Thursday, April 20, 2017

Bill Paxton Tribute, Part 2: "Frailty" - "Only demons should fear me. And you're not a demon, are you?"

I planned on writing this earlier, but, as usual, I kept putting it off. I'm glad that I did, though, since this is part of my tribute to Bill Paxton, and it's likely that many people have already forgotten about his death. So this was an excuse for me to keep his work in mind and revisit one of my favorite Paxton films.

Frailty is unique to Paxton's filmography in that it's one of his two feature directing credits (the other is The Greatest Game Ever Played). It's also a very unique film in general. A single dad (Paxton) raises his two boys, Fenton and Adam, in 1970s Texas. Everything is normal until the dad (his character is never named) claims he has been visited by an angel and tasked with destroying demons. The younger son is all in and believes in his dad's new purpose. The older son, Fenton, is skeptical, of course, but becomes horrified when his dad starts kidnapping and killing people (he says the demons will appear to be normal people). 

To this day, I find the plot of this film fascinating. If you just imagine the situation of the film, it's insane. Paxton elevates it because he is so perfect for the role. Who better to play a simple Texan father and a seemingly crazed demon slayer? 

My group of friends was drawn to this film upon its release (we were in high school at the time) because we were fans of Paxton. Like with most things with my group of friends, I cannot explain why this film stuck out to us, or why we still quote it when we see Paxton in something (our go-to line is the one in the title of this article). Paxton just had an indescribable quality that spoke to us. The most impressive thing about Paxton was his ability to ride the line between sincerity and hilarity. I loved his performances for their goofiness, even when he was in a serious movie. Frailty is the ultimate example of this. 

(Minor and major SPOILERS from here on out.) In Frailty, Paxton is full of goofy charm as a single dad. He makes lame dad jokes and is constantly drinking Hamm's beer. (Hamm's is a very cheap beer, and I found it hilarious that it was his beer of choice in the film. It's even funnier when you check out the film's trivia section on IMDb, and it claims that they had to use the same can of Hamm's throughout the shoot because they could only find on period-specific can. And that can was already opened, so every time he drinks one [which is nearly every scene, by the way], the sound of a can opening has to happen offscreen. I like to think this ridiculous attention to detail was all Paxton.) 

Notice the period-specific can of Hamm's in front of Paxton.
But the movie takes a severely dark turn when goofy dad starts murdering people with an axe. This is where Paxton's performance gets risky. Can you take this guy seriously as an axe murderer. Somehow, you can. Paxton was great at comedy, but he was also great at showing determination. You believe that his character believes he is killing demons, which makes him scary. That said, when he first started talking about the demon hunting, you can't help but laugh. He comes across an axe named "Otis," for God's sake! It's easy, and I believe intentional, to laugh when Paxton tells his boys with complete sincerity that "the angel" told him to do this or that. 

When Paxton starts killing people, I still found it a bit funny, but in a dark, twisted way (my sense of humor is all messed up). Something about seeing Paxton yell while swinging an axe makes me giggle. Frailty could have left the movie like this: a dad claims he's hunting demons and we never find out what was really happening. Ambiguity like that is usually celebrated in film. But Frailty goes all in and reveals that Paxton is actually killing demons, and doubting Fenton is wrong. That reveal made me love the film. I like ambiguity in films as much as anyone (it's always interesting to leave things up to the audience's imagination), but it's also nice to see a movie with the guts to say, "This is what's happening; it is not open to interpretation." To be clear, there is a little ambiguity to the film, and I'm sure some people have the theory that the reveal is only in Adam's mind, and he's as crazy as his dad. I think that's stretching it, though. Paxton was a straightforward actor and a straightforward director. Frailty is what it seems to be. 

I haven't even mentioned the other actors (Matthew McConaughey and Powers Booth) or other crazy elements (Fenton digging a giant hole for days) because this article is all about Bill Paxton. But know that Frailty is good film all around. Let's face it, though, it's Paxton's movie. He may be gone, but he left an amazing body of work to revisit anytime you start to miss his goofy charm. R.I.P. Bill Paxton.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Bill Paxton Tribute, Part One: "Club Dread" - "I think you mean 'Pina Coladaburg.'"


