Category Archives: Movies

In A World for December, 2010

In A World... for December

DECEMBER 3

Black Swan

Black Swan

DW: It’s a little surprising, but not unwelcome, to see an American writer and director make a film that looks and seems so much like a European thriller. I’m happy with this, as my taste in the genre veers more towards the stylized approach and psychological themes of the European thrillers than the violent and gruesome approach that seems to be dominant in the American approach. Portman has been getting a lot of praise for her role as a repressed ballerina who can’t quite rise to the demands of her role in the lead of a prestigious production, and the implication of a supernatural element to her situation, or simply her belief that there is a supernatural element, is a good thematic approach that I really would like to see handled well. Aronofsky’s work here has drawn a lot of comparisons to Roman Polanski’s work at the height of his career, and when we’re talking things like The Tenant and Repulsion, that’s a pretty high compliment for him to be getting.

KL: I’m real hot or cold on Aronofsky; I tend to find his movies either arresting or tedious in the extreme. At first I was inclined to throw this one in the latter category, until I started seeing the trailers and their hints at deep psychological trauma and surrealism. That puts me squarely on board.

I’ve also spent all this time waiting for Portman to dazzle me the way she did way back with Heat and The Professional and rarely since then. It feels like this might be the role to do it (well, this one and her upcoming role in Your Highness.) Ditto Mila Kunis. I’m frankly pretty excited for it.

Also: $20 says Kunis’s character is Tyler Durden to Natalie Portman’s Jack.


Rare Exports

Rare Exports

DW: Yes, the entire premise, that Santa is actually an evil Scandinavian monster, is a joke, and I’ll even concede that it probably is a pretty tasteless one at that. But, you know, after being inundated year after year after year with sappy, saccharine, cynically exploitative Christmas movies that turn “loving your fellow man” into a commercial enterprise, I’m more than eager to embrace something that gives us the flip side to that. Enough so that I’m willing to overlook the indications that the story is more than a little slight. If, indeed, it is even there at all, beyond the premise of “we found Santa and it turns out he’s evil.”

KL: Frankly this looks pretty hilarious, and I’m all for that. There seems to be a cottage industry in inverting traditional symbols of goodness and light into something else, and within that niche is the Santa Niche; guys, there are five Silent Night, Deadly Night movies.

This seems like this season’s saving grace, the one welcome turd in the punch bowl that is the holiday movie season. Every year has one, and this one is ours; do us proud, Rare Exports.


The Warrior's Way

The Warrior’s Way

DW: It’s still remarkably rare to find a film-maker who understands that one of the most underutilized benefits of the available film-making technology is not to create an exact recreation of the actual world, or to create a fake world that looks as if it could actually be a real world, but to create a world that could only exist within a film. Speed Racer was the last film that really “got” this, and we all know how critical and audience reaction to that went down.

And when I say that I get a definite Speed Racer vibe off of this film, I mean that as a compliment, because what I see here is a beautifully realized world that is, quite explicitly, not the real world and could never be a real world. It’s stylized and surreal but still contains pieces that are recognizable and relatable. Yes, it’s going to be spectacle and eye-candy and if we’re lucky there will be a half-way decent story to go along with it.

KL: Right? These days, I’m finding myself increasingly impatient with the same-old, which is strange, given that I no longer have writing assignments to see as much stuff as possible every month. Now that my movie-going is purely elective, I’m way pickier about how I spend my time and all that money.

Which has generated some strange cinematic bedfellows for me. The Warrior’s Way qualifies: it looks like a bunch of stuff I have not seen before (or at least in awhile), and anyway it’s a hell of a lot different from anything else coming out this month. Sometimes, that’s enough.

DECEMBER 10

The Tourist

The Tourist

KL: I’ll be blunt with everyone and say I’m an Angelina Jolie fan boy going way back – first noticed in Hackers, took serious hold in Playing God and there on afterward. Johnny Depp, too, is a charismatic actor and by all accounts is a genuinely decent person. And who doesn’t love intrigue and deception and the common man lured into action hijinx?

Well, me, for one. On the other hand, The Tourist‘s writer/director is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who gave is the absolutely stunning The Lives of Others. Hope springs eternal for me even as movie after movie disappoints, so I will let this movie’s pedigree convince me in ways the premise could not.

DW: Oh, hey, they remade Gotcha!

Jolie I have no strong feelings for either pro or con, but Depp I’m starting to feel like I’ve just about reached my saturation point with. Even though I personally tend to find him more appealing when he’s doing these quieter, Everyman style roles than the big, deliberately and self-consciously “quirk” ones. So that, coupled with the broad premise being awfully similar to other films, films that I didn’t find myself particularly impressed with either, pretty much leaves me cold on this. If I absolutely must see Johnny Depp running around Europe being chased by angry people, I’ll just go watch The Ninth Gate again.

Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader

KL: Uh, so I thought this franchise was kaput, but I guess not?

And I’m cool with that. I liked the first one OK – who doesn’t love a Tilda Swinton villain? – and I liked the second one even more. The kids are charming and natural and the setting is just different enough from the usual fantasies that I am still occasionally surprised. With fantasy franchises, that’s usually the most you can ask for.

That said, I haven’t read the books, and I think Dorian has. So…

DW: The Narnia books never really impressed me. Even as a kid, I thought Lewis’ brand of Christian allegory was needlessly hectoring, and as an adult I find his fantasy world-building a terribly clichéd mish-mash of tropes borrowed from other, better writers. Of these film adaptation, I watched the first one and thought it was pretty disappointing. It felt like it desperately wanted to have the same kind of exhaustive replication of the source material that the Harry Potter films have, and that copying that success was the only concern for the film-makers. Well, that and rather cynically exploiting Christian audiences with a fantasy film that it’s “safe” to take their children to.

I’m not really seeing anything here to convince me that their goals or ambitions are any different the third time around.

The Tempest

The Tempest

DW: I’m not a fan of Taymor’s work, and the reaction I have to this is one of the reasons why. I love The Tempest; it’s one of my favorites of Shakespeare’s plays. But there’s something curiously pedestrian about taking it and turning it into a big, flashy special effects film. Yes, the material is there to do just that to it, the play is full of magical creatures and impossible situations. But it’s a tiresomely literal take on the material. To take the things that were intended to create an impossible to realize mental picture in the audience and then actually go ahead and film it just feels, oddly, like an indication of a lack of imagination on the part of the film-makers. And then there’s the stuff that just feels off, like turning Prospero into a woman, thereby completely changing the dynamic between Prospero and Miranda that actually drives the play. It’s a peculiar change to make in light of the literalness of the rest of the film.

KL: All I’m going to say is Across the Universe was one of the more offensive movies I’ve seen in a long time, and Taymor has a lot of ground to make up for it. I get angry every time I think about it.

DECEMBER 17

TRON Legacy

TRON: Legacy

KL: So here’s me confessing a shameful thing: I’ve never seen the original TRON, and barring great leaps in the science of extending my attention span at home, I never will. Thus its value to me is pretty slim, and affects my judgment of what I’ve seen of the sequel almost not at all.

