July 31, 2013

Mexican Vacation Day 2: THE LAST STAND In An Orthopedic Hell

"You fucked up my day off."
It's ironic that my second movie of the trip was titled The Last Stand, mostly because by the time I turned it on at the end of the day, I could barely walk.

We started with a delicious breakfast of chilequiles, which is basically a pile of fired tortilla chips smothered in a spicy red chile sauce and topped with a fried egg and onions.  Perfection.  The beach was located a few kilometers away, which meant a significant but not totally harrowing walk.  To be fair, we could have driven but we felt that the walk would be a good spot of exercise between bouts of gorging ourselves on piles of the tasty Mexican food we'd both grown so fond of in L.A. but was much harder to come by in Boston.  Now, generally speaking, I find flip flops to be uncomfortable and the sound of a rubber slab thwacking at my heel with every step is incredibly annoying, but I recently came across a pair that I didn't totally hate and figured they'd come in handy at the beach.  But considering the lengthy walk ahead of us with no promise of evenly paved ground, sneakers seemed the wiser option.  So I donned my red hightop Converse All Stars, the lighter weight option of my two pairs of sneakers.  What I did not don, however, were socks.  This was a bad call.

The temperature was flirting with triple digits, so by the time we reached the beach my feet were so sweaty that I had a blister forming on one toe and cuts on the backs of my heels.  I had also shed my t-shirt, as it had become little more than a dark sweat rag by that point.  We found a lovely, quiet spot with lounge chairs and drink service, so we laid outside and soaked up the sunshine for a few hours.  Tulum's beaches are divided into the north and south sections, so after spending the morning on the south side I laced up my Chucks so we could walk up and check out the north.  I realized after a few steps that I simply couldn't continue to walk comfortably in my shoes, but the path was actually paved smooth so I figured, "Fuck it, I'll just walk barefoot."  This was also a bad call.

I had sizable blisters on the balls of my feet before we were even halfway to the northern beaches, and whereas the walk to the south side had seen dozens of cabs passing by and honking to solicit a fare, now the traffic was virtually nonexistent.  Eventually we managed to hail a taxi which took us to a crowded resort/beach club, and while the shore was far less rocky, the sky soon became overcast and far less "beachy."  So after some fairly underwhelming nachos from a surly bartender, we laid on the sand and napped for a while before grabbing another cab (thankfully they were lined up outside the resort) and went back for dinner.  While we dressed and cleaned up, we turned on the local TV and found a plethora of American movies and TV shows dubbed in Spanish, (always entertaining) so we watched a little Scott Pilgrim before heading into town for fresh fried fish, octopus tacos and a small mountain of shrimp ceviche.

The waiter tried to convince us to get a small order instead of a medium, but we ignored his warnings at our own delicious peril.  This was a good call.

We retired back to our room and while Jamie slept I watched The Last Stand, Arnold Schwarzenegger's first starring role after exiting his political life as governor of Kalee-For-Neeya.  Arnold plays a former LAPD narcotics officer who, after a particularly bloody showdown, became the sheriff of a small town just this side of the Mexican border.  When a violent drug lord escapes federal custody and makes a beeline for Arnie's town in a supercharged Corvette, it's up to the sheriff and his ragtag collection of deputies to stop the cartel boss from escaping the country.

There's a lot to love about The Last Stand, so much so that I kind of can't believe it had trouble finding an audience in theaters.  Peter Stormare's bizarre southern accent alone is worth the price of admission, but I'd think the return of Schwarzenegger to action filmmaking would at least arouse some interest.  It probably helps that I'm a total sucker for quasi-elderly action stars embracing their age and making "I'm old, but I can still kick your ass" movies, which is why I love stuff like Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, but get frustrated by the middling quality of the Expendables franchise.  (Also, I heart Stallone.)  Arnie does not disappoint here, maintaining a sort of world-weary tone with the people in his town while giving an "I'm too good for this shit" attitude to the FBI, personified by Forest Whitaker who cruises through the movie in paycheck-seeking autopilot.  (Henceforth I will refer to this as "pulling a Eugene Levy.")  Special props go to Johnny Knoxville as the local gun nut who operates a munitions museum and provides the local cops with all sorts of amusingly anachronistic firepower.  It's the kind of role that Knoxville was born to play, a gung-ho, would-be badass who gives his hand cannon the name Georgietta and shows up for the final gunfight wearing a medieval helmet and shield.  He's excited to use his weaponry but also has no sense of the actual danger involved, like a sort of motor-mouthed Wile E. Coyote.  Luis Guzman gets a few nice moments as Deputy Luis Guzman while Friday Night Lights' Matt Saracen shows up as the sacrificial lamb whose death spurs everyone to action.  (This isn't really a spoiler, as his inevitable demise is telegraphed within his first two scenes.)  Also featured is Harry Dean Fucking Stanton as an ornery farmer for one totally awesome scene, and how can you not love a movie that has the good sense to cast Harry Dean Fucking Stanton?  But make no mistake, it's Schwarzenegger's show and he's just fantastic.  Now firmly entrenched in his mid-60's, Arnold smartly doesn't attempt a lot of physical ass-kicking, although he does have one helluva bareknuckle brawl with the bad guy at the very end.  And even though the fisticuffs directly follow a clever car chase scene through a cornfield, it actually feels like a natural progression to the ultimate showdown, as opposed to so many of this summer's big releases which seem to shoehorn in one boring foot chase or fist fight too many after ten minutes of explosions.

