July 28, 2013

The To Do List

In The To Do List, Aubrey Plaza plays a recent high school graduate named Brandy. She’s the valedictorian, the “nerd”, the girl who knows when to use “whom” and not “who” but has almost no sexual knowledge. After graduation her best friends drag her to a party where she gets drunk and makes out with a ripped guitar-playing college student with stringy blond hair (Scott Porter). But when the night ends in humiliation, Brandy makes a list of every sexual act she can think of and commits to doing each one over the summer. Ever emboldened by a well-thought-out checklist, Brandy embarks on a sexual quest.

The To Do List is a pernicious piece of propaganda designed to re-inflict the horrors of 90s fashion and music on an unsuspecting audience. It’s set in the summer of 1993. My guess is that writer-director Maggie Carey was a teenager in the 90s, so this is her love letter to that bygone era of Sarah MacLachlan, Hillary Clinton, Janine Garofalo, and baggy clothes. (Brandy idolizes the former First Lady, while her conservative father, who’s terrified of discussing sex with his two daughters, reads Rush Limbaugh.)

While there were funny parts in The To Do List, the film’s brazen attempt to be shocking left me feeling slightly disturbed. I felt that my inner-puritan had suddenly and without warning been awakened and mobilized. When it comes to sexual activity, Brandy doesn’t beat around the bush. She goes for what she wants with a kind of scientific rapaciousness: Brandy’s not interested in intimacy. She’s interested in experience. Perhaps because her two friends (played by Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele) are constantly goading her about her chaste existence, Brandy feels left out of the party, like a kind of sexual freak who can’t even kiss a guy correctly.

Aubrey Plaza has this quality that runs throughout her performances in the delightful show Parks and Recreation as well as in her previous movie, Safety Not Guaranteed: she’s the unaffected hipster. Nothing can penetrate the wall she puts up to guard herself from other people. It’s one of the funniest things about her character on Parks, but it’s also the reason she’s not the lead character. In The To Do List, she’s still milking that quality, but the film seems determined to fix it. After an hour-and-a-half of Brandy’s sexual quest, she suddenly decides that sex can be a big deal, but it isn’t always, and shouldn’t have to be. That’s a wonderfully convenient mixed message for youth in 1993 or 2013. With the onset of AIDS a full-blown pandemic in the early 90s, you’d expect perhaps a little more responsibility from a movie so invested in sex.

But, much like the sitcoms of the 90s (Friends and Seinfeld come to mind), this movie lives in a world without AIDS or any other negative consequences from irresponsible sexual activity. (There is a scene where Brandy requests that her latest sexual partner wear a condom so as to avoid AIDS or pregnancy, but it’s delivered in a kind of mock-serious tone that seems disingenuous.) Then Brandy complains that all guys want is sex. This after she has forcefully taken the lead in every one of her sexual encounters over the past few months.

And at the end, when you’re hit over the head with the movie’s ambiguous message, you may feel as manipulated as the dumb guys Brandy’s been using for her “research.” A raunch movie that tries to make some kind of loosey-goosey statement about sex feels like a cop-out both as a raunch movie and as a kind of responsible social commentary.

With  Johnny Simmons as Cameron, the boy who likes Brandy, Bill Hader as the losery guy who runs a public swimming pool, Rachel Bilson as Brandy’s nymphomaniac of a sister, Andy Samberg, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Donald Glover as three of Brandy’s other conquests, and Connie Britton and Clark Gregg as Brandy’s parents. ½

July 25, 2013


Probably the most outre of Italian horror director Dario Argento's body of work. Phenomena (aka Creepers) (1985) has just about everything one could ask for in a schlocky horror movie: a girl (Jennifer Connelly) who has some kind of psychic connection with bugs, a serial killer, a razor blade-wielding monkey, and a kid with a deformed face. Argento revives the old boarding school device (Connelly travels from America to study at a Swiss girls' school where most of the other girls are snooty little shrews who pick on her), but the director remains true to himself by once again avoiding (for the most part) the demands of logic or plot.

