Saturday, June 30, 2007

He's all growns up, our Wyll Smyth: "The Pursuit of Happyness"

I liked the tagline on posters for this movie: "You WILL cry, dammit!"

(Not saying I did, but hey, it got a little dusty in the den at times.)

I remember the trailer for this movie and thinking I could wait to see weepy will and his cute kid on the small screen. So it was that my wife and I spent Friday watching the trials -- many, many trials -- and tribulations of a determined guy and swell father in early 1980s San Francisco.

We meet Chris Gardner (Smith) as he's hustling around S.F. trying to sell something called a bone density scanner. Basically, he got duped into buying a bunch of these gizmos, and with sales not so good, the family -- him, his real-life kid (Jaden) and on-screen wife, Thandie Newton -- is struggling with cash. But then Chris hears about a chance to become an intern at Dean Witter, and maybe, just maybe he can make it as a full-time stockbroker.

Of course, we all know what happens in the end. It's the journey, however, that sets out not to just pull at your heartstrings but positively grab those suckers and rip them right out of your body. Oh, the drama that unfolds as Chris tries to keep his head above water and his family -- at least his son and him -- together. I won't go over all the details here, especially since the trailer showed big and little Smith camping out in a public toilet, complete with a tear rolling down Will's cheek. Come on, Prince ... get a hold of yourself!

Some parts of the movie work well. Smith is plenty earnest, and even gets to show some wit now and then. The rapport between him and his son is great, too. And the kid himself isn't bad. Why, he seemed like a real kid! (Yeah, I'm talking to you, Dakota Fanning.) Also, the story -- even with all its cheesiness -- is hard to resist, especially considering it's sort-of true. ("Inspired by a true story," after all.) I suppose you could not root for Chris and his son, but then you'd have to explain what it's like to go through life without a soul.

There are some weak spots, however. Smith's occasional narration -- pointing out "chapters" in his life -- is annoying. Thandie Newton is pretty one-note, despite her attempts to do something with a mostly thankless role. Even so, the fact that their son stays with Chris -- who is starting an unpaid internship -- instead of going with her to New York, where she has a job, is pretty hard to swallow. First, the mom always is the preferred parent when a couple splits. Second ... she's getting paid! He isn't! But hey, Chris didn't meet his dad until he was 28, so he's not going to let his son go. Oh, wait, he met you when he was born. And maybe you should think about focusing entirely on this job, become a stockbroker, then go get your son. Just a thought.

In the end, this is a nice story that's hard to watch in places -- partly because you feel for the characters, partly because you know you're being manipulated. I applaud the real Gardner for making this work, of course, but I'm not sure Smith and Co. did anything amazing with his story. I mean, we know he's going to win, so it's just a matter of waiting it out. And it's not like the kid minded sleeping in the bathroom, anyway.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Today's top five headlines

5. "iPhone debuts; cancer cured"
4. "iPhone finally here! On Page 3, war in Iraq ends"
3. "YouTube video of iPhone causes pronoun confusion"
2. "First iPhone sold at 6 p.m. First i-call dropped at 6:01"
1. "Nirvana achieved: Paris Hilton buys iPhone"

(Yeah, you can say I'm a little sick of this sh*t.)

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

But I heard the Duke really loved curry, vindaloo and roganjosh: "The Searchers"

What's that? That's the other kind of Indian? Oh, my bad.

Chatter on another post tipped my hand here, so let's just get going: "The Searchers" is without question the best looking Western I've ever seen, and maybe the best Western, period.

I had TiVoed this John Wayne classic before the release of the latest AFI list, on which the 1956 film rocketed from No. 96 to No. 12. Can't say I knew too much about it, other than it was considered a four-star collaboration -- one of many -- by Wayne and the legendary John Ford. I maybe remember hearing it was a good-looking movie, too. That, um, is something of an understatement. Really.

The story is somewhat simple. The Duke returns home to Texas after the Civil War, where he fought with the Confederacy. He's not back too long when Indians kill his brother and his brother's wife and kidnap their two daughters. That leads Wayne and his nephew (Jeffrey "Captain Pike" Hunter) on a quest to find the girls.

As it turns out, things aren't as simple as they seem. First, there's the subtle question of how Wayne's character, Ethan Edwards, really feels about his sister-in-law, begging the question of whose kids these really are. Then there's Ethan's hatred of the injuns, which goes above and beyond the usual tension out West. How that factors into Ethan's plans for when he finds his niece is something to keep an eye on.

