Friday, May 30, 2014

Batman Begins (2005) * * * 1/2

Directed by:  Christopher Nolan

Starring:  Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Ken Watanabe, Katie Holmes, Morgan Freeman, Tom Wilkinson, Cillian Murphy

This is the first of the Christopher Nolan-directed Batman trilogy which provides not only action, but meanings behind it.     Batman Begins begins darkly, but ends hopefully, unaware of men like The Joker and Bane lying ahead.      In each instance, Batman is facing an enemy looking to destroy Gotham.     This town never gets a break.

Batman Begins traces the origins of the Dark Knight to the murder of his parents by a thief.     Bruce Wayne, only 6 at the time, was raised by loyal family butler Alfred Pennyworth (Caine).    However, he thirsts for vengeance, which is denied him when the thief is murdered by a hitman for Gotham crime lord Carmine Falcone (Wilkinson).       As the film opens, Bruce is being held prisoner in a country that could pass for Mongolia or China.     He is serving time in jail to explore the criminal mind and is soon rescued and trained by Henri Ducard (Neeson) for initiation into the League Of Shadows.      The League Of Shadows, led by the evil Ra's Al-Ghul (Watanabe), is covertly responsible for the destruction of whole civilizations.      Their next target is Gotham, which forces Bruce to become their enemy.   

Bruce returns home after a seven-year absence determined to save Gotham from its own demise.    He creates the Batcave and procures a suit and prototype Batmobile from Lucius Fox (Freeman), a vice-President within Wayne Enterprises, his family's company.     Fox agrees to lend Bruce the prototypes of all different gadgets and suits with one condition:  "Don't treat me like I'm an idiot."    Wayne begins to prowl the night in search of criminals, changing the look of his disguise and even his voice inflection to sound more menacing.     This Batman is not out merely to be a comic book hero, but to scare the hell out of his enemies.   

Falcone is not the only enemy Batman must contend with.    He also must contend with Dr. Jonathan Crane (aka Scarecrow), a snobby psychologist who is part of a plan to pollute Gotham's water with hallucinogens.     A larger, more sinister force is not seen until about 3/4ths of the way into the movie.    Batman's allies are Lt. Gordon (Oldman), an honest cop, and Rachel Dawes (Holmes), Wayne's childhood friend who works in the DA's office.    Alfred is always by Bruce's side, nursing his wounds and offering sage advice on his new nighttime gig.

Batman Begins is not cartoonish.     It treats him with the gravitas he deserves.     The other actors who played Batman previously were basically guys dressed in the batsuit doling out occasional one-liners and showing off their proudly protruding chins.     Christian Bale is a lean, smart Bruce Wayne and a Batman who understands the line between hero and villain can sometimes be crossed.      He wants to destroy outlaws while understanding he may become one in the eyes of the public he is trying to save.     At what point does a vigilante become what he tries to destroy?

Because Batman Begins and its sequels have minds and pose such questions to the audience, the movies were realistic and gritty, without overuse of CGI.     Batman Begins has its share of satisfying action, but it approaches the character with depth, which makes it all the more worthwhile.  

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Ride Along (2014) * *

Directed by:  Tim Story

Starring:  Ice Cube, Kevin Hart, John Leguizamo, Tika Sumpter, Laurence Fishburne, Bruce McGill

We know exactly how Ride Along will play out.    There are no surprises, but in such a case we count on the energy of the actors and the funniness of the script to pull it through.    Alas, the actors do what they can, but the performances aren't enough to overcome the weak script and few laughs.    

The story is nothing new.     A well-meaning motormouth security guard named Ben (Hart) is engaged to a nice girl named Angela (Sumpter), who puts up with his constant video-game playing.     He is accepted into the police academy, but her older brother James (Cube), an Atlanta cop, doesn't approve of him.     James thinks Ben is too lightweight to marry his sister and offers a solution:  Have Ben ride along with him on patrol to test his mettle.     If he does well, James will give his blessing to the marriage.     If not, well I'm not sure what will happen.     I guess James will have an annoying brother-in-law who will ruin cookouts.