While Phenomena is less violent than some of Argento's earlier films (Deep Red comes to mind), it certainly ranks high on the "ick" factor. And after a slow start, the dumb aspects of this rather standard thriller start to actually have an effect on you. The ending--as contrived as it is--is genuinely spooky, with Daria Nicolodi trapping the heroine in a vast Swiss estate with some pretty amazing electric-powered shutters and a pit in the cellar full of skeletons and maggots. (Fun!)

Donald Pleasence appears as a kind-hearted old entomologist who studies bugs on murder victims to determine their time of death. He befriends Connelly and becomes a kind of grandfatherly influence on her. Dalila Di Lazzaro plays the suspicious, bossy headmistress of the school, Patrick Bauchau plays the ineffective inspector, and Federica Mastroianni plays Connelly's roommate. One of the film's greatest weaknesses is that it doesn't establish the school or its students very well. The girls only figure into the movie when Argento needs to show another victim being stalked. Also, I am perplexed by Argento's obsession with pushing his victims through glass. He did it in Deep Red and Suspiria also. Granted, it never ceases to be horrifying, and Argento will never be accused of abandoning previously used techniques. But haven't they suffered enough by then? 110 min. ½

July 23, 2013

The Conjuring

"There's a case in Long Island they want us to check out," says Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) to his wife, Lorraine (Vera Farmiga). Those in the know will recognize this as a reference to the horrific Amityville case. It's 1971, and the Warrens are paranormal investigators and demonologists who have spent a harrowing few weeks trying to exorcise the infested Rhode Island house of the Perron family (headed by Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor, the parents of five girls.) But there's a little historical inaccuracy here: As far as I know, the supposed hauntings of the DeFeo house in Amityville did not occur until 1977, after the real-life horror that befell the DeFeo family in 1974 when 24-year-old Ronald DeFeo shot and killed his parents and four siblings.

The Conjuring suggests all the horrible tragedies that we still talk about in hushed tones around campfires, such as the Amityville case. (Well, no one seems to remember the true case, just the widely disputed Jay Anson book about the alleged hauntings that occurred afterward.) This is Saw director James Wan's ode to the haunted house and demon possession shockers he grew up on. There's a little Exorcist, a little Poltergeist, and a little Amityville, and some unimaginative allusions to the Salem Witch Trials.

The Conjuring has that chilling effect that many less capable scare movies grasp for fruitlessly. It's not unlike reading that great Henry James hair-raiser The Turn of the Screw: it fills you with dread at the very beginning, and for the next two hours the dread only increases. Wan is going for the cumulative effect of subtle creepy things: creaking doors, hands of an unknown specter clapping in the dark cellar, pictures crashing to the ground with cacophonous force, secret passages boarded up long ago but newly discovered by our unwitting protagonists, creepy, pale ghost-children breezing through hallways and reflected fleetingly in window-glass, clocks stopping in unison, all the usual tropes that we've seen a hundred times. And yes, some of them are still creepy, but their familiarity hampers the film. 

One of the film's assets is that the characters generally avoid making stupid mistakes. I've grown impatient with horror movies that still resort to the "stupid character" cop-out. I mean, after fifty years of modern horror films, I think we've moved past that point. And yet, when I let down my guard and actually watch a contemporary horror film, I'm almost always disappointed to see that old device still hard at work, giving its director and writers carte blanche to unleash a barrage of horrifying consequences for their own characters' mutton-headed decision-making skills. Thank you, thank you, to the writers of The Conjuring (Chad and Carey Hayes) for at least respecting our intelligence in that arena.

This is the kind of scare picture that will make you want to bone up on your paranormal pop culture history. I started imagining myself going on a dastardly Amazon shopping spree, buying books on ghosts and other phenomena of the middle twentieth century. What is it about that period that seems to be of particular interest? I think it may be because the 1940s-1970s symbolized a time when the all-American family was at its peak. Even when that tradition was being challenged by hippies and war protestors and sexual revolutions and the like, it existed as a constant, a kind of immovable bastion or bogey, depending on your point-of-view.

