MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Cop Out, The Crazies, A Prophet, North Face and The Ghost Writer (revisited)

Cop Out (One and a Half Stars)
U. S.; Kevin Smith, 2010

Cop Out is one movie where you can tell what went wrong just by looking at the trailer. The casting. Hiring 30 Rock’s Tracy Morgan to play a veteran NYPD cop who’s been partnered for nine years with Bruce Willis‘s Jimmy Monroe, a grizzled, two-fisted cop-buddy now relentlessly battling the local Mexican drug gang, seems a bit like casting The Jonas Brothers as the Baldwin Brothers, Robert Pattinson as the six-term mayor of New York, or Hannah Montana as the Dean of Harvard Law School, just celebrating twenty years on the job. Why torture a good actor like that?

Morgan is very funny, and engagingly screw-loose, on 30 Rock. But Tina Fey might have done a better job, and gotten more laughs, in this part: the role of Paul Hodges, hysteria-prone, jealous, weird-ass, drooling cop. Morgan — who spits and blubbers and whines like a twelve-year-old throughout the most of the movie, while trying to handle dialogue so clogged with movie allusions and four-letter words, it sounds like a twelve-year-old‘s take on Scorsese — doesn’t look or sound as if he’s been a cop for nine weeks. No, make that nine days. How about nine minutes?

The idea behind Cop Out, whose original title was apparently A Couple of Dicks, is dicey to begin with, about as plausible as one of those e-mails from Nigeria telling you that a mysterious stranger has just died intestate and that millions are on the way. In the movie, jammed with second-rate badinage, partner-buddies Paul and Jimmy screw up a stakeout and get a snitch killed in an operation in which Paul was dressed up as a giant cell-phone. Then they’re suspended by their chief (Sean Cullen). This puts Jimmy’s ass in a financial crack, since his daughter is getting married, and his ex-wife ‘s nasty new husband Roy (Jason Lee) wants pay for it all and make Jimmy look bad.

So, to finance the nuptials and stick it to Roy, Jimmy decides to sell his extremely rare Andy Pafko baseball card, a priceless artifact that gets unfortunately stolen by Seann William Scott as a druggie street thief, and winds up in the hands of tantrum-throwing mucho-macho Mexican drug lord Poh Boy (Guillermo Diaz), who’s maybe been watching tapes of the Al Pacino Scarface (see below) and whose kidnapped hostage Gabriela (Ana de Reguera), who was in a car trunk for two days (What?) winds up in the hands of Jimmy and Paul. Despite their suspension , our dynamic duo keep running around just like legitimate buddy-cops with badges, though Paul keeps screwing up, because he’s so madly jealous of his wife, that he hides a surveillance camera in her teddy bear.

Two other cops are also running around during all this: Kevin Pollack as Hunsaker and Adam Brody as Mangold — and there’s also lots of shooting and a car chase or two.


I don’t even want to tell you what happens to the Andy Pafko card, but it’s pretty much what also happens to the movie — though Paul stops blubbering long enough to save the day, get a kiss from Gabriela, and pull his gun on Roy at the wedding.


Now I understand that Jamie Foxx and Will Smith, and even Eddie Murphy, might not want to have accepted this part, and that many others might have passed too — and they would have been dead right, even with Willis at their sides, at his toughest and most quizzical. And maybe one can‘t blame Morgan for accepting Paul, when they seem to handing him stardom in a bucket. But Stardom isn’t everything. And Morgan seems licked before he starts. He no more looks or acts like a veteran cop here than Cop Out looks or acts like a real movie.

And it’s not just Morgan’s fault. Just like Paul, the show, which was directed, as if on a dare, by Kevin Smith, tends to slobber and screw up on every conceivable level. Smith, a normally funny filmmaker who specializes in buddy comedy, has here been handed such a stacked-against-him deck that he quickly achieves a career nadir, and then goes downhill. One wonders why Smith didn’t take the obvious escape and recruit “Allen Smithee” for the directorial credit. (Or maybe a new pseudonym, like, uh, Kevin Smithee.)

The dialogue, which includes scenes where Scott, as the deranged Dave, does the “I’ll-repeat-what-you- just-said-while-you’re-still-saying-it” game with everyone in sight, including a real twelve-year-old — sounds like it was concocted by scriptwriters Robb and Mark Cullen while they play the same game to their TV during an ‘80s buddy-cop festival.

