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Monthly Archives: April 2012

Gore porn (Hostel, Saw, etc . . . ) has taken over the scary movie market, and in that genre, the more grisly, authentic and perverse a killing, the better. There is never any question of escape for the protagonists. Almost all (if not all ) will be sacrificed, mutilated, or both so that a potential franchise is not suffocated in the crib.

Films that truly create a creepy sense of dread are dinosaurs. In The Exorcist, for example, none of William Friedken’s visual frights happen for nearly an hour. The head spinning, pea-soup vomiting and levitating all follow a rigorous exposition on the characters, the time, Catholic theology, medical inquiry and the growing mystery that surrounds a little girl who keeps getting sicker.  There is no chance such a film in its current form would be greenlit today. The best Friedken could hope for would be an early shot of pea-soup vomiting followed by flashback.

Sue me, but I’m a fan of horror film foreplay, which explains my enthusiasm for this years’ The Woman in Black and the Paranormal Activity films (I’ve seen 1 and 2, but not the third installment). The premise is simple. Modern day characters live in homes haunted by demons. The story is recorded ala’ The Blair Witch Project (in the first Paranormal film, one of the residents starts with a handheld camera and when things get spooky, sets up a few security cameras to validate his claims of the supernatural at work; in the second film, after the house is ransacked, the owners also install internal security cameras, supplemented by a teenage daughter’s video journal).

 The effect is chilling though very little happens for awhile. A hanging pot falls. Doors swing open. Shadows appear. And curious noises emit. In both films, however, the demon is aggravated even as we learn the source of its existence, and from there, things move with alarming speed.  Adding to the fear is the use of unknown actors.  Because they look like you in a wedding video or security cam, you feel more vulnerable.

Sure, some of their decisions are questionable.  But when demons infest your house, you’re allowed a few bad decisions.

This boring, blaring, hackneyed remake of The Poseidon Adventure cost $160 million to make and made $181 million at the box office.  It was nominated for a best visual effects Oscar, but I have questions:

1.  Who casts Kurt Russell as the former mayor of New York City?  San Pedro, maybe.  But The Big Apple?  Look at this guy?

2.  How good is Kevin Dillon?  He walks right in as Johnny Drama from HBO’s “Entourage”, says “Look at me, I’m Mr. Lucky” and then he dies.  $1 million?

3.  Fergie is the singer.  But she doesn’t sing “There’s Got to Be a Morning After.”  Huge mistake.

4.  I miss Shelly Winters.  Why couldn’t she cameo?  She died the year it was released, but still . . . .

5.  I liked Andre Braugher as the new captain.  But why he didn’t get to say “Oh My God” as the wave hit, like Leslie Neilson?

Now this was a movie

In 1998, Don Roos came out of the gate with The Opposite of Sex, one of the funnier comedies of the 1990s.  As a reward, he got to helm a big budget romance with a promising story.  A playboy gives his plane ticket to a husband/father so the husband/father can be a good Dad and the playboy can make a girl at the airport bar.  The plane goes down.  The playboy is affected and insinuates himself into the widow’s life.

First problems first.  The playboy is Ben Affleck.  Affleck has found his way as a director (Gone Baby Gone and The Town are really fine films) and when acting, he is best in an ensemble – a little goes a long way.  But Bounce came out when they were trying to make Affleck a lead, which he is not.  He is a leaden, two-trick pony (the eyes welling with tears; the set jaw).  Affleck is the best friend, not the lead.  He can occasionally rise to the occasion, but he is no more than a big, good-looking lightstepper.

Paltrow, who prior to her strange incarnation as a country singer, could lead, is weighed down by a script that requires her to lament and panic at almost every turn.  She is less and less sympathetic as she veers into the territory of mentally unbalanced.  Perhaps this is because she is being stalked by Affleck, who has decided to change his debauched ways on the back of the husband’s death.  The effect is creepy and doesn’t lend itself to a love story.

Clive Owen seemed such a natural choice to replace Pierce Brosnan as James Bond.  His breakout performance in the small budget Croupier even had him sporting a tuxedo in a casino.  But Owen passed, the role went to Daniel Craig, and “Bond was back!”

Except, Bond wasn’t back.  Daniel Craig and the creators of his movies turned their collective backs on a bunch of Bond movie staples.  Gone were the ridiculous gadgets, women named “Pussy” and “Goodhead”, painful puns and villains with designs to dominate and/or destroy the world.  Admittedly, Mike Myers’s Dr. Evil killed the last trope, which is a shame, because I’m less interested in villains with mere monetary designs.  But the advent of Craig signaled the death of a Bond audiences had come to know and tire of.

Instead, Craig brought us a hard, lean and rough Bond, a killer, but a smart, quick killer.  It was noteworthy that the first chase scene in Casino Royale is not by car, plane or boat, but on-foot, a dizzying, physical sequence where Bond chases down one man.  The suave and debonair is gone, as is evidenced by a drink order:

Like George Lazenby in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, however, Craig is introduced as a Bond who falls in love.  We see another side, briefly, and then thankfully (I prefer Bond unencumbered), we see what he will be going forward (we didn’t get that option with Lazenby, who apparently thought he had a brighter future than Bond had to offer).

