Archive for April 2007

Next

April 27, 2007

Cris Johnson (Nicolas Cage) can see two minutes into his own future. This means he spends most of Next narrowly avoiding things — or not, if he so chooses. It’s an amusing premise for an action-thriller, especially when Cris gets into a fight at a diner, knows when the punches are coming, and casually dodges them in a sort of lazy dance of evasion. Cris also spends most of Next evading the FBI, represented by Julianne Moore in her unsmiling no-nonsense mode; even her hair is just barely red this time. After this and Children of Men, Moore may have done quite enough roles wherein she captures some poor sap and tells him he’s the only one who can save the world, but at least she isn’t playing to the rafters as she did in Freedomland. At certain points, especially when she dons an FBI cap, Moore could be sequelizing her Clarice Starling in Hannibal, without the West Virginia accent or humanity.

But back to the premise, in which Moore’s FBI agent wants to find Cris because she believes he can see into the future and determine when some Euro-terrorists will set off a nuclear bomb in L.A. Sometimes the movie fools us by showing us one possible turn of events, then backtracking and revealing that it’s one of Cris’s visions. Early on, the FBI shows up at Cris’s secret hide-out, where an uncredited Peter Falk — still going strong at 79, God bless him — shoots pool and crustily trades lines with an obviously affectionate Cage, who probably has as many Cassavetes and Columbo moments running through his head as the rest of us.

I’m never unhappy to see Nicolas Cage. He combines the ardent sincerity of James Stewart with the heavy-lidded proto-punk of Timothy Carey (track down a copy of Carey’s The World’s Greatest Sinner and you’ll have to remind yourself you’re not watching Cage). In Next he gives us a man harassed by his own gift, forced to be a cheesy Vegas magician in order to make a living with his talents. Cris also hits the local casinos, rakes in the cash, and gracefully foils suspicious security guards. Cage takes all this as an excuse to engage in bored virtuosity — Cris is in a rut, and there are no surprises in his life. Then he meets Liz (Jessica Biel), a radiant woman (literally — cinematographer David Tattersall consistently films her with her blonde hair backlit) he’s seen in visions before. The boredom drains out of Cage’s face and he looks at Biel the way he usually looks at his love interests, as if their beauty were killing and saving him at the same time.

Director Lee Tamahori has never really made good on the promise of his 1994 New Zealand debut, the bruising Maori drama Once Were Warriors. He’s been a textbook example of what happens to foreign directors once Hollywood gets its hooks into them: Mulholland Falls, Along Came a Spider, Die Another Day, xXx: State of the Union — the litany just hurts. Next is probably his best work as a Hollywood gun for hire, which I realize isn’t saying much, but at least Tamahori works here with some sense of pride and skill. Among the raft of movies inspired by the fiction of Philip K. Dick, Next isn’t as dazzling as Blade Runner, as funky as A Scanner Darkly, as amusing as Total Recall, or as thrilling as Minority Report. On the other hand, it’s not as dumb as Impostor or Screamers.

On occasion, including the climax (or anti-climax, or non-climax), Tamahori gets to have his cake and destroy it too — again, here’s the possible outcome, and now here’s Cris reacting accordingly. A sequence in which Cris leads an FBI team through the usual industrial hide-out, pausing exactly as long as necessary and then taking a quick left, is a well-sustained triumph of editing and staging. Eventually Cris’s consciousness splits off into dozens of Nicolas Cages wandering around, testing each corner for snipers or assassins. Talk about multitasking. Next is obviously filler before the summer movie season officially kicks off, but its conceptual wit and its merciful brevity help it go down easy.

Hot Fuzz

April 20, 2007

Offhand, I can think of only two movies that contain funny gunfights: Prizzi’s Honor and Married to the Mob. There may be a few others, but in general, the mechanics and rhythm of a shoot-out tend to kill comedy (the same goes for car chases). The movie stops dead, the jokes stop dead, as stunt coordinators and weapons coordinators and all the other technical coordinators take control. This, of course, may only reflect my impatience with shoot-out scenes, and with the action genre of which they are an integral part. It may also explain why Hot Fuzz, which has been delighting movie geeks from sea to shining sea, didn’t do much for me.

Edgar Wright (writer-director) and Simon Pegg (writer-actor), whose cult began with the BBC series Spaced and crossed the pond with the 2004 zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead, are bright and affectionate aficionados of pop-culture — much like their American cousins Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, whose Grindhouse features a faux trailer devised by Wright and Pegg. Shaun of the Dead was a lovely human comedy, planting mundane people in the midst of apocalyptic disaster and observing their reactions. Hot Fuzz, Wright and Pegg’s follow-up, is modelled partly on British mysteries (the original Wicker Man is a large influence) and partly on brain-damaged American cop movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s rooted not in humanity but in genre clichés, to the point of having a main character be a rabid fan of the same films Hot Fuzz is taking the piss out of.

