Saturday, February 27, 2010

Movie(s) Review: "Father of the Bride" Parts 1 + 2

I somehow completely missed both of these movies when they were first out in in 1991 and 1995. (And the original starring Spencer Tracy for that matter.)
What I've learned after finally viewing both in back-to-back succession is that there isn't a situation imaginable that Steve Martin couldn't freak out about. Really it's a lot like "Law and Order" in that they'll both never run out of story lines. The sequel proves that if nothing else. It's not these are two separate movies, but more of a Mad Lib brought to life. The same exact scenes are recycled here in exactly the same order so often that it's hard to remember which you're watching if experienced too close together. As long as Steve Martin is alive he could be doing one of these movies. It has been 15 years since the second installment. (How will Steve Martin deal with Great-Grandfatherhood?) It's not that he has to. It's really just an option if he wants it.
The real reason I've never seen either of these is that it really was never marketed to me. I've never considered being a bride or a father of a bride, especially when I was eight and 12 years old, respectively. Now that I'm 26 and about to be married I have the advantage of insight to gain some relevance from the plot. It doesn't really paint a flattering portrait of parents of young adults. Steve Martin succeeds here mostly because he plays to his strengths, which incidentally are his weaknesses. He constantly acts on his weakest impulses, reacting first through the lens of his own feelings and only later, once the damage is done, does he consider the emotions of those around him.
I am impressed that they got literally every major character back for each of these. It is a testament to how much people love this movie that this came into being. They wouldn't have produced two of these in four years if the people weren't demanding it. The people voted with their dollars and this series is a definitive two-term president.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Movie Review: "Shutter Island"

Generally one of my least favorite parts about going to the movies is other people. Namely, I hate people who can't just watch the movie. It's a pretty simple rule. If it's violated, I generally spend the entire time silently fuming at them. In more extreme situations I've even been known to ask for silence.
"Shutter Island" is so good, even this species of annoyance is rendered useless.
To wit: As the screen faded to black at the conclusion of the final scene, the vociferous viewers in our row exclaimed, "Oh, so they're setting it up for a sequel."
Without giving anything away, I can assure you that this was not left open as an option. In fact, I would go so far as to say that anyone with any inclination for abstract thought who had been paying attention would come to the same conclusion I did: There was a period on the end of this sentence.
The beauty of this movie, though, is that even though they completely misunderstood what Director Martin Scorsese was doing here, I'll still bet they had a good time.
And that's what it's all about, isn't it?
"Shutter Island" has atmosphere for days. It is appropriately claustrophobic at all times. Just like the island it's set on, the world of the story has certain limitations that cannot be breached by the protagonist.
The Leonardo DiCaprio factor cannot be overlooked here either. He easily carries this movie across the finish line. Sir Ben Kingsley and Mark Ruffalo are reliably solid here, but DiCaprio is deservedly given the juiciest part.
Providing a plot summary is meant to provide a bedrock of understanding about the premise. "Shutter Island" is a twisty, fractured mystery story that defies easy definition. There really is no solid ground to stand on. Nothing is to be trusted.
I'll be interested to catch "Shutter Island" again when it comes to digital versatile disc. I walked into the theater mostly blind. I had no expectations. Now that I've been down the path Scorsese laid out I'm fascinated to see how I'll react now that I know what's around the bend.
As much as I enjoyed myself watching this movie, I will say that this is not Scorsese's best work. The nice part is that it doesn't have to be. It doesn't feel like anything else I've ever seen by him. Constant disorientation is not what I would consider a hallmark of his craft until I saw this.
Agreeing to purchase a ticket for "Shutter Island" is tantamount to knowingly stepping on a trap door. The bottom is going to drop out immediately and you'll be fine as long as you don't struggle as you slide down the chute below. That's the only way you'll hurt yourself.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Movie Review: "A Serious Man"

