Sunday, April 29, 2007

You have the right to remain violent: "Hot Fuzz"

Before this very belated post, I need a little help: Which movie looks more hilarious, "Superbad" or "Balls of Fury?" Saw trailers for both over the weekend, and each had me rolling. Hunt then down online and see for yourself.

Now, about "Hot Fuzz." Here's when I decided this movie wasn't merely funny but brilliant.

There's a scene late in the game, when all hell is breaking loose and our hero has just taken down a bad guy in one of those "break a million things" scuffles. The camera zooms in for the one-liner, but it never comes. Kind of surprising, since the story so far had been a solid riff on action movies.

Cut to the next scene, when - amid bullets flying - the hero tells his partner about the fight. The partner asks if he said the exact line I had thought of. The hero says no, but that he had a good line during an earlier fight with the same bad guy.

I mean, when you're pausing in a firefight to talk about good one-liner you should or did say during mayhem, that's gold. Gold, Jerry! And that was just one example of this dead-on parody of/homage to over-the-top action movies, particularly the partner/buddy angle that borders on homoerotica.

"Hot Fuzz" comes from the guys who did Shaun of the Dead, which the simple-minded might say "skewered" zombie movies. That's sells it short, considering how sharp the movie was. Really, sometimes I feel smarter for watching a film that sends up a genre with something more sophisticated than fart jokes. (Not that "Shaun" didn't have fart jokes.)

If "Shaun" was pretty good, "Fuzz" is fantastic. It starts with a classic set-up: The straight-laced stud cop (Simon Pegg, aka Shaun) -- so good he makes everyone else look bad -- is cast out from London to a small village, where he ends up partners with a screw-up (and the police chief's son), played by his pal from "Shaun" (Nick Frost). This leads to some magical chemistry that I haven't seen since Maverick and Goose mastered the over-under high five all those years ago.

Pegg is a little guy but pulls off the hardcase role well, while the flabby Frost is an earnest lapdog, aching for some real action like in the movies. We also get a lot of famous -- well, famous in England -- faces in supporting roles: Jim Broadbent, Timothy Dalton, Bill Nighy, Paddy Considine, Steve Coogan, Martin Freeman, Stephen Merchant, Cate Blanchett. Yes, that's right ... Cate Blanchett.

What starts as a wry homage to those movies graduates midway through to a full-on parody, but the players still are aware of what's being spoofed. It's hard to explain, but the scene I mentioned earlier really sums it up. The easy joke is to ham it up the whole time, and yes, there are all sorts of gratuitous explosions and rampant silliness. But there's also a cleverness that you just don't see in a Will Ferrell vehicle. Make sense? Probably not.

In any case, I can't recommend this highly enough. I'll see it again at some point, and I also can't wait to see what the next target is after these guys have taken on zombies and action heroes. Maybe they can try a two-fer, combining a period piece -- think "Sense and Sensibility" -- with science fiction. After all, some of those corsets already make parts of a woman's anatomy defy gravity.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Frozen dunderheads: "Blades of Glory"

You know how I feel about Will Ferrell. He's like one of those hot dog cannons in sports arenas. Used correctly, it's a source of great amusement. Used incorrectly and ... well, it's not pretty.

For "Old School," there's "Kicking and Screaming." For "Anchorman," there's "Superstar." Heck, I didn't think "Talladega Nights" was that funny, but I did find Ferrell's turn in "Melinda and Melinda" midly interesting. In short, a mixed bag, although I usually find Will works best when playing off somebody, not carrying the show all by himself.

"Blades of Glory" walks a line between those two realms. Ferrell tops the bill, but he gets a partner in Napoleon Dynamite, aka Jon Heder. The two play figure skating rivals who are banned from single competition after fighting during an awards ceremony. Ferrell, the bad boy (male Tonya Harding), ends up working a kiddie ice show, while Heder, the goody-two-shoes (male Nancy Kerrigan) gets a job at a skate shop. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. But wait! There's a loophole that would allow the disgraced skaters to compete once again. How? Why, as a pairs team, of course! Let's get zany, shall we?

While the story won't be confused with anything by Mamet, it does allow for some amusing scenes. The movie actually starts off quite well, showing us the polar-opposite backgrounds of Ferrell (Chazz Michael Michaels) and Heder (Jimmy MacElroy). It's really pretty funny, even if Ferrell isn't breaking a sweat. "Out-of-shape, dim and cocky? Yeah, I think I can do that." Still, I found myself laughing at him more as a skater than as a race car driver.

