Monthly Archives: July 2013

Image result for Trading Places

A funny, cynical 80s movie that holds up well, unlike, say Splash.  While Dan Aykroyd is obtrusive and over-the-top as the snooty Philadelphia financier who, in the service of a sociological inquiry/$1 bet, is framed as a thief and drug dealer by his financial titan bosses and replaced by the homeless Eddie Murphy, John Landis’ picture overcomes his scene-chewing.  Well, Murphy does.  He is electric and inventive, Jamie Lee Curtis voluptuous and winning, and as the scheming Wall Street chieftains Duke and Duke, Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche are having such fun it is infectious.

A friend passed on a nifty oral history of Trading PlacesThe best bit:

LANDIS: The most remarkable story, casting wise: I thought, ‘Well, I need someone who was a movie star in the ‘40s, who never has never really played a villain, and I was thinking, ‘Hey, what about Don Ameche?’ And the casting woman said, ‘Don Ameche’s dead.’ And I said, ‘I don’t think so, I would know if Don Ameche is dead.’  And so we called the Screen Actor’s Guild, and his residuals were being sent to his son in Phoenix, Arizona. And I thought, ‘Well that’s not a good sign.’ And he didn’t have an agent, and I thought, ‘Shit, goddamm, who else could we get?’ when one of the  secretaries said, ‘I heard you’re looking for Don Ameche.’ We said ‘Ya.’ She said, ‘I see him all the time walking on San Vicente in Santa Monica.’

So I called information, and I said, ‘I there a Don or D Ameche on San Vicente in Santa Monica?’ And there was! So I called him. And you know he has that unmistakable voice, and you realize, Don was a huge star, in the late ’30s, definitely a big star in the ’40s — I mean he was Alexander Graham Bell for chrissakes! — a major star in the ’50s, Broadway star, radio star, movie star, television star.

And I said, ‘Mr. Ameche?’ ‘Yeeessss…?’ ‘My name is John Landis, I’m with Paramount Studios, and I’m making a film and I’d like you to consider a part.’ So I had a script sent over. ‘And could you please read this and can you come in tomorrow?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ Would you like us to send a car?’ He said, ‘No no, I can drive.’ I said, ‘Great.’

And he came in and was prepared to read for me. I was so shocked. I said ‘You don’t have to read for me.’

He hadn’t made a movie in 14 years, he’d been doing dinner theater.

While we were shooting later in Philadelphia — he was so wonderful — I said, ‘Don, may I ask a question? How come you haven’t worked in 14 years?’ And he said, ‘Well, nobody called!’

Carrie (1976 film) - Wikipedia

Carrie is often listed as one of the scarier films of all time (untrue) and one of the better adaptations of a Stephen King scary novel (true – in fact, The Shining and Salem’s Lot are the only rivals). It certainly has a staying power, so much so it has spawned two remakes and a Broadway musical.

The story is simple.  Untutored by her religious zealot/lunatic of a mother (Piper Laurie), Carrie gets her period in the shower after gym class, naturally freaks out and is humiliated by her classmates. When one of the more thoughtful ones (Amy Irving) tries to make amends by having Carrie escorted to the prom by her popular boyfriend (William Katt), one of the less thoughtful ones (Karen Allen) doubles down on the humiliation. Carrie, who has become increasingly aware of her telekinesis, responds, er, inappropriately.

Brian DePalma caught a much deserved rap for overly-aping Alfred Hitchcock, especially in his early films, and Carrie, his breakout picture, is Exhibit A.  It opens with a shower scene, Pino Donaggio’s score is Bernard Hermann through-and-through (Hermann was supposed to score the picture but died before filming), and when Carrie uses her powers, we hear the 4 note violins of Psycho.  The scene leading to Carrie’s ultimate indignity, where a bucket of pig’s blood is spilled on her head, speaks for itself (and much of Hitchcock’s oeuvre).  Some mock the picture for this fealty, but there are worse directors to copy.

Hitchcock aside, Carrie stands on its own, even if some of its filler seems cheezy and dated.  Laurie is riveting in her fanaticism (and her depressing prescience – they all did laugh at her), Irving and Katt offer an unheralded sweetness to the story, and the prom scene, projected with a gutsy and effective split-screen technique, is loaded with indelible, nightmarish visuals.

