Wednesday, June 30, 2010

VACATION SIGN OFF...

Well, I will be on vacation for a week. I plan on having a post up next Wednesday, so until then...





AND FINALLY... THE ABSOLUTE BEST...

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

TUESDAY TOP 10: My Biggest Guilty Pleasures

This is the most personal top ten list. Of course, everyone has their own guilty pleasures, those movies that randomly appear from time to time on TBS or The Movie Channel and, as long as no one is around, you stop down and watch the entire thing. Maybe you even own some of your guilty pleasures – I know I have a few of these in my DVD collection. Of course, some of these were big when I was a kid, and now I see their awfulness. But you know what? I still love them for what they were to me. Let me hear from you, what are some of your all time favorite worst movies?

10) Weekend at Bernies 2 – Yes, that ‘2’ is supposed to be there, that isn’t a typo or anything. Well, if you want to be honest, the title actually uses roman numerals, ya know, for prestige and stuff. That is right, the epic sequel to the cult classic was a movie I watched on a continuous loop back when it came out on VHS. Good luck finding it now. This time around, the two idiots Larry and Richard (Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman) need Bernie’s help to track down two million dollars that their company blames on them. So, how do we do this? Of course! We employ voodoo that brings Bernie back to life, sorta. I’m pretty sure the allure to this awful movie for me was Bernie half dancing around. I guarantee you that was hilarious at that point in my young life.

9) Ladybugs – Come on… anyone? Rodney Dangerfield is a tough-luck businessman who, in order to win the heart of his lady friend and his boss in hopes of getting a promotion, becomes the coach of the company-sponsored girl’s soccer team. But of course the team is terrible, as this is only a retread of Bad News Bears anyway, and he must employ his girlfriend’s resistant teen boy – a soccer stud played by the late Jonathan Brandis – to cross dress and become the star of the team. What a truly awful movie this was, and is. But that didn’t stop me from watching it every time it was on TV. And who could forget the all time greatest performance of Jackee’s career? Classic.

8) Road House – Patrick Swayze at his all time smoldering, ass-kicking best, and Sam Elliott as his mumbly friend. It doesn’t get much better (or much worse, depending on your perspective) than this classic 80s action flick. Swayze is a zen-like bar bouncer – who isn’t really – who has to take control of a small town away form an evil dude who does… something evil. I don’t really remember. If you have CMT, odds are you have seen this flick on at some point in the last month or two, and don’t tell me you haven’t watched a second or two at least. Sure, it is much better on pay cable where you can see Swayze rip the windpipe out of that dude’s throat, but seeing an edited version might be better; it tones down the awesomeness to a manageable level.

7) Police Academy 3: Back in Action – Really, any of the Police Academy movies could be on this list. As a young kid, I was never really allowed to watch the theatrical version of the first Police Academy. The third installment was where I picked up on this franchise, and I was hooked from then until puberty. I lost track of how many of these ridiculous movies they made, but I remember loving the collection of characters in the third film. This had Bobcat Goldthwait for God’s sake. And Steve Guttenburg, the ultimate 80s charmer. And the blonde with the big knockers whose only purpose for existing in the film was to have the big knockers jokes inserted from time to time. And motormouth Jones; that dude is classic. But my favorite was Tackleberry; I think he was the favorite of a lot of young boys, with all of his weapons and badass-ness. RIP David Graf.

6) Just One of the Guys – Ah, the first one on this list I own. Just One of the Guys really really wanted to be a top-tier 80s high school movie. But it really really wasn’t. Of course, it had America’s favorite dipshit bad guy, the blonde Bill Zabka of the California Kobra-Kai, but the problem was he was the most established, talented actor of the group. There was a lot to like about this movie, especially that final flash shot from Joyce Hyser (who? Exactly) when you are thirteen. That was enough to get repeated viewings from young me. And I never thought that goofy bastard she ended up liking was worth her time. The sexual-identity comedy has come a long way since Just One of the Guys; or maybe it hasn’t.

5) Commando – This movie is astounding. So let me get this straight… Schwarzenegger is after the goons that kidnapped his daughter to try and force him to assassinate the president of… Columbia? It doesn’t matter. So he escapes an airplane by jumping from its landing gear as it is taking off, going oh… 500 miles per hour? Then, he tracks his way across wherever they are until he locates the island they are keeping young Alyssa Milano. So he loads up with machine guns, handguns, bazookas, mines, grenades, grenade launchers, and every other weapon you can get on Modern Warfare, and takes out an entire compound of extras and henchmen. Arnie has to mow down forty or fifty goons, and that is being conservative. He starts doing it stealthily at first, then just starts shooting a machine gun from his hip in the open. And never catches a single bullet. What an absurd movie. I love it.

4) White-Water Summer – Oh how I loved this movie when I was a young teen. It was awesome. Then I tried watching it with my wife a few years ago and… oh how I loved it. Only not because it was awesome, but because it was so terrible. Kevin Bacon plays a man of the earth, an overgrown boy scout who gathers a group of young teen boys (creepy, no?) to go into the woods and, I don’t know, find themselves or something. Most of the kids are fired up about it, but Sean Astin ain’t. Astin plays a bookworm, a city kid who doesn’t care much about the woods and stuff. The two butt heads, but Kevin Bacon – the adult here mind you – doesn’t take the mature road. The third act, where the kids revolt and damn near kill Bacon, always disturbed me. It disturbed me the last time I saw White-Water Summer too, but this time what was so disturbing was the terrible-ness of the acting and the stunt work and the whole movie.

3) Over the Top – This is one of those movies where someone asks you “What’s Over the Top?” The correct response to this question is “you know, the Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling movie.” The reaction is always one of immediate recognition. There isn’t a funnier, more flabbergasting film description out there than “Sylvester Stallone’s arm-wrestling movie.” But remember, there was a plot here too. It was Stallone, the estranged father, trying to connect with his private-school kid while getting them to his dying mother’s bedside. But Robert Loggia would have none of it. The problem with the family drama is that the kid is a whiny bitch. I would have ditched this spoiled little pussy so long ago. What a little dipshit. Man I hated that kid. And with all of this family drama circling him, how was Stallone to concentrate on winning the National arm-wrestling competition in Las Vegas? How was he going to beat Bull Hurley, the most badass arm-wrestler of them all? Well, he has a trick, see… Whenever he uncoiled his fingers and re-wrapped them around his competitor’s hand, they’re done for. Insert eye roll here. What a terrible movie… sign me up.