Most of The Last Stand's violence plays out as intense gunfights in the streets of the largely abandoned town or car stunts that rival the Fast & Furious franchise in their clever staging and insanely pliable physics.  The destruction on display is my absolute favorite kind: bloody and bordering on cartoonish, including a few sound effects that are lifted right out of Looney Tunes.  This is the kind of movie where gunshots result in sanguine explosions that knock guys clear across the room.  Aside from the obvious influence of late-stage Tarantino, The Last Stand often feels more like a Korean film which happens to star American actors.  That's hardly a surprise since it's the English language debut of director Kim Ji-Woon.  Much like Park Chan-Wook's Stoker, it's nice to see the Korean filmmaker maintaining so much of his own cinematic voice.  Hell, Johnny Knoxville spends most of the movie wearing the same goofy hat and goggles that Song Kang-ho wore in Ji-Woon's The Good, The Bad & The Weird.  Ji-Woon's obvious fondness for the Western genre makes this simple, modern take a perfect way for him to shake hands with American audiences, but it's the director's playful style that really elevates the material from dreary DTV fare to a solid B+ action tale.  I look forward to seeing where Kim Ji-Woon goes from here.

Oh yeah, and welcome back Arnold.

Title: The Last Stand
Director: Kim Ji-Woon
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, Luis Guzman, Jaimie Alexander, Zach Gilford, Peter Stormare, Johnny Knoxville
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Redbox DVD

Programming Note: "And Always Tumbling, Tumbling, TUMBLING Toward Freedom!"

I've never truly been able to wrap my head around Tumblr, but the recent discovery that it was no longer being firewalled by my office network got me curious.  So I quickly set up a Daley Screening Tumblr page and I'm still experimenting with how best to use it.

Obviously the bulk of my content will remain on this site, but I like the idea of using the Tumblr as a sort of scratchpad to share some of the stuff that interests me but doesn't really feel like it has a place here, like new trailers for things I'm excited to see, or articles by other writers that I find interesting and want to pass along, not to mention pictures or Vines from various movie-going excursions.  Right now it's mostly filled with photos I took during the Brattle's Cornetto Trilogy triple feature, specifically all the beers I drank on my virtual pub crawl.

Anyway, there's now a Tumblr button at the top of the blog, or you can go to daleyscreening.tumblr.com.  It may end up being redundant and forgotten in the face Twitter and Facebook, but I'm willing to give this whole Tumblr thing a shot.

All the other kids are doing it, so that means it must be cool, right?

July 29, 2013

Mexican Vacation Day 1: Your In-Flight Movie is TO ROME WITH LOVE

"I call that futile feeling, 'Ozymandias Melancholia.'"
Right now I'm sitting on a beach in Tulum, sipping on a lime daiquiri and staring out over the water.*  This is my current view of the beach (and my hairy-ass legs):

I want every day to be like this.

Yesterday was the first travel day of our belated first anniversary trip to Mexico.  (Our anniversary is in May, but the life of a teacher doesn't exactly encourage weeklong vacations during the school year.)  Our flight was scheduled to depart at 6:45 AM, but fortunately we live about five minutes from the airport, so after we cruised through security we started our day by eating breakfast burritos in the terminal, sitting in rocking chairs and watching the sun rise over East Boston.  Not a terrible way to kick off a vacation.  Since it was an early flight on a Wednesday, the plane was not particularly crowded and we boarded pretty swiftly, but after we pulled out from the gate we almost immediately turned around and went back, with the pilot citing some sort of ambiguous "mechanical failure."  After sitting at the gate for 15 minutes, they told us that the issue was something that could, "get a waiver for," (incredible reassuring) and that we would take on extra fuel for a backup generator (also reassuring) and then be on our way.  We pulled back from the gate a second time and were then treated to a repeat of the required safety announcements because we had taken on two new passengers while waiting at the terminal.  As we taxied to the runway, the plane emitted a new, rhythmic banging sound, which is exactly what you want to hear after being told that were flying on a mechanical hall pass.  But we made it to Atlanta without incident, where we got to have a quick bite with our friend Billman and his adorable son Henry, who spent most of the time running laps around the airport rotunda and staring in rapt fascination at the white SUV on display in the seating area.  I tried to steer his attention to the giant dinosaur skeleton located 50 feet to the left, but to no avail.  What can I say?  Kid knows what he likes.

