Wednesday, October 30, 2013

I Know the Way to San Jose

I gave a friend a ride to the San Jose airport on Saturday.  Being in the area, I decided to make a day of it.

I saw two films.

Machete Kills starring Danny Trejo; with Demian Bichir, Amber Heard, Michelle Rodriguez, Sofía Vergara & Mel Gibson; directed by Robert Rodriguez; (2013) - Official Website
Muscle Shoals; directed by Greg 'Freddy' Camalier; documentary; (2013) - Official Website

I saw Machete Kills at the Camera 12 and Muscle Shoals at the Camera 3.  I thought about seeing ComedyShortz at the Camera 3 but instead decided to see The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity at the The Stage Theater.


Robert Rodriguez is director I'm ambivalent about.  I'm a big fan of Desperado and Sin CityFrom Dusk Till Dawn is ok.  I preferred Tarantino's Death Proof to Rodriguez's Planet Terror.  Beyond that, he has made films I haven't seen or didn't like.  That includes the original Machete (2010).  Machete was a fake trailer in Grindhouse, the Tarantion/Rodriguez double feature which has now spawned two movies and leaves the door open for another sequel. 

Machete (Danny Trejo) is one tough Mexican.  Machete is an operative reporting to the President of the United States (Charlie Sheen, billed as Carlos Estevez).  Sheen's appearance and voice reminded me quite a bit of Jed Bartlett (Martin Sheen) in West Wing.  Anyway, some contrived plot is cooked up where Machete has to kill a Mexican terrorist who has a nuclear bomb detonator wired to his heart.  If his heart stops beating, the bomb goes off.  Along the way, Machete encounters his CIA handler (who is beauty pageant contestant), a whorehouse madam (Vergara), a one-eyed sidekick (Michelle Rodriguez) and an American capitalist (Mel Gibson) who wants to destroy the world while a select few are safe in outer space on his rockets.  This sets up the sequel - Machete Kills Outer Space.

Mostly a comedy, Machete Kills never quite gets the mood right.  Quite violent at times, the film was too campy for my tastes.  I was hoping for grindhouse exploitation with Scream-type self-referential black humor.  Instead I got Austin Powers with extra gore.  I wonder who this film is targeted to.  The gags are too silly for most adults and the violence is to extreme for most kids.  The film has an R rating so kids shouldn't be watching it anyway.


Disappointed by Machete Kills, I decided to stick around to see Muscle Shoals.  If you have never heard of Muscle Shoals, then you must not be a fan of Lynard Skynard.  Quoting lyrics from their song "Sweet Home Alabama,"

Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers 
And they've been known to pick a song or two 
Lord they get me off so much 
They pick me up when I'm feeling blue 
Now how about you? 

I always thought that was spelled Mussel Shoals.  The film didn't address the origin of the name although the city's website states “No one knows when the name Muscle Shoals was first used for this area, however, there are many theories of where the name originated.  One theory is that at one time there were piles of mussel shells found along the shoals in the Tennessee River.  Another theory is that the shape of the river looks like the muscle in a man’s arm, therefore, Muscle Shoals.  The last theory comes from several booklets that were published before Muscle Shoals incorporated.  This theory states: 'Muscle Shoals, the Niagara of the South, derives its name from the Indians, who, attempting to navigate upstream, found the task almost impossible because of the strong current.'  Thus came the word muscle, symbolic of the strength required to 'paddle a canoe up the rapids.'”

Muscle Shoals is a small town in northwest Alabama, best known for its recording studios which worked with an impressive number of rock and R&B musicians.  The first recording studio to set up shop was FAME Recording Studios.  Co-founded by a trio in 1959, Rick Hall eventually took sole ownership and established the "Muscle Shoals Sound."  Hall had a life that was made for blues music.  His younger brother died from scalding, his parents divorced, his mother abandoned the family to become a prostitute, his father died when his tractor overturned and crushed him (Hall had given the tractor to his father as a present).

Hooking up with Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, Hall produced a number of hit records with his house band backing up the headliners.  Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin are among the artists who recorded at FAME.  Eventually a feud with Wexler resulted in the house band (aka the Swampers) leaving FAME to set up their own recording studio across town, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.  The Swampers' studio was, arguably, more successful than FAME.  The Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar" was recorded there.  So was Paul Simon's "Love Me Like a Rock" and numerous Bob Seger and Lynard Skynard hit songs.

