The Choirboys, adapted from Joseph Wambaugh’s best-selling book about a brotherhood of Los Angeles cops and the ways they find to blow off steam, on and off the job, is an indisputable low point in the career of Robert Aldrich. Aldrich’s directorial achievements, his highs and lows, have long been celebrated and examined on this page and many others, and The Choirboys, crummy enough on its own, seems in retrospect to have also signaled the beginning of the end of the creative inspiration of a great, irascible character in American movies. The man who released both Kiss Me Deadly and The Big Knife in 1955 enjoyed one hell of a run beginning in 1962, when his deliciously vulgar What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, itself flowering in the long shadow of Psycho, kick-started a popular sub-genre of horror films that featured aging Hollywood actresses in plum, Grand Guignol-shaded roles. From Baby Jane straight through to The Longest Yard in 1974, Aldrich’s straightforward, muscular, no-frills aesthetic found all sort of avenues on which to stomp and parade with its uniquely anguished bravado. He still had great and near-great movies in him-- Hustle (1975) and Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977)—but the Yard would be his last dalliance with a big audience. Gleaming is a terrific paranoid thriller of Cold War cover-ups and nuclear blackmail, and it’s a shame it’s still unavailable in the digital age, but it was mismarketed and did disappointing business. (Aldrich would tell Charles Champlin in an article for the Los Angeles Times published during the summer of 1977 that Twilight’s Last Gleaming was a complete failure: “It died; it was a disaster. It wasn’t the critics, wasn’t the (advertising) campaign. It just plain died because nobody damned well wanted to know.”)
Placed next to the hard-boiled, cold sweat-inducing mechanics of that movie, The Choirboys looks even more misguided, tone-deaf and incoherent. (The two movies were 1977 bookends-- Gleaming was released in February and The Choirboys, incredibly, was positioned as Universal’s big Christmas movie for that year.) It also bears telltale signs of manhandling by the studio in post-production, though Aldrich himself never copped to anything other than a WGA dispute in which Joseph Wambaugh, author of the book on which the movie was based, argued to have his name removed from the film (and succeeded). For his part, Aldrich claimed he and writer Christopher Knopf changed very little of Wambaugh’s screenplay. In their book Whatever Happened to Robert Aldrich? His Life and His Films, Alain Silver and James Ursini quote the director as saying, “(Wambaugh) wrote a dirty, tasteless, vulgar book, which I think I’ve managed to capture. But he would like to have you think that we changed the thrust of those scenes.”
So yes, The Choirboys as we know it may well be pretty much the movie Aldrich intended. And make no mistake, it is a bad, bad, ugly movie in almost every conceivable respect. I mean, what else really needs to be said about a movie in which Burt Young (playing, appropriately enough, the role of one Sgt. Scuzzi) emerges as the sole pillar of sensitivity and tolerance on view—he actually counsels a young boy arrested for prostitution with something approaching sympathy—and in which Perry King, as one of the beat patrol choirboys of the title, commits suicide out of sheer humiliation when his secret life as the bottom half of a leather-masked S&M couple is exposed to his comrades? It would have taken the glancing touch of a Robert Altman, whose M*A*S*H is a clear influence here, to suss out the ostensible charm in this drunken, boorish scenario which Aldrich presents at face value.
But is The Choirboys so bad as to put me off movies? Hardly. It may have had some other malign effect, however. The “On The Marquee” feature of this blog tracks what movies I’ve seen, accompanied by my own star rating and a link to some worthy piece of writing on the same movie (whether or not the opinion of the writer coincides with my own), and I update it constantly. And if you pay attention to this feature at all (and why wouldn’t you?), you may be forgiven for suspecting that after encountering The Choirboys over a month ago I just decided to take a break and not see any movies at all, so dispiriting was the experience of revisiting Aldrich’s folly. It’s been since that time since I’ve updated the column, even though I’ve seen several movies since then. What gives?
Well, Blogger, that’s what. Or more appropriately, it is Blogger what doesn’t give, in this case. Since right about the time I saw The Choirboys about a month ago Blogger, the free service that supports this and about a million other blogs, has been experiencing some technical glitches, over which I and other blogging friends of mine who also use this service have been commiserating of late. The problem that most sticks in my craw is the one that is currently preventing me (and many others, if cries for help on Blogger user forums can be trusted) from saving updates to “gadgets” like the list functions used to create sidebar features like “On the Marquee.” It’s a feature I trust many who do read this online publication enjoy keeping up with. Even so, at first I didn’t fret about the malfunction too much. How long could this drag on, right? But after a month in which I’ve received no direct response from Blogger about the situation (there is in fact no option for Blogger users to interface directly with technical support), I’ve begun to worry that this may be one problem that may go on in perpetuity. And since I’ve learned over the past seven years that keeping my thoughts to myself is just not as much fun as dumping them out into cyberspace, I’ve decided to backtrack and do a quick update in the brief style of “On the Marquee,” getting you up to speed on the movies I’ve seen in the past month and (briefly) what I thought about them. I’ll keep making updates like this until Blogger anoints us all from on high and restores the functionality to a feature that I’ve really come to enjoy making available to the users of this blog. And who knows? Maybe this is one of those moments of evolutionary panic that result in a long-term format change involving capsule reviews. Maybe. I never had the time to devote to this blog with the kind of consistency as would be required to pull a weekly capsule review feature off when I first started, and there’s even less time to dole out now. But stranger things have happened, a sentiment to which the very existence of The Choirboys bears harsh, hostile witness.
