Movies or what?

by Mark Butterworth  (Oct. 2006)

Hollywoodland

The Protector

All the King’s Men

Gridiron Gang

Everyone’s Hero

The Last Kiss

The Guardian

School for Scoundrels

September in Movieland meant a turning away from summer spectacles and comic book, action extravaganzas toward the home stretch for Oscar nominations with serious dramas, feathery romantic comedies, and historical costume dramas. That didn’t happen, though. Mostly what we got this month was junk, junk, and more junk.

There were two film noir failures: Hollywoodland and The Black Dahlia. These kinds of movies have become a staple among the film school graduates who think they can recreate the gritty, dark realism of the 40’s films and replace Bogart, Mitchum, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Lauren Bacall with people like Josh Hartnett, Adrien Brody, and Scarlet Johansson. The lack of authenticity, the self-conscious straining for effect, and the failure to understand how American culture has changed leaves such movies no ground to stand on as honest explorations into the dangerous waters of human corruption and depravity.

What you have ends up like a high school production of The Maltese Falcon. Kids dressed up in suits wearing fedoras, smoking cigarettes like they don’t mean it, uttering ridiculous slang, and trying to look hard or mean when they ooze softness and baby fat.

Hollywoodland fictionalizes the questions and problems surrounding George Reeves’ (50’ s TV Superman) demise. Was it suicide? Did his fiancée do it? Or maybe it was his old sugar momma, Mrs. Mannix. Then again, her husband seems a thug. Or was it Col. Mustard in the basement?

Ben Affleck gives his best performance in a movie as Reeves, managing to capture subtle mannerisms and vocal characteristics while impersonating Reeves‘ air, insouciance and charm, which lent him stature as Superman, making him convincing and beloved in that famous role. Appearing shallow and weak suits Affleck to a “t”.

The movie then sets up a subsequent story of a private detective, Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) who attempts to trade on the idea that the death is a murder and not what it’s been reported as. Simo is entirely mercenary in his investigation, and the story takes a page out of L.A. Confidential in depicting everyone in La La land as base and corrupt. Here the movie turns into a noir murder mystery.

Brody fails miserably to make an impression, and then the movie wants to include a great deal of his character’s back story - divorced from wife, alienated from his boy, has a cheating girlfriend. All the details of his life including a subplot involving another investigation he’s doing for a jealous husband draw out the film, sucks out the energy, and drives it slowly and dully into the ground.

The most interesting situation is Reeves’ dilemma in going from a B to C list actor who first appeared in Gone with the Wind to starring in crude children’s TV shows.

Otherwise, there’s nothing to see here, move along.

I didn’t screen The Black Dahlia, but the reviews have been withering in their contempt for it.

****

The Protector is an Asian martial arts movie. I hate martial arts movies. I hate fight scenes that last twenty minutes with people kicking each other down when everyone knows that one good punch would take any of these guys out, and that kicking at people in a fight is a waste of time. I also hate barroom brawls where John Wayne and Lee Marvin trade haymakers, blow after blow, and then afterwards get up and shake it all off.

I only went to see this movie because I decided I might be dismissing something that has improved in some way which people would like to know about.

Thus, I persuaded myself to see The Protector starring Tony Jaa as Cam, and a cast of a thousand henchmen. Set ‘em up, and he’ll mow ‘em down.

The Plot? Why bother? It’s all so flimsy. Something just to get a movie going. It’s about a boy and his elephants. They are stolen from him in Thailand. He goes to Sydney, Australia to get them back (bumping into Jackie Chan in the airport).

I got a kick out of the fact that production quality isn’t a big factor, either. Filming outdoors? It doesn’t matter if the sky is green, and white over-saturates the film. Indoor setting? Just light it up and roll the cameras as they fight, taking whatever you get. There’s no setting the lights shot by shot. It’s all one shot from all over the place.

I admire that. Why waste so much time and money making things look good when it works just as well looking bad?

This is a bad movie but it has no pretensions of being anything but a non-stop martial arts demonstration of a useless fighting technique.

****

All the King’s Men

No one’s more convincing as a histrionic character than Sean Penn. For sheer commitment to wild eyed rage or screaming misery, Penn’s identification with violent emotion is intense. He clearly doesn’t have to twist the dial too hard to get to eleven on his passion amplifier. It’s something of a giveaway on how near the surface his personal angst is.

