MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs: Solitary Man, Crumb, THX-1138, Macgruber and Caravaggio

PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW

Solitary Man (Three Stars)
U.S.; 
Brian Koppleman & David Levien, 2010

The thing that fascinates people about a serial seducer like Ben Kalmen (magnificently played by Michael Douglas in A Solitary Man) is his speed of conquest. What could take the average man, even in our liberated society, several months or, at best, weeks to do — sleep with the woman to whom he‘s attracted —  a great serial seducer can knock off in a single night, and maybe one or two more as well. 

Of course, that doesn’t factor in the angst of the AIDS era. And of course any fairly attractive and together woman can do the same thing with men just by smiling and crooking her finger. But, in our post-puritan culture serial seduction isn’t as secretly admired a trait in females as it is in males.

I say “secretly admired” and that‘s the perverse motor of A Solitary Man. In this tale of cocksmanship on the edge, the author’s admiration for the central character is palpable but concealed. Ben himself seems near the end of his rope, lashed with contempt. Yet, a serial seducer like Ben has (or had) his way because, bad and unreliable as he may be, he brings some laughs, some joy even, and heightens the sense of life in his partners, even if, in a movie, he usually pays the piper. Here, we meet Ben, register his charisma, see him in action, know what he’s capable of, and then watch him get trashed and flogged and humiliated for the rest of the picture.

SPOILER ALERT

Outwardly, Ben, a one-time famous, “honest” New York used car titan who fell afoul of the law, crashed and burned, is still clinging to the trappings of success, trying to get his daughter (Jenna Fischer), a spot at the college (Boston) he once generously rained with dough — a chore which he botches, just as he messes up things with his lady friend (Mary-Louise Parker), and her saucy daughter (Imogen Potts), just as he mangles his still-friendship with his smart ex-wife (Susan Sarandon), screws up his would-be stud’s mentorship of a young college kid hired to guide him (Jesse Eisenberg) and winds up waiting on tables for his elfin little  chum and coffee shop owner Jimmy Merino (Danny De Vito).

END OF SPOILER

Ben is punished for his cocksman’s gift — just as Errol “In Like” Flynn” is trashed below: a Ben prototype, if a much more potentially destructive and self-destructive one.

Directors Brian Koppleman and David Levien, working from a Koppleman script, are fascinated by the guy too, but they keep shoveling misery on him, until the movie almost over-moralizes and loses its spark. But, just like Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, Douglas knows exactly how to play this guy, how to chart his reckless charm and his sexy gift of gab (like Paul Newman’s in Hud) and also to leak out desperation at the edges. We watch this slick bozo wreck his life, yet we know he’s still got something, even as it starts to disappear. He’s a jerk, but a genuine, open-hearted one, and he’s redeemed by a paradoxical sweetness, the nicer but buried qualities that made Nancy and Jimmy love him and still like him, despite themselves.

Michael Douglas and Danny De Vito were a great comic-dramatic pair in The War of the Roses, and I kept wishing there was more of them working together here, that they could cut loose a little from the moralism and the disaster. They could have been a great team here again, with Douglas as the aging, once successful stud on the prowl, a poor man’s Gordon Gekko trying to relive his glory days of college hedonism, and DeVito as his ex-sidekick, now leading a decent family life, but tempted briefly by the old wild days. There’s a little of that here, but not enough.  And it seems there’s no way a movie with the two of them working together in a story like that, on a wild night, with halfway good dialogue, wouldn’t have been terrific.

SPOILER ALERT

The dialogue here is more than halfway good. But the filmmakers choose to foreground that less interesting infatuation and betrayal between Ben and Eisenberg’s Cheston –who would have been a much more interesting character if he had more of a nasty edge to him.  Perhaps Koppleman and Levien (screenwriters on Steven Soderbergh’s Oceans 13 and The Girlfriend Experience) were driven to capture part of the youth market by keeping De Vito at cameo-size and matching old lion Douglas with the boyish Eisenberg, the wised-up kid who learns at the end what a rodent Ben is, and, with the wisdom of youth, opts out of the rat race, while Douglas, with the recklessness of age, is left hanging.