2) Urban Cowboy – I would like to first defend Urban Cowboy, John Travolta’s white trash western blue collar epic film of trailer parks, bars, and mechanical bulls, as being a pretty solid movie in its own right. I still watch Urban Cowboy from time to time. It’s funny for all the wrong reasons at times, and something about Deborah Winger (in the early 80s anyway) is sexy. Growing up in Texas, I identified with these people in a strange way. We didn’t grow up in a trailer or frequent bars when I was a kid, but John Travolta’s character felt like a younger version of my dad. Anyway, I’m not going to get into this any further. Urban Cowboy is great; great because it is so utterly ridiculous, but so serious and of it’s time. And for my money, Travolta’s dance skills here trump anything he would do before or after.

1) Teen Wolf – What a great metaphorical movie. Coming of age, dealing with high school, dealing with chicks… being a werewolf. There are so many great moments in this movie. I love the whole weird party scene with the people tied up on the floor covered in… whipped cream? Bizarre. And the car surfing. And the goofball coach. And the stupid dance they all somehow know to do in unison at the prom. And Styles and his shirt (What are you looking at dicknose?). You know, in defense of my favorite bad movie, the effects and the mood and the score are really on target. Too bad the basketball scenes are the worst sports scenes of any movie ever. For example, when Michael J. Fox first transforms in front of everyone, it comes after he is dogpiled on the basketball court going for a loose ball. There are literally ten people piling on top of him trying to get the ball. And the refs? They are circling the pile. You think maybe they should blow the play dead? How about a jump ball? Regardless of the basketball scenes, or maybe because of them, Teen Wolf is my favorite guilty pleasure.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Toy Story 3, and My Night at the Drive In...


THE GREAT TOY-SCAPE

Toy Story 3: voices: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Ned Beatty, Michael Keaton (104 min.)

What a breath of fresh air this is. Amid such a putrid movie year, we can again thank Pixar for waking us all up. For the time being.

After more than a decade, it feels right to just go back into the world of Buzz, Woody, and the whole family of toys in Toy Story 3. Sometimes, stories can continue on after an extended break because they work better that way; their narrative’s drastic change over time is perfect for propelling a story. Such is the case here, as we follow these indelible characters into a darker, more existential place. Now I don’t know how kid friendly this third film might be when compared to the others (it is still surely a kid’s film), but what I do know is that it’s probably the best of the three.

We pick up the action with a rousing battle between good and evil, set on a runaway train. Woody and Buzz must fight off Hamm, the piggy bank, and save Jessie. This of course, is all taking place in the imagination of young Andy, the toy’s owners. But we soon figure out that Andy has since grown up, he has graduated high school, and is about to leave for college. All the toys have spent a significant amount of time in Andy’s toy chest, and are very anxious to see where they are going. Is it the attic (they hope)? Is it the dumpster (please no!)? After a mix up, they wind up on the curb and, feeling abandoned no matter how many times Woody tells them the trash was not Andy’s real choice, they hop in a box to daycare. They have heard about this daycare; there are kids there all the time to play with them, and when those kids get older, new kids arrive. It is heaven for a toy. So they think.

Daycare is a perfect place to introduce new toys into the fold. There is Ken (Michael Keaton), living in his dream home and desperately wanting to be a tough boy’s toy. And there is a giant baby, the assistant to Lotso (Ned Beatty), a purple bear who is the leader of the daycare society of toys. They put our friends into the “caterpillar room.” Turns out, this is the toddler room, where they are much too young to play with toys the right way, and the result is a nightmare of bumps, bashes, bruises, and missing parts. They have been forced into this room, and they soon realize that daycare is not a friendly place, but a prison colony run by the evil Lotso. Woody – who has stayed behind as he is heading to college with Andy – gets wind of this nightmarish daycare and is in charge of breaking them out.

This is where Toy Story 3 becomes a much darker picture than its predecessors. There are themes of abandonment, resentment, and the action resembles a prison picture. For me, these were brilliant avenues for the story to explore. With references to Cool Hand Luke, and a narrative thread resembling The Great Escape, I was thoroughly entertained and completely involved in the story. Younger kids may be distracted, but the kids who grew up on Toy Story and the adults who remember the first two films will always be caught up in the action.

Everyone is excellent as the voices of these characters once again. It starts with Tom Hanks as Woody and trickles down to every cast member. And Tim Allen, reprising his role as Buzz, goes through some scary, then hilarious transformations. Everyone has their favorite supporting toy characters (I personally crack up at the T-Rex regularly), but the strength of the picture is how everyone has their moment, and we feel like we know these toys.

And once again, Pixar makes a picture for everyone, not just for kids. They don’t pander to the lowest common denominator; instead, they make a smart picture for kids and adults. Toy Story 3 is smart, exciting, sometimes hilarious, sometimes rather sad, but the themes and storylines are universal to us all. And it is one of the best pictures of the year.

A


MY NIGHT AT THE DRIVE IN…

I waited a week to see Toy Story 3 because we chose to see it at a local drive in where we live. You know those drive in things… you’ve seen them in movie like The Outsiders and Christine. Well, there weren’t any drunken greasers or angry Chryslers at our drive in. Sure, the sound quality was not Dolby digital 5.1 super HD majestic-ness. Ok, the picture was not as sharp as a tac, after all it is outside. And, GASP!, I didn’t even see it in 3D. But you know what? I took in the entirety of Toy Story 3 and did not miss a thing. And at the same time, I was able to soak up a bit of Americana that is nearly extinct.

