Archive

2011

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We always loved Baby Boom because the toddler reminded us so much of our daughter, in that she was adorable. I concede, one’s own daughter is always adorable. But our daughter was and is, objectively, adorable.

I digress.

Baby Boom is currently on the Showtime rotation and in watching to see the facsimile of our daughter, we caught the entire picture. The little girl is still cute. The 1987 film, however, does not travel as well as the kid.

Diane Keaton is the go-go Manhattan executive on an upward trajectory when a long lost and recently deceased relative delivers her a beautiful little girl via will.

It’s a broad comedy.  I can accept that a baby would be delivered at the airport at the mere stroke of a pen. I can accept that the cutest baby in the world would almost be transferred from a Manhattan agency to a cold, poor, backward Iowa couple. I can accept that James Spader in a suit is a villain. Well, that last one is a requirement for 1980s films.

But after Keaton keeps the baby, she is so inept – as demonstrated by numerous silly vignettes of a Weekend at Bernie’s stripe –  it becomes unfunny.  She deposits the baby at a coat check. She can’t negotiate a disposable diaper. She feeds the doll pasta and red sauce.  Hilarity does not ensue

It’s just easy, schlocky and weak. And when she is jettisoned by her company, you don’t have the sympathy for her that you should.

After getting demoted, Keaton takes the baby to Vermont, buys a dream house that is actually falling apart, meets rustic veterinarian Sam Shepard, fights with him until he forcibly kisses her, then has rewarding and fulfilling sex with him, and then starts her own successful baby food chain, all to the standard twinkly saxophone and Kimball organ score of the time. Whereupon, the corporate heels call her back to offer her the moon for her little company.

She declines, delivering a confused declaration of independence, a stemwinder announcing that 1) she should not have to choose between family and work; 2) she should not have to move operations from quaint Vermont to Cleveland; 3) James Spader is a rat; 4) she may just take her baby food company national herself; and 5) oh, she’s having rewarding sex with Sam Shepherd.

Except 1) they offered her $3 million and a COO job at nearly $1 million per, but it was the opening offer and she could have asked double, while getting a ceremonial board seat or do-nothing exec slot with an ample salary; 2) they said at the outset the move to Cleveland was negotiable; 3) she could have insisted Spader work the account and tormented him unmercifully, or she could have asked for his head to seal the deal; 4) there is no way she could take this company national; she can’t operate a pair of Pampers; and 5) swooning, with an actual sigh, about Sam Shepherd in a business meeting reinforces a lot of the stereotypes the stemwinder was supposed to rebut.

But the baby is adorable.
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When Spike Lee acted like a petulant fool after BlackKKlansman lost Best Picture to Green Book, it seemed silly, and given the mediocrity of his own picture, a sad stunt.  But I get it Spike. I apologize.

The story of classical pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahersheela Ali) who enlists Italian bouncer Tony Lip from New Yawk (Viggo Mortenson) for a Southern swing of concerts in 1962 is so chock full of cliche’, it borders on spoof.  Ten minutes in, you know that the hotheaded Tony will hit a cracker cop, the cultured Shirley will play boogie woogie in a honkey tonk, and they will teach each other, oh, so many things.

Sadly, it is not a spoof.

This picture is atrocious. Simplistic, repetitive, nonsensical, and boring.  It has no idea what it wants to be. A civil rights era Odd Couple?  A moral tract about role reversal and rejection by one’s own race?  A road movie?  It does none of it well.

But it has a white guy teaching a black guy the joys of fried chicken, so, there’s that.

The characters lack any consistency. When black men perform repairs at his apartment, Tony throws away the glasses the men drink water from, such is the viral nature of their cooties. But in the blink of an eye, he is driving a black man around, comfortable not only with his boss’s skin color, but his homosexuality.

’Cause he’s been around nightclubs, and tings, day get, complicated. Mangia, manigot, caprese, spumoni, to da’ moon, Sbarro!

And while Shirley is supposedly working the southern swing in solidarity with Nat King Cole, who was beaten years earlier for playing white music, he also inexplicably plays private affairs at the homes of cartoon bigots. For what, I don’t know. Cash?  Self flagellation?  And when rich Southerners have a cultured pianist perform at their homes and eat dinner at their table, he is still sent to the wooden outhouse to pee.  Jesus, even in The Help, the bathroom had plumbing.

