Author Archives: Ashley Wells

89: The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

I’d been meaning to catch The Thomas Crown Affair for a long time — having seen bits of the watered-down 1999 remake on TV, I’d always assumed that the original would be stylish, sexy, and full of the same witty dialogue I’ve come to expect from a good 70s crime caper.  Well, one out of three ain’t bad.

This movie actually made me sympathize with the people who thought the remake was a good idea, since the worst thing about it is how overwhelmingly dated it feels.  I’m not even talking about the clothes, which are fun to look at, or Faye Dunaway’s bizarrely ineffectual role as an insurance adjuster who does very little adjusting (more on that later).  What I found crazily distracting was the wacky multiple split-screens and colored filters, which I’m sure seemed like the next big thing in 1968; and the incomprehensibly clipped hep-cat dialogue.  It’s as if someone took a perfectly normal, serviceable script and cut out every third word.  At one point it devolves into a list of nouns, like “Tugboat.  Jungle.  Flagpole.  Pirahna” that poor Steve McQueen has to deliver as if it means something.  I can count on one hand the scripts I’ve read that erred on the side of brevity, so it feels weird to criticize a film for not being talky enough.  But in this case I think it’s a symptom of a larger problem, namely a plot with holes you could drive a cement mixer through.  Steve McQueen is meant to be this spoiled millionaire playboy whose life is so pampered that he has to rob banks to get his thrills.  Faye Dunaway is the “special” brought in by the insurance company to investigate the robbery, even though the only thing she investigates over the course of the movie is Steve McQueen’s back pocket.  The whole movie feels like an excuse to put two beautiful, sophisticated people into beautiful, sophisticated clothes and then show them frolicking in various exotic locales.  Faye Dunaway’s storyline, if you can even call it that, is particularly insulting: despite her alleged “specialist” status, the cops she’s working with all call her “doll” and every other diminutive feminine nickname you can think of.  Worse yet, her character settles on Steve McQueen as her target based on the irrefutable evidence that he’s “cute.”  If the only skill involved in being an insurance specialist is recognizing an attractive man with criminal tendencies when you see one, I’ll hang out my shingle, paint my nails beige, and start charging $200 an hour myself.  Maybe I’m overthinking a movie that was only meant to be a bit of eye candy, but there’s not a single character I wanted to spend another minute with once the credits started rolling.  Would another remake be worth the effort?  I’d like to see someone like Will Gluck take a crack at it, since he could inject some much-needed wit into the dialogue; but I suspect the whole rich-people-being-too-sophisticated-for-your-middle-class-problems storyline has lost a lot of its appeal over the last few years, so it might have to remain a very silly product of its time.

88: The Trip (2011)

A gentleman friend and I were pregaming at a cute West Village bar before going to see The Trip  last week, and when it turned out he didn’t know anything about it, I summarized it thusly: “Two guys take a trip together, and one’s really chipper and the other one’s cranky… sort of like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.”  That’s how the movie is marketed — I really had to hunt to find a still that wasn’t Rob Brydon laughing maniacally and Steve Coogan looking harassed — but the two movies are so dissimilar it’s hardly worth the comparison.  All they have in common, other than subject matter, is that they’re both hilarious in their own way.


What I love about The Trip is how finely nuanced the relationship is between Brydon and Coogan, who play more or less fictionalized versions of themselves.  Fundamentally they’re very different people — Brydon is a family man who’s content with the measure of commercial success he’s achieved, while Coogan is a womanizer who’s still hungry for his breakout role as a leading man — but their dynamic is never just one note.  Both characters take turns sliding in and out of annoyance, admiration, jealousy, indignation, and affection, often in the course of a single scene.  I love it when movies let their characters be more than one thing and feel more than one thing toward one another, especially comedies, which often fall back on stereotypes for easy laughs.

Oh yeah: The Trip is also completely hysterical.  Coogan and Brydon spend most of their time in the car or in restaurants trying to one-up each other with their impersonations of other actors or riffing on each other’s ideas (the scene that begins with them talking about wanting to film a costume drama in the picturesque hills they’re driving through almost made me pee my pants).  The riffs are hilarious as stand-alone vignettes, but what gives the humor an extra layer is the underlying competitiveness that makes them want to pass their time together doing Michael Caine impersonations in the first place.  There’s a quasi-double-date scene in which both men try to impress two women with the same routines that they’ve been trying out on each other in the car, and the women are polite but clearly not impressed.  Not to get too meta, but I think the real humor and the real pathos of The Trip comes from each man’s awareness (or lack thereof) of his comedic skills and the ways each of them uses humor to get what he wants.  Both men go on a metaphorical journey to complement the physical one, and the end of the film is pretty literal about the different places each of them ends up.  I appreciate the balls it took to end a comedy on a darker note, but it also came across to me as a bit preachy about the dangers of putting one’s personal life on hold for the sake of one’s career, which, as a happily single lady, I take issue with.  That’s not to say that Coogan doesn’t choose the bleakness he gets saddled with — by that point, it’s no mystery how he got there.  I just wish Winterbottom had carried the subtlety of the first hour and forty minutes through to the end of the film.

