Friday, February 25, 2011

Movie Review: "Hall Pass"

The latest comedy from Peter and Bobby Farrelly ("There's Something About Mary"), "Hall Pass" has an intriguing premise, a likable cast, a few funny moments and an ending that makes you feel as if the characters have learned something. But as the credits rolled, everything felt a bit flat, bland and false. Its surface charms disguise the fact that the film has nothing at its center for audiences to invest in; it's not a movie, it's a doughnut.

Certainly the idea is ripe for comedy. Two 30-year-old buddies, Fred (Jason Sudeikis) and Rick (Owen Wilson), are happily married yet find themselves constantly ogling women and reminiscing about their glorious single days. Fed up with their horndog spouses, their wives (Christina Applegate and Jenna Fischer) issue the two men a "hall pass": one week away from the restrictions of married life where they're free to do whatever they want.

Not only does the idea have merit, but the Farrelly brothers are working with a cast that should be able to nail this material in their sleep. Wilson is the straight man but brings leftover goodwill from his work in "Wedding Crashers" as weary family man Rick, and Sudeikis - one of "Saturday Night Live's" most consistent current players - is born to play the out-of-touch cad who thinks he still has moves. Applegate is one of the most underrated comedic actresses working, while Fischer doesn't have to do too much more than play the same lovable character she portrays each week on "The Office." A supporting cast including Stephen Merchant ("Extras") and J.B. Smoove ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") is also promising.

Yet the movie falls curiously flat. Rick and Fred hit the town, ready to get drunk and pick up loose women, and the film immediately feels stale and predictable, with many of the jokes landing with a thud. The film's one-liners are uninspired, with lame attempts to pump up the humor with four-letter words going over like lead balloons. The "Hall Pass" week begins with an inspired joke about the guys trying to find women at Applebees, but the film goes nowhere from there - just recycled jokes about how old and unprepared Frank and Rick are for the single lifestyle. The Farrellys, who delivered one of the funniest movie moments of the past 20 years with "There's Something About Mary's" zipper scene, seem to have lost the ability or desire to properly pace a sequence; their major set pieces feel rushed and obligatory, like the brothers are suddenly embarrassed of the immaturity that's been their hallmark for so long.

Sudeikis and Wilson do what they can with the material. I particularly enjoyed Fred's pickup lines at the bar and the way the two offend some rich friends when they pay them a visit. But just as the plot kicks into high gear, all momentum is lost, with big set pieces feeling oddly paced. An unfortunate trip to a fitness center for Rick, and Fred's scandalous visit to a massage parlor feel rushed, with no build up, ending in awkward punch lines or raunchy sight gags.

There have been many adult-themed comedies lately that have bungled the big gags but coasted on the interplay between the two main characters. I'm thinking of films like "I Love You Man" or "Knocked Up." But those films had characters whose depths and interests extended beyond the confines of the plot. Here, all we know is that Fred sells insurance, Rick is a real estate agent and both men think about sex constantly. Without any more depth to their friendship, there's nothing else for the film to coast on but sex gags that fall flat.

There's good material here for a smart, witty and even heartfelt commentary on marriage and relationships, and it would have been interesting to see how else they could find humor in the restrictions Fred and Rick feel in their marriages. Did they have dreams they can't pursue now? Do they have things they'd love to spend their money on but are crushed by budgeting? There's a great wealth of material that could be mined for humor here, but all we're given is the immature, R-rated joke that men are pigs who think about sex all the time. Maybe there's some truth to that, but since the film falls flat on all its sex gags, there's nothing else to string it along, save for Richard Jenkins' small role as a womanizing middle-ager.

I'd be curious to see what the same material would have been like in the hands of someone like a Judd Apatow, who could easily combine wit, crassness and an emotional commentary on the differences between men and women. Instead, we get scenes of Owen Wilson staring at oversized male genitals and Sudeikis having a tryst with an old woman.

The problem further compounds when the Farrellys try to bring the film to a semi-serious and romantic close in the final act. By the time Rick and Fred realize the error of their ways and rush back to their wives, the film wants us to think they've learned something, but the characters are so one-dimensional that we haven't seen a real change, just an obligatory and manipulative resolution. That would be fine if this were a "Dumb and Dumber"-esque comedy, but the scene is staged so that the directors want us to see this as a sweet finale. Even the climax's comedic complications are staged ham-handedly and feel more chaotic than inspired.

To get a glimpse of what this movie could have been, just take a look at the subplot featuring Applegate and Fischer, who begin to experience the pros and cons of their own hall pass. The scenes, sadly truncated, balance the humor and heart that the Farrellys obviously want the rest of the film to have, and hint at a much more heartfelt film. If it were possible, I'd take a hall pass on Sudeikis and Wilson to spend more time with the ladies. They're in the better movie.

