Monday, September 26, 2005

Insert Thomas Wolfe cliche here: "Junebug"

I have to admit, I thought Pfafftown was made-up.

That's the North Carolina town where most of "Junebug" takes place, and its name actually is among the funnier things in the movie. A critics darling that did well at Sundance, "Junebug" seemed to have a lot of potential when me and the missus ventured to the cinema Sunday. Alas, I found it only somewhat quirky and mostly boring.

Perhaps that's a little harsh -- "it's a little harsh" -- but when a small movie gets talked up, I expect big things. I recalled raves for Amy Adams, to-this-point known for her small role as Leo's wife in "Catch Me If You Can," and she was pretty good. But other than a few touches here and there, not much impressed me beyond Adams, and that's a shame.

Our story has some guy now living in Chicago joining his art dealer wife while visiting a kooky artist in North Carolina. (Now he was pretty funny.) And oh-by-the-way, the guy's family lives in a small town nearby, so the dealer woman -- with a pseudo-British, to boot -- gets to meet her in-laws, including a very pregnant sister-in-law played by Adams. Hijinks ensue.

My problem with this? Nothing with the story itself; I'm always up for awkward meetings with the in-laws. But the awkwardness here was pretty harmless, and even if I wasn't expecting Ben Stilleresque bumblings, no one really seemed to have anything to say to anyone. Maybe that's the point, but between all the silence and scenes with the camera lingering on various rooms, objects, etc., I was pretty unimpressed.

It's too bad, because there are some decent actors here. The guy at the center of this, Alessandro Nivola, was the only entertaining part of "Laurel Canyon," and even amusing in "Face/Off." Here, he's a blank, and his admonitions to his wife about "family" at the end ring hollow. The wife, Embeth Davidtz, will always remind me of "Army of Darkness." ("You found me beautiful once." "Honey, you got real ugly.") That's one reason I couldn't take her seriously. The other is because I simply couldn't believe she was that dense when it came to reading her in-laws.

Other than Adams, the only sort-of bright spot was her husband, played by some guy named Ben McKenzie. Apparently he's a big wheel on "The O.C.," but it's probably good that I've never seen that show because I might not have bought him as a dolt who packs plates for a living after knocking up his girlfriend. He was blank in a better way that our man Alessandro.

Like I said, maybe I just didn't get it. I'm sure it's a great look at small-town Carolina, as well as the clash of cultures when people get married. But ... well, it just wasn't that interesting. But who knows, maybe the story will pick up steam in "Junebug 2: Junebug's Bogus Journey."

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Movies come and go, but truly horrible acting is eternal: "Highlander"

Really, what is the deal with Christopher Lambert?

It's a question philosophers have tried to answer for years, much like "Who would win, Blue Thunder or Airwolf?" and "Why do we drive on parkways and park on driveways?" Anyone who has watched a Lambert "performance" can't help but wonder, "Why is this guy so terrible, and how does he keep making movies?"

Sure, Lambert hasn't achieved the heights of, say, Keanu "Whoa" Reeves or Andie "My son is dead! He is DEAD!" McDowell -- perhaps the worst mainstream "actors" of my day. But he's been in a bunch of movies, and I honestly can't figure out why. In fact, the more I learn, the more perplexed I get. Consider, for instance, this tidbit from IMDB: "The patented, intense gaze he often shows in his roles is the result of myopia at an early age." And here I thought he was just trying really hard to remember his lines.

Among Lambert "films," "Highlander" is no doubt the most well-known, achieving a cult status that eventually led to a couple of sequels and a TV series. While I've seen none of the crap that followed, I must claim the original as a guilty pleasure. Well, "pleasure" may be too strong a word. Between Lambert's goofy accent and stilted line readings, "punishment" is more appropriate. Who knew I had such a masochistic streak?

