Posts in: August 2010

Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Heaven’s Gate fails so completely, you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the devil to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter, and the devil has just come around to collect.—Vincent Canby, The New York Times

…the fact is the picture does not have one good scene, or one good character, and it goes on for several hours. I think it’s very interesting visually, but there is nothing that can carry it with an audience.—Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (in a 1982 interview with Jean-Luc Godard)

A director is in deep trouble when we do not even enjoy the primary act of looking at his picture.
 But Cimino’s in deeper trouble still.—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Has a more notorious film than Heaven’s Gate ever been made? Michael Cimino’s follow-up to a masterpiece, 1978’s The Deer Hunter, was plagued by budget overruns and negative press from day one. A disastrous early screening at an unwieldy 330 minutes was so reviled by those who screened it, Cimino himself begged for more time to edit it to a manageable length. The 150-minute cut released into theatres several weeks later received some of the worst reviews any movie has ever received in the history of the medium.

In fact, this movie—and, to a lesser extent, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Scorsese’s New York, New York, Allen’s Stardust Memories, Landis’s The Blues Brothers, and Spielberg’s 1941—effectively killed the 1970s auteur movement. Hollywood studios started to realize giving artists free reign with tens of millions of dollars yielded major flops. Even though some of the movies made money (like Apocalypse Now and The Blues Brothers), the whole idea of letting the inmates run the asylum seemed to frighten executives.

Virtually every story about the production of a great film starts with studios fighting tooth and nail with every decision filmmakers want to make. For a long time, I asked myself why the studios didn’t just step out of the way. I’ve come to realize it’s effectively a system of checks and balances. Great art requires constraints to overcome. When filmmakers no longer need to worry about budgets or meddling studio executives, they end up making movies like the ones mentioned above. It’s not an airtight rule—after all, Apocalypse Now and The Blues Brothers are legitimately great movies; then again, both films had bigger problems to overcome than studio pressures—but it holds true more often than not. Given carte blanche, most filmmakers will turn out shitty movies. A filmmaker doing everything the studio says unquestioningly will also lead to shitty movies. A balance needs to exist, and that balance was lost briefly in Hollywood in the late ’70s, with almost comically disastrous results.

All of this and more is covered in Steven Bach’s great book Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists (which you should all read if you have any interest in the clusterfuck known as the movie business), so I feel no reason to rehash it here. If you don’t know the story, read Bach’s book and find out. I’m here not to retell the struggles to make and market the film. I’m here to determine whether or not all the negative publicity had anything to do with Heaven’s Gate being a bad film.

Even after watching the four-hour “director’s cut” (as opposed to the gutted theatrical cut that garnered so much hostility), I can understand why people might hate Heaven’s Gate. It has one very big problem that a film this long has an impossible time overcoming: it’s disjointed. Not quite as disjointed as Jonah Hex, another revisionist western that flopped big-time, but it nevertheless feels like Heaven’s Gate has numerous connective scenes missing. But, you know, it does have roughly 90 minutes still missing. The director’s cut restores what footage remained years after its release, but that original 330-minute cut—maybe it could have used some trimming, but I fear Cimino cut material necessary for this story to flow. Maybe he didn’t, though. That’d be a kick in the balls.

Whatever the case, the Heaven’s Gate available doesn’t cohere quite as effectively as more traditional films. This sometimes makes Heaven’s Gate a difficult film to watch, but it also lends a lived-in quality to the story and characters. Rather than moving from beat to beat like a more straightforward movie, it unfolds more like a novel, with long scenes that don’t seem to have anything to do with anything and don’t appear to lead anywhere. Often, these seemingly disconnected scenes pay off much later in the film, rewarding the viewer’s patience. Sometimes, they don’t. Maybe they serve as isolated moments of character development. It’s hard to say how the movie would fare without them.

Before I go on, maybe I should talk a little about the plot. It’s loosely based on the Johnson County War, a land war in 1890s Wyoming in which wealthy American land barons allegedly convinced the federal government to allow soldiers to slaughter land-owning immigrants, so that the barons could take over the newly available spreads. Many conflicting stories of this war and its circumstances exist. Cimino’s interpretation of the story has what I believe (with no evidence to back me up) are indelible roots in Vietnam and the hippie movement of the ’60s. It opens with Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt) as clean-cut, hilariously middle-aged-looking Harvard graduates, portraying them as footloose and fancy-free even as the Reverend Doctor (Joseph Cotten) gives a prophetic but somewhat condescending speech underscoring the need for people to live together harmoniously.

Twenty years later, Jim has eschewed his education and life of privilege to maintain law and order as sheriff of Johnson County. Frank Canton (Sam Waterston), the wealthy head of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, has what is always referred to in the film as a “death list”—a list of local immigrants the ranchers want taken out. They allege these ranchers have stolen cattle from more successful ranchers to pay for prostitutes. Unsettled by the idea of the death list, Jim doesn’t take any immediate action, even when a team of hired killers led by Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) ride into the county. He talks it over with his friend, John (Jeff Bridges), and lover, Ella (Isabelle Huppert, a successful bordello madam). He even discusses it with Billy Irvine, who is now a drunken member of the WSGA. Billy knows everything about the list, but he’s not going to even pretend to do a thing about it.

When Jim finally gets a copy of the list, he gathers all the townspeople and reads its names. From there, the immigrants are left to figure out what to do to save themselves. Although John’s ready to fight on behalf of the immigrants, Jim takes a very low-key, hands-off approach. He disapproves of the list and the corruption of the WSGA, but he’s a passive observer. He urges the immigrants to take matters into their own hands instead of leading them to fight back. Things get complicated from here, so I won’t talk much more about the story in the hope that I actually convince some of you to check this movie out.

