Thursday, April 28, 2016

Day 1614 - Hardcore Henry

Have you seen the trailers for Hardcore Henry?  The movie was in theaters for all of three weeks, which I guess is to be expected.  But the idea of an action movie that was filmed entirely from the first person perspective was too revolutionary for me not to try and experience theater.  Too bad the movie wasn't very good.

Henry is a cyborg who wakes up to a pretty lady telling him that she's his wife.  Score one for Henry.  But then a crazy telekinetic psycho shows up, and Henry (who, conveniently, hasn't had his voice box activated), goes on the run with his wife.  When they get separated, Henry has to team up with Sharlto Copley's Jimmy in order to track her down and kill all the bad guys in his way.

The main fault of the film is that it is completely hollow.  Henry is silent, because he's supposed to be us. We get to be an unstoppable killing machine.  Unfortunately, the movie decided that was the only thing it cared about.  There is a movie out there, with this plot, that will examine the ideas that this movie brings up, and then ignores.  Such as -does an unstoppable killing machine have the right to be happy?  Is he even human?  Does he still have a conscience?  Are clones real people?  Is it okay to create clones for the express purpose of killing them off?  What are the responsibilities of the government when it comes to fallen soldiers?  This movie has all these questions at its very fingertips... yet never even examines a single one.

And you might ask me, "But how was the action, because that's all I came here for?"  And I say, "It's okay."  As you watch the movie, it's less about immersing yourself into the character, and more about watching a friend play a first person videogame incredibly well.  It seems to cross off all the prerequisites for that sort of idea.  There's a mission (rescue the wife).  Henry is given a phone with a location that he has to get to.  He has to fight long odds in order to get to the "boss."  Sure, Henry has a lot of guns and grenades, but everyone he fights is so devoid of personality, that when bodies go flying, that's all they are, is just bodies.

Really, it's all just so pedestrian.  And that's disappointing from a movie that had a pretty great hook.  And even more surprising, because the movie really makes no sense.  The bad guy's motivation?  I still don't know what his plan was.  Jimmy's reasons for helping out Henry?  Yeah, I'm pretty foggy on that one, too. 

I think what really sinks the film is a complete lack of humor.  Copley does what he can as a sometimes object of amusement, but it's all just so forced.  That may be the film's biggest fault, in that it's just not genuine.


My initial reaction after seeing the movie was to give it two stars.  But as I write about it, and think about it it doesn't deserve them.  So...


Sunday, April 24, 2016

Day 1609 - Everybody Wants Some!!

Here's the thing... Everybody Wants Some!! is probably one of the most plotless movies to come out in a long time.  It's good, but you won't figure that out for a while.  Richard Linklater (the writer/director) likes this type of film.  His first feature, Slacker, literally just followed different people around as they talked about their philosophies on life.  I hate it.  I think it's boring and pretentious.  But his Before... trilogy (starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) follows two people as we see them on three single days, 9 years apart, and all they do is talk.  But they're brilliant films.  These are two intelligent people who fall in and out of love (and perhaps back again) while talking about life (the universe and everything).  Everybody Wants Some!! is set in 1980 and follows Jake (Blake Jenner), the new freshman pitcher.  He hangs out with other baseball players, and we see their attempts to hook up with the incoming college women.  There's some philosophical talk towards the end of the film, but otherwise that's the movie.

Not really a ringing endorsement, is it?  Let me try and explain why the movie is worth seeing.  Any time that you see a movie a second time you are able to plug in all the information that you have already ingested.  As a director or editor, you probably have to see that movie hundreds of times.  The idea of seeing your movie like you did for the very first time is long gone.  The first time, we, as viewers, watch Everybody Wants Some!! we're spending the first 30 or 40 minutes trying to figure out who all the characters are that are being thrown at us.  And because none of these people have any deep philosophical leanings, all we can do is watch what they do.  They're not dumb people, but they only care about two things - girls and baseball.  Through simple immersion, we begin to know and care about these kids.  One of the best things about the film is that it convinces us that we are actually watching something taking place in 1980. 