Here is my hope: That, as mentioned a bit further down, the filmmakers took this opportunity to make a truly surreal, unique and otherwise bonkers movie to slip into mainstream theaters. There is almost nothing movies can’t show us anymore, and video games have been eroding and evolving what storytelling is and can do for decades. These things put together could make a dynamite movie, or just a completely kick-ass action flick-slash-whatever else it is.

On the other hand: big, safe Disney sequel with blockbuster money behind it. But a man can dream, can’t he?

DW: I want to be interested in this, but I just can’t quite get there. Part of the problem, I think, is that this is a sequel to TRON. That was a great movie for a little kid who loves video-games, but as an adult it’s pretty damn flawed. And as visionary and cutting-edge as it was when it came out, those same designs, even slicked-up with state of the art CGI, now just look hopelessly dated. And not in a cool, retro-future way, but in a “wow, those are definitely some ’80s designs there” way.

So I think I’m going to file the original TRON away as a pleasant memory from my childhood and just go ahead and ignore this new one as much as possible.

How Do You Know

How Do You Know

DW: So, I’ve watched this trailer a couple times now, and I still have really no idea what’s going on or why I’m supposed to care. Yeah, we’ve got Paul Rudd and Reese Witherspoon in your standard meet-cute set-up, and you’ve got some broad comedy with Owen Wilson as the bumbling ex and Jack Nicholson playing straight man to Rudd, but…it just feels like a bunch of tropes and bland characters tossed together in the hopes that we’ll respond to the charisma of the actors and the reassurance that, yet again, we have a “feel-good” romantic comedy-drama for this Christmas season.

To be honest, I feel a little cheated that a film pairing Rudd and Nicholson has such meager ambitions.

KL: I think both of them are losing sight of who they are—it could be said Nicholson lost that a long time ago. A friend of mine said he’d occasionally like to quiz Paul Rudd sometimes to see if he knows what movie he’s filming at the time, because for all his charm, he really is just playing Paul Rudd in everything he’s in. And that’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s a quick and easy way to the implosion of an actor’s credibility.

The trailer’s as forgettable as the apparent premise; what surprises me is that the first place I saw a stand-up for this movie is at the Magnolia Theater, which, here in Dallas, is a pretty upscale kinda-sorta art house theater. The James Brooks angle, I guess, but for every As Good As It Gets there’s a Spanglish.

Let’s go to the IMDB page. “Feeling a bit past her prime at 27…” Oh, fuck you, Hollywood.

DECEMBER 22

True Grit

True Grit

KL: I feel like the Coen Brothers have been honing in on something their whole careers, most often in their dramas but occasionally in their comedies. They’re hacking away at concepts like justice, retribution and sin, though like most of us they ultimately can provide no answers but can only observe. Some people are good, some people are weasels, and mistakes or lapses in judgment can bring about terrible consequences. (Even Burn After Reading, their darkest and most misunderstood comedy, understands this.) Their gift is not in sermonizing but rather in sculpting perfect – and perfectly inscrutable – lessons in human behavior and the consequences thereof.

Early reviews are in on this and they’re very, very good, which is to be expected. Since No Country For Old Men they’ve been on a streak almost unlike any other in their career. On top of that, I just plain love Westerns and think they’re perfect fodder for the Coens’ particular brand of moral spelunking. This is my most anticipated movie of the year.

DW: To be honest, I don’t think I’ve really liked, unreservedly, any Coen Brothers film since Blood Simple. I get what they’re doing with their films, and I can recognize the qualities that lead other people to praise their work, but man, I dunno…I really can’t find any more positive a way to review one of them than “It was okay, I guess.”

This has a cast of actors I like and it looks like a gritty, realistic modern take on the Western. It looks okay, I guess.

Gulliver's Travels

Gulliver’s Travels

KL: I guess what Gulliver’s Travels makes me realize is how special and rare a gift a movie like School of Rock is. It put its (large) child cast on equal footing with the adults and made the melding of adult and kid concerns seem effortless, indeed to the point where those concerns were not separate at all. It’s fun, funny, and even a little – dare I say it? – inspiring.

Then there’s this. There’s some pretty good talent backing up Jack Black there – Jason Segel, Emily Blunt and Billy Connolly are always welcome names. But screenwriters Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller have mostly done pretty bland film work (Yes Man, Planet 51), and director Rob Letterman’s credits are a handful of uninspiring CGI also-rans. So will this be more than Jack Black being Jack Black at some CGI? Probably not.

DW: See, a film in which Jack Black plagiarizes someone else’s work and gets a prestigious job as a writer? I’d be interested in that. That’s got potential. Jack Black doing his usual shtick in this holiday’s fart-and-poop joke movie for kids? Yeah, not so much.

And there is a lot of talent in this film. I recognized a half-dozen folks from the British comedy scene here whose work I really do like. But they’re all reduced to bit-players in the same film Black has made a few times already.

In a World for November, 2010

In A World... for November

November! The leaves are turning, the air is chilling, and the last of the Halloween cash-in movies are wrapping up their time in our movie theaters and we’re making way for one of the two most profitable movie-going days of the year: Thanksgiving. Here we have a grab bag of stuff the studios hold in good esteem: high-profile comedies, sci-fi epics, high-octane action flicks, the beginning of the end of a major franchise, and a new Disney princess film.

Bureau Chiefs Ken Lowery and Dorian Wright take a look at what the month of November has in store for us all.

NOV. 5

Due Date

Due Date

KL: I liked The Hangover a great deal, which I realize is not a very controversial thing to say. But it’s superior comedic filmmaking, and I do; the jokes remain funny, the actors are perfectly cast, their charisma and chemistry mixes well and they all get a chance to shine.

A two-man road comedy may be harder to pull off than a three-man show, however. You’ve got Zach Galifianakis doing his man-child thing and Robert Downey Jr. playing the straight man, and also a cute dog, so you have a lot going for you. Todd Phillips is also one of those rare comedic directors who can make a good-looking movie, so there’s that, too. Barring some lethal reviews, this is close to a sure thing as the month offers for me.

DW: I’m still waiting to be convinced that Galifianakis is funny. If I squint a bit I can sort of see it, but for the most part he just really hasn’t “clicked” for me, either as a comedian or as an actor. And so ninety minutes or so of him in a lead role gives me some slight pause. Still, as far as comedies go, this month’s selection feels pretty thin, and there are some moments in the trailers that are genuinely funny, so this has pretty strong potential to be good. Plus, as you say, it does look very nice, and Downey Jr. is almost always worthwhile, in addition to being pretty under-rated as a comedic actor himself.

NOV. 12

Skyline

Skyline

DW: I’d heard a lot of good, excited buzz for this, but I’m not sure why, exactly, now that I’ve seen the same trailer everyone else had. There’s one unique, fairly exciting visual here, which is a sky full of people being lifted into an alien ship, but everything else feels very familiar. We’ve got the large, barely glimpsed monsters wreaking havoc on the city from Cloverfield and we’ve got the dog-fights between jets and aliens from Independence Day, the “lights through the doors” from Close Encounters, and I suspect that if I dug a little deeper I’d probably see plenty more shots that recall other alien or monster movies. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; good films can be made from synthesizing earlier films. But I’m just not seeing what it is about this one that I’m supposed to be so excited about when I’ve seen so many of its constituent parts before. And, frankly, didn’t much care for them then.

