Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Better Tomorrow

John Woo's influential action film was recently ranked #2 on the Best Chinese Motion Pictures list by the Hong Kong Film Awards. Personally, I think this may be an overstatement as to the quality of the movie, but hey - to each his own.

A Better Tomorrow
Director: John Woo
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Ti Lung

I think part of the reason this film is ranked so high on their list is that it broke the box office record in Hong Kong when it was released in 1986. The plot is the typical convoluted gangster actioner involving brothers on opposite sides of the law, loyalty, betrayal, redemption, cops, Triads, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. This is Woo's famous breakthrough film as a director, and his style is on full display here.

I wouldn't call this a "must see" for action fans (unlike Woo's later films, The Killer and Hard Boiled - which you should see immediately), but its influence on the genre is obvious and admirable. If you're a fan of these types of films, you'll definitely like this one. There's no question it's better than Dog Bite Dog, City of Violence, or any of the modern Dragon Dynasty garbage they're pumping out these days (Tony Jaa films notwithstanding). I prefer The Killer and Hard Boiled because they don't have rely on as many emotional moments and they concentrate more on gunplay. I think A Better Tomorrow tries just a little too hard to be a legitimate movie instead of fully embracing the potential that the action holds. Most of Woo's films are heavy on the melodramatics, but this one seems like the worst in that regard. This aspect is corrected in the last scene, a long and glorious shootout sequence near a dock. And while that shootout is excellent, it doesn't hold a candle to the pure 40 minute all-action finale of Woo's masterpiece, Hard Boiled.

Chow Yun-Fat shows flashes of his leading man persona that he refined over the next few years, chewing on unlit matches and influencing an entire subculture into imitating his appearance. (That does it - next time you see me, I'm going to be chewing on a match. It just looks so damn cool.) Both Chow and Woo had been working for years prior to this film, but it's the general consensus (salute) that A Better Tomorrow was the movie that took their respective careers to the next level. This began a legendary actor/director team-up that rivals the most famous in film history.

You already know what type of film this is, and you've already made the decision on whether or not you're going to appreciate it. So the choice is now left in your capable hands (or eyes, as it were). I'll leave you with the trailer, which is actually a fairly accurate representation of the amount of violence mixed with cheesy dialogue you can expect if you see this. [Note: the subtitles and dubbing is terrible in this clip, and looks/sounds nothing like that on the DVD.] Until next time...

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift

TFATF Omnibus continues! Tagline: On the streets of Tokyo, speed needs no translation. That right there gives you pretty much all you need to know about this film and how badly it sucks.

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
Director: Justin Lin
Starring: Lucas Black, Bow Wow

The worst entry in the series so far is inexplicably set in Tokyo, where Lucas Black's character Sean gets shipped off to Japan because...I have no idea. He gets in trouble for racing Brad from "Home Improvement" early in the movie (and CRASHING THROUGH A HOUSE that's under construction), and I guess that's enough to warrant a trip around the world. His Navy Dad (who works for the government - and is not a dark shade of blue) lives in Tokyo, scoring Asian hookers and generally being a waste of oxygen - so it comes as no surprise that his son is a total tool. Sean's eyes are opened to "drifting," a specialized style of racing that involves sliding around corners and using the emergency brake a lot, and immediately gets plugged into the underground scene even though his dad orders him to stay away from cars. There's a girl there, who happens to be the girlfriend of the baddest mofo in town. This kid (I'm not joking) goes by DK - the drift king. Naturally DK doesn't take kindly to this cowboy coming in and hitting on his girl, so a testosterone battle begins between the two dudes. You can only guess what happens from here.