James has Ben handle the "186s", which is cop code for minor annoyances.     Ben finds it difficult dealing with a biker bang loitering in front of a store and a young child who insults his height.     But he is determined to persevere, and even indirectly helps James in his case against a never-seen crime kingpin named Omar, who allegedly kills anyone who sees his face.     This leads to a whole series of logistical problems that I won't get into right now.  

Ride Along goes as expected.     Ben and James start out disliking each other, come to a guarded truce, and then become partners in the war against Omar when Angela is kidnapped.     Hart expends a lot of energy with his rants, a la Chris Tucker, but most of them don't generate much laughs.     Ice Cube plays the Ice Cube role, a no-nonsense guy who doesn't suffer fools gladly.     Leguizamo is given so little to do as Ice Cube's partner that we know he will have to play a bigger role in the plot, which he does.     Sumpter isn't much more than a pretty girl who is inevitably taken prisoner by Omar, played by Fishburne, who looks like he spent a lot of his crime earnings eating at buffets.    (Cheap shot, I know).

Since the film is PG-13, there aren't any four-letter or twelve-letter swear words thrown about, which is refreshing.     Ride Along isn't awful, just very by-the numbers aimed at an audience that doesn't want to think much.     Unfortunately, that same audience won't laugh much either.  

Out Of The Furnace (2013) * *

Directed by:  Scott Cooper

Starring:  Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard, Forest Whitaker

Out Of The Furnace is a film that sure does take a very roundabout way to arrive at its inevitable conclusion.      It takes so long to unfold, with minimal dramatic impact, until finally our impatience shows and we want the damn thing over with already.     We have a very good cast caught in a movie that wants to be Deep, AND Meaningful, AND Deer Hunter-esque, AND a formula revenge film where the baddie finally gets what's coming to him.     Out Of The Furnace doesn't achieve any of the above successfully.

This is a movie that desires to be a document of two brothers living in rural Pennsylvania who suffer for various reasons.     They are Russell Bays (Bale),  a straight-arrow mill worker with a dying father and a brother named Rodney (Affleck), who seems lost when he's home in between multiple tours of duty in Iraq.     Russell has a few too many brews one night and crashes into another vehicle, killing the child inside.     He is sent away for vehicular manslaughter, in the meantime losing his girlfriend Lena (Saldana) to the local sheriff and eventually his father.

Upon release, Russell reclaims his job at the mill and renovates his father's home, while his brother falls deeper and deeper into a gambling debt to local bookie John Petty (Dafoe).     Rodney becomes a bare-knuckle fighter asked to take dives in order to pay off the debts.     He begs to fight in the Rampopo mountains, which are controlled by the ruthless psycho Harlan De Groat (Harrelson) who looks mean, talks meaner, and shoots up crystal meth in between his toes.     In the beginning of the film, we see him assualting a prostitute and then an intervening bystander at a drive-in movie.     Nice guy.     Harlan De Groat is part of a recent trend in films, in which the crime lord is so mean and evil that it's a wonder anyone would want to do business with him or even be around him.      Rodney chooses to do business with him, even though he should've run far, far away, with deadly consequences.

By this point, we know where the movie is headed, although it takes its sweet time getting there.    We know there will be a showdown between Russell and Harlan, although I think Harlan is too smart to fall for the trap Russell sets for him.     In the meantime, Russell has a Profound hunting day with his uncle in which a deer is killed and he comes to terms with the fact that his ex is now pregnant and not leaving the sheriff (Whitaker) any time soon.      And why oh why did Whitaker choose to speak with an intentionally hoarse voice which had me thinking he had a bad cold?

