Bad Cinema: An Alan Smithee Film Burn Hollywood Burn (Dir: Alan Smithee, 1997)

“The last thing any director needs is you, of all people, to stand up for us.”

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The You in question is Joe Eszterhas, the infamous screenwriting bad boy who cut his teeth on a rewrite of Flashdance (1983) and forgettable erotic thrillers and comedies through the ’80s before writing the Greatest Erotic Thriller, Basic Instinct (1992 – in two weeks purportedly) and then the Greatest (Somewhat Unintentional) Comedy, Showgirls (1995) – a film for which he was paid a record breaking 3.7 million dollars, making him the highest paid screenwriter in history. As anyone who has seen it knows – and if you haven’t, shame on you; stop reading and go buy it immediately – Showgirls more than earns Eszterhas his reputation for being a schlocky misogynist and made him the poster child for excess and megalomania (the subtitle of one of his books is called The Screenwriter as God!…). Outspoken and gregarious, Eszterhas has never been afraid to point fingers and name names in Hollywood (his most recent book is called Heaven and Mel about his time in Costa Rica with Mel Gibson, detailing the fall out of their friendship over Mel’s tyrannical behavior and Anti-Semitism), shitting on anyone who he felt deserved it – even himself. This outlook on the business coalesced into a screenplay. Sort of.

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An Alan Smithee Film Burn Hollywood Burn is about a director who is so distraught over the producer’s cut of his film that he decides to steal the negative and burn it. Ordinarily, if a director is displeased to the point of embarrassment by a movie they have made, they have the option of crediting it to “Alan Smithee,” the DGA’s pseudonym for disowning a film (at present, imdb lists 82 films “directed by Alan Smithee”…). But in Eszterhas’ film, the director’s name IS Alan Smithee. So what can he do? Why, steal the negative and threaten to destroy it, of course!

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Alan Smithee (Eric Idle) is a serious theatre director from England who is hired by James Edmunds (Ryan O’Neal as a slimy producer) to make a big budget action movie; how and why this would ever happen is one of the film’s many mysteries. Edmunds and Co. are excited to have him on board because they feel they can control him. But Smithee fights back. Realizing that the movie he was forced to make is utter bullshit, he decides to save his reputation by making sure the film never gets seen. What could unfold as a fun caper film is stifled by Eszterhas’ desire to preach about the “evils” of Hollywood – even using Robert Evans, Shane Black, Sylvester Stallone, Jackie Chan, Whoopi Goldberg, and himself as parodies of themselves to ground it in some kind of strange reality; Joe’s World, where men are assholes and women are sluts.

The plot is shaky (at best); the film is really just a series of soliloquies delivered to the camera about Alan Smithee’s spiral into madness culminating in his larcenous act. There is some kind of blackmail scheme with Chuck D. and Coolio, but by this point of the film, you are so checked out that you are just dying for it to be over. A strange hybrid of The Player and Pootie-Tang, An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn, like Showgirls, sets out to uncover a universe, but just ends up drowning in a sea of cliches and its writer’s own ejaculate.

The ultimate irony is that the film’s director, Oscar nominated Arthur Hiller (Love Story), ended up hating the movie so much that he credited Alan Smithee.

***COLONOSCOPY***

Bad Cinema: The Hateful Eight (Dir: Quentin Tarantino, 2015)

I have never written about a new movie for Bad Cinema. Part of what makes something “good” or “bad” is how they reveal themselves to us over time. How have they weathered the storm of reputation and history? After everything we know about a film’s shelf life, can we appreciate (or hate) it anew? And ordinarily I wouldn’t dream of putting my opinions down in the abyss like cosmos of InternetLand about something so fresh, so buzzed about, so “brilliant,” so “Oscar-worthy” as the newest film from a director I admire, no less. But I feel that is precisely the reason it must be said: The Hateful Eight is a lazy piece of crap. And I can’t for the life of me understand why people are lauding it.

The auteur movement is a cinematic theory that was spearheaded by a group of French filmmakers in the ’50s to celebrate the Director as King; auteur meaning “author” in French. Its main tenet is that one can look at a filmmaker’s body of work and know that it is theirs and no one else’s. We get a sense that we are peering into their vision of the world. It’s not crucial that the director in question also be the writer of the film – after all, the theory was created to celebrate Hitchcock and Ford, men who were not the originators of their material – but it is most obvious and consistent when they are: One can spot Mel Brooks’ or John Waters’ distinctive style of camp from across the room; Lars von Trier’s parabolic morality tale motifs are as obvious as his hand held camerawork; and Woody Allen has been crossing his lovers o’er the stars to lesser or greater degrees for the past 45 years.

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Quentin Tarantino makes Revisionist Revenge films. Regardless of the milieu or era, Tarantino places his anachronistic characters, sometimes too unbelievably smart and savvy for their (and the film’s) own good, into situations that allow them to enact a cathartic experience for his underdog audience, despite the fact that very few of his characters are three dimensional people; Tarantino is the master of thwarting tropes and needling nostalgia, yet we are ALWAYS on the outside looking in (the closest he ever came to a real person was The Bride in Kill Bill – and we don’t even learn her name until well into the 4th hour of her journey). The titular character in Jackie Brown seeks revenge for being coerced into running drugs (and tacit revenge for being a black woman in America); The Bride seeks revenge for her attempted murder at her own wedding in Kill Bill; Inglorious Bastards and Django Unchained allow Jews and slaves to fuck over the Nazis and the plantation owners, respectively, in the most Tarantino of ways – a blood bath scored to lush music where the good guys win.

I have always been a huge fan of Tarantino’s work. As a student of film history and a product of the Cynical-yet-celebratory-eye-towards-Pop-Culture generation, Tarantino’s universe, while drastically unrealistic and lacking anything that could be called pathos, is one that is usually exciting, unpredictable, and at the very least, quote worthy. But like Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Waters’ A Dirty Shame, von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, and Allen’s Irrational Man, Tarantino’s latest is an unfortunate example of what happens when a filmmaker is allowed to drown in his own hype, rehash his eccentricities, and go unchecked by a system that has deemed him a God.

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The Hateful Eight is set a few years after the Civil War. John Ruth (a giant mustache with Kurt Russell somewhere behind it) is a bounty hunter taking his latest score, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh playing a bloodied up potty mouth prop) to be hanged and collect the 10,000 reward on her head. In the vast snowy wilderness, John and Daisy come across Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson as yet another bad-ass with a gun) and his own bevy of bounties awaiting rewards. John agrees to let him and his baggage aboard the stagecoach because he sort of knows him (as you would when you meet a random person in the middle of the forest). Warren is somewhat infamous for leading a Union brigade during the war and burning down a Confederate outpost. He also has a handy letter from Abraham Lincoln in his pocket for added prestige. They prattle on in long-winded didactic speeches (a Tarantino staple) in which Warren’s character is constantly referred to as a “nigger” (another Tarantino staple), especially when they pick up another passenger in the middle of the wilderness that they both sort of know, the racist (of course) new sheriff Mannix (Walton Goggins) of the town where they just so happen to be traveling. He convinces them if they don’t give him a ride, he won’t pay John for Daisy, nor Warren for his bounty of bodies. So they give him a ride and have more longwinded didactic conversation heavily laced with the word “nigger” that is supposed to tell us something about these people’s characters, but really is just an excuse for Tarantino to jack off into the ether with his “edgy” dialogue that I’m sure made Spike Lee hit the speed dial to his good friend Sam to ask why the hell he participated in something so egregious.

