Monday, October 30, 2006

The next thing you know, they'll want to be able to vote: "North Country"

Funny how I missed this one in theaters. Usually I'm up for a couple of hours of pure shame at simply being a man.

Actually, I might have gone to see "North Country" with My Eternal Beloved if she hadn't caught it with a friend. You know women ... always sticking together. Just as well, since the sight of Charlize Theron in anything but "Monster" is enough to trigger the auto-drool. She's on the list. Oh yeah. (Yes, I'm aware of the irony in my neanderthalic words here.)

Our story has Theron as a single mother of two who has left her abusive boyfriend and headed home to northern Minnesota -- a hard land if there ever was one. I'm reminded of what my dad was once told about Dodge City, Kansas: It's not the end of the world, but you can see it from here.

As you might guess, there aren't a whole lot of opportunities for a thirtysomething woman in the boonies. But wait ... the old coal mine is now hiring women! Great pay, decent benefits and the added bonus of nonstop ass-pinching. Hell, Charlize says, where do I sign up?

This is based on a true story, and it's not hard to believe given the, ahem, traditional nature of the menfolk, including Theron's dad. Actually, the womenfolk aren't much better, with even the female employees at the mine inclined to suck it up and turn the other cheek instead of pushing for decent treatment. Sadly, we get to watch Theron endure physical and emotional abuse from pretty much anyone with a penis over the course of a couple of hours. It's a hoot, let me tell you.

"North Country" offers a good supporting cast: Richard Jenkins (the dead dad in "Six Feet Under") and Sissy Spacek as Theron's mom and dad; Frances McDormand as her friend, a mine veteran; Sean Bean -- with American accent! -- as McDormand's husband; Woody Harrelson as Theron's would-be suitor and lawyer; and Jeremy Renner as the main harasser at the mine and Theron's former high school boyfriend. Also solid in smaller roles are "that guy" Xander Berkeley as the mine office manager and Michelle Monaghan as an even younger, prettier female employee who gets her fair share of abuse. All in all, good actors and decent performances.

Theron's good, too, although not as impressive as in "Monster," which I still don't believe actually featured her, but rather some bizarro skank who crawled out from under an overpass. Even so, she hits the right notes of suffering and defiance in "North Country," which also captures the sense of desolation and bleakness that must prevail in this region.

Good acting, good scenery, gut-wrenching story ... so this is a slam dunk, right? Eh, not quite. A few of the transformations in the men from uncaring or unwilling to understanding didn't ring true. At the same time, a couple of the villains were more two-dimensional than I have to think they were in the real-life case. So yeah, the men ... not the best roles.

The women certainly fare better, from McDormand's seen-it-all attitude to Spacek's dutiful wife. And Theron probably deserved the Oscar nomination she got here, if only for tackling that Minnesota accent. Had she just thrown in a "you betcha!'" here and there, she could have taken home her second statue.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Who doesn't love a sci-fi double feature?

Calm down, though. It's not like we're talking "Flash Gordon" and "Starship Troopers." (Although that would be awesome, no question.)

No, as luck would have it, I managed to experience a couple of science fiction classics recently. One a bonafide classic, the other a classic because, well, it sucked eggs at legendary levels.

And you thought Bruce Campbell made those words up: "The Day the Earth Stood Still"

It had been so long since I had seen this gem made way back in 1951 that I couldn't remember if I ever saw the ending. Didn't matter, though, because this movie -- even with the flying pie pan and rubber robot costume -- holds up well in the 21st century.

Our story has the entire planet monitoring a UFO that eventually touches down in Washington, D.C. As the world waits, a giant silver robot emerges, followed by a regular sized guy wearing a round helmet. In classic hostile human fashion, a jumpy solider shoots the guy, briefly spurring the robot to zap a few soliders' guns. Fortunately, the injured man shuts the robot down and is taken to a hospital.

We learn the alien man is Klaatu, and his big buddy is Gort. Klaatu has an important message to share with all of Earth, but our silly Cold War politics prevent a global summit. So Klaatu sneaks away, hangs out in a boarding house -- befriending a woman and her boy -- and finds his way to a scientist with the help of that spunky lad. Meanwhile, the government threatens to close in. Will Klaatu convene the best minds of our day before being captured? Can he keep Gort on a leash? Will he squeeze in a quickie with that single mom before heading back to the stars? Questions ... many questions.

Starting with the novelty of a Cold War, much about "Day" is hopelessly dated. Yet the theme of stupid humans beating on each other for no good reason, and the chance that more intelligent beings are watching and shaking their heads, still endures. The movie also is just a great snapshot of the paranoia of the era.

