Oh, and a little poking around at AT&T U-Verse’s website revealed that a free Showtime preview is in the works for May 9-11. And with that, here are some of the movies I gazed at intently this weekend.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) – Okay, I knew from the title that this one was going to induce a lot of eyeball-rolling…and it’s pretty much what you’d expect: an over-the-top horror pic that posits that the sixteenth president of the United States was also a badass destroyer of the undead in his copious free time. Based on a novel by Seth Grahame-Smith (who also penned the screenplay), Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter stars Benjamin Walker as the rail-splitter himself…who teams up with a man named Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper) to dispose of bloodsuckers willy-nilly when his ma (Robin McLeavy) dies at the hand of a slave trader (also a vampire) named Jack Barts (Marton Csokas).
Again, a guy who’s also written a book entitled Pride & Prejudice & Zombies (which will be released to motion picture theaters in 2015) is naturally going to take a little literary license…but I think Vampire Hunter would have worked better if they had left such figures as Harriet Tubman (Jaqueline Fleming) and Jefferson Davis (John Rothman) out of the narrative (in this alternate universe, the institution of slavery was set up so that the undead would have access to a constant food source) as well as concentrated Abe’s hobby to the years before he became president. Still, while I was able to tolerate a lot of the explodiations and stuntery of this popcorn movie (including a fiery train sequence that’s impressive in its sheer audaciousness) the disappointment came in the performance of my beloved Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who I adored in Smashed) as Mary Todd Lincoln (way too anachronistic, even in this wacked-out world).
Dark Shadows (2012) – Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’s Seth Grahame-Smith also wrote the story and screenplay for this one (so it seemed only fitting that I watched it after Vampire Hunter—sort of a bloodsucker two-fer), inspired by the Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, which was a cult favorite of TV audiences from 1966-71. Johnny Depp plays Barnabas Collins, the heir to the substantial Collins estate who receives a mojo from a vindictive witch named Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) that transforms him into a vampire. Imprisoned underground for nearly two centuries, he’s freed from his coffin and sets out to restore the family fortunes that have suffered from the machinations of the same sorceress who cursed him. Barnabas also falls for the new family governess, Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcoate), whom he believes to be the reincarnation of his dead wife.
When I saw the trailer for this movie back in 2012, I fell prey to that familiar eye-rolling malady of mine because the coming attractions played up the comedic aspects in the film—and while there are light moments in Dark Shadows it’s a fairly straightforward homage to the TV series, with a few tongue-in-cheek tweaks here and there. (I’m not sure if this was such a good idea because part of the appeal of the TV show was that it was unintentionally funny.) Johnny Depp is not a favorite of mine, though I am considerably more charitable to him than my mother (which is probably why I watched this one alone), yet I’ll freely admit he’s pretty good reprising the role made famous by Jonathan Frid (who makes his swan song in a cameo in this film, along with Shadows alumni Kathryn Leigh Scott, David Selby and Lara Parker in a party sequence)—particularly when he’s able to deliver a line like “Goest thou to hell, and swiftly please, and there may Azmodaeus himself suckle from your diseased teat!” while maintaining a straight face. (It helps that he’s a fan of the show.) Any movie that features Christopher Lee (as a sea captain) and Alice Cooper (as himself—Depp’s Collins remarks he’s the “ugliest woman I’ve ever seen”) can’t be a total loss, and I was amused that famous movie creep Jackie Earle Haley plays Willie Loomis (essayed by future Cagney & Lacey cast member John Karlen in the original TV version) because it’s pretty much the part he was born to play. Watch this one if you’re in the mood for something silly.
