At some point in one of these columns I expressed some optimism about a good summer at the movies. It’s a pleasant surprise that feeling that way has actually seemed to pay off. I tend to be a little erratic in how often I actually go to the movies, but one collection of circumstances or another kept me going again and again through a time of the year in which I pray repeatedly for the cool embrace of nuclear winter. There were a couple of average picks in what I’ve seen over the past couple of months, but nothing that encouraged me to eat a brick for a visual aid later on to illustrate how awful the movie was.
Would I hold up any of them for an Oscar nomination (because I like to pretend such things really matter)? Will one or more make my top ten of the year in December? I’m willing to say yes to either or both of those questions. I don’t know if I anticipated that, but I do know it’s been a long time indeed since I’ve gone to the movies this much in a fairly short period of time. Expectations were met or exceeded for the things I was looking forward to, surprises abounded and even the weak links in the chain really weren’t all that bad.
I can’t ask for much more than that. I’m even willing to get excited about the fall and winter lineup. How about that?
I can’t say I’ve ever been a huge Tony Scott fan, but his passing is still a shame. True Romance is a cult classic from a time when that actually meant something, and I might admit after a few drinks that I kind of like The Last Boy Scout in a punch-drunk cousin kind of way. He didn’t craft movies like his somewhat more famous brother, Ridley Scott, but he could deliver something that was fun without making you feel like you just suffered eight or nine concussions in a row. I won’t speculate on the details of his unfortunate end. It’s none of my business, and I quite frankly don’t care.
Phyllis Diller dying is a bummer in the sense that we’ve lost yet another living link to an extraordinary range of entertainment history. She was also funny as hell, a purely unique voice and personality that I’m going to miss hearing. Ninety-five years is a pretty good run though. I don’t expect anyone to argue that.
I was a Goth kid before I knew what the hell that was (and judging by that sentence I was also apparently a hipster before I heard that term, too), so Count Von Count was naturally going to be my favorite character on Sesame Street (Oscar the Grouch was a close second, and that was probably a bad sign as well). I had considerably less options for entertainment as a child than kids do today, so Sesame Street was kind of a staple by default. I’ve learned over the years though to appreciate the wealth of talent that has been moving through that show for over forty years. That’s particularly true of the voice talent, so it’s saddening that Jerry Nelson, the voice of The Count, Camilla (Gonzo’s girlfriend) and numerous others, passed away recently. I have no idea if kids today are still watching that show. I hope they are, but anyone who tunes in now will be missing out. I’m sure the character will continue on, but it certainly won’t be the same. In an extremely selfish sort of way a death like this reminds me that my childhood is some two decades behind me. That never stops being weird.
Awful lot of death going around these days, isn’t there? Anyone I missed? I guess we’ll get them next time. I didn’t mean to focus on death, but I guess sometimes it’s inevitable. That’s about as profound as this column is going to get right now. Sorry about that.
The Expendables 2 (2012): B-
Yeah, I cringed when Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger stole each other’s catchphrases in The Expendables 2, but I was expecting to do a lot of cringing, so it’s not a huge crime on the part of the movie. I wanted to OD on nostalgia, and this second visit to the land of veteran action movie icons gave me enough of that feeling to last me the rest of my life. I loved the first one for what it was in all its wonderfully stupid glory. The second one had to at least try to match that enjoyment for me. It did this, and even came out to be more fun than the first. Plot? Are you high? The Expendables 2 has even less of one than the last time. I faintly remember something about Jean-Claude Van Damme and a bunch of plutonium. I know there was some sort of revenge angle thrown in (because this time it’s personal, of course). I think I even caught sight of Chuck Norris getting a few more miles out of his internet fame. It’s hard to remember now. What I do recall is that a lot of things blew up, thousands of people were gunned down, Terry Crews didn’t get nearly enough screen time and Stallone is a frightening physical specimen for a man of sixty-six. I wanted enough of those explosions to make Michael Bay look like a two-year-old with a box of matches, and that’s exactly what The Expendables 2 gave to me. It promised nothing more than that, because to do so would have been insulting. The old guys can still kick a door down, and that’s all that really matters.