The acting from Lucas Black is some of the worst that I've seen from anyone in a long time. I saw him in Friday Night Lights, and I don't remember being as shocked at his horrible accent as I was when I saw Tokyo Drift. Perhaps that's because in FNL he was in a Texas high school and surrounded by people who spoke the same way, so his voice didn't stand out like it did in Japan. Bow Wow doesn't help the credibility here, but I guess credibility was never a strong suit of this series. Where the heck does Bow Wow (I can't believe I'm typing that...again) get all those products from that he pawns off to the Japanese? Is he selling them at higher prices to make a profit? Why can't those kids just get the stuff from Amazon, then? And where are their parents? These jackholes are wandering the streets every single night causing trouble and getting into fights - even murdering someone in an explosion in the middle of a crowded plaza - and no law is brought into the movie at all. The only cop that is featured clocks some speeding racers and doesn't even bother to track them down. Apparently Japan is a lawless land, the new "Old West" if you will, where anything goes and only the fastest survive. All I'll say is that the acting here makes Paul Walker and Vin Diesel/Tyrese in the earlier film look like Jeff Goldblum and Denzel Washington. Take that as you will.

The camerawork is mundane, the story is piss poor, the music is awful, the set design was amateurish, and the direction is mediocre at best. Justin Lin has no sense of ownership of this franchise - he takes the pre-existing world of the first two and spits in its face, moving everything to Japan and not including any references (save for a three-second Vin Diesel cameo) to the other films. The whole movie is an exercise on how to ruin a franchise. It wasn't fun at all. The "action" was stupid and boring. The little magic left was lost.

Thankfully, the newest film looks much better than this piece of garbage. Even though Lin directs that one as well, at least it is back in America where the series belongs and reunites the cast from the original film. Expect that review sometime in early April. In the meantime, don't bother watching Tokyo Drift to prepare for Fast and Furious - the new film takes place in between 2 Fast 2 Furious and this one. Until next time...

Conspiracy Theory

Richard Donner's Conspiracy Theory reunites him with Mel Gibson in the middle of the Lethal Weapon franchise, but fails to secure the same place in pop culture as that beloved series.

Conspiracy Theory
Director: Richard Donner
Starring: Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts, Patrick Stewart

The plot of this one concerns Jerry Fletcher (Gibson), a New York City cabbie who pumps out a newsletter appropriately titled "Conspiracy Theory." Jerry is obsessed with Alice Sutton (Roberts), a woman who supposedly works for some sort of law firm, private investigation firm, or similar entity - although she never actually does any work. She's too busy digging into the case of her recently-murdered father which has yet to be solved. Jerry forms a bizarre relationship with her over the course of a few months and all of a sudden - away we go! Jerry is kidnapped and tortured by some shady dudes. When he escapes and goes to Alice, she reluctantly does her best to misguide government psychologist Mr. Jonas (Stewart) to buy Jerry some time to figure out what's going on.

The film is decent enough, I suppose. Julia Roberts does a fine job as the tolerant object of Gibson's affection. Gibson himself is spastic, twitchy, and paranoid, but doesn't seem to bring the level of menace to Jerry that the character demands. This presents problems in certain scenes, like the one where he holds a police officer hostage; Mel is crazy but not Taxi Driver crazy. He's not going to shoot the guy, and we all know it. If there was the actual threat that he might pull the trigger, I think the whole movie might have been a little more effective. Patrick Stewart was pretty terrible as the mysterious Jonas, an over-the-top caracature of a villain who has no depth to him whatsoever.

The score was formulaic and boring, not really complementing the visuals in a way that enhanced the experience. The music in this film was good for one thing and one thing only - to get Frankie Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" stuck in your head for days on end.

The ending seemed really thrown together, as if it was screened for some producers who cringed at an unhappy ending and demanded a rewrite. I can imagine the potential original ending, and I would have preferred it to what we actually saw. Events collided in such an unbelievable manner in the theatrical ending that the film blew any sense of authenticity it had going for it. Gibson sputters up all kinds of information in one sitting that he's been trying to remember for the entire movie, and it just seemed disingenuous.

Half-Spoiler Alert

In doing some research for this review, I stumbled across some information that highly influences my opinion of this movie. Project MK-ULTRA, the mind-control program that Jonas practiced on Jerry, was apparently a real thing, and there have been suggestions that the CIA's announcement of the project's abandonment is a cover! Now that I know this stuff actually happened, I view this movie with a little more credibility than I used to. Not that this addition alone makes the whole film realistic - I mean, a winch hooked to the back of a FBI vehicle without them noticing? - but this touch of reality gives Conspiracy Theory a little boost in my eyes.