All that said, it’s a very funny and very quotable film that sticks with you longer than your average comedy.  Go see it on a date like I did, and try not to think about the fact that Steve Coogan looks like a Muppet and still manages to get laid more than you do.

87: Midnight in Paris (2011)

One of my friends likes to say, when he’s particularly enamored with a play or a movie, “I want to live in that.”  What I love about Midnight in Paris is that in telling the story of a man who desperately wants to lose himself in another time and place, it gives us a world we want to lose ourselves in as well.

Owen Wilson plays affable writer Gill, who travels to the City of Lights with his shrill harpy fiancee (Rachel McAdams) and her stodgy parents.  While everyone else complains about the rich food and the confusing streets, Gill falls in love with Paris and starts fantasizing about staying there instead of going back to his screenwriterly life in LA.  But it turns out the boundary between past and present is more permeable than anyone imagined when an antique Bentley pulls up alongside him at the stroke of midnight and offers him a ride back to the Paris of the Roaring Twenties.  This is the sort of movie that rewards you for having paid attention in your college lit classes (and I’m assuming you all did) — I won’t spoil any of the jokes because the surprise is half the fun, but I will tell you that my favorite one almost slides under the radar during a party scene, and it made me glad I audited that Women in Literature class senior year.

Everyone’s falling over themselves to praise this little gem, and deservedly so — it’s completely charming without ever resorting to cuteness, and I loved that.  Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard are both cast so expertly that neither one seems to be acting at all.  Corey Stoll as Hemingway gets some of the best dialogue in the movie and he doesn’t waste a single word — his intensity is somehow funny and melancholy at the same time.  I actually think Rachel McAdams does an admirable job reaching back into her Mean Girls reserves and pulling out the cattiest, brattiest bitch she can summon up, but I wish she hadn’t been given such a thankless role.  At no point in the movie is there even a hint of whatever spark initially drew these characters together — she’s never even nice to him, for god’s sake.  Not that I haven’t seen couples in real life treat each other this way, but I think the movie would’ve been more poignant if she had a single redeeming quality that might make Gill conflicted about whether or not to stay in Paris without her.

Is it weird for me to call this a romantic movie you should see alone?  At any rate, I was glad I could lose myself in it without distractions.  Oh, who am I kidding — go see it with your loved one and be glad their parents have never shown up at your hotel door in their bathrobes.

86: The Tree of Life (2011)

Could I have picked a more daunting movie with which to revive my blog?  I should’ve just gone with Enter the Void and been done with it.

It really is as difficult to summarize as you’ve heard, not because there’s no story, but because there’s no narrative (I trust y’all to appreciate the difference).  In theory, the concept is simple: this one particular family is a microcosm for the entire history of time and space.  But it would do this movie a disservice to tack such a tidy explanation onto it and tie it up with a bow.  So rather than make any pretense of having actually gotten a handle on this picture, I wanted to talk about a few of the specific things that made an impression on me.

First, the questions.  This movie uses a lot of voiceover, but instead of giving us backstory or tying the plot together, here it’s used almost exclusively to ask questions.  These are mostly voiced by Jessica Chastain, who plays the mother, though I don’t know if they’re all meant to be her character’s thoughts.  What I liked about this device was that the narrator asks all these huge questions — they don’t really get any bigger than “Where did we come from?” and “Why did this happen to me?” — and then none of them get answered (no spoilers there).  I love the idea that this movie really is meant to be “about” everything, but without offering explanations for anything.  Movies, like every other art form, are an attempt to find meaning, and the best works of art are ones that can mean lots of different things; but I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a movie that set itself this task so clearly and then expanded out beyond its own boundaries instead of narrowing or defining or answering.

On a more specific note, I was really taken with the portrayal of the oldest son’s experience of going through puberty.  I’ve never seen that feeling of being trapped within your town, your home, your family and your own body captured so vividly before, and with only minimal dialogue.  I know I keep using the word “experience” because that’s what this movie is: something that you experience and something that evokes your own experiences, with sometimes painful clarity.  I’d be interested to know if there’s anyone who didn’t find something to latch onto during the sections with the three brothers growing up; it’s specific to a time and place, but it felt universal to me in a way I think most movies aim for but not very many achieve.  The key here is that Malick finds a way to make you feel what the characters are feeling without telling you much of anything — you fill in the gaps yourself without even realizing you’re doing it.

