Wednesday, July 31, 2019

"Appaloosa" - A Buddy Cop Western

As always, I write these articles under the assumption that you’ve seen the movie, so...SPOILERS.

Technically this is the second western I’ve written about this month, but Tombstone was just a late post. So Appaloosa is the official western post for July. It’s been a while since I watched this movie. In fact, I’m pretty sure this is one of those DVDs that I watched when I first bought it and have not seen since. My memories of this film were that it was a traditional western, which I like, but it also had some non-traditional elements to it, as well. This is the best of both worlds for me. I tend to like the weirder westerns more, but I still enjoy a straightforward film. Appaloosa is both, although the non-traditional elements are what make it stand out.

Traditional western, buddy comedy, or love triangle (or square or pentagon)?

When looking at Appaloosa broadly it is very much a classic western. Two lawmen for hire (Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen) are tasked by the town leaders of Appaloosa to deal with a renegade rancher (Jeremy Irons) who murdered the previous peacekeepers of the town. The arrival of a woman (Renee Zellweger) complicates things for all involved. And it’s all presented in a traditional way, with a focus on realism. The locations, costumes, music, etc. all feel very common for the genre. That’s not to say they are generic. It’s all very well done; it’s just what you’d expect. The gun fights are a bit different as they’re presented in a more realistic manner than most typical westerns. 

The characters make Appaloosa a bit different from most westerns. While Ed Harris’s character is considered an honest, straightforward man, he is still quite complex. He just talks about it. Harris and Mortensen talk about how they’re going to handle typical western problems, but they also talk about their feelings. For whatever reason, I love this kind of stuff in a western (hence my love for The Sisters Brothers). I like the gunplay in this movie, but my favorite scenes are of Harris and Mortensen discussing relationships. At one point Mortensen has to tell Harris that Zellweger did kiss him, but he didn’t kiss her back. That’s funny to me not only for the absurdity of such a discussion as they prepare for a shootout, but also because of the matter-of-fact banter the two have. 

The pairing of Harris and Mortensen is the highlight of the film. Many of their scenes are intentionally funny. The film is truly a buddy cop comedy set in the Old West. It’s made that much funnier because of how nonchalant they are about killing people. It’s just part of the job for them, so it’s not something they really think about. Harris is more concerned with what Mortensen told Zellweger about him...or about which curtain fabrics he should choose for his new house...or how to properly use the word “sequester” (which he uses a second time later in the movie for a funny, subtle callback). 

The cause of most their funny conversations is Zellweger, who gives a funny performance, as well. At first, her appearance seems fairly normal in the film. She is a love interest for Harris who is kidnapped later on. It’s typical damsel in distress stuff until Harris and Mortensen see her running around naked with her supposed captor. It turns out Zellweger is a survivor, and she will latch on to the strongest person she can find for her own safety. She gets with Harris immediately when she sees that he’s the leader of the duo, but then makes a movie on Mortensen when she feels Harris is too distracted, then hooks up with her captor since he now has the power, then appears to be getting close to Irons once he’s pardoned and taking over the town. Hence, the “love pentagon” mentioned in the topic title. (Also, Love Pentagon would be a good band or porno name.) To dismiss her as a “whore” would be lazy. It actually makes her a very interesting female character in a western, which is certainly a rarity. She’s using what men want from her to ensure her safety. Now, one could argue about how promptly she moves on to her captor, but desperate times call for desperate measures. 

Her actions lead to some of the funniest moments of the film, as she explains herself to Harris. Zellweger’s tone is perfect in these moments. She infuses every line with a sense of “what did you expect me to do?” that cracks me up. And the anger in her face when she turns on Mortensen in desperation is hilarious, especially when Mortensen calmly denies her claims and Harris believes him over her. 

I’m aware that writing about these conversations and character moments don’t do the film justice, but that’s what makes Appaloosa special. It’s different, but in small ways. Perhaps it’s just my odd taste, but those little quirks are why I own this movie yet I don’t have a single John Wayne movie in my collection. 

Why do I own this?

All of the above, but I had really forgotten how interesting this movie is, so I’m glad it’s in my collection. And I’ll definitely watch it again when I go through another western kick.

