Monday, December 15, 2014

The Out-of-Towners (1999)

An absolutely awful film. It was hard to justify spending 90 minutes on this crap when there are so many other films to watch. 15 minutes in I was ready to turn it off, but figured I should stick it out if I was going to write it up. I disliked it instantly from the opening scene, which uses John Lennon's "Just Like Starting Over" for cheap effect -- something the film has not earned the right to do. It only gets worse from there.

Painfully stupid, predictable, broad, annoyingly overscored (with wall-to-wall orchestrations in typical '90s fashion), awkwardly directed and edited, and not a single laugh in the whole piece. You know it's bad when comic "highlights" include crashing a car into a Chinatown fish market and being chased through the streets by a mad dog.

Despite the credit that reads "based on the screenplay by Neil Simon", this version borrows only the basic plot of his 1970 script. The premise of the fish-out-of-water Midwesterners lost in big, scary New York worked better in the original, with the gritty, naturalistic setting providing an effective backdrop. Here, in 1990s Disneyland NYC, the contrast falls flat, and lacks the bite of the earlier film. Saddest of all is the incredible waste of talent involved -- the usually great Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn are unfunny and unlikable here, overplaying the badly-written dialogue and slapstick. Even John Cleese, as a snobby hotel manager, is wasted in his role. A forgettable mess of a comedy that is most definitely not recommended.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

An intriguing, fun work of historical fiction, set behind-the-scenes of F.W. Murnau's seminal horror film NOSFERATU. The premise is that the film's mysterious and enigmatic star, Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe in a tour-de-force performance), may be an actual vampire, whose appearance in the movie is part of a pact with Murnau (John Malkovich) to procure fresh blood from the unsuspecting leading lady.

From this highly original premise, director E. Elias Merhige crafts an atmospheric tale that is part horror film and part dark satire on filmmaking, with the character of the obsessive artist willing to stop at nothing -- including the death of his cast and crew -- in order to see his vision put on the screen.

The film never quite finds the proper balance between horror and black comedy, though, and the overall result is rather uneven. Still, it's great fun for film enthusiasts and horror movie fans, who will appreciate the attention to detail in re-creating the sets, costumes and memorable shots of Murnau's legendary horror classic, and the strong performances by Dafoe and Malkovich.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Social Network (2010)

I finally got around to seeing this one after having put off watching it for some time. I was skeptical of the hype surrounding it when it opened theatrically (hard to believe that was four years ago already), but I was pleasantly surprised to find it was an intelligently-written character drama about the personalities and dynamics involved in the creation of Facebook, and what happens when that website quickly becomes a bigger cultural phenomenon than anyone could have expected.

Jesse Eisenberg carries the film well with a quiet yet intense performance as the brilliant programmer whose social networking website connects millions of people online, yet struggles with the human connections around him, poignantly conveyed in the final scene when he sends his ex-girlfriend a friend request and anxiously re-loads the page to see if she's accepted it.

Aaron Sorkin's economic and tight script wisely focuses on the larger implications of the story and avoids getting hung up on the minor details of Facebook's creation. David Fincher's direction is subtly effective, building real suspense out of the situations and tensions between the characters without becoming melodramatic.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Bad Santa (2003)

Very funny, very dark and very raunchy comedy about a deadbeat, drunken loser who makes his living by playing a department store Santa and pulling off big heists with his midget friend (who works with him in the guise of Santa's elf). It's hard to imagine anyone other than Billy Bob Thornton in the lead role, because he pulls it off so well, and manages to make the character's foul-mouthed tirades and reprehensible behavior incredibly funny. He transforms the cursing and overall vulgarity into an art form through his skillful performance -- similar in tone to the kind of humor W.C. Fields and Rodney Dangerfield did so well -- never breaking character or softening its edge, even in its more sympathetic moments.

It's a film that, by all rights, should offend virtually everyone, and yet has a surprising heart to it that makes it oddly endearing, even though there's scarcely a single character in the piece that isn't deeply damaged in one way or another. Tony Cox as Thornton's double-crossing partner in crime proves to be an excellent comic foil, displaying a great chemistry with Thornton even as they curse and insult each other mercilessly. Bernie Mac as the crooked store detective is an inspired bit of casting, and John Ritter is wonderfully effective in a brief but memorable turn as the harried, uptight store manager. Newcomer Brett Kelly -- as the hopelessly awkward but sensitive and good-hearted kid through whom Thornton finds a kind of redemption -- delivers an offbeat yet likable performance that requires him to serve as perhaps the only basically good character in the film.

