Friday, November 20, 2015

34. Simon Sez

The movie: Simon Sez (Kevin Elders, 1999)

Have I seen this movie before? No.

How I saw it: DVD (via Netflix).

The recommender: Greg Rosen

The rationale: I happened upon this illustrious film one day in college. I was about to leave for class and my roommate Dave was watching it. I immediately recognized Dane Cook so I decided to stay and watch for a few minutes before I hit the road. A few minutes turned into a few hours, and I skipped class. I considered myself a pretty committed student throughout my scholarly life, but I literally skipped my class for this. After the movie ended, Dave and I laughed for what seemed like a half hour. I was delirious and felt like I had been hit with a Mack truck. I never skipped class again.

My familiarity with this movie: On multiple occasions, I (and others) have confused this film with the other major Rodman film, Double Team, which also features Jean-Claude Van Damme. Rodman really worked with some great teammates in his career: Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas, Dane Cook, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, to name a few. I also like the idea of Dane Cook trying to play Rodman in a pickup game while they were filming this movie, and Rodman just swatting him all over the court. (I’m not a huge Dane Cook fan.)

Plot summary yoinked from Netflix: “Basketball superstar Dennis Rodman stars as a hip Interpol agent who's attempting to defeat the deadly plans of a crazed arms dealer when he runs into Nick (Dane Cook), a CIA flunky attempting to deliver a ransom and bring home his client's daughter. Soon Simon joins Nick in a deadly, action-packed game of espionage and murder.”

What I thought of the movie: I can definitely understand why Greg was intrigued by this film. If he caught the very beginning, he’d have seen Dennis Rodman wearing a bright yellow jumpsuit and sitting atop a bright yellow motorcycle, tracking a big-time late-night drug deal. Dennis Rodman, lest we forget, is a gentleman who stands six feet, seven inches tall, with bleached blond hair and an array of tattoos and piercings, and he is playing an undercover Interpol agent. I was instantly hooked.

Ultimately, it was hard for Simon Sez to fully deliver on the “Dennis Rodman is essentially James Bond” premise. There were multiple reasons for this, aside from the fact that that’s a pretty outrageous premise. I’m going to try to deflect blame from Rodman for this as much as possible, though, since he’s a two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year and arguably the greatest rebounder of all time. He’s earned some leeway here.

The dialogue in this movie is a few steps below James Bond-level, which is shocking, considering how many bad puns are in James Bond movies. Simon Sez doesn’t even try to get any solid wordplay going here, preferring to let Dane Cook do extended impressions of various animals for little or no reason. (Watching him do those impressions was somehow preferable to hearing the characters talk, for the most part. He does a pretty solid dinosaur.)

While the plot is straightforward enough, the acting here is difficult to take. Cook yelps and squeals and squawks for minutes on end, and the fact that his character isn’t killed by either the bad guys or the good guys at any point is probably the most unrealistic thing about the movie. The supporting actors struggle as well, with a particularly bad “giggly archvillain” trope on show. And while I hate to say it, the mumbly Rodman shares much of the blame here. He’s hypnotic in this film, by which I mean I fell asleep while watching him act.

The action scenes here actually aren’t that bad, with some decent martial arts sequences spicing things up. But my favorite aspect of the movie was its brilliant special effects. There are some of the worst green-screen scenes I have ever, EVER seen in this movie. They’re laughably bad, particularly in a scene where Rodman and Cook drive off a cliff and their car deploys a parachute, a scene which rips off both Fast Five and Furious Seven. And yes, I know this movie came out years before both of those did, but still. There is such a thing as a retroactive rip-off.

(Side note: I IMDb-ed the budget of this movie to see if it explained the cheapness of the effects. It was $10 million, a large portion of which I imagine went toward Rodman’s hair products. HOWEVER, I also learned that the movie grossed less than $300,000 at the box office! EL FLOPPO.)

