Posts in Category: The Parallax Review

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

Monster Dog (1984)

Camp can’t be created in a lab. This is why I don’t particularly like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the musical remake of Reefer Madness, or the work of John Waters. Filmmakers setting their sights on a campy tone will invariably fail. Camp stems naturally from a combination the filmmakers’ utter seriousness and incredible incompetence. I say this to justify giving Monster Dog a three-star review: it’s a poorly made, remarkably stupid movie that manages to entertain through laughable attempts at scares and gore.

Rock star Alice Cooper stretches his acting muscles as rock star Vincent Raven, who has returned to his hometown for the first time in 20 years. Vincent’s unofficial exile came as a result of an angry mob of townspeople blaming his father for wild packs of dogs murdering locals. See, they thought Vincent’s dad was a werewolf, capable of controlling the minds of all dogs and leading them to murder along with his big, bulky werewolf self. Vincent never believed the rumors, but the crimes never had a more logical explanation and mysteriously stopped after the mob killed Vincent’s father.

As Vincent and his pals roll into town to shoot his latest music video, the sheriff stops them to announce that wild dogs have resumed their killing spree. The sheriff suspects Vincent and alludes to his family’s origins. So does a mysterious old man covered in blood who shambles out of the woods to warn them to stay away. So does Angela (Pepita James), Vincent’s sexy psychic friend. She has prophetic, gore-filled dreams of Vincent turning into a werewolf and killing everyone. This leads Vincent to question himself and his family, and it also leads his longtime girlfriend, Sandra (Victoria Vera), to do the same.

The introspection doesn’t last long, however. They have a music video to shoot. Their arrival at Vincent’s childhood home might be the moment that defines this movie’s campiness. You see, Vincent’s childhood home is terrifying, reminiscent of Carfax Abbey in the 1931 Dracula, but nobody seems to notice it. In fact, they arrive at the huge, ominous structure and cheerfully praise the huge WELCOME VINCENT sign flapping eerily in the wind.

In this age of irony, characters would have commented on the ridiculous, over-the-top horror-movie castle as looking like something out of a bad horror movie. But Monster Dog actually is a bad horror movie, so its characters simply accept the setting. Overall, the movie is pretty humorless, aside from an intentionally silly music video for Cooper’s “Identity Crisis” bookending the film to pad its runtime. Yet, writer/director Claudio Fragasso (who made the notorious Troll 2, another camp classic) approaches the subject matter with a heady blend of sincerity and stupidity. This makes a movie that could have been dull and agonizing into a charming, briskly paced unintentional comedy.

Cooper and Vera deliver surprisingly credible performances, but there’s more to the story than that. When I first heard Cooper speak, his voice seemed eerily familiar, and not because I’ve seen Wayne’s World about 900 times. Something about his folksy speech pattern made me first think, “Who does his voice remind me of?” and then, “Wow, he missed his calling as a voiceover guy.” Turns out, he didn’t: it’s not Alice Cooper’s voice. All of Cooper’s dialogue was dubbed by legendary voiceover artist Ted Rusoff, who dubbed voices in an inordinate amount of bad European exploitation films, from Cannibal Apocalypse to Black Emmanuelle 2. I have no idea who dubbed Vera (who is Spanish, like the rest of the cast), but like most dubbed movies, the incongruity of voice and action/expression adds an additional layer of goofy charm.

Make no mistake: this is not a good film. It entertained me, but not because of any of its redeeming qualities. Those who enjoy silly horror/exploitation films could do a lot worse than Monster Dog. Those who think life is too short to spend 80 minutes watching a bad (but smile-inducing) film should stay away.

Read More

Going the Distance (2010)

Most romantic comedies anger me, because I feel like they’ve betrayed me. I love romantic comedies more than any healthy male should. I can’t explain this love, but I blame Woody Allen and The Purple Rose of Cairo, the saddest and greatest romantic comedy ever made. It angers me that so many romantic comedies—especially over the past decade—put two 30-somethings together and force them to behave like vertiginous teenagers, acting out disturbing pratfall-cluttered psychodramas that would be fine for high schoolers, but for older folks, it speaks to deep-seated personality disorders. I prefer romantic comedies that take relationships and love seriously. They don’t necessarily have to portray the subject in a realistic manner—part of the joy, in many cases, is the optimistic fantasy element—but they should be about adults with adult problems approached in adult ways. Hollywood may want to lure in the teenage audience more than adults, but I hate teenagers, and that hatred extends to movies catering to them.