The American family is a pretty easy target in a horror movie, and it's always disturbing to see it truly terrorized (as in Wes Craven's 1977 exploitation film The Hills Have Eyes, which was particularly frightening because it didn't obey the unwritten rules about who is supposed to survive a horror movie). You feel for the Perron family, and there's a connection between them and the Warrens that makes The Conjuring more human than much of its ilk.

But I'm not particularly fond of the dread I felt watching this movie. And while The Conjuring is certainly effective in its own way, it left me once again longing for a "fun" horror movie. Do they still make those anymore?

With Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver, Shannon Kook, and John Brotherton. 112 min. ½


In R.I.P.D., Boston cop Nick Walker (Ryan Reynolds) is betrayed and killed by his corrupt, greedy partner (Kevin Bacon, who's an obvious, forgettable bad guy in this) during a shootout with some drug dealers. Nick is surprised to find himself in a sterile, white office room sitting in front of an appropriately bureaucratic-looking desk jockey (Mary-Louise Parker) named Mildred Proctor. Proctor informs Nick that his services are desired by the Rest in Peace Department, a massive afterlife law enforcement unit comprised of dead cops who hunt down evil spirits roaming the cities with all the living folk.

There's not much of a choice for Nick here: he can serve the R.I.P.D. for 100 years and then go to heaven, or be sent to hell for eternity. Nick is assigned with a grizzled, no-nonsense former marshal named Roy (Jeff Bridges), who is naturally opposed to having a partner, being a relic of the Wild West. But since R.I.P.D. is a tired film that's barely interested in its own story, Roy doesn't put up anything more than a half-hearted fight against the insistent Mildred, with whom--we're led to believe--he is romantically involved. And soon the two partners are off looking for some pieces of gold that apparently make up "the staff of Jericho," which, if re-assembled, will allow the dead to freely roam the earth and spell the end of humankind and the planet as we know it. I love movies with such dire, overwhelmingly apocalyptic consequences at stake. (And by that I mean, I hate them.)

R.I.P.D. was a first for me: it was the first time I have ever found Jeff Bridges thoroughly irritating. He talks incessantly, cracks jokes that generally miss their mark, and drives his younger partner insane with his inane ramblings. Ryan Reynolds, as though in deference to the legendary actor next to him, seems to be on mute. He tones down his sarcastic personality and merely reacts to Bridges' mugging on our behalf, even punching him in the face after he's had all that he can take. This was the one moment in the movie during which I felt eternally grateful.

There are plenty of movies from which R.I.P.D. snatches themes and plot lines and jokes: Ghostbusters, Beetle Juice and Men in Black all come to mind. It's like a washed-up mishmash of those films. And let's remember that Beetle Juice had a marvelous comic energy to it, and Men in Black was sufficiently weird and colorful enough to be fun, and Ghostusters had Bill Murray's perfect, deadpan timing. R.I.P.D. has none of these qualities. These aren't the monsters you're looking for. It's based on a comic book by Peter Lenkov.

This is mindless summer fare at its worst, seemingly concocted by adult children who get off on seeing how many things they can blow up. ("And it's gonna be funny, too! Because, you know, Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges!") And suddenly I realize my own culpability here: by paying to see this wretched movie, I contribute to the false message--interpreted by the studio heads who fund this crap--that I like the one-explosion/destruction-scene-after-another plot-line. The question I have is: how can anyone still find explosion scenes interesting? They have been done to death, and they're done to death in R.I.P.D., and no that's not a pun.

Of course, where would we be without a romantic entanglement? We've got to have a romantic entanglement. Aha! Ryan Reynolds has a wife he left behind. Oh, but there's one little problem: the living will not recognize the dead police officers, who appear totally different than they are. For example, Jeff Bridges looks like Jeff Bridges to us, but to the people in the movie, he appears as a sexy blonde in a long, tight dress. Ryan Reynolds manifests himself as an elderly Chinese man. This means that approaching his widow with comments such as "Julia, it's me! I've never left you!" come off as creepy, not sentimental. This rule confused me: why did the ghosts sometimes see them as their "avatars" and sometimes not? Consistency is a dish best served...consistently.

