Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Vanishing (1988)

"I gotta cut loose -- SPOOR Loose!  Kick off your Sunday shoes!"
With a name like Smuckers Spoorloos, it has to be good!  Actually, "Spoorloos" is Dutch for "Without a Trace."  For whatever reason, the English translation of this Dutch-French film opts for the tamer (and less TV crime procedural-friendly) The Vanishing.  You might remember this title, because it was remade for American audiences in 1993, starring Kiefer Sutherland, Jeff Bridges, and Sandra Bullock.  It wasn't very good.  This, the original version, was universally acclaimed and has built up a reputation over the years as a unique thriller experience.  I've been looking for a good thriller fix for a few days now (since the wretched Suspect Zero); can The Vanishing satisfy my craving for suspense?

The film begins with a Dutch couple, Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) road-tripping through France.  While at a rest stop getting gas, Saskia runs inside to grab a few drinks for the road and Rex remains with the car.  And that is the last time Rex ever sees Saskia.  He looks everywhere, questions employees and customers, but no one has seen where she went.  One employee noticed her talking to a man by the coffee machines (...but she was buying a Coke and a beer...that's odd), and Rex notices Saskia's red hair in the unfocused background of a Polaroid he took of the rest stop, but that's all the evidence there is that Saskia was even in the shop.
Don't they look like they're in love?
Three years later, Rex is still trying to find Saskia.  He pesters the police, puts up posters all over, and is quite vocal about her disappearance.  He has a new girlfriend, but he can't fully move on with his life without knowing if Saskia is alive or dead, and what happened to her; this obsession is ruining his life.  Every so often, he gets a postcard with a date and location on it, presumably from the person who disappeared Saskia; Rex goes to every meeting place, but the sender never reveals himself.  After the most recent meeting went by uneventfully, Rex buys time on television to plead with the responsible party to contact him --- Rex doesn't want revenge or justice, only an end to the suspense he has been living with.  Surprisingly, this method works.  The man responsible for Saskia's disappearance (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) approaches Rex and promises to tell all... but only if Rex agrees to experience everything Saskia did on that fateful day.
Sometimes evil wears a chin beard.

I have trouble judging the acting in foreign films sometimes, due to the delay between the actors speaking their dialogue and the speed that I read the subtitles.  The Vanishing adds another layer of complexity to the mix by having characters speaking different languages, but with no difference in the subtitles.  I'm painfully ignorant about languages, so Dutch and French sound similar to me; I get the feeling that I missed out on a little by not noticing how Rex and Saskia handled the French language.  Oh well, that's what I get for ignorance.  I thought the acting was mostly fine in this movie.  Gene Bervoets was surprisingly low-key as the bereaved Rex; I think he kind of looks like a cross of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dominic West (with all the good and bad that implies), but I didn't have any strong feelings about his performance overall.  I liked Johanna ter Steege as the effervescent Saskia; she just had to be kind of likable and innocent for her part to work, but I think she accomplished that task well.  This movie was more about the villain than the wronged couple, though.  Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu delivered a very mundane performance in a role that proves that bad people are not as obvious as popular culture leads us to believe.  He did a good job portraying an everyman, as well as that little something that separates sociopaths from the rest of us.
Another humdrum day of being evil and tempting a grieving man.

In all honestly, I did not notice anything particularly impressive about George Sluizer's direction in this film.  I thought he got sympathetic performances from all the leads, with none of them delving into overacting, but he didn't show any tendency for fantastic camera work or any observable impact on the performances.  What was impressive, though, was the way the story was assembled.  The screenplay was co-written by Sluizer (and co-written by the author of the book on which it is based) and it spends a lot of time in flashbacks and gives a shocking amount of insight into the film's villain.  The philosophical justifications he gives could have come across as eye-rollingly lame, but with the amount of time and care that Sluizer spends developing the character, those reasons become chilling.  If you told me that I would like the structure of this film, even though there is absolutely no suspense over who actually took Saskia, I wouldn't have believed you.  Sluizer deserves considerable acknowledgement for assembling this movie in a unique and fulfilling way.

As far as thrillers go, I don't really think this is too "thrilling."  It is suspenseful, though.  As I mentioned before, it isn't conventionally suspenseful --- the suspense comes from watching Rex's choices after the bad guy introduces himself.  Is this movie predictable?  You can definitely argue that, although I think the ending is more inevitable than predictable.  What's the difference?  Audience engagement, primarily.  I was drawn in by this story and I had the stereotypical horror movie audience thoughts ("Don't go into the basement, dummy!"), but even when I thought I knew what would happen, The Vanishing handled the plot adeptly in interesting ways.  The ending, even if you see it coming, is a memorable one.  I think the shock of the story has lost a little bit of its punch in the last twenty-odd years, and I would have appreciated a little more development of the bad guy (specifically, at his watershed moments), but this is still a solid suspense movie --- which is surprisingly rare to come by.

In an interesting (to me, at least) side note, The Vanishing was not nominated for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award, despite tons of critical accolades.  In fact, it wasn't even submitted for the Academy Awards, because it didn't have enough Dutch language spoken in it to qualify.  I never knew there were qualifications for these awards, aside from where they were made.  The more you know...

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Suspect Zero

To paraphrase the Buzzcocks' immortal question, have you ever fallen in love with something you shouldn't have fallen in love with?  I don't know why, but I really like the idea of the thriller movie genre.  That's unfortunate, because there are damn few good thrillers out there.  Like a love-sick moron, though, I find myself going back to the genre that has treated me bad, time and time again.  I thought that Suspect Zero might be different.  It has Aaron Eckhart, who has been pretty good in the few films of his I've seen, and Ben Kingsley, who is an acclaimed actor, even if I haven't seen him in much.  The director's previous film was the pretty clever Shadow of the Vampire, so that was a promising sign, too.  There are also warning signs that this might not be a good movie.  Tom Cruise produced the film, but had his name removed from the credits.  One of the writers co-wrote X-Men 3, Elektra, and Inspector Gadget.  Yeesh.  What will win, solid acting and directing, or poor writing?

FBI agent Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart) has found himself shuffled off to the Phoenix office, which is so lame that they don't have a Starbucks anywhere nearby (hmm...I seriously doubt the truth of that).  Despite the demotion (in stature, if not pay), Mackelway finds himself involved in a serial killer case right off the bat.  The weird thing about this case is that the killer is littering the crime scenes with clues that lead to other crime scenes.  One seemingly dull man is found dead and, at the place where he was last seen, the killer's car is found with another dead body in the trunk, and the body is the first breadcrumb of evidence that leads to several murders across several states.  The dead bodies all have their eyelids cut off and a circle with a line through it found at every scene.  Okay...pretty creepy, right?  Well, it turns out that the killer knows about Mackelway and he starts mailing and faxing him stuff --- seemingly random numbers, missing person reports, and hand-scrawled notes egging him on.  Will Mackelway be able to catch this killer?  Probably, since this is a movie.  The question is, rather, once he finds the killer, will the truth behind the murders lead Mackelway to arrest or help with the next kill?

