Monday, June 28, 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine

Hot Tub Time Machine screens Tuesday June 29th at 9:00pm at Toronto Underground Cinema. It screens again Thursday July 1st at 4:30pm, Friday July 2nd at 9:15pm, and Saturday July 3rd at 7pm.

Hot Tub Time Machine is everything a retro gross out comedy should be. It is also everything that a film with that ridiculous of a title should be. Which pretty simply means that it is heavily nostalgic, pretty gross, and patently ludicrous. It also has a great deal of heart and real emotion once you get down to it.

John Cusack, Craig Robinson, and Rob Corddry play three friends who only have tenuously kept touch since the end of university. All of their lives are a mess. Cusack has just been left by his wife, and his only real compatriot is his nephew (played by Clark Duke) who never leaves the comfort of his basement. Robinson has foregone his musical dreams to become a dog groomer at a soul crushing boutique. And Corddry... well, he may or may not be suicidal. He is definitely an alcoholic, but the suicide attempt that brings him to the hospital and sends alarm bells to his old friends is constantly in question. His friends, with Cuasck's nephew in tow, all come together to take him away on a retreat designed to make him feel better about life. What better place to go than the ski resort that held some of their best memories?

But when they get there, the town is pretty much deserted and the hotel is a dump. About the only thing they have going for them is a seemingly magical hot tub that is able to clean itself from its once decrepit state that just happens to function as a time machine. Suddenly, the wake up hungover and in 1986, where the town is thriving and they are their younger selves again.

Anyone who takes the plot of a movie like this seriously clearly has never seen a film about time travel. This is a pretty standard second chance story and each character is given their own separate story arc. Cusack and director Steve Pink (who previously worked on the scripts to Cusack's other nostalgia fests High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank) know the territory well. Robinson gets to act like an emotional bull in a china shop and Duke, who is a really underrated comedic talent, gets a chance to actually shine. But it is Corddry who is the real surprise here and he pretty much runs away with the movie.

To play a character that is a cross between Bluto from Animal House and Nicholas Cage's character in Leaving Las Vegas is a bit of a stretch for any actor, but Corddry pulls it off wonderfully. After watching this film, his performaces still stands out as the best of the bunch.

Admittedly, the last five minutes of the film made me groan a little bit, but the rest of the film is so strong, funny, nostalgic and sometimes even heart warming, that this is a pretty small criticism. In the end, if you are a fan of all things 80s, any of the people involved, time travel, or people vomiting on squirrels, there are far more reasons to check this film out than there are reasons not to.

Wayne's World

Wayne's World screens tonight, Monday June 28th at 9:00pm as part of an SNL double feature with MacGruber. It screens again Wednesday June 30th at 7:00pm.

Wayne's World is a great example of a film that no one thought would really succeed. It was based on an SNL sketch that no one had faith in at first and was brought to then SNL head writer Conan O' Brien by a talent that everyone thought was still green and still had a lot to learn about the business.

In the book Live From New York, O' Brein stated that the first script young Mike Meyers ever pitched was Wayne's World. O' Brien thought it needed a lot of work and sent Meyers back to the drawing board by telling him that he had to have ideas far better than this one if he wanted to survive. The very next week Meyers resubmitted the Wayne's World sketch with absolutely no revisions. O' Brien felt sorry for the young man and convinced SNL producer Lorne Michaels to put the sketch on anyway, albeit at the dreaded 12:50am time slot; ten minutes before the show ended and long considered to be the graveyard where sketches go to die a quiet death.

Meyers had always said he wanted to play Wayne, but he never really cared who played Garth. Dana Carvey was brought in simply as a hired gun for the role, and even from the start it was pretty obvious who the "creative genius" of the pair was. They never resented each other and on screen they made for a formidable duo, but even Carvey admitted in the same book that he always felt that Wayne and Garth were nothing more than a riff on Bill and Ted.

Then something miraculous happened. The sketch was so memorable and quotable that when he went in to work on Monday morning, Meyers found interns and staff members constantly singing the theme to the sketch. From that point on Wayne's World became a staple of the late night show and shone as a bright spot during what many people considered to be the darkest years in the history of the show.

Lorne Michaels had been looking for quite some time to turn a sketch into a feature film (the first with any SNL involvement since The Blues Brothers) and Wayne's World became the most obvious choice. From there, the little sketch that could became the first and only SNL film to gross more than $100 million dollars at the box office. It became a part of pop culture history with several memorable scenes (the headbanging sing-along to Queen, Alice Cooper's cameo, and a hilarious series of rapid fire sight gags involving product placement) and is quite possibly the most accessible and well liked film of Meyer's career next to Shrek.

