Saturday, May 31, 2008

We need a new word

With the success this weekend of Sex and the City following on the success a couple of years ago of The Devil Wears Prada, it occurs to me that we don't really have a phrase to use for these films. People incorrectly refer to Prada, which I like to call the female Top Gun, as a romantic comedy. Not accurate. The film barely touches on romance. It's more interested in a young woman finding her way in a tough world and the relationships with the females who surround her. Men have very little presence. While SATC reportedly has more romance (I haven't seen it), my guess is that it has similar concerns.

In the old days, like the forties, they would call it a "woman's picture." All About Eve is the ultimate example - a movie about the interaction of a group of four women, with men primarily as Maguffins, objects to propel the female relationships. But woman's picture sounds so clunky to modern audiences. Therefore, I think we need a new term.

I haven't thought of one yet. Although from a joking male perspective, I've thought up the term "scrotum cruncher." But I won't be using that one in formal reviews.

UPDATE: I just googled "scrotum cruncher" and already this website is the second Google entry for that term. This update could theoretically push us to number one. Is that an accomplishment, or what?

Friday, May 30, 2008

Falling up [The Fall]

The Fall [R]
Grade: B
Director: Tarsem Singh
Cast: Lee Pace, Catinca Untaru

How many movies must a director make before we can say he has a definitive visual style?

In the case of Tarsem Singh, that number might well be two (although a string of striking 1990s musical videos certainly helps establish his reputation). His involving images dwell in strong blues, reds, and purples, swimming in often sandy backdrops (deserts are popular).

What’s been less clear about Singh is whether his stories will ever have the same power as his pictures. His first feature, The Cell, is old enough now to have been made when people still regarded Jennifer Lopez as a bright, rising star with a seemingly endless future. With the help of a futuristic device, a psychiatrist explores the internal landscape of a psychotic’s mind. This story was essentially an excuse for Singh to paint across the screen.

Faring better in this regard is his second feature, The Fall, which allows his surrealistic expressions to intertwine with a stronger story. Set in the 1920s, a Hollywood stuntman, after an on-set accident that might have been a suicide attempt, lies paralyzed in a California Catholic hospital. There, he strikes up a friendship with a young immigrant girl, also a patient.

The twist in the plot turns out to be less of a cynical arthouse pretension than it sounds. The stunt man wants to use his influence over the girl so that she will fetch him pills with which to commit suicide. Each day, as she visits his bedside, he seeks to win her favor by telling a continuing bedtime story, which is visualized on the screen.

The wandering story, a tale of foreign adventure, romance, and deadpan humor, follows the attempts of a group of outcast warriors as they seek revenge on a nasty emperor. Mystical warriors are birthed from burnt trees. Castaways ride ashore on swimming elephants. This is the portion swaddled in Singh’s unique eye-candy universe.

The greatest test for a movie like this is whether the story is strong enough to justify the visuals. Until its troubling ending, when it mistakes melodrama for emotional movement, I felt it does. There’s an enjoyable gentleness to the relationship between man and child. Strangely though, I thought a few of Singh’s compositions seemed a little used and familiar. It’s been 10 years. That’s a lot of time for people to steal.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Sex and the City

Jeff Wells gets off a great line against the monomaniacal materialism of Sex and the City, calling the new movie, "A Taliban recruitment film." I haven't seen it, and don't plan to. I once watched 10 minutes of an episode and didn't laugh once. I never went back. A scourge on Western Civilization.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Sydney Pollack, rest in peace

When I think of Sydney Pollack, weirdly, I think about his acting, in films like Eyes Wide Shut and Michael Clayton. Obviously, he directed films such as Tootsie, Out of Africa, and They Shoot Horses, Don't They? He passed away Monday at 73.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Anti-D Supporters Cup, No. 1 [Melvyn Douglas - Being There]

[NOTE: In my continuing efforts to find a way to talk interestingly about classic movies, I'm instituting the Anti-D Supporters Cup, an irregular award dedicated to highlighting small performances that bring much to these films.]

The challenge of Melvyn Douglas' role as dying Senator Benjamin Rand in Being There is this: what at first must seem like an act of folly - mistaking the idiot gardener Chance/Chauncey (Peter Sellers) for an oracle of deep insight - must later seem like a perceptive moment of deathbed intuition. When an aide comes to reveal the secret, Douglas simultaneously must seem a fool and a man possessing a deeper wisdom that's lost on the mortals who will live beyond him. He also must give a touching portrayal of a dying man that is noticeably short on explicit Tuesdays with Morrie moments. A veteran of films since working with Greta Garbo in the 1930s and a veteran screwballer, Douglas deservedly would take his second Best Supporting Oscar for this role, his first coming as Paul Newman's father in Hud.