Going the Distance is refreshingly adults-only, and not just through its regular use of curse words and graphic discussions of sex acts. The film doesn’t even split the difference by utilizing the Judd Apatow Idiot-Manchild (an archetype both teenagers and slovenly males can understand), opting instead to give that role to the buddies played by Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis. It’s about two adults struggling to maintain a long-distance relationship, approached with surprising complexity thanks to Geoff LaTulippe’s screenplay and Nanette Burstein’s direction.

The film focuses on Garrett (a typically spazzy but frequently funny Justin Long) and Erin (Drew Barrymore), who meet in a bar, discover a variety of common interests, have a one-night stand, and then decide to carry it further. Erin is upfront with him: she’s in New York for a summer internship and has to go back to California to finish her graduate studies at Stanford. Garrett’s okay with that—both of them want to relish the few weeks they have together.

Once they’re apart, the typical long-distance problems slowly emerge: the frequency of their phone/online chatting decreases, they start meeting other potential suitors closer to home, they have trouble affording cross-country trips, and so on. Compounding that are buddies Dan and Box (respectively, Day and Sudeikis) encouraging Garrett to play the field while Erin’s obsessive-compulsive sister Corinne (Christina Applegate) and overly polite brother-in-law Phil (Jim Gaffigan) try to convince Erin that Garrett doesn’t respect her.

Although I liked the film overall, I’m sort of on the side of Corinne and Phil, a goofy but well-meaning couple who make some good points: the core of the conflict revolves around Garrett’s desire to bring Erin to New York, despite her lack of job prospects (she strives to be a newspaper journalist but unsurprisingly has a tough time breaking into the New York industry), because he’s unwilling to give up a dead-end job he hates. The script subtly acknowledges Garrett’s selfishness without every allowing Garrett to realize it. The film has the happy ending you’d expect, but it doesn’t come as a result of Garrett suddenly growing up and embracing adulthood. Like Rob Gordon in High Fidelity, he spends the entire movie as a selfish dolt and only does the right things accidentally.

The film isn’t great by any stretch of the imagination. Hollywood product is so starved of decent romantic comedies that Going the Distance feels like the It Happened One Night of the 2010s. It’s not an instant classic, it doesn’t reinvent the genre, but it approaches a believable romantic pairing with appropriate sincerity and respect.

It also proves that a romantic comedy can take the central relationship seriously without relying on sitcom contrivances or what Roger Ebert calls the Idiot Plot. The few times the film veers toward this territory, the screenplay quickly defuses it, as if LaTulippe is attempting to simultaneously write a good romantic comedy and humorously deconstruct a bad one.

If this seems a little heady and complicated, it’s because I’m getting kind of pretentious. I’m just so glad to see a good romantic comedy, I can’t help myself—but it’s not all deep thoughts and cinephile in-jokes. Going the Distance is a legitimately funny film, aided immensely by its likable leads and a supporting cast filled with ringers.

This film demonstrates the possibilities of the R-rated romantic comedy. So many filmmakers seem willing to rely on gross-out humor simply because they can, but this is not why romantic comedies should be rated R. Adults need to take back their romantic comedies. If a romantic comedy has an R rating, that means they don’t have to cater the story to teenagers to lure them in. Let the teenagers have Twilight and superhero movies (okay, a lot of adults enjoy those, too, but hopefully you see my point).

All in all, I had a good time at Going the Distance. It manages to take a straightforward, somewhat familiar story and make it into something with a lot of heart, humor, and aching believability. That’s disappointingly rare, even in the Age of Apatow. With any luck, more movies like this will start appearing in theatres than Date Night or The Proposal. I want to believe that.