Wayne's World never suffered the backlash that pretty much all of Meyer's other high profile efforts have suffered from, and that is for a very good reason. Wayne's World is just a great time at the movies. It's not brain science or rocket surgery. It's just a party. I say, party on!

Also, with the exception of The Blues Brothers and MacGruber, it is one of only 3 great films based on SNL characters, making it only one of 3 good films that Lorne Michaels has had his name attached to.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


MacGruber shows this Friday (June 25th) at 7pm at the Toronto Underground Cinema. It replays again Monday and Tuesday (June 28th and 29th) at 7pm.

Of all the films I could choose to go somewhat in depth about, even I find it strange that MacGruber would be one of those films. No, it isn't particularly deep and it really has no socially redeeming value (in fact, depending on your level of taste some of the jokes are borderline offensive), but somehow the planet and stars have aligned so that I actually have quite a bit to say about this movie on a few different levels.

I guess the reason I am even bothering is because judging by box office gross, this film is a pretty tough sell for audiences, when it really shouldn't have been that tough of a sell at all. It was released the same day as Dreck... I mean, Shrek Forever After and was subsequently relegated to number 6 at the box office it its opening weekend. The following weekend it plummeted to number 10 where it grossed less than a million dollars. After that it lost all but 6 of its 2,500 screens and was quickly forgotten about.

Say whatever you want about "counter programming," but releasing this film in the middle of blockbuster season is an open invitation for it to fail. It also doesn't help that Focus Features had saddled MacGruber with a pretty misleading ad campaign designed to make the film look more like a Judd Apatow style comedy and less like what it really was.

MacGruber isn't so much in the surrealist, improv heavy vein of Step Brothers or Anchorman. Instead, it is more of a love letter to cheesy 1980s action films. It is more parody and homage than it is about coming up with outrageous situations for actors to riff on. It isn't even really in the same spirit as MacGuyver, which was the source material for the brief 30-second SNL sketches the character was based around. If you can lovingly recall the Rambo films, Tango and Cash, The Last Boy Scout, and Invasion U.S.A, chances are you will get a real kick out of MacGruber. It is probably the only movie since Hot Shots! to adequately skewer the same action movie conventions.

The plot is just a simple as any of the movies I have just mentioned. MacGruber (Will Forte) is pulled out of "retirement" (by Powers Boothe!) in order to stop a madman (Val Kilmer, who is hilarious, but as one poster on IMDB states, looks like he was paid in fried chicken) bent on nuking the White House. That's it. That is the whole plot. And just like the 80's action films that pretty much use the same template (_____ needs to stop _____ who wants to ______), it is just a rudimentary framework from which to stage action sequences. More bullets are fired during MacGruber than probably any film since Bad Boys 2. All this despite the fact that MacGruber refuses to use a gun.

The laughs come fast and often for fans of action films. While the ad campaign states that a critic blurbed that the film is the best action comedy since Beverly Hills Cop, it isn't that good. But taken on its own terms, MacGruber is far better than it really has any right to be. It feels like it was made in 1988 and the cast is all perfectly game to play up this aspect. Forte seems to be having a great time, as does Ryan Phillippe, who despite being the straight man assigned to keep MacGruber in line still manages to steal a few scenes from his co-stars. Think Charles Grodin in pretty much every movie he was ever in and you get what Phillippe seems to be going for. Val Kilmer even continues what is beginning to feel like a small comeback after Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. It's good to see the star of Real Genius and Top Secret! getting back to comedy after far too long away from it.

Not only do I think that MacGruber is unjustly seen as a box office failure, but I also believe that the city of Toronto needs a movie like MacGruber right now. With the G20 going on in the city, everyone is on edge and taking everything far too seriously. No one seems to want to laugh at anything. People are afraid to walk down the street and take pictures or even sneeze in the presence of packs of police roaming the downtown core. What better remedy to the craziness in the summer heat outside than to go into an air conditioned underground cinema and watch a movie that pokes fun at some of the very issues that world leaders will be discussing this weekend? And if you don't want to risk going downtown on Friday night or if my review still didn't sell you on the film, don't worry. There is nothing but great comedies showing at the Toronto Underground all weekend and the beginning of next week. Something tells me that after the weekend ahead, people in the city are going to need a laugh.

