Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Beavis and Butthead Do America (1996) * 1/2

Directed by:   Mike Judge

Starring:  (voices of) Mike Judge, Demi Moore, Robert Stack

Beavis and Butthead was not exactly a show that was on my "must see" radar when it premiered on MTV in the early 90s.     I watched the half-hour show occasionally, which consisted of misunderstandings, misadventures, and music video commentary from the extremely dimwitted duo that wore heavy metal t-shirts and spent most of their waking hours on the couch in front of the TV. 

A 90-minute movie featuring the duo is pretty rough sledding.    Beavis and Butthead are written as so stupid and so limited in their capabilities that there isn't much that can be done with them.      The movie is a series of misunderstandings and misadventures stretched out to 90 minutes.    
Beavis and Butthead's dialogue consists of low-register chuckling and cackling and complete misinterpretation of whatever is said to them.      Judge probably means this as a satire of a generation brought up on MTV, but it wears thin quickly.   

Mike Judge wrote and directed Office Space and the current HBO series "Silicon Valley".    Both are superior as satires.    Beavis and Butthead simply are too moronic to tolerate for any length of time.    Perhaps that is the point, but it doesn't make the experience any better.     Even more painful is when Beavis drinks too much soda and turns into Cornholio, which consists of him walking around with his arms up, his t-shirt partially pulled over his head, and saying, "I am Cornholio."    The entire segment of Beavis as Cornholio is drawn-out and painful, even more so than the rest of the film.

I probably sound like someone who doesn't "get" Beavis and Butthead, as if somehow I'm missing a larger point or joke that continually eludes me.     I think I understand I'm meant to understand, but to the point I do understand, I don't care.       


Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Billy Crystal: 700 Sundays (2014) * * * (shown on HBO)

Directed by:  Des McAnuff

Billy Crystal's one-man Broadway show takes us through a journey which would shape and create the comedian.     Focusing mostly on his childhood and teen years, he paints a vivid portrait of his family and others who occupied his home in Long Beach, Long Island, New York.      Crystal narrates with boundless energy, as if he had a ton of stories he couldn't wait to tell you about.     I couldn't help but compare this show to Mike Tyson: The Undisputed Truth, which failed mostly because Tyson does not succeed as a public speaker.     Crystal is at home, funny, and sometimes touching in his recount of his childhood.      Plus, it is very easy to understand him.     Tyson wasn't really any of those things.

This review is about what 700 Sundays is rather than what The Undisputed Truth isn't.     Born in 1948 to a middle class Jewish family, Crystal refers to "700 Sundays" as the 15 years worth of Sundays he spent with his father and family.     His father died suddenly of a heart attack when Crystal was 15, causing a few years worth of grief, heartache, anger, and uncertainty in Crystal.     He recovered and went on to marry, have children, and begin a hugely successful career in stand-up comedy, movies, and television.     In between were the laughs and sadness and those moments every family understands and each can truly call its own.

There were some things revealed that I didn't know about Crystal, such as his family ties to jazz greats Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie.    Some of his recollections are funny,  some sentimental, some sad.    Crystal succeeds at evoking a nostalgic feeling for people we didn't know, but we soon feel like we did.     Not every story is necessarily compelling and the show probably runs 10-15 minutes longer than it needed to, but we understand Crystal's need to tell these stories.  

Crystal doesn't allow 700 Sundays to become a regurgitation of his standup act.     Other than a brief Edward G. Robinson impression, he doesn't break out into impressions or familiar routines.     He focuses on the stories and memories that live on from that small house in Long Island.     There is even touching footage of Crystal touring the now vacant home one last time, peering into each room and remembering what he saw there all those years ago.      Sometimes life moves forward so quickly that we take little time to reflect back.     Were "the old days" as romantic and nostalgic as we make them out to be?   Of course not, but we tend to remember only the most important times and we need to see them that way.     Billy Crystal: 700 Sundays understands that all too well.  

