Still More of My Favorite Movies (That You’ve Never Seen)

I don’t know why I keep coming back to this. Maybe it’s because I just spent so much time watching TV as a kid. I hated going outside. Outside is where my sister was. And sunshine. And fresh air. And exercise.

But I digress.

I loved TV, and TV loved me. I especially loved watching really off-beat comedies, movies that made no sense whatsoever, and the weirder they were the more I loved them. I suppose that explains why so few people seem to know some of these films, although it has been gently suggested to me that it may also be because I’m getting old and all of these movies predate DVDs. I would like to point out that Star Wars predates the mass-market success of the VCR, but I still have no tolerance for anyone who hasn’t seen it (you know who you are).

But I digress again.

Here’s some of my favorite off-beat comedies from back when I was a kid. They’re best taken with a grain of salt (or better yet several grains, lime, and tequila), with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Little Shop of Horrors (1986) – Believe it or not, this is a movie version of an off-Broadway musical based on a 1960 comedy with Jack Nicholson (I can’t comment on that version, since I’ve never seen it). What I can say is, this thing is a laugh riot. It’s creepy enough to try to do a comedy about a carnivorous sentient plant from outer space (yes, you read that correctly), but making it into a musical takes it to a whole new level. The brilliant caricatures of the mousy shop attendant Seymour Krelbourne (played by Rick Moranis), his overbearing boss Mr. Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia), and the ditzy blonde love interest Audrey (Ellen Greene). Of course, any fan of the movie will tell you the absolute scene stealer is the inestimable Steve Martin as Orin Scrivello, DDS, the sadistic dentist and Audrey’s “boyfriend”, who’s rousing rendition of “Dentist!” will leave you squirming with laughter. The numerous cameos from other famous comedians (including John Candy and one of the most disturbingly funny performances ever from Bill Murray) round out a fantastic cast in this terrific musical.

Big Trouble in Little China (1985) – I have no idea how to even begin classifying this movie. I’ll go with the description because it seems to cover all the bases: “mystical action-adventure-comedy-kung-fu-monster-ghost-story”. Everybody get that? I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be (very loosely) based on Chinese mythology, but please don’t quote me on that, because I don’t want to offend anybody (the film takes care of that for me, I’m sure). Kurt Russell plays a truck driver named Jack Burton (get used to that name, you’ll hear it a lot), owner of The Pork Chop Express (I’m not making this up), who gets caught up in an attempt by a near-immortal Chinese businessman to kidnap a girl (still not making this up), and he has to help his friend and an interfering busybody played by a young Kim Cattrall, assisted by some Chinese gangsters (how could I possibly make this up?) to rescue her from the aforementioned kidnapper and his three powerful sorcerer sons before he becomes immortal (why would I make this up?). If you like Army of Darkness you’ll probably like this movie; in fact, if you just like wierd, out there stuff you’ll probably like this movie. It’s got some decent FX (especially for its time), and the martial arts action is actually pretty good. The comedy is solid and doesn’t distract from the plot, which is roundabout but gets where it’s going.

Spies Like Us (1985) – My dad once described Chevy Chase as “so funny he can make me laugh standing still.” I have to agree with him. Hell, I even kind of liked Fletch, and that’s saying something. Pair him up with Dan Aykroyd and you have a near-perfect recipe for comedy gold, which is exactly what this movie is: near-perfect. Aykroyd delivers his usual character-driven humor while serving as a perfect straight man for Chase to deliver almost non-stop one-liners. Together they make a terrific comedy team, and the ludicrousness of putting them in a Cold War-driven “spy movie” vehicle is a brilliant recipe for disaster. The only drawbacks are that the middle of the movie drags a little, although that is more a matter of the rest of the film being so spot-on in comedic timing that it becomes nigh-impossible to sustain for almost two hours, and the last few minutes feel a little tacked on. Those are only minor quibbles, however, and overall this is still one of the funniest movies I have ever seen, and I still quote it to this day.

Biloxi Blues (1988) – If you asked me why I love this movie, I couldn’t really give you one good reason. I might have to say “Neil Simon”, because I don’t think I’ve ever read a Neil Simon play I didn’t love. Or maybe it’s Matthew Broderick (this is pre-Godzilla), or even Christopher Walken’s brilliant turn as Sergeant First Class Merwin J. Toomey. Perhaps it’s just because I felt a strong connection, even at an early age, to the character of Eugene, who seemed so horribly out of place in the Army in general and boot camp in particular. The writing is sharp, and the dialogue is top-notch, witty without feeling deliberate. It’s not a simplistic film, taking some serious turns and having more than a few darker moments that spice the humor and remind you that life isn’t always laughter; rather, laughter is there to help us survive the dark times. It’s a surprisingly deep film for a comedy, particularly one that can still be viewed as somewhat of a “coming of age” film (although most of that is covered by the previous film from the Eugene trilogy, Brighton Beach Memoirs, which is also good although I don’t care for it quite as much).

Even More of My Favorite Movies (That You’ve Never Seen)

Continuing on a recent theme, I’ve come up with yet another batch of movies that just don’t seem to have the recognition I feel they deserve. Rather than focus on just one genre this time, I thought I’d spread it out a bit with some fantasy, some comedy, and some… well, there’s one that I’m not sure what genre to call it. I’ll let you decide.

