Thursday, June 21, 2012


GOON (Michael Dowse, 2011)

A hockey team’s enforcer usually ranks among the most popular players with fans because they love the guy who pounds on opponents and isn’t afraid to leave some of his blood on the ice.  Other team sports feature their share of violent contact, but hockey stands alone in accepting fisticuffs among players as part of the game.  GOON, based on the true story of designated tough guy Doug “The Hammer” Smith, suggests that being a good fighter sometimes can be enough to make a living in hockey.  

Massachusetts bouncer Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott) never aspired to lace up the skates.  In fact, he can barely stay upright on them, but that doesn’t matter to the coach who spots him one night at the rink.  Doug is attending a minor league game when a shouting match with a player in the penalty box leads to a scuffle in the stands.  Doug absorbs the hits and lays out the furious member of the visiting team.  With those well-landed blows, Doug punches his ticket for a professional hockey career.  

Doug is of little use other than as a bruiser, but his singular talent attracts the affection of the fans and the interest of a farm team in Halifax.  The organization wants a protector for its high draft pick Xavier LaFlamme (Marc-André Grondin).  Since returning from a brutal hit, the offensive wunderkind is wary on the ice and out of control off it.  

Doug has finally found his calling, but all is not perfect.  He becomes a popular guy in his new club’s locker room but is resented by Xavier.  His brother Ira (David Paetkau) and best friend Pat (Jay Baruchel) support his newfound success, but his parents (Eugene Levy and Ellen David) express disdain for Doug being celebrated for violent behavior.  He meets and falls for a Eva (Alison Pill), a pretty Canadian local who reluctantly informs him after they’ve made out that she has a boyfriend.     

Unlike most sports movies, which tend to be overly reverent about their subjects, GOON puts on no airs.  The action on the ice isn’t a metaphor for life, and the players aren’t noble warriors.  Being a hockey player is just a job, albeit one that can benefit those like Doug who excel at beating the tar out of others.  The film’s sense of humor is just as blunt.  Liberally peppered with profanities and comedic hockey-related violence, GOON finds plenty to laugh at in the coarse words and antics of athletes.

Best known as Stifler in the AMERICAN PIE films, Scott has made his name playing insincere and overbearing characters.  GOON’s Doug could have easily come from the same mold, but in an inspired choice, Scott represents the protagonist as a nice, sweet guy despite his thuggish conduct on the ice.  Even at his most dim-witted, Doug’s innate sensitivity shines through, like when he asks an upset Eva if she just watched inspirational football film RUDY.  The contrast in his personality can be most amusing in his polite proposals to adversaries to drop gloves.  The professional rough-houser’s pride in having found his role is seen in the respect he grants legendary goon Ross Rhea (Liev Schreiber) and the confusion and disappointment from his parents disapproval.  Doug displays everything he thinks and feels on the surface, and Scott does solid work being funny and giving Doug emotional complexity.        

While GOON hails the underdog, it doesn’t oversell Doug’s abilities.  Take away his enforcer assignment and his contribution on the ice vanishes.  Essentially he’s a boxer on skates.  In seeing these players for what they are and avoiding sentimentality, GOON earns bigger laughs and likely provides a truer glimpse inside the sport than the reporters and screenwriters whose flowery prose tries to make these competitors respectable.    

Grade: B-

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

That's My Boy

THAT’S MY BOY (Sean Anders, 2012)

At this point it’s tempting to wonder if Adam Sandler is screwing with us.  He’s made plenty of unfunny, mean-spirited, juvenile films that the majority of critics have thrashed. In a filmography overflowing with bad reviews, his last effort, JACK AND JILL, could be his most panned.  (Although I am a consistent detractor, I actually thought it was halfway decent by his low standards.) With THAT’S MY BOY it’s as though he’s taken up the gauntlet to be as terrible as many think he is.

Like many boys on the cusp of adolescence, seventh grader Donny Berger (Justin Weaver) has a crush on one of his instructors.  He lusts for his young, pretty math teacher Mary McGarricle (Eva Amurri Martino) and goes out of his way to flirt with her. The difference in Donny’s situation is that the educator of his affection is similarly smitten.  Donny and Mary have sex at various spots around the school until they’re discovered in flagrante delicto at a building-wide assembly.

