Live Avatar Role Playing

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After seeing Avatar, how many of us thought “Man, I’d love to be a Na’vi and be ten feet tall and one with Pandora and connect my long hair to cool stuff and speak a crazy language” and a whole lot of other things?  Well thanks to Live Avatar Role Playing our dream has become a reality! The Na’vi people of Hometree, Wisconsin have created Pandora here on Earth and accepted us outsiders. They’re not just doing it because it’s cool, they’re doing it because it’s important. Check out the hilarious video below.

Tropic Thunder

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Maybe you heard about some protests related to the use of the word “retard” in this movie. Maybe you didn’t, but you were concerned/intrigued at the idea of Robert Downey Jr. playing a black man. (Well, playing a white Australian actor playing a black man.) Maybe you think Hollywood just offends willy nilly and the stooges eat it up but this is all very below you. Here’s the thing: Hollywood does offend, but every time, it’s a calculated risk — they know exactly what they are doing.* I don’t want to spoil it — many papers have quoted snippets of dialogue to illustrate the “controversy,” but what is said is said for a reason. A satirical reason. People who say ignorant things in movies do not betray the ignorance of the filmmakers, but the characters. Any group that is disparaged is done so as to illuminate what kind of person that speaker is. Ben Stiller’s character feels that he’s Mr. Sensitive on the issues of the mentally disabled because he played one (with a very non-specific condition resembling nothing so much as Appalacian inbreeding stereotypes) in a movie. His character, Tugg Speedman, is an idiot;  Stiller (also the director and co-writer of this movie) is not.

Downey’s character shrewdly remarks on this point (his Oscar bait character, modeled after self-righteous Method divas like Val Kilmer, Daniel Day Lewis, Russell Crowe more) is highly disdainful of his box-office darling costar Speedman; he takes it a step further. His supposedly inflammatory monologue on what kinds of developmentally disabled roles don’t go too far and also draw Oscar’s attention is in mockery of Hollywood and in support of the disabled community. It’s a terrific satirical commentary on Hollywood’s terror of offending, the fickleness of audiences, overcompensation through awards, and making fun of Speedman. These scenes are peppered with the “R” word (the only word Speedman knows to use) and the lampooning was lost. People: unwind your panties. This movie gets it. It’s not often a Ben Stiller meta-comedy can pull a comparison to The Last Temptation of Christ, but there you go. If you get what they are saying, you won’t be irrational.

All that sociopolitical malarkey aside, Tropic Thunder is a delicious metafictional take on war action movies, hero worship, and Hollywood banality, filled with bigger-than-life egos struggling with bigger-than-life problems. Like the still-superior Galaxy Quest, Tropic Thunder drops unwitting actors into the real life versions of what they have been faking, and they discover the truth, and themselves, along the way. Downey in his African-American drag (alongside real-life African American Brandon Jackson) is the Alan Rickman-as-Alexander Dane — he’s already the fish out of water, and now is forced to remain in the pretense. I could watch Downey “be black” for hours, he’s just plain old terrific.

Jack Black takes on the troubled comedian role (see: Chris Farley, Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy…) with a huge embarrassing franchise and an entitlement complex to match. Stiller cast himself as the flailing one-note action star, trying to be a serious actor but also just trying to stay popular and show off all four of his guns (see: Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise…). Nerdy Jay Baruchel (you recognize him from Million Dollar Baby) fills in the role normally taken by Jeremy Davies in the cliché war-band of misfits; even his actor character fulfills his movie character’s destiny. The terrific casting continues with Nick Nolte as the grizzled author of the war memoir they are shooting. Danny McBride continues to cement his relatable-but-crazy good ol’ boy persona as the crew’s pyrotechnician. Even Matthew McConaughey was good as Stiller’s devoted agent. Tom Cruise cameos as a chubby, hairy, belligerent producer with a God complex — arguably his best work since Collateral.

Throw these Hollywood archetypes into the wilds of Vietnam (played by Hawaii) near as massive heroin-producing endeavor and make them wonder if cameras are rolling. It’s pretty freaking funny, and it covers all the bases with no cringing. So glad to have Stiller back where he belongs, in the satirist’s chair. I’m serious, it’s funny. Go see it.

