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by Bill Gibron

10 Oct 2008


October continues its mishmash of film and genres. Along with kid vid effort City of Ember and horror romp Quarantine, here are the films in focus for the weekend of the 10th:

Body of Lies [rating: 6]

Anchored by an amazing performance by Leonardo DiCaprio and little else, Body of Lies limps along for over two hours, never amounting to more than a decent, if derivative nailbiter.

Ridley Scott used to make daring, original movies. No matter the subject matter - outer space alien invasion, magical sword and sorcery adventure, revisionist Roman peplum - he’d place his visionary signature on every frame of film. Sure, he dabbled in pseudo realism, taking on the crime genre with Someone to Watch Over Me and a female facsimile of the buddy picture with Thelma and Louise. But when his name was attached to a project, we expected something innovative and outsized. Yet with his latest, Body of Lies, we get nothing more than a journeyman thriller. Even with a big named cast and intercontinental setting, Scott simply shows up and sets things in motion. The results are uninspired, to say the least.  read full review…


The Duchess [rating: 3]

Indeed, muted and irregular are two concepts easily connected to The Duchess. For every moment of set or costume design glory, there are times when we wish the characters were as detailed and defined.

There’s a very good reason why most period pieces don’t work. Aside from the obvious disconnect from modern social constraints and complications, contemporary audiences just can’t indentify with the intermarrying muddle that comes with the standard bodice ripping. Call it a sense of superiority or settled self-righteousness, but we tend to see ourselves as “above” the kind of passion led plotting that passes for intrigue. The latest look at life in the 18th Century, Saul Dibb’s shallow The Duchess, is supposed to uncover the “scandalous” life of Georgiana Cavendish, fashion plate and harried future Royal. But unless you are a spinster sans a recognizable love life, or someone with little previous knowledge of the genre, everything here will seem rote, baroque, and exceedingly dull.  read full review…


The Express [rating: 5]

The Express in nothing more than a less successful Brian’s Song set in the days of Jim Crow and unconscionable white supremacy.

Sports films can no longer function as mere history or information. Thanks to the mandates of the mainstream, which sees allegories in all manner of athletic competition, physicality must match ideology like poorly drafted teammates to a star. If it works - and it rarely does - the stereotypical set up reveal layers of dimension and universal depth. If it merely motors along on talent and persuasion, like the new film about Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis The Express, the journey is enjoyable if slightly stilted. As the latest in a long line of race related travails, the history here is loaded with confrontation, outrage, and acceptance. But even with a strong handle on the situation with segregation, the movie can’t manage to overcome its predetermined purpose.  read full review…

by Bill Gibron

9 Oct 2008


Sports films can no longer function as mere history or information. Thanks to the mandates of the mainstream, which sees allegories in all manner of athletic competition, physicality must match ideology like poorly drafted teammates to a star. If it works - and it rarely does - the stereotypical set up reveal layers of dimension and universal depth. If it merely motors along on talent and persuasion, like the new film about Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis The Express, the journey is enjoyable if slightly stilted. As the latest in a long line of race related travails, the history here is loaded with confrontation, outrage, and acceptance. But even with a strong handle on the situation with segregation, the movie can’t manage to overcome its predetermined purpose.

When he was young, Ernie Davis learned to run. It was a necessary survival skill in a small town where segregation and racial hatred ruled. Later, as he grew, Davis learned to use said talent to become an All American athlete. When colleges came calling, he had two choices - the University of Football, otherwise known as Notre Dame, or upstate New York school Syracuse. With an undeniable legacy left behind by a graduating Jim Brown, Davis soon found himself under the tutelage of no nonsense coach Ben Schwartzwalder. After an uneventful Freshman year, the newest Orangeman soon becomes a national name, leading his team to a National Championship and the first ever Heisman Trophy for a black player. Success in the NFL seemed certain - that is, until something unexpected came along to shatter his dreams.