The music was the main focus of the film.  Although Hall's life was mentioned at length.  His success was tacitly ascribed to the tragedies which befell him.  However, Hall appeared stoic and stiff on camera.  Beyond reciting the facts of his life, Hall wasn't one to share his introspections.  Wexler's feud with Hall emanated from a fight Hall and Aretha Franklin's husband had.  This occurred despite Wexler's explicit instructions to Hall to not talk to Franklin's husband.  Something tells me there is more to the story.

The reason so many talented musicians came out of Muscle Shoals is also glossed over or given a spiritualistic angle.  The Swampers were Hall's second studio band.  He had hits with his first band and later studio musicians.  Muscle Shoals is on the Tennessee River and Hall relates a story of his native American ancestor who was forced to relocate to Oklahoma (presumably the Trail of Tears).  Hearing no "music" in the natural environment of Oklahoma, the woman walked back to Muscle Shoals where the melody of the Tennessee River was central to the local tribes.  Percy Sledge grew up in the area and he says he sings the way he heard the sharecroppers sing in the cotton fields.

Hard answers were hard to come by in Muscle Shoals but I nonetheless enjoyed it greatly.  There were lots of still photos, old movies and talking head interviews with famous musicians (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, etc.).  Reminding me of 20 Feet From StardomMuscle Shoals made up for any shortcomings with a great soundtrack.


The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity wasn't bad either.  Set in the fictional THE Wrestling league, Chad Deity is set in the world of WWE style professional wrestling.  The set consisted of a small but functional wrestling ring.  The actors even performed some wrestling moves includingh body slams and punches.  Dispensing with any suggestion that pro wrestling is "real," the play explored the plot lines being advanced by the fictitious wrestling league and the wrestlers/actors who perform their parts.  In many ways, the play was about class warfare.  The "losers" in pro wrestling are typically the most skilled athletes so that they can make the "winners" look good.  The stars in pro wrestling are chosen based on their ability to connect with the audience and sell tickets.  The powers that be often forget that the matches are fixed and the star is the top of the pyramid...a pyramid which would collapse without the other wrestlers forming the foundation by losing on command.  It reminded me of work where some employees get all the attention and accolades despite the fact that they are only presenting the cumulative work of others.  That's enough of my workplace discontentment.  I'm not sure if Chad Deity is worth a special trip to San Jose but if you are in the downtown area, the play and theater company are a scrappy little bunch which makes them worthy of my patronage as far was I am concerned.


I also noticed there were fewer vacancies in downtown San Jose compared to Cinequest in March.  There is a Japanese store called Muji which was full of fun little knickknacks.  The San Jose store is at 170 S. Market St. right at S. 1st St and Paseo de San Antonio pedestrian mall.  There is a San Francisco location at 540 9th St. which I have not been to.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Back To Skool: Suburban Utopia

I attended my first Midnites for Maniacs screening in six months in September.  Much has changed since then.  The triple features used to be held at the Castro Theater.  Now it's a split venue.  The first two films are screened at the Castro and the third film or midnight film is screened at the Roxie.  Host Jesse Hawthorne Ficks called it a theater crawl à la pub crawl.  I envision a procession of film-goers walking from the Castro to the Roxie although I have been told it is largely distinct audiences...only the most hardcore make it to midnight much less the trek between theaters.

The theme for the evening was "Back to Skool."  I only saw the first two films at the Castro.

Can't Hardly Wait starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ethan Embry, Charlie Korsmo, Lauren Ambrose, Peter Facinelli & Seth Green; directed by Deborah Kaplan; (1998)
The Rules of Attraction starring James van der Beek, Shannyn Sossamon & Ian Somerhalder; directed by Roger Avary; (2002) - Official Website


Can't Hardly Wait is a big party movie.  The movie takes place over one evening and most of it occurs during a high school graduation party.  I know there are many films that have used this plot device of having a large party be mechanism by which the characters can resolve long standing issues such as unrequited love and hidden resentment or finally reveal character flaws.

The main characters in Can't Hardly Wait are:

Amanda (Jennifer Love Hewitt), the prom queen who has just been dumped by her boyfriend of four years.
Preston (Ethan Embry), the nice guy who has been in love with Amanda since their freshman year.
Mike (Peter Facinelli), a jock, bully, BMOC, ex-boyfriend of Amanda (he dumped her so he could spend his summer before college having sex with yet to be identified women.
William Lichter (Charlie Korsmo), the class nerd who has been bullied and embarrassed by Mike for years and now has plans for payback at the party.
Denise (Lauren Ambrose) is Preston's gal pal who largely did not enjoy high school but goes with Preston to the party to morally support his effort to profess his love to Amanda
Kenny (Seth Green), a wigger and poseur who main purpose at the party is to lose his virginity.  He is also a former friend of Denise who ditched her in high school because she wasn't cool enough.