Some of the acting choices here are distracting, including Bale's performance, which is more a series of affectations instead of a whole performance.     He speaks some of his lines in such a low register that we think he's whispering.     It distracts and doesn't allow us to fully grasp or care for the character.     Harrelson is appropriately menacing.    Dafoe seems like a pretty caring guy in over his head in his dealings with Harrelson.      Affleck is lean, wounded, and defiant, not quite able to express exactly how or why Iraq changed him for the worse.     He reminded me of Robert DeNiro's character in The Deer Hunter, except he is able to fistfight. 

Out Of The Furnace could've been a decent film.    It has strong actors who have been better in other movies and will be better again.     But it's too meandering and slow to create any dramatic momentum and by the end we don't care enough.  

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Gentleman's Agreement (1947) * *

Directed by:  Elia Kazan

Starring:  Gregory Peck, Dorothy Maguire, John Garfield, Celeste Holm, Anne Revere, Dean Stockwell

Gentleman's Agreement won the 1947 Academy Award for Best Picture.     Depsite this, director Elia Kazan reportedly did not like the movie (he won Best Director).     He said he didn't feel any passion in the film and the romance between Peck and Maguire was forced.     These are noteworthy observations from the film's own director.     This is a preachy, somber film that is about as subtle as a sledgehammer in its examination of anti-Semitism.      Speeches are made and music swells in the background to cue us on how we should feel, but where is the heart?

Anti-Semitism is certainly a topic worth exploring, but not the way it is done in this film.    Gregory Peck stars as Phil Schuyler Green, a gentile writer hired by a liberal magazine to write an expose on anti-Semitism.     After running into dead ends on how the piece should be tackled, he decides to pose as a Jew and write about the trouble he encounters when trying to rent a room at a hotel, get into exclusive clubs, etc.     He has a budding romance with rich Kathy Lacy (Maguire), who is not anti-Semitic, but doesn't want to rock the boat with her rich family and friends by speaking out against it.     This causes problems with Green, who is full of self-importance and pomposity.    

I don't know if anti-Semitism was as open as the segregation of blacks and whites in 1947, but the maitre-d's, club owners, and hotel managers in this movie display it wantonly and openly.     Once Green announces himself as Jewish, these guys flick on the anti-Semitic switch and become hostile, almost proud anti-Semites.      Wouldn't it be more effective if their prejudice was expressed in subtler ways?      Kazan and writer Moss Hart were apparently more interested in attacking with a blunt instrument.     

The romance between Peck and Maguire lacks any real juice, like Kazan himself suggested.     Because each Comes From a Different World, they clash on ideology often.     You would think they were trying to get all of their fights out of the way so when they get married they won't have the desire to argue.      The only Jewish character in the movie is Green's friend Dave (Garfield), a GI on leave who knows all too well about the effects of anti-Semitism.     Celeste Holm won an Academy Award as Anne, who works at the magazine and has more chemistry with Peck than Maguire.     However, her involvement with Peck and Garfield is murky.     Is she having an affair with the married Dave?    Is she in love with Green?    She certainly gives off those vibes, but nothing is spelled out.     It is a shame, because like in All About Eve (1950), she creates a lively character.   She seems to be the only one having a good time here.

Kathy often tells Green that he is morose and solemn, which is correct.    Anne also tells him, "Is that a smile I see?"    These are maybe sly in-jokes about Peck's performance, which is indeed morose, solemn, and full of pondering.     He plays Green as a pompous bore, forever preaching to someone about something, as if he is in love with the sound of his own voice.      Perhaps back in 1947, such treatment of this subject was deemed necessary, but I think it is only preaching to the converted, and even they would probably not approve of the film's heavy-handed approach.    

Monday, May 19, 2014

Honeymoon in Vegas (1992) * * *

Directed by:  Andrew Bergman

Starring:  Nicolas Cage, James Caan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Pat Morita, Peter Boyle

Andrew Bergman followed up the masterful The Freshman (1990) with Honeymoon In Vegas, a comedy that, like The Freshman, I watched with a constant, goofy grin.      It is light and funny, with several hundred Elvis impersonators mixed in.    We know it is silly from minute one, but we can't help but go along for the ride.     Good comedies have a way of doing that.