Pegg, clean-shaven and rigid here, is mega-efficient London cop Nicholas Angel, transferred to the sedate village of Sandford when his virtuosity threatens to make the rest of the force look bad by comparison. Nicholas pairs up with lackadaisical partner Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), whose dad (Jim Broadbent) is the chief of police. Nobody takes Nicholas’ Judge Dredd rectitude seriously except Danny, who thinks city cop work is just like Bad Boys II, with balletic gunfights carried out in mid-air. Soon, people start dying in the village, and though the deaths are passed off as “accidents,” Nicholas suspects otherwise. The plot is rather more intricately and elegantly structured than the movies being satirized, which makes me feel that Wright/Pegg, like Tarantino/Rodriguez, should come up with something original and eschew homage.

Hot Fuzz is loaded with prestigious British actors (including an Oscar winner hiding behind a forensic mask), few of whom get to do much — Bill Nighy, for instance, is hauled on at the beginning and end for no apparent reason other than his previous (and funnier) appearance in Shaun. The movie belongs to Nick Frost, the cheerfully profane waster Ed in Shaun, and possibly the secret weapon in all his collaborations with Wright and Pegg. Round and childlike, Frost in these movies is like a wide-eyed baby given shiny toys — usually toys that go bang. It’s no accident that his scenes of slapstick are being used to sell the movie moreso than Simon Pegg, who smiles perhaps twice in the whole film; I know he’s playing the archetypal stickler hard-ass, but except for his inflection when he waves away an offer of morning cake — “No, thank you” — he can’t bring out much wit in it.

Almost the entire last third falls into loud chaos, as incoherently staged and edited as any Michael Bay seizure-inducing climax, and we’ve barely gotten to know any of the characters involved except Nicholas and Danny. It’s just a shooting gallery that fails to transcend its inspirations. Wright, Pegg and Frost are charmingly eloquent fans, and I’ve no doubt they’re a blast to hang out with and talk movies. Like their American cousins, they’re film geeks promoted to filmmakers for film geeks. But past a certain point, one requires more from smart and enthusiastic fans than a reiteration of their fanhood. Movies about movie-love are like mirrors facing each other, and after this and Grindhouse I’d like to smash the mirrors and see a film, any film, that reflects life lived outside movie theaters and away from DVD players.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters

April 13, 2007

Some movies just make you wonder how in hell they were ever actually greenlighted, made, and distributed to the same theaters that bring you multimillion-dollar mainstream films. This, I hasten to add, is not always a question one asks in annoyance. Occasionally you get a film so defiantly odd and cultish — a film that was never likely to make big bucks, but was produced and heavily marketed anyway — that you’re sort of glad someone still bothers to make movies like that instead of the usual witless remakes, or family comedies, or remakes of family comedies. Last fall’s Tenacious D movie was one of those oddballs, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters is another.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force began life as a series of brief, nonsensical cartoons aired on Adult Swim, the nighttime block of Cartoon Network programming for twentysomethings and stoners. The protagonists are Frylock, a box of French fries; Master Shake, a milkshake; and Meatwad, a blob of meat. Random things happen to or around them for eleven minutes or so, sometimes involving their crude alpha-male neighbor Carl. The movie is no less random but does actually attempt to follow a plot. I can probably do no better than this amusingly bland paragraph from Wikipedia’s page on the film: “The film centers around the ‘Insane-o-flex,’ a piece of exercise equipment that should never under any circumstances be assembled. The Aqua Teens ignore these warnings and attempt to assemble it anyway, while the Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past from the Future teams up with the Plutonians to stop them.” There’s more.

I was never a huge ATHF fan; I’ve caught it a few times, but you probably have to be in the right mood or the right altered state of mind. By sticking to a basic plot — in which the Insane-o-flex goes out of control — creators Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis can use the standard ATHF explosions of randomness as the trimmings on a very weird but still functional tree. The movie even offers an origin story for the Aqua Teens, involving (gasp!) a fourth Aqua Teen, Chicken Biddle, a chicken nugget voiced by Bruce Campbell. (Okay, this man is now officially the hardest-working actor in Hollywood.) Various supporting characters from the show, including the nefarious Dr. Weird and the Mooninites (whose Lite-Brite countenance famously got the twitchy city of Boston in such a dither last January), drift in and out of the proceedings.

As with the South Park movie, there are times during the ATHF movie when the joke is that you’re actually seeing what you’re seeing on a theater screen. The film’s premise and characters alone guarantee its status as one of the boldest experiments in surrealism ever to grace 877 screens nationwide, but when it begins with a parody of those dancing-refreshments PSAs (“Please remain quiet during the show” and all that) that quickly turns raunchy and hilariously hostile (“Babies do not belong here! Take your seed outside! Run it over with your car!”) and goes on to introduce a slice of watermelon named Walter Melon, whose henchman appears to be Rush drummer Neil Peart, or when Meatwad transforms himself into a building in order to be tall enough to get onto a rollercoaster, or when a time-travelling version of Abe Lincoln brings Frylock back to life … Well, you get the idea.

