Sunday, August 31, 2008

Hamlet 2 (2008)

Do you like Stephen Coogan? The answer to that question will go a long way in determining how much you enjoy "Hamlet 2." Coogan plays Dana Marschz, a failed actor turned failed high school drama instructor. After a series of misguided film-to-play adaptations ("Erin Brockovich") starring the only two students in his class, Marschz unexpectedly inherits a much larger group of students. The reason? The school's massive financial cuts eliminated most of the other electives, causing a group of about 20 or so kids to randomly take up theater. The kids are mostly burn-outs and wannabe thugs, who have no actual interest in theater.

Marschz welcomes the challenge of teaching the unwilling, uninterested group of kids; fancying himself the kind of inspirational teacher you would find in films like “Dead Poet's Society” & “Mr. Holland's Opus.” The new kids think that he's an idiot, and they're right, but it's his stupidity that prevents him from giving up when faced with the sour news from the school principal that the drama department is going to be next on the chopping block. He seeks out advice from the one person whose opinion he really trusts, the 9th grade school newspaper reporter who has panned all of his productions. The little critic convinces Dana that if he could just put on an original play, and make it the best possible play he could write, then maybe, he would be able to save theater.

Marschz pours all of his time and effort into writing a sequel to “Hamlet,” that incorporates Jesus, Einstein, Time Travel, Doo-Woop songs, and his own father issues into what is ultimately a very politically incorrect production. The kids become inspired though, the school board becomes incensed, and the neighborhood controversy that arises around the play leads to a First Amendment lawsuit, spearheaded by Amy Poeler's ACLU caricature. Somewhere along the way, Elizabeth Shue plays herself as a retired actress-turned-nurse, and there's also a subplot concerning Dana's wife (Catherine Keener) leaving him for a guy named Gary (played by David Arquette,) an embarrassment by anyone's standards. The only real reason that plot line even exists is to paint Marschz as the biggest possible loser imaginable. Which leads to the ultimate question. Will Dana be able to overcome the neighborhood, the critics, and the school board, or is he as big of a loser as everyone thinks he is?

For all it's references to “inspirational teacher” movies, “Hamlet 2 is probably closest to Carl Reiner'sSummer School.” That's not a bad thing since “Summer School” has managed to live on, not because of a strong story, but because it's funny. Perhaps the same will be true for “Hamlet 2,” whose big laughs and awkwardly squirmy Steve Coogan performance deserves a better story. Where “Summer School” was aimed at random teenage youth, this film really is geared more towards adults. It's satire of modern theater and conservative/liberal views is more likely to garner a “that's gay” response from teenagers than a laugh.

At any rate, this movie really tanked at the box office, even after Focus Feature's intense “from the producers of 'Little Miss Sunshine' and 'Election'” campaign, not to mention the comparisons to “Napoleon Dynamite” & “South Park.” Hopefully, it will have a better run on home video, if not, well then, that's just Cuckoo Bananas.

I screened “Hamlet 2” at the T-Town on 8/26/08 at 11:00. It was a “tech” screening.

Dinosaurs Alive (2007)

I was debating whether or not I even wanted to post anything about this 45 minute educational film, but I figured that I watched it with an audience in a theater, it has CGI, and it's stars Michael Douglas, so why the hell not?

"Dinosaurs Alive" is documentary about archaeologists in New Mexico digging up dino bones. There's also a brief history of a paleontologist named Roy Chapman Andrews discovering dinosaurs in Mongolia in the 1920's . The doc claims that Andrews was the person that the character of Indiana Jones was based off of. This simple suggestion was mulled over quite a bit during my viewing of "Dinosaurs Alive," I mean, why hasn't someone made a movie about discovering dinosaurs? I imagine that the first discovery of these giant bones must of melted people's brains.

Anyway, the dinosaurs closest ancestor, Michael Douglas (come on, scaly flesh, hooked beak, and beady bird eyes), does a decent job of voice-over work here, it probably helps that he sounds like what you imagine a talking reptile would sound like.

Either way, he's far and a way better at voice-overs than these young archaeologists. Definitely one of my biggest beefs with this movie is the awkward, obviously staged documentary footage. I could understand staging something if it was something incredible that you just didn't capture on film, but the stuff they're staging is just plain old digging and shit. Everything they said sounded like it was being read off a cue card, even their introductions! Why can't they just introduce themselves like they normally would? Why do they have to plan it out?

Whatever...So this movie should be about the dinosaurs, right? Well, they're pretty lackluster, and in "Annie Hall" fashion, in such small portions.

