Film Review: Arkansas (dir by Clark Duke)


Oh, Arkansas.

As far as states go, Arkansas usually doesn’t get much respect.  In a country where much of the culture is dominated by city-dwelling secular liberals, Arkansas is a state the remains stubbornly rural, religious, and conservative.  If your grandparents were a state, they’d probably look a lot like Arkansas.  Arkansas is viewed as being old-fashioned and when it does make the news, it’s usually not for anything that anyone in the state particularly wants to brag about.  Democrats will always view Arkansas as being the home of Mike Huckabee.  Republicans will never forgive the state for springing the Clintons on the rest of the nation.  (Interestingly enough, Mike Huckabee and Bill Clinton both grew up in the same tiny town.)  Little Rock has gangs and government corruption.  Hot Springs has gamblers looking to hide out from the mob.  Fouke has the Boggy Creek Monster while Ft. Smith is best-known for having once been home to the hanging judge, Isaac Parker.  You get the idea.  When it comes to the way that the rest of the country views the state, it often seems as if poor Arkansas just can’t catch a break.

With all that in mind, I have to say that I really love Arkansas.  My paternal grandparents lived in Arkansas and I’ve still got relatives all over the state.  Arkansas was one of the many states where my family lived while I was growing up.  (The others were — deep breath — Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, and Louisiana.)  We would stay in Arkansas for months at a time, depending on how well my mom and dad were getting along at the time.  It’s an unpretentious state, one that’s full of friendly, no-nonsense people and beautiful countryside.  I have a lot of good memories of Arkansas.  It’s always in the back of my mind that, wherever I’m living, I can always just go back to Arkansas and spend the rest of my life living in a small town with my cousins.  Of course, I’d probably end up miserable over the lack of movie theaters.  Whenever I’m living in the city, I find myself yearning for the simplicity and decency of the country.  Whenever I’m in the country, I find myself missing the excitement of the city.

The Natural State (as Arkansas is officially nicknamed) is not only the setting for some of my most cherished memories.  It’s also the setting for a film called, appropriately enough, Arkansas.  The directorial debut of actor Clark Duke, Arkansas tells the story of four very different men.  Kyle Ribb (Liam Hemsworth) is quiet and rather stoic.  Swin Horn (Clark Duke) is talkative, eccentric, and perhaps a bit too cocky for his own good.  They both work at a national park, where their boss is a veteran ranger named Bright (John Malkovich).  Of course, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to notice that neither Kyle nor Ribb really seem to do much work at the park.  And, for that matter, Bright certainly does own a big and impressive house for someone who has spent the majority of his life as a ranger….

Kyle, Swin, and Bright are actually drug dealers.  They transport drugs all over the southern half of the United States.  Kyle and Swin are supervised by Bright.  Bright, meanwhile, reports to the mysterious Frog.  Kyle and Swin have never actually met Frog and there are rumors that he might not even exist.  Of course, the film has already revealed to us that Frog (played by Vince Vaughn) does exist and is a local pawnshop owner.

Kyle narrates the film, informing us that the difference between Southern organized crime and Northern organized crime is that, in the South, it’s not all that organized.  As Kyle explains it, the infamous Dixie Mafia is not so much an organization as it’s just a collection of undisciplined lowlifes who have no real integrity or loyalty to anyone else.  When you become a drug dealer in the South, you’re a drug dealer for life.  There’s no going back if you change your mind.  You start out at the bottom of the ladder and, whenever someone above you if either murdered or imprisoned, you get your chance to move up.  No one is ever sure who is working for who or who can be trusted.  Every order from the boss is examined and re-examined as the two dealers try to figure out whether or not they’ve won the trust of the mysterious Frog.

Unfortunately for Kyle and Swin, a misunderstanding leads to violence and several deaths.  With no way to directly communicate with Frog to let him know what exactly happened, Kyle and Swin know that their lives could be in danger.  The film follows Kyle and Swin as they prepare for their ultimate meeting with Frog while, at the same time, detailing in flashback how Frog himself eventually came to his position of power.  Throughout the entire film, we watch as history repeats itself.  As Kyle said, once you’re a drug dealer, you’re a drug dealer for life.

Arkansas is a surprisingly low-key film.  Kyle, Swin, Bright, and Frog all manage to be both very laid back and very aggressive at the same time.  (Anyone who has spent anytime with a large group of rednecks will understand what I’m talking about.)  As a director, Clark Duke is as interested in capturing the rhythms of every day life in Arkansas as he is in orchestrating the inevitable violence that results from all of the film’s betrayals and mistakes and some of the best scenes in the film just feature Kyle and Swin talking about nothing in particular while driving down the interstate.  The film’s mix of cheerful goofiness and existential horror will be familiar to anyone who has ever gotten lost on the way to Hot Springs.

