Monday, February 29, 2016

Men in Black (1997) - David Cross #5

or, Across the Universe

Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Runtime: 98 Minutes         

Look, it's Men in Black, we've all seen it.  Will Smith (Agent J) is an NYPD officer who gets tapped by Tommy Lee Jones (Agent K) to join the top secret agency dedicated to monitoring and regulating all alien life on Earth.  When a giant space bug comes to Earth, he instigates a potential war with another alien civilization, who threaten to destroy the Earth unless the men in black can recover a mysterious object known only as "the galaxy."

David Cross plays the hapless morgue attendant who runs afoul of the bug.

I was really worried that Men in Black wouldn't hold up, but I'm happy to say that it's aged incredibly well.  The filmmakers realized the limits of CGI, and did great work within those limits, while making great use of practical effects as well.

I feel bad because I don't think I have anything really interesting to say about Men in Black, besides some bits of trivia, like that it's one of the first big hits based on a Marvel comic series.  Anyway, here's the promotional music video:

Friday, February 26, 2016

Review: The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons (2015)

Simmons' The Fifth Heart falls into the niche genre of Sherlock Holmes pastiche, which is itself generally a genre-mixing of historical fiction and Sherlock Holmes mystery, often involving real historical figures or other pre-existing fictional characters.  The most famous of this surprisingly voluminous genre is probably Nicholas Meyers' The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1974), where Holmes and Freud team-up after Holmes' supposed death at Reichenbach Falls.  This three year period between the publication of The Final Problem (1891) and The Empty House (1894), referred to as the Great Hiatus, is also the backdrop for Simmons' novel, where Holmes meets Henry James on the bank of the Seine, as both had picked that spot to end their lives.  As intriguing as a Henry James/Sherlock Holmes team up may be on its own, there's another oddity about this Holmes pastiche:  Sherlock Holmes has deduced that he's a fictional character. Self aware characters are hard to do well, but Simmons' method here is extremely clever.  The central conceit of the original Holmes stories is that they are true accounts written by Dr. Watson.  Unfortunately, Doyle was never big on fact checking, or even making sure character names and descriptions were consistent across stories.  When the location of Watson's war wound shifts from his shoulder to his leg, among other things, Holmes starts down the path that leads him to question his own existence.

It is amid this metaphysical backdrop that Holmes and James sail to America to help solve two cases.  The first is whether the suicide of Clover Adams, wife of Henry Adams and member of the elite social circle, the Five of Hearts, was actually a murder.  The other is to stop an international anarchist conspiracy to incite a world war.  James, as a close friend of Henry Adams and the other three surviving members of the five of hearts (John Hay, Lincoln's former secretary, John's wife Clara, and geologist/explorer Clarence King), is Holmes' way in to the Washington social elite.

Simmons is an incredible researcher, and creates an amazing atmosphere with his descriptions of D.C. in the gilded age.  Most of the characters in this novel are real people, mostly writers and politicians ranging from Theodore Roosevelt to Mark Twain. Early on, Simmons sets up a plotline with the narrator directly addressing the reader, suggesting that he has some private source of information for this account, and that the narrator might become a character in and of itself.  Unfortunately, Simmons doesn't follow through on this.

My feeling reading this novel changed between the first and second halves, and I found myself thinking of my experience reading two of Simmons' earlier novels, Hyperion (1989) and its sequel, The Fall of Hyperion (1990).  The mysteries Simmons creates are so engrossing that their solutions always seem like a let-down.


Monday, February 22, 2016

Waiting for Guffman (1996) - David Cross #4

Waiting for Guffman is the second in a series of mockumentaries written and/or directed by Christopher Guest, starting with This Is Spinal Tap! (1984), followed by Waiting for Guffman (1996), Best in Show (2000), A Mighty Wind (2003), and For Your Consideration (2006).  Christopher Guest stars in this one as Corky St. Clair, a flamboyant former Broadway actor who had moved to the small town of Blaine, Missouri, and is tasked with writing/directing a new play for the town's sesquicentennial celebration.  The cast is comprised of local amateurs (and frequent Christopher Guest collaborators), Dr, Pearl, the dentist (Eugene Levy), Dairy Queen waitress Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey), and husband and wife travel agents, Ron and Shiela Albertson (Fred Willard and Catherine O'Hara).  The style is semi-improvised, and usually played dead-pan in only the way people like Levy and Willard can play it.  We also get little glimpses of what life in Blaine is like, which is where we get our scene with David Cross, a UFO Expert.

Among Blaine's major accomplishments is having been the first city to have a UFO sighting, and as Cross tells us, the landing site is interesting because it's a circle whose diameter and circumference change, but the radius always remains the same.

The eponymous Guffman is a broadway big shot who is going to attend the premiere of "Red, White & Blaine," and, if they're lucky, take the show to Broadway.  Of course, the play is hilarious (for all the wrong reasons), the actors are awful. Blaine itself, the Stool Capital of America, was founded by a group of a group of settlers heading for California, whose leader convinced them that a random spot in Missouri was right off the Pacific coast.  One hundred and fifty years later, many of the performers are still trying to get to California, and Hollywood in particular.  Perhaps it's this sense that nothing ever happens in Blaine that makes the title of the film so fitting.  The townspeople in Waiting for Guffman, have, in some ways, the same sense of pointless and endless waiting as the characters in Waiting for Godot.  And, as opposed to, say, This is Spinal Tap!, there is real heart here, and despite their wackiness, you can't help having a lot of sympathy for the characters.

I'd recommend all of Guest's mockumentaries, and Waiting for Guffman is no exception.


