Starring: Zalman King, Deborah Winters, Robert Walden, Mark Goddard, Charles Siebert
Screenplay: Jeff Lieberman
Director: Jeff Lieberman
Cult classic late ’70s film with future softcore maven Zalman King as Jerry Zipkin, who witnesses a friend’s psychotic break during a party at which it’s discovered he’s wearing a toupee and is completely hairless. The male partygoers go looking for the guy, Fran, but he comes back and kills three of the women and then fights Jerry in the road, before Fran is hit and killed by a truck. For no good reason other than the plot requires it, Jerry doesn’t stay to talk to the cops and goes on the run, becoming prime suspect in the murders, with only his girlfriend Alicia (Winters) and doctor friend David (Walden) to help, as he tries to solve what caused not only Fran’s but other people’s psychosis and alopecia, all happening the same week, and all the people connected to Ed Flemming (Goddard, best known for Lost in Space), who’s running for Congress,. Flemming sold them “blue sunshine” LSD 10 years ago in college, which is now having a long-delayed series of side effects.
Ludicrous, hole-filled plotting and uneven acting, but Lieberman at least has an interesting (if nonsensical) premise for this quasi-horror film, which along with some other goofy choices elevates what is otherwise a nicely-paced if undistinguished low-budget thriller. King is quite good as well, believable even when doing stupid things. Look for an early appearance by character actor Brion James as a guest who disrupts the party with an unsettling Rodan impression.
Leslie Morgan Steiner was in an abusive relationship, though at first she didn’t realize it. In a talk at TEDxRainier, she tells the disturbing story of her relationship, correcting misconceptions many people hold about victims of domestic violence, and explaining how we can all help break the silence.
If you or someone you know is facing domestic violence or an absuive relationship, you can find a list of resources here. The U.S. National Sexual Assault Hotline is 1-800-656-4673 (HOPE), and RAINN offers a secure online hotline.
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Starring: Albert Brooks, Kathryn Harrold, Bruno Kirby, George Kennedy, Meadowlark Lemon, Bob Einstein
Screenplay: Albert Brooks, Monica Johnson
Director: Albert Brooks
Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World:
Starring: Albert Brooks, Amy Ryan, Jon Tenney, Paul Jerome, Sheetal Sheth, Emma Lockhart, Victoria Burrows, Penny Marshall
Screenplay: Albert Brooks
Cinematography: Thomas E. Ackerman
Music: Michael Giacchino
Editing: Anita Brandt-Burgoyne
Director: Albert Brooks
It might just be laziness that I group these reviews together, separated by two-and-a-half decades of a man’s work and with little similarity between them. It’s interesting to see them together, though, to see what was and could be, and what became.
In Modern Romance, Brooks plays Robert, a successful film editor who keeps breaking up and then winning back his girlfriend, Mary (Harrold). Stanley Kubrick called it the best film about jealousy ever made, and he’s not wrong. Robert is a nice, romantic guy but he can’t seem to settle down and be happy with Mary, nor can he stand the thought of her with someone else, so they keep this destructive cycle going. If you get a chance, check out some of Brooks’ old standup routines on YouTube, which are often more conceptual, satirical takes on showbiz cliches than actual just jokes, and that will help you prepare a bit for this film. There’s a pretty bulletproof scene early on, when Robert has broken up with Mary and has taken a couple Quaaludes to dull the pain of it, and starts off happy and enjoying a night in with his turntable, only to turn jealous and bitter when a friend calls to ask if Mary is fair game now. There’s also a funny scene—more of a sketch—with brother Bob Einstein as a sporting goods store proprietor selling Robert more expensive gear than he really needs. These are the two funniest scenes, and the rest is funny and painful, or rather mild. Robert is in the middle of editing a cheesy science fiction movie starring George Kennedy, but for whatever reason, Brooks doesn’t mine much comedy from this, nor are Robert’s other relationships anything but normal. It’s still a very perceptive film about self-destructive, jealous behavior, but lacking in enough killer scenes or deep insight to make it a classic.