KL: From what I understand this is more a showcase for special effects that a movie was then built around. I don’t say that as a swipe; that is basically what is going on here. The “Brothers Strause,” whose only previous feature-length credit is Aliens vs. Predators – Requiem, are primarily known for designing visual effects for rather striking work… and also, sometimes, some very pedestrian work as well (lookin’ at you, Jonah Hex). As a spectacle I’m sure it’s fine, but for this kind of subject matter I’d rather see Monsters.


Unstoppable

Unstoppable

KL: So this looks bananas.

There’s no way to talk about this without talking about Tony Scott. The man HAS put away some classic movies in his time, and my brother to this day makes the argument that Scott is deconstructing and reordering the action movie in a way no one else would try – which is true, but is not on its own a measure of quality.

I did like Déjà Vu, actually, but the rest of his latter movies are kind of a hot mess. I did not see The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, because really who has the time, so maybe he’s toned it down a bit? But no. Not even the presence of Rosario Dawson will get me in for this one.

DW: So, Speed on a train? Did they do that one yet?

I want to say that at least it looks different from your usual action movie, and the lack of any real identifiable villain is a nice move forward for the genre. But it also looks like we’ve got a cartoonishly evil corporation trying to stop our heroes from doing the right thing, which is a bit overdone. And, honestly, adorable little kids are going to be killed by the runaway poison train? Was a bus full of puppies and kittens stuck on the track vetoed for being a little too on the nose? I’m not shocked by blatant emotional manipulation in lesser Hollywood films, but this is a little too blatant.

NOV. 19

The Next Three Days

The Next Three Days

DW: I’m finding big, high-concept thrillers and action movies a bit of a chore these days, but I still find myself pretty interested in this one. I still like heist movies, and prison breaks are basically just heists on a really big scale. That there’s a strong emotional component to this one helps; that notion of risking everything to save your family from an unjust fate is pretty powerful. So, take that, and add a really excellent looking cast, and you’ve got something that looks to be promising. Even if I think I still need a little more story to be totally sold and not more action set-pieces.

KL: Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks I like; Paul Haggis not so much. Then again, Paul Haggis the interminable bore (the one who wrote-directed In the Valley of Elah) appears to be a different beast from Paul Haggis who wrote Casino Royale and (to a lesser degree) Quantum of Solace. His blue tones are in full force here, but I suppose I can cope with that. If he can give me Royale-like thrills with actors I like this much, this’ll be a good time.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

KL: Appropriate that the art on that link is the kids running through a forest, isn’t it? Because though I’m a big fan of the series, the first 3,000 pages (approximately) of the last book were a textbook example of why Rowling is a better idea person than a prose person. That “hiding in the forest” series of chapters darn near killed the book for me.

But I pressed on and, hey, look, I’m a Harry Potter fan. I love the books, I like the movies, I wish they’d kept Alfonso Cuarón on as director but there’s no way I’m not going to see this through to the end. I did not particularly enjoy Half-Blood Prince, what with the adaptation deciding to take out several key points of that book’s conflicts and revelations, but what am I going to do? I’m in the fan tractor beam. I just hope they finish with a bang.

DW: I find myself in a remarkably different position. I enjoyed the books, but once I finished the final one, I was pretty much done with Harry Potter and his world. Not out of disgust or the disgruntled fan whine that “Rowling got it wrong.” But because it was a satisfactory conclusion to the whole endeavor. Which meant that I had no more desire at all to see any more Harry Potter films.

And that is pretty much where I find myself still. Visually, I’m not too excited because of the overuse of dark blues and blacks, which tells me that, in theaters, this is just going to be a loud, murky mess. And I’m more curious about how Watson and Radcliffe are going to follow this up, career-wise, than see how they wrap this up. I just can’t muster any excitement or enthusiasm at all.

I’ll wait for the Lego video game version of the story. That’ll keep me satisfied.

NOV. 24

Burlesque

Burlesque

DW: For a genre that people keep trying to call dead and gone, it sure seems like we get a big, loud, eyeball-searingly bright musical every couple years. I’m sure this will do fine. It’s the sort of spectacle movie that tends to do well with audiences that are underserved during the blockbuster season. I’ve got no real interest in bright young things, though, or their romantic travails or hopes for stardom. If I do suddenly feel the urge to watch something like that, though, I’ve got plenty of other options. I am struck, though, by how…straight…this feels in the marketing, given how much it looks like they’re trying to lure a gay audience in. “Look, boys, Cher! You like her, right! She’s some sort of, whatchacallit, diva, or something? Please give us money.”

KL: Man, the studios have non-competitive, hit-all-demographics Thanksgiving programming down to a science, don’t they? Look at the four movies we’re highlighting for this day: a big brassy musical, a romantic comedy with a male lead, an adrenaline-fueled action festival and a Disney princess movie. Of these, Burlesque is most like the type my family chooses to go see en masse on Thanksgiving Night.

And, really, that’s all I got for you: this is programming.


Love and Other Drugs

Love and Other Drugs

DW: I’m apparently willing to concede a lot to engaging leads and likeable casts, because honestly, that’s really all this film looks like it has going for it. It’s not an original story, by any stretch, the cad who discovers that the love of a good woman makes him a better person. And, thankfully, the trailer pretty much spells out every major plot point from the film, from the obligatory meet-cute on to the crisis that nearly drives them apart and their eventual reconciliation at the eleventh hour. But Jake Gyllenhaal does really well with the roles that require comedy and smoldering, and he has exceptionally good chemistry with Anne Hathaway, so I’m prepared to forgive the triteness and lack of originality in the actual story realm.

KL: I like both the leads a lot: Gyllenhaal’s got an easy charm that masks a surprising range, and much the same could be said for Anne Hathaway. (Just look at them in Brokeback Mountain; they were both amazing.) But it is, you know, a romantic comedy; at least in this one it’s the guy that’s the Type A busybody social climber who needs to chillax a little bit. Probably won’t see it, have nothing against it.


Faster

Faster

KL: There was a time—oh crap, that was seven years ago—when I thought Dwayne Johnson might be the next big action star. He can obviously do the action, he’s smart, he’s charismatic, and he made The Rundown twice as much fun as it should have been. But it never seemed to happen for him, and he ended up diving into the kid-friendly stuff way faster than his muscle-bound predecessors.

This is more like the kind of stuff I want him to do. OK, so I can take or leave the “he’s just SO BADASS” super-serious stuff, actually prefer him when he’s allowed to be a bit goofier, but at least they’re using his physical presence here. Am I thinking a November release is a vote of confidence? I don’t know. Maybe not. Could be they’re just throwing the dudes a bone in the Thanksgiving line-up.

DW: This might actually be fun, in an over-the-top, done to excess sort of way. Johnson has charisma, absolutely, and there’s a lot of supporting cast here that’s noteworthy as well. That usually works to pull off a plot that doesn’t quite hang together. Because, frankly, it looks like this plot isn’t quite as fully developed as it might have been. Is this a revenge movie, where brutal justice is being meted out to wrong-doers? Or is it a face-off between two badasses? The film probably should have made up its mind before putting both threads into the trailer.

