Tuesday, February 28, 2012


I MELT WITH YOU (Dir. Mark Pellington, 2010)

They should’ve called this film “Beach House Suicide Pact.”

It’s like an episode of Men of a Certain Age 
gone way dark: a group of longtime friends vacation together at a Big Sur beach house, and they party their miserable asses off until they start offing themselves.

Jeremy Piven, Rob Lowe, Thomas Jane (HBO’s Hung), and Christian McCay (ME AND ORSON WELLES) play the 40something-aged friends who didn’t originally plan on such self destruction, it just turns out that way because of a suicide pact written on a piece of notebook paper that they each signed 25 years ago.

Aided by tons of booze, blow, and pharmaceutical drugs (all they’re missing is a hot tub time machine), the guys live it up in the noisy first half of the film.

As the fellows get wasted, blaring the music of their youth (mostly ‘80s punk pop), we slowly learn how downhill each of their lives has gotten. Piven is a corrupt business man about to be busted by the SEC for stealing from his clients, Jane is a high school English teacher who never followed up his first novel, Lowe is an unhappy divorced physician, and McKay is wracked with guilt over causing an automobile accident that killed his sister.

Sounds like a fun bunch of guys, huh? Some local college students seem to think so as they join the guys for a party at the house with plenty of pill popping, snorting, toking, and drinking, oh, and groping. Porn star/wooden actress Sasha Grey shows up for a brief instance for no reason.

The morning after the party, McKay hangs himself with his belt, and the guys start freaking out. I kept expecting Piven to call it a 200-pound problem that needs to be moved from point A to point B, just like his character in VERY BAD THINGS.

They don’t call the police - they bury McKay in the backyard, and things go from bad to worse, in every sense. A policewoman (Carla Gugino) starts snooping around the premises, apparently suspicious of the guys from the start, and the implausibility factor increases.

What we have here is 4 appealing actors playing 4 unappealing angsty a**holes. They pissed my wife off so much that she stopped watching it after the first 10 minutes. I stayed with it, but it was such a tiresome depressing slog that I think she made the right decision.

After the infinite playlist of the party half of the film dies down, the film is just as loud because of an annoying score that pounds every ominous moment into your head with no mercy.

In one of the only affecting moments in the film, Lowe puts in some excellent acting in a scene in which as he’s dying he phones his ex-wife and talks to his toddler son.

Otherwise I MELT WITH YOU is full of depthless close-ups of these actors in despair, and show-off photography of their admittedly awesome surroundings – the cliffs, the landscape, and the beaches of Big Sur shot by cinematographer Eric Schmidt. At over 2 hours it’s way too long as well.

I’m the same age as these guys, but I don’t relate to them at all. Their back stories aren't fleshed out enough for me to put any investment into them. They are all selfish jerks who never got over their college days of getting wasted constantly. 

The tragedy here isn’t their senseless suicides, it’s that this is a fail of a film about 4 failures.

Special Features: 2 commentaries, Director’s Statement, Deleted Scenes, a few featurettes, Behind the Scenes Photo Gallery, Alternate Theatrical Poster Gallery, Theatrical Redband, Greenband, and International trailers. Whew! That’s a lot of extras.

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Monday, February 27, 2012

Film Babble Blog's Oscars 2012 Recap!

Last night, the 84th Academy Awards went a lot smoother than last year's James Franco/Anne Hathaway-helmed debacle. I've seen a bunch of Billy Crystal bashing online for doing the same old tired schtick, but I thought that's what they brought him back to do. His song and dance medley made my head hurt, but he had some funny moments. I loved this line in particular:

“Nothing eases the world's economic woes like watching millionaires give each other gold statues!”

Otherwise, there were few surprises. Christopher Plummer gave the classiest speach, Angelina Jolie made the creepiest pose, Octavia Spencer freaked out the most, and Christopher Guest and co.'s bit on film as a focus group in 1939 discussing THE WIZARD OF OZ was funnier than their last movie which was about the Oscars: FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION.

As for my Oscar picks I did a little better than the last 2 years when I guessed 13 out of 24. This year I got 15 out of 24.

