Thursday, February 27, 2014

Rima Naim's Milena

Rima Naim is a Lebanese filmmaker. She moved from Saudi Arabia to Los Angeles to get a master's degree in filmmaking, and is currently working on producing short films and documentaries.

"Milena" is skillfully constructed, combining elegant imagery and soft, soulful music into a package that almost certainly represents director Rima Naim's precise vision. Each of her compositions is gorgeously lit and arranged. Unfortunately, Naim's pursuit of these images -- a photo overdeveloping in a pan, a woman in a nice dress alone in a barren field -- causes a disconnect between the viewer and characters. The string music and sad faces do their best to generate an emotional connection, but without a better sense of the characters as people, rather than objects for Naim to place and manipulate, the resulting film is more visually evocative than dramatically compelling.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The aggravating, asinine, anarchic release of “Adventure Time” on DVD (continued)

image

Another year, another "Adventure Time" DVD release with a random selection of episodes. This time, the title episode is "Fionna and Cake," designed to tie in with the air date for the second Fionna and Cake episode, "Bad Little Boy" (the episode premieres on February 18th, and the DVD set hits stores February 19th). My review copy came in totally unexpected, super-cool packaging (complete with a screener copy of "Bad Little Boy" and a Jake flash drive!).

I'm updating this post for reference more than outrage this year. In case you missed it, "Adventure Time" should be hitting Netflix Instant at the end of March, which really takes the sting off.

EDIT (3/30/2013): Turns out only Season One showed up on Instant. D'oh.

(1): episodes on My Two Favorite People
(2): episodes on It Came From the Nightosphere
(3): episodes on Jake vs. Me-Mow 
(4): episodes on Fionna and Cake

Season One*
(2) Slumber Party Panic / (1) Trouble in Lumpy Space
(2) Prisoners of Love / (1) Tree Trunks
(2) The Enchiridion! / (3) The Jiggler
(1) Ricardio the Heart Guy / (2) Business Time
(1) My Two Favorite People / Memories of Boom Boom Mountain
(2) Wizard / (1) Evicted!
City of Thieves / The Witch’s Garden
(3) What is Life? / (3) Ocean of Fear
When the Wedding Bells Thaw / Freak City
The Duke / Donny
Henchman / (1) Dungeon
What Have You Done? / (2) Rainy Day Daydream
Gut Grinder / (3) His Hero

Season Two
(2) It Came From the Nightosphere / (1) The Eyes
Loyalty to the King / Blood Under the Skin
(4) Storytelling / Slow Love
(2) Power Animal / (2) Crystals Have Power
(4) The Other Tarts / (1) To Cut a Woman’s Hair
(1) The Chamber of Frozen Blades / Her Parents
(1) The Pods / (4) The Silent King
(2) The Real You / (2) Guardians of Sunshine
(4) Death in Bloom / (3) Susan Strong
(2) Mystery Train / (1) Go With Me
(3) Belly of the Beast / (1) The Limit
(3) Mortal Folly / (3) Mortal Recoil
(3) Video Makers / Heat Signature

Season Three
Conquest of Cuteness / Morituri te Salutamus
(2) Memory of a Memory / (2) Hitman
(3) Too Young / (2) The Monster
(4) Still / (4) Wizard Battle
(4) Fionna and Cake / (4) What Was Missing
(2) The Creeps / (4) From Bad to Worse
Apple Thief / Beautopia
No One Can Hear You / (3) Jake vs. Me-Mow
(3) Thank You / The New Frontier
Holly Jolly Secrets Part I / Holly Jolly Secrets Part II
(4) Marceline’s Closet / Paper Pete

Season Four
(3) Another Way / (4) Ghost Princess
(3) Dad’s Dungeon / (4) Incendium
Hot to the Touch / (3) Five Short Graybles
Web Weirdos / Dream of Love
Return to the Nightosphere / Daddy’s Little Monster
In Your Footsteps / Hug Wolf
Princess Monster Wife / (3) Goliad
Beyond This Earthly Realm / Gotcha
(4) Princess Cookie / (4) Card Wars
Son of Mars / Burning Low
BMO Noire / King Worm
(4) Lady & Peebles / (4) You Made Me
Who Would Win / Ignition Point
The Hard Easy / Reign of Gunters
I Remember You / The Lich (Part 1)