Making matters worse, Viggo Mortenson’s tough guy driver from da’ Bronx is so broad, so exaggerated, you can’t believe what you’re seeing. He’s half Joey from Friends, half The Fonz. He actually says Ba Fongool.  Or Ba Fon Goo. Or whatever they say in Chef Boyardee commercials.  He’s brutal to watch, yet, a thing to behold.

It ends sweet and there is charm in its insouciance as to its own plausibility or depth, but that gets you exactly one star.

Oscar?  Fuggedaboutit!!!

I just read this Grantland oral history on Tom Cruise’s turn as Les Grossman, and it got me to thinking:  what are the funniest supporting performances in film?

For your consideration–

Tom Cruise as Les Grossman, Tropic Thunder: It’s hard to even recognize Cruise, he is so transformed as a profane hairy-armed Hollywood studio exec, but he steals a film graced by scads of very good comedic performances.  My favorite Grossman scene is when he meets the film’s Vietnam veteran writer.

Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus, Tropic Thunder.  Downey caught some flak for his use of the term “retard” and on that sin alone, he should be honored, but his role as an Aussie actor so “method” he changes the pigment of his skin is nothing short of genius.  And yes, his best scene is when he schools Ben Stiller on the perils of playing a disabled character in Hollywood.

Adam Scott as Derek, Step Brothers.  Scott’s domineering, obnoxious older brother reflects what most people hate about older brothers, especially overgrown adolescents digging on the “bro'” culture and categorizing success as $$$ and having a family who can harmonize a shitty song.

Fred Willard as Buck Laughlin, Best in Show.  This is what you get when you hand color commentary duty for a dog show to a bowling announcer on ESPN’s “The Ocho.”

Sydney Pollack as George Fields, Tootsie.  Pollack has two bravura scenes.  First, when he explains why his difficult actor client Dustin Hoffman doesn’t get any work and then, when Hoffman approaches him at lunch in drag.  They’re both top notch, but Pollack (who was more the director than actor in his career)  exudes such memorable terror in the second scene, I have to give it the nod.

Ted Knight as Judge Smales, Caddyshack.  Knight basically moved Ted Baxter from the role of anchorman to judge, but his turn as the country club snob is still the funniest thing in what is an otherwise okay comedy.  He is at his best when he tries to be “helpful.”

Hank Azaria as Agador, The Birdcage.  Physical comedy gold from the super fey “butler” who isn’t used to wearing shoes.

Jane Lynch as Sweeny, Role Models.  Her desperate to be “in-the-know” community service director steals every scene she is in, in this, my favorite of the Judd Apatow type comedies which strangely, does not have a connection to Apatow .

John C. Reilly as Cal Naughton, Jr., Talladega Nights.  Reilly’s goofy sidekick to Will Ferrell is so earnest and open, you actually feel for him as he steals Ricky’s position, family and dignity.  His thoughts on what Jesus means to him are priceless.

Vince Vaughn as Trent, Swingers.  As Vaughn drowns weekly in season 2 of HBO’s True Detective (I can think of few actors less suited to Nic Pizzolatto’s increasingly ridiculous take on hard-boiled patter, but to be fair, nobody could really convincingly deliver lines such as, “It’s like blue balls of the heart”), it is fair to remember his frenetic, cheerful best friend to Jon Favreau.  His dating advice to Favreau is spot on.

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The tone of this film is one of continual dread, which makes it exhausting. The themes are insecurity, delusion and eventual madness, which makes it an even harder slog. The three characters – Olympians Channing Tatum and his older brother Mark Ruffalo and their rich patron Steve Carell (playing wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz and heir John DuPont) – do not develop so much as wearily trudge forward to their unsurprising and dispiriting end. The script is unnecessarily overt, verbalizing explicitly what has already been well communicated visually, making the film longer than it has to be. This is just a big bummer of a flick, and despite nice performances by all three leads and some beautiful visuals by director Benedict Miller (Capote), it doesn’t have much to say about anything and what is does say is pedestrian, cold and repetitive.


