Friday, February 28, 2014

The Cinema File #321: "Pompeii" Review

Paul W.S. Anderson is a hard man to defend, but here goes. Best known as the director of the seemingly endless Resident Evil film franchise, its easy to forget that he's also the man behind the underrated horror thriller Event Horizon, the passably entertaining Soldier, and of course...MORTAL KOMBAT! Okay, sorry, that doesn't work as well in print. Just imagine someone screaming it while Lords of Acid kicks on in the background. Not enough? Well, what about the fact that despite the similar naming scheme, he is in fact not Paul T. Anderson, and thus at no point had anything to do with The Master? Still not convinced? Well, in that case, his latest film Pompeii probably won't sway you either, as you're likely one of the millions of Americans who had something better to do over the past few weeks than go see it, which is a shame, because it might just be the one to tip the scale.

Pompeii follows various residents of the titular island just before the one event that makes it notable for you, namely the famous volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that buried an entire city in ash and preserved many unsuspecting citizens as haunting statues. Much like Titanic, The Hindenburg, or any disaster movie predicated on a real historical event, Pompeii suffers a bit from the expectation game. We know what’s coming and how it’s going to turn out, and even as the signs become more ominous, there’s a pallor over the whole thing as you can’t help but feel like its all already over except for the shouting and running. There’s always something somewhat arbitrary about the “stories” in these kinds of movies, where regular people go about their lives only to be assaulted by an unforeseen event in which they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because the whole movie can’t just be about survival, there’s a stark disconnect between the characters and their ultimate fate, and the trick is making sure the set up is interesting enough to justify sticking with it until all hell breaks loose.

For the most part, Pompeii delivers on this score, owing mostly to Anderson’s skill with superficial storytelling wrapped in really pretty action movie packaging. That sounds like a thinly veiled insult, but as we follow along in this tale of star-crossed lovers amid the ancient Roman practice of slave on slave battles to the death, it quickly becomes apparent that the emotional depth of the story doesn’t really matter all that much in the long run, because we all came here for the explosions. Though romance is central to the plot, most of the time is spent on a Gladiator-esque historical action piece that mostly works, centered around two unlikely comrades first pitted against each other, only to unite against their common oppressor just before the catastrophe gives them their chance at freedom. John Snow from Game of Thrones and Mr. Eko from Lost certainly make for a better buddy movie than the recent Ride Along, and unlike most of Anderson’s movies, they prove to be protagonists you can actually bring yourself to care about.

You may remember that the last time Anderson tackled a historical drama, it was the laughably garish Steampunk adaptation of The Three Musketeers, a movie set mostly aboard several Jules Verne inspired air ships that was too silly to be taken seriously but not silly enough to be entertaining. This time around, he’s a little more respectful of history, which isn’t to say that Pompeii is a historically accurate representation of the famous city pre-volcano, just that there isn’t anything so obviously goofy as to compare it to, say, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (except perhaps the protagonist’s sudden horse whispering ability). If anything, a few high concept flourishes might have made the movie a little more engaging, considering the whole story is built around a disaster that’s obviously not coming around until the third act. Without succumbing to the excesses of last year’s 47 Ronin, a bit of ambiguous mysticism or anachronistic technology would not have felt entirely inappropriate in this setting, especially given how massive the natural disaster proves to be.

Ironically, the least interesting element of Pompeii might actually be the eruption and resulting chaos, if only because the age of CGI has largely neutered this genre of any real impact even as it has revived it for modern audiences. With computers, technically we are able to see more of the carnage in much greater detail which on paper sounds like a good thing, but the trick to disaster movies is being able to feel like you’re right there with the people involved, feeling the tension as they feel it, which is a lot harder to do when they’re not actually there. Of course, the U.S.S. Poseidon wasn’t actually upside down in the middle of the ocean, but it at least looked like a real upside down ship from the inside, enough that you can suspend your disbelief when the water starts flooding in. The destruction of Pompeii is depicted well enough, if a bit perfunctory, but serves more as a backdrop for a chase sequence and final sword fight than an exciting set piece in its own right.