When I read those character descriptions, I recall that the film deals with some serious issues but it is a teen comedy.  Due to missed opportunities, Preston does not get a chance to reveal his love for Amanda (who doesn't know who he is anyway).  It's only through outlandish contrivances that Amanda finds his note which expresses his true feelings.  Denise and Kenny get locked in a bathroom together and come to terms with their past.

Lichter stalks Mike all night and gets drunk in the process.  After singing an impromptu but rousing rendition of Guns N' Roses' "Paradise City," Lichter becomes the life of the party.  Mike notices him and apologizes for the years of bullying.  In fact, they almost kiss which would imply that Mike's abusive behavior is a form of self-loathing.  He has to put on a hyper-masculine front in order to mast his homoerotic desires.  However, that's far too dark for the film to depict although I thought it was all but spelled out.  The kiss would have upset the target audience for the film.

As far as teen comedies go, this one was pretty good.  Peter Facinelli is great in the thankless role of Mike, a jerk whose insecurities are always just under the surface and Facinelli has to add a comedic take on his portrayal.  Facinelli has a long list of credits in films I haven't seen (mostly the Twilight series).  Lauren Ambrose also stood out but although she has a long list of credits (Psycho Beach Party), I remember Ambrose playing a sexually active, mentally retarded woman in particularly memorable Law and Order episode from 1998.


I was excited to see The Rules of Attraction which was based on a Bret Easton Ellis novel of the same name and directed by Roger Avary.  Avary (along with Quentin Tarantino) won an Oscar for the Pulp Fiction screenplay.

Like The Rules of Attraction (the film), I will jump back and forth in time while discussing it.  I liked the film so much that I read the book.  After reading the book, I liked the movie less.  Bret Easton Ellis has written two novels which have been adapted into well known films.  His first novel was Less Than Zero.  I have not seen the film adaptation in many years but would very much welcome a local screening.  Ellis' other well known work is American Psycho.  The 2000 film adaptation of that film was Christian Bale's breakout role.  Although the film nor Ficks explained this, the book makes clear that The Rules of Attraction occupy the same fictional universe as Less Than Zero and American Psycho.

James van der Beek's character in The Rules of Attraction is Sean Bateman.  He is the younger brother of Patrick Bateman, Bale's character from American Psycho.  The novel makes reference to a college student from California.  The Californian is Andrew McCarthy's character from Less Than Zero.  These cross reference add depth to the story if one is familiar with the works of Ellis.

After The Rules of Attraction, I was left with a sense that I had witnessed something extraordinary.  Set at the fictional Camden University, the film follows three characters who form a dysfunctional love triangle.  Van der Beek's Sean is a drug dealing college student who is the ambivalent object of Paul Denton (Ian Somerhalder) affection while simultaneously attracted to Lauren Hynde (Shannyn Sossamon).  There is a lot of sex and drugs in the film...much more than I experienced in college.  Told in a nonlinear fashion, we see the relationships develop and disintegrate over the course of a fall semester.

Lauren is a virgin (maybe she is simply celibate waiting for her boyfriend to return from Europe).  Sean is receiving anonymous love notes in his mailbox and he attributes them to Lauren.  Paul mistakes Sean's desire to make beer run as having homosexual overtones.  Sean, not too smart and frequently under the influence of drugs and alcohol, is oblivious to Lauren's disinterest and Paul's interest in him.

The film is this delirious mélange of cruel, clueless, selfish, stupid and immoral behavior; much of it centered on sex, the acquisition of drugs and repeated miscommunication.  It's funny, it's sad, it shocking at times.

Everything I wrote in the previous paragraphs applies to the novel also except the novel has a harder edge and the sex is amped up.  In the film, Sean and Paul consummate their relationship...repeatedly.  Similarly, Sean and Lauren become a couple.  Lauren has long since lost her maidenhood (although she does lose her virginity in the manner depicted in the film).  Paul has slept with Lauren's ex-boyfriend and Lauren as well.  Much of the book relates to how the character misinterpret each other's actions and words.  There is one seen where Sean is playing the guitar for Lauren.  She begins crying.  He interprets this a proof that his sensitive love song is having its desired affect.  The preceding chapter made clear that Lauren was crying because Sean's guitar playing was horrible and she was hungover.