Anyway, this casual viewer of the ATHF show enjoyed the movie, though I don’t know that it’s safe to recommend to the non-likeminded. I don’t think, however, that you need to have seen every episode to appreciate its particular slapheaded charms; you just need an appetite for episodic insanity in the service of a knowingly daft story. That used to be the late Kurt Vonnegut’s stock in trade, as I recall, though his work was (rightly) viewed as fine literature while ATHF has been (wrongly) pegged as hipster crap — it’s been getting killed by the critics, of course. As a work of American entertainment, it’s certainly original, often funny, and occasionally even inspired. Monty Python used to be lionized for just such stuff, but I suppose most of the nation’s critics only feel secure praising rampant surrealism when it comes with a British accent.

Grindhouse

April 6, 2007

The trailers for grindhouse movies were always better than the films themselves. Sadly, the same is true of Grindhouse. Directors Robert Rodriguez (Sin City) and Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) share a deep love for the cheezoid drive-in-and-Times-Square exploitation flicks they devoured as budding movie geeks, and together they have made a three-hour, double-feature monument to their celluloid guilty pleasures. It’s the strangest, biggest, most expensive case of director indulgence ever to open in multiplexes across America. I applaud the idea of it, but in practice the hip, knowing crappiness becomes depressing. Directors talented enough to make such a loving tribute to grindhouse should probably be doing better things with their time.

Rodriguez has apparently always wanted to make a zombie movie in a vague John Carpenter style, and that’s what he does in Planet Terror, sort of. Stuffed with youngsters (heroic Freddy Rodriguez, erotic dancer Rose McGowan, harried doctor Marley Shelton) and grizzled veterans of exploitation (Michael Biehn, Jeff Fahey, Michael Parks), the movie has been painstakingly run through a digital wringer to achieve the chewed-up look and stuttering rhythm of a weathered grindhouse can of film. But the illusion is ruined by guest stars such as Bruce Willis and Tarantino himself (as a rapist soldier). Planet Terror is also too ugly conceptually to be any fun — people are always oozing disgusting substances — and it reaches its climax when Rose McGowan receives a machine gun in place of her missing leg, reminding us that the actual grindhouse flicks of old wouldn’t have had the budget to achieve that effect. It feels like something of a cheat; Rodriguez should’ve decided on a bygone year when the movie was supposedly filmed, then held himself to the available technology of the era.

Planet Terror is hectic but unmemorable, and after a few amusing faux trailers (Planet Terror is preceded by Rodriguez’ fake Machete trailer, which packs more legitimate grindhouse punch than the feature that follows), we enter the Tarantinoverse, complete with garrulous, beside-the-point dialogue about movies and scoring weed. Death Proof concerns a stubbly, scarred maniac named Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), who likes to kill women with his invulnerable car. He meets his match in a trio of spitfires (including Rosario Dawson and Zoe Bell, the stuntwoman profiled in the entertaining documentary Double Dare). The entire segment, which feels much longer than it is, is redeemed somewhat by watching the he-man misogynist killer at the mercy of three tiny women.

Rodriguez and Tarantino already made a fun grindhouse double feature of sorts twelve years ago — From Dusk Till Dawn, which began as a Tarantino-esque crime spree filled with chatty menace and took a hard left into Rodriguez’ playpen of vampires, strippers, and bad-ass Mexicans. For all its movie-geek fervor, Grindhouse remains a private party, an event that was probably more fun to make (and to market) than it is to watch. In these movies’ intentionally two-dimensional reality, there’s little dramatic meat for the actors to chew on; Rose McGowan brings her goth insouciance to her dual roles (she also plays a victim in Death Proof), and Kurt Russell gives Stuntman Mike a hearty malevolence that detours into cowardice, as if he were a boy playing roughly with dolls, and started crying when they bit him.

But grindhouse fare isn’t generally about depth of character, or depth of anything, and Grindhouse is a regression for both Rodriguez, who took his stylistic brio to a new level in Sin City, and, God knows, Tarantino, who is becoming more famous as a voracious movie nerd than as a moviemaker. I don’t speak from an ivory tower, either: my DVD shelves are full of real grindhouse movies, which tend to have a scrappy, low-budget charm — something like Tarantino’s and Rodriguez’ first films, come to think of it — that Grindhouse mostly lacks. Watching it is a bit like watching slick, high-powered modern comics artists do a tribute to old corny comic books of the ‘30s, or listening to accomplished musicians covering goofy novelty songs from decades ago: We can appreciate the affection and effort that go into the homage, but we’re left wondering whether it was worth doing when the original fun junk is right there to be enjoyed.


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