I’m not suggesting that Ben shouldn’t be punished, just maybe not punished so insistently, so thoroughly  — almost as if the filmmakers wanted to wipe out every hint of a suggestion that there’s something of Ben in them as well, or that they secretly wish there were. Of course they don’t. Of course we don’t. That’s why Ben goes down. It’s funny though that, as usual with a story like this, you tend to remember the men’s relationships more than the ones between the men and women.

END OF SPOILER

One thing about A Solitary Man, though: You won’t find much better acting in any American movie this year. In Solitary Man, Douglas, who has a role perfect for him, plays it about as well as it could possibly be played. But, despite an often incandescent cast, the movie around him isn’t as strong as Crazy Heart was around Jeff Bridges. (Or Hud around Newman either, though Man tops Roger Dodger) . It may be just too intent on squashing him, to prove a point.

Anyway, it’s good to see Michael Douglas in the lead again, flashing his old man‘s sharkish grin. Stardom is ageless, and he has it, and so do Sarandon and De Vito. But if stardom is ageless, so is self-delusion, as some of the characters discover. Dance in the dark, and you still have to play the piper.

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PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC

 

Crumb (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.; Terry Zwigoff, 1995 (Criterion Collection)

Terry Zwigoff‘s unvarnished documentary about the great, scabrous, brilliant, hilariously low down American comic book artist Robert Crumb — and the other members of Crumb’s sometimes sadly dysfunctional, eccentric but genuinely artistic family  —   is a true Portrait of the artist as a Middle-Aged Man Who Never Grew Up.

Crumb’s hippie-era comics — treasures of the high-’60s era that ranged from the wildly popular (and eventually movie-ized) Fritz the Cat and his other Zap Comix looloos, Mr. Natural, Projunior, and the Snoid from Sheboygan to his later, more politically correct work with wife Aline Komisky-Crumb — were the favorites of a generation, utilizing the tools of the past (the funny animal or urban roughneck clown style of the ’40s and ’50s — to satirically record the foibles of the ’60s.

Crumb was made by Zwigoff, Crumb’s friend and fellow jazz band mate in the old-school Cheap Suit Serenaders, and it’s a remarkable look at an era and one of its most popular outsiders, but also a scalding take on a troubled family: his brutal father, amphetamine-addicted mother and especially his older brother Charles, the cartoonist who didn’t make it. It’s a doozy.

Extras: Commentaries by Robert Crumb and Roger Ebert; unused footage; booklet with essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Crumb family comix.

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PICK OF THE WEEK: BLU-RAY

 

THX-1138 (Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.; George Lucas,

If George Lucas had expired after making this movie, and before making American Graffiti or Star Wars, he might have been known as the American cinema’s lost Kafka, its maybe-Orwell, instead of the man who brought back Flash Gordon and broke the bank.

It’s a cautionary science fiction tale, done with a classy narrative expertise that suggests Robert Heinlein trying to be Theodore Sturgeon or Ray Bradbury, about a white-on-white futuristic dictatorship, with no love, no emotion, no fire. Visually, THX-1138 is assured and mesmerizing. Dramatically its cool and secretly mournful. And it explores moods Lucas would never plumb again. Well, Coppola never made another Rain People either.

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OTHER CURRENT AND RECENT DVD RELEASES

 

MacGruber (One Star)

U.S.; Jorma Taccone, 2010

I don’t like to kick a movie when it’s down. And, by now, to say that the Saturday Night Live spin-off ‘80s action movie parody MacGruber isn’t very good and isn’t very funny, isn’t breaking any scoops.

Nor is it hot news to suggest that MacGruber star-writer and ex-SNL trouper Will Forte should stay away from celery for a few months. (The movie‘s big scene, as you probably know, has Forte, as the much-awarded but seriously inept Green Beret/Navy Seals/Army Ranger super-commando MacGruber distracting enemy gunfire by popping up on screen bare-naked with a celery stalk up his ass, and doing a little dance).

