Archive for June, 2011

Better to Give

What I’ve Been Watching: Please Give (2010).

Who’s Responsible: Nicole Holofcener (writer-director), Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, and Oliver Platt (stars).

Why I Watched It: Keener and Peet.

Seen It Before? No.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 7.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 4.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 6.

And? Once again, I embarked upon a film for other reasons, only to find that it was made by someone whose work I had enjoyed in the past, even though I didn’t recognize Holofcener’s name when it started. I see now that she previously did Lovely & Amazing and Friends with Money, both of which I liked, and I’m now very eager to see her first film as a writer-director, Walking and Talking; seems she even directed an episode of Parks and Recreation, one of the few shows I actually watch. I feel like we need some sort of term to describe the type of films she makes, something catchier than “ensemble-dramedy-character-studies,” of which Mr. Guns, Monsters, and Naked Women is a fan.

In this case, I was drawn in by the prospect of seeing two of what I consider our most appealing contemporary actresses, Keener—who has been in all four of Holofcener’s auteur efforts—and Peet. The latter did not disappoint with her performance, although her character, Mary, was abrasive and, ironically, ended up having an affair (something about which I feel very strongly) with Keener’s husband, Alex (Platt). Her motivation for entering into this affair is unclear, since Platt is, to say the least, hardly Peet’s equal in the looks department, and our brief glimpses of their trysts appear remarkably joyless on her part, but the film is nothing if not a portrait of people with lots of confused emotions.

It centers on the inhabitants of next-door New York apartments: Alex and Kate (Keener), who sell antique furniture while raising a daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), and sisters Mary and Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), who live with their cantankerous and elderly grandmother, Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert). Andra’s imminent demise is of interest to Alex and Kate, not for the usual reason, i.e., to purchase the contents of her apartment for possible resale, but so that they can expand their own. Experiencing growing doubts over the nature of their business, Kate is constantly trying to do good by volunteering (with little success) and by giving to the homeless with a generosity resented by Abby, who feels neglected.

Rebecca is a radiology technician, and one of her mammography patients, Mrs. Portman (Lois Smith), talks her into a date with grandson Eugene (Thomas Ian Nicholas), leading to a leaf-looking road trip with the three of them and Andra. Mary, still haunted by the breakup of a previous relationship, is unfulfilled by her liaison with Alex, which she soon calls to a halt, and which seems paradoxically to strengthen his marriage to Kate. A kind of equilibrium is reached by the end of the film, which offers neither easy answers nor a strong storyline, but instead provides effective performances and characterizations, along with a host of trenchant, sharply etched, and thought-provoking observations about life.

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One of the things I’ve hoped to do with my new “What I’ve Been Watching” posts is to entertain readers with the eclectic nature of my viewing habits, and although I won’t devote separate posts to the individual items, this weekend’s programming achieves that objective admirably. Kicking off my research on a new project for Cinema Retro (which recently gave such a nice presentation to the William Peter Blatty interview I did with main man Gilbert Colon), I reread Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, on Saturday. While I was at it, I took another look at the 1954 adaptation done as an episode of the live CBS anthology series Climax!, even if it seemed a bit superfluous to watch the love-it-or-hate-it 1967 spoof, which I adore, for the umpteenth time.

Fleming’s primary narrative thrust is retained, as Bond survives several attempts on his life and defeats Le Chiffre (a subdued Peter Lorre) at baccarat in the eponymous gambling house, thus preventing him from replacing the funds he has embezzled from his Soviet bosses. The teleplay by Anthony Ellis and Charles Bennett (the longtime collaborator of Hitchcock and Irwin Allen) does monkey around with the characters and their relationships, e.g., Bond’s American friend, Felix Leiter, is now Clarence (Michael Pate). To accommodate the casting of the decidedly non-British Barry Nelson as “Jimmy” (!) Bond, their respective employers are reversed, with Leiter reporting to the British Secret Service and Bond to the U.S. “Combined” Intelligence Agency.