At least, that's how the synopsis of this movie should go.  Instead, every review, preview, brief summary, and movie trailer for this film explains that the serial killer is murdering other serial killers. 
A killer targeting bad guys?  How novel.
Unfortunately for this movie, that defining plot element isn't revealed until almost an hour into the movie.  Sorry, plot twist, but everybody knows you're coming to the party.  That annoying reveal aside, how does the film fare?

Despite a decent cast, Suspect Zero feels like a B-movie.  As the serial killer, Ben Kingsley succeeds in making his character unsympathetic and inhuman.  Unfortunately, that same alien nature also makes his line delivery suspect, with occasionally shouted lines at inappropriate times.  To tell the truth, it feels like Kingsley is slumming in this role.  Aaron Eckhart is decent enough when he is playing detective, but his character is awfully cliched.  I normally find Eckhart to be inoffensive, but he is forced to overact in this role and I can only take so many shots of him with crazy eyes before I get bored.  Carrie-Anne Moss plays Eckhart's reluctant partner and the window to his "mysterious" past --- her character is more of a convenient way to fill in the character background for Eckhart than anything else, so I suppose she was fine.  The cast is rounded out by a group of recognizable character actors.  Harry Lennix plays the stereotypically not "with it" FBI boss, William Mapother is an inconsequential-to-the-plot FBI agent, and Frank Collison played his typical creepy role.
Collison says you just missed Kingsley, FBI man.  He R-U-N-N-O-F-T.

Director E. Elias Merhige tried to craft a standard thriller with the pieces available to him, but he was working with a pretty ridiculous script.  All the pieces for a crafty thriller are there, with surprising plot reveals that force the characters to make radical decisions, but I don't think Merhige knew what to do with the more Stephen King-ish aspects to the movie.

That's right, this script has some unexplained supernatural phenomena in it, a la Mr. King.  Surprisingly, the script is not based on one of his books, though.  You see, Ben Kingsley's character has the psychic ability to "see" serial killers, but he can't stop "seeing" them, so he has gone off the deep end.  And he apparently can "see" Aaron Eckhart's character, even though he is not a serial killer.  And Aaron Eckhart can kind of "see" things, too.  And sometimes, this "sight" lets them glimpse the future.  Ponder that for a few moments and let it sink in.
Are your detective skills warning you about a bad movie?

Suspect Zero is a surprisingly dumb movie.  The filmmakers took the concept of a serial killer --- and I think we can agree that they're scary because they look like normal people, right? --- and makes the primary killer (Kingsley) very abnormal with his mental abilities.  That's missing the appeal of the concept in a very basic way.  And how about those mental abilities?  Kingsley sees into the minds of serial killers --- except when he's looking at a good FBI agent! --- and can see into the future, which nothing to do with connecting his mind to another person's.  I get it, I get it, if you're willing to swallow the clairvoyant serial killer bit, it's not much more of a stretch to add "prescient" to his resume.  It's still silly and lame.  And I absolutely love that Eckhart's apparent psychic power is never explained and nobody seems very interested in it.  Ugh.  This movie stirs up my bile.

The worst thing about Suspect Zero is that it fails with even the most modest of goals.  It never tries to be terribly interesting or competent, it just wants to be a mediocre thriller that will periodically wind up on SyFy at 3AM.  If the whole psychic thing was played up a bit more as the reason this movie is special, then I might have another opinion, but the film was emphasizes the whole serial killer killing serial killers bit.  That seemingly can't miss formula --- twice the crazy killers = twice as awesome --- can't succeed if the killers are free of personality and/or believability.  On the bright side, there is a scene that implies bestiality with a donkey, which most serial killer movies don't have.  There are also a few idiotic timing/editing mistakes that I found very enjoyable; the best was Kingsley's first kill, where he left a building after his prey and still managed to sneak into the back seat of his victim's car without the victim (who walked directly to his vehicle) noticing.  These occasional lapses in quality control are really the only things that entertained me in this movie.

If you're not familiar with the Buzzcocks, here's a video of the band in their late-70s prime.  It doesn't really have anything to do with Suspect Zero, but it kept popping up in my head while writing this review, and that's all the excuse I need.

Monday, June 27, 2011


My good friends at nobulljive recommended Primer to me several months ago, with the guarantee of it messing with my mind (as perfectly illustrated on this chart, which is far too large to fit in this post).  I was immediately intrigued and, as happens all too often, I promptly forgot about it.  As luck would have it, Netflix delivered Primer to me just in time to save me from my summer movie blahs.

If you have never heard of Primer, let me preface my description with these words: anyone who claims to completely understand this movie is a liar.  I wouldn't say that this is 2001: A Space Odyssey-weird, because almost all of that movie makes perfect sense.  Primer follows logic, but it is a logic that loops inside itself so many times with the same actors playing different permutations of themselves that viewers can get lost in the complexity.  The good news is that the movie is designed that way intentionally, so your enjoyment doesn't ride on a complete comprehension of all aspects of the plot.  I'm usually a stickler for movies making sense (radical, I know), but I thought this was an interesting movie with an overarching concept that was designed to rely on only the highlights of the plot.

If you haven't seen the movie yet and are intrigued, go watch it because the rest of this post earns a SPOILER ALERT, not that it will really help you understand the plot more than you would otherwise.

Aaron (Shane Carruth, who also directed, produced, wrote, made the music, and edited the film) and Abe (David Sullivan) are full-time office workers that run a part-time technology side business from their garage with a couple of friends.  For the past few months, the group has focused its efforts on the production of a computer component, and the other guys like the extra cash this gets them.  Aaron and Abe, though, are tired of the monotony and decide to go ahead developing their own invention on their own.  It's never too clear what this invention is supposed to do, but it looks homemade and sounds scientific when the two men talk about it.  Honestly, you probably won't pick up much information from their conversations; the dialogue is mostly techno-babble, incomprehensible to most folks.  What becomes clear, even through their high-falutin' language, is that the machine is behaving in ways Aaron and Abe never expected.  The device puts out more energy than it takes in, which should be impossible.  It can even power itself for a while if you remove its power supply.  Oh, and mold grows at an accelerated rate on the machine.  How accelerated?  About a thousand times faster.  Well, that's weird, but what does that mean to a couple of guys working out of their garage?  Dude, that means that their device manipulates time.  They built a freaking time machine in their garage!  Awesome!  But how should they use it?  What would you do with knowledge of the future?  What would you do with more time?  Would you be able to keep track of your life if there were two of you walking around, simultaneously?  What would this do to your body?  Maybe time travel isn't as easy as Doc Brown made it out to be, and maybe the choices you make have more significance than just ruining a bully's life.
Suggestion: don't go back in time to make it with your mom.