"Blades" also benefits from the bad-guy pair of Will Arnett and Amy Poehler, who are husband and wife in real life and play a brother-sister skating duo here. Their various themes and pampered life were great; I mean, "Stranz and Fairchild Van Waldenberg?" Come on. The downside: Their best performance -- JFK and Marilyn Monroe -- wasn't shown live, but as a recap. Hey, you gotta show that thing in its entirety.

As for the overall satire, the movie seemed to be spot-on most of the time, and including real skating legends was a nice touch. Ferrell-as-sex-addict and Heder-as-neat-freak also made for amusing moments. In the end, this certainly doesn't qualify as comedy gold, but it was entertaining enough that I could watch without wincing at Ferrell in tights. Well, wincing too much.

Friday, April 20, 2007

What would Henry say?: "Klute"

I'd say this was meant to be the shocking side of Jane Fonda -- after all, she plays a hooker -- but that would dismiss the whole "Barbarella" thing. Not that dismissing "Barbarella" would be a bad thing, mind you.

"Klute" is one of those movies from the '70s that nobody ever seems to talk about -- as opposed to, say, "Five Easy Pieces" -- because it doesn't have an iconic scene or memorable quote. Sure, our girl Jane is sassy as a call girl trying to make good in New York amid a missing person investigation. But it's not like she delivers a "We'll always have Paris" line. The most memorable scene is the one that Fonzie mentions in "Night Shift": Fonda looking at her watch while faking the time of her life during a trick. Not exactly something you see on an AFI Top 100 list, is it?

Our story actually starts in Pennsylvania, where a decent, hard-working family man has gone missing. As it turns out, a call girl in Manhattan may be connected, and a fellow named John Klute (Donald "Heaven Help Us" Sutherland), who worked with the man, decides to investigate. That leads him to the Big Apple and Fonda's front door, and the sparks fly. Meanwhile, someone keeps breathing heavy on the other end of Jane's phone line. And he didn't even pay her!

It's not a bad little suspense movie, even if it pokes along in places. That pacing is deliberate, of course, with all sorts of "OK, now what's going on?" moments. Makes sense, considering the director was Alan J. Pakula, who later made "All The President's Men" (which everyone knows) and "The Parallax View" (which many don't, but it's a solid thriller). The paranoia is less political here than in those movies, and it generally works well.

As for the leads, Sutherland is fun to watch simply because he's so young and earnest -- not in a "Leave It to Beaver" way as much as a "Dragnet" way, i.e. "Just the facts, ma'am." Of course, that doesn't keep him from sampling Fonda's wares.

Ah yes ... Fonda. Well, I can't say she's convincing as a call girl. Even with the swearing and sexy talk, there's still too much girl next door in her. And come on ... she doesn't even give us any real nudity. In one scene, there's the obligatory naked back shot, followed by a tight shot of her front that a nipple might have sneaked into. Then there's another scene in which she's topless for some time, but we're watching from a distance, with plenty of shadows. I know she won an Oscar for this, but I gotta say, she didn't earn it nearly as much as Halle Berry did in "Monster's Ball" or Holly Hunter did in "The Piano." Now that's showing us the goods.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah: "Waking Life"

Yeah, it's a little talky.

Of course, you may recall how Richard Linklater got his start. Remember a little movie called "Slacker?" You know, about people just walking around and talking, with the camera following one person to another to another? Sounds like a neat trick, but gets old after a while? Yeah, that's it. Turns out "Waking Life" is another version of that, this time with kooky animation instead of no-name actors. (Although some of the animated folks are plenty no-name themselves.)

You also may remember that "Waking Life" got pretty good reviews when it came out in 2001. That wasn't enough for me to shell out good money for what sounded like a bunch of weirdness, but I figured it was worth a shot on cable. After all, "Dazed and Confused" is solid -- "All right, all right, all right" -- "School of Rock" is good mainstream comedy, and I even confess to liking both "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset." Yes, I have had my balls removed. What of it?

Alas, "Waking Life" didn't register with me as the more accessible Linklater fare. Our story follows a kid as he meanders from scene to scene, apparently in a dream state, and sometimes with breaks to watch other people talking at each other. Oh, and there is talking. Lots of talking. Tons of talking. Did I mention the talking?