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[While this dialogue choice works in Django Unchained – a slavery film set on a plantation – it really grows to levels of extreme discomfort in The Hateful Eight. Tarantino, never subtle and chronically adolescent in his fascination with the most forbidden of words, seems to throw it in any chance he gets just to be the guy who gets away with white people saying the word in 2015. His continued use of the word, perhaps close to 100, screams laziness from a man who knows how to turn a phrase without dropping 4 letter words every 5 lines]

The blizzard is too intense to travel to their destination so John, Mannix, Warren, and Daisy decide to stop off at at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a rest stop run by Mannix’s friends. But when they arrive, Minnie is nowhere to be found. The Mexican (we are constantly reminded of his ethnicity) running the place, Señor Bob (Demian Bachir) claims she and her husband have gone to visit her mother for the week and left him in charge. Mannix is dubious and keeps one eye on Bob at all times.

Also staying at Minnie’s are another trio, Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), Gen. Smithers (Bruce Dern), and Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth in a part tailor made for Christoph Waltz). It just so happens that Oswaldo is the hangman who is going to kill Daisy and Smithers fought against Warren in the war on opposite sides. We get the sense that these men are not who they say they are. More longwinded didactic profanity ridden dialogue continues – including another race-baiting tangent about Sam Jackson’s BBD – until the Intermission. Yes, Tarantino, gives us an Intermission and an Overture to pay “homage” to the ’60s epic Westerns he is trying to rip-off, er, emulate. This is also why he shot the film in 70mm, a dying medium that was championed during the early days of television to get patrons off their couch and back to the movies. And while this makes sense for films like Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra, and the big budget musicals with epic dance numbers and gorgeous landscapes, it seems like a giant waste of money (Harvey Weinstein had to spend 80 grand to put in projectors across the country) to use on a movie that for a good 90% of its 2 hours and 47 minutes takes place inside a monochromatic house. Yet another example of Quentin showing off for the sake of being the guy who can.

When we return from Intermission, a narrator (I bet you can’t guess whose voice it is…) fills in a few things we may have missed while we were off getting our popcorn. Someone has poisoned the coffee. And Daisy saw it happen. Is someone there to help Daisy escape? Part II of the film starts promisingly and is what one would call the most “Tarantino” of the scenes, in the best way possible. The repartee of the dialogue is brisk and feels crucial to the plot while at the same time we are getting important character insights. And then the violence begins, as iconic to Tarantino as Scorsese – although in Marty’s world one does not imagine an entire head begin disintegrated by two point blank range shots to the face. There is the inevitable flashback to tell us how we got where we are and who the characters really are (I won’t spoil it completely here in case you actually care).

Back in the present, people continue to die and have limbs shot (and cut) off to up the carnage factor (it’s no mystery why QT and Eli Roth are friends). Deals are brokered and the film ends the only way it can. Quentin Tarantino’s name flashes on the screen to remind us he is the author – as if it could have been anyone else.

***

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The biggest shocker of all – despite my own hatred for a film from a man I thought could do no wrong – is the talk of an Oscar nomination for Jennifer Jason Leigh. While as I stated, few of his characters are real people, Daisy is one of his most one-note characters in a long while, brought to life by Jennifer Jason Leigh tapping into her own strange, outlier, Method-acting creepiness she brings to all of her roles. Why she is being singled out for this nut job who spends more than half of her performance being beaten or covered in brain splatter and screaming the “n” word when she has never netted a nomination before AND turned in a beautiful performance in Anomalisa this year is beyond me.

Bad Cinema: Prozac Nation (Dir: Erik Skjoldbjaerg, 2001)

“I remember being in a panic one day at school when I realized that I could not even fake being the old Lizzy anymore. I had, indeed metamorphosed into this nihilistic, unhappy girl. Just like Gregor Samsa waking up to find he’d become a six-foot-long roach, only in my case, I had invented the monster and now it was overtaking me. This was what I’d come to. This was what I’d be for the rest of my life.”

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For the 18 – 24 year old version of Jonathon Saia, Prozac Nation resonated more than any other book. I had finally thought someone had crawled inside my head and understood the deep, lonely misery of my depression – a depression that felt unwarranted. A depression that felt self-authored. A depression that made me feel important, like I was joining the ranks of the army of artists who had come before me and used their pain to create beauty. The pale september that I wore like a dress those years, proudly flaunting my depth, my mystery, yet gradually, then suddenly realizing that my salvation, while it may look like it can come from without, really only can come from within.

Wurtzel’s debut memoir is desperately self-aware. She is a brilliant woman who is writing with the hindsight of her problems. She doesn’t justify her irrational behavior as much as she explains it to the best of her ability. Her book is self-indulgent without being narcissistic, extremely personal without being insular, and romantic without ignoring that the romance from the movies is a lie. At every turn, she knows that she is to blame for her problems, yet never seeks our sympathy. What could come off as just another spoiled girl from New York City saddled with the remnants of her parents’ divorce, Wurtzel ends up being the voice of her generation, the embodiment that Reality Bites, an Anais Nin for the ’80s, showing us the complexities of living in the modern world with a cynical eye towards herself, reminding us all that depression – in all of its forms – is real, can affect everyone, and yes, can be overcome.

***

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Lizzy (Christina Ricci) is an up and coming writer with a scholarship to Harvard. Her piece about her parents’ divorce appeared in Seventeen magazine, complete with the heartwarming reunion between her and her father. Only this is a lie. Her father had abandoned her for four years. But Lizzy, knowing what the world wanted to hear and that it would be good for her career, decided to give them the happy ending they sought. Don’t worry about Lizzy. Everything is going to be just fine.

Only everything is not going to be just fine. Lizzy is suffering from depression. It takes over every aspect of her life. Her writing, her relationships, and her health. Her mother (Jessica Lange) tries to help her. Her friend (Michelle Williams) tries to help her. Her therapist (Anne Heche) tries to help her. Even her boyfriend Rafe (Jason Biggs) tries to help her. But Lizzy is deep in her own vortex, unable to see outside of her pain, taking drugs and drinking to help block out what has already knocked down the door and come inside.

While the film adapts most of the conventional scenes – overdosing in the bathroom, fights with her parents, falling in love, and various therapy sessions – what truly makes the book come to life are Wurtzel’s asides; her monologues to the reader regarding her emotional states and her decisions. Of course, these are the first things that always go by the way side when one adapts a book for the screen. These are seen as didactic and laborious for the viewer. But when you are writing a film about the effects of depression, to only focus on the external instead of the battle within her own mind that causes the spiral of events in the “real world” is a horrible mistake.

