Saturday, December 31, 2005

The nose knows. No nose? No way!: "The Salton Sea"

If not for the narration -- and Val Kilmer's oh-so-soft tones in delivering it -- this actually would be a pretty decent movie.

We've come to expect our man Val to go too far when it comes to some roles, and he overdoes it again here as a guy with a couple of identities. Still, considering he was coming off a run of thankless, one-dimensional roles -- "Red Planet," "At First Sight," "The Island of Dr. Moreau" -- this wasn't that bad, even with the "Stop, listen to my thoughts" parts.

"The Salton Sea" -- the title could be better, by the way -- has Kilmer playing a junkie who really is a widowed trumpet player. Turns out his wife's murder has moved him to take on another identity in which he runs with lowlifes and snitches for the cops. As the story twists and turns, Kilmer comes into contact with a bigtime drug dealer for what may or may not be some kind of sting.

Like I said, Kilmer is a bit much at times, but he and the story overall were interesting enough. Greatly helping things was the unparalleled Vincent D'Onofrio, who some people probably think of as "that guy from one of those 'Law & Order' shows." But ever since "Full Metal Jacket," we've been able to count on Vinnie coming to play. (OK, maybe not in "Adventures in Babysitting.")

Here, he's the bigtime drug dealer, who incidentally doesn't have a nose anymore because he did so many drugs. As a result, we get to enjoy either a plastic nose or a gaping hole in the middle of D'Onofrio's face. Add his good ol' boy demeanor -- "I deal in U.S. pounds, friend ... none of that f*ggot metric shit for me" -- and you've got another nice performance.

Other guys are good, too. Peter Sarsgaaaaaaaaaaaard gets maybe the biggest supporting role as Kilmer's junkie friend, but other character actors -- Luis Guzman, Anthony LaPaglia, Adam Goldberg, Danny Trejo -- pop up as well. And we even get a Meat Loaf sighting! All in all, "The Salton Sea" wasn't boring, just a little overdone in places. Then again, any movie in which a badger gets a chance to nibble someone's privates is all right by me.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Got a black magic woman ... : "Bewitched"

It's a sad commentary on the state of movies today when you hope that one of the myriad remakes of old TV shows will be merely adequate. Actually good? Hey, let's not get crazy.

No worries with "Bewitched," which is ... um, not good. Don't get me wrong. I expected very little from this fluff, and watched it because (again) it was something the whole family could tolerate. Alas, my wife fell asleep, leaving me to soldier through to the sappy end.

In what is supposed to be a clever twist, Nicole Kidman ("Billy Bathgate") plays a witch who is almost accidentally cast as Samantha in a TV remake of "Bewitched." You see? It's a movie about a remake, not just a remake itself. Genius! (Thank yooouuuu!!!) She plays opposite Will Ferrell ("The Ladies Man"), a washed up movie actor who only wants an unknown so he can have all the lines. But that doesn't go over so well with audiences and Kidman. As you might guess ... wait for it ... hijinks ensue.

Kidman looks fantastic and is sort of amusing, but ultimately her character is just too annoying. (Nice nose, though.) Ferrell has been better in almost anything else, getting only a few maybe-funny scenes and a lot more bumbling/doe-eyed ones. I'm not saying he needs to unleashed -- I actually don't go for the yelling so much -- but he's usually better when he hams it up in some way. Even though he's a washed-up actor here, he's more the straight man, and that's not so good for him.

Fear not, though, as other stars are even more wasted. Michael Caine mails in his performance as Kidman's dad, while Shirley MacLaine is nothing special as the actress playing Endora. About the only funny thing between them was him trying to hit on young girls while she plants less than appealing dialogue in their mouths. ("Hey there! I have Hepatitis C!")

Other supporting players aren't given anything great to do, either, and the whole movie turns out to be a little sad. Looks great, has talented actors, but ultimately isn't even cute or mildly amusing. Hell, if they were going to pull something like this, they could have had the decency to remake the other show and dress Kidman up in a genie outfit. Now that I would have seen on the big screen.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

What do we love during the holidays? Leftovers!

There's actually a bit of a backup in the Movievangelist queue of viewed movies, so let's knock a few out in this mini-smorgasbord.

Um ... no: "Yes"
My Lady and I rented this one night when we didn't have anything else mutually agreeable from Netflix or on TiVo. Yeah, that was a mistake. Oh, Joan Allen looks great as usual; can you believe she's almost 50? And the story could have been OK, with Allen having an affair with a Middle Eastern guy. But not when they speak in rhyme. Seriously, the pattern changed here and there, but everyone pretty much spoke in couplets or ... triplets(?) for the first half of the movie. We ended up not finishing it, mainly because I couldn't get escape the possibility that Allen would eventually say, "I do not like green eggs and ham, I do not like them, Sam I am."