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) * * *

Directed by:  Wes Anderson

Starring:  Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Tony Revolori, Tilda Swinton, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton

Wes Anderson films are unlike any other.    They are part flights of fancy, part active and fertile imagination, and usually have an all-star cast like Woody Allen movies.     Woody Allen movies are more or less grounded in reality, with the occasional tip towards fantasy, while Wes Anderson's movies take place in a world like the one in The Grand Budapest Hotel.     It snows in virtually every scene, although there appears to be little accumulation on the ground.      Characters behave in ways that kinda sorta resemble real people, but are afforded their own idiosynchrasies.     The hotel itself looks like plenty of posh hotels you've seen, but the porters have "Lobby Boy" stitched on their hats and nearly everyone has a funny moustache.     And don't forget the elevator that takes guests in what looks like a covered ski lift to the hotel which sits on top of a large mountain.     

That only scratches the surface to the film's surprises.    The funny thing is The Grand Budapest Hotel matches previous Wes Anderson films in terms of tone and visual texture, yet this one worked for me better than the others.     I enjoyed The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) immensely, which I find to be the most human of all of his films.     The Grand Budapest Hotel is cheerfully goofy and maintains a pleasant tone.     It even has a plot, which involves the hotel's concierge (Fiennes) possible involvement in the murder of one of the hotel's frequent guests.     The concierge, named Gustave H, seemingly has the rigidity of Anthony Hopkins' butler in The Remains Of The Day, but unlike Hopkins' butler, is more than willing to sleep with elderly rich women and bend the rules to his advantage.    Fiennes is charming and has a ball with this role, which is unlike any he has ever played.    The closest thing Fiennes has a ever played to comedy was Maid In Manhattan (with Jennifer Lopez), if you would even count that.     I always sensed he had this versatility in him, if given the right opportunity.   Oh, and he did lend the voice to the villain in the claymation film Wallace & Gromit:  The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

The actors all know they are partaking in a world they aren't used to playing in.    Some Anderson veterans like Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Adrien Brody are on hand, but the actors new to the Anderson universe also act with heedless joy.     The thrust of the plot takes place in 1932, when war loomed in Europe.    The aggressors are for all intents and purposes Nazis (even though Nazis didn't rise to power until 1933 and didn't begin its aggression until later in the decade), but no matter, Anderson manages to sidestep even that potentially gloomy plot point and maintain the good cheer.     

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a lot like Anderson's previous films, yet completely different.     I was more drawn in this time, more interested, and more curious to see what was up the director's sleeve.      The last Wes Anderson film was Moonrise Kingdom (2012), which was not a success for me.     I found it to be tiresomely twee.     The Grand Budapest Hotel is certainly not tiresome, nor twee. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Grudge Match (2013) * *

Directed by:  Peter Segal

Starring:  Sylvester Stallone, Robert DeNiro, Kim Basinger, Alan Arkin, Kevin Hart, Jon Bernthal, LL Cool J

The plot:  A desperate boxing promoter sets up a fight between feuding retired boxers.

Stallone and DeNiro seem to be having a pretty good time in Grudge Match, a boxing comedy about two old, retired boxers who finally have their long-awaited rematch set up by the son of their late, dubious boxing promoter.    Both are at least on the wrong side of 60 (in real life much more than that), but still carry around plenty of grudges against the other.     Henry "Razor" Sharp (Stallone) and
Billy "Kid" McDonnen (DeNiro) fought each other twice in the early 80s, each winning once.    The rubber match between the two never happened though, as Razor retired from boxing.    

This left Kid empty and frustrated because he didn't get to finish Razor.    Razor in turn nurses a grudge against Kid for having an affair with his then-girlfriend Sally Rose (Basinger) and fathering a child.     A small-time desperate promoter named Dante Slate Jr., the son of both men's late, unscrupulous promoter (Hart) proposes the rubber match after the two men brawl while doing some work for a boxing video game.     Due to desperate finanical situations, they agree to fight despite their advanced age.    Things like medical clearances are not issues in Dante's world, who drives around in a jalopy while promising big bucks to the fighters.  

The first half of Grudge Match is funny and it is fun to watch DeNiro and Stallone do their stuff.    But then the energy level subsides and a lot of sentimental issues are covered, like the introduction of BJ (Bernthal), the son Kid never knew.    Grudge Match doesn't work as well when it lays the sentiment on thick.    The scenes involving Basinger and Stallone also seem perfunctory.     I would've preferred the film continue to explore the sometimes bizarre world of boxing, where there is no such thing as bad publicity.    

