Saturday, July 30, 2011

Diversion 2.0 Thirty Day Movie Challenge -- Day 13

Day 13 – A Thriller/Horror Movie

I’ve never been much of a fan of horror movies. There are many wussy reasons associated with this (overly sympathetic with victims, dislike for gratuitous movie gore, etc.), but the bottom line is that the appeal of campy slasher flicks completely evades me. Fortunately, I have no trouble with psychological horror pictures, and today’s movie is the kind of scary I prefer: one that effs with my mind instead of my stomach (thrillers accomplish more-or-less the same thing, which is why I lumped them in with horror).

The Others (2001)

Released a few years after The Sixth Sense proved that good, creepy movies can exist in the PG-13 space, The Others is a tale of Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman), a mother of two lives in an old, Miss Havisham-esque manor in the British countryside. Her two children have an uncommon aversion to sunlight, and Grace has a series of complicated rules in place around the house in order to avoid exposing them to sunlight. The house’s servants have since abandoned the joint, but fortunately for Grace, three new ones arrive, unannounced, to take their place. The servants’ arrival coincides with some strange goings-on in the house, though, and it’s up to Grace to discover what is happening in the house, and who these new hired hands are.

In all honesty, I haven’t seen The Others in probably close to a decade; I think my family rented this on Pay-Per-View once upon a time, and that would have been late 2001/early 2002. Nonetheless, the movie has stuck with me, and I will do my best to recreate the reasons why.

One thing I like about The Others is its creepy atmosphere. The Others is, in essence, a haunted house movie, and its production design, sets, and lighting give the sensation that something ominous lives in this big ol’ place. The movie takes its time, too, to build atmosphere and create suspense—I find that I enjoy horror the most when I’m freaking out over what might happen, and The Others finds many opportunities for the viewers to psyche him- or herself out.

There's something about a big, empty house that fills me with a creeping dread. The Others is basically built around this concept.

A few more things. I recall the film being competently acted, but, again, it’s been a while since I’ve actually watched it, and I’m not going to make an in-depth analysis on performances I can’t even remember that well. What I do know is that Nicole Kidman is a talented actress, and reviews at the time said she did well in The Others, and I’m willing to take their word for it. Also, while I’m generally not a fan of the Twist Ending (*coughTheVillagecough*), I enjoyed the direction and turns the movie’s story took, and would just as soon watch it again, even knowing the twist.

This is a good deal of praise heaped onto a movie whose details come to me in bits and pieces, and I should probably hop on this film when it’s released on Blu-ray in September. Still, The Others is one of the few PG-13 horror films that is generally considered worthwhile by horror buffs, and is a fine example of how pacing and tension can be just as creepy and movie gore and Gotcha! moments.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Diversion 2.0 Thirty Day Movie Challenge -- Day 12

Day 12 – A Rom-Com

If the cliché goes that women don’t care about action movies, it also says that men could give a s@$# less about romantic comedies. Still, we here at Diversion 2.0 are all about equality, and because we covered such a bro-heavy genre during Day 10, we are getting our chick flick on for Day 12.

27 Dresses (2008)

There are two ways to approach watching a romantic comedy: either rail against the established formula of stock characters, contrived situations, and obligatory happy ending; or accept the movie for what it is and instead focus on how the movie works within the established template. Since I’ve opted to go for the latter approach, I will concede that 27 Dresses works fairly well; the film does nothing to distinguish itself from the typical rom-com mold, but instead takes a well-worn formula and executes it well.

27 Dresses stars Katherine Heigl as Jane Nichols, a woman who has been a bridesmaid in 27 weddings (hence the title). One night, while attending two weddings almost at once, she bumps into Kevin Doyle (James Marsden), a charming but cynical gentleman whose jaded views on marriage run absolutely contrary to Jane’s. The two bicker on their cab ride home, but Jane accidentally forgets her day planner in the car. Kevin, who writes for the local paper, decides to use the contents of her planner to write a story on Jane’s always-a-bridesmaid lifestyle. Will Kevin start to grow closer to Jane, only to disappoint her when she discovers he wanted to write an exploitative article about her? Will Jane find that Kevin isn’t the jaded A-hole he pretends to be? Will there be misunderstandings, conflicts, and an ultimate resolution? I’ll give you 27 guesses.