But for all its faults, Simon Sez made me pine for the halcyon era when NBA superstars frequently plied their trade on the silver screen. Jordan in Space Jam, Shaq in Kazaam, Dwayne Schintzius in Eddie. It was a beautiful time, and watching LeBron James be the best part of Trainwreck this summer wasn’t enough to scratch this particular itch. I need more. Basically, I'm proposing this: remake Simon Sez with Kristaps Porzingis. It’ll gross more than $300K.

Am I happy I took Greg’s recommendation? It’s the second-most exciting basketball-related thing we’ve experienced together this week. #RaiseHigh. #RodmanHigh.

What’s next?

UPDATE: Katie Hovanec takes advantage of the “new folks can recommend three movies now” rule, as her third choice, Milk Money, wins. I know nothing about this movie, and I am very excited about that fact.

1. Once Bitten (Alex Tucciarone)
2. The Road to El Dorado (Alexis Hipp)
3. Goodbye to Language (Micah Lubens)
4. Tooken (Pat Ambrosio)
5-7. The Holy Mountain (Zach Gibson)
8. Airheads (Katie Hovanec)
9. Airborne (Katie Hovanec)
10. Milk Money (Katie Hovanec)
11. The Descent (Tony Krizel)
12. Freeway (Molly Brady)

Friday, November 6, 2015

33. The Pest

NEW BLOG RULE: Brilliant FOTB John Frascella, having been thwarted in his recent attempts to secure his first recommendation, proposed a new rule that the blog is adopting. If you have not yet successfully recommended a movie for the blog, you can now recommend up to three (3) movies per post. (You can recommend the same movie three times to increase your odds.) If there's one thing this blog needs, it's more rules. Try to keep up, y'all.

The movie: The Pest (Paul Miller, 1997)

Have I seen this movie before? No.

How I saw it: DVD (via Netflix).

The recommender: Brendan Hunt

The rationale: Okay. So I first saw this movie when I was at the tender age of 14 or 15, at a sleepover. One of my friends at the time (who I am certainly not friends with anymore) said it was 'hilarious', so we rented it (whoa), and proceeded to watch it.

I had never been grown-man angry in my life up to this point, but I remember within ten minutes of watching that I started to get seriously, seriously pissed at how bad the movie was. It wasn't “bad movie” funny. It was “the rest of 9th grade is ruined” bad. Here's the trick -- I don't remember much at all about the movie, except that I despised it in a way I wouldn't be able to muster until much later in my life. And that's why you have to watch it. You have to validate ol' teenage Brendan's rage. Get ready.

My familiarity with this movie: I have seen Brendan get grown-man angry, folks. It’s usually because I’ve come up with some dumb pun, so I always like it. He’s a fun man to grown-man anger. I don’t think it will be fun, though, to discover how this grown-man anger was born, because this movie looks like hot trash. But I suppose I owe him this. Taste My Turnabout Is Fair Play.

Plot summary yoinked from Netflix: “When thugs threaten to break an amateur con artist’s legs unless he repays the money he owes them, he takes a high-paying, one-day job -- unaware that he’s about to become human quarry for some well-heeled hunters.”

What I thought of the movie: As I sat down to watch the movie, it occurred to me that ninth graders, even ones that will eventually grow into sophisticated gents like Brendan, generally have pretty bad taste. Generally speaking, puerile nonsense is the ninth grader’s home court, and so the fact that young Brendan had such a visceral dislike for this movie meant that it must be real, real bad.

And ooooooh how bad it was. The movie is pretty much an hour and a half of John Leguizamo doing as many annoying bits as he possibly can. The opening credits feature Leguizamo mincing about in the shower, lip-syncing along to some generic ‘90s dance groove, and making all manner of fart noises for several minutes. (Brendan's immediate distaste for the movie was thus easily explained.) Leguizamo’s going for something in between “Latino Adam Sandler” and “Latino the Genie from Aladdin,” which is a dangerous thing to go for. I would later learn that the movie increases the danger by adding a healthy dollop of wild racism to those two paradigms, as he impersonates, and offends, African-Americans, Asians, Jews, and more throughout the film. It’s really, really, cringe-inducingly bad stuff.

