Sunday, November 25, 2012

Bumfights (2002)

Why, oh why, have we embedded into our brain cells to laugh or be entertained by the tragedy, pain, and misery of others? There must be some reason because Hollywood provides us with many opportunities to do just that. That’s why we get America’s Funniest Home Videos, the Jackass saga, The Jerry Springer Show (to some degree), and the endless supply of barbaric, lurid, torture porn horror movies.

OK, maybe that last one is a little looser, but you know how I mentioned Jackass? You know, the vulgar but hilarious juggernaut that swept a nation, particularly in the teenage or frat boy category, and influenced many others to cash in on their success? After all, people thought, it shouldn’t be hard. Just get a bunch of idiots, grab $20, and film those idiots doing stupid stuff, right? While I won’t go into how wrongheaded that mentality is, one group of people that possess that mentality is the creators of a short-lived documentary film series, Bumfights. Comparisons of this film to Jackass are inevitable, but unwelcome.

To be honest, I’ve only seen about 35, maybe 40, minutes of the film, seeing how when I watched it on YouTube, it was in four parts, but only the first three parts were uploaded. I presume the fourth part got removed for copyright violations or some bullcrap. But seeing how this film doesn’t have a cohesive, fluid narrative structure, I feel like it is apt to review this mongrel.

Plot synopsis? A group of unknown guys (the producers of this film) go around filming homeless men fighting or performing amateur stunts in exchange for rewards, particularly alcohol. There. That synopsis wasn’t very deep, but this isn’t that kind of film. While I probably shouldn’t do this, I won’t mention any of these people’s names.

The filmmakers of this gained notoriety when in 2006, producer Ty Beeson made an appearance on Dr. Phil and became the only person in the history of that show to be kicked off the stage. I saw the clips and it seemed harmless enough. Bums doing stupid stunts? It sounded like Jackass and I love that show. Dr. Phil just needed to get a sense of humor, I thought. After seeing this crap, I have a whole new respect for Dr. Phil and, in the holy heavens, thank him for kicking that dude off the set and for keeping his cool, as opposed to squeezing the life out of him, much like I wanna do.

The portrayal of bums is disgusting, to the utmost degree. These people view bums as drunk, vulnerable, toyetic morons. They, also, take it one step further by painting African-Americans in a negative light. One African-American is an annoying, fast-talking crack dealer. Another is a crack whore. All the others are moronic, violent, uninteresting, or all three. Is this seriously how they want to portray African-Americans? I sure hope not.

It is absolutely horrible what these bums have to go through. Now, some may say that these homeless people volunteered to be in this documentary and that they are performing these acts out of freewill and desire. Well, let’s take a second and look at Jackass. I know I said that comparisons to Jackass are unwelcome, but in order to convey how inhumane this reprehensible load of manure is, I have to. The Jackass crew is doing this stuff out of freewill and desire. They don’t care about a paycheck or fame. It is a major benefit, but they do it to amuse themselves.

The homeless people featured in this film and the other films in the franchise are doing this not out of want, but out of questionable need. If they do this, they’ll get money, alcohol, drugs, what have you. They’d prefer not to do this, but if they want this or this, they’ll do it. The Bumfights creators know it themselves. It is the cinematic equivalent of holding catnip way up high while your cat is reaching and struggling to obtain it. They aren’t volunteering. They are being taunted. This is sheer exploitation that demeans homeless people. I felt dirty while watching it.

Not only is the content crass, but it is listless and derivative. Fighting is a sure way to get the testosterone pumping in males, be it in real life or on television. Boxing and wrestling are two fine examples. They are cool because the participants are interesting beings and have a passion to just beat the crap out of the opponent. Not to mention their awesome fighting skills.

Real-life combat, outside of reality television, is a different story. While a real fight has an aforementioned passion vibrating in the souls of the fighters, it’s a different kind. Boxers and wrestlers have more of a determined “I’m-gonna-win” passion that gains momentum and intensity as the event goes on, which makes it so unrelentingly watchable. Real-life fighting that’s non-competitive has an angry, hateful passion with inner constraints that don’t allow any other feeling to pass and no creativity in the fighting moves. Seeing how it usually comes out of nowhere, it’s exciting, only for the time being. Therefore, making a whole documentary film that hinges on that heated, prize-deprived, goalless style of fighting is an ill-conceived plan.

Making a whole documentary film that hinges on that style of fighting with homeless people inserted into it is an ill-conceived plan on a whole other level. Aside from the obvious saddening feeling that is generated, there is no other emotional response or subtext and after, say, three fights, it becomes numbing to the senses. Plus, at times it is ambiguous whether some of the people are homeless or not. I know not all homeless people are the dirty, unkempt archetype, but I heard some of the fighters are teenagers. Are those just punks or teenagers kicked out of their homes? Either way, they still remain less than compelling.

This film balances out that fighting footage with the aforesaid stunts in a similar fashion of the Big Brother videos. For those who don’t know, Big Brother was the magazine that eventually evolved into Jackass. The magazine used videos to promote itself, I guess. They combined skateboarding clips and stunts, some of which would be used in Jackass. The stunts in those videos were intriguing. The stunts on Bumfights are dull and pathetic.

Most of the stunts are so tame that I could do them. Those stunts I am referring to usually involve bums running into stuff. The idea, I guess, is for them to hurt their heads, but it seems relatively safe and restrained. Other stunts draw unavoidable parallels to Jackass. There are, maybe, three stunts that I found to be creative. 

Also, shockingly enough, the filmmakers squander potential. For example, this film marked the beginning of the appearance of Rufus, who I suppose is idealized to be the Bumfights mascot. Rufus is awesome, but yet they treat him like he's the bastard step-child of the film by making him do amateurish, unimpressive, underwhelming stunts. To make it worse, in the middle of this stunt compiling, they add a visual non-sequitir where a goat urinates. I am aware that Jackass did non-sequitirs, but it added to the charm and gleeful surrealness of the show. Here, it adds to the film’s incompetence. These filmmakers haven’t earned the right to do a non-sequitir where most of the stunts that make sense in the film’s context fall flat to start out with.

One stunt that left me baffled and scratching my head was a certain stunt where a bum dressed in a dog costume. He brings its tail to the front, presumably to make it look like he’s holding his weiner. He swings it around and then goes over towards a child, still swinging it. While I am all for shattering the boundaries of political correctness and conquering social taboos, isn’t there a line between the audacious and the tasteless? What were they thinking?

What surprised me was that homeless people didn’t perform a majority of the stunts. Many stunts are performed towards homeless people. Scenes like those evoked a quote from beloved film critic Roger Ebert. When he was doing his television show, he stated that he believed that “humor works if you make fun of somebody’s character, but not if you make fun of their status." 

Then, as I thought of that quote, I was reminded of how Jackass did pranks on unsuspecting individuals so seamlessly. The secret was their hidden logic. The pranks that were performed didn’t affect the victim or victims on a physical level. It affected them on an emotional level, unless the prank was among the Jackass cast. When the Jackass crew went out in public for a prank, they were prescient in that they knew they’d receive a visceral response from people, be it tolerant, irritated, scared, frustrated, or befuddled. That logic can be applied to pranks, in general.

Then, I thought of the fact that they involved homeless people for their pranks. I can think of two occasions: 1) Street Fishing and 2) Skid Row Santa. However, Street Fishing wasn’t directly towards homeless people, even though it would be simple and obvious for it to go that route. It affected everyone. When we see a dollar on the street, our first instinct is to pick it up. Maybe we could use that to buy someone or be one step closer to paying your monthly bill. As far as Skid Row Santa, that was a prank in concept, not execution. The idea that Santa would go to Skid Row to give food to homeless people is pretty damn absurd. However, when seen on television, it adds an uncovered layer of poignancy, compassion, and humanity that many fans thought to have been non-existent.

