Archive for the ‘based on tv show’ category

The Munsters (2022)

October 2, 2022



Why does everyone have their knives out for Rob Zombie’s The Munsters? It may be his most endearing feature film. Zombie, of course, is notorious for his grubby grindhouse exploitation throwbacks (The Devil’s Rejects, 31, etc.), but The Munsters is a PG-rated mad-lab goof full of dad jokes and neon colors. You’ll know within the first five minutes if it’s for you, but I took it as a relaxing, cornball Halloween party of the sort I might seek out when I’m sick, as a bowl of cinematic chicken soup or orange sherbet. It sparked warm childhood feelings, and I’m not all that big a fan of the show (The Addams Family has more going on). 

My hunch is that Zombie made this movie — a passion project for a couple of decades — for kids secondarily, and for himself as a kid primarily. There’s even an autobiographical element. The Munsters is a prequel of sorts, outlining how Herman (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Lily Munster (Sheri Moon Zombie) met and how they came to live on Mockingbird Lane in Hollywood. Lily, who hasn’t had much luck on the dating scene, happens across the newly-created Herman at a Transylvanian dive where he’s setting his awful puns to punk-rock music. She sees him onstage, and it’s eternal love; she visits him in his dressing room, and the feeling is mutual. What we’re watching is the courtship of Sheri Moon and Rob Zombie through a Saturday-afternoon, groovie-ghoulie filter.

This movie, which minds its language and only floats a couple of jokes that’ll go over kids’ heads, is surprisingly good-hearted coming from a director who’s built his empire on profane nihilism. Far from being a sell-out, Zombie’s The Munsters takes him in a polar opposite direction, and it reads to me as a risk. After all, fans of the Munsters TV show will likely hate it, as will Zombie fans who just want him to do the gore-drenched adventures of the Firefly family over and over. It will appeal to a slim Venn diagram encompassing people with no strong feelings about the show and people who’ve been waiting for Zombie to change his pitch up a little. Well, he does; it’s loony and doofy, a full-color Mad magazine parody as well as a heartfelt tribute — Zombie very obviously loves these characters, and I responded to that. You may or may not. Like I said, you’ll know soon enough whether it’s a comfy chair you can settle into or a torture chair.

The script is pretty episodic; the plot motor has an obscure character, Lily’s ne’er-do-well werewolf brother Lester (Tomas Boykin) — who only appeared in one episode of the show — sucker Herman into signing over the Transylvanian castle owned by Lily’s vamp father the Count, aka Grandpa (Daniel Roebuck). That explains why they move to Hollywood (along with Herman catching a bit of a horror host on TV and figuring he could do that, too). I found the story didn’t matter (did it ever matter on the show?). I was content to hang out in the tacky haunted-house sets with a cast that seemed fully into it. Even the usually dour Richard Brake camps and vamps it up in two roles here; I was happy to see him smiling and cackling and departing from the sullen bad-asses he’s played for Zombie.

Zombie shares that spirit. I felt him having fun in his best previous efforts (The Devil’s Rejects is some kind of grotesque masterpiece and easily the pinnacle of his greasy-grimy-gopher-guts aesthetic), but this is a different flavor of fun; again, it’s a colorfully wrapped gift from adult Rob Zombie to young Bobby Cummings, who cut his teeth on Famous Monsters and Aurora monster model kits and, well, The Munsters. I can’t put it any other way: The movie made me feel good. Do I want a Munsters franchise from him? Probably not, assuming Netflix would even let him anyway (although the performances, particularly Jeff Daniel Phillips as the dense but jolly Herman and Daniel Roebuck as the caustic Count, are amiable enough to warrant revisits). I’d rather see him move on to other things that light him up, perhaps even an original idea that doesn’t involve the Munsters or certainly the Fireflys. 

Charlie’s Angels (2019)

March 8, 2020

Screen Shot 2020-03-08 at 4.05.34 PM Should you find yourself detained by the 2019 Charlie’s Angels reboot, there’s something I’d like you to look for. Some movies have an injury-to-the-eye motif; this Charlie’s Angels has an injury-to-the-throat motif. People, usually faceless minions, are knocked out with a carotid pinch; others are decommissioned by trank dots from an Altoids tin, stuck, of course, to their necks, or shot in the neck by trank darts; there’s a scene where an Angel-in-training is captured and restrained by a metal collar fastened around, yep, you guessed it; and when an Angel gets her wings, the official tattoo goes on the back of — where? Got it in one. What this means, I have no idea, other than that perhaps the movie’s writer, Elizabeth Banks, who also directed, had a sore throat.

