Monthly Archives: July 2011

“A weak man knows the value of strength, the value of power.” – Captain America: The First Avenger

Chris Evans is Captain America

I’m glad the filmmakers of the recent spate of Marvel Comic films have opted to go with lesser known actors to play their hero, like Chris Hemsworth as Thor. I’m sure the producers of these films understood that they  wouldn’t have to pay them as much as bona fide movie stars, but in the process they have actually cast the right people for the parts, rather than the people they think will fill seats. Chris Evans exhibits a determined sincerity with his performance as Steve Rogers, the initially lanky weakling who would have been a great model as the wimp getting sand kicked in his face by the bully in those old Charles Atlas ads. Through non-specific scientific tinkering, Steve is transformed into the muscle-bound Captain America. With his fresh off the assembly line bod, Steve proves to himself and the world that America is now here to kick ass.

Comic book mythologies tend to reflect contemporary ideals and anxieties, so it is fitting that Marvel introduced the patriotic protector in the early years of the Second World War. Captain America confirmed the primacy of American morals and strength at a time when nothing in the rest of the world was all that certain. Steve Rogers was a symbol of what Americans hoped their country could be. And, for that matter, the rest of the world as well.

It is less clear how a flag-waving U.S. superhero will be embraced in this day and age. It was probably smart to keep the action in Rogers’ early days before the reputation of the U.S. would be tarnished by a long list of imperialist interventions and covert CIA actions. It was a time when one could be idealistic about the U.S. without sympathetic smiles and pats on the hand from people who assume we’re patriotic because we just don’t know any better. It was the last era of certainty.

Skinny but scrappy Steve Rogers before the transformation

We see his futile efforts to join the military in the early years of the war despite a richly deserved 4-F status for being dramatically underweight, asthmatic, and having several other ailments that would have deterred the most patriotic young men. Better to collect scrap metal and grow victory gardens than drop dead of an asthma attack in the South Pacific. But Steve isn’t deterred; he wants to do his part.

His persistency pays off when he is spotted by Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci). Erskine recognizes a perfect candidate in Rogers and invites him to take part in an experimental program that will potentially grow the subject, not just physically, but intellectually and morally as well. It is, therefore, crucial that he find a candidate that also has a well-developed sense of ethics, as those will be accentuated as well. It isn’t the strongest man he was looking for, but the man with a finely tuned sense of morality and justice.

Unfortunately bodies like this don't come as easy as it did for Steve

Of course Rogers participates and is transformed into a beefy Adonis despite the early skepticism of the officer in charge of the program, Col. Chester Phillips. Tommy Lee Jones waltzes through the gruff, sarcastic, dry part with ease, but he brings a nice comedic touch to a film that is otherwise fairly serious. (Though I do love the back story of the costume coming from Steve’s stint as a war bonds salesman and movie star before becoming a legitimate hero.)

No superhero would be complete without an equally (or almost equally) powerful nemesis. Hugo Weaving is Johann Schmidt, a.k.a. Red Skull, a man so truly villainous that even the Nazis have to disavow him. Schmidt was an early recipient of Erskine’s serum before Erskine fled Nazi Germany, but Erskine had not worked out the kinks and Schmidt’s face was deformed into a devilish monstrosity. The serum also accentuated Schmidt’s evil nature and now Schmidt, having used the scientific resources of the Nazis, is bent on destroying the capitals of the world’s major nations, including Berlin. He hopes to usher in a new age of superhuman domination. (Did he meet up with Magneto at some point?)

Hugo Weaving as Johann Schmidt

The movie is solid as an action picture but don’t let your brain linger too long on certain things or the historical inconsistencies and holes will be groan worthy. I know we like to pretend we’re not racist anymore, but that doesn’t mean we should gloss over the racial injustices of the past. Seeing black soldiers serving alongside white soldiers might look OK to modern eyes, but the U.S. armed forces weren’t desegregated until after the war. That is one of those unnecessary (and well intentioned) errors that drive me crazy.

Even worse is the unexplained presence of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), a British intelligence agent (I think) who somehow has oodles of authority and rushes out into battle. I would have been willing to forgive all that if some time had been taken to develop her character, but she ends up just being the pretty face for Steve to fall in love with (though she isn’t a blatant set piece like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in Transformers: Dark of the Moon). Their romance is remarkably tepid and uninspired.