Treating a homeless person like an animal or spray-painting their sleeping bag in the middle of the night, while it may be creative in the filmmakers’ sick little minds, is not funny. These filmmakers have no humanity or compassion towards their subject. They are cruel, immoral, money-grabbing sadomasochists.

What I particularly loathe about this film is their need to make it hip. They want to slather themselves with all of this mindless violence and bar-lowering humor and yet want to think it fits in with pop culture and the social norm. There are scenes where, out of nowhere, a hot chick pops up on screen on a bed, posing sexually. Do we know who this girl is? No. Are we ever told? No. Does she play any important role in this film? No. So why is this chick in the film? Is the film trying to say that chicks are aroused by brutal violence and homeless people making a fool out of themselves? 

And, I hate to bring my male tendencies and instincts into this review, but they don’t even give us a nude scene with her. They tantalize us with one, but the girl has her lady bits covered. I don’t mean to sound misogynist, but let me get this straight. You can show all of this mindless, sickening crap, but showing a shot of a naked woman is going too far? Great logic, guys!

Another thing that frightens me about the film connects to an interview with Ty Beeson that preceded the segment of him getting the boot on Dr. Phil. The interview ended with the words, “It’s a sick world.” Hearing that made me ponder as to whether his warped, twisted mind has led him to believe that his films are actually a social commentary on the way society treats homeless people, a wake-up call of some sorts. 

Social commentary and wake-up call, my ass. This film has no insights in the problems of a homeless person. It glamorizes violence, humiliates and disgraces homeless people, and extracts the most vile, execrable, nihilistic values in order to pander to its audience, which probably fall in the lowest common denominator of society, and to self-indulge itself.

Yes, nihilistic. Consider a caption that precedes a Bumfighter sketch that reads, “Very few bums were harmed in the making of this sketch. All were released back to its natural habitat.” NATURAL HABITAT? Are you shitting me up the ass? You think the habitat they live in is natural? The unstable climate? The garbage they have to eat? The many fingers pointing at them with disgust and contempt? You think they want to live a homeless lifestyle? I know this supposed to be a joke, but it’s not freaking funny! You calling them animals? They put up with all of your crap and you insult them and give them a few measly dollars for some crack? Do you think that’s generous? Nothing in this film is generous! It’s evil, psychotic, and deplorable!

However, what may be the worst thing about this film, beside the fact that it’s ugly, cruel, despicable, vulgar, malicious, heartless, and is devoid of laughs, humanity, charm, or competence, is that it’s deadening. Not only is it emotional shallow, but it is hollow, empty, and barren. There’s nothing to feel about this film. Nothing. At least Jackass evoked a sense of committed camaraderie. It isn’t merely a jaw-droppingly misguided, morally disturbed, and profoundly disgusting film; it is also just a waste of time and space. And, surprisingly enough, that may be the biggest insult of all.

RATING: Three-quarters of a star out of four (I thought about giving this film one star, but that’d be complimenting it)

P.S. Today, I had a double dosage of crap. Not only did I watch one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, but I also saw one of Nickelodeon’s worst television shows, Marvin Marvin. I don’t review television shows and I’m not going to. I’m just giving you a gist of it and saying that Lucas Cruikshank has sold its soul. What became one of the quirkiest, provocative, and funniest stars on the Internet has deteriorated into starring in one of the worst shows I’ve ever seen. Ditto to Nickelodeon. What started as an innovative television network for children that produced joyfully surreal live-action shows and groundbreaking animated shows has delved into rote, unfunny, clichéd, by-the-numbers, labored, trite teen-com fare. Recently, iCarly, one of Nickelodeon’s best shows, ended its five-year run. What better way to celebrate the end of that really funny show than by beginning the airing of one of Nickelodeon’s worst? I normally wouldn’t give attention to a bad TV show. I’m just doing it as a way to warn you and to hope that we can get this stupid show off the air. I’d give it a high 1 star, just because it delivers intermittent laughs, rarely though.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Night at the Opera (1935)

Over the years, the general public has had their guts consistently busted from the various comedic duos that can be traced back to the decades. Comedic duos like Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy, Cheech & Chong, Beavis & Butt-Head, and so on and so forth. However, as the old phrase says, “The more, the merrier!” After all, why was I Love Lucy such a hit? Because aside from Lucille Ball, there were three other actors that fit into the comic spotlight. Why was Friends such a hilarious show? Because the main cast consisted of 6 people. That means 15 dynamics (counted them myself, folks) and infinite comedic possibilities. However, I’m getting sidetracked.

One example of a beloved comic duo that broke from the two-person shackles of Hollywood is the Marx Brothers, which was a family of five brothers, but only four of them shared a comedic link. While Zeppo was part of the group for a short run, the group hinged on the three prominent men: Chico, Groucho, and Harpo. What most people think of to be the quintessential Marx Brothers film…is Duck Soup. But A Night at the Opera is a close second. Of their large catalog of films, I’ve only seen this and A Day at the Races, the latter of which I need to re-watch. While this may be subject to change, A Night at the Opera is the better one of the two, though not an immaculate work of cinema.

Surprisingly enough, the plot of this film is kinda hard to describe. So, instead of me straining my mind in order to describe it, I’ll give you snippets from two different plot synopsizes. The first one is from the back of the MGM VHS release of the film and the second one is from IMDB:

  • “Groucho’s outrageous business schemes bring Milan’s finest opera stars to New York, with some unexpected stowaways on board…”
  • The Marx Brothers take on high society. Two lovers who are both in opera are prevented from being together by the man's lack of acceptance as an operatic tenor. Pulling several typical Marx Brothers' stunts, they arrange for the normal tenor to be absent so that the young lover can get his chance.” (Written by John Vogel).

The Marx Brothers are simply on point in this film. They have impeccable timing, keen sensibilities, distinct quirks, and a rapport that acts as a deeply amusing call-and-response relationship. Chico is certainly serviceable, especially during the previously mentioned call-and-response sequences, but the other two encompass this film. Groucho Marx is equipped with a rapid-fire barrage of wisecracks and fulfilling punch lines augmented by his expressive, cartoony face and wry, ironic persona.

However, Harpo is the best of the Marx brothers. Not just in this film, but in general.  He depicts and elicits a childlike innocence that no one can touch, with the exception of Lucille Ball. He never speaks, but his facial expressions are so flexible that, like the best silent comedians, any emotion he’s feeling is properly portrayed.

It is also phenomenal to see the Marxes’ versatility, particularly Chico and Harpo. Not only are they funny and sincere actors, but also musically, my fracking God are they incredible! When Chico plays the piano and when Harpo sits down at his harp, not only is the audience entranced (and I mean the people in the film, as well), but they, themselves, are entranced, as well. Not by themselves, but by the power of music and the feelings it can evoke. When they perform on their trusty instruments, they break out of their goofy, over-the-top personas and become themselves, passionate, steadfast, and honest. It always leaves me awe-struck.

However, as much as I applaud the Marx brothers on their comedic abilities, if a script wasn’t present, their abilities wouldn’t be worth a damn. They’d be just meandering through the movie while improvising and one-upping themselves, all in the name’s sake of a laugh. However, with sturdy direction by Sam Wood and a screenplay penned by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, scenarios are crafted that are broad, unrestrained, thoroughly inventive, and consistently funny. Scenes such as the stageroom bit and the Russian aviator moment are timeless comedic gold mines that will be beloved as long as there are people breathing here on good old Earth.

