Sunday, March 30, 2008

Dragging a$$ and dropping names

Yeah, I've been slacking. But you know, between being out of town the weekend before last and all this .... what's the word I'm looking for? Oh yes ... March Madness, there just hasn't been much time. What am I supposed to do? Quit volunteering in the burn unit cold turkey?

But seriously, aren't we all watching hoops right now? I even managed to sneak into the ACC tournament a couple of weeks back, thanks to a media pass. That's how I ended up just two rows behind Dick Vitale, watching North Carolina beat Virginia Tech on a bucket by Tyler Hansbrough with 0.8 seconds left. That's right ... right behind Vitale! Could have reached out and shined his head if I wanted to.

Anyway, let's turbo through some movies left over from the days when I had free movie channels. (Did I mention that I got three months of free movie channels when I switched to satellite?) Come to think of it, there might be a DVD in here, too. Whatever.

And you just know Sasquatch drives a Honda: "Roger & Me"

Yep, here's everyone's favorite liberal gasbag in his first big doc(mock?)umentary. Really, you can't say it's a straight-up documentary because Moore keeps spouting his opinions and deadpan jokes. On the plus side, that's not nearly as annoying here as in later movies. "Fahrenheit 9/11" may seem like the worst, but I thought "Bowling for Columbine" was even more preachy.

Don't get me wrong -- or get me wrong ... I don't care -- I love the subjects Moore tackles and generally agree with his politics. Some people are tremendous sh!theads and should be exposed for what they've done. I just could do less with Moore on camera, playing the part of the high and mighty instead of letting the facts stand for themselves. I mean, the guy apparently doesn't even tip his own doorman. (That's what a friend of friend of mine said. So, you know, it's a fact.)

"Roger & Me" is Moore's look at how General Motors essentially killed Flint, Michigan, by closing the plant and eliminating 30,000 jobs. I first saw it sometime in the '90s and thought it was solid. Seeing it again, I still feel that way, and have a new appreciation for Moore's restraint almost 20 years ago when it came to injecting himself into his work. If only he had stuck with that.

As soon becomes clear, Flint really went into the crapper, as Moore shows in so many great ways. The guy evicting people ... the lady with the rabbits ... the corny efforts to rejuvenate the city. It's all so sad, yet it was fun to see Moore try to track down the head of GM, Roger Smith. That aspect ultimately comes up a bit short, but you can't blame Mikey for trying. And hey, he got Bob Eubanks to tell a Jew joke, so that's something.

And a side order of tissues, please: "Waitress"

Bought this DVD for The Luminous One With Whom I Shall Spend All Eternity, and later sat down to watch it with her. She fell asleep -- she had seen it in the theater -- but I rode it out, if only to see if the small-town girl would really make good. Was there ever any doubt?

Production values, a quirky food angle and a generally endearing performance by the former Felicity are the only thing keeping this from being a Lifetime movie. Keri Russell is a waitress -- hence the title -- trapped in two things: a small town and a bad marriage to Billy from "Six Feet Under." There are some nutty co-workers, of course, and another complication: a bun in the oven. (Guess that marriage wasn't all bad.) So she goes to the doctor, and isn't he a cutie? As those great philosophers Whitesnake asked, is this love?

In its defense, "Waitress" doesn't wrap everything up in a nice bow. But there's plenty of melodrama, which takes away from some interesting stuff, like the different pies our heroine creates and a fun supporting role by a crusty Andy Griffith. In the end, not so a much a movie for me as my wife, who I suspect will watch this multiple times. Because, you know, I bought it for her.

Humpin' bodies!: "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo"

Sigh. I have got to stop thinking things like, "You know, maybe this isn't all bad ... "

I had never seen this "comedy" with Rob Schneider stumbling into a career as a -- to use a word used waaaayyy too much in this movie -- man-whore. He's some kind of fish guy who ends up getting into the game to earn enough money to replace this fish tank he broke at a real gigolo's house, or something like that.