You might be wondering at this point what a western about a land dispute has to do with hippies and Vietnam. Maybe nothing, but consider the archetypes: Jim and Billy are introduced as men of great privilege and education. They give up their privilege because neither feels he deserves all that he has. When the going gets tough, Jim responds by making urgent pleas and protestations against the vicious acts of the WSGA, but he doesn’t really do anything about it for much of the movie. When he finally does take action, it’s both too late and largely ineffective. Billy’s an even worse case, crawling into the bottle to numb that big brain of his. I took some symbolic cues from these characters. Jim represents the well-meaning but ultimately ineffective political activist—a smart person who is only powerless because he denied his birthright. Had he used the advantages of his upbringing, perhaps he could have effected real change, but he didn’t, so he didn’t. Billy is a more obvious symbol of the many, many, many hippies who turned to drugs and failed to accomplish anything greater than making their own LSD. This, then, makes the WSGA a symbol of the war profiteers, and the immigrants and assassins all become the hapless pawns of an unnecessary war.

Maybe I’m reading too much into the metaphoric nature of the story, but let’s face it: Cimino made The Deer Hunter, so it’s not like he’s an apathetic or apolitical bystander, and honestly, I can’t figure out any other reason why John Hurt’s character needs to be in this movie. Only when I started to ponder what purpose his character served did I start to realize the undercurrent running through the film. I may have gotten it all wrong, but the fact that the film is so sprawling and poetic leaves it open to interpretation, the cinematic equivalent of a Rorschach inkblot. This is my take on it, and while I suspect it may have also been Cimino’s, who knows? He refuses to speak about the film. Still, I think a lot of evidence exists in the bleak-as-hell epilogue to support my take on the deeper meaning of Heaven’s Gate.

Despite the disjointed nature of the film, I have to disagree with Ms. Kael’s assertion that Heaven’s Gate contains no good scenes or characters. It’s a challenging film, to be sure, but there’s a whole lot to love here, especially if you can make it through the first hour. Once Cimino sets up the dominoes and starts knocking them down, the film has a number of spectacular moments—epic battle scenes, vivid and well-acted characters, ever-deepening relationships (including an extremely well-executed “love” triangle between Jim, Ella, and Nate), and a tricky-gray-area portrayal of a complex situation. Cimino took the idea of a “revisionist western”—the sort from the ultra-violent Peckinpah and ultra-mythologized Leone—and stripped it to the bone. This film does not have white hats or black hats. It just has dusty brown hats and a lot of unpleasant but memorable people. Cimino makes nothing in this film easy for anyone, and that partially includes the viewer, but in the end, the film rewards those watching. It just makes them endure a little bit of punishment for foolishly thinking the Old West contained nothing but altruistic heroes and mustache-twirling villains.

Virtually every frame of this film looks like a dingy oil painting. In his review, Roger Ebert calls the aesthetic of the film “so smoky, so dusty, so foggy, so unfocused and so brownish yellow that you want to try Windex on the screen.” He’s not entirely wrong, but there’s a hard-edged beauty to this unromantic portrayal of the Old West. In fact, the beloved HBO series Deadwood owes a whole hell of a lot to Cimino, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, and production designer Tambri Larsen. Ironically, the aesthetic of Heaven’s Gate underscores the messy narrative and thematic elements at play by making each image simultaneously ugly and beautiful. Maybe critics and audiences will never appreciate this, but it made me like the film even more.

With the cast Cimino has assembled (which includes small but key supporting roles from actors who would go on to better things: Terry O’Quinn, Mickey Rourke, Richard Masur, Brad Dourif, Geoffrey Lewis, and Willem Dafoe), it probably won’t shock anyone to hear that the performances don’t contain a single false note. More than anyone, Kristofferson impressed me. He has never struck me as a great actor—never bad, but more suited to the villain in Fire Down Below (no, he really is the villain in that movie, and he’s awesome) than the lead character in a sprawling, artsy-fartsy western. However, he does a wonderful job as Jim Averill. He brings to the role an air of palpable defeat that reinforces my interpretation of what Heaven’s Gate Really Means. Although the film doesn’t spell it (or anything else) out, it’s made plain just from the things Jim does and the way Kristofferson carries himself that the twenty years between graduation and the Johnson County War beat him down.

It’s time to get down to brass tacks: Heaven’s Gate is a good film. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s also not even close to one of the worst movies ever made. In a world where such detritus as Jonah Hex and Howard the Duck exist, Heaven’s Gate doesn’t even fall into the bottom 500. My biggest problem with it is that, when it ended, I wished I’d been able to see more of these characters and this story. Knowing another 90 minutes once existed is just salt in the wound. Anyone who considers themselves a cinephile should check this film out. You may not love it, but you won’t feel like you wasted your time.

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All the Right Moves (1983)

All the Right Moves has all the earmarks of a sports movie, but it isn’t one. It’s telling that the epic football game usually saved for the climactic sequence occurs in the middle of the film. The ragtag, diverse students populating the team have already learned to work together and support each other. Although it falls into some of the trappings of the teen-angst genre, All the Right Moves defies clichés at almost every turn. It’s not a great film, but it’s a very good one.

In one of his earliest roles, Tom Cruise stars as Stefan “Stef” Djordjevic. In a rare defiance of the super-cool Tom Cruise persona—defined in Risky Business, two short months prior to this film’s release—Stef’s cocky grin and wise-ass attitude get him into major trouble. See, Stef comes from Ampipe, a depressed steel town outside of Pittsburgh named for the steel mill that created it: American Pipe & Steel. Everyone Stef knows works at a mill that sees more layoffs every day. As one of the best players on the Ampipe High football team, he has a chance to do exactly what he wants to do: get out of Ampipe and make something of himself. One would assume he wouldn’t risk everything to condescendingly tell the only interested recruiter (Terry O’Quinn in what could be considered a cameo, except nobody knew who the hell he was in 1983) that he’s looking at other colleges first, but that’s just who he is: a justifiably arrogant kid who thinks he’s untouchable.