My favorite scene in the film involves Paul asking Sean to go for Mexican food (their first date).  When Sean asks if Paul is buying, Paul responds "Totally buy" which is a double entendre for "totally bi."  That retort is not in the book although the reader does get the tidbit of knowing that Paul misheard Sean's question "Do you want to get a case of beer?"  Paul thinks Sean said "Do you want to get quesadillas?"

Anyway, the three lead actors are tremendous.  Although I know who James vad der Beek is, I cannot recall any of his film performances.  I don't believe I have seen Sossamon or Somerhalder before.  The Rules of Attraction is a dark comedy which made me laugh and cringe at the same time.


Also notable was Fick's introduction of The Rules of Attraction.  He said words to the effect that as you get older, the activities that used to give you pleasure no longer do so.  It could be construed as his own waning interest in the Midnites for Maniacs series.  I don't know if that is the case but his cryptic comments could be interpreted that way.  If my memory serves correctly, I believe he also lamented the death of 35 mm prints and single screen movie houses.  What happens when the Maniac hits middle age?  Matinees for Maniacs?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Short Term 12

I had to go down to Menlo Park so I stopped by the Landmark Guild last month to see Short Term 12.

Short Term 12 starring Brie Larson, Kaitlyn Dever, John Gallagher Jr. & Keith Stanfield; directed by Destin Cretton; (2013) - Official Website

I just saw Brie Larson play a high school senior in The Spectacular Now so it was a little surprising to see her cast as a twentysomething supervising counselor to a group of troubled teenagers.  I looked her up and Brie Larson turned 24 earlier this month.  It's interesting that she appeared convincing as a teenager in The Spectacular Now but appeared older in her next filmShort Term 12.

As I mentioned, Short Term 12 is set in a group home for troubled teenagers.  I thought the kids were troubled foster kids but one of the main characters is placed in the home at the request of her father.  Larson is Grace, the supervisor of the counselors who interact with the kids in a non-medical setting.  There are psychiatrists and such but Grace and her team keep weapons and drugs out of the facility and mediate disputes among the kids.  She is dating and living with Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), another of the counselors.

Grace seems quite responsible for her age but the events of the film will send her into a tailspin.  First, she finds out she is pregnant.  Although an unwanted pregnancy can be difficult for anyone, Grace reacts by pushing Mason away and scheduling an abortion.  Second, the new girl Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) reminds Grace quite a bit of her younger self.  Grace was a troubled teenager and lived in a group home like the one she now supervises.  In trying to help Jayden cope with her emotional issues, Grace sees another similarity.  Jayden exhibits signs of abuse from her father. Grace should recognize the signs because her father is in prison for abusing her and her testimony put him there.  That leads to the third stressful issue in Grace's life.  Her father is scheduled to be paroled and she's not anxious to see him.

As Grace navigates these troubled waters, Jayden is sinking into her own crisis pit.  Jayden runs away from home and Grace follows her to her house.  Her father isn't home but Jayden's behavior convinces Grace that Jayden is the victim of abuse from her father.  Not having actionable proof, Grace angrily lashes out at her boss by smashing his lamp.  This scene is pivotal in that it gives a glimpse of the type of person Grace was in her younger days and also make clear that despite her position and responsibilities, Grace isn't that far removed from the teenagers she supervises.

When Jayden's father arrives at the facility to take  his daughter home for the weekend, Grace is outraged and mortified.  Grace rushes to Jayden's house with vague initial intentions.  Seemingly poised to commit violence, it is Jayden who calms Grace down.  Instead of assault or murder, they settle for vandalism.  The action cements the bond between Jayden & Grace.  Later, Jayden has enough strength to report her father's abuse.

The crux of the movie is the relationship between the two young women.  Both Larson & Dever are outstanding in their roles.  Grace begins the film as a self-assured young woman and becomes nearly unhinged by the end.  Jayden shows up with a confident facade and although it shows some cracks, by the end we see she is truly resilient although her real problems may be delayed like Grace.

A parallel subplot involves Mason and another foster kid named Marcus (Keith Stanfield).  Marcus is about to turn 18 and "age out" of the facility.  His trepidation about life after the home is understandable and is testimony to the effectiveness of the counselors.  However, he begins to act out in dangerous ways.  Marcus is the opposite of Jayden in some ways.  Seemingly self-assured, Marcus is more fragile than he looks.