The only dino that manages to overcome the crappy CGI is the brontosaurus, those guys are awesome.

This was my first Omni max experience and I've got to say that it was pretty neat. Apparently at other locations, this movie screened in 3D, and I'm betting that would of been pretty good. I think the ideal imagery for the Omni max set up would probably be underwater footage. I imagine the entire screen being cover in water, and having fish swim near you would be pretty cool.

Anyway, "Dinosaurs Alive" is kind of a toss up, on one hand it's pretty lame, but on the other, it's about DINOSAURS!!!!!

"Dinosaurs Alive" screened at 3:50 on 8/24/08 the Chicago Science Museum.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

In Woody Allen's new movie, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," two sexy young Americans, Vicky & Cristina (Rebecca Hall & Scarlett Johansson), spend their Summer vacation in Spain, and find themselves both attracted to the same man, a serious painter named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). Vicky is grounded and has a fiancé and future laid out in front of her. Cristina is free wheeling, aimless, and chronically unsatisfied.

When Juan Antonio approaches the two of them and matter-of-factly lays out his intentions, Cristina is all aboard, but Vicky is offended by his forwardness. After the two of them spend a weekend with Juan Antonio, Vicky finds herself regretfully seduced by him, & Cristina ends up with food poisoning.

Vicky goes back to her fiancé and tries to move on with her life, but finds that the grass is always greener on the other side. Meanwhile, Cristina enters into a relationship with Juan Antonio, only to discover that his affection for his chaotic ex-wife (Penelope Cruz) is still hanging around, and so is she.

So for starters, I like Woody Allen. A friend of mine noted not too long ago that I've been pretty consistent in seeing Woody's new movies in theaters. That being said, I thought "Match Point" was a decent movie made better by a strong 3rd act, and I still think that Woody's last Great movie was 1999's "Sweet and Lowdown." Still, it seems that whenever he puts out a new movie, there's some segment of the critical population that calls it a "return to form." That phrase is being thrown around more than ever concerning "Vicky Cristina."

Here's what I think of it. I think that it's very pretty to look at it (both geographically and the lead actors/actresses). I think that it's got a nice score that not only contributes to the brisk pacing, but also underscores the dark comedy of the film. I think that it has familiar themes, but that they are handled in a mature, skillful way. I think Rebecca Hall and Penelope Cruz are both very good in a movie generally filled with good performances. And most of all, I think that it's pretty knowledgeable, when it comes to the nature of human beings.

My personal dissatisfaction with the film stems from the fact that I found it to be instantly forgettable. I walked out of the theater and had a brief conversation with my date about it, and I haven't really thought about it since. It feels like an excellent exercise in craftsmanship that for whatever reason did not resonate with me.

I think perhaps, I'm tired of Woody writing films for younger actors. I think I would prefer to see a film written about character's closer to his age. There has always been a strong autobiographical element to his films, and a running theme of mortality-anxiety. What better time in his life is there to reflect on that theme then now?

"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" screened at an AMC theater in Chicago, Ill on 8/20/08

Rocky (1976)

So, growing up, my brother loved Rocky Balboa and whenever Christmas or his birthday came around, "Rocky" memorabilia was a must (or at least, an easy gift). I've seen all of the movies in the series, but admittedly some of them bleed together, and certain aspects of them faded away or were downplayed in my head. For instance, upon this revisiting (my first time seeing it in a theater), I had forgotten how little the original had to do with boxing. It was surprising to discover that it's mostly about two emotionally-retarded thirty-somethings falling in love, "middle-school style" as my gal pal put it.

Rocky Balboa is a "never-was" boxer in Philadelphia, who works as a hired thug for a gangster named Gazzo (the great Joe Spinell of "Maniac" and many amazing films from the 70's). Rocky's got the physical prowess, but he's too nice of a guy for that kind of work. Rocco has it tough all over though, the kids in the neighborhood don't respect him ("creepo)," the gym he spars at gave away his locker (after 6 years) because he's "a bum," and the mousy girl (Talia Shire) at the pet shop won't give him the time of day.

His best friend, Paulie (played by the amazing Burt Young), works at a meat-packing facility, and helps set Rocky up with Adrian, the girl from the pet shop (and Paulie's sister). As things progress with Adrian, Rock is presented with a once in a lifetime opportunity to fight Apollo Creed (the charismatic Carl Weathers), the World Heavyweight Champion in an unprecedented novelty fight, pitting a total unknown again the Champ. Creed sees it not just as a gimmick, but as the ultimate celebration of the nation's bicentennial, and spirit of America. As he puts it, "'Apollo Creed versus the Italian Stallion,' sounds like a damn monster movie."