I remember chuckling at the trailer. Unfortunately, what is borderline amusing over 90 seconds is uneven at best and painful at worst over 90 minutes. Schneider means well but really isn't all that funny in a one-note role. (Although it's not like I want to see him doing "Hamlet," either.) No question he's better suited as comic relief in an ensemble. Heck, I thought he was funny in "Judge Dredd!"

(But yes, Paul, this is still better than that other great man-whore movie, "The Wedding Date.")

In a town where nothing much goes on, a whole lot is about to go down (actual tagline): "Hot Fuzz"

That's how much I love this movie. I won't even try to improve on its wit.

I raved about this last year, and I was thrilled to see it on cable before my free movie channels -- you know I got those with the switch to dish, right? -- ran out. This is from the "Shaun of the Dead" guys, and they built on that solid parody of zombie movies with a stellar send-up of mindless action films. I can't stress enough how sharp this is.

Simon Pegg is a top London cop who gets shipped out to country -- he made everyone else in the city look bad -- and paired with a bumbling, tubby constable. Perfect as the village seems, people start to die in "accidents," leading our heroes to investigate. How else can this fun end but with a deafening, shoot-em-up climax?

It's also great fun to see some real actors -- Jim Broadbent, Timothy Dalton, Paddy Considine, Bill Nighy -- in supporting roles of varying length. Everyone seems to be having a blast, maybe because they're in a really smart yet hilarious movie. I mean, that's pretty rare these days. (See above.) Can't say it enough ... see this movie. Have a laugh. And remember, if you don't come down hard on these clowns, you're going to be up to your balls in jugglers.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Killing time until "The Continental: The Movie"

No, that's not a real upcoming feature film. But one can hope. (Need a refresher? Click here.)

So guess who turns 65 next week? Yep, everyone's favorite crazy-eyed, stilted speaker, Christopher Walken. Hard to believe, huh? Actually, maybe not. I mean, the guy has been in a lot of movies -- apparently, he never turns down a role (really) -- and is in demand as much as ever. (Pause ... summon Walkenesque cadence ... ) It's crazy!

To mark the occasion of the big Six-Five, let's look at two movies that illustrate two very different stages of Walken's career. One I hadn't seen but must confess being curious about. The other is the movie that made him a star so long ago.

A wing and a terror: "The Prophecy"

No question, this movie looked bad when it came out, and bad when it popped up on cable the other day. But come on ... it's Walken! Doing the horror thing! Why not give it a try?

And the opening credits sort of got my hopes up. Elias Koteas? He's not bad. Virginia Madsen? Cute. Eric Stoltz? Interesting. Viggo Mortensen? Very interesting. Throw in Amanda Plummer -- calm down, Dad -- and Adam Goldberg, and there's a nice mix of talent here. What could go wrong?

Well, for starters, a plot along the lines of "Dogma," only without the laughs. (And those weren't all that abundant in "Dogma" beyond the Matt Damon scenes.) Apparently, angels are at war in heaven, and one group is trying to find a human soul that can end the brouhaha. Baddest among the winged ones is Gabriel, played by our man Walken. It takes a while for him to show up, and even longer for the lines to get hammy, but rest assured, we get there.

Koteas is cop who flunked out of the priesthood, while Madsen is a teacher whose student -- a young girl -- is involved in this soul business. Stoltz is another angel, and Viggo is the most famous fallen angel of all. Alas, my interest in seeing all of the above was quickly offset by a ponderous pace, silly special effects and other assorted shortcomings.

While watching, I thought "The Prophecy" had a "Highlander" feel, which makes sense because the same guy wrote both scripts. At least the silliness of "Highlander" is pure science fiction, not based in the Bible.

Not as poignant as "Rambo," but what can you do? "The Deer Hunter"

Yeah, this is a movie that takes a little bit out of you. Imagine if it had been released in the original four-hour cut. Just shoot me in the head. (Pa dum dum.)

Here, Walken is buddies with Robert De Niro and others in a Pennsylvania steel town. Those two and John Savage leave behind the others -- among them John "Fredo" Cazale and George "My Daughter Doesn't Look Like This Guy, Dammit" Dzundza -- and go to Vietnam. Surprise, surprise ... they all end up damaged goods in some way. You know, I am sick and tired about people making movies about the negative stuff about 'Nam. Like these soldiers would have gotten a free trip to Asia anyway ...