In addition, there's a great performance by Michael Rennie as Klaatu. Can't say I've seen him in anything else, but he brings the right air of above-it-all intelligence to the alien role. When he says stuff like "I merely tell you the future of your planet is at stake" and "It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder," it's pretty convincing and not at all grandiose. That's not easy to pull off. All in all, a classic worth seeing.

Fortunately, no couches were jumped during the filming of this "movie": "Battlefield Earth"

When I logged on to the blog tonight, I saw that the number of posts is approaching 300. So forgive me if I forget whether I ever posted my thoughts on this John Travolta travesty after an earlier viewing. I knew I had seen it before, but it's entirely possible that I erased the memory from my mind.

Strike that. I fully recalled how silly this sci-fi mess was and thought it would be just as laughably bad the second time around. That's not the worse idea I've had, but thinking that Alison Levy would actually go out with me in college was genius by comparison.

We open with Earth in the year 3000, when a handful of humans live like savages far from the cities. That's because, as we learn, the planet has been conquered by aliens called Psychlos, who are tall, have big foreheads and pointy eyebrows, wear a lot of leather and are generally unsavory folk. You know, like Goths, only less scary. (Yeah, really.)

As lumbering and bumbling as they are, the Psychlos, we're led to believe, have taken over the planet to plunder its gold and other valuable resources. One supposedly shrewd Psychlo, Terl (yep, Travolta) decides to capture some humans -- "man-animals" -- and put them to work mining gold. Unbeknownst to him, man-animal Jonnie Goodboy Tyler is a sly one, and the Psychlos make the mistake of educating him even more, well-positioning Jonnie to lead a revolt.

Jonnie is played by Barry Pepper, who actually can be good -- he was Roger Maris in 61*. Otherwise, we get Forest "Dear God, what have I done?" Whitaker as Travolta's Psychlo sidekick and a host of relative unknowns as everyone else. Gee, were Streep and Nicholson busy?

In short, everything you've heard about this is true, from the unbearable dialogue to the unacceptable lapse in logic, i.e. fighter jets unused for 1,000 years able to fly just like that. Like I said, it's amusing the first time around, like any hopeless mess. But learn from my mistake and don't think this could be some kind of cult classic. Instead, let's more down the list of stinkers and find something new. "Hello, Netflix? Get me 'The Adventures of Pluto Nash,' stat!"

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Know when to walk away, know when to run ... fast ... and far: "Two for the Money"

Not sure I've ever seen a movie in which the big names looked so frightening. And I've seen "Kingpin" multiple times.

First you have oily Matthew McConaughey, who I know is supposed to be good looking and all that but came across as a hick surfer dude, then as a greasy snake. Has he ever been in a movie in which he wasn't sweating? Ever since "A Time to Kill" set the standard, I guess ...

Then we have Al Pacino, who not only looked silly with his bottle black hair and little goatee but also seemed tired and worn out. Even his contractual over-the-top scenes didn't have much zip, and after a while I just became depressed at seeing him on screen.

Not as depressed, however, as when Rene Russo showed up. Yikes. No question we're all getting older, but she still looked hot just six years ago -- when she was 45 -- in "The Thomas Crown Affair." Did some nudity and everything. Now that she's topped 50, well, let's say 10 pounds of makeup hides only so much. Yes, I'm a sexist sh*t. Sorry.

The plot: McConaughey is a former football stud who gets hurt but finds he can pick winners for gamblers with extraordinary accuracy. That leads Pacino to recruit him for his gambling hotline/TV shows/advice empire. Off to New York Matty goes, where he flirts with Pacino's wife, Russo, while being shaped into the franchise guy he never could be as a football player.

"Two for the Money" apparently is based on a true story, and I guess it's somewhat unique. It's also occasionally entertaining to see our hero's legend grow, knowing that a hard fall is coming. And I'll admit that the scene with Pacino holding court at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting, is pretty good. You've got big ones, sir, I'll give you that.

Otherwise ... not much here. My sympathy for any of these characters was zero, and even the short side plot of a client who strikes it rich and then loses it all as McConaughey's fortunes plummet wasn't that interesting. By comparison, "Boiler Room" was much more compelling, and I still can picture that hapless guy coming unraveled and having to face his wife. My bad, honey.

Yeah, I'd say in the end this movie was pretty disposable and didn't do much to raise my estimation of Mr. McConaughey. "Lone Star" way back in the mid-'90s was good, and I liked his bizarro turns in the otherwise disappointing "Reign of Fire" and "Frailty" -- not his line, but I can't resist ... "Only demons should fear me! You're not a demon, are you?" Beyond that, though, the guy hasn't impressed me much in the last decade or so.

