Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (**1/2) is a take worth leaving

Ebbing

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – 2017

Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, Samara Weaving, Caleb Landry Jones, Kerry Condon, Željko Ivanek, Nick Searcy

There is a smell that pervades most of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, even as they spend much of the time trying to work against convention. It smells of judgement in the way that someone who lives in a coastal urban area might judge those who live in the flyby states. In this thought process, people who live in Missouri are more than a little racist, homophobic and shallow. Not all of them, of course. There has to be people in the town to judge them as such.

One such person in this story is Mildred Hayes (McDormand), whose daughter was tortured, burned and raped almost a year ago. And she hasn’t heard anything from the police force of her town in almost 7 months. This spurs her into the action of hiring the three billboards of the title. On these billboards are the sequential messages “Raped while dying,” And still no arrests,” and “How come, Chief Willoughby.”

There are a lot of good actors in this film. One of them, Nick Searcy, is known for his knack of using clever dialogue in a clever way. This is especially due to his several years playing U.S. Marshall Mullen on Elmore Leonard’s Justified. I knew there was something amiss when I saw him donning the black as Father Montgomery here. His five minutes of screen time are a perfect example of how poorly written the dialogue is when you don’t understand who you’re writing about. He says things that no man of the cloth would ever say, then the script requires him to look dumbfounded when Mildred rakes him over the coals regarding the ‘group’ he is part of and what they, if not he, have done to young boys. Then she walks off, all dramatic-like. And he is required to look defeated. This is a righteous indignant social justice warrior’s dream. They write the script, and have their enemies layed out perfectly per their own impressions of them.

Not that there isn’t some good parts to the film, though. Woody Harrelson is as fine as I have ever seen him. His Sheriff Willoughby is troubled, but hardly conflicted. If the film saw more of his character, it would have surely been a benefit. There is something more to his character than the one note characters surrounding and following him.

One of the most troubling characterizations for me is Sam Rockwell’s bumpkin without a cause, Officer Jason Dixon (get it, Mason/Jason?). He and his mother, played by Sandy Martin are ambling through life just smoking, watching television and hating anything different. Why the Sheriff keeps him on the payroll will be for you to find out. First though, we need to see him get worse as the situation demands. My problem is as much with Rockwell’s Californian estimate of the south as it is with McDonagh’s substantial misreading of middle America as part of the deep south. Perhaps if I didn’t have friends and relatives from Missouri, I might buy into this interpretation more.

The things that people do to each other and their property in this film are hard to take. What’s even more difficult to believe is that no one seems intent on investigating any of these things, even when it’s done in the open. People walk around freely after committing felonies and then walk away. No one ever says, “Hey did you kick two kids in the junk at a school?” Things get compounded and misunderstood enough to qualify for a Curb Your Enthusiasm skit, only with significantly fewer laughs.

Much hay has been made that this is a sure thing for McDormand. This movie is nowhere close to Fargo, though. There is character development, to a point, but when someone starts off as the aggrieved divorced mother, there’s only so far one can go. McDormand gets there, though, and has several touching moments in the plot. Truth is, she’s been better and she’s significantly better than the script deserves. Maybe if she’d referred to Dinklage as a midget just a few less times, I might buy that she’s advanced culturally.

Deep beneath the curdling cries of injustice being perpetuated by lazy Missouri “southerners” there is a half-way decent plot. Living in a liberal bastion of the Northwestern United States, I heard more than a few self-satisfied snickers during all of the key political points. None of this resonated, though. There’s only so many times you can call someone a Neanderthal before it loses its impact. Of course by the time we have a need for a real bad guy, one just comes out of the blue, or does he?  Or do we even care by then?

McDonagh has been effective in the past, with many of the same actors, even. He completely wastes Searcy, Dinklage and Hawkes here. If his writing seemed better in the past, it may have been due to more familiarity with the subjects. I wish the focus had been more on realistic characters, maybe punching up the plot a bit. Telling urban American city folk that the people living out there where there’s green trees and grass are creepy and weird is a surefire way to win festivals and maybe awards. It will not win as history or any sort of lesson, though.

(**1/2 out of *****)

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War for the Planet of the Apes (****1/2) is cleverly reverential

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War for the Planet of the Apes – 2017

Director Matt Reeves
Written by Mark Bomback and Reeves
Starring Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, Toby Kebbell, Judy Greer, Sara Cannning, Max Lloyd-Jones, Devy Dalton, Aleks Paunovic, Amiah Miller, Gabriel Chavarria

In the opening scenes of War for the Planet of the Apes, we get a true vision of horrible war. Bullets and spears hurtling through the air, humans and apes dying as if life is not as precious as one would expect at the end of an apocalypse. This is not what I wanted to see in a movie, even if it was an incredible sequence, with harrowing sounds and visuals.

Fortunately, the film takes a turn shortly after this. Instead, what we get is a study of character for Caesar (Serkis) and a small band of his clan members as they work their way towards protection of their way of life, mixed with a little revenge. The result is a crowning achievement in many aspects, and the third consecutive original story that manages to pay reverence to the original series without repeating itself or taking the easy path to redemption.

Why are the apes a target? Well, the flu that knocked out humanity 15 years ago is called the simian flu, if that is any indication. I suppose those who survived the first wave  and didn’t talk to Jason Clarke’s Malcom at the end of the last film might have the idea that the apes are not friends, or even just ambivalent to human kind. Unfortunately, those who remain have too much access to guns and ammo and not enough room for compassion or, it seems, critical thought.

The leader of one group of humans, The Colonel (Harrison) is a few cans short of a six-pack of compassion. He performs an atrocity that sends Caesar in an apoplectic quest for vengeance. We get elements of Outlaw Josey Wales, Bridge on the River Kwai and, most ineptly, Apocalypse Now in the story. Caesar finds himself a captive to his grief and anger and then more directly a captive to the Colonel and his band of fanatics.

The Colonel, like everyone in the story to this point, has suffered some significant losses. He allowed this to affect him and through his charisma, create a militaristic sub-group of humanity that is subjugating apes as slaves, branding them with names like Donkey. He is making them work to build up a war in apprehension of a coming conflict with another band of humans.

When Caesar comes across the reality of the situation, he is vexed as to whether he should seek revenge or help his kind escape the camp altogether when the plans become clear.

It is to the filmmakers credit that we get to see the effect that the decisions of Caesar and his group make have ramifications. If it were another time for Hollywood, we might see more happiness in the poetic symmetry. It is tempting to think that this is following a trend we’ve seen in movies lately, with Rogue One, Logan, etc. In this case one needs to take into account the trend that this series has taken has already been darker than most. The evolution seems to fit.

Along the way, Caesar and his crew pick up a few strays. One of them is a mute human girl, named Nova (Miller). Fans of the original series will make the connection. Her presence is a necessary one in the development of Ceasar. His mindset always seems to veer away from the wisdom of his closest friend, and Orangutan named Maurice (once more brilliantly portrayed by Konoval). He’s never so far away that he doesn’t let his wise friend bring the little one along.

More complex is the character of Bad Ape (Zahn), who steals his way into the group telling stories that have a tinge of idiocy and maybe a little insanity mixed in. His performance is engaging and layered due to some astounding effects and Zahn’s great voice work.

