Category: C-


Wanda

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A couple months ago, I read one of the bibles of screenwriting, Robert McKee’s Story. Though I don’t necessarily believe in everything that McKee says in the book (ultimately his rules are mostly interesting for structure and his opinions become more questionable the further you move away from structural concerns), there was something he understood that is germane to the film I just watched. Cinematic storytelling (with the exception perhaps of documentary) can not simply be portraiture. It doesn’t matter how true your presentation of life is if there ultimately isn’t a story arc there, even if its the barest bones of a story.

The Italian neo-realists understood this. Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief is a no-frills portrait of post-war poverty and despair, but the movie also had a heartbreaking story of a father and son’s quest to rescue their livelihood at its core. Terrence Malick understands this as well. Yes, the story of The Tree of Life or To the Wonder is secondary to the emotions that Malick evokes with the film’s imagery, but there’s still a compelling story there. 1971’s Wanda from Barbara Loden (wife of director Elia Kazan) is a seminal “classic” of early independent cinema, but it’s lack of a compelling story or even compelling characters made it a nearly unbearable chore.

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There is the bare bones of a story in Wanda. Unfortunately, it’s not one that’s worth the two hour investment of your life this film asks of you. Wanda (Barbara Loden) is, to quote Mumford & Sons, a hopeless wanderer. She’s abandoned her husband and her kids but not for any reason that makes sense. She just refuses to settle down. When the film begins, she shows up late for the court hearing for her husband to officially take her children, and she doesn’t put up any fight once she gets there. And, afterwards, Wanda drifts from one meaningless event to another until she takes up with crook, Mr. Dennis (Mike Higgins), who finds himself with a companion he never really asked for.

I actually feel like there could be a good movie here. A somber meditation on female dissatisfaction with the limited options women had in life in the 1960s and 70s. Of course that movie exists; it’s called Rachel, Rachel from Paul Newman starring his wife Joanne Woodward. That film is one of the saddest and most powerful that I’ve ever watched because Rachel was a haunting and powerful examination of repressed feminine yearning. Wanda on the other hand seems to have nothing to say other than that Wanda’s life has no meaning, but you don’t get any looks into why or what would push her down the absurd path she follows.

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None of the performances in the film were memorable either. Barbara Loden’s performance was particularly wooden which is astounding considering who her husband is. I don’t know why he didn’t come around the set and tell her that everyone in the film felt stiff and unnatural. Mike Higgens performance would rapidly flip from hilariously campy to occasionally appropriately moody and intense. No other characters were on the screen for more than a couple scenes, and most of them were even worse than Loden and Higgens, and I suspect they were grabbed right off the street, Bubble-style.

I’d rather work on my screenplay than devote any more time to discussing this film. Here’s the bottom line. Do not waste your time with Wanda. It has  a reputation as being one of the first great independent films, but give me a John Cassavetes film any day. The characters are flat, the performances are unnatural, and the story goes nowhere even if it ends on an obvious climax. The film is only an hour and a forty minutes long, but it felt like I was sitting through Lawrence of Arabia again. There are few sins in film-making worse than that.

Final Score: C-

(P.S. This film is so obscure that there is no trailer for it on Youtube.)

 

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Though any look at the score distribution of my films will inform readers that my taste in movies leans towards the high-brow and artsy, I am not ashamed to admit that I am as capable of enjoying low-brow, broad cinema as anyone else. I only dismiss low-brow cinema out of hand when it’s intentionally as idiotic and crass as possible (i.e. late period Adam Sandler). Otherwise, if a film is enjoyable but meant for the masses, who cares? Funny is funny, and while no one would confuse Sex Drive with Woody Allen, I still really enjoy that movie despite it’s stupidity. However, the most unforgivable cinematic sin that I can think of is a movie that thinks it’s incredibly intelligent and profound but turns out to be as shallow as a dinner conversation at the Kardashian household.

I’ve tried to rewatch the original Matrix film years ago (and actually sat through twenty minutes of the first sequel before I started laughing uncontrollably and gave up), and, boy, is that film perhaps the shining example of a movie that will make stupid people think they’re smart. With it’s faux-philosophy and psuedo-scientific bent, The Matrix talked a big game but fell apart if you spent even half a second thinking about any of the absurd things Morpheus was saying. The Wachowski brothers (well technically, one of them’s a woman now) have managed to tread those same laughably asinine waters again with their bloated sci-fi epic, Cloud Atlas. It is not an understatement to say that Cloud Atlas is one of the most astoundingly deluded and self-important films I’ve ever forced myself to sit through for this blog.

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Cloud Atlas‘s narrative conceit probably worked much better in David Mitchell’s original novel but mostly leaves everything feeling rushed and half-cocked in the movie (despite the fact that it ran an agonizing three hours). The film is a series of six interconnected and metatextually nested tales featuring many of the same actors in a large number of roles in the different stories (including Big‘s Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Four Weddings and a Funeral‘s Hugh Grant, and Jim Broadbent). Touching on themes of slavery, free will, and the eternal consequences of our mortal actions, Cloud Atlas weaves a centuries spanning tale that leaves more than a little to be desired.