I remember very little else about Charlie’s Angels an hour after watching it, and I really want to; I really wanted to like it. I am, after all, on record as enjoying not only 2000’s Charlie’s Angels but also its sequel; this has gotten me, I suspect, disqualified from many friendships, disinvited from the best parties. But those movies’ director, McG, along with Angels-of-the-day Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu, delivered wedges of pop cheese that also spoke raucously for grrl power. Yes, there was a certain amount of “male gaze” going on (though not as much as you’d think), but it was always respectful, in its way, and assured its audience that women could be sexy and kick ass. Well, that lesson’s been learned, and now we get Angels whose dress-up scenes seem to carry a mildly … icky undertone. The camera no longer moves back to show them off; it moves close, sometimes in media res, to emphasize the sexy outfits are just costumes to be discarded along with their accompanying identity. The movie seems more awed by the promise of a huge wardrobe — of an abundance of choice — than by the actual stuff in it.

It’s not that this Charlie’s Angels is grim and gritty, like The Rhythm Section or something. It’s as light and fluffy as its predecessors, timed more for comedy than for action thrills. Banks and veteran cinematographer Bill Pope keep the proceedings warmly lit by the sun or by generous indoor light. It’s not dark and junky-looking, and Kristen Stewart, whose work I gave up on years ago, surprises with a wild-child performance that has the side benefit of adding some stealth queer energy. She seems to be keeping herself mildly amused, but her co-workers, newbie Naomi Scott and hardened MI-6 veteran Ella Balinska, don’t have a lot of personality or quirks — not even something like Cameron Diaz’s daffy daydream of dancing on Soul Train. The previous Angels risked looking like goofballs (indicating the knockabout sensibility of Drew Barrymore, who exec-produced the other two films and retains that role here). Here, they have no womanly foibles (like, say, Drew’s habit of falling for terrible men). They’re positioned as you-go-grrl action figures to represent persistence and rebellion.

The newbie Angel’s life is a miserable porridge of mansplaining and male assumption of credit for her ideas before the Angels swoop in and save her. Men are even less useful here than in the other two; heteronormative affection seems an afterthought. I’m all for what the movie is trying to express, but the MacGuffin (a gizmo that provides constant sustainable energy but can be weaponized) is tattered spy stuff, and when the script attempts to make us second-guess a character that anyone with a brain can figure out is on the level, it’s a bit insulting. Like I said, I wanted to enjoy this, to shelve it alongside the other two. But nothing in it really pops. It’s loaded with sugary grrl-power songs on the soundtrack (heavy on Ariana Grande), but those don’t pop, either. It’s like watching people pretending to have fun, instead of actually having fun and sharing it with us. Going back to that throat motif, the movie really does feel pinched, constrained, tranquilized — much the way a female filmmaker might feel when making a $48 million movie for a major corporation (and knowing that she and other female directors will be penalized for the movie’s potential box-office failure in a way male directors never are). It needed more of Drew Barrymore’s messy what-the-hell brio, but maybe, sadly, this isn’t the time for that.

The Lone Ranger

July 7, 2013

the_lone_rangerWell, it sure was a strange and subversive Fourth of July gift Disney decided to give the country with The Lone Ranger. The movie, which is actually a lot better than most critics would have you believe, inspires feelings ranging from disrespect to downright scorn for the following institutions: the U.S. military, the U.S. government, American capitalism, and the Lone Ranger himself (Armie Hammer), who starts out as a bumbling tenderfoot lawyer named John Reid. At one point, his savior Tonto (Johnny Depp) drags kemosabe through horse manure. That’s right, the Lone Ranger gets scat-bombed by noble Silver himself. I can picture, with some glee and schadenfreude, the apoplexy of such cultural guardians as Michael Medved at the notion of the House of Walt exposing millions of American children to such … such blasphemy!