Then, we have the issue of the fight itself, which the film was building up to and thus had to be longer and drawn out than it would realistically be.     The two men throw haymakers at each other at will as if they picked up where Rocky 6 left off.     I suppose the film wanted to give the audience its money's worth, but is it really possible these two men could administer such punishment to each other?    Don't brittle bones, achy joints, slowed motor skills, and lessened stamina play any part in this fight?    The answer of course is no.  

It is good to see Stallone play an actual character instead of an indestructible killing machine pushing 70.     In Grudge Match, he is quiet and likable, a study of what Rocky would've been like if he retired after the first Apollo Creed fight.    DeNiro also enjoys himself.     He doesn't walk around with a facial expression of someone who seems to perpetually smell a dirty diaper.    Kevin Hart and Alan Arkin are really one-liner machines and get off some funny ones, but both roles are rather limited.     Basinger does her best in a role that in the grand scheme of things is rather unnecessary.  

Grudge Match is funnier than I expected, but doesn't quite go the distance.    Many of the things in the film are handled better than the fight itself.     I honestly didn't really care who won, just as long as no one got seriously hurt, which is not likely in this film's boxing world. 

Side note:  Something unintentionally funny is the film's use of fake snow, which is seen in small, unmelted white piles all over the place.     If you look hard enough, you can see they're made of plastic.   

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

August: Osage County (2013) * *

Directed by:  John Wells

Starring:  Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sam Shepard, Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin

The Plot:   A very dysfunctional Oklahoma family reunites in the wake of the patriarch's suicide and funeral.

Here is a movie crying out for a sequel.    There are plenty of subplots, arguments, threats, revelations, and dramatics that are introduced but not explored or resolved.      In real life, there are not always clear resolutions to issues, but we watch movies to transcend or escape real life.    Resolutions are not unreasonably expected unless a sequel is forthcoming, but I don't expect the gang back together for another go-round.

So what do we have?    Based on the stage play by Tracy Letts and directed by John Wells (who directed the superb The Company Men in 2010), August: Osage County takes place over a scorching hot weekend in rural Oklahoma with the Weston family.     The patriarch Beverly (Shepard), a sad alcoholic who gave up hope of being anything more than a scholar years ago, goes missing and matriarch Violet (Streep) puts the word out to her family near or far.     Soon, all are descending on the Weston home, which has the curtains drawn and the air conditioner unused.     I think part of the reason everyone is so miserable is that the air is not turned on even when it's 108 degrees outside.

Soon, the patriarch Beverly (what a curse for a man to be named Beverly) is found at the bottom of a lake from a suspected suicide, stirring up conflicting emotions and emotional conflicts.    Violet is not without her own problems.    She is suffering from mouth cancer and is hooked on pills, all the while is barely seen without a cigarette in her hand.      I can't imagine that will help with the mouth cancer.
Is it so hard to act without having a prop like a cigarette or a drink in your hand?     The Violet character is a scenery-chewing loudmouth anyway, but why distract from it?    Streep is an 18-time Oscar nominee (including this film) and a three-time winner.     She enjoys playing the insulting, condescending, doped out Violet, although I don't rank this with her best performances.    

The Roberts character is Barb, the "favored" sister with plenty of issues of her own long before her father died.    She's in a crumbling marriage to an eggheaded professor (McGregor) and has a mouth that would embarrass a longshoreman.    I have no objections to movie characters using four-letter or twelve-letter words, but they should be used sparingly.     Roberts isn't exactly a million miles removed from her Oscar-winning turn in Erin Brockovich.     She is sometimes so abrasive and loud that it is hard to have sympathy for her.     We can't really blame her ex for wanting to stay as far away from her as possible.

Other characters are introduced, given a few moments in the sun, and stand on the sidelines while the women have it out.    The men in August:Osage County are MIA when the women are sitting around drinking and having dustups.     My guess is they are running for cover.     My biggest issue with the people in August: Osage County is that they aren't really people we can identify with.     They are play/movie characters with a lot of baggage and drama, but we never quite feel their pain.     There is a lot of shouting, confessions, and a bizarre revelation which makes a creepy relationship between first cousins Ivy (Nicholson) and Charle (Cumberbatch) even creepier.     But despite the all-star cast, August: Osage County in the end just didn't move me.      I'm reminded of the song with the chorus, "Is that all there is?"


