Sunday, November 07, 2010

The King of Comedy (1982)

Well, this is one of those movies that I can’t even properly review, because I didn’t watch the whole thing. Fact is, I only lasted about 25 minutes. Still, I think that says something. This film is so flaccid and boring that I simply couldn’t go on. Robert De Niro acts like a guy who knows he is a great actor and thinks that means he can play a borish schlub without any engaging qualities. Martin Scorcese thinks he can make a movie called “The King of Comedy” and not provide any actual comedy. Maybe they can, but it doesn’t mean I have to watch.

I read several reviews of “The King of Comedy” to see if there would be a payoff if I dove back in, but it sounds like the whole movie pretty much keeps to the tone set in the first half-hour. Annoying, emotionally retarded people engage in boring, overextended conversations. The story is that De Niro’s character, Rupert Pumpkin, lives in his mom’s basement and works a boring job, but he fantasizes that he is going to be a great comedian someday. He is obsessed with getting on a late night show hosted by his Carson-esque idol, played by Jerry Lewis. Apparently Rupert kidnaps his idol in an effort to get on the show. Sounds like a fun premise. Lots of reviewers praise this film, but I notice that none of them are able to bring themselves to suggest that “The King of Comedy” is fun to watch.

I’ll bet you can impress people at a certain type of party by talking about what an amazing, under-rated Scorcese movie this is. Please don’t invite me to that party.

No stars.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Stardust Memories (1980) *****

Woody Allen has always annoyed me a bit. His nebbishy, New York persona is hard for me to relate to. I have to admit, though, the guy is funny, and he’s a genius of a filmmaker. I just saw “Stardust Memories,” and I have to say that even among Allen’s filmography, this is a gem of a movie.

The film is an homage (or maybe more of a parody, if you will) to Federico Fellini’s “8 ½.” Just like “8 ½,” “Stardust Memories” is a stream-of-consciousness examination of the inner life of a famous movie director as he struggles to make a movie. Unlike Fellini’s director, who suffered writer’s block, Allen’s Sandy Bates character has already made the movie he wanted, but he is forced by the movie studio to create a new, more uplifting (marketable) ending. He does this while pursuing a love affair with one woman (Marie-Christine Barrault), reflecting on his failed affair with his ex-girlfriend (Charlotte Rampling), and considering an affair with a third (Jessica Harper). As the beautiful black-and-white footage unrolls, it is difficult to tell when we are in the present, in memory, or in fantasy. We are in Sandy Bates’ mind, which, like everyone’s, jumps around freely between these options.

I liked “Stardust Memories” considerably better than “8 ½.” Fellini’s film was a work of experimental genius, to be sure, but it was too long, and Fellini’s antagonist, Guido Anselmi, is too self-absorbed and weak of character to be much of a hero. I like my movies to have a hero, and unlikely as he is, Woody Allen manages to be a hero in this. Sandy is deeply flawed as a lover, but he engages in a small amount of growth during the movie, which is somehow enough to redeem his character.

There are a handful of films which are best described as Existentialist, and “Stardust Memories” is a masterpiece of the genre. The film begins with what is intended to be the end of Sandy Bates’s movie. Allen’s character sits alone on a train car filled with somber, sour-looking people. He looks across the tracks longingly at another train full of lively, happy people socializing, sharing wine, and basically having a ball. The trains take off, and Allen is miserable at being on the wrong train. When he arrives at his destination, however, he and his joyless companions find themselves at a garbage dump. As they walk through the trash, they are met by all the people from the happy train. They had very different journeys, but in the end, they all wound up in the same place. This is a rather blunt rendering of the more pessimistic side of Existentialism. The movie studio hates this ending, and Bates spends the movie dealing with his relationship issues and trying to come up with a more audience-friendly ending that won’t feel too contrived. He finds not one, but two solutions to the essential Existentialist problem: One is the pleasantly happy ending-on-a-train that he creates for his film, and the other is a quiet moment of bliss that is fully realized only as he looks back on it.

“Stardust Memories” beautifully balances the humorous and the profound. Watching it has given me a much deeper appreciation of Woody Allen’s genius. I think this movie may be slightly easier for someone who has already seen “8 ½,” but I think you will do fine with this movie as long as you come into it prepared for an atypical movie experience. This is a must-see for Existentialists everywhere!

5 stars out of 5

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) ****

My wife gets the credit for this one. Never in a million years would I have randomly selected a movie from the ‘60’s called “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.” That would have been my loss, because this movie is amazing! It falls under the category of movies about unconventional, inspiring teachers, e.g. “Dead Poets Society,“ but it is way more complex than most.

Maggie Smith plays Jean Brodie, a handsome, vivacious force of nature. She teaches at a girls’ school in the 1930’s and is beloved by the students and the male faculty. Rather than teaching straight history to her girls, she talks to them about art, poetry, and love, and takes them on walks around historic places. She sees a broad role for herself as an educator. As she tells one girl who admits to having no particular interests, “It is my job to give you interests.” It’s an admirable attitude, and Miss Brodie is truly devoted to her girls. She is also a woman ahead of her time, and quite the libertine. That she is able to get away with the occasional dalliance with a male faculty member is a testament to how widely she is admired by parents and former students.

There is a dark side to Miss Brodie’s dedication, though. She is equally devoted to her own romantic vision of herself, and as the story wears on we see that she is perfectly willing to sacrifice her girls on the alter of that vision. She is fond of telling her students that she is in her “prime,” and the implication is that they are lucky to be on the receiving end of wisdom from a woman in her prime. The sad part is that she is so self-deluded that she is incapable of seeing anything she does with her girls as wrong, even though it becomes apparent that Jean Brodie is capable of being a very bad influence indeed.

What makes this story so good is that Jean is neither completely good nor bad. Her failings are great, but she is also a great teacher. She offers her girls something besides rote memorization of historical facts. Doubtless most of her students grow up and look back on her as a great influence in their lives. On the other hand, she is enamored of fascist leaders Mussolini and Franco for some reason, and she takes every opportunity to impress her students with how great those leaders are. She gives a lot of herself to her girls, but it sometimes seems that she is mainly interested in her students as an audience for herself.

I find it interesting that so many people name “Dead Poets Society” as their favorite movie. Clearly there is something resonant in the story of an unconventional teacher inspiring his students in extraordinary ways. I’ll bet we all wish we had had a teacher like Robin Williams’s Mr. Keating. The thing about that movie, though, is that it is rather simplistic. There is never any doubt that Mr. Keating is right, and the hard-ass father who wants to send his son to military school is wrong. “Dead Poets Society” is about the value of questioning things and debating different ideas, but the movie really leaves no room for debate. On the other hand, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brody” gives the audience the opportunity at the end to judge for ourselves just how badly Jean Brodie transgressed. It’s the kind of thought-provoking film that I think Mr. Keating would approve of.

4 stars

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Running Man (1987) **

I’m not sure why I re-watched this piece of 1980’s silliness. I saw it on the Netflix watch-it-now list, and just went for it. Not much of an excuse, I know. This was from the height of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie stardom, and the studio clearly understood that the only way they could go wrong was by driving the audience away by making a movie that was too smart. They took no chances on that. And yet, “The Running Man” still manages to be a somewhat entertaining movie, and there are times when the filmmakers let us know that they are in on the joke.

The movie is based on a novel by Stephen King. In a dystopian future world, Arnold plays Ben Richards, a cop who gets framed for murdering dozens of civilians. He escapes from prison with members of an underground resistance group, gets arrested again, and winds up on the TV game show “The Running Man.“ The show represents the logical outcome of an entertainment culture that is racing to see who can best pander to the most prurient and debased tastes of the lowest common denominator. Convicted felons are forced to run a deadly gauntlet of gimmicky gladiators. If they make it through, they supposedly get their freedom, but most get messily murdered on-screen. Richards and his friends try to negotiate this deadly game while finding a way to subvert the network satellite link and broadcast the truth about the game and the government that supports it across the world.

It’s not a bad premise for a movie, but great things should not be expected from this film. “The Running Man” is largely pitched to teenage boys, and there isn’t much substance. This is purely an action movie, and it’s okay as far as that goes, although I find even the action sequences to be a bit lazy and ponderous compared to a movie like “Die Hard.“ This is also one of those action flicks that is all about the “glib” one-liners, and man, they suck! Example: After Richards cuts one of the gladiators in half with a chainsaw, he says, “He had to split.” These kind of lines are forced and painful, and they have ruined many an action movie, with the James Bond films being a case in point. I seem to remember thinking these zingers were funny as a teenager, though, so I guess the filmmakers knew how to speak to their audience.

