Yellowbeard (1983), or I Know How It Feels To Be A Pirate

31 07 2009

It’s not easy being a pirate like Graham Chapman in today’s feature. I should know. I was a pirate earlier this week. At the bookstore I work at, I was chosen to portray the haunting, evocative character of Bookbeard the Pirate for some children and their pirate-themed party. Why Bookbeard, you ask? Why such a clunky, nonsensical, incongruous name? Well, I was joking about it with the party’s organizer, spouting out names like Beardbeard and Davy Jones’ cousin Wendell, when I said, “What are we gonna call this guy? BOOKBEARD?! HA HO HEE!” Little did I know that not only is my laugh very strange, as seen in my above quote, but they were actually serious about that name. It doesn’t sound so bad, but when you have a five year old coming up and asking you WHY you’re called Bookbeard, you instantly regret it. So I forgive Graham Chapman; coming up with pirate humor for 90 minutes has to be a nightmare (I could barely hold on to the kids for 45 before I just had to run away out of sheer terror). Yellowbeard is an experiment of bold proportions, melding American and British humor to try to appeal to a bigger audience, but it fails because it never goes far enough in one direction. It leaves you wanting constantly, and that’s pretty low, even for a pirate.

It focuses on Captain Yellowbeard, a pirate captain who was the nastiest bugger around. After 20 years in prison for tax evasion (HA!), he finally escapes and goes looking for the treasure that he hid 20 years prior that he stole from the Spanish armada. He rounds up a ragtag bunch to try and recover it, but little does he know that the Royal Navy has set a trap for him so that they might take the treasure for themselves. Along the way, they come across a number of strange characters, weirdos, and freaks, and together they get into a bunch of malarkey while Yellowbeard gets in touch with his loser intellectual son that adds up to a lot of goofy British situations. Huzzah!

It’s a really basic premise, and not something that I don’t appreciate, considering just how complicated British comedy can be. It’s just that it seems rather forced. Normally, a British comedy like Monty Python will make a groove within its own dry British universe, having even unnatural things appear somewhat normal by proxy of all the other wacky shit going on. But this idea falls prey to its own purported strength; the addition of American comedy. These are obviously not good bedfellows. It turns an otherwise fun and silly adventure comedy into a bit of a clunker.

Here are some examples:

Blind Pew: I may be blind, but I have acute ‘earing!

Commander Clement: I’m not interested in your jewelery, cloth eyes!

Lord Lambourn: I thought this was an atoll.

Dr. Gilpin: Not at all.

Yellowbeard: I’m sure I killed the last one I raped, it can’t have been you.

Betty: Well, the afterplay was a bit on the rough side, but not fatal, dear. (!!!!)

Yes, there is a lot of rape humor here. I counted more than 5 rape jokes! If you’re one of those people who feel that the word rape is never funny in any context whatsoever, then do not watch this movie. But if you can disassociate the real kind of rape from this pseudo-pirate stereotype jargon, then you might get a laugh at the sheer audacity of the jokes!

And another note; the DVD box has comedy duo Cheech and Chong prominently. I mean, look at it:

I think there might be some other people in this movie, but I cant see them very well from this distance...

I think there might be some other people in this movie, but I can't see them very well from this distance...

And let me tell you, their part is nowhere NEAR important enough to justify, well, lording over the rest of the cast like disembodied and mighty gods of old. I found this to be some of their most lackluster output in the 80s, out of what I’ve seen, so beware C+C fans: there is not enough of them here at peak performance to justify buying this.

Yellowbeard is an oddity among comedy. Not American enough to work, and not British enough to work, it sticks around in a weird, offbeat limbo, with some people calling it brilliant, some people calling it disastrous, and most people not knowing or caring about the picture at all. But I forgive Yellowbeard for all its faults because of its stellar cast, including… umm… uhh… well, Cheech and Chong are in it. Either way, I give Yellowbeard 5 rape jokes out of 10!

Tomorrow I go out to see the new highly anticipated Apatow flick Funny People! Until then!!!

Black Christmas (2006), or Yuletide Fear (HA!)

30 07 2009

If slasher films were my prison cellmate, I feel like, for the most part, I’d be living on a constant supply of anal pounding and shame. They’re constantly lowering the bar for themselves. For every slasher I approve of, five more pop out that just suck sweaty prison taint. I’m not saying the genre’s ready for pasture; it just needs more invention. It needs another boom like it had in the 70s, where people were cranking these things out faster than you can say, “OH MY GOD, THERE’S SO MUCH BLOOD!” It’s a sad truth, but right now the wide-release slasher flick is in a slump. If you want something new, you have to go watch the independent DVD releases (which are doing a lot to bring the genre back up on its feet) or see an older one, because this decade has not had its fair share of serial killing goodness. Take, for example, today’s film, Black Christmas. Supposedly based on the 1974 slasher classic, it somehow takes a number of the same scenes and scenarios from the original, throws them in a blender with Scream and The Hills Have Eyes, and VOILA! makes a slasher smoothie that tastes exactly like unfulfilled expectations.

So, it’s Christmas Eve. At a sexy sorority house full of sexy little teenagers, girls are getting killed off one by one. The killer calls them, taunting them from a distance, telling them that he or she is going to kill them. The sexy teenage girls, Kelli, Leigh, Melissa, Lauren, Dana, Heather, Evelyn, Megan, Claire, the Housemother Ms. Mac, and Bashful the dwarf (nix that last one), are terrified, but constantly split up to do things. While trying to escape the killer’s wrath, we slowly learn the history of their sorority house, specifically the history of its last tenant Billy Lenz and his deranged, incestuous family. But Billy was sent to a mental institution after he killed his family on Christmas and cut Christmas cookies out of his mother’s skin and ate them (Yummy!). Could he have escaped and started killing people in his old house? Is it someone else? Can these interchangeable vacuous sorority girls escape whoever’s trying to kill them?

I’m always down for a good slasher movie, but this one was just not for me. For starters, calling this a remake of the original Black Christmas is like calling Prom Night a remake of Gone With the Wind; i.e. I don’t think so. Its premise is loosely based on the original from 1974, in that the killer’s name is the same, the setting is the same, and the time frame is (of course) the same. But other than that, I hope you didn’t have some sort of love for any specific character from the original, for some weird reason, because there aren’t any. No, instead all we have is a bunch of boringly pretty girls wearing skimpy pajamas talking about how hard their lives are in school (awww, boo hoo).

