Monthly Archives: August 2010

Time1

 

Time-travel movies are often problematic.  If characters can zip forward or backward in space/time to alter events, why do they do so only at some junctures, and not others?  And once you get into that whole “butterfly effect” business … it’s enough to drive a viewer bonkers.

Time After Time, a 1979 lark starring Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen, also runs into these problems when plot complications cause it to lose steam, and credibility, in its final half hour.  But until then the movie is a fanciful good time.

McDowell stars as H.G. Wells, and the famous philosopher/novelist has a problem:  Jack the Ripper has stolen his time machine and transported himself from 1893 London to 1979 San Francisco.  Wells, nineteenth-century romantic that he is, follows the infamous serial killer into the future and in the course of his pursuit falls in love with a quirky bank employee (Steenburgen).

There are two reasons this movie is so enjoyable:  1) McDowell’s amusing turn as Wells, a man completely out of his element in San Francisco as he navigates modern food (dining at “that Scottish place” – McDonald’s), escalators, movies, and an electric toothbrush; and 2) the cute – but never precious – romance between Wells and banker Amy.  Steenburgen’s combination modern woman/ditzy brunette is a perfect foil for Wells, and you’ll find yourself pulling for these two.

I’m a sucker for H.G. Wells, Jack the Ripper, and (sometimes) time-travel movies, so this is great entertainment for me.  But don’t take my word for it.  Here is a capsule review from someone called “moneygob,” commenting on Time After Time at YouTube:  “This was a strange film.  I started watching it at 3 p.m. one Sunday afternoon and the film finished at 1 p.m. the same day.  Very realistic film!”   What more can you ask for – a great movie and it takes no time to watch?            Grade:  B+

 

Time2

 

Director:  Nicholas Meyer  Cast:  Malcolm McDowell, David Warner, Mary Steenburgen, Charles Cioffi, Kent Williams, Patti D’Arbanville  Release:  1979

 

Time3          Time4

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Orson1

 

My eyelids were drooping, and my chin was resting on my chest, when suddenly someone barked, “You talentless little shit!”

I jerked fully awake, and swiveled round to see if anyone else was in the room.  No, I was quite alone.  The shout had come from the TV screen, where actor Christian McKay was chastising his young co-star,  Zac Efron, on a city sidewalk.   “I hope you enjoyed your Broadway career, junior, because it’s over,” McKay admonished Efron. I blinked.  Was this some out-take from a “behind the scenes” confrontation during the film’s production?  Could it be that McKay shared my disdain for Efron’s performance in the movie, and somehow the DVD people had allowed this candid moment into its “extras”?

Wrong again.  The film, Me and Orson Welles, was still in progress.  I was seeing Orson Welles, McKay’s character in the movie, berating an aspiring actor played by Efron.  It was clearly an example of art imitating life.

It’s probably not fair to peg any one performance for the success or failure of a film, but in this case it’s tempting.  Me and Orson Welles dramatizes the days leading up to Welles’s triumphant Broadway staging of Julius Caesar in 1937.  But the movie makes the fatal error of focusing on the bland and humorless Efron, rather than McKay, who absolutely nails the bombastic genius Welles.  Had the film been more like a superior movie with a similar plot – My Favorite Year, starring Peter O’Toole – it could have worked.

“Jesus that’s all we need, a dozen critics with wet asses,” Welles harrumphs at another point in the film.  But the trouble with this movie is not critics with wet posteriors; it’s a young star who is still wet behind the ears.        Grade:  C+

 

Orson2

 

Director:  Richard Linklater  Cast:  Zac Efron, Claire Danes, Christian McKay, Ben Chaplin, Zoe Kazan, Eddie Marsan, Kelly Reilly, James Tupper, Leo Bill, Imogen Poots  Release:  2009

 

Orson3                               Orson4

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WayWe

 

Sure, it’s sentimental goo, schmaltzy and hokey and ridiculous on one level.  But The Way We Were boasts a couple of classic scenes (including the ultimate bittersweet ending), and it does have Streisand and Redford in their movie-star primes.  Plus, the title tune is a great song.  Watch it for free by clicking here.

