The Unnominated: Auto Focus (dir by Paul Schrader)


Though the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences claim that the Oscars honor the best of the year, we all know that there are always worthy films and performances that end up getting overlooked.  Sometimes, it’s because the competition too fierce.  Sometimes, it’s because the film itself was too controversial.  Often, it’s just a case of a film’s quality not being fully recognized until years after its initial released.  This series of reviews takes a look at the films and performances that should have been nominated but were,for whatever reason, overlooked.  These are the Unnominated.

The 2002 film Auto Focus start out as almost breezy satire of the perfect all-American life and it ends with an act of shocking violence.  It’s based on a real-life mystery, a murder that revealed a secret life.

When we first see Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear), he’s a disc jockey and a drummer living in the suburbs of Los Angeles in the mid-60s.  He’s got what would appear to be the ideal life.  He’s got a nice house.  He and his wife (Rita Wilson) seem to be devoted to each other.  His children are adorable.  He goes to church.  He tells corny Dad jokes.  He’s got a quick smile and a friendly manner and it’s impossible not to like him.  When he gets offered the lead in a sitcom, his happiness and enthusiasm feels so generous that it’s impossible not to be happy for him.

Of course, the show is a comedy that takes place in World War II POW camp, which doesn’t really sound like a surefire hit or really anything that should be put on the air.  (“Funny Nazis?” Crane says in disbelief when he’s first told about the project.)  Still, with Crane in the lead role, Hogan’s Heroes becomes a hit and, for a while, Bob Crane becomes a star and it seems like it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy.

The problem, of course, is that Crane seems like he’s too good to be true and we all know what they say about things like that.  From the start, there are hints that Crane may be hiding another side of his personality.  His wife, for instance, is not happy when she discovers his stash of pornographic magazines in their garage.  (“They’re photography magazines!” Crane protests with a smile that’s a bit too quick.)  Crane obviously enjoys the recognition that comes from being the star of a top-rated show.  He starts hanging out at strip clubs, occasionally playing drums with the club’s band and watching the dancers with a leer that’s really not all that different from the smile that he flashes whenever he asks anyone if they want an autograph.

Crane also meets John Carpenter (Willem DaFoe), an electronics expert who introduces him to the then-expensive and exclusive world of home video.  As opposed to the clean-cut and smoothly-spoken Crane, Carpenter is so awkward that it’s sometimes painful to watch him move or listen to him speak.  He’s the epitome of the Hollywood hanger-on, the type who has deluded himself into thinking that his celebrity clients genuinely like him and enjoy his company.  He and Crane become fast friends, though it’s always obvious that Crane considers himself to be better than Carpenter.  However, Carpenter is the only person with whom Crane can share the details of his secret life.

The film covers several years, from the late 60s to the mid-70s.  Crane goes from being so clean-cut that he neither drinks nor curses to being so addicted to sex that he can stop himself even when it starts to destroy his career and leads to him losing everything that he loves.  Carpenter and Crane’s friendship becomes progressively more and more self-destructive until the film ends in violence and tragedy.

Auto Focus begins on a light and breezy note but, as Crane’s addiction grows, the film grows darker.  By the time the movie enters the 70s, the camerawork becomes more jittery and the once soft-spoken Crane seems to be drowning in his own anxiety.  He becomes the type who causally goes from talking to Carpenter about how he wants to direct the world’s greatest sex film to cheerfully announcing that Disney has decided to cast him in a film called SuperDad.  Auto Focus‘s key scene comes towards the end, when Crane is a guest on a silly cooking show and shocks the audience by harassing a woman sitting in the front row.  When the audience boos, Crane flashes his familiar smile and it becomes obvious just how much of Crane’s life has been spent hiding behind that smile.  By the end of the film, not even Crane himself can keep track of whether or not he’s a wholesome comedy star or a self-destructive sex addict.

Both Greg Kinnear and Willem DaFoe gave Oscar-worthy performance in Auto Focus, performances that hold your interest even after their characters sink to some truly low depths.  The film makes good use of Kinnear’s amiable screen presence and Kinnear convincingly creates a man who wishes that he could be the person that he’s fooled everyone into thinking that he is.  By the time he’s reduced to begging his agent (well-played by Ron Leibman) to find him a game show so that he can finally stop doing dinner theater, it’s hard not to have a little sympathy for him, even if the majority of his problems are self-created.  As Carpenter, DaFoe is convincingly creepy but, at times, he’s also so pathetic that, again, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for him.  At his worst, Carpenter is the 70s equivalent of the twitter user who stans a celebrity by sending them adoring tweets and then picking fights with anyone who disagrees.

Unfortunately, the Academy nominated neither Kinnear for Best Actor nor DaFoe for Best Supporting Actor.  The competition for Best Actor was fierce that year, with Nicolas Cage, Michael Caine, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Jack Nicholson all losing to Adrien Brody in The Pianist.  While Kinnear deserved a nomination, it’s hard to say who I would drop from that line-up to make room for him.  As for DaFoe, I would argue that he was more deserving of a supporting actor nomination than The Hours‘s Ed Harris or The Road To Perdition’s Paul Newman.  Perhaps DaFoe was just too convincing as the type of clingy groupie that most members of the Academy probably dread having to deal with.

