Category: C+


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This is going to be possibly the most contradictory and conflicting review I’ve ever written. On every intellectual level that I can muster, I know that the 2006 Happy Madison production Grandma’s Boy is exquisitely awful. It’s low-brow to the extreme and a consistent affront to good taste and smart comedy at every turn. But, and it’s difficult to express how much it pains me to admit this, I love this movie. Part of a cadre of films that I used to watch religiously whenever they were on HBO when I was younger (others include Beerfest and Anchorman), Grandma’s Boy makes me laugh louder and harder than it has any right to, and there are days when I think there’s something wrong with me for how much I love this film.

Grandma’s Boy is steeped firmly in the stoner/slacker tradition of the Cheech & Chong films but with a decidedly modern bent and a fixation with video games (which explains in part my love of the film as something of an avid gamer). And it isn’t afraid to scrape the bottom of the barrel for jokes, but for God knows what reason, those “bottom of the barrel” gags work here when they never work for me in any of the other modern Happy Madison films (like That’s My Boy). Because let’s face it. Any film that has Shirley “Mrs. Partridge” Jones talking about giving a hand job to Charlie Chaplin speaks to me on some odd, inexplicable level.

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Alex (Allen Covert) is a stoner wasting his life away as a video game tester for a game design studio when he really wants to make his own games and not mindlessly test the games of his obnoxious, robot-obsessed boss J.P. (Avatar‘s Joel David Moore). But, when the company brings in the beautiful and charming Samantha (Brokeback Mountain‘s Linda Cardellini) to ensure that their current game gets finished on time, she may be the motivation Alex needs to finally try and do something with his life. However, Alex has just been thrown out of his apartment (because his roommate spent their rent money on hookers) and he has to move in with his grandmother (Doris Roberts) and her two friends which Alex is too ashamed to explain to Samantha and his best friend Jeff (Nick Swardson).

Alexander Payne this is not. In fact, it’s not even Judd Apatow. The jokes in Grandma’s Boy are as crass and disgusting as you can possibly imagine. At one point, before he lives with his grandmother, Alex stays at Jeff’s for the evening. Alex can’t sleep so he attempts to masturbate to one of Jeff’s female action figures (which he pretends is Tomb Raider‘s Lara Croft) and winds up ejaculating on Jeff’s mom when she walks in on him. At one point, Jonah Hill (Academy Award nominee for Moneyball) sucks on a breast (he literally appears to be suckling on a nipple at one point) for hours on end. And fart jokes abound.

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But, and there’s no logical explanation for this, there are moments in Grandma’s Boy that carry some type of moronic genius where the film becomes so stupid, it’s brilliant. Alex’s burnt out pot dealer Dante (Patrick Dante) drags Alex into situations so surreal that they capture some of the absurdist magic of the old Happy Madison films like Billy Madison. And Shirley Jones steals virtually ever scene she’s in as the grandmother’s trampy roommate Grace. And, maybe it’s because I was born and bred on Freaks and Geeks, but watching a drunken Linda Cardellini make a fool of herself to “Push It” is hilarious. Although, Linda Cardellini is way too good of an actress for the material she’s given in this film.

Grandma’s Boy is a bad film. Although, it’s a bad film that I wholeheartedly enjoy (and though it was a disastrous critical flop when it was released, it has become something of a cult classic in intervening years). The movie doesn’t have a sophisticated bone in its body, and when I’m not trying to think about the film critically (as I was forced to during this viewing), that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. If you require your comedy to have brains, avoid Grandma’s Boy like the plague because it smoked all of its brain cells away. But if you can enjoy a stupid but occasionally brilliant stoner comedy, Grandma’s Boy can be a great trip.

Final Score: C+

 

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Without wanting to sound arrogant, my knowledge of movies is pretty encyclopedic. You don’t run a movie blog for two and a half years and review at least one film from all but five years since 1930 without knowing your way around cinematic history. So, it’s rare anymore for me to come across a film that I had legitimately never heard of before placing it on my Netflix queue. It still happens (Tape a recent, positive example) but it happens much more rarely than it used to. Sometimes, these unknown films become some of my personal favorites that I’ve watched for this blog (Conversations with Other Women), but sadly, on other occasions, I quickly know why these films were lost to the annals of history.

There are movies that you know are going to be a drag from the plot description alone, and 1938’s Army Girl was one such exercise in cinematic triviality. After World War I, the United States army realized that it was time to signal the change between a traditional horse-mounted cavalry to mechanized tank warfare. But, with America’s rich tradition of cavalry as the linchpin of any successful military campaign, this change was met with much resistance. One man (and I’m unsure if he really existed, Captain Dike Conger (Preston Foster) has led a successful string of demonstrations of the power and flexibility of tanks when he is sent to one last camp to facilitate the change.

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But, Captain Conger is a well-known cad whose only rule in his female conquests is that he doesn’t date any women with any affiliation to whatever military camp he’s been sent to. It’s a rule that he never breaks… until he finds himself falling for Julie Armstrong (Madge Evans), the daughter of the camp’s Colonel. She pretends to be a plucky, hick-accented townie until the ruse is discovered by Conger after he’s already started to fall for her. But their relationship is threatened again when the march of technology threatens to put her horse-trained father out of work and with Captain Conger as his possible replacement.