Certain episodes of the film work better than others, and perhaps not surprisingly at all, it is the portions of the film most dedicated to character and actual human storytelling that shine through more than the action/sci-fi/noir-ish pretentions the film wishes to hold. There are six stories in all in the film but only two made any impression with me. One is the tragic tale of Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), a talented Victorian-era English musician whose homosexuality puts him on the run. He moves in with the aged but brilliant composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) as Ayrs’s assistant, but when Frobisher’s talents prove a threat to Ayrs’s legacy, Frobisher sees the elderly man’s true nature.

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The only other story worth it’s salt in the film is that of Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent again), an older literary agent who is tricked into locking himself away in a sadistic nursing home by his brother as pay back for sleeping with his brother’s wife years ago. It’s a kafka-esque dark comedy, and it was probably the only moment where the film didn’t have a cockamamie and unearned high opinion of itself. It let it’s hair down so to speak. But the other tales, ranging from typical sci-fi cloning blues, a postapocalyptic wasteland, a troubled 19th century sea voyage, and a silly detective story were all totally forgettable and generic.

And that consistent air of “generic” and “been there, done that” becomes the film’s biggest problem. A sense of deja vu in plot is not a cardinal sin of movie-making. The year is 2013 and the plot well isn’t as deep and untapped as it used to be. But, with the exception of the bisexual and doomed Robert Frobisher and the hell-raising Timothy Cavendish, not a single one of the characters in the film had any life or purpose other than to be used as plot devices. They were uniformly dull and uninteresting and when all of the stories in the film are intentionally cliche-ridden spins on classic genres, you need something sharp and fresh to hold audience’s attention. And at virtually no point did Cloud Atlas‘s writing accomplish that goal.

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I must give the Wachowski’s credit (as well as the movie’s third director, Tom Tykwer) for milking some visual inspiration out of their otherwise tepid tales. the sci-fi cloning nonsense is set in a dystopian future where rising sea levels have virtually annihilated the surfaces of many major cities and crippling poverty permeates Neo Seoul unless you’re the very elite. And when the Wachowski’s want to display their flare for science fiction splendor (which was perhaps the only redeeming quality of the Matrix sequels), they are nearly peerless, and Cloud Atlas is no exception.

That’s probably the last nice thing I can say about the film other than the performances of Ben Whishaw and Jim Broadbent. For a man who was old when he won an Oscar for Iris in 2001, Jim Broadbent brought a bon vivant feeling to the film that was missing throughout. He seemed like he was having fun and actually wanted to be there. It probably has something to do with the fact that he was acting in front of actual actors on actual sets and not in a never-ending sea of green screens (whose presence was painfully obvious most of the film). And Ben Whishaw (who I’m not entirely familiar with) marked himself as a potential talent with his sensitive turn as Frobisher.

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But even more than the problems I’ve laid out so far, Cloud Atlas‘s troubles can be rooted down to one major and defining issue. It believes that it as insightful, intelligent, and profound as The Tree of Life, but it is in fact as obvious and unnecessary as they come. When the deepest notions that your film can come up with is “Slavery is bad” or “Humanity is inter-connected” or “Our actions have consequences,” it becomes very easy to laugh away any philosophical ambitions you pretend to have. And, that is as deep as the film gets. Kenneth Lonergan it is not.

What astounds me the most about Cloud Atlas though is how people I respect and appreciate intellectually seem to adore and idolize this film. Either they watched a different, better movie than I did or they allowed themselves to be suckered in by the surface beauty of the movie and it’s simplistic themes. I can’t in good heart recommend this film to everyone. I feel compelled to read the novel now to see if I find it to be as much of a trainwreck as the movie was, but somehow I feel that isn’t even possible. Unless you’re looking for a chance to laugh at really awful “yellowface” make-up, give Cloud Atlas a pass.

Final Score: C-

 

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Much like Iron Man 2, this is a film that I have avoided watching for two years now because I heard literally no good things about it. 2009’s The Hangover became one of the true sleeper hits of the 2000s, and it’s not a stretch by any mean to say that it’s one of the great broad comedies of the last twenty years. It reached “instant classic” status without seeming like it even had to try. And then two years later, The Hangover: Part II came out and the reviews were so one-sidedly negative that it seemed like the sequel was so bad it was retroactively ruining the memory of the first film. It doesn’t quite accomplish that, but The Hangover: Part II is still one of the most cynically-produced and legacy shattering sequels I’ve ever had the misery to sit through, and I’ve watched the first three Saw sequels.

The Hangover: Part II is what happens when you take the characters from the first film but make them inherently less likeable, take the situations from the first film and rob them of any freshness and wit, and take the jokes from the first film and butcher the writing, and throw all of that in a blender in Bangkok. Hackneyed and half-assed barely begins to cover the writing of this film, and one has to wonder if the lead actors even had a chance to read the script before they had a chance to sign onto this shit show. With the exception of Zach Galifianakis (who always commits to the role) and Ed Helms (who is as underrated a talent as there is), nothing about this film felt remotely enjoyable or clever from beginning to end.

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The Wolfpack, consisting of Stu (Cedar Rapids‘ Ed Helms), Phil (Silver Lining Playbook‘s Bradley Cooper), Alan (Zach Galifianakis), and Doug (Justin Bartha), go to Thailand for Stu’s wedding to the beautiful daughter of a wealthy Thai businessman (with barely any reason given for why he left Heather Graham’s character from the first film). And, of course, one drink at a bonfire on their resort beach turns into Stu, Phil, and Alan waking up in a seedy Bangkok hotel room with no memories of the night before and a coked out Mr. Chow (Community‘s Ken Jeong) waiting for them as they have to unravel the mystery of the night before and what happened to the little brother of Stu’s bride-to-be.