If there is such a thing as reincarnation then I pray that I don't come back as a main character in a Coen Brothers movie.
I know the idea in script-writing is to place your protagonist in a progression of pickles, but the Coens are staggeringly sadistic to their creations. As the lords of their own universe they are vengeful gods, reining down pain and destruction on whoever they deem unlucky enough to be a featured player in their fables.
[Just ask Steve Buscemi, who has been murdered in three Coen films ("The Big Lebowski", "Fargo" and "Miller's Crossing").]
All this brings us to "A Serious Man".
As two of my friends pointed out prior to my viewing of this, even though it is labeled a "black comedy" it is even a stretch to call it a "light tragedy."
After making my way through the twists and turns all the way though the end, I found it had a remarkably similar message to their masterwork "No Country For Old Men." And the message is this: "Life is a series of random, meaningless cruelties and then you die. Oh, and there's nothing you can do about it." Whether or not you also believe this is of no concern to the Coens. Their total commitment to the world of whatever story they're working on is a key ingredient to their successes. They will feed you the morality of this universe no matter what you happen to think of it.
That spirit has been responsible for the Coens' repeat offender status on my all-time movie list. I mean you've got "No Country" and "The Man Who Wasn't There" on one end and then "Raising Arizona" and "The Big Lebowski" on the other extreme of the fear/love continuum.
It can also result in things like "A Serious Man".
The opening scene is a flashback of a family speaking Yiddish in a tiny European shack a long, long time ago. The husband has invited into the house a man that his wife thought had died already. Is this the ancestors of the main character? Does this invitation bring a curse to their ancestors? Who knows.
What follows is period piece set in 1967 Minneapolis and centered around a Jewish physics professor whose life is falling apart. After viewing this movie it should not surprise you that the plot is loosely based on the Book of Job, the man God punished mercilessly and without reason.
"A Serious Man" was a well-made movie. It's Coen Brothers, after all. I also can't stop thinking about it. The problem is that I don't want to. I simply can't control it. This movie has burrowed its way into my brain. It's a puzzle that's begging me to solve it. The Coens give the audience just enough clues to hint at a concept they never explicitly show. The infuriating final scene is the closest they ever get to an answer.
How's this?:
I want you to see "A Serious Man" because it's important, but I can't recommend it because it's so harsh.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Movie Review: "Zombieland"

"Zombieland" is a zombie triumph. It really is something spectacular. It takes everything I like about zombie apocalypse movies (zoombies, a paired off, gender matched group and comedy) and condenses into one joyous celebration. Not unlike "Inside the Actor's Studio" host James Lipton's timeless classic group name reference book "An Exaltation of Larks", this is an exaltation of zombies.
Also, not unlike "Big Fan", a lot of the best last, half of this film is better left to each viewer to discover. Spoiling the ending would only cheapen the experience. I implore you to know as little as possible about "Zombieland" prior to viewing. I see no advantage in any superfluous plot knowledge.
What I can tell you is:
a) It rocks.
b) It is about each of us slaying our own personal zombies that attack us every day, metaphorically speaking.

P.S. - There is a celebrity cameo that you should not find out, but just trust that it is awesome.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Which Van Halen frontman is G.O.A.T.?

This is a question that has plagued man for more than 25 years now. It's time for me to answer this eternal struggle.
Court is in session...

David Lee Roth:

...and now...

Sammy Hagar:

Is there any question? It's obviously Roth by a mile. They're both good in their own ways, but his air pretension makes Hagar the loser. Roth is such a goofy bastard there's nothing that you can really say bad about him. He's a living cartoon and whatever you say bounces off him and sticks to you.
In fact, it only makes him stronger.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Movie Review: "Extract"

The combined forces of “Office Space”, “Beavis and Butt-Head”, “King of the Hill” and (especially) “Idiocracy” lay out a detailed overview of Mike Judge’s philosophy on humanity:
People are capable of amazing things but usually fall to their weaker impulses.
I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Judge has made himself perfectly clear on this point. There is a definite period tacked on the end of that sentence.
That’s what makes “Extract” so interesting:
Once you’ve already made your ultimate statement, where do you go from there?
I just want to go on record by saying that I like this movie. A lot of people won’t feel the same because it’s also a mess. Granted, it doesn’t have a strong message. If you’re a rich guy, though, I’m sure you can’t help but write about rich-guy problems.
Under the influence of horse tranquilizers, flavor extract factory boss Joel (Jason Bateman) is convinced by his best friend, Dean (Ben Affleck), to hire a gigolo to tempt his wife with. The idea is that once the cheating has occurred it will clear the way for him to sleep with a new temp at work, Cindy (Mila Kunis) minus any of the guilt.
What happens in the actual story is of no real consequence after this.
Nothing is really at stake here. You’re not going to have to worry about Joel making it in the end. It’s all very safe. This is not unlike how I imagine Mike Judge’s life to be.
Much of the case for this movie’s greatness lies in the casting department (via Wikipedia):