Thursday, February 18, 2016

Going All the Way by Dan Wakefield (1970): review

On the occasion of its re-release as an ebook, I was asked to review Dan Wakefield's debut novel Going All the Way.  One of the major themes, as the title suggests, is sex, but more specifically in the context of the social milieu of 1950's Indianapolis. In his foreword, Vonnegut compares it to the previous year's best selling novel, Portnoy's Complaint, claiming that though Wakefield's novel has "wider concerns and more intricate characters, the sexual problems are pretty much the same."

Going All the Way focuses on Willard "Sonny" Burns, who starts the novel on a train back to Indianapolis after spending his service in the Korean War in the public information office in Kansas City.  On the train home, he meets Gunner Casselman, one of the "big rods" at Sonny's high school in Indianapolis, returning home from the war a hero.  Their friendship develops from here, with Sonny, the insecure, out of shape loser who enlisted only to discover that serving in the Korean War was was like "being on a team in a sport that drew no crowds, except for the players' own parents and friends," and, perhaps more distressing from his point of view, that "Korea wasn't the kind of war that got you laid for being in it," now being taken under the wing one of the town's golden boys.  But Gunner has started to realize that this golden boy status is meaningless when the society he's in is so limited.  

Vonnegut describes the book as "a period piece," which is only somewhat accurate.  There are certain plotlines that are very specific to a certain place and time, for example, the huge social stigma about growing a beard, and Sonny's mother shouting "My Sonny shaves, like a good American."  But other aspects remain, maybe not to the same pervasive extent of the midwest in the 1950s,  Sonny's mother, much to his chagrin, has become a member of the "Moral Re-Armament Movement," and is trying to get him back into the church.  This movement, as much interested in complaining about desegregation and social progress as it is in evangelism, can be seen later in Falwell's moral majority, or even today in any number of organizations, usually with the words "family" or "values" in their names.  Maybe the two most popular public figures in Indianapolis at this time are Jesus Christ and Senator Joseph McCarthy.  As Gunner laments "anything different is pinko. Anything you ask, if you really want to figure things out, that's pinko too."  It is in this repressive social setting that Gunner and Sonny try to have an active sex life, which makes for great comedy until the pressure gets overwhelming.  

On another level, this book is about a period of aimlessness for people in their twenties, especially when self-discovery and independence are actively hindered, when "anything different is pinko."  This isn't a beat novel, though Wakefield had contact with the major beat authors.  Rather a novel of disillusionment, detailing the frustration of young men fighting against the hypocrisy and disappointments of their society, realizing that maybe they're wasting time waiting around for "the perfect combination of sex and intelligence that every man is supposed to find, that is his rightful due," It focuses on a period between the clearly marked path of childhood and high school and college, and the rest of adult life.  While there is a lot of humor in this book, there is a solid core of angst, which can range from earnest to, well, angsty.  

All in all, I enjoyed Going All the Way.  

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Cable Guy (1996) - David Cross #3

or, Getting Our Wires Crossed

Director: Ben Stiller 
Runtime: 96 minutes

The Cable Guy has a checkered history.  Depending on who you ask, it's a massively underrated cult classic, or a complete failure.  It was a failure only in the sense that it fell far short of expectations, especially after Carrey's record setting salary (the first time an actor got a $20 million paycheck).  It still made money, but wasn't as big a success as his previous films like Ace Ventura, Dumb & Dumber, or The Mask.  This is probably because Carrey's character here is much darker than in those movies.  He plays the titular Cable Guy, Ernie "Chip" Douglas, who befriends Steven Kovacs (Matthew Broderick).  Steven and his girlfriend, Robin (Leslie Mann), have separated after Steven proposed.  Steven rents an apartment and his best friend, Rick (Jack Black), suggests he bribe the cable guy for free premium channels. Chip agrees and then tries to become Steven's best friend, taking him on a road trip to a broadcasting satellite. Chip is in every way the over-the-top cartoonish Jim Carrey character, but here his powers are used for evil, as he starts to manipulate Steven's friends and family while further insinuating himself into Steven's life.  

This is... funny, I guess?

To be honest, I'm not a huge fan of the Jim Carrey school of comedy.  There are a lot of scenes that are funny in his hyperkinetic way, but I think I agree with Doug Walker's conclusion that it is a dumb comedy, albeit a rather clever dumb comedy.  Carrey is legitimately creepy, but I don't think he really carries the movie by himself.  Broderick is bland, and we never learn anything about any of the other characters.  We know absolutely nothing about Robin, for example.  In one scene, she is on a terrible date with Owen Wilson, who comes off as an arrogant prick.  When he's done talking about himself, he asks her what she does for a living, only to immediately excuse himself to the restroom, promising that he is "really interested."  We never find out what Robin does for a living. We actually know more about Steven's brother (Bob Odenkirk), who is only in one scene and is otherwise completely inessential to the plot.  Odenkirk isn't the only link with The Truth About Cats & Dogs, as Janeane  Garofalo has a cameo as Medieval Times waitress.

Pictured: the most unlikely Hawthorne reference in cinematic history

Cross's role is extremely brief here as well, Credited as Sales Manager, he plays Steven's work friend, who's only line is laughingly repeating a single word from a pitch Steven makes to their boss.

"Oklahoma" - Cross's only line in the movie
The Cable Guy has aged pretty well, and I like it more than other "wacky" Carrey movies, because at least here he's supposed to come across as creepy and awkward.  Don't get me wrong, I loved Carrey's performances in The Truman Show, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Man in the Moon.  I just don't like this style of Carrey comedy because it always comes across as all style no substance, what's the weirdest face he can make or how much can he exaggerate this movement.  This works great in small doses (like an SNL sketch), but it's never been enough to get me through a feature length film on its own.

So, if you like Carrey's early comedy, you'll like The Cable Guy.  Otherwise, it has a bunch of good moments, but I don't think it works as a whole.

Next week, the Christopher Guest mockumentary, Waiting for Guffman (1996)