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Thoughts on “Larry Crowne”

Tom Hanks’ “Larry Crowne” is a film that your mom goes to see with her girlfriends. It’s what appears run-of-the-mill romantic comedy starring everyman Tom Hanks and America’s sweetheart Julia Roberts. In some ways, that is the film. But the miracle of “Larry Crowne” is its immediacy and its passion for the human experience. This is a film that came and went in the theaters and it will be forgotten. It shouldn’t.

The film, co-written with Hanks by Nia Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”), and directed by the man himself, is about finding purpose. For most people, it is through purpose that life’s meaning is found. For some, raising a family is their purpose and that gets them through their existential woes. For others, they find this solace in their work. This is the focus of Larry Crowne’s life at U-Mart until he is laid off due to his lack of a college education. Crowne (played with dependable pluck by Hanks) faces a new chapter in his life – a chapter he never expected. He enrolls at the local community college where he meets Mrs. Mercy Tainot (Roberts), a speech and communications professor who’s at her wit’s end of a terrible marriage. He also meets Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a free-spirit who introduces him to the comfort of being cool. Larry begins to re-experience the life he’s felt he missed after his 20 years in the Navy. “Larry Crowne” is very much a film that encourages the idea that the experience of living is in itself what must be appreciated. For the three major characters, the achievement of purpose is what enlightens their existence.

Hanks, Roberts and Mbatha-Raw all portray their own character arcs to exhibit the theme of purpose. Hanks’ Crowne is generally optimistic, but never felt his past had any merit worth mentioning. He hides from his passion of cooking, because he felt he had done it too long in the Navy. His re-invention is a catalyst for his return to his passion and he is able to grow, even in middle age. Roberts’ character is borderline depressed, and wants to find purpose in her teaching. Thanks to Larry Crowne, she not only re-discovers her enthusiasm – but also finds the grown up man she’s been looking for. The character of Talia is pure optimism but is seemingly lost. When she drops out of college to pursue her dream of owning her own business, she finds her purpose. All of these character arcs seem relatively inconsequential, but really show how something so meaningless can actually change a person’s life forever. The film is surely fantasy, but it’s ideas and main themes of finding purpose are essentially human. This is a human film.

“Larry Crowne” ended its theatrical run recently, but will be on DVD and Blu-ray in November. It’s not essential viewing, but highly recommended. It might even help you find you your purpose.

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Sucker Punch: The Empty Film Fulfills

What’s the better cinematic result – a consummate film that achieves a higher standard such as “The Social Network” or “Inception,” or a film so horrific that it fulfills the audience on an unconscionable level of ecstasy?

Zack Snyder, director of uneven films such as the “Dawn of the Dead remake, “300” and “Watchmen,” has released his first original feature film – “Sucker Punch” and will be releasing it on DVD on June 28. It’s his worst film to date – a glossy, hyper-sexed, misogynistic yet so-called women’s empowerment film that takes the metaphoric narrative to a place so utterly laughable that it joins movies like “Troll 2” and “The Room” in that rare status of “so bad it’s good.”

“Sucker Punch” tells the tale of troubled young Baby Doll (Emily Browning), who, after accidentally killing her sister whilst trying to take out her rapist stepfather, is sent to Lennox house – an institution for trigger-happy young ladies. This bit of backstory is told through Snyder’s only true skill – the montage. The opening sequence is well shot and somewhat promising but only in the realm of mediocre cinema. Had the entire film been as good as this sequence, it still would have been just a mediocre film. It’s Snyder’s only talent, but it’s still written in his usual unintelligibly clichéd way.

Baby Doll is taken to Lennox house, and after a deal set up by her stepfather and the brutish owner Blue (Oscar Isaac), she is scheduled for a lobotomy – only to save the skin of her guilt-ridden stepfather. Baby Doll is introduced to the ward, known as the “theatre,” and from here her fantasy begins. For some reason, Baby Doll re-imagines the hospital as a brothel.