This drives Coach Nickerson (Craig T. Nelson) crazy. He sees Stef’s potential, but he knows no college will want a kid with an attitude like his. Stef frequently undermines Nickerson’s authority on the practice field, doesn’t take his studies or his game very seriously—in short, he doesn’t live up to his potential. He coasts on natural talent, when Nickerson sees someone who could achieve greatness if only he’d apply himself. It’s a credit to the movie that my description of these conflicts are much blander and more on-the-nose than anything in Michael Kane’s script.

The film drastically shifts tones after the aforementioned epic game. Its first half feels like a cheery teen flick with a few dark edges (enhanced by the permanently rainy Pennsylvania autumn), but Ampipe’s narrow loss to Walnut Heights (those rich bastards!) jeopardizes possibilities for everyone. Stef’s lashing out gets him thrown off the team (with one game left) and in hot water with his girlfriend, Lisa (Lea Thompson). Nickerson may lose the opportunity to coach a college team. Stef’s best friends—with whom he intended to go to college—obliterate their chances of getting out of Ampipe: Brian (Chris Penn) impregnates his girlfriend, and Salvucci (Paul Carafotes) desperately robs a liquor store to support his struggling family.

Director Michael Chapman handles the tonal shift well, never overplaying the drama even as the dialogue veers into melodramatic territory. He keeps the actors restrained and keeps the conflict focused on Stef and Nickerson more than any other character. The others get their moments—for instance, Lisa eventually admits her anger stems less from Stef’s mistreatment of her (and overwhelming desire to deflower her) than the fact that he’ll get out of town and she’ll never have a better opportunity than grocery clerk in Ampipe—but this is a story about both Stef and Nickerson learning humility from each other. The construction of this conflict is astoundingly nuanced for a teen-movie era defined by Porky’s. Overall, All the Right Moves has more in common with Diner or Breaking Away. In fact, it has a lot in common with the latter, without really feeling too derivative.

Another great strength of Chapman’s direction (and possibly Kane’s script) is the focus on the smaller details. Eternal pep assemblies that even bore the players, pre-game rituals (like touching a game ball from 1960, which one assumes—but the film never says—was the last time Ampipe won a championship), endless bus rides to rival schools, and the muck and mire of the post-game locker room lend refreshing authenticity to the proceedings.

All the Right Moves does a wonderful job making a familiar story seem like uncharted territory. It boasts strong performances (even typical weak-link Thompson is elevated by the film surrounding her), a sharp eye for detail, and a compelling teen-angst story that remains relatable twenty-five years later. It’s much more than an early curiosity from one of the biggest stars of his generation.

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Modern Problems (1981)

The title and opening scenes of Modern Problems suggest an absurd yet deft satire of modern life. Air traffic controller Max (Chevy Chase) seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown as he struggles to make it through a day in a heightened universe where dead pilots are commonplace, coworkers light their cigarettes off the flaming remains of a damaged radar screen, street thugs key employee cars in the airport parking lot, and traffic that makes Chicago look like Cedar Rapids plagues New York City. At the end of the day, Max discovers via an answering machine message that longtime girlfriend Darcy (Patti D’Arbanville) has left him, prompting him to wallow in self-pity. This is a great setup for a sly (if slightly cartoonish) comedy about, well…modern problems. Unfortunately, Max develops telekinesis, which ruins everything.

See, Max’s emotional state further deteriorates when he runs into an old friend, Brian (Brian Doyle-Murray), a wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet who’s far more successful than Max. Max takes his ex-wife (Mary Kay Place) to a party Brian’s publishing company is throwing at a gay bar and gets frustrated when she’s attracted to Brian. He gets more frustrated when Darcy shows up with a new boyfriend. On his way home, Max tailgates a leaking tanker truck filled with radioactive waste, and when he wakes up in the morning, he has telekinetic powers.

This development could have been a golden opportunity for Modern Problems, but it causes the movie to lose steam in a hurry. The inspired satire of the first act disappears when the big telekinesis set pieces take over. Max tries to win Darcy back by giving her new boyfriend a gushing nosebleed and ruining a ballet the new boyfriend has produced. Believe it or not, this actually works, so Max uses his powers to give Darcy the best sexual experience of her life. All of these sequences pretty much fall flat, in part as a result of Chase’s relentless mugging during the mostly silent telekinesis.

The second half of the film focuses on Max and Darcy spending the weekend at Brian’s beach house, along with Max’s ex-wife and Brian’s star author, Mark Winslow (Dabney Coleman). Winslow is a deluded womanizer so convinced of his own righteousness that he’s turned himself into a sleazy self-help guru eerily reminiscent of Dr. Phil. Coleman manages to find the humanity in this shallow, underwritten character, making him pretty much the only reason to watch the second half.

By the time Max has turned into a full-blown monster, it’s hard to still care about him or his romantic life. It seems like he has bigger problems than that, but director/co-writer Ken Shapiro insistently keeps everything too focused on Max and Darcy. I would ordinarily consider this a strength—usually the problem I have with films is that they lose focus on the characters in favor of goofy plot twists—but the writers never show why Max and Darcy got together in the first place or why Max feels they need to stay together. The only thing said about their relationship is that Darcy left Max because he gets too jealous. This is underscored by the way Max handles Darcy’s other love interests, but he never overcomes the problem, yet (predictable-movie spoiler alert) he still gets the girl. The film shovels a happy ending down our throats that feels frustratingly unearned.