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 avoided this film because of an aversion to dramas about viruses and plagues and because I was still shellshocked at the total crappiness of the 1995 Dustin Hoffman vehicle Outbreak (guess what?  The military did it!).  Unless the eventual outcome of a filmic plague is zombies, 21 Days Later-esque “rage” victims or altered humans ala’ The Omega Man, count me out.

But you’ll watch most anything in a hotel, and Contagion had three extra things going for it – it was the $4.99 special, a few friends recommended the picture and it was directed by Stephen Soderbergh.  Despite my reticence, I was treated to an engrossing, intelligent and moving drama about what a 1918-like worldwide plague (where the entire world lost 1% of its population) would look like today.  The answer through Soderbergh’s eyes is — not pretty, but not hopeless.

The films starts with poor Gwyneth Paltrow, who is the second carrier of an infection transmitted by touch.  Once she is identified as Patient 1 (a Chinese cook is actually Patient 0 – he touched the pig who ate the bat got that started this whole mess, and then he shook Paltrow’s hand), we follow her from China through Chicago and to Minneapolis, where she has touched at least a dozen people  And an epidemic starts.

Soon, the government (Laurence Fishburne at the CDC, Bryan Cranston at Homeland Security) swings into action, regular CDC folk (Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle) act heroically, an internet crackpot become a messiah (Jude Law), and Paltrow’s husband and many other regular folk have to deal with a paralyzed world.  Lawlessness increases because law enforcement is sparse; fear runs rampant; trash piles up in the street; and people hole up waiting for aid and/or a vaccine.

This is a gripping, sober thriller, thankfully bereft of the normal tropes of the genre.   The government did not create the virus for military purposes; almost every character is doing the best they can under difficult circumstances; and while society does break down, it also holds up.

All the actors are very good and very believeable.  Special kudos to Matt Damon, who continues to be the least-appreciated American actor of his generation.  He had the misfortune of being outshined by Jude Law in The Talented Mr. Ripley and Jack Nicholson and Mark Wahlberg in The Departed.  They got the nominations and Damon, who carries both films with decidedly more difficult roles, got squat.  Here, he serves as the father who has lost a wife and son and seeks to ensure his surviving daughter is not affected while at the same time giving her some life of normalcy. The scene where he is told his wife is dead is particularly moving.

Final note:  Gwyneth Paltrow gets the Lifetime Achievement Award for Actress Who Allows Herself to Be De-Glamorized to Best Serve the Role (you’ll know what I mean when you see it).

  

Al Pacino once explained his attraction to a project by tapping his finger to his temple and noting that the director had “a vision.” That director was Warren Beatty and the project was the bloated Dick Tracy.

The Coen Brothers’ first film demonstrates a true vision, one that has it flaws, but one that is unique and rich, through and through – a sun-drenched, steamy Texas noir potboiler that evokes Jim Thompson and James Cain, updated to include a very sly, dark humor. The plot takes numerous turns, but it is simple in its introduction.   A bartender (John Getz) runs off with the wife (Frances McDormand) of his boss (Dan Hedaya), who in turn puts a lethal private investigator (M. Emmett Walsh) on their trail. Walsh introduces the story in voiceover:

“The world is full of complainers. But the fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee. I don’t care if you’re the Pope of Rome, President of the United States, or even Man of the Year–something can always go wrong. And go ahead, complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help–watch him fly. Now in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else–that’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas…”

What follows is the twisted story of these four characters against the backdrop of a flat, unforgiving landscape. The photography is stunning, and the camera-work is assured, if sometimes a bit too film school flashy (as McDormand and Getz confront each other at his front door, a slo-motion newspaper crashes against it to startle us all). Composer Carter Burwell started his partnership with the Coens on this film, and his score is primarily solo piano, sparse and ominous.  Hedaya is the embodiment of the cowardly cuckold, but he seethes, almost a human pressure cooker. Walsh’s sleazy dick is repellant. He almost oozes, but he’s canny, using his “aw shucks” as a way to get the advantage. Getz and McDormand are weaker. Getz just doesn’t project and while I respect the Coens for eschewing the expected sultry, bored kept woman, McDormand’s character requires some charisma and sexuality to justify the risks taken on her behalf. She’s never been that kind of actress and here, she’s flat.

Still, this is a very good film, and as a debut, it’s all the more impressive, presaging the brilliance of Fargo.