While the story and action grabbed my interest more than the usual Western, that was nothing compared with the scenery. Here is Ford's love of Monument Valley in all its splendor. From the start, we get truly stunning vistas. I should note here that I recorded this not from TCM, but from one of my HDTV channels. Man, was that a stroke of luck. I really can't overstate how great the locations looked in full high-res, letterbox glory. I have never been blown away by a Western like this. It was relentless, I tell you.

OK, OK ... I'm calming down. But when you've got amazing scenery, a tortured "hero" of questionably morality and some solid action, you've got a pretty good Western, and one that holds up well enough a half-century later. Sure, there are some quibbles -- Wayne's too old, Texas doesn't look like that, the Indians are simple savages. But none of that registered with me while watching this movie. I was too busy trying to accept that when it came to the best use of Monument Valley, another movie finally had displaced "Vacation."

Eat your heart out, Vincent Price

That is one intense rodent.

(And yes, apparently I'm the last person on the planet to see this, based on all the variations on YouTube. Clear your calendar for the day and take a look for yourself.)

Friday, June 22, 2007

You know, if his nose weren't so f*cked up, he'd be schlepping on soaps: "You, Me and Dupree"

Seriously. I like Owen Wilson and all, but he's cruising a little too much on that bulging bridge and the slacker thing.

There was no way in hell I was seeing this crap on the big screen, especially since it kind of snuck up on me last year. In this glorious TiVo age, I managed to avoid all the trailers, and when I saw the movie poster, I was like, "What the f*ck?" I mean, I was down with OW after "Wedding Crashers," so I figured I'd hear about one of his movies coming out. After finally seeing "You, Me and Dupree," however, I realize why I didn't.

Our story has Matt Dillon and Kate Hudson getting married in Hawaii, with Dillon's dipsh*t friend Dupree as the best man. After the honeymoon, Dupree the Bum needs a place to stay. He moves into the Dillon-Hudson love nest. Hijinks ensue.

Some hugely obvious problems with this whole shebang. One, Dillon is 17 years older than Hudson, and while she can represent a little older ... no, I'm not buying it. Nice tush, though.

Second, Michael Douglas is her dad and Dillon's boss. OK, I can roll with that. But the years are not being kind to Mike, and a little less pancake would be good for all of us.

Third, the whole idea of Dupree (our man Owen) being so reckless and clueless might have worked if the director/scriptwriter ran with it all the way. But nooooo ... Dupree has to get his sh*t together and make things right with both Kate and Matt. File this in the having your cake and eating it, too, category. Yeah, I know it makes for a nice little story, but when you're already on thin ice with credibility, don't break out a jackhammer and pound right through.

There are other silly things, such as Seth Rogen -- whom I like -- playing another friend of Matt and Owen's. OK, he was born in 1982, and even with glasses, a beard and a vagina instead of a penis, I'm still not buying him as a pal to these guys in their late 30s/early 40s.

In the end, this is little more than a waste of real talent in a stupid movie. Sure, I laughed at some bits, and -- like I said -- Owen is my guy. No, really, I don't mind watching the whole doofus thing. See "Starsky & Hutch." That works for only so long, though. I don't care if he is throwing seven different kinds of smoke -- yes, that was kind of funny -- I'm still popping in "Zoolander" instead.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Of course, if "V" hadn't been a made-for-TV movie ...

Time for those high-falutin' AFI folks to tell us what's good:

I'd change the order here, as you might guess. And don't get me started on the omissions. Hello? Have none of you jokers seen "Real Genius?"

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Back before he put on the kneepads for Keanu: "Deep Cover"

Have you ever wondered exactly when Larry Fishburne decided to go by Laurence? Wonder no more. Here's the last movie before the working man's moniker gave way to Mr. Fancy Pants.

I'm not sure I ever heard of this movie before it popped up on cable recently. That makes sense since it came out in 1992 -- part of that late 1991-early 1995 blackout when I was in college and noticed only the watershed films, i.e. "Pulp Fiction," "Clerks" and "Miracle Beach." (All together now ... "Don't tell me you give the world's greatest MASS-age ... ") While Larry's next movie apparently warranted the upper-crust name change -- he played Ike Turner in "What's Love Got to Do With It?" -- his performance here is plenty solid, as is the movie overall.