The film fast forwards through a series of unfortunate episodes that lack any kind of gravitas or resonance because we are not grounded in Lizzy’s struggle. Yes, she has told us that she is depressed. But we never feel that she is depressed. We never understand what that means to Lizzy, what she is really going through. All we know is that she is a mess who can’t get out of her own way. By neglecting the reality of her pain, the depths of it, we end up judging Lizzy, looking on her as a whiny girl who needs to just shut up and get her life together. The film strips any of the compassion we feel for Lizzy in the book and strips Wurtzel’s own humorous take on her disease in lieu of misplaced melodrama, wrought with overacting. She is the only character that is half-way developed and yet she is barely developed at all as anything more than a morose girl, full of promise. And then the film becomes this sudden indictment on America’s obsession with pharmaceuticals without seeing the changes – positive or negative – that Prozac brings. We are TOLD that she is different, but never SEE anything different about her except maybe she is yelling a little bit less at everyone.

Christina Ricci was the perfect choice to play Lizzy, a woman who has made her career on playing angst-riddled teens. Ricci has also been very public about her own history with depression. Ironically though, Ricci seems to merely be going through the beats of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown instead of fully embodying it. It’s not that she is incapable of playing a difficult character with layers. DeeDee Truitt (The Opposite of Sex) and Selby Wall (Monster) are both complex, angry, young, confused women to which she has given beautiful life (and been robbed by the Academy for nominations…). Yet Lizzy, a woman on paper that seems to be closer to anyone Ricci has ever played, comes off as false and without an earnest connection.

***

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Prozac Nation wrapped in 2000, yet didn’t get a release until 2004 when it went straight to Showtime. Wurtzel claims it’s because Miramax’s film probably sucked and they were afraid of releasing a dud; Miramax claims they withheld the film from theatres because of some incendiary comments Wurtzel made about 9/11 (“I had not the slightest emotional reaction…I just felt like everyone was overreacting…”). Both may be true, but I have to side with Elizabeth. This movie sucks.

***COLONOSCOPY***

Bad Cinema: Tyler Perry’s Temptation – Confessions of a Marriage Counselor (Dir: Tyler Perry, 2013)

In David Fincher’s Gone Girl, Tyler Perry plays Ben Affleck’s attorney. There isn’t much to his character, but Perry proves one thing: he is capable of capturing our attention without donning a dress and mugging as a Mammy.

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Tyler Perry is one of the hardest working men in show business. He has four TV series currently on the air, has Oprah in his back pocket, recently produced his 19th play, and cranks out movies at a faster clip then Woody Allen. And if he we are talking dollars and cents, Tyler Perry is easily the most successful black filmmaker and producer in film history (sorry Spike…).

Unfortunately, he achieves these accolades by, as Mr. Lee says, engaging in “coonery buffoonery”. While Perry is definitely to be commended for making his black characters smart, sophisticated, and beautiful and giving them prestigious careers like doctors, lawyers, and CEOs, Perry then simultaneously turns around and punishes his successful characters if they ever turn their hearts away from the almighty wrath of the Lord. Through Him all is possible and without Him, all is lost. His favorite sin to exploit is adultery and his favorite method of punishment is HIV. Never one for subtlety, Perry hits you over the head with his proselytizing, ruining any chance of walking away from his film’s feeling empathy or love for his characters or their struggles.

Now, I realize that I am not his “traditional” audience. One, I am white. Two, I am an atheist. And three, I am a homosexual – although if Tyler would come correct, I would at least we included in that demographic (Who are you fooling, Tyler? You have way too many half-naked ripped men in your films for this to be an accident…).

With very few exceptions, Tyler’s camerawork and direction are amateurish and do not translate well to the screen. His framing is poor and seems improvised while his characters are unbelievably broad, shucking and jiving through their scenes like they just escaped from the plantation. I cannot believe how many black people pony up by the millions to be insulted in this way. Perhaps they see it as satire, some kind of Mel Brooks’ style – and forgive the pun – black comedy. Perhaps they enjoy seeing white people made out to be the fool in egregious ways (I guess it’s only fair after 150 years of Sambo and Aunt Jemima…). Or perhaps I am just an overly sensitive West Side liberal that harbors too much white guilt to get on board with this minstrel show. And not to question Tyler’s own religious convictions, but there is a level of manipulation happening in his films that feel like he is using God to sell tickets rather than to spread His message. Maybe I am just too cynical to appreciate earnest Christian belief when I see it. Any way you slice it though, his films feel belabored and insulting.

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Emblazoned with his name, as if we could mistake it for anyone else, Tyler Perry’s Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor starts off promising. It tells the story of Judith (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a marriage counselor whose own ex-marital dalliance costs her her husband and her health.

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Judith, nowhere close to living up to the strength of her Biblical predecessor, mopes through her soul sucking job at a matchmaking firm, mopes through her mediocre marriage to a pharmacist, and rolls her eyes at God – yet stands in self-righteous indignation that anyone would dream of having sex outside of wedlock.

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Enter Harley (gorgeous gorgeous Robbie Jones), a millionaire who is looking to invest in their company. Janice (Vanessa Williams) sticks him with Judith to come up with some kind of computer program. It is unclear exactly what this is for when she has already built a compatibility survey that does the same thing. No matter. It’s all a convoluted conceit to get them to flirt with one another and to unwittingly share details about their personal lives.

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Trouble is a foot at home with Brice (Tyler Perry stalwart Lance Gross – a very misleading name, I might add). She feels he doesn’t emotionally support her. She is bored with their lovemaking. She is upset that he doesn’t yell back at cat callers in the street. She is pissed they he forgot her birthday (OK, this one is pretty bad). And she feels stuck at her job because he doesn’t make enough money to help her open her own practice. Welcome to marriage, honey. And after six years of marriage, you need something to shake you up and make you take hold. So she puts on her fuck me pumps and struts into the arms of Harley.

Now, what’s funny is that she goes on this sexual journey with another man in retaliation for her husband’s “neglect” and a cry for his attention, yet SHE is the one who ends up paying for it in the end. This could not be just some normal affair where everyone grows and figures out their shit and realizes that maybe Oz isn’t all it is cracked up to be. No, no. Not in a Tyler Perry movie. Judith is punished in the worst way possible.

Despite the warnings from her mother, the Rev. Sarah (Ella Joyce), Judith cajoles with the Devil (and Tyler actually paints him as Satan, complete with a conveniently prominent fire during a drug-fueled orgy – see the poster for further proof…). She is verbally abused by Harley, yet takes it because apparently the D is that good. And she has never had a man taking charge like this. She is excited, enticed, turned on by his brute masculinity. He takes her to New Orleans where she experiences alcohol for possibly the first time. He gives her cocaine. He has awakened this new and daring side of her. And then he almost beats her to death when she threatens to leave. Oh, and gives her HIV.

