Thursday, September 30, 2010

RIP: Tony Curtis

Beloved actor and 50's movie heartthrob Tony Curtis passed away Wednesday of cardiac arrest in his Las Vegas home.  He was 85.

Curtis is perhaps best known for his role in 1959's Some Like it Hot, in which he donned drag alongside Jack Lemmon to play a musician on the run from the mob.  While he excelled as a comedic actor, Curtis eagerly tackled dramatic roles as well with stand out performances in Sweet Smell of Success, Houdini, and Spartacus, among others.

Born in tough times to Hungarian Jewish immigrants, Curtis overcame the obstacles of a Depression-era childhood and WWII military service to find success during Hollywood's "golden " age.

Married six times, Tony Curtis is survived by his wife and five children from previous marriages (including actress Jamie Lee Curtis).  [source]

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Late Night Trailers: True Grit

One of winter's most anticipated films is Joel & Ethan Coen's take on True Grit.  The western stars newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as teenager Mattie Ross, a girl who hires alcoholic marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to hunt down the man responsible for the death of her father.  The Coen's have been on a winning streak when it comes to dramas, and from the looks of the trailer, True Grit may be just the thing to keep them riding high off the major successes of No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man.  The cinematography alone, chock full of John Ford doorways and shadow-play, looks dead on.

RIP: Arthur Penn

These things do tend to come in multiples; so, unfortunately I have another death to report this morning.

Arthur Penn, celebrated film, stage, and television director of game changing 1967 film Bonnie & Clyde, passed away Tuesday evening, a mere day after his 88th birthday.

The New York Times has, of course, already summarized Penn's impact best with this remark:

“Arthur Penn brought the sensibility of ’60s European art films to American movies,” the writer-director Paul Schrader said. “He paved the way for the new generation of American directors who came out of film schools.”  [NYTimes]
It might be time to watch Bonnie & Clyde again in his honor.

RIP: Sally Menke

Sad news, kids.  Film editor Sally Menke, known for her work with director Quentin Tarantino, was found dead in a Los Angeles park early yesterday morning.  Menke was a mere 56 years old.

The New York Times reports that Menke had gone hiking in Griffith Park and that while the exact cause of death has yet to be determined, there are no signs of foul play.

Sally Menke was an accomplished editor and 2-time Oscar nominee.  She began working with Tarantino on his 1992 film Reservoir Dogs and has worked on all of the director's films to date.  Fans of Tarantino will recognize Sally's name from the "Hi Sally" outtake footage the director liked to slip into the film dailies sent to be edited by Menke.

Sally Menke is survived by her husband and two children.  Goodbye Sally.


Monday, September 27, 2010

Love: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

I’m no great fan of Oliver Stone.  While I wouldn’t downgrade him to the “hack” level I place M. Night Shyamalan on, it’s pretty safe to say that Stone is a perpetually flawed filmmaker so hellbent on making socially relevant films that he too oft forgets to also attempt to make them decent pieces of entertainment.   Many of Stone's films fall in to one of two categories; they're either bland, lifeless, overly political pieces of work, or frenetic, unfocused, overly political wax works.  That said, there are only one or two Oliver Stone films I can say I've enjoyed.  At the top of the list is the original Wall Street, which, in spite of the lovefests surrounding Platoon or Born on the Fourth of July I think is perhaps Stone’s best effort.   The 1987 film managed to be timely as well as original.  Stone couldn't rest on his historical laurels, he had to build up the story to construct its characters, and the resulting portrait of corruption and money mongering sentiments paid off.  We remember Wall Street for its depiction of an era, the oft ironically confused quotation of its mantras, and the way it worked like bad prophecy on the decades since.   When I first heard that Stone was working on a sequel to the film, the then titled Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps (someone, wisely, has since dropped the tacky '2'),  I thought it was completely absurd.   It seemed like an especially low point in the Hollywood recycling machine; churning up another old drama with another, now significantly less edgy, aging star.  It didn't work with Basic Instinct 2, and I'd hate to see a sudden repeat for Fatal Attraction, so why dig up Wall Street from its palce in the cultural consciousness and redefine it to forever be associated with Shia LaBeouf?  

Well, 10 minutes into Money Never Sleeps, I understood why Stone felt the nagging need to resurrect Gordon Gekko.   The film is set in 2008, in the midst of market crisis and at the panic point of our economic recession.  If Stone, who is perhaps easily the most politically obsessed director in Hollywood short of Michael Moore, wanted to make a film about the present state of the American economy he had two options: try to make a film set on Wall Street that didn’t conjure up echoes of a movie already in his oeuvre; or, just make a sequel.  Duh.
There's a lot that's actually working in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. We find Gordon Gekko semi-transformed. He's still the ruthless, manipulative smooth talker he was in the first film, but now his game has been altered for a new era. His approach is different. Fresh from prison, he questions the system that made him and that betrayed him, but still, only for his profit. He speaks to business students, puts in his two cents on television roundtables, and is slimily seductive as a symbol of greed’s power even when not onscreen. Douglas does that thing that is unique to him; the steely approachability that makes him creepily unnerving even when he’s disguised as your humble, rapidly aging patriarch. You have to like him. You have to like him even though you can’t trust him. Young market trader Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) makes the mistake of liking Gekko too much. After his mentor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) is crushed by the economic downfall and boardroom humiliation, Jake decides now is the time to step up and seek revenge on the terribly sleazy, terribly wealthy Bretton James (Josh Brolin). Against the wishes of his fiancé Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan), Jake seeks the advice of her father, and quickly falls lock step into place at his side (though he doesn’t seem to realize it).

