Monday, June 26, 2006

I'm still ticked Kreese never got his own movie franchise: "The Karate Kid"

Wax on... wax off.

I may have blogged this movie before, but I had the good fortune to catch it again while traveling last weekend. You don't know joy until stumbling across the adventures of Daniel-san and Mr. Miyagi on TCM in someone else's house ...

Fear does not exist in this dojo, does it? NO, SENSEI! Pain does not exist in this dojo, does it? NO, SENSEI! Defeat does not exist in this dojo, does it? NO, SENSEI!

Is there really any argument against "The Karate Kid" being a thoroughly enjoyable movie on multiple levels? Heartwarming story, great mentor-protege dynamic, a romance in which the girl outweighs the boy by 50 pounds ...

What do we study here? THE WAY OF THE FIST, SIR! And what is that way? STRIKE FIRST! STRIKE HARD! NO MERCY, SIR!

And, of course, the villains. We get the first installment of the William Zabka bad-guy trilogy -- this movie, "Just One of the Guys" and "Back to School." But even better than Johnny and his posse is their sensei, the immortal John Kreese ...

We do not train to be merciful here, mercy is for the weak. A man confronts you in the street he is your enemy. An enemy deserves no mercy.

All this means you can't help but root for poor, picked-on, blue-collar Daniel, even if Ralph Macchio was in his early '20s by then. What was it with him and John Cusack, playing high schoolers when they should have been done with college?

You couldn't leave well enough alone, could ya? Now you're gonna pay!

Another question: Why did Pat Morita all of the sudden go with his real first name, Noriyuki , for this movie? Did he want people to forget he was Arnold on "Happy Days?" (Or a former stand-up comic called "The Hip Nip?" Yes, really.)

Man walk on road. Walk left side, safe. Walk right side, safe. Walk down middle, sooner or later, get squished just like grape. Same here. You karate do "yes," or karate do "no."

I'll have to admit that as much as I like "The Karate Kid," I've yet to employ Mr. Miyagi's teachings to my own life. Rather, I tend to make up lessons that sound like something he'd say. "Daniel-san, man who look for trouble find trouble looking for him ... "

Must be take a worm for a walk week!

Yes, he may not have a big role, but did you notice that one of the Cobra Kai guys is Larry B. Scott, aka Lamar Latrelle, the gay Tri-Lam?

Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything.

I jest about "The Karate Kid," but I can safely say that one of my all-time favorite movie scenes is when Daniel-san "gets it." You know what I mean ... when Miyagi shows him that all the work Daniel was doing on Miyagi's house was actually a bunch of karate moves. Seriously, doesn't it make your heart stop every time?

What's the matter, Danielle? Mommy not here to dress ya?

On the other hand, I always feel cheated by not seeing more of the Daniel-Dutch showdown in the tournament quarterfinals. Just as Aryan as Johnny, Dutch was giving Daniel plenty of trouble when, poof, the match ends. What a ripoff.

I want him out of commission

Then again, Dutch would have had no problem sweeping the leg in the semis, and you have to think Bobby's reluctance took a bit off the kick, allowing for Miyagi's magic hands to give Daniel-san a fighting chance against Johnny. (It's also worth noting that I once saw a concert ad in New York featuring a band named "Sweep the Leg Johnny." Technically not accurate, but still awesome.)

Yeaahhh!! Get him a body bag!!

And we close with perhaps the most-repeated line from "The Karate Kid." That Cobra Kai's mania was so stunning -- seriously, Kreese almost said, "Dude, chill" -- you can't get his war cry out of your mind. Sure, some people might say "wax on, wax off" is the signature line. But considering how often you hear someone cackling "body bag" at a fight, you have to admit (cue the music) it's the best ... around! Nothin's gonna ever keep it down! It's the best ... around! Nothin's ever gonna keep it dow-ow-ow-own!!!

Monday, June 19, 2006

Of course, there's no mention of the after-effect of these burgers: "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle"

As someone who has scarfed down many a White Castle -- as well as its Southern cousin, the Krystal -- after midnight, I know the next day ain't pretty. Whew!

I enjoyed this movie quite a bit, and not just because I like little burgers. When it came out, "Harold and Kumar" looked relatively stupid, and I passed on a big-screen viewing. Now, after watching it twice -- the first time in a while a Netflix movie has had that honor -- I consider this a nice combination of "Road Trip" and the lesser-known "After Hours," the Martin Scorsese film from 20 years ago about a normal guy who goes through a series of bizarre late-night experiences while merely trying to get home.