Overall, Modern Problems qualifies as a serious missed opportunity. Early on, Shapiro tries to bring the same dark-edged, anarchic absurdity he brought to his only other directorial credit, 1974’s ambitious but uneven The Groove Tube. However, the film gets so distracted by its high-concept goofiness, it never takes the time to make us care about any of the characters, including Max. Even Chevy Chase fans will want to skip this one.

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Hot Tub Time Machine (2009) by Josh Heald and Jarrad Paul, Andrew Mogel & Steve Pink

Note: The script reviewed credits different writers than those credited in the finished film.

Let’s talk for a minute about bodily fluids. They aren’t funny. In movies, they exist to provide the shock value. The audience laughs not because of a funny sight gag, but because the sight of shit chunks in a motion picture they have paid money to see has startled them. There’s a word for that: cheap. Similarly cheap are bodily functions. Now, as a male, I have to admit the dark truth we men try to hide from the fairer sex unless we’re drunk enough or generally obnoxious enough: farts are hilarious. Nothing is funnier than the fart smell, the moments anticipating the smell, and sharing the horror of the stench itself. Nothing. In a movie, though, it’s still cheap. If it’s the only way the writers can get a laugh, they’re in trouble.

That’s the pathetic thing about Hot Tub Time Machine: it doesn’t need those jokes, but the movie has them anyway. It’s as if somebody said, “Well, we’re gonna get an R rating, anyway, so we might as well graphically feature every possible human excretion and add some fart sound effects because comedy legend Chevy Chase just isn’t funny enough.”

Before I get ahead of myself, let me say this: I liked the movie. It’s a testament to the script itself, the cast, and director Steve Pink that the movie works despite the occasional super-cheap gag. In many ways, I think I actually prefer it to the script. I like the script, but the ending felt too happy and unearned. Somehow, without many significant changes (aside from the addition of shit/piss/vomit/semen/fart jokes) to the overall story, Pink and his cast made it feel appropriate. That’s impressive.

The screenplay’s story doesn’t deviate much from the film: Adam, Lou, and Nick (played in the film by, respectively, John Cusack, Rob Corddry, and Craig Robinson) are best friends who have drifted apart over the past 25 years. Lou’s attempted suicide (“Home Sweet Home” by Mötley Crüe plays on his car stereo, so he listens to it until the end, even though his running car is in his closed garage) brings the trio back together. Adam and Nick vow to take Lou’s mind off his many failures by bringing him back to Kodiak Valley, a ski resort where they spent some great times in the ’80s. Adam brings along Jacob (Clark Duke), his 23-year-old nephew, because he thinks Jacob needs to get out of the house and away from his video games. This does not make Lou happy.

Kodiak Valley has changed since the mid-’80s. What was once a thriving, fun-filled resort community has turned into a depressed town full of shuttered storefronts. The grungy resort is dilapidated and populated primarily by elderly people waiting to die. A surly, one-armed bellhop (hilariously portrayed by Crispin Glover in the film) just adds to the creepy, tragic atmosphere. Undaunted, the group decides to get in their room’s hot tub and get hammered on some of the imported, outdated Soviet beer Lou brought. When it gets spilled on the electronics, the hot tub becomes a time machine, sending the group back to 1986.

This, naturally, leads to the core of the story. After their hilariously horrified realization that they’ve gone back in time, the group discusses the various complexities of time travel, primarily informed by movies on the subject. Jacob convinces them that they must relive their lives exactly as they did in 1986 to prevent a butterfly effect. Naturally, things go awry almost immediately, especially when Adam realizes this is the weekend he broke up with his teenage girlfriend, Jennie (Lyndsy Fonseca), which he considers the worst mistake of his life. He leads the rebellion against Jacob’s nagging insistence that they don’t stray from the original timeline.

I don’t want to step up to the pulpit for my half-assed brand of Comedy Theory, but I will say this: the best comedies are about something. Pure laughs are great, but it always works better if some semblance of meaning exists beneath the surface. That’s part of the reason Hot Tub Time Machine makes such an effective script. They could have lazily relied on ’80s joke after ’80s joke, but the script focuses more on the tragic undercurrent of failure. Adam, Nick, and especially Lou are all deeply unhappy about the way their lives have turned out, and that they’ve drifted apart. They’ve even grown to hate the ’80s, even though they simultaneously consider it the best time of their lives. It’s a satisfying, deceptively complex midlife crisis metaphor masquerading as homage to the dumb teen-sex comedies of the ’80s.

One consistent problem in both the script and the movie is the character of Jacob. His presence serves as little more than an ironically detached Greek chorus, commenting on the other characters, the storyline, and the setting without adding much to it himself. It would have been nice if the writers had taken the time to either integrate him more fully into the story or just given him a more interesting character than the stereotypical nerdy hermit. I understand why he’s in the script—the movie wants to have its cake and eat it, too, by appealing to a more youthful audience who may not appreciate the sadness of the older characters’ stories—but that doesn’t mean it works. Unlike Rob Corddry—who takes another fairly stereotypical character and breathes surprising life and nuance into him—Clark Duke isn’t up to the challenge of making Jacob more interesting than the way he reads on the page. Which is to say, not very.

On the other hand, Pink addresses and corrects a number of the script’s flaws as director. The second act of the script lags quite a bit, a consequence of redundant scenes (designed to give each character roughly equal time, without taking the time to think of more things for them to do) and an unneeded subplot involving ski-patrol members Blaine (Sebastian Stan) and Chaz (Charlie McDermott) suspecting Lou of being a commie spy. The finished film excises a number of the redundant scenes altogether. What remains, Pink directs with a high energy level that keeps the pace keyed up.

Based on its title, Hot Tub Time Machine might easily be mistaken for a cheesy, mindless comedy. It’s much more than that, though. It’s a terrific script that made an even better movie. I just wish it didn’t have all bodily fluids.

