February 28, 2013

Serial Mom

Imagine if suburban moms everywhere just...snapped. All the minutiae of daily life, the endless little grievances of maintaining a home, of being a wife and mother, of putting up with the monotony of the PTA and the neighbors and all the stale, banal conventions of middle American values, building and building until they just couldn't take it anymore. John Waters' Serial Mom (1994), starring Kathleen Turner as a Baltimore housewife, imagines for us. 

Turner plays Beverly Sutphin, whose descent into serial killing starts with a little harmless social anarchy: she's been harassing one of her neighbors (Mink Stole) with obscene phone calls (in a disguised voice). She giggles at the thought of this little secret. The police have been in the neighborhood asking questions, but nobody would ever suspect Beverly. But then, Beverly is angered by her teenage son's math teacher, who thinks he's too obsessed with horror movies and that Beverly is to blame. She backs over him with her car, and soon it seems that anyone who gets under Beverly's skin is a potential victim. Not rewinding your video before returning it to the rental store? Dead. Wearing white shoes after Labor Day? Dead. Beverly can't stop.  There are too many rule-breakers out there who evade any kind of consequences for their utter disregard for the social conventions that matter to Beverly.

Her bewildered family (husband Sam Waterson, adolescent kids Ricki Lake and Matthew Lillard) doesn't know what to do, and meanwhile the police are putting two and two together, waiting until they have enough evidence to nail Beverly for six gruesome murders. (The piece de resistance is when Beverly bludgeons a woman to death with a leg of lamb while "Annie" sings "Tomorrow" on the television set.)

Serial Mom is a bit slapdash, in typical John Waters form, but it's such an audacious little slice of insanity that it's hard to be overly annoyed by its faults. This is, after all, a funny movie about social anarchy. It doesn't hold up very well as a movie (the sense of pacing is minimal, and at times you wish Waters would build things up with more restraint: Beverly is already cuckoo by the time the opening credits finish, so we don't get the pleasure of watching the progression from "normal" to "crazy.") But as a piece of satire on suburban mores, it's pretty watchable stuff, and it certainly taps into the culture's commercialization of crime and criminals. The people's obsession with Beverly and the accusations against her turns--like all American obsessions--into a capitalist endeavor by the end of the picture. She's a celebrity, and Suzanne Somers (who makes a brief appearance) is vying to play her in a TV-movie. And her daughter is even selling shirts and pins with the emblem "Serial Mom" emblazoned on them. Meanwhile, Beverly agrees to act as her own attorney (Charles Manson/Ted Bundy style), and it's fun to watch all the little surprises she has up her sleeve, geared toward winning over the jury.

With Scott Morgan, Walt MacPherson, Justin Whalin, Patricia Dunnock, and Mary Jo Catlett. Written by John Waters. 95 min. ½

February 23, 2013

Side Effects

Spoiler-Free Mini-Review
Side Effects is a creepy little thriller about a prescription drug called Ablixa, and one patient (Rooney Mara) who begins exhibiting disturbing side effects after this drug is prescribed to her by her doctor (Jude Law). She's trying to start a new life with her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), who's just been released from prison after serving time for insider trading (apparently he did not learn from Martha Stewart's mistakes). But soon after he's released, his fragile wife becomes inexplicably depressed, even suicidal. What happens after all this will be revealed in the spoiler zone. Suffice to say, Side Effects is enjoyable and worth seeing. It exceeded my expectations, and Jude Law carried the film remarkably well, with help from Mara, who's becoming an expert at playing characters who suffer immense emotional trauma (from being Mark Zuckerberg's spurned ex in The Social Network to playing The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). 

Spoiler Zone

WHAAAAAAAAAAAAT??? This movie is crazy. It starts off as your typical dreary paranoid conspiracy thriller-shocker-not-ready-for-Lifetime-TV movie, and then whips out some plot twists that I had no idea would emerge. Perhaps I'm just a gullible movie-watcher, and everyone else saw this coming? 

Two things made Side Effects infinitely better for me: 1) the fact that Rooney Mara's character was secretly working with her ex-psychiatrist, Catherine Zeta-Jones, to fool everyone; and 2) the fact that Channing Tatum's character was killed off relatively quickly. Is it bad that I perked up after Mr. Tatum exited the stage? (Director Steven Soderbergh apparently has a huge man-crush on Magic Mike. Tatum isn't horrendous, but it's certainly hard to believe that he was ever guilty of insider trading. Maybe of disturbing the peace or pirating Eminem CDs.)