* Offer void in theatres showing Beverly Hills Chihuahua

MPAA Rating R-pervasive language, sexual references, violence, drugs
Release date 8/15/08
Time in minutes 107
Director Ben Stiller
Studio Dreamworks

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Get Smart

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Oh thank heaven, Get Smart is funny. If you are a fan of the show, there are enough little winks, nudges, and appropriately contextualized catch phrases to please you — but the movie doesn’t rely on them to carry itself. If you’d never seen the show, nothing was needed to make this film adaptation accessible to any moviegoer. It’s a genuine easy-going, whiz-bang spy comedy with the trimmings.

Just like his filling of Paul Lynde’s shoes as Uncle Arthur in Bewitched, Steve Carell’s unique alchemy of straight-lacedness, shamelessness, roguishness, and naïvete serves him well here in Don Adams’ shoes. Carell’s Agent 86 is not as accidentally brilliant as the fortunate bumblings of Adams. However, the screenwriters gave him a couple of other random vulnerabilities to offset his skills. This Max really knows his stuff, even if he’s not sure he can really do the job (and sometimes he can’t anyway). Carell can make the most unlikable person adorable, but Maxwell Smart is pretty darn likable to start with.

Also well cast are Alan Arkin as the Chief, Dwayne Johnson as alpha agent 23, and a host of supporting techs and agents (David Koechner and Terry Crews against Masi Oka and Nate Torrence) who boost the comedy while advancing the plot. Anne Hathaway is gamine and fit enough to be Agent 99, but she is so straight that she lacks a certain je ne said quois to be a spy or a love interest. I’ve never been able to put my finger on it, but it’s there (or, rather it’s missing) nonetheless. She’s not a detraction, and she does have some killer moves, but 99’s bits had the least zing. Enter Terence Stamp, chewing his scenery as a great old school K.A.O.S. agent (with Borat’s Ken Davitian as his flunky), and we’re good to go.

To update the franchise a little, the writers made president James Caan a rather obvious movie parody of the Current Resident, which was really too easy and kind of dated already. However, Caan makes a groovy old-school president and has the charm to carry it off, so it’s hard to make a fuss about a small misfire like this.

Get Smart has great, full on spy action sequences that would be at home in any Bond or Bourne movie. I’m thinking in particular of a terrific sky dive and a great multi-vehicle chase. Big fun! If you like the action, there’s good action. Not wall to wall — this is a comedy after all — but good amounts.

At first the movie seemed unsure of itself. Carell’s responses felt castrated on the editing table into flat declarative mush rather than allowing him the heft and comedic power he normally enjoys in his other successful projects. Before long, thankfully, it all picks up and starts to move, and I forgot all about the few awkward moments at the beginning.

Get Smart celebrates the old-school Hollywood ways of doing spying, with crazy gadgets, Russian foes, and manly hunches. This isn’t 24, with cell phones replacing the shoe phones or constant tapping on computer terminals to hack into whatever. This is just a fun semi-retro journey through a C.O.N.T.R.O.L. mission with nice, high stakes and a gimmicky bad guy. I laughed a lot and was thrilled enough. It was innocent and simple, classic and fun. Go see it.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 6/20/08
Time in minutes 110
Director Peter Segal
Studio Warner Brothers

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Scream 3

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Despite the online film criticism community being locked out of press screenings of this movie (despite assurances that we would not post until opening day) by wicked Dimension Films, I still went to see it on opening weekend. Maybe it was the lack of internet-generated buzz that made the seats so empty! Maybe it was fear of a Nightmare on Elm Street-style debacle that kept them away. Me personally, I thought it was a hoot, as did my companion.

Quick note: So, I could have had a third companion, who had only seen Scream 1, but he did not groove on the meta-fictional irony of the first movie. Having been unimpressed by the first, he did not see the second. My companion who did come in pointed out that meta-creation is best appreciated by those who appreciate the original genre in the first place. That made sense. So keep in mind that I dig “real” horror movies and I think Scream 2 was the best of the three. Scream 3 is meta meta meta! Without giving any details, let’s say it’s impossible to describe some of the crazy surrealism of the movie. A close approximation would be Sean Connery playing the bad guy in a new James Bond film and talking about the actor named Sean Connery. It’s more than just a wink-wink cameo, though, it would be like, Indy’s hat and whip showing up on President Harrison Ford’s desk in Air Force Two.

