Saturday, March 31, 2012

Movie Reviews: "The Tree of Life" and "Die Hard 2: Die Harder", or Art of the Highest and Lowest Orders

The Tree of Life
2011, Rated PG-13
Written and Directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, and Sean Penn

An old friend was supposed to drop by tonight, but in typical him fashion, he called and cancelled. Some B.S. about his wife going into labor or something like that. And after I took the night off of work and everything! People can be so inconsiderate.

But I'm determined that the night not be a total loss, so I call up a couple of buddies from a writer's group I attend each week, and it turns out they've got about as much going on as I do. I've been talking up Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life to them for a couple of months now, so I ask them if they'd like to come over and make a party of it. They agree and by 6:30 the coffee table is covered in chips & dips, we're sitting on my couch hip to hip, and I pick up the remote and hit the skip button so we don't have to bother with preview clips.

In truth, saying we "made a party of it" might be a tad misleading. The crunching of fried tortillas and the squish of salsa and bean dip is so incongruous with the film that in less than twenty minutes we've abandoned the snacks entirely. I did warn them that this movie wasn't casual viewing. It's an investment. You can't be shuffling back and forth between the living room and the kitchen, grabbing sodas and refilling dippin' bowls as you pick up what's going on onscreen with your left ear and listen to your wife's questions about whether you remembered to snake the bathtub drain with your right. This movie requires your full attention at all times. But it's worth it.

I've told friends and relatives before, and now I'm telling you that, in no uncertain terms, The Tree of Life is the best movie of the last 10 years. It's not even a competition. The only film I can think of that even comes close is 2004's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and even that gets left in the dust when compared with the grandeur, ambition, and resonance of this picture. I don't like to throw around the word "genius" - too many people are too eager to attribute it to filmmakers who don't deserve it - but it's the only word that seems adequate.

Don't misunderstand me. The Tree of Life is not my favorite film of the last 10 years. There's a difference between "favorite" and "best". It's not the movie that I derive the most pleasure from watching. That honor - shocking as it might seem - probably belongs to the 2007 Lonely Island farce, Hot Rod. Like the films of Kubrick or Bergman, The Tree of Life is an investment, as I've already said, and there are times when I'm too spent to invest in a movie. So it's not my favorite film of the last decade. It's just the best. It's the one that takes filmmaking in a new direction, gives us something we've never seen before, exploits the power of film in a way that no other film has, tells us a story we couldn't have gotten through any other medium, and pulls it all off without a single hitch.

The movie is both grand in scope and intimate in execution, telling no less than the story of the meaning of life through both human and universal archetype, as well as character study and personal vignette. The fact that it tells this story with the quality of actual memory - that being a disjointed narrative, sometimes lacking context, but maintaining an overall coherency - is an artistic accomplishment that I can only marvel at. Malick isn't the first filmmaker to attempt this, but he is - in my experience, which I will admit, is far from exhaustive - the first to achieve it. If I'm wrong, please let me know. I'd love to see the film that could compete.

After the credits roll, the cost of the film shows in all of us. We're spent; emotionally and intellectually exhausted, and all we can manage between us is a collective, "Wow." We don't discuss much. We all have to go think about it for a while. I bid my usually talkative friends adieu with little more than pleasantries by way of parting words. I don't think any of us are capable of mustering much else, and even if we could, it seems like anything we could say would be weak and perfunctory.

John Waters - no Terrence Malick, but an important filmmaker in his own, twisted right - once said that he can tell whether or not an audience likes a movie by how quickly they get up and leave once the credits roll. If I'd seen this movie in a theater, I can pretty much guarantee that, unless I had someone there prodding me to get up and move, I wouldn't've been able to stand until the screen went blank and the lights came up. Even then, it would've been reluctantly. Is there any higher praise for a movie than that? Maybe, but I can't think of what it would be.

Later that day, in a 180 degree thematic turn...

Die Hard 2: Die Harder
1990, Rated R
Written by Steven E. de Souza and Doug Richardson (Screenplay) and Walter Wager (Novel, 58 Minutes)
Directed by Renny Harlin
Starring Bruce Willis, William Atherton, Bonnie Bedelia, William Sadler, and Art Evans

So, after my son went gaga for Die Hard 1: Die Regular Hard, it was inevitable that we'd end up sitting down together before the mixed blessing that is Die Hard 2: Die Harder. I warn him before I even put the disc in.

"Okay, I'm not gonna lie," I say. "This is nowhere near as good as the first one."

"Cuz sequels are never as good as the originals, right?" he says.

Did I mention that he soaks up my every word like a sponge, even when - actually, I should say especially when - I'm sure he's nowhere nearby? And ever since he discovered the Metal Gear games, he's taken to sneaking around the house unnoticed and lurking in darkened corners. If this were soviet Russia, I'd have been executed by now for all the stuff he's overheard. The burden of fatherhood, I guess. Sigh.

Where was I? Oh yeah. Die Hard 2.