By the time of Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, Brooks was best known as the voice of Marlin in Finding Nemo, and his opportunities to call the shots as a writer/director/leading man were sporadic. I only got to this film now because the title led me to believe it was a documentary, but no. Brooks plays a version of himself, hungry for work after a disastrous meeting with Penny Marshall for a remake of the Jimmy Stewart classic, Harvey (points to Brooks for writing self-deprecating shots about his real remake of The In-Laws), so he’s agreeable to an all-expenses-paid trip to India and then Pakistan by the U.S. Government to try to understand the Muslim point of view, particularly in what they like to laugh at. It’s an intriguing premise, but Brooks spends too much time on the minor indignities of office space in India, the intimidating page count requirement of his report (500 pages), and himself dressing in Indian attire, which he seems to think is funnier than it is. The film also suffers from a reticence or perhaps a kind of egotism: Brooks hires a lovely Indian assistant with a jealous boyfriend, and while it’s clear she has something of a crush on him, he doesn’t act on it and ends up giving the boyfriend good advice, which kind of makes the conflict weak. Not that we necessarily needed a Brooks cheating on his wife, but there are several scenes where he calls home to talk to his wife and cute daughter, and while it establishes he’s a nice guy, it doesn’t bring the laughs. The center of the film is Brooks putting on a standup show, complete with some of his old ’70s bits, which don’t go over well. The idea of the arrogant American comic thinking his old act will work to foreigners is intriguing, and it’s to Brooks’ credit that at no time does he make fun of Indians or Pakistanis, but neither does he dig in enough and make his character into enough of a jerk to make the film funnier. Maybe I’m too used to the Larry David/Ricky Gervais/Danny McBride/Etc. school of Brooks and Woody Allen acolytes/super viruses to be moved by this gentler version of discomfort comedy, but it really does feel like the film is a pleasant but unformed film, a script that needs a few more drafts to really get in shape.
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Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansingarm, Ratha Phongam, Gordon Brown, Tom Burke
Screenplay: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cinematography: Larry Smith
Music: Cliff Martinez
Editing: Matthew Newman
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Julian (Gosling) runs a muay thai boxing ring in Bangkok with his brother, Billy (Burke), but it’s a front for drug dealing/smuggling. Billy rapes and murders an underage prostitute, which leads the corrupt police Lt. Chang (Panringsarm) to arrange for the girl’s father to kill Billy, after which he takes his own pound of flesh by slicing off the man’s arm with his sword. The matriarch of the organization, Crystal (Scott Thomas) arrives to not only take her son’s body but also to take revenge, as Julian won’t, since he feels Billy had it coming. The conflict between Julian, Crystal and Chang only gets bloodier.
A remarkably unpleasant film for all its beautiful photography and attractive stars, Only God Forgives attempts to be a kind of fairy tale, with many scenes symbolic and/or taking place in Julian’s head. Gosling affects a kind of Brandoesque wounded man child, Scott Thomas is an arresting, Donatella Versacesque monster, and Panringsarm is the kind of messianic cop who can slice people in half and then sing sweet karaoke afterwards. But while one can see similar horrors and weird, super-Oedipal strains in Winding Refn’s inspiration, filmmaker/auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky (to whom this film, like the previous Drive, is dedicated), Winding Refn seems unable to find the humanity, or a deeper truth, that Jodoroswky, at his best, finds. Indeed, the minimalist romance and caring shown in Drive, which was written after this script, looks now like either growth or a superficial attempt at it, since he seems uninterested here in creating real or three dimensional characters. In certain hands, Crystal’s response to Julian’s excuse for why he didn’t kill Billy’s killer (because he raped and murdered an underage prostitute), “I’m sure he had his reasons,” might have played as deadpan, dark-mirror-to-humanity comedy. Here, it’s just horrible, as is everything Crystal does or says, as is how she treats Julian and how he subsequently treats his girlfriend (a prostitute he hardly knows and whom we never see even kiss, just stare at or put his hand between her legs). The film is a polarizing one because there’s little to get beyond the nicely shot ugliness. It’s telling that much of the film is lit in red, which acts to make blood and violence very mundane, human life very cheap.
Note: Cliff Martinez’ score is even better than his one for Drive, quite good on its own without the visuals.
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Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, James Gandolfini, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Chris Pratt, Stephen Dillane, Harold Perrineau, Mark Duplass, John Barrowman
Screenplay: Mark Boal
Cinematography: Greig Fraser
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Editing: Dylan Tichenor, William Goldenberg
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Readers of this blog will attest that I don’t often go too far outside the public consensus. I’m not necessarily a populist but when a lot of people like something, more often than not, I can see what they’re talking about. Not so with this film, which was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, though it only one for Best Sound Editing. But the thing is, I really didn’t find it to be a very good film. Most of the cast get away unscathed, though I certainly look at Chastain a title askance now, wondering what she thought she was accomplishing with her driven but shallow character.
