Thursday, November 13, 2008

Tarzana, the Wild Girl (1969)

Rich Englishmen, Sir Donovan, had long believed his daughter had perished in a plane crash in Africa along with his wife and family, but when strange reports arrive over 15 years later of a local tribe crowning a white woman their queen (known as Tarzana), he sends a rescue expedition to Nairobi on the slim chance his daughter survived.

This Italian production finds Safari expect, Glen Shipper (resembling an older, taller Aaron Eckhart) accompanying Sir Donovan's representatives, Doris (Franca Polesello), and the sinister Groder (Franco Ressel, resembling a younger, thinner, Alan Rickman) in search of Tarzana.

They bring along a team of helpers including the tribal dancer/trail-leader, Kamala, grizzled hunter, Lars, lecherous villain, Fred, and Shipper's driver who is a fat black man with a machete, who dresses exactly like Gilligan from “Gilligan's Island.” Along the way, the expedition wanders through a cave that looks strangely like the same one from “The Boogens.” They also find the 15 year old plane wreckage and they ward off stock footage of a lion that magically turns into a “dead” stuffed lion on a sound-stage.

The real star of the film is Tarzana (Femi Benussi) herself, or more specifically, Tarzana's breasts. Much of the film consists of Tarzana walking around completely topless, wearing nothing but a jungle g-string, while posing on a sound-stage with an elephant, a baby lion (or was it a tiger?), and a particularly human-sounding monkey. Every once in a while she pauses to let out a bellowing toneless yell to summon various animals to her aide. To help give you an idea of how obsessed the movie is with Tarzana's breasts, in the climatic sequence at the end where Doris is appealing to Tarzana to come with her and Glen, she actually appeals to Tarzana's breasts by removing her own shirt and comparing her breasts to Tarzana's: "Look, we're the same.

That's pretty much everything you need to know about "Tarzana, the Wild Girl," an unremarkable movie that was a sometimes boring, yet ultimately enjoyable Weird Wednesday.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Shape of Things to Come (1979)

So I can safely say that this unfaithful H.G. Wells adaptation was a pretty unmemorable Weird Wednesday, especially considering that it screened a mere month ago, and sitting here now, I'm struggling to recall what I thought about it. I guess what I'm saying is bear with me on this one.

The plot, as provided by goes something like this:

Planet Earth is a devastated wasteland, and what's left of humanity has colonized the Moon in domed cities. Humanity's continued survival depends on an anti-radiation drug only available on planet Delta Three, which has been taken over by Omus (Jack Palance), a brilliant but mad mechanic who places no value on human life. Omus wants to come to the Moon to rule and intends to attack it by ramming robot-controlled spaceships into the domes. Dr. John Caball, his son Jason, Jason's friend, Kim, and a robot named Sparks embark on Caball's space battlecruiser on an unauthorized mission to Delta Three to stop Omus.

Now let me just say that reading this synopsis now, I guess I can see how a plot could be strung together by the scenes I saw, but at the time (perhaps it was my tired mental state, but I never fell asleep once during this one) I swear my mind was not processing a plot, but merely absorbing scene after scene.

That being said, the most painful problems with the film are obvious from the get-go; the lumbering pace, the low production value (for a Sci-Fi film at least), and a completely flat script are among the film's worst crimes. The absolute worst though, without a doubt, is the complete under-use of the incomparable Jack Palance. He shows up briefly early on and you're primed for some damn fine scene-chewing, and then there's nothing for an hour or so. He shows up in the last 25 minutes or so to unload some pure cinematic insanity, but it's too little, too late.

It wasn't a total loss though, there were some pretty laughable moments here and there, among my favorites:

--Jack Palance giant floating/rotating holographic head. His incredible overacting, arm gesturing, and his delivery of the line: “Where's your humanism now doctor!?!” You can also tell how evil he is by how many times he laughs out of pure amazement and delight with what he's doing.

