Tuesday, June 28, 2011

I KNEW there was a reason why I haven’t stepped inside a multiplex for three years now…

Faithful TDOY readers are aware of this but for those of you just joining us…I am woefully behind in catching up with recently-released movies.  Granted, it’s not something that keeps me awake at night because I’ve rationalized that there are too many older and classic films still on my “Must-See” list but occasionally it does cause me a teensy bit of embarrassment because…well, you know how Dennis Cozzalio always has a question on his Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule quizzes as to what the last film was you watched in a movie theater?  The answer in my case—and has been for the last three years—is the horrible 2008 reboot of Get Smart, which I discussed at length here.  (And because I've become so self-conscious answering that question the same way every time the last assignment I purposely left it blank.)

When I was getting Showtime/The Movie Channel/Flix/Encore over at the former location of Rancho Yesteryear I certainly had access to newer movies…but for some reason I never exercised the option of watching many of them, choosing instead to record the occasional cult movie that Showtime or TMC presented in a widescreen format like The Honeymoon Killers (1970) or Smithereens (1982).  I think the most recent films I caught on Showtime were Adventureland (2009)—which I actually enjoyed, and particularly because much of the movie was filmed at the Kennywood amusement park just up the road from my former exile stomping grounds in Morgantown, WV—and Youth in Revolt (2009), which I’ve only seen the first half of so technically I can’t make a complete judgment call on the film.  (Both of these, of course, star box office sensation Michael Cera and…um...half a tick…I’m now being told that Adventureland’s leading man is in fact Jesse Eisenberg, who’s merely impersonating Cera.)  I’ve also caught The Killer Inside Me (2010) and Inglourious Basterds (2009)—the first deserving of its controversial buzz and the second a tad overrated though I didn’t completely dislike it (to be honest, I haven’t really connected with a Quentin Tarantino film since Jackie Brown [1997].).  The most recent movie that I caught on Encore—which sometimes shows the big Starz premieres several months after Starz is through with them—was the 2009 remake of The Taking of Pelham One-Two-Three…which is by my count the second classic movie Denzel Washington has managed to desecrate during his prolific film career (the other being The Manchurian Candidate).  Hold up...I just remembered he's in that Bishop's Wife redo as well.

This past weekend, while the ‘rents attended ShreveFest (our annual family reunion in WV which, in the past, I’ve always referred to as “the driest weekend of the year”…but judging from the reports I’ve received that my mother and Aunt Jane were the life of the party thanks to some peach moonshine it has apparently become a bit wetter) our CharredHer cable service bestowed upon us a free weekend of HBO and Cinemax…and the nice thing about CharredHer is that I don’t have to plan my schedule watching bad movies on these two channels—I can pull these stinkers up via their “On Demand” feature at my leisure.  So I got the opportunity to catch up on some films released during this century (I have defibrillators at the ready for those of you who don’t believe this) and let me tell you…the current state of cinema could certainly use some defib itself.

Date Night (2010) – New Jersey couple Phil and Claire Foster (Steve Carell, Tina Fey) celebrate the titular ritual by setting their sights on a swanky seafood restaurant (“Claw”) in NYC for dinner.  They’re informed at the front door that they need reservations on a Friday night…and to add insult to injury, they need them well in advance because of the joint’s popularity.  So when Phil seizes the opportunity to steal someone’s reservation (thinking they failed to show) he and the missus are plunged into a night of intrigue, car crashes and stuntmen earning their pay involving corrupt cops (Jimmy Simpson, Common) a mobster (Ray Liotta) and a “flash drive” containing incriminating evidence against the D.A. (William Fichtner).  (Wacky!)

