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.”

Killing Them Softly - Wikipedia
The Assassination of Jesse James was a wildly 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 pretty slow-motion photography can change that fact. The story is also awkwardly juxtaposed against the 2008 financial crisis and the ascendance of Obama, seemingly all for one supposedly killer line by star Pitt that closes the film. Specifically, referring to Obama’s victory speech, Pitt rejoins: “This guy wants to tell me we’re living in a community? Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America, and in America, you’re on your own. America is not a country; it’s just a business. Now fucking pay me.”

Oof.  I mean, wince.  Sigh. Then, oof.

If the movie has worth, it is to see James Gandolfini (as a hitman who has lost his nerve) in one of his few post-Sopranos film roles.  

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.

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.

Image result for The Bay

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 40 - Wikipedia

A Bataan death march of a rom-com. Let me count the ways.

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.  Mann is a limited, mannered actress without a shred of heart. ready-made for a brief comic turn.  She is 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.  Nepotism . . .bad!  Rudd’s goofy, sweet smarm is tiresome.  If there was ever an actor who needed to play a villain quick, it’s Rudd.

2) The film is annoyingly haphazard.  Hey, we just ate 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, look at my asshole, honey.  Hey, we have fathers (John Lithgow and Albert Brooks) who do their schtick and both have young children.  Hilarious!

3) It feels as if Apatow let Mann and Rudd riff and most of it lays as flat and listless as a Navy base whore. Apatow definitely let Melissa McCarthy improv in one of the laziest, saddest scenes ever.  How the hell do you make Melissa McCarthy unfunny?

4) Apart from a few laughs provided by secondary characters, this movie is drudgery, and the leads do and say things so odious or stupid that not enough bad things can happen to them to satisfy the viewer.

5) If this couple has been married for 14 years, one of them would have to have been in a coma for 13 of them to avoid a murder-suicide.

6) The movie is over 2 hours long. Brutal.

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

8) A primary source of marital discord is money, but these people live in a mansion and want for nothing, so they are particularly punch-able.

9) As Dana Stevens of Slate so nicely put it, the flick is as funny as a hemorrhoid.

On the plus side, it features a nice Ryan Adams song. but alas, he has aged as well as the flick.

David Chase’s The Sopranos was a titanic television achievement, a violent, rich soap opera centered on a New Jersey crime family, adroitly crossing into the areas of everyday life of “civilians” and finding common cause in the political, familial, and cultural. But Chase was more an organizer of talent than a creator – he wrote very few of the episodes and only directed two. This is not a knock, but it may be relevant in evaluating Chase’s first underwhelming feature length film, Not Fade Away.

The picture opens with the chance first meeting of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger but quickly swings back to 1960s New Jersey, where another band is forming. Chase captures the awkwardness of the early house show; the various personalities (the guitarist who always needs more time for the band to be “ready” and the jealous former frontman, sidelined to back-up because of a weaker voice); and the juice of a well-played song.

But just when you think the story might go somewhere, Chase reverts back to the lead singer’s (James Magaro) depressing home life, where his dying father (James Gandolfini) harangues him for his long hair and his mother kvetches in full Livia Soprano mode. When we get back to the incremental steps of the band, we are again diverted to the domestic woes of Magaro’s girlfriend (Bella Heathcoate) and her own miserable homelife (her Dad is a scotch-swilling GOP square and her sister is a free spirit soon to be forcibly institutionalized).

The leads are weak. As the band’s budding lead singer, Magaro provides no more than smarm and edge, though he performs a convincing transformation from dork to Dylanesque cool. His mercurial girlfriend Heathcoate is leaden and charmless.

Worse, very little happens in this dark (and by dark, I mean inexplicably dimly lit, as if the 60s is best evoked by dingy exposition), moody, mostly joyless picture. We get some affecting vignettes and then what feels like filler after there is no follow up. The end is a preposterous paen to the power of rock n’ roll that is more peculiar than poignant.*

That said, had this been the first two episodes of a miniseries, who knows? I certainly would have continued to watch.

*. Having just read this sentence, I am forced to add “so put that in your pipe and puff on it, Pancho.”

Detropia on iTunes
This documentary doesn’t chronicle the decline of Detroit so much as provide a pastiche of the city’s current plight through the eyes of union workers, street folks, a bar owner, a video blogger, and various other denizens. While there is a faint whiff of class warfare, mainly dramatized by juxtaposing the opulent Detroit opera house (subsidized by the auto companies) with the rundown bleakness of the surrounding area, the thrust of the documentary is visual rather than thematic or political. The regular haunts and isolated neighborhoods are shot in extended, mournful stretches, the people are captured reminiscing in their natural element, and the depiction of the old abandoned structural dinosaurs of the city evokes dystopian films and the work of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.

At its best, ParaNorman is a funny, clever and visually appealing stop-motion animated feature about a boy who must save his town from the emergence of zombies.  Unfortunately, the characters are a bit stock and thin (the zombies, who are cursed for having wrongly hung a witch back in the day, are the most realized of all the characters).  Worse, it bangs away “lessons” about bullying.  It also continues the recent trend of making almost all adults stupid, cruel and retrograde (Frankenweenie) and likening the world they have created to a gross, materialistic craphole (The Lorax, WALL-E, Happy Feet).

Mostly enjoyable, but the unsubtle p.c. preaching should stay in public schools where it belongs.