That description of the plot is actually far more enticing than the one Netflix Instant uses which eschews any mention of the romance between Conger and Julie (which is really the main thrust of the film) and instead focuses solely on the tank vs. horse nature of the film. And, believe me, had this movie been solely about Conger’s attempts to convince his fellow soldiers that the future of the military depended on transitioning to tanks, Army Girl would have been practically unwatchable. Thankfully, it filled those moments out with a quaint romantic comedy that made the film bearable (though it’s short running time didn’t hurt matters either).

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I’ll keep this review very, very short because this film wasn’t terrible. It certainly wasn’t good in any sense of the word either. It was just frivolous and unnecessary. Nothing about it stood out except for maybe Madge Evans, and that had nothing to do with her acting ability (which was alright I suppose) but more to do with the fact that she bore a striking resemblance to Irene Dunne (though she lacked Dunne’s natural presence). I only watched this film because it received a Best Cinematography Oscar nod in 1938, and I suppose there were some well-shot sequences for the time. I can’t imagine any reason why anyone reading this blog should watch this film. It’s best that we let Army Girl stay forgotten.

Final Score: C

(I usually put a trailer for the film’s I review beneath my scores for this blog, but Army Girl is so obscure that no trailers for it exist on Youtube. So, that’s why it isn’t there)

 

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(A quick aside before my actual review: I watched this film Thursday night with my dad. We didn’t get home until after midnight. I worked Friday until 2 AM, and then today I went to see Monsters University with my sister which I will also be hopefully reviewing today. The moral of this story is that my brain is at least minorly fractured. Hopefully, these two reviews make sense)

After the dark and crushing ending to 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, there is one theme  that seems to have held constant across the entirety of the zombie genre of horror. The zombie curse becomes an allegory for humanity’s existential dread and our own certain knowledge that one day soon, something will wipe us out. There is a rotting, hope-sucking fatalism at the heart of all great zombie films and even in the lightest moments in the best zombie works, you always know in the back of your head that any minor victories will only lead to the most tragic fall later. So, when World War Z trades in the usual stark damnation of the zombie genre for actual, legitimate hope, it is only one of many signs that this particular zombie film lacks any teeth.

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Perhaps it’s the film’s PG-13 rating and (more likely) perhaps it’s the film’s obvious and pathetic attempts to appeal to a mainstream summer blockbuster audience, but from beginning to end, World War Z turns the zombie apocalypse into a sterile, market-tested crowd pleaser that isn’t nearly as fun (or terrifying) as it wants itself to be. World War Z has individual set pieces that are a legitimate rush (a moment in a crowded plane stands out for sheer inspiration), but with emotionally wooden characters, mostly ineffective performances, and literally no sense of stakes in the outcomes of these characters, World War Z falls prey to most of the bad parts of zombie films without any of the gore-ridden excess or social commentary that makes the best Romero pictures so fun.

Gerry Lane (The Assassination of Jesse James‘s Brad Pitt) is a former U.N. investigator who finds himself caught in the middle of a mysterious infection that is turning humanity into murderous, suicidal shells whose only purpose is to continue spreading their infection. Gerry’s family is with him when the infection breaks loose in Philadelphia (and the rest of the world) and though Gerry and his family are able to escape to a UN battleship in the Atlantic ocean, the price for Gerry’s family’s spot on that boat is Gerry returning to field duty and helping to discover the cause of the zombie outbreak before it’s too late to save humanity. And, thus, Gerry is sent on a trip around the world from Korea to Israel to Wales as he searches for answers and for a cure.

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Even more than the fact that World War Z trades in zombie ultra-violence for confusing and schizophrenic editing (in a vein similar to but not as well-exectued as The Hunger Games film), this movie is plagued by a lack of a reason to care. Having watched post-apocalyptic films for decades now, writers and directors have to provide more than the potential extermination of humanity to garner an audience’s sympathies, and World War Z fails there on every possible front. The film adopts an episodic approach to it’s storytelling (keeping in line with its summer blockbuster lineage as opposed to traditional zombie archetypes), and in the downtime between set pieces, the writers fail again and again to develop its characters enough to generate even the most marginal interest in these figures as anything more than plot devices.

Brad Pitt is serviceable in the role of Gerry. But, considering that I think Brad Pitt is one of Hollywood’s most talent and consistently intriguing A-listers (just watch Killing Them Softly and tell me I’m wrong), serviceable is not enough. Pitt gives the distinct impression the entire film that he’s only here to pick up a paycheck, and during what is supposed to be one of the film’s most emotional moments during the movie’s end, Pitt doesn’t sell the uncertainty and despair that must have been rocking through Gerry at that moment. None of the performances make much of an impression although Mireille Enos’s turn as Gerry’s wife was interesting enough that I’d like to keep an eye on this new talent.

