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Is Romance Dead at the Movies?

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Maybe this is why I’m still so single, but the most romantic movie I’ve seen in 2017 is The Shape of Water, a love story between a mute woman and a fish-man. In an attempt to remedy that situation, I saw two new films touted as great romances, Call Me By Your Name and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Unfortunately, both felt even longer than their complete-sentence titles.

That’s because I didn’t buy the central relationship of either story. Sexual chemistry, both on-screen and off, is a highly subjective business. I was swept away by the lighter-than-air dynamic between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in last year’s La La Land, but my fellow Cranky Guy Bret Watson thought they struck zero sparks.  (He also found The Shape of Water “soggy.” Remind me why we’re friends again?)

So despite all its critics’ group awards and Golden Globe nominations, I call bullshit on Call Me By Your Name. Director Luca Guadagnino’s cinematic mega-turd A Bigger Splash was my least favorite film of 2016, and while this is an improvement, it’s mostly because of two actors — and they’re not the love interests. As a 17-year-old American spending the summer of 1983 in Italy with his family, Timothée Chalamet builds on the promise of his performance in Lady Bird; he’s a young actor of rare sensitivity. And as his professor father, Michael Stuhlbarg (who’s also great in The Shape of Water — have I mentioned how much I love that movie?) proves he can render even the most ludicrous dialogue believable. Not only does he have to give a speech about the etymology of the word “apricot,” but he tells his boy, who has a fling with a grad student (Armie Hammer) staying at their villa, “Feel something you certainly did.” Who is this guy, Yoda? Oy.

We’re supposed to believe that the bond between Chalamet and Hammer is one for the ages. Why, because we see them riding bikes and swimming endlessly? Sure, it looks like fun, and Chalamet captures the exquisite pain of first love, but Hammer is as bland and colorless as baking soda. (Full disclosure: I may have disliked him so much in this movie because he reminded me of Todd, my roommate on a class trip to Mexico I took in 1983, when I was the same age as Chalamet’s character. Todd never took off his Walkman, and when you asked him what he was listening to, he’d always say, “Yaz, of course” in the most obnoxious way imaginable.)

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I have no problem with gay movies. I was in a gay movie. Admit it, that’s an even more convincing argument than “Some of my best friends are gay.” Which they are, by the way. My issue with Call Me By Your Name is that it’s sooo sloooow and boring and pretentious. The guys don’t even get it on until an hour and a half into this 132-minute slog. Then Chalamet has sex with a nectarine, which Hammer later fingers. I try to be an open-minded guy — I had no problem with the butter lube in Last Tango in Paris or the pastry-shtupping in American Pie — but this is a peach too far. (Did I mention I was in a gay movie? Okay, good.)

That leads me, somehow, to Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which runs only 106 minutes but feels twice as long. Annette Bening and Jamie Bell do technically solid work as Gloria Grahame, the Oscar-winning actress from 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful, and Peter Turner, a much younger actor who fell for her in the late ’70s. Sadly, this movie is more bad than beautiful, as director Paul McGuigan (Victor Frankenstein) lets the pace lag and lingers on far too many close-ups of Bening’s face. (“Ooh, look at all those lines!” we’re meant to say. “How brave! Give her an Oscar!”) And again, it’s subjective, but I felt more sexual heat between Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude than I did between Bell and Bening.

Maybe that’s why I’m still so single.

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Killing for Love: The Murderers I Knew

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Everyone has freshman-dorm horror stories, but I’ve got a real one: During my first year at the University of Virginia, I lived in the same residence hall as a couple who would later be convicted of a double murder that took place while we were dorm-mates. Jens Soering was the socially awkward 18-year-old son of a German diplomat; Elizabeth Haysom was the worldly 20-year-old daughter of a retired businessman who had sent her to an English boarding school, where she said she’d used heroin. When Jens and Elizabeth started dating, people were surprised she chose him. When her parents were brutally stabbed to death over Spring Break at Loose Chippings, their Bedford, Va. home, people were shocked — not because we suspected they were involved, but because we felt so sorry for Elizabeth (and by extension, Jens).