And, from that recooked premise, The Hangover: Part II tries to jam in as many jokes cribbed right from the first film, although it tries to up the ante in ways that generally don’t work. Does Stu sleep with a prostitute again? Check. Does Stu do something permanently damaging to his head/face? Check. In fact, it’s Mike Tyson’s tattoo. Does Alan drug the group? You betcha (You claim spoilers; I claim “who gives a shit, this movie sucked and it was obvious). Does Phil have to call Doug’s wife in a panic? Yep. Does Stu solve the mystery at the last second? Yep. Do they get the wrong version of the person they’re looking for? Uh huh. There isn’t an original bone in The Hangover: Part II‘s body.

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The film’s only redeeming moments come in the performances of Ed Helms and, mostly, Zach Galifianakis. Although, Ed Helms emotes and screams and prances even more than usual, and there are points in this film where his over-reaction (which I suppose works within the context of the film) begins to grate. Things mostly rest on the broad shoulders of Galifianakis whose deadpan and spot on inhabiting of the anomaly known as Alan is as brilliant as ever. Alan’s writing is worse this time around, and he goes from being eccentric to mostly a giant asshole, but Galifianakis works with what he’s given, and the film’s only laughs always seemed to come from him.

I watched The Hangover: Part II because reviews for The Hangover: Part III were moderately better, and I was hoping to see it in theaters. I wish I hadn’t wasted my time, and now I’m unsure if I even want to see the trilogy through to its close. This film is unfunny, shoddily made, and more or less, my new Ur-example of everything that’s wrong with most sequels in Hollywood today. Even if you’re a die hard fan of the original Hangover, don’t waste your time on this turd. Something tells me you can still see and appreciate the third film and not waste your time on this awful, obvious cash-in.

Final Score: C-

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Occasionally, I will watch a large-budget, Hollywood blockbuster that is such an unmitigated failure that I have to wonder how anyone, anywhere possibly thought this was a good idea. These are films that are an appalling mish-mash of over-acting, over-directing, absurd bombast, and melodramatic emoting. And it’s been a long time since I’ve watched a major Hollywood feature (let alone a Best Picture nominee) that was as much of a train-wreck as 2012’s film adaptation of the longest running stage musical of all time, Les Miserables. With a few shining rays of competence to make it even passably bearable, Les Miserables can be politely termed “catastrophic.”

Director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) should have his Best Director Academy Award retroactively revoked for this pompous, unfocused, absurd drivel. Not that he should have won in 2010 (that was clearly either Darren Aranofsky or David Fincher‘s year), but his Les Miserables is such an excruciatingly unwatchable mess that one has to wonder if this was even the same man. In fact, were it not for Tom Hooper’s love of the close-up (which he abuses beyond belief in this film, but more on that shortly), I would find it impossible to believe it was the same man. As a life-long lover of musical theater, Les Miserables was one of the most painful cinematic experiences of my adult life.

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For those unfamiliar with the Broadway musical or Victor Hugo’s excellent source novel, the plot of Les Miserables is almost like something out of Shakespeare (except where characters are even more unbearably archetypal). After serving a 19 year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving son, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is released from prison but his status as an ex-con makes him unemployable in Revolutionary France. After stealing silver from a church, the bishop (the original West End Jean Valjean) refuses to press charges against Jean Valjean and gives him the silver with the charge to turn his life around. And though Valjean keeps his word, that freedom comes with a price.

Jean Valjean breaks his parole and opens a factory though he spends the next eight years on the run from honorable but imperious Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). After one of Valjean’s workers, the beautiful Fantine (Rachel Getting Married‘s Anne Hathaway), is fired by the foreman for having a child she’s kept secret, Fantine is forced into prostitution and destitution and it is only Valjean’s generosity that keeps her child from starving and dying alone. However, by showing Fantine kindness, Valjean awakens the suspicions of Inspector Javert and though Valjean plans on given Fantine’s daughter Corsette (played as a grown-up by Amanda Seyfried) a better life, he must do it knowing that Javert will hunt him for the rest of his life as the backdrop of the French Revolution takes hold.

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I’ll at least by kind enough to this disastrous film to assure you that there are, in fact, occasional bright spots to this otherwise unending torture. Anne Hathaway is only on screen for about 15 minutes, but her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” works very well even though her voice isn’t powerful enough for that iconic number. On one of the few occasions that the film’s over-use of close-ups works for its intended purposes, the song lets Hathaway show off some really impressive facial expressions and she nails the emotional subtext of the number. While I still think Sally Field did a better job in Lincoln, I can at least see why the Academy decided to give the award to Hathaway.

Sacha Baron Cohen (Hugo) and Helena Bonham Carter (Conversations With Other Women) brought some much needed levity to the film as the two inkeepers who “care” for Corsette and the performance of “Master of the House” was one of my two favorite numbers from the film (of only about three that I even enjoyed). However, the truest joy of the film was Samantha Barks turn as Eponine. It was one of the only unadulterated delights of the picture. Maybe because Eponine is the most compelling character in the musical, “On My Own” is the best song, and Samantha Barks played her in the West End production, but every too short moment that Eponine on the screen reminded me why I loved musicals and why Les Miserables failed to meet the standards of say Chicago or Sweeney Todd.

