May 28, 2012

Beetle Juice

The creators of Beetle Juice (1988)--it was conceived by Michael McDowell and Larry Wilson, scripted by McDowell and Warren Skaaren, and directed by Tim Burton--must have grown up on a healthy dose of EC Comics, The Addams Family, and B horror films. This was Burton's second film (following 1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure), and it remains his most imaginative comedy, a dazzling display of creativity and ghoulish humor that could have been concocted by the likes of children's author Roald Dahl if he and Stephen King were both writing a book together, on acid.

The plot, for those who haven't seen this, involves a self-employed married couple (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) who are trying to enjoy their vacation in their large Connecticut house, until a tragic accident leaves them dead, newly inducted in the afterlife, and confined to their house as prisoners. This wouldn't be so bad, except an obnoxious New York couple (Catherine O'Hara and Jeffrey Jones) buys the house, and the wife proceeds to remodel it according to her decidedly abstract artistic tastes, with the help of an eccentric interior decorator named Otho (Glen Shadix), who's also interested in all things paranormal. The ghosts find a friend in the NYC couple's depressed teenage daughter, Lydia (Winona Ryder), whose natural attraction to dark things allows her to see them when almost no one else can.

While Beetle Juice is obviously the product of minds that were immersed in all things macabre and darkly funny, it doesn't feel derivative. Its unusual story continues to develop in unexpected directions, and the cast creates amusing, eccentric performances that make this purely fun, not weird or off-putting. Baldwin rarely played likable guys until his wonderful performance on the television show 30 Rock, but in Beetle Juice he's sort of an easy-going guy who's not trying to snow anybody in. Geena Davis, with her puckered face and her dark, curly hair, looks very maternal. O'Hara generates an almost kinetic weirdness with her performance as the fruity stepmom, who's devoted to her "art" (tacky-looking abstract sculptures that look like enlarged, black insects).

And Michael Keaton, as the bio exorcist hired to scare the new family out of the dead couple's beloved home, gives new meaning to the term "loose cannon." In Batman, Keaton was completely overshadowed by the performance of Jack Nicholson as the Joker. If it weren't for Beetle Juice, we wouldn't have known how insane Keaton can be. It adds such a delightful comic side to his acting abilities that almost every performance afterward is tainted, imbued with a tacit reminder that "this is the guy who played Beetle Juice."

There are few movies as original as Beetle Juice, and out of all the comedies to come out of the 80s, this one ranks as one of the most enduring and enjoyable. Also starring Robert Goulet and Dick Cavett. Music by Danny Elfman, the lead singer of the 80s rock band Oingo Boingo, who has composed the scores of every Tim Burton film.


This flaky little vampire film, released in 1978, looks at the vampire myth through modern eyes. Seventeen-year-old misfit Martin (John Amplas) goes to live with his elderly cousin (Lincoln Maazel) in a suburb of Pittsburgh. The cousin still holds to his Old World beliefs about family curses and evil omens, and believes that Martin is actually an 84-year-old vampire. Martin, meanwhile, insists that he's not, that all the lore about vampires is the stuff of movies. There's no real magic, Martin assures us. We're never sure who to believe.

We've already been predisposed to be afraid of Martin, for in the beginning of the movie, we witness the brutal slaying of a woman on a train. (It's worth noting that a train brings Martin to his next hunting ground, and in Dracula the train was a symbol of progress, but one that also linked the up-to-date-with-a-vengeance London to the steeped-in-superstition Transylvania. It's a fun, subtle commentary on what technological advances can bring in the way of horrors.) But unlike Dracula, Martin doesn't have fangs, so he uses a razor blade (after drugging his victim so she won't put up a fight).

Romero had made several unsuccessful films prior to Martin (including 1973's The Crazies), and Martin seems like a culmination of them all: he's taken the most interesting pieces of ideas he had been experimenting with before (alienation in suburbia, the difference between the mythology and the reality of the supernatural, and the breakdown of systems--economic, class, theological, familial, racial, etc.) and funneled them into this oddball shocker. It's compact though, and despite its flaws, it's quite striking. Romero is a master editor: his style is quick and throws a lot of business at you, but all of it feels meticulously organized; it's always cumulative, never haphazard.  

That Martin should come to live in such a dead city as Braddock (which is a borough of Pittsburgh) is apropos. The film documents on a small scale what must have been the sheer exhaustion of the country, and the collapse under the weight not only of failed economic policies, but the failed promises of industry. There's a looming sense of decay throughout Martin: it's a cultural decline that this film has captured, a sort of apocalyptic banality that swept the nation post-Civil Rights, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate. If Night of the Living Dead tapped into the vein of that turbulent era of the 1960s, Martin is here to witness the drying up of it. It seems to be asking the question: are vampires a product of economics, or of superstition? All the old systems are still in place, but they have no power ultimately. Romero dances around with all these ideas and images, content to ask a lot of questions and offer no answers. (There are even black-and-white flashbacks of Martin being pursued by a mob with flaming torches and stakes, but are these memories of antiquity, or psychotic hallucinations?)