I should note here that John Leguizamo is a really great actor. He’s been critically acclaimed for his one-man shows on Broadway, hes had a distinguished film career, and, not for nothing, it's unequivocally a good thing that he got to play the lead role in a major studio film. One year before The Pest was released, he appeared as Tybalt in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and, as it happens, he was also given the opportunity to show off his talent for Shakespearean dialogue in The Pest. However, in The Pest, and I swear I am not making this up, that opportunity manifests itself when he delivers part of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy while literally defecating in the woods. Alas, poor Yorick! Its trash.

Leguizamo’s manic energy, which has been such a huge asset in other movies, is just wasted on this tripe. It’s hard to criticize him for being such a pest when the movie (and his character) is literally called The Pest. As noted earlier, this is a movie about hunting a human being for sport, a take-off on The Most Dangerous Game. First of all, shoutout to recent birthday girl and FOTB Ellen Barr for her recent Christmas-song-related bit, “It’s the most dangerous gaaaaaaaame of the year.” Top-notch. Second of all, I consider myself a humanist, but I was rooting for the hunter.

I must admit that I laughed a couple of times. The movie throws a lot of things at the wall, and very, very few of them stick, but it would be unfair to call it completely, irredeemably terrible. There’s a female character named Malaria. That’s pretty good. And Leguizamo gets beaten up a lot, which is also pretty good.

But it’s all just so throwaway. Great movies demand your attention. This movie demands your inattention. It is unfathomably inessential. I don’t think anyone involved in the making of this movie cared at all about its quality. It’s a waste of my time, it’s a waste of any ninth grader’s time, and it’s enough to make me grown-man angry for about the twelfth time this week.

Am I happy I took Brendan’s recommendation? I feel like I just covered this.

What’s next?

UPDATE: Greg Rosen, at long last, gets in with the Dane Cook-Dennis Rodman vehicle Simon Sez.

1. Goodbye to Language (Micah Lubens)
2. Fighting (Pat Ambrosio)
3. Simon Sez (Greg Rosen)
4. Spice World (Allison Shuster)
5. Spirited Away (Alexis Hipp)
6-8. The Holy Mountain (Zach Gibson)
9. Freeway (Molly Brady)
10. Beyond the Lights (Anne Whipp)
11. The Worst Witch (Katie Hovanec)
12. Bound (Katie Hovanec)
13-15. In the Name of the Father (Lorna Mulvaney)
16. Oldboy (Steve Isaac)

Thursday, October 22, 2015

32. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

The movie: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)

Have I seen this movie before? No.

How I saw it: Vimeo.

The recommender: Lindsay McCullough

The rationale: My selection was born out of a failed attempt to show off my cinematic prowess by picking György Pálfi’s Taxidermia. Or perhaps the failure falls upon John for not doing his damnedest to find this Surrealist Hungarian body horror/comedy. [Editor’s Note: Nah.] Either way, it is a shame that Taxidermia was not feasible, as it is a film that has stuck with me. I’d rather not use a cliché, but it’s one of those “car crash” movies: visceral, grotesque, bizarre. And you Just. Can’t. Stop. But, despite the film’s oh-so-literally gut-wrenching scenes, Pálfi manages to keep you entranced the entire time with his beautiful directing and storytelling. In short, I’ve never experienced anything like it.

But I digress. I felt that my backup needed to be something as equally enchanting, so I went en chanson, a film in song. Les Parapluies de Cherbourg [Editor’s Note: This is the French title; we use ENGLISH on this blog] is a movie that happens to be entirely sung, making it entirely unforgettable like my disgusting Hungarian art piece. Since this is a French film, it is a film d’amour and achingly so. The somewhat banal plot line of doomed love is elevated by the mesmerizing score of Michel Legrand. There is no chance anyone can leave this movie not humming the refrain of “I Will Wait For You” that lilts throughout what Slant magazine called “the weepiest train farewell in history.”