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I hope that I haven’t given the impression that I totally hated this movie because I didn’t. When the actual action is taking place (and let there be no question, World War Z is an action movie that happens to feature zombies), it is fast-paced and exciting, and it has several moments that are just buzzing with energy and innovation. A scene where zombies make their way onto a crowded plane is the best of the bunch (and prominently featured in the trailers), but other moments like an escape from an airport and the breaching of the walls of Israel have real verve and pleasure. Sadly there isn’t enough tying these moments together.

If you like real zombie movies of the Romero variety (even the cheesier ones like Diary of the Dead), you will probably find yourself disappointed by World War Z because it lacks practically all of the hallmarks of zombie cinema. And if you’re a fan of summer blockbusters of the Rolan Emmerich variety (i.e. Independence Day), you may still find yourself thinking that World War Z is wanting in some vague aspect. At the end of the day, the film gets the job done with its action-fueled moments, but it doesn’t accomplish nearly enough for just how dead and lifeless this film feels (pun about half-intended).

Final Score: C+

 

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In 2008, before Revolutionary Road was released, the film generated a ton of hype for a variety of reasons. Most obviously, it was the first on-screen pairing of Titanic stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Departed). It was also buzz-worthy for the fact that Kate Winslet’s then-husband, Sam Mendes (Skyfall), was directing her in a film that required her to have sex scenes with two different men. That’s a feat of marital trust that I’m not sure that I could pull off. While the film was generally well-received, it’s praise nowhere near matched the hype, and having come to the film five years later removed from the hype, I see Revolutionary Road as a film with infinite promise that is sullied by some of the worst, most overcooked dialogue I’ve ever encountered for this blog.

To Revolutionary Road‘s credit, the film is dark beyond compare. The only thing keeping this from being a Todd Solondz-esque journey into suburban malaise is a general lack of graphic material. As a portrait of a marriage on the perpetual verge of collapse and of lives (and perhaps an entire human existence) that are devoid of meaning and fulfillment, Revolutionary Road starts bleak, stays bleak, and ends bleak, and it never shies away from the most brutal and intimate moments in a marriage. With astounding performances from its leads (and supporting player Michael Shannon), Revolutionary Road could have been one of the most effecting character pieces of the 2000s. As it is, I found myself laughing every five minutes from the comically overblown dialogue and speechifying from its principal players.

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Dysfunctional barely begins to cover the marriage of the Wheeler family in the supposed perfectness of the 1950s. Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) works as a salesman/copy writer for the same firm his father worked for and hates the complete lack of purpose in his life. April (Kate Winslet) was a former actress who now pretends to love her empty life as a house wife. Frank cheats on April with a cute secretary (Zoe Kazan) while April has eyes for their neighbor, Shep. When the duo decide that the only way to save their marriage and their lives by moving to Paris, have they found their last chance for hope or is it just another delusion that their lives can have any meaning?

While I have the sneaking suspicion that this is a movie I may actually appreciate on a second viewing, that didn’t make the first viewing any more bearable. It takes until the film’s final thirty minutes for the slow dripping of characterization to finally gel into something meaningful, and by that time, I had already exhausted my patience with the film’s snail-like pacing. Movies like Sunday Bloody Sunday show that deliberate peeling away of character can make for first-class drama, but Revolutionary Road betrays its thematic material and rich characterization with mind-numbing emotional histrionics and dialogue that nukes away any subtlety the scenes might have carried.

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Thankfully, the film had three simply marvelous performances to distract me from the stunningly awful dialogue in the movie (and it’s flaccid first two acts). Both Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet give one of the best performances of their careers as these spouses whose indifference towards one another spills over to near hatred. Each is lost and hollow and desperate for any form of acceptance and meaning, and through their emotionally explosive performances, Kate and Leo make us feel the years of pent-up resentment and frustration eating away at these two spouses. That they achieve this despite the dialogue hurdles in their way is even more of a testament to their performances.

The real scene-stealer of the film though was Michael Shannon whose dynamic portrayal of the mentally unstable son of the Wheelers’ real estate agent provided the film the emotional and manic jolt it needed to put the pieces in play for the film’s rewarding final stretch. Along with Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook, this was a superb modern portrayal of mental illness (i.e. a portrayal set in the 50s). Michael Shannon was the only cast member to receive an Academy Award nomination. Kate and Leo deserved them as well, but more than anyone, Michael Shannon’s performance was incendiary.

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I’ll draw this review to a close because there are other ways I’d rather spend my Wednesday evening than rambling about a film I didn’t particularly care for. There’s a lot to like about Revolutionary Road (and Sam Mendes’s visual direction is superb), but there are even more things to hate about it. I can’t stress enough how “pretentious college theatre student” the dialogue in this movie felt and how much it drew me out of the experience again and again. If you’re a fan of good acting, I’m not sure if I can say that Leo and Kate make this film worth the price of admission, but they’re about the only thing that could.

