Monday, January 31, 2011

A Year of Film part 4- True Grit

Viewed 1/28/11

"True Grit" is one of those movies that people say you have to watch before the Oscars. I don't watch the Oscars, but I did anyway.

And what can I say? A film by the Coen brothers is difficult to talk about for a few reasons including their monolithic film integrity, and the fact that I just don't feel like I'm smart enough to do justice to their movies.

That said, I thought "True Grit" was just an okay movie. There are several reasons for this. The Coen's films usually have a little surprise up their sleeves. They employ an "anyone can die" rule and tend to be the blackest of comedies.

"True Grit" sidestepped a lot of the reguar Coen schticks and made for a much more straightforward, coherent, and accessible film. This is a very easy movie to watch. The characters are exactly who they appear to be, the plot goes more or less how you expect it to go, and all-in-all, it doesn't do much for me as a Coen brothers film.

That's not to say it's not a good movie. It is, but it's only good. Maybe that's the problem. Done by anyone else, this would be just another film. Everything the Coens touch turns to gold, so it's no surprise that this movie has gotten the attention it has even if it's a little unwarranted.

A lot of that attention is for Hailee Steinfeld (not to be confused with a certain comedian with a Superman fetish). She's fantastic in the movie, and unlike, say, Dakota Fanning, I don't want to stomp on her throat until her voice becomes but a gurgle. The girl can act. The cast is also bolstered by the fabulous Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. The acting in this movie is spot-on and they couldn't have done a better job making the characters seem like real people, if a little goofy.

So why did this movie fail to dazzle me? Maybe itls because I don't really care about westerns. To me, westerns are like vampire movies. I really like them as concepts, but I've yet to see one that has really thrilled me. While this is a fine stand-in for an original Coen movie, it just isn't as interesting or fun as "Fargo,"or "The Big Lebowski," or "No Country for Old Men." But it beats the hell out of "The Ladykillers."

I haven't seen the original, but I watched a matchup or similar scenes in both versions. I'm going to go on record as saying that Jeff Bridges is a hell of a better actor than John Wayne. Like anyone whose persona overshadows their work, all you see is The Duke in an eyepatch. Bridges became Rooster Cogburn.

This is a pretty spineless review. Do I say I didn't like it and risk looking dumb talking about filmmaking geniuses, or do I say "it was a good movie, so go see it"?

Fuck it, I hated "Avatar," I can say what I want. Wait for video for this one.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Year of Film- Part 3: The Green Hornet

Viewed 1/18/11

What would you call the worst superhero movie ever made? "Daredevil"? "Electra"? The Ang Lee "HULK"? What would you say if a comedian took all the worst aspects of those movies and made them into a separate movie?

"Hey, awesome! This will be hilarious!"

Well, what if they wanted to play it straight? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you "The Green Hornet."
"Green Hornet" is a movie full of "what-if"s. What if Seth Rogen wrote his character to be an affable schlub instead of an unlikeable one? What if the Sidekick-as-real-hero was actually addressed further? What if any character besides the two leads had gotten any characterization at all?
But let's back up.

"The Green Hornet" is based on an old radio show. It was optioned to be a movie years ago and was supposed to be written and directed by Kevin Smith. He did a draft, but then decided to pass on it because he realized he can't write an action movie. I wish Seth Rogen had realized this. I only saw the movie three hours ago, but, save the penultimate car chase, I can't remember any of the action scenes. I remember Rogen's Britt Reid and Jay Chou's Kato bickering, but not much else. That's a shame, because "The Green Hornet" had a lot of great ideas that they never bothered with. I mentioned the superior sidekick thing above, but we also have Christophe Waltz as the "villain" who sees the crime world around him going crazy and has to adopt a supervillain persona to keep up, we have posing as a bad guy idea, which is pretty brilliant. Unfortunately it is only brought up once before the Green Hornet and Kato go out and bust drug dealers in order to send a message to their boss. This is exactly the same thing that anyone posing as a hero would do. What makes them so different?