The Express in nothing more than a less successful Brian’s Song set in the days of Jim Crow and unconscionable white supremacy. With trailers that give away one major reveal, and a narrative which foreshadows the final plot twist, this is an amiable if predicable portrait. Directed by Gary Fleder (Thing to Do in Denver When You’re Dead) with all the faked flash of a Tony Scott knock-off, we understand almost immediately where this story of struggle is going. Davis is introduced as a decent little kid picked on horrifically by a band of bullheaded boy bigots. Within seconds, his fleet footed abilities are revealed, and soon the shift is away from prejudice and onto pre-college success. When Dennis Quaid enters the picture as Ben Schwartzwalder, the equally pigheaded coach from Syracuse, we sense a confrontation ahead.

But in one of the few surprises in this otherwise routine biopic, our fabled football sage isn’t a raging extremist - unless you’re talking about football. Then, Schwartzwalder is as old school as George Halas and Vince Lombardi. His is a hard work and waste nothing ethic, the kind of aggressive approach that made Jim Brown into a legendary figure in the NFL. We see the fabled running back as he readies to play with the Cleveland Browns, and his active recruitment of Davis is one of the film’s few sparkling sequences. Otherwise, Brown is held up as a kind of compare and contrast with his protégé. Big Jim gets the concept of social isolation and fights to rise above it. Ernie is as sincere as his name suggests, shocked when faced with separate drinking fountains and restricted hotels.

Part of the pleasure within The Express is watching Schwartzwalder and the team respond to the growing controversy caused by their newest recruit. At first, there is lots of contention and chest puffing. One player in particular makes it his personal cause to give Davis nothing but ethnic oriented grief. But as he starts shining, and by example bringing the team into the national limelight, the differences cool. Soon we see a united front against the ridiculous laws and ways of a pre-Civil Rights South. A trip to Texas for the National Championship game is especially illuminating, since almost everything that happens both before, during, and after the contest speaks volumes for the misguided way of America circa the ‘50s. Had there been more of this material, The Express would play like a leatherheaded Malcolm X.

But Fleder knows that audiences won’t indulge in a film that spends most of its time in controversy and anger. So The Express offers up some moments of minor romance, and the typical non-erotic comedic male bonding that sports tend to mandate. In the lead, Rob Brown makes a convincing Davis. Not required to do more than play proficiently and look iconic, the Finding Forrester co-star fits the bill. Much better is Omar Benson Miller as the larger than life lineman Jack Buckley. Like an overprotective father to Davis’ ill-prepared novice, he’s a gentle joking giant and jester. Some ancillary support comes from Charles S. Dutton (as Davis’ ‘blink and you’ll miss him’ Grandpa) and Soul Food‘s Darrin Dewitt Henson as Brown.

As for Quaid, he’s the film’s toughest fit. While Schwartzwalder was in his late ‘40s when Davis first stepped onto the Syracuse campus, his big screen reflection feels too young for the part. Quaid can give convincing curmudgeon, but his boyish good looks keep getting in the way. Even when Fleder gets in close to accentuate the star’s crow’s feet, the 54 year old’s sunny disposition belies his (and the character’s) age. Besides, we expect more sour mash sass from a man who took a small university and built it into a strong athletic contender. Quaid tries to gruff up his gumption, but it never comes across as organic. And in a film which needs that strong outer source, Schwartzwalder is an incomplete core.

With an ending that attempts to balance triumph with tragedy and a feeling of incompleteness overall, The Express ends up being more and less of the same simultaneously. Anyone with even a minor degree in narrative predictability can see where all the nose bleeds and blurred vision is going, and the link to the classic 1971 weeper is undeniable. Besides, if we didn’t already understand Davis’ place in sports history, his lack of professional stature still wouldn’t be so surprising. When it sticks to the issue of race and how the Syracuse players responded to same, the movie makes us think. The rest of the time, however, The Express suffers from the same creative cruise control that has long since sunk the spotty sports genre.

by Bill Gibron

9 Oct 2008


There’s a very good reason why most period pieces don’t work. Aside from the obvious disconnect from modern social constraints and complications, contemporary audiences just can’t indentify with the intermarrying muddle that comes with the standard bodice ripping. Call it a sense of superiority or settled self-righteousness, but we tend to see ourselves as “above” the kind of passion led plotting that passes for intrigue. The latest look at life in the 18th Century, Saul Dibb’s shallow The Duchess, is supposed to uncover the “scandalous” life of Georgiana Cavendish, fashion plate and harried future Royal. But unless you are a spinster sans a recognizable love life, or someone with little previous knowledge of the genre, everything here will seem rote, baroque, and exceedingly dull.