The plot is pretty simple: Buddies go to war and come home -- or don't -- as broken men. But director Michael Cimino paints a deliberate, nuanced portrait of their lives. In other words, this is a three-hour movie. Whoa. Um, "Rambo" wasn't even two, Mike.

I kid, of course. While "Hunter" is a tad long -- I can see cutting 15-20 minutes, easy -- most of it is worth it. And there are some fantastic scenes and transitions. Early on, we see what kinds of guys these guys are, bonding over beer and singing "Can't Take My Eyes Off You." It's actually not cheesy. We also see guys both "doing the right thing" -- marrying a pregnant woman -- and revealing their true individual natures (mainly Bobby D.).

The protracted set-up before the guys ship out ends in a touching bar scene, then jumps to the war. And how. Rather than waste much time with battle, we see the trio in a POW camp, and it is not good. I'm ruining nothing by saying Russian roulette is involved, and stays involved as Walken is psychologically scarred and remains behind in Vietnam. This makes it tough for De Niro and Walken's girl, Meryl "I Was a Dish Before I Started Winning Oscars" Streep. And eventually De Niro has to do something about it.

Like I said, long movie, and I might have shortened the pre-war stuff to make this more manageable. Still, some powerful filmmaking and impressive acting -- De Niro, Savage and Streep along with Walken. Good as he was, though, it would have been nice for Walken -- when he sees De Niro as Saigon is about to fall -- to stare at him for a minute, then whisper, "More cowbell."

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

These art-house films start to get old after a while: "Rambo: First Blood Part II"

Oh yeah ... when I saw this would be on one of my umpteen movie channels -- gone next week, sadly -- there was no question I needed to see it again. What's it been ... 15 years? 20? Let's check this out and have a good laugh.

But you know what? While this is Exhibit A for gratuitous patriotic violence, it actually isn't that bad. Really.

True, there's a lot of bang-bang for the sake of bang-bang. Worse, there's some excrutiating dialogue. To wit:

"Sir, do we get to win this time?"

"Who the hell do you think you're talking to?"
"A stinkin' bureaucrat who's tryin to cover his ass!"

"What is it you want?"
"I want ... what they want ... and every other guy who came over here and spilled his guts and gave everything he had wants! For our country to love us as much as we love it! That's what I want!"
"How will you live, John?
"Day by day."

Yeah, David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin, this ain't. But what "Rambo" -- the original "First Blood" sequel, not whatever came out earlier this year -- does offer is nice, tight action that is sure as hell more fun to watch than "Missing in Action," the Chuck Norris entry in the "Vietnam isn't over" wave of movies that came out in the mid-1980s.

Our story is simple: John J. Rambo (Tom Hanks ... OK, OK ... Sylvester Stallone) is in a prison camp after wreaking havoc on a sheriff's department in "First Blood" but gets the chance to go back to 'Nam and check out a prison camp there. Turns out the mission is a sham, but Rambo finds some POWs anyway and takes it upon himself to bring them back. Helping him is a cute Vietnamese woman. Hindering him are two quintessential character actors: Charles Napier ("You're gonna look pretty funny tryin' to eat corn on the cob with no f*ckin' teeth!") and Martin Kove ("Sweep the leg").

Our director is George P. Cosmatos -- not to be confused with George A. Cosmatos, I guess. This guy also directed "Tombstone" (not bad) and "Cobra," which is bad but also something I simply cannot turn away from, especially the first several minutes. (Admit it: Stallone gets off some great lines.) GPC knows how to keep the action moving, and the 97-minute running time certainly doesn't hurt.

Push comes to shove, sure, I'll admit "Rambo" is hopelessly hokey between the rampaging Stallone and the overall "We've got to get our men back!" message. We achieve overkill when Rambo's hot lady friend asks him to take her with him back to America. Gee, something tells me that you might not make that flight, missy. And now Rambo is really p!ssed. Because before, you know, he was willing to talk things out.