I knocked out my film for the day on the first leg of our trip, Woody Allen's To Rome With Love.  Allen is pretty much the definition of a prolific filmmaker, literally having churned out a new movie every year of my life.  With that kind of frequency there are plenty of misses among his various hits, but he's still a filmmaker I really appreciate.  Certain writers have a cadence and rhythm to their dialogue that hits you on a base, visceral level.  For me, that list includes Aaron Sorkin, David Mamet and Neil LaBute; they have a style that's so specific that you can usually tell you're watching one of their movies even without seeing the credits.  Allen sort of drifts on and off that list depending on the film.  To Rome With Love is basically half on and half off.  The film consists of four separate storylines, two of which did nothing for me.  One has Roberto Benigni as an average Italian citizen who turns into a celebrity overnight for no reason at all, enjoys the benefits of fame, falls prey to all of the typical trappings of notoriety, then loses his status just as abruptly as he acquired it and finds himself suddenly craving the attention which had previously annoyed him.  The whole thing is essentially a fable demonstrating that old Vulcan proverb, "Having is not so pleasing a thing as wanting.  It is not logical, but it is often true."  It all feels very trite and, moreover, a waste of Benigni's talents.  Another story follows a newlywed couple honeymooning in Rome.  The husband gets caught in a case of mistaken identity and has to pretend that a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) is his wife while his actual wife gets lost in the big city and is wooed by a film star.  It's like low-rent Shakespeare but sadly kind of pointless.

The other two plots fare much better.  One has Allen himself as a retired opera producer who travels to Rome to meet the family of his daughter's fiancee.  He discovers that the future groom's father is actually a startlingly talented singer, but only when he's in the shower.  Allen pushes him to perform in public, eventually staging a performance of Pagliacci in which his future in-law is wheeled on stage in a portable shower.  The story is okay, marked by Allen's typical neurotic performance and the incredible singing of real life opera performer Fabio Armiliato.  I've never been a big opera fan, but you have to be basically dead inside not to appreciate such beautiful music.  The real winner is the last story, featuring Alec Baldwin as an architect who's reliving a former romance from his younger days living in Rome.  He tags along and watches his former self (Jesse Eisenberg) slowly fall for the best friend (Ellen Page) of his current girlfriend (Greta Gerwig).  Baldwin acts as his own spirit guide, offering the wisdom of 20/20 hindsight and trying to talk Eisenberg out of making the same mistakes again, though in the end he's content to watch it all play out and simply appreciate his younger point of view.  The performances of all four leads are absolutely enchanting and the give and take between Baldwin and Eisenberg is both sharp and hilarious.  Someone put these two in a full length story together, STAT.

We eventually landed in Cancun and, after making our way through customs, we walked across the street to acquire our rental car.  The attendant, a young guy named Carlos was extremely friendly and helpful despite having to deal with two different American assholes, one of whom rudely barged up the counter to interrupt me because the agency had the temerity to give him a Nissan Versa instead of a Volkswagon Jetta.  After the man and his shrill wife berated poor Carlos over something that was clearly out of his control (and also utterly inconsequential), I felt so embarrassed on behalf of all Americans that I immediately apologized to Carlos for the couple's awful behavior.  He just shrugged it off and said that he'd upgrade us from the compact car we'd reserved to the full size car the other man had refused.  In other words, their dickery was our gain.

It was about a ninety minute drive to the beachside town of Tulum and our adorable hotel, Posada Luna del Sur.  It instantly reminded me of the hotel we stayed at in Santorini during our honeymoon, complete with a sitting area, kitchenette and a patio.  It was extremely charming and homey.  We walked out into the town and hit up a local restaurant called Charlie's, where we loaded up on strong margaritas, guacamole, lime soup, mole enchiladas and fish tacos, along with a basket of chips and the greatest, spiciest house salsa I've ever tasted.  (Sidenote: all that deliciousness cost about $30, which would have been a steal just for the five margaritas.)

By the time we were finished with dinner, our utter lack of sleep had caught up with us so we crashed for the night, dreaming of beaches and delicious frozen beverages...

*Not actually.  Due to a pronounced lack of reliable wifi access in our Mexican travels, I ended up handwriting all of my entries over the course of my vacation.  There was actually something incredibly satisfying about properly writing with pen and ink in a hardbound leather book, even if it does mean I'm going to have to spend a lot of time transcribing what I've already written.