Nominated or not, Auto Focus is a disturbing and ultimately sad look at the darkness that often hides behind a perfect facade.

 

Film Review: Permanent Midnight (dir by David Veloz)


Meh.  Who cares?

That was largely my reaction to watching the 1998 film, Permanent Midnight.  In this film, Ben Stiller plays Jerry Stahl, a real-life screenwriter who had a fairly successful career going in the 80s and early 90s.  He came out to Los Angeles looking to be a serious writer but, instead, he ended up writing for silly puppet show and getting addicted to heroin.  He also married a British television executive named Sandra (Elizabeth Hurley), so that Sandra could get her green card.  When the star of a show that he writes for tells him to kick his habit or lose his job, Jerry ends up smoking crack cocaine with a new dealer (Peter Greene).  When Sandra tells him that she’s pregnant, Jerry responds by shooting up in the bedroom.  When he’s trusted to spend the day taking care of his baby daughter, he drives her around the seediest sections of Los Angeles while he searches for his drug dealer.  As the baby cries beside him, Jerry shoots heroin into his jugular.  Jerry ends up unemployable and abandoned by every friend that he had.  He works at a fast food restaurant, or at least he does until he meets another recovering addict (Maria Bello).  She’s the one to whom he tells his story, in between sex and bouts of impotence.  In the end, what’s left for Jerry Stahl to do but write a book and then a movie about his life as a junkie?

It’s a harrowing story and I guess Stahl deserves some credit for writing the screenplay for a movie that doesn’t exactly make him look good.  However, Permanent Midnight runs into the same problem that afflicts most movies about drug addiction.  With very few exceptions, drug addicts are just not that interesting.  The only thing more boring than watching someone shoot up is then having to listen to that person explain why he shoots up.  (Trainspotting is the obvious exception but Trainspotting benefits from Danny Boyle’s frenetic direction, Ewan McGregor’s explosively charismatic lead performance, a witty script, and a killer soundtrack.  These are things that Permanent Midnight lacks.)  The film attempts to build up some sympathy for Stahl by telling us about his difficult childhood, his father’s suicide, and his mother’s instability but, in the end, Jerry is a junkie who shoots up in front of his baby.  Regardless of how crappy his childhood was, it’s hard to care about whether or not he ever gets his shit together.  Mostly, you just want someone to step in and make sure he never gets near that baby again.

Permanent Midnight makes another mistake, one that is all too common when it comes to films about troubled artists.  It continually tells us that Jerry is a talented and important writer without ever showing us any evidence of that fact.  We’re supposed to feel bad that Jerry is stuck working on a sitcom called Mr. Chompers but, at no point, does the film really convince us that he deserves anything better.  Everyone says that Jerry is talented but we don’t really get to see any evidence of that fact.  It’s hard not to feel that maybe Jerry should just be happy that, unlike the majority of writers in Los Angeles, he actually has a steady job.

(Jerry does get one good line, when he appears on The Maury Povich Show to promote his book and says, “People always ask, ‘What’s the worst thing heroin drove you to do?’  I always answer, ‘showing up on Maury.'”)

Of course, for most people, the main appeal of seeing Permanent Midnight will be the chance to see Ben Stiller shooting up heroin while soaked in withdrawal sweat.  Stiller gives a serious performance, good enough that you regret that his acting career now seems to mostly consist of starring in bad movies and making cameos in even worse ones.  There’s actually a lot of familiar faces in Permanent Midnight: Elizabeth Hurley, Maria Bello, Fred Willard, Owen Wilson, Sandra Oh, Janeane Garofalo, Andy Dick, and others.  They all give good enough performance but ultimately, this is aimless and ultimately rather frustrating movie.

Playing Catch-Up With The Films of 2016: The 5th Wave (dir by J Blakeson)


The 5th Wave, which came out in January of this year (and that really should be all you need to hear), is the epitome of a “Who cares?” type of film.

It’s another YA adaptation, taking place in a dystopian future and featuring way too many characters for its own good.  Aliens have invaded the Earth and they’ve attacked in 4 waves.  There was the 1st wave, which destroyed all of the electricity.  There was the 2nd wave which involved a lot of earthquakes and natural disasters.  I imagine California fell off the mainland during the 2nd wave.  The 3rd wave involved bird flu.  The 3rd wave is important because it killed the mother of our protagonist, teenager Cassie Sullivan (Chloe Grace Moretz).  You can’t be a YA protagonist unless you have at least one dead parents.  That’s the rules of the genre.