Fans of Mel and Julia will certainly be pleased with what they see here. This film works as a good blockbuster thriller, complete with the humor and love story that you would expect. If you're looking for something a little more original and twisted, I'd recommend David Fincher's The Game. Until next time...

The Foot Fist Way

It seemed to me that Jody Hill's directorial debut (ahem...this movie) felt like a bunch of friends got together and just made something they loved. It doesn't have that typical Hollywood gloss on it, and -gasp - it's actually funny. Take note, big wigs - you don't have to overproduce the heck out of everything to keep the comedy intact. Let people do their thing more often, and you'll make your precious money back on DVD.

The Foot Fist Way
Director: Jody Hill
Starring: Danny McBride

I heard good things based on the fact that Will Ferrell and Adam McKay's company picked it up for distribution: if those guys thought it was hilarious, then it must be pretty good. The film follows Danny McBride (Tropic Thunder, Pineapple Express, HBO's Eastbound and Down) as Taekwondo instructor Fred Simmons, a black belt who owns his own dojo and teaches people of all ages. He's convinced that he is a "master of the demo," and puts on demonstrations in parking lots to recruit new members. When he finds his wife has been cheating on him, he grabs a couple of his child students and his old karate buddy and takes a trip to visit his childhood hero Chuck "The Truck" Wallace - a character modeled after Chuck Norris. But when "The Truck" turns out to be a total ass, Fred must re-evaluate his life and gain his confidence back.

I'm not going to spoil any of the funny moments here, but rest assured there are plenty in this movie. Many of the lines are vulgar, quotable, and reminiscient of Ferrell and McKay's style of comedy, which would explain the appeal they saw in this movie. The DVD case suggests this film is similar to Napolean Dynamite, and I guess I can see the comparisons. To truly be appreciated, it deserves repeat viewings (which I steadfastly refuse to give to Dynamite) and much of the comedy is derived from the dry delivery from the actors.

Jody Hill's second film is coming out in a few weeks. It's called Observe and Report, and it stars Seth Rogen as an anti-Blart mall cop. The people at Warner Bros.* are actually backing off a little and giving Hill some creative control, so expect funny things on April 10th- I wouldn't say I'm looking forward to it, but I'm sure it will be a whole lot funnier than that stuff that passes for comedy coming out of Hollywood these days. Until next time...

*Once again, this goes to show that Warner Bros. is the ballsiest studio out there. After the way they allowed Snyder to handle Watchmen and now Hill with Observe and Report, they have cemented themselves as my favorite studio right now.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Michael Jordan: To The Max

This is one of my favorite documentaries. I saw it in IMAX when it first came out back in 2000, loved it, and have since bought it on DVD. This is one that I could watch every couple of months and still be excited to see it.

Michael Jordan: To The Max
Directors: Don Kempf, James D. Stern
Starring: Michael Jordan

This movie is hero worship at its best, shamelessly putting Jordan on a pedestal as the film takes us through the 1998 NBA Playoffs. If you're a Michael Jordan fan, or even know who he is, this is unquestionably worth seeing. The film briefly jumps to key points in the career of His Airness, as we bounce from his high school to The University of North Carolina to his stint in minor league baseball. It mixes in some funny shots of him decked out in 80's and 90's gear off the court, doing events for kids, and commercials (is it the shoes?) with Spike Lee. All the while, the story of the '98 Playoffs is unfolding, building suspense for (one of) Jordan's final moments on the basketball court.

His final shot against the Utah Jazz to win the Championship is one of the most iconic in recent years, and seeing it brought to life again in this movie conjurs up my own personal memories of staying up and watching that game when I was a kid. When I saw it happen then, I remember thinking I had just seen something special - little did I know it would one day be the subject of an IMAX movie.

