (for some reason, the Count is played by Miles O’Keefe), and the exhibits also include the Mummy, The Marquis De Sade and a legion of zombies.

Waxwork came out in 1988, and starred two actors who had tried, with varying success, to make it big. Zach Galligan (yes, from the Gremlins films) and Deborah Foreman (who is best remembered for her great work in Valley Girl) are both awkward and uncomfortable here, although after watching the film, I didn’t really blame them. My favorite supporting performance would be Mihaly Meszaros, as the diminutive butler at the Waxwork museum. He gives the film the quirky, creepy vibe that Hickox tries to achieve for most of the film’s running time.

The film attempts true horror in some scenes, as when Tony (Dana Ashbrook) falls into the Wolf man scene and meets his fate (that’s John Rhys-Davies as the wolf man in human form). It’s also quite effective when Zach Galligan’s character, Mark, stumbles into the zombie exhibit, and the film switches to black & white, a film joke that works pretty well. The movie gets pretty silly really quick, though, once Sir Wilifred (Patrick Macnee) is introduced, who heads a secret society created to protect the world from the Waxwork monsters. I don’t know, the movie works, kind of, at certain times, but then deteriorates into downright silliness at other times. So, in other words, it was made in the 80s.

Pineapple Express

Monday, August 11th, 2008

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The scriptwriting duo Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have once again successfully created a film that both supports and subverts a particular film genre. In last year’s terrific Superbad, it was the “High School/Last Big Party” film, now it’s the “buddies on the run” action movie. It’s brutal, violent, morbid, profane, vulgar and hilarious. It also furthers my belief that going to see a Judd Apatow production, much like Pixar, means you’ll get your money’s worth.

Seth Rogen plays Dale Denton, a perpetually stoned summons processor who lives his life in a cloud of smoke. He stumbles through his day, pausing to visit his 18 year old girlfriend Angie (Amber Heard) at (high) school, and occasionally stops by his dealer, Saul (James Franco) to grab some weed. On one particular visit, Saul lets Dale have some especially potent pot: the Pineapple Express.

It is smoking the Pineapple Express that leads Dale to witnessing a murder, committed by local drug dealer Ted Jones (Gary Cole) and police officer Carol (Rosie Perez). Before too long, both Dale and Saul are on the run from both the cops and Ted’s hired gunmen, played by Kevin Corrigan and Craig Robinson. That is about as much as the plot as I’ll be telling you, though I will say that another character will play an important role in the film, that would be Red, a drug dealer buddy of Saul, played by Danny McBride.

As I alluded to earlier, Pineapple Express mixes several genres, in addition to the action film and the buddy movie, we have the stoner comedy, the on-the-road comedy and the innocent man on the run film. Oh, and director David Gordon Green has also made the film into sort of a throwback to the kind of action film that would’ve been in the seventies, so that’s a lot of fun. It’s a film that works as a parody and as a serious genre entry at the same time.

Seth Rogen and James Franco make an incredible comic team, their chemistry and sense of timing is impeccable. Seth Rogen plays the stoned slacker incredibly well, and much like he did in The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, he has a lethal brand of deadpan comic delivery. James Franco is an actor who I’ve never really appreciated too much (I am not a fan of his work in the Spider-Man films, for instance), but he is a natural comedian, as I had already discovered from his cameo in the aforementioned Knocked Up and also his many skits on various online comedy sites like Funny or Die. His Saul is a revelation, he disappears so completely into the character that at times I forgot he wasn’t really this long haired, deceptively smart drug dealer. It’s that good.

Kevin Corrigan and Craig Robinson, as the bickering hit men pursuing our heroes, are perfectly cast, and it’s a treat to see them have such effective supporting roles. Gary Cole is suitably sinister as the villain, although the filmmakers do allow him a few good lines that show Cole’s brilliant comic skills (remember, this is Bill Lumbergh, people.) It was especially nice to see Rosie Perez in a movie again, especially as a bad guy (I mean gal). In smaller roles, there are great turns by Ed Begley Jr. and Nora Dunn as Angie’s parents, and Bill Hader and James Remar in a very funny prologue.

The third lead is an actor by the name of Danny McBride, and he plays Red, Saul’s friend who is both ally and enemy to Saul and Dale. It is a superior comic performance, and I think you’ll definitely be seeing McBride in the future. There is a fight scene about halfway through the film that is raw, brutal and completely unhinged, it actually reminded me of that terrific fight scene between Uma Thurman and Daryl Hannah in Kill Bill: Vol. 2.

Pineapple Express is a bloody, funny, extremely well made movie that deserves multiple viewings. Check it out.

Isaac Hayes (1942-2008)

Monday, August 11th, 2008

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Who’s the private dick that’s a sex machine with all the chicks? Well, the song was about John Shaft, but it could have very well really been about that song’s composer, Isaac Hayes. In addition to being a world-renowned composer/singer/music genius (His “Theme from Shaft” won a well-deserved Oscar), he was also an actor, TV star and pop icon. He’s probably best known by audiences for 2 things: “Shaft” and, of course, Chef from “South Park.”

I also will remember his terrific performance as The Duke in John Carpenter’s cult classic Escape from New York. Recently, he made headlines for quitting “South Park” over his resentment over the show mocking his religious beliefs (Hayes was a Scientologist). Hayes was a true funk master if there ever was one.

