Kicking the Tweets

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, 1984

Zen and the Art of Interdimensional Exploration

My good friend Bill recommended that I check out The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension. It was cautious advice, as he wasn’t sure if I’d love it or find it unwatchable. After seeing the movie, I understand his concern: I’m recommending it to you, now—cautiously.

In 1984, director W.D. Richter and screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch brought to the big screen a truly weird comedy-sci-fi-adventure-comedy, starring actors who would go on to become huge names. It was full of ideas and long, funny conversations about alternate realities, alien invasions, and the brainwashing of Orson Welles; it also featured a watermelon lodged in a vise on a lab table—but that’s a story for another time. The movie plays like the beginning of a new Star Wars franchise for smart people, and that may be one of the reasons it flopped.

The movie stars Peter Weller as Buckaroo Banzai, a famous neurosurgeon who moonlights as a rock star and physicist, and spends a good deal of time saving the planet with his band/league of misfit scientists, the Hong Kong Cavaliers. When a rogue scientist, Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow), escapes from a mental institution in order to lead an uprising of the secret alien race whose leader possessed him in the late 30s, Banzai and his gang leap into action to prevent a rival alien faction from blowing up the planet. If that last sentence made your head spin, just try watching the movie. I haven’t mentioned Banzai’s love interest, Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin), the long-lost twin sister of his former bride; their introduction sees Penny attempting suicide during a Cavaliers concert, and Banzai talks her down by crooning from behind a keyboard.

Buckaroo Banzai is kind of like the alternate-dimension sequel to Real Genius, another science-oriented comedy that came out the next year. The films share a very smart sense of humor that engage the mind and the gut; it’s not too dry, but there’s not an over-reliance on easy gags or variations on jokes you’ve heard a hundred times (the exception in Banzai is a running gag about the last name of Christopher Lloyd’s character, John Bigboote). The movies also have great casts in common; Val Kilmer in Genius and Peter Weller in Banzai share a Zen wackiness that grounds their supporting characters while at the same time acting as a catalyst for bizarre plot turns.

If I have one complaint about this movie, it’s that the last act is a dud. It makes sense in terms of the story, but dramatically, it just lets the air out of all that’s come before. In brief, Buckaroo and the Cavaliers converge on a hangar to stop Dr. Lizardo from launching a space ship into the eighth dimension—where he will assume great power. Had this been a ten minute distraction, I might have been okay with it; but the last half-hour of this picture is a raid-on-the-compound sequence that is executed without any suspense or attempt at twisting the convention. It’s as if the creative team were very skilled at fashioning clever molecule gags, but didn’t quite get how to stage swashbuckling adventure (hint: it doesn’t involve scene after scene after scene of different people running down similar-looking corridors).

It’s rare that I suggest a film be remade or sequelized, but in the case of Buckaroo Banzai, that could be a great idea. This is the kind of movie that Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams are making today; it wasn’t right for 1984, but today’s audiences are much more open to unconventional storytelling and self-aware humor. I appreciated the fact that the film demanded my full attention—up to a point—and rewarded me with big ideas and some good laughs. Yeah, we definitely need more of that.


The House of the Devil (2009)

Who Watches the Walkman?

Writer/director Ti West’s latest film, The House of the Devil, is a wonderfully creepy and effective thriller that is very difficult to recommend. It is so sparse and uneventful, that I can easily understand why some might turn it off halfway through. Though, to do so would be to miss out on a movie that is as much about its production design and atmosphere as it is about scaring the audience—probably more so.

The House of the Devil stars Jocelin Donahue as Samantha, a college student in need of money for the down payment on a new rental home. She takes a babysitting job in a big, scary house out in the middle of nowhere; the house is owned by the Ulmans (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) an older couple who come off as rich and aloof , but nice in the way that uses sympathy to mask duplicity and manipulation. The only minor spoiler I’ll mention is that Sam’s job doesn’t involve watching a child, but rather Mrs. Ulman’s mother who, she is told, she probably won’t even see.

