Monthly Archives: June 2010



Correct me if I’m wrong, but if you set out to satirize something, shouldn’t your movie be a bit smarter and wittier than whatever it is you’re satirizing?

I’m old enough to remember the 1980s (vaguely) and its films, and one thing I recall is that comedies back then didn’t rely exclusively on flatulence, bodily fluids, arrested development, and foul-mouthed mean-spiritedness for 99 percent of their humor.  Granted, a lot of the ‘80s movies were garbage — but they didn’t smell as bad as Hot Tub Time Machine.

God knows the ‘80s look awful enough in this film.  From the dreadful sitcoms on background TVs to the stick-your-finger-in-an-electrical-socket hairdos, it’s easy to see why the four characters who get magically transported back to 1986 want so desperately to return to the present.  Not so easy to understand is why John Cusack, an actor I once admired, now seems to be in a race with Robert Downey, Jr. to see who can taint his acting legacy the fastest.  Faring better than Cusack is gentle-giant Craig Robinson, who is featured in the few scenes in Machine that are genuinely funny.

Time-machine comedies can work.  For evidence of that, you need only go back to, well, the 1980s (Back to the Future).  But as I stared, glassy-eyed and foggy-brained, at this mess of a movie on DVD, I was happy that I had my own time machine – the fast-forward button on my remote.      Grade:  D-




Director:  Steve Pink  Cast:  John Cusack, Clark Duke, Craig Robinson, Rob Corddry, Sebastian Stan, Lyndsy Fonseca, Crispin Glover, Chevy Chase, Lizzy Caplan, Collette Wolfe, Crystal Lowe, Jessica Pare  Release:  2010


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by Janet Evanovich



Once upon a time, many years ago, Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series was the freshest, funniest phenomenon in the publishing industry.  Hollywood long ago forgot how to make engaging screwball comedies, but Evanovich’s Plum, a klutzy, novice bounty hunter, was a slapstick delight.  And so were the supporting characters:  Grandma Mazur, Lula the reformed hooker, and the rest of the gang.

But then, sadly, somewhere around book six or seven in the series, Evanovich either ran out of creative steam or simply sold out.  Stephanie’s adventures are now repetitive and there are very few laugh-out-loud moments.  And yet, I continue to check in with this series.  How come?  I guess the Plum adventures are like Stephanie’s relatives — you know more than enough about them, but there is a certain hokey comfort whenever you pay them a visit.


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If you plan to read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, here’s a piece of advice:  Don’t feel bad about skipping certain chapters to get to the good parts.  The novel deserves its reputation as great literature, no question, but you have to be a dedicated military historian – or have the patience of a saint – to suffer through the lengthy passages that Tolstoy devotes to Napoleon’s march through Russia.

Similarly, much of The Last Station, a movie about Tolstoy’s final days in 1910, is an exercise in frustration.  The plot centers on a battle over the old man’s will.  Should Tolstoy’s considerable fortune go to his wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren), or to the Russian people, as advocated by Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) and the idealistic Tolstoyans?

I’m no Russian historian, but if we are to believe events as played in The Last Station, it seems to me that none of them were deserving of an inheritance.  Chertkov is presented as a mustache-twirling blackguard; Sofya, though charming, is not exactly a needy peasant girl.  She lives in the lap of luxury, and her self-serving “suicide” attempt (in front of a crowd of potential rescuers) is not endearing.  She is a materialistic woman, and Tolstoy himself is either naïve or misguided.  In short, there is no one to really root for in this story.

