Film Review: The Last Word (dir by Mark Pellington)


So, I watched The Last Word tonight.

It’s a film that premiered, earlier this year, at Sundance and then it got a very brief theatrical run.  It was directed by Mark Pellington, who is one of those odd directors who, for some reason, I always assume is more talented than he is.  Seriously, when I saw this was directed by Mark Pellington, I actually got excited.  I was like, “Mark Pellington!?  He’s great!”  Then I realized that I wasn’t really sure who Mark Pellington was.  I looked him up on Wikipedia and I realized that I was mistaking him for actor Mark Pellegrino.  Mark Pellegrino played Jacob on Lost and is an outspoken Libertarian.  Mark Pellington is some guy who started out in music videos and then eventually moved up to directing pedestrian films.

Anyway, the film stars Shirley MacClaine as this annoying old busybody who demands that Amanda Seyfried write her obituary because MacClaine wants to know what people are going to say about her after she’s dead.  When Seyfried discovers that everyone hates MacClaine, she writes a boring and very short obit.  “Everyone hates you,” she helpfully explains.  So, MacClaine sets out to do some great things so that her obituary will have a little more spark.  She’s going to set a fire of quirkiness, she is!  Of course, this leads to MacClaine adopting a little black orphan, getting a job as a DJ at the local radio station (she plays boring adult contemporary music, of course.  No EDM), and helping Seyfriend get a boyfriend.

To be honest, this film would probably be a lot more bearable if it was a prequel to Bernie, because then you would at least know that you could look forward to Jack Black showing up with a hunting rifle and putting everyone out of their misery.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen.  Instead, this is another one of those movies where a cranky old tyrant teaches all of us young folks how to better appreciate life.

Y’see, Shirley MacClaine is playing an oldster so she has a sharp tongue and she’s always putting people in their place.  Because she had to struggle, we’re supposed to ignore the fact that she spends most of her time making everyone around her miserable.

Amanda Seyfried, on the other hand, is a millennial so she puts her feet on her boss’s desk and has no direction in her life.  Why, she just needs some annoying, elderly busybody to come into her life and make her listen to smooth jazz.  She might even get a hipster boyfriend out of the deal!  (Of course, her potential hipster boyfriend is a 2008-style hipster as opposed to a 2017-style hipster.)

Meanwhile, AnnJewel Lee Dixon (as the little girl that MacClaine adopts) is a plot device so she doesn’t do anything unless the script specifically needs her to humanize the other characters.  She gets to dance towards the end of the film.

Oh, and then there’s Anne Heche.  She plays MacClaine’s estranged daughter.  The reunion between her and MacClaine is so overwritten and overperformed that some viewers will probably be inspired to rip out their hair while watching it.

Hey, did I mention that there’s a scene where MacClaine does something quirky and all of the supporting characters break out into applause?  I think we’re supposed to clap to but I think most members of the audience will be too busy ripping out their hair by the handful.

Fortunately, I really love my hair so I resisted the temptation to start plucking strands out of my head while watching the film.  It wasn’t easy, though.  To be honest, the pain of plucking a strand of hair is nothing compared to the pain of watching the first fifteen minutes of this film and realizing that you already know every thing that’s going to happen.  By the time that the priest showed up and started to cry while talking about a time that MacClaine’s character had been rude to him, I imagine that viewers with less self-control were halfway bald.  But, as I said, I love my hair too much to take my frustration out on it.  Instead, I just kicked the coffee table a few times.  Now, my foot hurts.  Ow.

Seeing as how Shirley MacClaine is one of the last of the truly great actresses from Hollywood’s Golden Age and she actually does give a pretty good performance (when the script allows her), it’s a shame that the rest of the movie is such a let down.  Then again, this film is full of talented people who are let down by an overwritten script and Mark Pellington’s painfully obvious direction.  This is one of those films that tries to hard to be profound that it forgets the importance of being entertaining.

As I watched this movie, I took a glance at Mark Pellington’s filmography.  Did you know that he directed The Mothman Prophecies?  The Last Word really could have used a visit from the Mothman.  Seriously, this film was crying out for a scene of MacClaine putting Mothman in his place.  The fact that Mothman did not appear leads me to wonder what exactly this film was hiding.

Seriously, why are the people behind The Last Word protecting the Mothman?