Now, the reason why this isn’t an unquestionable classic is because there actually are a decent amount of flaws. First of all, with the exception of the Marxes’ musical moments and the climactic opera scene, the musical sequences feel forced. Plus, they don’t have the stirring quality of a typical MGM musical. Even the opera scenes are less that compelling (yes, even the climactic opera scene). To my credit, though, I’m just bugged by opera, period.

Not to sound sexist, but when dudes sing it, I actually enjoy it, mostly because that deep vocal quality is more emotive, penetrating, visceral, vehement and gripping. There are very few times that I actually enjoy a woman singing opera. Not to say that women aren’t good opera singers, but I just hate that pretentious, gaudy, “look-at-how-many-high-notes-I-can-reach” style of singing; the style that is most typically possessed by women. It pulls me out of whatever emotion they are trying to communicate in whatever incomprehensible language they’re using. Again, no offense.

Even though I like male opera singers better, the male opera singer in this film wasn’t even effective. It’s doesn’t bug me that he’s a tenor. It just bugged me that he was toothless and polished. Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot to go into depth about the romantic subplot involving Riccardo (the aforementioned tenor opera singer), played by Allan Jones, and Rosa, played by Kitty Carlisle. Actually, my decision to not go into depth with that subplot was preconceived. It never takes off; it brings the film to a screeching halt, and is not clearly developed for me to give two craps.

Also, at times, the editing is uncomfortably choppy. I understand it’s the 1930s and all, but the editing could’ve used a little tune-up. Also, call me an old-fashioned, status quo loving Conservative is you must, but I wish this film had a more cohesive story. It kind of takes me out of the film if I don’t know what I’m supposed to be rooting for or invested in. However, the main purpose of a comedy is to make you laugh. Did I laugh? Yes. And with its breakneck yet tentative pace, witty screenplay, and joyous performances, I definitely recommend spending A Night at the Opera.

RATING: Three-and-a-half stars out of four

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Updated Version of VH1's 100 Greatest Songs of the 90's

OK, if you read my site (most likely you don't, but let's pretend, for my sake), you know that I am a movie dude. Hell, my site's called Stephen the Critic. So, you are probably wondering what's up with this post. Well, while I do love movies, I, also, love music. One of the other occupations I wanna be is a singer. I am doing this post because opportunity knocked for me to do this and I gladly open the door.

Here's the story. A while back, on a website called Stereogum (VH1 has this list as well), I saw the full list of VH1's 100 Greatest Songs of the 90's. I have them all on my hard drive because I wanted to be immersed in all of holy Nineties-ness. The 90s, in terms of music, were pretty much a more competent version of the 80s, not to say I don't love the 80s. The 80s was more revolved around rock, pop, rock-pop, and pop-rock. The 90s were more revolved around hip-hop, alternative rock, hard rock, and pop that became more bubblegum and marketed to a younger fanbase, particularly teenage girls. The 80s and 90s, both, had some awesome songs and some songs that were awesome, in a laughable, guilty pleasure yet catchy way.

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. Last night, I decided, for the hell of it, to watch the actually television special of VH1's 100 Greatest Songs of the 90s. It was fun to watch...except for one thing. I was watching the special and some of the spots had different songs that what I read on the original online list. I guess that's the Internet for you.

Now, to the credit, I heard that some of the songs were recently added, but, anyways, the 97, 78, 51, 32, 13, and 10 spots had different songs from the previous Greatest Songs of the 90s list I read from VH1. So, I decided to check to see if anyone revised the list online or made a new list with those spots. Needless to say, my results came up barren.

So, I decided to give my fellow readers an unprecedented opportunity: to give you the list, as it was presented on VH1. I could just name the changes of the list, but, let's be honest, you have probably already read the list or never read the list, at all. So, just for heaven's sake, I'll just give you the full list and let you, the readers, pick around the changes I mentioned earlier. So, here it is, starting at #1 and working our way down (I know some of you want it reversed, but I'm too lazy to reverse it):

01 Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
02 U2 – “One”
03 Backstreet Boys – “I Want It That Way”
04 Whitney Houston – “I Will Always Love You”
05 Madonna – “Vogue”
06 Sir Mix-A-Lot – “Baby Got Back”
07 Britney Spears – “…Baby One More Time”
08 TLC – “Waterfalls”
09 R.E.M. – “Losing My Religion”
10 Chumbawamba – “Tubthumping”
11 Pearl Jam – “Jeremy”
12 Alanis Morissette – “You Oughta Know”
13 Divinyls – “I Touch Myself”
14 Mariah Carey – “Vision of Love”
15 Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Under the Bridge”
16 MC Hammer – “U Can’t Touch This”
17 Destiny’s Child – “Say My Name”
18 Metallica – “Enter Sandman”
19 Beastie Boys – “Sabotage”
20 Hanson – “MMMBop”
21 Celine Dion – “My Heart Will Go On”
22 Beck – “Loser”
23 Salt-N-Pepa with En Vogue – “Whatta Man”
24 House of Pain – “Jump Around”
25 Soundgarden – “Black Hole Sun”
26 Eminem – “My Name Is”
27 Counting Crows – “Mr. Jones”
28 Ricky Martin – “Livin’ la Vida Loca”
29 Vanilla Ice – “Ice Ice Baby”
30 *NSYNC – “Tearin’ Up My Heart”
31 Radiohead – “Creep”
32 The Mighty Mighty Bosstones – “The Impression That I Get”
33 Spice Girls – “Wannabe”
34 Third Eye Blind – “Semi-Charmed Life”
35 Oasis – “Wonderwall”
36 C+C Music Factory – “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)”
37 Green Day – “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”
38 Christina Aguilera – “Genie In A Bottle”
39 Goo Goo Dolls – “Iris”
40 Color Me Badd – “I Wanna Sex You Up”
41 Spin Doctors – “Two Princes”
42 Collective Soul – “Shine”
43 En Vogue – “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)”
44 The Fugees – “Killing Me Softly With His Song”
45 Hootie & the Blowfish – “Only Wanna Be With You”
46 Shania Twain – “You’re Still the One”
47 Marky Mark and The Funky Bunch – “Good Vibrations”
48 Matchbox Twenty – “3 AM”
49 Jewel – “Who Will Save Your Soul”
50 Alice in Chains – “Man in the Box”
51 Craig Mack – “Flava In Ya Ear”
52 Sugar Ray – “Fly”
53 Naughty by Nature – “O.P.P.”
54 Joan Osborne – “One of Us”
55 Fiona Apple – “Criminal”
56 L.L. Cool J – “Mama Said Knock You Out”
57 Jay-Z featuring Amil and Ja Rule – “Can I Get A…”
58 Sophie B. Hawkins – “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover”
59 Weezer – “Buddy Holly”
60 Bell Biv DeVoe – “Poison”
61 Sheryl Crow – “All I Wanna Do”
62 Live – “I Alone”
63 The Notorious B.I.G. (Feat. Mase & Puff Daddy) – “Mo Money Mo Problems”
64 The Presidents of the United States of America – “Peaches”
65 Digital Underground – “The Humpty Dance”
66 Edwin McCain – “I’ll Be”
67 Deee-Lite – “Groove Is In The Heart”
68 Will Smith – “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It”
69 Korn – “Freak on a Leash”
70 Jamiroquai – “Virtual Insanity”
71 Arrested Development – “Tennessee”
72 Barenaked Ladies – “One Week”
73 Marcy Playground – “Sex and Candy”
74 Cher – “Believe”
75 Kris Kross – “Jump”
76 Blues Traveler – “Run-Around”
77 Ice Cube – “It Was a Good Day”
78 Semisonic – “Closing Time”
79 Meredith Brooks – “Bitch”
80 Right Said Fred – “I’m Too Sexy”
81 Paula Cole – “I Don’t Want to Wait”
82 Geto Boys – “Mind Playing Tricks on Me”
83 The Breeders – “Cannonball”
84 Snow – “Informer”
85 Cypress Hill – “Insane In The Brain”
86 The Cranberries – “Linger”
87 Billy Ray Cyrus – “Achy Breaky Heart”
88 Duncan Sheik – “Barely Breathing”
89 Liz Phair – “Never Said”
90 New Radicals – “You Get What You Give”
91 Sarah McLachlan – “Building a Mystery”
92 Public Enemy – “911 Is A Joke”
93 Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories – “Stay”
94 Fastball – “The Way”
95 Montell Jordan – “This is How We Do It”
96 Nelson – “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection”
97 Los Del Rio – “Macarena”
98 EMF – “Unbelievable”
99 Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott – “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”
100 Gerardo – “Rico Suave”

