Monthly Archives: June 2011

“Bad Teacher” and “Cars 2” – Weekly Movie Diary

Cameron Diaz sets her eyes on ... Justin Timberlake

Bad Teacher

Elizabeth Halsey should not be teaching, that much is clear. She is vain, arrogant, unethical, and, above all, doesn’t care a fig for her students – or, to be more precise, the eight graders who sit in her classroom every day while she naps and shows inspirational teacher movies like Stand and Deliver and Lean on Me. The only reason she shows up is for the badly needed paycheck after her mousy fiancé figured out she was with him only for his money and cut her off. Elizabeth isn’t a bad person. No – she’s a terrible person. She’ll lie, cheat, and steal to get what she wants which is now a new sugar daddy to whisk her away from the drudgery of public education. Director Jake Kasdan does a good job of subverting those teacher movies Elizabeth shows in lieu of teaching. She has no interest in education until a hunky new substitute impresses her with his expensive watch and money-drenched family history. (We never learn just why he is teaching.) She determines that the new sub Scott won’t be interested in her until she has larger breasts, but doesn’t have the money for breast enlargement surgery. Lucky for her the district offers a hefty cash prize for the teacher whose students receive the highest test scores, so she throws out the videos and throws To Kill a Mockingbird at them. In the traditional inspirational teacher movies, it is the dedicated and creative teachers who inspire the students, ultimately forgiving all their past mistakes so long as they are willing to repent and do their work. Here, instead of Elizabeth inspiring the students (like Edward James Olmos or Michelle Pfiffer), it turns out to be the other way around – sort of. Elizabeth finds herself inspired by the students, not to be a better teacher, but to be a better person – maybe.

 

Elizabeth and Amy (Lucy Punch) face off in "Bad Teacher"

There are some great supporting performances, especially Lucy Punch as a rival teacher and competitor for Scott’s affections, the preternaturally perky Amy Squirrel. (I loved some of the reaction shots of her horrified class – especially an open mouthed boy who will clearly be traumatized by her – as she enacted teaching strategies more suited for a kindergarten class rather than middle school. Justin Timberlake (who I have really been enjoying in movies lately) is great as Scott, an at-first-glance perfect guy whose defects include subtle racism. (When he gloats that he was adventurous and had Ethiopian food, he dreamily declares that it’s great they finally have a national cuisine.) And Jason Segal continues his rise to stardom as the awkward gym teacher attracted to the unattainable Elizabeth. Also John Michael Higgins, Phyllis Smith, Thomas Lennon, and Eric Stonestreet each deliver memorable supporting performances. In the lead Cameron Diaz works well. We know she isn’t entirely irredeemable despite all her actions that suggest otherwise only because Diaz manages to insert some humanity into her characterization. The movie has been getting mixed to negative reviews, but if you choose to see it try not to get caught up in moral questions. If Lou Diamond Philips can redeem himself in Stand and Deliver, Elizabeth Halsey can too.    (Rating ***1/2)

Anthropomorphic cars.... greeeeat.

Cars 2

I never got around to seeing the first installment of this franchise, but I thought I knew enough about it to catch the second. I don’t know if I was overconfident or if this is just a really bad movie, but I didn’t get any of that Pixar magic here – heck, forget magic, I didn’t even have anything approaching a good time. Sure the animation looks fine and some conservatives who love to play perpetual victims have already been boo-hooing that the movie is anti-oil, which alone should be reason enough to enjoy it. I don’t, however, know why they’re crying. The plot is torturously convoluted and will more than likely fly over most kids’ heads while their parents zone out and wonder why they wasted so much money on junk like this, well below the standard for Pixar. Admittedly Pixar set a high standard for itself, but by any standard Cars 2 is bad. The movie is so plot driven it could almost run independently of its characters. More than that, everyone in the movie is disastrously stupid, including our supposed hero Lightning McQueen, who can’t wait to hear an explanation at a critical moment, and a couple of would-be British Intelligence agents who mistake the single-digit IQ tow truck Mater for an American agent. Why? Because he’s so stupid it must be the perfect cover. Never mind that he tells them he isn’t an agent, never mind that they don’t listen to him and cut him off. Never mind anything logical because, for some reason, people think kids movie don’t need logical. It should just be fun! But it isn’t fun when I want to punch someone because everyone is an idiot. Kids movies don’t have to endorse stupidity (I can give you a list of kids movies that are intelligent and fun), but they should be entertaining. Unfortunately Cars 2 keeps kids dumb and is tedious. (Rating **)