The acting in Martin is often over-the-top, but the movie is so surreal and subdued that it works for it. Maazel chews the scenery, and it may be his performance that inspired the goofy Van Helsing impression Mel Brooks did in Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Amplas is like a mixture of Jackie Earle Haley and Ed Wood: he's got a creepy boyishness mixed with a hammy stage persona, but it too works for the movie. Martin is always equal parts sinister and sympathetic.

With Christine Forrest (Romero's long-time wife), Tom Savini (the make-up artist, who went on to become a kind of cult figure in his industry), Elyane Nadeau, and, in a cameo, Romero himself, as an apathetic young priest. The weird music score is by Donald Rubinstein.

May 25, 2012


In Bernie, Jack Black plays a prissy funeral director in Carthage, Texas, named Bernie Tiede (pronounced TEE-duh), whose charming ways win over the town's meanest (and richest) little old lady (Shirley MacLaine). The two form an unlikely bond which becomes increasingly more unbalanced when she makes him the sole inheritor to her vast fortune, and he becomes, in effect, her slave, expected to be at her beck and call. Then one day, Bernie snaps: he shoots her in the back four times, hides her body in the deep freezer (where she remains undetected for nine months), and tells the whole town she's in a nursing home recovering from a stroke.

Director Richard Linklater, who co-wrote the screenplay with Skip Hollandsworth, has crafted an uproarious black comedy, which is part mockumentary, part documentary, and part Southern-fried small-town drama (complete with a courtroom climax). Matthew McConaughey, who always shines best in character roles even though he's usually cast as the lead, plays the cocky, self-aggrandizing, and determined district attorney who's gunning for Tiede. The rest of Carthage, it seems, refuses to believe that Bernie is capable of such a horrendous crime, and after Bernie confesses, the crime itself becomes subject for re-interpretation. After all, she was a vicious old crone, and not even her own relatives had anything to do with her.

Black is stunningly good. He turns his voice into a window into the nature of his character, allowing bits of insight with every effeminate vocal inflection and every exasperated sigh and every repressed bit of emotion. His interpretation of Bernie is of a man who must live behind the prison of niceness. He can't reveal what he really thinks about anyone or anything; he showers people with gifts and flattery, using the crotchety widow's money for all kinds of charitable donations and contributions to the community. But under what motive? We're left to wonder how much he really cares about people, and if perhaps he just desperately wants to be accepted.

The film gets a tremendous amount of production value from its cast of local townspeople, playing themselves: very, at times, stereotypical Southern characters, and yet surprisingly endearing (and always funny, whether intentionally or not), and never afraid to speak their minds. They turn this into a sort of real-life version of one of those Christopher Guest mockumentaries, with the one difference being that this movie isn't intending to make fun of them, even though there are many moments where we laugh at their turns-of-phrases and their blunt ways of speaking. It's more of a laughing with than a laughing at, I suppose. Maybe a little of both.

Shirley MacLaine gets lost in all this. She's a famous face attached to a character that could have been played by anyone. Given MacLaine's acting abilities, you yearn for her to do more than be a cold bitch. She doesn't linger in the mind as anything more than a broadly imagined caricature. She's kept in check, which for her can often elicit a better performance (as in In Her Shoes), but in this film, she turns into almost a blank screen, a still, lifeless object on the wall, propped up to make Jack Black's character, who's already garishly conspicuous, stand out even more. There are moments where we get a little spark out of her, but she's just not given much to do. I suppose we can be grateful to see her on the screen, but wouldn't it have been nice if her part had been fleshed out? Even still, the movie's a howling good time, more so if you can laugh at the horribleness of life, which it encourages us ever so naughtily to do.

May 06, 2012

Quantum of Solace

Quantum of Solace (2008) is an absorbing, fairly compact sequel to Casino Royale, and its story feels stronger, or perhaps just more focused and driven, because 007 is looking for vengeance for a lover who he's not sure even loved him. It may be that people are hailing Daniel Craig as the best of the Bonds because he's playing a Bond who is genuinely affected by the things that happen to him. He's not a sitcom character whose slate is wiped clean at the end of each episode. And Craig looks the part. His face looks hardened and dazed, like a junkie whose addiction is used to ameliorate other pains. But he's also a striking actor, who doesn't botch the character by over-thinking it. After all, the allure of the Bond films has always been an artificial one, and to turn him into a completely "realistic" character would probably destroy that sense of artificiality that makes Bond superhuman. He's a superhero who doesn't need capes or magic or any kind of supernatural powers, and he has enough moral ambiguity to not be a cop-out.