What makes Primer such a cool movie is how authentic it feels.  The shoestring budget and amateur tinkerers might seem out of place in a movie --- where are the lab coats and all the shiny equipment? --- but this is how most inventions happen.  The fact that their discovery was inadvertent is even more realistic, like the discovery of penicillin, among many other famous things.  The scientific jargon is pretty dense, but it's easy to get the gist of their conversations --- it is obvious that something is acting odd, or that something unexpected has happened.  The language makes the characters seem smarter because it is not dumbed down, and the audience gets a sense of accomplishment by following a plot that they might not understand a word of; it's a risky, but interesting, choice that pays off shockingly well.
Time travel is not as glamorous as you think

The acting in the film is nothing special.  David Sullivan appears to be the main actor in the first half of the film, with Shane Carruth becoming more prominent as the film goes on.  Neither actor does a great job emoting, neither is particularly witty, and neither is particularly likable.  What they do well is deliver their jargon-heavy dialogue convincingly.  These two sound like people who know their science, which is far more important than having the ideas for the device based in reality.

Carruth's directing is not fantastic either, at a glance.  Once the plot gets going and you start to see how serpentine the script is, though, the direction becomes more impressive.  Seemingly irrelevant details eventually gain meaning and the confusion of the characters mirrors that of the audience.  I don't know if Carruth is a good director, but he certainly is clever.  I really liked the script for the film, too.  It wasn't terribly clever (aside from the excellent line, "I haven't eaten since later this afternoon"), but I cannot get over how fascinated I was by these lines of dialogue that I had limited (at best) comprehension of.  That's not usually how I work, I like to understand my movies.  The fact that I enjoyed the film without completely understanding it speaks volumes about the pacing and the general story (to me, anyway).  Time travel involves paradoxes, and I don't think I have seen them handled better in any other movie.

The tiny budget, limited acting skill, and imposing dialogue might make you think twice about seeing Primer, but it is definitely a unique film experience.  Would it have benefited from a little more clarity?  Maybe, maybe not.  Would it be so intriguing if I understood it completely when it ended?  That's kind of iffy, too.  Could the dialogue have been more enjoyable?  Certainly.  But this is a plot-driven movie with a very cool plot, and that is enough to overcome the film's rough edges.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Green Lantern

With Marvel Studios doing such a good job (so far) establishing several comic book-inspired movie franchises (Iron Man, Thor, and X-Men, with Captain America and The Avengers on their way soon), it only makes sense for DC Comics to try and launch some of their heroes onto the big screen.  With Christopher Nolan's Batman series wrapping up next year and the stalled attempt to reboot a Wonder Woman TV show, the pressure was on Green Lantern to be the first major DC property (that wasn't Superman or Batman) to have success as a feature film.  Is this movie up to the challenge?  Well, they say that Green Lanterns know no fear, but unfortunately, courage isn't all you need to make an entertaining movie.

Eons ago, a bunch of powerful and blue-skinned aliens who apparently named themselves the Guardians of the Universe (boy, they sound like a fun bunch) found a way to harness the green (not eco-, just the color) energy of willpower as a means to police the universe.  The power of will is given off by all creatures, collected by these Guardians and channeled into green power lanterns, which in turn power green rings, which enable the users to do just about anything they can think of.  The universe is divided into over three thousand sectors, with each sector getting one Green Lantern Corp member to patrol the several galaxies that make up each sector.  But all is not well in Lantern Town; an evil entity named Parallax (voiced by Clancy Brown), an ancient foe of the Corps, has escaped his Green Lantern-devised imprisonment.
Witness the face of the voice of fear!
Parallax feeds on the yellow power of fear, leaving nothing but burned out husks in his wake, and his number one priority is to punish Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison, best known as Jango Fett in the Star Wars prequels), the Green Lantern that imprisoned him.
Well, if he has his own movie poster, he must be pretty important, right?  Right...?

I would like to point out that we haven't spent any time on Earth just yet.  That's not a big deal, but it's still a little strange.  Abin Sur gets ambushed by Parallax, who looks like an amorphous yellow-black cloud, and is fatally wounded.  Instead of seeking out medical attention, Pinkie and his (talking) ring opt to find his successor before he dies.  Wait...he's in the movie for only a few minutes and still gets his own movie poster?  That's like giving Thomas and Martha Wayne their own poster for The Dark Knight!  Whatever, fine.  Abin Sur and the ring wind up on Earth, where the ring chooses brash pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) to be the next Green Lantern.  Now, you might assume that this is a fish-out-of-water story where Hal goes into space to fight the big scary yellow cloud and seems completely out of his depth.  That's true, to some extent.  But there is also an Earthbound story in this movie, too.
Not the only time he looks like a doofus in the movie, trust me.

Hal is an irresponsible man whore (okay, that's a judgement call from a scene that is eerily similar to one in Iron Man) who spends his time being snarky and finding ways to show off his ripped abs.  He and Carol Ferris (Blake Lively) totally don't get along at all because she is tired of his man-childish ways --- you had better believe that these two will not go from mutually antagonistic to deeply in love within the space of two hours.  Not a chance.  Hal's problem is that he is afraid of big decisions and falling short when he is compared to his late father.  Getting a super powerful ring doesn't make his life easier; the greater the responsibility, the more likely it seems that he won't measure up.  Hal's not the only character with daddy issues in the movie, though.  Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), a fairly dorky scientist, grew up with Hal and Carol and knows that his bookish ways have always been a disappointment to his politician father (Tim Robbins).  Hector gets the chance to do the initial inspection of Abin Sur's alien body and he manages to get pricked by a piece of yellow Parallax bits stuck in Abin's wound, which leads to some slight side effects.
Mmmaybe you should get that checked out, Hector.
So, on the one hand, we have Hal, who feels unworthy of controlling the power of will because he's afraid of failing.  On the other hand, we have Hector, who is tired of being lame and suddenly can tap into the yellowy power of fear.  And don't forget about all the aliens!  This is a busy movie!

