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Monthly Archives: July 2010

Is G.I. Joe: The Movie the pinnacle, the apex, the very zenith of modern filmmaking? In a word, yes. With voice talent ranging from Sir Don Johnson to 17 time Emmy Winner Burgess Meredith (16 separate episodes of the Twilight Zone and one for Batman’s “A Penguin for All Seasons”) no cast has ever been more celebrated. The story of nature’s struggle against the military-industrial complex, only to be crushed, burned and mutilated over and over, is presented in rich layers of ninjitsu, genetic mutation, laser gun shootouts and, of course, professional wrestling drill instructors. Golobulus fights on in his hopeless cause only to be thwarted time and again by the cruel General Hawk, spurred on by the grief instilled in him by the fall of his lover, Duke, thanks to a misplaced Cobra-La snake-javelin. What in another film would be the catalyst of farce in this fans the great flame of a war of extinction, with both sides growing more bitter and hardened with each shot fired, each satellite launched, each machine gunner blinded and saddled with a creature whom was “once a man,” to quote just one bit of the brilliant dialogue. Let not a dry eye remain at the end of this tragedy, lest you surrender your very humanity in a gesture on par with that of Cobra Commander himself. 10 stars, perfection doubled

Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime is allegedly a sequel to his 1998 film Happiness but it plays out much more like a parody of that film. The same characters are present but not the actors and those characters come across as shrill, shallow and just plain odd versions of the originals.

For example, Dylan Baker’s tortured and tragic but still relatable Bill Maplewood becomes Ciarán Hinds’ sweaty, repellant version of Bill. He looks and acts creepier and creepier through the film, slowly becoming filthier and more and more removed until he’s nothing more than a shadow in the final scene. The movie slowly reveals that he apparently did partake in the one action that the rejection of which somewhat redeemed him in Happiness, rendering that moment null in retrospect. Shirley Henderson’s Joy has lost all sense of realism and is left utterly spacey, without the sympathy that Jane Adams’ provided. I should note that I am not criticizing the cast, as I’m sure they were acting as directed; I just don’t see how these representations relate to Solondz’s original story. The rest of the performances have similar problems but these two stood to me particularly.

Solondz’s script is similarly confusing. Allison Janney’s conversation with her son about falling in love with a man over a first date reaches near The Room levels of baffling with its explicitness. A number of conversations end in comical non-sequiturs, such as talk of war in Iraq or terrorism completely unrelated to the prior speech. These may be funny in their jarring break from the movie coming close to making sense but they do interrupt the flow of the film, though I believe that to be their intention.

Prominently featured in Billy’s bedroom is a poster for I’m Not There, the film that notoriously featured several actors playing Bob Dylan. I think Solondz meant something by using this prop about his recasting, but my confusion stems not from the actors but the acting. No one seems remotely like their original character and this is more a symptom of the writing than the casting. I can’t call it a mistake because it feels intentional. I think this is what Solondz wanted, I just can’t quite figure out why. 2 ½ stars, and hard to recommend for obvious reasons.

The end of the first season of Party Down left some gaping holes in the staff of Party Down Catering as Jane Lynch and Ken Marino seemed to be leaving the show. Lynch, of course, found even higher stardom in the cast of Glee, but even at the time Marino’s Ron was obviously headed for failure in his “Soup and Crackers” enterprise. He naturally comes crawling back to the safest place he can, the catering company. Megan Mullally, though, ably replaces Lynch as a stage mom new to Los Angeles and looking to make her own little Miley Cyrus or whatever pop starlet is currently coasting the horribly manipulative “’tween” market.

While most of the peripheral cast remains status quo in the show, Adam Scott’s Henry and Lizzie Caplan’s Casey had a real relationship and career paths they were carving. I say were because the series has since been sadly canceled. Regardless, the slow burning tension of the second season reunion of Henry and Casey carries the show, giving it a sense of real time, something more than job to job. Perhaps the biggest underlying plot is the tease of Henry’s return to acting, including showing some footage of a film Scott did years ago. Henry’s metamorphosis plays out nicely with the revelation of his ties to arch rival Valhalla catering as well, in some great “showdown moments.”