• Jason Bateman as Joel, the owner of an flavor extract factory
Pretty much just resurrects his “Arrested Development” persona. This is not a bad thing because I like Michael Bluth.
• Ben Affleck as Dean, Joel's best friend
Incidentally, Ben Affleck is really fantastic in this movie. As the best friend character he excels in a way I haven’t seen since “Dazed and Confused” and later “Chasing Amy.” This I’m sure he’s a cool enough guy, but he usually is only as good as the filmmaker.
• Clifton Collins, Jr. as Step, a factory worker who loses a body part in a freak accident and is due for a huge settlement
I’m always happy that he continues to work. His turn as Rupert in “Rules of Attraction” alone earns him a lifetime pass.
• Gene Simmons as Joe Adler, the ambulance-chasing attorney
He’s obnoxious. His character is obnoxious. Somehow it works.
• J.K. Simmons as Brian, Joel's partner
Another actor who I’m happy to see blow up everywhere. Like Bateman, he’s gotten a lot more indie cred post-“Juno”; and rightly so.
• David Koechner as Nathan, Joel's annoying neighbor
A classic Mike Judge archetype in the spirit of Milton from “Office Space”. He’s just another dim bulb wandering around bumping into everything.
• Beth Grant as Mary, an obnoxious factory worker
Most of the female roles weren’t quite as well-done. Mila Kunis and Kristen Wiig come off as kind of limp. Beth Grant is different because she is armed with a well-tested Southern persona. I would never doubt her
• Mike Judge (uncredited) as Jim, a union organizer employee at the factory
Judge brings back his Hank Hill voice here to great effect while in costume.

Plot-wise, the fact that Joel’s company bottles artificial flavor for sale is a perfect simile for what Judge does for a living:
He makes things (movies) that taste like something that is naturally occurring (reality) in a more concentrated form (writing.)
Really it would be disingenuous for him to write from the perspective of one of Joel’s employees. He doesn’t do that kind of work anymore. The main character is a boss whereas Judge has previously centered on entry level types. He has been in charge of employees for some time now and he can only write about what he knows.
Judge obviously still has great contempt for the human race, but he’s viewing it from a totally different angle. Frankly, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. He already gave us “Office Space” after all. What else do you want from the man?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Movie Review: "Big Fan"

Spoiler alert: Don't read part two until you see "Big Fan."