Tangled

Tangled

DW: I usually want to like Disney movies, but I’m feeling torn on this. On the one hand, it’s very pretty. On the other, it feels like some sort of bait-and-switch is being pulled. It’s a story about Rapunzel, but why is a rather unlikeable male character being presented to me as the lead? Why are all the bits that seem to be suggesting that this is her story being punctuated with him acting like a jackass? I’ve heard that Disney is trying to fight the perception that they just make “princess movies.” But if I want to see an animated comedy with an unappealing lead and no jokes that are actually funny, I’ll go and see something by Dreamworks or Sony.

KL: I suppose the basic idea for a romantic comedy—regardless of age group—is that one person must have it “together” while the other must eventually figure out that the other one, well, has it together.

And I was about to say “reversing the roles must be a sign of progress,” but come to think of it, that’s how it’s been for a long time now: Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Lion King… rehab for guys, realization of dreams for the girls. Suddenly, I’m less enthused.

In a World for October, 2010

In A World... for October

October’s here, which means the trailers for the winter’s Oscar bait are making their premieres and cheapie scary movies are released upon the teenaged public — complete with a new Saw installment. September was mostly a pretty grim month for movies, but October promises something a bit better: A wider mix of good talent and subject matter, from high brow to low.

OCTOBER 1

Let Me In

Let Me In

DW: At the best of times, I’m pretty skeptical of both vampire films and of remakes of horror films. The pedigree for this story of a boy who forms a relationship with a childlike vampire girl is pretty strong; the original novel has been acclaimed and the original film version as well. And the look here is pretty striking, with all those pale, snow-covered, bleak landscapes standing as glaringly obvious symbols for the main story.

I’m almost tempted to give it a shot, if only for the sake of curiosity alone. After all, it has been long enough that we’re about due for at least a decent English-language vampire movie, right?

But then “from the director of Cloverfield” flashes across the screen and I’m suddenly even more skeptical than I was before.

KL: I have seen Let the Right One In, the Swedish film this one remakes, and can attest that it is as good as people say it is. What I see in this trailer confirms what I heard from trusted critics coming out of the Toronto International Film Festival: this is most certainly a remake, pretty loyal to the original, only this time it’s in English.

As with Gus Van Sant’s near-literal remake of Psycho, one must ask the question: What’s the point? Same characters, same color tone, same dead-silent winter landscape… I enjoy Richard Jenkins as much as the next man, but I think I’ll pass.

The Social Network

The Social Network

KL: If the movie had instead just been the minute or so of Facebook hallmarks set to that marvelous cover of “Creep,” I’d be fine. But no, there is a feature film, and boy do I have mixed feelings about it.

On the one hand, David Fincher (yay!). On the other, Aaron Sorkin, who going by the trailer is at his Aaron Sorkiniest (boo). On the one hand, David damn Fincher, who did Zodiac! On the other hand, his last movie was Benjamin Button. On the one hand, Jesse Eisenberg, who I quite like. On the other, Justin Timberlake. And on and on.

I also share some sympathies with the camp saying it’s “too soon” to do a movie about Facebook. I agree, and partly don’t understand why one is being made at all. I suspect I may need to be of another, older generation to truly understand how revolutionary social media is to the social landscape. It could be I just lack the proper perspective.

But I am who I am, and I’m of the “digital native” generation. I fully expect we’ll next see Francis Ford Coppola do a movie about the inventers of Words with Friends.

DW: Yeah, I want to be interested in the film, because apart from Sorkin, who has always left me cold, that’s a pretty impressive list of names associated with this film. But, a movie about the people who made Facebook? Really? I can sort of see the logic behind it. It’s the kind of success story with behind the scenes drama that Hollywood loves, and the “true story” nature of it always gives a movie a little extra push when it comes to award seasons. But Facebook? Okay. I guess I have to throw myself into the “too soon” camp. I just can’t shake the suspicion that, fifteen years from now, people will look back and remember that people once made a movie about that friend-stalking service that people used to use before moving on to newer, better social experiences on the web.

OCTOBER 8

I Spit On Your Grave

I Spit On Your Grave

DW: Unless you’re a real fan of ’70s grindhouse gore films, you probably only know of the original I Spit On Your Grave either for the controversy it created at the time, with feminist critics accusing the film of misogynistically glorifying rape, or the reappraisal it received from later feminist critics who saw it as an early example of the “woman takes vengeance on her rapists” film that would go on to become a staple of “television for women” channels. (There was also the re-reappraisal by critics who noted that while everyone was arguing about whether or not the film was sexist, as a distaff Deliverance, the rather unpleasant things it was saying about poor people were being overlooked.) In any case, it is one of those films that is more entertaining to read about than to try and actually watch.

So I can actually see the logic behind remaking it. People know the name, most haven’t seen it, and the original is just a little too dated to really work with a contemporary audience. Unfortunately, the aesthetic of horror has come around again to the point where the torture-porn genre is so ascendant that people are mistaking gore and brutality for “scary” and taking the film and making it just another torture-porn film, only with a woman doing the killing this time, just gives the entire enterprise an air of tediousness.

KL: About the only thing the original I Spit On Your Grave had going for it was the title. Because come on: that is a badass title.

But as you say, Dorian, it looks a hell of a lot like a modern-day torture porn thing, except this time the torturer is the protagonist and we’re given a reason to cheer monstrous behavior. That thread in a lot of movies has always bothered me: that need to have an excuse for righteous fury right up front so characters—and, vicariously, the audience—can indulge in the worst behavior imaginable. Yuck.

I don’t know who that’s meant to be fun for. Maybe teenagers, looking for the emotional rollercoaster of “real life”; lord knows I pursued movies like this as a kind of tourist back in those days. But I’m not a teenager anymore.

My Soul to Take

My Soul to Take

KL: Well, no one can accuse Wes Craven of not knowing what his interests are, huh?

I kid. One thing I like about a lot of Craven’s better movies is how they examine the concept of “sins of the father”—in broader terms, how old sins and wrongdoings tend to linger on well after they’re apparently put to bed, and how growing into adulthood often means dealing with the complete fucking wreck your parents’ generation made of the world. It’s a common thread in many horror and crime films, and one I can get behind. I enjoy a genuine mystery along with my scares.

And just when I think it’s safe to count Craven out, he surprises me. New Nightmare is, looking back, pretty well flawed, but it was still a brilliant stab back into relevance, and a clear attempt to try something new. As many misgivings as I have with the Scream series, you can’t say it didn’t give new life to the slasher film. And Red Eye is, I think, still one of his most underappreciated thrillers.

I’ll be interested to see how this one does.

DW: I like Craven when he’s doing something different from what he’s done before, or what anyone else is doing in horror at the moment. Nightmare on Elm Street was interesting because it had that surreal, fantasy edge that the standard slasher films of the times lacked. Scream was different because it was self-aware. This looks to be treading a lot of the same ground as the Nightmare series and I’ve already seen Craven do that. Like you, I’m a little interested to see how it does, because even a retread from Craven promises to be more original than the bulk of the horror films we get these days, but I’m not sure if the audience wants that, or yet another Saw movie. But I’m not terribly curious about the final product or the fate of these characters. Especially when you factor in the 3D gimmick and a terrible nu-metal song in the trailer.