More important, they have conflated Bond’s Secret Service colleague and love interest, Vesper Lynd, and his French ally from the Deuxième Bureau, René Mathis, into Valerie Mathis (Linda Christian). Here she is an old flame rather than a new acquaintance, and instead of an unwilling Soviet double agent whose suicide ends the novel, she is a crony of Le Chiffre’s who is revealed as a Deuxième operative and survives to enjoy the final clinch with Bond. It’s easy to mock the casting of Nelson, but the novel was only published the previous year, so 007 was not the iconic figure we know today, and his final confrontation with Le Chiffre (restored in the video version hosted by Retro’s own Lee Pfeiffer) avoids Fleming’s long, and rather melodramatic, anticlimax.

More on Casino Royale.

Just for fun, Madame BOF and I have been slowly working our way though a budget 50-movie pack from Mill Creek Entertainment called Horror Classics, a misleading moniker if ever there was one, since many of the films fail to meet one or both criteria. On Saturday night we watched a film that I didn’t remember ever hearing about, Maniac (1934), and while it wouldn’t rank as a classic of anything other than Bad Cinema, it was certainly an unforgettable viewing experience. Unlike The Mad Monster, which I slept through in its entirety on Friday night (and although I did go back and watch it mostly in its entirety, I will direct you to the review by the ever-entertaining El Santo for that little lycanthropic opus), Maniac held me riveted—in jaw-dropping amazement.

Immediately following the credits, I realized why I’d never heard of Maniac, because its horrific goings-on are intercut with pseudo-scientific gobbledygook, which purports to explain that these scenes exemplify various types of mental illness. Yes, children, we’re in the realm of that special kind of exploitation movie in which all sorts of unsavory stuff is given socially redeeming value, so-called, by being “educational” or a cautionary tale, sort of like a sex-hygiene film without the hygiene. Suffice to say that director Dwain Esper and his wife, screenwriter Hildegarde Stadie, were also the perpetrators of Narcotic, Marihuana (“Weed with roots in hell!”), and the immortal How to Undress in Front of Your Husband, to which she presumably brought real-world insights.

Vying for the scenery-chewing honors are Dr. Meirschultz (Horace Carpenter), a Depression-era Herbert West who has invented a serum that can raise the dead, and his assistant, Don Maxwell (Bill Woods), an impersonator on the lam whose special abilities come in mighty handy. They revive and steal a chick from the morgue, with Don posing as the coroner, and then Meirschultz wants to go to the next level: he produces a gun and urges Don to kill himself with it, so that he can replace Don’s heart with one he has beating away in a jar. Perhaps understandably, Don is less than keen on this plan, so he grabs the gun and shoots the doc instead, but is forced to cover this up by assuming his identity after Mrs. Buckley (Phyllis Diller—no, not that one) barges in.

Seems Madame B is a bit distraught because her hubby (Ted Edwards) thinks he’s the orangutan from Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and if you think that’s the last we’ll hear of Poe, you have another think coming. Intending to give Buckley a harmless injection of “sedatives” (i.e., water), Don shoots him up with “super-adrenaline” by mistake, and Buckley joins the overacting derby as he goes totally off the deep end, carrying away the attractive revenant for unspeakable purposes. Don, meanwhile, gets a rude shock when he finds the lab’s black cat, Satan, nibbling on that experimental heart; taking a leaf from Poe’s “The Black Cat,” the incensed Don pops out one of Satan’s eyes (which he then eats), inadvertently walling him up in the cellar with the doc.

Things get really weird when Don’s estranged wife, Alice (Thea Ramsey), learns that he’s just inherited a fortune from a distant relative, and decides this might be a good time to patch things up between them. The increasingly paranoid Don hits on the idea of pitting Alice against Mrs. Buckley, who has her own poorly defined evil schemes afoot, and locks the two of them in the cellar, where they proceed to start beating the crap out of each other. All of this ruckus finally draws the attention of the cops, and the final resolution, if nothing else, is faithful to Poe, despite the fact that in his wildest nightmares, ol’ Edgar could never have conceived of anything like this film’s indescribably bizarre plot, impoverished production values, or over-the-top performances.