Another great holdover from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is Red. He’s one of the Ape lackeys here, used as muscle and to be demoralized by the humans. His general antagonism seems to come from a place of being out-of-place wherever he is by this point. His existence is a sad, hopeless and angry barometer for Caesar. In the contrast, we see how significant a character Ceasar is for the development of simian kind.

Special mention must be made for Serkis, who pushes his artistry to another level. We’ve seen the cycle of a great character from birth to where he is now and it has been a remarkable journey. Serkis’ eyes wears every step of this journey like a weary badge. It really is a remarkable achievement when one watches all three films in succession. I hope we’ve gotten to the point in recognizing real acting when we can take what we’ve gotten from this remarkable actor, not only vocally, but through his recorded movements and those incredible eyes.

My personal favorite is still Maurice, though. Through it all, Konoval’s gentle approach has fit completely in sync with what the character needed to be to complete the development of Caesar’s (as well, her own) character. Such is the look of a male Bornean Orangutan that she could not play a female. Her subtle etching of the character is so affecting though, I don’t know if someone with testosterone could have pulled it off. Their combined performance in the last act is hauntingly beautiful.

Special mention needs to be made of Michael Giacchino’s astounding score. I have not been so moved by the music of a film since perhaps Christopher Gordon’s Master and Commander. The titles of each tune are pretty silly, but how the music works within the film is beautiful.

If there is one drawback in the film, it would have to be Harrelson’s Colonel. He’s definitely the least effectively drawn nemesis in the series. They paint on the cruelty in big heavy strokes. His humanity is limited to one picture of a little boy. It’s not enough compared to the nuance they worked so hard to achieve in the first 2 films. Before now, we didn’t root for humans to die. We wanted both groups to survive and thrive.

What Matt Reeves has created is remarkable. In directing the last two parts of a trilogy, he’s made three completely different stories and one overarching development of a character that should stand out in cinematic history. If there is one thing that the series should be embraced for, it is that we have finally pushed special effects to the point where they become an afterthought to the story that is being developed because they are so incredibly good. Bad Ape, Maurice, Blue Eyes and Caesar are merely the tip of the iceberg. I found myself thinking less and less about how they did it and more about the story than ever.

This will not be everyone’s cup of tea. It is a tragedy, to be sure, with moments of light. Not everyone will find the survival of simian kind a rooting point as humans suffer through not one, but two waves of contagion that first wipes them out and will eventually take away their voices.

Yes, they worked that in from the original series too. Remarkable. Considering the stench that the original gave off in every way, it is incredible to consider that it was good enough and groundbreaking in its own way. It’s nearly unwatchable now. But for this, we have to be thankful.

(****1/2 out of *****)

The Hunger Games 4, Mockingjay 2 (***) is grim and joyless

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 – 2015

Director Francis Lawrence
Screenplay Peter Craig, Danny Strong based on the book by Suzanne Collins
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland

It is somewhere in the midst of the second movie that I realized The Hunger Games movies were not going to escape the gravitational downward pull of the insipidly morose books. Katniss (Lawrence) is feeling all sorts of bad and conflicted and she is surrounded by folks only slightly less bad and conflicted who are trying to convince her that she should push whatever it is she is feeling and just go with it. While the books have an endless and tortured internal dialogue, we can mostly only see our hero frown incessantly. There’s gotta be a smile somewhere in all of those action adventure heroics. Three books and now four movies in, the next smile would be the first.

Yes, it is easy to understand in a world of oppression and media manipulation that the people would be stuck in some sort of viewing mode, unable to rise up while being entertained. The story never pays much more than lip service to the sociological concepts of Snow’s rule. Granted, it barely had the time to do more than push characters from one presentation to the next, then one booby trap to the one that follows.

So there is this underground movement, you know. And it takes Katniss by surprise in the beginning of the non-eventful first Mockingjay film. She spends time trying to figure out if she is going to represent these folks who kept themselves hidden from her for two chapters and now say she is their champion.  Of course she gives in to their requests to be a mascot, but not because they want it to happen.  Got it?

Throughout we see characters come and go. There always seems to be one scene or another taking place in a burned out, bombed out section of town which is now cleared of bodies, but has plenty  of debris. People from earlier parts arrive on scene, discuss a few points and then explain what has to happen next.  We keep seeing the same people, even though they really don’t represent much to us. Familiar? Yes. Brave? Apparently.Charismatic? No.

These feel like people who left the set last time we saw them, went straight to makeup and came to the next set they were supposed to be on. There are endless explanations for motivations behind this action or that inaction. Most of these are based on winning a war of hearts and minds that we never really can be convinced matter all that much.  So often we hear of collateral damage and intentional wipe outs of entire districts, who is left to convince?

As pensive and stilted as Part I is, Mockingjay Part II is not hesitant. We hear the leader of the resistance Coin (Moore, at her most distant) tell Katniss no, you can’t go into the capital to kill Snow. Katniss leaves, so Coin sends a bunch of her buddies to go with her. From there it’s another Hunger Games. Each corner has something lurking behind it, and sacrifices (according to one’s position in the credits) must be made.

There is a lot going on here, and some of it could be pretty neat, but it all feels so darned sad. What message are they trying to get across?  The politics of violent resistance and change requires we use the same tactics to survive.  Got it. Is there any sort of reward for bucking the system? It certainly doesn’t feel like surviving counts as one.

What is the benefit to having watched now four films just to find out that those resisting are as bad as those they are fighting against? It certainly is a worthy message, but it feels like homework the way they present it here. To her credit, Lawrence is not nearly the sad sack that is Katniss on the printed page. She is driven and determined this time around and still not following the instructions of her “advisers.” While still not that fun of a character, she at least is no fool and will not succumb to her obviously challenged emotional state.

Her two suitors, Gale (Hemsworth) and Peeta (Hutcherson) have little to no appeal. Peeta is a tough sell from the first part, being a pacifist and lovelorn at once. Gale has turned into a willing accomplice of the new regime and that makes him about as unique as a Stormtrooper.

So if you are looking for things to blow up, expectant surprises to pop out or just plain misery to abound, you may like this film. If you want the same thing, but you want your daughter to feel like she can be a hero, better stick to The Force Awakens.

(*** out of *****)

The Hunger Games 3: Mockingjay 1 (***)

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Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 – 2014

Director Francis Lawrence
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Natalie Dormer, Sam Clafin, Jena Malone
Screenplay by Danny Strong, Peter Craig based on the book by Suzanne Collins

At this point we’ve all become accepting of the process of dragging out books into multiple movies. Outside of the last Harry Potter film, they’ve all been pretty weak. The Suzanne Collins dystopian trilogy ran its course after about half of a book for me. By the time I read the third book, the back and forth agonizing of her on again off again heroine Katniss (Lawrence) became unbearable. Fortunately, the movies have taken the dregs and made them into something watchable. The second film fell down a tick if only because it tread the same ground as the first, with a ton of lamenting over who she thinks she loves.

As we start the 3rd movie, which is the first of two Mockingjay movies, she’s done the switcheroo one more time. In the truest fashion of dragging it out, she once more loves the guy who is not with her. In a brilliant move, we get Julianne Moore at her most severe playing the President of the free people in Colony 13. She does a great job making the revolution feel more like a chore than a choice. Then we get some assistance from Haymitch, Effie and Plutarch (Harrelson, Banks and Hoffman) whenever the plot needs to move forward a tick. Will she or won’t she support the cause? Will they meet her demands? When she joins the revolution, what will she wear? When she gets the right outfit on, will she look like a natural rebel leader? Will she fall in love with Gale (Hemsworth) or will she find the Peeta (Hutcherson), for whom she longs?