Season Five
Finn the Human (Part 2) / Jake the Dog (Part 3)
Five More Short Graybles / Up a Tree
All the Little People / Jake the Dad
Davey / Mystery Dungeon
All Your Fault / Little Dude
Bad Little Boy / Vault of Bones
The Great Bird Man / Simon and Marcy
Puhoy / A Glitch is a Glitch
One Last Job / Princess Potluck
BMO Lost / James Baxter the Horse
Shhh / The Suitor
The Party's Over, Isla de Senora / Another Five Short Graybles
LSP Gets Robbed / Only Wizards Allowed

*obviously, all episodes of Season One are available in The Complete Season One DVD. A Blu-Ray of The Complete Season One and the Blu-Ray and DVD debut of The Complete Season 2 are all scheduled for June 4th, 2013.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The aggravating, asinine, anarchic release of “Adventure Time” on DVD



So, DVDTalk has put a third collection of "Adventure Time" episodes in the mail to me, Jake vs. Me-Mow, and so I figured I'd update and post my checklist of "Adventure Time" episodes and their corresponding DVD releases, because Cartoon Network still apparently thinks episode collections are better than season releases. It's particularly annoying that they included Season One episodes in this third collection after Season One has been released, although maybe Cartoon Network has this insidious idea that fans will collect the whole series via collections.

(1): episodes on My Two Favorite People
(2): episodes on It Came From the Nightosphere
(3): episodes on Jake vs. Me-Mow 


Season One*
(2) Slumber Party Panic / (1) Trouble in Lumpy Space
(2) Prisoners of Love / (1) Tree Trunks
(2) The Enchiridion! / (3) The Jiggler
(1) Ricardio the Heart Guy / (2) Business Time
(1) My Two Favorite People / Memories of Boom Boom Mountain
(2) Wizard / (1) Evicted!
City of Thieves / The Witch's Garden
(3) What is Life? / (3) Ocean of Fear
When the Wedding Bells Thaw / Freak City
The Duke / Donny
Henchman / (1) Dungeon
What Have You Done? / (2) Rainy Day Daydream
Gut Grinder / (3) His Hero


Season Two
(2) It Came From the Nightosphere / (1) The Eyes
Loyalty to the King / Blood Under the Skin
Storytelling / Slow Love
(2) Power Animal / (2) Crystals Have Power
The Other Tarts / (1) To Cut a Woman's Hair
(1) The Chamber of Frozen Blades / Her Parents
(1) The Pods / The Silent King
(2) The Real You / (2) Guardians of Sunshine
Death in Bloom / (3) Susan Strong
(2) Mystery Train / (1) Go With Me
(3) Belly of the Beast / (1) The Limit
(3) Mortal Folly / (3) Mortal Recoil
(3) Video Makers / Heat Signature


Season Three
Conquest of Cuteness / Morituri te Salutamus
(2) Memory of a Memory / (2) Hitman
(3) Too Young / (2) The Monster
Still / Wizard Battle
Fionna and Cake / What Was Missing
(2) The Creeps / From Bad to Worse
Apple Thief / Beautopia
No One Can Hear You / (3) Jake vs. Me-Mow
(3) Thank You / The New Frontier
Holly Jolly Secrets Part I / Holly Jolly Secrets Part II
Marceline's Closet / Paper Pete


Season Four
(3) Another Way / Ghost Princess
(3) Dad's Dungeon / Incendium
Hot to the Touch / (3) Five Short Graybles
Web Weirdos / Dream of Love
Return to the Nightosphere / Daddy's Little Monster
In Your Footsteps / Hug Wolf
Princess Monster Wife / (3) Goliad
Beyond This Earthly Realm / Gotcha
Princess Cookies / Card Wars
Son of Mars / Burning Low
BMO Noire / King Worm
Lady & Peebles / You Made Me
Who Would Win / Ignition Point


*obviously, all episodes of Season One are available in The Complete Season One DVD, although here's where I complain that there was no Blu-Ray release, despite the fact that the show airs in HD and can be purchased in HD from Amazon and iTunes (although I guess the addition of being able to buy it from Amazon since the last time I checked counts as a plus).