Read More

Sorority Row (2009) by Josh Stolberg & Pete Goldfinger

In a lengthy but effective sequence, the screenplay by Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger establishes the characters and the stakes. It starts with a not-so-harmless prank: to get revenge on Chugs’s (Margo Harshman) date-rapist brother, Garret (Matt O’Leary), the sisters of Theta Pi give him some pills to slip to Megan (Audrina Partridge), which will simulate an apparent drug overdose. Our heroine, Cassidy (Briana Evigan), looks on with disdain as Chugs follows along with queen-bitch Jessica (Leah Pipes), geek Ellie (Rumer Willis), and token Asian sister Claire (Jamie Chung) as they terrorize her deserving brother. They drive out to the middle of nowhere. Jessica pretends to get lost, and they end up near an abandoned mineshaft. While the sisters fake an argument about whether or not to take Megan to the hospital or drop her down the shaft, nobody notices Garret flip out and plunge a tire iron through Megan’s torso. Now she really is dead, and Jessica realizes everything uttered in their scripted argument remains true. Cassidy insists she won’t go along with it, so Jessica wraps Cassidy’s jacket around Megan’s body and dumps her down the shaft. Despite Cassidy’s reluctance, she’s left with no choice but to keep their secret.

Nine months later, at a graduation party, people involved in the murder start dying in grotesque ways. A slasher movie is born.

When I originally had to read the script for this remake of Mark Rosman’s 1983 slasher film The House on Sorority Row, I dreaded it. Although slasher fans have revised history and turned the original into a Golden Age classic of the genre, it’s a terrible film. Cheap, cheesy, exploitative—okay, it’s actually not much different from many slasher movies, but it lacks the scares and depraved psychological insight of true classics like Halloween or Black Christmas. However, Hollywood has run out of good slasher movies to ruin with unneeded remakes. They’re scraping the bottom of the barrel at this point.

Yet, Sorority Row has a lively, winning screenplay. Maybe my lowered expectations colored my reaction, but I enjoyed it for a number of reasons. It has a great setup, a set of characters who rise above their stereotypical roots, and a surprise-filled third act that doesn’t suffer from the M. Night Shyamalan movie-ruining twist. Even better, Stolberg and Goldfinger understand the slasher genre. The screenplay has a lot of fun twisting genre conventions and audience expectations, starting with a tone-setting opening sequence in which the traditional sights and sounds of a horror film—a slow tracking shot to a dark, gloomy, old house, accompanied by the sounds of crashing glass and a screaming girl—gives way to the revelation that this is a wild sorority party in full swing. Okay, so it’s not art, but it’s fun and funny.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the multiplex. The rating changed from PG-13 (the draft I read contains numerous specific references for keeping the sorority sisters’ bras on and violent acts just out of frame) to R, and the filmmakers used this change as license for silly exploitation, instead of something ironically commenting on the silly exploitation of classic slasher films. The reasonably believable description of the opening party in the screenplay becomes a music-video slow-motion pillow fight featuring sexy girls in underwear and a ridiculous snowstorm of feathers. Garret goes from a cheerfully sociopathic asshole to a twitchy, skittish basket case (even before his accidental murder). A miscast Briana Evigan’s attempt at a sultry alto (which alternately sounds like a bad case of laryngitis and a trucker with an 18-pack-a-day habit) seems more befitting of bad-girl Jessica than good-girl Cassidy.

On the surface, none of these changes seem significant, but they speak to larger problems. What reads like believable human behavior in the script is played by all the actors as incredibly arch, robbing the characters of the surprising nuance and subtlety on the page. The same goes for the overall story: on paper, the only thing that felt over-the-top is the eleventh-hour James Bond villain speech from the unmasked killer. For most of the script, these characters feel like real people leading normal lives that get shaken up by abnormal murders. That really impressed me, and I looked forward to seeing a movie that would go back to the straightforward slasher classics instead of the cartoonish crapfest they became.

Then I saw the movie. Cough.

As one might expect, the script faces twin problems from style-over-substance director Stewart Hendler (proving yet again that not every director who starts in commercials and music videos will turn into Spike Jonze or David Fincher) and hammy performances. It’s as if everyone but Stolberg and Goldfinger thought this was a straight-up comedy. The writers do insert some intentional laughs and some winking references to previous slasher movies, but overall it’s not a comedic script. Approaching every scene with a comedic tone robs the movie of any sort of suspense or sympathy, and by design the script doesn’t have the laughs to sustain the total lack of intrigue. To quote Rainier Wolfcastle, “It’s not a comedy.” It frustrates me to know that a good script got ruined primarily by a tone-deaf director who spent more time setting up variable-speed tracking shots and too little time keeping the actors’ performances grounded.