The 5th Wave deals with the … well, the fifth wave.  As far as I can tell, the 5th Wave involves turning every human left into a stock character from a YA dystopian novel.  Basically, if you’ve sat through Divergent or The Maze Runner or The Giver or countless other YA adaptations, you already know who everyone is in The 5th Wave.  Cassie is our heroine, which means that she spends a lot of time wandering around in the forest, killing potential threats, and thinking about how different things were back in high school.

And that’s really all she does.

See, The 5th Wave last nearly two hours and not a damn thing happens in the entire film.  That’s because the 5th Wave is all about setting up a sequel.  We meet a lot of characters.  We get a lot of backstory.  Imagine if The Walking Dead did a half-season with 6 shows straight of people talking about doing things but never actually doing any of it. (Oh, wait, they did just do that…)  That’s pretty much what sitting through The 5th Wave was like.  We learn that there are aliens disguised as humans.  We learns that what’s left of the government cannot be trusted and I was totally happy with that plot development because seriously, the government sucks.  As we watch Moretz, Ron Livington, Liev Schriber, and Maria Bello struggle to make some of the most cliched dialogue ever sound compelling, we learn that being a talented actor doesn’t mean that you always get to appear in interesting films.

Things drag on and then they end.  Why do they end?  Because that’s the way YA adaptations works.  Nothing can be resolved in just one movie.  Instead, everything’s about setting things up for the next installment.  At the very least, all YA films have to be a part of a trilogy.  And the third part of the trilogy always requires at least two parts to tell the entire story.  That’s just the way things works.

And really, I thought that Divergent was the most soulless YA adaptation that I had ever seen.  But the 5th Wave makes a strong case that perhaps it deserves the title.

I guess we could wait to see what happens when part two comes out but seriously, who cares?

What Lisa Watched Last Night #158: Little Girl’s Secret (dir by Dominic James)


Last night, I watched Little Girl’s Secret on Lifetime!

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Why Was I Watching It?

Oh my God, everyone’s so depressed right now!

Or, actually, I should say that almost everyone I know is depressed right now.  Obviously, the entire country is not depressed about Donald Trump winning the election because 60,000,000 people voted for him and I assume that they’re all happy.  But the 60,000,0000 who voted against him are all pretty depressed right now.  And, even worse, a lot of them are blaming my generation because not many of us voted and quite a few of us decided to vote third party.

My twitter timeline is seriously dark right now.

So, I figured that maybe I could cheer some people up by doing one of my famous Lifetime movie live tweets!  Looking to help heal a divided nation, I watched Little Girl’s Secret on Lifetime and I tweeted every single thought that popped into my head.  I don’t know if I saved the world but I certainly did increase my Klout score.

What Was It About?

That’s a good question!  This film left me thoroughly confused, though that may be because I’m currently spending the weekend at my uncle’s and, as I tried to watch and tweet, I was also having to deal with 100 hyperactive cousins.

As far as I could tell, here’s what was happening in the movie: Jean (Maria Bello) is an artist.  Dave (Callum Keith Rennie) is a writer.  Molly (Sophie Nelisse) is Jean’s teenage daughter.  Heather (Isabelle Nelisse) is Dave’s daughter.  Michael (William Dickinson) is someone’s son.  I guess he’s Molly’s brother but it wasn’t always easy to keep track of how everyone was related.  He could have been Dave’s son and Heather’s brother.  It really doesn’t matter.

Anyway, in 1982, this family leaves Baltimore and moves into a new home — a former church that’s been turned into a house!  There’s a cemetery out back.  There are ruins nearby.  There’s a ghostly apparition that appears occasionally.  Heather, who doesn’t feel like she belongs in this reconstructed family, is soon spending all of her time talking to the apparition.

Meanwhile, Molly is having nightmares and she keeps seeing birds forming ominous shapes in the sky.  (It’s kinda like in Take Shelter.)  She also starts to hear noises in the dark and see ominous shadows in unlit rooms.  Why doesn’t anyone ever turn on the lights?

What Worked?

It had its share of creepy moments.  Molly’s dreams were always well-executed.

What Did Not Work?

This movie was so damn dark!  I don’t mean thematically.  I mean that it was often hard to see what was going on in the movie because it never seemed to occur to anyone to turn on a light!  I get the point, of course.  This was a horror movie and everyone’s scared of the dark.  But, after a little while, the constant darkness went from being atmospheric to just being silly.

Maria Bello, a terrific actress, was pretty much wasted in a minor role.

I was going to complain about the film’s pacing but I think that has more to do with the fact that it premiered on Lifetime than anything else.  It’s difficult to maintain suspense when you’re having to stop every few minutes for a commercial break.

And finally, the plot itself was overly complicated and not particularly easy to follow.

“Oh my God!  Just like me!” Moments

I related to Molly in quite a few scenes.  I was a rebellious 14 year-old too.

Lessons Learned

TURN ON THE DAMN LIGHTS!

Playing Catch-Up With 6 Quickie Reviews: The Big Game, The Connection, Graduation Day, McFarland USA, Taken 3, and War Room


Here are 6 more reviews of 6 other films that I watched this year.  Why six?  Because Lisa doesn’t do odd numbers, that’s why.