The film is book-ended by two long soliloquies by Gallagher as Mason relates stories about former foster kids.  The tales are so engaging and realistic that I can still remember them vividly despite there being no visual depiction of the scenes described.  Short Term 12 is based on director and screenwriter Destin Cretton's time working at a group home for at-risk teenagers in San Diego.  Short Term 12 is a very powerful and moving film that feels, at times, like you are a fly on the wall observing real troubled youths.  I felt a lot of empathy for the characters which is the ultimate compliment from me about a film.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Tony Stark, Charlie Chaplin, et al.

In September, I saw a double feature at the Castro.

The Kid starring Charlie Chaplin & Jackie Coogan; directed by Charlie Chaplin; silent with intertitles; (1921)
Chaplin starring Robert Downey Jr.; with Moira Kelly, Kevin Kline, Diane Lane & Anthony Hopkins; directed by Richard Attenborough; (1992)

Speaking of Chaplin, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has announced their next event.  The Little Tramp at 100 will be on January 11, 2014 at the Castro.  2014 marks the centennial of Chaplin's first film.

I saw The Kid a few years ago.  I stand by what I wrote then.  The Kid is a nice enough film but in the Chaplin filmography, my favorite films would come later in his career.  Ironically, he would make his best silent films during the "talkies" era.

Chaplin is a film I remember from its initial release in 1992.  Much heralded at the time of its release, I had forgotten that Robert Downey Jr. was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Charlie Chaplin.  As I watched his performance (perhaps rewatched since my film log doesn't go back that far), I realized how much I enjoy his performance and that Downey is truly a movie star.

There is something about him which radiates on the screen.  It could be his acting abilities but he seems to be playing variations on the same role for the past several years - glib, self-assured, frequently intoxicated.  He's played this role many times but when I looked at his filmography I see some outstanding performances.  I've been thinking a lot of his performance in Less Than Zero and I am keen to see the film on the big screen again from the more jaded perspective of a 40something.  James Spader and Robert Downey together.  Those two actors always draw your attention to them and they have selected roles which play to their strengths over the years (Spader primarily on television).

Then I remember Downey in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and his on screen chemistry with Val Kilmer or him as the killer in US Marshals and how he held his own on-screen with Tommy Lee Jones.  Remembering his start on Saturday Night Live, I recalled his comedic turns as the blackfaced actor Tropic Thunder. One of my guilty pleasures is enjoying his turn as Tony Stark in numerous films.  Can't say I was so taken with the Sherlock Holmes films as he seems to be channeling Stark in his performances.

Anyway, I was curious to see Downey in Chaplin.  It was a mixed bag.  First, it seems like everyone and their cousin had a role in this film.  In addition to the aforementioned actors, David Duchovny, Geraldine Chaplin, Dan Ackroyd, Marisa Tomei, Milla Jovovich, Penelope Ann Miller, Nancy Travis, James Woods and I'm sure I'm missing a few.  The number of characters was dizzying.  Although I recognize and had passing knowledge of Fairbanks and Paulette Goddards and even Mabel Normand, the film seemed to want to check all the boxes as opposed to tell a great story.

Chaplin's life was pretty interesting.  The root cause of his interest in underage women is a little vague except his true love was a teenage girl when he left for America.  We're also treated to Geraldine Chaplin playing her mentally unstable grandmother and wondering what the actress is thinking and feeling while portraying the woman who had such an influence on her father.

Director Richard Attenborough applies the Gandhi formula to Chaplin - bigger plus grander equals better.  Chaplin is clearly Attenborough's paean to Hollywood lore and it's bathed in the gentle light of an acolyte's camera.  Chaplin is cast as the victim of J. Edgar Hoover's wrath.  That's certainly true to a certain extent but Chaplin's behavior and failure to rein in his own actions played some role.  However, I don't want to debate Chaplin's moral character or the political overtones of his films.  Where Chaplin falls short is in the casting someone other than Charlie Chaplin in the lead role.

Downey does a fair job as Chaplin but he is noticeably lacking as the Little Tramp.  When Downey does the physical comedy of Chaplin on stage or reenacts his movie scenes, the magic is absent.  To be fair to Downey, I doubt anyone could duplicate Chaplin's screen presence as the Little Tramp.  It would be like trying to cast someone else as Tony Stark; they would come out worse in comparison to the original.  Maybe you could find an actor to play Robert Downey Jr. effectively but Downey's performance as Stark is so indelible that any actor would suffer in the comparison.

