Take Five
By George Rose
June 9, 2009

It's Ms. Master Chief!

How do we know what's fate and what's coincidence? I am one of a small group of Americans that is of pure Greek ancestry (all four of my grandparents were born and raised there). By some act of fate or coincidence, my older brother is engaged to a girl of... pure Greek ancestry? Yes, he is. No, it does not make life any easier for his three siblings who probably won't find partners with any, let alone ALL, Greek blood running through their veins. It doesn't bother us that we won't marry Greeks ourselves but his luck (or coincidence, or fate, or secret hidden arrangement, whatever it is) sure has made our parents realize how possible it is, and if it's possible and the American Melting Pot still allows for pure Greek unions then why aren't we jumping on the bandwagon?

Do we choose who we love or is it all predetermined by the Man (or Woman) upstairs? I don't know, not even a little bit. What I do know is that this wedding will be massive. Oh, did I mention that my brother's fiancee's family is from the same town in Greece as my maternal grandparents? This wedding will be recognized in two countries with two families rallying the troops for an all night bash of My Big Fat Greek Wedding proportions (yes, much of the movie is accurate and no, the country of Greece does not recognize Windex to be the end-all-be-all of cures).

Is it a coincidence or fate that I made a My Big Fat Greek Wedding reference on the same weekend that Nia Vardalos, star of the film, had a new Greek-oriented movie released? Actually, the reference was choice, but it wasn't up to me how well My Life in Ruins would perform. As it turns out, the result was as poor as her other post-Greek Wedding attempt, Connie and Carla. Let's chalk that one up to fate, since she's proving to be a one-hit-wonder.

Something else was released this past weekend that audiences avoided in droves, Will Ferrell's Land of the Lost. I'm more inclined to chalk that failure up to coincidence, since Will usually brings home the bacon and the dinosaur subject matter seemed to have appeal. After the coin was flipped, it landed on "Failure of Bewitched Proportions", which is sad because his promotional stints leading up to the release were quite funny, namely the Saturday Night Live season finale and teaming up with Bear Grylls for an episode Men vs Wild. Or maybe something else prevented it from becoming a breakout success...

The big winner of the weekend was The Hangover, a comedy that relied on laughs instead of big name stars and digital effects. Initially I would have said the bachelor party flick wasn't fated to be a hit, since most people couldn't recall anything about the production other than a funny trailer. Bradley Cooper has been on my radar since Wedding Crashers and Justin Bartha has been on it since National Treasure but the general public is only just now remembering them. Their time has come and they've paid their dues. These men deserve to be stars and have the smiles to back it up.

However, my initial decision was changed. I now believe this film was destined to be massive. Not because the numbers say it but because my brother's very own bachelor party was this past weekend as well. I saw The Hangover on Thursday night at midnight, knowing I would be too busy in Atlantic City over the weekend to catch the movie, and was thrilled from the very first scene. The movie is hilarious, packed with unexpected jokes and the perfect film to see hours before heading off to my brother's bachelor party. Because of The Hangover, I wanted nothing more than to wreak havoc on Atlantic City, kidnap a tiger and/or a child, lose the groom-to-be, throw down with some gangsters and accidentally get hitched myself. None of those things ended up happening but I was drunk and obnoxious for two solid days. Like the film, the pictures found at the end up the trip not only filled the memory-lost gaps of the weekend but ended up providing some of the best laughs.

Life, love, movies, critics and all the rest are products of coincidence, fate AND choice. We'll never know which has the most influence but we always know one thing: how the outcome feels. The Hangover and the bachelor party left me feeling great (albeit a bit hungover myself), no matter what made them such massive successes on the same weekend. I love my brother and his fiancé as individuals and as a pair, no matter what brought them together. And for some unknown reason, I often find myself loving movies that others reviewed poorly or that audiences avoided, despite my equal interest in "critically acclaimed" or "blockbuster" movies.

