Friday, April 27, 2007

A Couple Of British Flicks And Idi Amin Too!

"I thought it was hysterical." - Jack Valenti talking about THIS FILM HAS NOT BEEN RATED - the doc that was highly critical of Valenti and his ratings board tactics. That is - according to the commentary for said film.

OKAY! I got some reviewing to be doing. Got some British flicks to cover both on the big screen and DVD so here goes -

HOT FUZZ (Dir. Edgar Wright, 2007) Actor-writer Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright's follow-up to the cult classic in waiting SHAWN OF THE DEAD trades the zombies and relationship squabbles for cop action movie cliches and we all should so be thankful. Especially when the recent state of American film satire comes in the form of EPIC MOVIE that is. Pegg turns the tables on his stoner slacker character from SHAWN (actually more Spaced - the BBC TV show that is not available yet on DVD but you can find Youtube clips here) and portays Nicholas Angel - a straight-laced hero policemen transferred to a small British country town named Sandford. A town so old fashioned and idyllic that the Kinks "Village Green Preservation Society" plays on the soundtrack.

Before he's even settled in, he finds a strangely suspect death toll, a drunken over-fed on pastries police force (sorry, "service"), and a evil supermarket mogul played by 2-timer James Bond Timothy Dalton (THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS, LICENSE TO KILL) who puts in a wickedly confident performance. Fellow policeman-officer Nick Frost (also from SPACED and SHAWN...) schools Pegg in old-school action cimema like BAD BOYSPOINT BREAK while Pegg schools Frost in sober law enforcement procedre. Though the first hour lagged and dragged a bit eliciting only mild chuckles and giggles, the last act pulls out the hilarious over-the-top stops. HOT FUZZ may be awfully titled, but that like all the cringe inducing fake-out endings and the over abundance of wired wit that makes ones eyes roll repeatedly while smirking is precisely the point.

I never made a "Best of 2006" list because there were many notable movies I didn't see. Here's a few I finally caught up with because of their recent release on the popular DVD format : NOTES ON A SCANDAL (Dir. Richard Eyre, 2006) I deliberately avoided reading or listening to any plot description of this film since it was released late last year and I'm so glad I did. So juicy is each development in this story that I'll try to refrain from spoilers as well. In a career-best performance Judi Dench sears in every scene as an almost retired strict-as-sin schoolteacher - Barbara Covett who immediately takes a shine to new art teacher Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett - who funnily enough cameos in HOT FUZZ). Sheba appears at first as an oblivious babe in the woods or "the arctic wilderness"as Barbara would say in the lengthy acidic comments she makes in her journals. A shattering secret (see - no spoiler) brings them close in a sort of manipulative bond. That's all you'll get from me plot-wise. Otherwise the script is tight and sharp and remarkably convincing. "Oh, Jesus wept. The specter at the feast" - and that line was spoken by Sheba's 16-year old daughter Polly (Juno Temple) too! Blanchett and Dench (also the always spot-on Bill Nighy * must be mentioned) put in flawless performances and there's not a wasted moment leaving me with the same self-satisfied smile that Barbara has when she believes things are finally going her wicked way. * Who also cameos in HOT FUZZ THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND (Dir. Kevin MacDonald, 2006) Sometimes when already established actors play real-life historical figures they become so absorbed in the role with all the aestitics and recreations that it's hard for me to separate them one from the other - they are forever linked. When I think of Jackson Pollack I think of Ed Harris. Randomly mention Gandhi and an image of a fully decked out in draping Indian duds Ben Kingsley pops into my noggin. Capote = Phillip Seymour Hoffman and so on. So now adding itself to my cerebral hard-drive is Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin. This ain't a biopic - it's a fictional tale told around real events in 70's Uganda. A Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) who's part idealist part party animal in disguise befriends Amin and an odd but weirdly touching friendship is started. Amin appoints Garrigan his personal physician and even refers to him at times as his "closest advisor." The first half of the film is pure drama set up for the second half which is tension thiller time. The last half hour is pretty hard to watch - there's a torture scene that made me look away repeatedely. I mean I'm pretty de-sensitized to the violence and gore in flicks like HOT FUZZ and GRINDHOUSE but in the context and tone of this film the last bit was hard to stomach. Anyway it's nice to see Gillian Anderson return to A-list cinema and I liked McAvoy much better than his cheeky performance in STARTER FOR 10 but of course the obvious real reason to watch this movie is Whitaker's powerful and scary portrayal of Amin. He definitely deserves every molecule of the gold-plated brittannium in that best actor Oscar he won for it. This post is dedicated to Jack Valenti (1921-2007) - long time president of the Motion Picture Association of America. That's him crouching behind the flowers on the left in that phenomenally famous photograph of LBJ getting sworn after the Kennedy assassination. Farewell Mr. Valenti - if anybody can charm Satan's pants off it's you. More later...