Monday, October 18, 2010

Paul

Here's the trailer for Paul, posted here so I can lop out the glitch where it replays the first 5 seconds.



Commenters on at least one of the YouTube versions are quite harsh, but it's less than a minute of footage.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Critical Thinking: Caddyshack (1980)



Critical Thinking is a column where I review something I've just watched (usually something I like). No other reason. It doesn't really need a name but I gave it one anyway, since it's different from Cheap Thrills, and I hear things on blogs should have names.

In 2008, Harold Ramis directed Year One, an agonizingly unfunny road picture awkwardly set in a mixture of the Stone Age and also the Roman Empire, which features an all-star cast of comedians in small bits but instead gets constantly sidetracked on horribly unfunny detours, like Oliver Platt's disgustingly over-the-top character (I forget who or what the character was, but I don't want to look it up, either). It's a terrible movie with the occasional, brief bit of brightness from one of many great people that are in it, but as a whole it never has any momentum or focus.

In that way, it's just like Caddyshack.

Don't get me wrong. Year One is way, way worse (and nobody eats a piece of shit in Caddyshack, like Jack Black does in Year One). Still, having just watched the brand new Blu-Ray of Caddyshack (my second time seeing the film), I still have a hard time understanding why the film is considered a comedy classic.

The primary problem with Caddyshack is that it gathers four actors who all bring very specific personalities to the table. Chevy Chase is his usual sarcastic self, quietly mocking everyone to their face. Ted Knight goes incredibly over the top, utilizing every muscle in his face to transition between extreme expressions of emotion. Rodney Dangerfield does classic gag schtick with his entire body, like a Looney Tunes cartoon got in a car accident with a nightclub stand-up act.

Then there's Bill Murray, who, as much as I love him -- and I really do -- gives a painfully broad performance as Carl Spackler, a demented, hobo-like groundskeeper with a weird speech impediment. I can't imagine any other comedian in the world could give the performance that Murray gives in this movie and have people think it wasn't awful, but as far as I can tell, Spackler is one of Murray's most enduring and famous roles.

Maybe one of these people could've carried a movie. I might've even liked Carl if Carl was the only person the film was concerned with. Squashing the four of them into a single movie with even more characters is a different story. Ramis, who was directing for the first time on Caddyshack, seems entirely unconcerned that his stars are all dropping in from different planets, and whenever more than one of them is in a room together, the movie loses its comedic footing, which is made all the more disappointing because, man, I want to see a really funny scene with Bill Murray and Chevy Chase acting opposite each other. The moment they're in the same room, my heart took a leap. The men who gave the world Peter Venkman and Irwin Fletcher, on screen at the same time! It's like the comedy version of Heat! (The pair's off-screen rivalry only adds to the tension.) Sadly, the scene is a misfire in my book. I was more enthralled by the big reunion in The Expendables just recently, and I hated that movie.

Adding insult to injury, none of these characters strike me as particularly well-written. Chase has a dearth of great lines, and when Chase does his usual bit and doesn't have good lines, he basically comes off like a smarmy asshole. Every once in awhile, he has a good joke (the "no steering wheel" pantomime is great), but he seems adrift and unengaged, like he's wandering through the movie as opposed to starring in it. Dangerfield is hit and miss, as not all of his routines translate as well as they could to the big screen, and Knight gets one note to play over and over. Murray's lines are probably better than the others, but the lisp or whatever he's doing just ruins them for me. Bill's brother Brian Doyle-Murray gets better lines as caddy management ("Pick up that blood!").