In the lead role, I thought Ryan Reynolds did a pretty good job as the cocky Hal Jordan.  He was pretty likable and occasionally funny; I enjoyed seeing his figure out his powers as the movie progressed.  I don't know if I would have cast Reynolds --- who is as sarcastic as ever in this movie --- as a death-defying man of iron will, but he works well with the script.  Blake Lively, though, was a bit of a mess as his romantic interest.  I understand that playing a superhero's girlfriend essentially makes you a damsel in distress, which is never a flattering showcase for acting, but damn.  In the words of my wife, a "two-by-four with a brunette wig" would have been more entertaining.  Her part wasn't very hard --- she had to look pretty (mission accomplished) and partake in just a little bit of witty banter (Least natural.  Laugh.  Ever.), with a moment to show the depth of her emotion (mission aborted).  I will give her credit for not screaming in this movie, which is shocking, given her role.  Peter Sarsgaard did a good job playing a snivelly scientist, but I would have liked to see him be less of a weenie on his own turf or when he started gaining his powers.  I didn't particularly like his character, though.  And for every opportunity Lively had to give a damsel scream, Sarsgaard delivered two anguished moans, which got old quickly.  As for the rest of the cast, I really liked Mark Strong as Sinestro, the most powerful Green Lantern; Strong did a great job with a character that could have come across as simply a dick.  Instead, he made the character seem driven and burdened with responsibility, which is more complexity than I expected to get out of any of the aliens in this cast.  I liked the other aliens Green Lanterns, too, especially the fish-like Tomar-Re (voiced by Geoffrey Rush, who also narrated) and Kilowog (voiced by Michael Clark Duncan).  I was a little disappointed that Clancy Brown's voice acting skills were under-utilized, but that was no big deal.  Rounding out the cast, Tim Robbins, Angela Bassett, and Jay O. Sanders all play boring character roles.
Geoffrey Rush, out of costume.

As in most movies, especially blockbusters, there were some strong performances and some weak ones in Green Lantern.  But acting was never going to be what truly decided how good this movie would be.  Director Martin Campbell's job was to make Hal Jordan into a cool hero.  He's done it well in the past (two Bond movies), so you would think that this would be second nature to him.  I believe that he gave his best effort, but was overcome by a few difficulties.  Campbell made a truly fantastic visual spectacular, and I thought the CGI looked great, without a single cheap-looking moment; this was a bright and shiny superhero movie, no doubt about it.  There were certainly parts of the movie I really enjoyed; I thought the scenes set in space were all pretty cool and Ryan Reynolds gave a likable performance.
"Likable" in a "Smell me" kind of way.

And yet, this movie falls tragically short of being cool.  What's wrong with this film?  To put it bluntly, the story is a bright green steaming pile of crap.  Let's look at the story choices first; I'm not talking about the plot, just the way the story was written.  There is no reason for there to be so much back story in a superhero movie, especially before the audience is given a glimpse of the main character.  Wouldn't it have been way cooler for the audience and Hal Jordan to discover the galactic majesty of the Green Lantern Corps together?  As a space opera, Green Lantern is pretty solid.  It's those pesky Earthlings that screw up the movie. I was seriously disappointed in the ways Hal used his power ring; if the fish-looking alien can do cool stuff with his, why does the human Green Lantern have such a limited imagination?  That ring can do anything, and he resorts to giant green fists and guns?  To be fair, though, that is a problem that definitely exists in the comic, too (check this article for more info).  I hated the obvious story parallels between Hector Hammond, Hal Jordan, and the development of their powers; that was a lazy plot device to point out that Hal is a hero because overcoming fear is good.  And I thought that the character that fed on the fear of others would end up being the sympathetic hero!  What an insulting theme.  Hector Hammond's character also had waaaaay too much screen time.  Hammond, in this movie, is a henchman of Parallax; we learn about his childhood, his family, his job, and his lust.  This guy is a glorified Odd Job and he has more development than the big villain, Parallax.  That's a problem.

But the problems don't end with the ideas behind the story, they definitely made it into the plot.  What is Parallax's evil plan?  To destroy the Guardians of the Universe and the Green Lantern Corps.  Well, after he kills Abin Sur, he then waits for a few days, until Hal Jordan has time to come to travel across the universe a few times, doubt himself, and ultimately come to grips with his new responsibility.  Apparently, Parallax had underwear gnome logic.
In his case, Phase 1 was killing Abin Sur, Phase 3 was Destroying the Corps, and Phase 2 is where this movie takes place.  That is far from the only instance of extreme pointlessness by a character in this movie.  Hal finally decides to grow a pair and fight the yellow cloud thing to protect the Earth, but he can't do it alone.  He travels to the Guardians and asks for help, but is refused any.  So, what does the guy who traveled across the universe to get help because he can't defeat his enemy alone do?  He asks permission to face his enemy alone.  What?!?  That's the stuff of headaches, my friends.  And at least Hal left his planet undefended with the yellow apocalypse on its way to make that scene happen.  **face palm**  Perhaps the most frustrating plot line involved Sinestro, who was a pretty cool character.  SPOILER ALERT: Sinestro decides to fight fire with fire and has the Guardians create a yellow ring to channel the power of fear in his fight against Parallax.  The ring is made, and is handed to Sinestro.  And he never uses it.  If this movie had to have two villains, I would have much preferred to see Sinestro as the tough drill sergeant-type antagonist, using the yellow ring and failing, corrupting himself in the process.  But nooooo, we needed Hector "Lumpy" Hammond to lurch his way across the screen.
Many possibilities, few actualized.

As much as this movie frustrated me, I have to admit that it was mediocre dumb fun (emphasis on the "dumb").  It looked gorgeous and had a few pretty cool characters, and lots of things went boom.  There were several moments where I was entertained, although most of them were not terribly relevant to the larger plot.  And it definitely could have been worse.  That doesn't mean that this ridiculously ill-conceived story is anything less than an enormous disappointment, both for fans of the comic and people looking to enjoy some cosmic-level movie fun.  Ultimately, this mess gets a disappointing

By the way, am I the only person who hated Hal Jordan's Green Lantern costume?  I was fine with the glowing stuff, but I thought the mask was awful and the choice to make it skintight was downright peculiar.  The ring presumably makes a suit to fit the personality of the wearer, right?  Well, how vain is Hal Jordan if he needs a costume that flaunts his butt and abdominal muscles at all times?  I get that Ryan Reynolds is an astonishing hunk, but that uniform was tighter than Catwoman's.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Jonah Hex

I never had high expectations for Jonah Hex.  While I usually enjoy comic book movies, this one looked really, really bad.   When it absolutely failed with critics and viewers alike, I was not surprised at all.  I was, however, shocked when the star of the film, Josh Brolin, repeatedly trashed (but also defended) Hex while promoting his next movie.
That kind of honesty and optimism did two things for me.  First, it made me wish I liked Josh Brolin more.  He's okay, I guess, but his presence in a movie is never what makes me want to watch it.  Second, it made me curious as to how entertaining Jonah Hex could be if I approached it like Brolin suggested, with similar expectations as I had for Piranha.  Hell, it couldn't be worse than I expected, even with Megan Fox acting in it.  Right...?
Hey, got something on your face.  No, the other side.