Saturday, May 24, 2008


One of the genuinely best viewing experiences in my recent splurge of re-viewing movies I watched as a teen-ager, Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious. a film that I barely remembered. Elegantly shot. Strongly acted. Great ending. Wonderful romance. Now I remember why I so enjoyed it. And the connection to Lust, Caution didn't occur to me until watching it again.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Shoot the groundhog!


The worst moments from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

5. The final word on the motorcycle chase – The motorcycle chase through campus is probably the second best action sequences of the film. Yet it’s capped off with a lame one-liner. After Mutt and Indiana go piling through the library, a student asks him a question. He gives the answer, then says something like, “To be a good archaeologist, you have to get out of the library.” The script is a good number of groaners, but this one, at the end of a very good sequence, is especially damaging.

4. Mutt Williams gay biker entrance – Stipulated: not that there’s anything wrong with that. However, if you were considering turning over a treasured film series to a new young hero, would you make this his first impression?

3. The quicksand— Indy, family and friends escape the Soviet camp and end up in quicksand. Mutt mysteriously throws him a python as a rope. Hilarity ensues (or doesn’t). Fear of snakes was originally a humorous way for the fearless Jones to have a nutty phobia. But here it’s a strict self-parodying gag. The low point of the movie.

2. The opening 20 minutes— Everyone hates the ending. But I hate the beginning, too. What’s with the George Lucas’ American Graffiti fantasy? You open the movie with a fifties convertible filled with teenagers speeding alongside a secret convoy of Soviet soldiers? What’s with a crack KGB team being unable to shoot an old man running atop crates? How flat is the dialogue in this portion? Why do the stunts all look off? Why does the mushroom cloud look so fake? And most importantly ….

1. The groundhog – The first image of the film is this damn computerized groundhog burrowing to the surface. Then later we get a reaction shot in which the little critter plays the comedic foil to Jones, like something that would happen to Steve Martin in a bad Disney movie. This is the most seriously annoying piece of technological advancement in the history of the cinema. In only a couple of shots, he becomes the Jar Jar Binks of the Indiana Jones series. Shoot the groundhog.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Once more with no feeling [Indiana Jones]

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull [PG-13]
Grade: D
Cast: Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt
Director: Steven Spielberg

After nearly two decades, Indiana Jones remains one of America’s favorite action heroes. But here’s the thing about that. For one American hero, there are actually two of him.

No, I’m not referring to the split personality between the tweedy university archaeologist and the whip-cracking, fedora-wearing adventurer. The first Dr. Jones, best seen in Raiders of the Lost Ark, is a semi-real man caught in a Saturday morning serial. He does real work. The object of his interest, the Ark of the Covenant, has the benefit of purported historical existence. He fights those real-life villains, the Nazis. And despite the fantastical nature of the stories, his adventures possess a touch of realism and palpable apocalyptic dread. I wouldn’t call this reality, exactly, or even plausibility. But in Indy’s world the stakes are real and high, as is the danger.

Then there’s the other Dr. Jones. He fights Amazonian natives who crawl from the walls of ancient temples. He watches hearts ripped from chests by high priests. He survives a nuclear blast in a refrigerator. He thinks Asian orphans unable to reach the pedals make the best drivers. His adventures are clearly comic book, with comic book stakes. This Indiana Jones runs on thrills and spectacle, without true danger, and his films usually end up lacking for it.

And it’s more the latter Jones that returns to the screen after 19 years in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Ghouls can attack in graveyards. Giant ants can chew up grown men. Cate Blanchett, as a Soviet interrogator pinup, can rattle her sabre to her leather boots’ content. And I just couldn’t care. The race to find a crystal skull of possible alien origin didn’t excite me. And most of all, the comic-book stakes never moved me to fear. Although the film has some splendid action sequences, it too often wearies on madcap Saturday serial overstatement.

And so Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ Indy revival evolves into a strange brew of cinematic accomplishment and self-parody. In the middle of the rambling, incoherent story is at least one lengthy, brilliant action set piece— a car chase/swordfight rushing through the jungle – that will have the water cooler abuzz. Yet too often the film’s terrific action scenes finish with a cringe. Other cringes come alone. Take an agonizing gag involving Jones, quicksand, and a python. (He hates snakes, you know. We gotta work that in.) And leaving the theater, you might feel an uncontrollable impulse to immediately walk into a field and shoot a groundhog. Be advised, I don’t know if that’s legal.