Random thoughts

According to IMDb trivia, this was meant to be the first film in a series that followed Mortensen and Harris. I love the idea, but how would that work? The ending seemed pretty definitive. Although it would be funny if there was a sequel in which Harris tracked down Mortensen because Zellweger left him for whoever took Irons’s place. 

This was clearly a passion project of Ed Harris’s since this is only his second directorial effort (after Pollock) and his only writing credit. Westerns tend to bring that out in actors. John C Reilly purchased the rights to The Sisters Brothers in the hopes of one day making it, and Kurt Russell essentially took over production to make sure Tombstone got made. I think these actors grew up with westerns and always dreamed of making a great one and realized they had to make it happen on their own since Hollywood has largely abandoned the genre.

Jeremy Irons is great, but I always have a hard time watching him with an American accent. It's not bad; it's just that his voice doesn't lend itself to an American accent. Does that make sense? Maybe it's just me.

I'm not crazy about that opening narration… I'm not against narration in general, it's just that most of the shit Viggo says could be revealed naturally through dialogue and actions throughout the film. He certainly doesn't need to keep mentioning his 8 gauge. We become well aware of that gun throughout the movie.

"Put your little contraptions away." That has to be the first time a penis had been called a contraption.

The suddenness of the violence early on is great. Definitely makes you realize anything and happen in a moment's notice in the film.

Timothy Spall is the go-to "flustered man in a 1800s setting" with this and The Last Samurai.

Ed Harris's first interaction with Zellweger is so damn strange. I don't like seeing Ed Harris smitten…

"Killing's sometimes a sorta side-thing that happens."

Do NOT ask Ed Harris about his sex life or he will nearly beat to death the nearest bystander.

I definitely don't like seeing "giddy after a night of banging" Ed Harris.

I love the look on Viggo's face when he hands the spyglass to Harris to see Zellweger gallivanting around naked with her supposed kidnapper.

"Chews her food good...but apparently she'll fuck anything that ain't gelded."

You have to appreciate a movie that involves Chester A. Arthur in a plot point.

I like the ending and the sacrifice Viggo makes, but that ending narration almost ruins it. It just spells out things you already know. It would have been much more powerful if it simply ended in silence. I get the desire to end on a poetic note, but there is such a thing as visual poetry too.

I was not expecting (and had completely forgotten) the Tom Petty song over the end credits. It's not bad or anything, but, like a lot of little things with this movie, it was unexpected.


Sunday, July 21, 2019

"Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls" - The Best Kind of Comedy Sequel: a Dumb One.

*As always, I write these articles under the assumption that you’ve seen the movie, so...SPOILERS.

After revisiting Nothing to Lose, I decided to watch all three Steve Oedekerk movies I own. So this month I’m going with Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (Kung Pow: Enter the Fist is up next). As with most comedy sequels, When Nature Calls is typically looked at as the lesser of the two Jim Carrey movies in the franchise. I like the first one much more, too, but I obviously still like this movie. I admire how intentionally stupid it is, and while my sense of humor may have changed a bit since middle school, a part of me will always find this movie funny. Especially that part with the rhino...

A comedy sequel is usually dumber than the original.

The Ace Ventura franchise is particularly suited to stupidity, but in general comedy sequels follow that rule. Major League II and Anchorman 2 (just to pick a couple from my collection) and goofier and dumber than their first installments. I can see the reasoning behind this; filmmakers feel obligated to one-up the previous movie to appease audiences. With When Nature Calls, that meant Ace had to go from helping find a beloved NFL mascot to becoming a monk then travelling to Africa to find a sacred bat to prevent tribal genocide. The stakes are definitely higher, even though the tone is noticeably more cartoonish. 

It’s hard to fault filmmakers for taking this route. Comedy sequels are generally weaker than their originals, and there’s really nothing that can be done to prevent it. Comedies work because we’re introduced to new characters, and we get to experience something new with no expectations. A sequel has to repeat certain elements, but to a heightened degree. So when Ace ridiculously barrel rolls a vehicle into a parking spot and proclaims, “Like a glove!” we don’t laugh so much as acknowledge it with a smile, as if to say, “I remember when he did that in the first film, and this time is was crazier.” It’s not funny; it’s a callback. It’s fan service we don’t need or want. 