There used to be a stigma in show business that if you worked in TV it was considered slumming because movies were where the money and prestige were located…and to some extent it still exists today except that the irony is the shows on the boob tube are far and away superior to the stuff they’re cranking out to lure people into the googolplexes.  At least that was my reaction to Date Night, a comedy that left me stone-faced throughout (I started to be convinced I was Buster Keaton—rimshot!) because I couldn’t help but think that I have laughed more at a half hour of 30 Rock (Fey’s sitcom) and The Office (well, Carell used to work there—and if he left that show to make these types of films God have mercy on his soul) than I did this turkey.  Since comedy is always subjective, I’m not sure if I should say “This movie isn’t funny” so much as affirm that the film is one of the laziest comedies I’ve ever watched.  For example: the filmmakers use Jackie Wilson’s (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher over the end credits (wow…that’s original… wouldn’t it be interesting if someone went with Rita Coolidge’s hit 1977 cover of that tune as a change of pace?) while running clips of the stars and members of the cast breaking each other up with bloopers and ad-libs to show the audience how much fun they had making the film.  (Me, to the TV set: “Well, of course you had fun making this film…you didn’t have to watch it!”)

There are one or two nuggets among the dross: I think Fey is wonderful even when her material is not (“If we are going to pay this much for crab it better sing and dance and introduce us to the Little Mermaid!”) and Mila Kunis made me smile when she explained to Carell that she goes by “Whippit” not because of the dog breed but because she gets high on whipped cream aerosol.  Oh, and unlike some of the indeterminably long opuses directed by Judd Apatow (“Longer running times equals funnier…”) Date Night is fairly short (just not sweet), running just under ninety minutes.  But I hope that Liotta hung on to some of his Goodfellas money and the only time I laughed out loud at Carell was when he told Mark Wahlberg’s character (who spends the entirety of the movie stripped to the waist) to “shirt yourself up.”  Final rating: *

Knight and Day (2010) – June Havens (Cameron Diaz) and Roy Miller’s (Tom Cruise) “meet cute” at a Wichita airport snowballs into several days of intrigue, car crashes and stuntmen earning their pay when she learns that he’s a spy who claims to be protecting a perpetual power battery source (the “Zephyr”) from one of his colleagues (Peter Sarsgaard), who’s apparently switched allegiances from the U.S. to a terrorist drug lord (Jordi Mollà). But the head of the CIA (Viola Davis) asserts that it’s Miller who’s gone rogue—who can June believe and trust?  (Also just plain wacky!)

Okay, I know what you’re saying.  “Iv…why for the love of Mike would you punish yourself by sitting down with a Tom Cruise movie when you yourself have been preaching lo these many years that the man is an unrepentant wanker who’s a taco shy of a combination platter?”  Well, you may not believe this…but I actually liked Valkyrie (2008)—which I also caught on Showtime—even though I’ll sign an affidavit swearing the movie would have been much, much better had Cruise not been in the cast.  I thought that the presence of Diaz in Knight might mitigate having to sit through nearly two hours of the irritating smugness (and Tom thinks Matt Lauer is glib—physician, heal thyself) that is Cruise but sometimes life is a gamble and you wind up with nothing but free drinks at the bar.  I did think Diaz was charming in this one, particularly in the movie’s highlight where she’s been given a “truth serum” by drug lord Mollà and her thoughts start to spill forth like water gushing from a garden hose.  Final rating: *1/2

Public Enemies (2009) – It’s 1933, and the Great Depression is made somewhat more tolerable because gangsters like John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) and Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) are engaged in bank robbing intrigue, car crashes and stuntmen earning their pay.  G-Man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale, with one of the most atrocious Southern accents to ever befall my ears) has been given the authority by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) to go after these bad guys with any means at his disposal…and all three of them eventually meet their maker, with Dillinger gunned down in a sequence that is so Sam Peckinpah-slow I could have watched Manhattan Melodrama (1934) in its entirety while waiting for him to die.