The worst thing about R.I.P.D. is that it seems so bored with itself. There are lots of jokes coming out of the mouths of our heroes, but they dissolve in the air like vapor. The plot feels unashamedly frayed and faded like a T-shirt that's been through the wash too many times, and the actors don't appear to have the confidence to do anything original or exciting or fun. And what with Jeff Bridges grating on the nerves and Ryan Reynolds acting like a kid tiptoeing through the halls of the house at night, afraid to wake up his dad, the movie is a deadly affair indeed. Directed by Robert Schwentke. With Stephanie Szostak (as Nick's wife), Robert Knepper, James Hong, Mike O'Malley, and Marissa Miller. ½

July 22, 2013

A Band Called Death

A Band Called Death is a mesmerizing documentary about an obscure Detroit punk rock band called Death. Comprised of three brothers--David, Dannis, and Bobby Hackney--Death was born and died in the 1970s, never reaching an audience until years later, when the master recordings were discovered in the attic of the Hackney family's house. The documentary chronicles the band members' life: they were born to a Baptist minister, and their mother and father both encouraged their love of music, filling the house with it from the beginning.

When the boys were finally able to purchase some good instruments and an amp, they began spending their afternoons jamming in an upstairs bedroom of their Detroit home. Influenced by the likes of The Beatles, The Who, and Jimi Hendrix, the Hackney brothers resisted the motown mold that seemed to be the only musical outlet for black musicians at the time, and while there was a certain element of funk in their songs (the first band name they came up with was Rock Funk Fire Express), they captured a kind of dizzyingly energetic, supercharged punk sound that was truly novel. Nobody really knew what punk was yet. (This is 1973, pre-Ramones.) And nobody expected it to come from these three boys from Detroit.

A Band Called Death manages to capture the bittersweet, tragic yet fulfilling elements of this band's history of obscurity. Perhaps the most fitting--and enthralling--aspect of this story is that the sons of one of the Hackney boys have started their own band--called Rough Francis, a tribute in itself to their uncle David--and are touring the country, incorporating their musical roots into their own work. When we see this torch-passing moment unfold at a concert, with Dannis Hackley and his wife proudly watching their three sons performing songs written by him and his brothers, we feel blown away by the momentousness of the act.

And the story of David Hackney in particular--he was the group leader, the one who wrote many of the lyrics and who came up with the band's admittedly provocative name--is like something out of rock 'n' roll myth. The man, who died in 2000, carries such weight with his brothers and everyone else who knew him, and you sense that in this movie. It's a fine tribute and a particularly satisfying chapter of music history that I certainly didn't even know existed until now. And yes, you can now access Death's music on the internet. They seem to be finally getting their due, and this turned out to be a surprisingly engaging, funny, touching, fun movie. Directed by Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett. Featuring the Hackney brothers, Alice Cooper, Henry Rollins, and Elijah Wood (!).

July 21, 2013

The Heat

I can't say that I loved The Heat as much as I loved Bridesmaids (both of which were helmed by director Paul Feig), but I howled my way through it just the same. How can you not, especially when Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy have such a wonderful onscreen chemistry? The Heat is nothing new, really: the old unlikely buddies plot with the one novelty being the gender of the buddies. As the by-the-book, cocky FBI agent, Bullock is despised by everyone in her department, but considers herself a success because she does her job better than anyone she knows. It's that old career-woman-with-a-chip-on-her-shoulder facade, one which Melissa McCarthy, as the brash, pushy, get-in-your-face-and-cuss-you-out Boston undercover cop, seeks to tear down with a wrecking ball.

The story involves a Boston drug dealer and hits close to home for McCarthy's character: her brother was working for this enigmatic dealer, and has just been released from prison. (She had him arrested herself, a point of betrayal in the eyes of her obnoxious, stereotypical Boston family, headed by SNL alum Jane Curtin, who's sadly given nothing memorable to do.) 

