Saturday, August 17, 2013

Decrypt the Light Fantastic

Since my last full packet of pocket reviews in March, more DVDs have sneaked their way into my player to be bathed by laser light. This time, for a change, I’ll post a list of 10, none of which made me lament the lost time. Oh, I’ve seen more than 10 (not all of them purchases, fortunately) since March: some were of the “so bad it’s good” variety (e.g. Milk Money), but others were of the “so bad it’s still bad” (e.g. the unmemorable Total Recall remake). All of the following, however, are at least OK – a few are no more than OK, but they at least are that. A few are gems, including the first two on the list.

Employee of the Month (2004)
This film often is compared to Office Space, but it is not nearly so good natured – and that is all to its benefit. A bank employee (Matt Dillon) has a terrible day. He gets fired from his job and then his fiancĂ© (Christina Applegate) dumps him. From there, things get very much worse. It doesn’t help that his best friend is a ne’er-do-well who works for the coroner’s office and supplements his income by robbing the bodies he picks up. One betrayal follows another in this twisted and enjoyable comedy.

Waitress (2007)
Jenna is a waitress who sublimates her emotional turmoil into an uncanny talent for baking creative and delicious pies.  The source of much of that turmoil is Earl, who, if not the worst husband on the planet, is at the very least the worst in town. Jenna dreams of winning a pie contest and using the money to leave her husband and open her own pie shop. Her plans suddenly are jeopardized when she discovers she is pregnant. Like so many of us, she feels trapped by circumstances. This might sound depressing, but in fact there is a dark humor to the film, and a message that traps of our own making can be unmade by us, too. The film left me hungry for pie. Regrettably, this was director/actress Adrienne Shelley’s last movie: shortly before its theatrical release she was murdered in her NYC apartment by a neighborhood man who botched an attempt to make her death look like suicide.

One for the Money (2012)
The appealing Katherine Heigl is better than most of her movies. A few have been commercial successes (e.g. Knocked Up), it is true, but that doesn’t make them any less dreadful. In One for the Money she has a half-decent script. She does a creditable job in her role as divorced, unemployed, and broke Stephanie Plum who goes to work for her bail bondsman cousin as a newbie bounty hunter in Trenton, NJ. She makes rookie mistakes that are more alarming than amusing. The film mixes suspense, drama, and an obligatory dollop of romance (this is a Katherine Heigl movie, after all) without going over the top. This is not a great movie by any means, nor is it one you’ll want to see again, but it isn’t actually bad. Sometimes that’s all we ask.

Closer (2004)
Unlike Waitress, this really was depressing despite the “thumbs way up” from Roger Ebert and other professional critics. I don’t disagree with Roger: this is a well written, well acted, well shot film. Just don’t come to it looking for happy endings. Closer is a prime example of the modern cynicism about life and love about which I wrote in my last blog. Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, and Clive Owen all play disagreeable characters (the young stripper Alice, played by Natalie, is the closest to being likable) who, over the course of four years, betray each other in very human but utterly awful ways. Sometimes the ways are verbal. None of the four takes to heart Mark Twain’s comment that truth is a valuable commodity with which it is useful to be economical. Sometimes telling or demanding the whole truth serves only to cause pointless hurt; other times, causing hurt is very much the intended point. Mostly, the characters succeed in making themselves unhappy. The one ultimately to prevail in ways satisfying to himself is Larry (Clive Owen). It is hard to imagine a more civilized profession than that of a London dermatologist, yet Larry refers to himself as a “cave man,” and with good reason. Larry’s simple primate nature raises hackles but prevails over time. Yet we don’t feel glad for him, nor do we feel sad for the others. If anything we feel sad for ourselves, in case, as is likely, we are no better than these people. Director Norman Jewison famously called his 1968 film The Thomas Crown Affair “a love story between two shits.” In Closer, director Mike Nichols has given us four. It is truly a love story for the 21st century.

Ruby Sparks (2012)
In Svengali (1931), the mesmerist Svengali puts the girl he loves into a trance and has her say she loves him; he then sadly releases her from the trance because “it is only Svengali talking to himself again.” In Ruby Sparks, former wunderkind author Calvin has never duplicated the success of the first novel he wrote at age 19. Furthermore, he suffers from a major case of writer’s block until he is inspired by a dream about a girl. He begins a new novel with his dream girl as the prime character. He names her Ruby. In a variation on the Pygmalion myth, somehow his imagination conjures her into reality. When he descends the stairs one morning, Ruby is in his kitchen scrambling eggs. At first she is exactly as he wrote her, but, having become a real person, she begins to develop her own independent mind, and to drift away from him. He can readjust her to suit himself, however, just by adding more words to a page. For a long time he can’t resist doing this in order to keep his hold on her, but eventually he has a Svengali moment. He realizes that whatever relationship they have means nothing unless she is free – including free to leave. Otherwise, it is just Calvin in love with himself.