To illustrate that the program descriptions on CharredHer’s On Demand offerings are often high hilarity in themselves, the one for Enemies reads something like “Johnny Depp is riveting as notorious bank robber John Dillinger.”  Um…no.  No, he is not.  He’s Johnny Depp pretending to be John Dillinger.  I guess it’s no secret that I’m not a member of Depp’s fan club and the only reason why I’m not going to crack an awful joke like “the man is clearly out of his Depp-th in the role” is that I fear you’ll storm the comments section with pitchforks and torches and threaten my parents.  Michael Mann’s film is actually fairly painless to take (my BFF The Duchess dissents from this, calling it too slow) but would have been a better feature had some of the roles been recast (Depp and the faux Southerner Bale, for starters) and less emphasis placed on the love story between Depp’s Dillinger and Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard, whom we will visit again here in a sec) because to be honest, I thought the background material concentrating on the origins of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to be far more interesting stuff.  TDOY country singer-songwriter fave Ed Bruce has a marvelous bit part as the senator who essentially tells Crudup’s Hoover that he trusts him about as far as he can throw him, and of course it’s always swell to see one of the best character thesps in movies today, Lili Taylor, in a small role as female sheriff Lillian Holley.  Giovanni Ribisi plays Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, and while Ribisi is certainly capable of carrying off Al’s nickname he’s much too pretty to play the character—the real-life Karpis looked as if he’d been beaten with an ugly stick.  Final rating: **1/2

Inception (2010) – Wealthy and mysterious businessman Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his sidekick Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) for an unusual assignment: planting an idea (the “inception” of the movie title) into the subconscious of the heir (Cillian Murphy) to the fortune of his bidness rival (Pete Postelthwaite) that will cause said heir to bust up his pa’s huge energy conglomerate.  In exchange for this service, Saito promises to use his influence to clear Cobb of a murder charge (he has been accused of croaking his wife, played by Marion Cotillard), thus allowing our hero to return to the U.S. and be reunited with his kids.  Cobb recruits a virtual IMF of Dreamland—including a college student (Ellen Page) who will apparently be the “architect” of the scenarios used to permeate the subconscious of the client; she attends a college of architecture run by Cobb’s father-in-law (Michael Caine, grabbing another paycheck) that I first believed to be some sort of Dream Academy ("Ah hey, ma ma ma...").  I know this all sounds a little complicated, but rest assured the cast experiences no end of intrigue, car crashes and stuntmen earning their pay when things don’t go quite the way they’re planned.

First things first: I liked Inception, but I’m still not sure I completely understand just what the hell it’s all about—the plot is multi-layered, and there’s at times a confusing back-and-forth between three scenarios (apparently the plan to influence Murphy occupies three “levels” of his subconscious) involving 1) a van about to careen off a bridge and into the water below, 2) a prolonged bit with Gordon-Levitt “swimming” in slow-motion in the lobby of what appears to be a tonier Hampton Inn and 3) an even longer sequence that looks like excised footage and outtakes from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Where Eagles Dare.  Fanboys the length and longth of the Internets sang the praises of this movie despite the fact that its ambiguous ending leaves the viewer with a lot of niggling questions including “What is reality?” “Is this a dream or not?” and “Did I honestly part with ten bucks to see what is essentially Dreamscape meets Mission: Impossible…?”  It was also nominated for eight Academy Awards (and won four), prompting even more fanboy pissing and moaning when the film lost to The King’s Speech (2010).  I haven’t seen Speech and probably won’t get the opportunity to do so for a while but I’m just enough of an old fogey to believe that Inception is most assuredly not all that and a bag of chips.  (Nice to see that Tom Berenger is still working, though.)  Final rating: ***

I was fortunate that Cinemax On Demand was running one of my favorite John Sayles films, Sunshine State (2002), and I also re-indulged in the guilty pleasure that is Drag Me to Hell (2009) because even though I had doped out where it was eventually going to go I had a lot of fun watching it the first time despite its excesses (Mom, who watched it with me: “Maybe we should have put this on before dinner.”)  The only other movie I got a gander at was Repo Men (2010)—not to be confused with the 1984 cult film…though I’m sure there were a few people who hoped the projectionist would—which I only got to see half of; from the portion I glimpsed it was a futuristic satire where clients unable to keep up the payments on their artificial body organs find them…yes, you guessed where this is going (the amusing thing is that there was a sketch that covered this concept in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life [1983]…and a short snatch of it can be seen on a TV screen in the film).  The one thing I was able to take away from Repo despite not seeing it in its entirety is that nobody plays ruthless corporate scumbags with more aplomb than Liev Schreiber.

