Sunday, January 30, 2011

State of Play

As a working journalist, I'm part of an industry in transition. With the rise of the Internet, people are relying less on newspapers for their news, and with a decline in advertising revenue, many publications are in dire straights and laying off reporters, photographers, and editors. Technology has certainly helped us collect and distribute information more efficiently and in greater quantities than ever, but we still haven't figured out a reliable business model to make money off of it.

Among the many things it gets right, State of Play (2009) captures this state of modern journalism and the drive by many journalists to seek out the truth while being squeezed by a transforming world. State of Play, a remake of British miniseries, depicts the challenges of today's news media while being a complex political thriller in its own right.

A female assistant to Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) dies on a Washington D.C. subway, and when it's revealed he had been having an affair with her, speculation runs rampant that he drove her to suicide. Collins turns to his college friend Cal McAffey (Russell Crowe), a reporter for a Washington newspaper and tells he believes she was killed to destroy his reputation. Collins is chair on a congressional committee investigating PointCorp, a private defense contractor that stands to lose billions if Collins keeps its from getting a government contract. McAffey teams with blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) to connect the dots and find the truth.

I tried counting all the ethical violations of journalists in this film: lying, withholding evidence, confidential sources, speed at the expense of fact-checking, conflicts of interest, secretly tape-recording interviews, blackmail, and others, I'm sure. I'm not saying the movie paints an unfavorable portrait of journalists, but it does raise questions about their actions and conduct. Many journalists face similar issues on a daily basis, although not to the extreme as shown here. It's nice to see a movie illustrate a more knowledgeable and balanced view of reporters. Many movies only depict them as spineless sleazebags and pathological liars only existing to make life miserable for the heroes. While reporters sometimes have to make questionable decisions, State of Play shows how those actions must be weighed against the public's need to be informed.

The movie moves along fairly quickly, mostly concerned with covering the developments of the plot. I am curious to see the original version to find out what was removed or condensed for time purposes. There's not much room for characters, but they work well enough. The parts are well cast, and the actors succeed in bringing them to life. My favorite interaction is between Crowe's old-school reporter and McAdams' new age blogger because that changing of guard is playing out in my profession. He dismisses her initially as merely a blogger and opinion writer and not a reporter, but she's determined to prove her mettle.

I can't say the film is perfect. My biggest complaint was how I figured out the angle it was going for once the elements were established. Rather than progressing with revelation after revelation, McCaffey lays out his idea of how it all connects and then proceeds finding evidence. Then of course, once everything looks like it's certain one way, the filmmakers try to pull the rug out from you with a last-minute twist. The twist would be surprising if so many other movies hadn't already pilfered the formula. It felt kind of tacked on.

State of Play is a solid thriller containing insight into the journalism profession. I wouldn't call it a masterpiece, but it is top-notch entertainment.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The King's Speech

This post holds the distinction of being my first review of a movie still playing in theaters in its initial run. That doesn't warrant any celebration, but I thought it was neat.

As a college graduate with degrees in English and Journalism, it's a thrill to see movie about the importance and power of words. While I specialize in the written word, I appreciate oratory skills and the impact a good speech can have. The King's Speech (2010) shows a man overcome a stutter through the help of his wife and speech therapist , gains self-confidence, and by film's end is able to imbue his country with strength and reassurance.

The movie opens in 1925 with Prince Albert (Colin Firth), the Duke of York, giving a speech at one of the largest gatherings in the history of the British Empire. His stutter makes the experience painful for him and the audience. At the urging of his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), Bertie, as his family calls him, begins seeing speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a failed Australian actor not intimidated by royal authority. When Albert's older brother King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), chooses to abdicate to marry American socialite Wallis Simpson, Bertie must assume the throne, and with war against Germany brewing, the nation needs someone who can instill confidence and strength in dark times.

The King's Speech works on three levels. The first is the progression of Bertie's therapy and his transformation from a meek, behind-the-scenes nobleman into a more assured and confident monarch. This is achieved both from the support of his wife and the prodding of Lionel. Lionel does not let his patient's position intimidate him; he challenges the prince, gets him to open up, and shows him what he's capable of. The back-and-forth between Firth and Rush is tremendous, both moving and funny.