Scoring with the teacher earns the hearty respect and approval of male classmates and faculty members.  It even makes him a national celebrity.  The law, however, takes a different view of the matter.  Mary, who is pregnant with Donny’s son, receives a lengthy prison sentence for the underage affair.  Donny is given full custody and cashes in on his fame by publishing a book and selling the TV movie rights to his story.

The adult Donny (Sandler) is adrift trying to relive his glory years.  He tools around town in a rusty old Fiero with Rush’s starman logo on the hood and wiles away his days drinking, gambling, and hanging out at a strip club.  His son, who he named Han Solo, left home upon turning eighteen and has avoided staying in contact.  

Donny is desperate to end their estrangement when he is informed he owes the IRS $43,000.  The only way he can raise the money quickly enough and avoid jail himself is to arrange a prison reunion with his boy and Mary (Susan Sarandon) for a television talk show.  With a bit of luck he learns that Han Solo is now a hedge fund manager named Todd (Andy Samberg).  He’s at his boss’s oceanfront home on Cape Cod preparing for his wedding to Jamie (Leighton Meester) when Donny crashes the festivities posing as Todd’s best friend.  Rather than being upfront with Todd about his dilemma, a tactic likely doomed to failure, Donny tries to persuade him to visit his mother with a story of her being deathly ill.
There’s no getting around the fact that THAT’S MY BOY is a comedy hinging on how cool and hilarious statutory rape is.  Young Donny is to be admired for fulfilling the schoolboy fantasy that’s the stuff of a Van Halen video.  High five, bro!  The film takes every opportunity to dismiss objections because Donny doesn’t feel he was abused and professes his love for her from 1984 through the present day.  The easy out would have been to make Donny a high school senior and thus minimize the skeeviness of this whole ordeal.  That it didn’t is kind of stunning.  

Obviously there’s a cultural double standard at work here.  If the genders were reversed, the likelihood is virtually nil that this scenario would be played for laughs and winking endorsements. That’s not to suggest the topic is off-limits in comedy but that it would take someone exercising more than locker room outrageousness.  The Farrelly brothers are better attuned to breaking taboos while retaining humanity, and I could envision Lars von Trier trying to pull off something like this with pitch-black humor.

Or maybe John Waters should have been given a swing at THAT’S MY BOY.  The film toys with transgressive humor and celebrating sketchy people on the margins.  It positions Donny as the coolest guy around.  Everyone but super-lame Todd loves his Masshole-accented, raging alcoholic dad.  Good grief, THAT’S MY BOY is somewhat of a comedic redemption for entertainment industry has-beens Vanilla Ice and Todd Bridges, who turn in surprisingly funny supporting performances.  

Of course, Sandler isn’t bold enough to let his character and the film be as unrepentantly nasty as they want to be.  How could he allow it when THAT’S MY BOY gives in to his sickly sweet sentimental streak and testifies to how awesome he is?  THAT’S MY BOY amplifies the raunch in Sandler’s usual routine, and the misogyny is as pronounced as ever in his films.  (Give credit to Meester for going above and beyond the call of duty in a monstrously written role.)  It just doesn’t have the conviction to own up to its ugliness without ample reminders that its star is a misunderstood sweetheart.

Director Sean Anders brings a level of formal competence that Sandler’s Happy Madison productions often lack.  The comedian seems more energized on screen this time around.  Chances are THAT’S MY BOY isn’t a contemptuous stunt to see what Sandler can get away with and what audiences will accept; it just seems like one.

Grade: D-  

Monday, June 18, 2012

On the occasion of 400 episodes

I’m not certain of the exact date, but I’m guessing it was March 18 or 19, 1997 (or 11th or 12th) when my co-producer and co-host Paul Markoff and I recorded our first episode of NOW PLAYING.  Improbably enough the show began with an hour-long edition mostly dedicated to Academy Awards discussion.  At the end we provided token Top 10 lists for 1996, although it’s safe to say that neither of us had seen anywhere close to the number of films we view now when taking a year’s best offerings into account.

Fifteen years later we’re still here and have shot more than 400 episodes.  (The milestone program was shot March 8th.  Episode #407 tapes Wednesday.)  Honestly, it’s hard to believe.  I didn’t have any formal training in film appreciation and evaluation when I started.  I still don’t, as far as that goes, although the thousands of movies I’ve seen in the course of doing this program should compensate for my lack of academic credentials regarding the art of the cinema.  I’d never produced an episode of television, let alone created a TV show from whole cloth.  The seed for NOW PLAYING began as a friendly discussion under football bleachers during pre-production down time before a high school game.  Look at what it is now:  more than 200 hours of recorded television.

