Justin Ellis (Portland Press Herald) & I on the week’s new releases (12/8/09)

Since we’re getting into the throes of heavy snow season (and parking ban season), what better time to rent a DVD? Videoport Jones and I take a look at what’s new on DVD this week, including a surprising performance from Robin Williams, the return of the world’s favorite boy wizard and Michael Mann (who some may have called a boy wizard at one point.) Also this week, a special guest appearance from Mrs. Videoport Jones!

World’s Greatest Dad

Videoport Jones: “I think the greatest compliment I can pay this new comedy from writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait (which, as you’ll see, I liked very much) is that I never once had to fight the urge to seek out Robin Williams’ home address, secure a reasonable airfare to that location, and then, upon Williams answering the door, punch him very hard in the face. Don’t get me wrong – I love Robin Williams. There was a time when I saw Mr. Williams as the funniest man in the world. Sure, I was pretty young, and I hadn’t seen Richard Pryor yet, but still. And then his quicksilver comic inventiveness curdled into self-satisfied mugging and self-indulgence. While he can be a solid dramatic actor when well-directed, he also has a soppy, self-indulgent thing which can, again with the face punching. ‘World’s Greatest Dad’ shows Williams at his most restrained and affecting in the story of a likeable-but-timid high school teacher and would-be writer who is burdened with the worst teenage son in the history of the world. Mean, dumb, willfully offensive, and obsessed with internet porn, this kid (played by that little dude from the ‘Spy Kids’ movies!) is a truly repulsive little creep, resisting every effort by his loving but exasperated dad to reach him. So, when the lad accidentally pulls a Michel Hutchence (or possibly David Carradine), Williams, trying to give the kid some post-mortem dignity, stages it like a suicide, along with a false, but eloquent suicide note, which causes the heretofore indifferent-to-him students and faculty of his school to view him with respect, and the heretofore-understandably-hostile-to-his-son world to pretend that they liked him all along. From there, the film becomes a mordantly-funny, slyly satirical, and unexpectedly moving exploration of America’s tendency to mythologize the recently dead, especially when, seeing the seeming good his fake note is causing, Williams produces his son’s (fictitious) journal, which draws national attention. Sure it’s a little choppy in parts, but Goldthwait (as he did in his ‘Sleeping Dogs Lie’) is revealing himself as a rudely humanistic social satirist, able to wring laughs and tears out of seemingly-offensive premises. And he was able to bring out the best in Robin Williams, which is most appreciated. One of the best films of the year.”

Justin: “Oh, so THAT’s what they mean by ‘Dark Comedy.’ Yikes. I always wonder what it’s like in the pitch meeting for movies like this. ‘So it all centers around when the awful, misanthropic son accidentally kills himself in a sex game gone wrong. AND THEN it gets hilarious!’ What do movie executives go from there? Do they automatically say ‘can we get Robin Williams for the role of the father? BRILLIANT!’ Who knows. While I like the premise of this movie, part of me can’t get around the fact that it hinges on the death of a teenager, even an awful one. Since the kid was a jerk are we suppose to be OK with it? But moving past that you get into some weird universal truths, which can lead to genuine comedy. You are right my friend, we do have a strange obsession with placing the recently dead up on a pedestal. With the exception of the universally reviled, we seem to give a pass and even a small halo to those who may have been less than likable while alive. It may seem like a strange thing to say about a movie with Robin Williams, but there could be something to learn from this flick. Maybe it’s about the human condition…or that Robin Williams can be serviceable given the right conditions. You decide.”

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

VPJ: “Have you heard about this movie? Some sort of boy wizard. Weird. But I kid the monster money vacuum film franchise. I dunno, I may have to cede this one to you, Justin; I saw the first one, which I roundly despised, have heard that it got better (when they hired real directors like Alfonso Cuaron), and has now settled back into a nice, lucrative mediocrity. I suppose, were one inclined to find reasons to watch, there have been some great actors along the way (Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon, Ian Hart, Alan Rickman, Kenneth Branagh, Maggie Smith, Ralph Fiennes, David Thewlis), but, oddly those reasons haven’t done the trick for me. Clearly I’m in the minority, so you guys have fun…”

