Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Movie Review: Con Air (1997)

"If I made films for the critics, or for someone else, I'd probably be living in some small Hollywood studio apartment." — Jerry Bruckheimer on why he makes films

There's a point in every Jerry Bruckheimer movie in which I realize I have no idea what is happening. There is so much random action flying every direction that I have simply lost the plot. That moment often happens more than once during the run time. While I was watching Con Air, another Bruckheimer production, this happened a sum total of three different times, mostly within the last 20 minutes.
I can't totally hate every piece of entertainment Bruckheimer places his hands on. But I will never forgive him for Pearl Harbor. I liked some of his comedies like Bad Boys I and II, The Ref and Days of Thunder (which is supposedly an action movie, but is actually an unintentional comedy.) There's always been something unnameable that's put me off about Con Air. Like Armageddon, he once again places a group of actors I really like into a giant flaming plane. Released a year later, Armageddon would make these actors fly much higher, but a lot of the same plot points still apply.
Bruckheimer's style is on full display here. Con Air is really the gangster and the gentleman that he can be and often is. Con Air has a great hook: parolee on his way home is stuck on prison transport that is being hijacked. How can you not be interested in that plot line? The story is well set up and, however ham-fistedly, he establishes legitimate back-stories for the majority of the main characters, mostly the prisoners.
But it's really only things like budget that restrains him. It certainly isn't good taste. He controls the movie like a 13-year-old boy would if you gave him $75 million and said, "Go!" He can't wait to blow something up or crash something or kill off a few side characters. This is where I start to lose it. And this is the problem: because these types of movies make so much money there's no reason for anyone to tell him to stop.
I didn't see Con Air in the theaters. I was 14 at the time and for whatever reason I didn't make it. I didn't see it until years later when I saw it on VHS, or maybe on T.V.; who can remember? I think that's part of the reason I missed being the target audience for this movie. It really had the highest potential for hitting home when I was on the onset of puberty. For example, when I said earlier that the main characters were well developed I was definitely talking about the male characters. The women characters, which I guess just includes Nic Cage's doting wife and the cross-dressing prisoner, are pretty paper-thin, one-dimensional caricatures. [Editor's note: Ash pointed out that there were two other female characters I left out; Guard Debbie Bishop and Debbie, the six-year-old girl who has the tea party with Garland 'The Marietta Mangler' Greene. I add them here for completeness reasons, but I think the fact that I forgot about them only further proves my point. Also: They're both named Debbie. How lazy can you be!?] It's written like it's from the perspective of someone who had never met a transvestite, homosexual or actual woman before. Just like an early teenager. But that's obviously not true. Bruckheimer was 52 when he produced Con Air.
I've got to say I have something of a beef with any movie that will at one moment hire Dave Chappelle in his prime to be a supporting character and then just disposes of him out of the back of the plane so early in the run time.
Con Air is an anomaly this way. It's like Bruckheimer knows what would be a good idea then he's like, "but what about a 'KA-BOOM' right there?"

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Song Review: Slave - "Just a Touch of Love" (1979)

I just heard this song on the Parliament station on my Pandora. I can't believe I've never encountered it before. It's so addictive. The real hook is the background vocals that implore the name of the song over and over again. The bass is deep and abiding. I honestly don't know why I don't listen to more funk. Here I am slamming back and forth between the Kanye West and Notorious B.I.G. stations on the commute to work when I could be rocking to something like this.
"With just a touch of love..."
Gotta love that sound. Slave is an Ohio band which is apparently a funkier state than I ever gave it credit for. Well, the Dayton part anyway.
About that album cover: I didn't see that when I first got to know this song. Who is the man on the front and what is he doing with that baby? Is it his baby? And if it is, why is he offering it to me? Doesn't he want the baby? And if it's not his baby already, is the baby he will provide you if you buy this record? Will it look just like that?

Movie Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

I am a more than a little hesitant when it comes to the idea of indie directors tackling beloved children's tales. That emotion probably springs from my experience with the 2009 Dave Eggers/Spike Jonze collaborative film adaption of Where the Wild Things Are. When I read that book as a child I definitely didn't picture the voice of James Gandolfini being wordy and depressed throughout the wild rumpus. It's like they couldn't help themselves. They had to repaint this wild imaginary ride as this self-congratulatory, heady nostalgia trip.
However, Wes Anderson's Roald Dahl adaption Fantastic Mr. Fox, released the same year, is a blast to watch. It falls into none of the pitfalls that its counterpart was practically leaping into willingly. It's a children's movie that I wouldn't mind re-watching with my as yet non-existent kids, mostly because I'd want an excuse to see it again.
This feeling of kinetic energy is influenced by Anderson's willingness to defy expectations of what a movie like this can be. In a world of Pixar it's endearing that he chose to make his first children's movie in stop-motion animation. Who even does that anymore? I always enjoyed it when I saw it in old movies. I used to rent the 1933 version of King Kong from the library when I was a kid and I was obsessed with the way the stop-motion made the fur move so jauntily. It's like the difference between vinyl and CD. There's something special about hand-made craftsmanship.
Another aspect that I'm so glad of: this is without a doubt a Wes Anderson movie. You'll recognize the staging and the camera angles instantly if you've spent as much time watching Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums as I have. Because this is a Wes Anderson movie you can expect to be treated to the usual suspects: Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and, why not, Meryl Streep and George Clooney thrown in as well. The Streeper is one of the Actresses of her generation and you know how I feel about Clooney.
And just like every other Wes Anderson movie, details are very important to the overall aesthetic. Instead of writing without curse words, Anderson replaces the word "Curse" in the exact location of each potentially objectionable word. This is self-aware and very funny because everyone knows what he's trying to say, but he doesn't have to get weird or creative twisting the sentence around the natural flow of speech that generally contains everyday swearing.
Animals are allowed to be animals as well anthropomorphic stand-ins for human characters. After long spats of dialogue the animals will instantly break back into animal character and loudly and messily devour a plate of food in front of them, crumbs flying in every direction. Or a contentious business meeting will end in an inter-species brawl. And when they're digging underground they're all claws and feet, even as they wear foppish people clothes while they do it.
All these small touches are what makes Fantastic Mr. Fox what it is. Doing a children's movie can be inherently tricky territory for directors used to speaking directly to adults. This movie works in no small part thanks to Anderson's ever-deft control of tension and its release. He knows just how far to let the pressure build before popping the bubble and bringing the proceedings back to earth.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Song Review: Dire Straits - "Money For Nothing" (1985)