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But for those small blessings, you had to suffer through three hours of ineptitude. Even an established Broadway star like Hugh Jackman (who won a Tony for his fierce portrayal of Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz) was excruciatingly miscast as Jean Valjean. Jackman’s voice is simply too nasal for the part and it made him sound sharp on all of Jean Valjean’s high notes. Russell Crowe can not sing. That is just a scientific fact, and to quote a friend, “I think it was his singing that caused the French revolution.” Rex Harrison made it work as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady even though he couldn’t sing. Not even the kindest critique could say the same thing about Russell Crowe.

And, to watch Tom Hooper reduce one of the most beloved Broadway musicals of all time to essentially a three hour long music video was so frustrating. I say that because of the hectic, spastic directing and editing (not just because there is no spoken dialogue in the film. It’s all sung) which is frenetic without being meaningful. The only times Hooper lets the camera stay still for more than a couple seconds is during some of the more emotional musical numbers which are done in long takes, but he so overdoes the long close-up that it just becomes as gimmicky as the rest of the visual aesthetic of the film.

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Understanding that Les Miserables is a brutal and dark tale of fatalism, eternal suffering, tuberculosis, poverty, and the price of redemption, I know that Les Miserables will not be as fun or campy as most of the musicals I actually enjoy. But, the film never earns the emotional core it so desperately seeks and becomes a soulless shell of the epic tale it wishes to present. It also doesn’t help that the narrative structure of having everyone sing all of the lines adds a certain amount of “narm” to the proceedings. Because people singing about poverty and love and the French Revolution is impossible to always take seriously (especially when paired with Hooper’s catastrophic directing).

I don’t know who I can tell to watch this movie. If you’re a fan of the stage show, maybe you’ll like it. I have to question your sanity, but maybe you’d enjoy it. I disliked this movie so much that I almost have trouble believing I could even enjoy a full Broadway production of Les Miserables, and as I’ve said, I’m a lifelong fan of live musical theatre. What I will ultimately remember about Les Miserables is that it may come to define to me a film that is simply an avalanche of bad decisions and incompetence all rolled into one massive blockbuster clufsterf***. Leave this alone and just rewatch Chicago for the millionth time instead.

Final Score: C-

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A lot of really talented directors/writers have a hard time finding a balance between endearingly quirky and artificially eccentric. As much as I love Wes Anderson films, it often feels like Anderson is trying too hard to make his characters seem original by making them insufferably and unrealistically off-beat. Sometimes it works, Rushmore; sometimes it doesn’t, Moonrise Kingdom (though that film has its brilliant moments as well). Juno suffered from the same problem because as realistic as Juno’s problems are, there are no actual teenage girls that talked like her. At least, there weren’t until that film came out and inspired girls to speak like Ellen Page. Jared Hess’s breakout directorial debut, Napoleon Dynamite, has become a bit of a modern cult classic, but I have always found it to be so bad that it’s nearly unwatchable and that Hess’s characters are almost all artificially eccentric and not in the slightest endearingly quirky.

Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) is a mouth-breathing, chronic-lying nerd with a penchant for drawing pencil doodles of fictional creatures. He lives at home with his grandmother and his 32-year old, effeminate brother Kip (Aaron Ruell). Kip spends his day chatting on line with his internet girlfriend Lafanda, whose reality is a legitimate question for most of the film. Napoleon gets bullied at school and his only two friends are transfer student Pedro (Efren Ramirez) and shy Deb (Big Love‘s Tina Majorino). When Napoleon’s grandmother is in a dune buggy accident, his creepy uncle Rico (Jon Gries) is sent to look after him and Kip. Rico longs for his glory days on the football field in high school (although the film implies that he was only a backup quarterback), and his endless schemes to make money and glory only serve to nearly ruin Napoleon’s life at every turn.

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Jon Heder gives arguably one of the worst lead performances thus far for this blog. I could go back and look at every single movie I’ve reviewed (I probably won’t), but I imagine I would be hard-pressed to find a more unbelievable and grating performance than his. Anyone who’s seen Gentleman Broncos knows that subtlety isn’t the strong suit of any part of any Jared Hess film, and he was unable to coax a life-like performance from the wooden and slack-jawed Jon Heder. No one on this actual planet talks like Napoleon. You consistently feel like you’re watching a performance in a student film where they’re trying to give an example of how to be as awful as humanly possible in a performance. And the actors playing Kip and Pedro are not remotely any better.

The only two performances in the film that make the acting in the movie bearable are Tina Majorino as Deb and Jon Gries as Uncle Rico. I remember when I first watched this film that I thought Tina Majorino gave the worst performance of the whole movie. Now, I can easily say it was the best. Whereas Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez, and Aaron Ruell turn awkwardness into camp and stiff artificiality, Tina Majorino makes Deb seem like the shy but sensitive girl we all knew in high school. She just dives right into the part and doesn’t hold back. In fact, had the film been about Deb, it might have actually been a decent film. And Jon Gries becomes one of the only consistent sources of humor in the film as Uncle Rico. He’s the only actor with a real sense of comic timing, and he finds the creepiness and despair that both lie at the heart of Rico.

