Over Under

helmscedarrapids

It’s probably safe to say that The Office was one of the biggest network TV successes of the last decade. It lasted for 9 seasons, spawned countless imitators, and made names out of an ensemble cast of character actors. Steve Carrell, Ed Helms, John Krasinski, and Rainn Wilson especially were all able to parlay their exposure there into lead roles in feature films. Of the four of them, Steve Carell has to be seen as the most successful, however. With The 40-Year-Old Virgin he proved that he could open a film as its star, and with the movie we’ll be talking more about here, Little Miss Sunshine, he proved himself to be a versatile actor who didn’t necessarily need to do comedy. Largely based on the hype behind Carrell’s performance, that movie made close to $60 million at the box office, and then rode its buzz straight into awards season, where it walked away with two Oscars. Not bad for a tiny little indie film. When Helms’ turn to try and make the jump to movie stardom came, it came in the form of the 2011 film Cedar Rapids. Already he had become a box office commodity thanks to the success he saw as part of the Hangover ensemble, but this one was going to be his big chance to prove that he could anchor a film as its centerpiece actor. Cedar Rapids got released in the movie wasteland known as February though, and when all was said and done, […]

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first blood

In recent years some of the luster has come off of Oliver Stone’s career. He wasn’t always the guy who made movies like World Trade Center and Savages. Far from it, actually. He used to be the sort of respected director who cleaned up at the Oscars. One of the best-loved and most respected of the works from his peak was Born on the Fourth of July, a drama that not only earned him an Academy Award for Best Director and a nomination for Best Picture, but also went a long way toward making a serious actor out of its star, Tom Cruise. Cruise had become a huge name in the business thanks to roles in things like Risky Business and Top Gun, but before he did things like this and Rain Man, he still might have proved to be just a flash in the pan who opened a couple of big movies thanks to a pearly grin and a haircut, and then became a footnote. Even after all of these years though, Born on the Fourth of July is still considered to be one of the big entries in the highlight reel of Cruise’s career, and an argument could even be made that it still contains his very best performance. Ted Kotcheff isn’t a director whose career ever came near the heights of Stone’s. You might not have even heard of him if you aren’t a big fan of Weekend at Bernie’s or The Red Shoe Diaries. One big […]

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the-blues-brothers

Movies that are able to effectively blend action and comedy tend to be real crowd pleasers. Large segments of the moviegoing public go to the cinema specifically to escape, and, really, what’s more escapist than laughing and being thrilled at the same time? From The General to Big Trouble in Little China to Shaun of the Dead, the best action comedies tend to become cult favorites that stand the test of time and get re-watched constantly. There’s one action comedy that has a giant cult following I’ve never found an inroad to appreciate though—John Landis’ 1980 hit, The Blues Brothers. It’s not hard to see why many find it memorable. It’s set in an exaggerated version of lower class Chicago that’s easy to romanticize, it gets to ride the coattails of John Belushi’s gone-too-soon legacy, and it features so many legendary musicians that you almost feel like you have to respect it by proxy. Putting all that aside though, the movie is really long and slow, it doesn’t contain many big laughs, and quite frankly I have a hard time finishing it without falling asleep. One recent action comedy that doesn’t get any respect is 2011’s The Green Hornet, and seeing as its writers, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, released the impressive and seemingly well-liked This is the End over the weekend, it feels like an appropriate time to revisit it and ask why that is. The Green Hornet made a decent amount of coin, and was successful enough on […]

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death sentence

Revenge movies have been a go-to for the film industry for a long time now. That’s probably because they’re simple in structure, don’t take all that much imagination to conceive, and are an easy way to get your audience to care about action scenarios. Introduce a main character, have him be wronged, then have him go after the people who wronged him. Boom—instant movie. They’re not prevalent just because they’re quick and easy though, they keep getting made because they really do affect us on a deep, animal level. There’s a boiling anger somewhere in us all, an urge to engage in cathartic, wrathful behavior, and the revenge trope allows us to indulge in that without having to take action ourselves; and it even offers up the added reassurance of providing a moral justification for the violence taking place. These movies affect us so powerfully because of the way they’re able to delay gratification and then deliver satisfaction, as well. A good revenge movie is all about making the audience want to see a bad guy get his comeuppance, delaying the payback to the point where they believe they’re going to burst if they don’t get to see it, and then delivering the splatter right before the credits roll. It’s basically the same premise carnies have been using to sell professional wrestling matches for a century now. Today we’re going to explore what works and what doesn’t in the genre by comparing a movie that’s considered to be a famous […]

