June 22, 2013

The Usual Suspects

I hold to a sort of unwritten rule when it comes to writing fiction of any kind: Don't let the plot twist drive the story. Plot twists are tantalizing, which is why they often intoxicate writers, but the screenplay written by Christopher McQuarrie for The Usual Suspects is nothing more than a long, drawn-out red herring. Everything about the movie hinges on its now famous surprise ending, which I will not divulge here in case someone reading doesn't know. (I did know, going in, which was a little frustrating, but I did still find myself getting suckered just a tad.)

The reason plot twists are deadly for stories--if indeed the stories exist solely to surprise us with the twist at the end--is because everything, from the plot to the characters to the order of events to the ways in which the story is told, becomes a device, a pawn in the author's game of tricking the audience or the reader. Not only does it become shamelessly manipulative at some point, it also forces the writer to relinquish a certain amount of richness that comes from making the characters the actors and not the pawns. When a movie is character-driven, the twist is the icing on the cake and doesn't necessarily make or break one's enjoyment of the film.

The Usual Suspects is just one big build to the end, and it's a surprisingly humorless crime film, full of needlessly complex developments and dialogue and hopelessly in love with its own cleverness, as inane as it really is. Director Bryan Singer doesn't help much. He seems to be at the mercy of McQuarrie's script too. In the end, The Usual Suspects is little more than a pastiche of Singer's and McQuarrie's cinema favorites. They're trying to pay homage with a clever update of crime and noir films for the 90s. But there were several better homages of that decade, namely L.A. Confidential (1997). (See also Jackie Brown, also 1997.)

The difference between a film like this and the far superior L.A. Confidential is partly one of style, and partly one of characterization. L.A. Confidential mined the richness of its oddball, displaced characters and managed to weave this exploration into the overall story. The Usual Suspects just deals in smoke and mirrors. The plot involves five criminals who team up while in prison to do a job involving lots of money and cocaine. But it turns out that someone has double-crossed them, and there's a lot more going on than they think. (The reverse is true for the viewer: there's a lot less going on.)

The cast includes Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey, Chazz Palminteri, Stephen Baldwin, Kevin Pollak, Benicio Del Toro, Pete Postlethwaite, Suzy Amis, Giancarlo Esposito, Dan Hedaya, and Peter Greene. All of them play characters pulled from various film noir thrillers of the past. The film was well-received by many critics and viewers, and garnered an Academy Award for Best Screenplay. Spacey also took home an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. 106 min.

June 21, 2013

World War Z

In World War Z, the zombies twitch and jerk like junkies, and they go after humans like they're walking meth containers. This is a zombie film for those who felt 28 Days Later was too microscopic. Instead of staying in one general geographic location, World War Z takes us on a North By Northwest-ish tour of various countries as the hero of the film (Brad Pitt) tries to figure out the root cause of the zombie apocalypse, which is quickly overtaking the entire world. 

The current apocalypse-chic has produced some rather odd but familiar entertainment: there's a new show about a small town that becomes encased by an invisible dome. (It's from a book by Stephen King and is being executive produced by Steven Spielberg.) Man of Steel had an apocalyptic ring to it: Krypton was compromised (and obliterated) because its inhabitants exploited their own planet, and Earth is threatened with annihilation by the calculating General Zod. The latest in this long string of end-of-the-world science fictions is World War Z, based on the novel by Max Brooks. It was adapted by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, and Damon Lindelof, and between the three of them are the scripts of half-a-dozen action-science fiction-horror movies of the last few years (including Prometheus, Star Trek Into Darkness and The Cabin in the Woods.)

While World War Z puts us back in the territory of Danny Boyle's film 28 Days Later, it's more deeply rooted in the stories of H.G. Wells and the like. The film seeks to locate and understand the cause of the fast-acting bacteria that turns people into zombies: energetic, jerky, violent, fast-moving zombies. The plague spreads across the earth, and eventually an ex-United Nations operations guy (Pitt) is summoned to help a doctor and a team of Navy SEALS investigate what might be the root of the plague, in South Korea. Of course, this is just the first stop of the movie. We're privy to the destruction of New York City in a prelude featuring Pitt with his family, a wife (Mireille Enos) and two daughters. Then after South Korea, we wind up in Jerusalem and then Wales and ultimately Nova Scotia.

There are moments when you cannot tell what's happening. I regret that I am beginning to sound like a broken record when I report to you this common flaw in actiony movies. But it's persistent throughout many of these films. In the scene in NYC, it's virtually impossible to tell what's happening while the family tries to flee the crisis that erupts downtown right in front of their eyes. But when the movie takes a breath, and the human story is allowed to build and thrive, World War Z is an absorbing and suspenseful thriller. And eventually that nasty habit of shaky camera-work becomes less necessary, so that most of the later scenes of suspense and terror aren't as jarring. They're just suspenseful and even a little bit spooky. The film has even a touch of humor at times, and Brad Pitt represents the kind of hero audiences will root for. He's determined and likable.

Overall, World War Z will please genre fans as long as they aren't expecting too much novelty. There are a few annoying plot devices (stupid actions that characters do to bring about a proverbial shit-storm of zombie turmoil on themselves and others), but you forgive them because the movie works much of the time. It pushes all the right buttons, and the last half-hour at the World Health Organization is quite tense and even, dare I say it, fun. Directed by Marc Foster. With James Badge Dale, Matthew Fox, David Morse, Ludi Boeken, Fana Mokoena, Daniella Kertesz, Peter Capaldi, Pierfrancesco Favino, and Ruth Negga. 116 min.  

June 16, 2013

Man of Steel

After about twenty minutes of listening to several children squirming in their seats near me (as well as talking intermittently and running up and down the aisles of the theater), it occurred to me that it was possible that children were not getting more disruptive in public. This may have been normal, accepted behavior from them, only I hadn't been to a movie that kids would see in years, with a few exceptions. (I did go with my students--for a field trip--to see The Hunger Games and Oz.) The movie was Man of Steel, and the children were apparently bored out of their minds during all the parts when I was riveted by what was happening on screen. (In other words, all the "non-action" parts.)

Of course, one would expect director Zach Snyder's take on Superman to have a lot of inane action sequences. And it does. These scenes, for me, hampered my enjoyment of the film. The human story of Man of Steel remains as enchanting as it was in the 1978 version: Kal-El (played by Henry Cavill, who seems perfectly cast) leaves the doomed planet of Krypton (sent by his parents, played by Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer) and finds a new home on earth, with new parents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). And what's more, David S. Goyer, who wrote the script, manages to rehash this story in a fresh way. Much of it is scene in flashback at important points during the present, and the story of how Kal-El/Clark Kent travels North to his fortress of solitude feels more vibrant here: he basically works his way North, taking whatever jobs he can find, and of course finds it difficult to avoid stepping in to save the day when catastrophes strike (such as a burning oil rig that traps its crew).

