Sunday, October 23, 2011

Horror-Thon 2011: Meet Tucker and Dale

You may have noticed I have not written much about new releases here of late. That's because the current cinematic landscape has been about as barren as Paris Hilton's intellect. There just isn't much out there.

That's why I was grateful to attend another Horror Marathon at the Little Art Theatre in Yellow Springs.  Horror has never been my favorite genre, but I like it when it works - and most of the movies the 'thon offered up did.

Rear Window - Not really a horror movie, and I already saw it once in a theater this year. But am I complaining? Oh HELL no!

BTW, the theater inadvertently offered up a lesson in how "flat" films are projected. Movies that are shot without a specific widescreen process shoot a full frame of film, which is square in shape. That excess image, which you are not supposed to see, (and which we briefly saw here)  is supposed to be masked by an aperture plate in the projector to produce a rectangular image. That's why, if you ever see boom mikes dropping into frame, it's not the fault of the people who made the movie - it's the fault of the projectionist, who has framed the image improperly.

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil: Without question, this was THE highlight of the marathon. I could see why this wildly entertaining spoof has developed such great buzz. It takes the old cliche of mean hillbillies vs. guileless college kids and turns it completely on its head by the end of the first reel. The movie walks the line brilliantly between fright and humor, never straying too far in either direction. Not only was it the best heretofore unseen film of the marathon, it's one of the best films I've seen this year. Read Leonard Maltin's piece about how the movie almost got away, thanks to a short-sighted distributor.

Attack the Block was an offbeat film about British hoodlums and how they tangle with nasty little alien beasties that fall from the sky like meteors and seem to be made mostly of teeth that glow in the dark. It's a solid film that's a little easier to admire than it is to love. I never cared about the characters as much as I wanted to, even though I found the offbeat approach praiseworthy. It struck me as something Danny Boyle might have made early in his career.

Zombie: And here's where I started to lose it. Lucio Fulci is considered a horror-master in some quarters, but I sure as hell can't see why. Yeah, it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to have a woman strip naked just so she can dive underwater and witness a zombie fighting with a shark - but that's about the only memorable scene in this snoozefest. Sadly, the movie reminded me of the clueless Italian hacks who made Troll 2, even if Fucli is at least technically competent.

Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein: It's too bad this very funny movie played when it did. Zombie had put most of the audience to sleep, so the reaction to this movie was subdued. It was quite the contrast to the crowd who ate it up in Columbus earlier this year.

Alien: Still scary. And still Ridley Scott's best film. And so, I thought it best to close the marathon with this movie, rather than sticking around for The Human Centipede II. I wanted to be able to eat later in the day.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Terminally affecting/irritating: 50/50 and Restless

Making a movie about terminal illness can be like walking a tightrope. Walk the line beautifully and you can make something powerful such as Terms of Endearment or Longtime Companion. Lose your balance and you end up with a noble movie no one wants to see (Funny People) or you fail outright (Autumn in New York, Sweet November, too many movies on Lifetime).

Two movies in theaters right now deal with the prospect of imminent death: 50/50 starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Restless, directed by Gus Van Sant. 50/50 walks its line gracefully, resulting in one of the most affecting films of the year. Restless, on the other hand, made me feel that very way.

Having Seth Rogen in your movie cracking jokes about the Big C may put some people off on first blush. But, in a refreshingly rare instance, the 50/50 trailer doesn't tell the whole story. Rogen has been close friends with  Will Reiser, who was diagnosed with cancer at an appallingly young age. This film is based on their real-life experiences.

What makes the film work is that even though it's viewed through  the lead characters' eyes, it's just as much about how his illness affects other people: How it forces Rogen's character to be more than a wisecracking jack-ass, how it forces his hovering mother (Anjelica Huston) to relinquish a little control, and how it exposes the true character of his girlfriend, played by Bryce Dallas Howard.

As I noted recently, Howard's turn as an odious social climber in The Help may cause her to be typecast as snotty bitches, and I'm sure 50/50's release so soon after The Help is by accident and not design. Yet to Howard's credit, her character is not inherently bad, it's more that she goes in over her head. The dynamics between her and Gordon-Levitt set the tension in the film.

Counterbalancing that tension is Anna Kendrick, who plays his inexperienced therapist, who, if memory serves, is actually younger than her patient.  It seems  like a contrivance that a patient with a rare form of cancer would be sent to a "teaching hospital," but the relationship that develops is touching enough that I didn't mind. 