Title: To Rome With Love
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Alec Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Paige, Greta Gerwig, Woody Allen, Penelope Cruz, Roberto Begnini
Year Of Release: 2012
Viewing Method: Digital Copy (iPad)

July 16, 2013

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA Is The Best Theater Going Experience I've Had In Years

"Aqaba is over there.  It's only a matter of going."
This is why I love going to see movies in the theater.

You don't need me to tell you that Lawrence Of Arabia* is a fantastic movie.  It's probably the best example of a largely abandoned tradition of filming in exotic locations with hundreds of extras, giving it a real sense of scope that feels totally different from today's artificial landscapes populated by legions of digital limbs.  This puppy has got scope, full of sweeping vistas and epic adventure, fish out of water humor along with gut-wrenching drama, all anchored by one of the all-time great lead performances by Peter O'Toole.   Also, Obi-Wan Kenobi in brownface.

What more could anyone ask for?

Let me set the scene for you.  Coolidge Corner is hands down the best theater in the entire Boston metropolitan area.  It's just off the Green Line, tucked right between the posh suburbanites of Brookline and the rowdy college drunks in Allston.  Originally built as a church in 1906, the Coolidge was converted into an Art Deco moviehouse in the thirties and has been rocking ever since.  There are a handful of screens ranging in size from a couch-filled 14 person viewing room to the grandiose 440 seat main theater.  Oh yeah, and did I mention there's craft beer on tap and the tickets are only $10?  That's my kind of theater.

So I arrived at the theater and met up with Warren O'Reilly, my erstwhile best man who's recently been spending more and more time at the Coolidge since it's so close to his house.  (Lucky.)  We grabbed our tickets from the outdoor ticket window and made our way into the vintage lobby, which actually has a display with old-style lobby cards for upcoming attractions.  After securing a bucket of popcorn and two large waters (clutch beverage choice for a movie about the desert) we snagged two seats in the back right corner, giving us a great view not only of the screen, but of the theater itself.


We had arrived pretty close to showtime, so after a few minutes of idle chatter the clock struck seven.  But much to my surprise, the lights did not dim and the film did not begin to play.  Instead, we heard the opening notes of Maurice Jarre's stirring theme begin to fill the theater.  Talk about setting a mood!  As the overture continued, we saw the lights slowly turn out section by section, so that the darkness started in the back and slowly crept toward the screen, which remained bathed in a red light.  As soon as Jarre's music finally faded out, the Columbia logo instantly appeared on the screen and the score kicked right back in again.  And the audience applauded.  It was an absolute perfect moment.  Playing the music of the film you're about to see is such a simple thing, but it's massively effective.  It creates an instant sense memory, so that only a few minutes into the film I was literally pumping my fist along with the music as the camera swept over the desert plains.  I'd love to see more theaters start playing the appropriate music before a movie begins, but I think it would really only work for classic screenings like this.  In your local multiplex you'd have 15 minutes of commercials and previews to sit through between the music and the film itself, thus watering down the effect.  Still, it couldn't hurt.

As I mentioned, I hardly need to extol the virtues of the actual film - that's well covered territory.  But I will say that the recent restoration is absolutely breathtaking.  Almost every frame of the movie is gorgeous in its own right, (even the adorable day-for-night stuff) while some shots are nothing short of visual masterpieces.  But the actual image quality is nothing short of immaculate.  I'm serious, the movie looks like it was shot yesterday.  And it certainly helps that the Coolidge actually knows how to properly project a film.  The entire thing was bright and vibrant and felt as if I could just stroll right through the screen.  The infamous cut from Lawrence blowing out the match to the sunrise over the desert was nothing short of astounding to behold.  Not only were the visuals top notch, but the sound mix was superb.  There's a scene where Lawrence is talking to Prince Feisal in his tent, which is held up by a series of wooden poles.  I could hear each individual pole bending and creaking in the wind all around me.  After spending a lot of time in theaters with dark, muddy images from overtaxed projector lamps and uneven sound marked by deafening explosions and garbled dialogue, this was like a chilled canteen of spring water after crossing the Sun's Anvil.

I knew that Lawrence Of Arabia was a lengthy film, but somehow I was not anticipating an intermission.  While I'd usually prefer to just power straight through a film, it was actually nice to be able to stand up and walk around for a bit.  (More evidence that I'm turning into an old man.)  And as it just so happens, one of my very favorite ice cream joints, J.P. Licks, is located directly across the street from the theater.  And so, in our 15 minute interlude we had time to use the restroom, get giant waffle cones and still make it back to our seats with five minutes to spare.  And once again, when the timer ran down to zero, we heard the overture kick in and saw the lights slowly go down across the theater as we settled in for the last hour of the film.