Fishburne plays the son of a drug-addict dad who gets killed with Larry is a lad. That leads Larry to become a cop in Cincinnati, and he gets recruited to go undercover for the DEA in L.A. The recruitment scene is entertaining, as we see Charles Martin Smith ("The Untouchables") branch out from his usual nebbish role to add a little edge. One amusing exchange later in the movie: Larry: "You ever kill anybody?" Charlie: "Are you kidding? I went to Princeton to avoid all that sh!t."

As you might expect, Larry eventually gets in too deep, having a hard time keeping his eyes on the prize as bad stuff happens all around him, from the deadbeat mom next door to the lower-level pushers getting whacked to the whole getting caught up in the criminal life thing. Along the way, he joins up with Jeff Goldblum -- also apparently branching out from the geeky thing to play a drug-dealing lawyer. The only other remotely recognizable guys are Clarence "The Mod Squad" Williams III as a cop and Gregory "Barney Miller/Miami Vice" Sierra as a middleman in the drug chain.

For the most part, this is a simple story, which is nice because it allows us to focus on the characters and actors. Nobody's winning any Oscars, I admit, but it's a decent little movie. Bonus points for being directed by Bill Duke, one of the great "that guy" club members whom you may know as Mac from "Predator."

As for the performances, Goldblum is amusing, Williams is noble enough and Sierra is kind of fun. And I did think Fishburne was pretty good, even if it was a shock to see him looking so trim. Seriously, has this guy ballooned or what? I'm beginning to think the answer to "What is the Matrix?" is "A new $7.99 buffet at Denny's."

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

But it's not like Stewart wore one of those hats with a buckle on it: "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"

So this is where that whole John Wayne shtick comes from. I had been wondering ....

OK, so I hadn't been wondering. Still, it's good to know.

Consider this No. 28 in the "Westerns I Should See" category. While my dear old dad is a big fan of the genre, it takes a little effort for me to get up for a swing through the Pecos, even if it's a classic. It probably doesn't help when I tell Dad things like, "You know, 'Silverado' actually is all right!"

Even one of the so-called all-time greats didn't reel me in based on the thumbnail description. I mean, how pumped can you get while reading about how a tenderfoot lawyer tames an outlaw? Really ... "tenderfoot?" When's the last time you heard someone use that term? Probably the last time someone said they had to buy some new dungarees.

But you know what? "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" is pretty good.

Our story, told in flashback, has James Stewart as said tenderfoot lawyer, ambushed en route to the town of Shinbone -- great name -- by the title villain, well-played by Lee Marvin. Once in town and recovered, Stewart talks about how to bring Valance to justice. Lending his insight is the local tough guy with a heart of gold, played by Mr. Wayne. As it turns out, both good guys have an eye for the same girl, a would-be spitfire played by Vera Miles. It's no mystery who she ends up with, since we see her with Stewart's character before the flashback begins. Still, some decent romantic tension throughout the film, and ultimately what makes this a decent story.

Directed by the legendary John Ford, "Liberty Valance" doesn't have all that much action. True, there's the ambush early on, and some other gunplay by Marvin and Wayne. But for the most part, this is a tale of tension -- between the righteous and the vicious, and the professor and protector. It's surprisingly subtle for a Western, which may be due to its being made in 1962. That threw me off a bit. Given the stars, Wayne and Stewart, I thought it was released a good 10-15 years earlier. Then, when I saw it came out in '62, I figured it was in color. Nope, black and white. Why, you ask? A few theories abound, but it doesn't matter too much because the B/W works just fine. Still, kind of odd.

Yeah, I guess you can say I was surprised by this movie -- the lack of bang-bang, the love triangle, the overall depth of the characters, the ruthlessness of Valance. And, of course, I was transfixed by seeing The Duke in a role that would be lampooned for years to come. Sure, the "pilgrim" stuff could be a little much at times. But somehow, the big guy whose real name was Marion makes it work. I mean, he has some good lines. My favorite, even if it didn't make IMDB, might be his advice to the local newspaper guy: "You print that, he'll kill ya, sure as hell." Don't I know it, pilgrim.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

No stopping the man whore

You know, I always thought something was wrong with Catherine Keener. Good to see she's getting herself right.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The worms turn your stomach: "Slither"

In 1990, a little monster movie that came out with no fanfare turned out to be a lot better, and funnier, than anyone thought. Between the mostly B-movie cast and the bare bones story -- how to escape giant worms that are trying to eat people in the desert -- "Tremors" proved to be a cult hit that has hung around for years and, sadly, spawned three straight-to-video sequels.