The following fall, when Jens and Elizabeth went on the lam to Europe because police were closing in on them, people were stunned. The duo was arrested for passing bad checks and began the extradition process to the U.S. Jens initially confessed to the crimes, and Elizabeth pled guilty in 1987, claiming she stayed in Washington, D.C. over the long weekend of the incident to establish an alibi while Jens drove to the Haysoms’ home, where she hoped he would kill them. The motive for the murder was unclear; Elizabeth accused her mother of sexual abuse but recanted that allegation.

Before Jens’ 1990 trial, he changed his story, arguing he mistakenly believed he wouldn’t be eligible for the death penalty because of his family’s diplomatic immunity. He said he’d taken the proverbial bullet for Elizabeth, who had been the one to drive to Bedford from D.C. and killed her parents, because he was so blindly in love with her. He said he believed he could spare her life and would be able to reunite with her after he served a few years in Germany, where prison sentences are usually shorter.

Only after Virginia agreed to drop the death penalty was he returned to the States, where he stood trial in 1990. Despite his fresh contention that Elizabeth had slain her parents while he stayed in D.C. — and inaccuracies in his original confession about key details of the crime scene, suggesting that he might not have been there — he was convicted and received two life terms, served consecutively, with no mandatory parole. Because she pled guilty, Elizabeth cut a deal that guarantees her parole in 2030, when she’s 68.

In the years since his conviction, Jens has become a cause celebre, writing manifestos from prison and attracting support from lawyers, a pastor and other advocates. The case has been the subject of true-crime books as well as articles in the Washington D.C. City Paper and The New Yorker. Now there’s the inevitable documentary, Killing for Love, which has just been released on VOD. The sensational title, as well as the melodramatic Amazon plot summary (“What could make an innocent man take the fall for a crime he didn’t commit?”) indicate the filmmakers, Marcus Vetter and Karin Steinberger, buy Jens’ revisionist tale. If you believe Jens didn’t actually murder the Haysoms, Killing for Love (which originally carried the less salacious moniker The Promise) is a confusing title. Should she have been the culprit, Elizabeth surely didn’t do it for love.

The film has a few minor factual inaccuracies: One of Jens’ die-hard backers extols his intelligence by noting he was both a Jefferson Scholar and an Echols Scholar and asserts that’s an exceedingly rare feat. In fact, Jefferson Scholars enrolled in the College of Arts & Sciences are automatically admitted to the Echols Scholar program. The directors also take a shortcut by using stock footage of the Bruin movie theater in L.A. to represent the cinemas where Jens bought tickets to the films Witness, Stranger Than Paradise and The Rocky Horror Picture Show to support their alibis. D.C. locals know Rocky Horror played at the Key Theater in Georgetown throughout the ’80s. These errors can be chalked up to the filmmakers’ status as foreigners, but they raise questions about what else Vetter and Steinberger may have gotten wrong.

It’s not clear whether the directors intended an inside reference by opening and closing their film with “I Put a Spell on You,” used to great effect in Stranger Than Paradise, in a not-so-subtle nod to Elizabeth’s supposedly hypnotic hold over Jens. The documentarians also employ the needless gimmick of hiring movie stars Daniel Bruhl (The Zookeeper’s Wife) and Imogen Poots (Sweet Virginia) to read the overheated letters Jens and Elizabeth wrote each other before and after their “little nasty,” as they called the double homicide.

I must confess I’ve always thought Jens was guilty of perpetrating the slaughter, in part because he gave off a vaguely Nazi vibe when I knew him. He wrote an op-ed in one of our college’s papers supporting President Reagan’s much-maligned 1985 trip to Bitburg Cemetery to lie a wreath at the graveyard where many SS veterans were buried. He also lorded his Aryan heritage over two close friends of mine, both of them Jewish, whom he bested in his quest for Elizabeth’s affection. And, as I later learned, one of his “love” letters to Elizabeth depicted a Third Reich-themed sexual fantasy.