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I’ll keep this review short because I simply don’t like this movie, and nothing I can say about it will persuade its legions of fans that it’s unwatchable drivel. Let me then close with this. Some films are so bad that they’re brilliant. Rocky Horror Picture Show is objectively an awful movie, but the fun and camp at it’s heart makes it a bizarre classic. Jared Hess tries to make a film that is so bad it’s great with Napoleon Dynamite, but instead, the movie remains almost entirely so bad that it’s a trainwreck. The film has its moments that made me laugh but I could count them on one hand, and the one truly great sequence (Napoleon’s final dance number) isn’t enough to make up for an hour and a half of a film that is too painfully awkward to watch and not in that good Freaks and Geeks type of way.

Final Score: C-

Life With Father

Films whose sole purpose seems to be displaying a specific slice of family life as seen through their own cultural and historical lens do not often age well. Older films are almost without fail so optimistic and idealistic that modern cynical audiences have trouble suspending their disbelief over “perfect” family units. Even families of older cinema who were supposed to be semi-disfunctional seem downright Leave It to Beaver to modern viewers. Clarence Day Jr.’s Life With Father (I believe) still holds the record for longest running non-musical play on Broadway and 1947’s film adaptation was a massive box office draw. But for this modern viewer, not even the direction of Casablanca‘s Michael Curtiz could save this film from being overly-long, overly sentimental drivel with easily the worst Film-to-DVD transfer job that I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

Based on the playwrights memories of his childhood, Life With Father is a sentimental tale of the domineering (but ultimately loveable) Clarence Day Sr. (How to Marry a Millionaire‘s William Powell). As the patriarch of the massive Day brood, he’s a penny-pinching, sermon-delivering curmudgeon. Tended to by his loving wife Vinnie (My Favorite Wife‘s Irene Dunne) and beset upon by his four children, Clarence tries to assert his authority over his family and his life even when it quickly becomes apparent that his wife and kids have the real say. After the family is visited by a cousin and her young friend (Giant‘s Elizabeth Taylor) who catches the eye of Clarence Jr., Clarence Sr.’s life is only thrown into more upheaval when it’s discovered that he’s never been baptized.

William Powell and Irene Dunne are serviceable as the hen-pecked husband and the one doing the pecking, and between those two and an astonishingly young (but always beautiful) Elizabeth Taylor, they are the only reasons to watch the film. The exceedingly rare occasions where I actually laughed out loud during the film all involved Powell’s spot-on turn as the gruff father. At one point, his eldest son and Elizabeth Taylor’s character have an argument where the son makes Elizabeth Taylor cry. When Powell tells Clarence Jr. that he’s glad to see his own held his own in the argument, I nearly spit Dr. Pepper all over my television screen. It was the perfect response. And watching Irene Dunne fast-talk her away around Clarence Sr. to convince him that impossible math adds up was consistently charming.

Sadly, the writing didn’t live up to the potential chemistry of the stars. Although William Powell was able to make me laugh, I probably laughed out loud less than five times the entire film and that counts slight chuckles. The only big laugh came from the aforementioned incident with Elizabeth Taylor. The film would set up long, meandering scenes where William Powell would go on seemingly endless monologues. There were few jokes, puns, sight gags, or inherently funny situations. The comedy was meant to arise by the subversion of expectations between what Clarence Sr. thought about his family and what was really going on, but let’s be honest. That was never actually all that funny. The best moments came when they played Clarence Sr.’s stubborness and total obliviousness to the world around him for maximum comedic value such as him trying to figure out how his wife returning a pug meant he could  now afford to buy his son an expensive suit.

This isn’t something I usually harp on (because I’m not an expert on film transfer), but as I mentioned earlier, this was one of the worst transfer jobs I’ve ever seen. This looked worse than a VHS copy of a film (unless I simply don’t remember how bad VHS looked which is possible). The resolution of the image was worse than 480p (probably around 270p), the color would fade in and out (although that’s semi-common in early Technicolor films which this definitely was), you would see the sorts of lines and static that you associate with ancient VHS cassettes, and the audio was atrocious. The film is in the public domain which means that any Tom, Dick, and Harry can release it on DVD if they wish, and because of that cheapness, the film looks horrendous (which is a shame because it’s obvious that the original color scheme for the film was extraordinarily vibrant).

Should you watch this film? Not if you like good movies. Perhaps, if you don’t find Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best to be sickeningly idealized, then you could enjoy this film. For anyone who demands even the most remote semblance of reality to their portrayal of family life will find this film to be as much fantasy as Lord of the Rings. Still, it has its moments. I may not have so much as grinned for the first half of the film, but once it began to find it’s footing, I found myself finding the film less unbearable and more simply unfortunate and ill-constructed. Perhaps, I’m just too much of a jaded, modern cynic to appreciate something innocent like this, but that is what it is.