Final Score: C+

 

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The reader of this review needs to imagine a long and deep sigh to preface these proceedings. You do it? Good. I’ve watched my fair share of lengthy films for this blog. Lawrence of Arabia, Das Boot, and (more recently) Django Unchained spring to mind. And while occasionally films can make perfect use of their length from beginning to end (The Tree of Life or Margaret), the previously mentioned films all lost some points for their bloated states. Not everything needed to be there. But still (with the exception of Lawrence of Arabia which had a plethora of problems in addition to its length), the interminable length of some movies was usually a minor price to pay for an otherwise great picture. 1957’s Civil War epic, Raintree County is not a great film by any stretch, and it’s near three hour run time is torturous. The movie has its share of moments though, and Liz Taylor is truly phenomenal. It’s a shame then that a good half of the film could probably have been excised for the better.

Set in the years leading up to the American Civil War, Raintree County is a romantic melodrama cut from the distinct 1950s mold with Gone With the Wind ambitions lacking the Gone With the Wind spectacle (not that I actually think Gone With the Wind is that great of a movie either). John Shawnessy (Montgomery Clift) has just graduated high school and is deeply in love with his high school sweetheart, Nell Gaither (Eva Marie Saint). After falling under the spell of vixenish Susanna Drake (Giant‘s Elizabeth Taylor) and winning an important foot race (it makes sense in context), John accidentally impregnates Susanna after a one night stand and marries her from his sense of honor. And, it isn’t long after marrying Susanna that John discovers that she is… unstable and that the secrets from her past may come back to haunt him as the spectre of the Civil War begins to weigh over the entire nation.

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The performances in the film were actually very good. This was the first Monty Clift film I had ever seen, and he was very impressive (especially when I learned that he nearly died during principal photography and his face was terribly scarred in a car accident). One of the first big “Method” film stars, Monty Clift turned John into a wounded and sensitive young hero that went against the mold of many of the ultra-masculine film stars of the era. In fact, I also read that he was James Dean’s favorite actor, and you can see the influence he would have on James Dean in every line of his face. Every facial expression Dean used in Rebel Without a Cause is also on full display with Monty Clift in this film and apparently Monty Clift was doing it first (although this film is newer than Rebel). Also, for one of Hollywood’s most famous early homosexuals, he still had a sizzling sexual chemistry with co-star Elizabeth Taylor (although I’ve since read that he was bisexual).

And, speaking of miss Liz Taylor, she kind of blew me away in this movie. I was a big fan of her work in Giant (one of her only really high profile roles I think I’ve watched for this blog. Well, that and Life With Father, but I hated that movie), but I was not prepared for her performance in this film. She received an Academy Award nomination (she lost to Joanne Woodward for The Three Faces of Eve which I’ve never seen), and it was well deserved. Similar to Monty Clift, Liz Taylor’s acting style was light years ahead of its time. She wasn’t quite a Method actress, but her raw sexuality and ferocity as her mental illness takes over was a type of commitment to the part that was rarely seen from female actresses of that era. I wasn’t as impressed with Eva Marie Saint, although her role was slighter, and I know from On the Waterfront that she’s a great actress in her own right.

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Sadly, good acting does not a three hour long film make. And that’s where the film’s problems arise. When the electric personality of Susanna was there to create a sense of intrigue, tension, and, ultimately, danger, Raintree County become surprisingly enjoyable. Although John is perhaps, finally, too noble of a figure, his descent into the seduction of Susanna and then the price he has to pay because of how psychotic she is makes for great drama, and for a film set in the 1950s, there was clearly a slight message of civil rights written into the film (all of the “villains” opposed abolition). But, when the film turned its attention to the romantic tensions between John and Nell, I honestly couldn’t give a shit. And the film’s opening drags and drags until you finally get a feel for the characters and what the dramatic conflict of the film may be. Raintree County is not a shining example of a well-paced script and just as the beginning drags so does the end until it suddenly and swiftly closes in an absurd manner.

If you’re a fan of Civil War melodramas like Gone With the Wind, you’ll probably enjoy Raintree County much more than I did. I was actually leaning towards a “B-” for this film because despite its egregious flaws, the good stuff was actually keeping me attentive. But the aforementioned ending, which made me go from feeling like it was dragging immensely to suddenly ending without much warning (which seems as impossible as it sounds), dropped it down a grade. I think for fans of older romantic dramas (of which I usually am not), this movie’s good sides will outweigh its bad sides. For everybody else, I’m sure you can find a better way to spend three hours.

Final Score: C+

P.S. The video transfer of the copy of this film that I got from Netflix is arguably one of the worst I’ve ever seen in my entire life. This looked like a VHS copy of a film. Not a DVD copy.

 

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Political satire/topical humor is tricky to pull off. It’s a topic I’ve discussed on this blog in the past (my review of The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is what springs to mind), but it bears repeating again here. Thankfully, 1963’s The Mouse on the Moon is a fairly intentionally light-hearted affair although that doesn’t make it especially funny. The Mouse on the Moon deals with the insanity surrounding the space race in the 1960s (and to a lesser extent, the nuclear arms race), and while it managed to make me chuckle on several occasions, mostly the film left me bored and perusing Twitter and Facebook.

