Spring Breakdown: The Beach Bum (dir by Harmony Korine)


February is over!  Welcome to March!

Now, the first two weeks of March is, traditionally, when most schools give their students a week off for Spring Break.  I have a lot of good Spring Break memories and, to be honest, I’ve always kind of resented the fact that Spring Break is something that only schools do.  To me, it should be like a national holiday where everything stops for a week and everyone hangs out at the beach for a few days.

Of course, this year’s Spring Break may be a bit of a disappointment, what with everyone freaking out about …. well, everything.  That’s a shame but fear not!  You may not be able to leave behind your fears long enough to go down to the beach but at least you can still watch movies about the beach, right?  So, with that in mind, over the next two weeks, I will be reviewing some films for Spring Break!

It’s time for Spring Breakdown!

Let’s get things started with the 2019 film, The Beach Bum.

The beach bum of the title is an always stoned, alcoholic poet named Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), who spends his time wandering around the Florida Keys.  Moondog has been working on a book for several years and he’s a bit of a local celebrity.  Everyone that he meets tends to like him, or at least they do until he ruins their lives.  Moondog is irresponsible, immature, and apparently some sort of genius as well.  Moondog is also extremely laid back.  Even when he finds out that his wife, Minnie (Isla Fisher), cheated on him with his best friend, a singer named Lingerie (Snoop Dogg), Moondog is okay with it.  He’s always loved Minnie but he’s never had a problem cheating on her so why shouldn’t she do the same to him?

After Moondog shows up late for his daughter’s wedding and goes out of his way to make a scene, he goes for a drive with Minnie.  Of course, since Moondog is drunk off his ass, he ends up crashing the car and killing his wife.  In her will, Minnie leaves half of her fortune to their daughter, Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen).  She leaves the other half to Moondog, with the stipulation that Moondog will only get the money after he finishes his book.

The rest of the film follows, in an episodic fashion, Moondog as he tries to finish his book and get his money.  Along the way, he commits crimes, dabbles with various jobs, and spends time in jail and drug rehab.  He meets a host of eccentric and destructive characters, almost all of who are the type of outsiders who seem as if they’re destined to eventually be the subject of a “Florida man” headline.  For instance, Flicker (Zac Efron) is a pyromaniac.  And Captain Wack (Martin Lawrence) hosts dolphin tours but, unfortunately, cannot tell the difference between a dolphin and a shark.

When The Beach Bum was first released in March of last year, it was eagerly anticipated because it was Harmony Korine’s first film since 2012’s Spring Breakers.  Despite the fact that Spring Breakers and The Beach Bum both take place in Florida and feature a lot of beach action, the two films might as well be taking place in separate universes.  The Beach Bum is as laid back as Spring Breakers was violent.  If Spring Breakers was a film that seemed to be fueled by ecstasy and cocaine, The Beach Bum is a celebration of getting high and enjoying life.  If Spring Breakers was all about being young, The Beach Bum is about growing old without giving up your individuality.

In many ways, The Beach Bum is the ultimate Matthew McConaughey film and how you react to the film will depend on how much tolerance you have for Matthew McConaughey at his most McConaugheyest.  Indeed, if you like Moondog, it’ll probably be because you like Matthew McConaughey.  As a character, Moondog is a jerk.  He nearly ruins his daughter’s wedding.  He drives drunk and kills his wife.  He refuses to take responsibility for being a general fuck-up and, from what little we hear of his work, he appears to be a subpar poet as well.  And yet, Matthew McConaughey brings enough of his own natural charm to the role that it’s tempting to forgive Moondog.  You can understand why some people in the film are willing to tolerate him, even though he’s basically a pain in the ass to have around.

The Beach Bum is not a film for everyone.  I appreciated Matthew McConaughey’s performance and I also appreciated the fact that Harmony Korine didn’t try to remake Spring Breakers.  At the same time, the film was a bit too loosely constructed to really hold my interest and a little bit of Moondog goes a long way.  I saw this film last year and I’ve really had no desire to rewatch it.  That said, the cinematography frequently makes Florida looks like the most beautiful place on Earth and, regardless of what you may think about his poetry, at least Moondog just keeps on L-I-V-I-N, livin’.

Add to that, Moondog’s going to enjoy Spring Break, no doubt about it.

