Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Nick's Un Caged Fury

(Dir. Werner Herzog, 2009)

So is this a remake? A re-imagining? 

Is it connected to Abel Ferrara's 1992 corrupt cop cult classic in any way than the title? The answer is that it is, and it isn't. Both films concern a police detective summed up by the first film's tagline: "Gambler. Thief. Junkie. Killer. Cop." 

Herzog claims that he never saw the '92 version, and that the title is a marketing ploy. 

Whatever the Hell it is, this is for certain: It's a weird wild ride through the cracked psyche of, well, a very bad lieutenant and it's Nicholas Cage's best work in nearly a decade. Unlike Harvey Keitel's character in Ferrara's film, only credited as "The Lieutenant," Cage is given a name: Terrence McDonaugh.

He is also given a new location - post Katrina New Orleans. His first case after being promoted involves the brutal slaying of five Senegalese immigrants. He follows the leads sometimes with his partner Val Kilmer, but mostly alone abusing his power at every opportunity, shaking down almost everybody for drugs and seeing iguanas and alligators that aren't there in light fractured shots that are as disturbing as they are wickedly funny. 

Take away the crazy Cage character and this would be a routine cop drama going from one witness to another on the trail of the killer, but this is completely about the crazy Cage character with the plot a hazy afterthought. You wouldn't expect or want a standard cop thriller from Herzog, but this doesn't exactly qualify as a genre deconstruction either - it's more like genre destruction. 

There are no high speed chases or violent fist fights and when the story circles back on itself in the last reel it feels surreal - a satire of dream logic almost. 

Though Kilmer barely registers in a walk through of a role there is a strong supporting cast aiding Cage. Eve Mendes (a former Cage costar in GHOST RIDER) is on hand as Cage's strung out hooker girlfriend, Brad Dourif puts in a sharp turn as a cranky bookie, and Jennifer Coolidge (Stiffler's Mom!) has an uncharacteristic part as Cage's father's (Tom Bower) partner. Also look for Michael Shannon, Fairuza Balk, and Xzibit as a drug kingpin aptly named "Big Fate" if you can actually take your eyes off Cage. 

Cage's outrageously off kilter performance fills the screen with kinetic energy that wonderfully erases the horrible memories of such dreck as the NATIONAL TREASURE movies and the other crappy commercial fare that has plagued his career of late. It's a gutsy gripping piece of acting that made me giggle throughout. He takes hits from what he calls his "lucky crack pipe" and spouts such baffling bat-shit insane phrases as "I'll kill all of you. To the break of dawn. To the break of dawn, baby!" 

Cage engages in the kind of sordid behavior that makes Harvey Keitel's take on the character look positively subdued. 

BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL - NEW ORLEANS (a horrible title whatever its reasoning) is an intoxicating surprise, but I'm sure it'll rub many moviegoers wrong. 

It makes no apologies and has no moralistic message so it really stands out in this otherwise saccharin season. It's an unruly and unhinged work by a master of obsessed cinema. It's an experience that will linger long after like a vivid nightmare and while that might not sound like a recommendation - believe me it is.

More later...

Saturday, December 26, 2009

High Concept Holmes

SHERLOCK HOLMES (Dir. Guy Ritchie, 2009)

The recreation of the career of Robert Downey Jr. as a bankable action hero continues with this expensive explosive epic that re-casts Arthur Conan Doyle's classic character as, well, a bankable action hero.

It's a conceit that works grandly for considerable chunks of Guy Ritchie's period production, but an unfortunate feeling remains that such a literary icon as Sherlock Holmes shouldn't be shoehorned into James Bondian conventions or Indiana Jones-ish set-piece progressions. The thinking behind this is understandable (or elementary) - who wants to see stiff sitting room scenes filled with exposition? Audiences want high octane action and that's what they're going to get here. Holmes was a martial arts master in Doyle's books and short stories so that's an element Ritchie and Downey Jr. run with. Through stylized breakdowns of his fighting strategies we get into Holmes' head blow by blow. However the attempts to get into his head clue by clue are less successful. 

The movie begins with Holmes and trusty sidekick Watson (Jude Law) preventing a human sacrifice by the dark treacherous Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong). Though Blackwood is jailed and sentenced to death, he still inspires fear with threatening prophecies of terror that he'll orchestrate from beyond the grave. 

Three days after he's hanged and pronounced dead by Watson, he appears to have torn through the walls of his tomb and is back among the living. 