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Auto Focus (2002) * * * *

Directed by:  Paul Schrader

Starring:  Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Rita Wilson, Maria Bello, Ron Leibman

Bob Crane was bludgeoned to death in 1978 while sleeping in a Scottsdale, Arizona hotel room.    The murder remains officially unsolved, although his friend John Carpenter was tried and acquitted of the crime.    We may never know for sure who killed Bob Crane, the affable star of Hogan's Heroes who led a life that spiraled out of control due to sex addiction.     In the 60s and 70s, sex addiction likely wasn't even thought of as a true addiction.     Crane (Kinnear) thought he was normal and was proudly indiscreet about showing people dozens of photo albums full of his conquests.     What he never grasped was that his addictions ruined his career, two marriages, and may have led to his untimely death.

Auto Focus is a fascinating study of a man who was a slave to his compulsions.     Crane rationalized his behavior by saying "I don't drink.   I don't smoke or do drugs."    All true, but sex was his drug of choice.    He doesn't seem to experience much joy in having sex, but has a compulsive need for it.    He saw nothing unusual about his motto, "A day without sex is a wasted day,"    He found a kindred spirit in Carpenter, who first befriended Crane by selling him new video equipment.     Soon, he and Carpenter became inseparable, booking swinger parties all over LA and then on the road after Hogan's Heroes is cancelled and Crane embarks on a nationwide dinner theater tour.     Their relationship is co-dependent, but there are homosexual undertones as well.     The only outward sign of any affection is when Carpenter felt up Bob's ass during an orgy, which offended Crane but not enough to keep away.     It's noteworthy when Carpenter explains he also has such a friendship with Crane's co-star Richard Dawson.     Crane's response:  "It's either him or me."   What exactly was going on there?

Crane's reputation for swinging cost him jobs with Disney and attempts to resurrect his career after Hogan's Heroes.     His agent (Leibman) warns him against being indiscreet, but Crane sees no issue in his behavior.     Crane sees no problem with he and Carpenter masturbating while playing back videos of their sexcapades.    Early on when Crane was playing drums at a strip club, he seeks out advice from his priest, but isn't very eager to join the priest's band.      By 1978, Crane decides to change his ways and disassociates himself from Carpenter, who behaves like a thrown-over lover.   Did this lead to Crane's death directly?    We will likely never know.    What we do know is someone was angry enough with Bob Crane to murder him in his sleep.

Kinnear is truly effective playing Crane as a likable guy who doesn't want to hurt anybody, but can't help himself.     He lacks insight into his behavior, mostly because few thought that there was any such thing as sex addiction in the 1970s.     But as we witness the joylessness that accompanied his sexcapades, we see that sex became quite a drag for him.     We feel it.     Going from place to place night after night with Carpenter takes its toll on him.     Carpenter, in my opinion, is at least bisexual and is half in love with Crane, but parties with the women because it keeps him close to Crane.    Dafoe is creepily convincing.     We can believe he would be someone who would kill rather than lose his lifestyle, which is troubling and sad.   

The pity is, we see Bob Crane edging closer and closer to a tragic ending.    He could never beat his demons because in his mind he didn't have them.     But they were there, they were real, and they crushed him.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) * * * 1/2

Directed by:  Anthony Russo and Joe Russo

Starring:  Chris Evans, Scarlet Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Colbie Smulders, Anthony Mackie

Captain America:  The Winter Soldier made me care.    It isn't just mind-numbing, CGI-inflated action sequences held together by flat characters and dialogue.     Thanks to numerous plot twists that I will try my best not to reveal, the film raises the human stakes which makes it all the more engrossing.    

Just to refresh, the original Captain America took place during World War II with puny, but determined Steve Rogers (Evans) injected with an experimental steroid that turns him into a muscular, fast, strong superhero that wields an indestructible shield.    After Captain America thwarts the plans of a rogue Nazi group called Hydra, his ship goes down in the Arctic and he is presumed dead.     Years later, his body is thawed out and he is recruited by SHIELD (led by Samuel L. Jackson's eye-patch wearing Nick Fury).     He may be in his 90s technically, but thanks partly to the drug (I think), Steve hasn't aged a day.    Then again, seeing an old man beat up baddies would look ludicrous, so it's better to stick with this approach.