But the action scenes are intense and it's hard to get your bearings during them. This is a continuing problem in these kinds of movies. I often just check out during those moments. It's hard to be emotionally invested when you can't even tell what's going on. The glimpses I do get reveal to me that the computer effects, while useful for creating impressive vistas and many other designs that would be astronomically expensive to do for real, aren't all that hot. I kept getting the feeling I was watching someone play Halo. (This may be just a reverential nod to the 1978 Superman, which did have pretty crummy effects.) The plot thickens when General Zod (Michael Shannon), a Krypton rebel who managed to survive when Krypton imploded and now wants revenge against Jor-El's son, threatens to destroy the earth if Kal-El is not handed over to him. (This way, Man of Steel jumbles together the plots of Superman I and II.) 

One of the movie's biggest assets is Amy Adams, who plays a different kind of Lois Lane than Margot Kidder did. Kidder's Lane always had a quip to dish out. She was also written at a time when the world seemed to idolize the single career woman. Lois Lane, hot-shot reporter for the Daily Planet, had it all. Except Superman stole her heart and she was reduced to a gushy, sentimental girl at times (performing a corny mind poem in that scene when Superman takes her out flying one evening). In the latest Superman film, Lois isn't bearing the feminist cross. So she can be vulnerable without losing her humanity. And she's also more involved in the action of the plot, which may not be totally believable, but certainly succeeds in making her character more vital. (To be fair, I always enjoyed Margot Kidder's performance as LL.) Amy Adams is a fine actress, and she's thoroughly enjoyable in Man of Steel.

Goyer has really laid on the Jesus-imagery thick, right down to having Clark Kent be 33 years old. (Comic book fans: was that how it was originally?) It may be that the studio executives have noticed what a large market there is for "Christian" entertainment, so now they're pandering to yet another demographic. Perhaps they're hoping ministers will show clips from Man of Steel during sermons. I sincerely hope nobody confuses Jesus of Nazareth with a super-hero. 

With Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, the editor of the Daily Planet; Christopher Meloni, Antje Traue, Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff, and Dylan Sprayberry (as teenage Clark Kent). 143 min.

Unfaithfully Yours

A wonderful screwball comedy from 1948 in which Rex Harrison plays a celebrated symphony conductor who begins to suspect that his wife (Linda Darnell) is having an affair with his assistant (Kurt Kreuger), even though she's just about the most doting, adoring, attentive wife ever conceived on the big-screen. Watching Rex Harrison become a paranoid, angry wronged husband proves to be quite amusing, especially when he fantasizes about knocking her off and framing her alleged lover. You see the full range of emotions a man goes through when he feels that his wife has been unfaithful to him. Despite its black comic touches, it's an immensely light-hearted affair, and the dialogue is fast and witty. Written and directed by Preston Sturges. With Rudy Vallee, Barbara Lawrence, Lionel Stander, Edgar Kennedy, Al Bridge, and Julius Tannen. 105 min.

Batman Returns

Director Tim Burton takes us back to the comic book city of Gotham, now ensconced in winter and looking pretty gloomy, just in time for a new villain: the Penguin (Danny De Vito). After being abandoned by his rich parents because he was "different," the Penguin lived life in the Gotham sewers. Somehow he also managed to become a crime boss and maintain control over a whole cadre of actual penguins who were living down in the sewer. (Is this normal? Are there penguins living in every urban sewer?) DeVito is dreadful as the Penguin: he's too nasty, too sinister, too corrupt, to be entertaining, and he chews up every line before spitting it out at us. I missed Jack Nicholson's gleeful madness as the Joker.

There are other villains: the Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), and a greedy corporate executive (Christopher Walken) with a frightening shock of poofy grey hair. I was hoping that Pfeiffer would save the movie: she plays a flighty secretary who keeps getting ignored or taken advantage of by men and then finally creates the Catwoman persona. Donning a sexy, skin-tight outfit (all black) and a whip, as well as an endless supply of bad double entendres, she goes out to make her newfound power known. The first thing she does is rescue a woman from a would-be rapist, but quickly we learn that she's much more interested in getting her own name to the public than in protecting women who were once like her. This is perhaps more interesting, but the Catwoman comes off as rather shrill and thoughtless. She would have been a more compelling character otherwise.

And then finally Batman (Michael Keaton) comes back into the movie, but he's even less compelling than he was in the 1989 film. This is because in Batman Returns he seems so reactionary, so loosely connected to the other characters that his involvement feels superficial. Batman is a difficult character to act out: he's always brooding, and that doesn't leave an actor much room for any humor (except the bad puns that the series became famous for in this and other sequels). It's especially hard to take with Michael Keaton, whom we know is capable of boiling water with the intensity and sheer zaniness of his Beetle Juice performance.

Keaton doesn't get to be comically endearing in the Batman movies, and thus his character is lost in the shuffle of Batman Returns, which is truly a mess of a movie. The script is by Daniel Waters (who wrote Heathers), and it might have looked good on paper, but on film's it's like a circus that never ends. And the set design doesn't resemble the first Batman, further distancing the two films. Director Tim Burton's style is evident here too: this may be the movie that officially pushed him in that uber-Burton direction which would eventually be a road to careericide with pictures like Dark Shadows.

With Michael Gough, Michael Murphy, Pat Hingle, Andrew Bryniarski, and Jan Hooks. ½

June 15, 2013


Saved! (2004) is quite a treat. It manages to make fun of the shallow hypocrisy of some fundamentalist Christians without dehumanizing them. The story involves a devoutly religious high schooler (she even attends a private Christian school) named Mary Cummings (Jena Malone), who is greatly troubled when her boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust) tells her he's gay.

Mary decides it is her spiritual mission to save Dean and drive out his homosexuality, so she sleeps with him. Soon after, Dean's secret is discovered by his parents and he's sent off to a Christian recovery center called Mercy House. Then Mary finds out she's pregnant. Will she get help from her mom (Mary Louise-Parker), who's fighting an attraction to their unhappily married minister (Martin Donovan)? Or from her best friend, a super-Christian named Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore)? No, instead she finds it in the Jewish outcast who was forced to attend their school (Eva Amurri, a wonderfully irreverent sprite with a real flair for comedy) and the brother of the super-Christian (Macaulay Culkin), who was paralyzed after a fall and whose handicap is a kind of cross for his sanctimonious sister to bear.

It's incredibly hard to make a movie that is both honest and satirical about evangelical Christian culture but somehow not mean-spirited. Amidst all the bizarre and sometimes unthinkable behavior of the Christians (which was frighteningly accurate in some cases, coming from someone raised in that culture), there was redemption, particularly between Mary and her mom, who is forced to reconsider some of her beliefs about people and relationships when things like teen pregnancy hit close to home. And there was something beautiful in the way Mary grows closer to people she had initially written off as "less-than" because of their perceived lack of faith. They were the ones who loved her the best when her own failings became unavoidably public.

