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Wilmington on Movies: Non-Stop

Saturday, March 1st, 2014


Non-Stop (Two and a Half Stars)

U,S,: Jaume Collet-Serra, 2014

If you’d like to fly but you’re  not in the mood for the aeronautical poetry of Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, if that’s just too arty and ambitious for you, there’s another airplane movie around now that, compared to Miyazaki‘s, is so non-artsy, so  action-packed, so super-clichéd and so mind bogglingly illogical,  that it‘s almost entertaining..

That’s the nonsensical Non-Stop, directed by Spanish moviemaker Jaume Collet-Serra and written by Robert W. Richardson, Chris Roach and Lyle Engle. It’s a pretty exciting  but  also absurd air-disaster thriller, with star Liam Neeson archetyping it up as a sodden, angst-ridden  but super-tough Federal air marshal named Bill Marks, who is battling a maniacal, mysterious hijacker, aboard a transatlantic flight full of the usual suspects — and it’s about as preposterous as a movie like this can get without dragging in Godzilla as one of the hijackers and having it do a hula on the right wing.  Almost nothing in the movie is halfway plausible, except for a few early getting-to-know-you conversations between Neeson‘s Marks, and Julianne Moore as a knowingly flirtatious gal passenger. (They were the only scenes I liked).

Yet, for me at least, Non-Stop was never so exhilaratingly awful that it moved into so-bad-it’s-good territory. It‘s done fairly well, in fact, and it has an unusually good cast, whose time, like ours, is being criminally wasted. But does it matter? Non-Stop is obviously one of those movies where the moviemakers were far more interested in making money than in making sense. (And they will, they will.)

Neeson — who once upon a time made movies like Schindler‘s List and Michael Collins, and I hope will again some day — has a massive screen presence. He looks like he could deck a charging buffalo if the buffalo got him mad. And  he follows in his own recent Taken-Unknown footsteps here as Marks, the troubled hot-trigger hunk with a gun, whom we first see swilling some booze to get his heart started, and who then scruffily mounts the plane whose passengers he’s supposed  to guard, looking mournful and Irish and alcoholic and what-the hell.

Since Taken, Liam’s specialty has been beating the crap out of a lot of people, who keep coming at him in waves  — while still seeming to be a sensitive guy with a big heart, who‘s nice to women. But in this case, he’s picking on not a bunch of international gangsters, but  on the mostly helpless, innocent  passengers, while trying to uncover the identity of the mysterious maniacal hijacker among them who keeps texting him on his cell phone, threatening to kill a passenger every twenty  minutes and apparently doing it, with Marks’ unintentional help. The bad guy will only stop this serial carnage if the airline (Aquafresh, or sorry, Aqua British, it’s called — which sounds like  the last plane someone like Marks would be riding) transfers $150 million to an offshore account, which mysteriously happens to be in Marks’ name.

Words fail me here. Can you swallow this? A plane hijacking plot that has a mysterious maniac killing off the passengers (or maneuvering them into being killed by Marks) one by one,  communicating threats by cell phone (without apparently being seen), by texting (which, as Todd McCarthy pointed out,  probably wouldn’t be operating over the Atlantic anyway), while taunting a boozing hot-tempered Federal Air Marshall, our man Marks, who desperately keeps terrorizing his own passengers, and occasionally knocking one of them off? And did we mention the  bomb on the plane, ticking away, like the climax of a cut-rate James Bond movie? The bigger question: Will Marks and the maniac succeed in depopulating the movie enough and killing the passengers before the plane gets blown up, or gets shot down by the other airline enforcers, or we find out who the maniac really is?

Who indeed? In the movie, Moore plays Jen Summers, Marks‘ saucy seatmate, whom he enlists for a while as a killer-spotter. Lady Michelle Dockery (of “Downton Abbey“) plays a worried-looking stewardess (or flight attendant or steward-person). Nate Parker plays a touchy computer guy. Scoot McNairy plays a buttinsky who keeps engaging Marks. Corey Stoll is a tough New York Cop, Kyle Rice is a pilot. Oscar nominee Lupita Nyong’o tunes up by playing the role we’ll always remember, another fight attendant, named Gwen — a part with barely five lines or so, none of which are “Coffee, Tea, or Me?” Omar Netwally plays a sort of token Muslim doctor. And Quinn McColgan plays the obligatory adorable little girl — the most suspicious character in the movie, I thought.

Now, you would think that even an idiot could find somebody who keeps texting messages and killing people (or having them killed) on a sold-out plane in flight. And it also seems peculiar that a hijacker trying to extort $150 million would threaten to blow up the plane on which he or she is actually riding. But that’s  only another example of the script‘s screwball logic — which also has  Marks’ superior (Shea  Wigham) warning him  that if  the pilot tries to land the plane, he’ll order it shot down, with all the passengers  — which sounds like enough to end the Federal Marshal program and to send Aqua British into multiple bankruptcy and international disgrace .

But nothing in the story beats the eventual other motive revealed for all this fuss and chaos, which….


….which, believe it or not, is to promote airline safety.


Incredibly, little or none of this is played for laughs; nor does it get any. Collet-Serra’s direction (he made the nightmarish Unknown with Neeson), has punch and pace and some verve, and he never tends to linger on anything, which seems like exactly the right strategy for material like this. Neeson, with his anxious eyes and Viking frame,  gives his part what the movie needs to keep it from collapsing into total inanity: truculent charm, a mournful countenance,  and a penchant for beating the crap out of everybody. As for the rest of the cast  — and Neeson too —  we should consider it a major acting triumph on everybody’s part that they played all these scenes  without cracking up.

Non-Stop eventually, blessedly, does. I can’t say I wasn’t occasionally amused –or that you might not be — but why encourage it? Some of the reviewers who enjoyed (with reservations) this aeronautical dimwittery argued that it’s wrong to expect logic out of movies like this, that they’re just “popcorn movies,” just dumb fun,  just “B movies,”  and that it’s stupid to expect anything but stupidity from them, which is  what audiences want. anyway.

But do they? Or is that just what audiences are used to getting? Why can’t our action movies or thrillers have more plots that make sense, good characters, good dialogue, a moratorium on clichés, and maybe even a few interesting  ideas about life? They used to. Some of them still do.  But that certainly isn’t what we get out of recent thrillers or shockers like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit or 3 Days to Kill, or the new Robocop or I, Frankenstein or Non-Stop. And it seems as much a misnomer to call this multi-multi-million-dollar show with its mega star lead and near-all-star cast and knockout production values a “B movie” as to call its script a script. Shouldn’t critics try to encourage good writing in movies, and discourage logic-challenged, opportunistic hackwork?

Oh, and did I mention that after Marks kills one guy and leaves the body in the airplane john, after one of the most claustrophobic fights ever,  nobody apparently finds the corpse for several hours? Huh? Maybe though, that one does make sense. Maybe the passengers and flight crew all had the piss and shit scared out of them by Liam Neeson.

Wilmington on Movies: The Wind Rises

Thursday, February 27th, 2014




Japan: Hayao Miyazaki (Disney)

“The wind rises; we must try to sing.”

                                 — Paul Valery

Miyazaki‘s The Wind Rises. A lovely name. A lovely film.  A poem to flight, as soaring and lyrical as  those of the sometimes heart-piercing French writer/artist/pilot Antoine de St. Exupery.

In Wind, we’re in a long-vanished Japan, in a world made of drawings, and the artist is a sort of god — a boyish god named Jiro, who wears glasses and adores biplanes and dirigibles and lovely old flying machines. Jiro’s  line, the pen in his hand, brings machines alive. And the hand of Miyazaki, his pen and line, brings a whole lost world and its lost people to life.

World War I has ended. The earth quakes. Jiro dreams of flight, but he is too near-sighted to fly. An Italian airplane designer named Caproni inspires him. His friend Honjo walks with him, joking. There is a girl who paints, named Nahoko. She bends from a balcony in the sunlight and laughs. There’s an angry goblin of  a boss named Kurokawa. There are Germans,  Nazis, obsessed with war, with mastery, with the best way to kill many people. Bad men  and bullies, says a man named Castorp — with smiling eyes and a huge hook nose.

The hills are green. The sky is blue. The clouds billow like white sails full of wind. Down below, Jiro walks in the tall grass, in the sunlight, with Nahoko. And Jiro and Honjo design planes. Jiro draws so beautifully…

The drawings come alive. The pilots fly and soar.  War breaks out. The Bombs drop. There is a drop of blood on the pillow. Love and war.  Flight. The pictures move. The wind rises. WWII.  Storms of fire lie beyond the clouds. Riders soaring in the beautiful, damned sky. The boy in the glasses become the man who draws planes, on the ground below.

All of it is Jiro’s dream, Miyazaki’s drawing: clouds piled high in the sky, masses of white, like heaps of ice cream, the planes scooping through them. The Earth far below. The ruins piled up. Death falling. A dream…of Jiro, of Caproni, of Nahoko, of the sky, of the planes and, behind that rim of clouds, of what will be Pearl Harbor, with Jiro’s Zero fighters flying far above. The Zero fighters, the A6M, designed by Jiro. The planes. The glasses.  The waves of grass. The wreckage. The clouds. The drop of blood. The Sky.


“I just wanted to make something beautiful,” said the real-life  Jiro Horikoshi, the aeronautical expert who designed some of those planes, the best of them maybe, so they could fly perfectly on their missions of death.  That strange and disturbing remark  of Horikoshi‘s was the thing, said Miyazaki, that made him want to make this movie — supposedly the last feature film by one of the world’s great masters of the animated film. So he wrote and drew a manga, a Japanese comic book, about Jiro — not the true story of what really happened between the two World Wars, but a poem, a romance.  And then he turned this manga, this poem, into this movie. His last movie he says and his last poem: the last animated feature of Hayao Miyazaki, who wrote, drew and brought to life Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service and Howl’s Moving Castle.

Most of those films were stories about people and children who flew, or who explored, or who entered a dream world — adventurous little girls or boys (more often girls), or spirits or a mustachioed pig of an Italian star pilot named Porco Rosso. They were drawn and animated largely in the old-fashioned way, with lines that emphasize the paradoxical flatness and depth of Miyazaki’s tableaux and compositions, lines that make each character, however small, look like a work of art, or part of a great, beautiful drawing  — those memorable movable lines that define Miyazaki’s style, which almost eschews the rounded contours, three-dimensional depth or the quick pace and cutting that define the dominant feature cartoon style today.

Miyazaki’s cartoons are resolutely old-fashioned, unabashedly artistic, defiantly slow, often dazzlingly pictorial, heart-breaking, exciting  and whimsical. They are pictures that move, full of drawings that live. I would rather watch one of them than 90% of the cartoons, or movies, being made today. So would many other people and children, I suspect, which is probably why John Lasseter, the generous, brilliant, warm-spirited head of Pixar and Disney, is trying so determinedly to give us all the chance.   `

Lasseter has packaged The Wind Rises lovingly and given it a wonderful English-speaking cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the eternally boyish Jiro, Emily Blunt as the tragic Nahoko, John Krasinski as  the lively, witty Honjo, master musical player  Mandy Patinkin as Hattori, Martin Short as the bumptious little Kurokawa (a fuming little mad elf of a guy, so he couldn’t possibly be inspired by the six-foot-plus-tall and very anti-war Akira Kurosawa), German cineaste/wanderer  Werner Herzog as  Castorp and Stanley Tucci as the real-life designer Giovanni Battista Caproni, Jiro’s youthful idol. (I wasn’t able to see the subtitled Japanese-language version with Japanese actors, and I hope Disney includes it with their English language version in the DVD.) Miyazaki’s script, a fine sturdy one, was inspired by Horikoshi’s life (which it considerably alters) and also by the novel “The Wind Rises” by Tatsui Hori, who took his title from the French writer Paul Valery’s line quoted above and who, like the fictional Nahoko, had tuberculosis. The music, as so often for a Miyazaki film, is a poppish lyrical score by Joe Hisaishi, whose sprightly melodies  and dancing rhythms fit Miyazaki as well as Nino Rota’s fit Fellini.

.The movie’s politics have been questioned, wrongly, I believe — but understandably, considering the sympathy that Miyazaki shows to  his Japanese WWII era countrymen  who were also America‘s old WWII Japanese combatants, and especially to the man who designed the planes that struck without warning and rained down death on our boys at Pearl Harbor.  I think it’s clear that The Wind Rises is a movie made by an artist opposed to war. But just as the anti-war, anti-militarist, anti-nuclear bomb Kurosawa could find wild, brawling, breath-taking  beauty in the extraordinary battle scenes he created for war movies like Seven Samurai and  The Hidden Fortress, so Miyazaki finds disturbing  beauty and artfulness in the creation of the Zero fighter planes, the carriers of death that Jiro draws and makes possible — and he finds beauty as well in the wind that rises, in the earth that shakes, and in the people who persevere as their world falls apart. But not in the bombs that fall and kill, or the monsters who unleash them.

I hope that Miyazaki’s “retirement,“ like his retirements before, and many of Ingmar Bergman’s, proves  prematurely announced. Three of his last movies — Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and The Wind Rises — have been very ambitious, staggering really, especially since he plans the films, writes the scripts, and does much of the drawing himself. But not every work of art has to be an epic. Miyazaki could make a little film, like his little heroines, made with large talent and a large heart, which he has shown repeatedly. We would welcome it, I think. Anyway…All our praise to Miyazaki for a film, and a life, well made. That war, thank God, is over. That drawing is done.


Wilmington on Movies: Winter’s Tale

Saturday, February 15th, 2014



U.S.: Akiva Goldsman (2014)


Any time you see a movie based on a hugely popular, critically hosannaed, densely populated epic romance  novel  like Mark Helprin‘s Winter‘s Tale — a prestige movie about endless, undying love boasting such first-class actors as Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Jessica Brown Findlay, William Hurt and Eva Marie Saint — and the picture gets stolen  by a flying horse, you know the show is in some kind of trouble.

That splendid horse-thievery is executed upon writer-director Akiva Goldsman’s very ambitious film of  Helprin’s cult classic by  a CGI-enhanced animal actor playing an equine character named Athansor. Athansor is played by a real looker named Listo — and  Listo has the best part and maybe even the best lines. Actually, the horse  has no lines, not even a neigh, but that  gives him the advantage on, say, co-star Russell Crowe, who, as the fiendish Irish-American New York gang boss Pearly Soames, only seems to have no lines, because a lot of them are nearly incomprehensible. (Or were to me.)

Anyway, not to make any more wisecracks about a film project toward which I feel some sympathy (I like the idea of movies based on hugely popular, critically hosannaed novels, the more epic and romantic the better),  Athansor had this show pretty much handed to him. The magnificent white steed is a very attractive key member of the very attractive cast, in a picture, gorgeously shot by  horse-photography expert Caleb Deschanel, who lit, ravishingly, The Black Stallion ), and in which most of the actors and actresses are beautiful or incomprehensible, as is much of the movie, and much of the plot flies off in all directions and looks if it needs some oats. (Sorry.)

Winter’s Tale — based on Helprin’s 700-page-plus science fiction/fantasy epic romance by that  very prolific and prized screenwriter Goldsman (an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind) — treats the story (or what’s left of it),  with a straight-faced reverence that has “labor of love” and “would-be classic” stamped all over it — and you can only wish that it were either, instead of another critical joke-mill.

The movie is set in a century‘s worth of New York City, seen in the years 1895, 1916 and in the present day, 2014 — and it revolves around Farrell’s character, a feisty, pretty boy burglar named Peter Lake, who, as an infant in 1895  is tossed and set adrift  in a little floating crib dropped from an ocean liner in the waters near Ellis Island, after his sick parents are refused entry by the Ellis Island doctors, and lose admittance to America and its dreams. Somehow the child survives this dubious treatment — tossed like some little pseudo-Moses to the waves on a little boat emblazoned “City of Justice” — and he’s rescued by bog-men on the shore, including the colorful bog-philosopher Humpstone John, played by that fine Native American actor Graham Greene (not the writer) in what has seemingly become a bog-cameo.

Some 21 years later,  Peter, a good-looking boy-o with  a mournful Irish eloquent sweet-thuggish air about him,  has become a notorious burglar, and has also messed up and incurred the wrath of the fiendish derby-hatted Pearly and his gang of similarly derby-hatted nasties. Peter is living in the rafters of Grand Central Station, and when Pearly, with his miscreants, catches up with him in the street, and starts making incomprehensible threats, Athansor the heroic horse appears out of nowhere, tosses his magnificent mane, and kneels with horsy grandeur before Peter.

Peter hops aboard, and Athansor  leaps over two extremely high iron gates, and over Pearly and all his surly, menacing crew, as if they were a mere steeplechase barrier. Oddly, Pearly and his boys, instead of saying something like “Holy shit! That horse just jumped over an extremely high iron fence and all of us menacing thugs,” simply gaze after the fleeing horse and rider, petulantly. There will be an explanation of sorts for this later on, but none for why Peter, throughout the entire movie,  persists in calling Athansor  (his name in the book) “Horse.” (Couldn’t he at least have called him “Horsie?”)

This is only the first of Athansor’s amazing rides — usually undertaken while rescuing Peter and some beautiful woman from the enraged Pearly. Later on the Horse leaps off a wintry cliff to an icy shore far below with Peter and his great consumptive dying love and rich man’s daughter Beverly Penn (Brown-Findlay of Downton Abbey), aboard. Then they ride, boldly ride, to her father’s magical rich man’s lakefront house, where magic and tragedy await. Still later, in 2014 or maybe 2013, or in any case, the present era,  the dauntless animal leaps off a Manhattan skyscraper with Peter, and a fetchingly pretty New York journalist named Virginia Gamely (fetchingly played by Jennifer Connelly).

Both young women accept these flights with remarkable equanimity, as if they were  doing nothing more dangerous than stepping aboard a slightly sped-up merry-go-round –which either means that these ladies are made of sterner stuff than Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane,  or that, in this particular alternate universe, there are a lot of winged white horses jumping off  buildings, sprouting transparent CGI wings and flying off with lovable burglars and lovely ladies and adorable children into the great hither and yon. Or more likely, that you just can’t faze a New Yorker.

That includes, I guess, the notion of we the audience (New Yorkers or not) not being fazed when the terminally ill (apparently) and fetchingly beautifully  Beverly responds to Peter’s break-in and prospective burgle of her and her rich newspaper magnate dad Isaac Penn’s (William Hurt) lavish digs in the West ‘80s — by falling undyingly, endlessly in love, and he (endlessly, undyingly) in love with her. The blissful two are locked together in the endless undeath of their great winter’s tale of eternal infatuation, after only one brief but spectacularly photographed roll in the hay to whet their endless love and heartbreak and renewal and redemption for a century hence, when the now amnesiac but still young-looking  Peter, after  bashing into a cloud bank, pops up in 2014 (or whatever), where cute little McKayla Twiggs as young Willa, darling tot of the Penn household,  has grown up into still-beautiful Eva Marie Saint as the adult Willa , the apparently 100-year old editor of the New York Sun, Isaac‘s still-thriving old rag. Should this adult  Willa be introduced to the similarly incredible Manoel de Oliveira, the 104-year-old but still active Portuguese writer-director  of the classic film romances The Satin Slipper and  Ill-Fated Love? And should Oliveira be offered Winter‘s Tale II, with Pearly now babbling incomprehensibly in Portuguese?

There’s a Horatio Alger nuttiness so far to the story, which seems to be partly about the romance of capitalism. (Helprin is a young conservative grown old.) So now, with an explanation worthy of only a SPOILEER ALERT — in shaggy-haired hippie artist garb (the book was published in 1983, which explains a lot) — Peter will proceed to his endless, undying destiny, endlessly pursued still by the incomprehensible rage of Pearly Soames, and the evil, beautiful perfect diction of Pearly’s suave satanic boss, (Here Comes) The Judge (Will Smith) — with endless love in Peter’s undying heart, with endless hate in Pearly’s, with Beverly unendingly on Peter’s mind , endlessly secure in the knowledge that no one will ever dare compare Mark Helprin to Nicholas Sparks, and that, no matter what fresh violent improbability ensues, Athansor the winged white horse will be there to get Peter’s back, fly down and whisk him and some beautiful lady away into the great hither and yon — endlessly, undyingly.

“Winter’s Tale” is a book I’ve always intended to read. Now I wonder if I’ll ever get to it– though to be fair some admirers  of the novel have testified that it’s been compromised and debauched and that the book isn’t like this. It seems like a movie where the makers were trying to be faithful to something , not out of purely (or impurely) mercenary motives, but out of , let’s face it, love and admiration. So Winter’s Tale is blessed with every good element and every good intention, and with all the high romantic aspirations of bringing quality and romance and literacy and poetry and endless, undying love to the screen — and instead, it’s been turned into a one trick pony and a weird if occasionally beautiful slumgullion of a would-be epic surreal  love story, with occasional howlers.

Has this movie made it less likely that anyone will now bring a new version of long literary classics like Don Quixote or Finnegan’s Wake to the screen? Probably not. But instead, are we condemned to a cinema whose primary products are  multi-gazillion dollar versions — possibly perfectly decent ones  — of comic books or young adult novels or old TV shows? Endlessly? Undyingly? Incomprehensibly?

Akiva Goldsman has written some good movies (I Am Legend and A Beautiful Mind, which won Oscars for both Goldsman and Connelly, as well as the film itself) and some bad ones (Batman & Robin, which won George Clooney a lot of Batpans). But it’s safe to say he’ll never make another picture quite like Winter’s Tale, not even if Winter’s Tale II suddenly gets a big boost on Kickstarter. Or will he? Sometimes you can love a movie to death, and that’s probably what’s happened here. It’s  why a picture based on  a book many consider a modern classic, lovingly written and produced by Goldsman, gorgeously designed and shot, cast with wonderful actors, and made with such obvious devotion, seems like such a dud.

It’s possible that two hours is simply too short a span to tell a story like this.  Possibly Winter’s Tale, with those 700 pages of densely-constructed story material,  should have been a TV miniseries, or two movies. Or none. One thing is sure: It shouldn’t have been this movie. There’s only so much one poor horse can do.

Wilmington on Movies: Endless Love

Friday, February 14th, 2014


ENDLESS LOVE (One and a Half Stars)

U.S. Shana Feste, 2013

Endlessly, undyingly…No, we’ve already done that one.

Still, if your appetite for  a Valentine’s Weekend of unfettered romance and unashamed date movies hasn‘t been satiated by Winter‘s Tale or About Last Night, you can always dive in to the endless malarkey of another Endless Love. Not the unabashed 1981 original about teenagers madly in love, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, with Brooke Shields — which is infamous for being a ludicrous misfire, a waste of a   good novel and  one of the worst movies of its era — but a brand new version by director/co-writer Shana Feste, which is even less faithful to Scott Spencer’s book, even more ludicrous and an even worse movie.

Will this become a trend: redoing old lousy movies and making them even lousier? The possibilities seem endless. And frightening. This time the undyingly-in-lovers are a pair of knockout Atlanta teens impersonated by British twenty-something ex-models and now actors Alex Pettyfer and Gabriella Wilde, who look as if their lives were  a perpetual Calvin Klein or Gap assignment. Movie-star-handsome David Elliot is played by Pettyfer, who was the star-is-born  stripper in Magic Mike, and Chanel model-beautiful Jade Butterfield is played by Wilde, who was Sue Snell in the new Carrie.

These are among the last two people in the world you’d expect to have any trouble getting a date. Pettyfer in particular looks almost ideal for sexy rogue movie roles, which is pretty much what he played in Magic Mike. But, in the movie, David  has apparently loved Jade from afar for most of their high school years, too shy to even strike up a conversation in the school hall or the library or by her locker — even, though he looks like a  model, and has, for this role a likable, almost self-effacing  personality. (He was a jerk in Magic Mike.) Jade, meanwhile has no boy or girlfriends and has foregone dating throughout her high school years, the better to mourn the untimely death of her brother and bury herself in books and  deal with a truly bizarre home situation with her father, Hugh (Bruce Greenwood), who is obsessed with getting her into medical school and becomes obsessed with keeping her away from David, who strikes him as too lower-class. (David’s father, played by Robert Patrick, runs a garage, which is not exactly near-poverty.)