I’ve left a number of key elements out here. It would be wrong to go into further detail, and it’s best to approach this movie fresh. I will say that, with the exception of one scene—and you’ll know right away what it is—the first hour-and-ten-minutes of The House of the Devil is very leisurely. There are a lot of conversations, characters waiting around, and scenes of Sam exploring the Ulman’s house. What West does with his screenplay and direction is to infuse the languid pace with the small emotions of dread and uncertainty, which are more compelling and relatable than the kinds of scares one might expect from movie with this title.

As I mentioned earlier, the real story of The House of the Devil is the authenticity Ti West brings to the production. It is set in the 80s and is the purest homage to 80s horror films I’ve seen. When directors nowadays claim that they want to capture the “classic” vibe of that decade’s horror movies, that usually means ripping off the worst elements of the worst movies (namely flooding the screen with gore and breasts). West has taken a novel approach: he’s made a movie that not only looks and feels like it came out in 1983, he’s made one that refuses to pander to the lowest common denominator.

The obvious first clue is the wardrobe. Costume Designer Robin Fitzgerald and Hair Stylist Brenda Bush capture that era in fashion perfectly. Again, they don’t parody the look of the times; they re-create it with love and obsessive detail. It helps that Jocelin Donahue bears an uncanny resemblance—in some scenes—to a young Margot Kidder, whose heyday was right around the time the film is set.

Coupled with West’s choice of camera, lighting, and even the title sequences, this movie feels like it was released almost thirty years ago, rather than last Fall. It is a bit jarring to see Sam bouncing around the Ulman’s house wearing a clunky Walkman looped to her belt, but that’s a simply a matter of disbelief that, today, she could have lost a similar device at the bottom of a small purse.

Technology—or the lack of it—plays a minor but interesting role in The House of the Devil. I don’t know that West had a message for the audience, but he certainly wanted to point out how different communication is today than it was in the 80s. When Sam raves to her girlfriend about the new apartment, her friend whines that she wishes she could’ve seen it; in a 2010 movie, Sam would’ve began the conversation by scrolling through a gallery on her iPhone, and the girls likely would’ve never even looked at each other during the whole discussion. There are a number of scenes, too, where a cell phone might’ve come in handy—and it’s nice to see a film in which there isn’t some lame exposition about bad reception or someone leaving their phone behind.

I also loved that the characters in West’s screenplay talk and act like real people. Modern movies about and aimed at teenagers are crammed with bad, hip dialogue spoken by idiots; it used to be that the “smart” one survived while the horny, moronic friends perished, but it’s now harder to tell the difference. In this movie, Sam and her best friend act like young adults; they’re sassy, sure, but they talk in complete sentences and don’t call each other “bitch” all the time. Call me old-fashioned, but I like that.

The House of the Devil is not a perfect movie. The last twenty minutes are okay, but not nearly as effective as the rest of the film. Tom Noonan, who earlier on made a delicious villain, is reduced to Menacing Chasing Guy. And I think the big reveal that leads to that chase could have been handled more smoothly. However, the final shot and the last line of dialogue are great, and reminded me of the end of the novel, Fight Club.

While I am a big fan of this film, I really hope it is a one-off. The last thing I want to see is a rush of “vintage” horror movies. This was a noble experiment that succeeded, for the most part, and I think other filmmakers could take a cue from Ti West; not that they should latch onto a gimmick and see it through, but that there is still a market for intelligent, suspenseful movies that don’t insult the audience with cheap characters and cheaper scares. I would like to think that West has given us a look into the future of gripping horror movies by forcing us to re-examine the past.


Valentine's Day (2010)

No, I Won't Be Yours

Because Garry Marshall’s new movie Valentine’s Day made no effort to engage my mind or emotions, I present to you the thoughts that occurred to me while watching it (in no particular order).

Taylor Swift was pretty funny on Saturday Night Live a few months ago. What the Hell happened?

Did Garry Marshall throw the smart audience members a bone with his weird Six Degrees of Cast Separation game? Let’s play along:

Jamie Foxx and Jessica Biel also starred in Stealth.
Eric Dane and Patrick Dempsey also starred in Grey’s Anadomy.
Topher Grace and Ashton Kutcher also starred in That 70’s Show.