Paul Haggis wrote Million Dollar Baby and Letters from Iwo Jima, and he won the Oscar for Best Screenplay for Crash.  He also wrote Casino Royale, which is interesting, well-paced and modern as opposed to cute and campy.

Also gone are the bevy of beauties, with the Bond girl being, generally, the least dumb.  Instead, we get a quick-witted Eva Green, who is a match for Bond intellectually and thankful that she lacks his innate brutality.

Best, Casino Royale brought back the gorgeous locales.  Prague, Nassau, Montenegro and Venice are featured.

An alien drops into the middle of a South London mugging (5 public housing thugs are dispossessing a young woman of her belongings).  The alien is a cross between a wolf and Gollum.  The boys chase it down and kill it.  Apparently, it was well-thought of, because shortly thereafter, a whole bunch of these things come from space for revenge.  Good, scary fun, a few good lines, and tense action sequences, not terribly marred by some unnecessary suggestions of the poor plight of London’s youth, forced to mug and terrorize by the inequities of an uncaring society.

It is hard to find a worse sports movie than the hackneyed and overwrought Remember the Titans, but after I saw Glory Road, I was almost wistful for the homespun wisdom of Denzel Washington and the beatific look on Will Patton’s face (as racial understanding dawns upon him).

No matter what you may think of the delivery of Remember the Titans, and I think very little of it, with a few exceptions, it hewed to actual historical events.  There was a high school football team in Alexandria, Virginia.  The school was recently desegregated.  The team did get a black coach and he did make the whites sit with blacks on the bus and the team did win the championship.  Sure, the film exaggerated racial tensions, but that much is to be expected.  It can’t be “feel good” if at first we don’t “feel bad.”

Glory Road is every bit as maudlin and formulaic as Remember the Titans (both films were produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, blast Motown, show the trading of racial culture between young men in the form of dance moves, and teach us valuable lessons about what’s “in here”) but it is also a perversion of history that goes way over the line.  Yes, 5 black men played on the 1965-66 Texas Western NCAA winning basketball team and they were coached by Don Haskins.  This much is true.

But it wasn’t that big of a deal.  A decade before Texas Western won, the undefeated 1955-56 University of San Francisco team won the NCAA championship with a team that played four blacks — Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Hal Perry and Gene Brown.  In 1958, the coaches’ All-American team was all black — Wilt Chamberlain of Kansas, Oscar Robertson of Cincinnati, Bob Boozer of Kansas State, Guy Rodgers of Temple and Elgin Baylor of Seattle.  In 1962, the University of Cincinnati started four black players when it won the NCAA championship.  Loyola University of Chicago started four when it won in 1963.

We also have the sports announcer screaming, “Who ever heard of Texas Western?”

Texas Western was a regional third place finisher in the 1964 NCAAs.

So, that sucks, but it gets worse.

The reason 5 black players got the start (and 7 played) was mundane – Haskins thought they were the best players.  Not so in the film.  Instead, we get some p.c. twaddle wherein Haskins tips his desire to make a statement to the team and the white players actually agree not to play so a larger societal point can be made.

How the screenwriter came to the conclusion that it was more edifying to make the achievement a gift from whites rather than earned by blacks, well . . . that’s for another day.

Here’s the trailer.  Try not to weep:

I had dinner with a critic friend, David Ehrenstein, around the time this picture was released.  He said something to the effect of, “A movie about these people had not been done yet.  It was its time.”  He was right, but before getting to the film, I wanted to note that the folks who did publicity for Curtis Hanson’s follow-up to L.A. Confidential should have been lined up and shot.   The previews portrayed the movie as a screwball comedy with a bespectacled Michael Douglas playing a wise and ultimately grating character, a classier Weird Science with a bigger star.

Wonder Boys is nothing as it was presented.  Instead, it is a literate comedy of manners with the setting of higher education, and it is principally about the businesses of teaching and writing.  Douglas is a professor working on his second novel (his first, a successful work, was published seven years prior), which has ballooned to a deathless 2200 pages.  His agent (Robert Downey, Jr.) is en route to WordFest, a weekend of literary activities, to read the novel.  In the meantime, Douglas is dealing with one peculiar but gifted student (Tobey Maguire), one gorgeuous student, who also happens to rent a room in his house and who is coming on to him (Katie Holmes), and the chancellor of the department, with whom he is having an affair (Frances McDormand).  Bad thing upon bad thing happens, but within the very funny travails, Hanson develops strong relationships between the characters.  He also gives more than a glimpse into the soul of writing and teaching, and Douglas actually grows, and grows convincingly, given what could have been events offered solely for their madcap nature.

The film also makes great use of the city of Pittsburgh, which has always deserved better than —

Four things. First, I really have no idea as to the historical accuracy of the movie. To the extent there are historical nits to pick, I concede.

Second, this is two films.  One, very personal and touching, speaking to the loss of a loved one and an individual’s weakening faculty to remember, a great thinker’s ability to articulate and rationalize.   Meryl Streep’s turn as a woman being infected by Alzheimer’s is frightening, poignant and moving.

