Sunday, March 27, 2011

Rubber 2011

If you have ever spent time at a college with a cinema department, you have probably seen some student films that have a clever idea and run just a few minutes. They can be frightening, hilarious or perhaps poignant. Those films usually benefit from a tight budget which forces creativity. They are also strengthened by a dedicated crew of film makers, that are anxious to show off what they can do. Some student films have been adapted to the big screen over the years as commercial projects, the most famous of which is probably George Lucas's THX 1138. The movie I saw today, feels like a student project, that has been fattened up and extended to make a theatrical film. It suffers from the same problems that any good idea is subject to, too much of a good thing.

Rubber is at it's heart a horror movie with a ridiculous premise. An old tire becomes animated and can kill with the force of it's concentration. Watch the trailer above and you will get the idea. There is inherent humor in the notion of a tire wandering across the desert, looking for meaning, but it is even funnier when the tire has a killer psychokinetic personality. There, that's your movie idea, and it can be done in a twenty minute or less film and have a great memorable impact. Here, it is almost ninety minutes, and it is undermined by a mixture of satire on movie going (maybe at the expense of the very audience that might embrace such a film), drama involving unrequited love, and then comedy featuring the cast from a minor league version of Reno 911.

I will be honest, I laughed several times. There are some good jokes in the movie and there are several actors that play their parts just daffy enough to get away with some pretty stupid stuff. The problem is that it is all an exercise in meaningless audience manipulation. As soon as we get set for one consistent idea, the movie veers off on another twisted loop and as the film makers themselves would say, "for no good reason." There are some movie conventions that are observed, and others that are subverted, but it is entirely arbitrary as to which one will be next. I can't say I hated the movie, it was not terrible and at times I was entertained. I can say I was frustrated by it because there are so many potentially great ways the movie could go, but it never follows up on any of them.

If you are a regular reader, you know that I like exploitation films as much as the next person. A little crap is a good way to clear the mind and remind yourself what makes real movies so valuable. I enjoy creativity, but the direct approach is often the better way to go and this is one of those places where directness would have succeeded more than what is finally given to us. "Drive Angry", "Snakes on a Plane", "Machete" or even "Sharktopus" tell us what we are getting and deliver on the promise. Sometimes those films get sidetracked and they lose something as a result. "Machete" is a good example, an exploitation picture that features gratuitous sex and violence, got bogged down by a pseudo-political theme that did not belong in the movie. Rubber is a horror comedy that makes the mistake of trying to break down the fourth wall between the film and the audience, and instead becomes less than it should be.

Not all of the parts fail, in fact taken on their own, they might make good ideas for other films. I got the impression that the film makers did not feel like they would get another chance at financing, so they went ahead with all the ideas they had, even though they do not go well together. If you are intrigued by the trailer and the poster, go ahead and see the movie. My advice though is to catch it this week on the free preview being offered on HD Net You don't have to pay for parking and if you hate the movie at least you did not pay to see it.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau - #1 Trailer by hawkbcn

We actually saw this movie yesterday, right after we had gone to "Battle Los Angeles". My daughter Allison is an English major, and she wants to do a dissertation on Phillip K. Dick when she gets into grad school. This is a story based on one of his many works and adds to the legacy of movies inspired by his writing. At some point Hollywood will run out of Stephen King and Phillip K. Dick, and then no more movies can be made. She was very enthusiastic about seeing this and I was not. This film was originally scheduled to come out back in September of last year. I saw the first trailer nearly a year ago. When a delay like this happens there is often a reason, and not a good one. While it did not turn out to be a disaster, I can see why they waited to release it,they needed to find a way to market a chase film without any excitement in it.

Allison quite liked the movie, but I was indifferent to it. As we talked after the film, I said that it seemed a little bi-polar, never sure if it believed in religion or was dismissive of the concept. Her answer is that a lot of Dick's work is about the uncertainty of whether there is a god or whether we have tricked ourselves into believing in God. (In fact according to her, Dick saw God but did not know if it was a real experience or a drug induced experience, thus inspiring a series of stories.) So, this film would be great for college theology or philosophy students, high on grass, to spend a late night speculating over. If you are interested in story or entertainment, seek out something else.

If you watch the trailer above, you have a reasonable grasp of the story. Everything else that happens, simply repeats itself. This couple, is not supposed to get together, and each time they do they get separated again. And then it happens again, and then again, and then again and.., while you get the point. Ultimately the climax of the movie is a series of chases through doors that take you on a tour of New York City, for no particular reason except the film makers have scouted some amazing vistas and architecture for the protagonists to run through. There is very little sense to it, and the point of the story is to challenge the ideas of determinism, and free will. I have determined that I will not see this movie again of my own free will.