A much better version of this movie would be something of an affectionate parody along the lines of "Kick Ass." Seth Rogen could be his same old schlub self who wants to make a difference. He's a comic nerd and decides to be a superhero. Being genre savvy doesn't help him much though, as he has no battle training, can't use mechanics well, and is generally a dim bulb. He enlists Kato, who thinks it's a stupid idea, but humors him. Britt realizes that he's not special like Spider-Man and not a genius like Batman, so he goes for a guerrilla approach and decides to infiltrate the criminal underground. A lot of the movie could be him trying to toe the line between keeping Chudnofsky happy by doing what he has to, but also gathering info on a big plan the bad guy has going in order to stop it. Meanwhile, Britt uses his Green Hornet persona to stop the same crimes he's helping set up. The city gets into it, Green Hornet mania sets in and the villains start adopting crazy personas to fight the Green Hornet. They all have terrible names and the movie becomes a parody of superhero films with Chudnofsky as the straight guy, wondering what the hell is going on with the criminals in this city.

Instead we have a film that really doesn't know what it wants to be and generally leaves the audience stupefied. We have Kato, who, for some reason sees in bullet-time with Robocop vision, Cameron Diaz, whose character is completely useless in her I-am-totally-not-Pepper-Potts role, and the unnecessary subplots like the corrupt DA and Britt's father's murder. On top of that, Christophe Waltz is used in 30-second increments throughout the movie, so we never get a notion of what he's doing or why he's really evil. The movie just tries to take on too much at once and never lets us know if it wants to be taken seriously or not.

I think we're supposed to like these characters when they're being funny and worry for them when they're in danger, but the film never lets us see enough of either lifestyle to care. "Iron Man" was successful because Tony Stark is more interesting then Iron Man and the story was about Tony. "The Green Hornet" is like the bizarro-Tony Stark. He's a rich boy charisma vacuum and we just don't care what happens to him.

In fact, this movie is "Tommy Boy" if it was a superhero movie and Chris Farley's character was played by his talentless brother, Kevin Farley.

There really is a Kevin Farley, by the way.

Oscar-winning actors wasted: 1
Useful female characters: 0
Nut shots: 5
Characters who get their alter-ego's name using the same method Robin Williams's character used in "Mrs. Doubtfire": 1

P.S. When the back half of the Black Beauty is chopped off in the elevator, why do they explain that the car can still drive because it has front-wheel drive, but not how it can move without a gas tank?

Friday, January 7, 2011

A Year of Film- Part 2: For Your Consideration

Date watched: 1/6/11

Christopher Guest has made a career in the Mockumentary film "genre" started way back in 1984's "This is Spinal Tap." It seems that this movie, the only one he didn't write, incidentally, gave him the bug of using fictional characters as cartoon characters in the real world. Each of his films is very self-aware and he encourages his cast, usually a combination of Eugene Levy, Parker Posey, Katherine O'Hara, Fred Willard, and himself, to improvise dialogue, making the movie sound more real and conversational--something that helps when you're trying to live in the documentary realm.

Guest's movies that he wrote and directed, "Waiting for Guffman," which brought us the hilarious and flamboyant Corky St. Clair, "Best in Show," where Parker Posey got to turn her crazy knob up to 11, "A Mighty Wind," which starts to wane a bit, but is still very funny, and "For Your Consideration."

"Consideration" is the story of Marilyn Hack (Katherine O'Hara), an aging actress who is trying to cling to her youth. The first thing you'll notice about this movie if you've seen Guest's other films is that it is no longer filmed documentary-style in the traditional sense. Instead, it goes through an "Entertainment Tonight" style TV show starring Fred Willard and Jane Lynch as Chuck and Cindy, the hosts.