Perhaps predictably, I had a fine time. The Lone Ranger stays up a bit past its bedtime at two hours and thirty minutes, though such blockbuster bloat is par for the course with director Gore Verbinski, who guided Depp through the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies (not being a fan, I only saw the first). The film lurches forward with the weight of serious money, much of which is put to good use evoking the American West of 1869 on a scale you’re not likely to see again on the big screen any time soon. The budget is also on the screen in a clear-eyed and exhilarating climax involving two trains. Verbinski shoots action cleanly and unabashedly, the way Spielberg in his prime used to, and the way James Cameron still does, on the rare occasions these days that he can be bothered to do so.

There’s been some kerfuffle, some of it understandable, at the presumption of Johnny Depp playing Tonto instead of a Native American actor. Depp, who claims (like seemingly eight out of ten other Americans) Cherokee or Creek ancestry and was last year adopted into the Comanche Nation, has his heart in the right place, I think. If you can find the only film he directed, 1997’s The Brave, you will find a man very in tune with the bitterness and rage of indigenous Americans. And then there’s Jim Jarmusch’s acid western Dead Man, wherein Depp’s dying white man William Blake was befriended by a Native American and sent off to the other side in ceremonial raiments. At times, The Lone Ranger plays like William Blake’s final fever dream in the canoe carrying him across the river of ghosts, only here he imagines himself as the Native American who saves a white man. Depp’s Tonto is weird and unstable, driven mad by the genocidal treachery of white men. I would place Tonto as the missing link between William Blake and Raphael from The Brave. It’s not the goofball redface-Jack-Sparrow turn the ads lead you to expect; the performance has the derangement of pain in it.

The official plot motor has John Reid and Tonto teaming up to capture the evil Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner in a performance of supreme scurviness), but just nabbing him doesn’t get the job done; the tendrils of corruption that animate Butch reach deeply out from the “values” on which America was founded (along with a thick layer of non-white bones). You can’t just shoot this bad guy: there’s a whole government/nascent-corporate apparatus backing him up. Against this, Reid and Tonto are obliged to obscure their faces and charge forward. By the way, this is all related to us in flashback by the old and decrepit Tonto, as in Little Big Man, and the film tries on costumes from what must be dozens of other westerns. It’s an epic western amusement-park ride, though “amusement” isn’t quite the word — bemusement, maybe?

“The Noble Savage,” reads the condescendingly oxymoronic banner underneath the old, posing Tonto (it’s 1933), and The Lone Ranger puts the lie to both words while redefining most every white man on the screen as an ignoble savage. I don’t mean to harp so much on the political message of what’s essentially an escapist summer blow-out, but there is more under the hood here than the media wants to talk about (mostly the angle is how much it cost and how poorly it did over the holiday frame). There is probably a valid reading of the film as klutzy white-guilt self-congratulation: See, at least one white man joined forces with the insulted and injured against the behemoth of Manifest Destiny. Despite his best efforts, though, an entire Comanche tribe gets mowed down by America’s great new innovation, the Gatling gun. (The weapon is some five years anachronistic for 1869, but we’ll let it pass.) Since few ticket-buyers were up for this Fourth of July history lesson, there will be no Lone Ranger 2 in which Reid and Tonto continue their fight against injustice. For that, I gather, we must look to superhero franchises for the foreseeable future.

Star Trek Into Darkness

May 18, 2013

header-star-trek-into-darkness-first-volcanic-clipStar Trek Into Darkness is such a brooding, portentous title for such a zippy goofball of a movie. Why Into Darkness? Probably because it sounds cool. The movie also sounds cool — the decibel level, as usual with these summer behemoths, is punishing — and looks cool. “Cool” has seldom been an adjective associated with Star Trek, at least among non-Trekkies; what franchise rebooters J.J. Abrams (director) and his writing cohorts Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci have done is to make Gene Roddenberry’s gentle humanist daydream safe for consumers of more steak-and-potatoes fare like Fast and Furious. To that end, lots of things explode and there are many, many chases, many races against the clock. This is a movie in which an event that would climax a frailer movie — Spock (Zachary Quinto) setting off a cold-fusion device inside a volcano to quell its eruption — is just the throat-clearing opener, explaining why impetuous Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is busted down to First Officer.

Kirk saved an entire planet, but he wasn’t supposed to — he broke the Prime Directive, observe but don’t mess with alien civilizations — so, for his troubles, he gets demoted and loses his ship, the Enterprise, to his mentor, Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood). That doesn’t stick, though, because soon a terrorist (Benedict Cumberbatch) has someone set off a bomb in London (it’s nice to see that London will still have trees in the 23rd century) and tries to kill all of the Starfleet’s captains. This is bad, so Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) authorizes Kirk to take off after the terrorist and terminate him with extreme prejudice. The terrorist turns out to be Khan, a name familiar from a thousand internet memes featuring William Shatner bellowing it.