While my original pick may have been that car crash, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg is more like watching a beating heart slowly come to a stop. V French. Amuse toi bien!

My familiarity with this movie: I know very little about this film, as is the case with the Hungarian film that I (thankfully) could not find. (It looks real gross, y’all.) This is a good thing! This blog is all about expanding my horizons and such. Although, as noted, I would prefer to expand my horizons toward fun French musicals and not weird Hungarian grotesquerie.

I have mixed feelings on the French. I like their fries, but I don’t care for their attitude. Also, I took one semester of French in college, but I did not remember the French word for “umbrellas.” Thanks a lot, GW/Obama.

Plot summary yoinked from Netflix: Beautiful umbrella-store clerk Genevieve and charming gas station attendant Guy fall in love in the rainy coastal town of Cherbourg, but their romance is cut short when Guy is drafted into the army in this singular cinematic classic.

What I thought of the movie: I liked it! I was not as bewitched by it as Lindsay was, but that’s not too much of a surprise. (The inevitable ravages of time and age have taken their toll on my capacity for bewitchment.) It was unique and memorable and made me want to walk around town singing in French, which I imagine is not something you see every day in Petworth.

Lindsay and I watched the film together, a decision that I’m sure she regretted about two minutes in, when I started repeating French words that I recognized aloud. Those FsOTB who have watched films/TV shows featuring foreign languages or unusual accents with me will know that this is something I do a lot, and that it is extremely charming. (Watching Friday Night Lights with me is particularly fun: “BIG TIM  RIGGINS, RESERVATIONS FOR SIX,” etc.)

So you’d have good reason to criticize me for the fact that it took me a while to get into this movie. I think that there are legitimate reasons for this, though. The fact that the entire movie is sung, most of it in the recitative style of an opera, is obviously a bit weird. This is especially true in this movie, in which the banality of the dialogue clashes with the drama inherent in… you know, singing things. “Where are you going?” “To the store.” “Oh OK cool.” Sing those things. It’s weird! (These are not direct translations of the lyrics, but you get the idea.)

The structure of the film is a little difficult, as well. We’re introduced to Guy and Genevieve, the two young lovers, and we don’t have much time to get to know them before Guy is drafted. The scene that Lindsay mentioned in her rationale is indeed heartbreaking, but it came a little too early in the film to have the impact that it could have.

But it gets better as it goes along. The characters’ separation allows them to develop more fully, and you get used to all of the movie’s idiosyncrasies (the singing, the Frenchness, etc). It’s quite a beautiful film, full of v colorful scenery and costumes, and while most of the songs aren’t catchy hits, they’re certainly quite nice to listen to.

You can figure out some of the plot developments in advance, but the movie eventually builds to quite an affecting conclusion. It reminded me, in some ways, of Titanic. The fact that the plot isn’t the most intricate is actually helpful; it gives us something simple to latch onto while they challenge us in other ways (non-stop French singing in this film, large CGI shipwrecks in Titanic). And even for the non-Francophiles among us, I ultimately think the movie is worth that challenge. It’s essentially a longer, more emotional version of the Flight of the Conchords’ song “Foux du Fafa,” and if that’s not high praise, I don’t know what is.

Am I happy I took Lindsay’s recommendation? I am. Although, to directly quote a line from this movie, “maybe happiness makes me sad.” T FRANCAIS.

What’s next?

UPDATE: Brendan Hunt's recommendation of the John Leguizamo vehicle The Pest wins this week. I believe I recall him telling me that this is one of the worst movies he's ever seen. Fanks.