After beginning with what amounted to a special edition episode, one that we since have split into two annual shows (an Academy Awards preview and the Best and Worst of the previous year), we settled into a format not terribly different from what you see now.  It goes without saying, although I’ll state it anyway, that the obvious template and influence is SISKEL & EBERT.  

On our first regular 30-minute show we discussed just four films: THE SAINT, DOUBLE TEAM, INVENTING THE ABBOTTS, and KOLYA (KOLJA).  I suspect I would no longer stand by some, if not all, of the grades I dropped on those films (THE SAINT: B; DOUBLE TEAM: D+; INVENTING THE ABBOTTS: C-; KOLYA: A+).  I had a lot to learn.

For instance, having already talked in length about the films before the taping, we discovered that we didn’t have as much to say as we might if we hadn’t already said our pieces off camera.  For a few years, we tried to go onto the set not having talked at all about our reactions to or grades for the films.  At some point we abandoned the idealistic but ultimately silly notion that talking about the to-be-reviewed movies prior to taping was detrimental to NOW PLAYING.

Through the years there have been tweaks to the biweekly program, such as the inclusion of short commentary pieces on film-related topics, endorsed video picks set aside at the local library, and the rare news package, like a report on Cinerama screenings at Dayton’s New Neon Movies, or interviews with filmmakers who visit Columbus.  What started as four films reviewed per show ballooned to eight (a crazy amount of content for a half-hour, now that I think about it) and currently stands at five most of the time.

I’ve been lucky enough to work on the show as part of my fulltime job.  (Contrary to what some may believe, the movie review show does not account for the primary portion of the job.)  I know how busy it keeps me, so I can only imagine how much time it must take out of Paul’s limited free time.  Still, despite seeing more bad films than I’d like to count and spending more hours than I care to calculate, doing the show continues to be worth it, even when I’m pressing near the deadline to finish writing what I must get into the script and TelePrompter.  I’m fortunate to have the freedom to do with NOW PLAYING as I please and get it into people’s homes through the cable system and, within the last year couple years, the internet.  While Paul and I are responsible for the show’s content, it couldn’t happen without the students and co-workers who have manned the crews the four hundred-plus times we’ve sat down to record another episode.

When we shot the first episode I couldn’t have expected NOW PLAYING would last this long.  Will it be in production another fifteen years?  Who knows?  Whether or not the show continues for whatever arbitrary amount of time you want to name, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to indulge my love for the movies.  

Thanks to those who let NOW PLAYING get on TV in the first place.  Thanks to those who have helped and continue to assist with recording new shows.  Thanks most of all to my co-host, a great friend who makes doing the show possible.  

Friday, June 15, 2012

Rock of Ages

ROCK OF AGES (Adam Shankman, 2012)

When you’re young, the kind of music and particular bands you like can play a big role in asserting your identity.  Expressing a preference for this group and that genre is not merely the method of discovering and sharing your tastes but making a statement about Who You Are.  It’s about deciding what is cool and, perhaps just as critically, what isn’t. Time, though, has a way of breaking down the barriers erected in the battle lines.  Sure, personal tastes may change, but nostalgia can exert its powerful influence to the point that solo artists and groups once banished to the land of the uncool are reevaluated and unconditionally accepted.

I cast my lot with the modern rock/alternative bands as I went through high school and college, and I remember eventually becoming dismissive of the acts that dominated mainstream rock radio despite having listened to those stations and liking many of the songs they played.  I considered “arena rock” to be a handy put-down for popular bands of the 1970s and ‘80s.  I didn’t own albums by the artists whose music is featured in ROCK OF AGES, yet within the last year I’ve found myself buying some of their greatest hits collections.  I no longer have a use for putting up a front regarding what I like, whether it’s perceived as being cool or not, and object to the concept of guilty pleasures. If that means admitting to enjoying some hits by Def Leppard, Whitesnake, Journey, and Scorpions, so be it.  (OK, fine, I’m still struggling to cop to appreciating some Poison tunes.)

What’s cool and what’s not intersect in the jukebox musical turned feature film ROCK OF AGES.  ‘80s hard rock and hair metal with a pop sensibility and Broadway appear to be a most unnatural pairing, if not diametrically opposed.  (It seems doubtful my high school classmates wearing LES MISÉRABLES t-shirts also rocked out to Guns N’ Roses’ APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION and vice versa.)  However, ROCK OF AGES finds common ground in the emphasis on showmanship and brings fist-pumping energy to rockers and power ballads functioning as showtunes.