Like that movie, Harold and Kumar just want to go to White Castle after smoking some weed and getting the munchies. It's weird ... theses guys are billed as "two stoner roommates," but they really are fairly typical twentysomethings, it seemed to me. Korean-American Harold Lee is an uptight junior analyst on Wall Street, while Kumar is an ubersmart Indian (dot, not feather) who isn't interested so much in medical school as cruising for a while.

Ah, but how this run to White Castle will change these young men. As they make their way across New Jersey, they run into incontinent college students, a flirty male nurse, their racist X-gamer neighbors, their stoner neighbors, racist cops, a hideous auto mechanic and his hot wife, and a runaway cheetah. Oh yeah, and Neil Patrick Harris, he of "Doogie Howser, M.D." fame, playing himself ... sort of. (He's hilarious. Really.)

So you can see how this is no ordinary road trip. But unlike the Tom Green/Stifler movie, these adventures definitely border on the surreal, and that's where I thought the Scorsese movie could be an influence. If you haven't see it, rent "After Hours." It can be a little subtle, true, but I think what Griffin Dunne goes through one night in New York is pretty funny.

As for "Harold and Kumar," the two leads are both likable. John Cho (Harold) was a bit player in "American Pie," and nice to see him getting work beyond yelling "MILF! MILF! MILF!" Kal Penn (Kumar) is new to me but had the brainy yet corrupted Indian thing down. I know a guy like that from college -- never drank beer before getting there, was a sloppy drunk by graduation -- although I wouldn't make a White Castle run with him.

It's also worth noting, as least to me, that while the movie is rife with Harold and Kumar battling ethnic stereotypes and clueless idiots, both guys remind me of white actors. Penn had a Zach Braff thing going, while Cho occasionally called to mind Ron Livingston, aka Peter from "Office Space." "Harold! Whaaat's haaappening?"

Of course, our heroes get some life lessons along the way and are supposedly "changed" by their wild night. But it's best not to dwell too much on that. Instead, enjoy the strange scenes, obligatory -- yet well done -- nudity and the overall odyssey en route to their hallowed ground. Just be warned: You may want to make a White Castle run yourself after watching this. Those burgers taste good going down, but consider the ultimate price the next day. It's not be as bad as taco sh*ts, but pretty close.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Juegas futbol?: "Kicking & Screaming"

That's "Do you play soccer?" in Spanish. No reason for that other than it was one of the many stupid things me and my pal Tex said to each other during a swing through Europe seven years ago. (You should see the photo of us doing battle in the Colosseum. It's awesome.)

I won't spend much time on this recap because, well, this movie sucked. In fact, I very strongly suggest that when it comes to movies titled "Kicking and Screaming," you look a decade earlier and choose the more subtle comedy about recent college grads adjusting to adult life. It's far from perfect, but at least you'll laugh.

OK, OK ... I'll admit I also laughed a little at this "Kicking & Screaming," a "comedy" about Will Ferrell coaching his son's crappy soccer team. But only a little, while spending the rest of the movie wondering if I don't like "Bad News Bears" ripoffs or movies about soccer in general.

Our story has Ferrell, the underachieving son of ubercompetitive sporting goods store owner Robert Duvall, agreeing to coach his kid's team in a league ruled by Duvall's team. This provides opportunities for kids mugging for the camera, Ferrell mugging for the camera, Mike Ditka -- Duvall's neighbor -- mugging for the camera ... a lot of mugging. Did I mention the kids?

Ferrell can be funny, no question. I love "Old School" and have come around to "Anchorman" (even if Paul Rudd has the best lines). But he doesn't get much of a character here, and the attempts to draw out his crazy side -- hey, he's hooked on coffee ... hey, look at that crazy tiger-striped warmup suit -- fall flat.

And then there are the kids. Yeah, it's cute to see misfits make good, but trotting out a bunch of stock characters -- the smartass, the pipsqueak, the foreigners -- is a crutch. I also didn't buy that Ferrell's character and his kid had any familial connection at all. Now if he had taken his kid for a ride in the Red Dragon -- with the restrictor plate off to give it a little more juice -- we'd be getting somewhere. (Hey Mike!)

Monday, June 12, 2006

No, Dad ... that's a "999!" I swear!: "The Omen"

My Wife Scares Me, Exhibit No. 126: Almost 13 weeks pregnant, she wants to go see a movie about a little boy borne from a beast who turns out to be the Anti-Christ and tries to take down his mother when she gets pregnant again. Sounds like great family fun, sweetie! (At least it was a matinee, I guess.)

