Wednesday, November 28, 2007

OK, Dad, just stay calm: "The Wild Bunch"

Yeah, it's one of Dan's favorite movies ever. Between this and "Cool Hand Luke," the guy has some weird Strother Martin obsession.

In fact, funny story about how I came to own this seminal late '60s Western on DVD. When mi papa got some kind of deluxe version to replace his original DVD, he gave me said original. Now it turns out that Dan recently bought yet another, high-def version of "The Wild Bunch," making it a total of three DVDs of the same movie he has purchased. So yeah, you can say he likes it.

And you know, that's not a bad thing, since it's a pretty good movie.

Director Sam Peckinpah cut his teeth on TV Westerns, but there's nothing family-friendly about this tale of an aging band of outlaws milling about the Texas-Mexico border in the 1910s and hoping for one last score. After some scene-setting and tension-building, the movie opens with a bang -- well, several bangs. We soon learn things aren't going so great for our gang of antiheroes, what with the leader's former partner now leading the pursuing posse. They don't get much better when the gang throws in with a sleazy Mexican general as a way to finally cash in and call it quits.

The cast is generally hailed as excellent, and I can't argue that. William Holden ("Damien: The Omen II"), apparently taking a role that many big names turned down, is the head of the crew, while Ernest Borgnine ("Airwolf") is his right-hand man. Robert Ryan ("I Married a Communist") is Holden's former partner leading a posse of nitwits, including the aforementioned Martin. Other well-known names include Warren Oates, Ben Johnson (not the disgraced sprinter), Edmond O'Brien and Alfonso Arau.

Pretty sold performances throughout, especially Holden and Ryan. The former strikes the right balance of weariness and hardassitude; "The Wild Bunch" usually is cited as the end of the classic Western, and was billed as showing "unchanged men in a changing land." Ryan, while having the less showy role, is just as good, doubly weary and worn down not only from being an old outlaw but from having the chase the guy he used to run with. Hell, he seemed to age another 20 years over the movie's two hours.

For some, though, the big thing about "Bunch" is the action and the editing. Suffice it to say that there's a lot of shooting, and on a grand scale. Beginning, middle, end ... bullets fly quite a bit, but in a decidedly messy, non-John Woo way. (Really, like Borgnine could fly through the air shooting two pistols at one time.)

Accentuating the bang-bang is a merciless series of quick cuts. According to IMDB, the average shot length is only three seconds -- and only one second during the climactic shootout. And they say today's filmmakers are all about the short attention spans.

Hard to say if this is the absolute best Western I've ever seen. I mean, there's "Young Guns II." But it's definitely solid, especially if you're into that whole "honor among thieves" thing. Heck, Peckinpah did such a good job, I'm almost tempted to rent "Convoy." Almost.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Just because the movies are animated doesn't mean the performances are

Busy week at the salt mines, even with the holiday. What can I say? Those Canadian prescription drugs aren't going to smuggle themselves into the U.S. ...

Still, I've managed to knock out a few below-the-radar movies from the last few years -- each intriguing in a different way, but with mixed results overall.

If only Winston Zeddemore was on the case: "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within"

I kid, but seriously, this movie and "Ghostbusters" aren't so different. You'll see.

Released in 2001, "Final Fantasy" apparently is "the first computer-generated animated motion picture with photo-realistic characters." In other words, it's a cartoon that tries to make the players look as real as possible. Why go to that trouble? Why not!

The story: In the future, the Earth has been attacked by "phantoms" that could end up being the end of us all. A skinny young scientist, her mentor and a bunch of commandos, including her ex-boyfriend, hope to find the solution to the phantoms and save the planet. Meanwhile, a nasty general wants to just blow the baddies up, even if it means the end of the world.

The story is OK, I suppose, although it's boring in multiple places and kind of just fizzles out in the end. (I also was sort of falling asleep, but I don't think this is on me.) The bigger problems are the cast and the look.

With the cast, you get some serious lack of continuity between the voices and the look of some characters. Sure, I can accept Alec Baldwin voicing a square-jawed soldier. But Steve Buscemi's voice in a young, clean-cut army guy? Even if he's still comic relief, it threw me off. Same with Donald Sutherland as the old scientist. We know what Donnie looks like, and it's not a short, bald guy with a beard. Maybe if the animation had been more typical, I'd be OK with this disjointedness. But when the movie shows us "real" people ...

And that's the other thing. For all the detail here, "Fantasy" looks ... weird. I should be impressed, but I was mainly disappointed that I wasn't dazzled. Oh, and the "Ghostbusters" thing. We get a lot of scenes with phantoms rising through the floors or emerging from walls. Try as I might, I couldn't shake the images of the ghosts that tormented Murray, Aykroyd and Co. If "Fantasy" had given us another appearance of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, it might have gotten a thumbs up.

