October 21, 2009

Black Dynamite (10/21/2009)

Lettergrade: D-

The trailer for Black Dynamite might be the funniest two minutes I've seen recently. The movie itself is about 10 times funnier... and by that I mean that it's funny for around 20 minutes. After that, the road gets a little rough and patchy, and after that still, the car veers off the road entirely and bursts into flames.

The flick is a parody of early 70s Blaxploitation films, and I don't mean the more respectable ones like the Shaft movies. Instead, Dynamite draws inspiration from the likes of Rudy Ray Moore's no budget Dolemite movies, with a strong allusion or two to other classics like The Mack, Coffey, and Superfly. The result is a crazy - and at times intentionally incoherent - farce in the style of the "Fist Full Of Yen" segment from The Kentucky Fried Movie. I cannot really recommend it to anybody, even to people who usually like this sort of thing, in spite of a handful of really big laughs.

I sought out a lot of the pictures that Dynamite mocks myself while in high school, and my reaction to each of them was almost always the same: I would initially laugh at all the cheesy 70s stuff and at the questionable filmmaking: the highly dated music, the grade Z art direction, the lousy camera work, the crappy editing, and of course the repetitive as hell dialogue that manages to be dazzlingly free of subtlety. Black Dynamite works hard to recreate pretty much every one of those elements, up to and including the moment about 1/3 of the way into the movie where it dawned on me that these curious cultural artifacts, while mildly amusing, really aren't worth the time it takes to watch them.

Michael Jai White co-wrote the script and plays the title role. He's had a number of small parts in big movies, and large roles in flicks that went directly to video. In spite of the fact that I can't really recommend the movie, White impressed the hell out of me, both with his charisma and comedic chops, but also with excellent martial arts skills. I'm glad he got to show off his talents in this movie, and I'm hoping it won't be too long before he's given the opportunity to do so again in a much better one.

Like the Robert Rodriguez half of Grindhouse, the film is fatally concerned with recreating a particular look. Deep down, I suspect that most audiences get little pleasure from films that are made to appear intentionally crude and crappy like this. I'm sure that even casual film goers get the idea, but there's a big "so what?" factor that comes into play after only a few minutes. Compare Dynamite's approach with that of another staple of my youth, Keenen Ivory Wayans' far superior I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, a picture which parodies the same source material to wonderful effect, but rarely targets the technical shoddiness. I think people tend to remember what movies were about and how they made them feel rather than what the film stock was like.

Another big assumption the Dynamite script seems to make is that the 70s Blaxploitation movies existed without much of a point, and that's not entirely true. Although there's plenty to laugh at in those movies, it is important to note that they were also some of the first movies made by the black community, featuring actual black actors who weren't appearing as thugs, or as waiters and butlers, or as dumb comic relief.

And by and large, they _did_ have a point. The lead characters, often wrapped up in some kind of detective / crime plot, were usually strong symbols of black empowerment. They were smart, tough, and knew how to outsmart the bigoted white guys who were trying to push them around. The story-lines frequently had them attempting to do good for the local community and fighting for some kind of worthy cause... trying to help orphans or attempting to rid the neighborhood of crack (or in the case of Black Dynamite, both: He's trying to help orphans who are addicted to crack!). In spite of the moral shadiness that existed in most 70s cinema of the day, they were still strong protagonists unlike most of cinema's African American characters that had come before.

The ethics, however, were always a little questionable: Drugs in the neighborhood were usually no-go, but being a pimp and having thriving prostitution business seemed to be a-ok. These pictures were clearly made with a buck in mind (let's not forget that it is called Blaxploitation for a good reason), but they were also about more than that on a social level.

Dynamite's aim is to celebrate the cheesiness of those movies, and perhaps aspects of African American culture, both from then and today, which whiteys like myself just might not be equipped to appreciate or understand. Nevertheless, I'm attempting to evaluate it purely as a movie on its own merits, and by that standard, I must say that I get the feeling that this is one of those films that was thought up while a bunch of friends sat around drinking and watching TV one night. Everyone involved seems to have had a great time, but the finished film, which knocked around for a year or two before finally getting distribution, tries to sustain itself on a series of bizarre jokes that I suspect are too insular for most people to get, and do not even come close to adding up to satisfying movie.

October 18, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are (10/18/2009)

Lettergrade: complicated.

