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The End of the Tour (2015)
James Ponsoldt's Vision of David Lipsky's Bildungsroman on DFW
David Foster Wallace is our James Joyce.
That he is prematurely deceased does not change the analogy one iota.
Disagree? You're welcome to. Now go back to your unfinished Bernard Cornwell book.
In this film James Ponsoldt creates a visually arresting depiction of what the writer David Lipsky probably imagined would be a kind of Kerouacian vision quest, a location assignment from Rolling- Freaking-Stone to profile and deep-interview David Foster Wallace, as Infinite Jest was being widely released.
In the event, Wallace did not have all that much to say to Lipsky. You can tell this from Lipsky's book this film is based on, and from the spare but serviceable adapted screenplay by Donald Margulies.
Wallace was one of those writers who puts all of the magic into the book. You know his mind by reading him, he didn't hold back a secret reserve of amazingness for cocktail parties or all-night bro sessions.
So, in this one aspect, it is a small miracle that Lipsky's book about interviewing Wallace one time found an audience. It speaks more to the cult and fandom around Wallace than anything else.
And the book demanded uninspiring and slovenly scenery for the film. Wallace's clap-trap bachelor lit professor house. Lipsky's dusty, snow-covered rental car. A long boulevard of fast food signs and CASH-PAWN stores that really was the great writer's daily commute, which he slyly paid homage to in the now-famous transcribed speech "This is water."
So, as great as David Foster Wallace is as an author of Great American Novels, this film was a tall order for the director. But he nails it. Each horizon, each focal length, each pan and zoom, each bit of arranged light and shadow is pitch perfect.
James Ponsoldt also should be credited for gamely managing two great young actors here in the lead roles of Wallace (Jason Segel) and Lipsky (a delightfully nebbished Jesse Eisenberg).
Both actors shine by drawing out the vulnerabilities of the men inhabiting the roles of Wallace (lauded literary hero haunted by questions of self-credibility and creeping depression) and Lipsky (quasi-failed lit author struggling with the ego blow brought on by writing about the real thing). The eye and face work that Mr. Segel, in particular, pulls off portraying DFW is fantastic, and Ponsoldt gets every bit of it from the proper angle for our enjoyment.
The End of the Tour is not a profound, messaged, or even particularly moving film. Recall the fundamental limitation of a pilgrimage to an oracle who does not really open up and convey wisdom.
It is rather a historical reenactment of a piece of contemporary literary history portrayed by two very fine actors and directed by a very fine director in James Ponsoldt.
The Russia House (1990)
Connery Brews Moscow A Fragrant, Spiced Barley
John Le Carre stories are subtle, tissuey things.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy requires re-reading the book, and rewinding in mid-film, to catch key plot developments.
The Russia House is, in this vein, a classic Le Carre yarn, co- adapted to the screen by Le Carre and the talented Tom Stoppard.
The film is produced and directed by Australian filmmaker Fred Schipisi, notable for the excellent and psychodynamic Six Degrees of Separation and the fulsomely enjoyable Roxanne. Schipisi's direction and production values are this film's weakest points, the framed shots from the start look amateurishly ungainly, ill-framed, and ill-cut. The director's only saving perhaps was the decision to allow jazz man Branford Marsalis to score the film, with mostly lilting haunts of soprano sax melodies.
The story centers on a Brit, played by Sean Connery, and a Russian, played by Michele Pfeiffer. It is 1990, and glasnost has been declared.
Connery's leading man, "Barley" Blair, is a Russophilic book editor fond of extended stays in grey Moscow. Pfeiffer's co-lead, Katya, is a Russian of almost anonymous identity beyond the familiar tropes.
Katya has a friend who programs Russia's nukes, the friend wants Russia's secrets out, and Katya is recruited to vouchsafe them as written down to Barley, this westerner with a kind soul and an avowed commitment to humanism.
Let's start with the biggest and best part of the film, Connery. His Barley is a glorious, ruined shambles. A gentle, aging hedonist, who looks, stealing a line from the film "like an unmade bed with a shopping bag attached." Connery is entertaining and engaging in every frame, truly inhabiting Barley as an original character.
Pfeiffer is very good, if not at her best as the Russian woman beholden by secrets and restrained by crippling caution. Her Russian-tinted accent is querulous in the first minutes of the film, but by the midpoint she achieves--and she may do it with her cheekbones as much as her diction, it all counts--believability as a Russian person.
The other great strength The Russia House has, which has sustained the film as watchable and re-watchable over time, is the large supporting cast of male actors portraying the MI6 and CIA spooks who Barley haphazardly encounters, and very quickly takes direction from. James Fox, Roy Scheider, John Mahoney, Michael Kitchen and an almost SNL-flamboyant Ian McNeice (as the riotously out-of-place Merrydew) provide a fantastical espionage-ical Greek chorus that set off Connery's ethical and emotional contretemps.
The film's final potent ingredient is a solo supporting performance by Klaus Maria Brandauer as "(code name) Dante," a mysterious Russian who seems to be behind the searching questions the men in grey directing Barley seem to have.
The Russia House is neither the best wrought Le Carre story on film, nor the best "Russia film" depicting the second cold war era of the 1980s. It would take a quick undercard to The Hunt for Red October. It would lose in a close decision to Gorky Park.
But Connery as Barley above all is worth the ticket, which leaves the film in the category of "worthy," even with the producer/director's foibles set against it.
The Martian (2015)
This Martian Feels Off the Trajectory
Having read Andy Weir's masterful novel of the same name, Ridley Scott's 2015 film adaptation of The Martian was something I anticipated viewing with a certain frisson of excitement.
I watched and re-watched the film several times in a theater before deciding on my view of it. Which is simply this, The Martian is a serviceable and not at all exciting space action or science fiction film. One that boasts a (pardon me) stellar cast marooned (again, please) with a ho hum adapted screenplay and directing that recalls (one more time) the droning inexorability of a NASA launch countdown.
