3 x 4/5: Happy Birthday, Spencer, Bette and Gregory!

2013-04-05 Poster

I have been MIA on this blog for most of the month of the March, for which I apologize. The reasons are fourfold:

  1. As the academic year progresses, I seem to have more and more work to do.
  2. To escape this burden, I took a vacation for a week over our Spring Break, during which time I watched no new movies, and tried my best to relax.
  3. I have been having some serious back issues for most of the month, which keep me from wanting to go out to movie theaters to sit in uncomfortable seats for hours at a time.
  4. I have been prepping for my next radio appearance – information below – and so have been spending what free time I have watching older films, as research.

But hopefully that research will have been worth it, for you, because . . .

On Friday, April 5, Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and I will appear on Midday with Dan Rodricks on WYPR, 88.1FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station, during the second hour, 1-2pm, to discuss the legacy of three movie stars – Spencer Tracy (1900-1967), Bette Davis (1908-1989) and Gregory Peck (1916-2003) – whose birthdays all happen to be on April 5.*

Do you have a favorite among the three? Do you know much about their life and work? Do you only think of Tracy as the curmudgeonly father in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, or Davis as the bitter aging diva in All About Eve, or Peck as the righteous crusader for racial justice in To Kill a Mockingbird? Well, there’s a lot more to each of them than that. In 1999, AFI ranked Bette Davis as the #2 female star of all time, Spencer Tracy as the #9 male star of all time, and Gregory Peck as the #12 male star of all time (see http://www.afi.com/100Years/stars.aspx). Tune in on April 5th at 1pm to find out why.

*Missed the show? We included an appreciation of the late, great Roger Ebert. You can listen to the show here: Midday with Dan Rodricks: 2013.04.05_Tracy-Davis-Peck

“Stoker,” or the Film with Three Australians


Stoker (Chan-wook Park, 2013)

How embarrassing – I watched this film at a special sneak preview on January 24, yet I am only now publishing my review. Stoker opened in Baltimore on March 15, but since I was away on vacation that week, I just couldn’t quite motivate to write up my thoughts. Speaking of which, here are some photos from my trip to Curaçao. Perhaps they will help explain why I didn’t feel like being indoors typing. That, and I only had my iPad with me, and that thing – while convenient and cool as hell – is just not good for creation. It’s great for consumption, however.

So what about this movie? The simplest way to describe it is to say that it is a brilliant and beautiful stylistic exercise in search of a meaning. At its center there is no there there. It’s all visual contrivance and no script. Or, at least, no third act of the script. To make a crazy comparison (and why not?!? the film invites all sorts of madness!), it’s like Hancock in that two thirds of it are really intriguing and even fun (though here, in a macabre way), and the final third is just absolutely mediocre (though, to give it credit, Stoker is superior to Hancock).

Another way to describe the film is that it is the movie with three Australians: Nicole Kidman, Jacki Weaver, and Mia Wasikowska. One of them is wasted (Kidman, in a thankless part that anyone could have played), the other is OK (Weaver, so fine in Silver Linings Playbook), and one of them is amazing (Wasikowska, who continues to impress, from The Kids Are All Right to Jane Eyre and beyond). None of them play Australians in this film, however.

The director, Chan-wook Park, is Korean, and boy do I want to see some of his other films, now. His ability to create atmosphere through lighting, sound and editing is simply stunning. I’ve heard great things about his Oldboy, and I think I must get off my duff and watch it (actually – sitting on my duff is probably how I will watch it . . .).

So what’s it about? When the film opens, India (Wasikowska) has just lost her father (a miscast Dermot Mulroney – then again, the man is so rarely well cast), She and her mother (Kidman) are in mourning, albeit in their own uniquely strange way – setting off alarm bells that all is not as it seems – when who should show up but Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode, ever handsomely creepy/creepily handsome). As a Hitchcock fan, I, of course, immediately thought of Shadow of a Doubt, in which Joseph Cotten plays a criminal uncle with an almost inappropriately close relationship to his niece. And guess what? In Stoker, Uncle Charlie sets up house and develops an intense and inappropriately flirtatious relationship with India. He is grooming her for something. What? Her destiny, it appears. Ooooh (actually, it’s kind of cool).

All of this, so far, contributes to a confusing jumble of a plot, but it’s all so well tied together through Park’s masterful mise-en-scène that I didn’t care. I was along for the ride. It all felt so supernatural and portentous. And then, suddenly, the script took a turn for the pedestrian, and I lost interest. I won’t spoil it except to say that it didn’t live up to the promise of the beginning.