But when the two lovers-to-be sight each other across a crowded lawn at the high school graduation reception, sparks fly. Love hits the angelic princess and the bashful hunk, like a ton of Nicholas Sparks DVDs. David can stand the separation no longer. He speaks to her. He gives her killer hunk looks, and she flashes her shy princess smile. They plan a party, at her house, to introduce her to all of the classmates she never talked to and is now leaving behind for medical school.

Dizzy with joy, they leap into a sunlit lake together. They kiss. They swoon with delight. They make love before a roaring fire blazing away in a huge, photogenic fireplace, so desperately in love, or so intent on the scene’s visual symbolism, that neither of them notices that it’s the middle of summer. David makes a hit with Jade’s mother Anne (Joely Richardson), who looks like she wants to gobble him up too. David, Jade and David’s friends — including his scamp of a best bud Mace (Dayo Okeniyi) — break into a zoo, play with the elephant and jump on a merry-go-round. David is arrested. Ah love, sweet love, endless love. Not even a Pepsi ad could have shown it better

But trouble strikes. In the original novel, David was so barmy with desire he burned down the Butterfield home and wound up in the mental hospital and the clink. Here, besides doing stupid things, like driving off in  car that he’s parking (to aggravate the snobbish driver) and breaking into the zoo, David is bedeviled by Jade’s wildly jealous father, Hugh (Bruce Greenwood), who wants his blonde bombshell of a daughter to forget about boys, especially David, and  nd concentrate on medical school — with Greenwood, usually a fine actor, ,giving one of the twitchiest performances this side of Anthony Perkins in Psycho. Hugh is the one who’s really driven mad with love here, but the movie, which is essentially humorless, doesn’t push the point.

How many times can Spencer‘s love story keep  getting debauched?  This is the second botched version of Scott Spencer’s well-regarded 1979 novel of  endless, undying love —  — and by now the new film makes the first one seem like Splendor in the Grass and the novel seem like Anna Karenina. Since the original material is so archetypal, ersatz Romeo and Juliet, set in (or just after) high school, the potential for new travesties seems… endless.


The cinematography (by Andrew Dunn) and the production design (by Clay A. Griffith) are so gleamingly posh and stunningly conspicuous-consumptionish, you keep waiting for spme product placement of, at the very least, BMW. L’Oreal or Absolut Vodka. Director-co-writer Feste (who made the equally pretty but predictable Country Strong), never passes up an opportunity to showcase her stars, or Greenwood’s twitches or the script’s balderdash.  And though both Spencer’s book and Zeffirelli’s picture have unconventional endings, don’t expect this show to dodge any clichés. And also don’t expect to hear the nine-week Number One smash hit Diana RossLionel Richie title song “Endless Love’ that enlivened the first movie and was it‘s single greatest success (other than introducing Tom Cruise and James Spader in the supporting cast) though this movie could have really used it, and them.

Wilmington on Movies: Like Father, Like Son

Monday, February 10th, 2014


Japan: Hirokazu Kore-eda,  2013.

NOTE: All the proper names in the following review, whether of filmmakers or of fictional characters, are given in American style, with the first name first and the last name last (I.E.: Akira Kurosawa or Steven Spielberg), instead of Japanese style, which, in defiance of Western logic, puts the last (family) name first and the first (given) name last (I.e. Kurosawa Akira and Spielberg Steven).  I do this because the press notes for Like Father, Like Son  have all the names in the Japanese style, and some earlier reviews of  the film have accepted this switch, perhaps bringing confusion to some writers, readers, and proofreaders.

Just remember that, in Japanese nomenclature, last is first and first is last. But, in the case of this review, all lasts are last and all firsts are first — as far as I know, as long as my primary sources (the press notes and Wikipedia) were correct. One notable exception:  the actor  who plays the film’s second father, Yudai Saiki, which is a special case that we‘ll handle later.

Wilmington Mike


Here is a beautiful film., whichever way you look at it — despite its seemingly sentimental cliché-promising title, Like Father, Like Son. The writer-director, Hirokazu Kore-eda (who also made Nobody Knows and, Still Walking) specializes in family drama; this is one of his most moving works. And though the film initially may seem sentimental, gradually it evolves into something else — something coolly perceptive and warmly affectionate and absolutely lovely and loving.

Suppose you have two little boys, born at nearly the same time in the same Tokyo hospital. Somebody — never mind who or why for the moment — deliberately switches the babies in their cribs before the mothers have a chance to fully see their children, or to get acquainted and bond with them. The mothers are completely fooled, as are the hospital personnel, most of the doctors and nurses. Nobody discovers the change until six years later, during a DNA test, In the meantime the two boys, one named Keita , the other named Ryusei, grow up with their families, respectively the Nonomiyas and the Saikis. They love their parents. Their parents love them. But the two households are very different.

Mr. Nonomiya, or Ryota Nonomiya, is a very successful upper middle class architect (played by Japanese pop singer/superstar and star movie actor Masaharu Fukuyama). Mr. Fukuyama is somewhat cold, remote and punctilious, unlike his warmer wife Midorino (Machiko Ono) and his demanding manner somewhat intimidates his quiet little son Keita, whom he is trying to prod into being an over-achiever, with piano lessons and prestige schools.  (The character Keita  Nonomiya is played by an actor named Keita Nonomiya, a similarity that may further bewilder proofreaders.) Mr. Fukuyama rarely smiles, even though it would seem he and his family have a lot to smile about. But not always. Keita, practicing piano mechanically, plods through Beethoven, while later, on the soundtrack, we hear Glenn Gould‘s glorious rendition of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Ah, perfection!

Mr. Saiki, or  Yudai Saiki, is an electronics and appliance store manager, who runs his shop and family in a quite unpunctilious way. Mr. Saiki is very likable and lazy, a warm, kite-flying fatherly buddy of a dad. He has two other children besides the switched boy Ryusei (Shogen Hwang) — and he likes to romp in the bathtub with them. The Saikis — along with the more assertive (than Midorino) mother of the house, Yukari (Yoko Maki) — are a loving, happy family, it seems. Mr.  Saiki looks and acts like  a grown up hippie who’s accepted life and responsibility, but still likes to rock.  He is played by a very good actor (also a  prize-winning writer) who is named either Lily Franky or Franky Lily or Riri Furanki or Masaya Nakagawa (his name at birth). Franky/Furanki/Masaya/whatever, like everyone else in the film, especially the children, plays has role wonderfully, immaculately. Perfectly.           ,

When the two sets of parents meet, Mr. Nonomiya is disturbed and concerned about appearances and the family situation and how to resolve it. He also feels that he should have guessed that Keita was not his son. Mr. Saiki is prepared to love either boy, though he wants to be father to the  one who is rightfully his, and also wants to sue the hospital and get some money out of it. After a talk, the two fathers  agree to let the two boys take each other’s place with the other boy’s longtime family (without at first telling them of the hospital’s mistake), and then eventually make the switch back to the “right“ families.

The boys accept the situation with obedience and wide-eyed curiosity. The mothers seem more sensible about it all than their husbands. Mr. Nonomiya, for example, would like to bring up both boys and feels that his money and social class and the “good life” he can offer makes that a desirable solution — an attitude that ticks off  the otherwise easier-going Saiki. Gradually, the situation evolves. The boys switch families for brief stays. The experiment yields interesting results, some involving kites. One of the boys is happy; one of them is not. Mr. Saiki is  not really mercenary, and Mr. Nonomiya is  not necessarily cold and remote –though his affluent father proves to be a classist snob who believes blood will tell. After all, look at Johann Sebastian Bach and his sons.

One thing at which the Japanese cinema has always  excelled is family drama, Maybe that feeling, that sympathetic concern, that stylization in their culture. is also part of the reason the Japanese  put family names first. The Japanese sensei or master Ozu Yasujiro  — or as we Westerners are wont to call him, Yasujiro Ozu –made the finest, most beautiful, most warmly human, the saddest (though sometimes very funny), and finally,  the most quietly heartbreaking family dramas the cinema has ever known (including I Was Born But…, The Only Son, There was a Father, Late Spring and the sublime Tokyo Story), and Kore-eda is possibly the best of all Ozu’s successors, the family poet of  our later generation.

Here, Mr. Kore-eda is examining a family dilemma and drama of great potential pain and finding in it something past pain, past happiness, past the sometime trauma and confusion and turmoil of family life, something close to the essence of familial love, which some of the characters don’t know as completely as they should, and that some of them learn — a portrait of parents and children, fathers and sons, mothers and children that opened my heart as I watched it.

It‘s the kind of film that one wishes were made more often in America, and made this well — and, in fact, Steven Spielberg , who was the President of the Cannes Film Festival jury that awarded Like Father, Like Son the Jury Prize (Spielberg called this his personal favorite film of the festival) has bought the rights to the American remake of Like Father, Like Son. I‘m not sure how I feel about that. How could the American remake possibly be better than the Japanese original? Or as good? Oh well…Thank you, Mr. Kore-eda Hirokazu. Thank you (I hope), Mr. Spielberg. Thank you.

Wilmington on Movies: The Monuments Men

Friday, February 7th, 2014




U.S.: George Clooney, 2014

War is hell and pain and darkness, But great art shines with an eternal light.  Or does it?

George Clooney’s new movie The  Monuments Men, which is pretty good, but not as good as it should have been, is based on a fascinating historical episode, unknown to me (and to many others, I’m sure), that makes for one of the most inspiring stories of World War II. It’s a drama of war (and the people who fight it) and art (and the people who make and love and preserve it), and, in the film, it’s rendered  as a kind of fact-and-fiction mix of The Guns of Navarone and Kenneth Clark‘s Civilisation, or a Dirty Dozen reshaped for art museum buffs..

The Monuments Men is about the truly heroic art conservation efforts of  the U. S. Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program: a group effort by  servicemen and civilians who were charged with saving the great art works of Europe from the ravages of war — either from inadvertent destruction by Allied air and bombing attacks, or by the malicious acts of Hitler himself.

Der Fuhrer, it turns out, was a threat to steal or destroy much of that treasure. He was himself a mad frustrated artist and art-fancier whose armies and puppet governments had stolen millions of art works throughout Europe, all to stock his personal  collection at the Fuhrermuseum in his home town of Linz. It was believed by some (they were interpreting a Hitler directive known as “The Nero Decree”) that Der Fuhrer intended the total demolition of all his stolen art as part of the scorched earth policy (Burn the bridges! Destroy the trains!) which he wanted to install as revenge for his inevitable final defeat. Against that possibility, Clooney plays his by-now standard role: the good decent liberal who stands up to evil or bullies. In this case he’s the fact-based art restorer and conservationist Frank Stokes, leader of a group of Monuments Men, who were following the Allied forces in Northern Europe, in search of beautiful things to save..

Clooney’s movie (which he directed, co-wrote, co-produced and costars in) has received mixed to negative reviews from most critics. And, despite its very engaging all-star cast, its noble intentions  and its extremely painstaking and beautiful production (designed by James Bissell, and art-directed by Helen Jarvis), it’s easy enough to say that it could have been better. (The problem, as usual, is the script.)  But so could many another movie, and many another art work   — except for some of the masterpieces shown or simulated here,  including Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna, and  the Van Eycks‘ Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (or Ghent Altarpiece), which are both among the priceless and exalting works Clooney’s “Stokes” and his team were trying to rescue.

The real-life story is a corker; in fact, I’m surprised that it’s never been the subject of  a film documentary feature  In 1943, with the Allied forces launching their assault on the German Armies throughout Europe,  President Franklin Roosevelt ceded to urgent requests from the American arts and curatorial communities, and formed the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic Historic Monuments in War Areas, later shortened to the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archive program, or MFAA, or “Monuments Men.” This was a group of  servicemen and civilian art experts (most of whom received commissions when they joined the section), who were charged with making sure that historic churches, museums, galleries and other repositories of great European art were spared from Allied bombing attacks (like the one in August, 1943, that nearly destroyed  Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper). They were further assigned the task of locating the hiding places for all the art  the Nazis had stolen and secreted away.


Among the dozen or so Monuments Men who were on the spearhead of the Allies’ advance in Northern Europe were de facto leader and pioneering art conservationist George Stout, museum curator (and later head of the Metropolitan) James J. Lorimer, architect Robert Posey, sculptor Walker Hancock, dance and music specialist Lincoln Kerstein, and their German-speaking Jewish soldier/driver, Harry Ettlinger. In Clooney’s and Grant Heslov’s script, those six men have been fictionalized into the urbane, dedicated  Stokes (played by Clooney), linguistically maladroit  curator James Granger (Matt Damon), beefy artist Walter Garfield (John Goodman), tart dance expert Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) and plucky  driver Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas). Two more seemingly fictional art-crusaders have also  been added to this group: alcoholic British fine arts man Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville of “Downton Abbey“), who’s been disgraced and, like Lord Jim, wants another chance, and genial, suave French art dealer Jean-Claude Clermont (played by everyone’s current favorite Frenchman  Jean Dujardin of  The Artist).


There is one lady involved in the action, a very important one: the formidable real-life figure of Rose Valland, a great French national heroine of art (also unknown to me until now), who worked at the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris, a  headquarters for Nazi art pilferage. Rose kept  a secret running record of all the movements of the stolen paintings and drawings and sculptures, a priceless log with which the Monuments Men were able to track down the confiscated and hidden masterpieces. Here, this brave woman,  to whom the international art world  owes an incalculable debt, has been fictionalized and somewhat diminished into a starchy, love-starved heroine named Claire Simon, played by the formidable Cate Blanchett — who gives her a dignity that the script largely misses.


Clooney’s picture, with its first-rate cast and top-notch technical contributions, oscillates somewhat uneasily between more serious Longest Day-style  historical recreation and prestige art history drama (or pseudo-drama), and  a more standard, if very lushly produced,  World War 2 adventure film mode, derived from movies like Guns of Navarone, The Great Escape, A Bridge Too Far or  (closer to home) John Frankenheimer’s The Train, a wildly exciting  1964 WW2 thriller  that covered similar story material from the point of view of the French Resistance.  Mostly the heroic characters, are split up or paired off — Damon with Blanchett, Goodman with Dujardin, and the raffish Murray forming an art-loving Odd Couple with the punctilious Balaban. Clooney’s Stokes meanwhile keeps steering the art hunt and arguing its importance with irascible Army officers, who can’t understand why they should risk lives to save paintings. (The movie could have used one long scene arguing the case by  Commanding General Dwight Eisenhower, one of the project’s strongest supporters, played here, wordlessly, by look-alike Werner Braunschadel, But the movie’s Ike remains silent.)

I liked The Monuments Men more than I disliked it. I appreciated the lavishness of the production and the effort that went into the simulated art works by Jarvis and her team — even though I thought there should have been more footage of the actual art works, as there is, for example, at the end of Vincente Minnelli‘s Van Gogh bio-film Lust for Life). I was glad to be introduced, even in a fictionalized and somewhat clichéd way, to this story and these people. I enjoyed the actors, even though I thought they’d been short-changed by the script, and even though the whole thing probably would have worked better as a TV miniseries than a two hour theatrical feature.

I also liked the sarcastic humanism of the scene where Clooney torments a German ex-prison camp commandant by telling the unrepentant Nazi that, after the war, he’ll be sitting in his favorite Jewish delicatessen in New York City, eating a bagel and reading about how the commandant was executed for crimes against humanity. And I appreciated the sheer love of art and painting and sculpture that the movie celebrates, even though it is somewhat self-important and even corny and it often feels like someone, or maybe history itself, was looking over its shoulder. Never cornier than when Campbell plays a recording of his  daughter (Nora  Sagal) and his granddaughters singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — the later ‘50s Frank Sinatra version of the song with the line “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough,“ (which these people would never have heard), instead of that great sad line that Judy Garland sang so devastatingly to Margaret O’Brien in Meet Me in St Louis: “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.“

It’s clear that Clooney wants to appeal to a smart, knowledgeable audience: moviegoers who can appreciate Judy Garland (or Frank Sinatra) and who also appreciate, or at east respect, high museum art — who know who Michelangelo and  Rembrandt and Vermeer and maybe even Jan Van Eyck and Grunewald are (to name five painters whose works were saved by the MFAA). It’s also clear that he wants to please the war movie and buddy-movie fans who would enjoy The Guns of Navarone or The Bridge on the River Kwai. Yet Clooney and Heslov may be pushing a little too hard to get the movie in its action-adventure mode too. The Monuments Men is an adventure, and the fact that the Monuments guys are all fish out of water thrown into a wartime situation (where two of them, in real life, actually died) makes it even more of one..

The drama here comes from the fact that these men aren’t war heroes or mythic soldiers or the snazzy, wise-cracking ubermenschen guys whom action movies keep showing us. They’re people who love art (as the cast here does,  I imagine) and who were willing to risk their lives to keep that art for future generations. That’s adventure enough — and another reason to forgive the film its sins. One day, maybe we’ll live in a world where we don’t have to worry about mad men with guns and bombs  running amok, and wars that destroy millions of people and millions of beautiful things. Maybe. Until then, I guess, we’ll have to muddle though somehow.


Wilmington on Movies: Labor Day

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

LABOR DAY (Two and a Half Stars) U.S.: Jason Reitman, 2013

1. The Man with the Peaches
There’s a great peach-pie-making scene in Labor Day — and how many movies give you even that much? Utterly  sensuous, gorgeously composed and lit (by cinematographer Eric Steelberg) , accompanied by an elegant, simple solo guitar,  this almost absurdly lush sequence of three people (a man, a woman, a boy) baking a pie together is beyond question the Odessa Steps of all movie pie-making scenes. So rapturously done, you can almost smell the peaches and feel the crust, as the pie (if not the movie) comes together — with the three sensuous pie people piling  a whole bowl full of glistening sumptuously peachy peaches (sorry, there’s no other word for it),  mixing in butter and sugar and salt, and then patting and sculpting the doughy, rich-looking  pie-crust-to-be against the edges of  a very large pie pan and putting the whole delicious-looking creation in an oven to be warmed and browned and rendered into lusciousness…It actually made me hungry watching it. (If it makes you hungry reading about it, the Labor Day peach pie fixings/instructions, from a Joyce Maynard family recipe, courtesy of the Labor Day publicists, are reprinted below.)
That’s not all the scene is supposed to do, though. As derived from  Joyce Maynard’s 2009 romantic novel of the same title, and scripted and directed here by Jason Reitman (the director of Juno, Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air), it’s supposed to be a metaphorical love and family scene in which the three people making the pie — a single New England mother, her 13-year-old son, and the man on the run who’s wangled his way into their lives — join and meld as a new family unit by making and eventually eating that wonderful pie.
Yet there’s more (and less) to the movie’s meals and metaphors than that. The Mother, Adele Wheeler (played beautifully by Kate Winslet) has been emotionally shattered and lives mostly as a listless, near agoraphobic recluse in a shaggy-looking house in a small New England town (the fictitious Holton Mills, New Hampshire), since her husband Gerald (Clark Gregg) left her for a younger woman and a new family. Adele’s young teen son, Henry (sensitively played by Gattlin Griffith) loves his mother and wants desperately to bring her back as the buoyant happy woman she used to be — and the only way he knows how to do it is to try to be something like the reliable loving companion whom she lost or maybe never really had. (The adult Henry, read by Tobey Maguire, the Nick Caraway of the recent movie of The Great Gatsby, narrates the story, lovingly.)
Now we come to the head chef:, the guy with the recipe (for everything). He is Frank Chambers: the man on the run, bleeding from the gut and with a smashed leg, hurt when he jumped from a second-story hospital window. Frank is an almost ridiculously virile and unfailingly fatherly stud (roughly and sensitively played by Josh Brolin), who escaped from that  hospital,  where he was being operated on for appendicitis, while on temporary leave from prison — where he was serving time for murder. Tall, dark and murderously competent (in everything), Frank spots Adele and Henry at the local department store, where he promptly steers Henry along an aisle, strips off some of his own old clothes, pilfers and puts on some new ones off the rack, and hitches a ride with — or to be more precise, kidnaps — mother and son and takes them home and ties Adele up. (She submits, with the look of an amazed child.)  He does all this firmly but with  consideration, explaining that she has to be bound when or if the police come, to avoid a charge of aiding and abetting a fugitive, or harboring a hunk.
Seldom if ever has there been a  gentler or more gentlemanly home invader than Frank. In fact, his arrival seems less an invasion than a benediction, the arrival of God‘s own angelic handyman/surrogate hubby. Soon, over the course of a long Labor Day weekend at Adele’s, he will seem to be a dream come true: a  cook and housekeeper and lawn-cleaner and floor-waxer and roof-fixer and yarn-spinner and mechanic and baseball coach  (teaching the game to the unathletic Henry and to a wheelchair-bound  neighbor boy),  and, above all,  the maker of perfect, epochal, flaky-crusted, lip-smackingly scrumptious  peach pies. (Something actor Josh Brolin does in real life.) Ladies, form the line at the left.
But a persistent shivery little query buzzes like a fly in the otherwise peachy-keen kitchen. What is Frank? Really? Is he what he seems? Or is he a monster on the loose –a  very plausible, well-spoken monster who can talk his way into the mother and son’s confidence and into their home, for that Labor Day weekend, and convince them that he means no harm, just wants to patch his wounds, rest his bad leg, and be on his way.– while underneath, simmering, still lies darkness and potential murder? Or is he, defying all plausibility (and I mean really defying it) the ideal temporary (or maybe more permanent) husband and father for an emotionally shattered mother and a brainy outsider son  —  a paragon with a prison record, who can cook (terrific chili too), and change tires and run from the police and pretty damned near everything else, including make love like Casanova or Warren Beatty.
Which is he? Labor Day would be a much better movie, I think, if it kept us guessing longer, if Reitman and his actors kept twisting us uncertainly between those two possibilities, if we remained uneasy about Frank for a longer time, perhaps right up to the story’s climax. The movie, instead, settles the question fairly early on, when Frank gently explains that he‘ll have to tie them up if the police arrive — and we believe him. At least I did.
With his (almost preposterous) universal competence, and his expressions of gentlemanly concern, quiet pain and wistful melancholy, a jock with feelings, Josh Brolin’s Frank  (one of his best performances, even if the movie lets him down) does seem like a dream come true. And the idea that the dream might be a nightmare (which, much of the time, in real life, it probably would be), is discarded way too soon. Of course, that means the movie would have to be played a bit more as a thriller and even a potentially dark part-comedy, and a bit less as a warm and tender family drama. But I think the story would be more gripping, and the scene at the end, where the police come for Frank, spoiling his plans to take them all to Canada, and he finally ties up  the family he wanted so ardently and submits himself to his fate — would be much more moving if we’d wondered about him more, if the rest of the movie were more eerie nd uneasy and many-layered. (There’s another variation on the movie’s  potentially spooky theme  of middle-class divorce traumas in Henry’s sly girl pal with two sets of parents, Eleanor, played by saucy Brighid Fleming, who has the smarty-pants grin of the young Jodie Foster.)
2. Imitation of Life
Joyce Maynard  was inspired to write the novel “Labor Day” by an incident in her own life — when she started receiving scads of intense, highly empathetic-seeming  letters from a prison inmate who, it developed,  had been convicted of two murders. Apparently, they never met.  But, by creating Frank, whom the movie’s flashbacks tend to exonerate of murder (it looks more like manslaughter), is she perhaps improving on life, creating the dreamy pen pal she would have preferred? The novel and the movie, both “women’s stories,” are also both obviously wish-fulfillment fantasies — which is true, by the way, for most movies, men’s pictures as well.
Maynard is a writer best known for her ironic fact-based sex-and-murder novel “To Die For” (filmed by Gus Van Sant, with Nicole Kidman as the homicidal hot pants teacher), and for the personal memoir “At Home in the World,” in which Maynard candidly discussed her love affair, at 18, with another reclusive figure, author J. D. Salinger. It’s easy to look at the story of Labor Day, which makes some people cry (including, he says  Jason Reitman when he read the book), and see it as a potentially pathological romance like To Die For, twisted inside out and turned into something sentimental and sappy and somewhat ludicrous. But intense romances, or love stories with a pathological edge and with an unlikely perfect heroine or hero (like this one) are often a bit absurd, just as passions you don‘t share can seem silly — and, many times, are.
There’s a problem, for me, with the character of Adele  — even though Kate Winslet plays the part  with lots of  humanity and no vanity.. As the son of a single mother, I thought Winslet and Griffith, and Maynard and Reitman  got the dynamics and emotional pitch of that kind of  intence familial relationship down very well. But I found it hard to completely sympathize — feel sorry for yes, sympathize less — with Adele, a woman who seems to do little, go almost nowhere (of course, she’s emotionally shattered) and is financed (from afar) by her ex-husband, rat that he might have been. The character of Adele (not the fault of Winslet, who does everything she can to bring her to life) seems so enervated and hopeless that, when she falls in love with Frank, it’s almost as if she’s been bewitched by his sheer stalwart energy — or perhaps found the perfect all-purpose sex–and-gardening manservant of any Lady Chatterley‘s dreams. And a great pie man. too (There’s another twist to the pie story, but I’ll hold my tongue.)
The story here often suggests a love fantasy novel by that champ of easy-listening  romance Nicholas Sparks, and, in reviews, Labor Day has been endlessly compared to Sparks  and (unfavorably) to that master director of ‘50s movie soap opera Douglas Sirk. (The inside dope: Too much Sparks, not enough Sirk.) But, in fact, Sirk’s movies — and I think he’s a master too — are occasionally  fairly absurd as well. Written on the Wind may be a masterpiece — I certainly have always enjoyed it — but how can you keep a straight face during that amazing moment at the end when the sublime nymphomaniac played by Dorothy Malone, bursts into tears after forever losing Rock Hudson to Lauren Bacall, and clutches to her bosom, that grand phallic symbol of familial greed, the model oil derrick tower?
And what about Sirk’s 1954  Magnificent Obsession, from a probably flabbergasting Lloyd C. Douglas novel, with Rock Hudson as the irresponsible playboy who becomes a world-renowned expert eye surgeon to save the sight of the beautiful shattered woman (Jane Wyman)  whom he’s wronged and widowed and blinded. This is one of the classic funny “serious “ Hollywood movies of all time, with an emphasis on “classic” and it just gies to show that some of Sirk’s movies  are great as well as absurd. I don’t think that Magnificent Obsession’s  humor, or at least the irony, were “unintentional,” though I’m sure Sirk wasn’t playing for big laughs (nor, from his audience for this hit movie, did he get them), any more than Reitman, a gifted comedy director, is playing for them here.
But perhaps Reitman should have realized that there’s often an inherent comedy in stories like this, and it’s better to play to it, to crack an intentional joke or two, than to try to make the audience weep their way through it. What are life and love all about, after all? You laugh, you cry, you bake a pie. If you’re lucky, it doesn’t get burned.
Meanwhile, here’s that Joyce Maynard/Josh Brolin Magnificent Peach Pie recipe we promised. (I haven’t tried one yet myself, but it sure looked good on screen.)
Publicist’s Notes: Learn to make the pie that Josh Brolin made every day on the set of Labor Day for Kate Winslet and the cast, using author Joyce Maynard’s family recipe.
Ingredients: •3 pounds peaches •3/4 cup sugar •2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice •3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon •3 cups all-purpose flour •3/4 teaspoon salt •1/2 cup Crisco vegetable shortening •1 stick plus 1 tablespoon chilled butter, cut into pieces •1/3 to 1/2 cup ice water •2 tablespoons Minute tapioca (plus 2 additional tbsp to stir into peaches) •1 beaten egg •1 tablespoon sugar
1.       In a large bowl, combine the peaches, sugar, lemon juice, and cinnamon. Stir in 2 tbsp Minute Tapioca to help absorb juices.  Let stand, stirring occasionally.
2.       Preheat the oven to 400°. In a large bowl, mix the flour and salt. Using a pastry blender, work in the shortening and 1 stick of butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the ice water over the flour mixture, stirring gently with a fork. Continue adding the water just until the dough holds together. Shape the dough into a ball and divide it into two discs, one slightly larger than the other.
3.       Place the smaller disc on a sheet of waxed paper, and use a lightly floured rolling pin to roll the dough into a 12-inch circle. If the dough sticks to the rolling pin, dust it lightly with more flour. Lay a 9- to 10-inch pie pan face down on top of the circle; flip the pan over and remove the paper. For the crust, on a sheet of waxed paper, roll out the other disc to form a 14-inch circle.  Do not roll the dough more than necessary.
4.       Sprinkle the tapioca on the bottom crust. Add the filling, mounding it in the center, and dot with 1 tablespoon butter. Lift the waxed paper with the remaining crust and flip it over the filling. Peel back waxed paper. Trim the edges of the crusts and pinch together the top and bottom crusts. Optional: Roll out the trimmings and cut into decorative shapes. Brush the pie with the egg, and arrange the shapes on the crust. Sprinkle with sugar. Poke fork holes or cut vents in the top crust. Bake 40 to 45 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve warm. Put pie plate on cookie sheet to catch drips.  Bake in 350 degree oven for about one hour.  Cool before serving.