In Weir's story, none of the characters, beginning with protagonist Mark Watney, are cocksure about anything.The book hammers home the massive, mind-numbing fact of the distance from Earth to Mars, and how anyone stranded there is more or less done for, by simple virtue of the length of time, measured in years, it would take for any rescuers to (a) leave Earth and (b) arrive anywhere at Mars, much less at the castaway's position. This is a fact of geography and science that Weir's writing uses to create wonderful dramatic tension in the book. The movie, somehow, more or less dispenses with the feel of that terrible fact, the tyranny of distance, and this, along with most of Matt Damon's choices in his monologues and soliloquies during his screen portrayal of Watney, creates the creeping feeling that only grows throughout the film that, "don't worry, everyone, just give another 90 minutes and this will all turn out peachy.'
Damon's portrayal of Watney is too cocksure. Jessica Chastain as the mission commander of the 'Aresnauts' is too cocksure. Sean Bean as the NASA flight director with-a-brogue(?) is too cocksure.
Just take these three characters in the film, and compare them with their counterparts in the closest film facsimile to The Martian, which is Apollo 13, and it begins to dawn like a red sun (oops, again please) that this cast is chiefly concerned with looking awesome, and "delivering the red hell" (yikes, I know) out of the rather limited number of lines everyone gets.
There is in The Martian none of the sweaty shock, the gnawing self- doubt, the glimpses of facial near-terror at the prospect of a delicate human being being millimeters or milliseconds of miscalculation away from the sheer brutality of the black and starry void they have dared to tempt. This is what Hanks, Ed Harris, et al gave us in Apollo 13. Damon, Chastain, and the others give us none of that and too much 'nah, it'be a'ight.'
A director and cast can get away with cocksure triumphalism in a space shoot 'em up or blow 'em up like Armageddon. But in a documentary (Apollo 13) or speculative fictional documentary (The Martian) there is no shooting and bombing, and there are no villains. So there is nothing but the acting to supply drama.
In a film like The Martian, the only possible rocket fuel (oh boy) is human emotion, accurately conveyed.
Gorky Park (1983)
William Hurt's Tour de Brooding Force
Gorky Park is William Hurt's finest film role, bar none.
It is 1983, it is Moscow, and Hurt is Arkady Renko, a skilled but low-rung detective for the local military police, known as the Militia.
Renko is called one wintry night to the scene of a grisly triple murder, the bodies found hard by the public skating rink of Gorky Park. As soon as he arrives to the scene, so do the lethal agents of the Militia's rival agency, the KGB. Renko not only has a hard case to solve, he's got hard rivals watching as he tries to go about it. Strange.
The film leaps from a delicately constructed whodunit into a major drama within minutes, as Renko happens across his first witness, the young Russian film assistant Irina. Searingly acted by the gifted Joanna Pacula, there is instant chemistry, confusion, and delightful tension between the male and female leads, and it starts the viewer off into a more modernized version of Casablanca, but with a winching plot that actually keeps us on edge.
With two major exceptions, the wider cast of "Soviets" are British, and they are a group of supporting all-stars. Ian Bannen as the viperish prosecutor Iamskoy and Ian "Palpatine" McDiarmid in a heavy cameo as a creepy-cool facial reconstructionist deserve special mention.
Lee Marvin and Brian Dennehy are Hurt's co-stars. Both play Americans. For the unwatched, it would spoil some of the fun to hint at whether either of their characters is the heavy, rather it suffices to say that Marvin's role is quintessential Marvin and Dennehy has never done a better Dennehy role than his turn in this film. You get just what those names promise from the Playbill.
But William Hurt is the film's core, soul, and mainstay. He does it all, from fighting to quiet psychologies to loving on the stunning, vulnerable, feral Irina, with a deep, brooding, unaffected humanity and sense of the inexorable. Hurt is a wonderful actor and he truly is Shakespearean in stature here as "Arkady beset by Moscow."
One quibble. The film's opening credit sequence and introductory shots were economized. With a larger investment and more thoughtful ideas for the main title sequence, perhaps some minor re-jiggering of imagery of the fallen snow as metaphor for the rest of the film, Gorky Park might today be talked about alongside a Breakfast at Tiffany's or a Lawrence of Arabia. The remainder of the film is about that great.
Film students and aspiring auteurs should watch Gorky Park, again and again.
Solid Sci-Historical Stuff
Timeline, starring the late Paul Walker and Gerard Butler, and featuring a large and talented supporting cast, is an underrated film based on a very underrated book by sci-thriller master, the late Michael Crichton.
This was always going to be a tricky film to make because the book's story is based on the sci-fi premise of time travel. The film preserves most of Crichton's brilliant plot--a tech firm in the American desert is trying to invent teleportation but stumbles into a wormhole that only sends the transported back in time to the year 1375 and a village in France during the brutal 100 Years' War.
The actors making up the principle groups of story characters, the oily and secretive tech guys, the erstwhile archaeology students who get caught up in the tech guys' invention, and the, of course, late medieval English and French combatants the first two groups both travel back in time to encounter, are well-cast and well--directed by Richard Donner. Particular supporting role standouts here are Marton Csokas as Decker, David Thewlis as Doniger and Michael Sheen as 'Lord Oliver.' Anna Friel is perfectly medieval and ladylike yet attractively modern as Lady Clare, and Neal McDonough and Matt Craven post terrific performances as the wayward tech firm's henchmen.
What gets left out from the book, what really has to get left out unless Donner et al were to pull a Peter Jackson and stretch Timeline into three films, is the trove of rich, textured, historical detail about virtually every aspect of the little French village and castle combination that the story circles around. The book is, indeed, better than the film, simply because Crichton's historical fiction writing work on all things 'Aquitainian' in Timeline equals or exceeds anything Bernard Cornwell or Tom Clancy have ever put out in terms of nourishing minutiae. But you can't competently get all that in inside a 2 hour film.
With the exception of a few scenes where a character here and there is "run through" with a broadsword, Timeline is almost a family- friendly film, something that young people and the mature crowd can enjoy together. Almost, parents, screen it first.
Most Crichton fans have never heard of or read Timeline, and most Richard Donner, Paul Walker, and Gerard Butler fans have never seen this very solid little 2003 film. Hopefully those oversights are rectified as time moves forward, because Timeline is an underrated film based on a very underrated book, and that means it deserves an audience.