The Big Game (dir by Jalmari Helander)

In The Big Game, Samuel L. Jackson plays the President of the United States and you would think that fact alone would make this film an instant classic.  Unfortunately, this film never really takes advantage of the inherent coolness of Samuel L. Jackson playing the leader of the free world.  When Air Force One is sabotaged and crashes in the wilderness of Finland, President Jackson has to rely on a young hunter (Onni Tommila) from a group of CIA agents disguised as terrorists.  Tommila does a pretty good job and the scenery looks great but at no point does Samuel L. Jackson says, “Check out this executive action, motherfucker,” and that’s a huge missed opportunity.  As for the rest of the film, it takes itself a bit too seriously and if you can’t figure out the big twist from the minute the movie starts, you obviously haven’t seen enough movies.

The Connection (dir by Cedric Jiminez)

Taking place over the 1970s, the French crime thriller tells the largely true story of the efforts of a French judge (played by Jean Dujardin) to take down a ruthless gangster (Gilles Lellouche) who is the head of one of the biggest drug cartels in the world.  The Connection run for a bit too long but, ultimately, it’s a stylish thriller that does a very good job of creating a world where literally no one can be trusted.  Dujardin, best known here in the States for his Oscar-winning role in The Artist, does a great job playing an honest man who is nearly driven to the point of insanity by the corruption all around him.

Graduation Day (dir by Chris Stokes)

Hey, it’s another found footage horror film!  Bleh!  Now, I should admit that this horror film — which is NOT a remake of that classic 1980s slasher — does have a fairly clever twist towards the end, that goes a long way towards explaining a lot of the inconsistencies that, up until that point, had pretty much dominated the film.  But, even with that in mind and admitting that Unfriended and Devil’s Due worked wonders with the concept, it’s still hard to feel any enthusiasm about yet another found footage horror film.

McFarland USA (dir by Niki Caro)

McFarland USA is an extremely predictable but likable movie.  Kevin Costner plays a former football coach who, while teaching at a mostly Latino high school, organizes a cross country team that goes on to win the state championship.  It’s based on a true story and, at the end of the film, all of the real people appear alongside the actors who played them.  There’s nothing about this film that will surprise you but it’s still fairly well-done.  Even Kevin Costner, who usually gets on my last nerve, gives a good performance.

Taken 3 (dir by Olivier Megaton)

Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is back and he’s killing even more people!  Fortunately, they’re all bad people but you really do have to wonder what type of dreams Bryan has whenever he goes to sleep.  In Taken 3, Bryan’s wife (Famke Janssen) has been murdered and Bryan has been framed.  He has to solve the case and kill the bad guys while staying one step ahead of the police (represented by a bored-looking Forest Whitaker).  Neeson does all of his usual Taken stuff — the intense phone conversation, the steely glare, and all the rest — but at this point, it has literally been parodied to death.  If you’re into watching Liam Neeson kill ugly people, Taken 3 will provide you with adequate entertainment but, for the most part, it’s but a shadow of the first Taken.

War Room (dir by Alex Kendrick)

I saw the War Room in Oklahoma.  It was being shown as part of a double feature with The Martian, of all things!  Anyway, this film is about an upper middle class family that hits rock bottom but they’re saved by the power of prayer!  Lots and lots of prayer!  Seriously, this film almost qualifies as “prayer porn.”  Anyway, the film was badly acted, badly written, incredibly heavy-handed, and ran on way too long but, on the plus side, it did eventually end.

Shattered Politics #77: Thank You For Smoking (dir by Jason Reitman)


Thank_you_for_smoking_PosterI have always hated those Truth.com commercials.  Truth.com is an organization that claims to be dedicated to eradicating smoking.  Their smug commercials are essentially the height of hipster douchebaggery, a bunch of self-consciously cool people wandering around and harassing random people about whether or not they smoke.  And then, of course, there was the commercial where they all gathered outside a tobacco company and pretended to be dead.  Of course, the truth about Truth.com is that they are essentially the same people who, in high school, would get offended whenever anyone wore a short skirt.  I really can not stand people like that.  (And don’t even get me started on those assholes who appear in the Above The Influence commercials.)  Myself, I don’t smoke because I have asthma.  But, seriously, whenever I see a Truth.com commercial, I’m tempted to run down to 711 and start.

And so maybe that’s why I like the 2005 comedy Thank You For Smoking.

The hero of Thank You For Smoking is Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, who is first seen appearing on a talk show and winning over a hostile audience by announcing that the tobacco industry is going to be investing millions in researching way to keep young people from smoking and shaking the hand of a teenage honor student who is dying from lung cancer.  Over the course of the film, Nick shows us how he does business, everything from defending tobacco companies on talk shows to convincing a former Marlboro Man-turned-cancer-patient to drop his law suit.  When Nick isn’t working, he’s hanging out with his best friends (who are lobbyists for both the liquor and the gun industries), trying to bond with his son (Cameron Bright), or having sex with a reporter (Katie Holmes).