Sorority Row is a bad film, but it didn’t have to be. It’s a textbook example that cinema is not a director’s medium—it’s collaborative, and if everyone’s not on the same page (no pun intended, I swear), a good script can easily turn into a flaming turd.

(Ironically, Stolberg and Goldfinger went on to write the Piranha remake, much loathed by Matt, in part because of its tone-deaf director.)

Read More

Shadows and Fog (1991)

In Shadows and Fog, Woody Allen pays homage to the German Expressionist movement of the 1920s with a Kafka-esque story and a Lang-esque style. The blend of Allen’s absurd comedic style, his frequent obsessions (mortality, infidelity, guilt), and German Expressionism is put to better effect in some of his New Yorker short stories, notably “The Condemned.” However, Shadows and Fog benefits greatly in light of Allen’s work in the intervening 20 years. Its original release—between a string of great films like Crimes and Misdemeanors and Bullets Over Broadway—made it seem like a lesser work. Since then, Allen has made a lot of flat-out bad films. Shadows and Fog holds up better in comparison to his later work, though it’s nowhere near the caliber of his incredible hot streak during the ’70s and ’80s.

The strange story ostensibly focuses on the pursuit of a serial killer known as “the Strangler.” Kleinman (Allen) becomes an unwilling participant in the search when a vigilante mob rouses him from his sleep and suggests that if he doesn’t help, then he must be the killer. Meanwhile, at a circus on the outskirts of New York, sword-swallower Irmy (Mia Farrow) argues with her husband, clown Paul (John Malkovich), about having a baby. Angry, Irmy runs away and winds up taking shelter in a whorehouse where student Jack (John Cusack) mistakes her for an employee.

From there, things get even more bizarre as the enormous cast of characters (including a madam played by Lily Tomlin, prostitutes played by Jodie Foster and Kathy Bates, a tightrope walker played by Madonna, a doctor played by Donald Pleasence, and a magician played by Kenneth Mars) interact in absurd, surprising ways. I don’t want to spoil the developments, so I’ll just say this: imagine Love and Death, You Only Live Once, and Kafka’s The Trial had a freaky three-way. Shadows and Fog would be their lovechild.

Allen is not a director known for creating a creepy atmosphere in his films. Even his most depressing (Interiors) and surreal (Stardust Memories) films, while evocative in their own ways, don’t have the same eerie, oppressive feel of Shadows and Fog. It’s a combination of the heavy fog and Allen’s decision to shoot entirely on soundstages instead of on location, which lends itself perfectly to the surreal, dreamlike nature of the film. This is one of a handful of films to point to in order to convince doubters of Allen’s versatility and directorial daring.

The problem that prevents Shadows and Fog from joining the ranks of Allen’s alarming number of masterpieces is its central conceit: it toes the line between spoofing and paying homage to German Expressionism, and as a result it’s a little too precious and self-consciously odd. Generally a master of absurdity, Allen strains here to combine weirdness with weighty themes, starting with the too-obvious circus motif. Consequently, Allen’s work here pales in comparison to the Kafka material he emulates. That doesn’t make it a bad film. Uneven, maybe. It’s anchored by great performances, and Allen loads his script with enough comedy and thoughtful ideas to make up for the occasionally overwrought symbolism and thematic elements. If nothing else, it’s a lot more watchable and ambitious than Allen’s other magic-themed films (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Scoop).

Overall, Shadows and Fog seems designed mainly for people who know and appreciate German Expressionism. If you’ve never read anything by Kafka or seen anything by Lang or Murnau, this probably won’t do much for you. It’s a good film if you have those reference points, but it doesn’t hold up on its own merits.

Read More

Pirates (1986)

Look at the pedigree: Roman Polanski, disgraced and exiled director of several fantastic films (Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, Tess); Walter Matthau, an actor of such tremendous talent that he still qualifies as underrated despite three Oscar nominations and one win; and Tarak Ben Ammar, whose involvement as producer and/or financier of European films (most notably Life of Brian Franco Zefferelli’s La Traviata) lend him credibility despite his not being a household name.