It’s a mystery. Since the Cullens steal from almost every other cop buddy-buddy picture imaginable (and a few that aren’t), one wonders why they didn’t just lift the premise of 1991’s The Hard Way — the one with Michael J. Fox as a pampered, eccentric Hollywood star (Morgan’s part) and James Woods as the hardcase cop (the Willis part) with which the star does role research. That might have maybe worked, even with the same exact performances and lines Morgan and Willis give here. But who knows? The people who made this movie might actually have daringly cast Willis in the Michael J. Fox part, and Morgan as the Jimmy Woods character.

In any case, this movie makes The Hard Way look like Serpico, and Clerks look like Persona. We’ll remember 30 Rock and forgive Morgan. Well remember Chasing Amy and forgive Smith. We’ll even remember Stifter in American Pie and forgive Scott — and that’s stretching forgiveness pretty far.

But how can we forgive Bruce Willis? Willis already tried this kind of action-comedy-buddy-buddy change of pace with comedian Damon Wayans in 1991‘s The Last Bov Scout, with a script by Shane “Lethal Weapon” Black, one of the many patron saints and probable evil influences on this movie. What was it that Norman Mailer liked to say, quoting Voltaire? “Once a philosopher; twice a pervert.” I would have thought that ever since then, Willis would have been muttering a mantra to himself, “Man, I don’t want to make another movie like The Last Boy Scout. But he has. In fact, he’s made a move that almost makes The Last Boy Scout look like The French Connection. Without the El scene. And with slobbering.

The Crazies (One and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Breck Eisner, 2010

Halfway through The Crazies, a remake of George Romero’s 1973 horror move about a town running amok and getting tyrannized by the Army, after their water supply is poisoned by an insanity-inducing virus, I made a little mental note to myself : “Mention that this movie would have been much better if they had re-hired Romero, and given him even half the budget.”

Unfortunately, as the credits eventually informed me, Romero himself was the executive producer of the new Crazies, and thus bears part of the blame for this gory, pointless, sometimes dumbly exciting movie about Midwestern farmers and townspeople running amok, while the U. S. Government shuts down their town, guards wander around in anti-contamination suits, and sheriff Dave and his doctor wife Judy (Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell) and his faithful deputy Russ (Joe Anderson) try to escape and make it to Cedar Rapids before a bomb drops.

All of which sounds a little like a news item on a Glenn Beck show, complete with blackboard. (“Look, these people call themselves czars! And that’s a Russian word: Czar!”) And it‘s a sad development to be put in mind of a clown like Beck, even by a movie called The Crazies, considering that Romero was one of the staunchest of the ‘60‘s-‘70s anti-Vietnam-war horror directors.

This movie though gave me no pleasure. And, defying expectations, I wasn‘t even scared much, except maybe when Johnny Cash started singing that Dr. Strangelove end-of-the-world anthem, We‘ll Meet Again (“Don’t know where, don’t know when.”) I can’t fathom Romero‘s creative involvement here, unless the functions of an executive producer have now devolved to be the guy who brings the coffee, or the person responsible for the bad lighting, pustule-placement and pitchfork-impalement insurance. Romero certainly seems to have let director Breck Eisner mess it up pretty well on his own.

One thing should be mentioned though. Whatever The Crazies’ flaws, and there are many, it definitely contains, as its show-stopping high point, one of the greatest horror movie car wash scenes of all time. In fact, I can’t think of a car wash scene in any horror movie even remotely comparable — though I’m sure some of you can. Aaaargh! Just envisioning those inexorably rising suds, those sloshingly evil dark flapping cleaners, and that sinister guy prowling around the hood induces a blood-curdling terror and sense of doom not even Beck and his blackboard can match. (“Look! Here! This line leads to here! And that line leads to there! And “Obama” is really “Osama,” with just a little “B. S.” change!”)

Maybe it’s time for another Romero zombie movie. How about “Czar of the Living Dead?”

A Prophet (Three and a Half Stars)
France; Jacques Audiard, 2009

The Grand Prize winner at the last Cannes Film Festival, this brutal, unsparing prison picture, about the rise of a young Muslim convict who becomes the favorite of the prison‘s Corsican mob boss, has been widely hailed as a great foreign language film and a great crime movie.

Whoa. Not quite, says me. It’s certainly a riveting show, and it has an undeniably great performance by Nils Arestrup as the Corsican mobster Cesar Luciani (the kind of dour gangster role Lino Ventura once would have played), and a magnetic one by newcomer Tahar Rahim as the rising Muslim assistant crook Malik El Djebena.


But, on first glance, I disliked the ending, which almost seems to secretly glorify the young thug, for no better reason than that he’s an improvement on the old thug, and to overly admire what I took as a possibly equivocal and darkly ambiguous resolution as some kind of stirring “star-is-born” multi-cultural parable.