Even those who've never seen "Highlander" -- imagine that! -- know the basic story. Lambert is some kind of immortal from 16th-century Scotland who is taught the ways of sword battle by another immortal, Sean "Gimme My Paycheck, Dammit" Connery. Meanwhile, in modern-day New York, Lambert does battle with our villain, the imcomparable Clancy Brown, while wooing an ancient sword expert (Roxanne "Don't Worry If You Don't Know My Name Since I've Never Been In Anything Big" Hart). The story is told in flashback-flashforward, with the Scotland and New York scenes all mixed up. This is to show us that Lambert and Brown have been playing cat and mouse all through time. Because they're immortal. Get it?

Not sure why I've seen this crappy movie some six or seven times. My best guess is a combination of the following reasons:
1. The idea of guys doing sword battle -- "There can be only one!" -- in New York is funny, mainly because that totally could happen.
2. Connery playing a horribly-dressed Spanish-Egyptian and so obviously mailing in his performance is rather amusing. C;mon ... you were James Bond, man!
3. Clancy Brown has fun with the bad guy role and is one of my favorite supporting actors, and not just because we went to the same college. (Any resume that includes "The Shawshank Redepemption," "Starship Troopers" and "Buckaroo Banzai" speaks for itself.)
4. The group Queen does the soundtrack. Hey, they're half the reason "Flash Gordon" was so good.

So yeah, there's really no compelling reason why anyone should make a point to see "Highlander," which is why it's so weird that so many have. It sure as hell isn't because of Lambert, who can barely speak English; the only other movie of his I've seen is "Knight Moves," and that was because of Diane "I'm Thisclose To Dropping Josh Brolin And Calling My Man Jefferson" Lane. Maybe there really are that many guys out there who like to imagine swinging broadswords around the streets of Manhattan. But like I said, you could pretty much do that yourself if you wanted.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Who knew stars could be so dim?: "Meet the Fockers"

I remember it quite clearly: "Meet the Fockers" and "Ocean's Twelve" were in theaters at the same time, and the missus and I planned to see both of them. After all, we enjoyed their respective precursors so much, with big stars hamming it up and generally enjoying themselves while putting out passable comedies/caper films. Why not see the sequels? How bad could they be?

As it turned out, we missed both at the movieplex, confirming that I indeed am The Smartest Man Alive. You may recall me panning "Ocean's Twelve" a while back, and while "Fockers" isn't quite as bad, it's still a substantial letdown. At least it cost only part of my monthly Netflix fee, not two primetime movie tickets.

As should be clear, "Meet the Fockers" follows "Meet the Parents," with our hero Gaylord "Greg" Focker (Ben Stiller) taking his fiancee (Teri "Nobody Will Remember Me for Anything Else" Polo) and her parents (Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner) to Florida to meet his folks, played by Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand. Talk about star power, huh? That should have been our first warning sign.

After enjoying the banter/battle between Stiller and De Niro in "Parents" -- complete with hugely uncomfortable but thoroughly entertaining scenes -- I was immediately thrown in "Fockers" by the relative civility between the two at the start. Sure, they had made up at the end of Movie One. But the absence of tension at the outset made it hard to accept tension later. Not sure if that makes sense, and really, that's not the point.

The big problem is that everyone from the first movie (a) looks worse than before, (b) seems to be mailing it in or (c) both. Really, Polo creeped me out, mostly because of those bangs. Heck, Danner looked a lot hotter, and she's 60-plus. (No offense to the AARP crowd.) Stiller clearly had make-up caked all over his face, making him look a tad too shiny. I also never bought him being as stressed out and squirmy as in "Parents."

Then there's De Niro, who pretty much tears your heart out by playing along with this crap. The first movie? Sure, especially since we hadn't seen him play a CIA dad before. But twice? Bobby ... c'mon. It's not like you can't get other work. (Of course, he got $13.5 mil for "Parents," so I can only imagine what "Fockers" yielded. But was it enough for your soul, buddy?)

Fortunately, Hoffman and Streisand add a little freshness, and both seem to have fun with their pseudo-hippy roles as Stiller's parents. Rather odd that Babs would choose this role given her tendency to not act much -- six movies in the last 25 years. And it's not like she's doing much heavy lifting here. Still, she's amusing.

