Friday, November 30, 2007

Now Playing: The Host

I must not be the obsessive fan boy that others in the Internet-based film geek community are (which would explain my disdain for "Serenity") because I watched this with the understanding that it was a kick ass monster film.

Instead, it’s a flat, slow, over-the-top monster film with bursts of greatness followed by loooong stretches of boring. I won’t argue that the film does itself a great service by not sticking to the basics of the formula and in that regard "The Host" is a heck of a good idea.

But the execution, frankly, sucks.

The film starts with an elderly American doctor instructing his younger Korean assistant to pour a ton of dusty chemicals down the drain even though it will lead straight into the mighty Han River. We’re then introduced to members of a family apparently governed by two idiots.

The patriarch of the family worries about his dimwitted son screwing up their business which is a little snack shack by the Han. The son has a daughter who is clearly smarter than either him or the patriarch, and she proves to be the grounded center of the film.

This is all about 10 minutes in which is when we get our first look at the monster. Credit is due to the film makers for not hiding it because you know right from the start what exactly the family is up against. The monster is basically a giant mutated fish, but the film makers treat it as a genuine animal.

It’s not just a killing machine despite the carnage it wrecks. The thing moves and acts like a wild animal would which is that it will attack when provoked and retreat when threatened. The downside is it looks fairly silly, and that silliness is magnified by the family’s reactions when it snatches the little girl.

The family is in a triage mourning and the way they just fell apart on the floor cracked me up. Somehow I doubt that’s what the director was going for. There are tons of genuinely funny moments, especially the biohazard suit wearing guy who walks into the triage with a megaphone. His reaction to the news cast had me howling. The family is taken to a hospital but when they get a phone call from the little girl who is clearly still alive, the family decides to take action and get the girl back.

I’d find everything far more believable if the two leaders of the family weren’t so completely bone stupid. When the little girl’s dad keeps falling asleep despite the situation, yet somehow has moments of clarity, it feels like the film wants to have it both ways. If he was going to start dumb and useless but end up on top of things that would be one thing, the formula if you will. But when the characters start stupid, have flashes of intelligence at just the right moments but then slip right back into Stupidville, I call shenanigans.

I give the film a lot of credit for bringing the funny and for not adhering to the standard monster movie formula, but the big finale doesn’t feel earned and the ending just kind of sits there. It doesn’t help that the characters are more a mess of jumbled contradictions than genuine people and that doesn’t fly when you need the story to move forward based on something more than an idiot having a spontaneous idea.

"The Host" is alright, but it’s no where near worth the accolades showered upon it by the Internet community.

Now Playing: Guess Who?

"Oh God! Are we being audited?"

I never watched Bernie Mac’s show when it was on but he seldom fails to make me laugh. He seems to specialize in the get in and get out style of cameo, which is perfect. Here he carries the film, which is no mean feat considering the weight includes the lifeless Ashton Kutcher.

I have yet to understand who in Hollywood decided he was A-list material because his utter lack of charisma or comic timing suggests he is anything but. The script is a fairly predictable reworking of "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?" with the twist being a black family’s daughter brings home a white guy. It even includes the typical "issue" you know will divide before the characters ultimately conquer and everything winds up happy in the end.

So what did I like about it?

Practically everything with Mac’s family is gold including a hilarious dinner conversation where Kutcher is forced to tell one black joke after another. You know he’s going to hit a wrong note eventually but the build up to it is genuinely funny.

It’s an amusing little comedy with enough funny moments to justify the rental. I’m keeping this commentary short since I watched it a while back and don’t remember a lot of it. Or any of it, really.

Take that for what it’s worth but I do recall laughing out loud a few times.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Now Playing: The Prisoner

This is the monster that cost me a month of my time.

You wouldn’t think it would take so long to watch 17 one-hour episodes of anything but it did. I almost didn’t make it though and I’ll tell you why in a second. But for now, let us get on to what has been heralded as one of the most important shows to ever hit the television medium. Prior to actually sitting down and watching it, "The Prisoner" was always referred to in hushed tones as though the very speaking of its name required a silent prayer of thanks.

Overall, the show ain’t half bad even though it is painfully obvious that AMC was unable to obtain the rights to whatever music selections were used in key parts of the show, most notably during the finale. This hurts far more than it helps. What music was substituted in is fine, if you can get past the show suddenly shifting into a foreign film sans subtitles where you have to accept that the dubbers aren’t pulling your leg with the translation.