Also, seeing Catherine Zeta-Jones play a villain is so much fun. She has an iciness to her that's never fully been exploited until now. Instead, filmmakers have played up that exotic look, ever since The Mask of Zorro. (Actresses who are difficult to ethnically label have always had this blessing-curse. Except Myrna Loy, who is not difficult to label, but still experienced this typecasting. She's very obviously white, but in the 1930s her slanted eyes were enough to justify casting her as the Snake Goddess or some other exotic sexy villainness.) 

In fact, if it wasn't for the plot twists, Side Effects would be a generally unwatchable movie. It's a depressing premise: a girl exhibits dangerous tendencies after taking a new anti-depressant, and then subsequently stabs her husband to death. We're all again wondering why this movie seems to resemble that Oxygen marathon we accidentally DVR'd last weekend. But after the twist, Side Effects becomes a fascinating little thriller, with Jude Law donning his private detective hat as he tries to figure out who to blame. (His career, his family, and his freedom are on the line since he prescribed the drug that caused his patient to go berserk-o.) Law is someone I enjoy watching because he's got that plucky British attitude: he's smart and in command, and it's a lot of fun watching him square off with Catherine Zeta-Jones, who's vulnerable because of her unexpected attraction to Rooney Mara.

Vinessa Shaw appears as Law's wife. She's the typical movie wife: not an ounce of understanding in her body, but they're able to patch things up in the end, Hollywood style (i.e. without anything more than a segue to him picking their kid up from school while she waits in the car smiling and happy music plays overhead). With Polly Draper and David Costabile. Written by Scott Z. Burns. 106 minutes. 2013.

February 22, 2013

The Lost Boys

An 80s cocktail, with vampires, The Lost Boys is something of a classic for those of us who grew up with it. Although, like The Goonies, it might be less enjoyable when viewed without nostalgic graciousness. It has a lot of fresh-faced young actors whose careers rose and fell in the coming years: Jason Patric and Corey Haim as two brothers who move to Santa Carla, California, with their recently divorced mom (Dianne Wiest); Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander as two Santa Carla brothers who work in their parents' comic book store; and Kiefer Sutherland, as the head of a quartet of punk-vampires who live in the ruins of a hotel that sank into the earth during the great quake of 1906. The vampire buddies spend their nights at Santa Carla's main hangout: an amusement park located right on the beach.

The tagline of The Lost Boys is "sleep all day, party all night, never grow old, never die: it's fun to be a vampire." This is a vampire film for the MTV generation. (And these vampires do have a lot more "fun" than recent cinema's exploits into the genre. There's no policy about avoiding human prey. No kidding themselves about living in community with the not-undead. These vampires are evil, and happy about it.) Unfortunately, The Lost Boys isn't thoughtful enough to explore its own theme--the allure of eternal youth--with any finesse. This isn't a critique of youth culture or its excesses. Neither is it a celebration of youthful impressionism or recklessness. Instead, The Lost Boys, like so many other films, is an unashamed studio product, one that wants to cash in on young moviegoers. It's exploitative in that way. We're getting very mainstream vampirism here.

Lucky for us, this mainstreaming of the vampire legend works for the most part, because The Lost Boys, for all its cookie cutter edges, is still a fun, energetic movie at heart, full of witty, likable verve from its cast. It has a smartass sense of humor, punctuated by Haim's performance. His character is always ready with a well-delivered quip, usually directed at his older brother, Michael (Patric). Patric is the impressionable one, seeking approval and friendship in a new town, and willing to do anything to get it. He's sucked into the vampires' world, and it's hard not to see a comparison to the drug culture being made. In the ruins of the lost boys' lair is a large photo of Jim Morrison: iconic, surprisingly apropos. He's their idol, their inspiration.

The studio executives behind The Lost Boys were going for a hit, and nothing more, probably in response to the success of 1985's Fright Night, which was cheaply made and grossed 24,000,000 dollars. The Lost Boys made something over 30 million, and these two films ushered in another cycle of vampire-themed comic-horror films that also included Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark (released a couple months after Lost Boys), and culminated in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Bram Stoker's Dracula (both 1992). These movies--or more specifically, their financial success at the box office and the relative cheapness for which they can generally be made--do a lot to explain the popular culture's fascination with vampires in the last 30 years, though of course they don't explain all of it.