Stone

Stone

KL: I’ve spoken to a critic or two who’ve already seen this and they tell me it’s about as good as the premise and cast indicate.

I tend to hear two things about Ed Norton: he is a great chameleon of an actor who never chooses a dull project, or he just walks through everything as Ed Norton and how interesting can that be, anyway? I tend to lean toward the former, but that’s likely because I consider The 25th Hour to be one of the very best movies of the last 20 years. De Niro’s presence is sort of a non-factor in determining the worth of movie these days, as is Jovovich. But the Movie Math is good. Them plus Norton plus premise equals Ken is going.

DW: It’s a very good cast, and the moral complexity of the situation it presents is intriguing. In normal circumstances that would be enough to get my attention, but there’s just something off-putting to me about the elements on display here. There’s a lot going on, and there doesn’t appear to be a real lead character for an audience to focus on. The characters all appear to be self-sabotaging to certain degrees, and while that can make for a good tragedy, there are limits to my patience with it.

Tamara Drewe

Tamara Drewe

DW: It looks like there’s a little more wit to this than most entries in the “girl returns to small town she grew up in to cause upheaval in the lives of the residents” genre. That’s not really saying much, to be honest, but quality level does look to be above the usual baseline. I have a suspicion that the we’re in for a bit of over-praising from the critics, both for the cachet of the film being British, when most of the genre is dominated by American films with the “it girl” of the moment, and the novelty of the source material being a comic book instead of the more usual light novel, of the sort that dominates book racks in airport news-stands.

The only major knock I can see coming is that, for the most part, none of the characters featured in the trailer seem particularly likeable. Not the philandering authors, not the jealous local boy-toy, and not the object of everyone’s affection herself. Tamara Drewe is just a cipher in the trailer, though a well-sexed one. That’s not really enough to get me to care about why she’s returned home.

KL: Oh, good. A story about writers.


OCTOBER 15

Red

Red

KL: The similarities between this movie and the graphic novel created by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner probably begin and end with character names and very, very basic premise (retired government hit man pursued by government). And that’s OK; the OGN was like Ellis doing a Garth Ennis plot, and aside from some neat dialogue, a few good action sequences and doing me the admittedly huge solid of introducing me to Hamner’s art, I can take it or leave it.

I way prefer the absurdity on display here. Red the comic is grim and preachy, whereas Red the movie looks fun and absurd. “Let’s let Helen Mirren shoot some bloody huge guns” is basically stunt casting, but I find myself not caring.

DW: I have absolutely no recollection of the comics other than that Cully Hamner’s art was nice. That’s really not a strong testament to the story. It’s probably fitting that we get this and Expendables so close together. The themes appear to be strikingly similar, with aging badasses called together once more to prove that they are badasses. This one looks to have more of a smirky tone, which may or may not help it find an audience. But once more, I’m finding myself just a bit put off by it. Yes, there are actors I like in this, and yes, I prefer my action films not to take themselves too seriously. But this just looks too slick, too effects heavy, and too much of the cast just playing themselves.

It might just be possible that the Crank films have ruined me for big, Hollywood-style action films.

OCTOBER 22

Hereafter

Hereafter

KL: Clint Eastwood, boy, I just don’t know.

I was into Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby as much as the next guy, but I’ve never had any desire to see them ever again. I did not see Flags of Our Fathers, found myself troubled by Letters from Iwo Jima, actively disliked Changeling, ignored Gran Torino and found Invictus to be astoundingly pedestrian. This is not a good trend, and I’m starting to agree with the growing chorus of critics meeting each new Eastwood offering with eye-rolls and, sometimes, outright hostility.

The story out of Toronto is no different: some slathered Hereafter with praise and others actively hated it. So there’s that, and the fact that what I’ve seen of screenwriter Peter Morgan’s work (The Last King of Scotland, The Other Boleyn Girl, Frost/Nixon) has repeatedly disappointed me.

So no. No thanks.

DW: I went from being a little bored with the premise of the reluctant psychic to outright angry with the use of the tsunami to add real-life gravitas. So, no thanks for me too.

OCTOBER 29

Monsters

Monsters

DW: I’m willing to bet that we’re going to see a lot of comparisons between this film and District 9. They both have that same theme of humans dealing with aliens in their midst and the transformations society has to undergo because of that. But this looks more my speed, to be honest. At its heart, it’s a giant monster movie, and there’s something really compelling about the way they’ve shot this. Usually the trick of keeping the monsters mostly out of the frame just screams of an attempt to save on the effects budget, but in the glimpses we get in the trailer, it looks like care was taken to integrate the creatures into the environment. I also really respond to the fact that the creatures aren’t just scary, that there’s something fascinating and beautiful about them. It feels like a more honest portrayal, that acknowledgement that humans aren’t just terrified of the “other” but attracted to it as well.

KL: It’s a movie about an alien ecosystem growing in Mexico that the American and Mexican military can’t keep under control! We are totes subtle up in here, people.

OK, flippancy aside, I tend to agree with you: this looks like way more my thing than District 9, and here’s hoping it doesn’t follow D9’s sin of just turning on FPS auto-pilot in its last act. I’m way more interested in the realities of engaging, running from, marveling at and shrinking back in horror from an encounter with the truly alien; strapping on the guns and going macho works if the movie’s Predator, but most movies aren’t Predator and shouldn’t try to be.

I’m also glad that sci-fi monster movies like this are still being made by people without a ton of money. Huge sweeping blockbuster epics wearing the trappings of genre pictures do not interest me (I never saw Avatar, and likely never will); to me, these things belong in the hands of people who really, really want to make that movie, major studio backing be damned.

In a World for September, 2010

In A World... for September

And now we tread headlong into the limbo between summer blockbuster season and Oscar season (with a quick stop over in Horror Town in late October). What do September’s offerings have in common? Not a whole lot: there’s some serious highbrow stuff alongside lower-end fare, horror films and biopics and even a bit of Mexploitation.

No, the only thing September’s releases have in common are maddeningly non-specific titles that make it hard to quickly search for relevant images on Google.

SEPTEMBER 1

The American
"Just bask in me."

The American

KL: George Clooney remains one of the true “stars” left in Hollywood, and sure enough I’ll see just about anything he’s headlining. Pedigree is what The American has going for it: Clooney and screenwriter Rowan Joffe, who wrote me-favorite 28 Weeks Later.

On paper, the whole thing looks kind of pedestrian: American hitman abroad, one last job, tempting fate by seeking a normal life, love interest, and so on. We’ve seen all that before, but in these kinds of stories it’s all in the execution, because we’ve seen all its component pieces before. I’ll be there.

DW: The thing that strikes me is that, yes, we have seen pretty much all of these elements before, often in pretty much this exact same configuration, and yet watching the trailers, very little of the story is sketched out. The film is pushing the mystery and the moral ambiguity of the situation, and the appeal of Clooney in these roles as a “thoughtful” action hero type. It’s a good approach to take, but it comes just shy of really selling me on the picture. Which is frustrating, because the style of it, and the presence of Clooney, makes me want to look forward to the film, but I find myself sitting there and thinking “and?” throughout the trailer.

SEPTEMBER 3

Machete
Order now and get this handy carrying coat and vest combo.