That said, I actually enjoyed this movie after all these years. I mean, I knew what I was in for, and yet was treated to a brisk, lively tale, unencumbered by such concerns as character development and common sense. So take that, "Syriana."

Monday, March 17, 2008

How about this timing? "Primary Colors"

I had never seen this movie adaptation of the book about a power couple chasing the White House. In that case, it was in 1992, the fella was the would-be President. But here we are 16 years later, with the missus now jockeying for the Oval Office. A better time to see if "Primary Colors" was any good, I could not hope for.

Our story follows a young black man as he joins the fledgling presidential campaign of the governor of a small Southern state. At first dismissed as a longshot, Jack Stanton -- joined by his hard-edged wife, Susan -- charms anyone he can to make gains. Meanwhile, scandal after scandal -- most of sexual -- erupts, testing the campaign and revealing more and more about the Stantons' character. Sound familiar? Geez, they should have just called this "The Michael Dukakis Story."

Yes, we're talking about the Clintons, which was clear even without pictures in the novel. The book wasn't bad -- definitely easy to read, once you got by the whole "Anonymous" gimmick. But when the movie came out, I remember thinking John Travolta was all wrong for the lead, and that pretty much did me in as far as paying good money for a ticket.

As it turns out, he's not that bad. Hard to take seriously, even as a caricature, and that chin doesn't help, but he's not unwatchable. Playing his wife is Emma Thompson, and while she's got the pantsuit schtick down, her British accent slips through now and then, and I would have expected a little better overall.

Some other big names: Billy Bob Thornton as a James Carville type, and Kathy Bates as a fierce lesbian hired to head off the mudslingers. She might be the most interesting person of all, even if she overacts a bit, too. There's a whole host of other familiar faces: Chelcie Ross, Paul Guilfoyle, Tony Shalhoub, Mykelti Williamson, Maura Tierney, Allison Janney. Maybe the most surprising of all: Larry Hagman as another presidential candidate. Hell, I didn't even know he was still acting in 1998. And you know what? He was pretty good.

All in all, "Colors" is easy enough to watch, if only for appreciating the familiar mannerisms and travails of our 42nd president. But it's also too long at two-plus hours, and kind of smug. Not surprising given it's a Mike Nichols movie. Talented guy with an impressive resume, but it seems many of his films have a whiff of smartiness. Don't agree? Check this nugget from IMDB:

"Was interested to direct "First Blood" with Dustin Hoffman as John Rambo."

That's all we need ... Ratso Rizzo/Raymond Babbitt as a killing machine. "Hot rifle kill baby! Hot rifle kill baby! AAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!"

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Chest between friends: "300"

Seriously, I haven't seen this many oily pecs since I accidentally wandered down the wrong end of Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

You may recall my post after a theater viewing of this wholesome account of 300 Spartan warriors facing down the endless armies of Xerxes way back in the olden times. The movie is based on the comic book -- I mean, "graphic novel" -- by Frank Miller, and yeah, it's graphic. I'll go back and look at my original post after this, but I seem to remember thinking "300" had some nice visuals and plenty of good killing but didn't offer much more beyond that.

Of course, with my three months of free movie channels about to run out, I felt obligated to record as much as possible and give this feast for the eyes another whirl. And while "300" didn't get any better a second time around, it is well on its way to earning a spot in the hallowed pantheon of mindless action movies you can drop into at any time.

Our story follows King Leonidas of Sparta as he tries to fend off god-king Xerxes, who already has conquered many, many lands. Now it's Sparta's -- and all of Greece's -- turn, but darn it if those Spartans would rather die on their feet than live on their knees. Despite bringing only 300 to face tens of thousands, the Spartans are fierce and smart. Otherwise, this movie would have been over in 10 minutes.

Directed by Zack Snyder, who did the entertaining "Dawn of the Dead," "300" is somewhat unique in that all of the action was shot against blue or green screens, with the scenery and other CGI -- oooh, monsters! -- added later. Definitely adds to the comic book feel, although that can be a little too fakey at times. The whole monotone thing kind of wore thin at times, too, whether it was the yellow tinge of battle or the blue tinge at night in Sparta.