Though she longs to be with her sexy school chum Earl Grey, Lady Georgiana Spencer is promised to the dour William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire, by her scheming mother. As a marriage of convenience and financial windfall, both households triumph. The Duke gets a Duchess to bear him an heir, while the Spencers align themselves with noble lineage. Almost immediately, Georgiana learns her frustrating fate. The Duke is a desperate lover, a horrible conversationalist, and a wanton womanizer. After befriending the fallen Lady Foster, our heroine soon discovers her taking up with her husband. Pursuing Grey, Georgiana becomes an outrage. But her popularity, founded on a love of gambling, fashion, and politics, keeps her favor with the masses. Even as she enters into an uncomfortable ménage a trios with Foster and her spouse, she finds ways to pursue her more ‘private’ passions.

Maybe it’s the casting of Keira Knightley. It could be the compromise of having TV director Saul Dibb behind the lens (apparently, he wasn’t the first choice). Maybe it’s the mediocre allusion to modern times. Clearly, we are supposed to see this Spencer as a pre-dated carbon copy of a certain Candle in the Wind - aka Princess Di. Whatever the rationale, however, The Duchess can’t help but be a massive bore. While others are keening for Oscar noms all around, audiences can expect another helping of half-baked Harlequin romancing draped in the kind of unbelievable beauty of an era unnaturally ornate. Few films reflecting the period play realistically with the obvious issues of disease and hygiene, and it’s a fair cop to argue that viewers don’t want such authenticity. But by prettying up everything, the production removes whatever teeth the tale had to offer. 

Knightley is also a problem here, putting on the pout she perfected while playing pirate for the last few years. Unlike Atonement which allowed her a much larger emotional range, The Duchess demands she be happy or sad, nothing more. Even in sequences where the dimensional arc should be much broader, Knightley offers little nuance. Things aren’t much better for costar Ralph Fiennes. As the dour, glum Duke of Devonshire, his character is more constipated than anything else. We are supposed to see the sadness behind the manor-born, to understand that he is simply playing by prescribed rules laid down after centuries of wealth and ritual. But Fiennes fails to find any spark. He’s so subtle as to be almost inert.

It is Dibb, however, who draws most of our ire. While the locations chosen have all the necessary pomp and circumstance, the spectacle seems to be missing. Crowd scenes feel claustrophobic, while lush interiors are underlit and frequently misused. You can hear the filmmaker defending himself: “this is a film about people, not places.” But part of the allure with such subject matter is the wish fulfillment fantasy of revisiting the days of the decadent, the dandy, and the unctuous uppercrust. For a film founding its narrative on such a supposedly scandalous lady, The Duchess is cloying and conservative. Even the sex scenes, and there are a couple, keep things direct and decent.

Dibb also demonstrates little insight into human nature. Again, it could be the timeframe being referenced, but dramatic license does allow for a few post-modern moments of clarity. When Georgiana confronts William and Lady Foster over their affair, the scene should sizzle. Instead, it’s rendered routine and matter of fact. However, when the Duke gets to gloat over his knowledge of his wife’s trysts with Grey, it’s handled in a much more bombastic manner. One could argue that Dibb is simply staying within the paternalistic power base of the epoch, giving Fiennes the freedom Knightley would never have. But again, this is fiction, not a fully factual recreation. Give your actors some room to breath, or suffer the stifled, uneven consequences.