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khan

It’s long been said that the Star Trek movies work on an unwritten rule that the odd numbered ones wind up being disappointments and the even numbered ones wind up being the ones that are worth watching. If you go down the lineup and check the work on that theory, it seems to hold up. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was widely considered to be a misfire, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was considered to be the rebound that got things right, and then things keep sticking to that pattern all the way up to the tenth movie, Star Trek: Nemesis, which is said to have ended the streak of even numbered movies being good and is essentially the reason the franchise had to go through a reboot. Of course, if you’ve read this column before, you can probably predict that I don’t agree with this assessment. The Wrath of Khan is widely considered to be the best of the Star Trek movies, but to my non-fan eyes it plays as a set-bound bore full of paunchy, over the hill actors who were well past needing to be put out to pasture. Maybe you need an emotional investment in the franchise to really get its appeal. Nemesis, on the other hand, starts really horribly with a cringe-worthy wedding scene full of clunky banter and fake laughter, but as it goes on it develops into becoming an entertaining enough big, dumb action movie. It’s the perfect thing for the […]

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dunham-graff

Lena Dunham basically blew up out of nowhere after the release of her second feature, Tiny Furniture. The film had a minuscule budget, it employed a couple of her real family members as actors, and it was largely filmed in her family’s real life apartment. That’s a damned thrifty approach to filmmaking, and generally you’re going to have to add a good deal of talent to a presentation like that if it’s going to catch the attention of the powers that be in the entertainment industry—but catch their attention it did. After Dunham released Tiny Furniture, HBO came calling and essentially opened up their pocket books so that she could create her own television show, the similarly-themed Girls, which is now one of the most buzzed about things in popular culture. Zach Braff’s career path moved in the opposite direction. His first exposure to the public’s eye came from his starring in one of the most popular series on television, Scrubs, and by the time he decided to make his own feature film, Garden State, he was already an established name. Unlike Tiny Furniture, Garden State brought fairly respectable production value to the table, its cast was full of respected actors, and in general it just felt much more like a marketable movie than Dunham’s work. And yet, despite the fact that it was generally greeted with favorable reviews upon its release, Garden State didn’t seem to do Braff’s career any favors. To say that a big entertainment company didn’t […]

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ForgetIt

There were so many great crime movies that came out of the ’70s that it would be something of an endeavor to compile a list of the best. But chances are, if you had a bunch of people get together and do just that, Chinatown would be near the top of most of them. This modern take on classic noir is beloved to the point where it’s the sort of thing that gets studied in film classes, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s got iconic moments, a legendarily despicable villain in land developer Noah Cross (John Huston), Jack Nicholson giving a solid leading performance that isn’t as showy and distracting as his later stuff and it’s put together by the trained eye of a master director. But it also has a number of readily apparent flaws that make it questionable as to whether or not it should stand shoulder to shoulder with the greatest movies in cinema history, as many people claim that it does. Another great crime film from the same era is The Long Goodbye, a sort of subversion of the noir genre that embraces its tropes but updates its setting to the laid back, alternative medicine-embracing culture of early ’70s Los Angeles. Unlike Chinatown, this isn’t the sort of film that has grown in popularity over the years. It has its fans, and it might show up on some of those “Best of the ’70s” lists if the people you’re surveying are big into the […]

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Mean Girls

With his debut feature, Heathers, director Michael Lehmann created a cult hit that’s still earning new fans more than two decades after its release. Heathers stars Winona Ryder as Veronica, the newest and most reluctant member of her high school’s popular clique, the Heathers (referred to as such because the other three members are all named Heather). After falling in with a rebel boy named (hilariously) JD, (Christian Slater), Veronica decides that maybe it’s time somebody takes the Heathers down a peg, and maybe it should be her and her new beau. Things get out of control and murdery after that. The film sticks with audiences because it’s honest and brutal in its portrayal of the social strata of high school and the level of abuse that rolls downhill from the popular kids to the geeks. And it sure doesn’t turn a blind eye to the melancholy and melodrama that comes along with having teenage hormones. It faces the issue of teenage suicide head on and makes sick jokes about it, and it’s just that brand of nihilism that young people respond to most. Mark Waters’ Mean Girls isn’t quite yet a decade old, but already it seems to have faded away much more than Lehmann’s look at high school life. This is strange, because not only does it deal with many of the same concerns as Heathers, but it also comes from a script that was written by Tina Fey. From her work as the head writer on SNL, […]

