MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Flipped, Takers, Vampires Suck and Centurions

For the past few years, I’ve been looking, yearning even, for a few American studio movies that would make me feel the way I sometimes did as a movie-going kid: searching for smart, realistic dramas or thrillers or comedies (or comedy-dramas), good solid movies that had the warmth, sensibility and humanity of the classics of the studio Golden Age or later, of the late ‘60s and ‘70s.

I’ve been digging, among all the snazzy blood-letting, horrendous writing and smart-ass sex gaggery of the films I see all the time, for that old kind of show, the kind that had great characters, that depended for that impact on personality, writing “invisible direction” and a strong connection to the culture outside. I’ve been longing, usually in vain, for just a few family movies that could made me laugh and cry the way It’s a Wonderful Life or Casablanca or Make Way for Tomorrow or On the Waterfront or The Grapes of Wrath all did, or the way the best Pixar animation sometimes does now.

Rob Reiner just made one. Flipped.

You may be surprised at my high evaluation of Flipped — I’d rank this movie with my favorites of the year so far — because, even though Reiner‘s puppy love chronicle about a grade school crush in the ’50s and ’60s (told by the smitten girl and reluctant boy in alternate chapters), has received some positive or even ecstatic reviews, and fully deserves them, it’s also received almost as many mixed notices or witty, acid-tongued knocks. The tone of the pans has sometimes been dismissive, sometimes bemused, or pityingly condescending, or even cruel.

Since Flipped’s nay-sayers tend to be from the more sophisticated media outlets, you may have sensed some consensus of hip brewing. The gist of it: Rob Reiner, a talented fellow, but now hopelessly out of the flow, has — after two decades of mostly commercial and critical flops — vainly tried to relive the past, catch that old Stand By Me gold ring, by misguidedly venturing into yet another youth-nostalgia movie.

But (you can almost hear the “alas, poor Reiner“ welling up), this time, despite a good source, Wendelin Van Draanen’s prize-winning kid‘s novel, and despite a fine cast of attractive teens, tykes and hard-working adults, Reiner, now standing (alas) by himself, fails utterly to engage or amuse us or to say anything relevant about puppy love, families, the sixties, class differences or growing up. This oddball mix of Leave It to Beaver and Rashomon, gussied up with golden oldies and sitcom clichés, reaches out for love and money, but sinks like a stone. The merry-go-round has passed by. And the kids here aren‘t all right.

It’s an understandable take, maybe even the obvious one. It’s been a long time since I‘ve felt about a Rob Reiner movie the way I feel about this one. But when I walked out of the screening room for Flipped, thoroughly entertained, I was also both elated and weeping. I could feel the tears coursing down for at least twelve blocks on my walk home. (I’ll tell you why later.) And you might even call them tears of joy.

Flipped, though, risks the opposite response, critical contempt, just as its little heart-on-sleeve heroine, Juli Baker, keeps risking rejection by throwing herself on the line repeatedly for her leaden-footed, unadventurous big crush, Bryce Loski. But not only has Reiner completely regained his form here (if he ever lost it), I actually prefer Flipped to Stand By Me. (I like Stand fine, but I‘ve always thought it was a big mistake for Wil Wheaton, and not River Phoenix, to have that gun at the end.) I would also rank Flipped with or above the other previous top movies in Reiner‘s canon, This is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Misery, The Princess Bride, A Few Good Men and even When Harry Met Sally. I’d be surprised if, despite those sophisticated pans, he wasn’t very, very proud of it. And he should be.

Flipped comes from the 2001 novel by Van Draanen, a longtime school teacher and mother, and someone who obviously understands kids from ground zero, with effortless depth and sympathy. She‘s arranged the novel, ingeniously, as the two-sided story of a longtime schoolgirl crush. In the beginning, live-wire second grader Juli Baker (played by the adorable Morgan Lily) rushes across her sunny suburban street to meet her new neighbors, the Loskis, and immediately flips for blonde, blue-eyed fellow second grader Bryce Loski (played at seven by the skittish-looking Ryan Ketzner). It’s one of those golden days, where every detail lingers forever afterward in your memory– for Juli, but not for Bryce, who immediately tries to ditch her. He gets his escape hatch when his dad Steven (Anthony Edwards, who nails this role perfectly), who understands pesky little girls and how annoying they can be, tells him to go do some chores.