I've long had a soft spot for the first version of "The Omen," now 30 years old. It seems like "The Exorcist" (which is great) and "Rosemary's Baby" (merely OK) get all the pub when it comes to '60s and '70s horror movies featuring Satan. But for me, "The Omen" had an appeal that could be summed up in two words: good killin'.

Sure, there are other pluses, such as the noble Gregory Peck as the bewildered dad. But any movie that gives us Atticus Finch and a hanging, impaling and beheading ... well, that's worth full ticket price, friends. Even the non-death violence -- attacking baboons and plummeting moms -- is good stuff.

After three decades, there's nothing wrong with remaking a classic horror movie, I suppose. But let's not fool ourselves: If not for the 6/6/6 release date, there's a good chance we wouldn't be telling Liev Schreiber, "I knew Robert Thorn. Robert Thorn was my friend. You, sir, are no Robert Thorn."

Our story has barely changed since the '70s, save for a brief setup that cites 9/11, the Southeast Asia tsunami and Hurricane Katrina as signs from God that the son of Satan has been born. After that, we get the exact same plot: A U.S. diplomat in Rome (Peck/Schreiber) learns his child died during birth, but that mom (Lee Remick/Julia Stiles) doesn't know. Fortunately, there's another newborn boy at the hospital, and Dad claims him as the couple's own.

A few years later, when Dad is the ambassador to Great Britain and the family lives in London, strange things start to happen. And by strange I mean "fatal." We get an unstable nanny, her questionable replacement, a grief-stricken priest and a photographer worried about his own fate in all this madness. Meanwhile, Mom and then Dad really start wondering why little Damien is so quiet and creepy.

This virtual shot-by-shot remake left me with mixed emotions. On one hand, it's still a nice little story, with the detective work on who/what Damien is broken up by some gruesome deaths. As this is the 21st century, the gore is pushed a bit further, and it's safe to say each slaying measures up its predecessor.

But beyond that, I was left wanting. The cast is one reason. Schreiber and Stiles, while capable actors, simply can't fill Peck and Remick's shoes. Peck especially is a tough act to follow, with his regal bearing thrown off-kilter by having raised the spawn of Lucifer. The other characters are pretty much a wash -- David Thewlis coming up a bit short to David Warner as the photographer, Mia Farrow slightly better than Billie Whitelaw as the replacement nanny who likes Damien a tad too much. (Yes, the same Mia Farrow who was the mother of "Rosemary's Baby." Ah, the irony.)

Another big drawback, which may seem to contradict the positive I just mentioned, is that the story hasn't changed. Sure, it was good the first time around, but after 30 years, you can shake things up a bit. Otherwise, aren't you just Gus Van Sant doing "Psycho?" This certainly doesn't matter to people who never saw the first "Omen," but those of us who have deserve a little creativity. (And not just Damien playing an xBox and the photographer using a digital camera.) Maybe if the prophecy had been revealed in a Sudoku puzzle or something ... yeah, that's it.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Speaking of maps, I think Palookaville is just a few miles past Chumpsburg: "On the Waterfront"

Here's one of those classics that I Tivoed 2-3 times -- then erased when something better, like "Iron Eagle," came around -- before buckling down this week and watching it. I know ... and I call myself a movie buff. But there's nothing wrong with having seen more movies starring Michael Ironside than Marlon Brando. (All together now, as low as you can go: "That was some of the best flying I've seen yet ... right up to the part where you got killed.")

Anyway, everyone knows the big scene from this movie, but let's build up to it, shall we? Brando, a mere babe at 30 years old, plays Terry Malloy, a washed-up boxer mixed up with the mob guys who run the New Jersey docks. Those guys decide who works and who doesn't, and anyone who gets out of line is liable to get dead. In fact, that's what happens early on, and while he doesn't do the deed, Terry is involved, and the guilt eats at him after a while.

The big reason for that: the dead guy's sister, played by Eva Marie Saint. I was about to say I couldn't tell you what else she's been in, but then I saw she was opposite Cary Grant in "North by Northwest." Not bad work if you can get it. In "Waterfront," Saint is a wounded blonde who falls for the boxer, which means she's worried he might get dead, too.

As for the heroes and villains, we get Karl "Don't Leave Home Without It" Malden as a priest who wants to restore peace and dignity to the waterfront; he leans on Brando, who is impressive in his ability to not stare at Malden's nose. Seriously, that is one hypnotic schnoz. You also may recall that Malden and Brando were in "A Streetcar Named Desire," also directed by Elia Kazan. Clearly these guys know how to work together.