Where The Wild Things Are is one of those movies that I have a ton of respect for, but did not especially enjoy watching. The look, feel, and style evokes a magical kind of retro 70s nostalgia which in many ways perfectly captures the emotional spectrum of what its like to be a kid who feels neglected and lonely. My issue is that the movie is almost all about feeling with very little story. I want to acknowledge that the approach that director Spike Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers took in adapting Maurice Sendak's beloved children's book is wholly appropriate and perfectly valid, but I guess I just need a little more from a movie myself for it to really take off.

My sister tells me that my grandmother had a well-worn copy of Sendak's book, originally published in the 60s, and read it to us often while we were growing up. Of that I have virtually no memory, and therefore I cannot really comment on how faithful Jonze was in making his adaptation. As I understand it, the basic story is the same, only with a few more illustrative incidents which were inserted to flesh out the characters more thouroughly. Another change, apparently, is that the wild things are named in this version and have more distinctive personalities which seemingly mirror Max's life and emotional spectrum more closely.

One thing I will heap tons of praise on the filmmakers for is the decision to have the Jim Henson Creature Shop design suits for real people to wear on the set, rather than do the monsters as all-computer generated entities. For one, it probably helped 12 year old Max Records achieve the excellent performance he turned in, but on another level, seeing actual, tangible things running wild through the forest instead of having been pasted in via computer added to the soul of the picture immeasurably. The faces are digital, however, and are expressive and emotive in ways that would be tough for any puppet to match. I think Jonze understood the value of both technologies perfectly and made the best possible use of each.

My father-in-law observed that the tantrum-prone Carol, the monster that James Gandolfini voices, has a number of interesting parallels to Tony Soprano, not the least of which is his penchant for taking out his anger violently and without much thought of the consequences. Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O'Hara, and Forest Whitaker provide the voices for the other creatures, although to be honest with you, I had a tough time identifying any of them before I saw their names in the closing credits.

Jonze actually shot his first version of the picture in 2007, but Warner Bros. freaked at the dark, impressionistic nature of the story and threatened not to release it all. After some extensive and recutting both Jonze and WB wound up with a picture they felt honored the book and calmed the nerves of the twitchy executives.

I don't have much else to say about the picture, frankly, but want to take a moment to acknowledge that the film's theatrical trailer is probably among the best I've seen. The use of the Arcade Fire song set against the beautiful design of the monsters and the tactile pleasure of seeing them all romp around the forest, simply combined into something almost breath-taking for me. With a trailer so good, perhaps it was only inevitable that the film itself wouldn't pack the same punch. Nevertheless, although it is a picture I didn't feel much for myself, I recognize that there's a lot of great stuff happening here, and I think the current state of family movies is better off with a movie like this around than without.

October 4, 2009

Toy Story 1 & 2 in 3D (10/04/09)

Lettergrade: A (for both movies, but not really for the 3D)

It's rare that I pass up the chance to see a re-release of a beloved older movie, and that's doubly true when we're talking about movies that are as much fun as much as the two Toy Storys. Disney / Pixar decided to convert the pictures for the recently resurgent 3D craze and have put them back into theaters for two weeks only, ending October 16th. The occasion, says Disney, is for the 15th anniversary of the first film, although some simple math reveals that the 1995 picture is only 14 years old presently (Toy Story 2 is celebrating 10 years, though). The real reason likely has more to do with the fact that Toy Story 3 is due out next June, and a release like this is probably a big boost to public interest and merchandise sales. Whatever the motives, it's a treat to get to see the movies in a big theater and with an audience again.

Now that Pixar has released ten theatrical features - each, it seems, more visually sophisticated than the last - it is interesting to open the time capsule, re-experience the first and third movies they made (A Bug's Life fell between them), and examine the spark that kicked off this monstrous computer animation wildfire that has dominated children's features for most of the last decade.

Ah, 1995... Tim Allen's comedic talent seemed limitless, Tom Hanks had just won back-to-back Oscars for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, and only the year before The Lion King marked the high point of Disney's traditional animation renaissance of the 1990s (arguably) and eclipsed Aladdin and Snow White And The Seven Dwarves as the highest earning animated film (a title it still holds!). What in the world was this all-computer-animated movie that this semi-obscure San Francisco company was putting out?