Original article posted here.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Quick Hits

My initial plan for this three-day President's Day weekend was to load up on some movies I had missed out on in 2010 and have three days of non-stop movie marathons. I decided to be a little more productive and a little less couch potato-ish, but I did manage to see a few movies--some old, some new--this weekend, so I thought I'd write up some brief thoughts on those.

And yes, I'm hoping to get part two of "The Directors" up with my thoughts on "Raising Arizona," but more than likely that feature will gain more speed after I've moved into the new place. Lots of moving and wedding prep going on here.

Anyway, here we go:

Tango and Cash

I know this 1989 Sylvester Stallone/Kurt Russell action-comedy has its fans. But while it has its moments, I have to imagine this was the moment that the wisecracking supercop genre of the late-80s/early-90s hit its breaking point.

Tango (Stallone) and Cash (Russell) are two of LA's top cops. Tango is a sharply-dressed businessman who stays in the cop game "for the action" while Cash has the t-shirt, stubble and haircut of the K-Mart version of Martin Riggs. The two are unorthodox in their methods, playing chicken with a semi truck or crushing a perp's windpipe with a chair to get answers but, somehow, the press heralds them as heroes. It goes without saying that Tango and Cash hate each other. I'll give you five seconds to wonder whether they must overcome their differences and become friends to stay alive.

An LA drug kingpin (Jack Palance) has had enough of the two cops meddling with his "billion dollar business" and pays off the city's legal system to frame the two for murder and put them away in an only-in-the-movies prison where the leaky walls are made of stone and criminals rain flaming rolls of toilet paper down from the ceiling. Tango and Cash not only have to survive in, but escape from, this hell hole and then track down the man who put them away.

The plot is wafer thin--I can't exactly explain how the cops are transferred from their cushy federal prison to this Shawshank-esque nightmare any more than I could tell you how exactly they track down the bad guy to his compound at the end of the film. The script seems to be less concerned with plot mechanics and more about ensuring Tango and Cash have a ready supply of wisecracks at their disposal. There's not a single line in this movie that isn't matched two seconds later with a smart alec remark. Some of these, such as Tango remarking "Rambo was a pussy," are good for a chuckle. Others, such as "I think that with your IQ, you're unarmed and still very dangerous" land with a thud.

This comes down, actually, to the casting of Stallone and Russell, two actors who seem to have very little real chemistry together. Russell seems more at home as the wild card, slovenly detective and the one-liners flow a little easier from him. Stallone, asked to wear fancy glasses and suits, looks out of his league. Whereas Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson were able to deliver one-liners well enough that they felt like extensions of their characters, Stallone's wooden acting here makes it all too apparent the lines were crafted. There's no attitude or panache to the wisecracks; just the feeling that the screenwriters really wanted to have audiences leave the theater with quotes on their tongue. Aside from a funny FUBAR reference, however, it doesn't really work.

The film coasts on some fun action sequences, particularly a brutal "Lethal Weapon"-esque brawl in the prison's laundry room and a very over-the-top, but enjoyable escape from the penitentiary. The flick is definitely part of Warner Brothers' "overkill is underrated" mentality from the late 1980s and indulges in all the excess these films shared. There's a bloody fight in Cash's apartment, the prison is filled with sparking, exploding generators and the bad guy's hideout features monster trucks and halls of mirrors, which the cops destroy with their own pimped-out police RV. It's utterly trashy and ridiculous, but I'm sure every male who ponied up the dough for "The Expendables" last summer probably has a special place in their heart for this flick.

It's definitely a guilty pleasure, and it works much better when focused on the action sequences. Unfortunately, director Andrey Konchalovskiy is convinced he's making an action-comedy, and it's the latter that lands with a thud. The wise cracks hit their mark only about 50-percent of the time. Even worse, though, is the scene where Cash escapes a strip club by dressing in drag or a misunderstanding where Tango thinks Cash is having sex with his sister (Teri Hatcher).

There are slight charms to be had here, as I said. But I've met many who refer to this flick as a bona fide action classic and, I'm sorry, I just don't see it. Stallone and Russell don't have the chemistry to pull of a "Lethal Weapon" buddy comedy and it doesn't have the confidence to be as trashy and guilty as a "Last Boy Scout." It may not be totally FUBAR, but it's far from the best work these guys have done.