Wilmington on Movies: The Wolf of Wall Street

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014




U.S.: Martin Scorsese, 2013


“An idea came to me. The thing to do was to skip the heroes and heroines, to write a movie containing only villains and bawds. I would not have to tell any lies then.”

Ben Hecht, describing the genesis of his classic 1927 gangster movie,  Underworld. in “A Child of the Century.”

Ben Hecht


I. Greed: The Director’s Cut 


The brouhaha over Martin Scorsese‘s new movie The Wolf of Wall Street — accused by its detractors not only of being a bad movie but, it seemed, of being politically  toxic and a damaging role model for the youth of America — strikes me as the usual Oscar season raging overkill. It’s exaggerated, of course, perhaps because Scorsese is so much admired by so many film writers, that a few of the commentators who dislike  Wolf on Wall Street (about a fourth of the major critics, it seems) feel they have to bash it twice as hard as usual,  as if they had to all but destroy the show, and bury it with contempt, to make their point  — all the better to open the way for some other worthier contender, like ay, one of the other Best Picture nominees: Gravity,  American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, Nebraska,  Her, Philomena, or Dallas Buyer’s Club.  (All excellent films, by the way.)

But Scorsese apparently can take it. So, probably, can his movie.

Scorsese is 71 years old —  but you’d probably never guess it from watching the rousing, furious Wolf of Wall Street. By rights,  the one-time angry young  cineaste of 1976’s Taxi Driver and 1980’s Raging Bull should have graduated to a less contentious role as universally respected elder  movie statesman, or grand old man of the cinema. But maybe he’s just not ready. There‘s not a whole lot that’s conventionally grand-old-mannish  in Wolf of Wall Street. which stars Leonardo DiCaprio (superb in the role) as the notorious brokerage founder, investment counselor and ex-stock market slickster Jordan Belfort. Based on Belfort‘s tell-all memoirs about high times, crimes and high finance in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it’s packed with onscreen nudity and sex and drug use, four letter words and illegal or reprehensible behavior, and it keeps roaring along  on screen for almost three hours like an express train loaded with orgiastic clowns.

Watching Wolf, you get the feeling Scorsese hasn’t aged much or been tamed, that he’s gotten wiser, but  hasn’t  lost a  step since his 1973 breakthrough film Mean Streets — that  classic bad boys movie that began with the big-beat hammering  of The Ronettes’ ”Be My Baby” on the soundtrack and ended with gunshots and screams and chaos on the street in New York City’s Little Italy.

Mean Streets was a shocker, and so is The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s also  a brilliant, unsparing look at a deviant underworld: stripping bare not just part of the cast but also the corrupt stock deals and jaw-droppingly self-destructive life-styles that Belfort, and others in his company and elsewhere, were involved in: mass misbehavior that apparently ran  rampant  in those years (and may still) — and that also may have helped bring on the 2008 Bush era bank crash. Now, coming sixteen years after Wall Street, that blistering Oliver Stone expose’ in which Michael Douglas’s natty corporate raider Gordon Gekko coined the mantra, “Greed is good,”  and three years after Stone’s and Douglas’s somewhat disappointing 2010 sequel — and after a batch of corrupt-financial-world thrillers like The Boiler Room (also inspired by Belfort’s shenanigans) and Margin Call and Arbitrage  — The Wolf of Wall Street, like many another Scorsese movie, manages to top them all. It goes the furthest and it’s the most entertaining and damning.

It’s a movie that seemingly embraces the darkness, the better to expose and eviscerate the rot underneath it. Crammed with  character and incident, and boiling with life and energy, The Wolf of Wall Street is top-level Scorsese: a first-class modern neo-noir, a killer comedy, a terrific piece of social drama (and social criticism), and an actor’s dream with a dream of a cast.  It has its flaws — scenes that run on a bit too long, cynicism that’s sometimes overplayed.  But it’s a hell of a show, and, despite the thrashings it’s taken from some  smart critics and disgruntled audiences, it was,  I thought, the best picture of  a very good year — 2013.


II. An Unsentimental Education

Wolf of Wall Street’s knowing screenplay –which, at its best,  recalls the wit, style and ferocious candor of the Ben Hecht of “A Child of the Century” and “The Front Page”  — was written by  Terence Winter, whose  TV credentials include both “Boardwalk Empire“ and “The Sopranos.” Winter knows how to humanize criminals without glossing over their crimes, and that‘s what he does here. Changing names and fictionalizing some of the story from Belfort‘s two books, he  seamlessly weaves it all together –with DiCaprio-as-Belfort our super-inside narrator and expert guide into the financial underworld. (He functions here like Ray Liotta’s chatty mob witness Henry Hill in Goodfellas).

“Belfort” is a sham, a deceiver, a confidence man — but, in the movie, a lot of his story seems convincing because of the unfiltered-sounding way it pours out, because it’s so self-damning, and because we know that some of it is backed up by the real-life evidence. (Belfort, found guilty of securities fraud and money laundering, served 22 months in federal prison in Nevada– his cellmate was comedian Tommy Chong — and he still owes millions in victim reparations.)

Scorsese’s movie, which tells a crook’s story from a crook’s point of view (and a drug addict‘s story from a drug addict‘s), seems to me just this side of a masterpiece. It’s an almost defiantly provocative film, but not really a non-judgmental one — though it isn‘t obviously moralistic. Scorsese and Winter show these financial outlaws having a high old time and debauching to the max because that’s the story. And they tell us that Belfort got an over-light punishment in a country club prison, because that’s the story too. They stick to Belfort’s point of view, because he’s the primary witness, and  because they want us to be  trapped with him, in his life of addiction and swindling and greed and paranoia, surrounded by the forces that will bring him down.

In the movie, Belfort only seems to be “free“ during his stormy rise in the financial world — as, with obscene gusto and uncensored dirty-mouth profanity,  he and his buddies proceed to con their investors and the government and the regulators. Then they have huge parties, jam-packed with  hookers and strippers and sex and booze and a blizzard of drugs (cocaine, quaaludes, xanax, morphine, et. al.), and they crash their expensive cars, and trash their expensive rooms and fall out of their expensive helicopters and wreck their expensive yachts, and keep landing and laughing (for a while) on their expensive asses.

It’s funny, sometimes very funny. But it’s also sad and horrifying and sometimes  infuriating. There are scenes in The Wolf of Wall Street that are classics of comedy: I’d include Belfort’s zonked-out vintage quaalude attack at the country club, with blitzed crony/lieutenant Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, superb too) on the phone. And I‘d also include the bizarre lunch seminar by Jordan’s snaky L. F. Rothschild mentor Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, also superb); and the split personality antics of Jordan’s volatile accountant dad “Mad Max” Belfort, played by Meathead-turned-auteur Rob Reiner (yeah, superb). There are other comic or partly comic scenes — like the wild parties, and Jordan’s morale-boosting super-sell speeches to his troops — that are so filled with smart writing, cinematic bravura  and wonderful acting that they stay with you long after the movie is over, though I can understand why some people don’t want them to. Still, if it happened — if  a tenth of it happened — and more than a tenth probably did — hell, a lot of it probably did –we’d be crazy to ignore it.

To put us though it: That’s the modus operandi of  Scorsese in his great crime movies Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed — and now, in The Wolf of Wall Street, which is a different kind of gangster movie, and a different (and in some ways more disturbing) kind of crime story.  DiCaprio-as-Belfort ushers us into this  hedonist’s  world, full of greed-crazed creeps, with a conman‘s  semi-automatic congeniality — welcoming, affable. We hear his thoughts and reminiscences throughout the movie and he often strides on camera in the midst of a cluster of  other actors, and starts talking to us, like the big star doing his big numbers in a Broadway stage musical (‘Oh, we got trouble…Right here in River City…”). Handsome and spiffy and appallingly self-confident, the onscreen Belfort is a glamorous movie sinner whose “Hollywood redemption”  never comes, but who knows a lot of great, dirty stories and tells them here.

Those stories come pouring out. This is a long movie, but not at all a slow or boring one. We see Jordan first getting a start-up job with the glossy investment house,  L. F. Rothschild — and getting his broker’s license right before Rothschild crashed on the infamous Black Monday, October 19, 1987 (in the same year that Stone’s Wall Street was released). And  we see Jordan later start his own company — after initially working for another of those bargain basement penny stock brokerages called a “boiler room.”

There’s a memorable star-is-born scene where Jordan, quite a talker, stuns his boiler room co-workers with his surefire on-the-phone salesmanship, the glib gab of a born con-man. Later, when Jordan opens his own office, he brands it with the conservative-sounding moniker “Stratton Oakmont” to fool the suckers, staffs it with guys (and a few gals)  on the make, including some of his old boiler room colleagues and contacts and some local pot dealers  and turns it  into an orgy-parlor  of excess and  con-manship — and a greed that definitely wasn’t good, and became all-embracing. The movie follows this slick little prick all the way from crash to smash — all the way up (or down) to international swindling and money-laundering, a billion in ill-gotten assets and heavy-duty FBI investigations, with a lot of cocaine-fueled sex romps and drug-bashes in between.

But The Wolf of Wall Street is no celebration of rampaging misbehavior, or of Belfort, as some reviewers seem to think. Instead, it’s a critical (but not messagey) mix of dark comedy and bare-knuckle drama about the crazy excesses, the insider finagling and rock-star life-styles, of these young Wall Street wolves. And it pretty well skewers them and skewers the deeply flawed, “liberated”  system in which they thrived:  the smart-ass kids and hustlers like Belfort who fast-talk their way into becoming millionaires (and more), while still in their 20s.  It’s a cautionary tale about how money corrupts and absolutely outrageous money corrupts absolutely — and  outrageously.

Over and over, Scorsese and his actors and collaborators show us the vile behavior and comically insane consequences of untrammeled greed and money-madness. Detractors will say that’s what’s wrong with the movie; that it keeps repeating itself, that it‘s obsessed itself with money and hedonism. But Wolf of Wall Street, like Goodfellas or the Godfather movies,  is also an operatic film (as Todd McCarthy pointed out in his top-notch Hollywood Reporter review), and, in this case, the operatic wickedness and self-destructiveness of some of the characters, and the operatic rendition and repetition of themes and motifs is part of its power.

Scorsese shows us Jordan — at first a seemingly likable smart kid with a Leo smile that’s just a little too easy — and how his morals dissolve and his addictions grow thanks to a system that was rotten when he got there. That off-the-edge attitude is exemplified by the  aforementioned Mark Hanna and his  bleary-eyed lunch lecture on the work benefits of jerking off at least twice a work-day and snorting lots of cocaine to keep an edge. McConaughey, whom  you could call the movie’s  “ingestment counselor” (sorry) is sharp and funny and smooth and he makes hard drug addiction and constant orgiastic behavior, for a moment, seem like sound and solid business strategies — and maybe for him, they are.

Jordan puts all these lessons to bad use, when, post-Rothschild,  he invents the phony-baloney-but-oh-so-toney Stratton Oakmont brand (their TV ad emblem is a lion wandering purposefully through some staid offices, filled with busy-looking actor/brokers). He also recruits his band of  party-hearty hucksters  — headed by the idolatrous, toothy Donnie Azoff (maybe the ultimate Jonah Hill role). Donnie is the supreme  sidekick and supplier — both of them eventually juggling millions and ingesting so many illegal drugs  that one almost wonders why, by the end of the movie,  Jordan and Donnie aren’t crawling across the floor, drooling and babbling, minds totally blown. (Actually, of course, I’m kidding. They do crawl, hilariously, in  that now-famous fall-down-laughing country club-Lamborghini-quaaludes  sequence.)

We ‘re also privy to  the bad marriages of Jordan and his two very pretty, very cheated-on, “foxy” wives — the first,  the more likable and sympathetic (and dumped-on) Teresa Petrillo (Cristin Milioti, excellent), and then  his second, more-cold-blooded Naomi LaPaglia (played stunningly by Australian actress Margot Robbie). Are they treated fairly? The movie has been called  misogynistic by some,  and it’s true that this portrait of a rogue male‘s world could use more and better female characters. (So could lots of other movies.) But it’s also true that Wolf of Wall Street is portraying a largely misogynist world, and the onscreen piggish behavior here strikes me as not spectator sport or a sex fantasy, but savvy reportage about the behavior of assholes (male assholes) — and in any case, not something necessarily being endorsed or enjoyed by the movie.

If we cringe when one lady Stratton Oakmont employee gets her hair shaved at a wild office party, in return for enough money to get breast implants, well, we damn well should cringe. Actually, given the  astonishing selfishness, brutishness, boorishness  and mendacity of the Stratton Oakmont guys, I thought the women in this story came off better, if not always necessarily well. Teresa is one of the more sympathetic characters in the movie, and though Naomi may be cold and manipulative (like the men), by the end, she’s no doormat. She chops up Belfort pretty well in their last scene together. One of the distaff roles —Sandra Nelson in the admittedly brief part of  Forbes Magazine reporter “Aliya Farren”  — is also one of the few civilians in this movie who has Jordan‘s number.

III. New York, New York

The Wolf of Wall Street is another of Scorsese’s great, incendiary portraits of New York City (here, largely Long Island) at its worst and wildest, a city and region he de-romanticizes and de-fantasizes (but that he loves anyway), and that he recreates here with incandescent cine-realism and ravishing high style — thanks in good part to his ace collaborators Rodrigo Prieto (cinematographer), Bob Shaw (production designer), Sandy Powell (costume design), the magnificent Thelma Schoonmaker (editor) and a lot of others.

The movie is a visual-cinematic feast. It’s also a feast of the naturalistic, street-savvy New York-style acting we associate with directors like Kazan and Lumet, and with Method or Group actors like Brando and  Pacino and Lee J. Cobb and Eli Wallach, and independent actor-directors like John Cassavetes  and his company (Gena Rowlands, Gazzara, Falk, Cassel). The acting in Wolf  is mostly brilliant — and that brilliance comes not just from DiCaprio (who dominates the movie), but from the entire cast: the  many memorable speaking parts and the many pungent bits (like the seeming hundreds of Stratton Oakmont  employees, roaring and high-fiving in the movie’s boisterous crowd scenes) and the great  longer  central parts from Hill, McConaughey, Reiner, Robbie, Milioti, Jean Dujardin (as a smiling shark of  a Swiss banker), Joanna Lumley (as Jordan‘s cash-courier Aunt Emma, who wonders if he’s hitting on her), and — playing one of the few genuine good guys in this amoral world — Kyle Chandler (othe bad fathero f f The Spectacular Now) as the smart, incorruptible and underpaid FBI agent Patrick Denham. (You guessed it, superb. All of them.)

Most of these characters  are based on real people, and sometimes they even have real names — like Jordan Belfort and Mark Hanna and shoe designer Steve Madden. (The real Belfort pops up onscreen at the end as an Auckland Straight Line  seminar host.) But real or not, they’re all blazingly alive. That vitality and unbuttoned irreverence and wild humor is probably what draws Scorsese to these and the other bent or reprehensible characters in his movies (like the Mean Streets gang and the mob guys in Goodfellas) — not their overheated sex lives,  greed, brutality and  propensity for crime, but their furious energy and lack of inhibition and the gutter eloquence that makes them great characters, capable of inspiring great performances from these marvelous actors.

We can enjoy watching these crooks and opportunists  (some of us, at least ) not because we’re seduced by the deranged highs and corrosive excess of their ridiculously indulgent life-styles, or because we think “Damn! I want to get in on that action!“ but because the actors and actresses who play them are so much fun to watch — because of the soaring energy levels and heights of imagination  and invention these players hit: their fierce spontaneity, the way they tear into their roles, and all the wounding drama and outrageous humor they dig out of Belfort’s mad story and Winter’s explosive script. It’s also fun, of course, to see Belfort and the Stratton-Oakmont guys, after all their arrogant antics, get caught with their pants down..

IV. Wise Guys

After doing a splendid  job earlier this year  playing F. Scott Fitzgerald ‘s over-reaching Jazz Age romantic Jay Gatsby  in Baz Luhrmann’s sumptuously romantic  and controversial film of  Fitzgerald‘s “The Great Gatsby,“ Leonardo DiCaprio  plays his second top-notch self-made Long Island movie millionaire of 2013 in The Wolf of Wall Street — which is also brilliant, also sumptuous, also controversial, but not really romantic, even though it has DiCaprio, who can be a very romantic actor, as its star. (Titanic, anyone?),

Like De Niro, Keitel, Pesci, Ellen Burstyn, Jodie Foster and Daniel Day-Lewis in earlier days, DiCaprio has become a great acting vessel for Scorsese — as Brando and Cobb and James Dean and Jo Van Fleet were for Kazan, as Pacino and John Cazale were for Coppola and Lumet, as Rowlands and Falk and Gazzara were for Cassavetes. DiCaprio is more delicately handsome, more boyish than the other male stars on that Scorsese list. (Even though he’s near 40, you can call him “kid.”) But, like De Niro with “You talking to me?” in Taxi Driver or Pesci with “You think I’m funny? Do I amuse you?” in Goodfellas (both of which came out of rehearsal improvisations with the actors), DiCaprio can nail those big memorable eccentric scenes at which Scorsese excels. And he can nail them even when, thanks to Donnie Azoff’s quaaludes, some of Belfort’s best speeches are  incomprehensible gibberish.

Even granting the obvious similarities between the worlds of big moviemaking and of  big stock-trading, it’s not hard to figure out where Scorsese stands on these guys and on this life. He’s amused and entertained by them, stimulated by their energy and rebelliousness, and he may even like them in some divided way. (Certainly he likes them as movie characters.) But he knows that they’re mostly jerks on a road to nowhere, and that their lifestyles are madly destructive and that they’re dragging us and lots of other people and part of the economy down with them. (Other, less entertaining scoundrels are as well.) Scorsese makes that pretty obvious — especially near the end, when Belfort and his world start falling apart, just as Henry Hill‘s did in Goodfellas.

The sheer comic dynamism of the movie is a big part of  what makes a lot of it great. (For a very good analysis of The Wolf of Wall Street’s aesthetics, read Richard Brody’s review in The New Yorker.) The movie, in any case, is another of Scorsese’s  explorations, and one of the best, of machismo-drenched  American subcultures (The Mob, The Law, Boxing, Show Business). And  it’s another movie filled with the kind of outrageous and sometimes hilarious four-letter-word-laced  movie dialogue that gives a psychic hernia to prudes, and rubs others the wrong way.

That usual Scorsese fusillade of  swear-words, which reaches an all-time high here (Wolf contains 506 uses of the word “fuck,“ an all-time movie record), is part of  the lexicon of Belfort’s Long Island mob: those rising young money guys who want to look and dress like movie stars, and sound (among themselves) like thugs, crooks, shysters or made guys. To that end, some of them use the foul language and fake the mean swagger and sadism  they’ve seen and heard in pictures about gangsters, often by movie-makers like Coppola and Scorsese. The proliferation of  profanity and scatology, much of it achingly funny, is a tip-off that these characters, though they’re really just glib salespeople talking tough, want to come across as wise guys who know no limits, respect no rules.

Also, pardon my language, but Scorsese’s reliance on classic Anglo-Saxon swear-words like “fuck” and “shit,“ is justifiable not  only because that’s  how these guys talk (among themselves), but also because these “bad” words , while supposedly verboten in polite society, can be two of the funniest words in the English language, on stage or on screen.  Actors, who know the electric effect of these “forbidden” words, may use them a lot (maybe too much) in improvs in rehearsals, and  Scorsese, who often puts dialogue from those improvs in his scripts, may over-use them a little too. But he salts in those cusswords so liberally not only because they’re appropriate to the characters, but also because, used judiciously, or even injudiciously, they help sting a movie to life. Drop an F-bomb into almost any sentence — any ordinary, everyday, inoffensive sentence (or even any already offensive one) — and the speech, if said in character, often becomes a potential laugh line. Screenwriters, especially on macho action or crime pictures, use them  all the fuckin’ time. (Sorry.) I’m serious. I mean, I’m (bleepin’) serious. (See?)