Director-co-writer Jacques Audiard says that A Prophet is an anti-Scarface, and in some ways, he’s right. But the De Palma/Pacino 1983 Scarface, whatever the uses that some gangsta-rappers made of it, does say that crime shouldn‘t pay, and clearly shows why, as did the superb 1932 original Scarface by Howard Hawks, Ben Hecht and Paul Muni.


I’m not completely sure what A Prophet is saying, and I’ll try to revisit it next week. But Audiard, here and in A Self Made Hero (with Mathieu Kassovitz) and The Beat that My Heart Skipped (with Romain Duris), seems to have a soft spot of some kind for psychopathic anti-heroes, or maybe psychopathic heroes to him, as long as they’re cute, intense star material.

That doesn’t invalidate the film, or Audiard’s grim vision, or Rahim’s often incredible performance. But it makes the movie, to me at least, less powerful and satisfying than those two recent fact-based movies about Italian organized crime, Il Divo and Gomorrah. A Prophet, by contrast, seems to me at least partially a wish fulfillment fantasy. If so, it’s a wish I didn’t particularly like to see fulfilled, at least not without more criticism.

But A Prophet, whatever my cavils, gets you on the hook and keeps you there. It summons up a prison and criminal world that, up until the end, I found grimly plausible, fiercely exciting. It also boasts another performance, Arestrup’s, that is an absolute knockout. (In French, with English subtitles.)

North Face (Three And a Half Stars)
Germany; Philipp Stolzl, 2009

In the mid-30s, during a time when mountain climbing was considered a heroic German sport and mountain climbing movies were still one of the most popular German film genres (that was how Leni Riefenstahl made her name as a movie actress and director), two plucky young provincial German climbers, Toni Kurtz (Benno Hoffman) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas), embarked on one of the most dangerous of European climbs: the previously unaccomplished scaling of the Eiger North Face, or “death wall.” In this fictionalized version of the events, several other teams also were party to the heavily publicized climb, but the French and Italians dropped out at the start, and only the Austrians Edi Rainer and Willy Angerer (played by Georg Friedrich and Simon Schwartz) were left to climb with them. They got most of the way up, until serious injuries to Willy created problems for all of them. Then the snowstorm hit the mountain’s death wall.

This week, I’ve described two movies as “dumbly exciting” (The Crazies) and “fiercely exciting” (A Prophet). I suppose you could call Cop Out “foolishly exciting.” But North Face, shot on location with handheld cameras, helicopters and all the modern equipment partly or wholly unavailable to ‘30s “mountain filmmakers” like Riefenstahl (The Blue Light), G. W. Pabst (The White Hell of Pitz Palu), Arnold Fanck (The White Frenzy) and Luis Trenker (The Rebel), is truly “heart-in-your-throat exciting,” in the same way that Kevin Mcdonald‘s restaged 2003 documentary Touching the Void was.

North Face is embroidered history, and it includes a fictitious inspirational girlfriend, Luise Fellner (Johanna Wokalek), who nevertheless supplies some of the movie’s most moving moments. But visually and athletically, it’s a remarkable achievement by all concerned, and dramatically, it grips you as well. In response to some critical complaints about this movie‘s thinner dramatic qualities, I must concede that the characterizations here never attain true Henry Jamesian complexity, irony and convolution. But why should they? The characters are too busy hanging on to that damned death wall. Does it matter that The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove lack ferocious hell-for-leather suspense and nail-biting excitement? (For some readers, they do.)

Incidentally, in answer to a question that may be worrying some, this film is obviously anti-Nazi. (In German, with English subtitles.)


The Ghost Writer (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.-U.K.; Roman Polanski, 2010

I jumped the gun, at last in Chicago, on Polanski‘s new thriller next week, and I‘ve talked since with people I respect who think it’s one of his best in decades. So I went back and watched it again, and though I still prefer The Pianist, and still object to Ewan McGregor‘s Ghost’s strangely reckless behavior with people he suspects of murder, I now think I slighted this movie on characterization, especially in not mentioning the brilliantly acerbic, quiet, threatening performance by Tom Wilkinson as the killingly smug CIA-connected academic Paul Emmett. I also should have prized more highly the sheer force and grace of Polanski‘s beautifully controlled direction. The Ghost Writer does indeed have all three of the prime qualities I attributed, rightly or wrongly, to Polanski at his best: characters, atmosphere and “utmost fear.” It’s a major neo-noir.

By the way, wanting to give a fair shake to the critics who dismissed it as junk, I also watched Scorsese‘s Shutter Island a second time. I liked it better.

– Michael Wilmington
February 25, 2010

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon