Wednesday, March 25, 2009

CHE: PART TWO: The Film Babble Blog Review

CHE: PART TWO (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2008) It would be easy, if too simplistic, to label CHE: PART ONE as "The Rise" and CHE: PART TWO as "The Fall" of the infamous Cuban Guerilla leader. The arc established between these two halves is, of course, much more layered and densely imposed to support such Ziggy Stardust-style titling. PART ONE concerned itself with Che - the man, in its Oliver Stone-ish news footage framing of his successful revolution in Havana. Not to say that it was merely set-up; it told a sound story satisfyingly ending on a resounding note of triumph. PART TWO (subtitled "The Guerrilla") sets a decidedly different spookier tone from beginning with a SCARFACE-ean scroll telling us that Che (Benicio del Toro) has gone into hiding. It is 1966 and Che is first shown in a remarkably unrecognizable get-up as a Uruguayan businessman with thick glasses, a shaved head, and a stiff suit - an image nobody would ever put on a T-shirt. This disguise gets him through customs into Boliva and he sets about meeting his men - fellow Guerillas in the mountains. Unfortunately there is trouble in Guerilla city (sorry) and the ragged fighters find they may be no match for the Bolivian Army. As Che assimilates into the groups of scrappy soliders, Soderbergh shoots del Toro mainly from behind reminding me of Aronofsky's presentation of Rourke in THE WRESTLER but focusing more on Che being engulfed by his surroundings rather than that of a personal POV. Another film that came to mind was Woody Allen's BANANAS during the many jungle warfare scenes. In that 1971 classic comedy, New York loser schlub Allen becomes a revolutionary when on vacation in the fictional Central American country of San Marcos to impress his activist girlfriend (Louise Lasser). Since it was closer to the actual time period it had the grainy home movie look that Soderbergh was going for so maybe that's not such a silly satirical reference point. Maybe it is though - I've been on a diet of Woody Allen movies since before I could walk so of course my mind would go there. This is not exactly to say, of course, that CHE: PART TWO is BANANAS without the laughs but I couldn't resist the comparison. That comical footnote aside, CHE: PART TWO is strongly involving and possibly superior to its other half. The deaths are more piercing and the pace is like a rapid heartbeat leading to one of Che's asthma attacks. Even when shown sparringly, del Toro owns the screen again making my head shake at the failure of award recognition. A solid troop of actors fights fiercely alongside del Toro including Damián Bechir (again dead on as Castro), Rodrigo Santoro, Catalina Sandino Moreno, and Joaquim De Almeida. For some unknown reason the theater I work at part time is showing CHE: PART TWO nightly at 7:00 with CHE: PART ONE following at 9:30. While that may not be the ideal order to see them, it won't hurt because they have distinctly separate feels despite being one long movie split in two. Whatever the order I implore folks to see them both; they are major movies that deserve a much bigger audience - especially on the big screen. More Later...