This is not quite the Khan we remember from the original Star Trek episode “Space Seed” and its feature-length sequel The Wrath of Khan; this rebooted Star Trek follows an alternate timeline, which theoretically means the crew of the Enterprise should be free to have all new adventures and encounter fresh new threats, not face off once again with a reiteration of a villain they battled 31 years ago in a different timeline. Benedict Cumberbatch seems to know he can’t compete with Ricardo Montalban’s beloved and richly campy reading of Khan, so he doesn’t even try; besides, he doesn’t have the dialogue. (And this movie, chasing as it does the Vin Diesel crowd, wouldn’t dream of having a Melville-quoting Khan spitting venom at a Dickens-reading Kirk. This Kirk might only pick up a book if it were lying atop an issue of Playboy, but it’s amusing that he’s still listening to the Beastie Boys.)

A Star Trek film lives or dies on the chemistry of the crew, and on that level the new movie sort of works. I like how actors such as Simon Pegg and Karl Urban seem to have enough reverence for James Doohan and DeForest Kelley to mimic the late actors’ mannerisms, but also enough of their own wit to make the characters their own. The characters are fun to spend time with. But the script deals in so many pointless twists and so much parking-lot logic (i.e., the kind of plot holes that make you go “Wait a minute” on your way to your car, and perhaps sooner) that there never seem to be any serious stakes. The movie hits the ground running and never stops; it gets winded with the frantic efforts to keep hustling us over all the plot speed bumps. Also, the movie ends with a glaring cheat that essentially means nobody in the Star Trek universe has to die any more. At least Spock stayed dead for a while, back in the ’80s when death still mattered in movies.

Fairly early on, I figured out how dumb Star Trek Into Darkness was going to be, so I just relaxed into the dumbness. It’s a top-notch light show (I saw it in 2D, so can’t comment on how effective the post-converted 3D is), scored with excitable flourish by Michael Giacchino. After a while I laughed at myself for watching a movie that climaxed, more or less, with a chase on foot between Khan and a really pissed-off Spock. This, I remind you, is a movie that begins with Spock stopping a volcano from erupting, and eventually winds up with the same mechanics — minus the hopping from airship to airship — that you see at the end of every fifth-rate cop show. The poor movie. It just wears itself right out. You almost want to offer it some iced tea and sit it under a tree for a spell.

Dark Shadows

May 13, 2012

If there’s anything remotely goth-flavored in our culture untouched by Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, just wait a while; they’ll get around to it. Their latest collaboration, Dark Shadows, checks off “vampire” on the Burton/Depp wish list, a mild disappointment for those of us who’d hoped to see them remaking London After Midnight someday. (People remake well-loved films all the time; why not remake one few living souls have ever seen?) Following the lead of its forebear, the 1966-1971 supernatural soap opera, Dark Shadows doesn’t stop at bloodsuckers; it also throws in a witch and — rather randomly, I thought, and with little explanation — a werewolf. It is not the loosey-goosey fish-out-of-water farce the ads lead you to expect, though it’s far from serious — this may be the only live-action film I can recall in which a climactic explosion is a perky magenta.

Indeed, the look of Dark Shadows is intriguing; it’s the strangest-toned mainstream film out there right now. The stock appears slightly faded, as if it were aping both the left-out-in-the-sun graininess of ’70s cinema and the wretched video quality of the old show. It all coalesces into a uniquely anti-goth palette (and the opening credits, too, are bland enough to be part of the joke). Into the tackiness of 1972 comes Barnabas Collins (Depp), cursed to vampirehood by scorned witch Angelique (Eva Green) two hundred years ago. Freed from his coffin/prison, Barnabas shows up at Collinwood Manor, now occupied by a dysfunctional family headed by disdainful matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer).

Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) shoehorn as much melodrama and as many subplots into Dark Shadows as an hour and fifty-three minutes can hold. I suppose they’re trying to get as much of the original show into the movie as they can. Too young to have been one of the fabled kids running home from school to catch Dark Shadows on ABC, I prepared by popping in a DVD of nine “fan-favorite” episodes. After the first one, which introduced Jonathan Frid as Barnabas a year into the show’s run, my attention wandered elsewhere. You had to be there at the time, I guess. Frid played Barnabas as a melancholy romantic anti-hero, and Depp — looking like a cross between Count Orlok in Nosferatu and Conrad Veidt in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — follows suit; though the script makes the new Barnabas boggle his eyes at the trappings of 1972, Depp mostly stays away from easy laughs (he gets them anyway, largely with his sly inflections). He brings out the tragedy and anger of Barnabas’ situation.

Barnabas’ main antagonist is Angelique, who’s stayed around all these years to put the Collins fishing cannery out of business. I can’t quite decide if Eva Green’s scenery-gnashing performance is great or terrible or both, but whatever it is, it’s memorable. Aside from Green, this is one of the more eclectic casts in a Burton film in a while, the standout for me being Helena Bonham Carter as the live-in shrink for the troubled little David Collins. She seems to be channeling an unholy combo of Jacqueline Susann and Fran Lebowitz, with a pre-punk orange wig topping everything off. Burton certainly has found his muse.

Dark Shadows isn’t top-tier Burton, but he remains a classical director who trusts the image (some would say to the exclusion of anything else). It’s a pleasure to watch a film that isn’t over-edited, that basks in elegance. The blood, as in Burton’s Sleepy Hollow and Sweeney Todd, is bright Hammer red. The movie is more or less what you’d expect a Burton Dark Shadows to be, only with less emphasis on the purple-on-black color scheme and a lot of Super Sounds of the ’70s — including Alice Cooper as himself, performing two songs at a Collins mirrorball party — fighting Danny Elfman for dominance on the soundtrack. It turns into a bit of a mess towards the finish line, but at least it’s a fun mess, and if you’re looking to Tim Burton for narrative tidiness you must be thinking of another Tim Burton.

21 Jump Street

March 18, 2012

What was the appeal of the cop show 21 Jump Street to young audiences? It seemed preachy, and its subtext was that the cool, mysterious new kid in your high-school class could be an undercover cop. (The obvious answer is not to trust any new kids.) I remember the show being somewhat ironically enjoyed, much like its near-contemporary Beverly Hills 90210. Like The Mod Squad, it tried to tackle tough issues relevant to Today’s Youth, but a network television series could only tackle so hard back in the ’80s. The new 21 Jump Street movie lampoons the typical 21 Jump Street episode, with added fish-out-of-water jokes involving how much high-school culture changes in only seven years. It’s no longer considered cool to be aggressive and dismissive of passion; now everyone is sensitive and socially committed.

The movie sends inept twentysomething cops Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) back to high school to bust up a drug ring. The narcotic all the kids are taking is some new synthetic mind-blaster that works in hilariously specific stages. This 21 Jump Street is neither pro- nor anti-drug, but mines a lot of humor from its effects, especially when Schmidt and Jenko are obliged to try the drug to prove to the school’s dealer that they’re not narcs. If there was ever an episode where Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise had to shove their fingers down each other’s throats so they’d vomit up a drug, then failed and had to contend with a track coach whose head kept changing into animals and ice cream cones, I must’ve missed it.

The young directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) hedge their bets entertainingly by filling the movie’s margins with ironclad comedy professionals; Rob Riggle, for instance, turns up as the aforementioned track coach, Ellie Kemper and Chris Parnell are also on the faculty, the formidable Nick Offerman appears too briefly as the cops’ deputy chief, and none other than Ice Cube is the captain of the Jump Street program. (The movie goes excessively meta for a minute or so when NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” invades the soundtrack, ending on a shot of Ice Cube, looking as angry as he sounded on that song.) For nostalgic fans of the show, no fewer than three of its actors walk on here; sorry, but that sort of thing is what the too-serious Miami Vice film needed.

