Saturday, November 21, 2015

Muppet, er, Saturday

The Muppets have a series of American Express ads in support of Small Business Saturday, November 28. If you have to shop next weekend, support small businesses!

The Fozzie one was probably my favorite, for the hat stand alone.

Also: Turkey Hollow is on Lifetime tonight, so if you want some Henson creatures for Thanksgiving, go there.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen the past few weeks.

Idris Elba is one of those charming, sexy movie killers who escapes from prison and holes up in a suburban home on a dark and rainy night, terrorizing Taraji P. Henson, a suburban wife left alone for the weekend with her children. Neither as tense nor as lurid as you hope a movie like this is going to be, but they do get Elba's shirt off, and that's something. Elba and Henson have a sexual chemistry (they both would with literally any other person) that the movie doesn't do anything with, and it doesn't really get you into the characters enough to rise above its hoary old premise. Too bad, because the two leads (who carry 98% of the flick) are more than game to the task. **1/2

This film really hit me where I live. A very vital horror film that creates a psychological terror that stands as an allegory for how we deal--or don't deal--with grief and trauma. It's about a woman, widowed in an accident on the day her son was born, who now has a hard time raising the most demanding child. He seems to be suffering from severe mental problems, but she won't hear of it. He's afraid to sleep because he thinks a monster, the Babadook, is coming to take his mother. What starts out as a straightforward, but somewhat depressing film transmutes into something more horrifying and more heartfelt, and it's refreshing to see a modern horror film that is not only surprising, but scary and actually about something more than being a dumb action flick. It's a cathartic, therapeutic film, a beautiful statement about the terror and helplessness of life after trauma. ****

OCULUS (2013)
Horror flick with parallel plot lines. Karen Gillan stars as a woman whose brother has just gotten released from a psychiatric hospital eleven years after their father murdered their mother before killing himself. Gillan is convinced that a supernatural mirror was responsible for their father's madness, and has traced the history of the mirror and the strange murders that happen around it. It is interesting how they try to fight the supernatural with the scientific, and the movie is well-shot and mostly well-acted, but it never really pulled me in. I liked the emphasis on existential dread over gore, and its general mood, but it's not very suspenseful and the plot weakens as it drags on. **1/2

CREEP (2014)
Found footage film about a director (Patrick Brice, who directed the film) who answers a Craigslist ad to direct videos for a dying man (Mark Duplass) to leave his unborn son. What follows is... very strange. So much of what happens is just about the dying man's weird personality, as it soon becomes clear that the day is going to take a number of very, very creepy turns. One of the few films that successfully treads the line between psychological horror and absurd comedy. It has a DIY nature that works in its favor, a battle of personalities that has the tone of a normcore movie. The fact that it starts out like any normcore movie and then becomes something else without straining all over itself to be clever is what makes this movie work. I loved it. ****

A team of American archaeologists find a pyramid buried underground in Egypt that is actually the portal to the Egyptian underworld. Occasionally suspenseful, but also pretty cheap. It can't decide whether it wants to be a found footage movie or a straightforward narrative horror movie, so it tries to be both and is easily less than the sum of its parts. It is nice to see Denis O'Hare lead a movie, but the weak script, silly premise and terrible special effects don't support him at all. Ashley Hinshaw is rather ludicrously cast as a scientist. Clunky and inept. *1/2

Better than the first Purge, this one goes for the dystopian B-movie action of The Warriors and Escape from New York. It doesn't hit the social commentary button quite as hard as the first movie, but gets the same points across hidden inside what's basically a movie where Frank Grillo plays the Punisher, helping a disparate group of people who are trapped as they run from the various killing floors of Purge Night. This is definitely the way to make this kind of movie; its rough prose and enjoyable action scenes and Grillo's righteous search for a reckoning covertly carry some important points about social inequality, racism, the futility of revenge and the cruelty of human beings. It doesn't have to be smart, it just has to be entertaining, and it actually is. ***

BLACK DOG (1998)
Ridiculous thriller about a down-on-his-luck ex-con (Patrick Swayze) driving a semi full of illegal firearms across the country, all while trying to avoid hijackers. The hijacking plot is incredibly dumb. If you wanted to hijack a truck shipment, why would you do it on the highway by driving up next to the truck like an 18th century pirate? Why wouldn't you just wait until Swayze stopped at a Howard Johnson's to grab some lunch and just carjack it? I guess because we wouldn't have silly action scenes. The movie is somewhat saved by its sense of its own silliness and some of the fun supporting performances (particularly Randy Travis, who gets the tone), but it's not enjoyably dumb in the way it thinks it is. **