Monday, March 23, 2009

TWO LOVERS And 2 New DVD Reviews

TWO LOVERS (Dir. James Gray, 2008) Joaquin Phonenix's Leonard Kraditor is the latest in a long line of New York lovelorn schlubs that includes Ernest Borgnine's comical Marty Piletti and to a darker extreme - Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle. Phoenix brings a disturbed pathos to the character that, as reports indicate, may extend into Phoenix's real life. We are introduced to the troubled character in an opening scene suicide attempt off a bridge in Brooklyn (not the Brooklyn Bridge, mind you). He doesn't go through with it; he surfaces and is helped out of the water by passing pedestrians. Soaking wet, Phoenix returns home to the disapproving looks of his parents (Moni Moshonov and Issabella Rossellini) and a small cluttered bedroom. That night his parents are having a dinner party and intend to set up their son with the daughter of Moshonov's business partner played by Vanessa Shaw. They hit it off but Phoenix's eyes wander to neighbor Gynneth Paltrow, an outgoing free-spirited beauty that he is instantly attracted to. Unfortunately she is involved with a married man (an asshole lawyer portrayed perfectly by Elias Koteas) so their budding relationship is unlikely to bloom. Phoenix has palpable, if at times awkward, chemistry with both Shaw and Paltrow. An audience will surely pull for him to wind up with Shaw (who's just as attractive) over Paltrow for more than just "good brunette" over "bad blonde" reasons, but the emotional discord within that Phoenix displays can't be easily dismissed. We still feel for the guy even when he is being deceptive and come to care deeply whether or not he makes the right choice. Possible Spoiler!: In the end it's not his choice to make and there is an edge to his actions that come more from fear than true love. As my girlfriend said as we were leaving the theater: "How romantic it is to be someone's choice over death or being alone." Good point for sure, but this little spare drama should be commended for its non-contrived storyline and unpretentious tone regardless of its uneasy aftertaste. Resembling a Woody Allen relationship movie without the one-liners, TWO LOVERS is an engaging experience that is sure to be remembered long after tales of Phoenix's odd off-screen behavior have faded away. And now, a few new release DVD reviews: I'VE LOVED YOU SO LONG (Dir. Phillippe Claudel, 2008) Kristen Scott Thomas as a woman recently released from 15 years in prison affects a somber trance as she suffers societal scorn in this drawn out drama. That makes it sound as though this movie is a trial to endure which is not the case. It's a carefully paced character study with very subtle appeal that lingers for days after viewing. Thomas, going through the motions of reassembling, comes off like an ashamed ghost in the presence of her sister (Elsa Zylberstein) who offers her a place to stay while she gets back on her feet. Zylberstein's husband (Serge Hazanavicius) is sceptical of having Thomas around the children because, after all, she went to jail for the murder of her own 6 year old son. We follow Thomas through these day to day unpleasantries, feeling for her even when we are unsure where our sympathies should really lie. She befriends a few empathetic souls - her probation officer played with aplomb by Frédéric Pierrot and Laurent Grévill as a kindly colleague of her sister's. I'll definitely say no further because the film's biggest asset is in the unwrapping of its intriquing layers. Thomas deserved greater recognition in the now concluded award season for this performance; her work is immaculately measured and nobly nuanced. The film surrounding her is much the same except for some embellished misteps like the inappropriate acoustic guitar flourishes and some abrupt editing. These are minor beefs though, for I'VE LOVED YOU SO LONG is one of 2008's finest films that just barely missed making my top ten. ELEGY (Dir. Isabel Coixet, 2008) The track record for movie adaptations of the works of noted novelist Philip Roth is pretty poor. His 1969 bestseller PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT was made into a critically derided forgotten film in 1972 (Ebert labeled it "a true fiasco") so it wasn't until 30 years later that Hollywood tried again. The result: THE HUMAN STAIN (Dir. Robert Benton, 2003) which was one of the worst films of the last decade if not ever. Not to be discouraged, 5 years later, Spanish director Isabel Coixet and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, yo!), dive head first into Roth's "The Dying Animal" - the third book in his fictional professor David Kapesh series (if you can call it that). In this ambitious adaptation, renamed ELEGY (meaning "a mournful poem") presumably because the original title wasn't very accessble (sic), Ben Kingsley plays Kapesh as a eloquent man of the arts. We are told how much a celebrated cultural warrior he is from the first shot of him pontificating on the The Charlie Rose Show. His voice-over narration, or commentary, sets up his falling for one of his students with such pithy asides such as: "How is it possible for me to be involved in the carnal aspects of the human comedy?" The student in question, a shy for once Penelope Cruz, 30 years younger than Kingsley is seemingly just as smitten. Kingsley confides in best friend Dennis Hopper as a Pulilzer Prize winning poet who offers: "Stop worrying about growing old, start worrying about growing up." Devised as half a mediation on growing old, half erotic obsession study, ELEGY delights in flowery exposition and artfully shadowed sex scenes. Kingley lies to his long time lover Patricia Clarkson about his affair but like everything else it hardly registers. "When you make love to a woman you get revenge for all the things that defeated you in life" Kingsley detachedly remarks at one point and I was like, uh, I never thought of it like that before and you know what? I never will again. Beneath all his sophistication and culture lies a pretty despicable dude that I could never care about, I just cringed at his every labored turn. Hopper finds a little poetry in his part particularly in a spiel about how women are invisible because men are blinded by their beauty and their soul can't be truly seen, which is as pretentious as it sounds, especially with the ever present piano tinkling and lush presentation, but still more affecting than the bulk of material here. So disinterested was I that at one point I found myself thinking nothing more than how Kingsley and Cruz have such curiously shaped noses. As "a work of art that reminds you of who you are now" (professor Kapesh's words) ELEGY just reminded me that I'd rather be washing the dishes. More later...

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Celebrating The 25th Anniversary Of REPO MAN

REPO MAN (Dir. Alex Cox, 1984) 

It doesn’t get any cult classic-ier than Alan Cox’s 1984 ode to the sleazy underbelly of Los Angeles, REPO MAN. As such, I wasn’t alone to be thrilled to see it on the schedule for their great revival series Cool Classics at the Colony as the packed house proved last night.

Denver Hill, manager of the North Raleigh theater, introduced the film and asked how many had seen it before. A huge percentage of the audience including me raised their hands.

He then asked how many had seen it at the theater and a very few people raised their hands. I was too young to see it on the big screen in its original release because of its R rating but I saw the movie many times when it hit cable in the mid '80s.

