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The Interview (2014)
"Your butthole is ironic!"
A quote that illustrates the general level of humour in this generally likable yet thoroughly mediocre movie. Now it's almost impossible to divide this film from the mountains of free publicity that its attained, it's unfortunate that the controversy surrounding it casts a greater spotlight on what is generally quite a forgettable flick. When a film inspires a Presidential address, it demands an expectation that it can't deliver.
James Franco acts an approximation of someone being funny, Rogen's character is slightly annoying and gets in the way, and Randall Park lightly steals the show as Kim Jung-Un. Laughs are moderate albeit predictable, and the scatological nature of much of them begins to pall after some time. The absence of genuine wit is heavily felt, and this isn't a film that can really be described as a satire, more just a broad, dumb movie to sell popcorn. No real attempt to break the mould is given, and no one involved stretches themselves in any way. To watch The Interview isn't to watch some scathing deconstruction of a political regime, but just a few cheap dick jokes dressed up with topical trimmings.
The various politics behind the movie, and the fact that seeing it is now regarded in some quarters as a patriotic act, is almost immaterial to the matter at hand. There's lots of issues surrounding this film, from threats to hacks to Presidential addresses, and doubtless more will follow in the weeks to come. But for The Interview itself, it's a film that's gently amusing, largely insulting to its audience's intelligence, and maybe tries just a bit too hard.
The Expendables 3 (2014)
"You don't have to worry about Church any more. He's ahh he's out of the picture."
An obvious dig at Bruce Willis, who was famously blasted on Twitter by Sylvester Stallone for his involvement in this series. Perhaps sadly, it's one of the few in-jokes we get in this third instalment, with no references to Wesley Snipes' prior movie with Stallone or, perhaps more understandably, Mel Gibson not sending up his personal phone calls.
It's maybe something of a relief, as the second Expendables movie almost sank beneath the weight of its own chronically unfunny indulgence. This third edition sees it back on more reliable ground, even though only the very credulous would get a single surprise from any plot development that takes place over the entire two hours.
With the old Expendables fired to make way for a new, younger group, what follows is completely predictable. However, it's not helped that we never really get to know the new Expendables beyond the most basic, sketch-like ciphers. You know, what with the regular cast having such three-dimensional, nuanced characterisations and all.
In the first half of the new decade, Expendables has dominated Stallone's work. It's understandable, as these generic, lowest-common-denominator movies are not only kind of fun if you're really in the mood, but were also doing good business. Stallone used to have genuine ambition, but is now content in his late 60s to phone it in so much he's acted off the screen by Jason Statham. Though as his second collaboration with Robert DeNiro was the so-so but uninspired Grudge Match, it's clear that Stallone isn't the only one just churning out product.
None of these films are as appallingly bad as Stallone's lowest work in the 80s and 90s. Films like Bullet to the Head and Escape Plan contain, like Expendables, zero surprises for the viewer, but they're watchable, passable indulgences. Even generic, virtually unwatchable films where he voices a talking lion aren't black marks on his resume like Judge Dredd was.
Overall, though, if the best you can say about a movie is that it's "watchable", then it's damning with faint praise. What shines through these movies is disdain for the audience. Do the people involved in the Expendables really believe that anyone would find the "humour" therein to be genuinely amusing? It's insipid and patronising, and for a series that pays homage to the violent action movies of the 80s, then its lacks real teeth, particularly under its new PG-13 rating.
Much had been made of the fact that this third Expendables movie was leaked before release, and that it possibly affected the box office, which currently sees it only just scraping past breaking even. However, even on its first week of illegal "release" it wasn't being stolen as much as older films, so maybe the answer is more simple... maybe people finally caught on to the fact that the movies just aren't very good?
The Inbetweeners 2 (2014)
The downside of success...
With the original, so-so Inbetweeners movie generating surprisingly high box office, a sequel was inevitable. Sadly it's a sequel that's made by people too in love with the success of the first.
Almost written to order, we get by-the-numbers gross out gags, the now- tedious cameos from the parents (how many times can you laugh at Will's mum being desired, or the 1000th "Neil's dad is gay" gag?) and the total absence of any genuine characterisation whatsoever.
Most importantly, there's no realism in the film. Neil was always slow, but he's a human cartoon here, and the Australian Uncle is just Jay's dad with a different accent. Everything from the plot, to the performances and motivation is phoned in and xeroxed from previous glories.