ANNIE (2014)
Man, we're never going to have an Annie movie with smugglers and pirates, are we? So many racist morons were mad about this being the Black version of Annie, but it's really just Annie and Daddy Warbucks Will Stacks, surrounded by a sea of white supporting actors and the too few appearances of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Stacks' valet. And yet racist idiots become totally unhinged by the sight of even a single Black person. Enjoy The Force Awakens, dumbshits. You know the story. This take on it is okay; it's a pleasant diversion, but little more than that, though Quvenzhane Wallis is charming in the lead, and Jaime Foxx and Rose Byrne are likable as Stacks and Grace Farrell. It's just all so inconsequential, and the soundtrack feels indifferent, which is a shame considering how much money and time must have gone into getting the rights and re-shaping each song to fit the film's urban contemporary style. Lots of auto-tune, and amid the new songs, many of the old ones (except for some of the standards, like "Tomorrow" and "It's the Hard Knock Life") are unrecognizable. But the movie's biggest problem is Cameron Diaz as Miss Hannigan, cartoonish even by the standards of a musical aimed at children. I am continually amazed just how far Cameron Diaz has come in her career despite only being occasionally pleasant and having zero talent. Her performance is just embarrassing. And I saw her hump a sports car in The Counselor. **1/2

Garry Shandling is an alien sent from another planet to mate with an Earth woman. Well, there's your problem. No woman wants to have sex with Garry Shandling. He thinks mating will be very easy, but dating in the nineties is hard, amirite, what with all the feminism and political correctness and condoms and stuff? Who is this goddamn movie made for? It's made by out of touch rich white assholes in their fifties, for out of touch rich white assholes in their fifties. It's the kind of movie that studios occasionally think is a slam dunk, but really has an incredibly limited number of dated, elite misogynists who would find it hilarious and it's just embarrassing and offensive to everyone else. Town and Country is a movie like that. What Planet Are You From? feels like it's one of the most insightful relationship comedies of 1993. Unfortunately it came out 7 years too late and, despite featuring one of the most nineties comedy casts I've ever seen, every joke falls totally flat. And no joke is sadder here than that Garry Shandling's alien race's genitals have become vestigial, so he's given a motorized penis that hums when he gets horny. I feel like that's something that everyone involved found hysterically funny, but the way the movie thinks the audience finds this deeply hilarious is just sad. And the movie's sudden turn into outright sentimentality... this movie is utterly terrible. Can I say anything nice about it? Well, it's nice to see Linda Fiorentino in something I've never seen before. I like her. I saw Judy Greer naked. And John Goodman is great in it, but that's true of most movies John Goodman's in. So for that, I guess *.

Oy. It just came on FXX one day after several episodes of Parks and Recreation and I just ended up watching it, and by the time I realized what was going on (I was playing games on Facebook at the time), I had invested enough time in it that I just wanted to see how it ended. But, I mean, you can piece together the entire movie from any other movies with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson where they do their take on slobs vs. snobs comedies. It's literally nothing you haven't seen a dozen times better. The ubiquitous (yet not particularly memorable) Rose Byrne makes another appearance. *1/2

In 1920s Paris, cynical British magician Colin Firth attempts to debunk naive American spiritualist Emma Stone, but instead falls in love with her. For a while, the movie seems to have something to say about the nature of both faith and rationalism, but then some obvious turns happen, and the whole thing adds up to an okay Colin Firth performance, some beautiful cinematography, and not much else. Woody Allen's newest work is uninspired and seems bizarrely uninterested in pursuing any of the thoughts it has; it's insubstantial and has no energy, and the actors aren't good enough to sustain what little is there. Emma Stone is particularly flat, which is a shame, because the role seems tailor made for her appealing spark plug energy, but she's so modern that she sticks out and so underwritten and under-directed that she's just dull. The whole thing is dull. Dullness in the moonlight. **

Fascinating avant garde documentary culled from a daylong interview with a male prostitute/entertainer who tells filmmaker Shirley Clarke the story of his life, really holding court, acting out scenes from movies and telling anecdotes about his brother and people he's worked for. Towards the end of the movie, Clarke and her partner become hostile towards Jason, provoking and berating him as he collapses. It's a shocking development, but in retrospect inevitable; the way the film paints this portrait of Jason by first commiserating with him, then indulging him, and then provoking him removes the top layers of show and present a starkly human picture; the hurt person beneath the character presented to the world. Equal parts exploitative and uncompromising, the film says a lot that still applies about race, sexuality, class, and art in America. ****

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

80s Revisited: She-Devil

She-Devil (1989)
Directed by Susan Seidelman; screenplay by Barry Strugatz & Mark R. Burns; produced by Jonathan Brett & Susan Seidelman.

