The Girl Can’t Help It

The Girl Can't Help It (1956) movie poster

(1956) dir. Frank Tashlin
viewed: 11/27/06

I’d never seen a Jayne Mansfield movie before, don’t know why.  It’s easy to see how she was being utilized as a poor man’s more buxom Marilyn Monroe, platinum blonde and with an enormous chest.  Apparently she had an enormous IQ too, but here, it’s pretty straight dim blonde.

The film is vibrant on many fronts, directed by Frank Tashlin, who cut his directing skills on the pre-war Warner Brothers animated shorts (their best period, in my opinion), and moving successfully into feature films that are shot and directed much like animation, starting with the Martin and Lewis pic, Hollywood or Bust (1956).  The other major points of vibrancy are the numerous rock’n’roll acts that perform numbers in the film: Fats Domino, Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, the Platters, and especially Gene Vincent.  It’s hot stuff.

The soundtrack shakes its hips throughout and the pacing is quick and poppy as well.  And Tom Ewell is great.  Interestingly made the year after Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955) in which Ewell stars opposite Marilyn Monroe, Ewell is paired with Mansfield, the next big blonde in the running.  He gets lots of goofy reactions to her “attributes”.  It has something in it that seems almost referential, but other than the obvious, I can’t put my finger on it.

Unfortunately, the script doesn’t have the verve and wit of a Billy Wilder, though it’s amusing all the way through.  It’s a cute, rock’n’roll comedy made much better by the appearances of the rockers in their primes.  Certainly, a fun one.

Happy Feet

Happy Feet (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. George Miller
viewed: 11/26/06 at AMC Loews Metreon, SF, CA

When I had caught the trailer for this movie, I had thought to myself that there was no way in hell that I would go see this.  Dancing penguins for chrissakes.

Well, as it works out, I did end up going to see it and the reason that I decided that it might be worthwhile was when I had seen that it was directed by George Miller, the Australian director of all three Mad Max films and Babe: Pig in the City (1998), which was a pretty dark and strange children’s film.

Well, two minutes into this one, I was grieving for the next two hours of my life, as the film opens with penguins serenading each other in some riffed melody of Elvis Presley and Prince’s “Kiss” and numerous other interludes.  A chorus of dancing, musical penguins.  It was frightening in a way that those Coca Cola Christmas commercials with the polar bears are.

Clearly piggy-backing off Luc Jacquet’ documentary about emperor penguins in Antartica, March of the Penguins (2005), I have to say that I am not 100% sure where this film finally found its footing (ugh, pun not intended).  I think it happened when the narrative elements kicked in and the few moments of scary bits: a leopard seal and a couple orcas try to eat our photo-realistic penguin pals, voiced by people like Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, and Nicole Kidman.  Is this voice “talent” really necessary?  Can Robin Williams be stopped from acting all together?

Happy Feet is definitely a darker film somehow than most other children’s animated films and its tone spends less time cracking wise and tossing in throwaway gags to keep the adults “amused”.  And the animation is fairly striking at times, though the photo-realistic style versus the traditional narrative anyways doesn’t necessarily amount to a match made in heaven.  There is plenty of sickening pap and schmaltz.  But there is something halfway interesting.

Certainly not Miller’s best (maybe his worst) and certainly not the best animated film this year, nor the worst.  But dancing penguins…never, never again.

Street Trash

Street Trash (1987) movie poster

(1987) dir. J. Michael Muro
viewed: 11/25/06

I stumbled across this movie in the San Francisco Chronicle, which was detailing a minor revival of this “lost” cult film that never achieved its cult status from the late 1980’s.  Frankly, I had never heard of it, but it sounded pretty amusing.  It’s about homeless people, certainly a very pre-PC version of homelessness, who become dissolved into day-glo colored gelatin when they drink this strange, long past its sell-by date “Viper” liquor from a local liquor store.

This movie features almost totally unknown actors, from a one time only director Muro, who did have some camera credits for some Frank Henenlotter films.  This film has a similar feel to Henenlotter especially Frankenhooker (1990), with its tasteless gore and over-the-top humor featuing comedic necrophilia, penis detachment (by yanking), and even a decapitated head enjoying a glance up a woman’s skirt.  There is something charming about it, its humor, its goofiness, its unbridled lack of taste.

It reckons of many things, particularly of the Troma studio line, but also has elements of social criticism.  It also features some pretty funny dissolutions, interestingly each of a different color.  The film has a strange point of view, leaning toward two younger homeless guys, particularly the youngest of them.  Still, it’s so scattershot in its approach, I couldn’t really say much more about that.

It is funny to me because it is so insensitive and demented in that perspective, right around the time that homelessness became a real social issue in the media.  It also has an interesting little narrative off-shoot about the psychotic Vietnam vet, who has flashbacks and kills relentlessly.  But to pretend that the subtext is anywhere near the point of this film is to utterly, entirely miss the point.

Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens (1975) movie poster

(1975) dir. Ellen Hovde, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Muffie Meyer
viewed: 11/21/06 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

This is one of those cult films that I had heard about for years, but had never seen.  I had come close to renting it several times, but when I saw that it was playing at the Castro, the time seemed right to finally see it.  Strangely, they did not project a film version but apparantly some video version.  And oddly, though I almost always think that seeing a film in the theater is preferable to seeing it on televsion, this case might actually go against that.  The crowd was a mixture of first timers and huge fans who laughed riotously at several points, obscurring the dialogue on the already hard to hear soundtrack.  It also tended to further the sense of exploitation of the Beales, with some moments that are more tragic than comic getting a heavy explosion of hilarity from the crowd.  It detracted from the experience rather than enhanced it.

The film is pretty amazing, really.  The story of Edith ‘Big Edie’ Bouvier Beale and Edith ‘Little Edie’ Bouvier Beale is really fascinating, their early years as beautiful blueblood socialites through to their later life in their decayed mansion of Grey Gardens on Long Island, surrounded by garbage, fleas, cats, and racoons.  Their circumstance and their beings are deeply merged.  But they are fascinating lunatics, very intelligent, deluded, and bizarre.  It’s not hard to see how they became such cult icons.  It’s hard to imagine anything more unique.

The film has often been criticized as an exploitation of the women, and I think that is often a criticism of documentaries whose subject matters bare all for the camera while the filmmakers simply “record”.  I would say that there is a great beauty and humanity to the women, both of them, even though ‘Little’ Edie is certainly a little further “out there” mentally.  They are fully rounded, telling their life stories, playing to the camera, and becoming what ultimately ends up as significantly notable beings.

As for the exploitation, I would say that the musical adaptation of the film, which I guess has recently appeared on Broadway and the narrative film that is said to be in production with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore…well, that is much much much more distrurbing.

Be Cool

Be Cool (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. F. Gary Gray
viewed: 11/17/06

Very Un-cool.

Pathetic, in fact.  This smug, self-satisfied film about the movie and music industry, a follow up to 1995’s Get Shorty, a follow-up that Elmore Leonard wrote at the behest of the prior film’s popularity.  Where the 1995 film was an adaptation by the then somewhat with-it Barry Sonnenfeld before he crapped out as a director and was poppy and fun the way that Elmore Leonard can be when he’s hitting on the right notes.  This time around, it’s just plain awful.

I don’t want to go into it, really.  It’s not worth it.  The young musical talent story that is the center of the story…oh it’s bad.  It’s yuck.  It’s painful.

My sister wanted to watch it because even though she thought it was bad, she enjoyed Vince Vaughn and The Rock in their roles.  It wasn’t enough for me.

Slither

Slither (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. James Gunn
viewed: 11/14/06

A pretty decent B-movie, the kind like momma used to make.  Well, maybe not momma, but it is the likes of which haven’t really been made well in recent years.  I have mentioned in the past that horror films seem to be better when the budgets are lower, the filmmaker is an independent, or a total outsider of the Hollywood machine.  Too much budget, too much CGI, films often lack any kind of edge or cleverness.

That said, Slither isn’t truly great, but it is pretty good fun.  Starting out with a The Blob (1958) -like meteorite crash that gets prodded til a killer monster pops out, it has some throwback sort of aspects that are quite charming.  The monster this time are these CGI slithering slugs that like to jump into people’s mouths and turn them into zombies or at least somewhat like zombies.

It’s pretty fun.  If you like that sort of thing.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Borat (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Larry Charles
viewed: 11/12/06 at Selma Cinema, Selma, CA

This film is funny.  Funny as hell at certain points, less so in others, but overall, is pretty hilarious and clever.

It’s not without its points of cringe-worthy events or words.  It’s little wonder Kazakhstan has taken umbrage with this.  Sascha Baron Cohen creates a very offensive portrait of the country and though to someone who is more in on the joke than some, it’s clear that this is all done in a very fantastiacal and extreme tone, suggesting that the point isn’t so much about Kazakhstan but it was just a convenient and largely “unknown” place to Westerners.  But the reason that the film is so funny is often because he is willing to say such outrageous things and be as offensive as possible in character.  Borat is an anti-Semite of the most archaic manner, but as many people point out, Cohen himself is Jewish, and there is a strong sense that this isn’t about Antisemitism so much, except when he gets people to agree with him.

Very much Andy Kaufman-like in his playing his character against a duped crowd, Cohen’s most telling moments are those when he gets genuine reactions from Americans who take him utterly at face value.  It’s downright frightening what he elicits: a rodeo manager who says that Americans would like to execute gays, frat boys who say that slavery would improve America, and others.  Other times, it is hilarious the dupes he plays by coming back to a dinner table with a bag of his poop, asking where it should go, scaring New Yorkers to frequent violent threats when he tries to kiss them in welcoming, and most extremely when he praises the nation’s “War of Terror” to the crowd at a rodeo, going as far as to say that he hopes that George Bush will drink the blood of every man, woman, and child in Iraq in victory.  Many folks blanched at that, but there were those still hooting and hollering.