Nicolas Cage plays Jack Singer, a private eye who swore to his mother on her deathbed that he would never marry, which doesn't sit well with his girlfriend Betsy (Parker).     Rather than lose Betsy, Jack agrees to fly to Las Vegas to marry her in a quick chapel ceremony.     He is terrified, but seems to want to go through with it.     Betsy catches the eye of gambler Tommy Korman (Caan), who wields enough power at the hotel to get the President of Brazil thrown out of "his" penthouse suite.     Betsy is a dead ringer for his beloved late wife and he hatches a plan to win her, which includes a high-stakes poker game that Jack attends.     How Tommy could've foreseen that the only way Jack could pay off his debt is to agree to loan Betsy to him for a weekend is something we don't ask.    

Jack manages to sweet talk Betsy into the date because he doesn't want any body parts broken.     When Jack suggests to Tommy an alternative payoff such as a payment plan,   Tommy snaps, "What do you think, you're buying a washer and dryer? "  Tommy takes Betsy to Hawaii, with Jack following behind just close enough to see them together, but not close enough to be spotted.     The entire weekend gnaws at Jack, but a deal is a deal.     Could Betsy possibly fall for Tommy, who woos her like she was his wife reincarnated?

I won't reveal the plot's twists and turns because doing so would spoil the surprises, although one can not even hear about the film without picturing the "Utah Chapter" of the flying Elvises.     Honeymoon In Vegas is a war of sorts between two men who have passionate feelings for Betsy for different reasons.     Cage, like in Moonstruck, proves he is a deft comic actor.    Parker is cute as a button, looks hot in a bikini, and goes along with Cage because she loves the guy.    The trickiest role belongs to Caan, who is basically a nice guy until something gets in the way of his happiness...or convenience.     Caan has to be sweet enough to be able to provide temptation for Parker, while being just mean enough to suggest bad things will happen to Jack if he doesn't honor his debt.    

Andrew Bergman made The Freshman, Honeymoon In Vegas, and It Could Happen To You (1994), which also starred Cage.     Each film was cheerfully absurd and goofy, but had heart and warmth as well.     He was on a roll in the early 90's.     I can't say I've followed what he has done since, but I suppose it was difficult for him to maintain the early momentum.     After you introduce the flying Elvises into movie lore, it is tough to go anywhere but down.


Friday, May 16, 2014

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask) (1972) * 1/2


Directed by:  Woody Allen

Starring:  Woody Allen, Lynn Redgrave, Tony Randall, Burt Reynolds, John Carradine, Anthony Quayle, Gene Wilder

This is one of the few Woody Allen films I hadn't seen and I'm shocked by how little of it is funny.     I can't review a film and pretend that I'm watching it in 1972 when the film was first released.      Back then, some of this material may have been risque and challenging.     People may have laughed hysterically at a giant naked breast terrorizing a neighborhood.      Now, we could probably watch something similar to that on YouTube, although I'm not likely to laugh any harder.

Everything.... was made by Woody Allen during the years when he made farces and comedies that owed more to The Three Stooges than Ingmar Bergman.    They were funny to be sure.     With Love and Death and then Annie Hall, Allen transitioned to the diverse director of drama and romantic comedy.     However, Everything.... isn't very funny.     Allen tries manfully and pours a lot of energy into the process, but it is for naught.     Where did it go wrong?

The film is divided into chapters, covering topics brought up in the best-selling book it was based on.     The most amusing chapter covers sodomy, in which Gene Wilder's Dr. Ross falls in love with a sheep.      Wilder pulls this off mostly due to deft comic acting as a man who succumbs to his passions at great detriment to himself.      It is not every day you see a man checking into a hotel room with a sheep in his arms.     Allen himself stars in four of the chapters, playing a court jester who tries to nail the queen (played by a fetching Lynn Redgrave), an Italian man who can't get his wife to orgasm, a reporter who stumbles on to a maniacal doctor performing sexual experiments, and as a reluctant sperm.     None of these chapters are as comical as they sound.