Though undemanding, 27 Dresses delivers a decent piece of cinematic fluff.

I first saw this movie when one of my old girlfriends, after patiently sitting through the likes of Taken and Die Hard, suggested we watch something a bit more… chick-y. I had seen a fair few rom-coms in my day (including What Women Want, in theaters, with my father), so I braced myself for the worst. To my surprise, it wasn’t half-bad. Entirely derivative, perhaps, but not half-bad.

Most of the appeal in a rom-com comes from the watching the two protagonists—if they work well onscreen, the movie has a better chance of working, but if their chemistry is lifeless and flaccid, the likelihood of the film being a clunker is all but certain. How fortunate, then, that Marsden and Heigl play off of each other so well. Both actors have an unforced charisma about them, and create a believable romantic tension together. Every rom-com also seems to have a wa-acky best friend, and 27 Dresses’ sidekick du jour is Casey (Judy Greer), whose stereotypically broad antics are still fitfully amusing. Less effective, though, are Jane’s sister, Tess, (Malin Åkerman) and dreamy boss (Edward Burns), who provide the movie’s subplot; Jane is in love with her boss, but Tess quickly cozies up to him, and the two announce their engagement. Still, for the most part, 27 Dresses is surprisingly well-acted, or at least it’s better than can be expected for such a by-the-books romantic comedy.

In a rom-com, sometimes all you can ask for are two charming protagonists, and this is where 27 Dresses delivers

It’s actually 27 Dresses’ bookishness that works to the film’s advantage. Director Anne Fletcher knows that chick-flick audiences watch these movies because of the formula, and works every cliché and genre hallmark with style and aplomb (e.g., Jane and Kevin bond over a bar sing-along of “Benny and the Jets”). She also moves things along at a steady clip, too, leaving the movie feeling light, frothy, and—get this—fun. While Fletcher doesn’t reinvent the rom-com wheel with 27 Dresses, I got the feeling that she didn’t want to, and, as a genre exercise, the movie holds up pretty well.

While I wouldn’t necessarily watch it on my own time, 27 Dresses isn’t so bad, and is probably one of the few outright chick flicks that I would sit through if my significant other was hell-bent on watching some airy comedy where the girl gets the guy in the end.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Diversion 2.0 Thirty Day Movie Challenge -- Day 11

Day 11 – A Comedy

I love to laugh, long and loud and clear. Like I’ve mentioned before, I watch movies as a form of escapism and not, like many well-rounded and proficient film viewers, to gain something or add to my perspective on life. This makes comedies, a genre skilled (but not always that skilled) at lightening the mood, quite enjoyable to me indeed. While there’s nothing perhaps quite so wretched as a comedy that isn’t funny, there’s nothing quite so heartening and enjoyable as a well-executed gang of laughs, and today’s entry is just that.

Blazing Saddles (1974)

First and foremost, I like my comedies to be silly, and Blazing Saddles is silly as hell. Impromptu Cole Porter song breaks, Yiddish-speaking Indians, and Alex Karras giving a horse a right cross to the jaw all help give Blazing Saddles a wonderfully farcical edge, and this kitchen-sink approach to goofiness helps make it my favorite Mel Brooks movie.

Blazing Saddles doesn’t have a plot so much as a series of comic vignettes strung together, but here goes: in the old west, a black railroad worker named Bart (Cleavon Little) is saved from the gallows and appointed sheriff of Rock Ridge by State Attorney General Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman). It’s not out of beneficence, though—Lamarr wants to drive the folks of Rock Ridge out of town, and figured a black sheriff would help achieve his ends. Unfortunately, Bart soon earns the respect of the town, leaving Lamarr to try different means to driving him off, whether it’s the muscular Mongo (Karras) or the seductive Lily von Shtupp (Madeline Kahn). Bart overcomes every obstacle thrown his way, and with the help of his deputy, Jim, the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), he brings Lamarr to justice the only way he knows how: breaking out of the movie set and chasing him down at Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

Little and Wilder have an effortless comic chemistry throughout. "Where the white women at?"