Holmes is, of course, back on his trail with distractions such as Rachel McAdams as the infamous Irene Adler and Watson's bromance blocking bride to be (Kelly Reilly) muddying up the waters. Muddy is apt for it's a muddled mess of a mystery - a fast paced muddle, but a muddle all the same. 

For most moviegoers it won't matter as there is fun to be had with Downey Jr.'s almost contagious satisfied smirk of a performance. His accent is much the same as it was in CHAPLIN (that is - not very convincing but still adequate) and his jovial demeanor does much to carry the film through dark passages dealing with black magic and a perplexing plot to overthrow Parliament. 

Law doesn't make much of an impression as he just seems to be along for the ride and his fiancée subplot could be dropped completely with no complaints. Strong's steely faced Blackwood is a worthy adversary, but his evil plans fail to fascinate making the murky mechanics of the third act bog down the proceedings. 

Its ending obviously broadcasts that SHERLOCK HOLMES wants to be the first of a franchise, club sandwiched between IRONMAN efforts, primed for event movie seasons but I pray that it's a one off. 

Downey Jr. is one of the most capable and interesting actors working today, but I fear his hipster appeal will make for major miscasting in future famous icon reboots: Robert Downey Jr. as Tarzan/The Shadow/Buck Rogers/etc. Maybe I'm being too cynical, but as much as I enjoyed particular parts of this film and would like to write it off as pure escapism, I couldn't quite escape the notion that it's a glorified waste.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

UP IN THE AIR: The Film Babble Blog Review

UP IN THE AIR (Dir. Jason Reitman, 2009)

George Clooney's third film of the last quarter of 2009 has "the last movie star" (Time Magazine's words - not mine) in a much more recognizable role than his last 2 efforts. It's not just because he's not a mustached military man or an animated fox, it's that he has a more recognizable character arc: slick professional who believes he has all the answers glides through life until realizing that there's emptiness to it all which he desperately and clumsily tries to remedy.

This is also the character arc of director Jason Reitman's first film THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, which UP IN THE AIR closely resembles at times especially in its opening introductory montage. Clooney's voice-over narration, accompanying aerial shots of many American cities, tells us that he is a corporate downsizer.

Clooney flies all over the country to conduct formal sit-downs with employees to tell them that they are being laid off. He is very good at his job and prefers the 322 days of the year that he is on the road to the 43 that he is home in his sterile white walled rental unit of an apartment in Omaha.

Clooney's frequent flyer lifestyle is threatened when his boss (a lightly bearded slightly jaded Jason Bateman) brings in a young consultant (Anna Kendrick) who has plans to replace the face-to-face meetings with video conferencing. Bateman sends Kendrick on the road with Clooney so she can be shown the ropes.

Clooney hopes this will show her the flaws in what he believes to be a flawed inhuman media method, but you just know that both will be taught essential life lessons by one another.

In a hotel bar meet-cute earlier, Clooney literally charms the pants off fellow frequent flyer Vera Farmiga. She nicely compliments his no-strings-attached philosophy and provides a counter balance to Kendrick's wet behind the ears romantic idealism.

After Kendrick's boyfriend back home dumps her by way of a text message, Clooney can't help but to make a wise-crack: "That's kind of like firing people over the internet." Farmiga offers, with much more sensitivity, some solid advice about how it won't feel like settling by the time somebody is right for her.

These relationship insights blend into the travelogue mosaic of cards being swiped, more aerial shots, and the many firings, yet we just know that they form the crucial crux at hand. 

For example Clooney has the annoying task of taking along a cardboard cutout of his sister (Melanie Lynskey) with her fiancée (Danny McBride) to be photographed at famous landmarks for a wedding collage - this draws our attention to his ostensible freedom in contrast to his sibling's ostensible stability with neither coming out on top.

The first half of UP IN THE AIR is breezy and amusing, but the second half descends into mawkish sentimentality with soul searching acoustic balladry in the background broadcasting what we're supposed to be feeling. Clooney's charisma is so pleasantly palpable that he makes the film appear better than it is while we're watching it, yet its superficial effect evaporates once we leave the theater.

Still, most audiences are sure to find this film a likable lark. It's well made and has a shiny gloss to it that often outshines its predictability. It also benefits from not having a neatly tied up conclusion - sometimes it's best to leave some things right where the title says they should be.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

A Swell Welles Period Piece

ME AND ORSON WELLES (Dir. Richard Linklater, 2009)
To be a young actor in the hustling bustling Big Apple of the 30's, cast by sheer chance as a player in an Orson Welles' Mercury Theater production is a dream many aspiring thespians have no doubt had, but is it believable that it would be a dream shared by "it" boy Zac Efron?