What follows is an entertaining enough popcorn melodrama. Douglas, though he won’t win any Oscars this time around, returns to the role with vigor. Carey Mulligan, too, manages to make her moral confusion as people’s champion and conflicted daughter easily apparent. Even LaBeouf, though it pains me to admit it, turns down his smart mouthed shtick long enough to seem, well, adult. He’s wide-eyed. Young, blinded, and a little too naïve even as he steps up to play a dangerous game with the big dogs of the global economy. There are enough ups, downs and intrigues to make Money Never Sleeps worth the price of admission. It fills its little gaps with shiny New York photography and a soundtrack appropriately comprised of songs collaborated on by David Byrne and Brian Eno. It doesn’t much try to compete with the tone of the original, which is perhaps to its advantage. Yet, while I liked the film far more than anticipated, it certainly plays host to some of those same old Oliver Stone overambitious flaws. In many ways, it feels as though it was actually designed as a separate film that was revised to include a Gordon Gekko subplot.
There's something weird going on with Gordon Gekko.  The plot seems heavily interested in re-designing him with a heart and mellowing him in his later years.  This is the problem with Money Never Sleeps: it never throws itself balls to the wall to make the scathing commentary on the greed is good message it preaches against.  Its original villain becomes a sort of antihero.  Its hero is less about blowing whistles and more about winning back the love of his life, bringing people together.  There's no tremendous wake up call.  No roiling anger.  Just some heavy moralizing and a strange attempt at the humanization of the very same man who has become the poster child for a couple generations of savage corporate folk.  Stone wants us to know that greed is not good, but really, he never gets around to actually indicting, finger pointing, and calling out the reckless monetary decisions that got everyone into this mess in the first place.  Instead, we get the personal drama and the romantic inclinations of Jake Moore to act like the white knight of Wall Street and thus attract the fresh faced, PG-13 crowd to the multiplex.   We get a kinder, gentler, monster.  A monster whom the audience may forgive, though he equates love with money.  We also get a really poor 'bubble' trope that runs through the film (which is, let me tell you, not working at all) in a way that's almost cloying, but that's another issue entirely.   

No, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is not a perfect film.  It could be bigger.  It could be better. It could be slightly less confusing in its business dealings and a little lighter on the moral imperative.  For what it is though, a sequel, a big blockbuster, it works.  It's just a little smarter than your average popcorn flick; and somehow, this is all it really needs to be.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #15: Purple Rain (1984)

 The usual caveat: Believe it or not, for someone totally obsessed with movies, I do a lot of selective editing, snubbing, and ignoring. That is to say: there are a whole lot of well-known movies I've actually never bothered to watch. I've spent a lot of time hunting down obscurities and not quite as much time seeing the movies you've probably been watching since you were 10 years old (for example: I decided maybe I should watch Saving Private Ryan in Winter 2008). Because of this, in conversation I frequently have this interaction. Me: "I've never actually seen that movie" You: "What? I've seen a movie you haven't?" Me: "Yes" You: "How have you not seen that movie?" Me: "I never wanted to" You: "Really?" Me: "Yes, really." Thus: Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash a near weekly feature in which I fill in my pop culture education, watch all the boring basics, and let you know whether or not I decided they were worth my time. Get it? Got it? Good.
One of the world's great tragedies occurred the moment Prince got religion.  Sure, he's still a strange, wonderful, purple little man; it's just that serious consideration of 'the lord' and the song "Darling Nikki" are two things that make me very disappointed when hooked up in the same sentence.  Born again Prince aside, old school Prince (including his time as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince and  Prince logo.svg) is my new power animal.  Every year, we will party like it's 1999.  At every sermon, we will go crazy.  We will use text speak years before it's text speak.  Purple Rain is another of those movies I'd never seen in completion.  I'd seen the same snippet on VH1 for years and that snippet was Vanity 6's "Sex Shooter" song.  I'd found it amusing enough to download in my teen years, but for some reason was never intrigued enough to take it in context and watch the whole epic.  I had, because I am so punny, never been caught in the downpour of Purple Rain.

This past summer, I rectified that situation.  It was a couple months ago now.  I'd dodged some sort of Friday night invitation in favor of curling up on the couch to be perfectly antisocial, and I'd watched Purple Rain start to finish.  Then, I'd skipped back a couple chapters to watch the end musical sequences again.  Then, I watched "I Would Die 4 U" and everything past it one more time.  Then, I was happy for like four days and I preached the gospel of Prince.  I could not believe that I, the long time champion of effeminate men and anemic rock gods everywhere, had never watched this whole movie before.  It had so many things that I am ALL ABOUT.  Shiny costumes!  Floor writhing!  Prince mugging for the camera! Pimp suits! Men in heels! Good stuff!   Next thing I know,  I'm trying to convince my friends that we should go to a midnight showing of Purple Rain at the Music Box.  Then, I caved and bought a cheap blu-ray copy of the movie off of Amazon (heeeeey $10).  In between all of these things, I listened to the Purple Rain soundtrack enough to boost Prince into the circle of most played artists on my iTunes.

 Purple Rain is catching.  It's like a virus.  You watch it and, even though it's no great cinematic feat, you're into it.  Then, you get addicted.  You can't shake these songs.  It takes up some weird nostalgia pocket of your brain even though you were not yet born when the film was in theaters and just watched it for the first time like two weeks ago.  Suddenly, you want to dance.  You want to dance like Prince.  You think that your cousin's wedding would be so much better if the dance floor were opened with "Let's Go Crazy", then revise that to believe that all weddings would be so much better if they began with "Let's Go Crazy".  You think that what Rock Band has been missing (though you haven't played Rock Band in months) is Prince.  You look up music videos of Prince to relearn his entire career with this new interest that you have and you're disappointed to learn that youtube's Prince offerings have all been "altered" to comply with copyright regulations.  His "I Wanna Be Your Lover" Camille falsetto is even higher than it already was, but that's ok, because "Batdance" mesmerizes you as a precursor to Daft Punk's "Around the World" video.  "Batdance" is obviously the one thing that could have made The Dark Knight even better.  It's a bad scene, but, like Purple Rain itself, it's the badness that makes it the best ever.