One Simply Cannot Not See Barbarella
One simply cannot comment on any of the following phenomena until they have first screened this tissue soft, searing fever dream of a romping film: Hollywood science fiction, Roger Vadim, Marcel Marceau, the American reply to Brigitte Bardot, Return of the Jedi, George Lucas, the Austin Powers franchise, the Rolling Stones, or any ranking of all-time female American actors on a scale of hotness.
Speaking of hotness, you cannot look away from Jane Fonda as she plays the lead role of Barbarella. I'm sorry to discuss the looks of Ms. Fonda, a two-time Oscar-winner and a Hollywood icon, in such cro- magnon terms. But look for yourself; one simply cannot look away from her in this role. Sexual magnetism of the highest strength. Separation is not possible.
And because Ms. Fonda is such a powerful actor, her ability to gamely deliver the lines written for a 41st century space adventure protagonist whilst flying a starship lined in shag carpet, and sleeping on Reynolds Wrap beds, and being dragged by a stingray unicorn- powered sled, and facing off with the haute and hot likes of Anita Pallenberg, all while being exquisitely costumed in high late 1960's go-go inspired fashions, results in a display of all out megawatt starpower that would incinerate Darth Vader before he could even get his lightsaber up.
I won't share details of the film's plot. The movie is crazy, silly, and cajoling, in the best possible way. Once you see it, you can't imagine the history of the American film industry without its 98 minutes of run time, you won't wan't to live in a parallel reality where the film never existed.
And look, I'm not alone in understanding the fact that Barbarella was the first blistering postmodern commentary on the pop-influenced excesses of American gender roles and sexuality. Duran Duran named themselves after one of this film's characters. All manner of directors stole ideas from this film, wholesale.
Barbarella is a minor pop cultural miracle. Think of it as an art film, and one that both stands up over time and remains more interesting than anything Matthew Barney has ever made.
See Jane conquer all.
1. Not for watching with those under the age of 18. There is creative nudity.
2. This film would be fairly easy to remake or update/reimagine. The producers just have to go all out, betting the house on the most extruded sets, costumes, and soundtracks that contemporary aesthetics will hold together. What about Sofia Vergara or Reese Witherspoon as Barbarella?
Quite Good if not Dour
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is still considered a trendy new novel in certain circles, circa 2015, and it gets trundled into the Fantasy genre as a film, and quality Fantasy novels take forever (e.g., The Hobbit, Dune) to get their filmed treatment, so I find it miraculous that the BBC produced this quite entertaining, high quality mini-serialization of Susanna Clarke's book so very rapidly.
It is England, it is the early 19th century, and we want to know, does magic yet exist anymore?
To give us the answer, along come Mr. Norrell, a near-elderly be- wigged, be-powdered batchelor-miser-scholar of a self-taught library thaumaturge, master of a Yorkshire abbey and two manservants, and far more interestingly, Jonathan Strange, that committed young, rascally, gadabouting, heirish man-about-town who is delighted to find the vocation of 'magician' dropped into his lap by fate.
These two opposite characters begin to work some magicks and, it cannot be helped, break some china (and sell some souls?), and drama, intrigue, heartbreak, and mysteries ensue.
I say 'kind of' as the overall feel and palette of the series is rather dour, rather in need of a washcloth. The makeup artists were given just a tad too much instruction to smudge faces, powder hair, and brown teeth, and the result is that the physicality of the actors' faces, nearly all of the actors' faces, is trapped away by a dingy lens. And don't dour feelings make one want to rise up from the couch and find color, energy, and the magic of the animation inhering in a human face we can see properly?
Example. Charlotte Riley. Very good actor. Rather stunning looking. She plays Jonathan Strange's objet d'amour. The costumers stick a Strawberry Shortcake Miss Muffet hat on her and seem to urge the second director et al to keep the camera lens as far from her as may be possible. Goodbye Ms. Riley, hello fungible crumpet-hatted harridan.
Eddie Marsan, playing Mr. Norrell, gets even worse treatment from the transformative 'magic makers' in hair and make-up. Here is a guy with the visceral, laddish magnetism of a Bob Hoskins, and they paste cake after cake of powder on him until his Mr. Norrell resembles nothing so much as a mildly drawn stone gargoyle.
Same thing with Paul Kaye as "Vinculus," the seer cum street magician. The creators made his facial appearance so simultaneously bland and over-the-top off-putting without any tie-in to the story, any rationale, that the urge to rise and refresh the popcorn when he commands the camera is irresistible.
As I may have mentioned, this series is quite good and high-quality. But what it could have been had someone of mildly entertaining sensibility dressed all the actors, or swiped away some of the dour, well it could have been rather better for the turning.
Escape to Witch Mountain (1975)
A Beloved Rollicker for the Younger Set
This beloved Disney live action film, now being handed down by American Gen Xers to their elementary-aged children, is simply a well-crafted G-rated action and sci-fantasy adventure.
It is also a project that blazed a number of pop-cinema trails for which it receives little credit.
The joys of this movie begin with the main title sequence, a spooky orchestral shadow and drawing animation sequence to rival the intros for the James Bond franchise.
The direction is, by and large, letter perfect. Children, even those of 2015 who expect Transformers-level effects to hold their attention, are raptly drawn to the film's modest storytelling as soon as it commences, with a clever rolling shot of an orphanage van.
The leads, playing the orphaned siblings Tia and Tony Malone, were both popular child actors in the 1970s, and they are immensely likable.
Donald Pleaseance, who did a stint as the arch-villain Blofeld in a James Bond film or two, is excellent all-around as the heavy's conflicted major domo, Mr. Derainian.
Eddie Albert co-stars as the children's' happenstance ally. His chemistry with Tia and Tony is grandfatherly, avuncular, serendipitous, and altogether believable.
The flying car in Harry Potter? Invented in this film 30 years prior (and by author Alexander Key, in the original conception, it must be said). Self-writing, mid-air pens? Not birthed in J.K. Rowling's imagination; this film pioneered those too. Wizardly youths who can speak to animals? Sorry Slytherins. It was this witchy set who came up with that.
