Wednesday, September 01, 2010

August 2010


Seven of the 13 movies I saw in August were new or relatively new, including one I saw twice; that one will undoubtedly be among my very favorites of 2010.

I'll start with the best and work my way down.

Rob Reiner can be unpredictable. He has directed some wonderful movies that I cherish, including This Is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride, Misery and The American President. But he tends to lose his footing—the bomb North is famously hated by critics, and some of his later-period flicks were reviewed just as poorly. Even so, I have seen far more hits than misses by the ex-Meathead, so I was curious to check out Flipped, which was said to be in the same vein as TV's sweetly nostalgic The Wonder Years—a period-piece coming-of-age story that harkened back to his earlier hit Stand by Me, also taking place during the late 1950s. Based on a novel set in contemporary times, Flipped readjusts the timeframe back half a century, but retains the book's gimmick of telling the tale from two schoolmates' disparate points of view. Bryce, a cute boy (Callan McAuliffe) moves next door to free-thinking Juli (Madeline Carroll), and she instantly falls in love with him. He can't stand her, though, and the movie chronicles his extremely slow re-evaluation of her beauty, both inner and outer. It's an extremely thought-provoking and moving film with a number of excellent adult performances (John Mahoney, Anthony Edwards, Rebecca DeMornay and Penelope Ann Miller among them). I would see it a third time.

Here's the review of Flipped that I posted to

Back in 1973, an episode of TV's All in the Family told the same story from three different perspectives, one of which was from the point of view of Mike Stivic, played by Rob Reiner. Watching his latest directorial effort, I wondered if the "he said / she said" gimmick of that episode ("Everybody Tells the Truth") was what attracted Reiner to Flipped, the young-adult novel by Wendelin Van Draanen, which employs the same multi-POV technique that Lawrence Durrell perfected with his Alexandria Quartet in the late 1950s. The film version of Flipped shows Reiner at the top of his form, a worthy addition to an ouevre that includes Stand By Me, the 1986 period piece that Flipped most recalls, with its younger characters and coming-of-age theme. At the heart of Flipped is Juli Baker (Madeline Carroll), a smart, pretty and thoughtful girl who you just can't help losing your heart to. Juli herself flips for Bryce Loski, who is at first repelled by Juli and then slowly starts to see her for the lovely person she is. The cast is augmented by such pros as John Mahoney (Frasier's dad on Cheers), Anthony Edwards, Aidan Quinn and Rebecca De Mornay and Penelope Ann Miller. The film offers up various slices of life from the late '50s and early '60s that makes for a nostalgic, romantic and very moving film. Special kudos to the filmmakers for finding a girl to play young Juli (Morgan Lily) who looks chillingly like Madeline Carroll; I would have bet anything the two were sisters. For those who are bored by the dumb-dumb summer comedies of 2010, this is a tender and emotionally satisfying journey that will stay with you for years.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed is a three-character British thriller about two men (including Happy-Go-Lucky's gruff Eddie Marsan) who snatch a pretty girl (Gemma Arterton) for the ransom...but everything is not quite as it seems, and the fun of the movie is in the numerous revelations and twists that the writer/director J. Blakeson keeps throwing at you. It's a gripping, edge-of-your-seat nail-biter, very well acted and immensely satisfying.

And then we have Piranha 3-D, one of those movies I couldn't drag Joan to with a heavy chain, and wouldn't bother trying. Just as well—this is a real "guy" movie with nonstop action and wall-to-wall blood, gore, nudity, cardboard characterizations and evil fishies with razor-sharp teeth. Some of the gorier scenes were almost cartoonish in their absurdity, reminding me of a Road Runner cartoon in which Wile E. Coyote is skewered by, say, a falling harp. No, it's not going to win any Oscars, but it guarantees that I will be first in line for Piranha 3D II.

Dinner for Schmucks is Steve Carell's latest zany vehicle, a remake of a French farce I haven't seen about some pompous lawyer types who find and invite idiots of their acquaintance to a periodic get-together so they can make fun of them. Paul Rudd's "find" is Carell, a maker of dioramas featuring stuffed rodents. He's a well-meaning klutz who won't leave Rudd alone, but he may have an important lesson to teach him about who the real idiot is. Get it? It's sporadically entertaining and doesn't require any excess brain power, but two things about the movie confounded me. First of all, Rudd has a gorgeous girlfriend (Stephanie Szostak) who disapproves of the whole dinner gambit and demands that Rudd not participate at the cost of missing out on his promotion. Um, excuse me? This bimbo is the biggest schmuck in the movie—I would have dropped her like a hot potato for suggesting I intentionally forego my big promotion. Another thing that doesn't add up is the fact that Carell is supposed to be a blithering idiot, yet he possesses ingenious talent and skill—his mouse dioramas are so cute that I would have purchased several in the lobby, had they been for sale. The filmmakers want to have it both ways; the film's other characters make fun of Carell's creations, but they're way too delightful to be considered odious.

Middle Men was a free screening at Paramount, and I think Joan and I walked away from this story of how the Internet became so inundated by porn with a sense that we'd seen something reasonably entertaining and informative if not exactly memorable. Luke Wilson plays a lawyer who assists two very technically savvy but socially despicable nitwits form the first pay-for-porn website on the Web. The movie tells us that it's based on a true story while simultaneously informing us that it's a work of fiction—a confusing contradiction that left us scratching our heads. Quite a bit of the movie details the basic conflict, which is that the Russian mob has their hands in this indecent but wildly lucrative innovation, and their crooked attorney (James Caan) is also hungry for a percentage. The end result is a mishmash of character study and fictionalized history lesson, but I can't honestly claim to have been bored.