There's no point in summarizing, but Purple Rain stars Prince as a rather quiet, Puckish singer named The Kid.  Prince was 26 at the time, and we get the sense The Kid is supposed to be a little younger still.  No, it's not just because they call him The Kid.  He's new to the game, still figuring things out.  Right now, The Kid is dealing with some stuff.  He lives at home with his mother and his abusive, drunkard father.  He's at risk of getting his regular act taken from him. He's got an ego the size of the Twin Cities.  He's pissing off his band (The Revolution, duh). He's making critical errors when it comes to being in a relationship with a woman.  He's so cool that he tells a lady to strip down and jump in a lake and she does.  All of these things add to the pure, over-the-top melodrama of Purple Rain.  Between the musical numbers (and believe me, the songs are like concert footage so good they make the film an instant classic) we are given an unceasing parade of Prince stares, soap opera theatrics, and complete absurdity.  Part of what makes these scenes palatable is, of course, the presence of Prince.  It's in his face.  Even when things are bad, he can't seem to shake the weird, deer in the headlights smirk that makes you know it's all an irrelevant joke.  Purple Rain is pure artifice; one huge, poorly connected string of music videos that's ultimately a big set up for a killer soundtrack.  What this movie did was cement Prince as legend.  It is the ultimate showcase for an insanely talented artist in his prime.  Oh yes, it is a vanity project.  You watch the dancing, acrobatics, and show-offiness he delivers the songs with and you know Purple Rain was designed as a time capsule.

It's insane, and honestly, anyone who can make the viewer completely forget how totally inane and drippy the rest of the plot is deserves accolades.  After writing, just a few hours ago, about how much I didn't like the one song musical that was That Thing You Do!, I can tell you flat out that I (obviously) rather loved, and was pretty impressed with Purple Rain.  This is how you do it, Tom Hanks, this is how you shoot a film about the rise of a musician: you use a real, legit musician.  Purple Rain = serious win. 

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #14: That Thing You Do! (1996)

The usual caveat: Believe it or not, for someone totally obsessed with movies, I do a lot of selective editing, snubbing, and ignoring. That is to say: there are a whole lot of well-known movies I've actually never bothered to watch. I've spent a lot of time hunting down obscurities and not quite as much time seeing the movies you've probably been watching since you were 10 years old (for example: I decided maybe I should watch Saving Private Ryan in Winter 2008). Because of this, in conversation I frequently have this interaction. Me: "I've never actually seen that movie" You: "What? I've seen a movie you haven't?" Me: "Yes" You: "How have you not seen that movie?" Me: "I never wanted to" You: "Really?" Me: "Yes, really." Thus: Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash a near weekly feature in which I fill in my pop culture education, watch all the boring basics, and let you know whether or not I decided they were worth my time. Get it? Got it? Good.
There was a time when EVERYBODY wanted to watch this movie like ALL THE TIME.  That time was middle school.  Specifically, that time was middle school sleepovers.  I believe now that the reason this movie made the rounds so heavily at age 12 or so was because it was rated PG and not a Disney movie.  That made it both "potentially cool"  and "appropriate for everyone",  including that kid with the mom who seriously believed that putting off  PG-13 baptism until the literal age of 13 would somehow make their child a better person.  Note to parents who think like this: you are damn fools.  Honestly. Your child has already seen/heard it all and that kid they talk about hating so much isn't beating folks up for their lunch money, but probably offering oral sex under the jungle gym.  True fact.  Sad?  Yeah, sure.  Anyhow....somehow, in spite of all of that pushing and prodding, I managed to completely avoid That Thing You Do!  I never saw it.  I hated the theme song.  12-year old me knew enough even then to hate that theme song and to think the movie it came from looked boring.  Granted, in middle school I was anti everything.  This included most sleepovers. I tended to leave early simply to avoid the stupid shit that my peers got up to when they thought they were clever at 3 AM.  I'm looking at you girl I was never friends with yet who was always inexplicably invited to parties I attended.  I didn't like that girl either. Other things I hated?  The song "Torn". Cheerleaders. Dressing like a normal person.  Trying to fit in.  Other people.  Hanson.  Yes, I was like that.  I'm still like that, really, except that once I got past my fear of the sudden appearance of my own boobs and embraced the fact that I actually am quite interested in clothing, I learned to dress like a normal person.  I also learned not to hate sleepovers.  I still hate the theme song "That Thing You Do!".  Not the point. 

The point is, I just recently got around to watching That Thing You Do! and, after Monster, I was ready for something light.  I was like oh!  That Thing You Do! That's probably pretty light, right?  Was That Thing You Do! light?  You know it was.  It even ends in an exclamation point.  Other things it was: pointless, irritating, hackneyed, and bland.  Was 12-year old me right?  Yes.  Actually.  I sincerely did not like That Thing You Do!.  It was pretty much the most formulaic depiction of the 60's pop scene around and, not only that, it ended with a serious fizzle.  No bang.  That thing that you do best must be fizzling out because it certainly isn't rocking, it certainly isn't funny, and it certainly isn't interesting. 

So, basically, that thing that I do (you see what I did there?) is hate on this movie. Why?  Because if I wanted to watch a movie about a likable 60's boy band skyrocketing to the top of the pops, I would watch Hard Day's Night.  Of course, there's a huge difference on about a dozen plateaud levels, but I think we can all agree that when Tom Hanks wrote and directed his 1996 bright piece of pop detritus, he was totally trying to work with an American Dream version of The Beatles.  If The Beatles had no artistic vision and bombed completely, of course.  The part he missed (aside from the quality of the music involved (seriously, that song is annoying as hot damn)), was that John, Paul, George, and Ringo had real personality and charisma.  They were cheeky young ones.  These guys? The One-Ders/Wonders?  Steve Zahn?  Lame. Totally lame.  Sirs, you are no young John Lennon.  I say this, of course, as someone who has frequently opined that Josie and the Pussycats is one of the most underrated comedic satires of the last decade (I would say "Josie and the Pussycats is the best movie ever", but since most of you probably ignored it, you wouldn't get the reference), someone who kinda loved The Runaways for its depiction of rock decadence alone, someone who has seen the mixed-up files of Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine too many times,  and someone who thought Bandslam was actually a pretty cute tween movie (with   Point is: I love rock pics.   If you tell me a movie is about kids starting a band, I'll probably watch it. What's more: I'm likely to find something redeeming about it.  I am a sucker.  This is a fact.     