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Eat, Pray, Love (2010)

Eat, Pray, Love desperately seeks to tell a unique story of female empowerment. Unfortunately, it manages to get things wrong at pretty much every turn. For starters, the “unique” story is just a rehash of 2003’s Under the Tuscan Sun (plus two extra countries for more culture-clash wackiness!): a newly divorced woman impulsively decides to travel abroad to find herself. True, Eat, Pray, Love contains more food porn and eye-rolling attempts at deep spirituality, but the core of the story remains virtually identical.

The most significant problem here revolves around the two relationships Liz (Julia Roberts) has in the first act. She divorces her husband (a glorified cameo by Billy Crudup) for reasons never made entirely clear, then enters into a relationship with an actor (another glorified cameo by James Franco) that collapses for reasons never made entirely clear. These reasons absolutely need to make sense to the audience, because they don’t just serve as twin inciting incidents propelling Liz to leave New York and travel the world. The shadow cast by these two relationships shrouds everything else that happens in the film, so why does co-writer/director Ryan Murphy choose to start the story at the end of Liz’s marriage, then show the beginning and the end of her relationship with the actor, but never show the important part: why the relationships fell apart.

By the time Liz decides she’ll spend a year abroad—spending a few months each in Italy, India, and Bali—I’d already checked out of the story. It’s hard to care whether or not the main character finds herself when the movie doesn’t take the time to make her empathetic. Indeed, Liz comes across as infuriatingly selfish, only because neither her husband nor the actor seem like particularly terrible guys, and the movie never takes a second to illuminate why she felt the need to leave them. Why did she find these relationships so unfulfilling? What we’re left with is the impression that she wants to do what she wants to do when she wants to do it. That’s not an easy character to get behind, regardless of gender.

Without the audience ever really getting a grasp on why, Liz hangs out in Italy to rediscover her love of food. She moves on to India to reconnect with her lost spirituality. She finishes out the year in Bali, so she can reconnect with Ketut (a charming performance by Hadi Subiyanto), a medicine man who promised to teach her the many secrets of life. In each country, she meets a variety of colorful characters of various nationalities and genders. They’re all nice, cheerful, and compassionate, and most of them want to know why Liz doesn’t have a husband.

The story always takes the posture (without ever explicitly stating it) that Liz doesn’t need a man to get along in the world. I can’t figure out if it’s intentionally ironic or merely hypocritical that in each vignette, Liz relies on men far more than herself or even other women. While in India to learn from a well-known female guru, Liz spends more time taking the advice of a loudmouthed Texan (Richard Jenkins). The guru herself is rarely glimpsed in anything other than photographs on shrines, and she offers nothing. In Bali, Liz relies more on the pearls of wisdom doled out by Ketut than those provided by a divorced female physician (Christine Hakim).

The film suffers from a dearth of dramatic tension. The first and second acts revolve around Liz’s internal conflict without doing much to externalize it. Unfortunately, Roberts is in “cute” mode in this film, so gauging Liz’s true feelings is an impossible task, even when she occasionally looks really pensive or sad. Murphy sometimes sprinkles faux-profound voiceover narration (ostensibly lifted from the source memoir) that doesn’t illuminate as much as it should. When external conflict finally enters the film—in the form of a studly divorcée well-played by Javier Bardem—it’s much too late to redeem the watch-checking tedium of the previous 90 minutes.

I know I’m not this movie’s target audience. Maybe fans of the book or fans of Roberts will really enjoy what this movie has to offer. It just doesn’t have anything new to say about its own themes, and Roberts does a poor job of selling Liz’s alleged transformation over the course of the film. I don’t want to be too tough on her here—she has a monumental task in making Liz seem like anything more than selfish to the point of obnoxiousness. The adaptation by Murphy and Jennifer Salt lets down the character. The world’s greatest actress—which Roberts is not, even at her best—would have to struggle to make this material work and make this character likable. I haven’t read Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, so perhaps these flaws come from the source material. Whatever the case, Eat, Pray, Love‘s relentless mediocrity makes it a movie worth missing.

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Death Hunt (1981)

Inspired by the real-life 1931 manhunt for “The Mad Trapper,” Albert Johnson, Death Hunt takes a grim, gray look at the idea of heroes and villains in the last frontier: the Yukon. Although the film has a phenomenal pedigree (including director Peter R. Hunt, known for editing the first half-dozen James Bond movies and directing that franchise’s most underrated entry, 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), the film gets too distracted by the manhunt to work as a moody character study. Unfortunately, the manhunt itself is much less interesting than the people involved in it. This makes Death Hunt a well-made disappointment, with a great first half and a dull second half.

Charles Bronson stars as Johnson, a stoic loner who runs afoul of Hazel (Ed Lauter, continuing his tradition of playing the most unpleasant character in whatever movie he’s appearing in). Hazel sets up dogfights for the enjoyment of the local miners, and Johnson does not like dogfights. He beats the holy hell out of Hazel, then buys one of the bloodied, mangled dogs and nurses him back to health. Hazel complains to the local mounted police, led by Sergeant Edgar Millen (Lee Marvin). If you think the idea of Lee Marvin as a Canadian Mountie is surreal, you’re not alone. It gets more surreal when Carl Weathers shows up as Millen’s right-hand man, Sundog. The new recruit, Constable Alvin Adams (Andrew Stevens), finds the illegal dogfights more disconcerting than the alleged dog theft, but as Millen grimly foreshadows, “It’s better than them fighting each other.”