While Saved! sometimes feels contrived at times--it is still a pretty traditional teen comedy in some ways, resorting to many of the familiar plot devices (such as setting its big showdown at the prom, and featuring a whole teen pregnancy story line in the first place)--it's a deliciously fun movie, and the fresh young cast transcends the more obvious parts of the script. Even Macaulay Culkin is likable. He gives a confident, almost laid-back performance. Directed by Brian Dannelly, who co-wrote the screenplay with Michael Urban. With Patrick Fugit (as Mary's love interest), and Heather Matarazzo (who plays the girl everyone ignores). 92 min.

June 14, 2013

The Return of the Living Dead Part II

This sequel to Dan O'Bannon's 1985 film The Return of the Living Dead (which was in itself a darkly comic indirect sequel to George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead) is a bit too obviously jokey. Writer-director Ken Wiederhorn tries to have fun with the shambling, brain-eating zombies (who are revived by a chemical called 245 Trioxin and have an insatiable hunger for brains), but his idea of comedy is pretty infantile: zombies getting their heads stepped on by other zombies as they emerge from their graves, a decapitated head cracking jokes in an inane voice, a severed hand that is tossed around like a hot potato. (It throws us the finger in a close-up shot.) Not exactly subtle. And many of the characters spend the entire film screaming at the top of their lungs and repeating words multiple times. This is another sign of a feeble attempt to be clever and funny.

What's worse is the offensively inept music score, which was replaced by a better, more competent one in theaters (and on VHS), but for some reason was retained for the DVD. It's a cheesy, poorly synthesized score that makes the movie feel like The Muppets Living Dead, only it's not as clever as the Muppets. (You can access the better music score on the DVD if you switch to the French audio. So all the French speaking ROTLD 2 fans really lucked out.)

The cast includes two from the original, James Karen and Thom Matthews, sort of reprising their roles. But the magic is gone. With Dana Ashbrook, Suzanne Snyder, Marsha Dietlein, Michael Kenworthy, and Philip Bruns. 89 mins. 1988.

June 13, 2013

True Confessions

True Confessions (1981) is a story about rot and how it taints institutions like the Church. It's also loosely based on the grisly Black Dahlia murder case. The film is set in Los Angeles in 1948, and the focus is on two brothers: one a priest (Robert De Niro) who schmoozes with wealthy laymen in order to get funding for church buildings, and the other a hardboiled detective (Robert Duvall), who's a cynic. He's seen the corruption of religious institutions first hand, and it's no different from the corruption of law enforcement or any other supposedly pure organization.

When Duvall's character confronts a big-time construction magnate (Charles Durning) who's been helping out the Church, he unflinchingly mocks the man's moral character, and he gets something of a kick out of doing it. He's overly pleased with calling people out, but then he has a right to be infuriated when the Church celebrates a man who frequents prostitutes. But he's a hypocrite, too. Near the beginning of the film, he does the Church a favor by removing the corpse of a priest who suffered a fatal heart attack while visiting a house of ill fame. It would be a nasty scandal for the Catholic Church and in particular his brother, so he takes care of things for them.

True Confessions, which was based on John Gregory Dunne's 1977 novel and adapted by Dunne and Joan Didion, seems to be reaching for profundity when it exposes the rot with which it is so consumed. But when the police are investigating the brutal murder of a young woman found in a vacant lot (she was cut in half and eviscerated), they treat the murder as though it were a routine, unremarkable event. There's no feeling for her or for the particularly horrifying circumstances of her death.

It's only later that Duvall's character develops a kind of sympathy for the murdered girl, as well as a compulsive desire for justice, which he finds is just as elusive as the mysterious girl herself. It's hard to buy his sudden transition from callousness to compassion, because Duvall's character is a grim, pasty, unfeeling cardboard cutout out of a detective character from the 1940s. He's Humphrey Bogart without the charm and fast-talking wit. He has a sense of humor, to be sure, but he doesn't talk in all the lovely double entendres Bogart did in The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep.

De Niro too seems embalmed in True Confessions, and he appears as though he had no idea of how to play the priest any other way. It's probably a fault of the writing, which vacillates clumsily from murder mystery to morality tale to family drama, never successfully getting across any concrete ideas about any of them. Instead it just pounds us over the head with its one crystallized theme: Rot. By the end of the movie, you certainly feel it spreading, and it makes you wish the whole experience were over sooner. (And, there's a wedding scene near the beginning that has echoes of The Godfather, as though they were trying to make a film about the Catholic Church on that level; it's merely a reminder of how pale a comparison True Confessions is.)

Directed by Ulu Grosbard. With Ed Flanders, Burgess Meredith, Kenneth McMillan, Cyril Cusack, Dan Hedaya, Jeanette Nolan, and Rose Gregario. 108 mins.

June 12, 2013

Quiz Show

Robert Redford's Quiz Show (1994) covers a scandal involving game show contestants who were given answers ahead of time. It's set in the late 1950s, with Rob Morrow as a hotshot Congressional lawyer who begins to suspect that the producers of a show called Twenty-One have been rigging the game for years. Then one of the contestants starts speaking up about being forced into giving a wrong answer to make way for the next big contestant, Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), a promising young intellectual with an impressive literary pedigree: His father is the writer and distinguished Columbia professor Mark Van Doren.

The trouble with Quiz Show is that it never captures your interest. Redford's direction is so carefully calculated in every single second that the film seems blandly important, as though we ought to be riled up by the film's subject matter--the encroaching power that advertisers have over us through television, and the ways that they maneuver supposedly authentic "reality" television shows to keep the audience glued to the screen. These are fascinating ideas in real life, and they're truly infuriating, but this movie fails to ignite them. That's also partly because the characters are so dull. Fiennes doesn't exactly impress as the young literary type: his character has had everything handed to him, so it's hard to feel much sympathy for him.

There is an admittedly powerful scene near the end when Charles Van Doren reads an apology before the Congress, and a politician tells him he shouldn't expect praise for simply telling the truth for once: the crowd erupts in applause, and Charles looks like he's been squashed. It's an effective moment.

Rob Morrow is a charming actor, but his Boston accent is a bit muddy here, and he's not given enough real drive. Everything about his motivation to initiate the investigation into the quiz show scandals seems  too banal: he's just trying to avoid working on Wall Street, so he digs around and looks for trouble, and when he's lucky, he finds it. The film doesn't allow him to show off his naturally funny personality: he looks like an amiable frat boy, and that playful side is squelched by such a serious role. (Although even here he's always smiling; it just comes off as arrogance.)

There is one good idea in all of this: that in the end, television is too powerful, and already too deeply ingrained in our culture, to be defeated by the government or any other entity. The real bad guys--the advertisers who prey on our gullability and our needs--can't be stopped. Middle men take the fall and the scandals are forgotten to be repeated again other day. And maybe then nobody will even mind. That's a cynical outlook, but it rings true, and it's the most authentic and believable idea in Quiz Show.