Speaking of IMAX, it's obviously impossible to relive this film on a screen of that size unless they rerelease it for some reason. But the bigger TV you watch this on, the better - it was made to be viewed on a large screen so a lot of the detail is lost on a smaller TV.

As documentaries go, this one doesn't necessarily provide a new glimpse into any aspects of the man's life or make the audience think about something new. Instead, it concentrates on helping the audience remember what it was like to watch the greatest player in the history of the game do his thing. The music accentuates the masterful editing on display here, and whoever made the music choices should have gotten some kind of award. Every song is memorable, catchy, and (most importantly) perfect for the exact moment it is used on screen. If you're looking for an example of how to choose music for a film, search no further.

I don't know if it's because I played basketball as a kid (and still do, intermittenly), but this film has the rare ability to hit me in the right spot emotionally and conjur up feelings of happiness and triumph. I liken the feeling to what I felt while watching Slumdog Millionaire, but these events actually took happened. The endings to each were undeniable, and the manner in which they arrived at their inevitable conclusions were both thrilling and an absolute joy to watch. Until next time...

Friday, March 20, 2009

Little Nemo

How's this for obscure? Little Nemo is a 1989 animated collaboration between two directors and many different animators and screenwriters across the world. The film was in development for over ten years before it was eventually completed and released in the United States in 1992.

Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland
Directors: Masami Hata, William T. Hurtz
Starring: Mickey Rooney, Gabriel Damon

The film is based on Windsor McKay's highly influential comic strip that was known for its "ahead-of-its-time" use of perspective, along with dark subject matter in a comic generally aimed at children. It's definitely a kid's movie, and you can tell by the story: Nemo and his pet flying squirrel Icarus are summoned to Slumberland to be the offical playmates of the Princess. King Morpheus (aka Santa Claus) makes Nemo the singular heir to his throne (even though he has a daughter) and gives him a key to the city with one catch - he must never open the door with the same symbol as the key. Flip, a conniving trouble-maker, convinces Nemo to do exactly that, and unintentionally releases the Nightmare King's black sludge upon Slumberland. Nemo has to step up to the plate and rescue the captured Morpheus before he is brutally slaughtered by the Nightmare King himself, who is basically evil incarnate.

I'm not going to go too far into this one because I'm sure most of you haven't seen it. But suffice it to say that I watched this as a kid and very nearly enjoyed it as much this time around as I did on those first viewings.* The climax of the story, where Nemo basically says variations of the word "pajama" as a spell to defeat the Nightmare King (come on - you didn't really think he'd die, did you?), is ridiculously juvenile to the point where I nearly retched. But as far as kid's movies go, this is one of the better ones that doesn't have the name "Disney" attached to it, and this film's long road to production makes it all the more impressive that it was ever released at all.

Thematically, there are some clear Biblical parallels running throughout (Tree of Knowledge = Door With Key Symbol, Slumberland = Garden of Eden, etc), but it does a good enough job masking these in a way where it isn't preachy to children. There are some songs mixed in for the musically-obsessed among you; while the lyrics are fairly infantile as well, they can still be counted as enjoyable. Not nearly as annoying as, say, the brother and his monkey from Speed Racer.

There are also some disturbing undertones hiding beneath the surface in this flick. Why are a bunch of old dudes (one named Professor Genius) with mustaches hanging out with a little boy? There are no other boys to be found in the entire kingdom of Slumberland, so they effectively kidnap one from the "real world" and bring him there under the guise of playing with Morpheus' daughter. But Nemo actually spends very little time with the Princess before she joins him on his quest to rescue the king - instead, he's thrown back and forth between Professor Genius, Morpheus himself, and the wanted criminal Flip. Sure, none of these subversive ideas were put in there on purpose, and kids wouldn't pick up on these aspects, but as an older viewer you can't ignore them.

This movie went out of print for a long time and just recently came back onto DVD in January of this year. I'm guessing most of you will probably never take the time to watch this, but file it away for when you have kids as something to put on your futuristic version of Netflix. It's actually a pretty decent movie. Until next time...