The show kicks off like a rocket with an unnamed secret agent, the brilliant if over-the-top Patrick McGoohan (later famed as Edward the Longshanks in "Braveheart"), resigning from his secretive organization. He throws down his resignation, storms out the door, drives home and starts packing his suitcase before heading off to parts unknown.

Those plans are diverted a split second later when someone gases him. He wakes up in a remote place called The Village where he is assigned the number six as his designation. He doesn’t know who has him, who they work for, or where he is. All he knows is that the people who run The Village want information on why he resigned, and he’s convinced they won’t stop there should they ever get it. The chief antagonist is Number 2, the person in charge of The Village and in a brilliant decision the character changes from episode to episode. Sometimes Number 2 is a woman, sometimes a man.

This helps keep both Number 6 and the viewer off balance because every Number 2 approaches Number 6 differently so you never know what to expect.

The best moments of the show begin to occur a few episodes in as Number 6 comes to terms with his surroundings and starts to taunt his captors. The first few episodes focus on him trying to escape and being foiled in the end, but McGoohan (essentially the show runner) was smart enough to factor this in.

Number 6 soon begins to fight back against his captors and those episodes are usually brilliant. Equally brilliant are the episodes where Number Six actually escapes, such as "Many Happy Returns," because the show constantly plays against expectations.

But the second episode almost killed it for me. It was written and directed by McGoohan and it is absolutely insane. Number 2 holds an election where Number 6 runs against him for the title of Number 2. It sounds fine on paper but the way they did the episode is absolutely bizarre and assaulting. I almost held off on watching anything else, but decided to try the next disc.

I forget if it was episode three or four that was titled "The Chimes of Big Ben" but that one episode sold me so completely on the series that I relentlessly watched the remaining episodes as soon as they would come in. This episode also introduced my favorite Number 2 in the entirety of the show.

In watching an interview on the discs, the producer reveals McGoohan practically had to go into hiding because of how he ended the series. Remember, not every series is dragged on and on and on by networks desperate for ad dollars. Overseas markets tend to tell a story to completion, then end the show and move on.

Personally, I thought the ending to "The Prisoner" was solid even if the first half of the episode was strange rift on a trial, and one of my least favorite one-off characters was brought back. The reveal of Number 1 was surprising though so the show did get me there. But it does end well, in my opinion, so take that for what it’s worth.

The show deserves its place in history for a number of reasons, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them was how it played with traditional story telling. I have no frame of reference for television during that time other than sitcoms so a continuous dramatic arc, despite a lot of early evidence to the contrary, must have seem revelatory. It swims in style, though, so if you are even remotely a fan of 1960s Cold War spy thrillers then this show is an absolute must-see.

Yes, even the episode where Number 6 "switches brains" with another agent, which was probably written because McGoohan wanted a break that week.

But there are more hits than misses through the show and when it does manage to strike a bulls-eye, you'll find yourself thinking about that one episode for weeks afterwards. Oh, and the theme song is deceptively catchy. You hear it the first time and regard it as good. Then you'll catch yourself whistling it while in the supermarket.

The show gets under your skin so if you haven't seen it then do check it out. Just be prepared for some rough going in the second episode, and some equally rough going just prior to the final two episodes.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Now Playing: Unscripted

I shouldn’t even post this but I’ll go ahead and explain what happened when I sat down to watch Unscripted. This is a series Steven Soderburg and George Clooney came up with that focuses on three actors all struggling in Hollywood trying to make names for themselves. It’s a series based on a mixture of real-life and scripted events but the majority of it is improv.

Considering the powers behind the camera, we see a plethora of established actors on sets and how they interact with the three principles is supposed to give us a seedy sort of glimpse into the realities of the struggling actor in Hollywood.

Or at least that is what the show is supposed to be about. I wouldn’t know because I made it exactly 10 minutes into the first episode before I ejected it and sent both series discs back to Netflix.

Look, I understand from an inside-Hollywood perspective that this might be cool, hip, and informative, and Frank Langella’s domineering acting class instructor certainly looked promising. But there are certain ways that I do not want to waste my time and watching actors stand around while behind the scenes people prep a shoot, giving the actors plenty of time to illustrate how little they can actually improv, is fairly high on the list.

