movie compactor

To conserve paper, I have reviewed 5 recent movies in one post. With one week to the Oscars I still haven’t seen a few. I’m hoping to see The White Ribbon this weekend. Gonna skip Crazy Heart, as much as I like Jeff Bridges, because I saw Tender Mercies. But these are worth seeing:

Big Fan
Patton Oswalt as “that guy,” the face-painting home team obsessed freako who lives in mom’s basement and stays up late to rant on the local AM sports talk radio show. Oswalt once again shows his enormous range (you thought I was gonna say ass, didn’t you?) by totally becoming this role. Written and directed by the screenwriter of The Wrestler, we know to expect him to be a busted up shell of a man filling a hole in himself with his fanaticism. He sees his team’s quarterback one night and he and his buddy follow him to a strip club, and work up the guts to approach him. Things happen and he gets assaulted, and must decide just how much he’ll suffer for his home team. It’s a bit weak in the third act and ending, but as a character study it’s pretty gripping. This is one of the better films of last year that was sadly overlooked, and a fine first directorial effort for Onion alumnus Robert D. Siegel.

4 face-painters out of 5

Big Fan on Netflix

The Blind Side
This movie’s getting a lot of hate. Straight up: I enjoyed it. I think we’ve become accustomed to discounting uplifting fare as inherently shallow, and while it may be a stretch to nominate this for Best Picture, if Avatar is up there this has every right to be. The Hollywood take on Michael Oher’s rise to football stardom, this is a sports story with a deeply human element that is unafraid to tell us what we’re supposed to mean when we say “Christian charity.” The Tuohy family is rich; Mr. Tuohy is a former basketball superstar who now runs a gaggle of fast food franchises. The film obliquely points the finger at our millionaire sports heroes to perhaps give a little back, as Mrs. Tuohy- played with organic brilliance by Sandra Bullock, in what will hopefully be a controversial Oscar-winning performance that will bump Marisa Tomei’s win for My Cousin Vinny as the film snobs’ “least deserved award” category- decides to do the right thing and bring the practically-orphaned “Big Mike” Oher under her wing. This is old-school Hollywood storymaking, not unlike Slumdog Millionaire without Danny Boyle’s directorial strength. John Lee Hancock does a workmanlike job. He also wrote the screenplay, which to the real Michael Oher’s chagrin, makes him a sort of football oaf to begin with, when he was rather skilled by the time the Tuohys helped him. The real story is how they overcome their fear and saw Michael as a person, and shared their abundance of both the material and the emotional to make him part of their family. So what if it’s couched in a tale written for the demographic where both sexes love football from birth? It’s uplifting without being smarmy, and isn’t as simple as its critics claim it to be.

4 out of 5 ladies who lunch but also give back to their community

The Blind Side on Netflix

The Road
Adapting Cormac McCarthy is difficult but obviously possible; No Country for Old Men, anyone? This one’s not so easy, as much of the story is internalized. The screenplay veers from the source at times, to give us a female character to please the bean counters; I felt this was a distracting mistake. The story is simple- an unknown disaster has cut the shackles of civilization and returned man to his more bestial state, and a father resolves to protect his son from the ravages of cannibals and nature, so he may “carry the fire” of humanity, and bring hope to the bleak future. How does the world end? In this version we know it’s a bang, when it was left ambiguous before. Does it matter if it’s a whimper, or fire or ice? Not really, in the grand scheme of things. Humanity is consuming itself, literally. What the movie gets right is showing how the father- Viggo Mortensen- loses hope. How can he carry the fire when it has gone out inside him? Like Frank Darabont’s similar take with The Mist, the father’s protective drive has corrupted him. I found this a little too spoonfed, and I didn’t care for the flashbacks to the mother, though I see the parallels and contrasts director John Hillcoat (The Proposition) was making. My suggestion: see this first if you haven’t read the book yet, and let the book expand on it.

4 out of 5 long pig banquets

The Road on Netflix

Everybody’s Fine
Robert DeNiro plays a retired widower, who Harry Chapin was singing about in “The Cat’s in the Cradle.” He drove his children to be ambitious and worked hard while his wife handled family matters, and now that she’s gone, no one has time to visit. It surprised me by shifting alliances, showing the old man’s own flaws and how past wounds run deep. This one rises above the standard tearjerker, but never goes much further. Bobby is always endearing and is perhaps the perfect image of that sort of hard working family man who was always too tired to really give to his family, but I never really felt his sadness, like Jack Nicholson managed in the similar film About Schmidt. This was based on an Italian classic from the 90’s entitled Stanno tutti bene, starring the unequaled Marcello Mastroianni, and the new script has some nice touches. Bobby made PVC casing for telephone wires, and only talks on land lines (rather like Paulie from Goodfellas); his children are well played by Drew Barrymore, Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale. At first they seem like the usual busy, ungrateful kids but bloom into real people. It’ll do well on cable.