As everyone knows, it’s the partially fictionalized story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Jessica Chastain plays a composite of several different CIA analysts tracking down thousands of leads to find his location over the decade since 9/11. The film has a pseudo-documentary feel, with some shaky cam and harsh environments, but it’s always a movie, and the filmmaking is really not much better or different from, say, an episode of Homeland.
Kathryn Bigelow was a known filmmaker before, but her previous film, The Hurt Locker, really elevated her to the ranks of an Important Filmmaker, even if, in my opinion, it wasn’t earned. She can film suspense, tension and action, but the characterization in that film was weak, and so it is in Zero Dark Thirty, which gives Chastain’s Maya a motivation, a few years into the job, to really buckle down and find that bin Laden guy, because a fellow agent she kinda knew and who didn’t like her but gave her some good advice (Ehle) gets killed in a double cross. It’s pat, weak motivation and it plays like shorthand, like a compromise a television series doesn’t have to make. I don’t think the feature film is as dead as some would have you think, but without any question in my mind, this is a story that is poorly served by a two-hour-plus feature, where leads just kind of happen when they need to, or maybe they don’t, and we’re just at the next part of the story without much connective tissue. A good deal of time is given in the beginning to Jason Clarke’s agent, who water boards a captive to try to get information, and in the my only defense of Bigelow, who drew heat at the time of the film’s release for the film supposedly endorsing torture, the information gleaned by the captive is of minimal value, which reports will tell you is basically what you get most of the time from torture. People tell you what you want to hear, to stop the pain.
Clarke seems like he’ll be important, and he lasts for quite a while in the film, despite having no real importance after the first fifteen minutes. This is a pattern Bigelow and her screenwriter set, which ultimately dooms the film to irrelevance and boredom. While it’s momentarily entertaining to see a Kyle (Friday Night Lights) Chandler or James (The Sopranos) Gandolfini (with a hairpiece, no less) or James (Torchwood) Barrowman in scenes, they really don’t do shit. They talk, they palaver, and ultimately it’s down to Chastain to chew up scenery as seemingly the only U.S. government employee who really, really cares about getting this guy, and the Seal team who actually does the job while she watches a monitor. The actors involved seem as confused/deluded as the government about whether killing bin Laden was actually a really important accomplishment. Mark Strong and his wig seem to think they’re delivering Alec Baldwin’s Glengarry Glen Ross speech, and boy, are they coming up short. There’s too much talent on display to call this film garbage, and it’s certainly watchable, but it all adds up to very little. It’s a police procedural on a grand scale, with distracting casting and a few explosions, but no ideas or point of view.
Wednesday - Gone With the Wind, All Day
Thursday - Godfather & Godfather II, All Day
Friday - Hitchcock Marathon, All Day
Saturday - Steven Seagal Marathon, All Day
I thought we were all pretending Steven Seagal never happened?
Don Knotts Sez - “Let’s Keep It Clean!” (early ’70s)
It may not be saying a lot, but Knotts has never looked more handsome.
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Starring: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Pena, Robert Patrick, Mireille Enos
Screenplay: Will Beall, Based on the Book, Tales from the Gangster Squad, by Paul Lieberman
Cinematography: Dion Beebe
Music: Steve Jablonsky
Editing: Alan Baumgarten, James Herbert
Dicrector: Ruben Fleischer
With this film, director Fleischer goes from the promising director of Zombieland to, after the also-disappointing 30 Minutes or Less, a guy on the fast track to directing television. That said, Gangster Squad is some good, stupid fun if you turn most of your brain off and enjoy the sharp suits and rattling Tommy guns.
Apparently acting on the premise that previous neonoir bombs like Mulholland Falls and The Black Dahlia were too cerebral, Gangster Squad comes on with a lot of bloody gun violence quickly, letting up just enough to deliver a simple story of an off-the-books team of coppers led by John O’Mara (Brolin) who will go outside the law to destroy the operations of crime lord Mickey Cohen (Penn). The team mostly consists of war movie-level cliches; there’s a crack shot cowboy (Patrick), a knife expert (Mackie), the brains of the operation (Ribisi, a great intellect), and a Mexican (Pena). No, really, they didn’t come up with anything for him other than that he’s quiet and isn’t a very good shot, until the end, when it counts. Gosling plays Sgt. Jerry Wooters, a jaded drunk cop who doesn’t want to get involved until it becomes personal; get this—the kid who shines his shoes gets killed in some Cohen crossfire. Underwriting this operation is an old clothes dryer with some change rattling around in it; oh wait, it’s just Nick Nolte, somehow getting fourth billing despite very little work here.