The film of course ends up with her returning to church with her Mama where she belongs. But not until picking up her T-cell meds from her local pharmacist. I bet you can’t guess who…

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In Temptation‘s defense, it is definitely a step forward cinematically for its director. It has this sweeping cinematography complete with a sepia lushness, dripping with eroticism; the perfect look for a romantic drama. There are moments that you feel like he had an Adrian Lyne marathon right before shooting began. And the acting has some really great scenes; the two leads are excellent throughout their cat and mouse seduction. Their passion seeps through the screen, leaving you feel spent.

But of course where the film falters – as all Tyler Perry films do – is its writing. Now, I am not (merely) attacking Temptation for its gross insertion of God and His power to heal every ill, yet punish His flock at their slightest transgression. No, Temptation‘s writing is just plain bad. The plot is weak and the dialogue worse.

I must share a few examples:

“If smiles were dollars, we would have had millions.” – Judith on her wedding to Brice

“Sometimes you don’t know who you’re married to.” – the obvious tagline woven into everyday conversation

“You want to growl at something, growl at this sandwich.” – Brice, after Judith comes home horny as hell and wanting it bad

-“I don’t just want a good guy. I want a phenomenal guy.” – Judith to Brice, once again severely not in touch with the realities of marriage

And the litany of ridiculous jabs from Kim Kardashian’s character Ava, a gay man’s take on what he thinks a woman talks like (#pagingsexandthecity):

– “A degree on the wall without labels on your back is NOTHING!”
– “You don’t breath in Hermes!”
– “Is your fashion icon Delta Stewardess?”
– “That’s not make-up. That’s make-down!”
–  “You’re wearing flats? Push me out the window why don’t you?”

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Oh, and of course the film’s message:

– “Thank you for sharing your story with me. I’m going to end this almost-affair and stay with my husband.”

The film is told in flashback to one of Judith’s patients as a warning not to stray. To stay the course and work things out with your husband. Because who knows. You might just end up with AIDS if you do.

Maybe some day Tyler Perry will realize that he is capable of getting our attention with good storytelling and craftsmanship instead of schlocky moralizing.

***CAR CRASH***

Bad Cinema: Ishtar (Dir: Elaine May, 1987)

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There are a small handful of films that enter the pantheon as abject failures. Some films are considered failures because of their box office returns, movies whose ballooning budgets could not compete with its audience’s apathy. Some films are considered failures because critics have chimed in and told us they are bad, unfunny comedies or unintentionally humorous dramas that test the at times limited perceptions of the journalists who become our taste makers. Ishtar is considered both, a film that has become short hand for Hollywood excess and vain megalomania. The Golden Girls even have a joke about how awful it is.

The story goes that producer and star Warren Beatty backed Elaine May’s newest project – a take on the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road pictures – as a thank you for her Oscar nominated work she did on his film Heaven Can Wait and her script doctoring on his opus, Reds. Elaine May, once known as one half of the brilliant improv duo Nichols and May (with legend Mike Nichols), had been practically blackballed from Hollywood after she was fired from her last film, Mikey and Nicky, for going over budget and six months over schedule. But Beatty believed that May had never gotten a fair shake. So he recruited his friend Dustin Hoffman as the co-lead and the three of them headed to Morocco.

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Problems persisted throughout the shooting, including feuds between May and her cameraman, Vittorio Storaro (who had worked with her and Beatty on Reds and later shot Beatty’s Dick Tracy) over the look of the film; feuds between May and Columbia over the immense amount of footage she was shooting; feuds between May and Beatty over how she was shooting the footage; and feuds between May, Beatty, and Hoffman on the cut of the film, which eventually led all three to have their own editor working on a print. Bad press began to leak about the troubled production and unlike the scandal surrounding the making of Cleopatra (1963), another infamous Hollywood bomb, audience’s stayed away from Ishtar in droves. The 40 million dollar movie ended up making 12 million dollars and Elaine May never directed again.

But what about the movie itself? Does it deserve the bad mouthing, the thumb biting, the complete disregard it receives? The answer is no.

I contemplated including Ishtar in Good Cinema instead, not because it is a great film that needs exposure and recognition, but it is a film that is much better than it gets credit for.

***

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Lyle (Beatty) and Chuck (Hoffman) are two terrible songwriters hoping to make it big in New York. With nowhere else to turn, their manager gets them a two week booking in Ishtar, a mythical country near Morocco, at a restaurant for American tourists and GIs. While there, they get caught between a secret CIA operation to keep an American appointed Emir in power and a revolutionary coup to overthrow him. Shenanigans ensue as both sides look for a map that threatens to create a civil war. The boys are pitted against each other with the CIA trying to kill them for what they know and the leader of the rebellion (Isabelle Adjani – Beatty’s then girlfriend) using their limited intelligence to her advantage. The movie ends with the boys and their agent black mailing the CIA to back their album and a promotional tour in order to keep quiet. And one of them gets the girl. The movie doesn’t say which, and it really doesn’t matter.

As you can see, the plot is all over the place and not what one would call logical. But anyone looking for logic in the film misses the point. As homage, Ishtar captures the spirit of the Road to… movies, which relied on the personalities of Hope and Crosby (and Lamour) to carry the films. While some have complained that Beatty and Hoffman don’t capture the essence of Hope and Crosby – Beatty is too attractive to be the schmuck (or as Lyle would say “s-muck”) and Hoffman is too ugly to be the lethario Crosby – I would once again have to say this misses the point. Ishtar is not trying to remake Road to Morocco; it is satirizing it. If Beatty were meant to be Hope, Lyle would be full of zingers and sarcastic asides; if Hoffman were meant to be Crosby, Chuck would be a lot more assured. Instead, Lyle and Chuck are two complete losers who seem like slightly more functional versions of Lloyd and Harry from Dumb and Dumber than anyone else. Casting Beatty and Hoffman against type only furthers the satire and both of them more than competently fulfill their roles, particularly in the New York scenes where we see them write and poorly perform their songs in what feels like real time (the songs were written by Paul Williams…).

The scenes in New York are really where the film shines. May and her cast hilariously lampoon the shuck and jive of trying to make it in the city with no talent. Their act is so awful it could be handled by Broadway Danny Rose. If the film falls apart – and it definitely stumbles – it is when they go to Africa. It’s not that May is incapable of shooting action sequences, but she definitely is more at home with the two person repartee she famously honed with Mike Nichols.

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Some critics have complained that Beatty and Hoffman seem to be winking at the audience; that they come off as removed from the film in a negative way. First off, Hoffman is never winking at his audience. He is too Method for that. But I can see what they mean. The film is blatantly satirical and at times it seems when all else fails they are satirizing themselves, but this doesn’t mean that they are “superior” to the material as some critics have surmised. Does anyone accuse Clooney and Pitt’s constant on camera tomfoolery as “superiority”? No. I think a lot of critics had it set in their minds that they were going to hate this film going into it, knew that the stars and their director were responsible for the negative press, and looked for ways to put the blame on Mame.