Written by Paul Attanasio. Starring John Turturro, who plays the first contestant, and who's mocked for being Jewish but displays all the grating stereotypes about Jewish people, as though the movie wanted to have it both ways: he's condemned for being Jewish, but he's genuinely annoying; with David Paymer, Paul Scofield, Hank Azaria, Christopher McDonald, Elizabeth Wilson, Johann Carlo, and Mira Sorvino. Produced by Redford. 133 minutes.

Used Cars

It's a comedy about rival used car dealerships somewhere in the Southwest, run by constantly fighting twin brothers (both played by Jack Warden). Used Cars (1980) has some clever ideas in it, but as a comedy goes, it's lazy. The funny scenes are never particularly focused, and they don't develop the movie. It's episodic and haphazardly conceived, and then there's a race-against-time kind of finale tacked on at the end to try and maneuver the audience to root for the characters--and the movie--when both have just fumbled through the motions for nearly two hours. That's one of the biggest problems for this movie: it has a breezy style that seems contradictory to its ugly production values and its cynical sense of humor. (This is, after all, a comic exhibition of the worst of consumer culture: the junkyard.) I think it's an intelligent movie, but one that hardly deserves to be called a comedy. The comic scenes are never as funny as they are intended to be, and when the movie goes for cheap laughs (such as a car model's clothes being ripped off during a commercial that's preempting a football game), you feel like you're being played down to a little bit.

Kurt Russell is believable as one of the used car dealers, who's always trying to lure unsuspecting customers across the street and away from his competitor. In one scene, he fastens a ten-dollar bill to the end of a fishing line and casts his net across the street. The ending is somewhat enjoyable, but it comes too late, after the movie has gone on too long, and the characters never quite gel. It's almost as if the writers--director Robert Zemeckis and producer Bob Gale--were too familiar with them to bother to flesh them out for us. With Gerrit Graham and Frank McRae as Russell's assistants (who were my favorite characters in the movie), Deborah Harmon, Joe Flaherty, David Lander, Michael McKean, Michael Talbot, Al Lewis (who is very amusing as a judge), and Dub Taylor. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg. 113 mins. ½

June 11, 2013


Like Superman, Batman (1989) suffers a little because its villain is more dynamic than its hero. But director Tim Burton masterfully builds up the atmosphere in this imaginative and smashing piece of entertainment. Burton's Batman represents a sort of happy medium for me: it's not as campy as the 1966 Adam West film, and it's not as humorless as Christopher Nolan's Batman films. It's got both the camp and the seriousness in proportion.

Michael Keaton plays Bruce Wayne/Batman, and it's interesting to see such reserve from the actor who played Beetle Juice in Burton's previous film. Keaton seems to represent both ends of the spectrum with these two performances. As Beetle Juice, he was zany and utterly off-kilter (yet controlled). As Batman, he's perhaps a bit underwhelming. But he gives Bruce Wayne a certain amused quality when he interacts with journalists and police, as if he's having a good joke--not so much at their expense as without their knowing about it.

Jack Nicholson might be too easily praised for his work in Batman. We all know he's good at playing a psychopath, and in particular he plays characters who go insane but were never believably sane to begin with (e.g. The Shining). Still, it's hard not to be pleased with his performance as the gleefully maniacal Joker. He gets almost all of the funny lines in the script (by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren), and he gets the flashiest clothes. He's at his best when he's doing a clownish little dance as he shoots crime boss Jack Palance (for revenge), or when he makes some ridiculous joke and you can see his own face register the fun he's having.

Kim Basinger plays Vicki Vale. She's not a particularly strong actress, but viewing the film this time around, I was struck by the fact that her weakest moments occur when she has a crummy piece of dialogue to deliver, such as "I just have to know if we're gonna try to love each other." I don't think anyone shy of Bette Davis could make much out of that kind of writing, so it's not fair to blame Basinger entirely. With Michael Gough as Alfred, Tracey Walter, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, and Jerry Hall. The vibrant, memorable score was composed by Danny Elfman. 126 min.

June 09, 2013

The Dead Zone

Rarely do horror movies allow for such an affecting character to come to life as in The Dead Zone (1983), which was directed by David Cronenberg and scripted by Jeffrey Boam, who adapted Stephen King's novel. The movie itself is an episodic tale of an English teacher named Johnny Smith whose near fatal car crash leaves him in a coma for five years. When Johnny finally awakens, he's a changed man, blessed (or cursed) with the ability to see people's fates by the slightest physical contact.

Johnny is played by Christopher Walken, and he's already sort of grim looking before the accident: he reads Poe to his students and you can tell he's far more interested than they are, and then he sends them off with a reading assignment: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Johnny is a sort of modern-day Ichabod Crane. Walken is a tall, memorably distant looking actor. He's always sort of brooding but with a mixture of hopefulness in his vision. He turns this film, which might otherwise have been a somewhat calculated and commercial thriller (particularly for Cronenberg: this is his most mainstream movie that I've seen), into a powerful vehicle for his acting out the teacher's haunted existence. He saves lives but becomes something of a parlor trick, and he wrestles with God, especially when his fiance (Brooke Adams) abandons him and marries someone else during the five-year-coma.

The most interesting story thread--and the one that closes out the movie--involves Charlie Sheen as a smug politician who we understand will one day become a nuke-happy dictator unless Johnny acts quickly. Thus the movie gets to ponder the implications of interfering with human history: Johnny asks his doctor, Would you go back in time and kill Hitler if you could?

The movie is hampered by its humorlessness. It's grim throughout, and the surroundings--New England in Winter (although the film was shot in Cronenberg's native Ontario)--don't help. But it's an effective thriller, punctuated by a series of well-made sequences featuring Johnny's skills (including one where he assists the chief of police in the investigation of a serial killer).

With Tom Skerrit, Herbert Lom, Anthony Zerbe, Colleen Dewhurst, Nicholas Campbell, Sean Sullivan, and Jackie Burroughs. 103 min.

June 08, 2013


Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn work so well together that it's a wonder they didn't make a movie sooner than they did. Housesitter (1992) is yet another modern Hollywood attempt at channeling 1930s screwball comedies. The only trouble is that it's too carefully plotted to truly resemble the kind of fast, improvisational, fluid comedy to which it's paying tribute. However, Housesitter is a fun romp, bolstered by the performances and the chemistry of the two leads.

Steve Martin plays Davis, a struggling architect whose girlfriend dumps him after he proposes to her in front of the house he designed just for her. The house is in the quaint Massachusetts town Davis grew up in, but he works in Boston. Back in the city, he meets a colorful waitress named Gwen (Hawn) and in a weak moment--after telling her the whole story--has a one-night stand with her. Then she moves into the house and pretends to be his wife, winning over the whole town (including his parents) with her elaborate deception. In fact, Gwen turns out to be an expert storyteller: you never know when she's telling the truth.