4 Film Reviews: Bridge To Silence, The Chocolate War, Kiss The Bride, Wedding Daze


Last week, I watched six films on This TV.

Which TV?  No, This TV!  It’s one of my favorite channels.  It’s not just that they show a lot of movies.  It’s also that they frequently show movies that are new to me.  For instance, last week, This TV introduced me to both Prison Planet and Cherry 2000.

Here are four other films, two good and two not so good, that This TV introduced to me last week.

First up, we have 1989’s Bridge to Silence.

Directed by Karen Arthur, Bridge To Silence was a made-for-TV movie.  Lee Remick plays Marge Duffield, who has a strained relationship with her deaf daughter, Peggy (Marlee Matlin).  After Peggy’s husband is killed in a traffic accident, Peggy has a nervous breakdown.  Marge and her husband, Al (Josef Sommer) take care of Peggy’s daughter, Lisa, while Peggy is recovering.  However, even as Peggy gets better, Marge still doesn’t feel that she can raise her daughter so Marge files a lawsuit to be named Lisa’s legal guardian.  While all of this is going on, Peggy is starring in a college production of The Glass Menagerie and pursuing a tentative romance with the play’s director (Michael O’Keefe).

Bridge to Silence is one of those overwritten but heartfelt melodramas that just doesn’t work.  With the exception of Marlee Matlin, the cast struggles with the overwrought script.  (Michael O’Keefe, in particular, appears to be miserable.)  The film’s biggest mistake is that it relies too much on that production of The Glass Menagerie, which is Tennessee Williams’s worst play and tends to be annoying even when it’s merely used as a plot device.  There’s only so many times that you can hear the play’s director refer to Peggy as being “Blue Roses” before you just want rip your hair out.

Far more enjoyable was 1988’s The Chocolate War.

Directed by Keith Gordon, The Chocolate War is a satirical look at conformity, popularity, rebellion, and chocolate at a Catholic boys school.  After the manipulative Brother Leon accidentally purchases too much chocolate for the school’s annual sale, he appeals to one of his students, Archie Costello (Wallace Langham), to help him make the money back.  Archie, who is just as manipulative as Leon, is the leader of a secret society known as the Vigils.  However, Archie and Leon’s attempt to manipulate the students runs into a roadblack when a new student, Jerry Renault (Illan Mitchell-Smith) refuses to sell any chocolates at all.  From there, things get progressively more complicated as Archie tries to break Jerry, Jerry continues to stand up for his freedom, and Leon … well, who knows what Leon is thinking?

The Chocolate War was an enjoyable and stylish film, one that featured a great soundtrack and a subtext about rebellion and conformity that still feels relevant.  John Glover and Wallace Langham both gave great performances as two master manipulators.

I also enjoyed the 2002 film, Kiss The Bride.

Kiss The Bride tells the story of a big Italian family, four sisters, and a wedding.  Everyone brings their own personal drama to the big day but ultimately, what matters is that family sticks together.  Directed by Vanessa Parise, Kiss The Bride featured believable and naturalistic performances from Amanda Detmer, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Brooke Langton, Monet Mazur, and Parise herself.

I have to admit that one reason why I liked this film is because it was about a big Italian family and it featured four sisters.  I’m the youngest of four sisters and, watching the film, I was reminded of my own big Irish-Italian family.  The movie just got everything right.

And then finally, there was 2006’s Wedding Daze.

Wedding Daze is a romantic “comedy.”  Anderson (Jason Biggs) asks his girlfriend to marry him, just to have her drop dead from shock.  Anderson’s best friend is afraid that Anderson will never get over his dead girlfriend and begs Anderson to not give up on love.  Anderson attempts to humor his friend by asking a complete stranger, a waitress named Katie (Isla Fisher), to marry him.  To everyone’s shock, Katie says yes.

From the get go, there are some obvious problems with this film’s problem.  Even if you accept that idea that Katie would say yes to Anderson, you also have to be willing to accept the idea that Anderson wouldn’t just say, “No, I was just joking.”  That said, the idea does have some comic potential.  You could imagine an actor like Cary Grant doing wonders with this premise in the 30s.  Unfortunately, Jason Biggs is no Cary Grant and the film’s director, comedian Michael Ian Black, is no Leo McCarey.  In the end, the entire film is such a misjudged failure that you can’t help but feel that Anderson’s ex was lucky to die before getting too involved in any of it.