Interspersed among this other viewing, since my schedule often forces me to see films in bits and pieces, was The Informers, about which I knew little more than its stars, Billy Bob Thornton and Kim Basinger, and alleged genre (per the usual minimalist description in the satellite-dish guide), crime drama. In contrast to Did You Hear About the Morgans?, I would have been less likely to watch it if I’d known that it was co-written, and based on the book, by 1980s literary “Brat Pack” member Bret Easton Ellis. I absolutely loathed the adaptation of his novel Less Than Zero (thus permanently souring me on stars Andrew McCarthy, Jamie Gertz, and Robert Downey, Jr.), and although American Psycho made a slightly more interesting film, they both defied any empathy.

The Informers returns to the style and drug-soaked ’80s milieu of Less Than Zero, epitomizing what I call the “turning over a rock” film, in which we gaze at the vermin squirming underneath like some kind of alien life-forms. Hollywood mogul William Sloan (Thornton) tries to reunite with wife Laura (Basinger), despite having no intention of giving up newscaster Cheryl Moore (Winona Ryder). Meanwhile, Peter (Mickey Rourke in full slimeball mode, making us long for his wholesome international terrorist in Double Team) kidnaps a boy for unspecified nefarious purposes; Les Price (Chris Isaak) tries vainly to connect with son Tim (Lou Taylor Pucci) on a trip to Hawaii; the lead singer of the titular rock band behaves badly; sex is had; AIDS looms…

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Marvel Comics legend Gene Colan has left us at the age of 84.  Other than to mourn his passing, I don’t think I can really add anything to my recent birthday tribute, which may be found here.  Rest in peace, Gentleman Gene.

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What I’ve Been Watching: Did You Hear About the Morgans? (2009).

Who’s Responsible: Marc Lawrence (writer-director), Hugh Grant, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sam Elliott (stars).

Why I Watched It: Grant and, to a lesser degree, the premise.

Seen It Before? No.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 5.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 8.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 6.

And? I wasn’t aware of it going in, but this film has people involved on both sides of the camera who would have made me even more likely to watch it if I’d known they were in it or who they were. Elliott has been growing on me since that fondly remembered guilty pleasure Road House, and appears in the BOF über-fave The Big Lebowski, while Mary Steenburgen memorably played Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (author of The Yearling) in Cross Creek. Lawrence, I’ve just learned, not only wrote several Sandra Bullock films, e.g., the delightful Miss Congeniality and its sequel, but also previously directed Grant in Two Weeks Notice—co-starring Sandy—and Music and Lyrics, which I have yet to see.

So, despite my usual aversion to its leading lady (good though she was in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!), it’s no surprise that I enjoyed this somewhat formulaic but well-mounted rom-com about a Manhattan couple who reconsider their separation when they are forced into the witness protection program. Having briefly strayed, lawyer Paul Morgan (Grant) is already trying to win back hotshot realtor Meryl (Parker) when they witness a murder, and after being targeted by the killer, they are whisked off to the relative safety of Ray, a small town in Wyoming. There they pose as the visiting Chicago cousins of the marshal, Clay Wheeler (Elliott), and his spouse, Emma (Steenburgen), who doubles as his deputy.

The viewer will be shocked by neither the inevitability with which the Morgans achieve a rapprochement by the final reel, nor the familiarity of the fish-out-of-water humor arising from their presence in a deeply conservative rural enclave. But I’ve always said that—if it is well executed—a film need not be breathtakingly original to be entertaining, a point proven by Lawrence’s good-natured wit, which mostly avoids lowbrow antics, and a real chemistry among its performers, even Parker. From Elisabeth Moss as Meryl’s control-freak assistant to Wilford Brimley as a crusty restaurateur, the supporting cast is game as well, and you could do a hell of a lot worse than to spend 103 minutes in their company.

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Tourist Attraction

What I’ve Been Watching: The Accidental Tourist (1988).

Who’s Responsible: Lawrence Kasdan (writer-director), Frank Galati (co-writer), William Hurt, Kathleen  Turner, and Geena Davis (stars).