But really, we're just here for the blood, and there seemed to be even more beheadings, amputations and impalings the second time. The metal music soundtrack and quick cuts between regular speed and slow-motion were kind of cool; no worries that this movie takes itself seriously. It's also fun to count how many times Leonidas bellows about dining in hell or madness or glory.

Indeed, Gerard Butler should have gotten hazard pay for the veins popping out of his head with each exhortation. Not to mention the whole greased body and cape-and-Speedo getup. Nobody's saying you guys need to wear suits of armor, but wouldn't a T-shirt cut down on the scratches and scrapes?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Just in case you were rethinking your belief that English majors are the epitome of slack: "The Tao of Steve"

I'll never forget where I first saw this movie: Fargo, North Dakota. It was a very cool restored downtown theater ... all art deco and stuff. There was even a balcony. The movie wasn't bad, either.

That was not quite eight years ago, and I was curious to see how this ode to fat smarta$$es held up now that I was closer to 40 than 30. The answer: not as well.

Set in New Mexico, where adobe abounds, our story follows Dex, an overweight underachiever who passes time smoking pot and teaching kindergarten. Somehow, this guy manages to sleep with all sorts of women, mainly by following a certain code of coolness. But along comes a girl he really likes, and he has to figure out how to be a real person and not the Casanova of Crushing Weight.

There's a lot to like here, starting with Donal Logue as Dex. In the years that followed his debut as rambling cab driver Jimmy in MTV commercials, Logue played a variety of supporting roles -- including my favorite, the "naughty" vampire in "Blade." "Steve" was his shot as leading man, and he's pretty good. Looks horribly out of shape, yet projects plenty of confidence. In a way, he's perfect since a better-known actor would have been a harder sell to get audiences wondering, "What is it with this guy?"

But before you start thinking Dex really is cool, I have to call bullsh!t on a couple of things. One, some girls would fall for the crap he spews, but not all girls, or even all girls minus the one he wants. Would have been more realistic to see him shot down a time or two before the big rejection.

Secondly, the whole plot played out just a little too cute for me the second time around. It's a nice, short movie, and I'm definitely not saying it should have been longer. But the swing in emotions among Dex and his beloved was harder to swallow in so brief a time, and wrapping everything up in a neat package didn't help.

But hey, there's some funny dialogue here, and it's kind of cool to see something set in New Mexico that isn't a Western. And I liked Logue overall. Just wanted a little bit more surprise beyond my amazement at how far our hero's stomach stuck out.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Absurd, I can handle. But boring ... : "Silent Rage"

First, here's the synopsis that popped up when I scrolled to this movie listing:

"A Texas sheriff tries kung fu on an ax killer who, revived by doctors, cannot be killed."


(Longer pause)

OK, how could I not watch that?

I thought I recalled this early Chuck Norris vehicle having some merit as a silly action flick. Silly, it was. Merit, it hadn't.

Now a quarter-century old, "Silent Rage" doesn't suffer because it's dated. Nor does its preposterous plot do it in. No, the problem here -- rather stunningly -- is the lack of action or scares in what is supposed an action movie/thriller. Really ... when all was said and done, I was shocked by how little was said and done.

Our story opens with an unstable young man going off his meds and killing someone. The sheriff -- our pal Chuck ... Mr. Norris, if you're nasty -- shows up to stop the guy, who gets himself shot instead. But wait! His doctor and others try an experimental drug on him to see how fast it heals people. Alas, it works too well, with the bad guy rising up and going on ... not exactly a rampage, but rather a jaunt around town, killing people in a ... wait for it ... SILENT RAGE!

Chuck eventually gets wind of this -- when he's not wooing an ex-girlfriend in a strangely protracted love scene. (Still, there's nudity, and not just the sheriff's pecs.) Oh, and when he's not tangling with bikers in a couple of scenes. One of those does have a decent fight, even if the bikers clearly went to the Bad Guy School of Brawling. You know, where they come at the hero one by one instead of gang-tackling his a$$. No, that would make too much sense.