Nor is it a surprise to find that SNL Live skits aren’t as fool-proof movie material as, say, video games or movies with vampires or wizards. The SNL sketch they really should have movie-ized, and didn’t, was Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd as those priceless Wild and Crazy Guys from Czechoslovakia.

MacGruber is like beating a dead weasel. Or swinging a soggy celery stalk. Or watching A Night at the Roxbury again.

But, after all, I had to sit through the damned thing — something which relatively few others did. (Millions, millions, I know.) So — No no ha ha!

Comedy isn’t easy. If you’re going to use the old celery-stalk-up-your-ass gag, and you aren’t Harpo Marx or Jim Carrey, you’ve got to set it up somehow. (Examples: MacGruber has celery because he’s a Vegan chef with anal issues. Or MacGruber has to improvise because they took his toy Uzi, with the little umbrella in the barrel. Or MacGruber has been told that the signal for the mass attack is to wave a green dildo, while making hand signals.) Or turn it into a running gag. (Follow up with a carrot joke, then zucchini, then rigatoni and meatballs.)

But there’s no real reason for anything MacGruber does, except that Forte and director-writer Jorma Taccone and the others somehow think it’s funny. And they’re mostly wrong. Besides, they waste Val Kilmer as super villain Dieter von Cunth, a name to be lisped. MacGruber the movie, too often, is as brutal and nihilistic, and unpronounceable, as the stuff it’s satirizing.

By the way, didn’t Jorma Taccone once play guitar for the Jefferson Airplane? Probably not. But why don’t they use a little ’60’s rock, instead of all this ’80s crud? (Just kidding.)

A worse crime though than making an unfunny movie, or cracking an unfunny joke (we’ve all done that) (see above), or subjecting us to the ‘80s again, is not having the courage of your satirical instincts. As someone who’s missed the MacGruber SNL bomb-defusion shorts, by Forte and Taccone, and also missed the show, McGyver that inspired them, but who sat through more awful, dumb ‘80s action movies than any sane moviegoer should have to suffer, it riles me a little that the MacGruber squad, should keep covering their asses (and their celery stalks) by talking off-screen about how much they love ’80s action movies (like Rambo III!). They‘ve even included a little note in the MacGruber credits, which seemed serious, about how much they admire those fantastic great old ‘80s action heroes.

Are they serious?  Or do they think an enraged Steven Seagal is going to see this movie, blow his top and vow revenge? No way. Most of those guys probably enjoy the publicity, if not the humor. And in The Expendables, they have the last laugh. Besides, I’ll bet both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sly Stallone could have pulled off the celery gag, no sweat.

Caravaggio (Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)

U.K.; Derek Jarman,

Caravaggio shows Jarman at the top of his game: a stunning portrait of the outlaw life of the great maverick religious painter, Michelangelo Caravaggio (Nigel Terry, of Excalibur), with a cast that includes Tilda Swinton, Michael Gough, Sean Bean and Robbie Coltrane, caught in gorgeous frames that duplicate the artist’s own lush chiaroscuro style.

2 Responses to “Wilmington on DVDs: Solitary Man, Crumb, THX-1138, Macgruber and Caravaggio”

  1. Dan Humphrey says:

    And where can one order this new Bluray of Caravaggio? Amazon.com has no listing of it.

  2. hartke says:

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“The important thing is: what makes the audience interested in it? Of course, I don’t take on any roles that don’t interest me, or where I can’t find anything for myself in it. But I don’t like talking about that. If you go into a restaurant and you have been served an exquisite meal, you don’t need to know how the chef felt, or when he chose the vegetables on the market. I always feel a little like I would pull the rug out from under myself if I were to I speak about the background of my work. My explanations would come into conflict with the reason a movie is made in the first place — for the experience of the audience — and that, I would not want.
~  Christoph Waltz

This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.