The other two levels are more background but are no less fascinating. Since this is a period piece, we see the country shift from the 1920s to the beginning of World War II, and this reveals the larger stakes of the film. A nation at war requires a strong leader, but a leader who's unsure of his own voice is unsure of himself.

The third level is the role of new technology. Albert's father, King George V (Michael Gambon) laments the invention of radio, complaining it requires kings to sound regal instead of just looking important. Instead of speaking to a handful of subjects at a time, a king will now speak to the quarter of the world's population that falls under the British Empire. We must be actors, the old king says.

The great achievement of the film is how it takes what could have been a dry subject and elevates it to a moving, honest, and often funny motion picture. All the actors the terrific, the period settings feel authentic, and the film offers insight to some of the most important leaders in world history. Highly recommended.

Side note: I first heard of this film when it was in pre-production. A website misidentified director Tom Hooper (who, along with Firth, Rush, and Carter, has been nominated for an Oscar) as Tobe Hooper, the director behind The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Poltergeist. I suppose that's an easy mistake to make.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Neither Dillinger (1973), the movie or the character, is complicated. As played by Warren Oates, John Dillinger, a professional outlaw in the Depression-era Midwest, enjoys two things: robbing banks and the attention he receives for doing so. The movie directed by John Milius is a straightforward, period action piece devoted to shootouts and chases. It's pulpy, violent, and macho.

The movie alternates between two plot threads. The first involves Dillinger and his gang riding through the country and robbing as many banks as they can. The second depicts the efforts of F.B.I. Agent Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson) to track Dillinger down. As Dillinger rampages from bank to bank, building his reputation as a folk hero, Purvis takes down other outlaws of the day, all the while waiting for Dillinger to make a mistake and fall under federal jurisdiction.

As I said, the movie is not complicated. Milius (who also wrote the script) merely uses the plot to get from one set piece to another, whether it's another bank robbery or stakeout. The action is filmed in a more traditional manner and packs energy and a certain punch. Nearly 40 years later, it still holds up pretty well. The guns never seem to run out of ammo, cops and criminals take multiple shots to go down, and it's pretty rugged stuff.

There's also a sly, almost dark streak of humor. Dillinger enjoys playing off the media attention he receives, and he even stops to rob a bank while escaping jail. His gang also gets some laughs. Harry Dean Stanton plays Homer Van Meter, and when the gang is ambushed and he barely gets away, carjacks a high school kid, gets fooled out of his ride, and becomes surrounded by armed farmers, he can only say, "Things aint working out for me today."

While Dillinger has an intensity to him, Purvis is more slow and direct. He takes his time but isn't hesitant to use lethal force. In a great scene, he talks to a couple of little kids playing cops and robbers. When one kid says he wants to grow up to be a criminal because they don't have to go to school, he looks genuinely hurt. Johnson imbues Purvis with a certain weariness but also resolve. I don't think he's out for fame so much as out to send a message.

Other aspects raise eyebrows. The romance between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (Michelle Phillips) never explains itself. Dillinger kidnaps her, and it's implied he rapes her. Then, we see her crying in the car, and we're told she doesn't want to come along with the gang, but eventually, she's taken from her home. The next time we see her, she's all lovey-dovey. That's borderline distasteful (hard to say since we don't witness how she warms up to him) and definitely an adolescent fantasy. I know about Stockholm Syndrome, but this is too sudden.

Dillinger is a tough, rowdy action film anchored by a great performance by Oates, who is surrounded by solid cast. It's exciting, although I wouldn't put it on the level of Bonne and Clyde, which came out around the same. It feels a little too similar. Meanwhile, something like Chopper is more psychological ambitious. This movie follows two men of action, and on that level, it succeeds.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Based on the autobiographical books by Mark Brandon Read, (although the movie admits up front it's playing loose with the facts), Chopper (2000) follows the exploits of Mark "Chopper" Read (Eric Bana), a notorious Australian convict. We see him build his reputation in prison, where his actions draw the ire of every convict, but he manages to attract and enjoy enormous media coverage. Years later, he's back outside, stirring up trouble again.

Eric Bana really delivers a star-making performance. I'm used to seeing him rather bland Hollywood fare (Hulk, Troy), but here, he immerses himself in a role of added pounds, tattoos, disfigured ears, and mutton chops. Many actors might be tempted to rely solely on the added physical characteristics, but Bana really stands out in a role that is at times shocking, often funny, and always fascinating. I was stunned to find out he was known primarily as a comedian in his native Australia before this movie. He's unrecognizable.