*Note - my childhood experience may bias me in favor of this film. Objectively, it still has some good qualities to it and is worth watching for an interesting change of pace.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Let it be known that the only film in this series that I had seen prior to this one was Leprechaun: Back 2 Tha Hood. In case you're wondering about the scope of this series, let's take a look at every release in order.

Leprechaun 2
Leprechaun 3 [Ed. note - takes place in Vegas]
Leprechaun 4: In Space
Leprechaun in the Hood
Leprechaun: Back 2 Tha Hood

Don't expect a Leprechaun omnibus anytime soon.

Writer/Director: Mark Jones
Starring: Warwick Davis, Jennifer Aniston

I was kind of excited to watch the original Leprechaun on St. Patrick's Day, but about fifteen minutes in I was practically begging for the film to end. The movie was released in 1993, clearly attempting to ride the wave of horror films before it such as Child's Play and Halloween by cashing in on the "holiday/pop culture figure" formula and exploiting Warwick Davis' height (or lack thereof). I've seen my share of ridiculous horror films (Pterodactyl, Shark Attack 3: Meglodon, Komodo Vs. Cobra, Manquito, Scarecrow 2, The Gingerdead Man, etc), so I feel like I have a pretty solid grasp on what the audience wants to see in a film like this. Unfortunately, Leprechaun did not deliver.

To give the film SOME credit, it actually did capture some of the mythological properties of a leprechaun fairly accurately - or as accurately as myth will allow. I was under the impression that only elves were employed as cobblers (aka shoemakers), but according to the wikipedia entry on leprechauns, they are regularly members of that profession. This tidbit was used to humorous effect late in the film, when the main character was trying to escape and her friends threw multiple shoes at the Leprechaun and he obsessively cleaned them instead of chasing his prey. The villain's manner of dress, fixation on his gold, and child-like nature also contributed to the moderate legitimacy of his portrayal.

The story was excrutiatingly bad, involving a big city girl (Jennifer Aniston in her first film role) reluctantly coming to the country with her dad and moving into a house with the Leprechaun trapped in the basement. She meets with the standard good-natured country boy characters, including one who has autism, and the rest of it is seriously a waste of my time to even type out. This movie was awful. The autistic guy's questionable decisions are understandable due to his condition, but what excuse did the rest of the characters have? One guy repeatedly shoots the Lep with a shotgun, even after it is clearly presented that bullets have no effect other than to knock the Leprechaun backwards slightly. That level of stupidity is inexcusable.

The aspect that disappointed me most about this film was that the kills weren't nearly outrageous enough. Absurdly comical kills are the bread and butter of movies like this, and Leprechaun's kills were so predictable that they weren't even any fun to watch. Show a little creativity - that's what people pay for.

I realize that most of you have no desire to see this, but this warning goes out to the few who might think the film sounds appealing: you think it's going to be one of those "so bad it's good" movies, but trust me - it has no redeeming qualities. Don't waste your time - just watch the video below instead. Until next time...

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Game

David Fincher, the director of such psychological classics as Se7en and Fight Club, brought us this underappreciated film in 1997. While the themes presented aren't anything new (a self-centered workaholic getting his perspective on life back), the manner in which The Game portrays these themes is exceptional and worth watching.

The Game
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Michael Douglas, Sean Penn

For a by-the-book thriller, the writing in this movie was very well constructed. Michael Ferris (who wrote Bloodfist II!) and John Brancato (who co-wrote Terminator 3 and Terminator Salvation with Ferris) weave the audience through the plot in such a way where it's nearly impossible NOT to sympathize with the main character. The film tells the story of a rich investment banker (Douglas) who is given a special gift from his brother (Penn) on his 48th birthday: an invitation to a mysterious live-action event where the lines between reality and fabrication grow increasingly blurry. As he gets further involved in the conspiracy, Douglas' character Nick takes extreme action to find out the truth.