La Dolce Vita (1960): A+
You couldn’t ask for a sharper contrast to The Expendables 2 than what is perhaps Federico Fellini’s most famous film after 8 ½. It’s a film that deserves far more than a dozen or two sentences in this column, but it’s also the kind of film that really can’t be explained to someone who doesn’t know Fellini’s work. This thought flies in the face of what I would imagine are thousands and thousands of essays and critiques that have dissected La Dolce Vita from every possible angle, but I just don’t feel like I should try to go that route. It’s a beautiful film of endless weirdness, masterful filmmaking technique, breathtaking originality and vision and performances that hinge on a madness of not realizing how absurd and terrible life can be sometimes. Marcello Mastroianni was Fellini regular, and today is regarded as one of Italy’s finest actors. His role as a spiritually and emotionally flaccid journalist staggering from one surreal scene to the next is a historic, career-defining case in point. Some have had to see this movie dozens of times just to form a clear enough picture in their head. One that will allow them to properly articulate how many places the energy and tone of this film takes us to. How many ideas are expressed at face-value and beneath the surface. I’m inclined to think the same way. I loved my first time through this fantastic world. I know I’ll love the second time through as well. I just can’t tell you what’s going to result from that.
Hope Springs (2012): C+
I want to be cynical about a movie so predictable, it may as well be over before it’s even begun. I just can’t do it though. Let’s just go ahead and blame Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep (and Steve Carrell in a flawlessly understated supporting part as their therapist) as a couple trying a week-long marriage counseling seminar to keep their thirty-year marriage alive. Neither of these actors tends towards disappointing. Though it goes without saying that Streep is wonderful as a quiet, unhappy woman who takes the first step towards fixing things the best performance nod may in fact go to Tommy Lee Jones. I’ve always seen him as the kind of actor a lot of people take for granted. I also think he sometimes gets hit with an unfair label of being limited. A serious look at his film career reveals a depth of talent, with roles that can start with quiet despair, and move right up to the top of full-on crazy. Jones can operate anywhere within those two dynamics. The slight touches he can add to his best characters makes each of those roles an inimitable, convincing role that can stand on its own. He has the same talent as Streep for taking ordinary material and making it a little better, more special than that. They can do this separately, but playing a couple as they do here, they create a pleasing, realistic marriage that makes Hope Springs far more likable than anything its faults might do to get in the way. They have some great moments together, but Jones might just take a slight lead here. This is one of his best turns in some time.
The Phantom of the Opera (1989): C-
An extremely over-saturated horror movie market in 1989 all but doomed this bloody re-telling of the Gaston Leroux classic. It’s not all bad, but hardcore fans of the Broadway musical (and I know you’re out there—I’m dating one of you) may only recognize portions of their beloved show. It’s a fairly safe bet that if you’re one of these people, you’re probably not going to appreciate the gore, the changes to the story, a modern-day Christine sustaining a blow to the head while auditioning for an opera, and then waking up in 19th century London, or that the ill-fated romance between Christine and the Phantom (Robert Englund) isn’t treated with quite the same grandeur and passion as the musical. If anything this film probably has a stronger attachment to the Lon Chaney Sr. classic. Horror fans may be disappointed as well though. There’s a suitably deranged performance by Englund, trying as hard as he can to not just play a different version of Freddy (and succeeding at this a lot of the time), Jill Schoelen (the original Stepfather) plays a plucky, constantly distressed Christine, and there’s a haunting, fantastic score by Misha Segal. It’s just that this Phantom of the Opera doesn’t quite hit all the marks as a pure horror movie, and it’s not a particularly significant adaptation of Leroux’s story. It’s a curiosity available to Phantom completists and Englund fanatics. I’m hard-pressed to recommend it to anyone else.
The Campaign (2012): C-
What do I demand of Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis and director Jay Roach? The Campaign is about as high up on the mountain of tolerable dumbass comedy as this team is going to get, and that’s not too bad at all. I didn’t really care about the story of incumbent Congressman Ferrell going up against awkward, creepy Galifianakis, and I barely could be made to care about the movie’s clumsy attempts at social commentary (but Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow were good fun as corrupt business trying to sell a small North Carolina town to the Chinese). I was gunning for laughs beyond what I saw in the trailer, and The Campaign manages to be just a little better than acceptable in that respect. You can go see it in theaters as I did (thank you, free movie pass), but your world will probably continue spinning just fine if you wait for Redbox or Netflix.