But when did Charlie Daniels end up with it?: "The Red Violin"
This movie will always hold a special place in my heart: It was the first movie we put in our Netflix queue. Weird, huh? Even weirder was that we ended up TiVoing it from IFC, which meant I ended up deleting my first Netflix movie from my queue. Somewhat more interesting than that background is the movie's plot, which essentially traces the history of a red violin as it comes up for auction. It's not a bad idea, nor was it poorly executed, with the violin proceeding from its maker to a child prodigy at a monastery to a famous violinist to some people in China. (I dozed off a bit there.) Good music, good looking scenes, but kind of boring after a while. What passes for suspense is who will get the violin at auction, but by that time I was more interested in whether Samuel L. Jackson would bust out with "Devil Went Down to Georgia."

It's not you, it's me. Oh, you knew that already: "Carnal Knowledge"
"Carnal Knowledge" spent 90-plus minutes telling us what is common knowledge: Jack Nicholson is an ass, and Art Garfunkel is a wuss. But hey, maybe that was news in 1971. The story follows these two guys through some 25 years, from college virgins to jaded fortysomethings. Along the way, they learn about sex, love and themselves, and what a mess all three can be. Mike Nichols directed this, and while it can be painful, especially when it comes to Nicholson's character, it's not bad. It does, however, seem to go on for a while for being a relatively short movie, and I wasn't entirely sold on Jack's performance. Ann-Margret, though, was pretty good ... and naked, to boot. In the end, maybe I just tired of all the talking and arguing. Then again, it's never boring to see what's going to happen next with Garfunkel's hair.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Soup kitchen and lost pension jokes? HEE-larious!: "Fun with Dick and Jane"

Maybe it's just me, but Jim Carrey could stand to loosen up a bit.

Kidding, kidding. Fear not ... we don't get another ill-fated dramatic turn, a la "The Majestic." True, I never saw that classic from a few years back, but neither did anyone, apparently. And lucky for us, Carrey bounced back with the one-two punch of "Bruce Almighty" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," and I guess I usually give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to mindless fun. Hey, you know how I feel about "The Cable Guy."

"Fun with Dick and Jane" qualified as something both My Forever Love and I could see together over the holidays. I wasn't dragging her to "King Kong," and there was a better chance of me getting an eyebrow wax than seeing "Memoirs of a Geisha." So we took in Carrey and Tea "Mrs. Duchovny" Leoni as a suburban couple who eventually turn to crime after Dick's bigtime corporate job goes kablooey, sending their lives down the crapper.

It's such a funny idea it's already been done once, back in the '70s. Here, the story is updated for the Enron/Worldcom era, in which Carrey's boss fleeces employees and sends the company into bankruptcy. Alec "Pete Schweddy" Baldwin ("Mercury Rising") plays the good ole boy boss, and he's amusing as usual. Isn't it great how he's given up being a lead actor? Seriously, even though he gets plenty of work and got nominated for an Oscar last year, it's been several years since you could call something "an Alec Baldwin movie." Do you think he regrets not keeping the Jack Ryan role after "The Hunt for Red October?"

But back to Carrey and Leoni, both of whom are game for all sorts of slapstick in "Dick and Jane." No quibbles with their performances, nor with others; along with Baldwin, we get Richard "Six Feet Under" Jenkins as a crooked CFO and one of my personal faves, Carlos Jacott, as Carrey's corporate colleague. You may know him as Ramon, the pool guy, from "Seinfeld." I know! That guy's great!

No, all the actors are trying here. It's the general story that falls a little short. Despite some funny scenes and a few good throwaway lines, I found the overall order of events to be odd. Maybe it was because the overall concept was a little thin -- topical, yes, but thin -- but it seemed to take a long time for the Harpers to go from riches to rags, and some of that wasn't so funny.

At a time when the economy really isn't so hot and highly-qualified people are struggling to find jobs, some of the Harpers' plight might have been a little too on-target. That's fine in other movies, but the occasional bits of poignancy didn't work so well here. I wanted to see more about the family getting everything back through robbery, since that part of the movie seems glossed over. I could be overanalyzing this -- hey, it's Jim Carrey -- but "Dick and Jane" might have been better as a more biting satire, a la "Office Space," instead of a mix of the zany and the sappy, including the ending.

In the end, the movie certainly is watchable and more than fit the bill for a long holiday weekend. It just didn't deliver on what could have been a sharper, more biting take on the consequences of today's corporate malfeasance. Now if Carrey had bent over and talked out of his butt ...

Monday, December 26, 2005

The movie that almost makes me forgive him for "Sabrina" (but probably not "Six Days, Seven Nights"): "Raiders of the Lost Ark"

This is my favorite movie of all time. Well, this and "Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo."