Now for the good parts: First, Richard Dawson is awesome! He is the old host of the game show, “The Family Feud,” and he plays the host of the Running Man brilliantly. This guy really should have done more movies. Future Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura has a small role as well, and does it up right. In fact, his character points out something about the movie that annoyed me, which made me then like the film more. All the gladiators have some sort of gimmicky weapon, like fire or electricity, which makes them really silly. Ventura plays a retired gladiator who gets called back into service after Ben Richards dispatches all the others. Ventura storms into the production room wearing some silly, creaky metal armor and starts ripping the pieces off, saying, “I don’t need this crap. I used to kill guys like this with my bare hands.”

Here’s one of the most bizarre things in the movie, and I don’t whether it was intended with irony or not. Early on, there are shots of the “Running Man” audience cheering lustily for the gladiators to kill Richards and his friends. Later, after the resistance broadcasts the truth, there are shots of the same audience lustily cheering on Richards and the resistance as they trash the TV station and fight the police. Did all those people in the bars and on the streets suddenly become enlightened citizens? Are they going to go out and fight for true democracy now? Or are they just happy to see some violence, no matter who is supplying it? Maybe I should get the actual DVD and see if there is a commentary that discusses that. On the other hand, maybe it doesn’t make sense to invest any more time in this movie.

2 Stars

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Town (2010) ****

I suppose I’ll have to retire the Ben Affleck Test for good now. I described this test before in my review of “Hollywoodland.” Basically, in the past, for any movie I was considering watching, I would just ask myself, “Is Ben Affleck in it?” If the answer was yes, then I wouldn’t watch the movie. Simple, right? In the last few years, though, Affleck has managed to get himself together, and the test just doesn’t work anymore, as proven by his latest project, “The Town.” Oh well, at least there’s still the Keanu Reeves Test.

Based on Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince of Thieves, “The Town” is very much a Ben Affleck project. He helped write the screenplay, directed, and starred in the film. Affleck plays Doug Macray, a poor Boston-Irish guy who robs banks with his buddies. Doug plays with fire by getting into a relationship with the manager from one of the banks he robbed, while Jon Hamm’s FBI agent Frawley breathes down his neck.

There is nothing remarkable about the plot of “The Town.” It is a standard heist movie. What makes the film stand out is the top-notch performances from basically everyone in the movie, which must be a testament to Affleck, who directed them all. Jon Hamm is cool and edgy as an FBI agent, and way less annoying than Al Pacino was in “Heat.” Jeremy Renner is amazing as Doug’s dumb-but-loyal, sociopathic best friend. Blake Lively is absolutely unrecognizable as a skanked-out oxycontin-whore and Doug’s ex-girlfriend. Affleck himself is completely likeable and natural in his role. My favorite performance here, however, is that of Rebecca Hall, as the bank manager who unwittingly falls for a bank robber. I remember Hall and her natural, laid-back beauty from “Vicky Christina Barcelona.” The thing about Hall is that she wouldn’t be instantly considered the hottest girl at an Oscar party, but the more I look at her face, the more I dig her. It isn’t just her looks that make her shine in “The Town,” though. She totally nails the vulnerability and strength of this character.

I don’t know what this movie’s place in history will be. Other than tight acting and some nice camera work, there is nothing that will necessarily make this film be remembered twenty years from now. “The Town” is great entertainment for today, but in the long run it may simply be remembered as the movie that proved, once and for all, that Ben Affleck is no joke.

4 stars

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Timer (2009) ****

The cool thing about “Timer” is that it doesn’t look like Science-Fiction, but it is. My definition of Sci-Fi is that the writer comes up with a single, central technological reality that might exist in the future, and the story should just unfold naturally from there. In good Sci-Fi, everything that happens should feel like a natural consequence of that technological conceit. Good Science -Fiction is always posing the question, “What would happen if…?” What would happen if aliens landed? What would happen if an alien got lost and some kids found it? What would happen if there were manufactured humans with a limited life-span who weren’t allowed on earth. What if mankind abandoned Earth to live in a giant spaceship while cute little robots cleaned up our Earthly messes? And so on.

The question posed by “Timer” is, “What if you could know years ahead of time the exact moment you were going to meet your One True Love?” Dating would be unnecessary, which would either remove a lot of the pain from life or remove a lot of the excitement, depending on your attitude. If you did date, then it could just be for fun and sex, but every relationship would feel poisoned from the start. This kind of knowledge might free your energies for other pursuits or it could be really depressing. The timer in this movie is a device that gets attached to your wrist sometime after puberty. It analyzes hormones, DNA, etc. and establishes a long-distance link with whomever you are destined to be with, and both timers then count down to the predicted moment of your meeting. This only works if the other person has a timer, too, which most people in the free world do in this movie. Most people are walking around with timers counting down to a point 6 months, a year, maybe 5 years in the future when they will finally meet their True Love. Oona (Emma Caulfield) has had a blank timer since the age of thirteen, which means that her intended, if he (or she) exists, is wandering around out there without a timer. Naturally, she only dates men without timers, and only until she convinces them to get a timer implanted, and each time she is disappointed when her timer doesn’t sync up with theirs. Oona’s desperation is matched only by the despair of her sister Steph (Michelle Borth). Steph’s timer is running, but it says she won’t find true love until some time in her late forties. Her reaction is to pursue a series of one-night stands, and only with men who have timers, since that eliminates any pressure. The obvious narrative outcome here is that Oona finds herself falling for a guy with a timer while Steph breaks her rule and gets interested in a man without one. Hilarity and drama ensue.

We heard about “Timer” due to its excellent reception at the Tribeca Film Festival. It feels like a film festival movie, meaning it doesn’t have big stars in it, and it doesn’t feel dumbed down. It’s a little bit of a chick-flick, but it’s a sci-fi chick-flick, which is a rare animal. The acting is excellent, the babes are hot, and it’s a completely entertaining little romantic dramedy.

4 stars.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Hannie Caulder (1971) ***

There really isn’t much to say about “Hannie Caulder.” Raquel Welch plays Hannie, a gal out for revenge after three low-lifes murder her husband and rape her. She gets a badass bounty hunter (Robert Culp) to teach her the way of the gun, then she gets that revenge, all while looking fabulous.

As revenge westerns go, this is just alright. Robert Culp’s bounty hunter is a pretty cool character, and Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, and Strother Martin are darkly hilarious as the evil Clemens brothers. The movie might have been better if they had gotten a better actress than Raquel Welch, but it wouldn’t have looked nearly as good.

I guess I might be more enthusiastic about “Hannie Caulder” if I weren’t a little burned out on a certain brand of movie gun fighting, which is by no means limited to westerns. I’m sick of seeing people run around with their finger on their trigger, sick of people getting ten shots out of a six-shooter, and sick of people in gunfights waiting for the other guy to draw first, as if that provides some sort of strategic advantage. I will say that Robert Culp’s character tries to give Hannie some actual useful advice, but in the end she doesn’t really follow any of it. Oh well, it’s a fairly fun, stylized movie, and they could have done a lot worse.

3 stars

Sunday, September 05, 2010

La Dolce Vita (1960) ****1/2

Italian for “The Sweet Life,” this film is ironically titled. It is basically the story of a guy in a mid-life crisis. He has a cush, easy life, but he doesn’t consider it sweet. Marcello (played by Marcello Mastroianni) is a dapper, successful gossip magazine editor. He glides smoothly through the elite social circles of Rome, mixing with movie stars and artists and presiding over a gaggle of ruthless photographers. (One of the photographers is named Papparazzo, which is where we got the term “papparazzi.”) Despite the glamour of his life, Marcello feels trapped and dissatisfied. He has a loving live-in girlfriend, but she doesn’t challenge him enough, so he chases more dangerous women. He longs to be a serious writer, but he lacks the courage to give up what he has in order to pursue what he wants.

“La Dolce Vita” follows Marcello through a number of wild nights and bitter mornings as he struggles with these issues, floating from party to party, woman to woman. At one point Marcello’s father visits, and proves to be a charming, but aging bon-vivant. Marcello seems torn between admiring his dad and fearing becoming like him. A wise, older friend seems to offer an example for Marcello to follow, but he tragically disappoints him. Marcello meets a young girl who reminds him of his own youthful innocence and aspirations, but later he sees the same girl and fails to recognize her, symbolizing how much he has lost track of who he is.

Marcello’s existential struggle is one that we all face when we realize that we are still young enough to change the direction of our lives, but that our time is running out. Marcello has discovered that he isn’t going to find happiness in affairs and orgies, but he can’t seem to give them up. I find myself wishing that Fellini had imagined a redemption for Marcello so that he could have been a role model for us, not just a mirror. Ultimately, Marcello doesn’t find an answer, which is realistic, but unsatisfying.

This long, meandering film left me feeling a bit empty, but if it is hard on the heart, at least it is easy on the eyes. “La Dolce Vita” is filmed beautifully in black & white and is filled with beautiful women. Mastroianni is a tremendous actor, able to speak volumes with a single line or just a change of expression. This movie demonstrates why Fellini is one of the Masters.