The top bad guy is played by an actor I really like, Lee J. Cobb. At first blush -- at least for someone of my generation -- you can't help but think, "Hey, he looks like Frasier's dad!" But he's got more of an edge, both here and in the first movie I saw him in, "12 Angry Men." True, he softened a bit in later years as a cop in both "The Exorcist" and "Coogan's Bluff," but I generally enjoy the menace he brought to the screen in the '50s.

One last actor of note is Rod Steiger, whomI didn't recognize at all but plays Terry's brother, another mob guy. At first he tries to keep Terry in line, but he eventually comes to realize that Terry has a conscience and can never get over giving up his dreams -- nay, his life -- for the mob. This comes while the two ride in the backseat of a car delivering Terry to his doom. Here's the dialogue, in all its glory:

Charlie: Look, kid, I - how much you weigh, son? When you weighed one hundred and sixty-eight pounds you were beautiful. You coulda been another Billy Conn, and that skunk we got you for a manager, he brought you along too fast.

Terry: It wasn't him, Charlie, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, "Kid, this ain't your night. We're going for the price on Wilson." You remember that? "This ain't your night"! My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palookaville! You was my brother, Charlie, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money.

Charlie: Oh, I had some bets down for you. You saw some money.

Terry: You don't understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it. It was you, Charlie.

You know it, you love it, even if you haven't seen the movie. And I gotta say ... it works. It's a pretty good scene in context, and Brando definitely had the chops to pull it off.

Sure, "Waterfront" drags a bit in the first hour, when you're waiting for Terry's crisis of conscience to kick in. But right about the 70-minute mark -- just before the famous "contender" scene -- you're rewarded with both action and suspense, and all the players pull their weight.

Now I'm curious whether people think this is Brando's best scene and movie ever, or if "Stellaaaaaaaaaah!" in "Streetcar" wins out. Or "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse" in "The Godfather." (Although I dig "You can act like a man!") Or "You're an errand boy ... sent by grocery clerks ... to collect a bill" in "Apocalypse Now." Or when he and that little dude wear matching outfits while playing their pianos in "The Island of Dr. Moreau."

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Rand McNally's got nuthin' on me. I'm all over the map

Another roundup of multiple movies, mainly because I'm not sure any warrants a full post. (This from the guy who devoted several paragraphs to "Lord of the G-strings.")

Heroin good company: "The Panic in Needle Park"

Not sure why, but this always stuck in my head as a must-see. Now I realize it's because it was the last big role for Al Pacino before Michael Corleone came calling and started his amazing 1970s run. Take a look ... "Serpico," "The Godfather: Part II," "Dog Day Afternoon" ... not bad, not bad at all. "Panic" was a worthy launching point, too.

Pacino plays a heroin addict/dealer in New York's Upper West Side who brings his girlfriend down into the dumps with him. Did you ever see "Requiem for a Dream?" This isn't as stylish and doesn't have the diet pill plot, but it's a pretty stark look at people hooked on junk. (That's what they call heroin on the street. I've seen "The Sopranos.") We get needles in arms, strung-out junkies and the inevitable "addicts will do anything -- anything -- to get money for a fix."

I have no idea if movies before "Panic" showed drug addiction in such a brutal light, but regardless, it's a solid film. Pacino is good -- slick at times, wasted at others -- but I was more impressed with his girl, played by someone named Kitty Winn. Not sure I'd ever seen her, but she nails the part of innocent turned to the dark side just because she's in love. Looks like she didn't do much after that, though. That's where drugs will get you, sweetheart.

Dam if you do, dam if you don't: "Northfork"

I watched this just because it was shot near Great Falls, Montana, which I visited a couple of times for work a few years back. Never saw any film crews, but hey, Montana is a big place.

Released in 2003, "Northfork" was made by the Polish brothers, the guys who brought you -- and starred in -- "Twin Falls, Idaho," a moody, quirky tale of conjoined twins. Here they give us a moody, quirky tale of a doomed town. A group of men in the 1950s must clear out the residents of Northfork before a dam is built, forming a lake over the area. Meanwhile, a sick little boy has weird visions while hovering between life and death.