In the Civil War, Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) fought for the Confederacy, but he was not a zealot.  When his commanding officer, Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich), ordered for a Union hospital to be burned down, Hex refused.  This led to a confrontation  with the other men in his unit, which eventually led to Hex gunning down Turnbull's adult son (and Hex's best friend), Jeb (an uncredited Jeffrey Dean Morgan).  After the war, Quentin tracked down Hex, tied him up and forced him to watch as his men murdered Hex's wife and child.  Before he left, Turnbull branded Hex on the face and left him to die of exposure.  Hex was found, mostly dead, by an Indian tribe, who nursed him back to health.  However, his brush with death left him with an ability to speak to the dead.  So...that's something.  Turnbull was allegedly killed in a house fire a short while later, so Hex became a bounty hunter and took out his rage on some of the worst men in the Wild West.
Oh, and he had a horse-mounted Gatling gun.
One day, Hex is approached by representatives from the U.S. Government to come and meet President Ulysses S. Grant (Aidan Quinn) about a job.  Hex, being an ornery type, isn't impressed by Mr. President until he states that Quentin Turnbull is not only alive, but actively planning to destroy the country within the next few days.  I wonder if the revenge-fueled antihero will seek out his most hated enemy?

After typing that summary, I realized that this movie doesn't really sound so bad on paper.  No, it doesn't sound great, but not as bad as people made it out to be during its theatrical release (13% Rotten Tomatoes rating and a Metacritic score of 33). Sure, the whole talking-to-the-dead thing is weird, but it's not a deal breaker by any means.

Maybe the acting is what sinks this ship?  Well, Josh Brolin is surprisingly good as Jonah Hex.  He would have been even better if his facial makeup didn't cause him to slur some of his lines.  John Malkovich was surprisingly mediocre as the hate-filled Turnbull; Malkovich usually has fun with evil characters, but he didn't really come across as very interested in this movie.  Michael Fassbender played the main henchman to Turnbull and did what I presume is his best impression of Jim Carrey's Riddler.  He was certainly goofy, but even the ridiculous goatee-tattoos never made him scary.
This is why you don't pass out at tattoo parties.
That leaves us with Megan Fox.  Yeah...she's not a very good actress and she takes lines that are supposed to be sassy or cool and she sucks the personality out of them.  On the bright side, she plays a shockingly clean and fit Wild West prostitute (who, of course, loves the disfigured hero), so at least she's flaunting what has made her career thus far.

The rest of the supporting cast is a collection of bit parts, played by recognizable actors.  Will Arnett plays a soldier, and his presence implies that the filmmakers were aware of the funny-bad possibilities in the script.  Michael Shannon, the third Oscar nominee in this cast, had a tiny role, as did Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and they were both fine.  Wes Bentley, who I thought (after seeing American Beauty) had a bright career ahead of him, gives one of the least impressive performances in the movie.  No wonder I haven't seen him in anything in over a decade.  I wasn't impressed by Aidan Quinn's President Grant, but that might have been because I wanted him to be drunk and make really poor decisions.  I was happy to see television actor Lance Reddick playing something other than a lawyer or police officer for a change.  He wasn't great, but I appreciated the atypical casting.

I'm not going to blame this movie on the director, Jimmy Hayward, even though this is his first live-action feature film --- he's worked as an animator on a few Pixar movies and directed Horton Hears a Who, which naturally makes him the best director for a comic book-based Western.  He didn't do a good job directing, mind you.  The acting was limited and the cinematography was mediocre, and that's if I'm being generous to both.  His editing was awful and there is some sort of recurring waking dream sequence that was pretty incomprehensible, but I will give him credit where it's due: the movie is short.  It's 81 minutes with credits.  Not just anyone would choose to put most of a character's back story into an animated form, but it cut out an awful lot of acting time from the movie, and for that, I thank him.
Nothing clever is said in this scene.

 The biggest problem with Jonah Hex is the ridiculous story.  That shouldn't come as a surprise, since this movie was written by Neveldine/Taylor, the writing team that brought us such think pieces as Gamer and the Crank movies.  Man, this is a dumb script.  Fox and Brolin have at least half of their lines devoted to quips, and they're all pretty bad.  Brolin gets away with some because he's devoted to his character's intended bad-assness, but Fox...she couldn't deliver a smart line if it came with paid postage.  Aww, snap!  Mail carrier humor!  **ahem**  Even without the dialogue problems, this is a bizarrely written movie.  Why does any Western bad-ass need gadgets?  The horse-mounted Gatling gun was ridiculous, the automatic dynamite crossbows were just silly, and the villainous "nation killer" weapon was simply bizarre.  And what was with all the explosions?  This is the 1870s --- I can buy gunfire starting a fire, but huge explosions every time?  That's just dumb.  Oh, and that weird Jonah-Hex-talks-to-the-dead thing?  And the weird crow spirit stuff?  Yeah, not in the comics at all.  Hex could have just been a smart bad-ass, but instead, he was given supernatural crow/death powers by the writers.  That may not have been the best choice.

And while this movie is very bad, it is stupid enough to enjoy.  That's not terribly shocking, given the writing team.  If you're looking for a good action movie, a fun comic book adaptation, or a cool Western, this is not the movie for you.
 If, on the other hand, you feel like laughing at something ridiculous and ridiculing a movie, this is a decent choice --- but by no means a great one.  If nothing else, this is the stupidest Western I have seen in ages, but at least it's short.  I give it a Lefty Gold rating of

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Last Man Standing

One of my all-time favorite movies is the Sergio Leone spaghetti Western A Fistful of Dollars.  There's just something innately appealing about a cocky loner who knows exactly how bad-ass he is.  When I realized that Leone stole his plot from Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, I went out of my way to find that movie.  It turns out that it is awesome, too.  Go figure, a legendary director made a good movie.  So, when I found Last Man Standing, which takes Yojimbo's plot and appears to give it a noir spin, I figured it was a can't miss scenario.  Apparently, only awesome directors can make good movies from this story.

The obviously alias-using John Smith (Bruce Willis) enters the border town of Jericho, Texas sometime during Prohibition.  The town is virtually deserted of decent folk.  The only normal people left are the wimpy sheriff (Bruce Dern), a kooky bartender (William Sanderson), and the town undertaker.  The only other people in town are split between two warring gangs, the Strozzi gang and the Doyle gang.  Smith happens to be ridiculously proficient with his handguns, and not very shy about demonstrating his talents.  With two violently opposed sides, Smith sees an opportunity to play both sides against the middle and make a lot of money in the process.  In short time, the bodies start piling up and both sides are clamoring for Smith's services.  But how long can one man manipulate so many violent people?