Sadly no, he's a blank slate of an actor who makes for a weak protagonist, but this period piece by cult director Richard Linklater is royally saved by Christian McKay's pitch perfect performance as the genius wunderkind Welles. It's a role he was seemingly born to play thanks to his uncanny likeness and delivery honed from over half a decade on stage in the one man show "Rosebud: The Lives Of Orson Welles".

As a wide eyed high school student, Efron is overjoyed to be cast in the small but crucial role of Lucious in Welles' controversial 1937 production of "Julius Caesar". It was controversial because Welles staged Shakespeare's play as contemporary commentary outfitting his performers in modern dress - specifically uniforms that resembled those of the Nazi party.

Efron is paired with a production assistant played by Claire Danes as a rehearsal partner and immediately falls for her. He also falls for the world of the theater; a world that Welles rules with a mighty swagger. McKay's Welles highjacks the film from Efron and breathes life into the predictable proceedings with every entrance. His powerful presence not only makes us forget Efron is in the room, it helps us forget he's in the movie.

When McKay isn't on screen the film suffers from the lack of chemistry between Danes and Efron and the simplistic nature of their relationship. It's funny (or more accurately damaging) that the excellent casting of McKay would be offset by the misguided miscasting of Efron. Luckily other members of the cast fare much better - James Tupper as a the wise witty Joseph Cotton, Eddie Marsan as the exasperated John Houseman, and Ben Chaplin as George Coulouris who has an effective scene dealing with stage fright right before going on as Marc Antony.

Linklater has one of the most intriquing and diverse filmographies of any working director out there. Since his brilliant breakthrough SLACKER (1991) his work has gone from indie (BEFORE SUNRISE) to mainstream (THE SCHOOL OF ROCK) and back again (BEFORE SUNSET) with mostly successful results.

Linklater's previous period piece effort, THE NEWTON BOYS, was one of his only major stumbles so it's wonderful to report ME AND ORSON WELLES is absolutely a superior and more assured work in the same arena.

The brisk pacing and solid structure show off Linklater's strengths as do the astute recreations of the original stage show - at times I wished the film would throw out the backstage bickering and just give us the play "Julius Caesar" in full.

Although my reaction to Efron and the presentation of the love triangle arc is decidedly mixed, this is still a worthwhile movie largely because of McKay. His Welles definitely deserves an Oscar nomination and that's quite a compliment considering that this is his first film.

A best-case scenario would be that HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL fans that follow Efron will see it and they'll walk away under the spell of McKay. I know that's just wishful thinking, but it sure would be nice for all those teenyboppers to actually get a whiff of what real acting is all about.

Post note: Christian McKay appeared previously on this blog in a post entitled "A Birthday Tribute To Orson Welles With 10 Welles Wannabes" (May 5th, 2008). He would definitely rank much higher if I did the list today.
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Saturday, December 19, 2009

AVATAR: The Film Babble Blog Review

AVATAR (Dir. James Cameron, 2009)

When my brother and I were kids we would often put down the lackluster effects of many of the sci-fi films released in the wake of STAR WARS saying they looked "fakey."

Well, there's almost nothing fakey looking in AVATAR, James Cameron's long-in-the-making special effects epic in which every cent of its $250 million + budget sparkles on screen. Nearly every frame is a flawless spectacle of jaw-dropping jolts that makes last summer's STAR TREK reboot already look dated.

AVATAR is set in 2051 on a the distant moon Pandora which is inhabited by large blue humanoid life forms named the Na'vi. Human colonization of Pandora is underway with scientific studies clashing with military might over the Na'vi because they just happen to have a valuable commodity, a mineral called "Unobtainium", which is vital to the survival of Earth, of which the protagonist says "there's no green there, they killed their mother."

That protagonist is paraplegic marine (Sam Worthington) who is recruited to attempt to connect to the natives through "Avatars" - genetically engineered hybrid bodies that allow humans to breathe and co-exist in the Na'vi environment. 

Worthington loves being reborn as a CGI creation that can run, jump, and engage in fighting off the crazy alien creatures of the lush but creepy forest. Telling the Na'vi leader that he is a warrior from the "Jarhead" clan, Worthington is allowed in to their culture based on the spiritual energy of the woods around them. He falls in love with the tribe chieftain's daughter (Zoë Saldana) as he learns their ways and comes to believe that he should join them in fighting the humans who are coming to destroy their sacred Hometree for the "Unobtainium" underneath. 