Bernie Mac (1957-2008)

Monday, August 11th, 2008

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    Bernie Mac was a very funny comedian and a natural performer, even though few motion pictures really let him shine as brightly as he could have. The Ocean’s 11 series showed his gift for timing (as the scene from Ocean’s 11 where he threatens a car salesman while he discusses moisturizing cream, one of my favorite scenes from the series), but his leading roles always left something to desire. Mac always let the joy of his performance show through though, I remember not really liking Mr. 3000, for example, but thinking he was immensely likable in the role.

    Like Bill Murray, Mac could play a likable jerk better than almost anybody. He was, of course, a gifted stand-up, as his brilliant routine in the comedy concert film The Original Kings of Comedy proved. He will be missed.

AEon Flux

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

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In the early 1990s, there was an animated show on MTV called “AEon Flux” (don’t worry, I hadn’t heard of it either), which I guess was groundbreaking (at least for MTV animation). Anyway, it gained enough of a cult following to create interest in a live-action, full-length motion picture. The ridiculously skimpy outfits that Ms. Flux wore in the cartoons have been replaced by slightly less skimpy, yet just as appreciated, outfits worn by Charlize Theron, who plays Aeon Flux in this version.

Flux is a freedom fighter in a Utopian society where everything seems perfect. For those of you who don’t enjoy stories of societies in the future, let me just tell you anytime that a society seems perfect, it always means it isn’t, and that some horrible secret usually lies just beneath the surface. The society is ran by Trevor Goodchild (played by Martin Csokas) and his brother Oren Goodchild (Johnny Lee Miller). Yes, the last name Goodchild made me roll my eyes too. Flux belongs to a group known as the Monicans (not the Mohicans, mind you), who strive to end the tyranny of the Goodchilds (Goodchildren?), and make their civilization free once more.

The Monicans are lead by Handler (Frances McDormand, in a ridiculous fiery red wig that looks like Raggedy Ann after a wild night of binge drinking). Or maybe she’s just the go-between woman between Flux and the real leaders of the Monicans, I’m not sure. We were making fun of a lot of this movie during some of the early dialogue, oops. Anyway, Handler commissions Flux to assassinate Trevor Goodchild, which is easier said than done.

I don’t want to ruin the twists and turns just because I thought the movie was ridiculous, so I will be careful here. There are some really silly parts to the film, as when Flux’s fellow freedom fighter Sithandra (Sophie Okonedo) steps on the deadly blade grass that cuts her foot and she lets out a scream more fitting for a “Mystery Science Theater 3000” episode. This is not a very good movie, in fact, compared to other films with stirring, provocative visions of future utopias and dystopias, it verges on the pathetic.

Oh yeah, Pete Postlethwaite is in this too, for some reason, maybe to try to class this movie up (it doesn’t work.) During the film, we wondered why an actress like Charlize Theron would do a movie devoid of just about anything resembling a good movie. I mean, this was right after she won an Oscar for Monster, for goodness sake. Maybe, I said, after a film like Monster that would have been so exhausting, she wanted to try something a little easier.

But, then I remembered that she did her own stunts in AEon Flux, so that would be pretty exhausting, I guess. Theron just looks lost in this movie, but as the poster shows, she sure looks great in this movie. Maybe that’s enough reason to see this movie, but probably not. I’d say it’s borderline awful (the movie, not Theron’s wardrobe choice).

Before the Music Dies

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

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    If you feel that the mainstream music scene is becoming blander and more and more homogeneous, and that good, unique music is getting harder to find, then perhaps you’ll dig Andrew Shapter and Joel Rasmussen’s documentary Before the Music Dies, which is about this very dilemma. Shapter, Rasmussen and their crew traveled around America, interviewing critics, scholars, historians, fans but mostly musicians, to find out what exactly the current state of music is, and how did this come about?

Forrest Whitaker narrates, and his serious, ominous voice tells us how music is the backbone of America’s culture, it unites us and helps us through our lives, and now, more than ever, it’s in danger of slipping away. The film goes into great detail about several elements of the contemporary music scene that’s helping destroy good music, most notably conglomerates like Clear Channel radio, who bought out radio stations, decide the play lists (playing the same three or four songs over and over) and turn the stations into commercial stations interrupted occasionally by music. The filmmakers were even able to interview a few (former) employees of Clear Channel, and their testimonials are pretty telling of the company’s lack of interest in music.

An especially interesting section of the film gives us an example of how a current pop singing sensation is “created.” A 45 year old male songwriter (who co-wrote a few Jewel songs) is asked by the filmmakers to write a love song, to be sang by a young female pop star. The filmmakers then hire an attractive, young model to sing the song, which she does, and of course it isn’t very good. Her voice is then “fixed” to sound acceptable, and the song is then given a music video, more focused on the fake singer’s body than on the music. And thus a star is born.

Many musicians, such as Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Dave Matthews, ?uestlove, Elvis Costello and, probably most memorably, Erykah Badu, are interviewed, and their comments cast the current music scene in a fairly realistic and pessimistic light. It is mentioned more than once that in the current musical climate, such visionary musicians as James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Bruce Springsteen wouldn’t have lasted a day.

The filmmakers believe, however, that good, even great, music is still out there, but you just have to know where to look. The Internet, of course, is a key place, with many great websites dedicated simply to finding good music. A key character in the film is Doyle Bramhall II, a gifted blues/rock and roll singer and guitarist who is, as we discover, the real deal. Bramhall discusses candidly about his frustration with the music business, and his own trials and tribulations trying to find success in the business. Eric Clapton refers to Bramhall as a genius, and there’s even some great footage of them performing together.

Before the Music Dies is a compelling and well made documentary, and if you have even a casual interest in music, you should check it out.