In her Oscar-nominated role in Up in the Air, Kendrick played a woman with a brittle exterior masking a sensitive interior. Here, she plays the inverse: an outwardly sensitive woman who tries to put on an "impartial" exterior that is ill at ease with her heart. She's a fascinating character, and her pairing with Gordon-Levitt elevates 50/50.

Another young actress I very much admire, Mia Wasikowska, was my primary draw to Restless. She was the best thing about Tim Burton's muddled Alice in Wonderland, I loved her supporting work in The Kids are All Right, and her lead turn in this year's Jane Eyre. Unsurprisingly, I loved her character in Restless, but surprisingly, I rather disliked the movie.

The film's director is Gus Van Sant, who seems to be going for the sort of quirky/morbid vibe found in Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude. What we get instead  is an uncomfortable amalgam of Van Sant's mainstream hits (Good Will Hunting) and his more offbeat, indie fare (Paranoid Park).

Wasikowska shines in her part as a free spirit who has three months to live. She has taken to crashing funerals with a forlorn young man (Henry Hopper, son of the late Dennis) who had his own brush with death when his parents were killed in a car crash that sent him into a coma. He recovers physically, but not mentally until Wasikowska comes his way.

Wasikowska's Annabel is quirky but utterly lovable. She's the sort of person you want to hug for a long time. That being the case, many of the scenes with the couple are heartwarming.

Unfortunately, Van Sant and writer Jason Lew fail to find a shape for the material. They can't decide between straight ahead teenage angst and self-conscious oddity, and too often, the latter rules the day. Take, for example, the Battleship games Hopper always loses with his imaginary friend, who is a Japanese kamikaze pilot ghost.

See what I mean?

I didn't want Wasikowska to die. But I must confess that when the film came to its end, I was rather relieved.  In an incredible coincidence, one of Restless' producers is a Bryce Dallas Howard - whom I hope in the future will be as good at picking scripts as she is playing unsympathetic women.

50/50: A-

Restless: C+

Monday, October 10, 2011

Happy 20th Birthday, Sir Critic!

Happy Birthday to me,  Happy Birthday to me, Happy Birthday Sir Critic, Happy Birthday to me! Oh, it feels great to be 20!

Those of you who know me might be a bit confused. Yes, it is my birthday, this week, and I turn 41 - on Thursday. But it was 20 years ago today that my nom de plume, Sir Critic first made it into print.

I first reviewed films for my high school newspaper in the mid-80s, about the time I was really getting into movies.  But I didn't truly find my voice until a few years later when I started writing for The Guardian, Wright State University's student newspaper. By then I had gotten the nutty idea I had wanted to write about films for a living, so I joined the staff to start down that path.

When I saw Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King in 1991, the film powerfully affected me. I was taken with its zany and touching tale of knights and redemption. Running with the knightly theme, I decided to pull sort of a Sgt. Pepper and assume a sort of alter ego as a knight on a quest for a great movie. And so Sir Phil M. Critic was born. (Yes, he has a first name. Don't ask me what the middle initial means, though. It's like the "O" in David O. Selznick).

The review appeared on page 8 of the Oct. 10, 1991 issue. It went over so well that the name Sir Critic stuck. It became my handle when I first ventured onto this thing called the Internet a year later  - and the name became a part of my identity. It stayed with me when I wrote about movies for The Xenia Daily Gazette, various Cox newspapers, and this blog you're reading right now.

Looking at this review again, I'm still proud of it. Sure, it's a little gimmicky, but it demonstrates the way I break down movies in my mind as I try to figure out why the parts fit, or why they don't.  It's very me, in more ways than one.

So as I reflect back on 20 years of reviews, and I watch Robin Williams explain the Fisher King to Jeff Bridges in Central Park, I think about how lucky I've been. I've had a very trying year, which is why my posting has been erratic, but I'm doing my best to think positive now. I still haven't gotten that full-time job as a critic yet. Maybe I will, maybe I won't. But either way, I've been lucky to have a lot of great forums in which to writ, and a great audience, no matter what it's size. Thanks for reading me all these years.  Now find out how it all began ...


Once upon a time there was a knight called Sir Phil M. Critic who was on a quest to see and recommend to the masses some films about spiritual redemption.

Sadly, Sir Critic's quest had proven to be a dismal failure. Indeed, he saw many films that dealt with spiritual redemption, but only one of them, Dances with Wolves, had been truly remarkable to him. Still, the knight held out hope that would find at least one wondrous, spiritually redeeming movie. And so he did.

One day, Sir Critic heard about a film called The Fisher King. Its plot concerned a radio shock jock named Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) who makes on offhand remark to one of his listeners. That remark prompts that very disturbed listener to murder some yuppies and then himself. Stunned by this turn of events, Jack Wallows in despair for three years before attempting suicide.