Wow, those were some pretty awesome choices, don't you think. I'm sure you all are wondering if there's anything I'd replace. Well, I haven't given it much thought. All the songs on there I like and I haven't thought about what my favorite songs of the 90s is. However, I'm curious to hear what you guys think of the picks. Before you come to murder me, this is not my list, it's VH1's! So, I'd like to hear if you would add or take away anything from this list and if you agree with the #1 pick or if there's another song you favor as the best of the 90s. Also, which list do you think is better? The original or the updated version? So, go ahead. Voice your opinion. I'm an open book. Later!

P.S. If you wanna see the original list and compare the changes, go to this link:

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Singin' In the Rain (1952)

I would start out with some informal introduction, but let me get right smack to the point. I freaking love musicals. Call me gay if you must. I don’t care. I love ‘em. One studio whose musicals are the most distinct is MGM. Even while having the “honor” of having my least favorite film be on their filmography (still not telling what it is), MGM’s musicals, of the ones I’ve seen, are made with such chutzpah, exuberance, and euphoria that can, as one film critic once said, “tingle the most jaded moviegoer’s palate.”

 It only makes sense that when one is asked what their favorite movie musical is, it would be in the hands of MGM and that damn lion. One of the typical answers to this question is the sunny, good-hearted, and full-of-beans musical, Singin’ In the Rain. While it may not be MGM’s best musical, it is definitely one of their best.

The premise of the film occurs during the era of film where silent films have died down and talking pictures, or “talkies” if you will, are emerging and being intensely well-received by audiences. One of the people affected by this change is Don Lockwood, a movie star who has starred in countless pictures with his right-hand lady, Lina Lamont. Monumental Pictures, the film studio where many of Lockwood and Lamont’s pictures are distributed, makes the decision to start making talking pictures after The Jazz Singer became a cultural phenomenon.

However, one problem lies in their path: Lina, who has an Marilyn Monroe demeanor, but is unfortunately in possession of a less than compelling voice. I can only describe it as Minnie Mouse combined with Betty Boop. I apologize if that description causes your ears to start bleeding incessantly. There’s must be a solution to this situation.

Enter Kathy Seldon, an exquisite, aspiring actress, who meets Don Lockwood and is, at first repelled by him, but they soon fall for each other. While this part of the film is definitely familiar, this was around the time when that story was endearing and funny and not trite and predictable. The solution is to have her dub over Lina’s voice and hope no one will notice. I would say that no one would be that dumb, seeing how there is a scene where her real voice is revealed to the public earlier, but hell, we watch The Jerry Springer Show and Larry the Cable Guy movies. So, obviously, we’re not the most intelligent, discerning people on the planet.

One element that surprised me in the film was how impeccably the humor was executed. Slapstick, verbal play, and irony are used throughout the film in very clever and amusing ways, but the humor type that surprised me was the satire. The genius of this film is that is doesn’t rely heavily on the satire, per se. The filmmakers craft wildy funny situations and create satire that, while it is piercing and razor-sharp, is also oblique. It is plainly comedic on the surface, but satirical underneath.

Not only does it satirize the transitional era of silent films to talking, sound-infested films and the dubbing of voices, but, through witty, perceptive eyes, it also, slyly, satirizes elements such as the treatment of celebrities, the paparazzi (which is implemented in a very funny running joke revolving around Lina thinking Don is her fiancée, due to fan magazines), and the movie musicals of the 30s and 40s. While this may sound like they mutilate Hollywood and look at it through scornful eyes, that is most certainly not the case. The film works as a parody and a love letter to cinema.

The performances are outstanding. As a choreographer, Grace Kelly has more passion, grace, timing, and refinement that anybody else. As an actor, playing the aforesaid Don Lockwood, he evokes all those elements and another inherent one: charisma. The character of Kathy Seldon isn’t just some shallow damsel who needs a man. The script allows Kathy opportunities to be funny, intelligent, and opinioned, and Debbie Reynolds portrays her with every bit of realism and joy. As mentioned before, there is a romance between them and a great one at that. It manages to be warm, sweet, and have a great amount of emotional resonance.

Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont strikes the perfect balance of vulnerability and deviousness. One actor who I think is a teensy bit underrated in this film is Donald O’Connor, playing piano player and Don’s best friend, Cosmo Brown. He plays his role with such enthusiasm and commitment that he warrants comparisons with Jim Carrey, though I think Mr. O’Connor is funnier. Sorry if you don’t like my opinion, but as Jim Carrey would say, “Somebody stop me!”

I mentioned before how great a choreographer Gene Kelly is. In fact, he may be the best film choreographer, period. So I won’t bore with too many details about the dance sequences. As predicted, they are incredible and are filtered through lush, vivid cinematography. I heard from various sources that the dance numbers were somewhat improvised, but Gene Kelly has such an easy, natural way of dance that I can’t tell if it’s improvised or not.

Since it is a musical, one essential element that I’m sure you want to hear my opinion on is the music. This film is filled to the brim with infectious, catchy song numbers, all sung wonderfully, I might add. The songs have an eclectic array of execution methods, but the thematic element in all of them is happiness. No matter is the song is fast or slow, they encapsulate the joy of love and life. Hell, there’s a song called “Good Morning” present in the film. If that doesn’t convey how positive the music is, I don’t what does.

This was directed by Gene Kelly (surprise, surprise) and Stanley Donen. I haven’t seen any of their other films, whether filmed together or individually, but I don’t need to see them, in order to say that this is the pinnacle of their careers; a masterful virtuoso of music, color, rhythm, movement, humor, wit, charm, and performances. At times, the film could pick up the pace a little bit, but that is a minor flaw in a grand, lavish, extravagant spectacle of a musical. Like the songs, I can’t get this film out of my head. And thank God for that.

RATING: Four stars out of four!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Kids in America (2005)

Ah, high school. It is said by many that high school is the best years of anyone’s life. While I can’t confirm that statement, seeing how I am only 16, I can say that it is an exciting experience. The rigorous schedule, the extracurricular activities, and the camaraderie between classmates can elicit a sense of mirth. It can, also, elicit stress. The amount of homework, particularly as a junior, and lack of time at home can be stressful to someone.

Coincidentally, the most exhausted, trite film genre present…is the romantic comedy. But the high school comedy is the definite silver medallist. Most high school comedies provide shallow representations of teens and wear a blanket of drug references, particularly marijuana, bathroom and sexual humor, and shopworn clichés. PG-rated high school comedies are pretty much the aforementioned description, minus the drug references and sex jokes.

There are usually two subdivisions of PG-rated high school comedies: 1) the geeky, awkward, or unique boy who is, either in love with the hottest girl in the school or is just trying to fit in. Oh, and don’t forget the one-dimensional, cardboard cutout bullies. 2) the new girl meets up with the popular girls, who allegedly run the school, but the new girl ends up being popular herself, or some version of it. Oh, and don’t forget the bland, inane pseudo-snappy repartee and obligatory hair whipping. Oh, and also, don’t forget the bland hunky male lead, who falls for the new girl, and is played by some narcissistic, “good-looking” actor, who will never have a career again.