This applies to comedy in general. Do you want to see a stand-up comedian perform the same routine year after year? If so, then comedy sequels are for you. For the rest of us, these repeated moments are what we have to deal with while hoping to see something new and different. 

In a lot of ways When Nature Calls breaks this trend. I can’t think of a much different setting and set of circumstances for such a film without completing changing the character. Yes, Ace is still looking for an important animal, and he goes about his search in annoyingly funny ways, but this is still very different from the first movie. Plus, Ace is the only returning character, and the previous film’s plot is not even referenced. 

Making your main character crazier and injecting him into a completely different setting is probably the best way to make a sequel to Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The other route is to just copy the first film. Sure, that will appeal to a certain type of fan who simply finds humor in recognizing shit they’ve seen before that they thought was funny, but to most people that would be an unfunny waste of time.

I suppose the major factor that would land people on the negative side of this movie is the influence of writer/director Steve Oedekerk. Oedekerk’s sense of humor is zanier and more childlike (while also hovering in R-rated territory somehow) than the first film. This means that Ace has gone from annoyingly eccentric (which is usually just an act he uses as a distraction to work the case) to unhinged maniac (which has nothing to with working the case). 

Perhaps I’m giving the first film a bit too much credit. There are moments when Ace is being stupid for no purpose and no one’s amusement but his own (when he pretends to be Captain Kirk while checking the dolphin tank comes to mind), but for the most part he is a driven detective trying to solve the case. 

I guess I can some the difference up best in comparing the two fancy party scenes in each movie. In the first film, Ace, who loves to fuck with rich, uptight folk, is a general weirdo/asshole to nearly everyone he comes across. He makes fun of how people talk, he acts insane to the overly serious door man, he eats in a disgusting manner, he grabs the arm of the violinist (still one of my favorite small moments from that movie), and he eventually causes a major scene when he emerges from the bathroom completely soaked. That is all very cartoonish, but while he was there he was searching for evidence. 

In When Nature Calls, Ace also attends a fancy gathering, but it’s amped up. He covers his face in food and is a general asshole, but things escalate when he abruptly knocks out the Monopoly Guy to make a point about wearing fur. (This is also a favorite part of mine.) He’s still going after the rich and uptight in the society, but it is not meant to serve as a distraction as he works the case. That might seem like a minor difference, but it encapsulates the fundamental difference between the two, and it’s what makes the first film a beloved comedy to many and the second film a tolerable, silly sequel. 

All of this is to say this is the way to do it if you’re going to make a comedy sequel. I like Major League II for this very reason. Admit that you can’t repeat the first film and just get stupid with it. And who better to get stupid than Ace Ventura? I prefer the first film, but I can’t fault a comedy sequel that intentionally got this stupid. Part of that is thanks to Carrey’s usual over-the-top performance, but it’s mainly due to Steve Oedekerk’s involvement. And I’ll go into much more detail about his particular style of comedy next month.

The rushed sequel featuring insensitive treatment of indigenous people had trouble behind the scenes. Who knew?

Actually, I had no idea there were issues behind the scenes of this movie, but yeah, looking back it should have been obvious (in my defense, you don’t really think about this stuff when you’re in middle school). You can find all the details here, but the short version is that Carrey didn’t really want to make the movie and was sick for a lot of it, the original director was fired early on, they were worries about the depiction of the African tribes, etc. 

The Carrey stuff interested me a lot, especially when I realized that this was his only sequel until he did that disappointing Dumb and Dumber sequel a few years back. For all his goofiness, it’s fair to say that Carrey has never been interested in repeating himself. But something that cracked me up, and made a lot of sense, was his objection to Ace’s fear of bats. It didn’t make sense to him, and looking back at it, he’s completely right. Why would Ace, who was established in the first film as a lover of all animals, hate bats? Sure, they’re creepy to most people, but (do I have to write it?) Ace is not most people. Carrey’s suggestion to fix this was to have Ace be allergic to bats instead, and I cannot understand why they didn’t go that route instead. 