As the endeavor seemed risky at the time, the Pixar folks latched onto the growing trend of getting well-known celebrities to lend their voices to animated characters, only on a much bigger scale than had been done previously. Not only did Toy Story count on Hanks' and Allen's popularity to drum up audience interest, but it also recruited highly popular voices like those of John Ratzenberger, Annie Potts, and famed insult comic Don Rickles in order to both attract wide demographics and to give the very plastic-looking screen characters some built-in life and personality. Another unusual selection was that of Randy Newman to write the film's songs and score. In addition to his rock albums, he had only scored eight films at that time and nearly all of them were dramas. He had never written songs aimed at a younger audience prior to that, nor had he had a scoring assignment that required him to write busy, punctuational music the likes of which a picture like Toy Story needed -- attributes which have both come to define his career in the years since.

Watching the first Toy Story again for the first time in years, I was struck by the emotional complexity of the writing. Just in case you you're new to the movies, the idea is that when children turn their backs or leave the room, their toys come to life: They talk shop, complain about the job (sometimes), and they freak whenever a birthday or holiday rolls around as it means that new toys will be heading to the toy chest and might replace one of them. That's what happens to Woody (Hanks) who is pushed from his role as Andy's favorite and the leader of the toy family when the pompous and deluded Buzz Lightyear (Allen) arrives. After suffering indignity upon indignity, Woody's jealousy leads him to attempt to push Buzz out an open window, but a series of events winds up getting them both lost out in the real world.

While the picture as a whole is still undeniably solid, the first part felt a little unsure of itself to me this time, almost like the filmmakers had introduced too many celebrity toys and then didn't quite know how to balance them all. A curious thing I was reminded of is that Rex repeats several of Cripin Glover's lines from Back To The Future for no clear reason. Perhaps they attempted to get Glover to do the voice himself at one point, but in any case the final performance was done by The Princess Bride's Wallace Shawn. Also, I was struck by what a dick Mr. Potato Head is pretty much throughout the picture, but hey, it's Rickles.

During the first section, there are many rapid-fire jokes that wink at the camera a bit and feel like the product of a writer's room rather than an organic screenplay. The story really begins to work when Woody and Buzz get left behind at the gas station, go to to Pizza Planet, and then on to Sid's Room, a den of horrors for lost and mangled toys. The visual style seems a bit crude by today's standards, but there are still some stand-out sequences, like the whole rocket chase toward the end of the picture.

As good as the first picture is, 1999's Toy Story 2 manages to top it in nearly every category, above all, story. The jokes this time brim with originality and confidence, and the some sequences, like Jessie's song, are still as good as any the company has done. Although Pixar has since made pictures that have lapped it several times over in terms of visual beauty and sound design, I will maintain that they've never matched it in terms of content.

2 finds Woody having nightmares about becoming old and unwanted after a rip in his arm causes Andy to go to cowboy camp without him. Through a series of events, Woody winds up in the penthouse apartment of a toy collector with some other toys inspired by the same 50s TV show: Jessie The Yodelin' Cowgirl (the brilliant Joan Cusack), Stinky Pete (voiced by Kelsey Grammar, rehashing his Sideshow Bob persona a bit), and Bullseye The Horse, who does not talk. Each represents a different way of dealing with hurt and neglect. Bullseye goes after affection like a needy puppy, Jessie, having been owned and discarded by a girl in the 70s, is wounded and cautious about letting anyone else in again, while Stinky Pete, having been trapped inside his packaging for the whole of his existence and never played with at all, seethes with an unctuous rage that erupts in a startling way during the picture's third act.

Thematically, the picture quickly becomes a very philosophical look at the ideas of aging and, I guess, death. Will Woody choose to stay with the collector's items and have immortality behind a glass case in a Japanese museum, or will he decide to fill the purpose for which he was made, and risk being damaged or discarded someday? Pretty heavy stuff for an animated film for children: Let's see one of those crappy Shrek sequels try to get anywhere close. While Woody rediscovers his roots and lets his value go to his head, the other toys from Andy's room, led by Buzz, stage a rescue mission to go out into the world, Dirty Dozen style, and bring Woody back.

So many scenes in this movie are pure brilliance... Buzz encounters another Buzz toy in Al's Toy Barn who, like him in the first movie, has yet to realize that it's not the _actual_ Buzz Lightyear but a mere action figure. The movie further exploits the notion that the Lightyear toy line is a shameless knock-off of various Star Trek and Star Wars standards by introducing a maniacal Emperor Zurg toy who has a climactic face-off with both Buzzs late in the picture ala The Empire Strikes Back. Several sequences like the scenes where the toys cross the street under traffic cones, where Woody attempts to retrieve his detached arm from the sleeping toy collector, and the whole chase scene at the end, also still rank among the best that Pixar has done.