So many aspects of this story have such ridiculous elements, it is hard to take any of it seriously. The more faux Storm troopers we see ineffectually holding back unarmed folks, the more I realize that this revolution is silly for all the machinations and wish to get the propaganda just right. Still, Lawrence is able to keep things crisp and less boring than the books.

So we get to see the good guys strike, the bad guys strike back and a bunch of white roses throw Katniss into a useless emotional tizzy. Why would a woman write her woman hero to be such an emotional wreck. Lawrence was able to fight off the silly portrayals to this point. This time, she has to spend much of her time underground, fussing and fighting just enough to take down something that looks an awful lot like the Quinjet from Marvel’s The Avengers.

The movie cuts out just after two hours, and we are left with the not so surprising reunion with Peeta (What? He was brainwashed? Do tell!). We are left with a prelude for what Katniss has to agonize over now, hoping it does not last too much longer into the future. They sure drag it out in the book.

Not enough of a story for one movie, it seems to satisfy the throngs of people who accounted for 3/4 of a billion in receipts. If the future of cinema has to be like this, they might as well go back to Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. At least they did not pretend to be anything more than a lead on for the next episode.

(*** out of *****)

Out of the Furnace The fire’s gone

Out of the Furnace

Out of the Furnace – 2013

Director Scott Cooper
Starring Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard
Screenplay Brad Ingelsby and Cooper

“He might be safer over in Iraq”

It’s hard to recall the last movie that featured common folk in Steel Mill country of Pennsylvania that started out with anything close to a sunny day.  Indeed, the brightest light one sees is the torches the workers work with among the grit and grime.  Everyone is downtrodden, someone in the family is on death’s door and the younger, brighter future of the family is approaching an eclipse.  It’s always up to the stoic older brother to make the sacrifices.

Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace goes one better.  This time, the older brother, Russell (Bale) causes in a drunk driving wreck – after drinking with the loan shark (DaFoe) who his brother Rodney, Jr. (Affleck) owed money to – and ends up in prison.  When he gets out, he returns to the mill, but finds that his girlfriend (Saldana) has moved in with the North Braddock sheriff (Whitaker).  He accepts this stoically, like everything else in his life.

So while he’s staying busy repairing the old grimy house left to him and his brother by his now dead father, Rodney, Jr. – a serviceman returned from Iraq before Russell went to prison – has back in debt to DaFoe’s Petty.  He’s trying to pay off the debt by fighting, but given that he can’t take a fall, he isn’t making much money at it.  Petty tells Jr. to work in the mill, like his brother and father.  Of course that proposition is not so enticing.  Russell goes back and lifelessly goes through the motions.  After seeing evidence of Jr.’s past time, they have a talk, which goes nowhere.

“The f#%in’ mill killed our Dad.”

The military has killed Jr. from the inside, so he is going to finish the job by taking a fight in “Ramapo,” which Petty is trying to protect him from.  The folks in Ramapo, represented by Harrellson’s brutally sleazy DeGroat, are the bad mamba jamba, and of course things don’t go well.  Which leads us back to poor, downtrodden Russell to do something about it.

The biggest problem with Out of the Furnace is, to paraphrase the great Griffin Mill, the script writes itself.  The circumstances and the plot give Bale nowhere to go, even though he still can evoke strong feelings, like when he discovers that his lost love is going to have a baby with her new beau.  His lone vice takes place when he is doing good, and in every other moment of the film he is…doing good.  The stoicism leaves us nothing to wonder about his decisions.  The script takes care of that. Anything that happens to him is a direct correlation to some other decision made by his brother.  He speaks to him once about it, but then accepts that his efforts will be fruitless.

As DeGroat, Harrelson is pure venom.  It’s hard to imagine anyone “jumping in the ring” with him, but it’s just as unlikely any of his cronies would even play cards with him.  He does not accept losing, smirking or questions.  When he asks Jr. to take a dive, it can only go one way.  Guys like DeGroat exist in the movie mountains of Bumblef#%k, U.S.A. and nowhere else.

Cooper’s Crazy Heart was a combination of a great soundtrack and an incredible actor at the top of his form.  The script wasn’t half bad, but it seems more like a stroke of luck that it was better than this one.  His gritty sepia tone visual style worked better in a part of the country where the sun hit the screen once  in a while. Here it’s annoyingly dark, just like the labored subject.

There is a stellar cast for this film.  The producer’s list is a who’s who of Hollywood power.  Everyone is clamboring to be a part of the one who could be the next great director.  This film could put a curb to that.  I am sure he will get a few more shots, but there will be a few less big names and not as much money.  Meanwhile, Jeff Nichols cranks out classic after classic, for less money combined than this film cost to make.

(** out of *****)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (***1/2) more hunger, more games

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – 2013

Director Francis Lawrence
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Donald Sutherland
Screenplay Simon Beaufoy, Michael deBruyn based on the book by Suzanne Collins

After struggling through the first book of the series, The Hunger Games, I was not looking forward to the movie at all.  Fortunately, Gary Ross, along with co-screenwriter Billy Ray, was able to separate the wheat from the chaff.  The result was a strong first installment, absent Collins’ mawkish running dialogue that created an absolutely unbearable lead character which served to damage the rest of the story.

Almost through a sense of duty, I struggled to read the rest of the series, even if doing so almost obliterated any goodwill that Jennifer Lawrence had achieved with her effortlessly authentic portrayal.  Absent the hemming and hawing, Lawrence shows vulnerability without making one feel like her next move will be hitting the couch with an open container of ice cream.

Watching the second film feels like more of a chore than the first.  We see more of the annoying Effie (Banks), more of Hamish (Harrelson) acting like he is acting drunk (yes, we know), and more Stanley “two chee!” as Caesar, pretending this is all the greatest thing since Entertainment Tonight came on the air.  Then there is the oppression, and the burgeoning revolution, which has one brilliantly conceived character Cinna (Kravitz), showing ideas in an imaginative way.

There is a bevy of new characters, from useful (Hoffman, Claflin, Wright and Malone) to peripheral (any of the other competitors) to annoying (Plummer).  There is a new location for the games, which feels kind of claustrophobic when you get down to it.  The best part of the film takes place there, even if – at an hour and a half – it takes too long to get there.

Lawrence the actress works as well with Lawrence the director as she did with Ross.  She owns the character, and its development.  Unlike the muddled wuss portrayed in the books, Lawrence’s Katniss is more assured than confused.  Even then, she’s still a little overwhelmed by the events.  Still, the movie looks better than the mental picture Collins presents in the books.  The combination of Collins story and Lionsgate films works thus far.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Cool Papa E’s Favorite Comedy Films of All Time

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Live action comedy films are inexpensive to make but they are incredibly hard to master.  It’s a generally accepted axiom that there is no generally accepted axiom as to what is universally funny.  That said, most makers of comedy barely even try.  Whether it’s the rancid Scary Movie franchise, Tim Matheson’s  Animal House / Meatballs clone Up The Creek, or the recently half-assed  college movie in disguise, The Internship, most comedies have the feeling that they were written on a bender while watching better (or even poorer) films.  Most comedy films seem labored and pushy, with absolutely no flow.  They are just a movement from one set piece to the next, with scat jokes and T&A thrown in to make one feel like they have seen something.