The filmmakers intend that we find James McAvoy and Kerry Condon, as young lovers who parallel old-timers Leo and Sofya, appealing enough to cheer for, but they are an afterthought to the main plot.  The film belongs to Mirren and Plummer.  They were both Oscar-nominated, and it’s amusing to see them joust.  But not amusing enough to overcome a frustrating script.         Grade:  B-




Director:  Michael Hoffman  Cast:  James McAvoy, Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer, Paul Giamatti, Kerry Condon, Anne-Marie Duff  Release:  2009


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Some folks think this 1962 biopic of longtime prisoner Robert Stroud is a bit creaky, pokey, and preachy — particularly by today’s standards.  But I have to confess to a sentimental bias in favor of this Burt Lancaster prison drama.  At the end of the film, Stroud (Lancaster) asks a friend if he knows what Alcatraz used to be called.  When the friend pleads ignorance, Stroud tells him: “Bird Island.”  For the unsophisticated readers out there, Bird Island is a cultural, economic, and artistic hub of activity in the Midwest. Watch Burt and his birds for free by clicking here.


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These are the eyes of Fox News anchor Harris Faulkner.  These eyes terrify me.  Her bulging peepers cause me sleeplessness.  I felt the need to share them with you. 


 .               Faulkner3 Faulkner2







Al Gore is accused of massage-parlor gropings.  If you were Al’s wife, would you trust this reptilian visage?


Looking at Faulkner’s eyeballs and Gore’s smarminess puts me in need of something cheerful.  So here is a smiley face:




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The Vanishing is a tale of two men.  One of them is a mild-mannered family man, a chemistry teacher named Raymond Lemorne who is adored by his two young daughters.  The other man is a wild-eyed fellow, a bachelor named Rex Hofman who is incapable of forming long-term relationships with women.  One of the two men is also a sociopath who kidnaps and kills women.  Guess who the madman is, Raymond or Rex?

The movie begins with the roadside abduction of Saskia (Johanna ter Steege), Rex’s lover and a girl who is entirely too trusting of strangers.  Rex is understandably distraught when Saskia seems to simply vanish, and he proceeds to devote his life to an obsessive search for her.  But just when it looks like The Vanishing is headed down an all-too-familiar, track-down-the-killer storyline, director George Sluizer surprises us by shifting the film’s focus to good citizen Raymond.

There are more twists in store, but The Vanishing is unusual in other ways.  For one thing — shattering the stereotype of nubile, female victims in most American slasher flicks — Steege’s Saskia is friendly and likable.  In her scant 15 minutes of screen time, the actress makes the audience fear for her safety.

On the other end of the personality spectrum, Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu’s sociopathic Raymond will make you think twice before ever lending a quarter to a stranger.  Raymond doesn’t seem like he’d harm a fly.  However, as he explains:  “When I was 16, I discovered something … a slight abnormality in my personality, imperceptible to those around me.”  Raymond recognized his own mental illness, his difference from others.  Now he requires unusual stimulation and has discovered an all-consuming, if antisocial, “hobby.”

To Raymond’s way of thinking, kidnapping is just another chemistry experiment.  The suspense in The Vanishing boils down to one question:  Which will prevail, Rex’s determination to learn the truth about Saskia’s fate, or Raymond’s calculated game?  Although I don’t completely buy into one character’s fateful decision near the end of the movie, there’s no doubt that the consequences of that decision are truly horrifying.         Grade:  B+




Director:  George Sluizer  Cast:  Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Gene Bervoets, Johanna ter Steege, Gwen Eckhaus, Bernadette Le Sache  Release:  1988


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Pity the poor Baby Boomers.  … OK, OK, so screw the Boomers.  Boomers, as they never tire of reminding us, gave us the civil rights movement and The Beatles.  Of course, they also gave us skyrocketing divorce rates and the breakup of the American family, but hey, let’s not talk about that.

Every generation has its own movie stars, and none is more emblematic of the Boomer than Michael Douglas.  Little Boomers once sprawled on their parents’ living-room floors and watched young Douglas on TV as Steve Keller, solving crime on The Streets of San Francisco.  Later, Boomers moved out of the house and discovered fun and adventure with Douglas in Romancing the Stone.  But the Boomers and Kirk Douglas’s boy also had a serious side.  They took on environmental issues with The China Syndrome and confronted divorce in The War of the Roses.  Alas, in the 1980s, Boomers tired of their endless good deeds, and Douglas’s Gordon Gekko taught everyone that “greed is good” in Wall Street.

