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40 Nights at the Movies (in the Comfort of Your Home): The Franchise

Back by popular demand! Recommendations from "40 Nights at the Movies" will keep you, your dog and your elephant glued to the couch for months.

My fans went wild, and my enemies wilder, when I published my notes on movies I've been watching in two previous PopMatters columns ("50 Nights at the Movies -- at Home!" and "60 Nights at the Movies: The Sequel"). Maybe it's the personal, informal, irreverent style, beholden to no PR flack or corporate conglomerate or overpaid auteur or spoiled actor who consistently refuses to return calls about my screenplay. (You know who you are.) Maybe it's the bite-size yet penetrating acumen in these little jottings, which don't require you to plow through a ton of verbiage to grasp the good parts. Maybe it's the notion, never spread by me, that hidden clues lead to several million dollars in treasure buried on one of the continents. (I've heard it might be the one with lots of penguins on it.)

For whatever reason, the "likes" skyrocketed and Twitter had a coronary. I exaggerate only slightly. Perhaps.

The point being, the lads and lasses in marketing have begged me for a follow-up, and I'm nothing if not easy with the lads and lasses. That didn't come out right.

Anyway, everyone knows that the third entry in a franchise is always the best, or at least generates the most revenue, or at least builds your character. So look at it this way: while you're overwhelmed this season by the doom and gloom of what pretends to be important, just relax and take a refreshing huff of a big old cozy diversion of the good, the bad and the curious from the past year of watching DVDs. It's free, and it feels so good.

Literary Cinema, More or Less

1. Let's begin with two movies based on Russian novellas about miserable sods. Shot in Croatia to look like Yalta on a beautiful lake with wooded hills, Dover Kosashvili's UK production of The Duel is exquisitely period and slow and careful. It could be termed a serious comedy of manners, or at least observation, and focuses on a schlep who wants to dump the married woman he ran away with.

He gets on the tit of the local Darwinian zoologist and it leads to a duel. Actually the movie shows several tits to keep us interested. The trick is to wind you up with apprehension and disapproval of the foolish conventions of the duel, only to have it become a salutary thing after all. Where the original Chekhov tale included the intervention of the church, this movie downplays that.

It's a kind of link between Dr. Johnson's observation that being executed in the morning concentrates one's attention wonderfully. (Or does it? Remember the brilliant Peanuts cartoon where Charlie Brown quotes the bromide that you should live every day as if were your last, and Lucy tries it out by running around screaming?) Also, there's the Misfit's belief in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" that "She'd have been a good woman if there'd been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life."

Quibbles: They didn't quite do the Russian names right. The accent should always be on the third to last syllable, and you wouldn't say "Miss Fyodorovna". You'd think the Georgian director should know.

2. A duel, or at least a dual, defines Dostoyevsky's The Double, updated by British comedian/music-video director Richard Ayoade into a surreal dystopia with low ceilings, dashes of Orwell and Terry Gilliam, and saturated wrong colors. You can see why Jesse Eisenberg (or any actor) wants to play two roles, one a cowering doormat and one a successful prick (shades of Jerry Lewis' Nutty Professor), though in this case the two roles don't add up to one personality as interesting as Eisenberg's role in The Social Network.

Mia Wasikowska plays the object of his creepy obsession. Wallace Shawn is Wallace Shawn. James Fox is barely glimpsed as the Colonel who runs the company in this retro-world, a '50s/ '60s vision of the bleak corporate future. Cathy Moriarty for some reason in the surly waitress at a greasy spoon.

The ending is more hopeful than Dostoevsky's, which isn't a bad choice -- and after all, he approved of redemption. It's a film that often looks arresting, and I'm sure it gets points for that alone. Throw in the literary pedigree, and you get a critical darling that made no money.

3. Not to be confused with Dostoevsky's The Double, although he probably wished it, is José Saramago's The Double, turned into the Canadian-Spanish production Enemy. It's a very arty moody piece quite unlike the suspenseful action as it's packaged and trailered. Shot as if the entire world were dropped into a glass of urine like Andres Serrano's photo of Piss Christ, it's about a college lecturer on totalitarianism (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose life is repetitive and unrewarding and who discovers a minor actor exactly like himself, whom he then contacts.

The opening sequence misdirects us by not revealing that the kinky club scene is actually an activity of the actor and not the teacher, and anyway the movie keeps implying enigmatically that they might somehow be the same, or one as a projected fantasy life of the other, with the college boy wishing he'd been an actor and living in a much better pad with a sullen pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon) on whom he steps out, instead of a messy apartment with a prickly girlfriend (Melanie Laurent) who recoils from him.

It also keeps throwing in symbolic spiders of desire that, as director Denis Villeneuve explains in his "open interpretation" interview, aren't in the book. With Lynchian ambient sound (to evoke his identity-switch movies?), Isabella Rossellini as mom (more Lynch nods), and coolness bonus points for closing on a song by the Walker Brothers.