Liam Hemsworth and Clark Duke are sympathetic in the lead roles, though Hemsworth’s Southern accent does slip a few times.  Swin meets a woman (Eden Brolin) in a grocery store and their subsequent romance manages to be both creepy and touching at the same time.  John Malkovich is, as usual, wonderfully eccentric.  That said, the film is pretty much dominated by Vince Vaughn, who plays Frog as being both dangerously ruthless and also as someone who understands that his eventual downfall is inevitable.  Frog came to power by betraying his boss and, as played by Vaughn, Frog is very much aware that he’s destined to eventually be betrayed as well.  Frog has made peace with both his place in the world and the reality of his situation and, in many ways, that makes him an even more dangerous character than he would be otherwise.  He has nothing to lose and he knows it.

Obviously, I liked Arkansas, both the state and the movie.  It’s an well-done work of Southern pulp.

Film Review: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (dir by Joe Berlinger)


Early on in the new Netflix film, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, there’s a scene in which Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) and her sister, Joanna (Angela Sarafyan) go to a bar.  Through some rather heavy-handed dialogue, we learn that Liz has just broken up with her boyfriend, that she has next to zero self-confidence, and that she’s a single mother.  She doesn’t think that there’s a man anywhere who would be interested in her.  Joanna responds by pointing out that there’s one man who appears to be very interested.  In fact, he hasn’t taken his eyes off of Liz since they entered the bar.

That man’s name is Ted (Zac Efron) and, at first, he seems like he’s too good to be true.  He’s charming.  He’s a law student.  He appears to love spending time with Liz’s daughter.  He looks like Zac Efron.  Perfect, right?

Of course, we know something that Liz doesn’t.  We know that Ted is Ted Bundy and that, eventually, he’s going to become one of America’s notorious serial killers, a symbol of evil so potent that, more than 30 years after he was executed by the state of Florida, he continues to get movies made about him.

Because we know who and what Ted is, we spend the first fourth of the movie cringing at everything that makes Liz happy.  For instance, Liz is shocked to discover that Ted apparently loves her daughter but we’re just like, “Oh my God, that’s Ted Bundy!  GET YOUR DAUGHTER AWAY FROM TED BUNDY!”  Liz thinks it’s romantic when Ted makes breakfast for her but we’re just staring at the big kitchen knife in his hand.  When Liz and Ted make love, only we notice the blank look on Ted’s face as he looks down at Liz and we find ourselves wondering what’s happening in his mind.

The film is told largely through Liz’s eyes and, with one exception, we never see Bundy actually committing any of his crimes.  (That’s a good thing, by the way.  We already know who Ted Bundy was and what he did.  There’s no need to sensationalize the very real pain that he caused.)  Like Liz, we find out about Bundy’s crimes through news reports and arrest records.  For instance, when Bundy is arrested for attempted kidnapping in Utah, Liz doesn’t find out about it until a story appears in the local Seattle newspaper.  When Liz demands to know why he didn’t tell her what was happening, Bundy gives her a bullshit story about how he’s being framed and how his lawyer is going to get the case thrown out.  We know that Ted’s lying but Liz believes him because …. what else is she going to do?  Is she going to believe that this perfect man who seems to love both her and her daughter is actually a sociopathic monster?

The film follows Bundy from one trial to another, as he’s charged with crimes across country.  It shows how this superficially charming law student became something of a media celebrity.  (When a reporter asks him if he’s guilty, Bundy grins and asks if the reporter is referring to a comic book that he stole when he was in the fifth grade.)  Bundy escapes.  Bundy is arrested.  Bundy escapes again.  Bundy eventually ends up being tried in Florida, where he revels in the attention.  When Liz loses faith in him, Bundy replaces her with an unstable woman named Carole Ann (Kayla Scodelario).  However, even while Carole Ann is dutifully delivering statements from Bundy to the press, Bundy is still calling Liz and begging her to believe that he’s innocent and he’ll soon be freed from prison.

Why is it so important to Bundy that Liz believe in him?  Is he just entertaining himself by manipulating her or, in his relationship with her, does he see the type of normalcy that he desires but knows he’s incapable of ever achieving?  Towards the end of the film, Liz comes close to asking Bundy if he was planning on killing her the first night that they met.  She doesn’t and it’s doubtful that Bundy would have given an honest answer but it’s still a question that hangs over every minute of this film (as does Liz’s physical resemblance to the majority of Bundy’s victims).