We first see Chopper in a cell watching an interview of himself, enjoying the attention and soaking the different reactions he gets out of people. Later, he tells someone he must be a letdown considering all they've heard about him. Chopper is someone completely tied to his image and the reactions of others. On his own, without an outside witness to play off, he seems curiously empty, a shell of a person. The movie is about the lengths he will go to achieve the infamous persona he crafted whether it involves torture, murder, or mutilating himself.

The violence is bloody, shocking, and often unexpected. On the spur of the moment, Chopper is likely to lash out against perceived wrongs against him, then immediately try to apologize. Ironically, the way he views his actions is often quite funny. After shooting someone he thinks owes him money, he complains about having to take him to the hospital. "That defeats the purpose of having shot him in the first place." Another prisoner he shanks lies bleeding to death in a pool of blood, and Chopper offers him a cigarette. Later, when the act is returned upon him by a friend, Chopper doesn't seem to acknowledge he's taken seven stabs to the gut and doesn't hold the betrayal against his friend. Other acts are merely frightening, such as when he beats up his girlfriend.

I can't say I could follow any sort of plot. Most scenes consisted of Chopper barging in, interacting with the other characters, and then causing trouble just because he could. There's talk of the mob putting a hit out on him, but it's one of several elements I had difficulty following. Chopper himself says he never lets the truth get in the way of a good story, but there are numerous times I was confused about who certain people were and what they were doing. I can't help but think I'd have understood better had I known more about the actual Chopper.

Chopper is essentially a one-man show. It's worth seeing just for Bana's performance, and I don't consider that small praise. He's violent, funny, cruel, self-destructive, bizarre, and overall just plain interesting. I can see myself growing to like this movie the more I see it.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny

In this 2006 musical comedy about two would-be rockers (Jack Black and Kyle Gass) who form a band, it's pretty telling that the best music comes from a short clip of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" and not anything these two perform (they are a real band). It's probably more revealing how the one genuine laugh is courtesy of Ronnie James Dio.

To escape his religious zealot father (Meat Loaf) and heed a vision from his idol Dio, J.B. (Black) moves to Hollywood with his guitar and dreams of rock n roll stardom where he meets K.G. (Gass), another guitarist he thinks is a big star. K.G. takes J.B. (these initials are annoying, but it's how they refer to each other) under his wing, but when J.B. finds out K.G. lives off his parents, he also discovers they're about to be evicted. They enter an open mic talent show for a cash prize, but to win, they believe they need the Pick of Destiny, a mysterious, legendary pick believed to have been carved from a tooth of the devil.

The one-joke premise is how the movie treats these two as if they are forming the greatest band in history. But the music isn't that great, and the movie isn't really funny. Their guitar playing is actually pretty decent, but I didn't find it to be anything special. And the humor is by-the-numbers Jack Black stuff: falling down, swearing, farting, and generally just mugging. That's been funny elsewhere, but unlike Tropic Thunder, in which he had Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., and others to play off of, he doesn't really interact with anyone outside of Gass, who doesn't really do much. Most of Black's antics are for the audience; he feels less like a character and more like someone acting out in front of a camera.

The first five minutes set the tone for how the movie could have gone. After his father spanks him and tears down all his music posters, young J.B. prays to the poster of Dio left hanging. Amazingly, Dio comes to life and sings "In the city of fallen of angels, where the ocean meets the sand, you will form a strong alliance and the world's most awesome band." I don't know who wrote those lyrics, but it does sound like something Dio might sing. Had the whole movie kept this mock epic tone, it might have been more memorable. Sure, there are the medieval cards used for transition, and the duo battles Satan (Dave Grohl, of all people) at the end, but those feel tacked on.

I guess my biggest complaint is the movie seems to profess a love for hard rock and heavy metal but offers no insight into its appeal or do anything with it. It's a very superficial examination of the genre. I'm not saying it had to reverent of metal. This is Spinal Tap is a hilarious heavy metal satire because it gets all the details right. It played off the genre and its musicians' foibles. Jack Black is doing his shtick, and he doesn't need any music for that.