Every movie you watch has to stand on its own merits, but this is why I've always said that the actual viewing environment is a crucial part of the movie watching experience.  I'm not a snob; I stream movies on my laptop and I even watch some stuff on my phone while riding the subway.  But for certain films, you want to put in a little extra effort to watch them in an ideal setting.  And that setting should vary depending on the film.  I waited an extra month to see Django Unchained for the first time because I had already scheduled a trip to Los Angeles and wanted to see it at the New Beverly Theater, complete with an animated short and a series of throwback trailers handpicked by Quentin Tarantino himself.  I remember seeing Cloverfield at my local IMAX theater in LA on opening night, in a packed and rowdy house that had absolutely no idea what they were about to see.  Or the time I worked a screening in Inglewood for the Fatal Attraction-esque film Obsessed starring Beyonce, Idris Elba, and Ali Larter.  That was a perfect marriage of campy subject matter and vocal audience reaction that actually made watching that mediocre film really fun.  But they all pale in comparison to Lawrence Of Arabia at the Coolidge, easily the classiest movie theater experience I've ever had.

How do you know it was effective?  When Warren and I parted ways for the evening, I climbed into my car and watched as he pedaled his bike down Harvard Ave, bellowing out the main theme and whipping an imaginary camel.

Every movie should end like that.

*Whenever I think of this movie, I always think of my high school AV crew's annual movie marathon.  Every year we'd put suggestion sheets in the homerooms and then collect them in search of inspiration.  One year, the first entry on the sophomore class suggestion sheet said, in huge block letters, "LAWRENCE OF OLIVIER."  Hilarious.

Title: Lawrence Of Arabia
Director: David Lean
Starring: Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guiness, Jack Hawkins, Claude Rains
Year Of Release: 1962
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Coolidge Corner


So tomorrow I'll be waking up at the ass-crack of dawn and getting on a plane bound for Mexico.  Jamie and I are taking a belated first anniversary trip since she can't exactly travel during the school year.  Much like our honeymoon, our trip will be split between beach lounging in Tulum and exploring Mayan ruins in Chichen Itza like the ones pictured above.  I'm really looking forward to getting out of town for a few days and enjoying some badass enchiladas with multiple margaritas.

I expect that I'll also be more or less off the grid while I'm gone. I'll certainly have to neuter the data plan on my phone and I don't yet know what the WiFi situation will be at our two hotels, so in all likelihood I won't be posting anything until late next week.  But fear not!  I've loaded up my laptop and iPad with more than enough movies to get me through the trip, so my viewing regimen will continue unabated. I also plan on trying to catch up on some writing while soaking in the sun, although I'll probably be doing it with pen and paper and then transcribing it back later.  If all goes according to plan, I'll come home with a bevy of new material for your reading pleasure.

Sidenote: I know I've been doing this big ramp-up to Pacific Rim, but I want to try doing something a little different for that piece that's going to require a little time.  I'm therefore going to wait and tackle it after I get back to the States.  But suffice it to say it's easily my favorite new release of the summer thus far and I'm really looking forward to a second screening.

So enjoy the next week (I certainly will) and I'll see you all when I return. Now to pick out a movie for the plane...

July 15, 2013

Giant Monster Live-Tweet Part 3: Michael Moriarty Upstages Q: THE WINGED SERPENT


When it comes to giant monster movies, it can be tricky to strike the right balance between the humans and the beasties.  Obviously the monsters are what put the asses in the seats, but you've got to have some interesting characters with whom the audience can identify to help drive your story forward.  That being said, if you spend too much time on the people then you run the risk that the audience will get bored waiting for your monster to show up again.

Q: The Winged Serpent (what a title!) runs somewhat afoul of this conundrum, relegating its giant demon lizard to the margins of its story and turning it into a largely unseen menace.  We get almost halfway through the film before we get a good full body shot of of the titular creature; he's so hidden that most of the characters don't even believe Q really exists.  (Note: the longer the characters spend disbelieving the film's premise, the sleepier I get.)  Q spends most of his scenes making isolated attack runs on random, roof-dwelling New Yorkers and it's really not until the last 15 minutes or so that anyone really tries to go toe-to-toe with the dragon. It's a shame because Q (short for the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl) is actually rendered with some pretty groovy stop-motion.  It's always good to leave your audience wanting more, but I actually felt short-changed.

Fortunately the human element is incredibly entertaining in the most batshit insane way possible. David Carradine and Richard Roundtree (Shaft!) are two NYC cops investigating a series of mysterious deaths, including some pretty freaky corpses (one guy gets flayed alive) that show signs of ritual killing. But that pales in comparison to Michael Moriarty as Quinn, an increasingly unhinged small time crook who inadvertently discovers Q's nest atop the Chrysler Building.  As Quinn evades the gangsters that he double crossed after robbing Neil's Diamonds (womp womp) and tries to use his knowledge of Q's hiding spot to extort fame and fortune from the city, Moriarty's performance just gets more and more bonkers, like a young Christopher Walken on bath salts.  It's tremendously entertaining to watch, the kind of performance that we rarely see these days.