I believe I had it on a VHS tape recorded in the fast speed so it could be crammed with a couple other movies. That tape is long gone but the movie remained in my memory as one of the funniest weird movies I had ever seen.

I was anxious to revisit REPO MAN and see if it still holds up. I downloaded the soundtrack and its beautiful but scary blend of punk - Iggy Pop who provided the title theme with tracks by the Circle Jerks, the Plugz, Fear, and Black Flag was deliriously dated but still held up.
The movie is unsurprisingly the same way - Cox’s surreal story of crusty jaded repossession agents, punk rock thieves, and a 1964 Chevrolet Malibu that may contain aliens in its trunk has lost none of its crazy charm. The audience laughed heartily at the first close-up of a young Emilio Estevez as the movies protagonist Otto with his buzz cut and a crucifix earring but then they laughed at just about every other shot too.

Especially shots of a grocery store full of generically packaged products such as white plain beer cans with only the word -->“beer” on the label. Estevez slugs a coworker (Circle Jerks bassist Zander Schloss) and quits his stock clerk job at said store, but his bad attitude collides head on with bad luck as he finds his girlfriend (Jennifer Balgobin) cheating on him and that his hippie parents have donated his college fund to a television evangelist.

Estevez stumbles into the repo business by way of the crotchety, but always lovable Harry Dean Stanton who is a veteran agent for the humorously named Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation.

At first our hero is reluctant to take the job, protesting by pouring one of those generic beers on their office floor but the lure of loot finds him getting chased and shot at in the process of repossessing cars from delinquent owners. Meanwhile, the before mentioned Malibu driven by a mad government scientist (Fox Harris) is being sought after all over town by an FBI agent (Susan Barnes), and competing repo men for its Top Secret cargo. 

A lethal glow emits when somebody opens the trunk to investigate it - a device which was undoubtedly an inspiration on Quentin Tarentino’s glowing briefcase in PULP FICTION. 

This is all punctuated with that before mentioned punchy punk soundtrack that never lets up, and littered with a bunch of quotable lines including: “John Wayne was a fag,” “Only an asshole gets killed for a car,” “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees,” “Look at -->‘em, ordinary fucking people, I hate ‘em,” and my favorite: “I know a life of crime has led me to this sorry fate, and yet, I blame society. Society made me what I am.”

The screening at the Colony last night confirmed that REPO MAN still wears the '80s cult classic crown. Sure, it may creak a little at times but it's impossible to imagine the independent film landscape of the '90s and beyond without it.

There is talk of Cox making a sequel called REPO CHICK and why not? I doubt anything he would do would dim the glow of this awesome oddity. If anything it will point more folks to the original but if the enthusiastic audience last evening are any indication the film has legs long enough to last on its own.

More later...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

CHE: PART ONE: The Film Babble Blog Review

CHE: PART ONE (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2008) The prospect of an over 4 hour historical epic spread over 2 separate contained movies will no doubt be daunting to most moviegoers, but the first half of CHE is incredibly involving despite its murkiness and powerful despite its sometimes plodding pace. Originally released last December for it to be eligible for the years Oscars (it didnt get nominated for anything) in a limited release as one combined film, it now hits the rest of the country in a special roadshow edition with PART TWO following close behind PART ONE's release. PART ONE mostly takes place in the late 50s with an asthmatic Ernesto Che Guevara, portrayed with fierce grace by Benicio del Toro (also one of the film's producers), joining Fidel Castros (a dead on Demian Bichir) movement in Havana, Cuba. It has a flashback framework serving as semi narration from a 60s interview with TV journalist Lisa Howard (Julia Ormond), later cutting between Guevaras United Nations address and intense street warfare. These non-Cuban set-pieces are presented in grainy black and white, while the gritty yet vivid color of the exteriors enforces the implication that all that isnt in the heart of the jungle for Che is simply artifice and not real life. With the subtitle THE ARGENTINE (and Spanish subtitles to boot), this film works well on its own yet still leaves one wanting for a follow-up. Soderbergh successfully structures a docu drama feel in which real footage and photographs blend beautifully with the immacualte recreations. It is indeed a shame that the Academy snubbed this film, particularly del Toro whose precise performance is definitely in the league of Sean Penns Harvey Milk potrayal that took home the award. Penn himself was shocked and pondered over the lack of award nods for CHE suggesting that: Maybe because its in Spanish, maybe the length, maybe the politics. None of those factors should deter folks from taking the plunge into CHE: PART ONE; it may be tough going at times but its impossible to ignore its soaring sense of purpose. Several satisfying though viciously violent sequences save the film from inaccessibility and in moments like when del Toro answers interviewer Ormonds question about what is the most important quality for a revolutionary to possess by saying love he is utterly convincing. Heres hoping PART TWO: GUERILLA lives up to PART ONEs mighty promise. More later...