Amid the different degrees of animation -- some rough around the edges, other eerily resembling normal humans -- we listen to people pontificate on things, life, what-not. But get this, apparently the whole movie was shot and edited into a complete live-action version before the animation. Why? Hey, why not? F*cking Linklater.

Anyway, with the talking ... some of it actually isn't too bad. Yeah, these people are just spouting bullsh*t that sounds important, kind of like my pal John and his friends did during his several years of college. But you know, that's not far removed from Pinto talking about how there could be a whole universe in his fingernail, and that our universe could be in someone else's fingernail. Hey, can I buy some pot from you?

Like I said, all the ruminating and dream sequences get old after a while, but I'll admit the movie is enough of a curiosity that I can't totally regret sitting through it. Some scenes, not so bad. Others, pretty dumb. Do I feel enlightened overall? Sure, but no more than from a fortune cookie. And I get that free with my Kung Pao Chicken.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Back when he was merely irksome, not insufferable: a Jack Nicholson double feature

We know him now as the foremost ham at the Oscars and scenery-chewer extraordinaire. But have you ever gone back to Jack Nicholson's older films to study the road to today's pomposity? After scattered viewings over the years of a few of Ol' Jack's earlier works -- "Easy Rider," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Carnal Knowledge," "Chinatown," even the original "Little Shop of Horrors" -- I recently knocked out a couple of other movies that have contributed to Mr. Eyebrows' legacy.

(Note: I actually like Nicholson just fine. "Chinatown" and "Cuckoo's Nest" both are pretty good, and it's hard to resist his roles in "The Shining" and "A Few Good Men." Heck, I even thought "Wolf" wasn't bad. But I think we can agree that Jack's gotten a bit annoying in recent years, and not just in "Anger Management.")

One difficult story: "Five Easy Pieces"

Here's one of those so-called classics, complete with a legendary scene, that left me with a great big "So that's it?" feeling. Talk about being disappointed.

Maybe I'm being too hard on this movie, but it mostly struck me as another one of those brooding 1970s mood pieces. Nicholson is a former classical pianist now slumming it on oil rigs or something like that. His woman wants him to settle down, but he doesn't go for that. Then he has to go home for a family emergency, and we get some insight into who he is and how he doesn't fit in. What a rogue.

You know what? Big deal. Seriously, it's clear that "you had to be there" in the '70s for this movie to make sense. Otherwise, I'm left with a few decent scenes of Nicholson defying the norm -- including the famous "I want you to hold it between your knees" scene in a diner. Like I said, it could be me, but in the end, I just didn't get it.

Yet no explanation of how they got on the Cracker Jack box: "The Last Detail"

This one doesn't get as much praise as "Pieces" or other early Nicholson, but I had heard of it, and my handy DVR rating guide gave it three stars. That's perhaps a bit generous, but at least stuff happened in this movie.

Here, Jack is a Navy guy who, along with another officer, is ordered to transport yet another Navy guy to prison for some BS offense. This makes for a road picture of sorts, with Nicholson intent on showing the young prisoner (a startlingly boyish Randy Quaid) a good time before he goes behind bars. As you might guess, hijinks ensue.

The education of young Quaid makes for some entertaining scenes and some nice life lessons. It also allows Nicholson to ham it up, which I guess works OK for the role. After all, his character's nickname is "Bad Ass." Also of note in "Detail" are Clifton James, character actor extraordinaire, including as Sheriff J.W. Pepper in two James Bond movies; a very young Michael Moriarty as a Marine officer; and Carol Kane as a hooker.

Yes, Carol Kane as a hooker. (Technically, "Young Whore.") Perhaps you recall her as the ugly crone married to Billy Crystal in "The Princess Bride" or the babysitter in "When a Stranger Calls." Before those roles, though, she showed a little skin here, and I gotta say, it was disorienting. There I was, thinking, "Is that Carol Kane?" Then, boom, we see her post-coitus with Quaid. Now there are two people I never expected to see naked in bed together. Nor wanted to, really.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The games people slay: "Doom"

Yeah, not too proud of myself here. What can I say? I saw this "movie" was on at 11 p.m. one night and figured, "When else am I going to watch such dreck?" The answer, of course, should have been never-ever-ever.

Correspondingly -- a big word, I know -- we'll waste little time recapping the video-game-turned-feature-film. "Doom" gives us a team of soldiers dispatched to see what's up on a Martian research outpost, where one of the soldiers' sisters also happens to be a scientist. Seems some brainiacs have gone missing, and spooky things are afoot.