This is where Snyder’s writing must have been influenced by his own ideals of women’s empowerment that seem to be channeled through his unconscious (or maybe even conscious) misogyny. It is outrageous to comprehend that a girl of Baby Doll’s age and style would likely utilize the brothel as her fantasy as an escape from the reality of her situation. It’s this incredulous nature that keeps Snyder from the current A-list of Hollywood’s latest elite (such as J.J. Abrams or Matthew Vaughn). He writes like a half-asleep teenager watching porn while playing the latest “Grand Theft Auto.” All of his “strong” female characters in all of his films have been exceedingly perverted and masculine. Snyder has no place in writing female characters as he sets back the standard indefinitely.

Then again, there’s this payoff that Snyder always fulfills. His films are a realization of his passion and much like Tommy Wiseau’s film “The Room,” there’s pleasure in watching his failure come to life. One could view Snyder’s “Watchmen” again with this attitude and actually find some kind of closure on how it nearly ruined Alan Moore’s masterpiece.

It would be an easy shot to say that it’s ironic that “Sucker Punch” is an aptly titled movie for any cash wielding movie theater patron or DVD enthusiast, but after viewing the film – I can only recommend that this sort of film somehow deserves your money. Call me greedy, but I’d like to see what else Zack Snyder could possibly do to outdo himself. His next project is the second reboot of Superman starring unknown Henry Cavill as our favorite Kryptonian and Amy Adams as Lois Lane. Lois Lane is a strong female character, possibly one of the strongest in mainstream cinematic pop culture. Amy Adams is one of our greatest actresses and Zack Snyder is one of our worst directors. The combination should be interesting.

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An Essay on the Brilliance of “Funky Monkey”

In the course of cinema’s history, there have been many films that change the way we perceive our own humanity. Films like “Citizen Kane,” “The Godfather” and “Schindler’s List” show how the choices we make as human beings define our identity. These are essential films that we as people deserve to examine and appreciate on a higher level. In 2004, a film was released direct-to-DVD that should be included in this array of cinema – the best of the best. However, the superficiality of pretentious cinephiles that often – to use a cliché – “judge a book by its cover” would believe in a heartbeat that a film like “Funky Monkey” is immediately passable; an unnecessary viewing. Those people are wrong.

Alright, that’s a huge overstatement – the film is exceptionally inept in many ways. However, it has some sort of a grasp on this film critic that has resulted in viewing the film so many times that an accurate count is impossible. Based on a whim, the first viewing of the movie was like watching a Chaplin film for the first time. It’s entirely unbelievable, but “Funky Monkey” might be one of the best comedic cinematic experiences since “Modern Times.”

The plot revolves around a chimpanzee named Clemens who is specially trained by former C.I.A. Agent Alec McCall (an incredible Matthew Modine) for the evil corporation Zoology International Technology (Z.I.T.) run by the villainous Flick (Taylor Negron). After a test presentation of Clemens’ abilities, McCall learns of Flick’s plans to experiment on the chimp. Acting fast, he breaks Clemens out of his cell and they make their escape to San Diego. McCall attempts to hide his primate fugitive at his friend Harlan’s (Tommy Davidson) zoo, but Clemens goes bananas when the bumbling zoo handlers try to cage him. Luckily, Clemens and McCall meet young Michael Dean (Seth Adkins) whose mother Megan (Roma Downey) happens to be renting a garage apartment. McCall gets the apartment after a heroic skateboard stunt (because that’s how realty works these days), but must keep Clemens a secret.

Meanwhile, Flick has woefully enlisted the help of two incompetent security guards Drummond (Bodhi Elfman) and Peters (Pat Finn) to capture both the chimp and Flick’s laptop (which McCall had Clemens snatch during their motorcycle escape from Z.I.T.).

