#42 - Toast on a Stick
1921 - 2007
Howdy, campers. We’ve got movies a’plenty to discuss this week so let’s jump right in, eh?
NOW IN THEATRES
While I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was looking forward to seeing Shooter, I was definitely curious. It’s based on the novel Point of Impact by Stephen Hunter, a writer I admire both as a film critic for the Washington Post and as an action novelist (check out Dirty White Boys for Hunter at his best). The transition to the screen isn’t entirely flawless but it shouldn’t embarrass Hunter, either. Mark Wahlberg stars as Bob Lee Swagger, a gunnery sergeant abandoned on the front lines during a covert op in Africa. Disillusioned by his country, Swagger retires to the wilderness until he’s asked to help foil an attempt on the president’s life. It’s all a set-up, of course, and Swagger goes into Fugitive-mode to bring the bad guys to justice. Directed with admirable restraint by Antoine Fuqua, Shooter at first feels like it’s going to be a 70s-style paranoia thriller like Three Days of the Condor and it’s pretty good at mimicking that style. But about halfway through, it transforms itself into an 80s-style action cartoon like Cobra…and actually it’s pretty good at that, too. Shooter is an easy movie to be disappointed by. The first half sets you up to expect a better movie than what you end up with. But Wahlberg takes to the action hero role well and it’s refreshing to see a modern action movie that doesn’t try to overwhelm us with acrobatic camera movements. This is an old-fashioned, meat-and-potatoes action movie that won’t rocket to the top of anybody’s list of favorites. But it does what it does effectively and entertainingly, even when it includes something as clichéd as having its cabal of villains sitting around smoking huge cigars and cackling wildly over the success of their evil plan. (* * *)
When I decided to do this column weekly, I wanted to have a wider range of reviews than I’d been doing. To that end, I hatched a plan. Sunday mornings, I check the box office results. Whatever ends up at number one, I go see it whether I want to or not. Frankly, so far it’s been mostly not. This explains why I went to see TMNT, despite the fact that I have absolutely no interest in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles whatsoever. Their heyday was after my time. I’ve read one or two issues of the original comic book but was never a fan. Never watched the cartoon. Never saw the live-action movies. Never played the games. As near as I can figure, TMNT is a sorta-sequel/relaunch to the live-action movies along the same lines as Superman Returns. The team is in disarray and must learn to work together again if they want to defeat some ancient stone warriors and a baker’s dozen of their scariest monsters. Well, as scary as you can get in a PG-rated animated film, anyway. To my surprise, I didn’t hate TMNT. Didn’t really like it, either, but I’m not the intended audience. The animation is often pretty impressive, especially in the big action setpieces. It’s at its best when it focuses on the turtles and the monsters. The human characters are all rendered in that overly-pointy style we’ve all seen in computer-animated movies like Monster House and the like. When the turtles have more recognizably human anatomy than the humans, it’s time to improve the technology. Fans and kids seem to dig TMNT and if you fall into either category, have fun. If you don’t, you won’t need me to tell you not to bother. (* *)
Now Playing at the Hell Plaza Octoplex - The Hills Have Eyes II
The trailer for this sequel to last year’s remake is genuinely great. I hope whoever was responsible for it gets a chance to make a movie soon because it sure as hell couldn’t have been the same people behind the movie itself. The premise is OK, I guess. A group of rookie National Guardsmen delivering supplies to the top secret Sector 61 find themselves targeted by the creepy in-bred mutants who live there. But while Alexandre Aja at least went through the motions of trying to build suspense in the first one, director Martin Weisz just hits you over the head from the get-go with brutality, which is sometimes OK in movies like this if it’s done creatively. Here, it isn’t. If possible, the mutants have even less personality here than in the last one (and nobody in that movie could hold a candle to Michael Berryman in the 1977 original, thank you very much) and their crew now includes Sloth from The Goonies as the nice cannibal who rescues our heroes. As for the good guys, I assume (and certainly hope) that the actual National Guard is nowhere near as stupid as the idiots we see here. If they are, God help us, folks. We’re all doomed.
AT THE GRINDHOUSE
Time to pay another visit to the New Beverly Cinema and another double feature courtesy of the Grindhouse Film Festival. To the uninitiated, it may be hard to understand why The Hills Have Eyes II sucks and these next two movies rock. But for those of you on the same wavelength, no explanation will be necessary.
