March 27, 2013

Can't Buy Me Love

Can't Buy Me Love (1987) is about an unpopular teenage boy named Ronnie Miller (Patrick Dempsey), who pays a popular girl named Cindy Mancini (Amanda Peterson) one thousand dollars to pose as his girlfriend for a month. Of course, a genuine romance gradually forms, but Ronnie changes in the process of becoming accepted by the in-crowd. He gets high on being a somebody, and loses sight of what's really important. This movie shows that the geeks can be as shallow as the popular kids, and the popular kids, like Cindy, can occasionally be mature and selfless. It's a breezy, well-intentioned, but forgettable romantic comedy, and the message of togetherness at the end is a bit hard to take, since Ronnie spends most of the film being a total ass, ignoring his longtime friends and treating Cindy like a pawn in his attempt to climb the high school social ladder.

With Courtney Gains, Tina Caspary, Seth Green, Sharon Farrell, Darcy De Moss, Dennis Dugan, Cloyce Morrow, Eric Bruskotter, and Cort McCown. Written by Michael Swerdlick. Directed by Steve Rash. 94 min.


300th review

Cry-Baby (1990) is writer-director John Waters' second mainstream movie, and it's a charming, surprisingly good-natured parody of Baltimore in the 1950s. It's about two rival gangs: the Squares and the Drapes. The Squares follow the rules, the Drapes break them, and goody-goody Allison Vernon-Williams (played by Amy Locane), feels caught in the middle. "I'm tired of being good!" she moans. She's pressured by her grandmother (Polly Bergen) to follow a conventional path. (Her grandma runs a sort of adolescent finishing school where she teaches teenagers the tenets of suburban social etiquette and good taste.)

But Allison is in love with Cry-Baby (Johnny Depp), who represents freedom from conventions. (He's eventually arrested and convicted of "juvenile delinquency!", which I didn't realize was an actual charge.) Basically, Cry-Baby is the James Dean of Baltimore. He's loved by the Drapes and despised by the Squares.

Cry-Baby is a musical, but not the kind where a song interrupts the story every five minutes as padding. Its musical numbers are mostly amusing riffs on 1950s culture, mimicking the songs that were popular then (or in some cases reproducing actual 1950s songs; these are generally the ones performed by the Squares' hilariously unhip all-male quartet, which performs at various Baltimore social functions throughout the movie.) I've never responded to 50s nostalgia. Hoop skirts and Elvis aren't my idea of a good time. But in the world of John Waters, even the 1950s can be entertaining. 

Johnny Depp's performance is wonderfully sincere yet ironic. He's reminiscent of teen idols Sal Mineo and the afore-mentioned James Dean, but he's also subtly funny. Depp had of course become something of a teen idol himself, thanks to the success of his show 21 Jump Street. So playing the lead in a John Waters movie--even a relatively clean-cut one like this--represents an attempt to move away from that image. I'm not sure it worked, because he's so likable in this film, and he certainly hasn't dimmed as a star in the last 20 years. 

The Johnny Depp we get in Cry-Baby is the Johnny Depp I miss. He's not hiding under piles of make-up and a zany wig, or an affected voice, or a character who's completely alien to society. He's a social misfit, to be sure, but he's not pandering to the audience for laughs by being needlessly eccentric. Perhaps he's so appealing to audience members because they find those ostentatious roles (e.g. Willy Wonka, Jack Sparrow) more colorful and therefore more entertaining. But it's become the norm for him to do something commercially weird. (Because, let's not forget, commercially weird is nothing compared to genuine weird, which is why John Waters going semi-commercial was actually a good thing. More on that later.) What has happened in the process of all those oddball commercial roles is the unavoidable plateau: one performance hardly distinguishes itself from another.

Frequently, Waters' movies peter out about sixty minutes in, so I was pleasantly surprised by Cry-Baby, which is perhaps his most sustained movie. Waters was working at his peak, in a sense. He had achieved a little bit of mainstream popularity with Hairspray in 1988 (even though that film wasn't a runaway success), and was given a bigger budget with which to explore his usual theme of social anarchy in the suburbs. But even when his movies run out of steam, they're still a lot more interesting than big, lumbering commercial comedies and musicals. He finds colorful people who aren't all beautiful. He pokes fun at our very conventional discomfort (or is it horror) when we're confronted with the abnormal. 

Cry-Baby has a lot of bizarre characters, most of whom are drawn with love, not scorn. Even the stodgy grandmother is redeeming, allowing her granddaughter to choose the man who loves her the most rather than the one who wants to confine her to a life of suburban drabness. The 1980s represented a sort of neo-50s return to the pernicious rot of banality. Those who find that depressing will likely respond to Cry-Baby, a movie which gleefully disrupts suburban mores. 