Indeed, muted and irregular are two concepts easily connected to The Duchess. For every moment of set or costume design glory, there are times when we wish the characters were as detailed and defined. Aside from the lack of a clear contemporary context (the Diana element isn’t even mentioned), one gets the impression that all this plays better on the page, where imagination and inner vision can compensate for the limits of the players onscreen. Someone once said that the further you go back into the past, the more similar to science fiction your effort becomes. That’s because the relationship to the modern world is so alien and arcane. The Duchess wants to draw parallels to the present by suggesting that people in the past were just the same as you or I. And maybe it’s true. After all, the conclusion being delivered here is that, no matter the century, affairs of the heart are often quite boring.

by Bill Gibron

9 Oct 2008


Ridley Scott used to make daring, original movies. No matter the subject matter - outer space alien invasion, magical sword and sorcery adventure, revisionist Roman peplum - he’d place his visionary signature on every frame of film. Sure, he dabbled in pseudo realism, taking on the crime genre with Someone to Watch Over Me and a female facsimile of the buddy picture with Thelma and Louise. But when his name was attached to a project, we expected something innovative and outsized. Yet with his latest, Body of Lies, we get nothing more than a journeyman thriller. Even with a big named cast and intercontinental setting, Scott simply shows up and sets things in motion. The results are uninspired, to say the least.

Roger Ferris has been working undercover in the Middle East since the War on Terror took hold. He is usually a very effective agent, that is, when office jockey intelligence director Ed Hoffman isn’t interfering. Playing most missions for maximum political effect, the Washington based overseer manages to mess up many of Ferris’ best laid plans. While working with the government of Jordan, the young gun uncovers an Al-Qaeda safe house. Approaching Hani, the Minister in charge of security, Ferris sets up a deal to take down the terrorist cell from the inside. Naturally, Hoffman steps in and screws things up. This sours his agent with the Jordanians, the local population, and the evildoers he is charged with destroying. Soon, everything - and everyone - is threatened.

Anchored by an amazing performance by Leonardo DiCaprio and little else, Body of Lies limps along for over two hours, never amounting to more than a decent, if derivative nailbiter. While it may sound like beating a dead cinematic mare, we expect more from Scott. Clearly, his fixation with Australian antagonist Crowe has been a dull spot in his otherwise bright career. Gladiator was no great shakes (Oscars be damned) and A Good Year and American Gangster prove that tying your fortunes to a single signature actor is not always a guarantee of DeNiro/Scorsese success. Here, Crowe is reduced to a supporting player, a piggish US bureaucrat with his Southern drawling mug so far up his buttocks that he can’t see the reality of how ineffectual his efforts really are. It’s an interesting turn, but nothing more.

DiCaprio, on the other hand, succeeds in drawing us into this material, making his sympathetic spy - especially when it comes to the non-terrorist elements of the region - incredibly inviting. Looking a little rough around the edges, and dropping most of the mannerisms that highlight his still budding youth (he’s only 34), the superstar steals everything in Body of Lies - the performance points, the moral compass, and the entertainment value. While Brit Mark Strong offers an equally smart turn as Hani, the Jordanian heavy, this is Leo’s film from beginning to end. Had Scott simply settled on one of many fresh faces craved from the cathode that pass for big screen talents today, nothing here would work. As it stands, with DiCaprio’s Academy worthy turn, we can tolerate the rest of the redundancy.

Indeed, Body of Lies is nothing more than The Kingdom with more talking, Rendition with less torture - unless you count the convoluted screenplay by William Monahan. Still suffering from the careful clockwork plotting necessary to make The Departed ebb and flow, his adaptation of David Ignatius’ novel seems far more complicated than need be. Because Crowe is out of the locational loop most of the time, the forward motion of the story is shuttered so Hoffman can phone up and get his bungling and barbs in. And since we see how Hani sets up his own brand of insurgent infiltration, we can more or less guess the outcome - especially with Scott foreshadowing the denouement several times within the finale. In fact, Body of Lies suggests both Monahan and the man in the director’s chair got a little lost while bringing this project to life.

