APEOCALYPSE, OR OF APES BOTH NAKED AND HAIRY: Movie reviews of Venus in Fur, Life Itself and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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venusThe new movie, Venus in Fur, co-written by bad boy old timer Roman Polanski (who also directed) with relative new comer David Ives, from a play by Ives that was influenced by a book by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (yeah, that Sacher-Masoch—oh, no, don’t even try it, you know very well whom I’m talking about, you can’t fool me), begins during a somewhat impressionistic rain storm on a deserted street in France (so I guess the slight touch of impressionism shouldn’t be a surprise) backed by a music score of sublime slyness.

In fact, the score is so sublime, so sly, so clever, so flippant, so wicked, so…well, just so everything that I found myself being driven crazy because I couldn’t place the composer. And then at the end, during the credits, there it is—the name Alexandre Desplat, and all I could think was, of course, who else could it possibly have been. Read the rest of this entry »

Movie Reviews of THE MONUMENTS MEN and DATE AND SWITCH by Howard Casner

As I watched The Monuments Men, the new George Clooney film about trying to save stolen art during World War II, the word that kept coming to my mind was “jaunty”. Yes.  It’s a very…jaunty movie, with a, well, jaunty plot, and jaunty characters played by jaunty actors and all backed by a very jaunty score, a wonderful bit of musicality by the wonderful Alexandre Desplat that kept reminding me of the Colonel Bogey march from The Bridge on the River Kwai—it’s that jaunty.


Is The Monuments Men any good?  I can’t say that exactly.  But I can say that it’s very enjoyable and entertaining enough and rarely drags.  But it’s really not a lot more than that as much as it tries to be.


The screenplay by Mr. Clooney and Grant Heslov (who has done good work in such films as Good Night and Good Luck and The Ides of March) is little more than a series of episodes.  At the same time, I’m not sure exactly what all these episodes really add up to in the end.


In fact, by the time it was over, I wasn’t really sure what the Monuments Men, the actual real life counterparts, did in saving stolen art that wouldn’t have been done had they not been around.  It seems like just about everything that happened in the story would pretty much have happened the way it did with or without their intervention.


Even Clooney and Heslov seem to suspect this as they add on a ticking time bomb of a climax trying to get some art out of a cave before the Russians get there.  I’m not saying this didn’t happen exactly the way it did here, but it feels more like a creation of the writers to come up with some sort of tension when there really wasn’t much of it in the first place.  It’s a fun bit, but is really milked and ends up coming across about as realistic as the ending of Argo.


And then there are all those speeches given by Clooney’s character Frank Stokes (yeah, he not only co-wrote it, he stars in it as well) trying to justify what they did and that saving art is not only just as important as saving a human being, it’s actually kinda more important (maybe, maybe not, I don’t know, it’s a bit mudded as far as I’m concerned).


The issue here is that every time he gives one of these speeches, he seems more and more desperate in his reasoning and becomes less and less convincing.


Of course, in full disclosure, I’m of the camp that says a thousand Mona Lisa’s can burn if it would cost one life to save it.  We can make new art that will equal old smiley face, but a particular human being can’t be replaced.  So every time an officer refused to help Stokes in his quest, I kind of sympathized with the officer (or as one of them put it, and I paraphrase, “I’m not going to write home to a soldier’s mother and tell her that her son died because we tried to save a steeple”).


The directing by Clooney (yes, he not only co-wrote it and stars in it, he also directed it) gets the job done.  And it has a fun (or as I put it earlier, jaunty) cast with Matt Damon, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob  Balaban, Bill Murray, Hugh Bonneville as the men and Cate Blanchett as the French partisan who helps them (I guess there weren’t any French actresses available at the time).


True, it’s a white bread acting approach to filling the roles as opposed to something like The Dirty Dozen (in The Monuments Men, everybody is cool; in The Dirty Dozen, they’re insane psychopaths), but, hey, whatever gets an audience into the seats.