Bachelor Party is a good simile for its counterpart in the real world.  Everyone has likely experienced it (or claim to have), and smiles about it when it’s brought up.  In the end, no one really thinks it was anything more than degrading for those who made it, those who watched it and those forced to compromise themselves for it (Zmed, anyone?).  Yet, they still happen.

Once in a while, a directorial tour de force, like Billy Wilder, Mel Brooks or The Farrelly Brothers will create a niche that others will copy (usually poorly).  More often you will see an actor or actress make a pile of films that, for better or worse, will dominate the charts for a decade or so.  Tracy and Hepburn, Wilder and Pryor, Murphy, Carrey, Sandler and Will Ferrell have made their own stamp on decades, for better or worse.

When thinking about my favorite comedies, there are a few things I need to make clear.  This is not a far-reaching list, time wise.  There is nothing older than 1974.  It’s not that there were no funny movies before then.  It’s just that I don’t find films prior to that time period all that funny.  Comedy is often a product of the times, and I just wasn’t made for those times.  Were going to go backward from 10 through 1.  Aside from the basic information and a small review, I will discuss the best lines, moments and anything else I can think of.

Airplane! – 1980airplane-movie-poster-1980

Writers and Directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Starring Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Lorna Patterson, Stephen Stucker, Frank Ashmore, Jonathan Banks, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Craig Berenson, Barbara Billingsley

Review: King of all the movies that parodied movies.  Unlike many of the clones that followed, this film actually has a plot that holds together all the jokes.  It’s an important distinction to know that later, when the shit hits the fan, there is a reason for it.  Leslie Nielson found a 2nd life as a straight comic genius.  Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges also play against type to great effect.  This film is so funny, it even survived having Robert Hays and (especially) Julie Haggerty as the leads.  Of course Haggerty’s style of never getting “it” was perfectly suited for the material, but it was the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker treatment that made the two work so well.  Without those two, their careers went exactly nowhere.  Peter Graves proves that there are some questions that are bad.  And Johnny, oh Johnny.  Has there ever been a better smart-ass?

Best Lines:

Steve McCroskey: Johnny, how ’bout some more coffee?
Johnny: No, thanks!

[All reading papers]

Rex Kramer: Passengers certain to die!
Steve McCroskey: Airline negligent.
Johnny: There’s a sale at Penney’s!

Rumack: Can you fly this plane, and land it?
Ted Striker: Surely you can’t be serious.
Rumack: I am serious… and don’t call me Shirley.

Roger Murdock: [breaking character] The hell I don’t! LISTEN, KID! I’ve been hearing that crap ever since I was at UCLA. I’m out there busting my buns every night. Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes.

Best Moments: 

Everything with Johnny is pure gold, but when Barbara Billingsley takes over as translator for the Jive speaking duo, the material reaches another level.  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s reaction to the kid’s criticism is priceless.

Odds and Ends: 

Stephen Stucker, who played Johnny the air traffic controller, was one of the first actors to admit he was suffering from A.I.D.S. after being diagnosed on June 12, 1984.  He died from complications, April 13, 1986.  He was my first exposure to someone so completely flamboyant.  I think he may have moved the acceptance movement forward a few years with his brutally witty performance.

Bridget+Joness+DiaryBridget Jones’s Diary – April 13, 2001

Director Sharon Maguire
Starring Renée Zellweger, Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Jim Broadbent, Embeth Davidtz, Gemma Jones
Writers Andrew Davis, Richard Curtis

Review: Pride and Prejudice as a modern comedy.  The lead actress, a Texas native playing a British girl.  It shouldn’t have worked so brilliantly.  Richard Curtis and Andrew Davis are a big reason it does work.  Having Colin Firth and Hugh Grant as the other two sides of her love triangle don’t hurt either.  Sharon Maguire has never shined so brilliantly, and so far, she hasn’t ever since.

The genius of the comedy is the way it trades upon the subtle frailty of one on the fringe of love.  It seems likely that it would be such a sad place to inhabit, but Zellweger makes the vulnerability hilarious.  Colin Firth, playing on his classic portrayal of the original Mark Darcy, is the perfect counterpoint to her character.    The side story of her mother and father (Broadbent and Jones) is equally poignant.

So many ups and downs commandeered with such authority and tenderness and humor, it’s the film that rightly catapulted Firth into the pantheon of romantic leading men, and gave Zellweger a similar boost which she never was able to capitalize on.

Best Lines:

Bridget: Bridget Jones, wanton sex goddess, with a very bad man between her thighs… Mum… Hi.

Mark Darcy: I realize that when I met you at the turkey curry buffet, I was unforgivably rude, and wearing a reindeer jumper.

Richard Finch: Why do you wanna work on television?
Bridget: I’ve got to leave my job because I shagged my boss.
Richard Finch: Fair enough. Start on Monday.

Bridget: Did I really run round your lawn naked?
Mark Darcy: Oh, yes. You were four and I was eight.
Bridget: Well, that’s a pretty big age difference. It’s quite pervy really.
Mark Darcy: Yes, I like to think so.

Best Moments: 

When, after reading her diary, Mark Darcy walks off, out of her apartment.  She runs him down, looking to avert the false crisis, to find that it wasn’t a crisis at all.

The Tarts and Vicars party…that wasn’t.

Bridget’s slide down the firehouse pole, right into the camera in the most indelicate way.

Odds and Ends: 

This is the movie that, upon its release, April 13, 2001, I met my wife for the first time.  It just so happened that this movie was a classic, but I have to admit, the result of seeing the film has done nothing to damage its memory for me.

Kingpin-1996Kingpin8

Directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly
Starring Woody Harrelson, Randy Quaid, Vanessa Angel, Bill Murray
Screenplay Barry Fanaro, Mort Nathan

Review: There are a few other Farrelly Brothers movies that come to mind when people discuss best of lists.  Something About Mary or Dumb and Dumber, to name a couple.  This one has everything those films do, but one extra-awesome factor.  Bill Murray as Ernie “Big Ern” McCracken.  Trying straight up antagonism in place of his antagonistic protagonism.  Every little facial tic has a wonderful, gigantic reason to be.  Murray’s smarm is right at home with the Farrelly’s unsentimental comedy.  Perhaps the best part is the big swirl of comb over in the last frame.

The rest of the story has more going for it that one look at the meager box office would suggest.  Woody Harrelson’s willingness to victimize himself for purposes of the story works, especially when one sees the way he’s fallen apart.  Randy Quaid has held no appeal whatsoever in any of his other work.  Something just feels right seeing his Amish yokel Ishmael taking a dump in the urinal while reading a paper.  Seeing Roger Clemens as the meathead everyone knows he is.

The second best thing about this movie, beyond Murray’s epically brilliant performance, is Vanessa Angel.  I never remembered seeing her before, and I can’t recall seeing her since, but she has real comic charm as Claudia.   She has a genuine chemistry with Harrelson and her looks are at once beautiful and intelligent.  It should have been a throwaway role, but her performance still brings a smile after all these years.

Even more memorable – in the most creepy way possible – is the sight of Lin Shaye demonstrating to Woody’s Roy Munson what it will take for him to pay rent.

There is some real goofball cheese going on here.  Some of the scenes travel well over the border of absurd, but in true Farrelly fashion, the characters move right through, never taking the time to admire themselves.  They believe it and it makes us believe.