Just as he is preparing to end his life, two local hoodlums attempt to accomplish that task for him. He is saved by a zany street man (Robin Williams) who calls himself Parry. Their meeting proves to dramatically change both men in many striking ways.

Sir Critic saw that this story, by Richard LaGravenese, was very unusual, but it certainly had potential. Upon learning that the film was to be directed by Terry Gilliam, though, he became concerned. While he had liked Gilliam's previous films (e.g. Time Bandits, Brazil) he was worried that Gilliam could not make a spiritually redeeming movie, considering his overwhelming visuals and often pessimistic attitude. When Sir Critic later journeyed to see the movie, he strode in the theater with a confident but concerned mind.

As the knight strode out of the theater, his mind was completely at ease. "Hark!" he told the masses. "Mister Gilliam has made not only a spiritually redeeming film, but a wondrously unique one as well. The entire cast was excellent, with Williams and Bridges doing some of their best work. Mister LaGravenese's script is actually quite reminiscent of Gilliams's work, in that it has a marvelous, strangely effective way of expressing deeply felt morals with extravagant methods. No other filmmakers could so easily realize such inventive ideas as there are in this picture.

But just as Sir Critic believed he was completely satisfied with the film, he noticed two dreadful-looking forms heading straight for him. "Zounds!" he exclaimed! Those are the dragons of rational thought - the ones who conspire to strip my opinions of all their positiveness!" Sure enough, the dragons began spouting their criticisms.

One charged, "Do you not realize it was a mistake for Gilliam's direction to be so heavy-handed in the early moments of the film?"The other protested, "Surely you say that the story's end was far too easy! It was harder to believe than the rest of the film!"

"You varlets!" shouted Sir Critic. "You shall not make me admire this film any less than I already do! The knight fought valiantly, but the dragons forced him to admit the film had its faults. Yet they had not totally defeated him. As he walked off to the horizon,  he still felt quite grand, thanks to the wild grandeur of The Fisher King.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

REVIEW: The Ides of March

Once we all get past the excitement of playing “spot the Miami University location” or “Did I just see my friend?” one very important question remains about George Clooney’s locally shot political drama, “The Ides of March.”

Is it a good movie?

The answer, for the most part, is a strong ''yes.’’ It doesn’t pack quite the punch I hoped it would, given the local anticipation and the movie’s sterling pedigree. Although most of the media attention has centered around Clooney, who co-wrote, directed and co-stars in the movie, “The Ides of March” is not really Clooney’s showcase as an actor.

That distinction belongs more to Ryan Gosling, who plays Stephen Myers, the idealistic young press secretary for a Democratic presidential candidate, Mike Morris (Clooney). Myers is so enamored with Morris he becomes quite sure that Morris is absolutely the right man to run the country.

It soon becomes evident, however, that Morris’ private face is not as ideal as his public one. As Morris’ indiscretions surface, Myers becomes involved in a tug-of-war between Morris’ campaign manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the cynical rival campaign manager, played by Paul Giamatti. Complicating matters even further is Myers’ dalliance with an alluring young intern (Evan Rachel Wood).

It all sounds like juicy grist for a story, and it is, to a point. But when the movie pulls the big reveal about Morris’ past, I was actually a little disappointed. The screenplay had done so well building up a level of intrigue that when it dropped the other shoe, I thought “That’s it? That’s the big, dark secret?” I won’t say what it is, but I will say it should come as no shock to anyone who wasn’t living under a rock in the 1990s.

I can’t say whether this is the fault of the source material, the play “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon, or of the screenplay by Clooney and Grant Heslov, but at a crucial moment it lets the wind out of the movie’s sails.

Then, strangely, the wind doubles back.  It’s almost as if Clooney and Heslov know the twist is a bit hackneyed. They smartly kid it, and that gets the drama flowing again.

“The Ides of March” also stands as further proof that if Clooney ever pulls a Clint Eastwood and decides to direct more than act, he’ll have a solid career ahead of him. His directing  is assured, smart and subtle, and Clooney does a very solid job of capturing a particular mood.

That’s because Clooney’s primary strength as a director is in drawing great performances out of his cast.
Everyone here is on top of his or her game, especially Gosling, who always does a fine job of suggesting tensions that boil beneath the surface, and Wood, who always makes a striking presence, even in smaller parts.

One of the best things about “The Ides of March” is that it will get will people thinking and talking after it’s over — hopefully about more than whether you spotted your friend or not.