Monday, April 14, 2014

Drop Dead Gorgeous - Small-town Pageantry

Movie: Drop Dead Gorgeous
My Rating: 3 stars

Well, here’s another fun, old classic from the 90s.  It’s a delightfully dark mockumentary about the perils of the teen beauty pageant circuit starring Kirsten Dunst, Denise Richards, and Kirstie Alley.  The movie addresses tough issues like jealousy, poverty, and what it means to be a good American.  And, it also touches on all the casual racism, sexism, and religious bigotry you see in small, Midwest towns in America.  It’s pretty cutting material.  Although some of actors did seem to be approaching the racist scenes with a little too much gusto for my comfort.  Oh well.
This movie is also pretty special for the horrific 90s outfits and hairstyles it features.  (Although, I don’t think those elements were supposed to be so funny at the time the movie was made).  Another thing I didn’t notice when I watched this movie the first time was all the actresses that went on to be pretty famous.  Of course I remembered the three leading ladies.  But I completely forgot about all the other famous actors in supporting roles, like Amy Adams, Brittany Murphy, Ellen Barkin, Allison Janney, and Will Sasso.  The movie is full of great performances.  The story centers around the run-up to the Miss Teen Princess America Pageant.  And, all the girls in town are pretty excited to participate.  But, the playing field isn’t exactly equal since Becky Ann Leeman (Denise Richards), and her mother Gladys (Kirstie Alley) are trying to throw the odds in their favor.  They’re pouring a lot of money into the pageant, and when that isn’t enough, we’re pretty sure they’re responsible for bumping off some of the other contestants.  And, things are starting to look pretty dire for little Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), the favorite to win the pageant.

The comedy and satire in this movie isn’t very subtle.  The writers pretty much hit us over the head with all the stereotypes about how uncultured and backward these small, Midwestern towns are supposed to be.  But that being said, some of the jokes are still pretty funny (except, of course, for some of the really aggressively racist ones. Yikes!).  The pageant judges are pretty hilarious with how poorly suited they are for the job—an uptight librarian type, a hardware store manager, and a full-on pervert.  And, Will Sasso is always pure gold as the town simpleton.  There’s plenty to enjoy in this film as long as you aren’t easily offended.  I wouldn’t necessarily make this movie atop priority to see, but I think you’ll probably enjoy it when you get around to it.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sukiyaki Western Django - A Must-See Soba Western

Movie: Sukiyaki Western Django
My Rating: 5 stars

I love villains in Japanese movies.  They are always the most bizarre mix of tough guy, virtuoso, and hyper-effeminate runway model.  You don't really see that kind of ambiguous character in many other places.  But, they’re absolutely fascinating, and fortunately, these guys are always featured very prominently in all of the manga-based (or just manga style) movies from Japan. Even Kakihara from Ichi theKiller, the most hard-core villain in any movie ever made on this planet, is a little preoccupied with how his hair looks, even in the middle of dismembering his enemies in super gruesome ways.
This movie is another masterpiece from Takashi Miike.  He’s made at least one movie in every style, and this time he’s decided to go for a Soba Western.  So, that means it’s in English, as tradition demands.  This is a classic story about warring gangs—the Reds and the Whites.  They are fighting an all-out battle in a small frontier town over a rumor of hidden treasure.  And true to form, these gangs are fabulously decked out.  Imagine a runway show with the theme of Eastern-Cowboy-Chic.  There’s fur, leather, denim, metal hardware, and billowing fabric everywhere.  And, the hairstyles on these guys!  Masanobu Ando is looking really sexy in his breezy white robes and razor-sharp cheekbones.   And he’s definitely the villain of the day as the leader of the ruthless White Clan, and he’s terrifying.  He’s sleek and stylish.  He has the most criminally twisted mind, and the most badass martial arts skills.  The gruff, burly men of the Red Clan are the sympathetic, but tragic underdogs.  In addition to the main battler, there’s also a Romeo and Juliet style subplot going on—forbidden and ultimately doomed love between the progeny of the two gangs.  It’s classic stuff, but that doesn’t make the story any less heartbreaking.
This being a manga-style movie, the conversations are always very dramatic, mannered, and specifically blocked.  And, the fighting sequences are hyper-stylized masterpieces. People either love this stuff of they hate it.  I happen to love it.  The movie is one big bowl of clich├ęs, but then again all Westerns and Yakuza movies are.  And, I’ve come to realize pretty recently that there’s a difference between “cheesy” and “stylized.”  This is a must see if you are a fan of Takashi Miike.  You really shouldn’t miss it.  But also keep your eyes open for the cameo from Quentin Tarentino, a self-proclaimed anime otaku.  He delivers just the performance you’d expect from him.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Red Riding Hood - Hot, Teenage Garbage