Disconnect (2012) – One of the real gems I watched this weekend; Disconnect highlights three stories—a couple (Paula Patton, Alexander Skarsgård) find themselves victims of computer identity theft; a teenager (Jonah Bobo) tries to take his life after being cyberbullied; and an ambitious TV reporter (Andrea Riseborough) wants to interview a teen (Max Thieriot) who earns his living at an adult webcam site. Written by Andrew Stern and directed by Henry Alex Rubin, the movie’s stories are separate yet intersect at two points: the father (Jason Bateman) of the suicidal teen is also the lawyer for the station that employs the reporter and the ex-cop (Frank Grillo) investigating the identity theft is the father of one of the kids responsible for bullying the teenager.
This engrossing thriller hooked me from the get-go and marvelously sustained itself from start to finish; I applaud its message of how individuals find it difficult to relate to one another despite the leaps and bounds made by “social media.” The writing, direction and performances are all solid but I was pleased that one of my favorite actresses, Hope Davis, plays the role of the suicidal teen’s ma (I’ve loved her since the days of The Daytrippers and Next Stop Wonderland)…and Kasi Lemmons, best known as Jodie Foster’s roommate in The Silence of the Lambs, also appears as an FBI agent. (Lemmons’ directorial debut, Eve’s Bayou, was a film that I enjoyed tremendously and recommended to one of my friends during my exile in Morgantown. A decision I would soon regret, since one of her friends watched it with her and never missed an opportunity to inform me how much it “sucked.” Philistine.)
The East (2013) – If you stop by the blog on a regular—or even irregular—basis, you know I’m not much of a fan of noisy movie blockbusters with their penchant for blowing things up real good. The East is a remedy for that: an operative (Brit Marling) for a private security firm infiltrates an anarchist collective (I will not refer to them as “eco-terrorists” because I don’t believe any of them work for BP) whose mission is to give corporations a taste of their own medicine; led by their charismatic leader (Alexander Skarsgård again!), “The East” crashes a party and dopes the champagne swilled by pharmaceutical execs with a drug that they sell (and claim is safe), for example. The agent, who identifies herself as “Sarah,” soon develops an emotional attachment to the group members that threatens to compromise her allegiance to the people for whom she works.
What impressed me so much about The East is that while it’s truly a first-rate suspense thriller…it doesn’t need to throw in a bunch of car chases or explodiations. The movie’s star, Marling, co-wrote the screenplay with director Zal Batmanglij, and the screenplay also promotes the belief that irresponsible corporations need to be confronted about the severity of their actions (even though Sarah doesn’t entirely improve of the methods used by the group). Patricia Clarkson co-stars as Marling’s formidable boss, with Ellen Page in a nice turn as one of the group’s purely idealistic members and Jamey Sheridan as her dad, an exec whose company’s chemicals resulted in a young boy’s death from cancer. (Julia Ormond is also on hand as one of the Big Pharma bosses.) John Ritter’s son Jason also has a small role as Sarah’s husband, demonstrating that talent is often diluted the farther down the family tree you go.
Infamous (2006) – George Plimpton’s book on Truman Capote (which interviews folks who knew him) was the source for this movie written and directed by Douglas McGrath that was released the year after the movie bio Capote won the late Philip Seymour Hoffman a Best Actor Oscar. Infamous covers similar ground, focusing on the background that would inspire the author (played by British thesp Toby Jones) to write what many consider to be his finest novel, In Cold Blood—in fact, it wouldn’t be stretching things to note that the film is in many ways a remake of the 1967 Blood…only told from Capote’s point of view. (McGrath does take a few liberties with the book, including a sexual encounter between Capote and Perry Smith that would not have happened unless both of them were in the sneezer.)