Which brings me to another problem I have with the movie; its teen-centricities. This happens to be a rated R movie (if you recall my rant from yesterday) that plays more like an NC-17 movie, but of course the dialog, the fashion, and the choice of perky, stick-figure actresses would let you know that this film is not for adults. If you are an adult, and you are a fan of this movie, you might be having either a mid or quarter-life crisis as we speak. This was not made for you; it was made for the gore-guzzling teenage masses who love to watch these movies despite the fact that they’re not officially allowed to see them. And while I can respect a film that takes care of its core competencies, I felt rather battered and worn down at the end of this endeavor, like I was taking care of someone younger than I and they mercilessly beat the fun out of me. I don’t know the next time I’ll smile, but it won’t be soon.

ATTENTION ALL GORE FANS! I know you’re out there. Let me be the first to tell you that I love gore in all its many grotesque forms. Hell, one of my earliest reviews was of Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste! So let me warn you by saying that the gore in this film is passing, but not great. I give it points for some chutzpah in some of the deaths, but the problem is its unoriginality. While the flashback of the killer’s childhood was surprisingly satisfying (nice Holiday touch, Billy!), the rest of the murders seem like poorly pressed Christmas-cookie cutouts of other cool deaths from other movies. And, yes, I know that there are only so many ways to kill another human being, especially with nothing available to a killer but what is in a typical sorority house, but have a little style! I mean, the whole point of a slasher flick is to be shocked, repulsed, and/or delighted by the horrible, gruesome deaths up on the screen, and if the best you can do is use the same stabbed-in-the-eye gag three or four separate times in the span of 90 minutes, perhaps one should reevaluate what kind of movie one is making.

I was not a fan of Black Christmas. It had potential early on, and I actually got a bit hopeful for a few minutes during the flashback scenes, but it quickly faded away to a sickly shade of bland. If you are a teen, and you like watching movies you are not supposed to, then this was tailor-made for you; it even has a little flap on the back where you can make number two and still keep warm during the cold December evening. But if you are over the age of 21, I do not recommend this. Good for a laugh, but not worth your time. Instead, go over to Goregirl’s Dungeon and check out the latest and greatest in quality horror independent releases and great wide release films of yesteryear. She’s got a lot to say on the matter, if the site name wasn’t a dead giveaway. I give Black Christmas 3 slasher smoothies out of 10. 😦

Tomorrow we take on pirates with the Graham Chapman vehicle Yellowbeard! A merry Thursday to all, and to all a good night!

Lust, Caution (2007), or Where Is My Real Life?

29 07 2009

Americans need to step outside the box. American filmmakers can be the leaders in innovation when we want to be, but it’s always the wrong kind of innovation. Rather than coming together as a unified force against censorship and the persecution of creativity, they often come together to push the envelope in special effects and computer-generated talking robots. I know how ridiculous it is in other countries, and I realize that the US is one of the leaders in the battle to fight the censors, but I push because I love America, and I really want to see ratings like NC-17 not be a fucking death-curse for genuinely potent movies. People know the only way a movie gets NC-17 is by having graphic sex in it, so most major theaters will either refuse to play it, or at their best they’ll throw it in the smallest theater possible to avoid detection. Theaters still seem to think that average people are really willing to sit through what they think is a musty, dusty, artsy-fartsy foreign drama just for five minutes of tits, and basically prevent the film from making any decent bit of business. It’s a disturbing fact that today’s film, Lust, Caution, the most recent Ang Lee film to date, was shown in no more than 143 theaters across the nation because of its sex scenes. It’s about so much more than that, but as far as AMC is concerned, it’s a 150 minute circle jerk.

Wong Chai Chi is your average college student in Hong Kong during the late 30s. Shy, beautiful, and intelligent, she is truly your average person until she is invited to join a drama club. This drama club made up of her peers has somewhat of an ulterior motive, as they are overtly patriotic and political. They ask her very plainly to pose as a spy within the social circles of a high-ranking agent they want to kill in the occupational Japanese force within Hong Kong. She is shocked, naturally, but she sees the problems that the Japanese have caused during their occupation, and decides to help the group. She changes her name to Ms. Mak, a well-to-do housewife whose husband is away on business. The, after an ingenious plan to meet and sneak into the agent’s wife’s circle of friends, she succeeds in being invited over to play Mah-Jong. The agent, a Mr. Yee, notices her radiant beauty, her youthful but respectful attitude, and her lack of a present husband, and decides he wants her for a mistress. Mortified, she is torn between blowing her cover and the frightening aspect of sleeping with this married enemy agent. Their relationship will take many strange forms in the coming months and years as a bond forms that must eventually be tested when her superiors wish for her to carry out her orders.

This is such an intense movie. I was struck dumb by the end of this roller-coaster. Ang Lee, in much the same way he did with Brokeback Mountain, makes a film where the pacing is deliberately slow to create something that exists beyond the drab confines of the 90 minute structure. Like exquisite Noh theater, this isn’t the kind of thing that needs rushing. Lee crafts an espionage thriller two and a half hours long that feels like only 45 minutes. I was on the edge of my seat during Mr. Yee’s intense interrogations of Ms. Mak and her manufactured personal life.

The characters are so engrossing! Nothing is ever really spoken about character or personality; we instead glimpse their character through their actions. Ms. Mak is not as innocent and unassuming as it may at first seem, Mr. Yee is perhaps not the monster we assume he is, and the Chinese Resistance might be just as bad as the Japanese Occupational force in terms of sheer unscrupulousness. Everyone has an agenda, even if it’s not overtly political, and its fascinating to watch people’s lives and finding more about them without hearing a single pertinent conversation. It’s the beauty of life behind closed doors, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

The acting was superb. Tony Leung makes Mr. Yee so vile and yet peculiarly vulnerable that I can’t think of an adequate word for him. He’s a character that inspires a very definite hatred, but also a sense of loneliness and a deep desire for companionship. It’s a confusing character, but I suppose if this movie-a-day has shown me anything about human nature, it is the dichotomy of modern man. Joan Chen plays Mr. Yee’s buttoned-up wife Yee Tai-Tai. She has little room to maneuver around in this love story, ironically, but she makes the most of it. She plays her role with that far-away sadness one sees normally in a Merchant-Ivory picture. She is the other woman, in a sense, the one shoved aside for a woman younger and more willing than her. She is shoved aside by both her husband and the film itself to make room for Lust, Caution’s star, though. Wei Tang is a force of nature in her first ever film appearance. She is a wonder, and her youth and beauty only adds melancholy to this dramatic tale of woe and wartime espionage. She exerts herself emotionally and physically onto the film like someone who has felt real and utter pain in their lives. It’s a genuine and moving performance, and I’m glad that she has recently moved to Hong Kong, since China’s film industry has blacklisted her due to the steamy sexual content in this film.