The Sunset Limited

I think both Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson are fantastic actors who too easily succumb to type-casting. Before waking up this decade and delivering some of his finest work in films like "In the Valley of Elah" and "No Country For Old Men," Jones spent nearly a decade coasting on the Laurels of his no-nonsense character from "The Fugitive," sometimes successfully ("Men In Black") sometimes woefully ("Man of the House.") After Tarantino turned him into the coolest cat in Hollywood, Jackson milked that persona for all its worth, which is how he's turned into a caricature of himself in "Snakes on a Plane" or the current Marvel films.

It's extremely refreshing to see these actors shed their crutches and deliver some of their strongest work in ages in "The Sunset Limited," an HBO adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's two-character play, directed by Jones. Featuring only the two men in one cramped apartment, the film is a powerful acting showcase that delves into some of life's deepest questions, leaving no one with easier answers.

Jones plays White, a professor who attempted to kill himself by hurling himself in front of a train. Jackson is a poor ex-con named Black who saved his life and taken the broken man up to his apartment. Black, an evangelical Christian, feels it's his calling to save White. White, an atheist, not only has no belief in God but no faith in humanity. He reasons that it's not only wrong to assume that we are our brother's keeper, he believes that the very existence of humanity continually proves that people are beyond saving. These beliefs fuel a gripping 90-minute discussion of philosophy, theology, race, culture and the things that keep us going in our darkest moments.

When adapting a one-room play for film, the tendency is to find a way to open up the story to keep the narrative moving and visually appealing. Jones, however, does the opposite and takes advantage of the restrictions McCarthy places upon the story. The apartment is small and constrictive, with outside din often wafting in from out doors. As the two men confront each other and find themselves defending and questioning their own beliefs, the apartment begins to feel smaller, trapping and cornering them so they have nowhere else to look but at the other person. It lends a sense of tension and urgency to the discussions which are, quite literally, life and death discussions.

Jackson has been buried in his cool persona for so long that it's surprising to see him here as a humble, poor ex-con. There's a warmth about Black; he's not portrayed as a lunatic who hears voices but as a man who strongly holds to his convictions and won't be deterred, no matter what you might throw at him. Sometimes he speaks softly and gently. Other times, he mocks and chides White. In one blistering scene, Black launches into a prison story and loses himself in the narrative, Jackson's voice booming and screaming in that way only he can do. It's been so long since he's been this engaged in a performance and it's riveting.

Jones, with his hang-dog face, largely plays the part of a man broken. He has nothing to believe in. He used to believe culture would be his salvation but now he watches it be destroyed by a world that is marching toward oblivion. Jones captures this brokenness perfectly, but also filters in the pride that White feels, the belief that his problems matter more because of the insights his education has offered him. In the film's final moments, he is given a dizzying monologue in which he reveals the reasons for his despair and the strength of his convictions. "The only thing I'll never give up," he says, "Is giving up."

It's a fascinating performance piece, fueled my McCarthy's pitch-perfect dialogue. The writer may be far from his comfort zone of wide vistas and unending Western landscapes in this New York apartment, but his themes of religion, despair, hope and apocalypse are all present here. McCarthy seems fascinated by the way these two belief systems clash against each other and the questions each one presents. Atheists may seem to be the most cultured and intelligent, and yet the end for White is one of cynicism and despair. For believers like Black, their faith has given them hope and a reason for living, a belief that people can be redeemed and the world made better. But faith, by definition, is not always certainty, and the film presents the dilemma of what believers face when their faith is not always rewarded and answers aren't always given to them. "The Sunset Limited" gives us two men with opposing beliefs, neither of whom are willing to back down from their convictions and what happens when those outlooks violently collide.

I found the film riveting, one of the most intelligent and profound looks at faith, unbelief and hope that I've seen in a long time. In some of the strongest work of their storied careers, Jones and Jackson knock this one out of the park.


Perhaps next to the collaboration between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, the partnership between Tony Scott and Denzel Washington is the most frustrating director-actor team-up in Hollywood.

At times, the two have given us some solid action thrillers, such as "Crimson Tide" or "Man on Fire." Other times, you get "Deja Vu." I don't know what frustrates me more--the tendency that Washington has to coast in these films, playing the same lovable curmudgeon over and over, or Scott's tendency to edit his films like a meth addict.

Their latest collaboration, "Unstoppable" is actually one of the pair's better films. Washington is definitely giving the same performance he's given Scott before, but he's balanced by Chris Pine in a strong co-starring role. Pine is a rookie train conductor tagging along with Washington's engineer on his first day of work. Washington's character has just been given his forced retirement notice and is understandably irked at having to show this young upstart the ropes.

While the two are out bickering on their route, a series of mishaps has caused a train elsewhere in Pennsylvania to start barreling down the tracks without a conductor. This train, the size of the Chrysler Building, is carrying eight cars' worth of toxic, highly combustible chemicals. And, of yeah, if it hits the bridge in the town where Pine lives, it's likely to fly off the rails and eradicate everyone there.