The cast is impressive: James Woods (whom you don't see much these days, it seems), Nick Nolte, Daryl Hannah, Anthony Edwards ... well, maybe that's not "impressive," but the cast isn't bad, I'll just say. I mean, we also have Jon Gries, who may be Uncle Rico to you but will always be Lazlo Hollyfeld to me. (You know, from "Real Genius." Love that movie. Kilmer needs to do more comedy, and I don't mean "The Island of Dr. Moreau.")

As for the movie overall ... eh. It seemed to be all mood and atmosphere and not much story. I'm not saying I need car chases and CGI dinosaurs, although that would have been cool in 1950s Montana. But I don't dig heavy-handed style without a sense that real stuff is happening. It was the same thing with "Twin Falls," but at least then we had conjoined twins. Ewww, gross!

Nipples? We don't need no stinkin' nipples!: "Batman Begins"

I weighed in on this after seeing it in the theater last year, and it was just as good the second time around on HBO. Seriously, what an intelligent "comic book" movie, and proof that you can tell a grown-up superhero story without pandering. (Although, technically, Batman isn't a superhero. Gadgets and ninja training aren't really superpowers, Bruce.)

While there was little chance this movie would be worse than the last installment of the previous "Batman" franchise -- Clooney can't stop making fun of his part -- who knew "Begins" would be better than all of those movies? We get a much deeper look at what led orphaned heir Bruce Wayne into crime-fighting and how he got all his toys, and there's generally a much stronger sense of purpose and dueling philosophies at stake vs. "Hey, that Joker is nuts!"

My criticisms are only minor quibbles. Michael Caine might have had too much screen time as the butler Alfred, but then again, it's nice to see that role and relationship with Bruce Wayne fleshed out. Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman are capable of so much more, but they filled their roles as Wayne's tech guy and police officer Jim Gordon just fine. Otherwise, I liked the variety of bad guys and how they were linked, and thought the story, if long, was entertaining.

That leaves the girl, and ... well, why waste time on Katie Holmes these days? All I'll say is this: Sure, it might be because she's a beard for Mr. Crazy, but I don't really think she's all that cute anymore. Back in the Dawson days, woof. Now, I'm feeling an Ellen Barkin, "eyes too far apart" thing from her. Maybe I should watch "The Gift" again and see if that changes my mind.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

C'mon, you're telling me they couldn't get Danny DeVito to narrate?: "March of the Penguins"

My Wife Surprises Me, Exhibit No. 71: A few minutes into this movie, she said "Those penguins walk like Vito," the gay mobster from "The Sopranos." That's awesome.

Normally a documentary with a high cute factor wouldn't appeal to me, especially since I try to limit my Morgan Freeman-narrated movies to "The Shawshank Redemption." I must admit I didn't think much of these penguins first time I laid eyes on them. Looked like a stiff breeze would blow them over. That was my first impression.

"March of the Pengiuns" is a painstaking look at how penguins procreate, plain and simple. Over the course of 80 minutes (the perfect length for my better half), we see how emperor penguins of Antarctica trek from the sea to their breeding ground, then mate and care for their offspring -- first as an egg, then as a chick. Unfortunately, there's no bowm-chicka-BOWM-bowm music during the getting-busy part. Geez, people, lighten up a little.

Of course, we've all seen pictures of penguins and think they're funny and cute and all that. What we may not realize is that they live in a brutal place, and it's nothing short of amazing to consider a creature keeping the circle of life going amid sub-freezing temperature, punishing blizzards, etc. As funny as the penguins look marching single file to their breeding ground, you have to feel for them as they huddle together in the dead of winter. "All right, Fred, I've been on the outside long enough! Let me into the middle!"

Also interesting are the respective roles of the penguin parents. Without going into detail, let's say that both mom and dad get the shaft at different times, going hungry while bringing up baby. As for the chicks themselves, they're kind of weird looking but provide plenty of "awww ... " moments as they try to make their way in the cold, hard world.

If you don't already respect documentary filmmakers -- at least those who don't bludgeon you with opinions like Michael Moore -- "Penguins" should change your mind. That these Frenchmen would spend so much time tracking these animals and hunkering down in the heart of winter is pretty impressive. The end credits provide quick looks at how they shot some scenes, but even before then it's clear this is a labor of love, and the combination of wide-angle and up-close shots is amazing.

While this certainly is fun for the whole family, be forewarned that the harshness of the land means not every penguin -- adults and newborns -- makes it to the end alive. But that's OK because the cycle begins anew each fall. All we can do is support the next group as they march across the frozen desert. I hope they can make it across the border. I hope they can see their friends, and shake their hands. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in their dreams. I hope.