But before Bryce can run to his mother Patsy (Rebecca De Mornay), and hide behind her skirts, the determined Juli races after him, the two kids get tangled up, and they wind up holding hands in wittily romantic slow motion. It’s magic for her, embarrassing for him, and an image that hangs over the entire movie, until the very last shot — which is the one that triggered my tear ducts.

From then on, we get the saga of Juli and Bryce from two sides — in alternating chapters, one told by the seemingly exasperated Bryce, the next by the seemingly indefatigable Juli. Soon we jump ahead, to the eighth grade, where most of the story takes place.

In the movie, the kids are played as eighth graders by two splendid young actors, Callan McAuliffe and Madeline Carroll (Swing Vote). These two are both so good, so wonderfully unaffected and so completely into their roles, that one can pay them the ultimate actor compliment: You never see or feel them as separate from their characters. I think Madeline Carroll will always be thought of, and treasured, as Juli Baker, and that McAuliffe — perhaps less happily because he’s playing a jerk for most of the movie — will likewise always be remembered as Bryce Loski. These teen actors both give us everything we or Reiner could have wanted in these roles, all the subtlety and undercurrents and emotion, as does his entire astutely picked and beautifully controlled ensemble.

Carroll and McAuliffe score in both their edgy scenes together and apart and in the confidingly intimate voice-over narrations, where they speak their mind and tell us what they think and feel. That narrative device has also been wittily knocked, though, of course, it comes right out of the novel. Juli and Bryce’s narrations are funny, and kiddishly candid and revealing, and they tell us more about the kids, and about their families than the speakers themselves may fully understand as they speak.

They’re no natural couple. There’s a schism of temperament between them, and a social one as well.

The Bakers are blue collar, the Loskis white collar. Juli is a little dynamo, who wins science contests and is a brain and a crusader. She tends chickens and sells the eggs, hates the snobby little flirts and phonies in her class, like her big-hair nemesis, Sherry Stalls (Ashley Taylor), and adores her hard-working father, Richard (Aidan Quinn), who paints landscapes on the side. Juli also loves, less passionately, her mom Trina (Penelope Ann Miller). She helps Trina with the endless chores, and admires her high-school age brothers Mark and Matt (Michael Bolten and Shane Harper.)

Juli gets to know, only later, the other family member, her Uncle Daniel (Kevin Weisman), whose partial strangling at birth by his umbilical cord left him mentally challenged and institutionalized, and whose private health care bill keeps the whole family financially strapped.

Bryce, on the other hand, is something of a little suburban prince, with a more divided family. Smart but nowhere near as active and accomplished as Juli, he rejects her partly because his snobbish, acid-tongued dad, Steven, looks down so snidely and dismissively on the Baker family and their messy yard (a weedy tangle because the Bakers’ landlord never maintains it and Richard lacks the time). Bryce‘s mother Patsy and his sister Lynetta (Cody Horn) are in a way princesses, too, but more likable, earthier ones. They’re basically on Juli‘s side — as is her strongest ally, Grandpa Chet (John Mahoney, as good as you always expect), who calls Juli “iridescent” and says she reminds him of his late wife, Patsy‘s mother. (Just as strongly, by the way, she reminds me of my own mother, Edna, and her hyper-active artist-scientist youth.)

Bryce, we eventually realize, really does like Juli, even if he can’t admit it. Maybe he would be her friend without prodding, if he had the guts (grade-school girls and boys of that era almost never mixed) and if he wasn’t so destructively influenced by his mean dad. And Bryce’s scathing papa’s venonmous prejudices become more understandable after it’s revealed that Steven was a would-be musician in his youth (a rock saxophonist in the movie, a guitarist in the book) who sacrificed his big dreams, hates his job, and wishes ill to anyone who has aspirations like the ones he tossed away. Bryce‘s worst instincts are also enhanced by his wannabe-rich-kid rat of a best friend, Garrett (Israel Broussard), a social bully and back-stabbing opportunist of the slimiest kind.

Now, you’ll see from this description that Flipped definitely has its dark and unsentimental, realistic side, that it’s no sunshiny Leave It To Beaver descendant. (It’s worth remembering though, as we now mostly don’t, that the TV Beaver was initially hailed by critics as a more naturalistic and even more sophisticated innovation in family TV comedies. And back then, it was.)

So, in Flipped, the incidents that drive the story forward are full of symbolic power, genuine conflict, strong themes and real emotion. This is a funny, charming movie about teen romance, but it’s also about bigotry and blasted dreams, social divisions and family tragedy. It’s about never giving up and about finally, morally growing up and becoming a person.

