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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Knight and Day and Wild Grass

Knight and Day (Three Stars)
U.S.; James Mangold, 2010

Knight and Day doesn’t make much sense, but do we really want it to?Giving us an eyeful of Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz as Roy Miller and June Havens, a couple pursued (seemingly) all around the world by rogue C.I.A. agents and murderous international gun-runners, all after a mysterious new energy source called The Maguffin (excuse me, The Zephyr), this is a big, splashy top-star romantic comedy that tosses logic to the winds. It‘s a nightmare fantasy love-on-the-run chase thriller and it tries to revive some of the glamour, fun, and crazy paranoia of a classic suspense romp like North by Northwest or Charade, while pulling them into the CGI era.

Sometimes, it succeeds.

Actually, Knight and Day is a movie so charmingly senseless, so knowingly and unrepentantly way over the top, and so cannily exploitive of the killer grins and happily narcissistic sex appeal of both Cruise and Diaz, that it entertains you almost in spite of yourself. I kept waiting to get tired of it, but the movie was always a skip or two ahead of me. It kept me smiling, even though it doesn’t really have an original bone in its body (any more than Cruise or Diaz have a tooth out of place in their smiles).

Did we just see Roy and June meet cute in the Wichita airport, banging heads over June‘s over packed luggage? Soon they’re on a strangely under-populated plane to Boston, flirting like mad, and when June takes a bathroom break to hyperventilate over Roy’s sheer cuteness, the entire population of the plane disappears — before the plane crashes in a cornfield (North by Northwest) and Roy slips June a mickey, the first of many. (To get her through the bad spots, or so he says, Roy keeps drugging his ladylove unconscious — a treatment the movie‘s detractors may wish for themselves.)

Has June just tumbled into the hands of Roy’s antagonist, the maybe sinister FBI agent Fitzgerald (Peter Sarsgaard), about whom she‘s been warned by Roy? Soon, they’re all in a mad Boston freeway chase, with Roy bounding from roof to roof like the young Jackie Chan, and June driving the driverless car (“You’ve got skills,“ Roy admiringly marvels after popping through a window to take the wheel), while guns blaze, windows shatter, cars flip, and bad guys splatter like ripe tomatoes.

Did June just wake up after one of those mickeys, to another dazzling Roy grin, and with June herself rather suspiciously wearing a pinkish bikini, which she suspects Roy put on her (just in a professional way he insists), on a Pacific isle that looks about the size of one of those joke desert islands in a New Yorker drawing or a Looney Tune? Well soon, thanks to an imprudent cell phone call, that palmy paradise will be strafed by airborne killers and the not-quite-yet lovers will be vamoosing in a helicopter.

And are Roy and June — joined by dorky Simon Feck (Paul Dano), the nerdy inventor of the Zephyr — speeding through Austria on a Hitchcockian train? In seconds, who should pop up but the murderous Bernhard (Falk Hentschel), who treats us to what seems a homage to the Robert Shaw-Sean Connery trainbound tussle in From Russia With Love?

And did we just get dropped off in Spain, home of the sadistic but well dressed gun runner Antonio Quintana (Jordi Molla) and his endless supply of vicious thugs? Do I have to tell you that the bulls are running in the streets? And that we‘ll get stuck in the stampede?

You can’t walk into a warehouse in this movie, without dozens of CIA ninja-looking commandos dropping though the roof on you. You can barely board a plane without everybody getting killed. You can’t try for a little star-to-star smooching without a fresh troupe of killers and kibitzers running by. And, as for that Maguffin, you get the definite feeling that if we don’t get a new energy source by this movie’s end, Knight and Day may have used up half the world’s existing oil reserves in car chases and explosions (and hair oil for Cruise). “There’s a reason for everything,” Roy tells June as he cuts aboard the Boston plane ahead of her. Sure. Sure.

The movie is senseless, and its also too fast and loud and relentlessly CGI-filled, but it’s fun to watch anyway. Anyway, complaining about the senselessness of a big Hollywood action movie may be a bit like walking into a bordello and complaining that there are no prayer meetings. When was the last big modern action movie you saw that made much sense? I agree that that’s wrong and that movies should make sense, and that even action movies are much better when they do make sense. But I‘m just grateful that one of these exploding blockbusters could laugh at itself.

