Monday, March 24, 2014

Don’t let the Starz! get in your eyes…

Thanks to my curiosity regarding the U-Verse message system—not to mention a heads-up from Barry, a longstanding member of the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear faithful—the ‘rents and I were treated to a free preview of the Starz and Encore channels this weekend here at Rancho Yesteryear.   Barry brought particular attention to a six feature Lash LaRue marathon that was airing Sunday on Encore Westerns; I grabbed Border Feud (1947) with the DVR, the only one of the LaRues that I hadn’t already recorded during those halcyon days when I had the Encore package at my former bachelor digs.

While the ‘rents have fully embraced the HD capabilities of the AT&T U-Verse, getting them to sample some of the other sweet benefits of the system has been a chore on my part.  I mentioned to Mom that there were quite a few movies available for the taking on both Starz and Encore on Demand, but I think the only one they eventually sat down with was The Legend of Zorro (2005)…and this was because (I swear I am not making this up, good people) my father wanted to watch something where he “didn’t have to think.”  (Anyone who’d like to adopt me…drop me an e-mail.)

While the movies I watched this weekend—some good, some…well, not-so-good—might not have all been winners, I believe only one of them qualifies as “non-think entertainment”…and even that’s not accurate, because the entire time I watched it I was thinking.  (Something along the lines of “Why the hell did I agree to watch this again?”)  Behold:

The Incredibles (2004) – The 2005 Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature (it also won the Best Achievement in Sound Editing prize, too) has eluded yours truly for a good many years but having taken the time to sit down and watch it this weekend I’m kind of ashamed I didn’t do this sooner.  This inventive and thoroughly entertaining flick tells the story of a family of “supers” (superheroes) who are living in a sort of witness relocation program when a supervillain rears his ugly head and springs into action to—dare I say?—rule the world.  Naturally, the family must band together to defeat the forces of ee-vill.

What impressed me so much about The Incredibles is that it was more than just an enjoyable cartoon; the voice work was outstanding (I’ll single out Holly Hunter, whom I dearly love, because her performance in this went beyond plain ol’ stunt casting) and the visuals pleasantly eye-popping.  My only quibble is that it could have used a little trimming here and there (I’ve noticed this a lot in modern movies; how they have difficulty wrapping things up without tacking on an extra climax or two), but I’m in firm agreement with the folks who consider this one of Pixar’s finest releases.  (I thoroughly adored the Edith Head-inspired Edna Mode character, voiced by the film’s director, Brad Bird.)

Ladder 49 (2004) – This one was the surprise of the weekend because I looked at the stars—Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta—and almost bailed on it before it started.  But I did like Phoenix in We Own the Night (2007), and he was even better in this drama about a Ballimer Baltimore firefighter who’s trapped and injured in a burning warehouse.  He flashes back to significant events in his life (well, he’s got the time) in a Le Jour Se Lève fashion: his first day on the job, his courtship and marriage to his wife Linda (Jacinda Barrett), etc. as his fellow firemen attempt to reach and rescue him.

Travolta is Joaquin’s mentor, and he’s equally good in his role…this was, of course, before he had that tragic plastic surgery that rendered him from being able to pronounce “Idina Menzel” at the Oscars this year.  In keeping with the nature of the movie, there are of course a good deal of stunts and explodiations but beyond the pyrotechnics is a wonderful tale of camaraderie among those who work in a dangerous profession.  Plus, I think the relationship between Phoenix and Barrett is sweet as well.  Also with Robert Patrick, Morris Chestnut, Billy Burke, Balthazar Getty and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley in his mayoral days.

Stranger Than Fiction (2006) – One I probably should have bailed on.  The events in IRS auditor Harold Click’s (Will Ferrell) rather humdrum life are commented upon by a female narrator (Emma Thompson)—who is actually an author writing a novel in which Crick is the main character.  Complications arise when Harold starts to hear the narration, which has tipped him off that he’s merely a fictional person and an unlikely candidate to make it to the end of the book.

My sister Kat—a lovely gal, generous to a fault and kind to animals—convinced herself long ago (based on such films as Superstar and Elf) that Will Ferrell is the comedy epicenter of the universe.  I do not share this worldview…but I thought the premise of Stranger Than Fiction was interesting, and I’m always up to watching Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays Ferrell’s love interest (an anarchic restaurateur whom Ferrell’s auditing for non-payment of taxes).  I don’t want to give people the impression that this is an awful movie because it does have some enjoyable moments; I just found it a little too pretentious for my tastes (it’s one of those films that’s convinced if it cloaks itself in intelligent trappings people will ignore the fact that there’s an emptiness at its core).  Oh, and this is just a petty gripe of mine…but the two co-workers who interact with Ferrell’s character are the same two mooks from those annoying Sonic Drive-In commercials which will be banned from television should I ever be elected to public office.