Why I Watched It: Kasdan, Hurt, and Davis.

Seen It Before? Once, long ago.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 7.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 5.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 6.

And? I’ve already lamented Geena Davis’s multiple screwings by ABC and her recent relative scarcity onscreen, so the next step was clearly to take another look at her Oscar-winning role in this adaptation of Anne Tyler’s novel. It represents Hurt’s fourth and, to date, final collaboration with Kasdan after Body Heat—also with Turner, who I’ve never liked—and BOF faves The Big Chill and I Love You to Death. As such, I was puzzled by why I didn’t remember liking it more, with three of my personal pantheon involved, but I think the billing that reduced La Davis to Best Supporting Actress gets to the heart of it…

Since I am one of the bigger fans of the married state, it did not endear Turner to me any further when Sarah Leary leaves her husband Macon (Hurt) at the outset, stating that his stunted emotions have become unendurable since the murder of their son a year earlier. Mind you, this is after Turner betrayed fellow adulterous killer Hurt in Body Heat, which so outraged me that I conceived a five-minute sequel, Ned Racine’s Revenge. She would be seen lounging on a beach, as at the end of the original, whereupon Hurt would appear and pop her in the head, but sadly, I was unable to obtain financing for this masterpiece.

Sarah deems Macon’s eponymous travel guides, with their flying-armchair logo (“While armchair travelers dream of going places, traveling armchairs dream of staying put”), the perfect metaphor, letting business travelers feel like they’ve never left home. Continuing this rather straightforward symbolism, the vehicle for Macon’s emotional rehabilitation is Edward, the Cardigan Welsh corgi he clings to because it was a favorite of their son’s. In desperate need of a place to board Edward while he’s on one of his business trips, Macon stumbles on an animal hospital run by free-spirited single mom Muriel Pritchett (Davis).

Macon is finally brought out of his shell by Muriel’s son, Alexander (Robert Gorman), who needs a father figure, and her delightful kookiness, although she is no kookier than Macon’s siblings. Rose (Amy Wright) looks after their woolly-headed fortysomething brothers, Porter (David Ogden Stiers) and Charles (Ed Begley, Jr.), in the ancestral home and is courted by Macon’s publisher, Julian (Bill Pullman). After Macon moves in with Muriel, Sarah tries to worm her way back into his life, and seems to be succeeding until he travels to Paris on business and Muriel surprises him by appearing on the same plane.

This is basically a love story between Macon and Muriel, with Sarah a fly (sorry, Geena) in the ointment, one who is mercifully absent for the entire middle of the picture, so why in the hell Turner outranks Davis in the credits, I have no idea. Muriel quite rightly takes Macon to task for dropping her like a hot potato when the on-again, off-again Mrs. Leary decides to rematerialize, and although everything comes out in the wash by the fade-out, I presume it was this frustration with the third act that tempered my enjoyment. That said, this is an engaging dramedy from a fine filmmaker, and is eminently worth checking out.

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Parnassian Nights

What I’ve Been Watching: The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009).

Who’s Responsible: Terry Gilliam (writer-director), Charles McKeown (co-writer), Heath Ledger and Friends, Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits (stars).

Why I Watched It: Mostly Gilliam, plus that I’m Not There casting (see below).

Seen It Before? No.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 6

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 3

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 6

And? I always feel obligated to watch Gilliam’s stuff, mostly because he’s the only ex-Python to have become a real force behind the camera, but alas, I sometimes have trouble getting into them and/or following the storyline, as happened with this one. Offhand, the one I most remember enjoying was Twelve Monkeys, while the one I’d most like to see is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Sadly, although this was well-made and had some great people in it, it really didn’t grab me the way I had hoped, but it’s a miracle it got finished.

The plot involves a series of bets between elderly, immortal ex-monk Parnassus (Energizer Bunny Plummer, also seen in Matheson’s Somewhere in Time) and the Devil, “Mr. Nick” (a typically oddball role for singer Waits). The bets involve Dr. Parnassus’ immortality and the fate of his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), who with assistant Anton (Andrew Garfield) and dwarf Percy (Verne Troyer) forms his troupe. At their carnival “Imaginarium,” visitors enter various Gilliamesque worlds, and some never come back.