The skeleton of a plot flits among three stories set in 1987.  In the foreground are two young lovers with mutual aspirations of becoming professional singers.  Sherrie (Julianne Hough) leaves Tulsa, Oklahoma for Hollywood with big dreams and stars in her eyes.  Although she’s mugged shortly after arriving on The Strip, Drew (Diego Boneta) comes to her aid and helps get her a waitressing job at his workplace, the legendary nightclub The Bourbon Room. 
Meanwhile, The Bourbon Room’s owner Dennis (Alec Baldwin) and his trusted assistant Lonny (Russell Brand) fret over the bar’s financial problems.  Dennis owes considerable back taxes.  The crusading Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones), wife of Los Angeles mayor Mike Whitmore (Bryan Cranston), identifies The Bourbon Room’s weakness as a means of shutting down a business she despises and improving her husband’s standing with major developers in an election year.

Dennis is counting on the revenue from the final performance by Arsenal to save his club, but he and the packed house wait for the scheduled concert at the whims of erratic front man and soon-to-be solo artist Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise).  Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti), Stacee’s manager, has his hands full with a star who’s lost in a haze of groupies and scotch and keeps a baboon in his posse.  Controlling Stacee’s image becomes more difficult when Rolling Stone reporter Constance Sack (Malin Akerman) conducts an interview with the disillusioned and possibly delusional rocker.

What carries the scent of danger in pop culture, at least to impressionable young listeners,  gradually gets commodified and repackaged for safe consumption.  In the case of bands whose music is featured in the film, think Twisted Sister, once a target of the Parents Music Resource Center, rather than Foreigner, Quarterflash, or, well, anyone else.  So it goes with the ROCK OF AGES songbook.  The sweaty soundtrack blaring from Camaros and the boomboxes at construction sites is made even slicker and more respectable for theatergoers visiting the stage and screen.  (Having read a brief overview of the play, some rougher plot points have also been altered and smoothed in the adaptation to film.)  The sex and suggestiveness is PG-13 friendly.  The studded leather wristbands and jackets are less signifiers of rebellion than bygone fashion statements.
In other words ROCK OF AGES filters rock and roll through AMERICAN IDOL and SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE.  Instead of the latest batch of unknown hopefuls from across rural, suburban, and urban America belting out the hits and strutting their stuff, up-and-comers and certified stars take their turns at glorified karaoke accompanied by a few steps.  Director Adam Shankman and choreographer Mia Michaels, both of whom have served as SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE judges and choreographers, keep things safely within the actors’ ranges.  This can translate to editing of song performances that hack them to pieces, but the democratic spirit of the venture helps cover for the sometimes excessive division of labor.  
I’ll grant that what I’m describing likely sounds excruciating to some reading this, and I’ll make no claim that this approximates great cinema. Rather than comparing it to other movies, ROCK OF AGES most closely resembles the concession stand’s box of nachos slathered in plasticky melted cheese.  Of course it’s junk.  Still, ROCK OF AGES is so unpretentious about its aims and the performers are so game for what they surely knew would be this ridiculous that it’s hard to resist entirely.  

Cruise wears a devil’s head with protruding tongue codpiece that ranks among the most absurd accessories anyone’s ever worn.  He plays Stacee Jaxx with much darker tones than this glossy film is prepared to handle, yet he’s fascinating in embodying a superstar so removed from society that the ordinary rules of behavior are seemingly revoked.  In his single scene playing a Rolling Stone receptionist, T.J. Miller is very funny mirroring the audience’s amusement at how weird this film and Cruise’s character can be. Akerman demonstrates a fearless willingness to do anything for a laugh.

Defensible or not, the album-oriented rock standards are often a lot of fun to hear as they advance the meager plot.  In one of the funniest scenes REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” is deployed to advance a relationship.  Mary J. Blige, who plays strip club owner Justice Charlier, tears through “Any Way You Want It”.  Overall the songs used feature strong melodies and are often creatively, if obviously, joined, such as when protesting churchgoers and rock fans alternate between “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “We Built This City”.  In that respect this jukebox musical might be more accurately labeled a cafeteria musical in that it takes power chords, verses, and choruses from various songs to build medleys instead of leaving the originals intact.  Using such judicious selectivity is probably the best way to approach ROCK OF AGES too.  Take what’s pleasurable and never mind the rest.    
Grade: B-

Sunday, June 10, 2012


GORP (Joseph Ruben, 1980)

Gorp, better known as trail mix, contains a little bit of everything to provide an energy boost and maintain it.  The raunchy camp comedy GORP, the last film released by American International Pictures, features almost all of the ingredients in Samuel Z. Arkoff’s formula but is empty in cinematic nutritional value.