There's was one moment I wanted to turn off the film because I felt insulted the movie expects me to find it funny. Early on, we see K.G. instruct J.B. in an exercise called "cock pushups." When sneaking around the Rock and Roll History Museum, J.B. becomes immobilized by security lasers and can't press the off button. Thankfully (for him anyway), he remembers his earlier training and presses it with an erection. I would have shut off the movie, but I was watching with friends who love it more than me (my friends and I need to start selecting better movies).

Roger Ebert has said the difference between good and bad raunchy humor is the funny movies use bodily functions and crass material to build jokes while the unfunny ones just assume those acts by themselves are funny. Tenacious D falls into the latter category. My advice: for music fans, listen to albums by any of the bands mentioned in the movie: the Who, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Dio, Queen, Van Halen. For Jack Black fans, I'd suggest Tropic Thunder, but a movie shouldn't be reminding you of the other things you could be watching or listening to.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Lady Vengeance

The final film in director Chan-Wook Park's Vengeance trilogy, Lady Vengeance (2005) begins with Geum-Ja Lee (Yeong-ae Lee) being released from prison after 13 years, having served a conviction for kidnapping and killing a child. She gained notoriety for the crime because she was only 19 at the time and displayed a fairly sweet, naive nature. The time in prison has hardened Geum-Ja, making her cold and calculating, even though she got released by projecting a spiritual transformation. Rejecting religion, she begins calling in favors from the people she knew in jail and orchestrates a plan of vengeance against Mr. Baek (Min-sik Choi).

Park's films are certainly an acquired taste. They are strongly acted, the cinematography is beautifully composed, and Park raises a lot of provocative questions. This is not a mindless Death Wish fantasy glorifying vigilantism and revenge but a careful examination of what revenge does to a person, how they cope with tragedy and loss, and what the consequences of their actions are. But they are also challenging to watch. The subject matter can be dark, the violence is brutal almost to the point of repulsiveness, the pace is slow that it's possible to grow impatient, and there's a fair degree of gallows humor people might think is in bad taste.

Don't watch expecting the Korean version of Kill Bill. While is Geum-Ja is certainly a woman of action and resolve, this is not a tongue-in-cheek, overly-stylized Kung Fu extravaganza. I don't think there's anything truly qualifying as an action scene, and the violence is not something to cheer for or giggle at. It's messy, and in between the blood, we follow Geum-Ja as she conducts her vengeance. Rather than explain up front why she does what she does, Park holds off exposition, gradually revealing the truth as the film progresses, and this creates investment in seeing the movie through. We want to know what Mr. Baek did, and we want to see how Geum-Ja will act against him. Everything falls in to place by the end.


About two-thirds of the way through, I believed I had figured the plot out and was waiting for its foregone conclusion when the true, sick nature of Baek is revealed. When Geum-Ja and the detective find the snuff films of the other children Baek has killed, it is chilling. When the parents of the murdered children watch the footage, it's heart-breaking and sickening. This part has bothered me to a degree; I question whether it would be wise of any police officer to show that kind of footage to the parents. The only justification (or rationalization) I can think of is to show them exactly what he did, so they are fully informed when the vote whether to kill or turn him in, but doing that stacks the deck for killing him, I think. These parents have gone through the pain of losing their children twice, once by kidnapping and then learning they're dead. What good does showing the children crying and murdered do? (I should note we don't witness violence against the children. It's suggested.). That said the scene where they don rain coats and take turns torturing Baek is effective. Revenge is not a dish served cold here; it's a drawn-out, painful affair, and as one father says, it won't bring the children back.


As I said, Lady Vengeance is not a mindless revenge romp. It's well made, deliberate, and thoughtful but certainly not for everyone.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Battlefield Earth

My friends and I watched two movies Saturday night: Leprechaun and Battlefield Earth (2001). I told myself I'd review both so my evening wouldn't have been lost in vain. While Leprechaun isn't a good movie, it's definitely fun to watch in the right state of mind. It was a low-budget horror movie that tried to be scary and failed hilariously. There's a purity to that enterprise.

The same cannot be said for Battlefield Earth. For one, it cost a hell of a lot more (more than $70-80 million if I'm not mistaken), and the effort doesn't show. It's dingy, unfocused, and poorly shot. It's a muddled, confusing would-be science fiction epic that gets so convoluted you stop caring. When the movie isn't being completely confusing, it's just uninteresting.