With Ricki Lake, Susan Tyrrell, Iggy Pop, Traci Lords, Kim McGuire (who plays a character called "Hatchet Face"), Mink Stole, Patricia Hearst, Troy Donahue, and Joe Dallesandro. 92 min. ½

March 26, 2013

From Dusk Till Dawn

George Clooney gives a dynamic performance as a professional thief who's on the lam with his crazy brother (Quentin Tarantino). They're headed to Mexico, and on the way they meet up with an ex-preacher (Harvey Keitel) and his two teenage kids (Juliette Lewis and Ernest Liu). The fugitives take the family hostage and make it across the border, stopping to kick back and drink at a seedy bar. But soon they realize the place is crawling with vampires. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) is a paean to exploitation horror and action films, and it certainly delivers the goods. But you can feel writer Quentin Tarantino and director Robert Rodriguez patting themselves on the back for their cleverness, and after a while it becomes mind-numbingly repetitive. With Tom Savini, Fred Williamson, Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin, John Saxon, and Kelly Preston. 108 min.

A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge

A new dreamer moves into the house on Elm Street. This time it's a young man named Jesse (played by Mark Patton), and the killer from Elm Street I, Freddy Kreuger, turns him into a sort of murdering vessel. For some reason, he has to kill through Jesse. Why? It's never quite clear. (Very little in this movie is. It's very difficult to tell whether we're in a dream--and whose dream--or reality, for much of the film.) The scenarist, David Chaskin, and the director, Jack Sholder, were obviously trying to come up with some kind of sustainable plot so they wouldn't be stuck remaking the first Nightmare. So there's a lot of bad pop psychology going on of the Jekyll and Hyde/Freudian variety, and lots of hinting around that Jesse might be gay, only he just can't admit it to himself. But the characters are well-drawn, for this kind of film. Jesse is sympathetic, and the girl who's in love with him--or at least, with the idea of saving him--is likable. With Kim Myers, Robert Rusler, Clu Gulager, Hope Lange, and Robert Englund. 89 min. 1985.

March 25, 2013

A Nightmare on Elm Street

Actress Dee Wallace once called me a wimp (I met her briefly at a horror film convention) for saying that I hated it when her character is killed off in Wes Craven's 1977 horror film The Hills Have Eyes. But I don't care. I'm sticking by my statement: I can't watch The Hills Have Eyes after that scene where the crazed mutant family kills several members of a mundane Ohio family en route to California. It's too gruesome, too callous. Wes Craven had directed another film prior to Hills, called Last House on the Left (1972), which is an unwatchable exercise in cruelty. This is the common denominator of just about every one of his horror movies: they demonstrate an unmitigated sense of cruelty toward the innocent victims by the various murderers and monsters.   

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which remains one of Craven's most commercial thrillers, is no different. In it, a group of teenagers are all terrorized by a maniac in their dreams. That maniac is named Fred Kreuger. He's memorably adorned in a dirty red and green striped sweater and a fedora, has a burnt, scarred, hideous, face and wears a makeshift contraption on his hand that gives him knives for fingers. (He's like a homicidal Edward Sciossorhands.) Kreuger, who's played with a convincing amount of gleeful deviousness by Robert Englund, is the chattiest of the unstoppable killers of the 1980s. (This admittedly small club of franchise horror movie villains includes the imperturbable Jason Voorhies and the monomaniacal Michael Myers.)

One of the few redeeming things about A Nightmare on Elm Street is the charming chemistry between Nancy, the heroine (played by Heather Langenkamp), and Glenn, her boyfriend (Johnny Depp, making his film debut), who lives right across the street from her. Nancy is a valiant heroine, and Langenkamp has a likable gaucheness. She doesn't seem that experienced as an actress, but this isn't necessarily a negative. In a horror movie, you need a certain level of "natural" acting from the lead girl. It makes her seem like a regular person, not a star. Craven's whole movie seems determined to give Nancy a bad time, and that's an unpleasant feeling, but Nancy doesn't let it defeat her. She's a determined protagonist. 

Craven, who also wrote the screenplay, apparently got the idea for his movie by reading about a boy who was plagued by bad dreams, and eventually died, presumably of exhaustion. The idea of dreams--which are so fascinating, so mysterious--becoming places of doom in real life, is certainly interesting, and the film does tap into that fascination, but it's not pleasurably exciting. There's not much fun here, except the kind that's had at the audience's expense. It fills you with dread. 

With John Saxon and Ronee Blakley as Nancy's divorced parents, Amanda Wyss and Nick Corri as her friends, and Charles Fleischer in a small role as a dream specialist at a scientific institute. ½

March 23, 2013


I'm happy to live in a world where Tina Fey is making movies and TV shows, because it's a much funnier, more interesting world than it would be without her. Admission, Fey's latest movie, is that way too: the movie would be less funny and less interesting if she weren't in it. More to the point, it's the kind of romantic comedy that seems tailored to fit Fey's personality--or at least the personality she projects into characters like Liz Lemon, her character from the just-ended sitcom 30 Rock. (I'll refrain from inserting a comment like "30 Rock is the best situational comedy in the last ten years, possibly the last 20.")