So all that immersion and all the building of character creates a film that is less about anything, and more about showing us three and a half days in the life of these guys.  And this is where Linklater (minorly) fails and (mostly) succeeds.  Because he's seen the movie so many times already, he knows these characters inside and out.  But we're seeing it for the first time.  We don't know these characters, yet.  We're waiting for something dramatic to happen.  We, as an audience, have been primed for that.  Instead, by the time we realize nothing is really going to happen, we know who every character is.  It's a real achievement, but because it takes as long as it does, the experience of the film is a little less than satisfying.  But, I have to figure that any additional viewings of the film is much more rewarding.  We would then know who all the players are, and we can enjoy the film as a two hour time capsule of an era gone by.

However, the other negative aspect of the film is that this is as testosterone-filled as any action movie out there.  There's one female character of any consequence and that's Zoey Deutch's Beverly.  She's smart, she's funny, and she steals every scene that she's in... in the last fifteen minutes of the film.  All the other women in the film are simply there as objects to be won.  Sure, they may be on equal footing with the guys, but we don't get to know any of them.

And while any of this might seem like I'm bad-mouthing the movie, I'm really not.  Like I said, the deft touch Linklater wielded to make you believe that you're watching a 1980 time capsule is impressive.  And all the ballplayers are truly unique individuals.  It took a lot of time and effort to make it seem as effortless as it does.  So it's really a lot of fun, if just a bit vacuous.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Day 1603 - A new car, comics, and Fred Astaire


I bought a new car this week.  It's a blue Chevy Cruze.  I needed it.  My Dodge Neon was 12 years old, and only had 73,000 miles on it, but I honestly didn't think it had more than a few weeks left to go on it.  Rather than dumping a truck ton of cash into keeping it running, I decided to spend a truck ton of cash over six years on this new vehicle.  As an experience, it was interesting.  I know nothing about cars.  I know even less than nothing about purchasing them, so having a friend in your corner who knows all about them is key.  And my buddy Brian was on it.  When I first contacted him about the possibility of me getting a new car, he perked up.  Actually, let me put it like this - On Sunday night, Ben from the comic shop called me and left me a message that I might want to take a look at the comic collection that he bought.  So at 10PM, I drove to Carol and John's and stood in awe at a small collection of classic comics.  Amazing Spider-Man, Captain America, Daredevil, and Fantastic Four.  It was great.  Ben got me out of the house, into a treacherous car, and up to the shop with a phone call.  I think Brian had that same experience when I called him.  This was what he lives for.  On Monday, at the dealership, he was fully prepared - numbers had been crunched, logarithms had been calculated.  It was impressive.  It was so impressive, in fact, that the normal back and forth dance was a mere three exchanges.  He gave his offer, we gave ours, and then he came back with a number that hit the number we wanted.  Done and done.  And I've driven it all of about 12 miles since then.

And for Brian, I know that was a great day.  Like I said, this is what he lives for.  I was actually happy that we got to basically sit around for 3 and 1/2 hours just catching up.  But for me, as satisfying (and finally stress-free) as it made me, today might have been more personally satisfying.  I got home from work, mowed the lawn with the "new" lawnmower I got last year (thanks, Bill!), and marveled at the fact that after 14 years I finally have a lawnmower that has a grass catcher.  It really is a game-changer for me.  Then I spent two hours reading comic books while listening to Debbie Gibson.  Yep.  Debbie Gibson.  The last MySpace review I ever wrote was a review of a concert that I went to where she co-headlined with Tiffany (who was fine, but wasn't Debbie).  So I say that with my head held high.  But honestly, spending two hours reading comics was glorious.  From Alex De Campi and Carla Speed Mcneil's brutal "No Mercy" to Robert Kirkman's return to "Invincible" (he's been writing this as long as "Walking Dead" and it might be even better than that), to a really great Beast and Dr. Strange team-up in the newest issue of All New X-Men (#8) written by Dennis Hopeless.  It's been a while since I let my geek flag fly, so there you go.