With Harrison Ford’s advancing age, the time period for this adventure has shifted from the 1930s to the 1950s. Strangely, 20 years and a change in evil empires, from the Nazis to the Soviets, hasn’t improved anyone’s aim. This crack team of Soviet soldiers might be able to efficiently break into America’s most fortified secret base, Area 51. But there’s still no one in the platoon that can hit a 60-year-old man who makes John Wayne look like a sprinter.

And it’s there that we get the first hint of this adventure. The Soviets are looking for an alien body. It’s part of an effort to retrieve a skull made of crystal, believed to hold psychic powers. These will appear when returned to El Dorado, the legendary lost city of gold in the Amazon. The Soviets hope to use it to control the minds of capitalists and take over the world.

Professor Oxley (John Hurt), hunting down the skull, sends word for Indy to come and help. Being the 1950s, a time before Thomas Edison invented the telephone (right?), the message arrives in leather on a motorcycle, in the person of youngster Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf). Mutt also arrives with a secret that even he doesn’t know. Of course, even in his sixties, Dr. Jones can’t resist a new chance to crack the whip.

The return of Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, the feisty love interest from Raiders, is a lift to the film. Time hasn’t dimmed the fire between her and Ford; you’d pay to watch them argue over the right restaurant for the evening. Yet their rapport points out a problem – they’re the only two characters we greatly care about, and that’s mainly a matter of legacy.

The film fails to introduce a single character that makes a significant mark. John Hurt mumbles a lot. The script wastes the great Ray Winstone, who as Jones’ turncoat drinking buddy Mac does little except switch sides and yell “Jonesy,” over and over and over. Blanchett, while good, is underused and under-imagined. LaBeouf has a moment or two, including a fun motorcycle chase through campus. But he still seems like he should be off auditioning for Sha-Na-Na.

When not saddled by a messy script, Spielberg turns in an energetic directing effort. He’s a much more skilled director than at the time of the original series, and the conception and choreography of some of the action scenes are truly masterful. I’m personally pleased that his most recent weakness, the easy escape, only shows up once. Yet the film feels like a creative compromise with Lucas – a greaser for me, a spaceship for you. I wanted the film to be more than just one for old time’s sake. While there’s nothing wrong with that, there could have been more.

That leaves me thinking of one moment in Raiders, the moment when Belloq, the rival archaeologist, implores Dr. Jones not to fire his weapon and destroy the ark. In the middle of this gigantic blockbuster is this small, realistic speech about the importance of the historical moment. Most importantly, it appeals to Jones’ deepest beliefs. Could you imagine such a speech in Crystal Skull? No, you can’t. And that explains a lot of what is missing.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008



Oh, and if I ever see a groundhog again,

I'm going to shoot it. You'll see what I mean.

The Eagle has landed

I've finally seen Indy. I'll wait til my review to talk more about it. Until then, pay attention to David Poland's breakdown of it. My favorite absurdity .... you walk into a hangar at super-secret military base Area 51, and what is painted on the doors? The numbers 5 and 1. Is that the way you keep a top secret code name? Paint it on the door? Never mind the fact that all you have to do to break in is overpower, like, three guards.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Decline and Fall of the Inwood Theater, Part 2

OK, this might not be a bad idea in and of itself, but it definitely smells of .... something bad. The Landmark Inwood Theater, the decline and fall of which I described here, has ripped out its seats in its primary auditorium and filled the room with Ottomans, cushy sofas, and loveseats. You can go either way on that one, I guess. But guess what is the first film that will be shown in its newly comfy-fit auditorium? Noted indie release from those struggling auteurs George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Are they planning on ripping out the soul, too? Or should we assume they've already done that?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

We named the dog Indiana

Indy is not a complete disaster, apparently.

Good news, I guess. Even if straddling the middle - some positive, some negative - is more a relief than a huge success.

I really should save that headline for the review. You know. Just in case.


Maybe not.


Maybe so.

Did they ever this thing right. They imitated the Da Vinci Code pattern to a T. So now that the movie is getting middling reviews, it looks like a triumph in comparison. Brilliant marketing.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Indy! Indy! Indy! (pant, pant)

Reading this preview of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull dims my already pessimistic view of it. With a memorable Photoshop pic and the headline "George Lucas must be stopped," Victor Godinez at the Dallas Morning News' Screening Room blog frets over the revelation that producer George Lucas originally wanted to entitle the film Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men from Mars. More distressing is the second half of that sentence in the story, revealing that it took a decade for Lucas, Spielberg, and Harrison Ford to agree on a plot. A decade means ten years, folks. Given the basic Amazonian adventure plot, the Cold War underpinnings, and the rumored appearance of an alien presence, this makes it seem like the film is going to have a plot to satisfy each of its masters.