What makes Knight work is the way Cruise’s Roy and Diaz’s June keep reacting to the chaos around them. We tend to accept every crazy thing that happens because the characters keep playing against it. June is unnerved by the chaos, as well as by seductive Roy, though she gradually learns to enjoy them both , And Roy all but smirks at the insanity, insanely confident of his ability to survive and of his “skills.“

She‘s bewildered and nervous at first, starting about the time she sees a planeload of passengers roll off their seats, but he keeps smiling and trying to calm her down, explaining that he‘s a pro, that he’s on top of everything and that everything will be all right. There’s even a loony logic in his response; after all, he is Tom Cruise, and he is going to survive anything that director James Mangold (Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma) and co-writer Patrick O‘Neill throw at him. Their movie is a bit like Scream, the reflexive horror move that kept commenting on itself.

Roy and June don’t talk about North by Northwest; they just live it, magnified. Knight and Day, at its best, is a reflexive action thriller-rom-com that keeps grinning at itself. And, in Cruise and Diaz, it has two of the worlds champion grinners.

Roy is amusing, precisely because of his affable persistence, the insistence with which he keeps trying to be a nice guy though all the gunfire and mayhem. He‘s always trying to reassure June and calm her down, even when they’re surrounded by assassins, machine guns are blazing, commandos are dropping and a plane or two has just crashed.

Among Hollywood stars, Tom Cruise has always struck me as the prom king. With his young-wolfish smile, he looks like he‘s on top of the high school Hollywood game, even if he knows it’s a crock. (That’s why it hurts Cruise more than most if he does something stupid-looking. We expect him to be sharp.) And Diaz is sexy enough to be his prom queen, if maybe a little sleepy-eyed and un-clothes-horsey. But she can certainly match Cruise smile for smile. and whip through the part she‘s playing here: a Boston car restorer plunged into several days of insanity with a cute guy she doesn’t completely trust. If there’s a lot of murderous, improbable stuff happening around her, that’s just part of the movie’s dreamlike structure: It plays like a nightmare.

You don’t want Meryl Streep playing parts like this, or Gwyneth Paltrow or Kate Winslet, or even Amy Adams. But Diaz looks a little dreamily out of it anyway. She has such a what-the-hell curve to her smile, and such a talent for screaming and conking out, that she can make us laugh at all the scenes that would seem unintentionally ridiculous..

By the way, one thing in this show that definitely doesn’t work, is the title. Why Knight and Day? Why not “Zephyr?” Or “Love on the Run?” (Truffaut didn’t have a patent on it.) Or “South by Southeast?“ Or “The Guy with the Grin?” (Sorry.)

In a way, I agree with some of this movie‘s detractors. It’s too loud. It’s too big. It’s too phony. It’s also too slick and cold. It would have been a better show with half the action and twice the romantic comedy. Tony Scott is right: Day and Night, the Teddy Newton cartoon running with Toy Story 3, is a better show. In fact, so is Night and Day, the Michael Curtiz musical, in which Cary Grant played Cole Porter as a heterosexual. (Night may win any competition just on the strength of Mary Martin singing “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.“) But then, nobody in Day or Night or Toy Story 3 can wear a bikini like Cameron Diaz. And nobody can try to reassure us, even when the house is falling down, quite like Tom Cruise.


Wild Grass (Four Stars)
France; Alain Resnais, 2009

Alain Resnais’ latest film Wild Grass, which premiered at last years’ Cannes Film Festival, helped win him that fest’s Life Achievement Award. Of course, Resnais’ earlier New Wave era classics — the brilliant pacifist romance Hiroshima Mon Amour, the shattering Holocaust chronicle Night and Fog, the plush modernist enigma Last Year at Marienbad and the anti-chronological puzzle Muriel — probably were the main factor in the prize. But even though Resnais has favored a more classical approach in the last few decades, Wild Grass is not a film that wears its age on its sleeve. It’s one of the most exuberant and visually inventive Resnais has made in years.

Not that his recent films, like Private Fears in Public Places have been staid or tired. Resnais has remained a master. But there’s a special liveliness and creative spark that makes Wild Grass glow. Adapted from a very dark romantic comedy called L’Incident by novelist Christian Bailly (But is it romantic? Is it comic?), Wild Grass is a paradoxical delight: the work of a cinematic sensibility fully mature and wise, but also joyously, youthfully stylish. It’s a film by an artist who, like the older Alfred Hitchcock (the filmmaker Wild Grass most recalls), still loves making movies and relishes the chance to share that love.