Now, in most movies, Nick Naylor would be the villain.  However, in Thank You For Smoking, Nick becomes a hero by default, if just because everyone who disagrees with him is even worse than he is.  Add to that, Nick has the benefit of being played by Aaron Eckhart while all of his opponents are played by balding actors with ugly beards.

Another reason that I liked Thank You For Smoking was because the main villain was a senator from Vermont and it’s about time somebody stood up to the tyranny of Vermont.  Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy) has built a career out of campaigning against the tobacco industries and why shouldn’t he?  Who, other than Nick Naylor, is willing to defend them?  Finistirre’s latest plan is to change the law so that every pack of cigarettes has to be branded with a skull and crossbones warning.

When Nick and Finistirre finally face off, it’s a battle between those who believe in allowing people the freedom to make their own choices and those who hide their totalitarian impulse behind claims that they’re working for the greater good.

Thank You For Smoking was Jason Reitman’s first film.  And while it may be a bit too episodic and it frequently struggles to maintain a consistent tone, it’s still a lot better than both Labor Day and Men, Women, & Children.

2014 in Review: The Best of Lifetime and SyFy


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Hello there and welcome to January!

This is the time of year that the Shattered Lens usually takes one final look back at the best and worst of the previous year’s offerings in cinema, television, literature, and music!  Last year, I kicked things off by taking a look at the best that the SyFy network had to offer.

Unfortunately, SyFy didn’t produce as many original films in 2014 as they did in 2013.

However, my beloved Lifetime network remained a consistent showcase for some of the best and worst melodrama that one could hope for.

With that in mind, here are my nominees for the best films and performances that were featured on either the SyFy or the Lifetime network last year!  As always, winners are listed in bold.

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Best Film

Battle of the Damned

Flowers in the Attic

Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever

*Lizzie Borden Took An Axe*

Sharknado 2

Starving in Suburbia

Best Actress

Kate Beckinsale in The Trials of Cate McCall

Maria Bello in Big Driver

Annie Heise in The Good Mistress

Tara Reid in Sharknado 2

*Christina Ricci in Lizzie Borden Took An Axe*

Kierna Shipka in Flowers in the Attic

Best Supporting Actress

Kendra Anderson in The Good Mistress

*Ellen Burstyn in Flowers in the Attic*

Clea DuVall in Lizzie Borden Took An Axe

Heather Graham in Petals on the Wind

Tina Ivlev in Death Clique

Izabella Miko in Starving in Suburbia

Best Actor

Trevor Donavon in Bermuda Tentacles

Mason Dye in Flowers in the Attic

Michael Keaton in Blindsided

Dolph Lundgren in Battle of the Damned

Patrick Muldoon in Finders Keepers

*Ian Ziering in Sharknado 2*

Best Supporting Actor

James Cromwell in The Trials of Cate McCall

David Field in Battle of the Damned

*Griff Furst in Status Unknown*

Judd Hirsch in Sharknado 2

Mark McGrath in Sharknado 2

John Savage in Bermuda Tentacles

Best Director

Doug Campbell for Death Clique

Deborah Chow for Flowers in the Attic

Anthony C. Ferrante for Sharknado 2

*Nick Gomez for Lizzie Borden Got An Axe*

Christopher Hutton for Battle of the Damned

Tara Miele for Starving in Suburbia

Best Screenplay

Kayla Alpert for Flowers in the Attic

Tim Hill and Jeff Morris for Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever

Stephen Kay for Lizzie Borden Took An Axe

Thunder Levin for Sharknado 2

*Tara Miele for Starving in Suburbia*

Griff Furst and Marcy Holland for Status Unknown

Flowers in the Attic

Tomorrow, I’ll continue my look back at 2014 by revealing my picks for the 16 worst films of 2014!

Previous Entries in Our Look Back At 2014:

Things That I Dug In 2014 Off The Top Of My Head

 

 

Horror Film Review: Big Driver (dir by Mikael Salomon)


Bleh Stephen King

You have to be careful about admitting that you think Stephen King is overrated.

For a year and a half, I’ve been meaning to write a post entitled “10 Reasons Why Stephen King Sucks” but I haven’t. Some of that is because I don’t necessarily think that he does suck.  I think he’s a good writer but I also think that he’s overrated and that his novel about the Kennedy assassination got so many details about Texas wrong that I don’t even know where to begin.  (However, following the rules of clickbait, “sucks” works better than “overrated.”)  Mostly, though, it’s just because Stephen King fans tend to be a bit cult-like.  Criticizing King is like saying you don’t care about Beyonce’s marriage or admitting that you find President Obama to be a dull speaker or telling Vermont to go fuck itself or listing 10 Reasons Why You Hated Avatar.  You shouldn’t do it unless you want to run the risk of dealing with a lot of angry and irrational true believers.

