From the Archive — The 40-Year-Old Virgin

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One of the cute celebrity stories that made the rounds this week was Steve Carell’s talk show tale of meeting Kelly Clarkson, more than a decade after he shouted her name while getting his chest hair waxed off in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. It’s not much of a story, but anything mildly interesting enough to briefly disrupt the news cycle of constant misery is always welcome. And if Carell can find a reason to bring up The 40-Year-Old Virgin, I suppose I can, too. This review was written for my former online home, and it was one of the very first instances of me reviving my old film critic tendencies for digital disbursement. I was still figuring out if tapping out my reactions to new cinematic releases was something I wanted to undertake again on a regular basis. Thirteen years later, I guess it was.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin has gotten attention for its dirty-ish premise and as part of the “trend” of R-rated comedies coming back into fashion. It should be getting attention because it’s a very funny movie that actually has a few things to say. Not only does Steve Carell play the title character, Andy Stitzer, with a lot of dignity, but he plays him as something more than a vehicle for jokes, the main downfall of all his cohorts in the Anchorman/Dodgeball/Elf brigade.

While the film developed from an old Second City bit that Carell cooked up, he’s actually thought through and developed the character and the story into something wise and a little moving. As the character notes at one point, the only reason he’s really reached this point is that he “eventually stopped trying.” He’s a little socially backwards, but he’s not some of outcast held up for ridicule.

The ridicule is reserved for the hyper-sexualized culture that we live in, and all of the supposedly sexy things that are out there to entice us, from pornography to seductive behavior to Tijuana floor shows. All of these things are called out as at best embarrassing and at worst downright scary. It’s actually reminiscent of a great and kinda daring episode of Freaks and Geeks, the television series that stands as the high water mark for Judd Apatow (well, okay, maybe it’s tied for the career peak), making his directorial debut here. The Freaks and Geeks squad get a few shout-outs here, with a couple teachers from McKinley High making cameo appearances and old “Ken Miller” faring nicely in a supporting role. More importantly, the film shares that late series’ compassionate but unyielding scrutiny of the foibles of life.

Besides, the whole movie really boils down to an argument that falling in love with Catherine Keener is a good thing, and I’m certainly not going to argue with that.

From the Archive — No Country for Old Men

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It’s easy to forget now, but shortly before the release of No Country for Old Men, it appeared that Joel and Ethan Coen might have reached the end of their run as vital filmmakers. They’d delivered two critical and commercial duds in a row (Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers), and the ideas didn’t seem to snapping with the same frequency as early in their career. It turns out all the fretting was premature. The siblings crafted what might well stand as the best film they ever made and launched a string of consistently superlative features. As their latest feature (repurposed from a planned Netflix series) hits theaters ahead of broader streaming availability, I’ll dig out my original review of No Country for Old Men, written for and first posted at my former online home. 

No Country For Old Men is unmistakably a movie about Texas, or at least steeped in Texas, just as Fargo was fraught with the chill of Minnesota winter and the chipper attitudes of those who persevere through it. It may not be a Texas of reality (though it all feels as real as bullet piercing skin) and it’s certainly not a Texas of myth and fable. It’s a Texas of literature, the weight of decisions made and repercussions faced.

It comes from literature, of course. Joel and Ethan Coen have made many movies that felt like novels in their structure and detail, but this is the first time they’ve actually looked to a book for a story to tell. It’s not hard to understand why this Cormac McCarthy book would appeal to them. Every riveting page had to make them think of their lean, sharp debut Blood Simple. They have certainly transferred it to the screen with the care of zealots adapting their scripture of choice.

Like many films from the Coens, it is a movie about crime and a pile of money with a shadow of darkness cast across. It is stark, unrelenting, a Texas landscape. Men talk to each other about the horrors they’ve seen, the rot they can’t quite avoid. The rot they can’t quite resist. They survey the problems, the mounting inevitability. They are matter of fact. They see the world as a series of truths, even if those truths are unkind. Their words are curt and weary. The world is harsh, brutal, merciless, unrelenting. The film, with intelligence and confidence, conveys it all.

