IN THE LOOP: The Film Babble Blog Review

IN THE LOOP (Dir. Armando Iannucci, 2009)

Picking up comparisons to DR. STRANGELOVE and geared aesthetically as an “anti-West Wing“, Armando Iannucci’s directorial debut posits people in power treading water in a sea of political spin. It all comes from a misspoken statement by the British Secretary of State for International Development played by Tom Hollander. Off the cuff, he says that a proposed war in the Middle East is “unforeseeable” on a radio talk show and that causes what one staffer calls “a catastrofuck”.

Already strained relations between UK and US officials come to a boil. Hollander finds himself getting in deeper as obscenities fly at a ferocious rate from the Prime Minister’s press secretary Peter Capaldi (reprising his role from Iannucci’s TV series The Thick Of It), misdirections come from diplomat handlers (Chris Addison and Gina McKee), and then there are the astute observations of James Gandofini (The Sopranos) as a gruff general who when attempting to strategize finds himself musing: “At the end of a war you need some soldiers left, really, or else it looks like you’ve lost.”

The large intertwined ensemble cast also includes Chris Addison (also from The Thick Of It), Steve Coogan, David Rasche, and an all grown up Anna Chlumsky (MY GIRL). With literally over a hundred great lines (most of them coming from the foul mouth of Capaldi) and a wickedly wry tone, IN THE LOOP has enough laughs for several movie comedies. It’s a window into the tangled tortured world of policy makers and those who toil in the trenches beneath them. They’re all caught in a massive web of manipulation woven from competing self-serving ambitions and it’s all rooted in cold sad reality. Such pungent political satire doesn’t come around often so this is definitely one to look out for.

More later…

All This And Hamlet 2 – Several New Release DVD Reviews

It’s time to clean out my notebook and post a number of new release DVDs. Enjoy!


In an early 80’s television interview Roman Polanski, over wine in a ritzy restaurant, casually responds to a question about liking young girls: “Here you come to a concrete case for which I have been behind bars and that’s what you want to talk about”. So begins this documentary examination of one of the most notorious court battles in American history. For those who don’t know, (which I can’t imagine) in 1977 Polanski was charged with statuary rape, among other things, and after a year of wriggling through rigorous red tape he fled the country never to return. If he does attempt to come back he’ll be immediately arrested despite being forgiven by the girl in question (Samantha Geimer) and her mother years ago. Most folks know those basics but what this film lays out is all the particular twists and turns that resulted in the legendary director’s exile and it’s a fascinating and well crafted study that plays at times like a tight legal thriller.

Over 30 years later this is still an ongoing case as just today it was reported that Polanski lost a dismissal bid by the Los Angeles County court system. As we see in tons of TV news footage and vintage photographs, Polanski is small in stature usually sporting a bemused expression under his Beatle-esque mop top. His work though was never small in stature – the classics CHINATOWN, ROSEMARY’S BABY, and his Oscar win for THE PIANIST confirm this. He was roundly criticized by the press after the tragic death of his wife Sharon Tate for appearing to not be in enough mourning for their liking so when this incident broke they had a ferocious field day. This is good news for the film makers here because they never seem to be at a loss for the proper accompanying shot or sound bite to tell the story. Polanski only speaks from footage and interviews from the period but lawyers, press, colleagues, and most interestingly Geimer provide much insight into the complications and frustrations involved.
The film takes its title from a quote from French producer Andrew Braunsberg: “In France he’s desired and in America he’s wanted.” That defines the culture difference that court reporter Richard Brenneman explained best: “The European reporters looked on Polanski as a tragic brilliant historic figure…the American press tended to look at him as this malignant twisted dwarf with this dark vision.” The film only falters when it utilizes scenes from Polanski’s movies to illustrate certain points – it really isn’t necessary to have a clip of Mia Farrow dialing a phone from ROSEMARY’S BABY when somebody talks about getting an urgent call. As the film progresses however, these bits of his filmography are filtered in more effectively and arguably the flavor of his fine (for the most part) work should have a place in this portrait. As intriguing and informative as a documentary can get, this is vital viewing and not just for film buffs though obviously that’s who it’ll most appeal too.
HAMLET 2 (Dir. Andrew Fleming)