Really, of all the movies I could watch over and over and over, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" tops the list. It's just a great movies ... action-packed, funny, great-looking ... the whole package. Almost a quarter-century after it came out, "Raiders" still holds up extremely well, even if the DVD guys now sell it as "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark."

I know this because I got the DVD box set for Christmas, and I couldn't resist watching the first and best in the series on the big TV today. Even told My Luminous and Brilliant Wife to clear out for a couple of hours. With the day off, the man of the house needed some quality couch time with Indy, Marion, Belloq, Sallah and the whole gang.

What always amazes me about "Raiders" is how the movie never, ever has a dull moment. That doesn't mean we get sensory overload. With the crappy story and character development of some movies these days, the only way to keep audiences interested is by constantly moving the camera around and throwing digital effects on the screen every other minute. But while "Raiders" has its share of special effects and and plenty of action, there's also a plot and characters with more than one dimension, led by Dr. Jones himself.

It was impossible for a boy in the '80s to watch this movie and not think Harrison Ford was the coolest man alive. I mean, he was both Indiana Jones and Han Solo, for god's sake! As Indy, Ford had the perfect mix of brains, wit and brawn, although he certainly wasn't a Stallone-Arnold type impervious to pain. Indeed, watching him take so much punishment while chasing down the Ark is a big part of the fun. There's very much a "now what?" element to the story.

I can't imagine anyone doesn't know the plot of "Raiders," so let's just run down some of the best lines:

"Throw me the idol, I'll throw you the whip!"

"Didn't any of you guys ever go to Sunday school?"

"An army that carries the Ark before it... is invincible."

"I'm going after a find of incredible historical significance, and you're talking about the boogie man."

"The man is nefarious."

"Fräulein Ravenwood, let me show you what I am used to ... "

"Shoot them ... shoot them both."

"You want to talk to God? Let's go see him together, I've got nothing better to do."

"They're digging in the wrong place!"

"Bad dates."

"You Americans, you're all the same. Always overdressing for the wrong occasions."

"Indy, why does the floor move? "

"Snakes ... why'd it have to be snakes?"

"I don't know, I'm making this up as I go."

"It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage."

Like I said, just a great movie, from the first scene in South America to the ending in the government warehouse. Now if I could just find out how to speak Hovitos ...

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

It's not such a good sign when the students look older than the teachers: "Three O'Clock High"

Ah, the '80s ... when every week brought a new teen comedy of marginal (at best) quality. Sure, a hidden gem might sneak through; for every "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" there was a "Just One of the Guys." But there also was "One Crazy Summer" and other misfires. (What, you thought Bobcat Goldthwait could carry any movie? Has the Director's Cut of "Hot to Trot" come out yet?)

Falling firmly into this mediocre-and-middling category is "Three O'Clock High." There's no getting around it: This is not a good movie, and it only maybe qualifies as "fun." Now "dumb" ... well, then we're onto something. Of course, this all begs the question of why I bothered to watch. I guess it was because I remembered it from my teen years and wanted to recapture some of that "nerd triumphs over bully" vibe. I would have been better off just going with the more overt entry into that genre, "Revenge of the Nerds."

Here, we don't get Booger or even a reasonable copy. Our hero is Jerry, a meek high school student who runs the school store and writes for the school paper. Unfortunately, he's assigned to profile a new student, tough guy Buddy Revell. Even more unfortunately, Jerry ticks off Buddy, who says he's going to fight Jerry after school. Guess what time school ends?

The rest of the movie has Jerry trying to get out of the fight, and you won't be surprised to learn that all of these attempts are pretty silly and no cause for deep reflection. But even more inane than this series of slapstick scenes is the casting. You'd think that a movie revolving around two kids who are supposed to fight would actually have two kids in the role. Um, no.

Now I can forgive some stuff, and if pressed ... sure, let's say the bad guy is really a man-child who was held back a couple of years. As Buddy, Richard Tyson ("Red Shoes Diaries 3") doesn't look anywhere close to 18, much less 21. Go figure, since he was 26 at the time. But like I said, we can try to look past that.

Somewhat more inconceivable, though, is the casting of Casey Siemaszko ("Back to the Future, Part II") as Jerry. I guess the thinking was that his fresh face would make him another Ralph Macchio, i.e. plays 10 years younger. But I couldn't help thinking two things: (1) This guy looks like a little De Niro, and (2) there's no way he's a teenager. Go figure, since he also was 26 at the time.