Machete

DW: It’s like the Mexsploitation fever-dreams of my youth brought to life.

Robert Rodriguez does stripped-down action movies very well. He usually strikes the right balance of spectacle and over-the-top ridiculousness that serves the genre well. And that looks like what we have here: a bunch of actors and actresses we like, doing insanely improbably badass things in service to a rather typical for an action film revenge story. It’s a loud, dumb action movie, but with enough variation on the standard tropes, and just barely enough variation at that, to pass successfully as an original composition.

KL: I run real hot or real cold on Rodriguez movies. From Dusk till Dawn is hands-down one of the most entertaining movies I have ever seen; it was Grindhouse ten years before Grindhouse, and way, way better. But the rest of his stuff seems less like movies and more like feature-length trailers: a bunch of stuff happens and some passably witty dialogue is spoken, but ultimately it’s the cinematic equivalent of eating Chinese food.

I have actually seen the movie, and I was not a big fan. Liking this movie will depend on how much you like the general structure of Once Upon a Time in Mexico with the kind of gore in the aforementioned Dawn. Ultimate it’s just not enough for me to laugh at throwbackism.


SEPTEMBER 10

Resident Evil Afterlife
Is this still even from the right RE movie? You tell me!

Resident Evil: Afterlife

KL: The reason this franchise keeps going is the reason the Saw franchise keeps going: they make money. This seems like an odd duck to keep coming back to life (zombie jokes lol), but hey, at least it consistently casts women in its lead roles.

I admit: I liked the first movie, cheesy as it could be. This was before the current glut of zombie movies, when making such a thing in modern times was still novel. It also gave us a lot of gore and some corny action, and hey, ain’t nothing wrong with that. The second one was an incoherent mess, and the third had some nifty sequences but didn’t live up to the premise promised us in the trailers. This one… I don’t even know anymore. Does the mythology matter? Are there hardcore fans out there who know every twist and turn of the movie franchise?

I suspect not. Maybe this franchise more closely resembles the Bond movies than other, more direct sequels.

DW: I only ever bothered to see the first film in the series, and I thought it was about as good as you could probably expect a movie based on a video game to be. I can see the appeal; there are big action set-pieces all over the place, gore for fans of that, and women in the lead. But I watch this trailer and I just feel lost. All the big reveals of monsters and characters feels like I’m expected to know who they are and why they’re significant, and I don’t, and what’s more, I don’t even know if I am supposed to recognize them or if I’m just supposed to be impressed with how scary or menacing they look. It’s like watching an undubbed foreign film without subtitles. Only with zombies.

SEPTEMBER 17

Devil
He who made the rhyme...

Devil

DW: Everyone on the Internet seems to have had their good laugh at the anecdotal stories of audiences reacting negatively to M. Night Shyamalan’s name appearing in the credits. I would hope that, after the last couple of years, we’d all have learned some important lessons about mistaking how the Internet reacts to a film to how the general public will react. And while I personally tend to think that Shyamalan’s best work is behind him, actually stepping back and let someone else direct the story might be the sort of thing his career needs.

The part that bothers me more than the “story by” credit is that “The Night Chronicles” line in the movie’s homepage address. I don’t want a series of horror films released under an umbrella title. Horror as a genre is already plagued by an overabundance of remakes and sequels. A “ready made” franchise just seems like a terrible idea.

The plot doesn’t do much for me either, to tell the truth. Why would Satan need to scare a bunch of people on an elevator? Is Hell micromanaged that badly?

KL: The basic concept of the trailer looks like it might make a pretty good 30-minute episode of something – I suppose Tales From the Crypt. As high concepts go, “bunch of people stuck in an elevator no one can get to, one of them might be a demon” isn’t bad, but it isn’t feature-film material.

I’m automatically turned off by any movie that seems to hinge on one crucial reveal. Take Cloverfield, for instance: the heat building up for that one seemed immense, but so much of it was based around “what’s the monster look like?” And once people knew, man, no one cared anymore. Unless there’s some exceptional character work done here, I don’t know if anyone will care “who the bad person is” past the first leaked online spoilers. A gimmick does not a story make.


The Town
"Bask, also, in me."

The Town

KL: Gone Baby Gone was, like, the best movie I saw the year it came out. Walking out, I asked the question probably a lot of other people did: holy shit, why doesn’t Ben Affleck direct more movies? Great cast, great mystery, great suspense, and an absolutely crushing moral dilemma. I can’t ask for more in my crime dramas.

OR CAN I? Affleck directing, starring and co-writing, with Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, Chris Cooper, Jon Hamm… the trailer unfolds and the hits just keep on coming. Affleck’s got a lot to live up to with his sophomore effort, but I think he’s equal to the task.

DW: Affleck’s previous effort as a director was a smart crime thriller that was so much better than a film by the star of Mallrats had any right to be. I’m not as enthusiastic about this one, but that’s not because this doesn’t look good. It looks extremely promising with an absolutely stellar cast. It’s that so much of the drama of the film looks to be based on the relationship Affleck’s character has with the female characters. The moment in the trailer that looks like it’s supposed to be a shocking reveal felt, frankly, a bit obvious, though that may be more due to me watching and reading far more mysteries and thrillers than I probably should. That is holding me back a little, as is the thought of Affleck injecting that love-sick puppy-dog affectation he takes on in romantic roles into what otherwise looks like an engaging crime drama.

Easy A
See because it's like the Scarlet Letter.

Easy A

KL: Easy A doesn’t have much going on behind the camera, far as I can tell—director Will Gluck only has Fired Up on his resumé and writer Bert Royal has written one episode of one show I have not heard of. The people in front of the camera have more going on. I like Emma Stone a lot, and the minor characters are filled out by a reliable crew: Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson and Lisa Kudrow, among others.

But that’s not enough; in the mental calculus that goes into my “will I or won’t I” formulas for movies, none of that stuff put together adds up to a passing grade. The premise? I suppose it has some potential for turning conventions about teenage-girl sexuality on its ear, but, again: Fired Up.

DW: Let me get my one moment of politically-correct gay umbrage out of the way first: in 2010, the whole notion of encouraging a gay teenager to pretend to have sex with a girl for the sake of popularity is offensively retrograde, not to mention more than a little stupid.

Apart from that, I find myself rather liking the premise. With so many teenagers forced to endure abstinence-only sex education programs, I like the idea of a mainstream teen comedy that pricks the egos of religious hypocrites in the schoolyard. Add an appealing cast to that premise, and I think you have something that actually sounds fairly promising.

SEPTEMBER 24

Buried
There are just a lot of handsome dudes in movies this month!

Buried

DW: I like Ryan Reynolds a lot, and I think with the right material he can be a really fantastic presence in a film. But I can’t seem to muster any enthusiasm for him in a box talking to people on a cell phone for an hour and half, no matter how taut and suspenseful the experience is supposed to be. It’s largely the same problem I had with the recent return of the “man vs. nature” horror films like Open Water and Frozen. I’m willing to take your word for it if you tell me that they’re good, but I just don’t have any interest in watching people slowly die as a form of entertainment. Buried appears to be aiming for something more in the classic thriller mold in its approach than those other films, but it still strikes me as in the same general vein.