Yes, blacklisted. For sex. That’s all. The one thing that all of us due yet are afraid to talk about in the public spotlight almost destroyed a young up-and-comer’s career. I refuse to acknowledge the sex scenes in this movie on the grounds that they are tasteful and revealing of the characters, and in no way gratuitous or exploitative, which means to me that they shouldn’t be singled out of this rich tapestry of a film just because of a couple of nipples. But for just sex this movie was given an NC-17 rating and a young actress’s career was almost derailed because of a natural bodily function. Let me remind you that sex is the only reason that this film has such a rating. There is no gratuitous violence, foul language, or terrifying imagery. It’s a film that deserves no such branding, but the MPAA loves using sex as an excuse to give the final kiss of death to any art film not willing to compromise.
Lust, Caution is a wonderful movie that was tragically overlooked at the time of its release. I think it is one of Ang Lee’s finest films, and it should be sought out wherever the NC-17 version is available (that EXCLUDES Blockbuster). See it once, and you’ll understand it’s fragile beauty. I give it 9 1/2 150 minute circle-jerks out of 10! A high recommendation!

Tomorrow I attack myself with Black X-Mas! But before I do, let me give you a quick list of films that came out in 2007 that were only rated R, which meant their release was as wide as the day is long:


Alpha Dog


The Hitcher

The Abandoned

The Number 23

Reno 911: Miami

-Black Snake Moan


-Dead Silence

-I Think I Love My Wife

-Reign Over Me


-The Lookout

-The Reaping

-The Hoax

-Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters


-Perfect Stranger

-Slow Burn



-The Condemned

-Georgia Rule


-Knocked Up

-Mr. Brooks

-A Mighty Heart

-Talk To Me


-September Dawn


-Death Seantence


-3:10 to Yuma

-The Brothers Solomon

-Shoot ’em Up

-The Brave One

-In The Valley of Elah

-Good Luck Chuck

-Resident Evil: Extinction

-Feast of Love

-The Kingdom

-The Darjeeling Limited

-The Heartbreak Kid

-Michael Clayton

-We Own the Night

-30 Days of Night

-Gone Baby Gone


-Things We Lost in the Fire

-American Gangster

-Lions For Lambs

-No Country For Old Men


-Love in the Time of Cholera

-The Mist



-Charlie Wilson’s War

-Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

-Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem

-There Will Be Blood

-The Orphanage

-Eastern Promises (!)

-Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (!!)

-Saw IV (!!!)

-Superbad (!!!!)

-I Know Who Killed Me (!!!!!)

-Captivity (!!!!!!)

Hannibal Rising (!!!!!!!)

-Hostel Part 2 (!!!!!!!!)

-28 Weeks Later (!!!!!!!!!!)

-The Hills Have Eyes 2 (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

Here are the subsequent NC-17 counterparts for 2007, which saw almost ZERO screen time:

-Descent (edited to R)

-Grindhouse (edited to R)

-Hatchet (edited to R)

-Lust, Caution (edited to R)


Amazing, huh?

Beetlejuice (1988), or YOU WANNA GET NUTS?! COME ON! LET’S GET NUTS!

28 07 2009

Tim Burton’s a mysterious egg. He has an entire school of Gothic and spooky misunderstood child style behind his films, and his penchant for making everything surrounding his art faux-dark and macabre-chic seems to be a sure-fire way of selling tickets. From his movies about dead guys stealing Christmas, dead gals stealing grooms from weddings, or dead guys cutting off people’s heads, he has it on his agenda to make everything offbeat and appealing to teens and awkward adults, who believe that they’re a step away from the grave at the ripe old age of 18. Now that Burton himself is WAY past 18, he’s finally started to do fewer “Woe-is-me! Untimely death!” movies in favor of something with a modicum more decorum. But when Beetlejuice came out in ’88, Burton was only 30, which in Hollywood years is about 15, which meant the angst was turned up to the “I wish I was DEAD” setting, a setting which comes in handy for this ghoulish tale of banal teenagers, clueless parents, and, wouldn’t you know it, dead people. Out of all this, though, here’s the catch; it’s actually a comedy, and it’s actually pretty funny.

It stars Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin as a recently married couple who, on their way home one day, swerve to avoid hitting a dog. They miss the dog, but they fall over a bridge in the swerve and find themselves on the receiving end of the whole death thing. Their spirits return home, though, strangely enough, after their fatal incident, and they don’t even realize they’re dead at first. But once they do, they find that their house is being sold and is being occupied by another, more living family. The couple wants to keep their house, though, and, since they find that the only way to get rid of the people in their house is to scare them away, they try haunting the family of three (two clueless parents and a Goth daughter). Trouble with that is, they’re nice people, and they can’t really do a great job scaring anyone. Plus, Goth daughter Lydia can see them, which kind of negates the whole “mysterious” angle. So, against their better judgment, they decide to call on what’s call a “bio-exorcist”, a ghost-for-hire who will scare the family away for them. It sounds good at first, but the bio-exorcist, Betelgeuse, is a pervert weirdo jerk who’s really only out to cause havoc and mayhem. Can they keep him in control long enough to get the living family out of their house, or will that weirdo cross one too many lines and end up killing the family instead?

It all hinges on the character of Betelgeuse, played by Michael Keaton. He is the funniest, most interesting character involved with this film. The entire time you’re sitting there waiting for him, hoping the Baldwin-Davis scenes are over, waiting for Winona Ryder to exit stage-left. He is the glue that holds this thing together. Keaton plays this sleazy, wheelin-and-dealin’ ghost mercenary with typical Keaton machismo. In spite of his definite evil vibe, or perhaps even because of it, I felt a strong affinity for Betelgeuse. He has charisma, a charm that defies his evilness. The rest of the cast honestly seems bland by comparison, and doesn’t really inspire any feeling in me whatsoever. But Keaton is so on the ball, and he makes me laugh 90% of the time he’s on screen.