So, what have I seen since mid-January? Not much, as it turns out. Due to budgetary constraints, I’ve been out to a theater exactly four times since the beginning of the year—that’s a lot for some folks, but for me it practically constitutes a major lifestyle change. The good news is that, theatrical screening or not, what I have managed to see has certainly been worth seeing, even it wasn’t all good. In order of viewing, from furthest back to most recent, here’s what the movies and I have been up to for the last month or so:
KING KONG (2005) *** Revisiting Peter Jackson’s gigantic remake with 2012 eyes threw a couple of things into stark relief. First, overexposure to this sort of epic CGI spectacle in the years since its Christmas 2005 release has made this version seem less special, more ordinary. And then there’s the movie’s girth—it now seems too long by at least two supra-Dynamation-style action sequences, and it’s much clearer, now that we’re saturated with eye-popping spectacle seemingly every new movie weekend, just how much more a little less might have been. (And I watched the theatrical cut, not the extended version.) It’s still a terrific movie in many ways—no bloat in the contributions of Naomi Watts, Andy Serkis or even Jack Black as far as I can see. But it must mean something that when my daughter expressed excitement about watching King Kong I mistakenly assumed she meant the 1976 version, which was the one I was excited to see again. (She wasn’t thinking of the 1933 version, which apparently looks “boring.”) We enjoyed watching Peter Jackson’s movie together, but even afterward I was still pining to see Rick Baker in a monkey suit.
PARIAH (2011) *** This coming-of-age drama, told from the perspective of a young black teenager’s struggle with the emergence of her own sexual identity, is flawed, its storytelling sometimes wobbly and over-reliant on obvious metaphors, but it’s also strong enough to redeem (at least for 90 minutes) the shopworn notion of the coming-of-age movie. The performances (especially by lead actress Adepero Oduye, playing some 16 years younger than her actual age) are earnest and measured, giving both anguish and unexpected joy their due. And despite the mother-daughter conflict at its core, there’s not a whiff of histrionic Precious-ness about it.
BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK (2011) ***½ A celebration, in intimate documentary form, of the eccentricity and all-consuming working methodology of Bill Cunningham, beloved fashion photographer for the New York Times. The movie is entertaining in the extreme. We listen to testimony regarding Cunningham’s unique genius, his relatively ascetic lifestyle (he’s one of the last occupants about to be evicted from a row of apartments- his is without a kitchen or a restroom-- nestled above Carnegie Hall) and his self-effacing manner, which shares the spotlight with some of the most stylish, outrageous and ostentatious colleagues and subjects imaginable. And the moments where we see him assembling the photos for his weekly column (accompanied by his assistant’s amused exasperation) are a fascinating glimpse into an essentially unknowable artistic process. But it’s also an unexpectedly emotional film, especially when its subject is prodded to ruminate on a past life that no one seems to know much about.
HIGHER GROUND (2011) **½ Movies that take fundamentalist religious conviction and identity seriously (and by that I mean with a respect to balance any kind of objective, or even subjective examination) are few, and Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut means to be one of them. Farmiga is also the movie’s lead; she plays a woman on a journey from blooming religious awareness in a tightly-knit, oppressive church community toward her own crisis of faith. The audience experiences a fascinating submersion into this culture— Farmiga sees a friend speaking in tongues and cannot understand why she can’t feel the same flush of spiritual fire—to her it sounds “beautiful,” but her own attempts to “speak in the Spirit” signal her increasing desperation. Unfortunately, Farmiga (the actress and the director) signals her own intelligence too stridently when the woman does break away from the church and the script affords her too many opportunities to do so by hitting its bullet points about male-dominated religious society a bit too squarely on the nose. Higher Ground maintains its respect for faith, but it doesn’t dig deeply enough into what it really means to lose it.
FINAL DESTINATION 5 (2011) *** Round 5 in the durable horror series doesn’t change much about the general formula other than a shift in chronology (the spoiler sensitive will get nothing more from me about that), except to suggest that it’s all in the way the mouse trap snaps—these “random” death scenarios have the wit and physical logic that was missing from much of the mayhem doled out on parts 3 and 4—and, of course, to prove beyond a very dark shadow of a doubt that Death has an impeccably nasty sense of humor, and in eye-boggling 3D to boot. The obvious knock on the Final Destination series is that the characters are cardboard and unsympathetic, which differentiates them not a whit from the bulk of horror franchises that routinely get a pass in this category. But there are laughs that catch in the throat and other existential fun to be had watching characters scramble from a destiny that awaits us all (some more ornately than others) while marveling at a series that has managed to franchise that inevitability in a way that appeals to our sense (our insistence?) upon some order in the universe, all without the help of a brainless killing zombie in a hockey mask.