Scream 3 reunites some of the old gang (even a posthumous cameo from Jamie Kennedy, the lovable video store clerk from Scream 1 & 2) while Hollywood makes a franchise loosely based on the original true story (sound familiar?). The nudge nudge aspect of that joke is that Hollywood knows it takes a real story and makes its own monster out of it…witness Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. So, Stab 3 is not based on real life events, as Stab1 was. I promise, this sounds like I am giving away stuff but I am so not! Therefore, there are no rules to be broken – no sequel rules as in 2; no classic horror rules as in 1. Thence the super-meta. Basically it was fun and not dissatisfying, but the meta sort of overwhelmed the story after a while. Me, I dig that play-within-a-play stuff, but it doesn’t make for big visceral scares.

Long-missed Parker Posey plays the actress playing Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox)- and oh my god she cracked me up! Parker’s Waiting for Guffman alum Matt Keeslar plays Deputy Dewey (you know, the role played by real life Mr. Courtney Cox David Arquette) but I don’t think that their actor characters were supposed to be dating…should have been, though. Keeslar, formerly known as Box Office Poison With A Bad Agent, seems to have taken some dialect instruction and gotten a new agent! Yay Matt! Forgive him the mustache, it’s all for art. Seinfeld’s Puddy, Jenny McCarthy (perfect) and some newish faces (Scott Foley, Patrick Dempsey, Deon Richmond) help fill out the cast roster and body count. Now, keep in mind, we have to keep track of all the living Scream 1/2 survivors (Sidney, Cotton, Gale, Dewey) as well as the actors who play them and other characters that die/died – as well as keep up with the back story. So this is no brainless horror film with a bunch of Hollywood inside gags (though they are there too)…

And, in keeping with the Scream franchise in general, no real nudity at all!

Wes Craven directs. This can be good or bad, depending on where you stand. Some of his stuff are classics (Nightmare on Elm Street, the Scream franchise), some are…well, Shocker and The Hills Have Eyes 2. I think he did a good job keeping all the story lines straight, but kind of went for the very gratuitous “get on with it” murder spree that flaws all straight horror franchises. I could say it was intentional and ironic, but it felt messier than Scream 2. The laughs were comparable but the suspense was diminished in 3. He did get a tad heavy handed with his various red herrings, but is partially vindicated for one stupid fax sequence by using Heather Matarazzo as a cameo.

So, go see it. It’s fun. See if you can spot the “homages” also known as “satirical rip-offs.”

MPAA Rating R for strong horror violence and language.
Release date 2/4/00
Time in minutes 116
Director Wes Craven
Studio Dimension Films

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Galaxy Quest

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The first time I saw this preview, I thought, the only way this movie could have been funnier is if they actually got the real crew of Star Trek to play these roles – have Shatner as Shatner, being forced to become a real hero as his Captain James Tiberius Kirk role is made real, etc. It’s a fantastic little plot idea that was played out very well. At the beginning of the movie, my companion and I were recasting the movie, first with original Trek actors, then with the various Kids in the Hall playing the aliens who seek the Galaxy Quest crew’s help. By the end, however, I don’t think either of us would have had the movie any other way (and we still got a cameo by Kevin MacDonald from Kids in the Hall!).

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Comments Off on Scream


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I grew up watching horror films. I saw them too young and too many – and Michael Myers still scares the crap out me even when the film has nothing but crap left in itself. Writer Kevin Williamson clearly shares the same nervous fondness for the genre as myself (and clearly, many others) do – he has managed to make a movie that is both genuine scary movie and arch parody of scary movies. It’s the film’s very self-awareness that makes it different from all the rest. Instead of following the time-honored horror rules that it so carefully details, it leads them – the virgin is immune from death, we are told, but what if she gives it up! oh heavens that wasn’t supposed to happen!