Die Harder is easily my least favorite of the series, but that shouldn't be taken to mean I don't like it. At their worst, the Die Hard movies are better than 99% of the action genre as a whole. But this first sequel is definitely the ugly step-sister of the family.

The conclusion my son and I both end up coming to (he agreeing with me mere seconds after I voice the opinion, if you can believe it *wink, wink*) is that the movie is a perfect storm of schlock. What makes it great is that it so unabashedly embraces being bad. Hardly a second goes by that you can't point out some element of the film that would give a nitpicker fits. At one point I start howling with laughter and my son begs me for an explanation. I point out no less than four of the ridiculous suspensions of logic necessary to have made it through the three minute scene we've just watched (the one culminating in John McClane saving his butt by dropping it in an ejector seat and throwing the switch), and now we're both laughing.

But the sheer intellectual vacuity of the script cannot compare to the movie's crown jewel of crap, which is the so-called acting of Art Evans as airport communications director Leslie Barnes. Those of you who know are probably simultaneously cringing and grinning as you read this. How to describe his performance? It's as if he's reading the script for the first time off of a teleprompter and the director is printing the first take. At one point I actually pause the movie so my son and I can try to deliver a line as woodenly as Art just has, but neither of us can manage it. The acting is so bad that it almost circumnavigates the spectrum and becomes good again. If I thought he were doing it on purpose, I'd say - with no irony whatsoever - that he was genius, but methinks that'd be giving him a tad too much credit. In the end, neither my son nor I can tell whether Art's performance is the worst part of this move or the best. The fact that we have to ask the question probably answers it, but I'll let you decide.

Final thoughts: Die Hard 2 is corny, unrealistic, and downright laughable. McClane's trademark "Yipee-kay-yay" gets shoehorned in for the sake of grasping at the glory of the last time 'round, but ultimately it feels forced. Still, my boy and I have a lot of laughs and spend more time than you might think gripping the arms of the sofa from the tension of what we're watching, and when it's over, we're left with scenes and lines that we'll be quoting and laughing over for the next several days, if not years to come. Is it the best movie we've watched together? Not by a long shot. But do we regret watching it? Not for a yipee-kay-yay-motherf***in' second.

Movie Review: "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo", or There's Something I Want To Tell You About Timmy and Me

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
2011, Rated R
Written by Steven Zaillian (Screenplay) and Stieg Larsson (Novel)
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, and Stellan Skarsgard

I'm sitting at a table in a restaurant called The Brewery downing a shot of whiskey to go with my deep fried pickles. I'm on a man-date with my pal Timmy, and there is nothing - I repeat, nothing - gay about what's going on here. It's my birthday - or near enough that it'll suffice - and Timmy has grown the best mustache I've seen in a long time just for the occasion, and has decided to take me out to celebrate. I stress, there is nothing gay about this.

Just in case you were wondering, I'm not secretly gay. I know I'm not secretly gay, because if I were gay, I would not be secretly gay. I'd be in an open, committed relationship with a guy named Martin, campaigning for legalized gay marriage together. But Martin is already in an open, committed relationship, so I'm not gay. I'll just have to keep campaigning for legalized gay marriage by myself. Sigh.

Seriously though, despite what you might think, the deep fried pickles aren't half bad. When I go out to eat somewhere new, I like to try something I've never tried before. I get a local beer, a local whiskey, and a house specialty so I can justify the drinking with the catch-all disclaimer, "to wash it all down." Tonight the house specialty is deep fried pickles, though the names of the beer and whiskey seem to have escaped me. If I drink enough of them, the deep fried pickles might even escape me, but let's hope it doesn't come to that.

I love hangin' out with Timmy. He's the best non-gay-man-date-on-my-birthday friend I have. Well, this year anyway. We talk local beers, local whiskeys, and house specialties for a while before we finally get down to the nitty gritty.

"Tim," I say, "I'm jealous as hell of your mustache."

It really is a work of art. Thick but not bushy. It rolls over his upper lip in a neat arc, stopping just short of interfering with the passage of a deep fried pickle. Like ol' Timmy himself, the mustache is reserved but cool.

My mustache is much the same, in the sense that it reflects my character. It grows out in seven different directions, never quite finding the right one. The edges both swoop to the right as if I'm caught in a strong wind, so I always come off looking disheveled and out of sorts. Which I usually am. Striving desperately to be cool, my mustache manages only to be strange and disconcerting. Like I said, it reflects my character.

Wrapped securely in our beer blankets, we spill out onto the street and start making for the theater. We've decided beforehand to see David Fincher's remake of the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The trailer claims it's "THE FEEL BAD MOVIE OF CHRISTMAS." What better way to celebrate reaching the official age of Hobbit adulthood?

Did I mention there is nothing gay about this man-date? I feel the need to stress that as, when we arrived at the theater and Timmy stepped up to pay, the girl at the register looked at me and said, "Is he your sugar daddy?" Where do people get stuff like this? Why can't two straight guys go out to dinner and a movie, then stop off for ice cream without people getting the wrong idea?