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Apollo 13 (dir by Ron Howard)


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I just finished watching the TCM premiere of the 1995 Best Picture nominee, Apollo 13.  Of course, it wasn’t the first time I had seen it.  Apollo 13 is one of those films that always seems to be playing somewhere and why not?  It’s a good movie, telling a story that is all the more remarkable and inspiring for being true.  In 1970, the Apollo 13 flight to the moon was interrupted by a sudden explosion, stranding three astronauts in space.  Fighting a desperate battle against, NASA had to figure out how to bring them home.  Apollo 13 tells the story of that accident and that rescue.

There’s a scene that happens about halfway through Apollo 13.  The heavily damaged Apollo 13 spacecraft is orbiting the moon.  Originally the plan was for Apollo 13 to land on the moon but, following that explosion on the craft, those plans have been cancelled.  Inside the spacecraft, three astronauts can only stare down at the lunar surface below them.

As Commander Jim Lovell stares out the craft’s window, we suddenly see him fantasizing about what it would be like if the explosion hadn’t happened and if he actually could fulfill his dream of walking on the moon.  We watch as Lovell (and, while we know the character is Jim Lovell, we are also very much aware that he’s being played by beloved cinematic icon Tom Hanks) leaves his foot print on the lunar surface.  Lovell opens up his visor and, for a few seconds, stands there and takes in the with the vastness of space before him and making the scene all the more poignant is knowing that Tom Hanks, before he became an award-winning actor, wanted to be a astronaut just like Jim Lovell.  Then, suddenly, we snap back to the film’s reality.  Back inside the spacecraft, Lovell takes one final look at the moon and accepts that he will never get to walk upon its surface.  “I’d like to go home,” he announces.

It’s a totally earnest and unabashedly sentimental moment, one that epitomizes the film as a whole.  There is not a hint of cynicism to be found in Apollo 13.  Instead, it’s a big, old-fashioned epic, a story about a crisis and how a bunch of determined, no-nonsense professionals came together to save the day.  “Houston,” Lovell famously says at one point, “we have a problem.”  It’s a celebrated line but Apollo 13 is less about the problem and more about celebrating the men who, through their own ingenuity, solved that problem.

That Apollo 13 is a crowd-pleaser should come as no surprise.  It was directed by Ron Howard and I don’t know that Howard has ever directed a film that wasn’t designed to make audiences break into applause during the end credits.  When Howard fails, the results can be maudlin and heavy-handed.  But when he succeeds, as he does with Apollo 13, he proves that there’s nothing wrong with old-fashioned, inspirational entertainment.

Of course, since Apollo 13 is a Ron Howard film, that means that Clint Howard gets a small role.  In Apollo 13, Clint shows up as a bespectacled flight engineer.  When astronaut Jack Swiggert (Kevin Bacon) mentions having forgotten to pay his taxes before going into space, Clint says, “He shouldn’t joke about that, they’ll get him.”  It’s a great line and Clint does a great job delivering it.

Apollo 13 is usually thought of as being a Tom Hanks film but actually, it’s an ensemble piece.  Every role, from the smallest to the biggest, is perfectly cast.  Not surprisingly, Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Kathleen Quinlan, and Ed Harris all turn in excellent performances.  But, even beyond the marquee names, Apollo 13 is full of memorable performances.  Watching it tonight, I especially noticed an actor named Loren Dean, who played a NASA engineer named John Aaron.  Dean didn’t get many lines but he was totally believable in his role.  You looked at him and you thought, “If I’m ever trapped in space, this is the guy who I want working to bring me home.”

Apollo 13 was nominated for best picture but it lost to Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart.  Personally, out of the nominees, I probably would have picked Sense and Sensibility but Apollo 13 more than deserved the nomination.

MacBeth Trailer Is Dark And Full Of Terrors


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Every year there’s always going to be that one filmmaker who takes on the challenge of putting their personal take on one of William Shakespeare’s classic dramas. It’s been going on since the advent of motion pictures and I don’t see it ending anytime soon.

This year it looks like we may have a winner with the latest adaptation of Shakespeare’s MacBeth. The film stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as Lord and Lady MacBeth with Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel in the director’s chair.

MacBeth has been getting such advance rave reviews due to it’s screening at this year’s Cannes Film Festival where it entered for competition for the Palme d’Or. The film itself just judging from the trailer below looks like a visual feast that one’s up the dark, gritty aesthetic of HBO’s Game of Thrones.

There’s still no announced release date for MacBeth for the North American market but with the critical buzz surrounding the film after Cannes it won’t be too long til it get one.