Hazel assembles a posse of mostly comic-relief characters to take down Johnson, but he’s a better shot. He kills one of Hazel’s men, which forces the reluctant Millen to finally act. Fully aware that Johnson acted in self-defense, Millen comes to his isolated cabin to reason with him. He gets through to Johnson, but everything goes to hell when Hazel and his men open fire. Johnson immediately loses his trust in Millen, and what follows is a ridiculously violent standoff followed by a lengthy manhunt through the Canadian Rockies.

The early parts of the film revel in the characters and environment. I went into the experience knowing nothing about the plot or its real-life basis, and I thoroughly enjoyed the way it established characters, setting, and tone without tipping its hand about the plot’s direction. When the plot finally gets going, though, it’s a disappointment. It seems as if the first act wants to pit Johnson against Hazel, with Millen and his men trying to keep the peace in a largely lawless town.

Instead, the film brings in an Air Force captain (Scott Hylands) to challenge Millen’s competence, shifting the conflict in a different, unsatisfying direction. In addition to relying on endless biplane footage, the film starts to ignore the characters and conflicts it set up in the first act. Maybe that would have succeeded if the new ideas it brought in were more interesting than what it left behind. One could argue that these flaws exist because the filmmakers wanted to stick to the facts of the Mad Trapper manhunt, but apparently they didn’t. The true story does not paint Johnson as terribly sympathetic: Rather than rescuing a poor, defenseless dog from a sinister man, Johnson was reported to the constabulary for springing competitors’ traps, and he murdered most of the Mounties who pursued him (including Edgar Millen, at whom he laughed when his shot killed him) long before they desperately brought in expert trackers and bush pilots to aid in the search.

Despite the film’s overall problems, Bronson and Marvin do great work in the lead roles. In particular, Bronson shines in a surprising scene in which Johnson finds himself seriously affected by “My Darling Clementine.” The film doesn’t delve into his backstory, but Johnson’s reaction to it communicates deep-seated pain and vulnerability that pretty much says everything we need to know about this character. Bronson rarely has opportunities to express such emotional depth in his characters, but he manages to make the pain resonate despite us not knowing the details of its genesis. Marvin doesn’t have any standout scenes like this, but he’s reliable as ever as the tough yet conflicted peacemaker.

I can’t help feeling disappointed in Death Hunt. Its combined elements could have made it great, but the script lets the film down. What it gets right almost makes it worth watching, but it’s just not quite good enough to recommend.

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Lottery Ticket (2010)

Lottery Ticket has done a wonderful thing. It has successfully merged a ridiculous, high-concept studio idea with a nuanced, character-driven slice-of-life comedy. The result is one of the best comedies of the year—granted, a lackluster year for comedies thus far, but that shouldn’t diminish this film’s accomplishments.

Bow Wow and Brandon T. Jackson star as, respectively, Kevin and Benny. Kevin’s a straight-arrow bordering on obsessive-compulsive, with a job he loves at Foot Locker and thoughts of going to design school to become a shoe designer—assuming he can find a way to pay for it and still support the grandmother who raised him (Loretta Devine). Benny postures as wacky and irreverent, but he secretly dreams of simultaneously escaping the Atlanta projects and benevolently helping those he has grown up around do the same. They live in a housing project filled with colorful characters played by ringers like Charlie Murphy, Mike Epps, and Bill Bellamy.

For hilariously convoluted reasons I won’t spoil, Kevin manages to get on the bad side of project bully Lorenzo (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and get fired from his beloved job in one fell swoop. Feeling desperate and pathetic, Kevin—who describes the state lottery as a way to keep poor people down—decides to play the lucky numbers he got from a fortune cookie. If you’ve seen the trailers, you know what happens next: Kevin wins the lottery and has to hold on to the ticket and survive a three-day Fourth of July weekend before he can claim his winnings.

Once the secret’s out that Kevin won the lottery, he has to worry about more than Lorenzo. Local gangster Sweet Tee (Keith David in a great extended cameo) extends a $100,000 courtesy loan to Kevin for the weekend, sexpot Nikki Swayze (Teairra Mari) tries to make Kevin her “baby daddy,” and before long, Kevin starts to wonder who his real friends are.

What really makes this film shine is its emphasis on characters over story. The lottery ticket is a great hook, but the movie breezes through the expected beats (trying and failing to keep it a secret, eluding the bully who wants to steal the ticket) to get to deeper, more interesting subject matter about greed, the desire to flee the ghetto, and the importance of giving back. While that may sound like liberal pinko talk to some segments of the population, Lottery Ticket doesn’t make preachy political statements. It contextualizes its themes through its characters, all of whom—even the more ridiculous ones, like Bellamy’s gangsta rapper Du-Rag—manage to overcome their stereotypical roots and feel like real people.

But enough about grim themes and dark undertones. Lottery Ticket is not The Wire. Its second-biggest strength is how funny it is. Writer Abdul Williams wisely doesn’t go for cheap, easy punchlines. In the same way the film explores its themes, the humor is grounded in the characters’ personalities and individual conflicts instead of inane physical schtick. Bow Wow and Jackson have great best-buddy chemistry and natural comedic timing. Naturi Naughton appears as Stacie, a friend of Kevin’s who has long had a crush on him, and does solid work as the flustered “second choice.”

They don’t need bolstering from the supporting cast, but they get it, anyway. The sheer number of hilarious, sharply drawn supporting characters make the world of Lottery Ticket feel very lived-in and believable, even when it goes a few notches over the top. Everyone does great work here, including Terry Crews as Sweet Tee’s annoyed driver/bodyguard and Ice Cube as a Boo Radley-like hermit.

Lottery Ticket serves as an antidote for people who love good comedies. It doesn’t get so hung up on its wacky concept that it forgets to tell a good story populated by funny, interesting characters. More than that, it’s about something—like the best comedies, it has more on its mind than desperately trying to get the audience to laugh. In other words, it’s the anti-Date Night. Go see it.