Director Marc Foster seems tuned into what will make this movie work. He doesn't drag things out as much as Martin Campbell did in Casino. Quantum has a more engrossing sense of mystery about it than Casino Royale, even though Casino may be more memorable as an action thriller. It did have some stunning set pieces. Quantum does too, and it also taps into the growing anxiety about the environment as an impetus for international criminal activity, as Bond targets a multinational corporation run by Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) that's trying to control the world's oil and water supplies. There's also a subplot about a scummy dictator named Medrano (Joaquin Cosio) who murdered the family of Bond's latest conquest, Camille (Olga Kurylenko). She wants revenge, and this unites her with Bond on a considerably personal level.

Judi Dench returns as M. Her imposing personality is always worth watching on the screen, and she continues to have a fascinating relationship with Bond that is a partly maternal, partly manipulative, and partly malicious.

Written by Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade. With Giancarlo Giannini, Jeffrey Wright, Gemma Arterton, David Harbour, Jesper Christensen, and Rory Kinnear. Stunning visuals, designed by the company MK12 accompany the films opening titles.

May 05, 2012

Vampire's Kiss

Vampire's Kiss (1989) deserves its own wing in the bad horror movie hall of fame. Nicolas Cage, perhaps in a moment of panic after the success of Moonstruck (1987), delivers a chaotic performance that is a mixture of hammy amateurism and overwrought method-acting. The end result is still bad, enthusiastically wretched. He plays a yuppie who think he's becoming a vampire after he meets a mysterious woman at a night club and takes her home with him. He then proceeds to terrorize his poor, pathetic secretary, Maria Conchita Alonso. It occasionally reminds you of George Romero's eerie vampire film Martin (1978), although that movie was far more subtle and interesting. Nonetheless, this may be the most important work of Nicolas Cage's career.

Directed by Robert Bierman. Written by Joseph Minion. With Elizabeth Ashley as Cage's shrink, Jennifer Beals, Kasi Lemmons, Bob Lujan. John Michael Higgins and David Hyde Pierce can be seen briefly in crowd scenes.

May 04, 2012

Casino Royale

Daniel Craig adds new layers to the James Bond character without sacrificing the allure of 007, the man's man who keeps himself in shape and the villains in check. The difference between Casino Royale and pretty much every Bond film prior is one of temperament. This is a serious movie that tries to be realistic and character-driven. Casino Royale has a sense of humor that compliments its serious plot, rather than the cartoonish quirkiness that so often helped implode the previous Bond movies. (Not that some of the other Bond movies aren't a great deal of fun. Some of them are classics, or at least have classic moments, such as the wonderful Egyptian section of The Spy Who Loved Me).

It's also nice to see a plot that isn't Cold War-driven. After seeing enough of them from Connery to Brosnan, you start to wonder if these movies aren't anything more than sugar-coated propaganda pieces trying to make Western culture appear virile and tough.

Instead, Casino Royale tackles the next soon-to-be-exhausted (if it hasn't been already) criminal activity du jour, terrorism. There are plenty of action sequences to sate the palate of any James Bond junkie. What's more fun are the poker scenes at the casino where Bond matches wits with a seedy terrorist investor, and the interplay between Bond and a fellow secret agent (Eva Green), although Green herself isn't all that memorable, and is at times far too fragile. You start to yearn for a tougher heroine. (There have been a few in the past, if memory serves).  

Casino Royale has its weak points, too, however. It rumbles along for nearly two hours and thirty minutes, and while there are memorable scenes, by the end you feel you've been pommeled just as much as the hero, who incurs a considerable amount of physical damage. But Craig's performance and the movie as a whole are strong, seeing this series off to a successful and hopeful reboot when it appeared nothing fresh could be offered.

It was written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis, and based on the novel by Ian Fleming. Directed by Martin With Judi Dench, Giancarlo Giannini, Mads Mikkelsen, Jeffrey Wright, and Simon Abkarian.


Infamous (2006) is the story of Truman Capote's experiences researching and writing In Cold Blood (1966), a novelistic account of the brutal murder of the Clutter Family in Kansas in 1959. As Capote, Toby Jones gets pretty close to a perfect imitation of that unforgettably sissified voice of Capote's. He exudes the enigmatic mixture of gaudy, flamboyant, brashness and furtive shame and vulnerability that characterizes our perception of Capote. The movie portrays essentially two Capotes: the one who held the attention of any social gathering with his gossip about celebrities, and the one who poured himself into his work, a book which made him and destroyed him simultaneously.