--The hallucinogenic space travel sequence (something that seems to be a standard in 70's Sci-Fi films) that's capped with the line: “What the Hell was that about?”

--The ridiculous "robots." Sparks actually seems more human than most of the humans in the film.

--The crazy space-gladiator weapons.

--There's a group of kids in the movie that are supposed to be mutants, or fallout victims, or orphans or something. I don't know, but half of them have on awful blond wigs. The other half have either naturally blond hair or just naturally dark hair. I'm pretty sure that the idea here was that they would all have blond wigs, but the filmmakers didn't have enough to go around so some ended up with them and some didn't. The only reason I think this is because one of the kids wearing a blond wig was Asian.

To be fair to this one, I know there were a lot of other funny bits, but I just can't remember them. I leave you with this, did you know that Jack Palance's birth name was Volodymir Ivanovich Palahniuk? Me neither.

"The Shape of Things to Come" screened 10/8/08 at the midnight and was presented by Weird Wednesday.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008)

It’s funny how expectations work. I was really excited to see “Juno” last year, especially after all the hype. My disappointment with that film, I initially thought, was due to the hype, but really the more I thought about that movie the more I hated it. Did it deserve that much venom? Probably not, but…maybe. Then recently, I watched “Zack and Miri make a Porno” and I expected a hilarious and insightful Kevin Smith movie, but instead I got an obligatorily vulgar and unfunny Hollywood sap-fest, which of course resulted in my disappointment. That brings me to this movie, “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.” To look at the trailer for this film, you might think that Myspace produced it, and that it was carefully calculated to hit all the right cultural references to appeal to Generation Y, or whatever, but from where I was sitting it had a much more modest intent.

Nick (Michael Cera) is a sensitive Indie-Rock boy who is obsessed with two things, music and his ex-girlfriend, and he combines the two through a series of embarrassingly pathetic mix CDs, made especially for her. His ex, Tris, has moved on to College guys, and spends her days at High School laughing to her friends about how big of a loser Nick is. One of her friends, the introverted Norah (Kat Dennings), has never met Nick, but she feels a kinship with him because she’s heard most of the mixes made for Tris. Norah feels sorry for Nick because she’s realizes that Tris doesn’t appreciate the CDs.

Nick plays in a band called the Jerkoffs, made up entirely of gay men, with him being the lone exception. Much is made of the fact that the band doesn’t have a drummer, but that doesn’t stop Tris (and her new boyfriend) from heading downtown (New York) to see them on a Friday night. Norah and her chronically drunk best friend, Caroline, show up as well. Through some deception on Norah’s part, Nick and Norah end up meeting, while having to pretend that they’re boyfriend & girlfriend in front of Tris.

Long story short, Nick & Norah go out on the town to get to know one another, while Nick’s band takes Caroline home. Meanwhile Tris is crazy-jealous over the prospect of Nick & Norah dating and begins pining for him out of spite. Everything goes smoothly that night until the Jerkoffs lose Caroline, and Nick loses the interest of Norah by constantly talking about Tris. Will the Jerkoffs find Caroline? Will Nick & Norah fall in love/lust, or will Tris get him back?

Like I said, I think this movie has a fairly modest intent. Since it never wants to be anything more than the tale of 2 teenagers meeting and crushing on one another during the course of one night, that’s all it turns out to be, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Unlike “Zack & Miri,” this film doesn’t have to be outrageously funny or even clever; it merely has to be cute and earnest. Like “Zack & Miri” though, it doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel either; it just has to roll along smoothly.