Wild Grass stars two of Resnais’ favorite actors and constant collaborators — his wife Sabine Azema and his friend Andre Dussollier — both of whom have been regularly appearing in Resnais’ movies since his great Henri Bernstein play adaptation Melo in 1986. As always, Azema is entrancing, radiant and outgoing; Dussollier is subtle, inward and perfectly controlled. They’re an ideal mis-match, especially in this tale of a maniacal love affair, in which unmarried dentist and aviatrix Marguerite (Azema) has her purse stolen by a skateboarder, then recovered and returned by the mysterious bourgeois family man Georges (Dussollier), who promptly becomes obsessed with her, driving them both into darker and more dangerous waters.

There’s a great supporting cast, including the major current French stars Anne Consigny as Georges’ too-tolerant wife, Emanuelle Devos as Marguerite‘s fellow dentist/pal, and Mathieu Amalric as a kindly, nosy cop. Eric Gautier’s brilliantly hyper-active cinematography is packed with Hithcockian pans, cranes, tracking shots, a feet-only opening sequence straight out of Strangers on a Train, and dreamlike overhead shots straight out of Resnais‘ favorite Vertigo. Mark Snow’s jazz-and-Bernard Herrmannesque score is lyrical and hip. The fine, witty script is by newcomers Alex Reval and Laurent Herbiet. The film has been underrated. It is superb. In fact I’m not sure that my three favorite Resnais feature films right now aren’t Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Night and Fog and this one.


Grown Ups (Two Stars)
U.S.; Dennis Dugan, 2010

Adam Sandler, who produced, co-wrote and stars in the amiable basketball nostalgia comedy Grown Ups, seems to have designed it at least partly to show off his cadre of friends and fellow comedians, as well as to dazzle us with his highly accurate long bank shot from the right side of the court.

Both are impressive. The fellow actors and friends include Chris Rock (playing hen-pecked house chef Kurt McKenzie), Kevin James (as affable over-eater Eric Lamonsoff), David Spade (as smarty-pants skirt-chaser Marcus Higgins) and Rob Schneider (as shameless vegan sort-of-hippie Rob Hilliard), who are the other four 12-year-old starters on Lenny Feder’s (Sandler’s) long-ago middle school championship basketball team, reassembled in heir 40s to bury and pay tribute to their recently deceased coach. The rest of the cast includes Salma Hayek (who’s added a Pinault to her last name) as Sandler‘s Hollywood wife Roxanne Chase-Feder, and Maya Rudolph, Maria Bello and Joyce Van Patton as the wives of Rock, James and Schneider. (Spade is a horndog who plays the field.)

And, at one point, Sandler knocks in five or so straight of his specialty bank shots, apparently without any help from CGI or the editing. This is doubly impressive because in the movie, Lenny Feder is a ball-hog who takes (and makes) most of the shots, especially in this movie‘s climax the final big game, which happens inevitably when their old championship game opponents show up, hungering for revenge — putting the capper on the lazy, golden-oldie-filled cabin weekend that the champ quintet is enjoying, along with their wives, their kids, and Kurt’s embarrassing mother-in law (Ebony Jo-Ann), who is around to supply the movie with all the inappropriate farting and swollen bunion jokes it can handle. (Tyler Perry, eat your heart out.)

It’s a lazy but likable movie with a large, really good ensemble cast and a sloppy, if fitfully warm-hearted script that believes God put dog doo-doo on earth for people to step on or fall in. Grown Ups has a familiar problem: an oversupply of dumb, crude, not-very-funny jokes. Sandler and director Dennis Dugan (Don’t Mess with the Zohan) cover this by trying to deepen the characters more than usual, and by having the cast laugh at a lot of their own stuff.

That’s not a bad strategy. Onscreen laughter can be infectious. Besides, if you were spending the weekend with an overweight mother-in-law who kept cutting the cheese and exposing her bunion, or with a comely blond mother (Bello), who kept breast-feeding her four-year-old son, or with friends that pissed in the lake, or an injured old basketball rival (Steve Buscemi), locked in a body cast that turned him into a white Gumby, you might laugh too. It just depends on how real these people are to you.