This is Goldie's movie: she's always been such an engaging and appealing flake, and here she's balanced in her flakiness by Martin, who's grounded but reveals his own inner-flake at certain moments. The development of their relationship (which is admittedly predictable) is too much fun to dismiss the movie for its conventional plotting.

Dana Delaney co-stars as Becky, Martin's former girlfriend, whose love for her ex is re-awakened by Gwen and all her stories. With Julie Harris and Donald Moffat as Martin's parents, Peter MacNicol as Martin's colleague at the architectural firm, Richard B. Shull, and Lauren Cronin. Written by Mark Stein. Directed by Frank Oz. 101 min. ½


Vertigo (1958) may be Alfred Hitchcock's most beautiful film, but it's also his most overrated. I don't mean to suggest that it's a crummy movie. It is well-made and absorbing to a point, but not the perfect masterpiece that everyone says it is. It's an imperfect gem, lacking the humor that makes some of Hitchcock's best, most entertaining films (such as Strangers on a Train and Rear Window) so good. Vertigo operates like a voyeur's idea of Freudian psychology: a man (James Stewart) becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman (played by Kim Novak) and when she dies, he becomes obsessed with a girl who looks a lot like her, to the point that when he actually develops a relationship with this new girl, he forces her to change her hair and wardrobe to get the look down perfectly. If anyone ever needed a movie to refer to for ways not to treat a girl in a romantic relationship, it's Vertigo.

Set in San Francisco, it's a tale of obsession that feels obsessive. The colors and the sensual music by Bernard Herrmann (a fantastic score, to be sure) are all hypnotic, and the film has some kind of an enchanting spell to it. But it lumbers on and on like an elongated episode of The Twilight Zone in which the befuddled hero, Scotty Ferguson, is the character whom nobody understands: the alienated figure. Scotty is a private detective, but ever since he nearly fell to his death from a very tall building (he was chasing a criminal, and another cop did fall to his death), Scotty has been unable to deal with heights.

Maybe there's something too unsettling for me about Jimmy Stewart playing such an obsessive person. He's downright creepy, and this from Hollywood's favorite "Everyman." Hitchcock should have gotten someone more heelish to play the part, like William Holden or Tony Curtis. Only then he might have lost the sympathy of the audience, because those would have been actors easy enough to dislike--in a "love to hate them" kind of way. They're both handsome and charming in ways Stewart never was, but they didn't conjure up that Americana image the way Stewart did. (Personally, I'm fine with this, but I can see why Stewart got the part.) Ironically, the picture was a failure at the box office initially, so the casting didn't seem to make much of a difference in terms of box office.

Nevertheless, Vertigo is the one the critics love to theorize all over, to the point of redundancy. People see a movie like Vertigo and like to read all kinds of things into it: it's the most personal film by "the Master," they say in hushed tones. Hitchcock's perversely dark pleasures are certainly showcased here, but the sense of humor that marked other films--North By Northwest, The Lady Vanishes, The Trouble With Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 version), etc--is missing. It's a deadly serious affair, and it stays with you, haunting you, for days afterward. It's sort of a shame that this is the one people put at the top of the list, because it tends to negate one of the chief qualities people love about a Hitchcock film: his ability to entertain us by showing us a good time. Here we're morbidly curious--fascinated even--in a dirty, disgraceful sort of way. And we become the corrupted voyeurs along with Scotty. But it's not like in Rear Window, where we were part of his team. Instead we're like amateur psychologists, pretending to diagnose him with some kind of Freudian-sounding neurosis. Nevertheless, Vertigo is compelling in its own morose way, like being unable to look away from a traffic accident.

With Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore, Henry Jones, and Ellen Corby. Written by Alec Coppel and Samuel L. Taylor from the French novel D'entre les morts ("From Among the Dead"). 128 min. ½

June 07, 2013

Victor Victoria

"A woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman?" Julie Andrews asks Robert Preston in Victor Victoria (1982), a gender-bending musical comedy--set in Paris in 1934--from director Blake Edwards that desperately wants to be "with it." The trouble is, Julie Andrews is far too wholesome to ever convince as a woman posing as a man-turned-female impersonator. When she auditions for a gig at the beginning of the movie--as a woman, doing opera--she's turned away after being told she's not naughty enough. If ever a movie contained a self-fulfilling prophesy, this is it.

Of course, it has some things going for it: there are laughs, some of them slapstick numbers that may be yet another sign of the director's desperation: in case you're not held by the film's plot and its faux gaudiness, you might be amused by people bashing each other over the head with blunt objects. There is one marvelous number, "Le Jazz Hot," which features Julie's voice well. And there's Robert Preston, her gay assistant who hatches the female impersonator idea in the first place. He's energetic where everyone else seems exhausted.

James Garner plays the love interest, a very masculine night club owner from Chicago who's scoping out the Paris nightclub acts with the hope of finding one that will sell. He falls for Julie during the act, before realizing she's a man (allegedly), and then spends the rest of the film feeling uptight about his masculinity. He's not particularly believable as either a night club owner who attends risque shows or a love interest for Julie Andrews.

There are some preachy values at work in Victor Victoria that make the film rather complacent. After Julie seduces James, she gives him lectures on women's lib and gender roles that feel too self-proud. Are we supposed to reward the movie for being a champion of civil liberties? (Then again, there were quite a few "message" comedies from the late 70s and early 80s that decided at some point to look straight into the camera and preach, and most of them were nominated for Academy Awards.)

Garner's girlfriend, a ditzy blonde with a shrill voice (she reminds you of Jean Hagen from Singin' in the Rain), is played by Lesley Ann Warren. With Alex Karras, John Rhys-Davies, and Malcolm Jamieson. 133 min.


In Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend (1967), a bickering, unhappy husband and wife embark on a nightmarish ride in the country, ostensibly to visit her dying father and hopefully secure their place in his will. They are delayed by a series of strange, even horrifying, incidents, including a very long traffic jam. Godard is full of ideas about the class struggle, the vapid, vain problems of the bourgeois French (and the bourgeois everybody, really), and consumer culture. But he's preachy about it: his characters go on tirades about various problems including Western imperialism in Africa (actually that was the most interesting part of the movie because of the ideas, not because of how they were being depicted). It took me three days to finish the damn thing because it's such a colossal bore. Perhaps I'm not sophisticated enough to appreciate this kind of arty film, but I found myself yearning for a compelling story and resentful of all the symbolism. Godard is often praised by critics, and indeed I could find very few negative words about Weekend. 105 min.