After a couple hours of that, I decided to walk to Marcs and pick up a gallon of milk and some bread.  But on the way, I figured I'd treat myself to some Chinese food.  But what to watch when I got home?  Two thousand movies and nothing to watch.  Life's hard.  I opted for a movie I picked up a couple years ago - Three Little Words.  Starring Fred Astaire, Red Skelton, and Vera-Ellen, it told the story of songwriting-composing team of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby as they crushed it on stage and in films (they wrote Groucho Marx's "Hooray for Captain Spaulding").  As I watched the movie, all I could think of was, that except for the two guys and the music, everything else was probably fiction.  But I don't care. 

The debate will always rage as to who people prefer - Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly?  You can appreciate both (and I definitely do), but I'll always choose Fred Astaire.  His dance choreography is just so on point, that I always compare it to the best kung fu movies I've seen where the fight scenes are just variations of dance moves.  It didn't hurt that his partner in the film, Vera-Ellen, looks like she is having the time of her life or that Red Skelton plays it almost entirely straight, with next to no mugging at all.

And that was my night.  It was glorious.  I sit here typing this with my Pandora station on in the backround, and I feel content.  There's any number of things we can complain about or bring us down, but sometimes you just have to have a night where you create your own happiness.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Day 1601 - Every Which Way But Loose & Any Which Way You Can

How do you write about two Clint Eastwood movies that co-star an orangutan, are filled with bare-fisted brawls, inept motorcycle gangs, and Ruth Gordon?  Do I write about how the real-life couple (at the time) of Eastwood and Sondra Locke, while solid on-screen, becomes more uncomfortable when you think about her future allegations against him?  Do I write about how disconcerting it is to watch these movies back to back, knowing that Clyde is played by two different orangutans?  Do I write about Eastwood's struggle both professionally and personally that is represented through the fights that comprise both these films?

Any one of these could be ripe for discussion.  But these movies aren't very good.  They are watchable, however, and the reason that is, is because they are an update of the 1960's Frankie and Annette beach movies.  They're almost beat for beat the same type of movie.  Clint is Frankie.  Sondra is Annette.  Clyde is any one of the animals that popped up in those movies.  Geoffrey Lewis is Bonehead.  The Black Widows are the Rats.  Country music replaces pop music.  Ruth Gordon is Buster Keaton/Don Rickles.  I don't know why this has never been brought up before.  (That being said, I may be the only person to have been able to make that connection without having to look up any of the information that I just wrote about.  I might know a little too much about the Frankie and Annette beach movies.) 

With the two previous paragraphs, I've probably spent more time on Every Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can than anybody in their right mind should, but there is a reason (beyond my recent watching of each of them).  When I was 11 or 12 years old, I watched them at my cousin's house.  At that age, all I cared about were the bare-knuckled fights.  That's it.  Clyde was no Cheetah from the Tarzan films.  The music did nothing for me (although the theme song for Any Which Way But Loose really did become a life-long ear worm).  The bad guy bikers had so little personality that I couldn't engender any like or dislike for them.  I knew, instinctively, that these were not good movies.  But sometimes you simply want to revisit what you saw in your youth.  So that's what I did.

For those of you who've been sitting on the edge of your seat wondering what these movies are actually about because you haven't seen them (or, like me, haven't seen them in years), here you go.  Every... is about how Eastwood fights to get some extra cash, meets singer Locke, and tries real hard to get her enough money so she can get out from under the thumb of her abusive boyfriend and make a demo.  However, things don't go as planned, and the movie ends on what be one of the most melancholy endings you've ever seen.  Any... picks up a little after the previous film, and Eastwood gets hired to box the best bare-fisted fighter east of the Mississippi.  None of his friends want him to do it, so he backs out.  Of course, things don't go as planned, and the movie ends on a fight that seems like it's the longest in film history.