This movie was made in 1975. First-time viewers who enjoy speculating about the influence of earlier wide-audience films over latter day blockbusters should screen ETWM a couple of times as an exercise. Enjoying it anew with my family, and watching with this eye, I found probable routes of influence spilling over into films as diverse as Star Wars, The Goonies, Rowling's Potter franchise, and Annie.
By no means a perfect film, the ending is universally acknowledged as being too abrupt, and too whimsical. But remember that it is made for kids, and while watching, marvel at the cinematic sophistication--as a kids film-- of so many of the other sequences, and you'll let the creators off easy over the matter of the ending.
Slow West (2015)
A Laundry Soap and Chocolate Smoothie
This gorgeously filmed, lushly scored offering by writer-director John Maclean does not work, as a western or otherwise.
The story of a young 1870s scot, incongrously named "Jay Cavendish" (read any compendium of British Isles history, every Cavendish ever was English, not Scottish (or does that difference not matter?) and in fact, reputedly oppressed the Scots (and the Irish, Welsh, Cornish, Manx, Hindis, and well, you get the picture).
Somehow, in 1870, Jay is in the central meridian of Colorado, riding around, the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains always in the scene. Nice imagery.
And somehow, fully 1/2 of the other settlers, pioneers, etc. he encounters THAT FAR WEST OF Scotland are also European. There are a family of desperate Russian (Finnish?) robbers, a vaguely slavic proto-anthropologist studying American Indians, and of course, more Scots.
There are a few American Indians in the frame, now and then, but the film treats them like trees in a school play. "See, it's the American West, everyone. Now cue the Bolshoi dancers."
The heavies are goofy-faced, and look like they couldn't handle a one hour guest ranch ring ride, let alone a set of dastardly contrivances slung out across the high lonesomes of near-montane Colorado.
Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Jay as simply too effete, too halting, and too phlegmatic. Smit-McPhee is, without realizing it, acting the part of "dairy boy who fails to stand up to gruesome ranch boss" and not Maclean's supposed transcontinental 'Jock.'
Michael Fassbender performs a perfect Western genre co-leading role as Jay's travel companion and foil, "Silas." Fassbender is a fine actor, and his movement and looks lend themselves well to cowboy stuff.
Incongruities in the story and plot abound. Jay looks for his long, lost Scottish lass-love, Rose, again across the vastnesses of Colorado, and finds her (the luck!), and evades and then, oops, is reunited with Silas, and with the heavies also looking for Rose, as if they were all playing cat-and-mouse detective games in a 10 block section of 1870s Chicago.
The mood of the film downshifts (upshifts?) from a Merchant-Ivory type of slow-waltz across fair, bounteous landscapes to a Peckinpah- esque gunshots with splattered gravy forensicum. The shift isn't smooth.
The shift was surely engineered by someone laughing at the theatrical truth that no one, from Aeschylus onward, has ever successfully made an entertainment that shifts from first lyrical and languorous to then staccatoed and sinewy. Never been done. For a reason. It's a terrible combination, like drinking laundry soap and chocolate.
Laundry soap and chocolate, mixed in a tall pint glass. Come to think of it, that is what Slow West approximates.
Gervais is a Revelation
Derek is a sweet, hero-hearted near-comedy that breaks new ground in the mockumentary/sit-com format and that reveals Ricky Gervais as a dramatic actor of raging powers and infinite nuances.
Seriously, Gervais is that extraordinary in this Netflix-produced 'streambox' series of only 14 episodes.
Would Tom Hanks' performance as Forrest in Forrest Gump have been interesting if all the amazing Time magazine events hadn't befallen his character during the film? The most powerful testimony to how good Gervais is here as a modern day simpleton/mooncalf type is that his character is more watchable, more compelling than Hanks as Forrest was, and nothing exciting happens in terms of MacGuffin or set-up.
Hopefully wide distribution of Derek will stop the 'muppet bad guy' script offers clogging Gervais' post box and start delivering him the serious dramatic and dramedy roles which Robin Williams, Bill Murray, and Steve Carrell earned. Because if Derek is any guide, Gervais could outpower and enquietude all of them.
Liberal Arts (2012)
Paper / Chaste
When it comes to filmmaking actor-director Josh Radnor is either lucky or very, very good.
In Liberal Arts he gives us a satisfying story of chaste infatuation between two compelling people who don't belong in the same space and who, following societal mores, ought to know better.
Radnor stars as the male lead,"Jesse," a 35 year old alum of a pretty, bucolic liberal arts college somewhere in 'wholesome Ohio.' The faculty throw a festschrift for Jesse's favorite old professor, and he's invited to give remarks, and travels in for a weekend.
Where he meets Elizabeth Olsen's "Zibby," a 19 year old student replete with a dorm room, put-out roommate, paper latte cup, and head full of searching thoughts. Zibby, as Olsen creates her, is more Lolita than Anne of Green Gables, or so things seem. An 'old soul', an 'advanced student' of ideal relationships with men, Olsen's character is devastatingly magnetic, both for Jessee and the audience.
Jesse and Zibby meet, they create (but carefully do not ignite from) sparks, they discuss music, writing, reading, as the story builds toward what the audience expects will be a torrid mutual spellbound co-ravishment. Both actors reward the close-in camera work Radnor selects for many of their minutes on screen together. The story ends as it should end.
Adding appreciable interest to the film are Allison Janney, Richard Jenkins, and Zac Efron. Janney and Jenkins in particular score small soliloquistic moments about life, ageing, and happiness, and they deliver focused punches of emotional color without overstepping their marks of support. Efron plays a campus fool-osopher expertly.
Have you visited a college campus on a fair day, and found that just-off campus bar or diner, ventured inside, found the lighting and wood paneling and servers to be charming, ordered some comfort food, say a patty melt or a shrimp taco, plunged teeth in, and felt that feeling of escape, into the innocence and simple comforts of university life? That moment is what this film feels like once the credits roll.
If this is how Radnor makes films, Radnor should get to make all the films he wants.
7 Chinese Brothers (2015)
Larry Sings Liner Notes
This film is a case study on why film criticism exists, to separate the chaff of it from the wheat it pretends as.