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010) – My blogging compadre ClassicBecky and frequent TDOY commenter grouchomarxist both recommended this cinematic nugget in comments on a recent post; two hapless hayseeds (Tyler Labine, Alan Tudyk) from the wilds of West Virginny have a run-in with some vacationing college students after the two yokels rescue one of the group’s friends (30 Rock’s Katrina Bowden) from a potential drowning.  A series of darkly comic accidents befall the students, racking up a large body count and wrongly pinning blame on the titular characters in a witty spoof of teen horror-slasher films.

There are some genuinely funny gags in this one; my favorite is the parody of the “chainsaw dance” from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but I also choked on my ice tea when Tucker, helping Dale carry the corpse of a man who threw himself into a wood chipper, remarks “He’s heavy for half a guy.”  I liked the movie’s premise (even though it can’t completely sustain itself to the end) but as a native of the Mountain State I need to point out that a) West Virginians do not have the same affinity for Pabst Blue Ribbon as do Seattle hipsters (“That’s a thing of beauty”), and b) Alberta, Canada (where Evil was filmed) does not look anything remotely like West Virginia.  Thanks to both Becko and Groucho for the recommendation.

Smashed (2012) – Hands down, my favorite of the movies I watched this weekend.  Schoolteacher Kate Hannah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) likes to throw back a few with husband Charlie (Aaron Paul) but after a series of embarrassing incidents both in school (hung-over in front of her elementary class) and out (she wakes up on the street the next morning after smoking crack with a barfly she gave a lift home to from a bar), she has that “moment of clarity” oft-discussed by alcoholics and decides to swear off booze and attend AA meetings.  For Kate, simply not drinking is not an option for her; her sobriety is challenged by continuing to stay with her irresponsible husband until she realizes it simply cannot work.  “I can’t stay sober and live with you,” she screams at him during a fight the two have after she’s been fired from her job and experienced a relapse.

My attention to this movie was stoked when I saw Nick Offerman in the cast; the actor best known as Ron Swanson on the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation is the vice-principal at Kate’s school—he’s an alcoholic himself, and attempts to help her even though he’s also a little on the creepy side.  (Offerman’s real-life spouse, Megan Mullally, plays the principal at Kate’s school.)  His character in Smashed is just one of several reasons why I was taken with the movie; all of the characters are funny, well-written and three-dimensional, with special nods to Octavia Spencer as Kate’s sponsor and Mary Kay Place as Kate’s bitter mother—who demonstrates in a painfully awkward but funny sequence why Kate has taken to booze…and whose life foreshadows what will eventually happen to her daughter.  Smashed tackles the issue of alcoholism in a fashion that neatly blends humor and sadness, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance is just fabulously perfect—the only other thing I’ve seen her in (some folks know her from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) was Live Free or Die Hard (2007), and if you had told me she’d be capable of work like that in Smashed I might have suggested a refill on the medication.  (How she got overlooked for an Oscar nomination that year is a mystery even Sherlock Holmes can’t solve.)

West of Memphis (2012) – In 1993, a trio of West Memphis, MO teens (Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin) are arrested for the murders of three eight-year-olds in what the constabulary deem ritualistic Satanic killings; amid a background of community hysteria, the young men are convicted of the murders, with one sentenced to die and the other two enjoying the hospitality of the state for a lifelong stay in the Grey Bar Hotel.  Further investigation lends credence that the teens may have been railroaded for a crime they did not commit—the amount of police incompetence and prosecutorial misconduct present transforms the case into a cause célèbre that attracts the attention of notable musicians as Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins and Natalie Maines.

The circumstances surrounding the “West Memphis Three” has been previously addressed in three HBO documentaries (beginning in 1996 with Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills), but I agree with the late Roger Ebert that West of Memphis is the one to go with, “because it has the benefit of hindsight.”  I was curious as to how a film that runs close to two-and-a-half hours would be able to hold my attention for that amount of time but Memphis gets the job done and is a first-rate example of a riveting, compelling documentary.  (I never cease to be amazed at how those in authority can continue to maintain “everything was above board” even when confronted with such obvious examples of miscarriage of justice.)