Finally, in my introductory post in this blog, I mentioned that I have been battling a pretty severe depression. The final movie I saw in theatres before I was hospitalized was MacGruber. The time I spent watching this movie was probably the only fun and joy I experienced that week. Needless to say, I have a soft spot for this movie and probably always will.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Return to El Salvador

Return to El Salvador screens Monday and Tuesday June 21st and 22nd at 9pm at the Toronto Underground Cinema. You can watch the first 7 minutes of the film on the film's official site.

I love documentaries. While a lot of them aren't exactly cinematic in nature, I still enjoy seeing them on the big screen instead of watching a television news magazine or a PBS special. It must just be the movie nerd inside me coming out. I have participated in documentary filmmaking as both an on screen interviewee and again as a director. I have taken classes on the subject. I have learned more from documentaries that I honestly would have thought at first.

However, my love of documentaries has been shattered over the past few years by a new sort of film making that seems to be popular with audiences, but bores me to tears. These are documentaries like Food Inc. and An Inconvenient Truth. Yes, they are important topics to cover, but there is absolutely nothing to be gained from these films that you can not read in a similarly themed magazine article on the same subject. It is much harder to make a film that actually makes you care about the topic at hand rather than just a regurgitation of facts.

So when I say that director Jamie Moffett's Return to El Salvador is the real deal, I mean it from the bottom of my heart. Moffett, along with writers Betsy Morgan and Julia Shields, has created a film about a place that people seem to have forgotten about in the past ten years. Growing up in the U.S. I was pretty well versed in the history of the civil war that raged in El Salvador for the better part of 12 years (my love of 1980s history also plays into this somewhat), but until now I was never really able to put a human face on a struggle that I really only learned about through television news reports I was too young to understand on the news and from grade 12 history classes.

Moffett instead focuses on the people who are trying to make a better life for themselves, but to also affect change in their native country. The film gives off an air of positivity that is incredibly refreshing for social reform documentaries. Most are dull slogs through tales of hardship and pain that never stop flogging the audience. Return to El Salvador is the exact opposite of that. The pain is there and the problems are far from solved, but everyone involved seems optimistic (or at least realistic without being overly negative). In the end, this is a film that can easily be recommended to pretty much anyone with an interest in Latin American politics, history buffs, or anyone that likes seeing people do well in their lives under incredibly trying circumstances.

Note: Return to El Salvador is playing this week alongside the 2010 People's Summit Doc Film Series this Monday through Thursday. Festival passes are $20, individual screenings are $8, but no one will be turned away due to lack of funds. Pray the Devil Back to Hell (Monday at 5pm), is also an excellent film worth seeking out.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Terminator

The Terminator screens Sunday June 20th at 7:00 pm at the Toronto Underground Cinema.

Genres are just words on a page. Sometimes they aren't very helpful words at that. Some movies that are seemingly easy to classify actually defy any sort of concrete classification. The Terminator is a great example of how labeling a film just doesn't work sometimes. It can be viewed quite openly and obviously as a science fiction time travel film, and while that assessment wouldn't be wrong, it is quite more than that. It can also be seen as one of the most unrelenting action films of the 1980s; a film that never once gives quarter to the audience and rarely gives them a moment to breathe. My own personal view, however, is that this film is one of the best "slasher" films ever made and one of the best horror films of the 1980s.

The elements are all on display. The film is has a great cat and mouse plot where a "final girl" (Sarah Connor as played by Linda Hamilton) is stalked by an unstoppable killing machine. Arnold Schwarzenegger as the T-100 is completely emotionless and deadpan. This is a killer driven by a mechanical sense of duty and order. While the majority of the violence on display in The Terminator is perpetrated by guns (and there is a lot more of it than there is in the sequels), the slasher dynamic is still there.

A lot of the success of this film has to deal with the fact that this is director James Cameron's tightest, and admittedly most focused, effort. It doesn't overstay it's welcome and it hits every beat almost perfectly. Sure, the time travel plot has holes you could drive a convoy through, but what time travel film doesn't suffer from these problems? The real focus here is on action and tension. There is a very good reason why this film sparked a franchise and elevated Schwarzenegger and Cameron to their iconic status. Both have made some darn good movies, but probably never as good as this one.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Losers

The Losers screens for one final showing tonight at 9:30 at the Toronto Underground Cinema.

The Losers is a movie that is rarely made these days. It is very, very stupid. Relentlessly so. Parts of the plot are overly coincidental and make no sense whatsoever. The film is filled with easily recognizable pop songs that blare every ten minutes. It is filled with camera shots that can be deemed gratuitous at best and pointless at worst. And you can believe that something will blow up real good at least twice in every reel.

And that is a good thing.