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Gummo1

Larry Clark’s 1995 film Kids wasn’t a big hit in its day, but it’s managed to stick around and get passed down from one generation of teen punk to the next over the course of the last two decades. Teenagers don’t tend to acknowledge anything that came out more than a few years before they got into high school, but they can still quote Kids, and that has to largely be thanks to Harmony Korine’s screenplay. The content of Kids sticks with people, because not only is it a shocking reminder to parents about how trashy teenage party culture gets, but it also blows kids’ hair back by reflecting the people they know in an honest way that few things in the media do, and it takes those glimmers of recognition and amps them up to maximum degradation in order to give the more impressionable members of the audience something to aspire to. Youth culture moves fast, but almost twenty years after its release, kids can still watch Kids and be shocked at how sick it is—and that’s why you can still periodically hear them quoting that they want to buy ladies corn dogs, when most of them probably aren’t even aware that Hollywood actor Justin Timberlake used to be in a band called ‘N Sync. Less people remember Korine’s debut as a director, Gummo, and that’s kind of a shame, because not only is it quite a bit more shocking than Kids, it’s also far more interesting and experimental […]

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Basic Instinct 2

When you think about 90s pop culture, you have to think about Paul Verhoeven’s 1992 erotic thriller, Basic Instinct. That movie dropped like a bomb, dominating the entertainment news cycle for months and inspiring years worth of parodies. Its success didn’t come because Michael Douglas’ cop character investigating a murder made for all that interesting a story, or because Verhoeven orchestrated the thing all that well either. It came almost solely because people were so shocked by the content. There were threesomes, ice pick murders, and, of course, there was that interrogation scene where you could catch the briefest glimpse of Sharon Stone’s vagina if you turned your head sideways and squinted. The 90s were more innocent times—before the near daily release of celebrity sex tapes—so this was intense stuff, and Basic Instinct made a mint off the scandal. Two years later, a sporadically working director named Richard Rush tried to cash in on the trashy erotic thriller craze by making Color of Night, a murder story that starred Bruce Willis as a troubled psychologist dealing with the killing of his best friend, and a cast of colorful psychiatric patients that served as the suspects. Like Basic Instinct, the film focused on kinks and perversions of all sorts, and seeing as Willis’ character eventually begins to enjoy the company of a free-spirited minx played by Jane March, it had plenty of saucy nudity too. But the trashy erotic thriller craze proved to be short lived, because, despite the fact that […]

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Slap Shot

Ever since I became a full-fledged movie geek (which happened sometime between Kevin Smith filming a bunch of unknowns playing hockey on the roof of a convenience store and Doug Liman filming Vince Vaughn making Wayne Gretzky’s head bleed), it’s seemed to me that there’s been some strange connection between being a film buff and being a hockey fan. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that hockey is always our least popular major sport and most people only pay attention to it when their home team is doing well in the playoffs, much in the same way that they only pay attention to art films when it’s Oscar time. There’s something scruffy and outside the norm about movie geeks, and there’s something scruffy and outside the norm about hockey, so the two see a lot of overlap. That general scruffiness explains why the go-to hockey movie for people who really like hockey and really like movies has always been Slap Shot, the 1977 comedy from director George Roy Hill that stars Paul Newman as the aging player/coach of a down on their luck minor league hockey team. It’s not about the players with the most potential or the biggest hearts, it’s about the scruffy rejects who earn their notoriety by becoming the detestable goons and enforcers of the league. These guys don’t beat your team by out-skating your best players, they beat your team by pounding your best players so hard that they can’t play. Fans of […]

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Austin Powers

When Mike Myers‘ SNL skit, Wayne’s World, got spun off into a successful feature film in 1992, he kind of lucked himself into a transition from TV to movies. When he tried to anchor a film all by himself after that though, we got So I Married an Axe Murderer, and that wasn’t nearly as successful. Thankfully for him, that wasn’t the end of Myers’ story, because in 1997 he got another chance to star in a movie, and this time it was in a project that he wrote himself, a project that was tailored to play to all of his strengths as a performer. Said movie was Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, a film so successful that it spawned two sequels, including Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, which got Myers’ Scottish schtick out into the public and likely led to his starring in the Shrek movies. Wayne’s World may have got the guy into the public eye, but it was Austin Powers that made him a gajillionaire. A year after Myers hit it big with Austin Powers, another SNL alumni got his big chance to star in a feature film. This time around the comedian was Norm MacDonald, and the movie was Dirty Work. Much like Austin Powers before it, Dirty Work was written by its star, and much like that movie, it crafted him a character that played to his unique strengths. Unfortunately, MacDonald’s strengths lie in super-dry deliveries and biting sarcasm, and that didn’t speak […]