Final Score: C-

That’s My Boy

Two things. I did not pay to watch this film, and I would never independently and of my own normal volition agree to see a new Adam Sandler film. The man hasn’t made a good Happy Madison movie (because the two films his team didn’t write produce that he’s starred in, Punch Drunk Love and Reign Over Me, are actually pretty good) since Happy Gilmore and even that and Billy Madison aren’t “good” movies. They’re simply guilty pleasure comedies that I must admit make me laugh. Honestly though, the only good Happy Madison movie since then (and once again, I’m using “good” loosely) didn’t even star Adam Sandler. It was Grandma’s Boy, and I’m pretty sure I only like it because I’m a gamer and have a massive crush on Linda Cardellini (cause I’m a big Freaks & Geeks fan). So, I went to see Adam Sandler’s newest film, That’s My Boy, with some friends in Morgantown. They had free movie tickets from their apartment complex (as well as guest tickets) and they gave me one. We were going to see Moonrise Kingdom but it wasn’t playing at that theatre, and so THEY decided to go see That’s My Boy instead. I wasn’t paying for anything so I would have been a dick if I complained. After the horrendous trainwreck known as Jack and Jill, it would have been fair to just assume that That’s My Boy was continuing Sandler’s trend in making some of the worst films of the last ten years. It wasn’t that bad. It was bad. It was not a good movie, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be, and I must admit that on about four occasions I laughed out loud quite heartily.

The premise of the movie is Adam Sandler’s much belated attempt to be topical (considering these scandals were in the news years ago and have sort of fallen out of prominence). Adam Sandler plays Donny Berger, a man-child who experienced fifteen minutes of fame in the 1980s when he was seduced by his middle school teacher (Eva Amurri in the past, Susan fucking Sarandon in the present) and impregnated her. When she was sent to prison, Donny’s father (and eventually Donny when he turned 18) was given custody of their son, Han Solo (Andy Samberg), and Donny raised Han Solo til he was 18 at which point he moved out, changed his name to Todd Peterson, and became a wealthy hedge fund manager. Now a days, Donny is a washed up loser who’s still trying to cash in on his fifteen minutes of fame as a child but he’s only got $28 to his name. When he finds out he owes $40,000 to the IRS in back taxes, Donny only has three days to come up with the money or he’s going to jail. If he can get Han Solo/Todd to agree to visit his mother in jail as part of a 25 year later story on their trainwreck of a family, Donny can make $50,000. The problem is that Todd hates Donny and hates publicity. It’s also the weekend of his wedding so Donny decides to crash the weekend wedding festivities to get closer to his son and find a way to keep himself out of prison.

This is going to be a short review. I could probably count on one hand the number of times this movie made me laugh out loud, and weirdly enough, I was laughing during the parts that nobody else in the film was laughing at (they were laughing at the more sophomoric gross-out humor moments). It’s not a very funny movie and it’s not going to make you laugh very often if you prefer Woody Allen to Will Ferrell, or Alexander Payne to Eddie Murphy. The film appeals to the lowest common denominator, except you’ve got to think that even fans of low-brow, scatological humor have to realize that Adam Sandler isn’t even trying anymore. To him (with two exceptions), acting means adopting an annoying voice and being as obnoxious as humanly possible. It’s about seeing just how much you can grate the audience’s nerves without becoming a completely unsympathetic douche bag (though he crosses that line several times throughout the film). Andy Samberg’s decision to leaveSNL now seems even more questionable if this is what his career has to look forward to. The only parts of the movie that really made me laugh was two funny lines fromSNL’s Will Forte as well as outrageous cameos from Vanilla Ice and Todd Bridges (the Todd Bridges one was especially ridiculous).

That’s My Boy is immature, homophobic, disgusting, and often patently offensive. However, I must admit that I’m not the film’s target audience. The fact that I can compare Paddy Chayefsky to Aaron Sorkin (especially in the light of Sorkin’s newest program) means I’m operating at a level that the average Adam Sandler fan avoids like the plague. Everybody else who went to the movie seemed to enjoy it (though the most common expression used was, “It’s not as bad as I thought it was going to be.”) Two of my friends were laughing like hyenas. So, if sophomoric antics and man-child caricatures are your thing, you might enjoy That’s My Boy. If you want even a modicum of sophistication in your humor or are simply tired of this whole men that refuse to grow up genre of comedy and the disgusting gags therein, go see something else at the theater this weekend.

Final Score: C-

With my love of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Terrence Malick (yes I consider him worth of putting in the same conversation as the first two legendary directors), it may come as a surprise that I was a big fan of Robert Rodriguez’s and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse double feature when it first came out several years ago. Planet Terror was a pitch-perfect recreation of the “classic” B-horror film (though it dripped with more style and humor than those films could ever hope to attain), and Death Proof… well my feelings about Death Proof are a little more complicated. I hated it the first time I saw it and I still think it’s Tarantino’s least memorable film, but it contains some of his most memorable dialogue and if you watch it apart from Planet Terror, it’s much more enjoyable. It’s just too slow-paced and “talky” to be watched immediately after Planet Terror. I consider the blaxploitation parody Black Dynamite to be a spiritual successor to the Grindhouse films, and once again, I’m a huge fan of that film. However, there have now been two films made from the fake trailers shown in Grindhouse. Robert Rodriguez himself directed the less than impressive Machete (though I have to cheer a movie where illegal immigrants massacre racist rednecks). I’m unfamiliar with the maker of the outrageously violent Hobo With a Shotgun (other than knowing he wasn’t involved with Grindhouse and is from Canada), but it certainly puts the grindhouse in Grindhouse. However, unlike the three films I mentioned enjoying, Hobo With a Shotgun plays the ultra-violence straight and without an ounce of the wit, humor, and style that made Grindhouse such a fun ode to the B-movies. Hobo With a Shotgun is just a B-movie.