The special effects, for the time, were very impressive for their vision. Taking a Cabinet of Dr. Caligari approach to the set design, he imbued the world of Beetlejuice with a creepy German Expressionist vibe that translates into weird, elongated people and props. All the models and sets feel like they came straight out of Vampyr, and all the stop-motion for the ghosts and ghouls of the afterlife give the impression of a unified idea that goes a long way to have me take this goofy afterlife house party seriously. The make-up is well-done and thoughtful, the character design is intriguing, and all in all I was really impressed with the director I usually deride as “inconsistent”.

Odds are, you’ve seen Beetlejuice.If you’re in a certain age group, I can pretty much guarantee it. But I would take another look at it if I were you. There’s a lot to appreciate from the standpoint of a director with potential and an actor with energy in spades. It’s a movie about a bland family, two bland ghosts, and their decision to use someone infinitely more interesting than they to propel their plot to the end. It’s surprisingly effective, which leads me to give Beetlejuice 7 1/2 Gothic Princesses out of 10.

Tomorrow we dive down into the depths of NC-17 with a favorite of mine! It’s a PSA for Lust, Caution! Until then!

My Dinner With Andre (1981), or Two Guys Sitting Around Talking

27 07 2009

My Dinner with Andre is a treasure, simple as that. Rarely has a concept been so bold yet effective. It’s a movie about life; the struggle to create, the persistence of memory, the joy of freedom, and mesmerizing pull of the pragmatic. It’s about a lot of things, but the only thing you really see is two friends talking. The entire film is a long conversation between two friends,  one of those magical conversations where you talk about deep and meaningful things for hours on end. That, for me, is the richest font of creativity to be found, the sharing of ideas between two friends. And the two friends, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, just so happen to be real friends, which makes the experience even more genuine.

As I said, the movie is a deep and complex conversation. Andre has been gone for five years. He was a theatre director in New York for quite some time,  but he just decided one day to run away and live life. He traveled the world, exploring all types of exotic locales, searching avidly for meaning and inspiration through the different ways in which people live. He found it somewhere along the way, and now he has returned to the States for a while. Being gone so long, Andre has a lot he wants to say, and so their conversation over dinner soon after his arrival is long and almost hypnotically evocative.

My Dinner with Andre ends up being about, among many other things, the divide between friends and their different walks of life. Andre has come back with a message about the dangers of comfort and convenience, and how by creating a world separate from nature, we are not living in a total state of reality. Wally argues conversely that convenience is not wrong, and that creating a world apart from nature is a good thing, because there are so many bad things waiting to happen out there in the world. It is also about the pragmatist versus the idealist. Andre went out and he lived the dream. Wally has misgivings about this though, and doesn’t know whether he could do it as well. Is Wally holding himself back? Is Andre a dreamer who doesn’t live in the real world? What IS the real world; the exotic locales and harsh natural terrain that Andre lived, or the daily grind of New York life that Wally lived? Who knows?

I loved this incredibly simple movie, because it mirrors that perfect conversation so well. You always hope one of these comes between you and your friends one day, and though they rarely do, those moments are so priceless. And like a conversation, it’s very fluid and non-linear. One minute they’re talking about electric blankets, and the next they’re talking about their effect on our personal realities. What gets me is that if you listen carefully to what is being said, you can get so much characterization from these two that really enhances the conversation. For instance, listen closely to the opening monologue and digest what Wally tells you about he and Andre’s relationship prior to that night. Also pay attention to when Wally talks about his life becoming harder. A lot of people say that the director favors Andre, but I think that Wally might be the beloved one, because he is graced with a character development that is deeper and more subtle than many of the characters I’ve ever seen in a film. Whether or not you side with Andre is another matter; I personally did, but many people will argue that he is overly pretentious, and while I might agree (I think even Wally would agree) I still enjoyed what he had to say.

Shawn and Gregory really turned a film made on the cheap and featuring no action, Hollywood stars, or vampires into a classic. I am floored by some of the things they discuss, even more so because I’ve had conversations that last that long, and I find it extremely relatable. It’s layers upon layers, and the first time you watch it will never be as good as your second time. See it multiple times to pick up on different things, takes one person’s side over another, or just for fun. It’s a well-crafted film that I can’t say enough about. I highly recommend this film to anyone who longs for that delicious bit of intellectual conversation with a friend in a cozy restaurant because they know just how fulfilling it can be. I give My Dinner With Andre 9 1/2 wonderful evenings out of 10! A high recommendation!

I’ll see you tomorrow, when we discuss Beetlejuice! Until then!

PSA: Religulous (2008), or SOMEONE Had To Say It

26 07 2009

Suppose for a moment I told you that there was a Boogeyman living under my bed. You couldn’t see him, because as soon as the lights come on, he disappears. In fact, there was no evidence at all that he even existed besides a journal I had kept of all the times he woke me up and scared me. There is not one single piece of credible empirical data to prove that there is or ever has been a Boogeyman besides my journal. Now, say you try to speak out against my claim of said Boogeyman, seeing as any claim needs SOME semblance of proof, and I chastise you for it. And not only that, but I tell the entire community about it, who also believes in the Boogeyman and has read my journal to the last letter. Suddenly, YOU’RE the crazy one, the outcast who doesn’t believe in the creature living under my bed. You’ve stirred up tons of old local superstitions about non-believers, which everyone takes at face value to be true. People who claim to have spoken with the Boogeyman insist that you retract your statement about the nature of His existence for the good of the community and for the safety of your eternal spirit, lest the Boogeyman tear it asunder in the hereafter. Even your family looks at you differently, and whenever they see you, they ask you if you’ve looked under your bed recently, hopeful that you’ve seen His face glaring back at you in the dark. Wouldn’t that be awful? Wouldn’t that be insane?!

But that’s silly. Nobody believes in the Boogeyman, right?