Hill and Tatum make a natural Mutt and Jeff team, and when I laughed, which was fairly often, Hill was responsible — though I became an instant fan of Tatum’s chemistry-class ode to the wonders of potassium nitrate, and Brie Larson as Hill’s romantic interest has some terrific dry line readings. The movie is perfectly pleasant, a smidgen too aware of itself (though the “why didn’t that explode?” running gag during a car chase pays off nicely) but consistently sharp; the party scene midway through is wilder and funnier than the entirety of the recent party movie Project X (which, like this film, was written by Michael Bacall — small world). It’s been getting a tad overpraised, perhaps because everyone’s surprised it isn’t completely foul; the randomness and genre-tweaking of The Other Guys hit my particular humor spot more solidly. It’s not a classic, but it’ll look just fine on cable in a couple of years, and at least it doesn’t end with a painfully earnest PSA, as some episodes of the show did. Then again, that might’ve put it over the top to genuine greatness — leave something for the DVD extras, I guess.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

January 1, 2012

The Mission Impossible film series has crossed the fifteen-year mark, and Tom Cruise is pushing fifty, but neither shows much strain in the new entry, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. I’m tempted to say that this movie is what the franchise should have been all along: light-hearted, preposterous, and, most importantly, easy to follow. Here, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is after a man who wants to start a nuclear war between America and Russia. Oh, that old thing again. But the goal is refreshingly clear: stop this guy before he blows up everything. There are no double crosses, no tormented plotting. There’s the bad guy — go get him. I appreciate that.

The movie didn’t thrill me, exactly, but it’s absorbing. Half the film devotes itself to the ludicrously convoluted schemes Ethan and his IMF team — including ass-kicking Paula Patton, returning Simon Pegg, and shadowy Jeremy Renner — hatch in order to gain access to highly secure places. My favorite, used early on in Moscow, is a screen that covers a hallway and projects what a security guard is supposed to be seeing, while Cruise and Pegg hide behind it and move it forward a few feet every minute or so. Not only that, some sort of tracking is used to move the image on the screen so that it looks natural to the security guard wherever he’s standing or sitting. It would have been easier, I suspect, simply to take the guard out with technology no more sophisticated than a blow dart. But it wouldn’t have been as cool.

Coolness, indeed, is the film’s main weapon. This is the live-action directing debut of Brad Bird, an animator best known for his work on The Simpsons and his acclaimed animated features The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille. Bird approaches Ghost Protocol as a live-action cartoon, yet one with an appealing sense of physics. Ethan Hunt gets bashed around quite a bit, landing in the hospital not once but twice. When he’s prone and exhausted near the end, we believe it. Cruise is in fine shape, but he’s aging out of his pretty-boy looks — the nose is starting to look gnarled and bulbous, approaching Owen Wilson levels. And so when he gets chewed up, while his teammates mostly kick back on the sidelines (although Patton gets a nicely feral fight scene and Renner gets a high-stress mid-air scene that almost parodies Ethan’s dangling in the first film), he becomes more human and likable, somehow. Cruise isn’t quite so cocky here. Ethan throws himself into impossible situations because there’s no other way; he doesn’t just assume he’s going to master the situation.

The movie’s most sung and storied sequence by far places Ethan on the side of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world. Cruise, we are assured, is really up there, though suspended by wires that were later digitally removed. The scene could easily have been faked, but Bird’s camera, moving around Cruise’s body and staring down the face of the monolith, catches images that simply wouldn’t occur to anyone to fake. It’s the centerpiece of the film but doesn’t take up too much time; it’s economical and governed by the story’s needs, like everything else in the movie. As for the rest of it, it’s a smoothly rhythmed piece of work, moving at a pace sufficient to bypass inconvenient questions. Ethan is on the side of the building so he can access the place’s server so that the team can fake a meeting and swap a fake nuclear code for a real one using special contact lenses and a fake hand, when in a more boring film they might’ve just killed the thugs and taken the code. It’s the theater of subterfuge.

Burn Notice: The Fall of Sam Axe

April 11, 2011

How often these days do you get to see the Chin himself, Bruce Campbell, headlining a movie with a halfway decent budget? Not that often, so I’d advise all you primitive screwheads to check out Burn Notice: The Fall of Sam Axe even if you’ve never seen an episode of the USA spy series Burn Notice.

You don’t need to have seen any episodes anyway. This is a stand-alone film focusing on, yep, Sam Axe (Campbell), the ex-Navy SEAL buddy of Burn Notice hero Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan, who sits in the director’s chair here and puts in a brief appearance near the beginning). We find out why Sam left the military and ended up in Miami; we also discover, in a good little in-joke for the show’s fans, where Sam got his favored alias “Chuck Finley.” But overall The Fall of Sam Axe is a diverting trifle pitting Sam against a cadre of corrupt Colombian military guys who want to destroy a clinic and pin the blame on the supposed “terrorist group” Espada Ardiente.