SENNA (2011) **** A compelling and moving documentary on Brazilian Formula One racing superstar Ayrton Senna that takes the mechanics of the talking-heads documentary and turns it on its head. Director Asif Kapadia fashions existing home movie and television footage, through marvelous and intuitive editing (the year’s best, in either a fiction or nonfiction film), into a movie that more closely resembles a suspenseful character study than the usual dryly sincere documentary portrait. It’s a movie that will wrap you up in its concerns and its sympathies, whether or not you follow the world of racing (I do not), and leave you with a greater sense of the mark one man can make in a world where speed and the relentless movement toward the intangible, and away from God knows what, are the only things that matter.
13 ASSASSINS (2011) *** Takashi Miike’s visually stunning samurai epic is, of course, loaded with action and the director’s usual assortment of perversely violent preoccupations. But as the story becomes shoehorned into a more familiar structure, Miike’s obsessions take a backseat and the movie begins to feel a trifle routine. Still a strong action piece on any level, it’s missing the tremulous, transcendent passion that might have really made it stand out. It’s secondhand Kurosawa rather than first-rate Miike.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS (1988) **½ Were all ‘80s horror movies this chintzy-looking? Or are we now just so spoiled by our 1080p palates that everything that hasn’t gone through a digital buffing looks as though we’re glimpsing it through very weak tea? Freddy’s third trip out of the chute is still disorientingly effective, though I would argue that the characters are no less annoying in any of the movies of this series than those found in the worst Final Destination entry. I am less sympathetic to the level of acting in NOES3:DW however—everyone from Craig Wasson to Jennifer Rubin to Priscilla Pointer comes off bargain-basement, but poor Heather Langenkamp comes off worst, flatly inhabiting the husk of the least-convincing social worker professional to ever traipse through a nightmarish horror movie scenario. It’s the movie’s weirdly surreal visual ideas that hold up—Freddy walking a hapless patient on puppet strings invisible to everyone but us—and survive this serial killer character’s movement from genuinely transgressive icon to acceptance into the joke-filled mainstream of pop culture villainy.
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011) **** A hushed, brilliantly evoked world of espionage that turns on whispers and glances, featuring the best all-around cast of the year and the kind of acting that is utterly invigorating in its micro-efficiency. If you aren’t attuned to the kind of information skittering across the poker-faced resignation of Gary Oldman’s George Smiley like tiny snaps of static electricity, that poker face itself a mask on top of a mask, or the way the other actors submit to John Le Carre’s universe of deception, repression and hidden agendas in similar fashion, sparking bitter rivalry and revelations in subtle sideward glances, then the movie might seem just a confusing husk of jargon and pregnant pauses. But it’s such an evocative piece of filmmaking in large part because of how the actors embody and embolden that minimalist approach and become integrated with director Tomas Alfredson’s allusive conjuring of this tactile, lived-in, entirely non-nostalgic period piece.
FROGS (1972) *½ Some movies from your childhood just aren’t as good as you remember them. And then there are some that aren’t even as good as their advertising campaigns. Such is the case with Frogs, which appeared on the pop culture landscape in the wake of Willard (1971), the movie largely credited with igniting a Nature vs. Man horror movie craze that did good business but failed to make much of a dent in our collective psychology. (Well, maybe Sssssss…) It is disheartening to discover that Frogs is so turgid and bland. Its main claim to notoriety remains the memorable one-sheet image of a human hand reaching out from the clamped lips of one of the movie’s titular amphibians. But, kids, there are no giant frogs in Frogs, just garden (or swamp) variety snakes and other creepy-crawlies who rise up against the environmentally insensitive, wheelchair-bound industrialist Ray Milland and his none-too-bright family. Milland has far less fun here than he did attached to Rosey Grier, all the while himself looking far more reptilian than I found comfortable. Frogs did end up introducing the world to Sam Elliot, but I have no doubt the no-nonsense actor looks back on this one with perhaps only a touch more regret than the average viewer has over having spent 90 minutes with it.
HAYWIRE (2012) **** There’s a shot in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in which a man walks into a house and behind him can be glimpsed a scrawl of graffiti writ large on the side of a building: “The Future is Female.” In that movie it’s a wry comment on the insular old-boys’ network of cannibalistic subterfuge that, we know, hasn’t yielded much over the ensuing years to this sort of populist prophecy. But watching MMA superstar-turned-actress Gina Carano wield her body like a lithe and beautiful figure of physical and erotic force, one could be forgiven for believing, even if for just 90 minutes, that the prophecy had come true. Steven Soderbergh’s ultra-modern ode to ‘70s-style action balances almost perfectly along the razor’s edge between postmodern fragmentation (courtesy of Lem Dobbs’ wry, spare script) and a choreographer’s distanced respect for the marvelous abilities of his performer, all abetted beautifully by Cliff Holmes’ richly evocative action score, which references everything from Curtis Mayfield to Lalo Schifrin to David Shire without ever becoming precious. There’s a ton of fun to be had in Haywire, from luxuriating in the lead’s singular physical presence and the joy of a top-notch supporting cast-- including Ewan McGregor and Michael Fassbender-- gloriously slumming, to tracing the line sketched so ably by Soderbergh which leads from Pam Grier through Michelle Yeoh and right up to Gina Carano, who after this one movie convincingly demonstrates why she should be included among the company of these great female action icons.