Krista Allen is always fun to stare at, but she’s an actress of limited range and the other two no-name stars are actors of no range. Those first 10 minutes also give off a certain "look at me" vibe that didn’t work. It looks exactly like what it is: Inside Hollywood people shooting a series focusing on inside Hollywood stripped of all the glitz, glamour, and allure while demonstrating just how much of a grind the industry truly is from an actor’s perspective.

Exactly why should I agree to spend 300 minutes watching this?

Now Playing: Breaking News

This little crime flick from Hong Kong surprised the heck out of me. For one thing, the entire opening shot and resultant action sequence are stunning. For another, the way the film unspools kept me guessing. While I think the lead cop, played by the director, was a little short on character development, the cast was uniformly excellent. I dug the camaraderie and banter between the two gangs, the cops and the crooks being chased.

The film begins with a stake out that goes wrong and the subsequent chase is an embarrassment to the Hong Kong police force. The newly appointment head of the department’s marketing and media relations is determined to improve the image of the cops, and when the crooks are discovered hiding out in a high rise condo she makes her move. As the cops head in and search for the criminals, the media director contacts every media outlet in the city and gets them all to cover it. But she underestimates the criminals involved as their leader proves he can manipulate the media just as easily as she can.

This film is riveting. I wouldn’t exactly call it high art, but I was glued to my seat through the duration. The way the cops work as a team is brilliantly contrasted with the way the crooks work together. Even though the lead crook is better defined than the lead cop, "Breaking News" is still a crackling action tale. The finale is a bit swift, but getting there is a heck of a lot of fun.

The only confusing part is a small detail towards the end regarding the motivation of both the lead crook and one of the guys he partners with in the building. This was the only part I wish was clear, but it might have been a translation issue. This doesn’t spoil the film at all, but it is a minor quibble.

Definitely check this out.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Now Playing: House of Flying Daggers

I don’t think it’s unfair to compare all subsequent Chinese fantasy films to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon considering how massive an impact it had on the genre. Basically everything afterwards is a variation on a love triangle in ancient China followed by tons of wire-fu all set against gorgeous backdrops while a haunting score plays.

Actually, that pretty much sums up every epic film made around the world since the beginning of the 20th century.

House of Flying Daggers kicks off with a bang when a detective is called to a local whorehouse where another detective has been thrown out for getting too rough with the women. One woman in particular is pulled forward and shown off to the detective. The woman, played by Ziyi Zhang, is blind but can hear a pin drop across the room. The resulting dance she performs is a mind-blowing example of choreography, special effects, music, and a hot chick at the center of it all.

Essentially, the scene is the perfect combination needed to win my heart were it not about to repeat itself for the following two hours.

From there, the film follows the blind woman as she leads the detectives closer to an elusive gang known as the House of Flying Daggers, assassins whom the emperor would like very much to see extinguished. This being a film about Chinese mythology, everything is lovingly photographed so much so it is easy to forget the rather slight narrative and focus instead on the visuals, which are stunning throughout.

I’d say I was tired of seeing the same thing over and over but in this day and age it’s not so much about the originality of the story itself as it is the telling of the story. I’m convinced that the only films China allows to be shot have a message at their core of unity to the emperor, thus to China itself. This is definitely one of those and I’d knock it harder for being so self important if it wasn’t so blasted beautiful to look at.

It took me about an hour longer than it should have to get through it simply because I kept getting bored. When I would come back there would be a gorgeous shot of the landscape followed by a cool fight followed by a lot of down time where everyone searched their feelings about each other before launching into another mystical fight.

Rinse and repeat for almost two and a half hours and that’s House of Flying Daggers in a nutshell. If that sounds like your bag, then go crazy.

Now Playing: Used Cars

I had this sitting on my desk about two years ago and never got around to watching it. So I threw it into the Netflix queue again and when it showed up this time I decided to plow through it.

I’m glad I did because there’s some genuinely funny material in the script. This was one of the early films in Robert Zemeckis’ career (before he went all digital all the time) but even considering that it’s still a solid piece of pop entertainment. Few directors can build to a zany ending quite like him and it is fun to see shots and techniques he would later use in Back to the Future among others.

The film kicks off by introducing a very young Kurt Russell smoothly bilking some poor sap into buying an extremely used car. Russell is brilliant in comedies (yes, even Captain Ron) and his timing is impeccable. It’s hilarious watching him navigate through a sleazy world like this with such cavalier ease.