And the treatment of Africa is pretty bad. Every cliche you can think of is used, but at least they went with fictional tribes and even a fictional country. But the fact that it seems to still be a British colony is odd, to say the least. Definitely not the best idea for a setting, even in the mid-’90s, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be when I rewatched it. And without the Africa setting, how else do we get Ace in a mechanical rhino in a hot savannah? 

The more I think about everything regarding this movie, it’s a minor miracle that When Nature Calls was ever completed, much less that it turned out to be kind of funny. Maybe this is just nostalgia talking, and this is a garbage movie that I should never watch again, much less own. But then again, that rhino scene is magical.

Why do I own this?

I have a whole section of my collection devoted to comedies I loved as a kid, and this deserves to remain a part of it.

Random Thoughts 

Why was the plane's animal cargo at the beginning a single raccoon? Why did they have it? Where were they taking it?

As a Dolphins fan, I loved that the first film factored the team into the story in a major way. That written, I like that this movie just ignores that any of that happened and goes with a completely unrelated plot. 

I get that they were trying to one-up the "like a glove" parking scene from the first movie, but Ace taking the vehicle off-road on the way to the consulate makes no sense at all. I know, I know, why am I expecting sense from this movie? But Ace in the first film was just an eccentric, goofy guy who liked to fuck with people. He's a straight up cartoon character this time around. Maybe I'm remembering it differently, though. I'll have to revisit the first film soon.

Man, "spank you, spank you very much" was a daily quote in middle school thanks to this movie.

The Monopoly guy stuff is still funny. The sudden punch to the face is great.

"Bumblebee tuna."

"He's good. With my help, he could be the best."

The spit stuff was funny at first, but it's pretty damn disgusting when they leave the chief's hut covered in it.

So even if Ace finds a fingerprint in the sacred hut, what is he going to do with it? Would any of the tribesmen or poachers have their prints on file? I highly doubt it.

"Kind of hot in these rhinos."

The rhino sequence justifies this film's existence. The birthing part is amazing, both for Carrey's insane performance and the tourist family's reaction.

Bob Gunton went from Shawshank to getting interrogated by an eyeball-touching Ace Ventura.

Speaking of eyeball-touching, I started copying that scene at school after watching this, sound effects and all (I was very popular…).

Once again, why do I expect logic, but why did the poachers leave Ace alive? And why would they tie up his monkey with him? Wouldn't they try to sell it instead?

This is a very light-hearted movie considering there's a potential genocide of an entire tribe at stake.

I completely forgot that Ace has an out of body experience to solve the case.

I also forgot that the villain ends up getting ape-raped.

When exactly did Ace bang the princess? Sure, he masturbated after seeing her naked, but there wasn't much follow up to that.

But back to that ape-rape. What a truly horrifying end for the villain. And when it cuts to the bushes shaking, there are no screams. Is he dead already? Is he passed out? Is he enjoying it? The implications are terrifying.


Tuesday, July 9, 2019

"Double Impact" - Double the Van Dammage

*As always, I write these articles under the assumption that you’ve seen the movie, so...SPOILERS.

I know I started this month with Tombstone, but that was just because I was late with that one and meant to get it done by June. So consider this the actual first article of July, which means it’s time for another Van Damme movie. I went with what I consider to be lesser Van Damme last month with Knock Off (although it is better than I remember), so this month I’m going with one of my favorites: Double Impact. I love this movie to the point that I had a poster of it made years ago when I couldn’t find an actual poster online (you’ll find this hard to believe, but I was single at the time). So any excuse to watch this again is welcome, but I knew I had to cover this one as soon as possible when I learned that a new special edition had been released. So once again, writing about movies in my own collection caused me to add another disc to it. In fact, deciding to do this one Van Damme movie every month thing is going to cause me to end up buying quite a few more before it’s all said and done. Perhaps that’s been my subconscious goal behind all of this; it’s all been a ruse to give me an excuse to buy every Van Damme movie ever made. Well, at least a lot of them are included in those “5 Movie Action Pack” DVD sets for less than $10.