The casting is perfectly, exquisitely right. Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem all bring a fire-blasted authenticity to their major roles. The care in this aspect is so thorough that all the smaller roles are uniquely well-realized. They may have less screen time, but character actors like Stephen Root, Garret Dillahunt and Barry Corbin make major impressions. Their deft work is very much a part of the fabric of the film’s accomplishment. In a film unforgivably about hard men, Kelly Macdonald finds the grace in the patient, tired logic of her character, the only one to challenge the fervent inhumanity she sees before her.

Cataloging the achievements here can exhaust the supply of celebratory words, but too many words feels like an inappropriate tribute. These most verbal of filmmakers, champions of dense, precise language, make more with less this time around and a similar discipline should be undertaken in response, especially since all these cluttered terminology can be effectively replaced by a one-word review.

Masterpiece.

From the Archive — Superman Returns

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Officially, director Bryan Singer has a new movie out this weekend. The reality is a little more complicated, but it’s a reasonable enough prompt to dig out this old review, especially since it’s looking like there might be a sizable stretch before the next attempt at a live action Superman film

Let’s start with Lois Lane.

When it was announced that Kate Bosworth would play the intrepid reporter that holds Superman’s heart in the long-gestating attempt to restart the film franchise of the first superhero, it seemed like a dangerous bit of miscasting. Certainly, it’s not the most egregiously wrongheaded choice in the annals of comic book movies, but it still represented a move that could torpedo the whole film. Maybe there’s a gem of a performance buried in some neglected nook of her modest filmography, something that demonstrated her ability to hold the screen with some command, some presence, some inner spirit that would make her believable as a star reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper, much less a women who could captivate the most powerful being on the planet.

I’m not trying to protect the sanctity of the original character with this recounted observation. I have no real sense of who the character is in her four-color adventures, though there’s ample evidence of the character being especially mired in the silliest of the silliness in the history of the medium. My concern lies with what will be effective in this one place, this one film, and Bosworth didn’t inspire a lot of confidence that we’d get much more than pretty accessory in the leading female role.

Truth is, Bosworth is fine. It’s the film that lets her down in a way that’s representative of the problems that run throughout. There are moments in Superman Returns where you get a fleeting look at what a compelling character Lois could be. We see tenacity, stubbornness, self-regard, assurance, and intensity. At times, she comes across as a more glamorous version of Jane Craig from Broadcast News, complete with the distracted intelligence and anxious impatience. There’s an all-too-brief montage of Lois actually being a reporter. She works the phones, sometimes pleading with the person on the other end, sometimes charming them, making notes and scrawling on maps as she goes. There’s something oddly riveting about the scene, watching someone in command of a realistic situation in this fantastical world, and Bosworth works hard to try and tell us who Lois is in these fragmented moments. (There’s another nice detail when Lois is sneaking on to villain Lex Luthor’s yacht with her young, precocious son in tow. He asks if they’re trespassing, and Lois promptly answers “no,” and then instantly revises her answer to tell him “yes.” You learn a lot about her in that quick exchange.) Unfortunately, all these complimentary words don’t accurately assess the character as a whole as depicted in the film. Who Lois is changes throughout the film, veering wildly depending on the needs of the story at any given moment.