Perhaps, my inability to connect with the film is related to the fact that it’s a sequel to Peter Seller’s The Mouse That Roared which I’ve never seen, and since that film isn’t on my list on this blog, I didn’t really feel the urge to put the effort into watching it since, as I understood it, the film’s were mostly separate (which was thankfully true). I don’t think it impacted my review but my integrity as a critic means I should probably make that point clear. This film could have definitely used the talents of Peter Sellers because if any man is a one-person comic powerhouse, it’s him.

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The Mouse on the Moon centers around the tiny, fictional European nation of Grand Fenwick. They are, to quote the film, Europe’s smallest and least progressive nation, and though the film takes place in the present, Grand Fenwick does not even have indoor plumbing (though it has beatniks…). Prime Minister Rupert Mountjoy (Ron Moody) comes up with a brilliant scheme to bring money to Fenwick’s coffers. He will ask the U.S. for funds to put a man on the moon but instead use it for Fenwick’s own needs. What Mountjoy doesn’t expect is when Fenwick finds itself at the very center of the space race as both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. hope to use Fenwick to outmaneuver the other.

Conceptually, it’s actually kind of a funny idea. The idea that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were both so sure of Fenwick’s incompetency (and yeah, the nation was not actually capable of making a rocket [though the film comes up with a funny deus ex machina there]) that they gave the nation money just to increase their standing in the international community actually seems kind of possible back in Cold War hysteria. And when the British too try to uncover what’s happening and send the bumbling Maurice Spender (How to Murder Your Wife‘s Terry-Thomas) to investigate, the international incident that begins to spiral out of control had potential.

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Sadly, the film doesn’t live up to its potential and mostly the film is yawn-inducing. Terry-Thomas’s presence in the film was far too brief because he was clearly the best comic actor in the film. Bernard Cribbins got some laughs as the Prime Minister’s son who dreams of actually being an astronaut, but he has to make do with material that’s sadly hit or miss. It wasn’t that the film is bad (and you may get that impression from the score I’ll be giving it); it was just entirely forgettable. I watched the film yesterday and though the plot and stray observations have stuck, nothing substantive from the film remains.

Final Score: C+

 

How to Murder Your Wife

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Occasionally, this blog does some really weird stuff. I.e., for the first 300 and so films of my blog’s existence, Jack Lemmon didn’t make a single appearance, but after his arrival in the masterful Glengarry Glen Ross, he makes his return just four films later. Pacino did the exact same thing. He hadn’t been any movie prior to the flaccid Scarface last week, but he came roaring back for Glengarry Glen Ross a couple days later. And that’s odd because those are two of Hollywood’s most beloved actors of all time. It’s so weird that it took them this long to show up in the first place. And after two films (when I wasn’t that intimately familiar with Jack Lemmon’s non-Grumpy Old Men roles), I get the allure surrounding this Hollywood legend. Because ten films into my current 50 film line-up for this blog (cause I break my awards down into 50 film chunks), Jack Lemmon is the front-runner for both Best Actor in both Drama and Comedy (though there’s plenty of time for him to be dethroned for both).

That isn’t to say that my current movie, How to Murder Your Wife, is half the movie that Glengarry Glen Ross was. It’s not even operating in the same galaxy of excellence. Actually, to be honest, it’s sort of bad. Jack Lemmon is just brilliant in it. He’s apparently one of those actors like Meryl Streep who can make even subpar material good in the wake of his terrific acting. I’m sure that for the time this film felt revolutionary with its almost counter-culture message about marriage, 50 years later, How to Murder Your Wife seems almost virulently misogynistic and the laughs don’t come often enough to justify it’s overly long two hour running time. The movie has some great comic bits, but for the most part, How to Murder Your Wife is a bore that hasn’t aged well.

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Stanley Ford (Jack Lemmon) is America’s most beloved comic strip artist. His daily Dash Branigan series chronicling the adventures of a secret agent is read by 80 million people every day. He lives in a gorgeous New York City town house with his butler Charles (Terry-Thomas), and Stanley’s life is the very model of content bachelorhood. When a stag party ends with Stanley married to the dancer that jumps out of the cake (the absurdly gorgeous Virna Lisi), his life becomes everything he fears from domestication. His cartoon hero becomes a domestic marriage satire, and Stanley even begins to put on weight and lose his cocky swagger. Angry with his new lot in life, Stanley decides to have Dash Branigan murder his fictional wife. But when Mrs. Ford finds out about Stanley’s cartoon plans, she runs away and everyone else begins to suspect that Stanley actually murdered her.

Similar to the screwball action at the heart of The Palm Beach Story, this movie actually sounds pretty funny on paper. And if more of the film had been devoted to Stanley’s harmless escapist fantasy of murdering his fictional wife and it avalanching out of control, this could have been a great movie. Sadly, the film spends too much time as a terribly dated family comedy where they try to play on dated gender stereotypes for as many laughs as possible even though the laughs don’t actually arrive. Most of the women are unbearable, unlikeable nagging hags. Mrs. Ford isn’t even given a real name. She’s not necessarily unlikeable but her stupidity and naivete is almost unending. And Stanley’s lawyer, Harold Lampson (Eddie Mayehoff) is a paragon of male boorishness and a picture of the emasculated henpecked husband. But, it’s not funny. It’s just pathetic.