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Coming Soon To A Film Babble Blog Near You...

The next few months are going to be very busy for me so I thought Id give readers a preview of some upcoming attractions:
Coming Soon - Reviews of:
CHE: PART ONE (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2008) So epic it had to be cut into 2 separate movies (THE ARGENTINE and GUERILLA respectively), PART ONE opened last Friday at the local theater I work part-time but I havent had a chance to see it yet. Expect a write-up shortly because Ive been really looking to this sweeping biopicalious looking opus that I'm planning on approaching as if it was a TV miniseries. CHE: PART TWO opens on the 20th so I better get to it.
TWO LOVERS (Dir. James Gray, 2008) Yes, my area is usually late getting indie fare like this so my list of films from last year I need to catch up on is endless. Whatever the deal with Joaquin Phoenix and his possibly fake hip hop career *, there has been considerably favorable buzz around this title. Ill let you know when I see it. * Now I don't have to mention any of his off screen shenanigins in my actual review. And on the horizon: WENDY AND LUCY (Dir. Kelly Reichardt) GOMORRA (Dir. Matteo Garrone) The trailer for this is fantastic! I hear the movie is too. ADVENTURELAND (Dir. Greg Mottola) And also coming soon: Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of REPO MAN (Dir. Alex Cox, 1984) An undeniable 80s cult classic and a favorite from my youth. Thanks to Cool Classics @ The Colony I'll be able to see if it still holds up. If you're in the Triangle area you really ought to consider coming out for the Wednesday (the 18th) showing at 8:00 PM in North Raleigh. A 35 MM print of this dusted off punk flick with vintage trailers for $5.00 is impossible for me to pass up.
A Film Babble Blog Soundtrack Special - I've been working on this off and on for a while. A blogpost tribute to the soundtracks of my life. This will include another patented Film Babble Blog list about soundtracks that think outside the box office, i.e. albums that consist of more than just songs or pieces of music from said film. Works of audio art that are distinct in their use of film dialogue and purposeful re-editing of movie material. Any suggestions for this piece please send them on!
Coverage of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2009 (April 2nd-5th) A wonderful annual event in Durham, N.C. that I'm eager as Hell to blog about. Currently I'm going through the schedules trying to figure out which films I will attend - again, if you have any recommendations, please send them on! More later...

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

WHAT JUST HAPPENED & 10 Better Inside Hollywood Homages

Just released on DVD: WHAT JUST HAPPENED (Dir. Barry Levinson, 2008)

“Hunter S. Thompson once said to me ‘Bruce, my boy, the movie business is a cruel and shallow money trench where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs.’ Then he added, ‘there’s also a negative side.’” - Bruce Willis written by Art Linson in this damn movie.

The above quote is rejiggered from a line attributed to Thompson which has been often alternately applied to the TV, radio, music business and the corporate communications world. That this misguided movie would have Willis (playing himself) claim it was spoken directly to him is one of the many things wrong with this rightly ignored project. The title is apt for such a film with a stellar cast that appeared and disappeared in an instant last fall. For most film folks this would be a dream A-list line-up - Robert De Niro as the lead with John Turturo, Catherine Keener, Stanley Tucci and Robin Penn Wright then throw in Bruce Willis and Sean Penn playing themselves and you’ve struck gold, right? Not with such dreary uninvolving material mostly concerning cutting a dog getting shot in the head out of a prestige picture and 40 minutes fighting over whether Bruce Willis will shave his bushy beard before a new production.

No doubt similar dire situations in Hollywoodland happened and still happen all the time but it hardly makes for compelling cinema. A little of a gruff De Niro as a once powerful producer plagued with these problems going back and forth from one uneasy conflict to another goes a long way. The intertwined subplot about his ex-wife (Penn Wright) sleeping with Tucci tries as it might but comes nowhere near making an emotional dent. Better is Michael Wincott as the strung out British director of the Sean Penn project who gripes about his artistic integrity being compromised when the cold calculating Keener threatens to take his movie and cut it herself. Willis profanely blares about artistic integrity too, but in a more destructive manner by throwing things and berating people on the set. ‘Oh, those inflated egos’ we’re supposed to think but instead I found myself looking at my watch.