I’m really tired of this Hollywood bone chic. Half the women in Valentine's Day look like they do nothing but work out and nibble soy sausage, and it’s not attractive. Jessica Alba looks like a straight-up man, and I’m surprised her razor-sharp cheekbones didn’t hospitalize Ashton Kutcher during their on-screen kiss. And who thought it was a good idea to put Jessica Biel in a sleeveless dress? Jesus, I think she actually bench-pressed away her femininity. The only real woman under forty in this movie is Anne Hathaway. The rest are trying to appeal to some disgusting Maxim ideal of toned, hot, and vacant.

In the Movies in the Cemetery scene, Shirley MacLaine’s character shows up to win back her husband, played by Hector Elizondo. She plays an actress in the film, and when we see her standing against a large screen that’s projecting one of MacLaine’s very early roles, the moron behind me in the theatre kept saying to his wife/girlfriend/V-Day-hookup, “That’s really her!” “No, seriously, that’s really her! On the screen! That’s really her!”

In the same scene, Shirley MacLaine’s character yells at her husband—to whom she recently confessed that she’d had an affair—and informs him that he’s going to forgive her because that’s what people who are in love do. He then forgives her and they kiss. I didn’t realize relationships worked that way. So, guess what, kids: it’s now officially okay to cheat on your spouse, gamble away your life savings at the track, and even run over your pesky in-laws on Thanksgiving—because your spouse will instantly forgive you! That’s what people who are in love do.

Does the U.S. Army really allow their captains to fly 28 hours round-trip to see their loved ones on Valentine’s Day? Or is this just a bullshit conceit of the movie? If it’s true, I’m not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, it’s touching; on the other hand, I hate to say that it sounds like a tremendous waste of taxpayers’ dollars. I mean, why let them come home for a day, especially if, like the character in this movie, they’ve been away from home for eleven months? Isn’t that kind of traumatizing for the soldier and the family?

At what point will Hollywood stop infusing every light, romantic comedy with the most offensive ethnic and cultural stereotypes? The flaming gay florist; the wisecracking Latino who talks about “immigrant intuition”; the really happy, unaware Asian who doesn’t speak English; all of these and more can be found in Valentine’s Day. Well, I guess we won’t be rid of them until people—like the ladies sitting next to me—no longer slap their knees and laugh so hard they need to catch their breath.

Valentine’s Day was the third movie I’d seen in a theatre in twenty-one hours, and it was easily the worst (keep in mind, the first of the three was The Room).

Are there people out there who can’t figure out how each of the intersecting storylines will be resolved the second the actors in them appear on screen? I guess so, ‘cause there were several gasps later on in the movie.

At the end of the film, two men are reunited after one of them returns from a long business trip. By the way they talk and look at each other, it’s easy to tell that they’ve been in love for a very long time. This tender moment was ruined for me by the ignorant squawk-box in the seat behind me squealing, “Eeew! Don’t kiss! Don’t kiss! Don’t kiss!” Fortunately for her, and for all the other scared heteroes out there, they didn’t kiss. This is a mass-appeal movie about Valentine’s Day, after all, and we don’t need the patrons thinking too hard about double standards and second-class citizenship.

I’m going to sue Fandango. The run-time, according to their Web site, lists Valentine’s Day at one hour and thirty-one minutes. Our movie started at 5pm and we didn’t get out until almost 7:15.

The new Taylor Swift single is pretty good. I wonder if it’s on iTunes yet? And would I have to buy the rest of this shitty soundtrack album?


The Wolfman, 2010

Pissed-on Pedigree

Universal Pictures’ remake of The Wolfman has everything going for it on paper. It stars Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, and Emily Blunt; actors who have—to varying degrees at varying times—been very interesting and fun to watch. Director Joe Johnston has a history of making breezy pseudo-blockbusters like The Rocketeer and Jurassic Park 3, and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker has penned both a spooky period adventure (Sleepy Hollow) and a character-driven thriller (Se7en). Lastly, legendary effects man Rick Baker has been given the chance to take the revolutionary werewolf transformation effects he created in An American Werewolf in London to the greater heights using modern makeup and CG effects. The problem with The Wolfman is that none of these elements gel, resulting in a hairy, plodding failure.