Here's the ones I got wrong:

BEST ACTOR: I picked George Clooney for THE DESCENDANTS, but I should've figured that Jean Dujardin would get caught in the sweep for THE ARTIST. It's fine by me, I loved Dujardin's performance and thought it was cool that he thanked Douglas Fairbanks in his acceptance speech.

BEST ACTRESS: I think most folks were surprised that Meryl Streep won her 3rd Oscar for her excellent work as Margaret Thatcher (who she didn't thank) in THE IRON LADY over the others (Viola Davis, Michelle Williams, Glenn Close, and Rooney Mara). I had chosen Michelle Williams for her ace acting as Marilyn Monroe, but that was a personal choice - I expected either Viola Davis or Glenn Close to win. Streep, who seemed surprised too, said “I really understand I'll never be up here again,” but I bet she will be - the Academy likes her, they really like her!

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: I really thought Emmanuel Lubezki would win for THE TREE OF LIFE. I really did. Sigh.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: This was another I thought I was going to get wrong, but I still went with PARADISE 3: PURGATORY because, well, that was the only documentary of the nominees that I’ve seen. I’ll have to track down UNDEFEATED now.

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT: I was just shooting in the dark on this one. I've seen none of the nominees and I just liked the title THE TSUNAMI AND THE CHERRY BLOSSOM. Oh well, congrats to SAVING FACE.

BEST FILM EDITING: I should’ve known Martin Scorsese’s long time editor Thelma Schoonmaker wouldn’t get this – she’s won 3 times before. Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter did do a good job on THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO so bully for them.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: I really didn’t expect HUGO to sweep the technical awards, but it sure did – it won best cinematography, art direction, sound and this one. I had picked RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. That's right.

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT: This was a surprise because I saw these shorts at the Galaxy Theater in Cary last week, and I thought RAJU would be up the Academy's alley. Instead they went for the sentimental Irish short THE SHORE. My personal choice would've been TIME FREAK, but I knew they would think that was too silly. At least I was right about that.

BEST SOUND EDITING: Another one from the HUGO sweep I didn't anticipate. I had picked WAR HORSE, but that didn't win anything.

Okay! So that's that. Here's hoping that next year I'll do better.

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Friday, February 24, 2012

The Navy: It's Not Just A Job, It's A Bad Action Movie

ACT OF VALOR (Dir. Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh, 2012)

Publicity for this film boasts that it stars “eight active duty SEALS” and was “compiled from actual US Navy SEAL missions.” So, of course, it comes across as a big recruitment ad (which it was originally intended to be) - the kind they used to show between trailers for films that make bold statements like “Navy: It’s Not Just a Job, It’s an Adventure.”

But the adventure here is a standard one – a Navy SEAL squad takes on terrorists who have captured a CIA agent – with plotting right out of a video game, and instead of giving audiences an inside look into the exciting operations of our fighting men in action, it mainly serves as proof that Navy SEALS may be trained to perform under pressure in intense violent missions, but they sure aren’t trained how to act.

There are several no name actors in the cast (Alex Veadov, Emilio Rivera, and Roselyn Sánchez, who plays the kidnapped agent), but the SEALs, whose show this is, aren’t named in the credits, so it’s difficult to single out individual characters. However, since there are no distinctive characters, that’s not really an issue.

What is an issue is how generic and un-arresting the action sequences are - despite the quite capable cinematography of Shane Hurlbut. There’s an impenetrable muddiness to the combat shoot-outs (possibly attributed to the 18 mm cameras on the soldier’s helmets – you know, to get the authenticity down), and the conclusion involving the terrorist villains’ luxury yacht (complete with close-ups of bikini-clad women’s asses) echoes a bad episode of Miami Vice.

To cover all the bases of military movie clichés, screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (the guy who wrote 300 - go figure) mixes in some icky unaffecting melodrama about a pregnant wife back home, and an over serious narration which makes this point about the squad: “A single twig will break, but a bundle of twigs will remain strong” (Google “bundle of twigs” for what I couldn’t help thinking when that was said).

To its credit, directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh’s debut wasn’t just to be a glorified recruitment film, but also to raise money for the Naval SEAL Foundation, which benefits families of fallen SEALS. It’s just that such a worthy cause deserves a worthwhile movie, and ACT OF VALOR, with all its stiff acting and generic gaming, is far from it.