Of particular quality this season were the episodes where the group parties with a very game Steve Guttenberg, who’s eager to help them all explore their career options, and is very free with his wine. Once you get past the “it’s really Steve Guttenberg!” factor, you can see how good he is in this role, as what I presume to be a parody of himself. It’s a great set up and very important to get Henry back on his feet as an actor, with some real quality Roman moments (including his previously unseen writing partner, Christopher “McLovin” Mintz-Plasse).

One of my other favorites is the catering of a theater’s opening night. The show has possibly it’s most fun with this one, having no mercy on a single theater trope, and turning it‘s guest stars completely loose. Perhaps it’s that this is Martin Starr’s best episode (maybe tied with Guttenberg) as the actors shower him with praise as a writer (though not a playwright, nor do the read anything by him) and a glorious Kerri Kenney-Silver and Rob Huebel get utterly blitzed with him. The way the whole script plays around the idea of a farce is perfectly followed through, right up to the big, masterfully done ending.

The worst part of the cancellation of Party Down is the groundwork that has gone into the show being now lost. These characters have so much more left to do and to say and to become. It’s really a shame that the show didn’t attract more viewers, but I actually have to admire Starz network for taking a chance on it in the first place. They likely thought they had the next Entourage on their hands, except that millions already subscribed to HBO when that started. Too bad the same wasn’t true for Party Down. 4 ½ stars

Whether you admire or loathe him, Andy Kaufman’s often times polarizing act caught people’s attention. This two part collection shows off a great deal of what people loved or hated in the man’s performance. While not personally a fan of what Kaufman did, nor would I remark on it as genius, he displayed an interesting way of connecting with and getting under the skin of his audience, in this collection using professional wrestling as both a stage and a tool.

First he skewered the film My Dinner with Andre in his own My Breakfast with Blassie, where he takes retired pro wrestler “Classy” Freddie Blassie to breakfast in a plain Los Angeles diner; no five-star restaurant, just rush hour eggs and bacon. Blassie, whose age begins to show as the video wears on, puts on either a fantastic performance as a cranky old man, or simply is one and the video catches him at his best. He harps on Kaufman for his nutritional disregard, flirts with waitresses and goads Kaufman into nearly starting an altercation with some pushy fans, and remains a fascinating subject all the while. In between these actions he proudly tells of being so good at his job as the bad guy that he has been repeatedly stabbed by overzealous wrestling fans through the years. While it is entertaining, this is basically where the piece ends and it feels like a lot of Kaufman’s work to me: a big fuck you to a segment of the population (fans of pretentious film in this case) while offering little else in terms of comment. Or maybe his comment was simply that eating with a wrestler is at least as good a subject as theater’s Andre Gregory, if not better, which I would agree with having seen his evidence. I would like to have had breakfast with Freddie Blassie; it looks like a great time.

A little more straightforward is the second feature on the disc, I’m from Hollywood, an account of Andy Kaufman’s time spent actually working in professional wrestling. Declaring himself the “Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World,” Kaufman defended his championship by wrestling random women from the audience. Given how ugly and non-choreographed these “matches” looked, and Kaufman’s love of blurring reality with his audience (he allegedly spent weeks in traction to sell a faked injury) my gut reaction is to believe he just did pull random women out of the audience to wrestle. On the other hand, it is wrestling and everything is premeditated, and it took Kaufman’s death for Jerry Lawler to break his silence that the Letterman incident was staged. Either way Kaufman isn’t the draw in these scenarios; it’s his audience and the way they eat out of his hand. Using the cheapest possible tactics (showing the Southern people what soap is, suggesting no one knows how to read, the eponymous “better than you” claim of the film), Kaufman had people howling for his head. He really knew how to work his audience, though I‘m not sure what kind of feat that amounts to really. Looks like Blassie had a perfect student in Andy. 3 stars total, a good look at this period of Andy Kaufman’s career.

Michael Cera has definitely needed a movie like Youth in Revolt for a while now. He still keeps his standard Michael Cera role, uncomfortable teenager with difficulties expressing and asserting himself, but the movie gives him another element to play with to flesh out that character, and he brings more to it with the script’s freedom.