Perhaps the issue is Allen was adapting another writer's work, and Allen is among the most original comic minds around.      Being pigeonholed by someone else's material isn't his bag.     We don't get a real sense about how he views all of this.    The other two segments involve an old man who is a transvestite and a game show hosted by Jack Barry concerning people's fetishes.     These two segments in particular drag on very, very long with little payoff, although if were ever interested in seeing what Regis Philbin looked like as a 40ish man, here is your segment.

I'm not certain if the original book was meant as a comedy, but that was how Allen adapted it.     My guess is the book and Allen's film are a million miles apart.     And I will never look at fettucine alfredo the same way again.     You will see what I mean if you choose to view the movie. 


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Monsignor (1982) * 1/2

Directed by:  Frank Perry

Starring:  Christopher Reeve, Genevieve Bujold, Fernando Rey, Joe Cortese, Jason Miller

The film Monsignor is every bit as ambiguous as its lead character, a Vatican priest named Father Flaherty (Reeve) who leads a cash-strapped Vatican into shady business with the black market during the waning days of World War II.      He also falls in love with a nun while omitting the fact that he is a priest, although what difference this makes isn't made very clear.     The nun (Bujold) is perfectly willing and able to love Flaherty, but rejects him once he is revealed to be a priest.     Father Flaherty is a fool to believe he could keep it a secret from her since they move in the same circles.     The film would've been better off if both rejected their vows and left the church.     

Monsignor takes a very strange view of sin and sinning.     Father Flaherty has no apparent issue with money laundering and mob dealings during his tenure with the Vatican, while the church tacitly approves the scheming because it brings money into the coffers.     However, he is apparently guilt-ridden when romancing the nun.     The film takes the position that this priest's most damning sin was having sex, which causes Father Flaherty to pause while thinking nothing of dealing with murderers and thieves like the local Don.

Christopher Reeve plays Father Flaherty and does the best he can with a character that really isn't bad enough to be a villain and of course not good enough to be a hero.     He is awfully naive about the ways of the mob, especially when he believes he was able to spare a friend's life because the Don "swore on my cross".     The Don (Miller) has a clever rebuke to this action when he bumps off Flaherty's friend.     

The film begins in World War II Italy and skips forward in time three decades to a critical point when Flaherty has to account for $600 million in missing Vatican and mob money.     The interesting thing about this is how Reeve and another character now have gray hair, while the other characters like the Pope and cardinals didn't age a day.      Maybe the makeup guys thought they were old to begin with, so no one would really notice.    Even the Don, who is not exactly a spring chicken when Flaherty first meets him, only winds up a little gray.     Perhaps being a mob boss isn't as stressful as Tony Soprano makes it out to be, or he has a large supply of Just For Men hair color on hand.

Monsignor is never truly compelling because it never establishes any tone or true conflict.     Father Flaherty is neither fish nor fowl, while no point of view is really given to the Vatican.      They never get their dander up about much of anything.     I would think they would be angrier about losing $600 million than they are.      But perhaps showing anger would show the Vatican in a negative light, which Monsignor doesn't really want to do.      It is a movie where nobody wants to be the bad guy.  

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

CBGB (2013) * *

Directed by:  Randall Miller

Starring:  Alan Rickman, Malin Ackerman, Donal Logue, Estelle Harris, Johnny Galecki, Justin Bartha, Ashley Greene

Friends of mine traveled to CBGB, a legendary Manhattan Lower East Side club which was the starting point of many famous bands including Blondie, The Police, The Ramones, and Talking Heads.     Judging by the movie, it is a place I don't regret not visiting.     It seemed small, filthy, cramped, was in a bad neighborhood, and vomit and feces were all over the floor.     Although, if the movie is to be believed, it was a great place to get a free drink or two at the bar.  