The naked wrestling between Borat and his producer played by Ken Davitian, who is portly to the extreme, is hilarious but gruesome, though it really gains its teeth as the two chase down the hall and into a crowded elevator, eventually spilling over into the lobby and a convention.  The tastelessness is at times very grating and somewhat creepy.  But mostly it works, in spades.

It’s a telling film and funny as hell.  And while Kazakhstan has every right to find this offensive, the scarier moments are all about the reality of America and the way that people think and act and treat others.  Kazakhstan may be jokingly portrayed as racist, incestuous, superstitious, and technologically challenged, but America is literally shown to be racist, misogynist, homophobic, and condescending.  And while Kazakhstan has a right to be angry, Americans have an onus of embarrassment shown in this film.

The Return

The Return (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Asif Kapadia
viewed: 11/12/06 at Edwards Fresno Stadium and IMAX, Fresno, CA

I was binging on films this day, hitting three in a row, though I had even considered seeing more.  So, I was stretching the limits of what I was genuinely interested in.  I think that horror films have been a favorite of mine for years, though there was a stretch that I shunned them for their crappiness.  Recently, I have re-embraced the genre and have made myself willing to watch almost any horror genre film, but rarely a film such as this in the theater.

I knew very little about this film actually.  I had skimmed a review in the San Francisco Chronicle and otherwise didn’t have any preconceptions.  In reality, it’s not really a horror film, but more or a mystery or suspense film with some supernatural overtones.  It stars Sarah Michelle Gellar, who while not a favorite of mine is actually not bad in this kind of film.

The film has some nice location settings, in small town Texas.  It also develops pretty well, slowly unraveling a story that is quite disjointed at first, while building tension in several scenes with the “ghost” of someone from a car crash trailing her.  It’s not shocking or challenging genre conventions, rather it embraces them completely while skirting cliches left and right.

It’s a decent film.  Not great by any means, but decent.  Slightly above average.

There were some obnoxious teenagers, all armed with functional cell phones, but they screamed at all the surprising moments and then laughed about their screaming.  I guess this is one aspect of seeing this kind of film in the cinema that has its charms and challenges in comparison to watching it on DVD.

Harsh Times

Harsh Times (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. David Ayer
viewed: 11/12/06 at Edwards Fresno Stadium and IMAX, Fresno, CA

This film is the directorial debut for screenwriter David Ayer who has made his name with his gritty, street realism of gangsta types and hoodlums in Los Angeles, hitting his high point with Training Day (2001) which I hadn’t seen. This film is set well within that same gritty, tough Los Angeles and focuses on a character who has been a elite killer operative for the army in the Middle East but has returned to L.A. with nightmares and the need for a job.

Christian Bale is at his intense best again in this film.  I think he really started heavily along this type of character in American Psycho (2000) but also hit this type of intensity in The Machinist (2004), Batman Begins (2005), and more recently in The Prestige (2005).  He’s got it down.  Actually American Psycho is almost reprised here.  His character in this film is almost as ruthless, maybe more so.  But this psychosis is deep and blinding.  And it ultimately consumes him in a critical act of violence.

What is good in this film is the friendship/relationship he has with Freddy Rodriguez’s character.  They have a genuine friendship despite Bales’ growing psychosis.  Both are on the hunt for work but are in the meantime getting drunk and stoned and up to some crime of their own.  Bales’ character is looking for work in law enforcement, any facet thereof.  And the LAPD turn him down on his psychological testing.  However, despite that and barely passing a urinalysis and a lie detector test, Homeland Security want to give him a shot.  It’s quite a clever political commentary.

The film isn’t amazingly shot.  It’s pretty gritty and grainy, with lots of close-ups on faces while the two are cruising around L.A.  But it’s effective, particularly in certain sequences.  And overall, though its a disturbing and violent film, it’s also successful.  There is a lot here that is interesting, especially its takes on the Latino community and Mexico itself.  I thought it was pretty good.

Thank You For Smoking

Thank You For Smoking (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Jason Reitman
viewed: 11/10/06

This comedy, written and directed by the son of director Ivan Reitman, is not bad.  It has moments of genuine cleverness and doesn’t careen into annoying too often.  It’s fairly interesting, though not really compelling.

Ostensibly about the cigarette industry’s top P.R. guy, who can spin so hard that people often reeling after he hits them, the film follows the story arc of crisis and morality and doesn’t try to get too heavy-handed in preaching the light that is “cigarettes kill”.  The ending has some sense of morality, though also some lack thereof, which earns it some credit.  Still, this film really wasn’t as interesting or clever as it sometimes seems to think it is.  Overall, though, not bad.