As for Hoffman, he's probably the best thing about "Fockers," with his doting dad a bit over the top but mostly believeable. The role could have been a total cartoon, but Hoffman balanced humor and more heartfelt stuff relatively well. Then again, that whole "Ten minutes to Wapner" and "Dad lets me drive slow on the driveway" business got pretty annoying.

Monday, September 19, 2005

On the bright side, you get to have Cinnabon and shoeshines all the time: "The Terminal"

So the missus and I had a less-than-satisfactory experience on our way back from vacation in Costa Rica last week. After catching a puddle-jumper from the beach at the ungodly hour of 6:30 a.m., we arrived at the San Jose airport to find we had missed by a scant 15 minutes the check-in for our 8 a.m. international flight back home. The next flight? Six hours later, at 2 p.m. Yay.

That meant we got to know the San Jose airport for several hours, although nowhere near as long as Tom Hanks' character in "The Terminal." As you may recall, this Spielberg movie very roughly adapts the true story of a man who arrived at a Paris airport only to find he could neither enter France nor return to his native country. As a result, he lived at the airport for years. No word on whether he eventually went crazy hearing the same CNN Airport Network update every half-hour, on the half-hour.

In "The Terminal," Hanks ("Bonfire of the Vanities") is from a fictitious Eastern European nation and gets stuck at New York's JFK Airport when revolution strikes his homeland. Stanley Tucci plays the immigration official keeping Hanks from leaving the airport, while Catherine Zeta-Jones is a flight attendant/love interest. Throw in some zany supporting characters, and hijinks ensue!

The verdict: light and puffy, and only occasionally successful. It was hard to believe "serious" actor Hanks as the immigrant. I suppose the accent was OK, and he makes a decent attempt at giving his character a little depth to go along with the comedy. But it really was all surface stuff, and it probably would have been better had this played as straight comedy vs. some of the tugging at heartstrings from this guy just wanting to go to New York. When we find out exactly why he needs to be there so bad, it's a bit of a letdown.

Neither Tucci nor Zeta-Jones, both fine actors, has more than one-dimension, either, although I will give Spielberg credit for not wholly succumbing to a Hollywood ending. And while the supporting characters could have filled in some of these gaps and given life at the airport more flavor, the main (romantic) subplot is ridiculous, and only one person -- a cleaning guy from India played by Kumar Pallana, best known from various Wes Anderson movies -- is consistently interesting.

I guess when all was said and done, I was just left wanting. Not really more depth, drama, story, etc., but just a more focused movie, probably on the funny stuff. Even when Spielberg does light, i.e. "Catch Me If You Can," he can't help but try to add nuances to the main roles.

As in that movie, I would have been happy with more laugh-out-loud stuff in "The Terminal." It's certainly not bad; heck, Spielberg could film a middle-school production of "Oklahoma!" and make it look sharp. But when you've set the bar high with other stuff, it takes more than star power and well-blocked scenes. On a more positive note, I didn't see one single alien or the other Tom (Cruise) running around JFK.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Not to be confused with a top fisherman, or "master baiter": "The Beastmaster"

Sad to say, some guilty pleasures get a little weird with age. Like Hostess fruit pies, for instance. Who among us didn't enjoy these totally artificial "pastries" as a kid? Yet when I had a craving for one a few years back, I was (a) bowled over by the calorie count in those babies, something like 500 a pie, and (b) somewhat disappointed that the hard shell and gooey, syrupy filling wasn't as good as I remembered. Sure, I still ate the pie -- cherry, because you were dying to know, I can tell -- but a little piece of me died that day.

I mention this because I was pumped to see "The Beastmaster" on HBO a few days ago. Easily one of my favorites in the mid-'80s, when I wasn't even a teenager and it was on HBO for the first time. And I've gotten a kick out of this "classic" since then, always enjoying the unparalled Marc Singer -- he of equally classic "V" fame -- fighting forces of evil in some ancient age with the help of various animal friends.

This last time? Let's say some of the magic has faded. Oh, it's still a fun ride, with the well-oiled Singer swinging his sword around, throwing his little bladed boomerang thingy and wooing Tanya Roberts -- boobies! -- while battling a hilarious Rip Torn as some evil high priest. Then we get the Beastmaster's friends -- a hawk, a couple of ferrets and a tiger spray-painted black. Yeah, really.