Thankfully, DiCaprio keeps us grounded - and interested. One of the movie’s biggest mistakes is assuming that American audiences, deadened as they are to the bumbling Bush policies of the last eight years, still have a rooting interest in seeing Arab bad guys biting the dust. Unlike the aforementioned Peter Berg actioner, which gave us characters and concerns to champion, Body of Lies is more insular. The focus frequently shifts from the big picture and the overall goal to Ferris and Hoffman’s high school style one-upmanship. Scott tries to countermand the contentiousness by cutting to shots of things blowing up. Yet like much of the movie’s context, these sequences play as sidelights to more cellphone conversations between name celebrities. We want action and intrigue. We are stuck watching Crowe spewing epithets during his daughter’s soccer game.

Basically, Body of Lies is one of those “who cares” productions. Aside from DiCaprio (and to a smaller extent, Strong), there is little else here that is compelling. Competent? Sure. Commercial? Who knows? Last year’s spite of Gulf War efforts failed because screenwriters decided that American soldiers should be recast as the bad guys. Scott and Monahan avoid this, yet they toss in the kind of surreal Executive Branch stratagem that also makes citizens want to revolt. Apparently, we need white hat/black hat simplicity when it comes to something as multifaceted as the War on Terror. If anyone could have made such a one-note approach work, it’s Scott. Sadly, whatever imagination and originality he possessed 20 years ago has all but disappeared. Body of Lies represents Ridley Scott Mach 2, and as upgrades go, it’s not successful.

by Bill Gibron

8 Oct 2008


Poor Clint Howard. It must really be a pain in the package having ultra-high-profile Oscar-winning long-time American sitcom favorite goody-two-shoes talent-hog Ron as a brother. While Big Brother’s off making movies with Russell Crowe and collecting big fat residual checks from Happy Days and his various Imagine Entertainment products, you’re stuck playing insane shlubs in B-movie muck like Ice Cream Man and The Dentist II. And that glory-hoarding older sibling has to rub it in, handing out minor roles in his movies like pity dates (probably at the behest of the rest of the Howard clan) to his balding bro.

Though Clint claims to be content with letting his redheaded relative cop all the limelight while he basks in the dank, dreary coolness of the celebrity afterglow, one always senses a secret angst and/or anger whenever he discusses one Opie Cunningham. It’s not the Gentle Ben or tranya questions that seem to push his buttons, nor does he feel ashamed of such onscreen stinkers as Barb Wire, Carnosaur, or Leprechaun II. But mention the fact that “Ron” is making some big-budget epic about the actual discovery of the meaning of life, and Clint’s goofy gap-toothed smile goes just a little crooked. The glint leaves his eye and a deep-seated seething starts. Suddenly, he’s on the defensive and ducking even the obvious softballs lobbed at him. You just know Clint is an angry wannabe auteur just waiting for the world to recognize his own special gifts. Otherwise, why would he be so convincing as the put-upon orphan who’s the butt of all the jokes at his private military academy in Evilspeak? It’s got to be low-self-esteem sense memory!

Thanks to the do-gooders over at the welfare bureau, newly orphaned Stanley Coopersmith gets the privilege of going to school at the snooty West Andover Military Academy, whose motto is “Never Pick on Someone Your Own Size.” From the moment he arrived on campus, Stanley became the school’s resident scapegoat. All the teachers think he’s a slacker. All the students think he’s a wanker. And because he’s a government sponsored poverty case, he’s treated like an indentured servant (go figure).

Anyway, while cleaning out the basement of the chapel, Stanley stumbles across a couple of things. One is Sarge, an alcoholic arsehole who loves to torment the cadets. The other is a secret passage to an underground lair. Stanley discovers that it is the primeval domain of Esteban, a 15th century defrocked priest and certified Satan worshipper. Since our hero hates how everyone on campus treats him, he decides to call up the powers of Darkness to do his own unholy bidding. Besides, he’s really sick and tired of being called ‘Cooperdick’ all the time.

Hooking up the ultimate instrument of evil—an Apple II—and typing in Latin terms from an ancient manuscript, Stanley soon has the man-goat making down pat. Teachers are impaled on spikes, and crusty-curious old Sarge discovers the ultimate neck massage. But when the jock jokes of the school use Stanley’s pet pooch as a pincushion, all Heck really breaks loose. Stanley completes the CPU sacrifice and before you know it, his fallen-angel avenger has arrived to help him get all Evilspeak on their asses.