"Just relax and let your mind go blank" says Sigourney Weaver as a sneering scientist also Avataring it up. Though she adds: "That shouldn't be too hard for you" to Worthington, that's good advice for the audience. 

If it isn't hard to turn one's brain off, an exhilarating visual experience can definitely be had, but if that switch remains in the "on" position, stiff dialogue, simplistic politics (army bad, nature good) and a predictable formula thread may get in the way of total transcendence. 

As a hard assed army Colonel looking to annihilate the Na'vi, Steven Lang comes off as such a standard issue war monger that I almost expected him to blast "Ride Of The Valkries" when flying in to attack on the speaker system of his highly robotized helicopter. 

Also during the ginormous concluding battle sequence I got lost in the explosions and so tired out from the bloated running time (161 minutes) that I was looking for dead Ewoks in the brush. In the end though, critical jabs at the film and Cameron's expense will do little to undermine the overwhelming technical achievement he's created.

AVATAR's amazing aesthetics make it one of the tastiest pieces of cinematic eye candy ever. So much so, that I could even let the sucky song ("I See You" by Leona Lewis) that plays over the end credits slide. 

More later...

Thursday, December 17, 2009

THE ROAD: The Film Babble Blog Review

THE ROAD (Dir. John Hillcoat, 2009)

Your eyes may roll when once again reading the phrase “set in a post apocalyptic world” and that this film’s release was pushed back several times (it was originally set for Dec. ’08) may be discouraging, but hold on because this film is an intensely moving and towering piece of work.

While on the surface its bleak depiction of an ash covered world in ruins with death in every direction may be for many a grueling experience, in all the darkness a tiny light shining off a glimmer of hope can be seen.

That light is almost impossible to see at times for a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), only credited as “Man” and “Boy”, in rags making their way through the rubble with a grocery store shopping cart and a gun that only has 2 bullets in it. We’re never told how this all happened, we’re only given a few flashbacks from before the devastation that present the Man’s wife (Charlize Theron) sacrificing herself for her family as the world seemingly comes to an end.

Mortensen gives a career best performance as the Man, a desperate but ferociously protective father tuned into every threatening tick of movement on the terrain surrounding him and his shaking but just as driven son. Every element they encounter might as well have “from Hell” attached to it. They hide in the woods off the road from groups of hunters or hoards of cannibals, they look for food in battered houses, they share dwindling provisions with a grizzled old Robert Duvall (the only character in the film given a name – Ely), and they just keep on heading towards the ocean.

This sprawling epic is the third film adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel (the others being Billy Bob Thornton’s ALL THE PRETTY HORSES and the Coen Brothers’ acclaimed Oscar winning NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN). Save for the expansion of the role of the wife, THE ROAD is extremely faithful to its source, retaining its scary tense tone with almost all of the spare spoken dialogue verbatim from the book.

It’s maybe the anti-“feel good” movie of the year (or the decade) but its strengths as a tale of survival and its powerful emotional pull will linger for a long time. The Man tells his son that they’re “the good guys” and that they will live through this.

The Boy believes it and somehow in the face of the complete breakdown of society and all the anarchy of the wilderness we believe it too. THE ROAD may be a long tough one, but it does get to that glimmer and it really got to me.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

INVICTUS: The Film Babble Blog Review

INVICTUS (Dir. Clint Eastwood, 2009)

Like a huge signpost that announces: "It's now officially Oscar season", a new Clint Eastwood directed movie has opened at this time almost every year this last decade.

Eastwood makes the kind of film that Academy voters love - event films with A-list actors about important issues; movies that make movie goers feel guilty if they try not to pay attention to them.

For they're noble works with an old school sentimentality, but ultimately they're to be admired more than enjoyed. Such is the case with INVICTUS, a historical sports drama centering on Nelson Mandela's rugby obsessed first term as President of South Africa.

Oddly, Morgan Freeman as Mandela is an almost too obvious piece of casting. It never quite works, it's like Dustin Hoffman playing Lenny Bruce - the images of both are too well known separately for them to blend into a natural personification.

We're always aware that it's Freeman doing his wizened Freeman thing; except for a tint of an accent, it's the same basic performance as a President that he did in DEEP IMPACT. Mandela faces an intimidating workload upon taking office in 1994, with long brewing racial tensions, poverty, and crime filling the streets. He comes to believes that a World Cup win by the Springboks, the country's rugby team, will unite the nation and lead them into a new era.