4.5 stars.

For anyone who is interested, I highly recommend Roger Ebert’s review of “La Dolce Vita” at:

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Winter’s Bone (2010) *****

Well, y’all just need to see this one. You may have heard that “Winter’s Bone” is bleak or hopeless, but it really isn’t. It’s dark, but that’s different. I don’t want to ruin it for you, but the fact is, this movie has a hero and a more or less happy ending.

“Winter’s Bone” is a noir mystery set in the backwoods Ozarks. The story follows a 17-year-old girl named Ree Dolly, played with astonishing power by Jennifer Lawrence. (If Lawrence doesn’t get an Oscar nomination out of this role, then something is seriously wrong.) Ree’s dad is a methamphetamine cooker, and her mom is completely disabled by some sort of psychotic depression. The raising of herself and her two younger siblings has fallen squarely on Ree’s young shoulders, forcing her to drop out of school in order to chop enough wood, shoot enough squirrels, and basically scrape the bottom of the barrel enough to keep her family going. It seems like she might be strong enough to actually pull it off until the sheriff comes around to explain that her no-account daddy put the family home up for bond, then skipped town. If he doesn’t show up for his court date, the house and land will go to the county, and the family will be homeless. In Ree’s meth-head neck of the woods, you simply don’t talk to the cops, so Ree uses what little she knows about her dad’s potential whereabouts to go looking for him herself. Since this is the backwoods, the quest involves visiting a series of relatives and distant relatives, each of whom is scarier than the last, and none of whom is happy to see the little girl with the wayward daddy. One woman asks Ree, “Don’t you have men to do this?” Of course, Ree doesn’t. All she has is herself, which is a lot more than you might think.

I came into this movie expecting a really depressing, naturalistic story that would be hard to watch. I was thrilled to find myself watching a suspenseful mystery that contains at least a glimmer of hope. Ree Dolly is one of the best movie characters I have seen in years. She can be stoic and reticent, as you would expect from someone who grew up where and how she did. She can also be very kind and gentle when caring for her mom and siblings. Some of the film’s best scenes are when she is taking the kids to school while drilling them on their lessons, or teaching them how to cook, clean a squirrel, or shoot a gun.

Ree does live in a very rough world, though. The setting is extremely rural, where everyone has pigs, cows, and old cars in the yard, and everyone is related in some way. You would think these kinships would bind the community together so that people would help Ree and her family, and some people do help some, but unfortunately the community is fractured by the methamphetamine trade. It seems everyone Ree knows is using it, dealing it, or both. Most rural communities have a strong religious vein in them, but due to the meth trade, it seems the only religion in Ree’s neighborhood is silence. Ree’s stoicism and resignation in this world is heartbreaking. When she teaches her brother to clean a squirrel, he pulls out a handful of guts and asks, “Do we eat this part?” Ree replies, “Not yet.” Later, her uncle snorts some meth in front of her and asks, “You gotten the taste?” Once again, Ree’s answer is, “Not yet.” How poignant is it that at seventeen Ree has already had so many disappointments that she can no longer rule out even the vilest of possibilities? The best she can come up with is, “Not yet.”

I grew up in a rural area, and I live in the Ozarks now, and I feel comfortable saying that “Winter’s Bone” gets its characters pretty much exactly right. That’s not to say, however, that these characters should be considered representative of rural people in general, any more than “The Godfather” is representative of Italians. One thing that isn’t apparent in the film, and this may be my only criticism of the movie, is that even though the meth trade is pervasive where Ree lives, there are probably plenty of decent, hard-working country people there who have nothing to do with meth. Ree, however, wouldn’t know those people. Because her family is known to be mixed up in drugs, law-abiding people wouldn’t associate with her family or let their kids be friends with Ree and her siblings. Ree and her family are in dire straights because they have no one but criminals and drug addicts to turn to.

People are going to bring their politics to this movie, but this is not a political movie. This is a story of real people who are too complex to yield to ideological judgments. Ree’s uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) initially seems like a badass, abusive meth-head, and he is those things. He also turns out to have some genuine nobility, as does Merab (Dale Dickey), the rough-hewn wife of the local meth-dealing patriarch. A lot of people will want to know where the government is in this story. Why hasn’t Child Protective Services come in to save these children? Part of the answer is that, as screwed up as these people are, they have too much pride to turn to the government for help. With a long tradition of moonshine and illegal drugs behind them, these are a people who have grown accustomed to shunning agents of the government. The other issue is that a government solution would almost certainly involve splitting Ree’s family up, sending the kids to foster care, and she makes it clear in one scene that that is not acceptable.

In the end, winter throws Ree a bone, which she dearly deserves. Her mom is still mentally ill, her life is still hard, but for a little while longer, at least, Ree can continue to say, “Not yet.”

5 stars out of 5

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Adventureland (2009) **1/2

The best thing about seeing “Adventureland” is that I don’t have to watch any of the “Twilight” movies to find out if Kristen Stewart lives up to her hype. The answer is - not even close. She is a vaguely good-looking, minimally competent actress, and I cannot explain why she is on the cover of so many magazines. I guess Ayn Rand was right. A movie studio would rather take someone mediocre and build them up than have to control someone with real star power like an Angelina Jolie.

Aside from Kristen Stewart‘s somnambulistic performance, “Adventureland” is a moderately entertaining little movie. Jesse Eisenberg (from “Roger Dodger”) is pretty charming as James, a new college graduate whose summer and grad-school plans get derailed by his dad’s unexpected demotion at work. He takes the only job he can find in a recession, running games at a local amusement park. Martin Starr (from “Freaks and Geeks) puts in a nice performance as James’s co-worker and friend. Kristen Stewart breathes through her mouth and underwhelms as James’s love interest, while Ryan Reynolds turns in an uninspired performance as a hot, older guy.

Watching this movie, I was struck by how all these people in their early twenties seemed like they were in high school. James is still completely financially dependent on his parents, and he takes a job that is barely suitable for an 18-year-old. The depressing thing is, this is still pretty realistic. A college degree and $2.50 will pretty much get you a cup of coffee these days.

“Adventureland” misses out on the opportunity to be this generation’s “The Graduate,” which is a shame, because the setup initially seems pretty promising. Jesse Eisenberg is not a bad actor, and he does some good work here. I don’t know if he’s quite a Dustin Hoffman, however, and even if he is, I don’t know that this film ever aspired to that level. In any event, Kristen Stewart is no Katherine Ross, and Ryan Reynolds is definitely no Anne Bancroft. “Adventureland” is kind of like winning a prize at an amusement park. I wish I could pay a couple more bucks, throw a couple more balls, and trade Kristen Stewart in for a giant, stuffed panda.

2.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938)

We watched these two Hitchcock films because, “Hey, it’s Hitchcock,” and I had never seen them before. One was just okay, and the other was really good.

In “The 39 Steps,” Robert Donat plays Richard Hannay, a dashing guy who lets himself get picked up by a girl. It turns out she is a spy, and when she is murdered by enemy agents, Hannay becomes a fugitive to escape the murder rap and carry out the girl’s mission to prevent the theft of British military secrets. The film starts out with an appealing level of mystery, but it begins to suffer from an abundance of narrow escapes and strained plot elements. For example, would a beautiful, cunning female spy really need to or choose to tell a random guy all about her espionage work in order to spend the night in his flat? Towards the end, the film completely loses its tone as Hannay engages in cute banter with a girl who gets caught up in his adventure (Madeleine Carroll.) “The 39 Steps” is just not one of Hitchcock’s best. For some reason, he never creates a Hitchcockian level of suspense, and the characters do too many things that make no sense. The movie still has some good parts, and the film might have been saved with a better lead. Unfortunately, Robert Donat just isn’t that great in this role, and the film didn’t spend enough time building his character up so that I would care about him. I suppose I’m in the minority here. Many people seem to think this is one of the great films, but I don’t happen to be one of them. It’s definitely no “North By Northwest.”

Fortunately, we watched “The Lady Vanishes” next, and it restored my artistic faith in Alfred Hitchcock. This film does everything right that “The 39 Steps” did wrong. Time is taken to develop the lead characters, and the romance between them builds naturally. The suspense in this one is also more what I expect from Hitchcock. The plot device of having the heroine and the audience know that something is wrong, while all the other characters deny it, works brilliantly. We identify with the heroine’s frustration while at the same time starting to doubt her.

Margaret Lockwood plays Iris Henderson, a spoiled, American playgirl enjoying a last European trip with her friends before her upcoming arranged marriage. During a railway outage, Iris befriends Miss Froy, a retiring governess on her way back to her native England. The next day, Iris, Miss Froy, and a colorful cast of international characters resume their rail journey. Suffering a mild head injury, Iris naps. When she awakens, Miss Froy is gone, and all the other passengers deny that the lady was ever on the train. What follows is pure fun as Iris struggles to find the truth with some help from a charming, English musician played with playful brilliance by Michael Redgrave.