So now, as the golden years approach, what does the iconic Douglas have to say in Solitary Man?  Nothing very good.  Apparently, you can “have it all” – just not all at once.  Ben Kalmen (Douglas) is an auto dealer, pushing 60 and finding his life on the skids.  Kalmen’s health is declining, his business is ruined by scandal, and chasing tail isn’t as easy as it once was.  He has managed to alienate his own family in his relentless pursuit of the fountain of youth.  But you’re only as old as you feel, right Ben?

The final shot in Solitary Man is pure gold.  Kalmen must make a choice between something solid and reassuring, or something more in keeping with the Boomer mantras of free love and self-expression.  Which one should he choose?  Don’t ask me.  I’m a Boomer, myself, so how would I know?         Grade:  A-




Directors:  Brian Koppelman, David Levien  Cast:  Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito, Mary-Louise Parker, Jenna Fischer, Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Olivia Thirlby, Richard Schiff, Anastasia Griffith  Release:  2010


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by Jay Anson



Reading this book was akin to picking up a copy of The National Enquirer in the supermarket line and becoming engrossed in a particularly lurid story.  You’re a bit worried that someone you know might spot you reading the stuff, but you also secretly hope your checkout line moves slowly, because you really want to finish reading the article.

I have no idea how much of this infamous ghost story is based on fact; it’s been rehashed so many times by so many people, and the main participants (including the book’s author) are all dead, so we’ll probably never know if the “possession” of George and Kathy Lutz’s Long Island home was a gigantic hoax … or not.  The author will never be confused with William Peter Blatty (Anson loves exclamation points!  He ends nearly every chapter with one!), but he knows how to grab and hold your attention — just like those addictive supermarket tabloids.


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I have to make a confession:  I have not seen this week’s movie, Hope and Glory.  Sometimes, during my search for free, quality films on the Internet, I can’t afford to be that selective.  However … nearly all critics fell in love with this 1987 autobiographical tale from director John Boorman, in which he details family life in World War II England.  My ex-wife also liked this film.  You could argue that, having once-upon-a-time married me, she’s already exhibited bad taste, but I think she might have been more discerning about films than she was about husbands.  Watch it free by clicking here.


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I’ll bet The Book of Eli looked great on paper.  In some Hollywood conference room, the movie’s sales pitch might have gone something like this:  “Post-apocalyptic – but with a serious theme (we’ve included the King James Bible!).  We’ve got Denzel on board; he’s going to produce, as well.  And the picture will look great – special effects galore!  As for plot, well, we’ve borrowed some stuff from Ray Bradbury’s story, Fahrenheit 451, so we’re not too concerned about that, and audiences love twist endings.  Boy, have we got a twist ending!”

The Book of Eli is certainly stylish, and it really does look great.  Its barren, desert landscapes resemble a montage of the coolest-looking album covers you can imagine.  And Denzel Washington is suitably somber, doing his best “man with no name,” Clint Eastwood-channeling.  Gary Oldman is, as always, eminently watchable as the movie’s villain, a cackling madman who decides that the Bible is all he needs to expand his post-nuclear slice of America.

It is The Book of Eli’s misfortune that it opened so close to the premiere of a much superior after-the-bomb movie, The Road.  I guess the cinematography and art direction are grander in Eli than in Road, and a bit more “happens,” plot-wise, in Denzel’s movie.  But all of Washington’s glum stares, ominous growls, and a somber, strings-heavy soundtrack can’t overcome the pretentious, derivative story, shallow characters, and preposterous twist ending.         Grade:  C+




Directors:  Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes  Cast:  Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals, Michael Gambon, Tom Waits, Malcolm McDowell  Release:  2010


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