Cards on the table, I never read Tolkien, and I associate people who did (and do) with weirdos from high school who played Dungeons and Dragons and/or attend Renaissance festivals. I realize this is a blinkered view, but there you have it. I also watched the first two Lord of the Rings movies in the theater, fell asleep in both, woke up, and then fell asleep again (only two other films have elicited such a reaction – Gandhi and Passage to India – which suggests a weariness brought on by geography rather than production). I turned off the third Lord of the Rings DVD when the good guys enlisted very large trees and un-killable ghosts as their allies.

Since that time, my son has grown up, and he urged me to watch The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. My initial try was on a flight to LA, but after a decent setting of the scene (the dwarf king gets gold fever and a big dragon with a bigger gold fever fucks his kingdom up), the film quickly became wearying, as dispossessed dwarves arrive at the home of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), eat all his food, sing a sad song and head off on what promised to be a very long, tiresome adventure. I tried again with my son on Sunday, and we got perhaps an hour into the film when Bilbo and the dwarves run into three giants (they look like the troll in Harry Potter, but they talk about what they are going to cook and eat in silly voices just south of Jar Jar Binks). A big fight ensues.  Dwarves are tossed about like ragdolls yet never injured, and the trolls are furiously hacked but never bleed. Bilbo is captured and a Mexican standoff ensues – the dwarves have to drop their weapons or Bilbo will be ripped to pieces. The dwarves drop their weapons, and in the next scene, half are being slow-roasted over a spit and the other half are trussed up for later cooking.

That was the deal these idiots made? Spare Bilbo and in return, the giants can slow roast and eat ALL of you?

I had no intention of continuing with this unexpected adventure any further. It didn’t help that my son qualified his recommendation with ”it’s a good movie if you’re in those great lounge chairs at the Courthouse theaters and you have all the Coke and candy you want and you have nothing better to do.” Or that after that very scene, he remarked, “still about 2 hours to go.”

The Assassination of Jesse James was an impressive American debut by director Andrew Dominik, but the director’s dreamlike, meditative style does not lend itself to a basic, gritty crime story. This tale of a hitman (Brad Pitt) laboring under the fiscal corner-cutting and meddling of his employers on a pedestrian job is dull, and no amount of admittedly pretty slow-motion photography can change that fact. The story is awkwardly juxtaposed against the 2008 financial crisis and the ascendance of Obama, all for one killer line by star Pitt that closes the film, though the line is not near as reflective or profound as producer Pitt might believe.

This biopic of Alfred Hitchcock’s making of Psycho attempts to juggle three stories:  the strain on the relationship between the director (Anthony Hopkins) and his wife (Helen Mirren), Hitchcock’s own perverse infatuations with his leading ladies, present and former (Scarlett Johannson as Janet Leigh and Jessica Biel as Vera Miles), and the actual making of the movie, with its unsettling, revolutionary ties to the Ed Gein murders.  Each of these threads is presented in a tepid and/or listless manner.

Hopkins and Mirren are quite good, but the script gives Hitch little to do but mope about his wife’s inattention, and Mirren’s near-dalliance with another writer (Danny Huston) is a bit uncomfortable.  Either the 68 year old Mirren, or Alma Hitchcock (she was 60 at the time of the making of Psycho) are too old for the communication of unquenched sexual urges necessary for the role.

As for Hitchcock’s own urges, the film cops out.  The director is shown as a peeping tom, and any darker heart is reflected only by his silly imagined conversations with Gein.  Leigh and Miles commiserate a bit on the director’s peculiarities, but nothing particularly upsetting is revealed, and neither actress is capable of delivering some deeper psychic injury or fear.  At best, they cluck, “oh, be careful.  You know old Hitch.” Given the director’s very disturbing behavior prior to, during and after Psycho, the wispy treatment seems cowardly. But even if the filmmakers were reluctant to travel that dark path, they missed many other opportunities to illuminate the eccentricities of the director. The lore has it that Leigh and Hitchcock were both unhappy with John Gavin’s work in his love scene with the former, and that Hitchcock instructed her to “take matters in her own hands” to amp up the passion. Yet this gem of a vignette is left out?

Finally, there is the risky making of Psycho, a film Hitchcock bankrolled himself when the studio became leery over the subject matter.  Hitchcock is ostensibly based on Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello. which I have not read but hope is more interesting than was portrayed in the film.  The making of the film is characterized as worrisome at times. The director’s financial stress is shown, and he pouts when his wife is away, but that’s about it. Nothing of Hitchcock’s craft is developed, and some of the hurdles, such as the fight with the censors over the shower scene, are played mainly for laughs. So much is missed.