Part I

“The Wrestler” is one of the most epic movies I’ve ever taken in. Like director Darren Aronofsky’s prior release “Requiem for a Dream,” though, it is also a film I will not be able to watch more than a handful of times.
If you’ve seen “The Wrestler” you know that it chronicles the long, painful decline of a former professional wrestling hero, Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke). To truly understand what makes “Big Fan,” the follow-up and directorial debut for “Wrestler” scribe Robert D. Siegel, even more soul-crushing you have to understand that this main character has never had any hope at all. At least Randy was a star at one time. Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt), on the other hand, lives in self-imposed isolation, content to live with his mother and work in a toll booth.
A lot of “Big Fan” is about delusion. It’s also about how we reconcile our vision of what the truth is with reality itself. The main conflict of “Big Fan” centers on these two themes.
Aufiero is a passionate New York Giants fan who spends his days composing tirades about his obsession. At night he unleashes these thoughts on the world in the form of a radio call-in show. In this format he is known as “Paul from Staten Island” and is regular on the program. He also has an ongoing feud with another caller, a rival Philadelphia Eagles loyalist known as “Philadelphia Phil.” Each plans his responses based on the reactions of his rival.
What’s even sadder about Paul is that he doesn’t even have enough money to truly indulge the one thing he lives for. The closest he can come to being a part of a live game is tailgating in the parking lot and experiencing the game vicariously along with his clueless best friend Sal (Kevin Corrigan).
This and the poster of his favorite Giants player, Quantrell Bishop, are the nearest Paul ever gets to his precious. All this changes one night when he and Sal spot Bishop at a gas station and they decide to follow. The pair trail the star and his entourage to a shady part of town and then to a strip club (complete with a $20 per person entrance fee and a required purchase of a nine-dollar Budweiser each.)
Paul and Sal sit across the club from their stalking victim, completely ignoring the bevy of naked women in front of them. They decide to try and connect with Bishop in the bathroom, but instead lose their nerve at the last minute. Then they buy Bishop a drink and have the waitress send it over. When Bishop refuses, looking more freaked out by the minute, they finally go all in and introduce themselves.
At first everything is going fairly well. The intoxicated group gives some gentle ribbing to the disheveled duo. It’s lighthearted.
Then Paul lets it slip that they followed them here.
And things take a turn.
Enraged, Bishop explodes out of his seat and he and the rest of his crew join in beating Paul to within an inch of his life.
Paul doesn’t wake up for three days. When he finally regains consciousness he finds that the Giants lost their last contest and Bishop has been suspended on a game-by-game basis. Soon afterwards his lawyer brother drops by urging him to sue and a detective swings by looking for information.
Paul spends the rest of the film grappling with either turning Bishop in and hurting the team he loves or keeping quiet and moving on.

Part II

Editors’s note: There are major spoilers past this point. A large part of the reason I was so fascinated by this movie is that what you read above is pretty much all I knew about it before I watched it. The second half was a complete mystery to me.
You’ve been warned.

Wow. How about that ending? I totally didn’t see that coming. As soon as I saw the gun and the car and the look on his face I thought it was all over. I didn’t know who he was going to kill, but I was sure that SOMEBODY was going to get it.
I really enjoyed the casting of Michael Rappaport as Philadelphia Phil. It was a really nice touch. I didn’t even recognize him from the radio portions leading up to it. He’s a truly great actor and really believable for the part. I liked how they made him just as obsessed as Paul, but somehow less socially awkward. Sure, he’s a jerk, but at least he was watching the game in a bar with several friends. There’s a more social aspect to it for him.
On a side note, I thought the masturbation scenes with Paul in his room were interesting. He has NFL sheets on a bed that sits directly underneath a giant Quantrell Bishop poster and no women to be seen anywhere. We can only assume that this strong black man plays some part in Paul’s fantasy. This is further solidified by the fact that he has trouble reaching orgasm after the attack, his dreams shattered by the painful reality of it.
Just like “The Wrestler,” the final scene of “Big Fan” really haunted me. From the time the beating occurs all the way until the end is really the story of him piecing the egg shells of his world back together. Getting excited when Sal shows him the schedule for next season is the pinnacle of his delusion.
Generally we see the main character of any given movie go from the “no” to the “yes” (to paraphrase “Waking Life.”) They start out one place and end up another. The arc of “Big Fan” is more elastic. During the course of the plot, Paul basically moves from “no” to “maybe” to “hell, no.”
Siegel is obviously doing this to make us question if this is such a bad thing. Even as he sits in jail, Paul ends things with a big, hopeful smile.
“It’s going to be a great year,” he says, beaming.
How can you really argue with that? He seems content to live in his constructed reality even after he was nearly thrown through an escape hatch. He knows the score and he has optioned to change nothing. If anything, he’s even more defiant now.
Even though I don’t personally consider this healthy behavior, who am I to say that someone else can’t live their lives this way if they so choose? Siegel obviously agrees with this viewpoint because he drops all sorts of hints throughout. Prior to the incident, Paul’s lawyer brother shows the family his crappy new television commercial where he exposes himself as the sleaziest kind of ambulance chaser. Paul’s mother saves mounds of Chinese sauce packets in clear plastic bags with no plan for ever using them all up.
Knowing how the story ends, it’s obvious in retrospect that these details were dropped as a way of justifying Paul’s decision later.
If these people are the sane ones, the movie concludes, give me my own craziness any day.