3.5 out of 5 million miles of wire

Everybody’s Fine on Netflix

Food, Inc.
Are you eating? Might want to read this later. This should be for the modern food industry what Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was for turn of the century sausage factories, but I doubt many people saw it. Like the lackluster dramatization Fast Food Nation, this documentary exposes the industrialized network of factory farms and how it accepts disease and death among us, its customers, to serve its bottom line. I bet you expect the FDA to protect you from this, but the fact is they were created to promote and protect “farmers” and “cattlemen,” who are now mostly large corporate conglomerates benefiting from government-sponsored local monopolies. We see the victims of E. coli poisoning from “undercooked” beef- which would be perfectly safe if it wasn’t contaminated with, you know, shit- and E. coli tainted vegetables infected from manure runoff, since these county-sized slaughterhouse operations can’t dispose of the cow shit, which could probably fill one of the Great Lakes. Don’t criticize them too loudly, for they are protected by Federal Law (just ask Oprah, who was prosecuted for saying she wouldn’t eat beef until we tested all our cattle for Mad Cow disease, which we still don’t).

Genetically Modified foods are explored as well; they concentrate on Monsanto, not for abstract fear of “frankenfood” as some call it, but for how they have patented life, cornered the market on soybeans, and made it illegal for farmers who purchase their seed to … plant the seeds that were naturally produced. Plants produce seeds; but you can only plant the ones you buy from Monsanto. Your food now comes with a service agreement. It’s an eye-opening documentary, and while I found The Cove important, this is more so. If you wonder why a McMuffin costs less than a head of broccoli, rent this and find out. And wash and cook your food thoroughly. To quote Fast Food Nation, “everybody has to eat a little shit sometime.” Dig in.

5 out of 5 grass-fed free range organic strip steaks, hold the E. coli

Food, Inc. on Netflix

© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

Miracle at St. Anna

I don’t understand all the hate for this film. It’s a little sloppy in places, and takes a while to start, but once we flash back to World War 2, I was gripped. It helps that I watched The Inglorious Bastards (full review) recently; this is not Saving Private Ryan, it’s an old-school World War 2 film, injected with hokiness, but also with a modern level of gruesomeness and brutality. Lee begins by showing an old black man watching John Wayne in The Longest Day as a hint to not expect a modern gritty tale. The first thing he says is, “we fought that war, too.” Miracle at St. Anna doesn’t always work, but I enjoyed it. It is more cluttered than deep, but there is plenty to enjoy here.
An elderly postal worker shoots another old man; cops find a priceless relic in his apartment. We learn its story, with the “experimental” all-black Buffalo Soldiers regiment in Italy in ’44. We get Spike Lee black soldier stereotypes in place of the classic motley crew- there’s the white commander’s lackey, there’s the man trying to uplift his race, there’s the idiot manchild, there’s the guy with the gold tooth and luck with women, who “sets the race back a hundred years.” It’s part commentary on WW2 film conventions and movie expectations of black characters as you’d expect from Spike Lee, but has a solid, old-fashioned heart of a war story, as gritty as The Story of G.I. Joe.
The Italian campaign of World War 2 was some of the most brutal combat of the war, and its tale is the least told. The black regiments, such as those with Patton who broke through the lines, liberated the camps- rarely get mention, and especially in film. Here we get a story of 4 men trapped behind enemy lines. The artifact, the head of a statue, hangs in a net from a huge man’s belt. He’s Train, a towering baby-faced soldier with a gentle manner. He’s been carrying the artifact because he thinks rubbing it for luck has saved his bacon many times. We see his luck or its power in the first battle, as his regiment stalks across a heavily guarded river, and calls for artillery support. Their white commander- who feels slighted for being forced to lead the experimentary all-black force- refuses to believe they’ve made it so far ahead, and corrects the coordinates, bombing his own men.
As they’re cut down between friendly and German fire, only four manage to escape across enemy lines and into a small Italian village. When Train searches a barn as a possible hideout, he saves a young boy from under a collapsed beam; he feels responsible for him afterward. The boy seems touched, like Train; they give the story a fantasy quality. Stamps is the cool & collected leader of the group, and once he gathers his remaining men he gets them holed up with friendly Italians, including the mysterious and sexy Renata (Valentina Cervi, who does get topless) and her fascist-leaning father. Eventually they team with Italian partisans, including the Butterfly, who has a huge price on his head.
When they finally make contact with their regiment, they’re told to grab a German prisoner to interrogate about the enemy positions. As you can see, there’s a hell of a lot going on- and not all of it gets the detail we’d like. We see what Spike Lee is interested in, which isn’t always the plot. There are Nazi atrocities, such as the slaughter of villages to root out partisans; the detectives in the present trying to make sense of the murder in the post office; the Butterfly wondering if rebellion is worth the heavy price they pay in blood; Train and the boy, who may have “the sight,” and dealing with their bigoted superior.
This all happens in the shadow of The Sleeping Man, the mountain that resembles a man’s face, who the locals think will awaken and wipe the country clean of enemies. There’s a lot going on, and it takes a long time for us to get back to the beginning. Don’t expect too much from it, and you’ll be rewarded. It reminded me a lot of Inglorious Bastards (full review), where the journey was more important than where it took you. At 160 minutes, it’s best classified as what we used to call a Sunday movie- maybe not an epic, but a long, busy story that improves with multiple viewings.