Drive ins used to be everywhere. They were the place to take a date – mostly so you could cop a feel in your car while the movie was playing – they were a social gathering point for teens and families that have been marginalized over the year, slowly erased to make way for multiplexes and super technology. And that is quite all right, but I don’t see why drive ins aren’t more prevalent still. Never mind the affordability, what about the nostalgia? Going to a drive in is almost like going to a museum of modern American pop culture. It is like a time machine to a place your parents used to go all the time. There is something memorable about parking your car next to a rusty speaker and listening to the dialogue through your radio or the speaker hooked on to your window, sitting in your car, eating a pizza, feeling open and free instead of sitting in a theater.

Sure, I wouldn’t go to a drive in to watch Inception or an Aronofsky film or the next PTA release. Drive ins aren’t places for movies like that, movies that require concentration. Drive ins are for movies like Toy Story 3, pictures that you don’t have to read and break down every word or bit of dialogue in order to follow along. There is a lot going on in Toy Story 3 thematically, but it is still easy enough to follow at a drive in.

I enjoyed my first night at the drive in, and I think if you have the opportunity, check it out. And drive ins aren’t necessarily for cartoons; the second feature the night we went was Prince of Persia (I passed). But, again, Prince of Persia is a film perfect for the drive in. Imagine seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jaws at the drive in. The experience would be something you would remember.

Friday, June 25, 2010

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Stallone as Gotti, Jim Jarmusch, M. Night Shyamalan, and Knight & Day Fail...

* From this distance I can smell the Fall movie season.

* Grown Ups looks like such a tired Adam Sandler movie. I thought he was progressing, and I like Sandler, but this seems like a major digression for him as a comedian/actor. I don’t think I’ve laughed at one preview or clip. I am all for Sandler having fun with his buddies and making a movie, I get that. I just don’t see why they couldn’t do something that didn’t look so stale.

* I might be heading to see Toy Story 3 at a drive-in. I’ve never been to a drive-in, but I think there should be more of them. Maybe, maybe not, we shall see. One thing I am sure of is I won’t be seeing it in 3D.

* I have never seen a Jim Jarmusch film. I flirted with seeing Broken Flowers at some point, I think maybe that is a good entry into his career for anyone. I would like to see Dead Man, the Johnny Depp Western, and Mystery Train perhaps. Jarmusch seems like an interesting director I think, kind of a low-key version of Cronenberg or Lynch.

* According to imdb, the opening day for Knight & Day didn’t go so well. It pulled in only $3.8 million on Wednesday, the lowest opening day total for a Tom Cruise action film since Legend – that’s right, the one with the unicorns – in 1986. There could be any number of reasons for this. Maybe people can’t get behind Cruise the way they used to, maybe they think about Vanilla Sky when they see Cruise and Cameron “clownface” Diaz together… Maybe they’re just tired of these summer movies they are getting. I would go with the latter.

* Apparently Sylvester Stallone wants to play John Gotti. I am on board with this idea. What people always forget is that Sly, when he wants to, can be an effective actor. Think about Rocky, First Blood, or Copland. He was excellent in all three, especially Copland, one of the more underrated crime dramas of the 90s. I could see him doing Gotti if he stopped taking cycles of steroids for a few months and ate some pasta instead.

* M. Night Shyamalan is shopping another original screenplay around Hollywood. The only details are that it will star Bruce Willis, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Bradley Cooper. Ok, M. Night, this is your last chance. If you got Bruce on board, that is a good sign since he was in your two best pictures. If he can somehow, some way, pull himself back from the disastrous Lady in the Water and The Happening – two of the worst films of their decade – that would be a twist indeed.

* The trailer for Little Fockers, the third film in the “Focker Trilogy,” has been released. Meh.

* I wonder if Bruce Willis will ever get a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars. It seems like he should have won an Oscar somewhere along the way even though most of the time he isn’t in deserving movies. Just a random thought.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Lost in Translation

Sofia Coppola and her films aren’t for everyone. As a director, carrying a signature style in your work means you will alienate some people, but that notion should work just fine for Coppola, whose films deal with that very theme: alienation. Alienation from family, from friends, from those around you. Such is the case with Lost in Translation, Coppola’s finest achievement as a young director, and a film she may have a tough time surpassing for a while.

Bill Murray plays – is – Bob Harris, an A-list movie star from the States who, as we open the film, is waking up in the back of a car to see that he is in the heart of Tokyo, Japan. He is on there for business – he is shooting a series of whisky commercials – but we can see from the start that Bob is not your typical confident A-list actor. Bob seems withdrawn from everyone around him. He recoils when spotted by American businessmen in the bar, he rolls his eyes at a film of his on TV one night dubbed into Japanese, he struggles to understand anyone or anything around him; he can’t even manage to work out on an elliptical. In a series of sight gags, Bob is a foot taller than everyone in the elevator, his showerhead stops at his shoulder; he is, quite literally, a fish out of water. But then he spots Charlotte in the elevator one evening. Things do not blossom immediately, they share only a glance and continue on their paths of loneliness a while longer.

While Bob is fighting his way through a commercial and photo shoot for Suntori Whisky in two of the funniest scenes in the picture, we meet Charlotte. Charlotte is played by a very young, very fresh looking Scarlet Johannson (I feel like she has lost something turning into the blond bombshell we all know and love today. Here, she was naturally beautiful, perhaps with a little more weight and strawberry blond, almost red hair. She seems more contemplative.). Charlotte has followed her husband, John (Giovanni Ribisi), a manic photographer who barely has time to stop and tell Charlotte that he loves her before flying away again. This leaves Charlotte alone to wander the streets of Tokyo, but she panics when she stumbles across a Buddhist monk ritual and doesn’t feel anything from it. She calls to tell a friend in the States, but her friend is too busy to care. Charlotte has people who exist in the orbit of her life, just like Bob, only she couldn’t be more alone.

Bob and Charlotte see each other in the hotel bar and in passing for a while, exchanging only glances before finally having a brief conversation one night. They never properly introduce themselves; they know each other, but they don’t realize it consciously. Before long, John is off on a photo shoot for a week, leaving Charlotte alone and her and Bob begin spending more time together. They go out on the town with a few local friends Charlotte has gathered in her time there, bar hopping and singing karaoke. They begin to bond on a level beyond physical, sexual attraction. Is that sexual attraction there? Sure. But where they find each other is in their loneliness, their desire to simply spend time around one another.