Set in 1891 London, The Wolfman tells the story of Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro), a New York stage actor who returns home on learning that his brother, Ben, has been viciously murdered. After years overseas, he must reacquaint himself with his distant father, Sir John (Hopkins), and his brother’s fiancee, Gwen Conliffe (Blunt), as well as the superstitious townsfolk who live at the edge of his family’s estate. Lawrence visits a gypsy camp to investigate a medallion found in Ben’s personal effects; while there, a werewolf attacks the nomads and kills almost everyone in sight. Ben is bitten, and then the rest of the movie happens.

The first problem with The Wolfman is the story. I should have been able to write interestedly about juicy developments or at least teased you about not wanting to give anything away, but this movie is strictly paint-by-numbers. There is literally nothing to talk about, plot-wise, that you could not guess from having read the set-up. Will Lawrence and Gwen develop a forbidden romance? Does Sir John hold a deep, dark secret about the werewolf attacks? If you honestly don’t know the answers to these questions, then see The Wolfman.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with telling a “classic” story without changing things up, plot-wise; but if you’re not going to invest in that area, you must give the audience a reason to show up—by either showcasing amazing performances, providing crackling dialogue, or at least giving them cool things to look at (For the record, I believe that off-the-shelf scripts are the first sign of a doomed project, but for the purposes of this review, I’ll pretend it’s kind of okay).

As directed by Joe Johnston, The Wolfman is a gray, gloomy bore. The sets look like they were dusted off from Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow; the wardrobe is right out of Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula—along with the music, the screenplay, and Anthony Hopkins. And most of the actors shuffle zombie-like through the film, with no spark, wit, or even energy; the only actor not completely wasted is Hugo Weaving as Scotland Yard detective Abberline. He seems to know what the movie’s supposed to be in his early scenes, but by the end, he’s just another cardboard Captain Ahab who gets a comeuppance that was neither deserved nor well-conceived. To watch The Wolfman is to be transported back to 1891 London, alright, where one could watch the grass grow on the Moors for hours on end.

I’ll give Andrew Kevin Walker a sliver of credit for the one line of dialogue that woke me up during the movie; it is mentioned that Abberline was the head detective “on the Ripper case some years ago.” Of course, this fact is never mentioned again, and the story certainly does nothing with it; but in my head I began writing a story in which the central character in The Wolfman is a failed detective who must once again solve a series of unspeakable murders—coming face-to-face with two kinds of inhuman monsters. Alas, the biggest insight we get into Abberline’s psyche is a look at his handlebar moustache.

Now that we’ve established the failure of the cast, the writer and the director, we’re left only with the special effects. They’re not that special. Rick Baker’s practical makeup for Del Toro as the monster looks like a cross between the original Lon Chaney, Jr. applications and those of Jason Bateman in Teen Wolf Too. Talbot is creepier looking in mid-transformation than he is in full-on lycan mode, which is a problem. As for the CG, it looks intermittently believable and cartoon rubbery. In my opinion, the effects crew has taken a thirty-year step back from David Naughton’s wonderfully painful morph in An American Werewolf in London.

It also doesn’t help that there are no real scares in this movie. When the werewolf attacks, we get quick, computer-enhanced cuts of bodies disappearing from the frame, followed by barking and screaming sound effects and a close-up of ripped-up guts and throats. This gang has mistaken jump-scares and gore for terror in the same way they substituted gloom and cobblestones for mood.

Similarly, Johnston and Walker try and fail at padding Lawrence Talbot’s story with a silly back-story in which he was locked in an asylum for a year. I guess this is supposed to convince us that he’s possibly just crazy, or to give the townspeople an easy reason to institutionalize him again when he becomes a suspect in the killings. But we’re assaulted with too many dream sequences and half-remembered flashbacks that just pop up, go “Boo” and then vanish. Nothing in Del Toro’s performance suggests madness (except, perhaps, an obsession with Quaaludes), so all of the asylum sequences play like a distraction, an excuse to show off a cool torture chair and have the werewolf devour a roomful of book-learnin’ science types.

