Wednesday, February 29, 2012

February 2012 Rundown

As stated in my introduction to Mark It 8, Dude, I will not provide full reviews of every film I watch.  To fill those gaps, I will periodically include a rundown of the things I watch without reviewing them in depth, including each film's "mark" and a quick paragraph to express my reaction.  Here's my first of those posts.

Another Earth (2011) – Mark it 4.

Underneath its interplanetary and metaphysical facade, Mike Cahill’s Another Earth is merely your everyday indie melodrama about two people connecting over a tragedy, and a somewhat dull one at that.  The many scenes of the grieving man and guilt stricken woman slowly connecting, despite their shared tragic past, never worked for me.  Throwing in an identical Planet Earth that is home to every human’s exact double, where the accident may or may not have ensued similarly, is not enough of a twist to make it memorable.  However, I did enjoy its star and co-writer, Brit Marling, and would enjoy seeing what she can do in something better.

Michael Jackson's This Is It (2009) – Mark it 6.

This is not just a pure money grab exploiting Michael Jackson’s tragic death like I initially suspected.  Kenny Ortega manages to string together behind the scenes rehearsal footage from what would’ve been MJ’s comeback tour into a full-length feature celebrating his musical genius.   It was a pleasure watching Michael take control of his musical spectacle, inspire his collaborators, sing those fantastic hits, and move as smoothly as ever on the dance floor.  This tour would have been an impressive return to greatness.  Rather than exploiting death, This Is It acts as one last chance for Michael to show the world that he truly is the King of Pop, even if it’s posthumously.

Fanboys (2008) – Mark it 2.

I love Star Wars and the idea of a group of Star Wars superfans on a quest to steal a print of The Phantom Menace before its release had potential for good comedy, but that promise is wasted.  The characters are just sci-fi nerd clich├ęs, the script is slapped together into a typical road movie, and the jokes are a healthy mix of stupid, juvenile, and unfunny.  Star Wars references galore, Seth Rogan’s three separate cameos, and many familiar faces from the comedy and sci-fi world aren’t enough to save this terrible film.  If I were to think of one positive, it would be that I am beginning to understand why Kristen Bell is something of a sci-fi world dream girl (she does rock the Princess Leia slave girl costume after all).

Bridesmaids (2011) – Mark it 6.

Kristen Wiig helps lead a very funny female ensemble that puts her male Hangover counterparts to shame.   It was refreshing to hear women speak dirty dialogue and do the gross out humor that we are accustomed to see from men.  But Bridesmaids has more to it than the novelty of raunchy female humor.  It is easy to care for Wiig’s character and like each member of the bridal party.  The film’s main ingredient, the maid of honor clash between Wiig, the longtime but down on her luck best friend, and Rose Byrne, the disturbingly perfect newcomer, works very well.  As Wiig's two beaus, the amazing John Hamm’s hilarious turn as the ultimate womanizing jerkoff and Chris O’Dowd’s lovable cop are both good as well.  Lastly, what a wonderful surprise to see those beautiful establishing shots of my hometown, Milwaukee, early on – Bridesmaids sold me from the start.

Gandhi (1982) – Mark it 8.

Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi is an epic biopic on the grandest scale, worthy of its eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Screenplay).  Ben Kingsley gives a powerful but quiet performance as the world’s most famous non-violent revolutionary.  Its three-hours fly by as the film follows the threads of Gandhi’s life.  Gandhi provides an important history lesson, instilled with great entertainment value, as a young Gandhi leads the Indians in South Africa above their second-class status, and returns home to spend the rest of his life attempting defeat the British Empire and establish an independent India, through non-violent civil disobedience.   What separates Gandhi is Kingsley’s ability to portray the human side of this historical icon.  I was filled with pride as India won its independence, only to have my heart broken watching India’s internal divisions violently undermine Gandhi’s dream.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Best Worst Movie (2009) / Troll 2 (1990)

Best Worst Movie:  Directed by Michael Stephenson
Best Worst Movie Starring George Hardy, Claudio Fragasso