Romance proves to be the weak spot of "Captain America": Hayley Atwell with Evans

Captain America ranks as a stronger superhero movie despite some of these flaws and suffering from a blatant case of sequelitis. It still manages to make the story compelling even though we know that this is all a set-up for the massive Avengers movie filming now and set to be released next year. We saw the beginning of the set up in Iron Man 2 with Tony Stark finding Captain America’s shield among his father’s possessions and the FBI agent being called away to New Mexico (for what we now know will be his meeting with Thor). The Avengers will bring Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and other superheroes together for a big $150 million dollar star-studded extravaganza.

If The Avengers manages to be at least as good as most of the movies that have led up to it (with the notable exception of the wretchedly meandering Iron Man 2), then it should be a movie worth seeing. But balancing action with personal dramas and character development has what has made Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America worth watching. Juggling all these characters along with several others (like Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk) appears daunting and could turn out to be a massive disaster. In the meantime, though, we have Captain America to fill our summer action needs. (Rating ***1/2)

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Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon) – Best Supporting Actress of 1941

Other Noteworthy Performances: Peggy Ashcroft (Quiet Wedding), Mary Astor (The Great Lie), Edith Barrett (Ladies in Retirement), Spring Byington (The Devil and Miss Jones), Dorothy Comingore (Citizen Kane), Paulette Godard (Hold Back the Dawn), Jessica Grayson (The Little Foxes), Ruth Hussey (H.M. Pulham, Esq.), Elsa Lanchester (Ladies in Retirement), Maureen O’Hara (How Green Was My Valley), Teresa Wright (The Little Foxes), Margaret Wycherly (Sergeant York)

I hesitated choosing Mary Astor as the best supporting actress of 1941 because her part is so hefty that she feels like a lead. But, in the end, The Maltese Falcon is really only Humphrey Bogart’s film and everyone else is supporting him. Astor, however, does such a great job of creating a fully formed character that she manages to stand up well opposite Bogart’s near domination of the film.

Mary Astor brings a wonderfully compulsive liar to life without reducing her to her sociopathic tendencies. She turns those big innocent eyes toward Bogart’s Same Spade and for a while her explanations sound so sincere that even we believe her while we know she’s lying.

Mary Astor spins another tale in "The Maltese Falcon"

But there are hints that Astor’s Bridget O’Shaughnessy would love to rise above her sociopathic nature, to stop running, lying, and living a life of crime. She exhibits a vulnerability that lesser actresses would have used as a cheap ploy Bridget uses to ensnare Spade and highlight her perfidiousness. Astor recognizes that Bridget is vulnerable and she is constantly struggling between her two natures: brash selfishness and an intense need to be loved and valued.

Sam taps into her softer side and her walls crumble a little under his gaze. She manipulates him, but doesn’t enjoy it the way she must have with Thursby or Gutman. She is manipulating Sam because she believes she has to. The obsession for the Maltese Falcon is just too far along, gripping her weak soul and demolishing any of those dormant positive instincts that Sam had awakened.

 

Mary Astor had been a solid supporting actor for years, turning in good dramatic performances in Red Dust (1932), Dodsworth (1936), and The Hurricane (1937). She even showed off her comedic ability in Midnight (1939), something she would try again with even greater success in Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (1942), showing her great range.

Astor won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1941 for her role in the Bette Davis vehicle The Great Lie, but her work in The Maltese Falcon is clearly more accomplished. It has been reported that Astor wished she had won for Huston’s film, rather than this uninspired melodrama. I’m happy that the Academy honored Astor with an Oscar, but I agree that they should have given it to her for a better performance in a better film.

 

 

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“Troll Hunter” and “Tabloid” – Weekly Movie Diary

On the trail of trolls

Troll Hunter

This tongue-in-cheek Norwegian Blair Witch Project is great fun for most of its run time, but its energy peters out and by the end we can’t help but lament the cinematic carcass of what could have been a great movie. Told in the found footage style of Blair Witch, Cannibal Holocaust, and Paranormal Activity, we follow a trio of Norwegian college students working on a school project – a documentary about bear poaching. They identify a man they think is a notorious poacher, the mysterious Hans (Otto Jespersen). They follow him into the woods in the black of the night, but it turns out that Hans is not a poacher at all, but a government employee whose job is to contain Norway’s pesky and dangerous troll population, which is scrupulously kept secret by the TSS (Troll Security Service).