Today’s film is the first in what will hopefully be a long line of films posing serious questions to the faithful. Religulous is a big deal for someone like me who tries to be an active atheist in the community, because it brings on a powerful medium a message of skepticism to a broad audience who hitherto had met with little to no resistance in their superstitious ways. In this documentary, Bill Maher (not a big fan, but I’ll take what I can get) travels with über-doc director Larry Charles (of Borat and Brüno fame) across the world to ask all manner of people about these strange beliefs that take up so much of their precious lives. Not in a hateful way, nor in an intensely respectful way, but rather more of a blunt, no-frills style that acts as a foil to all the wild-eyed hypocrisy involved with the world’s major religions.

Maher takes us on a journey through a cultural and historical journey throughout the world of faith and all its purporters. We meet people from all walks of life. Truckers in North Carolina, praying in a small “Trucker Chapel” trailer for forgiveness. Visitors and employees at a Bible-themed Amusement Park in Florida, including the handsome actor who plays Jesus. Patrons at a gay Muslim bar (there aren’t that many). A British Muslim rapper named Propa-Gandhi (HA!) who upholds Islamic othopraxy. A rabbi who invents devices that perform work for you on the Sabbath (because being productive on the Sabbath is forbidden, for some reason). The curator of the Creationist “Museum”, which houses dioramas of men riding dinosaurs with saddles (quotes around “museum” because a real museum would have real historical artifacts in it). We even talk with the Democratic Senator from Arkansas, Mark Pryor, who embarrasses himself complely. Interspersed with these interviews are insights by Maher and director Lary Charles into how fucked-up our world has become due to these dangerous and grossly ignorant superstitions we base our entire lives around.

Now I know I’m a bit biased, considering my connection to the material, and perhaps I should be overly critical to shirk off any favoritism, but fuck it; I enjoyed almost every single minute of this film. I saw Religulous in theaters, and it was such a fulfilling experience, having someone voice your opinions on the big screen. It was like what Christians must surely feel every time their pastor goes up to the pulpit. But I posit that people of faith can also enjoy this movie. Anybody with an inquisistive eye into the workings of their religion, or even their fellow faithful, will surely find something to laugh at or contemplate in this probe of society’s most revered illness. A religious friend said to me after seeing this, “I’m more ashamed, I’m more humbled, and I’m more curious than ever. I’m glad I saw that.”

Many reviews have been written that criticize Maher for attacking these people’s beliefs. Not that I have a problem with that whatsoever, but it’s just not true for the most part. Everybody gets their two cents in, but they are talking to a man with facts and reason on his side, so they end up looking a bit foolish. Some points during the movie he gets a little spiky (especially with an Anti-Zionist who denies the Holocaust), but we ARE talking about Bill Maher here, so considering who it is, I must commend his restraint. Compared to his TV show, I felt like he turned into a different person for 100 minutes.

Don’t avoid this film because of Maher. I know he can be abrasive; I’m not a huge fan of Bill Maher myself for various reasons. His politics are messy and unreasonable at times, his self-annointed agnosticism betrays his apparent lack of understanding as to what an atheist is (I don’t KNOW that God is a superstition because I can’t prove a negative without proof of the positive; I BELIEVE there is no God), and from what I’ve seen, he generally isn’t very funny. But we see eye to eye on a few things, so I can tolerate him for 100 minutes. Plus, every now and then he hits it out of the park. At one point during the movie he goes out to a public park in Britain and tries teaching the tenets of Scientology like a street preacher. He is met with such open scorn and derision that it really takes you aback and makes you think for a second. Because how crazy is Scientology compared to the Big Three religions, really?

Whatever you believe, watch Religulous. This open discussion of faith needs to be taking place more and more around the world. As we come to see that the world is not flat, that devils do not rest on our food while it cools on the table, and that perhaps when we die it really is just the end, we can look on faith in a more objective light and see that its apparent benedictions might indeed be robbing us of our potential to do good and to look to the future. I give Religulous 9 harmful superstitions out of 10, and I end this review with a quote from Maher himself: “Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don’t have all the answers to think that they do. Most people would think it’s wonderful when someone says, “I’m willing, Lord! I’ll do whatever you want me to do!” Except that since there are no gods actually talking to us, that void is filled in by people with their own corruptions and limitations and agendas.”

Tomorrow we take it back to the 80s for My Dinner With Andre!

Masters Of The Universe (1987), or He-Man And Skeletor: Lovers?

25 07 2009

“Oh, no!”, you must be thinking. “Not another 80s movie! Not another muscle-bound bone-head hero showing us how physically inferior we are! Not another soundtrack composed ENTIRELY on keyboards! Not another Golan and Globus macho Israeli freak show! We can’t take it anymore, Eric!!!” Well, I hear you. But I already watched the movie, so perhaps these hilarious complaints could have been voiced earlier.

You know, I usually never see myself as an action-adventure kind of guy, but when the action and adventure is good, I’m usually obliged to enjoy myself. Any dumb premise can be made pleasant with enough invention and fun thrown into the mix. Hell, if Johnny Mnemonic had been more about engaging Cyberpunk action-adventure instead of that whiny titular fuck’s need to “download”, then I would have let it go scott-free. So when I see a movie based on a line of toys (i.e. Transformers), produced by Golan and Globus, starring Dolph Lundgren, and featuring jaunty Bill Conti tunes, I’m ready for some god-damn fun! Masters of the Universe, a film based off of the homoerotic toy line and subsequent homoerotic animated TV series, promises all these things and more. But what we end up with is a Frankenstein’s monster of sorts, a hodgepodge of ideas from other good adventure films thrown together and made into a hulking and quivering mess of stale creativity.

So, here’s the story, in a nutshell:

Awesome, right? Only there is no Cringer following He-Man around. Or a few of those other side characters. And there’s no Prince Adam subterfuge. So the conflict between the EVIL Skeletor and the GOOD He-Man is being waged, with Skeletor pretty much winning at the beginning by taking both the Sorceress and Castle Grayskull. Whoops! Well, all hope seems lost, but fortunately the badass He-Man is making his way to the castle to stop this nonsense. Along the way, he and his useless sidekicks see a patrol of Skeletor’s Stormtroopers (they look like ripoffs of Imperial Navy Troopers in Star Wars), whom they dispatch quickly.The patrol carried a prisoner named Gwildor, who has this cool thing called a Cosmic Key that can take someone anywhere, anytime. He-Man shrugs that cool bit of info off and asks if Gwildor can get him into Castle Grayskull, which he can. Unfortunately, Skeletor has WAY too many Stormtroopers and overwhelms the small infiltrating party. The only choice they have is to escape and regroup, which they can only do with the Cosmic Key. In the scuffle, though, none of them know where or when they might end up!