Caddyshack does have two saving graces. Well, maybe two and a half. The first two are Michael O'Keefe and Cindy Morgan, who are both charming and engaging as supposed hero Danny Noonan and the sexy Lacey Underall. Morgan doesn't have to do much but stand around and look beautiful, which she does with ease, but Morgan deepens the impression with a playful, bemused attitude that makes her almost impossibly endearing. O'Keefe makes for an appealing main character, but the movie sidelines him too often to invest much in his story, which is a shame; I think Caddyshack might be more deserving of its acclaim if there were more of O'Keefe and his conflict in the film (co-screenwriters Ramis, Doug Kenney and Doyle-Murray don't introduce any tangible stakes until the last 20 minutes). As for "half", Ramis' direction works wonders in the scenes where the actors aren't the primary focus: the impromptu swimming ballet and subsequent "doody" scene are worth a chuckle, and the golf course exploding at the end of the movie would have been the perfect end to a better movie. Alas, Caddyshack is not that movie: pretty much any other comedy from the 1980's starring any one of these guys is funnier and better constructed than this "shot-in-the-dark" mush.

The Blu-Ray comes with a lengthy episode of "Bio" on Caddyshack, but it's also a disappointment. Since it was produced for television, it has the aggravating habit of recapping for every intro and outro before unspoken commercial breaks, and if you pared this ep down to the real meat and potatoes, it'd easily lose 30 minutes of painfully repetitive narration. What's left is somewhat intriguing but not particularly fresh or in-depth, especially given that Dangerfield and Knight have both passed on, and neither Chase or Murray deemed it worthy to appear for new on-camera interviews. Even Brian Doyle-Murray had better things to do, although yet another Murray brother, John Murray, pops up frequently. The Blu-Ray's only other extra (no commentary?) is the shorter doc produced for the DVD, called "The 19th Hole". The PQ and AQ are both solid, although not quite as impressive as some other '80s films I've seen.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Drew McWeeny's List of Duh

Last night, I discovered that Drew McWeeny (@DrewAtHitFix) and William Goss (@williambgoss) have apparently been at this thing called The Basics for a few months now (explained in detail by Drew here, in which Goss goes through McWeeny's List of Duh (reprinted below, in chronological > alphabetical order) and watches the ones he hasn't seen.

Most of my paranoia about my work as a film critic being terrible comes from the usual lack of spread past films made during the years I've been alive, made in the country that I live in. Even if I've seen more films than most of the people I know, I'm still at the tip top of the iceberg when it comes to watching these things.

When I read the article yesterday, I thought it was new, which is why I'm starting now (shows how much attention I've been paying to things around me). There are 140 entries on the list. I haven't ever seen 52 of them, and there's probably only around that many films on the list I know well enough I could write about them without watching them again. In any case I figure I might as well review all of them. Who knows how long it will take. I don't think I'm planning to go in any specific order.