But many famous new wave and punk bands performed there, even though the club was founded by Hilly Kristal (Rickman) as a "Country, Bluegrass, and Blues" club, hence the name CBGB.     The explanation of the OMFUG undeneath CBGB is one I still couldn't figure out.    Something to do with Other Music.     Very little country and bluegrass was played there and if Kristal ran the business this shoddily, it is little wonder he was forever trying to hold fundraisers to keep the place open.     CBGB finally closed in 2006.

As the film opens, we see Kristal attending a second bankruptcy hearing after his second bar he owned went under.    He borrows money from his mother after wandering into a small bar and realizing its potential to become what would soon be CBGB.      Bands playing music that wasn't categorized yet began playing there and played to packed houses.    A fledgling "Punk" magazine's staff were camped there nightly, interviewing the up and comers.     Amazingly, the fire marshal never seems to show up to address the overcrowding and the city doesn't seem to come by to inspect the place, which likely would've resulted in closure based on the bathrooms alone.    

We see the bands, we hear the music (which is lip-synched from the album recordings), but what we don't get is any sense that Kristal loved running CBGB and loved the music.     During the closing credits, footage from Talking Heads' 2002 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is shown.   The band brings Kristal on stage and thanks him for supporting them in any way he could.      The Kristal of this film walks around almost zombified, as if a good night's sleep has eluded him for about 15 years.     The Talking Heads are shown in one scene, where they play Psycho Killer.      Kristal says, "I see something there," which is what he says about virtually any band that auditions.     He even tries his hand at managing a punk band called The Dead Boys, who specialize in anti-social and sometimes anti-human behavior.   

Those who see CBGB for the music will be somewhat satisfied, but they would be better off downloading the songs off the computer.     As played by Rickman, who is nearly 20 years older than Kristal was at the time, Kristal is a poor business manager who looks like he would trade in CBGB for a good meal and some rest.     There is no sense of what made him tick and what drew him to back these bands.    There is little passion.    He doesn't seem to even like the music all that much.    His business partner Merv (Logue) and his daughter (Greene) are forever telling him that the place spends more than it earns, but he doesn't listen.     Maybe he has a vision in mind which we don't really see or understand.

CBGB is important in the history of rock and roll for helping launch careers and a new type of music which soon became mainstays on the airwaves and on MTV (which would debut eight years after CBGB opened).     But if you're looking for anything deeper than a Wikipedia article, you've come to the wrong movie.    

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Town (2010) * * *

Directed by:  Ben Affleck

Starring:  Ben Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Rebecca Hall, Blake Lively, Pete Postlethwaite

The Town is Ben Affleck's second movie as a director.    His first was the successful Gone Baby Gone, which showed Affleck's ability to pace and keep us intrigued.     The Town operates in much the same fashion.    It is a well-made and well-acted thriller.    I liked it, but didn't love it.     Despite all of its plusses, something prevented me from fully embracing the film.     What was it?    I think it's because I wasn't all that much moved when The Town concluded.     The human stakes weren't high enough to completely engross me.

Affleck also stars in The Town as Doug McCray, a lifelong bank robber who specializes in pulling off well-executed, well-planned heists that leave no DNA traces and little evidence.     His father (Chris Cooper) is in jail for life and Doug doesn't want to end his life in the same fashion.     He expects the heist pulled at the film's outset to be his last, but his partner Jem (Renner) riskily takes the bank's manager Claire (Hall) hostage.    She is blindfolded and let go, but she can possibly still identify them since she also lives in the same section of Boston as the thieves. 