During the screening, I was thinking that there isn't anything especially enlightening about seeing the two movies back to back like this, and I believe that's true, but the comparison does highlight the advancements between the two like the much more thoughtful use of sound, and the more confident handling of the story material. By Toy Story 2 they really had the "secret world" formula down: A formula that they attempted one too many times in 2001's Monsters, Inc., which still holds the title of my least favorite Pixar flick, and awkwardly tried to modify again for 2006's Cars, although the sort-of twist in that one is that cars existed in the place of humans, ala Planet Of The Apes.

As I've written about previously, I'm very much _not_ a fan of 3D, particularly with older movies like these two which were not produced with the effect in mind. I find the 3D effect to be minimal and almost non-existent, and therefore the glasses only serve to make the picture dimmer and less-clear, and the colors less vibrant and effective. That opinion remains pretty much unchanged by this, although the opening of part 2 did kick five kinds of ass in 3D. Still, if given the choice, I'd rather see the movie in 2D, looking bright and crisp.

The two Toy Storys represent classy, expertly done CG animation at its best -- before everyone and his uncle starting making them en masse, junking the genre up with such disposable trash as the Ice Age trilogy, Space Chimps and pretty much every CG picture that Dreamworks Animation has put out (with the exception of Shrek 2 and Kung Fu Panda). In a way, Toy Story 2 ends so perfectly that I'm dreading the third picture's release. Regardless, however, these movies are a wonderful part of recent film history and getting out to see them in a theater is a lot of fun and a trip worth making.

My review of Up

My review of Monsters Vs. Aliens

My review of Kung Fu Panda

My review of Shrek The Third

October 2, 2009

A Serious Man (10/02/09)

Lettergrade: B+

A running motif in Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man is the long winded morality tale that ultimately has a puzzling, unclear meaning. In fact, that's kind of what the film itself is too. Although the dark blend of comedy and tragedy set in 1967 Minnesota is extremely entertaining, I'm not sure I've got much more than a long-shot suspicion about what, if anything, I'm supposed to take from it.

The movie centers around Larry Gopnik, a meek math professor who's life begins to unravel a few weeks before his son is to be bar mitzvahed. His wife announces that she's leaving him for another man, his brother (played by character actor Richard Kind - one of the few actors in the picture, along with Coen alum Michael Lerner and Spaceballs' George Wyner - that I actually recognized) has been living on their TV room sofa for months with no signs of departing, and a failed bribery scheme by one of Larry's disgruntled students is threatening his tenure.

Larry's response to much of this is pure inaction, a running theme in several Coen movies, but particularly reminiscent of Billy Bob Thorton's character in The Man Who Wasn't There. The morality tale motif pops up often throughout the picture as Larry tries to make sense of life's many turns of fortune, and what, if anything, God has in mind for us. He seeks the advice of all three Rabbis at his temple, but gets little more than complex metaphors that don't seem particularly enlightening.

Special attention in the film is given to Larry's son Danny, who is about the same age in '67 as Joel Coen would have been. He's not quite the main character, and the Coens claim that very little about the film is biographical, apart from its setting, but nevertheless his scenes preparing for the bar mitzvah, bored out of his mind in shuhl, and smoking dope with his friends seem to make up the driving center of the movie. Many a filmmaker, from Martin Scorsese to George Lucas to Rob Reiner, gets around to making a picture that captures the texture of their youth at some point, and this might be as close as the Coens will get.

As it's a Coen movie, the film is populated with a wide array of bizarre characters and odd looking people with deep eccentricities. The picture is impeccably well shot and has particularly amazing sound design, even by their standards.

A large point of controversy will likely be the film's conclusion, which rivals No Country For Old Men in terms of its abruptness and lack of closure. I must admit that I don't really find it all that satisfying myself. Would I have liked an ending that offered a bit more of a clue as to what the last two hours were supposed to add up to? Sure. An odd thing about Coen movies, though, is that even when they're a little antagonizing and difficult to access, as I found The Big Lebowski in particular to be when it was first released, I wouldn't trade the pleasure that I often have in watching them, and in watching them again.