These two movies border on surrealism.  Clyde is an ape who's human in just about every way.  The fights are unbelievably long.  They go from ridiculous to awesome and back again.  The Black Widow bikers are so stupid and inept that you wonder how they even could have afforded motorcycles in the first place.  This is a universe that should be completely foreign to any of us, except for the fact that reality is the subtext in these films.  That melancholy ending of Every Which Way But Loose?  That shouldn't exist in this universe.  The honor and grit and resolve that Eastwood's character has?  It's what makes these movies both quintessentially Eastwood and more than just throwaway films.  And that honor, grit, and resolve?  None of that is even explicitly said in the movie.  Clint just lets his thoughts and actions spell that out.

If you want to enjoy these movies for things like "Right turn, Clyde," or Clint Eastwood singing a duet with Ray Charles, or bare-knuckled boxing, go right ahead.  I still say that they're not very good.  But I'll also say that they can't be easily dismissed.  And that might be their biggest victory.

**1/2 for both

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Day 1593 - "Movie Freak" and why I have to keep writing

I've been writing movie reviews ever since The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad (***1/2) came out.  There have been times when I was prolific (college and MySpace) and times when I have been less so (post-college and Facebook-era).  But the need to write about what I've seen and tell others whether I thought it was good or bad has consistently been strong.

In the last few months there have been a things that have brought my inner critic into much sharper focus.  The Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself was one of those.  Two friends, separately, have given me a ton of advice and encouragement, and that really re-energized me.  But I also just read Owen Gleiberman's autobiography Movie Freak, and that really crystallized a lot of things for me.

While there were a number of movies that Gleiberman talks about where we couldn't be on the more opposite end of the spectrum, based on his upbringing and worldview, I understand where he's coming from (even if I don't agree with him.).  My own upbringing has definitely influenced my own tastes.  My parents both love movies, especially old ones.  So I spent a lot of time in the early days of videotape watching movies starring Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Cagney, and Bette Davis.  And of course, there were Saturday afternoons with Superhost, Cleveland's own movie host who showed all the classic Universal and Hammer horror films.  In college, I had fellow resident assistant Zach, who was a horror film freak and he passed on movies that he thought I should see - good, bad, or interesting.  Post-college I had, and still have, the Cleveland Cinematheque.  Every weekend there is like a mini film festival.  It also helped that I read about movies non-stop.  All those monster movies?  I would read about how they made them, what their influences were, and their sequels.  If I liked a director or movie I would read all about them.  And I read a lot (a lot!) of film criticism simply so I could know what was supposed to be good.  I may not have always agreed with the popular opinion, but at least I knew what was being discussed.

The lesson I really came away from his book with was this - write what you really feel.  Don't compromise.  If you don't like a movie, don't temper that dislike.  If you like a movie, try and express why that is.  I immerse myself in so many reviews and other people's thoughts that I sometimes let that influence my own opinions.   Usually it's on movies that I have mixed feelings on.  When I have a strong opinion, it's hard to get me to change my mind (I still don't like Vertigo or Skyfall regardless of how great people say they are), but on something recent, like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I can find my initial thoughts being tempered by the people who legitimately love it, even if they can't express why that's so. 

If Gleiberman's book taught me anything, it's to be proud of what I think about a movie.  Certainly there will be times when my initial thoughts might be wrong, or outside influences will affect my initial thoughts.  Grandma's Boy and Crank would be two of those movies that immediately come to mind.  I initially disliked both those movies the first time I saw them, and I changed my opinion on them because when I first saw them, I saw them by myself.  The second time I watched them, I watched them with a group of people.  There really is nothing like the communal reaction to a movie to change your thoughts about its entertainment value.

So, I have been writing more often.  I've got a review of American Ultra (the Jesse Eisenberg/Kristen Stewart stoner assassin movie) halfway written, and I really liked this movie.  It bombed horribly at the box office and that made me sad.  As I rewatched it, I still liked it, but I was tempering myself because so many people seemed down on it.  But I know the joy and surprise of my initial reaction was the right reaction.  I just need to see if I can capture that in words. But I'm enjoying writing again.  Would I appreciate an audience?  Of course.  But for those of you who do read this, I really do thank you.  I've been writing in a vacuum for most of my life, and I'll keep doing it.  But it's definitely nice to know, for myself, that I should keep doing this.