Access to the inner sanctum of the agents of the universe, who are trying to manipulate our lead characters, is granted by wearing a hat while going through the right door. That's the secret password, wear a hat. One of the supporting characters, acts completely against the nature of their character, to cause events to change, for no particular reason. After it is all gone on for a long, long time, the unseen "Chairman", makes an arbitrary decision, that they should have seen coming two hours earlier. This story was a spinning hamster ball of nonsense that might be interesting to read for a few minutes as a short story, but goes nowhere as a movie.

The actors in the movie are fine, in fact Allison's main justification for enjoying the film is the love story that is going on in the movie. The leads are appealing, but every time they start to connect in an interesting or meaningful way, we go back to the metaphysical baloney that the film makers want to make the movie about. I saw "Billy Budd" on channel nine (KHJ TV), some time in the early 1970s and became a fan of Terrance Stamp. After "Superman", I would watch for him in other films and remember when he was so young. His best film was "The Limey" from a few years ago, where he gets to play a real person. I'm glad he works, and he makes most pictures better, but in this movie he is a piece of scenery, masquerading as a person. All of the "Adjustment Bureau" bureaucrats are interchangeable, so he is wasted in the movie as an actor. His face though is used very well with his solemn mouth and deep penetrating eyes, he is the epitome of determinism. He is the best thing in the movie when he shows up, but he could just have easily been a cue card or a book page with exposition written all over it.

I know I am giving the impression that I hated the movie, but I did not. I just did not care about anything that was going on in it and I was bored. I can enjoy some bad movies for what they are, if they are entertaining along the way. This movie made me want to put on a hat and walk out the door. Whatever was on the other side would be more compelling that the two hours I spent watching this.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Battle L.A.

I don't know how it is that this movie made it a week into it's run without me sitting in a theater somewhere sucking it down like a milkshake. This was exactly my cup of tea and I knew it the first time I saw the teaser trailer. This is a science-fiction action film that takes a completely different perspective from other Earth Invasion films of the past. "Independence Day" was all about the idea and the spectacle of an invasion, "War of the Worlds (2005") is a horror chase film which focuses on a big story though a small group. "Signs" is the same story without the spectacle but keeping the creep factor and asking big questions about faith. This movie is a traditional war story about a platoon of Marines, involved in fighting a space invasion. If I were a gamer, and played some of the popular first person shooter games that are now so ubiquitous, I might not have enjoyed it so much because it would seem familiar.

There are a lot of cliches in the movie, but it is important to remember that cliches get that way for a reason. Our group of Marines is lead by an untested Lieutenant, backed by a battle hardened but burnt out Staff Sargent. The platoon is ethnically mixed like an old World War Two movie, and there are brief back stories to help us identify with the warriors. The movie does have some plot elements that focus on conflicts between the Marines, but that is not what the movie is about. This film is an examination of the professionalism and dedication of our fighting men and women. There is some hoorah marine macho behavior, but is is only incidental to the job that each person is trying to do to the best of their ability. Some are more gifted than others but there was not a one that was not there to do the job, and each was well qualified. They are tired, and scared, and angry but most of all they are professionals. This movie was not a Patriotic exercise in America First, with flags waving and speeches about our heritage. It celebrates America in the best way possible, by showing real people, who have come together to do a job, and want it to be done the right way. They take responsibility and exercise it in an American way. They care about their team members, their mission and the civilians they encounter with the kind of behavior we all hope is a hallmark of our military.

There are a bundle of special effects, but they are never lingered over or meant to divert us from the story. This is not a CGI pile of junk like "G.I. Joe" a couple of years ago. This is an intense, Sam Fuller like war story, set in a Science Fiction parable. The alien threat is real, and it feels like the world is coping with disaster in the best way possible. Our marines have little knowledge of what they are up against, and they have to improvise along the way. My guess is that this is the way it is in real life warfare as well. You are well trained, but ultimately, the boots on the ground have to make the best decision they can and then live with the outcome. In our modern world, the rest of society gets to second guess them and judge their valor, this movie gives us a chance to see how that process works. I never had the honor of serving in the military, so I see this as someone who's primary exposure to this culture is vicarious. It requires huge sacrifice to serve in combat, and my appreciation for those who do is immense. I suspect they will see this movie as a tribute to their service. Last tear's "The Hurt Locker" is a more serious film with a better developed personal story, but it had many of the same qualities of professional pride that this movie did. There is tension and random mayhem and no one deserves the bad things that happen in war.

Aaron Eckhart is an actor that I have enjoyed but have never really warmed up to. Even in "The Dark Knight" I felt his performance was outside of the character. He strikes me as if he is playing at being an actor rather than playing the character. That was not true in this movie. He is really invested in the part and plays it with gusto and honesty. Even in the most cliched line in the movie, one that reminds us of the boiler plate characters we were given to start with, he sells us this person. Everyone does a fine job, but he is clearly well cast as a no nonsense leader in the right set of circumstances. Of course this is not the right set of circumstances, yet he manages to do the job anyway. Sgt Nantz is a good hero for our times.