Neither an evolution nor simulcrum of Lost in Translation, Office Space, or Bottle Rocket, this extended screen test of Jason Schwartzman inhabiting deep suburban environs as a narcissist layabout was likely pitched to distributors as a mashup of all three.
Writer-director Bob Byington begins with an old R.E.M. song, 7 Chinese Brothers. This song, from the band's Reckoning album, was naught but a prank; it was Michael Stipe singing the liner notes to a random gospel LP he'd found laying around, which the studio engineer mistakenly recorded, and which the band, finding the track's accidental provenance hilarious, formed into a nondescript, mildly jangly tune.
Does this near non-song by R.E.M. inform Byington's film in any measure? No, except that he cues the song at the end credits so that the key grips might have a mildly jangly ruffle and flourish behind their accrediture.
From the song Byington derives the title, and upon the meaningless title Byington builds no story whatsoever, and by no story I mean not even a Seinfeldian non-story proposition.
Jason Schwartzman is the lead as "Larry." Schwartzman, who is a celebrity and a very good actor, and who might perpetually attract some long-tail audience interested in watching him do anything--say, selling peanuts in a ballpark vendor's uniform-- for a duration of 76 minutes, is required by Byington to move in and out of bland sets (a quik lube garage, a dingy convenience store) and make slight actions (throw a hat at a Mazda, deny your grandmother a sip from a Big Gulp) that are supposed to stand in for the plot or un- plot as it were. Nothing worth filming, nothing that would be worth filming by students, is there.
These are petty crimes against cinema Byington is caught at, but that should be no taint against Schwartzman, who screen tests as plumly as ever, or indeed against Tunde Adebimpe or Eleanor Pienta, who check in as friendly companions who join us in wondering just what is supposed to be fascinating about a character who is simultaneously so self-possessed and so lacking in initiative of thought, credible emotion, or stirrings.
Rather than screening this movie, Schwartzman enthusiasts are better off hunting down Hotel Chevalier and spending the time gained from unspent viewing balancing their checkbooks.
Back to School (1986)
Rodney's All-Star College Special
If it were the mid-1980s, and you were casting a formula-driven, broad-premise comedy film, and you needed two actors to play a tweedy pair of college professors, my God, you couldn't have done better than Sally Kellerman and Paxton Whitehead.
Or if it were the 1980s, and you needed a rapid-fire quipster who could credibly laugh in the face of a muscled goon and get away with it, how about an SNL-era Robert Downey, Jr.?
And what if your comedy was about the college underdogs, the smaller, slighter, offbeat undergraduates, and you wanted to inject a love interest that was gorgeous but also had a little, you know, geek cred? What about (then future) DS9 heart-throbber Terry Farrell?
And what if, after you had signed your comedy's straight men, your sidekick, and your love interest, you also landed Ned Beatty, Adrienne Barbeau, Burt Young, Sam Kinison, and Kurt Vonnegut-yes THAT Kurt-freakin'-Vonnegut (to play himself, naturally, it's a film about higher learning) for minor roles and cameos?
Pretty ding-dang good, right? But wait, it's a college film, so for the heavy, you need a classic, turned-up collar, sneering, "bro" type. And you go get William Zabka--yeah, the 'Cobra Kai' kid from The Karate Kid. Ring the bell (wait, do colleges use 'bells?').
This movie, an absolute mid-1980s gem, exists, with this cast, and it stars Rodney Dangerfield. It is the best comedy and best film he ever starred in (Caddyshack excepted, but was he a lead there, really?). It is called Back to School.
Rodney Dangerfield is "Thornton Melon," captain of industry, millionaire. Thornton's normal-guy son Jason has started college, but it's been a bumpy ride, and he wants to drop out. Thornton, who never went, offers to enroll in college with him so the loving father and son can tough things out together. He enrolls, both son and father face down their natural rivals, and a wonderfully acted feel-good comedy ensues.
Back to School is, it seems, permanently underrated and under-viewed since most people who haven't seen it will mistake it for a Dangerfield yuck-yuck schtick groaner, and never press 'Play.'
This movie is worth your time on a quiet evening, and it is extra fun for parents and older teenagers to watch together.
Like Finnegan's Wake (For Some of Us)
For Generation X, Matthew Broderick is the eternal James Joyce character of American film.
Ferris Bueller's Day Off is, obviously, our Ulysses. In this same regard, WarGames is our equivalent of Finnegan's Wake, a caged meditation on the riverine forms of time and reality which flings the audience through fantastic voyages of understanding only to deposit them back at their starting point, not mildly discomfited.
One of the simple joys of this movie is watching John Wood as Falken, the cloistered computer science genius who develops JOSHUA, the artificial intelligence software at the heart of the plot.
Wood's Falken is endlessly interesting to watch as the understated guru the protagonist journeys to seek enlightenment from. Wood was a lifelong Shakespearean when he signed on to the film, and his presence is judiciously carmelizing to the story and the rest of the troupe.
Dabney Coleman gives a supple performance as McKittrick. McK is an is-he or isn't-he near-villain, a character with a point of view presaging everything officially sticky and tricky about the ends- means world of drones, waterboarding, and extraordinary rendition we find ourselves in.
Ally Sheedy is elliptically interesting to follow as the protag's buddy Jennifer.
Barry Corbin is perfectly cast as the blustering NORAD general, Beringer, an anti-Falken and the personification of why AI might be a tool worth having.
Which brings us to Broderick himself, playing the lead role of David Lightman. Broderick's invention of his character goes beyond the 'Playbill' conception of him; a young, bored, 'but brilliant' computer hacker.
As brought on screen by Broderick, David is both naive and worldly, baffled and mesmeric, Quixotic and cautious, in other words, he is a 360 degree person, spun and sewn by the sheer chi of Broderick's actorly brio (and also restraint). In this way, for American movie- going children of a certain vintage, Broderick's portrayal of David Lightman is every bit as canonical to the patina of generational and nationalistic shared-identity as his Ferris Bueller would be.
A final celluloid bontemp WarGames delivers is the tiny, early-on role played by an undiscovered Michael Madsen as a junior NORAD launch officer. "Turn your key, sir!"