But as good as he is, the late, great Jack Warden easily steals the show as twin brothers Roy and Luke Fuchs, owners of a set of used car lots right across the street from the other. Warden was a brilliant character actor and when he picked up a role he could sink his teeth in he tore it up. Used Cars is vintage Warden and he’s hilarious as the foul-mouthed, unscrupulous used car dealer (though that goes without saying) and his kinder, gentler brother. Warden has an easy rapport with Russell and the rest of the cast which makes it that much funnier when he’s bad mouthing everyone in sight.

This being a Zemeckis comedy it builds to a hectic finish with a killer punchline. Overall it’s a fun slice of late 1970’s and early 1980’s comedy before the internet and cell phones. Watching it 20 something years removed is fun in a time warp sort of way, especially when Lenny & Squiggy show up to drop in an inspired pirate spot to a televised football game, but the comedy on display is eternal. Check this out and prepare to laugh heartily.

A lot.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Now Playing: 3:10 to Yuma (1957)

The upcoming remake starring Christian Bale and Russell Crowe caused me to look up this 1957 Western to see what the fuss was all about. I can understand director James Mangold’s affinity for it since it’s essentially a two-man character drama set on the frontier. One man is a notorious bandit and violent criminal and the other is an upstanding citizen trying his best to do what’s right.

Unfortunately, he gets caught in the middle between a determined robber baron and the criminal’s vengeful gang as he tries to escort the criminal to a train station. The plan is to stick the criminal on the 3:10 to Yuma and see him off to prison.

I haven’t seen a classic black and white Western in years and it was a hoot picking out all the little details that the writers couldn’t come right out and say. At the very beginning, the criminal hooks up with the waitress in the saloon and one can only imagine how far the subtlety will be thrown out the window in the remake. That goes double for the finale where the film leads up to what could be an excellent action sequence but doesn’t deliver, either on account of budget or the times. More likely both, but we’ll never know. The ending is still a solid one and it feels earned.

The back and forth between the two leads is classic. Glenn Ford (immortalized as Pa Kent in Richard Donner’s "Superman") is an odd mix of villainy, at once brutal and eloquent. He comes off as either very well educated or very intelligent and either way that spells trouble for whomever crosses his path. Regardless of the situation, he’s already three steps ahead of everyone else and Ford plays it like he’s doing Shakespeare.

Van Heflin plays the farmer, Dan Evans, the reluctant do-gooder who agrees to take Ford to the train station only partially aware of the danger he’s in. More than anything else, he wants to set a good example for his two boys and figures that by doing this one deed he’ll be able to bring in some much needed money to his struggling farm. If his boys learn right from wrong by his example in the meantime then so much the better.

It’s a surprisingly short film by today’s standards so it’s anyone’s guess as to how long the remake will run. My guess would be about half an hour past the point where it should have stopped, but that’s because Mangold never uses one word when 50 will suffice. Here’s hoping it is as much a gem as the original because this one is a pretty sharp little piece of classic drama.

Now Playing: Prime

I’ve never been a fan of Uma Thurman and it’s not like I never gave her a chance.

I saw her in her debut film Dangerous Liasons and thought she was odd looking and an uninspired performer. That train of thought never changed until I saw someone actually use her to her full potential in Kill Bill Vol. 1 and yes, that includes her appearance in Pulp Fiction. Quentin Tarantino obviously saw more than I with his 1994 film but it wasn’t until he put her front and center that the light clicked on. She was ferocious in the Kill Bill films but it was the second one where she displayed a gift for spinning Tarantino’s unique dialogue on her tongue.

Then Ben Younger cast her in Prime and I realized how luminous she could also be.

It’s amazing how someone can be a performer for any number of years but until the right person comes along who understands how to get the best out of that performer, they may as well be little more than window dressing. Younger knows exactly how to shoot and light Thurman to give her a radiance I’ve never seen on her before. She plays Rafi, a recently divorced thirty-something who confesses every week to her shrink, played by Meryl Streep in full Jewish Mom Mode™. Rafi complains about men, works to get the kinks out of her life, all while Streep looks on and offers suggestions.

Those suggestions wind up inadvertently leading Rafi into the arms of a younger man (by north of 10 years) who turns out to be Streep’s son which, of course, leads to far more awkward conversations. Cliché? Absolutely. But this is a film where the performances are the key and the main ones work wonders.

Streep is hilarious as the imperious mother whose suggestions on healing probably came from her mother instead of from Freud. She and Thurman have a wonderful dynamic and watching how awkward Streep gets when she realizes Rafi is talking about her son’s privates is a case study in comic acting. The lead actor does what he was paid for but this is far more Thurman and Streep’s show than his, and both women are stellar.