Now we get to the two movies I genuinely wish I hadn't seen.

The first is Life During Wartime, writer-director Todd Solondz's sequel to his splendid and groundbreaking 1998 film Happiness, a unique and sickly hilarious concoction about three sisters and their struggles with men. The new movie picks up where that one left off, but with an entirely new cast of actors who resemble the previous ones the way a teacup resembles a blizzard—for example, one of the white characters from Happiness is now played by a black actor. Alarmingly, Solondz's ability to convey his dark-comedy tales in an endearingly goofy way seems to have suffered over the passage of time. It had been awhile since I'd seen Happiness, so I watched it again the night before my screening of Life During Wartime, and only a glimmer of the director's considerable skills are on display in the new film. It's got some interesting ideas, but the movie just doesn't entertain or challenge us in the same way as before. On the plus side, there is one electrifying scene with 64-year-old Charlotte Rampling, a character not featured in the original film, and I'll always remember it fondly. She's topless in the scene, and she still looks incredibly sexy.

Finally, there was The Other Guys, or as I like to call it, "Connie's Revenge." Years ago, I brought a DVD of one of my favorite comedies, Team America, over to Connie's house, and she wound up having so much loathing for it that it surprised me how different our respective senses of humor could be. Now I get my comeuppance as her recommendation of the buddy-cop spoof The Other Guys (which she called "really funny!") sent me rushing to the theater (with Joan in tow), only to encounter one of the most foul, dismal and dreadful piles of cinematic crap it has ever been my misfortune to sit through three-quarters of. I stalked out about 20 minutes before the end of the movie and played Angry Bird on my iPhone, which was about 100 times funnier than the movie. Joan stuck with it all the way through, and to be fair, Will Ferrell has made me chuckle on occasion. But Mark Wahlberg is so repellent and awful in the movie that, like a comedic black hole, anything that might have been halfway amusing gets sucked into the vortex, never to be seen again. After the movie, I felt like I needed to take a shower—it made me feel that dirty.


Once again, going from good to not-so-good:

Judgment in Nuremburg is the famous 1961 Stanley Kramer movie featuring the great Spencer Tracy as a small-town American judge who travels to Germany to consider the case of a few Nazis after WWII. Although it's very long (186 mins.) and doesn't contain a lot of action, I was absorbed throughout; there's a surprising scene where one of the prosecuting attorneys shows a lengthy film-within-the-film documenting Nazi atrocities that must have been extremely potent for 1961, because I could barely watch it nearly 50 years hence. There are many great performances; Tracy is always superb, and there are great turns by Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich and Maximilian Schell. It was also fun to see future TV series stars William "Capt. Kirk" Shatner and Werner "Col. Klink" Klemperer.

Bad Day at Black Rock—Continuing in my Spencer Tracy phase, this was my last movie of August; in fact, I watched it last night. It's an odd movie, basically a Western with one-armed city man Tracy traveling to very small desert town to get to the bottom of a Japanese man's disappearance. He finds nothing but creepy menace and threats of violence in the few townspeople he meets, who obviously have something to hide. Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin are a memorable pair of villains, and it's always great to see (and hear) Walter Brennan. Best scene in the movie involves nice-guy Tracy finally reaching the end of his rope with Ernest Borgnine.

Private's Progress (1956) and its sequel, I'm All Right Jack (1959) are two very British black-and-white comedies about Stanley Windrush (Ian Carmichael), a not particularly bright fellow who confounds his Army superiors in the first movie and his business superiors in the second. They're very dry comedies in the grand English tradition, directed by John Boulting and featuring much of the same cast of British actors like Terry-Thomas and Richard Attenborough. The sequel has the benefit of starring Peter Sellers as a Communist union leader at the missile factory where Stanley works, and the film contains a hilariously memorable scene in a sweets factory where Stanley gets his fill of the candy-coated Twinkie-type desserts off an assembly line.

Dime With a Halo is an obscure 1963 independent film that I watched merely to gaze at its incredibly beautiful star, Barbara Luna. The story is about Luna's little brother once they have relocated to Mexico, and how a winning race-track ticket causes misery for everybody involved. The movie is also memorable for an eyebrow-raising scene where Luna appeals to the libido of a 12-year-old boy; no film made today could ever get away with something like that, yet Dime With a Halo was obviously marketed to kids—and Luna plays a stripper to boot!

The Pursuit of Happiness (1971) is about what happens when young Michael Sarrazin accidentally runs down a woman in his car, is sent to prison, and then escapes to be with his girlfriend, the beautiful Barbara Hershey (the main reason I watched the movie). Not a great film, but Hershey is worth watching in practically anything.

THE FINAL TALLY (with 1-10 ratings)

Flipped (10)
Judgment in Nuremburg (9)
The Disappearance of Alice Creed (9)
Bad Day at Black Rock (8)
Piranha 3D (8)
Dinner for Schmucks (7)
I'm All Right, Jack (7)
Middle Men (7)
The Pursuit of Happiness (6)
Dime With a Halo (6)
Private's Progress (6)
Dime With a Halo (6)
The Pursuit of Happiness (6)
Life During Wartime (4)
The Other Guys (2)

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