Saturday, June 15, 2013

THIS IS THE END: if it is, then it's a good way to go...

I really enjoyed This is the End, far more than any Judd Apatow movie.  Typically these guys are found in Judd Apatow movies where it's about really grossout jokes, with very little storyline.  Here, the story is continually moving forward and it's a doozy: the apocalypse, the end of days.  I just loved the humor in it.  I thought the whole group is hilarious (yes Louis CK I said it!) and the plot moves swiftly.  Even though the apocalypse occurs, it gets worse and worse in stages for the crew.  The sinkholes, then the fires, small demons, large demons, cannibalism, and then finally...well I won't spoil it for you. 
In addition to that, there's some honest-to-goodness moral messages here about sacrifice, selflessness and vanity, as the five friends ponder why it is they weren't considered worthy enough to be sent to heaven.  And their attempts to better themselves, and the various failures and successes along that way, are just as fun as all the apocalpytic horror that happens around them.
In a strange sense, the movie also feels pretty grounded: you can imagine that this is how these guys WOULD react if the end of the world was happening.  They're not quick thinkers; they're actors. One great sequence has the group trying to figure out how to dig through the floor to get to a garage underneath them -- and with no technical knowledge of any kind, they hit the floor with screwdrivers and shovels and baseball bats.  It's actually very believable all throughout.
And an attempted exorcism scene, in which the actors basically assume the way it was done in the Exorcist was "a training manual" for how to exorcise people, is awesome. 
The denouement, showing the afterlife, is a bit indulgent, but thankfully that's only about 2 minutes anyway, after one of the best climaxes I've seen in years. 
****.  Go see this movie!!!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

When do they really get "too old for this s&8t?"

With Bruce Willis' most recent film success, "A Good Day to Die Hard," one might ask just how long the tough guys like Willis, Stallone and Schwarzenegger can keep on making these movies as they enter their AARP years.

Admittedly, there are different kinds of tough guys.  There's the strongman like a Schwarzenegger, Seagal, Van Damme, Norris, Stallone or a Dolph Lundgren, the kind of guy you expect to be lifting a wagon over his head and screaming out "DRAGGGGOOOO!"  Sure he'll hold an assault rifle, but he could just as easily break an assault rifle in half.

Then there's the hard-nosed vigilante type, badasses known more for their cold stares and quick trigger fingers, guys like Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, John Wayne. 
For the first type, strongman, the aging is noticeable a lot quicker.  There's more of an obvious call for humor as these guys head into their 60s still expecting to win a fight with young punks.  Like any aging athlete, you begin to almost feel sorry for them. 

Vigilante heroes tend to have a longer and more honorable aging, perhaps because the bitterness and vicissitudes of old age lend extra depth to their generally hard-edged character. 

Clint Eastwood's last incarnation of a Dirty Harry type was in 2002's "Blood Work": he was 72.  Eastwood colluded in the idea of his old age and frailty though by giving his character a heart condition.  In fact, his very frailty added to the suspense.

Like Eastwood, John Wayne's "golden year" films were also acclaimed: he won the Oscar for Best Actor at the age of 62 for playing the aging gunfighter Rooster Cogburn in 1960's True Grit.  Then at 72, he got some of the best reviews of his career playing a dying gunfighter in "The Shootist".  It was the last film of his career.

Charles Bronson was still blowing away the bad guys to big box office profits at the age of 65.  His 80's flick "Murphy's Law" opened at #2 at the Box Office.  However, subsequent pictures like Death Wish IV and V got mixed reviews and less box office success, perhaps because they didn't incorporate Bronson's obvious aging as well into the narrative.

You just begin to wonder with the way technology works, and the way everyone these days is living longer, how much more these action heroes can keep themselves going, especially the ones who were known far more for their muscles and stuntwork than their acting abilities.  Guys like Eastwood have managed to be tough guys without being known as amazing athletes.  It was Eastwood's attitude that was scary and tough; and when he held out a gun in Gran Torino at the age of 78 and had that knowing grin and half-shut eyes, he was just as scary as the tough Dirty Harry that he'd portrayed almost thirty years before. 
However, guys like Schwarzenegger, his body WAS what got him hired.  If I remember correctly, Cameron first considered him for the Terminator because of his physique.  So maybe for Stallone, the aging of his body makes him less believable as the intimidator he once was.
Stallone keeps making Rocky and Rambo movies even as he heads into his 60s, and thankfully he seems to be one person who's well aware of the humor of it.  The Expendables series has made a welcome mockery of the aging 80's action heroes, bringing in Charles Bronson, JCVD, Schwarzenegger and Willis into an all-out celebration of the gray-haired bad boys.
The question is how long will box office audiences eat this up, and at what point will it (or could it) become pathetic?