The only child of a broken home, Cera lives with his mother (Jean Smart), who seemingly cannot function without a man in her life, that slot currently filled by sponge, used car selling live-in boyfriend Zach Galiafinakis. He takes Cera and Smart on a trip to a trailer park to escape a bad business deal, where Cera meets dream girl Portia Doubleday. The smothered daughter of ultra-conservative Christian parents, she inspires Cera to such lows of desperation that he creates a French bad boy persona for himself, a la Tyler Durden, which pushes him to do the things he would find otherwise unconscionable. Like be French and smoke a lot and generally act like a sociopath bastard.

The result of an improbable series of gambles lands Cera back in the small town his girlfriend calls home, under the roof of cheapskate father Steve Buscemi and his far-too-young-girlfriend. From here, in repeated efforts to impress and hold onto her, Cera sinks lower and lower, and deeper into his alter ego, Francois. Judging by the trailers I assumed that Cera actually changes his appearance but this is not the case. Francois is solely imaginary, a manifestation of Id to chide Cera’s weakness. He manages to do some pretty dastardly, and very un-Michael-Cera-like things to almost everyone. It all comes crashing down in the final act, of course, but it’s entertaining on the drop.

The movie nearly lost me in the early going with the meeting between Doubleday and Cera. Both characters are so unbearably goddamn precious it almost turns your stomach. They talk about mostly her interests in French culture and moving to France. It’s high school twaddle that becomes more relevant as Cera meets more of her backwater family. Cera, especially as Francois, works effectively at grappling with his inner pussy and conquering his fears. It’s his best stuff since he established the character of George Michael Cera some years back.

One thing in the film that breaks up some of the airs put on early is frequent use of animation. Such tedious scenes as Galafianakis driving the family to the “vacation house” are covered by short bits of an overstuffed animated convertible with representations of the characters traveling over a three dimensional map. It’s nicely done and really adds a lot to making the film less affected than the early characterization would lead one to believe.

The main theme of the film is, of course, escape from the powerless years of high school, when you’re old enough to realize how fucked your life is yet still in no position to do anything about it. From Cera watching Galafianakis take his mother into the bedroom and being unable to tune out their uncomfortably loud congress to Doubleday’s Fred Phelps-like (he’s even a lawyer), caustic, Bible-thumping father controlling her every action and life decision. But from their rocky, pretentious start, they and the film manage to build two characters whom you can understand in their desperation for relief, comfort and stability in their jailbreak from their lives. 3 ½ stars

Among the many things you may fault Predators for, its lack of self awareness cannot be among them. It is the movie it told you that it was and the one you paid to see. The movie kicks into high gear immediately, trying to kill star Adrian Brody twice in the first five minutes. (Spoiler: he doesn’t die.) It slows down only long enough for Brody to identify and classify the rest of his band of fellow miscreants, all gangsters, soldiers or Dr. Eric Foreman of That 70s Hospital, apparently.

Brody’s character, as the Action Figure with the Most Accessories, immediately takes over as leader. Since no one else knows that the hell is going on there is little objection. They spend the remaining 110 or so minutes navigating a booby trapped nightmare jungle, fleeing the occasional Predator and having their herd thinned. Director Nimrod Antal keeps the action moving at a fair pace, seldom letting it slow enough for you to realize the almost no characterization is presented in Predators, outside Alice Braga’s Catholic guilt trip and soulful looks into the jungle.

Brody is a statue posing as a man posing as a statue and reveals nothing beyond survival instincts until the very last. His choice to attempt to hide the fact that he is Adrian Brody behind a Bale‘s-Batman-like gruff voice wavers between comical and sad. It’s time to retire this vocal exercise as a failed experiment before it reaches the point of no return. Most of the rest of the cast get very little to do to establish their characters but they handle the basics well enough. Minor Spoiler Alert: Very Special Guest Star Laurence Fishburne earned a nomination if he did not lock in the Worst Supporting Actor Razzie this year as the Predator Planet’s fattest scavenger. I can’t say for sure that the role was salvageable or not, but Larry didn’t even try. He just acted kooky and distracted and looked like he was waiting for his part in the movie to end. I hope this doesn’t affect his chances of getting the Cowboy Curtis role back now that Pee Wee Herman has taken the Broadway stage.