Though the film may be told from Liz’s point of view, she’s often comes across as just being a meek bystander, watching as the darkness of Ted Bundy envelops her world.  The film itself seems to be far more interested in Ted Bundy and his twisted celebrity.  Zac Efron plays Bundy as someone who knows how to be charming and who is good enough at imitating human emotions that he’s managed to keep the world from noticing that he’s essentially hollow on the inside.  Bundy has gotten so used to acting out a role that, even when he’s on trial for his life, he can’t resist the temptation to turn the courtroom into his own stage.  He demands to defend himself and, though he initially proves himself to be a good lawyer, his demands and his questions become progressively more flamboyant and self-destructive.  It’s as if he’s gotten so caught up in playing his role that he’s incapable of recognizing the reality of his situation.  He performs for the jury, the judge, and the television audience, treating the whole thing as if he’s just a character in a movie.  It’s only when he has no choice but to accept that he’s been caught and he’s never going to escape that Bundy finally shows some human emotion.  He cries but his tears are only for himself.  It’s a chilling performance and Zac Efron deserves every bit of praise that he’s received.

Unfortunately, the film itself doesn’t really tell us anything that we didn’t already know.  Director Joe Berlinger is best-known as a documentarian and he talks a “just the facts” approach to the story.  We don’t really get any insight into how a monster like Ted Bundy could come to exist.  Outside of Efron’s revelatory performance, there’s not much here that couldn’t be found in any of the other films that have been made about Ted Bundy.

(Interestingly enough, as I watched the film, it occurred to me that Ted Bundy was a monster who could have only thrived in a pre-Internet age.  For all the books and movies that portray him as being some sort of cunning genius, Bundy actually wasn’t that smart.  He approached two of early his victims in a public place and introduce himself as being “Ted,” usually within earshot of a handful of witnesses.  He was so brazen that the police even ended up with a sketch that pretty much looked exactly like him.  In all probability, the only way that Ted Bundy avoided getting arrested in Seattle was that he moved to Utah, where his crimes were unknown and the sketch wasn’t readily available.  Today, of course, that sketch and Ted’s name would be on Twitter and Facebook as soon as they were released by the police.  My friend Holly would probably retweet the sketch and say, “Do your thing, twitter!”  He would have been identified and arrested in just a matter of time.  Instead, Bundy committed his crimes at a time when news traveled slower and law enforcement agencies were not in constant communication with each other.)

The good news is that Extremely Wicked is not, as some feared, a glorification of Ted Bundy.  He’s a monster throughout the entire film.  Zac Efron proves himself to be a far better actor than anyone’s ever really given him credit for being.  It’s a flawed film but, at the very least, it’s also a disturbing reminder that sometimes, darkness hides behind the greatest charm.

 

 

Trailer: Velvet Buzzsaw


A few years ago, Dan Gilroy, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Rene Russo excited film viewers everywhere when they collaborated on Nightcrawler, a portrait of a psychologically damaged man who proves to be quite adept at playing the media game.  The combination of Gillroy’s atmospheric direction and satirical script with Gyllenhaal’s wonderfully unhinged lead performance made for an incendiary and prophetic film.  Just why exactly Nightcrawler was totally snubbed by the Academy continues to be one of the most perplexing mysteries in recent Oscar history.  Despite strong support from the critics, not even Gyllenhaal picked up a nomination.

Dan Gilroy followed Nightcrawler up with Roman Israel, Esq., which was as forgettable as Nightcrawler was memorable but which still managed to accomplish what Nightcrawler didn’t.  It received an Oscar nomination for its leading man.  One gets the feeling that nomination had more to do with Denzel Washington’s reputation for award-worthy work than for anything that actually happened in the movie.  Gyllenhaal went on to give award-worthy performances in films like Southpaw and Stronger but the Academy has continued to snub him.  As for Russo, she’s only appeared in three films post-Nightcrawler and none of them were worthy of her talents.

Well, this year, Gyllenhaal, Russo, Gilroy, and Nightcrawler‘s cinematographer, Robert Elswit, have reunited for Velvet Buzzsaw!  That’s right, they’ve got the band together again!  The film appears to be a mix of horror film and an art world satire.  As the film’s plot description puts it: After a series of paintings by an unknown artist are discovered, a supernatural force enacts revenge on those who have allowed their greed to get in the way of art.  The trailer would seem to suggest that paintings themselves are coming to life to enact revenge on sell-outs, everywhere.  The idea of haunted paintings has been explored by everyone from Oscar Wilde to H.P. Lovecraft to Lucio Fulci and I look forward to seeing what type of spin Gilroy puts on it.