Even the appearance of some great role players -- Jeffrey Tambor, Philip Baker Hall, Mitch Pileggi -- can't overcome this colossal miscasting. Sure, it's mildly amusing to watch Jerry squirm. But did anyone really think he was going to get stomped when the clock struck three? In the end, I took away only three funny lines from this movie:

3. "If you're a fag ... "
2. "Don't f*ck this up, Mitchellll!"
1. "You can take that paper of yours and wipe off your d*ck with it!"

As someone whose spent a little time in journalism, I can safely say that wiser words have never been said.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Everything is connected ... no, really ... you'll just have to trust us: "Syriana"

You know, I'm a smart guy. Finished top of my class in high school, went to a decent college, usually kick butt on "Jeopary," can count pi to ... um, four digits. Anyway, the point is that I normally can follow most plots and connect this guy to that in a movie. At least, I thought so.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to "Syriana."

Much has been made about the serpentine -- some would say muddled -- plot of what I guess is a geopolitical thriller. While some movies might be happy with a big ensemble cast and exotic locales, director Stephen Gaghan apparently thought moviegoers first needed whiplash, then needed to take notes. Seriously, this may be the first movie that should have had little discussion breaks every 20 minutes.

(My Lovely and Talented Wife no doubt loves this, as I'm the guy who never needs to clear up what's happened on screen, and usually gets annoyed when she wants to hash it out. "Just watch!")

This structure isn't a surprise given Gaghan wrote "Traffic," another movie that starts by throwing out a bunch of people in a bunch of places. In that case, you soon learn they're connected by drugs, and the result was a great story -- or set of stories. In "Syriana," the vice is oil, and the reach is even greater, from Texas to Washington to Switzerland to Iran to an unnamed fictional country at the center of all this.

I couldn't possibly explain even the basic plot because it's not basic. So let's just run down the players:
-- A CIA agent in the Middle East, played by George Clooney. He's all scruffy, pudgy and worn out -- perfect for the part.
-- A corporate lawyer working on an oil company merger, played by Jeffrey Wright. He's great simply because I can't believe it's the same guy who played Peoples Hernandez in "Shaft."
-- An energy analyst played by Matt Damon, whose perfect life is ruined before he gets idealistic. He's not bad, either, but aside from a few choice lines has a less juicy role.
-- An Arab prince (Alexander Siddig) who shares his ideas with Damon.
-- A slimy law firm head (Christopher Plummer).
-- A Pakistani former oil field worker (Mazhar Munir) recruited by fundamentalist Muslims.
-- An oil company exec (Chris Cooper).
-- A corrupt congressman (Tim Blake Nelson).

And on and on. Like I said, a lot of people in a lot of places. And yeah, it's hard to keep up and make all the connections. But it definitely wasn't boring, at least not to me. As I told someone the other day, it was a good hour to 90 minutes before I looked at my watch. Of course, that may have been because I thought I would miss something. "Wait a minute ... we're in Tehran again?"

No question "Syriana" isn't for everyone, especially in this holiday blockbuster season. But if you don't absolutely need a giant ape, a goblet of fire, or a lion, a witch and a wardrobe, this is a great chance to get insight to a huge issue, and maybe exercise your brain a bit. True, you may need to see it 2-3 times to digest everything -- I suspect I will -- but I like movies like that. It was the same way with this other recent movie about an important issue: the media. I refer, of course, to "Anchorman."

Saturday, December 17, 2005

And some QBs just want to throw 20-30 with no INTs: "Flash Gordon"

This was like seeing the Mona Lisa with a pageboy haircut.

Let me explain. I love "Flash Gordon." For me, it's the perfect combination of cool movie when I was a kid that has remained entertaining -- with the added benefit of being really silly -- now that I'm an adult. And come on ... Queen did the soundtrack! Even with that, it's hard to believe the movie is 25 years old. Then again, it's so cheesy and poorly written and acted that it's clear it would be savaged by critics if released today. And come to think of it, I'm pretty sure it didn't get rave reviews from adults back then, either.

Unlike today's comic book movies, "Flash" dispenses with any notion of explaining why anyone does -- or can do -- what he or she does. This isn't a problem in the first few minutes -- sure, I can see Flash and Dale Arden flirting on their little plane trip, then him trying to save her from being hijacked by Hans Zarkov for his rocket trip. But it doesn't take long for things to get waaayyy out there, and I don't just mean to the Mongo system.

But isn't that the appeal? Who doesn't want to see Flash Grodn -- "Quarterback, New York Jets" -- stand up to Ming the Merciless right away by bouncing mini-watermelons off guards heads? Who doesn't have a problem with Dale knowing how to shoot a ray gun while escaping from Ming's bedroom? Flash can fly an Ajax war rocket? Sure!