Fey plays slight variations of her Liz Lemon character in movies like Baby Mama (2008) and Admission. They're always women who are successful but unhappy. They've avoided the pitfalls of marriage and family only to find another pitfall in their careers. In this latest vehicle, Fey plays Portia Nathan, an admissions officer at Princeton University. (Something about the name 'Portia' seems like an inside joke.) Portia isn't single. She's been living with a Princeton English professor (who thinks that reading lines from Canterbury Tales in Middle English are a good way to spend an evening). She isn't unhappy (she has a rewarding job at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, and she's one of the ones who says "yes" or "no" to a student's application). And she isn't worried about having children. These non-problems only become problems after she meets John (Paul Rudd), a teacher at an experimental school in New Hampshire who's trying to get one of his students into Princeton.

In true romantic comedy fashion, Admission hinges upon a series of unlikely plot devices, such as the teenage boy, who Portia learns might just be the son she had in college and gave up for adoption when he was still a baby. This hypothetical pushes a lot of maternal buttons that Portia didn't know existed in her, and she finds herself doing all of the irrational things parents do to help their children: The very things she's encouraged parents of college applicants not to do.

I really enjoyed Admission. The writing (it was adapted from Jean Hanff Korelitz's novel by Karen Croner) somehow balances clever with commercial, which makes Admission a surprisingly refreshing comedy. It goes in unexpected directions, and requires more from Tina Fey as an actress than her previous movie roles have. She pulls off the dramatic scenes convincingly. But it's her delivery of the jokes that sells this movie. Every one of her throwaway lines seems so fragile, so destined for failure if even one thing is off, be it the timing or the cadence or the facial expression. Yet Fey locates and projects the humor in lines that wouldn't necessarily look funny on the screen. (Except that more likely than not, Croner was familiar with her acting enough to imagine the lines working. This assumes that the movie was written with Tina Fey in mind, of course.)

Lily Tomlin co-stars as Portia's mom. She's an eccentric loner who was a major voice of the feminist movement during the 1970s. She's put a lot of pressure on Portia to be fiercely independent of men, and as Portia treads the ground forged by her mother, she begins to suspect that perhaps it's not as fulfilling as she thought it would be. Tomlin is a delightful comedian, and it's especially fun to see her paired with Fey. Paul Rudd is surprisingly likable in this movie. He's finally been cast in a movie in which he doesn't have to be a jerk, even slightly. He's just charming and even foolishly passionate about the world. It's a refreshing change. With Michael Sheen, Wallace Shawn, Nat Wolff, Travaris Spears, and Gloria Reuben. Directed by Paul Weitz. ½

March 20, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful

The first and last thirty minutes of Oz the Great and Powerful are funny and clever, and James Franco's deliberately corny performance works well for the movie. The middle section sags, as Franco, playing Oz, the con man from Kansas who is magically transported--via tornado--from Kansas to Oz, is sent out by two good witches to destroy a wicked one.

James Franco is just the man for this kind of movie. With his wide-eyed stoner look, Franco is amiable but also tongue-in-cheek. He turns Oz into an endearing snake oil salesman who has dreams of emulating Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison, but feels constrained by the cynical frontier-people of the Midwest. Once in Oz, he encounters people who have real magic powers, but are so trusting that they're easily conned into believing his yarns.

The problem is that the story feels too much like a rehash of The Wizard of Oz. Only it's not nearly efficient enough to retread such familiar turf. Worse, the film is full of cutesy characters, including Franco's flying monkey sidekick and a tug-at-your-heartstrings china girl. (I kept hoping someone would smash her, and groaned inwardly when I realized she was to be a major character.)

It's surprising to see a director like Sam Raimi churning out such commercial material, except that he's spent the last decade making the Spider-Man movies. Probably it would have been even less fun with a more conventional director. Raimi is trying to out-Tim Burton Tim Burton. But he also takes the material more seriously than Burton has done in some of his recent work (like the abysmal Dark Shadows). There's a mixture of reverence and deliberate artifice at work here, only the two fail to connect the movie. It's a bit disjointed. Is it a silly kid's movie? A wide-eyed adventure/homage to a classic American fable? A parody? It wants to be all of them, perhaps, but never really makes up its mind what it's going to do with such ambitions.

At the same time, there are bits of humor that manage to find their way into the script, and these help loosen up some of the dry spots in Oz, which has visual opulence to spare, but often finds itself lacking in true imagination. (Also, I really enjoyed the finale, in which Oz uses his tricks to fool the witches. It was a fun way to end the movie and breathe some life into it.)

[Spoilers in next paragraph]

The witches are interesting: Michele Williams looks a little like Kim Basinger. She plays Glinda: the exceedingly good and somewhat naive witch. Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz play the bad witches. Kunis is hard to take in anything because she constantly reminds me of her character from Family Guy, and she's not very intimidating when she transforms into the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West. I kept wishing for Margaret Hamilton (the original Wicked Witch), so terrifyingly good. But Weisz is an absolute delight. I felt that she relished her part, and she's so gorgeous that it makes her a very enjoyable villain.

With Zach Braff, in a small role as Franco's assistant back in Kansas (and the voice of the annoying monkey), Joey King, Tim Holmes, Bill Cobbs, Tony Cox, Abigail Spencer, and Bruce Campbell in a cameo as one of the guards in the Emerald City. Culled together from L. Frank Baum's various Oz books by screenwriters David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner. 127 min.