Then again, this is Wooderson from "Dazed and Confused," who gave us two lines that work in almost any situation:
1. "That's what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age."
2. (All together now) "All right, all right, all right."

Throw in the time he was found in his home by police playing the bongos in the buff, and it's clear the dude knows how to party. Nothing wrong with that.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The only thing missing were cameos by Willard and Ben: "The Departed"

Big day Sunday. I actually went to a movie. Yeah, in a theater and everything. When did they stop showing newsreels before the main attraction?

I kid, but seriously, it had been a while, and that bugged me, what with the above claims of being a movie fan and all. "Um, yeah, Jeff ... a recap of 'Elektra' doesn't exactly call to mind Pauline Kael, if you know what I'm saying." I know, I know. Fortunately, when My Eternal Beloved took a wee bit ill this weekend, I managed to steal away to see the latest critically-acclaimed Scorsese movie. You know, "Elektra 2: Elektra Boogaloo."

Oh, OK ... it was "The Departed." Our story -- pilfered from the Japanese movie "Infernal Affairs," which has been in my Netflix queue for a while, just so you know -- follows rival rats in the middle of a police department's pursuit of a gangster. Leonardo DiCaprio (from the TV show "Growing Pains") is a Massachusetts State Police officer who inflitrates the mob led by Jack Nicholson ("Man Trouble"). Meanwhile, Matt Damon ("EuroTrip") is rising star in the state police, but also Jackie's boy from way back. Riding herd on different sets of officers are Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin.

Some cast, huh? Throw in Scorsese, and the expectations that we'll get some great acting, rich color and gut-wrenching tension are pretty high. Will Gilbert Grape's brother be exposed as a pig/rat? Will the Talented Mr. Ripley have his cover blown as well? Will the two of them end up in a threesome with the woman shrink they're both seeing/screwing? Will everyone keep their Boston accents the whole two-and-a-half hours? Ooooh, the suspense.

Let's get the most important thing out of the way: This isn't Scorsese's best movie. Saw some blip about that on IMDB and chuckled. Yeah, "GoodFellas," "Taxi Driver," "Mean Streets" ... those sucked. (And don't get me started on "After Hours," which is hee-larious.) But it's definitely worth seeing for the story and the cast.

The story ... come on, doesn't it sound great? Two cat-and-mouse games going on, with a de facto race to see who gets busted first? I just moved "Infernal Affairs" to the top of my queue so I can do a comparison, but I just think this is a cool-yet-basic plot with all sorts of potential, which Scorsese handles well.

The cast ... seriously, take another look. First, this is the first time Scorsese and Nicholson have worked together. So that's something right there. Then you get Damon and Wahlberg -- the rival Bah-ston guys -- mixing it up with DiCaprio, who, say what you will, throws himself into a project. I never thought I'd see that skinny kid from "Titanic" look big compared with other actors, but he's plenty strapping next to the two Beantowners. (Yes, I know Marky Mark is a midget. But Leo was a reed in the big boat flick, remember?)

While the movie drags a bit at 150 minutes or so -- the romance stuff doesn't sing with a bland unknown as the love interest, and Scorsese indulges in some weird, unnecessary scenes with Nicholson -- there's enough gripping stuff to keep you focused. Yes, things get shaky at the end; this may not make sense, but the climax was both messy and neat at the same time. But that doesn't undo the efforts by the main players and the supporting guys, and really ... like anything could be as bloody as "The Age of Innocence." I still get nightmares.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

If you thought the world was laughing at us NOW ... "C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America"

I live in the South, or as some call it, Jesusland. Even if the politics can be warped, there aren't as many cases of the Stars and Bars flying outside homes as you might think. Sure, you'll see a bumper sticker here and there, and the occasional "Rebel Yell" T-shirt. (I keep telling my wife to throw that out.) But it's safe to say that in the 21st century most people have gotten the picture that thrusting a Confederate flag at someone's face isn't that cool.

This, of course, makes the idea behind "C.S.A" intriguing: What if the South had won? I'm sure there have been books on such a scenario, but c'mon ... who reads books anymore? (I kid, but I also think we're 2-3 years away from the Book Reading Channel, where you can sit on your couch and watch someone read a book to you. I'm serious. Mark this date down.)