SHIELD is compromised by its own inner rogue element, led by Secretary of Defense Alexander Pierce (Redford).    Redford is superb here, showing everyone that one doesn't have to be a cackling, screaming, scenery-chewing, one-liner spewing maniac to be an effective villain.     Also in the mix is The Winter Soldier, an assassin whose existence is considered a ghost story, since he isn't well known for leaving his targets alive.     Black Widow (Johansson) is one such person who can verify that he is indeed very real.     The backstory on The Winter Soldier is that he has committed various assassinations for "over 50 years" for the Soviets, including killing JFK.    Oliver Stone can finally rest now knowing this.   

But, strangely, The Winter Soldier (who wears a mask which covers all but his eyes and long-flowing black hair) seems awfully young to be around killing people for 50 years, unless....   Don't worry, I won't divulge any spoilers, but things get very interesting between Captain America and The Winter Soldier in some crucial scenes.     Because of the dynamic that exists, their fight scenes aren't mindless action sequences, but a fight for each other's soul.      It reminded me greatly of Luke Skywalker battling Darth Vader in Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi.   

There is also the introduction of Sam Wilson (Mackie), who dons a prototype mechanical wingset to fly to help Captain America in his time of need.    Mackie has become a reliable character actor over the last couple of years.     Captain America, as played by Evans, is a man who lives in the present, but he has to reconcile that he missed 70 years of his life and is trying to adapt.    Most of his loved ones are gone or very, very old.    He still holds on to old American values, even though America's values have changed plenty in the last 70 years.     But, thankfully he is not an uber-patriotic speechmaker extolling the virtues of "The Greatest Generation".     Captain America has plenty of room to grow in this new world.

I expected this Captain America to be like the first one, a fun ride with lots of CGI and action sequences.     But what I didn't expect, and greatly appreciate, was the depth that we see here.     Action movies tend to be much more interesting when its characters are allowed to be human and not everything is black and white. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Hush (1998) *

Directed by:  Johnathan Darby

Starring:  Jessica Lange, Gywneth Paltrow, Jonatahn Schaech, Hal Holbrook, Nina Foch

This is one of the strangest thrillers I've seen in many a moon.    It's all setup and no payoff.    Is it a psychological thriller?    Is it a slasher film?    I think it's the former, but it contains many elements of the latter, so much so that I expected the two female leads to be fighting to the death atop a very high place.    Or the villain would be impaled on a barn tool.    Or something.     In any event, Hush requires many of its characters to behave stupidly or else the whole thing would be over in fifteen minutes, which wouldn't have been a bad thing.

Hush begins with a New York man named Jackson (Schaech) and his fiancĂ©e, Helen (Paltrow) visiting the Virginia horse farm where he grew up.    It is run by his mother Martha (Lange), a mannerly, smothering woman who has run the place since her husband died years earlier from a fall.     She wants Jackson to stay around and help her run the farm, but his life with Helen in his in New York, so they leave much to her dismay.  

Without giving away too many plot spoilers, Helen becomes pregnant and one night is attacked by a seemingly random mugger with a Southern accent.    Hmmm.     The frightened Jackson and Helen decide to take some time away from New York to help Martha renovate the farm.    Martha helps Helen through her pregnancy, but almost acts as if she is the expectant mother rather than Helen.    She slowly and creepily begins to drive a wedge between Helen and Jackson.    She spreads rumors about Helen around town and keeps a very distant relationship from her mother-in-law whom she had stashed away in a nursing home.     The mother-in-law is a kindly old lady who seems to know whatever information the heroine needs any time she needs it.    She also nurtures suspicions about Martha's intentions and for good reason.

This all sounds like it's building to something, but it doesn't.     If you're going to set up Martha as a sociopath, then is it too much to ask that she gets a satisfactory comeuppance?     I'm not necessarily into slasher violence, but at least play by the rules.     Hush is a battle between the pregnant Helen and Martha.    I've never seen a movie before in which the villain's infliction of pain on her victim is natural childbirth without drugs.     It's silly if you think about it and it's even sillier to see it.