I tend not to get very sad when famous people die. I find it hard to get upset about someone I never actually met. That said, Bill Paxton's death really bummed me out. I grew up in the 90s, so I first noticed Paxton as the sniveling used car salesman in True Lies. For some odd reason, my friends and I still quote his character regularly (our favorite lines are, "Would a spy pee himself?" and "I got a little dick. It's pathetic!"). So I appreciated his more popular work in Tombstone and Aliens in later years. I've always found the guy to be hilarious, even when he was being serious. For example, the excellent Frailty was a source of humor among my friends, even though we also appreciated it as a thriller. (I might go ahead and write about that film next since I own it, and it was one of Paxton's only directing credits.) Paxton was always a highlight in whatever he was in.

I revisit Paxton's work often. I watch True Lies and Tombstone at least once a year. In fact, I was watching Tombstone the Saturday he died, though I didn't know he was dead at that point. I wanted to write about Paxton, but I didn't want to focus on one of the roles being mentioned in all the articles about his death.

What that in mind, I decided to revisit one of his more forgotten roles: Coconut Pete from Club Dread. Club Dread was Broken Lizard's followup to Super Troopers. It's essentially an homage/spoof to 80s slasher films. A killer terrorizes the staff of an island resort owned and occupied by musician Coconut Pete (Paxton). Initially, I didn't care for the film, but Paxton's character stood out. Coconut Pete is basically a burnt out Jimmy Buffett. It's hard not to laugh at a long-haired Bill Paxton singing about things like a "seahorse whorehouse."

Club Dread as a whole is actually underrated, but I doubt you'll find anyone (even the members of Broken Lizard) who doesn't think Paxton's scenes are the highlight of the film. My biggest complaint is that he isn't in more of the film.


My favorite moment has to be the campfire scene. First, you get to hear a great song ("Ponytails and Cocktails"). Second, you get some sweet Jimmy Buffett jokes. It turns out that Buffett's "Margaritaville" is a rip-off of Pete's "Pina Coladaburg," which Pete wrote "seven and a half fuckin' years before 'Margaritaville' was even on the map!" Pete storms off, calling Buffett a "son of a son of a bitch" and a "mother motherfucker."

Another highlight is Pete losing his mind explaining how to make his famous paella to the new cooks. The Coconut Pete album covers are pretty great, too. To stop myself from simply listing everything Paxton does in the movie, I'll just say that he makes the movie worth watching or, in my case, revisiting.


Aside from Paxton, I kind of hated Club Dread the first time I saw it. I remember liking Coconut Pete and thinking the life-size Pac-Man maze was cool. The whole slasher spoof aspect was lost on me. I'm not sure if I just didn't get it the first time I watched it or what, but I was not impressed. Watching it now, I appreciate all of the jokes much more. I still consider this a weaker comedy than Super Troopers or Beerfest, but it's a movie I'm glad I own.


Without Paxton, I don't think I could recommend Club Dread. And that isn't just hyperbole now that he's gone. Credit to Broken Lizard for creating the character (who would think of lampooning Jimmy Buffett?), but Paxton runs with it. When given the freedom to go a little nuts, Paxton could make a character that makes an entire film worth watching. That's certainly the case with Club Dread.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Top Eleven for 2016 - Yes, I know it's March, 2017.

This is a ridiculously late Top Eleven list. (Yes, “Top Eleven.” I just could not cut it down to ten.) Every year I wait until I’ve seen everything I wanted to see from the previous year, and it takes so long that I almost skip my Top Eleven entirely (in fact, I have skipped it in the past). But since the Academy Awards wait until the end of February to (sort of) announce their favorite film, I figured it was okay for me to wait until March. There are still a few movies I didn’t get to see, but I sincerely doubt they would have made the list. But for full disclosure, here are the most notable films I missed: The FounderFlorence Foster JenkinsThe AccountantSnowden. Obviously, there are many more films I missed, but these four were either films I thought I might like or films that were mentioned for awards consideration.