But the engine of the picture is Spacek, who DePalma makes downright homely and spooky.  We all knew a kid like that in school.  A few tormented her.  A few were kind.  Most ignored her, perhaps tactically, or laughed meekly when she was catching hell. Or, you just looked right through her.  Spacek shows her pain and her promise, which is viciously crushed by the bullies.

So, it’s hard to root against her, even in the midst of her wanton slaughter.

Released in 2005, The 40 year Old Virgin is raucous, frank, funny, well-grounded, and fortified by the sweet lead performance of Steve Carell. Carell, a 40 year old technician at an electronics chain, is a lonely man-child, surrounded by mint-condition action figures and video games. His younger co-workers (Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen, Romany Malco) learn he is a virgin and push him out in the world so he can “bust a nut.” They each have their own theories, which are terrible, but Carell does happen upon a young grandma, Catherine Keener, and a romance develops. It all ends well in a joyous finale, a brilliant post-coital rendition of “Aquarius” and one of the finest ends to any film.

This is a roller coaster ride of potential mates (the criminally drunk Leslie Mann, the creepily seductive Jane Lynch, and the sex freak Elizabeth Banks) and inevitably disastrous consequences.

Everyone is funny, including Jonah Hill, David Koechner, Kevin Hart, and Carell’s mate from The Office, Mindy Kaling, even in the briefest of scenes. The milieu – young working stiffs in retail – also lends itself to not only hilarity derived from the vagaries of the job, but communality. The bro’ talk is sharp and true, if occasionally overdone, but is counterbalanced by Carell’s sweet humanity and earnestness.

Fast forward 7 years.  Apatow is a film titan, producer of 14 movie comedies and two TV series, but director of only 3 feature films. His fourth is the execrable This is 40.  Gone is the working world and the empathetic center of a lost boy.  Instead, Rudd reappears in rich California suburbia, a struggling indie record company owner whose financial pressures still allow for nights away with his craven, hissing, shrewish wife (Mann) in what has to be a $1000 night oceanside resort. So much for communality.

Worse, the film is populated by unfortunate and unfunny characters. Rather than finding common cause or sympathizing in their plight, an exalted Apatow mocks them through his condescending leads. And as it all unravels, he amps up the gross-out factor to the point where Rudd is spreading his legs, demanding that Mann inspect his asshole for polyps or fissures.

Ah, success.

Beware of Mr. Baker - Wikipedia

Back in the Eisenhower administration, I was in a band blessed by a distinctive lead singer, a virtuoso guitarist and a very strong rock drummer.  I was pretty much in awe of their playing (I was a passable rhythm guitarist converted to a fledgling bass player and mainly tried to stay out of the band’s way). Watching Beware Mr. Baker, a documentary on the life of legendary Cream and Blind Faith drummer Ginger Baker, his musicianship (a maniacal blend of jazz and African styles), reminded me of the fact that a crapload of really gifted players are drawn into pop music.  Of those players, I’m most fascinated by the work of drummers, be it Keith Moon’s “lead” drumming or Ringo’s Starr’s apt choices on a few cuts (Rain, Tomorrow Never Knows), perhaps because it is an instrument I cannot even comprehend.  Who the hell can move their arms and legs at the same time to a musical purpose?  It’s witchcraft, I tell you.

Baker was shockingly adept and seemingly original (I say “seemingly” because my knowledge of the history of drumming is lacking). Yet, as the documentary points out, he was also mercurial, peripatetic and volatile, which is a nice way of saying he was a drug-addled dick who plagued his bandmates (Eric Clapton is interviewed and while kind to Baker, seems almost like a hostage survivor), tortured his family, pissed away any goodwill he may have engendered and split town when things got hairy.

Now, he is a cantankerous, chain-smoking recluse in South Africa, whinging on about the injustices delivered to him, or just generally shitting on all but a few folks he respects. This may have been a recipe for boredom, but documentarian Jay Bulger intersperses Baker’s snide reminiscing with impressive footage of his playing days, interviews with contemporaries and family that are refreshingly non-hagiographic, and inventive animation.

The result is an engaging, occasionally illuminating documentary about a talented asshole.