Going back to Titanic, the brilliance of that film was in its use of the disaster movie formula to craft the perfect date movie, with over the top romance in the first half and over the top action in the second. Pompeii attempts to ape that strategy with a similar story of love between social classes threatened by romantic rivals and ultimately interrupted by tragedy, but replaces a lot of the mushy and/or inspirational stuff in between with considerably more sword fighting and punching. In other words, its like Titanic, but pretty much better in every way except for the box office (I’m tempted to say Titanic has the edge in nudity as well, but its Kate Winslet nudity, which doesn’t really count). There, I said it. Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii is better than James Cameron’s Titanic. Choke on it losers.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Cinema File #320: "Knights Of Badassdom" Review

Traditionally, whenever a subset of so-called Nerd Culture is depicted in film or television, it is by those with little direct experience, and no frame of reference to showcase it accurately. The recent gamer-centric film Noobz was a perfect example of this disconnect, employing the laziest cliches of videogame enthusiasts in order to rope in an audience only to then insult them. By contrast, the new LARPer horror comedy Knights Of Badassdom, whatever else you can say about it, seems to at least feel authentically made by and for the specific kind of nerds it focuses on, at least in so far as I understand them via my casual interest in the related hobby of tabletop roleplaying. Other than that however, there's little else positive to say about it.

Knights Of Badassdom follows a cadre of misfit fantasy geeks who inadvertently discover a tome of real magic that unleashes a murderous demon upon a massive outdoor festival. First of all, if you aren't aware of what LARPing is, it stands for Live Action Roleplaying, and its basically one step above what you might picture in a Dungeons and Dragons game, where instead of sitting around a table with dice and paper, participants dress up as the characters they're playing and act out the epic battles with foam weapons and bean bag projectiles. Fringe even among the fringe of old school fantasy gaming, the flourish and Renaissance fair style commitment to staying in character all make this practice rife for parody, which is only the first of many missed opportunities in this film.

After the first act of the movie sets it up, the fact that it takes place in a LARP festival ceases to really matter at all, as the unique premise gives way to a shallow and incredibly disappointing slasher movie formula that isn't even engaging stylistically on its own let alone integrated in a way to make it interesting in context. The supernatural element could have provided the backdrop for a Galaxy Quest style juxtaposition between fantasy fandom and reality, but instead it just becomes repetitive as random characters are introduced as this or that fantasy stereotype in one scene and then disemboweled or decapitated in the next. The main characters barely interact with the monster until the very end, and only after its shed what little personality it had and transformed into a giant puppet monster.

In lieu of an original story befitting its novel set up, Knights seems more interested in stacking the deck with fanservice-y casting, most obviously with Game Of Thrones' Peter Dinklage, who is joined by Community's Dani Pudi in a wasted role, as well as that genre mainstay and most manipulative of nerd-boner fodder, Firefly's Summer Glau. On second thought, to only single one of them out for being wasted is unfair, as none of them are really given enough to do. Most of the action centers around True Blood's Ryan Kwanten as the socially acceptable non-nerd handsome enough to believably get the girl, and Steve Zahn, who I'm pretty sure is trying to play a twenty something despite clearly being in his forties.

Before its release, Knights Of Badassdom was famously delayed for years in post-production, and the final product clearly shows a movie struggling to come together after the fact. There's been some question as to whether the released cut has been butchered by suits, and it certainly seems that way. I can only assume it was re-tooling as opposed to further time spent on effect shots considering how shoddy the effects are and how obviously re-cut the ending is. Without spoilers, a call back to the prologue in the final fight scene appears to be the key at one moment, only for it to fail in favor of a resolution that comes out of nowhere and only exists to remind us that Peter Dinklege was the only thing worth watching in this entire exercise. With so much going for it and so much time to get it right, this movie was definitely not worth the wait.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Saturday Night Live Season 20 Reviews: Episode 2 - Marisa Tomei/Bonnie Raitt (Guest Blog)

“I am not a cowboy nor is my wife a horse. We are simply just two people trying to make love in a school cafeteria.”

Clinton Health Care

2 Stars: President Clinton addresses the nation about how his universal health care bill is good for the nation; you get a first aid kit and can call the health line, which is very similar to the movie phone line.

In 40 years of SNL we have had 7 presidents.  Chase as Ford, Carvey as Bush, Hammond as Clinton, and Ferrell as W. Bush have been the standouts at impressions, not because they sounded or acted exactly like the president they were emulating but because they were caricatures.