Film critic Rex Reed went on record as saying that he wasn’t particularly on board with Hoffman’s Academy Award triumph, noting “they gave the Oscar to the wrong Truman Capote” and that Hoffman was doing more of an impression while Jones “moves into Truman's skin, heart and brains.” I never met the real Capote so I’m not going to split hairs as to whether Reed is accurate (he would probably know him better than I) but I did enjoy Jones’ performance, as well as Juliet Stevenson’s dead-on portrayal of Diana Vreeland and Sigourney Weaver as Babe Paley (the wife of CBS president William S.). (Hope Davis is in Infamous, too—that was a plus. But I will warn people who are not Bill Crider that Gwyneth Paltrow is also in this movie…and that she sings. Run fast, run far.) I was less enamored of Peter Bogdanovich’s attempt to convince folks he was Bennett Cerf…for the simple reason that Bogdanovich was pretty much playing Bogdanovich. I’ll admit that my longtime preference for Catherine Keener gives her a slight edge in her Capote interpretation of Truman’s longtime BBF (Nelle) Harper Lee over Sandra Bullock (I’m just not a fan of hers—she’s like TDOY bête noire Julia Roberts, only with less teeth) but I did think Bullock acquitted herself nicely here. As for Daniel Craig—he’s a shoo-in for the eventual Tommy Lee Jones biopic (the man known as the current 007 plays murderer Smith).
Killer Joe (2011) – Playwright Tracy Letts reworked his 1993 play into this film (directed by William Friedkin) that casts recent Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey as an ice-water-in-his-veins hit man who’s hired by a trailer-trash family to dispose of a relative in order to collect the insurance. The son (Emile Hirsch) can’t come up with the $25,000 deposit for McConaughey’s services so McConaughey arranges to avail himself of the sexual charms of the son’s Baby Doll-like sister (Juno Temple) as a “retainer.”
This jet-black comedy thriller is admittedly not for all tastes but I thought it was a crackerjack piece of filmmaking; Friedkin nicely captures that endearing (if dangerous) loopiness that often defines the Lone Star State (there are a lot of Blood Simple overtones in this) and the performances are superb, particularly McConaughey as the titular assassin and Thomas Haden Church as the clueless patriarch (I’ve been a longtime fan of Church’s since Wings, and his Ansel Smith in Joe makes Lowell Mather look like a Mensa candidate). Gina Gershon is Church’s duplicitous wife, who performs a bit of fellatio on a KFC chicken leg (she calls it “K-Fry-C”) that won’t disappear from your memory banks anytime soon.
Mama (2013) – Oddball horror film focuses on the plight of two little girls (Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse) whose father (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) scoops them up and takes them with him when he has to lam it out of town (he’s just killed two of his business partners and his estranged wife), only to be murdered by a mysterious “something” as he and his daughters become stranded in the woods. Five years later, the girls are located (and are in a feral state) and returned to his twin brother (also Coster-Waldau), who attempts to provide a home for them along with his girlfriend (Jessica Chastain). The problem is—that “something” (which the girls call “Mama”) has followed them home—and when “Mama” ain’t happy…ain’t nobody happy.
An exercise in “old school” horror, Mama terrified the absolute sh*t out of me even though a few of the plot strands left me a little bewildered. Directed by Andrés Muschietti (who elaborated on his 2008 short of the same name), the movie delivers the fright goods in spades; I was thinking the whole time that if I saw half of what goes on in Chastain and Coster-Waldau’s house you’d be forwarding my mail to Cleveland someplace. Produced by famed director Guillermo del Toro, whose The Devil’s Backbone (2001) I would have DVR’d during the free Starz/Encore preview had U-Verse not demonstrated such ruthless efficiency by removing the channel on schedule.
Man of Steel (2013) – I don’t remember if it was Matt Zoller Seitz—or possibly the crazy lady who stands outside the Golden Pantry every morning yelling at invisible people (I didn’t take notes)—who mused some time ago that a movie like Superman (1978) could never do well in the current tenor of the times, when most of the “superhero” motion pictures have a kind of dark quality about them (thank you, Tim Burton). Man of Steel adds a little “dark” to the Superman story (the screenplay is by David S. Goyer and directed by Zack Snyder…but Batman rebooter Christopher Nolan left a few fingerprints as producer) by re-telling the legend of the superhero (played by Henry Cavill): from his escape of doomed planet Krypton (Russell Crowe plays his pop) to arrival on Earth (Kevin Costner as his Earth Pop), where he must do battle with some renegades from planet K, led by bad guy General Zod (Michael Shannon).