Last week's Take Five was an example of this blind love. As my fellow BOP writers were kind enough to point out, I am one of few people who enjoyed The Cell. Do I think it's a masterpiece? No. Did I enjoy it? Absolutely. Was it one of the first movies that I stumbled on while watching our newly installed Fios cable? It would have to be in order for me to recommend it. There really is no method to my madness. I don't have a list of my favorite moves that I take five from every week, I don't think my selections are for everyone, I don't think Oscars should be awarded to all that I pick and I sure don't claim to be the best critic (though I very well may be).

But whether it be choice, coincidence or fate, I love watching and writing about movies (and a little about myself too, of course). The good, the bad, the old, the new, the funny films, the horror films, the indies, the blockbusters... the whole spectrum is on my list. But I can promise you one thing: I will never recommend a movie I personally think is outright awful and will try my best to point out the inadequacies of the films I do still enjoy and recommend. Let's see what I have in store for this week.

Cabaret (1972)

For those who wished I would suggest an "older classic" every now and then (though not one everyone has heard of, like Gone With the Wind), I offer you the musical Cabaret. I probably would have never watched it if I wasn't forced to for a Theater class I took in college but was thankful for the experience afterwards. Liza Minnelli stars as Sally Bowles, a cabaret dancer working at the "Kit-Kat Club" in Berlin. Set in the 1930s during a period of economic and political struggle, the singer must deal with the unrest of the nation while juggling two affairs. One is with a bisexual man named Brian, a man she falls in love with. The other is a wealthy man named Max, who seduces both Sally and Brian. Now THAT'S a love triangle.

I won't give away too much but will tell you that the movie won eight Academy Awards and, more importantly, made me realize why Liza Minnelli was even a star. Other than the knowledge that she is the daughter of Judy Garland and had a bit of a drug problem, I didn't know too much about her. While Cabaret informed me she was a star, with her powerful vocals and radiant personality, it was her supporting role on Arrested Development that made me genuinely like her. She may come off as eccentric and a bit crazy (remember her marriage to David Gest?) but the woman is a fine actress. She more than earned her Oscar for Cabaret and helped in proving why I (and other young aspiring film buffs) should be watching more of the older classics.

Spaceballs (1987)

Ok, I'm finished satisfying my skeptics. Here's one for my homeboys. Seeing as how the world is familiar with Star Wars, there should be some widespread interest in a film that mocks it. It worked for the Scary Movie franchise and they were only mocking a genre that rarely pumps out $100+ million earners. Star Wars makes boatloads of money and has a fanbase that follows the famed far away galaxy across all the many mediums Lucas creates products for (video games, TV shows, books, toys, etc). If that isn't enough, being written and directed by the legendary Mel Brooks should be enough to entice. Surprisingly, Spaceballs wasn't a Skywalker-sized hit but it is still among the best spoofs of the brand (Family Guy's is also pretty darn funny).

The plot is completely different and most names only vaguely connect back to the character they represent but are all cast with fairly well known actors. Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) gets captured by Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) and President Skroob (Mel Brooks) after fleeing from her arranged wedding ceremony. Her father later enlists the help of the rebel Lone Starr (Bill Pullman) and the half-man-half-dog Barf (John Candy). With the help of Yogurt (also Mel Brooks), Lone Starr becomes master of his own "The Schwartz" and helps save the Princess and her planet Druidia from death. Joan Rivers also stars as the voice of Vespa's robot, Dot Matrix. The gags might be considered childish at times but if you're a fan of Star Wars, or even comedies in general, you should add Spaceballs to the top of your Netflix queue.

Fight Club (1999)

It's my understanding that when a film is released and is later deemed to have a "cult following," it is because nobody really saw it in theaters but was later discovered (and worshiped) by those that still rent movies. Since Netflix and OnDemand are quickly destroying the rental stores, I'm afraid newer films may never see the light of a cult-day. Each past generation has a few of their own cult favorites but one that everyone my age seems to know about (despite the film's poor box office performance) is Fight Club. I haven't read the Chuck Palahniuk book the film is based on but am a fan of the author (Haunted), the director (David Fincher) and the three leads (Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter). They were the only reasons I needed to rent the film and the bet paid off.