March 19, 2013


If Sean Connery's James Bond was about English political dominance, Sean Connery's Robert Dapes is about its political irrelevance. In Cuba (1979), which is set in Havana in the year 1959, Connery plays a British mercenary who's hired by the Batista regime to help them stop Castro from taking over. (Viewers shouldn't be shocked by how that ends up.) Dapes is never particularly invested in the job, but that seems to be true of his attitude in general. He's a jaded ex-soldier who has accepted the ways of the modern world and has learned how to capitalize on them. While in Havana, he runs into an old flame, Alex (Brooke Adams), now married into a prominent Cuban family. Alex runs her husband's factory while he runs around with women. (He's also fond of booze and gambling.) Their marriage is unhappy, but she likes the control she has over him, doling out money to him when he needs it, and managing their capital.

Cuba isn't bad. Director Richard Lester has a clever sense of humor, which keeps this from being self-serious. It's sort of a modern-day Casablanca, except that nobody saw it in 1979 and nobody remembers it now. And while it is about 20 minutes too long, Cuba is generally a fascinating (perhaps unreliable) piece of quasi-historical filmmaking. What's perhaps most historically accurate isn't its take on the Castro revolution, but its depiction of American culture's pervasiveness in Cuba. Everywhere Lester's camera turns we see Cubans inundated with Western capitalist ideals: from the grandson of one of the generals playing Monopoly with his grandfather, to the "Mr. Clean" commercial playing on the television set while a seemingly unresponsive elderly woman stares at it, to the General watching a private screening of Horror of Dracula (a British film, but it qualifies as a Western influence nonetheless).

Brooke Adams, ever the photogenic actress, radiates in Cuba. She's a stunning beauty, and her dark hair makes the New York-born actress believably Latina (maybe not Cuban, necessarily) even when her accent falters periodically. The chemistry between Connery and Adams seems off, but there's something oddly fitting about it at the same time: it's a jaded, unworkable romance for the jaded soldier. Alex is spoiled and selfish but also sympathetic. And Dapes is stubborn but not unfeeling.

And a cast of amusing supporting characters populates Lester's Havana: Chris Sarandon as Alex's arrogant beauty of a husband, Hector Elizondo as one of Batista's men, hired to accompany Dapes (he begins something of an amiable sidekick), Jack Weston as a sleazy American investor, Martin Balsam as General Bello, Lonette McKee as Sarandon's girl on the side, Danny De La Paz as her Castro-infatuated younger brother, who's a pawn of the revolutionaries, and Walter Gotell. Written by Charles Wood. Filmed--convincingly--in Spain. 122 min. ½

March 16, 2013

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodovar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) reminded me a little of some screwball comedies from the 1930s and 40s (The Lady Eve, Bringing Up Baby, The Talk of the Town), in which seemingly random events eventually reveal themselves as part of a grand comic design. The star of the film, Carmen Maura, plays Pepa, a TV actress who lives in Madrid. Pepa is despondent because her relationship with Ivan (Fernando Guillen), a fellow actor, is over. The movie traces her despair which turns into anger but always in a half-serious way.

Almodovar is apparently going for high melodrama as comedy. Whenever possible, he finds a way to stylize, to inflate, and to parody, a scene. He uses colorful objects (blue lamps and red phones and flashy costumes that refuse to let this film seem ordinary in any way) and he invites his actors to become caricatures. The spurned ex-wife of Ivan, Lucia (Julieta Serrano), looks like a 60-year-old Liz Taylor drag queen with her fake eyelashes and big black 60s wig and pink dress. And Antonio Banderas, as Ivan's grown son, is a faux-naive protegee of his father, making out with Pepa's troubled friend Candela (Maria Barranco) even though he's engaged to Marisa (Rossy De Palma). This is the cinema of soap opera addicts who watch their soaps with ironic glee. (Candela, it's worth mentioning, is trying to evade the police: she was involved with a Shiite terrorist planning to hijack a plane bound for Madrid, and is terrified that she'll be nabbed as an accomplice.)

There are moments of Women on the Verge that are laugh-out-loud funny. At other times, the movie drags. Surely something is going to be lost in the translation, especially in a comedy; but it's easy to see why people raved about this movie in 1988. It has an eccentric flair to it. It is itself like watching a drag queen: there's a sort of surreal fascination and perverse pleasure involved.

With Kiti Manver. 90 min. ½

The Call

911 operator Jordan Turner (Halle Berry) is coping with a grim reality: a girl whom she was trying to assist was abducted and murdered. Six months afterward, another girl is abducted, and thus begins a long attempt to figure out who has her and where he's taking her.

The Call is a tense, often disturbing thriller: the kind that takes a perverse pleasure in messing with the mind of its audience. I've often explained that horror movies about zombies or vampires don't frighten me because they can't really happen (and they're usually fun), but movies about psychotic killers are another story. We seem to be inundated with them in real life, so a movie like The Call is frankly, an unpleasant experience at times. It goes back and forth between pleasurably tense and unbearably excruciatingly tense.