And we watch and hope those keys don't turn, so that Matthew Broderick, JOSHUA, and the the rest can race disaster down the full lengths of the necessity of human prudence before depositing us back to the place we start their frantic meditation at, a blank, darkened screen with a waiting cursor.
Couldn't the Vogon Have Scheduled This Film for Demolition?
This film, an adaptation of the much-loved humorous space travelogue of the same title, is co-written by none other than the author, Douglas Adams, himself.
This film is also no good, and that hurts.
Neither funny, nor dramatic, neither well shot in cinematographic terms nor well-dressed in terms of costume and lighting, the movie squanders the best efforts of Martin Freeman as "Arthur Dent," the only human rescued from the scheduled demolition of Earth by a trio of spacefaring wanderers.
Before getting specific, let's concede that the book has always stood out as a tough one to film. Adams's story in the novel is demure and the empty space of prose is filled in by his elegant, stylish writing, a style that encourages the reader's own imagination to fill in many gaps. Adams the novel writer also tilts toward the whimsical. He presents the gravest danger in the galaxy as being forcible poetry readings by a particularly un-lyrical alien race.
But let's not make excuses for Adams, the other writers and editors, and director Garth Jennings. Lots of stories are challenging to film. Take the example of Men In Black.
Men In Black is the polar opposite of this story, but with the same zany, over-the-top whimsical sci-fi sensibility. In MIB, really wacko aliens visit Earth and threaten the human race's naive, cloistered, square, buttoned-down understanding of our existence and specialness. The Hitchhiker story is MIB in reverse: a human travels off Earth and is confronted by the reality of the wacko aliens on their home court.
So how is MIB a terrific film, where this Hitchhiker is, keeping the with theme of opposites, a total reclamation project? The answer is this The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy misfires in so many ways, none of which have to do with the noble but ultimately futile efforts of the actors to brass things out.
The opening sequence, or performing porpoises backed by a 1930s Broadway-sounding chorus tune, sets an incongruous mood. Stephen Fry's omniscient narration sounds twee, and not at all galactic. As soon as we leave Arthur's doomed patch of a doomed Earth, which is shot and lit like the town square in a claymation Bob the Builder episode, the leads are thrown into a dank, slimy, creepy, blubbery, but especially creepy starship environment as guests of the Vogon, Jabba-like beings the filmmakers rendered so large that they defy staying in a framed shot. Now the yecch factor of the worst moments of David Lynch's Dune are upon us.
Then it is back to a spic and span white bulkheads and sliding space doors environment on board the actuually-cool looking starship of Sam Rockwell's Mick Jagger-meets-Little Richard-like character, Zaphod Beeblebrox. Now the mood is good clean fun in space, a la Spaceballs, but the direction mis-shoots the actors as they try to form pairs and triangles of interesting dialogue space, and that dialogue is, sorry Mr. Adams, flat and directionless.
This film could have worked. It could have been the galactic Willy Wonka. It could have been Men In Black writ even larger. But it is a poorly made, dreary, ponderous film from every angle.
If only the Vogon could have scheduled this film for demolition instead of Earth, think where we would be then.
Exciting, Taut, High Tensioned Stuff
Give Tom Cruise credit for his performance in Valkyrie. There's no high energy soundtrack doing the work for him here, this is old fashioned high tension thriller acting, and Cruise does it quite well.
Hitler is still rampant even as the war has turned against Germany, and a reverse cabal of moderate and humanistic German officers think the war can end if Hitler is assassinated.
But how to reach Hitler in the midst of a blazingly militarized Germany during a two front war? This is the almost-impossible challenge the film's plot poses. If this ambitious hope can be grasped, Cruise's character, a still-young but old-souled combat hero, von Stauffenberg, might just be the man to grasp it.
Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson give career-polishing performances as German generals moving in and out of 'the plot' with varying degrees of self-interest.
The filmed scenes, which mostly stick to wartime Berlin barracks, look fact-perfect. The preponderance of grey woolen uniforms as costumes and unwieldy sounding German names (to American ears) are offset by crisp, well-paced dialogue, interesting lighting, and tension filled physical blocking of the actors as they go to work.
The Three Musketeers (1973)
The Canonical Musketeer Film
Michael York's performance as country-boy-gone-to-the-city D'Artagnan in this film is such a touchstone that it allowed him to spend most of his adulthood making only guest appearances in middling films and television shows while remaining a major international star.
There have been other 'Musketeers' movies and other 'swashbuckler' films, but this 1973 film sits smack in the middle of the convergence of these two sub- (and sub-sub-) genres as the reigning best of both.
Charlton Heston chews scenery as Cardinal Richlieu, the main villain. Christopher Lee is marvelous as his pirate-horseman henchman Roquefort.
Raquel Welch and Faye Dunaway are set against each other as the epitomes of female virtue and female enmity, respectively, and both are, it so happens, ravishingly beautiful and beautifully costumed in the production.
The soul and the greatest thrum of gravity are supplied by Oliver Reed as the Musketeer "Athos." Reed, a notoriously hard-living, wild-tempered actor, roils seas of pathos and also brotherly bonhomie within his character in this film, and his projected regrets over the impossibility of perfect love and also the encroachment of a soulless government in the person of the Cardinal and his crimson gendarmes add emotional heft.
This is a brilliantly and beautifully directed, edited, and shot film that yet does not take itself too seriously. The ethos of a Musketeer, as Dumas hagiographized them, is to find time for both fighting and frolic, and this movie strikes a proper balance in finding both.
The Mummy (1999)
The Mummy's Appeal, Unraveled
No, it's not Raiders of the Lost Ark, and no way, Boris Karloff is not to be found anywhere, but high adventure and winking good humor await in the swirling sands of an Egyptian desert in The Mummy.
Brendan Fraser is American adventurer "Rick O'Connell," a two- pistoled, high booted dude who knows where something big is buried.
Rachel Weisz is "Evelyn," a 1920s British Egyptologist who strikes a treasure hunting deal with Rick and promptly starts building some serious romantic chemistry with him in the classic push-pull, I despise you, I must have you vein.