We have some fun as Hans teaches the youngsters the dos and don’ts of troll hunting, like how Christians can’t go into the field because trolls can sniff out Christian blood, a tale our students thought was an old myth to keep Norwegian children in check. There’s a wonderful moment when the students recruit a new member to their team who turns out to be Muslim. When they ask if that’s ok, Hans, never having had to face the realities of the new multicultural Europe in his work, just shrugs and says, “We’ll find out.”

But the premise wears thin as there are probably one or two troll encounters too many and we end up struck by how little tension (or laughs) build. Also the found footage strategy smacks of gimmickry. All the movies that have used this method successfully have utilized it as a tool to overcome budgetary constraints. But Troll Hunter is a beautifully shot film, especially the special care they took to light the forest at night, something that was impossible for the makers of Blair Witch to do with their cheap equipment and limited shooting time. And the troll special effects are surprisingly good. Why muddy those positives with unnecessarily clever tricks? Still there is enough wit and humor in the front end of Troll Hunter to warrant a recommendation. (Rating ***1/2)

Tabloid

North Carolina beauty queen Joyce McKinney was the scandal du jour for the British Isles in 1977 when authorities accused her of abducting a Mormon missionary, holding him against his will tied to a bed in a country cottage, and raping him repeatedly. She claimed consent; they were in love and she had to go to extreme measures to rescue him from the Mormon cult (as she calls it). It is only, she says, his twisted devotion (or brainwashing) to Mormonism that compelled him to claim rape. Legendary documentary filmmaker Errol Morris uses the story of the McKinney case – her arrest, subsequent fleeing the country, and the rabid pursuit of the British tabloid press – to document the intertwining obsessions that created the story. It also stands as another in a long line of quirky tales of obsession that seem to, frankly, obsess Morris.

The release of Tabloid fortuitously coincides with the News of the World phone hacking scandal, but if you expect to see a take down of tabloid journalism or a consideration of its comment on society, you’ll be disappointed. Morris lets the principals of the case tell their stories and lets the inconsistencies and craziness speak for itself, but he misses the opportunity to explore the murky nexus between the story and the press’s interest in feeding it, thereby actively inserting themselves into a story and changing its course. The fact that the press took the story of some crazy people (and they all seem to be crazy with the exception of a pilot who went to England with Joyce and bowed out of her scheme when he saw a gun and a bottle of chloroform) and kept it alive for the sake of paper sales is only hinted at but never fully explored. Morris also misses the opportunity to interrogate the politics of exploitation journalism where fidelity to accuracy and precision of language are sacrificed for scandal and sensation. There’s a particularly telling moment that may pass many viewers unnoticed when a British journalist who covered the story is describing the days when Joyce had her Mormon missionary captive in the house. He says the man was “chained” to the bed, but then he pauses and says Joyce said she had used rope, but chained “sounds better.” What a stunning moment when a man who is supposed to be reporting the truth admits changing details because it’s wickedly lurid. Moments like these, however, are never followed up on.

As with all of Morris’s documentaries this movie is skillfully constructed and there is a joy in his storytelling technique. We can’t help but be mesmerized by the nuttiness of this woman who still loves the dumpy, unattractive Mormon and insists she did nothing wrong. She lives in a fantasy world, but that is exactly what we go to the movies to see. We aren’t disarmed by the craziness, like in Crazy Love (2007), in which we are disconcerted by the tale of a man obsessed with a woman. When she rejects his advances, he throws acid in her face and spends years in prison. It gets even sicker when we find out they began a correspondence while he was in prison and were eventually married. The message seemed to validate the actions of stalkers: Keep trying guys! She’ll come around!

In Tabloid, we relish her unabashed insanity and hope if we’re ever as loony as her we will at least have her sense of humor (and won’t throw acid in someone’s face). How can anyone dislike a movie with kidnapping, pornography, prostitution, intricate disguises, and cloning a dog named Booger. This stuff is gold. (Rating ***1/2)

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“If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a great man.” – Citizen Kane – Best Pictures of 1941 (#1)

Orson Welles both directed and starred in his classic "Citizen Kane

I’m sure choosing Citizen Kane as the best picture of 1941 is about as surprising as bananas in a banana cream pie. It’s impossible to discuss the best movies of 1941 and not at least consider Orson Welles’s groundbreaking classic – though I’m perplexed by anyone who doesn’t agree that it is the best film of the year and, probably, the decade. (I won’t get into whether it is the best film ever made.) Even today it is fresh and exciting, so we can only imagine what it must have been like to see this in 1941, a year when studios fed U.S. filmgoers a heavy diet of brainless slop like the Betty Grable musical vehicle Moon over Miami, the lifeless Deanna Durbin pic It Started with Eve (with Charles Laughton no less), and those god-awful Charlie Chan movies.