Best Lines:

 Roy: Some of the dresses ya’ got, ya’ need two hairdos to wear.

Ishmael: Run for the hills everybody, there’s a giant shit-cloud coming.

McKnight Bowl Bartender: So, you two are dictionary salesmen?
Roy: You would be punctilious in assuming that.

Ernie McCracken: Hi… not you… hi.

Little boy: Sometimes when I wake up in the morning Mr. McCracken’s already there.

1979 Waitress: Tanqueray and Tab.
Ernie McCracken: Keep ’em comin’, sweets, I got a long drive. Do me a favor, will you? Would you mind washing off that perfume before you come back to our table?

Ernie McCracken: Finally, Big Ern is above the law!

Best Moments: 

This is perhaps the funniest fight scene in a comedy:

It takes courage to make a fight scene so honest.  Great punches, a nice wide foot, and superior music.

I may be the only one who notices, but Ishmael’s getting up and leaving while Roy goes for the roll of his life, all without the overly dramatic look back: that’s gold.

Nothing resonates more than every single line Murray has as Big Ern, topped with this:

Odds and Ends: 

post-elmoreleonard-getshorty

Get Shorty – 1995

Director Barry Sonnenfeld
Starring John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, Danny DeVito, Dennis Farina, Bette Midler, Delroy Lindo, James Gandolfini, Jon Gries

Screenplay Scott Frank based on the book by Elmore Leonard

Review: 
The tightest script and an impeccable cast.  It’s like The Player, but instead of seething behind one venomous joke, we get to see it played for a layered series of laughs in the bubble popping style only Sonnenfeld can make.  Hollywood and the mob world are both played expertly and with a lack of sentiment that is morally ambiguous.

John Travolta completely owns every scene with a joint sense of natural intimidation and a wonder for all things cinema.  Scott Frank immerses the story into Leonard’s relaxed tone, completely surrounding Travolta’s Chili Palmer with a supporting cast that is loud and idiotic or low-key and smart. Every single performance is a brilliant one.

Seeing Palmer interact with people who think they know the score is like a gift.  Characters that would normally have their way in a story like this are doormats to this low-level Shylock.  When he meets his equal, in the person of Renee Russo’s Karen Flores, both characters shine.  For Hackman, it was an opportunity to play completely against his history.  His Harry Zimm is great as a foil for Palmer, as he does his best to stay in step and constantly undermines Palmer’s attempt to turn negatives into positives.

Two other components without whom the story could not have succeeded without are Dennis Farina and James Gandolfini.   Farina’s Ray “Bones” Barboni plays the consummate tough guy.  His character is a loathsome one that would intimidate most other actors in any story.  He does some really intense and mean things here.  In front of anyone else, he would be in control.  Chili Palmer, a step removed, is unflappable.  Farina’s greatness only makes Travolta better.

As Bear, Gandolfini is allowed to emerge from the shadows of being a tough guy meant to physically embarrassed into a complex and conflicted character coming into his own.  Delroy Lindo’s Bo Catlett sees him as a blunt tool to be used and dismissed, to his eventual chagrin.  It’s perhaps the first glimmer of light in what would be a classic career.

The best two things about the film are the soundtrack and the way Travolta works with it.  It’s so perfectly synchronized it makes him seem even more stylish than he naturally is.

Best Lines:

 Chili Palmer: Look at me.

Bo Catlett: Harry called you his associate. What exactly does that mean? I mean, I never heard your name, or read it in Variety, or The Star, or anyplace.
Chili Palmer: It’s what he said, I’m his associate.
Bo Catlett: You must bring something heavy to the deal.
Chili Palmer: I do: me.

Ronnie Wingate: Excuse me bro’, but who the f— are you?
Chili Palmer: I’m the one tellin’ you how it is…

Chili Palmer: Harry, look at me. You’re trying to tell me you f—ed up without sounding stupid, and that’s hard to do.

Ray Bones: F— you, f—ball.

Best Moments: The nose punch

Who am I talking to?

Odds and Ends: The entire cast competed on a game called “Death is not an option,” during the making of the film.  In the game, one is given a choice between two people who one has to be intimate with.  They have to choose one and, you know, death is not an option.  This is a game I have played with my friends many years before and since.  It has different options, eternal purgatory with someone instead of one intimate session, but the same deal applies.

The 40 Year Old Virgin – 2005the_40_year-old_virgin

Director Judd Apatow
Starring Steve Carell, Catherine Keener, Paul Rudd, Romany Malco, Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks, Leslie Mann, Kat Dennings, Jane Lynch
Screenplay Judd Apatow, Steve Carell

Review:  
A movie with a great amount of heart, edgy humor and wisdom, it is the first directing effort of Apatow, whose earlier work included the unheralded television masterpiece Freaks & Geeks.  Carrell gives the performance of his life, mastering both the comic and the dramatic aspect of the character, Andy Stitzer.  While making him likeable and only slightly non-functional and having the courage to make the other characters equally flawed and real, he gives the situational comedy some grist.

It’s in the peripheral characters that this comedy becomes more than just an average comedy.  Rudd, Rogen and Malco carry a significant part of the story, existing not for one liners exclusively but they are funny none the less.  The women of this film, Lynch, Mann and Banks, were largely unknown as the men. Most worthwhile comedies made since this film have featured at least one of them.  The most consistent source of laughs, though, is Gerry Bednob’s Mooj, who almost steals the movie with his few scenes.

Best Lines:

 

Cal: You’re gay, now?
David: No, I’m not gay. I’m just celibate.
Cal: I think… I mean, that sounds gay. I just want you to know this is, like, the first conversation of, like, three conversations that leads to you being gay. Like, there’s this and then in a year it’s like, “Oh, you know, I’m kinda gonna want to get back out there, but I think I like guys,” and then there’s the big, “Oh, I’m… I’m… I’m a gay guy now.”
David: You’re gay for saying that.
Cal: I’m gay for saying that?
David: You know how I know you’re gay?
Cal: How? How do you know I’m gay?
David: Because you macramed yourself a pair of jean shorts.
Cal: You know how I know *you’re* gay? You just told me you’re not sleeping with women any more.
David: You know how I know you’re gay?
Cal: How? Cause you’re gay? And you can tell who other gay people are?
David: You know how I know you’re gay?
Cal: How?
David: You like Coldplay.

Andy Stitzer: You know what? I respect women! I love women! I respect them so much that I completely stay away from them!

David: [watching The Bourne Identity] Y’know, I always thought that Matt Damon was like a Streisand, but he’s rocking the shit in this one!

Best Moments: Mooj with Ray (not for kids) and Mooj with Andy (not for most adults).  Mooj rules…

Odds and Ends: This scene was  real (language)

blazing_SaddlesBlazing Saddles – 1974

Director Mel Brooks
Starring Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Slim Pickens, Madeline Kahn, Mel Brooks, Dom DeLuise
Screenplay Andrew Bergman, Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg, Al Uger

Review: 
Brooks had a lot of great films in the 70’s.  For the longest time I thought High Anxiety was my favorite.  Re-watching this one, though, reminded me how beneficial it was to have Wilder and the under-appreciated Cleavon Little   Both were the second choices for their roles, but now we can’t imagine the movie without them.  Wilder, in his best roles, always seemed calm, assured and like he was savoring every moment in the environment within which the story was taking place.  Little has the presence of mind to approach the heavy material with deftness and wackiness, without being an ass in the slightest.  The most telling moment for him in the film is when he handles Mongo (Karras) with the exploding candy gram.  He is Bugs, we are all Daffy Duck.