Like I said, it's silly, but lots of fun. Just imagine if they had gotten Kurt Russell to play Flash and Dennis Hopper as Zarkov. Instead, we get unknown Sam J. Jones as our hero, who was so good he promptly won roles in ... um, well ... "My Chauffeur?" "The Highwayman?" Yikes. Check out his IMDB page, and tell me 75 percent of these titles aren't made up.

I could ramble on with my favorite quotes -- some prefer "Flying blind on a rocket cycle," but I'll go with "Tricked ya, Barin!" But suffice it say I would love to have this on DVD -- it's the giving season, people -- and always try to watch when it's on TV.

So I was pretty happy to see it on last weekend, even if on the local UPN station. No matter, I figured, I can just TiVo it and breeze through the commercials. What I didn't realize is that the movie's full running time of 111 minutes meant cutting several scenes to fit the two-hours-with-commercials slot. Cutting scenes? From "Flash Gordon?"

Not to get melodramatic, but it almost hurt to watch. More than once, I found myself yelling at the TV, "Hey, what happened? Come on!" I suppose nothing crucial was lost, but anything removed almost ruins the experience. As it is, I'm waiting for the 25th anniversary director's cut with extra footage, especially if they involve Princess Aura showing Flash just how much she likes him. In detail. Woof.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Offsides on the inside: "The Longest Yard"

Here's a classic case of a so-called great movie being a bit disappointing.

It's probably not fair to the movie itself since times have changed in the last 30 decades, but "The Longest Yard" left me wanting. Part of it was the cutesy filmmaking from that era. Part of it was because it really wasn't as funny as I had been led to believe. Part of it was because I was told Burt Reynolds would be driving a black Trans Am during the movie.

Since I had never seen "Yard," I felt obligated to TiVo it from one of the HBO channels -- I don't know ... HBO, HBO2, HBO Ribbed (For Her Pleasure). And hey, I'm better for having seen it, if only to say I've seen the two biggest movies in which Reynolds doesn't have a mustache.

Reynolds plays Paul "Wrecking" Crewe, a former pro football player who goes to jail after wrecking -- no pun intended -- his woman's car in a drunken binge. In jail, warden Eddie Albert first asks Burt to coach the prison's semipro football team, made up of guards, then orders him to assemble a team of prisoners to play the guards in a tuneup game. That game ultimately gives the prisoners something to prove. Oh, and provides the chance to legally bash heads with the guards.

This plot allows the introduction of all sorts of fun characters, including Movievangelist favorite Richard Kiel! (See photo at right.) Really, after the first half hour of set-up, we get only two major developments: putting together the inmate team, aka Mean Machine, and the actual game against the guards, which goes on a looooonnnnggg time. Seriously, when it started, I thought it was like a "Rocky" sequel, when there were actually two fights -- one early and one at the end. Seemed like this was the first fight, not the whole enchilada.

But no, there's just the one game, and I guess it's commendable that "Yard" devotes so much time to on-field action, which does look real enough. It's well known that a lot of these guys, Reynolds included, played football for real, and that shows in a very '70s way, i.e. small pads and slight frames. Maybe not the Galloping Ghost, but also not exactly Michael Vick.

I guess my main problem -- and this will sound weird in a few ways -- was that the movie was too subtle. I mean, this is something of an outrageous concept, and yet everyone is pretty low-key about it. Not sure why I'm complaining, since Reynolds made a career out of being really smug. (Perhaps you've seen "Cannonball Run II." You have? Really? Sorry.) And other football movies, i.e. "Any Given Sunday," definitely celebrate excess. But "Yard" just seemed like it could have had a little more oomph.

My other issue was Reynolds' inner turmoil during the big game. No one will ever confuse Burt of being deep; even his lauded turn in "Boogie Nights" showed conflict but not a lot of genuine angst. Still, for a character with some past demons, I didn't see much range from kooky to corrupt. Maybe a minor quibble, but there you go.

Even with those complaints, I thought "The Longest Yard" was all right. The subtlety I mention above works well when it comes to some one-liners -- by Reynolds, the dad from "Teen Wolf" and others. Albert is a little hard to take seriously but is a decent foil for Reynolds. And with all the build-up, you're genuinely interested in how the game will turn out. Finally, unlike Burt's other non-mustache movie, nobody is told to squeal like a pig. I think we'll all agree that's a good thing.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Iceman crooneth: "Top Secret!"

Before he was Tom Kazanski , Jim Morrison, Doc Holliday, Bruce Wayne and John Holmes, Val Kilmer was Nick Rivers, pop singer and skeet surfer extraordinaire.

While it's not be as good as "Airplane!" or even "The Naked Gun," "Top Secret!" is the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker film that not only introduced Kilmer to the world but showed he could be pretty hilarious. It's also no "Real Genius," either, and every time I see that gem, I find myself asking, "Why? Why, Val, did you have to go get all serious when you could be so funny?"