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Thank god for Jack Lemmon and Terry-Thomas then. Anyone wanting to be a comic actor should just go back and watch old Jack Lemmon roles because he is a master of comedic timing. He just knows the exact right moment to deliver the punchline. And the way he can roll his eyes or sigh or become deflated after his plans fall apart is just wonderful. And despite the awful situation he believes he’s found himself in and the almost unsympathetic figure that the script paints him as, Lemmon has such a natural joie de vivre that you can’t help but root for this scheming weasel whose dick got him into more trouble than he could afford. And Terry-Thomas helps to obliterate all of the tropes and cliches associated with the wise and mature butler. He’s as sexist and scheming and hard-willed as Stanley and honestly, the film could have used more of Charles the Butler.

How to Murder Your Wife is not a good movie. It has some great moments. And when they let Jack Lemmon just be Jack Lemmon, it can border on brilliant. He gives a speech towards the end of the film is absurdly offensive in its sexism, but coming from Jack Lemmon’s mouth, you almost don’t want to realize what he’s actually saying. That’s how good he is. He’s like the D.W. Griffith or Leni Riefenstahl of sexism in this film. If you like classic comedies, you might enjoy this film. I love classic comedies though, particularly the classic screwball films, and How to Murder Your Wife did not prove to be one of them.

Final Score: C+

Scarface (1932)

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It’s three weeks into my gangster movie film studies class and I’m already tiring of the genre. Throw in the fact that next week’s film is the 1980s remake of the movie I’m about to review (and a film that I think is super over-rated) and, well, to quote G.O.B., “I’ve made a huge mistake.” Perhaps, it isn’t the gangster genre itself that I’m tiring of though, and maybe this weariness I suddenly feel towards the genre is just directly related to how little I care for the film that I watched a couple days ago (and only now found the time to review), 1932’s Howard Hawks’ “classic” Scarface. With the exception of Paul Muni’s deliciously theatrical performance and occasional moments of shocking violence and action (for a film from the early 30s), I found Scarface to be a tired, cliche-ridden (though it probably made many of the cliches), somewhat racist and overblown picture lacking the fun energy of The Public Enemy or White Heat.

Paul Muni (The Life of Emile Zola) plays Tony Camonte, the tough-talking, sadistic, Italian stereotype gangster at the heart of the film. After murdering his old boss at the behest of ambitious crime boss Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins), Tony, the scar-marked psychopath, slowly gains power and respect in the criminal underworld which he lords mercilessly over civilians and criminals alike, including his kid sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak) who Tony sees as his own personal property. As Tony’s ambitions rise and he starts to fall for his boss’s girl (Karen Morley), it’s only a matter of time til Tony Camonte tries to take over the rackets as his own boss. But will his greed and insatiable lust for violence prove his downfall?

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Paul Muni is almost the film’s only saving grace and even he takes his portrayal to cartoonish heights. Unlike James Cagney, who could take a psychopath like Cody Jarret or Tom Powers and make them feel human, Muni and the film’s writing turn Tony into a caricature. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t fun to watch him do his thing though. He’s flamboyant, seductive, and able to flip from charmer to brutal sadist at a switch. The xenophobic, racist writing at the heart of the film can be blamed for most of the deficiencies in Muni’s performance but he’s certainly no Cagney and this performance doesn’t reach the high mark he set later with The Life of Emile Zola. Karen Morley also had some good moments as the femme fatale whose affection Tony desperately seeks.

Sadly, everything in the film features the same heavy-handedness that defined Tony’s characterization. Every character feels like a sad racial stereotype of Italian-American’s in the early 1900s. At one point, a cop even comes out and says that most criminals of the time were foreigners. The film reeks of xenophobia and racism. At least, Tom Powers and Cody Jarret weren’t tired racial stereotypes. Although the worst offender in this department was Tony’s mother who can only be called whatever the Italian equivalent of “blackface” would be. There’s no subtlety in the film although that was never Howard Hawks’ strongsuit or Howard Hughes (who produced the film). They just want to beat you over the head with the violence, crime, and sex and not leave any room for character development or interesting social commentary.

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Still, despite its egregious shortcomings, Scarface had its moments where everything seemed to click. When they allowed Paul Muni to menace and terrify, the film moved in the right direction. Particularly, when it explored his borderline incestuous relationship with his sister Cesca, Scarface brought something new to the table that other films weren’t handling much better. And, when it could temper its own excesses and overblown caricatures, it was a legitimately entertaining film that simply suffered from a fatally flawed structure holding those good pieces together. At the end of the day though, Scarface is held up as one of the defining films of the gangster movie genre. I honestly can’t figure out why, but if you consider yourself a student of the art, it’s probably worth a look or two. Just don’t be surprised when it hasn’t aged well.