The buried 'something big' is the property of "Imhotep," Arnold Vosloo's long dead (but not really) high priest of ancient Egyptian myth and magic. Imhotep is more of a plague, pox, locust, scorpion, sandstorm type of guy, someone for whom the kittenish tete-a-tetes between Rick and Evelyn hold no charm.
Oded Fehr and John Hannah come on screen in strong supporting performances to help Rick and Evelyn avoid Imhotep's wrath.
The entirety of the film has an old-timey Saturday matinée feel to it, and although it doesn't rise to the level of a blockbuster summer feature, you could describe it to a novice as perhaps the best B movie of cinema's modern era.
Much of the film's core appeal goes back to the spirited acting Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz supply, and to their significant chemistry together. Although romance must take a back seat to danger in an archaeology adventure flick, it bears noting that their chemistry as a couple is decidedly more compelling than the Indy and Marian pairing in "Raiders." As Raiders is the superior film, that is saying an awful lot about The Mummy's likability quotient, which is high.
The Equalizer (2014)
Dull Deus Ex Punchina
We could call The Equalizer a thoughtful extreme action flick because of how much quiet time Denzel Washington explores while on screen.
Carefully arranging small household objects, ruminating over coffee and a newspaper, et cetera, before the butt-kicking action starts between Denzel and a local vodka-favored mob.
What is not thoughtful is a noticeable lack of exposition and character fleshing sequences that might explain precisely what the middle-age protagonist's life story is, and how precisely he can map a fight out in his mind in advance (just like Guy Ritchie's / Robert Downey, Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes) and then Auto-CAD his movements so that he can whip up on, well, let's not spoil it, a lot of people.
I mentally jumped with glee at the chance to follow a strong and quiet Denzel through this film. Once the fisticuffs started cuffing, I couldn't help but glory in each of his (undeveloped) character's triumphs in hand-to-hand combat, and in outfoxing the snarling, tattooed baddies the film sets him against.
But a movie has to be more than a storyboard sketch of a bully story with adults drawn in and a sequence of crunchy, gushing fight scenes. And this is a movie with Denzel Washington. Philadelphia. Glory. The Hurricane. Malcom X. Crimson Tide.
Oily studio types, leave Denzel out of this under-nourishing film- flam approach in the future. Leave the Deus-Ex-Punchina to Steven Segal and projects striving for general mediocrity.
We always complain about too much exposition, we groan, 'Dear God this is duller than George Lucas and his damn metichloriants,' but you know what? Too little exposition is just as frustrating.
The Beating Heart of Marvel on Film
This now-beloved film combines the best elements of three wildly different action genres:
>) a superhero film;
>) a science fiction film; and
>) a World War II caper film.
It has a dream cast, and the production team does not whiff on the ball once the cast is dressed, assembled, and ready for the cameras to roll.
Chris Evans as Steve "Captain America" Rogers is equally good as the skinny kid who gets kicked around and overlooked and as the rippling miracle of expropriated-to-Manhattan Nazi war science who could MMA with Thor.
Hayley Atwell positively smolders, then ices, then smolders again as Agent Peggy Carter. The scene where Cap gets kissed by the saucy British HQ girl and Peggy goes 'laser eyes' on Cap is only one of several highlights Atwell supplies that humanize and balance the story.
Hugo Weaving is Red Skull. Red Skull! Easily the best villain ever pulled off by a superhero movie, patently the best Marvel Comics villain yet wrought in a Marvel Studios-made film. Weaving surpasses even his benchmark-setting work in The Matrix in this role.
The major supporting actors. Are you ready for this? Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, and Toby Jones. So it's Oscar-Nom City in the second rank. Unreal. Unheard of. Unexpected.
But wait . . . there's more. Cap has a "Top Squad," the world's first superhero led strike team. And these actors are also of platinum- coated quality. The favorite is Neal McDonough as "Dumb Dumb Dugan," and Kenneth Choi as "Morita" and JJ Feild (who would soon win acclaim as Major John Andre in AMC's TURN: Washington's Spies TV show) also merit special mention.
And just when you thought 'A Top Squad? That's so easy, Cap wins, hands down.' Oh, no no no no no. Because HYDRA.
HYDRA. A group of intra-Nazi bad guys so bad, and with such advanced stuff (including (MCU nerd bait alert) a shrouded Infinity Stone, that they give Hitler the what-for (so the film alludes)). HYDRA don't care about no Top Squad.
And so the film creates collisions of vectored grim machine-gun-on- lasers action, and just enough of it to make a spectacle without making our eyes into a smoking junkyard.
Avengers, Shmavengers. This Captain America film is the beating heart of Marvel-on-Celluloid. A group of actors this good may never again appear together in a film this fun.
The Inbetweeners (2008)
Hall of Fame Material
Imagine an NSFW, R-rated, bizarro Freaks and Geeks that hammers home hilarious, raw, biting bro-humor with the gliding, staccato meter of a Ricky Gervais. Imagine that, and you've dreamed up the hidden gem that is The Inbetweeners.
This 18 episode comedy series concerns 16 year old school boys in modern Britain and stars Simon Bird. As Bird plays his lead role of "Will," we might imagine that Walter Matthau, Ben Stiller, Jason Schwartzman, and John Cusack each agreed to donate their seed to a pregnancy clinic which then recombinated their DNA and quadrophonically embryonized Bird in the womb of either Mindy Kaling or Tina Fey.
Bird's light comic assault on everything and all as cameras roll is that unstoppable.
Joining Bird as his friend and foxhole mate is Joe Thomas, cast as the 'blue eyed soul' and the 'least likely to pleasure himself' of the group of school society survivors Bird's "Will" eventually reforges.
The language is raw. The anxieties and the scene set ups, as we can so ruefully remember from our own school days, are all too real.
If there is a Hall of Fame for British televised comedies, The Inbetweeners gets in on the first ballot.
Monarch of the Glen (2000)
Scotland, Our Scotland
BBC allowed a gem of a runner onto the paddock when it greenlighted Monarch of the Glen.
Very well directed and shot, showcasing some beautiful Scots highland homes and exterior locations, and assembling lively journeymen actors into an ensemble that has a jolly go at jock-ing around the lochs and polished stair landings of the shire of "Glenbogle," I describe the series in elevators as 'Newhart meets Braveheart.'