Unlike most thrillers, the murderer isn't hidden from us until the finale. We see his face early on. He's meant to be a terrifying figure, but not an unknown one. The Call reveals bits of information about his berserk psyche (something about an obsession with his sister, who died), and I suppose we're supposed to be even more freaked out by how the killer channels his grief and obsession. (I was quite put off by how the movie links grief to serial killing. There are plenty of people who don't jump right to murder because they can't cope with losing a loved one. The movie covers itself by making this guy a real sicko who already had an unhealthy fixation on his sister before she died. It's like he's Norman Bates and Michael Myers combined with Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs.)

For lovers of the unashamedly disturbing show Criminal Minds, this is a fairly similar kind of experience. I didn't hate watching this--it holds your interest in a grisly, compulsive sort of way--but I don't ever need to watch again. (And there's an unnecessary set-up for a sequel if it's a moneymaker.)

Halle Berry gives a convincing performance as the heroine who refuses to let the killer get away with murdering a second girl. With Abigail Breslin as would-be victim, Morris Chestnut as Jordan's cop-boyfriend, Michael Eklund as the psychotic killer, David Otunga, Michael Imperioli, Justina Machado, Jose Zuniga, and Roma Maffia. Directed by Brad Anderson. Written by Nicole D'Ovidio, Jon Bokenkamp and Richard D'Ovidio. 96 min.

March 14, 2013

On the Waterfront

Given that the Academy shafted Marlon Brando and his brilliant performance in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), his Oscar win for On the Waterfront (1954) might seem like a peace offering. And although it probably was an apology Oscar to some degree, there's no denying the power of his performance as Terry Malloy. Brando made being a thick-skulled bum endearing, courageous, dignified, and ultimately transcendent.

In On the Waterfont, he plays an ex-prizefighter whose brother Charlie (Rod Steiger) is an accountant for Johnny Friendly, the union boss who runs the New York harbor with an iron fist and doesn't care if he has to skirt around the law to do business. The corrupt union heads pick and choose who will work, and that means picking and choosing people they know won't rat on them. But when one of them agrees to testify against them, Terry is enlisted to help "lean on him," never suspecting that they intend to throw the would-be canary off the roof of a building.

Terry experiences, perhaps for the first time in his life, a moral conflict he cannot dismiss. He's faced with protecting vice over virtue, and battles not just Johnny Friendly (played with an appropriate level of nastiness by the excellent Lee J. Cobb) but himself in the process.

On the Waterfront has its overly dramatic moments, but it's still a hell of a movie, full of Brando's little touches, and bolstered even more by Elia Kazan's capable directing. Kazan manages to turn something a bit stagey into an often electric drama fraught with tragedy. Karl Malden plays the do-gooder priest who's eager to bring about justice for the murdered man, Joey, and Eva Marie Saint plays Edie, Joey's sister and Terry's love interest. Written by Budd Schulberg. Memorable music score by Leonard Bernstein. With Pat Henning, Martin Balsam, Pat Hingle, and Fred Gwynne. 108 min.

March 09, 2013

Dead Man Down

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Dead Man Down, which stars Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace as two strangers, both looking for revenge. Farrell plays Victor, whose wife and daughter were killed by gangster Terrence Howard's underlings, who left Victor for dead. Aided by the fact that none of them recognize his face, Victor joins their criminal operation as part of his elaborate plan to carry out vengeance. Rapace plays Beatrice, Victor's neighbor whose apartment parallels his; they meet on their balconies, and eventually she explains that she saw him killing someone, and needs him to kill the man who injured her in a car crash that ruined her face.

The screenplay by J.H. Wyman deserves much credit for making Dead Man Down a deliberately paced, exciting, intelligent thriller. I was expecting nonstop violence and carnage. (There are a few brutal scenes that feel gratuitous, but they're not as bad as you might have been expecting from the theatrical trailers.) Instead, this is a movie that seeks to actually explore a character's deep-set motives to kill. It's not a morality tale about the pitfalls of revenge, though. Much to its credit, this film sticks to telling its lurid crime tale.

Watching Victor's labyrinthine scheme unfold is a pleasure, even if the movie tends to be deadly serious at all times. (A little more humor would have lightened the mood considerably, but we seem to be living in an age where humor mustn't interfere with the ferociousness of the modern thriller, which seems impenetrable to anything that doesn't add to its moroseness.) Part of Victor's plan involves sending creepy packages to Howard in the mail, which include cryptic messages and small pieces of a photograph cut up like a puzzle. He's calculated his mind game to play out right down to the wire, and it's this aspect of Dead Man Down that makes it stand out from the usual drek.

Colin Farrell isn't particularly magnetic in Dead Man Down, but his dark eyes give him that jaded puppy dog look. He doesn't have to do much to elicit our sympathy. Dominic Cooper really shines as his buddy, a fellow new recruit to Howard's operation, who is himself a family man. Cooper's character seems a bit naive about the world into which he's entered, but he's determined to make a good impression with his boss, by doing everything he can to track down the person who's sending Howard those creepy messages. Noomi Rapace continues to exude a sort of enigmatic wistfulness. She's got some fire in her blood, though, and she lets a little of that come through her performance as Beatrice.