The General (1926)
Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)
Dracula (1931)
Frankenstein (1931)
Freaks (1932)
The Mummy (1932)
Duck Soup (1933)
The Invisible Man (1933)
King Kong (1933)
Triumph of the Will (1935)
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Dumbo (1941)
The Wolf Man (1941)
Bambi (1942)
Casablanca (1942)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Cinderella (1950)
Alice in Wonderland (1951)
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Peter Pan (1953)
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)
Seven Samurai (1954)
Lady and the Tramp (1955)
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Forbidden Planet (1956)
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Touch of Evil (1958)
Sleeping Beauty (1959)
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Lolita (1962)
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
The Great Escape (1963)
The Nutty Professor (1963)
The Pink Panther (1963) films
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
A Hard Day's Night (1964)
Mary Poppins (1964)
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
The Dirty Dozen (1967)
The Graduate (1967)
Point Blank (1967)
2001: a Space Odyssey (1968)
Easy Rider (1969)
The Planet of the Apes (1968) films
The Wild Bunch (1969)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Pink Flamingos (1972)
American Graffiti (1973)
The Exorcist (1973)
Mean Streets (1973)
Blazing Saddles (1974)
Chinatown (1974)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Young Frankenstein (1974)
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Jaws (1975)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
All the President's Men (1976)
Carrie (1976)
Network (1976)
Taxi Driver (1976)
Annie Hall (1977)
The Star Wars (1977) films
Suspiria (1977)
National Lampoon's Animal House (1978)
George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978)
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke (1978)
Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Manhattan (1979)
Airplane! (1980)
The Blues Brothers (1980)
The Friday the 13th (1980) series
Raging Bull (1980)
The Shining (1980)
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
The Evil Dead (1981)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and the Indy films
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
First Blood (1982)
Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan (1982)
John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)
Tron (1982)
Scarface (1983)
Ghostbusters (1984)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Sixteen Candles (1984)
This is Spinal Tap (1984)
Brazil (1985)
The Breakfast Club (1985)
Pee Wee's Big Adventure (1985)
Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
Blue Velvet (1986)
Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)
The Fly (1986)
Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (1987)
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Hellraiser (1987)
The Lost Boys (1987)
Predator (1987)
Hairspray (1988)
The Little Mermaid (1989)
GoodFellas (1990)
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Aladdin (1992)
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Unforgiven (1992)
Dazed and Confused (1993)
Jurassic Park (1993)
Clerks. (1994)
Ed Wood (1994)
Leon: The Professional (1994)
The Lion King (1994)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Friday (1995)
Heat (1995)
Se7en (1995)
Toy Story (1995) and Toy Story 2 (1999)
Fargo (1996)
Trainspotting (1996)
Boogie Nights (1997)
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Rushmore (1998)
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
There's Something about Mary (1998)
Fight Club (1999)
The Lord of the Rings (2001) series
Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) and 2 (2004)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Grizzly Man (2005)

Ready, set...

Monday, June 28, 2010

Critical Thinking: In Bruges (2008)



Critical Thinking is a column where I review something I've just watched (usually something I like). No other reason. It doesn't really need a name but I gave it one anyway, since it's different from Cheap Thrills, and I hear things on blogs should have names.

David Mamet once said that a film's developments should be both "surprising and inevitable". This strikes me as the perfect summation of good entertainment, and few movies embody this advice as clearly as Martin McDonagh's In Bruges, which I am revisiting thanks to its long-overdue debut on Blu-Ray here in the United States.

The setup: a pair of hitmen named Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell) have just arrived in the Belgian city of Bruges (roughly pronounced "brooj"), on orders from their employer, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), following a botched job. Ken is perfectly pleased to look at all of the medieval architecture; Ray would rather kill himself. "Do you think this is good? Goin' around in a boat, looking at stuff?" he demands of his partner. Ken does. "Ray, you're about the worst tourist in the whole world."

Innocuously hidden within the first ten or fifteen minutes is a prime example of Mamet's theory. In case the reader hasn't already seen In Bruges, I won't go into too much detail, but Ken goes to the city's biggest tourist attraction: a giant tower in the center of the city. Unable to get rid of his coins (ten cents short), he pays in cash and heads to the top, where he spots Ray down below, only minutes away from getting into a fight with a group of overweight Americans. The relevant information is not only organically buried in scenes that are interesting and funny in and of themselves, but even the most forward-thinking viewer will find that when the scene's major callback occurs, McDonagh has already devised a way to subvert the audience's expectations.

Ray is depressed over the events that sent he and Ken to Bruges in the first place, and Farrell's performance is surprisingly emotional, and not just sadness. Ray is a man who is all surface and no center, without any room on the inside for feelings. He wears them all with childlike earnestness on his rubbery face, veering from delighted to grumpy at the drop of a hat. In particular, he is delighted by the luminous Chloë (a sweet and sexy Clémence Poésy), a drug dealer offering her services to crew on the film shooting in Bruges, and Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), a little person playing an ever-changing role in the film's elaborate, pretentious dream sequence. Ken, meanwhile, is placed in a position of action, and has a quiet internal debate about what decision would be best for everyone. Ken is both noble and a realist, two qualities that work against each other.