If you can stomach much ado about nothing at all, then you’ll be fine. Just sit back and enjoy the visuals and the sound, and the masturbation scene in the shower. Ha! Got you with that one. Now you’ll just HAVE to watch . . .

Oz the OK and Probably Strong Enough

Oz the Great and Powerful

Oz the Great and Powerful (Sam Raimi, 2013)

Let me just start out by stating clearly, for the record, that I have seen far worse films than this, and that I had a genuinely good time watching it. It’s nothing special, and no rival in cinematic glory to its 1939 cousin – for which this is supposed to be a prequel – but it’s sweet in spirit and a lot of fun. Unless you’re a brunette. of course. Then it sucks.

The story, which starts in Kansas, in 1905, follows Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs (James Franco), a traveling circus magician who goes by the name of “Oz” (Phew! Thank God! Much easier!), as he propels himself further and further towards mediocrity and caddishness as neither a very effective prestidigitator nor sincere lover (of local women). He’s also very mean to his loyal assistant, Frank (Zach Braff! Where ya been?). One seduction too far, and Oz finds himself pursued by the circus strongman. Whoops! But along comes a tornado, and aboard his trusty hot air balloon, Oz finds himself magically transported to the Land of . . . Oz.

Here, he finds witches. Some have dark hair. One is blonde. Guess who the good one is? In Oz, Oz (confused?) must look deep within himself to discover qualities he never knew he had, so that he can defeat the forces of dark hair (wait – he’s a brunet, too!)… I mean … darkness, fulfill the prophecy that predicted his arrival, and save Oz (the Land? himself? both!). In the process, he also becomes a pretty good magician. And a more sincere lover (of one local woman/witch, anyway).

It’s frivolous, sloppy in its storytelling, but harmless, and unlike Jack the Giant Slayer, it’s only PG, and a pretty good family film (unless you have dark-haired young girls). The final showdown between Oz and Glinda and the bad witches is actually very well staged. I didn’t like the flying baboons, which managed to be not half as scary as the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, and there’s still a little too much fun being had at the expense of little people, but I did laugh out loud a few times.

I also liked how the film started out in the old 1.33:1 (or 4:3, as it is also called) aspect ratio, and in black & white, to mimic the original 1939 Kansas framing. I did not like, however, the awful CGI color landscape we first see when Oz flies out of the tornado. Very ugly! Things got better from there, but I was not impressed with that sequence. It’s weird that they wouldn’t try and make that arrival truly spectacular, since first impressions are so important and, well, you only get once chance to make them. Just as color seeps into the frame, the edges of the screen re-set to a widescreen aspect, and while that is nice, the design of what’s on screen is not.

As far as the witches go, I thought Rachel Weisz was quite good (but then she always is), but not Mila Kunis (whom I usually like). The latter just didn’t seem to know what she was doing. Michelle Williams was, quite simply, sublime. Truly. I have been a late-comer to the Michelle Williams fan club, but in addition to being one of the finest actresses of her generation (and having acted in one of the most underrated, if imperfect, films of 2012, Take This Waltz), she is also lovely to look at. Then again, she’s blonde. Ha!

James Franco, in my opinion, was perfect as Oz, in spite of what Todd McCarthy (of The Hollywood Reporter) has to say. I found his trademark sarcasm just the right note for a man in need of a few life lessons.

So while I would not urge anyone to rush out and see this film, I do think that you could make worse choices than to go watch it. Bring your kids, or even go on a date. Yes, you’ll groan at some of the creakiness of the narrative, but you’ll probably have some fun, as well, and get swept up in the how-will-he-get-out-of-this-fix final battle scene. I suspect this film, unlike Jack the Giant Slayer, will actually do OK at the box office, as it’s probably strong enough to generate some decent word-of-mouth recs.

Unless you’re a brunette . . .

Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum, “Jack the Giant Slayer” Is Not Entirely Dumb

Jack the Giant Slayer

Jack the Giant Slayer (Bryan Singer, 2013)

Back in 1995, I remember the excitement of watching a pretty amazing little indie thriller called The Usual Suspects (I imagine most people who were movie lovers at that time do, as well). It kind of rocked my cinematic world and introduced me to Kevin Spacey, whom I had not really noticed before. It also spun Spacey’s career into a whole new orbit, earning him an Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor (the film also won an Oscar for Best Screenplay). I still enjoy watching The Usual Suspects to this day.

Since then, Singer has gone on to a successful Hollywood career, directing such big budget extravaganzas as X-MenX2Superman Returns and Valkyrie. OK, maybe that last one wasn’t such a success (I’ve never seen it) but, overall, Singer is a director who brings in the bucks. I just wish he had retained some of the innovative energy he had starting out.