However, if you want to see perhaps a slightly more profound movie that takes a few more chances about the same subject matter, I would strongly recommend checking out The Train, a movie about a German trying to take art out of Paris that meets resistance in the Resistance.  It stars Paul Scofield and Burt Lancaster and is a far more interesting film.



I don’t know what it is about Nick Offerman, but whenever he comes on screen, I just sort of relax.  I don’t know what it is.  Maybe it’s because he always plays these same calm teddy bear types, but he’s sort of the father I would always have wanted even if no one else on the screen, including his kids, understands how lucky they are.


Offerman is actually more of a minor character in the new teen com bromance rom com, Date and Switch.  But he’s a welcome addition as are Megan Mullaly and Gary Cole as the other parents who haven’t a clue even when they do.


The story is actually a variation on American Pie in which two BFF’s, Michael and Matty, vow to lose their virginity before prom but Matt throws a spanner into the wicket when he reveals to Michael that he’s gay.  So now, not only does Michael need to do the dirty deed, he has to figure out what he wants to do about his friend, and Matty has to figure out what he wants to do about being gay.


Date and Switch is cute and charming.  It’s basically almost nothing but staircase wit (the screenplay is by Alan Yang) with the champagne quality of the dialog and all the frothy bubbles it emits getting more than its fare share of laughs.   And that’s certainly nothing to sneeze at.


At the same time, the wit is backed up by staircase acting.  And though this gives the movie many enjoyable and entertaining moments, it’s actually not as great a combination as you might think, because Nicholas Braun as Michael and Hunter Cope as Matty deliver the clever dialog as if it had been rehearsed to within an inch of its unnatural life (the direction is by Chris Nelson).


I mean, they’re good, they’ve very good.


The problem is that they’re too good.


With the result that though everyone tries their damnedest, they just can’t quite reach the delirious naturalism of something like Superbad.


And it probably doesn’t help that the lead actors look like they’re about to graduate from college, not high school.


And I’m not sure I’m comfortable with Yang going out of his way to make sure the audience knows that Matty may be gay, but he’s really no different than anyone watching and only wants to live his life as a stereotypical straight person, looking down on most other gay people and the bars they attend.


There are also various twist and turns along the way (none of them particularly surprising or unpredictable) and the whole things works it way out with a pleasing formulization.


It may not be as much fun as the foam party the characters attend at one point, but it’s not a bad night out either.

Movie Review of REALITY and THE WE AND THE I by Howard Casner

Reality, the new movie written by Ugo Chiti, Maurizio Braucci, Matteo Garrone, and Massimo Gaudioso (God, I’m exhausted just from typing all the names) and directed by Garrone (all of whom also gave us the incredible true mafia movie Gomorrah) opens ironically with a God’s eye view of a fancy gold colored carriage with plush, red seats drawn by white horses gaily prancing down a road in Naples, the hooves almost perfectly timed to the delightful music composed by Alexandre Desplat (who else), music that almost sounds as if it could be found in any animated fairy tale. Then the carriage pulls through some gates and continues until it stops outside a gazebo. A footman opens the door and a bride and groom step out, walking to two boxes and releasing a covey of doves, proceeding on to join throngs of people in way too fancy outfits who are waiting for them at a reception. It’s a wonderful and mesmerizing scene. Exciting. Thrilling.

But after the reception is over, the people go home. They take off their spangly clothes, their false eyelashes, their nice suits, their make up and they get ready for bed, the women wearing old lady half stockings, the men in underwear and black socks, their aging bodies full of flab falling over their waistlines, until we are back to reality.

The basic story of Reality revolves around Luciano, a hard working fishmonger and petty crook (he has some odd con job going on that has people order pasta making robots and then reselling them). He’s just that kind of guy that everybody loves. He’s a great father, generous, gregarious. At weddings he dresses in drag and does a bit that always brings down the house no matter how many times the audience has seen it. A bit pompous, perhaps, and an attention junky, but, hey, no one’s perfect. And his world, his reality, is just right…until his children beg him to audition for Big Brother, the ultimate reality show.