The subject matter did not necessarily lend itself to comedy, but that did not stop Brooks from going after it anyway.   It’s one thing to lampoon something, it is something more to take firmly established prejudices and show their idiocy in the most irreverent way possible.  Once you’ve gone after Hitler, I suppose anything is possible.  Harvey Korman and Madeline Kahn were both brilliant as usual.  Each were by this point at home with Brooks style.  They helped to define the style.  Slim Pickens was never better, and Alex Karras knocked a horse out.  Cold.  Who would imagine he’d have such a nice touch with little Webster 10 years later.

Best Lines: 

Hedley Lamarr: My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives.
Taggart: God darnit, Mr. Lamarr, you use your tongue prettier than a twenty dollar whore.

[Bart, disguised as a Klansman, describes his qualifications as a villain]
Bart: Stampeding cattle.
Hedley Lamarr: That’s not much of a crime.
Bart: Through the Vatican?
Hedley Lamarr: [smiling] Kinky. Sign here.

[to two members of the KKK, while pretending to capture Bart]
Jim: Oh, boys! Lookee what I got yuh.
Bart: Hey, where the white women at?

Hedley Lamarr: Men, you are about to embark on a great crusade to stamp out runaway decency in the west. Now you men will only be risking your lives, whilst I will be risking an almost certain Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Taggart: I got it! I know how we can run everyone out of Rock Ridge.
Hedley Lamarr: How?
Taggart: We’ll kill the first born male child in every household.
Hedley Lamarr: [after some consideration] Too Jewish.

Best Moments: Well, I quoted almost every one of Korman’s lines…but let’s go with the lead dancer saying “They hit Buddy (DeLuise)!  Come on, girls.”

Odds and Ends: Pryor was deemed too big of a loose cannon, with his rumors of rampant drug use and a lack of mental stability.  Wilder replaced Gig Young after one day of shooting.  The reason: alcohol withdrawal.

There was a television pilot made called Black Bart (one of the early titles of the film)  that was shown but never picked up.  Brooks had little to do with it.  Black Bart was played by Lou Gossett, who looked the same then as he does now.

The Big Lebowski – 1998lebowski-(2)

Writers and Directors Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro

Review: Bridges Dude is perhaps the greatest comic character of all time.  More likely the greatest duo, if you include Goodman’s Walter.  This movie is masterful storytelling.  We are lulled through the amazing story of a slacker getting his butt kicked routinely for things he should have nothing to do with.  The discussions between The Dude and his friend are a constant source of tension that is immediately alleviated when they both agree (or not) on another poor decision.

It took years for me to warm up to the Coen brothers directing style.  I still don’t like most of their early stuff  (only Raising Arizona is the only one I can stomach through Hudsucker Proxy).  Here their skill seems effortless, lackadaisical almost.  Based upon recollections of friends, and characters written for Goodman and Buscemi, they have a most homogenous style that feels like we are gazing in on the lives of those barely aware of their own existence.

This movie is perfect – pure genius – and it just gets better with age.

Best Lines:

 The Dude:  That rug really tied the room together.

The Dude: Let me explain something to you. Um, I am not “Mr. Lebowski”. You’re Mr. Lebowski. I’m the Dude. So that’s what you call me. You know, that or, uh, His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.

Walter Sobchak: Nihilists! F— me. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.

The Dude: Walter, what is the point? Look, we all know who is at fault here, what the f— are you talking about?
Walter Sobchak: Huh? No, what the f— are you… I’m not… We’re talking about unchecked aggression here, dude.
Donny: What the f— is he talking about?
The Dude: My rug.
Walter Sobchak: Forget it, Donny, you’re out of your element!
The Dude: Walter, the chinaman who peed on my rug, I can’t go give him a bill, so what the f— are you talking about?
Walter Sobchak: What the f— are you talking about? The chinaman is not the issue here, Dude. I’m talking about drawing a line in the sand, Dude. Across this line, you DO NOT… Also, Dude, chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature. Asian-American, please.
The Dude: Walter, this isn’t a guy who built the railroads here. This is a guy…
Walter Sobchak: What the f— are you…?
The Dude: Walter, he peed on my rug!
Donny: He peed on the Dude’s rug.
Walter Sobchak: Donny you’re out of your element! Dude, the Chinaman is not the issue here!

Blond Treehorn Thug: [holding up a bowling ball] What the f— is this?
The Dude: Obviously you’re not a golfer.

Maude Lebowski: What do you do for recreation?
The Dude: Oh, the usual. I bowl. Drive around. The occasional acid flashback.

The Dude: Hey, careful, man, there’s a beverage here!

Best Moments: After getting an earful about achievement from The Big Lebowski, then, outside the room, Brandt asks what he said.  The Dude, without missing a beat, tells Brandt he was told he could take any rug in the house.

Then there is the beverage scene.

Oh, then there’s this scene:

Odds and Ends:

Dudeism.  Oh, and they are teaching college courses on The Dude and Walter.  That is all.

anchorman sex pantherAnchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy – 2004

Director Adam McKay
Starring Will Ferrell, Christina Applegate, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, David Koechner, Fred Willard
Screenplay Adam McKay and Will Ferrell

Review:  Time has been kind to this seemingly overwrought comedy from the minds behind Funnyordie.com.  Initial reviews were mixed to the point that we have grown accustomed with Farrell films, but repeated viewings have shown a film chock full of in jokes and inspired bits.

Koechner, Rudd, Carrell, Willard and Applegate are so at home in this environment, it makes up for any seemingly out-of-place  events.  It is the oddities that make Anchorman such a delightful boon.  The street fight, the office musical number, the flute solo, Baxter, and even “milk was a bad choice,” all flow in a brilliantly incongruent way.

Even after his significant breakthrough in Elf, Will Ferrell found his best self in Burgundy.  Ignorant, arrogant and unreasonably confident, he personifies all that was so right and so wrong with 1970’s culture and media in general.  His journey is our journey to find out that it is not necessarily okay throw a burrito out of a car while travelling on a bridge.

There are so many aspects to the film that you can enjoy different things each time.  If you don’t believe me, then just see if you can find “Escupimos en su Alimento” next time you see the film.

Best Lines:

Announcer: You’re watching Channel 4 News with five-time Emmy award-winning anchor Ron Burgundy and Tits McGee.
Veronica Corningstone: Good evening, San Diego. I’m Veronica Corningstone. Tits McGee is on vacation.
Ron Burgundy: And I’m Tits… I’m Ron Burgundy.

 –

Ron Burgundy: Boy, that escalated quickly… I mean, that really got out of hand fast.
Champ Kind: It jumped up a notch.
Ron Burgundy: It did, didn’t it?
Brick Tamland: Yeah, I stabbed a man in the heart.
Ron Burgundy: I saw that. Brick killed a guy. Did you throw a trident?
Brick Tamland: Yeah, there were horses, and a man on fire, and I killed a guy with a trident.
Ron Burgundy: Brick, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. You should find yourself a safehouse or a relative close by. Lay low for a while, because you’re probably wanted for murder.