Alas, I noticed other things that kind of bummed me out. Like waaaayyy too much skin by John Amos, whom you may recall from "Good Times" ("Junior! Florida!") or "Coming to America" ("Our buns have no seeds"). You know him, you love him. But do you really want to see him in a leather jockstrap? That's what you get in "The Beastmaster," and that's gonna give me nightmares.

Other problems? I mean, aside from an inane story and over-the-top performances? Nothing major, I suppose, but this definitely qualifies as a movie I've outgrown. Yeah, it took 20 years. Give me another 20 and I might outgrow "V."

Thursday, September 15, 2005

I'm back, baby!: A buffet of recaps

That's right, kids. Uncle Jeff is back in the ... what's the word I'm looking for? Ah, yes ... hizzouse. Did you miss me? If it's any consolation, I had a great vacation, and I got some great video of a monkey's balls. (No joke. National Geographic's got nothing on me.)

Since a few movies had stacked up before I went jet-setting, it's time for a few mini-recaps. Don't worry ... we'll get the fully-leaded versions going shortly.

SLAY THIS, BUFFY: "The Grudge"
Really had no interest when this came out last year, but the trailer was creepy enough that I caught it on HBO. Turns out that trailer was dead-on: This is one creepy movie. Basic story is an American girl stumbling into a Tokyo house with one bad history. Definitely some "boo" moments, but overall it's just one of those weird Japanese-flavored films with bizarre, unsettling images, i.e. "The Ring." I'm sure the original Japanese version is far superior -- it usually is -- and this wasn't any great shakes. But the scenes and overall mood were curious and oddball enough to keep me watching, even if Sarah Michelle Gellar doesn't wear anything particularly revealing, much less make out with another girl. Ripoff.

YOU SUCK, AND YOUR EYEBROWS DO, TOO: "At Home at the End of the World"
I really don't know how this ended up in our Netflix queue, but I'm thisclose to writing a letter of complaint. Sure, I technically may have put it in there, but shouldn't there be some kind of warning when a movie sucks so bad? Best I can tell, the missus wanted to see this because it was written by the guy who wrote "The Hours," which me and the fellas always like to watch after cracking open a few beers. Anyway, we're treated to a story of two misfit friends who are sort of gay and drift to and from each other over the course of several years, albeit rather unconvincingly. All you need to know is that Colin Farrell is the biggest name, and he sucks more than usual. I would have rather gargled a box of thumbtacks.

File this under "Obligation Movie," but fortunately it's pretty good. Yes, there are subtitles. Yes, there's a lot of talking, meaning there's a lot of reading. But the story of a guy paralyzed from the neck down who just wants to "die with dignity" is actually somewhat uplifting. The vast majority of Americans still have no idea who Javier Bardem is, but he's incredible playing a fiftysomething guy fighting for his right to die after being paralyzed almost 30 years earlier. No question the (true) story is slow to get going, but for being focused on a guy who spends most of the movie lying in bed, it moves along nicely. Genuine emotion, some humor and a thought-provoking premise ... not a bad formula. Then again, the director, Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar, is only a year older than me and also has done "The Others" and the original "Open Your Eyes" (before it was bastardized as "Vanilla Sky"). So clearly I must hate him.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

It's all in the reflexes: "Big Trouble in Little China"

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Kurt Russell as Jack Burton:

"When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, looks you crooked in the eye and asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: 'Have ya paid your dues, Jack?' 'Yes sir, the check is in the mail.'"

So begins "Big Trouble in Little China," easily one of my all-time favorite mediocre movies.

Russell lays those words of wisdom on us while talking to his CB as his truck rambles down a highway to San Francisco, where a delivery of pigs to Chinatown leads him into the middle of a mess of magic, Chinese gangs and all sorts of other fun. As one of the movie's taglines claims, it's a Mystical, Action, Adventure, Comedy, Kung Fu, Monster, Ghost Story!