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“You know Mac, sometimes I feel like I don’t know what it’s all about anymore.” — High Sierra – Best Pictures of 1941 (#7)

Bogart's Roy Earle contemplates the Sierras

Crime movies often eschew such subtleties as character development in favor of car chases and gun fights. Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra is a rare type of crime picture that is first and foremost a character study of a man who knows he wants to change his life in some vague, abstract way, but has no idea how to go about it. The obligatory robberies and gunfights are there, but they aren’t nearly as compelling as watching Humphrey Bogart’s Roy Earle struggle with the only life he knows – crime – and his apparent desire for a quite, honest life and to do right, both for himself and others.

At the start of the picture Roy has just been paroled from prison in Indiana, but going straight is never a consideration. He immediately breaks his parole by leaving the state to go to California to reconnect with Red (Arthur Kennedy), his former crime boss. What, after all, would Roy have done in Indiana? Honest businesses aren’t usually lining up to hire aging ex-cons. In California Red sends him to a lakeside resort in the Sierra Mountains to meet up with a couple of other hoods. Together they are to plan and execute a jewelry heist in a ritzy Palm Springs-esque desert resort on the other side of the mountain with Roy as their leader.

 

Planning the heist

The hoods Roy meets up with are young crooks in awe of the legend of “Mad Dog” Earle, a nickname that belies Roy’s calm, quiet demeanor. Roy takes charge of the operation with efficiency and menace, batting down any indications of dissension, conflict, or challenges to his authority. One possible wrinkle in their plans is the presence of a girlfriend, Marie (Ida Lupino). One of the crooks brought Marie along for the company (or the prestige of having a beautiful woman on his arm), but it doesn’t take long for the two young men to start squabbling over her. Naturally Marie takes the opportunity opened by the bickering to cozy up to Roy.

Roy is tough and is committed to pulling off this job, but years in prison and his approach to old age (I love the touch of grey hair at his temples) makes him hunger for something deeper than money, they only positive asset one can acquire through a career of crime. While he is putting the jewelry heist together and kindling a romance with Marie, he also develops a friendship with a salt of the earth type Midwestern family that he met on the road traveling to California. Roy is attracted to their values and honesty, but he is especially taken with their 20-year-old granddaughter Velma (Joan Leslie). He is charmed by her innocence, intrigued by her beauty and naivety, and moved by her clubbed foot that causes her to walk with a pronounced limp. He vows to get the money to pay for her operation, giving Velma a new lease on life and possibly beginning to reclaim his own soul (though he never grapples with the dilemma of using stolen money to do it).

 

A doomed romance

Humphrey Bogart gives a masterfully nuanced performance as the conflicted criminal. He is almost schizophrenically divided between what he wants to be and what either history, tradition, or nature has demanded he has to be. Though tension between Bogart and Ida Lupino reportedly caused Lupino to vow never to work with him again (which probably ultimately hurt her career), they have good chemistry together. I especially like that we’re never sure how things are going to work out, even though the Hayes Office ensures we know what will happen to Roy. After Velma gets her operation the outcome is unexpected both for Roy and for us. It seems he really can’t get away from his past, no matter how pure his intentions. He corrupts everything he touches and it’s a poignant moment when he realizes he can’t even perform an act of charity without negative consequences. And it’s not just that operation that goes wrong. The heist backfires and Roy has to go on the run. The only question is will Marie be dragged down with him?

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“It’s Our Duty to Our Lord.” – The 47 Ronin – Best Pictures of 1941 (#8)

I’m not sure what the Japanese Ministry of Information thought they would get when they commissioned Kenji Mizoguchi to make The 47 Ronin. They wanted a propaganda film that would inspire the Japanese population in a time of war and remind them of the value of loyalty and honor, but, even as early as 1941, Mizoguchi wasn’t that type of filmmaker to make the simple, brainless movie that the Ministry no doubt expected. His previous work included such introspective, thoughtful masterpieces such as The Osaka Elegy, Sisters of the Gion, and The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums, hardly appropriate templates for wartime propaganda.