Here are some examples of the transformative power of George Carlin-level swear words, none drawn from The Wolf of Wall Street: “Hello; how the (bleep) are you?” “Have a nice (bleeping) day, you (bleep).“ Get the (bleep) out of here, Tommy!“ “Pass the (bleeping) clam sauce.” “A spoonful of (bleepin‘) sugar makes the (bleepin‘) medicine go down.”  Or, to abandon niceness and raise the intensity level a little: “Listen, you (bleeping) son of a (bleepin’) (bleep).. (Bleep) you!  And  (bleep) your grandmother. You can take your (bleep) and shove it up your (bleeping) (bleep),  until it comes out of your (bleeping) ears. You (bleeper-bleeper), you…”  And, to inject a little class: “To be or (bleeping) not to be, That is the question…“

See what I mean? Of course, sadistic, offensive speeches will probably still be sadistic and offensive, bleep or no bleep. And you can sure as (bleep), mess up a (bleep), even a well-planned one. But it’s not (bleepin’) easy. Remember: These Wolf half-wise guys are (bleeping) clowns as well as (bleepin’) con artists, and the fact that they can (bleepin’) make us laugh is probably one of the few (bleeping) positive things about them. .

As much as Little Italy guy Scorsese understands how these guys (bleepin’) talk — excuse me, how these guys talk — he also understands Belfort and his lifestyle, especially the drugs. As we watch, the movie  rips the “kid’s” masks off. The exposure is unsettling. You can’t deny the guy’s charm — or the charm of the actor, Leo, who‘s playing him — and DiCaprio puts on a tremendously entertaining show. But I think you’d have to be a little high yourself (maybe on outrage) to deduce that Scorsese and his actor and moviemakers here admire Belfort, or are trying to “glorify” him or his buddies. (The only time I admired Jordan, fleetingly, was when he saved Donnie’s life by artificial resuscitation and pumping his chest. And Scorsese plays that for laughs.)

If the filmmakers do dig Belfort, in some weird cranny of their noggins, they’ve certainly painted an awful portrait of him anyway. Thief, liar, con artist, swindler, self-deluded exploiter, bad husband and father, drug and sex addict, and sometimes bumbling babbling clown, he’s the guy who — however much he may make you laugh, or however many stocks or pens he sells, or however many times he saves Donnie,  or however much moola he has stashed in his Swiss bank account  (temporarily) — is the guy you don’t want to be, if you have a brain in your head and a beat in your heart. Unless, like Belfort at his nadir (he thinks it‘s a zenith, of course), you‘re so obsessed with money and power and the pursuit of pleasure, you can‘t see straight anymore.

Saying that The Wolf of Wall Street glorifies Jordan Belfort is like saying that “A Streetcar Named Desire” glorifies Stanley Kowalski or that Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” glorifies Don Giovanni. (I’m talking about the characters seen from a moral perspective, not about glorious acting or glorious singing.) The movie’s Belfort is nobody’s behavioral model. Short of having DiCaprio walk around the picture wearing a sandwich board that reads “I am a bad guy. Do not copy my bad behavior,” I don’t know how the moviemakers could make that any clearer.

V. The Last Bleep

Here’s the trickier question: Do movies like The Wolf of Wall Street  that try to expose corruption, or deal with awful situations frankly — movies that try to show us the criminal world or  some of what’s wrong with politics, business, Wall Street or other flawed power centers —  actually encourage that corruption? Are the moviemakers, intentionally or not, brilliantly or not, seducing credulous younger (or older) viewers, by casting in those movies, in  the criminal roles,  attractive or lovable or funny actors and actresses who are liked or even adored by the public and are expected to draw huge movie audiences and make the studios lots of money?

That’s been the rap on gangster movies ever since Hecht’s and von Sternberg’s  1927 Underworld: that they glamorize criminals. But, in this case, I don’t think so.  Audiences are amused and entertained by many of Alfred Hitchcock‘s villains too, but that doesn’t mean they want to go out and emulate Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train or Anthony Perkins in Psycho. I don’t think Oliver Stone’s intentions in Wall Street were invalidated because some idiots took him the wrong way and wanted to become little Gordon Gekkos. And I don’t think that Wolf of Wall Street is on the side of the devils either — just because it’s a movie that  knows that the devils can make us laugh. For the record, neither is Underworld — nor Ben Hecht’s other gangster masterpiece, the 1932 Howard Hawks Scarface.

(Spoiler Alert, but you probably know it already)

Scorsese has been attacked as well for “trivializing” or even excusing Belfort’s crimes by not showing his victims. But do we really have to see the victims of Belfort’s chicanery to realize that what he was doing was destructive and corrupt and wrong and probably ruined some lives? Are audiences that obtuse? We do see shots of “ordinary people” at the end of The Wolf of Wall Street, on the subway car with FBI agent Peckham, and those few shots of simple, weary-looking everyday citizens returning joylessly home from work — after all the crazy hedonism and epic waste and hard-core lunacy we’ve seen — are devastating.

(End of Alert)

We’re in the middle right now of a great or near-great run of  American crime movies,  though I hesitate to call it an era,  and Scorsese is the undeniable leader. (I wish Coppola were back back in the thick of things too.) Just this year, in addition to The Wolf of Wall Street,  we’ve had American Hustle,  The Great Gatsby, The Iceman, Captain Phillips, Spring Breakers, Kill Your Darlings, Mud, Oldboy, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Out of the Furnace, Dallas Buyer’s Club  and 12 Years a Slave (which is about a massive, institutional crime and a whole outlaw society, the slave-trading Old South). Like most of  these films at their best, Wolf of Wall Street creates (or recreates) a teeming, dangerous, richly populated  world around the  outlawry. Like most of them, it’s an essentially moral work.

Scorsese didn’t make The Wolf of Wall Street because he loves Jordan Belfort and wants us to drool over his money and drugs and women. He made it because he loves making movies, and Belfort’s story  is great movie material. At its best, which is often, Wolf of Wall Street  reminds you not just of the glories of movies, and the sometimes false splendor and inner tawdriness of life itself , but the glories of other arts as well. I’m hyperbolizing, I guess. But for me the  best of Wolf of Wall Street is not some glossy men’s magazine orgy but an attempt (mostly successful, I think) at a  true work of art — a work visually dense and full of  life, like a painting by a Brueghel or a Bosch, rocking and propulsive like  a big beat classic by the Rolling Stones (or the Ronettes), crammed with humanity like a novel by Balzac or Dickens, literate and street-smart like a play or a screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charlie MacArthur, tough and snazzy and  stylish as a classic gangster movie or film noir by Hawks, Curtiz or Walsh. It killed me.

We see (or I see) in Scorsese’s movie, at its best and even at its worst, a great chronicle of darkness and madness, of (big) crime and (little) punishment, of evil and not-quite-as-evil and sort-of-good  — a movie pungently real and stylishly exaggerated, raw and unsparing, feverishly emotional, loaded with theatricality and artifice and also burningly alive. And though the Wolf of Wall Street’s  detractors may claim that the life it shows is spurious or tasteless or too dark and brutal, or that they just don’t want to see it or be battered by it, the sheer uninhibited nerviness and brilliance of what Scorsese puts on screen, overpowers, I think, many of those objections. Marty’s movie is so uncompromisingly, ferociously  candid  and so artistically powerful that, after you’ve seen it,  it’s hard to process or shake all the wild threatening images and ideas and emotions from your head. And maybe you shouldn’t even want to or try to. Isn’t knowing what’s wrong the first step to maybe making it right? Fuck if I know.

I want to point out to you that in a novel  a hero can lay ten girls and marry a virgin for  a finish. In a movie this is not allowed. The hero, as well as the heroine, has to be a virgin. The villain can lay anyone he wants, have as much fun as he wants cheating and stealing, getting rich and whipping the servants. But you have to shoot him in the end.”

Herman Mankiewicz, describing the Rules of Hollywood‘s Golden Age Games to his friend, Ben Hecht.  Quoted in “A Child of the Century.”

Wilmington on Movies: Ride Along

Thursday, January 16th, 2014



RIDE ALONG (Two Stars)

U.S.: Tim Story (2014)

Ride Along, which grossed over 40 million dollars in its opening  week,  is  a big, glossy, ultra-predictable  buddy cop movie in which costars Ice Cube (Boyz n the Hood) and Kevin Hart (Think Like a Man) and director Tim Story (Barbershop) pull a comedy variation, or try to, on the 2001 Denzel WashingtonEthan Hawke cop thriller Training Day. One of those movies that a big part of the public apparently likes and that most critics (understandably) don’t, Ride Along is better acted and shot than it is written or directed.  The  jokes aren‘t very funny; the cast is mostly wasted.

That cast though, is a pretty damned good one.  The costars and the rest  of them (Cube, Hart, Tika Sumpter, John Leguizamo, Bruce McGill, and Laurence Fishburne) are amiable company, and they could all be funnier, of course, if only somebody gave them  a script, or let them improvise an entirely new one — or maybe brought in Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke to act as advisors and buddy cops emeritus. (To be fair to the writers, a lot of the movie does have a semi-improvised feel.)

Anyway, in this shameless cliché’-fest, Ice Cube plays James Payton, a surly but super-competent veteran Atlanta cop,  and Kevin Hart is Ben Barber, a motormouth prospective rookie who’s given a ride-along (a day in a cop car, with a cop) conducted by James. Ben is  also, not coincidentally,  the boyfriend and prospective husband of James’ glamorous sister Angela (Tika Sumpter, of “Gossip Girl” ). When Ben —  a 5’ 2” high school security guard who spends much of his days playing video war and shoot-out games —  is chosen as a cop trainee-candidate, he falls into the clutches of James, who doesn’t want him for a brother-in-law, and means him no good, and picked for  the day-long ride-along in which Ben is supposed to prove himself as would-be cop and brother-in-law — and ultimately as ride-along buddy. Ben  is deliriously confident that he’ll make it. James, whose scowl is his umbrella, is pragmatically confident that he won‘t.

Anyway, on this particular ride-along,  you can be fairly sure — make that damn sure — that…

Spoiler Alert

1: …James will do everything possible to mess Ben up, including sending the poor gabby little schmo up against  a posse of sullen Hell‘s-Angels-looking bikers, a chopper-gang so tough that one of their mamas  has a goatee.

2. Ben will repeatedly make a complete fool of himself , but later redeem himself in some stellar way.

3. The higher ups in the Atlanta police department, notably Bruce McGill (Animal House)  as unhappy Lt. Brooks, will become increasingly perturbed at the comical mayhem following  in the wake of the ride-along duo, though James and Ben’s misadventures will bring grins to the faces of their fellow cops — especially James’s jocular partners Santiago (Leguizamo of Romeo and Juliet) and Miggs (Bryan Callen  of The Hangover).

4.. , While Ben flounders ever more haplessly, James will pull ever more fiendish jests, such as brining in a nude, berserk  cop-in-disguise to run amok in a grocery market.

5.  Armed criminals will somehow threaten or discombobulate Angela,  to their eventual regret.

6. James and Ben will become involved in some high-profile police case that will give them both opportunities to brilliantly distinguish themselves or foul up atrociously. In this case, that case of cases is  an investigation into the doings of  a band of Serbian gun-runners and local Atlanta outlaws, led by the mysterious Omar — a nefarious Atlanta czar of crime whom James has been pursuing for years, and who has apparently never been seen by anybody, possibly since his birth.  The mysterious Omar is played, mysteriously, by that excellent actor Laurence Fishburne (of Apocalypse Now). Ah, Apocalypse Now, now there was a movie… Not that anyone involved here, including director Story  and four writers, working in three shifts  (Greg Coolidge, Jason Mantzoukas,  Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi), were trying to match Francis Coppola’s great Vietnam War Epic, or, for that matter, Training Day. Or for that matter, Barbershop.

7. In  the grand finale of all grand finales, Jonah Hill, as General George Sherman, marches through Atlanta, and burns it to the ground, using incendiaries purchased from The Mysterious Omar by Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson and James Franco: Kevin Hart’s cast-mates  in This is the End, all of whom arrive by flying saucer and flee with Angela to the still ongoing wrap party for Spring Breakers.

Well, that last one is a joke (sorry). But none of the others are. Or should I say they try to be jokes, but something keeps getting in the way, perhaps the script. If there was a script.

End of Spoiler

Let me explain. Kevin Hart (Scary Movie 4) seems to have been in about seventy or eighty movies recently, and  though this one may be among the most lucrative, it’s not the best. He’s a comedian of formidable energy and fiery wit, but his character doesn‘t make much sense. What about Ben, we wonder, beyond his allegedly spectacular natural endowments, attracts  Angela to this video game junkie and high school security guard? Wouldn’t it have been better to make him, instead of a nerdy pipsqueak, someone more obviously brainy with an equally good reason for getting a ride-along:  a teacher or a crime reporter or even a stand-up comedian who wants to be a cop? Of course, Ben  winds up as the hero of the movie, or co-hero, but nobody knew that unless they read the screenplay.

As for Ice —  whom many critics seem to like to call Cube (although I prefer Ice or even, as the New York Times might have it,  Mr. Cube) — the one-time gangsta rapper, even though he has a more plausible character as a tough street cop, too often gets shoved to the side. Not that movies like this should be models of real life and verisimilitude, but they ought to at least make some sense within their own sensibility.  Meanwhile, the plans are already in motion for Ride Along 2, in which one hopes that we see more of The Mysterious Omar . Who says that crime doesn’t’ pay?

Wilmington on DVDs: A Christmas Carol (1951); It’s a Wonderful Life

Tuesday, December 24th, 2013

CO- PICK OF THE SEASON:A CHRISTMAS CAROL (Blu-ray/DVD Combo) (Two Discs) (Four Stars)
U.K.: Brian Desmond Hurst, 1951 (VCI Entertainment)

A Christmas Carol (Blu-ray/DVD Combo) (Two Discs) (Four Stars)
U.K.: Brian Desmond Hurst, 1951 (VCI Entertainment)
Almost everyone’s favorite nominee for best of all the many film adaptations of Charles Dickens‘ Yuletide evergreen A Christmas Carol, is this 1951 cinematic gem, sometimes called Scrooge, sometimes called A Christmas Carol, directed BY the  underrated Brian Desmond Hurst, and scripted by the underrated Noel Langley.
The 1951 A Christmas Carol stars juicily eloquent comic actor Alastair Sim as the pathologically stingy Ebenezer Scrooge — the mean, miserly London businessman who considers Christmas a humbug. And Sim is supported by an excellent cast: the fantastic Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley, the touching Mervyn Johns and Hermione Baddeley as Mr. and Mrs. Bob Cratchit, George Cole as young Ebenezer, Patrick Macnee as the young Marley; Brian Worth as Scrooge’s ebullient nephew Fred, and Peter Bull (who played the Russian ambassador DeSadesky in Dr. Strangelove) as both the film‘s narrator and one of the nastier businessman in a film full of them. In fact, Scrooge’s cold-blooded anti-poverty program (“Are there no jails? Are there no workhouses?”) suggests he might be a popular candidate on the fringes of this year’s Republican Presidential sweepstakes, might even win some caucuses, get some important endorsements. Maybe, if Scrooge got enough ad money (and a makeover and a new name), he could go all the way.
Why, though, is this film so well-loved — especially since it’s a story we all know, and have seen or heard or maybe even dreamed up from the gut after “an indigestible piece of meat” ourselves? For one thing, this is a “Christmas Carol” made by first-rate filmmakers who obviously loved doing it, loved both Dickens and his work. Hurst and his screenwriter, Noel Langley truly respect their source, and they capture a lot of Dickens‘ comic-dramatic-fantastic virtuosity, his unrivalled flair for character and his storytelling genius, with skill and relish. Both these filmmakers were highly literate: Hurst closed his career with a splendid 1962 adaptation of J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, shot in Ireland, and Langley, besides supplying witty lines for the Judy Garland Wizard of Oz, wrote and directed another (more neglected) classic Dickens film, 1953’s The Pickwick Papers.
Both that Playboy and that Pickwick are undervalued, and they deserve revivals. But neither will ever be as loved as this Carol. I’ve never met any movie buff who didn’t treasure or admire this film, and I never expect to.

Perhaps critics and movie lovers like it so much because they can see how deftly Hurst and Langley have resisted the obvious temptations of the material. This is the one of the most faithful of all Carol adaptations and also one of the least sentimental, one of the most stylishly crafted and one of the more psychologically acute. It’s beyond question a film for adults more than for children, which is almost never how “A Christmas Carol” is played. When the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Michael Dolan) and Christmas Present (Francis De Wolff, decked out like a plum pudding) show up on a horrific, dark Christmas Eve (it’s black as pitch outside even when it should be afternoon) to escort Scrooge though his sad, frustrated past and his greedy, cheerless present, they’re almost like a team of Freudian (Jungian? Scroogian?) psychiatrists covered with mistletoe, digging into the roots of Scrooge’s neuroses and compulsions. (That’s always been the modus operandi of Scrooge’s Ghosts, never more so though than here.)

The movie is shot by the neglected near-genius cinematographer (later a prolific director), C. M. Pennington-Richards, whose other great photographic job was for documentarian Humphrey Jennings in his WW2 masterpiece Fires Were Started. Pennington-Richards’ crystalline blacks and whites and his chilling angles often remind you irresistibly of Gregg Toland‘s deep focus marvels in Citizen Kane or the gorgeous monochromes of the ‘40s David Lean Dickens adaptations Great Expectations and Oliver Twist). A Christmas Carol looks stunning throughout, and it also has a stunning, sometimes near symphonic score by Richard Addinsell, who wrote the famous “Warsaw Concerto” for another Hurst film (Dangerous Moonlight) and who here makes great, emotion-drenching use of the poignant Christmas hymn “Silent Night” and the dark blood-chilling folk ballad “Barbara Allen.” (If Scrooge could have listened to his own sound track, he would have known immediately that his hard, cold heart didn’t stand a chance.)

A Christmas Carol, shot at the very height of the prime film noir period, looks like noir and feels like noir. (So, at the end, does that other great Christmas movie inspired by “A Christmas Carol,” Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.) And it has what are usually film noir politics: unabashedly Labor Party and New Deal (as Dickens probably would have been, had he lived in those times). The acting is expert, deliciously British and delightfully (but never annoyingly) exaggerated. The good and morally decent characters, like the Cratchits, or the youthful Scrooge’s big-gearted boss, Fezziwig (Jack Warner) are mild or jovial but never saccharine. (Not even Tiny Tim, as played by the frighteningly named child actor Glyn Tearman.)

The bad characters, like Sim‘s Scrooge (giggling and sneering and casting baleful looks), Hordern as Marley (with his doleful warnings and his magnificently agonized and deranged wails) and narrator Bull (an even colder-blooded financier than Scrooge) are devilish, mean, icy, keenly melodramatic and sometimes deservedly tormented. Indeed both Sim and Hordern became so identified with the parts of Scrooge and Marley that they both repeated them as voice actors for the Oscar-winning 1971 cartoon Christmas Carol by Richard Williams.

Alastair Sim was an academic and an elocution exert, and he had melancholy eyes and an evil smile and a gift for playing men who know too much and are rather annoyed at the silliness of the world. His diction was shatteringly perfect, and it’s the foundation of his comic style, along with those baleful eyes. (I’ve always thought Alec Guinness, who won Sim’s spot in the early ‘50s as Britain’s leading comic movie actor — Peter Sellers later replaced Guinness — was sending Sim up a little as the Professor in The Ladykillers.)

As Scrooge, Sim seems at first to be the smartest man in any room, even when he’s putting down and insulting good people, even in his awful cynicism and his sickening greediness. That intelligence and some hints of humanity are among the reasons the movie affects us so deeply, especially after we see the young Scrooge, who loved good, selfless women — like his sister Fan (Carol Marsh) and his fiancée Alice (Rona Anderson) — and appreciated kind bosses, like the eventually ruined Fezziwig, but who decided that the world was itself so mean and grasping that it would screw him unless he screwed it first.

When Sim’s Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning to discover that he still has a chance, that he can still be a good human being and help instead of hurt people, he dissolves into wild capering jigs and cascades of loony giggles that are the exact opposite of the cold money-grubbing snake of a man we saw at first, the cynic who thought Christmas and Christmas-lovers were humbugs. And this new man is, the movie is clear in telling us, the true Scrooge — who has been buried under false creeds of greed and exploitation all these years. (The Christmas visitations were  were his dreams after all.) The fact that Hurst and Langley and Sim’s Christmas Carol so successfully avoids the usual sentimentality and the sugar plum visions and candy cane philosophy, while telling us this story that a lot of us want so much to believe, the fact that it’s so scary and smart as well as sweet, is part of what makes the 1951 Christmas Carol so powerful, and such a classic.

Sim’s transcendence in this role, and the movies transcendence in the Dickens cinema canon, are not without irony. Lionel Barrymore, in many ways, owned the part of Scrooge for all his many years of annual radio performances of “A Christmas Carol.” (They went on through the ‘50s, and I heard them as a child.) But he missed out on MGM‘s mediocre movie version because, in 1938, Barrymore’s  legs had already given out on him, and he needed a wheelchair. (Reginald Owen played the film part, decently but not memorably.)

So it was Sim, otherwise best known for the WW2 home front thriller Green for Danger, and various tart comedies (from The Belles of St. Trinian’s to The Ruling Class) who became the Scrooge of all Scrooges, just as the film is deservedly ranked as the Christmas Carol of all Christmas Carols. If you‘ve never seen it on Christmas, it’s a bit like never having seen It’s a Wonderful Life or Meet Me In St. Louis. But this time the eggnog is spiked, the tale a little darker. And more truthful, more penetrating. It‘s amazing, in fact, how modern this story and its message, and particularly Scrooge’s philosophy, now seem. Greed? Business? Save the rich? Eat the poor? Are there no jails? Are there no workhouses? Bah, humbug!

Extras: Both Blu-ray and DVD versions, in 4 x 3 and 16 x 9; Commentary by George Cole; English and American release trailers.



IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (Also Blu-ray) (2 Disc Collector‘s Set) Four Stars

U.S.; Frank Capra, 1946 (Paramount)


It’s a Wonderful Life is Frank Capra’s Yuletide masterpiece about George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), a small-town guy on the edge of self-destruction, who is shown by a  pixilated guardian angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) what would have happened if he’d never lived, what a difference his life really made and why it is truly (sometimes) more blessed to give than to receive.

It’s one of those movies that almost all moviegoers know, many love and a few (the unhappy few) pooh-pooh. But Capra‘s populist gem deserves its primal place in our Christmas memories. It‘s a  stirring,  exhilarating mix of Norman Rockwell and film noir, of angelic fantasy and small town comedy, of heart-rending drama and sharp political fable — the wonderful tale of a man who sacrifices himself all his life to help his family and neighbors, and then finds himself on the brink of suicide when disaster strikes and his bread seems to sink into the waters. Embodying that man, small town savings and loan owner and cock-eyed idealist George Bailey, is the finest performance of one of America’s all-time premier movie actors: the great James Stewart as George Bailey, who, one Christmas Eve, plunges into Hell and then comes back.

In many ways, It’s a Wonderful Life is Charles Dickens‘ A Christmas Carol done in reverse. Here, on a magical Chistmas Eve, a good man is made to understand the meaning of his life, and the consequences of selflessness, just as Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge is made to understand the consequences of selfishness. (Scrooge was, probably not coincidentally, a regular Christmas season radio role for Lionel Barrymore, who plays George’s main nemesis, Wonderful Life‘s banker-villain Old Man Potter). Dickens knew his audience, and so did Capra — maybe not right away but eventually, in the long view of movie and pop culture history. It’s a Wonderful Life, at first a box-office disppointment, eventually ascended to the heights it deserved.