But I digress. "Top Secret!" spoofs both spy movies and Elvis films by having Kilmer play a Presleyesque singer who gets caught up in international intrigue while in Germany. But a little spying and freedom fighting doesn't mean we can't break for song and dance numbers, right?

I don't remember when I first saw "Top Secret!" but it had to be a good 15 years ago. Catching it on HBO last week, I still laughed at some scenes but also noticed how dated the movie is. Along with some of the jokes, i.e. a Ford Pinto exploding, the movie as a whole isn't fresh given the endless number of other parodies over the last 20 years. True, those don't have a cow wearing boots, but that alone doesn't make a four-star film.

But hey, if you don't like a joke in a ZAZ movie, just wait a few seconds. Here are my three favorite bits from "Top Secret!"
3. "I know a little German. He's sitting over there."
2. "Hey, you forgot you phony dog poo?" "What phony dog poo?"
1. "This is ... Deja Vu." "Haven't we met before?"

Then there's the big fight scene, which is incredibly corny but still funny with it's dead-on send-up of old Westerns. You've got the bartender, the stools, the guys playing cards, the swinging doors ... all underwater, of course. As much as the cow with boots, that's a classic image from "Top Secret!"

I guess if there's one advantage over other ZAZ movies, it's the music. Kilmer does his own singing, and a few days after seeing the movie, I'm still finding "How Silly Can You Get?" and "Spend This Night With Me" bouncing around my head. Anyone can belt out "Light My Fire" and "The End." You try pulling off "Skeet Surfin'" with a straight face.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

I guess you could call this "Lemmon aid": "The Apartment"

You know, it's just weird to see a young Jack Lemmon. For me, he's always been this frumpy, sometimes crusty guy worn down by the world. That may be obvious is something like "Glengarry Glen Ross," but even "The Odd Couple" gave me that vibe. Lemmon might have just been in his 40s, but he sure seemed a lot older, and not just because Felix was a fuddy-duddy.

"The Apartment" was one of those "Great Movies" I had never seen, so I called on my friends at Netflix to right this apparent wrong. We open with Lemmon as a low-level company man who is trying to get ahead by letting executives use his apartment for affairs. Yeah, it's that simple, and it's a little jarring to have the movie start just like that.

In some ways, this isn't so different from "The Seven Year Itch," another Billy Wilder film from five years earlier. Both focus on what apparently was a widely-accepted practice of businessmen boinking women who aren't their wives. But while "Itch" was a full-scale comedy that treated adultery with nothing short of a cavalier attitude, "The Apartment" is more nuanced, benefiting both from better writing and the presence of one Shirley MacLaine ("Cannonball Run II").

I can honestly say MacLaine was a revelation, mainly because I had never seen her as a young actress. Even setting aside the whole past lives business, I always thought of Shirley as a fiftysomething who could act just fine -- see "Terms of Endearment" and "Postcards from the Edge" -- but didn't dazzle me. Back in 1960, though, she could play the pixie wrestling with emotions to perfection, and she's probably the best reason to see "The Apartment."

MacLaine plays an elevator operator -- yeah, that part's a bit dated -- who catches Lemmon's eye. The only problem is that she's involved with the top guy at Lemmon's company. That's Fred MacMurray, who reminded me of Dennis Quaid -- yes, him again --

(NOTE: This post has been cut off twice now, and I'm not rewriting it again. Suffice it to say "The Apartment" was good, and the writing and MacLaine were the best things about it.)

Thursday, December 08, 2005

On second thought, being stuck inside Martin Short wasn't so bad: "In Good Company"

Can't recall if I ruminated on Dennis Quaid before, and not sure I'll start now. I will, however, mention that he only recently got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Yeah, after Ryan Seacrest. Now there's a blow to the ego. "C'mon, people ... 'Jaws 3-D' ... 'Dreamscape' ... 'Dragonheart' ... hello?"

I actually like Quaid all right, especially when he really let's the sh*t-eating grin fly, i.e. "The Big Easy" and "Innerspace." And really, hasn't he aged pretty well? Sure, he was too old to play even an old baseball player in "The Rookie," but he still made a somewhat convincing ballplayer. Or did you want a sequel to "Enemy Mine?" (Pretty sure Lou Gossett Jr. is available. Well, if he's not making "Iron Eagle VIII: Operation Uzbekistan.")

I suppose I should get to my point: Quaid can be decent, and "In Good Company" probably qualifies. What could be a much worse movie is made watchable by Quaid and his young foil, Topher "Bet You Thought I'd Never Do Anything But 'That '70's Show'" Grace. While playing a young corporate punk who becomes "dinosaur" Quaid's boss in the takeover of a sports magazine, Grace stumbles into a romance with Quaid's daughter, played by Ms. Butthole Mouth herself, Scarlett Johansssssssssssssssssson.