Blazing Saddles is just funny. From the casual racial humor to the manically silly musical numbers to the loving parody of Western tropes, Blazing Saddles has a distinct and hilarious comedy style. So self-evident is the comedy to me that I am literally having trouble writing about it, so instead I’ll content myself with a list of my favorite moments:

  • Bart rides off towards Rock Ridge to the tune of “April in Paris,” then rides by Count Basie while he’s playing the song.
  • “No, Mongo straight.”
  • Lili von Shtupp’s song “I’m Tired,” which I will forever associate with my good friend Kailey.
  • “Are we awake?”
    “We’re not sure. Are we black?”
    “Yes, we are.”
    “Then we’re awake, but we’re very puzzled.”
  • Bart gives Mongo a Looney Tunes-style exploding Candygram.

The flavor is a bit different than many comedies today (as are most films made in the 70’s), but Blazing Saddles is one of my favorite movies of all time, and perhaps my favorite movie comedy.

Diversion 2.0 Thirty Day Movie Challenge -- Day 10

Day 10 – An Action Movie

As a man, I would be remiss if I didn’t enjoy movies involving explosions. Granted, most films released nowadays, even romances and comedies, involve explosions in some shape or form, but I’m talking about the ones tailor-made for explosion-watching: the action movie. They range from campy, to brooding, to somewhere in between, but they all had better feature a GD explosion somewhere along the line. Many high-profile titles are worth discussing here, but I’m going to talk about one of my favorite, under-the-radar movies where stuff gets blow’d up real good.

S.W.A.T. (2003)

It was 2003, and my parents were on vacation in New York, leaving me to fend to myself with my grandma. Rather than sinking into ultimate domesticity, I used this time to turn south Missoula into my oyster, leaving the house sometime in the morning and not returning until dark. Among other things, my grandma’s house is located near two movie theaters (a regular six-screen and a now-closed dollar theater), and I took in several flicks during my interim of ultimate freedom, including S.W.A.T.

S.W.A.T. is a remake of/movie-inspired-by the 70’s TV series of the same name. The film opens with a bank heist, as two SWAT operatives, Jim Street (Colin Farrell) and Brian Gamble (Jeremy Renner), attempt to curb the efforts of the North Hollywood shootout-pretenders. Street and Gamble manage to diffuse the situation, but a hostage is injured in the process, and both receive demotions—Street accepts his, while Gamble leaves the force. Street spends his days working in the LAPD gun cage, until Sgt. Daniel “Hondo” Harrison (Samuel L. Jackson) turns up to recruit him for his SWAT team. Street agrees, and is soon joined by Chris Sanchez (Michelle Rodriguez), Deacon Kaye (LL Cool J), T.J. McCabe (Josh Charles), and Michael Boxer (Brian Van Holt).

Meanwhile, a drug lord of indiscernible national origin named Alexander Montel (Oliver Martinez) is captured and brought to prison, though not before announcing to the world that he will give $100 million to the party that frees him. With such a high profile prisoner, LAPDs plan to move Montel into more secure, federal jurisdiction, and it’s up to Hondo and Street to make sure that happens.

For me, the highlight of the movie is the series of training sequences undertaken by Street and crew, culminating in a faux-airplane takeover.

Not only is it an action movie, but it’s a cop action movie! Are we clichéd or what today? I rather like it though, and here’s why: while many action flicks go above and beyond the call of duty to provide over-the-top, fiery thrills (e.g., Michael Bay’s entire filmography), S.W.A.T. is content to let things play out “realistically.” “Realistically” is in quotes because, while there are still several flights of fancy (the word is used deliberately), the characters in S.W.A.T. generally behave like they’re working, above-average police dudes. Compare this to Bad Boys II, another cop movie from 2003, where Will Smith and Martin Lawrence leap through the air like Max Payne with a jetpack. “Rolls are for John Woo movies, not real life,” quips Jackson’s character during an early scene, and the S.W.A.T. tends to follow his train of thought regarding what’s possible.