That said, it’s always a little bit safer to criticize the movies that have been made from Stephen King’s books and short stories.  Even King’s most slavish followers will admit that Stephen King films tend to be uneven as far as quality is concerned.  Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is one of the best horror films of all time but it’s interesting to note that Stephen King himself rarely has a good word to say about Kubrick’s adaptation of his novel.  For reasons that I’ve never quite understood, a lot of people love The Shawshank Redemption.  Then there are the adaptations that nobody likes, like Bag of Bones and Dreamcatcher.

And then there’s Big Driver, an adaptation of a Stephen King novella that aired on Lifetime last night.  For the past two months, Lifetime has been advertising this film with short but effective commercials that featured a bloodied Maria Bello running down a dark road while a gigantic truck ominously followed behind her.  I saw the commercials and, seeing as how Maria Bello is a favorite actress of mine and how much I love Lifetime movies in general, I was excited to see Big Driver.  Then, I saw another commercial in which Stephen King was quoted as saying, “This is the film that Stephen King fans have been waiting for,” and I have to admit that it left me a little bit less enthused because, quite frankly, I’ve always been under the impression that Stephen King will endorse anything as long as he gets paid and his ass gets kissed.  (Someday, we’ll have to do a survey to discover just how many crappy books come with a Stephen King pull quote on the cover describing the book’s author as being “the future of horror!”)  And I have to admit that I resented the fact that Lifetime seemed to be assuming that I would ever allow Stephen King to tell me what was good and what was bad.  I can decide that for myself without having someone else tell me what I’ve been “waiting for.”

(I have issues with authority.  Can you tell?)

Big Driver, incidentally, is Stephen King’s take on I Spit On Your Grave.  Mystery writer Tess Thorne (Maria Bello) is raped and left for dead by a serial killer who is known as Big Driver (Will Harris).  Feeling that the police would simply say that she was “asking for it”, Tess does not report the attack but instead uses the same techniques that she writes about in her books to track down both Big Driver and his mother (Ann Dowd) and sets out to get both revenge for herself and justice for all of Big Driver’s other victims.  (Those detective techniques, by the way, largely seem to consist of knowing how to use Google.)  Along the way, Tess hallucinates conversations with both her car’s GPS and with one of the fictional detectives from her books (played by Olympia Dukakis).

BD

When I watched Big Driver last night, I actually had to stop watching after an hour.  The film was just too intense and disturbing for me to handle in one sitting.  The scene where Tess was raped was too painful to watch and Maria Bello’s performance was so raw and real that I had to change the channel.  It wasn’t the film’s fault.  It’s just that I wasn’t in the right emotional state to watch the movie.  It was a lot more intense than anything that I would have ever expected to see on Lifetime.  (Lifetime, after all, is the television equivalent of comfort food.)  So, I stopped watching after an hour and I turned over to SyFy so I could watch a much more light-hearted horror film, Finders Keepers.  Fortunately, I had the DVR recording Big Driver and I finished watching the film early this morning.

What I discovered, when I watched the rest of the film, is that Big Driver is a frustratingly uneven film.  The first half is difficult to watch and that’s the way it should have been.  But, as I watched the rest of the film, I found myself growing annoyed with Tess’s imaginary friends.  The talking GPS and the spectral presence of the fictional detective all served to make Tess look less like a woman demanding justice and more like the proverbial unstable person who shouldn’t have been messed with.  One reason why the original I Spit On Your Grave has recently been reevaluated by several feminist film critics is because the victim in that film is never portrayed as being crazy or unbalanced.  Her actions are purely the result of what has been done to her and, as such, that film is ultimately far more empowering than most critics will ever be willing to admit.   By calling into question Tess’s grip on reality, Big Driver fails to empower and, if a film like this isn’t going to be empowering, than what is the point?

Big Driver is, however, redeemed by Maria Bello’s fierce performance as Tess.  Maria Bello is one of my favorite actresses.  When you see that a character is played by Maria Bello, you know that character is not going to put up with any bullshit and she’s not going to be afraid to kick someone’s ass if she has to.  Even when the film’s script lets the character down, Maria Bello keeps Tess strong.  It’s a great and, I would say, even an important performance.

As for Big Driver‘s place in the pantheon of Stephen King film adaptations, it’s about in the middle.  It’s neither as good or as bad as it could have been but it is undeniably effective.

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Embracing the Melodrama #48: Coyote Ugly (dir by David McNally)


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“Never give up on your dreams!” is such a familiar movie cliché that I have to admit that there’s a part of me that really wants to see a mainstream, big budget studio film that proudly declares, “Give up!”  We’ve seen so many films about photogenic people who leave pretty but predictable small towns and end up in big, scary New York City that we pretty much know exactly what’s going to happen as soon as they step off that bus.  They’re going to get robbed.  They’re going to end up at an all-night dinner.  They’re going to meet the lover of their dreams.  They’re going to get quirky friends.  They’re going to become a success.  And, most importantly, they’ll be advised to “never give up on your dreams!”  It’s not that I’m cynical or that I don’t enjoy watching people succeed.  It’s just all so predictable that I found myself yearning for a film that will not slavishly follow the formula.