The characters resonate and so do the big scenes. Young Juli‘s neighborhood haven is a huge, gnarled old sycamore tree, from whose upper branches she dreamily watches the world below. When it’s finally slated for chopping down and removal, she tries to organize a town protest, even tries to enlist Bryce in her tree-in, but the embarrassed Bryce wont join — though that article about Juli’s crusade is what draws Grandpa Chet to her, and finally intrigues Bryce as well. There’s an achingly real and painful sequence where Juli, who’s been selling eggs from her chickens to neighborhood ladies and giving them free every morning to Bryce, finally catches him sneakily throwing them away. There’s the marvelously strained and falsely convivial two-family Baker-Loski supper that Patsy organizes, where tensions seethe like escaping gas, and where, afterwards, we finally see what a tormented bastard Steven really is, when his family explodes.

All these episodes take on heightened significance, as we observe them through Bryce’s eyes, then Juli’s. Far from being hackneyed TV sitcom-style stuff, the whole movie is smartly designed and deftly constructed, full of passion, intelligence and wit. And a humanity rare for most movies these days. Flipped only seems like a sitcom — if you’re not watching it closely.

That’s why it’s so right, so apropos, so flawlessly judged, that Reiner decided to re-set the story from the present day to a span from 1957 to 1963, and to embellish the soundtrack with a Scorsesean medley of early ‘60s rock n‘ roll hits and oldies, starting with Curtis Lee’s bouncy “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” (as a fitting anthem for Juli), and ending, devastatingly, with The Everly Brothers’ (or at least Phil‘s) soulful, heart-breaking plea “Let It be Me.“ (Flipped has the perfect last image and absolutely the perfect song playing over it. It betters Stand By Me, though barely, in both of those as well.)

All these songs, juke box gems from the onset of the rock era, obviously mean something precious to Reiner. (They were, after all, the hits and dance songs of his youth.) And they’ll carry a charge to most of the audience as well, including most of the post-Boomer audience who know them only from revivals. There‘s an added boost from the period setting. Putting crusader/activist Juli and her eventual convert Bryce right on the cusp of the ’60s, means we know they’ll go through the Civil Rights and Vietnam years together — and we know which side they’ll be on.

That isn’t necessarily true of the book. Author Van Draanen sets her Flipped in the present day. (It was published in 2001.) And one of the few period details she uses is to make Grandpa Chet a reader of novelist Tom (Patriot Games) Clancy. I hated that, not only because Clancy, a right wing trashmeister and Cold War mega-thriller specialist, seems to me such an overrated, overbought writer (Clancy’s Red Storm Rising is the worst-written long book I ever read all the way through), but because a taste for Clancy doesn’t seem to jibe with Chet’s more liberal, open personality. Van Draanen’s book is rich in details and insights into youth behavior, and she’s great at character and narrative. But Reiner and his collaborators and his marvelous cast have made it warmer, more deeply touching.

James Cain always insisted that Billy Wilder’s movie of Double Indemnity improved on his book, and I think that’s true here too. Flipped the book would never have made me cry, though maybe Van Draanen doesn’t want tears.

Now I’ll tell you why the movie made my tears flow. (Part of the reason anyway.) It’s because I honestly loved the show, but also because something in it reminded me of my own childhood, though nothing that I‘m proud of.

When I was in the third grade, my mother Edna — the woman whom Juli reminded me of so much — began telling me about a family up the street whom she liked and who had a little girl named Caroline, who was about my age, was very smart and took care of some chickens, ducks and other farm animals that the family owned and kept nearby. Edna eventually brought me to meet the family, the animals, and Caroline, who had big eyes and a wide, blazing smile. She was very active and, as Edna said, very bright. (Her father worked at nearby Yerkes Observatory, the brain center of our village of Williams Bay.)

Caroline was a little older than me, and she was sort of temporarily gangly and, for the moment, very tall, as “little girls“ sometimes are at that age — a gawkiness they can grow spectacularly out of. She seemed delighted to have a friend near her age whom she could talk to and play with and show her animals. But I grew afraid that my classmates would think she was my girlfriend and tease and laugh at us, if we were seen together too much. So I blew up one day in our house, and, with Caroline there, began storming childishly about how she looked, how she dressed, how tall she was. “Look at her dress! Look at her clothes!” ” I yelled, like a callous little idiot.