Excalibur (1981) – Let’s be clear about one thing: I had a professor in college who was an Arthurian scholar. If she had any idea I was recommending this movie to ANYONE, she would slap me with a copy of the Morte d’Arthur. This film has so many historical and literary inaccuracies it wouldn’t know what accuracy was if you hit it in the face with a tuna carved out of the stuff. But I love it anyway. The acting is sharp, the settings are lush, and the music is perfect. They paid so much attention to detail I have to believe they basically decided going in that there was a certain story they wanted to tell, and they weren’t going to let trivial things like “facts” get in the way. You have to admire that kind of chutzpah. Arthur is kind of a putz, but it works because he’s Arthur, and we’ve been led to believe by modern culture that’s what Arthur is supposed to be (see my point about literary accuracy above). Merlin is far and away the best part of this film and well worth watching for all by himself, and the entire affair (quite literally) between Lancelot and Guinevere is handled marvelously, enhancing without overshadowing the plot, as is the quest for the Grail, and Morgan le Fey and Mordred are incorporated in fascinating if (again) historically inaccurate ways. If nothing else they deserve an award for best use of “O Fortuna” from Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” in a film.

Highlander (1986) – Anyone who knows me should see this as no surprise, and frankly the idea that there’s more than three people on Earth who haven’t seen this movie both shocks and offends me. Granted, the movie is older than some full grown adults, but that’s no excuse. I’ve seen Citizen Kane (and it wasn’t as good, in MNSHO). Ah, well. This is a fantastic fantasy/sci-fi adventure of immortals born throughout different times on Earth, destined to fight each other until only one remains.

I actually sat here for five minutes trying to come up with a better plot summary to explain why this cult classic has remained popular for so long and launched a hit TV series as well (please, if you love your own eyes, DO NOT WATCH THE SEQUELS), but I can’t. It’s just one of those things that’s better than it sounds. The location work outside of the city is actually quite beautiful, and the sound work on the film is great. The cinematography is top notch, and they do a great job playing with the idea of what immortality really means, both the good and the bad. The special effects are kind of dated, but the acting is still pretty good, and hey, Sean Connery. The entire soundtrack was done by Queen, so it has that as a bonus as well. Just watch it. Trust me on this one. It has a lot going for it.

The Crow (1994) – There was a time in my life where if you hadn’t seen this movie, I didn’t want to know you. Of course, there was also a time in my life where I dressed all in black, smoked clove cigarettes, and listened to The Cure a lot. These times may or may not have overlapped. This should not in any way reflect on the quality of this movie. It’s not exactly an easy one to place; it’s starts with a brutal murder of a man and his fiancée by a vicious gang of criminals. He then comes back as a revenant to seek revenge against the people responsible. I know this sounds like a horror flick, and I’m not trying to soft-sell the violence, because there’s plenty to be had (Brandon Lee actually died in an accident filming this movie). But there’s a lot more going on here, both in terms of the emotional depth of the relationships between the characters and the acting (Michael Wincott in particular gives a stellar performance as Top Dollar). There’s a lot of ugliness and beauty, violence and pain, and in the end, a small amount of peace in this film. It’s a tall order for such a short running time, and not one I would recommend for a “rom com” kind of night, but if you want something different, check it out.

Better Off Dead (1985) – Who says I don’t love a good romantic comedy? Okay, so this isn’t exactly a typical rom com, but it is possibly the best John Cusack movie ever made (with the possible exception of Grosse Pointe Blank). Stocked with a series of over-the-top characters that are more caricatures than fully realized (or even two-dimensional and trying) representations, the this slightly black (more grey, really) comedy manages to combine the essence of teen romance film and screwball comedy into a breezy, fast-paced romp that doesn’t slow down long enough to take itself seriously. There are a few points where the jokes drag (I’ve watched it at least a hundred times and I still don’t get the bit with the animated burger), but overall the gags manage to carry it through. While there are plenty of snappy one-liners, what keeps me coming back every time are the running jokes, like the psychotic newspaper boy, Lane’s mother’s cooking, and of course his botched (and never serious) suicide attempts. If it sounds weird, well, it is. If it sounds sick, yeah, that too. But man, is it funny.

More of My Favorite Movies (That You’ve Never Seen)

A couple of weeks ago, I (re-)introduced the world to a few of my favorite movies that seem to have fallen by the wayside in pop culture. After giving it some thought, I realized there are a whole host of movies I’ve loved that aren’t even mentioned anymore, so I thought I’d dip back into the pool of memory and share a couple more gems with all of you. This time I’ll be dredging up some of the best (and worst) comedic fare I’ve ever known, from the most laughable decade I’ve lived through: the 1980s.