But having been an apparent Nazi sympathizer doesn’t make Jens a murderer, and Killing for Love constructs a fairly convincing case that he was a patsy. It puts forth an alternate theory that Elizabeth committed with murders with the aid of an accomplice or two, including a now-deceased classmate who was allegedly her drug dealer. That should raise enough reasonable doubt to merit reopening Jens’ case, but his hopes to be released and returned to his homeland were dealt a serious blow by former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell before he was convicted of federal bribery charges in an unrelated matter. The Supreme Court vacated his conviction, and the Justice Department opted not to retry him, so — unlike Jens — McDonnell never spent a night, much less 32 years, in prison.

In the final verdict, Killing for Love acquits itself well as a captivating entry in the same genre as The Jinx and Making a Murderer. And I’m sure this won’t be the last time this case is revisited — it seems well-suited to being dramatized on Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story or Dick Wolf’s Law & Order: True Crime series.

No matter what, this story will always hit terrifyingly close to home for me. In my second year at U.Va., I nearly shared a two-bedroom apartment with Jens and three other guys from our dorm. One of my aforementioned friends had asked Jens to live with us, but he ultimately declined, explaining he required a private room “so I can make love to Elizabeth any time I want.” Just thinking about it almost kills me.

Does I, Tonya Deserve to Win Oscar Gold?

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If I, Tonya were a figure-skating jump, it would be a triple axel, a feat with such a high degree of difficulty that no woman ever landed it in competition until Tonya Harding came along. And writer Steven Rogers, director Craig Gillespie, and especially producer-star Margot Robbie nail it.

How do you make Harding, who became the most hated woman in America after her associates arranged the knee-capping of her Olympic competitor Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, into a sympathetic figure? You start with a script that suggests Harding was just as much, if not more, of a victim than Kerrigan. While acknowledging she might be an unreliable narrator, I, Tonya depicts her relentless abuse at the hands of her mother (Allison Janney, who could add an Oscar to her collection of seven Emmys for The West Wing and Mom with her fiercely funny performance) and her husband, Jeff Gillooly (the solid Sebastian Stan).

Gillespie’s breakneck direction owes more than a small debt to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, with its propulsive visuals and deliciously irresistible junk-pop soundtrack, but you could certainly borrow from worse. But it’s really Robbie who deserves the bulk of the credit here. I’ll admit, I was skeptical when I was heard the classy Aussie stunner was cast as the tacky American skater. How wrong I was. Robbie builds on the promise of her shoulda-been-nominated role as Leonardo DiCaprio’s ferocious wife in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. She doesn’t try to make you feel sorry for Harding as she creates a portrait of a woman who’s relentless in her pursuit of the respect she’s undeservedly denied by her family, figure-skating judges and an unforgiving media and mass culture.

The last of these is represented by an ebullient Bobby Cannavale as a producer of the tabloid TV series Hard Copy. Without leaving his office chair during his mockudrama confessionals, the reliably versatile Cannavale once again proves he’s a true character actor in a leading man’s body. I, Tonya‘s biggest scene stealer, however, is Paul Walter Hauser as Harding’s bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt, whose hysterical delusions of being a counterterrorist international man of mystery are dwarfed only by his appetite for hot dogs.

Nothing on Gillespie’s or Rogers’ spotty cinematic resumes could’ve prepared moviegoers for a film that skates so gracefully on a thin line between satire and tragedy. Like The Disaster Artist, I, Tonya takes the story of an apparent failure and turns it into a triumph. Don’t be surprised if Robbie and Janney pull off upsets of their own on Oscar night.

The Art of Making a Disasterpiece

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People sometimes ask me if it’s harder to review a bad movie or a good movie. That’s easy: Writing a positive review is always tougher. Bad movies fall apart before your eyes: Scenes, performances, directorial choices stand out because they don’t work. When a film is great, all the elements meld, and it’s a challenge to express why it’s creatively successful without resorting to the same old synonyms for “excellent.”