Boy, this movie came along at exactly the wrong time in my life. 1989 was the summer I turned 13; my parents' divorce had just become final that June, and if there was one thing I was not in the mood to see--nor really mature enough to get--it was a black comedy about divorce and revenge.

The movie stars Roseanne Barr in her film debut. She plays Ruth, a frumpy, put-upon housewife whose husband (Ed Begley, Jr., perfectly fitting the tone) cheats on her constantly. When he meets a glamorous romance novelist (Meryl Streep) at a party, he falls hard for her and begins having an affair. He approaches the affair in a cavalier manner, barely bothering to hide it, offering lame excuses until he finally just leaves his family behind. And at that moment, Ruth's precarious life--the constant balancing act of trying to keep her husband happy even as he constantly disrespects her--comes toppling down. The first thing she does is make a list of all the things her husband values: his home, his family, his career, and his freedom. Then she blows up the house, drops the kids of at the mistresses' home, and sets about dismantling his career and his freedom.

She makes a series of really brilliant plays, but what's really satisfying about the movie is that, along the way, Ruth makes a lifelong friend and gains self-esteem, confidence, financial success, and a real measure of control over her life that was missing before. That's the best part of this movie: as her quest for revenge unfolds, she becomes empowered and fully realized. It's a terrific bit of satire, because it strikes at this idea that feminism is somehow dangerous to men.

Roseanne is quite good in the movie. When it came out in December of 1989, Roseanne was in its second season. You expect stand-up comics/sitcom actors who go into a movie to play it a little too broad, to really ham it up, but despite the movie having moments that are pitched on a cartoony level for impact, she really underplays the role, making her transition from doormat to actualized businesswoman believable. Meryl Streep, as Mary Fisher, is able to bring a depth to her role, too, by playing Mary as desperate and buffoonish, believing her own PR BS. Ed Begley, Jr. is hilarious, and Linda Hunt is likable as Ruth's friend, who breaks out of her own rut. I love Linda Hunt. I never see Linda Hunt anymore.

The entire film's not a slam dunk, but a lot of it works. It's directed by Susan Seidelman, who had previously made a movie I love, Making Mr. Right. Reading the synopsis of the original Fay Weldon novel the movie is based on, I think it was right to make this more of a satire. That novels sounds dark.

So while I don't feel it's necessarily a lost gem, I didn't feel like I wasted my time. What alienated me at 13, a child of a recent divorce, made me guffaw as a somewhat cynical adult.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Muppet Monday

I've been taking a break/convalescing for a bit, so here's a bunch of recent Muppet stuff, because to me there's no better way to start a week.

First up, the wonderful Warburtons Giant Crumpet ad. The UK has always been great to Kermit and company, and I recommend making this fullscreen before watching. In fact, you might even want to watch it two or three times. There are so many Muppets in it! Even Nigel!! (And the great Kirk Thatcher directed!)

There's also a behind-the-scenes video, a short spot with the Muppet Newsman, and some asides by Statler & Waldorf.

Also related: John Green and Mental Floss give us 31 Facts About Jim Henson.

That clip was brought to you by Lifetime, because on Saturday they are premiering Turkey Hollow...

...which is based on an unfilmed script by Jerry Juhl and Jim Henson from the sixties, and which is directed by...

...Kirk Thatcher! You see how I brought that back around in a circular way? This guy had the career I wanted, man... working at ILM on Return of the Jedi, Star Trek II, E.T., Poltergeist, and he was the punk on the bus in Star Trek IV. He worked on The Jim Henson Hour, was in charge of Dinosaurs (which he developed), and has worked on so many Muppet projects that... aw, just check out his Muppet Wiki page, the guy's one of my heroes. I can't wait for Turkey Hollow.

(Tough Pigs has everything you need to know about it here.)

And let's end on a sweet note. Big Bird interning at Funny or Die is sweeter than I thought it might be.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Song of the Week: "No Children"

Pretty much what I needed coming off a long illness. I'm trying to get back to normal, and this is one of those great songs for when you're pissed off at the world and depressed. I'll probably resume blogging (as opposed to mindlessly Tumbl-ing) this week.