It’s been awhile since I sat through such an unnecessary remake. We already have movies like Silver Bullet and An American Werewolf in London available to us, films that—while not perfect—at least took the premise of the werewolf movie and took it in unexpected directions. Leaving the theatre, I felt no joy, no sense that I’d just watched something that a group of creative people were really excited to bring to the big screen. The Wolfman is the very definition of a cynical cash-grab that studio executives foist on us with the (very real) belief that brand recognition will translate into just enough money to please Universal's shareholders. It'll make you howl at the moon.

Update, 2/15/10: Do you agree with this review? Do you disagree? Do you like prizes? If so, head on over to Chateau Grrr and enter their "Wolfman Review Contest". They're offering a really cool, framed print of a werewolf woodcut that appears in the film. All you've gotta do is see the movie and write your own review to be eligible for a random drawing next month. For those not in the know, I write for the Grrr under the nom de plume "Gray Vjaardspuk". Have fun!


In the Loop, 2009 (Home Video Review)

F@#&ing Brilliant!

On the opposite end of the spectrum from The Room is In the Loop, a brilliant political satire by director Armando Iannucci and an army of screenwriters. The film is based on a BBC television series called The Thick of It, which I haven’t seen, and chronicles the snowballing screw-ups in the British and American governments that lead to war in the Middle East. It’s a fictional account, and deals in generalities as far as the year and geography of the conflict, but In the Loop is a contemporary fable about good intentions and bad governance.

The film opens with the Minister of Communications, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) taking heat for an interview he’d given in which he denounced claims that war was brewing. His aides and superiors are flustered and in full damage-control mode when Simon decides to give a follow-up statement to a gaggle of reporters; his lack of a prepared statement—or even an idea as to what his real thoughts on the matter are—leads to another gaffe (“In order to walk the road of peace, sometimes we must be ready to climb the mountain of conflict”). Simon’s anti-war stance attracts the attention of U.S. Senator Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy), who plans to use him as leverage in stopping a Washington war hawk named Linton Barwick (David Rasche) from starting a war committee.

From there, In the Loop explodes with sub-plots and supporting characters who all get ground up in the march to war. One of the things I love about this movie is that it’s a government drama in which we never see the President or other world leaders making big decisions; it showcases just how many earth-moving ideas are formulated and executed in the lower, unseen levels of the bureaucracy. There are back-room deals and double-crosses, love affairs and bloody mouths all over the place and, though farcical, this film depicts the pluses and minuses of modern politics.

Did I mention that it’s extremely funny? Okay, maybe you won’t laugh out loud a lot (though I did), but the rapid-fire dialogue and the manic actors who speak it create a dizzying atmosphere of parody and exhilaration that I haven’t seen since Alec Baldwin’s cameo in Glengarry Glen Ross. The dialogue is the heightened, perfect speech of brilliant movie characters; the zingers and insults are bone-breaking (or, as my wife put it, “Gilmore Girls on crack”).

I appreciate a movie that rewards intelligent audiences. While a base knowldege of world affairs would be helpful, In the Loop gives viewers everything they need to know to keep up. The key is keeping up. There are many different accents and fragments of slang flying about here, and they're often servicing story points that, if one isn't paying attention, can disappear in the course of a "Huh?" This is the anti-blockbuster. It invites you to engage your brain and appreciate solid writing and outstanding performances, rather passively accept pretty 3-D aliens and explosions as default quality entertainment.

The standout in the cast of great performers is Peter Capaldi as Malcom Tucker. He’s like the British Rahm Emmanuel, running from office-to-office, busting heads and getting things done for the higher-ups. His foul-mouthed diatribes can go on for minutes, and he might be considered a joke if it weren’t for the blackness behind his eyes. Tucker destroys every scene he’s in with confidence and cuss-words, but we do get to see...a “softer side” would be exaggerating, but he does get taken down a few pegs, and I appreciated the extra dimension.

In the Loop is the closest we’re likely to get to a remake of Dr. Strangelove (not that we need one). While it doesn’t end on nearly as dark a note as Stanley Kubrick’s seminal statement on war, this movie examines the absurdity of granting so much power to so few flawed, greedy human beings. It has a slightly less cynical view of government than Strangelove, though, in that we get to see noble (but, again, flawed) people working to make things better. I’m a sucker for smart, well-written political films, and this is the best I’ve seen in awhile.