Rutger Hauer plays the nameless Hobo who has arrived in the misnomer known as Hope Town, a lawless hellhole ruled over by the barbaric and indescribably evil “The Drake” (Brian Downey). The Hobo tries to mind his own business amidst the filth and depravity of Hope Town until he witnesses the near rape and kidnapping of young prostitute Abby (Molly Dunsworth) by the Drake’s son, Slick (The Patriot‘s Gregory Smith). When the Hobo intervenes and beats the holy hell out of Slick, he drops Slick off to the police only to find that the police are as dirty as the criminals. They mutilate his chest and throw him in the garbage. As the Hobo tries once again to ignore what’s happening around him, a robbery of the pawn shop (where he’s trying to buy a lawn mower to start his own business) finally pushes him over the edge. He grabs a shotgun off the wall, kills the robbers (who were threatening to shoot a baby), and goes off on a gore-filled revenge-fueled quest to clean up the streets of Hope Town. And to quote the film, he’s going to do it one shell at a time.

This is going to be a short review because… Jesus Christ this movie… I stand corrected about something I said earlier in this post. Jason Eisener actually made the original Hobo With a Shotgun fake trailer from Grindhouse. Sorry about that misstep. But, back to the review. It’s a fine line between being an exploitation film parody and being an actual exploitation film. The only movie I can think of that tread the line in a finer way (without directly winking at the audience with visible boom mics or other nodding jabs at the cheapness of old films) was Shoot ‘Em Up (which I love). That movie made me laugh out loud on multiple occasions and contained a thinly veiled allegory about the danger of the arms industry. It was smart and stylish. Hobo With a Shotgun is just an exploitation film that happens to have been made in an era where (outside of the torture porn horror subniche) exploitation films stopped being made a long time ago. There’s nothing ironic or witty about the violence. The violence simply is. And boy is it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more grotesquely violent film. I don’t have a weak stomach and I giggle with glee in video games when I commit heinous acts of violence, but Hobo With a Shotgun didn’t just cross the line once, or twice. It crossed the line several dozen times. There was nothing deeper or visually striking about the film (except for the buckets of blood). Actually, the film left me so cold (and disgusted) that it retroactively makes me question why I like Planet Terror. If it ruins Grindhouse for me in reverse, I’ll be very pissed.

However, I can’t fall the film for being exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a movie about a Hobo With a Shotgun, and it’s my fault for expecting anything better from that. The only reason Planet Terror, Death Proof, and Black Dynamite are watchable is because they were made by very capable and intelligent film makers who chose to work in a silly and ridiculous genre. Jason Eisener is no Quentin Tarantino. The only good thing I can say about the film is that Rutger Hauer is surprisingly good in this part. It’s easy to miss because of all of the ridiculous shit he does (and all of the ridiculous shit happening around him), but his performance was actually kind of subtle and nuanced. Nothing else in the film was.

Final Score: C-

Discounting Tim Burton’s Batman which rang in the end of the decade, the 1980s were not a kind period for movie adaptations of comic books. Whether it’s the painful to watch bastardization of Frank Castle with Dolph Lundgren as The Punisher or Howard the Duck (which is a regular contender for Worst Film of All Time) or any of the god-awful Superman films from the 80s but especially Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, the comic book movies from those days are pretty much all universally horrendous. For a long time I knew that in 1982 Wes Craven had adapted DC fantasy horror comic Swamp Thing into a movie. Alan Moore’s run on the series (after the film had been made) is fairly legendary in the comics world as a writer revitalizing an all but forgotten character into one of the hottest properties of the era, and since I loved both Alan Moore and Wes Craven, I believe that I purposefully added this film to my master blog list (because after watching it, I’m positive it wasn’t nominated for any types of industry awards). Voluntarily subjecting myself to this film was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in ages because without question, this is the worst Wes Craven film I’ve ever watched.

After being sent to supervise a government research project helmed by charming plant geneticist Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise), Alice Cable (Carnivale‘s Adrienne Barbeau) is quickly forced on the run when mad scientist Anton Arcane (Louis Jordan) destroys Holland’s lab and apparently kills Holland to steal his work. Though Cable is able to escape, she is pursued by Arcane’s thugs because she possesses Dr. Holland’s final notebook detailing the last steps of his process to essentially solve humanity’s hunger problems with crops that can grow anywhere. As Arcane’s men chase Cable through the treacherous Louisiana swamps, an unlikely savior comes to her side. Mutated into a half-plant/half-man hybrid by the chemicals that everyone thought had killed him, Dr. Holland is now alive and Cable’s protector as a monster with the heart of a human.