Emma Stone is improbably cast as Cohen’s moll, Grace Faraday, who quickly falls for Jerry, because Ryan Gosling over Sean Penn’s putty-covered face really isn’t a fair fight. Speaking of which, between Penn’s grotesquely fake Cohen face makeup and Brolin’s lantern jaw, this film resembles nothing so much as a Dick Tracy remake with a wider color palette.
As far as it goes, it’s entertaining, but even when real locations are used, it often looks kind of fake, partly due to the tight shots Fleischer mostly uses, as if wide shots would shatter the illusion. The action scenes are nothing special, then, but mostly get the job done. But mostly, to the extent the film succeeds, it’s largely due to casting a lot of good actors who do their best with very sketchy parts. In addition to the main stars, Jon (Miller’s Crossing) Polito is fine as Cohen rival Jack Dragna, Enos is good as O’Mara’s wife, and Sullivan (Strike Back) Stapleton does well with a small role as a Cohen informant who ends up guarding Grace with his life. Stone and Gosling, though not entirely convincing playing ’40s dress-up, still have great charisma and nice chemistry together, and Gosling pretty effortlessly steals the film from Brolin, as Brolin’s character is too grim and not given any real character progression.
I’d have to say the campaign here is probably the weakest in years, a brief story where you’re the son of the leader of the Ghosts—rebels in some sort of post apocalyptic future—fighting the Federation, which are just vaguely defined bad guys who speak Spanish. Add to the mix Rorke, a former Ghost who your father had to let fall to save the rest of his men; why a soldier like Rorke doesn’t understand that sacrifice and wants revenge, who knows, but hey, walk a mile in a virtual man’s shoes. You’re Logan Walker and your brother is Hesh, who sounds a lot like Paul Rudd but is actually Brandon Routh. Stephen Lang from Avatar is the father, Elias Walker.
Basically, you go from location to location, sometimes hunting Rorke and sometimes fighting Federation forces and trying to prevent them from launching some missiles. The designers try to add some fresh elements like a zero-G battle outside a satellite, some tank and drone strike stuff, and an underwater mission. They’re kind of hit and miss, Often, a level is frustrating and seems hard due to the utter lack of instruction on what one is supposed to do, and by trial and error, you soon figure it out and it’s actually easy. The game doesn’t take much strategy or tremendous skill, just patience and a steady hand, and it often helps to hang back a bit and let your virtual teammates help take out a few bad guys. Just because it featured so prominently in the commercials, I should mention that there is no wintry vehicle chase that I can even recall, and the Las Vegas mission is very short and one of the least interesting levels. You start in an abandoned, minimally detailed, Bellagio-style casino, shoot through some bad guys, and make your way outside, where you shoot through some more, careful to keep remembering to pick up your injured German Shepherd, Riley, because apparently the game designers thought alternating shooting with carrying a dog was a fun new twist. The designers also continue to believe that lots of slow-motion damage and crazy angles are really interesting, but they really just seem to distract from the simplicity of the game itself. The story doesn’t really build, just kind of arrives at a finale before you realize it’s coming.
The online mode has been revised, with a few new tweaks, and some are kind of fun, though I found some of the opponents harder to see in the new maps than previously (maybe I’m just getting old). None of the new stuff was a fantastic idea, just different, and as usual, there are some bad/unfair new tweaks, like a fast moving juggernaut who can’t be stopped even if you shoot him several times in the chest. The maps are pretty cool, though, and the new way of unlocking weapons—you earn “squad points” that can unlock any weapon within a few rounds, rather than having to laboriously work your way up to the weapon you want—is a good idea. I didn’t play the new Extinction mode much, but I enjoyed it. It’s an alien variation on the overdone zombie theme, but what’s interesting is that you really have to work as a team to succeed, assisting each other and performing other functions to survive. I may not play a lot of it, but it’s better than the zombie stuff. All in all, I guess the game will end up being all right with the online stuff, but the campaign seems to be getting less attention each time. And visually, it’s starting to look dated, as it doesn’t look any better than the last few installments. It looks fine, but if you’re not going forward, you’re going backward.
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