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The Detective (1968)

The Detective drops an ethical, tough-as-nails film noir antihero into a mystery story designed to tackle every conceivable issue plaguing late-’60s New York City: police/political corruption, corporate greed, racism, sexism, homophobia, divorce, psychiatry, hippies, casual sex, and even-more-casual drug use. It’s a good but not great film that earns some bonus points for not biting off more than it can chew, despite its expansive social agenda.

Frank Sinatra stars as Joe Leland, an NYPD detective who pretty much hates everything and everyone around him. Of course, he has reason to: everything surrounding him is in moral and ethical decay, starting with the alarming killing that opens the film. They find the victim, a wealthy homosexual, splayed on the floor of his posh apartment. The killer has bashed in the man’s face and removed his penis and a few fingers. A cursory investigation leads them to a mostly harmless nutjob (Tony Musante) whose coerced confession gets him the electric chair (in record time, it would seem). Needless to say, Leland never quite believes the confession, even though he’s the one who coerces it, and his success lands him an unwanted promotion to lieutenant.

Some time later, beautiful Norma MacIver (Jacqueline Bisset) asks Leland for help. Her husband’s recent death was ruled a suicide, but she refuses to believe it. Leland investigates, and if you think this case has no relation to the film’s opening murder, you’ve never seen a detective movie.

The script by Abby Mann balances the mysteries with frequently depressing dalliances into Leland’s personal life. He tries to reconnect with his estranged ex-wife, Karen (Lee Remick), a sex-addicted hippie whose constant cheating led to their divorce. His efforts work about as well as you might expect, but I appreciated this glimpse into the hoary aftermath of a relationship gone south. Usually hardboiled detective fiction revolves around femme fatales—the detectives fall for them and get betrayed, so the relationship doesn’t last long enough collapse naturally. Leland’s relationship with Karen hints at a vulnerability rarely explored in this sort of character.

Frank Sinatra gives what should have been considered a career-defining performance, if not for the fact that he made only a few more films after The Detective. Aside from his deserved Oscar-winning turn in The Manchurian Candidate, Sinatra rarely showed much range as an actor, capitalizing more on charisma and his built-in popularity as a singer than commitment to character and trying to deliver the best possible performance. The Detective came at a strange time in his career, though: after the explosion of Beatlemania, he found both his singing and acting careers waning. Supporting my personal theory that adversity breeds real art, in the late ’60s Sinatra dared to star in a wild, gritty detective movie (which makes Dragnet the series look like Dragnet the movie) and record a great, depressing concept album about divorce (1970’s Watertown).

Sinatra plays Joe Leland as the consummate hardboiled detective: a cynic who follows his own internal set of rules and doesn’t much care what anyone else does—so long as it doesn’t interfere with his investigation. The film presents him as a man both out of touch with the modern age but ultimately more progressive than those around him: he’s not interested in the race or sexual preference of suspects, leading him to clash with other detectives (notably a young Robert Duvall). Still, he can’t understand things like psychiatry and sexual addiction, and he really doesn’t want to. Such things don’t fit with the way he sees the world. He’s less angry and frustrated than disenchanted and world-weary.

Though the film is driven by Sinatra’s remarkable performance, a terrific supporting cast surrounds him. Remick does some of her best work as Leland’s conflicted yet resentful ex-wife. The film depicts their relationship (from beginning to end) through sometimes awkward flashbacks that present an unusually balanced portrait of a relationship that was doomed from the start. Jack Klugman gives an alternately funny and tragic performance as the only cop Leland trusts, Lloyd Bochner chews scenery as perhaps the world’s sleaziest psychiatrist, and Duvall manages to play a dirty cop with an intensity that makes his over-the-top dialogue believable. Bisset doesn’t have much to do besides look pretty, but she’s quite good at that.

Although it has some unfortunate choices typical of late-’60s cinema (particularly the trippy focus effects used to take us into and out of flashbacks), the film’s frank, bordering-on-disinterested handling of the shocking crimes and the gritty, vérité-style production is a precursor to bona fide classics like The French Connection and Serpico. Although a hit when it came out in 1968, The Detective has not endured like those films. That’s a real shame.

Random Movie-Nerd Trivia: In The Detective, Lloyd Bochner played sleazy Dr. Wendell. Twenty years later, Bochner’s son, Hart, played sleazy Harry Ellis in Die Hard. You remember him—the coke-snorting yuppie who famously declared, “Hans, bubi, I’m your white knight”? Well, it gets weirder: Roderick Thorp wrote the novel on which The Detective was based. In 1979, he wrote a direct sequel called Nothing Lasts Forever. This novel became the source for Die Hard.

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Centurion (2010)

Centurion makes a fatal misstep in its very concept. It focuses on a ragtag group of one-dimensional Romans fighting for their lives against the Pictish tribes of Caledonia, when the Picts are the ones depicted as sympathetic and just in their fight. A movie about the tricky gray areas and moral ambivalence inherent in war could have pulled off a story focusing on the Romans, but this is not that movie. For the majority of its runtime, this is a movie about black-and-white heroes and villains, and because the story focuses on the Romans, they become the heroes whether we like it or not.

Take, for example, a scene in which two Roman soldiers flip a coin to determine who will kill a captured Pict. The winner of the toss apologizes to the loser, because that’s how much they revel in carnage. Later in the film, one character slices a hole in the leg of his comrade, partly to prevent him from keeping up, partly to distract the wolves on their tails. These are all terrible people, yet the movie expects us to sympathize with them by virtue of the fact that the camera spends more time aimed at them than at the Picts.