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Burning Down The GRINDHOUSE

GRINDHOUSE (Dir. Robert Rodriquez/Quentin Tarantino 2007) 

2 movies in one - that is 2 full-length feature films by 2 notorious directors for the price of one. Sounds too good to be true? That’s because it’s fake – don't get me wrong it really is 2 complete movies but it’s a fake exploitation experience with fake trailers, bucket after bucket of fake blood splatters on everything, fake hair, fake dismembered human organs, fake projector noise, fake scratches on the film, fake missing reel announcements, fake fake fake.

The only thing that’s not fake is the fun – and there’s lots of it here. 

Both films take place in the modern day but as if the schlock methods of ‘70s era sleaze cinema never went away. In the minds of Tarantino and Rodriquez they never did. 

After a fake funny as Hell trailer for a Mexican vigilante flick called “Machete,” we are presented with Rodriquez’s eco-zombie action-horror spectacle entitled "Planet Terror". We’ve got Freddy Rodriquez (best known as Federico Diaz on Six Feet Under) as a cocky outlaw gunslinger who outfits his go-go dancer girlfriend Rose McGowan having lost a leg in the first wave of the attack (“a missing leg that’s now missing”) with a machine gun and they join forces with other non-contaminated humans against the hordes of slime covered with giant zit popping zombies. 

Along the way Bruce Willis and Tarantino himself put in cameos, Josh Brolin appears as a murderous doctor targeting his cheating lesbian wife Marley Shelton, and grisly yet sentimental BBQ chef Jeff Fahey protects an old secret family recipe right to the grave. The action and humor never lag and the breathlessly and purposely crude construction make this one of Rodriquez’s most enjoyable movies. 

Then come more fake trailers. The trailers for "Werewolf Women of the SS" (made by Rob Zombie), “Don’t” (by SHAUN OF THE DEAD director Edgar Wright), and “Thanksgiving” (By director/actor Eli Roth) are so authentic looking, so perfect in their exclamations of low-brow glee, and so funny that it occurs to me that maybe the whole movie should have been made of fake trailers. 

I guess that would have gotten tiresome after a bit. Speaking of tiresome Tarantino’s “Death Proof” has more of a polished sophistication than Rodriquez’s and unfortunately that means a drop-off in fun. Dominated by lengthy dialogue scenes that sound at times like Tarentino lecturing us on his sexual agenda, obscure pop-culture references, and hip-hopisms through the disguise of girl talk. This bit brings the whole GRINDHOUSE down but once it gets rolling it redeems itself roaringly.

As we wind through the non-stop chatting of 2 separate groups of women (including Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Vanessa Ferlito, Rosario Dawson, Zoe Bell, Tracie Thoms, and McGowan again this time as a non-ass kicking blond) we get a leisurely introduction to Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) who turns out to be a predatory psychopath – though one not without charms. The 3rd act is car -chase road-rage revenge city with Zoe Bell (Uma Thurman’s stunt double in the KILL BILL movies) spending a good deal of the action on the hood of a 1970 Dodge Charger hanging on for dear life by a belt latched to the door frame while Stuntman Mike's death proof muscle car rams and bams up repeatedely up against the side. Bell, playing herself and amazingly doing all her own stunts with no CGI help, wants to take the car out for a test drive because it’s the same model as the car in the 70’s cult classic VANISHING POINT - a movie that’s referenced to a number of times and that calls out the difference between Rodriquez and Tarantino; not one movie or song title obscure or otherwise is mentioned in “Planet Terror.” “Death Proof” features numerous pop-culture pontifications and it suffers for it. Tarantino appears to be in love with his own dialogue while I and the audience around me were getting antsy. Probably the most apt old-school Hollywood phrase would be “cut to the chase”. Once he does it’s a thrill ride and the audience woke up and even cheered at the end. Even as a low-concept double feature fake-out GRINDHOUSE is awfully awesome, blazingly badass, and most importantly hilarious.