Add that Karen Black is returning, and suddenly this feels like the last episode of Cheers, where all the old cast mates get together and reminisce and try to sum up the meaning of life.

The film is set to debut for critics at the Cannes International Film Festival Sunday evening.

Prince Caspian's rating

The biggest inexplicable mistake of the weekend has been the PG rating for The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. It is a very violent film, including one suggested decapitation. How it got a PG rating, besides Disney muscle, no one seems to know. Somehow the cursing in Once is so corrupting of teenagers (because Heaven knows they don't use that sort of language) that it requires an R rating, but decapitations for children? Ah, you just need a little parental guidance to explain it. Bogus.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Meanwhile, over at Living in Cinema ....

A post in praise of the geriatric rock-song chorus documentary Young@Heart took an interesting turn, as the director Stephen Walker apparently joined in. He gives some interesting insight on the film and the reaction it generates.

And more Speed ....

A brainy (and thorough) review in favor of Speed Racer, from Dennis Cozolio at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule.

Speed Racer: The fight is on

Darth Mojo takes on the critical dismissal of Speed Racer with a sledgehammer in their heart. The memorable photoshop job is a little tasteless but highly accurate. I especially like the portion that compares Speed Racer reviews to the risible Transformers. And what is Variety thinking when it lists defying physics as a negative? When did enforcing the laws of physics become legitimate film criticism?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

No rightful heir [Prince Caspian]

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian [PG, but should be PG-13]
Grade: D

The second film installment of C.S. Lewis’ Christian allegory The Chronicles of Narnia commits a few deadly sins, gluttony being the foremost among them.

A sequel always risks the “bigger, better” approach that spares no dime and no bad idea in the effort to top the original. Often in its blindness, the money blanket suffocates what worked in the original. Such is the case with the CGI childhood adventure Prince Caspian, no rightful heir to the crown.

The charm of the first Narnia movie – 2005’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – was its warm family dynamic. The Pevensie children were perfect examples of Disney’s knack for finding sugary children who genuinely seem like they’ve been hitting each other in the back seat for ages. But as the film moved into its ponderous Christian allegory, it lost narrative momentum. Allegories should allow their consumers a multi-level reading, and the first Narnia failed in this way.

The Christian elements are more subdued in Caspian, which helps the story grow organically. It is easier to enjoy the adventure without needing to decode its Christian mythology. But Caspian only sporadically recaptures the family intimacy that sweetened the original. In the first film, the children moved from their own war-torn world into an empowering fantasy, in which their own goodness could make a better world around them. The camaraderie and self-discovery are missing here, and the film is weaker for it.

Caspian runs on epic overdrive, entirely overconfident in its own magnificence. It tries to achieve epic status by masquerading every scene as a moment of immensity. It doesn’t pick and choose its moments. Every time the children wander onto a new set of storybook ruins, the string section swells. You suspect an overture would be called if they ever stopped to tie their shoes.

Now, when the film does find moments that match its grandiosity, it flies beautifully. Such is the case with the major action sequence, a great storming-the-castle sequence that expertly balances action in six or seven different places. There is also a well-cut sword challenge between the eldest Pevensie, Peter, and an evil king. Had the film ended there, it would have provided a uniquely intimate counterpoint that could have served as a moral center. But in the end, you’ve got to use your budget, right?

Prince Caspian takes place a few hundred Narnian years after the events of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but only a couple of earth years afterward. Aslan, the lion king, appears to have disappeared from the forest. The talking forest animals have gone in hiding after a war with the ruling Telmarines. Now a powerful Telmarine lord wants to kill the prince in order to rise to the throne. As Prince Caspian escapes to the forest, he blows a magic horn that calls the Pevensie children back to Narnia. They will help Caspian to try to regain his kingdom.

That is the plot. But while watching armies of talking forest animals face armies of pikemen wearing iron-plated armored faces, the main thing I ask is, what was C.S. Lewis on? Was he sharing it with William Blake? Is it wrong, even for a square like myself, to wonder what a Christian family film might be like to watch on acid? Narnia is the 2001 of Christian childhood fantasies.