I don't suppose we go to comedies for novelty anymore. And if we do, we probably go to independent films like The Kings of Summer or something by Wes Anderson. Comedies became sitcom-level affairs probably in the 1960s, and with few exceptions, very little has changed about them. The old formulas continue to make money as long as the right faces are acting them out. As tried-and-true farces continue to be greenlit by the big studios, the only compensation for weary audience members is the acting. And we're lucky to live in a world, so green and young and still blinking with weariness under the new light of the morning sun, in which Melissa McCarthy is as celebrated as she is.

McCarthy's performances made Bridesmaids, a superior formula comedy, and Identity Thief, an inferior one, not just watchable but lovable, at least partly. And she offers the same saving grace to The Heat, but she's matched by Sandra Bullock, who's at her best when she's being a clown. (Who remembers that she was in a drama like Crash, or the ridiculous thriller The Net, when she's given us much better times in movies like The Proposal, not a great movie, and now The Heat, a pretty good movie?)

A caveat on excessive profanity: As a teenager, I developed a fondness for bad language, perhaps because it was verboten. Somehow, a four-letter word can magnify the comic force of a line exponentially, if done right. But, it needs to be done with creativity and enough actual ideas to justify itself. Melissa McCarthy peppers her dialogue with F words, and while some of them work, the total effect is a kind of numbing of the senses. You get the idea that she thinks this is the only way to be funny. (And yet, she managed a very funny character in Bridesmaids without using the F word every three seconds.) Meanwhile, it was delightfully amusing that Bullock's character refused to cuss, and when she finally did (during her predictable change-of-heart, in which she realizes how stuffy she is and how "good" her partner is at her job), it was quite amusing. (And I thought back to The King's Speech, when Colin Firth erupts into a torrent of profanity during a particularly frustrating session with his speech therapist.)

The Heat will probably catch some flack with critics because it is absolutely unbelievable. These ladies would never get as far as they do in reality, without either getting themselves killed or dismissed from duty. But, who goes to these kinds of movies for realism anyway? It is an uproarious if imperfect diversion. Written by Katie Dippold. With Demian Bichir, Marlon Wayans, Michael Rapaport, Spoken Reasons, Dan Bakkedahl, and Taran Killam.

July 14, 2013

The Kings of Summer

It's easy to make a movie about and for teenagers that panders to them. John Hughes did it with The Breakfast Club: he let his characters dwell on the magnitude of their problems and inflated them so that we could see just how awful the grown-ups were. (The only grown-up we get to see much of in that movie is the hard, cruel dean, played by Paul Gleason.) Those teenagers were connected to each other by the fact that their parents either despised or ignored them, or both. (And yes, I watched The Breakfast Club a million times as a teenager and loved it. And I still do.)

And then there's The Kings of Summer, which is intent on transcending its youthful characters' problems. Yes, their parents are obtuse, even unfeeling, but the film wants to explore how they deal with their problems, not how they wallow in them. The boys, Joe, Patrick, and Biaggio, are played with comic flair and real vulnerability by Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, and Moises Arias, respectively. Joe and Patrick are longtime best friends, and Biaggio is an odd duck who tags along with them, finding acceptance. (Happily, the film doesn't try to paint him as a purely pathetic outcast : he's just different, and that's okay.)

But Joe and Patrick are relatively normal boys. Joe and his father (Nick Offerman, who's so good at being a man's man, and funny) don't get along (they're too much like each other). And with Joe's mother dead and his big sister (Alison Brie) off in college, the one-on-one nature of their relationship is beginning to wear on him. Patrick meanwhile is so stressed out by his dopey, trivial, myopic parents (played with delightful comic overtones by Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson), that he's constantly breaking out in hives.

Desperate to escape their parents, Joe and Patrick decide to build a house in the woods on the outskirts of their Ohio town. They cobble it together with various discards from construction sites (including a porta-potty door as their front entrance) and whatever else they can find, even incorporating a playground slide as a sort of staircase. It's Robinson Crusoe meets Huck Finn meets Stand By Me.