When I first saw the previews, I assumed it had to be a parody. After all, how much can you do with a train? It goes one direction. I actually thought this would be a "Speed 2" descent into self-parody, with ominous shots of the train heading closer and closer to town as people fumbled about what to do.

The final product, though, is actually fairly plausible (although I question of much of this is actually inspired by a true story). Scott fumbles a bit when showing how a lazy conductor loses control of the train, but he gets a great deal of suspense from shots of the train narrowly missing another train full of children or of employees speeding up alongside the locomotive trying to climb aboard. There's a pretty nifty sequence where one worker tries to be helicoptered onto the moving train which, of course, ends in disaster. After all, the train is "Unstoppable."

When he ascertains that the railroad commission intends to derail the train, Washington knows that it won't work. So he decides to catch his locomotive up to the runaway car, hitch onto it and bring it to a stop. It's crazy and dangerous, of course, but this is a Tony Scott movie, so of course it has a good shot at working.

The story moves just fast enough for us to keep from questioning much of it. It's fun, loud and flashy, but Washington and Pine are both likable enough in their roles to keep us invested. Likewise, Rosario Dawson, as a control room manager, keeps things grounded enough for us to maintain our suspension of disbelief. Scott eases up on his editing here and actually delivers some coherent action sequences.

The film relies a bit too much on the perspective of the media covering the train chase; in the film's final hour, I'd say a good 45% of the scenes are shown from the perspective of news cameras. And while I don't disagree that the media would be all over a disaster like this, the omnipresence of news choppers is a bit distracting in many of the action sequences. A romantic subplot between the Pine character and his wife is also a bit cliche.

Still, the people who see this film want to simply see Denzel stop a fast train. They won't be disappointed. "Unstoppable" ain't art, but it does give the people what they want.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Movie Review: "Cedar Rapids"

Original review published at the Advisor and Source.

"Cedar Rapids" may be the first coming-of-age movie about a 30-year-old man.

Played by Ed Helms with the same joyful naivety that he brought to the "The Hangover" and "The Office," Tim Lippe is a successful insurance agent who's never left the small town he grew up in. He believes in the old-fashioned values his firm touts and thinks his dalliances with his elementary schoolteacher (Sigourney Weaver) are "super awesome."

When the agency's top salesman dies in a compromising situation, Tim is sent to an annual insurance convention in Cedar Rapids to bring home the coveted "Double Diamond Award," bestowed upon agencies that best display the virtues of the association's uptight president. Tim should be a shoo-in for bringing home the gold - his worst curse words are "My foot" and when he saunters up to the bar, he orders a root beer. Tim's boss (Stephen Root) has even taken precautions to team Tim up with an equally straight-laced and mundane roommate (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.) for the weekend.

Obviously, it goes without saying that a housewife looking for an escape (Anne Heche) and a hard-drinking blowhard (John C. Reilly) introduce Tim to the temptations of "big city" life. And you've probably guessed that the once uptight teetotaler gets more than he bargained for as things spiral out of control.

What you may not have predicted, however, is how sweet the entire proceedings are.

Much of that can be attributed to Helms, who can do the wide-eyed nice guy routine better than anyone these days. There's an excitement to Tim's first adventures in the city and Helms captures Tim's eagerness perfectly. He keeps Tim childlike and naive, but never dumb. Tim's too focused on his job to drink, too in love with his teacher girlfriend (who tries telling him they're just "having a good time") to flirt with women and too inexperienced at life outside his little hamlet to know what a local prostitute means when she asks him to "party." But he's good at his job, genuinely loves what he does and firmly believes that insurance agents are heroes fighting for the little guy. It's this enthusiasm that makes Tim a character we enjoy spending 90 minutes with.

A lesser movie would have focused on Tim's competition with Reilly's crass, annoying sales agent. And while Reilly is in full "Step Brothers" mode here, spouting off dirty one-liners and hamming it up for the camera, his character is actually revealed to be a good guy, loyal to his friends and living it up in Cedar Rapids because his home life is in the dumps. It's a fun and raunchy role for Reilly, but it's balanced out by genuine warmth.

That's actually a good way to describe the majority of "Cedar Rapids." There are several big laughs to be had as Tim experiences life outside his comfort zone, but very few of the jokes are at his expense. The cohorts he finds himself surrounded by at the hotel are funny to watch - particularly Whitlock, who has the film's funniest moment when he saves Tim from a fight late in the film - but what stuck with me was the sense of warmth and camaraderie among the cast.