That being said, expectations played a huge role in my enjoyment of this film. For example, I was surprised that a movie with the term “Infinite Playlist” in it didn’t make me feel like I was being bashed over the head with the soundtrack (like “Juno” did). I was also surprised by how adult the film was, not just in sense that it included subjects like homosexuality and “heavy petting” sexuality in it, but that it handled those subjects with an uncanny amount of maturity. That’s especially admirable considering that it’s PG-13 and aimed at pre-teens and teens. I was surprised by how authentic the performances were too. To clarify, the film does have its share of unrealistic dialogue (not unlike “Juno” or “Zack & Miri”), but due to the line delivery, it’s not only believable, but it’s also not obnoxious. Lastly, I was really surprised by how subtle the jokes were. With one exception that I can think of, almost the entire movie was made up of witty one-liners. There was no slapstick and very little in the way of gross-out humor. Again, very strange for a teen-oriented film.

Don’t get me wrong; this movie is far from perfect. For starters, there’s really not much to it, which is to say that if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve pretty much seen the movie (except it’s better than the trailer). Secondly, the movie is not hysterically funny for a Comedy, but for me, that wasn’t a problem. The person I saw it with though felt that due to the understated humor and limited plot-innovation, it was kind of boring. It will be interesting to see how it ages as well, whether the Indie-Pop and references to Amy Winehouse will date poorly or provide a comforting nostalgia? I’m not really sure, but I do think it will find an audience over time, and a fond appreciation.

As anyone who has known me for more than 5 years can tell you, I have a nerdtastic theory about films like “Nick & Norah,” “Juno,” and “Zack & Miri.” It goes something like this: essentially, if I were to be honest, I would give all of these movie 2 ½ stars out of 4. Which would obviously mean that they are all on about the same level of filmmaking, but I would have to take my rating one-step further, just to make my feelings clearer.

To me there is such a thing as a “Positive 2 ½ stars” and a “Negative 2 ½ stars.” A Negative 2 ½ stars is reserved for films that should have been much better than they actually were, and for whatever reason they managed to fuck it up before the credits rolled. On the other hand, I use the Positive 2 ½ stars for films that aren’t really that great, but they have something going for them that makes them worth checking out. They might have an interesting premise, or perhaps they’re just really entertaining. Either way, these films are usually better than they have to be.

By those standards, “Juno” and “Zack & Miri” would be Negative 2 ½ star movies and “Nick & Norah” would be Positive. Got It? Wow, I wrote a lot about “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist.” Who knew?

Zack and Miri make a Porno (2008)

Comedy is a strange beast, you can recycle the same tired plots over and over again, and as long as you make it funny, all will be forgiven. The new film by Kevin Smith, “Zack and Miri make a Porno,” is not funny; therefore nothing is forgiven.

The film is a retread of one of cinema’s most familiar plot lines: two platonic life-long friends suddenly realize that they’re really in love with one another, but can they take the plunge and risk ruining their friendship? I’ll give you one guess to tell me how it ends? Well, to be honest it’s not important how it ends. In films like this, it’s never as important how it ends, as it is how it begins. What exactly is the reason for this couple’s emotional revelation?

In this case, our loveable leads, Zack & Miri (Seth Rogan & Elizabeth Banks), are down on their luck financially and find themselves in that unique position where having sex for money doesn’t quite sound so implausible. So they decide to make a porno and distribute it themselves. The only problem is that Miri doesn’t want to have sex with a random stranger, so the two of them agree to do it with each other.

Obviously listening to that premise, it’s easy to see how the situation could be mined for both Comedy and Dramatic gold. The problem is that Smith simplifies everything. The Comedy is Smith’s obligatory dick and shit jokes, laced with cultural references and raunchy language, which again, wouldn’t be a problem if it were funny. Since it rarely is, it feels forced and labored. The attempts at Drama are sappy and surprisingly run-of-the-mill.

As far as good things go in the film, there is a sequence early on when Zack and Miri go to their High School reunion that has some really funny bits, especially from Justin Long as a completely hilarious gay porn star. To be honest, it almost didn’t matter what he said, just as long as he said it in that voice. Seriously that guy deserves a better career. Craig Robinson is also really great as Zack's co-worker/porno producer.

