Monday, October 20, 2008

Monstrous Movie Madness: Oliver Stone's W, Appaloosa, and Nick & Norah - Reviewed! Plus a Halloween HorrorThon Recap!

Wow, been a while. What can I say, I've still been recovering and catching up on things since I got back to LA last Sunday. I think I slept about 14 hours a night this past weekend as I caught up on missed sleep from the previous week. Suffice it to say, I was wiped. But ... tired as I was on Friday night, duty called. Duty being my annual HALLOWEEN HORROR MOVIE MARATHON! Yes, as is tradition, a loyal and decidedly hardcore group of couch warriors assembled to spend a long evening watching one cinematic scare-fest after another. Once again, the fabled Wall of Horrors was constructed in my apartment, and a lineup of carefully-selected creature-features was selected for the evening's viewing. This year, I had a classic ep of Ray Bradbury's Theater running as I waited for the guests to filter in, and then kicked off the event with, as is customary, a classic episode of The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror. This being an election year, there was only one episode that seemed appropriate for the occasion - that being the Season 8 installment which includes Citizen Kang - an absolutely brilliant bit of political satire that is also freaking hilarious. Epic win. The ep also has another of my fav THOH bits, the one where Bart has a long-hidden evil twin named Hugo. That one was the inspiration for countless times where as a kid I tried to tell my brother or cousins that they had a secret evil twin. Bwahahaha ...

Anyways ... the main event kicked off at about 8 pm with the night's first movie, GREMLINS. I usually try to start things off with a lighter / funnier movie, bonus points if it's from the 80's. Gremlins fit the bill to a T. I remember Gremlins being all over the place when I was a kid - toys, movies, videogames, etc ... and I think at some point I must have seen the movie, maybe. But I had no real memory of the film, and figured the combination of comedy, horror, and 80's nostalgia was perfect for the annual Horror-thon. The movie proved to be vintage 80's weirdness - insane puppetry / fx, a weird mix of innocence and darkness that is the trademark of many an 80's fantasy film, and a lot of fun-to-make-fun-of 80's nostalgia bits, with a cast that includes luminaries of the decade such as Phoebe Cates, Judge Reinhold, and yes, Cory Feldman.

Our second film was the legendary sci-fi / horror classic, ALIEN. While the at-times slow pacing necessitated that we down a few extra cups of Diet Coke in order to get through, the movie proved as visually stunning and as well-structured as ever - with a still-impressive cast and a dynamite turn from Sigourney Weaver as the original female badass, Ellen Ripley. I think I may need to follow this one up by revisiting the sequels. Aliens by James Cameron, anyone?

Finally, we closed things out with a movie that was probably the most traditionally Halloween-appropriate film of the bunch, which is odd as there's not much that's conventional about EVIL DEAD 2. I had never seen this one before, only the original ED as well as Army of Darkness. And man, did Evil Dead 2 deliver - taking the basic premise and style of Part 1 and adding in even more visual creativity, over the top, Looney Tunes-style comedy, and an even more iconic performance from the one and only Bruce Campbell. It's one of those one-of-a-kind turns that makes you sad all over again that The Chin never became a bonafide Hollywood action star. In any case, the movie was a great capper to the evening, and it's nonstop parade of gore, humor, and classic one-liners kept my very tired eyes wide open as the night wore on. Hail to the king, baby.

So thanks again to everyone who stopped by for the Marathon. It was once again a monstrous success!

- Of course, the annual Horror-thon was not my only Halloween-related activity this weekend. I also made a trip on Saturday to see THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS in 3-D at the El Capitan theater in Hollywood, during the opening weekend of its limited theatrical engagement. As always, seeing the film at the El Capitan was just an overall great experience. The theater's gothic interior, its in-house organ player (who warms up the crowd with scary tunes from Phantom of the Opera), and the random in-costume characters walking around Hollywood Blvd all lend to the creepy atmosphere of the experience. Obviously, atmosphere is a Disney specialty, and they rarely disappoint at Halloween-time. The movie itself is, of course, a classic, and in 3-D one can really see all the painstaking detail that went into its stop-motion animation. Once again, no better way to announce "this is Halloween!" than with a showing of The Nightmare Before Christmas ...