But the Ministry wanted a master to tell the would-be arousing and inspiring legendary tale of the 47 ronin, a group of eighteenth century masterless samurai who crave revenge for the man who caused the disgrace and death of their master, along with the abolition of his house and their own demotions to masterless samurai, or ronin. It is safe to say the intended message was to be wrapped in a rousing adventure, but Mizoguchi had other ideas. He transformed the film into a thoughtful consideration of duty and honor in a world that values these concepts less and less.

The opening of the film is nothing short of brilliant. We see the initial confrontation between Lord Asano and Lord Kira, which will fuel the actions of other characters for the rest of the film. Kira insults young Asano and in a blind rage Asano draws his sword, attaking and wounding Kira. Asano is taken into custody and it is determined that he should commit hara-kiri, his property confiscated, and his house abolished. His samurai are outraged at both the harshness of the sentence and the injustice of Kira avoiding any censure for his own disrespect. Forty seven loyal samurai vow to get revenge.

This sounds like the setup of a typical samurai flick, but a wrench in thrown in their plans when their leader Oishi appears to waver. He officially applies for a repeal that would restore the house (and their positions). When he sees that his application garners public support he knows he can’t fulfill their plan for revenge, at least until a decision is made. Oishi, to ensure the fair consideration of the application and to keep Kira off guard, lives a public life of luxury. The other samurai are outraged at his behavior and demand action. Even Asano’s widow chides him for his apparent indifference to their dishonor.

The initial insult

This movie was the first part of a two part series so nothing will be resolved until the second picture which wasn’t released until 1942. The first part, however, was a flop in Japan, being released only a week before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Luckily the studio felt it was an important film and green lit the second film. Viewers really need to see both parts for the complete experience.

Though the subject matter is not Mizoguchi’s traditional strength he brings a visual elegance we don’t often expect (or demand) from movies of this ilk. Mizoguchi’s scenes are carefully composed but fluidly shot. He avoids editing in favor of long and medium shots, punctuated by sweeping camera movements. Mizoguchi’s visual strategy allows us to consider the characters’ relations with each other and their environment. It also reinforces the dominant theme of interconnectedness.

Mizoguchi is aware that the world had changed around those 47 men who remained loyal to their clan. Traditional concepts of honor and duty had been supplanted by codes of selfishness and greed, by a bureaucratic system that favored plunder and graft. What is fascinating is we usually think an action’s effects diminish over time; the usual metaphor is the ripping rings when a stone is dropped in a pond and how they flatten out the farther away we get. Mizoguchi argues that when we commit ourselves to the ethics of honor those ripples can get more intense. The more time passes without their situation being resolved, the more intense their need for revenge. There is no dissipation of hatred, no softening of feeling, no weakening of resolve. Instead of a mindless revenge fantasy, we are treated to a thoughtful, character driven consideration of men who value honor above all else.

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“I’ll follow you into your grave.” – I Wake Up Screaming – Best Pictures of 1941 (#9)

Laird Cregar puts Victor Mature in the hot seat in "I Wake Up Screaming"

The title of this atmospheric thriller, I Wake Up Screaming, implies a recurring nightmare that plagues our protagonist. And this is largely true, but for nightclub promoter Frankie Christopher the nightmare isn’t confined to his dream state and he doesn’t have the luxury of waking up – screaming or otherwise. Frankie is caught in a real life nightmare that threatens to destroy his life in this early example of the film noir genre.

When beautiful and ambition singer/model Vicky Lynn is murdered, Frankie, as her manager and sort of boyfriend, is immediately suspected. Inspector Ed Cornell is convinced the slick manager killed the chanteuse and, despite the absence of any evidence linking him to the crime, he relentlessly dogs Frankie. Cornell is quietly determined to see Frankie fry for Vicky’s death and is confident that the evidence will surface. Cornell is patient, content to torture Frankie with gruesome predictions of his fate. Frankie even awakes one night to find Cornell sitting in a chair by his bed, staring creepily as though taking a break on a hunt.

Frankie desperately tries to prove his innocence. He joins forces with Vicky’s sister Jill to stay a step ahead of Cornell. Naturally they fall in love, though the romance is uneasy since it isn’t clear if Cornell’s suspicions are unfounded or not. That’s one of the surprising joys of this film: we aren’t sure just who we should be rooting for in this battle of wills between Cornell and Frankie Christopher. Is Frankie being railroaded by Cornell? Or is Cornell’s relentless pursuit warranted? Does he see something we can’t through Frankie’s charm (and the traditional moral insulation of being the lead played by Victor Mature in a Hollywood picture)? The reality is less clear cut and more horrible than either of these options. (Do yourself a favor if you haven’t seen this one: avoid reading synopses or watching that terrible “unofficial” trailer on You Tube. They all give away too much.)

 

Betty Grable and Victor Mature

I Wake Up Screaming chronicles a nightmare in which everything is turned inside out. Frankie and Jill don’t have a murderer or some other leather-faced criminal to fear. It is a police detective who fills the villains role, a figure usually reserved for heroes. (And Laird Cregar is an absolutely chilling presence as Det. Cornell. Orson Welles would go on to play a version of this character in Touch of Evil, but with a crucial difference in their approaches to detective work.) It’s an oppressively topsy-turvy world brought to life through Edward Cronjager’s shadowy photography. We can’t tell the good from the bad, because with evil everywhere even the good have to lurk in the shadows. Even the music, eerie variations of “Over the Rainbow,” confirm that we are through the looking glass.

The movie isn’t perfect. It’s handicapped by a lackluster performance by Betty Grable as Jill and Victor Mature is fine, but he was never the strongest actor. Laird Cregar, though, steals the show as Ed Cornell. His brooding intensity and sociopathic single-mindedness make him a chilling antagonist. The movie is strongest when Laird’s Cornell and Mature’s Christopher face off, playing a high stakes cat and mouse. We see just how the forces meant to serve and protect us can just as easily be turned against us and, no matter how loudly we protest, they can destroy our lives. (Would any of us have the gumption to fight Cornell the way Frankie does?) It’s a unsettling, though immensely entertaining film, that reminds us of the fragile balance between the power of the police and the rights of citizens. But don’t be put off by high sounding themes. It’s also a great mystery that will keep you guessing.

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“13 Assassins,” “The Green Lantern,” “Super 8,” and “X-Men First Class”: Weekly Movie Diary

Koji Yakusho (third from left) leads 13 assassins

13 Assassins

I can’t claim to be an expert in the films of Japanese director Takashi Miike, but I can say he made one of the best and most repulsive horror movies I’ve ever seen, Audition. I’ve only seen it twice and not only was the second viewing just as disturbing as the first, but I really don’t want to ever have to watch it again, though I know I will be compelled to rewatch it at some point. (The DVD sits on my shelf patiently waiting to assault my senses again, but I resist … for now.) Now the prolific Miike has remade a 1960s samurai movie that isn’t as viscerally disturbing as Audition, but is still a remarkably good action movie.

It is a time of peace in eighteenth century Japan, but Lord Naritsugu, the brother of a powerful shogun, threatens to disrupt it. He is sadistic and heartless, killing, raping, and maiming for the sheer fun of it. A powerful official, unable to directly do anything himself secretly charges Shinzaemon Shimada, retired samurai, to assemble a team to kill Lord Naritsugu. Shinzaemon recruits eleven masterless samurai and, together with a mountain “hunter” (though there are suggestions he may not be entirely corporal), the thirteen men buy out a town and fill it with booby traps to help defeat Naritsugu’s superior forces. There could have been more time spent building the characters of the samurai, though I suspect there is some of that in the 20 minutes that has been cut for the international release.

The most interesting relationship is between Shinzaemon and Naritsugu’s chief samurai Hanbei, former rivals. Hanbei knows he is protecting an evil man, but he cannot break his oath to protect his master. Masachika Ichimura delivers a wonderfully conflicted performance opposite Koji Yakusho’s Shinzaemon. We realize early on that neither is evil or righteous; had circumstances been different they could well have ended up in each others’ shoes and would have still fought just as bravely and committed. (Rating ****1/2)

The whole movie looks as cheesy as this ... and the script isn't much better.