Danny Glover originated that line when he was only 41 years old.  Real star athletes are usually done by the time they hit their 40s.
Once when Matt Damon was being interviewed about whether he could do another Bourne movie, he said to Jon Stewart, "Man I don't know, I'm 37 now...." Of course, Stewart being a few years older immediately mocked him about it. 
But the question is how long can guys like Willis, Schwarzenegger, and Stallone keep doing this?  Films like RED showing the aging assassins?  Or the Expendables series?
And how long will the box office keep rewarding them?
What does history teach us?
Of course, the gun makes it a lot easier to extend one's lifecycle as an action hero.  A swashbuckler in their 70s isn't going to be much to watch.
At one point in the new film Stand Up Guys, Christopher Walken and Al Pacino pull Alan Arkin out of a nursing home to go pull a heist job.  Of course, once Arkin's behind the wheel, he's back in action no problem.
Can a guy like Tom Cruise go into his 70s?  Why not?

And who is there to take their places?  In the latest Die Hard and Indiana Jones films, we each are introduced to a son who could be geared to take over, but neither of them honestly seems up to the challenge.  Shia LeBoeuf replacing Harrison Ford?  Or Jai Courtney (who no one knows) taking over for Bruce Willis?  Really?  You almost wish that these guys were able to live forever, because the way the legends do it is so strong in our minds. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

What happened to "ON THE ROAD"?

As we approach the Oscars next week, perhaps it's just me but I'm having a hard time believing just how little impact Walter Salles' "On the Road" made this year.
How many theaters did it hit?
It played in the IFC Center for a weekend or two, taking over all four screens.
It had great starpower, with Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, and others.  And it was based on a legendary book. 
However, based on its middling reviews from critics and audiences, I guess I shouldn't be too surprised by its fate.
I guess I'm also curious though whether it just wasn't marketed well...