Third, it works less well as a political biography.  The young Thatcher is a simplistic spouter of conservative bromides.   As prime minister, she’s almost ridiculously “iron” with the men about her always clucking like nervous nellies.  Worse, particular challenges are handled via music video montages and newsreel footage. It lends a certain cheap and easy feel to the endeavor.  The only exception is The Falklands, and even there, she is the lone Joan of Arc amidst jelly bellies.  Speech follows speech, with great, grand pronouncement. It gets silly.  We even have the obligatory review of the casualty figures and the personal letter-writing histrionics. It is a nice primer on basic conservatism and as set forth by Streep, very attractive. But my political sympathies can’t mask bad storytelling.

Fourth, Meryl Streep is beyond convincing in the role and when assessing the body of her work, the idea that she is not the finest actress in the history of film is laughable.  There is no Magic Johnson to her Michael Jordan. It’s not even close. And she only gets better.  As the nun in Doubt, she completely captured the nuns of my early education, and as Julia Child in Julia and Julia, a role that like Thatcher could have been hammy and overt, she was vibrant and real.

This is a charming first love story, different in that the first love is Marilyn Monroe and her suitor is a third assistant director (a glorified gofer) on her 1957 picture The Prince and the Showgirl.  The picture co-starred and was directed by Laurence Olivier, who is played by Kenneth Branagh.  Branagh was fine and nominated, though I’m not sure deservedly so.  His primary posture is one of exasperation.

It is Monroe who exasperates Olivier, because she is tardy, skittish, unprofessional and seemingly over-handled by her method acting coach and her business manager.  Pills are used to control her.  Thus, she seeks companionship and escape with the gofer, played with wide-eyed innocence but occasional steel by Eddie Redmayne (Redmayne is a little distracting – he has lips that rival the collagen-induced monstrosities of Barbara Hershey, Meg Ryan, at al.)

Williams was nominated and deservedly so.  She’s a perfect confluence of beauty, sensuality, naivete’ and whore.  At times, she was so stunning that you could understand the entire Monroe worship.

Best, the story is sweet but not sugary, and economical.  It also has a great sense of time and sports some nice supporting turns by Dominic Cooper and Toby Jones as her weasel management and especially Julia Ormond as Olivier’s aging and jealous wife at the time, Vivien Leigh.  Leigh is obviously wary of Olivier working with Monroe which results in a great exchange with the smitten gofer:

VIVIEN

Of course, Larry would never leave me. (Pause) But, if anything were to happen, you would let me know, wouldn’t you?

COLIN

I’m sure he loves you very much.

There is a flash of sudden anger in her expression.

VIVIEN

Oh, don’t be such a boy!

COLIN looks shaken and she touches his hand in contrition.

VIVIEN (cont’d)

At least you still adore me, don’t you?

COLIN

Of course. Everyone does.

There is a wintry bleakness in her face for a second.

VIVIEN

I’m 43, darling. No one will love me for much longer. Not even you.

To the extent there is a weakness in the picture, however, it is implicit in the character of Monroe and not the film.  Monroe is so iconic as to be both beguiling and ridiculous.  Her end was tragic and elicits the syrup ladled out by Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” (which can be dusted off and updated for a Princess Di and had Elton and she been friends, probably Anna Nicole Smith).  Luckily, we are spared the cruelties that lay in store for Marilyn, but the film does take for granted her absolute boundless and radiating talent.

It’s a tough sell.  Monroe was beautiful and seductive and had the ditzy blond bit down pat.  But had she not been such a notorious pain in the and piece of ass, vexing Olivier and Gable and bedding DiMaggio, Miller and two Kennedys, would she be the goddess of today or . . . Anna Farris?

This is a ridiculous feel good comedy about a charming, trusting stoner (Paul Rudd, so open he sells marijuana to a uniformed policeman who professes to having a bad week) forced to live at home with his mother and then with his witches brew of sisters (Emily Watson, Parkey Posey and Zooey Deschanel).  Hijinks and family drama ensue.

Admittedly, this is not a great sell job for this picture.  But the movie is carried by Rudd, whose innocence and good-naturedness are both attractive and believable.  There are also some pretty amusing scenes.  The drug bust is deft, and Rudd’s meetings with his jaded parole officer are also funny.  Deschanel, who plays the artistic sister who wants to be some sort or stand-up comic, is winning, and her performances in what appear to be a NYC basement bar have a real authentic feel, in that she is not funny and the crowd of 7 people watching her is 85% her family.   Adam Scott, as the love interest of Posey, is also excellent.  I’m not sure there is a funnier guy in formulaic comedies than Scott (his asshole brother in Step Brothers is legend).

Posey, as the unscrupulous celebrity interviewer and Watson, as the earth mother sister whose husband (an unpleasant Steve Coogan) is cheating on her, are tedious cartoons, but once Rudd re-enters the movie, all is well again.

The film, however, is stolen by T.J. Miller as a stoner who replaced Rudd by taking up with his woman when Rudd went to jail.  Miller is a gentle soul, just like Rudd, and that they pair up at the end of the picture to start a candle making business is not a spoiler.  It just had to be.