“The Lady Vanishes” manages to create real mystery while being playful, something that “The 39 Steps” did not quite achieve. Both films are worth watching if you are a Hitchcock fan, but the priority definitely goes to “The Lady Vanishes.”

The 39 Steps 2.5 stars
The Lady Vanishes 4 stars

Sunday, July 11, 2010

8 ½ (1963) ****

Watching “8 ½” is a little like having sex for the first time. It takes a while to figure out how everything works. This classic by Federico Fellini uses a stream-of-consciousness style, interspersing and blending reality, memories, and fantasies. The story behind the movie is that Fellini wanted to make a film about a man suffering writer’s block. As he assembled his filmmaking team, including actors and financing, he found that the movie wasn’t coming together for him; he still hadn’t even decided what the protagonist’s profession would be. On the verge of cancelling the project, he hit upon the idea to just tell his own story of trying to make the film. Thus, “8 ½” is about a semi-fictitious director named Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) who finds himself creatively stumped while trying to make a movie. Fellini named it “8 ½” because it was his ninth film, but he didn’t think it counted as a fully realized movie. Little did he know that it would come to be seen by many as one of the great films.

The real-time part of the film is actually pretty mundane, as it follows Anselmi’s interactions with his film crew, his wife and his mistress. Blended into this narrative are bizarre and erotic elements from his memory as well as pure fantasy sequences, the best of which is a scene in which all the women he has loved or desired live together in a big house waiting to tend to all his needs. The movie is meant to reflect the actual mental processes that a person goes through on a daily basis as they shift their attention back and forth between reality and their inner life.

I can see why this is considered one of the great films. Fellini boldly uses the film medium in a completely new way. He doesn’t so much tell a story as expose his own soul frame by frame. I would absolutely recommend “8 ½” for anyone who is interested in art films, but be warned, this movie is long. Thinking about this film after the fact, I like it more and more, but while watching it, I found that it seemed to go on forever. Not only did I find myself bored at times, I found the frequent shifts between fantasy and reality to be off-putting. I once tried to read James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” I didn’t get very far, but I think there may be similarities between that book and “8 ½.”

In short, “8 ½” can be challenging to watch, but it is worth it if you are into this sort of thing.

4 stars

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Extract (2009) ****

How does this keep happening? Mike Judge will make a movie; hardly anyone sees it; it sneaks right past me in cinemas; and when I finally watch it, it’s brilliant. It happened with “Office Space,“ then “Idiocracy,“ and now it has happened with “Extract.“ Someone in Hollywood must be sabotaging this guy’s career. I don’t think any of his films has gotten a wide release or a decent promotional effort.

Conspiracy theories aside, “Extract” is excellent. It is not the classic that “Office Space” is, but in a way, it is a companion piece to “Office Space.” Where “Office Space” focused on the plight of employees, “Extract” comes from the perspective of an employer and all the headaches HE has to put up with. Jason Bateman is brilliant as Joel, the owner of a cooking extract factory. The role of businessman is an uncomfortable fit for Joel, who has a background in chemistry and actually invented the process used in his factory. He really wants to focus on research and development, but his long workdays are occupied with his idiot employees and their attitudes. He dreams of selling out and retiring. It seems his dream is about to come true when he gets an offer from a large food company, but things get sidetracked by an industrial accident. Meanwhile, things aren’t going so well at home for Joel, whose relationship with his wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig) has grown distant and sexless. He finally lets his bartender friend (Ben Afleck) convince him to pursue an affair with a gorgeous new temp worker at the factory (Mila Kunis), who is secretly a crook.

Good times, folks! Jason Bateman brilliantly plays the straight man in a crooked situation, not unlike his “Arrested Development“ role, actually. Mila Kunis is a convincing little con artist, not to mention a stone fox. Kristen Wiig is actually surprisingly foxy as well, and she brings a lot of humanity to a role that, in a lesser movie, would have been a 1-dimensional shrew. The rest of the supporting cast knocks it out of the park as well. Even Ben Affleck is funny as a drug-pushing, man-pimping, mop-hair-sporting bartender.

Hollywood has just got to start giving Mike Judge some respect. We’ve known the guy was a genius since “Beavis and Butthead,” and “Office Space” cleared up any questions about his ability to do a feature film. So why don’t people see his movies? I’d say it’s because no one knows about them. A studio will spend more promoting a film like “Sex and the City 2” than the entire budget for one of Judge’s films. I think it is because he makes fun of stupidity. Hollywood makes money pandering to the lowest common denominator, which is exactly the demographic that Mike Judge skewers in his films. The only solution I can think of is for smart people to make it a point to see his movies, preferably in cinemas, but on DVD if that fails. I’m doing my part; the rest is up to you.

4 stars out of 5

Friday, June 25, 2010

Get Him to the Greek (2010) ****

I absolutely loved “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” and one of the best things in the movie was clearly the sexually ravenous rock star Aldous Snow, played by Russell Brand. For those fans who felt, as I did, that they could have used a little more Aldous, I give you “Get Him to the Greek,” an entire movie about Aldous. It does not disappoint.

Jonah Hill (the fat one from “Superbad”) plays Aaron, a cog in the music industry and fan of Aldous Snow, “the last real rock star.” He convinces his boss Sergio (played with hilarious intensity by Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs) to help Aldous revive his ailing career by promoting an anniversary concert at the Greek Theatre in Las Angeles. Aaron gets what he thinks is his dream assignment when he is sent to London to fetch the off-the-wagon Aldous and get him safely and on time to L.A. for the concert. It’s a Herculean task, as Aldous is distracted by every opportunity along the way to get drunk, get high, or get laid.

I wasn’t sure going in whether I would like this movie. First of all, the title is horrible. Someone should lose his job over the title. Probably the same guy responsible for “The 40-year-old Virgin,” which was also awesome despite its title. I also didn’t know if the Aldous Snow character would hold up for an entire movie. He does! Russell Brand imbues Aldous with unexpected depth as well as new heights of hilarity. He is, like a true rock star, a mesmerizing figure. “Get Him to the Greek” also introduces a new, female version of Aldous in the form of pop star Jackie-Q (Rose Byrne.) Her song “Ring Around My Posie” might just make you wet yourself. Jonah Hill is hilarious as well, mainly because everything is just funnier when a big fat dude is doing it.

I have heard that a couple of people didn’t like this film. I can’t fathom that. I suppose that the scenes of puking, blood, and Jonah Hill getting things shoved up his butt might turn some people off. There, you’ve been warned. As long as you can handle some gross-out humor along with some sex-humor, drug-humor, and potty-mouth-humor, you’ll be good to go. Get yourself to “Get Him to the Greek.”

4 stars out of 5

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Date Night (2010)

It feels a bit surreal getting a babysitter and taking my wife on a date to see a movie about a guy getting a babysitter and taking his wife out on a date. It just made me feel a little self-conscious. It’s a good thing “Date Night” is such a dead funny film.

Steve Carell and Tina Fey play Phil and Claire Foster, married couple in a rut. They get along great, and clearly love each other, but the day to day grind of work, commutes, and kids saps the energy that they once had for each other. They do the same things all the time, and have reached a point where they think they know everything there is to know about each other. What this couple needs is a night of excitement, and boy, do they get it! When they pose as a couple with a reservation in order to get a seat at a fancy Manhattan restaurant, they are mistaken for the targets of a couple of Mob hit-men, and the night takes off from there. Good times ensue all over NYC, including car chases, Tina Fey in a stripper outfit, and Mark Wahlberg without a shirt. Along the way - you guessed it - the Fosters learn some new things about each other and rekindle that old flame.

“Date Night” is fairly formulaic, but executed in a manner that shows why the formula works. It’s a combination of screwball, slapstick, and action comedy that manages to be sweet without being sentimental. Fey and Carell are wonderful at creating comedy that respects the characters. When the Fosters take time out to have a Big Conversation and get some things off their chests, it feels like a real conversation between real people, not trite at all. The movie also benefits from a pretty much all-star cast, including Wahlberg as an impossibly cool security expert, James Franco and Mila Kunis as a cute pair of scumbags, William Fichtner as a politician, and Ray Liotta as a Mobster. “Date Night” isn’t destined to become a classic, but it’s loads of fun and a great date movie.

4 stars out of 5

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

This is a movie with an edgy premise that turns out to be rather conventional. Lars (Ryan Gosling) is an odd, withdrawn guy with Avoidant Personality Disorder. He lives in his brother’s garage, and can’t bring himself to socialize even with his family, although he is able to hold down a job. One day his porn-obsessed cubicle mate shows him a site with extremely realistic sex dolls, and six weeks later the UPS guy delivers Bianca, Lars’s new girlfriend.