Unfortunately, 2000’s Coyote Ugly is not that film.  In fact, Coyote Ugly is such a thoroughly predictable film that it’s perhaps not surprising to discover that it’s also a film that’s been embraced by a lot of people.  It never ceases to amaze me how, whenever Coyote Ugly shows up on cable, twitter is full of viewers declaring their love.

Coyote Ugly tells the story of  Violet (Piper Perabo), who may look like an ordinary waitress from New Jersey but who aspires to be a songwriter in New York City.  As the film begins, she is in the process of leaving her loving but overprotective father (John Goodman) and her best friend (Melanie Lynesky) so that she can move to the big city and never give up on her dream.  Before she leaves, she’s asked to sign a piece of paper so that it can be tacked to the wall of the local pizza place.  It’s a tradition, apparently.  Before anyone leaves town for New York, they’re asked to leave behind an autograph.  The wall is covered with signatures, indicating that apparently every waitress in New Jersey thinks that she’s a songwriter.

Violet moves to New York and, at first, it seems like she might not make it.  Her apartment is a dump and her neighbors get mad whenever she sings.  (Violet responds by setting up a small recording studio on the roof of her building.)  Nobody is willing to listen to her demo.  About the only good thing that happens to Violet is that she meets Kevin (Adam Garcia), an Australian who encourages her to never give up on her dreams.

Eventually, Violet finds herself in one of those all-night diners that always seem to pop up in movies like this.  She notices that the girls seated at a table near her seem both to be happy and to have a lot of money.  It turns out that they work at the Coyote Ugly Saloon and since one of them (played by Tyra Banks, in a cameo) is quitting so she can go to law school, that means that there’s soon going to be an opening at the bar.

After talking to the Coyote’s owner, Lil (Maria Bello), Violet manages to get a job as a bartender.  Along with serving drinks to a combination of hipsters, frat boys, and stock brokers, another part of Violet’s job is to jump up on the bar and dance.  Eventually, she even gets a chance to sing when it’s discovered that the sound of her voice (or, to be technical about it, LeAnn Rimes’s voice since Rimes provided Violet’s singing voice) can somehow inspire drunks to stop fighting and act civilized.  Violet bonds with her fellow bartender Cammie (Izbella Miko) while the other bartender, Rachel (Bridget Moynahan) takes an instant and almost pathological dislike to her.  Lili is tough, Cammie is a flirt, and Rachel likes to set things on fire.  That’s about all we find out about them.

Even when her father disowns her for working at the Coyote and even when she and Kevin have a fight over her extreme stage fight and Kevin’s refusal to talk about his troubled past, Violet never gives up on her dreams!

And, if you can’t guess every single thing that happens in Coyote Ugly before it happens, then you really need to start watching more movies.

Despite the fact that the movie is named after the Coyote Ugly Saloon and it’s full of scenes of Violet and her co-workers dancing on top of that bar, the Coyote Ugly itself is actually pretty superfluous to the overall film.  The film itself is all about Violet pursuing her dream to become a songwriter and the bar itself really doesn’t play that major of a role into her eventual success.  Instead, it’s just a place where she works.  Violet could just as easily have worked at a particularly rowdy Dave and Buster’s and the overall film would have turned out the same.

And that’s a shame because, while watching the film, it’s hard not to feel that a movie about either Lil, Cammie, or Rachel (or, for that matter, a film about Tyra Banks going to law school) would be a thousand times more interesting that any film about boring old Violet.  I mean, here we have a film named after a business that is owned by a woman and that specifically employs and potentially empowers other women and what does the movie do with all of this material?

It tells a story so predictable and so simplistic that it could just as easily been generated by a computer program.

Coyote Ugly is a massive mixed opportunity but, for whatever reason, some people seem to love it.

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And good for them.

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6 Quickies With Lisa Marie: Atlas Shrugged, Beautiful Boy, Crazy Stupid Love, The Devil’s Double, Sarah’s Key, and Water For Elephants


For my first post-birthday review post, I want to take a look at 6 films that I saw earlier this year but, for whatever reason, I haven’t gotten a chance to review yet.  My goal has been to review every single 2011 release that I’ve seen this year.  So far, I’ve only seen 106 2011 films and I still need to review 21 of them.  So, without further ado, let’s “gang bang this baby out” as a former employer of mine used to say. (*Shudder*  Seriously, what a creepy thing to say…)

1) Atlas Shrugged, Part One (dir. by Paul Johansson)