4. Ari Folman, the animator who did the wonderful Waltz with Bashir, now presents us with an ambitious work called The Congress, inspired by Stanislaw Lem's novel The Futurological Congress as re-imagined from communist satire to Hollywood capitalism. The first 45 minutes consist of characters explaining the concept to each other: Robin Wright (as "herself", allegedly a self-destructive has-been) will collect royalties for being scanned so they can create projects for her while she never acts again (sounds like a deal).

Then we get to the dazzling part as she attends a congress in a "restricted animation zone" out of Roger Rabbit and turns into a cartoon in a world populated by retro Max Fleischer rubberized figures and more modern designs. Of course there's a revolution going on because there always is. People have the power to hallucinate in an animated paradise or shamble around in rags amid debris. Doesn't really hold together as narrative or philosophy, but it does hold together as a crazy jumble.

5. This Is Where I Leave You, which perhaps should be called The Big Chillax, is about four grown children who gather for dad's funeral when the mom informs them that his last wish was for them to "sit shiva", or sit on chairs for seven days. Thus they get reacquainted, open old wounds, get stoned, blah blah.

Of course we must ignore the standard convention of casting, based on who they can get, which would have us believe that two parents, one of whom is Jane Fonda, offsprung Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver and a bald guy. Why not Chris Rock?

Written by Jonathan Tropper from his novel, this is one of those heartwarming dysfunctional family dramadies about which the filmmakers have the temerity to say, "The studios don't believe there's an audience for this". I'm not surprised if this one doesn't convince them, but haven't there been about a thousand?

Generally a predictable and non-credible series of scenes, which wouldn't be bad if the dialogue were as witty as it supposes, and all of which is underlined by "poignant" piano-based score that's more or less constant, like the annoying kid raising his hand in class, and that we associate with TV news pieces about wounded warriors and homeless pets. The only thing that keeps it from being Lifetime-Channel-ready is the language and raunchiness.

6. Style-conscious Anton Corbijn offers A Most Wanted Man from John Le Carré's novel, a dour spy procedural in a damp blue-green Hamburg anchored by slumping, smoking, drinking, bedraggled German-accented Philip Seymour Hoffman as one of this author's weary frumpy spymasters. A suspected terrorist approaches a banker (Willem Dafoe) and becomes a pawn to lure a philanthropist who skims money for terrorists, while our German spy is badgered by an American (Robin Wright) who wants to pull some extraordinary rendition.

Despite its anti-melodramatic leanings (for example, nobody gets killed), it does indulge in plotwisely gratuitous scenes of legal violations by the "good guys", e.g., kidnapping a human-rights lawyer (Rachel McAdams), which is an insult because she's so foxy, when it would be just as or more effective to persuade her by showing up at her office, but that serves a thematic purpose to foreshadow a karmic what-goes-around ending. Could be called The Spy Left Out in the Cold.

7. Gone Girl is scripted by Gillian Flynn from her novel, unread by me but which got a lot of acclaim, which makes me wonder if the dialogue is equally awful in print. I had to turn on the captions during the meet-cute flashback (the supposedly true parts) to grasp its full stupidity. This is partly why the first 45 minutes had that evervated don't-give-a-rat's-ass vibe, on my part certainly.

When the twists start kicking in, it becomes more interesting for logistic reasons, but then we still have to deal, as so often, more holes than the Great Barrier Reef of the sort that's hard to believe cops and FBI would overlook them-- after all, this isn't some poor kid shot in the street. The cherry on top is an ending that succeeds in being both unbelievable and unsatisfactory. Most endings are one or the other, and it takes special talent to combine them. 

The apparent purpose is to portray strong women as psycho bitches, or just manipulative bitches, or just dimwits. Oh, there's the female cop who turns out to be strangely helpless for the purpose of pursuing the theme, and the twin sister/extra limb who's reduced to crouching in tears in the kitchen because the story won't let her do anything sensible either. See? Some women really do have their hands tied.

David Fincher settles for laying on his ambience, not too thickly, for he's a director at the mercy of his scripts who mostly has the sense to work with good ones. What happened here: he optioned a buzzy bestseller in the heat of the moment and found he was stuck with it. Better luck next time.

8. Wow, here's a thing of wonder: Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, based on Michel Faber's novel, is an avant-garde creation loosely disguised as a feature film. Scarlett Johansson plays a plastic predatory cypher who cruises Scotland in a white van, picking up guys, taking them home, getting them naked with erections wagging, and then something happens to them that's both literal and symbolic and totally eerie.