As you can see, whether a high school comedy is PG-rated or R-rated, it’s a formula. However, occasionally, a movie will break from the chains of the conformist, Conservative standards of high school comedies and do something different. 2004 saw that with Mean Girls and 2005 saw it with an obscure, little-seen film, Kids in America, and, dare I say it, Kids in America is better than Mean Girls. I know that may shock you, but there it is.

This is a modest effort than centers around a high school with a wide variety of kids. I’ll do a role call of the characters and, while I do, I’m gonna create a drinking game. Take a shot every time you hear a character archetype that’s been in other high school comedies. OK, here we go.

You have Holden, who is the rebellious type. You have Charlotte Pratt, the hot love interest, who is strong-minded and wants to take a stand. You have Chuck, who is a fat, awkward teen, who plays video games. You have Katie Carmichael and Kelly Stepford, the cheerleaders. You have Emily Chua, the Asian. You have Lawrence Reitzer, the flamboyantly gay dude. You have Walanda Jenkins, who is the sassy African-American chick. You have Wee-Man, the midget, and the rest are on Gilligan’s Island. (the whole Wee-Man thing is made up).

Anywho, they all have one thing in common: the principal, played by Julie Bowen (I mentioned her name because I feel that someone will eviscerate me if I don’t), who is also running for superintendent, chastises them for freedom of expression. She suspends a girl for promoting safe sex, expells Holden for telling the flaws of the school at a Holiday Hoopla and slashing one of his wrists, and suspends Lawrence for kissing his male partner (he’s the gay dude!). The students are outraged and decided to hold an Animal Farm-esque rebellion, supported by Mr. Drucker, one of their teachers. The rebellion is complete with walking out of classes, holding protests, burning the football field, and dumping the school’s tea into the Boston Harbor. (OK, that last one didn’t happen. God, you guys are so easily duped).

Yes, this story’s been done repeatedly. Even the poster for the film looks like it was a rejected Van Wilder poster. However, what makes this film a standout is Andy Shaifer and director Josh Stolberg’s nimble script. Sure, the characters are clichéd, but they don’t act clichéd. In fact, the film never veers into the most obvious stereotypes for the African-American, Asian, and gay characters. These trope characters are infused with intelligence, humanity, and wit. They are allowed to deliver sassy, acerbic, and authentic dialogue.

Even the adults are humane, which almost never happens in the typical high school comedies, which usually portray them as relentlessly evil or ironically hip, oblivious morons who stray distant from their children. In this film, the parents are echt, quick-witted, and funny. Even the principal is logical and mortal, instead of being a Hitler-esque ringleader. The film portrays the relationships of everyone in that same genuine tone. Plus, finally a high school comedy without a bully in sight. Can someone give this Josh Stolberg dude an award? Please?

For a film with such a modest budget ($700,000) and restrained execution, it still manages to be funny. Really funny, to be exact. Consider a scene where Lawrence got suspended from kissing his male partner. This angers Holden, so he rigs the cafetorium, so it will display a video of him from his camera. Through the video, he tells everyone in the cafetorium to kiss someone of the same sex out of rebellion, to which everyone proceeds to do so. Sure it’s bizarre, but it’s also refreshingly inventive and downright hilarious.

In addition, this is a movie that loves movies. Consider a scene where Chuck comments Holden on his Hoopla performance, going so far as to compare him to various horror film performances. There are various pop cultural references in this film, but there aren’t labored into the screenplay to give the younger generation a cheap laugh. If you do find it forced, at least they aren’t referencing a film just for the sake of referencing it and calling it a joke. I’m looking at you, Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer.

One scene that really touched me is a scene where Holden and Charlotte are talking about movies. It, eventually, leads to a montage of them re-enacting famous movie kisses. Sure, it’s witty, but it’s also sweet, sincere and poignant. That romantic subplot, in addition, doesn’t really play a huge part in the movie. It is downplayed, never losing sight of the main theme. There are, thankfully, no dramatic beats. Also, it is cathartic to see a high school comedy where men view women in the eyes of love, not sex.

The actors don’t particularly look like teenagers, but they display such conviction in their mannerisms that we still buy them as teenagers. The only person we don’t buy as a teenager is Nicole Richie. However, I believe it’s actually funnier that she doesn’t look like a teenager. She plays one of the cheerleaders. We know she was cast as a cheerleader because cheerleaders are thought to be bubble-brained and shallow, and no one’s more bubble-brained and shallow than Nicole Richie (no offense). However, she manages to be funny and sharp. It’s the perfect juxtaposition of her character with her actual self.

Nicole Richie, dare I say it, actually gives a good performance. How is it that Nicole Richie only starred in one film and is useful and yet her female counterpart and best friend, Paris Hilton, has been in several films and yet can’t act worth crap? Take that, Mrs. Hilton, even I do want to spend One Night in Paris. Funny, no? To be fair, all of the performances in this film are uniformly natural and good. Furthermore, earnest cinematography and a great soundtrack deeply augments the film.

It’s not a great film and, at times, the acting is a little lackluster. The only other flaw I have with the film doesn’t come from the film. It comes from the audience. This movie underwhelmed at the box office, grossing only $537, 667. To be fair, this could stem from poor marketing, but people don’t really even acknowledge that this film exists. Maybe it’s because people are apprehensive of it. Maybe they’ve been brainwashed to buy into formulaic, by the numbers, high school comedy fare that anything that thinks outside the box of Hollywood and doesn’t have an all-star cast will be pushed to the side. That would be a mistake. This is a refreshing, enterprising film that I urge you to see, no matter how much homework you have.

RATING: Three-and-a-half stars out of four

Friday, October 5, 2012

Animal Farm (1954)

The George Orwell oeuvre is strong enough to provoke giddy approval from even the most cynical critics. For me, that feeling arises whenever I think about his 1945 novel, Animal Farm. This audacious, sardonic, and sly novel holds such a dear place in my heart because of its deep layer of allegory and its morals pertaining to greed. In the novel, the way a simple, earnest idea unravels into a fierce, oppressive Fascist government draws uncanny parallels to Communism during the Stalinist Era. Even if you don’t get the symbolism, it is well written with a beautifully off the wall premise and well-rounded characters. While I don’t personally believe that the world was clamoring for a film based on this source material, we got one, anyways. An ambitious one, at that.

I think many of us already know the plot to Animal Farm, but if you don’t, let me fill you in. The animals on Manor Farm feel untreated by the farmer, Mr. Jones. This causes Old Major, the eldest pig on the farm, to make a proposal that one of these days animals must rebel. After Old Major, finally, squeals (I would say croaked, but that’d be stupid), the animals, eventually, rebel against Mr. Jones and take over the farm. They create their own government, entitled Animalism, and appoint Snowball, one of the pigs, as leader, until power-hungry pig, Napoleon, takes over and havoc and amendments ensue.

Anyone who has read and analyzed this book or people who are constant thinkers probably can point out the present symbolism. I won’t reveal all of it or go into too much depth about it. All I’ll say is Mr. Jones represents Czar Nicholas II, Snowball represents Leon Trotsky, Napoleon represents Josef Stalin, and the dogs that Napoleon appoints as his security represent the NKVD. Grasp onto that information and let history tell you the rest.

I can recall my sister being given a copy of this film on one of those dollar DVDs you get at Wal-Mart (name drop). It, eventually, ended up being sold, simply because neither my sister nor me were old enough to handle the grim material and understand what the heck was going on. I can comprehend the material currently as a 16-year-old, but to people who haven’t heard of this film or novel and just see the title and image of it on a DVD copy, be warned. This is most definitely not for kids.