The Man from Earth (2007)
This appears to have been intended originally as a stage play, since it is entirely dialogue on a single set. Plot: a professor, who is about to leave his post after 10 years, reveals to his colleagues that he is a 14,000-year-old Cro-Magnon. He says he always moves on when his lack of aging becomes noticeable. He has no explanation for his longevity, which none of his offspring ever inherited. The philosophy offered up is dubious and the emotional reactions overwrought, but at least this is different from the usual fx-heavy science fiction. If you liked Waking Life (a 2001 animated flick similarly heavy on pop philosophy), you'll probably like this, too.

Jack Reacher (2012)
Based on Lee Childs’ novel One Shot (which, by pure happenstance, I read a couple years ago, though I’m not a regular Lee Childs follower), this is a solid crime/suspense/action flick with Tom Cruise in the title role. Jack Reacher is a former detective in the military police, but is now a civilian who prefers to live under the radar. When a mass shooting takes place in Pittsburgh, all the evidence points to a former army sniper named Barr, who, as Reacher knows, once got away with a similar crime while in uniform. Reacher comes to town hoping to ensure the man is punished this time for what he did, but something about the case bothers him: the evidence is so very damning that it looks staged. But if Barr didn’t do it, who did and why? He teams up with Barr’s defense attorney, who is the daughter of the prosecutor. If the crime-action genre is one you like, this film shouldn’t disappoint.

Magic Magic (2013)
This odd movie is categorized by IMDB as a “thriller.” I’m not sure that’s right, but it is close enough. Whether from good luck or good judgment, the hardworking young actress Juno Temple more often than not chooses films that offer something different and interesting. Alicia (Juno) is a young woman with some mental health problems, but at first they don’t seem severe or in any way debilitating. We learn during the course of the movie, however, that she carries and takes a lot of pills. She arrives in Chile from California to vacation with her cousin Sarah. She stays with Sarah’s friends on an island in a Chilean lake. One of those friends is Brink (Michael Cera), a creepy character with an unwelcome interest in Alicia. Alicia feels isolated and ever more at risk with each passing day. Suffering from insomnia, Alicia grows unsure of the boundary between her dreams and reality. Are these people playing sadistic games on her or is she being paranoid? When Alicia’s mental and physical health deteriorates dangerously, will local magical folk customs and remedies help her, or will they drive her over the edge? The film achieves a spooky mood, but if you like all your questions to have neat answers, Magic Magic might not be for you. The movie reaches a conclusion of sorts, but some loose ends are left deliberately untied.

Swimming with Sharks (1994)
Hollywood loves to make movies bashing Hollywood. In this one, young man Guy (Frank Whaley) tries to get a foothold in the business by working as an assistant to studio bigshot Buddy (Kevin Spacey), who is the boss from hell. Everyone Guy meets, including his filmmaker girlfriend, is ruthlessly self-interested and manipulative. After a year of abusing Guy, Buddy hints in a phone call that he will fire him; Guy also learns his girlfriend will be meeting Buddy that night. Guy snaps, breaks into Buddy’s house and tortures him. All in all this is a wickedly funny flick. True, The Player (1992) did it even better, but this is still pretty good.

Great Balls of Fire (1989)
For a time in the 1950s, rock legend Jerry Lee Lewis was as big as Elvis. It was a short-lived equality. When news broke during Lewis’ British tour that he had married his 13-year-old cousin, his career crashed. He never recovered his popularity, though he continued to work in smaller venues and to record – and still does. Despite containing some hokey and stereotypical elements, this movie is an entertaining depiction of Lewis’ rise, fall, and survival. It stars Dennis Quaid, a young Winona Ryder, and the music of Jerry Lee Lewis. It’s hard to beat that.

Jerry Lee Lewis TV appearance (1957)


  1. I've actually seen a couple of these. "One for the Money" was just as you described, entertaining, but ultimately forgettable. My wife has enjoyed the book series and was a bit disappointed in the adaptation. I still like my female bounty hunters animated, like "Gunsmith Cats" or Faye Valentine from "Cowboy Bebop".

    "Swimming with the Sharks" was a real fun one. Loved the dark edge to it and yes... loved the satire of Hollywood. This came out around the time I was seriously considering being a screenwriter. This film combined with some of the horror stories from screenwriters that frequented the video store changed my mind.

    I did finally get around to seeing "Safety Not Guaranteed" which you recommended a few months ago. Really enjoyed that one. I kept me guessing right up to the end. Was he crazy or had he actually perfected time travel. And the lead actress was pitch perfect in the role. Thanks for pointed me toward that one

    1. I can't argue with "Cowboy Bebop."

      Have you nonetheless a couple screenplays in a drawer awaiting final re-tweak? (I do, though they need more than a tweak.)

      Aubrey Plaza, co-starring in Safety Not Guaranteed, is a hoot. Her deadpan style is surprisingly effective and adaptable for a variety of characters (e.g. Julie in "Scott Pilgrim vs the World"). I haven't seen her film "The To Do List," currently in theaters, because it seems to be the the sort of crude adolescent comedy that I typically just hate. Yet the mainstream critics (who usually hate them too) are split pretty evenly on this one, mostly thanks to Aubrey. Among the "thumbs up" are Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, and The New York Post. I might have to take a deep breath and watch it.