The likable television series, while perhaps unlikely to be described as "sophisticated", had a good-natured heart to it, the idiocy and inadequacy of the leads the joke. Here their rampant misogyny is the joke itself, including Neil taking advantage of a woman under the influence of cannabis. Cannabis was a plot point of an entire episode of the series, of course, but here it's casually shown as something Simon smokes, while with Neil's reaction we're called upon to laugh at a rape joke. I thought such things had died out of cinemas in the 1980s. Though the final joke being a routine about transgender might also showcase the somewhat antiquated, mean-spirited tone.
The TV show coasted by on a nostalgic feeling... the 1980s songs in the end credits, the feelings of first love, school discos, etc. It also contained leads who were flawed but ultimately decent human beings. The Inbetweeners pictured in this 2014 movie aren't particularly likable individuals, and the women involved are just ciphers.
A sad end to a great TV series, a series that tried to break new ground each year. The movies do nothing of the sort, content to recreate past glories. Other than the dying scene, there's perhaps little that's new in this film, the remainder just a tired, uninspired reheating of old jokes, dumbed down to the lowest common denominator of humour.
The Jungle Book (1967)
"Birds of a feather should flock together"
There is an interesting - possibly unintentional - racial subtext with this film, which ends with two of the lead characters returning whey they "belong". Maybe such things weren't intended with a cartoon film about singing bears who give boxing lessons, but it makes it one of the thematically more intriguing Disney offerings.
Technically this doesn't always look like it was made 25 years after Bambi - while the art has a certain elegance in places, it's also scrappy and looks almost pencil drawn at stages. This isn't an express criticism, as it gets by on charm, which it has a considerable supply of.
Centrepiece of the film is the sequence with King Louie, a jazz/scat singing orangutan. Although the idea of having someone possess the mannerisms of black culture while in the form of a monkey is a questionable feat, his signature song - wanting to appropriate the manner of another man in order to share in his freedoms is nicely sardonic for 1967.
However, if there's one criticism of the film that holds up, it's how episodic the whole thing is. Introducing a great villain like Shere Khan three quarters of an hour into the runtime is quite a novel feat, but other characters are picked up and dropped throughout, with very few constants. Louie doesn't appear again, and just as the film begins to wind down, we get some vultures with "what's that supposed to be?" English accents. It's telling how old-hat Disney could be at times in that what were inspired as parodies of the Beatles end up singing a Doo Wop number.
Ultimately while the film has touches of greatness, and is a very pleasing time-filler, the unevenness of the story progression causes it to feel a little flat when viewed as a whole.
Sixteen Candles (1984)
An odd mix of overearnest and bawdy
I caught up with this John Hughes movie after reading that it was a direct influence on his later Pretty In Pink, and also is more highly regarded.
It's something of a surprise, given that the comedic elements here are broad and garish, and the emotional elements are really without payoff. This is the world of the 80s, where drink driving, taking advantage of drunk girls and racial stereotypes are all just everyday occurrences. (Of the later I can't complain too much as Gedde Watanabe does seem to be genuinely enjoying himself, bless him).
Having just rewatched Pretty In Pink (and rated it a perhaps overgenerous 8) I was astounded that it not only stands up as a guilty pleasure, but a genuinely decent movie. You may have small niggles, like Andrew McCarthy's eyes continually opening so wide it looks like he's having an aneurysm, or wondering how you ever thought Duckie was straight, but it's a well constructed film with emotional pay-offs.
Sixteen Candles, in contrast, has only shallow thrills. There's no real reward with the relationship between Ringwald and Schoeffling as they don't even speak until the end of the movie, and their dialogue consists of trite lines like "Make a wish." "It already came true". Away from the stilted romance, and Anthony Michael Hall as unlikely friend/borderline sex pest, we get comedy sound effects to cement the overplayed comedy elements, such as a Chinese cymbal noise every time anyone talks about Long Duk Dong(!)
This isn't a bad movie. In many ways, it's quite a good one. But it features two disparate elements that don't gel together all that well: while I can see how it went on to be vastly improved in the guise of Pretty In Pink, the other 50% of the movie went on to be Weird Science. Not that Weird Science is a terrible picture, but it's a diametrically opposed one, and this - complete with a topless scene and a blowjob reference - jars badly with the core subject matter.
John Hughes was just in his early 30s when he made this, his sixth movie but the first he directed. The follow-up, The Breakfast Club, went for overreaching earnestness, and I received many a heated private message when I criticised it in a 2001 review. But fast-forward two years and you get the run of Pretty in Pink/Ferris Bueller's Day Off/Some Kind of Wonderful, three solid movies that deserve to be revisited. John Hughes was able to tap into teen concerns and was known as one of the masters of the coming of age movie... he just needed to come of age himself.