But the truth is, every movie is a miracle. It’s a collaborative effort among a group of artists seeking to realize the vision of (usually) one person. When it all comes together, it’s magic. That’s one reason I love going out to the movies so much. Even though some of my friends think I’m crazy for spending so much time in a dark room watching mediocre or worse movies, there’s always the possibility that I’m going to see a masterpiece. Or a disasterpiece.

The Disaster Artist is a great film about the making of a terrible film: The Room, the 2003 cult-favorite unintentional comedy written, produced, directed by and starring Tommy Wiseau, an auteur of indeterminate age, ethnicity and wealth. James Franco, an actor-director capable of being awfully brilliant (Spring Breakers) as well as brilliantly awful (Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?), finds genuine inspiration in Wiseau’s quixotic quest to become the greatest dramatist since Tennessee Williams.

It’s a deeply personal film from Franco, and the culmination of his astonishingly prolific career to date. He casts younger brother Dave Franco as Wiseau’s best friend, roommate  and creative comrade, Greg Sestero; Dave’s real-life wife, Alison Brie, as Greg’s girlfriend; frequent co-star Seth Rogen as The Room‘s script supervisor; and mentor Judd Apatow as a Judd Apatow-like big-shot producer whom Tommy accosts in a restaurant and subjects to his performance of Stanley Kowalski’s “Stella” scene from A Streetcar Named Desire.

Franco and Rogen got their big breaks on Apatow’s tragically short-lived TV series Freaks and Geeks, and The Disaster Artist is a love letter to the freaks and geeks of the show-biz world. Like La La Land, it’s a romantic ode: “Here’s to the ones who dream/Foolish as they may seem/Here’s to the hearts that ache/Here’s to the mess we make.” It’s hugely entertaining, endearing, funny and self-aware (see what I meant about synonyms?). And make sure to stay through the end credits for the most meta-tastic scene I’ve seen in ages.

Maybe someday a great film will be made about the making of Just Getting Started — but I doubt it. This lazy comedy sounded promising on paper, as it’s the long-awaited — by me, at least —return of writer-director Ron Shelton. The guy practically invented his own genre, the sports-themed brom-com, with Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump and Tin Cup. The quality of his films dipped when he went outside those lines (Blaze, Hollywood Homicide), but much of Villa Capri, as Just Getting Started was originally called, takes place on a golf course, as a former Mob accountant (a miscast Morgan Freeman) hides out in witness protection at a retirement community and hits the links with a mysterious new resident (Tommy Lee Jones, who can barely muster up enough energy to be cranky).

Ostensibly, they’re competing for the affection of a corporate interloper (Rene Russo) who’s been sent to impose financial discipline on the supposedly wonderful Villa Capri, but there’s zero chemistry in this would-be triangle. The story creeps along — even a few rote car chases take place at low speed — amid a few half-hearted attempts at jokes. What happened to Shelton, the quicksilver wordsmith who composed such beautiful odes to baseball in Bull Durham? He’s lost his fastball. Forget the generic new title. The movie stalls out before it ever gets started.

Yet there I was on opening night, sitting in a mostly empty theater where the median age was deceased, hoping Shelton would wow me one more time. As Judd Apatow tells Tommy, “Just because you want it doesn’t mean it can happen.” And still I dream.

 

Is Woody Allen’s Wheel a Wonder?

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2017 must be the most Wonder-full year ever at the movies. We’ve already seen Wonder Woman, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Wonderstruck, and just plain Wonder. And now comes Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel. Sadly, there’s nothing wonderful about it.

“Spare me the bad drama,” Kate Winslet’s 1950s Coney Island waitress whines to her lifeguard lover (Justin Timberlake) late in the film. Much too late. The old joke about Woody is that filmgoers liked his “early, funny stuff” better than his more dramatic late-career work. With Wonder Wheel, Woody has officially come full circle, but not in a good way. It’s a drama that’s unintentionally hysterical. It’s kitsch. It’s camp. Mostly, it’s crap.