Going in, I have no real idea of what to expect. I've seen the preview and heard some of the buzz, but the preview revealed absolutely nothing to someone unfamiliar with the story, and buzz tends to become exactly that after you've heard it for a while; little more than a nonsensical background drone. So I'm going in with very few preconceptions beyond that the titular Girl (Rooney Mara) is kinda freaky looking. As I am soon to discover, she's not the only freaky thing about this movie.

For all the buzz and rumors, the film is actually surprisingly tame. Most of it is just a straight-ahead mystery about a disgraced reporter and a disturbed twentysomething who team up to figure out the truth behind the decades old disappearance of the niece of some rich Swede (Christopher Plummer). The vast majority of this movie is nothing out of the ordinary, except to the extent that quality filmmaking and solid storytelling are out of the ordinary in modern Hollywood. However, the 2% of this film that does take a turn for the disturbing doesn't just veer towards it; this is a high speed, head-on collision with the sick and wrong.

It doesn't feel out of place. I just want to make that clear. At no point do I feel like the deviant awfulness I'm watching has been shoehorned in for shock value. I'm just warning you. If you have the capacity to be shocked and horrified by a piece of fiction, you will be. If that doesn't sound like your kind of film, it probably isn't. Maybe some Mormon bootlegger will release a CleanFlicks version for you to download. And let me just say that, however high your tolerance for the violent and obscene, if these scenes don't bother you, you should seek psychological counseling right away, because you - like me - are most likely a danger to yourself and others.

Having said all that, director David Fincher proves once again that he is at the top of his game. Despite scenes of brutality that it turns my stomach to even recall, this film's faults are so miniscule as to only be classifiable as nitpicks. And I only came up with three. One hundred fifty-eight minutes of film, and I found three things to gripe about. I have to say, for a film not made by Star Trek nerds, that's pretty darn good. Not that it will stop me from going into them in detail. Right now.

1. Meddle of kronor

Early in the movie, Daniel Craig is sitting in a coffee shop and a news report comes on the TV describing a recent court ruling. The reporter says the defendant was fined, "six hundred thousand Swedish kronor." Now, I realize there is more than one country that uses kronor as its currency, and they are not interchangeable. There are Danish kroner and Icelandic kronur and Norwegian kroner and many other variants (including my favorite, the Estonian kroon), but the thing that aggravates me is that the movie is set in Sweden. Doesn't it make sense that, in Sweden at least, they would just say "six hundred thousand kronor," and assume you knew that they were referring to the local variety? When portraying a bank heist in an American movie, the robbers don't say things like, "Yeah Vinnie, I hear there's over four million US dollars in the vault." So how will audiences know they're not referring to Canadian dollars? God forbid we trust them to be smart enough to figure it out for themselves!

2. It's 20 degrees outside and I'm freezing!

There's a moment in the film when, (and I'm assuming here) for purposes of scene-setting, we are treated to a close up shot of a thermometer that shows the temperature to be somewhere in the low twenties. Trouble is, unless they meant to imply that the temperature was a balmy twentysomething degrees celsius, (seventy-one-ish degrees fahrenheit; doubtful, considering the thermometer was caked in ice and dusted with snow) the thermometer was displaying the temperature in fahrenheit! "But maybe they use fahrenheit thermometers in Sweden," you may be saying. "You can't just assume they measure the temperature in celsius! Have you ever been there?" Well, no. It's true, I've never been to Sweden. However, since the unit of measurement known as "celsius" was named after the Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius, I think it's a safe bet that this was - like "Swedish kronor" - another move aimed at dumbing things down for American audiences, because they simply wouldn't be able to understand (or possibly wouldn't accept) the idea of a celsius thermometer.

3. Things that make you go BOOOOOOOM!

Ever seen a propane tank explode? I haven't seen one in person, but I've seen them go up on YouTube. It's fairly impressive, and that's just the tiny kind you use to feed your gas grill. There was a story from Canada two years ago where one of the big ones (the kind you use to fuel your furnace) exploded and leveled an entire house, flinging debris hundreds of feet and shaking neighboring houses to the point that residents feared their homes were collapsing under the weight of packed snow. If you've seen the news footage, the snow was easily eight or ten feet deep, which may be all that protected the nearby houses from being leveled as well. Given these circumstances, I feel my desire not to be anywhere near one of these tanks, should it blow, to be completely justified. No doubt David Fincher would think me overly cautious. When he blew one up in the film, he had no qualms about placing his actress less than ten yards from the epicenter of the blast, and it didn't even sway her on her feet! So clearly I'm just a worry wart. Doesn't change things. I still don't want to be anywhere near one if it goes up. Sue me.