Eventually all of the weeding is done and a battle of mano-a-Predetaro takes place and you know how that always goes. The homage to the Schwarzenegger classic is minimal and tasteful enough for a movie like this. Predators’ attempt to build a sleeker, faster cheetah out of the proud, overly muscular lion left by the original is admirable if doomed. Perhaps casting Brody out of his element was meant to reflect the character being out of his element, but it’s hard to buy him as a tough guy on that level, no matter how shredded he got for it. He delivers the lines like he just read them in the comic book, which is how the dialogue generally sounds. What made Arnold’s Rock ‘n Wrestling so successful was that you wanted to see him win and blow shit up. In Predators it has to be enough just to see stuff blow up, since there’s no one to root for among either pack. 2 ½ stars

Adam Reed’s (adult swim’s Sealab 2021, Frisky Dingo) Archer seamlessly blends a number of spy tropes, sampling liberally from the James Bond catalogue, with weird family issues and a workplace setting, all while actually providing a good deal of action. It’s tricky but Archer’s first season pulls it off while neither being neither too flat, too ridiculous nor lacking genuine character.

Reed makes excellent use of his talented cast, featuring the voice of H. Jon Benjamin as the eponymous Archer, a spy, misogynistic frat boy, mama’s boy, emotional cripple and general asshole. His mother, Malory (Jessica Walter essentially reprising Lucille from Arrested Development) runs ISIS, the spy agency that employs Archer and she still runs his life. In fact, on several occasions he attempts to “run away from home” only to have his mother drag him back. The creepy dynamic of mother and son bleeds into a number of plots but stays interesting partially due to the nature of the dialogue.

The series real signature is a rapid-fire rhythm to the dialogue, with the characters generally speaking faster than they can think, leading to a number of confusing, though hilarious, exchanges. Awkward lines like “Why don’t you try shutting up?” end equally awkward conversations by cutting off any further response. There’s just nowhere to go from there. Banter during suppression gunfire is common, as well, trapping two characters who would otherwise not wish to stay together. Archer’s wordplay confusing ex-lover Lana (Aisha Tyler) to keep her from shooting him come off perfectly between the balance of writing and the voice acting.

Archer’s style recalls the heyday of the spy film, the 60s and its Cold War sensibilities, including a paternal Russian counterpart to his mother, appropriately voiced by her television husband Jeffery Tambor. His surrounding staff, including HR exec Pam, suicidally sexed up receptionist Carol (or Cheryl… or Cristal, depending on the day and who she’s sleeping with- Judy Greer!) and Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell) generally either get in the way or provide side plots about cheating on partners or workplace issues such as sexual harassment and pay raises, or just weirdness. All of this comes together in an incredibly absurd and funny mix of seemingly incompatible elements bolstering each other, though, and when Archer is on it is really on. 4 ½ stars

Netherbeast Incorporated provides a new perspective on vampires in film: the vampire workplace comedy. While not technically vampires the characters do feed on humans and are at least practically immortal, and humans can turn into the “Netherfolk.” There are a set number of ways that they can be destroyed, though, which are acted upon by senile CEO/family leader Darrel Hammond, afflicted with an Alzheimer’s-like disease of their people.

This is where the story begins, with the staff trying to determine what to do about him. He can’t be fired and the only solution appears to be killing him. Like most workplaces, though, no one wants to be the one to make a decision. Though they have kept their secret for centuries, and their phone-producing company, Berm-Tech, off of the public trade, the employees suddenly have to deal with humans in their midst, including pushy efficiency expert Judd Nelson and cute new temp Amy Davidson. She throws a whole new wrench in the works for star Steve Burns, formerly of Blues Clues, when she asks him out for a drink.

The plot from here is part workplace comedy and part espionage mystery story. It makes for an interesting and largely successful blend. The most interesting aspects of the story are its historical placements, revolving around Alexander Graham Bell (for obvious reasons) and President James Garfield (Robert Wagner!) and the details surrounding his assassination. It all ties very well into the overall history of the Netherfolk as the writers have clearly thought out in great detail. It’s commendable to see that kind of thought put into the details of a small movie like this, which feels like a labor of love.