When I told people at my work that I thought that there was no difference between this movie and any other Romantic Comedy, except for the unnecessary vulgarity, the first question they’d ask me was usually “Well, do you like Kevin Smith movies?” My answer is yes, I enjoyed Smith’s first 4 films, but I thought that he peaked with “Dogma,” and everything since then had been bad to mediocre. They then usually ask me, “Well, what did you really expect?” My answer is that it’s not enough to be vulgar and shocking; anybody can do that.

If I’m supposed to get excited for the new Kevin Smith movie, I want him to bring something else to the table, some sort of insight. I hate to say it, but in a strange way, Smith is an artist. Some of his films really do seem to reflect his life experiences and his worldviews. This one though, feels like it could have been made by anyone.

Okay, I’m done shitting on this movie. To be honest, it’s not that bad, but rather, mediocre to sometimes funny. I don’t know, maybe I’m being too hard on it, but as my girlfriend said, “it’s like ‘Jersey Girl,’ but with sex.”

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Towelhead (2008)

Towelhead” is a Coming-of-Age Drama that is also yet another entry into the “Moral Corruption in Suburbia” sub-genre, and it fits in well alongside other films of that ilk such as “Happiness” and “American Beauty.” Fitting, since it was directed by Alan Ball, writer of “American Beauty” and the television show “Six Feet Under;” he also adapted it from a book-by-the-same-name authored by Alicia Erian.

Young actress Summer Bishil plays Jasira, a 13 year old Arab American, growing up in the early 90's during the first Iraq war. She is sent to live with her strict Lebanese father (Peter Macdissi) in a middle-class cul-de-sac after a fallout with her mother involving her live-in boyfriend. There are two houses next door to her father's; one belongs to a pair of free-thinking hippies and soon-to-be-parents (Toni Collette & Matt Letscher) and the other belongs to army reservist and pedophile, Travis (Aaron Eckhart), and his trophy wife and bigoted son.

To put it simply, life sucks for Jasira. On a seemingly daily basis, she suffers through racism, sexual harassment, verbal abuse, mental abuse, and physical abuse, and it's coming at her from all sides. From her parents to her neighbors to her classmates, hell, even her body is out to get her, and all she wants to do is feel loved.

When Jasira babysits her racist next door neighbor's son (who is seemingly even a bigger racist), she discovers him rifling through his father's porno mag collection. At first she's shocked, but strangely, she finds herself becoming infatuated with the images in the magazines. When Travis, the father, comes home from work early one day and catches the two kids looking at the magazines, he scorns Jasira, but not before questioning her about her motives for looking at the magazines.

It isn't very long before Jasira's life is forever complicated by the sexual advances of Travis. The film does an interesting job of presenting both Jasira and Travis as confused and willing participants in something that they both know is wrong, rather than the predatory situation that it actually is.

That's more or less what the movie's about, but there are also a lot of sprawling subplots that involve Jasira's dad and his new girlfriend, Jasira's mom, Jasira's black boyfriend, and the hippy neighbor's watchful suspicious eyes. Considering the subject matter of the film and title (the studio considered changing the title several times), it's no surprise that there has been a lot of controversy surrounding it.

Personally, I wasn't really effected by the film's portrayal of sexuality, but I can easily see why someone would be, it's shocking, awkward, and disturbing. It's hard for me to explain, but I never really felt like the film was telling me a story at all, but instead just showing me a series of traumatic and embarrassing events in a young girl's life. As a result, I felt sorry for Jasira, but I wasn't really engaged by her story; I was merely watching it unfold. To put another way, I felt like all of the scenes added up to picture that I could look at, but not a story and could I experience.

That being said, I would almost recommend seeing just for the great performances, particularly by Summer Bishil, Aaron Eckhart, and Peter Macdissi. The only reason I won't recommend it because of the last impression the film left on me. As my girlfriend often notes, they just don't know how to end movies anymore, and sure enough, this one was no exception. So I'll just say that the happy and sappy Hallmark ending to this parade of misery and sadness is enough for me to say forget this and rent "Palindromes" instead.