The movie is competently acted all-around. Jackson struts his swaggery tough guy act that he can probably, by now, perform in his sleep, Farrell provides a grounded, confident base for Jim Street, and rest of the players all function more or less like they’re expected to (Rodriguez does yet another Girl Fight role reprise, LL Cool J carries himself with all of the cocky, fun showboating found in his music, etc.). The actual “action” scenes are relatively minor compared to, say, Transformers, but they’re paced well and get the job done—at no point does S.W.A.T. ask the film-goer to be Impressed!, and I appreciate the sense of reservation on the film’s part, like it’s confident enough in its thrills that it never feels like forcing the issue.

S.W.A.T. apparently made over $200 million across all of its various markets, but barely made it onto DVD, let alone the annuls of movie history. Shame, really, because S.W.A.T. provides many small pleasures unseen by recent action flicks, and is well-worth renting for some light summertime entertainment

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Diversion 2.0 Thirty Day Movie Challenge -- Day 9

Day 9 – A Drinking Game Movie

One of my small pleasures since becoming an adult is to take activities I enjoyed as a kid and infuse them with alcohol. Comic books, theme parks, water sports—it’s like I’m experiencing them again for the first time! Movies are undoubtedly a part of this list, and I’ve had oodles of fun inventing hypothetical and actual drinking games for a few. Here’s one I made for Happy Gilmore, which I was *this* close to using for today’s entry:

Drink every time:

  • There’s visible or audible product placement (waterfall during Happy’s Subway commercial)
  • A piece of licensed music plays
  • Happy gets angry and shouts/hits something
  • There’s a line of dialogue you’re heard quoted before (drink twice if you’ve been the one who’s quoted it before)

Sadly, we’re not going to discuss a movie involving a game I haven’t played yet (anyone have a copy of Happy Gilmore they’d like to loan out?). Instead, I’m opting for a movie I’ve actually played a game with.

Heavy Metal (1981)

Based on several stories from the semi-popular graphic novel series of the same name, Heavy Metal is a sexy, violent trip through animation the likes of which North American audiences hadn’t seen during the twilight years of the Carter Administration (with the exception of Fritz the Cat, but who the hell cares about Fritz the Cat?). Not so much a full narrative as a series of slightly-connected stories, Heavy Metal tells of a cab driver in a dystopian future, a geek-turned-Conan fantasy adventure, a crew of zombie B-17 pilots, and a badass warrior woman named Taarna. Giving the film a further edge is its soundtrack, and though it doesn’t quite live up to its namesake (unless Cheap Trick and Journey are your idea of heavy metal), the licensed tunes create a unique, timely atmosphere, and go a long way towards establishing Heavy Metal’s feel of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.

By today’s standards, the animation is total shite. The whole film has a sketchy, quasi-detailed look to it, similar to many Nickelodeon cartoons from the early 90’s, and the quality varies from piece to piece. That said, this is still the time when animation as a whole was vehemently cutting costs, and the mentality may have even been to give it a grungy, non-traditional look; while not great-looking, it is distinct, and the best scenes generally have the best animation. At the very least, the imaginative and weird art direction alone makes it worth checking out (whilst in a van, perhaps).

I like to think that audiences at the time looked like this while watching Heavy Metal.

Anyway, what’s the game, you ask? It’s quite simple:

  • Take a shot for every new pair of breasts onscreen

Did I mention the film has nudity, and that Heavy Metal magazine is something of an erotic volume? Well, it does, and it is. No additional drinks are needed for repeat shots of said breasts, but every time you see a new chick with her top off, bam.

My good friend Jordyn was a fan of this movie in her youth (I forget how, though I think it had something to do with a Starz weekend?). One night, while we were flipping through my Xbox’s Netflix Instant Queue, she spied Heavy Metal in one of the Recommendations sections, and absolutely lost her s@$#. Since it was college, and because of the film’s reputation, I proposed the above game, and we both played.

Dear readers, we got cruuuunnnnnnk.

Certainly there are other games to be played with more popular, readily accessible movies, but Heavy Metal is an off-beat, underrated gem of an 80’s flick, and a good choice for indecisive, open minds who simply want to drink and watch a movie.