Images of mournful or spiteful animals, aggressive-looking people, and non-antiseptic scenes of attacks between these two groups will most likely confuse or frighten young kids. Around this time period, many animated Disney films were released in the 1950s. This was released after Peter Pan, but before Lady and the Tramp, so many people most likely made the assumption that all animation was clean, wholesome entertainment. Wrong. Wrong! This film purchases a stark, grave tone that occasionally surrounds itself in dark, shadowy color schemes.

The tone and color scheme aren’t the only things that contribute to its brilliant sense of atmosphere. Only about 20% of the film has dialogue from the animals or humans. This minimal amount of dialogue, along with the expressive faces of the characters and the expressive score allows the anger and tension to stay constant and increase when necessary. Any humor present in the film is natural, if not always subtle.

The film does, meticulously and painstakingly, translate George Orwell’s satire to film. What I love about the satire in both the book and film is that the story is prioritized more than the satire. The characters don’t become a part of the satire. The satire becomes a part of the characters. By that I mean, George Orwell’s satirical ambitions are executed subtly. The characters aren’t blatantly the people being mocked. They are distinct, three-dimensional beings and the satire becomes an underlying element, if you so chose to look for it. The story would be just as exceptional without the satire. One scene in the film that stood out to me was a scene where the animals were using sickles for farm work. That image is so disdainfully symbolic and yet so modestly and precisely controlled that it sent chills down my spine.

As much as I am going into depth about the film, I have yet to mention two essential elements that warrant discussing: the animation and voice work. After all, this film was the first feature-length theatrical British animated film (the first full-length British animated film, period, was the wartime instructional, Handling Ships). This is to the British what Snow White is to us.

How is the animation? I believe it’s on a level between those 7-minute cartoons before movies and Disney films. The characters are animated with shrewd restraint. At times, the animation even reminded me of the hand-drawn animated films of the late 1990s, in the sense of how the faces looked and how crisp the lines could be. The landscapes are beautifully drawn and the exterior and interior designs of buildings looked quite detailed, at times.

The voice work is masterful. Gordon Heath is intensely intimidating as the narrator of this work. His voice contains such commitment and conviction that it contains similarities to the narration of a 1930s radio drama. However, perhaps, in one of the largest voiceover feats in animated film history, Maurice Denham voices every single, solitary animal in the movie and I wouldn’t be surprised if he voiced all of the humans. It mystifies me that he didn’t become a more bankable or popular voice artist, in the vein of Frank Welker or Jeff Bennett. He gives every animal a dissimilar voice and it is simply marvelous. The filmmakers, also, got real barnyard sounds for each of the animal’s noises, which work brilliantly. That donkey’s fearful and mournful cries manage to be profoundly haunting.

Now, as much as I give praise to this film, I have a couple of quibbles with this film, and I do mean only a couple. My first issue with the film is the pace. The film runs at a brief 71 minutes and manages to feel like a 10 minute animated newsreel about Communism. The brevity makes the film feel rushed.

I guess they just wanted to get the overall jist of the novel and I guess if it were longer, they wouldn’t have been able to put in a lot of the minimal dialogue sequences, but I, at least, want more cohesive character development. I don’t expect it to be a character study and I’m not yearning for dialogue in every scene, but a few silent, character-oriented beats would’ve sufficed. I guess all I’m saying is that 90 minutes would’ve been better than 71 minutes. At the same time, it was the 1950s, so what are you gonna do?

My second issue with the film is the ending. I will not reveal the ending of the book or the film. However, I will say that the book’s ending is one of the most perfect ways to end a book. Sure it’s pessimistic, but it’s also poetic and symbolic. It symbolizes not only the evidence that Communism will never work, but it also symbolizes greed and the flaws and evils of human nature. The ending for the film is too optimistic. Not don’t get me wrong, it is by no means a bad ending. It manages to sustain the angry tone present throughout the film and the final image is freaking awesome, but, to me, substituting pessimism for optimism or even merely hinting at a happy ending does not represent George Orwell’s vision. Period.

However, regardless of its flaws, this is an ambitious project that captures most of the elements that made the novel really freaking good. Now, I feel it is important that the year accompanies the film titles in my headings. I say this because another Animal Farm adaptation was made in 1999. While it is certainly tolerable, it doesn’t have the nuances, drive, or alluring power that this version has. And yes, that version has a happy ending, too. While it mildly works in the context of that film, it’s still too optimistic and cheerful. Note to anyone who may want to attempt a third adaptation of Animal Farm: they do not assuredly, or allegedly, live happily ever after.

RATING: Three and three-quarters stars out of four

(P.S. To clear up any confusion, I don’t think the 1999 version of Animal Farm is good. It almost works, but not quite. I’d give that version two and three-quarters stars out of four, seeing how I will most likely not review that version.)

Monday, September 17, 2012

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

In 1963, Maurice Sendak released the Caldecott awarding winning children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are. While it is touted as being one of the best children’s books of all time, I feel that it is good, not great. Whatever your view of it is, it is a book abundant in pictures and minimal on words. The film adaptation of this book takes that modest book and transforms it into a visceral, poetic, fleshed out, and polarizing project.

The story begins with Max, a very imaginative young boy, who lives with his older sister and single mom. From the beginning, it is established that Max is forlorn, depressed, and mildly disturbed. Imagination is the gateway to his happiness. After Max acts out violently towards his mother (don’t worry, no one dies), Max runs away. He ends up at a pond where he finds a little boat. He gets on it and sails away to an island occupied by the Wild Things. The Wild Things don’t like the looks of Max until he convinces them that he was a king, to which they crown him their king and, as Max states, the wild rumpus starts.

An interesting thing about the Wild Things is that, let’s be honest, they are creepy. In fact, one flaw I have with the film can be found when Max first gets on the island and the Wild Things are suspicious about him. At one point, they all gang up on him and want to eat him, and the way they look and how it is handled is unrelentingly grim. Anyway, even though they look creepy, it’s what they say and do that makes them likable, minus the scene I mentioned. These weird-looking characters from the book have been turned into three-dimensional beings with personalities and genuine feelings.

Another thing I love about this film is how it hits all of the right nuances. The island is manic and yet it still sustains a sense of whimsicality. Like other exceptional films of the genre, it manages to precisely tackle two key elements: tragedy and comedy. What I adore about this film is that there is unpredictability in the sense that it is unknown whether a scene will go dramatic or funny. Even in a dramatic scene, they still throw in gently funny moments to keep us from going into a clinical depression. Also, if a character lies about who he is in a children’s film, you know you’re gonna see the “liar revealed” moment. However, when it happens, it hits all the right beats. Also, the ending. Just make sure you have a box of Kleenex with you. I didn’t cry, but I feel many of you will, so I jut wanted to prepare you. You’re welcome.

Max Records, who plays Max, is fantastic. I stated earlier how sad Max is and how he acts out violent towards his mother. Even though this makes him sound like a deplorable, creepy child, Max Records portrays him with such conviction and vulnerability that his actions seem almost forgivable. The filmmakers, also, hit the nail of the head with the voice casting. The voice talents include Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O’Hara, Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker, and Paul Dano, who all infuse their roles with charm and heart.

Of course, the standout voice talent is James Gandolfini as Carol, the leader of the Wild Things. Everyone knows him as a tough Italian mobster in The Sopranos, but I believe he could have a career as a voice artist. He can, impeccably, go from charismatic to profound creepiness.

This has the feel of an independent film, but not the look. This movie is visually spectacular. For the Wild Things, a wide scope of visual techniques was used (CGI, costumes, and puppets) to bring them to life. They look so convincing that you don’t even know what visual technique they are using at the moment. I’d like to think that the mouth movements were CGI, the Wild Things, themselves, were costumes, and these two owls in the movie were puppets, but I’m still not sure. Not only are they convincing, but also they are detailed. When Max jumps on one of them, the fur and body moves exactly how it would in real life, to the point where I could feel them.