Another from the factory of producer Judd Apatow, director Nicholas Stoller co-wrote the script with star Jason Segal, which tells the story of Segal and Emily Blunt, he a San Francisco chef and she a would-be psychology professor at the University of Michigan.  They fall in love but then endure the long stretch of pre-marriage, with its attendant insecurity, doldrums and misgiving.  While the stretch can be a little rough on the viewer, Blunt is charming and as he did in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek, Stoller wisely populates the story with supporting characters who offer varied, funny bits.  In particular, David Paymer and Mimi Kennedy shine as Segal’s blunt, atypically private parents.  Alison Brie (Trudy from Mad Men) is also strong as Blunt’s happily married sister and she and Blunt pull off a hilarious conversation/confrontation in front of her young children in the guises of Elmo and The Cookie Monster, thus masking the seriousness of their subject matter.

Still, there are glaring problems.  Stoller and Segal over-rely on the easy laughs of adults using dirty words (though nothing quite so bad as Apatow’s embarrassing This is 40); the image of Segal’s bare ass or failing and/or harried while humping really isn’t all that funny; the replacement mates when Segal and Blunt break up (Rhys Ifans and Dakota Johnson) are gruesome, easy marks; and there’s nothing really new here.

There is also the problem of Segal, who is perhaps the only actor who makes Paul Rudd seem manly.  From his awful sitcom How I Met Your Mother to just about every film in which he’s carried the load, Segal is a tiny variation on the same persona – aw shucks, hapless, sweet and prone to self-pitying outburst.  Summed up, a huge pussy.  I’m happy to defer, but in a romantic comedy, he’s a natural best friend, not the lead.

The Conjuring (2013) - IMDb

The plot is simple.

House.  Haunted. Evil involved.

An old-fashioned, creepy mash up of The Amityville Horror and The Exorcist, the film opens with rare restraint, and it remains for the most part intelligent and taut. When it gets going, like director James Wan’s prior, impressive Insidious, it can freak you the hell out.

Two minor criticisms.

While Vera Farmiga (as the medium who, along with her demonologist husband Patrick Wilson, makes a living of studying/expelling ghosts) is very eerie and committed, the actual homeowners (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) seem a bit too calm and even dull.  Livingston, of Office Space fame, is really no more than a smirk, a smaller budget’s Ryan Reynolds, and the haunting of his home and terrorizing of his children comes off as humdrum to him.  Wilson is similarly uncommitted, and two characters included for presumably comic relief, a sheriff and student who assist in monitoring the house, make little impression.

The movie also seems rushed.  20 more minutes devoted to uncovering the history behind its malevolence would have been well spent. Instead, Farmiga has its entire history laid out like she Googled it. The movie, however, is set in 1971, when there were no search engines. Not even Ask Jeeves!

Delbert Grady. | Meme Generator

Based on a real house and incident, if not quite a true story.

Diane Kruger was a model.

then naturally Helen of Troy.

And then she was in some other stuff, including a surprising but undemanding role in Inglorious Basterds, and then she played a convincing Marie Antoinette in Farewell, My Queen.  And on the strength of this body of work, she presumably got the lead in FX’s The Bridge.  Based on the Danish/Swedish series Bron, Kruger plays a seemingly stand-offish El Paso detective, part emotionless, part awkward introvert, and she’s about to be drawn into the seemy world of Mexican drugs, American corruption, etc . . .

Strike one – the quirky character (Kruger’s detective has Asperger’s).  Isn’t Homelands wacko Carrie Mathison enough?  Who is doing the hiring of our defense against domestic and foreign threats?   When Kruger is detailed to inform a husband that his wife has been found dead and bi-sected, ala’ The Black Dahlia, her extreme unfeeling and offensive behavior underscores the idiocy of the premise.  Next time, let’s send Dustin Hoffman in Rainman guise to pass on such difficult news.   What could go wrong? 

Strike two and three and infinity – if you’re going to give someone this challenging if stupid role, why Kruger? An El Paso detective? She’s a ballet dancer born in Lower Saxony, Germany.  I didn’t stay to find out, but I suppose Armin Mueller-Stahl plays her toothpick chewin’ sheriff boss (actually, it’s Ted Levine).

It’s a hard role for someone who can act, and Diane Kruger cannot really act.

Full disclosure:  I turned it off after 25 minutes, despite some decent notices.