Like Keanu has never been lost within himself before: "A Scanner Darkly"

Say what you will about Richard Linklater -- profanity has come to my mind in the past -- but the guy is hard to pigeonhole. You could look at this movie and "Waking Life" and say, hey, he's just into weird animation. You could look at "Dazed and Confused" and "School of Rock" and say, hey, he's all about dopey comedy. You could look at "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" and say, hey, he's one big p*ssy.

All that doesn't even cover stuff like "Tape" and "Fast Food Nation," or the mainstream "Bad News Bears" remake. So yeah, the guy gets around. "A Scanner Darkly" came and went last year, but I caught it on HBO this month, and I'm glad I did.

Everyone's favorite Neo plays an undercover cop in the near future who gets hooked on a drug and descends into some kind of identity crisis. It doesn't help that he protects his identity at times by wearing a suit in which the images of hundreds of other people dance across the outside. Gotta say ... it's pretty disconcerting.

Reeves' drug world includes the always entertaining Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Rory Cochrane and Winona Ryder. Yeah, Winona! And let me tell you ... she looks good! You saw the recent "Reality Bites" post. Back then, she got by on wide eyes and pixieish looks. But she's kind of filled out a bit in her 30s, let her hair grow long and generally looks hotter, I think. Ah, hell, maybe the shoplifting arrest has something to do with it, too. Gives her some edge.

But wait a minute. I need to step back when it comes to talking about how Winona and these other folks look. You see, "Scanner" is animated, but the characters look like the actors normally do, or would if it was live-action. It's like Linklater had animators trace lines around the actors and turn them into cartoons. Kind of odd, but I dug it, and I thought the movie, while slow at times, was mostly interesting. Good twist near the end, too. No, Winona isn't actually a man. ("I know all there is to know about the crying game ... ")

It's too easy. Oh, OK ... This sucked: "John Carpenter's Vampires"

Yes, Carpenter. Almost 20 years after "Halloween" and about a decade after "Big Trouble in Little China" and "They Live," this so-called mastermind of horror delivered yet another movie about modern bloodsuckers in the late 1990s. And while this isn't animated like the above two movies, it's a cartoon all the same, missing only the "Batman"-esque "POW!" and "BAM!" balloons.

Our hero is none other than James Woods. Yeah, James Woods! As the top dog vampire hunter, he again plays a guy who is pretty much a d*ck, dropping wiseass jokes and snapping at people. Let me consult his filmography ... yeah, while he's not been a total ass in every role, it's a good amount. But when you do something well ...

One difference here: Woods' somewhat comical appearance. Oh, nothing obvious. Just little things, like hair that obviously has been colored, and jeans that are a little too tight for a 50-year-old (now 60). Even so, you could do worse than watch JW chew some scenery for 90 minutes.

Our story is simple: Woods and his crew hunt vampires, but one night the baddest bloodsucker of them all takes most of his team down. So Woods -- with the help of the Church, his sidekick and a woman who's not far from becoming a vampire herself -- tries to track this master of masters. Hijinks ensue.

The usual Carpenter touches are here. One, there's about 10 minutes of mood-setting during the title credits. Two, there's plenty of blood, amputations, disembowelings and decapitations. Three, there are some throwaway funnies, such as when Woods asks a priest if he got, er, excited during a fight. Um, yeah ... don't answer that.

It's all rather dumb but perfectly acceptable late-night fare. We even have a Baldwin brother sighting: Daniel, who isn't half bad as Woods' No. 2. Do you know that among the Baldwins, he has only one fewer credit than big brother Alec? And check out how much Danny works these days. I gotta say, I never would have pegged him for being the most prolific guy in that family. Now I need to go do a rundown on Jeff and Beau Bridges and Macaulay, Kieran and Rory Culkin.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

If it's only the mid-1990s, does it still count as nostalgia?: "Reality Bites"

First, a little shout-out to ... myself. Did you know that the post right before this one was the 400th post in the history of this blog? And here I thought we wouldn't make it past 234.

(Really, think about how much time I've wasted with these 400 -- now 401 -- posts. I could have helped build eight or nine Habitat for Humanity houses or something. Then again, the world would be deprived of a repository of insight on such seminal films as "Assault on Precinct 13," "Lord of the G-Strings" and ... wait for it ... "Krull." Fair trade, I say.)