This is something SNL has forgotten in years where they don’t have a firm handle on what is funny about the president.  McKean, himself has said he did a subpar Clinton and I would argue that it wasn’t his impression that was off but rather there wasn’t anything to make light of until the Lewinsky scandal broke.

The president talking to the camera cold opens don’t work unless there is something to make fun of.  This is very weird in retrospect to have the president talking about how Universal health care has failed, considering we’re having the same issue now, 20 years later.  Also weird, 20 years later, remember when Moviefone was a thing?

Marisa Tomei Monologue

2 Stars: Tomei defends her Oscar win and recounts her other accomplishments.

Back in 1994 Marisa Tomei was a bit of a punch line.  She won an Oscar for a comedy and the controversy was that Jack Palance read the wrong name off the teleprompter.  Her other wins include winning the Heisman trophy, the year it was hosted by Jack Palance.  She then talks about how she is a real New Yorker, telling everyone about the secrets of Cats, Sara Lee cheesecake and TV guide.  She comes off as cute and very excited to be here.

Paradox Commercial

3 Stars: Car commercial for an ambiguous car

The Paradox car was designed by two teams, one made it affordable one made it expensive, one made it a 2 door one made it a 4 door, so you have no idea what you’re buying.  I think this was a parody of something at the time but I can’t remember what.  Still, I liked this commercial because you don’t have to know the reference to enjoy it.

OJ Simpson Trial

4 Stars: Robert Shapiro invites Mona Lisa Vito to testify at the OJ Simpson trial

The only news story of the year was OJ Simpson but they actually did something with it this time.  This is a definite step up from last week when they had nothing to do, but felt they needed to do it anyway.

Marisa Tomei was an Oscar winner for a court room comedy and now that there is a real court room comedy it is happenstance that the two meet.  I liked Mike Myers in this as Judge Ito, his fawning over Tomei and his outburst of “Shut up Miss Clark”.

The energy is definitely up this week.  I liked the concept of this sketch, that there is absolutely no reasonable doubt that OJ is guilty, but they try to prove one.  Tim Meadows has nothing to do except be a black guy, jumping in as OJ Simpson at the end.  I also liked Michael McKean’s excited Robert Shapiro.

Piercing Today

2 Stars: Talk show about piercing

Tomei comes off as very likeable in this as the host but the whole joke is very 90s, the piercing community is weird.  There were a couple good jokes but it seems written by people who are afraid of a culture they don’t understand, like if your mom wrote a sketch about those crazy hippies and their drugs and sex.  It also lands in the often done talk show sketch land heap.

Bonnie Raitt

Last week we had Clapton and now Bonnie Raitt.  Way to keep in touch with the young crowd.  But as a 30 year old man, who was never into pop culture, nice job SNL.  Bonnie delivers two great blues pop songs.

Weekend Update

4 Stars

So it was Norm’s incessant OJ jokes that got him fired, allegedly, and this one starts off with two.  After the joke about OJ’s newest video, “Dorf on Stalking” the audience boos to which Norm replies, “The crowd is torn”.  Norm seems to be falling into his rhythm here, he’s more comfortable and is letting the gags sink in a little, although he does stumble over some of his lines.  Then something happens after Tim Meadows leaves, Norm is on fire with great jokes and a fast delivery.

Best jokes – Christie Brinkley says that her marriage to Billy Joel was over long before their divorce.  The key moment happened when she realized that she was Christie Brinkley and she was married to Billy Joel.

The FDA states that while 1 ounce of Special K with 4 ounces of milk is a good source of protein.  1 ounce of Special K with 5 ounces of milk is deadly poison.

John Wayne Bobbitt will be playing himself in the John Wayne Bobbitt story; the part of his severed penis will be played by Pauley Shore.

Tim “Lil’ Hockey” Meadows

Nice short little desk piece, the main joke is that black people don’t care about hockey but Tim is distraught about the hockey strike.

Cool Guy expresses his thoughts about popular culture not with words but with facial expressions.

This is less a David Spade character and more of a comment on Norm interacting with guests.  I may be reading too much into this but it’s almost like this is a comment on Norm berating a desk piece.  Norm comments on the fact that this is a bad bit and then after he leaves he says, “You know what’s great about Cool Guy? He’s cool.”

