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Monthly Archives: April 2013

At its best, ParaNorman is a funny, clever and visually appealing stop-motion animated feature about a boy who must save his town from the emergence of zombies.  Unfortunately, the characters are a bit stock and thin (the zombies, who are cursed for having wrongly hung a witch back in the day, are the most realized of all the characters).  Worse, it bangs away “lessons” about bullying.  It also continues the recent trend of making almost all adults stupid, cruel and retrograde (Frankenweenie) and likening the world they have created to a gross, materialistic craphole (The Lorax, WALL-E, Happy Feet).

Mostly enjoyable, but the unsubtle p.c. preaching should stay in public schools where it belongs.

Quentin Tarantino’s bona fides, established by the success of Reservoir Dogs, led to production of his script for Tony Scott’s overpraised and over-copied True Romance, a deafening whiz-bang, shoot ’em up.  A comic book store clerk in Detroit, Clarence (Christian Slater) happens upon a whore named Alabama (Patricia Arquette) in a movie theater during a triple feature of kung fu flicks.  Alabama likes kung fu flicks, a true romance is born, and Slater is driven to confront her pimp (Gary Oldman, playing black), in the process unknowingly stealing a million dollars worth of cocaine from the mob. He and Alabama are soon off to L.A. to sell the coke, and bloodshed ensues.

Tarantino’s voice is dominant, and we get a steady dose of racial epithets, tough guy jargon borrowed from previous genres, movie references (two on Steve McQueen) and the like. On the plus side, we also get a few taut and funny exchanges, the best being the fencing between Slater’s father (Dennis Hopper) and the mob underboss (Christopher Walken)

Unfortunately, the actors all appear to be vying for the Best Supporting Actor in a Quirky Scene of Tarantinoesque Patter, and many are not up to the task. Hyped-up cops Tom Sizemore and Chris Penn are particularly awful, but Gary Oldman’s excess nears embarrassing and Saul Rubinek’s Hollywood producer is a tiresome cliche’ of every oily movie mogul you’ve ever seen in film. While Walken and Hopper can do something with Tarantino’s writing, they are aided by their set piece scene, which is essentially two monologues. Those who are asked to act have a rougher go.

Which bring me to the leads. Slater handles the tough-guy patois but there’s no heart. He’s a loser but doesn’t feel like one. He’s a tough guy but doesn’t project. Mainly, he’s a nasally Nicholson wannabe who becomes increasingly grating. Arquette is better, but she’s not good, nor is she much more convincing. Her “whore with a heart of gold” is trite and cloying, and it isn’t until a later scene, where she fights for her life with the psychotic hit man James Gandolfini (in prep for Tony Soprano), that she communicates any depth.

Recently deceased director Scott (Top Gun, Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State and numerous other flashy, soulless action pictures) papers over the dull leads with a brisk pace, but his super shootout clusterfu** of a finale is laughable. It’s hard to identify what is worse – the implausibility, the slo-mo explosions, or the fluttering feathers from shot up pillows – but coupled with Tarantino’s by now played out macho dialogue (before an execution, Penn actually says, “this is for Cody”), this is as bad as it gets. Sadly, this kind of thing spawned a generation of allegedly hip, super violent copycat films.


There has been a cataclysmic war. Aliens destroyed our moon leaving earth ravaged and uninhabitable.  While we won the war, the victory was pyrrhic, as we were forced to abandon earth to a few remaining aliens. In our new home in space, we need seawater, and the massive machines that suck it up are threatened by these aliens. Accordingly, earth is monitored and protected by drones, which are monitored and maintained by Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough.

But all is not as it seems. Spoilers follow.

1) the aliens threatening the seawater suckers are actually humans, and earth is actually habitable.

2) we didn’t win the war. We lost. Cruise and Riseborough are clones of two humans captured by the aliens. Hence, Cruise is always having dreams and flashbacks of pre-war earth. Which makes him curious. Which makes him increasingly problematic. Which makes him singularly the worst choice an alien could make to monitor earth.

The choice of clones who can dream and recollect their past is the least of the aliens’ ineptitude. When Cruise turns, and flies his vessel into the alien planet/ship, the alien (voiced by Melissa Leo) —

A. Allows Cruise to come into the planet/ship even though he’s clearly gone rogue

B. Detects that Cruise is nervous and lying, but does not detect that he has brought a big bomb with him.

Cruise actually seems to be telegraphing how ridiculous the film is as he acts. His face says, “Wait. This makes no sense. Does this makes sense to you?”

It’s also sloppy. When our Cruise gets bashed in the face, he gets a cut on his nose and a scrape on his cheek. Later, he meets one of his clones and pretends to be that clone. So he goes back to a Risenborough clone, and she doesn’t say, “hey, what happened to your face?”

On the plus side, Riseborough is beautiful.

These days, my son makes me watch pieces of these Adam Sandler films now that they are on the regular cable rotation.  It appears to be some kind of social experiment.  I watch the movies, which purport to be comedies, and I don’t laugh.  My son watches me.  If I do laugh, which is rare, he mocks me for having laughed.  At the end of a particular segment, we shake our heads, and then, when we have time to reflect, we ponder larger questions:

Does Adam Sandler make the least funny movies ever made?  It’s hard to come to any other conclusion but yes.  Add Bedtime Stories, Billy Madison, Click, Just Go With It, The Waterboy, Little Nicky, 50 First Dates, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, Mr. Deeds, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Bulletproof, Anger Management, and Big Daddy.  There’s barely a laugh in any of them, though I am partial to some parts of Happy Gilmore, and The Wedding Singer was cute.  But that was 1996 and 1998, respectively.