Compare the Romans to Etain (Olga Kurylenko), a Pictish scout who infiltrates the Romans, feigns loyalty for years, and ultimately leads the 3000-strong Ninth Legion into a brutal trap. Seems pretty hostile, right? That’s before the film reveals that she was forced to watch as Romans tortured and murdered her parents—before cutting out her tongue to ensure she wouldn’t say anything negative about the Roman Empire. Suddenly, her actions seem a little bit more just. Similarly, the king of the Picts, Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen), sends Etain and numerous warriors to track and kill the goony survivors of the Ninth Legion. It seems sort of petty to send hundreds of troops after a half-dozen men—except for the part where one of those men murdered his 10-year-old son to keep him quiet while they attempted to rescue their general (played by a scenery-chewing Dominic West).

Centurion could have been a good film if writer/director Neil Marshall had any interest in exploring the complexity of wartime behavior. He doesn’t, aside from a few treacly, obvious statements about the futility of war in the last half hour. Even those statements are undermined by the borderline-pornographic depiction of war gore. I don’t know if Marshall wants us to relish in the carnage or the surprisingly impressive special effects, but this movie is unabashedly, ridiculously violent. Emphasis on “ridiculous”—the violence here makes Kill Bill look like The Deer Hunter.

Ostensibly, the film follows centurion Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), who becomes the de facto leader of the survivors after their general gets captured by the Picts. They struggle to make their way to the Roman-occupied territory to the south, but Etain is hot on their trail. That’s pretty much all there is to the story. The characters are exquisitely thin, each given a trait that ultimately proves useful—one’s a cook, one’s a marathon runner, one’s an archer—but Quintus lacks even one of those traits. Well, okay—he knows the Pictish language, so he can communicate with them, but that’s just not enough. He’s supposed to anchor this film, so it would have been nice if Marshall had taken the time to give him a personality. A failed eleventh-hour romance with a peacenik Pict (Imogen Poots) does nothing to solve this problem.

I’ll sometimes give a pass to the story and characters in a war film if the filmmakers have something interesting to say about war. Centurion doesn’t. It’s not much more than a loud, dumb action movie. Despite what it is, Marshall tries to direct it like a sweeping historical epic. Unfortunately, a film needs more than period costumes, majestic music, and well-choreographed battle scenes to make it an epic. It needs fully realized characters, an absorbing story, and some sort of resonant theme.

Centurion lacks all three, but it takes itself too seriously to work as the loud, dumb action movie it should be. The result is simply a good-looking bad film.

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Lebanon (2009)

Like the best war movies, Lebanon makes a statement about the nature of war without seeming like it’s making any statement at all. It doesn’t get swept up in examining the political machinations that led to the First Lebanon War and picking sides. It simply depicts four inexperienced men inside the turret of an Israeli tank as it rolls through Lebanon at the start of the war in 1982. It’s at once a microcosmic view of the hell of war and a harrowing thriller. Not to sound too hyperbolic, but it’s a tremendous film that makes The Hurt Locker look like The Delta Force.

The men on the tank are Assi (Itay Tiran), the commander; Shmulik (Yoav Donat), the gunner; Herzl (Oshri Cohen), the loader; and Yigal (Michael Moshonov, the driver). The commander on the ground, Jamil (Zohar Strauss), talks to them over the radio and occasionally in person. Other than that and the view through the turret’s scope, the foursome (and the audience) has no other interaction with the outside world. Like Das Boot or Kanal, writer/director Samuel Maoz uses the claustrophobia to his advantage.

The story follows the tank on the first day of the war. They follow troops on the ground to a city that’s already been flattened by the Israeli Air Force, but things go awry when they learn Syrian forces have arrived to help the Lebanese. More goes awry inside the tank than outside, however. Shmulik suffers a panic attack when asked to fire on hostiles. As punishment, Jamil forces them to temporarily stow the corpse of a felled Israeli soldier until an evacuation helicopter can arrive. Later, the corpse is replaced with a wounded Syrian prisoner.

Tension mounts as the situation worsens. The tank gets hit by an RPG, making its maneuverability much more difficult. The soldiers in the tank start to believe Jamil isn’t telling them the full truth. Eventually, as night falls, they’re abandoned by the ground troops and left to fend for themselves. Even Assi loses his unwavering cockiness and gives in to fear, coping by pathetically attempting to force order onto the chaos surrounding the tank.

François Truffaut once allegedly said that it’s impossible to make an antiwar film, because the action of combat is inherently too exciting. A handful of films have proved this wrong (the aforementioned Das Boot and Kanal leap to mind, as do Three Kings and Paths of Glory), and Lebanon joins their ranks. The “action sequences,” shot entirely from the point of view of the turret scope, are like something from the world’s most depressing first-person shooter game. Maoz drains whatever excitement might have been found in the gunfights and explosions by focusing on the injured, dead, and grieving—not to mention panic-stricken Shmulik who has to listen to repeated orders to fire as he stares at a terrified married couple and their five-year-old daughter, taken hostage by a Lebanese soldier.

Maoz builds the suspense to a taut third act, one of the best I’ve ever seen in a war movie. I can’t exactly call it satisfying because the movie itself is such an uncomfortable experience, but it accomplishes exactly what the film’s objective seems to be: to show the dirtiness and disorganization of war, and the human toll on both innocents (also known as “collateral damage”) and soldiers. It’s not an easy film to watch, but it’s infinitely more rewarding than, say, The Expendables (which I enjoyed more than Mark, but not because of its ruminations on war and the human condition).

I also appreciated The Hurt Locker, but it amazes me that the film received so many accolades last year when Lebanon (which debuted almost a year ago at the Venice Film Festival) went largely ignored. Do American moviegoers really hate subtitles that much?

This is a great film that probably won’t be in theatres long, so see it while you can. For you readers in Chicago, it’s playing at the Music Box for at least the next week.

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