GORP transplants ANIMAL HOUSE to a Jewish summer camp that seems incredibly overstaffed, especially with penny-pinching Wallman (David Huddleston) overseeing its operation.  He’s hired enough college men as waiters to the pre-teen campers that he could staff a major city hotel’s ballroom.  Perhaps that’s why he’s constantly seeking ways to reclaim their wages through fines.

The guys have no responsibilities beyond hustling food to the kids at designated mealtimes, so there’s plenty of trouble for them to find at Camp Oskemo.  The senior waiters, who have the advantage of having the military-obsessed and heavily stockpiled Mad Grossman (Dennis Quaid) on their side, plot full-scale battle against the junior waiters.  They gamble with the eccentric kitchen staff, occasionally wander into town to hang out at a biker gang’s bar, and pull pranks on Wallman.

The coeds, who serve as Counselors-in-Training, are the biggest distractions of all. Kavell (Michael Lembeck) and Bergman (Philip Casnoff) compete to be the first to get with the virtuous Vicki (Lisa Shure).  Not that it deters them, but she rejects their advances as definitively as possible.  They also mix it up with the sexually adventurous Evie (Fran Drescher), who may be more than they can handle.  In one of her first movie appearances, Rosanna Arquette shows up as a wealthy girl who angers her parents by falling for a Puerto Rican boy.

The characters in GORP want to stick it to each other in a variety of ways, if you catch my drift, but they reserve the most harmful jabs for Huddleston as a proto-Big Lebowski. Whether it’s getting barnyard animals to soil his bedroom or ruining Parents’ Weekend by putting speed in the food and switching out the evening’s entertainment with a black-and-white stag film, the youth never let The Man forget who’s really running the show.

Directed by Joseph Ruben, GORP is technically competent and energetically paced and performed, which is a nice way of saying this is a bad movie whose faults are ordinary. There’s no plot to speak of, just loosely connected scenes of manic shenanigans. The characters never become desirable audience surrogates.  (In an attempt to win a bet with Evie, who’s tasked to seduce the rabbi, Kavell and Bergman attempt to sedate and rape the fat nurse, although the matter is never characterized in such severe terminology.)  Simply put, nothing about GORP is funny, not the swishy chef’s assistant, requisite food fight, or jokes about pimple-popping and masturbation.  Chances are everything seen here has been done better before, even in duds.

Grade: F

Monday, June 04, 2012

Revenge of the Nerds

REVENGE OF THE NERDS (Jeff Kanew, 1984)

The eternal war between the athletically and academically inclined rages on in REVENGE OF THE NERDS with jocks asserting their superiority until the brainiacs fight back.  The unlikely leaders in this turn of events are entering freshmen Lewis Skolnick (Robert Carradine) and Gilbert Lowell (Anthony Edwards), best friends who are eager to get started at Adams College.  The school’s computer science program is among the best in the nation, and the female-to-male enrollment ratio holds the promise that they might engage in some extracurricular studying of anatomy as well.

Lewis and Gilbert’s initial enthusiasm is doused when the upperclassmen of Alpha Beta accidentally burn their own house to the ground and claim the freshmen dormitory as their new home.  The administration addresses the problem by allowing homeless new students to join fraternities and move into Greek housing.  Unfortunately Lewis, Gilbert, and a handful of other social outcasts--violinist Arnold Poindexter (Timothy Busfield); nose-picking, self-declared rebel Dudley “Booger” Dawson (Curtis Armstrong); openly gay Lamar Latrell (Larry B. Scott); Japanese student Toshiro Takashi (Brian Tochi); and twelve-year-old Harold Wormser (Andrew Cassesse)-- fail to be accepted anywhere and must continue to be lodged in half of the gymnasium.  

Lewis’s relentless optimism and resourcefulness leads them to a battered house available for rent.  They tidy it up, and all seems well except they continue to be harassed.  Campus security and the Greek Council, led by one of their main Alpha Beta tormentors Stan Gable (Ted McGinley), refuse to intervene since they are not an officially recognized group.   