The Kings of Summer is a beautifully made film, an offbeat tale with wonderfully original comic interactions, but it's also something of a Buddhist at heart. We're meant to feel a kind of unity with nature as we watch these boys throw off the shackles of modern civilization (to a degree) in favor of living off nature. But at the end--you can guess what happens, I won't reveal--we're left with images of the natural inhabitants of the forests: the owls, the snakes, the furry creatures, all of them seemingly saying, "If you're going to play here, you better leave nice-and-easy behind you."

This is a happy and refreshing antidote to the loud and inane summer blockbuster movies. With Erin Moriarty and Mary Lynn Rajskub. Written by Chris Galletta. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. 94 min. 

July 11, 2013

True Lies

I really don't like giving James Cameron any credit, and I certainly wouldn't do it if I didn't have to. But True Lies (1994) is a good example of how to do action movies right. It's completely mindless, but, except for a tacked on second ending that feels like overkill, it's a fun movie that draws you into its chaotic, mindless action sequences with a fairly fresh take on the whole spies vs. terrorists plot. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Harry Tasker, who works for a U.S. counter-terrorism operation. His mousy wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis), thinks he's a boring computer salesman, and because the excitement in their marriage is long gone, she's become involved with a con artist (Bill Paxton) whom she thinks is a spy himself.

True Lies enabled Jamie Lee Curtis to show another side of herself: she performs a striptease act in front of a man (her husband, although his face is concealed in darkness so she doesn't know it's him). What's impressive is how good she is at it, and how funny it is when she loses her balance but picks herself right back up. Curtis has always had spunk, and while this scene is a little creepy (especially if it's supposed to be some kind of career marker for her), she also gets to be a heroine in this movie. And her naturally funny personality comes through beautifully too.

What works in True Lies are the comic performances of Curtis and Tom Arnold, who plays Harry's loud-mouthed right-hand-man Mike. (He has all the best lines.) And even Arnold is enjoyable here. The movie doesn't take itself too seriously, so why should he. He's at ease, playing a guy he's played seemingly a hundred times. When he asks Tia Carrere to Tango--and then later when he Tangos with his wife--he's totally unconcerned with all the serious things going on in the movie, a signal to us that we're at least in front of a film that wants to show us a good time. Who can ask for anything more?

With Art Malik, Eliza Dushku, Grant Heslov, and Charlton Heston. Written by the director. 141 min.

July 10, 2013

His Girl Friday

An admittedly sharp-witted newspaper comedy starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, who talk very, very fast. Directed by Howard Hawks and adapted by Charles Lederer, Ben Hecht, and Charles MacArthur from the popular Hecht and MacArthur play The Front Page (which was filmed before and since under that title). Hawks changed the character of Hildy Johnson into a woman, and apparently took the show from good to great, at least according to most critics. The plot involves newspaper-man Cary Grant's attempt to win back his ex-wife, a talented, respected journalist in her own right, who's about to remarry (to a dull insurance salesman played by Ralph Bellamy). There are some wonderful lines in His Girl Friday, but I've always struggled with these old comedies: they almost never hold my interest. I will vouch for the performances of Grant and Russell though: they're top notch, with a lot of classic improvisation. You can certainly see the influence of this film on countless others. 92 min. 1940. ½

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

For years, my adult self looked back on Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) with fondness. It was a movie I watched fairly regularly, and it shared a VHS space with George Romero's Day of the Dead. (In those days, my parents taped movies off television, and we had hundreds of them, three to a video-cassette tape.) Well, having just re-watched Roger Rabbit for the first time in probably eight or nine years, I must report that I no longer feel the same affection for this movie. This time, I was struck by the fact that it's noisy and chaotic and not as entertaining as it used to be.

The director is Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future), and Steven Spielberg co-executive produced the film, which was made by his production company, Amblin. And yes, it's some kind of an adult tribute to cartoons, from the old to the new, from MGM to Warner Bros. to Disney. The effects of intermingling live action and animation were, of course, something else a quarter-century ago. Today they're a bit dated, but the film is still watchable in that sense.