June 06, 2013

Vicky Christina Barcelona

Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008) is flirtatious and enchanting fun about two best friends whose extended stay in Barcelona one summer has unexpected effects on both of them, and all because they meet a charming, suave painter, a sort of modern-day Casanova, played by Javier Bardem, who invites them to spend the weekend with him. Fun-loving and curious Christina (Scarlet Johansson) is intrigued and immediately receptive, while cautious, level-headed (and engaged) Vicky (Rebecca Hall) balks at Bardem's outright proposition.

Of all Woody Allen's recent movies, this one--along with Scoop--is the most entertaining. Allen is currently on a quest to capture all the romantic European cities. With Barcelona, there isn't so much of an expectation--as there was with Paris in Midnight in Paris. This is breezy, undemanding entertainment that is clever and unpredictable enough to feel fresh and playful.

Penelope Cruz plays Bardem's ex-wife, a dramatic, neurotic painter who allegedly tried to kill him during one of their famously intense fights. When she enters the picture, things get even more complicated. Allen presents Barcelona as a kind of drink, and its effects on the two unsuspecting American girls are like the effects of alcohol, intoxicating the senses, making them falter in their once sure-footed plans for the future, and filling them with a new-found appreciation for the unpredictable. With Patricia Clarkson, Chris Messina, and Kevin Dunn. Narrated by Christopher Evan Welch. 97 min.

June 05, 2013

St. Elmo's Fire

Bad. Really bad. The writing--by director Joel Schumacher and Carl Kurlander--is utterly preposterous. It's about the fear of encroaching adulthood that upsets the relationships of seven tight-knit college friends. Some of them self-destruct so ridiculously and so unexpectedly (such as Emilio Estevez, who becomes obsessed with a girl he dated once and starts stalking her) that all you can do is laugh, while others are too obviously predetermined to some kind of tragic separate peace. For example: Demi Moore, playing the vapid, cocaine-addicted party girl who's buying everything on credit and sleeping with her married boss. These people stab each other in the back with relish and laugh it off as they slide the knife back out. It's hard to care about characters who are so obviously the concoction of a slick Hollywood marketing campaign, complete with a sentimental music score that forces the audience to feel sympathetic toward them. With Rob Lowe as the alcoholic rock star/party animal who always seems to be carrying his saxophone around, Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy as the not-so-happy co-habitating couple, Andrew McCarthy as the pensive, cynical writer who's in love with Sheedy, Mare Winningham as the frumpy friend who loves Rob Lowe too much, Martin Balsam, and Andie McDowell as Emilio's obsession, who delivers perhaps the worst performance of the movie. (Her character strikes a heavy blow toward women's lib: when the stalker crashes a party she's at, she takes him home to talk things out!) David Foster composed the sappy music, which you've probably heard on the radio before. 110 min. 1985. ½

The Untouchables

After seeing The Untouchables (1987), I finally understand that joke in The Naked Gun 33 1/3, where Leslie Nielson imagines himself fending off gangsters on the stairs of the train station while a baby rolls down the steps in a carriage, its mother screaming in panic. It was lifted right from The Untouchables, and it was impossible for me to keep a straight face during that long, drawn-out scene, with the Nielson movie playing in my head. We actually see the mother mouthing the words, "My baby!" in slow motion. And let's not forget that it takes an excruciating three to four minutes of watching her struggle to get the damn carriage up the stairs before Elliott Ness begrudgingly offers her assistance, knowing that any minute the bad guys will come through the doors of the station and he'll be at a disadvantage helping this woman out.

That pretty much sums up The Untouchables: it's a drama queen of a movie, full of director Brian De Palma's tendencies toward hyperbole, and brought to a fever pitch by Ennio Morricone's score, which turns every scene into a touchdown set to an anthem. At times, the music takes on a very 80s-sounding beat via drum machine and you have to wonder how that made it to the final print.

Brian De Palma obviously tried to imbue every scene with the weight of the "I could have been a contender" speech from On the Waterfront. But then again, De Palma has never tried to hide his lack of subtlety, and sometimes, his gaudy directing works well, as it does in much of this movie, in spite of itself. It's a wonder that, as much as this movie desperately wants to be great, it manages to be quite watchable and emotionally affecting.

Yes, The Untouchables is a grandly entertaining movie, even when it's ridiculous. Seeing it reinforced for me both the greatness of The Godfather and the inferiority of the more recent Gangster Squad. I was grateful that Untouchables falls somewhere in between, leaning towards greatness but not quite getting there. It's helped along by the wonderful performance of Sean Connery as Malone, an aging beat cop who becomes the mentor of Elliott Ness. Connery won a much-deserved Oscar for his performance. Even Kevin Costner's performance works. He's a dull actor, but in this kind of role, as the determined Ness, a staunch upholder of the law fighting the bootlegging industry, his banality works better than you might think. The movie would have faltered with a more dynamic actor (say, a Michael Keaton, perhaps) in the role. And Costner's not even as banal as he usually is, perhaps because he's surrounded by a number of vibrant performers, including Connery and Robert De Niro as Capone.

With Andy Garcia and Charles Martin Smith as the other members of Ness's four-man team, Patricia Clarkson, Billy Drago (who's exceedingly creepy as Frank Nitti), Richard Bradford, Jack Kehoe, Brad Sullivan, Steven Goldstein, and Clifton James. Written by David Mamet.

June 04, 2013

Now You See Me

In Now You See Me, four magicians have crafted a masterful bank-robbing caper that keeps the FBI (represented here by an agent named Dylan Rhodes, who's played by Mark Ruffalo) on its toes. It's certainly an impressively grandiose film, with an enormous cast: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco are the magicians; Melanie Laurent plays a French Interpol agent; Michael Caine plays an investor who's backing the magicians; and Morgan Freeman plays an ex-magician who's been making a new career revealing the secrets behind the magic tricks.

It's an entertaining movie, to be sure. The tricks are dazzling and the story holds you, sometimes even mesmerizes you, and it's funny. The problem is that ultimately it's another caper film, mixed with the plot of an NCIS or Law and Order episode writ large for the big screen. Nothing here is particularly new or innovative, except for the excessive cleverness of the tricks themselves, but it's hard to be impressed by anything in movies anymore when most of the stunts and other feats are performed by a computer.

That leaves us with the talented cast and the undernourished characters: the four magicians are reduced to stock treatment, which means we get Jesse Eisenberg's usual schtick: he speaks too fast and exhibits that same untempered arrogance he had when he played Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. Woody Harrelson never plays anyone but himself, but at least he's likable: the dumb-on-the-outside but sharp-on-the-inside cowboy. Only Ruffalo and Laurent, whose relationship develops the more they're thrown together by the investigation, have much room to grow, and the writers--Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Riccourt--tend to cliches, such as a budding but suppressed romance.

Louis Leterrier's direction is sure-footed enough though. He's intent on showing us a good time, and for the most part he succeeds. Watching Now You See Me is like watching really entertaining trash on TV: no one is likely to remember it a year from now, but it's a welcome diversion from all the other summer fodder, which involve superheroes and the like. 115 min.