THE HOST (Dir. Joon-ho Bong, 2006) The early reports that posited this Hong Kong monster movie as a mixture of LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and JAWS weren't completely off the mark. Sure that kind of oft-repeated critical shorthand irks me but the clumsy neurotic antics of a family whose youngest is abducted by a bizzare beast - one that was created by discarded lab chemicals in the Han River by an American military officer mind you - does recall at times the best moments and heart of those accessible reference points. River-side snack shop slacker Song Kang-ho aided by his ornery father Byeon Heui-bong and sister Bae Du-na who has a handy flair for archery struggle to save Kanh-ho's school girl daughter Ko A-sun who spends most of the movie in a sewer with other captured Koreans. The Host which is so named because the tenacled CGI sea creature is the carrier of a deadly virus, drags quite a bit in it's second half and the action is too often restricted to the dank disgusting gutters or the sterile flourescent lit labs but there is an undeniable heartbeat here. With hope more quirky horror or creature feature genre exercises will follow suit. 

And once again by popular demand - some more new release DVD reviews: 

MARIE ANTONIETTE (Dir. Sofia Coppola, 2006) Sofia Coppola's 3rd movie as director reworks the same theme - a young woman coming of age in a unfamiliar almost alien world - this time around the legendary 18th century French queen of the title gets to do the fish out of water honors and to a hip contemporary soundtrack no less (New Order, Sioxsie & The Banshees, The Cure, etc). Kirsten Dunst is adequate (or as Lindsay Lohan would say "adequite") in the role - she wears the extravagant wardrobe well and has the appropriate glibness down but is more than a little out of her depth. Jason Swartzman as Louis XVI is also questionably cast - he's Coppola's cousin and that seems to be the sole reason he's here. Better with tone and prescence in supporting rolesare Rip Torn, Judy Davis, Steve Coogan, Molly Shannon and Marriane Faithful.

Turning the oft told historical tale into one big glossy rock video is not a deplorable idea - it actually works at times like when a costume banquet-ball is shot like a decadent all night rave - but a sense of narrative drive is severely lacking. Coppola's technical skill is impressive with a definitive visual flair and confident color scheme - it's just not as interesting as I'm sure future projects of hers will be.

COLOR ME KUBRICK (Dir. Brian W. Cook, 2006)

Alan Conway (aptly named) was an odd British man who for a period in the early 90's impersonated legendary film director Stanley Kubrick (2001,DR. STRANGELOVE, THE SHINING, and so on). The fact is that he did it for such piddily low degree theviery reasons and was rarely able to get more than the money to but a few drinks is the crux of this particular cinematic biscuit.

Portrayed flamboyantly by John Malkovich in COLOUR ME KUBRICK which has the tagline of "A TRUE...ISH STORY" Conway is finally gets his coveted spot-light but one that never shows a good side of him. Every time we start to feel for the increasingly irritating imposter he does or acts in an even worse unforgivable and/or embarrassing manner that swindles our sympathy immediately from us. It's especially sad when he hoodwinks comedian/singer Lee Pratt (Jim Davidson - who was actually conned by the real Conway as the accompanying making of featurette tells us).

A few Kubrickian touches are thrown in by director Brian W. Cook (who was Kubrick's assistant director on 3 movies) - an opening scene involving punks coming close to roughing up an elderly high class couple while hunting down Conway for an unpaid bar tab recalls A CLORKWORK ORANGE and Richard Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (better known as "2001 theme") amusingly accompanies Conway as he carries a garbage bag filled with his dirty clothes to a local dive laundromat. 

Malkovich is for the most part hilarious as the vodka-swilling tackily dressed shyster who uses a different contrived accent for each of his victums. COLOUR ME KUBRICK is by no means a great must-see film but a good one. Well maybe good...ish.

More later...