- Finally, got a chance to see the new movie "W" on Sunday. Now, I've gotten waaaaaay behind with my movie reviews of late, so I'm going to try for 3 somwhat shorter reviews here that cover all my bases from the last few weeks. All I can say to preface my review of W is this ... if you live in LA and ever get stuck sitting in the front row of the Landmark theater ... my advice is to bail immediately! Normally, being in the front row of a theater is pretty inherently painful, but at the Landmark it's a complete joke, as the bottom of the giant screen is literally inches from your face. How they can sell these seats in good conscience is beyond me, but all I know is that, after a minute or so of eyeball-bleeding pain, I realized there was no possible way to sit through an entire movie from that unenviable vantage point. I call B.S.! Anyways, I saw W at a slightly later time, so don't worry, loyal readers - the review is below:

"W." Review:

- W, despite its problems, is a fascinating film. Carried by an amazing performance from Josh Brolin as the title character, the movie is an almost surreal look at the inner psyche and unlikely rise to power of the man who was once the black sheep of the Bush clan. To cut to the heart of the issue ... Brolin is great and really 100% inhabits the Bush character - but, so much of the rest of the film feels only partly-realized and frequently rushed. On the other hand, there are moments that touch on brilliance, moments that are memorable and thought-provoking. Regardless, there's certainly plenty of fodder here for lively post-movie conversation.

But other than Brolin's award-worthy turn, some of the scenes and characters take on the feel of an SNL sketch sans the jokes. In particular, the actors playing Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice come off as merely caricatures, with so much visible emphasis placed on mimicking their subjects, that the characters rarely feel fully-developed. And that's from an acting standpoint. From a plot standpoint, some of the more intriguing characters don't feel fully fleshed-out, and it seems like there's an overreliance on the audience's built-in knowledge of the key players. I mean, Richard Drefuss is pretty remarkable in some ways as Dick Cheney. But so much of the effectiveness comes from our preexisting notions of the Vice President. In the context of the movie, we get only the briefest glimpses of who, exactly, this fascinating character really is. Same goes for Karl Rove. In many ways, the real-life Rove might be the most interesting figure of the entire Bush administration, but as a character in W, Rove remains a bit of a mystery. Why does he stick it out with the Bushes through good times and bad? Why does he hover towards George W and not to the more seasoned Jeb? Again, W gives us glimpses, but it works more as a sidebar commentary to the headlines of the last few years than as a standalone movie. It makes you wonder how watchable it will be ten or fifteen years down the line.

Surprisingly, W earns a lot of sympathy for George W. Bush, the man, as it details his desire to exceed his father's expectations and prove his critics within his family wrong. When the movie highlights the more absurd aspects of W's personality and his role as the unlikeliest of political power-players, it tends to work pretty well as straight-up satire. There's a delightful absurdity to scenes like one where the rough-n'-tumble W leads his pack of old-boy Washington cronies on a hike while discussing strategy in Iraq. You almost wonder if W could have been a truly brilliant movie if it stuck to that more absurdist tone and really tried to be an all-out satirical look at George Bush. But the movie instead veers back and forth between satire and more sober politics, and then circles back around and to family drama and the coming-of-age story at its heart. And in some ways, the whole thing does fit together to create an interesting jigsaw puzzle of a biography. We get an interesting sense of how Bush's early experiences in politics shaped his presidency, and of how some of that family drama may have played a part in crucial decisions such as the war in Iraq.

But ... at times it fits together a little too conveniently, and at times it feels like director Oliver Stone forces Bush to be too much of a conventional leading man, not going far enough in condemning his ignorance and misjudgements. What I mean is - I think that Bush's desire to finish his father's work with Saddam Hussein WAS a factor in the decision to invade Iraq without substantial proof of WMD's, etc. But, to paint this kind of family drama as the largest reason for the War, with Bush having a real belief that he was doing good, that he was doing God's work ... to me, is to give Bush a bit too much credit for having wholly noble and legitimate intentions. In the movie, Cheney and Rumsfeld are depicted as the masterminds with neocon visions of a new American empire, and Bush is shown as someone who shares none of their Machievellian beliefs, who just wants to beat the "bad guys." In the movie, it all feels a little convenient and more like Hollywood sentimentality than real life political reality.