And so things go this way for some time. Bob and Charlotte, both on the same erratic sleep schedule, spend their nights and days with each other, but never really getting to know each other beyond what exists in this foreign land until one night in Charlotte’s room, the most beautiful, important scene between these two people. As Charlotte lays next to Bob, the two of them almost asleep, Charlotte looks to him for advice. “Does it [life] get easier?” “No,” Bob says, then “yes. It does.” This is the first intimate conversation between them and bob isn’t sure what he is ready to tell young Charlotte, whether or not he should lay things out or not. “How about marriage?” Charlotte asks. “Does that get easier?” “That’s hard,” Bob says.

At this moment, Coppola had a choice to make. She could go conventional and Bob and Charlotte could have sex. Instead, Bob speaks fondly of his wife and kids – who exist in the picture as withdrawn voices over the phone – and the two fall asleep. But before they do, Bob’s hand finds Charlotte’s bare foot. It is this simple touch, harmless, that means so much more than these two people sleeping together. That is the beauty of Coppola’s film.

One night, while Charlotte has been away from him for a couple of days, Bob makes the unfortunate decision to sleep with the lounge singer from the bar. Charlotte of course comes knocking the next morning, and hears that grating voice, and knows who it is. At first she is deservedly angry, hurt, but as the day and night pass an interesting thing happens. Charlotte understands she is not for Bob in that way. The lounge singer is a substitute, a sexual release for Bob that is cheap and fleeting, and nothing that Charlotte deserved. Bob and Charlotte have something much larger than thin one-night stands. Save that for the lounge singers, save real emotions for each other.

The final moment of Lost in Translation is one of those times in cinema where something ambiguous happens and is meant to be that way. As Bob is leaving, he spots Charlotte walking alone in the crowd. He has the driver stop and runs after her. The two kiss and share a long hug, and Bob whispers something in Charlotte’s ear that makes her begin to cry. For years what he said was not know, it was left to the imagination. But then, through the power of technology and YouTube, an enhanced sound version of the scene was shown and it is clearer what Bob says. I am not going to spoil that here – I wish I didn’t know – if you want to see it you can. I suggest against it. Not because what he says is not impacting, but because the way it exists in the film is in your imagination. It is a romantic ending as is; knowing the words steals some of the beauty.

It is widely known now that Lost in Translation is a rough look at Sofia Coppola’s time spent with her husband of the time, Spike Jonze, in Japan. The character played by Anna Faris in the film, a ditsy American promoting an action film, has been rumored to be Cameron Diaz although Coppola has denied this rumor. Regardless, the performance from Johannson is subtle, beautiful, and at times heartbreaking. But this is Murray’s film, and Murray – who has said numerous times this is his favorite film he has ever been in – is truly captivating. He isn’t a good man, not a good husband or father, not by any means, but he is good to Charlotte. He is good at his core, and that goodness shows in Tokyo. The city itself serves as both the literal interpretation of the film title as well as a metaphor for these two aimless souls. What has been forgotten, I think, over the years is the humor in Lost in Translation. Never overbearing, always real, the humor is the perfect balance to a story that is sweet, often sad, never dull.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

HUMP-DAY TRAILER EXTRAVAGANZA

I don't know about you, but I'm having a tough time fighting through this tepid summer movie season. I figure the best way to get through the muck and the mire is to look ahead, soldier on, and get excited about what is coming this fall and, in one case, beyond...



SOMEWHERE - Sofia Coppola has definitely developed a signature style. Her films, regardless of the characters or the situations, deal with alienation of celebrity in some form. Even The Virgin Suicides does this to an extent. Her newest picture, Somewhere, carries that same melancholy vibe - thanks in no small part to the music from Phoenix and Julian Casablancas in this trailer - that I have come to appreciate. I know Sofia is a polarizing director, especially after Marie Antoinette missed the mark, but I enjoy her as a director and Somewhere looks like somewhere I would like to go. Plus, it looks like Stephen Dorff might have actually found a role he can sink his teeth into...




THE AMERICAN - Coppola has found a signature style, Clooney seems to have fallen into a groove of paying a variation of the same person. Lately, he has thrived in playing characters disconnected from life through their own actions (Syriana, Michael Clayton, Up in the Air), and with The American it looks as if he is continuing on that pattern that has been so lucrative for him. I love the look and the mood of this trailer; it feel like a young William Friedken or John Frankenheimer should be behind the camera. At least I think that is the look director Anton Corbijn is going for...




THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT - Let's move away from the morose and melancholy for a second and look at a new, unconventional family drama. Anette Bening and Julianne Moore sell me from the get go as a couple, and this dramedy - from the director Lisa Cholodenko of the subtly intelligent Laurel Canyon - looks like it will hit the right notes. And much like Stephen Dorff in Somewhere, it looks like the wildly inconsistent Mark Ruffalo has found a solid role for himself...




THE GREEN HORNET - I don't quite know what to think about this one, but the trailer is at least intriguing. Seth Rogen as an action star seemed odd from the get go, but now, after seeing the direction they are going with this adaptation of The Green Hornet, perhaps he is a great fit in the role. The action looks fun and extravagant, and the comedy seems fairly solid, I just think the audience they are aiming for isn't quite clear. Is it teens? Twentysomethings? I feel positive generally, until I see two things: the very sketchy January release date and the final word of the trailer... 3D. Gag me.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

TUESDAY TOP 10: Biggest Hollywood Flops...

There are a lot of factors involved in making a film a financial disaster. Some pictures you may have in your mind didn’t actually lose money on their worldwide box-office. Waterworld, for example, one of the most infamously budgeted films of all time, actually made money when it was all said and done. Some were not so lucky. Marketing, advertising, packaging, and expanding budgets all play a part in disaster.