Scarlett is lovely as usual, but she's all wrong for the daughter part. Sure, she might be the right age, but she always comes off as so much older -- smoky, pensive, pouty -- that it's hard to see her as a college student with a doting dad. Still, with Marg "I Make Forensics Hot" Helgenberger playing her mom, I hadn't been this riveted by a mother-daughter pair since Blondie and Cookie Bumstead. (Seriously, check the comics page. They're totally hot.)

The guys, though, are pretty believable, with Quaid incredulous that a skinny yuppie like Grace could actually be the boss of anything, especially when he cares more about success than the actual work he does. But Grace doesn't give a one-note performance, showing some depth and honesty when he's around Scarlett. Even if she didn't convince me, I bought his interest in her.

I did not, however, buy her interest in him, especially the pace at which things moved. While the movie's ending helps make up for that, and the guys zing each other with one-liners, I'm not sure everything came together as neatly as it could have. Now if Grace had been able to help Quaid save the world from a new ice age ...

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Beat the parents: "The Squid and the Whale"

You could make a good case that Jeff Daniels has been a man in limbo.

Think about it. For a decent actor, he's neither been a box-office draw nor an indie darling. After his solid turn in "Terms of Endearment," he managed some leading man roles, i.e. "Something Wild" and "Arachnophobia," then settled into supporting roles, i.e. "Speed," "Dumb and Dumber" and "Pleasantville." More recently, you can catch him in "Good Night and Good Luck" or ignore him in "Because of Winn-Dixie." (Hey, I saw that six times. It ruled!)

But at age 50, Daniels may have delivered his best performance as a mutation of his college professor from more than two decades ago in "Terms." And he's not alone, as indie film "The Squid and the Whale" gets the best from almost everyone who crosses the screen -- adults and kids.

Fully reflective of its $1.5 million budget, the movie gives us a simple premise that everyone knows is much more complex. In mid-1980s Brooklyn, Daniels and his wife, Laura Linney ("Congo") are splitting up and splitting custody of their two kids, played by Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline. The former was fun in "Roger Dodger," the latter is Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates' kid. Don't worry, he can act.

What makes "Squid" believable is that every character is just that: believable. Daniels really fancies himself a member of the intellectual elite who's essentially full of sh*t. Linney really is the more decent parent who nevertheless can't deny her own needs and runs around with other guys, but not in a sexy, "Unfaithful" kind of way. Eisenberg really does idolize his dad to the point of being a mini-him, more for worse than better. The younger Kline really is the most confused by it all, wanting things to be simple just as his young adolescent life is getting more complicated all on its own.

It's easy to write off Daniels as a jerk and Eisenberg as a punk while watching this, but I thought the complications and confusions of divorce were pretty well captured. Of course, there's plenty of funny stuff, too, and writer-director Noah Baumbach offers some great exchanges among the characters that fit well into the overall situation, even if there's little possibility that people going through this in real life would be that unwittingly clever.

While not that well known, Baumbach wrote and directed another "life changes" movie called "Kicking and Screaming." Not to be confused with the inane Will Ferrell movie of the same name, "Kicking" follows current and recent college students while they deal with various relationships. Ten years later, "Squid" deals with the family thing, and it's well worth the mere 88 minutes. No question there are some faults -- maybe just a little more character development would have been good, and there are a few disgusting moments, too. Then again, how many chances do you get to hear a kid try to sound smart by referring to a Kafka work as "Kafkaesque?"

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Yeah, well, here are some pictures of my vomit: "Pollock"

Not sure where I heard it, but someone once said you know art is "art" when it provokes a visceral reaction.

My reaction to most modern art is most definitely visceral: I hate it.

Maybe that's a little harsh, but it's not far off the mark. When I lived in New York, I went to the Museum of Modern Art a few times, and I always left angry. What the hell is this ... a goldfish bowl just full of water? And is that two identical clocks just hanging next to each other on a wall? What the f*ck? Give me an hour in my house, and I'll give you a goddamn modern art gallery ...

Yeah, yeah ... I know it's not just the art, but the concept. But anyone without a job or any interest in getting one can come up with a concept if he sits on his ass long enough. Call me crazy, but I like art that is something I couldn't possibly do in a million years, not a toaster, a jar of Cheez Whiz and a jar of pennies on display while Rick Springfield's "Living in Oz" album plays in the background. ("We all need ... the human touch ... ")

This is all a way of saying that maybe I wasn't the best guy to watch a movie about Jackson Pollock, aka Mr. Paint Splatter Man. Sure, I've seen some Pollock paintings, and they're definitely unique. But c'mon ... can't we all throw paint around a canvas on the floor? Can you tell I'm getting really grumpy about this?