JE: “We are indeed in the minority here. Though geeks we may be, this is one fantasy realm that doesn’t make sense to us. But, and this may come as a surprise, I’m going to go ahead and defend the boy wizard. I was at a gathering a few months back that included a group of kids plopped down in front of one of the Potter movies. It was captivating to them and I recognized the look in their faces. I think it had to mirror the way I looked when I watched the Star Wars movies as a kid. As for the actual content of the movie? Meh. Tons of flashy special effects, teenage (wizardy) angst and more than a little non-kid friendly themes. So what happens in this installment in the series? I’m gonna say evil is afoot, Harry grows a little bit older (leading to many a Bobby Brady-esque puberty hijicks) and it falls to the gang at Hogwarts to save the magic and non-magic world. Look, I’ve always said I have no ill-will towards the Potter franchise because I’m a fan of anything that gets kids to read, and if it gets them into movies, that’s fine too. Now the ‘Twilight’ franchise, that’s another story…”

Public Enemies

VPJ: “Have you heard about this John Depp fellow? He seems to be some sort of actor? Weird. But I kid the world’s most popular entertainer. This gangster pic about the dogged pursuit of John Dillinger by G-Man Melvin Purvis and his fedora-topped pals comes to us courtesy of style monster Michael Mann. I like Mann’s fierce dedication to surfaces which, in films like ‘Manhunter,’ ‘The Insider,’ and ‘Heat’ can produce a glossy excitement. In others, like ‘Miami Vice’ and, well, this, the style takes over, sapping the substance and leaving the whole enterprise just inert up there on the screen. Which is a neat trick here, since ‘Public Enemies’ is populated by some truly compelling screen subjects; apart from the Depp, Mann’s camera bleeds the life from the likes of Christian Bale, Billy Crudup (as a sly J. Edgar Hoover), Marion Cotillard, Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Dorff, Rory Cochrane, and James Russo. He does know how to shoot an action sequence (and his use of a more rough-and-tumble handheld approach livens things up a bit), but ‘Public Enemies’ never gets inside, underneath, or, really, anywhere near its characters and the film just…is. Hope that Depp kid comes out okay…”

JE: “Sometimes when you keep scratching to get below the surface you just wind up finding more surface. This is Michael Mann. And if Mann had filmed this exchange between us there would have been lots of close and mid-range shots of us looking pensive, soaking up the surroundings while offering minmal dialogue. And then probably a gun fight. So, you know, that’s cool. I’m putting ‘Public Enemies’ on my ‘movies to watch’ list, but maybe not high on that list. I’m a fan of the cast (even with Stephen Dorff) and I’m curious about how Mann’s style, specifically towards action, would translate into a kind of period movie. If he’s using the same techniques from ‘Heat’ and ‘Miami Vice,’ then those Tommy Gun shootouts are going to be seriously intense. Mann’s style is very distinctive, it’s a kind of detached and deliberate voyeurism that brings viewers into the action but often doesn’t give a sense of characters. Sometimes this is OK, other times not so much. I’ll be the first to admit that while I thought ‘Miami Vice’ was a bad movie, I’ve rewatched it on occasion because frankly it’s nice to look at. Maybe that’s not so bad. And of course I’m sure there are armies of women who would agree that Mr. Depp is nice to look at too.”

Lost – Season 5

VPJ: “Have you heard about this show? Some sort of ‘Gilligan’s Island’ thing, but with polar bears? Huh. Weird. But I kid the formerly-unstoppable ratings machine currently in decline. I liked the first season of ‘Lost.’ A couple of decent character actors (especially Terry O’Quinn), some nice spooky WTF? moments, and twist after twist. After twist. When the twists kept coming halfway through the second season, and the show seemed utterly uninterested in resolving 75% of the previous ones, and when the weekly character flashback structure started to play itself out, well, I tuned out. Like ‘Twin Peaks,’ it seemed like ‘Lost’ was eventually just going to keep throwing whacked-out ideas at the wall (my attention span) and seeing what stuck without much rhyme or reason, so I bailed like D.B. Cooper. I know I’m a quitter and all, but there’re only so many hours I can devote to trying to unravel a mystery whose authors seem to have less of an idea of what’s going on than I do. Justin – you’re a Lost-ie, right? Help a partner out.”