The movie begins with Drew Barrymore and goes somewhere totally different – and by the end you are so amazed that they took you there so adroitly, so smoothly, and yet with so many geniune yuks, you want to see it again! At least, that’s how it was for me. The characters mock the very archetypes they end up playing – and they weave in and out of Red-Herringville with smooth abandon. A groovy cameo by the Fonz himself (as the high school principal) is a nice nod to we who have grown up freaking out that Freddy will come in our sleep. Watch for funny horror cameos and winks here and there.

My favorite moment involves parallel action between the characters’ viewing habits and the reality all around them. I don’t want to give anything away but it involves a van, Jamie Kennedy, and Jamie Lee Curtis. It sums up what I love about Scream. It’s smart, but it’s not too smart – it hands you some information and hides other information – it dances around, pointing you in the direction it wants, but upon repeat viewing it doesn’t suffer like movies like The Game do.

Grab some friends, a big bowl of popcorn, check all the locks in your house…and obey all the rules! This movie makes ’em and breaks ’em! Woo hoo!

MPAA Rating R -graphic horror violence/gore, and language
Release date 12/20/96
Time in minutes 111
Director Wes Craven
Studio Dimension Films

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Forgotten Silver

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(with the short, “Signing Off”) www.firstrunfeatures.com
The short, Signing Off, was a wonderful New Zealander farce about a DJ going to extraordinary lengths to honor a request. It’s definitely not realistic but it is really clever and funny. And even poignant – the NZers, like their British cousins, have managed to hold on to the art of keeping characters sympathetic while making them funny, a skill all but lost to Hollywood.

Anyway, Colin McKenzie directs and I swear I will see everything else he does based on this short. Bruce Lynch’s music was very exciting as well. It’s nutty and funny – a DJ’s last show after over 20 yrs, and his one remaining listener makes a request – he will do anything to honor it – including dive into a rat infested sewer and…well, it’s great chucks, mate.

Forgotten Silver is a mockumentary shot entirely in the realm of artifice (not conceding to reality as Spinal Tap and Waiting for Guffman and When God Spoke do) and in the style of A&E’s Biography. It’s absolutely true to the bowing and scraping homages we Americans produce – but it too is New Zealander. One of the co-directors/writers is the venerable Peter Jackson, better known for Meet the Deedles, Heavenly Creatures, and Dead Alive. The other is Costa Botes.

I took shamefully few notes but Forgotten Silver details the prodigious life of a “lost” filmmaker and his incredible advances that were lost to history…until now. Production Designer John Girdlestone had a daunting task to create “historical” equipment and stagings for the archive photographs of the film genius XXX. This supergenius filmmaker, posthumously inducted into the pantheon of cinema greats such as D.W. Griffith, Orson Welles, and more, created the first talking picture in 1908, the first color film in 1911, but madness and poverty and the usual tolls drove him into obscurity.

I think my companions and I were the only ones who either knew enough about basic film history to get the anachronisms, or the only ones who knew it was a joke. Without a hint of irony the credits thank the widow of XXX and make no attempt to destroy the illusion. Lost cities built by hand over a decade for an epic film slashed into pieces by Miramax? Indeed. My companions and I were laughing uproariously, for the first half. The second half slowed down some but was still very interesting and beautifully executed.

It will surely be as elusive to find in the video stores as any of the late genius’ work, but if you can see it, do see it.

*Note: There is a DVD of Forgotten Silver available via Amazon.com. Check Hollywood Video.

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Young Frankenstein

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Always Full Price

Werewolf! Werewolf?! There! There wolf. There castle!
Would you mind telling me whose brain I did put in?
Abby someone. Abby Normal. I’m almost certain that was the name.

I recently purchased the new special edition laserdisc of Young Frankenstein – it has bloopers, deleted scenes, and a running director’s commentary audio track option. Now, this movie is one of the best comedies ever made, and if you’ve never seen it, you really should – it’s the Gone With The Wind of parody/homage movies. Mel Brooks’ commentary is not as illuminating as others (The Mask on DVD director’s commentary is actually GRIPPING! It’s really great!) I’ve heard; he rambles about personal memories on the set and how nice Kenny Mars is and he reiterates information we are looking at, but occasionally tells us something new and interesting. Better just to watch and adore.

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