Based on Art Linson’s book of the same name (with the sub-title “Bitter Hollywood Tales From the Front Line”) and marking a return to a smaller independent style production for Barry Levinson, WHAT JUST HAPPENED is nowhere near the great insider movies of years past (see below) unless anybody considers AN ALLAN SMITHEE FILM: BURN HOLLYWOOD BURN a classic and nobody does. It’s a shame to see De Niro and fellow ace actors tread water in a sea of industry indifference. Just like its IMDb entry, there are no memorable quotes or new lessons learned, just a lot of unpleasant exchanges between unlikable people making for a film with a charcoal soul. What just happened? Nothing worthwhile that I can think of.

As for better films about the same subject, that is movies about making movies, here are:

10 Essential Hollywood Insider Homages (Or Scathing Satires Of The Business We Call Show)

1. SUNSET BOULEVARD (Dir. Billy Wilder, 1950) Classics 101. Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond is truly one of the greatest screen characters of all time but with over a half a century of accolades and greatest films ever lists you don’t need me to tell you that. A film that set the precedent for dropping real names and featuring film folks play themselves (Cecil B. Demille, Buster Keaton, H.L. Warner, and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper among them). The movie plays on TCM regularly so if you haven’t seen Swanson declare “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small!” you’re sure to get your chance soon.

2. THE PLAYER (Dir. Robert Altman, 1991) No less than 60

Hollywood names play themselves in this excellent satire of the state of the film industry in the early 90’s. As Griffin Mill, an executive who murders a writer he believes is harassing him, Tim Robbins nails it when he suggests: “I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we could just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we’ve got something here.”

3. A STAR IS BORN (Dir. George Cukor, 1954) Actually the second remake of a 1937 film (skip the third one with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson), this is the ultimate ‘you meet the same people on the way up as on the way down’ morality play. Judy Garland’s career is taking off as husband James Mason finds himself on the outs turning to alcoholism and then to suicide (if thats a Spoiler! you really ought to tend to your Netflix queue or consult the TCM schedule). A still blinding spotlight on the fickleness of fame.

4. BARTON FINK (Dir. Joel Coen, 1991) A tour de force for John Turturo as a New York playwright struggling to write a wrestling B-movie script in 1940’s Hollywood. He fancies himself an intellectual who speaks for the common man, but he ignores an actual common man - his hotel neighbor played with gusto by John Goodman who could sure tell you some stories. Written by the Coen brothers as they themselves were struggling with writer’s block on what turned out to be the masterful MILLER’S CROSSING, the feel of spiritual distraction that all writers suffer from has never been so perfectly portrayed. Well, until #5 on this list that is.

5. ADAPTATION (Dir. Spike Jonez, 2002)

“To begin... To begin... How to start? I’m hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. Maybe I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. Okay, so I need to establish the themes. Maybe a banana-nut. That’s a good muffin.” A peek into the writing process of Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicholas Cage) who has to adapt the book “The Orchid Thief” and ends up writing himself into his screenplay. Catherine Keener, John Cusack, and John Malkovich play themselves (from the set of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH) while we get an abstract window into the world of a sought after screenwriter looking for more than just love from the business.

6. TROPIC THUNDER (Dir. Ben Stiller, 2008) Over the top and in your face with a fast pace and a loving embrace of literally explosive satire, Stiller put himself back on top of the comedy heap here. With one of the best ensemble casts a comedy has ever had including Jack Black, the Oscar nominated Robert Downey Jr. in blackface, Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan, Matthew McConaughey and (say what?) Tom Cruise as a crude bald pudgy hip hop dancing movie executive, we’ve got a crew well versed in tweaking the business that broke them. There are hundreds of zingers in this mad making of a film within a film but maybe Danny McBride as an explosive engineer spouting off as he rigs a bridge in the jungle is one of the best: “That’s it! Im going into catering after this!”

7. POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE (Dir. Mike Nichols, 1990) Another tale of a career in movies that has hit the skids, but given a hip post modern cynical spin by Carrie Fisher who adapted her semi-autobiographical book. Not soon after leaving rehab Meryl Streep as actress Suzanne Vale exclaims “Thanks GOD I got sober now so I can be hyper-conscious for this series of humiliations!” This is after finding out a new beau (Dennis Quaid) is cheating on her, which is on top of over hearing people on the set talking about how much weight she’s gained. These worries pale compared to having to live with mother Shirley MacLaine (also a former actress based on Fisher’s mother Debbie Reynolds). MacLaine asks her daughter: “I was such an awful mother... what if you had a mother like Joan Crawford or Lana Turner?” Streep deadpans: “These are the options? You, Joan or Lana?” The funny side to growing up famous with a song sung by Streep to boot (“I'm Checkin Out” by Shel Silverstein).