Confession time: I am such a huge Superman fan (I even liked Superman Returns—sue me) that I enjoyed Man of Steel…even though I was disappointed that a lot of the wonderment from the 1978 classic has given way to that darkness I mentioned earlier. I don’t think Cavill or Brandon Routh can measure up to Christopher Reeve’s take on the World’s Mightiest Mortal so the strengths have to be searched for elsewhere: Crowe and Costner are great as Jor-El and Jonathan Kent, respectively (though I will admit Kev pales slightly in comparison to Glenn Ford in the role) and Diane Lane was a revelation as Supe’s mom (I always have difficulty seeing beyond her teen years in The Outsiders and Streets of Fire). I also liked Amy Adams as Lois Lane but I’m not sure I’m comfortable with a Daily Planet that erases Jimmy Olsen (I know he’s useless…but it’s Superman, ferchrissake) from the masthead. Man of Steel was pretty much what I expected—stunts and explodiations—but I’d be lying to you if I didn’t admit it makes me want to see the sequel. (By the way, I told Mom that Christopher Meloni was in this movie—and she still took a pass on seeing it.)
The Place Beyond the Pines (2013) – Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) gives up his stunt motorcycling gig with a traveling carnival to stick around the burg where his girlfriend Romina (Eva Mendes) hangs her hat; he’s just learned that she has sired him a son and to make life better for them he embarks on a career of robbing banks with the help of a mechanic buddy (Ben Mendelsohn). But Luke’s outlaw spree comes to an end thanks to the expert police work of uniformed cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), who capitalizes on his “hero” status to fulfill his political ambitions. Along the way, Cross gets an idea of what the concept of what bearing “the sins of the fathers” is all about.
Derek Cianfrance’s three-act tragedy was promoted relentlessly last year—it seems like every time I watched an episode of Community or Parks and Recreation on demand I’d also be treated to that damn trailer. My hesitancy to fully embrace The Place Beyond the Pines stems from the fact that by the time the movie enters its third act—concentrating on Luke and Avery’s sons (Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen)—the viewer finds out that their story just isn’t as compelling as their dads’. Cianfrance is reunited with Gosling after the two of them worked together on the critically-acclaimed Blue Valentine; Pines also features Ray Liotta (playing a corrupt cop, which is a bit out of his wheelhouse—don’t you think?) and TDOY fave Harris Yulin as Cooper’s dad.
Teeth (2007) – Here’s another offbeat horror vehicle that didn’t quite scare me as much as Mama (though I laughed a lot more): chaste teen Dawn O’Keefe (Jess Wexler) is saving herself for marriage (she even belongs to an abstinence group dubbed The Promise) but it’s not easy—she begins to have impure thoughts about Tobey (Hale Apperman), a fellow Promiser she’s just met, and the afternoon the two of them head off for an innocent swim results in alarming consequences. Tobey starts to have his way with her the way rough boys often do…and discovers to his horror that Dawn has what is referred to in various mythologies as vagina dentata. (Google it, non-Latin majors.)
For those males out there who just crossed their legs after Googling that last part—Teeth assures us in the closing credits that “No man was harmed in the making of this film.” It’s a hysterically original film that explores the horrifyingly comic side of teenage sexuality, with a wonderful performance by Wexler (who won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance that year). There’s plenty of smart satire on hand, as well as none-too-subtle symbolism and in-jokes (my favorite is the clip from The Black Scorpion)…and the fate that befalls Dawn’s surly stepbrother (John Hensley) shouldn’t happen to a dog. (Apologies for that last part.) If anything, Teeth lets us know that Lenny Van Dohlen—who I remember from Tender Mercies and Electric Dreams (the Her of its day)—is still working; he plays Dawn’s pa.