What to say about Atlas Shrugged, Part One?  When I recently rewatched it OnDemand with a friend of mine who had just gotten back from Occupying somewhere, he threw a fit as soon as he heard wealthy 1 percenter Graham Beckel declaring, “I am on strike!”  When I first saw it earlier in the year, in a theater full of strangers, they broke out into applause when they heard the same line.  Atlas Shrugged is a wonderfully divisive film.   If you’re a political person, your enjoyment of this film will probably come down to which news network  you watch. If you enjoy those MSNBC spots where Rachel Maddow won’t shut up about the freakin’ Hoover Dam, you’ll probably hate Atlas Shrugged.  If you truly believe that Fox News is “fair and balanced,” chances are you’ll enjoy it.  But what if you’re like me and the only politics you follow are the politics of film and you only bow at the altar of cinema?  Well, I enjoyed Atlas Shrugged because the film really is a grindhouse film at heart.  It’s an uneven, low-budget film that has a few good performances (Beckel and Taylor Schilling), several bad performances, and ultimately, it goes totally against what establishment films have conditioned us to expect when we go to the movies.  Ultimately, the film is a big middle finger extended at both the film and the political establishments and who can’t get behind that?  Add to that, Roger Ebert hated it and when was the last time he was right about anything?

2) Beautiful Boy (dir. by Shawn Ku)

I’ve read a lot of rapturous reviews of this film online and my aunt Kate loved it when she saw it at the Dallas Angelika earlier this year.  So, admittedly, when I watched this film via OnDemand, I had pretty high hopes and expectations but, unfortunately, none of those expectations came anywhere close to being met.  In the film, two of my favorite performers — Michael Sheen and Maria Bello — play the middle-class parents who have to deal with the consequences (both emotional and physical) of a terrible crime perpetrated by their son.  The film is based on the Virginia Tech massacre and both Sheen and Bello give excellent performances but overall, the film feels like a thoroughly shallow exploration of some various serious issues.  Ultimately, the film’s refusal to provide an explanation for the crime feels less like a brave, artistic choice and more like a cop-out.  The film is less abstract than Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique but it’s also a lot less effective.

3)Crazy, Stupid Love (dir. by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra)

I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive Steve Carell for abandoning The Office and forcing upon me the current, almost painful season of the show.  Still, I can’t totally blame him because the guy is totally a film star and he proves it in Crazy, Stupid Love by holding his own with other certifiable film stars like Ryan Gosling, Kevin Bacon, Marisa Tomei, Julianne Moore, and Emma Stone.  In the film, Julianne Moore plays Carell’s wife who leaves him for a coworker (played by Kevin Bacon, doing his charming jerk routine).  The depressed Carell is taken under the wing of womanizer Gosling who teaches Carell how to be more confident and appealing.  Things seem to be working out well until Gosling starts going out with Carell’s daughter (played by Emma Stone).  The movie, itself, isn’t anything special and it’s really kind of a mess but it’s saved by a massively appealing cast.  And, by the way, Ryan Gosling —très beau!  Seriously.

4) The Devil’s Double (dir. by Lee Tamahori)

Taking place in pre-Desert Storm Iraq, The Devil’s Double claims to tell the true story of Latif Yahia, an Iraqi who was forced to serve as the double for the sociopathic young dictator-in-training Uday Hussien.  I’ve read that there’s some debate as to how faithful The Devil’s Double is to the facts of the story and it is true that Latif is portrayed as being almost too good to be true but no matter.  The Devil’s Double is a compelling and oddly fascinating little gangster film, one that manages to show the dangerous appeal of the excessive lifestyle of a man like Uday Hussien without ever actually being seduced by it.   The film is dominated by Dominic Cooper, who gives a great performance playing both the tortured Latif and the cheerfully insane Uday. 

5) Sarah’s Key (dir by Gilles Paquet-Brenner)

Sarah’s Key tells two stories at once and, the result, is a film that feels very schizophrenic in quality.  The better part of the film deals with Sarah, a 10 year-old Jewish girl living in Nazi-occupied France.  When Sarah and her parents are sent to a concentration camp, her younger brother is left behind in Paris.  Sarah eventually manages to escape and desperately tries to get back to Paris to rescue her brother.  Meanwhile, in the modern-day, a journalist (Kristen Scott Thomas) researches Sarah’s story and discovers that her French husband’s family has a connection of their own with Sarah’s story.  The film is compelling and heart-breaking as long as it concentrates on Sarah but, unfortunately, the modern-day scenes feel forced and predictable and the end result is a film that’s never quite as good as it obviously could have been.

6) Water For Elephants (dir. by Francis Lawrence)

Look, I make no apologies — I freaking loved this movie.  Yes, plotwise, this film feels almost like a parody and yes, so much of this film was over-the-top and kinda silly but I don’t care.  I loved this film for the old-fashioned, melodramatic, and rather campy spectacle that it is.  Robert Pattinson plays a Depression-era Ivy League college student-turned-hobo who ends up joining the circus and falling in love with Reese Whitherspoon, the wife of insane circus owner, Christoph Waltz.  Pattinson isn’t much of an actor but he’s easy on the eyes and he and Whitherspoon have just enough chemistry to remain watchable.  The film, however, is totally dominated by Waltz who is both charming and scary.  The next time your man makes you sit through anything starring Jason Statham, you make him watch Water for Elephants.