There are only two men in the film (not counting the mugger) that are involved in the plot in any way.    Both are clueless and don't seem to harbor suspicions about anyone.     Jackson spends so much time away that I forgot at times where he was supposed to be.    The other man is a kindly obstetrician (Holbrook) who breaks more than a few HIPPA laws by divulging information on Helen's condition to Martha.     He even helpfully suggests inducing labor by using horse tranquilizers.     I won't even try and figure out how he knows that.    Such advice sounds like a one-way ticket to getting your medical license revoked.

The actors are pros and do the best they can with an absurd plot.    Lange is slyly menacing, but it is distracting that she is either holding a drink or a cigarette in her hand as some sort of prop in nearly all of her scenes.    Paltrow's Helen is a nice woman who intuits what's happening, but can't seem to convince her dopey husband of anything until the end when he suddenly decides to behave as if he has a brain.      What we have here is a thriller that doesn't thrill.   

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Cheech and Chong's Next Movie (1980) * * 1/2

Directed by:  Thomas Chong

Starring:  Richard "Cheech" Marin, Tommy Chong, Paul Reubens, Edie McClurg

Cheech and Chong movies (except maybe for Nice Dreams) really don't have plots, but are a bunch of misadventures run out to feature length.     Some of Next Movie is funny, some of it is silly, some of it satirical, and some of it flat out bombs.     But the pot-smoking duo keeps trying anyway and I admire their energy.

The duo spends their days and nights trying to become rock stars to no avail and searching for the perfect high that eludes them.     Living in a condemned house and nearly getting busted by the police doesn't faze them much.     To them, the real world is just a buzzkill.     They are harmless guys, although don't tell that to Pee Wee Herman, who is heckled off the stage by them and offers to have them beat up.    This is a few miles removed from the Pee Wee of Pee Wee's Big Adventure.  

But Cheech and Chong plow manfully ahead, and there is an introduction of Cheech's cousin Red, (also played by Cheech), who sports long blonde hair and a Southern drawl.    Red is a party animal who tells goofy jokes and carries around a satchel full of weed.     Meanwhile, Cheech awaits a rendezvous at his condemned home with a sexy mamacita (Evelyn Guerrero), falls asleep, and awakes with a teddy bear attacking his private parts.

If you're looking for a plot or any kind of connecting thread between all of these situations, then you've come to the wrong movie.     I can only judge it on whether I laughed enough to recommend it.    I laughed at some of it and winced at other parts, but if you're channel surfing and come across it, give it a look.    If it's not your cup of tea, move on.    If you find it amusing and likably goofy, then keep it on and see what happens next.    Cheech and Chong are unique performers with a style that can't be duplicated....or even defined. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013) * *

Directed by:  Adam McKay

Starring:   Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Greg Kinnear, Christina Applegate, David Koechner, Paul Rudd, Kristen Wiig, Meagan Good, James Marsden

The plot:   The San Diego news team from the first Anchorman reteams at a fledgling 24-hour cable news network in early 1980s Manhattan.

Anchorman 2 tries so hard and throws so much at the wall that eventually some of it will stick and be funny.    Unlike the first Anchorman, this sequel is a near free-for-all without the satire.     And like any movie Judd Apatow has anything to do with (he produces here), the movie runs excessively long.    Why does a comedy have to be over two hours?     Especially one that is sporadically funny?

Will Ferrell returns as the chauvinistic, improper, but impeccably groomed anchorman Ron Burgundy who as the film opens is working with now-spouse Veronica (Applegate) as weekend broadcasters in New York.     Ron is fired by the veteran weeknight news anchor (Harrison Ford), while Veronica is moved to take over the weeknight spot, causing a monstrous blow to Ron's ego and his marriage.    Soon, Ron is back in San Diego (which he pronounces "San Diago") working as an emcee at Sea World and getting plastered.   

He is soon approached to work at Global News Network, a startup 24-hour cable news network based in New York and he gathers up the old gang to head there.     He finds his sportscaster Champ Kind (Koechner) running a dubious fried-chicken establishment, his weatherman Brick Tamland (Carell) dumb as ever, and Brian Fantana (Rudd) taking photos for Cat Fancy magazine.    They are involved in a terrible RV wreck because Ron misunderstood the meaning of "cruise control".     The RV wreck isn't funny, but instead makes you wince.