Actually, it's more than that. It's arguably Jim Jarmusch's best film in his first thirty years of making features.
Coming in the middle of his oddly experimental stage of making films with actual plots, this one appears between similarly story-oriented pictures Dead Man and Broken Flowers (as well as the more typically plot less Coffee and Cigarettes) as one that's narrative driven.
Jarmusch's feature debut, Permanent Vacation, contained the line "What's a story anyway, except one of those connect-the-dots drawing things?" It's a philosophy the gifted director seemed to take on board for the majority of his works, giving us a series of variable but nearly always entertaining movies, most of them without anything you could regard as a traditional narrative.
Ghost Dog is one of the few that bucks this trend, with an alien beginning-middle-end set up. Although often referenced as a homage to the excellent 1967 movie Le Samouraï, the connection between the two isn't as pronounced as you might think. And, being a Jarmusch film, it's not without his own quirky brand of humour, from Italian American gangsters who listen to Flava Flav and watch 1940s cartoons, to a hit-man who communicates with pigeons and has a best friend who is a French ice cream vendor.
A talented man with a fairly unique take on movie making, his works are always worth seeking out, whether they contain rigid story lines or not. Ghost Dog may be his best to date, but his other works are often just as entertaining.
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
"That knocker must have been used in the old days to arouse the entire household."
A quote for fans of British slang there. There's plenty of more amusing moments, intentional or not, in this second Frankenstein sequel from Universal. Not for nothing did this film get extensively mined for Mel Brooks' classic Young Frankenstein, and the increasingly over-the-top performance from Basil Rathbone is a particular delight.
When Rathbone (the titular son), his English wife and their inexplicably American-accented young child travel to his father's old home predictable things begin to happen once more. Gone is the real subtext, wit or invention that the first two classic movies offered, and in its place is something that's merely okay.
Karloff is sidelined here, not getting real screen time until almost an hour into the movie, and it's left to Rathbone to carry the film as some kind of extended drawer room farce. It works well enough, even though it's all pretty much repeats, and the four sequels that followed were even lesser returns. Although the Hammer Frankenstein movies of the 50s and 60s didn't reach as great heights (and arguably lower lows), they were able to display a freshness and invention that many of the Universal sequels lacked.
The films that follow this were produced as B movies, and without Karloff's presence or the need to credit Mary Shelley for story. Although incredibly formulaic and repetitive, many of them were still watchable and quite charming, with only the melodramatic and dry House of Dracula really killing off the franchise for good. By that stage Universal's output had dropped in quality so far that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was not only an effective revival of the series, but one of its high points.
Son (and the follow-up, Ghost) strips away one of the most discussed subtext of the first two Frankenstein movies by giving Colin Clive's character sons. It also takes away any attempt at genuine artistry, as well as Karloff's voice. Frankenstein from 1939-1948 was worth watching as a lightweight piece of fun, most of them carried by Lon Chaney as the Wolfman. But for Frankenstein films that had any artistic merit, then stick with the first two.
Crimes of the Future (1970)
Worth a look only as a study of the director's early work
Back in 2000 I posted three unnecessarily flippant reviews of David Cronenberg films, including the two that followed this. But while the Cronenberg of 2000 wasn't a stranger to critical appraisal, or even mainstream commercial appeal (particularly in the 1980s), it was easy to be flippant about a director who was so well known for body horror, verging on schlock.
Fast forward to 2012 and Cronenberg has managed to completely reinvent himself, a late career renaissance as he prepares to enter his 70s. That the director could build a career for thirty years as the master of visceral horror and then completely reinvent himself is an extraordinary feat. That's not to say that his works of the new millennium haven't been sexually aware, or even in possession of an asymmetrical prostate, but suddenly he's a man of serious critical attention.
Which makes it an ideal time to reinvestigate his early back catalogue, in particular his first four films. 1966's student film "Transfer" is a study of mental illness, an extremely rare, 7 minute student film that, to date, only 55 people have seen on the IMDb... myself not included. Following this was arguably the most accessible of his first four efforts, 1967's 13m student piece, "From The Drain". So esoteric that there are wholly different plot summaries of it on the net, this story of two men in a bathtub is open to interpretation.
The first film proper was 1969's "Stereo", a silent black and white piece with narration, lasting a little over an hour. Crimes of the Future follows this trend, though adds colour and ambient sound to the mix, the minimalism possibly there as a budgetary requirement as much as a need for the avant garde.