Burgess Meredith, of course, is great as Micky, the crotchety old boxing trainer who sees the potential Rocky, and resents him for not living up to it. I kind of wanted more Micky in this movie, but I guess that's what the sequel is for. As the movie progresses, Rocky trains and has to deal with the pressure of being in the limelight for the first time in his life.

As Rock has more success in boxing and in love, Paulie suffers from feelings of being left behind, not just by Rocky, but by his Adrian as well. I can't say enough about Burt Young, who seemed old in 1976, and is still alive today. He reprised his role in the last film in the series, "Rocky Balboa," and he basically looks the same. Why hasn't this guy had a better career?

He's always reminded me of my Dad.

Speaking of "Rocky Balboa," I really liked that movie when I first saw it 2006, and I've been re-watching it recently since seeing the original in the theater, and all I've got to say is that it really is quite good. It's such a nice companion piece to the original. When I first watched it, I felt in the first 20 minutes that Paulie was Rocky's guardian angel or something, but it turned out that it was just eerie lighting. But whenever I watch it, I like to imagine that he is.

Highlights of this viewing included:

-The great score by Bill Conti. Obviously the Main Theme is classic, but the downbeat Mellon collie stuff is really effective.

-The cinematography of Philadelphia is beautiful.

-Talia Shire's overall look.

Anyway, "Rocky" is pretty great and I'll go the distance with anyone who tries to tell me otherwise.

"Rocky" screened at 7:30 on 8/24/08 at Piper's Alley in Chicago, Ill.

10 to Midnight (1983)

Let me just start off by saying that this movie made me want to shoot people! When I walked to my car afterwards, I was so pumped up that I kept thinking about my day and how awesome it would have been to end the obnoxious arguments that I had with customers with gunshots to the face, and lines like "No you won't!"

From the director of the original "Cape Fear," J. Lee Thompson, comes this Charles Bronson infused detective/vigilante film. Bronson plays grumpy veteran cop, Leo Kessler, who along with his younger, cockier partner, Paul McAnn, is hot on the trail of awkward serial killer, Warren, played by Gene Davis.

Warren has a particularly odd habit when it comes to brutally stabbing his female victims, he likes to strip down to nothing, and stalk them naked. Gene Davis' performance is really something of an anomaly; he either completely succeeds in creating an unsettlingly awkward & mentally fractured character, or he's just a bad actor. Either way, there's some amount of mental deficiency at work, and it lends a certain element of authenticity to the performance.

As the film progresses, more dead bodies turn up, but Kessler & McAnn can't put Warren behind bars. When faced with the reality that Warren might get away with it, Leo takes matters into his own hands by planting evidence to incriminate Warren. All of this leads a courtroom sequence where Warren is defended by Geoffrey Lewis (you know Orville from the Clint Eastwood movies with the orangutan).

Eventually Kessler has a conflict of conscience, and admits to planting the evidence. Warren is set free and Leo looses his badge. Warren then begins stalking Leo's daughter, Laurie, with some amazingly creepy (and hilarious) phone calls. For whatever reason Warren not only adopts a Spanish accent for these phone calls, but also a "paperboy" hat. From here on out, the film is all about Bronson stalking the stalker and just kind of fuckin' with him, ruining his day, that sort of thing. All the while, implying that he will eventually catch him red-handed.

The film culminates in Warren's murderous spree inside the dorm that Laurie lives in. He, butt-ass-naked, chases her out into the streets, which leads to the final confrontation between Leo and Warren.

Zack, host of Terror Thursday, pointed out that my favorite film critic, Roger "the Fat Man" Ebert gave this film zero stars. You can read his review here. I have no problem with him giving this film zero stars, I actually like reading his zero & half-star reviews more than his 4 star ones. I know from reading his reviews for years that he withholds zero star reviews for movies that in his opinion, he finds "somehow immoral." As my friend Austin noted, that's not really a place for film reviewer, but whatever, it's all his opinion anyway. I did find it funny that in the Fat Man's review he pointed out the logical flaw that occurs in the final chase sequence. Bronson while tailing Warren and Laurie by several minutes, somehow manages to magically cut them off at the pass, so to speak. How did he even know that they were running out in the streets, much less where they were heading, and how did he get there so fast? When he arrived at the dorm, they were all ready gone.

The only answer I can offer is that he's...Charles Bronson.