Campbell, slimmed down for the two-years-younger Sam Axe before he relocated to Crockett and Tubbs’ stomping grounds and had a few too many ice-cold beers, won’t disappoint his cult. Wisecracking all the way, but not cynical like Ash, Sam’s a good guy in a bad situation, which he works through with his smarts and military training. His Español may be terrible, but he tries hard to gain the trust of Espada Ardiente — mostly a scruffy band of goat-herders, led by a tough teenage girl (Ilza Rosario) — and prepare them, along with a couple of clinic workers, for the Colombian onslaught.

Donovan and writer/series creator Matt Nix keep things slick, fast and light, like the better Burn Notice episodes that don’t get too bogged down in the show’s serious master arc. Sam’s interplay with Michael (aside from that brief scene) and Fiona is missed a little, but he gets to flirt with a food aid worker (Kiele Sanchez) and, in nods to Campbell’s most iconic role, wield (and even hurl) a chainsaw and hold a rifle aloft in what Evil Dead geeks will instantly recognize as the Boomstick Stance. Campbell’s affable narration helps, and is a welcome change of pace from Michael Westen’s sometimes-irritating narration on the show, which always sounds like this: “As a spy, you usually have to do something or other, and I’m telling you this in a really condescending cadence, because you’re an idiot.” Campbell sounds more like a guy bending your ear as he bends his elbow.

Sam ends up in Columbia in the first place because he got caught nailing an admiral’s wife, which is perfectly in character for Sam and for Campbell. Really, this is the sort of lightweight adventure we should be seeing Bruce Campbell in much more often, on the big screen, but since he’s kind of aged out of that role, this movie and the Burn Notice show are the only places you get to see him being heroic on a regular basis. It’s not Bubba Ho-Tep, or even My Name Is Bruce, but then what is?

Jackass 3D

October 16, 2010

This certainly has been the year of transgressive cinema, what with The Human Centipede, Enter the Void, and more and more Americans finding their way to the still-unreleased-in-America A Serbian Film. To that list we can add Jackass 3D, which peppers 3,000 screens nationwide with more things you can’t unsee, stunts no sane person would try, and less-than-precious bodily fluids.

I have a soft spot for Johnny Knoxville and his few, his happy few, his band of morons. Every time Knoxville has announced a new Jackass movie, he’s made a point of assuring us that everyone’s back — Steve-O, Bam Margera, Wee Man, the whole sick crew. That’s because the group dynamic — affectionately vicious, spurring each other on to greater, stupider offenses to good taste and health — is at least as important as the fuckheaded stuff they do; that’s what separates them from the wannabe-jackasses who post their testicle-bashing and medicine-ball-to-the-face bits all over YouTube. Renegade filmmaker Spike Jonze has been a part of the Jackass saga for a reason; he sees the surreal performance-art aspect of it, the long (if perverse) history behind it. At their best, the Jackass crew are like Hunter S. Thompson staging Project Mayhem at Delta House, or the Vienna Aktionists retooled for the skater culture.

James Cameron recently called Piranha 3D onto the carpet for cheapening his beloved format, and I shudder to think what he’d say about Jackass 3D (maybe he’d just laugh his ass off). In truth, the extra dimension only serves to create a mood of bemused dread: what kind of foul shit (literally) are they going to send spurting into the audience? The foul shit, when it comes, may fly in three dimensions but ultimately hits the fourth wall, the camera lens. I suppose some of those shots could’ve been CGI’ed up to send gobs of rancid offal right into our faces, but I’m sort of glad they weren’t — not because I’m squeamish but because it would’ve violated the group’s this-isn’t-faked credo and ethos.

There’s been a lot of press, connected to the recent news about gay kids being bullied, over whether “That’s so gay” is homophobic or just lazy. I seek only accurate language when I say that Jackass 3D, at times, is so gay. It always has been, really; as in Fight Club, there’s something unmistakably homoerotic about nearly-naked men sharing physical extremes (This! Is! Spaaarta!), and the guys don’t shy away from it — they giggle and give in, to paraphrase Robert Altman, and I’m certain this is the only time Altman will be name-checked in a review of a Jackass movie. Anyway, penises flop around, asses are exposed and manhandled and bitten by a hog, sweat is collected in a glass and chugged down — sounds like a festive night at the Anvil.