Sex Education Class

4 Stars: Ellliot and Garofalo teach an Adult Education class about sex, Farley and Sandler are disruptive students.

This is an Elliott sketch all the way.  Garofalo called this season “a buy’s club” and I can probably pinpoint this sketch as to why she stated that most of the sketches were homophobic, I mean, the end joke is pretty much a man getting raped.  This is Elliott being Elliott and his seduction dance and his frightened statement of “Sir, that is not a horn” when Farley and Sandler take advantage of him were hilarious to me.  Elliott could have been the Will Ferrell of the cast, and in most ways, he was.  He just wasn’t on at a time when they were looking for that.

Daily Affirmation

4 Stars: Stuart Smalley counsels Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley.

This was a huge story at the time.  Michael is obviously a huge pedophile, allegedly, and he married the daughter of Elvis.  I liked Marisa’s Lisa Marie especially their awkward kisses.  Franken’s Smalley starts to lose faith in his relationship prospects by seeing how in love they are.  It’s a great peek at his character, he always sees the good in people while also being extra hard on himself for being 40 pounds overweight.  This is probably the most fully realized character ever on SNL and the best fit for a movie, he went way beyond a catchphrase.

Monsters of Monologue ’94

2 Stars: Spaulding Gray and Eric Bogosian square off in a wrestling style monologue off.

Michael McKean does a good Gray impression and Adam Sandler does a great Adam Sandler impression.  McKean is talking so fast and doesn’t seem to be reading off of cue cards.  This was interesting but could have been executed better, McKean is committed but the audience is silent.  This may have been too high brow for the show, especially this late in the night.

Bridal Fair 2000

1 Star: A commercial for a convention of knock off brand bridal wear

This is almost un-rateable and reminiscent of the Sports Cruise commercial in the last episode.  It is basically a list of cheap bridal gown stores read by McKean very fast, almost too fast because the speed gets in the way of the jokes.  A scroll of names is not really funny, it would have been better to take the funniest ones and show some stills of the store interiors.

This is just a commercial parody that is only funny for the words, this concept was also done better on an episode of Mr. Show.  Tomei appears at the end of the sketch for no reason.  This could have been a sketch but instead the show decided to scroll names across the screen.

High School Dance

2 stars: Tomei and Sandler are slow dancing at prom.

I thought that this sketch was going nowhere, then it seemed to be going somewhere, then it turned into a gay joke, then it ended.  How great this could have been.  Adam Sandler definitely cracks himself up.


“Yum, Yum, give me some”

Average – 2.7

MVP: Michael McKean (Clinton Cold Open, Paradox, OJ Simpson Trial, Monsters Of Monologue, Bridal Fair 2000).  Although Franken and Elliott were the highlights of my two favorite sketches

Best Sketch: Sex Education Class

Worst Sketch: Piercing Today

How I would have Lorne Michaeled it: Not a bad episode but I definitely would have swapped Piercing Today and Daily Affirmation in the line up.

Host Analysis: Marisa Tomei was very cute and bubbly and really fit in nicely with the ensemble.  She didn’t overpower the show and the cast really got a chance to do their thing this week.  In hindsight, knowing now that Tomei is a very good actress it is easy to forget that she was a bit of a punch line when she first started.

Final Thoughts: This was a bit mediocre but not horrible.  If you took out Piercing Today and had a better cold open then the episode average would have been a bit higher, for statistics fans, if I hadn’t have rated Bridal Fair 2000, this would have gotten a solid 3 star rating.  What you have here is a cast that doesn’t quite gel together.  Elliott, McKean and Franken are all pretty much on their own and for the rest of the sketches you have the old guard of Farley, Sandler, and Myers who seem to be waiting out the clock.  There’s really no fun being had here, it seems like ‘work’ for a lot of the cast.