Alright, alright, so maybe I am just a nitpicker who has to find a reason to gripe about a movie, but when I really like a movie, little things like that just drive me crazy. It isn't that they're so bad, it's that the rest of the film is so good. It's like this: If you're looking at a burn victim (and I mean no disrespect to burn victims, so don't get hot under the collar) you're probably not going to be that shocked if they've got a nasty cold sore on their lip. But if Kim Kardashian showed up on the cover of Cosmo' with that same cold sore, her dress is the last thing you're going to be commenting on.

(For the record: I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm soooooooo sorry for dragging a Kardashian into this, but she is so overexposed that I simply cannot recall the face of anyone else who has ever graced a magazine cover. I know I gave up all my punk cred when I mentioned her name, but please don't hold this against me! I'm a victim as much as you are!)

But yeah, I liked it. How could I not? I love movies and I have absolutely no horror threshold when it comes to them. In the end it meets the most important of all standards in fiction: It's an interesting story, well told.

As we leave the theater, our beer blankets are gone and the chill in the air has grown a nasty set of teeth. I feel like I'm in Sweden again, this time transported by an escalator and automatic doors rather than the magic of cinema. If only I had a thermometer to tell me the temperature. It'd have to be fahrenheit, of course. The audience wouldn't know how to handle one that displayed celsius, and I don't know the conversion formula anyway.

We're parked three blocks down, by the restaurant. We step into the crosswalk and a blast of icy wind ushers us forward. Timmy shivers. Did I mention that he forgot to bring his coat?

"You want to borrow my coat?" I say.

Timmy is wearing a t-shirt and shorts. Did I mention that it was warmer when we left the house?

"Naw, I'm okay," he says.

"Come on," I say. "I'll be alright. I've got three layers on under it."

"I'm fine," he says as another gust hits us and he rubs his arms for warmth. "Price I pay for not planning ahead."

I finally just take my jacket off and drape it over his shoulders. He says he doesn't need it, but he doesn't exactly throw it back at me. I'm fine. I've got my sweater and long johns to keep me warm. I'm just glad to repay the kindness of a friend who was thoughtful enough to take me out for my birthday.

I repeat, there is nothing gay about any of this.

Well, not too gay anyway.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Movie Review: "Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil", or How Two Redneck Death Machines Saved My Saturday

Tucker and Dale vs Evil
2010, Rated R
Written by Eli Craig and Morgan Jurgenson
Directed by Eli Craig
Starring Tyler Labine, Alan Tudyk, Katrina Bowden, and Jesse Moss

Is there anything worse than being in a funk on a Saturday? I mean other than sitting in prison for a crime you didn't commit, or being physically and psychologically abused by someone you love, or being in a car accident, or... But I digress. The point is, besides really terrible things, is there anything worse than being in a funk on a Saturday?

I'm in a funk and it's Saturday, and at this place and time there is nothing worse than being in a funk on a Saturday.

I've been moping around the house in my Spider Man pajama pants and long underwear (the former over the latter, for warmth) since noon, and no matter how much I know I should get to work on my half-finished deck and my half-finished blog and my half-finished novel, I just can't bring myself to do more than sit on the couch, incessantly refreshing my Twitter and Facebook feeds in the hopes that someone will mention me.

Did I say already how much being in a funk on a Saturday sucks?

"If you're just going to sit around, we could at least watch a movie together. You know that's the only thing that cheers you up."

My wife and her eternal struggle to drag me up, out of my increasingly regular fits of lethargy and depression. Pity her, people. Pity her.

"There's only one movie I want to watch right now, and I know for a fact that you don't want to watch it," I say from my prone position on the couch, where I've been occupying all of the prime real estate for the last six hours.

"Just put it on. I'll watch it."

Wow. I must be worse than I thought. She's desperate enough to give me cinematic carte blanche. On any other day I would refuse, knowing how my selection would pain her. Knowing that, with me depressed, there is no way she can walk out halfway through the movie after promising she'd watch it with me. On any other day I'd let her off the hook. But it's Saturday and I'm in a funk, and there is nothing worse than that.

I'd first seen the trailer for Tucker and Dale vs Evil when it was on demand last summer. Needless to say, as a low-budget horror fan and devotee of almost anything Magnet Releasing puts out, the premise of a sweetheart pair of rednecks who are mistaken by a group of college kids for backwoods maniacs grabbed my interest with a blood-spattered fist before the trailer was half over, and has refused to let go ever since. I'd have watched it already, but financial circumstances being what they are, my money-to-spend-on-pay-per-view-movies-that-are-still-in-theaters-and-I-know-will-hit-Netflix-within-a-week-of-coming-out-on-DVD budget is exactly $0.00. But now it is on Netflix, and it's the only thing I've wanted to watch for nearly a week, but couldn't find anybody to watch it with. Now my poor wife has put herself on the line, and I simply cannot stop myself. Remember how I told you to pity her? Yeah. Do that.

If you read my review of The Foot Fist Way, you'll have some idea of how well my wife's and my sense of humor gel. Well, our tastes in low-budget horror are about as compatible. The poor lady has no idea what she's in for.