Trading Places (1983) – Before he started doing movies that suck like Bowfinger and Daddy Day Care, you could pretty much count on Eddie Murphy to be rock-solid comic gold. Dan Aykroyd already had a pretty solid resume including the amazing The Blues Brothers (the original, not the cash-cow abomination of a “sequel” he insisted on inflicting on us all). Put them both together with Jamie Lee Curtis and some other faces you’d know even if you wouldn’t recognize the names (Denholm Elliott, Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche), and you have a guaranteed great movie. But that wasn’t enough. They went and put together one of the best “Prince and the Pauper” style stories ever, with hilarious twists and some of the wittiest dialogue I have ever witnessed. Murphy is at the top of his game in this film, Aykroyd plays his character’s entire ride to the hilt, and Bellamy and Ameche are so wickedly delightful I can’t help loving them. The theme of this movie has managed to hold up surprisingly well, and it is instantly relatable, unlike some other more serious films to come out of the Decade of Greed.

The Last Dragon (1985) – Lest you think I come to praise the 80s and all they have wrought, I bring you this delightfully polished turd. To this day I’m not sure what they were attempting with this film. If I had to venture a guess, I would say it was a satire of both cheap kung-fu and blaxsploitation films that were popular in the 1970s. Unfortunately the risk with any kind of parody is that you dance too close to the fire and fall into self-parody, becoming the thing you were attempting to mock. Or maybe I’m wrong, maybe they really thought they had a great script with this one, which just makes it that much funnier. It’s the story of a young man obsessed with Bruce Lee whose name is Bruce Leroy (I’m not making this up), whose brother is obsessed with being “cool” and breakdancing (still not making this up), who has a rival named Sho’ Nuff (how could I make this up?), and is in pursuit of something called “the Glow” (why would I make this up?). This is all in the first fifteen minutes or so. There’s also an evil record producer and a singer-ingénue played by Vanity (don’t remember her? That’s okay, nobody does). The best part is this movie was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Original Song for “Rhythm of the Night” and two Razzies for Worst Original Song for “The Last Dragon” and “7th Heaven”. Like I said, it practically mocks itself.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) – Not all parody fails, and when it succeeds, it succeeds brilliantly. Before he started doing “serious” and “deep” roles, one of the great masters of parody was Steve Martin, and this movie may be his masterpiece. A perfect send-up of the film noir genre, directed by the legendary Carl Reiner, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid works on several levels. Like any great parody, it actually manages to serve (at least nominally) as a proper noir film, including a beautiful femme fatal and a sinister plot. That having been said, the bad (sometimes tasteless) jokes start early and come rapid-fire, with the unusual convention of weaving mini-scenes from actual film noir movies into the movie for the actors to respond and react to. The result is a study in how to do straight-faced comedy from one of the all-time masters of the art.

Stripes (1981) – What is it about SNL alums from the 80s? They make great comedy, then they get all serious. Bill Murray was great once… Ah, well. Years before anybody ever heard of a Ghostbuster, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis got together and made a scathingly witty send up of military culture and life. Along with a fantastic supporting cast including the legendary (and sadly missed) John Candy and brilliant John Larroquette, this film is somewhat like the Marx Brothers meets Band of Brothers. While the humor tends to be a bit juvenile and raunchy, it’s relatively tame by modern standards, and it’s almost always laugh out loud funny. Murray has already perfected his ability to convey nuance with a glance, but he still manages to bring more passion than many of his later roles. For those who only know Ramis from Ghostbusters, this will be a special treat, as it is a very different and more outgoing character for him. Highly recommended as a “history of comedy” must-see.

My Favorite Movies (That You’ve Never Seen)

Whether because I’ve seen some obscure movies (not that I’m a movie buff, I just watch weird stuff) or because I’m just a little older than some of my friends, I often find myself making references to movies that apparently nobody other than myself and a handful of others have seen. Mostly because this means my brilliant pop culture references end up falling on the ears of Philistines, but in some small part because it means that some piece of great cinema (loosely defined) has gone unnoticed for far too long, I’ve decided to share with you a few of my favorites.

Last week I covered some classic movies I’d like to see modern takes on. While I would highly recommend every one of those, there are some movies that are perfect just the way they are, or in at least one case, there’s no way you could possibly recapture the inane brilliance and je ne sais quoi that makes it so wonderful. If you haven’t seen these yet, I almost envy you, because you have a chance to be delighted by these hidden gems.

All That Jazz (1979) – A semi-autobiographical work directed and choreographed by legend Bob Fosse. I say “semi-autobiographical” for a couple of reasons, in part because the protagonist is named Joe Giden rather than Bob Fosse, there are certain fantastical elements, and… well, I don’t want to give away too much. Suffice to say that this film is astounding. The music is at times fun and bouncy and at other times downright lascivious, and the dancing… well, it’s Bob Fosse. One scene inspired the (in)famous Paula Abdul video “Cold Hearted”, for those of you old enough to remember that one, and to be honest she couldn’t even begin to do it justice. There’s a lot in this movie, ranging from humor to tragedy, and more than a bit of great storytelling (every time I watch it I discover some new element that I missed before). Here’s my favorite line from the movie, just to give you a taste of the kind of humor you’ll find: “Ladies and gentlemen, let me lay on you a so-so entertainer, not much of a humanitarian, and this cat was never nobody’s friend… you can applaud if you wanna…Mr. Joe Gideon!” And remember, this is Bob Fosse directing a movie – about himself. Powerful stuff.