Edward Norton is "the narrator", a young professional who is bored to tears with his life and seeks comfort for his insomnia by attending local support groups. While there he meets Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), an equally distressed and lost soul. Life continues as usual until the narrator meets a traveling soap salesman named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Together they form an underground fight club, form a group known as Project Mayhem and start terrorizing the city with anti-capitalistic vandalism. Marla falls into the mix again after beginning a sexual relationship with Tyler, creating a hilarious love triangle that threatens to harm his friendship with the narrator.

The film isn't poop-joke funny but rather one that relies heavily on a satirical view of our society, which we probably deserve. The stars and director deliver their best and prove why they're all on the A-list, even if Helena is often overshadowed by her more-famous husband, Tim Burton. For those who haven't read the book, the movie delivers quite a twist. I didn't see it coming but afterwards, it makes perfect sense. Towards the end it starts to drag but the overall film is worth the experience. What's the first rule of Fight Club? Rent it.

Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

Poor Will Ferrell. He has such potential yet seems to have hired the worst casting agent in Hollywood. Of all the TV shows to base a movie on, he first chose Bewitched? Okay, raise your hand if you were part of the Bewitched crew that learned your lesson and decided to stop chasing the money in exchange for hunting down better scripts. Not so fast, Will. Land of the Lost, really? I know of only one person who saw it and they walked out, opting to sneak into the next show of The Hangover instead. That decision redeemed my friend's day.

Rather than jump on the family-movie bandwagon, Ferrell needs to either return to his raunchy comedy roots or try his hand at another serious film like Stranger Than Fiction. In it he plays Harold Crick, a monotonous, boring IRS agent who is out to audit Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a baker. The real entertainment kicks in when Harold begins hearing the voices of a narrator who is telling the story of his life. He soon learns that this voice isn't imaginary and belongs to an author (Emma Thompson) who is writing a book that happens to coincide with his life. When he discovers the story leads to his own death, he begins his search for the author with the help of a professor (Dustin Hoffman).

Despite the its serious nature, the movie is quite funny and touching. Ferrell delivers his deepest role and shows that he can actually act (he was nominated for a Golden Globe). While he is known for comedy, this might very well be my favorite movie of his. It's a beautiful love story that's about more than just changing the fate of the main character but also those around him. Ferrell needs to learn his Land of the Lost lesson and go back to trying his hand at new, unique projects. His new film may earn more than Stranger Than Fiction at the box office (barely) but it sure hasn't brought him any accolades.

Machine Girl (2008)

Did I write about an old classic? Check. A silly comedy? Check. A cult classic? Check. A tribute to an actor with a recent release? Check. Hmmm, what else could I suggest then that is completely different than the rest? I know! How about a Japanese made, English dubbed gore-fest? Check.

Machine Girl is a film I could barely make it through. Not because it was too long, not because it is a foreign film and not because it was boring. It's far from boring and never lets up on the action or deaths, but boy is it the goriest movie I have EVER seen. After the family of a young Japanese school girl is killed by a Ninja-Yakuza family, she is left alone and armless. She replaces her missing limb with various weapons (machine gun, chain saw, etc.) and goes on a vengeful killing spree. There are some wild and crazy deaths throughout the film, and while though they may not look realistic they are always entertaining. The movie is a bloodbath, so if you have a stomach weaker than mine you may not want to rent it, but if you enjoy the occasional film soaked in massacre and humor you may very well love Machine Girl.

The only reason I watched it was because my college roommate is a huge fan of all things Japanese and even went to Japan right after our recent graduation. When we weren't covering our eyes from the screen (some scenes really are just outright grotesque) we were laughing hysterically. It's a great film to bond over and not take seriously in the slightest. It may have been my choice to watch it but it was fate that brought me, my roommate and Machine Girl together. Does it really matter, though, if it was choice, fate or coincidence? Not really, because in the end I have a great movie going experience I get to remember with a friend I'll never forget. I hope watching movies helps bring you and your friends together the way it has for me. The choice to rent anything at all is up to you and now you have five additional recommendations, with another five a week away.