Jayne Mansfield's Car (2012) – I’ll bet you MPAAS people are regretting in hindsight that Best Screenplay Oscar you gave Billy Bob Thornton for Sling Blade (1996)…particularly if you were brave enough to sit through this film.  Thornton co-wrote, directed and co-starred in this mellerdrammer about a Georgia family who come into contact with a clan from the other side of the pond after a family member dies.  (This individual was played by ‘Tippi’ Hedren, whose scenes wound up on the cutting room floor…though if I were Hedren, I would have played the lottery that day as well.)  The Peach State conclave, collectively known as the Caldwells, puts the “function” in dysfunctional but once this bad Tennessee Williams knock-off is finished they’ll learn that they have a great deal in common with the visitors from the UK (the family Bedford).

Thornton plays a shell-shocked WW2 vet who at one point in the movie asks one of the Bedfords, a woman played by Francis O’Connor, to recite The Charge of the Light Brigade naked while he masturbates (he’s turned on by her accent); later, the Caldwell family patriarch (Robert Duvall) trips out when his grandson slips a little lysergic acid diethylamide into his sweet tea.  (Just an indication of what’s in store, folks.)  I certainly won’t begrudge Thornton’s right to make awful movies but if you’re going to cast Duvall, John Hurt, Kevin Bacon, Robert Patrick and other respected thesps in your productions you might at least have the decency to give them something to work with.  Comedian Ron “Tater Salad” White has some amusing scenes as an obnoxious in-law (a former pro football player in the mold of the main character in Frank Deford’s Everybody’s All-American) who inelegantly tells Ray Stevenson what he thinks of England (“You can't get so much as one good meal over there…boil everything.  They'd boil a goddamn Clark bar.”).  (The guy later admits he’d live in West Virginia before putting down stakes in England, at which point I had to unfriend him.)

Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013) – Maybe I’m a little more charitable with regards to this film because I didn’t pay to see it in a movie theater…but I found it a pleasantly entertaining romp.  It’s the origin story of how the Wizard of Oz became the whiz of a wiz he was; a carnival huckster (James Franco) finds himself in the Merry Ol’ Land of Oz after riding a balloon straight into a twister—he then takes on the responsibility of liberating the inhabitants of this faraway land from the control of a wicked witch.  There are three candidates as to the identity of the Wicked One, by the way, played by Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams.

The behind-the-scenes story of Great and Powerful is in some ways more amusing than some of its content; Disney apparently went to great lengths to keep the identity of the sorceress who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West a secret…but released a collectible mug outing W-cubed a few months before the film was released.  (Entertainment Weakly Weekly also gave the game away on a cover of an issue, once again, published before the movie hit the theaters.)  If you go into the film with the expectation that it will in no way come to close to the majesty and wonderment of the 1939 classic I think you might enjoy it; the only flaws in the film are a somewhat thin storyline (again, someone should have spent a little more time at the editing console) and the miscasting of Franco, who just didn’t work for me.  They offered the part to Johnny Depp—who turned it down to do The Lone Ranger (2013), ferchrissakes—but I wish Robert Downey, Jr. had accepted it because I think he would have been more believable.  And speaking of Mr. Downey…

Iron Man 3 (2013) – I went into this movie not having seen either Iron Man 1 or 2 (not even The Avengers) but I boned up on the plots of all three previous films so I could be assured of at least the illusion of being able to follow the plot.  After the events in Avengers, iron man Tony Stark (Downey, Jr.) suffers from panic attacks and PTSD but he’s going to have to snap out of it, damnit, because the world needs him again: he’s challenged by a terrorist (Ben Kingsley) known as The Mandarin and an evil genius named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) who might not have had reason to challenge I.M. if Stark hadn’t been such a dick to him at a 1999 New Year’s conference in Switzerland.

Iron Man 3 is little more than a popcorn movie, but I actually found a lot of it entertaining (despite the usual stunts-and-explodiation nonsense), particularly Downey’s unusual take on superhero-dom (he’s really a flake) and the plot was better than I expected (if noisy).  The movie also features Don Cheadle, Rebecca Hall and Jon Favreau (who turned over directing chores to Shane Black)…and unfortunately, Gwyneth Paltrow is on hand as well (incoming scolding from Bill Crider in five…four…three…).  Stick around till the end credits for a funny cameo, and despite seemingly wrapping up the saga we’re told that Tony Stark will return (like a bad check).


Bill Crider said...

Ivan, Ivan, Ivan . . . .

ClassicBecky said...

I'm happy to have been an inspiration for Tucker and Dale. I thought it was so clever and funny. Isn't it great to get free weekends? Sounds like yours was a good one...