As Harper Lee (called Nelle by friends), Sandra Bullock is good. (Most people probably know that Harper Lee and Truman Capote were childhood friends, and that Lee based the character of Dill in To Kill A Mockingbird on Capote.) The trouble with Sandra Bullock is that she's a big star, which is okay if all you want from her is Miss Congeniality, but her persona, the fact that she's so well-known, gets in the way of of her more serious performances. There's a sort of barrier between the audience and her. She managed to break the barrier with a blonde wig and a Southern accent in The Blind Side, and in Infamous she just about decimates it with a subtler Southern woman performance. She's humble and plain in Infamous; she's centered and quiet and careful when it comes to what she says and how she says it: the polar opposite of Capote, who possesses a keen ability to turn a phrase or sling a sarcastic retort; his advantage is being able to win people over with his cleverness. Hers is her lack of pretension.

One of the most interesting things about Infamous isn't its exploration of a possible attraction between Capote and one of the killers, Perry Smith (portrayed by Daniel Craig, who didn't seem to me to look right for the part, but who turned in a convincing performance nonetheless). Rather, what's fascinating is the understated way the movie glimpses into Harper Lee's career. She never wrote another novel after To Kill A Mockingbird, although she did start one, eventually putting it away out of frustration. Her success, I think, eclipsed Capote's in the long run (probably because her novel was far less morally ambiguous), even though he had a more prolific career than her. And we get a sense of the things Harper Lee might have been thinking about such sudden and dramatic success upon a first novel, and about the subject of a writing career in general. In fact, those moments in which Infamous examines the whole world of writing are when it shines the brightest. It's got some maudlin, made-for-TV sentiments that it pulls off with measured success, but those moments are cheap compared to its portrayal of the loneliness of writing. It's a striking movie, one that captures the precariousness of human security, the prisons people put themselves in, and the shams people enact to avoid whatever is painful in their lives.

Capote's New York entourage includes Sigourney Weaver, Hope Davis, Isabella Rossellini, Juliet Stevenson, Peter Bogdanovich, Michael Panes (as Gore Vidal), and John Benjamin Hickey. The other killer, Dick Hickock, is played by Lee Pace, and Jeff Daniels plays the the lead investigator in the small Kansas town where the murders occurred. There's also a stunning opener with Jones and Weaver at a night club where Gwyneth Paltrow performs a snazzy love song with a backdrop of stars that feels positively dreamy, in a manufactured sort of way, the way those old romantic comedies from the 1950s feel. It doesn't exactly fit with the rest of the movie, which alternates between drab and dusty Kansas and the swinging Manhattan social world, but tips in favor of gloominess rather than glamour.

Directed by Douglas McGrath.

3:10 to Yuma

Russell Crowe and Christian Bale head the cast in the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma. Crowe plays an infamous cutthroat train robber who's supposed to be evil incarnate, and Bale is the stubborn rancher, struggling to feed his family, who agrees to help transport him to a train station bound for the Yuma, Arizona prison. I haven't seen the 1957 original, which starred the always forthright Glenn Ford, and Van Heflin, but this re-imagining is a first-rate Western. It's trashy good fun, sustained by Crowe's inability to be unlikable. He's the kind of dream villain who's tough enough to be intimidating but not dastardly enough to kill a kid or anything like that.

The director, James Mangold, maintains a sort of controlled brutality that works because there's an ironic side to all this: the archly drawn characters poke fun at the old model of good guys vs. bad guys. Granted, there's nothing new in this, but the movie doesn't make a point of being too clever or self-impressed about it. We're allowed to enjoy the play-acting. This is probably the best sham Western I've seen.

This movie offers itself up as some kind of hero-worshiping wish fulfillment. Bale's character wants to be a hero to his sons again. After losing a foot in the Civil War, he feels reduced to something less than a man, and he sees this moment as an opportunity to improve his image. You find yourself laughing at this delusional reasoning. It fuels all the drama of the movie. Westerns have always contained an element of wish fulfillment. They have so often encapsulated an obsession with masculine power and domination. The outlaws, the Indians, and the elements become the Western hero's three obvious antagonists.

The actors are mostly well-cast. Ben Foster, as Crowe's right hand man, achieves a kind of creepy comic book style performance. He's disturbingly devoted to Crowe, and the moment he comes on screen he's commanding your attention. As a performer he restrains himself for the most part, and lets the creepiness really sink in and populate all of his scenes in the film. Peter Fonda does good work as a determined old codger working for the Pinkerton guards Crowe and his gang attacks in the beginning. He's go the vibe of a John Carradine: he's done this before. Vinessa Shaw seems anachronistic as a saloon keeper Crowe beds early in the film. She just looks too modern, even with authentic-looking costumery. She doesn't look, for instance, as convincing as Katharine Ross did in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

With Logan Lerman, Peter Fonda, Dallas Roberts, Alan Tudyk, Gretchen Mol, and Luke Wilson.