This review is going to be really short because this movie is really bad and I’d rather spend my time watching one last episode of Doctor Who before I go to bed than devote 1000 words to this film (though it managed to pull legitimately poetic moments out of its ass from time to time but that’s Wes Craven for you). The plot is completely nonsensical and it fails to capture the fantasy-horror/psychological elements that makes the comics so memorable and is instead a series of action sequences tied together by a borderline incomprehensible plot. The acting is truly terrible as well and everyone seems to be taking pleasure in making things as campy as humanly possible. The special effects are egregiously bad. Understanding that this is 1982 and not everyone has a George Lucas budget to work with, but I had to control my laughter every time I saw Swamp Thing on screen. The editing is also atrocious and whether it’s the silly transitions the film would use for screen swipes or just the general lack of anything tying the events together, the film was a mess. Even the lighting was horrific and there were many moments in the film where it was just too dark to see what was happening and not because that was the director’s intention. I can’t even recommend this film to people who love “so bad they’re good films” because this one is simply so bad it’s terrible.

Final Score: C-

Here’s something that may shock my readers. While I’m a self-admitted fanatic of William Shakespeare, I am not especially fond of Romeo and Juliet. There’s no denying that the play contains some of his most memorable lines and that the and the violent spiral of events leading up to its ending are suitably tragic, but I’ve never been able to buy into the love story at the center of the play. Romeo is a love-sick puppy dog pining over a woman named Rosaline at the beginning of the play to the point where he’s become depressed over not having her (I won’t even get into Juliet’s complete lack of a personality) but after seeing Juliet, a member of his family’s sworn enemies, he falls heads over heels in love with her (as does she to him), and they are married within a day. Within a week of being together, they are so madly in love with one another that Romeo commits suicide when he believes Juliet is dead and Juliet does the same when she finds her Romeo when she awakens from her self-inflicted coma. It’s hogwash and completely unrealistic to the point of being patently absurd. Shakespeare’s prose was as brilliant as ever, but I’ve never been able to emotionally invest myself in this story the same way I could with Hamlet, Macbeth, or (my favorite) King Lear.

Well, leave it to Baz Luhrmann to take an already problematic play and turn it into an over-stylized and cartoonish mess. Anyone who has seen Moulin Rouge knows that Luhrmann isn’t exactly the most subtle director out there (and don’t get me started on the sin of including “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in that film), but Luhrmann’s modernized adaptation of Romeo and Juliet left subtlety behind in pre-production and went for almost unwatchable camp instead. Luhrmann’s versin of the play takes place in (then) modern America in Verona Beach, California (an obvious play on Venice Beach) while still maintaining Shakespeare’s original dialogue, therefore guns are still called swords and everyone is talking like they just stepped out of the renaissance fair. Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes take the roles of the two star-crossed lovers with back-up support from Lost‘s Harold Perrinau as the flamboyant Mercutio, Super Mario Bros‘ John Leguizamo as the villainous Tybalt, Role Models‘ Paul Rudd as Juliet’s betrothed Paris, and many others.

This film is hit and miss, but when it misses, it’s a trainwreck. Luhrmann actually does several things right. Leo and Claire Danes were cast perfectly for these roles, and while Leo wasn’t quite at the prime of his acting ability yet, even at that age, he was still very talented and you could catch glimpses of why he would eventually replace Robert DeNiro as Martin Scorscese’s muse. Claire Danes has been criminally underrated her entire career (where is the love for My So Called Life), and she’s only just now started getting credit for her talent with her award-winning role on Homeland. Despite the fact that Juliet is an absurdly shallow character, Claire Danes makes it work. Harold Perrinau was the real scene-stealer as Mercutio, and he brought a vibrancy and intensity that managed to seem natural for easily the play’s best character and not make it seem absurdly campish like everything else in the film. I’ll refrain from eviscerating the performance of John Leguizamo who was seriously miscast as was Jamie Kennedy in a smaller role. Luhrmann has a Fellini-esque ability to capture faces and use them for optimum aesthetic effect and there are many moments in the film where he is simply able to transform the already gorgeous faces of DiCaprio and Danes into something extraordinarily beautiful.

This film’s opening scene, which is lifted straight from Scene I of Act I of the play (except for the obvious setting switch), is one of the most horrendous things I’ve ever seen in the history of this blog, and that includes Christine and The Girl with the Pistol. Everyone in the scene (but John Leguizamo) are hamming up the material to almost satirical levels, and Luhrmann uses such frenetic and unnecessary cuts and edits that it almost gives you motion sickness. If this were intended to be comedy, it would be one thing (though I doubt I would enjoy it), but instead, it’s meant to be played straight and it’s so terrible that it goes past the point of being hilariously bad. It simply becomes horrendously aggravating. That’s the film’s problem though. You have moments here and there where the cinematography is actually brilliant and Luhrmann just lets the story speak for itself, but then he feels the need to inject this hyper-stylistic element to the film and 9 times out of 10 it simply doesn’t pay off. There’s more mood whiplash in this film than a Joss Whedon production but without any of the charm that makes Whedon so lovable.

I am open to radical re-interpretations of Shakespeare’s work (Akira Kurosawa’s samurai re-imagining of King Lear with Ran remains one of the best films I’ve reviewed for this blog), but Luhrmann’s inconsistent film is an almost unmitigated failure only saved by flashes of brilliance that rarely shine through. If you’re a fan of Shakespeare, don’t watch this. If you’re a fan of Leo or Claire Danes, this should only be seen just so you can know how far they’ve come in their careers. There isn’t a subset of my reading audience that I would subject this film to, and if the score I’m giving it seems too high for a movie I hate so much, it’s because of those flashes of brilliance you see which really are that good. It’s a shame they are suffocated on all sides by almost complete incompetence.

Final Score: C-