Troll 2:  Directed by Claudio Fragasso
Troll 2:  Starring George Hardy, Michael Stephenson

Finding joy in the absolutely atrocious is an odd phenomenon that I think we all can relate to on some level.  It’s the reason I turn to the Sally Forth comic strip every Sunday morning and have a hard time turning off that Paul McCartney Christmas song.  Arguably, there has never been a work of art (to use the term loosely) that symbolizes that experience of “blissfully bad” better than Claudio Fragasso’s 1990 horror flick, Troll 2.  By every account, Troll 2 fails miserably.  In the 20 years since its (straight-to-video) release, this complete failure of a film has developed a fanatical cult following.  With its 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and its #1 rating on IMDB’s Bottom 100 movies, Troll 2 has even inspired a documentary, Best Worst Movie, to take an in-depth look at the “world’s worst film.”  Lucky for me, both are available on Netflix Instant.

To capture the experience of Troll 2 in words is a difficult task.  For to fully grasp how something so awful can exist, yet also be endearing, can’t really be understood unless it is watched.  Let’s just say that this movie finds the perfect balance of horrible acting, terrible production value, cheesy music, painfully awkward lines, and a nonsensical script.  A C-average middle school student would be embarrassed by this story.  Here is my foolish attempt at summarizing the plot:  a young boy and his dead grandfather try to save their vacationing family from the creepy townspeople who are really goblins (the monsters aren’t even trolls!) that try to feed newcomers green goo which turns the people into plants so the goblins and their goblin-witch leader can eat the humans, because they are all vegetarians.  Hard to follow, right?  However, that doesn’t matter because when added all together, there is something incredibly watchable about Troll 2.

We’ve all seen terrible movies, laughed at them, and left it at that.  No one ever takes the time to take a closer look at those terrible movies.  With his documentary, Best Worst Movie, Michael Stephenson (who was actually the child actor and star of Troll 2) takes the time to answer questions of how was a movie this bad ever made, why has it developed a cult following, and how do those involved in its making look back on the experience.  After I did my homework (watch Troll 2), I was very excited to take an in-depth look at the true story of a truly awful movie. 

It’s amazing how Best Worst Movie involves all of the insiders from the making of the film, and their reaction to their 1990 “classic” runs the gamut.  A common theme is embarrassment.  From being kept in the dark during filming by Troll 2’s all-Italian crew to its ominous VHS release and subsequent airings on HBO, most of the cast had the feeling that they were part of something especially bad.  For an actor, however, that “blissfully bad” experience doesn’t exist.  Troll 2 is a black cloud that hangs over their careers.  Most leave it off their resumes and feel nothing but shame when the movie gets mentioned, some are content with their embarrassment and have moved on with their lives, while others are stuck in sad and lonely places.  It took the better part of 20 years to forget, but its arrival of as a cult classic has suddenly brought it to their forefront and made them something a star.

George Hardy is the most memorable of Troll 2’s cast members in Best Worst Movie.  He is a practicing and well-loved dentist in his small Alabama hometown, and he was a practicing dentist in Utah when he auditioned for Troll 2 on a whim.  When people ask him about his “movie star” days, he just shines his giant pearly whites and laughs it off in good humor.  Other than that, George gives little thought to Troll 2.  That is until Michael, the documentarian and his Troll 2 co-star, informs him about the film’s huge cult following.  George dives head first into newfound stardom.  It's very fun to hear the fans express their love toward such a truly awful movie as George is guest of honor at sold out midnight showings across the country.  George becomes Troll 2’s biggest fan himself, wonders what a life of stardom would have been like, and realizes he is happy with his quiet Alabama life.  Who knew that the father in Troll 2 was not just a terrible actor, but also such an interesting character in the real world?