The Losers hearkens back to a sort of early 90s action film aesthetic that is rarely seen in films today. It does not care to do anything more than entertain. There is no message to the film and the plot is about as laughable and snicker worthy as a James Bond film.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan (who would have a great career ahead of him if this were still the 1980s) stars as the head of a team of covert operatives framed for the demolition of a Bolivian village. The fake their own deaths, go off the grid, and with the help of a secretive woman (Zoe Salinda) decide to go after the people who robbed them of their otherwise fairly normal lives back home.

This is a plot that has been done a thousand times and if you are into that sort of thing, it is just as entertaining now as it was then. The cast really helps. Standouts include Morgan, Chris Evans as a technical specialist with a penchant for always following his niece's soccer games, and Idris Elba, who is a perfectly great actor who is never given a role that he can do much with (with the exception of playing David Wallace on The Office).

But the real MVP of this film is the villain played by Jason Patric. This is the type of actor who is never given a sleazy role to play, probably because these days he looks uncannily like a cross between Dennis Miller and Eric McCormack. But Patric throws himself at this role with an oily charm that is missing from many action movie villains. He is so far over the top that you can no longer see the top. Patrick hasn't had a role this good since The Lost Boys. And much like everything else that I can say about this movie, that is a good thing.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

12 Monkeys

12 Monkeys shows as part of the Toronto Underground Cinema's Time Traveler series this Wednesday night, June 16th at 9:15pm.

12 Monkeys is a movie I have seen three times since it was released in 1995 and no matter how many times I think about the film, I doubt I am much closer to understanding it all that well. I mean this in the best way possible. Not every film can be as complex as this one and still manage to hold my attention. When Mulholland Drive was brought up the other evening in conversation, I said that you shouldn't have to have a doctorate to be able to figure out the plot of a film. This isn't to say that I prefer brainless fare, but... wait. OK, I prefer brainless fare to some degree, but if a movie wants to get me to think long and hard about its inner workings it had better be pretty entertaining. 12 Monkeys is probably one of the brainiest pieces of mainstream entertainment to ever be released.

Bruce Willis stars as James Cole, a convicted felon who agrees to go back in time to the year 1996 in order to stop a super-virus from continuing to wipe out most of the human race and in hopes of commuting his sentence. The only problem is that the scientists in charge screw up (or do they?) and end up sending him to 1990, where he is arrested and remanded to a mental hospital where he meets a doctor, played by Madeleine Stowe, and a clearly deranged animal rights activist (played by Brad Pitt in what is easily one of his best performances and while sporting a self administered haircut) who just might be behind the virus and the leader of the nefarious Army of the 12 Monkeys.

Saying any more about the plot would really be doing a first time viewer a disservice. 12 Monkeys really is a film best watched cold and not knowing too much about it so you can better unravel the mystery yourself later on. Loosely based on the French short La Jetee, the plot is anything but linear. Even fans of such films will likely get confused at some point. Probably the easiest thing I can say about understanding this film (and there are a lot of my friends who refuse to watch this film because they think it is too complex for its own good) is that this is the rare kind of time traveler film where the time line of history is fixed. This is not a situation where changing something in the past will even have a great impact on the future. Cole isn't really sent back in time to stop anything. His mission is to retrieve a "pure" sample of the virus from which a cure can be better extracted.

12 Monkeys is also, despite its complexity, one of director Terry Gilliam's best and most accessible films. Gilliam directs the action on screen quite adeptly, especially when he is having to transition himself between sets as varied as downtown Baltimore in winter and a future not that far removed from his earlier work in Brazil. The script not only functions as a time travel film, but also as a meditation on the relationship between memory and madness. Very few films have told stories this complex at the speed this movie moves along at. Despite a 2 hour and 10 minute running time, it feels like a much shorter film. It very rarely gives the viewer a moment to breathe and it is always making them question just exactly what details of the film are important to the plot since there are more red herrings here than a fish market. But that is also what makes this film a hell of a lot of fun.

Someone Saved My Life Tonight

This is about as personal as this blog is probably going to get. Sure, I am going to take a playful tone with a lot of the things I say in here (we are talking about movies, after all, not world peace), but to understand why I am doing this blog is to also understand the purpose of a place like the recently opened Toronto Underground Cinema.

It will also explain why a place like this means a lot to me on a personal level and why I am willing to do almost anything to see it succeed.

Less than three weeks ago I was suicidal. I'm not saying that I was living life on the edge. I was actively trying to kill myself. Everything in my life had pretty much fallen down around me. Without getting into specifics, I was at the lowest possible point that a human being could be at. As a result of this complete breakdown, I was hospitalized for two weeks while I sorted my head out and got things back on track.