During the dog days of summer, a wave of unexplained suicides is plaguing Italy. Mimsy Farmer is a pathologist writing a thesis on the differences between “fake suicides and real ones”. She also suffers from delusions in which the corpses rise from their slabs and come after her. When her father’s new girlfriend seemingly kills herself, she teams up with the girl’s brother, a race car driver turned priest played by Barry Primus, to investigate her death. Part of what makes Autopsy such unhinged fun is that the real suicides and Mimsy’s hallucinations turn out to have absolutely nothing to do with anything. This is a stylized, borderline incomprehensible hoot with some outstanding dialogue (dubbed, of course) and a wild score by Ennio Morricone. Possibly my favorite moment comes after Mimsy’s boyfriend saves her from a near-rape by a sleazy co-worker. His attempt at calming her nerves: “Well, you can’t blame the poor bastard for trying!” (* * *)
A tourist group in Barcelona is being targeted by a serial killer with a thing for gouging out eyes and fabulous taste in bright red gloves. Directed by Umberto Lenzi (the maestro responsible for Cannibal Ferox, among others), Eyeball follows the pattern of an Agatha Christie mystery, albeit one with hot girl-on-girl action and Fredric Wertham’s dreaded injury-to-the-eye motif. You can easily guess the killer’s identity by pinpointing the one character that absolutely no suspicion is thrown upon. Another character figures out who it is thanks to a photo that, when it’s revealed, goes down as one of the best punchlines in movie history. In a head-to-head contest, it’s hard to say which of these two movies makes less sense but then again, if you’re watching them for coherent plots in the first place, you’re missing the point, and the fun, entirely. (* * *)
NOW ON DVD
For years now, I’ve been giving director Edward Zwick the benefit of the doubt based on two great movies he made in the 80s: the Civil War drama Glory and Special Bulletin, very possibly the best made-for-TV movie I’ve ever seen. He hasn’t made anything nearly as good since then, however, and Blood Diamond continues the trend. Leonardo DiCaprio is fine as Danny Archer, a smuggler who teams up with fisherman Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou, also good) to recover a huge pink diamond worth millions on the black market. Jennifer Connelly is wasted in a basically thankless role as a reporter whose job it is to tell the audience about the toll combat diamonds exact on the innocent people of Africa. There are at least three movies struggling for supremacy here: an adventure thriller, an expose of the diamond business and a human drama about abducted children pressed into military service. Blood Diamond is noble and well-intentioned but its lack of focus works against it. (* * ½)
Claude Chabrol is frequently called the French Hitchcock and while The Bridesmaid is not Chabrol at his best, the comparison is still apt. Benoit Magimel stars as Philippe, a salesman who falls for the bridesmaid at his sister’s wedding, an actress who calls herself Senta (played by Laura Smet). Senta tells him from the start that they were destined to be together and Philippe doesn’t disagree, becoming more obsessed with her even as her behavior becomes more erratic and mysterious. While the story is tightly-woven, the characters often make choices that seem abrupt. The movie is compelling enough to overcome those flaws, although The Bridesmaid is one of the few movies I can think of that I actually wouldn’t mind seeing remade. (* * *)
I’m a fan of silent movies so I was shocked to realize recently that I’d never seen a Harold Lloyd movie in its entirety, just the hanging-from-the-clock clips pretty much everyone has seen at some point. The Freshman is one of his best-loved features and understandably so. Harold plays a geeky college freshman desperate to be popular but not realizing that he’s the butt of every joke on campus. The Freshman is a great showcase for Lloyd’s appeal. His character is likable and sympathetic without wallowing in the treacle that Chaplin’s Little Tramp often succumbed to. And even after all these years, the silent comedy is still laugh-out-loud funny in scenes like Lloyd attempting to deliver a speech with a kitten tucked under his sweater, hosting a dance while wearing a hastily-made tux that his tailor repairs on the go, and in the climactic football game. Unlike Keaton and Chaplin, Lloyd hardly ever took a directing credit which is perhaps one reason why he isn’t as highly regarded as his contemporaries. Based on The Freshman, he certainly should be. (* * * ½)
The Gang's All Here
Busby Berkeley musicals seem to exist in their own alternate universe and this one, shot in drunken Technicolor and featuring Carmen Miranda, is no exception. The barely-there plot is beside the point and whenever the movie slows down to focus on it, it goes to sleep. Instead, watch this for the handful of outlandish musical numbers including the opening medley with Carmen singing “Brazil” and her signature scene, “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat”. Best of all is the near-psychedelic finale involving dancing children, kaleidoscopic images and a screenful of floating disembodied heads. The Gang’s All Here is a great big hunk of World War II surplus cheese but it’s got to be seen to be believed. The best description of it comes from Danny Peary in his invaluable book Guide For The Film Fanatic: “It’s like those so-awful-they’re-fascinating halftime shows during the Orange Bowl.” Couldn’t have put it better myself. (* * ½)