Now these aren’t the biggest financial disasters from the tenth biggest lost to the biggest lost. They are listed as such, but there are a few films in there that were omitted because, well, they never had expectations to begin with. Expectation and the anticipation of epic fail are factors that don’t necessarily play into the financial nuts and bolts, but are important when considering the magnitude of said epic fail. These figures, from filmsite.org, include the total cost (marketing, budget, etc.) and total gross (worldwide):

10) Rollerball: Total Cost $70 million. Total Gross $26 million. Net Loss $44 million. No wonder Chris Klein has a drinking problem. Rollerball, the remake of the Norman Jewison film starring James Caan, was set up as an action tentpole for Paramount back in 2002 but wound up being one of their biggest failures of the year. Sometimes films can be flops but actually be solid movies. This is not one of those instances. It’s just a shame that John McTiernan, the talented action director of Die Hard and Predator, was the man behind the camera.

9) Catwoman: Total Cost $135 million. Total Gross - $82 million. Net Loss - $53 million. The loss on this turkey isn’t what surprises me. What is so startling to me is that Catwoman, this disastrous piece of garbage, somehow managed to pull in $82 million worldwide. That is a lot of money, a lot of tickets sold, and a lot of suckers. Halle Berry has to be one of the worst actresses to win an Oscar.

8) Stealth: Total Cost $138 million. Total Gross $77 million. Net Loss - $61 million. I barely remember this movie, and the only thing memorable about it was the Incubus song attached on the soundtrack. Now let me see, this movie was about an unmanned fighter jet that took on a life of its own or something. CGI got the better of this budget, and I cant think of one person I know who has seen this movie. And Jessica Beihl plays a pilot? That’s about as funny as Tara Reid playing a scientist… oh wait…

7) The Postman: Total Cost $80 million. Total Gross $17.6 million. Net Loss $62 million. Of course Kevin Costner would make an appearance on this list, just not for Waterworld. Costner’s second venture into post apocalyptic America is, in my humble opinion, a fairly solid picture. Sure, the running time is as bloated as the budget, but I enjoyed it. It’s shocking that it could only muster $17.6 million in ticket sales, but I guess people were wary of Kevin Costner saving the new world a second time around.



6) Gigli: Total Cost $74 million. Total Gross $7.3 million. Net Loss $66.7 million. Boy oh boy, where to begin… What exactly cost $74 million to make this weird romantic comedy action thing? I suppose the contracts got up there, because there isn’t anything in the production that would indicate an inflated budget. The total box office is staggering. And Al Pacino… oh AL! What in the world were you thinking?

5) Town & Country: Total Cost $105 million. Total Gross $10 million. Net Loss $95 million. At first you must be thinking “Gee, Town & Country. I’ve never heard of this. It must be some action movie with a budget over $100 million.” Well, you couldn’t be further from the truth. This is a simple romantic comedy that came and went faster than a summer thunderstorm. So where did all this money go? It fed the egos of Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn among others. Oh yeah, and Josh Hartnett is in it too. Never a good thing.

4) The 13th Warrior: Total Cost $160 million. Total Gross $62 million. Net Loss $98 million. At least you can see where the money went in this one. And it is crazy to think that this is John McTiernan’s second stop on this list. But unlike Rollerball, The 13th Warrior is a pretty solid action flick in spite of Antonio Banderas. It seems like the cost of this thing just got out of hand, and I don’t readily remember it being pushed very hard in the media.

3) The Adventures of Pluto Nash: Total Cost $120 million. Total Gross $7 million. Net Loss $113 million. Welcome to the beginning of the end of Eddie Murphy as a bankable commodity in Hollywood. This infamous disaster also wins the prize for being the film on this list with the smallest box office. Even the posters and the images from this film, which I have never seen, annoy me.


2) The Alamo: Total Cost $145 million. Total Gross $26 million. Net Loss $119 million. This is one picture that had huge expectations and buzz surrounding its release, and it never managed to come to fruition once it was out. There are some solid performances from Billy Bob Thornton and Dennis Quaid here, and the film is pretty decent. I can’t really explain this one away, because it looks like a hit, smells like a hit, but a hit it never was.


1) Sahara: Total Cost $241 million. Total Gross $119 million. Net Loss $122 million. So bringing in $119 million for a middling action-adventure picture, an attempt at starting an Indiana Jones-type franchise starring Matthew McConaughey, isn’t too bad, right? Well, when you have a budget and a total cost this ridiculous, it is pretty awful. $241 million? Really? It is hard to make a desert picture work (Dune, Ishtar), and throwing Captain of the douches in as your lead is just compounding a bad idea.

SHOUTOUTS: To Battlefield Earth and its $43 million red number, to Red Planet and its $66 million unpaid note, to Hart's War, the forgettable Bruce Willis war picture that came up $63 million short, and to Madonna and the disastrous Swept Away, which cost only $10 million but made a staggering $599,000.

Monday, June 21, 2010

WHERE THEY STAND: Ethan Hawke

I’m not sure if I have conveyed this here, but anyone who knows me knows that Ethan Hawke is one of my favorite actors. For some reason – actually for a few reasons – I feel like Hawke is one of the more underrated actors of the last twenty some odd years. Sure, he has been in his fair share of stinkers, but they were never due to his performance or what he brought to the role. As an actor, he brings an understated energy and weight to all his characters; if only Hawke the decider were as consistent as Hawke the actor.

Born in Austin, Texas in 1970, Hawke starred in two small films before making a splash as Todd Anderson in Peter Weir’s boarding school drama Dead Poet’s Society. Although the film focused on Robin Williams’ character and the troubled young man Neil played by Robert Sean Leonard (one of Hawke’s good friends to this day), it was Hawke’s performance as the timid Anderson that garnered much praise. This was the opening for Hawke, but it was not necessarily a sign that his star would catapult into the stratosphere. Hawke would star in smaller films like White Fang, Mystery Date, and Midnight Clear for the next five years before finding a niche in the burgeoning Texas film landscape.

Reality Bites opened in 1994, and has found that vaunted “cult” following that so many films do. In the story, about Gen X-ers finding their way in Houston after graduating college, starred Winona Ryder, Steve Zahn, Janeane Garofalo, and Ben Stiller (who also directed) alongside Hawke. Hawke played Troy, a self-proclaimed slacker, a cynical wannabe and the eventual romantic interest of Ryder’s character. Again, among a larger cast, it was Hawke’s role that is somehow the most memorable.