It's rare these days that a genuinely good character can be the hero of a film. Hollywood likes flawed heroes and lately it seems that cads, slackers and cons make up the majority of comedic protagonists. Tim's a good character whose innate niceness pulls broken people into his orbit. In addition to Reilly's character, Anne Heche is surprisingly affective as a bored housewife who looks forward to this weekend as her yearly escape from marriage. These characters do some pretty terrible things during their weekend and, yes, pull Tim down with them on occasion. But what's refreshing is how, through his experiences, Tim sees the hypocrisy that surrounds him and rediscovers not only his own integrity but the bonds formed among problematic people. It's a surprising mature subtext for a raunchy comedy.

I'm not saying "Cedar Rapids" is "The Shawshank Redemption." Director Miguel Artera seems to sacrifice subtlety and wit for big, crass laughs too often, and by the time Tim has to be rescued from a drug-fueled party in the sticks, it's begun to run out of steam. Kurtwood Smith's work as the ultra-moral association president is cliche and derivative of any role that has ever called for a crusty dean or camp counselor.

But maybe that makes sense. With its ribald jokes and spirit of camaraderie, "Cedar Rapids" really might be best described as a summer camp movie for grownups, set inside a hotel. It's a funny, surprisingly warm movie and I wouldn't mind spending some time with these characters again next conventions season.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Catching up: What's up with Docs

Sorry for the delay in posting. Like I said, with a wedding coming up and some busy times at work, my entries may be a bit sporadic for the near future. But I'm looking forward to really getting back at it this week. In addition to this entry, I'll have a review of the Ed Helms comedy "Cedar Rapids" on Friday and my belated second entry in "The Directors" before Sunday--hopefully I can also get the third entry in to make up for it. Next week I'll be looking at the Farrelly Brothers' latest attempt, "Hall Pass."

Right now, I'm trying to go through my stack of films from 2010 and catch myself up. Over the last few weeks I've been immersing myself in documentaries and then, over the three day President's Day weekend, I'll be going back into more narrative features.

Perhaps it's my journalism background, but documentaries may be my favorite genre of film. I get sucked into a good doc so easily and the best ones often have characters and plots that you would find too outlandish in most fiction films. Films like "Hoop Dreams," "The King of Kong," "Hell House" and "Young @ Heart" are films that have moved me, made me laugh or made me meditate on things much deeper than many scripted films.

So approaching documentaries wasn't really a chore for me. And, with the exception of one, all of these were released in 2010. So here are my short thoughts on a few that I've seen recently.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010, dir. Banksy)

This funny, fascinating film from notorious street artist Banksy surprised quite a few people when it was nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar over the likes of "Waiting for Superman" and "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work." But the film's sheer cleverness--which left many leaving the theaters to wonder just how real it is--makes it one of the most entertaining docs of the past few years.

To say too much about the journey that Frenchman Thierry Guetta makes in this film would ruin the fun. Guetta, a man with a video camera always in his hands, started documenting street artists around the world many years ago under the guise of creating a documentary. With his exuberant, albeit clumsy and overbearing, nature, many of the artists--including the famous Banksy--allowed him to video tape their work, reasoning that the temporary nature of street art (which is cleaned away by police shortly after it's discovered) could benefit from the permanence of film. Much of "Exit Through the Gift Shop's" first hour is spent watching these artists covertly work at night, guerrilla Rembrandts armed with spray paint and ladders. Guetta meets the jackpot when Banksy--whose work has appeared in London, the West Bank and Los Angeles--agrees to let him videotape him at work, and Guetta captures the moment street art turns into a gold mine for collectors.

If this were all the film was about, it would still be interesting. But a twist in the film's final half hour lends a new level of intrigue as Guetta tries his own hands at street art. It's these final moments that have left many wondering whether the film is as true as it claims to be or if Banksy is pulling one over on the audience. The crew stands buy the film's claims and others have verified that the events of the end actually happened, but I still can't shake the feeling that Banksy quietly pulled the strings on everything Guetta finds himself at the center of, pulling one huge prank on the art and film worlds. But we'll likely never know--the artist is famously reclusive--and that gnawing question gives the film a wonderful jolt of energy.

"Exit Through the Gift Shop" is surprisingly funny, particularly watching Guetta stumble around at night with the artists, knocking over paint buckets and falling from ladders. It also shines the spotlight on street art which is so often mistaken simply for graffiti and vandalism but has creators just as serious about their work as anyone whose paintings end up in a gallery. It asks serious questions about the impact of money and fame on an art form that hinges on anarchy and rebellion and, in the final passages, makes us ask questions about whether something that mimics the work of others and demands a profit can truly be considered art...and if not, how do you justify those guidelines in a field that is supposed to have no rules at all?