Hudson Hawk (1991) – This is the movie critics love to hate. It has a score of 17 from Let’s put that into perspective: that’s on a scale of 100. By way of comparison, Godzilla starring Matthew Broderick got a 32. Here’s my favorite: “This may be the only would-be blockbuster that’s a sprawling, dissociated mess on purpose. It’s a perverse landmark: the first postmodern Hollywood disaster.” That’s according to Owen Glieberman of Entertainment Weekly. So why would I possibly tell you to watch this movie? Let’s take a look at what Empire has to say: “What director Lehmann has made is essentially a multi-million dollar cult movie with great effects, a witty script and some good performances, but although some of the eccentric (and occasionally slapstick) humour may not appeal to a mass audience, it is certainly one of the more original blockbusters coming out this summer.” And that’s the heart and soul of it. Bruce Willis and Danny Aiello give great comedic performances in this film, with a bit of over-the-top maudlin emotion to balance(?) things out. Andie MacDowell is passable, and Sandra Benhardt is… well, Sandra Bernhardt (either you love her or hate her). The movie is eminently quotable, like all great cult films are, and any heist film that involves an evil corporation, the CIA, the Vatican and Leonardo Da Vinci… you know what? I have no idea how to finish that sentence. Just watch the movie. Trust me.

Strange Days (1995) – Swinging back again from awful to awesome, we have the cyberpunk tech thriller Strange Days. This lush, brilliant movie manages to capture the true esthetic of cyberpunk without getting bogged down in the tech, as such movies so often do. The plot is brilliantly convoluted (deliberately so) with a delicious and satisfying ending that will make you want to watch it again. The best part for me personally is how the central tech (a form of virtual-reality life recorder) is a McGuffin; it’s a strong plot device, central but not crucial to the pot and character development. It could theoretically be accomplished even with modern equivalents, but that’s the point of cyberpunk: close enough to touch, far enough to be eerie. The music is phenomenal (for my taste), again being right in line with the esthetic, and the settings are fully realized, with great costuming and make-up all around. Everything is about style over substance, and there are clear, sharp  divides between the haves and the have-nots at all levels of society. Ralph Fiennes turns in a powerful, emotional performance, Angela Bassett is both emotionally moving and powerful (physically as well as emotively), and Tom Sizemore delivers one of the most surprising and understatedly brilliant supporting roles I have ever seen. Rounding out a fabulous cast are Juliette Lewis and a small but important role from a young Vincent D’Onofrio. Well worth your time.

If I can think of more, I’ll be sure to add them in the future. If you have any “must see” obscure gems, tell me all about them in the comments below!

Remakes I’d Love to See

So I’ve noticed a trend in Hollywierd lately of remaking all the things from my childhood, usually making it worse rather than better (Dukes of Hazard, I’m looking at you), although the occasional Michael Bay Giant Robot SmashFest Round IV manages to put a small smile on my face.

I was originally planning to bring to the attention of you, my loyal readers, some of the best movies you’ve probably never seen, when it occurred to me I could do so much more: I’ll let all the world know how these movies could be revived, remade, and (hopefully) not allowed to suck too much in the process.

Flash Gordon (1980) – Let me start by saying the following: this movie was made in 1980, it’s based off a 1930s era sci-fi comic strip and it has a soundtrack by Queen. I’m not really sure if there is any way it could be made better. Then again, in the movie Flash is the quarterback for the New York Jets, so I don’t know that it could be worse. There’s a certain way of looking at it that says “you just can’t do this without being campy”, but apparently as of a few years ago they were looking at doing just that (way down at the bottom of the interview).

For myself, I’d like to see some of the same camp, but with a little more balance toward hard sci fi. Something like what Cabin in the Woods did with horror; it had a bit of humor and campiness to it, but only as much as it needed. Considering there are plenty of real world companies pushing to get into space, there’s lots of room there for “Flash” Gordon to be a pilot with a private company pushing the boundaries, and Dale Arden can go from being a helpless maiden (in whatever guise to a lesser or greater degree) to a bit more useful partner, perhaps even as a copilot. Besides, wouldn’t it make it that much for fun for Ming the Merciless to try to enslave her (the guy is a psychopath, after all). With a soundtrack by The Killers, Fun., The Airborne Toxic Event, or possibly all of the above and more, it would be everything the 1980 movie was and better.

Pump Up the Volume (1990) – If you haven’t seen this one, I highly recommend it. It sits somewhere between comedy and drama as most teen movies from the 80s into the early 90s do, but this one went a slightly darker route (which is not surprising considering just a couple years earlier Christian Slater had been doing the dark comedy Heathers). It covers teenage angst and rebellion through the lens of pirate radio and public school, and considering the political climate of youth rebellion and schools today this one seems a perfect fit for a modern take. The existence of internet radio, satellite radio, and all the other easy to access entertainment options today almost makes pirate radio seem more interesting, sort of a “guerrilla entertainment” that would be very appealing to those looking to rebel against the corporate masters. Change it up a little bit to make it a podcast or some other form of hacking and suddenly SOPA and PIPA become an issue. BAM! Instant social relevance.