He plays the political demagogue, Willie Stark on the stump, to perfection, but when he has to supply an underlying intelligence of cunning, wisdom, and feral will, we catch Penn pretending while later on he seems all gesticulation and spasms. Scenes of him at night on the steps of the Louisiana state capital haranguing throngs of his voters becomes risible.

Still, that’s a heckuva lot better than having to endure interminable scenes of Jude Law moping around in search of a character to play.

The movie is simply a mess. It was meant to chronicle the popular rise and corrupted fall of a small town politico, a Louisiana populist during the Great Depression who is swept into power as Governor in mimic of the true story of Huey Long. Yet they take liberties with the period of time.

Along the way, the story becomes a Southern Gothic soap opera too convoluted to tell without giving much away - all indecency and dishonesty amidst the Spanish moss.

Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins, all are wasted on this movie. Law, of course, is a lightweight lucky to have any job. As I said above, Penn can convince anyone he is enraged or upset, but he’ll never convince anyone he has a lick of intelligence.

****

Gridiron Gang

I dread getting a screening for a sports film because these movies are drearily predictable and tiresome. Is there any genre more finely formulated than the sports one?

The Gridiron Gang fulfills every one of the clichés and then demonstrates why there is a formula they use over and over again. When it works, it’s a beautiful and powerful thing.

The movie is based on a documentary about Sean Porter and other men who formed a football team, The Mustangs, from detainees in a San Fernando juvenile detention hall in the hope that they would gain a work ethic, a team bond, discipline, confidence, and self-esteem that might carry them out of a hopeless future.

One of the reasons this movie works as well as it does is that it is about people with real choices, real stakes involved which is well illustrated in the beginning when the horrors of street violence, bad home life, and the gang situations are depicted.

As unsympathetic as these young men and boys are at first, you can’t help but root for them and admire the coach who is willing to put so much effort into “losers.”

****

The Last Kiss

The Last Kiss begins with Michael (Zach Braff) and Jenna (Jacinda Barrett) telling Jenna’s parents that they are going . . . “to get married!?” Blythe Danner as Anna exclaims. No, they are going to have a baby!

Marriage is an issue, though, which Jenna clearly has in mind, but accepts Michael’s silly evasions. Every time Michael is confronted with the reality of his future as a father and husband, he gets a deer caught in the headlights look even though he is clever enough to mouth all the appropriate words that reassure Jenna that he loves her, loves having a baby, and so forth. He maintains a running commentary to tell the audience that his being about to turn thirty feels like a death sentence, though.

So the first chance he gets, he meets a college girl at a wedding and succumbs to her come on for a rendezvous. The girls’ attraction to him is a little too movie pat since Braff isn’t that magnetic.

To fill out the rest of the movie we have many other threads. Michael has three other male friends who all have their problems or tales, and Jenna’s mother turns out to be miserable in her thirty year marriage to Stephen who is a cold fish; diffident and a smart alecky.

I wondered if the movie was misogynistic at the start since all the women are unsympathetic, and then I wondered if it was misanthropic since all the men are unsympathetic, too, by the end. I guess it is simply inhumane since no one comes off as decent, kind, or generous. Even though many of the dysfunctioning relationships strike chords of real life, and evince interest for their agonies or unsettling qualities, the film squanders our concern for them by being unrevealing as things play out in consequence.

There are often a few grains of truth in these films. Romantic love doesn’t last. The long endurance of loneliness settles into life for some. People do cruel things to try and get attention from partners who act indifferently in their relationship. Intimacy is a near impossibility.

All of the movie’s conclusions are shallow. Nothing is really discovered or changed by the end. The women are American witches, and the men are Peter Pans with minor exceptions.

Scattered amongst all these intertwined tales is considerable vulgarity and sex/nudity. For something billed as a comedy, it’s completely joyless; and as a drama, not enough kitchen sink home truths to merit thinking about.

****

Everyone’s Hero

This is an animated movie for kids, or boys, I guess, since it’s about baseball and a boy, Yankee Irving, who is taunted as an inept player of the game.

In the eyes of a Hollywood writer, that’s the world’s biggest tragedy: a child being taunted or bullied a bit. But I wonder how many boys watching Yankee strike out after being told to take a walk thinks the derision expressed towards him is unbearable and childhood ruining.

This movie features a talking baseball, Screwy, voiced by Rob Reiner who sounds like a low rent Billy Crystal and is irritating and grating the entire movie. Then, to make things worse, a talking baseball bat (Whoopi Goldberg) not the least bit funny, either.