I refuse to believe that this film was shot on a soundstage. These sets are some of the most realistic in movie history. Although, to be honest, there were times in some of the dune scenes where I almost knew that it was a soundstage, but majority of it is authentic. But the forest! This was shot on a soundstage? Seriously?

There is one key element that makes this film work: restraint. Restraint encompasses this film. From the many subtle interactions, the visuals and creatures that aren’t shoved in your face, the leisurely pace that allows you to soak in the characters and atmosphere, the inconspicuous score (akin to Juno) by Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs that perfectly compliments every single, solitary scene and helps establish the mood, to the laid-back, crystal clear cinematography.

Spike Jonze may be the ideal person to handle this kind of project. This idiosyncratic director’s credits include Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Hell, he even produced all of the Jackass films and its television show. Did I mention that this film is polarizing? 

While there will be people who adore this film, there will be that group who is unhappily overwhelmed by the depressing nature of the film. What Spike Jonze brings to this film is calculated intelligence. He knows that it would’ve been expected to make the film kiddish. He knows that it would’ve been expected to directly use CGI and heavily rely on pop cultural references. He knows that these issues are adult. He knows that there may be some kids who don’t get it and some adults that may be puzzled by it.

However, he doesn’t care. He didn’t want to patronize kids or insult their intelligence. He knows that when kids go to the movies, it should be a liberating experience and possibly a chance for kids to bond with adults. He didn’t conform to the typical standards of children’s films. He made the film he wanted to make. Once again, I understand that there will be some people who will be turned off by this film. As for me, I enjoyed every wild, funny, and dramatic moment of it.

RATING: Three and three-quarters stars out of four

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

If one were to ask me who my favorite director was, my brain would probably come up with an array of choices, to the point where the answer to that question would remain unanswered. In fact, to this day, that question is still unanswered for me. Until I start seeing more acclaimed films from acclaimed directors, I feel as if an answer to that question would be unwarranted. However, one of my favorite directors would definitely be Steven Spielberg.

Say what you will about some of the choices he makes, but there is no denying that he has established himself as a versatile genius. He has an apt for making stirring, visionary achievements (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Minority Report), intense, gripping dramas (Schindler’s List, The Color Purple), and light, human comedies (The Terminal). One example of a Spielberg film that isn’t great, but not even close to being middling is the light, offbeat, and profoundly compelling 2002 film, Catch Me If You Can.

The movie is a biopic about the life of Frank Abagnale, Jr (not Abagnahlee or Abagnyalee), played by Leonardo Dicaprio. In 1963, his rather happy life with his father (Christopher Walken) and his French mother (Nathalie Baye) is interrupted when his father gets into trouble with the IRS and his father and mother soon divorce. Frank runs away and, eventually, becomes one of the world’s most competent con artists, with his crime of choice being check fraud. Before he turned 19, he had already posed as a Pan Am pilot, a Georgia doctor, and a Louisiana lawyer. However, his breezy and seemingly effortless crime spree gets interrupted when FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) tries to track Frank down and he ends up on the run.

Right from the very opening of the film, you are shown that this film is going to be something special. Online reviewer Doug Walker (The Nostalgia Critic) always says that filmmakers should use the opening credits to allure people in. He would be very proud of this film. Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson have successful incorporated three genres that I previously mentioned Spielberg as being particularly capable at: visionary, comedy, and drama.

Spielberg includes his distinctive visual style, but in a sly way, as opposed to the flashy effects we know him for. As opposed to CGI, he uses animation, clips from movies, and all sorts of cinematography tricks. He, also, fits in his brand of lighthearted, risible comedy and powerfully moving drama. Not only that, but it, also, provides a deeply engaging character study with a subtle cat-and-mouse game.

Like a lot of the great biopics, this film has a great sense of time and setting. After viewing this film, I felt like I had actually been transported to the 1960s. This film is two hours and twenty minutes long, but not once does it ever feel overwrought or protracted. It moves along briskly and easily. Another incredible thing that Jeff Nathanson has pulled off is the voluminous relationships present in the movie, such as Frank with his dad, Frank with his mom, the mother with the father, Carl with Frank, Carl with the other FBI agents, Frank with women, etc. While there is a surplus of relationships, they feel natural and don’t suffocate the viewer with the overwhelming amount. They all provide great interplay, whether it is humorous or melancholic.

Spielberg has assembled a remarkable cast. Leonardo Dicaprio gives a suave and complex performance. He and Nathanson takes a cunning, law-breaking man and infuses him with intelligence, innocence, and desperate guilt, as he slowly mentally digresses into insanity and obsession. These many nuances make his performance the best of his career so far. While he doesn’t look like the real Frank Abagnale, he, most likely, embodies the spirit and character of him, as opposed to his appearance. While DiCaprio displays eclectic emotions, the rest of the cast is serviceable, as well. Tom Hanks gives a strong, complex, and mildly obsessive performance as Carl. As an actor who has, also, appeared in some of Spielberg’s films, he has proved himself to have the versatility levels of Spielberg. I mean, he voiced a toy cowboy a year after he won an Oscar for playing a mentally challenged man. Come on.

Christopher Walken is, also, effective as the father. Walken has pulled off an incredible feat in Hollywood for years. He is one of the most eccentric actors in Hollywood, complete with bizarre mannerisms, physically and vocally. Yet, he still manages to, simultaneously, consistently find work in Hollywood and be a genuinely good actor, despite his awkward whispering and pauses. He can actually pull off dramatic moments. To be fair, while I call him out on being strange, at least he’s not starring in a Bob Clark film about a karate dog (read my previous review).

I mentioned before that Spielberg has worked with Tom Hanks previously. At the time, the only other film they’ve done together is Saving Private Ryan. However, Spielberg has, also, reunited with composer, John Williams, who may be the best film composer ever. He’s usually known for composing the grand, epic scores for Indiana Jones and Superman, but here he helms a smooth, casual score that’s both exciting and is an evocation of lounge music.

As I previously mentioned, the movie does get really dramatic, including during the last twenty minutes. I can’t spoil anything, but believe me when I say that they include some of the most heartbreaking and elegiac moments I’ve seen in film. The conclusion of the film, while not dramatic, is such a perfect way to conclude a film of this type, even if it had to be put in, seeing how it really happened. Once again, I can’t reveal it, but all I’ll say is the way they project the idea that a down-and-out man, who was popular for all the wrong reasons, can rise for all the right reasons will warrant a grin on your face.

Now, as much as I praise the film, it isn’t great and there are a few times where Frank’s motives are a bit opaque. Nevertheless, in conclusion, what do you get when you combine an amazingly versatile director with two wonderfully versatile leading actors? You get one of the most thoroughly entertaining Spielberg films ever. While it isn’t an A-caliber film, I definitely feel you should “catch it if you can.” Ba dum bum!

RATING: Three and a half stars out of four

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Karate Dog (2004)

Oh, Bob Clark, what happened to you? I may not have seen all your movies. In fact, I’ve only seen a few of your movies. However, I’ve seen your resume and reviews of your films to know that you have two sides, akin to Gollum. The first half of your career, from what I can tell, was awesome. Your credits included the 1974 Christmas horror film, Black Christmas, the 1982 comedy, Porky’s, which is one of the most notable and influential teenage sex comedies of the 1980’s, and, how I first knew you, A Christmas Story, that good ol’ Christmas classic you see on TBS for 24 hours that has proudly found a place on my top 10 favorite films. Around this time, the general public saw you as a versatile genius.

