Monthly Archives: December 2014

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Full disclosure – I came in late, but I saw enough of this obvious, treacly, hackneyed, preachy pile of cornpone to feel safe that I didn’t miss the good part. Hitler is destroying all of Europe’s art. The Monuments Men, each and every one a gentle soul borne of devotion to those things that ennoble us, arrive in Europe to stop him. In the process, they say things like: “You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they’ll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements and it’s as if they never existed. That’s what Hitler wants and that’s exactly what we are fighting for” and “Who would make sure that the statue of David is still standing or the Mona Lisa is still smiling? Who will protect her?”

It’s not hard to figure what director and co-writer George Clooney was aiming for, an inspiring, old-fashioned period piece that trumpets the virtues of humanity in a world mired in barbarism, updated to include a little wit.  Call it “Band of Oceans 14.”

Clooney fails utterly.  Every character is stock, and the film feels untethered, veering wildly from the cornily comic to the embarrassingly sentimental (the deaths of Downton Abbey master Hugh Bonneville and Jean Judarin from The Artist are laughably operatic).  Bill Murray and Bob Balaban go for some night air, meet a scared German boy-soldier and share a cigarette with him.  Makes you think, right?  Then, Matt Damon, a member of the mission to save the art, steps on a land mine, prompting Clooney to quip, “Why d’you do something like that?”  And then Elliot Gould and Brad Pitt show up and they all have a drink at The Bellagio.

Clooney took a very interesting story and made it a bunch of hooey. Turns out Hitler didn’t order the destruction of art. Now, is Hitler the kind of historical character you actually need to lie about to make him look worse? I submit he is not. But this manifest picture isn’t taking any chances.



Very funny, very raw, often insightful comedy written and directed by Chris Rock. Rock stars as a facsimile of himself, a Hollywood success straight out of the mean streets of NYC, returned home on the eve of his made-for-Bravo wedding to a reality star (Gabrielle Union) and the opening of his shot at a serious film after making his fortune in broad comedies (the most successful of which is the Hammy the Bear series, which delivers a running joke, as everywhere Rock goes, you hear “hey, Hammy!”). Four years sober, Rock is accompanied on his return by a New York Times reporter (Rosario Dawson).  A convincing love story ensues as Rock opens up to her about his rise, fall, fears and regrets.

The film starts off a bit choppy, mainly due to the fact that Rock has to carry most if it. Rock has a winning smile and a wicked perceptivity, but he carries the armor and remove of a lot of comics, so his manner is a bit stiff, forestalling investment. But soon, Rock gets in his element, as he is surrounded by a dozen very good comics to play off. He loosens up in the second half, which allows him to reach deeper to connect with Dawson.

Rock borrows liberally from Judd Apatow’s Funny People and evokes Woody Allen’s chatty vibe (Rock’s back and forth with Dawson on the real reason for Martin Luther King’s assassination is alone worth the ticket and emblematic of their clever repartee) but he also writes strong, emotional moments which resonate stronger and longer than the gags, in particular, Rock’s reconnection with his father.

There is trouble in the North Pole. Santa (Jim Broadbent) is listless and bored, barely phoning it in.  His oldest son and heir (Hugh Laurie) has digitized and corporatized Christmas, while his predecessor (Bill Nighy), retired, undermines him at every turn, dreaming of a return to glory.  His youngest son (James MacAvoy) has the spirit but lacks any discernible skill. When a gift from Santa goes undelivered, the fissures of this dysfunctional royal family emerge.

The computer animation is expert, the story enjoyable for kids and adults alike, and it’s even slyly subversive.  Santa Nighy is a misogynist, Laurie’s male elf assistant appears to have a crush on him, and the elves who man the North Pole have a denizen-of-Jonestown quality (so much so that the film threatens a mass elf suicide at the end).

I just saw this on the AFI big screen with Will and my nephew in from Spain, Julian.  A great holiday classic.

John McClain (Bruce Willis), a NYC cop who is flying to LA to spend some time with his kids over Christmas, drops by his estranged wife’s (Bonnie Bedelia) holiday party in the gleaming high-rise, Nakatomi Plaza.  Unfortunately, he arrives just when the party is crashed by a terrorist gang led by the slick and debonair Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman).  The terrorists had the perfect plan, but they did not foresee a rogue cop picking them off one by one.

When I first saw Die Hard, I was impressed such an efficient, commercial, cop-against-the world shoot ’em up could be so deft and clever.  Most contemporary blockbuster cop pictures were devoid of humor; featured laughable, deadly serious male leads spouting leaden dialogue and women relegated to looking 80s video hot; invariably starred Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Steven Seagal; and sucked.  The only outliers were vehicles for established comedians (Beverly Hills Cop) or buddy pics (48 Hours and Lethal Weapon).