Willard and Lynch steal the show as aging hosts trying to stay current with their mohawks and ridiculous outfits. They follow the stars of the made-up film, "Home for Purim," around teasing them with Oscar buzz rumors and jabs about their failing careers. Meanwhile, these hangers-on having nothing to show for their lives except living for the next celebrity gossip or absurd clothing trend. The movie goes the extra mile to demonstrate that while the people with the real talent are often self-absorbed and a little cuckoo, the ones who have made their careers out of tracking them down and humiliating them are pathetic and loathsome.

Marilyn Hack is like Mel Brooks meets Norma Desmond. Her last name says it all, as her performances are laughable and empty, yet she gets caught up in the rumor that an Oscar might be in her future. She wishes to be young again, as many movie stars do, and blows her cash on botox, rendering her emotionless and permanently ruining any chances of an Oscar in her future. This story could be sad without Guest's hilarious writing. Hack eventually ends up an acting teacher whose only sense of fulfillment comes from trying to one-up her pupils.

The other characters, such as Harry Shearer's Victor Allen Miller, Jennifer Coolidge's Whitney Taylor Brown, and Parker Posey's Callie Webb each have their own stories, some shallow, some not, that eviscerate the cult of Hollywood further.

Also, what is it with Parker Posey? She can be really weird looking in some movies, and super cute in this one. Ah, the power of make up.

Ultimately, "For Your Consideration" "documents" a film that has gone bad due to its ineffective writers, idiotic director, selfish actors, and vapid producer. it all culminates in a piece that none of them is really proud of, but all of them were complicit in making.

While the film isn't as funny or entertaining as "Best in Show" or "Waiting for Guffman," it does have a certain charm to it. It stands as a parody of both the Hollywood experience and those pathetic enough to do nothing but pore over "Us Weekly" to see that the stars are "just like them."

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Unsurprisingly, I Blame George Lucas

While hitting my regular sites on the internet (mostly pornography), I noticed people reporting on the Mark Twain classic, "Huckleberry Finn." Apparently they deem the words "nigger" and "injun" offensive enough to warrant editing the whole book. It's a growing trend, apparently. I guess that's why that porno I was watching had the woman saying "Fuck me with your African-American cock!" Gotta keep it P.C.

This is one of the problems with America. White Americans are trying to cover up the fact that racism ever happened by whitewashing (blackwashing? African-American-washing? Wait, I'm straying into racist grounds again) the past. But that doesn't really work when the effects are still being felt today.

Here's another problem with America; dumb people take the word "nigger" in the book at face value and immediately decide that it must be cleaned up. They aren't looking at the historical context of the book, they're not looking at what characters use it, they aren't even taking into account that Mark Twain was perhaps the best satirist of all time, so when he uses the word "nigger" he's got a motive behind it. All they know is that the word is offensive, and so their poor little kids should be sheltered from it. It sucks all the meaning out of the book. It's like removing the context of the Holocaust from "Diary of a Young Girl." You no longer know why the text is relevant, why it's important, and what made it as famous as it is today. Should we also make Lolita a consenting adult who is saving herself for marriage, wears a silver ring and will only do anal so it is more comfortable for American audiences? Remove the word "bitch" from "Babe," ignoring the true meaning of the word altogether? Make Jane Eyre a vampire? "Moby Whale"?

People invoke the "Nanny State" a lot when it comes to stuff like this. It's a little deeper than that. People are always telling us to "think of the children," almost as much as dissenters use the phrase to mock them. We can't make everything in this country child-friendly. Not everything is Justin-goddamned-Beiber. "Three's Company" was edgier than anything on TV now.

I think George Carlin said it best when he said "Fuck the children!"
I'm worried that in the future this will be censored to "Fuck the children, provided they are 18 and you are married to them."

I like to call it the "Disneyfication of America." A place that exists outside of the real world where everyone is friendly, and attractive white kids dictate what kind of music and TV shows top the charts, and nobody ever gets offended because the same seven safe plots are used in all forms of media, ranging from "Oh no, I have two dates at the same time in the same place!" to "Men make a sexist gag, women challenge them to a gender-defined contest, women win, proving that the sexes are equal."