Set in 3000 A.D., 1000 years after a galaxy-conquering race of aliens known as Psychlos took over Earth to stripmine it for gold, humanity is reduced to a few scattered pockets of caveman. Terl (John Travolta), the Psychlo chief of security, hatches a scheme to train the "man-animals" to harvest gold for him as a way to buy his way off the planet, and he selects Johnny (Barry Pepper) to educate and train. But in doing so, Terl gives Johnny the desire and tools to lead a revolt.

Based on the novel by L. Ron Hubbard, I won't deny the concept of an enslaved Earth is an intriguing premise. How does humaniy live? What sort of fascinating or frightening creatures have taken us over? What do they want? What will the future hold?

But Battlefield Earth just bungles the whole idea. The Psychlos are just laughable foes; they look dirty with their unconvincing dreadlocks and elongated fingernails, they lumber around awkwardly on ridiculously tall boots, they wear nose plugs as breathing packs, and their plans don't make sense. Gold, really? And after 1000 years, they still don't have it all or even the largest hoard of it on the surface in Fort Knox? What value does it have to such an advanced race?

I don't know of anything else Roger Christian directed, but I'm not interested. Most camera angles are tilted for pointless reasons, slow motion for dramatic effect is overused, and all these tricks and techniques just make an already troubled movie look even more hokey.

Only Travolta brings any conviction, and he's awful. It's not that he's over-the-top; he's just unconvincing. The writing doesn't help. Terl comes off as an idiot by continuing to educate Johnny even after he knows he's a threat, failing to monitor the humans under his control, and giving them weapons. The other actors overwhelmingly look embarrassed, especially Forest Whitaker as Terl's assistant.

The special effects aren't special, and the plot makes no sense, even when accounting for the Psychlos' idiocy. Weapons and planes left sitting idle for 1000 years still work, humans living in radiation for 1000 years have had no effect, and we're to believe a handful of cavemen can succeed when the combined militaries of the world failed in nine minutes. It's like the Ewok battle in Return of the Jedi, only for the entire movie and not as cute.

So yeah, Battlefield Earth is bad. Maybe I'm just being overly critical by having to watch it after Leprechaun, but it's no fun. It's dreary.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


I was visiting some college friends Saturday night at their place when we decided to watch a movie, and somehow, we landed on 1993's Leprechaun. Don't ask me how; you just don't know my friends. I'll be blunt, Leprechaun is a terrible movie. It's not frightening, suspenseful, or even particularly well made, but under the correct circumstances, (I'll merely say my evening with friends may have included some jello shots and Pabst Blue Ribbon, in a safe, controlled environment), it becomes hysterical. When people describe a movie as so bad, it's good, this is one such title.

This particular leprechaun is not a mischievous but ultimately good-willed prankster or a cuddly, kind-hearted fairy. Rather, he's an evil, ugly, loathsome, greedy creature who will murder anyone who steals his gold or crosses his path. His gold is stolen from him by an old Irish man and taken to North Dakota, where he follows the man and kills his wife. But the old man seals him in a box with the aid of a four-leaf clover. Ten years later, after a man and his daughter (Jennifer Anniston, pre-Friends and pre-nose job), move in, but the leprechaun breaks free and begins his reign of unintentional hilarity.

Warwick Davis plays the title character, and you might recognize him as the main character from Willow. He was also Wicket the Ewok in Return of the Jedi and Professor Flitwick in Harry Potter. While's not scary in the slightest, he does seem to be having fun and definitely pulls off being nasty. The problem is the premise; how can anyone older than 10 be terrified of this little guy in green striped socks, buckled shoes, and hat? We see him too often for any sense of mystery or suspense to be built, especially when everyone towers over him. Worse, the director grants him no dignity; we see the leprechaun on a tricycle, Barbie-pedaled car, and even a pogo stick.

I can see how in more capable hands this creature could have been scary, but the nature of what he's capable of is inconsistent. He can seemingly teleport through space and objects but gets blocked by a door. Shotgun blasts merely stun him, and he can rip car doors off the hinges, but a little kid can wrestle him. It seems the filmmakers tried to make him a slasher and demonic figure, but they cancel each other out. He's too unimposing for stalking and too inconsistant for magic. Concentrating on the dark magic aspect and keeping him in the shadows might have gone a long way.