At the end of the day, despite the unfortunate legend that surrounds it, Ishtar entertains. In fact, it reminds me of a slightly worse version of Spies Like Us, the really fun espionage comedy with Dan Akyroyd and Chevy Chase as bumbling government agents sent as decoys for an important Soviet take down. But Spies Like Us doesn’t have Charles Grodin. Seriously, I need to see everything he has ever done.

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Bad Cinema: Nymphomaniac (Dir: Lars von Trier, 2014)

“For me, love was just lust with jealousy added. Everything else was total nonsense.”

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For starters, I would like to address the notion of a Volume 1 and a Volume 2. There is no Volume I and Volume 2. These are not sequels. It is one long movie (between 4.5 and 5.5 hours, depending if you watch the Director’s Cuts or not) that was split into two films for theatrical release purposes (and for the sanity of the audience). Think of it like Kill Bill, only with lots of close up shots of hairy pussy.

Before we get into Nymphomaniac, I feel I must address where it falls within his body of work. Lars von Trier makes series of trilogies connected by themes: Europa (The Element of Crime, Epidemic, and Europa), Golden Heart (Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, and Dancer in the Dark), and USA: Land of Opportunity (Dogville – von Trier’s masterpiece, Manderlay, and the unproduced Wasington).

Nymphomaniac is Part III of his Depression Trilogy, a very personal inflection for von Trier. Part I is Antichrist, a similar film in tone and superior in execution to Nymphoniac, telling the story of a woman who is so traumatized by the death of her child while she was having sex that she devotes her life to being sexually punished. Part II is Melancholia – for my money von Trier’s most indulgent, boring, and overrated film – which is about a woman whose depression over her husband’s disappearance is exacerbated by the pending destruction of the world.

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Nymphomaniac is the story of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, in yet another bold role) and how sex simultaneously gave her meaning and ruined her life. The film, like all of the director’s work, has a fairy tale quality, illuminated by its very over written dialogue, moralizing tone, and storybook structure.

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Joe is found bloodied and barely alive in a snow laden alleyway by Seligman (von Trier stalwart, Stellan Skarsgard). She refuses to allow him to call the police or an ambulance; as he learns when he takes her back to his house, she is “a horrible person.” The intimation is that she deserved her abuse. And for the next four plus hours, she is going to tell us why.

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What follows are a series of sexual encounters and experiences, ranging from “discovering her cunt” at two years old to abandoning her child for the daily beatings of a man she knows only as “K” to her time as a dominatrix style mafioso. Each chapter is heavily narrated by Joe from Selingard’s home and intercut with polemical conversations on the merits of faith, nature, love, and sexuality. It reminds one of the Marquis de Sade’s Conversations between a Priest and a Dying Man only not as eloquently written and even less necessary. These seemingly endless scenes, while setting up a well structured and inevitable ending, read as theatrical in the most negative of ways and not only slow up the action, but damn near bring the whole thing to a screeching halt.

Fortunately, there are another seemingly endless series of scenes both “pornographic” and dramatic (and dramatically pornographic) to make you want to start the film over and give it another chance. For me, these scenes are where the film really finds its wings. The acting by the amazing cast – notably Stacy Martin as Young Joe and Gainsbourg – is layered and daring not only for their physical nudity (although that would be enough for Hollywood standards), but for their emotional nudity. Unfortunately, not enough people will suffer through the quagmire to mine the diamonds buried at the bottom of the swamp when they are filling out their Oscar ballots. Other stand-out performances include Shia LaBeouf as Joe’s one true love, Jerome; Jamie Bell as the sadistic K; and Uma Thurman in a phenomenal turn as the jilted wife of one of Joe’s latest conquests – seriously, why do more directors not give her a chance?

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For all the sex in the film – and there is a lot of sex in the film – you begin to numb to it rather quickly, which is part of Lars’ point (lest you don’t glean this as one of the dominant themes, just wait for the didactic monologue at the end to wrap it all up…). Lars’ concern here is not sex, but depression and how this woman, despite all of her protestations, uses sex to fill the…uh-hum….void within herself, a void presumably created by the death of her father (Christian Slater), although her behavior is not as easily explained away as it is in Antichrist. Supplant sex for any other “accepted” form of addiction – booze, gambling, cocaine – and it takes a lot of the shock factor out of it.

Yet the fact that it would be construed as shocking is precisely the reason Lars used sex as the drug of choice. Known for always pushing the most controversial of buttons, tearing up any envelope on the table, Nymphomaniac at times reads as forced and contrived, particularly because Lars’ signature tone is an unrelenting brand of ironic melodrama, always on the cusp of humor and devastation; The Lost Weekend, this is not. Lars somehow succeeds in poking fun at the ridiculousness of sex being taboo by precisely using the idea that sex is taboo as his raison d’être.

A note on the sex: Nymphomaniac is full of some of the most realistic sex you will ever see. There is a very good and impressive reason for that. It is real. Now before you get too excited that you have seen Shia LaBeouf’s erect penis (perhaps that was just me…), none of the “actors” in the film had sex. Interestingly, Lars von Trier, a man known for very gritty realism, has turned in some of the greatest CGI this side of Avatar. The scenes of fellatio are done with prosthetics and the hardcore sex shots (penetration, severe spankings, and close ups of genitalia) were painstakingly digitally altered by merging the upper bodies of the stars with the lower bodies of porn actors. The result is absolutely seamless. (To wit, Lars von Trier produces a line of pornography geared toward feminine pleasure, which if you have seen his oeuvre is most ironic…)

The more I think about Nymphomaniac the more I begin to reassess its merits. My healthy bias for Lars von Trier is clouding what I thought to be objective criticism and is causing me to wonder if I am properly categorizing this as Bad Cinema – a column that unquestionably includes epic turds like The Greatest Show on Earth and Heartbeeps

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‘Tis the joys and burdens of being a von Trier fan. No other filmmaker tests your stamina for melodrama, your threshold for female mutilation (physical and emotional), and your commitment to sticking with a film whose pacing unfolds like real life; von Trier’s greatest asset and liability. In totem, Nymphomaniac, while a bloated mess in need of a pair of scissorsis worth a viewing. Perhaps I should give Melancholia another go…

***CAR CRASH, albeit a fender bender…***

Bad Cinema: The Greatest Show on Earth (Dir: Cecil B. DeMille, 1952)

What an unfortunate title.