I won't go so far to say I didn't enjoy Chaplin.  It was kind of fun to see the early days of Hollywood.  Kevin Kline even does a game turn as Douglas Fairbanks.  Chaplin is one of those film that doesn't stand the test of time and I'm referring to the past 21 years.  Downey's competitors for the Academy Award for Best Actor that year were Al Pacino (Scent of a Woman), Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven), Stephen Rea (The Crying Game) and Denzel Washington (Malcolm X).

It seems clear to me that Eastwood should have won that year but in fact, Pacino won.  In hindsight, Pacino's performance looks like parody.  Along those same lines, Downey appears to be attempting to mimic Chaplin (the real man) as opposed to give Chaplin (the film character) his own motivations.  Downey doesn't appear comfortable in the role; he doesn't stamp the role as his own as he does in countless other films.  He is hamstrung by Chaplin's real actions and the Hollywood mythology which has developed around Chaplin and the early days of film.  It's difficult to play the complex Chaplin much less recreate his greatest scenes on film and if Downey couldn't do it, I wonder who can.

Monday, October 7, 2013

In a World...

Last Month, I saw In A World... at the Balboa.

In A World...; starring Lake Bell; directed by Lake Bell; (2013) - Official Website

In a World (I'm going to drop the ellipsis from the title for convenience) has had an impressive run at the Landmark Shattuck.  It's still playing there.  I think it's been screening there since before Labor Day.  Not wanting to travel to Berkeley for the film, I was pleased that the Balboa booked it.

Carol Solomon (Lake Bell) is a struggling voice actor.  Her father is Sam Sotto (as in sotto voce), a legend in the voice-over industry.  He discourages his daughter from doing voice-overs for movie trailers because the industry is dominated by men such as himself and his protégé Gustav Warner (Ken Marino).  A new big-budget action film (The Amazon Games) is coming out and the action film voice-over legend Don LaFontaine (real person) has passed away leaving the competition for job wide open.  Sotto (Fred Melamed) has passed on the job, paving the way for his semi-retirement and the ascension of Warner.  Carol harbors desires to be the first big-budget film voice-over artist and has her eyes on The Amazon Games gig.

What follows is contrived comedy.  Sam is very chauvinistic and actively works against his daughter's ambitions.  Unbeknownst to Sam, Gustav and Carol have a one-night stand (Gustav is not initially aware of her parentage).  In addition, Sam's elder daughter Dani (the always radiant Michaela Watkins) is having marital problems with her husband Moe (Rob Corddry).  Finally, a sound studio engineer (Demetri Martin) has a secret crush on Carol.

These plot developments come fast and furious.  I'm sure the intended effect of all this should be wacky confusion but the laughs aren't quite there.  Sotto is a piece of work and makes you wonder how anyone, including his younger girlfriend, could love him.  Sotto's character sticks out like a sore thumb in an otherwise gentle comedy.  Not quite as discordant is Dani's affair which is understandable given the weary state of her marriage.  However, the subplot takes attention and energy away from the main plotlline which is moderately interesting.

The title of the film comes from LaFontaine's famous voice-over work in the 1980s and 1990s on action/apocalypse films where he gravely intones "In a world..."  The film made me wonder who does those Monster Truck Show ads - "Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!"

Lake Bell, who I presume did her own voice work in the film, has a great talent for mimicry and can adapt her voice for the full gamut of situations - sexy voice, Valley Girl voice, serious voice, etc.  I wonder if Bell really does voice-over work or has desires to do so.  I can't take my eyes off Michaela Watkins (Afternoon Delight & Enough Said).  Looking quite a bit like Lisa Edelstein, Watkins has a screen presence outsized to the roles I have seen her in.  I hope she gets a leading role soon.

In a World is not a great film or even particularly funny.  Many of the jokes were greeted with silence from the audience.  Also, the ending was surprisingly bittersweet.  Carol gets the job for the "wrong" reasons and the reasons validate her father's male-centric views of the industry.  I assume Bell wanted to not end with a "happily ever after" ending but In a World felt as though Bell's reach exceeded her grasp - she has an interesting story idea but couldn't quite get it right in the film.  Mixing metaphors since Bell is a car enthusiast, In a World was not firing on all cylinders.

Friday, October 4, 2013

I Give It a Year

Last month, I saw I Give It a Year at the Landmark Opera Plaza.  Since the Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinemas closed for renovations, I've been going more often to the Opera Plaza and oddly, the Guild in Menlo Park.