Willis, in his first big role, is winning.  When the terrorists strike, he is in his wife’s private office bathroom, shoeless and clad in pants and a wifebeater.  He’s vulnerable, put-upon and even giddy, and his charm is infectious.  He’s the perfect guide.

He’s assisted by an intricate, charming villain.  Rickman eschews stock heavy,  opting for an amused persona that hides a deeper ruthlessness :


The film also features numerous secondary characters who resonate even with limited screen time.  Reginald VelJohnson is the patrolman first on the scene and McClain’s link via walkie-talkie to the activities on the ground, with a tragic backstory of his own; Alexander Gudonov is the number 2 for the terrorists, infuriated because McCalin has killed his brother; Bedelia becomes the de facto leader of the hostages and has a few nifty exchanges with Rickman; and William Atherton (the haughty EPA investigator in Ghostbusters) is a convincing slimy television reporter.  Most notable is Hart Bochner, the coke-snorting LA cool cat who works for Bedelia.  I always thought Bochner would be a big star and the scene where he tries to “negotiate” McClain’s surrender damn near steals the picture.

Finally, Jeb Stuart’s writing is fresh, cynical and all the more surprising given this was his first picture.  Stuart writes for all characters, providing great, unobtrusive repartee.


Original review

A banana split, with 2 pounds of cane sugar dumped on top, followed by a generous ladling of chocolate syrup, dropped in a bucket of melted cotton candy and deep fried in maple butter, then put on film.  That is . . .  Love Actually.

The only thing that recommends this monstrosity is Billy Bob Thornton as an American president who is an uncanny mix of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.  Even this brief treat is spoiled by his counterpart, British PM Hugh Grant, who apparently reverses relations with the U.S. solely because he caught Thornton feeling up his secretary.

It’s all too precious. Avoid the tooth decay and bellyache, even in the judgment altering season that is Christmas.

2022 Update: I took a few years off from my annual autopsy of this festering corpse, and lo and behold, the film celebrated a 20th anniversary. I must concede, it never occurred to me that this trite, candied, filmic effluvium could have been worse in an earlier incarnation, but it appears that the editors saved us from even greater nausea, kind of like creating a highly toxic disease that gets out into the public but then telling folks, “Well, before the lab leak, we managed to contain the flesh-eating variant”.

Um . . . thanks?

So, that cute kid who learned how to drum and fell in love? Liam Neeson’s darling little urchin?  Well, turns out, as originally envisioned, he was a gymnast, and he was going ballet his way through the airport to greet his love.

Apparently, in test screenings, the retching created a significant liability issue, so they cut it.      

Prior entries: 

2015 Update:  Look, this is a gruesome film, substituting true emotion and pathos with a staggering falsity.  If you ever met anyone in your life anywhere near as quaint and darling as any of the characters in this bucket of marshmallow and melted gumdrops, it’s likely they are an enemy of the state infiltrating our ranks for a low purpose.  Before you feel your heart swoon and your mouth say “awwwwwwww”, run.  Run for your damned life.

2016 Update:

Think about how creepy it would be for a person who long-pined for you to show up at your door with cue cards (one of which has semi nude women on it) to reveal his long held love immediately after you have chosen another.  Keira Knightley seems to think this is charming, but in point of fact, she should have called the cops.  This weirdo is now going to do . . . what, exactly?  Go off to Tahiti because mere proximity to his lost love is too much for him to handle?  Go to his apartment thinking that his gambit may pay off, that Knightley might think to herself, “Hmmmmmm.  He must really love me.”  Hang around, quietly watching . . . waiting . . . hoping.

This scene is emblematic of this stupid film because it trades a sentimental ball of goo moment for what should have been a larger and more generous gesture.

The dude should have simply left Knightley to her new husband and their life, which would have been stoic and laudable.

But nooooooo.  Let’s leave this on a narcissistic, icky note.

Married women, think of you, at home, newly betrothed for a few weeks, snuggling with your husband. Then, his best friend comes to the door with cue cards and professes his long love for you.  Now, remove the gloppy music and the cobblestones and the holiday lights and Love Actually becomes . . . . Play Misty For Me?  When the stalker says, “Enough.  Enough now,” I sensed menace, that crazy shit was going on in his head like the dog haunting Son of Sam’s noggin.  And frankly, had he gone back in the townhouse and killed them all, it still wouldn’t save this vile film, though it would have been an improvement.

Also, how dumb is the husband?  The boom box is supposed to be a substitute for carolers, but it is a smooth voice with some harmonists and an orchestra.

Sorry, Keira.  The guy you chose is a moron and the one you did not is a potentially dangerous loon.

Also, one of the loon’s cards says “And at Christmas, you tell the truth.”

Ludicrous.  You no more tell the truth at Christmas than on Easter or Arbor Day. 

All in a line with this dim flick.   