Double the Van Dammage

Within the Van Damme filmography, the twin or duplicate Van Damme movies are usually made fun of a bit, mainly because he made four movies in which there is more than one of him: Double Impact, Timecop, Maximum Risk, and Replicant. When you think about it, that’s a crazy amount of times for that to happen in an acting career when you are not an actual twin. To be fair, he only played twins in this movie and Maximum Risk, and in Risk, he didn’t appear onscreen as both brothers at the same time (one died at the beginning). In Timecop, there were just different versions of Van Damme. And in Replicant he was cloned in an attempt to track down the serial killer version of Van Damme (Replicant is perhaps the most underrated Van Damme movie, and I cannot wait to revisit it). Regardless of the details, you can see why someone might poke fun at how often this happened in his movies. Despite the gimmicky nature of multiple Van Dammes, it can be used to make a very compelling Van Damme movie when used correctly. 

Obviously, Double Impact is an example of using the gimmick correctly. You see, it’s not enough to simply have two Van Dammes onscreen. It’s awesome, sure, but it only rises above gimmick when you make the two Van Dammes polar opposites. This allows Van Damme to showcase his range as an actor, and it’s so entertaining to watch him play a “bad” guy. Van Damme got his start playing bad guys, but he quickly became the fun, charming leading man in most of his films. Movies like Double Impact let audiences see another side of Van Damme. 

I know most of these articles I write about Van Damme seem a bit tongue in cheek, but I do sincerely like most of his filmography, and I do think he’s a good actor. His accent is usually a bit of a detriment to his performance (especially in the early days), but he ended up being a legitmate leading man. But for whatever reason I’ve always found him much more compelling as a bad guy. It seems like Van Damme is able to free himself a bit as an actor when he’s not worried about the audience liking his character.

In Double Impact, Van Damme plays Chad and Alex, twins separated at birth after the assassination of their parents in Hong Kong. Chad ended up in L.A. and became kind of a douche. Alex was raised in Hong Kong and became kind of a dick. Either character as the lead of the movie would be okay, but bringing them together made Double Impact special. There’s something great about seeing Van Damme talk shit to himself. 

The vengeance plot of Double Impact is serviceable and the action is decent, but it’s Van Damme’s performances that set it apart from the rest of his filmography. The Chad performance is close to what you would expect from a Van Damme leading character at this point in his career, but he does get to play him with a bit of irony, really selling the pampered aspect of the character. He’s very concerned with his clothing, and he’s constantly complaining about how shitty Alex’s Hong Kong is. If Chad was the only character, that stuff would have been excised to make him more likable. This is why it’s so great to have a version of Van Damme that is the heel; it allows both characters to become more interesting because making the audience like them is less of a goal. If there’s two Van Dammes, you’re bound to like one of them, so there’s no need to sell it more than usual. Chad’s whininess is actually pretty funny, and it allows him to grow as a character as he becomes less concerned with that stuff by the end of the film.

The Alex performance is even better because Van Damme is given the freedom to be an asshole. He’s constantly talking shit about his brother (he has a serious problem with Chad’s black silk underwear), which makes for something quite meta. Everytime Alex rips into Chad, it’s almost as if it’s Van Damme ripping into all the characters he’s had to play as the “likable” leading man. It’s like he’s sick of this goody-two-shoes shit, but he can only express this as Alex because he’s afraid to make waves with his career. 

Of course, I’m probably reading into it more than I should. The real motivation of this film was to show audiences how great it would be to see Van Damme kick Van Damme. And it is great. I just wish they would make the sequel Van Damme has mentioned before. And a sequel would allow for something new for Van Damme: they could introduce a long lost third brother. Van Damme could play triplets! And it solves the problem of the bland title of Double Impact 2. Instead, it would be Triple Impact. Triple the Van Dammage!  

How am I just learning about the MVD Rewind Collection?

A big reason for me writing about this movie is because I came across a special edition of this movie from the MVD Rewind Collection. Most Van Damme movies are light on the special features, but this release had a two-part, nearly two-hour documentary, an hour of deleted scenes, plus all the old promo material. The kind of attention usually reserved for prestige films was being applied to a Van Damme movie not called Kickboxer, Bloodsport, or Universal Soldier. It made me realize I was not alone in loving this movie. It also revealed a lot of stuff I had no idea about. 