The script isn't better. The characters are morons, the plot doesn't make sense, and it's littered with holes. Still, I can't deny I had a fun time watching this with friends. It's so bad, it's easy to make fun of, and dare I say, it's almost admirable for the movie to try so hard to be scary. The nature and image of the leprechaun separates this from another run-of-the-mill slasher movie. It's certainly not boring and never drags.

I can't recommend this on any objective level, but if you're looking for your own Mystery Science Theatre 3000 experience, this would be a good fit. Just don't watch it alone; you'll have no one to appreciate the badness with. And this is before the leprechaun went into outer space and ended up in the 'hood.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad

Spoof movies are in poor shape. A genre that used to promise laughs a mile-a-minute has been reduced to rehashing scenes shown in the trailers of popular movies released in the last three months. I cringe at the thought of anyone getting a laugh out of Meet the Spartans, Epic Movie, and other such ...uh... movies. Rehashing dialogue from another (better) movie, strung along with random dance numbers, and shoehorned vulgarity does not constitute parody.

Thankfully, I can always look back on some titles of yesteryear and be reminded of a time when spoofs weren't lazy and cheerless. That brings us to The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad (1988), possibly my favorite spoof movie. It's got outrageous one-liners, hilarious sight gags, and wonderfully deadpan performances. It's not merely a string of gags; it's a wonderful sendup of all those old cop and detective movies.

Lt. Frank Drebin (Leslie Neilson) and his captain Ed Hocken (George Kennedy) are investigating the attempted murder of Frank's partner Nordberg (O.J. Simpson), who was shot and left floating by the docks. Drebin's search leads him to suave but shady businessman Vincent Ludwig (Ricardo Montalban) and his seductive assistant Jane (Priscilla Presley). Soon, he stumbles and bumbles upon a plot to assassinate the Queen of England when she visits Los Angeles.

The Naked Gun throws in everything but the kitchen sink: one-liners, double entendres, sight gags, slapstick, and background antics as the characters act oblivious in the foreground. I can't really go into detail without revealing the jokes, so all I'll just say it's funny. There's so much silliness going on, it requires multiple viewings to catch it all. Yes, a lot of it is stupid, but if it's funny, it's funny.

The biggest asset of the film is Neilson. My dad put it best when he said, "He's so clueless." Drebin is a first-rate moron, accidentally burning evidence, destroying an apartment he's sneaking around in, telling a hitman not to fire a gun while talking, knocking people over, reaching the most absurd conclusions, and saying perhaps the most nonsensical analogies ever ("Women and cops don't mix. Like eating a spoonful of Draino, sure, it cleans you out, but it leaves you hollow.")

But here's the important part, Neilson plays him totally straight-faced. He's not mugging for the camera so much as acting as if he's in a more serious movie but doesn't realize it. He even gets a would-be hard-boiled voiceover. Essentially, Nielson is playing off the cliches of the grizzled detectives of past cop movies like Dirty Harry and Phillip Marlowe, but by being so incompetent, he becomes hilarious. Those characters took themselves so seriously, it doesn't require much exaggeration to make them laughable.

The plot's mostly a throwaway. It might not make much logical sense, but it builds enough for the viewer to become invested in following it through. It's more than a bunch of random sketches with the same characters; it progresses and buildups the jokes. Unlike the recent spoofs, which completely disregard continuity, this one requires some degree of attention. Jokes set up in an earlier scene pay off later in the movie. Others work by seeing how far the filmmakers can take them. It's not enough the doctor crashes into a gas truck but also a missile, followed by a fireworks store.

What else is there to say? The Naked Gun is hilarious, and Neilson plays stupid so well, he's brilliant. Watch and laugh.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Adventures of Robin Hood

I could discuss all the ways people might find The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) dated. The violence is toned down, the heroes single-mindedly noble, the villains one-dimensional thugs and cowards, the romance simplistic, and never mind the jokes we've all heard about a bunch of men in tights living together in the woods. Plus, how many different versions of this story have we already seen? Surely, a tale is long in the tooth once Mel Brooks gets his hands on it.