BRINGING UP BABY (1938) **** Frogs was bad in 1972 and remains so, whereas Bringing Up Baby, a riot in 1938, might just be even funnier now than it has ever been. And it has the advantage in the Nature Gone Wild department too, only here we’re talking about the whims of a baby leopard that reflects the undeniably wild spirit of Katherine Hepburn’s Susan Vance as she sets her keen sights on hapless zoologist David Huxley (Cary Grant), who wants only to reconstruct a brontosaurus skeleton with a bone that Susan manages to either hide, lose or otherwise keep from him for the duration of their hilarious slapstick courtship. Some classic movies can be talked about so much that they become museum pieces, our reactions to them prescribed by history and conventional wisdom. But Bringing Up Baby is authentically wild and as such resists any sort of attempt to classify it as harmless or otherwise cleanly palatable. It’s a genuine screwball classic that, 74 years after it was released, still has the power to expose what passes for modern romantic comedy as laughably tame.
IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958) *** This low-budget template for Alien (now itself a template for 30-plus years of movie monsters on the loose) has a thrifty integrity absent from the usual drive-in sci-fi fare of the period. Approached with an absence of presupposed snark (not an easy task, I know), this is a movie that, while not on the level of something like Christian Nyby’s (and Howard Hawks’) The Thing (From Another World), still packs scares and some workaday punch into its delineation of its mixed-gender crew (the women still serve coffee, however), allowing them to stand in clear relief from the astronauts-to-the-slaughter scenario in which they find themselves. Best viewed late at night with the lights off.
NO MORE EXCUSES (1968) *** A free-associative mockumentary from Robert Downey Sr. (A Prince) which accesses the antiestablishment sensibility he shared with the early films of Brian De Palma while presaging the anything-goes antics of movies like The Groove Tube (1974). Downey’s odd, endearing conceit is to mount an ostensibly straightforward man-on-the-street documentary inquiry into the burgeoning popularity of singles bars featuring real people (“Was it a serious relationship?” “Oh, yeah, for about three-quarters of an hour.”), and then to intercut it with slapstick recreations of the Garfield assassination-- complete with sober, PBS-style narration-- and a straight-faced PSA appeal against the proliferation of dog and cat nudity in American culture by the vice-president of the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals. The very definition of a mixed bag, Downey’s irreverent, purposefully nonsensical antics pleasurably harkens to his very next movie, the equally riotous, borderline incoherent Putney Swope. (No More Excuses is part of an upcoming box of Downey’s films scheduled to be released by the Criterion Collection Eclipse Series on May 22, 2012.)
KILLER NUN (1978) ** Far tamer than most of the nunsploitation genre that would become popular in the time since its release, Killer Nun is yet another ostensibly lurid Italian sleazefest that simply fails to live up to the come-on of its advertising (”From the Secret Files of the Vatican!”) And it’s a great come-on—Anita Ekberg as a mentally unstable, morphine-addicted postulant with no shyness about her lesbian preferences (all the better then for her comely roomie, a young sister who seems to worship the ground Ekberg’s robes glide across) who may also be murdering the elderly residents of the hospital for which she toils. Alas, the filmmakers are more timid than the possibilities of their premise, and even the most devout Catholic (viewing this despite the condemnation of the Legion of Decency, of course) will have grown impatient with the movie’s lumpy pacing and anticlimactic striptease long before either the gore kicks in or the obvious element of mystery is revealed.
SHERLOCK HOLMES (1932) **½ Pre-Rathbone Sherlock Holmes entry, this one directed by William K. Howard from a screenplay based on a then-popular stage play. This one, which is thick with foggy London atmosphere and old dark houses (and basements), features Clive Brook as a rather more hostile-than-usual Holmes beset by the impatience of Scotland Yard while investigating yet another plot instigated by old nemesis Professor Moriarty (here played with google-eyed gusto by Ernest Torrence). I prefer Rathbone’s interpretation, or even Robert Stephens’, over what Brook does here, but this is still a fairly satisfying affair which, at a brisk 68 minutes, represents twice the entertainment value at half the running time of any Holmes directed by Guy Ritchie.