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Laura

Film from the ’40s is perhaps best remembered for all of the dark and moody crime dramas it produced that kicked off the film noir genre. Hundreds of films full of fog, dicks, and dames have been made over the years, but really there are only an elite handful that stand the test of time as the big ones everyone thinks of when they think about noir. 1946’s The Big Sleep is definitely one of those films, and seeing as it was directed by the legendary Howard Hawks, it stars the iconic duo of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, it was adapted from a Raymond Chandler novel, and it features one of the most famous fictional detectives of all time, Philip Marlowe, it’s not hard to understand why that’s the case. This thing has pedigree to spare. Laura, an Otto Preminger-directed film from two years earlier, doesn’t quite share the same reputation. Though Preminger is certainly an accomplished director in his own right, he’s not one of the few quintessential masters that modern audiences still name drop the way Hawks is. And though its stars—especially Gene Tierney and Clifton Webb—are all fine actors who had lengthy careers, their names haven’t passed into legend the way Bogart and Bacall’s have. Admittedly, Vincent Price lends Laura some modern day notability, but the point I’m trying to make is, despite the fact that film historians largely dig what Preminger accomplished here, Laura isn’t the sort of movie that lives on in the public […]

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Over Under - Large

Cameron Crowe is one of those directors who people just love. He’s made some stinkers along with with his good movies though, so when people talk to you about how much they love Cameron Crowe, generally what they mean is that they loved Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. Or maybe even Say Anything, if they’re old school. Generally speaking, however, Jerry Maguire is Crowe’s big hit. This Tom Cruise-starring tale of a sports agent who experiences a moral epiphany got great reviews, became part of the pop culture lexicon of the late ’90s, and made about five times as much as Crowe’s next best loved film…give or take a bunch of millions or so. To call it a success would be putting things lightly. Gore Verbinski is another director who’s amassed a pretty loyal following, despite having made a couple of stinkers. When people say that they like his movies, generally they mean that they’re into the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie or Rango, or maybe they might even mean Mouse Hunt, if they’re the hip sort who likes to go back to the deep cuts. Certainly they very rarely mean that they like his strange followup to his runaway Pirates success, 2005’s Nicolas Cage-starring The Weather Man. It got mixed-to-scathing reviews, didn’t make a blip on the pop culture radar, and brought in pretty much zero money. Which is weird because—oh, my God—it’s basically the best movie ever.

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Over Under - Large

Ask any movie geek what their favorite horror movie is, and there’s a good chance they might say Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Ask them what their favorite war movie is, and there’s a good chance they might say Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Stanley Kubrick is just that kind of director. Perhaps his most beloved movie ever though is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ask any movie geek what their favorite sci-fi film is, and it’s very likely they’re going to name drop this tale of evolved apes, space ships, murderous computers, and space babies. It’s got very deliberate, very beautiful photography, it’s long and slow paced, and it contains plenty of subtext that’s ripe for dissection. This movie is basically movie geek catnip, and it’s become so popular over the years that even regular folk who don’t know much about movies are aware that it’s considered to be one of the top “classics” of all-time. A similar movie that was much-loved by film geeks but that hasn’t broken through to having mainstream recognition among regular folk is Duncan Jones’ directorial debut from 2009, Moon. Here’s a movie that has quite a bit in common with 2001 as far as look, feel, and thematics go, but that combines all of the good stuff from Kubrick’s art film with a human story that’s so much easier to follow and relate to. And yet, Moon is also a movie that came and went without causing so much as a ripple outside of the […]

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Over Under - Large

Sometime around fifteen years ago, A Christmas Story was something of a modern cult classic. It was kind of amusing and kind of off-beat, and you could make a connection with someone if you mentioned it and it turned out you both liked it. Or, at least, that’s how it was where I grew up, which was the area of Northwest Indiana where the story was set. A funny thing happened in the late ’90s, though. TNT started playing the movie on cable for 24 hours straight during Christmas, the concept caught on, and now, thirteen years later, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t know about Ralphie, his Red Rider BB gun, and Scut Farkus. But another funny thing happened, too. After so many years of repetition, the movie has started to feel a whole lot less quirky and fun. At this point, it’s probably the most overrated holiday movie ever, and all it takes is one person dropping quotes from it at a Christmas party to get me to make internal noises of frustration. Joe Dante’s Gremlins has had almost the exact opposite lifespan. It came out a year after A Christmas Story, was a pretty gigantic hit right away, and established itself as one of the iconic ’80s blockbusters quite quickly. But, over the course of the last couple decades, its influence has faded a bit. Despite the fact that the movie is set during Christmas, and is about the perfect Christmas present just as […]