Rating: Worthy

Schlocktoberfest!

Okay it is not terribly original for a movie blogger to do horror movie reviews in October, but I’m doing it anyway. My Netflix queue, DVD rack, and download folder (for the out of print rarities) are clogged with horror films I’ve been told I must see, and favorites I haven’t watched in a good while. I’ll try to have a horror movie every day, but with the new car I may have less time for bloggery.

Horror movies are their own beast. It’s hard to be truly scared by a movie as an adult. Sometimes if you’re home alone with all the lights out at night, you can get so absorbed in a horror film that the scares still work, but it’s been difficult for me. And the theater experience is even harder nowadays with jackasses talking, texting, and getting calls during movies. Before I begin this horror movie marathon, let me name my favorite horror movies and why I enjoy them so much. Most branded my childhood brain and therefore sit on the pedestal of nostalgia. It is very difficult for new movies to compete with such memories, but some have managed.

1. Poltergeist is my all-time favorite scary movie. A normal family composed of little-known actors in your standard Haunted House movie, but with so many bizarre occurrences that you are drawn in to their terror. This is also what Richard Pryor used to call a “dumb white people” movie, because “black people would move the fuck out of the house!” And I suppose that’s true. If my walls bled and disembodied voices growled “GET OUT” I’d probably high-tail it out the window in my underwear. But we can suspend disbelief for a little while, and imagine being sucked into the static of the television, or having chairs rearrange themselves behind our backs, or that creepy tree out our window suddenly decide we look pretty tasty. Some of the effects are dated- the fake faces that get torn apart, mostly- but the rest are still terrifying. When Paula Prentiss turns around and her kitchen chairs are neatly stacked on the table, it’s one of the most subtle, creepiest scenes put to film. It merges creepy classics like The Uninvited and The Haunting (1963) with Tobe Hooper’s gory sensibilities for the perfect mix of the unknown and the unfathomable.


2. The Thing (Carpenter version). Probably the pinnacle of stop-motion and traditional effects, and taking place on the loneliest spot on Earth- McMurdo Station in Antarctica. A dozen men braving the coldest of winters, we are immediately thrust into an unlikely science fiction story where anyone can be not what they seem. The sense of paranoia and isolation is driven home by the amazing score, and the “things” are still some of the most bizarre creations on film. Kurt Russell went from being a Disney movie kid to an utter bad-ass with Carpenter, and as the unseen enemy winnows down the cast we have no idea what will happen next. We’re on the edge of our seats. It’s Hitchcock-level suspense in a horror context.