You have to acknowledge one thing about Clint’s character, Stanley Coopersmith, in this film. Even though he’s really a minor presence in the everyday running of the school, he has somehow managed to be at or near the core of every issue, both administratively and personally, for most of the staff and student body. Though he is no more portly than most boys, he is ragged on and called fat. Though there are dozens of other nogoodniks around, he seems to be stuck doing all the dirty grunt work. And while he does resemble a wild albino chipmunk with hairline issues, that’s really no excuse to treat him like an animal. He’s the reason why the soccer team is losing, why the school’s reputation is sullied, and why the pigsties still stink.

To West Andover Military Academy, Stanley is the dark cloud on Inspection Day, a Democrat in the White House, and freeze-dried peas in the K-rations. And yet, when mysterious deaths and disappearances start happening, and the once-reliable whipping boy goes missing for hours on end, no one seems the least suspicious. As long as he’s around to be picked on, Stanley has free reign to commune with whomever he wants. So, naturally, a date with the Devil is not so far-fetched.

If you were raised on the hackneyed horror of the late ‘70s and ‘80s, then Evilspeak will be like paging through the yearbook of Missed Opportunities High School, Class of ‘81. This movie has so many good things going for it, that when it finally flops over onto its back and bares its soft, static underbelly, you get a tad perturbed. There is Howard’s unhinged performance, an odd reinterpretation of Carrie as a boy who shops in the husky department at Sears. Then we’ve got the homoerotic shirtlessness of Luca Brazzi, a.k.a. Lenny Montana, the only cafeteria chef at an all-boys school who doesn’t wear a shirt under his apron. R.G. Armstrong’s drunken dope Sarge is a miserable menace that doesn’t hear the numerous pranks and demonic spunk going on around him, but wakes up whenever someone drops a book.

And of course, who could forget, the Satanic Pigs of Hate! That’s right, for no real reason except to have killer porkers in the narrative, Evilspeak employs dozens of Hell’s heinous ham factories to feast on the flesh of infidels. They tear out organs and rip off heads. They chase a naked babe into a shower, giving a whole new meaning to “makin’ bacon in the bathtub.” And when Clint finally figures out the formula for resurrecting the excommunicated priest Esteban (no, not the sunglass-wearing, guitar-shilling infomercial king. That’s a whole other kind of evil), he sends the swine assassins to wipe out the entire soccer team. Let’s face it, this movie should have really been about Beelzebub’s badass blood-and-guts boars, and left all of the bullying boyhood trauma to John Hughes. No amount of the red stuff—and there is plenty here—can make up for what happens to this movie during its second act.

Evilspeak is indeed a film backheavy on gore. Coopersmith spends so much time getting picked on and blamed that you sit back and wait for his persecutors to pay. And you wait. And you wait. And you wait. Indeed, as the entire middle section of the movie meanders around from obvious grabs at sentimentality (the entire cook/puppy portions) to attempts to stay in tune with the demographic (a Miss Heavy Artillery Contest, the aforementioned nude bathroom romp) Evilspeak loses its spark. What started as a standard wish fulfillment/revenge scheme mixed with Satanism flounders with a lack of focus.

Not even the novelty of the computer (back then, about as sci-fi as the butt-kicking androids of I, Robot) conjuring up the Black Mass in easy-to-program PASCAL can save the slide. So when all the grue comes blasting at the screen (to ape a certain Texas Drive-In expert: “Heads roll. Intestines roll. Hearts roll.”), it’s a little too late. Actually, it’s a couple dozen gallons-full too late. With some of the deleted sinew restored in this remaster of the movie, the end elements of iniquity are particularly ooey, gooey, nasty, and fright-flick satisfying. But unless you find a way to entertain yourself until the soft tissue starts soaring, you’ll find Evilspeak as dull as a demonic quilting bee.

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