But really, Bush is just kind of a strange movie. As I said, it's pretty all over the place tonally. And the cast is just a very odd parade of well-known actors, some really bringing their parts to life and others sticking out like a sore thumb. Elizabeth Banks is good in her part, but it felt like such a glamorized vision of Laura Bush that it just felt a bit awkward. James Cromwell was really good as Bush Sr. ... but, it felt like James Cromwell rather than George HW Bush, with him oddly playing the part quite similarly to how he played Jack Bauer's sternly powerful father on 24. Don't get me wrong, there are some great scenes between Cromwell and Brolin ... it's just that, overall, there is this strange inconsistency in the tone of the acting performances. As I said, some feel like pure mimicry, some feel like actors playing themselves to some extent, and really it's only Brolin who is the best of both worlds - convincingly adopting W's mannerisms while also creating his own fully-realized character.

In any case, for all its faults, as I mentioned, W is a totally fascinating movie, and it's a strange yet satisfying experience to see a completely dramatized version of events that have, in real-life, proliferated the news over the last several years. To see things that happened only a few years ago already portrayed as dramatically-interpreted history ... it's kind of a rush. And Oliver Stone pushes a lot of crowd-pleasing buttons, looking for answers, as many of us were, as to the truth behind so many of the people and events that have shaped our country's recent history. It's an important and relevant and timely movie that plays well in the current political climate. But this is a movie made with the speed and recklessness of a cable news cycle - so most likely, its shelf-life will not be a long one.

My Grade: B


- Here's a movie that I would definitely qualify as "underrated." Thus far, the mainstream reviews I've seen have ranged from mediocre to decent, but to me Appaloosa was one of the real pleasant surprises of the last few months at the movies. While I wouldn't quite put it in the same league as some of the modern classics of the Western genre (Unforgiven, last year's Assassination of Jesse James), I'd say that Appaloosa is a real pleasure to watch, a throwback to the more simple and straightforward Westerns of old. This means that the movie lacks some of the modern trimmings, but, it is in most ways solid as can be. If anything, it's a joy to watch a great bunch of actors - some of the best in the biz today - interact with the kind of assured confidence and ease that only a select few bring to the table.

I mean - with Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensson as the two leads, you really can't go wrong. As two travelling peacekeepers who wander the Wild West looking for trouble to clean up, the two partners have a great chemistry that evokes some of the great heroic duos of cinema. Both men are quiet badass types, but while Ed Harris is the leader of the outfit, Viggo is his ever-loyal sidekick of sorts, his right-hand man. In any case, when the two are summoned to the town of Appaloosa, hired to rid the place of a local outlaw who's been terrorizing the townsfolk, the two are tested as they haven't been before.

Part of the the problem is the outlaw himself, played with a brilliantly evil gleam in his eye by Jeremy Irons. Irons plays a somewhat new breed of outlaw - an enterprising badguy who has a sort of political platform to go along with his mischief. Irons is great here, and stands toe to toe with the other great actors in the film, giving his character an almost Shakespearean spin.

The other obstacle for Harris and Viggo is, of course, a woman - a bit of a Femme Fatale-slash-Southern Belle, played by Renee Zelwegger with the usual squinty eyes and pursed lips. Zelwegger arrives in town and quickly settles in with Harris, but it soon becomes apparent that she's willing to switch bedroom partners depending on which man can work best to her advantage.

Zelwegger's character may be the weakest part of the movie, as she sometimes feels more like a walking plot device and less like a real, fully-developed character. And at times the movie as a whole has a kind of aimless feel to it, where the plot tends to lose momentum and sort of forget where it's going. Because this is a movie where, really, it's one of those films where the highlight is just getting a chance to visit with these characters. The twists and turns of the plot are almost secondary, and it's not a movie that will wow you with visually-exciting direction or innovative style. Aesthetically, as directed by its star Ed Harris, the movie is as straightforward as can be. Mostly, the camera kind of just lingers on Harris and Viggo, and on Jeremy Irons, and on other talented supporting actors like the great Lance Henrikson, and just soaks in their badassness. The dialogue is really the highlight here. While the plot can be a bit uneven, there's nothing complicated about the dialogue. Hearing our Western vigilantes exchange sharply-worded, gravitas-infused, hard-boiled back-and-forth is simply a pleasure. I mean, Newsweek columnist George Will recently got such a kick out of it that he quoted numerous portions of the script in a recent column on the relevance of the Western. For people who like that kind of stuff, for those who wonder what happened to the John Wayne's and the Clint Eastwood's of the world, men who spoke softly and carried a big stick, so to speak, Appaloosa often exudes an old-fashioned kind of alpha-male awesomeness.