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Believe it or not, this elephant turd of a mess was once the “greatest” show on Earth. Or at least Hollywood. Yes, this terrible, bloated, boring piece of shit won Best Picture in 1952. I guess it shouldn’t be that shocking. Bad films have won before. And no, I don’t mean “I didn’t like it; therefore, it is awful and should not have won.” I know Oscar films are chosen in large part due to politics. But a film this bad has rarely passed the golden threshold (I would cite Grand Hotel in 1932, Going My Way in 1944, Around the World in 80 Days in 1956, Platoon in 1986, The Last Emperor in 1987, and Dances with Wolves in 1990 as further examples of choosing illustriousness over quality….) But I would put The Greatest Show on Earth below them all for two reasons.

1) It beat High Noon AND the un-nominated Singin’ in the Rain (clearly one of the Academy’s biggest mistakes)

2) It is made so shoddily by a legend.

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DeMille was one of the founding fathers of cinema, mentioned in the same breath as Griffith and von Stroheim. Before he became synonymous with epic productions, DeMille made domestic dramedies – some great, some awful. The Cheat is a masterpiece (and features the first interracial story on film), yet his streak of work with Gloria Swanson (homaged in Sunset Blvd.) was very hit or miss (Don’t Change Your Husband shines while Male or Female really flatlines). The original version of The Ten Commandments is impressive for its grandeur, but lacks in its emotion; whereas, the remake is the culmination of his greatness: over-the-top spectacle mixed with glorious melodrama and heart. THIS is the film that should have won him Best Director and Best Picture. But instead Hollywood honored Around the World in 80 Days. The worst film to win since…well, The Greatest Show on Earth.

If TGSOE had been conceived as a documentary, it could have been really engaging. To follow the Barnum and Bailey Circus for a year, interview the acts, understand the carny life, and see the blood and sweat that goes into not only being a touring show, but a touring show that builds its own theatre in the middle of a field in the heartland of Nowhere. It could have been a 90 minute thrill ride that brought out the kid in all of us.

But what we got was a two and a half hour “narrative” crawl – and I put that in quotations because there really is no story here – that is really just a documentary set adrift on a creaky tilt-a-whirl.

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Apparently, Ringling Bros. is on hard times and everyone is worried if they will get to perform a whole season. The brass wants to shut it down after 12 towns; the manager Brad (Charlton Heston in his sexiest Indiana Jones drag) demands that they stick it out. The small towns are where they really matter, bringing joy to the faces of every child. And laying off 1200 people so the suits can keep their shirts isn’t his style. He agrees to get them to stay the course as long as they remain in the black. And with The Great Sebastian on board, they are bound to be standing room only.

The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde, with abs to give Nick Jonas a run for his money) is the best trapeze artist in the country. He is also a notorious womanizer, swinging from headboard to door knob before the girls can even catch their breath. But once he spots trapeze up-and-comer Holly (an obnoxiously phony Betty Hutton), he decides that there is no one else for him. There’s only one problem. She is Brad’s girl. But Brad is boss first, lover last. He kicks her out of the center ring because the audience is paying to see a star. Sebastian gives her the center ring, presumably in exchange for her pussy. But she is not that easily swayed. She is going to make whatever ring she is in the center ring! Screw Brad. Screw Sebastian. Screw safety. Holly is going to be a star on her own terms.

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They have this faux-rivalry competing for the spotlight, although Sebastian seems ambivalent for it. He has nothing to prove and she has everything to earn. They play this game of one-upmanship on the ropes, standing on their head, balancing on a chair, and performing without nets. Their acrobatics, which go on for a significant amount of run time, are impressive – especially because it looks like Wilde and Hutton are actually performing these stunts themselves – yet in a post-Cirque de Soleil world, their stunts seem quaint and somewhat mediocre. Naturally, they fall in love.

Sebastian is obviously a distraction, a subconscious diversion to get Brad to be more interested in Holly. Although Brad doesn’t seem to be that jealous. Maybe it’s because you don’t really buy Holly and Sebastian’s romance. (Hutton is schmacting for the peanut gallery and Wilde’s phony French accent constantly takes you out of the film…). But in the end, Brad and Holly confess that they are the only one the other has truly loved. Of course, this is after Brad almost dies and Sebastian no longer can perform because he mangled his hand in a stunt – not saying Holly was a star fucker, but…

I may be painting this is a lot more juicy than it actually is. This “drama” is a very small part of the large run time. The other two story lines involve the circus’ finances, which are not really mentioned again after that initial scene (obviously they are doing OK because they remain on the road) and some shady dealings with gangsters who want to muscle in on the circus by rigging some of the games played outside of the tent (this storyline is not really developed and also comes and goes without rhyme or reason). The Greatest Show on Earth is really just an excuse for DeMille to film the circus, although his cinematography is not that engaging. There is actually a scene with the gangsters that has not one, not two, but three unintentional jump cuts. Truffaut this ain’t. Merely a case of not setting up the depth of field properly between takes. This is a gross mistake from a man who had been making films since 1912. Then there is the very overly written narration, performed by DeMille himself, that is unnecessary and tedious (somehow this conceit works in The Ten Commandments – maybe it’s the nature of being a period piece…) What’s worse are the attempts from the carnies at acting. In fact, even the “actors” are pretty awful. The only one who is passably engaging is Gloria Grahame (and Betty Hutton in a camptastic kind of way).

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Oh, and lest I forget there is Jimmy Stewart as a clown who never takes off his make-up for fear that the police will find out he is some famous doctor who killed his wife. Um…ok. It’s like the writers knew they didn’t have a story so they just threw in every kind of nonsense they could imagine. Bob Hope even makes a cameo for no reason other than Bob Hope making a cameo.

The film ends with this elaborate train wreck.  I leave you with this as a metaphor for the movie.

***CAR CRASH***

Bad Cinema: Norbit (Dir: Brian Robbins, 2007)

oscar-meets-norbit4 Norbit is the film touted to have lost Eddie Murphy his well deserved Academy Award for Dreamgirls. First let’s start with how ridiculous this is. The Oscar is supposed to be for the “best” performance by an actor in a single year. Not a cumulative kudos for the other work they did in that year or any other year. And especially not as a Lifetime Achievement. But that is what happens routinely. Awards are given as tributes. And why not? It’s damn near impossible to compare performances when the characters are so vastly different. Alan Arkin beat Eddie Murphy because Little Miss Sunshine was the awards’ circuit darling AND Alan Arkin was in that Christopher Plummer category of “Well, he’s old and done great work before so we might as well give it to him for this kind of nothing part as an apology.” Eddie Murphy’s performance in Dreamgirls is full of pathos, comedy, and the added bonus of having him sing. Oh, and he is an amazing singer. But Dreamgirls in general was shut out for suspect (re: racial) reasons – honestly, how was this NOT nominated for Best Picture and Scorsese’s lightweight The Departed not only was nominated but WON? Talk about making up for past mistakes…. When Eddie Murphy lost to Alan Arkin, he walked out of the Kodak Theatre. Childish? Maybe. But if the rumor mill was to be believed, it was largely because of Norbit‘s release immediately preceding the voting that left a bad taste in the mouth of the voters. If that were the case, I would have been pissed too. Now THAT is childish. norbit-trivia Secondly, as second rate as a film Norbit is – and it is pretty bad, which I’ll get to in a minute – what makes Norbit work at all – and it does work – is Eddie Murphy’s performance! You know, the very thing that the Academy Awards is supposed to be honoring. No matter what terrible film Murphy finds himself in – and they are legion – Eddie Murphy is ALWAYS consistently great. He is a fully committed comedian, unafraid to take risks, unafraid to look foolish, unafraid to offend, and while he is damn near invisible in some of his roles under heavy make-up, you always see Eddie Murphy’s star shining through. He is like Jerry Lewis. Big, bold, and underrated as an actor because he is too respected as a comedian. Apparently, these things are mutually exclusive (just ask Joan Rivers…).