Take Rebello in a 2010 interview:

But she is killed in the shower in the novel. In fact, Hitchcock told many people that he was most attracted by Bloch’s notion of a murder coming out of the blue in an everyday, confined setting—the shower, where we feel relaxed and complacent but where we’re utterly vulnerable.  Hitchcock was thrilled with the idea of shocking audiences by casting a major star as the heroine and killing her off so early in the picture. That violated every Hollywood rule. Bloch’s heroine has her head cut off in the shower, not exactly the kind of thing that even Hitchcock could have gotten away with, even if he had been tempted. Bates in the novel is middle-aged, pudgy, alcoholic, brooding, unattractive, repugnant. He also has extensive conversations with his mother, which would have been fatal and a cheat on film. Casting Anthony Perkins was a lucky masterstroke; he’s as charming, attractive, sad, perverse, and lethal as earlier Hitchcock killers like the one Joseph Cotten played in Shadow of a Doubt and Robert Walker played in Strangers on a Train. Perkins had already worked with top directors like William Wyler, Anthony Mann, and Stanley Kramer, and Paramount had spent lots of money promoting him as a successor to the late James Dean or comparing him to the young James Stewart or Henry Fonda. Although he had become a teen idol and even made some hit records, things hadn’t quite clicked and, at the time, Perkins felt typecast and owed Paramount a movie. Hitchcock could hire him inexpensively. It was a perfect storm.”

There is so much here, but the film merely gives us Hitchcock cackling at killing Leigh early and the tut-tutting over the ghastly plot, with Alma disapproving, the powers that be huffing “You can’t do that!” and Hitch gleeful as the bad little boy.

One added point.  As noted, Johannson and Biel are pedestrian, but they aren’t the only ones.  The bullying studio head is played in embarrassingly broad fashion by Richard Portnoy, James D’Arcy’s Anthony Perkins is an impression rather than an embodiment, and Ralph Macchio is unfortunately unearthed for a short scene as the writer, Joseph Stefano.  The Karate Kid is not missed.  And I can watch Robocop only so often to remove the taste of yet another Kurtwood Smith uptight authority figure performance.

At the end, you’re left with a damning question – why make this picture?  It does little to communicate Hitchcock’s demons or his genius, it meanders and plays it safe, an unfortunate testament for a cinematic trailblazer. One that should not have been delegated to director Sacha Gervasi, whose resume’ is anchored by his 2008 documentary of a Canadian metal band, Anvil: the Story of Anvil.

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.

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The Bay had a few things in its favor going in.  Director Barry Levinson is no slouch.  The “found media” approach is appealing to me, as is evidenced by my affection for the Paranormal Activity movies. And the premise – a small Maryland town is plagued by a bacteria that cuts through it on a July 4th celebration – had promise.  Two factors, one personal to me and the other a colossally stupid decision on Levinson’s part, resulted in my turning the flick off about a third in.

I’ll take my lumps first.  I can handle slashers (if not gore porn), serial killers, unsettled ghosts, zombies . . . you name it.  But a plague of pustules and vomiting blood and boils? A very, very hard ask.  And then, there were afflicted children.  Damn, this better be good.

It wasn’t. Levinson was more interested in making an eco-horror tract than an actual scary movie.  As such, once his narrator (a witness to the July 4th disaster who is video-blogging) introduces us to the source of the plague (apparently, chicken shit being run off into the Chesapeake Bay), we learn that near everybody but our narrator dies.  At the outset!  She even points out people in the collated footage and says, “he dies” and “he doesn’t survive the day.” So, within 15 minutes, the audience knows the source of the killings and pretty much who dies.

Hell if I’m going to sit through pustules and boils on children under such circumstances.

This is shit.  A Bataan death march of a rom-com. For several reasons.

1) As secondary characters in Knocked Up, Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann were welcome respites from the manic upheaval of the leads.  As primary characters, they outstay their welcome very quickly.

2) Mann is a limited, mannered actress without a shred of heart.  She’s also director Judd Apatow’s wife.  He lightens her wispy load by primarily having her repeat the lines of other characters quizzically or allowing her to deliver others with a lilting, sing songy chirp. He also uses his daughters, the younger of whom is charming and genuine and the older of whom is as grating and one-note as her mother.

3) Rudd’s goofy, sweet smarm has also outworn its welcome.  Apatow has written a douchebag character and chose the “go to” douchebag actor to play him. If there was ever an actor who needed to play a villain quick, it’s Rudd.

4) The film is annoyingly haphazard.  Hey, we have a marijuana cookie.  Hey, we’re going to the doctors and we have witty things to say as they explore the orifices of our just-turned-40 bodies.  Hey, we have fathers (John Lithgow and Albert Brooks) who do their schtick and both have young children.

5) It feels as if Apatow let Mann and Rudd riff. Most of it is not funny. He definitely let Melissa McCarthy improv in one of the laziest, saddest scenes ever.

6) Apart from a few laughs provided by secondary characters, this movie is not funny or illuminating, and the characters are for the most part so odious or stupid that not enough bad things can happen to them to satisfy the viewer.

7) If this couple has been married for 14 years, one of them had to have been in a coma for 13 of them.

8) It’s over 2 hours long. Brutal.

9) The film confuses sexual frankness and obscenity with the funny, as if saying cock and fuck a lot does the trick.

10) Or, as Dana Stevens of Slate so nicely put it, as funny as a hemmorhoid.

On the plus side, it features a nice Ryan Adams song.