Poor Steve Coogan. Like his fellow brilliant Brit blokes Simon Pegg and Ricky Gervais he’s finding it hard to carve out a niche in the American comedy movie marketplace dominated by Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, and the ever present Apatow academy. This didn’t make much of a dent when it came out late last summer but it didn’t matter because Coogan was concurrently rubbing elbows with some of that comic crowd in TROPIC THUNDER (albeit briefly before blowing up). For his starring role in this wannabe indie quirkfest he sure gives a go of it as a high school drama teacher with delusions of grandeur in Tucson Arizona (“where dreams go to die” he laments). When he finds out that the drama program will be cut he stages the improbable sequel of the title in an odd attempt to save it. He cites teacher inspirational movie fare like DANGEROUS MINDS and MR. HOLLAND’S OPUS when trying to connect to his class but there’s very little that’s poetic about his soon to be dead society.

With Catherine Keener as his unsatisfied sarcastic spouse it’s like SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK but with the artistic existential angst replaced with hit and very miss one-liners! Well, not really – I just couldn’t resist the reference. There are a number of genuine laughs throughout but they don’t stack up into anything resembling classic comedy. It’s too broad, only occasionally cutting, and Coogan is so over the top with his character that his antics would make Jim Carrey cringe. The Keener subplot involving a live-in David Arquette (who I keep mistaking for Ryan Gosling) should have been excised completely and the supposed show stopping song “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” frankly isn’t that funny either. Still any movie that has an over eager Amy Poehler assisting Coogan in chewing the scenery and Elizabeth Shue playing herself isn’t a complete waste of time. If only it was named HAMLET 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO – then maybe we’d really have something here.

STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS (Dir. David Feloni, 2008)

I guess because I grew up on the original trilogy I feel obligated to see every movie under the STAR WARS banner. Despite the fact I hated the prequels, dislike the video game style of the animation I saw in awful trailers, and all the terrible reviews (it’s at 19% at I still put this in my Netflix queue when it dropped on DVD. I know this bloated pilot for the Cartoon Network series is intended to be for children but I watched most of it with my Brother’s 3 kids last Christmas and when I said “hey, it’s 6:00 – should we keep watching or switch to a Simpsons rerun?” They all screamed “Simpsons!” My sentiment exactly for this is a stone cold bore from its opening intergalactic newsreel replacing the sacred scroll to its stock celebratory ending. Somewhere in between there is bland battle after battle with lasers, explosions, close call escapes, and scores of other action that I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for.

Plot you ask? I know you didn’t ask but it’s about Jabba the Hut’s son (who for some odd reason seems based on Truman Capote) being kidnapped and Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker (voiced by James Arnold Taylor and Matt Lanter) being called upon to save him to preserve the Republic or some such. Sounds riveting, right? A new annoying character to the misguided mix is added – Ashley Eckstein as Jedi trainee/weird orange freak Ahsoka Tano. She brings her own brand of obnoxious banter as she calls Anakin “Sky Guy” while she bounces through the confusing tangled terrain of this sci-fi crapfest. The voices of prequel veterans Samuel L. Jackson and Christopher Lee fail to spark the STAR WARS spirit and even a late third act cameo by C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) can’t save this animated abomination. George Lucas should be more ashamed by this than for The Star Wars Holiday Special. Don’t worry I’m not going to claim my childhood was raped but damn, it did cower in the corner for a bit after enduring this.