My heart went out to poor Lance Bangs, a music-video director and documentarian who has a great deal of trouble keeping his lunch down while filming some of the more unspeakable stunts; at one point he yaks onto his own camera, an image Knoxville recognizes as so spontaneously, iconically perfect he holds the camera aloft in a mix of disgust and pride. Every so often, a routine will transcend merely showing us something we’ve never seen before and inscribe itself onto the same coin as Buñuel or Günter Brus; the bit with the ass volcano springs immediately, violently, to mind. At another point, Knoxville turns himself into background art to foil the attentions of a bull, like a Looney Tunes character or a human trompe-l’œil. And the climax, featuring a porta-potty filled with dog shit and a Steve-O filled with dread (he doesn’t even have the solace, or the excuse, of being drunk for the occasion), is foreshadowed by blue paint-bombs going off inside other porta-potties, turning various Jackasses into visual references to another long-running performance-art collective, the Blue Man Group. Also, someone farts into a trumpet.

Many have said, and I concur, that the boys are getting too old for this shit. A man’s leg trembling after a donkey has kicked it symbolizes the pitfalls and limitations of this sort of entertainment. It may be time to pass the shit-smeared torch; a group has already grabbed for it, and — yes — they’re female (Google up “Rad Girls” if you’re not familiar). The end-credits mix of childhood photos and footage of Knoxville & company in the flower of youth seems to suggest a fond farewell. Adios, au revoir, auf wiener-pain.


May 23, 2010

What’s the point of spoofing a genre that pretty much spoofs itself? My guess is that a lot of people in Hollywood grew up on the overwrought, macho action flicks of the ‘80s and have been yearning to recreate them. But that kind of film doesn’t really fly any more; these days the big budgets go to fantasy films or superhero films. If, say, Lethal Weapon were to be made today, it would have to be as an overt comedy, preferably one that can sell in the urban markets. The lily-white MacGruber, which is sinking without a trace at the box office, may be the proof.

MacGruber (Will Forte) started life as the clownish hero of brief Saturday Night Live sketches. Forte, John Solomon, and director Jorma Taccone have worked up a feature-length narrative for MacGruber, but they don’t seem to have solved the problem of why. An action farce like this, structured as a clothesline of skewered clichés, can work if it’s powered by deep disdain for the source or deep appreciation of it. MacGruber has neither. It seems to have been made because it could be made. Even Hot Fuzz, which underwhelmed me, was clearly a tribute to the junk it was satirizing. MacGruber is just a tribute to itself and the creative bankruptcy by which Universal forked over $10 million to make it.

None of this would be important if the film were funny. But MacGruber isn’t a character — he’s an assemblage of other characters’ backstories (rogue reputation, dead wife, called out of peaceful retirement for One Last Mission), albeit one with Michael Bay’s mullet and a devotion to Blaupunkt. Will Forte plays MacGruber on a sketch level, and he can’t sustain it for even the short running time. Kristen Wiig, who reprises her role as MacGruber’s hot assistant, isn’t used here particularly well other than her body language in a coffee-shop sequence. The presence of Val Kilmer as the villain, Dieter von Cunth (oh, that’s hilarious), promises more wildness than we get.

Why wasn’t MacGruber set in the ‘80s? That’s the decade it seems to worship, and there’s a portrait of Reagan on the office wall of MacGruber’s old colonel buddy (Powers Boothe), but there are also cell phones and other modern signifiers. The photography dukes it out between neon and black-on-orange; there’s a seriously ugly-looking scene set during the villain’s poker game, in what’s lighted to look like a pinkish grotto. Aesthetically, the movie is a crime; comedically it resorts to knee-slappers like celery up the butt (not once but twice). It’s further proof, as if any were needed, of SNL producer Lorne Michaels’ contempt for the audience.

And for gays. Near the beginning, MacGruber goes around assembling his dream team of tough guys he’s worked with in the past. He gets to one, a beefy mechanic (played by the wrestler The Big Show) who locks lips with another guy. MacGruber vehemently crosses the big sissy’s name off his list — easy homophobic joke. I hoped, though, that it might pay off later if MacGruber desperately needed a mechanic at some point and was chagrined when he remembered he dismissed a good one just for being gay — that’d be an easy point against homophobia. But he never ends up needing a mechanic, so it’s just a homophobic joke after all. Pretty weird for a movie whose hero constantly offers to suck various people’s dicks in order to get himself out of one mess or another. Overcompensating much, guys?