With Isabelle Huppert (as Beatrice's mother), Luis Da Silva, Wade Barrett, Franky G, F. Murray Abraham, and Armand Assente. Directed by Niels Arden Oplev (who helmed the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). 115 min.

Pillow Talk

Like most romantic comedies of its era, Pillow Talk (1959) is about a woman's attempt to curb a man's voracious sexual appetite--or at least redirect it toward the monogamous requirements of marriage. It's a diverting confection in CinemaScope: Doris Day, Hollywood's biggest-selling virgin, plays Jan Morrow, a New York interior designer who's horrified by the man (Rock Hudson) with whom she shares a telephone line. He's got any number of women under his charms, and she's more than a little jealous of his active love life. Tired of her judgmental criticisms and constant nagging of him to get off the phone, Hudson's character pretends to be a chivalrous Texan after meeting Jan by chance at a restaurant. He's taken with her, or at least, taken with the idea of deceiving her (and possibly adding her to his list of conquests.)

Pillow Talk is about as realistic as a bad sitcom, but that's part of its charm. It's a series of late-night jaunts to New York night clubs and swanky parties, and long drives at midnight, full of banal-comic banter between Day and Hudson, who teamed for a couple more romantic pictures after this one was a big hit.

Doris Day has always been good at playing cookie-cutter American women who react with the appropriate level of revulsion at the slightest hint of impropriety (even though she's secretly hoping a little of that impropriety will point itself in her direction.) Rock Hudson proves his charm and appeal as a leading man. But does this complement ultimately mean I will have to stop making fun of Channing Tatum's acting? Isn't Tatum just the next Rock Hudson? Perhaps--fifty years from now--someone else will comment on Tatum's likableness, which I generally see as blandness most of the time.

The script--by Russell Rouse and Maurice Richlin--earned an Oscar (a rare feat for a comedy). Directed by Michael Gordon. The supporting cast includes Tony Randall as Day's unflinching would-be suitor (who doesn't really convince as a ladies' man, but is funny nonetheless), and Thelma Ritter as her drunk maid. With Nick Adams, Allen Jenkins, Marcel Dalio, and Lee Patrick. 98 min.

The Maltese Falcon

If the actors in The Maltese Falcon (1941) talked any faster, they'd be unintelligible, and if they talked any slower, the film wouldn't be nearly as entertaining. This is the kind of thriller that thrives on quick wit and quick words, and proves how a cadre of rotten-to-the-core characters can be appealing and turn a movie into a true classic. Humphrey Bogart heads the cast as Sam Spade, the cynical private eye who's hired by Mary Astor to help her get hold of a jewel-encrusted statue, one whose existence is the stuff of legend. So many people have died trying to get it--or trying to keep it, for that matter--that it seems foolish to imagine that anyone else would want to come near it. But like a magnet, it attracts people of questionable character who can't help themselves but respond to its pull. Peter Lorre, as the fiendish Mr. Cairo, gives a really marvelous performance. His facial expressions stir up all kinds of feverish suggestions in our minds, and what actually takes place in his performance in the form of gestures and tone of voice is very subtly villainous. He's got a "foreign-ness" that typecast him as such, and yet he's so good at playing that kind of sophisticated but sleazy character. Sydney Greenstreet, as The Fat Man, is appropriately greedy in his quest for the falcon and appropriately conniving in his slick method of getting people to do his bidding for him.

Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett. Written and directed by John Huston. With Lee Patrick, Elisha Cook, Gladys George, Barton MacLane, Ward Bond, and Jerome Cowan. 101 min. ½

March 06, 2013

Galaxy Quest

Galaxy Quest (1999) is pure stupidity, but in a good way. It's a tribute/send-up of Star Trek, but it sticks to its own story with surprising self-confidence. The plot is thus: the cast of an old TV show (called Galaxy Quest) hasn't moved on since their show was canceled: they're squeezing every drop of milk from the petrified teets of their show, which maintains a cultish popularity with the geek culture. But, there's one group of "fans" at the latest geek convention who take them completely seriously: aliens (who have taken on human form to blend in) who think Galaxy Quest was for real, and who seek the cast members of the show--whose characters are believed to be real people on their faraway planet--to help them defeat an insidious enemy named Sarris (I couldn't help but wonder if the name was a reference to the famous film critic). Thus begins an adventure which finally validates the has-been TV stars, all of whom finally taste the glory their characters experienced every episode.

It's like Spaceballs and Star Trek had a one-night-stand and ushered forth some kind of unholy comic sci-fi offspring.