Various other cast members and filmmakers join as George and Michael enjoy the ride of Troll 2’s newfound fame.  Some of most powerful moments come from those who have never viewed their movie as a failure.  Sadness runs deep when we learn that the Troll 2 mother, and George’s on-screen wife, has turned into a delusional recluse afraid to leave her house.  She views her movie as a beautiful film on par with Casablanca.  More entertaining awkwardness comes from the director, Claudio Fragasso, who travels from Italy to experience Troll 2’s cult fame in person.  He has disdain for critics, pride in his film’s message, and confusion over the audience’s constant laughter.  His ego embraces the adulation but feels attacked when he realizes that the adulation comes from the love for his ultimate failure.  This contradiction reaches a high point during the entertaining arguments Claudio has with his actors and fans during some Troll 2 Q&A sessions.

I highly encourage people to force themselves through their worst 90 minutes of movie watching, because when coupled with a viewing of Best Worst Movie, the two create a very entertaining experience.  We all love to hate things, and quite a lot can be gained from seeing how individuals have embraced their greatest failures.  Who knows - if that failure is as monumental as Troll 2, you might be in store for a hell of a ride.

Best Worst Movie – Mark it 6.
Troll 2 – Mark it 1, naturally.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg
Starring Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Strother Martin

I decided that my first review would be on the first movie I watch since putting up this blog, and luckily the first blu ray that Netflix sent me turned out to be a great one.  Somehow, I had never seen Cool Hand Luke and once I got to thinking about it, I didn’t really know much about it either.  I knew that it would involve a chain gang of prisoners, that Paul Newman was going to be super cool throughout, and that there would be a “failure to communicate” at some point.  I was going into Cool Hand Luke fairly blind, despite its being generally considered one of the classics.

Paul Newman plays Luke Jackson, a decorated war hero turned small time crook imprisoned for “maliciously destroying municipal property while under the influence.”  Luke is one individual not prone to following the rules, whether they are society’s rules, the warden’s rules, or those of the prison hierarchy.  It is a pleasure to watch how Luke’s refusal to give up his individuality within multiple oppressive systems slowly transforms him from an outcast to something of a hero among his peers.  It is then all the more troubling when the prison system continually tightens its grip on Luke to try and crush that individuality.  However, Luke isn’t easily broken.

From the moment that the first subtle plucks of the films’ score start playing over the chain gang hard at work under smoldering Southern sun, I could tell that Cool Hand Luke would be something special.  The film is filled with so many memorable scenes and characters from open to end.  The first half beautifully sets up the environment that all these men have been forced to adapt to.  There is a long laundry list of rules that must be obeyed to avoid spending the night “in the box,” detailed portrayals of the daily grind of life in a chain gang, and the small pleasures they cherish from the sight of a beautiful blonde seductively washing her car or an hour of rest after finishing the job early.  There is a great sense of community among the prisoners, all kept in order by the group’s alpha male, an intimidatingly rough farm boy who’s nothing but a teddy bear on the inside, Dragline (played be George Kennedy in an Oscar-winning performance).  Luke is quickly able to find a home in that community but does so on his own terms.

Paul Newman is simply brilliant as Luke.  Behind his frequent smile and constant levelheaded calm, there is something mysterious about Luke.  His refusal to fall into line with the rules can often seem foolish yet that refusal also heightens our respect for him.  This paradox is never more apparent than during his ill-fated boxing match with Dragline early on in the film.  Even in the face of certain defeat, Luke refuses to give in to any higher power.  This moment is the turning point of the film.  Once he has earned the respect of his fellow prisoners, Luke again tests his luck against almost certain defeat.  This time, however, his foe is not Dragline but the warden and his guards.  The stakes rise considerably and the repercussions become more severe but Luke never allows himself to be knocked out completely, like in the boxing match.

While watching Cool Hand Luke, I was continually surprised by how many amazing scenes could be packed into its two hours.  The aforementioned car wash scene might be one of sexiest two minutes ever on film and shockingly suggestive for something almost 40 years old.  Luke turning torture into fun was always a joy, such as when the backbreaking job of tarring a road becomes something of a game or when he takes on a excruciating bet involving 50 eggs.  Quiet moments like Luke’s visit from his ailing mother or a tearful ditty played on his banjo were equally memorable.  And never have I seen the old prison chase standby of a pack of bloodhounds hot on an escapee’s tail ever done better.  I cannot recall a scene that was not memorable.