But to do so would be a grave disservice to one of the liveliest, most light-hearted, and most fun swashbuckling adventure movies I've ever seen. Forget all the other version of Robin Hood you've seen; this one remains a joyous film only the most narrow-minded cynic could fail to enjoy.

I don't think I need to recap the plot too much. After King Richard is captured after leaving England for the Crusades, his brother Prince John (Claude Rains) seizes power with his ally Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), imposing high taxes on the Saxon peasants and terrorizing the towns. Robin of Loxley (Errol Flynn) organizes his band of merry men to oppose the tyranny, robs from the rich to give the poor, and finds time to romance Maid Marion (Olivia de Havilland). Yes, we've seen it all before every other version, but to see it here is to see it done the best.

Two things struck me about this version of Robin Hood. The first was the nature of its hero. Today, we've become so accustomed to the brooding anti-hero, the lone gunman with a haunted past and scarred by tragedy. Consider the success of Batman, Blade, and even modern interpretations of Robin Hood, most prominently Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe. But Errol Flynn is so exuberant, so full of life and wit, and just so sure of himself. Even in fights to the death, he seems likes he's toying with his enemies and having a good laugh. In comparison, modern-day action heroes are morose and self-pitying.

The second was the film's use of color. I've often heard (and agreed) any movie could be made better simply by being in black-and-white, but after watching this, I don't think that applies here (after consideration, The Wizard of Oz is another great example of how to use color). Shot in three-strip Technicolor, The Adventures of Robin Hood is gorgeous to look at. The feudal pageantry comes to life, and the costumes and scenery, rather than sticking out as silly, fit right in. It's not realistic, nor is meant to be; it feels like a legend come to life.

I was also impressed how well the action scenes hold up. Sure, they're aren't as complex as some of today's stuff, but they seem more grounded in reality. We don't see today's frenzied quick cuts and computer generated imagery; we see real people engaged in real-time action and stunts. It's clearly defined and not propped up by technology. That really looks like Robin swinging on the rope while handling a sword because Errol Flynn (or his stuntman) really performed the feat. In one scene, Robin drops down from a great height, and I actually winced at the impact because he obviously dropped down. That connection to physical reality separates the compellingly thrilling and the gee-whiz of cartoon effects.

The Adventures of Robin Hood certainly holds up after more than 70 years. It's still exciting, adventurous, and funny. It's a prime example of how great Hollywood was during its Golden Age.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

What's Up, Doc?

The problem with most comedies is they're lazy. The filmmakers rely on tired jokes, actors do their usual shtick, or the things that are kind of funny are run into the ground. Peter Bogdanovich's What's Up, Doc? (1972) isn't lazy. There's really effort in the performances, choreography, editing, and cinematography to the point everything comes together in a kind of controlled frenzy. I just didn't find it all that funny.

Discussing the plot is almost futile. Various guests arrive at a San Francisco hotel along with four identical travel bags, each containing something different: rocks, jewelry, government secrets, and underwear. Needless to say, the bags end up switching owners, and soon, everyone is chasing everyone to get their hands on the bags. There's a square researcher (Ryan O'Neil), a con artist (Barbra Streisand), the researcher's controlling fiancee (Madeline Kahn in her first feature film), and other assorted intellectuals, spies, rich folks, weirdos, and fools.

What's Up, Doc? is reminiscent of the old screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s; everything is one big slapstick farce. Nothing here is to be taken seriously. The central storyline is the romance between O'Neil and Streisand, as she forces her way into his life and drags him along on one wild scheme after another: posing as his fiance at a reception, sneaking into his room, and finally, getting chased by in a scene involving cars, bikes, and a Chinese New Year dragon.

Everything has the ingredients for something I should enjoy, but it just doesn't work for me. The pace is rapid-fire, never slowing down for a minute, and the dialogue is a mile-a-minute and contained some good lines. It's not raunchy or cynical but silly and good-natured. Maybe it's one of those movies I need to watch more than once to pick up on everything' I'm sure I missed the more subtle jokes in the midst of all the chaos. It's also possible I'm 38 years late. Since this movie came out, other movies have probably used so many of the same concepts and scenarios, I'm familiar with it before I've seen it.

Humor is subjective. This just didn't do it for me. I admire the style and tone of the film but just couldn't get into it. It's diverting enough, and you could do much worse. If you're in the mood for something old-fashioned, check it out, and hopefully, you'll laugh more.