The ending attempts to be a natural one instead of the feel-good ending it would have had were it produced in Hollywood, but I think the good ending would have felt more earned. Both Rafi and the lead actor go through a number of life altering changes through the film and it builds to an ending that never materializes which is a shame. Other than that, I’d recommend Prime as a pretty good romantic comedy that could have been better had it stuck the landing.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Now Playing: Accepted

I think Justin Long could have a long career ahead of him if he learns how to branch out. He’s deliriously funny as a put upon teenager but eventually he’s going to grow past that and right now I’m not sure he has the amount of talent, say, Michael J. Fox demonstrated over his career. Long’s comic timing is spot-on though and even in a simple flick like Accepted it shines through.

He plays a kid who isn’t accepted by any college in the country and is understandably frustrated. Since he’s also an enterprising youth, he brings some friends into a plan to create a fictional university for the sake of getting his parents off his back. As expected, the plan goes awry when the faux university accepts anyone who applies which leads to a wacky supporting cast showing up. Hijinks, naturally, ensue.

It is a good thing Long is as charming as he is because every one else around him is either flat or annoying. Much has been made of the improv nature of Jonah (name) since every time he opens his mouth out spews a diatribe about how much life sucks for him. It’d be ten times funnier if he didn’t keep hitting that one note in the last several films he’s been in. Knocked Up was hilarious in spite of him, not because of, and he’s doing the same schtick here.

But there is one more shining light in this film and that is Lewis Black. Long time fans of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” are plenty familiar with Black’s recurring segments and he always seems like he’s one tick away from gunning down everyone in the building. His fury and insanity routine is, to me anyway, absolutely hilarious and he fires off one gem after another in Accepted. The best ones though are kept in the outtakes section which is absolutely recommended viewing for anyone who rents this.

Keep it as a rental, and it’s not a wasted hour and a half. There are plenty of laughs, but it’s cotton candy in the sense that it won’t stay with you the second you’re finished with it.

Now Playing: The Pursuit of Happyness

I have to confess that Will Smith is a much better actor than what people give him credit for. Sure, more times than not he comes off as a smarmy, care-free, wise-crackin’ sidekick promoted to leading man, but even when he’s in that mode he impresses by being able to touch the soul of the character he plays. Regardless of how shallow a character may be, Smith infuses them with more soul than what is on the page and that’s a remarkable ability sadly lacking from the current generation of would-be thespians.

In The Pursuit of Happyness he plays real-life Chris Gardner who was utterly destitute in San Francisco during the late 1970s, yet managed to remain a strong role model for his young son. In the meantime, he worked as an unpaid intern at Dean Witter with little more than hope that they would hire him upon completing their course. It didn’t help when his wife up and disappeared leaving him and his son completely alone with no money to their names in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

I was absolutely floored by how hard it must have been to live in abject poverty while somehow supporting a child. The film struck a certain nerve, I guess, because My Fair Lady and I have spoken at length about starting a family of our own and it’s terrifying to think of not being able to support one. You can see the desperation in Chris’s eyes during a scene late in the film where they have to spend the night in a bus station bath room. But as powerful as this one moment is, it’s given even more meaning once you see the behind-the-scenes documentary where the real Chris Gardner saw that set for the first time and all his memories, long buried for good reason, came flooding back.

The film does a remarkable job of creating San Francisco in the early 1980s right down to the stock tickers and newspapers. Smith is excellent as the determined Gardner who makes a personal vow to get him and his son out of their situation and never veers from it despite one massive setback after another.

Of course there’s a happy ending to it all but the journey there is a very solid film anchored by a terrific Smith. Also, his son in the film is played by Smith’s real life son Jaden and watching the two of them bounce off each other gives the film a truer sense of reality than most other Hollywood films have. Keep a sharp eye out for the real Chris Gardner’s cameo in the final shot, which contrasts where he was and what he eventually became.

This is a very, very good movie.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Okay Then Part 2...

So I still haven't posted in about a month. There's something synchronous about this. Like clockwork, every month on or about the middle of it, people can check back to find an apology regarding my absence, which is made all the more ironic considering I'm working as a freelance writer and should therefore naturally have the time to blog like a madman every morning.

Upon writing that, I now realize what I need to do. Fear not, mom! I shall blog again shortly.

Just as soon as I finish what I'm working on right now...