Up Next: John Travolta hosts at the peak of his new found fame following “Pulp Fiction”.  I remember enjoying this episode the first time I saw it.  I recall a Welcome Back Kotter crossed with Pulp Fiction sketch that was funny and remember Travolta having a good time.  So far, this season isn’t bad, it’s hit and miss but so is every episode of SNL.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Saturday Night Jive - Ugh! (AKA - The Norbit Podcast)

Hey everybody. For our last week before new SNL episodes start up again, the Saturday Night Jive podcast takes on Eddie Murphy's modern classic tribute to suburban married misery Norbit. We marvel at just how long a movie this crass and unfunny could go without a fart joke, question whether a movie can still be racist if there are no white people in it, and believe it or not, try to imagine the GOOD version of this very not good movie. Enjoy folks.


Also searchable on Itunes!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Cinema File #319: "I Declare War" Review

One of my fondest memories as a child is something that went down in local history as The Great Pine Cone War. In retrospect it probably wasn't as grandiose as to deserve that title, as it was basically just a bunch of stupid kids chucking pine cones at each other, but to us at the time it was something more. It was war, and it was fun. I still remember the basins of every house filled to the brim with stockpiles of spiky grenades, the reckless abandon we displayed as we tried to make an already painful experience hit just a little bit harder, and the gobsmacked look on the faces of our parents when they finally came outside to see what the hell we'd been doing all day. The new indie comedy I Declare War captures the essence of this gloriously violent tradition of mock warfare perfectly, exploring a complex facet of adolescence in a way that is all at once endearing, disturbing, and instantly relatable.

The film follows a group of young children playing an elaborate game of play combat that quickly spirals out of control as participants on both sides begin to take things just a bit too seriously, with friendships and innocence at risk of becoming casualties of war. The rules are fairly simple but more than we ever bothered with as kids: If you're shot with a pretend gun, you're stunned until the count of ten, and if you're hit with a red paint filled balloon grenade, you're dead. The winner is whoever captures the other team's flag, or wipes out the opposition completely, whichever comes first. The set up is delightfully familiar at least to any man (not sure how many girls grew up craving bloodshed on the battlefield, though I wouldn't presume to guess either way). At least it is until the actual guns start popping up.

Of course, they're not actual guns, but we the viewers see them that way. Its one of the little fun twists that make this movie work so well. We see the events play out from the skewed perspective of the juvenile soldiers involved, reacting to their reality where sticks tied together and fired with "phew phew" noises are transformed into realistic weapons of war. The closest comparison would be to one of the greatest children shows of the 1990's, The Adventures Of Pete And Pete, where the most mundane events were lent the most intense dramatic weight through the eyes of kids, for whom everything is the end of the world. The juxtaposition of young children holding real guns is no doubt meant to shock, and perhaps it still does for some, but more importantly, it sells the idea of how seriously these kids are taking this game as it plays out, becoming less fun and more harrowing as the day wears on.

As a satire on the genre tropes of war movies, I Declare War is spot on, its main theme presenting itself as an almost Kubrickian cynicism concerning the similarities between real war and the immature games of children. Our hero, to the extent that anyone is a hero in this movie, is obsessed with the film Patton and the Art Of War by Sun Tsu, and his chief adversary is the kind of loose cannon driven to madness by his need for revenge that Telly Savalas might have played in another version of this story. When stock characters like the lone wolf, who wields no weapons because he himself is a weapon, are re-imagined as children, the impulse is to laugh or at least feel uncomfortable for wanting to, but the best part about the movie is that it never tries to be in on the joke. All the actors play it straight and the tone is as serious and hard bitten as possible under the circumstances, which I can only imagine is a much harder thing to do with a cast this young.

I Declare War works on pretty much every level, and it so easily could have failed spectacularly given the delicate nature of what it sets out to accomplish. While it is in no way inappropriate in terms of what it demands of such young actors, it still manages to go to some very dark places and doesn't pull any punches along the way. If they didn't use it already, a good tag line for the poster might have been "It's All Fun And Games Until Someone Gets Hurt," and though the pain in question is largely emotional, it is surprisingly heartfelt and effective even allowing for the silly premise. It doesn't let the satire interfere with the personal story or make the characters feel any less real, managing to tell a story independent of what one might otherwise call a gimmick. Its the kind of movie I might have thought undoable given the risk of screwing it up, but these guys make it look easy.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Cinema File #318: "Old Boy" Review

Spike Lee's American adaptation of Park Chan Wook's modern classic Old Boy came and went from my local cinemas faster than any theatrically released movie in recent memory. Apparently it was just so financially disappointing and critically reviled that it lasted barely a week before being consigned to the dustbin of soon to be VOD trash, and since I'm the guy who just had to see the Oogie Loves movie and InAPPropriate Comedy after hearing how bad they did at the box office, catching up with this was a no brainer. Add to that my unabashed love for the original film and intense skepticism of Lee's acumen for this kind of story, and there was no way I was going to pass up a chance to see this at some point. Well, now I have, and I can officially tell you that as you might have expected, it was not in any way worth the effort.