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jnpickens said...

Oh my goodness, I'm not surprised at all that "Date Night" sucked. I would watch the previews and say...so what exactly is this about? haha I also am just not a Steve Carrell fan.

I saw Knight and Day last summer in the theaters and didn't think it was horrible, but not the best either. It was a good comprimise date movie for my boyfriend and I. Humorous enough in parts for me, and had a bit of action for him. I am not really a fan of Tom Cruise though, and parts were really confusing. Thinking back, I'm still not really sure what happened in the end. I do like that Cameron Diaz's character restored cars though haha.

Stacia said...

Looking at the cover of Public Enemies I'm reminded of this weird thing that has been going on since the 1970s -- costumers make men's hats too tall. That fedora is the size of his whole head! But they weren't that size back in the 1930s. Warren William agrees:


So does Clark Gable, although he's too sleep to say so:


The hat thing drives me crazy, which shows you how much time I have on my hands, but still.

Page said...

I love that your family reunions are called ShreveFest! Ours are called Dysfunction Palooza.

I've seen all these films except Repo Man. Public Enemies was decent but not memorable in any way. Date Night was such a disappointment. But then again I've been disappointed with every Steve Carrell film since The 40 Yr Old Virgin.

Knight and Day was actually pretty good and I do not care for Cameron Diaz at all. The films I've seen recently that I really enjoyed were Polanski's "The Ghost Writer", "Barney's Decision" then "Reds" which was hilarious. I even broke down and saw The Hangover 2 which I went in to with low expectations after hating the first one but I laughed non stop throughout. "Super 8" was actually a fun ride too. Spielberg and J.J Abrams should collaborate more often.


Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Ours are called Dysfunction Palooza.

If this isn't copyrighted, I am so stealing this.

I think after reading this post it's no company secret that I just don't care for "the new stuff." The great thing about the films of the past is that they took the time to tell stories, and nowadays the movie business is all about high-concepts and getting people into the seats, said people being 10-13 years of age. ("Selling the sizzle and not the steak," in other words.) Roger Ebert had an interesting article on his blog not too long ago in which he makes the convincing argument that if you want to see a movie that's not going to make you lose I.Q. points you need to see it in December, because that's when studios generally release the product they want to win Oscars. Any other time it's just car chases and blowing up stuff real good.

Java Bean Rush said...

Wonderful post, Ivan.
We just call our reunions Dozens of Cousins or something.

DATE NIGHT - Maybe it's because the stars of movies go from sitcoms to film and never stop treating movies like a different medium that you get a Lazy Comedy [perfect description of this film, by the way].

I had a laugh here and there, but Date Night is bound to be just another in the annals of Carrell films (which all feel like overlong comedy sketch routines).

KNIGHT AND DAY - Picked it up in the bargain bin. The concept is great - Cruise is making a parody of his screen persona. Or perhaps he has become the parody. In either case, his character is hilarious in its wacky sincerity.
By the way, a little bit of Joker-Face goes a long way; I almost didn't watch the film because she is so annoying in the trailer.

[Wow! I'm mean today.]

INCEPTION - Loved it because it's fairly original and you have to pay attention to understand it. Almost didn't watch it because Rose DeWitt Bukater's boy toy is in it, but Chris Nolan wins me every time.

Thanks for the spirited reviews, Ivan!

KickinAssTakingNames said...

I'm glad to hear a film buff like yourself wasn't quite sure what all the hell was going on in Inception. I am not a big movie-goer, so I thought it was just me. I've read multiple places that you have to see it at least a few times to fully get it. I haven't done that. Once I'm done, I'm done. It wasn't bad, just too goddamn confusing.