X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE (Dir. Chris Carter, 2008)

“I’m done chasing monsters in the dark” says former agent now full time Doctor Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and apparently so is X-Files creator/writer/director Chris Carter because this is strangley stripped of the supernatural elements that were the bread and butter of the TV show and the 1998 movie (X-FILES: FIGHT THE FUTURE). There’s no cigarette smoking man , no lone gunmen, and most surprisingly – no aliens. In other words everything that was cool about the X-Files is absent. A bearded Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) is yet again needed by the FBI after years of being hunted by them. He’s reluctant at first to help them with the case of several missing women, one of them an agent, but of course he shaves while Anderson dons her best 90’s professional pant suits and they rev up the old trusty X-Files mystery machine van onto a road into the wilderness chasing adventures while blaring Mark Snow’s immortal theme song on their vehicle’s sound system. Okay, I made part of that up because I was so disinterested in what really happened.

It all begs the question – why bring back Duchovny, Anderson, and Mitch Pileggi as Walter Skinner for a plot that’s just one step removed from an Ashley Judd/Morgan Freeman formula thriller? It doesn’t make sense to just drop tidbits about the not-so superduo’s child and Mulder’s long lost sister instead into diving head first into what fans want and deserve – that is, to actually be X-Files. The first film was creepy fun, this is just creepy. Real life subjects like Duchovny’s addiction to internet porn and the case of Anderson’s missing career * would be more compelling than this. Carter said that if this movie was successful there would be a third film that would deal with aliens and all the conspiracy stuff that this severely lacked. Well, the film bombed but I still hope he’ll make a third one solely to serve as an apology. I wanted to believe that this film didn’t suck but alas, it’s as bad as its title.

* I know that’s a cheap shot. She’s actually been in a few recent notable movies such as THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND and TRISTHAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY with Steve Coogan incidentally.
Okay, so that makes one excellent documentary, a fair only fitfully funny comedy, and 2 franchise failures. Hope my next batch of Netflix envelopes will be much better.

More later…

I Love The Smell Of Napalm In The Morning; Smells Like…Parody!

TROPIC THUNDER (Dir. Ben Stiller, 2008)

The comedy fortunes of Ben Stiller have fallen a bit lately (THE HEARTBREAK KID, anyone?) so it ’s a certainly a treat to see him in the full-on mockery mode that worked so well in ZOOLANDER taking on the industry that made him famous and bringing along a crew of above par talent (including Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Steve Coogan, Nick Nolte, and one unrecognizable Tom Cruise who buys back a huge chunk of street cred here). Unless you’ve been locked in a sound proof vault with no windows over the last few weeks you know that this movie features A) Robert Downey Jr. in black face as an Australian Academy Award winner who is playing a jive talking African American. B) A group of actors (Stiller, Downey Jr., Jay Barochel, and Bradon T. Jackson) trying to achieve A-List status making a Vietnam war picture but get stranded in the jungle and have to become real soldiers in order to fight their way out a la ¡THREE AMIGOS! and GALAXY QUEST. C) The before mentioned Tom Cruise as a bald pudgy foul-mouthed executive who nearly walks off, that is hip-hop dances off with the whole film.

Steve Coogan as the frustrated frizzy-haired film maker of what Access Hollywood calls: “the most expensive war movie never made” (a line likely drawn from pop culture punditry response to Francis Ford Coppola’s extremely over schedule production back in the late 70’s: “Apocalypse When?”) decides to deposit the actors into the jungle with only a map and a script and he’ ll film them with hidden cameras and rigged explosives. This plan immediately derails, in a crude but hilarious moment I won ’t spoil, and they run up against a heavily armed gang called Flaming Dragon who have a heroin producing work camp. They capture Stiller and hold him for ransom once the leader (fiercely played by child actor Brand on Soo Hoo) recognizes the actor from his career damaging flop “Simple Jack”. Meanwhile Stiller’s hotshot agent, Matthew McConaughey in chilled “alright, alright” mode, fights Cruise’ s heartless exec character for TiVo to be contractually provided for his client before realizing the severity of the situation. The real cause of the botched conflict is a grizzled Nick Nolte as the author of the book “Tropic Thunder” and the inspiration for Coogan ’s “Guerilla style” tactics. Nolte and explosive expert Danny McBride (fresh off almost stealing PINEAPPLE EXPRESS) also get captured by the Dragon gang and all the pieces are in line for a ginormous and outrageous shoot-em-up finale with every player getting his shot at glory.