So The Luminous Lady in My Life and I were searching for something we could both watch this fair Sunday evening when I saw this holdover from our college years was starting on an HD channel. I'll admit being curious to see how well the aimless adventures of Winona, Ethan and Janeane held up here in 2007. Not so great, I found.

Our story, as you may recall, revolves around recent college grads trying, to varying degrees, to make a go at adult life in Houston. Why Houston? Because in L.A. they all would have just gone into porn! Easy choice, right?

Winona Ryder is the smart girl who documents the group's trials and tribulations by videotape. Janeane Garofalo is her roommate and gal pal; look at them sing songs and dance together! Steve Zahn is their gay friend. Ethan "So Poor I Can't Afford a Real Goatee" Hawke is a slacker/lead singer for a band going nowhere. Oh, and there's just a wee bit of sexual tension between him a Winona. Got to have that.

Winona has job troubles but finds a potential paramour in Ben Stiller, also our director and who -- wow -- looks about 16 here. And sure, there's something of a love triangle here between our heroine and two very different guys. But the larger struggle -- you know, the big meaning -- is whether Winona is going to grow up and therefore SELL OUT AND LET HER SOUL DIE or follow her heart and keep it real, viable career and stable income be damned.

Now I won't argue that the five lead actors -- the gang of four and future Gaylord Focker -- do a decent job in their roles. Winona looks wounded at the right times, Janeane is awkward-hip, Zahn is comic relief, Hawke is an alternadick and Stiller is a yuppie sell-out. Each one seems the right fit, and they're even tolerable part of the time.

The reason that's only "part of the time" is because the overall story and the dialogue end up being annoying and even insufferable. Listen, I've been known to drop a movie/TV reference or seven during conversation; sue me for not having that many original thoughts. But man, do I not want to see that kind of stream of crap constantly coming from these people's mouths. The "Good Times" drinking game? Sure. The non-stop lines from commercials? Not so much.

It might be something if the appropriation of pop culture stuff really illustrated the insecurities of these characters. Stiller does try to show that, I suppose, but fails, and this seems the least of his feature-film directorial turns, suffering by comparison to the later "Zoolander" and, oh yes, "The Cable Guy." Even with amusing turns such as Winona's embarrassment of Martin Crane during his silly morning show, "Reality Bites" ultimately is too light and inconsequential to have much impact.

And I don't think it's because I'm now in my mid-30s. When this came out, I was just a year or two younger than these characters. Hard to remember exactly how I felt then -- I may have been drunk once or twice in college -- but I don't recall watching this movie and thinking, "Wow, deep, man." More like, "Hey, I don't think Winona's wearing a bra there."

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Yeah, but Voltron still could kick his ass: "The Iron Giant"

Here's a movie that I remember got great reviews despite flying under the radar when it came out in 1999. I guess that's what happens when you have to battle for box office with "Lake Placid," "Stigmata" and "Inspector Gadget." Jeez.

Our story is simple. With the Cold War escalating in the 1950s, a young boy in Maine comes across a visitor from outer space: a big old scary robot. In the vein of "E.T.," the boy befriends and hides the robot -- as much as you can with something that big -- while a government agent tries to track down the alien.

Hijinks ensue. There's young Hogarth -- yeah, what a name -- chasing down a detached robot hand. There's the beatnik who runs a scrap yard and agrees to help the mismatched duo. There's Hogarth's mom thinking something is amiss. There's the general who thinks the government agent is off his rocker. And so on and so forth.

Of course, this wouldn't be a good kids movie without a big lesson. I guess it's that all life is valuable, looks can be deceiving and that we just have to be who we are and not what someone else wants us to be. Maybe that all sounds cheesy, and hey, it is. But it also is kind of nice when wrapped up in a neat-looking 86-minute package that has few if any slow spots.

"The Iron Giant" also was fun when it came to figuring out the voices behind the animation. I knew our man Vin Diesel, before bursting onto the scene in "Boiler Room" and "Pitch Black," was the robot. I had a harder time picking up Jennifer Aniston as Hogarth's mom, Harry Connick Jr. as the beatnik and Christopher "Shooter McGavin" McDonald as the bumbling government agent. We also get Stifler's little brother as Hogarth, plus a couple of old faves in M. Emmet Walsh and John Mahoney. (Frasier's dad to you, maybe, but he'll always be Good Morning Grant and Diane Court's dad curled up in a bathtub to me.)