"Exit Through the Gift Shop" is extremely watchable, particularly for those who usually shy away from documentaries because they find them staid and boring. It feels dangerous in places, hilarious in others and entertains even as it poses questions that won't easily be dismissed when the credits roll.

Restrepo (2010, dir. Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger)

Don't let the National Geographic production tag fool you: "Restrepo" is far from a boring, clinical look at war.

Hetherington and Junger (author of "The Perfect Storm") spent a year embedded with a platoon stationed in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, known as the deadliest place on Earth. Each day, the soldiers face incoming fire and attacks and, throughout the course of the film, they lost several of their own to these firefights. The directors get closer than any other filmmaker I've seen and keep the cameras rolling even when the bullets are flying.

It's a harrowing film and one of the most in-depth looks at soldiers' lives that I've ever seen. From the first minutes when a roadside bomb detonates under a vehicle that the cameraman's traveling in, through a tragic shoot-out in the Afghan mountains, "Restrepo" is unflinching and unafraid to show the reality of war.

The film is apolitical, not interested in the "why" of the fight but in the simple fact that the men profiled have chosen to do a job that could cost them their life. The directors never ask political questions, never cut away to "combat experts" and never lose sight of the fact that the film's subject is not the war, but the men fighting it.

I was amazed by how young the warfighters are here. The oldest can't be a day over 30. And we watch as they make quick decisions under fire, nonchalantly play guitar during down time or muse about the circumstances surrounding their deployment. There's a heartbreaking moment when one soldier breaks down in tears upon learning his compatriot has been killed and an intense recollection from another who was injured in an ambush. But the film also captures the day-to-day work the soldiers conduct in Afghanistan, meeting with local elders about building roads, settling disputes over dead cattle or searching villages for insurgents. One sobering moment shows the soldiers reacting to the knowledge that their strike on a village may have injured innocent civilians.

The fly on the wall perspective Hetherington and Junger bring to "Restrepo" causes it to drag in some moments, but it also allows the directors to stay close when chaos erupts. In the end, you probably won't learn much about the war in Afghanistan, but it's impossible to walk away without a renewed admiration for the men who go to hell to support our country.

Catfish (2010, dir. Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman)

Much like "Exit Through the Gift Shop," "Catfish" was surrounded upon its release by whispers that the documentary was a hoax. I found myself asking many of the same questions while watching the film, wondering just how directors Joost and Schulman were able to capture such a ready-for-cinema story on camera at just the right time. It had to be too good to be true.

But like "Gift Shop," "Catfish's" story has been verified. And looking back on the film, I have to say that even that doesn't surprise me in the has the ring of truth to it, the thought that the events are too bizarre to be the work of fiction.

Of course, that means I can't tell you much about this film, as much of its success comes from watching the events unfold with the surreality and tension of a thriller.

Ariel Schulman is a photographer in New York who discovers that a 9 year-old girl has been making very accomplished paintings of his work. Through Facebook and the telephone, he befriends the young girl, her mother and 19-year-old sister, with whom he begins a cyber relationship. And then...well, you'll have to see for yourself.

Without giving too much away, the film provides a very sobering commentary on a culture where lives can be lived solely through social media. What we choose to reveal about ourselves, the personas we craft for our lives on the's all fascinating until other people with real feelings gets involved. "Catfish" may be the first documentary I can remember that depended so closely on Facebook, Instant Messenger, Myspace and other online tools to tell its story.

It's a bit of a slow go at the beginning, particularly because Schulman and his friends are not the most interesting or likable of subjects. Wannabe filmmakers who think a bit too highly for themselves, they come off a bit grating and bland. But the film's mystery slowly draws us in and, by the end, the revelations "Catfish" has in store lead to a finale that is uncomfortable, tragic and yet surprisingly human. Schulman's reaction to the truths he learns is commendable and humane, and the final 20 minutes are both heartbreaking and compassionate.

Even if "Catfish" weren't true, it would make a fascinating mockumentary on the subject of Internet relationships. The fact that it's true makes everything that much more powerful.

The Rock-Afire Explosion (2008, dir. Brett Whitcomb)

I never was a Showbiz Pizza kid. Growing up, we had Chuck E. Cheese and Major Magic's, which were the same concept--your parents would take you to get pizza and you'd spend an afternoon playing video games.

Each of these restaurants had its own rock and roll show with animatronic characters up on stage. I grew up loving Major Magic's All Star Pizza Revue, which featured a Walrus, Crocodile, Lion and and a Fox singing "Charlie Brown," "Little Old Lady from Pasadena" and "I want to Hold Your Hand." I loved going there, waiting for the lights to dim and for the show to start and I truly am sad that the restaurants have closed down and my children won't get to have that experience. But, I grew out of it and moved on.