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Over Under - Large

What’s the one thing every rundown apartment that a college sophomore is sharing with his five best friends and every $30m mansion that a famous rapper lives in for five months out of the year have in common? The Scarface poster they have framed on the wall in the living room. There are a handful of gangster films that have become modern classics – The Godfather and Goodfellas being the other main two – but in recent years, Brian De Palma’s Scarface has really pulled ahead of the pack when it comes to pop culture relevance and awareness among a younger generation. Which kind of makes sense, seeing as The Godfather and Goodfellas are better-made films that deal with more mature themes and Scarface is the sort of empty, flashy nonsense that would appeal to young people and rappers. Really, at this point, should Scarface even be mentioned in the conversation of great modern gangster movies anymore? It’s got a lot of issues. Jacques Audiard’s 2009 prison epic, Un prophète, isn’t necessarily underrated in the sense that the people who saw it didn’t like it, but it’s underrated in the sense that not nearly enough people, at least in the United States, have seen it. Here we have one of those rare films that is just artsy enough to be respected by film snobs and just entertaining enough to be enjoyed by more casual audiences that it could conceivably become a perennial top contender when it comes to widely agreed […]

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Over Under - Large

While inspirational sports stories usually prove to be box office draws, when you make them you still run the risk of alienating the portion of the film-going audience who just don’t like sports. If someone doesn’t like basketball or football, how do you get them to sit through a story where people play basketball or football for two hours? Brad Pitt’s 2011 starring vehicle, Moneyball, was hyped by its fans as being a baseball story that anybody could get into. Its focus was more on statistics and science stuff than it was gameplay. It was more about bucking the system than it was winning the big game. And at its heart was a story about a failed man reclaiming his life and growing as an individual. There’s no need to be into baseball to enjoy all of that stuff, right? Major League, conversely, is a 1989 comedy that was aimed squarely at baseball fans. If you didn’t know about the Cleveland Indians’ pathetic standing in the league, if you didn’t have a long-standing relationship with hearing Bob Uecker’s voice talk about the game, and if you didn’t know the ins-and-outs of each position and exactly what it takes to be bad at playing them, then a lot of the movie’s charms were likely going to be lost on you. And if you could care less about whether or not the Indians beat the Yankees in the championship game, would you even be able to get anything out of watching this […]

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Over Under - Large

The 90s were a dark decade for fun stuff aimed at teens and tweens. Grunge music and gangsta rap ruled the airwaves, and young people were into acting sullen and disturbed. Any entertainment that could be considered kiddie or corporate was rejected outright in favor of culture stuff that was gritty and dark. But, by 1999, change was in the air. The prevailing trends of the decade had run their course, boy bands and Britney Spears started showing up on the radio, and the first movie that attempted to bring back the raunchy teenage sex comedy, American Pie, became a runaway success that launched a long-lived, multi-film franchise. Kurt Cobain was dead, long live Stifler. In 2005 Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale got a lot of attention in the world of indie and art films, much of it due to the performance of its lead actor, a young kid named Jesse Eisenberg. Over the next few years Eisenberg’s fame rose as he accrued another handful of indie credits, and eventually his career hit a peak when he anchored a mainstream horror comedy in Zombieland, and then got to work with one of the biggest directors in the business, David Fincher, on The Social Network. After Eisenberg played Zuckerberg it was official, the guy was a bonafide celebrity. But, despite his fame, one of his earliest films, 2002’s Roger Dodger, still hasn’t been seen by very many people, and very rarely gets brought up even in film geek circles, […]

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Over Under - Large

By the time 1993 rolled around, Tim Burton already had projects like Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands under his belt, and had firmly established himself as an auteur director of quirky, weird films. It was probably that year’s The Nightmare Before Christmas – a movie that Burton produced and didn’t even direct – that firmly established him as being a filmmaker with a cult of personality following, and has become his most enduring work, however. A stop-motion animated feature directed by Henry Selick (with strong creative input from Burton) and produced by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, The Nightmare Before Christmas mixed up Halloween and Christmas imagery in iconic ways (Mickey Mouse has his fingers in all the holiday pies), it captured the imaginations of an entire generation, and it can still be seen advertised all over the backpacks and binders of eyeliner wearing teenagers to this day. That same year another Halloween-themed family film came out of another wing of the Disney conglomerate called Hocus Pocus. But, despite that fact that it starred a trio of actresses who were fairly big names at the time, it hasn’t enjoyed nearly as much attention over the years as Nightmare. And, unless you happen to be a devotee of the movie Newsies (which I know some of you are), chances are you’ve never heard of its director, Kenny Ortega. Sure, Hocus Pocus still gets played on the Disney channel around Halloween every year, as it’s probably cheap programming for the company, but […]

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