The Green Lantern

There’s a lot of goofiness in Warner Bros’ attempt to jumpstart their DC Comics franchise. The Green Lantern takes one of DC’s most recognizable (but least known) heroes and inserts him into a lackluster, been-there-done-that story opposite one of the least interesting actresses of recent years, Blake Lively. To make matters worse, we aren’t given a good villain to root against – no Joker, Lex Luther, or Magneto that have helped make other superhero movies so good. On the one hand we have a cheesy looking black cloud floating around the universe gobbling up entire civilization making a b-line for Earth and on the other we have Peter Sarsgaard as Hector Hammond, a scientist infected with some of that clouds evilness. He goes a little crazy, but his story rarely intersects in any meaningful way with Ryan Reynolds’ Hal Jordan/Green Lantern.

I already mentioned the cheesy special effects, but they are worse than that silly cloud. The whole movie looks phony, especially when Hal transforms into his all-CGIed suit and travels to the planet where the other Green Lanterns lives (they are some kinds of protectors of the universe). Ryan Reynolds has a great body. Why not give him a real Green Lantern suit to wear? It all looks cartoony and unconvincing, which might have worked if the script was more tongue in cheek. However they tried for a middle ground that does not work.

But director Martin Campbell had a mess of a script to work with – a script that was written and rewritten by what seems to be a whole staff. (I began to suspect that the original script may have been innovative, but each draft removed a bit of originality to come up with something as safe as this.) For instance, Hal has siblings and a nephew (who idolizes him) who appear in one scene and are then summarily dismissed from the narrative. No one even asks why he left his nephew’s party without a word. Why don’t we get to see their reaction to his new superhero status? Or, better yet, watch Hal’s conflict as he has to keep it secret from them. I did enjoy Ryan Reynolds’ performance as the cocky test pilot, but like Campbell there was little he could do when CGI silliness undercuts any suspense and his romance with Blake Lively was less than compelling. This is all the more insulting after good superhero movies like the X-Men series, Spiderman, and Nolan’s Batman series. We know they can do it, so stop trying to pawn off on audiences lazy junk that might have seemed innovative in 1981. And studios wonder why people are less and less inclined to risk their hard earned money at the movies. (Rating *1/2)

 

There is no passion for movies or for childhood in "Super 8"

Super 8

Super 8 is a bad movie that looks fantastic. This movie looks and feels more like the late 1970s than some movie actually from the 1970s do. Unfortunately this homage to the popcorn movies of the 1970s, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. – fails to connect on any other level. I’m dazed that so many critics have given this thoughtless junk a passing grade. There is little excitement from the mystery of the derailed train and no wonder of the changes that occur in adolescence. These kids live in a hermetically sealed world that, sadly, has little relation to ours or the worlds that Spielberg created in his early films. These feel like kids created by a writer who is more concerned with making an action movie than a movie about them. They are set pieces meant to scream on cue in front of special effects.

I did like Joel Courtney in the lead, playing Joe, a good kid trying to connect with his father after the death of his mother while helping his friend make a zombie movie for an amateur film festival. The rest of the kids who make up his circle of friends are obvious types: the bossy fat one, the lanky pyromaniac, the pretty one, the dumb one. It’s hard to believe filmmakers who have created such believable characters in the past would think these work. There’s even a contrived rivalry between Joe’s father, Sheriff Jackson Lamb, and the father of the pretty one – it’s so obvious how that will play out it’s embarrassing.

The premise is great, unfortunately writer-director J.J. Abrams doesn’t know (or care) what to do with it. While secretly shooting Charley’s movie late one night, the kids witness a military train derailment and accidentally film it. The U.S. Air Force swoops in and assures everyone that there was nothing hazardous on the train, but doesn’t give any other information. (You know it’s something because if it’s nothing, they can tell you what it is.) Strange things begin occurring in the Ohio town making it clear that there was something on the train. Their film could help them figure out what it was. As intriguing as all that sounds it’s executed as formulaically as one could imagine. The creature is derivative, the personal conflicts and dramas are muted in favor of chugging the plot forward, the Air Force guys are unbelievable sociopaths (why couldn’t they be genuinely fearful for the population of the town, rather than two-dimensional heartless goons that only seem to exist in writers’ heads?) Why couldn’t this have been more about kids in love with movies instead another monster movie without an original twist? I never got the sense that any of these kids loved movies. They don’t seem to watch them, talk about them, or even know they exist beyond posters on a wall. Charles’ movie, then, becomes a gimmick. In the end, this is a flashy exercise in boredom. I didn’t much care about the alien, about Joe and Alice’s (the pretty one) relationship or whether their dads will make up (because you know they will and why they will from the first time they meet). (Rating **)

Young mutants begin to come together in 1962.