The filmmakers haven’t taken a group of characters, established their identities and built the plot and picture around them. Instead, they’ve assembled actors, assigned them famous names from nearly seventy years of comic book adventures and cooked up a big adventure, tweaking and twisting personalities so that there’s little consistency to the roles as the movie unspools. Sometimes Superman’s chief nemesis Lex Luthor is a cool, controlled force of malevolent calculation, and sometimes he’s a sputtering, raving, grandiose preacher of backwards justice. Kevin Spacey does just fine with each version of the character. Imagine what he could have done if he could have concentrated on just playing one of them. Poor Parker Posey, forever trapped in a big studio miasma of utter bafflement over how to utilize her rare gifts, may fare the worst in this regard. Her character, a nondescript moll and criminal partner to Lex, begins with some flashes of the sardonic wit that is usually Posey’s stock-in-trade, progresses to a sort of empty-headed state of constant reaction, and spends the final third of the movie doing little more than quivering in teary-eyed confusion at the nefarious machinations playing out before her. We see little of this character and yet the transformation from her first scene to her last scene is so drastic that it may be advisable to scan the Deleted Scenes section of the eventual triple disc Super Edition DVD to find the exact moment when Posey’s character undergoes invasive brain surgery.

After the tight control of the first two X-Men films, director Bryan Singer has returned to the disjointed confusion of 1998’s disastrous Apt Pupil, his last film before plunging into perpetual employment filming superheroics. It’s as if Singer approached this outing equally intimidated and excited by the iconic nature of the lead character. For all the fealty he shows to the storied history, recreating famous comic images and verbally and visually quoting from the prior films, he never manages to personally discover or convey what makes the character inspiring. The scenes of Superman in action largely feel cursory, obligatory — achievements in special effects rather than in staging. There’s a hint of how the stirring emotion that character can inspire when the filmmakers cook up a way to have Superman’s first act of heroism after a long absence conclude in front of a stadium full of cheering people. When the only way you can make the man seem truly super is by having 30,000 people scream in soaring gratitude at his appearance, there’s something missing.

We started with Lois, so let’s end with the man of steel himself. Despite the fact that the character has some freshly established inner conflicts in this film, Brandon Routh is given a weakly-drawn character. By the design of the character and the construction of the film, duplicating the work of Christopher Reeve seems to be the main goal of the assembled filmmakers, another example of devotion to preceding efforts undermining the fresh direction necessary to reignite the film franchise. Clark Kent is so under-realized in the film that there’s nothing much to be said, but Routh does bring something a little different to Superman. There’s a newfound gentle nature and a politeness to the character that seems very Midwestern. It seems that by casting Iowa native Routh they’ve stumbled upon some facets that seem wholly appropriate for a superhero bred in Kansas. It’s a small achievement, to be sure, but in the underwhelming Superman Returns you take the good elements where you can get them.

From the Archive — Night of the Living Dead

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Fangoria did captions right.

It was tricky producing a weekly movie review radio program in Central Wisconsin in the early nineteen-nineties. There were nine screens in our town and a decidedly unaggressive approach to bookings. Especially at the time of the year, we’d watch as early Oscar contenders showed up in larger cities and our local options remained fairly static. One thing was certain, though. We got all of the horror movies. Many of those fearsome features were eager attempts to launch slasher series, a quest to establish the next Freddy Krueger. And, as always, brands sprang eternal. So in the first year of the radio program, a remake of Night of the Living Dead arrived. I don’t think I’ve seen a bit of this film since I watched it for review purposes in the fall of 1990, so I can’t provide fresh perspective. But I do think (and even mildly fretted at the time) that I was too generous in my relatively kind assessment, an effect of my founding principle of film criticism — long since abandoned — that I should assess every feature strictly on its own terms, with no surrounding context or knowledge of cinematic history shading my opinion. In effect, I rounded up in an effort to not make the newer movie suffer in comparison to its superior original iteration. That was a misguided approach. Fifty years after the release of the original Night of the Living Dead, I can say with confidence that’s the only version that’s necessary.

In 1968, George Romero created what will undoubtedly go down in film history as one of the best horror movies ever: a bleak, black-and-white feature about a group of people barricaded into an old farmhouse who are trying to defend themselves from zombies with a desire to eat human flesh. Of course, that film was Night of the Living Dead. Some twenty-odd years later, Mr. Romero has decided that it’s time for a remake of his classic film, this time with special effects wizard Tom Savini in the director’s chair.