Now, that said, Norbit is offensive and belabored and full of tripe and void of that many laughs. Norbit (Murphy) is a discarded baby, thrown from the back seat of a speeding car at the doorstep of a Chinese restaurant/orphanage. Mr. Wong (also Murphy in Chinese make-up) finds the baby and raises it as his own – even though he hates black people. Norbit tries his best to fit in, but is treated as an outcast. This is Mr. Wong’s tough love style. But Norbit’s childhood changes when he meets Kate, a fellow orphan. They bond, they “date” (as much as 10 year olds date), and eventually “get married” under the big oak tree in the back yard, complete with Ring Pop rings. But light-skinned Kate is suddenly adopted and Norbit is left to fend for himself in a cruel world. That is until he meets Rasputia. 13 One day in the park two kids destroy his sand castle. They begin pounding on him, beating him senselessly until a heavy set girl comes to save him. He is so thankful that he agrees to be her boyfriend. Despite that she is a horrible person who treats him like property. Eventually they get married and Norbit goes to work for Rasputia (now also played by Murphy) and her family in their contracting business. He isn’t happy, but at least he has a family, a place to belong. Until Kate (Thandie Newton) comes back in the picture to shake things up. She plans to take over the orphanage from Mr. Wong and give back to her community. Now if only Norbit can dump Rasputia and convince Kate not to marry Deion (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) he could finally have the life he always wanted. 362B26ED-DA16-8B38-7BA7861A0F50CC32 I now must pause for a diatribe. Perhaps I have been married to a dark skinned black man for too long or maybe I have just seen too many movies to ignore the blinding commentary, but the apartheid within the black community screams to me as very obvious. And nowhere more obvious than on film where white (or at least as close to it as you can get) is right. When it comes to beautiful black women we turn to Halle Berry, Beyonce, Kerry Washington, Whitney Houston, Iman, Beverly Johnson, Diana Ross, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, Tina Turner, Dorothy Dandridge, Vanessa Williams, Gabrielle Union, Jada Pinkett, Janet Jackson, Michelle Obama, Mariah Carey, and even as far back as Josephine Baker. And yes, THANDIE NEWTON. All light skinned. Darker black skinned women (Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Whoopi Goldberg, Lupita N’yongo, Niecy Nash) have to fight to be seen as sexy and more often than not will play slaves, maids, and other versions of stereotypes. Dark black girls are more at liberty to be loud and bossy, strong and smart. And allowed (and expected) to be in touch with their black heritage; whereas light skinned black girls can play a myriad of parts and are accepted (and expected) to be sexual, demure, and easily palatable for white society. Look at the two most successful black sitcoms: The Cosby Show and Martin. Dark Dr. Cosby marries the sophisticated light skinned Phylicia Rashad and they have gorgeous mixed tone babies. Their eldest “daughters” – the ones to be sexualized – are played by the VERY light skinned Lisa Bonet and Sabrina Le Beouf; while their youngest daughters – the ones meant to make us laugh – are played by the darker skinned Tempestt Bledsoe and Keshia Knight Pulliam. Martin‘s two main females are played by the light skinned Tisha Campbell and the dark skinned Tishina Arnold. I bet you can guess which one plays his wife and which one plays his nemesis. Norbit-movie-20 I bring this up because Norbit pits the loud, obnoxious, dark skinned, overweight Rasputia against the demure, loving, light skinned, skinny Kate, played by Thandie Newton. Now, of course Rasputia is going to be dark skinned because she is played by Eddie Murphy. But that doesn’t change the dynamic. In fact, the entire movie pits them against one another. And ends up relying on stereotype and fat jokes to make us laugh (admittedly, it succeeds on occasion…Murphy is really going for it…). But I wonder if the roles were reversed – Thandie Newton in a fat suit as a horrible shrew and Eddie Murphy as the sexy girl of his dreams; or Hell, even darker skinned Regina King as his love interest – if the film would work on the intended level. There is a short cut by casting an almost white girl in the part of sex pot. We believe his attraction without question, regardless of Rasputia’s behavior. To continue my point of racial apartheid, look at the men in this film. Take Eddie Murphy out of it because he is an established entity and it is his movie. The bad guys in the film are all very dark skinned, save for the light skinned Cuba Gooding, Jr, whom we ASSUME is a good guy until we know better. Racial emotions are not limited to black women on film. We believe that Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, or Samuel L. Jackson could be bad guys much easier than we do Will Smith. True, Will Smith has made a career of playing heroes. But would that career choice have been possible if he were dark? Who knows. My guess is it would have been a lot harder. As far as Norbit’s “humor” goes, as mentioned, the jokes heavily rely on her weight, which depending on your taste level are hilarious or offensive. Weight jokes – like racial jokes, sexual jokes, or anything else “off-color” – have their place in comedy, but can reach a threshold of intolerance pretty quickly. Also, it seems ironic that a man whose best film is arguably The Nutty Professor – a film designed to give overweight people the love and respect they deserve – would then turn around and make a film that seems to do the exact opposite.

Bad Cinema: Magic in the Moonlight (Dir: Woody Allen, 2014)

Forgive me, Woody, but I must tell it like it is.

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To be fair, Magic in the Moonlight, Woody Allen’s 48th feature as director, is not his worst. That title could be reserved for Cassandra’s Dream. Or Melinda and Melinda. Or Hollywood Ending. But Moonlight is most clear in my mind so here we are.

Let’s start with what was good about it. Woody Allen, my vote for the greatest director of all time, has never made a terrible movie. Even the above titles are more enjoyable than some of the brainless tripe invading our cineplexes like locusts.

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Like all Allen films, the acting is worthy of note. Emma Stone is charming, beautiful, incandescent, and perfectly cast as Sophie Baker, the shyster medium who has a family of aristocrats fooled into thinking she is the real deal. Her gumption is prototypically Woody, but she blissfully lacks the neuroses that plagues most of his heroines. It is a refreshing change of pace (the only thing that is…). Colin Firth as the cynical Allen conduit sent to debunk Sophie, who of course is wooed by her feminine wiles, is fully committed to his character, however surface and trite and smug he is. Marcia Gay Harden, always great, is given a nothing part so basically just sashays around with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of her mouth. Then there is Jackie Weaver, kooky and campy and a breath of fresh air to this maudlin albatross. If she had had another scene or two, she may be the one to watch for an Oscar nod. If this film is remembered. Which it shouldn’t be.