Mandela meets with the team Captain (a reserved and in a "respect your elders" mode Matt Damon) to fan the flames of inspiration. He shares a poem with Damon that helped him through years of inprisonment - "Invictus" written by William Earnest Henley. This, of course, is the film's title so I was a bit taken aback to find out that in reality Mandela actually gave the Captain a copy of a Theodore Roosevelt speech.

That's just one of many details many fact checkers will have problems with here. Eastwood undoubtedly subscribes to John Ford's infamous stance: "Print the legend" and that's an honorable tact to take but this strained un-involving film does little but to pile on the platitudes.

By the time we get to the big climatic game filled with all the sports movie clichés you can think of (slow motion, strained close-ups, crowd elation manipulation, etc.) it didn't matter to me whether or not the outcome will bring the country together or have any spiritual impact at all - my eyes were too glazed over to care.

Whatever the historical relevance, INVICTUS is an admirable exercise with pure intentions, fine performances, and seasoned craftmanship, but sadly a very dull film.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

THE DAMNED UNITED: The Film Babble Blog Review

THE DAMNED UNITED (Dir. Tom Hooper, 2009)

Playing Prime Minister Tony Blair in full on damage control mode in THE QUEEN, taking on television journalist David Frost's striving for a career making spotlight on an impeached President in FROST/NIXON, and now here as the infamous arrogant football manager Brian Clough, Michael Sheen appears to be on a mission to redefine the role of refined British masculinity movie-wise for the new millennium.

It's not a one man mission as Sheen is the front man for screen writer Peter Morgan’s retellings of pivotal points in UK public relations. Sheen has the fierce focus necessary for these pointed recreations, while the sense that deep down he’s a decent bloke helps their cinematic cause along nicely. So the suave but spineless English archetypes (think Hugh Grant's inept Prime Minister in LOVE ACTUALLY) now fade into anachronism as history sorts the winners from the losers, with the brashly flawed figures Sheen embodies definitively deemed as winners.

There are many times, however, in THE DAMNED UNITED that Sheen’s Brian Clough doesn’t resemble a winner at all. After taking over Leeds United in 1974, Clough doesn’t quite endear himself to his players when announcing: “the first thing you can do for me is to chuck all your medals and all your caps and all your pots and all your pans into the biggest fucking dustbin you can find, because you've never won any of them fairly. You've done it all by bloody cheating!”

The film skips back to 1967 to acquaint us with the long brimming but basically one-sided rivalry between Clough and the previous Leeds manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney) who had driven the team to win all those medals over the years. Clough’s then team Derby County rose from underdog status to win the Second Division, but still lost the First Division title to the brutal tactics of the Leeds players.

Assistant manager Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall as one of the most likable and grounded of the films characters) and Derby chairman Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent) shake their heads at Clough’s over confidence and unrestrained bravado, which threatens his friendship with Taylor (“That’s the trouble with you Brian, too much ambition!”) and the financial stability of the team. There's nothing that can put out the fire burning in Clough - not harsh complaining heard through closed doors, not the icy glares from elder superiors, and most of all, not the 0 scoring loses that Leeds racks up after he assumes their management.

While there is action on the field, sometimes depicted by way of archival footage, this film is primarily concerned with Clough’s back room verbosity. In every acidic line reading and exasperated expression, Sheen captures the intensity of a man who doesn’t have it in his nature to back down even as he’s so plainly pissing in the wind. It’s a tour de force performance that drives the film and is invigorating to behold even if you have no interest in soccer strategies or sports at all. I say this because I sure as Hell don’t.

Though it’s largely Sheen’s show he’s joined by a highly capable and credible cast. Standing out with the previous mentioned Spall, Broadbent, and Meany is the grimacing Stephen Graham as team Captain Billy Bremner, providing a needed dividing edge to Sheen’s abrasive stubbornness.

Marred only by one too many sad fades to black, and some fake looking hair (blame it on period style wigs), this poignantly plotted drama scores another winning shot for Sheen and writer Morgan, whether it indulges in revisionism or not. In the concluding moments there are glimpses of the real Clough surrounded by a crowd of supporters years after the events in the movie - a typical biodoc manuever - and while it's impossible to see if he was as obnoxiously determined as Sheen's portrayal made him out to be, the vigorous spirit that this sturdy movie tenaciously touches on is without a doubt on display.

More later...

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Being Brutally Beaten Senseless By BRONSON

BRONSON (Dir. Nicholas Winding Refn, 2009)

A bald, circus mustached, bare chested brute stands bathed in light before a black background. He speaks in gruff yet confident tones, sometimes showing a crazed grin then instantly changing into a stoical stare. He calls himself “Britain’s most violent criminal” and within a few minutes of this blistering film we believe him.