There are so many great things about "Money For Nothing":
- Co-writer Sting, yes, that Sting, sings an un-credited background vocal. That's great.
- The groundbreaking video still sticks out in my mind even though I probably first remember seeing around five years after it had already existed. The technology is long-outdated, but still completely compelling.

- Mark Knopfler is a musical genius and the guitar riff here at the center of this song is Exhibit A.
- "Money For Nothing" features the best use of the synthesizer since Van Halen's "Jump" (released just a year before, I'm sensing a pattern about mid-80's rock here.)
- The extended version is even more fun than the original by virtue of being eight minutes and 28 seconds of "Money For Nothing":

- The lyrics of the song are from a first-person perspective of someone who isn't culturally senstive or enlightened. As a result, the majority of this song's Wikipedia page is the controversy over several off-color references and slurs in the lyrics. This is the same reason sarcasm is so hard to pull off in print; people just don't get it.
Obviously, I don't think Dire Straits are homophobic, sexist racists. They're singing from the perspective of the person watching MTV while they have to MOVE the T.V.s. Don't you get it? They're the band on the MTV! It's obviously more awesome to earn money doing what you love instead of drudging away at the bottom.
But that begs the question, if there was no one to buy the color T.V.s would Dire Straits be able to keep living their lifestyle? The lower class needs the upper class needs the lower class. Oh, opposing economic theories!

Movie Review: The Beaver (2011)

In elementary school one of the things I learned when I first started writing were the different types: narrative, expository and persuasive. Narrative writing tells a story, expository writing gives facts and persuasive is meant to convince someone of something. Generally when I'm doing my own writing these days I'm able to discern pretty clearly what kind of writing I'm doing. But with this piece I'm not sure which category to file it under. It's really all three.
I'm going to tell you a story to convince you of the fact that this movie exists.
Because that's the hardest part to accept about The Beaver: that it exists. You will never be able to relax the entire time this movie is playing. And the worst part of it is that it wants you to feel just the opposite. Director/Co-Star Jodie Foster (!) desperately wants you to feel warmed and comforted yet you feel disturbed and off-kilter constantly.
Hey, here's a fun exercise: Try to get this fact through your head: Mel Gibson spends every second of the movie playing an American CEO of a failing family business talking in third person in an Australian accent through a beaver puppet he found in a dumpster. It took until the credits were rolling to come to terms with this fact. See how long it takes you.
Things get off to a rocky start already before the movie even starts. You know how when there's a movie that features smoking how there's inevitably an anti-smoking ad nestled in the previews? Well, since The Beaver's inciting incident is Gibson's character Walter Black being clobbered in the head by a television after a failed suicide attempt in a hotel room, the following ad for, I guess, depression, plays:

You feeling any better yet? Did that warm the old heart cockles?
I first became aware of The Beaver a few months after he completely imploded in 2010 (most recently, not the other time in 2006).

I wondered how Gibson was ever going to bounce back after I heard these tapes of him threatening Oksana Grigorieva:

A few months later, this was the first Mel Gibson joint to be released since these crazy, crazy recordings were leaked. It's notable that Foster stood by him in the aftermath of this, at least for a while. I guess their last joint collaboration, 1994's Maverick, was more than just a moderately re-watchable movie I remember seeing all the time on HBO when I was a kid. The Beaver was such an odd career choice for Mel Gibson at this point. Would no one else hire him except his only friend left? Surely the Christian community could have given him some more work after the rousing commercial success of The Passion of the Christ. I also find it strange that Jodie Foster would be so willing to hitch her highest-budgeted (and third) directorial effort to a star with so much baggage. And such a weird concept, no less. I still don't understand the logic of any of this.
For a movie that cost $21 million to make, it earned back less than 1/3 of that in box office receipts. That's really a shame because it means that not many people saw this movie initially. It really does deserve to be seen, if only to be believed. Then again maybe it's a good thing. Maybe people will think twice before green-lighting things like this. Taking chances is one thing. Leaping off a cliff and hoping for the best is quite another.