I have often said in my comments on films, that a movie is successful to me if I am moved emotionally. This movie did that but not in the way most people would expect. Sure there are characters that don't make it and the emotions there are well created in the story. There is also a sense of dread, that people trapped in these situations would feel. My emotional reaction is to the courage and fortitude shown by everyone in the movie, but especially the military. To see how doing one's job is a part of a team process, that you take up the burden that is given to you and you simply do the best you can. That brought a tear to my eye, because I know that this goes on everyday outside of my experience. It is real and there are enemies that we must struggle with that are not from outer space, but feel like they could be. My friend John Yenny (Jr.) is about to graduate from Annapolis and join the Marines as an officer. I am proud to know a guy like him and all the other young men and women who are called to service in this way. My guess is the Yenny's will have this movie on a permanent loop on the TV for years to come. When the final scene of our marines is shown, I can't imagine how someone will avoid a lump in the throat and a tear of pride in the eye. "Retreat, HELL!"

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Stanley Kubrick Odyssey - A Tribute

I found this today and I enjoyed it quite a bit. You might well enjoy it also.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


I have always liked animated movies. My earliest recollection of an animated film was 101 Dalmatians, which my parents apparently took me so see right before my brother was born. I was not quite four and I have only an image or two in my head, I know the movie more completely from seeing it years later. In high school and college my friends and I would go each year to the Tournee' of Animation, which would play at the Rialto Theater in South Pasadena. That is where I first saw "Bambi vs. Godzilla", and I have enjoyed weird animation ever since. This movie definitely falls into the weird category, but not in a way that should put anyone off. It is a very creative and extremely well designed film. It is also a satire, a western, a parody and a joy to behold. There are several sections that seem weary but the quirkiness saves it more often then it dooms it.

Ten years ago, Tom Cruise was the biggest star in the world, which is how he could get away with making fun of himself in an Austin Powers film. In the last ten years however, the crown has been transferred to a handsome, talented actor, who prior to his breakthrough commercial film, was best known as an odd-ball character with discriminating taste in movies. Johnny Depp, has since the first of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, has alternated between big screen popcorn films and smaller movies with a little bit of class to them. I was not a fan of last year's "Alice in Wonderland" and his movie with Angelina Jolie last December got such bad buzz that I skipped it completely, and that is a clear indicator of something wrong, cause I'll see almost anything if it has some kind of hook to it. All is forgiven for those last two disasters because this movie is a gem, and it works in large part because Depp embodies the character Rango, even though it is a cartoon.

The movie this most reminded me of was "The Nightmare Before Christmas". These two films have almost nothing in common except an amazing and unique visual style and charming characters that are sometimes overwhelmed by the weirdness around them. In Nightmare, the biggest element that might put some one off is the music (not me, I love "This is Halloween"), it is sometimes overbearing in how much it takes over the movie. In "Rango" it is not the music but the maniacal comedy that means a frenetic pace and tone. It is interesting to note that both of these projects are the work of Depp's two biggest collaborators in the last ten years, Tim Burton and Gore Verbinski. This movie could easily be the Burton film that came out of the dark.

Nothing in this movie looks the way other movies have looked, and none of the story seems overly familiar, unless of course you have seen every Clint Eastwood spaghetti western and Chinatown. I don't think I'm giving too much away to suggest that this movie uses both the western genre and the classic L.A. Noir of Robert Towne's great screenplay, to create an unusual and interesting cartoon that adults will appreciate more than the kids will. Your kids will still like the movie because of the lovable lizard that Depp inhabits, but adults will adore it for hip references, funny homages, and irreverent use of character and scene. I laughed a lot and missed several jokes because there was so much going on in the movie. I will probably try to see it again, just to admire how clever the bits of business are throughout the tale.

Characters in the movie are often based on well known stereotypes and cliches, but they will not seem that way because of the performances and the way they have been visually rendered on the screen. The voice talent in this movie is deep as well as Depp. Ned Beatty's take on John Houston in particular is a hoot. I will not spoil the surprise, but Timothy Olyiphant, will tickle you with his version of ,...well I just don't want to say. Depp is silly and poignant at the same time. This is a performance that is more subtle that the work he did in the Alice film, and the movie is better for it. He can ham it up, but it usually goes better for us when he plays something resembling a real person (or lizard).