2017 Update:

This year, let’s delve into this kid, so precocious, so darling, and just so articulate!

“Do you really want to know . . . even though you won’t be able to do anything to help . . . the truth is, actually, I’m in love?”

Couldn’t you just eat him . . . . . I mean, eat him up.

The only thing that could make this scene work is if a bunch of shady Eastern European thugs showed up, grabbed the boy, attempted to sell him into white slavery, and Liam Neeson had gotten started on the Taken series quite a bit earlier.

Then, this sweetums might know what is indeed worse than “the total agony of being in love.”

2018 Update:

Let’s talk about the secretary, Prime Minister Hugh Grant’s love interest. She is referred to as “chubby” by another aide and she herself explains that her boyfriend “said no one’d fancy a girl with thighs the size of tree trunks.”

First, I can’t believe this kind of fat shaming allows for enjoyment of this film by any decent person.

Second, I really don’t give a rip about fat shaming. But the woman is not in the slightest bit fat. It is a ridiculous conceit. It makes absolutely no sense. She is buxom, one of the few enjoyable aspects of this filmic turd pile.


So, the movie is abusive and retrograde, which I for one will not let stand even at the expense of your enjoyment. Perhaps worse, it doesn’t even know what a fat person looks like. Ridiculous.

2019 Update:

In this years’ entry, let us take up the Martin Freeman-Joanna Page story line.  Apparently, these two meet while playing body doubles on the set of a porn flick.  This seemed absurd, but I did my legwork.  As confirmed by the screenwriter and much of the commentary, they are, indeed, supposed to be on the set of a porn flick.

I have learned about pornography solely for purposes of this review, and be it hardcore or arty soft core, one of the genre’s principal draws to a producer is the low to non-existent production costs.

Yet, by the looks of the sets and the crew and the fact that there are stand-ins for the actors who will be performing the actual sex act on camera, this appears to be a multi-million dollar production.

Worse, not only are Freeman and Page forced to endure an assistant ordering them to shift mechanical poses and pretend to be having sex, he has them do it in the nude, which would seem completely unnecessary, except, and this is a quote, “lighting and camera want to know when we will actually see the nipples”.

Apparently, the “real” actors are cooling their heels in the green room while the stand-ins work to make the shots just so.

So, for purposes of super cute chit-chat, we are presented with two of the most pathetic characters in film history. They won’t even be receiving wages for having actual sex on camera, but rather, the pay will be for standing in and simulating sex for other people who will be simulating or having sex on camera, i.e., the stars!

What could that amount be?  A couple of quid?

This is a job . . . okay, it’s not a job, because this premise is so mind-boggling lazy and ridiculous, but were it a job, it is one for meth heads.

Not Bilbo Baggins and Joanna Page.

This movie even perverts porn.  Is nothing sacred?


It’s difficult to resist a dissipated, alcoholic, and profane Billy Bob Thornton as a Santa Claus who works department stores to crack their safes, especially when he meets an eternally cheerful but clueless grade schooler (Brett Kelly) left alone with his addled grandmother (Cloris Leachman) in their tony Arizona suburban ranch home.  In true Christmas spirit, Thornton discovers the boy is essentially alone and defenseless, moves right in, raids the liquor cabinet, and trysts with a slutty barkeep (Lauren Graham) who has a Santa fetish.

Santa is so bad he rips open the kid’s Advent calendar to get at some chocolates.  He pisses himself on the job.  He beats up children.  He engages in sodomy in the dressing rooms of the Big & Tall Women’s section of the department store.  He looks in the cherubic faces of all those blessed children who revere him and  . . . well, see for yourselves.

Is there redemption for Bad Santa? Kind of. But Thornton is a character who could endure three Dickensian ghosts and conclude, “Eh. Fuck ’em.”

Bad Santa is the ultimate anti-Christmas flick and a holiday favorite.  Thornton is brutally acerbic (especially when dealing with a host of bratty kids on his lap), Graham is indescribably hot, and John Ritter and Bernie Mac (as mall security and management) contribute significantly to the humor (Ritter’s repulsion/fascination with Bad Santa is inspired; what a loss he was).

I was alerted to this film by David Thomson’s tribute to its writer, R.I.P. Alan Sharp, a Writer Too Dark for Hollywood.  Thomson credited two Sharp films, Ulzana’s Raid and Night Moves:  “Neither of them was nominated for anything, and only Ulzana’s Raid did any business.  But if you want to experience the richness of American films in the early 1970s, they are worth tracking down. You will be surprised how complex they are and how tense. They seem to understand movie narrative in a way so few films do today: He used mystery to draw audiences into his stories, trained them to answer the small puzzles, and then had them ready to grasp the implications he preferred not to underline. And both films are tough, bitter, and bleak, bearing the imprint of an unusual and talented outsider.”