 

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by George Bernard Shaw

Pygmalion

 

Here’s a classic example of how Hollywood routinely tacks on happy endings to film adaptations of plays and novels.  Ignoramus that I am, I had no idea that the denouement of My Fair Lady, the Audrey Hepburn-Rex Harrison film version of Shaw’s play, had been so drastically altered from the original ending.  Turns out that Shaw had Eliza marry Freddy in the end, and poor Higgins was left to his own devices.  Shaw’s ending might not be particularly “happy,” but it’s dramatically (and realistically) sound. 

What matters most in this play is Shaw’s language.  All stage and screen versions of Pygmalion are successful because Shaw, with this witty dissection of class, social mobility, and gender roles, was a master of character and dialogue.

 

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House1

 

Last House on the Left – groundbreaking movie, or a vile chunk of excrement?  Depends on who you ask.  Here are my random impressions after I watched the film and then the DVD commentary track featuring director Wes Craven and two of the film’s actors:

Oddly, Craven seems both proud and dismissive of his low-budget, career-defining movie.  He says he never revisits his first film, yet implies that its horrific violence was somehow a commentary on the Vietnam War.  Craven describes watching TV coverage of the war in 1972:  “American cinema did not show violence as I was seeing it in this [televised] footage.  It was ugly and it was sadistic, and there were sexual overtones … we were seeing, like, really shocking footage every night as we had our dinner.”  I wish he’d elaborated on the “sexual overtones” part of that statement.

Craven then claims that House’s “basic premise” was lifted from the Ingmar Bergman classic, The Virgin Spring, adding that his film’s over-the-top violence sprang from his own religious upbringing in a strict, Baptist household.  “It [making Last House] allowed me to be bad for the first time in my life … people would just be outraged and say, ‘Those naughty boys.’”

 

House2        House3

 

So, was Last House an anti-war statement, a rebellion against Craven’s puritanical parents … or simply a case of boys being “naughty”?  This quote from Craven might provide a clue:  “I think I wrote it more without thinking about it, than I did thinking about it.”

Porn actor-director Fred J. Lincoln, who plays the sadistic “Weasel” in the movie, isn’t nearly as ambiguous as Craven in his evaluation of the film’s legacy:  “Sometimes I wish I could forget I was there,” says Lincoln, “because as I watched them edit I thought, my God, this thing is disgusting.  No one is ever gonna look at this piece of shit … It sucks.”  Lincoln adds, “Actually, I wish it would have been banned in the United States, to be honest with you … probably about 80 girls got raped after that movie came out.  Not something to be proud of.”

 

House4        House5

 

And finally, there are the reminiscences of actor-musician David Hess, who is much happier with the film than Lincoln is, in particular a graphic rape scene featuring Hess and actress Sandra Peabody (Sandra Cassel):  “Sandra was your archetype, upper-middle-class Protestant – repressed Protestant … how do you deal with that?

 

House6  House7  House8

 

“I scared the living shit out of her, man.  She really thought I might – I started to pull her pants down and grabbed her tits and everything … and I looked up at Wes at one point and I said, ‘Can I?’ and then she freaked.”   Hess is clearly pleased as he recalls the infamous scene:  “Pulling her pants off, right?  And then drooling in her face, which I did intentionally.  It just so, it humiliated her.  There was all of a sudden this look.  It would have been easy to fuck her, right there on the set.  I mean, because she really gave in.  She gave up and you could see this look of fatality in her face.  That was real!”  Peabody, wherever she is, was not interviewed for the DVD.  

I’ll give Craven the final word:  “Either I’m a very sick bastard or I showed something that people don’t like to be shown, which I suspect is what the actual truth is.”

 

House9      House10

House11      House12

 

Director:  Wes Craven  Cast:  Sandra Cassel (Sandra Peabody), Lucy Grantham, David Hess, Fred J. Lincoln, Jeramie Rain, Marc Sheffler  Release:  1972

 

House13           Watch the Trailer  (click here)

 

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Bus

 

Trendy Expressions to Throw Under the Bus

 

iReporters —  Just because you have a camera on your cell phone and you happened to be at Sea World when Shamu the Killer Whale gobbled up a trainer, that does not make you a journalist.  You are a schmuck with a camera who happened to get lucky.