The film does a great job of balancing thematic elements and shifts rather effortlessly from a slasher film to a detective mystery to a courtroom drama and eventually to a vigilante film. Bronson is not just good as the world-weary cop, but I thought that he was very tender as Laurie's absentee father.

Some of the highlights included:

--All of Warren's dirty telephone calls.

--Leo's matter-of-fact-delivery of the following line in the morgue: "Anyone who does something like this, his knife is his penis"

--Wilford Brimley!!!

--Leo's interrogation of Warren where he holds up a "sexual aid" and bates him by asking if it's for "JERKING OFF!?!" (on a side note, a Terror Thursday regular, in a discussion of what kind of "sexual aid" we thought it was, said that they thought it was for mashing potatoes).

--Leo's comment to the press after the planting evidence fiasco: "Why don't you go fuck yourself?"

"10 to Midnight" screened at Midnight on 8/28/08 and was present by Terror Thursday

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Dead Alive (1992)

A giant rat rapes a monkey and all hell breaks loose in Peter Jackson's outrageously gory Zombie-Comedy, "Dead Alive." It's the tale of Lionel, a mama's boy living at home in the 50's, who meets a local grocery store clerk named Paquita. She believes (after a tarot card reading) that Lionel and her are destined to be together, and maybe she's right, but the only thing standing in their way is...MOTHER.

Lionel's controlling Mother is so protective and so threatened by Paquita that she secretly follows the two of them on their date to the zoo, where she comes face to face with an even more threatening creature, a rare and violent animal known as a Sumatran rat-monkey. The creature bites Mother on her arm and is then distastefully stomped to death by her. Lionel, shocked that his Mother is there and even more shocked by what happened to her, begrudgingly abandons Paquita at the zoo to care for his Mother.

Her health quickly deteriorates and she develops a taste for flesh, both of the human and canine variety, and it isn't long before she's in full-blown-zombie-mode. Even though Mother is obviously a threat to not only Lionel, but to everyone who comes near her, Lionel can't bring himself to put her down for good. His mama's-boy instinct is in full throttle, and he just doesn't know what to do. He tries locking her up and he even tries burying her, but nothing works.

Meanwhile, Mother continues to find new victims to infect with her Sumatran-rat-monkey-zombie-juice, and Lionel does his best to hide his newly acquired zombies-friends in his basement. As all of this unfolds, his relationship with Paquita suffers due to Lionel's secrets in the basement. Meanwhile, Lionel's exploitive uncle starts hanging around, in hopes of pressuring Lionel for a share of his Mother's estate.

Eventually all of this climaxes in a 30-plus minute wall-to-wall gore-a-thon that still ranks this one as quite possibly the goriest movie ever made.

This was not my first time seeing "Dead Alive," but again, it was my first time seeing it in a theater. It screened as the 5th of a 6 film series at the Regal Arbor 8, entitled "Retro Replay." Since the series started, they've shown a pretty odd selection of films; "Dr. No," "The Hudsucker Proxy," "Joe Versus the Volcano," & "So I Married An Axe Murder." Next week they are showing "Better Off Dead." The strange thing is that they are really trying to make it a fun and somewhat interactive experience, in this case providing hand made "Dead Alive Barf Bags" and asking trivia questions.

Obviously, as a regular Weird Wednesday & Terror Thursday attendee, these gestures echoed the kinds of things the Alamo does. Couple that with the fact that the theater I work at, a Cinemark theater, this week received a "Sing-a-long" copy of "Mama Mia," and it would seem that at least around here, the revolutionary programing of Alamo Drafthouse is starting to effect the way generic multiplexes are operating.

So far though, it would be appear that they still have a long way to go. The gentlemen from the Arbor we spoke to afterwards said that the screening we were at was the closest they had come to breaking even with the series. On top of that, the trivia question portion suffered from some embarrassing bumbling on his part, but maybe "Better Off Dead" will go better. As far as the "Mama Mia Sing-a-long" goes, the 9:00 show last night only had one person in it. Can you imagine that one person sitting in the theater singing along? Where's Henri when you need him?

"Dead Alive" screened on 8/27/08 at 7:00 at the Arbor.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Ghostbusters (1984)

Obviously, this was not the first time I've seen "Ghostbusters," but it was the first time that I've seen it in a theater, and what a theater it was. The Music Box theater in Chicago is like the Paramount (minus the balcony) if the Paramount was abandoned, and illegally ran by children, which is to say, it's awesome, dark, and elegant.