Heath Ledger, fresh from his triumphant performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight, plays Tony, a mysterious man who is saved from hanging by—and joins—the troupe. Or, at least, he started out to, but his premature death in 2008 led Gilliam, whose funding was predicated on Ledger’s participation, to believe the project was kaput. He then hit upon the innovation of retooling the film to let Ledger’s friends Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Ferrell play various manifestations of Tony inside the Imaginarium.

Of course, it’s impossible to un-know something, and I was to some degree aware of this when I started watching the film, but I’m betting that somebody who wasn’t would totally go with it. I mean, they would realize it wasn’t Ledger, but somehow, within the context of the story, it made as much sense as anything that happens in the Imaginarium, where some of the visuals quite powerfully evoke the Python-era Gilliam’s animation. If for that reason alone, the film is worth a look, and I will probably revisit it another time.

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Class Warfare

Warning: Semi-Spoilers Included

I knew when attending X-Men: First Class today with Drax and son Damian that I had to look at the film from two perspectives at once:  1)  Was it true to Marvel’s X-Men comics, or at least as I knew them until the early ’80s, and 2)  Was it a good movie on its own terms?  To which I would answer, respectively, not much and yes, if flawed; oh, they throw in plenty of the characters and situations from the comics, but in a kind of spaghetti-against-the-wall fashion, certainly not in any organized chronological manner.  They make mincemeat of the 1963 Lee/Kirby X-Men #1, of whose five original students (Angel, Beast, Cyclops, Iceman, Marvel Girl) fewer than two are seen here.

Angel is represented in name only, not as playboy heir Warren Worthington III, but as an erotic dancer (Zoë Kravitz) whose wings can be concealed much more easily than his.  The only actual holdover is Beast (Nicholas Hoult), although they conflate this tale with Hank McCoy’s change to his current blue, furry form in Amazing Adventures in 1972.  Supplanting his erstwhile allies in the film are Havok (Lucas Till)—with founding brother Cyclops nowhere in sight—Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, with a clever Rebecca Romijn cameo), and Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), all of whom joined the book in later years, as well as doomed, forgettable Darwin (Edi Gathegi).

The team’s rebooted origin involves struggles both internal, between optimistic Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and pessimistic Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), and external, opposing Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). The head of the Hellfire Club wants to trigger World War III, convinced that the resulting radiation will only make mutants stronger.  The fact that Shaw killed Erik’s mother to trigger his power gives the future Magneto a revenge motive, and the fact that Shaw’s Gal Friday is a fellow telepath, Emma Frost (January Jones), gives Charles competition until Hank, still a brilliant scientist, creates Cerebro to help him track down their fellow mutants.

The memory of his Holocaust trauma makes Erik suspicious of what the CIA’s attitude toward mutants will be even if Xavier et alia help them avert Armageddon.  The six credited scenarists (including director Matthew Vaughn and former franchise standard-bearer Bryan Singer) use the main story’s 1962 setting to turn these events into a backdrop for the Cuban Missile Crisis, thus providing a whole new set of nudges and winks for middle-aged fanboys like myself.  Too bad they bit off more than they could chew with the characters, introducing too many to do justice to them, like explaining why Shaw’s minion Azazel (Jason Flemyng)  is so much like Nightcrawler.

They’ve also juiced up Xavier’s Scottish scientist friend Moira MacTaggert into a CIA agent (Rose Byrne) who becomes a kind of X-mascot, working with the team to capture Emma and learn Shaw’s whereabouts, which at that point are with a Russian general (the ubiquitous Rade Serbedzija).  The climax consists of a face-off between Soviet ships and blockading American ones led by one “M. Ironside,” while Erik finally goes head to head with Shaw.  The film sets up a lot of familiar X-Men lore, if not always in a historically accurate way, and it is handled by a largely competent cast and crew, so I can recommend it to all but the most inflexible of purists.

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