#46 - Dangerous But Sincere
1966 - 2006
Hello again. Apologies for going AWOL the last two weeks but technical difficulties made updates impossible. Thanks for standing by. The good news is it doesn’t look like we missed much. So let’s just pretend the last couple weeks never happened and forge ahead. Summer’s apparently here already, despite the fact that Memorial Day is still a few weeks out, and if I didn’t trust the movie studios’ calendar, the fact that it’s 90 degrees here in LA has me convinced. Break out the fireworks and sno-cones, kids! It’s blockbuster time! Wheeeeeeeeeeeeee!
NOW IN THEATRES
This weekend as movie execs watched Spider-Man 3 make virtually all the money there was to be made in the movie industry, they no doubt thought to themselves, “If this is any indication of how the rest of the summer will play out, this is going to be a great year!” Meanwhile, I actually saw the movie and thought to myself, “If this is any indication of how the rest of the summer will play out, I wish it was already Labor Day!” Spider-Man 3 isn’t the worst summer blockbuster I’ve ever seen but coming on the heels of the terrific first two installments, it’s certainly one of the most disappointing. As superhero sequels go, it’s not Superman IV or Batman & Robin bad but it is at the level of Superman III or Batman Forever.
Much of the problem with the movie can be chalked up to overlength and overkill. Sam Raimi and his co-conspirators try to jam way too much in and end up giving none of it its due. Worse than that, though, is the movie’s structure and script. This is one of the clumsiest big-budget blockbusters I’ve ever seen, lurching from plot point to action sequence like a drunk halfwit trying to play a game of Twister by himself. Expository scenes drag on interminably, then suddenly hiccup into action mode for awhile before running out of energy and fizzling out. The new kids, including Thomas Haden Church as Sandman and Topher Grace as Eddie Brock, do well with their roles, even when they aren’t as fleshed out as they ought to be. But Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and James Franco all seem utterly bored by the goings-on and considering what they have to work with, I can’t say that I blame them. Dunst comes off the worst, with Mary Jane having little to no continuity between movies (wasn’t she already a semi-successful actress in the second movie? Now she wants to be a singer?). Key scenes seem to be missing, like why does Mary Jane never react to the fact that Harry Osborn attacks her in her apartment while riding a flying skateboard? Why do we spend so much time seeing how the alien symbiote changes Peter Parker and none seeing how it affects his behavior as Spider-Man? And why is Gwen Stacy in this movie at all?
Most disappointing of all is Raimi’s apparent lack of enthusiasm. As good as some of the action sequences are, they could have been directed by anybody. There’s nothing here that’s as distinctly Raimi-esque as the operating room sequence in Spider-Man 2. The news isn’t all bad. Sandman is pretty cool and the scene where he first emerges from that mysterious “experiment” (which seems to serve no scientific purpose whatsoever, as near as I can tell) is quite good. Bruce Campbell is reliably funny and Stan Lee gets one of his best ubiquitous cameos. But if the best thing you can say about a movie like this is that the cameos are pretty good, something’s not working. Next time out, let’s hope they put as much effort into the script as they do lovingly rendering every grain of sand. (* *)
Expectations can be dangerous and when I sat down to watch Hot Fuzz, the latest from the Shaun of the Dead team of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, I did my best to keep my own expectations under control. I knew nothing about Shaun, Wright, Pegg or Frost when I first saw that movie and acknowledge that played a big part in how much I enjoyed it. That said, Hot Fuzz is a worthy follow-up, another funny genre mash-up with moments of genuine hilarity. If I didn’t enjoy it as much as Shaun, it may be simply because I don’t enjoy buddy cop action movies as much as I enjoy zombies. But I can appreciate the ludicrous semi-brilliance of the Keanu/Swayze clash of the titans Point Break and Wright and Pegg hit all the right notes in their tribute to the form. Surrounded by a top-notch cast of supporting actors, including the always-wonderful Jim Broadbent and Timothy Dalton enjoying himself on film more than I’ve ever seen, Pegg and Frost once again prove themselves to be a most engaging comic duo. Surprisingly, the plot of Hot Fuzz owes more to Agatha Christie than to Chuck Norris, which helps make the story considerably more engaging than most of the movies Wright and Pegg are saluting. Hot Fuzz proves that Edgar Wright is more than just a one-hit wonder and wherever these blokes decide to go next, I’ll be there to check it out. (* * *)
The Electric Theatre was on hiatus last November when actress/writer/director Adrienne Shelly was tragically killed, so I never had a chance to dedicate a column to her. I’m correcting that oversight this week in celebration of her wonderful final film, a sweet but never saccharine comedy about a Southern waitress (Keri Russell) with a gift for pie-making who suddenly finds herself pregnant, much to her dismay. The father is an abusive lout (well played by Jeremy Sisto) and Jenna has been secretly saving money to leave him. Things are complicated further when she has an affair with her OB-GYN, a nervous newcomer to the area (Nathan Fillion) who’s also married. Cheryl Hines from Curb Your Enthusiasm and Shelly herself play Jenna’s friends at the pie diner owned by Old Joe, played to perfection by Andy Griffith. Waitress is a charming little movie, winning you over even when the specific plot points are telegraphed. Russell turns in a lovely performance, sweet, sexy and funny, and Shelly’s dialogue is pitch perfect. Together, they show a side to pregnancy we don’t usually see in movies or on TV, a woman who quite frankly doesn’t think this is the greatest thing that ever happened to her and wonders how much money she might get if she sold the baby on the black market. All the actors are great but Nathan Fillion is a particular stand-out. Part of me wonders if this guy is too good to ever be a really big star but based on everything I’ve seen him in, he certainly deserves to be one. I’m sure Waitress is unfortunately getting a fair amount of morbid attention simply due to the horrible circumstances of Adrienne Shelly’s death but I would hope that if she were alive today that it would still receive the attention it deserves. It’s a funny, romantic and moving film that serves as a bracing tonic to the overwrought summer behemoths surrounding it. (* * * ½)