I Give It a Year starring Rose Byrne & Rafe Spall; with Anna Faris & Simon Baker; directed by Dan Mazer; (2013) - Official Website

It's a shame that I Give It a Year didn't do better box office.  I found the rom-com to be extremely funny.  It was relatively innovative but very well executed.

Nat (Rose Byrne looking stunning) and Josh (Rafe Spall) are newlyweds.  After a whirlwind romance, they get married as the film opens.  It's obvious they aren't well suited for each other but I thought it was going be one of these "love conquers all" films.  Quickly, the plot turns towards the ultimate pairings.  Josh's ex-girlfriend Chloe (Anna Faris) is still part of their circle of friends.  Conveniently, Josh has forgotten to mention that he and Chloe used to date.  That piece of news is revealed during a dinner party by Josh's best friend Dan (Stephen Merchant).  Merchant and Minnie Driver as Nat's older sister steal the film with their trenchant and hilarious comments.  Merchant's Dan is the most gauche cinematic sidekick I can recall off the top of my head.  Driver's Naomi is an unmitigated harpy until the end; constantly belittling her husband and denigrating the institution of marriage.

It's clear that Josh still has feeling towards Chloe and eventually vice versa.  Nat should be concerned but she has a new client at work (she works at an ad agency).  Rich, handsome, intelligent and immediately interested in Nat, Guy (Simon Baker) seems like the perfect match.  At one point, Nat even denies knowing Josh to Guy because she is embarrassed by his behavior.  Nat & Josh eventually see a marriage counselor (Olivia Colman) whose advice is suspect given her own obvious marital problems.

As you can see, everything is pointing to a breakup. However, Nat & Josh are bad people.  They are just mismatched.  Both of them commit to making their marriage work.  They break off their budding relationships with Chloe & Guy.  Indeed, Chloe & Guy even start dating.  Just when I wondered which way the film would turn, Josh & Nat mutually agree to divorce at a dinner party celebrating their one year wedding anniversary.  Separately, they rush to meet Chloe & Guy, respectively.  Nat & Josh find Guy & Chloe on a train platform headed for the Chunnel.  After some initial awkwardness and surprise at their choice of partners, the swap occurs and the cameras pans out to the two couples kissing.

I Give It a Year is a film which consists of several tremendous scenes of cheeky British humor.  The opening scene where Dan gives his supremely awkward best man's toast kicks it off in high style.  Other memorable scenes include a game of charades where Driver is relentless in attacking her husband, Guy's attempt at romance with Nat which ends badly for a dove and an aborted ménage à trois involving Chloe and two of her co-workers.  If it were just that, the film would be worth seeing but the filmmakers make a game attempt at evolving the rom-com genre.  They're not fully successful but I appreciate the effort and the skill of the cast and director Dan Mazer.

The casting was great and I recognized many of the faces.  Rose Byrne was Kristin Wiig's rival in Bridesmaids.  Simon Baker stars in The Mentalist on CBS which I have never seen.  I've recently started seeing commercials for Stephen Merchant's new series (Hello Ladies) on HBO.

I Give It a Year is a very funny film and exceeded all my expectations.  This is no Hugh Grant comedy.  I chuckled for the rest of the evening at some of the scenes from I Give It a Year.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Master of the Flying Guillotine

Two Saturdays ago, I returned to the New Parkway Theater in Oakland.  If my records are correct, that visit (September 21) was my first of 2013.  The New Parkway and Soja co-hosted a screening of Master of the Flying Guillotine.  What is Soja?  According to its website, "Soja Martial Arts builds bodies, minds, and spirits. Our workouts provide fun, vigorous, health-oriented martial arts & yoga for both kids & adults."  Soja is located at 368 24th Street (across Broadway from New Parkway).

The Soja representative introduced the film and stated he had about 25 kung fu/martial arts films selected for future screenings.  He hoped the screenings could be monthly or periodic events.

Master of the Flying Guillotine starring Jimmy Wang Yu & Kam Kong; directed by Jimmy Wang Yu; Mandarin with subtitles; (1976)

The film was projected from a regular DVD and the images weren't very sharp.

I have a conflicted relationship with kung fu films.  I want to like and have liked a few but in general, I quickly grow bored by them.  I think that sums up my thoughts about Master of the Flying Guillotine (aka One Armed Boxer 2, aka One Armed Boxer vs the Flying Guillotine).