Optics — CNN, Fox News, NBC, CBS — all of the networks — have fallen in love with this irritating new way of saying “image,” “visuals,” or “photo ops,” all of which are perfectly good terms.

Throw Him or Her Under the Bus — I guess you’re no longer allowed to backstab or double-cross anyone.

Back in the Day — This stopped being cute way back in the day.

 

*****

 

King2

 

Stephen King’s Bad Habits

 

What do the following books have in common?  Christine, Misery, The Shining, Carrie, Cujo, The Dead Zone.

Now what do these books have in common?  Cell, Duma Key, Under the Dome, Insomnia, From a Buick 8.

If you said the first batch of Stephen King novels became movies, and the second group did not, you are correct.  If you said that the first six books were much, much better than the last five books, you would also be correct.  But why is that?

King often writes about quitting his old drinking and drugging habits, and we are all very happy for his new life of sobriety, but you can’t tell me that dropping those vices hasn’t affected his writing — in a bad way.  As far as I’m concerned, King wrote his last really good novel , Misery, in 1987.  That was the year he quit drinking and drugging.

 

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Centurion1

 

Movies like Centurion want desperately to be taken seriously, but they make it so damned difficult.  They often begin with some type of solemn, written prelude, in this case regarding an ancient dispute between the Romans and some people called the Picts (“based on a 2,000-year-old legend,” the end credits assure us).  The movie features lots of gory beheadings and spearings, swelling violin music, and some spectacular, fairytale-like photography (shot on location in Scotland), all of it skewed to make us root for hero Michael Fassbender and his fellow Romans.  But I stubbornly refused to do so.

I preferred the scruffy Picts.  For one thing, as you watch the movie, you discover that all of the supermodels were Picts.  Also, the Picts, bless their blue-painted cheeks, were the native inhabitants of Northern Britain; it was the arrogant Romans who imperialistically invaded the Picts’ homeland.  (I’m no European historian, I’ll admit; I’m just going by the story as presented.)

The main Pict supermodel, a brunette “tracker” named Etain (Olga Kurylenko), was raped and then de-tongued by nasty Romans when she was a child.  The young son of the Pict king is slaughtered by a conniving Roman.  The Roman soldiers, with whom we are meant to side, are disorganized, constantly on the run, and say “fuck” a lot.  They also speak in an odd mixture of ancient Roman and modern MTV.  “Being a legend will get you laid,” chortles one soldier, a sentiment quickly followed by, “The gods have forsaken us.” 

Which side would you root for in this dispute – the rude, vulgar, invading Romans, or the Picts with all of their supermodels, including Etain, her blonde comrade, and a fetching witch?  Oh, and these supermodels can fight:  It takes a slinky, sultry beauty like Etain to lick a Roman general in hand-to-hand combat.

All of this twaddle is filmed with deadly earnestness, but how anyone older than 12 can take any of it seriously is perplexing.  Perhaps the joke is on me.  Maybe Centurion is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, a campy frolic, but I don’t think so.  I’d ask the foxy Etain, but she has no tongue.       Grade:  C

 

Centurion2

 

Director:  Neil Marshall  Cast:  Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko, Ulrich Thomsen, Imogen Poots  Release:  2010

 

Centurion3  Centurion4

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Piranha1

 

I went to the lake this afternoon – my childhood lake, Kandiyohi, in central Minnesota.  I shot off firecrackers on the shore, and then boated through some wavy cattails.

This was all in my imagination, of course.  I was actually in an air-conditioned movie theater, where they were showing Piranha in 3-D.  The movie takes place at “Lake Victoria” in Arizona, and that got me reminiscing about Kandiyohi.  After about 15 minutes of the movie, I couldn’t digest any more of the clunky, idiotic dialogue I was hearing, so I stopped listening and began to hear those firecrackers in my mind …. Ten minutes later, when I could no longer stomach the sight of third-rate actors and first-rate actors slumming, I stopped looking at the film.  Instead, I began to see those cattails.