For instance, the whole movie is slightly based on an Alexandre Dumas story called The Corsican Brothers. Who knew a Van Damme movie was based on literature? And Tia Carrere was considered for the love interest (which would have made so much more sense, by the way), but Van Damme wanted a “blonde.” (That segment is a bit cringe-worthy, with Van Damme claiming it wasa decision made to help the box office draw of the movie. I think Van Damme just wanted to film sex scenes with a blonde.) And there’s a lot of info about filming in Hong Kong and some behind the scenes business stuff I would have never known if not for this new release. I just can’t believe I only know about it because I came across it during an Amazon search. 

I was pleasantly surprised to see that this is not the first Van Damme movie to receive this treatment. They’ve also released special editions of Black Eagle and Lionheart, so of course I have to buy those now. Hopefully these movies are selling decently enough to keep this series going. I would love to see a special edition of The Quest or Legionnaire. (I’m joking about Legionnaire...kind of.)

Me, while watching this movie.

Why do I own this?

It’s a special edition of Double Impact. As a serious fan of all things Van Damme, I have to own this.

Random thoughts 

As a father, I know that babies look a bit different than what they end up looking as they get older, but there's no fucking way those pale British babies end up being two Van Dammes!

That opening parent murder scene makes Batman's parent murder look like a Disney scene. "What will happen to my babies?" - Double Van Damme mom, already shot once.
"You'll never know." - An especially evil Chong Li right before he shoots her in the face with a shotgun. Damn!

In less than a minute of Van Damme's introduction, he's doing the splits. In less than two minutes, he's kicked someone in the face. Now that's how you use Van Damme in a movie.

"And you weren't born in France. I just raised you there." Thank you! One throwaway line explains the accent. Is that so hard?

My God, American Van Damme is wearing the most "dad" outfit I've ever seen.

Man, Chong Li aged great. Twenty-five years later and looks no different. 

So a goon takes one kick from Van Damme, and Chong Li breaks his neck as punishment? Come on, Chong Li, you'll run out of goons in no time with that business model.

Also, nice to see Chong Li get some Bloodsport payback with that shot to Van Damme's nuts.

By the way, I know his name isn’t Chong Li, but you know exactly who I’m talking about when I refer to him by that name, don’t you?

So Chad's idea of stealth is to sneak up on a guy, say "psst!", and then kick him in the face, sending him crashing into some barrels? I like it.

There's nothing special about the shootouts in this movie, but I did like seeing things done the old-fashioned way with squibs and stuff getting shot up practically. 

Oh, and this movie features some all time classic ridiculous shootout moments, like shooting while jumping, shooting upside down unnecessarily, and, my favorite, rolling across the floor while shooting the entire time.

I've always liked the ridiculousness of bad guy meetings, but this one is especially great since it features a cake in the shape of a frigate, and someone actually starts to serve the cake. Something just makes me laugh at the idea of a bad guy meeting having to pause while everyone enjoys a slice of boat cake.

By making the sex scene Alex's paranoid fear, the filmmakers found a way to still have the required nudity of a '90s action movie without it being completely gratuitous. 

Damn, Alex hitting a woman and dropping the (homophobic slur) f-bomb twice. That shit would not have made it if this was made today.

"Brother? Why? Because he looks like me? I'm gonna change that. Because I'm gonna fuck up his face." I’ve said this about one of my brothers at least seven times throughout my life.

As a kid, I thought the dude with the spurs was bad ass. He just seems silly now. 

Beware Chong Li's special ability: lifting barrels above his head.

Chong Li's death is so fucking good. It begins with an out of nowhere electrocution and is immediately followed by a massive explosion. Fuck. Yes.

I think that ship is only hauling explosive barrels. 

No fucking way that a British businessman knows how to operate heavy machinery. 

Griffith's death is a bit too similar to the end of Lethal Weapon 2.

I love the abrupt ending. We know everything will be fine because they freeze frame on Van Damme giving the "okay" gesture.