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 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 that a remake is due out this year. From what I can tell, the special effects will be better and Carrie won’t be quite as helpless as Sissy Spacek.

Which is a shame. Spacek was downright homely and abandoned, making her everyday life in high school a miserable existence and our sympathy for her all the more acute.  In the preview for the remake, one gets the sense Chloe Grace Moretz could handle herself just fine.

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 inappropriately.

Brian DePalma caught a much deserved rap for aping Alfred Hitchock, 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 the bucket of 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, and the demise of Carrie herself is wholly unsatisfying.  Spacey and Laurie (both nominated ) are captivating, 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.



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. And the bro’ talk is sharp and true, if occasionally overdone.

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.

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 were 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 good will he may have engendered and split town when things got hairy.

As we see him, 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 an asshole that I enjoyed a great deal.

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.

This is an old-fashioned, creepy mash up of The Amityville Horror and The Exorcist.  The plot is simple. House.  Haunted.  The chills are plentiful, it opens with rare restraint, and it remains for the most part intelligent and taut.  And when it gets going, like director James Wan’s prior, impressive Insidious, it can freak you the hell out. Also, kudos to Wan’s hopefully intentional nod to my favorite ghost flick, The Changeling.

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 seems 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 that. Google is impressive, but not in 1971.

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.