The film has a bevy of action sequences which are so pathetically done that they can only come off as absolutely hilarious. There is one particular scene in which young Michael finds the gumption to ask out the girl of his dreams to the Halloween party. She accepts and in his excitement, Michael punts a football which lands into the open helmet of a motorcycle gang’s leader. The driver crashes, but is of course well enough to threaten our young hero. Luckily, McCall is there to save the day and beats up the entire gang with the use of ice cream cones (McCall shoves one down the leader’s mouth and gloats, “It’s butter pecan!”) and then he and Clemens finish them off utilizing a nearby playground, Jackie Chan style. The scene is amateurishly cut (the gang rides up in a perfect “flying v,” and the next shot shows several tracks in the grass indicating it took many different takes to shoot the scene) but it’s this poor style in addition to Modine’s bizarre performance that makes the film so endearingly watchable.

Modine could have easily phoned it in, but there appears to be an appreciation for how bad the film is in his performance. His portrayal of animal trainer/football star McCall is strikingly bizarre if not unconditionally ingenious. He must have been the only one in on his own joke. In an interview in 2009 with Buzzine, Modine said of the film, “The story was just so retarded, so crazy that I thought this could be a really fun children’s movie.” In the interview, he continues saying that the film was an absolute disaster. They filmed most of it in France and then had to re-shoot almost all of the film in San Diego (which hopefully means there’s a whole other “Funky Monkey,” actually titled “Hairy Tale” sitting on someone’s computer and will one day be re-edited for release).

However, Modine seems to be the only one in on the joke. The rest of the players are just awful, but still endearingly so. Downey throws on her awkward American accent and has such horrific plastic surgery that her role as McCall’s love interest is laughable. Adkins’ Michael Dean is supposed to be a child genius but just comes off as an awkward wannabe nerd. He too quickly gains the attention of the cutest girl in school who should just be ignoring him. The film does offer big names like Jeffrey Tambor as football coach J.T. Whooping Crane and Gilbert Godfried as the evil Doctor Spleen but their cameos are mostly forgettable, with the exception of a well-placed honking sound effect during Godfried’s last scene (a monkey bops him on the nose and the sweet sound of a bicycle horn is the effect – pure comedy, right?). Other stars like Jason Flemyng (“The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and more recently “Clash of the Titans”) and character actor Fred Ward are credited as being in the film, but never make an appearance proving that there is definitely another movie out there just waiting to see the light of day.

The reason the film is so accessible and forgivable for its many, many flaws is its total lack of pretension. This is the case of a film that tried really hard to be a funny family film, but its director Harry Basil (who was originally supposed to only be the producer until they supposedly fired the first director Gene Quintano) just didn’t know how to make a movie. Usually this kind of filmmaking is unbearable to watch (think the Friedberg/Seltzer parody movies), but in the case of “Funky Monkey,” it’s appeal is that there seemed to be a lot of love that went into a film that was doomed from the start. It’s the family equivalent to Tommy Wiseau’s new cult classic “The Room.”

If you’re perusing the cheap bin at Wal-mart (which you know you do) and find this hidden gem, don’t judge the DVD by its cover and pick up “Funky Monkey” which is also available to watch any time as an instant watch on Netflix. As Michael Dean would say, you’ll “climb immeasurable on my coolness chart.”

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Review: The Kids Are All Right

Author’s note: Finding the motivation to write in my life is a bit difficult right now, but when you see a film like “The Kids Are All Right,” the motivation finds you.

For the past five years, the actress has been one of the most important assets in modern cinema. From Helen Mirren in “The Queen” to Sally Hawkins in “Happy-Go-Lucky” to Anne Hathaway in “Rachel Getting Married” to Cate Blanchett and Meryl Streep in just about anything, the power of the performance has been the leading factor in the emotional and dynamic results of the finished film. On DVD next Tuesday, writer/director Lisa Cholodenko’s wonderful independent dramatic comedy is a must see for those with the ability to witness great acting. The film is overshadowed by its “quirky indie” marketing campaign, but like most modern independent hits the substance of the film expunges the saccharine of its publicity.