The plot is taken out of some 1940s L.A. noir. A washed-up, boozing private eye named Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is hired by a studio executive to take some lewd photos of a cartoon named Jessica Rabbit (uncredited voice of Kathleen Turner, who was the Lauren Bacall of the 80s) in flagrante delicto with Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), the owner of Toontown, which is exactly what it sounds like. When Jessica's husband the daffy Roger Rabbit sees them, he becomes infuriated. Next thing you know, Marvin Acme is bumped off, and Roger of course becomes the prime suspect. The obvious culprit isn't Roger, though. It's the ominous and clearly malicious Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), who has big plans for Los Angeles as it finishes out the 1940s.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is designed to keep the kiddos interested. And with that, the filmmakers lose no opportunity to keep things flying at you. There's barely a moment to catch your breath. When the film slows down and allows Bob Hoskins to actually dominate the screen, it becomes more watchable. He's a marvelous actor who commands the screen when he's allowed to. He looks like Ed Asner: a lovable bear of a man, whose British accent occasionally slips out, generally when he's shouting.

Hoskins is paired off with Joanna Cassidy, who plays the no-nonsense bartender Dolores, his girlfriend who's too realistic to be bowled over with ideas of romance or being swept off her feet by her has-been of a beau. Cassidy doesn't have much room for character growth, but she's able to convey a lot just by the way she stands with her hands on her hips, or in the way she pronounces Eddie a failure with a look or a simple gesture. These are the kinds of actors you need in a film like this, where no one is particularly interested in the acting. All the eye candy is on display to titillate us, so why would we ever care about something so drab as performances? They make it palatable.

As the voice of Roger Rabbit, Charles Fleischer doesn't fail to inject a certain madcap genius into his vocal performance. But Roger grates on the nerves: he's the annoying sidekick who keeps ruining everything for the hero, and the fact that he's constantly trying to steal the show and be cute didn't endear him to me this time around.

There are lots of familiar voices popping up, as this isn't the kind of movie that's content to let the humor or the excitement build of its own momentum. It's all shoved into our faces at break force speed, with director Zemeckis seemingly screaming, "SEE? ISN'T THIS GREAT STUFF?!" You'll find: Betty Boop (Mae Questel), Bugs Bunny and various other cartoon characters performed by Mel Blanc. With Lou Hirsch as Baby Herman, David Lander as the Judge's right-hand-weasel, Alan Tilvernas R.K. Maroon, and Richard LeParmentier. Amy Irving sings "Why Don't You Do Right" as Jessica Rabbit. Written by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman. 104 min. ½

July 09, 2013

Point Break

In Point Break (1991), directed by Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), Keanu Reeves, who is incapable of not sounding like a surfer, plays a fresh-faced young FBI agent who's forced to go undercover as a surfer, even though it's like totally out of his comfort zone. That premise is about as believable as his performance. Keanu squares off with Patrick Swayze, the charismatic, Manson-lite leader of a foursome of surfing buddies who spend their free time robbing banks. They're known to the FBI only as the Ex-Presidents, because when they rob banks they wear Halloween masks that bear the resemblances of Reagan, Carter, Nixon, and LBJ.

It is my understanding that Point Break is something of an iconic film for action movie buffs. Who can forget the scene in Hot Fuzz when Nick Frost--imitating Keanu--can't shoot his enemy, and instead points his gun in the air and fires repeatedly while shouting, "NOOOOO!"? And yet, Point Break isn't particularly interesting or thrilling (except for a few scenes, including a misfired shootout at a meth house that is tensely exciting). It manages to be both a gritty cops-and-robbers action flick and a meditation on surfing, trying to capture the philosophical majesty of catching a wave. But it never quite gels.

The film hinges on Swayze's pitch: he's fighting the system by living life his own way, riding the waves rather than trying to climb a corporate ladder somewhere. I appreciated his disdain for that whole corporate system lifestyle. I'm not a big fan of it either. And I also appreciated that Patrick Swayze doesn't ever "try" too hard. He just does his thing, and his performance feels easy and natural compared to poor Keanu, who, try as he might, can't seem to conjure up any power behind his screams and shouts. He's incredibly lucky that he's good-looking and likable. And, as I wrote about in my Dracula review, he's got enough capable actors around him to pick up the slack.