Doug agrees to track down Claire and get to know her, finding out what she knows.     They fall in love, which concerns Jem and the rest of the crew since she could get them pinched.     Also on the crew's tail is FBI agent Adam Frawley (Hamm), who specializes in being a hard-nosed prick.    In a small area like "The Town", short for Boston's Charlestown neighborhood, it is difficult to keep your life as a criminal a secret.     Frawley suspects Doug, but can't gather enough evidence to hold him.    "Unless he converts to Islam, we won't be able to get 24-hour surveillance on him,"  says Frawley.

The Town has a good sense of where these people live and where there lives are stuck.    These are hard-nosed criminals whose upbringing doesn't allow them much training for anything else.     Doug has the foresight to acknowledge his life's limitations and plans an escape.    Jem and Claire complicate those matters.     Jem talks Doug into one last job knocking over Fenway Park.     Doug feels a sense of loyalty to Jem, mostly because Jem killed someone who was targeting Doug.    ("You don't have to thank me, but you ain't walking away.")

The theme of a criminal trying to go straight is a universal one.    Affleck plays Doug as efficient and street-smart, but I get the feeling he feels his life would've been better off if he had never met Claire.    Since that is the gnawing suspicion I have, the entire subplot doesn't work.    Claire is not a convincing catalyst for change in Doug, but just a hurdle he must overcome to escape his surroundings.     Hall is a fine actress, but her character ultimately isn't necessary.    

Renner received an Oscar nomination for his work as the unpredictable wildcard Jem.    He seems the most threatening, mostly because he is nervous about being caught.    When it comes to dealing with Jem, Doug treads carefully and we understand why.    His performance has the most manic energy.    I also enjoyed the ruthlessness of Jon Hamm as Frawley, which makes us forget that he is the law and order guy in this equation.

Overall, The Town was a satisfying thriller that never quite achieves greatness.     There is plenty of action and shoot-'em-ups, which are done well enough, but in the end how much do we really care?    Let's say The Town is two-thirds of the way to being a great film. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Zoolander (2001) * *

Directed by:  Ben Stiller

Starring:  Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Christine Taylor, Will Ferrell, Jerry Stiller, Jon Voight, David Duchovny

Zoolander is a strange marriage of satire and your average action thriller.     Co-written by Stiller, Zoolander hedges its bets by mixing the two uncomfortably.     By the end, the film spends so much energy and time on the thriller part that we forget it ever was a satire.

The plot is creaky at best.    Moronic fashion model Derek Zoolander (Stiller) is brainwashed by a fashion mogul (Ferrell) into assasinating the president of Malaysia because he is against child labor and sweat shops.     The president sounds reasonable, but it seems child labor keeps production costs down for the fashion industry, and discontinuation of child labor will make clothing a lot less profitable.    

The beginning of the film works best, when dopey, self-centered Zoolander accidentally accepts a fashion award actually won by his rival Hansel (Wilson), who is replete with a flowing mane of blond hair.     Humiliated by the snafu, Zoolander briefly retires, trying his hand working with his father in a coal mine before accepting what seems to be a lucrative modeling offer by Mugatu (Ferrell), whose plans are of course more sinister.

Stiller is at his funniest when he satirizes male models, but as the plot progresses, he gradually becomes smarter, which isn't so funny.    Smarter is a relative term for Zoolander, who is upset when Mugatu shows him a model of Zoolander's vision of a "Zoolander Center For Children Who Can't Read Good"... because he can't grasp how the children will fit inside the model.   His friends aren't much smarter.    They are blown up during a gasoline fight at a gas station.

Then, the actual plot kicks in, with Zoolander teaming up with a Time magazine columnist named Matilda (Taylor) and Hansel to stop Mugatu's plan.     Taylor, Stiller's real-life wife, is a natural beauty and gamely goes along for the ride.     The laughs stop coming and we're stuck with a silly plot.     There are some Frankie Goes To Hollywood references (remember them?) and other nonsense, but the movie forgets why it is funny about a quarter of the way through.   