Cannon brought these people together in a CAA-like package. After years of mockery from critics over their oeuvre—which, to that point, consisted largely of sequels, ultraviolent action movies, and crass attempts to cash in on fads (like breakdancing)—Cannon sought out prestigious yet down-on-their-luck filmmakers and actors to make a better class of film for them. For well-publicized reasons, Polanski hadn’t directed a film since Tess in 1979. After an almost nonstop series of hits during the first half of the ’70s, Matthau starred in an unfortunate string of flops. Cannon pounced, and Pirates happened.

What an ill-conceived mess of a film. Its opening sets a tone of depravity that the rest of the movie gleefully embraces: Captain Red (Matthau), a Cockney pirate with a huge black beard and a surprisingly convincing peg leg, is stuck on a leaky raft with his French manservant, Jean-Baptiste (Cris Campion). Jean-Baptiste fishes off the side of the raft, but all he can catch is a tiny minnow. Red is so hungry, he grabs the minnow and swallows it, even though it’s still on the fishhook, which gets stuck in his throat. Red yanks on the fishing line twice, but the hook remains stuck, so he slices the line with his sword and swallows it. This is played for laughs, but all it made me do was clutch my own throat, somewhat nauseated as my mind tried to simulate what it might feel like to yank on a fishhook caught in my throat. More attempts at laughs follow: not satiated, Red immediately lunges at his servant, attempts to bite him in the ass, and when Jean-Baptiste climbs the mast to get away from him, Red starts to chop it down with his sword, all the while explaining why it would be honorable for Jean-Baptiste to let Red eat him.

The possibility for laughs exist in these bizarre bits of business, but laughter never comes. This long opening scene exists solely to introduce Red as a comically unpleasant, gold-obsessed monster. I give Polanski some credit for never trying to redeem this character’s faults, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed spending time with Red or any other character in this film.

Immediately after this opening scene, Red and Jean-Baptiste sneak onto a Spanish galleon and get caught and forced into slavery. Ostensibly, the plot revolves around Red’s quest to steal a solid-gold Aztec throne from the ship, but the film gets distracted from that storyline with many other swashbuckling clichés: Red leads a mutiny, Jean-Baptiste falls in love with a beautiful aristocrat (Charlotte Lewis), Red attempts to ransom the aristocrat to her father (and when he won’t pay, Red instructs Jean-Baptiste to rape her in front of him), for some reason Red travels to a tropical island where he owes many people money, and so on.

The depravity continues in moments like the extended, graphic scene in which their captor, Don Alfonso (Damien Thomas), forces Red and Jean-Baptiste to eat a raw rat. Also, this movie has roughly as much rape-based humor as Yellowbeard (another awful pirate comedy), which is especially uncomfortable in light of Polanski’s sordid personal life. The humor relies far too much on gross-out gags, but those gags make the Farrelly Brothers look like Frank Capra. The miscalculation is surprising, because although Polanski is not known as a comedy director, he made at least one great one (1967’s The Fearless Vampire Killers) and peppered most of his other films with an undeniable wit. Matthau does his best to mine laughs from the awful material, but he has so little to work with, his performance frequently comes off as desperate. It’s sort of sad to watch.

The movie doesn’t really work as a rollicking pirate adventure, either. Polanski does focus on some of the details of pirate life (such as Red bartering to get a fellow slave to carve him a new peg leg), but overall, it just mines too many clichés and has too little narrative focus to work as either a satisfying homage to classic pirate fare or a cautionary tale tearing down the pirate mythos. Any attempt to understand why the script is so scattershot would require more conjecture than I’m willing to put forth in a review. What matters is the fact that the story simply doesn’t work.

All of this is hugely disappointing in light of how good Pirates looks. The ship, a full-scale recreation (with a modern engine), is gorgeous, and the costumes alone do a great job of separating the disgusting pirate slaves from the well-kept Spaniards. The panoramic cinematography shows off the overall beauty of the sea and scenery (filmed in Malta and Tunisia). If nothing else, production designer Pierre Guffroy, costumer Anthony Powell, and cinematographer Witold Sobocinski should be commended. They managed to make a horrible movie look better than it should, and better than most cheap Cannon fodder. They’re the sole reason this movie didn’t get a shameful zero-star rating.

Pirates is a terrible film, lacking both the goofy charm of typical Cannon films and the high quality one expects from a Polanski film (assuming one hasn’t seen The Tenant or The Ninth Gate). The frustrating combination of incoherent storytelling and epically unfunny comedy obliterate a movie that had a great deal of potential.

Read More