Here’s the plot: Babe’s Ruth special bat is stolen during the World Series. Yankee has to recover it and deliver it to Babe in Chicago. If he doesn’t, his dad can’t get his job back. A boring odyssey ensues. Can the hero get from point A to point B in time? We await the outcome with bated breath. Along the way he will find helpers and hindrances. A bad guy will also be after him.

Nor does it help that the villain chasing Yankee suffers the same kind of pratfalls and disasters as Wile E. Coyote does. Is the movie a Loony Tune or an adventure comedy? By trying to be both, it succeeds at neither.

This is another movie like the recent The Ant Bully where a ten or fifteen minute idea ends up being stretched to an hour and a half.

The tiresome didacticism of cramming life lessons into such deadening entertainment is annoying. Just tell a good tale and let the moral of the story take care of itself. Stop with all this trying to make children feel better, or improving their self-esteem and confidence already. They already are too full of themselves as it is.

****

The Guardian

I wanted to like The Guardian. I like Kevin Costner even though it seems like ages since he’s been in a good movie. In the first part of the movie when it runs like an excellent recruiting commercial for the US Coast Guard (which is not a bad thing), I began to wander away since there was no conflict or character development to concentrate on. Then the film caught some tension, created some concerns and I began to root for the picture. Yeah, okay, I can be positive on this one. Way to go, guys.

Then it fell apart.

After his crew is killed during a rescue attempt, Ben (Costner) is sent away to train USCG rescue swimmers. We meet the new crew of young men and women, and Ashton Kutcher as Jake Fischer is one of them, a hot shot high school swimmer who vows to break all of Randall’s records at the academy. But will he make it through? The attrition rate is 50% and Ben doesn’t like Jake. Jake isn’t a team player. He’s a glory hound. He might have issues. A few personal demons.

But then, Ben does, too, what with his friends dead and his wife leaving him.

We get an impressive training montage and then more training scenes as the movie wanders around in search of plot and finally settles on An Officer and Gentleman until there is a climactic emotional scene between Ben and Jake ending in their becoming buddies.

It’s long, it’s gooey, and it’s overkill. At two hours and twenty minutes it’s interminable. Nor can Costner pass up the chance to go for lump in the throat moments that aren’t really earned. Nor can the movie find a way to bring things to a conclusion.

The movie was supposed to have been a changing of the guard with the old bull teaching the young bull a few tricks, but here the old bull wants equal screen time because he’s soulful and vastly caring in that sincere Costner way; and he can’t exit the stage without wanting to make everybody cry over him. Yech.

School for Scoundrels

School for Scoundrels was a very slight, 1960 English movie about one upmanship. It was droll and witty featuring Terry Thomas with one very funny scene of a tennis game played out between the superior Thomas and his rival, Ian Carmichael. The rival obliterates Thomas’ sang froid by politely calling the other’s winning shots - out.

Carmichael had engaged the help of a Prof. Potter to learn how to one up the rotter, Thomas. One upmanship is a social game in which a man adroitly makes himself appear superior to others without appearing conceited.

It’s a clever idea for comedy and goes back to the Irish playwright, Sheridan, who wrote The School for Scandal (1777).

This was an idea ripe for a remake, and I was hoping that the American version would be, if not as fine in dry wit, at least somewhat wry.

Alas, this new comedy is simply vicious and stupid.

Roger (John Heder) is a shy wimp who needs to find a spine so that he can stand up for himself in his daily life, and get the girl, his neighbor, Amanda (Jacinda Barrett). He pays $5000 to take a class from Dr. P. (Billy Bob Thornton) with a collection of other jellyfish that will turn him into a lion of the jungle.

All the skills Dr. P. teaches are vile. The students are instructed to “initiate confrontation” by a pager or they will be expelled at the cost of their tuition. So the wimps go into action doing dangerous or crazy things. None of which are funny such as the man who grabs a woman’s violin in a park while she’s playing, and smashes it against a tree.

Dr. P. explains to Roger that there are two types of men, “those who run s**t like me, and those who eat s**t like you.” That’s as astute as this movie gets.

School for Scoundrels sets up its premise, and then promptly runs out of gas. A comedy of manners is something that Hollywood is no longer able to produce. Crudeness of manners is all it is capable of now. Avoid this like a bag of spinach.

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