Many of the people I've shown the film to have labeled it a downer, but I feel that's failing to see the forest for the trees. It is more about the attitude with which the characters deal with the events of the film than it is the events themselves, and Ray particularly sets the tone. The last lines of dialogue can be interpreted as sad and distant, especially taken in with the music and idea of what's happened, but viewers who listen carefully should see the humor in it, particularly if they're an optimist. The film's comedy is also quite goofy. Ken snapping at Ray's refusal to go see an exhibit ("It's only Jesus Christ's blood! Of course you don't fuckin' hafta!"), Jimmy and his ludicrous prophecy about a "war between the blacks and the whites", and Ray's almost existential hatred of everything about Bruges and what it stands for are all a wonderful counterpoint to the film's artful cinematography and picturesque setting. And that's all before Fiennes' character actually appears on screen. His Harry is a misanthropic, bomb-like force of nature whom Ken accurately sums up as an eternal cunt. "I mean no disrespect, but you're a cunt. You're a cunt now, and you've always been a cunt. And the only thing that's going to change is that you're going to be an even bigger cunt," he says, straight to the man's face. Harry does not disagree.

I missed the movie in theaters thanks to Focus Features' misguided ad campaign that tried to cram McDonagh's darkly witty farce into the same crowd-pleasing package as Guy Ritchie's rollicking Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch. McDonagh's style is generally much more naturalistic, with his only real "movie-esque" flourishes coming at the end, including an absolutely perfect sequence set to Luke Kelly's "On Raglan Road", and a climax so logical it practically seems like reflex rather than writing, yet so nutty you can't believe you're actually seeing it; in other words, a vivid illustration of Mamet's advice in action.

The Blu-Ray is a disappointment. The A/V quality is fine and a visible step up from the DVD in all regards, but there are actually extras missing from the SD-DVD. Since I don't believe I've gone back in time to the birth of the format, there's really no excuse for this, particularly when I was hoping Universal might see fit to track down McDonagh for a commentary in light of the film's Oscar nod for Best Original Screenplay, and perhaps throw in "Six Shooter", his Academy Award-winning short film that also stars Gleeson. Clearly, my sights were set too high.

[In Bruges on IMDb]

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Critical Thinking: Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)



Critical Thinking is a column where I review something I've just watched (usually something I like). No other reason. It doesn't really need a name but I gave it one anyway, since it's different from Cheap Thrills, and I hear things on blogs should have names.

On June 4th, the Katherine Heigl/Ashton Kutcher film Killers was inflicted upon us. Heigl plays the anti-woman's woman, i.e. a chipper, moronic, blonde beauty who can't do anything remotely masculine and needs men to rescue her from her own incompetence. Her mundane, career-focused, flighty existence is interrupted by the appearance of Ashton Kutcher. I reviewed Marley & Me for DVDTalk, and the first sight of Eric Dane, who looks like this, playing the role of an underpaid newspaper columnist, made me laugh out loud. Kutcher is supposedly a badass spy in Killers, which basically inspires the same reaction except with full-body nausea instead of laughter. Three weeks later, June finished up with the opening of Knight and Day, in which Tom Cruise plays the spy and Cameron Diaz plays the blonde (25% as ditzy, 75% as shrieky). I had high hopes, but it was a misfire in my book (you can read my whole review here).

Most people would point to Mr. & Mrs. Smith and True Lies as obvious recommendations for an alternative to these films, and these two examples are undoubtedly more inspired by those movies than the one I'm reviewing, but Mr. & Mrs. Smith isn't all that good, and True Lies -- easily the best of the four -- still gets terribly sidetracked by Bill Paxton's character, and is only barely more progressive when it comes to Jamie Lee Curtis' character than Killers (at least Curtis' performance appears to be intentional slapstick comedy, like a "Saturday Night Live" caricature).

No, my pick is the popular but still underrated Grosse Pointe Blank. John Cusack plays Martin Blank, a casual hitman who ends up in his hometown to do a job on the same weekend of his 10-year high school reunion. For most of those ten years, he's had a recurring nightmare about his choice to abandon his girlfriend Debi (Minnie Driver), and the weekend offers Martin a once-in-a-lifetime chance to track her down and make amends.