These "special editions" of books need to stop now. You get kids to care about literature by telling them how boundary-testing and interesting and revolutionary it is, not by cleaning it up so it's as vanilla as everything else in their lives. We need to do this before Twain, and Vonnegut, and Shakespeare, and Joyce are further maligned by literary masters like Snooki, and Spencer Pratt, and Kim Karashian, and Jenny McCarthy.

They've always said that knowledge is power. It's no coincidence that we're so content to lose both.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Year of Film- Part 1: King of Kong

I'm going to try to keep myself a little busier this year.
Oh, first of all, happy new year!
Now, I'm going to try to keep myself a little busier this year. I'm going to do more movie reviews. Yeah, I know everyone does movie reviews, but the goal here is to do them a little differently. I'm not sure how yet. I'm just going to dick around and see what happens.
The rules? I'm only doing movies I'm seeing for the first time. That means it could be in theaters, on DVD, on Betamax, whatever. I just have to be seeing it for the first time.

To start off this new-tradition-that-might-get-old-quick, I bring you "King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters," which has to be one the most pun-filled pop culture-y titles of all time. (Date watched: 1/1/11)

In "King of Kong" we get a look into the competitive world of video gaming. And I don't mean bullshit "Black Ops" rounds. I mean the old shit. 8-bit awesomeness.
You see, back before X-Box Live, there was this thing called an "arcade." In these strange buildings there would often be pool tables, pinball machines, and giant video games. Not like those enormous clunkers your grandparents used to put in the NES, but giant games. And people would have to stand to play them. It's amazing people even bothered running electricity into their caves.
Back then, video games didn't really have an ending. The whole point was to accumulate points until you died. After the game over, if your score was high enough, you'd be able to put in your initials--three letters long--on the score board for everyone else to see until the game was unplugged. You may remember an episode of the TV show "Seinfeld" that used this as a plot point. "What's 'Seinfeld,'" you say? Well, I'm afraid that's another story for another day.

At any rate, one of these arcade games was Donkey Kong. You may remember him from things like the video game episode of "Futurama" and what it is "On like."
Donkey Kong was one of these games with a high score. In the 80s, a man named Billy Mitchell grabbed the high score of DK and that record stood until about 2006 when average schlub Steve Wiebe became a part-time dad and made his kid wipe his own ass for a change in order to beat the score.

With any good story you need your protagonist and your antagonist. Documentaries are no different and it easily casts Wiebe as the underdog hero and Mitchell as the Cobra Kai of video games. Legend has it that years ago on the planet Krypton, Jor-El sent his last tie collection to Earth just as Krypton was about to explode. This tie collection made its way to Billy Mitchell and he became a true video game villain. He isn't aggressive, he's passive aggressive. Billy just comes off as a smug asshole who looks like Jesus, which makes his face just that much more punchable. You really don't want to like this guy. Don't believe me? Do a search for him on Google.

Yes, he makes his own hot sauce, too.

The rest of the movie plays out like a "Rocky" film, complete with "You're the Best Around" during a "training montage" in what might be my favorite bit in the movie. Wiebe keeps playing "Donkey Kong" while Mitchell stays in the shadows, be a passive-aggressive douche. It comes down to a pretty great finale which is up there with the likes of "Hoosiers" and "The Mighty Ducks 3."

the documentary may not be fair to Billy Mitchell all the time, but he's just so easy to dislike that you really want to root against him, so I can't fault them on that. As Weibe's family gets invested in his strive for the high score, we do too. If it was just two guys trying to save Pauline, we wouldn't care. The cast of characters around them, from the old prospector-like proprietor of Twin Galaxies to Mitchell's former-nemesis-turned-associate. It's definitely worth a watch for a look at a great video gaming underworld that not even I knew about. And also so you'll dislike Mitchell as much as me.