From there, Hawke would team up with Austin director Richard Linklater, fresh off his hit film Dazed and Confused, for Before Sunrise. This romantic elegy set in Paris was another indie hit, and one of the signature films of the Austin film culture’s mid-nineties explosion. Hawke played Jesse, a variation of his cynical Troy in Reality Bites, only this time he meets and falls desperately in love with a French girl (Julie Delpy) whom he spends a fairy-tale day with in Vienna. Linklater would direct Hawke and Delpy in Before Sunset ten years later. Where Dead Poet’s Society was Hawke’s first role of note, Before Sunrise really opened doors for Hawke, who would begin to star in bigger films from this point forward. Bigger, though, would prove to not always be better.

Hawke’s career remained wildly inconsistent after Before Sunrise. There was the tidy, intelligent sci-fi thriller Gattaca, where he would meet his now ex-wife Uma Thurman, and there was Great Expectations, a film that was not well received but has – in my opinion – some strong moments and a great look. But Hawke would flounder in films like The Newton Boys and Snow Falling on Cedars in the late nineties. The turn of the century would prove to be a good thing for his career.

Hawke began in 2000 with Hamlet, an adaptation of the Shakespeare play set in modern Manhattan. And in 2001, what is perhaps Hawke’s best year as an actor, he would star in three diverse pictures. The first was Waking Life from Linklater, an animated film meditating on life and musing in existentialist theory. Again, Hawke’s small performance sticks out from the ensemble. Later in 2001, Hawke teamed with Linklater again for Tape, a three-person film set in a seedy motel room, shot on a digital camera and starring Thurman and Robert Sean Leonard as highschool friends with hidden agendas. The film is brilliant, claustrophobic, yet utterly forgotten. It is a picture you must seek to find, but once you do you will be happy you found it. All three performances work brilliantly off each other. Hawke would finish the year out with Training Day, and his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. While I don’t think Training Day deserved the accolades it received necessarily, as a crime drama it is a great entry into the genre. As well as Denzel Washington did, Hawke did just as much with his performance as Jake, the naïve young detective in over his head.

But again, Hawke would become inconsistent, starring in a ham-handed remake of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, the forgotten Lord of War, and the uneven Taking Lives. But in 2007, Hawke would star in Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead as Hank, the hapless loser brother to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s desperate Andy. This is still one of Hawke’s finest performances. As Hank, he falls deeper and deeper into things that are over his head and beyond his control, including a murder and an affair with his brother’s wife, the gloriously beautiful Marisa Tomei. This was a film for Hawke to showcase the nervous energy and intensity that is a staple of his acting career, and one of the best films of 2007.

Hawke has starred in two films this year, Daybreakers and Brooklyn’s Finest. While Daybreakers was a solid entry into the vampire culture that has so much traction these days, it was nearly undone by Willem Dafoe’s hokey performance. But let me – again – spend a moment on Brooklyn’s Finest. I cannot for the life of me understand the critical backlash to this picture. For my money, Brooklyn’s Finest is one of the finest crime dramas in the last decade. Perhaps better at times than both The Departed and Training Day. I know that is a bold claim, but I honestly feel that way, and cannot fathom what the roughly seventy percent of critics out there missed when reviewing the movie. Not only is Hawke excellent, but so are Richard Gere and Don Cheadle.

Ethan Hawke is, at times, wildly inconsistent with his film choices. But he is never inconsistent in the amount of energy and talent he pours into his roles no matter how weak the film may be. He carries a certain expectation with him into a film, a certain weight to his performances that elevate even the poorest of pictures. As biased as I can be towards Hawke, I cannot put him in the front row here. If Tommy Lee Jones has a seat in general admission, then Ethan Hawke should be in GENERAL ADMISSION seated right next to him.

Friday, June 18, 2010

DVD REVIEW: The Book of Eli

THE BOOK OF ELI - Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis (115 min.)

The Hughes brothers, Albert and Allen, the directing duo behind the brilliant urban crime drama Menace II Society and the underrated Dead Presidents, definitely have a keen eye and a sharp sense of visual prowess. They just tend to lose their direction from time to time. Images, actions, visual settings are top notch behind the direction of these sibling auteurs, if only their stories wouldn’t, at times, meander and lose focus. That was the case with their 2001 film, From Hell, and that is the case with The Book of Eli, now out on DVD.

The plot is nothing new; Denzel Washington plays Eli, a mysterious nomad who has been wandering a war-torn earth for three decades, heading west because a voice has told him to do so. The Hughes Brothers have a decided vision for this world, a world assumed to have been ripped apart and scorched by nuclear war. The sky, always ominous, and the land, always stained with grays and faded browns, looks like the negative of a landscape photo. The look is a beautifully decimated. Early on, as Eli travels this world hiding in abandoned homes eating cats, fighting off bandits with a huge knife and uncanny fighting skills, most everyone is a silhouette against this scorched earth. Things begin to even out visually once Eli arrives in a shantytown run by Carnegie, a devilish leader of thugs played by – who else – Gary Oldman.

Gary Oldman is, and always will be, an excellent villain. But he has done better. Oldman thrives on flamboyance in his bad guys. Here, there is no drug-dealing dude in dreads, no drug-addicted cop, no vampire, and no quirky space villainy to work with. Carnegie is a dastardly old west character, and the result is rather flat. I never go that rush from Oldman’s performance the way I did in The Professional or True Romance. Maybe Oldman should have grown a moustache for the part. Nevertheless, Carnegie is the self-appointed sheriff of this town, and he is in search of a book that he believes will give him power to expand his shaky empire in this world that is starting over. You seem all of these books but one were burned after “the flash,” and you can guess who might have the one and only copy. And you can probably put together in short order what book this is we are dealing with here.
After fleeing the town, Eli gets a partner in the form of the lovely Mila Kunis. Kunis plays Solana, the daughter of a blind woman in town whom is tortured from time to time by Carnegie. Solana feels safe with Eli – and why wouldn’t she? Bullets dodge him and he kicks ass consistently – and she wants to stick close to him, much to Eli’s chagrin.