Superman II

Three criminals sentenced to eternal imprisonment by Jorel (Superman's real father) are inadvertently released from their confinement. They eventually make their way to Earth, where they have the same powers as Superman (Christopher Reeve). Superman II (1980) isn't as exciting or as fun as its predecessor, but the villains are entertaining, particularly Sarah Douglas as Ursa, who of the three bad guys is the most amused by her new-found strength. As General Zod, Terence Stamp looks a bit too ridiculous in that costume with the black, shiny boots and the V-neck, like he just walked out of an altogether different kind of movie. Gene Hackman gives the film some levity as Lex Luthor, although without his bumbling assistant Otis (Ned Beatty, who has little more than a cameo), he doesn't have anyone to make fun of. The director, Richard Lester, is constantly thinking of ways to make light of the situation, but the humor doesn't lift the film out of its funk for long. The film suffers from being too heavy-handed at times. And it's hard to believe anyone could beat Christopher Reeve up, as tall and large as he is, even after he briefly gives up his Superman powers to be with Lois Lane. Still, there are some entertaining scenes, such as Clark Kent trying to rescue Lois at Niagara Falls, and the three villains turning Metropolis (a.k.a. New York City) into a playground for their own amusement. With Margot Kidder, Jackie Cooper, Susannah York, Jack O'Halloran, Marc McClure, E.G. Marshall as the President, and Valerie Perrine. 127 min. ½

The Queen

Helen Mirren acts with a lot of restraint and good judgment as Queen Elizabeth II, whose refusal to react publicly to the death of Princess Diana in 1997 caused a public outcry. The Queen (2006) is an intriguing little political drama, particularly because it manages to be both critical and sympathetic toward the Queen, whose decision not to make any kind of public statement about Diana's death is based in her belief that part of the job of being Queen is maintaining oneself publicly. Only after the persistent encouragement of the newly elected Prime Minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), does she finally relent, conceding to the overwhelming evidence that the world has changed, and the world she knows and operates in no longer exists.

The script by Peter Morgan manages to avoid cheap sentiment, and director Stephen Frears doesn't cave in either: the tabloid aspects of this story (Princess Diana herself being the chief one) are not played up. Rather, this film is interested in looking at the political life of a country that has one foot in the past and one in the future: a monarch performing a lot of ceremonial duties (such as offering a formal invitation to the Prime Minister, which seals his election) that mean something, but not much. The old institutions are suspect to the new generation that would rather have a Queen relate to them on a kind of gooey, feel-good emotional level. Essentially, they want an Oprah, not a queen. You end up sympathizing with Elizabeth more and more.

With James Cromwell as Prince Phillip, Helen McCroy as Cherie Blair, Alex Jennings as Prince Charles, Sylvia Syms as the Queen Mother, Tim McMullan, Mark Bazeley (who offers up an enjoyably wry performance as Blair's strategic assistant). The film uses real news footage more adeptly than you might think, and manages to create a vivid sense of realism without sensationalizing a story that was (and still is) sensationalized in real life. 103 min.

June 02, 2013


Generally, comic book movies are insufferable. Superman (1978) is an exception. Despite its bad special effects, which were dated even in 1978, and its cornball, rah-rah-America attitude, Superman works. It's enormous fun. You never take Superman too seriously, even when he proclaims his motto about fighting for "truth, justice, and the American way." Christopher Reeve plays him just a little tongue-in-cheek: he doesn't enshrine his character with self-importance. And it's hard to find a more entertaining villain than Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, who may be evil but at least manages to be funny and colorful at the same time, especially when he's insulting his flunky, Otis (Ned Beatty), a delightfully bumbling underling, or condescending to his bosomy assistant Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine). Hackman looks like he's having a ball as the criminal mastermind, and his digs are quite impressive: he lives under the subway in some kind of subterranean palatial apartment. Luthor is buying up a bunch of worthless desert land along the San Adreas fault, and once he causes a massive earthquake that knocks the good half of California into the ocean, his crummy real estate will be worth a fortune.

Of course the whole Superman idea is a bit corny: He's the nearly-perfect superhero, not complicated by internal struggles or morality the way Batman or other superheroes are. The original Superman comic book (created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) debuted during the Depression when it was conceivable that kids needed a role model who was impervious to everything, including hunger pangs and the moral corruption that tends to accompany extreme poverty and want. In the 1970s, the appeal of Superman was to moral corruption and decay at a higher level: A post-Vietnam and post-Watergate America must have seemed like fertile enough ground in which to plant this superhuman boy scout with a red cape and goofy tights. The writers of Superman (there were quite a few of them: Mario Puzo of The Godfather, David and Leslie Newman, Robert Benton, and Tom Mankiewicz) must have sensed that they needed their superhero to be mildly funny and self-aware to balance the goody-goody image. And yet Superman is never self-effacing. In that way, the movie gives us a good time without being ashamed of itself.

With Marlon Brando as Superman's father, Jorel, the stoic intellectual of the planet Krypton, who foresees his people's imminent doom and sends his infant son off to earth in a weird little vessel with pointy crystals protruding from every which way; Margot Kidder as plucky Lois Lane, the reporter who works for the Daily Planet and steals Superman's heart; Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter as Superman's earth parents; Jackie Cooper as the editor of the Planet; Marc McClure as Jimmy, photographer for the Planet; Jeff East as the teenage Clark Kent/Superman; Susannah York as Superman's real mother; and in small parts that serve as a setup for the sequel, Terrence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, and Jack O'Halloran as three Kryptonian criminals sentenced to eternal imprisonment in a glass, square prism that forever hurdles through space.

Music score by John Williams. Cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth. 154 min. ½ 

Sunset Boulevard

In 1950, there were two films about aging actresses played by aging actresses. There was All About Eve, the deliciously funny picture about Broadway star Margo Channing (Bette Davis), whose career is threatened by a malicious young fan. And then there was Sunset Boulevard, about a star of the silent age named Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), now living in seclusion in her crumbling mansion on the titular street.

The story is narrated by William Holden, who plays Joe, a struggling writer who turns into Norma's long, secluded drive one afternoon when he's trying to evade the men who are about to repossess his car. He parks in the large, multi-car garage--thinking the house to be abandoned--and then walks around. Soon he's pulled into Norma's bizarre and lonely world. She has one man, Max (Erich von Stroheim), who takes care of her as if she were his daughter. She lives enshrined in the past, before sound ruined her career. There are photographs of her cluttering every room, and she has her own movie screen and projector so she can sit back and relive the past.

Sunset Boulevard is a sharp dark comedy: it's a dead-on look at the rotting capabilities of fame and the delusions of people who try to prolong their youth and popularity. The film is a bit poky in the middle, but it certainly retains its morbid fascination, even sixty-some years later. It's like staring at tabloids in the supermarket: you can't look away.