As a non-scifi/fantasy fan, I probably didn't get as much gleeful amusement out of Galaxy Quest as was available to me had I had been one of the devoted. But it's still a fun movie. And "fun" is the ingredient that seems to be missing from so many movies of late, even in this genre. Last year's Prometheus is a prime example: it was a beautiful-looking film that feigned a sense of wonder and lacked any of the enjoyment of its genre. But Galaxy Quest, which stars Tim Allen as the show's commander--their very own Captain Kirk--and Sigourney Weaver, as the blonde technician whose character on the show needlessly mimicked the spaceship's computer whenever it diagnosed a problem, careens through the cliches of science fiction with breathless enthusiasm and an ardent, head-over-heels mission of comic self-indulgence. The supporting cast--including Alan Rickman, Sam Rockwell, Tony Shalhoub, Daryl Mitchell, Justin Long, and Missi Pyle--tries their damnedest to show us a good time, and they succeed most of the time.

Directed by Dean Parisot. Written by Mark Johnson and Charles Newirth. ½

March 04, 2013


Edward Furlong as a budding young Baltimore photographer named Pecker who becomes the latest sensation among the arty metropolitan types after he's discovered by a New York art dealer (Lili Taylor). But fame and fortune completely disrupt his life--and in the process, his work--much to Pecker's chagrin.

In some ways, one might read into Pecker (1998) an autobiographical thread: writer-director John Waters started out making ultra-shocking low-budget films like Pink Flamingos (1972), which celebrated social anarchy and didn't have to adhere to any kind of censorship regulations. They were sensationalistic and edgy and even disturbing. After Waters found a bit of mainstream success with Hairspray (1988), it became harder and harder to make those kinds of movies. (Also, the midnight movie phenomenon of the 60s and 70s was dead, thanks in large part to the emergence of home video. The rules of the game, if not the game itself, had dramatically changed.) So Pecker has a bit of reflective resonance for fans of Waters, in the sense that notoriety and success had some kind of impact on Waters' career. Still, he's managed to make some pretty shocking stuff, and his most recent film (A Dirty Shame) earned an NC-17 rating.

Pecker (the name, by the way, isn't really used as a euphemism for 'penis', although you might have expected this from John Waters), also proclaims Waters' love/obsession for Baltimore, his hometown, which he portrays as eccentric, weird, unironic, and yet somehow beautiful and familiar and accepting. It's the anti-New York. (Pecker takes a picture of his dad, who runs a bar, in front of the cash register, with the 'no sale' sign in view as a joke, and the New Yorkers proclaim it as some kind of haunting celebration of poverty and economic hardship; the dad is dumbfounded at their pretentious ability to over-analyze things. In Baltimore, we take it to understand, things are what they are: weird and even disturbing, yes, but at least they're upfront about it.

Pecker is a bit uneven, but it's got the usual amount of Watersian flare and weirdness. The story, which feels lacking in any real conflict for nearly half the movie, doesn't sustain itself over the 86-minute running time, but Pecker is redeemed by a terrific cast who embody their characters with gusto and their own bizarre form of dignity. They include: Mary Kay Place (as Pecker's mom), Mark Joy (as his dad), Christina Ricci (as his girlfriend, the militant manager of a Baltimore laundromat), Martha Plimpton (as Pecker's big sister, a bartender and MC at a local gay bar), Brendan Sexton III (as Pecker's best friend, a devoted shoplifter), Mink Stole, Patricia Hearst, Jean Schertler, Lauren Hulsey, Bess Armstrong, and Mary Vivian Pearce. ½

March 03, 2013


John Waters' first sort-of mainstream movie was Polyester (1981), a celebration of everything Waters loves: bad taste, bad melodrama, bad hairdos, and bad people. Divine stars as Francine Fishpaw, a suburban housewife living in Baltimore whose life is falling apart: her sleazy husband, the owner of an adult movie theater, is having an affair with his tacky, obnoxious secretary (Mink Stole), her daughter LuLu (Mary Garlington) is dating a scuzzy punk named BoBo, and her son Dexter (Ken King) is addicted to Angel Dust and has a foot fetish, which has morphed into a penchant for roaming around town stomping on the feet of unsuspecting women.

Polyester is funny up to a point, although it runs out of steam in the last third. It's perhaps a little too easy to turn suburbia inside out, and yet it's still amusing to see it happen, especially by someone like John Waters, who grew up in suburbia and constantly demonstrates his acute familiarity with--and enjoyment of-- the sordid private lives of middle-class Americans. What's most memorable about Polyester is that Waters shot it in "Odorama," a gimmick designed to emulate one of his cinematic icons, director William Castle (who was himself famous for an endless supply of gimmicks geared toward marketing his movies). For audience members to experience "Odorama," they were given a card with 10 "scents" on them, and whenever a number flashed on the screen, they scratched and then sniffed that particular number so they could experience the same smell as the star of the film. You can imagine where that one leads to.

Divine is at her most histrionic, the icing on the cake being her hilarious Liz Taylor wig. Tab Hunter co-stars as Todd Tomorrow, the handsome stranger who happens into Francine's life. With Edith Massey as Cuddles (Francine's only true friend), Joni Ruth White (as Francine's malicious mother), and Stiv Bator. The title song is sung by Hunter, and all the film's music was written by Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of the band Blondie, and Michael Kamen. 86 min. ½

Assault on Precinct 13

Even thought it's dated now, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) is still an entertaining piece of action trash, the first critical success and second feature film of writer-director John Carpenter, who drew from Howard Hawks' Western Rio Bravo in telling the story of Assault. It's about a dilapidated, soon-to-be-closed police station (the power is scheduled to be shut off within twenty-four hours) that is besieged by several youth gangs who have joined forces against the police after six of their own were killed by cops.