It’s something of a chore to come up with anything original to say about Citizen Kane. I think more ink has been used on this movie than any other, though Birth of a Nation may be a close second. And it’s easy to see why. Orson Welles was a young, unproved director and by all the rules of Hollywood really should have never been able to make this movie with the absolute control RKO gave him. But the product he turned in is superior on every level to most of what was coming out of Hollywood. The story is tight, the acting is superb, the photography is crisply creative, and the direction is nothing short of visionary. Welles proved that he would be a force for decades to come, though he might have been more productive if he hadn’t been so difficult to work with. Nevertheless, Citizen Kane still stands as his crowning achievement.

A taste of Gregg Toland's gorgeous black and white cinematography

It wasn’t always so, of course. Like so many films now considered classics, it pretty much bombed at the box office. Much of its failure in 1941 can be blamed on William Randolph Hearst – on whom the character of Charles Foster Kane is based – and his zealously loyal national newspaper employees who waged a furtive campaign against not just Citizen Kane, but RKO as well. They stopped publicizing their pictures or, maybe worse, only published negative reviews. The most vicious was Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons who it has been rumored strong armed other studio heads into shutting Citizen Kane out of their theaters by threatening to reveal the dirty little secrets of them and their starts. Brenda Blethyn played Parsons in RKO 281, the 1999 dramatization of Welles’s struggle to make and distribute the film. She has a deliciously frosty scene where she spreads out 8 by 10s showing the explosive evidence of what she could expose to the horrified heads of Hollywood. It’s unlikely Parsons ever actually articulated any threats, though the studios probably knew they oughtn’t to annoy the Rupert Murdoch of their age and locked the film out of their theaters on their own steam.

But Citizen Kane did make it in their theaters when RKO’s head George Schaefer threatened the other studios with lawsuits. Hollywood moguls were never ones to go too far out on a limb, so they reluctantly allowed their theaters to screen the film, but by the time it finally got to audiences the initial rave reviews were muddied by all sorts of aspersions that it got a reputation as being – gasp! –  artsy, a death sentence to the popular success of a picture. It wasn’t until it’s re-release in the late 1950s that audiences who had only heard vague rumors of Welles’s masterpiece (or squinted at shoddy bootlegged 16mm prints) were able to assess the movie’s value – and it went on to earn a reputation of greatness.

That reputation can often turn off casual filmgoers, but it shouldn’t. I’ve heard people who haven’t seen it worry that it will be boring, because aren’t all great movies highfaluting nonsense only accessible to educated –read snobby – people? Citizen Kane is far from boring. The “mystery” of Rosebud shakes out to be a silly gimmick, but Welles uses it to illuminate a life corrupted by power. We are immediately sucked into the mystery, gimmick or not, and we become entranced by the journey this character makes from innocent Colorado schoolboy to media mogul. There is nothing boring there. Or I’ve heard people worry that they won’t understand it, like trying to read James Joyce. Great movies shouldn’t be enigmatic or obscure and Citizen Kane is an accessible classic of the Hollywood era. Maybe it isn’t as crowd pleasing as the smash hit Gone with the Wind, but audiences don’t walk out of theaters scratching their heads like they just sat through David Lynch’s Inland Empire. I’ve also heard some complain about it being in black and white and, well, there isn’t much reasoning that can be done with people who are that dopey.

Citizen Kane is the best movie of 1941 and probably of the entire decade. Some call it the best picture ever made and, if I didn’t believe that to be a rather silly designation, I would at least concede that it is at least on the short list for the title. If you’ve never seen it, I suggest breaking down and giving it a try. You can knock out a classic and you will probably find it better than its reputation for greatness led you to believe it to be.

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“I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity, a true canvas of the suffering of humanity…. But with a little sex.” – Sullivan’s Travels – Best Pictures of 1941 (#2)

McCrea's John L. Sullivan meets resistance from his studio bosses for his proposed "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

Writer-director Preston Sturges would make a string of classic comedies through the 1940s, but his best, the definitive Sturges film, is Sullivan’s Travels. It argues for a position near and dear to my heart: the nobility and value of comedy in a world beset by tragedy, poverty, and war.