BREEZY (1973) *** Knowledge of Clint Eastwood’s directorial resume, even his late move toward Oscar-friendly material, left me unprepared for the pretense-free, rather sympathetic personality at work in this picture, a rare early effort in which he directs but does not star. The name “Breezy” may clue you in to a certain wide-eyed perspective etched into Jo Helms’ screenplay which tells the story of an unassuming May-December romance between a cynical middle-aged divorcee (William Holden) and the free-spirited hippie girl named Breezy (Kay Lenz) who ambles into his life, but that relative innocence shouldn’t be mistaken for pure and simple naïveté. The movie deals with the meaning of what a relationship bridging generational lines at this particular time in American history with a welcome seriousness, displaying little of the kind of judgment or embarrassingly dated qualities that are the usual baggage attached to any movie representing the freewheeling remnants of counterculture lifestyle in post-Manson Los Angeles. (The richly observed Laurel Canyon setting makes one sit up just to see if Jackson Browne or Joni Mitchell or Frank Zappa might be glimpsed somewhere in the background.) Apart from its sociological context Breezy remains a convincing romance, thanks to the unaffected performances of Holden and Lenz (never more charming than here), as well as Eastwood’s own particularly warm and generous directorial embrace.
PUTNEY SWOPE (1969) *** The sting of the social satire in Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom!, particularly in its notorious “Be Black, Baby!” segment, may be more potent, but Putney Swope, with its positing of an advertising agency bequeathed to a black executive after the death of its reactionary owner, got there first and likely empowered De Palma’s filmmaking, as well as the prevalent comic irreverence of ‘70s movie and TV comedy. Downey’s satire is more scattershot and at times contradictory, and that’s surely the point— racial divisions are irrelevant as Downey’s puts us all in the position of being bent over by a radical sensibility at first railing against but inevitably maneuvered in service to good old American ideals of capitalistic excess and deception. The movie eventually implodes from the stress of being pulled in too many directions, but there’s a lot of hilarity on the way to that supernova, including genius-level parodies of contemporary advertising and the sheer exuberance of the bouncing female body in hilarious fulfillment of the orgiastic promise embedded in the once-famous query, “Coffee, Tea or Me?” (Putney Swope is the centerpiece of an upcoming box of Downey’s films scheduled to be released by the Criterion Collection Eclipse Series on May 22, 2012.)
PROBLEM CHILD (1990) *½ There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the blackly comic premise at the heart of Problem Child-- a slightly Damien-esque orphan becomes pen pals with a serial killer while wreaking havoc in the lives of his adoptive parents. Credit should be given to the late John Ritter for gamely trying to keep his head above water through repeated comic assaults, and Michael Richards for committing completely to every stain and smear in the seamy concept of his character, the Bow Tie Killer. (Little Michael Oliver fares less well in the titular role—he’s very stiff and has apparently been dubbed by a much older bad child actor.) But the screenplay, by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, is ill-served by personality-free director Dennis Dugan, who shows none of the impishness or panache necessary to pull off the idea—he guides this impudently deviant concept in precisely the same rote fashion that has endeared him to countless cineastes who hunger for what surprises he can be counted on to bring to the next Adam Sandler bowel movement.
CATCHING HELL (2011) **** Illustrating with agonizing clarity the very essence of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Alex Gibney’s brilliant ESPN documentary dissects the circumstances behind and the reaction to the ascent (or more accurately descent) of Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman into the white-hot spotlight of baseball infamy—by reaching out for a possible foul ball, did he or did he not set into motion events that would result in one of the most devastating collapses in baseball playoff history? Gibney’s talking-heads format is familiar; it’s the passionate surgery upon the apparent facts surrounding the notorious 2003 NLCS game 6 which is invigorating and ultimately, when considering Bartman’s continuing status as MLB’s uber-goat, disheartening. (The movie also tells the compelling parallel story of Bill Buckner, long held responsible for an ostensible error that wreaked havoc with the fate of the Boston Red Sox in a similar situation back in 1986.) When examining the videotape in an attempt to clarify the position of Bartman (and the fans surrounding him) to the ball, Gibney employs visual techniques that isolate Bartman from the crowd, making clearer what actually happened but also accentuating the existential loneliness of a man driven into hiding in the city he loves and made, by reactionary fans and the media that fed off of them, to pay for the misfortunes of an apparently eternally hapless ball club.
ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992) ** In 1987’s Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn Sam Raimi found a nearly perfect balance between comedy and horror, and in the process highlighted the inseparable intestinal connection between the two forms. But in this relentlessly noisy follow-up, the scales are tipped in favor of the Three Stooges with witheringly mediocre results. Army of Darkness is far more tonally akin to an average episode of Raimi’s Hercules series than to any of the horror or Harryhausen references he tosses into this none-too-bitchin’ brew. And Bruce Campbell, beloved of fanboys everywhere, redefines postmodern broad in his third go-around as the intermittently helpless, often inexplicably heroic Ash. The actor faces an endless parade of shrieking demons (all equipped with the requisite green contact lenses, bad hair and worse teeth, but possessing absolutely zero ability to scare) with nothing but a shotgun, a chainsaw and an equally endless stream of bad puns and lame would-be catch phrases. If only there was anything resembling fun to be had here. But alas, Raimi ends his handmade-looking trilogy on a note of tiresome desperation, signaling little more than a dearth of good, original ideas and a defeated shrug as pitiful replacements for the eerie and inventive comic gross-outs of the previous chapter.