This brutal biopic is based on the life of convicted felon Michael Peterson, jailed for theft in 1974, who goes by the fighting name Charles Bronson (yes, named after the movie star then famous for DEATH WISH) and decides early on that he really likes prison. It’s a hotel for him filled with edge and excitement. However he attacks the guards so regularly that he spends much of his time in solitary confinement and then a stint drugged up beyond comprehension in a mental institution which he doesn’t like as much.

As Bronson, Tom Hardy tells his story on stage in the surreal setting of a ritzy theater with a formal attired audience hanging on his every word. At times different configurations of black and white performance face paint accompany scene changes as he speaks directly to the camera with his particular brand of menacing charisma. Still it’s hard to muster a desire to know a man who even in a childhood flashback is assaulting his school teacher with murderous rage.

Bronson does taste freedom as he is certified sane and takes up residence in a brothel. He falls in love with a young woman (Juliet Oldfield) but she tells him she’s in love with another man. This doesn’t deter him from stealing a ring for her which, of course, lands him back in the slammer. This isn’t presented as a heartbreaking fate for director Refn’s vision of 70’s England is just as grey and grim on the outside as it is behind bars. Bronson’s limited world view is actually a plus for a soul that can be battered and beaten beyond recognition, but never crushed completely.

The many comparisons critics have made to Stanley Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE are accurate, but BRONSON is strapped to the struggle of crimes against self instead of crimes against society. There’s not much real insight to Bronson as a man, but there doesn’t really need to be; he doesn’t so much deny apologies as he does tear them apart. 

The inner nature of such a man isn’t what this film is truly about – if anything it’s about what Walter Sobchek would call “unchecked aggression”. Like its subject, the film is raw, uncompromising, and ugly. But don’t let that discourage you because it’s concurrently one of the most gripping and grittily entertaining movies of the year.

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Saturday, December 05, 2009

BLACK DYNAMITE: The Film Babble Blog Review

BLACK DYNAMITE (Dir. Scott Sanders, 2009)

There have been blaxploitation parodies before, and also many stylistic throwbacks to 70’s cinema, but nothing like this that looks and feels so much like the original artifact that many will mistake it for the real thing. Authenticity is enhanced throughout with grainy saturated film stock, split screen dynamics, and many funk musical cues (every time our smooth hero walks into a room or shows up suddenly his name is sexily sung by a chorus of female soul singers).

That name is “Black Dynamite” (Michael Jai White who also co-wrote with director Sanders) – a Vietnam vet, Martial arts master, and former member of the CIA who’s “badder than SHAFT, SUPER FLY, and THE MACK put together” just as the trailer promised.

The mysterious death of Black Dynamite’s brother leads him into the underbelly of 1972 Los Angeles, where the ghettos are overrun with smack and Anaconda Malt Liquor, and “The Man” is in control. CIA Agent O’Leary (Kevin Chapman) tells the vengeance fueled fighter : “We heard about your brother's death and we don't want you running around turning the streets into rivers of blood.” Black Dynamite responds: “Then tell me who did it and I'll just leave a puddle!” We know, of course, that just a puddle is out of the question; we’ll know him well by the trail of the dead well before the end of this motion picture. It doesn’t stop there though, in the form of cheap ass animation he even beats up, and it some instances blows up, many of the end credits.

To say anymore about the plot, especially to reveal the severe side effect of Anaconda Malt Liquor or who turns out to be the evil mastermind, would be to spoil the fun, and there’s a lot of fun here, so I’ll leave it at that. I laughed more during this movie than any other film this year. It’s a hilarious homage instead of a savage satire but its dead-on attention to detail never lets up and neither do the non-stop laughs.

The amusing aesthetics of actors’ eyes darting to off screen cue cards, visible boom mikes dropping too low into the shot, and not quite timed right edits are much more effective than the fake scratches and bogus missing reels of the more expensive retro exercise GRINDHOUSE, with the mixing in of period footage effectively matching the newly made material. I think we see the same shot of a car driving of a cliff twice but it really doesn’t matter, or it matters absolutely, in the fast pace free for all flow.

There are few familiar faces in BLACK DYNAMITE, but Arsenio Hall, Tommy Davison, Richard Edson, Nicole Sullivan, and Mike Starr all stand out in gloriously stereotyped roles. With its tons of quotable lines, scores of explosive action set pieces, and more jokes per minute than a dozen of current commercial comedies, this has cult film written all over it. That would be nice for the its future, but the film is in limited release right now so it’d be nicer if it got the packed houses it deserves much sooner. The genre may be mostly forgotten by all but die-hard fans and film buffs, but this hysterical yet sturdy tribute brings blaxploitation back with riotous results and should not be missed.