Directed by Billy Wilder. With Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Lloyd Gough, and Jack Webb. Several well-known Hollywood personalities appear as themselves, including Cecil B. DeMille and Hedda Hopper. Written by the director, Charles Brackett, and D. M. Marshman, Jr. Cinematography by John F. Seitz. Music by Franz Waxman. 110 min. ½

June 01, 2013

The Graduate

The ending of The Graduate (1967) is worth sitting through the whole rest of the movie, which is alternately amusing and unpleasant.

Dustin Hoffman plays the main character, Ben Braddock, a recent college graduate who is propositioned by the wife of his dad's business partner. Her name is Mrs. Robinson, and she wears fur coats and leopard printed dresses and has a streak of white in her brown hair: it's not exactly a subtle comparison that the scriptwriters--Calder Willingham and Buck Henry--are making: she's a tiger stalking her prey. Thankfully, Anne Bancroft plays her with delicious cunning and restraint. She utters every word as though she'd just as well not speak at all, and she exercises almost pathological patience with Ben as she leads him into bed without letting him realize it. He's an awkward, oblivious young man who's worried about his future, and by the time the trap has been laid he's too caught up in it to get himself out.

I first saw The Graduate when I was about thirteen, and I was too young to really grasp the impact that this film had: it was part of the counter-culture, simultaneously inscribed by it and inscribing it, and a member of a small club of popular films from the 1960s that represented a sort of cinematic and cultural revolution. Others include Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, and Midnight Cowboy. The Graduate, with its Simon and Garfunkel music throughout and its self-aware hipness, is a kind of a comic critique of American values: Ben, the privileged upper-middle-class college boy has had everything handed to him, and now at 21 he feels completely at a loss about what to do with the rest of his life. Mrs. Robinson, who years ago was forced into an unhappy marriage because she was pregnant, is an alcoholic and obviously isn't getting any satisfaction from her husband. (They have separate rooms and live amongst each other rather than together.)

In one scene, Ben is forced to show off the scuba diving suit his father bought him, and once he's submerged in the swimming pool, he just lays at the bottom, weightless but feeling smothered by the expectations of his parents and their friends. For most of the movie, the message is: ignore the established values. They are lies and they lead to unhappiness. Break the rules.

But when Ben meets Mrs. Robinson's charming daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross), who's on break from Berkeley, he falls for her, which knocks the jealous, conniving mother out of the loop. Apparently love trumps lust, and suddenly The Graduate turns into a more traditional kind of love story. When Mrs. Robinson threatens to tell her daughter about the affair with Ben, Ben beats her to the punch, hoping that his directness will prevent a breakup. But Elaine is furious and heartbroken, and she heads back to college in disgust with Ben. Now he must win her back, and that's when we get to the finale. [SPOILERS] It's such a famous scene: Ben pounding on the glass of the window overlooking the sanctuary, all the wedding guests staring at this raving madman in stunned silence, Elaine looking conflicted but flattered that someone would come for her in such a grandiose style: She's trying to decide whether to stay with the man she's just married or run off with Ben. When she finally does run off with him, the movie once again takes up its counter-culture cross, almost literally: Ben brandishes a big gold cross, fending off the angry wedding party, and then shoves it into the door handles to lock everyone inside the church.

As Ben and Elaine flea the church and hail a bus, we're left with the looks on their faces: It's almost an "I've made a big mistake" moment (ala Arrested Development), except their expressions are more vacant than that: the elation of breaking the rules is already wearing off, and suddenly they're left with real life and all its questions and monotonies. Whether you follow the rules of society or not, sooner or later, the familiar will get you: the dangerous routine will impinge the happy couple.

The Graduate holds up fairly well, but it always leaves me feeling depressed, perhaps because one of the aching truths it wrestles with is that horrible feeling of sinking into a routine, which is so frightening for some and so comforting for others. Or perhaps it's just my puritan upbringing rearing its ugly head. Directed by Mike Nichols. With William Daniels, Murray Hamilton, and Elizabeth Wilson.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Is Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which has been hailed as some kind of cosmic masterpiece, really one of the biggest snow jobs in movie history?

The first forty-five minutes of Close Encounters work really well at establishing a sense of mystery, even foreboding, using very ordinary, grounded effects: shaking household objects, Richard Dreyfuss's car sputtering and rattling as a spacecraft approaches--the meters on all his gauges going haywire and loose objects flying out of the glove compartment and off the dashboard. Director Steven Spielberg also manages to achieve a kind of impressive realism in the events that take place: the air traffic controllers trying to register an unidentified vessel, carrying on multiple conversations at the same time as they interpret their green computer screens; the cozy clapboard house in Muncie, Indiana that rattles in the wake of the spacecraft; a child's bedroom with the wind-up toys and the record-player all abuzz, shattering the silence and waking a three-year-old boy (these images felt like precursors to Poltergeist, which Spielberg produced) and calling the curious youngster out of the house, his bewildered mother (Melinda Dillon) following after him.

But then, as Richard Dreyfuss's character becomes increasingly more obsessed with his close encounter, the movie becomes tiresome and our trust in the direction of the story falters. I think it was the scene where Dreyfuss pulls the shrubs out of the yard--by the root--and throws them into the kitchen through an open window, that pulled me out of the movie. I'm not a fan of Richard Dreyfuss to begin with: he's too much the stereotypical egghead, miscast as an everyman whose repressed wide-eyed eccentricity awakens during his close encounter and alienates his wife (Teri Garr) and three young children.

I can appreciate that Spielberg (who also wrote the screenplay) was grasping at the wondrous with this project. But I was too disinterested by the time we finally got to have a look at the alien beings whose imminent landing teased us for the whole movie. And I kept re-casting the main character, quite convinced that Jeff Bridges, with his rugged mellow Americana qualities, would have serviced this film nicely: he has the necessary "everyman" look down pat, and I can believe Jeff Bridges is a curious eccentric more easily than I can like or enjoy Richard Dreyfuss.

What's more, much of the film centers around Dreyfuss's mini-meltdown. Because he's so obsessed with the spaceship he saw, his wife ends up leaving him with the kids in tow, and it struck me as fairly cynical that the "everyman" should be so monomaniacal. He loses it, and in turn loses the audience along with "it."

On a positive note, the so-called practical effects were refreshing after seeing an endless series of computer-generated effects in current movies. Even The Great Gatsby looked like it was mostly done with computers, and that depresses me greatly. Going back to the 1970s, when big-time effects were done with models and "magic," I'm reminded of the immense value a movie can have when someone actually makes the trick. Even when some of the effects appear dated, they're still believable. The CGI, for all its realistic looks, is not believable.

With Francois Truffaut, Bob Balaban, Josef Sommer, Lance Henriksen, and Roberts Blossom. 137 min.