Let me try to set aside my problem with the artist for a bit. "Pollock" gives us Ed Harris in the title role -- he also directed this vanity project -- played the artist mostly as a drunk who nevertheless summoned all sorts of creative mojo. At his side as he makes it big and struggles with success is fellow artist Lee Krasner, played by Marcia Gay Harden.

I suppose Harden alone makes the movie worth seeing. She arrives on screen with spunk and is convincing throughout, both in how she nails the Brooklyn accent/attitude and her devotion to Pollock. I forget who she beat, but the Oscar she won for this role seems well-deserved.

As for Harris, I like him well enough -- you recall the recent "History of Violence" post -- and it's always good to see actors try the directing thing. But he might have tried to do too much here. I never really got the sense of why Pollock was an artist -- what it all means, I guess -- and the story overall wasn't entirely believable. His Pollock seemed kind of empty to me, not so much tortured, and the whole rise and fall needed more massaging and explanation to really punctuate Pollock's influence in the art world.

Ah yes ... the art. Let me just say this: You know how it looks like Pollock just dribbed paint and called it a painting? THAT'S WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED! Yeah, according to this movie, he simply spilled a little paint, liked the way it looked and started doing that full-time. Good lord ... were people that starved for something different? Was American art so bad? I guess we're just lucky he didn't look in the tissue after blowing his nose.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Yeah, like Gerbil Boy could have pulled off "Yippie-ki-yay, motherf*cker": "Die Hard"

No joke, apparently they wanted Richard Gere before Bruce Willis for this. And I guess Steve Guttenberg was busy, too.

I was all geared up to wax poetic about the virtues of Bruce's breakthrough movie, but let's just cut the crap: This movie is good.

About once a year, I end up popping "Die Hard" into the DVD player (and VCR before that), usually when it's late in the evening and I'm just looking to veg out to a known action-movie quantity. Until I get "Starship Troopers" and "Flash Gordon" on DVD, "Die Hard" will probably always win in these situations, and I make no apologies for that.

Really, can you name another member of this genre with (a) such a simple yet compelling cat-and-mouse plot and (b) a roster of performances with no weak links? Think about it ... everybody rocks in "Die Hard," not just Mr. Moonlighting.

We've got Reginald VelJohnson as the local cop with a good heart ... Bonnie Bedelia as the perfect ex-wife -- cute but feisty ... Paul Gleason (Principal Vernon from "The Breakfast Club!") as the dipsh*t deputy police chief ... William Atherton (The professor from "Real Genius!") as the slimy TV reporter ... Hart Bochner as the slimy executive trying to talk his way out of everything ... Alexander Godunov as the Eurotrash heavy. It's an All-Star team, even if every name isn't big.

Of course, all these folks are secondary to the mouse and the cat, Willis and Alan Rickman. As everyone and his brother knows, NYC cop Willis is in L.A. for the holidays, but while at his wife's holiday party, terrorists led by Rickman seize the skyscraper. What follows is Willis as a self-proclaimed "fly in the ointment, a monkey in the wrench" doing everything he can to stop the "terrorists" from the inside while the cops and Feds screw around outside.

If this sounds like something for Arnold or Sly, that's because it was them ... or Burt Reynolds or the aforementioned Gere. Remember that Willis had done only comedy -- "Moonlighting" and a couple of bad movies -- before trying bang-bang stuff. But that lighter side makes his John McClane a much better character than the muscleheads or pretty boys could have. Between shoot-outs and explosions, Bruce handles his one-liners perfectly, i.e. "I was always kind of partial to Roy Rogers actually. I really dig those sequined shirts."

This cannot be underestimated when it comes to the appeal of "Die Hard." Nor can Rickman, who also hadn't done many movies but set himself up for life as Hans Gruber. It's hard to describe his performance other than to say smooth, but not in a "hey baby" way. He's totally in control, which makes it great fun to watch the plan unravel, thanks to McClane. Rickman has had other good performances since then -- "Quigley Down Under," "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," "Galaxy Quest" -- but to most men 25-50, I suspect he'll always be Hans. He could do worse.

Like I said, just a fun time all the way around, and "Die Hard" will never get old for me. The sequels ... eh, they're OK. But the first was the best, and I can only assume Willis learned his lesson about sequels from this. That surely explains why nothing ever followed "The Last Boy Scout."

(Come on ... that movie's all right! If only because Willis parodies himself. "This is the nineties. You don't just go around punching people. You have to say something cool first." I'd like that on DVD, too, and something tells me there's more than one copy in the Wal-Mart discount bin.)