More later...

Thursday, December 03, 2009

EVERYBODY'S FINE: The Film Babble Blog Review

EVERYBODY’S FINE (Dir. Kirk Jones, 2009)

A few months ago when I first saw the trailer there was a brief instance that I thought that this could be Robert De Niro’s ABOUT SCHMIDT – a powerful portrait of an iconic actor in his autumn years. That instance was incredibly brief mind you, because as the preview played out the glossy schmaltz it began to look more like De Niro’s LAST CHANCE HARVEY – a cute though vapid vehicle for a once vital actor in his autumn years. Well, sadly the latter is what we have here.

The opening shots show De Niro vacuuming his carpet, mowing his lawn, getting his grill out of the garage, etc. Watching this I was struck but the question: who wants to go to the movies to see Robert De Niro doing household chores? We even follow him to the grocery store to see him ask a clueless clerk about wine. He’s getting ready for Thanksgiving with his kids he explains, awkwardly clarifying that they’re all grown up and that he’s not actually serving children wine.

That's the type of detail that's meant to endear De Niro to us. His Franke Goode is a recently widowed and retired and without a doubt entering into a very needy zone of existence so when he learns that none of his family is going to make it home for the holiday there's no other course of action but for him to hop aboard buses and trains and go to them. His doctor warns him against the trip, because that's what most movie doctors do, but there's no stopping this strained father Frank.

We learn from his chatting up a fellow passenger on the train to see his son in New York that De Niro had a career in coating telephone wire from coast to coast. This gives the film the excuse to have many shots of telephone polls and cables as we hear the voices of his offspring (Drew Barrymore, Katie Beckinsale, and Sam Rockwell) making calls to one another. They discuss in hushed tones a fourth sibling who is in some unspecified trouble and how they should keep it from Dad.

Since that's the son that De Niro first goes to visit he comes up short in NYC, so then he's off to Chicago to see his advertising exec daughter (Beckinsale). One gimmick the film has is that when he first sees his kids, he sees them as that - kids - so children actors stand in for their older counterparts for a few shots before they embrace. This is certainly making the point that he never dealt with them as grown-ups before but it still comes off as an artsy gimmick.

After an tense dinner with Beckinsale, her husband and son, De Niro heads off to Denver to see his classical musician son (a very reserved Rockwell) who turns out not to be the conductor he told his father he was, but a percussionist. Rockwell doesn't appear to want to spend much time with his father so then we're off to Las Vegas to visit with his dancer daughter (Barrymore) who may not be who she's claimed to be either.

EVERYBODY'S FINE was based on an 1990 Italian film (STANNO TUTTI BENE) which I haven't seen but I bet has a lot more emotional weight than this well meaning but drab adaptation. None of the characters or situations take hold so there's nothing to truly care about. A 3rd act dream sequence involving De Niro confronting his offspring - the children actors mentioned above - tries its damndest to pull on the heart strings but the strings don't seem to be attached to anything. An all too happy ending feels like it was tagged on so the film would match its misguided marketing as a holiday film.

It's been a long time since the New Hollywood era in which De Niro ruled as an electric engaging entity in such landmarks as MEAN STREETS, TAXI DRIVER, and RAGING BULL (among others). Of course the man has long mellowed into the mainstream in commercial comedies and forgettable cop dramas but I think most film folks believe he could still bring it if given the right material. Until that happens though I guess we'll have to deal with watching De Niro do the dishes and take out the trash, instead of stalking the streets thanking God for the rain to wash the trash off the sidewalk.

More later...

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

10 Blink And Miss Them Movie Cameos

Followers of this blog may have noticed that I have a fondness for film cameos. Film Babble Blog has featured lists like 20 Great Modern Movie Cameos, The Cameo Countdown Continues, and more recently Without A Hitch - 10 Definitive Directors' Cameos In Their Own Movies, but this list is a bit different because many people may not have noticed these cameos at all.

They can be difficult to catch as they go by fast but they're there just waiting for some film geek like me to point them out. So here goes:

1. George Harrison in MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN (Dir. Terry Jones, 1979) Harrison helped finance this film solely because he was a big fan so it stands to reason that they'd throw him a bit part. He can be seen in a crowd scene and although he is uncredited he actually has a character name: Mr. Papadopoulos. He has one word of dialogue ("ullo") spoken to Brian (Graham Chapman) as he is introduced by Reg (John Cleese) as "the owner of the mount" they are planning to rent. It's brief but worth looking for - if only so you can point out to your friends: "Look! There's a Beatle!" Speaking of the Beatles...