3. Alien. Sure, you could say it is science fiction, but it is just a monster movie moved to space, where no one can hear you scream. Still one of the best and most memorable taglines ever written. Ridley Scott and Dan O’Bannon put together a great cast and made them cozy and believable, and then subject them to visceral, instinctively repulsive situations with H.R. Giger’s primal monster designs. He took simple, primal forms like the spidery, handlike “face hugger,” which not only grabs your face but essentially fucks it and pumps a larva load into your chest cavity. When it bursts out of your chest, it now resembles a snake- another creature, like spiders, that people tend to fear and hate on a primal level. And the final design goes beyond Freud to resemble a sleek black creature both phallic and technological- while later movies make it clear that it is a natural beast, Giger’s own style has always been “bio mechanics,” making uneasy mergings of flesh, steel and silicon, not unlike Cronenberg’s horrific visions in Videodrome. The story is a simple slasher tale as the fodder is devoured and the virginal female remains, but damn if it doesn’t scare you on a visceral level.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0086541/
4. Videodrome. I saw this last year and regret not getting into David Cronenberg earlier. Much like Alien, it plays on our fears of the great progresses in technology. Here a late-night TV channel is affecting us, and we are not sure what is reality and nightmare anymore. The stunning visuals are still creepy today, and while the “breathing videotape” is quite dated, James Woods and his poor “hand gun” are still cringe-inducingly horrific. It helps to remember when not every station was owned by a cable conglomerate, and you could see some strange shit just flipping the channels. The mood of the film is incredibly bleak and gripping, and the ending is unexpected, shocking, and a true classic. This may not have big scares, but creepiness and sense of dread throughout are impeccable, and must be experienced.

5. The Shining. This is one of Kubrick’s masterpieces, and Stephen King fans be damned, it is still one of the best horror movies ever made even if it strays far from the storyline. It takes several viewings to understand just how fucked up Jack and family are before they arrive at the Overlook Hotel, and what happens there is now among the greatest haunted house tales ever put to film. This film is an old friend to me now, and I watch it every year when the snow comes down. Like The Thing, it makes use of the isolation winter brings, and the cast is full of archetypal characters. Jack with the rage bubbling beneath the surface, fearful Shelley Duvall who is obviously an abused wife, though we never see it, and little Danny, the child of an enraged, unloving father who flees to an inner world and deals with powers he cannot comprehend. The film also has a lot of dark humor, that it takes several viewings to realize in its richness. Check out Scatman’s art collection, for example. All these years later, I’m still on the edge of my seat when they try to escape the hotel and its hedge maze. It’s a tale by a master storyteller twisted to a master director’s ends, and while it may not be King’s vision, it is still an unforgettable one.


6. Jacob’s Ladder. Without this movie there’d be no “Silent Hill.” Tim Robbins is a Vietnam Vet dealing with what he thinks are flashbacks or effects of a chemical they used on the battlefield, and the entire film is one gigantic mindfuck beginning from there. He soon can’t tell what is real and what is not, as his visions get increasingly terrifying and bizarre, reminiscent of The Thing and Cronenberg’s body modification fetishes. Once again the director draws us into an unfamiliar world more disquieting than scary, and Robbins’ paranoia is quickly infectious. Playing on our familiar nightmares where we remember things that may not be real, this movie stays with you long after it ends.

7. The Descent. This is one of my favorite recent horror flicks and while it has its flaws- namely the interchangeable characters- it also works on a dream-level and pulls a great switcheroo in the middle. A group of athletic gals meet to go spelunking as they do once a year; this time in remote Appalachia. Playing on familiar fears of claustrophobia and darkness, of course they run into trouble and need to find a new way out of the cave; also, no one knows where they are, because it is a new-found system and one gal “wanted to be the first.” So we also get that lurking sense of dread that comes with being lost in the woods, another archetypal fear from fairy tales and childhood. By the time we find out they are not alone in the caves, we are already engrossed in a great survival horror tale, and this take on the Sawney Bean tale amps things up to 11. It is also unclear if this is reality or a dream, and the bleak ending is one of my favorites.

So that’s 7 for now. Why not 10? Well, I have a month to watch 30 horror films and see if I can find 3 more I consider great. There are plenty of modern, good horror movies, but the great ones have been elusive. Calvaire and High Tension out of France have come close, but have more style than substance. They are definitely worth seeing. I’m told that Them (remade in America as The Strangers) is worthy of the title, and both versions are on tap. [Rec] is supposed to be zombies meets The Blair Witch Project, and has many fans. That will be considered. Hell, I may revisit Blair Witch, since I missed it in theaters and only saw it on a small screen. A lot of people love it, and the “lost in the woods” vibe, with weird happenings that may or may not be supernatural is a great premise.

This month I will also be watching a few Paul Newman films I’ve missed, and if I see anything in the theater or with Firecracker (who doesn’t like horror much) I’ll try to squeeze them in here. It will tax my blogging skills to the max. So watch this space for the inevitable meltdown!