MIMIC 2 (2001) *½ Guillermo Del Toro’s original 1997 monster movie was imperfect but compelling (a new cut recently released on Blu-ray is purported to have buffed out some of its problems), but this straight-to-video turd adds only incoherence and maddening inconsistency to the franchise’s muddled legacy. The visual scheme is a dimly-lit, disorienting hash made worse by one of the least appealing casts in horror film history, led by Alix Koromzsay, survivor of the Judas Breed cockroach plague in the first movie, now all grown up and consummately annoying as a high school biology teacher fighting a new generation of humanoid bugs who have an unseemly, and inexplicable, attraction to her. Strictly for sampling and abandoning during insomnia-inspired channel surfing.
TROLL HUNTER (2011) ***½ The “found footage” format may simply be a stylistic dodge, as much the last refuge of scoundrels (The Devil Inside) as a clever conceit a la Paranormal Activity, but Andre Ovredal’s terrific movie, a goosebump-raising search for mythical creatures of destruction amidst the grey beauty of the Norwegian countryside composed entirely of footage recovered from a lost expedition intended to document the last of the modern-day troll hunters, offers grand validation for the form. The movie revels in the collision between modern atheistic certainty and incongruous fairy-tale style horrors; it’s a beautiful modulated comedy-thriller in which Christian faith offers not safety or salvation but sure death when those meat-eating monsters get a whiff of the blood of a believer. Troll Hunter is replete with old-fashioned looking effects that are actually quite up-to-the-minute in execution and capable of a most unlikely reduction of sophisticated audiences to the equivalent of giddy children in thrall to the telling of a ripping good yarn.
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011) ***½ The Planet of the Apes mythology, as started by Pierre Boulle, continued by Franklin Schaffner, Rod Serling, Charlton Heston and company in 1968, and extended far beyond reason and logic into four more movies, and two TV series (live-action and cartoon), has never made much evolutionary sense. But by retreating backward, to a place in the chronology roughly equivalent to that of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the series’ fourth theatrical entry, director Rupert Wyatt and screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, achieve an unlikely goal—they construct a compelling back story that sends the series off on the path toward the inevitable decimation and sublimation of humanity to a dominant and intelligently evolved ape population with surefooted compassion and purpose. Their ace in the hole is most certainly actor and motion-capture specialist Andy Serkis, who imbues Caesar, the wronged chimp who will lead the revolution against the human race (and whose pain is anchored in the real-life drama documented in James Marsh’s magnificent Project Nim), with considerable empathy and moral outrage, certainly enough to momentarily fog up the realization that the movie puts the audience in the curious position of rooting for its own downfall. The rest of the cast, including James Franco, Freida Pinto, Brian Cox and David Oyelowo do good work with underwritten characterizations—John Lithgow’s unsubtle work as Franco’s Alzheimer’s-besieged father being the exception—but the real pleasure in this franchise kick-starter is in its slow burn toward the inevitable, and the way it rather impishly traces the trail of planetary destruction while we’re still basking in its ostensibly upbeat conclusion, looking out over the San Francisco skyline with a freed Caesar as he surveys a cityscape he once feared and admired but will soon own.
UNITED (2011) *** There might be a more artful way to convey the telling of the Munich air disaster that in 1958 decimated the legendary Busby Babes, Manchester United’s beloved football team. But when such a relatively square endeavor, anchored as it is by a spectacularly empathetic performance by Doctor Who’s David Tennant as coach Jimmy Murphy, hits as many solid, respectable emotional notes as this movie does, and with a relative grace absent from most real life-derived sports dramas, such quibbling over style becomes irrelevant. United captures the commitment and investment of the Brits in their scrappy team without pushing the point into obnoxious nostalgia or unearned, roughly jerked tears, and it’s smart enough to know that the result of the game, either before the crash or after the recovery from it, isn’t nearly so important as tracking how the lives of the victims were lived and how those of the survivors were changed.
INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA (1995) *½ The Brothers Quay have fashioned a queasily fascinating career out of making inanimate objects take on extraordinary, unsettling life in their brilliant short films. But in their first feature, they also show an unfortunate talent for turning live actors to something resembling puppets. This attempt to translate their surrealist stylization to a live-action format is suffocating, and not always in the ways they surely intended. The absurdist scenario involves a young man (Mark Rylance) arriving at a mysterious boarding school institute run by a brother and sister (Gottfried John, Alice Krige) who put him and several other students through an increasingly bizarre series of exercises intended to prepare them for a life of servitude. Creepy strains of incest begin shadowing the already strange behavior of the headmasters, but by the time the inevitable madness fully flowers I was only perturbed, not fascinated, by the Quays' claustrophobic fatalism. Any movie that can make me annoyed at the sight of Alice Krige has subterranean problems far deeper than the Quays are capable of plumbing.