Monday, August 27, 2012


Sleepwalk with Me is comedian Mike Birbiglia’s coming of age story: it’s about how he got his start as a comedian, and was forced to face his fears of marriage and commitment.  An essential element of that story is a sleepwalking problem Birbiglia experienced that went from bizarre to dangerous, and forced him to confront questions about his future.
Mike Birbiglia is a New York-based comic who specializes in monologues.  He’s gone from a background in standup comedy to a specialty in storytelling, with stories told at New York’s The Moth and other events.  Sleepwalk With Me began as a one-man show, and then it was adapted for the screen by him, This American Life’s Ira Glass, Joe Birbiglia and Seth Barrish.  Birbiglia also serves as producer, director and star. 
The film is told in flashbacks, with Birbiglia telling it to the audience from the driver’s seat of his car, while driving to a comedy club in the future.
Though the film is based on his story, there are some deviations.  (In one Q&A, Birbiglia said the film is “70% autobiographical.”)  Recognizing that, Birbiglia plays a very close version of himself named Matt Pandamiglio. 
Matt is a bartender who wants to be a comedian. He’s been together for 8 years with Abby (Lauren Ambrose) a beautiful voice therapist who he’s dated since college.  The two get along great, but Matt has no interest in marriage.  That becomes a problem when his younger sister gets hitched leading the rest of his family to expect Matt to “batter up”, as one relative jokes.  Worst is his father (James Rebhorn) who digs into him regularly about his lack of progress with Abby and his career aspirations.
Meanwhile, Matt is tired of being discouraged around comedy while being pushed to get closer to Abby.  At one point, someone tries to encourage him by saying Abby's the best thing that ever happened to him, and he says, “See that’s just it.  I feel like everyone is telling me that the best thing about my life is my girlfriend.”  For Matt, it’s a sign of a lack of personal achievement: he wants his career to be his biggest achievement.
Then Matt happens to meet a low-grade talent agent who begins setting him up with small gigs, in small colleges and comedy clubs in small upstate towns in New York.  Suddenly, he’s getting checks for his work for the first time, and living the young comic’s dream of anonymous motels, late-night pizza and sleepovers with other comedians.  At the same time, though, he grows apart from Abby.
The distance becomes worse when Matt begins throwing jokes about Abby into his set, and doesn’t tell her about it.  As his ambition grows, so too does the distance from her, to the point that at his sister’s wedding, Matt hesitates to invite Abby to join the family photo.
Throughout, Matt begins to experience an increasingly outrageous sleepwalking problem, acting out his dreams.  The dreams are hilariously bizarre visions of jackals, guided missiles, “pizza neck pillows” and the “Dustbuster Olympics.”  However, as the dreams lead Mike from stumbling around his bed to chaotic sprints through motel hallways, it becomes obvious he’s got some demons to face, including his problems with commitment.
The film is as sweet as it is funny.  It’s refreshing to see a movie about comedians that doesn’t immediately go for the lewd or crass: unlike other big names (Louis C.K., Judd Apatow for two) who go for bathroom or sex humor when they want to leaven the deeper moments, Birbiglia’s brand of comedy is in a kinder gentler zone.  He’s the kind of guy who talks about his experience of first love as like “eating pizza-flavored ice cream,” and who invites a girl to go to church with him just to throw her off after multiple rejections.
He’s a pleasure to watch on screen, a mixture of almost childlike innocence, slapstick and deadpan humor.  His jaw slightly agape and his eyes wide open, he often looks as if someone has just slapped him awake. Though more gifted at comedy than drama, he also manages to get across a wide range of emotions even with limited tools.  
Along with Birbiglia, the rest of the film’s cast is great, especially James Rebhorn and Carol Kane as Matt’s parents and Lauren Ambrose as Abby.  Ambrose paints Abby as a loving, patient young woman who loves her boyfriend enough to try to make it work.  Abby’s not pathetic or empty-headed, but she is willing, out of hope and generosity, to delude herself long enough to see if things might work out.
Sleepwalk With Me would be a stronger film if Birbiglia really addressed the cost of using our lives, and our loved ones, for “material”: Matt becomes a hit when he begins riffing on his real life, just as Birbiglia did in real life.  (The film itself is an example of profiting from that.)
By necessity, though, it creates a distance between the performers and the people in their lives.  In my own case, as I begin trying to do standup, I’m mining personal stories that I feel comfortable sharing with strangers, but not friends or family.  What does that mean when we’re able to be our truest selves only in the presence of strangers?  And do we owe anything to the people who we use for comic relief?
Had Birbiglia taken on that question -- if his family or Abby had confronted him about profiting from their stories, Sleepwalk With Me would have been 100 percent better and more profound.  As it is, Birbiglia doesn’t really pay any price for choosing to use his life for material, besides the danger that comes with his dreams. 
I hope Birbiglia does film again.  In an age where so many comedies either go for vulgarity or cutting mean satire, Birbiglia’s innocent gentle charm makes him easily watchable on screen.  It would be great to have more tales from him: I hope the next ones delve even deeper.

Monday, February 27, 2012

It's time the Oscars celebrate the way we see movies now

Watching the Oscars last night, I couldn’t help but notice that the usual tone of love for the cinema and the big screen was actually starting to sound a bit conservative, almost protective, in its nostalgia for a bygone era of moviegoing. 
Between the stage made to look like an old movie house, and the tacky, IMO, stunt of the beautiful popcorn vendors in the theaters, it was a harkening back to another time.  Throughout the show, Billy Crystal and others repeated the slogan “Let’s all go to the movies!” before either a montage of engaged fans in their seats, or a great Cirque Du Soleil number showing the “ride” movies can take you through.

All of this was fine, except somebody out there in Hollywood needs to get on stage and say, “Guys, we need to start celebrating the fact that people can now experience at home the kinds of big-screen thrills, 3d visuals and incredible sound effects that used to only be available in theaters.  Let’s celebrate that we have these DVDs that include endings no one got to see, or actor and director commentary that adds dimensions to the film.  We need to start celebrating all this, along with the fact that someone CAN watch a movie on an IPhone, or an IPad, or a laptop computer whenever they want.  People are still watching and consuming media, far more so than before.  Let’s stop pining for a time when this technology was unavailable.”