Joel McCrea plays John Sullivan, a successful but artistically discontented Hollywood director. Sullivan wants to break out of the world of what he thinks of as frivolous musical comedy and make something serious, something important that speaks to their troubled times, something that will shed light on the plight of the poor. He sets his sights on a Grapes of Wrath-type novel O Brother Where Art Thou? (by Sinclair Beckstein) The studio executives, horrified at the prospect of another high-brow bomb, push Sullivan to direct a sequel to his smash hit, Ants in Your Pants of 1939.

Sullivan, however, doesn’t back down, but when one executive asks what he knows about trouble, he has an epiphany. He realizes that he doesn’t know anything about standing in a breadline, scrounging for food in trash cans, or tramping in boxcars, so what could he possibly have to say about it? Sullivan hatches a plot to disguise himself as a hobo and go on the road to experience a life of poverty. While Sullivan sees this as a research opportunity, the studio smells a great chance for publicity.

The always stunning Veronica Lake with Joel McCrea

So Sullivan dresses himself in rags and sets out to experience life as a hobo, but the studio steps in and turns the experience into a circus as an army of publicists follows him in a luxurious bus. That is until he meets a penniless would-be actress who agrees to show him the ropes. Veronica Lake shines as the cynical actress worn out by Hollywood casting couches and an avalanche of nos. Together they shake the publicity hounds and embark on a journey that is at turns hilarious and tragic.

Sturges’ script – like most of all his scripts – is witty and bright. My favorite exchange occurs as Sullivan is trying to convince the studio executives that there is a market for serious movies about the evils of unregulated capitalism by citing a heavy picture that ran for six weeks at the Radio City Music Hall. When an executive points out that the same film closed after a week in Pittsburgh. Sullivan: What do they know? Exec: They know what they like. Sullivan: If they knew what they liked they wouldn’t live in Pittsburgh.

Exchanges like these reveal Sturges’ disdain for elite do-gooders who want to make serious films to uplift the poor, to give them a voice. Don’t they already have voices? And if they choose not to use them for issues educated elites think they should, maybe it’s for reasons other than ignorance, laziness, or apathy. Maybe they understand their situation just fine and don’t need to be lectured to by people who eat three square meals a day and have no idea what they’re talking about. Sullivan’s butler tries to talk him out of his excursion by arguing that the poor already know about poverty and “only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.” He goes on to say: “You see, sir, rich people and theorists, who are usually rich people, think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches, as disease might be called the lack of health. But it isn’t, sir. Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study. It is to be shunned.” (After the butler leaves the room, Sullivan leans to his valet and says, “Say, he gets kind of morbid sometimes.” His valet replies, suspiciously, “Always reading books, sir.”)

John Sullivan discovers there's something noble about making people laugh

Sturges finds nothing low-brow about making people laugh, especially those people Sullivan sought to uplift and enlighten. And maybe a filmmaker (or writer) can make the same point with humor. It worked for Mark Twain and Will Rogers, why not Preston Sturges as well.

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“Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” “Larry Crowne,” and “Horrible Bosses”: Weekly Movie Diary

I skipped the movie diary last week because I skipped the movies. There was nothing all that thrilling in the theaters so I decided to save my cash. But this week I ventured back out to the multiplex. Here’s what I saw:

 

Shia LaBeouf returns for the third Transformers movie

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Someone needs to tell Michael Bay that a gorgeous face and rockin bod a star does not necessarily make. We’ve had beautiful women become great stars. Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Raquel Welch. But what they all had in common was personality and charisma. I don’t even think a talent for acting is crucial, but an actor should have some life in his or her eyes. Though she is something of an improvement over the vacuous Megan Fox, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley is just another cardboard cutout meant to approximate a pre-teen fantasy of a woman and is something of an insult to the thousands of beautiful young women who actually have some acting chops. Everything about her reeks of phony sexiness the likes of which would be hard to even find in the best porn movies. It seems though that Bay recognized the criticism of, not just feminists, but anyone with an intellect unclouded by hormones, that Megan Fox’s character in the second film was an insulting, helpless, damsel-in-distress with little brain or wit but plenty of masturbatory appeal. This time around Ms. Huntington-Whiteley’s Carly is a successful curator (I think) who steps up more than once to save herself and others. That’s cute and all but characters keep telling us how brilliant, competent, and hardworking she is without ever showing her being any of them, as though Bay and his writers just inserted a few lines to cover their collective sexist asses. But Bay’s childish sexuality and misogynism rear their ugly heads time and again, making his attempts to give Carly depth fraudulent. One especially groan-worthy moment: When Patrick Dempsey is describing the curves of a classic car as Bay’s camera slowly pans down Carly’s tight miniskirt clad body.