The ending of The Book of Eli has led to a certain bit of controversy, or eye rolling, from audiences, but I think I get it. Sure, on a surface level the ending is so absurd and unbelievable and over the top, but on a deeper level it synchs up with the message Eli had been delivering the whole time. Divine intervention is at work, perhaps, and that might be the direction the Hughes brothers are going. And therein lies the problem: the Hughes brothers have a tough time staying focused with their story. They meander in the middle from brief action and fight sequences to moments of deep thought and introspection that don’t seem to really click together. The Hughes brothers could have picked on of two directions: a somber, existential, post-apocalyptic feature a la The Road, or Mad Max. I feel like they try and mix the two too often and the result is uneven.
If I were given the choice for them, I would go the Mad Max direction, as the Hughes brothers really do know how to film modern action. They don’t throw their camera haphazardly around the scene, they don’t disorient things, they keep the camera moving but keep the action focused and easy to follow. And at the same time thrilling. I only wish they wouldn’t be so unsure of their talents at times.

C+

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

How INCEPTION can save the world. Well, Hollywood anyway...

It is no surprise that summer box-office numbers are down in 2010. There hasn’t been anything this summer worth audience’s time. Consider the flat, unoriginal setlist for the summer so far: Iron Man 2 (sequel), Robin Hood (remake), Shrek 4 (sequel), Sex and the City 2 (sequel), The Karate Kid (remake), The A-Team (television show). The material Hollywood is vomiting out is staggeringly unoriginal and bland, more so than it ever has been. Of course, I wrote about this last week, so why again? Well, with the numbers taking a dive this year, audiences dwindling, ticket prices skyrocketing, could the studios actually be having their heads pried from their own asses? Could they be considering original storytelling? And is Inception going to be the film that saves Hollywood?

According to slashfilm.com, this may be the case in the near future. Now, don’t count on remakes and sequels to disappear entirely, this may not even be the case. But it’s fun to dream. As slashfilm states, attendance is down 13% from this time last year, and revenue is down 7.5% despite ticket prices of 3D crap being driven to twenty dollars a pop. These startling numbers have some Hollywood execs re-thinking their strategy of spoon-feeding the masses mindless remakes and flat sequels, and considering new material and fresh ideas. From an anonymous Hollywood exec as quoted on slashfilm:

…this sluggish summer might be a blessing in disguise for talent and producers who want to take risks but have been hamstrung for the past two years by studios that have been operating in retreat mode, and looking for the safest bets possible. The lack of originality this summer might get off this safe track and in the mindset to take some risks again, and that would be a good thing.

Risks. What a novel idea. What industry ever got by on digressing in their thought process or innovation? It would be like the car companies re-releasing ’57 Chevys because people recognize them, not because they want or need them. Without risks being taken, the best films in our history would never have been made. Hollywood absolutely must give new filmmakers and original ideas a chance to succeed, and this is where Inception might become a key component in driving this idea home.

Sure, Chris Nolan isn’t some fresh new talent by now; he has made his own remakes/sequels, but made them the right way: with a touch of originality, thought, and innovativeness. The Dark Knight wasn’t some thrown together piece of CGI crap to make a quick buck. And Inception surely borrows from any number of films in the past. But that’s just the thing; Inception borrows. It doesn’t remake or “revisit” or “reboot” any other idea. It exists as an actual original film, written by Nolan. So what? You ask. How will this change anyone’s mind? Well, I predict that, right now, Inception will be the highest-grossing film of the summer, maybe even the entire year. Not because it is a remake and it is safe for people, but quite the opposite.

I feel like (and I have no basis or study to support this, it is just a gut feeling) audiences acknowledge that they are becoming intellectually marginalized. And this might be a stretch, but again I blame this on the idiocracy of the Bush Administration, where sequels, remakes, and TV shows were all big players in Hollywood. Is it a coincidence that people don’t want to see The A-Team and, simultaneously, Glenn Beck’s ratings have plummeted? I’d like to think not. People are becoming more aware of their surroundings, they are pulling themselves out of this haze they have been in for nearly a decade. Maybe they aren’t as stupid as Hollywood thinks they are. And this isn’t Hollywood’s fault; they were just following suit to what used to work. Only it doesn’t work anymore, and they needed a summer box office like the one we are in right now to realize it. Audiences, I believe, want to be challenged once again. The mindset has been for a long time that people want to pay for a ticket and sit in a cool theater, away from the summer heat, and turn their brain off for a couple of hours and be mindlessly entertained. Perhaps, I hope, that mindset is beginning to shift.

This last weekend, The Karate Kid and The A-Team combined to bring in roughly $80 million in ticket sales. I have a good feeling that Inception might do that on its opening weekend all by itself. Inception is the film getting all the buzz, not The A-Team or Sex and the City 2. Talk to a hundred people and I could almost guarantee that sixty of them would list Inception as their most anticipated upcoming release. Sure, there is still room for Toy Story 3, a fun sequel for kids, but enough with these TV remakes and pointless sequels to make a quick buck. Because it’s not working anymore.

Of course, I could be completely wrong, but I don’t think I am. Not that I am some expert on Hollywood or audience demographics or mindset. But I am an acute listener to people around me, and I can see these poor numbers, and now with Hollywood execs dropping lines like the one above, the support for this notion that American audiences are growing smarter the further away we get from 2000-2008 is starting to take shape and feel right. Inception surely won't be the final nail in the coffin for remakes, sequels, and TV show adaptations, but it might be a helluva push in the right direction.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

TUESDAY TOP 10: Most Overrated Films...

Before you grab your pitchforks and light your torches, I want to clarify that some of these selections are not, in my opinion, bad films. To be overrated is not to be terrible by any means. Sometimes an overrated film might get awards over more deserving ones, sometimes they gain cultural or critical momentum and praise so much that they become attached to a stigma of greatness. Then again, sometimes they might just be crap that people overrate. Some of these are good films that are overrated, some of them are frustratingly bad.