It's a pretty basic plot, and it's been done before.  How is Last Man Standing supposed to stand out from its predecessors?  Well, if nothing else, this movie has more recognizable actors in it that its more famous fore-bearers.  Bruce Willis is decent as the quiet tough guy; you've seen Willis as an action hero before, but this script is pretty devoid of quips, so he just has to look tough.  He does that.  He also looks tired, and I'm not sure if that was an intentional choice.  Bruce Dern and William Sanderson were okay as morally neutral supporting characters, but Dern could have done a lot more with his character and Sanderson's wackiness was occasionally annoying.  As far as the gangsters went, Michael Imperioli got to be a whiny Italian mobster; this movie does show how far he came before The Sopranos started, but it's a role he has played many times in his career.  David Patrick Kelly wasn't bad as Doyle, but he didn't have much of a character to play; he wasn't psychotic, for a change, though.  On the other hand, he's only entertaining when he's psychotic.
Bruce Willis, come out to PLAAEEEEEEAAAAYYYY!
Christopher Walken is the only man in town who is in Smith's league, as far as being dangerous goes.  This sounds like an easy role for Walken, but they decided to give him some scarring and a weird voice, so all his typical awesomeness is lost as he whispered all his lines.  You might also recognize R.D. Call as a frequent supporting gangster or Leslie Mann as a hooker, but neither is particularly compelling.

How can you screw up a villainous Walken?!?
But back to Walken.  How do you make a movie with one of the most audibly distinct actors of this era and mangle his voice?  That's like making a Megan Fox movie that doesn't treat her like an object.  That's like having Fred Astaire acting in a wheelchair.  That's like forcing Jean-Claude Van Damme to not do a roundhouse kick-to-the-face in a movie.  In other words, it's not the way the world should work, people.  You know what would have been a better choice for this movie?  Having him talk like any of these people:
Tosh.0Tuesdays 10pm / 9c
Asian Christopher Walken Mash-Up
Tosh.0 VideosDaniel ToshWeb Redemption

Walken's voice isn't the only odd thing about Last Man Standing.  Director and writer Walter Hill made several bizarre choices as he adapted this classic Kurosawa story.  It starts with the narration.  Smith is a man of few words, so having him narrate the story seems a bit unnatural.  His narration is barely inflected, too, so it sounds like he's bored as he explains himself.  And, even though Smith is narrating his own story, he doesn't actually give the viewer any insight into his grand schemes.  Any one of those aspects would make the narration bad, but all together they make for some painful viewing.  Beyond the narration, there is a matter of the action.  Yes, there is a lot of action, in the form of gunfights, in this movie.  Some of it is okay.  The rest is either exaggerated or simply dull.  I'm not a stickler for realism in my super-violent gunfights, but even I can tell when something is blatantly wrong.  I don't know much about guns, but I find it hard to believe that Smith's two handguns could lift any grown man off his feet with a blast to the chest.  And he must have had magical magazine clips for his guns, since they only ran out after he finished killing everyone.
His guns are powered by male pattern baldness.
There's plenty of other dumb stuff, too --- why did the guys at the beginning, who wanted Smith to leave town, ruin his car?  When the bad guys get the upper hand, why don't they kill Smith?  They know everything he knows.  Why are armed men immune to Tommy gun bullets?  To be honest, none of that is terribly important, because the entertainment stops well before any of those questions start to bug the logic center of your brain.
Here's a Google image I found looking for "last man standing."  This picture is more entertaining than this movie.

Last Man Standing has a solid story at its core, but making the lead character tired and humorless doesn't bring out the best in the script.  I love the story this screenplay is based on.  I like movies where gangs fight each other.  I like tough guys that narrate their stories and kill lots of mean people.  But I need to enjoy watching it.  This movie is dreary and emotionless.  The action is nothing special, so the one saving grace it might have had amounts to nothing.  I know that Bruce Willis is not in consistently good movies, but I'm not usually bored watching him; when you take away his smirk and quips, though, you're not left with much to watch.  I was hoping that this would be an underappreciated gem with its pedigree, but this film is just poor.

And, just because this movie depressed me, here's something to cheer me up.  Yes, that's Sharon Stone.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


I've always been a pretty big fan of South Park, and I'm glad the show has gotten more clever (as I have) over the years.  Co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are generally pretty funny guys from what I've seen and listened to in interviews, but I've never given them much of a chance as actors.  Even though BASEketball was released between the first and second seasons of South Park, back when my fondness for dick jokes was at its zenith (AKA my teens), and despite the presence of the still-attractive-at-the-time Jenny McCarthy, I never got around to seeing this movie.  Comedies, especially stupid ones, don't always age well, but this was directed by David Zucker, so maybe this is one for the ages, right?  You know, like his other recent works, An American Carol or the Ashton Kutcher/Tara Reid vehicle, My Boss's Daughter.  I know you can't see this, but I'm yanking on my collar a la Dangerfield right now.

Coop (Trey Parker) and Remer (Matt Stone) are unemployed losers who haven't made anything of their lives since finishing high school.  After they crash a party filled with their more successful classmates, the pair find themselves talking trash to some jock-looking dudes who challenge them in the sport of their choice.  Smart enough to avoid a sure loss by playing a traditional sport, Coop and Remer create Baseketball on the spot; it's basically a cross between the shooting game HORSE from basketball and the scoring system from baseball, but that's not very important.  What is important is that these two morons create a sport that is easy to play, easy to understand (more or less), can be played on any driveway, and allows competitors to distract each other by any means necessary.
An example.
In a world filled with overpaid celebrity athletes with no sense of team loyalty, Baseketball skyrockets in popularity.  Eventually, eccentric millionaire Ted Denslow (Ernest Borgnine) and the boys team up to create a professional league --- but they agree to prevent players from leaving their teams or doing endorsements, for the good of the game.  When Denslow dies from complications stemming from a hot dog and extreme idiocy, ownership of the Milwaukee Beers is given to Coop.  Another owner, Baxter Cain (Robert Vaughn) is heading a movement to make the sport more profitable, but he needs Coop's cooperation...or for the team to belong to someone more morally pliable.  Cue naughty laugh and some slapstick humor.