Solid cast, sweet story and a cool robot. What's not to love? True, you have to brace yourself for some sappiness, but there's also some wit and genuinely funny moments. "Giant" was the first big-screen effort by director Brad Bird, who went on to make "The Incredibles," another smart, funny animated feature that did a heck of a lot better at the box office. If there's any justice, "Giant" will continue to find an audience on DVD and cable. In other words, watch this movie or the robot will kill you.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Still needed more flying leg kicks: "Galaxy Quest"

Hey, those were Capt. Kirk's thing when fighting Klingons, Romulans, et al, and they were awesome.

I first saw this smart what-if homage of sorts to "Star Trek," its washed-up cast and its fans shortly after it came out. Honestly can't recall if I made it to the theater, but I know I caught it on video. Either way, I remember thinking, "Hey, I'd like to own that someday." I still don't, which meant I couldn't pass on another chance to see this movie when it popped up on one of the HBO channels the other day.

Our story begins at a sci-fi convention where the headliners are the former cast of "Galaxy Quest," a TV show about an intrepid starship crew. The show went off the air eons ago yet still claims a rabid fan base. Sound familiar? Oh, it gets better. Among the show's cast is an overacting blowhard as captain and a classically-trained actor forever typecast as a makeup-wearing alien with a silly catchphrase. No, there's no way William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were inspiration for these guys. Not at all.

Anyway, the cast is merely going through the motions at these conventions and other appearances when some bonafide aliens show up and kidnap the "captain." Soon enough, the whole crew is out there in outer space for real, somehow trying to pilot a real spaceship while fighting some bad guy lizardmen. They're all a little incredulous, as you might guess, that aliens would think they really are a starship crew, but there you go.

When you think about it, this is a great idea. Seriously, what would happen if the "Star Trek" actors had to do their thing for real? How great would it be to see the behind-the-scenes politics and backbiting come out in the open? How much fun would it be to see these jokers trying to use what they remembered from a cheesy TV show to solve real problems? How long would it take before everyone simply pounced on Shatner and put his head on a spike?

Upping the ante even more is a solid cast. Tim Allen was great choice for the captain role, even if he gets a little sappy near the end. Alan Rickman is better as the "Spock" character, a classically-trained actor -- "I played Richard III ... There were five curtain calls" -- doomed to wear crappy makeup and say one line over and over and over again. Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub and Daryl Mitchell round out the TV show cast, with Sam Rockwell -- a leftover from one episode -- hanging on for one more chance at glory.

There are other nice performances, too. Enrico Colantoni is hilarious as the leader of the aliens, with a singsong monotone that just killed me. Justin Long, who can be pretty annoying, finds a natural role here as a diehard (pun intended) "Questerian." When I think about it, there really isn't a false note among any of the actors.

Yeah, you could say I really like this movie, and not just because I was a "Trek" fan for a while. (Aw, hell, I'd still watch the original series if the right episode was on.) Not only is it a fun story with a great cast, but the dialogue was just really sharp throughout. Not in a "quoting 'Fletch' or "Caddyshack'" kind of way, but in the whole context of the thing. And if that's not enough for you, well, Sigourney Weaver shows some serious cleavage late in the movie. Maybe it's not those tiny panties in "Alien," but it's enough to get you at least to Warp Factor 6, maybe 7.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Yeah, let's make another "L.A. Confidential," only this time with worse actors and a crappier story: "The Black Dahlia"

Can't say I realized this was the case while watching what turned out to be tripe, but the thought occurred to me a few days later, and it makes perfect sense. Here we have another murder mystery set in 1940s Los Angeles, with a couple of cops chasing leads and dealing with femme fatales. Only this particular movie sucks.

I actually was ready to tear Brian De Palma a new one, blasting him as a Hitchcock wannabe who has made a bunch of crap. And that's partly true. I mean, "Snake Eyes?" "Raising Cain?" "Body Double" (even with the nudity)? But then there's "The Untouchables." And "Carrie." Some also might argue that "Carlito's Way" wasn't bad, and I still maintain that the first "Mission: Impossible" was pretty decent. As for "Scarface," well, I think it kind of blew. You had to wait a reallllly long time to get to the good lines at the end, and even that wasn't anything great.

So yeah, De Palma ... uneven at best. "The Black Dahlia" does little to counter this belief.

Our story tracks two cops (Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart) who happen to be boxers who then become pals and partners. With Eckhart's gal Scarlett "Butthole Mouth" Johansson in the mix, it's all very Ozzie and Ozzie and Harriet. Then some girl (Mia Kirshner) has to go get herself hacked up, which drives Eckhart off the deep end and sends Hartnett looking for answers and finding Hilary Swank, a rich girl who, we're led to believe, looks like the dead girl. (Only doesn't.)