Tucker and Dale vs Evil does for redneck psychopath horror what Scream did for masked killer teen slashers in the '90s, and I say that as high praise, not criticism. Yes, the Scream franchise was ultimately a victim of its own success, but any story that can take the well trodden formula of a genre, turn it on its ear, and have fun doing it is okey-dokey-artichokey by me. I love good satire as much as I love good horror, and hybrids, well executed, tend to be greater than the sum of their parts.

As we're introduced to our stable of post-adolescent victims I can almost feel my wife's eyes roll from just outside my field of vision. This is just the oh-so-familiar type of low-budget horror staple that drives her up a wall. I can hardly blame her. The car full of obvious cannon fodder has been done more than Debbie when she hit Dallas, but that's the point. You have to know the formula if you're going to lampoon the formula, and the filmmakers clearly know the formula.

When Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) - two rednecks out to do some relaxing and casual improvement of a recently purchased vacation home - cross paths with our victim menagerie, Dale makes the mistake of approaching one of the attractive young coeds (Katrina Bowden) and, in true psychotic hillbilly fashion, inadvertently scares the living crap out of her and all of her friends, thus setting into motion everything that follows.

What follows is a long string of filmmaking decisions, every one of which was right. The acting is heads and tails above 90% of the low-budget horror out there. The writing is tight, smart, and funny. The director clearly has a vision and knows how to keep things moving, even when it's time to step back and let the characters get to know each other. The laughs, the tension, the combining of the two; it's all there. I suppose it could just be that I was so low before the movie started that anything capable of lifting my spirits would feel like mainlining liquid happiness, but the movie is just flat out fun.

College students' fear of redneck psychos leads to inadvertent bloodbath is a great setup no matter how you slice it, if you'll pardon the barely non-gratuitous pun; but subtext is something most modern horror filmmakers are sadly ignorant of, and I'm happy to say it's on full display here. That such a ridiculous story could have such depth - exploring themes like class warfare and the nature of prejudice being the result of unrecognized self-loathing - elevates Tucker and Dale above the level of a simple horror/comedy and into the realm of quality satire. I hate the term "transcends genre", but in this case it just fits.

Sadly, it's mostly wasted on my wife. Not that she doesn't get it. She can see all the elements at play, they're just not having the desired effect. It's not her fault. That's just the nature of art. Two people look at the same piece. One sees a masterpiece. One sees a waste of ninety minutes. It's all subjective, but that's the human experience. A long, unbroken string of subjective events. It was sure nice of her to sit and experience it with me, though. And despite the fact that, after the movie ended, the cloud of fatigue and apathy settled once more around my head, for an hour and a half or so I forgot about all that and just had some good, old-fashioned fun. That, for me anyway, makes it time well spent.

Movie Reviews: "The Foot Fist Way" and "Heat", or How I Ended My Winter Vacation

Jan 2 2012:

2006, Rated R
Written by Ben Best, Jody Hill, and Danny McBride
Directed by Jody Hill
Starring Danny McBride and Ben Best

The way I see it, there are two kinds of people in this world: Those who get Danny McBride, and those who don't. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

It's 9pm, and for the first time in more than two weeks the kids are in bed before midnight. Thank God for the end of winter vacation.

My wife sits at the dining room table checking her e-mail and I stand before my DVD shelf scanning titles. I'd pick something for the both of us, but she hasn't even checked Facebook yet today, so if I pick something short, it should be over before she hits the couch.

Searching for something to watch is always a conundrum. Before I approach the DVD shelf I have to have some idea of what I'm looking for or I'll end up standing there for the better part of an hour before giving up and checking Netflix. So the question is, what am I looking for.

I decide that, first and foremost, I want to watch something new. This isn't to say I want something I've never seen, just something I haven't watched since I bought it. That narrows the selection down to about 200 titles. In case you hadn't guessed by the fact that I'm just now getting around to posting a review of something I watched on January 2nd, I'm a procrastinator. On top of that, I'm a collector. When I buy a movie it's more about having it to watch whenever I want than about actually watching it. That and sharing it with people. I love nothing more than saying to a friend or family member or stranger on the bus, "What? You've never seen it? Okay, we're watching it right now!" This is why, if you check my DVD shelf, you'll find HD-DVDs that I bought only a few months after the format was introduced, and still haven't opened (You can bet your sweet bippy I was pissed when that format tanked after I spent $75 on the Bourne trilogy!). Don't hold it against me. I'm a slave to my compulsions.

Wait. What was I talking about? Oh yeah! Deciding what I'm looking for!

I'm not a holiday person. The idea of a holiday as innocuous as Arbor Day fatigues me, so you can imagine how spent I am after the one-two punch of Christmas and New Year's. I need a pick-me-up. Something to revitalize me. Lift my spirits. I need some funny.

And there it is. Jumping out from halfway down the shelf like a kick to the face. The movie that gave us Danny McBride. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.