Trash Film Guru Vs. The Summer Blockbusters : “Now You See Me”


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Maybe it’s unfair to saddle director Louis (Transporter) Leterrier’s new-ish “caper” drama Now You See Me with the “blockbuster” label, since it obviously doesn’t have the budget (or hype machine surrounding it) of an Iron Man 3 or a  Man Of Steel, but its surprisingly healthy take at the box office in recent weeks has it hedging into “blockbuster” territory in terms of its gross ticket receipts, it’s got a “blockbuster”-caliber cast, and it definitely falls into the category of lightweight, fun, summer entertainment, so — let’s just roll with it.

And let’s not take that “lightweight, fun, summer entertainment” statement as a jab, either, please, because Now You See Me is a solid little piece of film-making that anyone associated with it can (and should) be damn proud of. It’s just not particularly “deep” in any thematic sense.

But so what? It’s been awhile since Hollywood served us up a good “caper”-style thriller — the last genuinely superb one that comes to mind is Roger Donaldson’s criminally-underappreciated The Bank Job, and that’s getting to be a good few years ago now — and even though this is a film that doesn’t aim for the same level of “ooh”s and “aah”s of the latest Marvel or DC celluloid comic-book adaptation, it’s got more genuine heroics than most of them, and is every bit as finely-calculated a crowd-pleaser as anything they’ve sent down the pipeline in recent years, as well.

The all-star cast definitely helps to elevate a script that at times belabors its points with admittedly necessary but occasionally clumsy “info-dump” scenes and features a smattering of dialogue that can best be described as “clunky,” and while none of the actors involved are exactly stretching their abilities into new and unexplored territory, there’s something to be said for knowing what the folks you hire are best at doing and then getting out of the way and letting them do it.

To that end, Jesse Eisenberg tackles his role as fast-talking, arrogant illusionist J. Daniel Atlas with aplomb; Woody Harrelson delivers a solid, workman-like piece of acting as mentalist Merritt McKinney; Isla Fisher gives us a nice turn as former-magician’s-assistant-turned-headliner Henley Reeves; Dave Franco projects cool confidence as safe-cracker/lock-picker/con artist extraordinaire Jack Wilder; Mark Ruffalo gives another “believable everyman” performance as Special Agent Dylan Rhodes, the man tasked with somehow getting some charges to stick on our intrepid foursome, who have come together and billed themselves as “The Four Horsemen,” after they apparently rob a bank in front of a Las Vegas show audience (or do they?); Michael Caine gives it his usual grade-A “go” as the group’s  multi-millionaire benefactor/promoter/future victim; Morgan Freeman essentially plays himself in his guise as Through The Wormhole host, albeit with quantum physics being replaced with magic trick “debunking” as his gig; Melanie Laurent cuts a satisfying European-woman-of-mystery figure as Alma Dray, Ruffalo’s reluctant Interpol partner/potential love interest — heck, there are even notable minor performances here from Michael Kelly and Common as two of the cops who are down a few rungs on the investigative totem pole.

It’s not like the film doesn’t have any sort of statement to make about the general state of the world, either — to the contrary, “The Four Horsemen” take great pride in ripping off those who have ripped off society, and represent the kind of folk heroes the world could surely use in the wake of the mortgage crisis and the atrocious Wall Street bailout it gave birth to. Think of them as modern-day Robin Hoods with a flair for the dramatic and plenty of  flat-out amazing tricks up their sleeves.

Still, the art of deception being the constant theme here, don’t be shocked if the reasons for our protagonists’ “crimes” turn out to be a lot more personal than they first appear to be (hey, I did say this movie wasn’t particularly “deep,” remember? Not even when it looks like it might be.) . I think I’ll just leave it at that, which might even be saying a little too much already.

Leterrier, as we’ve come to expect, keeps things moving at a fairly expert clip, throws in some nifty little visual tricks along the way, and most definitely delivers the goods in the film’s more action-heavy scenes, and while he handles the script’s quasi-trippy/metaphysical conclusion quite nicely in my view, I think a lot of folks will still find it a bridge too far, and frankly, for a movie that’s all about sleight of hand, you’ll still most likely see the “surprise character revelation” at the end coming from a mile off.