And I have gone on this rant actually having – surprisingly – somewhat enjoyed the picture. Sure it’s goofy and mindless, but it doesn’t have pretensions of anything other than a flashy good time. Bay balances Shia LaBeouf’s and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s shortcomings with solid supporting performances from Frances McDormand, Patrick Dempsey, and John Turtorro (though I’m not sure what John Malkovich was doing in this). Is this a great movie? Of course not. It’s two and a half hours of explosions and shootings and CGIed Transformers with silly voices who spout off nonsensical clichés about freedom. (As far as I could tell, it looked like they were fighting for their lives, not freedom. That’s a very different proposition.) But I found myself enjoying the goofiness. It isn’t a movie I recommend whole-heartedly, but if you enjoy these sorts of things it certainly is better than the two pieces of trash that came before it. (Rating ***)

 

Julie Roberts and Tom Hanks in Larry Crowne

Larry Crowne

 I wanted to like Tom Hanks’ Larry Crowne. I mean it’s just so well meaning and it’s full of likeable actors playing likeable characters, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that Hanks was dipping his creative toes in waters he just doesn’t understand. I’m not going to go so far as to call him a rich Hollywood elite placating his liberal conscience by playing a working class stiff, though those charges feel unsettlingly accurate. I’m not sure what Tom Hanks knows about modern working class Americans (I guess he hasn’t been one since his Bosom Buddies and Family Ties days circa 1980-1984), but this movie doesn’t suggest a deep understanding of the current economic woes of so many un- and  underemployed Americans. It tells the story of Larry Crowne, a fifteen year veteran of a WalMart-esque megastore who is fired because he doesn’t have a college degree. (This immediately rang false to me. Why not give a long-time valued employee a chance to go to college before summarily sacking him?) This throws Crowne into a funk and leaves him unable to afford the mortgage on the house he bought with his now ex-wife, though I’m not sure how anyone who works retail – even semi-management – could afford to buy a house in a pristine neighborhood in Southern California, even with a second income. So Larry decides to go to college and earn his degree so no one can fire him for not being educated again, though I think it’s usually one doesn’t get hired for being undereducated, not fired.

The premise is cute and fuzzy, but if Larry doesn’t have a job, how does he afford college? Yes, community colleges are cheaper, but they still cost money – more every day thanks to phony-baloney corporate hack politicians who won’t raise taxes. But we aren’t supposed to ask too many questions because Larry needs to go to college to change his life – new friends, new ideas, a new outlook on life, and, most improbably, a new romance with his speech professor. Julia Roberts plays Prof. Mercy Tainot who is stuck in a dead end job and a dead end relationship. For some reason she is attracted to Larry, but I sure couldn’t figure out why. I didn’t buy that she would have been charmed by this affable dufus at all; she’s much too smart and not that desperate. I liked both Hanks’ and Roberts’ performances when they weren’t together, but they don’t have much chemistry when they finally did share the screen. If Hanks and Roberts had connected I could have forgiven the economic fantasy-land the script lives in (I’m still not sure how one character is able to drop out of community college and open a vintage clothing store), but Larry Crowne falls short both as a comment on the state of the U.S. economy and as a light romantic comedy. (Rating **1/2)

 

Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, and Jason Sudeikis in Horrible Bosses

Horrible Bosses

If you go to see Horrible Bosses you will be treated to one joke and that one joke isn’t even followed through to its punchline. What happens when three longtime friends decide to kill their bosses who have been torturing and abusing them? Well, if you expect them to actually kill them, you might want to check out some braver comedies about murderous protagonists like Kind Hearts and Coronets or Michael Caine’s A Shock to the System (or read the devilishly funny book The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester). The friends Nick, Dale, and Kurt (Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, and Jason Sudeikis) are incompetent to a frustrating degree and I guess that is supposed to be the gag. They are too dumb to actually kill their bosses, but it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to realize that when they find a lot of cocaine in the house of one of the bosses, all they have to do is call the police. Or another of the bosses is taken care of nicely at the end with an incriminating video. No killing necessary and, truthfully, a much funnier concept: How do we beat our bosses at their own game? That movie could have been much funnier and smarter than this silliness about killing them (and not even having the guts to go through with it). What fun would it have been to watch a male version of Nine to Five instead of this uninspired murder fantasy.