In many ways, one shouldn’t empathize with Luciano. I mean, he wants to be on Big Brother, for god’s sakes. Who can feel for someone who wants to do something so petty and egocentric? But one does empathize with him. Partly because he’s so reluctant to do it at first and only goes through with the audition to please his family. But a great deal of the success of this movie has to be due to the incredible performance of Aniello Arena (in his movie debut of all things), who has eyes and a face that with a slight change of thought can tell you everything he’s thinking. And as he begins to buy into it, into the possibility of being on the show and the fame and fortune that can come from it, you see him slowly losing it, you see the paranoia grow, you see his psychological underpinnings crumbling. There’s something in his eyes that goes from bright to wistful and then dull in a split second that makes you want to cry for him.

However, before continuing on, no review of this film can be complete without talking about Arena’s story. He is not new to acting, just new to movies. He was once a member of the Italian mafia, a hit man who is in jail for killing three people. While incarcerated, he became involved in theater acting, ultimately traveling with a troupe where, whenever they reached a town, the non-prisoners would check into a hotel while he and his fellow inmates would register at the local prison. To act, he has been granted a sort of work-study release—he can only leave during certain times. Garrone wanted to use him as a hit man in Gomorrah, but the authorities thought that was just a tad too close to home. But now Garrone and the other writers have found a most amazing fit for this actor and the last sort a character you would think a former hit man could portray.

The movie grows gradually darker as another of the story’s irony grows: as Luciano watches Big Brother, becoming so obsessed he is glued to the set almost 24 hours a day, you come not only to realize how vulgar a show it is and how that, in certain ways, Luciano dodged a bullet by not appearing on it—it’s a show that’s insultingly far beneath him—you also realize, more and more, just how unrealistic the show is in comparison to Lucian’s life, or to anyone’s life, for that matter. In a way, Luciano gets his wish, another irony perhaps, in a sad, tragi-comedy of a finale.

A heartbreaking and surprisingly moving film.

The Way and the I is the new movie directed by Michel Gondry (the filmmaker trying to live down The Green Hornet and who has a penchant for using surrealism in his films—The Science of Sleep, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and written by Gondry, Jeffrey Grimshaw and Paul Proch (the last two being newcomers to the art of writing for the screen). The basic story follows a group of New York high school students as they take the last bus home on the final day of school before summer vacation starts.

At first, the movie is both fascinating and difficult and off-putting to watch. The vast majority of the characters are bullies, cruel pranksters, sociopaths in the making, if not there already. There is a reality to these characters, but they’re not pleasant to watch, especially since Gondry in many ways, doesn’t pass judgment or interpret them, but just lets them speak for themselves. And as many artists do, Gondry seems to find man’s inhumanity to man far more interesting and entertaining than the more optimistic and positive aspects of humankind—he tends to see this long bus ride, this very long bus ride, this extremely, incredibly long bus ride, as a remake of The Lord of the Flies (and who knows, maybe he’s right).

But in the end, the movie stopped going anywhere for me after awhile. One reason is the acting. Gondry employs an Italian neo-realistic approach here, using real teens in the roles (even the names of the characters are the names of the actors playing them). This has all the plusses and minuses of that aesthetic approach—sometimes a feeling of intense reality appears, at other times (a bit too often) the lines feel clunky and the characterizations come across as flat and bland. Another reason is that after awhile, the various stories don’t seem to really go anywhere and quickly feel repetitive and all on the same level. It becomes a bit tedious and even boring. In the end, the authors resolve various through lines and relationships, but more often than not, in rather familiar and formulaic ways, until what’s left is a movie that feels as if it is trying to be something new and original, but is ultimately just a bit too conventional with nothing that new or insightful to say.