2. Phil Collins in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (Dir. Richard Lester, 1964)

This is kind of a cheat because Collins wasn't a well known celebrity at the time (he was 13), and you can barely see him in the audience shots of the concert climax but I just couldn't resist listing it. Collins has often bragged about being one of the 350 teenage extras screaming at the Beatles, especially when he hosted You Can't Do That!: The Making of "A Hard Day's Night" (1995). Though as you can see his visage is impossible to recognize, even when enlarged, he is listed in some movie guides as being one of the stars of the film.

3. Alan Ladd in CITIZEN KANE (Dir. Orson Welles, 1941) This is a pretty infamous one - Ladd is one of the reporters in the screening room after the opening newsreel. It's a smoke filled shadowy shot but he can be clearly seen, though it took Roger Ebert's commentary on the DVD for me to identify him. He can also be seen at the end of the film smoking a pipe and even has a few lines.

4. R2D2 in STAR TREK (Dir. J.J. Abrams, 2009)

This cameo/Easter egg was rumored when the film opened last summer (there was even a Paramount sponsored contest centered on finding it) but it was pinpointed by fanboys all over the internets when the film hit DVD/Blu ray last month. It works as a funny little visual joke as well as a shout out from one science fiction franchise to another.

5. Dan Aykroyd in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (Dir. Steven Spielberg, 1984) It may have seemed strange to see the former SNL funnyman hawking Crystal Head Vodka in advertisements that refer to the last INDIANA JONES film, but Aykroyd actually has a legitimate connection to the series. He appears in Indy's second installment as Weber, a British cohort who arranges a getaway plane for Jones (Harrison Ford), Willie (Kate Capshaw), and Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan). It's easy to miss him as it's a sweeping long shot and he's such an incidental character but he still makes the most of his 18 seconds in this film.

6. Dennis Hopper in HEAD (Dir. Bob Rafelson, 1968) This one is priceless because Hopper looks like he can't wait to get out of the studio, get on the road and shoot EASY RIDER (Monkees money funded EASY RIDER you see). Jack Nicholson, who co-wrote HEAD, is also in this scene which has the movie break down around Peter Tork with many members of the film's crew coming into the shot including director Rafelson. When he swoops behind Tork to get to Rafelson I'd like to believe he's asking "hey man, how long is this gonna be? We gotta get going!"

7. Christian Slater in STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (Dir. Nicholas Meyer, 1991)

I know, I know - another STAR TREK cameo but this one baffled me when I first saw this film. When Slater pops up it's a dark shot and I distinctly remember the murmur in the theater as everybody seemed to collectively wonder "was that Christian Slater?" Credited as "Excelsior Communications Officer" Slater appears in a doorway, has a few lines, and then he's gone. What was he doing there? In an interview with DVD Playground he answered that question: "My mother cast that film and needed someone to fill in. Yet even so, that was probably the most nervous I had ever been in my entire career."

8. Richard Dreyfuss in THE GRADUATE (Dir. Mike Nichols, 1967) Again, this might be playing loose with the definition of cameo too, but Dreyfuss' smart part as "Boarding House Resident" always makes me laugh when I watch this film. Over the shoulder of landlord Norman Fell, Dreyfuss's delivery is unmistakable on his only line: "Shall I call the cops? I'll call the cops."

9. Sigourney Weaver in ANNIE HALL (Dir. Woody Allen, 1977) She only appears in one shot, and it's a long one, as Alvy Singer's (Woody Allen) very tall date to yet another showing of THE SORROW AND THE PITY but if you ever see this film on the big screen you can see her features better. It was her first film and I bet nobody involved could predict that only 2 years later she would break through big in ALIEN. From "Alvy's Date Outside Theatre" with no lines to science fiction icon/feminist heroine Ripley is quite a leap considering.

10. The Clash in THE KING OF COMEDY (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 1982) From the IMDb Trivia section for this film: "In the scene where Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernard argue in the street, three of the "street scum" that mock Bernhard are Mick Jones, Joe Strummer, and Paul Simonon, members of the British punk rock band, The Clash." There are many pictures of Scorsese directing RAGING BULL wearing a Clash t-shirt so there's obviously a connection between the master film maker and "The Only Band That Matters" (as they were billed at the time).

Okay! There goes another patented Film Babble Blog list. If you have any other blink and miss them movie cameos please drop me a line.

More later...