Along with Russo and Gyllenhaal, this film also features John Malkovich.  Honestly, I don’t think you can do an art world satire without finding a role for Malkovich.  Much as how Bill Paxton simply belonged in Nightcrawler, it seems that Malkovich would just belong in Velvet Buzzsaw.

Velvet Buzzsaw will be playing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and it will be officially released by Netflix on February 1st!  I get the feeling that we’re either going to love it or we’re going to hate it.  I don’t think there’s going to be much in-between.

Check out the trailer below!

Lisa Marie’s Six Favorite Super Bowl Commercials!


As you may know, if you’re one of our longtime readers, I only watch the Super Bowl for one reason.  Right now, I know that at least three TSL contributors are happy because the Patriots won.  And I know that at least one is upset that the Falcons lost.  But me — all I care about are the commercials.

What were the commercials like this year?  They weren’t terrible.  As tends to happen with Super Bowl commercials, quite a few of them tried way too hard.  A lot of people are going to go crazy praising the more political of the commercials.  A few commercials attempted to comment on everything that’s going on in this country right now.  That’s their right but I always find it amusing when big, faceless corporations spend millions on commercials bragging about how progressive they supposedly are.

That said, it was fairly easy for me to pick my six favorite commercials this year.  It was also pretty easy for me to pick my least favorite commercial.  Seriously, Febreze, what the Hell?

Here’s my top six.  I’m not saying that these commercials would convince me to buy or do anything.  But they did amuse me and that’s the important thing!

6) Yellow Tail Wine

I hardly ever drink so I don’t have any idea whether Yellow Tail is a good wine or not.  To be honest, I really don’t care.  Nothing bores me more than when people start getting all technical and in-depth about wine.  The important thing is that the kangaroo is cute.

In fact, he’s almost as cute as the beaver in this 2008 commercial from Australia.

5) Tide

“I know, you’re trending.”  This made me laugh out loud.

4) Bai

Christopher Walken and Justin Timberlake need to do more commercials together.

3) Wix.Com

Speaking of pairings that unexpectedly work, I hope that Gal Gadot and Jason Statham will return for this commercial’s sequel.

Finally, for my top two spots, I have to admit that I’ve gone back and forth as to which one of these commercials should come in first and which should come in second.  I was even tempted to declare a tie but, in the end, one commercial managed to cling to the top spot.

First, here’s the runner-up:

2) Snickers

This commercial didn’t get much attention in the days leading up to the game.  It probably didn’t cost a lot to make.  It wasn’t trendy.  It wasn’t flashy. It most definitely wasn’t political.  But, by highlighting the absurdity of Super Bowl commercials, it nearly won the night.  (Plus, it features Adam Driver and who doesn’t love that?)

And finally, my pick for the best commercial of Super Bowl LI…

(Drum roll, please…)

1) Squarespace

John Malkovich!

Cleaning Out The DVR Yet Again #16: Zoolander 2 (dir by Ben Stiller)


(Lisa recently discovered that she only has about 8 hours of space left on her DVR!  It turns out that she’s been recording movies from July and she just hasn’t gotten around to watching and reviewing them yet.  So, once again, Lisa is cleaning out her DVR!  She is going to try to watch and review 52 movies by Wednesday, November 30th!  Will she make it?  Keep checking the site to find out!)

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On October 14th, I recorded Zoolander 2 off of Epix.

A sequel to the 2001 cult hit, Zoolander 2 came out earlier this year and got absolutely terrible reviews and quickly vanished from theaters.  Watching the film last night, I could understand why it got such terrible reviews.  Zoolander 2 is not only a terrible movie but it’s also a rather bland one.  Somehow, the blandness is even more offensive than the badness.

Zoolander 2 opens with Justin Bieber getting assassinated and Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) being forced to come out of retirement and discover why pop stars are being targeted.  And, of course, Zoolander can’t do it without the help of Hansel (Owen Wilson)!  Penelope Cruz is in the film as well, playing  Zoolander’s handler and essentially being wasted in a role that could have been played by anyone.

Oh!  And Will Ferrell returns as well.  Ferrell gives a performance that essentially shouts out to the world, “Fuck you, I’m Will Ferrell and no one is going to tell Will Ferrell to tone his shit down!”