World War Z Zombies GIF - WorldWarZ Zombies Click GIFs

This is a gripping, dystopian roller coaster ride, intelligent but not dense. Marc Forster, who showed action skill in Quantum of Solace, opens with an enthralling scene.  Brad Pitt, wife Mireille Enos, and two daughters are stuck in downtown Philadelphia traffic as a fast-moving rabies epidemic sweeps the city, and by fast, I mean that people are transformed into frenetic, vicious predators 10 seconds after a bite. Complete societal breakdown follows, but Pitt, who has experience as a U.N. global crisis expert, is extracted and tasked with investigating the source in an effort to combat the epidemic.

There are some ragged connections as Pitt goes from the U.S. to South Korea to Jerusalem to Cardiff, but his journey is packed with thrills and terror. Better, there is none of the preaching and sophistry so typical in modern dystopian films. Screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan (State of Play), with an assist from a couple of the writers of Lost, stays focused on moving the story forward and avoiding cliche’, showing no interest in the standard “what have we done?” crapola. I kept waiting for the suits to show, explaining that things just got out of hand when the military tried to weaponize and/or the evil corporation tried to monetize. Thankfully, they did not.

Forster’s judicious use of CGI is also to be commended. While the digital monsters of I Am Legend became less terrifying the more you watched them up close, Forster only uses CGI in broad scope, to show the mass of humanity infected, moving almost as an ant colony. Up close, real people play these very gruesome zombies, and they are frightening.

Finally, the film embodies an “every man for himself” quality that is refreshing and eschews the hackneyed twin of “what have we done?”, the dreaded “what have we become?”  When an 18 wheeler tries to make his escape from Philadelphia at high speed, crushing innocents left and right, Pitt pulls his car into the lane opened up to escape, marveling at his good fortune.  When the authorities, ensconced in a naval ship, believe Pitt has died in his efforts, his family loses their most favored civilian status and are evacuated to the more dangerous site of a refugee camp in Nova Scotia.  This is the moment when a bad screenwriter would have penned Enos’ “how could you?” speech to the chastened authorities.  Instead, she stoically accepts the verdict.

Finally, the set piece, and there are several, are finely drawn.  The scene in the airplane is particularly memorable.

I recently saw a filmumentary” on Jaws and realized I had not reviewed the greatest summer movie ever made, an astonishing, deep blend of adventure, terror, and action, communicated by Stephen Spielberg’s great eye, the deft casting of three disparate principal actors, and a John Williams score that evokes fear and exhilaration.

Spielberg at the advent of Jaws was hardly a wunderkind. Like William Friedken before The French Connection, Spielberg had a pedestrian resume’ — a Columbo, a few TV movies and an okay feature (Sugarland Express). With a production plagued by everything from the mechanical failures of the shark to the tax problems of star Robert Shaw (if he spent more than a certain amount of time in the U.S. he would face a tax liability, so he was flown to Canada on his days off), Spielberg took Peter Benchley’s piece of summer pulp and fashioned a moving, ingenious film, evident from the opening scene credits, which give us a shark’s point of view in what is the still and peaceful deep, an image followed by the jarring, horrifying massacre of the shark’s first victim, alone, at night, where none of us ever want to be.

Like Friedken in The Exorcist, who prefaces the introduction of the demon in the child only after an hour of exposition, Spielberg waits quite some time to show us the shark in full, making what is happening beneath the water all the more frightening. Indeed, when we see the second fatality (a little boy on a raft), it is from the vantage point of a beachcomber lazing in his chair, a brief, violent act that immediately makes the viewer question, “what the hell was that?”

After Spielberg stuns the audience, he introduces them to poor Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), a landlubber from New York who marshals for the summer town of Amity, As the bodies pile up, it is Brody who succumbs to the pressure of the townsfolk dependent on summer dollars, only to be shamed by his malleability. Emboldened and in need of reclamation, Brody is assisted by the articulate and passionate wisecracker, oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus) and old salt Quint (Robert Shaw). The former wants the scientific find of the century, the latter is a modern Ahab, seeking his white whale, as explained in the famous scene written not by screenwriters Benchley and Carl Gottlieb (a comic writer who presumably penned some of the very funny exchanges in the picture) , but John Milius (writer of Dirty Harry, Apocalypse Now and creator of HBO’s fantastic Rome).