That Thing You Do!, however, is the exception.  It was just too cloying.  It was like grandma's rock movie.  Like grandma decided to turn off Lawrence Welk and live life on the mild side.  Less rock, less pop, less music industry, more straight-edge Cinderella without the broken glass slipper that leaves her foot bleeding after a night of dancing, or the condom that is the glass slipper of her generation (know what that's from?).  Band writes song, song gets picked up, song is a hit, band becomes a sensation, band breaks up, band dies, boy gets the girl.  All, magically, pretty much without much influence from the sex, drugs, and demons side of the music industry.  Of course, Josie and the Pussycats manages without these demons as well, but they have ebullient bright colors, sparkles, humor, Alan Cumming and camp on their side; That Thing has little outside of sixties beach parties and sunglasses to fuel it.   

Basically, I've concluded that if you're about 10 years old, That Thing You Do! is a good movie because it's an approximation of something for adults.  It feels a little more serious, but its gravity is false.  If you're an adult, you might find it nice or a little entertaining, but mostly empty.  The love story is weak, the tone is tepid, the humor is stale.  You're better off with You've Got Mail.  That's not even a joke.  You've Got Mail is a significantly superior comedy.  Also, it makes you want to buy school supplies.  

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #13: Monster (2003)

The usual caveat: Believe it or not, for someone totally obsessed with movies, I do a lot of selective editing, snubbing, and ignoring. That is to say: there are a whole lot of well-known movies I've actually never bothered to watch. I've spent a lot of time hunting down obscurities and not quite as much time seeing the movies you've probably been watching since you were 10 years old (for example: I decided maybe I should watch Saving Private Ryan in Winter 2008). Because of this, in conversation I frequently have this interaction. Me: "I've never actually seen that movie" You: "What? I've seen a movie you haven't?" Me: "Yes" You: "How have you not seen that movie?" Me: "I never wanted to" You: "Really?" Me: "Yes, really." Thus: Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash a near weekly feature in which I fill in my pop culture education, watch all the boring basics, and let you know whether or not I decided they were worth my time. Get it? Got it? Good.
It's been a long time, and there are actually several of these Yes, Really entries backed up in the queue.  Today, I think, is the day.  Today is the day to knock them out and move on with my life.  I need a fresh crop of movies you saw years ago to watch without feeling guilty that I never wrote about the other movies you saw years ago on the blog I don't get paid to write.  So, after that last massive diatribe, let's keep the discussion on Monster short and sweet.  I would posit that unlike Irreversible, the opportunities for gender/human sexuality discussion via Monster are not as available as they might first appear.  Yes, yes, Monster is the story of serial killer and lesbian prostitute Aileen Wuornos.  Yes, Charlize Theron won an Oscar perhaps in part for getting her forehead/eyebrow area done up to look like the ice man's skull (I'm exaggerating, her acting also makes her just about completely unrecognizable).   Yes, the film chronicles the true life of a woman whose trade is sex with men and who then begins killing said men to support her naive girlfriend (Christina Ricci).  Wuornos killed seven men in the span of a single year, allegedly also attempted to rape them (which seems ironic as they were soliciting sex from her...), and was executed via lethal injection in 2002.  So, perhaps the most interesting twist on the matter is something that really isn't included in the film: the female prostitute raping the johns.  Of course, nobody wants to watch that.  Sort of like how I really didn't ever want to watch Monster.  But I did.  For you.  My conclusion?  On the surface you can pretend like a female serial killer is some sort of interesting perversion of the norm, but, in all honesty, Monster is just a movie about the same old Southern backwoods crazy person rapist archetype you've seen a million times over.  It's Deliverance, with a woman who (and I'm sorry if this is body snarking) appears to have been smashed squarely in the face with a frying pan or stung by an entire hive of hornets, and men really want to have sex with her, and she really wants to kill them for their wallets.   It's 2003's Oscar bait with the ick factor.  

This film did nothing for me.  The one draw here is Theron's performance/embodiment of a sick, sad, desperate woman.  For awhile, she manages to make Wuornos's crazy veer towards empathetic.  There are several instances where, through the magic of Hollywood, we are granted access not to the lurid tabloid details of this woman's crimes, but to the conflicted impulses she has to try and start over.  Theron's Wuornos seems to want to be good, to try harder, and to begin anew with 18-year old Selby (Ricci).  We can see how she adapts to a role as provider in the only way she knows.  We are shown how her background, lack of education, teenage marriage, and history of abuse have transformed her into someone twisted and unattractive, brutalized and world wary in spirit, mind, and body.   Wuornos can't get a real job.  She's not good at interacting with people in a way that isn't primal.  She responds to impulses of anger or desire and seems to really only understand these same impulses in others.  She can't trust, and with good reason.  We understand that Selby's naivete is what draws Wuornos; that Selby is good in a way that Wuornos does not fully understand, or, perhaps, believe.  Theron does well with this.  In 2003, she deserved her Oscar.  The rest of the movie?  The rest of the movie is the forgettable, pseudo-lurid piece of true crime cinema it looks like.   It's what Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer would be if Michael Rooker turned in an A game of transformative, emotional method acting.   It's all grit and no style with a focus that oscillates between humid Florida lust and roadside murder.  Either way, the goal is to git 'er done.  Either way, it's coated in a layer of dirt you can practically feel. 
That said, in terms of aesthetics, Monster was already a pretty wildly unattractive draw for me.  What can I say?  If I want to watch violence, I like it dressed up a bit.  Beyond that, though, past the solid lead performance, I found Monster to be a hollow, frequently almost boring, shell.  I wasn't invested in this lunacy.  I almost wanted it to become more horrifying and less safely harbored in the dramatic.  After years believing that Monster was some envelope pushing, boundary crossing, almost exploitive film devoted to an mentally unstable lesbian prostitutes and bloody killers, I was kind of disappointed with the lack of, well, a lot.  One of the biggest reasons I was never interested in this film is because of the way it was discussed and hyped.  It felt like capitalizing on something that was, literally, exploitive emotionally to the real life people involved.  It was just unappealing all around.  Now that I've seen it, and its qualities as an exploitation film are limited, is it terrible that I was bored?  Maybe.  Is it terrible that I sort of wanted Patty Jenkins to throw in some sensationalized violence with this chick beyond redemption?  Yes.  Probably.  It probably makes me some sort of jaded American hypocrite.  So it is.  So it is.  What can I say?  I wanted more crime scenes, less motel soap operas.