Woody. Woody. Woody. How do you go from Blue Jasmine, a crowning addition to your list of established masterpieces, and give us…this. A film so lazy, so bloated with its own bullshit, so Memorexed that I could have quoted it before hand.

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Firth plays Stanley, a magician known as Wei Ling Soo. After a didactic discussion about how he is the greatest debunker of chicanery and how no one can fool him, he heads to the south of France to investigate Stone’s “vibrations” and prove that he is indeed the greatest debunker of false soothsayers. However, after a brief encounter at an observatory and a battery of quizs, he thinks that maybe Sophie may be legit. That maybe he has been wrong. That maybe, just maybe, there is “magic in the moonlight.”

 

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Of course, Allen doesn’t let this go on. Soon we find out that she IS indeed a fraud (after an aborted prayer, perhaps the first one Stanley has ever said…) and that HA there is no such thing as magic, but maybe believing in magic isn’t such a bad thing because it gives people hope. God gives people hope. And sometimes it’s better to live with your illusions than without them. And perhaps “love” is the greatest most inexplicable magic of all.

It’s not that Allen has mined this thesis before (which he has – innumerable times in Blue Jasmine, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Midnight in Paris, and a litany of others) that makes this film an eye roller. It’s that he has done it so much better in other films (Broadway Danny Rose, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhattan) that what is the point in repeating it ad nauseum? We know that Woody is an atheist. We know that he is a nihilist. So why tell us again? If there is nothing new to add to the conversation, why keep having it? That’s the beauty of film over an impromptu conversation. The film is forever. We can pull it down and get our history lesson, our moral agenda for the day, the week, the month, or our life. But it seems that Woody, the chronic work horse, falls back on familiar territory just to keep working. Woody may have run out of things to say. And as one of the most erudite and exciting academic filmmakers of our time, this saddens me greatly.

A note on the May-December “romance,” we’ll call it. I have no problem continuing to take this leap of faith with you, Mr. Allen. After all, it is your life and we know, “The heart wants what the heart wants.” That’s fine. Seriously. I do not care. Love is complicated and crazy and irrational. But at least if you are going to put us through this unorthodox phenomenon, at least give us a reasonable facsimile, a modicum, of believability!

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Gone are the days of Isaac and Tracy, Gabe and Rain, or even Boris and Melodie. Stanley and Sophie lack any kind of chemistry, any hint of connection that when Sophie first broaches the subject of a love affair, I had to remind myself that I was in a romantic comedy instead of the polemic drawing room BS it more closely resembles. There is one scene – the proposal scene in the park – that gives us a hint of the Woody who has earned his legend, but it seems like a scene from another, better film that somehow found its way into this mess as if by accident. And then when she accepts his marriage proposal at the end, in a shot reminiscent of the end of My Fair Lady, I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to Higgins’ damn slippers even while smirking in spite of my own disappointment at Woody’s sophomoric first draft. I was outside of the film looking in instead of immersing myself fully into what, on paper, could have been a very enticing world. Woody’s politics for once got in the way of his legendary ace in the hole: the crimes of the heart. Poor Firth and Stone, both incredibly talented actors, ended up Two Characters In Search of a Director. Perhaps he was too busy thinking about his next film to give a damn about the one at hand.

I wish he would take breaks between films. As Paris and Jasmine and Vicky Cristina Barcelona prove, the man still has great work in him, irrespective of his monotonous morality. Which is why I am not too upset about Magic in the Moonlight. Another film will arrive next summer, like clock work. And this is his pattern. He throws all of his creative energy into a masterpiece and then spends the next film gaining it back. How else can the man who made Husbands and Wives have turned out Shadows and Fog?

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 ***Rip van Winkle***

 

Bad Cinema: Trapped in the Closet (Dir: R. Kelly and Jim Swaffield, 2005-2012…and beyond)

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At its most basic, the line between “good” and “bad” cinema rests on the shoulders of Intention. Is what you are seeing onscreen, particularly if it is bad, on purpose? And if so – and done well – does it then make it good? Is this the purest form of satire?

Take the early work of John Waters: over-the-top acting, cardboard sets, garish dime store costumes, and home-video style cinematography = all on purpose. Waters is paying homage to Herschell Gordon Lewis & Russ Meyer, two of the schlockiest directors to come around since Ed Wood. (One could even argue that Lewis and Meyer are intentionally bad, having aided in creating the exploitation film, which is infamous for having tongue firmly in cheek)

And then there is Trapped in the Closet, R. Kelly’s epic journey of infidelity. For those of you who have not seen all 30+ chapters, stop reading this right now, get stoned – blazed! – and find it online. For those who have already witnessed the trials of Sylvester, Rufus, Gwendolyn, Cathy, Chuck, and Pimp Lucius, you know that what I am about to say is true: Trapped in the Closet is a masterpiece.

The original incarnation of TITC was contained to five chapters, up until the point we learn that Gwendolyn is sleeping with the police officer. These chapters make up the last five tracks of Kelly’s 2005 TP.3 Reloaded  album. Due to audience outcry, Kelly continued his “hip-hopera” (all sung by Kelly; amazingly, by the way) to interconnect even more fools with even more infidelity, culminating in – what else? – everyone worried that they got “the package” aka HIV.

R. Kelly pushes the satirization of the black community, especially its men, to where the sidewalk ends. His over-masculinized males pull guns on each other at the slightest question of their manhood; unless they are gay. Then they have AIDS. What could be construed as offensive if out of the blue, unnecessary, and played for melodrama in say, oh, a Tyler Perry movie (i.e. Janet Jackson’s down low hottie husband in For Colored Girls) actually infects the satire with a very real world problem: the greatest achievement of any parody. Taking a look at the title, Kelly also is poking fun at the inherent homophobia within the black community.

The film works as a Masterpiece of Trash because everyone is in on the joke (if Showgirls was on purpose, Paul and Joe definitely kept it a secret from Elizabeth Berkeley…). It is almost the definition of bad narration (everything he tells us we also see). The technical aspects of the film meet and exceed Hollywood standards, which only enhances its laughability. If you didn’t know any better, you would think you were watching some drama starring Morris Chestnut and Taraji P. Henson. Instead, you get a thoroughly above adequate R. Kelly (who at the time was embroiled in his own real life sexual drama; the one where he was caught on tape, pissing on a minor…) and a cavalcade of brilliant actors, turning in award worthy performances, absolutely going for it in every single moment. Never for an instant do they play into the humor. Which, of course, makes it wet the bed funny.

Began as a joke, Trapped in the Closet has taken on a life of its own. Kelly claims to have 85 chapters of the saga tucked away to record and film and, no lie, TITC is headed for Broadway. If anyone is trying to get on my good side (or in my pants), two tickets down center would be nice.

***KARDASHIAN***