In addition to being a great vehicle for small, unknown bands, it would also be a perfect opportunity to bring back some classics. I’d love to see the Pixie’s “Wave of Mutilation” show up on the soundtrack again, and it just wouldn’t be Pump Up the Volume without Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”. For a delightful Easter egg I’d love to see Christian Slater and Samantha Mathis as the parents of our new troubled teen, and if they wanted to make it a direct sequel we could even see them reprising their original roles (and can you imagine the scene where our protagonist finds out her parents are the legendary Happy Harry Hard-on and The Eat Me Beat Me Lady? Do as I say, not as I did!) For an extra twist, don’t make it a public school, make it a charter or private school the kid is rebelling against. Can they actually do what they are doing? It may be wrong, but is it legal?

Finally I’d like to suggest Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985). For those of you who think this movie is nothing but a cheap action/adventure/comedy from the mid-80s, you are so very, very wrong. Not only was it nominated for an Oscar (Best Makeup, Carl Fullerton), but the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films nominated it for a Saturn Award for both Best Fantasy Film and Best Supporting Actor (Joel Grey). Before you sneer at that one, let me note that Mr. Grey also got another nomination for Best Supporting Actor that year – a Golden Globe nomination (and he deserved it).

The fact is, this movie had a lot more style, story, and general “cool” factor going for it than the special effects of the time (makeup notwithstanding)  could keep up with. It was also clearly the first in what was meant to be a series (note the subtitle), and there was a lot of room to grow. Either a complete remake or “many years later” sequel would be awesome (I would pay large sums of money either way to see Joel Grey reprise his role as Chiun). This seems like just the sort of vehicle that would work well for some of the current martial arts action stars, such as Jet Li or Jackie Chan, or perhaps another as-yet unknown to American audiences star, to serve as a serious villain (rather than the slightly silly and pathetic one we had in the original). Jason Statham could fill in as a suitable Remo Williams.

Hollywood, please, take these ideas. Make them. The only thing I ask in return is to be there for the big premiere. That’s not so much, is it? (Oh, and if you can get Christian Slater to sign my copy of Pump Up the Volume that would be awesome.)

Do You Hear the People Sing?

I’m going to say this up front: when I saw Les Miserables, I cried like a baby through the whole thing. I’m man enough to admit it. You’d pretty much have to have a heart of stone not to. I’ve been in love with the music of Les Mis for about twenty years, but I’ve never had a chance to see it in person (and the half staged, half not production they run perennially on PBS every time they need to shake loose a few more nickels doesn’t count either). I’m trying to convey the extremely high expectations and hopes I had going into this film before you read any further.

That having been said, if you haven’t seen this movie yet, I suggest you stop reading, buy a ticket to the next showing, and go out to see it. It’s really that good. The first word to come to mind after it was over was “epic”. If there was a chance in hell of a musical being nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, this would be the one. Certainly there are more than a few deserved nominations to go around.

First, the cinematography is stunning. Rather than simply transporting the stage show to film, cinematographer Danny Cohen uses the film medium to create a complete and compelling world full of vivid and rich imagery and (here’s that word again) epic scale. The staging of every scene is perfect, vast and overwhelming in the prison yard, majestic and beautiful when looking out over the rooftops of Paris, and time and confining when having a sword-fight in a hospital.

One of the great strengths of film over stage is the ability to do close-ups, to bring intimacy with the performers that simply isn’t available even in a black box performance (and who ever heard of Les Mis being done in a black box, anyway?), and director Tom Hooper does an excellent job of utilizing the various levels of intimacy available to draw more out of the characters than would otherwise be possible. The sets are also much more flexible, and the use of space is often fun and agile without feeling “dancy” or overblown. Most of all was the unique decision to film with live singing rather than a playback, which gives even more of a sense of intimacy and believability to the moments in the film; there is none of the traditional sense of “let’s all suddenly break into song!” associated with movie musicals, but rather a natural transition in and out of music that lends itself to a perfect suspension of disbelief.

There were also some key decisions made in terms of what material to include and what to cut, but they were done with a careful eye toward shaping a coherent narrative, and unless one of your favorite songs is missing I doubt you will even notice (unless like me you absolutely despise one of the songs that got trimmed back, in which case you might even cheer a bit.)

The bulk of my praise however (and this might just be my own personal tastes coming out) is going to go to the actors.

First and foremost I can’t say enough about Anne Hathaway as Fantine. I’ve never been all that fond of Fantine as a character (again, I’ve only ever really known the music), as I found her to be at best a plot device and not especially sympathetic. Well voiced? Certainly. Someone to care about? Not really. Hathaway changed that completely. She brought a tragic dignity to the role it always lacked for me before, and my heart ached for her every moment. Her decent from factory worker to her final moments is brought to painful life by a performance that by itself deserves an Oscar. Add onto that her amazing performance of “I Dreamed a Dream”, and if she doesn’t at least get nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, there will be a riot in Hollywood. In this performance she showed that it is possible to both sing beautifully and emote, while most actors struggle to do either one.

Standing in contrast to Hathaway’s performance, but still just as moving and powerful in its own way, is Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean. Whether because he is playing to a camera rather than an entire theater or simply as a matter of character choice, Jackman dials down Valjean from the more grandiose figure he is traditionally presented as. This fits the narrative of the story better, as well as allowing his co-stars to bring their own performances down to a more empathetic level. While I myself have always loved (and sympathized with) Valjean, it takes a great deal of skill to show that level of restraint with the character, especially when he brings forth his characteristic passion in occasional moments of brilliance.