Of special enjoyment is the patriarchal character Hector played by Richard Briers. Briers has done just about everything in British theater, television, and cinema there is to do, but in America he is probably known only for his role as the pathetic Bardolph in Ken Branagh's Henry V. Now in MotG, the tables turn and Brier gets the fun of playing a lord. And a curmudgeonly, salty, and daft lord he is.
This is a light family comedic drama with cool domestic characters which doesn't fall into tired tropes. Quiet possibly the perfect show to watch on Sunday evenings.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013)
S.H.I.E.L.D. is in the Field
Clark Gregg and Ming-Na Wen are both versatile, expressive dramatic actors, and any spy series they anchor ought to be good at the baseline.
Make no mistake, Marvel's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." is formula spy- television in the vein of every predecessor from I, SPY to Inspector Gadget.
When the show released, some viewers assumed it was going to be The Avengers, but on television. But the show's focus is "agents" (human, mortal, easily knocked over, but with badges and security clearances) of the fictional pan-government agency, and not Marvel's raison de etra, frickin' awesome superheroes. Like I said, it's a spy show.
Joining Gregg and Wen as "the agents" "of S.H.I.E.L.D." are Chloe Bennett as "Skye" and Elizabeth Henstridge as "Jemma." We also get to meet Iain De Coesticker playing gadgety-techy "Leo" and Brett Dalton as the 'shoot first, punch hard' muscle "Grant."
These newcomers gamely portray rookie government agents. Regrettably, Mr. Dalton gets the best lines and sub-plots while Ms. Bennett and Ms. Henstridge often seem relegated to decoration and minor exposition. Which is so Marvel in the 1960s.
A welcome addition to the spy series genre, if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had launched decades ago against any of the hoary old espio- favorites like Peter Graves' Mission: Impossible or Robert Vaughan's The Man From U.N.C.L.E. it would be punching above its weight. Gregg, Wenn, and the production values are too professional and engaging to ignore.
The Originals (2013)
Witches Not Working That Magic? That's Crazy, Marcel.
The Originals imagines a three-way witch-werewolf-vampire cold war in present day New Orleans.
The Vampires are in charge. They are led by "Marcel," played with Avon Barksdale-on-ian flourish by Charles Michael Davis.
Some other vampires, the very first ever vampires (shhh . . . don't tell Bram Stoker or Anne Rice) . . . used to be the bosses in The Big Easy, and want to come home. They are the eponymous Originals.
But there are witches. Marcel doesn't like them, and doesn't let them work any magic. And how, how, can you be a Louisiana witch and never work any magic? That's crazy, Marcel.
As the series opens, the witches are holding the story's MacGuffin, a baby, still in its momma's belly. The baby's dad is an Original (whoa! Vampires having kids?) . . . and, we're told right away, the dad is also part werewolf.
None of this is cool with Avon Barksdale (I mean "Marcel.") And this uncoolness of a "coming soon" quasi vampire-werewolf baby in the Mosaic care of some on-the-outs witches is the arch-plot, the dramatic superstructure, each episode spins out from.
Joining Davis as Marcel are Phoebe Tonkin as "Hayley," the near- werewolf lovin' baby momma, Daniel Gillies as "Elijah," the smartest vampire in the vampire room and the fang baby's uncle, and Joseph Morgan as "Klaus," a character who might be the lead but who deserves a modicum of special discussion.
Klaus. So Klaus is played by Joseph Morgan, and a well-played "hybrid" vampire-werewolf Morgan does create.
Klaus is the impetuous "bad boy" amongst the Originals. He's also, as cast, the worst-looking, and as scripted, the least intelligent and least interested in vampire craft and lore among them.
But it is Klaus whom the writers throw to the center of the story when they make him the MacGuffin's Dad and the once-and-future(?) vampire king of the city. This is an interesting choice.
Would Othello have worked as a play if Iago was himself but was King, and Othello was awesome per usual, natch, and overthrew Iago, and Desdemona was Iago's all along, and Othello doesn't make a move on her at all, but Iago and his second-rateness is suspicious of why awesome Othello is not making moves on his woman? Shakespeare could have written that, but would anyone ever care to produce it?
All of which is to say that the whole Klaus character and subplots within this series are head scratchers. Had suave, brilliant, serious, noble Elijah been written to be the deposed mentor of Avon Barksdale, and to be the father and lover desperate to keep his woman and child safe from marauding enemies, without and within, then we'd have Othello, we'd have classic formulae for gripping drama.
All in, the series is entertaining (albeit question-begging), vampire film fans will appreciate the new takes on nosferatus, and hey, Avon Barksdale is back, he's in New Orleans, and he's a vampire!
So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993)
For Mike Myers Scholars Only
The only reasons to watch this film are:
(a) you are a Mike Myers scholar, and you need to learn the origin of some of his most oft-repeated character lines in his boffo, bonzo (totally hilarious) Scottish idiom; or
(b) you are a Mike Myers scholar, and you need an exhibit illustrating your to-be-published thesis on how Mike Myers cannot act a romantic lead role (this would be exhibit A, his inability to create even one spark with Tia Carrere in Wayne's World is your Exhibit B).
So I Married . . . has so much promise at the start. Gorgeous, looping, looming, sweeping shots of San Francisco at night, a rollicking soundtrack opener--the jangly, infectious indie pop song the LA's "There She Goes"--and a funny opening line from Myers about a latte the size of a pizza. What a film this might be, the viewer thinks.
But no. Despite a couple rip-roaringly funny character scenes, with Myers playing his own, cartoonishly Scottish, father, some funny bits about a butcher's shop, and very good work by Anthony LaPaglia in a supporting role, the film more or less flops.
The funny sequences are fleeting, and they get buried by other scenes where Myers is supposed to be, in turns, dashing, or lusty, or trapped like a winking, assured Cary Grant in the midst of an unfolding whodunit. And in those other scenes, and there are lots of them, Myers doesn't deliver, he does not sell himself or the story with his acting.
Myers scholars, this film is for you. All others, let an SNL nerd do the Scottish thing in homage and you'll have seen the movie.