Using a close reading of a historically African-American fraternity’s bylaws, they secure probationary approval to become a chapter of Lambda Lambda Lambda, although it remains to be seen if they’ll muster the support to make it permanent.  Finally, it looks like they’ve found their niche, but the Alpha Betas and women of Pi Delta Pi humiliate them yet again.  Enough is enough.  The nerds must have revenge.

REVENGE OF THE NERDS has some laughs at the expense of its awkward heroes but typically holds them in high regard, especially in comparison to the brutes and snobs who pick on them.  While the film trots out some unflattering stereotypes--Lamar is a floppy-wristed queen, and Toshiro substitutes his l’s and r’s--the tone is not exactly mean-spirited.  The fellow nerds accept one another unconditionally regardless of what makes each of them social pariahs.  For example, Lamar’s friends develop a javelin that compensates for his limp wrists.  The redesigned equipment lets him excel in one of the Greek homecoming games essential to the Tri-Lambdas survival.  This hardly qualifies Lamar as an enlightened or respectful portrayal of a homosexual, yet overall the film doesn’t make him a target of derision.  It’s not a lot, but it’ll do in this context.

Surprisingly, the nerds perpetuate a nasty streak of behavior toward women that violates the film’s general live-and-let-live attitude, and it stains what is otherwise intended as raunchy but lighthearted fun.  Revenge on Pi Delta Pi comes in the guise of a panty raid that distracts from the nerds rigging the sorority’s bathrooms with multiple cameras that transmit live feeds back to the Tri-Lambs.  Even allowing that a film such as REVENGE OF THE NERDS exists for a little titillation, the scenes of the Lambda Lambda Lambda guys sitting in their living room watching for hours as the women undress and bathe are very tawdry.  From the leering comments they make to the pornographic-like presentation of the nude women, the cruelness underlying these moments exceeds causing mere embarrassment over being seen naked.  In fact, most of the women are unaware they’ve had their privacy invaded.

That’s not the worst of it.  Lewis fixates on head Pi, and Stan’s girlfriend, Betty Childs (Julie Montgomery) and deceives her into having sex with him when she believes he’s her boyfriend.  A point of view shot behind his mask reads more like a horror film stalker sizing up his prey even though it’s intended to play up the supposed hilarity of the situation.  Rather than being horrified upon discovering what has transpired between them (or to her), Betty praises Lewis’s lovemaking skills.  Never mind that as this is going on his brothers are doing brisk business at a booth selling whipped cream pies on plates bearing a topless photograph of her.  Incredibly, Betty tosses aside her brawny lad for some geek love in the end.  REVENGE OF THE NERDS laughs off these shenanigans as boys just being boys, but it’s far too creepy to be considered amusing in the least.

Setting aside the unsavory elements, REVENGE OF THE NERDS is dumb entertainment executed in mediocre fashion.  Rather than getting familiar with the seven nerd protagonists, none of whom are drawn beyond caricatures, the narrative keeps an intense focus on the predestined outcome in the competition between Alphas and Lambdas.  The lone bright spot in their battle for control of the Greek Council features the nerds offering a rare display of ingenuity as they impress with their musical talents. The rest of the time it’s a series of tame, thinly conceived gags.  The belching contest, seemingly a centerpoint for a film like this, is comprised of two combatants letting it rip once each.  How far mainstream Hollywood movies have come since 1984.

Grade: C-

(Side note:  Although not of any consequence to the film, keep an eye out for John Goodman, in one of his first movie roles, as the football coach and James Cromwell, billed as Jamie, as Lewis’s equally nerdy dad.)

Sunday, June 03, 2012


RAMPART (Oren Moverman, 2011)

With the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart Division already mired in scandal, the actions of 24-year veteran officer Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) add more black marks on a station noted for its corruption.  Set in 1999, approximately a year after a real-life investigative task force was formed to scrutinize the division, RAMPART follows Dave as he abuses his power and refuses to adapt to changing times.

Twelve years earlier he was suspected of killing an alleged serial date rapist.  While no charges against him stuck, the nickname Date Rape Dave did.  He employs highly questionable but effective methods to fight crime and doesn’t believe his behavior leaves anything to apologize for.  