Whenever we watch a movie from the 70s, my wife sighs and asks, “Is everybody going to die in this one?”  Night Moves is indeed a dark film, but Thomson is also dead-on in identifying its allure.  Gene Hackman plays a former pro football player turned private detective who is hired by an aging Hollywood not-quite-a-star (a dissipated but crafty Janet Ward) to find her wayward 16 year old daughter (Melanie Griffith, reprising her jailbait, tart role in The Drowning Pool, minus the malevolence).  Griffith has taken flight, bouncing between movie sets in Arizona and her creepy stepfather’s (John Crawford) compound in the Florida Keys.  In the meantime, Hackman discovers that his wife (Susan Clark) is having an affair, so he is in essence conducting two investigations, only one of which is really private.  The picture is leisurely and intricate, until, as Thomson notes, a “deeply upsetting” end.

Hackman turns in an interesting version of the traditional private investigator, part canny but part limited.  He is clever, but not the sharpest knife in the drawer.  He’s also very human, a vulnerability.  Along with Elliott Gould’s Phillip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Hackman’s p.i. is a marked and welcome departure from the type.

Sharp’s dialogue is noteworthy, especially in some of the exchanges between Hackman and Clark as they confront the state of their marriage and the import of her infidelity.  Hackman is also given some wonderful lines:

Ward: Are you the kind of detective who, once you get on a case nothing can get you off it? Bribes, beatings, the allure of a woman…

Hackman: That was true in the old days. Before we had a union.

* * *

Paula: How do you resist Delly?

Hackman: Oh, I just think good, clean thoughts, like Thanksgiving, George Washington’s teeth.

* * *

Crawford: (on his nubile stepdaughter Griffith)  You’ve seen her.  God, there should be a law.

Hackman:  There is.







We were invited to the 50th birthday party of an old friend this weekend, and the theme was Animal House. In preparation of attending as Boon (Peter Riegert) and Katy (Karen Allen), my wife and I watched the movie to identify what they wore in the hopes of being identified as the characters. Our specific goal was delayed by our enjoyment of the movie, which neither of us had seen for twenty years or more.  It is sharply written, consistently inventive and enhanced by dozens of astute comic performances.  John Belushi’s physicality tends to get the lion’s share of accolades, but I’ve always been a bigger fan of Dean Wormer (John Vernon), who was chosen after Jack Webb turned the part down, and the pot-smoking Professor (Donald Sutherland), who took a $50,000 paycheck instead of the offer of 15% of the gross, a decision I’m certain haunts him to this day (the movie went on to gross $141 million).  His plaintive plea to his class is still one of my favorite moments of the movie:

Perhaps the greatest joy in these repressed, politically charged times is its dogged insistence on political incorrectness. Today, there would be a line of $46-an-article on-line ‘zine shitheads excoriating the film for its casual racism, sexism, insensitivity to the mentally disabled, and homophobia.   I can see the clickbait banners now:

“Animal House: The Genesis of the UVA Scandal”

“Nearly 40 Years Later, and We’re Still Laughing at Animal Cruelty”

“Animal House: A Frat Guy’s Birth of a Nation”

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A promising period piece based on the true story of the illegitimate, black daughter (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) of a British naval officer, given to the care of his aunt and uncle (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson) as a child in the late 18th century. Dido Elizabeth Belle is raised with a foot in two worlds — with title, means (200 pounds a year) and support yet still divorced from full status (for example, she may not dine with the family when guests are present). Complicating matters is the fact that Wilkinson is the Earl of Mansfield and the Lord Chief Justice, deliberating over a fraud case in which slavers may have thrown their sickly human cargo overboard for the insurance proceeds.

The film is lush and has a Downton Abbey feel. Unfortunately, it’s about as subtle, anachronistic and schmaltzy as Downton Abbey.  Belle must contend with the easy racism of her time, racism represented by an odious, money grubbing family that includes scheming Miranda Richardson and her eldest son, Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy from The Harry Potter movies, who is really evil; you can tell because he was a member of Slytherin House and he sneers in every scene). Everything is spelled out for the audience, and there is no nuance to any character. Belle’s true love, played by Sam Reid, is the abolitionist son of a minister, so ardent and well-meaning you want to punch him. And as Wilkinson agonizes over his court decision and rails against the impudence of Reid, Watson reminds him that she once knew a young man who wanted to change the world.  Guess who that young man was?

The case at the heart of the picture is also decidedly and unnecessarily dull. So dull that in real life, the owners dropped the claim against the insurance company amidst a storm of bad publicity. Yet, the real Earl of Mansfield presided over a case much better suited to the film, that of a slave who had been brought to England, escaped, was caught and then was forced onto a ship bound for the West Indies. The slave owner argued his right over property, but the Earl set the slave free, judging that colony slave laws were of no force in England and concluding, “The state of slavery is so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it.”

Such an interesting life deserved a better picture.