Does Sandler have any films that reflect well on his talent?  Two. He was apt in Paul Thomas Anderson’s underrated Punch Drunk Love, and Judd Apatow’s similarly underrated Funny People was greatly reliant on his ability to play himself (a mega star comedian who makes crappy movies).

Is there a major star less deserved of his success?  No.

Is there a major star more loyal to his pals?  No.  If there is one thing consistent in Sandler’s films, other than being unfunny, it is the presence of his regulars: Allen Covert (15 Sandler films), Jonathan Loughren (13 Sandler films), Peter Dante (11 Sandler films), Blake Clark (9), Rob Schneider (10), Nick Swarsdon (8), Steve Buscemi (7) and Dennis Dugan (7 as actor, 8 as director).  So, he’s probably a pretty nice guy.

Why is Sandler fascinated with sex and old women?  I won’t catalogue all the examples, but randy oldsters getting it on with folks 50 years their junior is heavy in his films, and it is unpleasant and intriguing. He may have noticed it, because in That’s My Boy, he went the other way.

Which film goes the longest without eliciting a laugh? Grown Ups, which is a little surprising, because Sandler is supported by a bevy of other comedians. But there really isn’t a hearty laugh in this picture, and hooray! Part Two is in post-production.

The first of Sergio Leone’s “Spaghetti Western” trilogy with Clint Eastwood’s “Man with no Name”, A Fistful of Dollars was actually shot in Spain. I guess “Paella Western” wasn’t an option.

Eastwood comes to a town at war. Two families seek the upper hand, and Eastwood shuttles between one and the other for the cash.

The picture sports the tell-tale Ennio Morricone score, featured in the opening credits:

As fun as it can be, the movie is a bit stilted. Leone’s visuals are ambitious but his sweep is not yet broad, and like Sean Connery as James Bond in Dr. No, Eastwood is still working on his persona and lacks gravitas (interestingly, Eastwood was Leone’s eight or ninth choice, behind Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and others). The entire cast, Eastwood excluded, is foreign and the dubbing is spotty (in the case of a crying child, I was immediately reminded of the dubbing in the Japanese animated series, Speed Racer).

This film ends up being a critical warm-up to the better For a Few Dollars More and its classic follow-up, The Good, the Bad and The Ugly.

Tim Burton hasn’t declined so much as remained spotty.  Last year’s Frankenweenie was in his animated wheelhouse, but his two previous films were the excessive and dull Alice in Wonderland and the truly awful and unfunny Dark Shadows.  Before those films, however, was Burton’s first live musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a rich, dark rendition of the Stephen Sondheim stage musical.  Burton maintains the macabre edge of the play, infuses it with his trademark visual trickery, but wisely doesn’t screw with its heart, an entire story mostly sung, rarely spoken.  

Johnny Depp and Burton’s wife, Helena Bonham Carter, are not great singers, but they are great actor/singers (Depp took singing lessons and was nominated for Best Actor), a feat Russell Crowe could not accomplish in Les Miserables, as is evident in “My Friends.”

Speaking of Les Miserables, Depp and Bonham Carter are quite good, but they need merely convey anger, sarcasm, and bloodlust. If I’m going to knock Crowe, I have to laud Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman whose first numbers, sung live on set (using live piano accompaniments played through earpieces), are perhaps the most moving in musical film history.

Depp and Bonham Carter are ably supported by a moving Edward Sanders as Tobias Ragg and a hilarious Sasha Baron Cohen as the competing barber, Pirelli.

One nit is the unnecessary bloodiness of the throat cutting, which was accomplished with a mere splash of red in the stage play. It’s discordant. Another is inherent in the play, which is so dark as to be dispiriting.

Andrew Dominic’s moody, elegiac picture evokes Terence Malick’s imagery from Days of Heaven and Walter Hill’s sense of time in The Long Riders. As Ford, Casey Affleck is mesmerizing, and Brad Pitt’s depiction of James as a manic-depressive sociopath is chilling. Their performances are enhanced by Dominic’s sweeping, beautiful vistas (the film drew an Oscar nod for best cinematography) and a mournful score courtesy of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

A $30 million western without a single shootout (at least, one involving Jesse James) is destined to make a mere $3 million back domestic, but this film is more about hero worship, fame-seeking and insecurity than the violent exploits of the James gang. Affleck, who was nominated for best supporting actor, subtly communicates living in the shadow of Jesse James, traversing the path from awe for a legend to anger over his idol’s coldness and indifference to maturation and resolve as James becomes more suspicious, mercurial and dangerous. Ford’s likening of himself to James in the great killer’s presence, which can be found below, is startling in its honesty and vulnerability.

Affleck and Pitt receive strong support, including Jeremy Renner and Paul Schneider as feuding gang members, but as ever, Sam Rockwell near steals the picture as Charlie Ford, playing dumb but whipsmart and canny. Garret Dilahunt (Deadwood) is also resonant as a doomed and dim Ed Miller.

A glaring fault is an unnecessary voiceover narrative, the voice being similar to that of David McCullough. The effect is redundancy and a PBS/History Channel vibe.  Moreover, sometimes, the vistas are too wondrous, as if Dominic cared more for the picturesque moment than the story. And 240 minutes is a very long time made longer by a drawn out coda of the demise of the Fords.

Still, this is a unique, accomplished period piece.