X-Men: First Class

X-Men – whether the comic books, TV shows, or movies – are always strongest when they are rooted in a reality that asks how society would react if we knew there were mutants with supernatural abilities living among us. They have also dealt marvelously with how factions within the mutant community would arise, each advocating differing methods of dealing with their human counterparts. The movies have had varying levels of success, though I largely liked all of them (yes, even the third though there is still room for someone to make a truly great movie out of this material). X-Men: First Class traces the roots of Charles Xavier’s school and his relationship with Erik Lehnsherr, soon to become Magneto, the super-villain who not only thinks a war with humans is inevitable, but desirable.

The main problem with First Class is too much is packed into such a short time span. It would have been nice to have spent a little more time with these characters, seen their stories, before we get to the inevitable action sequences, especially the relationship between Charles and Raven (a wonderfully cast Jennifer Lawrence) and their eventual falling out. There are so many characters with great story potential like scientist Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), who shamefully hides his mutated feet. There are about five or six such characters that are introduced in a breeze, but whose stories would have made the movie richer (especially a disgracefully underused Darwin played by Armando Muñoz). Or what about some of the stories of villain Sebastian Shaw’s team like Riptide, Azazel, or, most intriguingly, Emma Frost.

The casting is mostly well thought out. I enjoyed James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Charles and Erik, respectfully. They both capture the characters brought to life by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKlellan without mimicking them. The only dud for me was January Jones as Emma Frost, a wonderfully complex character that Jones can’t keep up with. I cringed every time she had to string more than one sentence together (which, thankfully, director Matthew Vaughn handled nicely by giving her short lines). In everything I’ve seen her in she’s played a variation on Betty Draper or, I’m beginning to suspect, on herself.

Otherwise, despite the rushed story and a weak link in the cast, I enjoyed the insertion of X-Men into the Cuban Missile Crisis and was shocked that they even got a lot of the history right (no one ever seems to remember that U.S. missiles in Turkey precipitated the incident), even though they went on to have mutants save the day. But that made sense. We’re talking about an alternate universe here, like The Watchmen. This is a re-imagining of what would have happened had mutants been around – and a pretty entertaining one at that. (Rating ***1/2)

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“This script is an insult to man’s intelligence. Even mine!” Never Give a Sucker an Even Break – Best Pictures of 1941 (#10)

It’s time to begin my look at the best of 1941…

This is one of the weirdest, most surreal comedies to have been churned out of the Hollywood assembly line. W.C. Fields plays a version of himself, only billed as The Great Man, and that is about all I can say about the movie with any certainty. Fields spends most of the picture supporting his opera singing niece Gloria Jean and trying to sell a nonsensical script to The Producer (Franklin Pangborn), a big shot (maybe the head?) at Esoteric Studios. Much of the film replays the script as Fields imagines it complete with an open air observation deck on an airplane, an idyllic Russian village, and an isolated mountain home where the imposing Mrs. Hemoglobin (Margaret Dumont) has hidden away her beautiful young daughter away from the corrupting influence of men.

 

W.C. Fields and Gloria Jean

If none of this makes sense, not much in the rest of the picture does either. Like why would Producer Pangborn want Gloria Jean to sing a snooze-inducing operatic aria for his film? I don’t think, even in 1942, that opera was a hot commodity in film. (Of course it is Esoteric Studios.) Or could a even a super soft bed really break Fields’ fall from an airplane? Or if the food is so bad at Fields’ regular diner, why does he go there? Or why is there a gorilla in the mountains of the Russian village? And why does no one seem to be Russian there?

None of these questions matter, nor do they detract from the fun. In fact, they might even enhance the experience. What we are seeing is the ultimate W.C. Fields absurdist comedy. He’s throwing in all the stops as though he was aware that he didn’t have much time left and any idea he had better be used now. (This would be his last film.) Fields wasn’t hamstrung by the usual conditions of plot or character, but opted for a more free flowing situational comedy, set specifically in a world that makes no sense.