I cannot tell you how much I hate myself when I look back on that day, or when I remember Caroline sitting in a chair in our garage apartment, the big smile suddenly gone from her face. How still she was. How sad she was. I’ve replayed that scene and wished a hundred times I could go back in time and shake that little jerk, me, by the shoulders and yell at him and slap some humanity into him. I didn’t even have the excuse of arrogant social class or a bad, snobbish father, like Bryce did. My father was a snob, but he wasn’t around. My mother and grandparents were maybe poorer than the Barkers. Somehow, I’d picked up that stupid prejudice and cruelty all by myself or from school-friends — a bigotry about looks and dress and apparent social class endemic in our culture and pop culture, and fed to us relentlessly, both then and now.

Poor Caroline. She’d done absolutely nothing to deserve my meanness, any more than Juli did in Flipped, or than Flipped has done to its acid-tongued critic/bashers. My mother made me apologize of course. Edna was embarrassed and hurt too, because in some way, I think she saw some of herself in Caroline and wanted me to like her. But I’d busted things badly; I didn’t have time to set them right.

Caroline‘s family left town shortly afterwards. I never saw her again. But, incredibly, she left me a present before they left. She gave me her two ducks — whom I named Charles Jonathan Duckworth and Janice Elizabeth Duckworth. For years, I fed those ducks and took care of them and walked with them, both quacking, up the street toward Caroline‘s old house, until one day, much later, Charles flew away.

I remember Caroline’s eyes to this day. And her smile. I remember them far more clearly than the sparkling eyes and flirty smiles of all the cute little girls, like Flipped’s Sherry Stalls, that I thought were so pretty at the time. But I remember her sudden sadness and stillness too. Over the years, every time I recall the day that I behaved like such a worthless little jerk and lost my friend, I dislike my old young self more, and wish more fervently I could wipe it all out, do something to bring back her smile, even for a second.

But how can you? Children can be very cruel. And cruelty uncorrected can blight your life.

I hope Caroline got married and had children and was happy — and maybe even got some more animals and ducks. I hope she was very, very happy all her life, and didn‘t have any more disappointing friends like me. And I hope she doesn’t have too hurtful a memory of the nasty little boy I was that day.

That’s one of the reasons I think Flipped is a great movie. (“I bless the day I found you; I want to stay around you…”) And it’s why I’d like people to try to ignore the negative comments it’s gotten, however persuasive they may seem, and to give it a chance. Don’t treat it like Rob Reiner’s folly, or his been-there-done-that Stand By Me, because it isn’t. It’s really his pride and joy, one of the movies he‘ll be remembered for. Treat this sweet, wonderful, brave, funny, charming, beautiful little picture like a potential treasure, a potential friend — like the little girl (or boy) who keeps knocking at your door and smiling and saying “Hi!‘” and who may have more to offer than you can possibly imagine.

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Takers (Two Stars)
U.S.: John Luessenhop, 2010

Ever since Bullitt, people have been gabbing about great chase scenes in movies. Gene Hackman‘s under-the-el chase in The French Connection, certainly a great scene anyway you slice it, was supposedly inspired by the desire of producer Phil D’Antoni to outdo Steve McQueen‘s bouncy ride in Bullitt. Then there’s another William Friedkin classic, the wrong way freeway chase in To Live and Die in L. A. Great, too. No doubt about it.

Will they someday be talking with similar reverence of the foot-chase between Chris Brown and Matt Dillon in Takers? I hope not. The less said about this movie the better. Still, there’s a chase scene in Takers — maybe not a great one, but at least a fast and snappy one — in which cops Jack Welles (Matt Dillon) and Eddie Hatcher (Jay Hernandez) chase bank robber Jesse Attica (Chris Brown) all over an L. A. business district and through a kitchen. At the screening I attended, it woke the audience up and they started cheering, possibly because Chris Brown nearly went though a car roof.

But where is the movie around the chase scene? The first half of Takers is grainy, gray and incoherent, and shot in slavish imitation of Michael Mann‘s Heat. Then we get the robbery, the chase, the shootout, cop scandals, the Mexican standoff. Some of it is splintered into foggy fragments, with a lot of slow-mo breakage, shot in witless imitation of Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite.

What’s going on? Five chic bank robbers — played by Brown and Michael Ealy (as brothers who do a “Butch Cassidy“ bit), Hayden Christensen, Paul Walker, and Idris Elba as the Jamaican boss — spend their off-ours in high-end revelry, looking like angry fashion models or Dead End Kids redesigned by Calvin Klein. (That last refers directly to Christensen’s jazzbo A. J., who sports a Lester Young-style porkpie hat.) They’re contacted by T. I. Harris as Ghost, an obvious lying psychopath just out of jail, who has a robbery plan that a ten-year-old child zonked on airplane glue could probably spot as a setup.