The Game is very similar to DJ Caruso's Eagle Eye in a couple different ways. First, the events that take place in both films are extraordinarily unbelievable when you imagine them happening in real-life scenarios. Second, and more importantly, the actors throw themselves so heavily into the role that any issues you may have with realism don't really matter anymore; you're too busy gripping your seat and wondering how the main character is going to escape the next harrowing predicament. [Don't get me wrong - Eagle Eye is a much more fun experience than The Game, but that's to be expected when David Fincher is involved. The guy doesn't exactly produce buckets of sunshine on screen.] Michael Douglas absolutely nails it as the uptight exec, and plays Nick with equal parts astonishment and anger as he is continually swept deeper into the titular activity. Roger Ebert said Douglas' character was a mix of Gordon Gekko (from Wall Street) and Michael's character from Falling Down, which is as good a description as any.

Fincher's directing is outstanding as usual; this time around he chooses to rely heavily on slow tracking shots that give the film an extra dose of gravitas. He coaxes a great performance out of the always-stellar Douglas, and gets some quality work out of his supporting cast that included Sean Penn, Deborah Kara Unger, and you'd-know-him-if-you-saw-him character actor James Rebhorn. Abundant use of light and shadows add to the mystique, and the cinematography is dark and brooding; this provides a visual parallel to Nick's paranoia and allows the bond between the audience and the protagonist to grow on a subconscious level.

I'd say The Game is definitely an interesting movie. If you're a Michael Douglas fan, then by all means check this out. But even if the guy doesn't necessarily do it for you, I'd still suggest giving this a watch if you're in the mood for a good psychological thriller. Until next time...

Brief Thoughts On Watchmen

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father

Most of you have never heard of this movie. The 2008 documentary follows the filmmaker across the country as he collects interviews about his best friend Andrew Bagby, who was murdered in 2001.

Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father
Writer/Director/Composer: Kurt Kuenne

As the story goes on, we find out that Andrew's killer (a psychotic ex-girlfriend) flees the country and returns to her native Canada, eluding extradition and trial for Andrew's murder. We also discover that she's pregnant with his son.

The movie switches direction, now becoming a movie for Zachary (the kid) to get to know the father he never had. It's powerful stuff, and the way Shirley Turner (the killer) evades the legal system will leave you shocked and angered. The rest of the movie, however, delivers an incredible emotional blow, giving you a sinking feeling that is hard to recover from.

Sure, it's slightly manipulative. But all documentaries are, to some degree. The separating factor between this and other docs is the inherently personal nature of this movie. Most documentaries are made with true passion for the subject at hand. But this is a labor of love for Kurt as he travels across the continent to discover more about his best friend and "make one last movie with him."

I'm not going to say anything else about this film. If you have ever seen a documentary, you need to watch this. If you are into those "true crime" shows on TV, you need to watch this. It will leave you reeling (don't say I didn't warn you), but it's worth it just to see for yourself the absolutely preposterous events unfold while Kurt was filming. Until next time...

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Orange County

I freaking love this movie. Check it out if you haven't seen it.

Orange County
Director: Jake Kasdan
Starring: Colin Hanks, Jack Black, Schuyler Fisk

The story is a relatively simple one: high school senior Shaun Brumder (Colin Hanks, Tom's son) wants to go to Stanford to study with Marcus Skinner (Kevin Kline), the author of a book that changed his life. Shaun discovers Skinner's book after his friend Lonny dies in a surfing accident, and our protagonist decides he wants to become a writer - the thing is, he's got the grades and talent to accomplish this goal. But thanks to his bumbling guidance counselor (Lily Tomlin) who sends in the wrong transcript, Shaun is shocked to find a rejection letter from Stanford waiting at home. Desperate, he takes his animal-loving girlfriend Ashley (Snow Day's Schuyler Fisk) and drugged-out brother Lance (Jack Black) up to the school to talk to the Dean of Admissions (Harold Ramis) as a last-ditch effort to get in.