But yes, as one of the movie's taglines states, "Science created him. Now Chuck Norris must destroy him." Playing his nutty sidekick is Flounder from "Animal House," while the great Ron Silver is the killer's doctor. Neither they nor Chuck nor the boobies, however, can keep this not-that-long movie from dragging on and on. Really, between the blah killings and plodding pace, there's no tension. At all.

"Silent Rage" came after Norris's early martial arts fun, i.e. "Good Guys Wear Black" and "The Octagon," and before the great "Lone Wolf McQuade." That movie leaves "Rage" in the dust, and I have to believe the earlier ones can't be any worse. Wait a minute ... just checked IMDB, where the ratings for "Black" and "Octagon," as well as "An Eye for an Eye" and "A Force of One," are worse than "Rage." Whoa.

I could go on, but let's just say this movie blows. (You know, if you couldn't tell by now.) And because I don't want to belabor the point, we close with another visit to the famous Chuck Norris Facts. I just spent a few minutes there to erase the bad taste of this movie. My favorite: Chuck Norris doesn't sleep. He waits.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Two movies you should see

You like that? Don't go seeing movies on your own, people. Just listen to your old pal Jeff, who learned to talk from Bob Dole.

But seriously, folks, I saw a couple of films recently that, to me, were below the radar yet turned out to be pretty decent. And away we go.

Does this involve me dressing up as Little Bo Peep?: "The Proposition"

It's nothing of a sexual nature, I assure you.

I vaguely recall this movie -- either Australian or British -- coming out a couple of years ago and getting generally favorable reviews. Alas, other than being some kind of Western, "The Proposition" was largely an unknown to your humble blogger. Good thing I corrected that.

The story is simple: An outlaw -- played by Mr. Memento, Guy Pearce -- is forced by a military officer (Ray "Sexy Beast" Winstone) to find and kill his own brother in the Australian Outback of the late 1800s. Why would Guy do that? Because (a) his brother is evil, and (b) his other, more beloved younger brother is being held by said military officer. Yep, kill one brother to save the other. Decisions, decisions ...

It turns out the brothers slaughtered a local family, and while Guy is off after his big brother, little brother is trying not to get lynched by the townsfolk. Plenty of tension there, at home with Winstone, and out in the bush with Pearce. This movie has atmosphere galore and can be unpleasant in places, but pretty much every actor delivers the goods.

Pearce and Winstone rarely share the screen yet are linked as conflicted men. Meanwhile, Danny Huston as Pearce's big brother channels Col. Kurtz and is truly scary. All in all, a very solid little movie that deserves a wider audience.

I'll be taking these AK-47s and whatever cash you got in the register ... : "Lord of War"

This came out in what I consider Nicolas Cage's stealth year, 2005. The few years before, he had done the kooky "Adaptation" and the popcorn "National Treasure." In 2006 we got "World Trade Center," followed by (cringe) "Ghost Rider" in 2007. But 2005 saw both "The Weather Man" and "Lord of War" -- two movies that seemed to breeze through theaters with no promotion or buzz. "The Weather Man" wasn't bad, and "Lord of War" is better.

Cage plays a Ukranian kid living in Brooklyn who eventually becomes a bigtime arms dealer, flying all over the world to buy guns cheap and sell them in war zones. This provides opportunity for all sorts of odd situations and settings, from vast stockpiles in the former Soviet Union after the Cold War ends to a cargo plane touching down in middle-of-nowhere Africa to avoid Interpol agents, led by Ethan Hawke.

There's some clever stuff here, starting with Cage's first lines and the opening credit montage that follows a bullet from the time it's made to when it's fired. In addition, Cage -- who's been guilty of multiple misfires in recent years -- is a nice fit for this role. True, we get his damn voiceover once again; the guy must have it in his contract to narrate every movie he does. But even that isn't a killer, not with our natural curiosity about how high Cage will rise and when he'll get busted.

Also carrying the day is some pretty good dialogue, courtesy of writer and director Andrew Niccol. That name sounded familiar, but he's only directed a few other movies, and I've seen only one of them: "Gattaca." That movie was kind of boring. This one isn't. And did I mention there were guns?