10) Lawrence of Arabia – Oh boy… before you unsubscribe to the site let me plead my case. Lawrence of Arabia is in no way, shape, or form, a bad film. It has technical and cinematographic achievements that are still some of the best ever. It is sometimes a beautifully shot picture. But as far as storylines go, I could never attach myself emotionally to anyone or anything that was happening. I recognize the greatness in its technical aptitude, but as a film I was rather bored. And this isn’t a film you don’t “get,” like the pretentious masses like to say. The story is rather straightforward. It just isn’t very interesting and plods along in the desert a bit too long for my tastes. Peter O’Toole gives a fascinating performance with the material he is given, but the material is a little soggy… even in the desert sand.

9) Easy Rider – Again, I understand the cultural importance of Easy Rider. Also, this movie was filmed in a deliberate way; it is the first American expressionist picture, an examination of the counterculture that couldn’t be shot conventionally. But Easy Rider coasts a bit too long on its antiestablishment message without ever doing anything. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper ride their bikes, the smoke pot, they meet people from time to time, they pick up Jack Nicholson and convert him into one of them. I see the impact this film had on the seventies film renaissance in America, I just think Easy Rider gets too easily labeled as a classic.

8) Dances with Wolves – Perhaps now I am getting into more agreeable territory. Again, Dances with Wolves is not a bad movie. It is quite good in its own right. Some of the cinematography is breathtaking – the buffalo hunt comes to mind. But if ever a film gained momentum leading up to Oscar night, it was Kevin Costner’s Western opus. There is plenty to admire in Dances with Wolves, but sometimes it gets caught up in its own self worth. It wants to point out how magnificent it is with an overbearing score or a sweeping shot of the plains or an introspective moment. The action scenes are filmed in a sort of bland fashion too – no surprise since Kevin Costner directed those scenes. Good, yes. Classic Best Picture, hardly. Especially since Goodfellas was the film it beat.

7) M*A*S*H – Part of my disdain for this movie might come from the fact that it created a television spin-off that makes my skin crawl. I hate the show. But the movie was directed by a young Robert Altman, and I think a lot of people, movie people, are hesitant to not like a Robert Altman movie for fear that they will be burned alive. But this is early Altman, when he was toying with his signature style. This is before Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, or The Player. It is okay to not immediately anoint every Altman picture. Even early Scorsese is shaky at times. And the dialogue or, more specifically, the sound editing, was the big draw of M*A*S*H. Big deal.

6) A Beautiful Mind – Initially, I thought that Russell Crowe’s performance in A Beautiful Mind was his best of his three consecutive nominations and should have garnered him a second award (The Insider and Gladiator were the other two). But now, I think it would be third on that list. It’s not that Crowe isn’t good, A Beautiful Mind is just a bit melodramatic – something Ron Howard does from time to time. And Jennifer Connelly, as much as I love her, does nothing spectacular here that warrants a Best Supporting Actress statue. But of course since she wasn’t even nominated for Requiem for a Dream we can let that pass. A Beautiful Mind is not a Best Picture caliber movie, and was another film that won simply by gaining momentum before Oscar night.

5) American Beauty – This was another film that I loved initially. I, like everyone else on the planet, was swept up in the story of Lester Burnham and a film that was the Best Picture frontrunner from opening weekend. I think part of the amazement of American Beauty was that it was Sam Mendes’ first film. It is good, no doubt, but it becomes more and more watered down and sterile as the years go by. This is partly because of the imitators that followed, but it is also due to the fact that the story is pretty obvious throughout. Telling the audience, through Lester’s own voice, that Lester will be dead in the beginning of the movie is such an awful decision as well. It dilutes everything. And the bit with Ricky filming the bag and tearing up watching it was powerful the first time. Now it’s just goofy.

4) Scarface – This is one of the more annoying films on this list. What is so annoying is the way that the message of Brian DePalma’s film is misconstrued so terribly. Scarface has become the signature film for the “gangsta” faction who glorify Tony Montana’s rise from nowhere into a powerful drug lord. Never mind that he was a cocaine dealer, and never mind that he was filled full of holes in the end. Everyone wants to “identify” with his rise from nothing into a powerful figure. People love to get drunk on power, and Tony Montana is their leader. The look and the feel of Scarface is also quite tacky, and Al Pacino’s performance is over the top to the point of self parody. I used to like Scarface, but then I grew up.

3) Shakespeare in Love – Here is where my blood pressure will start to go up as I type. So you’re telling me that this romantic comedy, this falsified story of Shakespeare and his mistress, this lighthearted, empty romantic jaunt, is somehow more deserving of Best Picture than Steven Spielberg’s World War II masterpiece Saving Private Ryan? This is a picture I never liked from the get go. Everything was so contrived and safe and corny. It was a Katherine Heigl picture masquerading as an important romantic period piece. Save it. I suppose the performances are good here, and the story is energetic and all, but this may not even have deserved a nomination, let alone deserved to steal a win from one of the finest war films of all time.

2) Ordinary People – I resisted watching Robert Redford’s family drama for a long time after seeing Raging Bull. I had just conceded that Raging Bull and Martin Scorsese unjustly lost on Oscar night. But I felt that wasn’t fair, so I decided to watch Ordinary People to be sure. And once the credits began rolling on Ordinary People, I remember sitting, stupefied. That was it? This is a hateful, drab, boring family drama that was a big player, story-wise, on network television movies of the week back in the day. What a contrived piece of garbage. I can’t imagine that night at the Oscars, and this hapless film taking home top honors. For what reason? Because I see not one thing redeeming about it as a story, nothing inventive in the cinematography, and nothing that great about any of the performances. Even the poster makes me sleepy.

1) Crash – I blame the rise of Paul Haggis on the Bush Administration. As a nation we were dumber; we had to have things spoon-fed to us. Enter Paul Haggis, the king of everything non-subtle. Crash is such a heavy-handed, in-your-face study on race relations. The action takes place in some alternate universe where, apparently, everyone who exists speaks about other races in the most obvious, overbearing language imaginable. Nothing about Haggis’ film is internal, or thematic, or creative. It is all just laid out for the dumbest of filmgoers to absorb without having to really think about the actions or consequences. It is a shame that this piece of crap won Best Picture, and over Brokeback Mountain nonetheless.