Capra had a raft of wonderful writers working on his movie’s witty, setimental script : Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (who wrote the urbane “Thin Man” mystery comedies) among the credited and Jo Swerling, Michael Wilson, Dalton Trumbo, Clifford Odets and the famously acerbic Dorothy Parker among the scribes who, according to some, remained anonymous. (The script source was a Christmas card story by Philip Van Doren Stern.) These writers were mostly left-wingers except for Republican Myles Connolly (and Capra himself) and they all helped fashion a wondrous tribute to America and its “small-d” democratic values, a paean to good citizenship and honest-to-God family values that has never been surpassed or matched.

The movie also boasts another great, wonderful,  Capra acting ensemble, probably his greatest. You couldn’t find anywhere, anyway, anyhow, any better actors for the parts Goodrich, Hackett and the others wrote, than the talents assembled here: Donna Reed as George’s truly good and beautiful wife Mary, Lionel Barrymore as evil banker Potter (a staunch right-winger in real life joyously trashing some of his fellow Republicans),  Beulah Bondi (Hollywood’s champion Golden Age mother) as George’s mom, Ma Bailey, Gloria Grahame as the town vamp Violet, Ward Bond and Frank Faylen as the nearly inseparable cop and cabbie team of Bert and Ernie, Thomas Mitchell as half-mad, kindly Uncle Billy, H. B. Warner as the near- tragic drunken pharmacist Mr. Gower, Frank Albertson as George’s rival (for Mary), Sheldon Leonard as Nick, the tough bartender who “passes out wings.” and Henry Travers as Clarence, the whimsical angel who wins them.

Most of all, “Life” has Frank Capra, the Italian-American  directorial magician from Palermo, Sicily (which he left at 6), who could mix and match comedy and drama with intoxicating expertise, and who could move audiences and make them laugh (and cry) like almost no one else in Hollywood history. Capra thought this was his best movie, even though the original 1946 reviews from audiences and critics were mixed, and the film’s receipts failed to support the new company, Liberty Films, Capra was trying to set up with his friends and colleagues George Stevens and William Wyler. (The Best Years of Our Lives, Wyler’s more serious take on many of the same themes in Capra’s movie, was released that same year, and became the box-office smash that Wonderful Life should have been but wasn’t.)

Yet Capra was right. It was his best movie. Every Christmas, it always makes me laugh, always  makes me cry. I love it madly. Hey, if you’ve never been moved, even slightly, when George’s younger WW2 hero vet sibling Harry (Todd Karns) toasts his big brother, as “the richest man in town” and George hears the bell and says “Atta boy, Clarence” and everybody breaks into “Auld Lang Syne” — well, as Jimmy Stewart would say, the…the…the…heck with you.

And by the way, Merry Christmas.

Extras: “Making of”  documentary; Frank Capra Jr. tribute; Trailer.

Wilmington on Movies: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Sunday, December 22nd, 2013


U.S.: Adam McKay, 2013


Movie sequels can be like, I don’t know — like disappointing high school reunions: You know. You waited so long; you expect so much, but they never live up to your best fantasies.  But how could they — even with a project like Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues and even if Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, and Paul Rudd all took pay cuts to mollify Paramount’s bean-counters and make the party happen?

So it is with Anchorman 2 — and the long-awaited reunion of the incredible San Diego TV Channel 4 news team and their happily deranged, mirthfully mustachioed   leader Ron Burgundy (Ferrell). They‘reback: the fearsome foursome that were such aajournalistic legend of the ‘70s that they became  a cult comedy movie (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy) narrated by Chicago TV news legend Bill Kurtis. — the storied Channel 4 team whose superstar was the classic full-of-himself journalistic jerk Ron Burgundy, backed by his nonpareil wild bunch: the classic deer-in-the-headlights weather doofus Brick Tamland (played by Carell); the lecherous stud-on-the-street traveling reporter Brian Fanfana (Rudd), and the closeted ultra-right sports guy Champ Kind (David Koechner) ?

Well, they’re still pretty damned funny — and so is the plethora of supporting and cameo players who turn up too, Still, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues isn’t as good as it should, and could, have been — and it’s definitely not the loony landmark of movie comedy, that its predecessor could and did become. But it‘s pretty hilarious at times and it offers gainful employment to lots of very funny people, including, of course Ferrell as the staggeringly obtuse Burgundy — as well as the Burgundian’s original Dream News Team. And, even if Anchorman 2  only hits about half of its intended, laughs (which is generous), that’s still more then most sequels.

The first Anchorman was a surprise cult hit: a goofy high octane satire of TV news at its dim bulb dunderheaded worst (well, almost its worst), as played by a collection of comedy geniuses just before most of them hit it really big. Will Ferrell and Adam McKay created what became a classic movie character: the cheerfully narcissistic Ron Burgundy. a mirthfully mustachioed  would be super-stud San Diego TV news anchor, whose ego and self-delusions were  as immense as his (temporarily) high San Diego ratings  (or, in Ron‘s slightly demented translation “Sawn  Dee-ah-go“) and the erections he could never quite disguise..

People have been talking about an Anchorman sequel for years — nine to be exact, ever since 2004 — and since every movie that makes a buck or two seems to get sequelized or prequelized or otherwise knocked off, it‘s seemed almost perverse that Paramount and company have kept it off the schedule for so long. But here it finally is: Burgundy, transplanted from the star slot at San Diego, now shares the 1980 weekend co-anchor post with his one-time-rival, now-wife Veronica Corningstone  (Christina Applegate), when long-time weekday New York City anchor Mack Harken (played by Harrison Ford in full scowl) decides to retire, hires Veronica to replace him, and then fires Ron for massive incompetence,

In a heart-breaking fall from grace, Ron, who unwisely gave his wife a choice between  a high-salaried, high profile job and continued married life — is soon back in San Diego as the dead-drunk, massively incompetent announcer  of Sea World’s dolphin show, a job even the dolphins could do better. But better times betide. For some reason, persistent producer Freddie Shapp (Dylan Baker) is hot on hiring Ron as the graveyard shift anchor (2 to 5 a.m.) for  a new, 24 hour cable news network, called GNN (Global News Network), run by the incomprehensible Aussie mogul and all-around crook Kench Allenby (Josh Lawson). Ron, reliably wrong as ever, thinks the idea is doomed, but reunites anyway with his all star dimwit news team —  and the boys all throw up their new gigs and sign up. Champ leaves his innovative fast food eatery  specializing in fried bat sandwiches (or “Chicken of the Cave’ as Champ calls them). Brian abandons his new renown and many double entendre possibilities, as San Diego’s leading kitten photographer, and Brick is stopped by his buddies from tearfully delivering the eulogy at his own funeral.

-Soon, they’re all in New York, joined by such memorable new characters as Brick’s equally mindless girlfriend Chani (Kristen Wiig), right-on African-American news producer Linda Jackson (Meagan Good), the viciously vain head GNN anchor Jack Lime (James Marsden), romantic rival Gary (Greg Kinnear),  and Doby, the lovable lost shark — as well as such returnees and old reliables as station manager Ed Harken (Fred Willard), and old San Diego news rival Wes Mantooth (Vince Vaughn) — but not, unfortunately, the cameraman played by Seth Rogen.  That’s okay, because this movie has more big star cameos in its last scenes (from Sacha Baron Cohen to Tina Fey, than almost any show since Around the World in 80 Days.

Some men are born legendary, some achieve legendhood and some have legendry thrust upon them. If Anchorman 2 isn’t as funny as the first Anchorman, it may be because that movie actually had a meaty theme, the trivialization of  TV news, a target that this movie just tries to repeat.

The real comic gold  in today’s TV news scene, and that of the last ten years or so, which I wish they’d been able to make fun of more, lies in the increasing politicization of TV news — and the daffy ideological wars between Fox News, the feisty conservative  network and the liberal venue MSNBC. There is major laugh potential in that combat, including perhaps a return engagement for Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin (a one-time Fox commentator), and Ferrell’s George W. Bush.

There‘s only a smidgen of a political joke in Anchorman 2– when Ron Burgundy proclaims a new policy of telling people what they want to hear and signs off with the slogan “Have more than a great day; Have an American day.” Bt considering all the comedy potential jokes they missed by staying in 1980 (Glenn Beck and his blackboard and his attacks on Woodrow Wilson and F.D.R., Bill O’Reilly and his blowups and salesmanship, Sean Hannity tossing his football, and the guests and hosts snarling and screaming at each other), this movie’s attack on trivialization begins to seem almost trivial.

Now, it may be that Ferrell and McKay figured they had to stick to chronology and keep this movie in the early ‘80s and the dawn of CNN, or it may be that somebody at Paramount was chicken about getting too political and too contemporary, and that‘s what held this movie up for so long. But the best reason for hoping (and i do) that they’ll be another sequel — Anchorman 3: The Desolation of Smog or The  Legend Returns — is to see the story, and Ron Burgundy, carried forward to the 1990s and 2000s, so we can get those more contemporary and relevant (and funny) Fox and MSNBC jokes. But anyway, A laugh is a laugh. And Ferrell, it seems, can still get his laughs, even when he’s playing to a shark.

GNN News Team Anchorman 2 Legend Continues Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues Review

Wilmington on Movies: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Sunday, December 15th, 2013


New Zealand-U.S.: Peter Jackson, 2013


And the riot squad, they’re restless. They need somewhere to go.
As Lady and I look out tonight from Desolation Row.

Bob Dylan


Even before they bring on Smaug the dragon  in The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug, it’s an amazing show. The second rip-roaring section of Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic, whimsical masterpiece “The Hobbit,” the picture pretty well drenches you with thrills: repeatedly riveting you to your seat or blowing you right out of it — before Smaug comes on in the last act and burns down the house.

The second Hobbit picture is a prime example of the modern movie as action spectacle, with director Jackson and his technical wizards pulling off one visual miracle after another — relentlessly chasing you and the thirteen dwarfs  (and one hobbit) on their quest all around Middle Earth, trapping you in giant shimmering spider webs with mammoth spiders scuttling on the attack,  hauling and hurling you down a bouncing, leaping hell-for-leather white-rapids barrel ride, pursued by deadly gray orcs and protected by deadlier archer elves — and finally putting you face to face with Smaug himself, a monster’s monster slithering out of a heap of gold coins with a monstrous unblinking eye like Death dipped in ice.

This new movie, adapted, like Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy and last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,  from one of the great literary classics and novel series of the twentieth century, as plucked from the formidably learned work and playful fairytale intricacies penned by British classics professor Tolkien,  is, like its source novel, also a delightfully thrilling entertainment.  It’s as exciting as Hell, and not as permanent  — though Smaug, the dragon of your worst nightmares, looks and sounds (thanks his voice actor, the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch) as if he could stoke several circles of Hell all by himself. If there was ever a better, more ferocious, more astonishing and fire-breathingly horrifying  dragon, or a better, scarier  movie monster of any kind \, anywhere, anytime, I have yet to see it — and pray to St. George, that I’m in a nice safe 3D movie theatre if I do.

There haven’t been many better movie adventure epics either. As we follow the hobbit of the title, resourceful and gutsy little Bilbo Baggins (played with lots of Brit theatricality and empathy by Martin Freeman), through Bilbo’s  and the thirteen dwarves’ quest led by stern-eyed rebel chief  Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the movie keeps getting better and better, more and more visually ravishing and wildly kinetic and grandiloquently epic.

Now, it‘s become a kind of article of critical faith (or a cliché, pick what you will) to trash the first Hobbit movie, to maintain that the first episode of Jackson‘s Hobbit trilogy was sort of a three hour dud, dull at times as the dirge of an Oxford don — and that this action-packed ring-a-ding  extravaganza has redeemed the series, redeemed Jackson. Smaug to the rescue. The audience, supposedly after snoozing through   Jackson‘s the Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey, and all its 3D, 48 f.p.s. wonders, suddenly woke up.

I disagree. I liked the first movie fine, and I don’t think it would have been improved at all by having less hobbit  byplay and dwarf revels and more action, more violence, more Orc and wolf assaults, more supposedly audience-pleasing blood and guts. I liked the scene-setting in Part One, and if some reviewers were getting impatient for the chases and battles to commence, well, I think it should have been obvious that when the action finally kicked in (and there was certainly some in the first film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), it was  going to be amazing.

The trouble with most of the big action movies these days, of all varieties, is that they have too much non-stop action nd incessantly clanging and clamorous bang-bang. Most of them could use more scene-setting, more modulation, more contrast, more talk and characterization, more humanity, more dwarfishness, more Hobbitishness. Taking half an hour or so to introduce us to Bilbo and the dwarfs, and to reintroduce us to Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), the long, tall Wizard who sends them on their quest, didn’t strike me as wasted effort. In fact, I would have liked a little more.

Nor  do I think, as some reviewers have theorized, that there was too much of a muchness in the Hobbit, Part One, and that it was probably for purely mercenary reasons —  that it was all a commercially driven plot to make more money by shooting more footage, wresting another  trilogy from a relatively small 300 page novel, that would have been better served by one film (with more action) rather than three. But frankly, it’s only the economics  of movie theatre showings and concession stand sales that seems to dictate that a 300 page (or more) novel is best translated to the big screen by turning it into a two hour (or three hour) movie. To the contrary, British television and its many sometimes excellent classic literary adaptations, have taught us that the best way to adapt Dickens or Thackeray or Evelyn Waugh, or even Jane Austen,  is usually to make them as a mini-series, in something closer to four to ten hours. Nine or more hours, in three sections, may actually be just about right for a novel as packed with incident and character and dragon attacks as “The Hobbit.“.



So, what happens in this (about) five-chapter-long excerpt from “The Hobbit “ that Jackson and his fellow writers (Fran Walsh, Phillippa Boyens and the replaced erstwhile director Guillermo Del Toro) have given us? After a tavern reintroduction of Gandalf and Oakenshield, we get back to where we left off in the “Unexpected Journey”: the dwarf’s quest to reclaim that kingdom from Smaug. The dwarves (and one hobbit) ramble through Mirkwood forest where the spiders weave their webs. They face the gray, kill-crazy Orcs and their murderous leader Azog (Manu Bennett), and meet the (initially) bear-like beast-man Beorne (Mikael Persbrandt). They encounter the elves, including the pompous and irritating Elf King Thranduil (Lee Pace), and our old friend, the dashing, blond-tressed Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and a new friend (new to Tolkien too), the deadly, foxy and spectacular archeress Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) — Tauriel having been added to the story by the more feminist-minded modern writers (and they were right).

Then there’s that incredible barrel river chase,  and the dwarf troop’s entry into the human city of Laketown, thanks to sullen and brave bargeman Bard (Luke Evans), who smuggles them into Laketown in fish barrels full of fish. There. we meet the corrupt town boss known simply as The Master of Laketown (Stephen Fry, who makes the Master rot away amusingly before our eyes). More chases, more characters, more, yes, action. And we still haven’t gotten to the movie‘s incontestable piece de resistance, the battle of wits and booby traps between Bilbo and his friends and the enormous and truly hideous (and strangely sexy) Dragon Smaug, voiced as if through  a Darth Vader echo chamber, by Cumberbatch. (Cumberbatch and Freeman have also been cast opposite each other as the small British screen’s latest Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, so this can be seen, if you’re feeling whimsical, as a kind of dry for this dry run, in which Smaug doesn’t quite do everything but play a violin and shoot cocaine and murmur “Elementary, my dear Baggins.”)

I was somewhat bewildered that the dwarves got their anti-Smaug weaponry together so fast, but maybe I missed something. Anyway, does anyone really feel that three hours is too much for all that stuff? To the contrary, those are five damned smoking’ chapters.  It’s possible that The Lord of the Rings was too rushed.

I think it’s better to view Desolation of Smaug and its predecessor less as single movies, or economic ventures, than as a piece of the whole — the blessedly entire three part “Hobbit,‘ which rises and falls, and rips and roars, and modulates and contrasts to its heart’s content and that of its hearty New Zealand main maker, Peter Jackson.

I thought, after seeing the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy run its course, that I’d seen one of the great films of all time: a movie to rival Citizen Kane (or, for that matter Vertigo), the great popular art trilogy that Francis Coppola’s Godfather should and could have been. The Hobbit, in many was, so far, is almost as good; I will admit that Satyajit Ray‘s Apu Trilogy, which has no action scenes to speak of, is better than either. But then, The Apu Trilogy is not exactly popular art.

So far, The Hobbit is a genuine continuous narrative and though Jackson almost certainly had more than box office on his mind in structuring this new trilogy, if that was  his commercial strategy, it  was a good one. And an artistically justifiable one as well. After all, we’d probably all prefer to have Erich von Stroheim’s ten hour cut of Greed, the one that  Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer trashed, in a strategy that was neither commercial nor artistic. Would today’s critics, if they’d been around in 1925, have applauded Thalberg’s cut and demanded a shorter movie from von Stroheim? Why complain if Jackson gives us more? The movie of The Hobbit, Smaug and all, is a huge fantastic, fabulous show, full of  rich pleasures and wild delights, and it’s a Middle Earth kick that Jackson got so much of it on screen. The Hobbit, and especially this chunk of it, pleases us for its literary qualities, for Tolkien’s mastery of deeply knowledgeable myth-making, for its acting, for its astounding cinematic legerdemain, and, last but not least, for its deliciously and hellaciously exciting action. I saw it in the 3D format at the Chinese Theatre multiplex in Hollywood, and I only wish I’d been able to see it again later on the huge main Chinese Theatre IMAX screen. Maybe I will, right now. Once again, I’m sure it will dwarf my expectations.

Wimington on Movies — The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

801U.S.: Francis Lawrence, 2013

Books were my first love, movies my second. Yet, though some day, I may get around to reading Suzanne Collins’ mega-selling young adult novel “Catching Fire,” for the moment the big-money  blockbuster movie adapted from it — called The Hunger Games: Catching Fire — will have to suffice. I liked T. H. G.: C. F. well enough, even though it’s not the kind of movie on which I like to see so much money being spent and so much effort expended. It would have been just as good, I bet — better maybe — at a half, or even a third of the price it cost and the effort expended. But that’s the way the game is played these days, “Hungry” or not. (For an entirely different attitude on adaptation, see my review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug — from J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” a book I have read, and treasure.)

The first Hunger Games movie was released in 2012, directed by Gary Ross (replaced here by Francis Lawrence of the futuristic horror movie, I Am Legend) and co-produced by Collins and others with much of the same cast and crew, notably co-stars Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson as young game-players Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark and supporting players Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland and Stanley Tucci as some of the various adults, meanies and hungry gamesters  swirling around them. Like that movie, this one is built around an action-adventure show that’s also a political allegory and a coming-of-age fable. In it, the so-called “Hunger Game” (a mass media event which combines the plot knock-‘em-off theme of And Then There were None” with the trappings of The Super Bowl), functions as  a social pressure valve to pacify the masses in an Orwellian dictatorship of the future. And,  and in this “Nineteen Eighty-Four” variation, the downtrodden masses are kept in their social slots by a set of media games and deadly sports, in which chosen members of the underclass (including Katniss, our heroine)  battle it out to the last man or woman standing, thereby providing bloody TV diversion and satisfying the rest of the underclass.

In the last movie, Katniss, the representative of impoverished District 12, poorest of the competing communities in the 74th annual games, won the final battle and then spared the other last survivor Peeta, because they were supposedly in love — to the discomfiture of Kat’s longtime friend Dale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth).  Now she‘s back and so is Peeta, and so are a flock of other past champions, all of whom have been recruited for the 75th games, rejiggered by President Snow (Donald Sutherland at his most unctuous and nastily narcissistic and Sutherlandian) and gamesman/planner Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman at his most Hoffmanesque) to become an all-star champions-of-champions combat. The obvious intention is to prevent Kat or her fellow champs from lending any popularity or credence to the brewing revolution, just about to break.

This seems pretty unfair, since one of the rewards of winning the other games was supposed to be survival. But whoever said that Orwellian dictatorships play by the rules? Even their own? Catching Fire is a long movie with dozens of characters, and it takes its own sweet time getting to the 75th Games. But when it does, it roars and explodes and erupts in what seems to be a CGI-laden science fiction jungle-forest, in a manner that suggests the Cooper-Schoedsack ”Most Dangerous Game” filtered through half a century of science fiction epics and video games. There’s not that much suspense, of course, where Kat is concerned. We know (or some of us know) that there are two more sequels coming, both of whom need their heroine. But we can muster some concern about the others contestants.

Everything about this fable about a future dystopia (that’s “utopia” turned inside out) suggests high quality, a young adult-derived show with class. The cast is headed by newly anointed Oscar winner Lawrence (that’s Jennifer, not Francis, nor Lawrence of Arabia, R.I. P. the Great Peter O’Toole, for that matter), and it’s top-notch. She’s  abetted or thwarted by an expensive and talented ensemble that includes her kind of boyfriends Peeta (Hutcherson) and Dale ( Hemsworth), along with Kat’s shaggy mentor-at-arms Haymitch Abernathy (Harrelson, giving it the Full Woody), her hyper fashion maven Effie Trinket (Banks)  plus a roster of fellow game-players that includes non-mad scientist Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and his companion Wiress (Amanda Plummer), angry punk siren Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) and dashing Finnick O’Dair (Sam Claflin), from whom we will obviously hear more later.

There’s also a fine set of villains or maybe-villains headed by the evil, half-lisping President Snow (Sutherland), and including the smirking games planner Heavensbee (Hoffman, than whom no one smirks better), and a sadistic bastard of a militarist swine named Commander Thread (Patrick St. Esprit). And we haven’t gotten to the wickedest and most supportive of supporting players, not-really-a-villain-or-contestant, but one hell of an emcee, the incandescent rouser and ultra-flam showman Caesar Flickerman, as played by Stanley Tucci with no inhibitions and a smile that could devour Liberace.

It would be  shame to ignore The Flick since Tucci is, as Billy Wilder might say,  a little bit of terrific in this part, and since he gives the best performance in the movie: a delightfully barmy, hammy turn (the character is the ham, not the actor), seething with twisted wit and high jinks, as if Jay Leno  had turned into Lucifer on the way to imitating Professor Harold Hill. I just had one thing to say while watching Tucci prance and sneer and ogle, eyes a-glitter, and that was “More!’  Hs fellow actors were a formidable consort, especially Harrelson and Hoffman, But Tucci’s was a supporting performance truly, uh, supportive. Caesar is at the opposite extreme from Katniss, who is the strong, quiet, gorgeous  type, and who is played by Lawrence with the kind of presence that suits a new-style movie or young-adult heroine. But if there were more humor in Catching Fire, more of the Flick Stuff, it would be a better movie.

Speaking of Lawrences, Francis Lawrence here is a slicker director that Ross was, though I don’t agree with the quibbles about Ross’s more verite’ camera style. Ross was good enough for the first movie (he’s better with more sentimental pieces like Seabiscuit and Pleasantville) but Lawrence makes this film a bit more pretty, tense and violent — and even, when Tucci is around, hilarious.

If you look at the art of moviemaking as a branch of higher economics — and a lot of people do — then The Hunger Game: Catching Fire is just the kind of show that the cinema industry is most geared up to make these days. It’s pre-sold, third in the tetrology, or quartet, of films adapted from the trilogy of young adult novels written to thunderous response by Collins (and filmed to an even more thunderous response) It’s a  big, expensive, pictorially lavish and star-filled show full of action and attractive young actors (or their magnetic and highly skilled elders), all doing violent or sexy things, while music roars and  the audience, pre-sold and almost pre-entertained, pours into the theatres like lemmings heading over a cliff.

Every beautiful and gifted young actress should have a few years like Jennifer Lawrence just did: the  critical raves that greeted her appearance in Winter’s Bone, a 2012 Best Actress Oscar for her saucy star role in Silver Linings Playbook, and two enormous box-office hits in the Hunger Games movies:  a double (or triple) whammy if there ever was one. I’m not trying to rain on any of this parade when I suggest that this latter achievement — the big-budget movie of The Hunger Games; Catching Fire — is being a little over-rated, and that the last five or ten minutes are a little abrupt and confusing. Nevertheless, it’s  a better than good movie, and one that does almost exactly what was so obviously intended and expected of it.

Who could ask for more? The other night I saw the other current pre-Hobbit box-office titan, the Disney animated feature, Frozen, based on a literary classic (Hans Christian Andersen‘s The Snow Queen) or inspired by it — and, while enjoying the movie (and enjoying the El Capitan Theatre stage show that accompanied it),  I wondered all over again why so much effort and care and money is spent on movies that seem primarily geared for children or teenagers (grownups are the secondary audience) compared with so-called adult movies. As long as they’re  as good as either Catching Fire and Frozen, I guess, it doesn’t matter.   But it would be nice to see some older-than-young-adult movies catch fire too.