The rest of the cast vary from good to great, but I want to give some special words of praise to a few who either made me care about their characters more than I expected to, or who managed to rise above my expectations of their abilities.

Sacha Baron Cohen as Thenardier and Helena Bonham Carter as Madame Thenardier – I love these characters and I most assuredly do not love these performers, so I was shocked when I saw their names in the credits. While I wasn’t thrilled with all the choices made around their roles, I loved everything they did with their roles. Don’t know that it’s worth an Oscar, but certainly worth a Golden Globe nomination.

Samantha Barks as Eponine – Until I saw this movie Eponine was at best a throw away plot device, at worst an annoying roadblock of a plot device. Ms. Barks changed all of that. She made Eponine charming, warm, relatable, and in the end another wonderfully tragic figure. Again, I don’t know that she rose to the level of Oscar nomination, but she definitely deserves a Golden Globe.

Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche – I have always vacillated back and forth between being irritated by Gavroche because I don’t know what to do with him and simply despising him for being a waste of time and space. Young Master Huttlestone has completely changed my mind, bringing courage, dignity and charm to an otherwise forgettable character. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him getting a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and even a dark horse candidate for an Oscar nomination.

Now, if you still haven’t seen the movie, what are you waiting for? Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me? Beyond the barricade there’s a movie you’ve just got to see.

The Joys of Uncomplicated

A peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Kraft Mac and Cheese (in the blue box!). Mashed potatoes and gravy. There’s a reason these are some of my favorite foods, and it’s not just because they have enough carbs between them to make Robert Atkins come back from the grave and die all over again. No, it’s because they are uncomplicated. There isn’t anything complex or subtle about them; you know exactly what you are going to get, and that is as wonderful as it is comforting.

The movie equivalent of this would be The Expendables 2. In many ways it is a tour-de-force. On the surface it may seem like nothing but pure action movie schlock, and there’s a reason for that: it’s nothing but pure action movie schlock. But stop for a moment and think about what that really means. When was the last time you saw a pure action movie?

Action movies aren’t supposed to be complicated. They should have a clear good guy (or good guys), maybe a little rough around the edges but very easy to connect with. The bad guy should be so rotten he practically oozes filth. If there is any angst it should last just long enough to give motivation to go out and get the bad guy. And there should be lots of fights: fistfights, knife fights, gunfights, explosions fights, the works. The dialogue should be breezy enough to keep the action moving without getting you bogged down, and juts interesting enough to keep you amused.

And that’s exactly what The Expendables was. The brilliance of the original was that David Callaham and Sylvester Stallone managed to deconstruct the action film and determine exactly what its minimal components should be. They then built the perfect film with a great ensemble cast, putting together some of (if not most) of the greatest action stars of all time. It was fantastic, and of course they were going to do a sequel. So what does a deconstructed sequel to an action film look like?

Basically, it looks like The Expendables 2. You use the same formula as the first, add 20% more explosions, “this time it’s personal”, a couple of fun cameos to round out the whole thing, and bam! You got a sequel. If it feels like the entire movie is one running cliché, it’s mostly because that’s what happens when you break down the formula for (arguably) the most formulaic film genre ever made and strip out all the useless detritus that has been accumulating over the years as people try to disguise the fact that they are making an action film.

But here’s the thing: none of that matters, for two reasons. First, formula or not, the film works. It’s a great action flick, mostly because it doesn’t try to be anything else. If they had tried to add even a dollop of something else (even a hint of romance, or meaning, or whatever) it would have fallen flat on its face. It succeeds because it is pure and uncomplicated, delivering exactly what it promises.

The second reason is that the cast is a lot better than most people give them credit for. Some of them (Sly Stallone, Bruce Willis) are actually astoundingly good actors, and others (I’m not cruel enough to call them out by name) excel within their milieu, which is still pretty damn hard to do. Selling the scene is always difficult; doing it when it could be sitting in a bar one day and the middle of a jungle firefight the next is monumentally tougher. And staying in character while explosions are going off just a few yards away? Not as easy as you think. If you don’t believe me, try it some time. The cast sells this movie, even more than the movie sells itself.

If you’re looking for a great movie that will make you think, will bring tears to your eyes, and in the end will make you believe that people can triumph over any adversity, I highly recommend that you watch The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Great film. But if you just want to have a good time, get a few laughs, and not have to work too hard for it, I highly recommend The Expendables 2.

Let’s Talk About Sex. Better Yet, Let’s Not.

Quick show of hands: how many of us are actually comfortable talking about sex? I don’t mean in a roundabout way, or in a joking way, or even in a clinical way. I mean an honest, open discussion about the kind of sex that happens every day, maybe even the kind of sex we are having on a regular basis (if we’re lucky). I’m not imagining a lot of hands are up right now, even among the health teachers out there, and there’s a good reason for that. Well, not good, as such, but a well-documented one at any rate.