Ron comes to New York, engages in a feud with pretty-boy anchor James Lime (Marsden), and attempts to win his family back.    Other things happen and describing that will take up too much time.      There is an introduction of a love interest for Brick, a receptionist named Chani (Wiig) who may actually be dumber than he is.    Their scenes are funny, but there aren't enough of them.    Anchorman 2 begins to feel like a movie trying to shoehorn in all of its ideas.  

What's missing here is the satire.    Anchorman was a funny satire of TV news and sexual politics in the workplace.    Anchorman 2 doesn't aim that high.    It is content on taking the low road.   It even spends an entire segment on Ron going blind and taking care of a baby shark, which doesn't work.
There is a payoff to this at the end of the film which doesn't work either.     Also near the end is a rumble similar to the one in the original in which many stars make cameo appearances.     That number is nearly doubled in this sequel, which doesn't matter because the fights aren't funny anyway.    It's fun for a second to see some of these actors, but nothing is done with them.

Director McKay said that there are so many jokes and lines written for the film that a second or third version of Anchorman 2 could've been made with all new jokes.    These versions are available if you buy the DVD, but that seems like a high price to pay.     It's not a good sign if the jokes that made it in to this movie were considered the best ones. 

Scenes From A Mall (1991) * 1/2

Directed by:  Paul Mazursky

Starring:  Bette Midler, Woody Allen, Bill Irwin

Scenes From A Mall is a mostly two character movie with a creepy, annoying mime sticking his nose in on occasion.     I'm guessing whoever was running this mall thought hiring a mime to entertain shoppers was a swell idea, but it wasn't.    Thankfully, mimes just aren't something you see much of anymore.      Then again, other than TV and the late Marcel Marceau, did we ever really see mimes in our every day lives? 

Scenes From A Mall runs about 85 minutes and it has barely enough material to cover that.    It's pretty thin.    Two well-off Los Angeleans, sports agent Nick (Allen) and psychologist/author Deborah (Midler) celebrate their 16th wedding anniversary by going to the local mall to purchase things for their upcoming anniversary party and trip.    Out of the blue, Nick confesses to an affair which sends Deborah reeling.    He attempts to console her, she's angry, they scream at each other, and then reconcile.    They even wind up having sex in a movie theater.

By all accounts, the movie should be over by now, but in order to fluff the film out to feature-length, Deborah confesses to an affair herself, causing all of the same things to happen as before, except the makeup sex.    Then, the movie is over.    Other than the mime who seems to be stalking Nick and Deborah, Scenes From A Mall concerns itself with Nick and Deborah, while hundreds of extras walk by and an a capella quartet sings Christmas songs.    Oh, and I almost forgot the rappers who blast their music from a boombox.    There isn't a lot of character development here.     We count on the goodwill we have with Midler and Allen to try and pull this off.    They try mightily and are generally likable, but they don't have much to work with.   

I guess if you ever wanted to see Woody Allen wear his hair in a ponytail, this is the movie you have been waiting for.     But Scenes From A Mall is pretty much a dead zone.    What a shame to waste Allen's, Midler's and Mazursky's talents this way.  

Thursday, April 3, 2014

On The Waterfront (1954) * * *

Directed by:  Elia Kazan

Starring:  Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden

The Plot:  A boxer-turned-dockworker struggles with his conscience as he decides whether to testify against a corrupt union boss responsible for murder and racketeering.  

On The Waterfront won 8 Oscars in 1954 including Best Picture and Marlon Brando's only Oscar that he didn't publicly refuse.    It is gritty and idealistic, but is held back somewhat by Terry's budding relationship with Edie (Saint-also an Oscar winner), the sister of his friend, Joey Doyle, he unwittingly set up to be killed by mobsters.      Once he acknowledges his involvement with her brother's death, it is seemingly forgotten about when they kiss passionately.      The ending is also awkward and goes out of its way to let Terry live even though realistically the people he testified against would whack him.