The allure of this sub-genre is also present in Kiefer Sutherland's performance: he's a magnetic actor, and a magnetic vampire; he's almost a cult leader, if you will, and he gets Michael to do just about anything--even literally jump off a bridge--in his quest to convert him into a bloodsucker. Then there's the Frogg brothers (Feldman and Newlander), whose dead-serious sincerity (they give Haim's character a vampire comic and assure him that it should be read like a survival manual rather than entertainment) makes The Lost Boys funny. And that's why I still enjoyed watching it tonight, after many viewings. It's the kind of horror movie you're allowed to laugh at. It never takes itself too seriously. (Although it has a few moments of excess, including some over-the-top special effects characteristic of 80s horror movies.)

Dianne Wiest is appropriately motherly (although not nearly as memorable as she would be in Bullets Over Broadway) in a mom role for which the spunky Dee Wallace (E.T., The Howling, Cujo) would have been perfect. With Barnard Hughes as the crusty old grandfather with a sharp sense of humor; Edward Herrmann as the mom's love interest, Max; Jami Gertz as Star, Michael's love interest, a half-vampire with a heart of gold; and Brooke McCarter, Alex Winter, and Billy Wirth as members of Sutherland's band of teenage nosferatus. Directed by Joel Schumacher. 97 min. 1987

February 16, 2013

Warm Bodies

Warm Bodies is maybe the first feel-good zombie movie. It's based on a novel by Isaac Marion, and was written for the screen and directed by Jonathan Levine. When it comes to the very trendy sub-genre of dark romantic thrillers for teen audiences, Warm Bodies is several notches up the rung from Twilight. The plot is one you're familiar with: something apocalyptic has reduced a significant portion of the human race to mindless flesh-eaters, and the surviving humans have walled themselves in to try and stay uninfected. But when a group of adolescents is sent outside their little version of the Berlin Wall to try and procure supplies, one of them has an encounter with a zombie who's, not like all the others: the narrator, R, a zombie who can talk, and who, the more he is exposed to human life, seems to be changing from walking dead to walking...alive. And it's catching on with the other zombies. (Except for the "bonies," rotting skeletal creatures that resemble the Terminator near the end of that movie, who are so far gone that they're like the really bad zombies, the ones that cannot be changed.)

Warm Bodies offers some surprising sparks of philosophical thought. Can a zombie be regenerated, made alive again? Can there be good zombies and bad zombies? Should humans treat zombies with compassion or disgust? Can a human fall in love with a zombie? What's all this fuss about necrophilia? Or dating the guy who ate your boyfriend's brain?

That zombies serve a convenient function--they're symbols of us, of course!--is an obvious notion, and we might be tempted to give Warm Bodies perhaps more credit than it deserves for holding humans up to the light of social satire by making the zombies look more like us and vice versa. There were some well-aimed shots at our technological zombiefication, and our inability to connect with people. Warm Bodies is like the poster child for all the hipster-organic community cults out there today. (And I'm only half-criticizing them.)

Despite its philosophical underpinnings, Warm Bodies is a pretty simple love story with some horror imagery and apocalyptic themes thrown in for good measure. If this film had tried to tackle a lot of themes and plotlines, it wouldn't have worked. It would have been another monstrous franchise-initiator. Instead, it's an endearing little rom-com-horror flick, anchored by the two leads: Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer. With Rob Corddry, Dave Franco, Analeigh Tipton, and John Malkovich. 97 min.

February 14, 2013

Crossing Delancey

I open my review of my favorite romantic comedy ever, the breezy Crossing Delancey (1988), with a brief exchange between the main character, Izzy (played by Amy Irving), and two of her friends (played by Deborah Offner and Suzzy Roche).

Karen: "I have a friend who thinks it's all a myth."

Izzy: "What?"

Karen: "The appalling lack of desirable single available men."

Marilyn: "Oh yeah? Tell your friend to give me a call."

1988 is deep in the era of the post-liberated woman: career-minded, but starting to feel a nagging lack in her life that may or may not be compensated for by marriage. Crossing Delancey plays with that tension in unassuming ways, allowing its characters to be human beings, not poster children for any given movement or set of beliefs. 