8. THE BIG PICTURE (Dir. Christopher Guest, 1989) The forgotten Christopher Guest film. Pity too, because there’s a lot of wit to spare in this send up featuring Kevin Bacon as a fresh out of film school director whose first film gets compromised at every turn. A crack cast surrounds Bacon including frequent Guest collaborator Michael McKean (who also co-wrote the screenplay), Jennifer Jason Leigh, Terri Hatcher, and the late great J.T. Walsh as stoic but still sleazy studio head Alan Habel. Best though is Martin Short as Bacon’s slimy permed agent Neil Sussman: “I don’t know you. I don’t know your work. But I think you are a genius. And I am never wrong about that.” Look for cameos by Elliot Gould, John Cleese, and Eddie Albert as well as a Spinal Tap-ish song by a band named Pez People (“The Whites of Their Eyes” written and performed by Guest/McKean).

9. S.O.B. (Dir. Blake Edwards, 1981)

Despite trying to peddle ersatz post Sellers expiration date Pink Panther movies at the time, Edwards showed he still had some bite left in a few juicy farces – 10, VICTOR VICTORIA and this vulgar but saucy satire. The later concerns a film within the film that flops so film maker Felix Farmer (Richard Mulligan) decides to re-shoot the family film as a R-rated romp with wife Julie Andrews (Edwards’ real life wife) going topless. A lot of this comical exposé of desperate sordid behavior in the movie business went over my head when I saw it as a kid but a recent viewing got me up to speed. Another fine ensemble cast alongside Mulligan and Andrews – Robert Vaughn, Larry Hagman, Robert Loggia, Robert Webber, Robert Preston (lots of Roberts!), and it was William Holden’s last film (shout out to #1 on this list).

10. BOWFINGER (Dir. Frank Oz, 1999) Many folks despise this campy comic caper of a film maker and his crew making a film (another film within a film plot) with an action star who doesn’t know he’s in the movie but I think it’s Steve Martin’s last great movie. Eddie Murphy’s too if you don’t count his extended glorified cameo in DREAMGIRLS. As Robert K. Bowfinger, Martin channels his old wild and crazy guy persona into a snake oil salesman of a wannabe movie mogul. Heather Graham (playing an aspiring sleeping her way to the top starlet that many thought was based on one time Martin flame Anne Heche), Robert Downey Jr., Christine Baranski, and Terrance Stamp are all along for the ride.

Okay! I was purposely skipping biopics or other movies that are based on true stories so don’t be complaining about ED WOOD or CHAPLIN not making the cut. There were a few close calls - LIVING IN OBLIVION and MOVERS & SHAKERS among them. Are there any other Hollywood insider movies that I forgot? Please let me know.

More later…

Friday, March 06, 2009

WATCHMEN: The Film Babble Blog Review

WATCHMEN (Dir. Zack Snyder, 2009) Darker than THE DARK KNIGHT and raunchier than any other Superhero movie ever, WATCHMEN busts out of development Hell into theaters today and it’s sure to be #1 this weekend. Knowing nothing of the source material, I sat transfixed and alternately baffled at what I saw at a late screening last night. Set in an alternate America in 1985 in which Nixon (played with a cartoon-ish prosthetic nose by Robert Wisden) is still president, a group of Superheroes has been disgraced and placed under governmental control. When The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a power player with a crusty charisma is murdered, Superhero turned vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) focuses on tracking down the killers. Among the not-ready-for-the-Justice-League heroes are Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre II (Malin Ackerman), Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), and Billy Crudup as the completely CGI crafted Doctor Manhattan. Much of this film feels like a Frankenstein monster of a movie with pieces from pop culture classics stitched together – the rain drenched neon-lit dystopian cityscapes from BLADE RUNNER and the War Room set reproduced exactly from DR. STRANGELOVE for instance. For an over the top action movie it’s really exposition heavy at times which works better than expected especially the soft spoken Crudup, who somehow makes a giant naked blue man animation into a study in eloquence. As for the action, the fight scenes lack edge and urgency, but the overall thrust is engaging if not transcendent. As Rorschach, complete with a cool morphing ink blot mask, Haley is the stirring standout showing how far he’s come from pitching for the BAD NEWS BEARS. A sequence involving Rorschach in stir is absolutely gripping with Haley stealing the movie away from his co-stars and the scores of expensive bombast. As I mentioned above I have not read the original beloved graphic novel on which this is based so I can’t judge how faithful it is, but it certainly felt like a true comic book movie. It was almost as if bold panel edges and invisible establishing text were present while Crudup’s Doctor Manhattan looked like he had literally walked off the printed page. The soundtrack is quite unorthodox for a Superhero epic – an opening montage set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” sets the tone with odd choices like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds Of Silence”, and Nena’s “99 Luftballons” following suit. Unfortunately, despite all these eccentricities and that it's leaps and bounds better than Snyders 300, the film is way too long with a number of plodding parts that don’t gel. As a better than average popcorn flick it’s sure to have many fans, but it had ambitions way above that. Despite that WATCHMEN doesn’t soar to the heights it aims for, its intense intent and wicked sense of self is nearly intoxicating enough. More later...