Shocked at first, Lars’s family takes him to their wise, small-town doctor (Patricia Clarkson), who convinces them to go along with the delusion and give Lars a chance to work through his intimacy issues. Pretty soon the whole town is in on it, and it’s just a beautiful image of small-town America, where everybody knows everybody, and the people are so tolerant that they’ll prop a guy up while he debuts on the social scene with his plastic sex-surrogate girlfriend.

I get that this is a fairy tale and shouldn’t be judged on a literal basis. It would be great if folks were really this compassionate and open-minded. It would be great if all family docs were just doing medicine as a hobby and could afford to spend an hour or so every week with the same patient, talking around his problems. My beef with “Lars and the Real Girl” is that it is, frankly, trite. Everything is quite predictable, and the whole thing is just syrupy sweet.

One thing I did like about “Lars and the Real Girl” is the way it depicted moderately religious people. I’m not religious myself, but I’m sympathetic to the complaint that Hollywood acts as if Faith barely exists. In a matter of fact way, this film depicts its characters as having a church community as part of their everyday lives, which is how it is in much of the country. It isn’t preachy about this; I only mention it because it’s something you don’t see much in movies anymore. In gratitude, God should have helped them make this a better film.

2 stars out of 5

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Invention of Lying (2009)

Ricky Gervais co-wrote and co-directed this little gem, so of course it displays his signature brand of awkward humor. “The Invention of Lying” also features a serious, philosophical side of Gervais which I really liked.

Gervais plays Mark, a downtrodden guy in a world much like our own, except that everyone tells the truth, all the time. People aren’t even aware that they could do otherwise, and there is no word for lying. One day, in dire straits, Mark hits upon an amazing idea: He says “something that isn’t.” He tells a bank teller that his account contains more money than it really does. She takes his word for it, of course, and assumes that her computer is incorrect in showing a much smaller balance. With a wad of cash in hand, Mark goes out to pay his bills and reflect on this new possibility he has discovered. Soon he is using lies to fool a cop, get rich, and further his screenwriting career, which was traditionally limited to recounting true events from history.

Everything is going swell until Mark finds himself facing his mother on her death-bed. She is terrified of facing “an eternity of nothingness.” To ease her passing, Mark makes up his biggest lie yet: He tells her that rather than nothingness, she is going to a wonderful place when she dies, with a mansion, and she’ll get to see all the people she ever loved who have died. The fib works wonders, as Mark’s mom dies happy and peaceful, but the doctors and nurses overhear his story and spread the word about this “new information about what happens when we die.” Soon, Mark finds himself at the center of one gigantic, worldwide, snowballing lie.

“The Invention of Lying” could just as easily have been titled “The Invention of Religion,” and the point of the film, of course, is that the two are essentially equivalent. The film is not at all subtle in saying that religions are just a bunch of stories that people made up to make everyone feel better about death. No new philosophical ground is covered here, but “The Invention of Lying” deals with the subject quite amusingly, and you have to admire Gervais’s chutzpah. Hollywood frequently pretends that religion doesn’t exist, but it’s a rare film that directly espouses atheism.

Will religious people be able to enjoy this movie? I guess it depends on the person. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops rated “The Invention of Lying” as "O - morally offensive" calling it “venomous and pervasively blasphemous.” You can take the Bishopric at its word (full review at or check out the surprisingly open-minded review at a site called Christianity Today. (

Beyond the religion angle, “The Invention of Lying” obliquely explores some interesting ideas about the nature of social interaction and imagination. I found it interesting that the people in the fictitious world of this movie don’t just tell the truth when asked, they blurt out whatever is on their mind. When Mark and his date Anna (Jennifer Garner) enter a restaurant, the hostess says to the gorgeous Anna, “Hello, I’m threatened by you.” Mark’s secretary greets him with, “I’m thinking of how overqualified I am for my job, and how incompetent you are at yours.” People say these things without any malice or thought for how the other person will take it. It’s as if everyone in Mark’s world is semi-autistic. I think that co-writers Gervais and Robinson meant to suggest that the missing element in these people’s brains is imagination. They cannot imagine what another person might feel upon hearing a harsh comment any more than they can imagine saying something that isn’t so. When Mark unlocks his ability to lie, he uses it for personal gain, but he also starts telling little white lies and even holding back hurtful comments to spare others’ feelings. To circle back to the religion angle, Mark’s new ability to lie could be a metaphor for the biblical Fall. In Genesis, the Apple gave Adam and Eve awareness of Good and Evil, bringing them from an animal state of innocence to a more complex, more human state. Once he tells that first fib, Mark also steps up to a more human plane of existence, where he is more aware and more responsible for his own actions and for the effect they have on others.

There’s also a love story in here (Isn’t there always?), as Mark tries to woo Anna. The romantic angle in this film is nothing special, but I did like that Mark makes it a point not to use lies to win the girl because, as he later tells Anna, “It wouldn’t have counted.” At the end of the day, lies are only useful if they serve some kind of truth, and Mark wisely realizes that it is Anna’s love that he craves, not a facsimile of her love based on lies.

“The Invention of Lying” is not a perfect movie, but it is thoughtful and a lot of fun. In general, if you are a religious person, this film has the potential to make you uncomfortable. If you can handle it, I suggest you give it a watch.

3.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, May 08, 2010

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

I have seen worse movies than this, but I don’t think I have ever been more disappointed by one. This is one of the beloved films of the science-fiction pantheon. Arthur C. Clarke himself supposedly listed it as one of the ten best sci-fi movies of all time. I was full of anticipation for this one, but watching it, I wondered how a poorly-acted, almost action-less, stilted B-movie production became so widely praised.

The film begins with a UFO, which announces its presence to the earth by circling the globe, then landing in a Washington, DC park. Surrounded by soldiers and police, the saucer sits there for a while, and then a guy in a spacesuit emerges. And I mean a GUY in a spacesuit. No pointy ears, no third eye, nothing alien about the guy at all. He calls himself Klaatu, but he looks like an insurance salesman, which, in a way, is what he turns out to be. Klaatu comes to us in peace, with a message of warning to stop our warlike ways. He wants to give this message to all the leaders of earth, but he soon is told that earth’s leaders are too belligerent to agree to meet in one place. Klaatu decides that earth’s scientists might represent a better audience, so he embarks on a mission to get THEM together to hear his message. He needs a place to stay while doing all this, so he rents a room from a sweet old lady and bonds with his new single-mom neighbor.

There are all sorts of ways that this story could have been made funny, subversive, scary, or just interesting, but it is really none of those things. The anti-nuke, anti-war message is very straightforward, in an After-School-Special kind of way. The dialog and characters are just plain hokey, without a trace of wit, and the only suspense I felt during the film was, “When will it end?”

That image of a visored spaceman that you see on the movie posters and DVD packaging? That’s not Klaatu; it’s his invulnerable robot, which is powerful enough to destroy the entire earth. Imagine all the cool sci-fi action fun the film could have with such a being! Now keep on imagining it, because it doesn’t happen. The robot does very little, and hardly gets any screen time. I don’t mind that the special effects are cheesy, but they should have DONE SOMETHING with them. Let’s see that robot rampage through the city and do battle with the military! “The Day the Earth Stood Still” gives us none of that.

The most bizarre aspect of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is that the Earth doesn’t actually stand still! A space alien lands on earth, and yet the citizens of the city where he lands just read about it in the paper, then go on to their regular jobs and schools. The president sends a secretary over to chat with Klaatu rather than going himself! If this was supposed to be some clever plot device, like the grandfather who considers vampires just a local annoyance in “Lost Boys,” then it is played so straight that it goes right over my head.

I believe that “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was successful in 1951 because it tapped into a political and philosophical backlash against McCarthyism and the Cold War. The dominant mood of the country then may have been hawkish anti-Communism, but there were a significant number of peace-niks and, frankly, Communists, especially among academics and in Hollywood. (Actor Sam Jaffe, who played Professor Barnhardt (an obvious stand-in for Albert Einstein) was an admitted communist and was blacklisted.) “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was a movie for them and for anyone who felt sympathy for those ideas. The movie goes beyond a general call for peace and international cooperation, however. The film plays on the idea that individuals and even nations cannot be relied upon to behave, and must be overseen by some benign, all-powerful, secular entity. Producer Julian Blaustein admitted that he intended the film to be an argument for a strong United Nations. Even the U.N., of course, is an institution of men, and therefore fallible. What Klaatu offers is an army of invincible robots that are immune to corruption or politics and that will swoop in to punish any act of hostility or war, ensuring peace throughout the universe. What a classic Liberal fantasy! In counterpoint, the movie version of “The War of the Worlds” came out in 1953, two years after “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” although, of course, the famous radio broadcast preceded both films. H.G. Wells wrote “War of the Worlds” well before the Soviet Union existed, but audiences in 1953 doubtless viewed the bloodsucking invaders as symbols of the Russians. In “War of the Worlds” the aliens are defeated by an earth virus, an act of Divine intervention evocative of the Conservative fantasy that God would save us from the Communists.