1. Trash (Pat Ambrosio)
2. Equilibrium (Steve Isaac)
3. The Worst Witch (Katie Hovanec)
4. Goodbye to Language (Micah Lubens)
5. Romy and Michele's High School Reunion (Kate Meroski)
6. Timer (John Goben)
7. Darkness Falls (Alexis Hipp)
8. Pokemon: The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back (Evan Chiacchiaro)
9. The Pest (Brendan Hunt)
10. The Holy Mountain (Zach Gibson)
11. Jack Frost (Molly Brady)

Friday, October 16, 2015

31. Across the Universe

The movie: Across the Universe (Julie Taymor, 2007)

Have I seen this movie before? No.

How I saw it: DVD (via the DC Public Library).

The recommender: Meg Moran (previously recommended Blow-Up)

The rationale: I recommended this movie because I wanted you to watch/write about a musical, and I love this one. It's a random collection of high-production musical numbers performed by a bunch of young upstarts that you sort of recognize (that guy from that self-important thing about the British monarchy! that girl who was engaged to Marilyn Manson!) strung together by a thin storyline and punctuated by some pretty great celebrity cameos. (What's better than a sexy nurse Salma Hayek? Five sexy nurse Salma Hayeks, obvi.) At times cliche and/or silly, at others, heart-rendingly poignant. It's basically a 2-hour episode of Glee. What's not to love?  Also, at the risk of saying the unpopular thing, I'm going to go ahead and assert that a handful of these covers are actually improvements over the original (ahem, "Happiness is a Warm Gun" and "Dear Prudence"). I'm sincerely hoping it offers you a break from your steady diet of Movies People Hate and that you'll love it, or at least like it, too.

My familiarity with this movie: First of all, I should note that Meg has taken issue with the fact that I called her “one of the blog’s most vociferous critics,” which is fair. (This blog has so many vociferous critics it’s hard to keep track of who’s voicferousest.) Her criticism was reserved mainly for my post about The Guest, which I liked and she did not. It’s important to note that we welcome differences of opinion here at the blog, except on the issue of whether the blog is trash. (It is.)

Meg is also right to note that the blog has not yet covered a musical, which is a tragedy. I love musicals, and I love the Beatles. I would have seen this movie when it came out if I weren’t dissuaded from doing so by a close friend. He sent along this review of the film, which contained the best headline -- “Hey Dudes, You Made It Bad” -- and opening line -- “I saw a film today. Oh boy.” -- I’ve ever seen in a movie review. If I ever come up with anything half that good in my life, I’d be very surprised. (It’s also worth noting that Roger Ebert and The New York Times loved this movie. Gotta hear both sides.)

Plot summary yoinked from Netflix: “In this musical mix of live action and animation featuring songs by the Beatles, Liverpool dock worker Jude falls for Lucy on an excursion to America in the 1960s. But when Lucy's brother is drafted, Jude and Lucy take a stand as anti-war activists.”

What I thought of the movie: I was not a fan. (I’M SORRY, MEG.) I didn’t hate everything about it: the lead actors were convincing, and many of the musical performances were good, although I disagree with Meg’s assertion that any reach the level of the originals. (To be fair, I can honestly only think of two Beatles covers that I’d rather listen to than the originals. The problem with covering a Beatles song is that it was originally done by the Beatles.)

I imagine that this is a problem I would have with any jukebox musical (I think this is the first one of them that I’ve experienced), but my primary issue with the movie was how it used the Beatles’ songs. The characters in the movie get their names from Beatles songs (Jude, Lucy, Prudence, Sadie, etc.), and that’s fine. but I hated seeing the songs shoehorned in to fit the movie’s particular theme and plot and characters. For example, the movie’s version of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” the most ecstatic song I’ve ever heard, was a dour, downtempo dirge, sung by a lovesick cheerleader to the object of her unrequited affection.