Wilmington on DVDs: Taken/Taken 2: We’re the Millers

Friday, December 13th, 2013

TAKEN/ TAKEN 2 (20th Century Fox)

A violently absurd double feature from producer Luc Besson and star Liam Neeson, containing…

TAKEN (Two Stars)

U.S.’France: Pierre Morel,  2008

TAKEN 2 (Two  Stars)

U. S./France: Olivier Megaton, 2012 (20th Century Fox)

leeson life

Taken may have been a surprise hit for star Liam Neeson back in 2008. But it was also absolutely ludicrous: a fast, dopey. lushly produced one-against-a-bunch action movie that gained what little dramatic credibility it had from Neeson’s admirably straight-faced performance as Bryan Mills, a super-skilled ex-C.I.A. op, and unstoppable killing machine who lets nothing get in his way, especially logic, while chasing and destroying the Eastern European crooks and terrorists who’ve kidnapped his too often ignored teen daughter Kim (Maggie Grace),

In the first Taken, Mills takes apart Paris. In this outrageous sequel, Mills and wife Lenore (Famke Janssen)   are kidnapped by maniac Murad (Rade Sherbedzija), who was mixed up in the first fiasco. Kim tries to find her parents, and her dad takes apart Istanbul, with all hell breaking loose after a touching opening where Murad holds a mass burial for all the people Mills killed in the first movie.

. For the next sequel, I guess Mills  can take apart Hollywood, after the rest of his family, and the actors playing them, are kidnapped by a maniac screenwriting team trying to force producer Luc Besson and director Olivier Megaton into concocting better lines and a more sensible story. A hopeless-sounding idea? Trust me. As long as Neeson can keep a straight face and a muscular torso, the audience may buy it. And if they don’t, there’s always Hong Kong or Beijing next time around.

WE’RE THE MILLERS (One and a Half Stars) U.S.: Rawson Marshall Thurber, 2013


Back in the 1990s, during the TV heyday of “Friends,” the sight of Jennifer Aniston doing a strip tease on camera probably would have been enough to set off fantasies and cultural shock waves of super-seismic proportions. What a disgrace? What a babe! What a bod! What moral decay! What heavenly hair! What an angelic…!

Sad to say, when the big strip tease number with Aniston comes in her new movie We’re the Millers, it’s a disappointment, a bust—just another misjudged sequence in a sort of daring but basically lousy movie comedy—a forced, crude, often senseless show about a group of misfits or outsiders (played by Aniston, Jason Sudeikis, Emma Roberts and Will Poulter), pretending to be a typical American suburban bourgeois family (called the Millers), while smuggling dope across the border from Mexico,

None of the blame for this disappointing acrues to  Ms. Aniston, who still looks great, in clothes or out of them. But the take-‘em-off number—in which Aniston, as professional stripper Rosie O’Reilly, tries to discombobulate the vicious drug traffickers who supplied the two tons of marijuana now secreted in the Miller‘s RV—is too fast, forced and sloppynot funny, and not sexy enough. The rhythm is off in the strip, as it is for much of the movie  —  except for a few sequences with Nick Offerman as a benevolent D.E.A agent and Kathryn Hahn as his homespun (at first) wife.. Meet the Millers’ idea of a funny, audacious gag, most of the time, is to have Poulter’s Miller kid  pull down his pants to show us his scrotum, blown up to cantaloupe size after he’s been bitten by a scorpion.

The premise is third-rate pseudo-Farrelly stuff. Sudeikis, in a full attack of smarminess plays David Clark, an affable, shaggy, glib dope dealer who loses all his ganja-gotten gains one night while coming to the aid of a young neighbor (Poulter as super-doofus Kenny Rossmore) threatened by some low-lifes. Stripped of both his dough and his pot by the delinquents, David later tries to square things with his supplier and ex-college buddy Brad Gurdlinger (Ed Helms, who out-smarms Sudeikis). Gurdlinger offers his old pal an option: smuggle that couple of tons of pot in from Mexico in the R. V., while pretending to be a solid, clean-cut citizen named Miller.

Convinced he can’t be believably straight without a “family,” David hastily recruits three other Millers: Aniston‘s hard-bitten ecdysiast Rosie as the mama, Poulter’s neurotic and virginal Kenny as the son, and Roberts’ runaway street kid Casey Mathis as the daughter. This foursome turn out better at being bourgeois than you’d guess, until a nasty plot twist gets unloaded at the hacienda of drug czar Pablo Chacon (Tomer Sisley) and his number one thug, the scary-looking One Eye (Matthew Willig). Soon, The Millers, or “The Millers,” are on the run and hooked up with D. E. A. guy Fitzgerald (Offerman) and his spouse (Hahn) and his daughter (Molly Quinn), who will learn much more the perils of driving an RV full of marijuana, in a story where  guns and chases, phony incest gags and scrotum jokes abound.

A few questions emerge from this cannabis-laced mountebankery. Why would any self-respecting pot trafficker, even as devious a miscreant as Gurdlinger, conceive such an idiotic scheme (the two tons of pot aren’t paid for), a plan that seems likely to fail completely and get them all killed, himself included? Why does David entrust his life and future to the dubious hands of a dame who dislikes him, a troubled kid and a homeless runaway? Of course, it can be argued that movie comedies are full of characters that behave stupidly, put themselves in compromising positions and into mortal danger, and somehow evade arrest or death. But there’s an art to setting up these situations, and that art is almost lacking in We’re the Millers.

The notions or morals behind the movie, as written by a tag-team and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (director of the Ben StillerVince Vaughn sports farce Dodgeball and the arty The Mysteries of Pittsburgh) seem to be that these ersatz phony Millers have a greater aptitude for “normality” and straightness than we thought, that the actor playing the D. E. A. agent in a dope comedy, will probably steal the movie (unless it’s a show by Cheech and Chong), that sex and pot both scramble your mind, and any plot device, however imbecilic, will be accepted by an audience hungry for entertainment, or pot, or sex, or all three and that movies about pot should be legalized for their medicinal value, especially in complaints involving the scrotum. Also, that if you hire Jennifer Aniston for a role that requires her to strip-tease, you should let her tease as well as strip. Slower, slower…

Wilmington on Movies: AFI FEST 2013: Nebraska; August: Osage County; Pickpocket; The Selfish Giant

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013




By Mike Wilmington

For any properly enthusiastic movie critic or movie lover, a great film festival, is  the Perk of Perks. It’s the grand cinematic banquet or smorgasbord on their schedule, and hopefully more of a Babette’s Feast than a Grand Bouffe. At its best, a first-rate filmfest  makes the rest of the year, and most of the rest of the year’s movies, worth the trouble.

So it was with the 2013 edition of AFI FEST — the Los Angeles-based international film festival assembled every year since 1987 by L. A.‘s American Film Institute (and preceded, starting in 1971, by the storied and sometimes stormy Filmex.)

This year‘s  Fest (November 7-14), which is free to the public, had lots of variety, and more than a few surprises. And it had some fabulous stuff, including three of the best American pictures I’ve seen all year — a trio that included The Coen Brothers’ Dylanesque folk noir and Cannes prize winner Inside Llewyn Davis (no surprise there), Alexander Payne’s funny-sad folksy road show Nebraska, starring Cannes acting prize-winner Bruce Dern  (no surprise there either), and (a mild surprise) director John Wells’ and playwright /screenwriter Tracy Letts’ incandescently played Midwestern  small town ensemble drama August: Osage County.

And more, of course. Those three were all among the nightly red carpet Gala presentations,  complete with brief appearances by filmmakers and cast members before the show: a tradition perhaps borrowed from Toronto. The entire festival offered  over 120  films and programs from more than twenty countries — from France to Kazakhstan, from Israel to Palestine, from the United Kingdom to South Korea,

They were shown on Hollywood Boulevard in two venerable and classic Hollywood movie palaces  –The Grauman Egyptian and the once Grauman, now TLC, Chinese (in its new IMAXized raked auditorium), as well as the six-screen Chinese multiplex just upstairs. Fest headquarters and the media center were at the Roosevelt Hotel, site of the very first Academy Awards night back in the ‘20s. and just across the street from the Chinese.

It was a sentimental journey home — for me at least.  I covered many an AFI FEST when I wrote for the L. A. Weekly and the Los Angeles Times back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, including the very last Filmex (AFI FEST’s controversial predecessor and the precursor of  today‘s American Cinematheque as well). And later I also helped cover the early AFI FESTs, as programmed by a late, great guy, the indefatigable, movie-loving Nebraska-born, tall and gray-bearded  Ken Wlaschin.

This one was special though. Since the last time I saw AFI FEST (in 1992), it had moved to the two once-Grauman pleasure domes, and it was now the festival just up the street, since I recently moved back to Hollywood on Yucca, in Philip Marlowe territory —  a block away from the Egyptian and four or so away from the Chinese.

Those  two nostalgia-drenched, genuinely legendary, and still beautiful  movie houses were now my neighborhood  theaters (along with Disney‘s gorgeously whimsical El Capitan). And most mornings of the eight day festival, I trooped happily down Hollywood Boulevard to the A. T. & T. box office ( a floor below the Chinese multiplex) to  pick up tickets for the Gala (a more arduous task than you’d think), and then start the day of movies —  or of waiting in the long, long voucher line to get a seat for the Galas

It was only eight days — major film festivals can be 14 or  more. But there was plenty to see, and I had to miss some of the shows I most wanted to catch  including Bernardo Bertolucci’s 3D version of The Last Emperor, Hirokazu Koreeda’s Cannes critical hit Like Father, Like Son;  Guest Artistic Director and programmer Agnes Varda’s appearance with her youthful nouvelle vague classic Cleo from 5 to 7, Varda’s husband Jacques Demy’s and Michel Legrand‘s effervescent, sweetly melancholy musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; (with the young Catherine Deneuve as the only good argument for dubbing musicals I’ve seen); John Cassavetes’ and Gena Rowland’s emotional 1974 powerhouse A Woman Under the Influence;  Japanese animator supreme Hayao Miyazaki‘s perhaps swan-song The Wind Rises (really sorry about that miss), plus one of the funniest movies ever made — Danny Kaye spritzing and swashbuckling through his version of Errol Flynn in Norman Panama’s and Melvin Frank’ boisterous satire The Court Jester. (“The pellet with the poison’s…”)

That’s what a first-class film festival can do to you: you get nostalgic even about the movies you couldn’t get to. I’d seen most of the ones just above, in one form or another — though not, sadly, The Wind Rises. But not always in such ravishing venues. And the best movies always improve on re-acquaintance. (Like Citizen Kane, which I‘ve seen over 60 times, and which I swear just gets better and better.)

Here’s  Part One of  a little squib fest, though, on some of the movies I did see, just up the street, in AFIFEST 2013. Plus another listlet of this year’s audience and jury prize-winners.

Saving Mr. Banks

(U.S.: Director: John Lee Hancock).

Who would have thought that, nearly 40 years after the release of Walt Disney’s favorite creation, the bouncy Disney mass audience movie musical of P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins (which also played at this year’s AFI FEST), they’d make a Hollywood art movie and biopic on the making of Poppins, and that it would be graced by performances as rich and good as Tom Hanks’ gentle mogul Disney, Emma Thompson’s tart Britisher Travers, and Paul Giamatti’s good-guy turn as her driver. A nice show — and I  mean that in a nice way.

August: Osage County

(U. S.: John Wells),

A blisteringly good script by Tracy Letts — using the classic “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”/“Who’s Afraid if Virginia Woolf?”  theatrical form of a loud, partly drunken gathering where secrets are revealed and wounds torn open. And with a super cast: Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney, Margo Martindale and others. The virtuoso center of the film however is (stop me if you’ve heard this one) Meryl Streep. In an uncharacteristically rowdy and foul-mouthed turn as Violet Weston, a nasty, drugged-out old pseudo-matriarch, celebrating her husband’s (Sam Shepard) passing by flaying alive her daughters and their men, Streep brings down the house, in more ways than one.  It’s a classic scene-stealing performance by  a lady who’s stolen many a scene before.


(France,: Robert Bresson, 1959).

An ascetic looking, light-fingered young man  who looks like, and is, a starved artist (played by the visually impeccable Martin Lasalle),  lives out a Parisian Dostoyevsky tale, when he begins picking pockets at racetracks and metros. One of Guest Artistic Director Agnes Varda’s special movie picks and, together with Diary of a Country Priest, one of the untouchable masterpieces of a true master, France’s austere film genius Robert Bresson.

Blue Ruin

(U. S.: Jeremy Saulnier).

More proof that filming well is the best revenge.

The Green Inferno

(U.S.: Eli Roth).

Confession. I’ve never seen an Eli Roth horror movie before. But this one — a  jungle tale, inspired by the infamous Cannibal Holocaust  — was engaging, grisly and punchy.


(U.S. Michael Stevens).

The ferociously left-wing and peerlessly ballsy Washington Post editorial cartoonist Herblock (short for Herbert Block) gets a fitting tribute from almost everybody in Washington journalism except Fox News sourpuss Brit Hume.

Out of the Furnace

(U. S. Scott Cooper).

Cooper, the director-writer of the moving, finely-crafted  2009 Crazy Heart, which won Jeff Bridges his Oscar, scores again, if not quite as movingly, with this fierce urban crime drama about two brothers (Christian Bale, Casey Affleck), the bare-knuckle off-ring fight racket and an especially  vicious criminal boss (Woody Harrelson, smoking).

The Selfish Giant

(U.K.: Clio Barnard).

A tremendous British realist drama, in the great tradition of Ken Loach and Alan Clarke, about two young boys and best friends (Conner Chapman, ——–Shaun Thomas) in a harsh Northern England world. This memorable film, the first fictional feature by documentarian Clio Barnard (The Arbor), was one of the most powerful films of the festival, and of the year.

Big Bad Wolves

(Israel: Navot Papushado, Aharon Keshales.)

An M-style maniac in contemporary Israel is abducting and murdering and beheading children. And one of the little girls’ fathers and a cop who lost the case team up to abduct, imprison, and grill and (they say) kill the main suspect. It’s the same general theme and plot as the recent Prisoners, but done more compactly and effectively. Of all the horror movies I saw, this was clearly the best — and the directors are admirers of Sam Peckinpah and Robert Aldrich.

Awful Nice

(U.S.: Todd Sklar).

Like speedy dialogue?  Two antagonistic brothers (James Pumphrey and co-writer Alex Rennie) inherit their dad’s house, try to renovate and sell it, and make a total mess of things in this rowdy, fast-talking, high-energy, low-budget bromantic comedy. I’ve seen worse.

We Gotta Get Out of This Place

(U.S. Zeke and Simon Hawkins).

A small town teen threesome get mixed up in crime and craziness. Imagine a John Hughes comedy scripted by Jim Thompson and you’ve got what these brother-filmmakers, who make good use of a small indie budget, were going after. They almost get it.

The Rocket

(Australia, Kim Mordaunt)

. The seemingly “cursed” boy-child of a poor Laotian family displaced and sent wandering by a dam project, tries to redeem himself by building the winning rocket for a sensational local contest. A familiar story, but done so well, with such heart and sincerity and humanity, that it  became one of the festival’s major crowd-pleasers. Australia‘s candidate for this year’s foreign film Oscar, it might pull a surprise there too.

Closed Curtain

(Iran: Jafar Panahi, Kamboziya Partovi).

Jafar Panahi (The Circle), whose idiotic government in Iran has banned him from making movies (because they don‘t like criticism), makes another one anyway — writing, co-directing, and appearing in this tense, engaging chamber drama about a timid filmmaker and dog owner  (co-director Partovi), hiding out in his home because of another idiotic law that declares dogs “impure” and makes dog ownership illegal. He has two unwelcome guests. Great dog, by the way.


(Israel: Yuval Adler).

Israel’s Oscar submission: a gripping war drama about an Israeli intelligence officer (Tsahi Haliv), cultivating as a source a Palestinian teenager (Sahdi Mar’i), who is the younger brother of s high-ranking rebel. As much, or more, a psychological drama as a war thriller, this absorbing film directed and co-written by an ex-Israeli intelligence officer (Yuval Adler), looks at both sides (Adler’s co-scenarist is Muslim writer Ali Waked) with unusual even-handedness and compassion.


(U.S.: Alexander Payne).

A great road movie full of  desiccated lives, oddball comedy and bleak black-and-white landscape beauty. In Payne’s new show, Dave a dutiful son (Will Forte) and Woody, a father who’s slipping away from reality (Bruce Dern, off-type but fantatstic) drive from Lincoln Nebraska to Billings, Montana to pick up the fortune that Woody believes he‘s won in a sweepstakes give-away, and take a side trip, to their old home town and Woody’s gullible ex-neighbors and checkered past.

Like the dark flipside of Payne’s wonderful California winery road movie, the side-splitting Sideways, this picture pulls us into an American landscape that’s both recognizable and absurd — and funny and sad and real.  Payne understands and conveys the feel, culture and quirks of small and middle town heartland America like few other filmmakers of his generation, and this black-and-white comic odyssey has another grand ensemble (including Stacy Keach as Woody’s smilingly rotten  bully of  an old business partner and June Squibb stealing scene after scene as Woody’s venom-tongued wife, a gal with a past). Terrific. The AFIFEST gala for Nebraska also had a heartfelt tribute to “Dernsie” by Quentin Tarantino and a solid interview with the mercurial star by Leonard Maltin. Listen: You had to be there.

The Invisible Woman

(U.K.: Ralph Fiennes).

A highly pictorial British bio-film about Charles Dickens’ “invisible women“: his not-so-secret mistress Nelly Ternan. The sex life of Charles Dickens might seem an unpromising subject (“God bless us, every one!”), but perhaps only because some academics so fatuously underrate and misperceive this brilliant writer. Here –with star-director-writer Fiennes and co-writer Abi Morgan intelligently adapting Claire Tomalin’s book, we get a long look at the adulterous love affair between Dickens (Fiennes, who becomes an amazing look-alike) and Nelly (Felicity Jones) — we get, touchingly, the grand passion of a great novelist and what seems to have been the (unfortunately invisible) love of his life.

When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism

(Romania: Corneliu Porumboiu)

Highly praised, much awarded Romanian New Wave writer-director Porumboiu (Police, Adjective) made this austere backstage movie satire — about a glib young filmmaker (Bogdan Dumitrache) trying to persuade his female star (Diana Aviamut) to strip on screen for their movie — in only 20 shots,  and that may have been 19 too many. I jest. But you don’t have to trust me: I didn’t get Police, Adjective either. Besides, anyone who goes to a movie named When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism, probably deserves exactly what he or /she gets. Or metabolizes.


(South Korea: Kim Ki-duk)

.  In this bizarre experiment by the audacious and usually (but not here) excellent South Korean cineaste Kim Ki-duk (no plays on that name, please),  a cheated-on wife starts chopping off her family’s penises, beginning (unsuccessfully) with her faithless husband and then (right on target) with her hapless son. As an added audacity, nobody in the movie ever talks. (They do groan and scream). But after all, what can you say?

A Moebius strip, by the way, is a band or strip turned in on itself in a figure eight so that it has one continuous side. I’d hate to think how it applies to this movie.

Also seen (and to be reviewed later) The Past (Iran: Asghar Farhadi); Nothing Bad Can Happen (Germany: Karin Grebbe); Child’s Pose (Romania: Calin Peter Netzer); Philomena (U.K.: Stephen Frears); After Hours (U.S.: Martin Scorsese, 1985); Inside Llewyn David (U.S.: Joel and Ethan Coen)



World Cinema: The Rocket (Australia: Kim Mordaunt). See Above

New Auteurs: The Selfish Giant (U.K.: Clio Barnard ). See Above.

American Independents: We Gotta Get Out of This Place (U.S.: Zeke & Simon Hawkins). See Above.

Breakthrough: B for Boy (Nigeria: Chika Anadu).


Nothing Bad Can Happen

(Germany: Karin Grebbe).

Other Mention: The Selfish Giant (See Above); In Bloom (Georgia/Germany/France: Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Grass).


Live Action Short: Butter Lamp (France/Tibet: Hu Wei)

Animated Short: The Places Where We Lived (U. S. A.: Bernardo Britto)

Special Jury Awards: Balcony (Kosovo: Lendita Zequiraj).

Syndromeda (Sweden: Patrick Eklund).

Datamosh (U.S.A.: Yung Jake)..

Wilmington on Movies: The Counselor

Friday, November 1st, 2013



THE COUNSELOR (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Ridley Scott, 2013


Is The Counselor as bad as  they say? Could anything be? After the bashing and trashing that the majority of the nation’s movie critics doled out to director Ridley Scott’s and screenwriter Cormac McCarthy’s glossy, violent, and densely talky thriller — a gaudy neo noir about beautiful people in El Paso mixed up with deadly drug dealers in Mexico  –  The Counselor  seemed to have taken one of those ultimate Heaven’s Gate-style Big Falls. A movie I’d been looking forward to, it now seems to be firmly ensconced  as an Ishtar of thrillers, and a Gigli of anti-establishment shoot-‘em- ups, if not a Plan 9 from Outer Space  of  all-star neo-noir dramas. Then again,  I’ve always been a defender of Heaven’s Gate. And, for that matter, of Plan 9 from Outer Space. As for Ishtar, I’ll forgive Elaine May anything because of Mikey and Nicky.

The Counselor, in some ways, seemed to be inviting mean wisecracks and it certainly got them — including several votes as the worst movie of all time. Despite  impressive credits and credentials — including a cast that boasted Michael Fassbender as the Counselor, Cameron Diaz as the Bad Girl, Javier Bardem as the Good Time Bad Guy, Brad Pitt as a Cowboy Slickster, and Penelope Cruz as the film’s only nice person, the Counselor’s Wife-to-be — this movie (with some notable exceptions) took a God-awful drubbing from reviewers: the same kind of whipping as some of its unhappy characters. Any praise mostly went to Bardem’s and Diaz’s two pet cheetahs. There were only a few burning questions: how on earth it happened and  whether Scott and his brazen star  Diaz  and  her now infamous yellow Ferrari deserved some kind of Clio for the lewdest  product placement in cinema history.

Diaz played the wicked Malkina, and, in the course of The Counselor, she does the nasty  with that Ferrari, while Bardem as the spiky-haired Reiner — shocked, shocked — peeks from the driver’s seat.  What did Ridley Scott ever do to deserve this? Shepherding what seemed a Tiffany project — an original screenplay by the much-praised, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy (a script right in the vein of the  recent Oscar-winning adaptation of McCarthy’s book No Country for Old Men) – Scott picked up some of  the worst reviews he’s gotten since — well, since  1982’s then-badly-received science fiction neo-noir Blade Runner.

Yet the movie, like Blade Runner, has its surprises. Fassbender plays the title character, a lawyer so archetypal and John Grisham-esque that he’s known simply as “The Counselor” — and so incautious that he gets involved with a Mexican drug cartel that smuggles the stuff in septic tanks. This outfit is run by  the estimable Ruben Blades  as El Jefe, a sort of post-Peckinpah gang boss, but not as crazy. El Jefe, part of a mostly first-rate supporting ensemble, is backed by a lot of well-paid immoral scuzzbags, including the  evilly grinning thug played by John Leguizamo, who took his name off the credits.  And the Counselor, whom we first meet in a luxury bedroom, pontificating under the sheets with Cruz (as his eventual fiancée Laura), learns soon enough what, apparently, years of law practice, plus some extremely dire  warnings, haven’t lodged in his handsome noggin: Crime does not pay. (Actually it does. It just won’t pay him.)

You’ve probably seen this kind of story before, but probably not quite as well-produced, and probably not with this kind of language — this high-flown rhetoric and moral questioning, and these philosophical zingers: “You‘re cold.” “Time has no temperature.“ “I’ve seen it all. And it’s all shit.“  When we first meet the Counselor, he’s in bed with the adorable Laura, ruminating away,  Then he’s in Amsterdam, buying a flawless 3 ½ carat diamond (for Laura’s ring) from a dealer played by the usually brainy Swiss-German New Wave veteran Bruno Ganz (An American Friend) , who starts the philosophical ball rolling with a few thoughtful, intense observations about life and death and morality,

Then the Counselor scoots back to Texas, for a confab with Bardem‘s Reiner (whose wild spiky fright wig hairdo is alleged to have been copied from producer Brian Grazer) and Reiner’s trophy murderess, the wicked Malkina, and the couple’s pride and joy, those two magnificent cheetahs. (These cheetahs are so impressive that Malkina has her back tattooed with spots to continue the motif.) Meanwhile, the jubilantly playful Reiner tries to warn the Counselor off. So does Pitt’s Westway. But nothing avails. This apparently, is no Country for Counselors.