PINA (2011) **½ Perhaps the most startling use of 3D yet in a movie not designed to make you duck at flying asteroids or dodge body parts and gushers of arterial spray. Wim Wenders’ sensitivity to space and depth make for a movie loaded with astonishing, lyrical imagery. I only wish that Pina was able to break down my resistance, or somehow augment my appreciation of the kind of avant-garde dance pioneered by the late choreographer Pina Bausch that it celebrates. The dance moves are almost always beautiful, sometimes comic, sometimes silly, but they aren’t capable of expressing to me much more than the glory of movement, which perhaps is enough for some people. And in this context it almost is. But as I thought about seeing Pina without stereoscopic enhancement I could imagine growing tired of its metronomic format, alternating dance segments with voiceover commentary, segments that would for me be far less rapturous absent the technological illusion of depth. The movie is a brilliant exercise, but it never spoke to my heart.
THE IRON LADY (2011) ** Hardly a Mamma Mia-sized bomb, but a pretty lifeless dud nonetheless, this gloss on the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, one of the most controversial (read: reviled) politicians of her age, reunites the director and star of that grotesque musical hit, Phyllida Lloyd and Meryl Streep, and the new movie’s political complexity is perfectly aligned with the minds who shipwrecked the popular ABBA-derived musical on screen. (It’s easy to imagine Streep mounting another wacky karaoke session over the end credits, perhaps a reprise of “The Winner Takes It All” in full-on Thatcher regalia.) Streep engages not in acting so much as a waxworks stunt performance—it’s all in the hair and the stiff clothes and the exquisite overbite, courtesy of the movie’s Oscar-nominated makeup designers, but she never once gets close to examining the interior life of this notorious figurehead. It got to the point where I couldn't separate Thatcher's egoism from Streep's-- every movement, every processed inflection, all products of surely countless hours of research and study and dedication, seems designed to call attention not to the character portrayed so much as the actress’s own famous attention to detail, her own status as acting’s Iron lady. It doesn't help at all that the movie glosses over Thatcher's politics and reduces her rise to power and dominance on the world stage to a sorry patch of platitudes about the sacrifices an ambitious woman has to make in a man's world.
RANGO (2011) **** Gore Verbinski’s sly masterpiece of slippery identity and reinvention on the fly , animated with bizarre brio from John Logan’s script, is so smart, so strange, so well-acted (Johnny Depp is perched securely on my list of the two best male performances of the year) and so tactile that I’ve almost come to think of it not as artificially imagined but instead as a wide-screen transmission from a vaguely recognizable but separate world where lizards and cats and dogs are living with each other and acting out a peyote-buzzed alternate version of human (movie) history. On my initial viewing, and over the several times I’ve seen it since, Rango has made me consistently giddy with a cinematic sensibility so far left of Pixar as to be located closer to the realms of Hunter S. Thompson, Carlos Casteneda, Robert Towne, John Huston, Roman Polanski and Sergio Leone, hardly the average animated fare’s go-to list of inspiration. But then this is no average CGI cartoon. It’s an instant classic. Yeah, that’s what I said!!!!
MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (2011) **½ Hollywood hogwash masquerading as an inquiry into the mythology of a great movie star, its one great triumph, apart from the spectacle of watching Weinstein-approved British awards bait like Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench battle for the status of Smokiest Ham as Sir Laurence Olivier and Dame Sybil Thorndike (respectively), is the opportunity it gives its own rising star to assert her own magnetism and allure while wrapped in the legend of perhaps the movies' most outrageously attractive female star. And even set beside the gravitational pull of Marilyn Monroe’s legacy Williams makes it clear she doesn’t have to rely on the tics and mannerisms of the average MM impersonation to make us believe in her own talent. What’s most gratifying about My Week with Marilyn is certainly not its standard-issue plot—young assistant director (essayed by the unerringly bland Eddie Redmayne) bonds with the star during the tumultuous shoot of the Olivier-directed The Prince and the Showgirl-- but instead how Williams manages to locate the human being who existed between the extremes of Marilyn Monroe's giggly public persona and her well-documented pill-popping devastation. She consistently and delightfully transcends the middlebrow cobwebs of her own starring vehicle and gets as close to a comfortable truth about what made Monroe both fragile and irresistible as another actress is likely to ever illuminate.