While you are staring at the same four walls for a long time you begin to think a lot about your life and where things are headed for you. You question pretty much every decision you ever made and try to rationalize everything that doesn't make sense.

I began thinking about my entire life up until that point and everything in my life that had come and gone. Friends won and lost. Love and the periods where there was none. Family. Music. Art. The list goes on. But I realized that only one thing had stuck with me since childhood; one thing that was always constant no matter how bad life got.

Movies were always there for me. My love of films has been the only constant in my entire life and the one thing I could always count on.

Growing up across the street from a 3 screen movie theatre in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, movies were the default source of amusement for me since my parents didn't own a car. I remember the first movie I ever saw (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which I apparently didn't shut up during), the first PG-13 movie my parents took me to (the Mark Harmon classic Summer School) The first R-rater movie I ever snuck into, and the first "date" I ever had (Buffy The Vampire Slayer). And it all happened within walking distance of my house. I even have fond memories of "trash" such as every Ernest movie except the one where he goes to camp, Young Einsten, and The Chipmunk Adventure (which is still the superior Chipmunk film).

It was a natural jump for me to work in movie theatres where I have worked in every position possible from the lowliest of ticket takers to the manager who listens to all of the crazy complaints and to the projection booth when I simply got sick of dealing with the customers that made the job a bit of a downer at times. It was during this period, when I could see everything for free, that I was watching every movie that was released. I didn't discriminate and I was glad that I didn't. It was kind of like an adventure. Sometimes a movie that you never heard of turned out to be one of the best things you had ever seen. You get used to seeing subtitles. Movies that look marginal at best turn out to be better than you expected. You also get to see past a lot of the bullshit that Hollywood tries to pass off as entertainment and sometimes you even like it despite knowing better.

During this time, I wanted to become a film critic. It wasn't exactly a marketable position, but I always wanted to write and talk about film for a living. It didn't matter if the film was made by Godard or Uwe Boll. I loved talking about movies and writing about them. Unfortunately, like most dreams, this one simply went unrealized. Life got in the way and my dream was realized only in random and infrequent blogging. I always wanted to get back to it and do something halfway serious with it. Something fulfilling.

When I was released from the hospital, things actually managed to get worse for me on a personal level. I had only a small handful of people I could count on and my ego was bruised beyond belief. Worst of all, there wasn't a single movie showing at any of the local multiplexes that I really had any interest in. I mean, there was, but nothing I would have paid to see.

And then came the listings for the Toronto Underground Cinema where they were showing a double bill of Timecop and Army of Darkness. The latter of these two is a movie I had seen dozens of times in the past (and in different versions), but never on the big screen in glorious 35mm. As for Timecop, I had never seen it. Well, I might have, but I had forgotten about it. Still, the allure of seeing a movie in 2010, that takes place in 2004, that was made in 1994 is just something I can't pass up.

I loved every second of that night. The crowd was really into the movies and incredibly appreciative. The print of Timecop looked great and the print of Army of Darkness was delightfully beat up (because there is nothing like watching a horror film that is dirty and scratched up). The popcorn was fresh and the fountain soda actually tasted like soda and not water with some vague approximation of flavoring. I loved the experience and my love of films was rekindled by fucking Timecop.

It was during this night and over the next few nights that I got to know Charlie Lawton, the manager of the Underground. His passion for movies and the job is just boundless. We have talked and argued at somewhat great length about everything from David Lynch to Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare. Much like a friendly bartender, Charlie listened to my problems and helped me put them into perspective. Knowing there are people out there like Charlie gives me hope for the world of film. This is someone who clearly loves every second of his job and his ideas are genuine. Downstairs taking tickets is Nigel Agnew, who I have yet to see without a smile on his face when greeting people and acting sort of like a ringmaster for the circus that is about to begin. Alex Woodside mans the concession stand and has just as much energy and charisma as Charlie while more literally acting like a bartender. I think I can convince him that a whale could very well win a fight against a T-Rex and a giant squid.

These are the people that keep me coming back for the very movies that never left, and the fact that they are doing this makes my heart soar. I want more than anything for this place to succeed, and I am here to do my little part. These are people following their dreams and through that I am going to help hone my own dreams.

This blog is going to focus on upcoming features and events at the Toronto Underground Cinema. Since I have seen a lot of the movies they have been programming, I felt I could best contribute by trying to sell people on films they might not go to otherwise. There will be some criticism, but for the most part, this is a blog about the love of film and tribute not only to the Underground, but to the movies they show. The movies that never left me and that I know will always be there.