I really could go on and on and on talking about Cool Hand Luke.  I barely even acknowledged that incredibly famous “failure to communicate.”  The memorable cast of characters (including a very young Dennis Hopper), the great friendship between Luke and Dragline, the beautiful photography, the memorable theme that plucks and strums its way throughout, the intimidating guard with “no eyes,” or Luke’s taunts toward God’s “plan” for him could all warrant multiple paragraphs.  And the powerful third act, in which Luke repeatedly challenges the prison’s power structure, is better to be experienced while watching the film than through whatever my words could convey.

When hearing of a film continually hyped as an all-time classic, like Cool Hand Luke, the expectations can sometimes be a huge burden for it to bear.  However, it pleased me that Cool Hand Luke easily met the high expectations I couldn’t help but place upon it.

Mark it 9.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Marking It 8 (or any other number between 1 and 10)

As I mentioned in this blog’s inaugural post, Mark It 8, Dude is my return to blogging about movies.  However, I neglected to mention what brought this sudden urge to pick up this hobby once again.  The answer to that mystery stems from my latest addiction.  While working diligently in my cubicle, I have begun searching the Internet for good podcasts to help the day go by and the one podcast taking precedence over all else is Filmspotting (big thanks to my brother, Nick, for the suggestion).  This podcast has really struck a chord with me because it involves two regular guys, Adam Kempenaar and Matty Robinson (who has since left the show and been replaced by Josh Larson), discussing film on both its artistic merits and entertainment value.  Seamlessly blending the highbrow art house scene with the average Joe popcorn scene, Adam and Matty’s intellectual and interesting yet always entertaining discussions are exactly what I seek in film criticism.  They are people whom I continue to relate to as I move from episode to episode, and the way they challenge film to be moving artistically while not being entirely above just having a fun time at the multiplex is how I also like to view the art form.

But just enjoying a podcast does not exactly explain what led me to starting this blog.  The urge to begin Mark It 8 started to grow inside me when I listened to Matty Robinson’s last Filmspotting episode.  In Matty’s farewell speech he gave advice to all the amateur critics listening (which all film buffs are deep down inside), “the Internet is turning the world into one big peer review, so find your voice in that conversation.  Writing snarky things to try and top other people is not adding to the conversation.  Be earnest.  Cut down on the clever.”  One-sentence statuses on Facebook to express my reactions to films no longer sated my appetite, though my appetite for that expression did not diminish.  The next logical step for me was to start my own blog to do my small part in earnestly adding to the online conversation.

Finding one’s voice was another aspect of Matty’s farewell that especially stuck with me.  My days of 20 page papers for school are behind me, but the skill of writing is a lifelong value.  A need to continue to improve my skills as a writer will be integral in whatever career path I venture, so I might as well hone that craft and find my voice while writing about something so enjoyable:  movies.  I believe that good writing is good writing no matter the subject, and the subject that I will be practicing on will remain film.

The structure of Mark It 8, Dude will therefore focus on reviews of the films I see, but may develop organically to cover other random thoughts and topics about film, and perhaps television (Mad Men is returning next month after all).  Therefore, I will try to refrain from examining my opinions on music, sports, food, people, places, and the news, or deep investigations of my inner thoughts and feelings, even though the well for those topics may be immense.  There may be another time and place for those discussions, but to prevent sprawling and rambling, it will not be at Mark It 8.