The only laughs come from Kevin Spacey as Jason Bateman’s sadistic boss and Jennifer Aniston as a horny dentist who needs a sexual harassment seminar. (Colin Farrell is the only dud; he’s just too rotten and isn’t given as much screen time.) Both relish their roles and have a great time playing them up, but the story isn’t smart or edgy enough to do them justice. (Rating **)

 

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“We’ll own this country some day.” – The Little Foxes – Best Pictures of 1941 (#3)

Herbert Marshall and Bette Davis scheme against each other in "The Little Foxes"

Independent producer Samuel Goldwyn was no stranger to the murky intersection of personal relationships and business. He was pushed out of more than one company he helped found, including Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, less for business reasons than for personal antipathy. Given this background it is no wonder that Goldwyn was attracted to Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes, which explores the violence and exploitation possible in just about any relationship (connubial, sibling, friend, etc.) when business intertwines with personal relationships.

The Hubbard family has clawed its way up from social and economic irrelevance to prominence in their unnamed Southern town by the turn of the twentieth century. They are a breed of new capitalists who displaced the old Southern aristocracy in the decades after their defeat in the Civil War. They did not, however, get rich through hard work or innovation, but through the exploitation and outright cheating of the poor, and by picking the bones of struggling families of the old aristocracy. (Ben Hubbard even marries Birdie, the daughter of one of these clans, to gain access to the prestige of her family name.) The Hubbard siblings, Oscar, Ben, and Regina, value profit and power above all else. They are even willing to sacrifice their own relationships with each other and their respective families in order to secure profit.

Their latest scheme is to building a textile mill to their city. Bringing manufacturing to a town that already provides the raw materials (cotton) isn’t in itself a bad deal, but the carrot they dangle before a prominent Northern investor is the promise of laborers willing to work for $3 a week rather than the $8 he has to pay in the North.

Brothers Oscar and Ben are in, ready with their share of the investment needed to get the mill going, but Regina needs to convince her estranged husband Horace to put in as well. Horace, however, is convalescing from a serious heart condition in Baltimore and Regina connives to get him back home so she can convince him to invest in the mill, even though she knows he will be reluctant. Horace has grown more and more disgusted with the business tactics of the family he married into and sees the mill as another way for the Hubbards to suck up more of their town’s riches. His refusal to commit forces Regina and her brothers to scramble to make sure the deal goes through – and they aren’t above a little dishonesty.

The Hubbard clan gathers with money on their minds

The rest of the film is a rousing competition of wills and cunning as everybody maneuvers for the best position to maximize their own profits. Ben and Oscar hatch a scheme to cut out Regina and she retaliates by blackmailing them into a greater share and on and on it goes.

Hellman’s play translates well to the screen, especially with some remarkably good performances. Bette Davis delivers one of the best performances of her prolific career as Regina, dominating every scene with nothing more than her presence. Herbert Marshall appears as Regina’s husband Horace. He plays Horace as a sensitive man tired of his wife’s greed, but quietly accepts her by going away. He manages to take one last stand against this mill, but Regina’s determination may prove too much for his weak heart. Since the entire Hubbard family can’t be rotten (and I’m even leaving out Oscar’s son Leo, a dumb and arrogant kid that, knowing the course of U.S. history, is probably bound to be a U.S. Senator or something) we also have Regina and Horace’s daughter Alexandra played by Teresa Wright. She is sweet and naïve, completely unaware of her mother’s and uncles’ nefarious double-dealings. Though her character does not get the screen time others do, at the end, the movie is more about her coming of age and disillusionment about her family as anything else. (A principled young newspaper reporter was added to the screenplay as her love interest and to prod her toward the light, probably because Hollywood big shots couldn’t conceive of a woman having an idea of her own, without a sensible man planting it in her head.)

William Wyler’s direction and Gregg Toland’s photography buttress the strong performances and polished writing to complete one of the best movies of 1941. For me this would have been a shoo-in for best of the year if it were not for a sparkling, socially-conscious comedy and a pesky, but unavoidable masterpiece.

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Filed under 1941, Yearly Best Pictures