There’s a puritan taboo in the American culture and psyche regarding sex. We can discuss violence, death, psychological trauma, divorce, even Pauly Shore movies with minimal discomfort (well, maybe not Bio-Dome, that thing scarred me), but we simply can’t have a frank discussion about sex. I can laugh about it with my friends, dance around it with my mom ever since THE TALK, and never, ever admit it happens when my in-laws are around. If I turn to the one source of knowledge that informed my youth, television, I discover that sex consists of two people wearing pajamas kissing goodnight and sharing a bed, with a soundtrack of “oooOOOOOOooohhh!!!” If I rely on its younger sibling, the internet… you know what, I can’t even repeat what the internet showed me. I just need to go wash my eyes out. With industrial strength cleanser.

Obviously I can’t step outside of my own cultural baggage and experiences to say whether or not this is “unhealthy” or “bad” or “disturbing as all hell”, especially in comparison to other countries, where they seem to serve soft-core porn with the soft-serve ice cream. All I can say with certainty at this point is there has to be some better way, some sort of middle ground that neither glorifies sex nor demonizes it. There’s so much that sex can be, any discussion or portrayal of it is by definition going to be incomplete. However, I can take a look at some of the portrayals of sex in American popular culture (no, I will not now nor in the foreseeable future consider the internet to be “popular culture”) and see what common pitfalls there are and if I think anyone is getting it close to right.

First, I think most of the shows on HBO and Showtime today are getting it wrong. The sex is gratuitous, which I couldn’t care less about, but more importantly it is irrelevant. Every time I see sex show up in one of these shows it seems to exist purely for titillation, rarely if ever to drive the plot forward. That’s not to say the characters’ sex lives don’t drive the plot forward, but the portrayal itself adds nothing. In particular I am thinking of True Blood, Game of Thrones, and House of Lies. At least when they do violence or politics (medieval or office) on those shows they get it right.

On the other end of the spectrum is broadcast television, which in spite of the FCC has gotten to the point of acknowledging that people do, if fact, have sex. Not on camera, of course, but at least it does occasionally get discussed. Even here though it is oblique, rarely referenced except in the most banal and inoffensive ways for fear of some octogenarian degenerate somewhere filing a complaint just to get their jollies off by telling everyone else what to do. I would cite examples, but really, just watch primetime TV.

So what are some good examples? Not that I was ever a fan, but the few times I was forced to watch it, it seemed like Sex and the City got the balance right. The sex scenes, while sometimes graphic, always had a purpose and lent weight and credence to the situations and characters. In the same vein, I’m not loving Girls on HBO, but the few episodes I have watched have some very uncomfortable sex scenes that make very important character and story points I just can’t see being portrayed as clearly and compactly without just putting it out there, for lack of a better phrase. One show that I do like a lot that I think gets the balance right is Lost Girl on SyFy. Considering the protagonist is a succubus, there’s pretty much a guarantee of a lot of sex, but it is for the most part done tastefully and within context of the needs of the story. They don’t linger just for the sake of a few cheap thrills, but they don’t shy away either.

I don’t mean to give the impression that I’m some kind of prude who’s afraid or ashamed of sex. Not to go into too much detail, but I was once a twenty-something male with a credit card and access to the internet. There’s nothing wrong with cinema whose greatest contribution is the archetype of the Pizza Delivery Boy or the Pool Cleaner. But if that’s all you’re aiming for, then by all means don’t waste my time with dialogue and story. On the other hand, if you are attempting something a little more highbrow, don’t insult me by assuming I either can’t handle seeing naked skin or you have to have gymnastic bedroom exploits every five minutes. Focus on the story, and if sex is a natural part of that story, let it happen naturally. Maybe then we can start to treat it as something natural.

Vacation Movie Round-Up

I finally took some time off this week, and I caught up on some movies I’ve been meaning to see for a while. As the greatest critic of pop culture I know in my house, I felt it was my born duty to share with you all my thoughts and impressions of some of the fantastic cinema I’ve finally gotten around to seeing in case you missed it for as long as I did.

The Avengers. I’ll cop to the truth and hope they don’t take away my geek card: it took me this long to see The Avengers. Yes, despite my pathetic man-crush on Our Whedon Who Art in Hollywood, hallowed be his name, I held off on seeing this one until now. Why? I dunno. I guess I was afraid it couldn’t live up to the hype, especially since they were on the third Hulk in as many films, or the fact I hadn’t seen Captain America yet (see review below) and I still haven’t seen Thor (although I might actually try it now.)

So how was it? Well, lest I squeal like a schoolgirl I’m afraid I can’t give a completely accurate depiction of my initial impression. Suffice to say that I thought this was hand-down the best action film I have seen in a very long time, and the very epitome of a superhero film. While it played to many of the tropes you would expect, it also played with some tropes as well, and I always like to see that sort of thing. Without giving anything away I think I can safely say my favorite surprise character was S.H.I.E.L.D., which played a much larger role than I anticipated, and in a much more interesting way. The special effects were well integrated, enhancing without dominating the action.

That’s not to say there weren’t some drawbacks. Once you go Ed Norton, it’s really hard to go back, and while Mark Ruffalo does a credible job it’s just not the same. The action is a little slow in the beginning, although threading together four different franchises and adding in some extra material at the same time is always going to be a challenge; Whedon did the best job possible, but that doesn’t make it great. Also on that front is the fact that there are some subplots and character development points that don’t come through very clearly if you haven’t seen the lead-in films. Again, not much you can do about that given the situation at hand; it would be like trying to a sequel to Return of the Jedi for someone who had never seen episodes IV-VI. Doesn’t make for as smooth of a movie as it could though.