Terry Zwigoff is a director whose work I find consistently interesting. Despite its subject matter, BAD SANTA is probably his most accessible film, which is to say it's probably aimed at the broadest audience, coming as it does between the really quirky, offbeat charm of GHOST WORLD (2001) and the sharp art world satire of ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL (2006). Zwigoff has a knack for working with these kinds of oddball characters and bizarre situations that makes him a great choice for the material. It's doubtful that BAD SANTA will be joining MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET as yearly holiday viewing for families each Christmas, but it provides a nice antidote to the usual holiday fare that holds up well as a good comedy for adults.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Pygmalion (1938)

Audiences familiar only with this classic George Bernard Shaw play through the musical adaptation MY FAIR LADY will probably be surprised by just how sharply funny this earlier 1938 screen version is. Minus the excess weight of the later musical, this adaptation -- directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, who also stars as Higgins -- is a deftly paced, adroit comedy that perfectly captures the dry wit and emotional honesty of Shaw's play (even if it does use the revised, audience-pleasing ending that Shaw despised). With material this strong, it was only logical that the film should remain largely faithful to its celebrated source, though the script -- adapted by a team of writers including Shaw himself, W.P. Lipscomb and Cecil Lewis, with uncredited contributions from Ian Dalrymple, Anatole de Grunwald and Kay Walsh -- does open the play up a bit for the screen, adding new scenes such as Eliza's debut at the embassy ball, and never feels stagy or static, thanks to the skillful editing of David Lean.

Wendy Hiller does a remarkable job at bringing out the humanity of the Eliza Doolittle character, delivering a surprisingly low-key interpretation of the role rather than slipping into broad caricature as Audrey Hepburn occasionally did in the later screen version. Leslie Howard as Higgins demonstrates again what a fine comic talent he was, a skill that he was not often able to exercise in his best-known Hollywood roles. He manages to make Higgins appropriately sympathetic without ever hitting a false note in his performance of the character. Scott Sunderland as Col. Pickering, Wilfrid Lawson as Doolittle, and Marie Lohr as Mrs. Higgins all provide fine support.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Mr. Mom (1983)

Silly, inconsequential family situation comedy, enlivened only by the strong performance of Michael Keaton in one of his early star turns as the dad who has to take on his wife's responsibilities around the house (with the expected comic ineptitude) when he gets laid off and she gets a job. The screenplay by John Hughes, one of his earliest, is entirely predictable and really quite uninspired stuff. It's certainly one of his least personal projects, feeling instead like a TV sitcom written on autopilot, and surprisingly lacking in the kind of wild slapstick and weird, offbeat supporting characters that show up frequently in Hughes' work and could have added some much-needed reinforcement to the proceedings here.

Teri Garr isn't given much to do with her role, and even the fine supporting players such as Martin Mull (as Garr's sleazy boss), Jeffrey Tambor (as Keaton's sleazy boss) and Christopher Lloyd (as one of Keaton's fellow engineers), are never really on-screen long enough to make much of their scenes. Only Ann Jillian, as the sexy neighbor intent on seducing Keaton while his wife's away, manages to rise above the material. Michael Keaton's performance demonstrates the kind of offbeat comic energy that made him such a unique and interesting actor, but his talent would be better-served in later vehicles. As it is, there's not much in it for adults, and the humor is really aimed primarily at kids, which is probably why the film seems to be most fondly remembered by people who saw it during their own childhood.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Cool World (1992)

Sort of a poor cousin to WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, this muddled, confused animation-live action crossover stars Brad Pitt as Frank Harris, a returning soldier in 1945 Las Vegas who, following a motorcycle crash, is transported to the "Cool World", an animated universe populated by bizarre cartoon characters, some of whom look like rejects from Joe Dante's "cartoon hell" segment in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE. Flash forward to 1992: Las Vegas-based animator Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne) has just been released from prison, where his only company was in the form of a sexy cartoon character named Holli Would that he drew in his comic books. Jack is so fixated on this character that he even passes up sex with real women, and one night, he gets transported to Cool World himself where, as luck would have it, he meets Holli in the form of an animated character. Unfortunately for Jack, sex between humans and cartoons is strictly forbidden, and Frank Harris is now working as a detective whose sole task seems to be enforcing this law. But Jack gives in to temptation, which results in Holli becoming human herself and traveling to the real world where she proceeds to unleash cartoon havoc. It's up to Jack to save the world from his own creation.

Even that plot description probably makes it sound more coherent than it actually is. The script is a mess, and filled with really strange twists that exist for no apparent reason (Harris' mother is killed in a motorcycle accident at the beginning of the film, and then this event is never referred to again; similarly, the fact that Jack has spent time in prison for murder is completely arbitrary and has no apparent bearing on the plot at all). The interaction of the live action and animated characters is not terribly convincing. It would have certainly passed muster ten years earlier, but coming as it did after ROGER RABBIT (and clearly owing a good deal to the concept of that film), it had a much higher standard to live up to. Kim Basinger's work as Holli is effective enough, but the character lacks both the personality and the exaggerated physical qualities that the character concept seems to call for. Brad Pitt isn't given much to do with his role besides act tough, and he misses out on the chance to really milk the part of the hardboiled detective for its potential due to the weaknesses in the writing. Gabriel Byrne delivers a good performance under the circumstances, but his character too is weakened by the lack of development (and is completely and inexplicably altered in the ridiculous final sequence).

Indeed, the major problem with the film overall is that it feels seriously underdeveloped, like a rough draft of a concept rather than an idea that has been fully fleshed out. It is almost certainly Ralph Bakshi's weakest film, lacking that immensely talented animator-filmmaker's normally evocative and distinctive sense of design, not to mention the sharp social commentary that is such a crucial component of his best work. As it is, COOL WORLD demonstrates some interesting seeds of ideas that could have been explored and executed to more interesting effect, but ultimately falls far short of its potential.