Ron Burgundy: Let’s go to Brian Fantana who’s live on the scene with a Channel 4 News exclusive. Brian?
Brian Fantana: Panda Watch. The mood is tense; I have been on some serious, serious reports but nothing quite like this. I uh… Ching… King is inside right now. I tried to get an interview with him, but they said no, you can’t do that he’s a live bear, he will literally rip your face off.
[to the Panda]
Brian Fantana: Hey, you’re making me look stupid. Get out here, Panda Jerk!
Ron Burgundy: Great story. Compelling, and rich.

Frank Vitchard: [shouts after having his other arm ripped off by a bear]: Aw, c’mon! It’s getting to be ri-goddamn-diculous.

Ron Burgundy: You stay classy, San Diego. I’m Ron Burgundy?
Ed Harken: Dammit. Who typed a question mark on the Teleprompter?

Brian Fantana: [about Veronica] I’ll give this little cookie an hour before we’re doing the no-pants dance. Time to musk up.
[opens cologne cabinet]
Ron Burgundy: Wow. Never ceases to amaze me. What cologne you gonna go with? London Gentleman, or wait. No, no, no. Hold on. Blackbeard’s Delight.
Brian Fantana: No, she gets a special cologne… It’s called Sex Panther by Odeon. It’s illegal in nine countries… Yep, it’s made with bits of real panther, so you know it’s good.
Ron Burgundy: It’s quite pungent.
Brian Fantana: Oh yeah.
Ron Burgundy: It’s a formidable scent… It stings the nostrils. In a good way.
Brian Fantana: Yep.
Ron Burgundy: Brian, I’m gonna be honest with you, that smells like pure gasoline.
Brian Fantana: They’ve done studies, you know. 60% of the time, it works every time.
Ron Burgundy: That doesn’t make sense.
Brian Fantana: Well… Let’s go see if we can make this little kitty purr.
[snarls]

Best Moments: 

This is perhaps my favorite line of all time:

Odds and Ends: The soundtrack is an absolute work of art.   It is not so much a listing of the songs, as it is an opportunity to hear Burgundy talk about each song, which he titles Ron Burgundy, A Life in Song.  The best example of the brilliance is the song Shannon, by Henry Gross.  There is not other performance that shows the true character of Ron Burgundy.

Stripes – 1981StripesMoviePoster

Director Ivan Reitman
Starring Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Warren Oates, P. J. Soles, John Candy, Judge Reinhold, John Laroquette, Sean Young
Screenplay Len Blum, Harold Ramis, Daniel Goldberg

Review: 

The greatest slacker film, featuring the best movie comedian of his generation just hitting his stride.  It wasn’t the biggest film he would ever do, but it is still the best.  Joining the U.S. Army because you have…no other real options. The premise is lazy and really shouldn’t have worked.  It’s quite likely that had Ramis and then Murray become involved, this movie would have been long forgotten

The film is a loosely cobbled together series of scenes, most of which work really well, but all of them work  in general.  Most of the actors, outside of Murray and Oates, were no names at the time of filming.  Many of us know their names now.

It’s almost impossible for me to review this film.  I can repeat almost every line of dialogue.  I find every character easy to identify with, other than the old hag in the back of the taxi at the beginning of the story.

The only part of the film that does not work is the last act, taking place in Russia.  It’s has some funny moments, mostly by Ox. Other that and seeing Sgt. Hulka kick some ass, the whole segment is unnecessary.  The film would be perfect if they ended it at graduation.

Best Lines:

[Sergeant Hulka is on the ground after getting blown off of a tower]
Oxburger: Sergeant, does this mean we’re through for the day?

Oxburger [Talking to guy in the top bunk]: See, you gotta make my bunk. See, we’re in Italy. The guy on the top bunk…has gotta make the guy on the bottom’s bed all the time. It’s in the regulations. If we were in Germany…I would have to make yours. But we’re in Italy, so you’ve gotta make mine. It’s regulations.

Recruiter: Now, are either of you homosexuals?
John Winger: [John and Russell look at each other] You mean, like, flaming, or…
Recruiter: Well, it’s a standard question we have to ask.
Russell Ziskey: No, we’re not homosexual, but we are *willing to learn*.
John Winger: Yeah, would they send us someplace special?
Recruiter: I guess that’s “no” on both. Now if you could just give Uncle Sam your autograph…

Psycho: The name’s Francis Soyer, but everybody calls me Psycho. Any of you guys call me Francis, and I’ll kill you.
Leon: Ooooooh.
Psycho: You just made the list, buddy. And I don’t like nobody touching my stuff. So just keep your meat-hooks off. If I catch any of you guys in my stuff, I’ll kill you. Also, I don’t like nobody touching me. Now, any of you homos touch me, and I’ll kill you.
Sergeant Hulka: Lighten up, Francis.

 

John Winger: Cut it out! Cut it out! Cut it out! The hell’s the matter with you? Stupid! We’re all very different people. We’re not Watusi. We’re not Spartans. We’re Americans, with a capital ‘A’, huh? You know what that means? Do ya? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. We are the wretched refuse. We’re the underdog. We’re mutts! Here’s proof: his nose is cold! But there’s no animal that’s more faithful, that’s more loyal, more loveable than the mutt. Who saw “Old Yeller?” Who cried when Old Yeller got shot at the end?
[raises his hand]
John Winger: *sarcastically* Nobody cried when Old Yeller got shot? I’m sure.
[hands are reluctantly raised]
John Winger: I cried my eyes out. So we’re all dogfaces, we’re all very, very different, but there is one thing that we all have in common: we were all stupid enough to enlist in the Army. We’re mutants. There’s something wrong with us, something very, very wrong with us. Something seriously wrong with us – we’re soldiers. But we’re American soldiers! We’ve been kicking ass for 200 years! We’re 10 and 1! Now we don’t have to worry about whether or not we practiced. We don’t have to worry about whether Captain Stillman wants to have us hung. All we have to do is to be the great American fighting soldier that is inside each one of us. Now do what I do, and say what I say. And make me proud.

Best Moments: Sarge, does this mean we’re through for the day?

Odds and Ends:  The script was originally written for Cheech and Chong, but when they asked for the world, he moved on.  Ramis rewrote it, with he and Murray in mind.  All of the pot jokes were then placed into Reinhold’s character.  So, yeah, this movie would have sucked if Cheech and Chong had not been greedy.

ShaunofthedeadShaun of the Dead – 2004

Director Edgar Wright
Starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield, Lucy Davis, Dylan Moran, Penelope Wilton, Bill Nighy
Screenplay Wright and Pegg

Review: I hate British comedies.  Until 2004 I hated zombie movies.  This all changed with Shaun of the Dead.  Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright make every single move a winning one, especially with one of the best endings in cinematic history.

Nick Frost is sublime as Pegg’s lazy friend, Ed.  The relationship between the two is second only to Bridges and Goodman in brilliant comic energy.  And by energy, I mean a complete lack thereof.  These folks are like every slacker duo ever created, but with a resilience and dedication to remaining so, even while facing the end of the world.

Penelope Wilton and Bill Nighy head an effective supporting cast that helps to paint a picture of a monotonous life without being boring in the least.  Well, everyone except for that guy David (Moran), who looks a lot like a dickish Harry Potter.