This dichotomy was to become the standard blueprint for Science Fiction. Aliens were either evil invaders who had to be fought off (“Independence Day” “Aliens” “V”) or the bringers of enlightenment to benighted Earthlings, often threatened, as Klaatu was, by the violent paranoia of humans (“E.T.” “Star Trek: First Contact” Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End”). The type of sci-fi that appeals to you may be determined, in part, by whether you have an essentially Liberal or Conservative world view.

Of course, the biggest determinant of which sci-fi stories you will enjoy is, and should be, the quality of the storytelling. That’s where “The Day the Earth Stood Still” falls short. The movie feels like a cheap comic book. Plenty of people will disagree with me on this, but even for 1951, this movie is not a classic.

1 star

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)

If they gave an Oscar for Best Title, I think “Hot Tub Time Machine” would be an early contender. I mean, the movie doesn’t even need a trailer; the title tells you everything you need to know to decide whether or not to see it. This is pretty much a movie about people traveling through time in a hot tub.

It doesn’t do to focus too heavily on the plot, but the story is that Adam (John Cusack), Nick (Craig Robinson), and Lou (Rob Corddry) are 40-something guys whose lives kind of suck. They head out on a ski trip to their favorite old resort, where “Nobody gets carded, and everybody gets laid,” dragging along Adam’s nephew Jacob (Clark Duke). There, the guys booze it up, party in the hot tub, and, you guessed it, travel back to the ‘80’s. The hung-over buddies don’t realize anything is amiss at first, but gradually the hairstyles, music, and day-glo clothing start to clue them in. When Nick asks someone, “What color is Michael Jackson?” and she responds “Black,” they know they are in trouble. This sets up the best line of the film, when they all stand around the magic hot tub and Jacob asks, “Do I really gotta be the asshole who says we got in this thing and went back in time?” Then there’s some plot stuff about how the three older guys have to go back and do everything the same way they did it the first time around or else it will destroy the future (which sucks anyway, for these guys), but there’s no need to get too invested in the details. Just enjoy the drinking, pissing, puking, bleeding and disappointingly stingy sex scenes.

This brings me to a disturbing modern movie trend, which is that supposedly raunchy movies have replaced bare breasts and hot sex scenes with stuff that is actually raunchy, like puking, diarrhea, and, even worse, male nudity. WTF?! I think the Joe Bob Briggs breast count for “Hot Tub Time Machine” is probably about 2 ½, at best. If this were an actual movie from 1980, there would have been a naked babe running through every other scene. I’m just sayin’; standards have dropped!

One thing the filmmakers did get right is the ‘80’s styles. A lot of movies set in the ‘80’s dress the girls like Madonna album covers, but “Hot Tub Time Machine” is a lot closer to the real thing. I also loved the blond, asshole-ski-patrol, ‘80’s jerk character, who was lifted straight out of John Cusack’s 1985 comedy “Better Off Dead.” Speaking of blond ‘80’s jerk characters, William Zabka, the original “Karate Kid” villain, makes a cameo. (See if you recognize him.) In another classy nod to the ‘80’s, Chevy Chase appears as a mysterious hot tub repairman.

“Hot Tub Time Machine” is definitely not the best comedy I’ve seen in the last few years. It isn’t quite as good as “The Hangover,” and it definitely can’t stand up to “The 40-year-old Virgin” or “Superbad.” Still, it’s a good time, and I can almost guarantee you will laugh. You’d better! If you actually go see a movie called “Hot Tub Time Machine” and don’t laugh, that’s just embarrassing!

3.5 stars out of 5

Friday, March 26, 2010

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008)

I stand in awe of the phenomenon that is Neil Patrick Harris. Just a few years ago he was a child-actor punch line, better known as Doogie Houser, MD. Then he turned up to do a little self-parody in “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.” Next, he took on the enduring role of Barney in “How I Met Your Mother,” and since then has been on an unstoppable roll of triple-threat awesomeness.

“Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” is something I read about in Entertainment Weekly. It seems to have been a small project by Joss Whedon (“Firefly”), featuring Nathan Fillian (the captain from “Firefly”) as superhero Captain Hammer and Neil Patrick Harris as aspiring super villain Dr. Horrible. Dr. Horrible longs to join the ranks of top super-villains, and the story follows his attempts to commit a crime worthy of membership in that club. Unfortunately, when he isn’t getting foiled by Captain Hammer, he is distracted by a cute girl from the Laundromat. The whole thing is interspersed with musical numbers, and it is loads of fun. Seriously, Google it.

4.5 stars

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Groundhog Day (1993) *****

It’s really nice to rediscover a classic. I had honestly forgotten how much fun “Groundhog Day” is, and how much of an existentialist classic it is. Everybody knows this film, right? Bill Murray plays Phil, a narcissistic regional TV weatherman with aspirations for the big networks. He gets sent with his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) for yet another Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, an assignment that Phil hates. He looks forward to being a big-time network weatherman and letting someone else cover the small-town kitsch of Groundhog Day. After doing their report, Phil and his team get stuck in Punxsutawney by a blizzard. He spends another night in his quaint bed and breakfast, and he awakens the next day to…another Groundhog Day. He encounters all the same people, conversations and events as the day before. He is understandably disoriented, and when he tries to discuss the situation with his coworkers, they naturally think he has gone crazy, but no problem, because the next day everyone except Phil forgets everything, and it’s 6 a.m. on Groundhog Day again. This happens again and again and again, as Phil goes through various fascinating stages of dealing with his situation.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that, in its own way, “Groundhog Day” is as ingenious a meditation on the human condition as the classic Franz Kafka/Orson Welles film “The Trial.” Both films address existence from a perspective that we are each headed toward an inevitable conclusion, no matter what we do along the way. In “The Trial” (and in existentialist philosophy), that conclusion is death and nonexistence. In “Groundhog Day,” the conclusion of each day is that Phil simply wakes up at the beginning of another Groundhog Day, no matter what he has done on the previous go-round. It is fascinating to watch him deal with this reality in various ways, first with nihilism, then hedonism, then through a misguided attempt to trick Rita into loving him, using accumulated knowledge about her interests and personality. Finally, Phil reaches a place where he decides that if he is going to have to live the same day over and over, he will simply try to live it well, being the best person he can be.

I saw this film back when it was released, and I remember it being intriguing, but in my mind I think I categorized it as mostly a Bill Murray comedy. I’m certain that it will be filed in the Romantic Comedy section of your local video store. Netflix lists it as “Romantic Comedy/Fantasy.” Fantasy is probably closer to the appropriate genre, but I think Inspirational might be more on the money. The Netflix summary says that Phil “realizes he's doomed to repeat Groundhog Day until he learns that his actions can affect the outcome,” but they’ve got it wrong. Much like the protagonist in “The Trial,” Phil never gets any explanation for what has happened to him, and the fact is that he repeats Groundhog Day until he learns that his actions CANNOT affect the outcome, but that being a good person is worthwhile anyway. This is the challenge faced by atheists and agnostics: how to find meaning in a life that may simply end, without being judged by a higher power. “Groundhog Day” delivers its message with humor, but the message is intense, nonetheless.

Murray has had a number of nuanced, provocative roles in his somewhat under-rated career. “Rushmore” and “Lost in Translation” are a couple of good ones. “Groundhog Day” may not necessarily feature Murray’s best acting, but the more I think about it, the more I think it is his best film.

5 stars out of 5

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Single Man (2009)

There are great movies, and then there are great performances. “A Single Man” isn’t a particularly great movie, although it is competently done for a Sundance-type movie by a rookie director (fashion designer Tom Ford). The film does, however, feature a great performance by Colin Firth. He plays George, an English professor frozen by grief 8 months after the death of Jim, his lover and life partner of 16 years. George has decided to kill himself, and the movie follows him on what is to be his last day. The universe is not content to let George simply fade away, however. As he goes about tidying up his affairs, giving a last lecture, and having dinner with his best friend (played by Julianne Moore), he keeps having run-ins with people who seem determined to drag him back from the edge of despair. Finally, it is one of George’s students, a thoughtful, and optimistic young man (Nicholas Hoult) named Kenny, who makes George dare to consider being happy again. As Kenny puts it, “You never know what’s going to come next.”

“A Single Man” is exactly what it should be, a small, thoughtful movie that you just know is based on a book by somebody (Christopher Isherwood, in fact). It is, perhaps, a bit too full of scenes where men stare searchingly into each others’ eyes, but otherwise it makes a fine, intellectual-chick-flick. What takes the film beyond that status is Colin Firth’s acting. He is absolutely perfect in this movie. He is temperamentally the obvious choice for George, having played so many other restrained, extremely British types. In scene after scene, Firth speaks volumes with just a subtle change in facial or body position. He adeptly takes us inside the despair of this buttoned-down, closed-off character and makes us feel joy when George’s ice starts to melt.