Others haven't. There's a subset of men and women in their late 20s and early 30s who are obsessed with Showbiz Pizza's animatronic band, The Rock-Afire Explosion, several monkeys and apes who sang and danced on stage while kids munched on their pizza. In the early 2000s, Showbiz Pizza merged with Chuck E. Cheese and the Rock-Afire Explosion was phased out to make way for the mouse and his cronies.

This film chronicles the pursuit of Chris Thrash, a 31-year-old from Alabama, who tracks down the last remaining Rock-Afire animatronics and displays them in his house. It also tracks down Aaron Fechter, the creative genius who made millions supplying the shows to Showbiz Pizza and then lost everything when the business grew too fast.

This is the kind of off-kilter doc I live for, dealing with a certain subset the same way "King of Kong" or "Trekkies" does, although "The Rock-Afire Explosion" leans less on comedy and more on nostalgia. I suppose there's humor to be found in a grown man building his own Showbiz Pizza in his backyard or the low class surroundings Thrash lives in (to this day, he only drinks Mt. Dew). But the film is careful never to laugh at its subjects and instead director Brett Whitcomb lovingly captures a small sect of fandom and its yearning for the things of youth.

Why would a man track down animatronic figures from a defunct pizza chain? It's a bit heartbreaking to hear Thrash muse that those were the happiest days of his life, when "thins were a bit simpler." And while there's an interesting story Fechter tells about the rise and fall of Showbiz and the Rock-Afire explosion, what makes this film truly work is the way it captures a culture that's adrift and discontent, longing to relive their childhood and recapture the thigns they loved in their youth.

We live in the age of remakes, and I've seen many things I've loved from my childhood paraded again on the screen. I'll admit it's very easy to want to revisit my past. I've spent hours watching old cartoon introductions on Youtube or looking at photo galleries of amusement parks I went to as a child. Is it any different for another man to collect animatronic figures from the place that he had the best memories of growing up?

There's definitely a restlessness and refusal to grow up in our culture and I fear that the Internet only feeds that--we no longer have to let go. And "The Rock-Afire Explosion" captures that bittersweet nature of growing up while hanging on to nostalgia. It's a beautiful, if minor and quirky, little documentary that I highly recommend to anyone interested in geek culture.

Babies (2010, dir. Thomas Balmes)

Who says there's no such thing as truth in advertising?

"Babies" delivers just what it promises; nearly 90-minutes worth of just babies. Laughing babies. Crying babies. Babies eating, babies playing, babies looking at things. If they made a sequel to "March of the Penguins," it would be this, which I call "Crawl of the Humans."

The film chronicles four babies born at different ends of the world--Tokyo, Africa, Mongolia and the United States. It follows them throughout their first year of life, and the film is basically scene after scene of the babies marveling at the world around them, discovering their pets, snuggling with their mothers and playing with their siblings. There's no narration, no experts to talk to and no overarching examination of baby life. It's pure observation from beginning to end.

Right about now, there are two camps of people on this movie: those who feel that this is going to be the cutest thing they've ever seen and those who feel they will overdose on sap.

And yet, the film is beautiful and hypnotic, an enjoyable way to pass the time that leaves you a little more in awe of the world in which we live. It's fun to watch the babies discover life, but it's even more remarkable to watch these four from around the world and see just how similar they are despite their extremely different surroundings. It's amazing to watch them discover personalities over the course of the year and to see their curiosity grow as they examine their pets, their parents and the world around them. The cinematography is bright and beautiful to look at and fly-on-the-wall view means it rarely feels manipulative or overly-emotional.

Then again, it's a movie about babies. And who doesn't like babies? You're pretty guaranteed with this one, simply from a cute factor.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Directors----"Blood Simple" (1984)

I know that the blogging has been extremely spotty lately. Part of it is that, following the holiday award rush, I probably needed a bit of a break from the movie world. Along with that, I've been buried under some obligations at the office, along with preparing for a wedding and a move.

So, from now until early April, things are still going to be a bit sporadic.

But I did want to start off this month by posting my new series--The Directors.

As I try to broaden my cinematic horizons, I want to take on a project that allows me to catch up with the work of some directors who I find intriguing. I have a list of names that should get me through this first year and my plan is to post one entry a week, on Sunday nights. This allows me not only to see a number of classic films that I have until now neglected to view, but it also provides greater perspective on how certain filmmakers have matured over the years, what common themes they tackle and what they've added to cinema.

First up are The Coen Brothers. That was basically a no-brainer. Each year it seems they have a new film out that enthralls me and shoots directly to my "best of" list. In just the past few years they've given us the perfect "No Country For Old Men," the wonderfully daffy "Burn After Reading," the brilliant "A Serious Man" and this year's Oscar contender "True Grit." That's not to mention classics like "Raising Arizona," "Fargo" and "The Big Lebowski."