Re-watching the film with friends this weekend, I think the key to Grosse Pointe Blank's success is that, unlike the other films in question, there's more going on here than the central conceit of putting romance and bullets in the same movie. In the relatively simple paragraph above, I've outlined not one, not two, but all three of the movie's storylines: Martin returns home after a decade away for the reunion, Martin reunites with Debi for the first time after his vanishing act, and Martin the hitman starts looking for a way out. Like a well-oiled machine, all three of these stories work in tandem with each other while remaining loose enough to switch in and out of center stage as the movie needs them. I was bored during the first twenty or thirty minutes of Knight and Day because the trailers completely sum up the Cruise character and concept in thirty seconds. There are side notes about Diaz's character fixing her father's GTO and the wedding her sister is having, but the movie doesn't try to flesh these out into parallels or even brief tangents to the story. Comparatively, there's more than enough room in Blank for Martin to go on a drive with his old friend Paul Spericki (Jeremy Piven) or visit his childhood home without these scenes feeling like a distraction from more important things.

Director George Armitage has an odd career. After directing four films in the '70s, he vanished for a decade, reappearing in 1990 as the writer/director of one project and the writer of another. Passion projects, maybe. Then, he took another 6-year hiatus before making Blank. Afterwards, he didn't work until 2004's The Big Bounce, and has since been laying low, other than a "special thanks" on a 2010 movie called Joy Division. Having seen a couple of his '70s efforts recently, he doesn't appear to have much of a personal vision, but he still seems like he's more than an assembly-line guy. Even if he didn't respond to the material in a personal way, one gets the impression he was invested creatively, keeping things basic but not boring, engaging with his fellow cast and crew. There are a couple clever little shots, like a quick pull back to reveal a banner that Paul is leaping for, but Armitage's main contribution is probably the one of the whole film. This is a story about a violent hitman, but it never seems that gruesome, despite going all-out with an R-rating and at least one reasonably bloody death. If Grosse Pointe Blank were made today, it's hard to imagine the romantic and comedic lead of a film being allowed to do anything as intimately violent as stabbing a man with a pen for fear of losing the audience's sympathy, yet there's no sense that Armitage has to work to keep our relationship with Martin alive through the entire incident.

Another aspect of that light tone is the sexy chemistry between Cusack and Driver. Cusack is basically his usual self, but Driver brings plenty of little touches to the equation that make their relationship believable. In many movies like this, Debi would practically be a side character in comparison to Martin, but Driver fleshes her out with enough pathos and neuroses that she feels like his equal, having her own decade of uncertainty after he disappeared without a trace. Martin brings out the playful side of Debi, but this time around she's got her guard up.

The film is filled with a host of side characters, and it's nice how the picture manages to fit all of them in without going all over the map. Aside from Piven's Paul, Joan Cusack is Martin's assistant, who deals with the customers and answers the phones, Hank Azaria and K. Todd Freeman play two government agents looking to blot out Blank if they see him doing any misdeeds, Alan Arkin has several scenes as Martin's stressed-out psychologist, Benny Urquidez is a hitman looking to get revenge on Blank for the death of a prized dog, and Dan Aykroyd plays the movie's villain, a fellow assassin named Grocer who wants Blank to join his union of hired killers. There's also a whole host of characters at the eventual reunion, including Jenna Elfman as a woman who saw the other side, and Michael Cudlitz -- a scene-stealer if there ever was one -- as coke-snorting BMW salesman Bob Destepello. All of these people feel like they're cut from the same comedic cloth as the main characters, which is almost miraculous given how broad some of them are allowed to be. As a lifetime Ghostbusters fan, it hurts me to say that if any of them are a weak link, it might actually be Aykroyd, whose insistently cheery schtick toes the waters of "cartoonish", but I don't quite have a problem with it.