Hopefully you've seen the original film and know the story, but if you haven't, Old Boy follows a man imprisoned in a makeshift hotel room for 20 years, then mysteriously released and set on a quest for vengeance against the man who imprisoned him, all while unknowingly falling into his enemy's elaborate trap. Its hard to go into any more detail without spoiling it, but surprisingly easy to explain the plot of both films, which are more similar at least in structure and narrative than I would have thought possible. The original film deals with a lot of subject matter that one would think would have to be changed to be made palatable to an American audience, so much in fact that the very idea of remaking the movie for America at all seemed suspect at the start, but amazingly, most of what I thought would be found objectionable remains, albeit in a much more poorly executed fashion.

The biggest change is in the ending, but not the part you might think if you've seen it. The skeevy reveal of a sexually unnerving final plot twist remains mostly intact, with only the much more ambiguous post script made more logical and by extension less impactful. Beyond this the only real changes to the story are on the margins, and even then the aspects that have been removed or tweaked are all referenced in one way or another. A pivotal scene involving the removal of a tongue is taken out, but another severed tongue takes its place, and the squid scene is excised, but a squid appears nonetheless, as if to apologize for its exclusion. One minor change to a torture sequence might actually have been an improvement at least insofar as it seems like a more painful experience than the original depicts, but then I don't want to fall down the rabbit hole of trying to suggest this movie is in any way superior to its source material.

Old Boy, the remake that is, is defined more by how badly it fails to be like the original than by its few attempts to distinguish itself. A notable example is the famous videogame inspired fight scene in the factory, which is redone in such a boring and perfunctory way that you want it to end almost as soon as it starts, which is so far removed from the scene that inspired it, which is engaging enough to justify an entire movie of just that sequence. The majority of the movie goes through the motions of telling this story and gets the beats mostly right, at least to the point where it makes sense and you can follow along, but there's no passion behind any of it. Its a paycheck movie if I've ever seen one, and at the risk of coming across as a pretentious nerd (probably too late on that one), this seems like material that is just a bit too sacred to amount to so little.

Spike Lee is one of those director's whose voice is so unique and personally his own that its as hard to miss as it is to replicate, but his style and skill is practically invisible here. If I didn't know it, I would never have guessed he'd had any involvement, and in retrospect it seems like such a waste. Not that everything he does has to be socially conscious, but its so surprising and saddening to watch a Spike Lee movie that doesn't bother to say anything, and until now he's never struck me as a director who would care enough about mainstream acceptance to produce something this shallow. I'm hesitant to use the phrase "sell out" if only because its kind of lost all meaning in the age of corporations owning everything and everyone (see The Lego Movie), but when one of the few remaining independent people in Hollywood so readily joins up with the rest of the uninspired pack, I can't think of a better term for it.

Josh Brolin does his best to try and capture the American version of this enigmatic character, enough that its clear he's there out of a genuine love for the original film, but there's only so much he can do. In many ways, this story just doesn't work as well in an American context, and while I prefer a more direct translation to a heavily altered interpretation, I'd prefer even more that they just not even do this at all and leave a classic to its own devices. What suffers most in the cultural shift is the villain, played by Sharlto Copely as the kind of obscenely rich creep who can move mountains with his money, and his performance is just laughably bad. Its not just him though; the character doesn't seem to fit as well in this world. The tone is a little too grounded, a little less whimsical, and what was once an elaborate O Henry-esque scheme becomes a convoluted and much too silly contrivance punctuated by gore for the sake of gore.