It didn't take long while watching "Slither" to think of "Tremors," and the parallels between the two are many. First and foremost, creepy worms again are the monster du jour, although the problem here is sheer numbers instead of super-size. Second, there's no shortage of one-liners and other banter, similar to our pals Fred Ward and Kevin Bacon in "Tremors." Third, we again have a largely B-movie cast, with a few faves -- longtime and relatively new -- mixing it up while the fit hits the shan.

In short, the recipe works. "Slither" is pretty good.

Our story starts with a strange meteorite crashing to earth, I think somewhere in Florida. Wouldn't you know it? Out pops some kind of wormlike alien thingy, who -- after we've met the main players -- takes control of the local rich guy. Before long, strange things are afoot, and it's up the rich guy's wife, the police chief, the mayor and others to figure out what's going down while trying to stay away from the space worms. Considering there are thousands of them, that ain't easy, and it ain't pretty what happens to you once they getcha.

The great thing about this homage to 1950s horror movies, i.e. "The Blob," is how game the cast seemed to be for this. Really, it's hard to decide who I liked the most. Nathan Fillion brings the earnest cheekiness from "Serenity" to his role as the chief, dropping lines like this: "My easy-going nature is gettin' sorely f*ckin' tested." Elizabeth Banks, aka Beth from "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," is cute as the rich guy's wife. Heck, we even get Jenna Fischer of "The Office" fame in a small role as the police dispatcher, apparently thanks to her husband, director James Gunn.

The best performances, though, come from two old hands. Michael Rooker is a classic "that guy" whose most famous roles are the title character in "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" -- that's a good one for Family Night -- and the bald guy in "Mallrats." (Who wants a chocolate-covered pretzel?) Here, Rooker is the rich guy who gets infected by the alien, and his reaction and transformation are hilarious. The guy had to have a good attitude to pull this off.

Matching him, albeit with less makeup, is Gregg Henry, another actor who has been around for a while. I always think of Henry either from "Body Double" or "Payback," neither very good movies, but not boring, either. In "Slither," Henry is the mayor, and his foul mouth and put-upon nature make Murray Hamilton of "Jaws" seem like a prince. It's really pretty funny. Get that guy a Mr. Pibb.

Yeah, you can say I thoroughly enjoyed this little monster movie that could. Like I said, if "Tremors" was your speed, "Slither" will be a fun time. No Bobby De Niro or Dame Judi Dench, perhaps. But like they'd be able to keep the worms out of their mouths anyway.

Monday, June 04, 2007

If you thought ninja throwing stars were cool: "Krull"

That's right, kids. One of the B-movies often referenced in this piddly little blog finally gets its own post. Imagine my good fortune when I saw one of the HD channels throwing this masterpiece out there for a week or so. True, it wasn't packaged as a double feature with "Flash Gordon." But you take your victories where you can get them.

Released in 1983 -- good lord, is that 24 years ago? -- "Krull" wasn't the coolest movie I saw as a kid, and probably didn't even make the top 10. Still, when there's the promise of a five-pointed, razor-tipped throwing thingamajig, how can you not be captivated?

Our story has a bunch of aliens -- sent from a fortress that landed from outer space -- invading the world of Krull. Yes, hence the title, and maybe the winner for the most obscure reason for why a movie has its name. Really, the word "Krull" is mentioned in the opening narration, then we never, ever think of it again. But if they had named this movie "The Glave" -- after the throwing thing -- or "Colwyn vs. the Beast," it's not like the box office would have been better. (It sucked, by the way.)

The aliens take Princess Lyssa just as she's getting married to Prince Colwyn, who gets hurt but lives to become king after everyone else is killed. With the help of an old guy, the razor thingy, a bunch of bandits, a cyclops, an inept magician, a seer, a woman who lives with a giant spider and some horses who can fly, Colwyn sets out to rescue his damsel in distress from the aliens and their Beast king, who has magical powers of his own.

Yes, yes ... it's all rather silly. But amazingly, this odyssey really isn't as bad as I expected it would be now that I'm, in theory, an adult. Maybe it's all the Brits to give it an air of sophistication. Nah ... that didn't work for "Clash of the Titans," which really suffers with age. I think it's because the movie just keeps moving and moving, and even if the special effects aren't anything great, at least stuff is always happening. I really had forgotten all the trials that Col and the Gang went through to make it to the Beast's fortress.

Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Before They Were Famous guys in the cast. There's Robbie Coltrane as one of the bandits. Better yet, there's Liam Neeson -- excuse me, Oscar-nominated Liam Neeson -- as another one of the bandits. And you thought he was trying to forget "Darkman."

In the end, I must confess that I still like "Krull." Sure, the whole promise of this razor-star flying around is largely unkept; we wait until almost the end for Colwyn to use it, and even then, it's not a big deal. And like I said, the special effects ... kind of cheesy. But this isn't bad sword-and-sorcery fare, with some goofy Brits thrown in for good measure. It's no "Flash Gordon," true, but it gets me by.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Not exactly the best role models, I guess

With the end of the traditional TV season, my movie-watching has picked up a bit. I mean, you can watch only so many "Law & Order: reruns before screaming at the TV, "No, not him! It's, like, the third red herring this episode, you idiots!"

We'll have some post devoted to just one movie before long, but here's a roundup of a few flicks from different eras and genres.

Now I'm back to thinking this guy simply isn't my cup of tea: "Sleeper"

I'm sure I've waxed more than once about Woody Allen and my mixed, at best, feelings for his work. All of the neurotic stuff of the late '70s, the '80s and the '90s, you pretty much can keep. But the early, straight-up funny stuff is all right, and I've been pleasantly surprised by more recent fare such as "Match Point" and "Melinda and Melinda."

I thought "Sleeper" would fall into the OK category, since it came before "Annie Hall," "Manhattan," et al. No question it's a comedy, usually grouped in with "Bananas," "Take the Money and Run" and "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)." Alas, the story of Woody being frozen in the 1970s and waking up 200 years later didn't do much for me.

I guess some of the slapstick and sight gags were all right, and Diane Keaton was kind of cute and seemed to be having fun. But Woody is still Woody, and even though some of the sci-fi satire works, the New York nebbish schtick doesn't. When "My brain! It's my second favorite organ!" is one of his more tolerable lines, an 89-minute running time seems a lot longer.

(On the plus side, check out the recommendations on the IMDB page for "Sleeper." Yeah, I'll right on that Woody Allen-Sly Stallone double feature.)

Who was that masked man? More importantly, who cares?: "V for Vendetta"

You may recall my post on this after seeing it in the theater. In a nutshell, not bad, but something of a letdown. I also said that I could feel differently after a second viewing.

I didn't.

The plot: In a future totalitarian regime in England, a guy in a Guy Fawkes mask -- slits for eyes, big painted smile, straight-hairded wig -- wreaks havoc with explosives and knives. A lithe Natalie Portman becomes a sidekick of sorts. John Hurt screams a lot as the top dictator. Stephen Rea asks questions as an investigator.

The problem: Well, it's just kind of boring. Good-looking, I'll grant you. But mostly a lot of talkie-talkie and not enough kaboom. True, this might be considered "intelligent," especially compared with the typical Michael Bay crapfest. But as much I liked the "V for Vendetta" comic book, it just didn't translate all that well to the big screen. And dammit, I still couldn't hear what Hugo Weaving was saying under that mask half the time.

Before one guy went old school and the other crashed weddings ... : "Bottle Rocket"

I won't say it's an absolute, but anyone who claims to be a fan of any Wes Anderson movie and anything featuring one of the Wilson boys really needs to see this movie. It had been a long time since I had, and it took on a new dimension after having seen several other works by these three guys.

"Bottle Rocket" was the first work of note by Messrs. Wes, Luke and Owen, and it's quite quirky -- almost terminally. Still, I generally liked the goofy tale of would-be criminals bumbling somewhere in the West. We start with Luke Wilson checking out of the loony bin and joining up with his friend -- not brother -- played by Owen Wilson. Owen fancies himself an apprentice to a bigshot heist leader and enlists Luke, as well as others along the way, in his schemes. Alas, Luke comes across a lovely Latin maid at a hotel and pines for her more than the thrill of a life of crime.

No question this is by the guy who graduated to "Rushmore" (which is better), "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" (which aren't). It's also fun to see the very young Wilson boys -- with unfortunate hair, to boot. Luke's dangles almost to his shoulders, while Owen is practically high and tight, which makes his weird nose even more noticeable. Maybe that's why he had tape on it.

That said, Owen is pretty funny here, and the nutty adventures and breezy feel of the movie work well. Can't remember what I thought the first time around -- seems there was a "that's it?" feeling -- but now that the Wilsons are actual stars, this is a must-see just for the "before they were big" factor. And the hair.