Monday, March 02, 2009

A Few New Release DVD Reviews Just for You


Ah, the art of the snark. In his blog not long ago, Roger Ebert wrote a brilliant breakdown of the current over-proliferation of snarking in the press (“Hunt not the Snark but the Snarker” - February 25th, 2009). After calling it “cultural vandalism” he chided writers such as Hollywood blogger Nikki Finke and LATimes reporter Patrick Goldstein for their cheap shots at the Oscars and he concluded gracefully, as Ebert is known to do, by quoting a Lewis Carroll poem. If the protagonist of this film, celebrity journalist Sidney Young, was a real person there’s no doubt Ebert would’ve singled him out too. For despite that Young is the creation (and alter ego of) paparazzi pundit Toby Young (from his book of the same name), as played by an in-your-face Simon Pegg he would be likely be one of the most unavoidable media masters of snark today.

After upsetting a posh party with a pig he claims is Babe from BABE 2, Pegg is hired by the editor of Sharp’s magazine (Jeff Bridges again in very un-Dude territory). Pegg and the magazine, based on Vanity Fair, are an uneasy fit as he insults everybody in sight especially an extremely miscast Kirsten Dunst who bases her entire performance on constant eye-rolls (oh, was that too snarky?). Pegg has 2 goals – to get ahead at the magazine no matter what it takes and to bed a model/starlet played by Megan Fox. He has to contend with Fox’s powerful publicist (Gillian Anderson) and an asshole boss (Danny Houston) as we have to contend with his unlikable unctuousness while the predictable plot goes through the motions.

This is the kind of film that doles out such beaten to death comic clichés as a transsexual that fools the leading man and a small dog getting crushed (see A FISH CALLED WANDA for how to deal with this better). Pegg, who can lift even a lightweight rom com like RUN FATBOY RUN above total mediocrity, here is helpless to save this material. Bridges sums up Pegg’s character’s sense of humor in their first interview scene as: “snarky, bitter, and witless.” That sums up the movie as well; it mistakes snarky for funny over and over again. But if the joke that Pegg wore a bright red t-shirt that said “young, dumb and full of come” to the interview makes you laugh then this might be the movie for you. As for me, this film lost and alienated me, but I know I’m probably the millionth snarky movie

blogger to say that.

FLASH OF GENIUS (Dir. Mark Abraham, 2008)

“You’ll never look at a windshield wiper the same way again” could be the tagline for this biopic of frustrated inventor Robert Kearns. Kearns, played with pluck and aplomb by Greg Kinnear (in non smarmy mode happily), developed an intermittent windshield wiper in the 60’s and took his idea to the Ford Motor Company. After studying his work they pass on paying him but use the method anyway causing him to sacrifice his marriage and sanity to fight for the credit. His wife (Lauren Graham) tries to be supportive, as do his 5 kids, but he goes off the deep end and has to be institutionalized – a point the movie stresses by opening with a bath robed frazzled Kinnear on a bus claiming he’s going to Washington D.C. by request of the Vice President.

There’s a big heart here but the obsessed man alienates the world around him to plead his life’s case formula is adhered to way too strictly. I knew nothing of the real life story here but because I’ve been schooled in the scenario, from Jimmy Stewart in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON to Richard Dreyfuss in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, I knew exactly what to expect in terms of the plot-point highs and lows. But I bet most people would watch this and just know it's going to end in a climatic court scene, you know? Still, it is an interesting story told well with solid performances by Kinnear, Graham, Dermot Mulroney as a subtle backstabbing colleague, and most notably Alan Alda as a crusty but suave lawyer who advices our hero to settle. FLASH OF GENIUS is an earnest and straight forward effort that will surely fall in line with other inventor-done-wrong-by-the-system biopic ilk (TUCKER, anybody?) some night in the future on The History Channel. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, I know, but it’s the best I can do for this fair film.

BOTTLE SHOCK (Dir. Randall Miller, 2008)

As another period piece true story that I was unaware of, (hey, that’s why they makes these movies!), this film delivers a case study of how California became a contender in the worldwide wine wars. Alan Rickman, in his best comfortably cagey demeanor, plays sommelier Steven Spurrier, who in 1976, traveled to Napa Valley to sample wines for a blind taste test against French wine. At the same time, a grizzled Bill Pulliman with a winery named Chateau Montelena is struggling with massive debts while he labors to make chardonnay. He’s also struggling with his long haired freewheeling son Bo (Chris Pine) and foreman Gustavo (Six Feet Under’s Freddy Rodriquez), who grew grow up with soil underneath his nails and the smell of the grapes in the air that he breathes (his words) and so has wine plans of his own. For the obligatory sex subplot there’s a blonde UC Davis graduate student (Rachel Taylor) who sleeps with both Pine and Rodriquez because, uh, the movie needed a sex subplot.