But ya know what?  This is such an expertly-crafted piece of populist entertainment that I don’t think you’ll mind its admittedly-glaring weaknesses, simply because you’ll be too busy smiling from ear to ear. And that, perhaps, is its greatest trick of all.

There will surely be better films than Now You See Me released in 2013. Heck, there already have been. But I doubt there will be any that are more fun.

Is The Great Gatsby Great Or Is It Simply Ghastly?


(Special thanks to frequent TSL reader and commenter Dr. Jim for inspiring the title of my review.)

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Do you remember when everyone was predicting that Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby would battle it out with The Dark Knight Rises and The Master for Best Picture at the 2012 Academy Awards?

It may be hard to remember but, at this time last year, that’s what a lot of self-styled film divas were predicting.  And who could blame them?  The Great Gatsby was adapted from a great book, Baz Luhrmann was an A-list director, and the film featured actors like Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, and Carey Mulligan.  The flashy first trailer came out and people, like me, were very excited.

And then, suddenly, Warner Bros announced that The Great Gatsby would not be released in December of 2012.  No, instead, it would be released in May of 2013.  This led to a lot of speculation.  Some film bloggers claimed that Warner Bros was just worried that the Great Gatsby would struggle to find an audience if it was released at the same time as other prestige pictures like Lincoln and Les Miserables.  However, I think most people just assumed that the film probably wasn’t that good.  Suddenly, the opulence of that first trailer was no longer something to be celebrated but, instead, it was taken as evidence that Luhrmann had emphasized style over substance.

Last Friday, The Great Gatsby finally premiered on movie screens across the country and we finally got a chance to discover whether Lurhmann’s film was great or simply ghastly.

Before I started writing this review, I debated with myself whether or not I should include a spoiler warning.  You see, I am a F. Scott Fitzgerald fanatic.  I have read and I have loved almost all of his books (even the unfinished Last Tycoon) and I even went through a period where I identified (perhaps a bit too strongly) with Zelda Fitzgerald.  The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite books of all time and it’s hard for me to imagine a world where anyone hasn’t read it.

Unfortunately, judging from the reactions of some of the people in the audience at the showing that I attended, apparently I was giving the rest of the world a little bit too much credit.  So, if you haven’t read The Great Gatsby, then you really should stop reading this review and go pick up a copy.

And, if you’re still reading this review, here’s your SPOILER WARNING.

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With the exception of a few unnecessary scenes that feature Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is a sanitarium, Luhrmann’s film closely follows the plot of Fitzgerald’s novel.  Nick, a recent Yale graduate, moves to New York City in the 1920s.  He has abandoned his earlier plans to be a writer so that he can concentrate on making money as a bonds salesman.  Needing a place to live, Nick ends up renting out a small cottage.  Living across the bay is Nick’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her extremely wealthy and crude husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).  And living right next door to Nick, in a gigantic castle, is the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio).

While the Buchanans are a part of the old rich and the American establishment, Gatsby is a much more enigmatic figure.  As Nick discovers, nobody seems to be sure who Gatsby is, where he came from, or how he has made his money.  He seems to devote most of his time to throwing massive parties where he is often nowhere to be found.  However, through the cynical golfer Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), Nick learns that Gatsby used to know Daisy and that he’s still madly in love with her.  Gatsby befriends Nick, attempting to use him as a way to get to Daisy.  Meanwhile, Nick also finds himself unwillingly in the position of being Tom’s confidante, accompanying him when he drives into New York to meet with his mistress, Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher).

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To answer the obvious question, The Great Gatsby is not the disaster that so many of us feared but, at the same time, it’s not the triumph that so many of us had hoped for.  Instead, it’s somewhere in the middle.  As with most of his past films, Luhrmann unapologetically embraces style over substance and as such, the film is a lot of fun to watch even though it’s never as intellectually challenging or emotionally captivating as Fitzgerald’s novel.  Whereas Fitzgerald’s novel viewed Gatsby and Daisy with a captivating ambivalence, Luhrmann’s film is content to be a big, glossy soap opera.  As someone who loves the novel, I was frequently annoyed to see how interesting characters like Jordan Baker and Tom Buchanan were simplified for the film version.  But, as someone who loves on-screen spectacle, I enjoyed watching The Great Gatsby even if I could never quite bring my heart to fully embrace it.