What happens next you can probably guess: and if you can’t guess the details, you can get the general drift. But what’s the beef? I’ve seen many movies with stories just as “clichéd” and just as confusing,  and hundreds that were worse, even far worse, than The Counselor — and they didn‘t arouse this kind of bludgeoning contempt and these mass conniption fits. Actually, as others have noted, The Counselor is the sort of movie that critics describe as extremely bad, when what they should say is “extremely disappointing“ or an extreme let-down, or not what they would have expected, given its players and pedigree. (Actually, a number did say this.)


The Counselor, whatever you think of it, does have its moments, including a lot of  good performances — especially by Bardem, Pitt, Blades and even Leguizamo. Predictably, it also looks great, full of gorgeous menace and ravishing decadence, The problem, as many have noted, is the script — and the way it was handled.

Ridley Scott’s major sin here — other than making a bad or unprofitable movie, which plenty of moviemakers in Hollywood have done  before — seems to be that he employed an 80-year old Pulitzer Prize winning, critically admired novelist, Cormac McCarthy, as his screenwriter, instead of some young hotshot with a film school degree, a high-flying agent, a multi-picture deal, and a propensity for inserting the word “fuck” in every third speech — but that McCarthy sold him the same sort of script  that very same hotshot might have churned out, only longer and wordier and darker, with a nastier villainess. In addition, McCarthy and Scott interlarded the predictable and inevitable wild-ass action, gunplay and sex-scenes-in-posh-settings (the money scenes) with long literary, quasi-philosophical  speeches about life and death and morality, and not just by Ganz.  Yet the very things that make The Counselor interesting (despite itself) are those same attempts at moral seriousness and those same perversely eloquent  and writerly speeches and dialogues.

So — or so some of the film’s legion of detractors seem to surmise — the studios, seduced by McCarthy’s   Pulitzer and the Oscars won by No Country for Old Men, threw their hard-earned cash down the rat-hole of art , instead of investing in something with a third the dialogue, a third the ambition,  and twice the carnage. And Ridley Scott then lavished his inarguable gifts of visual dazzle on an unforgivably ambitious (read “pretentious’)  script written by a sometimes (at least according to many literary critics) great writer.

I’m being ironic, of course. But, contrary to what many contemporary movie observers fallaciously believe, writing “literary” dialogue, or writing lots of dialogue,  or borrowing and adapting literary dialogue from some classic of literature, are not mortal moviemaking sins, and in fact many great or good movies liberally employ them.  A love of literature was  Orson Welles’ stock in trade, and the most movie-adapted of all writers is William Shakespeare, whose works, as I remember, regularly get accused of pretension and over-length.

McCarthy though, is no anti-movie snob. He apparently loves movies. And The Counselor was a script that the movie-loving McCarthy wrote, after years of having his scripts turned down, some of which he then turned into novels (including reportedly, No Country for Old Men). He wanted to follow the rules — at least, some of them. Despite his predilections and crushes though, he seems to have inspired some film folk to see him as the enemy. Those attacks on McCarthy’s writing in The Counselor  sometimes became — and sometimes intentionally — attacks on  the whole idea of trying for brilliantly literary or consciously theatrical dialogue in a movie. They also became  attacks on the supposedly “uncinematic“ qualities of  filmed novels or filmed theater.

But if it’s on the screen or on the soundtrack, it’s cinematic; the question is one of quality, not kind. Though some literary movies are lousy, some aren‘t. We could use many more screenplays with the eloquence and sheer verbal energy and agility — and wit  — of His Girl Friday and Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Lolita and A Streetcar Named Desire and The Magnificent Ambersons and the great Shakespearean films of Welles and Olivier — and we could use more too, like No Country for Old Men. (I’m not comparing any of these movis to The Counselor, merely filing another brief for stronger and more ambitious literary content in film.)


Ironically, Ridley, in The Counselor — as some have noted —  wound up making the same kind of movie  that was the specialty of his late brother Tony (the director of Tarantino’s similarly violent and zingy script for True Romance). Tony Scott, who committed suicide by jumping off  a bridge, while The Counselor was being shot half a world away, was a critical bete noir to some, a cult hero to others. And  Ridley shut down shooting, and flew to his brother’s funeral — after that final act of Tony’s that brings to mind all those questions of life and death and morality and destiny that somehow sneaked their way into McCarthy’s “self indulgent” script.

What do I think about all this?  Well, as someone who is obviously biased in favor of both Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy, I‘d like nothing more than to join with the critics who gave The Counselor some of its lonely rave reviews. There was more than a little of this insulted and injured film that I enjoyed. But I have to admit I couldn’t make sense of some of The Counselor, and some of it bored me, and overall, it struck me as confusingly arranged, especially in the second half. (What really happens  to the cheetahs? Apparently there‘s a scene that was cut.) Pieces seemed to be missing, and I‘m not surprised that McCarthy had to trim the scenario down from 175 pages. 175 pages of movie script are supposed to translate to about three hours of movie. And  in this case — judging by the few script fragments I’ve seen — the results might have been closer to three and a half  hours or more. Still, sometimes,  when you cut down a long movie, the discontinuities wind up making it seem longer.

At any rate, I deviate from most, in feeling that the movie maybe should have been longer rather than shorter, or, as some people want it to be,  nonexistent.) And, in the end, no matter how “bad” the Counselor is, I’m in favor of directors like Ridley Scott filming scripts by writers like Cormac McCarthy, even if those  scripts have some long, or philosophically showy speeches that wouldn’t have passed muster with Syd Field.

Would the Counselor have been better or worse with more talk? Here is a mysterious typewritten scene from a padded envelope that was shoved under my apartment door last night, allegedly smuggled in from El Paso in a septic tank.  Though I don’t believe it for a second, it is supposedly missing or alternate dialogue from the scene where the wicked Malkina — who, in this version, is called The Wicked Malinka — confesses her sins to the  perturbed priest, Father Carlos (played by Edgar Ramirez). It was supplied by a rewrite man. The confessional scene is followed by a two page speech by the priest — a part the script, oddly enough, said was originally intended for Mel Brooks — on life, death, mortality and power steering.



Bless me father, for I have sinned.

Bless you daughter. Speak. When was your last confession?

I don’t know. Sometime after Bad Teacher.

Sometime after what, my child?

Oh nothing, father. Just a mortal sin I made for Columbia.

Well, what have you done lately?

Father I, I…I made a picture called The Counselor. And I fucked a Ferrari,

You….what?  Please my child, remember you are in the House of the Lord. You can convey your meaning without being…so explicit.

Yes father, I’ll remember. I…I did it with a  Ferrari.

You had carnal relations with a man named Ferrari?

No, with a car. A yellow Ferrari  With power steering. Then I went down on it. Then I did it again.

With a car? (A long pause.) Was that all you did?

No. They made us do sixty takes.

Who made you? Was someone else in the room? I mean: in the garage?

Yes. The director. And the whole crew. And Cormac McCarthy. It was in a studio. It was for a movie.

A movie? You were making a motion picture? Why?

I was very well-paid, Father. And Cormac McCarthy won a prize — The Nobel Prize I think. And they told me that Marilyn Monroe once did 60 takes for her director, Billy Wilder for a scene in Some Like It Hot.

My daughter, this is a very peculiar story. Are you sure you’re not making part of it up? How for instance is it possible to have carnal relations with a … with a sports car? Where were you?

I….I don’t remember.

And was that all you committed with the Ferrari?

Well no, There was also  the rehearsal.

The rehearsal?

Yes, but the rehearsal wasn’t with a  Ferrari. They had to use a Bentley because the Ferrari was on loan for a chase scene in, I think, Red 2.

Red 2? I saw Red 2, my child. There was no yellow Ferrari in Red 2!

Well, maybe it was a silver Mercedes. I don’t know, Father. After a while, they all look the same.

Wimington on DVDs: The Haunting, Eyes Without a Face, The Conjuring

Thursday, October 24th, 2013


THE HAUNTING (Also Blu-ray) (Three and a Half  Stars) U.S.: 1963, Robert Wise (Warner Home Video).


From Shirley Jackson‘s shivery, eerie, intellectual ghost story  “The Haunting of Hill House” — about   poltergeist investigator John Markway (Richard Johnson) and his mixed group of mostly amateur spook watchers (Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn and Julie Harris) ensconced in a notorious “old dark house”  together — sometime noir master Robert Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding weave a  classic supernatural thriller, a shocker witthut gore, a ghost movie seemingly without tangible ghosts. (Or is it?)

As repressed spinster Nell Lance, who finds herself succumbing to Hill House’s eerie spell and its terror-laced eroticism — and perhaps to Johnson’s enthusiastic charm and to Bloom’s ambiguous half-threat, half-seduction as (seemingly) a sort of fancily severe Greenwich Village lesbian — Julie Harris gives a movie-stealing performance. The cast are all well nigh perfect (including Lois Maxwell, Miss Moneypenny of the James Bond series, as Mrs. Markway). But Ms. Harris, a wonderful actress as always, makes you really feel the story’s terror, the menace and the entrapment of Hill House — as (like Jack Nicholson in The Shining), Nell is  pulled into the evil of the haunted domicile’s dark, dark past.

Wise’s movie is quite faithful to Jackson’s  novel, which was much admired by the literary critics of the ‘60s and later. The dialogue is literate and tense, and the story and décor are smartly ominous. The movie’s chillingly tasteful production designs and the crystal-sharp black and white cinematography (by Davis Boulton) gives this picture, shot in England, a classic look. It’s the kind of  brainy, spooky cinematic treat Wise might have whipped up for producer Val Lewton in the ’40s, in their RKO prime time of The Body Snatcher and The Curse of the Cat People —  if they’d only had this kind of budget.

Roman Polanski once named Wise’s The Haunting as one of his favorite movies, and you can see why he likes it so much. In fact, it’s shame that Polanski didn’t direct the 1999 remake of The Haunting, which was messed up by the producers and director Jan De Bont, and not helped at all by its even bigger budget and gaudier effects. Subtlety, intelligence and superb acting are what cast the spell for Wise and company, and Polanski probably would have brought all that back, and made the movie sexy and funny to boot — something the 1963 Haunting, with its swoony undercurrents. doesn’t really need.


EYES WITHOUT A FACE (“Les Yeux sans Visage”) (Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars) France/Italy: Georges Franju,  1960 (Criterion Collection)

The eyes belong to Edith Scob — wounded and beautiful, as Christiane, the young car accident victim. But  the face, or faces, are the creation of her mad physician father, Dr. Genessier (Pierre Brasseur, the Shakespearean actor of Children of Paradise), who keeps trying to repair her disfigured features by kidnapping lovely young Frenchwomen, surgically removing their pretty visages and trying to implant them on his daughter’s ruined head. While the dogs howl outside his laboratory, Alida Valli as  Genessier’s chic assistant Louise, prowls around elegantly, in Genessier’s dark, isolated mansion in the French woods.

The story may sound penny-dreadful and Hammer Horror-ish, but the production is of unusually high quality and  pedigree. Franju’s brilliant cinematographer was Eugen Schuftan, thr year before Schuftan won the Oscar for The Hustler. The playfully macabre score is by composer Maurice Jarre, two years before he won the Oscar for Lawrence of Arabia. The screenplay, based on Jean Redon’s novel, is by Redon, Franju and the writing team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who wrote the novels on which both Diabolique and Vertigo were based.

This is one of the classic European horror movies, a shocker for aficionados, and it’s done with an impeccable style and flawless taste and imagination that belie the somewhat trashy story. (The original American release title was The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus.) It’s also perhaps Franju’s most popular and well-remembered feature, a post-Holocaust masterpiece of lyrical dread and gothic suspense. (Franju’s even scarier and more poetic short documentary classic Blood of the Beasts, is set in a real-life Parisian slaughterhouse.) If you think you may have watched Eyes Without a Face, but aren’t quite sure, you probably haven’t seen it. This is one tale of terror you just don’t forget. (In French, with subtitles.)

Extras: Audio interviewer with film director Rene Clair; Trailer; Booklet with essay by Guy Maddin


THE CONJURING (Three Stars) U. S.: James Wan, 2013  (New Line Home Video)


Horror movies are usually often judged oby how much they get under our skins: how much sheer emotional discomfort they generate. By that measure, and several others, the James Wan-directed scary show The Conjuring, failed to get to me. Mind you, I don’t think I’m the ideal audience for this kind of picture — even though this is a movie that seems to have scared almost everybody.

The Conjuring — scripted  very predictably (I thought) by the brothers Chad and Carey Hayes —  is supposedly based on the true story of a haunted house, possessed by demons and otherworldly spirits, as investigated by honest-to God “paranormal researchers”: the “real-life” combo of Lorraine and Ed Warren, played in the movie by the brilliantly sensitive Vera Farmiga and the convincingly obsessed Patrick Wilson. This, we are told, was the Warrens’ most challenging case. Of course it was. For one thing, it involved interior decoration as much as ghost-busting.

The Conjuring whisks audiences and critics back to 1971, where this supposedly true story supposedly took place in a clamorous, dark, shadowy old house in Harrisville, Rhode Island, and where a nice working class family named the Perrons—Mama Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and Papa Roger (Ron Livingston) and their five daughters—discover that their house is possessed by the spirits of The Exorcist (1973), The Amityville Horror (1979), and various other movies about poltergeists and evil spirits. The Perrons haven’t just gotten a bad real estate deal here; they are under assault by devilish beasties who kill pets, mysteriously bruise Carolyn, and keep subjecting the kids—who, at one point, are compared to the Brady Bunch—to ghostly reflections, invisible assaults, slammed doors, and other reminders of the house‘s previous existence as the site of witchcraft, death and potential sequels.

Soon the house and the family are investigated by no less a pair of spook busters than the famousreal-life Ed and Lorraine, who are just recovering from another case involving a demonic doll with a Chucky expression. Ed and Lorraine were also the real-life spiritual investigators who put the real-life Amityville on the map. Now, they turn their psychic prowess on the demonically infested Perron residence, on the Perron family and their old creaky house with its weird attic and spooky basement full of weird, spooky, dimly perceptible stuff, and its mysterious population of terrifying thingies running around, behaving devilishly and terrifyingly —as recorded, in the fictional real-life story, by Ed and local Harrisville people and some cameras, and in actual real life, by director Wan and his gifted and unfazed cinematographer, John Leonetti—who start off the movie with some virtuoso moving camera ensemble shots, and keep piling on the snazzy visuals from then on.

The movie has its good points. It’s well acted (especially by Taylor and Farmiga), and well filmed (especially by Wan and Leonetti.) Wan is best known as the director of the first of the Saw movies, but, after another haunted house movie, Insidious, he has decided in this case to definitively give us a horror movie without the old Saw mainstays of insane torture, revolting carnage and stomach-turning bloodshed. And indeed he does. He also  helps  prove that horror can be more effective if it starts off with character, and doesn’t rely too heavily on gore.

Vera Farmiga, who plays most of the film like a figure in a Bronte Sisters novel, is one of the best American movie actresses around right now. So is Lili Taylor, and both of them give the movie soul and mind and a heart that doesn’t threaten to be cut out and stomped on. Wilson and Livingston (of Office Space) are good foils for the ladies. Farmiga and Taylor are the main reason that The Conjuring probably seems so effective.

I wasn’t able to immerse myself in the high-grade terrors I was assured were on the way—seemingly guaranteed by everything: the jangly, bang-bang music by Joseph Bishara, the first class prowl-around-the-house-and-the-cold-windy-outdoors camerawork by Leonetti, the rotting-old-real-estate production design by Julie Berghoff, the ads, the reviews, the trailer, and especially the genuinely frightened or frightening expressions on the faces of Ms. Farmiga and Ms. Taylor—contrasted with the furrowed brows and frowns of Wilson and Livingston. What can I say? I wanted to have a horrible time, but all I got was another bloody knock-off.  Maybe that’s horror enough.


Wilmington on DVDs: House of Wax (1953); After Earth; The Purge

Friday, October 11th, 2013

HOUSE OF WAX (3D/Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
U.S.: Andre de Toth, 1953 (Warner Bros.)

The hit 3D remake of Michael Curtiz’s flesh-crawling 1933 horror thriller Mystery of the Wax Museum, with Vincent Price as the mad, fire-scarred proprietor of a wax museum, who takes his subjects from life. Director de Toth, who had only one good eye, couldn’t see 3D, but he does a bang-up job, especially when there’s a paddleball around. In support are Frank Lovejoy, Phyllis Kirk, Carolyn Jones (a real screamer)  and, as an evil henchman, Charles Buchinsky (a.k.a. Bronson).

Price’s horror movie heyday really dates from this show, the most popular 3D release of its era. You should also catch the Curtiz original (it’s on an old Warners box set), a weird little gem that stars Lionell Atwill in Price’s role, along with Fay Wray and Glenda Farrell — and that offers a tangy ’30s mix of  wise-cracking and the macabre.

No extras. Not even a paddleball. 


U.S.: M. Night Shyamalan , 2013

You’ve got to feel, a little, for Will Smith and M. Night Shyamalan  as you watch their beautiful but misbegotten science fiction movie After Earth. In making this big, slow, pretty but pretentious and often preposterous movie, producer-writer-star Will handed  a multi-million dollar present to his son Jaden — giving him the prime slot in an epic science fiction show  — only to get stomped on by a lot of  the reviewers and ignored by a lot of the audience.

That’s a beating for a movie that’s actually somewhat  ambitious and even heartfelt: a film   about a father’s love for his son, and the son‘s desire to be worthy of it,  to become a Space Ranger and maybe help spawn a sequel. Does After Earth deserve all that abuse? Mostly yes, partly no. After Earth, as the title suggests, is a science fiction movie about what happens after the end of Earth as we knew it: after humankind, a millennium ago, left the planet for a new home called Nova Prime. So Will Smith and Shyamalan and their company have  imagined a universe where Earth, abandoned by people,  has been taken over by monstrous creatures, foliage and plant life.

Visually, the movie’s concept is impressive,  and the themes are big and ambitious and sympathetic. It’s what we might also expect from  Shyamalan , who often tries to bend the genres of horror, mystery and science fiction in order to examine something serious, often involving families. Sometimes he succeeds, as in The Sixth Sense. Sometimes he doesn’t, as in this turgid, self-important movie.

First we get back-story:  1,000 years or so ago, Earth was evacuated and humanity resettled on Nova Prime, populated by our space cadet descendants as well as ravenous monsters , who want us to leave, but who are kept at bay by heroes like the legendary Cypher Raige (Will Smith). After we learn all this, the action starts, in a manner of speaking. Onto the vaguely Avatar-looking New Earth, comes and crashes a space ship commanded by  Cypher , with a crew that includes his son Kitai (Jaden), who has just been denied advancement to the Space Rangers and is visibly upset.  When the ship hits an asteroid storm, or vice versa, every human but the two Raiges gets killed or lost or forgotten . Cypher himself is pinned down in the wreckage and  able to communicated only in pained, stoic tones that suggest a mortally wounded archbishop presiding at his own funeral.It’s all up to Kitai now, as his father, using a futuristic walkie-talkie and a variety of other compact wilderness techno-gizmos, tries to guide  the lad through the monstrous  foliage and the treacherous fluctuating heat, and  a fierce flying mama pterodactyl-thing and bad dreams to a space beacon that will allow them to call for help.  As we sit there watching this,  and as Cypher sprawls in the crash, broadcasting directions and stoic wisdom (Example: “Danger is real, but Fear is a choice”), Kitai makes his way though what used to be Earth, but now might better be caller Creepy Monster Land  or Rite of Passage Land or Slow Movie Land — or maybe Shyamaland. If you’re in the mood for life lessons, the movie has plenty of them.

There’s no denying it’s a failed show, so listless that it sometimes has a semi-narcotic effect. But the picture does have its good points (the lustrous visuals wrought by production designer Tom Sanders and cinematographer Peter  Suschitzky) as well as its bad ones (the lugubrious pacing and the incessant fatherly wisdom slowly and stoically imparted by Cipher).  A lot of After Earth’s problems also stem from the fact that Jaden looks too young for his part, or for the Rangers. He’s no movie tyro, but maybe his dad should have waited three or four years before ending Earth for him .

No extras. 

THE PURGE (One and a Half Stars) U.S.: James DeMonaco, 2013

Mass anarchy comes but once a year — or at least it does in the lower-budget, ultra-violent science fiction  fable, The Purge. Set ten years or so in the future, The Purge has a potentially good premise, botched in the execution. It imagines an America where the government has decided to allow one night of unpunished crime a year: one time span, from seven in the evening to seven in the morning, when the police don’t make arrests and no crime incurs punishment. This strange amnesty is intended as a pressure-reliever to keep the populace pacified and law-abiding the rest of the time. And, apparently it’s effective — at least for some (such as the rich and comfortable who can afford protection). That one night bloodbath of  untrammeled criminality  — as portrayed in writer-director James DeMonaco’s otherwise formula-bound horror movie — is enough, it seems to keep the populace upright, or largely so, for the other 364 days. In this world, or this movie, this crazy idea works. In a way.

What happens on Purge night? The people, including everybody but some select national leaders (of course) are unrestrained but also unprotected. They can do anything, break any law — because for those 12 hours, no police will patrol the streets or make arrests or even gather and keep evidence, no doctors will tend the injured in the hospitals, and every violation of the law, no matter how heinous, will  be forgiven automatically, in advance  — including armed robbery, murder, rape  and green-lighting  violent movies with potentially terrific ideas that wind up making no sense and indulging the violent fantasies they seem to be criticizing. Like this one.

The first half hour, which suggests an old Twilight Zone episode  is pretty good. Then the movie, with the exception of one clever late-inning twist, descends into chaos and clichés. It becomes just another violent siege movie, as, for those 12 hours of The Purge, we follow the travails of a supposedly ordinary (but pretty comfortable-looking) family, the Sandins. The Sandins live in a gated upper-middle class community, where the father, James (Ethan Hawke) has sold and supplied most of the security devices that protect his family and his neighbors, including barred doors, sealed windows, and multiple  surveillance cameras. There are also, of course, lots of guns and sharp or blunt instruments, and they will be used.

Hawke’s Sandin is an energetic white-collar guy who’s just been named his security company’s star salesman, and Hawke plays him with that offhand cheeriness and attractively crooked smile he uses when he’s playing someone who might get a comeuppance. The other Sandins, a familiar-looking bunch, include his well-styled, pretty, competent  wife Mary (Lena Headey), their pretty but rebellious, 16-year-old daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane), and their long-haired, sullen-looking, not so pretty but good-hearted 14 year old son Charlie (Max Burkholder). This family has generation-gap problems, such as Zoey’s over-eager boyfriend, Henry (Tony Diller). At dinner time, they seem touchy, but oddly self-preoccupied for a group about to face near-total social breakdown.

So we watch as the Sandins — supposedly safe in their gated community, locked behind their scads of security devices, surrounded  by equally well-off and protected upper-middle class neighbors, and led by a Father who seems to Know Best — try to keep out of harm’s way. (Non-Spoiler Alert: It ain’t gonna happen.) Later, they must try to cope with a sudden violent incident, with an intruder seeking help (Edwin Hodge as the Stranger), and with an invasion of what seem to be masked rich kids, led by the guy with the most Scream-ish  mask and voice (Rhys Wakefield). This  sinister-looking, privileged-seeming young bunch are hot to  terminate what they call homeless pigs, have chased the Stranger to the Sandins’  house, where he was seen on a monitor and let in by soft-hearted Charlie. Partly because he is African-American and the upper-middle-class lynch mob pursuing him is white, he nags at the Sandins’ conscience, and probably most of the audience’s, throughout. There’s also a surprise twist of sorts coming, one also reminiscent of the Rod Serling heyday of The Twilight Zone, and it supplies the movie’s only decent dramatic scene.