The best thing about this film is its cinematography. The film makers were obviously in love with the Napa Valley with many sweeping shots of the orchards bathed in luscious crisp sunlight. It gives SIDEWAYS a run for its money in that department for sure. There is a nice sprinkling of wit mostly coming from Rickman’s snotty character: “You think I’m an asshole, and I’m not really -it’s just that I’m British and you’re not” but I wouldn’t say this movie is really that funny. It’s a likable lark with some wine fun facts about fermentation even if doesn’t give as much color to its characters as its scenery. BOTTLE SHOCK moves no mountains and shakes no new ground, but, to borrow wine jargon, it goes down smooth and finishes well. It would be the perfect complement to a wine tasting party, even (or especially) with the sound turned down.

MY NAME IS BRUCE (Dir. Bruce Campbell, 2007)

“Getting you laid is hard enough without having to explain the whole Bruce Campbell factor” says one scruffy teenager (Logan Martin) to another (Taylor Sharpe) at the beginning of this low budget “comedy horror” (as Campbell himself calls it) film. This sarcastic kid taunts his friend by going through a stack of DVDs (for some reason he has in his car) reeling off their titles – “Death Of The Dead”, “Maniac Cop”, “Moonwarp”, “Man With The Screaming Brain”, “Alien Apolcalypse”, and so on - I seriously don’t know which of these is real or fake but I’ll get around to IMDbing it. Not being able to take his buddy’s abuse anymore, Sharpe hits the brakes screeching his vehicle to a halt and exclaims “Bruce Campbell is the greatest actor of his generation!” Martin replies: “Dude, forget thumbs, Ebert wouldn’t wipe his crack with this trash!” He does however concede “I kinda liked BUBBA HO TEP.” Sharpe: “*Everyone* liked BUBBA HO-TEP!” This is a nice self mocking intro to an entire movie of self mockery but if you haven’t seen EVIL DEAD (or any of its sequels) and had no idea who that odd square jawed guy was in small but vital parts of all 3 SPIDERMAN movies, then this movie wasn’t made for you.

It’s a movie for Bruce Campbell fans exclusively, made by a Bruce Campbell fan – namely Bruce Campbell. Like the in-joke precedent set by Ricky Gervais’ Extras, Campbell plays an exaggerated version of himself. Hes a heavy drinker that bitches at gofers on the set of a sci-fi cheapie named “Cavealiens” when his lemon water isn’t cold enough (actually its one literally pissed off gofer’s urine) and, of course, he has an ex-wife who he calls at 3:00AM from the floor of his back woods trailer. Yes, these are all obvious joke clichés about a “big ass, self obsessed movie star” (as wooden love interest Grace Thorsen says) but that’s the point you see. The premise is that a small town named Gold Lick (that’s right) is tormented by a Chinese war diety called Guan Di and they call upon Campbell to bring his zombie/vampire/alien/whatever fighting skills to defeat this demon. Yep, ¡THREE AMIGOS!, GALAXY QUEST, and more recently TROPIC THUNDER have done likewise actors-must-become-what-they-portray plots much better but here it’s just an excuse to make fun of a career full of schlock and bombast. I mean, as stupid as the residents of Gold Lick are, they dont seem to think hes anything but Bruce Campbell and his thinking its a movie shoot is pretty poorly handled as well.

Campbell quips through every scene with his unique brand of big chinned charm but unfortunately very few of his one-liners are funny – “You don't know fear, kid. You've never worked with Sam Raimi” being one of the better ones if that says anything. As for the production, it’s about as cheap as one would expect with fades that give it a “made for TV” feel. To call this movie bad or even a turkey would surely be taken as a compliment by Campbell and crew because that’s what they were going for - a ‘so bad it’s good’ vibe, but as Enid in GHOST WORLD said: “it’s so bad it’s gone from good back to bad again.” Sure, it’s a straight to DVD for fanatics only throwaway and one that’s not without its charms but if you don’t appreciate Campbell or his oeuvre I doubt it’ll win you over. As the taunting kid quoted above said, BUBBA HO TEP is a better gateway to geekery * but the EVIL DEAD films are the most essential of Campbell’s filmography. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure indeed. Except here it’s the same man.

* With apologies to the Onion A.V. Club.

More later…