Overall Q: The Winged Serpent was a bit of a mixed bag - too light on monster mayhem but still a goofy bit of fun.  This is the kind of movie that begs to be seen in a crowded theater, preferably around midnight and with copious beers close at hand.  

Tweets ahoy!

Footnote: This was the last giant monster screening I was able to fit in before Pacific Rim, but I did get a chance to revisit both Godzilla: Final Wars and the South Korean film The Host, both of which were just as awesome as I remember.   I highly recommend both movies if you have the time and opportunity.  Cloverfield was okay too.

Title: Q: The Winged Serpent
Director: Larry Cohen
Starring: Michael Moriarty, David Carradine, Richard Roundtree, Candy Clark
Year Of Release: 1982
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD

July 14, 2013

Giant Monster Live-Tweet Part 2: I Want To Be A TROLL HUNTER

"Keep your distance.  I'm about to toss out some Christian man's blood."
When I saw Willow Creek, Bobcat Goldthwait talked about the film's editing, specifically the choice that every cut in the movie would be done "in camera" as the result of a character turning the recorder on or off.  It was the only thing that made sense given the film's found footage conceit. "Who are these people," Goldthwait mused, "who are editing the footage in these movies?  What kind of grisly motherfucker takes that job?"*  It's one of the many challenges of the overall genre, trying to explain away the weird internal logic of why and how the footage was not only captured, but also presented to an audience.

This is the stuff that most severely hampers Troll Hunter and keeps it from achieving true greatness.  The movie starts with (too) many title cards explaining the video's origin: three Norwegian college students are filming bear hunters when they encounter a guy named Hans who they believe to be a poacher but is in fact a secret, government-sanctioned troll hunter.  Hans drives around the Norwegian countryside in his Range Rover, looking for giant, smelly monsters who have strayed from their own territory and into populated areas.  It's his job to keep the trolls a secret from the general public and kill them if necessary.

Let me be clear: Hans kicks unholy amounts of ass.  He's a loner tasked with a virtually impossible mission, but it's his life's work and he takes great pride in it.  Living out of a camper full of severed troll tails and buckets of "troll stench," he has a small arsenal of awesome weaponry and homemade equipment designed to protect himself and aid in the tracking of his prey.  But at the same time, Hans feels tremendous sympathy for the trolls; his retelling of a time when he was ordered to massacre a whole lair of trolls, including infants that couldn't yet walk, is absolutely heartbreaking.  There are lots of subtle clues to Hans' backstory that are merely hinted at throughout the film, all of which combine with Otto Jespersen's gruff performance to create a rich, authentic character without resorting to bashing you over the head with detailed explanations.  It's a great example of doing a whole lot with very little.

And the actual troll hunting stuff is unassailably cool, borrowing from both popular fairy tales (they literally stage the old "Three Billy Goats Gruff" story) and modern science to explain the habits and behavior of trolls.  The individual creatures all look tremendous, each one getting a very distinct design and zoological history.  And since trolls are all about scent, they all have these giant noses that make them look equal parts friendly and menacing.  The methodology behind Hans' tracking and hunting gets only gets more impressive as the film goes on and the efforts of the TSS (Troll Security Service) to cover up the evidence of trolls are generally pretty clever.

The real problem is all the baggage that comes with Troll Hunter being a found footage movie.  The three college kids are boring at best, annoying at worst.  The editing is weirdly haphazard, especially on the front end when the story seems to skip entire days at a time.  And what's worse, the film's beginning and ending strain both the viewer's credibility and patience.  This is where we find all the stuff crucial to selling the found footage conceit and it just doesn't work.  However, the documentary aesthetic is very effective and I wouldn't trade it for the world.  I just wish they had approached it from a different angle...perhaps a training video for future troll hunters?  Or a fact-finding mission on behalf of the TSS?  Hell, one of the questions I kept coming back to was whether or not the trolls only live in Norway.  What if the college students were replaced with a troll hunter from another country coming to document different hunting methods, to learn from the great Hans?  It's a simple change but it would alleviate a lot of the film's narrative problems.

I know trolls aren't really kaiju, but Troll Hunter is a movie that's been sitting in my Netflix queue for ages and I'm happy to have finally caught up with it.  Once the film gets going, it's fucking blast and I look forward to sharing it with others.

On with the tweets!

Next up, Q: The Winged Serpent!

*I'm paraphrasing here.  I didn't intend to see Willow Creek that day so I didn't have a recorder or a notebook for Bobcat's Q&A. 