The film, which was directed by Joan Micklin Silver, comes from Susan Sandler's play, which Sandler adapted for the screen. It's a unique romantic comedy because it doesn't congeal in the crevasses of cliches. Instead, Sandler and Silver weave a rich little slice of life about a modern woman--Izzy, a 30-something New Yorker who's the event coordinator at a small, independent bookstore in the city. Izzy is single, and at least pretending to be happy about it. But she's also a bit deluded. The romantic in her awakens to the superficial poetics of a snooty European writer named Anton Maes (Jeroen Krabbe), who pens a gooey inscription onto the first page of his latest novel at a book signing she organized, and then tells her, "You can bill that to me." This little bit of attention from a guy who so embodies all of Izzy's ideals, means far more to Izzy than it does to the author. 

Izzy is proud of her life and the little circle she's eked out, rubbing elbows with the New York literati. Her grandmother (scene-snatcher Reizl Bozyk), the stereotypical feisty Jewish matriarch, isn't so satisfied with Izzy's lackluster love life, so she enlists the help of a trashy marriage broker (played by Sylvia Miles, with obnoxious reverie), and is set up with Sam (Peter Riegert), a down-to-earth guy who, gasp, may not have a college education, and who, double-gasp, sells pickles. Sam is charming, deep, and kind, but Izzy can't get past her snobbish distaste for his vocation and her gaga infatuation with the smug novelist who's using her.

Between her myriad friends, Izzy plays witness to just about every phase in the life of a modern yuppie woman. One is married, one is a new mom, several, like Izzy, are single and looking around to see who's out there. She's a bit jaded--none of her friends is exactly content--and afraid that her comfortable life might be compromised if the wrong guy comes along. So Sam, who doesn't fit the profile she'd figured in advance, is rebuffed. But he persists. And we pretty much know what's going to happen there, but it's the joy of the dance, the pursuit, that keeps Crossing Delancey interesting, not to mention the mosaic of characters who travel in and out of Izzy's life. 

Amy Irving is equal parts girl-next-door and icy stage queen, which might explain why she has had trouble finding the right parts in movies (although she's wonderful in a lot things, including Bossa Nova and Carrie). But here, she comes into her own: she's likeable, poised, smart, vulnerable, and mysterious: snooty enough to be a halfway literary snob, and literate enough to be cautiously wise and compassionate. Peter Riegert is exceedinly likable and a good modern-world Casanova with an old soul, and Bozyk is appropriately giddy, pushy, and old-fashioned, as the grandmother.

Crossing Delancey is a subtle entertainment, one for which you acquire an affection. It doesn't go for the continual button-pushing maneuvers of most comedies, but it has a lot of wonderful understated qualities that make it worthwhile, and even when it seems overly simple, it's charming fare. With George Martin, John Bedford Lloyd, Claudia Silver, David Hyde Pierce, Faye Grant, and Rosemary Harris (who's hysterical as an eccentric author who utters the film's funniest line, "Your hair! It's going to take over the planet!"). 97 min.

February 10, 2013

Identity Thief

There's nothing particularly original about Identity Thief, and the credibility of the plot--not to mention much of the action--is slim at best, but it's fun watching Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy in a road trip-buddy movie in which she plays a white-trash ne'er-do-well who's been racking up thousands of dollars in debt with fake credit cards using his gender-neutral name (Sandy Patterson). McCarthy's performance is funny, flamboyant, lovable, even touching at times, and Bateman is his usual annoyed but likable self. (He seems to always be playing Michael Bluth from Arrested Development). 

There's a sort of side-plot about McCarthy's character being pursued by angry fellow criminals and a bounty hunter, which spurs some of the story's action but never quite gels as solid comedy writing. Still, the jokes, even when they don't work, are in ready supply, and the movie makes a few surprise turns that keep it from being totally predictable. (I suppose it's probably fairly obvious that squeaky clean numbers-cruncher Bateman will be negatively influenced by his duplicitous counterpart.)

With Jon Favreau, Amanda Peet, T.I., Genesis Rodriguez, Morris Chestnut, John Cho, Robert Patrick, and Eric Stonestreet. Written by Craig Mazin. Directed by Seth Gordon. 111 min. ½

February 09, 2013


In Videodrome (1983), the president of a Toronto-based TV station (James Woods), known for his risque programming tastes, becomes the target/victim/subject of a new and ominous "program" known as "Videodrome." He's lured into a series of disturbing depictions of torture (all recorded onto lovely, now nostalgia-inducing video cassettes, which are so much more interesting in appearance than discs anyway), but he soon finds that the project known as "Videodrome" has far more political aspirations than supplying voyeuristic viewing pleasure.