Side note about the Oscars: until they fixed their mistake at the end of the night, I only missed one guess (Affleck for Best Actor). Of course, the one time they announce the wrong Best Picture winner, it would be the one I predicted to win. Anyway, I still consider my guess half-right.

First, let’s get into the honorable mentions. I’m including La La Land here, mainly because I actually liked it. I didn’t fall into either the love it or hate it camp with this film, which amazed me. I normally despise musicals, but I found this one enjoyable. That written, when it comes to music-themed stories of people trying to make it, I prefer Sing Street, which was very close to making the main list. It’s on Netflix, check it out. Here are the other films I really liked, in no particular order: Deepwater Horizon, Hell or High Water, Nocturnal Animals, Lion, The Neon Demon, Manchester by the Sea, The Handmaiden, Fences, Christine, Hidden Figures, A Monster Calls. Obviously, I thought this was a great year for movies, and I would recommend any of the movies I’ve listed here. Now, for my favorites.

11. The Nice Guys – A 1970s LA-set detective comedy starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe.

I started to type this in the honorable mention section and just couldn’t. That’s when this list became a Top Eleven. This is a very rewatchable movie that makes me laugh each time I watch it. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are surprisingly funny together, and writer-director Shane Black confirms himself as the master of the detective comedy. This one flew under the radar earlier this year, so check it out if you’ve never heard of it.

10. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping – A ridiculous spoof of pop stars in general.

This comedy unfortunately bombed last year, but I thought it was the funniest movie of the year. It should have been called “The Lonely Island Movie.” That’s pretty much what it is. If you don’t know The Lonely Island already, you might find the film stupid. But if you’re a fan like me, you’ll love it.

9. Hunt for the Wilderpeople – A foster kid goes on the run with his unwilling foster parent in the New Zealand bush.

I did not expect to love this movie so much, but writer-director Taika Watiti (What We Do in the Shadows) injected it with so much heart, comedy, and New Zealand-ness, it became one of my favorites of the year. This is definitely a lesser known film (it’s kind of a theme for most of this list), so check it out for a funny, surprisingly emotional surprise. Also, Sam Neill is great in it, as is star Julian Dennison.

8. Hacksaw Ridge – The true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a conscientious objector who saved many lives in WWII without carrying a weapon.

This movie it being touted as Mel Gibson’s comeback (he directed), and I’m okay with that. But I loved it because it was such a classically effective war film. The story itself is effective, but Gibson’s decision to present it plainly is refreshing in this age of morally complex heroes. Some take issue with a movie about a proponent of non-violence being so violent, but that’s the world. We can be as non-violent as we want, but that doesn’t mean the world will be. This film’s violence was not gratuitous, it showcased how strong Doss’s conviction was in the face of such awful carnage.

7. Silence – Two Portuguese missionaries travel to 17th century Japan to search for their mentor, who is rumored to have renounced Catholicism.

Just look at that description. Sounds pretty boring, right? But in the hands of Martin Scorsese, it is one of the most thought-provoking films concerning religion ever made. It’s not an easy watch, but it is rewarding, not to mention beautiful. It’s a shame the film was so ignored upon release. If you’re like me, you’ll watch anything Scorsese makes, and you won’t be disappointed. Sure, I prefer his more mainstream efforts, but films like Silence show what a truly diverse artist he is.

6. Deadpool – A mercenary with superpowers tries to save his girlfriend, all while making R-rated jokes and violence.

There’s usually one comic book movie that makes my list this year; how could it not be Deadpool? I’m going through a bit of Marvel fatigue right now (I know, Deadpool is technically Marvel, but it isn’t part of the thirty movie Marvel Cinematic Universe), so this was a breath of fresh air. It stands on its own, and it’s hilarious. By far, Deadpool is the most enjoyable comic book movie I have seen in years.