As you read in my "Sky High" post, I'm partial to Russell. I also apparently have a soft spot for John Carpenter, director of "Trouble." Those two have teamed up a couple of times; other efforts include "Escape from New York" and "The Thing." Sure, Carpenter is famous for "Halloween," but his lesser-known stuff can be quirky and amusing. Who among us can forget Rowdy Roddy Piper strutting into a bank in "They Live" and announcing, "I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubble gum."

Russell gets similarly good lines here as a trucker who stumbles into some weird sh*t in Chinatown. Best we can tell, some old Chinese dude has kidnapped a woman for a ritual that will make him immortal ... or mortal. Truth is, I never really figured it out. But Russell and his buddy, the woman's fiance, try to rescue her, leading to all kinds of danger and fun. Those two definitely aren't mutually exclusive.

This thing I love about "Trouble" is that Russell has no problem hamming it up, and his "adventure hero" is pretty over the top. He and Carpenter really are a good match, since the director never seems to take a movie seriously, either. You wonder if he made the original "Halloween" now if Michael Myers would be delivering odd quips before taking people out.

PROGRAM NOTE: I'll be on vacation for the next several days, meaning you probably won't see any posts for a week or so. There, there ... I'm pretty sure the world won't stop spinning.

Monday, September 05, 2005

I want your sex ... eventually: "The 40-Year-Old Virgin"

No one can deny that some movie titles just scream "crap." Let's see ... there were the Fat Boys in "Disorderlies," and who can forget Oscar winner Joe Pesci in "8 Heads in a Duffel Bag?" So when I saw the poster for "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," I cringed and thought, "They're going to have to sell me pretty hard on that one."

Well, I'm sold, baby. While it could have been shorter and shown less of the supporting roles, "Virgin" was pretty funny and, yes, even sweet at times. Better yet, it turned the spotlight on someone who has been hilarious as a bit player, giving him a chance to carry the water in a leading role.

I speak of Steve Carell, who did a lot with little screen time in both "Anchorman" and "Bruce Almighty." He also is the lead guy in the U.S. version of "The Office" TV show, which isn't as good as the BBC version but definitely stands above most of the other drivel being peddled as sitcoms these days. And some of you may even remember Carell from "The Daily Show," where his nimbleness -- is that a word? -- in going between deadpan and spastic was impressive.

(If that's not enough, I just learned that Carell is the voice of Gary for "The Ambiguously Gay Duo" cartoons on "Saturday Night Live." Now that's Emmy-worthy stuff, kids.)

Carell nails -- no pun intended -- the whole "old virgin" schtick, and the film does a good job of showing how this actually could happen and how someone could be a virgin that late in life and not be a total social retard. A shy geek, perhaps, but not totally inept. Of course, trying to get laid with the help of three goofball friends ... that's inept.

Like I said, "Virgin" goes on a bit long in tracking the quest to get Carell some action, even if the message -- that sex isn't everything -- does eventually come through. But we get a lot of funny scenes plus -- and this doesn't happen often -- some great little details to illustrate the time warp and innocence that plagues Carell's character. From the superhero collectibles ("They're not f*cking toys! This is Ironman, okay?") to the framed Asia band poster (which I spotted well before it was mentioned onscreen), director Judd Apatow -- the man behind the excellent but short-lived "Freaks and Geeks" TV show -- does a nice job with these subtle touches.

Finally, there's the chemistry between Carell and his love interest, Catherine Keener ("The Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag"). Normally I'm not much of a Keener fan ... she's just too icy for me, playing the b*tch to perfection in "Your Friends & Neighbors," "Being John Malkovich" and "Living in Oblivion." Good actress? Sure. Fun to watch? Not so much.

But here we get Cathy's softer side, and it comes off well. It's not ruining anything to reveal she and our hero end up together, but it's not a cute, clean road, which I respect. Compare that with "Punch-Drunk Love," which was OK but left me wondering exactly why Emily Watson was into Adam Sandler. Here, Keener is more convincing, so much that I actually believed she was cool with dating a guy who rode a bicycle. "Hey, is that a banana seat or are you just happy to see me?"