Now the film is in color, with an all new cast and some rather interesting variations on the original. One of the main characters of the film is Barbara, played by Patricia Tallman. In the original, the character was nearly catatonic, so distressed by the unsettling sight of the walking dead that all she could do was sit in the farmhouse and whimper. Now that we’ve reached the nineties, though, Barbara has thrown off her passiveness and become a regular sharpshooter, gunning down zombies like the easiest targets in a carnival game. She’s the one who insists they can get past the undead adversaries and they’re foolish for staying locked up in the farmhouse. It’s not too hard to figure out why Romero, who wrote the new screenplay, added the anti-stereotypical touch.

And if you’re a fan of the original and are leery about throwing down your money for something you’ve already seen, fear not. The end is now very different from that of the 1968 version.

The performances are all passable, though Tom Towles occasionally goes over the top with his turn as one of the members of the group in the farmhouse. Besides some slow-moving exposition early on, the film usually succeeds at being entertaining. The addition of color does detract from the grim nature of the film. It’s almost too bright at times.

It’s certainly not the equal of the original, but that would be asking a lot, after all. On its own merits, Night of the Living Dead, the 1990 version, is just fine.

3 stars (out of 4).

From the Archive — The Last King of Scotland

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I don’t have much to add about this review, originally written for my former online home. I’m a little surprised it’s as long as it is, given this is a film I’ve barely spared a thought for in the years since, even if it was responsible for Forest Whitaker winning an Academy Award.

I would argue that film has a greater capability than any other medium to forcefully depict the unthinkable acts perpetrated by humanity against itself. The shock of visually seeing something awful can transcend even the most intricate descriptions of the same act, and the immersive quality of film — that settling into a theater seat and allowing the images to create an overwhelming experience — can lock out distractions that would otherwise blunt the impact. Whether in a documentary or a fictional depiction of actual events, filmmakers can make the desperate horrors of the world more real to those of us removed from them than they would be otherwise.

Idi Amin was took power in Uganda in 1971 and remained the president until deposed in 1979. During that span, as many as 500,000 were murdered under his regime. In the new film The Last King of Scotland, those deaths are reduced to a few photographs scattered onto a table in front of the the protagonist. The movie is about Idi Amin and his rule, but the missed opportunity to make us feel the damage of his rule, perhaps even the abdicated responsibility to bring us the emotions and fear and terrors of that time and place, suitably encapsulate everything that is wrong with the film.

Strangely enough, director Kevin Macdonald’s previous film, the reenactment-aided documentary Touching the Void, was all about recreating and conveying the emotions of the story he depicted. That film related the tragic consequences of a duo’s mountain climbing adventure in the Andes, and every agonizing bit of their dilemma is there on the screen. With more freedom in Last King, Macdonald counter-intuitively winds up with a final product that is far less impactful.

The film is based on an award-winning 1998 novel by Giles Foden. The story centers on a fictional Scottish doctor who impulsively journeys to Uganda for relief works, and finds himself drawn into Amin’s circle as a personal physician and political confidant. Not only does this follow in the sorry filmmaking tradition of examining the history of Africa through the eyes of white lead characters, but it ostensibly provides a conduit to reasonably accessing any facets of Amin’s rule that the film wishes to examine. If the character is completely invented and established as close to Amin, he can get anywhere, see anything the filmmakers want him to see. He is also, theoretically anyway, always in danger. The film decisively establishes Amin’s volatility, but there’s little tension. Moments that should be harrowing are instead distant. James McAvoy does a passable job with the role of the doctor, but he’s given little to do beyond pine after married women and spiral into guilty despair over the history he’s witnessed. His character is there to build some contrived conflict into the film (a largely unnecessary conceit given that the region itself is already rife with conflict) and spiral into guilty despair when a third act is needed.