Final Score: C+

 

(Quick side note. Sorry for the long hiatuses between reviews. I had three exams last week and I worked every day of the week but Monday and Wednesday. I’m pretty sure my last review went up Tuesday. You get the picture. I have a lot more free time this week. So expect me to do some catching up. I also have a review to put up for Uncharted 3 so that should be fun. Also, lo and behold, my hot streak of really good films finally came to an end on the film I actually thought I’d enjoy the most out of the movies I was sent.)

How do we cover historical travesties committed by a group of people in the modern day without making a film that comes off as racist? Or is the simple truth that presenting historical facts about something that really happened can be construed as racist a sign of our over-sensitive times? You can’t make a movie about the Holocaust where Germany isn’t going to come off in a bad light, but Schindler’s List was never accused of being anti-the German people. Hotel Rwanda was a brutal look at the Rwandan genocide, but it too hasn’t been accused of being racist against the African people. The “Rape of Nanking” is one of history’s most infamous war crimes, but its presentation in The Flowers of War is so gung-ho in its presentation that one would expect this from a 1950s propaganda film right after the war, not a modern examination of one of the most horrific city sieges of all time.

First things first though, some historical context for those unfamiliar with their Sino-Japanese relations circa World War II. Although the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime in Europe get most of the attention, Stalinist Russia and Imperial Japan committed their own fair share of horrors. Stalin was responsible for the deaths of roughly 10 million of his own people, and when the Japanese invaded China, they employed a scorched Earth strategy that would have disgusted William Tecumseh Sherman. Their actions in the Nanking Massacre were especially atrocious as the Japanese army murdered over 300,000 civilians after the Chinese army had already fled and engaged in barbaric acts of rape and pillaging. To this day, the actions of the Japanese military in Nanking (and the rest of China) are a point of extreme tension between the two most powerful Asiatic nations.

The Flowers of War doesn’t falter because it portrays what actually happened in Nanking during that dark page in world history. It falters because of its almost messianic portrayal of the Chinese people struggling to survive against the Japanese who are worse than demonic in this film with absolutely nothing in the way of redeeming qualities. If you can imagine every single war film cliche in terms of cinematography (not necessarily plot which is where the film finds its successes), you have an idea of how The Flowers of War is shot. Gratuitous use of slo-motion? Check. Admittedly gorgeous but often inappropriate lighting? Check. An omnipresent swelling score that would make John Williams proud? Check. Infantrymen capable of remarkable/impossible feats of markmanship? Check. When the film is focused on the battle for the city, it’s hard to find an original storytelling bone in the movie’s body, and the movie is guilty of the most unforgivable war film faux pas of all. It attempts to beautify the horrific.

Thankfully though, that’s not the main story of the film. John Miller (Christian Bale) is an American mortician living in China in 1937 as the Japanese invade the city of Nanking. A drunkard and a selfish louse, Miller takes a job during the invasion itself to bury the Father of a local Catholic cathedral. However, by the time he arrives, the Father has been destroyed by a mortar shell, and Miller is left to look after a group of 12 year old girls that are students at the convent. When a group of local prostitutes show up looking for refuge, John’s initial response is to just look out for himself, but after seeing the Japanese army’s barbarism (which includes attempted rapes of the 12 year old girls), Miller pretends to be the priest of the parish and takes actions to get the little girls and prostitutes to safety away from Nanking.

Usually Christian Bale is one of the better actors of his generation (one need only go back as early as Empire of the Sun to see his talents as a child and then move up to The Fighter or American Psycho for his adult talents), but I wasn’t impressed with his performance in this role. At times you saw hints of the manic charm and explosive energy that is always resting right below the surface of Bale’s otherwise calm demeanor, but a lot of the time I felt as if he was just dialing his performance in. It didn’t help that the dialogue he was reading often felt stiff and unnatural. Chinese actress Ni Ni was more charming as the madam of the group of prostitutes, but even her performance required her to ratchet up the melodrama in a film that was already overflowing with cliche emotion.

Credit must be given for the film’s ability to generate a visceral emotional reaction when it called for it though. Like any film about genocide or mass murder, The Flowers of War is incredibly difficult to watch. I’m not sure how much credit can be given to the film or the filmmakers there though. The subject matter itself is is innately horrifying to anyone who has anything remotely resembling a conscience. There were many moments in the film where I was awestruck with the horror these young girls were facing and reminded yet again of the terrible atrocities that have been committed just in the last 100 years alone. The film does not shy away from graphic depictions of the deaths and murder of soldiers or civilians, and for the faint of heart, it may be too much to take in.

Usually, I’m all about films that embrace cinematographic beauty. A quick scan of the rare films to receive an “A+” on here will show that most of them are visual wonders as much as storytelling wonders. However, there’s a time and place for that kind of poetic flourish, and a war film isn’t it. Although the film takes great pains to set up a dichotomy between the quiet beauty of the small moments with the brutal horror of the wartime realities, it has an unfortunate tendency to blur those lines in ways that I would find highly offensive if I were Chinese and from Nanking. Although maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about since this was one of the biggest films to come out of China last year.