Fading Gigolo (2014) * * 1/2

Directed by:  John Turturro

Starring:  John Turturro, Woody Allen, Vanessa Paradis, Liev Schreiber, Bob Balaban, Sharon Stone, Sofia Vergara

When I first heard about Fading Gigolo, I was intrigued by the casting of John Turturro as a gigolo and Woody Allen as his pimp.     Watching the film, I concluded that Turturro's Fioravante is the character having the least fun.     He is somber, reflective, and ponderous, which is an uneven contrast to Allen, Schreiber, and everyone else who seems to be having a better time.    It's a shame Turturro couldn't join in on the fun in his own movie.

As the film opens, Fioravante, a New York florist is helping his friend Murray (Allen) pack up his closing bookstore.      Murray suggests to Fiorvante that he could make some money as a gigolo with Murray as his pimp.     Fioravante reluctantly agrees and Murray sets him up with his dermatologist, a rich, lonely married woman (Stone).     Fioravante, through word-of-mouth, begins to build a client list and he and Murray roll in the dough.     Woody Allen is likely the last person you would think of to play a pimp, but it is inspired casting.    

Fioravante is led to another friend of Murray's named Avigal (Paradis), a Hasidic Jew who is still in mourning over her husband's death, but agrees to meet Fioravante under the guise of massage therapy.    Her comings and goings are caught by the watchful eye of Dovi (Schreiber), a patrolman in the community who loves Avigal.     Murray gently suggests Fioravante as a way to relieve her grieving and loneliness, while Avigal seems to understand the suggestion by what is not being said.

Turturro's Fioravante is a sensitive, quiet guy, but far too boring.    He and Avigal of course fall in love, but don't generate much heat.    We sense that these are two sad, lonely people who need each other, but are we much moved?     Their scenes together are so quiet and lulling that Murray, Dovi, and the rest all seem like they are in a different movie.     Especially in the closing scenes, when Murray is "tried" by local Hasidim for not being a practicing Jew, I guess.    The tone of these scenes borders on farce, but they supply some badly needed energy.

How else can I classify Fading Gigolo but as a missed opportunity?    The parts are all there for something unusual and original to happen, yet it doesn't.     What we get is two different tones fighting for the same screen. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996) * *

Directed by:  Jim Mallon

Starring:  Michael J. Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Jim Mallon

In the late 90's, MST3K (as it became known to fans on the fledgling Internet) was a Comedy Central show with a strong cult following.    (Although after a cult following becomes strong, can it still be a cult following?)    The premise was this:  A goofy doctor Clayton Forrester (Beaulieu) plans world domination by bringing the planet to its knees by showing them the worst movies ever made.    His test subject was the affable Mike Nelson (Nelson), who along with his two wisecracking robot friends Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, sat and watched the stinkers.    Their method of resistance was to rapidly fire wisecracks at the screen making fun of the movie's awfulness.     Or that was how they entertained themselves.

With a movie like this, the question is simply whether I laughed enough or not to recommend it.     We see the silouhettes of the wisecracking trio in the corner of the screen.     The movie skewered here is This Island Earth (1955), a typical scifi B-movie from the era that produced Mars Needs Women and Plan 9 From Outer Space.     With its cheesy visual effects and silly dialogue, the movie surely blended in with the rest of the scifi clunkers of the day and faded into obscurity.     Over time, these movies became parodies of themselves, so much so that anyone in the coming years who saw this film probably did the same thing Mike Nelson and his robots did.

None of the gags and insults hurled at the screen in MST3K are memorable.    I'm sure I chuckled a few times at some smart-ass wisecracks or goofy pop culture references, but I'm at a loss to recall them.     I can't say I laughed nearly enough to recommend the film, although fans of the show would like it.     It is highly unlikely the film would rally up support for a reunion show.     After a while, this stuff becomes repetitive.     There are breaks in the viewing in which Mike and his robots nearly destroy the space station that houses them, but it feels like filler to stretch the movie to feature length.     My guess is I'm probably not the intended audience for this movie.