And that’s officially when the movie ends for me. Because, OF COURSE, the time and place they end up in is America in the 80s. Who woulda thunk it? So we get about 45 minutes worth of filler as two goofy teenagers get mixed up into some intergalactic mischief and intrigue trying to help He-Man and Co. get back to Castle Grayskull. We eventually do get back to the fun and the fantasy (spoiler), but this was a huge drag on the film. I have a personal distaste with any fantasy film that seeks to ground itself in boring old real life. They all do it; The Neverending Story, The Wizard of Oz, Spirited Away, The Princess Bride, and even one of my personal favorites, The Fall. They all interchange reality in with the fantasy, severely undermining the immersive experience of the fantastic. With films like The Dark Crystal, Legend, or Dune, there is no narrator forcefully reminding us not to forget about the real world, which allows my mind to explore the possibilities of a fantastic world far away from my own. But 45 minutes of idiot teens thinking that the Cosmic Key is a fucking Japanese synthesizer and yelling one-liners as they’re being chased by baddies does not help me get into the fantasy mood very much.

As I said, a lot of these ideas seem cut from other movies. It’s like Star Wars mixed with Red Sonja mixed with Warriors of Virtue mixed with Howard the Duck mixed with Flash Gordon.  Imagine someone bottling the phrase WTF and giving you a sip every 4-5 minutes for ninety minutes. And the problem isn’t that the ideas come from bad movies; they’re just coming from the wrong movies. There are swords and hand-crafted armor in this film, but there are also Stormtroopers and lasers. WHY would you ever need a sword after the advent of the laser rifle? To be fair, I know that Flash Gordon did the same thing, but He-Man wants the sword; that’s his weapon of choice. I’m sure if it were up to him, Gordon would have just shot Ming in the head and have been done with it. But He-Man, in true homoerotic fashion, needs phallic symbol-on-phallic symbol action!

The other things I’m sure you can guess; the acting is bland and uninspired. Courtney Cox, in her first major role of any import, does not impress. I liken her to April O’Neil from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; cute but useless. Frank Langella slums it up to play He-Man’s love interest, Skeletor. His role is necessary but incredibly bland. I didn’t really enjoy his time on screen (although his speech about the loneliness of good and evil held brief sparks of originality). The make-up is somewhat convincing, but I can imagine that it’s not easy to de-flesh someone with a good amount still on their face. Dolph Lundgren is a big, muscular man playing a big, muscular man. ‘Nuff said. Billy Barty gets on the fantasy make-up again to play Gwildor, and while he’s no Screwball from Legend, I still enjoy Barty’s comic presence. He makes this otherwise un-fun picture fun, and that’s what makes a veteran like him shine more than these other whipper-snappers.

I’ve seen a lot of fantasy in my day, and while Masters of the Universe isn’t nearly as bad as others I’ve seen, its mediocrity is an affront in itself, considering the genre. The Bill Conti soundtrack is enjoyable, the special effects are pretty good, and it has a strong message about opposing EVIL, whatever that is, so it’s not all bad marks from me. But it could have done much better for itself, and all they had to do was take out the number one killer of all fantasy pictures; Earth, and its lame inhabitants. Oh, well. Thanks for trying, Golan and Globus, you weird Israeli dudes. BY THE POWER OF GRAYSKULL, I GIVE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE 4 1/2 HOMOSEXUAL HERO-VILLAIN RELATIONSHIPS OUT OF 10! Now go out there and have a GOOD day!

Tomorrow is a complete mystery! I’ll figure it out soon, I promise!

Over The Top (1987), or The Fine Art Of Face-Straining

24 07 2009

What’s that, you say? You’ve NEVER heard of Over The Top? What are you, a commie?!?! Well, get the fuck out of here, comrade, ‘cuz these colors DON”T RUN! Everyone else, feel free to stay and bask in the glory of what might be the most superfluous 80s film I’ve seen in a while. Now, I’ve never been much of a sports fan. I pretty much wither and turn into a dried-out corn husk whenever I hear about sporting events, only to be revived when someone brings up comic books or foreign cinema. But in the 80s, they did something that garnered even MY attention. They made whole movies about fringe sports, things like MMA (Bloodsport), female bodybuilding (Pumping Iron 2: The Women), and bouncing (Road House), sports that wouldn’t become popular until much, much later. It was in this weird nexus of outsider sports that I discovered the fun and excitement of Over The Top, a touching story about a man named Hawk (or Hawks?) who wants to win the love of his son by destroying men in competitive arm-wrestling. Kind of. Let me explain.

Lincoln Hawk(s) is a simple trucker with only a few talents. One of them is loving his wife and estranged son, Michael. Unfortunately, his wife is dying and his estranged son is in military school. Dying wife Christina suggests that Hawk(s) pick up his son and take him for a cross-country drive to get to know him better. Michael is dubious of this notion, and is highly aloof at first. But the two soon warm up to one another, especially when Michael learns of his dad’s other cool talent, arm-wrestling. He’s really, really good, and makes a fair amount of money that way. His goal is to make it to the World Championship in Vegas and win the grand prize, a shiny new 18-wheeler (!!!!!), with which he could be in business for himself. But every plot has to have a conflict, so enter Jason Cutler, wife Christina’s dad who always hated Hawk(s) and thought his daughter deserved better. During the trip he makes contact with Michael and attempts to dissuade him from rekindling a relationship with his father. Will Michael listen? Will Hawk(s) be able to stop Cutler before he’s gone too far? Can he really win that beautiful new 18-wheeler with one hand tied behind his back?

Perhaps the ultimate (i.e. only) film about professional arm-wrestling, Over The Top is only marginally about the sport. Much to my displeasure, it’s all about this sappy father-son bonding stuff. Let me be clear; I LOVE parental bonding in film. It’s great. No problem there. But take a look at the movie poster:

Arm-Wrestling or performing LAMBADA: THE FORBIDDEN DANCE? You decide!

Arm-Wrestling or performing LAMBADA: THE FORBIDDEN DANCE? You decide!