Did I do justice to The Tree of Life?  I doubt anyone can.  But I take comfort in knowing that’s not really the point.  You go and you give yourself over to it, and afterward, hopefully you give yourself over to life just a little more.

85: Batman Returns (1992)

If, like me, you grew up with the Batman movie franchise*, you’ll understand why I have a hard time being objective about these movies.  I will go on record as having LOVED the horrible Joel Schumacher one that came out a couple of years after this one back when I was fourteen or so, and my brother and I went to see the infamous Batman and Robin in the theater (that was when I finally began to question the infallibility of the Batman storyline).  So going back and revisiting any of these movies is a dicey proposition for me — I already know it won’t live up to what I remember from my easily-entertained childhood, so why open up that can of worms?

So with that long disclaimer out of the way, I still think there’s a lot to love about Batman Returns. First of all, Michael Keaton: WHY is he such a good Batman?  Whose idea was it to cast him, and why in god’s name does it work so well?  He was never an action guy — you don’t look at him and think, “Ah yes, there’s my next strapping superhero.”  And I guess this sort of thing happens a lot nowadays (see the two Green whatevers currently in theaters), but I feel like this casting was at least as big a jump as putting Bruce Willis in Die Hard.  Bigger!  But somehow he instantly becomes studly and reassuring as soon as he dons that mask.  Yes please!

Also: Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman = AWESOME.  They don’t give her much to do other than look hot and cause mayhem, but do you really need more than that from your Catwoman?  The scenes of her brush with death and subsequent mental unraveling are some of my favorite in the movie — I still found them genuinely creepy.  I also like her weird ambiguous double-agent role, though I wish they’d bothered to give her something resembling a motivation for being anything but an ally to Batman.  They have a common enemy, Max Shreck, and the added bonus of having their alter egos fall in love, so why exactly are they trying to kill each other?  Why not join forces against the myriad other bad guys?

Oh yeah: there’s about seventy-five villains running amok in this movie.  Not that any of them are badly cast or deliver bad performances — Christopher Walken was born to play a comic-book bad guy with a pompadour and sinister black gloves, and Danny Devito is obviously having a blast playing the Penguin.  But none of them is anything more than an adopted persona with lots of cartoony quirks to distinguish him or her from all the other villains cluttering up the joint.  I know this is hard to do in a movie adaptation of a comic book, where the line between good and evil is always a mile thick, but I need bad guys who actually have something driving their bad behavior.  They can be as sane or as unhinged as the director wants, just so long as we know the character is doing what he or she thinks is best under the circumstances.  But these bad guys and girls, for the most part, are just bad for the sake of being bad.  Yawn.

Oh, don’t get your panties in a twist.  I still liked it!  Like all Tim Burton movies, it’s fun to look at, and Keaton and Pfeiffer have great chemistry.  I just wish the story gave all these heavyweight actors a little more to do.

*I’m disregarding the Adam West silliness.  Have you seen it?  That’s right, you haven’t.

84: Innocent Blood (1992)

So this was a fun little surprise!

I only put this on my queue because I missed it at the vampire movie festival at BAM last fall, and it really is just a bit of fun, but there’s not a thing wrong with that.  Anne Parillaud plays Marie, a lithe vampire vixen on the prowl for a meal and maybe some tail on the side, and she hits on the brilliant idea of preying on the mobsters who are wreaking havoc on the streets of Pittsburgh.  It works great until she tries to chow down on the big boss man himself (Robert Loggia) right after he’s eaten garlic, which seems like kind of an amateur mistake for a vampire lady who’s been drinkin the blood of many nationalities for centuries, but whatever.  The point is, she doesn’t quite kill him, so he wakes up in the morgue with a meat thermometer sticking out of his side and a craving for raw beef.  Coincidentally, a cop (Anthony LaPaglia) who’s been undercover with the family for two years suddenly blows his own cover for no good reason and enlists Marie’s help after the mobster boss goes rogue and starts biting his underlings (played by EVERY ITALIAN WHO HAS EVER BEEN IN A MOVIE) on the neck.  Her sexiness and superhuman strength make her a good crimefighting partner, but when she decides she’s in the mood for some sweet lovin’ as well, things get a wee bit cooomplicated!