Periodically, I would stop daydreaming because something would catch my eye on the screen.  One time, I was intrigued by the performance of an actress billed as “Girl Cut in Half,” who briefly displayed two enormous talents before, well, being cut in half.

A few other times, porn actress Riley Steele interrupted my reverie, once when she performed some kind of nude underwater ballet with Playboy model Kelly Brook, then again when she had to climb back onto the boat.

But mostly, I stayed on Kandiyohi Lake.  Piranha’s plot, which you’ve seen a thousand times before, and its cast – unfathomably including the likes of Richard Dreyfuss, Elisabeth Shue, and Christopher Lloyd – and its 3-D effects, which ranged from mildly amusing to downright distracting, simply could not compete with those dreamy cattails and firecrackers in my head.       Grade:  C-

 

Piranha2

Piranha3


Director:  Alexandre Aja  Cast:  Elisabeth Shue, Richard Dreyfuss, Ving Rhames, Christopher Lloyd, Jerry O’Connell, Kelly Brook, Riley Steele, Nancy Walters  Release:  2010

 

Piranha5             Piranha4

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Audition1

 

Pity poor Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), a widowed Japanese businessman.  His wife died seven years ago, leaving him alone with a young son.  He’s not getting any younger, and some female companionship would certainly be welcome.  Thank God for his best friend Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura), a film producer with a killer idea:  He and Aoyama will stage a fake movie audition, and Aoyama will have a wonderful opportunity to study and select his perfect woman – young, beautiful and, best of all, “obedient.”

All sorts of aphorisms come to mind regarding Japanese director Takashi Miike’s cult classic Audition, including “Be careful what you wish for,” “If it seems too good to be true …” and, “Beware the quiet ones.”  Especially that last one.

Aoyama does indeed find his dream girl, the pretty and geisha-like Asami (Eihi Shiina), but after he sleeps with her, she vanishes, and thence Aoyama unwisely ignores yet another bromide:  “Leave well enough alone.”

 

Audition2

 

Takashi’s film is an odd brew, a concoction that not only mixes bromides but also the influence of several directors — Hitchcock, Cronenberg, and Lynch, to name three.  The first two-thirds of Audition is dreamlike, its pace leisurely, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Vertigo as the obsessed Aoyama finds, loses, and then hunts for the ethereal Asami.  Is the girl just a bit odd, or is she dangerous?  Here’s a hint:  In Vertigo, Kim Novak didn’t keep a bulging cloth sack on the floor of her living room, a sack that periodically moves of its own volition ….

Torture-porn and acupuncture fans (“torpunc fans”?) delight in the final act of Audition.  The film is infamous for Asami’s revenge – on men in general and Aoyama in particular.  I’m not a big fan of this gory crap, which is already dated thanks to movies like Saw, Hostel, and other Japanese fare including Miike’s own Ichi the Killer.  Rather than focus on the infinitely more interesting psychological aspects of his characters, as Hitchcock did in his film, Miike caters to the lowest common denominator.  That decision turns what had been a mesmeric, surreal quest into just one more bloody mess.          Grade:  C+

 

Audition3

 

Director:  Takashi Miike  Cast:  Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Tetsu Sawaki, Jun Kunimura, Misato Nakamura  Release:  1999

 

Audition5     Audition4

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by Nick Hornby

Juliet

 

Nick Hornby writes some of the funniest dialogue ever, and his character analyses are always amusing.  But in Juliet, I think there’s an imbalance:  too much introspection, not enough dialogue and action.  Juliet tells the story of what transpires when a staid, middle-aged English couple meets (thanks to the Internet) a retired, reclusive American rock star.  That’s an intriguing setup, but not enough “happens” after that.  A character will do or say something, and Hornby will devote five pages to deconstructing that statement or action.   I kept saying to myself, “OK, OK.  Now can we move on with things?”  Still, although this isn’t my favorite Hornby (that would probably be About a Boy), there’s enough of his trademark wit on display to make it a worthwhile read.

 

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