My dad really enjoyed this film, and his recommendation was the reason that I watched it (although I just discovered it was actually on my list [in the 1000’s range order wise] because it was nominated for a Golden Globe). So, perhaps I’m just yet again too cynical and jaded to enjoy this melodramatic of a film. We had similarly differing opinions about the quality of War Horse (which I found to be an overbearing bore but he loved. We both sobbed when watched it though). So, perhaps here’s the best summation of the film. If you’re a jaded, cynical type like myelf, go ahead and give The Flowers of War a pass. But if you’re still capable of genuine and raw emotion, you may find more here to love than I.

Final Score: C+

Like most kids from the 80s onward, I have a special place in my heart for the Brat Pack. Mostly in regards to the John Hughes films (although I also like the Cameron Crowe projects like Say Anything or Fast Times at Ridgemont  High), if you can look past the garish 80s fashion, there’s just something timeless in those films that still resonate with a lot of young people today. They can be cheesy and predictable and occasionally a tad disingenuous, but for everybody who had a real teen experience with all of the emotional melodrama inherent in those years, it speaks to you. I’m not ashamed to admit that at one point I knew all the words to Pretty in Pink. But what happens when the Brat Pack grows up? What happens when a known franchise ruiner (although Batman was a decade off) like Joel Schumacher steps into a good thing? You get the addled mess, St. Elmo’s Fire.

Whoever signed off on this film at Columbia should have been terminated from their position. While the premise is intriguing enough, it’s execution is an almost uniform failure. Roughly a year after graduating from college, seven best friends navigate the turbulent reality of adult life. The highly successful Alec (Judd Nelson) and Leslie (Ally Sheedy) have just moved in together, and although Alec regularly hints to Leslie that they should get married, he regularly cheats on her. Their friend Kevin (Andrew McCarthy), a struggling journalist, is madly in love with Leslie, to the point that the way he ignores all other women makes his friends suspect he is gay. Billy (Rob Lowe) is dating Wendy (Mare Winningham) even though he’s married with a kid and sponges all of her money. Jules (Demi Moore) is a party girl whose out of control spending is only matched by her coke habit, and Kirby (Emilio Estevez) starts an unhealthy obsession with a young doctor (Andie MacDowell).

Before I eviscerate the film for its cliche characters, cheesy dialogue, wildly uneven acting, and utterly unsympathetic characters, let me shine a light on its redeeming points. Although Pretty in Pink makes me instinctually dislike Andrew McCarthy (“His name is Blaine!? Oh! That’s a major appliance, that’s not a name!”), he’s by far the most compelling character in the film. As one of the few characters whose sympathetic side greatly outweighs his flaws, his story of unrequited love is something that everyone can relate to. And Andrew McCarthy makes Kevin into a warm but wounded figure that is often the glue holding his group of friends together. Similarly, Ally Sheedy has her moments to shine as the beleaguered Leslie. Though she doesn’t have much to do most of the film, when she finally confronts Alec about his infidelity (and share’s her pain with Kevin afterwards), she shows Leslie’s sensitive side.

Unfortunately, the rest of the performances are less than impressive. Judd Nelson was only behind Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club for the best performance in the film (well, if you don’t count the principal), but he reads his lines as Alec as if there is something essentially off in Alec’s brain, which makes no sense since he’s a successful campaigner for politicians. Mare Winningham portrays the only other sympathetic character in the film with Wendy, but Wendy is such a doormat (and Winningham’s performance is so dull) that you never really make yourself care that she is constantly being used by the rakish Billy. Rob Lowe may have won the Razzie for this film (although he wasn’t great, I didn’t think he was actively bad), but that honor should have been bestowed to the lifeless and stale Demi Moore who provided no emotional context for the continual self-destruction of Jules.

Then there’s Emilio Estevez. His performance is fine, and he actually taps into a great bit of passion and occasionally rage that recalls his father, Martin Sheen, who he bears an almost freakish resemblance to. It’s his character. Although the film makes it obvious that his feelings for Andie MacDowell’s Dale are unhealthy, it doesn’t do a good enough job of reminding the audience that he is essentially a completely crazy stalker. The film even rewards his creep behavior with a scene that I don’t want to ruin for those who potentially haven’t seen the film. It’s a flaw with much of the film because there aren’t enough real consequences for the narcissism and selfishness at the core of most of the film’s characters. The film, instead, is far too eager to offer pat lessons and overly simple conclusions.

It’s also just incredibly difficult to sympathize with these people. If this film were to be described with a twitter hash tag, it would be #WhitePeopleWithProblems . Nearly everyone in the film originally comes from a high socioeconomic background, and through stubborness, pride, mental instability, and flat-out stupidity, they wreck things themselves. As a college student who has made his own share of errors concerning his education and life, this could be relatable, but the film gives you no reason to emotionally invest in these individuals other than the power of investing in the actors and archetypes of the stars. The potential is out there (and HBO has recently begun exploring it with Girls) to make a great piece about the terror that is transitioning from college to the real world, but St. Elmo’s Fire assuredly isn’t it.

Final Score: C+