So in case you can’t tell from my confused rendering, the plot makes no sense whatsoever.  Anthony LaPaglia’s character is completely extraneous to the story, and there’s no reason for him to out himself as a cop during the first act, since his target is Frank Loggia’s character, who’s still very much at large.  It’s also never clear why Marie is willing to do just about anything to defeat Loggia’s mobster-turned-vampire — I like that she has a conscience and doesn’t, as she puts it, “play with [her] food,” but there’s really no foundation for the levels of self-sacrifice she rises to.  And pretty much every plot twist that serves to throw her and LaPaglia together feels contrived and silly

So why did I give this movie four stars on Netflix? (it’s true, I did!)  I will tell you.  First of all, the two leads are absolutely sparkling, and they have fantastic chemistry.  I already knew young Anthony LaPaglia was a fine piece of manflesh who can also act, but to my shame I didn’t recognize the luminous Ms. Parillaud from La Femme Nikita (which in fairness I saw many years ago), and she’s more than a match for him.  Yes, she looks fantastic naked, and their sex scene manages to be funny without stooping to making fun of either of the characters.  I’m also a sucker for powerful women, and they don’t get any more powerful than Marie the vampire, who jumps off a church tower, lands on LaPaglia’s car, caving the roof in completely, and then walks away without a scratch.  And for all the jumbled meanderings of the plot, the idea is a solid one.  There’s something inherently funny about Italian mobster vampires, and my boy John Landis gets it pitch-perfect.  Most of the special effects are pretty terrible, but there’s an amazing and terrifying death scene when one of the vampires (Don Rickles!) accidentally gets into a wayward patch of sunlight — I couldn’t even put the still of it up here because it’s too damn scary.  And it wouldn’t be a John Landis movie without some gratuitous celebrity cameos — this one doesn’t have the same embarrassment of riches as The Blues Brothers, but Frank Oz has a few lines as the coroner, and Sam Raimi is hilarious as a daft meat locker employee.  Make no mistake: this is no Let the Right One In, but it’s good silly fun with a surprisingly sweet love story thrown in.

83: Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005)

Remember this one?  That’s right, you don’t.  Even though it was the movie that brought Brad and Angie together OMG??  Nope, still nothing.

Why would I even subject myself to this?  Every time I saw it on my Netflix queue, I thought, “Surely that must be the 1941 movie with Carole Lombard, not the schlocky piece of crap from a couple of years ago, RIGHT?”  But I still let it inch its way to the top of my queue, and when it arrived in my hands, danged if I didn’t watch it.

So let’s get this out of the way first: the plot has more holes than a slab of Swiss cheese.  Even if you can accept the film’s preposterous premise — the owners of two competing companies of hit-people* meet and wed without either party sniffing out the other’s duplicity –the mind-blowing ridiculousness doesn’t end there.  How, exactly, does one install a rotating weapon rack in the recesses of one’s oven without one’s spouse finding out?  Where do these independent hitmen and hitwomen get the money to purchase government-issue rocket-launchers and Batcave-like lairs with secret entrances and remote-control blinds, for god’s sake?  What the heck do our gorgeous protagonists do after (spoiler alert!) they kill off THEIR ENTIRE RESPECTIVE AGENCIES in order to save each other?  The opening credits list about twelve people as the film’s writers, so I blame that for the movie’s incoherence and for the crappy dialogue in the first forty minutes-ish.  Things get better and funnier after they find out each other’s dirty secret (though that moment is also completely wasted), but it never approaches anything believable.  Is it even worth mentioning how bad the special effects are?  I’m doing it anyway: they suck.  The fake floating embers in the scene where their house has just been blown up are particularly egregious.

I don’t know if I’d go as far as to say this movie ISN’T a complete waste of time, but it does have its good points.  Vince Vaughn is hilarious and under-utilized as Brad Pitt’s right-hand guy who still lives with his mother and keeps a rifle under his pillow.  And Adam Brody elevates the two or three scenes he gets with his rich exasperated twentysomething routine, which plays well against Pitt and Jolie’s collective lack of affect (seriously guys, “intense” does not count as a facial expression).  The music is also surprisingly unsucky — sometimes it’s too on-the-nose, but I dug the “Mondo Bongo” song during the final shootout.  And I touched on this earlier, but the dialogue gets vastly better once the pair lets their secret out of the bag — the car chase scene during which they bicker about who gets the “girl gun” and who’s a better driver is actually really funny and sweet at the same time.

Did I really just write 475 words about this movie?  You’d better believe it.  Don’t watch it unless you’re lucky enough to have friends like mine who host “bad movie” nights, in which case I think it’s a perfect fit: no one will be mad if you talk over it, and everyone gets some satisfying eye candy.

*do these even exist?  If so, are they taking applications?