How much father-son bonding do you see here? I MAINLY see two guys arm-wrestling, followed by Stallone leading his son out to the desert (presumably to die), followed by the far-away image of a truck, the linchpin to the whole damn enterprise! I was watching under the notion that I was in for a delightful romp through Bicepville, when in reality it felt more like a version of Dutch that required Ed O’Neill to gain 50 lbs of muscle for the titular role.

I gotta say, though, that I liked it all right. It’s nothing very intelligent, or even extraordinarily incompetent. It’s mildly bone-headed, a comfortable medium. Stallone as Lincoln Hawk(s) is about as kid-friendly as he’s going to get here without buying the kid a fucking robot like in Rocky 3, but he STILL doesn’t look comfortable around a child. He eyes Michael sometimes like the kid’s his next meal! It could be a sure sign that family movies aren’t your forte, Stallone! But the cinematography wasn’t bad, the action is plentiful enough, and the bad guys are cartoonishly bad! Watch how Stallone’s opponents howl when they’re on the verge of defeat. It’s probably because they’re embarrassed at losing to a guy that small. I mean, honestly! Hawk(s)’s last opponent looks like a walking, talking hyperbole! He’s massive! They probably had to put Stallone in a booster seat to reach this mountain man’s arm. A lot of humor comes from these grandiose arm-wrestling matches though, and even though there wasn’t enough of them, I relished every big, dumb, sweaty moment.

And a quick note: does anyone out there in Internetberg know whether it’s Hawk or Hawks? His last name is constantly being either mispronounced or disregarded by the cast and crew. I don’t know how they want it pronounced, so I’m just gonna pronounce it Stallone.

There’s honestly not much more to say unless you’d like me to start a joke review here on the exquisite vicissitudes of Stallone’s performance. It’s ironically a fluff movie about hard-bodied dudes arm-wrestling for a new semi (oh, and a father trying to win his son’s love). There’s not much in here besides okay performances, an okay plot, and hilarious arm-rasslin’ bouts, and once I have to resort to using the word “okay” more than once, I think it’s time for me to hang up the elbow guard and call it a day. Watch it for the sheer fact that if you thought tiny little Rocky Balboa beating up people like Clubber Lang was ridiculous, you don’t yet know the meaning of the word! I give Over The Top 5 1/2 Hawk(s)s out of 10. Now I feel like a Kentucky-Fried Idiot…

Come back tomorrow for another 80s fest with Masters of The Universe! Where do I come up with all this?!?!?!

Robinson Crusoe On Mars (1964), Everybody’s Got Something To Hide, Except For Me And My Monkey

23 07 2009

All right, Hollywood, we’ve all heard or seen the story of Robinson Crusoe. How droll, how banal! I’m done with your 19th century bullshit! Give me something fresh, give me something NEW! Something for my Mod lifestyle, wherein I run around town taking various sundries into my shopping cart in South London while listening to the sounds of Small Faces in my tailored bright-blue Italian suit while waiting for the trolley to take me to see a rude boy reggae concert inside a coffee shop. I’m no grandpa, goddamnit! They’d have to do something PRETTY astute and Mod and hip and awesome to get me to even CONSIDER watching a fuddy-duddy, dusty-balls, saggy-assed Robinson Crusoe movie! Well, luckily for Hollywood, they came up with just the right sensibility to get someone like me into the theater. Robinson Crusoe on Mars is the perfect cure for 19th century boredom. It gives us the same basic story, but instead of stranding us on a desert island, we find ourselves isolated on the red planet, unmoored in the vast expansion of an entire world. Despite a goofy and gimmicky title, as well as some minor gripes, I find that this movie has a lot to offer, and I couldn’t get enough of it, personally.

It all begins with a simple mission to Mars (should be easy, right?). Christopher “Kit” Draper, his Colonel, Dan “Batman” McCready, and a delightful monkey named Mona are going to the planet on a fact-finding mission for good ol’ planet Earth. Everything’s going fine UNTIL a meteor runs into their projected course. To avoid it, they end up expending the last of their fuel (???). This leaves them at a precarious position hovering in the Martian orbit. With no choice left to them for survival, they decide to eject from their cool yellow spacecraft and go to the surface. Draper makes it, along with plucky Mona, but McCready is killed by the landing. All alone, Draper and the monkey walk around the planet looking for shelter and food while they await rescue. During this time, which goes on for pitiless months, Draper becomes Crusoe in the truest sense; a hardened survivor making the best of a tough situation, sustaining on what he can scrounge and inventing contraptions with what little resources he has to make his tough life just an ounce more convenient. He longs for company, though, and it seems at one point like he might have some, although he soon finds out that it is not the kind of company he had hoped for. Aliens from another world, mining for minerals on Mars, are keeping humanoids as slaves to help with their mining progress. One of the slaves escapes, running into Draper and Mona as he does so. The three then go into hiding as the aliens scour the area for the missing worker. Can Draper wait it out on Mars while waiting for rescue? Can he find friendship with his new man Friday, who doesn’t speak a lick of English? Or will the aliens fry him up like a Bloomin’ Onion?

Now, to be honest, I never cared for Robinson Crusoe. The thinly-veiled allegory for European imperialism was a downright offensive look at how superior the white man is, and how industrious Caucasians are compared to the rest of the world. I never appreciated the sentiment, the attitude, and most especially the treatment of poor, forlorn Friday. It’s all very exasperating, and it makes for an adventure story about anything BUT adventure. But I’m not reviewing books here (yet), I’m reviewing movies, and as a movie, I can say that I enjoyed it. By the time the 60s rolled around, the sentiment of the age was anti-imperialism, so they stripped as much of that out as possible. Inherent to the story there still is the master-slave relationship of Draper and Friday (compounded by the fact that Friday is ACTUALLY a slave), but there is a lot more to experience here besides that.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a story about adventure and survival. Like the action serials of the previous generation, RCoM pits a lone man against an entire uncaring world and leaves it to him to save himself and the day. It’s about the romance of exploration and the drive to survive, something that gets me right in my inner Kid. It doesn’t hurt that the Technoscopic beauty is VERY easy on the eyes. It’s way ahead of its time in the special effects department, stirring up images of Forbidden Planet and War of The Worlds. It’s a lush and strangely beautiful movie that, when combined with patient pacing, takes one back to a bygone age of filmmaking.