Writer-director David Cronenberg explores the philosophical underpinnings of television, as well as the evolution of mankind and technology, or rather, the merging of those two once distinct forms as one thing. Videodrome is astonishingly relevant thirty years later in a culture where our mobile devices seem like technological extensions of our bodies, allowing us to live in a state of perpetual virtual "connectivity". James Woods becomes addicted to "Videodrome," and experiences hallucinations that blur the real and the unreal, and the movie makes it clear that the line between them was blurry to begin with, and was perhaps even imaginary all along; certainly that line has become irrelevant to the world of "Videodrome," and it's increasing less distinct to us today.

While some of the ideas in Videodrome don't pan out, and the film runs out of steam in the final third, it's nevertheless a fascinating, prescient movie, full of the freaky weirdness you would expect from Cronenberg. It was more enjoyable than I thought it would be, probably because of the ideas it poses. Of all the horror masters, Cronenberg has always been the most intellectual, and even when his films are strange or ludicrous or oblique (and many of them are all three, including this one at times), they're equally mesmerizing and curious and, I think, relevant.

With Debbie Harry as Nicky, a sex-obsessed radio psychologist, Sonja Smits, Peter Dvorsky, Leslie Carlson, Jack Creley, Lynne Gorman, and Julie Khaner. ½

February 02, 2013

Summer School

Summer School (1987) is a breezy, aimless, totally dispensable 80s comedy starring Mark Harmon as a breezy, aimless, totally dispensable gym teacher who gets roped into teaching remedial English over the summer. He doesn't have the first clue as to how he will reach his cadre of disengaged, under-achieving students, all of whom have slipped through the public educational system. Cue lots of montages of students and teacher on field trips to an amusement park, a petting zoo, and the beach. Eventually, he decides he must actually teach them something, but they will only agree to pay attention and study if he will grant each of them one favor.

The thing about Summer School that stays with you is how incredulous much of it is. This teacher doesn't just bend over backwards for his students. He allows them to throw a party at his house, teaches one of them how to drive, arranges a screening of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in class, lets a female student (who's obviously in love with him) stay at his house for several days, and attends Lamaze class with another one of the girls, who's about to break water any minute.

So you can't expect much in the way of credibility from Summer School, but it is amusing, despite the fact that much of it is exceedingly ridiculous. Mark Harmon is affably oblivious to the world around him, and Kirstie Alley lends a little charm as a fellow teacher/romantic entanglement. The "students" (many of whom appear to be ten years older than actual high-school age) are alternately obnoxious and appealing. With Robin Thomas, Patrick Labyorteaux, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Dean Cameron, Gary Riley, Richard Horvitz, Kelly Jo Minter, Shawnee Smith, Ken Olandt, and Fabiana Udenio. Directed by Carl Reiner.

February 01, 2013

Gangster Squad

Gangster Squad is a less exciting variation on L.A. Confidential.

It's 1949, and in Los Angeles, everything runs on mobster Mickey Cohen's watch. L.A.'s police chief (Nick Nolte) creates a special, secret task force to go after Cohen's capital and bring him down. Considering the story, and the cast--which includes Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Peña, and Robert Patrick, as cops, Sean Penn as Cohen, and Emma Stone as Cohen's moll, Gangster Squad should have been a lot better than it is. It's marred by clumsy writing and conventional plotting. The script is by Will Beall, and the film was directed by Ruben Fleischer. Both of them seem preoccupied with making Gangster Squad as gruesome and brutal as possible--without sacrificing their love of cheap sentiment: [Spoiler ahead] Brolin's pregnant wife survives after two of Cohen's men riddle her house with bullets, and when Brolin arrives, he follows the trail of blood into the bathroom only to find that she isn't dead; she has given birth. A cheap shot, the kind of trickery that outs an incompetent director faster than you can say "give me a break."

As ridiculous as it is--and it is quite ridiculous--Gangster Sqaud is compulsively watchable in its badness, and it has a sleek, colorful, shallow charm to it. The casting is intriguing, and yet somehow unlikely: Brolin is never convincing as a would-be family man, and Gosling is little more than a comic book character (he's still very enjoyable); Emma Stone, who is always likable, somehow feels miscast, although she isn't bad; meanwhile, Sean Penn turns into Freddy Kreuger, chewing up the scenery like a psychotic pair of scissors.