One thing I can say that's a non-conditional positive:  in my deep, deep loathing for Journey and their "beloved" powerballad "Don't Stop Believing", Monster has provided me with the only exact, appropriate usage of that song I have seen so far.  Sorry everyone else in America, but to me "Don't Stop Believing" just evokes dirty, flannel clad white trash making out in a roller rink.  That's right.  When I hear that song, I see dirty white trash with bad teeth.  Sometime with trucker hats.  Sometimes fixin' their trucks.  Sometimes sitting in a broken lawn chair drinking instant powder lemonade with a rifle propped against the trailer.  Sometimes with fringed hair and a crucifix on the wall. 

That's what I think of your Journey.

Yes.  Hate me. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

RIP: Eddie Fisher

Legendary crooner, actor, womanizer (he left America's sweetheart Debbie Reynolds for his best friend's widow Elizabeth Taylor, marrying Connie Stevens after), and father of Princess Leia, Eddie Fisher passed away today at the age of 82 due to complications after his hip surgery just a little over a week ago.

Best known as an actor for his serious role beside 2nd wife Taylor in Butterfield 8 and the musical Bundle of Joy with Reynolds, Fisher held a large place in America's heart, even with all the controversy. As his daughter Carrie Fisher remarked upon his death, "he was a real mensch."

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Love: Easy A

"High school" genre films are rarely expertly made, even if, some how, they get burned into our collective nostalgia. Easy A looked like it might be that rare transcendental film, one that would put out and finally give us something to remember. But like its heroine Olive (Emma Stone), it hides behind a facade of infamy and greatness, a straight-forward, even almost boring film masked by the immense talent and charisma of its cast.

Said Olive, is a nobody and her story is, as she says herself, the usual cliched coming of age comedy that we're all expecting, beginning when her best friend peer pressures her into admitting that she had sex with a boy from the local community college, when she in fact, did not. Overheard by the leader of the high school Christian Right (Amanda Bynes), rumors quickly spread that Olive is the high school bicycle. Enjoying her new found attention, she agrees to pretend to have sex with the gay Brandon (Dan Byrd), cementing his reputation as a straight stud, and hers as a slut. Embracing her new status and inspired by Hester Prynne, she embroiders red As on her wardrobe, gets paid by a variety of guys at school to pretend to sleep with them, and learns a hard life lesson before everything comes together in a nice conclusion.

Like the exploitation films of the 50's and 60's, Easy A promised a lot to get us in the door, and doesn't deliver. It was supposed to be hilarious and beguiling, even empowering and feminist, breaking out of the teenage box.  But the film gave up all the goods in the trailer, a trailer that if you've seen a movie or T.V show in the last month, has been played into the ground, in effect making the film feel like something you've already seen a million times. Director Will Gluck tries to tell us over and over again, mostly through Olive's narration, that this story, this film, isn't going to be special in the coy way that implies that it's definitely going to be. But he tries too hard, his pacing nearly as awkward as Olive herself, despite the pretty red-haired package, even if there are many hilarious bright spots (my favorite being the continued use of "Pocket Full of Sunshine" and Olive's interactions with her parents).

Although I don't expect a lot in terms of female characters from any movies these days, I did from Olive. Gluck and writer Bert V. Royal seemed to be trying to make her into an empowered girl who takes hold of her sexuality, who makes her own decisions, and isn't afraid to be herself or show her vulnerability. But even though Olive accomplishes some of this by not being afraid to embrace the paradox of being a hot girl with a brain and enough awkwardness to sink even the greatest dating opportunities, it's the nature of her decision to pretend to have sex with her classmates that really makes me hesitant. Time and time again she is initially uncomfortable with the idea of helping these guys, but instantly changes her mind when they give her puppy dog eyes and complain about how nobody understands them and that high school sucks. Instead of being the one making the decisions, Olive is goaded into giving up all of herself to help the needy, victimized males, and effectively becomes the worst of Hollywood female cliches, the victim (by the end she feels put upon and desperate to escape her reputation), the doormat, and the whore. She learns the hard way that women are judged differently, with kudos to Stone for the sincerity and despair which she communicates when Olive realizes that for all this fake sex, that no one has ever asked her out on a real date. Yes, she finds that one guy at the end who loves her for who she is, who really respects her, but it's just not enough. I would have felt much better if she did this to play with the idea of the rumor mill, or even just to get attention, but not because she feels like it's her job to take care of every guy that lacks self esteem.

Were it not for the wonderful cast, particularly Emma Stone whose personality jumps off the screen with what seems to be little effort, this would be a direct to DVD, instant squalor, with a big "B" for boring. Stone is so charming, as is her white knight Penn Badgley and the wonderfully goofy Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as Olive's parents, that you actually do enjoy yourself and forgive a lot of the trite, easy, and safe things that film does.

This is not the "one." Not the Holy Grail of teenage comedies, and not the feminist risk a lot of us were hoping it would be. But it is a safe, cute, and easy to swallow good time whose shallow dip into social commentary is saved by the great, natural comedic actors who elevate into something more like a "B+" for effort, than an easy "A."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Late Night Trailers: The Tourist

We also have a trailer for the Johnny Depp + Angelina Jolie vehicle The Tourist.  It looks, oddly, a bit like a dolled up version of Knight & Day; fun, but not really anything to get worked up about.  Jolie looks like she dropped in off the set of Dynasty to me...significantly older than her 35 years, a little skeletal, with Joan Collins face and something super unnatural going on with her hair.  I'll admit it doesn't seem they're doing Depp many favors in terms of styling either.  Judging by the trailer, it's hard to tell where he's going with the character.  Is he playing it straight?  No.  Is it veering towards old Hollywood though the other actors think they're in a Euro thriller? Maybe.  It feels like there are discrepancies in the trailer, as though the film already can't decide what it wants to be.   The Tourist is slated to be released December 10, await our review...