Apparently, you wanted to abandon that image of yourself, because a year after A Christmas Story was released, people began to see a different side of you until your untimely death in 2007. A side that left many people confused, baffled, and scratching their heads. A side of you that directed movies such as the 1984 Razzie-nominated film, Rhinestone, the little-seen 1990 film, Loose Cannons, which has gained minor notoriety for placing on Siskel & Ebert’s Worst of 1990 list, and, what many people considered to be the low point of your career, the Baby Geniuses movies.

One of your worst years, other than 2007, was 2004. Around this time, people considered you to be a man who was formerly brilliant, but then, sadly, lost his way. In other words, you never again needed to take a bath, because you were already washed-up. I guess this new image exasperated you, because your final curtain call was a one-two punch of Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2 (currently unseen by me) and The Karate Dog. While this film may not be one of Bob Clark’s low points, it is most definitely not one of his high points.

The movie begins when a Chinese man named Chin Li. I guess that’s an alleged joke or maybe it’s not, but I digress. He tries to obtain a biochemical formula, but he, unfortunately, gets murdered trying. Enter detective Peter Fowler, played by Simon Rex, who is trying to solve the case. Oh, and here’s his character arc. He’s the man who discovers something and tries to help, but nobody believes him and he’s ridiculed by the big man (a.k.a. his boss). However, he works hard and eventually, he is called a hero. How original.

Under circumstances I won’t explain, he eventually gets Chin Li’s dog Cho Cho and discovers that he is the only dog that can talk to humans. Cho Cho requests that he helps Peter out on this case and they eventually encounter the villain, Hamilton Cage, who is not only a dog racetrack owner, but is also planning to sell the biochemical formula, a.k.a. Lot 99, which, unknowingly, has some hazardous effects. However, there’s a flabby subplot involving Peter trying to win over co-worker Ashley (Jaime Pressly), which results in that classic Cyrano de Bergerac joke. Ha ha.

I don’t exactly know what Bob Clark was thinking, but he ended up making a low-rent version of Good Boy. And Good Boy is the low-rent version of Good Boy (even though, Good Boy is a good movie). However, I went into watching this expecting an atrociously inept miscalculation. However, it’s actually not that bad. It’s just middling.

I probably shouldn’t blame Bob Clark for everything about this movie, seeing how Steven Paul and Gregory Poppen wrote it. I, sometimes, appreciate when a movie has silly dog jokes (i.e. Marmaduke and a FEW, but not all, jokes from Cats & Dogs 2), but here the jokes just aren’t very funny, albeit they could be at least passable, if not funny, in another helmer’s hands. To be fair, while there are two urine jokes, these writers don’t delve into too much gross-out, bathroom humor. The humor is just, kinda, insipid and when it tries to be self-referential (for example, when dogs are playing poker at a party and Peter says, “I should’ve seen that coming!”), it comes across as cheesy, inane, and clumsy. There’s even a moment where the film even rips off Baby Geniuses. At about an hour and nine minutes into the movie, a bunch of dogs sing a song, similar to a bus scene in Baby Geniuses, if you closely pay attention.

To the credit of the film, though, there are about two amusing moments in the movie and the script doesn’t include a lot of “epic fail” moments, EXCEPT for an inappropriate joke involving a puppy, an unnecessary moment in the movie that’s supposed to be emotional, but it’s just clunky in the way it’s handled, and a WTF music sequence at the very end that makes the end scene in Furry Vengeance look like Hairspray.

It completely baffles me how Bob Clark can get big-name actors to be in his two-bit films. The role call here includes Chevy Chase as the voice of the dog, Pat Morita (Mr. Miyaki in the Karate Kid) as the deceased old man…

…and then there’s Jon Voight, who plays the villian. 

Why? I haven’t seen many of YOUR films either, but looking at your track record and the fact that you won a freaking Oscar, I suppose you are a competent actor. At this point in his life, I don’t know if he’s trying to intentionally tarnish his reputation or just prove that he’s out of his mind and hope for some psychiatric help, but based on this and Bratz, three years later, he is not on a winning streak, minus his cameo in Tropic Thunder. To be fair, maybe he did Bratz to show that a) he doesn’t need Bob Clark to ruin his career and b) to tribute Bob Clark, seeing how Bob Clark died the same year Bratz was released

He is, honestly, making Christopher Walken mentally sane by comparison. Also, I love the fact that whenever Jon Voight is in a bad movie, he allows himself to looks ridiculous. Hence his big nose in Bratz and his character in this movie, which looks like a cross between Kenny Rogers and Billy Ray Cyrus. However, I’m sure all three of my readers are wondering what I actually think of his performance, seeing how I am just talking about his looks and mental insanity.

Well, he does try, but he’s misguided and awkward. The performances, with the exception of Pat Morita (R.I.P.) are lackluster at best, grating at worst. Even the lady over a loudspeaker in the beginning is monotonous. Chevy Chase, while has a tolerable delivery as a voiceover guy, sounds embarrassed that’s he doing his role. The two performances that were grating, to me, were Simon Rex and Jaime Pressly. Simon Rex is very flat and monotonous. At times where he tries to show emotion, he can’t do it sincerely. Hell, he can’t show emotion, at all. Jaime Pressly, of course, has a nice smile and is very photogenic, but she’s pretty much on the same note as Simon Rex, but at least she shows emotion…when she smiles, but still. Just think of Jaime Pressly after she went to the Kelly Clarkson School of Acting and you’ll get the idea.

The film is, also, technically mediocre. The mouth moving effects on the dogs are actually passable. They could’ve been a lot cheaper looking, seeing the decrepitude of some of his films. Although, I think the people who did the mouth effects were ashamed because in the first five minutes of the movie, he talks, but we never see his mouth move. We don’t even see his face. While there are times where his mouth and voice aren’t in synch, it certainly isn’t the worst I’ve seen. 

Cho Cho, in general, is spotty (no pun intended). At one point he’ll look real, other times he’ll, transparently, be a puppet, and at other times, he is CGI, terribly and transparently so. Mental note to Bob Clark: CGI is NOT your strong point. The fight scenes are amateurishly done. You can tell that the actors are on harnesses. It looks as cheap as when the dog is fighting. That’s really saying something. At times, you can even tell that feet or fists haven’t even struck at certain actors.

The editing is weird and rubbery. There are times where the camera speeds up and even slows down for no reason. I don’t blame the cinematographer, though there is one spinning shot that was redundant. However, the editing is not just flawed visually, but also audibly. There are pointless, childish sound effects thrown in and the score, while at times decent, seems uncomfortably extemporaneous. There are times when the score is just there for a certain situation, even going as far as putting in the “wah-wah-wah” sound effect in one scene. It's so annoyingly pandering.

Now, here I have to do a little ranting on an issue in children’s entertainment that really irks me. Why in the world does children’s entertainment send out a false message to kids that dogcatchers are bad people? Ever since Lady and the Tramp had a dogcatcher character that was actually authentic and humane, children’s entertainment has produced dogcatcher characters that are heartless, cruel, and even inept people. They never have real feelings or reasons for what they do; they are just monsters. Why is that? It may seem like nit picking, but I have rarely seen a kid’s film or television show with a nice, competent, and reasonable dogcatcher. The way the majority of dogcatchers are portrayed in phony, immature, and it’d oughta stop.

Overall, this may not be Bob Clark’s worst film. Until I see his other movies that are allegedly bad, Baby Geniuses takes the prize for his worst film. However, out of all his films, this is most definitely not the one to see. If you want my opinion, I recommend A Christmas Story, as I mentioned earlier. It may be old-fashioned, but it is not only funny and keen, but it evokes a bittersweet sense of nostalgia. The Karate Dog evokes a sense of ennui.

RATING: Two stars out of four