Director-writer DeMonaco is a specialist in siege movies; he wrote both The Negotiator and the 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct 13 (which also starred  Ethan Hawke). But this movie, a surprise hit, was for me just another shoot-’em-up, with some obvious anti-anti-government messages. I’d like to have known why the doctors weren’t working, or why the visible menaces  in the movie (which doesn’t stray much outside the gates) mostly include that relative handful of kids in masks, or, indeed, why they bother to wear masks, unless it’s just to scare hell out of the Sandins, or why they seem so unafraid of the Sandins’ firepower, or why the Sandins don’t use it better .

One can envision, on this night of chaos and tumult,  hundreds and thousands of people in various locations, perhaps banding together (in another homegrown social-political movement), trying to storm houses and stores and banks and kill their enemies, everywhere. But this movie, probably because of the thriftier budget, just gives us  the usual family-in-terror stuff.

Would The Purge have played better for me  if it gave more vent to ideas and emotions, and less to ultra-violence? I’d like to think so. But part of the audience I saw it with, screamed and applauded and laughed at that violence, which I thought became boring and alienating. And, though I’d like to think that these moviegoers were responding to, or at least thinking about, some of the show’s ideas too, a lot of  them probably didn’t care what happened between the red meat scenes.

The Purge may be well-named. The movie‘s eventually almost non-stop brutality and terror have a kind of emetic effect — which is what happens in most of these pictures. The moviemakers, and they’re obviously intelligent people, might argue that it doesn’t matter as long as the picture works — which is the same argument they give to the fictional  government leaders who thought up the Purge and then hid in their own safety zones. Do we swallow it?

No extras.

Wilmington on DVDs: Star Trek Into Darkness; The Hangover, Part III; The Hangover

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013


U.S.: J. J. Abrams, 2013 (Paramount))

Perhaps Star Trek Into Darkness should have been called Star Trek 12: The Wrath of Spock. Even numbers, you know.

But no, that’s no good: producer-writer-director J. J. Abrams hates colons. Anyway, Star Trek Into Darkness turns out to be just what you might have expected from a 100 million- dollar-plus-budgeted blockbuster, released in 3D, 2D  and IMAX, directed by Abrams (Lost, Alias,Super 8), and acted and written by Abrams’ high-grade team on the 2009 re-boot re-hit Star Trek. That movie, coming after an 11-year Star Trek space-hiatus,  was a shrewdly calculated, well-executed show, with its share of  surprises, heavy-duty action scenes, big emotional moments  and nostalgic nods to the long 47 year history of Star Trek. And so is this one. I’m not in love with it, but I certainly enjoyed it.

What do you expect? Back on the Enterprise are the whole immortal crew, headed by Chris Pine as the impulsive, courageous, reckless (and horny) Captain James T. Kirk (who was originally William Shatner), and Zachary Quinto, as the pointy-eared, magisterially logical and seemingly unemotional  First Officer Spock  — once played by Leonard Nimoy, who‘s back in this movie with a cameo as “Spock Prime”).

Backing them up — as Kirk and Spock quarrel once again about the superiority of logic or instinct, science or soldierly action, brain or brawn  — are that crackerjack  space-crew of Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), Chief Engineer Montgomery “Beam Me Up, Scotty” Scott (Simon Pegg), Communications Officer Niota “Knockout” Uhura (Zoe Saldana),  Helmsman Hikaru “Smiley” Sulu (John Cho), and Ensign Pavel “How-Did-a-Russian-Get-On-Bboard?” Chekov (sic) (Anton Yelchin) — all the parts originated in the 1966-1969 series, and the first six Star Trek movies (1979-1989) by DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei and Walter Koenig.

One of the great appeals of the first six Star Trek movies, was always the appearance of that sort-of-magnificent seven. — not necessarily because they were great actors, but because we knew them for so long and we liked them — and because Shatner, no matter what you think of his florid line readings, fit his part of  the gutsy but sometimes anguished leader and okay guy, bemused by his intellectual buddy Spock.

Another familiar face this time, along for at least part of the ride, is the tormented-looking Bruce Greenwood as Kirk‘s mentor from the 2009 Trek, Admiral Christopher Pike. (Pike was the Enterprise’s original captain, the character played in the Star Trek pilot show by Jeffrey Hunter).  And the new blood in this new movie includes a real scene-and-planet-stealing villain, Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock himself) as the cold-blooded ex-Starfleet renegade  John Harrison (an alias), plus another admiral, Peter Weller (of Robocop) as the demanding and hawkish Alexander Marcus, head man on the U.S.S. Vengeance.. There’s even an Enterprise stowaway, Alice Eve as hubba-hubba Science Officer Carol Wallace (another alias).

Into Darkness begins with a bang in the twenty-third century, with a standard James Bond-Indiana Jones blast-you-out-of-your-seats opener, on the Planet Nibiru, where the always reckless Kirk and the often-exasperated Bones McCoy are being pursued by hostile pale-faced Nibirites, while Spock, in a heroic, self-sacrificing but unemotional mood, has lowered himself into  an active volcano, to try and save the planet. Spock does save the planet (as you might expect) and Kirk saves Spock (as you might also expect), and Kirk, for violating the Starfleet Prime Directive about opening action scenes, is demoted from Enterprise Captain to First Officer, and separated from Spock — a mistake that’s  rectified after the super-terrorist Harrison attacks and plunges into carnage a  Starfleet admiralty meeting in London. This results in the death of  Admiral Pike and Kirk’s  and Spock’s reinstatement as your favorite captain and first officer on the Enterprise with orders to hunt down Harrison to the ends of the universe — or actually the Klingon planet Kronos, where he’s hiding out.

The action starts right at the beginning and then keeps on coming.  In Darkness is a typical sci-fi war movie in the post-Star Wars style, whereas the Star Trek TV Show, which would have a fight every now and then, mostly was a series of  science fiction fables, with Ray Bradbury-style good-liberal messages. What most people remember, and even treasure, about the TV show, is not the space battles (what there was of them), but the characters and their tense interactions –most especially the ongoing moral-philosophical debate between Kirk and Spock.

Kirk was the constant hothead; Spock the professorial type who cooled things out. The two Abrams movies continue that conflict between two guys of widely differing temperaments, who basically love each other (as we’re told again and again). When Kirk, seemingly dying behind a glass door, reaches out his hand toward Spock‘s on the other side, you may think you’ve seen the gesture before (and you have), but the point is that most of us never get tired of it. Along with Ralph Kramden and Norton in “The Honeymooners” and Andy and Barney in “The Andy Griffith Show,” and  Cosby and Culp on “I Spy,”  Kirk and Spock were one of the great key ’50s-’60s TV bromances, and the new Star Trek series exploits and expands on that feeling.

It also shows them as young and heartily sexual, and full of juice and shenanigans. Chris Pine’s Kirk isn’t yet as full of himself as Shatner’s Kirk sometimes became, but the writers have turned him into a real ladies’ man. (In an early scene, we see him waking up from a threesome with two blondes, which is probably a Star Trek first.) And Spock has an often physical flirtation going with Uhura. Alice Eve is also aboard of course — but that seems a down-the line Kirk  adventure. As for the rest of the crew, I guess that they have to stay celibate or explore new dimensions for the post-war five year quest, or hope that the Enterprise finds intelligent, and lively, life in the universe.

As you can see, In Darkness is a typical sci-fi war movie in the post-Star Wars style, whereas the Star Trek TV Show, which would have a fight every now and then, mostly was a series of  science fiction fables, with messages. Darkness, as advertised, does have surprises in store — and you should strenuously avoid the IMDB cast list, if you want to stay surprised. If the movie has a major problem, and many won’t consider it  a problem at all, it‘s the need to keep the action scenes and space battles popping up at fairly frequent intervals. It does.


But though Benedict Cumberbatch is one grand hellfire villain, I still prefer Montalban’s Khan and his wrath. And for nuisance value, a Tribble or two.


Extras (dispersed among the various “In Darkness” releases): Featurettes; Abrams commentaries.



THE HANGOVER PART III (One and a Half  Stars) U.S.: Todd Phillips, 2013

Movies, like people, can sometimes display disastrous judgment.

(A sort of SPOILERALERT over the next two graphs.)

I was watching The Hangover Part III with acrowd of civilians — regular people at a regular evening theatre showing — when suddenly the audience stopped laughing. Stopped cold. You can probably guess which scene shut them down. It’s the one that so many critics and reviewers have been complaining about, where Zach Galifianakis as super-doofus Alan is driving a  car on the freeway with an open trailer transporting (or so it seems) a large, very photogenic  giraffe, and Alan, stupidly, drives right under a bridge, decapitating the giraffe and sending the animal’s head (or so it seems) smashing bloodily into another car’s windshield, which causes that auto to swerve and trigger a massive pile-up and what seem to be several dozen more accidents.

The audience hadn’t started laughing at the movie yet  — though a few tittered a little when they first saw Galafianakis, and his dead-serious, bearded, seld-absorbed  Alan mug, no doubt in anticipation of the jolly times they expected ahead. But after the giraffe’s head (a phony one, of course) crashed into the other car’s windshield, total silence descended on the theater. Total. Silence. Not only did nobody laugh (audibly) at the giraffe “joke.” They didn‘t laugh for most of the rest of the picture, and they maintained that hear-a-pin-drop quietude until Melissa McCarthy showed up a good ways through the movie, as Cassie, the bad-mouth pawnshop proprietress. She got people at least tittering a little.

Todd Phillips, who directed all three Hangovers, and got co-script credits (with Craig Mazin) on the last two, is obviously a talented filmmaker. And in fact, it takes some talent (and chutzpah) to come up with (or let pass), a joke so bad that it shuts an audience up for most of a movie — especially a movie that’s part of the most successful comedy franchise in film history, and one that this audience  was probably really looking forward to.

You wonder if anybody  — in all the focus groups and studio screenings and editing sessions — complained about that scene, or suggested that it be cut. (Not that I think moviemakers should let their shows be cut or emasculated by studios and focus groups.) Or if they objected to the other scenes involving slaughtered animals: the guard dogs who get their necks snapped, or the fighting cocks who got killed.  Or to the script’s consistent mean-spirited verbal and physical cruelty and nastiness. (“It’s a giraffe. Who gives a shit?“ Phil says abut the road accident.) Or to the indulgence to and often triumphant amorality of the movie’s worst (and at times, funniest) character, gay gangster Mr. Chow  (Ken Jeong, flaming).

Or to the heightened brutality and immorality — and willingness to engage in all kinds of  destructive or sadistic behavior (supposedly in self-defense), up to and including abetting a murder — of the “heroes“ themselves: the superstar Hangover .”Wolfpack.” What happened to the ethics of that  buddy buddy cabal? That fierce foursome of arrested-development rich kid Alan, studly schoolteacher Phil (Bradley Cooper), hysterical dentist Stu (Ed Helms) and the once-again mercifully absent Doug (Justin Bartha)?

The first Hangover — a mystery story/bromantic comedy set in Las Vegas, done with high-wire-walking intensity — is a genuinely funny movie. It also had genuinely likable (and funny) protagonists, and genuinely scary (and funny) villains.   The Hangover II, set in Bangkok, brought back the original quartet and also Mr. Chow — as well as “comedy” that was increasingly  off-putting — was a huge mistake, a would-be edgy show that ultimately had more edge than comedy, and that may have alienated audiences more than anyone realized at the time.


Now comes Hangover III, in which the quartet returns again — with Phil, Stu and Doug at first trying an intervention with their aberrant pal Alan (after he goes off meds and screws up a few more times) and  getting mixed up again with the epicene and perfidious Chow. This proudly freaky mobster, on about the same time of their long ago lost weekend, stole some gold from he nefarious Marshall (newcomer John Goodman), and now he pulls them all back into the dark side. There are no hangovers, for most of the movie at least, but otherwise it’s the monkey business as usual — except almost everything is cruder and darker and  unpleasantly vicious.

The Hangover Part III has been pretty well-abused by critics, and it deserves to be., considering that it’s a well-financed sequel to the most popular movie comedy of all time.  The Hangover was funny partly because the Wolfpack (Alan excepted) were relatively normal guys who lost their inhibitions and got in trouble because Alan secretly slipped them a drug. In their brainsick state, they fell in with bad company, including a  tiger (not decapitated, as I remember). In The Hangover II , they also got wrecked without realizing it, though that movie, with its heavy quota of Bangkok depravity, wasn’t very funny either. In The Hangover III, they don’t even need booze or drugs. The threat of a good whacking from Goodman’s murderous Marshall is inducement enough.

There’s an attempt to go sentimental on us, with the guys benevolently trying to save Alan, and Alan trying to straighten out — but his reformation at the hands of  McCarthy’s pawnshop harridan Cassie (who bullies her wheel-chair-ridden mother) seems dubious. The movie’s last ultimate “morning after” gag (involving a hair-raising demonstration on Stu of either prosthetic or computer generated wizardry) is dubious too. In fact, I thought it belonged in the trashbin, along with the giraffe joke  and a lot of others — as well as  the whole strategy of downplaying Phil and Doug and constructing the movie mostly around Alan and Mr. Chow,

The Godfather Trilogy. The Apu Trilogy. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Dark Knight Trilogy… And now The Hangover Trilogy? Well, as they say in Hollywood, Money talks and bullshit walks. And if there was ever a trilogy that started out being Money and ended up as piece of walking bullshit, it’s The Hangover. You u get the idea, while  watching Hang III, that Phillips (and co-writer Craig  Mazin, who replaced, not too felicitously, the original writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore) were actually tying to avoid formula and take the story in a new, audacious  direction. — before they wound up, like Phil and Alan, chasing Mr. Chow and dangling off a balcony edge of Ceasar’s Palace.

But there’s one consolation watching this third “Hangover.” You know there probably won’t ever be another one. Not if we’re lucky. You may think I’m being mean and unfair. But hey, it’s a movie. Who gives a shit?




THE HANGOVER (DVD or Blu-ray) (Three Stars)

U. S.; Todd Phillips, 2009 (Warner Bros.)


Recipe for a “Hangover“: Four male buddies — or actually, three buddies and a hanger-on who desperately wants to be one of the bunch — take off for Las Vegas and one last bachelor bash, driving a 1969 Mercedes borrowed from the bride‘s dad (Jeffrey Tambor). Reading right to left, they’re Phil, the studly but married English teacher (Brad Cooper), Stu the nerdy dentist (Ed Helms of “The Office“), Alan the slobby and somewhat wacked out brother-in-law-to-be (Zach Galifianakis), and Doug, the very tolerant, likable  groom (Justin Bartha).  Shake and mix well. Once in Vegas, our fun-loving quartet check into a deluxe hotel villa suite and begin their night of revelry with a toast up on the roof, with knockout libations that have been, unfortunately, secretly spiked with what one of them thinks is Ecstasy, but is actually the date-rape drug.

The next morning , three of them wake up in the suite, hung over and unable to remember a single thing that happened after they imbibed the drink and drug. Here’s what they see: the apartment wrecked,  booze on the furniture, a baby in a bassinet, one of dentist Stu’s front teeth missing, the Mercedes gone, pizza on the sofa, a mattress speared on the pole outside, a live tiger in their bathroom. And, oh yeah, the groom mysteriously missing, with barely hours for the guys to find and deliver him to the wedding and his beaming bride.

Pretty soon they’ll see Doug‘s mattress speared on a roof pole and  they’ll run into the cops whose squad car they stole, the gay Chinese gangster Mr. Chow whose blackjack loot they accidentally glommed, the friendly stripper/hooker named Jade (Heather Graham) whom Stu married last night at The Best Little Chapel, Someone called Black Doug, and Mike Tyson, who happens to own the tiger.

What happened? Where is their Doug? What about the impending nuptials with Tracy (Sasha Barrese)? And who the hell is Black Doug? (Since he’s played by Mike Epps, we at least know he’ll get some laughs.) Despite myself, I‘ve got to admit this is a terrific killer premise, at least for exactly the kind of raunchy, male-bonding comedy that usually plays to knuckleheads, but occasionally delivers the goods. The last one I remember that worked this well was Wedding Crashers, with Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, and Rachel McAdams, and a funny, dirty-minded cameo by Will Ferrell. (The memory of that last will help you forgive Ferrellhim for Land of the Lost, ) And, oh yeah, Brad Cooper.

The Hangover is an example of a movie genre I often dislike: the Daffy, Goofy Sex-Crazed Guys comedy (an 80s mainstay) — a picture in which we’re privy to the horny, boozy, pants-dropping antics of a gang of guys out for a smashed-but-keep-going, party-till-you-drop high time: a lewd-minded crew that often includes the stud, the nerd, the slob/weirdo and the nice guy/author surrogate (or variations thereof).

There have been hundreds of movies like this, and most of them stink. But this one works.

Why?  Director Todd Phillips, who has made at least one funny male-bonding comedy, Road Trip — as well as some others (Old School, “Starsky and Hutch) that I’d rather forget — has a  real flair for this wild and crazy guys kind of  situation. There’s a knowing edge to his handling of this very familiar stuff, the progressive revelations of their crazy misbehavior — that humanizes the story. Writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who were guilty of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Four Christmases (Take them back, guys) have dreamed up lots of funny bits, most of which work. But they’ve also given the whole thing a neat structure that makes the story far more interesting.

Instead of showing us the wild night as it happens, one blitzed catastrophe after another, they turn the whole show into a film-noir-in-reverse detective story, where the three guys left behind have to piece everything together, and suffer while they recall what irresponsible clowns they were.      This device makes the story more entertaining, funnier and also less offensive (than usual), since the guys are paying  for their misdeeds after indulging in them, and since we don’t see the orgies that got them in Dutch until a rapid-fire lewd end-credits sequence of the photos that recorded their blacked-out blowout. The movie suggests that there is such a thing as a morning after, and that they are consequences to every orgy.

Besides, it is always funnier to recall this kind of stuff afterwards, sober. Did I ever tell you about the night one of my friends walked out in the middle of W. Gilman street, stark naked and chugging a bottle of Aqua Velva, and two police cars pulled up around him? Or the time somebody‘s girlfriend started a water fight inside our apartment house that lasted for an hour and ended up waterlogging the kitchen? Then there was that drunken night time trip to the zoo and the rhinoceros house….  (The joke is: You think I‘m kidding, but I’m not.)

Finally, the element that really makes The Hangover is the cast. The three leads are perfect clown adventurers. Bradley Cooper’s Phil recalls every ultra-glib ladies man and take charge guy you’ve ever met. Ed Helms, as the defanged dentist Stu, is a dream of an angst-ridden straight man and guilty hen-pecked nerd, with a classic worried shockeroo look that suggests Harold Lloyd crossed with Charles Grodin. Zach Galifianakis (Dave the Bear in the lousy What Happens in Vegas) makes such a funny oddball out, like early fat-demonic Jim Belushi crossed with a delusional touch of Don Knotts,  that he even manages to survive one too many peeks at his butt. And Justin Bartha is a terrific likable guy — and a good sport too, since he has to miss most of the action.    The rest of the cast is good too, especially Rachael Harris as the girlfriend from hell, Heather Graham as the hooker from heaven, Epps as B. D., and Ken Jeong as the kind of gay Chinese gangster you don’t want to run into in a Turkish bath. Even Mike Tyson makes you laugh.

I’ve knocked  off half a star here for the cop car and blackjack scenes, and the sometimes mushy ending, none of which makes the wicked comic sense of  the rest of the movie. But, audiences for this type of show will get everything they want, while audiences who normally wouldn’t go near a picture like this will get more than they bargained for. I‘m usually not fond of movies that seem partly inspired by TV commercials. But this is one case where it’s good that what happened in Vegas didn’t stay there.

DVD Blu-ray extras: Theatrical and unrated versions; Picture-in-picture commentaries by Cooper, Galifianakis, Helms and Phillips; Gag reel; Pictures from missing camera.

Wilmington on DVD: Iron Man Three

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

IRON MAN THREE (Three Stars) U.S.: Shane Black, 2013
(Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment)

In Iron Man Three — capstone of the trilogy of films in which Robert Downey, Jr. plays brainy CEO Tony Stark a.k.a. the robo-suited super-hero Iron Man — Downey spends far more time out of his Iron Man suit than  in it. But that’s okay.  Downey, one of the most  brilliant movie actors around, also has one of the most interesting faces (a sardonic deadpan and soulful dark eyes) and he’s even more compelling when he’s not swallowed up in effects and hardware.

Iron Man Three may well be the last of the “Iron Man” series, but that’s okay too. After the series opener, 2008’s surprisingly good Iron Man and its not-so good sequel, Iron Man 2 (2010),  Downey has probably been encased long enough. So has Don Cheadle, who’s back as  iron buddy Col. James Rhodes a.k.a. (this time) Iron Patriot, and Gwyneth Paltrow as Tony’s inamorata/business partner Pepper Potts. Rhodes and Pepper are two more returnees from the first two movies—Jon Favreau as driver turned security chief Happy Hogan is another—and also back is Paul Bettany as Jarvis, one of the more distinctive computer voices since HAL in 2000. Favreau, of course, was also the director of the first two Iron Men, and he was probably largely responsible for the antic humor and humanism that made the first one click.

The new arrivals in the cast include four effective villains: Ben Kingsley as the Bin-Laden-ish terrorist The Mandarin; Guy Pearce as the techno-geek turned scientist/business stud Aldrich Killian (who was insulted by Tony 13 years ago, and has now invented a form of DNA weaponry called Extremis), James Badge Dale as Killian’s killer and brutal bad guy Savin, and  Stephanie Szostak as brutal bad gal Brandt.

Favreau (Swingers, Elf) directed the first two Iron Men, but here he’s ceded the directorial job to Shane Black — who became a hot screenwriter back in 1987 with the first Lethal Weapon, scripted some big shallow actioners (The Last Boy Scout) and graduated to cult writer-director of sorts with 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a clever neo-noir dark comedy also starring Downey. The rest of the Iron Man Three cast ( a huge one that also includes some last-minute surprises) has Rebecca Hall as sexy botanist Maya Hansen, a   romantic rival for Pepper; a mostly boring U. S. President (William Sadler), who figures in the show’s best best action scene and a smart-alecky kid named Harley (Ty Simpkins), who gives Tony some good joke set-ups.

Anyway, after Iron Man 2, Three is not bad—though the best thing about it is not the expensive-looking 3D action sequences, but Downey’s acting in the lead super-hero role. With this franchise, along with The Avengers and Sherlock Holmes, Downey is not only the biggest box-office movie star in the world right now (at least for a while), but a great comic actor with a face that effortlessly registers irony, ambiguity and a soulful sarcastic glee. Downey can be as funny and engaging a spritzer as anyone since Robin Williams in his prime—and though he makes fun of some of the movies he makes, including this one,  he does it with a quiet gusto that’s more playful than mean.

But even though the Iron Many movies and  The Avengers made him a star—a superstar—and even though they he may eventually get deeper roles in more brilliant (if not as popular) movies, superhero pictures are not exactly what you want to see Downey get trapped in. Iron Man was a surprisingly terrific movie, Iron Man 2 a surprisingly misfiring sequel, and Iron Man Three lies somewhere between them. It’s definitely a show that delivers, explosively, what its audience wants to see, and it’s already the huge commercial hit everyone expects. But, perhaps because Downey seems more reined in this time, the movie tends to lack that something pungently extra that made the first Iron Man (co-written by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby) so wildly entertaining and even moving, and the lack of which made the second (scripted by Justin Theroux) such a disappointment.

Iron Man Three is fun to watch most of the time, and I don’t see too much reason to knock it technically or politically. Any Downey movie is worth seeing, even when they‘re bad, which they sometimes are. But, if it’s not neo-con, Iron Man Three is maybe neo-comic, because Downey, hasn’t been fully unleashed. And, though Black pulls a number of zingers, in the dialogue and elsewhere, the movie is  as repetitive as most late-chapter super-hero franchise movies—even Marvel’s which are usually state of the friggin’ art.

By the way, I usually stay in my seat for all the end-titles, because  I like to get the music and song credits. But this time, all of you should stay, all the way to the end and the last credits, because one of the show’s best scenes and  performances, is one of the very last things we see on screen. It’s one of those Marvel teasers, one of the best of them. Stay. Trust me. It’s Marvelous. (Sorry.)