The Coens are actually a great start for this project, as they've zig-zagged across so many different genres since their 1984 debut that I can't imagine this project feeling boring. So we're going to start today with that 1984 film, the dark and delicious film noir "Blood Simple."

Blood Simple

Murder is never as easy it seems.

During my time as a reporter, I had the opportunity to cover several murder trials and, through my colleagues, hear stories of other grisly cases. One thing that has always left me shaking my head is the thought that murderers always think they can get away with it, that nothing has been left to chance and they're going to be two steps ahead of everyone else.

Of course, it never happens that way. Getting rid of bodies is hard work. Murder is rarely a one-person job and conspiracies easily lead to paranoia, which leads to betrayal. The randomness of life ensures that there is always going to be an unforeseen difficulty to trip up the perpetrator and cast the light of suspicion on them.

That thought occurred to me several times during "Blood Simple," Joel and Ethan Coens pitch-black debut. The title can be read several ways, but I kept coming back to two: an ironic commentary on how murder is never simple, or a description of the way violent crime renders a perfectly normal person totally incompetent.

Certainly Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) thinks he's about to commit the perfect crime. He suspects his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) is cheating on him with his bartender Ray (John Gertz). When a private investigator (a wonderfully sleazy M. Emmett Walsh) confirms Julian's suspicions, the bar owner decides to hire the PI for another job--kill his wife and her lover.

That's where things get complicated. To say anything about how the plot unfolds would ruin the film's nasty twists and turns, which develops with all the precision of a great thriller and the unpredictability of the best black comedies. There's a betrayal, another murder, the gruesome work of disposing a body. As Roger Ebert observed, there always seems to be one more body than necessary and throughout most of the movie no one has a clear idea of who is killing whom or why.

So many of the marks that define the Coens' later work are already on display with this debut. Their love for language--which is in full bloom in their sophomore feature "Raising Arizona"--is evident from the first frame, in which the PI drawls on off-screen to set the stage and warn us that perfect schemes don't always unfold according to plan. The full first sequence is simply dialogue in a car between Abby and Ray, with the audience eavesdropping from the backseat as we stare at the backs of their heads. In a simple three minute sequence, we learn that Abby is escaping her husband and has an attraction to Ray, but we learn this without anyone explicitly coming out to say it.

The Coens have a love for plots that spiral out of their protagonists' control, and the great twist here is how nobody seems to know what's going on. The plot starts off so simple and streamlined and, by the end, three characters are in a room, all of them with different ideas as to what's been going on. Their wrapped up in a situation where people are dying and everyone thinks they know exactly how things have unfolded--but none of them are right. It's to the brothers' credit that, this early in their careers, they had enough confidence over the narrative to keep the characters in the dark while still being able to keep the audience completely in the loop--the plot may become quite labyrinthine, but it's never confusing.

The themes that later come into play in much of the Coens' work--particularly life's randomness and the the futility of trying to control it--run throughout "Blood Simple," as does their skill at staging set pieces that are suspenseful, horrifying and darkly humorous all at once. A protracted sequence involving a body that will not disappear is fantastically played, as is the famous end set piece, involving a shootout with a villain who manages to be in two rooms at once--it sounds bizarre, and it is, but by the time this character is in this predicament, it all makes perfect sense.

If I have one complaint, it's that this film feels a little too well set in the real world. The Coens' films balance humor and suspense so well because they exist in a totally separate universe than the one we live in--one created solely from books and movies the brothers loved growing up. "Blood Simple's" style definitely carries the noir influences you'd expect, but--aside from Walsh's character--the actors aren't given much to do to craft well-rounded characters. They work well enough to carry the plot, but I think the brothers hadn't yet developed their knack for creating the characters who fit so perfectly in their wonderfully realized worlds. There's not much to like about Abby and Ray, except that Julian is such an obviously bad man. Walsh's PI, with his long drawl and Western getup, is really the only character who sticks in your head after the film's over.

That's not to say the performances are bad. McDormand, Hedaya and Gertz all do what they can with the roles, and the film moves so quickly that I was never really bored. More than anything, this is a fascinating exercise in style, with the Coens' crafting an intricate and tightly-wound thriller that slowly boils to its nerve-wracking climax. I'm just curious to see what the film would be like had the Coens made it later in their career.

Nothing much more to say about "Blood Simple" right now. I dug it quite a bit, and I'm sure I'll revisit it down the road. But I'm sure there's going to be more to write about when I take the time to discuss "Raising Arizona" next weekend.


About Me

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.