Late Night Trailers: The Fighter

We finally have a first look at David O. Russell's The Fighter.  The project, originally set to be helmed by Darren Aronofsky, is a boxing film starring Christian Bale, Mark Wahlberg, and Amy Adams.  It's based on a true story, and an underdog/rebound type at that.  Boxing films are Academy Award favorites, and this one is already expected to pull in a couple nominations.  We'll see.  Personally, I'm a little underwhelmed by this trailer. The film looks a little bland to me, especially considering it comes from Russell.  Again, I guess we'll just have to see when The Fighter opens to a limited release in early December.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Late Night Trailers: Priest

Priest Trailer - Watch more Movie Trailers

Priest, I like your mix of Dune, Tron, vampires, and a vengeful Paul Bettany in a robe. Let's hope you do  Hyung Min-woo's graphic novel the proper justice.

Under 250: City Island

City Island is one of my favorite movies of the year, a bright comedy of errors that feels like it’s been plucked directly from the golden age of Woody Allen, a homage to relationships and New York without anything too fanciful. Watching it is like being back in the bosom of your own family, tucked in safe and warm at a big noisy dinner table. That’s not to say that this is a story about a solid family. Instead, it’s focused on the very strained one of Vincent (Andy Garcia) and Joyce Rizzo (Juliana Margulies) who’ve spent their entire lives living on City Island in New York. Married and pregnant young, neither Vince nor Joyce ever had the time to discover themselves, each making sacrifices for their two, now teenage children, one secretly a stripper that was kicked out of school (Garcia's real life daughter), the other failing high school and obsessed with a neighbor. When Vince’s son from a pre-marriage summer fling with another woman turns up in the prison where he's a guard, and the secrets of each family member get revealed, things get very funny, very dysfunctional, and very heartfelt. Add in a secret life of acting classes for Vince and Emily Mortimer as Vince’s sidekick and you get an enjoyable, unique ride worthy of an Oscar for the film and the perfect Andy Garcia, and all the immense praise it’s received over the last year.

Under 250: The Runaways

I am a huge Runaways fan, and not a big biopic fan, so I was naturally hesitant to see the latest film about the band with KStew and Dakota Fanning as Joan Jett and Cherie Currie, even when Jett herself was an ardent supporter. The film is a great one, greater, I would argue, than the much loved Walk the Line that garnered Reese Witherspoon an Oscar for her role as June Carter Cash. Fanning and Stewart give impressive performances that shatter their respective images as a pale-haired child star and the awkward, wooden vampire lover. I have no trouble believing in Stewart as she struts her leather and guitar clad self on stage, giving the finger and growling in a voice uncannily crafted to match nearly everything about Jett. More importantly, I believe her in the softer moments too, when she drops her act alone in her underwear, writing songs in front of an Iggy & the Stooges poster, or in those close-ups when the strength and drive visible in her eyes seems to be the only thing keeping the band afloat. Fanning is equally stunning for someone so young, playing Curie’s fall from grace with no added dramatics so realistically that one has to wonder if Fanning’s experienced similar problems herself. The pacing, however, does the movie in, dragging the stellar performances and beautiful cinematography down a notch. The ascent to fame for the band and build up of their relationship as a group is sped through at an almost a manic pace, abruptly collapsing and slowing once Currie begins to go over the edge. It doesn’t give the story enough breathing room, making it feel much more unsatisfying and standard than it really is. This is a real girls movie, one that channels the spirit and meaning of the iconic band without betraying their soul. 

Love: Going The Distance

Going the Distance is everything that a good romantic comedy should be. It’s so good, that I have a hard time putting it under such a tired, annoying genre label because it is highly different, hilarious, heartfelt, sexy, and more realistic than any of the current “neorealist” favorite, Winter’s Bone

The story itself isn’t really that innovative, and yes, as other critics will tell you, it’s entirely predictable. Boy (Justin Long as Garrett) and Girl (Drew Barrymore as Erin) meet. The timing is all off, as Girl is heading back to San Francisco. The short time span of their tryst allows them both to be free of the usual constraints of dating and free about who they are, allowing a true love to blossom, making that final break-up before she leaves impossible. They try to make it work long distance, only to find that far away not easy, that loving some is tough, and that being an adult gets in the way of everything. I’ll let you guess whether or not they make it in the end. 

Imagine that set-up with Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher with Seth Rogan and Jay Baruchel as cohorts. She’s the neurotic business woman with a stellar career that has inadvertently made her a total whiny bitch. He’s been floating by on some meaningless jobs, an immature drifter that except for his abs and lost boyhood dreams, makes him pretty unlikeable. They meet, and despite their constant dismissal of each other, they need each other, the one to loosen up, the other to grow up. Her prissy friends and his disgusting misogynistic friends get in the mix, giving out the wrong advice until finally, against all odds, we get a match made in heaven. I have enjoyed some of these tired concepts movies for what they are, but duh, the mere shells of characters, combined with the formulaic plot is entirely unsatisfying. I don’t relate to this sort of woman, who miraculously seems to always have an amazing creative job by the age of 25, who despite her beauty, smarts, and money is only able to bag the most immature dude out there, adding the raising of his maturity level to her litany of tasks.