One day while on patrol a civilian driver plows into Dave’s car.  The offender flees when Dave confronts him.  Dave chases him down and delivers an excessive beating that a bystander catches on tape.  Ever so quick to mount a defense, Dave claims he was responding to being assaulted with a deadly weapon.  Whether he or anyone of his superiors really believes this justification is likely irrelevant.  Dave will continue to operate as usual until he no longer carries a badge.  With pressure increasing on the LAPD to get rogue cops under control, that time may arrive sooner than he thinks.
Director/co-writer Oren Moverman and co-writer James Ellroy examine the corrupt law enforcement culture by occupying the headspace of a damaged officer on a downward spiral.  Although the character study doesn’t leave Dave’s side, the narrative style is rarely direct.  Instead, like police work, RAMPART requires paying attention to details and inferring the scale of the division’s scandal and Dave’s rocky personal life from careful viewing and honing in on stray dialogue tidbits.  The oblique storytelling technique rewards with the economical way it fills in the background without piling on excessive backstory or psychological portraiture, but it can confuse by needlessly obscuring relevant information.

While Moverman wishes to keep character and plot specifics inconspicuous, he tends to use the camera in a distracting manner.  Showy motion, like a 360-degree revolving camera during a meeting with district attorney Bill Blago (Steve Buscemi), and unconventional angles reveal a director trying too hard.  Since Dave believes the department has set up and targeted him to remove focus from their problems, Moverman wants to convey paranoia and uncertainty through his framings and movements.  More often than not he attracts undue awareness of what the camera is doing.

Ultimately RAMPART is Harrelson’s showcase, and he takes full advantage of fleshing out a complex role.  Harrelson shows Dave as being good at his job, in large part because of his misanthropy and cleverness.  He wears disdain and smarts like other weapons on his belt, which gives him an unpredictable nature that intimidates colleagues and criminals alike. Those qualities are just as likely to get him in trouble, especially when he’s off duty.  He interrogates eldest daughter Helen (Brie Larson) about a confrontational art project and thus puts more of a chill in an already cool relationship.  In good cop mode he propositions his ex-wives, sisters Barbara (Cynthia Nixon) and Catherine (Anne Heche), but lacks sincerity.  Fueled by cigarettes, pills, and booze--others regularly remark about how he never eats--Dave is an instant gratification machine unaware of increasing malfunctions.  Harrelson plays him not as a monster but a self-destructive relic.  Either way, the damage is done.

Grade: B-

Saturday, June 02, 2012


BERNIE (Richard Linklater, 2011)

Assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), subject of the true-crime comedy BERNIE, is one of the most popular people in the small east Texas town of Carthage.  He’s good at his job and goes beyond the call of duty in following up with new widows to see that they’re getting along OK.  He’s active in church, community theater, and civic organizations.  He’s generous in giving time, money, and knowledge to those requiring help.  

Bernie is so beloved that townsfolk refuse to believe he’s guilty of shooting Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) four times in the back, storing her corpse in a deep freeze, and lying about her whereabouts for months even after he confesses.  If he did do it, she probably had it coming anyway.  Despite the evidence against Bernie, district attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) is at a loss how he can get a conviction.

Why would the local populace consider Bernie blameless?  In addition to being the richest woman in town, Marjorie was probably the most disliked.  She had not been on speaking terms for a long time with a sister who lived in Carthage.  She communicated with her son on rare occasions.  People in the area had the impression that she thought she was better than everyone else.
Bernie and Marjorie were already the talk of the town before the 81-year-old widow’s death at her 39-year-old companion’s hands.  Although he was no stranger to visiting women who’d lost their husbands, Bernie showed extra attention to Marjorie.  She repaid him with gifts far more lavish than anyone thought her capable of giving.  Gossips speculated on who was seducing who.  Before long Bernie and Marjorie were going on trips to New York City and international destinations.  She gave him access to her finances and made him the sole heir to her vast estate.  For all of this Bernie was subject to Marjorie’s beck and call.

With facts that are stranger than fiction and a story surrounding a murder that is often played as dark comedy, BERNIE exists somewhere between an Errol Morris documentary and FARGO.  In lesser hands the resulting film might be terribly offensive, but director Richard Linklater, who co-wrote the screenplay with Skip Hollandsworth, walks a fine line that observes the absurdity around the crime without making light of its consequences.  Nothing’s funny about an old woman getting killed.  Plenty is about the community that gleefully speculates about what happened but willfully ignores what is known.
Linklater mixes the fictionalized recreation of events with documentary-like interviews of town residents to create a version of the story through their eyes.  Whether it’s their homespun stereotyping of parts of the state or judgments leapt to from rumors about personal actions, their perception of reality is so ingrained that nothing can persuade them that the truth is otherwise.  Since the people are sympathetic toward Bernie, the film tends to be as well.  Still, for all of the information that is on the record, the two individuals in the middle of all the chatter remain mysteries.