Finally, we are getting to the blog itself.  As many of you may know (of course the photo gives it away), Mark It 8, Dude refers a hilarious scene in one of the greatest films ever made, the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski.  Smokey, the gray-haired conscientious objector, may have crossed the line when striking down 8 pins to which John Goodman’s Walter Sobchek famously pointed out.  When naming my blog, I could have gone with Walter’s more well known desire to “Mark It Zero!” but I have too much of the Dude in me to side with Walter.  For each film I review, I will “mark it” with a number, my rating system.  I am an optimistic filmgoer, so it felt more appropriate to want to mark things 8 rather than zero.  In fact, this bowling metaphor will include bumpers, so “marks” will range from 1 to 10.

I want to warn people that marks of 9 and 10 will be reserved for special cases, as will the 1s and 2s in the other direction.  Another word of warning, I tend to do my homework when picking out movies to see (I devour and trust reviews), so there will probably be more marks in the upper half of the scale.    Here are some quick, and somewhat vague, one or two word definitions to help give meaning to each “mark.”

     Mark it 10:  PERFECTION            
     Mark it 9:  Near Classic   
     Mark it 8:  Excellent       
     Mark it 7:  Great          
     Mark it 6:  Good                
     Mark it 5:   Average
     Mark it 4:   Not Good
     Mark it 3:   Bad
     Mark it 2:   Awful
     Mark it 1:   All-Time Low

Of course, stamping a number on a movie and calling it a review is insufficient, and I hope my posts will be able to examine each film much more deeply.  However, these reviews will just be based on my personal reactions to the film, and not on any superior knowledge I possess (because, frankly, a claim like that is complete bullshit).  I encourage people to disagree just as readily as they agree and hope that Mark It 8, Dude can be a place for thoughtful peer reviews rather than a devolution into the cleverly snarky.

My goal is that this blog will become a hobby with staying power (even if I’m the only one reading it).  To keep interest piqued, I seek to add three posts monthly, with the majority being reviews of a specific film.  It is not realistic to think that I will be able to write an in depth review for every film I watch.  In that case I may occasionally include a quick rundown of movies (with their “mark” and a one or two sentence synopsis), so my readers can know to seek or avoid certain movies (if they trust my tastes, of course) even if I choose not to review them.  I am hopeful that the first review in my personal movie blog revival will be posted very soon.

Lastly, I encourage all film buffs to check out  It is my favorite podcast at the moment, as I discussed in depth earlier, and a great place to hear thoughtful and entertaining film discussion.  Also, it will provide you with a wealth of film suggestions that could keep you busy for years on end.  My Netflix queue grows and grows with each episode I listen to.

And for the record, The Big Lebowski (1998) – Mark it 10, Dude.

Blowing Up Armageddon One Last Time

Before I begin my latest foray into the blogosphere of personal movie reviews, I feel obligated to revisit my past experience one last time.  In 2005, my brother, Nick, and his college roommate, Brian, started their own movie review blog, Armageddon Blows, and I was invited to join them two years later.  That was my senior year of high school and I jumped in head first, writing seven entries from February through July of 2007.  When I moved on to Beloit College, blogging about movies never seemed to fit my schedule like before, and I’ve only reviewed one movie since that first six-month push. 

Armageddon Blows remains an active, but mostly dormant, blog, so I decided that it was time to start fresh with a blog of my own, Mark It 8, Dude.  Though before I start writing new material I wanted to look back at blog entries from my high school years.  I will now provide links to those articles so my readers can begin where it all started (and feel free to explore the rest of Armageddon Blows to read Nick and Brian’s reviews, it's quite fun to page through).

To bridge my past with my future, it is now time to “mark” those films (because what’s a movie review without some semi-arbitrary rating system?).  I have to note that these ratings might not reflect what I had given when I wrote the reviews years ago.  Naturally, one’s tastes may change as they move from 18 years old to 23, so I will now be looking at these films from the lens of someone five years removed from high school.

Watchmen – Mark it 7.
The Simpsons Movie – Mark it 6.
The UP Documentaries – Mark it 9.
Dark City – Mark it 8.
Grindhouse:  Planet Terror – Mark it 6.
Grindhouse:  Death Proof – Mark it 7.
Secretary – Mark it 6.
The 39 Steps – Mark it 7.