5. Swiss Army Man – A man stranded on an island comes across a washed up corpse that comes back to life and befriends him.

This is probably the weirdest film of the year, but it’s so goofy that I loved it. It’s actually known on the internet as the “Daniel Radcliffe farting boner corpse movie.” With a nickname like that, what’s not to love? The movie actually has a lot to say about loneliness, but it says it in such an inventive and funny way. If you can get past the utter insanity of the premise, you’ll find a very enjoyable film.

4. Green Room – A punk band accidentally witnesses a murder in the green room of a neo-Nazi bar and tries to escape with their lives.

The premise for this film comes across as a standard survival film, but in the hands of writer-director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin), it is one of the most effectively disturbing films in recent memory. This made it so high on my list because I, unfortunately, had to watch it on a tablet, and it still bothered me. It’s hard to describe how Saulnier accomplishes this. He creates such a realistic quality in his films that violence that has become commonplace in cinema is returned to its original horrific status. Perhaps that’s what is special about Saulnier: he presents violence in such a way that it affects you, rather than desensitizing you. Is this making sense? No? Go watch the movie. It’s available on Amazon Prime right now.

3. Rogue One – The untold story of how the Rebellion retrieved the plans for the Death Star.

This is one of the few movies I wrote a full review for last year. I felt compelled to write about it because I like it more than The Force Awakens. Plus, I’m a Star Wars fan. So this film hit on all cylinders for me. No need to recommend this one. I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of it.

2. Arrival – Aliens arrive on Earth, and a linguist (Amy Adams) must find a way to communicate with them.

Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners, Enemy) has quickly become one of my favorite working directors. The sci-fi story was already appealing to me, but Villeneuve elevates it though his masterful use of tone. But it’s every aspect of the film coming together that makes it one of my favorites. The script is sci-fi with heart, which is always difficult; it’s also surprising, which is an increasingly rare feat. The acting all around is great, anchored by Amy Adams, who should have won Best Actress this year. If you skipped out on this movie because of the science fiction element, do yourself a favor and check it out.

1. The Lobster – In an unspecified future/alternate reality, relationships are required; anyone not in a relationship is turned into an animal of their choosing.


Nearly every year, there’s a weird movie I love that I don’t recommend. This year, it’s “The Lobster,” and it’s also my favorite of the year. Writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth) has a hilarious, deadpan black comedy voice that I find hilarious. Others might find it simply strange. There is plenty of social commentary about the importance we place on relationships, but it’s not preachy. It’s more about pointing out the absurdity of certain aspects of relationships (having things in common, having children to fix struggling relationships, etc.). It could come across as bitter and condescending, but it ends up being equally hilarious and disturbing. What put it over the top for me was Colin Farrell’s perfectly sad performance. Since flaming out in the early 2000s, he’s been giving increasingly impressive performances, and The Lobster is his best yet. This film is not for everyone, but if it’s for you, you’ll love it as much as I did.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

"Elle"

Elle

Paul Verhoeven has had quite an interesting late career. After making (what I consider) classics like Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers, Verhoeven slowed down and re-emerged with Black Book (a surprisingly impressive WWII film about a female spy). He followed that up with Tricked, a short film (under one hour) that I didn't see. Now he's back with another interesting female-driven film: Elle.

Elle starts off mid-rape. That should be enough to let you know if you're going to stick with it or bail out. Many will probably bail out. It's understandable. Rape is not a simple issue, and this film's treatment of it can be seen as offensive. It's understandable if people come away offended, but this is a truly interesting film about modern women that should not be defined by rape.

Elle is a complex character piece about the titular woman played by Isabelle Huppert. Huppert, by the way, gives one of the most nuanced, amusing performances of the year. The film starts out with her being raped, and it seems like it's going to be a thriller about her finding out who did it, but it's so much more than that. Who raped her is not really that important. Her reaction to the rape is more interesting that who did it. She reacts as if it were a common everyday occurrence, finally telling her ex-husband and a couple friends at dinner a few days after it happens. 