Remember what I said about those two kinds of people? Those who get Danny McBride and those who don't? Well, my wife is the second kind. Nothing against her. She's a great lady. Probably the greatest I've ever known. But when it comes to comedy, it's like we were born in different countries.

No problem. Like I said before, she hasn't even checked her Facebook account today. At a scant 82 minutes, the movie will be over before she's gotten past the post our mutual friend shared of the 25 funniest autocorrects of 2011.

As the movie begins I realize two things: 1. This is a great pick-me-up movie. And 2. It's a good thing my wife is busy on the computer.

For those who haven't seen it, The Foot Fist Way is basically a coming-of-age story about a psychotic tae kwon do instructor (Danny McBride) whose dream world collapses when he discovers his wife has been cheating on him. Due (I'm assuming) to budget constraints, the filmmakers apparently couldn't afford to hire professional actors, so - with the notable exceptions of McBride and co-writer Ben Best (as Chuck "The Truck" Wallace) - the performances are pretty bad all around. The dialogue could have been good if the actors had delivered their lines as if they weren't reading off cue cards, but between the wooden performances and weak cinematography, the writing feels flat and haphazard at best.

The film's secret weapon - and what made this a must-buy for me when I saw it on the shelf at Hastings last year - is Danny McBride. The Foot Fist Way lives or dies on how much you like McBride and whether you get his swaggering-moron sense of humor. If you do, this film will have you in stitches from frame one. If you don't, there's really not much else to recommend it. Even when the writing really shines in the supporting characters, it's just an outgrowth of that basic, delusional-confidence-run-amok sensibility. This is Danny's show. Love it or leave it.

My wife, as I said before, doesn't love it. Apparently she never checked the 25 funniest autocorrects of 2011, because thirty minutes into the film she turns off her computer and sits down on the couch next to me. Instantly, I start to sweat.

I love sharing movies with people. What I don't love is when I share a movie with someone and they don't get it. I get very uncomfortable and self conscious when this happens, and it's happening now. Every time I laugh, my skin crawls a little, because she's not laughing. This actually causes me to laugh more, but not from mirth. Now I'm laughing to release tension.

"We can watch something else if you want," I say.

"It's okay," she says, but I just know she's hating it.

To her credit, she doesn't say a single bad thing the entire time. And she doesn't get up and leave. All I can think is that she must either really want to spend time with me, or she's watching as a sort of anthropological study. Maybe this will give me some clue as to why my husband is the way he is.

When the credits finally roll, I work up the nerve to ask, "So, what did you think?"

In her best I-don't-want-to-hurt-your-feelings-but-you-asked-for-it-so-here-goes voice she says, "I think that was the unfunniest thing I've ever seen."

Like I said, there are two kinds of people in this world: Those who get Danny McBride, and those who will hate this movie.

1995, Rated R
Written and directed by Michael Mann
Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Val Kilmer, and Tom Sizemore

So there sits my wife, fresh from the latest disappointment being married to me has yielded, and I just have to do something to lift her spirits. Unfortunately, the only thing I know how to do well - and my wife might argue that I don't even do that very well - is watch movies.

"So what do you want to watch?" I say, standing once again before my DVD shelf. I don't bother looking at it. Until I know what she does want to watch, anything I suggest will be will be something she doesn't.

"I want to watch a heist movie!" she squeaks with a giddiness that seems at odds with the vacant-eyed boredom she'd displayed only minutes earlier.

A heist movie? Did she actually say she wants to watch a heist movie?

"You want to watch a heist movie?"

I cannot hide my astonishment.

"Yeah! Like Ocean's 11 or Ocean's 12 or Ocean's 13!"

Before she gets to "11" I roll my eyes, disappointment palpable in the air like the odor from my shoes. I like the Ocean's movies. Like. That's it. I'm not buying a ring. I'm not looking to take my relationship with them to the next level. I like them. Needless to say, when my wife said she wanted a "heist movie", they'd been the furthest thing from my mind. I've seen them at least half a dozen times each (her doing, not mine). That's a minimum (at least, I said) of 18 dips in the Ocean's. I feel like I'm drowning in them! But she loves them. So help me God, she adores the increasingly implausible things.

I scramble.

"How about Heat?" I say, frantically reaching for what actually had gone through my head when I'd heard the words "heist movie", despite the fact that I know she won't want to watch it.

"What's Heat?" she says.

I'm momentarily dumbstruck.

"Whaddya mean What's Heat?" I say. "Heeeat! Pacino! DeNiro! Kilmer! Are you serious?!?"

"Never heard of it."

I happen to know for a fact that this is untrue. I grab the disc off the shelf and hand it to her.

"We watched it right after I bought it," I say. "On my birthday last year."

She stares at it blankly.

"I don't remember it at all."