Like I said, there are times when the events get a little overblown, but the movie is rescued time and again by the character work that is going on here. The story does not come together as well as a Pixar film would, but the characters are memorable and the performances by the voice actors is solid. The references are pop oriented, but it is more like listening to Dennis Miller riff, then it is a Robin Williams ego stroke. The familiar can be tiresome, but the vaguely familiar can be really rewarding. This is a strong endorsement for this movie, go and see for yourself. If you don't enjoy it, get your funny bone looked at because there is something wrong with you.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Drive Angry Shot in 3D

OK my friends, this is one of those embarrassing moments like where you discover that your parents are sexually active, your fiance dropped out of high school, or you have broken wind and there is no dog around to blame. There is a place for bad movies , and that place is apparently in front of my eyes. This looked ridiculous from the trailer, it stars Nicolas Cage, who has notoriously low standards for choosing film projects, and it's main selling point is that it was shot in real 3D, not converted to 3D. If those things don't automatically turn you off, then my friends you are my kind of people. This movie is STUPID, and there are so many elements that are Cheesy it would make a blue box of macaroni self conscious. Which pretty much explains my point of view on it. It Was A Blast! Much like the equally awful Piranha 3D last summer, I went into this with high expectations of campy fun and I was not disappointed. There is mayhem, blood, car chases and Nicolas Cage in full on weird mode, what more could one ask for?

Well I'll tell you, there is actually a lot more that you get. The concept is silly, but in a way that makes you want things to go for the rest of the movie. Cage plays a vengeful soul, who has escaped from hell to rescue his grand-daughter taken by satanists with the intention of human sacrifice. I'll pause here so you can read that last sentence again..., that's right, he is literally "Grampa from Hell". We never see how he manages his escape, and there are only the vaguest of hints as to why he was in hell in the first place. The movie pretty much picks up in the middle of a car chase that ends in a 3D gunfight which includes hands being shot off of wrists (IN 3D). After that, it is a series of chases and shootouts and flashbacks that make almost no sense but who cares, it's in 3D and stuff blows up and gets chopped off.

Featured as the Accountant from Hell sent to bring Cage's character John Milton (yeah, it's that kind of obvious)is one of my favorite contemporary character actors William Fichtner. We first noticed him on the TV show "Grace Under Fire" where he played a recurring character.He plays the banker for the mob at the start of "The Dark Knight". He reminds me of a young Christopher Walken, without the idiosyncratic manner of speech. He is in my favorite episode of The West Wing, and adds intelligence to every movie he is in, even a piece of crap like this movie. The character is menacing, and has some great comedic lines. In the end, it turns out almost as if there could be a sequel featuring the two characters. Since the movie appears to have tanked with audiences, I doubt that we will see that, but in my head it is already bubbling.

There are several muscle cars featured in the movie as well. That 1969 Charger, driven by Stuntman Mike in "Deathproof", is back for another round of bad ass motoring featuring death and dismemberment. When I was 15 or 16, my friend Don Hayes and I almost died in a crash on the freeway in a 69'Charger. His mother owned the car and she let him drive it. The combination of power and teen adrenaline resulted in us driving too fast on the freeway, having a car in front of us stop short, and Don having to swerve onto the shoulder to go around and avoid hitting the other car. We fishtailed a little and hooked the bumper on the fence separating the freeway from the neighborhood around Ramona Convent. We ripped out part of the fence and bent back a part of the right rear bumper. I don't know that there is any connection but I am sure he caught hell, so maybe that is why Nick Cage drives a Charger. Late in the movie, John Milton storms a satanist orgy in a Chevelle SS, that is on fire and looks like a muscle car from hell while he is chasing down the cult that has his grandchild.

The feature set piece in the movie is a shootout at a motel that features Milton killing dozens of cultists, while never stopping having sex with a waitress he picked up in the roadhouse next door. It reminded me of that scene in the original "Dirty Harry", where Clint is eating his lunch and has to go out and stop the bank robbers while still chewing his hot dog. Neither could be bothered to stop their activity to deal with the bad guys, and the bad guys simply become fodder to show how phenomenally cool the main character is. No it doesn't make any sense, but guys get shot in the kneecap, impaled by hoes, machetes, and scythes, and it all happens in 3D. Oh yeah, the blond waitress is also naked the whole time, in 3D.

There is a well worn analogy to junk food when it comes to movies like this. After two weekends in a row, watching some of the finest and most well regarded movies of the last year, I was ready for dessert. I don't need Crème brûlée, or Tiramisu, I am perfectly happy with something cheap and full of sugar and fat from the 7-Eleven. So basically, "Drive Angry Shot in 3D" is a Hostess Snowball. Chocolate cake, covered in marshmallow, and frosted with pink coconuts. It looks fun, it goes down great while you are consuming it, but afterwords, you may hate yourself for giving into the temptation. Don't worry though, you can live with the guilt.

Here is a podcast for a site titled How Did This Get Made? It is 35 minutes but their deconstruction of the movie is a blast.

Episode 5 - 'Drive Angry'/Curtis Gwinn | Earwolf