Now maybe I’m being too precious about this stuff; maybe I’m too unwilling to see the Beatles’ music recontextualized like this. Again, this might be a jukebox musical problem and not just an Across the Universe problem, but the way that the movie overly literalized the lyrics of the songs drove me crazy. This was less of a problem for the Beatles’ early songs, as the film's renditions, with the notable exception of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” reflected the pure, unbridled joy of those songs. (A goofy take on “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” set in a bowling alley, was probably my favorite number in the movie. I’ll even excuse its similarity to that one trippy scene from The Big Lebowski.)

The late-period songs, however, were usually mined for any vague relationship they might have to Big Social Issues. We see “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” menacingly sung by a cartoon Uncle Sam poster and an army of grotesquely masked soldiers to a group of reluctant draftees, who eventually carry the Statue of Liberty on their backs through the Vietnamese jungle. She’s so heavy, indeed. It’s a well-choreographed, intricate musical number that I found nearly unwatchable. That’s one of the more cryptic songs in the Beatles canon (both lyrically and musically), and the movie makes the fatal mistake of trying to interpret it. So many songs are like this: the subtext becomes text, and while it looks pretty enough, it doesn’t have any depth. It’s like reading something that’s been translated to another language and then back to English again.

The Beatles were kaleidoscopic in their range; their music speaks to us today as clearly as it did when it was written, if not more so. And the movie turns their songs into a Soundtrack to the Sixties. “Let It Be” as an emotional funeral song for a Vietnam soldier and a black youth killed in the Detroit riots, sung with the help of a gospel choir; “Revolution” as a scathing tell-off to a bunch of anti-war protesters. It's not that these are necessarily the wrong interpretations of the songs, it’s just reductive, and it implicitly argues that the Beatles were primarily a political band, when they weren't. The thought of this movie being some kid’s introduction to the Beatles is deeply troubling to me. (Especially when movies like A Hard Day’s Night and Help! exist.)

Minor things got my goat as well. Occasionally the movie will make cheeky nods at Beatles lyrics in the dialogue. These nods were fairly groan-inducing. An old man, to an ambitious young man who wants to leave his hometown: “I felt the same at your age. I thought to myself, when I’m sixty-four, I’ll be long gone from this place.” Did you guys hear that? He said the name of a Beatles song! Later, a female character comes in to an apartment through the bathroom window, immediately followed by this exchange: “Where’d she come from?” “She came in through the bathroom window.” SMH.

If nothing else, the movie is fun to look at, has a positive message, and depicts young love in an exciting, engaging way. Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess act well and sing well and look pretty together. And the choreography, as is to be expected from a Julie Taymor joint, is bright and wild and edgy.

But I think I feel about this movie the way I feel about song covers in general. Great song covers transform the source material; they sound distinct and urgent and essential. A good cover feels like it demands to have been made. At no point did Across the Universe feel essential, like it demanded to have been made. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine any version of this movie that I would have liked. Maybe that’s my fault, maybe that’s the movie’s fault. But I feel like it’s not entirely my fault.

Am I happy I took Meg’s recommendation? I’d have preferred The Guest. (SORRY AGAIN.)

What’s next?

UPDATE: The OHS English department's strangehold over the blog continues apace, as Lindsay McCullough's weird Hungarian film Taxidermia wins. (Unless I can't find it. Stay tuned.)

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Taxidermia was indeed unfindable. Per the blog rules, Lindsay has provided a backup recommendation, the French musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Lindsay submitted this recommendation by using its original French title, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, because she is v cultured.

1. The Babadook (Alexis Hipp)
2. Goodbye to Language (Micah Lubens)
3. Stay (John Frascella)
4. The Eiger Sanction (Carson Miller)
5. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Zehava Robbins)
6. Beasts of No Nation (Pat Ambrosio)
7. Equilibrium (Steve Isaac)
8. Taxidermia The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Lindsay McCullough)
9. The Worst Witch (Katie Hovanec)
10. The Holy Mountain (Zach Gibson)
11. Oldboy (Molly Brady)
12. The Pest (Brendan Hunt)
13. Pokemon: The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back (Evan Chiacchiaro)