The cast has a warm, television familiarity thanks to SNL’s Hammond and the great Dave Foley (NewsRadio, Kids in the Hall), as well as Kevin Smith regular Jason Mewes, who I can still never see as anything but Jay of Jay and Silent Bob infamy. Nelson provides a fine antagonist in his lurking headsman, and Davidson fills the role of tempting outsider to Burns’ nebbish every-Netherfolk quite well. She feels like a girl on whom you could have an office crush. Robert Wagner turns in an admirable performance as President Garfield as well, and is as welcome a presence as his turn in the Austin Powers films.

While I wouldn’t necessarily call Netherbeast Incorporated a great film, I will say it is enjoyable. I always find small scale oddities like this so, with their freedom to explore their ideas, and this film is particularly devoted to these explorations. 3 ½ stars

Even though I had fairly little idea about what he made the show, I greatly looked forward to Louis CK’s new comedy series, Louie, on FX. I managed to catch the first two episodes over the holiday weekend and found it even greater than I expected. There’s nothing like this on television now, nor can I recall anything similar in any recent year.

While I expected a sitcom in the vein of his lamented HBO series Lucky Louie, the actual format is far more interesting. Opening, closing and separated by bits of his standup are two short films by Louis CK. His stamp couldn’t be more evident on these, though the dozen or so times his name appears in the credits don’t hurt either. He even edits the show himself. That epitomes fanatical dedication to me. The first short, about an aborted trip to the Bronx Botanical Gardens with his child’s class, falls a little flat with its jokey ending but has a number of very funny moments. The second, though, about a horrible blind date, is amazing. It’s hilarious and filled with genuine, ugly, awkward moments and the greatest over the top ending I’ve seen on television (at least outside of Arrested Development).

The second episode features a great short involving his comic friends and a poker game, getting slowly more and more deeply into the nature of language and the political power of words, all without letting up on its central goal, being funny. The second short in this episode is so close to perfect it’s amazing. It features Louis CK, in a fit of post-divorce loneliness, looking up an old girlfriend on Facebook. It’s bursting with childhood gawkiness and late life regret. The kid who plays the young Louis nails it, too, without saying ten words in the short.

Louis CK has found a way to bring his art to television while keeping his creative vision clear and free. I greatly look forward to seeing more of this series and anticipate great things. So far, 5 stars

I’ve recently discovered the joys(?) of Asylum Studios films on Netflix. The business plan of Asylum, as I infer based on their catalog offered, is based on hoping that someone’s mother will see Transmorphers: Fall of Man for $5 at Wal-Mart and hope they got a deal on that movie their kid wanted so badly. I still hope to see Snakes on a Train someday to see how closely it follows the plot of the classic Samuel L. Jackson thriller. Now that I have caught a few of these, I wanted to talk about them but not waste a lot of time reviewing each one of these gems of flotsam, so I’ve compiled them all here in brief.

Note: Minimal research reveals that these films are known as “Mockbusters,” and are pretty much what I sussed out above.

Asylum Films- Four Brief Reviews

Princess of Mars (2009) appears to be a first for Asylum films: a pre-rip off, as Disney’s John Carter of Mars film has yet to be seen. While the title promises much Traci Lords, who wisely skipped to the end by donning the Slave-Leia garb right away, the movie focuses instead on the fact that John Carter can jump really high on Mars. I mean really high. He does this often to reiterate the fact that Martian gravity ain’t got shit on Earth gravity. Carter spends most of his time battling and then befriending a race of desert dwelling lizard people, comic book hero style, who then aid him in defending the titular Princess from a kidnapping plot by some other space goons. I think, anyway. I find that a staple of Asylum’s writers is an intricate and half-formed plot, like maybe they got bored and decided to wrap it up early.