This is a gift my wife has. She can watch a movie and - sometimes after only a few scant weeks - forget it completely. I use the word "gift" because, if this talent were for sale, I'd have done almost anything to acquire it by now. I would literally burn down my own house to have the ability to forget my favorite movies and watch them again for the first time. I'd make sure my family was away on vacation before I did it, obviously, but I'm just saying. I'm jealous as hell.

She scans the back cover and hands it back.

"Sounds good. Let's watch it."

I can barely keep from soiling my pants in a fit of joy-induced diarrhea.

The first time I saw Heat was in a single-screen theater in Eastern Europe when I was seventeen. The theater was one of only three in the whole city (all single-screens) and got one movie a week (subtitled, I should note - I was blessed to live in a country that had never quite taken to the idea of dubbing). The interesting thing about movies in that part of Europe is that the whole country only has one print of any given film at any given time. As new movies make their way across the country, they go from big city to big city, playing in the first run movie houses before re-circling the country's second-run houses. My city happened to have a theater that was high on the list (somewhere in the top ten). The new movies opened on Friday, ran through the following Thursday, and then moved on to the next town. In the case of a really popular movie, the theater might extend its run for a week. Heat was so popular that it ran for four weeks straight. Titanic only ran for three.

Thirty minutes in, my wife remembers the film. Thirty minutes after that she heads to bed, since she has to get up for school in the morning, and it's midnight. I have to get up too. I work evenings, but I take my kids to school at 8:00am. By all rights, I should be getting to bed. But I can't. This is Heat!

If you haven't seen it, I won't spoil it for you beyond that it's the gold standard of heist movies and it was the first time Pacino and DeNiro ever appeared onscreen together. If only all their collaborations were of this caliber, I might've been able to stomach a re-watching of Righteous Kill, but let's not go there. That way madness lies. Let me shun that.

What you've got here is a rare bird; an LA crime epic that can hold its own against any of the big NY crime epics. And yes, I said any, because the fact of the matter is, as sprawling and intricate as this movie is, everything about it works. Even the manic Natalie Portman subplot. Everything. It's an epic that lives up to the word.

I've watched Heat several times, as you've no doubt already gathered, but what really stands up and grabs me by the throat this time is the sound. I'm not usually a guy who gets a BVD pup-tent over sound editing, but during the final firefight I find myself shocked at the violence of the gunfire. The sound of M-16s rattling off round after round of high speed death isn't the friendly, big boom of a million action movies. It sounds cruel. It sounds mean. It sounds visceral and scary. Basically, it sounds like a gun should.

When the credits roll, I'm sitting on the couch alone in a now quiet house. The gunfire is only an echo in my memory, but the movie persists. It sticks with me. It's the story of two men who could be brothers - spiritually speaking, in the "Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil" sense, are brothers - destroying each other. It's the story of LA. It's the story of America. It's the story of humanity.

I crawl into bed with the final scenes of the film flitting across my vision in the late night darkness. I wrap myself in blankets and can feel my wife roll over and snuggle against me. As her arm slips around my shoulder, all I can think is, How could she walk out halfway though Heat?!? In the words of the old Tootsie Pop commercials, "The world may never know."

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Movie Reviews: "Super" and "Die Hard", or How To Start the New Year Off Right

Jan. 1 2012:

2010, Rated R
Written and directed by James Gunn
Starring Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, and Kevin Bacon

I decided to start the new year off with a bang. Well, cinematically anyway. New Year's Eve around my house has never been much to brag about, and this one was clearly headed for the, "Wait, did we do anything that year?" file. My wife and children and I had spent the last 45 minutes of 2011 trying to decide on a movie to watch, and as usual, every suggestion was met by a roughly equal mix of exuberance, dissent, and apathy.

I'd been pushing hard for 2012 in an attempt to start a new family tradition of watching year-themed movies on New Year's. My wife wanted to watch "a disaster movie on a cruise ship" that wasn't The Poseidon Adventure, Beyond The Poseidon Adventure, the remake of The Poseidon Adventure, or Boat Trip. My 3 kids were lobbying - each with equal and unwavering dedication - for X-Men, Hot Rod, and Escape From New York respectively. Not respectfully, mind you. When my kids get to arguing about movies, they're about as respectful of each others' selections as Roland Emmerich is of plausibility and historical accuracy.

When my stove timer went off, signaling the turn of the New Year, we all went out on the front porch and as my wife and I waved at our neighbors and exchanged unintelligible well wishes with them, the kids made a mess with the pathetically legal poppers and snappers we'd picked up at Wal Mart the previous evening. When the token festivities were over, my wife sent the kids to bed so they wouldn't be tired for church the next morning. Then she retired herself. She is their Sunday school teacher, after all.

The conspiracy theorists would have us believe that the end of the world is coming this year, and from the way it was going so far, it couldn't come soon enough. The year was less than an hour old and already it needed a jump start, a shot in the arm, something to - in the words of Emeril Lagasse - kick it up a notch.