Movie: Red Riding Hood
My Rating: 1 star

Well, this movie is just one big pile of garbage.  Sure, the movie was made for tween girls, who are just discovering their bodies, and coming to terms with the new, sexy feelings they’re having for boys.  But, it seems like this one is specifically targeting exceptionally stupid tween girls.  This film is a tonally modern, yet aesthetically old-fashioned retelling of the Red Riding Hood fairy tale.  But it’s re-spun as a teen romance about werewolves and forbidden love.  Hormones are running high, and common sense is nowhere to be found.  And, it’s one big, fat, disaster on screen.

First of all, it’s directed by Catherine Hardwicke.  She’s responsible for other teen disasters like Twilight, Thirteen, and Lords of Dogtown.  And she, doesn’t want her young audience to have to infer anything.  She’s of the mind that if you don’t spell out a plot point quite specifically and verbally, the viewers just aren’t going to get it.  So, the movie is packed with excruciating spoken exposition.  And, she tries to squeeze in every tidbit of old storytelling and lore that she can, whether it’s right for a scene or not.  But, I can’t tell whether it’s the script that’s so clunky, or if it’s just the terrible acting.  It could be both.  Teen idols are cast for their good looks, not their eloquence.  Amanda Seyfried is Red Riding Hood, and Shiloh Fernandez is the sexy woodcutter she’s got her eye on.  Those two steam up the haystacks pretty well.  But, Red’s calculating mother doesn’t approve of their love.  She wants her lovely (and valuable?) daughter to marry the wealthy blacksmith.  Also, the town is being terrorized by a murderous werewolf.  And, Red suspects that it may be one of her family or loved ones.  But, which one?  Who can she trust?  It’s all pretty ridiculous and overwrought.

Thant being said, this movie is still pretty sexy.  It’s full of gorgeous, empty-headed actors, strutting their stuff.  And, they spend a good amount of the film, writhing, and sexy dancing, and making out.  It’s pretty hot.  Of course, this doesn’t even come close to making up for the abominable writing.  I’d be inclined to skip this movie if I were you.  Of course, I’m not going to judge you for watching it.  Sometimes a little fluffy, steamy trash is just what the doctor ordered.  And hey, I watched it, and I even managed to come up with a suitable excuse.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Bitter Buddha - Seeing How the Comedy Sausage is Made

Movie: The Bitter Buddha
My Rating: 3 stars

I’m a big fan of standup comedy, but was a little perplexed at first by the whole idea of documentaries about specific standup comedians.  I had always thought that the best way to learn about a comedian’s work would be to watch all their sets and specials.  But, then I figured that comedians always present a very specific, calculated version of themselves in their acts.  So, I suppose we’d never really get the full story if we relied solely on their own account to tell us about themselves.  So, I started to understand the impulse to follow around a famous standup comedian with a documentary film crew.  By watching someone for enough time, you can start to pick up even the small things they don’t want to tell you.
This documentary follows around Eddie Pepitone—a particularly high-strung, neurotic funny-man.  Pepitone is quite successful and well-known in the comedy community.  I was actually already quite familiar with his work because I listen to tons of comedy podcasts.  But, he suffers from the kind of overpowering self-doubt that plagues many individuals in his profession.  I guess it’s understandable.  The very nature of standup comedy fuels insecurity.  Artists are basically going up on stage every night trying to convince people to like them.  And, it’s totally acceptable for audiences to just reject a comedian outright.  Where else are people allowed to just voice their displeasure directly to someone’s face?  You’d never do that in real life!  Usually if someone is telling a boring story at a party, you’d try to smile and nod until you can find a suitable excuse to flee.  But, somehow it’s totally ok to sit stony-faced and let a standup comedian flounder.  It’s pretty bizarre.  But, I guess people start feeling pretty entitled once they’ve paid for two crappy, overpriced drinks at a comedy club.

I think this documentary gives a pretty accurate portrayal of the ups and downs of working as a standup comedian.  On one hand, getting the adulation of a crowd feels pretty good.  But, show business is a lot less glamorous than we’d like to believe.  Popular taste is very fickle, and audiences can be quite judgmental.  I know I sure wouldn’t enjoy it.  I’d never be able to withstand that kind of scrutiny.  So, this film would be good for anyone who’s interested in learning more about the comedy business—or even for people who just like to see larger-than-life characters fret and moan for ninety minutes.  Eddie Pepitone is quite a colorful guy.