In "C.S.A.," a film professor from the University of Kansas gives us a fake British documentary on the Confederate States of America, from the time the South won the Civil War -- with the help of the French and Germans, if I recall correctly -- to the present day, where the latest member of a fictional Kennedy-type family is running for president. Along the way, we see what happened to Abraham Lincoln, how the North was brought into the fold, how Canada became a haven for African Americans and an enemy of the C.S.A., and other fun stuff.

Like I said, good concept, and made more fun by the fake ads during the commercial breaks. In these, we get smacked in the face by modern-day inequalities and complete lack of respect for black people. Most of it is in the product names, from Coon Chicken to N!ggerhair cigarettes. It's pretty bold stuff, the kind of parody that makes you laugh and squirm at the same time.

The "documentary" on the C.S.A. isn't bad, although the script is better than the production, which looked a little cheap at several points. But hey, this is a college professor's pet project, and even with Spike Lee's bankroll, you're not going to get "Best in Show" quality.

My biggest problem with the narrative and the fake history came about two thirds into the movie, when we get to the 1960s. Earlier, we learned how Lincoln was imprisoned as a war criminal, then exiled to Canada. OK, that makes sense. But in the '60s, we still get a President John F. Kennedy, who now has a different kind of civil rights mission. Some might say it makes sense to keep Kennedy in the mix given the cry from some for better treatment of slaves. I didn't buy it, though. Just too hard for me to believe that a JFK could emerge in a C.S.A.

Even with those stretches -- and a revelation at the end that was a bit much -- "C.S.A." was interesting, not to mention short enough (90 minutes) that you won't waste much time. There's also a little reward at the end -- sort of a "Huh, how about that?" moment -- that offsets the uneveness immediately before that. I don't want to ruin it for you, but ... what the heck. You know Lincoln? Turns out he was Keyser Soze! I know! Who knew?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

If you see one movie about a clown who robs a bank ... : "Quick Change"

Now this is what cable TV is all about. You're flipping along, considering this classic and that clunker, and you stumble across this nice little gem from when you were a teen. I mean, Bill Murray in clown makeup ... what more could you want? Forget "Inside Man." "Oh, Clive Owen, sooooo serious while robbing his bank." Lighten up, man.

I vaguely recall when "Quick Change" came out, and even then it was mostly without warning. Strange, given that Murray still had some box office clout in 1990. Sure, "Ghostbusters" was six years earlier, and "Groundhog Day" was three years later. But it's not like he dropped off the face of the earth in those nine years. The guy was gold, man! Gold!

Our story has Murray in full clown regalia robbing a Manhattan bank. As we soon learn, he's not in it alone, with goofball Randy Quaid and Geena (Can You Believe I Was Considered Sort of Hot Once?) Davis along for the ride. While the heist goes smoothly, the trio find it hard as hell to make a getaway. Oh, they make it out of the bank just fine. It's getting out of New York that's a problem. Hey, I lived there for two years. I know how it feels.

It's a simple and silly premise, but one that works for the most part. First of all, we get to see the spectacle of a clown just making his way to the bank, with the unforgettable scene of a strip club doorman yelling, "Nude women! Nude women! ... Clowns welcome! Clowns welcome!" And the robbery itself is highly amusing, mainly because Murray gets to drop a bunch of one-liners and have fun with the bank customers and the police chief, played by Jason Robards.

The aftermath of the robbery isn't bad, either, even if it drags here and there while playing out as a series of skits about how crazy things can get in New York. Oooh, here's a guy robbing us! Oooh, here's the Mafia! Oooh, here's a Nazi bus driver! Oooh, here's a woman chanting about death in Spanish! Dude, I saw this stuff everyday on my way home from work.

The performances? Murray is fine. Davis is mildly annoying. Quaid is more annoying. The legendary Phil Hartman has a small role that wastes most of his talents. Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub are slightly better as a gangster and cab driver, respectively. Fortunately, this isn't the kind of movie that includes scenes you FedEx to the Academy, if you know what I mean.

Light and fluffy as it is, though, "Quick Change" is mostly entertaining, and I'll confess to wanting to know how our antiheroes get out of this mess. Sixteen years after the movie came out, I had totally forgotten, and while the finale was way too cute, it wasn't that bad. I was, however, disappointed that Murray didn't try to flee from the cops in a pair of big, floppy shoes. Come on, man ... if you're a clown, be a clown!

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Wild blue yawners? Nope

Since I've been slipping, here's a two-fer.

From Here to Eternity
This classic sat on my DVR list for a good 3-4 months before I buckled down and watched it recently. And that wasn't the first time I had recorded it, either. I have to admit ... it sometimes takes energy to gear up for these movies you should see vs. the ones that aren't meant to be appreciated. I'm a smart guy and all, but I won't deny that zoning out to "Wedding Crashers" for the ninth time is sometime more preferable to plunging into "Citizen Kane."