Before the film proper of TROPIC THUNDER begins (before the Dream Works logo even hits the screen that is) there are funny fake trailers that introduce us to the quartet of protagonists. They set us up to embrace Stiller as a high grossing action star in “Scorcher 6” – an obvious dig at big overblown unnecessary franchises, Black as a pandering fart joke machine comic superstar in “The Fatties: Fart 2” – yep, a beyond obvious swipe at Eddie Murphy’s sad state of fat suit affairs, an ad spoof featuring Jackson as an “Booty Sweat” energy drink hawking rapper, and most amusing “Satan’s Alley”, complete with a FOX Searchlight logo announcing it as a prestige picture, giving us Downey Jr. and Tobey Macguire (who once shared a bed together in WONDER BOYS) as monks in a forbidden homosexual relationship. These and the many other digs at Hollywood cookie-cutter commerciality are the heart of this overblown but surprisingly not obnoxious comedy. The in-your-face-ness of the self aware atmosphere keep it from having to live or die joke to joke. Downey Jr. is undoubtedly the best part of this project, his unflinching take on Russell Crowe-esque maniacal method acting results in many of the movies biggest laughs like for one: “Huh! What do you mean ‘You People?’ ” Downey Jr. angrily asks Stiller at a stressful juncture. Jackson, who is authentically African American says, with an even angrier tone to Downey Jr., “What do you mean You People?’”

For all its over-the top silliness TROPIC THUNDER has a great gritty widescreen look; it has shots that look exactly like the excess-riden war epics its parodying like, of course, APOCALYPSE NOW and PLATOON – the poster of which Stiller tries to imitate, with his pumped up arms raised to the sky, every 10 minutes it seems. I experienced uncountable successions of giggles but not all out guffaws during this movie. It never lagged on the laughs but they’ re of the small smirking kind for the most part. Still, it noisily announces itself as the mega comedy you can t ignore with performances that will be talked about for years and lines that will be endlessly quoted I predict. I have to say that Stiller himself as an actor is not doing anything we haven’ t seen before – with his wide eyed pathos and tampered ego posturing his character is basically Derek Zoolander as if he were an action star and not a super model. But as a director and writer, Stiller is doing something I want to see more of, that is making comedies with a wide scope of inspired tangents and most importantly casts full of talented energized folk who aren ’t afraid to make wicked fun of themselves while taking crazy chances too.

More Later…

Burning Down The GRINDHOUSE

“I’m shrinking here, because I don’t know those films. Gone With the Wind, I know that one. Victor Fleming was one hell of a director!
– Bob Clark (Dir. the PORKY’S franchise, the BABY GENUISES movies, RHINESTONE and a bunch of other crap except A CHRISTMAS STORY which was actually good) taken from the
GRINDHOUSE filmmaker Summit (LA Weekly 4/4/07) *

Got some reviews of movies in current release plus DVD babble so hey ho let’s go –

GRINDHOUSE (Dir. Robert Rodriquez/Quentin Tarantino 2007) 2 movies in one – that is 2 full-length feature films by 2 notorious directors for the price of one. Sounds too good to be true? That’s because it’s fake – don’t get me wrong it really is 2 complete movies but it’s a fake expl
oitation experience with fake trailers, bucket after bucket of fake blood splatters on everything, fake hair, fake dismembered human organs, fake projector noise, fake scratches on the film, fake missing reel announcements, fake fake fake. The only thing that’s not fake is the fun – and there’s lots of it here. Both films take place in the modern day but as if the schlock methods of ‘70’s era sleaze cinema never went away. In the minds of Tarantino and Rodriquez they never did.