To explain much further would be pointless. There are so many sub-plots that it would disservice the film to list them because it would make it seem melodramatic, which it is not. Elle is endlessly fascinating, and, more importantly, darkly comic. You can't help but laugh during certain moments. 

This is why the rape issue should not be the be-all end-all. People get hung up on that word and can't deal with the film beyond it. But this film is about a woman who has experienced trauma before and refuses to be defined by it. She takes over the trauma, rather than letting it define her. Maybe that makes it offensive, but it's really more empowering than your standard rape/revenge film. Just giving a woman a knife and letting her get revenge does not make her powerful; it makes her the same as her attacker. Having a woman experience rape, among many other things, and then moving on in her own way is much more powerful. 

That said, this isn't some feminist film about the power of women. Verhoeven delights in our expected reactions. Who else would start a film that is nearly a comedy with a rape? He's playing with our perception, which is what makes his latest work among his most interesting. Don't get me wrong, I would love to see a resurgence of his gory, action heyday, but this type of film is equally satisfying. It is easily the most thought-provoking work of Verhoeven's career.

"Arsenal" - You Can Just Save Time and Watch the Youtube Clips of Cage*

Arsenal

*Actually, all you'll find are small clips and trailers. He is the best part of this movie, but his scenes don't come close to the insanity of Deadfall.

I don't actually own Arsenal, thankfully, but when I was able to get a screener link to this odd film that features Nicolas Cage reprising a dead character from Deadfall, I had to check it out. Unfortunately, Cage's character is the only similarity to Deadfall. To be fair, Deadfall is terrible, but Cage makes it worth watching with his unhinged "my brother told to do whatever I want" performance. It appears that he was not given as much freedom for Arsenal.

Arsenal stars Adrian Grenier as an owner of a construction business who will do whatever it takes to help out his troubled brother (Johnathon Schaech). When his brother ends up kidnapped by the wannabe gangster (Cage) he used to work for, Grenier goes on a mission to save him. It's not a terrible plot, but it is pretty bland. It's the kind of plot that could be saved by an eccentric performance or a unique style. As far as style goes, the film is very basic aside from oddly gruesome slow motion violence here and there. No one is watching this for action, though; we want that eccentric Cage performance.

Cage does get to go a bit crazy here, mainly in two violent scenes. You need to have seen Deadfall to appreciate the performance, however. Honestly, fans of Deadfall are probably the only people who will get even a small bit of enjoyment out of this film. I consider myself a fan of Deadfall, but I came away disappointed. (Warning: SPOILERS for Arsenal and Deadfall from here on out.)

When I found out Cage was reprising his role of Eddie from Deadfall, I had high hopes. In Deadfall, he is pushed face first into a deep fryer, and his body is disposed of. I hoped Arsenal would posit that he was actually still alive and was now hiding out in a small town. That's not the case. He's simply the same character. That's it. Deadfall didn't happen. 

This makes very little sense because the film goes out of its way to remind you of Eddie in Deadfall: he speaks straight up gibberish early on; when he kills his brother it's with a slow motion punch that really looks like a karate chop ("Hi-fucking-yah!") until the last second; he mumbles most of his dialogue; he uses eyedrops randomly in what's supposed to be an important scene. Why recreate all of that only to have him play second fiddle in this weak story about brotherhood? This film could have been so funny and unique if they had made it a quasi-sequel to Deadfall

Then there's the oddest Deadfall connection: the writer-director of that film, Christopher Coppola, plays Eddie's brother (Coppola is Cage's real life brother, too). Eddie kills his brother early on in a fit of rage. This leads me to my only theory for the Deadfall connection. Cage agreed to do this film, but would only do it if he could reprise his role as Eddie and kill his brother onscreen. This is his onscreen payback for his brother's crappy film. I don't think Cage is actually ashamed of Deadfall, but he is aware of his insane performances (he claims The Wicker Man was intentionally funny). He and his brother probably thought it would be a funny in-joke to have Eddie kill Coppola. That's probably not the case, but thinking of why Eddie is in this film brought me my only enjoyment from watching it. 