Actually, I think everyone in the world is in Zoolander 2.  This is one of those films that is full of cameos from people who probably thought a silly comedy would be good for their image.  For instance, there’s a huge number of journalists who show up playing themselves.  Matt Lauer shows up and I get the feeling that we’re supposed to be happy about that.  There was a reason why people cheered when the sharks ate him in Sharknado 3.

You know who else shows up as himself?  Billy Zane!  And Billy Zane has exactly the right type of attitude for a film like this.  He shows up and he mocks the whole enterprise by giving the Billy Zaniest performance of Billy Zane’s career.  For that matter, Kiefer Sutherland also shows up as himself.  I’m not really sure what Kiefer was doing in the film but he makes sure to deliver all of his lines in that sexy growl of his.  Kiefer knows what we want to hear.

You may notice that I’m not talking about the plot of Zoolander 2.  That’s largely because I couldn’t follow the plot.  This is an incredibly complicated film but it’s not complicated in a funny way.  Instead, it’s complicated in a way that suggests that the film was made up on the spot.  It’s as if the cast said, “We’re all funny!  Just turn on the camera and we’ll make it work!”

The problem with Zoolander 2 is obvious.  The first film pretty much exhausted the comic possibilities of making a spy film about shallow and stupid models.  Don’t get me wrong — the first film did a good job but it’s not like it left any material untapped.  But I would ask you to indulge me as I imagine an alternate reality.

Consider this: Terrence Malick was reportedly a huge fun of Zoolander.

Let’s take just a minute to imagine a world in which Ben Stiller asked Terrence Malick to write and direct Zoolander 2.  And let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that Malick agreed!

Just think about it — 4 hours of Zoolander and Hansel staring up at the sky and thinking about nature.  “What is this thing that causes the heart of man to beat?” Zoolander asks.  “Are we nature or has nature become us?” Hansel replies.

That would have been a fun film!

Film Review: Cut Bank (dir by Matt Shakman)


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The image at the top of this post is taken from the film Cut Bank and features Teresa Palmer and Liam Hemsworth.  It’s a striking picture, isn’t it?  If there’s anything positive that can be said about Cut Bank, it’s that it’s a visually striking film.  Some of the film’s images compare favorably with the work of the Coen Brothers in  No Country For Old Men and Fargo.

(Perhaps not surprisingly, the film’s director, Matt Shakman, previously directed two episodes of the Fargo tv series.)

Of course, it’s not just the film’s visual style that will remind you of the Coens.  The plot is full of Coen DNA as well and that’s a bit of a problem.  The thing that sets the Coen Brothers apart from other directors is that only they seem to understand how to best pull off their unique brand of ironic quirkiness.  It’s difficult to think of any other director who could have done A Serious Man, Burn After Reading, or any other Coen film.  It’s telling that whenever other directors have attempted to film a Coen Brothers script — whether it was Angelina Jolie with Unbroken or Steven Spielberg with Bridge of Spies — the resulting film has almost always been overwhelmingly earnest.  (If you try, you can imagine a Coen-directed version of Bridge of Spies, one with Josh Brolin in the Tom Hanks role, Steve Buscemi as Rudolph Abel, and maybe Bruce Campbell as a CIA agent.)  The Coen style is one that has inspired many a director but ultimately, it seems to be something that only the Coens themselves are truly capable of pulling off.

(Though Ridley Scott came close with the underrated The Counselor…)

Plotwise, Cut Bank has everything that you would normally expect to find in a Coen Brothers film.  For instance, it takes place in Cut Bank, Montana and, much as in Fargo and No Country For Old Men, a good deal of time is devoted to detailing the oddness of life in the middle of nowhere.  Also, much as in Fargo and No Country For Old Men, the entire film revolves around an overly complicated crime gone wrong.

Dwayne McLaren (Liam Hemsworth) has spent his entire life in the Montana town of Cut Bank and is looking for a way to get enough money to move out to California with his beauty pageant-obsessed girlfriend, Cassandra (Teresa Palmer).  Dwayne learns that the U.S. Postal Service will pay a reward to anyone who provides information about the death of a postal worker.  One day, while filming one of Cassandra’s pageant audition videos, Dwayne accidentally films both the shooting of mailman Georgie Wits (Bruce Dern) and the theft of his mail truck.

Wow, what luck!