The experience of the three men from their separate vantage points, with their different motives and backgrounds, is the fuel of this picture, not the shark. As good as Milius’ Indianapolis speech is, or Shaw’s monologue to the town leaders opened by his nails on a chalkboard, the scene where Shaw’s grit runs up against Dreyfus’s privilege and Scheider’s quiet authority is better:

                         You’re going to need an extra hand…

               Quint turns to see this new voice, and starts walking towards

                         This is Matt Hooper…

                         I know who he is…

                         He’s from the Oceanographic Institute.

                         I’ve been to sea since I was 12.

                         I’ve crewed three Trans-pacs —


                         — and an America’s Cup Trials…

                         I’m not talking about day sailing or

                         pleasure boating. I’m talking about
                         working for a living. Sharking.

                         And I’m not talking about hooking

                         some poor dogfish or sand shark. I’m
                         talking about a Great White.

                         Are you now. I know about porkers in

                         the water —
                              (throws him some rope)
                         Here. Tie me a sheepshank.

               Hooper ties the knot effortlessly.

                         I don’t need to pass basic seamanship.

                         Let me see your hands…

               He takes Hooper’s hands in his own big bloody fists, and
               feels them as he talks.

                         Ha. City hands. You been counting

                         money. If you had a $5000 net and
                         $2000 worth of fish in it, and along
                         comes Mr. White, and makes it look
                         like a kiddy scissors class has gone
                         to work on it and made paper dolls.
                         If you’d ever worked for a living,
                         you’d know what that means.

                         Look, I don’t need to hear any of

                         this working class hero crap. Some
                         party boat skipper who’s killed a
                         few sharks…


                         Hey. Knock it off. I don’t want to
                         have to listen to this while we’re
                         out there…

                         What do you mean ‘We…?’

                         It’s my charter. My party.

                         All right, Commissioner. But when

                         we’re on my ship, I am Master, Mate
                         and Pilot. And I want him…
                              (indicates Hooper)
                         …along for ballast.

                         You got it.

During shooting, Shaw rode Dreyfus very hard, making fun of everything from his star status, stature and his ethnicity.  Any hostility was used to great effect on-screen.

As good as these three actors are, they are more than ably supported by Lorraine Gary (as Brody’s wife), Murray Hamilton (as the oily mayor) and a boatload of locals who lend the film a great air of authenticity.  Again, kudos to the script, because it allows dignity for Hamilton in the aftermath of his grave error, when, shaken at the hospital, he says to Brody, “Martin . . . my kids were in that water too.”

Finally, Williams’ score is a mixture of dread and adventure, the simplicity of dark repetition (“duh, nuh . . duh, nuh . . . dun dun dun dun dun dun dun”) followed by a near-swashbuckling romp as the men seek their quarry.

I never tire of this film and always find some new marvel or nuance when I watch it.  If only the Hollywood shit that is shoveled in summer these days could sport 1/10 of the chops of Jaws, the town wouldn’t be losing its shirt.

It’s the height of audacity to incorporate your name into the title of your film. Imagine High Plains Clint or Reservoir Quentins? Eastwood and Tarantino aren’t exactly shrinking violets, but there are limits and there is etiquette.

Will Larroca dispenses with both in his sophomore feature, Will Will Kill.

The title not only suggests hubris, but an homage to Tarantino. He’s not quite there yet.

Still, this is leaps and bounds above Larroca’s first feature, The Monster. For several reasons.
First, The Monster provided us the chilling visage of Reid Brown as a crazed ghost. Here, he’s criminal mastermind Rico Brown, and he is again pretty damned chilling. Something about that shock of red hair makes it easy for you to put your guard down.

Second, the acting is generally first-rate, and Larroca smartly casts actors who look distinct.

Third, on a shoestring budget, I was impressed by the low-tech approach. It felt real. Visceral.

Finally, I was intrigued by the approach, derivative as it was.

Still, there are problems.

Why do Larroca’s characters always wear hoodies? Is this some kind of Trayvon Martin deal?

Why the finger in the camera? Is it amateurism or something else?

Why is Larroca’s vision of a clone-infested future so mundane? Is the future really as bad as all that? Does everyone wear shorts?

Why would a clone engage in a samurai fight with a hand in his pocket?

Who rides a train to Las Vegas?

Would Rico Brown really have a tag coming out of his shirt?

Again, the word is that Larroca is working with a bigger budget and should have a fall release of his third picture.

It better be special or he may go the way of David Caruso.

Another esteemed reviewer weighs in.