My first disappointment was the inaction of Princess of Mars. I had to assume she would be kicking a lot more ass than none. John Carter’s unimpressive displays of jumping go on way too long and just seem to exist to fill out a feature length runtime. Much of the movie, about the Princess of Mars, dedicates itself to Carter integrating himself among the good people of Frogtown. Anyway, this movie was dull and confusing and only gets an extra half star because I can’t in good conscience give it less when Traci Lords dresses up as Slave Leia. 1 ½ stars

Asylum’s Sherlock Holmes (2010) makes a number of bold choices early on to distinguish itself from the big studio release of 2009. Where that film focused on the deeply complicated relationship between Holmes and Watson, as portrayed through the charismatic performances of Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, this film chose two men from whom the eye retreats to convey a relationship of fizzling quality and intensity. Like I said, it’s a bold choice made by the filmmakers. Or they had no one better they could afford, which seems doubtful, because these two actors are nearly impossible to pay any attention to no matter what they are doing. The other choice, which is brilliant, is Holmes’ new nemesis: dinosaurs. A series of poorly drawn dinosaurs attack the poor of London, eating one man completely off screen, leaving not even his shoes, which was very convenient for the animators and props department.

The film opens in London, to a clear view of what appears to be Washington D.C.’s Capitol Building, with a withered old Watson regaling his nurse with his greatest untold adventure. Holmes investigates these attacks throughout the film, which are part of a larger scheme to destroy the British government. In the meantime, Holmes confronts the man he believes responsible, Spring-Heel Jack, whom I recall to be not a man but some sort of demon actually, but whatever. If you look too deeply into the details of these films you’ll only frustrate yourself. Oh, also he’s Holmes’ brother for added effect. Plus, he’s dying and has his own diving-suit inspired Iron Man armor. Holmes, ever the reasoning genius, punches this. The main thing about him, though, is that the actor, Dominick Keating, immediately stole their scenes from Holmes. He looks vaguely familiar but the actor playing Holmes may as well not even have been in the room when they were together, making his casting look like an even bigger mistake in comparison. I generally steer away from criticizing the cast but this man just did not have it in him to portray a character that outsized and was unable to hold his own against the villain of the film.

The rest of his inspired plan revolves around a fire-breathing mechanical dragon. Holmes’ solution is to chase it in a battered hot-air balloon. I forget how but he takes it down while Watson busies himself battling a steampunk robot woman. Holmes spends a good deal of these scenes in a cramped space pretending to be badly jostled. None of this is remotely as great as it sounds. I give credit to the film for adding as much nonsense as possible to the story to make it passable; dinosaur cloning, advanced robotics and a Guy Fawkes-like attempt to destroy Parliament should have made for at least an entertaining train wreck. It did not. I think in this instance, while nothing about the movie was good, the lack of interest falls to the casting. If someone over the top had played Holmes it would have been a much different film. Ben Syder’s somnambulant performances ground the ridiculous proceedings to a halt more than once. What could have been… 1 ½ stars

Transmorphers (2007) proved to be the least memorable of the bunch. Ostensibly a Transformers mockbuster, this is actually a straight up rip-off of the Terminator franchise that subs in alien invasion for time travel. One robot transforms, or “transmorphs,” into some vehicle in the credits to confuse you. This was obviously a thrown in moment with nothing to do with the rest of the plot. Spoiler: the humans win. 1 star

Transmorphers: Fall of Man (2009) gets a little more serious about stealing from the Transformers. Several vehicles do turn into robots in the cheapest-possible-CGI tradition of Asylum. A friend of mine just learning computer design does better work than this on his home PC. This is actually a prequel, with the Transmorphers invading Earth in their innocuous cell phone forms. They indiscriminately murder people to carjack them, though it would seem easier and more subtle to just steal parked cars to me. All of this leads to basically Maximum Overdrive happening. T:FoM does have two coups going for it: they managed to convince Bruce “I was fucking TRON” Boxleitner to stay in about half the film. Also, they found Jennifer Rubin somehow and convinced her to be in the whole thing. Oh, and Dick Van Dyke’s grandson wrote and stars for what that’s worth. I will give the movie this: it’s better than the first one. 1 ½ stars

I can’t exactly recommend any of these, even to bad movie fans like me. I will say this, though: if you watch these, bring some friends, get your MST3K quips cracking and maybe alter your consciousness a little to help things along.