So while Appaloosa won't be the next huge Oscar hopeful (though I'd argue that both Harris and Mortensson turn in award-worthy performances ...), and it won't shake the foundations of the Western through bold new innovation, it is simply a rock-solid movie with a kickass cast that, mostly, fires on all cylinders. A movie that's all the more cool simply because they don't really make 'em like this anymore.

My Grade: B+


- In the wrong hands, Nick and Norah could have been utterly grating and 100% lame. But I give the movie credit - it's a smart, funny, and entertaining teen flick that does a great job of feeling current without being pandering. Trust me, I get it - the marketing of the flick instantly raised warning flags that it was a lame attempt at being Superbad-meets-Juno, yet another oh-so-precious emo comedy with too-cool-for-school teens acting out their angst with two dollar words and lots of precocious music playing in the background. Okay, sure, in some ways - that's just what Nick & Norah is, but that's really taking the glass-half-empty view. The non-cynical way of looking at it is that, wow, why didn't they have teen movies like this when I was in high school? It would have been pretty cool, in retrospect, to see Michael Cera and Kat Dennings on the big screen back in the day as shining examples of some new geek-is-cool paradigm. Instead, all I got were the blockheaded fratboys of American Pie. The implicit message seemed to be that if even Chris Klein couldn't get some action, then what chance did *you* the lowly fanboy have? Now, geeky teens everywhere are taught that even Michael Cera can be a superpimp in his own right. How plausible that is I don't know, but it's a great concept even if it's only fantasy fulfillment.

But for all the small feelings of "wow, they're really trying too hard," I have to admit that Nick & Norah has a certain feeling of authenticity. It doesn't feel like a throwback to John Hughes stereotypes, and it doesn't feel cut from the same cloth as so many Judd Apatow movies either. It really does kind of capture the feeling of wandering around the city at night, not quite sure where the evening will take you.

Michael Cera gets criticized for offering up similar performances in his various roles, but I say why stray from a good thing, when he's the master of awkward and deadpan teen comedy. Cera has the gift for awkward exhanges and mock-serious straight-man antics, and he of course has that slight sense of self-aware pseudo-hipster cool that makes him perfect for these kinds of roles. And then there's Kat Dennings, who is to quirky-cool indie-rock chicks as Cena is to the male equivalent. Dennings is really great in the movie - likable, funny, and again, authentic-seeming. I don't know how much of that is just because to some extent she's simply playing herself, but in this case it fits. As with Cera, there's that nagging feeling of "oh she's trying too hard," but look at Kat Dennings here as compared to so many lame teen movie bimbos from years past. Dennings' character is smart, multidimensional, cool but not stuck up, and hey, even Jewish and proud of it! Again, guys everywhere probably sigh and think "does a girl like this actually exist?". But give the movie credit for daring to be a bit different with its male and female leads.

And really, a lot of the movie coasts on the chemistry between them. When the movie is just coasting along and letting its characters riff - that's when it's at its strongest. Where it falters is when it tries to get gross-out laughs and be more like a typical teen comedy. To me, most of the best and funniest moments were the subtler ones. The more over-the-top humor often seemed out of place or just not all that sharp.

Really though, this is a cool little movie with two talented leads, and a unique style that elevates it way past the usual brainless and soulless teen movie fare. Not a landmark movie, but a pretty zeitgeisty one, that balances an air of corporate-derived cool with a genuine sense of rock n' roll independence - that makes you want to go out cruisin' in the big city until 6 am. Yeah, the title is cheesy as hell (what exactly is an infinite playlist?!), but the movie itself is a lot of fun, and likely destined to be a teenage fave.

My Grade: B+

- Alright - whew! Three movie reviews and change. I'll be back soon with some TV thoughts, including SNL, Prison Break, and more.

Until then, I dedicate this blog to Rudy Ray Moore, aka The Dolemite, who passed away today. Talk about one bad mutha', the world of pimp-fu has lost a founding father.

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