Narnia and its audience

My review of the next Narnia Chronicle. Prince Caspian, will be up tonight. I will say this, though - I expect the film to be a huge hit. I was speaking to a critic from a smaller town outside of Dallas. She said that it's the only film people there ask her about. I wonder if these people are showing up in traditional tracking. Add to that the fact that it's a family movie (in theory) and you have a potentially larger box office than predicted.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Pancakes are love!

I thought my review of Speed Racer was enthusiastic. Check out Evan Derrick's boyish, buoyant review at Moviezeal. Exuberance in its purest form. While the film is taking its lumps critically, there is a forming brotherhood of online critics and bloggers whose enthusiasm for this revelatory trip is volcanic.

Excessive Dreamworks bootlicking sighting, No. 1

In a report about Cannes, Pete Hammond (who else?) describes Kung Fu Panda as "stunning." So you're at Cannes, the greatest film festival in the world, and the film you get enthused about is Kung Fu Panda? Stunning.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Crossing guard mess

I saw the funniest thing today. I was driving by an elementary school in Richardson, Texas. They were letting the kids out of the school. And I look over and there is a crossing guard stationed to walk the kids across the exit of the little parking circle to the median of the parking lot. There, they walk to the other side of the median, where another crossing guard is stationed to lead them across the entrance to the parking lot. Where they can walk up to another crossing guard stationed on the street. Your public dollars at work. I hope they are teachers and not additional paid employees.

UPDATE: On second thought, I might have crossed over into what I think is probably Garland, Texas. It's so hard around here to tell which city you are in, sometimes.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Alfred Hitchocock's Vertigo

GreenCine Daily marks the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. One of the five best films ever made. Quite possibly the best.

When first dates invariably ask this film critic what his favorite films are, I usually stumble through the response. Citizen Kane is too obvious. Barry Lyndon requires explaining why that Stanley Kubrick film and not a better known one. Things like Days of Heaven, The Spirit of the Beehive, Andrei Rublev are too obscure. Do you really want to stumble into a conversation on a first date about a 15th Century Russian monk?

Vertigo, while well known, brings the difficulty of needing explanation. I told my dad once that I thought Vertigo was one of the best films ever made and that critics regarded it as such, and it surprised him. To the lay person, I think Hitchcock generally seems too poppy, too plot-driven, when in fact, Sir Alfred was incredibly artistic and incredibly ahead of his time. It is not a film that you can easily explain without assuming your partner is conversant in metafiction and post-modernism.

What's perfect about the film? The opening credits, saturated in red light, with mannequins suggesting many things - necrophilia, the male gaze, the leering sexuality of watching. The fact that all-American hero Jimmy Stewart is about one step removed from being Norman Bates. The lush Technicolor cinematography, which makes it one of the five most beautiful films ever made. The fact that you throw away the plot and become indicted in Stewart's main mission of voyeurism. Try bringing those topics up on a first date. I hope you're wearing stain-resistant clothing.

I saw Vertigo a couple of years ago at a midnight screening at Dallas' once-hallowed Inwood Theater. It's almost shocking to see it in its full majesty. If you ever have the chance, you should rush to it.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Go, Speed Racer

Speed Racer [PG]
Grade: A
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox
Director: Larry and Andy Wachowski

I mean this well: watching The Wachowskis’ Speed Racer is like taking a nostalgia trip back to 1982 for the otherworldly lavishness of Tron. It has that same extravagant visual pop, the same rocket-speed computer car races, fueled with 25 years worth of more advanced technology. The stunning candy-color animation resembles the pied wonderlands of fifties MGM musicals. It’s like someone handed Vincente Minnelli a Lite-Brite and a computer and told him to create a ripping summer action anime. Amazing is the only word.

The film is more than just an optical dessert. It’s a radical dismemberment of space and time, defying and re-developing rules of cinematic physics. Witness the dazzling Casa Cristo car race, a long and winding chase across desert, mountains, and iced peaks, with the best Bond-villain weaponry ever crammed under a hood. The perspective snaps from one image to another, one place to another, one time to another, one person to another. It constantly re-invents the screen without ever confusing. Or relenting.

It’s true, the film should prune about 20 minutes; should rely less on the chubby boy Spridel and his chimp for sporadically effective comic relief; should have a plot with fewer points, that amounts to more than a Keith Olbermann anti-corporate screed. The film’s simplehearted family story shouldn’t work, but it worked on me until it kind of did. These are kitschy roles, but the talented cast (Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon) never surrenders to being in “only a summer movie.” Speed Racer is not an actor’s film, but they never act like it isn’t.