Let me start by saying that this film is not "great" on an epic scale - it's no Shawshank Redemption or anything - but for some reason, it connects with me on such a personal level that I get the same feeling of happiness every time I watch it. The fantastic script by Mike White is brilliantly conceived and even better executed under the direction of Jake Kasdan. The story mixes comedy and heart with a "one night adventure" that is much more pure than the likes of its contemporaries. I don't know if my reason for liking this film is because I heavily relate to the main character or what - my family isn't dysfunctional or anything, but the film effortlessly makes the characters easily relatable.

Jake Kasdan is the son of famous writer/director Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote the screenplays for Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. The elder Kasdan directed many of his own films after the massive success of his first few attempts, and the skill has most certainly been passed down through the family. I've seen this film many times over the years and strangely this is the first time I noticed this father/son connection. Jake takes 2002's Orange County very seriously, and his love for the project shines through to near-palpable effect on screen. He very adaquately switches camera styles - from "wild" on the road trip to Stanford to "contemplative" when Shaun is considering his future profession - and essentially alters his directing to fit the script instead of reworking the script to fit his particular style. This is yet another example of Kasdan's respect for the source material.

(Spoiler alert for a seven-year-old movie ahead)

Speaking of which, Mike White's script is easily the highlight of this movie for me. The School of Rock scribe might have (I hate to say it) hit his career peak early with this one, as the rest of his films don't have quite the same multi-layered brilliance as Orange County. Let me explain: the film has a piece of metafiction within the story (Shaun's novella, entitled "Orange County") that doubles as a commentary on the film that we are actually watching. If this is confusing, fear not - I'll try to make this easy. When Shaun finally meets Marcus Skinner at the climax of the story, Skinner critiques his novella in such a way that directly applies as commentary to the film version of Orange County. In this bizarre alternate commentary universe, writer White takes the place of Shaun, and Kevin Kline's Skinner steps in as White's ideal film critic. When Skinner tells Shaun he has real love for his characters, he's speaking to White himself. When he describes Shaun's conflicted relationship with the place he grew up, White is again talking to himself through the pages of his screenplay. I can only assume this was a cathartic experience, since looking at it from a certain angle suggests a severe level of egotism that I don't believe the writer possesses. Added to this the fact that Mike White is gay in real life (which he even pokes fun at in the scene where Shaun tells his father he wants to be a writer), so it's easy to assume that he may have had his own conflicts with his family and the place he grew up. In any case, it makes for an interesting discussion and the metafiction adds a fresh component to an already sensational script.

Real quick - and I know this isn't a real profound thing to say, but I wanted to point out one of my favorite parts of the movie for other fans out there. As I'm sure most of you do, I loved how Shaun ran through the cheerleaders dancing to "Butterfly" only to discover when he finally gets to Stanford that the girls there are doing the exact same dance. What a great microcosm of the whole film.

Another staggeringly good aspect of this film was the music. The score was average, I thought, but in this case I'm speaking about the soundtrack. (There is a difference, you know.) Every song seemed perfectly chosen for the moment it was featured; there was never a time where I was "taken out" of the film because of a jarring musical choice. Granted, I'm not familiar with all the songs that were in the movie, but perhaps that is why I enjoyed the soundtrack so much - instead of constantly being inundated with flavor-of-the-week popular music choices, the filmmakers chose to present lesser-known tracks that actually melded with the greater overall work. This rationalization was surprising because Orange County is actually an MTV film - kudos to them for not pumping their usual garbage for promotion sake and compromising the movie. And Crazy Town can thank this film for extending their 15 minutes of fame into a solid half hour. Come my lady, come, come, my lady...

While the supporting cast was great in The River Wild, they are legendary in Orange County. Chevy Chase, Lily Tomlin, Harold Ramis, Catherine O'Hara, Ben Stiller, John Lithgow - an unbelievable assembly of comedic talent gathered for one flick. The relationship Shaun has with his family is something the seems very feasible in the real world. O'Hara and Lithgow both play kind of one-note characters, and the rest of the supporting cast is basically reduced to glorified cameos, but they get the job done in top form.