Spoiler: You may eventually extrapolate that she's an alien on a body-snatching mission (at least that's the filmmakers' story and they're sticking with it), though it can also be seen as some form of vampire tale or just a conceptual dance with buzzing sound design. The literal buzzing in her seduction motif implies something insectile, as does an early scene where she gazes upon an ant after stripping the clothing from her dead double and a later scene of personal crisis where she looks at her reflection and is distracted by a fly.

Chilly, beautiful, alien, and one of my favorite creations of 2014. It encouraged me to read Faber's new novel, The Book of Strange New Things, which also blew me away.

9. From the sublime to the cantankerous: In exposing myself to the cultural milestone that is Fifty Shades of Grey, I chose the version extended by a few minutes for maximal thrustage. The story is told with a few arguable exceptions from the POV of our klutzy virgin English major (Dakota Johnson) who literally stumbles into the office of a 27-year-old billionaire (Jamie Dornan) hiding his Scots accent and his painful history of -- what else in contempo fiction -- child abuse (not when he became an older woman's submissive at 15, since he enjoyed that) before adoption away from a crack-whore, which means his thang ("I'm 50 shades of fucked up") is identified as pathology instead of what I thought it was spinned as, a liberating walk on the wild side and discovery of one's boundaries, so that's having your beefcake and whipping it, too.

Anyhoo, just one look, that's all it took, and he's courting the virgin klutz even though "I don't do girlfriends" (a line too good to be ignored), before he introduces her to Chanel-commercial silhouette-and-loud-song romantic ravishing (with 9 1/2 Week ice cube) after also claiming "I don't make love". "What are you doing to me?" he breathes, and "You're the one who's changing me", in case we don't get that this pure beauty is taming the wealthy beast after a few decorous sessions where he tosses three or four strokes of silk lashes in her direction like a cat playing with yarn as she tenses and stretches with open mouth. The ending, where she drops him like a tepid potato, would actually be a good finalé to this farrago if we didn't already know Part 2 is on the way.

Don't forget the most gratuitous bits of (consumer) pornography borrowed from the likes of That Touch of Mink  and Indecent Proposal, involving more songs as we fly in copters and gliders and I don't know what all. For this movie's nothing if not one sleek, glittery, shiny mofo, sometimes almost as precisely framed as Pasolini or Greenaway, but let's not get carried away.

10. At its most superficial, David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars is the millionth cheap shot about how Hollywood people are shallow, greedy, egotistical, aggressively vulgar, and value-free, presented in his sense of drugged detachment that's classically composed and emotionally dampened, the better to proffer grotesque moments. One way to appeal to critics is to tell them what makes them feel better about their own humdrum lives.

However, there's something afoot in Bruce Wagner's self-conscious script, which begins with a young woman with facial burns (mostly hidden by hair) asleep on a bus at night. Is she dreaming the movie, like Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive, or is that too easy?

Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) gets off the bus at Hollywood, where she's already made an online connection with Carrie Fisher (as herself) and quickly gets a job as assistant to Julianne Moore (not as herself). The latter is Havana, an actress whose actress mother died in a fire in 1976, and now Havana wants to play her mom's role in a remake (the clips vaguely resemble Lilith  with Jean Seberg), and she's also doing the talk show circuit claiming that mom fiddled with her. Mom's ghost (Sarah Gadon) shows up to chide her for making this up, unless she's transposing what actually happened with a stepdad.

Meanwhile, Agatha's arrival triggers ghost visions for several people, including the spoiled actor teen brother she unsuccessfully tried to "marry" in the house fire she set long ago. Now Agatha is either as she appears (in recovery seeking to make amends) or already dead or some precognitive Cassandra or possibly the reincarnation of Havana's mother, often reciting an Eluard poem from that star's movie. She claims not to be aware of Havana's mom, but she's lying, and at one points strokes her star on the Walk of Fame. She refers to a script she's working on about her parents, a self-help flack and his brittle wife (John Cusack, Olivia Williams) who are actually siblings, and Agatha says she knows incest is old hat nowadays but they could play up "the mythological angle".

The most aggressive bit of black comedy is a scene where people process the news about a dead child, of which this script has a lot. Not to mention a couple of overwritten scenes of obvious portent, one involving a convenient dog and Chekhov's gun rule, and the other a perfunctory seduction that has a hidden level about an actress' limo driver (Robert Pattinson, slurry Yank accent) as her symbolic "stepdad" in that his girlfriend is symbolically her mother. It all sounds like a crazy misfire, yet I cannot dismiss a movie that, after initially presenting an actor's nude scene with standard discretion, suddenly has him turn around and play with himself on camera.

Wikipedia tells me after the screenplay initially fell through, Wagner turned it into his novel Dead Stars, and he's also written screenplays for Paul Mazursky's Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills  and Oliver Stone's TV serial Wild Palms, and he's directed I'm Losing You from his own novel about a wealthy LA family and their child's death. So I conclude this new item should be regarded more as Wagner's movie than Cronenberg's.

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