All that having been said, it was a rollicking good time, and well worth the price of admission. This is one you will want to see in the theater, because it just won’t be the same at home.

4.75/5 stars


Rock of Ages. The simple fact that my wife, who isn’t really old enough to remember any of the songs in this movie, refuses to go see it, pretty well sums up everything you need to know about it and whether or not you should even bother watching it. The simple fact is, I grew up on 80s music, and hair bands in particular, so for me this was a no-brainer. Going with my sister (who saw several of the bands that originally did the songs in the film IN CONCERT) just added to the fun.

Oh, the plot? You mean there was one? No, seriously, there was? This movie is the epitome of a musical that exists for the sole purpose of stringing together a bunch of songs that already exist in the most clever way possible. There are a few inside jokes (including one song that quite creatively DIDN’T get used), but that’s more about wit than anything that could pass for a script. As far as acting, Tom Cruise can’t help being great, and Alec Baldwin has comedy down to a science. Everyone else did an acceptable job to keep the movie going, never taking you out of things, but it’s not exactly Rent. Hell, it’s not even Chicago.

Should you see this in the theater? That depends if you remember teasing your hair, or watching someone else do it, and if you feel like you would have to bite your tongue to keep from singing along to the songs. If not, take a pass and catch it on DVD if you love Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, or musicals in general. Otherwise you might want to just let this one go by.

4.5/5 stars (if you remember the 80s), 2.0/5 stars (if you don’t know who Twisted Sister is)

Captain America: The First Avenger. Overall not a bad film. I was never a huge fan of Captain America, but I never exactly hated Cap either (unlike Daredevil or Punisher, both of whom I would sooner see dismissed to the dustbin of comic book history.) Also unlike Daredevil, I had very low expectations going into this film, which may have helped. For those of you unfamiliar with Captain America… you know what, if you’re unfamiliar with Captain America, I can’t help you. Seriously, crawl back under the rock you’ve been living under for the past seventy years or so. Seriously. That’s like not knowing who Superman or Mickey Mouse are.

Anyway, the film follows pretty closely to the established mythos as I know it, although to be fair I don’t know it especially well, unlike the Spider-Man films, where I was one of the nerds complaining bitterly about the changes even as I had a nerdgasm over the coolness of it all. (Before the third one. That was just awful. What I saw of it. I couldn’t even sit through the whole thing.) But I digress. They stick to the plot fairly well, and though the action doesn’t move along as well as I might like in the middle, there is some nice character development. The end is a serious downer, and more than a little of a Fellowship of the Ring moment for me personally. However, since I didn’t even bother to see it until the Avengers was already in theaters (and they kind of telegraphed it from the title) there’s little room to complain.

3.75/5 stars

Red State. I’m not really known for being a fan of thrillers, but I am known for being a huge Kevin Smith fan, so going into this one was a big toss-up for me. Truth to tell, I got a HUGE surprise out of this one, in a very good way. I have no idea how to describe it without giving anything away, so I’ll do my best but just in case I’m going to say *SPOILER ALERT*. Now don’t call me out for crying wolf even if I don’t spoil anything.

So this movie is a thriller, like I said, but about what? Well, sex and religion and politics. That’s probably the best way to describe it, and I take that more or less from the credits, so don’t credit me with any great insight for picking up on this one. The truth is I was just frozen still for the entirety of the movie, constantly waiting to see what would happen next. The action moved at exactly the right pace, never dragging but not going so fast as to be an action movie either. The tension was perfect throughout.

There were two aspects to this film I enjoyed most. First, there were no heroes. Yes, there were protagonists, but there was nobody I really liked or felt like I needed to root for. But somehow I still felt satisfied by the movie. Second, the customary witty Kevin Smith dialogue was there, but it wasn’t silly, it was sharp, crisp, and direct, almost like David Mamet if Mamet were in any way tolerable. This movie isn’t going to be for everyone, because it’s chock-full of gore and violence and lots of disturbing imagery. That being said, if you think you can handle it, it’s worth checking out.

4.25/5 stars

John Carter. Ah, the curse of mediocrity and what might have been. I’m convinced this movie could have been so much better if Disney had only been willing to go for the gusto rather than trying to appeal to the family audience, or the mass market, or whoever it is exactly they were trying to appeal to. It can’t have been the hardcore fans of the original novels, because outside of a few truly dedicated nerds, I’m not sure anyone even knows there WERE original novels (or did before the movie bombed -er, came out.) As it is, the results of this film were so deep into the realm of “so close” that it’s almost insulting.

Which is kind of misleading to say, because if it hadn’t come so close to being really, really good, it would have been really good. It was fun, exciting, well made, and all around worth watching. It just had so many points of bad dialogue, dragging action, and generic silliness that it was hard for me to focus on the meat of it, which was a decent film. There were some enjoyable characters, and it wasn’t so thoroughly “family-washed” as to lose sight of all the barbarity that existed in the original.

If you like science fiction, if you like heroic films, and especially if you like not having to think too hard while you kick back, this is a good popcorn rental.

3.0/5 stars