Spike Lee's Old Boy is the American version of Park Chan Wook's Old Boy in every sense of that term and with all the pejorative intent that it implies. It is American in its lack of subtlety and nuance, its hollow lifeless expression of raw emotion, its shameless and lazy replication of a foreign sensibility, and most importantly, its substitution of dull by the numbers fluff in lieu of actual passion and a love of the craft of filmmaking. Its attempts to cater to a mainstream audience and justify its own existence begins and ends with having white people in it and removing the subtitles, which makes Spike Lee's attachment to the project even more ironic and depressing. Next time a movie spends so little time in theaters that it piques my morbid curiosity, I can only hope that someone will do the right thing and remind me of this debacle, so I won't get into this mess again.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Cinema File #317: "The Monuments Men" Review

Before it was postponed out of last year's Oscar season and dumped into the first quarter of 2014, The Monuments Men seemed like the perfect prestige picture. A World War II era historical drama about the virtue of art and its reflection of humanity with a ridiculously charming all star cast you couldn't help but want to see working together; its hard to imagine how it wouldn't be amazing. Because the deck is so stacked in its favor, it only makes the lackluster final product that much more disappointing, as the film constantly leads you on to assume it must get better and come into its own eventually, but like so many old fat guys in basic training never quite makes it over the wall.

The titular monuments men are a group of experts in classical artwork commissioned by the U.S. Military in the waning years of World War II to ensure the salvage of lost art pillaged by the Third Reich's march of conquest. Impeding their mission are the last remaining Nazis, under orders to destroy their stockpiles on their way back to Germany, and the Russians, America's nominal pre-Cold War ally who feel entitled to steal the art for themselves as payment for helping win the war. Right away this premise lends itself to an exciting treasure hunting adventure evocative of an Indiana Jones movie, a race against time with enemies at all sides, but its perversely designed to take all the bite and intrigue out it.

Based on a true story need not mean a boring or undramatic one, but The Monuments Men doesn't seem all that interested in making the transition from real life to cinematic life. It feels like a direct translation of a non-fictional account without any regard towards re-arraigning the component elements in a way that works in narrative form, with events playing out like staggered vignettes only loosely connected to each other by having the same characters and context. Many of these individual segments are themselves very entertaining, notably the Bill Murray/Bob Balaban and John Goodman/Jean Dujardin threads respectively, but engaging subplots do not make for an engaging movie if the central thrust is so weak, and here, the film's lack of cohesion causes it to start losing steam almost as soon as it starts gaining it.

What's more, the entire movie is far too pre-occupied with attempting to justify its own existence. George Clooney has at least three very long and passionate speeches including the final denouement in which he is basically explaining why the audience should be interested in the events depicted in the film. That this desperate need for validation is also reflected in the story itself, with the entire operation considered a pointless endeavor by those lacking in artistic appreciation, makes the meta-textual plea for relevance somewhat amusing, but no less cloying. Its a World War II movie without any pitched battles or tragic holocaust imagery, and it spends more time trying to argue that its still worth while without all that stuff than it does actually demonstrating it.

With all the talent on screen, Clooney's latest directorial effort is perhaps more watchable than it has any right to be. It fails to be the movie it could have been and by all rights should have been, but any movie with Bill Murray and John Goodman fighting Nazis comes with a minimum entertainment factor that can't be denied or dismissed despite its many obvious flaws. That being said, even that monumental advantage is just barely enough to make The Monuments Men just barely enjoyable, and with so many missed opportunities and so much forsaken potential, the few automatic, guaranteed bright spots almost feel manipulative even as they provide the only reason to keep going. The arts had no better advocate than the real life monuments men in their day, but in this day and age, they needed a better advocate than this movie.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Dirty Sons Of Pitches - Episode 74! Rom Com Special!, Now Available!

Hey gang, celebrate a belated Valentine's Day with your favorite amoral foul mouthed jerks talking Romantic Comedies and pitching their own ideas, just after dishing on the romantic news of the week including Phillip Seymour Hoffman's drug overdose and Woody Allen's pedophilia. We wrap up with an announcement of a brand new game (Google Fantasy Movie Mogul to be a part of it yourselves) and preview upcoming anniversary goodness. Enjoy.