The real standouts are the leads. Some suggest Jack Black plays a supporting role better than a leading man role (which I would counter by saying that he was great in Peter Jackson's King Kong as a dramatic lead). Schuyler Fisk has really fallen off the acting landscape recently, but apparently has her own band nowadays and her debut album went number one on the iTunes folk charts. Regardless, she was great as Ashley the girlfriend - not obnoxiously attractive, but cute in a "long-lasting girlfriend" kind of way - and I think she was written as an intellectual peer of Shaun's in a world of drug users and drunks. I totally bought their relationship one hundred percent. But Colin Hanks is the one who steps to the plate in his first major lead role and holds this film on his shoulders. He's excellent as the over-achieving Shaun, and signs of his father's skill are evident and numerous. I don't understand why the guy isn't in more films - he's a remarkably gifted actor who can play multiple types of characters (I guess that would be the definition of "gifted actor," huh?)

In any case, Orange County remains one of my favorite films for reasons that I just can't fully explain. All I can suggest is that you see it and hope that you find the joy in watching it that I get every time I throw it into my DVD player. Until next time...

Monday, March 9, 2009

What I've Been Watching, Episode 3

As promised, the link to the first episode of The Epic sequel: The Interdimensional Travels of the Triforce 20 - Episode One: The Edge of the Universe. Until next time...

The River Wild

Welcome back to March Madness at Ben's Movie Reviews. We got off to a slow start, but things are starting to pick up around here. After the cinematic disaster known as City Hall, I went back and re-watched The River Wild, a 1994 movie starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon. I know - it's hard to believe I would watch a Meryl Streep film on purpose once, let alone multiple times. Shockingly, she's actually watchable in this one - in fact she's more than watchable, she is the heart that keeps this movie pumping.

The River Wild
Director: Curtis Hanson
Starring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Bacon, John C. Reilly, David Strathairn

Director Curtis Hanson (LA Confidential) does a great job of building suspense in this movie, which mostly takes place on a river. Streep plays Gail, a former river guide who now lives miles away in Boston with her estranged workaholic husband Tom (Strathairn) and their two children. They decide to take their oldest, Rourke (Joseph Mazello, the kid from Jurassic Park), across the country for a trip down the river for his birthday. But when they run into a couple of other campers on the trip (Kevin Bacon and John C. Reilly), things slowly start to get interesting. I'm not going to spell out any more of the plot, because I think this one is worth watching and recommend that you check it out.

Barring some astonishingly stupid occurances (a guy punches someone under water, then later that same guy literally falls off a cliff face into the water and survives), The River Wild delivers a pretty realistic account of a white water rafting trip gone wrong. The camerawork was impressive, getting right in the boat with the travelers as they tear through waves and churn over small waterfalls to dazzling effect. While having a decidedly "90's" feel, the film holds up easily to today's standards and deftly balances the familial aspect with the menacing treachery featured later in the story.

What really makes The River Wild worth watching (besides Streep, as much as it pains me to say that) is the fantastic supporting cast. David Strathairn (who you'd recognize, but probably won't know by name) was great as the meek but resiliant father, reminding me of how much I enjoy his work. Kevin Bacon was exceptional, and John C. Reilly turned in a passable performance before he gained the star power he has today. Even Benjamin Bratt shows up in a small role as a Forest Ranger.

Much can be said about Streep's character Gail: she represents a positive step for women in action films since she's the protagonist and main character. Her strong personality, especially paired opposite her docile husband, is brought to the forefront of this film and gives the audience someone to root for over the course of the movie. Gail's complete dominance over all of the men in this film borders on the indulgant, but her history with the river provides all the leverage she needs to exert her authority. She even grabs the ultimate phallic representation, a gun, and symbolically "fires one off," something that none of the men in the movie seemed to be able to do - physically or metaphorically. Denis O'Neill, the writer, makes damn sure we know this is a woman's world, and Mother Gail is the only one equipped to handle Mother Nature.

I think most people will enjoy this film - it's a good blend of action, thriller, romance, and suspense. The feminist agenda is handled smoothly, and shouldn't be a turn-off to any Rambo-loving action junkies out there. Until next time...