Fun abounds as the group follows the lead of the hero, Shaun, back to their favorite pub.  From there we get to see nothing go the way it should.  This could have just been average, but whip smart dialogue and great acting push it into one of the greatest comedies ever.  British Zombie movie or not.

Best Lines:

 Ed [To Shaun’s Mom, Barbara]: We’re coming to get you, Barbara!

Ed [To Shayn, as he goes in to get his Mom]: Don’t forget to kill Philip!

Shaun: Do you want anything from the shop?
Ed: Cornetto. [Coining the phrase what would eventually become The Cornetto Trilogy]

Shaun: David, kill the Queen!
David: What?
Shaun: The jukebox!

Ed: [pulls the car up] What’s up, niggas?

[As they look through Shaun’s LPs for suitable records to throw at two approaching zombies]
Ed: ‘Purple Rain’?
Shaun: No.
Ed: ‘Sign o’ the Times’?
Shaun: Definitely not.
Ed: The ‘Batman’ soundtrack?
Shaun: Throw it.

Best Moments: 

The ending is perfect.  No I won’t give it away.

Odds and Ends:

If you click trhe above link, you can read all about the Cornetto trilogy.  There is no way the other two can measure up to the first film, but they are both pretty good.

Now You See Me is a cute date that vanishes after the show

Now-You-See-Me-Poster-Ban-2

Now You See Me – 2013

Director Louis Leterrier
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Mélanie Laurent, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Common, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Michael Kelley, Elias Koteas
Screenplay Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, Edward Ricourt

Now You See Me is the kind of trick that shows you how its done while its setting you up for the next trick.  Four magicians (Eisenberg, Fisher, Harrelson and Franco) picked deliberately set up a show in Vegas that nets an apparent robbery in a bank in France.  This brings them to the attention of a FBI agent (Ruffalo) and a member of Interpol (Laurent).  One of the witnesses to the first trick (Freeman) gives both agents a bit of a tutorial, while showing us that he has a rivalry with their benefactor (Caine).  All of this seems pretty straight up, until they get to the 2nd trick.

As the 4 Horsemen, the leads have an awkward chemistry that seems more like cohesive bickering except when they are on stage.  Eisenberg is good for his role as the mouthpiece of the group.  It requires both being smart and being a smart ass, and he has each in spades.  Fisher and Harrelson have some expected moments, but its Franco’s mad escape attempt takes the card.

Ruffalo plays the dutiful lunkhead FBI agent, with a partner who may or may not be in on it.  He learns fast enough to always be one step behind, with his boss always chewing his ass.  Meanwhile, we have people literally being played like fiddles and the looming specter of a comedian named Shrike who’s been missing for nearly 20 years.  I wonder if he enters into the ending?

So much flash and pomp, and the circumstance is what you make of it.  The conclusion could be reached early in the film, but the actors you’ve seen playing the same roles for years may be the blindness that keeps you from understanding what you are headed towards.

Leterrier is a director who knows how to entertain an audience.  The viewer is kept at arm’s length, seeing what they need to see.  What they do with the information depends on the willing suspension of each’s beliefs.  The magicians hardly seem like characters, more like distractions.  And that is the point.

Is it memorable?  In some important ways, it may well be.  Most people will remember there was a smile on their face, even if they can’t quite place a finger on why.

(**** out of *****)

Seven Psychopaths: Sam Rockwell out-Walken’s Walken.

Seven-Psychopaths-Posters-SliceSeven Psychopaths – 2012

Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring  Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko

The craziest notion in the film Seven Psychopaths is the idea that Colin Farrell is any sort of writer.  I can buy the alcoholic part, even if it’s a cheap stereotype about the Irish.   But a writer?  No thanks.  I would believe an uncharismatic pretty boy actor perhaps…but back to the story.  There’s a crazy killer called the Jack of Diamonds going around knocking off members of the mafia.  There is a dog “borrowing” operation that run by two guys named Billy and Hans (Rockwell and Walken).  Billy is friends with Marty (Farrell) and Marty is a drunk.  Oh yeah, Billy stole the dog of a local mafia nut job named Charlie.  Charlie is pretty mad about this.  Stuff happens after that, but I would not want to ruin it for you.

There are some good performances in the film, most notably Rockwell and Walken.  This is Sam Rockwell at his best.  McDonagh’s dialogue rolls perfectly off his tongue.  It’s his performance alone that makes the movie a minor success.  When one  finally understands his warped perspective, it is hard not to agree with it.  Walken is as good as he has been since he’s found his late career fame.  He is subdued, which, in his case, is still more disturbed than most.  Not more than Rockwell.

For his part, Farrell has pulled out one of his better performances since McDonagh’s In Bruges.  He plays along incredulously with Walken and Rockwell, giving them enough of the lead for them to run a bit wild, but not out of control.  He spends much of the film sponging ideas off of his two nutty friends, making the idea of him as a screenwriter much more believable.

McDonagh gives evidence here that In Bruges was not a fluke.  His talent for screenwriting exceeds that of his direction, but he’s better than average there, too.  One of the best parts of the film is his exquisite self-analysis (through Walken) of his inability to write good female characters.  If there is one failing here, it is that there are more actors here than there are plot lines.  Some day, he may hit one out of the park.

(***1/2 out of *****)

The Hunger Games does the novel justice

The Hunger Games – 2012

Director Gary Ross
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Wes Bentley, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Lenny Kravitz, Toby Jones, Paula Malcomson, Willow Shields
Screenplay Ross, Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray based on the novel by Collins

There are several moments throughout the movie, The Hunger Games, where Jennifer Lawrence wordlessly expresses emotions and thought processes that took pages upon boring pages to express in Collins’ book.  Her decision to wait out the other “contestants” in the game was not a hard one, but it could have been difficult to translate.  Director Ross  makes a wise choice when he goes with Lawrence’s countenance for a description.

The Hunger Games as a book, was somewhat laborious and overwrought.  The premise was described as a future society after a big war and another failed rebellion.  The country of the United States is now 12 districts, part of a hegemony, under a dictator and mostly in squalor.  It is no more far-fetched, I suppose, than anything out there.  The advantage that the book has is that in district 12, which is where Katniss lives, is mostly the equivalent of a small town.  If this is representative of the rest of the country, then the country must be down to about 5000 people.

As the premise goes, Ross makes due and makes the story move with clarity where necessary (the game controllers) and inference where most people can connect the dots. There are no slow moments in The Hunger Games.  While there are moments where the story lets down and comes across as hokey (the Effie (Banks) character, almost entirely), Ross was able to pull the character of Haymitch (Harrelson) completely out of the ditch into a relevant and wily character.  My wife thinks Woody Harrelson deserves an Oscar nomination for his portrayal.  I think that Ross deserves half of that Oscar.

One place where the performance meets the story is in the person of Cinna as portrayed by Kravitz.  A smartly written character in the novel, his look and his demeanor is not what I expected, but it works just as well, adding depth to the story and hinting at the future of the story.

The action scenes in the last half of the film flow much more steadily than they do in the book.  Katniss is clever, but not super heroic.  As her journey continues, you see her evolve and see her begin to formulate a new idea out of her frustration and desperation.

Overall, this is a good flight of fancy, made serious enough by the screenplay and direction as to be watchable time and again.  For every goofy hairdo and sleepwalked Donald Sutherland appearance (does he have any other by this point) you have many other good things going on.  This gets me closer to reading the second book than the first book ever did.

(**** out ******)