Leading the team is Sarge, played by The Rock, who showed a little promise in "The Rundown" and has since mostly crapped the bed. The other soldier of note is played by Karl Urban. Why of note? Two reasons: (1) He's the guy with the sister, played by the icy-yet-juicy Rosamund Pike. (2) Late in the movie he's the guy behind the "shooter-cam," a point-of-view technique that allows us to feel like we are shooting bad guys. Ooooh, cool!

I probably should confess -- or boast, your call -- that I've never been a video gamer. The last time I spent hours and days playing a game was Super Marios Brothers 2 on Nintendo -- I think whatever the second generation was called. As an adult, however, I've eschewed the xBox, passed on the PlayStation, waved off the Wii. I don't know ... just never cared for it. Fine if it's your thing, but it doesn't twist my nipples.

As a result, "Doom" probably was never for me, and the general idiocy of the proceedings doesn't help. Pretty much throughout the whole movie I was thinking of "Alien," "Aliens" and other, far superior "monsters picking off people one by one" flicks. On the plus side, The Rock fortunately passed on stripping down to his bikini briefs like Ripley before her final battle. Like I needed anything else to leave a bad taste in my mouth.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

If only Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri were cheering on the sidelines: "300"

You know, "Go Spartans!" The Saturday Night Live cheerleaders? Oh, forget it.

So I manage to get away the other night for a movie for the first time in I don't know when; can't be sure, but I think it's only the second and no more than the third since my daughter was born four months ago. In any case, yeah, I'm not going to Ye Olde Cineplex much these days. But I knew if I found the time, "300" would be the No. 1 choice. I was intrigued from the first trailer, and it seemed a natural for the full big-screen experience. So there I was Friday night, finally following through, and ready for some good old-fashioned gore.

Alas, I was disappointed.

I won't say "300" was bad, because it definitely wasn't. But there's no question that between the story, the action scenes and the filmmaking technique, I was left wanting. I came to this conclusion maybe halfway through, and nothing after that point caused me to shift course. As a result, this post may seem negative, but that's only because I expected more.

The plot: With the god-king Xerxes and his rather large army advancing on ancient Sparta, King Leonidas leads 300 Spartans into battle against more than 100,000 Persians and other nefarious types. Against all odds, how can these bravest of brave warriors possibly prevail?

Pretty simple story, huh? And that's pretty much how it plays out. Oh, we get some hand-wringing and consulting of oracles on the front end, and some manuevering during the protracted (read: several days) battle. But in the end, it's a David-and-Goliath story, complete with amputations, decapitations and all sorts of homerotic overtones. (Enjoy this interpretation.)

Now, I liked all the violence and even the little bit of sex. (Nice choice for your queen, Leonidas.) And the overall few-against-all story is good, too. But here are my problems:

1. The best scenes were in the trailer.
My fault, maybe, for ruining things by watching the trailer, but hey, what was I supposed to do? This just seemed to be one of the worst examples of getting everyone's attention by trotting out all the best stuff, good as it was.

2. My kingdom for some color.
I knew going in this was one of those monochrome deals -- essentially black and white with only isolated color, i.e. the red capes of the Spartans. Still, it started to wear on me a while. I had the same problem with "Gladiator," too. While we're in the genre, say what you want about "Troy," but at least there was more than beige and dark.

3. It's Sparta vs. Xerxes ... we get it.
I'm most torn on this. On one hand, I liked seeing all the different stuff that Xerxes' army threw at the Spartans -- the hail of arrows, the big beasts, the giant, the Immortals, etc. On the other hand, it got a little repetitive, and for some reason the various Spartan answers/strategy didn't do much for me. I don't know, maybe it's just me.

In the end, sure, I'll say I liked "300," but not nearly as much, on first viewing, as "Sin City." For a comic book adaptation, that had more style, zip and cool scenes. Could be that "Sin City" had a few interconnected stories instead of one simple plot. Could be the starpower, with Mickey Rourke and Clive Owen among many fun performances vs. a cast of unknowns in "300." Could be that there were more naked women than shirtless, six-packed men. Maybe I'll appreciate "300" more upon further viewings, but it wouldn't hurt if the DVD extras include a little more queen and a little less man love masquerading as the military.

Friday, April 06, 2007

But I still don't know when I should plant my daffodils: "The Constant Gardener"

Here's a surprise: I liked this movie.