Title: Trollhunter
Director: Andre Ovredal
Starring: Otto Jespersen, Glenn Erland Tosterud, Johanna Morck, Tomas Alf Larsen, Hans Morten Hansen
Year Of Release: 2010
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant - TV

July 11, 2013

Giant Monster Live-Tweet Part 1: GOJIRA (1954) Is A Nuclear Nightmare

"There is no difference between Godzilla and the H-bomb."
You guys, I am really excited about Pacific Rim.  Like, REEEEAAAALLLYY excited.

When I'm this stoked for a movie's release, I'm all about watching other films to get myself in the right frame of mind, whether that means spending all day watching a Marvel movie marathon before the midnight showing of The Avengers or revisiting Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset in anticipation of a Before Midnight screening.  Thusly, I've decided to spend the remainder of the week* live-tweeting a series of giant monster movies, a genre which I'm sorry to say I've largely neglected over the years.  I want to get a bit of variety in these screenings (I could spend the better part of a month watching nothing but Godzilla movies) but I'll be heavily favoring older fare, as I've already seen a lot of the more recent monster flicks like The Host (this, not this) or Monsters.

It seemed only fitting that I should kick things off with the Elvis of giant monster movies, the original Japanese Gojira from 1954.  (The film was released in America two years later with a bunch of Raymond Burr scenes edited in, but that version really only interests me as a curiosity.)  It immediately reminded me of the first time I watched First Blood.  Growing up in the late 80's/early 90's, Rambo had essentially become punchline.  My only knowledge of the character was the image of an oiled up, muscly super-soldier.  Basically, this:

Man, I love UHF.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that the movie that started it all is actually a darkly violent tale of post-traumatic stress-fueled rampage induced by abuse at the hands of small-minded yokels.  I was absolutely thunderstruck.  Not only did this not fit in with my understanding of the character, but I was astonished to see just how far the franchise eventually strayed from its roots while simultaneously gaining a choke hold on popular culture.  (Hell, at one point there was a Rambo Saturday morning cartoon.)

Godzilla is much the same.  We all think of it as kind of a campy series featuring guys in rubber suits fighting each other while stomping around tiny model towns, but the first entry is actually a horrifying meditation on the dangers of nuclear proliferation.  Godzilla is a monster baptized by radioactive fallout, the product of both millions of years of evolution and mankind's most devastating invention.  This is a film made less than ten years after America wiped two Japanese cities off the map in the blink of an eye and the cultural reverberations are unmistakable.  In 1954, the Japanese people are still rightfully haunted by the world's first nuclear holocaust, so it's of little surprise that the most expensive Japanese film to date would depict the destruction of Tokyo and the terrorizing of the Japanese people by a gigantic nuclear beast.  It's also little surprise that it would become such a success at the box office.

But it's not all monsters and destruction.  There's also some great human drama that really drives the majority of the film.  (Godzilla himself doesn't even appear on screen until 22 minutes in.)  There's the professor who wants to study Godzilla rather than destroy him.  Not only does he find the creature a fascinating historical specimen, but he believes that Godzilla's resistance to radiation could prove vitally important to humanity's survival.  There's also the scientist who's inadvertently creates a weapon so terrifying that he's willing to die just to keep it from ever being used again.  (More shadows of the mushroom cloud here.)  And on top of all that we get an old fashioned love triangle for good measure.  So there's something for everyone.

Gojira is a truly remarkable film and the fact that Toho Productions shot this at the same time as Seven Samurai is mind-blowing.  (They were both contenders for Japan's Best Picture award that year, with Samurai emerging victorious.)  This was the perfect way to start off my Pacific Rim prep, setting a serious tone before getting into some of the later, sillier monster brawls.

On to the live-tweets!

Next up: Trollhunter...

*I'm taking a break on Saturday to see A Band Called Death at the Brattle, but I'm also planning to revisit something I've already seen just to keep the momentum going, probably The Host since I haven't actually watched it since I first bought it on DVD.  Also hoping to squeeze in Godzilla: Final Wars on Sunday morning.

Title: Gojira
Director: Ishiro Honda
Starring: Akira Hakarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Fuyuki Murakami, Haruo Nakajima
Year Of Release: 1954
Viewing Method: Criterion DVD

July 10, 2013

Grilling Up Some BUTTER On The Fourth Of July

"It's bad for you.  Yeah, I said it out loud!"
I love the Fourth Of July, mostly because I love to grill meat.  Last year we were living in our small North End apartment and had a nice little gathering on our roof deck with a few friends and a nifty little fold up grill that we got as a wedding present.  We ate and drank in the sunshine all day and then at night you could see most of the city's epic fireworks show exploding just over the tops of the surrounding buildings.  We've since moved to East Boston, leaving a prime downtown location in favor of more living space and trading in our rooftop for a private deck.  And a private deck also means a proper grill, which I assembled myself a few weeks prior to the holiday:

Ain't she a beauty? 