This especially came to mind for me when they included Steve Jobs in the memoriam section this year: Jobs’ creations have greatly helped in making movies and television media more widespread for personal computer technology, yet the Oscars still seem reluctant to celebrate that technology even as they honored the man.

Meanwhile, if the AMPAS is so serious about getting people back to the movies, then more should be invested in bringing down movie and concession prices, bringing back double features and drive-ins, and other things that made “moviegoing” a fun activity.  As it is, I’ll probably only be paying for the big event films at the theater this year, such as Hunger Games, The Dark Knight, and maybe a few Oscar contenders. 

Besides that, to save cash and time, I’ll mostly be watching movies on my HD TV screen, either thru DVD or a hi-quality streaming site, and I know I’m not alone in that.

It’s time the Academy learned to celebrate that constituency: people who still love the movies along with the ever-expanding ways to experience them.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

On Michael Cieply's "Familiarity" article in the NYTimes

Michael Cieply's recent piece in the Times on the 2011 box office misses something obvious. He writes about how the top movies were all sequels and that audiences seemed to be seeking out the "familiar" as if we were seeking what he called cinematic "comfort food" for these anxious times. 
From my perspective, Cieply misses the point: it's not comfort food that sequels create. It's an EVENT. With most new films that are not related to a previous work, whether a famous book, a TV show or a previous film, there's not a great deal of anticipation or expectation that's going to make for a huge opening weekend. Instead, people come in with curiosity and the film builds word of mouth if it's worth seeing.
These days, with Netflix, illegal downloading, and cable, there's little reason to spend the $13 on the multiplex unless it's an event. Something coming to cinemas that's built up a reputation. Sex and the City: the movie. Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (but not at Christmas- STUPID release time for a grisly action thriller! Should have been Halloween.) Or something new from those known for a Midas Touch, which these days for the 21-39 year old generation includes Christopher Nolan, and Pixar, among others.
An event is something worth waiting outside in the cold for midnight tickets. It's something that you'll be able to gloat over being the first to have seen. That's what's happening in the video game market, where people line up outside for hours to be the first one to play GTA 4 or other games. It's not about comfort food: it's about excitement and anticipation, which is much harder to build with films not based on any kind of previously famous work.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Black Power Mixtape: review

The new film "The Black Power Mixtape" is a bit of a disappointment to me as someone who was raised with an awareness of the civil rights era. I had hoped that the film would truly give some insight into the Black Power movement, but overall it is a very loose collection of very brief snippets of interviews with black power representatives.
There's a director attributed to it, Goran Olsson, but he's much more of an editor here than a director: the film is a collection of interviews done by Swedish television between 1967-1975, interviews looking at the changing civil rights movement, and influential black figures between those years.
I was hoping to get a better knowledge of Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton and others in the movement, but instead the film gives short historical narratives rather than character study.
Does it have any value apart from my enjoying it or not? It has some value as a historical record, but again only in snippets. There's a section on 1974 Harlem that looks at the drug problem there and the growth of the Nation of Islam under Louis Farrakhan that holds some interest. There's a powerful interview with a former prostitute, a black bookstore owner, a Vietnam war veteran struggling with drug abuse, and some horrific shots of emaciated babies of drug victims. Actually, in terms of documentary work, this holds some of the most powerful raw footage in the film. However, it feels again like a chapter in a narrative that doesn't really have a trajectory.
I'm reminded of the latest film by Michael Moore, "Capitalism: A Love Story," in which Moore railed against global capitalism by means of a few separate stories. However, the stories never really coalesced into a coherent narrative. The same thing here.
It's also a rather strange documentary in another way: the filmmakers have voiceover commentary by poets and others who reflect on the footage in the film, just as we're seeing it. It feels almost like one of those DVD commentary things, and removes you a little bit from the footage.
Some of the commenters actually were of greater interest to me than the footage: I knew nothing about Talib Kweli before this film, nor of John Forte, Sonia Sanchez, or Abiudon Oyewole. Their commentary in many cases interested me more than the footage I was watching, which was often quite generic.
If the filmmakers had gone between these historical scenes and shown the modern-day life of people like Belafonte, Davis and younger people like Kweli and John Forte, I think it could have been a fascinating comparison-contrast film. As it is, unless you're totally new to learning about the civil rights era in the States, it won't expose too much new material to you.