In between, though, there are many interesting questions brought up, mainly by Malden's character, Father Barry, the local parish priest who investigates Joey's death.    How much would a person be willing to stay quiet about to protect his livelihood?   Or himself?    Or his family?    The workers of these waterfront docks witness corruption, beatings, and even murders almost daily.   They are rightfully terrified to speak up when local police and investigators start asking questions.     Terry Malloy is approached by investigators who want him to testify at corruption hearings, yet he is hesitant because he is given cushy jobs on the docks and a certain level of respect by union boss Johnny Friendly (Cobb).     Terry's brother Charlie (Steiger) is also a member of the union's corrupt inner circle, but Charlie does what is best for business more than what is best for his brother.

The movie's most famous scene is Terry's "I coulda been a contender" speech to his brother in the back of a taxi.     Years before, Charlie asked his brother to take a dive during a fight he easily could've won.     The fight could've turned him into a contender for the title, but instead he chose to throw the fight so Charlie's gambler friends could make money.     Now, with his fight career a distant memory, he is under the thumb of Friendly and his brother.     Could testifying be the chance to break free?     Could he be a somebody at long last?

Brando's performance earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor.     Terry is a punch drunk simpleton who doesn't want to make waves.    However, Father Barry and Edie sense his inner conflict and his fear.    He doesn't want to disloyal to Charlie mostly, but his conscience keeps nagging at him.     At one point, he says, "Conscience.   That stuff will drive you nuts."    To him, a conscience is a real inconvenience, but one he can't ignore.     In his later years, Brando could sometimes be caught "acting", but here he is very convincing as he goes through inner changes.

Malden, who co-starred with Brando and won an Oscar for 1951's A Streetcar Named Desire (also directed by Kazan), is the film's moral center.     Malden is a tall rock who is powerful and authoritative in every scene he is in.    Malden's screen presence was exceptional even in films like 1981's Miracle On Ice, when he played Herb Brooks who at the time was 25 years his junior.     Lee J. Cobb plays Friendly as a loudmouth blowhard who is always looking to tear someone's head off.     I wondered how his underlings could stand being around him.     Why would they be loyal to such a creep?  

Perhaps when On The Waterfront was released sixty years ago, it had much more power than it does now.     The first half of the film creates a hermitic, almost prison-like feel for the docks and the people who lived there.     The Terry-Edie thing is underwhelming and then the unconvincing ending.    However, the film plays best when it raises questions about how much one person can stand in the name of a few dollars and temporary security.   

Enough Said (2013) * *

Directed by:  Nicole Holofcener

Starring:  James Gandolfini, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Catherine Keener, Toni Collette, Ben Falcone

James Gandolfini died shortly before this film's release.   He shows his versatility here as a large, divorced, lonely man who finds a love interest in a masseuse who is unknowingly friends with his ex-wife who badmouths him at every opportunity.     I can't imagine why the ex-wife would badmouth him.     He seems like a really nice guy.

Enough Said is about Albert and the women who clearly aren't good enough for him.     The ex-wife is a shrew and the masseuse Eva (Louis-Dreyfus) is an easily manipulated woman who probably wouldn't even want to date this guy if the script didn't require her to.     There isn't a lot of spark in their relationship.     The way Eva fawns all over her newfound friend/client Marianne (Keener), I was halfway expecting Eva to make a move on her.  

Most of Eva's conversations with Marianne concern Marianne pointing out her ex's faults.    Until a crucial point, she conveniently doesn't refer to him by his first name.    But soon Marianne's criticisms take hold and Eva begins to question whether she wants a relationship with Albert.     Naturally, Albert learns that Eva and his ex are friends and deduces reasonably that Marianne is poisoning his relationship with Eva.    They break up and if you think they won't get back together then you're watching the wrong movie.

Enough Said isn't horrible.    It's just meh.   It's so quiet and subtle that it tends to slip into its own coma.     Situations are set up with little or no payoff.    Even the payoffs don't add up to much.    The characters use their inside voices so often that you have to listen hard to catch the dialogue.    There was a lot of clamoring about how Gandolfini should've received a posthumous Oscar nomination for this film.     I enjoyed him in it, but nothing about the performance screamed "Best Supporting Actor."   

I've seen another of director Nicole Holofcener's films, 2006's Friends With Money, which was as underwhelming as Enough Said.     There is plenty of conversation in that film and this one.    Holofcener is trying to make the dialogue seem like "realistic" conversation, but sometimes we go to movies to be electrified by powerful dialogue one doesn't hear every day.    Enough Said is whatever the opposite of electrifying is.