The Woodman, who just turned 82, has spent the last decade living a peripatetic cinematic existence, hopping from country to country (England! Spain! Italy!) where his films — and his morals — are judged more favorably than in the U.S. of A. Even his American-set films have largely avoided his native New York City, choosing locales like San Francisco (Blue Jasmine), Newport (Irrational Man) and good old Hollywood (Cafe Society).

Wonder Wheel marks his most NYC-centric film in years, yet it feels like it was made by a tourist. Part of that problem is due to the casting. None of the film’s four leads feels like a true Noo Yawker, muchless an Ike-era Brooklynite. Timberlake is way too vanilla to come off as a Greenwich Village-dwelling grad student; you can take the boy bander out of the Mickey Mouse Club, but you can’t take the Mickey Mouse Club out of the boy bander. For his female lead, Woody cast the wrong Kate, er, Cate. Blanchett was able to make the overheated dialogue of Blue Jasmine sound natural; Winslet always seems like she’s Acting, and not just because her character is literally a drama queen, a frustrated former actress who says she’s not really a waitress, she’s just playing a role. Her lines don’t just telegraph her emotional state; they telecast it (e.g. “I’m unraveling,” “I’m consumed with jealousy!”).

Another Brit, Juno Temple, does a toned-down version of the kewpie molls played by Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite and Jennifer Tilly in Bullets Over Broadway. As her father, Jim Belushi attempts a Brooklyn accent, but his mumblemouth delivery comes straight out of Chicago. One wonders what James Gandolfini could’ve done with this role, an alcoholic merry-go-round operator in a (literal) wifebeater, especially when three of his fellow Sopranos alums — Steven Schirripa, Tony Sirico and Max Casella — show up briefly and bring the film the shot of verisimilitude it desperately needs. The same holds true for David Krumholtz as a Jewish philosophy student — if only he had been cast in Timberlake’s role, the film might have genuinely been in sync!

Given the #MeToo moment we’re living in, there probably couldn’t be a worse time to put out a Woody flick, especially one distributed by Amazon, whose studio chief, Roy Price, stepped down amid sexual-harassment allegations. It doesn’t help that Woody uses the film to plead his own case. Winslet’s character bemoans what a cold world we would live in without forgiveness, and Timberlake is saddled with the unfortunate line, “The heart has its own hieroglyphics,” echoing Woody’s own “The heart wants what it wants” re: Soon-Yi.

Wonder Wheel doesn’t just feel fake — it looks fake, with supersaturated colors from cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Dick Tracy, Reds, Apocalypse Now) and a self-conscious staginess. It’s also the first Woody movie to use extensive CGI, a cheaper way to recreate period detail. One can only hope Woody’s next film (his 50th!), A Rainy Day in New York, feels less like it was generated by a computer and more by a human being with a beating heart.

The Oscar Race Shapes Up!

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year for serious film fans. December brings us an avalanche of awards contenders. I’ve already reviewed such hopefuls as Lady Bird, The Florida Project, Wind RiverDownsizing, Hostiles and Mudbound, and now I’ve seen three more would-be nominees. The first, and best, is The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s uncategorizably wonderful mash-up of The Creature from the Black Lagoon and E.T. with classic Hollywood romances, musicals and silent films.

It’s a love letter to cinema — and to great character actors, starting with Sally Hawkins, who tops even her Oscar-worthy turn in this year’s under-seen biopic Maudie with an almost wordless tour de force as a mute cleaning woman at a top-secret government lab in 1962 who gets caught up in a very fishy love story. The cast overflows with great talents at the top of their games: Boardwalk Empire vets Michael Shannon and Michael Stuhlbarg, the always-marvelous Richard Jenkins, Oscar winner Octavia Spencer as a very different kind of “help” and the versatile Nick Searcy (he can play everything from a commanding general here to a kindly pastor in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — more on that later).

The less you know about The Shape of Water going in, the better, so I won’t spoil any of its delightful surprises. Just remember the name Doug Jones and don’t be surprised if he turns up as a dark horse — er, fish — come Oscar time.