The third act leans on a tiny bit of script convenience, Azaria and Freeman are kind of written off, and the movie stops a touch abruptly, but these are minor nitpicks. The movie has more than enough goodwill to coast by then, and the ending is no cop-out, giving us one of the few "armchair psychology" epiphanies that actually feels organic and believable, allowing for a resolution that is satisfying instead of just relieving. Being a shootout, it lacks the intimacy of the film's high points, but the characters are intact, and it packs a nice punch. Grosse Pointe Blank is a great romance and a solid action movie featuring an entire cast's worth of well-written, well-performed characters, in a setting (the reunion) with some universal comedic appeal, and it accomplishes all it sets out to with enough ease to make you wonder: why exactly is this kind of movie so hard to make?

I was sure that 2007 was the year for Blank. The movie takes place at a 10-year high school reunion, so a 10th Anniversary DVD with an anamorphic transfer is a given, right? The year came and went, and even through to today, the only thing that's changed is that fans can now pick up the same old letterboxed transfer with a useless Digital Copy disc. Until Buena Vista opts to issue the film on Blu-Ray, I suggest people track down the 2-Movie Collectionwith High Fidelity, another great Cusack picture. There's also the film War, Inc., which reunites John, Joan and Dan in a worlds-apart scenario with a very similar tone. A few interviews hint that War, Inc. may have been written as a Grosse Pointe Blank sequel, but Disney wouldn't license the rights. On the other hand, I haven't seen it, so I can't vouch for it.

[Grosse Pointe Blank at IMDb]

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Cheap Thrills: Suburban Commando (1991)



Cheap Thrills is a column on The Following Preview featuring movies that can be had new at certain stores for $5 or less. Today's movie is the action-thriller Suburban Commando (1991), which I found at a Big Lots! store for $3.00.

There were three movie series I grew up on: Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, and Home Alone and that was pretty much it. I was only allowed to see movies that were rated G or PG, and instead of bothering to look for other things to capture my imagination, the seven films that comprised those three franchises at the time were basically my comfort zone.

Eventually, my parents started to resist my desires to just watch the same thing over and over, and I was forced to branch out. I chose to take baby steps, and just followed the actors. This led me to movies like Groundhog Day, Richie Rich, Life With Mikey, and Suburban Commando.

I vividly remember getting the VHS tape from behind the counter at Safeway, and discovering that while the box said the film was rated PG, the tape itself had the PG-13 logo on it. I was excited. Time to see some intense stuff, I thought. When the movie started and the human-looking villain has his hand chopped off, the image burned itself into my brain.

Today, Suburban Commando is fascinatingly disjointed. For about 10 minutes, the movie moves at a normal pace and even appears to have a plot, but then it suddenly and decisively devolves into a Greatest Hits compilation of Hulk Hogan doing impressive feats. He's lifting the kids! He's throwing a skateboard into space! He's bench-pressing workshop machinery! After 20 minutes of this, the movie gets bored and devolves further into random wacky antics. Hulk squishes a melon in an old lady's face! Hulk tries to skateboard! Hulk punches a mime! Whoooooa!

Miraculously, Suburban Commando stays pretty fast-paced and earnest about all of this nonsense (as opposed to insistent and belabored), which actually creates some goodwill towards the movie and Hogan's character. Sure, he's not a very good actor (his range seems to consist of how wide he has his eyes opened), but he seems relatively cheerful regardless of what's going on, even when he's supposed to be annoyed.

I wrote the above paragraphs about two months ago, and I don't want to delete them. However, other than mentioning what appeared to be an attempted rape sequence (which Christopher Lloyd heroically foils), I've already forgotten everything about Suburban Commando, which probably sums up the viewing experience in a nutshell. The movie is so forgettable, it's actually managed to partially delete the hand-capitation that I claimed had "burned itself into my brain". (If anyone finds me and I've become a complete and total amnesiac, blame Suburban Commando.) The DVD comes with widescreen and full-screen presentations, and a set-top game of some sort. Sadly, I can't recommend it. Save your three dollars for something more critical, like a third of a city parking fee, and rent the movie on Netflix instead, if you have to see it again. I guarantee it will be 90 minutes of surprisingly-pleasant-but-also-moronic childhood memories.