As films to study, they're more than worth anyone's time, particularly fans of the director and his work. As entertainments, they're largely null and void, a future auteur trying out his craft rather than narratives to engage. Five long years passed before Cronenberg got to do another film, then averaging a picture every two years or so from 1975's "Shivers" until the present date.
Seeing "Shivers" again as part of this study, I realise I was perhaps too hard on it, and it's interesting to see Cronenberg emerge from avant garde director to man behind a serious (albeit black humoured) narrative. The jump to full audio and speaking parts does make his direction look a little clumsy in places, but this was a man honing his craft via experience.
The issues with "Shivers" the debatable misogyny, the crass titillation and suspect subject matter are actually all present in Crimes of the Future, right down a sequence that involves paedophilia... in this case it forms Crimes' denouement. Such story elements are in highly questionable taste, even for satirical science fiction, and do paint the young Cronenberg out as a man who wanted to shock. However, without these early ventures he may never have established a platform for himself as one of the most notable directors of the modern age.
Porgy and Bess (1959)
"No use complainin'"
Turned down by Harry Belafonte who found it "racially demeaning", the lead role in this film was then offered to the tone deaf Sidney Poitier, who was required to mime to Bobby McFerrin's dad. Placed under enormous pressure to take part, to the possible detriment of his career if he declined, Poitier reluctantly agreed, giving a professional job while The Defiant Ones was waiting. He spends the entire film on his knees, both literally and metaphorically, at least spared the indignity of any close ups by Otto Preminger's stagelike direction.
Co-star Dorothy Dandridge was also unenthused to be taking part in this questionable play, with only Sammy Davis Jr. really wanting to be there. It's not an awful film, in fact it has its plusses in many ways. The $7 million it cost can be largely seen on screen, some of the songs are genuinely worthwhile, and the puerile might get a laugh or two out of the Crabman's song where he extols the virtues of crabs.
Oddly, Belafonte released an album of tracks from the musical with Lena Horne the same year the film was released, as if to suggest that principle can only stretch so far. However, he was in good company as songs from the musical have been recorded by, amongst others, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone, Sam Cooke and Ray Charles. And although a lot of the lyrics are somewhat patronising, Richard Dawkins would surely tap his feet to "It Ain't Necessarily So".
Ultimately the movie wasn't successful critically or commercially and is generally forgotten today, while films like The Defiant Ones and In The Heat of the Night live on. If anything, it stands as a film that saw one man make sacrifices in the name of greater future good.
A Piece of the Action (1977)
Sidney bows out...
As the film that marked his initial retirement from acting, then this isn't a bad film for Sidney Poitier to bow out on. He even gets to teach a class of unruly kids and educate them on discipline and self-respect, almost like it was a decade earlier.
Although this is regarded as part of the Cosby-Poitier comedy trilogy, A Piece of the Action is more like a comedy thriller than an overt humour vehicle. Most of the laughs - if, indeed, you agree there are any - arise naturally out of the piece, rather than Poitier's friends coming on and doing hammed up "turns" as was the case in Uptown Saturday Night. The film has a lot to say on the human condition, and, while heavy- handed in the way it says it, does so well. Poitier - now fully ensconced in making black cinema, seemingly as a reaction to the sexless perfect black men he'd played to a white audience for so long - even gets to defy that he's anyone's "boy" in this movie. And until one of his comeback roles gave us an "MF" (1992's Sneakers) then this is the only place you'll hear him say something like "titty sucker".
Seeing these films through the eyes of Harry Belafonte is perhaps most rewarding, as he was scathing of the original script to Uptown Saturday Night in his 2011 autobiography. The star, friend, and sometimes rival of Sidney revealed that he found the comedy to be predictable and trite, and advised Poitier to stay one step ahead of the audience by bringing in a sea of names, one after the other, to do unconnected skits... himself contributing a Godfather parody. Belafonte had no interest in minor roles for the two sort-of sequels, and, having thought they'd got away with it once, had no desire to chance it again.
Another comment of Harry's was that Poitier had first stepped into the director's chair to replace a director who was removed from 1972's Buck and the Preacher. Belafonte noted that, while serviceable, everyone knew that Poitier wasn't Martin Scorcese, including himself. It's a fair assessment, and a reasonable profile of a man who was just interested in getting movies made without undue artistic flair. Sidney Poitier wasn't in the same league as many of the men that had guided him before a lens, no Stanley Kramer, or no Norman Jewison. But then he was capable of delivering a diverting package that was easy for anyone to enjoy, and no one ever rated Stir Crazy on its mise-en-scène.