A contemporary family, led by its two lesbian partners Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) and anchored by their two children Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), are shaken up when Joni – having just turned eighteen – makes the call to the sperm donor of both she and her brother. Paul (Mark Ruffalo), an easy going restaurateur, enters their lives to the chagrin of both parents. As he begins to connect with the children he never knew he had, the life of the old family becomes anew. Nic, intellectual and generally a bit uptight, becomes worse in terms of jealousy – especially after her much more carefree partner and children all fall for Paul. The emotional ties the bind are pulled to their ends when Jules, feeling unappreciated and attracted to this new man, begins a sexual relationship with Paul.

The film is deceptively simple in terms of story but becomes intensely complex when this major beat occurs. Under Cholodenko’s direction – and following her incredibly authentic script – the actors never resort to overemphasis. Their pain feels real. Since this is not a realist film, it is up to Bening, Moore, Wasikowska, Hutcherson and Ruffalo to achieve deep human emotion without sentimentalizing the script. Needless to say, all five accomplish this task without any trouble – especially Bening.

Nominated twice for an Academy Award, this should be her year. Bening plays Nic, a very restless woman on the verge of a breakdown, but with a big heart. It would be very easy to find Nic annoying but Bening gives Nic a heartbreaking compassion that works through the entire film. Natalie Portman will be the one to beat this year for her supposed visionary performance in Aronofsky’s “Black Swan,” but this is one of those few times in which an actress who is quite due for an award should win – not just because she’s due but because the performance deserves the trophy. Even if she never wins, as long as Bening keeps taking roles like Nic, we should be just as happy.

The rest of the cast is spectacular. Moore’s Jules is free-spirited. After the affair, her inability to hide her feelings destroys her, but Moore plays the character with an essence only a expert actress could pick up on. Having lived with Nic for so long, Jules has become something of an informed noncomformist. While a complete free spirit would not necessarily have the intellectual means of explaining her situation, Jules (after a lot of introspective thought) is able to talk to her family in an honest and illuminated way. Moore is fantastic here – definitely one of her best roles, making up for that horrible guest spot on “30 Rock” in which she achieved what can only be called the worst fake Boston accent of all time.

Wasikowksa and Hutcherson play the kids and aren’t just “All Right” or just alright – they too are downright overwhelmingly impressive. They play each of their characters as shadows of their respective parents. Wasikowska (who underwhelmed in Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” but atoned with this film) plays Joni, somewhat cerebral like her biological mother Nic and Hutcherson portrays Laser (you get used to hearing it in the film, even though it’s one of the most ridiculous names ever) somewhat freely and curious like Jules.

Ruffalo’s at his best here – and goes through the bigger changes in the film. Starting out pretty informal and laid back to committed and fatherly to absolutely heartbroken – his performance may go unnoticed by many due to the ambiguity of his exit in the film. However, this should not be taken fully into consideration. Paul introduces his weird personality and humor into the lives of these crunchy Californians in a way that they may consciously forget but will stay with all of them – most especially the impressionable Laser. Ruffalo is endearingly lovable as Paul and worthy of merit in his role.

While Bening’s performance is essential to the film, it is truly an ensemble’s film – and not just between the actors. “The Kids Are All Right” is a superb piece of modern independent filmmaking from Cholodenko’s moving script to the brilliant cinematography by Igor Jadue-Lillo and Jeffrey Werner’s complimentary editing – the film nears consummate in its design and presentation. Don’t let the film’s own advertising get in the way of seeing this film – it’s one of the best of the year.

Grade: A

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Some of the earliest color motion pictures.

This is absolutely extraordinary. The woman at the end is astoundingly gorgeous. It’s interesting that color film was shunned so intensely at first when one can see how beautiful it can be.

Source here

Here’s a short quote from there, and then the unbelievable video.