 

"I was only trying to guess your weight!" W.C. Fields in "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break"

This strategy could have backfired, resulting in a burdensome mess, but Fields packs in enough genuinely funny gags and routines that we relishing the nonsensical plot. Especially funny is a scene where Fields sits at a soda fountain counter then turns to the camera and says, “This scene’s supposed to be in a saloon but the censor cut it out.” But don’t worry, he assures us, “It’ll play just as well this way.” He goes on to wrestle with getting a scoop of ice cream from his glass to his mouth, but the straws he uses to scoop out the ice cream bends away from his mouth. He also has a wonderful scene in a diner with a waitress who finds him insultingly unfunny. Their banter is classic W.C. Fields comedy. “And another thing,” the chunky waitress admonishes, “Don’t be so free with your hands.” Fields replies: “Listen, honey. I was only trying to guess your weight. You take things too seriously.”

There are many W.C. Fields movie I love and though this one may not be the best, it certainly ranks high up there for its inventiveness, its audacity, and, most importantly, its hilarity.

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Catching Up with the Weekly Movie Diary, Part II: “The Hangover Part II,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” “Beginners”

It's deja vu all over again...

The Hangover Part II

Sequels – good sequels, that is – should continue the journeys of their characters, not replicate them. It is stunning how sloppy and lazy the script for The Hangover Part II is, recycling everything – and I mean everything – from the first film. The same characters go through exactly the same adventures, precipitated by exactly the same events. And in the end, the same character has the same realization he had in the first one. Why does he need to learn to stand up for himself twice? While I like the original Hangover (though I don’t love it), this is a terrible follow up. Sure there are some laughs, but not enough to save it. I have read assurances that the next Hangover movie will take characters someplace new. I hope they do if they want to make up for this mess. (Rating *1/2)

It's deja vu all over again.. wait. Didn't I just say that?

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

I guess the best thing I can say about this movie is it isn’t as bad as the last Pirates movie, but it’s still remarkably bad. There was nothing that struck me as particularly fresh or exciting. Johnny Depp’s clever characterization of Capt. Jack Sparrow feels tired by the fourth installment, but in fairness it was probably played out by the end of the second film. Getting rid of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley in favor of Penelope Cruz is appreciated, but there isn’t much Cruz can do with this material. Worse she just looks silly dressed up like a pirate. On Stranger Tides was as depressing a movie I’ve sat through all year: It was boring, insulting, and frustrating in some places. My depression hit its lowest depths when reports of the movie’s massive success, especially from overseas, came in at the end of the weekend, virtually assuring another Pirates movie. Hopefully the filmmakers will decide to take the time and have the pride to make a decent movie, rather than continue with the string of lazy hits. (Rating *)

Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor in "Beginners"

Beginners

When confirmed commitment-phobe Oliver meets and falls beautiful French actress Anna, he is reminded of his father’s final years. His father Hal came out of the closet at the age of 75, only months after Oliver’s mother died, found a young lover, and went on to live for only a few years more. Hal tries to overcome the repression and fear he was taught as a child with the more open and courageous example his father gave him at the end of his life. The movie effortlessly transitions between the beginnings of Oliver’s relationship with Anna (Mélanie Laurent) and the memories of the last years of his father’s life: his relationship with Andy, his increasing involvement with the gay community, and his slow, painful death from cancer. Though the material doesn’t hang together perfectly, it is still a largely good movie. Christopher Plummer really steals the show away from star Ewan McGregor, a clear late career Oscar push. Plummer is exuberant as the newly liberated man, eager to drink in as much life as he can in the short time he has left. Meanwhile McGregor creates a complicated, layered character who uses glibness and irony to avoid commitment. One of the joys of the movie for me was the too few scenes with Mary Page Keller as Oliver’s mother, who we meet in flashbacks to his childhood. She is largely ignored by her closeted husband so she develops a close bond with her son. Her character is quirky and unexpected; the scenes at the LA County Museum of Art are priceless. (“We’re not allowed to interact with the art?”) It is a role that will probably go unrecognized by critics and the public because of her limited screen time. Had she been given a couple more scenes at the same level, I would have been campaigning for best supporting actress. As it is she remains a small part of a good film. (Rating ****)

 

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