Oh, and John Cusack is in this film. I have no idea why.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

"Deadfall" - You Can Just Save Time and Watch the Youtube Clips of Cage

Deadfall

Originally, I was going to write about National Treasure for this post, but something better came up. I was sent a screener link to Nicolas Cage's newest film, Arsenal. At first, it didn't seem to be worth my time, and I figured I'd wait until Netflix to check it out. But then I came across some astounding information: Nicolas Cage was reprising his crazed character from Deadfall for the film. This led to two things. One: I had to buy Deadfall, re-watch it, and write about it. Two: I had to watch Arsenal and post a review when the embargo is lifted in a few days. So right off the bat, I own this Cage "classic" just so I could write about it.

This isn't the first Cage film I bought just for his insane performance. I bought The Wicker Man years ago, and I proudly own Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, among others. Nicolas Cage is one of my favorite actors, especially when a director lets him do whatever he wants. Deadfall is written and directed by Cage's brother, Christopher Coppola, so you know he gave Cage complete freedom. 

Aside from Cage's hilarious performance (which is the only reason to watch this insipid wannabe noir con movie, Deadfall stands out for being a movie completely made by doing favors for the Coppola family. The cast includes James Coburn, Talia Shire, Charlie Sheen, and Peter Fonda. There is simply no reason why these actors would take part in this film aside from helping out a family member and/or friend. It's probable that the star, Michael Biehn, took the job sincerely, but his performance reeks of someone going through the motions along with the others...except for Cage. 

This is why Cage is such a fun actor to watch. Most people would come to this nepotism project with the least possible effort, but Cage truly turned up for his brother. He's not one to sit back and coast through a film when he's given the chance to do something unique, and my God, is he unique in this film. 

Cage is such a standout because the story is so boring. I'm not a fan of good con movies, much less crap like this, so Deadfall's plot, about a young con man (Biehn) looking for answers from his con man uncle (Coburn) after accidentally killing his con man father (also Coburn), is extremely difficult to stay interested in. It doesn't help that Biehn is challenging Harrison Ford (from the theatrical cut of Blade Runner) for most disinterested narration of all time. 


So the first few minutes of Deadfall are quite a slog. But then, Cage appears. His wardrobe makes little sense throughout (my favorite is the tuxedo, cummerbund and all). He wears sunglasses to hide his hilariously bloodshot eyes (I couldn't help but be reminded of Slurms McKenzie from Futurama when Cage slowly takes of the shades). His wig is bad, even by Cage standards (but in a great twist, it's shown to be a wig in the film). And his line delivery ranges from stoned mumble to outright nonsensical jabbering. In other words, perfect Cage. 


Had Cage's character, named Eddie, by the way, been the main character, Deadfall would be one of the funniest, craziest bad movies of all time. Unfortunately, and inexplicably, his character (SPOILERS) is killed off little more than halfway through. The Cage-less portion is hard to watch, even with a strange cameo from Charlie Sheen, and the appearance of Angus Scrimm, who is playing what appears to be a crappy James Bond villain (his name is Dr. Lyme and, for reasons never explained, he has a pneumatic lobster claw for a right arm). 

This is why Arsenal interests me. Someone is attempting to fix the mistake of this film, and bring Eddie back from the dead. I can't wait for the explanation for his character still being alive in this new film (and I kind of hope there isn't one). My main hope is that Eddie hasn't calmed down in his old age.

Which version of Cage would you rather watch? Also, the Cage
in the first cover does not appear in the film.
Of course, I plan on keeping this crazy, weird film. I'll even keep the stupid cardboard cover the studio added to make the movie look more normal. Why would you want to play down the craziness of Cage in this film? It's the only part worth watching. Here's hoping Arsenal even crazier.