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Hey Kids - Funtime Oscar Picks 2012!

So everybody is saying THE ARTIST will win Best Picture at the 84th Academy Awards this Sunday night.

I'm going with that too, but not to just go with the flow - it really feels like it's going to win.

Unfortunately I don't have that feeling with most of my other predictions, some of which I are personal preferences instead of calculated guesses (*cough* Michelle Williams). As always I'm really hoping there will be some surprises (*cough* Gary Oldman).

Here's my picks:


2. BEST DIRECTOR: Michel Hazanavicius (THE ARTIST)





And the rest:

7. ART DIRECTION: HUGO (Dante Ferretti)





12. FILM EDITING: HUGO (Thelma Schoonmaker)

13. MAKEUP: THE IRON LADY (Mark Coulier and J. Roy Helland)

14. VISUAL EFFECTS: RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, R. Christopher White, and Daniel Barrett)


16. ORIGINAL SONG: “Man or Muppet” (Bret McKenzie) (THE MUPPETS)



19. SOUND EDITING: WAR HORSE (Richard Hymns and Gary Rydstrom)

20. SOUND MIXING: HUGO (Tom Fleischman and John Midgley)


22. ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: THE DESCENDANTS (Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash)



We'll see how many I get wrong on Sunday night.

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WANDERLUST: The Film Babble Blog Review

WANDERLUST (Dir. David Wain, 2012)

There are a number of funny moments in David Wain’s WANDERLUST, the newest production off the Judd Apatow assembly line, but they don’t add up to a funny movie.

It’s a real shame because it has a couple of likable leads who have good chemistry together (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Anniston who have worked together on Friends and the 1998 movie THE OBJECT OF MY AFFECTION) heading a solid comic cast in a premise with possibilities.

The premise: married yuppies Rudd and Aniston decide to ditch the rat race and live in a commune (sorry - “intentional community” as hippie commune leader Justin Theroux calls it) after their careers bottom out.

But how much free love, drugs, and door-less bathroom humor can a person take?

Well, with the gross-out nature of this weak material, I quickly found my limit.

The reason as to why Rudd and Aniston were charmed by this lifestyle and not creeped out by it escapes me.

They are welcomed into the makeshift village by nudist/aspiring novelist Joe Lo Truglio, the unctuous bearded Theroux who hits on Aniston immediately, a blonde nymph (Malin Åkerman) who will obviously be Rudd’s object of lust, and a befuddled Alan Alda as the commune’s original founder.

With its mini-reunion of members of the ‘90s sketch comedy troop The State (along with Lo Truglio, the film’s co-writer Ken Marino, and Kerri Kenney Silver, there are cameos appearances by Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and Wain as local news anchors) WANDERLUST plays like a misguided mash-up of WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER and LOST IN AMERICA, but it has neither of those film’s comedic visions.

The succession of one cheap weak gag after another really wore me down. With this many talented funny folks and this many attempts at provoking belly-laughs, there can’t help but be some chuckles, yet I can’t remember a single witty line or instance of hilarity (a bit with Rudd giving himself a sexual pep-talk in a bathroom mirror comes close though).

However, I can remember a slow motion shot of flabby full frontal nudity rushing the camera - so I can’t say this is a completely forgettable film. As much as I’d like to.

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Way-Back Machine Movie Of The Month: THE COOLER (2003)

Since all my posts lately have been reviews of current movies, I’m starting this new monthly feature in which I’ll highlight a movie from the past I haven't covered before.

This first entry of this series is a movie that came out in 2003: Wayne Kramer’s THE COOLER (I originally reviewed it here).

THE COOLER isn’t the best of the genre of casino movies set in Las Vegas, but it’s one of the most memorable and touching due to an excellent invested performance by William H. Macy in the title role. Simply put, a “cooler” is someone that is so cursed with bad luck that it’s contagious, so if they show up while a player is on a winning streak – the player immediately starts losing.

Look up the term online, and nobody will confirm that while casinos have, in the past, hired shills to keep games going, the existence of coolers appears to be just a myth or an urban legend.