Slightly better than most kung fu films, MotFG has a number of things which has made it a legendary film.  Foremost is the aforementioned flying guillotine.  Imagine a beekeepers helmet with a metal collar attached to a long chain.  The weapon is thrown like a frisbee with the goal of landing it on someone's head.  A yank of the chain results in blades in the collar being deployed and the head being decapitated. The helmet is there to contain the decapitated head; otherwise it would roll away.

Kam Kong portrays the eponymous master of the weapon despite being blind. With a flowing white beard, his hair inexplicably changes from equally white and long to short and black. It wouldn't surprise me if the wig was lost or damaged during filming. Clearly serving as partial or full inspiration for Pai Mai in Tarantino's Kill Bill Volume 2, Kam Kong's Fung Sheng Wu Chi is a dyspeptic and dogged avenger.  His disciples have sent him a message that they are about to be killed by a one armed boxer.  This backstory is actually the plot to One Armed Boxer (1971).    The initial scene shows Fung destroying his shack high up in the mountains after learning of his disciples' deaths.  That act of destruction seems a little extreme but does establish he has some grenade like devices and a bad temper.  Fung scours the land; seemingly killing every one armed man he encounters.

In the meantime, the one armed boxer (Jimmy Wang Yu) has opened an academy, does some neat gravity defying tricks and is eventually persuaded by his students to attend a martial arts tournament.  This tournament doesn't advance the plot much and actually takes up quite a bit of screen time but was the most enjoyable portions of the film.  Displaying (presumably) Chinese stereotypes of Thai, Japanese and Indians, the fightt scenes are quite a bit of fun as they show different styles of martial arts in a fight to the death format which has been duplicated countless times since.  Eventually Fung shows up with grenades and kills the tournament host.  After that, the film began to lose my interest.  Doris Lung is the daughter of the murdered tourney host and she vows revenge on Fung.  The Japanese fighter is interested in her.  The Thai fighter (who habitually) spits teams up with Fung to find the one-armed boxer.  The Indian yogi (who can extend his arms to ridiculous proportions) gets killed somehow.

At some point after the tournament scenes, I realized this was not a very good movie.  Jimmy Wang Yu, who also directed the film, is surprisingly uncharismatic as the hero.  Given his well publicized extramarital affairs,  arrest for murder in Taiwan and general bad boy reputation, I would have expected a more outrageous performance.  Wang (the actor) appears to have subsumed his role at the instructions of Wang (the director).  The three "foreigners" and Kam Kong get all the flashy lines and scenes.  I won't use the word "memorable" because ultimately, large portions of the film are forgettable.

Wang also used a soundtrack that sounded like an 1980s slasher film (also called Krautrock) - heavy on electronic synthesizers and long, drawn out notes.  In signature Wang fashion, he didn't secure the music rights from the bands (including Tangerine Dream) and distribution in Western countries was delayed for many years.

Kam Kong, Krautrock and the trio of the foreign killers were the highlights of Master of the Flying Guillotine.


A few things about the New Parkway and Oakland.  In desperate need of caffeine, I ordered a cup at the theater it was quite good.  I find coffee is too often over-roasted for my tastes.  The New Parkway serves a more mellow blend.  A sign in the lobby stated they served Bicycle Coffee.

I took BART, exited at the 19th Street Station and walked the rest of the way.  As I walked back after the film, I noticed an Ike's Place and it was open.  Having never sampled one of the famous sandwiches at this establishment, I stopped in.  The Oakland location was technically called Ike's Lair.  I don't know what distinguishes Ike's Place from Ike's Lair.  It's located at 2204 Broadway and is near the intersection of 22nd and Franklin.  Despite the empty streets at that time, there was a line of people waiting to get a sandwich at 5 PM on a Saturday.  I ordered the Paul Reubens.  It wasn't bad but frankly, I don't see what makes it so great that people would stand in line for.  I may have to return and try some more of their sandwiches.

While eating my sandwich outside (there is no indoor seating but there are outdoor tables), I noticed an Umamiburger across the street.  That's another place I have heard about but never been.  When I grew up, I was taught there were four basic types of taste sensations - sour, bitter, sweet and salty.  Combining those in various proportions created complex flavors.  The Japanese have a fifth type - umami.  It's been commonly accepted in Japan for many years but the concept has made inroads in the US.  I have never identified a food as having umami flavor.  The name Umamiburger pretty much sums up the concept of the restaurant.  I'm very curious as to what an umamiburger tastes like.  The Umamiburger is located at 2100 Frankllin in Oakland and open 7 days a week.

The Uptown neighborhood of Oakland appears to be on the upswing. 

No word yet on the next kung fu movie at the New Parkway.