Black dials down his usual routine and turns in one of his best performances.  The part is a perfect fit in which he can play off his everyman likability and musical talents to build someone who enchants everyone with whom he comes in contact.  From what we’re permitted to see Bernie is not a complex character and purposefully so since he’s constructed from how everyone regards him.  To his credit, Black’s expert portrayal of this friendly naïf makes it hard to dislike Bernie even after he kills Marjorie.  Maybe Bernie is a virtuoso con man--one of his community theater roles is Harold Hill in THE MUSIC MAN--but the impulse is to want to give him some benefit of the doubt.      

McConaughey is a hoot as the showboating DA who provides the voice of reason amid the media carnival.  Wearing glasses, a cowboy hat, and a tie he sometimes uses to wipe his mouth, he plays up his salt of the earth credibility to cast suspicion on Bernie’s cultured ways.

Typically Linklater’s films find him operating in a philosophical mode that encourages contemplating why and how we know what we know.  With BERNIE he humorously explores what happens when those questions aren’t asked.  In the movies it’s funny when empirical belief becomes so rigid that first impressions can’t be altered.  It isn’t when justice is at stake.

Grade: B+

Men in Black 3

MEN IN BLACK 3 (Barry Sonnenfeld, 2012)

Agent J (Will Smith) must time-jump to the summer of 1969 to save his partner and the planet in MEN IN BLACK 3.  He’s in pursuit of Boris The Animal (Jemaine Clement), a notorious alien killer who escapes from a maximum security prison on the moon and is hellbent on visiting the past so he can eliminate Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones in the present-day scenes, Josh Brolin in 1969).

Boris succeeds, which wipes K from the memories of everyone at Men in Black headquarters except for J.  This historical revision means that K was never able to put a safety shield around Earth, thus making it susceptible to invasion from Boris’s warmongering race, the Boglodites.  New chief Agent O (Emma Thompson) figures out that time travel has been involved and dispatches J to restore order by time-jumping to a day before his gruff associate’s death at the Apollo 11 launch and stopping Boris.

MEN IN BLACK 3 arrives fifteen years after the original and a decade after the franchise’s first sequel.  Consider this installment a reunion in which Smith is in charge of assuring everyone that it will be a good time and Jones makes a token appearance because he’s obligated to do so.  Inevitably someone has work done to maintain a youthful appearance at these get-togethers.  To keep up with the times it is rendered in 3D. 
MEN IN BLACK 3 can be a pleasant reminder of goofy, special effects-laden summer blockbusters of old that weren’t preoccupied with origin stories, world-building, and their own importance and seriousness.  Director Barry Sonnenfeld’s sci-fi comedy maintains a breezy tone that keeps it agreeable even when the lightness feels more forced than natural.  The good jokes in MEN IN BLACK 3 don’t nudge the needle much on the laugh-o-meter while the unsuccessful ones land softly instead of hitting with a thud.  

The millions lavished on creature designs and action scenes are meant to impress, yet the filmmakers are less concerned with drawing attention to the expense than delighting in the absurdity of how the aliens look and the craziness of the scenarios.  Despite the huge budget, MEN IN BLACK 3 is comfortable as a B movie and isn’t trying to prove itself as anything else.

Brolin’s impersonation is so good it wouldn’t be a shock to learn that the performance is actually achieved through CGI wizardry de-aging the crusty Jones instead of a younger colleague imitating him.  In supporting roles Michael Stuhlbarg adds genuine sweetness as Griffin, an alien who can envision the multiple conclusions of every scenario, and Bill Hader gets laughs with his zany spin on Andy Warhol.

MEN IN BLACK 3’s modest charms aren’t plentiful.  The mild laughs come sporadically.  It delivers what is expected, more or less, and doesn’t strain in the effort. The eager-to-please attitude and sleek sets provide relief from the somber mood and environments in vogue in tentpole films.  As far as unnecessary sequels are concerned, MEN IN BLACK 3 is a serviceable addition to the series.  

Grade: C+