That said, "Eternity" was easy to watch. I can't say it was one of the best movies I've ever seen -- its Oscars haul is well-known -- but it holds up all right a half-century later, and at the very least is interesting for all the people in it. The most obvious are Burt Lancaster -- he of making-out-on-the-beach fame -- and Frank Sinatra, who won a statue and revived his career with this movie. But I'd rather focus on two other guys:

1. Ernest Borgnine: Not so much his performance -- which is fine as an evil stockade warden -- but the fact that this is the third movie I've seen in recent months featuring Ernie. C'mon, it's not like he's Michael Caine, and he's also not easy on the eyes.
2. Montgomery Clift: Not sure I've seen him in anything before, but he was pretty good here as the co-lead with Burt. Intense, good-looking ... and apparently a world-class f*ck-up in his personal life. I'm intrigued.

Our story takes place in Hawaii before the Pearl Harbor attack, with Clift as a soldier who refuses to fight on his Army company's boxing team, leading to bigtime harassment. Lancaster is his sergeant, who also has a thing for the captain's wife, leading to that famous beach scene. Meanwhile, Ol' Blue Eyes just wants to have fun but eventually runs afoul of Borgnine. Let's just say that Frank doesn't get to do it his way.

Not a bad story, even if parts are dated -- and apparently toned down from the book, i.e. a brothel becoming a social club. As far a the classics go, though, this one didn't feel like homework.

Red Eye
You may recall my post on this when it was in theaters. Now it's on HBO, and with a bare-bones plot that unfolds in less than 90 minutes, also most definitely not homework.

The terminally cute Rachel McAdams is a Miami hotel manager who finds herself next to a seemingly nice enough man, Cillian Murphy, on her Dallas-to-Miami flight. Alas, Murphy has targeted McAdams, forcing her to move a Homeland Security official to another room in her hotel, presumably so he won't be so secure. What's a girl to do? Ask for another pillow?

Normally, you might expect this story to have a twist or two. Not here, and I originally applauded "Red Eye" for that. I still think it's a nice, taut thriller, but a second viewing had me wanting more from director Wes Craven. There was potential with McAdams' dad, played by Brian Cox. But this great actor is pretty much given nothing to do.

No, the focus here is McAdams and Murphy, and they're both solid. She has the initially-confident-then-wounded-but-ultimately-strong thing down, and he's perfectly icy -- suave at first, then scary-cold. (His blue eyes work well in this part.) True, once the story shifts to the ground, it gets kind of silly. But it's not like you're bored, which makes it an enjoyable B-movie. Just don't think about it too much ... or take a second look.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

But I still don't know what a "Dirty Sanchez" is: "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)"

Actually, I do. But let's move on.

Here's another movie I had seen some time ago -- high school, maybe -- and thought was pretty funny. Since I couldn't remember all of it, I figured it was time for another viewing, courtesy of TCM. This is, after all, from Woody Allen's funny period vs. the endless New York angst era. Blah.

Our story isn't a story, but rather a series of vignettes that seek to answer various sex questions. Apparently -- and this is before my time -- there was a popular sex book with the same title. Yeah, written by a real doctor and everything. And here I was wasting my time with "Truly Tasteless Jokes IV."

Anyway, Allen directs and appears in most of the glorified skits, which cover everything from aphrodisiacs to beastiality to cross-dressing to sexual perversions. The scenes also bounce between eras -- medieval, 1950s and today (or the '70s) -- and styles, including a take-off of Italian films. Some are amusing, some are a bit flat. The runaway giant breast, for instance, isn't even that great a sight gag. In general, though, it's fun to see some well-known names get caught up in this fun. I mean, who knew Gene Wilder had a thing for sheep? (Does that make him "Mad About Ewe?" Thank you! I'll be here all week. Try the veal.)

I've reserved the end of this post, though, for the end of the movie, which remains incredibly funny more than 30 years after "Sex" came out. The bit shows us the inside of a man's brain -- and other organs, for that matter -- during a date. You knew it was a complex operation, but did you know Tony Randall is running the show, with the help of Burt Reynolds? You think a guy is capable of getting in a girl's pants by himself?

We also get Woody as a sperm dreading his journey into the great unknown; he rightfully worries about ending up on the ceiling instead of the right place. But I still can't get over Randall and Reynolds being all business in the command center ... er, brain. When you've got Felix Unger ordering an erection, that's comedy.