The acting is a point of contention with many people. Some say that Paul Mantee as Draper was an excellent choice, and that he lent the movie an air of excitement. I personally think, however, that perhaps the roles should have been reversed. Because the Colonel at the beginning of the movie? That was none other than Adam West! DAMN IT, would I have liked to see Adam West as Draper! Not taking away anything from Mantee, but Adam would have been so perfect for the role. His debonair charm emanating from every pore as he force-fed Friday English phrases. The extra dash of class added to Draper’s character as he cursed his ship for being an inaccessible supermarket up in the sky while he slowly starved! MMMM! It just makes you wonder. But, all in all, Mantee is very good. Not great, like Adam West might have been, but very good.

So I recommend this movie. RCoM is the kind of film that they just don’t make anymore. With CG, it’s too expensive to linger at the awesome details of it all, and they simply don’t use as many real props and effects as they used to. Plus, it’s chock-full of the old adventure romance that you don’t see as much nowadays. It’s just a grand-old sci-fi odyssey into our last frontier, and I thoroughly enjoyed it almost all the way through. I give Robinson Crusoe on Mars 8 Mod gentlemen out of 10. Check it out!

Tomorrow we go head to head with Over The Top!!!

PSA: The Happening (2009), or I Blame Zooey Deschanel For My Hatred Of All Plant Life

22 07 2009

I love the quadruple take of that! Gets me every time!

Everybody hates The Happening. That’s just a given. If I ask, “What do we breathe?”, you respond, “Air.” If I ask, “Who’s your favorite superhero?”, you respond, “Mr. T.” And if I ask you what the worst M. Night Shyamalan movie is,your gut instinct will be to say, “The Happening.” It’s the film that everyone loves to mock and deride. It’s one of the most incredible misfires of the past few years, and I honestly don’t know whats’ worse; the fact that I saw it in theaters or the fact that when I first saw the one-sheet and heard the premise, I actually thought it might be good. I feel double-bamboozled for that very reason. So, for those of you who want a number rating so you can move along with your day, I give The Happening 1 1/2 Mark Wahlberg estrogen freak-outs out of 10. It’s bad, but you already knew that. The rest of this review, I’ll be dipping into a rant about what makes this movie the way it is. Feel free to leave now if you didn’t want to be a part of that. I’ll be watching Robinson Crusoe On Mars tomorrow, so I’ll see you then!

Okay, all the stragglers gone?

Good. Now, to explain the plot, I’ll try to be as careful as I can without spoiling THE SHOCKING SECRET! The tragedy is that it sounds SO promising on paper! Basically, the story follows Elliott, a high school science teacher in Philly who is as normal as can be. One day, he’s doing some science stuff with kids when he hears about a troubling event happening across the Eastern seaboard, around where he lives. The news isn’t very clear as to what it is, though, this event. It’s a horrible…thing, whatever it is, that is killing people left and right. Distraught and confused as to what they should do, Elliott and his protegee Julian, along with Julian’s daughter Jess, make their way across the city to meet their respective spouses. They find Elliott’s wife Alma, and together they want to leave the city, as whatever the thing is that’s happening is coming closer to them. But Julian’s wife is all the way in Princeton, New Jersey, which has already been hit hard by the effects of the…thing. So at a train stop outside Philly, Julian decides to leave his daughter in the care of Elliott and Alma to go out and look for her. The bewildered group goes far outside of the confines of the city to find shelter, but even in the farthest reaches, can the…whatchamacallit still get to them?

It’s hard to even talk about it, because a very strange aspect of this viewing experience is that you’re not supposed to know WHAT is happening the first time you watch it. I respect that, even though I don’t respect the movie. But honestly, all this secrecy about the plot won’t make it much better for you, even if you ARE shocked about the outcome. It’s a mess all around.

First of all, they cast everyone against type, a la Southland Tales. Mark Wahlberg plays a walking, talking vagina of a high school teacher. John Leguizamo plays a dorky guy with glasses and various other “nerdy” teacher affectations. And Zooey Deschanel plays an actual human being!!! It results in the exact same horrid effect that it did in Southland Tales, too! Nobody seems believable; not because they are stepping outside of the box, but because they strain so hard outside of the box. Wahlberg seems to have the most trouble adjusting, which is strange because I always thought he had the most potential as an actor. But here he turns the ineffectual knob to an 11, which doesn’t bode well for ANY hero, and completely overdoes it. I swear, Elliott is unreasonably bubbly and composed for such an…event to be going on around him. In some scenes you can almost see the tampon string coming out of his mouth, for fuck’s sake!

And I hope you weren’t expecting to hear anything positive about Shyamalan’s direction. His “less-is-more” strategy only works if there is sufficient pay-off for the audience to reward them for sitting through a barrage of anti-eventful scenes. That can work for a film like Signs or The Sixth Sense, where there is a TWIST at the end to make people feel like there is a reason to keep the tension high by adding a lot of static scenes. But the only TWIST here is that there is no TWIST. It’s a lot of stagnation and mood that goes nowhere and comes from nowhere, like a Mobius strip of angsty film. The only secret to be deciphered is what is happening, and when it is revealed (about halfway through the film, by the way!) there is nothing to do but laugh to yourself, shake your head at the film, and press on for another 40 minutes.

And a quick note about dialog! Anyone who wants to talk to me about how Shyamalan’s dialog is “misunderstood”, watch this movie first. I was floored by an unnaturalism that was partly delivery, partly script-rooted, and wholly shit. Zooey Deschanel’s Alma deserved her weight in Razzies alone (that’s not many awards, considering how waifish she is, but my point stands). So be prepared, Internet Shyamalan Fans (the ISF), if you want to talk to me about his direction, his choice in music, his use of actors, or even his hair, I believe it’s up for debate and you COULD change my mind with a reasonable argument. But I will not budge on any defense regarding his wince-inducing dialog! Here’s a little taste at the end of this muddy clip. Enjoy:

Wow. You really sold me there, lady.

So, in conclusion, this movie sucks. Oh, wait, did I already tell you that earlier? Well, good. End rant! That explains my low rating, and that also explains my stance on Shyamalan since The Village. As I said, my review tomorrow will be Robinson Crusoe On Mars, and now that I’m done with that fiasco, I’m gonna go rinse out my eyes with some hilarious internet clips! Here’s one of my favorites!!!