Forest Whitaker is admittedly a powerful presence as Idi Amin. Whitaker captures the swagger in Amin’s self-composure, the boldness in his public pronouncements of dedication to the people. Without every compromising the undercurrent of madness in the dictator, Whitaker manages to demonstrate how he could be a compelling figure. He shows why Ugandans would initially cheer for this man. He digs as deeply into the character as the film and the script will allow, but when he largely disappears for significant stretches — at one point doing little more than play the accordion during a crucial stretch in the middle of the film — it’s hard to buy into the enveloping quality the man had, and harder still to understand him as a full-blooded character. It’s nice work by Whitaker, to be sure. It’s just a shame that the film builds in so many buffers to keep us from feeling the performance and the horrible touch of the man he portrays.

From the Archive — Lars and the Real Girl

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As Ryan Gosling blasts into theaters as Neil Armstrong, I’ll take advantage of this space to look back to when he was still venturing on occasion into a different kind of character role. I think this might still represent his strongest acting to date. The review here was originally written for my former online home. 

Lars and the Real Girl has an absurd premise. Withdrawn to the point of being socially maladjusted, Lars is an office drone in a small Wisconsin town. He’s paralyzed by the plainest pleasantries from his coworkers and practically runs away when his sister-in-law tries to coax him from his tiny garage apartment to a family dinner in the main house. He begins to open up a bit when he gets a new girlfriend. Unfortunately, he gets her by ordering from a Website. She’s a life-size plastic doll that he’s dubbed Bianca. To Lars, Bianca is completely real. She communicates with him, often showing a hearty inquisitiveness about him, and has a full life story that precedes the time she came into his world via a packing crate.

It is a delusion, but it enlivens Lars and the local doctor advises his family to play along. Eventually the entire community has willingly bought into the illusion of Bianca, showering her with appreciation and affection as a means to embrace Lars.

For any of this to work at all dramatically requires delicate, thoughtful work from all involved, and that’s exactly what’s on display in Lars. The actors have a particularly heavy load. It must be tempting to approach this material with an air of condescension, pushing the comedic elements. It’s easy to imagine this transformed into a broad, hateful Adam Sandler comedy, and what a woeful beast that would be. Instead, everyone onscreen makes a supreme effort to find the emotional truth in the scenario. Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer, as Lars’ brother and sister-in-law, adeptly play the frustrated caring that would reasonably lead them to accommodate the delusion. The integrity of the performance in the lead role is even more important, and it’s perhaps no surprise that Ryan Gosling is absolutely stellar. He burrows into the physicality of Lars, capturing the sorts of pained, twitchy movements that are a signal of extreme discomfort in the company of others. He makes Lars a touching portrait of someone lost in pain and finding an unlikely path to emerge from it. To Gosling, it seems, the character is as true and potent as any you would find at the center of a heavy drama.

The script by “Six Feet Under” writer Nancy Oliver is shrewdly constructed, not only mixing its comedy with warmth and pathos, but also building in a psychology that makes sense. With a few deft scenes, it becomes understandable how Lars could reach this strange point, how his only way to reach out is through an inanimate companion. She “tells” him the things he cannot tell himself, that he has never mustered the strength to hear from anyone else. That none of this ever comes across as contrived is an astonishing accomplishment. The script is incredibly kind-hearted and director Craig Gillespie captures and accentuates that tone.

In a way, Lars and the Real Girl is everything last year’s beloved misfire Little Miss Sunshine was striving to be: charming in its very goofiness, affectionate towards the idiosyncrasies of its characters and finding unexpected comedy in the details (the heinous winter coats that cocoon the characters are sadly accurate). While Sunshine was in love with its own offbeat sensibility to an unappealing degree, Lars and the Real Girl is in love with every person, even the plastic one, that populates the film. It’s a far healthier affection, and it definitely led to significantly better movie-making.