Since this is a David Zucker movie, the acting isn't terribly important.  Actors are just there to deliver their lines and react to the bizarre gags that the script calls for.  Having said that, Trey Parker and Matt Stone are not very good actors.
They're mostly adequate here, but that's only because this is a really dumb movie.  More often than not, their voice inflections tend to assume the characteristics that South Park fans will recognize as "adults about to say something incredibly stupid."  The other actors aren't much better.  In fact, some are worse.  Jenny McCarthy and Yasmine Bleeth are both unimpressive, but for different reasons; McCarthy does a lot of physical comedy gags and Bleeth pretends to act.  Neither are great, but at least they didn't trade roles and end up with McCarthy talking more.  Frequent Parker/Stone collaborator Dian Bachar is okay as a hapless pipsqueak, but was more useful as someone for Parker and Stone to be a jerk toward.  Borgnine and Vaughn lend some credibility to the film, and both are obviously the only professional actors in the movie, but it's not like their presence is going to change the type of movie this is.  There are a ton of cameos in the movie --- nothing too spectacular --- but they don't really add anything other than a few chuckles here and there.

With David Zucker at the helm (and co-writing the movie), you should know what you're getting.  There are a lot of visual gags, more than a few sex jokes, and a lot of stupid humor.  It's what the man does, and he's been doing it for a long time.  Is it funny? of it are.  I laughed at a few of the psyche-outs during the games.  Not all of them were funny (unexplained male lactation, for instance), but many were stupid enough to to amuse me.  The rest of the humor is obvious and underwhelming.  Whether it was the frequency of the straight man in a scene silently repeating a stupid line to himself in disbelief, the use of goofy costumes, or gags that were timely in Zucker's 1980 classic Airplane!, a lot of the jokes in this movie just felt old.
Cross-dressing men: funny only in England.

On the other hand, the concept behind this movie did a lot of things right.  I appreciated that the Baseketball teams had names that were (while usually stupid) appropriate for their geographical location.  Calling the Milwaukee team the Beers instead of the Brewers is as subtle as these jokes get, but I liked the Roswell Aliens and the Miami Dealers, too.  The basis of the film --- the average fan's dismay with modern spoiled athletes --- is a good one that could have led to an interesting story; of course, plot points weren't ever going to play a major part in BASEketball.  If absolutely nothing else, this movie takes the idea of cheerleaders seriously, eliminating much of their annoying chants and demands and instead opting for the more direct "sexual object" route.
Lingerie cheerleaders = marketing genius

As the film progressed, I found myself disappointed in Parker and Stone.  No, they're not professional actors, but I think they are both pretty funny guys, and this movie is way beneath their normal humor levels.  When the credits rolled, I figured out why.  The South Park boys were only actors in this movie; they received no directorial or writing credits.  With that knowledge, I was a lot less disappointed in this film.  No, it's not very good, but it is occasionally funny.  And I will give it credit for never trying to be anything more or less than a very stupid movie.  Not a lot of credit, but it was enough to keep me from hating this movie.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


Matt Dillon is apparently trying to become the king of the crappy heist movie.  Not even a calendar year after he starred in the armored car heist flick, Armored, he co-stars in Takers, which focuses on --- you guessed it --- an armored car heist.  Congrats, Dillon, in finding the least entertaining robbery scripts in Hollywood.

A group of friends --- Gordon (Idris Elba), John (Paul Walker), A.J. (Hayden Christensen), and brothers Jake (Michael Ealy) and Jesse (Chris Brown) --- work together once a year to pull off a daring bank robbery to finance their ridiculously high-rolling lifestyles.  Seriously, these guys have some really, really nice stuff.  After their most recent job, which was pulled off flawlessly and without firing a shot, the group is ready to lay low for a while before they get together and start planning their next heist.  That's when Ghost (Tip "T.I." Harris) shows up and makes everybody feel awkward; Ghost just got out of prison after serving time for getting caught during one of the crew's old robberies.  He never told the police anything about the others and they, in turn, kept his four million dollars safely invested.  One day out of prison, though, and Ghost has a high-risk, high-reward robbery lined up --- he has the delivery route for a pair of armored cars that are carrying upwards of twenty-five million dollars.  To put that in perspective, in the robbery that opens the film, they got away with about two million.  The plan is very risky, and the fact that Ghost has the plan so soon is suspicious, but the real issue is that this is a one-time offer, because the armored cars are doing that route in only five days.  What do they do?  Well, in the words of Gordon, "We're takers, gents. That's what we do for a living. We take."  That doesn't sound trite at all.

They have the whole "walk slowly away from the explosion" bit down pat.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the supposedly perfect robbery from the beginning of the movie was not entirely perfect.  The stereotypically obsessed with his job (and, therefore, not his daughter) Detective Welles (Matt Dillon) takes the robbery personally, for some reason.  Maybe it's because he likes a challenge, or maybe the easily identifiable salute given by Jesse (while masked) to the security camera rubbed him the wrong way.  Whatever the reason, Welles winds up following a string of highly coincidental and circumstantial evidence that leads him to the crew, as they plan the armored truck job.  Will he be able to out-think the thinkers on this one?

That's an interesting angle to take with any sort of robbery story.  Generally speaking, the stories are told from the perspective of the thief, so the audience naturally sympathizes with them and wants the bad guys to succeed, even though they are stealing.  Takers spends substantial amounts of time with Detective Welles and his partner as they try to crack the case.  Why?  My best guess would be a poor screenplay, but that's just a guess.

The acting in Takers is --- not surprisingly, given the cast --- not that great.  Idris Elba got to use his genuine London accent and he was given the most emotional depth in the film, but it's not enough to make his character seem smart or likable.  Paul Walker is actually the most likable character in the movie, if only because his character is pretty straightforward; Walker's acting skills are minimal, but he came off looking pretty solid here.  Michael Ealy 's character is given a few opportunities to differentiate himself from the others --- he is in love with Zoe Saldana's character --- but he doesn't do much with his chances.  Hayden Christensen didn't have to emote, so he was surprisingly not terrible here.  He did get to make some truly unfortunate faces during an action sequence, though.
Chris Brown and Tip "T.I." Harris did about as well as you might expect from professional musicians; their dialogue often sounded wooden and awkward, and they posed when not delivering their lines.  Brown provided a surprisingly entertaining parkour chase sequence, though, which certainly dwarfed his acting shortcomings.  Matt Dillon's character was pretty one-dimensional, even though we get a glimpse into his family life; he tries to be interesting, but his acting chops are not strong enough to overcome thin writing.  Jay Hernandez was similarly shallow as Dillon's partner that is obviously crooked; we find out his kid needs dialysis treatments and he has a fantastic houseon a cop's salary.  There are a handful of other recognizable actors in small roles --- Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Steve Harris, and the always slimy Johnathon Schaech --- but they are just there as minor role players, nothing spectacular about any of them.
Acting lesson 1: Paul, show me your "thinking" face.