Into this fun stumble some occasionally interesting actors: Gregg Henry, Rose McGowan (whom I dug before she got with Marilyn Manson), Rachel "Mrs. Macaulay Culkin" Miner and even k.d. lang (who's gay ... who knew?). But by and large we're stuck with the four principal players. Too bad, because they're not too good here.

Eckhart has shown himself capable of good stuff, from "In the Company of Men" to "Thank You for Smoking." And hell, Swank has two Oscars and was robbed of a third for "The Next Karate Kid." Hartnett, however, hasn't shown he can come close to carrying a movie; his best role, I say, was that bit part in "Sin City," and it seems like he's just trying to stretch that cool detective schtick out more than two hours here. As for Johansson ... well, I guess she can be good. "Lost in Translation" was great, and she was solid in "Ghost World." More recently, though, I find her mostly annoying. She was OK in "Match Point" but didn't bring much to "The Prestige" (great movie), "The Island" or "In Good Company." Not bad to look at, mind you, but not all that, either.

In any case, none of the above shines here. All are one-note in some way, which makes for all different kinds of annoying. Eckhart's obsession is too simplistic. Hartnett's boyishness falls flat. Neither Johnasson nor Swank is convincing as a sultry she-devil -- again in different but unsuccessful ways. Come to think of it, the only person I thought was good was Kirshner, seen entirely in screen tests. In those brief moments, she captured her character's vulnerability, confusion and sadness pretty well, I thought.

The larger problem with "The Black Dahlia," though, is a story that takes time getting off the ground and never becomes all that clear -- yeah, I know it's a mystery -- before falling apart into what can only be described as a mess. The plot is inspired by a real unsolved murder, but if it actually happened in any way close to this, I'll eat my hat. Things just seem to get convoluted and then laughable, yet the actors keep a straight face.

In the end, the usual De Palma tricks -- sweeping camera shots, blood, quirky side characters -- are buried in the muddle. And with no Robert De Niro swinging a baseball bat or mid-1980s Melanie Griffith shaking her bare booty, I can't see watching this again to try and figure it out.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

And I feel guilty about using a little hair gel: "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

We all know I'm a big Coen Brothers fan. Meaning I like them a lot, not that I'm a large person. I fully admit that some movies are merely OK -- recall an earlier post on "The Hudsucker Proxy" -- but, in general, you shouldn't be bored when Ethan and Joel are at the helm.

I first saw the boys' Depression-era version of "The Odyssey" in ye olde moviehouse, and it was ... all right. Definitely no "Fargo" or "Raising Arizona," and, quite frankly, I got a little sick of the bluegrass music revival it spurred. But when "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" came on an HD channel recently, I wondered if it might turn out to be like "The Big Lebowski." I wasn't overly impressed by the adventures of stoner Jeff Bridges and would-be Jew John Goodman the first time around. Yet subsequent viewings left me laughing more and more each time. Now I think "Lebowski" is pretty funny, even if not the best bowling movie I've seen. (Hello, "Kingpin.")

How did "Brother" do when it came to Viewing No. 2? It was ... all right.

Our story has three escaped convicts -- George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson -- on a quest for hidden riches in the 1930s Deep South. As you might guess, they run into a few obstacles and all sorts of strange folks. Between Homer and the Coens, what did you expect? Various oddball types are played by the aforementioned Goodman, Charles Durning, Michael Badalucco, Daniel "Mr. Kruger" von Bargen and Holly Hunter -- most of those familiar names in the Coen universe.

If I had to rank "Brother" on the Coen roster, I'd place it well behind their best work and above-average fare such as "Lebowski," "Blood Simple" and "Miller's Crossing" but better than "Hudsucker," "The Man Who Wasn't There" and probably "Intolerable Cruelty." Haven't seen "The Ladykillers" and "Barton Fink," but I understand I'm not missing much.

No question there's some really funny stuff. Clooney has the best lines, and many of them come early. ("I'm a Dapper Dan man!") Turturro also is amusing in his ignorance and cadence, and Nelson isn't bad as the dimmest of the three sort-of amigos.

Beyond that, though, none of the supporting players is anything great -- due mostly to their roles, not their abilities. I guess adapting various characters from "The Odyssey" didn't really work for me. Goodman gets a few good lines, but his cyclops just comes and goes. I suppose churning a bunch people through the movie is the point; look at all these people these three fugitives run into! It's just that the parts didn't add up to a great whole, you know?

Still, "Brother" is a nice movie to look at with some good music, and I did like a lot of the dialogue and oddities. I just wanted it to be more of a home run a la "Arizona" than a double. Especially with Clooney in the mix. I mean, any guy with enough guts to ask for a hairnet ...