One of the joys of this film is how well this conceit is pulled off.

Macy’s character, Bernie Lootz, is employed by the fictional Shangri-La casino to reverse the fortunes of high-rolling gamblers just by being next to them when they play. When we first see Macy do this, wearing an over-sized suit with his patented droopy hangdog face, it’s both amusing and convincing.

He strolls through the casino, gently running his fingers along the side of a roulette table as he walks by, then brushing against the backs of a couple playing Baccarat, spreading his bad luck in swift little instances that result in choruses of disappointed ‘awws’ every time.

Alec Baldwin plays Macy’s hard-ass boss, Sheldon “Shelly” Kapow, who is old-school Vegas through and through. Baldwin rejects a young consultant’s (Ron Livingston) ideas about modernizing the Shangri-La, because he considers the Strip to now be a “Disneyland mookfest.”

What with his outlandish work as Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock, as well as his suave goofball persona on Saturday Night Live and the Oscars (also those damn commercials for Capital One), it’s easy to forget how sinister the man can be. Baldwin’s “Shelly” is a great reminder of his dark side; his powerful intimidating performance garnered his only Academy Award nomination to date for Best Supporting Actor.

Another often intimidating actor, Paul Sorvino, plays the Shangri-Lai’s house lounge singer Buddy Stafford who is well aware that his spotlight has faded, and that Baldwin is lying to him about women leaving their panties on his dressing room door knob. When accused of this, Baldwin protests: “You’re saying I’m some Buddy Stafford ego pimp?” That’s that kind of spiel Baldwin spews through the whole film – he nails what’s going on by transparently denying it. Another example from a later exchange with Macy: “Jesus, Bernie. Is that what you think? That I would fuck with your happiness?” Yes, Shelly, that’s exactly what he thinks.

So yeah, Baldwin steals the show, but let’s get back to Macy. Bernie Lootz is possibly the most likable of the losers Macy has played throughout his career. He’s a far cry from the sleazy losers from films like BOOGIE NIGHTS or his recent Showtime show Shameless, and the pathetic losers from MAGNOLIA and FARGO, in that Bernie is actually a good decent guy. When Maria Bello as a Shangri-La cocktail waitress who takes a shine to him (something that at first seems more implausible than the whole “cooler” idea) calls him precisely that – “just a decent guy, trying to get back on track” – nobody can dispute that.

Macy and Bello have some explicit sex scenes that almost got the movie an NC-17 because Bello’s pubic hair can be seen, but I doubt that’s anything my readers would complain about.

Macy’s so nice that he gives his skuzzy son (Shawn Hatosy) his savings of $3,000 when the no-good lug shows up out of nowhere with a very pregnant girlfriend (Estella Warren) in tow.

That leads to the film’s most talked about scene, (Spoiler Alert!) in which Baldwin punches Warren in the stomach, revealing a pillow under her shirt - showing that the couple has been scamming Bernie the whole time. In a 2005 interview in the British magazine Uncut, Baldwin spoke about the scene: “First of all, if he’d literally punched a pregnant woman, I don’t think I would’ve done the movie. He punches a woman he knows is not really pregnant. That’s the thing about the man: he has an uncanny, elevated ability to detect fraud.”

It’s a scene that seethes with tension, most of which comes from Baldwin’s unhinged ,yet in-control-of-everything attitude. His dark sarcasm: “Break out the Champagne, everybody. Bernie’s a grandfather!” as he hands a shocked Macy the pillow, is as disturbing as it is funny. I believe it was for this scene alone that Baldwin got the Oscar nom.

Before I visited Las Vegas for the first time in 2009, I didn’t know the difference between the Strip and the Downtown area. On one of 2 commentary tracks that the DVD has, cinematographer James Whitaker speaking about the opening montage of aerial footage of Vegas landmarks at night points out: “It’s a great progression from upscale Las Vegas, then, as you’ll see in a second, we move into the Downtown portion where the film takes place.”

Obviously, the 4.2 mile Strip is the upscale Las Vegas, while the Downtown is the seedier area where all the main action used to be – the original gambling district. As I saw in 2009, the Downtown still looks like it did in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER or just about any other old Vegas movie or TV show. Incidentally, several of the hotels featured in the opening, including the Aladdin and the Sands) have since been demolished. 