KL: Geez, I feel like I could copy-and-paste my feelings about Devil and call it a day. Good high concept that’d be much more potent in shorter form, central mystery to crack…

The difference is that I also like Ryan Reynolds quite a bit and have more faith in his charisma to carry this kind of concept. That said, I’ve been to my share of film festivals and seen my share of low-budget horror movies whose premise (and budget) demanded extreme claustrophobia with one or a handful of actors, and the exercise is, nine times out of ten, more exhausting than suspenseful.

I just checked out the writer’s IMDB page. You know he’s got another script in pre-production right now? Here’s the summary: “On a late night visit to an ATM, three coworkers end up in a desperate fight for their lives when they become trapped by an unknown man.”

It’s called ATM. Sounds like he’s found his niche!


Howl
"I saw the best minds of my generation deployed by sadness.. no, no..."

Howl

DW: James Franco has turned into a very interesting actor in the last few years, and even in these brief glimpses of the film on display here he really seems to inhabit the role of Allen Ginsberg in an engaging and believable way. I’ve never had much patience for the “Beat” writers, so I don’t find myself too interested in learning more about Ginsberg’s life. Sure, more mainstream, Oscar-baiting biopics about gay and lesbian historical figures are probably, on the whole, a good thing, but I find the story about the obscenity trial more interesting. Both as an excellent reminder of what an era that is viewed with too much nostalgia was actually like for anyone who wasn’t a straight, conservative, white Christian man, and as a useful parallel to contemporary political and cultural controversies.

KL: I care even less about “Beat” writers than you, Dorian, but there seems to be a lot to recommend this.

There’s the cast. There’s the striking visual style on display, showing that once again, some filmmaker somewhere remembered that you can do anything you want with this medium, and that literalism is a prison, not a duty. And also there’s the obscenity trial, which by itself is a fascinating cultural artifact: the notion that there was a time that poetry could be so powerful and so threatening as to warrant such a thing.


Wall Street
From the deleted make-out scene.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

KL: I do and do not understand the desire to create this movie.

On the one hand, yeah, Gordon Gekko would flip the fuck out in these heady times, when high-finance criminals rake in millions, tax payers shoulder the cost and no one seems to give much of a damn. Our country’s an oligarchy in everything but name.

On the other hand, yeesh. The trailer does the movie no favors by sketching out what must be 80% of its narrative and emotional arcs, leaving you with questions about the characters that are so obvious they may as well be rhetorical. I don’t really get off on watching people live the high life, so there’s precious little to offer me here. If Michael Douglas brings his sizzle, that’s something. But then I could just pop in the old Wall Street, couldn’t I?

DW: More so than most sequels, I find myself wondering what the point of this is. Yeah, the culture of greed that made Wall Street such a commentary on its times had its resurgence, and screwed over most Americans in the process, but even then a sequel feels about a year too late to have any impact. And, as you say, this looks so much like the original, if you really wanted to know what Oliver Stone thinks about the Gordon Gekko’s of the world, the original is right there already. Why would you need a retread?

You Again
Betty White did something inappropriate! Take a shot!

You Again

KL: It’s gotta be tough out there for a mainstream actress. You don’t get to do action unless you’re Angelina Jolie, so the only leading roles you’re left with are period pieces or romantic comedies. Witness poor Kristen Bell, who has proven time and again she is really damn funny, headlining a movie that seems powered by how many groans-per-second it can generate.

Oh well. At least it’s not a romantic comedy.

DW: I think I’m slightly more generous than you in my reaction, because the film has so many actors whose work I really enjoy, and the situation is one that’s very relatable for just about everyone. And the fact that it isn’t a romantic comedy actually does give it some added appeal. I could really use a break from the bro-comedies dominating the discussion of what is and isn’t popular in theaters, so I hope that a good, women-orientated comedy can find some traction and an audience.

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: Every Which Way But Loose

Every Which Way But Loose

I have a nostalgic attachment to certain movies I saw in the theater when I was a kid, and for many of those movies, that nostalgia breeds a certain charm which allows me to enjoy the movie when I revisit them as an adult. This does not just include the usual pop culture touchstones that most who grew up in the late ’70s/early ’80s have, like Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Superman.

For example, that I grew to film maturity during the heyday of Burt Reynolds–and Burt Reynolds tended to make a lot of PG-rated movies that my parents would let me see as a preteen–means I tend to elevate certain of his movies, like Gator and Stroker Ace, beyond their objective merits (though I will go to the mat for the Cannonball Run movies against any criticism, as I firmly believe those are objectively good movies). I think it also helps that, as a kid, I had a capacious memory for movies, so I could just see a movie once and be able to replay it in detail mentally or pull dialogue from it and work that into regular conversations.

So, it was with this sense of nostalgia that I returned to a movie that I genuinely loved as a nine-year-old: the 1978 “action comedy” Every Which Way But Loose. Unfortunately, my capacity for beer-swilling orangutans and foul-mouthed old women must have peaked with this movie and its sequel, Any Which Way You Can (1980), because I found little nostalgic pleasure in returning to Every Which Way But Loose after 32 years. I can even barely see what my nine-year-old self enjoyed about the movie now. I guess most of that enjoyment came through Clyde, the orangutan, and his tendency to kiss and/or flip off anyone who hassled him. Also, I remember thinking Ruth Gordon was funny as Ma, the foul-mouthed old lady who was constantly struggling to pass her driver’s test and keep Clyde from stealing her Oreos and shitting around her house. But then, it would be about eight years before I saw Harold & Maude, which would completely drive Ma from my memory.

Also, I’m grateful that my dad had a poster of The Man with No Name up when I was a kid; otherwise, Every Which Way But Loose would have been my first exposure to Clint Eastwood, and that may have tainted my first impression of him the way my first impression of Orson Welles was tainted by Paul Masson ads and The Muppet Movie.

Eastwood plays Philo Beddoe, a bare-knuckle fighter in Los Angeles who enjoys working on cars, drinking beer, and listening to country music. (I do find it funny now that, every time Philo orders “a beer” in a bar, he’s automatically given an Olympia, as if that were generic for “beer” in the ’70s.) With the help of his buddy, Orville (Geoffrey Lewis, who was basically the definitive “that guy” on network television throughout the late ’70s and ’80s), he sets up bare-knuckle matches at warehouses and industrial sites around LA. As Philo easily handles each opponent, onlookers continuously compare him to Tank Murdock, a legendary fighter that Philo hopes to meet up with one day.

In between fights, Philo and Orville hang out at a country music bar. One night, during a Mel Tillis show, Philo catches the eye of country singer Lynne Halsey-Taylor (Sondra Locke, Eastwood’s long-time girlfriend who appeared in, and dragged down, many of his movies from this era). She’s apparently got some talent, and she has dreams of opening her own country music club. For this, she enlists the help of smitten Philo, who gives her money and romances her even though she’s got a boyfriend living back at her trailer. One day, when Philo is bringing Clyde over to meet her, she’s gone, trailer and all. Philo then grabs Orville, and they hit the road in order to follow her to Denver.