In these newly preserved tests, made in 1922 at the Paragon Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, actress Mae Murray appears almost translucent, her flesh a pale white that is reminiscent of perfectly sculpted marble, enhanced with touches of color to her lips, eyes, and hair. She is joined by actress Hope Hampton modeling costumes from The Light in the Dark (1922), which contained the first commercial use of Two-Color Kodachrome in a feature film. Ziegfeld Follies actress Mary Eaton and an unidentified woman and child also appear.

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R.I.P. Harvey Pekar

This truly is sad news. Harvey Pekar, one of the most prolific writers of underground comics and most famously “American Splendor” has passed away at age 70. His life was put to film in one of the best biopics ever made starring Paul Giamatti in his greatest role to date. The film is a testament to the creative soul and that even when dreams come true one must face their own reality. It’s one of the best films of the past ten years. Harvey, we’ll miss ya!

Here’s a strip (click to enlarge) written by Harvey after the passing of Marlon Brando on a film the great actor starred in called “The Men,” directed by one of my favorite directors – Fred Zinnemann.

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DVD Review: Youth in Revolt

There’s often nothing better than a strong dark comedy. Films like “Harold and Maude,” “Heathers” and “Ghost World” offer a visually striking and intellectually narrative perception of the mind of their screenwriters and directors. A great dark comedy is rare, and it’s disappointing to see someone attempt the genre and flounder in their work. New to DVD, the Michael Cera vehicle “Youth in Revolt” is a fine example of black comedic miscarriage.

Cera stars as Nick Twisp, a lower class romanticist virgin who has been looking for “the one” his whole life. Enter Sheeni (Portia Doubleday), a 16-year-old who’s into Godard and Gainsbourg and happens to be the love of Nick’s life. However, the only way he can really get her is to create a mustachioed “bad boy” alter ego named Francois Dillinger who has a penchant for blowing up cars and telling off Nick’s mother’s awful boyfriends.

There’s a good film underneath this mess of a movie, but it just missed its own point. It’s awkwardly pretentious and tries too hard to be subtle and instead just comes off as bored. Gustin Nash’s screenplay from C.D. Payne’s novel is too packed with dialogue and uninteresting narration. Nash attempts to trivialize his characters’ too-cool-for-school pretensions by having Nick say he loves Mizoguchi’s “Tokyo Story” to which Sheeni corrects him (“I think that was Ozu”), but it doesn’t exactly trivialize as it does show that the screenwriter himself may be trying to show off. It’s all superfluous writing – dialogue for dialogue’s sake. Whereas someone like Tarantino can get away with this because his long dissertations actually have a point, Nash never really finds his footing.

Michael Cera has proved in the past that he’s got some serious comedic talent but he doesn’t read his character’s story well, and when he channels Francois he plays it surprisingly flat. His portrayal of Francois is certainly something of a straying from his usual coy archetype but he really needed to prove he can do something else besides the “nice guy.” His foray into the comic book film world is coming up with his starring role in “Scott Pilgrim.” The character, again, looks too familiar – but in the hands of “Shaun of the Dead” director Edgar Wright – Cera may be forgiven. He really does need to kill this character.

Cameos by Steve Buscemi, Zach Galifianakis, Jean Smart and M. Emmet Walsh are wasted on this half-baked snooze-fest. The great Fred Willard even shows up a few times, but doesn’t help in the least. The character of Sheeni is so overtly pretentious that it sometimes hurts. Doubleday plays her completely flat, and in this genre she should either be palpably honest or entirely ironic. She doesn’t even look like the kind of girl who’s ever seen “Breathless.”

A painfully bad dark comedy. Plays out in a dull, banal way. No emotion, and only a few moments of intrigue due to some unusual cinematography and some actually interesting looking animated sequences. It’s hard to care about any of the characters, most especially Nick. “Youth in Revolt” could have been a terrific jumping off point for Cera into a whole new territory of characters, but instead starts to show he may be a one trick pony.

Grade: D

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