Monday, February 17, 2014

The Cinema File #316: "Robocop" Review

What is there left to say about yet another substandard remake of a classic film that hasn't already been said a thousand times about a thousand other substandard remakes? The refrain is the same every time: No, it's not better than the original, and no, it never could have been, because the philosophy of remakes is so counter intuitive that they only go after the best movies to bring back, instead of the worst ones that can actually be improved upon. And honestly, how to do you improve upon Robocop? Its pretty much the perfect action movie, smart, sophisticated, satirical, gory, insanely exciting, and thought provoking all at the same time. Our current model of shallow brainless mainstream film making is ill-equipped to understand what made the original film so great in the first place, let alone replicate it. So, we got another one, and here we go again.

In addition to being practically perfect in general, the original Robocop was also perfect as an artifact of its time, a comment on the disillusionment of the Reagan era brought to life by the greatest sci-fi satirist of his or any generation in Paul Verhoven, from a script by Frank Miller written at a time when his bat shit insanity was still being used for good. Verhoven famously intended his Robocop to be a modern day gun toting American cyborg Jesus, and he sprang off from that inspired premise to build a truly unique world the way only he could. To say that the new film takes the Christ out of Robocop might be a little on the nose, but its hard to escape from the fact that something is definitely missing from this modern incarnation. This new Robocop feels a lot more down to Earth, which is to say a lot less fun, trying to place this bizarre character in a context not too far removed from our own experience, and the result is that you somehow made a guy named Robocop boring, which is almost more mind blowing than when you first heard he was supposed to be Jesus.

To the film's credit, it at least does more than the last Verhoven remake of Total Recall did, which settled on telling the same story over again with new and mostly ugly CGI action sequences. The producers of this new Robocop at least understand that the social commentary of the original film is outdated, and go to great lengths to shift to the closest current political issue that fits the story, in this case the controversy surrounding the use of drones for anti-terrorism and police action. The problem is, the way the issue is handled is somehow both too slight and too heavy handed all at the same time. We get the idea that drones represent a dangerous precedent and a slippery slope towards some corporate-sponsored Orwellian nightmare, but once the movie gets going, that point seems to get lost in all the gunfire and explosions.

The movie dances around the real issue, the changing landscape of moral culpability under a regime of automated warfare, but somehow forgets how much its main character is able to say about that subject and fails to utilize the nature of who and what Robocop is to expand upon the movie's main theme. They spend a great deal of time on Officer Murphy's transition from man to machine and the psychological trauma that entails, maybe even more so than the original in fact, but it never takes that next necessary step of addressing what it means for the man to conquer the impulses of the machine and reassert his humanity. At some point along the way, his cybernetic attachments and computerized mind cease being an obstacle he must overcome to remain the man he wants to be, and just become nifty new gadgets to look cool in the inevitable toy line.

And now that I think about it, is the original movie's satire all that outdated, or is it more relevant than ever? The squalor of New Detroit was born out of rising inequality brought about by an insatiable and unchecked Capitalist impulse. It was the slum that Reaganomics built, and if anything, that situation is worse today than it was then. This isn't to say that the drone issue isn't an important one or that it doesn't make sense to address it in the context of a modern Robocop movie, but in doing so it almost takes away from what the character should represent. The villain of the movie is desperately trying to get authorization to start selling his robotic enforcers on U.S. soil, and instead of being an instigator of the corrupting forces plaguing Robocop's city, he actually ends up benefiting from that corruption being routed out, as it only goes to justifying his product. By making the problem bigger than the city, it ultimately makes it bigger than the hero.

We live in a time where the technology of film making allows us to do so much more than we could ever do before, and yet we lack the creative drive and financial incentive to actually care about doing anything with it. Go back to that moment in the original Robocop when ED-209 was revealed for the first time, and how impossibly threatening it was in simple stop motion. Now we can have dozens of them, and hundreds of human sized robots for Robocop to destroy in between shooting non-lethal taser bullets at his human foes to keep that PG 13 rating, and none of it means anything. What's more, the nerds have complained so often and so vehemently about this sort of thing that more often than not a backlash results. Don't take it personal, they say. You still have the old one and this doesn't take that away. And no, it doesn't, but that doesn't make it less of an insult to the thing we love. Its not just a bad movie. When the next generation thinks Robocop and this is the thing in their heads, a cultural crime will have been committed, and we should all be a little more mad about that than we seem to be.

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