It’s this old-school Vegas that Baldwin is trying to preserve with the Shangri-La, but that Macy and Bello don’t care about. They’ve found love, they don’t have to romanticize a dying ideal – they have actual romance, and that’s something Baldwin can’t stand.

Because of Bello’s love, Macy no longer functions as a cooler. His luck has changed and suddenly everyone around him is winning at all the casino games in exaggerated displays of cheers, hugs, and dancing in showers of coins. That’s another thing that Baldwin can’t stand.

It’s going to take a craps table climax for Macy to settle up with Baldwin, and leave the damn town that’s been dragging him down. Sure, it’s a big winning game ending is a sports movie cliché but here it feels earned.

THE COOLER is far from perfect. A scene in which a mafia boss Arthur J. Nascarella nearly beats to death a backwards baseball hat wearing dickhead tourist on the casino floor has a forced GOODFELLAS-feel to it, and gag shots like the one below are maybe a little too obvious.

Also Ellen Greene (who appeared in one of my favorite films TALK RADIO with Baldwin back in '88) is only around to pour coffee for Macy.

These flaws aside, THE COOLER holds up quite nicely. This movie initially seems to be questioning whether you can really tell good luck from bad luck in the long run, but it's more interested in lending a loser a hand.

It so wants Macy to win that it makes some convoluted concessions for that outcome, yet because I wanted that too, I could accept them because, like just about everything else here, they were amusing enough to be convincing.

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Friday, February 03, 2012

Daniel Radcliffe Just Barely Saves THE WOMAN IN BLACK

THE WOMAN IN BLACK (Dir. James Watkins, 2012)

Now that the Harry Potter series is kaput, it’ll be interesting to see where Daniel Radcliffe’s movie career goes.

For his first film since retiring his wand, Radcliffe stars in an Edwardian era horror story - produced by Hammer Films, no less. It’s not a bad choice for the young actor. It’s preferable to a random rom com or generic techno thriller I suppose, but, try as it might to genuinely scare, THE WOMAN IN BLACK is only intermittently startling.

Radcliffe portrays a widowed lawyer who is handling a recently deceased woman’s estate located just outside a small village where there’s been a rash of child killings. A local landowner, Ciarán Hinds, befriends Radcliffe and warns him about staying overnight in the creepy mansion, but, of course, Radcliffe doesn’t listen.

Things more than go bump in the night, they work overtime to terrorize Radcliffe around every dark corner. That is, the ghost of the title, who keeps popping up in an absurd quick-cut manner, who is doing all the terrorizing, coming close to offing Radcliffe several times.

At one point, a woman at the screening I attended yelled “why don’t you just leave?!!?” Now normally I dislike when folks scream at the screen at the movies, but she did say what I (and many other folks in the audience since many people laughed) was thinking exactly. When Radcliffe first realizes that there is a supernatural force at work, and that it’s majorly screwing with him, he really should’ve gotten the hell out of there.

Oh yeah, it’s, of course, a dark and stormy night so the road is flooded as the estate is cut off from the mainland.

Based on a 1983 novel by Susan Hill (which had been previously adapted for film by Herbert Wise in 1989), this movie is filled with the kind of jolts that make you feel stupid for being momentarily startled by.

A lot of the cuts, like one to the black-wearing woman screaming through a window pane, feel really cheap. Once I got into the rhythm of the movie, I could sense a sudden jolt coming once I notice the camera start to settle into a shot.

A few times into the hectic second half when a jolt didn’t happen I was disappointed.

Radcliffe’s uncovering of the clues (old letters, words written in blood on walls, etc.) that explain what’s behind it all aren’t sufficiently thrilling either. It’s admirable the intense effort Radcliffe brings here, but his character has no depth beyond bland chivalry.

Still, Radcliffe's invested performance saves the movie from being just one "boo!" after another. But just barely.

THE WOMAN IN BLACK does have a great grainy gothic look, but that, along with Radcliffe’s capable carrying of the film, are the only things good here to report.

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