Sheriff Vogel (John Malkovich) throws up as soon as he hears about the murder.  After all, he’s never had to investigate one before.  Town weirdo Derby Milton (Michael Stuhlbarg) is upset that the stolen mail truck contained a parcel that he was waiting for.  Meanwhile, Big Stan (Billy Bob Thornton), who happens to be both Cassandra’s father and Dwayne’s boss, seems to be suspicious about how Dwayne just happened to be in the field at the same time that Georgie was getting killed…

Dwayne’s efforts to collect his reward are stymied by the fact that postal inspector Joe Barrett (Oliver Platt) doesn’t want to hand over any money until Georgie’s body has been found.  Unfortunately, it’s going to be difficult for anyone to find Georgie’s body because Georgie is still alive!  That’s right — Georgie’s been working with Dwayne the whole time…

Meanwhile, it turns out that Derby is not someone you want to mess with.  In fact, he’s just as efficient a killing machine as Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men.  And Derby is determined to retrieve his parcel…

Cut Bank got an extremely limited release in April of this year and it didn’t get much attention.  To a certain extent, I can understand why.  It’s a film that has its moments but ultimately, it’s never as good as you want it to be.  The best thing about the film is that it features a lot of eccentric actors doing their thing.  Any film that allows Bruce Dern to interact with Michael Stuhlbarg deserves some credit.  Unfortunately, Dwayne and Cassandra are not particularly interesting characters and Hemsworth and Palmer give rather one-dimensional performances.  Since you don’t care about them, you don’t really care if Dwayne’s scheme is going to work out.  William H. Macy may have been a despicable loser in Fargo but you could still understand what led to him coming up with his phony plan and you felt a strange mix of sympathy and revulsion as everything spiraled out of his control.  The same can be said of Josh Brolin in No Country For Old Men.  Dwayne, however, just comes across like someone who came up with a needlessly complicated plan for no good reason.

In 2013, the script for Cut Bank was included as a part of the Black List, an annual list of the “best” unproduced scripts in Hollywood.  What’s odd is that, for all the hype that goes along with being listed, Black List scripts rarely seem to work as actual films.  Oh sure, there’s been a few exceptions.  American Hustle was on the Black List, for instance.  But a typical Black List film usually turns out to be something more along the lines of The Beaver or Broken City.  Watching Cut Bank, I could see why the script generated excitement.  The story is full of twists and all of the characters are odd enough that I’m sure readers had a lot of fun imagining which beloved character actor could fill each role.  Unfortunately — as so often happens with Black List films — the direction does not live up to the writing.  Yes, the plot is twisty and there’s a lot of odd moments but the film never escapes the long shadow of the films that influenced it.

Embracing the Melodrama #37: Dangerous Liaisons (dir by Stephen Frears)


When watching a film like the 1988 best picture nominee Dangerous Liaisons, it helps to know something about history.  The film takes place in 18th century France and, even though it’s never specifically stated in the film, I watched it very much aware that the story was taking place just a few years before the French Revolution.  Even the aristocratic libertines who survive until the end of the film are probably destined to end up losing their lives at the guillotine.  Even though you don’t see anyone losing their head during Dangerous Liaisons (nor do you hear anyone say, “Let them eat cake.”), the film offers up such an atmosphere of decadence and manipulation that it leaves the viewer with little doubt as to why the people occasionally feel the need to rise up and destroy their social betters.

Dangerous Liaisons tells the story of the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich) and the Marquise de Mertuil (Glenn Close), two amoral members of the aristocracy who deal with their boredom by playing games with the emotions of others.  Valmont is a notorious womanizer while Mertuil is obsessed with “dominating” the male sex and “avenging my own.”  At the start of the film, Mertuil has discovered that a former lover is planning on marrying the innocent Cecile (18 year-old Uma Thurman, stealing every scene that she appears in), who has basically spent her entire life in a convent.  Mertuil asks Valmont to seduce and take Cecile’s virginity before the wedding.  At first, Valmont says that Cecile is to easy of a challenge and declines.  Instead, Valmont has decided that he wants to seduce Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Phieffer), a married woman who is renowned for both her strong religious feelings and her virtuous character.  Mertuil agrees that she will sleep with Valmont if he can provide her with written proof that he’s managed to seduce Tourvel.

Tourvel is staying with Valmont’s aunt (Mildred Natwick), which gives Valmont — with the help of his servant, Azolan (Peter Capaldi) — several chances to try to trick Tourvel into believing that he’s a better man than everyone assumes him to be.  (With Azolan’s help, Valmont finds a poor family and donates money to them.  Of course, he makes sure that word of this gets back to Tourvel.)  However, Valmont then discovers that Cecile’s mother (Swoosie Kurtz) has been writing letters to Tourvel, warning her about Valmont’s lack of character.  To get revenge, Valmont agrees to seduce Cecile.

