Reviews

Tenure

Every moderately budgeted comedy this side of The Hangover is marketed as a Wes Anderson-ish ball of charm lately, and Tenure turns out to be a pretty good movie despite a tonal identity crisis.


Tenure

Director: Mike Million
Cast: Luke Wilson, Gretchen Mol, David Koechner, Nathan Pham, Hilary Pingle, Rosemary DeWitt
Distributor: Vivendi Entertainment
Rated: R
Release Date: 2010-04-13

It’s probably best if we all can admit that since the success of Rushmore in the late ‘90s, what it means to make -- or watch -- a supposedly intelligent low-budget comedy has changed, for better or worse. Geeks who can’t articulate their problems with the world and never catch a break, usually a young man who’s endlessly witty and hilariously sarcastic despite his surprisingly uncynical core philosophy, have by now painfully grown up and almost gotten the girl across hundreds and hundreds of screens over and over again. Oddball friends or romantic interests -- “charming” enigmas by design -- have run amuck.

In the trailer for Alex & Emma (2003), a female lead says, “I don’t like tomato skins.” A baffled Luke Wilson replies, “Who are you?” (If this makes it into the trailer, it’s probably best to try not to imagine what the actual movie contains). While most of us probably thought manufactured quirk couldn’t become anymore obtrusive or obnoxious than that, it continued to proliferate in the seven years since, and shows no signs of dying out.

Wes Anderson surely had no idea what a Pandora’s Box he was opening by making films that somehow still -- despite countless attempts since to cash in on his style in not only other movies, but also advertisements, television shows, and even music groups -- feel personal and original. Even he, though, has had to run to stop-motion animation to avoid being bogged down by his own preciousness.

In this climate in which every moderately budgeted comedy this side of The Hangover is marketed as an Andersonian ball of charm, it surprises me to no end to have enjoyed Tenure nearly as much as I did. John Frizzell’s score over the opening credits recalls Mark Mothersbaugh’s sound so much that when a campus in the Northeastern United States flashes onto the screen, it’s impossible not to be thinking about Rushmore, even if you ignore the presence of a Wilson brother.

It’s hard to escape those kind of thoughts for very long. In one scene, masked young men use Dignan’s “Ka-Kaw! Ka-Kaw” signal from Bottle Rocket. Here, writer/director Mike Million leaves ripoff territory and approaches something close to allusion or homage, which is just plain weird.

Tenure works, though, because the cast is magnetic enough that the audience can look beyond tonal oddities. Luke Wilson plays Charlie Thurber, an English professor who loves the classroom but is exhausted by the day-to-day researching and writing of academia. He’s found himself at a small, Northeastern school called Grey College, where the dean is a classic bow-tied boob and his supervisor an archetypical stuck-up prude. Still, he loves the kids and they love him.

Funnyman David Koechner is cast as Charlie's only ally, an anthropologist who’s hung up on proving the existence of the Appalachian Sasquatch (manufactured quirk, anyone?). Charlie has taught at Grey for 12 years, and he’s up for tenure in the spring.

Charlie’s already bounced around a few colleges, and his father, a retired Princeton professor, wonders where his son will get tenure if even Grey College won’t take him into the fold. He’s also single, and he’s lonely. His quest of tenureship and a relationship takes him through a series of wacky little sequences, from borderline creepy phone calls to PBS volunteers to an advisory role in the fledgling erotic poetry club. (It should be noted here that Nathan Pham is absolutely hilarious as erotic poetry club president Stan).

When Elaine Grasso (Gretchen Mol) shows up from an Ivy League school to teach English at Grey College, Charlie feels his shot at tenure is gone. From the moment she appears, it’s clear to any viewer who’s ever seen a movie before that Grasso and Charlie will end up together, but Million works a few decent gags in. The plot, though, doesn’t make this movie special. At one point, the prudish head of the English department (Ellen Tobie), says, “I am not charmed by you, Thurber.”

It’s a good thing we are charmed by him, because Million has more or less bet his whole movie that we would be. In fact, Wilson, Koechner, Pham, and Mol are all extremely likeable and fun to watch, as is Hilary Pingle as a student with a crush on Charlie. The performances are winning enough to wash out the annoying tone and the mediocre story, and Tenure ends up being surprisingly funny, although not surprisingly profound or heartfelt.

The DVD includes three deleted scenes and three minutes of outtakes, most of which feature Koechner cracking up the crew.

6
Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


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(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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