Assault on Precinct 13 captures the beautiful sunlit Los Angeles by day, as well as the dark, blue-tinted vastness of Los Angeles by night. Or at least, the L.A. that exists solely in our cinematic imagination. Pauline Kael once remarked that Carpenter didn't seem to have a life outside of movies, and you can see that in his work on Assault on Precinct 13. If he's not borrowing from Howard Hawks (even the leading lady, Laurie Zimmer, has a Lauren Bacallishness that reminds you of Hawks' The Big Sleep), he's borrowing from George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. The two films essentially have the same story, except they exist in different genres.

Nevertheless, Assault has an exciting, compulsively watchable efficiency to it. Carpenter enlists the usual help of his synthesizer to make the action sequences pop, and all the visual tricks that eventually became cliches in his work find their impetus in this movie, from the way the creepy monster/villain emerges into frame unexpectedly, to the generally successful use of lighting, and point-of-view camera shots, to provide a tense atmosphere. Carpenter's "look" somehow manages to be almost claustrophobic and yet spatially sprawling enough to generate that creeping sense of isolation that makes thrillers work.

It's got enough violence to sate the exploitation fan, and enough (apparently) intentionally bad dialogue to amuse the lover of movies, both good and bad. Darwin Joston, as the anti-hero, Napoleon Wilson (who's on death row), utters one corny line after another: "I was born out of time," he remarks; and when he's not making mock-philosophical small-talk, he's asking somebody for a cigarette. Austin Stoker does a successful job at carrying the film as just-promoted Lieutenant Ethan Bishop, sent to Precinct 13 to oversee the last-minute preparations before the station is retired for good, never knowing how intense his first night on the job would be. With Tony Burton, Martin West, Nancy Loomis, Charles Cyphers, and Frank Doubleday as a blond gang member who might have been a precursor to Carpenter's unstoppable maniac, Michael Myers. Oh, how I love unknown actors, who always--even when they're not as polished as trained Hollywood actors--provide that valuable sense of normalcy. These could be your neighbors, in your city. It makes the movie that much more fun. A forgettable remake followed in 2005. 90 min.

March 01, 2013

Eating Raoul

In Eating Raoul (1982), a couple of squares named Paul and Mary Bland (Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov) are desperately trying to improve their circumstances in life. He's a wine merchant and she's a nutritionist, but they've got their eyes on a house where they can open up their very own restaurant, Paul and Mary's Country Kitchen. They're so square they sleep in separate beds, and the 1950's style decor in their Los Angeles apartment suggests that they're displaced persons, stuck in the wrong decade.

Paul and Mary hit on an idea (no pun intended) one evening after a sex maniac storms into their apartment and Paul accidentally kills him with a frying pan. What if they lured swingers into their home with salacious personal adds? They could collect the money and dispose of a pervert all in one night. Pretty soon they're "bopping perverts" left and right, and keeping the cash their victims have on them, disposing of the bodies in the apartment trash compactor. But a suave young thing named Raoul (Robert Beltran) soon enters their lives (he's a professional thief with all kinds of criminal connections). Raoul is everything Paul is not, and Mary finds herself unexpectedly turned on by him. They agree to let him go into business with them (he sells the bodies and also makes off with the victims' cars, selling them for cash), but there's tension between Raoul and Paul, who's threatened by Raoul's swarthy manliness.

Eating Raoul is a thinly conceived black comedy, but it's got a certain charming weirdness to it that might come off as entertaining, depending on the viewer's tastes. It's not a particularly well-made movie. Bartel, who also directed and co-wrote the film (sharing a screenwriting credit with Robert Blackburn), doesn't have a knack for setting up scenes, and the film's low budget surely proved a limitation. But what it lacks in panache and slick filmmaking, it tends to make up for in weirdness. This is people-watching turned into a film. Bartel does have a knack for letting weird characters develop funny little vignettes. (There's one particularly funny scenario in which Mary plays the blonde prisoner of a Nazi general.)

This movie is, like a John Waters film, in love with bad taste. Moreover, it reveals the hypocrisy of conventional middle class values in a way that doesn't divorce its main characters from their likability. Paul and Mary are so out of sync with the rest of the world, and so matter-of-fact about what they're doing, that it's hard not to like them. Mary Woronov has a few weak moments: her voice is perfect for normal talking, but when she's trying to act threatened, it gets shrill and loses all conviction. She's much better when she's in control than when she's playing a victim. She's a commanding presence at times, and she knows how to play lines deadpan. Bartel taps into this cult movie icon's sexy comic abilities, and she and he--in addition to Raoul--make an endearingly oddball team.

With Edie McClurg, Ed Begley, Jr., Susan Saiger, and Buck Henry. 82 min.