And that’s what this film lacks: energy. It’s entertaining enough, and I would definitely recommend it to families looking for harmless fun (though why they had to make it PG-13, when the obvious audience is children, I do not know). But it’s kind of flat and trite for anyone who has already seen a load of Disney films. It has the same aspirational, I-want-to-be-where-the-people-are vibe of films like The Little MermaidBeauty and the Beast, AladdinThe Lion King, and so on and so forth. The only new things here are some cool special effects and some decent 3D.

At first it seems as if the film might just subvert the gender hierarchy of the average fairy tale, much as the superior Snow White and the Huntsman did last summer. We meet Jack, of course, in the very first scene (as a little boy), and then meet Isabelle (as a young girl), the princess who will be – *spoiler alert* – Jack’s love interest. Will this be a tale in which the princess (eventually engaged, no surprise, to an undesirable suitor) has a hand in her own liberation? Well, sort of, maybe, kind of, but not really.

Jack the Giant Slayer follows the story of Jack, the farm boy, and Isabelle, the king’s daughter, as they grow up yearning for a life they each can’t have with the freedom to do what they want. Along come some magical beans, a huge stalk, and we’re off! At the end, lessons are learned, giants are tamed, and love is found. It’s sweet. And also a little boring.

The problem lies primarily with the two leads. Nicholas Hoult (the boy in About a Boy), as Jack, does not make much of an impression. He’s pretty, but we knew that already from his turn in A Single Man. A commanding screen presence, however, he is not. Eleanor Tomlinson, as Isabelle, is not any better. They don’t ruin the film, but nor do they hold your interest. It’s a good thing that Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Eddie Marsan and Ian McShane are around to provide charisma in the supporting parts.

You could do a lot worse than spend two hours in a theater watching this. You could also do better.

One thing I genuinely do not understand is the very ending. What does it mean? Are we meant to believe that the Stanley Tucci character has been reincarnated in modern times, gap-toothed grin and all? It felt like a cute step too far.

“Killer Joe” – Kill Them All, Already!

Killer Joe

Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2011)

As I write this, I have just started watching another film from last year starring Matthew McConaugheyThe Paperboy. I already suspect that it, like Killer Joe, will be stronger on atmosphere than on narrative coherence, plausibility or cinematic enjoyment. I hope I’m wrong.

I did not like Killer Joe, but McConaughey is not the problem. Since starring in The Lincoln Lawyer, McConaughey has shown a willingness to forego nice-guy – or even pretty-guy – roles in favor of characters whose sordid pasts show through his now sagging (yet still handsome) features.

No, the problem is the director, William Friedkin, and the writer, Tracy Letts. This is the second collaboration between them. The first was Bug, which was even more unpleasant a film than it was a stage play. To say that Killer Joe is the better of the two films is hardly a compliment. It’s like comparing carrion and dung: which do you prefer?

Ah, how I miss the Billy Friedkin of the 1970s, the man who gave us The French Connection and The Exorcist. Hell, even The Brink’s Job was pretty watchable. And as far as high-octane thrillers go, it’s hard to beat To Live and Die in L.A. – that car chase up the wrong side of the freeway was masterful in its intensity.

But the early successes caught up to Friedkin, and through a combination of alleged drug and alcohol abuse and other bad choices, he seemed to squander his talent. I’ll always be grateful to him for what he meant to the film culture of the Hollywood New Wave, but I just can’t stand his output anymore.

Killer Joe starts out promisingly enough. Chris Smith (an annoying Emile Hirsch), a working-class stiff and part-time drug dealer, and none too bright, decides to hire a contract killer (whose day job is being a police detective) to dispose of his mother, Adele, who, he thinks, has stolen from him (an act which has put him in trouble with some local gangsters). His father, Ansel (a great Thomas Haden Church) – long divorced from Adele – his sister, Dottie (a creepy doll-like Juno Temple), and his Stepmom Sharla (a horribly abused Gina Gershon), all, one by one, join the conspiracy. And why not, Adele’s life insurance policy will supposedly pay out enough money to solve all of their problems.

When Killer Joe (McConaughey) shows up, however, the stupidity of everyone involved quickly becomes apparent, and Joe refuses the job. Until he gets a good look at the child-woman Dottie and decides that maybe she’s worth breaking some rules for.

And that about sums up the set-up. What follows is a series of increasingly ugly scenes that make you wish that everyone in the film would die. They don’t deserve to live. They are dumb, nasty and without any redeeming qualities. To top it all off, Friedkin seems to take a strong pleasure in forcing us to watch the physical degradation of his female characters.

So why watch their story? Unless you’re a diehard McConaughey fan and want to see him give a good performance in a bad movie, my suggestion is to . . . not watch their story.