From the Archive — The Savages

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I’m always pleased when I discover something in one of these old reviews that carbon dates it to the era in which is was written. I think the reference to Blockbuster in the lengthy opening paragraph accomplishes that feat nicely. For today, I though about dredging up my old review of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, the first cinematic appearance of the character Venom, but it turns out I didn’t type word one about the character or the performance by Topher Grace (who, amusingly, is so different from new Venom portrayer Tom Hardy that the two could be photo negatives of one another). So instead, I’ll commemorate Netflix once again providing a distribution outlet for a tremendous filmmaker whose material doesn’t fit comfortably into the current grasping-at-tentpoles strategy of most studios. You know, like I did three weeks ago. It has been too long between films for Tamara Jenkins. I hope that was her choice. I fear it wasn’t.

Categorizing films, placing them into broad, encompassing genres, is a tricky — arguably futile — endeavor. The new film The Savages has been casually referred to as a comedy, a dark comedy to be sure, but a comedy nonetheless. The official movie poster is sure to including laudatory critics’ quotes the words “funny” and “humor” and features art by comic artist Chris Ware, which is sure to signal something safer to most moviegoers — for whom the phrase The Acme Novelty Library is about as meaningful as any four randomly selected poetry magnets — than it actually should. The Golden Globes were even more decisive, slotting Savages into the “Comedy/Musical” categories in their film awards (and, as an aside that will tip my hand as to what I thought of The Savages, you may not a stronger example of the ineptitude of the Hollywood Foreign Press as arbiters of excellence than their omission of Laura Linney from the relevant Best Actress category in favor of, well, at least four of the five honored performers, but especially the I’m-just-happy-to-be-here enthusiasm of Hairspray‘s Nikki Blonsky). It’s a strange situation for this smart, fairly grim film. I laughed appreciatively many times during The Savages, but I can say the same about No Country for Old Men and I don’t see anyone laying groundwork for it to be filed somewhere between Meet the Fockers and Old School in the local Blockbuster’s comedy section a few months from now. I imagine more than a few people will go to The Savages expecting a film much lighter and thoroughly comic than it really is and wind up blindsided. Hopefully, that harsh surprise won’t distract those people from noticing that’s it’s also terrific.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney play siblings who are called upon to retrieve their elderly father from Arizona, in part because he’s suffering from dementia that has made it impossible for him to care for himself. It’s a simple beginning for a film that’s anything but simple. For one thing, this is neither a warm-hearted story of family coming together or a pummeling exercise in opening old wounds. It’s far more complicated. Hoffman and Linney’s characters are basically estranged from their father, but don’t carry the resulting personal emotions from that distance like heavy, burdensome overcoats. It is part of who they are, it has shaped them, but it doesn’t inform every scene in highly dramatic ways. They go about the business of getting him into a nursing home and interact with him during his descent in ways that are revealing largely because their gestures are more about giving themselves comfort than building additional happiness into his waning days. It is a hard truth that, like everything else in the film, is largely presented as just another facet of life.

The whole film can be described as a big slab of life. Hoffman’s character is a college professor specializing in Bertolt Brecht, and he helpfully writes a lesson on a blackboard about “plot” versus “narrative.” He never gets around to explaining that difference to questioning student, but The Savages serves nicely as its own lesson plan for the classroom of the movie audience. Don’t look for the scheme of the storytelling to following a familiar framework, necessarily. Instead, watch these characters live out a piece of their time, their frailties heightened by their situations, their patience tested and torn. Hoffman’s professor defends himself with his pragmatism, alert to criticism but largely too weary to dispense his own judgment. Linney’s struggling playwright is a mountain of vulnerabilities with occasionally reserves of potential fortitude exposed. These pro actors dig into the roles with disciplined gusto.

Writer-director Tamara Jenkins creates with her own disciplined gusto. A long-gestating follow-up to her feature debut, the sloppy but somewhat endearing The Slums of Beverly Hills, the film is focused and unsparing, a gut punch of lingering dysfunction. As opposed to another recent film that could be described that wayThe Savages never pushes the problems or personality flaws to such extremes that it strains credibility. There’s an understated truth to the storytelling that makes its moments of heartbreak and tentative redemption all the more potent.