I love quirky superhero movies (Kick Ass, Special(Rx), Unbreakable) and with Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, and The Baconator as 3/4 of the lead cast, Super had set the expectation bar high. So high, in fact, that the movie could hardly fail to disappoint. Add to that the fact that I'd bought the movie blind - without so much as reading a review - based solely on my love of the cast and the premise of a delusional, pipe wrench wielding superhero with the catch phrase, "Shut up crime!" and I'm sure you can imagine my prayers of, "Please don't suck! Please God, don't let this movie suck!" as the opening logos faded in and out and we're greeted by Rainn Wilson's voice describing his "two perfect moments."

My fears were not assuaged right out of the gate. Not because the movie isn't good from the word go, but because it starts with character rather than action. Instead of blasting us in the face with slick visuals and snappy dialogue, we're introduced to Frank (Rainn Wilson) as a man torn between desperate pain and childlike hope. We follow him on his journey through the dissolution of his marriage and his search for purpose as he becomes The Crimson Bolt, and the less comic-ey, more honest pacing of writer/director James Gunn's introduction of Frank's character and struggles refused to conform to my expectations. In retrospect, I've seldom been so happy to have those expectations disappointed.

I won't say much more or go into detail, but I will say this: When I turned off my TV, got up off my couch, and went to bed, I wasn't thinking about "what do we watch" arguments or lackluster celebrations or the weenie, pathetic fireworks my kids have been forced to grow up with. I was thinking about The Crimson Bolt, The Holy Avenger, and especially Boltie (What can I say? I'm a fan.). I was thinking that, despite all the regurgitated dreck Hollywood is spewing these days, if movies like this are somehow still managing to get made, maybe all hope isn't lost. Maybe 2012 will surprise us. Maybe it'll be super.

Later that day...

1988, Rated R
Written by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza (Screenplay) and Roderick Thorp (Novel, Nothing Lasts Forever)
Directed by John McTiernan
Starring Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, and Reginald VelJohnson

My son and I have a sort of ritual when it comes to watching movies. First, I ask him if he wants to watch a particular movie. Then he explains how he'd rather watch the dog take a squat on his pillow than watch that movie. Then I tell him that, if he doesn't want to watch that movie, perhaps we could watch this other movie. Then he does his best impression of a man being disemboweled with a barbecue skewer (his impression is lousy, if you're wondering) and begs me not to make him watch that. Then I say that if he doesn't want to watch that, maybe he'd like to reconsider my first suggestion. Then he groans like he's passing a LEGO(tm) and says fine, if he has to watch one of them he guesses he'd rather watch the first one.

Now it's a new year, but you know what they say about the more things change...

Having started New Year's Day with the overwhelming boost of live-up-to-its-name awesome that was Super, I feel the need to close it on an equally excellent note. That being the case, I decide not to chance it. I opened with a gamble, but I'm going to close with a sure thing. My son will turn thirteen this year. It's time to introduce him to Die Hard.

It all begins about as you'd expect it to with a tween: Jaded chuckles at the ladies' hair, sarcastic comments about smoking in the airport, and the inevitable question as to what exactly the car's cassette player is and how it works. I chuckle right along with him and explain how it was the eighties, and that back then, hair that frizzy and voluminous was actually considered quite attractive. I play along, enduring his twelve year old cynicism with a quiet patience atypical for me. I know what's coming.

When Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and the boys show up, things take a turn for the badass, and suddenly the jaded chuckles and snarky comments from the other end of the couch fall silent. At the point during the takeover of Nakatomi Towers where John McClane (Bruce Willis) watches through the cracked door as a pair of armed thugs stalk towards him down the hall, just when the tension has nearly reached the breaking point (even for a guy like me, who's seen the movie two dozen times) I look over and see my son gripping the arm of the couch, eyes wide, gaze unwavering. I smile to myself.

If half of what I've heard is to be believed, this movie's script went through eight of the nine circles of Hell during shooting. That being the case, the film is amazingly tight. The dialogue pops, the setups all pay off, and the story (given the basic concession that it's an '80s action film) makes sense. The film's original promo tagline promised, "It will blow you through the back wall of the theater!" Does it deliver?

Well, it sure blows me away, but I was a child of that era. The real test of any film's merit is whether it can still hold its own a generation later. Many of my favorite films from that time completely fail to impress my kids, or even my younger siblings (the youngest of whom is my son's age). This is a tough generation to wow. At a time when anything you can imagine is possible (at least onscreen) the spectacular becomes mundane. The magical becomes explicable. So the question is, does Die Hard really hold up, or is it just my middle aged nostalgia trying to convince me that I'm still cool; that I can still kick a bit of metaphorical ass?

When all the bad guys are dead and John McClane rolls off into the figurative sunset with his lady love under his battered and bloody arm and the credits roll, I stand up, take the disc out, and turn to my son.

"So, what did you think?" I say.

He sits up, drops his eyes as if embarrassed, smiles, and says with barely restrained enthusiasm, "Can we watch the next one?"

Yep. Still kickin' ass.