Not sure why that is. A surprise, I mean. I just remember not being jazzed about it when it came out. Maybe it was the somewhat dim starpower of Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz. Maybe it was the fact that the British are prominently involved. In any case, I know I wasn't crushed when my wife went to see it by herself, and I recall her saying it wasn't anything great.

(Of course, I could be wrong on both counts -- her seeing it and her report. I've developed a nasty habit of misremembering things these days. But at least I'm not the President or anything.)

Our story has Fiennes, in full polite Brit mode, as a diplomat in Kenya whose young wife, Weisz, helps the poor villagers out with medical stuff. We see in flashbacks how they met and ended up in Africa, and how much trouble Weisz stirred up in trying to protect the exploited natives. All this comes, however, after we learn at the start that Weisz has been killed. So the story really is about Fiennes trying to find out what happened and what his wife was really up to.

I'll admit the story takes a while to get rolling, even with the jumping back and forth and the jiggly camera shots attempting to lend a sense of urgency. Again, maybe the pacing is a British thing. (The director is Brazilian, though, so who knows.) It also could be the way John Le Carre writes. While I haven't seen "The Russia House," I did see and enjoy "The Tailor of Panama," and recall that being a slow starter, too. I guess that's just the thing with espionage.

Fortunately, "The Constant Gardener" -- Fiennes' character is really into his plants -- does amp up the suspense and action in the second half as villains are unmasked, motives are revealed and the stakes become known. Yes, Ralph, there's more to life than your little green things. I especially liked the scenes that showed Fiennes in over his head and trying to play tough, and the climax when the main bad guy is twitching in his seat. Well played, good sir, well played.

A couple of supporting players, Danny Huston and the always enjoyable Bill Nighy, help the proceedings, but really everyone is top-notch, top-notch. As for the two leads, Fiennes was a nice choice for this meek-turned-indignant role. He's so proper that he doesn't fly off the handle even when he's clearly devastated or enraged.

Weisz got more praise and an Oscar for her performance, and there's no question it's her best work ever. I've rarely been impressed by her, but she nails the "I've got secrets" thing here. And she apparently did this while pregnant during some of the filming. Don't believe me? Just check out the IMDB page and the first plot keyword listed. Yeah, "Pregnant Woman Nude." Now riddle me this: Who goes looking for movies that highlight that? "What are you in the mood for, dear?" "Gee, I don't know. Just search for something with a pregnant woman nude ... " "How about a double feature with 'The Seventh Sign?'" It's a strange place, this world of ours.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

If not THE best headline ever ...

This definitely is near the top:

As for quotes, well, what do you say, Keith?

"It went down pretty well, and I'm still alive."

Amazingly, he is. But that's only because he's not of this earth.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

A little more salad and a little less coke would have been good: "Tommy Boy"

I honestly couldn't remember if I had seen the first leading role for jolly Chris Farley when "Tommy Boy" showed up on HBO recently. I know I had seen parts of it. But the carefully-constructed, intricate, Mametesque plot in its entirety? Not sure. But since I just read "Live from New York," the oral history of "Saturday Night Live," it seemed fitting to settle that question once and for all.

As you might know, Farley plays a bumbling idiot -- no! -- paired up with smarmy sidekick and fellow SNL alum David Spade. In this case, Farley is Tommy, the son of the head of an auto parts manufacturer. After a prolonged college experience, Farley comes home to be the heir apparent in his dad's company. Then dad dies, leaving Farley to save the company from enemies -- known and hidden. (Yes, Rob Lowe is involved.)

All this is mostly -- ah, hell, entirely -- an excuse for Farley to stumble, yell and flail away through one scene after another. Spade is around to be snide and snarky, and in addition to Lowe as Tommy's stepbrother we get Brian Dennehy as Tommy's dad and Bo Derek (NOT Raquel Welch as originally posted) as his stepmom.

Farley and Spade make an amusing enough duo, but the comedy here is -- brace yourself -- limited. I mean, I got enough of Farley falling on stuff, bellowing and wearing inappropriate clothes on SNL. When it comes to movies, small doses are much better. (See "Wayne's World" and "Billy Madison.") And from what I hear, "Black Sheep" didn't really provide any redemption.

Of course, this also could be a generational thing. I mean, I think stupid mid-'80s comedies like "Weird Science" and "Better Off Dead" are hilarious because I was in my early teens when they came out. When "Tommy Boy" hit theaters, I was finishing up college. My future was ahead of me, and I prayed that it didn't include a sweatly blob of a man falling all over my furniture. So far, so good.