Judging from this viewing though, Chicago (like Austin) has no shortage of idiots who like to talk during the movie. During the scene where Dana (Sigourney Weaver) opens her refrigerator and finds that it's filled with a floating building covered in flames and snarling creatures, there is a close up of one of the creatures. When the creature opens it's mouth and growls, a bright light shines out from it. When this scene occurred at the Music Box, the guy behind us turned to his girlfriend and said loudly, "Ha!, that's just a puppet with a flashlight in it's mouth." He said it with so much pride and superiority, as if to say "You mean those aren't real demon-dogs?"

At any rate, this dumbass got me thinking about the special effects in the movie and whether or not I thought they held up well. As time goes on, I hate hate hate CGI more and more, but as I watched the incredible State-puft Marshmallow Man walk down the street of the city, I couldn't help but notice how fake the city looked. For a moment, I was taking out of the movie, but I quickly snapped back in when I realized that of course it was a miniature city because State-puft is just a guy in a suit. I found a certain comfort in remembering that even if the illusion was just that, at least the guy in the suit was real, and at least the miniature city was real too, it wasn't just some vapid digital space.

Other than that, "Ghostbusters" on the big screen was kind of a strange one, because I didn't really gain anything from it, other than nostalgia. Usually when you watch a movie you haven't seen in years, you forget some stuff and are pleasantly surprised when you remember it, but in this case, I hadn't forgotten a single scene.

"Ghostbusters" screened on 8/22/08 at midnight at the Music Box in Chicago.

Catherine & Co. (1975)

"Catherine & Company" is a French Sex (Comedy?) film that stars Serg Gainsbourg's longtime muse, Jane Birkin, and her ass. Don't believe me? Look at the poster:

The plot concerns Catherine, a young drifter who is fresh off train and looking work in France when she meets a series of business men who are desperate for her "company." She spends the night with each of them, lying naked next to the men, but never having sex with any of them; opting instead to coax monotonous pillow-talk out of them while she quietly falls asleep.

This course of action, while annoying to Catherine, temporarily puts a roof over her head, but it doesn't really pay the bills, so to speak. When she finally thinks that she has found a place to stay where she doesn't have to worry about men groping her, she meets the owner, Francois, played by this guy.

He's all sorts of interested in Catherine, but the difference this time is that she welcomes the groping. Their sex scene is among the highlights of the film, showcasing a cavalcade of sexual positions, uncomfortably punctuated with their simultaneous getting-to-know-you small talk. When it's over, Francois lets it slip that he's engaged to be married, crushing Catherine's spirits.

(This is the best picture I can find of Jane Birkin looking like her spirits are crushed)

After an unpleasant second meeting with Francois and his flock of females, Catherine eventually goes back to stay with one of the many business men in her life, but this time, (perhaps out of sadness) she has sex with him. She is shocked the next morning to find out that in return for her wiliness to please, the business man offers her 500 francs. Suddenly she has money in her hands and, thanks to her business man's pillow-talk, a better understanding of what it takes to run a business.

She then sets out to start her own business, selling her sexual services and free time to "investors." As her profits grow, so too does her stable of investors. At the height of her powers, Catherine attends a party with her men, all of which are having a great time with her. The awkwardness ensues when Francois shows up at the party, and must now feel the rejection Catherine felt.

Throughout the years that I've been attending Weird Wednesday, I have seen a lot of Sexploitation, and I have found that there are few things must occur for me to enjoy a film. For starters, a lack of repetition definitely helps, sex scene after sex scene tends to get boring quick. "Catherine & Co." manages to not only be sexy, but to also tell a story with an interesting character dynamic.

Secondly, my enjoyment of these films usually depends a lot on how attractive I find the lead actress (or all the actresses if it's an ensemble). In this case, Jane Birkin has an exotic and strange beauty that's pretty damn attractive. She's built like a Volkswagen, which is to say that her engine is in her trunk, but it really works for her.

Overall, "Catherine & Co." was an above average Weird Wednesday with some very enjoyable parts. Some of the highlights included:

--Catherine having sex with one of her investors in the balcony of a theater while "The Ride of the Valkyries" plays in the background.

--Catherine's first encounter with a business man whose idea of small talk and reassurance is to randomly say "come on, it's not like I'm going to rape you."

--Catherine's suggestive posing for a portrait, that unknown to her, is of her as a centaur.

--Her amazingly short-white-party-dress-with-bubbles/balls on it.

--The ultra-intense slap-happy confrontation between Francois & Catherine at the party.

--Also, the film had a really strong score.

"Catherine & Co." screened on 8/27/08 at the Alamo Ritz and was presented by Weird Wednesday.