One thing that The Great Gatsby definitely gets right is the casting of Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby.  DiCaprio’s gives one of his best performances here, perfectly capturing Gatsby’s allure while hinting at the insecurity that lies underneath the confident façade.  Carey Mulligan is well cast in the difficult role of Daisy and Tobey Magurie makes for the perfect Nick Carraway.  (That said, you have to wonder if Maguire and DiCaprio are ever going to start aging or do they both have a picture of Dorian Gray hidden away in a closet somewhere.)

Unlike Fitzgerald’s novel, Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is not quite great.  But it’s not exactly ghastly either.  If anything, perhaps it will inspire a few more people to read Fitzgerald’s classic novel.

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Film Review: Rango (dir. by Gore Verbinski)


Rango is something of an anomaly.

It’s an animated feature that isn’t in 3D. It caters as much to adults as it does to kids, and doesn’t seem to try toMovie Poster for the Film "Rango" lower itself to be “shiny” in that way. There are a number of scary images that I think would frighten younger kids, but overall, the film is very well done. It’s a fantastic homage to the Wild West, though it does get a little weird at times. I’ll admit that I walked in expecting something like Tangled. It reminds me more of George Miller’s Happy Feet, in how serious at times the story gets. And it does all this under the Nickelodeon banner. Wow, this is a big jump from Spongebob and Rugrats.

It ironic and feels right that Gore Verbinski – who gave us the Budweiser Frogs commercial so long ago and The Mexican – takes on an animated tale. He teams up with his Pirates of the Caribbean stars Johnny Depp and Bill Nighy again, and the results are worth it. Depp brings a spark of funny weirdness to the character of Rango, and the film has a number of pop culture references (including one for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). The supporting cast is okay, Isla Fisher (Confessions of a Shopaholic) makes for a quirky female lead trying to hold on to her land and Abigail Breslin (Zombieland) didn’t seem like she was used enough. Ned Beatty and Nighy in particular are the other vocal standouts here, along with Harry Dean Stanton (Big Love) as the the head of a mole family of outlaws. Timothy Olyphant (Justified) has a great cameo as well.

Rango is a chameleon who wishes to be the star of his own story. After an accident leaves him stranded in the desert, he finds is way through the blistering sun to the tiny town of Dirt. The townspeople of Dirt are a diverse lot, and it all has a real Mos Eisley in Star Wars to it. The currency of the town is water, which is pretty hard to come by these days. When he’s asked who he is, Rango takes the moment to be the character he envisioned. After he amazes the town with a display that adds fuel to the fire, the townsfolk end up making him the Sheriff of Dirt and charge him with finding a solution to their money/water issues.

Visually, Rango is a feast for the eyes despite how ugly the main character is. Fur moves, whiskers twitch and the open desert looks wonderful (especially when riding). Sunsets are colorful and Industrial Light and Magic really did some interesting work here. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind seeing this in 3D, but it’s actually nice that it isn’t in that format. Musically speaking, Hans Zimmer’s score adds a nice touch to the film, especially during one key scene involving a chase. I ended up getting the score shortly after seeing the movie.

If Rango suffers from any problems, it would be that it slows down a little in the middle, as if it’s not entirely sure of where it wants to go at one point. It quickly picks up, but the lull may be a little much for younger viewers looking for cartoon action throughout the film. I don’t believe adults will mind this, though.

But what about the Kid Factor?

It’s a Nickelodeon film. It’s designed for kids, and my audience (made up of parents and kids) appeared to really love it. The lessons to learn are that you truly are the center of your own story and growth comes through dealing with struggles. You can’t have a Protagonist without an Antagonist, and a story has to have conflict for it to go anywhere. You can take your kids to see Rango, but Parental Guidance is suggested. There’s a nude top half of a Barbie doll, no biggie there. Nighy’s Rattlesnake Jack brought up a lot of murmurs and gasps from the kids in my audience, so that might be something to be concerned about. There’s also shooting – it is the Wild West, after all – so there are characters that will die. If that doesn’t bother you, then you’ll have tons of fun with Rango. It’s definitely worth seeing.