Dangerous Liaisons, which is based on a play that was based on a novel, is sumptuous costume drama.  If you’re like me and you love seeing how the rich and famous lived in past centuries, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in Dangerous Liaisons.  With the elaborate costumes and the ornate sets, the film is a real visual feast.

The film is also a feast for those of us who enjoy good acting as well.  With the exception of a very young Keanu Reeves (who is oddly miscast as the poor music teacher who falls in love with Cecile), the entire film is perfectly cast, right down to the most minor of characters.  (I particularly enjoyed listening to Peter Capaldi, even if his Scottish accent occasionally did seem rather out-of-place in a film about the pre-Revolution France.)  For me, the biggest shock was John Malkovich.  Don’t get me wrong — I’ve always felt that Malkovich was a good character actor but he’s never been someone that I would think of as being sexy.  However, he gives close to a perfect performance as Valmont and, oddly enough, the fact that he’s not really conventionally handsome only serves to make Valmont all the more seductive.  Purring out his cynical dialogue and openly leering at every single woman in Paris, Malkovich turns Valmont into a familiar but all too appealing devil.

Dangerous Liaisons was later remade as Cruel Intentions, which is a film that I’ll be taking a look at very soon.

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44 Days of Paranoia #12: Burn After Reading (dir by Joel and Ethan Coen)


For today’s entry in the Days of Paranoia, let’s take a look at Joel and Ethan Coen’s wonderfully satiric look at espionage, greed, lust, and stupidity, 2008’s Burn After Reading.

Like most Coen Brothers films, Burn After Reading tells the dark story of a group of obsessives who all think that they’re far more clever than they actually are.  Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is a CIA analyst who, because of his alcoholism and generally sour personality, is demoted.  Cox angrily quits his job and then starts working on his memoirs.  Meanwhile, Cox’s wife Katie (played by Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with the handsome but idiotic Mark (George Clooney).  On the advice of her divorce lawyer, Katie secretly downloads copies of all of Osborne’s records, including his memoirs.  Katie gives the disc to her lawyer’s secretary.  The secretary then proceeds to accidentally leave the disc at Hardbodies Gym.

This is where things, in typical Coen Brothers fashion, start to get complicated.  Two trainers at the gym — Linda (Frances McDormand) and her fitness obsessed friend Chad (a hilarious Brad Pitt) — find the disc and mistake Osborne’s very mundane files for national security secrets.  Linda, who is obsessed with raising enough money to get a boob job, convinces Chad that they should blackmail Osborne and demand that he pay them before they return his disc.  Osborne, who has no idea that Katie copied his records, refuses to pay so Linda takes the disc to the Russians.  This leads to a series of misunderstandings that eventually lead to several murders, all of which have to be covered up by the CIA, despite the fact that both the director of the CIA and his assistant agree that there’s no way to understand how any of this happened and that, in the end, neither one of them has learned anything from the experience.

Perhaps because it was released between the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men and the Oscar-nominated A Serious Man, many critics tend to dismiss Burn After Reading as just being an enjoyable lark and nothing more.  While it’s true that there’s not a lot going on underneath the surface of Burn After Reading, the surface itself is so fun, vivid, and vibrant that it seems rather petty to complain.  Burn After Reading finds the Coen Brothers at their most playful and snarky.

The Coen Brothers have made films in several different genres and styles but all of their work has one thing in common.  The Coens tell stories about obsessive characters who aren’t anywhere close to being as smart as they think they are.  When critics complain that the Coens tend to view their characters with a rather condescending attitude, they’re usually talking about films like Burn After Reading.  Fortunately, in the case of Burn After Reading, the Coens assembled one of their strongest casts.  From the insanely focused Frances McDormand to the perpetually smiling Brad Pitt to cynical John Malkovich, everyone does such a great job that you can overlook the fact that they’re all essentially playing idiots.  Perhaps the film’s best performance comes from George Clooney who, in the role of Harry, proves himself to be a very good sport by satirizing both his own reputation as a womanizer and his career as an old school movie star.  In one of the film’s best moments, Harry, gun drawn, dramatically leaps and then rolls into an empty bedroom.  Like almost all of the characters in Burn After Reading, Harry is just a big kid playing action hero and Clooney’s performance here is perfect.

As for Burn After Reading, it may not be perfect but it’s certainly a lot of fun.

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Other entries in the 44 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective

Horror Film Review: Warm Bodies (dir by Jonathan Levine)


Warm Bodies

I did not see Warm Bodies when it was first released back in February.  I was certainly aware of the film, having been bombarded with the trailer since December of 2012. and I assumed that I would see the film but, for whatever reason, I simply could not work up the enthusiasm necessary to actually see it.