3.5 stars

Friday, March 05, 2010

District 9 (2009) ****1/2

You simply have to see “District 9.” This relatively low-budget, sci-fi thriller may be the most gripping film of the year. This is definitely one where 8 bucks gets you the whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge!

In the near-future setting of “District 9,” an alien spaceship comes to earth and settles in the sky over, of all places, Johannesburg, South Africa. Then, nothing. No attack, no “We come in peace,” no musical scales. The ship just sits there while the world bickers over what to do. After months, the South Africans send commandos to cut their way in, where they find a million aliens starving and living in squalor. The film explains all of this retrospectively, through interviews, which go on to describe how the aliens are ferried down to the ground and fed. Unfortunately, pity for the aliens quickly gives way to fear and suspicion. Managing a million refugees of any kind is a challenge, and when the starving, desperate masses are bizarre-looking, tentacled creatures (soon nicknamed “prawns” due to their resemblance to shrimp) with an unknown language, problems are bound to ensue. The aliens are soon surrounded by fences and guards; District 9 becomes essentially a concentration camp; and quickly the opportunity to establish true communication with the prawns is lost. The prawns build themselves shelters which form into a shanty town; Johannesburg finds itself with another impoverished minority group; and human-alien interaction devolves into the spheres of crime, law enforcement, and exploitation.

Into this morass is thrown Alien Affairs agent Wikus Van De Merwe (newcomer Sharlto Copley). Wikus is a loveably dorky bureaucrat who gets assigned the job of relocating the “prawns” to a reservation miles from human habitation. He provides comic relief with his sweater vest and clipboard, trying to boss around military commandos, but he is capable of surprisingly callous cruelty because he views the aliens as nothing more than animals. That begins to change when he gets exposed to a substance that begins to slowly turn him into one of them.

Sharlto deserves some credit, by the way, for a really excellent performance in his first feature film. He is on-screen for probably 90% of the movie, and he is as funny as he is intense. His next film looks to be the “A-Team” movie, which I don’t know if I’ll be watching, but I do hope to see this guy again.

“District 9” is the kind of movie that makes me feel good about the future of movies. On a budget of $30 million (probably less than the marketing budget alone for “Avatar”), first-time director Neill Blomkamp has made an action movie that is vigorously entertaining and thought-provoking. The story is obviously inspired by South Africa’s racially fraught history, but the lessons translate equally well to the American experience with the Indians, or even to the screwed-up events surrounding Hurricane Katrina. The point that struck me the most in the film was how, when finally presented with intelligent, alien life, humans so quickly gave up on understanding and settled for contempt and exploitation.

The story behind the story of this film is that Blomkamp wrote and made a short film about the aliens called “Alive in Joburg,” which came to the attention of “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson. Jackson recognized a fellow genius and tapped Blomkamp to direct a Halo adaptation. When that movie fell through, Jackson apparently offered Blomkamp the chance to turn “Alive in Joburg” into a full-length feature, and thank goodness he did. In a season when all the attention is on movies in 3D, it is nice to see that filmmakers can still entertain us just by making the characters and the story three-dimensional.

4.5 stars out of 5

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008)

The hardest thing about watching “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” is convincing yourself that this is a real documentary about a real band, rather than a parody. The similarities to “This is Spinal Tap” are absolutely uncanny. This is a story of aging rockers who delude themselves that their day is not done. Their attempt at a European tour is a depressing shambles. They speak in bizarre non-sequiturs: Fan - “Why aren’t you playing better venues?” Drummer - “I can answer that in two words, no, three, ‘We haven’t got good management.’” Strangest of all, Anvil’s drummer is named Robb Reiner. Who was the director of “This is Spinal Tap?” Wait for it….Rob Reiner. The film really seems for a while like a straight-faced put-on, an inside joke for rock documentary fans, but from what I can tell, the band Anvil and the story are real.

Drummer Robb Reiner and Guitarist Steve “Lips” Kudlow started Anvil in the ‘70’s, and the band was one of the vanguard of the metal movement that peaked with bands like Metallica. Much as the New York Dolls are considered a lesser known proto-punk band, Anvil was apparently the cutting edge of heavy metal in the early ‘80’s. This documentary features testimonials from members of Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax about how Anvil influenced them. The band never quite broke into the big time, however, probably because they are Canadian. I’ll bet they were notorious for cancelling gigs to go eat fries and gravy.

“Anvil! The Story of Anvil” finds Robb and Lips working menial jobs in their home of Ontario, living for the occasional tiny gig, turning fifty, and still chasing that elusive rock and roll dream. A European fan named Tiziana writes to offer to manage them on a tour of Europe, where they are supposedly still big stars. That turns into the farce mentioned earlier. Then they rekindle a relationship with their old producer, Chris “CT” Tsangarides. They borrow enough money to have CT produce their thirteenth album, “This is Thirteen,” but ultimately fail to get any record labels interested in their self-produced effort. And so it goes, a constant series of ups and downs, with the ups being illusory, and the downs representing reality.

The thing is, the story could be depressing, but somehow Lips’s childlike optimism carries us along and keeps his band-mates going, from one fading glimmer of hope to the next. Robb is more of a realist, and he frequently threatens to give up the dream and quit. Lips comes across as something of an idiot savant, or maybe just an idiot, but it is nice to see these guys’ wives and some of their family support them. In one heartwarming scene, Lips’s sister loans him a sizable sum to help produce their album. In another scene, Rob’s wife chastises his sister for suggesting that he should give up playing. Still sporting ‘80’s hair and wearing a rock t-shirt, Mrs. Reiner says, “We love the music and the bands. This is just what we do.”

“This is just what we do.” To me, that is the theme of this film. Many would look at the guys in Anvil and shake their heads at the folly of aging rockers still trying to “make it.” The thing is, what else are these guys going to do? Some people watch TV in the evenings, or go bowling, but when the guys in Anvil get off work, they pick up their instruments and play. Lips might seem deluded to some, but I think he is actually very wise. If you are lucky enough to have a dream, you should hold onto it. In this life, it isn’t achieving your dream that is the greatest thing; it is having a dream to chase.

Lips sums it up quite well himself:

“For all this horrible shit that I gotta go through, I’ve got Anvil that gives me my happiness.
The way I look at it, really, is that it could never be worse than what it already is. If it never got better, that’s the way that it is. It could only get better.
On the other hand, if it did get worse, at least this time, after all’s said and done, I can say that All has been said and done, instead of ‘I’ve left a lot of things undone.’”

An interesting post-script is that due to the critical and popular success of “Anvil: The Story of Anvil,” the band has enjoyed a massive resurgence. Heavy Metal isn’t exactly en vogue now, but there are still enough fans around that Anvil is now playing to packed houses and earning enough, finally, to quit their day jobs.

5 stars

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Good revenge flicks have a few rules. Number 1 is that the bad guys have to commit an atrocity so bad that it will justify all the mayhem that is to come. “Inglourious Basterds” is about Nazis, so no problem there. The hero or heroes are then empowered to engage in wholesale slaughter, but Rule Number 2 is that they only hurt or kill people who deserve it. Rule 3 is that the story must stay at least minimally plausible. I’m all for movies that engage in total flight of fancy, obvious fairy tales like “Edward Scissorhands” or “The American Astronaut.” That tone isn’t right for a revenge movie, though, because it distracts from the audience’s ability to project ourselves into the role of the hero, dispensing simple justice to people who rarely seem to get what is coming to them in the real world. That is the cathartic value of a revenge movie, and for me, “Inglourious Basterds” failed to provide that because the movie violates rules 2 and 3.

The story is of a group of American commandos, all Jewish, who volunteer to be dropped into Nazi-occupied France to carry out a war of terror against the German occupiers. Their mission, according to leader Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), is “killin’ Nazis.” It’s a great fantasy setup, really. How many people, past and present, Jewish and otherwise, would love the idea of engaging in guerrilla warfare against the Nazis? Who wouldn’t want to kill Nazis? The Basterds, as they are called, pursue their job with gusto, gaining infamy among the Germans for their brutality, which includes beating captives to death with a baseball bat and carving swastikas onto the foreheads of those they release. Then the dream assignment comes along. The entire German high command, including der Fuhrer himself, is set to attend a German propaganda film premiere in Paris. They set out to help a British secret service agent blow the place up. On top of all that, the Basterds aren’t the only ones with plans to destroy the place.