Speed Racer resurrects the cult-classic cartoon, often credited as the first piece of visually striking Japanese anime to cross the Pacific. A baby-faced teen driving sensation, Speed Racer (Hirsch), rises quickly through the ranks of the World Racing League. These races do not take place on skid-marked, gray-asphalt ovals. They zoom through neon-trimmed roller-coaster courses, with cars spinning, leaping, and burning megabyte rubber.

As an up-and-comer, evil corporate interests surround the family and try to pry Speed away from his home-based racing team. One headcase of a CEO suffers through family pancakes to whisk Speed to his Willy Wonka automotive factory. Little does the innocent Speed know that he and a group of fixers control the sport to prop up stock prices. The type of fixers who feed their enemies to rainbow colored piranhas. The type of piranhas who enjoy being well-fed pets.

I’m sure there are critics ready to pummel it. Ready to claim it’s too much. Ready to don the uniforms of the Overkill Police, keeping the megaplexes safe for the next Judd Apatow movie with a no-sex-please-we’re-British visual style. As if the Wachowskis, those Matrix devils, have offended the cinematic gods by making their films visually revelatory. As if their hubris has awakened the volcano, and the lava is about to bury the village.

But what a volcano this is. Like Mother Nature’s ultimate show. Colorful, for sure. Explosive, too. Sometimes indiscriminate and destructive, but finally nourishing to the cinematic earth. At least as nourishing as Mike and Ikes can be.

Stay in Vegas, please [What Happens in Vegas]

What Happens in Vegas [PG-13]
Grade: F
Cast: Ashton Kutcher, Cameron Diaz, Treat Williams, Lake Bell
Director: Tom Vaughan

I made a mistake a couple of years ago that I would like to admit to. I enjoyed an Ashton Kutcher movie.

Actually, it wasn’t a mistake. A Lot Like Love, with Kutcher and Amanda Peet, remains one of my favorite assembly line romantic comedies since I got my film critic cap. While somewhat undermined by a cookie-cutter bad-timing premise, the movie actually cared about its characters as something more than random slapstick generators. Which makes it stand out, given the genre.

It also boasted a competent director (Calendar Girls’ Nigel Cole) who located in Kutcher an awkward Midwestern innocence, a little Henry Fonda-like, that only emerges if you shake well. He also got Kutcher to tone down his sit-com mugging. It was almost like he was a real actor. Almost.

What Happens in Vegas is a step backward – way, way backward. And it doesn’t bother to be hush-hush about it. In fact, it’s not hush-hush about it at all.

This Kutcher-Cameron Diaz pairing stumbles over more than the word, "cinematography." I can recap the plot in two-word sentences. Watch. She’s dumped. He’s fired. Vegas calls. Get drunk. Get hitched. Win big. Attempt Splitsville. Judge denies. Unhappily ever after. OK, OK, that last one has three. And it’s not actually a sentence.

Actually, this is a pretty good concept. You have American values in opposition to American dreams. In the hands of Howard Hawks it might have amounted to something quite splendid. But Dear Reader, perhaps it hasn’t escaped your notice – Howard Hawks is too dead to save it.

The “comedic” shrieking is on Viagra. Or Cialis. It’s in danger of needing to call the doctor for a four-hour erection. Kutcher and Diaz grab each other’s throats like cartoon cat and mouse – peeing in the sink, setting each other up for adultery, anything that might drive the other to leave the whole $3 million. Do these people have lives when they’re not on camera? Could anyone stay in this orgasmically obnoxious mood for six months? Not without landing in intensive care.

Naturally, if the film goes to 11 that means Kutcher goes to 15. And holds it. The whole time. The mugging is back. The blinking never left. I worry about his blood pressure.

Yet in the final 10 minutes, Kutcher reels back the innocence. The ending is complete balderdash, but at least he seems sincere. And it’s at a moment like this that one could wonder if in a parallel universe, his identical twin cousin Ashley Kutcher might not be earning a living as a competent romantic lead.

Then the extra scenes appear as the credits roll. He’s right back to shouting, pointing, mugging, and annoying. Oh well.

Priceless worth it

Priceless [PG-13]
Grade: B
Cast: Audrey Tautou, Gad Emaleh
Director: Pierre Salvadori

Priceless is a champagne-fizz farce about a woman with champagne tastes and a French bartender suffering a romantic hangover.

Irene, a Riviera gold digger of some magnetic capacity, mistakes Jean, her hotel bartender, for a rich man. The mistake will test Jean’s love, sanity, and credit card. Eventually to win her heart, he will stumble into being a gigolo, too. Stuck in the same luxury hotel, they live off the kindness of elders, exchange trade secrets, and fall slowly in love.