NOW ON DVD
Payback: Straight Up - The Director's Cut
I’m no great fan of the director’s cut. I think the term is tossed around way too often and can think of only a handful of movies where the director’s cut substantially improves upon what was originally released theatrically. But there are those few movies where the mandated changes are shoehorned in so clumsily that a director’s cut is in fact desirable. Blade Runner is one obvious example. Now, Payback is another. When I first saw this back in 1999, I tried hard to like it. Based on the novel by Richard Stark (or, as he’s known in more respectable circles, Donald E. Westlake) that provided the inspiration for the great Lee Marvin movie Point Blank, the original Payback hit a number of right notes, including the look and the music, but ultimately careened off the tracks into action movie nonsense. Restored to what director Brian Helgeland originally intended, Payback is now lean and gritty with a wry sense of humor that marks it as one of the best crime movies of the past 20 years. It still isn’t at the level of Point Blank but then again, few movies are. What Helgeland does right, and what nowadays seems almost innovative, is he keeps things simple. Mel Gibson’s Porter has a very clear-cut agenda: he wants his money back. Period. If the realization of that goal is more complicated than he’d like it to be, no matter. He keeps his focus laser-sharp throughout. If you’ve only seen the original version of Payback, it’s time to revisit it. And if you’ve never seen it, you’re in for a treat. Forget all that post-modern neo-noir crap. This is the way crime movies ought to be: single-minded, tough, cynical and 100% bad-ass. (* * * ½)
I admired the concept behind the After Dark Horror Fest, giving limited theatrical exposure to indie horror movies that would otherwise go straight to video, but I was hundreds of miles from the nearest venue when it played last fall, so I’ll be catching up with them on DVD for the next few weeks. Dark Ride gets things off to a surprisingly enjoyable start. A handful of horny college kids on their way to spring break take a detour to Asbury Park to visit a recently reopened dark ride that was shuttered twenty years ago after it was the site of a series of brutal killings. To the surprise of no one except the characters in this movie, said maniac chooses that very moment to bust out of his asylum and guess where he goes first. Dark Ride evokes slasher movies of the 80s like Happy Birthday To Me and The Funhouse. Depending on your frame of mind, this is either a good thing or a bad thing. It worked for me, doing a better job of recalling that style of filmmaking than more ambitious movies like Scream. It’s straightforward, not tongue-in-cheek, and if you enjoyed the slasher cycle of the 80s as I did, you’ll probably have a good time on Dark Ride. (* * *)
More ambitious but less successful is Reincarnation, the latest Japan-o-horror from Takashi Shimizu, director of The Grudge and its endless series of sequels and spin-offs. In this, a young actress begins to have flash memories from a previous life when she’s cast as a murder victim in a movie based on a real event. There’s some effective moments here and I was impressed by the choice to make the third act of the movie virtually dialogue-free. But ultimately, Reincarnation just isn’t all that scary. A lot of the new Japanese wave of horror movies relies on the same bag of tricks which makes all these movies start to blend together after awhile. Reincarnation doesn’t do nearly enough to stand out from the herd. (* *)
This wasn’t part of the After Dark Horror Fest but it is a creepy, unsung horror movie worth checking out. Emma Vilarasau stars as a woman shattered by the murder of her only daughter. Five years after the discovery of her body, she receives a phone call from a girl claiming to be her kid. The Nameless starts out seeming like a ghost story but ultimately morphs into something far creepier. But even when things become grounded in reality, director Jaume Balagueró maintains an eerie, otherworldly feel. Horror movie fans who are getting tired of the same old thing would be well-advised to check out The Nameless. (* * *)
Jean-Luc Godard’s film was a pretty big deal when it was originally released back in 1985. It became a lightning rod of controversy, condemned by the pope hisownself, over its depiction of a virginal young girl named Mary who becomes pregnant despite having never been touched by her boyfriend, Joseph. Perhaps if you have a background far more deeply rooted in Catholicism than I, you’ll have a better understanding of what all the fuss is about. Perhaps not, because the movie itself isn’t really worth getting too excited about. Like a lot of Godard’s movies, it’s often hard to follow. Unlike the best of them, it’s frequently dull as dishwater, even at under 90 minutes. Hail Mary has moments and ideas that make it worth watching for the devout Godard aficionado but if it’s your first exposure to Captain Jean-Luc, you probably won’t be running back to the store for a second. (* * ½)