A SEPARATION (2011) **** Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s wrenching drama might on its surface look like a conservatively paced domestic drama, but it doesn’t take long to get swept up and absorbed into the movie’s deceptively powerful undertow. A young couple, whose faces are familiar from the film’s stark advertising, argues over whether or not to leave the country, and the man’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted father, behind for a better life. Unable to come to agreement, the wife petitions for divorce and a series of events are set into motion that don’t escalate so much as steadily, inexorably topple the tenuous construct of their lives and that of another couple. A Separation maintains a gripping fascination with the rather mysterious machinations and procedures of the Iranian legal system, but it’s the movie’s understated empathy for all the parties battered by what amounts to a very believable, personalized chaos theory that sets the movie apart. There are pleasures to be had in tracking the complexity and sometimes frustrating authenticity of the human behavior on display here, even as the gradual tide of devastation takes its toll on the characters and us. This is a potent emotional thriller that understands just how fragile any societal framework really is, but also how the dynamics of religious and interpersonal dogma dictate fear and stigmatization within the scope of Iranian law. As such, the setting and the legal ramifications may seem unfamiliar to some members of the audience, but so may the quality of the storytelling, which is masterful and far beyond the level of the histrionics we’re used to from family dramas, which so often mistake grand gestures and noise for dramatic power. A Separation maintains the courage of its emotional convictions right up to its exquisite cliffhanger of an ending.
TAKE SHELTER (2011) *** Coming during the same release year as Melancholia, writer-director Jeff Nichols’ nightmarish character study is queasily effective as a portrait of one man’s descent into schizophrenia, but it’s on shakier ground when it becomes increasingly clear that the director can’t seem to decide whether or not the delusions of apocalyptic storms he and star Michael Shannon have so effectively portrayed as projections of an interior crisis are in fact real physical portents of looming disaster. (It’s the opposite of Von Trier’s movie, which posited the actual oncoming destruction of Earth as a manifestation of the crippling depression of its lead character.) Shannon is faultless in a role that might have benefited from the casting of an actor who doesn’t so easily exude mental instability, and the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain adds another brick to the foundation of her emergence as the next real big deal amongst American actresses as his beleaguered wife. But Nichols undermines the movie’s power by playing tricks of ambiguity with the ending for which he has ill prepared the audience. Is Shannon simply sick, or is he a modern-day Noah tricked by the wisdom of man into turning away from what amounts to God-sent warnings about another disastrous deluge? In order for this to be a fair move, the audience would have to be constantly debating the grounds for reality in the movie, that what we were seeing could be either the result of either a medical condition or a prophetic epiphany. But Take Shelter never belies any reason to suspect divine interaction-- even those magnificent flashes of lightning skittering across ominous swirls of clouds suggest nothing so much as the electrical patterns on a giant brain canvas in the sky, or perhaps inside the head of the man who stares at them from a patch of sparse Ohio countryside, himself wondering what the hell is going on.
20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954) *** I haven’t got much nostalgic baggage invested in this opulent Disney adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel, but 58 years down the line it still satisfies the hunger of big-budget adventure in a very old-school manner; in fact, its very studio-bound effects and production design are paradoxically a major part of its appeal. There’s something very comforting about being allowed to exercise one’s capacity for suspension of disbelief on a chunk of studio magic like this. At a time when computers are doing more and more of our imaginative work for us, it’s rather fun to slide back into a movie that is dominated by physical effects which accentuate either the production’s handmade quality, its fairy-tale grandeur, or both. (Some of my favorite effects in the movie are the obvious miniatures of the exploding ships in studio tanks, and especially the eerie green glow of the Nautilus as it skims just below the surface toward its prey.) And no matter how a modern studio exec might drool at the possibility of a 20,000 Leagues redux complete with an awesome, photorealistic CGI squid, it is comforting to know that no bronzed, computer-enhanced actor could ever match Kirk Douglas’s outrageous seafaring countenance, or Peter Lorre in not-as-spineless-as-all-that sidekick mode, or the singularly demented purr of James Mason’s murderous Captain Nemo, maintaining the appearance of manners and politesse one minute and ramming his submarine into the hull of an unsuspecting ship the next. These actors, superb hams all, end up being the movie’s best effects.
-30- (1959) ** “Inch by inch a rumor grows into a roar... word by word the teletype starts ticking like a bomb... moment by moment the suspense builds headline-high to a new peak of motion picture excitement!” So goes the tag line for Jack Webb’s ostensibly exciting, but desk-bound newspaper drama, which purports to be a look inside the workings of a big city paper. However, this ain’t exactly Park Row or His Girl Friday or All the President’s Men. The movie fritters away most of its screen time on scenes of the editors and staff, including Webb, an over-the-top William Conrad and even David (son of Ozzie and Harriet) Nelson, bantering, arguing about trivia or otherwise engaged in wacky activities we’re supposed to find amusing. They’re trapped inside (with us), waiting for word on stories that are left to develop outside the newsroom, in the real world, where life just has to be more interesting. And then we’re left to twist over whether Webb will consent to adopt a six-year-old boy despite the fact that his wife seems determined to go through with it whether he wants to or not. (Somebody get Legal on the horn! Doesn’t adoption kinda require mutual consent of the adopters?!) But never does the famously robotic writer-director-actor (who at least smiles once or twice here) ever create a sense of urgency or even the slightest professional realism. “-30-” turns out to be code which marks the end of the story in a string of copy, and it may appeal to a certain strain of nostalgia for the old days when people actually read newspapers. But as an impassioned drama -30- falls short. This Dragnet fan prefers a night in at the receiving end of a mighty Joe Friday harangue.