Perhaps it was because the concept — a zombie love story — simply seemed too cutesy and, as much as I love zombie movies, they’re not exactly what I want to watch on Valentine’s Day.  The fact that the movie was being called a “zombie twilight” didn’t help.  (Don’t get me wrong.  The Twilight films are a very guilty pleasure of mine but that still doesn’t make the comparison a selling point.)

As a result, as much as I thought I would end up seeing Warm Bodies in the theaters, I never got around to it.  Instead, I waited until Warm Bodies premiered on Cinemax earlier this month to watch it and you know what?

I was surprised to discover how much I loved it.

Warm Bodies takes place after the zombie apocalypse has decimated America.  The undead wander through the ruins of society while the few remaining humans have barricaded themselves in a heavily guarded enclave.  Leading them is Col. Grigio (John Malkovich) who continually tells his citizens that the only way to survive is to kill every zombie that they see.  As Grigio explains it, the zombies may look human but they have no humanity left.

This would probably come as news to R (Nicholas Hoult), a zombie whose day consists of wandering around an airport, looking for people to eat, and occasionally acknowledging his friend M (Rob Corddry) with a grunt.  R spends most of his time thinking about how bored he is with being a zombie and wondering who he once was.  That’s one reason why R enjoys eating brains because, by doing so, R gets to enjoy the memories of his victims and, for just a brief few moments, he can know what it’s like to be human.

Things change for R when he and a group of zombies come across humans that are searching the city for medical supplies.  R spots one of the humans, Julie (Teresa Palmer), and finds himself immediately drawn towards her.  However, R is also shot in the chest by Julie’s boyfriend, Perry (played by Dave Franco, the younger brother of my beloved James Franco).  R responds by attack Perry and eating his brain, which causes R to experience all of Perry’s memories of Julie.  Now in love with Julie, R saves her from the other zombies and takes her back to the airplane where he makes his home.

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As Julie and R bond, R finds himself slowly becoming more and more human.  Yes, that’s right — the cure to the zombie apocalypse is love.  Now, that may sound predictable or simplistic and I guess it is.  But you know what?  I’m a romantic and I loved it!  It helped that both Palmer and Hoult have a really likable chemistry.  Even before R’s heart starts to beat again, they make a really adorable couple.

Unfortunately, the more R tries to act human, the more the other zombies want to eat him.  This is especially true of the Boneys, zombies who have decayed to the point of just being skeletons and who prey on anything that happens to have the slightest trace of a heartbeat.  Meanwhile, Julie’s father — Col. Grigio — remains firmly convinced that the only cure for zombification is a bullet in the head.

Though there are moments of horror in Warm Bodies (mostly involving the Boneys, who are genuinely scary), the film is mostly concerned with telling an audience-friendly love story.  As I watched the film, I occasionally found myself wishing that the movie has been directed by someone like James Gunn, who would have brought a bit more of a satiric bite to the film.

And yet, despite being occasionally frustrated by how (literally) bloodless the film was, I loved Warm Bodies.

What can I say?  It’s an incredibly sweet and romantic movie and, as much as its fashionable to be cynical, who can resist a good love story?  If anything truly elevates Warm Bodies above being just another supernatural romance, it’s the performance of Nicholas Hoult.  Even when he’s just stumbling around with a blank face and uttering meaningless groans, Hoult makes R into a likable flesh eater.  As sweet as the idea of love bringing life to the dead may be, it’s Hoult’s intelligent performance that makes both the idea and the romance feel real.

And that’s why I loved Warm Bodies.

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Trailer: Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Official Theatrical)


OK, this latest trailer for Michael Bay’s third entry in the Transformers film franchise looks to try and ask forgiveness from it’s fans about what had transpired with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (cough, cough…Twins). This latest trailer looks to mine the current alien invasion trend happening in Hollywood for the last year or two.

I’m not going to say that Transformers: Dark of the Moon will be in the running for Best Picture, Best Screenplay or even Best Acting awards come awards season, but I do get a feeling from this trailer that this third entry will be darker and infinitely more fun and watchable than the second film. I actually think that Dark of the Moon is the true first sequel to the first film and that Revenge of the Fallen never occurred.

The look of Shockwave (one red-eye) is pretty awesome as are the look of the invading Decepticons (or are they another faction). I remember talk of Unicron (the giant planet transformer) was to appear in this film but I’m not sure if Unicron will appear as a planet or that giant snake-like transformer that was giving that Chicago high-rise a major case of the hugs.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon is set for a July 1, 2011 release date.