JE: “Hahahahaha! Oh poor Jonesy. The road get to twisty and turny for you? All those puzzles and mind games make your head hurt? Oh you poor man. OK, jokes aside, I have not touched ‘Lost’ and frankly will probably stay far away from it until it wraps up next year. Why? If I’m gonna invest in one big mind frak then I’d like to consume it all at once, thank you. I am a big fan of J.J. Abrams. I dug ‘Alias,’ I liked his take in ‘MI:3,’ I’m watching ‘Fringe’ and as all of you know I was over the moon for ‘Star Trek.’ But ‘Lost’ is where me and the JJ-man parted ways. Granted, it’s not like I’m a guy who steers away from complex TV since I stayed with ‘Battlestar Gallactica’ till the end and recently watched ‘The Prisoner’ remake. But something about ‘Lost’ threw me off from the beginning, and since it’s a show based on long story arcs that made it easy to stay away. Like I said, I’ll take it all in once it’s over. Until then ‘Lost’ heads can enjoy their island, their polar bears, their Dharma Initiatives and whatnot. You know who you are.”

Julie & Julia

Mrs. Videoport Jones (substitution!): “Nora Ephron’s ‘Julie and Julia’ melds together two disparate tales: Julia Child’s posthumously published memoir of her culinary education, and Julie Powell’s blog-to-book account of a year cooking her way through Child’s encyclopaedic ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking,’ V. I & II. It should surprise no one that Meryl Streep was the choice to bring the larger-than-life Julia Child to the screen. Of all actors working today, only Streep could hone her voice and mannerisms to echo the unique rolling giggle, the highs and lows, the familiar and beloved songbird voice of Julia Child. What is surprising? How marvelously Streep captures Child’s essence: The vim, the brio, the joie de vivre and jolly bravado that Julia Child brought to all her public enterprises… and how beautifully the film peeks into the vigor that she brought to private life, as well. Streep’s Julia Child embraces life with a cheeky, boisterous air and a sexy sauciness that extends beyond the kitchen. Rarely has the screen seen a couple as frankly and believably in love as Julia and Paul (Stanley Tucci), her dapper diplomat husband. Indeed, the whole film is filled with canny casting choices. Watching Jane Lynch and Meryl Streep crowing and groaning and giggling together, you can easily believe them as sisters. Chris Messina plays Julie Powell’s loving but ill-treated husband, and he transforms the thankless doormat role into something both earnest and playful. Then there’s the biggest casting trick of all: Amy Adams as Julie Powell. Adams brings twinkle and cuteness to a part that is, frankly, pretty unsympathetic: Julie Powell’s writing voice is blankly self-involved, entitled, and whiny, simultaneously resentful of the task she had set herself and and ignorant of its depths. Amy Adams takes all those attributes and wraps them up into an almost lovable package of spunky determination and colorful failures, bringing a taste of sweetness and a bit of backbone to a shrill, unlikeable character.”

JE: “Uh…wow. I don’t really think I can top that. Mrs. J has actually made me consider watching a movie I had no interest in seeing. Not because of the topic (I dig cooking and we’ve got many cookbooks – including Child’s – at the NXT Estate), but because of the melding of the two stories. For anyone who doesn’t know, a movie on Julia Child’s life would be an outstanding feature (world class cook, quirky character, TV pioneer, and oh, yeah, SPY.). A story on Julie Powell’s book would be, well, a disappointment and an exercise in narcissism. Read the books. Mrs. J you are welcome to sub in for your hubby any time. Maybe we should have Mrs. J and the NXT Gal pinch hit around here sometime…”

SPEED ROUND: Also this week at Videoport: “Beautiful Losers” (A documentary about the skatepunk artistic rebels of the 90s, including Spike Jonze [yay!] and Harmony Korine [you suck!]), “The Lion’s Den” (Argentinian drama about an incarcerated mom trying to raise her kid), “Somers Town” (another gripping tale of unlikely friendships in the British underclass from director Shane Meadows [“This Is England”]), “The Boy With the Sun In His Eyes” (The latest gay-themed drama from Bangor, Maine’s own auteur Todd Verow), “Into the Storm” (Brendan Gleeson as Winston Churchill), and four, count ’em four newly-released episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Corpse Vanishes, Warrior of the Lost World, Santa Claus, and the classic Night of the Blood Beast!

Parting shots:

– What’s the formula for a good Robin Williams movie?
– Lost fans, how would you convince a newcomer to watch your show?
– Would you watch a movie on the life of Julia Child?

Published in: on December 10, 2009 at 2:13 am  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I have to admit that I wondered why it was necessary to fold Julie Powell’s story into the mix; Julia Child’s life is plenty compelling, and her character ebullient and vivacious enough for two movies, let alone one.

    > Maybe we should have Mrs. J and the NXT Gal pinch hit around here sometime…

    Possible title for The NXT Gal to consider: “Me and Mrs. Jones”!

    (“We got a thiiiiiiiing goin’ on….”)

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