Now, you might not drop everything, collapse your bank account, and consign yourself to being a kept man in a hotel, all for the girl of your dreams. But the object of your affection likely isn’t the lovely Audrey Tautou. She leaves behind the lovable gamine routine for one film, and plays seductive and wily. Meanwhile, Gad Emaleh, quickly becoming the new trademark French everyman sex symbol, shows a dry-martini touch for this sort of thing. Given this film and The Valet, will a sexy siren ever fall instantly for him, for his own self?

Directed by Pierre Salvadori (Apres Vous), Priceless (aka: Hors de Prix), floats along on bubbly atmosphere. There are leaps in logic, motivations driven by plot rather than brain, and sometimes dodgy pacing. And it doesn’t really matter in the end, because the sexy humor and charm makes up for it. So does the soundtrack, a brassy sixties sort of thing that recalls a time when a romp like this was common.

Tautou often draws comparisons to that other iconic Audrey. In fact, doesn’t the whole “stunner in fabulous dresses living on the kindness of older men” give this a bit of a Breakfast at Tiffany’s feel? Not being an Amelie fan, this might well be the best I’ve seen of her. For the camera and the atmosphere, she truly is a fizzy delight.

Priceless won’t change your life. But I can’t say it won’t entertain.

Indy panned

The web is sort of buzzing with the pan at Ain't It Cool News for the new Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I don't trust AICN that much, but really, would it surprise anyone if the film was a stinker? People seem to be looking back on the first three films with rose-colored glasses. Only one of them was anything special. Harrison Ford is in his sixties. And every still of this one so far has looked disappointingly goofy. I'll be fair, but I'm not holding my breath.

Need for Speed, Part 2

I mean, isn't the point of being a critic to encourage the innovative? If not, what are we here for?

No need for Speed?

Reading some of the reviews of Speed Racer, I'm struck by something that's been bugging me lately. Do film critics still care about the look of a film? Do they still care about innovation? Or do they just want their little blandly-shot Judd Apatow movie that makes them laugh. The Wachowskis are innovating wildly, pushing the limits, and too many reviewers are covering their eyes and wishing the kids would keep the racket down.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Speed Racer - Wow

I don't think they'd mind me saying that I saw Speed Racer tonight and, wow!

Select list

Man, I need to change the Select list, as I suspect that you'd be hard-pressed to find Snow Angels, and maybe Blueberry Nights, at this moment. But I'm kinda waiting until I have something to watch.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Quantum of Solace mishaps

Is Quantum of Solace a cursed production? The new James Bond film has been beset by numerous mishaps since it started filming early this year. One Aston Martin was driven into an Italian lake. A stuntman was sent to the hospital with pretty serious injuries after a stunt mishap. Now a production person was stabbed with a steak knife in a woman's bedroom. And now word is that Amy Winehouse apparently is not in any sort of shape to perform the theme song.

All this makes people wonder if this thing is going awry. The strange thing is that the hints and plot points that have emerged sound very interesting. I'm still looking forward to it.

The Decline and Fall of the Inwood Theater

During the 1990s heyday of indie filmmaking, the epicenter of the movement in Dallas was the Landmark Inwood Theater. It's a wonderful relic, an old movie house spruced up a bit for modern movie tastes while retaining its original flavor. It is even said to have a ghost that haunts it. I've seen many good first-run films there, but the real joy has been with its midnight Friday and Saturday night showings. I've seen Vertigo, Singin' in the Rain, The Godfather, Ju Dou, Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, Blade Runner, etc. at that odd hour with some of the most cock-eyed assemblages of humanity. My favorite was the time that a man and woman entered to see Rushmore, I think. Maybe Singin' in the Rain. They were coming from a night on the town, likely in the adjoining Inwood Lounge, and the woman was wearing very high stilleto heels. She was also incredibly intoxicated and she showed the balance of a dreydl walking down the aisle. But I digress .....

My point is, look at the shameful lineup of films playing this week at the Inwood. 88 Minutes. Leatherheads. Made of Honor. Made of Honor? These are films you can get at any moviehouse in the Metroplex. The only one remotely in the neighborhood of indie is Leatherheads, based on George Clooney's delight in cinema history. But then again, it has George Clooney! I mean, Made of Honor? Do they have to disinfect the theater between showings? What the fuck, I saw Grizzly Man in this theater!!!