But Drew Barrymore’s Erin is a girl I know. She too is in her mid to late twenties, but instead of that high paying magazine job, is a struggling intern in a dying occupation, trying to make use of her smarts and creativity, wondering if she has the talent to make it. She waits tables when she’s not working, likes good music, laughs too loud, and does in fact get sad and has to have a beer once in awhile, and despite all this vulnerability, is a total ass kicking woman who initially wins the heart of Garrett by holding the top score on an old arcade game in a bar. Justin Long’s Garrett, is another breath of fresh air. He’s got a job, a cool job in fact. He’s still a clueless boy, but is clueless in the innocent, realistic ways that about 90% of guys under 30 are. He too is smart, funny, and sweet. Garrett’s network of friends is equally impressive for this type of film. SNL’s Jason Sudeikis and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day have their gross out guy moments, but it’s never extreme, again simply realistic (realistic that is, if you happened to be surrounded by truly hilarious people). But Sudeikis and Day also get serious when they have to, get caring when they have to, and only add to Garrett’s appeal. No characters are delegated to the back seat, but are each fully realized. 

This attention to character development makes both Erin and Garrett instantly appealing and relatable. Both of these characters have actual immaturities that every twenty something experiences. Both make mistakes, but you’re never left wondering why they should be together. Combine that with on again off again off screen lovers Barrymore and Long’s intense chemistry, some serious hilarity, and a snappy script, and you get something that is a true pleasure to watch. I remember hearing Barrymore say in an interview that this film would always be special because it was a like a diary of the emotions of her friendship with Long, and this passion is clear in every shot of the movie. Many people I’ve talked to find Barrymore and Long annoying, and I will tell you right now that if that’s true, than this is not the movie for you. It does not, however, mean that it’s a bad movie. It’s the same reason I don’t watch yet respect Tom Hanks movies, but that’s a story for another time.

Comedies, especially romantic ones, are hardly ever given proper credit. There are a few like Annie Hall or The Big Lebowski (two of my favorites)  that seem to have achieved higher levels of film cred due to not only their quality, but the somewhat high brow nature of the films themselves, making it ok to like that sort of thing without someone making a judgment call about your taste levels. But admitting to like a recent romantic comedy is nearly as damning as admitting you like the Twilight series, arguably because romcoms lately are usually crap. Yet Going the Distance might be the game changer of this genre, more Goodbye Girl than He’s Just Not That Into You. It’s unfortunate that this film did so poorly at the box office, solidifying to the studios once again, that the public would rather watch Heigl high jinks than something that might be great. 

Love: The Switch

When my parents requested my presence for dinner and a Sunday night viewing of The Switch, I was pretty unenthusiastic. Spurred on by the promise of a bottomless basket of Red Robin fries and a Coke slushy, I drug myself away from my fortress of solitude with the expectation of total and complete boredom, the promise of Jason Bateman and the few laughs from the trailer not nearly enough to make this worth my while.

My opinion started to change almost immediately beginning with the first title: “Based on a short story, ‘The Baster,’ by Jeffery Eugenides."

The film retelling is a tale of two neurotic friends, Kassie and Wally, with high paying, enviable lives in Manhattan, who despite their best efforts can’t seem to admit their feelings to one another, running through a variety of doomed relationships while the other waits in the wings. Her maternal clock counting down to zero, Kassie (Jennifer Aniston) decides to have a baby on her own via a sperm donor. At a pagan looking fertility party to honor Kassie's impending impregnation, Roland, the tall, handsome, smart donor (Patrick Wilson) who Wally (Bateman) refers to as “The Viking,” gives up the goods, leaving them on the bathroom sink. Wally, who has been entirely distressed by the situation and too uptight to just come out and tell Cassie he loves her, instead turns into an uncharacteristically unsupportive jerk who gets wasted beyond remembrance and in a fit of drunken zaniness drops the donor sperm down the sink. Left with few options, he replaces it with his own. Several years later, Kassie moves back to New York with her young son Sebastian (the darling Thomas Robinson) in tow, and rekindles both her friendship with Wally and the sexy, now single Viking donor who she ends up dating, excited by the prospect that her son might end up with his biological father in his life. It becomes increasingly clear that the negative, neurotic, and hypochondriac child is nothing like the strapping Roland but is very much like Wally, who suddenly remembers his actions. Wally, armed with the knowledge of what he did, falls in love with his son, who in turn falls in love with him. Eventually the truth needs to come out as Wally and Kassie find themselves finally having to act like grown-ups. 

I wonder if this film received lackluster reviews because it was sold as something it’s not. The previews seemed to imply that The Switch would be a standard if not slightly funnier romcom, focused on Bateman and Aniston that perhaps bordered on Judd Apatow territory. The Switch is not said romcom slop, but is instead a movie about father-son bonding, leaving Aniston herself in what is really a supporting role. 

It is this father-son bonding that makes parts of the film endearing, heartbreaking, and magical. Bateman and his onscreen son have tons of chemistry, the slight suggestions of their genetic bond amusing and undeniable. When Sebastian develops lice, forcing Wally to overcome his own neurosises, it’s one of the cutest moments I’ve ever seen on screen. Bateman plays Wally just right, his negative attitude and many issues nuanced yet funny. His son doesn’t force him to grow-up reluctantly like many a wayward male has had to do in this sort of thing. Instead, Bateman communicates the process with a sense of joy that bleeds through to the audience and wraps them up with him. Sebastian doesn’t make Wally into something he’s not, but gives him the freedom to accept who he truly is and find the people that accept and love him for that person too. The film is certainly funny with a great script, and has just the right amount of polish and gloss to make it feel properly escapist. It was an all around lovely surprise, the arc of Wally’s character truly saying something about parenting, love, and what it means to be an adult without all the typical b.s. 