The acting is generally excellent. Melanie Laurent is particularly good as Shosanna, the only surviving member of a Jewish family slaughtered by “Jew Hunter” Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Landa, a chillingly astute Nazi detective, is the best character in the film, although there are occasions where he breaks into a bizarre clownishness that ill-suits the tone of the rest of his performance. Brad Pitt fits himself pretty well into Tarantino mode, although his Southern accent leaves something to be desired.

Now for those rules I mentioned. First, Rule 2, which says that the heroes must be just. If the Basterds stuck to killing and torturing hard-core Nazis, the movie would be all right. There is one scene I cannot get past, however. The Basterds have successfully ambushed a small German patrol, and they are interrogating three prisoners, trying to find out about the location of another patrol. When the German sergeant rightfully refuses to betray his fellows, he is threatened cruelly, and then beaten to death with a baseball bat. This is a Tarantino movie, so of course the entire scene is especially graphic. Now if this were Adolph Hitler being bludgeoned, or even a concentration camp guard, I’d be okay with it. These are just low-level, regular German army grunts, though, and it is disturbing, to say the least, to watch our protagonists torture and kill them. Perhaps Tarantino was actually trying to make a point about the nature of war and violence, but in any event, this scene ruins the movie as a revenge flick.

Lest you think I am simply squeamish, I would like to compare the baseball bat murder to the Marsalis Wallace rape scene in “Pulp Fiction.” That scene probably wouldn’t be considered quite as shockingly graphic today, but when the movie came out, the scene had people walking out of theaters. The deal was, though, the movie had earned the right to show us that. The entire buildup of Butch’s story line made it inevitable that he would grab that sword and go back to help Wallace, despite the fact that they were trying to kill each other in the previous scene. If that meant that we had to see a glimpse of homosexual rape, it fit the story, and in the end, justice was done and the right people were killed. Nothing in “Inglourious Basterds” justifies the baseball bat scene. We all know that the Germans committed atrocities, but these particular Germans are just soldiers as far as we can tell. If the Basterds killed Germans in battle, then fine. If they had to kill those prisoners, then they could have given them a quick, clean death. Their cruel tactics in that scene are unfitting in what is otherwise a cathartic revenge fantasy.

That brings us to how the film breaks Rule 3, the one about being at least somewhat plausible. “Inglourious Basterds” is way too much of a fantasy. I had heard that it was a “re-imagining” of WWII, but I never guessed just how re-imagined it is. Even so, I wouldn’t have minded the big-concept style if Tarantino had bothered to make the plot even remotely plausible, but this is the ’70’s porno version of a revenge movie. (The doorbell rings, and it's a couple of Nazis having an argument about who is better at killing Jews. They want you to judge, and by the way, would you mind holding their baseball bat for them?) Tarantino has always been a master of respecting plot details and dialogue, but in “Basterds” he treats these things as minor signposts on the road to “killin’ Nazis.”

Some have suggested that the film is Tarantino's parody of other movies, that this is his version of a western or a Charles Bronson flick. Maybe that is his intention. "Kill Bill" was his version of a kung-fu movie, and "Grindhouse" was his parody of, well, grindhouse movies. I guess I just don't like this mission Tarantino is on. I liked it better when he was making good movies rather than making fun of bad ones.

I am a bit puzzled at the awards-season attention “Inglourious Basterds” is receiving. The movie is very well-acted, and it’s worth seeing just for the performances by Diane Kruger (as a German movie star turned Allied spy), Melanie Laurent, and especially Christoph Waltz. This is a movie with great acting, but a flawed script and, frankly, uninspired direction. I suppose you could try to credit the film as an over-the-top comedy, but the movie invests too much and requires too much investment from the audience to get off that lightly. I have been a big fan of some of Quentin Tarantino’s work, but I was disappointed by “Inglourious Basterds,” and I like it less the more I think about it.

2 stars out of 5.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Julie and Julia (2009)

It seems redundant to praise this movie. Everyone with a keyboard has talked about how nice it is that Hollywood made a good movie for women, and how great Meryl Streep is as Julia Child, and so on. They’re right, too. “Julie and Julia” really is that good.

The film is based on the blog-turned-book by Julie Powell about her yearlong project to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s classic, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Her story pretty much follows the standard stunt-memoir formula. First she is tentative-but-excited at having come up with the idea and embarking on the adventure. She makes good headway for a while. Then there’s the part where she is overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, and has a good cry. Then there’s the part where the project puts her marriage at risk. After months of struggle, she completes the project and comes to some sort of peace with it and with the changes it has made in her life. Finally, the book offers come rolling in. It’s the dream of every over-sharing, self-absorbed blogger in the world. Don’t get me wrong, though, it’s fun stuff.

Meanwhile, the film also tells Julia Child’s story: how she moved to Paris with her husband, and, inspired by the wonderful food, decided to enroll in a famous French cooking school. She wound up becoming a cooking instructor, which led to her writing her famous cookbook. The book was something of a magnum opus, but once it was finally published, it revolutionized the American palate and led to Child’s cooking show and lasting fame.

The more compelling parts of the movie are the Julia Child parts. I really have to hand it to Meryl Streep here, she is amazing as Child. (The way she disappears into the role reminds me of Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Ray Charles in “Ray.”) Nothing particularly intense happens to Julia (or to Julie) in the course of the movie, but nonetheless, Child’s love affair with her husband and with food makes for a good story. If Streep wins some awards for this role, they will be well deserved.

4 stars out of 5

Friday, January 22, 2010

500 Days of Summer (2009)

Love in the movies is always the same, right? Boy and girl meet in some adorable way and fall into a love that is perfect, mutual, and all-important. They usually have to overcome some obstacles to be together, and the movie may even give us a tragic ending where they are permanently separated by death or circumstances, but their love is eternal. The most important thing in the world is that the Boy and the Girl, who were Meant For Each Other can Be Together. If that can be achieved, then Everything Will Work Out.

Real love, of course, is complicated. It is probably made even more complicated by Hollywood’s efforts, which have trained so many of us to expect the Hollywood version of love. “500 Days of Summer” explores, in a small way, a more realistic version of love. It’s a love story where the Boy and the Girl love each other, just not equally.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Tom, a greeting card writer who falls head-over-heels for Summer (Zooey Deschanel). It’s easy to see why. There are lots of beautiful actresses with big, blue eyes, but Ms. Deschanel has a certain fresh, quirky quality that makes her irresistible. She isn’t, strictly speaking, the sexiest actress, but I can’t imagine a guy who wouldn’t want her to be his girlfriend. (She reminds me of Molly Ringwald in that.) Anyway, Summer and Tom hit it off and date for a blissful while. Since the movie jumps back and forth in time, I’m not really ruining anything for you by revealing that Summer tires of the relationship before Tom does. Instead of the standard movie where Tom Gets Her Back, this is a movie about Tom Getting Past It.

No new ground is really covered here. Breakup movies aren’t as common as standard romances, but if there can be said to be a Breakup Movie formula, “500 Days of Summer” follows the formula. Tom gets advice from his wacky roommates and his ridiculously wise little sister. He mopes, breaks stuff, etc., and ultimately he uses the breakup as a transformative experience that gets his life back on track. Standard stuff, but nicely done, with charming performances by Levitt and Deschanel. The film has some good humor, it handles the serious bits with class, and it’s a nice little piece of entertainment.

3.5 stars

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Children of Men (2006) ****

Proving that a movie doesn’t have to be fun to watch to be brilliant, “Children of Men” is a dark work of genius. The story centers around the terrifying conceit that humanity has lost the ability to reproduce. This is ironic considering that so many of our problems today seem to be caused by excessive reproduction. “Children of Men” hypothesizes that all these problems would be that much worse if we weren’t kept sane by the hope embodied in the next generation. This dystopian, near-future sci-fi movie paints the earth as pretty similar to the world of today, but dominated by the existentialist hopelessness of an entire race of humans who face the likelihood that they are the end of the line.

Clive Owen is Theo, one of the unhopeful masses. He gets kidnapped by terrorists working for his ex, played with revolutionary style by Julianne Moore, and recruited for a shocking mission: to help smuggle the only known pregnant woman in the world out of England and into the hands of some trustworthy doctors. Calloused as he is, Theo takes the job for money, but during the nightmarish journey he rediscovers his humanity.

“Children of Men” gets so many things right. First of all, the actors are universally excellent. I’m not necessarily a big Clive Owen fan, but he really nails this one. Likewise, Julianne Moore is very convincing as an insurgent leader, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is chilling as one of her lieutenants. Michael Caine is wonderful in a small role as Theo’s dad. Another thing the film gets right is the Big Concept. This is science fiction, after all. “Children of Men” does a great job taking this concept, that the entire human race could suddenly become sterile, and envisioning our world under those conditions. The action sequences are also pretty good.

This is not, by any stretch, a date movie, but on a night when you are up for a serious, seriously good movie, “Children of Men” is worth seeing.

4 stars