Meanwhile, Philo has also pissed off a group of bikers known as “The Black Widows,” who seem to keep losing their bikes in altercations with Philo. Also, a couple of local cops are after him because he beat them up in a bar fight he initiated. So, at about the halfway point, this suddenly becomes a road movie. This leads to one of the film’s biggest problems: it has too many plots to resolve. Philo has to defeat the bikers and the crooked cops, find Lynne (who turns out to be a grifter), and face off against Tank Murdock (who turns out to be a washed-up has-been). And none of these climaxes fits together well, so the movie ends with a series of disconnected scenes that rely too much on coincidence and seem generally forced.

Also, the movie just isn’t funny, not even in a campy, nostalgic sort of way. Jokes about Clyde flipping people off, shitting all over the place, and breaking into a zoo to get laid are the movie’s high points. Otherwise, the jokes fall flat. A young Beverly D’Angelo shows up late in the movie as Echo, a disgruntled produce-stand worker that Orville picks up, and we get a running gag where people have to have her name repeated when they hear it. A scene where Philo chases two bikers ends up in a car wash for no real reason, except that it might be funny to see someone on a motorcycle go through a car wash. In the final showdown with the bikers, as Philo faces the entire gang in a deserted, muddy alley, the Morricone whistle music starts up, and that seems like the ultimate blasphemy in this movie.

Every Which Way But Loose was the fourth highest grossing movie of 1978, following Grease, Superman, and Animal House, which is a bit stunning. It comes in ahead of Hooper, a Burt Reynolds movie that still retains its nostalgic charms despite being very much a product of the times. Every Which Way But Loose, however, just feels like a mess, and I was disappointed that I couldn’t even find a spark of the enjoyment I got out of it at the age of nine. In fact, I’m a little disappointed in my nine-year-old self, who already had enough exposure to Mel Brooks and Woody Allen movies of the time that he should have been developing a more discerning sense of humor.

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: Zardoz

Zardoz Poster

The main thing you need to know about John Boorman’s 1974 sci-fi classic, Zardoz, is that, for most of the movie, Sean Connery wears this costume:

Fetching!

I’m glad not only that I live in a world in which Zardoz exists, but also that I live in the world in which the circumstances that allow Zardoz’s existence could happen. That is, the window for Zardoz’s possible existence is only that period in 1974 when it was released: two years after director John Boorman made Deliverance and three years before Star Wars changed science fiction, as well as the entire filmmaking landscape, to this day. Add to this also three years after Sean Connery had left the James Bond franchise for a second time, and he was hungry enough to take on this film (though Boorman’s original choice, Burt Reynolds, had to bow out of the film due to illness, and I wouldn’t mind living in the parallel universe that got to have Zardoz starring Burt Reynolds).

The very existence of Zardoz stems largely from the success of John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972). As often happens with such success, Hollywood studios give the directors of such successful films carte blanche to make their next film, which often means the director tries to make a dream project. This can sometimes result in a creative and commercial success (Inception), a creative success but commercial failure (William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, an incredible, intense remake of The Wages of Fear that Friedkin got to make after The Exorcist, but which failed for a wide variety of reasons and damaged the director’s career), or both a creative and commercial failure (Martin Scorcese’s New York, New York). It can also result in incredibly personal projects that have no real reason for existing otherwise, have almost no commercial appeal, and defy evaluation. This is where Zardoz comes in.

Like our best dreams, Zardoz also defies summarization, as any attempt to impose narrative order on the film ultimately results in leaving out something crucial. At its most basic, Zardoz is about the conflict between two classes in the postapocalyptic world of 2293: the Brutals and the Eternals. Among the Brutals are the Exterminators, a group of men who worship a giant floating head named Zardoz who vomits up weapons, tells them how bad penises are, and commands them to kill the other Brutals:

“The gun is good. The penis is evil. The penis shoots seeds and makes new life to poison the earth with a plague of men, as once it was. But the gun shoots death and purifies the earth of the filth of Brutals. Go forth and kill!”

Interestingly, Zardoz sounds a lot like my mom.

One of the Exterminators, Zed (Sean Connery), stows away aboard the giant floating head and shoots the man who controls it: Arthur Frayn.

The giant floating head makes its way back to the Vortex, home of the Eternals. This is a scientifically advanced collective that had conquered death and developed special mental powers. Because they cannot die, they’ve also done away with reproduction and sexual desire as well. Peace is maintained among the Eternals by controlling negative thoughts: such thoughts are punished by aging the Eternal a certain number of years. If one is aged too much, then he or she becomes a permanently senile member of the Renegades. The Apathetics make up another group of Eternals; they have some mental disorder that causes them to stand around with glazed looks and occasionally bump into each other.

The movie takes a while to set up the rules of this future society, and much of it doesn’t make sense, which is just fine in the context of this film. At some point, one just has to go with it and accept what happens without question. The Eternals have lived for hundreds of years in their idyllic communities, with no contact with the Brutals other than the excursions for resources that Arthur Frayn made with the giant floating head. Zed’s presence among the Eternals throws their ordered existence into chaos, with some wanting to kill him outright, while others want to examine him. After a vote, which involves some random hand-gestures that make no sense, these logic-dominated humans decide that he requires further study, especially since he is so physically and mentally different from them. For one, he still needs sleep, while they do not. Two, he can get an erection. In one of the movie’s great scenes, the Eternals, led by Consuella (Charlotte Rampling), try to study Zed’s erection. They show him various pornographic films–one of a woman bathing, the other of naked mud wrestling–but they have no effect. However, looking at Consuella gets him to pitch a tent, and everyone is impressed.

Zed’s sexual power becomes a big issue for the Eternals. At one point, a group of female Eternals offer a trade: “We will touch-teach you, and you will give us your seed.” In other words, they will give him the sum total of all human knowledge, and in exchange, he gets to screw them. That may be the definition of “win-win.” Later, an Apathetic licks Zed, which leads them to snap out of their catatonic states and have an orgy. This is exactly what I imagine happens whenever anyone licks Sean Connery.

Zed also manages to seduce Consuella, who leads the faction that wants to kill the outsider. His presence among the Eternals turns out to be no accident: back in the Outlands, Zed found a library, learned to read, and discovered by reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that his god is a sham. So, he seeks revenge on Zardoz for the manipulation of his people.

As the movie moves toward its conclusion, a lot of random shit happens. The film features a pretty basic dichotomy of logic vs. emotion, or reason vs. instinct, with a cautionary tale about a society that leaves emotion behind in favor of scientific achievement and longevity which I guess is a warning we need. It may also be saying something about the fictionality of religion. However, there is also another metafictional level functioning in this movie. The film opens with the floating head of Arthur Frayn explaining that he is the creator of the story we are about to see (this scene must have been even crazier on the big screen). Later, when Frayn is resurrected, he explains to Zed that he has manipulated events to put Zed in this position to destroy the Eternals: he selected Zed’s parents for optimum genetic characteristics, and later led him to the library and encouraged him to read. But Zed never really confronts the fated nature of his position–it just becomes another thing that this movie throws at us.

Zardoz is the apotheosis of a period when sci-fi movies like this, Silent Running, Soylent Green, The Planet of the Apes movie, Logan’s Run, A Clockwork Orange and others tried to be about something important. Zardoz tries a little too hard at that, but that’s part of its charm. It’s a crazy ride that has no reason for existing, but I’m glad it does.