My problem lies with the other characters. Aniston does a fine job with Kassie, playing her as a likeable, real person, far from the high powered type A's we’re used to seeing. But as the movie progresses, the filmmakers seem to leave her hanging a bit, sacrificing her development for more screen time for Bateman and son, not giving Aniston (who I will argue can be a talented comedic actress when given the chance) much to work with. Patrick Wilson’s Roland is entirely one dimensional. While I know that’s both playful and on purpose, and may have sounded better on paper with Eugenides’ narration, it’s hard not to wish there was something more there than a dimwitted version of the Old Spice guy. Juliette Lewis as the new-agey supportive friend of Kassie provides some laughs, but leaves the audience with that odd feeling that the great actress has fallen prey to the older actress purgatory of annoying, overblown, and over aged hippie roles. Jeff Goldblum is the highlight of the supporting cast, playing his role in typical sarcastic Goldblum fashion while still making it feel subtle and fun. The strength in some of the characters in contrast to the weaker ones leaves the film with an uneven feeling, and by the end leaves the relationship between Kassie and Wally more on the cold side than I wanted. 

There’s a lot to like about The Switch, a lot more than most would have you believe. But despite all that sweetness, funny moments, and soul searching, there are things that could be better. Enough to make it a bad movie, absolutely not, but not enough to make it stellar one either. When Kassie tells Wally at the end that she's mad but will probably marry him anyway, it's impossible not to share her sentiment about the movie itself, and give in, despite yourself. 

Friday, September 10, 2010

Late Night Trailers: Hereafter

The first real glance at Clint Eastwood's rather supernatural thriller Hereafter has arrived.  The film, slated to arrive in theaters in only about a month's time, is centered around a psychic (Matt Damon) dealing with people who have had their lives disrupted by tragedy.  It looks pretty good, like the movie M. Night Shyamalan wishes he were capable of making...only time will tell.

At the Movies Returns, Door Closes for Us to Take Over....

Alright, so M. and I weren't exactly planning to run in and fill the gap left for televised movie criticism once At the Movies went off the air.  I mean, we would do it in a heartbeat, but our show would probably wind up being more along the lines of Wayne's World  (Pssst....IFC, MTV, whatever...give us a half hour and a wardrobe and we'll ramble your ears off).   Anyhow, for those bemoaning the battle of the critics late night on Saturdays or early on Sunday mornings; your problems are solved.   Roger Ebert is bringing back At the Movies, and this time: it's personal.  Ebert is stamping his name on this run, and while his health issues prevent him from getting in the hot seat personally, he has hand picked Christy Lemire of the Associated Press and Elvis Mitchell of National Public Radio as his successors.  There will also be a string of rotating commentators and co-hosts plucked from the worlds or print journalism and the blogosphere.

In the official statement posted to his blog, Ebert had this to say on the latest incarnation of At the Movies:
"I believe that by returning to its public roots, our new show will win better and more consistent time slots in more markets. American television is swamped by mindless gossip about celebrities, and I'm happy this show will continue to tell viewers honestly if the critics think a new movie is worth seeing." [Suntimes]
The copyrighted Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down will make their triumphant return when the show premieres nationally on WTTW Chicago in January 2011.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Love: The American

George Clooney, height of the A-List, meets director Anton Corbijn (who we love for his work on Ian Curtis biopic Control) and the result is moody, meditative thriller The American.  Though it boasts the Ocean's series' leading man and dominated at the box office this past weekend, The American owes less to your standard Bourne fare, more to Jim Jarmusch's Limits of Control, or, maybe the clockwork tensions of Blow-Up.  Corbijn has built a blockbuster out of an art house drama; the construction is flawless, but the payoff, for many, will be slightly less than rewarding. 

The American is a beautiful film.  I suspect it's not quite as existential as it wants to believe.  Its still waters don't run quite as deep as they may seem to, but this is alright.  The American is cold, stoic, restless.  Clooney plays a man devoid of his trademark charisma.  He's the strong, silent type pushed further than Syriana or Michael Clayton, and the film acts as mirror to his superficial qualities.  It's a still surface.  Its Italian landscapes are as beautiful as they are familiar.  It is touched by violence that it receives as par for the course, uneventful, unemotional   The opening scene, in which our protagonist's, at first called Jack, sometimes Edward, sometimes Mr. Butterfly (so called because of the geometric insect tattoo at the base of his neck), darkest recesses are revealed to us in a manner that does not ask you to pass judgment, though its morals are questionable at best, its circumstances rather tragic.

We understand immediately that this is a dangerous man in a dangerous career field. That what he does he does out of necessity and with little remorse. He assembles custom weapons for assassins; but we have reason to believe that he himself may be an assassin himself. The film is methodical. It constructs a rigorous routine for Mr. Butterfly; allows him to build into a disciplined warrior, allows you to, without background or extended scenes of social interaction, truly understand the motivation of this character.  Clooney's character does have a weakness.  One little flaw even as he kills without asking questions and customizes bullets in his bedroom: he needs human connection.  He does not want to acknowledge this need.  He suppresses it as much as possible.  He does not trust and is not to be trusted, but he can't quite stay away from the people he will inevitably wind up hurting/disappointing.  We see him gathering materials. Constructing items. Driving back and forth across ridges to place difficult to trace phone calls. Sitting, reading, doing sit ups, tirelessly working at keeping his emotions in check, his back covered, and his mind on task.   In between all of this, he allows the nosy local priest to advise him, and bonds himself to a prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido). 

Though its progress is nearly stagnant and its events frequently intuitive (its frankly non-expository), The American is a remarkably tight thriller in which the viewer senses menace without the aid of musical accompaniment or dialogue.  We are suspicious, paranoid, constantly expecting the worst of people.  In other words: we have been transported by the film.  We see from within the consciousness of Jack/Edward/Mr. Butterfly.  We understand what is not spoken.  This, in a wide release thriller, is as much a feat as it is a tremendous risk.  While The American may have very little to offer in terms of narrative to the high stakes world of espionage/assassin cinema, its construction is so highly polished that it shines like a precious gem.  It offers little in the way of explosions or charm, but is entrancing, even haunting in its pacing and photographic delivery.  I was never bored while watching the film, though I often felt I should have been.  Those with little patience may not enjoy The American, but for what it's worth, I found the its drive, its artistry, to be in its silence.  The spaces between events mulled the tensions, the questions, to perfection.  Corbijn reveals little, and that's ok.  By the film's conclusion, the assumptions you leave with are just as important as original intention. 

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