After a fake funny as Hell trailer for a Mexican vigilante flick called “Machete” we are presented with Rodriquez’s eco-zombie action-horror spectacle entitled “Planet Terror”. We’ve got Freddy Rodriquez (best known as Federico Diaz on HBO’s SIX FEET UNDER series 2001-2005) as a cocky outlaw gunslinger who outfits his go-go dancer girlfriend Rose McGowan having lost a leg in the first wave of the attack (“a missing leg that’s now missing”) with a machine gun and they join forces with other non-contaminated humans against the hordes of slime covered with giant zit popping zombies. Along the way Bruce Willis and Tarantino himself put in cameos, Josh Brolin appears as a murderous doctor targeting his cheating lesbian wife Marley Shelton, and grisly yet sentimental BBQ chef Jeff Fahey protects an old secret family recipe right to the grave. The action and humor never lag and the breathlessly and purposely crude construction make this one of Rodriquez’s most enjoyable movies. Then come more fake trailers.

The trailers for “Werewolf Women of the SS” (made by Rob Zombie), “Don’t” (by SHAUN OF THE DEAD director Edgar Wright), and “Thanksgiving” (By director/actor Eli Roth) are so authentic looking, so perfect in their exclamations of low-brow glee, and so funny that it occurs to me that maybe the whole movie should have been made of fake trailers. I guess that would have gotten tiresome after a bit. Speaking of tiresome Tarantino’s “Death Proof” has more of a polished sophistication than Rodriquez’s and unfortunately that means a drop-off in fun. Dominated by lengthy dialogue scenes that sound at times like Tarentino lecturing us on his sexual agenda, obscure pop-culture references, and hip-hopisms through the disguise of girl talk. This bit brings the whole GRINDHOUSE down but once it gets rolling it redeems itself roaringly.
As we wind through the non-stop chatting of 2 separate groups of women (including Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Vanessa Ferlito, Rosario Dawson, Zoe Bell, Tracie Thoms, and McGowan again this time as a non-ass kicking blond) we get a leisurely introduction to Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) who turns out to be a predatory psychopath – though one not without charms. The 3rd act is car -chase road-rage revenge city with Zoe Bell (Uma Thurman’s stunt double in the KILL BILL movies) spending a good deal of the action on the hood of a 1970 Dodge Charger hanging on for dear life by a belt latched to the door frame while Stuntman Mike’s death proof muscle car rams and bams up repeatedely up against the side.

Bell, playing herself and amazingly doing all her own stunts with no CGI help, wants to take the car out for a test drive because it’s the same model as the car in the 70’s cult classic VANISHING POINT – a movie that’s referenced to a number of times and that calls out the difference between Rodriquez and Tarantino; not one movie or song title obscure or otherwise is mentioned in “Planet Terror.” “Death Proof” features numerous pop-culture pontifications and it suffers for it. Tarantino appears to be in love with his own dialogue while I and the audience around me were getting antsy. Probably the most apt old-school Hollywood phrase would be “cut to the chase”. Once he does it’s a thrill ride and the audience woke up and even cheered at the end. Even as a low-concept double feature fake-out GRINDHOUSE is awfully awesome, blazingly badass, and most importantly hilarious.

THE HOST (Dir. Joon-ho Bong, 2006) The early reports that posited this Hong Kong monster movie as a mixture of LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and JAWS weren’t completely off the mark. Sure that kind of oft-repeated critical shorthand irks me but the clumsy neurotic antics of a family whose youngest is abducted by a bizzare beast – one that was created by discarded lab chemicals in the Han River by an American military officer mind you – does recall at times the best moments and heart of those accessible reference points. River-side snack shop slacker Song Kang-ho aided by his ornery father Byeon Heui-bong and sister Bae Du-na who has a handy flair for archery struggle to save Kanh-ho’s school girl daughter Ko A-sun who spends most of the movie in a sewer with other captured Koreans. The Host which is so named because the tenacled CGI sea creature is the carrier of a deadly virus, drags quite a bit in it’s second half and the action is too often restricted to the dank disgusting gutters or the sterile flourescent lit labs but there is an undeniable heartbeat here. With hope more quirky horror or creature feature genre exercises will follow suit.