After breaking it in with some delicious grilled pizza, courtesy of my wife and the Internet, we bought an absurd quantity of food and alcohol and settled in for what proved to be an excellent cookout.  We had burgers, hot dogs, sausages, chips, dips and two kinds of potato salad. And Jamie, never passing up an opportunity to concoct mass quantities of culinary awesomeness, made crab cakes, stuffed jalapeƱos, guacamole and shortcake with whipped cream - both from scratch.  That's right, I married a gourmet badass.

We also had not one but TWO adorable ginger babies in attendance, a sure sign that we are now definitely grown ups.  It was an odd collection of different friends from different eras of my life, but it's always easy to bond over cold beers and tasty BBQ.  Also, it was hotter than hell for much of the day, so our newly acquired central air really came in handy.

I had intended to watch Born On The Fourth Of July first thing in the morning, but I slept later than I meant to and then had to run out to the store for a few last minute items (i.e. more booze) so I didn't get around to a movie until after the party had broken up.  By then it was about midnight and I was in no state to watch a drama about the plight of a Vietnam veteran, so instead I scrolled through my Netflix queue in search of something equally patriotic.  I settled on Butter.  It somehow seemed appropriate.

I first learned of Butter when it landed a prominent spot on the Hollywood Black List, an annual collection of the best unproduced screenplays in town, culled from the desks of various film executives.  The Black List is always stacked with talented writers and intriguing concepts; I look forward to its release every December as a way to find cool new projects to track.  But in truth, the Black List is usually something of a mixed bag.  Most of the scripts contained therein will never actually get shot (although the writers often use their new found cred to secure lucrative writing gigs) and the ones that do are hardly guaranteed to find mainstream success.  For every Juno or 500 Days Of Summer, there's a Buried or The Beaver.  Butter falls squarely in this second category.

It's about the rise of two unlikely rivals at the annual Iowa state fair's butter carving competition, which is just as silly as it sounds.  I appreciate butter carving solely because it gave the world this classic West Wing scene:

I have paraphrased that "you just have to stand there" line more times than I can count.

Anyway, for all the sex, blackmail, sabotage and deceit on display, the entire movie is covered with a thin film of cuteness, due mostly to deadpan earnestness of young Yara Shahidi as Destiny, the eleven year old African American foster child who discovers a natural aptitude for dairy carving.  Jennifer Garner, who also produced the film, unquestionably shines as Laura Pickler, the power-hungry wife of Ty Burrell's 15-time butter carving champion.  When he's asked to step aside and let someone have a chance at the crown, Laura's not ready to relinquish her position as the first lady of butter.  After all, she sees their success as a stepping stone to the governor's mansion.  So she decides to enter the contest herself despite no real experience.  It's a flashy role and it's easy to see what drew Garner to the role in the first place, (Laura Pickler is essentially the Sarah Palin of butter) but it's a little cartoonish and over-the-top for my tastes.  The movie itself goes further and further off the rails as time goes on, spending too little time on the actual butter carving and too much time on weird sideshows like Olivia Wilde's awesome but underutilized stripper Tokyo Rose seducing Burrell's teenage daughter in order to get the money he owes her, or the sudden appearance of Hugh Jackman as Laura's dimwitted car salesman ex-boyfriend.  Also, the entire third act hinges on a plot contrivance that makes zero sense.

The best thing in this movie is unquestionably Rob Corddry as the coolest foster father on the planet.  He and Alicia Silverstone, whose face is perpetually contorted into a series of expressions that would seem to indicate she's being jabbed in the kidney with a knitting needle, are described as "the whitest people in the world," but it's not entirely an insult.  I braced myself for Corddry's character to be awkward and uptight, almost like Eddie Murphy's classic "white people" character from his stand-up days, but instead he's totally honest and straightforward with Destiny, cracking jokes and treating her like an adult instead of a charity case.  In a movie full of characters that border on outright parody, Corddry's Ethan is the voice of sanity, a caring, level-headed nice guy who doesn't really get the appeal of butter carving but is ready and willing to support Destiny in her weird new chosen artform.  You need only watch the scene where he and Destiny sit in the car and he allays her fears in signing up for the competition by making a list of preposterous threats that might be inside the building, like the ghost of Hitler or good-looking British vampires.  It's equal parts hilarious and adorable, and as much as I enjoy Corddry in his typical brash douchebag roles, it's nice to see him shine playing something as simple as a good father.  It reminds me of his excellent work in the recent zombie flick Warm Bodies.

Butter is an entertaining enough flick that served as a nice capper to an excellent Fourth Of July.  Probably not something I'll revisit, but it's a cute one-off.

Title: Butter
Director: Jim Field Smith
Starring: Jennifer Garner, Ty Burrell, Rob Corddry, Yara Shahidi, Olivia Wilde, Alicia Silverstone, Ashley Green, Hugh Jackman
Year Of Release: 2011
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant - TV