Gary Busey, playing Keanu's seasoned partner, seems to have played this part before. His role isn't particularly interesting, but he manages to breathe some crusty, tough-as-nails life into it. And Lori Petty, as the love interest, has a certain vulnerability to her. She's been hurt but she's wizened up and she's a fighter. Kathryn Bigelow is a capable director--Point Break is well-made for what it is--but she fails to lift the movie out of its badness. It's a collection of ideas patched together from other action films: a slick, carefully put together piece of product. But she finds little ways to stir up some embers when she can. There's a certain haunting quality to the film that you don't generally get in an action piece, and it reminded me of her vampire movie, Near Dark, which was equally haunting. And there's that lingering theme of obsession which seems to be present in most of her films: Keanu becomes obsessed with tracking his bank-robbing foe, and Swayze is obsessed with catching the perfect wave. (There's even a little something-something going on between them, if you ask me.)

With John C. McGinley, who overacts so we'll hate him and laugh when Busey cold cuts him to the ground; James LeGros, and John Philbin. Written by W. Peter Iliff. 123 min.

July 02, 2013

The Bling Ring

In The Bling Ring, which is about a group of bored, privileged adolescents who get their kicks sneaking into the homes of celebrities (such as Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Orlando Bloom) and stealing their stuff, there's a kind of religious reverence for possessions and fame. The film, which is apparently based on real events, represents perhaps the most blatant product of the separate yet inseparable cults of youth and celebrity that permeate popular culture and capture the imaginations of those of us who aren't rich and famous. We're the schlubs on the outside looking in, and the impressionable teenagers are the easiest targets and the most willing participants, the most devout cult members, it would seem.

When they sneak into Paris Hilton's house, they revel in the excess of her closet, which has smaller closets and hidden compartments: walls and walls of shoes, drawers full of necklaces and bracelets, ridiculous outfits; she has a night club "room," and there are pillows with her face embroidered onto them placed on the seats of her chairs. This is all very impressive to the Bling Ring kids, who treat it like make-believe: they're the princesses trying out mother's big dresses and putting on a show. But the thrill of sneaking and stealing, the allure of never knowing exactly what they'll find, and the money they're able to make hocking some of their contraband (much of which funds a festering cocaine addiction), quickly turns their nightly outing into a kind of thrillseeking high in and of itself, one which spirals out of control in short order.

Director Sofia Coppola isn't interested in having us condemn the actions of the teenagers without condemning ourselves. She's more interested, I think, in letting the consequences play out, and capturing the reactions of the kids, most of which are pretty dismal. There's one, the one boy in the group (played by Israel Broussard), who was obviously looking for acceptance, who seems to regret his decisions. The other members don't though. In getting caught--and exposed by the media--they're finally able to achieve what they wanted all along: celebrity. The consequences are worth it for them.

The Bling Ring rather brilliantly implicates the audience in the crimes of its main characters. We who comment on the trashy magazines at the grocery store, who read all the gossip columns online, who treat our Facebook and Twitter accounts as venues for shameless bouts of narcissism, are expressing in a much more concentrated and acceptable way the kind of behavior these kids grow into. It was very easy for me to condemn them. I even rooted for the police when the inane, vapid kids were read their Miranda rights. (Let's remember--better yet, let's forget--that this ultimately pegged me as rooting for Paris Hilton.)

The Bling Ring, which is always sort of casual and mock-hip, manages to be a stinging indictment of American materialism without ever pointing a finger. (Although it's not very subtle when Leslie Mann, playing the completely bonkers mother of one of the girls, who touts the merits of The Secret and tries to pass it along to her daughters, who constantly deride her, is on screen. She becomes the hip modern mom with stunning ease.) With Katie Chang, Emma Watson, Claire Julien, and Taissa Farmiga. Written by the director; based on the article "The Suspects Wore Louboutins," by Nancy Jo Sales. 90 min.