Heist movies are not about the characters involved, usually.  The best movies in this genre are fun to watch because you get to see meticulously plan and then pull off some ridiculously convoluted and complicated robbery.  You don't want the robbers to get away because they are stealing to support their family or because they are going to fund a charity or anything else --- you root for the robbers because they are doing some cool stuff.  By splitting the focus of the story between the robbers and the police pursuing them, Takers complicates what should have been the easiest part of the story.  I'm not saying that you can't tell both sides of a cops-and-robbers tale, but you shouldn't unless you plan on actually developing your characters.  This movie has eight important characters, with recognizable actors filling in bit part roles; it's hard to tell who we're supposed to care about.  What do we learn about the three main characters?  Gordon has a sister, Detective Welles is an unintentionally crappy dad, Ghost is a petty jerk, and well, the most personal thing we learn about his character is that he enjoys poolside threesomes.  That's not enough information to actually care about any of those three, but it's tons more development than the rest of the cast gets.

The heist itself --- the armored car one --- is fairly interesting, but it's nowhere near as cool as it should be, either.  The planning stages are whirled through, with absolutely no level of difficulty.  When I finally saw what was being done, I was underwhelmed.  I was also confused.  If Ghost is potentially untrustworthy, why is he given the job with the least amount of risk and the highest probability of escape?  Whatever.  Despite the shaky hand-held camera to indicate that action was taking place, I was pretty bored by the time the heist attempt happened.  Luckily, that scene was followed by Chris Brown's extended (and mostly unnecessary) parkour sequence, which was the highlight of the film.

Takers spent a lot of time in development hell before finally coming out in the summer of 2010.  Director John Luessenhop took almost four years off the project to care for his ailing son, T.I. spent eight months in prison, and Chris Brown made the public relations mistake of beating the shit out of his girlfriend.  The movie was finally released, though, that we can all agree on.  It's just not very good.  Luessenhop doesn't develop the characters on-screen and every action sequence looks like it was filmed by someone having a seizure.  I will give credit that it appears that the actors did most of their own stunts, but they might have been more impressive if the camera had a tripod.  This isn't that bad of a movie, but it commits the greatest crime a robbery movie can make --- it's boring.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

My Man Godfrey

Why on Earth did I catch this movie?  Good question.  It's a seventy-five year-old comedy, and I can barely stand most modern comedies, much less something that came out before the last time the Cubs were in the World Series.  Well, for starters, I love William Powell in the Thin Man movies, but they're all I've seen him in.  My Man Godfrey was also nominated for six Academy Awards.  So, while this could be be just indulging my fondness for a particular actor, the Oscar nominations imply that the film won't be a waste of my time.

Godfrey (William Powell) is living in a literal dump with a surprisingly friendly group of other homeless men during the Great Depression.  One night, a group of spoiled brat socialites show up, looking for one of the homeless men to play the part of a "forgotten man" for their spoiled socialite scavenger hunt.
One is scruffy, the other vacant.  Guess which is which.
Instead of knifing the pansies, the homeless guys shuffle away, leaving Godfrey to mock the idle rich and frighten most of them away.  One remains, though.  Young Irene (Carol Lombard) thought Godfrey was quite funny and brave for sticking up to the others --- particularly her awful older sister, Cornelia (Gail Patrick) --- and she manages to convince Godfrey to be her "forgotten man," if only to stick it to Cornelia.  Godfrey agrees, goes to the party and delivers a well-spoken put down of the idle rich in the Depression.  Irene is immediately enamored with Godfrey's promise --- such a smart, well-spoken homeless man! --- and she hires him to be her family's butler and her very own protege.  What follows is a witty man handling an awful family with wit and grace, decades before Benson.
And to think, fifty years later, a black man was allowed to be a butler on TV

The title really sums up the whole movie.  This movie rides on the character of Godfrey; it's a good thing he's supposed to be witty and charming, because that's William Powell's calling card.  Powell is very entertaining in this movie, delivering sharp comments throughout, but never seeming to tell the similar jokes the same way twice.  He was aided in his performance by a supporting cast that perfected the clueless (but generally nice) rich characters that were so common in films until the 1950s.  Carole Lombard (Powell's ex-wife!) gave a solid performance as the sweet but oh-so-dumb Irene.  I usually have a problem with overly ditzy roles, but Lombard turned that stupidity into a childishness that was more easily forgiven.
The rest of the family is more stereotypical than cute, but I'm sure they were all novel enough in 1936.  Gail Patrick was fine as the bitchy spoiled brat sister.  Alice Brady was surprisingly funny on occasion as the too-stupid-to-believe mother; while I don't have any proof of it, I am pretty sure that her line "She was white as a sheet" was sampled for the excellent song "Frontier Psychiatrist" by Avalanches.  The men were less entertaining.  Eugene Pallette played the idiot that was allowed to spoil his family and Mischa Auer played a very convincing freeloader.  Auer was more entertaining than he should have been, given his minor role, but I enjoyed his melodrama.

Gregory La Cava's direction didn't strike me as anything special, but I suppose that my modern perspective could be a little jaded.  He did manage to put up some gorgeous sets and all the actors were committed to their parts, with no one giving a poor performance.  I may not have liked all the performances, but they were all polished and as good as the script would allow them to be.  The ending is awfully abrupt, but the old school take on comedies made that a common occurrence.  This wasn't anything timeless, from a directorial standpoint, but it was a solid effort.

In an older and lauded film like this, the main question is how well it has aged.  For the most part, I would say "not too badly."  There are several lines of dialogue that underline just how long ago 1936 was (apparently, the terms "nitwit" and "scavenger hunt" were not part of the popular lexicon back then), but the movie is still able to retain its charm.  Charm it has, but the humor is a bit lacking.  It's just not very funny any more, because the social mores that were being pushed at the time are long gone now.
Get it?  He's uncomfortable!
The relationship between Godfrey and Irene is cute and Godfrey is certainly witty, but even his lines aren't sharp enough --- maybe because they're too nice --- to still be hilarious today.  I'm also not a big fan of the movie's character traits; Godfrey is so much smarter than the rich in this movie that it's a little insulting.  None of the exploits in the film stand out as particularly outrageous (aside from a few off-camera ones), and that's not a good thing in any comedy.  The characters are so pleasant and Godfrey is so clever that the script doesn't inhibit a modern viewing of this film.  It's not a timeless classic, but it's a little silly and still pretty cute.  If absolutely nothing else, I can happily say that this cute, but unexceptional, movie increased my appreciation for William Powell.

And here's the song I alluded to earlier.  Great song from a great album: Avalanches - Since I Left You.