The movie starts out with the coach‘s funeral, which it tries to play for laughs, along with an unlikely surprise when Lenny’s called upon (apparently without advance warning) to deliver the eulogy before his chortling pals and a full church.

Another funny funeral? Ye Gods! I don’t want to come across as a party pooper, but I’m getting sick and tired of rib-tickling movie interments, whether here or in either of the two Death at a Funerals. These laugh-fests for the dead are especially wrong-headed when, like here, the deceased is supposed to be a sympathetic character that people cared for. Funerals are mostly only funny if the deceased was less than well-liked. (“It just goes to show: Give the people what they want and they’ll show up,” Billy Wilder supposedly said at Harry Cohn‘s crowded last farewell.)

After those would-be hilarious last rites, the movie settles down to laid-back ensemble comedy at the lakeside cabin, and though Sandler, Dugan, and co-writer Fred Wolf (an SNL vet) get the right relaxed mood, the movie is too trapped in the crap, piss, boobs and boners school of embarrassment humor to be the heart-tugging, laugh-packed party it wants to be. There’s not enough modulation and contrast. For example, shouldn’t there have been a funny-sad scene at the cabin where they remember the coach and his quirks and how he picked on them and how much he meant to them — at least something to make up for those lousy funeral gags or the fact that they just seem to forget about the guy as the movie goes on? And what’s so funny about having an arrow roulette scene (much less two of them) where guys stand in a circle, shoot an arrow in the air, and try to see who will run away last?

The movie also errs, I think, in suggesting that a basketball team is only the starting five. In any team I ever played on, except for pick-up playground games, there were always seven or eight regulars and we all palled around together. My neighborhood friends all through middle and high school (Allen Anderson, Dave Watson, Terry O’Grady, Pete Allen, Don Osborne, Butch Voegeli and the late Andy Allen and Kim Burch) were much of the eventual ‘63-‘64 team at Williams Bay, Wisconsin — 13 and 6, and second in the conference — and by the time we graduated, we must have played thousands of games together, from sixth grade on.

Basketball was even responsible for my one shining moment in high school: a high-arching swish from behind the half-court line that I somehow made in the last seconds of a game at Union Grove. (A good thing I made it too. Confused about the time, I shot with ten seconds left in the game, and I would have looked like an idiot if I missed.) So, speaking as an old bench warmer, who had one fleeting moment of glory, I would have like to see some subs get to shine in this nostalgic basketball show, and definitely more guys on the court for the last scene. But I suppose we should be thankful Sandler didn’t take every shot.

Give Sandler some credit. He’s trying to put more grown-up stuff, more humanism and artistry, in his movies lately, and he probably doesn’t get as much credit as he should for risky shows like Punch-Drunk Love, Spanglish, Reign Over Me or Funny People. But there are aren’t enough swishers in this movie, and too much doo doo. Good thing the guy still has a bank shot.


Winter’s Bone (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Debra Granik, 2010

Set in the backwoods, adapted by writer director Debra Granik (Down to the Bone) from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, this is the harsh-edged, heartfelt story of a 17-year-old girl, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), who sees her fragile family begin to crumble when her dad disappears, forfeiting the bond pledged for his court appearance. This may mean the sacrifice of the home where Ree Dolly lives with her mom and two younger siblings — where she’s had to become head of the house by default. The world around her, which she begins exploring further in search of her dad or his corpse, is scary at hell but totally convincing, run by drug-cookers and dealers who’ve seemingly slipped into the shoes of the old bootleggers.

Most of the critics seem to like or love this one, and they’re right. In fact, this is exactly the kind of film more American moviemakers should be trying to make: low-to-medium budget, on location, well-written, well-acted, and a mirror of the world around it. Winter’s Bone is in the vein of last year’s excellent regional indie Ballast. It also strongly suggests the work of some great directors Granik says she admires: Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and the Dardenne Brothers — and I mean that as the highest praise. The photography (Michael McDonough) is chilly and evocative. The acting (John Hawkes, Dale Dickey, Shelly Waggener, Valerie Richards and the rest) is near-flawless. The music and songs weep.

I’d call this movie a masterpiece but the ending seems to me a slight letdown — even though it’s what I wanted to see. I don’t have any doubt though that Granik will make great films some day, and that maybe Lawrence will act in them. Don’t think twice. See it.

– Michael Wilmington
June 24, 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