And once again by popular demand – some more new release DVD reviews :

MARIE ANTONIETTE (Dir. Sofia Coppola, 2006) Sofia Coppola’s 3rd movie as director reworks the same theme – a young woman coming of age in a unfamiliar almost alien world – this time around the legendary 18th century French queen of the title gets to do the fish out of water honors and to a hip contemporary soundtrack no less (New Order, Sioxsie & The Banshees, The Cure, etc). Kirsten Dunst is adequate (or as Lindsay Lohan would say “adequite”) in the role – she wears the extravagant wardrobe well and has the appropriate glibness down but is more than a little out of her depth. Jason Swartzman as Louis XVI is also questionably cast – he’s Coppola’s cousin and that seems to be the sole reason he’s here. Better with tone and prescence in supporting rolesare Rip Torn, Judy Davis, Steve Coogan, Molly Shannon and Marriane Faithful.

Turning the oft told historical tale into one big glossy rock video is not a deplorable idea – it actually works at times like when a costume banquet-ball is shot like a decadent all night rave – but a sense of narrative drive is severely lacking. Coppola’s technical skill is impressive with a definitive visual flair and confident color scheme – it’s just not as interesting as I’m sure future projects of hers will be.

COLOR ME KUBRICK (Dir. Brian W. Cook, 2006)

“Steven Spielberg has just died and he’s being greeted at the gates of heaven by Gabriel and Gabriel says: ‘God’s really dug a lot of your movies and he wants to make sure you’re comfortable. If there’s anything you need, you come to me, I’m your man.’ And Steven says ‘Well, you know I always wanted to meet Stanley Kubrick, do you think you could arrange that?’ And Gabriel looks at him and says: ‘You know, Steven, of all the things that you could ask for, why would you ask for that? You know that Stanley doesn’t take meetings.’ He says, “well, you said that if there was anything I wanted.’ Gabreil says ‘I’m really sorry. I can’t do that.’ So now he’s showing him around heaven and Steven says to Gabriel: ‘Oh, my God, look over there, that’s Stanley Kubrick. Couldn’t we just stop him and say hello?’ And Gabriel pulls Steven to the side and says, ‘That’s not Stanley Kubrick; that’s God – he just thinks he’s Stanley Kubrick.’”
– Matthew Modine (actor in Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET, 1987)

Alan Conway (aptly named) was an odd British man who for a period in the early 90’s impersonated legendary film director Stanley Kubrick (2001,DR. STRANGELOVE, THE SHINING, and so on). The fact is that he did it for such piddily low degree theviery reasons and was rarely able to get more than the money to but a few drinks is the crux of this particular cinematic biscuit. Portrayed flamboyantly by John Malkovich in COLOUR ME KUBRICK which has the tagline of “A TRUE…ISH STORY” Conway is finally gets his coveted spot-light but one that never shows a good side of him. Every time we start to feel for the increasingly irritating imposter he does or acts in an even worse unforgivable and/or embarrassing manner that swindles our sympathy immediately from us. It’s especially sad when he hoodwinks comedian/singer Lee Pratt (Jim Davidson – who was actually conned by the real Conway as the accompanying making of featurette tells us).

A few Kubrickian touches are thrown in by director Brian W. Cook (who was Kubrick’s assistant director on 3 movies) – an opening scene involving punks coming close to roughing up an elderly high class couple while hunting down Conway for an unpaid bar tab recalls A CLORKWORK ORANGE and Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (better known as “2001 theme”) amusingly accompanies Conway as he carries a garbage bag filled with his dirty clothes to a local dive laundromat. Malkovich is for the most part hilarious as the vodka-swilling tackily dressed shyster who uses a different contrived accent for each of his victums. COLOUR ME KUBRICK is by no means a great must-see film but a good one. Well maybe good…ish.

* This post is dedicated to Bob Clark 1939-2007

More later…