The Devil Wears Prada was a hint, but at least that is a decent film with a standout Meryl Streep performance and was based on a book, however flimsy the literary merit. When it played Enchanted first-run, there really was no excuse, and that was surely a sign of things to come. But Made of Honor? Made of Honor? Hell, Iron Man has more artistic merit! Perhaps the film programmer is a Gray's Anatomy junkie who has carved out a special programming exception for Patrick "McDreamy" Dempsey. Which would be an explanation. It certainly would not be an excuse.

I suppose they would say it's business. But why would someone drive into Dallas to an old movie theater to see Made of Honor when they could see it down the road at the year-or-two-old AMC theater at NorthPark Mall? Does that make business sense?

If you want to see corporate creep into the film industry, here it is.

A Note on Iron Man

I just wanted to add .... my grade of C for Iron Man is probably misleading and something of a demonstration of the weakness of my grading system. I do think it's an average film, in the sense that I did not think it was far beyond an average summer movie. That is to say I didn't find an extra gear. That said, it is probably a high C, as it is mostly an entertaining one. As I said, nothing special, but plenty of decent.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Two-Lane Blacktop

My potential thirteenth cousin, Chuck Bowen over at Bowen's Cinematic, has a wonderful review of a film that I also viewed recently, Monte Hellman's incredible existential road picture Two-Lane Blacktop. I don't write a lot about older films - I write enough about new releases as it is, and I enjoy keeping some film viewing for the sake of film viewing - but I wanted to point you to a review of this supreme 1971 release.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Scrap Iron

Iron Man [PG-13]
Grade: C
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard

When Iron Man’s iconic outfit first goes under the mallet, it is in a gloomy prison, in a gloomy cave, with scraps of leftover metal.

Similarly, the Iron Man persona is pieced together from spare parts of more successful caped men. Playboy arms dealer Tony Stark is the sunny-sided version of Batman’s brooding Bruce Wayne. His bulletproof armor probably required Superman to sign a legal waiver. Not to mention his ability to fly. (His glowing heart, meanwhile, conjures memories of Neil Diamond's E.T. tribute “Heart Light.” Yeah, thanks for that.)

In terms of being a weak imitation, the film version of Iron Man follows suit (presumably one made of red-and-gold titanium). Batman Begins draws a hero of darkness and complication. Bryan Singer’s Superman allows us an alienated savior, a man who can save the world but cannot fully participate in it. Despite some mild stabs at a darker, deeper vision, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man possesses little of that sophistication.

That’s my hopefully not-too-unkind way of calling this a derivative story for a derivative superhero. While Iron Man has plenty of decent, it seldom feels special.

And that might consign Iron Man to the scrap heap of popcorn cinema, if it were not for one fit of inspiration – the radical lunacy of selecting Robert Downey Jr. to play a superhero. Our favorite intelligently maniacal ad-libber comes with his own show tent. That’s good news here, as the modest script begs for a furious performance. That’s why Downey proves so effective, and so necessary.

Downey’s deadpan vitality spruces up a deadly basic story. A genius weapons developer and merchant of death, Tony Stark is captured during an ambush in the Afghan desert. After taking him to a prison camp and parading him before cameras, his captors command him to build a supermissile for their two-dimensionally evil use. In perhaps the dumbest move in the history of captivity – and that goes back a ways – the jailers give Stark access to their arsenal. Soon he builds two things not on his captors’ world-domination agenda – a glowing magnet that keeps his damaged heart healthy and an indestructible suit of armor and arms.

Having seen the damage caused by his deadly products, Stark vows to do heroic things upon his return home. Of course he does so, ironically, by turning himself into a one-man military-industrial complex. And so the first hour devotes acres of screentime to watching Downey play with science. It feels like watching a Bill Nigh the Science Guy biopic. If Bill Nigh split his time between two laboratories in an oceanside mansion and an Afghan cave.

Things pick up as Stark completes his fully-operational battle station of a uniform. Soon, he’s flying. He’s fighting. He’s gleefully dodging fighter planes and whacking the bad guys. At first, his efforts and missile systems aim for the dastardly terrorists who captured him. Later, he will duel his duplicitous business partner (Jeff Bridges), in a Transformers-esque smash-up, along the highways and skyways of Los Angeles.

As superheroes go, Iron Man feels disappointingly non-mythical. That feeling is compounding by the film’s lackluster visual style. The world of a superhero should be custom-painted to its character. It should feel like walking in his psyche. Director Favreau produces no such creativity. Not that there is much of a psyche to work with.

And yet much of this is saved by Downey’s greatness. His puncturing asides resucitate workmanlike moments. His character might be a merchant of death, but Downey is a merchant of the unexpected. Even if the same cannot be said for the rest of the movie.