Zoe Saldana pops in and out as a girlfriend, and, sadly, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, the great lead actress of Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies, is on board as Elba’s coke-addicted sister. There’s a lot of shooting and running and smashing, and dialogue that sounds as if it were improvised by drunks trying to crash Kate Mantilini’s at midnight. And there’s Matt Dillon, who fouls everybody up by actually giving a performance, as the moody Welles, a cop who looks as if he‘d rather be at a funeral, even one with Peter Dinklage in the coffin.

To say this movie is bad isn’t doing it justice. The director-writer John Luessenhop, was a Wall Street attorney, and if this is the way Wall Street insiders see the world, it’s no wonder we crashed. But, still and all, there’s that sort-of-great chase scene. Maybe they could build another movie around it.

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Vampires Suck (Zero Stars)
U. S.; Jason Friedberg, Aaron Seltzer. 2020

But not as much as this movie.

Actually, you’ve got to have balls to cop a movie title like Vampires Suck. Thinks of all the possible off-color review or news story taglines. “‘Vampires Suck’ Sucks,” “Audiences Drawn by ‘Suck‘” “Suck Grosses Hot and Heavy,” “Suck, a Movie without Shame.“ Imagine the revival house double bills: “Vampires Suck”/“Inside Daisy Clover.“ And the sequel possibilities: “Vampires Suck Two,” “Vampires Suck Five.” Or “Vampires Suck: The Director’s Cut.“

Well, enough of that. On to the show. A legitimate contender for worst movie of the decade, Vampires Suck is a parody of Twilight (oxymorons suck?) in which madcap writer-directors Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer (Meet the Spartans, Epic Movie, Date Movie) keep trying to turn bad scenes into worse jokes. (Team Jason! Team Aaron!) I refuse to name any of the actors here, since they seem like defenseless pawns — and act like them too.

Its hard to imagine anyone actually paying to see this movie, unless they’re on a vampire withdrawal program. But I had to cough up dough for a ticket myself since, obviously, no publicist in his right mind would show Vampires Suck to anyone who might actually write about it. It was a nightmare: I shared the theater with three fat women in vampire costumes who kept giggling whenever Ken Jeong showed up. (Just kidding. There were six fans and nobody giggled.)

A truly miserable experience, my friend, though it suggests the CIA might productively use endless-loop prints of Vampires Suck as a replacement for waterboarding. Half an hour with Ken Jeong or Team Jacob in this film and anybody might confess anything — including writing and directing Vampires Suck.

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Centurion (One and a Half Stars)
U. K.; Neil Marshall, 2010

Michael Fassbender (no relation to R. W.), as Centurion Quintus Dias, wanders around a pre-Christian, ancient Scotland, swallowed in murk and gloom, and echoing with the din of battle axes and random decapitations. You think you’ve got it rough?

Also around, trapped in the bloody havoc and mire, are Andreas Wizniewski as Commander Gratus, Dave Legend as Vortix, Dominic West as General Titus Virilus (these names are not jokes), Lee Ross as Septus, Ian Ickthorpe as Tankus (that was), O’Haffer L’Habidine as the Arm Wrestler, David Morrisey as Bothos and the late Oliver Reed as General Vampires Suckus. Olga Kurylenko and Imogen provide unusual love interest as homicidal psychopath/tracker Etain and friendly witch Ariane.

SPOILER ALERT

Almost all except Centurion Quintus and the beautiful witch die horrible deaths or buy out their contracts and flee to the Via Veneto.

END OF SPOILER

Offscreen, director-writer Neil Marshall (The Descent) quashes a suit by the descendants of Thax, Bothos, Gorlachon, Garlicus, Achivir, Matrix and the Arm Wrestler, who claim their ancestors were not incoherent brutes with British accents, guzzling mead, thrusting spears into each other and wallowing in mud. And the Roman Empire falls, immediately after the first screening of this movie.

The only really good thing about Centurion is that it’s not Centurion II. Also, if it’s at a multiplex playing next to Vampires Suck, you can keep escaping from one into the other.

One Response to “Wilmington on Movies: Flipped, Takers, Vampires Suck and Centurions”

  1. Where is the contact form because i cant seem to locate the page, prehaps the admin could make it more easier to find.

Wilmington

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