Almost as great is the aforementioned Three Billboards, a major creative rebound for playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh after his dazzling feature debut In Bruges and the sophomore slump of Seven Psychopaths. Frances McDormand is Fargo good as a Midwestern mother hell-bent on finding her daughter’s murderer. Did I mention it’s a (very dark) comedy? Sam Rockwell has deservedly earned kudos for his supporting turn as a racist cop who shows surprising shades of humanity, and Woody Harrelson is equally fine as a police chief hiding a secret not very well.

This is another film that spills over with indelible performances. The ensemble also encompasses three gifted alums of HBO dramas: Game of Thrones‘ Peter Dinklage, Deadwood‘s John Hawkes and The Wire‘s Clarke Peters. Misguided as she may be, McDormand’s anti-heroine seems to be a character both red and blue states can get behind, which is saying something in this time of divisiveness.

The title character is Roman J. Israel, Esq. is similarly flawed and fascinating. I just wish he were in a better movie. Washington can almost never be counted out of the Best Actor race, and his portrait of a radical lawyer suddenly seduced to trade in his morality for money is masterfully subtle. But writer-director Dan Gilroy stumbles in his follow-up to his dazzling 2014 debut Nightcrawler. The story seems stuck between a conventional Hollywood legal drama and a more experimental character study and ultimately doesn’t succeed as either.

The rest of the film’s characters are underdeveloped, and the actors — Colin Farrell as a slick rainmaker, Carmen Ejogo as an idealistic activist — never get below the surface. On paper, Roman J. Israel, Esq. should’ve made a strong case for itself on Oscar night, but on screen, it raises too many objections not to be overruled.

What the Hell Happened to Al Pacino?

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Every time he thinks he’s out, they pull him back in… with a paycheck! That’s the only explanation why Al Pacino, one of the finest film actors of all time, has resorted to making direct-to-video potboilers like Hangman, premiering on VOD Nov. 24. Over the past decade, Pacino has been churning out forgettable “thrillers” like 88 Minutes, The Son of No One and Misconduct at an alarming rate. He’s not as shameless as Bruce Willis, Nicolas Cage or John Cusack, but none of those guys ever attained the esteem that Pacino achieved in his prime.

At least the 77-year-old star is acting his age in Hangman, which casts him as an ex-cop who comes out of retirement to pursue a serial killer playing a deadly version of the titular game in an unnamed Southern state. The locale gives Pacino an excuse to deploy a version of the corny drawl he adopted in his overrated, Oscar-winning turn in Scent of a Woman. Still, he acts circles around his main co-stars, the impossibly bland Karl Urban (just because he was in Lord of the Rings and Star Trek doesn’t mean he should keep getting lead roles) as a detective haunted by the murder of his wife and the even more vanilla Brittany Snow as a journalist with a dark backstory of her own. The film’s best performance comes from Person of Interest vet Sarah Shahi, cast against type as a tough-talking police captain in a wheelchair.

Directed by Johnny Martin, who recently worked with, yes, Nicolas Cage on the direct-to-VOD Vengeance: A Love Story, Hangman is serviceable but nowhere near the caliber of classic Pacino cop movies like Serpico, Heat or Sea of Love. The last of these marked a major comeback for Pacino after a decade of crap like Cruising, Author! Author! and Revolution.

One can only hope Pacino’s got another career revival left in him — he’ll soon continue his run of HBO biopics (Phil Spector, You Don’t Know Jack, about Dr. Kevorkian) as Joe Paterno in Happy Valley, directed by Barry Levinson, who made one of the actor’s best films in recent years, The Humbling. He’ll also collaborate with Martin Scorsese for the first time — how is that possible? — as Jimmy Hoffa in Netflix’s The Irishman, which reunites Pacino with Robert De Niro, his co-star in Heat… as well as 2008’s justifiably obscure Righteous Kill. Oh, and Pacino’s also got a small role in the low-profile pic The Pirates of Somalia, coming Dec. 8. With any luck, to quote Al’s Scent of a Woman character, he’s just getting warmed up!