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.

Back to School #48: Scent of a Woman (dir by Martin Brest)


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Along with my current series of 80 Back to School reviews (48 down, 32 to go!), another one of my long time goals has been to watch and review every single film to ever be nominated for the best picture.  So, imagine how happy I was to discover that by watching the 1992 film Scent of a Woman, I could make progress towards completing two goals at once!  Not only was Scent of A Woman nominated for best picture of the year (losing to Unforgiven) but it also features a major subplot about life and discipline at an exclusive New England prep school!  Even better, it’s been showing up on Showtime fairly regularly for the past month or so.

“Wow,” I thought as my boyfriend and I sat down to watch this movie, “could life get any easier?  Or better?”

And then we watched the film.

You know how occasionally you watch a film just because you’ve heard that it was nominated (or perhaps even won) an Oscar or because it has an oddly high rating over at the imdb or maybe because someone said, “Roger Ebert loved this film so, if you don’t watch and love it, that means that, by that standard of the current online film community, you really don’t love movies?”  And then you watch the movie and you’re just like, “What the Hell?”

Well, that was kind of my reaction to Scent of a Woman.

Look, the film’s not all bad.  It has a few good performances.  It looks great.  It’s certainly better than Gigli, the film that director Martin Brest is perhaps best remembered for.  It features a great scene where Al Pacino (playing a blind man) dances the tango with a woman that he’s just met.  (Then again, I have a notorious weakness for dance scenes…)  It’s not so much that the film is bad as much as it’s just that the movie itself is not particularly good.

Charlie Simms (Chris O’Donnell) is a scholarship student at an exclusive prep school in Massachusetts.  Much like Brendan Fraser in School Ties, 1992’s other prep school melodrama, Charlie is a poor kid attending the school on a scholarship.  While his rich friends prepare to go home for the Thanksgiving weekend, Charlie knows that there’s no way that he can afford to fly back to Oregon.  In order to raise the money so that he can at least go back home for Christmas (how poor is this kid’s family!?), Charlie gets a temporary job for the weekend.  His job?  To look after Lt. Col. Frank Slade (Al Pacino), who is blind and yells a lot.

Anyway, as you can probably guess, Frank convinces Charlie to drive him to New York and they have all of the adventures that usually happen whenever a naive teenager spends the weekend with a suicidal blind man.  Frank bellows a lot and tells about how, through his sense of smell, he can always tell when there’s a beautiful woman nearby.  Frank also yells a lot.  Did I already mention that?  Because, seriously, he yells a lot.

Charlie has other problems than just Frank.  It seems that a rather mild prank was pulled on the headmaster (James Rebhorn) of Charlie’s school.  As a result, a bucket of paint was poured down on both the headmaster and his new car!  Now, the headmaster is looking for those responsible.  He just needs two witnesses.  He’s already gotten one student to confess.  And now, he’s blackmailing Charlie with a letter of recommendation to Harvard.  All Charlie has to do is name names and his future is set…

Will Charlie name names and sacrifice his honor just to get into a college that could assure him a great life?  Or will Frank convince Charlie that honor is the only thing that matters?  And finally, will the film end with a big hearing in front of the entire school in which the headmaster attempts to badger Charlie, just to be interrupted by a sudden appearance from bellowing Frank Slade?

Will it!?

You can probably already guess and, since we have a no spoiler policy here at the Lens, I’ll just assume that you guessed right.  (Or you could just look at the picture at the top of this review…)

The prep school subplot pretty much just adds to the film’s already excessive running time.  But it is interesting to watch because the other student — the one who names names — is played by a very young Philip Seymour Hoffman.  (Or as he’s credited here, Philip S. Hoffman.)  This was one of Hoffman’s first screen roles and he gives a memorable performance as an unlikable character.  If you were to have seen Scent of a Woman in 1992, you would not have guessed that Philip Seymour Hoffman would eventually be an Oscar winner but you would know that he was a very talented character actor.

Otherwise, Scent of a Woman is a fairly forgettable movie.  If I hadn’t known ahead of time that it was nominated for best picture, I never would have been able to guess.  I’m not enough of an expert to be able to name every good 1992 film that was not nominated to make room for Scent of a Woman but I imagine that when that year’s Oscar nominations were announced, there were quite a few people left scratching their heads.

Can you figure out which one grew up to be Philip Seymour Hoffman?

Can you figure out which one grew up to be Philip Seymour Hoffman?